Metamorphoscissors: a video essay

April 4, 2016 § Leave a comment

Halfway through the climactic sequence of Jerry Lewis’ 1963 picture The Nutty Professor, I was slapped in the face with a realisation that made me press ‘pause.’  A physical transformation was taking place on-screen – that of charismatic asshole Buddy Love as he reverts back to sweet but bumbling Professor Julius Kelp – and it was being orchestrated by way of simple cuts. Lewis and editor John Woodcock were able to create – at least for me – a seemingly seamless illusion by flipping back and forth between Love/Kelp and his dumbstruck college audience, patiently introducing fairly obvious but functionally subtle physical changes with each cut.

The very first transformation sequence, in which chemist Julius Kelp – with the help of a comically colourful brew – turns into his dapper and cocky alter ego, is even more perplexing in its effectiveness. Akin to a scene from a German Expressionist silent picture, Kelp’s maiden transformation eschews any attempts at a ‘realistic’ portrayal of physical reconfiguration, aiming instead for something more – well – expressive. Achieved once again through straightforward cutting though much swifter, the sequence’s focus on the mayhem and violence of the process, paired with comically garish staging and makeup, places it somewhere in the realm of horror-comedy. It’s a moment that’s more invested in relaying the emotional toll of despising oneself to the point of self-harm than it is in attaining some kind of visual verisimilitude. These mild horror elements most certainly taint the apparent improvement in Kelp’s physical and social status, a sly comment on the eventual end product of the transformation. Buddy Love may not look like a monster, but in many ways he is, at least according to the process by which he is given birth.

These two transformation sequences seem to occupy a space between the artfully implied metamorphoses found in old-school, low-budget pictures like Cat People (1942) and more visually graphic practices, from the prosthetic contortions of mid-to-late 80’s horror, to the digital deceptions of nowadays. Of course, each of these approaches produces distinct effects, and my decision to explore the use of cuts in The Nutty Professor by visually de-constructing the two aforementioned sequences is a matter of curiosity not preferential advocacy. In fact, this exercise really highlights the vast visual fissures that Lewis and Woodcock manage to breach editorially so as to achieve a sense of seamlessness, in turn deepening my appreciation for the overall effectiveness of these moments as they play on-screen in ‘real time’, or rather ‘film time.’

 

 

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The ups and downs of modern Africanity: a video essay

November 16, 2015 § Leave a comment

Is the persisting relevance of a forty-year-old satirical film a testament to the satirist’s socio-political foresight, a vindication of his jokey pessimism, or an indictment of a nation at large? It turns out that viewing Senegalese auteur Ousmane Sembene’s Xala (1975) in a contemporary context provides ample evidence in favour of all three.

At the risk of being overly speculative, it is not unreasonable to posit that Sembene busied himself crafting politically-charged art in the hopes of encouraging the kind of cultural and national self-awareness necessary for social integrity and progressiveness, particularly in the wake of newly won freedom from colonial rule (1960 onwards in the case of Sembene’s native Senegal). Whether or not he intended for his work to be representative of extra-Senegalese Africa is beyond my knowledge, though its influence on sub-Saharan cinema in general is quite simply undeniable.

Suppose then that Sembene, in 2006, happened to sit down and watch Abderrahmane Sissako’s impassioned Bamako, an allegorical portrait of a Malian town whose residents are caught between continued colonial exploitation and post-colonial mismanagement.  It’s hard to imagine him taking even perverse pleasure in the realisation that his decades-old films, Xala in particular, have proven to be somewhat prophetic, almost to the point of seeming like a curse. As I mentioned in my piece on Bamako, Sissako simultaneously celebrates and bemoans the paradoxical mess that is contemporary Africa, suggesting that somewhere in this muck lies the source and solution of the continent’s woes, fiscal and otherwise. Strangely enough, ‘contemporary’ in this context spans a good thirty years, all the way back to Xala, if not further.

