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.

 

 

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Saw it at SFF*, June 8, 18:30, State Theatre: “Taxi” aka “Tehran Taxi”

July 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

The Iranian ‘bad boy’ concludes his latest attempt at fuck-you guerrilla cinema with a final shot that is heart-warming, unassuming, alarming, somewhat embarrassing and ultimately sobering, in that order. Having spent seventy-something minutes ‘playing’ himself – that is, world renowned filmmaker Jafar Panahi – ‘playing’ a taxi driver, cruising around Tehran in what is presumably an actual cab (or at least a vehicle dressed up as one) and engaging in a headlong series of entertaining, often humorous and conveniently dramatic interactions that collectively snap a shot of contemporary urban Iran (or maybe just Tehran), Panahi decides to end proceedings by delivering a gentle smack to not just his face but the face of an adoring international film community that may be taking his beleaguered output for granted somewhat. It’s as if Panahi recognises that the oftentimes purposefully short human memory has come into play with regards to his movies, which technically should not exist but which nonetheless keep coming, every two years at this rate, breaching the Iranian border in cake-encased USBs (and who knows what else) and screening at international film festivals where they are heralded as great art and sometimes go on to win awards such as the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale. In truth, it’s a touch mysterious and a little bit eerie, the fact that three works conceived and executed by this puckishly civic-minded artist have managed to reach the global consciousness despite the Iranian government’s clear opposition, and it’s a touch embarrassing to think that these works are no less commodified than those of filmmakers whose prodigiousness is relatively unencumbered; that their presence on the cinematic landscape doesn’t appear to garner quite as much shocked surprise as might be deserved given the circumstances surrounding their creation. Perhaps Panahi is subtly chiding himself for being so gung-ho in his rebelliousness, reminding himself that the powers that be may not be as blind and/or ineffectual as their relative  inaction might suggest and that danger and violence may very well strike when the enemy’s apparent impotence couldn’t be more certain. Panahi even seems intent on emphasising the fact that matters have not necessarily progressed since his first act of cinematic dissent, This is Not a Film, seeing as he casts as a one of his passengers a lady who may very well be the lawyer with whom he spoke on his mobile phone in that very film, now disbarred/delicensed, presumably as a consequence of her involvement with him. Learning of her career trajectory over the last half-decade is indeed sobering.

So…roughly 5 years after scoring himself a 20-year filmmaking ban courtesy of the Iranian government, one-man-studio Panahi has released his third (yes, three!) provocation, Taxi, clumsily retitled Tehran Taxi in some  global territories (including Australia)  presumably to distinguish it from the Queen Latifah/Jimmy Fallon romp. Not unlike his previous two films, This is Not a Film and Closed Curtain, this logistically barebones picture may appear to be a continuation of Panahi’s ostensible investigation of the role that intellectual censorship and social oppression can/may play in breeding great art (or just art), which in fact extends farther back than the aforementioned pair to – say – his feminist soccer drama Offside (2006), a film whose actual production toed the very line of illegality that his last three blatantly cross. But rather than adopting Hayes Code-era innuendo and conceding (superficially) to the confines set out by the State, Panahi – being Panahi, and being an Iranian filmmaker in the era of Kiarostami – opts for a more reflexive and knowing approach. In fact, one of Taxi’s most politically poignant sequences features Panahi and his somewhat prodigious preteen niece discussing and eviscerating the scarily absurd film decency code that the Iranian government works hard to impose, a code which dares to dictate what kind of movie character (hero versus villain) can wear a tie and one which forbids the inclusion of any manner of ‘morbid realism’, presumably for fear that it may incite or further galvanise the civic dissatisfaction of the film-going masses. Either way, Taxi – notwithstanding the simple fact that it even exists – wryly drifts in and out of subversion and political antagonism as it moves from scene to scene, exposing the ‘morbid realities’ of being a (soon-to-be) widowed woman in Iran and the curious ethical quagmires that are borne of class injustice, as well as tackling (and quite amorally so) issues of intellectual theft, almost suggesting that pirating movies is not an unmitigated evil if it is a means by which cultural quarantine can be circumvented. In short, by highlighting and utilising the absence of that which is not permitted as much as he does that which is, Panahi manages to transform restriction into some weird breed of backhanded freedom; an almost ascetic, martyred iteration of it. Or perhaps he doesn’t quite create bounty out of scarcity, though he does capitalise on the fact that raw passion and the ideas that stir them can in themselves be as exhilarating to behold and as culturally constructive as that which eventually, tangibly results from these very ideas.

