The Vitality of Vitti

March 5, 2018 § Leave a comment

Correction: as mentioned in the following paragraph, Monica Vitti made five (not four) films with Michelangelo Antonioni

It’s not entirely surprising that Francois Truffaut found the films of Michelangelo Antonioni to be ‘humorless,’ and that Ingmar Bergman’s impression of his Italian contemporary was that he could have been a cinematic great in the ranks of Kurosawa and Tarkovsky had he not been ‘suffocated by his own tediousness.’ Personally, I would contend that Antonioni’s impact on cinematic expression remains singular enough to warrant his being mentioned in the same breath as such esteemed company. But to be fair and frank, encountering – for the first time – the cinema of Michelangelo Antonioni proved revelatory precisely because it seemed so shamelessly ‘humourless’ and ‘tedious’.

These were the most most melancholic films I had ever seen, ‘these’ being Antonioni’s 1960s quintet of sorts: L’avventura (1960), La notte (1961), L’eclisse (1962), Red Desert (1964) and Blow-Up (1966). Whether or not the director pitied or lionized his sad sack characters, his approach to composition, pacing and performance exhibited a refreshing patience (bordering on fondness) for the state of being lost, of not knowing what it is you feel you should know; for the act of brooding. The films almost seemed to give one the license to be miserable without having to feel guilty for lacking psychic resolve. And it so happened that four of the five featured the sultrily despondent pout of a theater actress/silver screen novice named Monica Vitti as she and various other sharply-attired semi-socialites wandered the desolate landscapes of post-war Italy and of their own souls; ambling through spaces that were expressions of existentially fraught interiors by way of being austerely stylized exteriors.

More than any other performer in Antonioni’s films from this period (and not simply due the frequency of her being cast), Vitti – with her open face and her weighted gait – seemed to embody and exemplify Andrew Sarris’s fairly self-explanatory neologism ‘Antoniennui’. Yet, on revisiting four of the five total Vitti/Antonioni collaborations (the final being The Mystery of Oberwald, 1981), I gradually came to notice and appreciate the spectrum of humanity and emotion on display, even if said spectrum ultimately skews towards the negative. For all the sullen gazes and silent sighs, there are notable moments of levity, even joy, and many if not most (if not all) featuring Monica Vitti in some capacity. But rather than undercutting Antonioni’s exploration of modern psychic illness, such instances of positivity and playfulness establish his characters as being more than mere personifications of theme. And if this is not entirely true for all Antonioni’s characters, Vitti’s are, at the very least, roundedly human, and this lends their psychological plights a measure of relatability.

As much as this video is a tribute to the beauty and on-screen magnetism of Vitti, my secret intention is that it should function as a fleeting reminder not only of Vitti’s range and ease as a performer, but that it will be an invitation to reconsider Antonioni’s image as a peddler of misery.

* originally published on Fandor Keyframe in 2016

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Black-clad and Passing Through

March 5, 2018 § Leave a comment

Maborosi could easily be seen as a film steeped in suicide, sorrow, the finality of death, and the capriciousness of life. And it is, being the story of a seemingly contented man who kills himself, leaving his young wife (and infant son) to contend with the meaning – or be haunted by the meaninglessness – of his out-of-the-blue decision to depart by his own hand.

Hirokazu Koreeda’s debut as a director of fiction certainly looks the part of a film saddled with themes so grim, but in a way that eschews hysterics in favour of a wide-eyed, well-manicured aesthetic. In fact, Koreeda’s particular brand of visual understatement – endlessly attributed to Ozu’s hulking influence on ‘thoughtful’ cinema – works in tandem with one boldly symbolist element: funereal attire. The striking presence of utterly black-clad characters in this movie certainly spells “death” (at least in some circles). Overall, the prevalence of this visual element suggests that death is not simply the termination of life but an inextricable, daresay essential part of living day-to-day. Quite literally, one can only be alive if one can die.