 

The pains of being The Caretaker: a video essay

November 5, 2015 § Leave a comment

Precious few horses remain as pleasurable to flog thirty-years-dead and bloated as they were when alive. One of these is The Shining, a film whose concurrent simplicity and opaqueness renders it eminently watchable, re-watchable and mysterious to the point of inspiring an insidious type of obsession. Having been subjected to decades of analytical dismemberment and identity-reassigning theories of the kind documented in Rodney Ascher’s documentary Room 237, Kubrick’s self-proclaimed ‘masterpiece of modern horror’ will once again find itself at the mercy of a personal ‘reading.’

Like a surfer who has just missed an elusive wave, this little piece may have benefited a touch from some Halloween momentum. Then again, that may have been an unnecessary pairing seeing as they – the video and the associated ‘personal reading’, that is – aren’t necessarily concerned with The Shining’s pedigree as a fear-mongering scare fest. Which is not to say that the aim is to reclaim The Shining from the horror genre and rebrand it as social commentary first and foremost. That being said…

…revisiting this picture on the back of a recent Blu-ray upgrade brought into sharper definition (pun intended) several elements that had hitherto gone relatively unnoticed: the significance of the term ‘caretaker’ in relation to Jack Torrance and his predecessor O’Grady, being white American males; the demographic statuses of the film’s three main protagonists, Danny, Wendy and Dick Hallorann (if Jack is the chief antagonist); the sly associating of American history,  violence and privilege. Jack’s insecurity and seething resentment seemed – on this particular viewing – to stem from a place far beyond his failings as an aspiring writer. His was, is and will always be the rage of a failed son, a disappointing heir; a man all too aware of his being unable to live up to his birthright of supposed superiority.

Like most fanciful takes on the film The Shining, there may have been zero conscious intent on the part of the creators to comment on any of the above, but one can never be sure. Certainly not when a film seems to contain evidence for and against any theory or reading that one chooses to throw at it.

 

Welcome to the moral unknown: a video essay

September 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

“I am not a moralist, and my film is neither a denunciation nor a sermon.” So said Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni at the Cannes press conference for his seminal 1960 work L’avventura.

In this statement, which also contains his famous  ”Eros is sick” remark, Antonioni expresses a clear exasperation with what he deems to be a schism between western society’s relative intellectual progressiveness and its archaic moral hang-ups (presumably the abiding influence of Catholicism in the case of post-war Italy). In Antonioni’s eyes, this fundamental and unhealthy inconsistency in the societal fabric insidiously finds a mode of expression in the realm of sexuality, in the broader context of emotional expression of course.

Considering the explosive blossoming of frank sexuality in western media during the late fifties and early sixties which, fifty years on, has yet to hit a nadir, it’s not surprising that Antonioni sensed something other than a society letting loose after an eternity of repression; that there was (and is) something slightly pathological about the near obsessive omnipresence of sexuality, representing – perhaps – an itching desire for connection, validation, escape, and who knows what else.

Yet, it’s this very wariness that threatens to paint Antonioni, his views and – by extension – his films post-L’avventura, in a decidedly conservative light. Impassioned and eloquent as his words are (so much so that I marvel at the very idea of him uttering them unrehearsed and off the cuff), there is something simplistic and needlessly binary about Antonioni’s comparison of ‘scientific man’ and ‘moral man.’ Moreover, his assertion that he is not a moralist is almost at odds with the supreme self-awareness of his cinematic approach.

So is L’avventura at heart a conservative, moralist work? Watching the film, Antonioni’s somewhat aloof visual and narrative style is anything but polemical or brow-beating, though there is a simmering undercurrent of despair and disaffectedness which renders much of the hanky panky devoid of joy or pleasure. This ends up being, in itself, an unfavourable comment on the sexuality of the characters. Perhaps it is a moralist film in amoral clothing.

On a more gossipy note, Antonioni and the film’s lead actress, Monica Vitti, were in a relationship out of wedlock; lovers. And while this might not mean much, it does suggest that at least two of the film’s key creators weren’t necessarily stalwarts of traditional Catholic/Christian values.