After Park Chan-wook seduced audiences (and the Berlinale Short Film jury) with his shaggily dreamy  iPhone-shot Nightfishing a couple of years ago, and in the wake of rising indie star Sean Baker’s transgender LA odyssey Tangerine generating a great deal of chinwag for its being photographed entirely on two rigged-up iPhone 5s, Jafar Panahi’s recent inventive (however-much by necessity) use of mobile phones, dashboard cams and point-and-shoot digital cameras contributes greatly to the legitimisation of all manner of photographic apparatus as pertains to the creation of world-class cinema. As young filmmakers bleed their pockets dry so as to acquire actual cine-lenses with which they may be able to compensate for their mid-level DSLR imagery, here is a filmmaker as established as any of his contemporaries levelling the technological hierarchy, demonstrating that capturing beauty is as dependent on boundless receptivity and crystal-eyed honesty as it is on technical mastery of the medium and its mechanics. Of course, knowing the political situation in which Panahi currently finds himself most definitely influences expectations and fosters a degree of critical generosity however scrappy his films might look, as does his already robust reputation as a powerful filmmaker at the best of times (relatively speaking). Even so, it would be perfectly legitimate to take aim at Panahi’s very knowing and somewhat impish insistence on utilising as many video-capable instruments as possible to weave his narrative, an approach which almost seems to suggest a democratisation or even sharing of the role of director, in a way shedding Panahi of the full weight of artistic responsibility. Taxi is not and should not be beyond reproach due to its sociopolitical importance and its status as a statement against censorship and in favour of expression, but the plain and simple truth is that the verve and incisive brevity with which Panahi and his players sketch their city and their nation (at least from their point of view) feels sufficient enough to justify whatever means they choose to present the finished picture, photo-realistic or not.

 

* SFF – Sydney Film Festival

The horror…: “Deathdream” aka “Dead of Night”

May 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

1974 belonged to Bob Clark, the same way it did Francis Ford Coppola who unleashed his cross-hook combo of “The Godfather II” and “The Conversation” that very same year. Of course, no one can and should ever discount the fact that milestone works from Fassbinder, Polanksi, Casavettes and a whole host of greats also hit the cinematic landscape at this time, but 1974 really did belong to American writer-director Bob Clark (in his own independent way) who released two bona fide gems of the horror genre within the same twelve month period: the most notable precursor to Carpenter’s “Halloween” – Black Christmas” – and “Deathdream” aka “Dead of Night.” To cut directly to the chase and save the preamble for later, these two independently made horror films are striking for their attention to character and performance, quite possibly made clearer when one considers that horror films as a whole have a tendency towards the archetypal if not the stereotypic, and a greater focus on mechanics and raw function than on nuance. Watching “Black Christmas” years back, the generosity afforded both the characters on the page and the actors on the set strongly emanated from the screen. While the spine-tingling threat of a killer is painted with low-budget virtuosity from the get-go (utilising the kind of POV shot that would later achieve greater fame in Carpenter’s “Halloween” for the smoothness and assurance of its glide), on equally clear display is Bob Clark’s interest in the social and emotional dynamics of the sorority house on which the unseen killer has set his sights. Now, while he – Clark, that is – may have invested so much time in creating brief but telling portraits of the film’s main characters in order to establish a degree of human cost to the massacre that is about to occur, films as great as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” have been able to effectively inflict very affecting violence on characters that are largely spare, daresay ‘functional,’ in the way that they are drawn. But the thing that writer-director Clark does with his characters in “Black Christmas,” with his actors specifically, is inject a certain loose-limbed freedom into the performances which may or may not heighten the intensity of the kills, but which would most certainly be joyous for a viewer who craves but doesn’t expect to see such character nuance in an American independent horror film. Well, it turns out that what Clark achieves in “Black Christmas” he also achieves in “Deathdream,” his Vietnam era – quite possibly anti-war – ‘zompire’ (or ‘vambie’) movie.