Yet there is another more curious motif running throughout this film, pardon the impending pun. Still and stately as the Koreeda’s camera may be, Maborosi is preoccupied with the process of movement and transition. From trains to toddlers, this film trains its gentle eye on people and objects moving not simply from point A to point B but through the space that lies between these points, that is to say ‘the journey’. As much as the film sympathises with the pain of its widowed protagonist, one has to believe that it and its creators are flirting with a more expansive and philosophical view of the life-death divide, if such a thing even exists; flirting with the queasy possibility that death is not an endpoint but a checkpoint that some individuals simply cannot wait to explore. Interestingly, Koreeda’s sophomore effort, Afterlife, does in fact take a step past this checkpoint, with unexpected developments that only enrich and deepen the mysteries of preceding movie, Maborosi.

* originally published on Fandor Keyframe in 2016

Male Love Through Female Eyes

March 5, 2018 § Leave a comment

While by no means torrential, there has been – over the decades – no shortage of male-directed films dependent on and driven by a central relationship between two or more women. In the last year or two alone I can name several notable, high profile pictures that fit the bill, from Clouds of Sils Maria to Duke of Burgundy to Queen of Earth to Our Sister’s Sister to Mistress America to Carol, to name but some.

It seems that – as far back as George Cukor’s 1939 feature The Women, if not further – men with access to a camera and actors have been periodically compelled to (at best) explore and (at worst) distil, even reduce, the dynamics that may or may not influence the way in which women relate with each other within various social contexts. And seeing as the two genders have harboured a deep mutual curiosity (and perhaps an even deeper mutual frustration) for as long as Mars and Venus have been planets, these male-driven cinematic investigations of womanhood and femininity are understandable, and at times even forgivable in their desperation for clarity through simplification.

Unfortunately, so many of these films do succumb – in one way or another – to that innate human tendency to schematise, with female relationships often feeling like interactions not so much between individuals but between types, or fragments/subsets of a figurative female psyche; and not simply the classic, clichéd mother versus whore showdown. Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is perhaps the archetype – the poster-child – of the male fascination with the idea that women straddle a multiplicity of roles and mental spaces, whether by nature or social necessity, and that these are often present and in opposition within the same individual (often represented onscreen as several). Possibly arising from Man’s desire to rationalise his utter inability to grasp that which he believes he should, it’s a cinematic tradition that did not begin with Persona and will likely not end with Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth, for example.

So if – despite however many spirited attempts – the idea of ‘elucidating’ the nature of Woman through cinema is an asymptotic, fundamentally fraught enterprise, the converse must be true. Can it be expected of women filmmakers that they, through cinema, shed light upon the more elusive or inexplicable aspects of male nature; shed light upon man’s propensity for violence, for example? How about the prickly relationship the Western male has with simple platonic intra-gender affection? Whereas in some cultures hand-holding and kissing are wholly normal, unremarkable means of conveying friendship and affection between males, Western straight male-bonding exhibits a certain aloofness, however subtle, to the extent that the term ‘bromance’ should be coined as an expression of the apparent remarkableness of two men shamelessly displaying mutual affection.

For this video essay, I looked at five films (The Hitch-Hiker, Mikey and Nicky, Point Break, Beau Travail, and Old Joy) by five women directors (Ida Lupino, Elaine May, Kathryn Bigelow, Claire Denis, and Kelly Reichardt respectively), each picture deeply male-centric, honing in on primarily platonic relationships between men. For purposes of drama and narrative momentum there are of course inevitable sources of conflict that strain and frustrate the films’ core relationships. That being said, it’s curious that these pictures seem to focus on the elements that disrupt earnest male bonding, whether physical, emotional or philosophical. And while these works cannot necessarily claim any definitive breakthrough with regards to a Unified Theory of Masculinity, their existence proves a necessary alternative to the aforementioned male tradition, at the very least for their undeniable artistic metier.