Having previously written about this film, which has become – over the years – less of a personal favourite while remaining a game-changing revelation, I find myself returning once more to L’avventura‘s final scene, in which Claudia’s apparent gesture of forgiveness and comfort towards Sandro the lecher could be perceived otherwise, specifically, as acknowledgement of the fact that he has finally become self aware. Following on from the idea that the film is about several characters happening upon a painful realisation at various stages in the narrative,  and using Antonini’s Cannes statement as a guide, this is a brief examination of L’avventura as a film preoccupied with morality if not overtly moralist in itself.

 

The route to Copacabana: a video essay

September 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

The most widely heralded sequence/shot from Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas is the kind whose pantheon status and ubiquitous acclaim may compel some to question the source of its appeal. As hoodlum Henry Hill leads his future wife Karen through the backstage entrails of New York nightclub Copacabana, rapidly convincing her of his importance in some societal sphere and of her guarded attraction to him, it’s fairly easy to understand why the swooning ‘Then He Kissed Me‘ by The Crystals was considered a fitting sonic pairing. But is the overall potency of this cinematic moment a result of it being an unbroken take lasting almost 3 minutes? Or does the power reside in the way the camera glides behind the pair, almost approximating the sensation of being swept off one’s feet, of being whisked somewhere? The question is somewhat moot considering the inherent interdependence of extended shot duration and tracking. Yet, there’s just something about tracking shots that aggressively capitalises on the very notion of motion picture, however masturbatory this may at times seem. And in the hands of a thoughtful practitioner (pardon the rolling innuendo) tracking shots can be far more than a camera’s simple pursuit/trailing of a subject on the move. Prior to his orchestration of the aforementioned sequence, Martin Scorsese more than dabbled in this technique with a degree of experimentation and versatility that perhaps shouldn’t be overlooked in the wake of Copacabana.

Note: as the per the disclaimer at the start of the video essay, there is a notable but relatively negligible chronological error. Mean Streets (1973) was released prior to Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974). Enjoy.

 

 

A cinema of recurring shots: a video essay

September 14, 2015 § Leave a comment

Yesterday, the curtains were drawn on the 72nd Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica della Biennale di Venezia, colloquially known as the Venice Film Festival, and the murderer’s row of a jury – headed by Mexican maestro Alfonso Cuarón – ensured that Venezuelan erotic drama Desde Alla would be the first Latin American entry to take home the coveted Leone d’oro (Golden Lion) for best film in competition. Among the jury members was Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien who, 26 years ago, was handed his own Golden Lion for historical drama A City of Sadness.

In ‘reviewing’ the Taiwanese auteur’s 2001 picture Millennium Mambo, I softened my so-so reaction by suggesting that I would one day be awed by a Hou Hsiao-Hsien-directed film. Lo and behold, prior to viewing his most recent offering, the sumptuously opaque wuxia epic The Assassin, I sat myself down and proceeded to marvel at the stately yet vibrant A City of Sadness. Of the many things in this film that arrested my gaze, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s use of recurring set-ups and identical shots warranted – in my mind – a brief and modest video essay.

When bad guys die: a video essay

August 31, 2015 § 1 Comment

In early August, I was lucky enough to take part in Critics Campus, a recently minted initiative of Melbourne International Film Festival aimed at fostering the development of emerging  film critics. Being in the presence of a host of formidably talented people (my fellow participants and our brilliant mentors very much included), I found myself continually drowning in golden info, insights and ideas pertaining to cinema, criticism and culture at large.But of all the revelatory things that I learned/relearned/unlearned during that week, ‘the video essay’ for some reason stuck, and continues to stick.

This exciting mix of criticism and film-making  was broken down and expounded upon by Kevin B. Lee, a video essay pioneer and one of our mentors. And while I was already familiar – if not intimately so – with this somewhat fledgling form, the very idea of critiquing, appreciating and engaging with a film by playing with the fabric of the film itself (that is to say the images and sound, not the physical medium) quietly blew my mind.

Perhaps my attraction to the form is borne of the realisation that I am not at all – and do not particularly care to be – a prodigious writer, in addition to my  fondness for tinkering around on Adobe Premiere Pro. Having now tried my hand at less than a handful of short video essays, I can say with near certainty that I will not fully forsake the keyboard and pen just yet. Videos essays are their own kind of painstaking.

 

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