In the opening sequence of “Deathdream” private Andy Brooks (played very curiously but somewhat perfectly by Richard Backus) is shown being gunned to death while on duty in Vietnam, only to turn up on the doorstep of his family’s home in suburban Brooksville, Florida (where the movie was shot) to the ecstatic relief of a delusional-from-fear mother, the mildly sceptical surprise of a collectedly impatient father, the stunned acceptance of his sister, and the varied responses of everyone else that he once knew in his seemingly close-knit hometown. Mentioning that he is somewhat changed would be a superfluous downplaying of the events that unfold in this barebones picture, but it would also be unnecessarily evasive not to acknowledge that “Deathdream” is a (perhaps knowingly) obvious exploration of the effect that war has on the social fabric of a family, a community, a nation. But it may also raise the question: ‘is there – [was there] – something about the Vietnam War in particular that makes it – [made it] – especially toxic on a social level?’ Lynn Carlin as Christine Brooks is probably the most archetypal character in the film, the kind of movie mother who seems to love her son more than she does her daughter in a weirdly doting way that hints at Freudian-via-Greek Mythology sexuality. If one were inclined to add an extra layer of supernaturalism to the film, they could claim that Christine’s pathological belief that Andy is alive somehow contributes to the juju or what-have-you that ends up zombifying him. In sharp contrast to her is John Marley as Andy’s father, Charles, himself a WWII veteran who seems to have been already prepared for the loss of a son, only to be ironically thrown by the fact that his son is not only returned, but changed. One of the film’s sharpest lines comes when Charles’s frustration at Andy’s zombie-like taciturnity and newfound ability to murder a small animal he once loved dearly as a pet comes to a head. When he returned from his blood-soaked military service, Charles states, he might’ve changed a touch but not even close to Andy’s level of dysfunction and sociopathy! It’s interesting to consider the slew of post-Vietnam films released in the seventies and early eighties, pictures predicated on the idea that Vietnam ruined servicemen and servicewomen somewhat irreparably, and to then compare these to the post-war American film landscape of the 1940s and 1950s. It might be fair to assert that post-WWII American cinema was more focused on new threats (those of possible future nuclear warfare, communism and the Cold War) than it was on decrying the horrors of WWII. While noir filmmakers found ways to express the fatalism and nihilism that the war’s dance with depravity/death-by-millions may have injected into the American psyche as a whole, there isn’t an overwhelming sense in those pictures that WWII destroyed a generation so much as aged them prematurely, by decades. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that that war had a degree of moral justification, at least in a way that Vietnam couldn’t take a torch to. Consider, then, films as mainstream as “Taxi Driver” and “The Deer Hunter” which directly draw causative links between Vietnam service and the psychoemtional decay of their central characters. Perhaps there was a sense that the war waged in French Indochina, due to the ambiguity of its aims and its questionable justifications, killed everyone who served in it (at least from an American perspective) be it physically or psychologically; either way, whether you returned home in a casket or multi-medalled in the backseat of a car, you were dead, dead to your old self and those you once knew and who once knew you. This may all sound overly hyperbolic, but this is exactly the source of drama from which Clark and his collaborators appear to have drawn while making “Deathdream” and making it work like a well-restored old engine.

The hints of knowing villainy underlying Andy is at first a little disconcerting, as though Buack’s performance is misguided, and for a while it might feel this way. Andy almost appears to take perverse pleasure in quietly disturbing those that are trying so hard (to varying degrees) to accommodate his return, whether by attempting to surreptitiously rehabilitate him or by openly accepting that he is broken but at no fault of his own. The speech he makes to the family doctor, Dr Allman, suggests that Andy is somehow punishing if not simply spiting the society that forcefully sent him off to die. It’s only when this scene is contrasted with the film’s closing moments that the true anguish at the core of the film’s ‘protagonist’ comes to the fore, hauntingly expressed on a remarkably well made-up face that must surely stand as one of the most effective instances of creature cosmetics in the independent horror canon if not further afield. Andy, like the best film fiends, is as much a victim of himself as are the people from whom he drains blood, a victim of his newfound bloodthirst, of the guilt he might feel for playing a part in a potentially unjust war and the concurrent rage he feels towards the nation that would think to place him in such a position. Like Travis Bickle and company, Andy is painfully confused and conflicted, and the fact that he – like them – reconciles these emotions by developing a destructive and misanthropic worldview, rife with contradictions, is precisely what makes him so unpredictably dangerous, and unexpectedly, sympathetically sad.

From a monster mythology standpoint, “Deathdream” is wholly unique, hence the neologisms (zompire and vambie) used earlier. Like the titular character in George A. Romero’s downright vampire masterpiece “Martin,” Andy is not the elegantly invincible ghoul of the Dracula lineage but a surprisingly wretched and decidedly human species of undead, one who obtains his sanguine sustenance by messily killing people and injecting himself with blood like a junkie, which may mean that “Deathdream” is some sort of a precursor to Abel Ferrara’s “The Addiction,” if not a direct influence. Is Andy a vampire, or is he a zombie? Like most vampires he is a blood parasite who seems to hunt at night. But, like Martin, he is not particularly affected by sunlight, and the lifeless, automatoid way he behaves and moves (often swinging menacingly back and forth in a rocking chair in a way that resembles Sam Neill’s character in Zulawski’s “Possession”) imply that he is a walking dead man. While overall evidence might skew more towards him being a vampire than a zombie seeing as zombies tend to lack any appreciable level of sentience, the fact that Andy’s ghoul-lineage is not as plainly clear as the vast majority of creature-feature horror films is part of what makes “Deathdream” so damn distinctive. Maybe Bob Clark decided to focus on a different kind of entity driven by pain, alienation and a sense of being wronged by the society for which they were willing to sacrifice everything: the Vietnam Vet.

 

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