* originally published on Fandor Keyframe in 2016

A Cut Above: Ten Women Who Epitomise the Art of Editing

March 5, 2018 § Leave a comment

How fortuitous, that Margaret Sixel, (chief) editor of Mad Max: Fury Road, should be handed a bald, golden statuette merely three days after I decide to craft a brief video tribute honouring great film editors who happen to be women. For the feat of seeding rhythm into the mayhem of George Miller’s giddy footage, Sixel has become only the 14th woman (of 27 nominees, total) to boast the ‘Best Film Editing’ of any respective year since the prize’s premiere in 1934, a year in which legendary Cecil B. DeMille collaborator Anne Bauchens was one of only three nominated editors for her work on DeMille’s Cleopatra.

However one feels about the Oscars, they certainly provide a relatively smooth – and predictable – rock upon which to sit and ponder the workings of the film industry. And from the perspective of film editing, it is clear that the Academy – however sexist and rife with inequity it may have been in its infancy – could not deny the impact that women had on an altogether male-dominated field. Retrace the art form of editing back to the revolutionary parallel, intercutting storylines of D.W Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916) and you’ll see the name Rose Smith among the credited razor-wielders. Smith would go on to edit early works by Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh.

So, by the time the aforementioned Anne Bauchens becomes the first woman to hold aloft a Best Film Editing Oscar in 1940 for North West Mounted Police, the work of pioneers like Smith, Margaret Booth (Mutiny on the Bounty, 1935), Barbara McLean (All About Eve, 1950) and Dorothy Spencer (Stagecoach, 1939) has been duly acknowledged if not awarded. Over the decades, an additional 13 women editors would eventually be recognised for their visual (and sonic) articulacy, some of them out-and-out luminaries like Verna Fields (Jaws, 1975) and Scorsese’s creative twin Thelma Schoonmaker. But the recognition has largely been doled out in fits and starts, and with lengthy lulls; to think that, in the last quarter century, only two women have been celebrated for their efforts: Schoonmaker with her near-adjacent victories for The Aviator (2004) and The Departed (2006), and Sixel’s recent scoop. Which is where the Academy’s sensibilities become only partially relevant.

Deserved as the win may have been for Hal Ashby and his work on In The Heat of the Night (1967), the glaring absence of Dede Allen on the 1967 nominee shortlist is difficult to read as anything but a short-sighted lack of appreciation for the seminal fusion of European fragmentation and American clarity that was (and is) Bonnie and Clyde (1967), in particular, the closing massacre. As responsible for Sam Peckinpah’s bullet ballets as it is for Denzel’s rain of judgement in Training Day (2001), Allen’s bold cutting introduced mainstream American cinema to the editorial insolence of key French Nouvelle Vague pictures, many of which were edited by women. But if Bonnie and Clyde is not – for some – quite worthy of ‘canon’, Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle (1960), sliced with hiccuping swagger by Cécile Decugis, needs no lobbying whatsoever. Decugis’s temporal gymnastics sent a shock through the gestating hearts of US movie brats à la Spielberg and Scorsese, all the way to newer waves of Taiwanese and Hong Kong filmmakers in the 1980s and 90s and their millennial spawn. Together with French contemporaries like Jasmine Chasney (Last Year at Marienbad, 1961), Decugis helped to loosen some of the shackles on narrative filmmaking, and to challenge the championed standard of ‘invisibility’ in editing. Anne V. Coates’ celebrated match-cut in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) gentle as it is, flows within the same bold vein.

As many stellar female editors as there are, I have selected 2 clips each from 10 practitioners whose cutting room prowess has not only elevated the art of editing, but whose pairings with many a great director has yielded some of our finest films. Notable exceptions abound, of course, including contemporary pros like Molly Marlene Stensgaard, Nadine Muse and Marie-Hélène Dozo, regular collaborators of Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke and Claire Denis, respectively. Clearly, there are many unsung co-auteurs deserving of song.

 

* This piece was originally published on Fandor Keyframe in 2016

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.’

 

 

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.

 

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