Friday
Dec192014

Sirk: Magnificent Obsession (1954)

By the time he reached Magnificent Obsession, the first of his great late romances, Douglas Sirk had achieved a kind of melodramatic perfection whereby emotion was so exquisitely distributed across his mise-en-scene – or his mise-en-scene so artfully ornated and decorated with emotion – that his actors barely needed to enunciate, or even act, since even the smallest and most inadvertent gestures were enough to stir the whole frame into an affective tremble that was all the more convulsive for being so amorphous and mysterious in its yearnings and sorrows. That’s not to say that Magnificent Obsession is any less narratively convoluted or preposterous than his previous melodramas, but that this feels like the first film in which Sirk is confident enough to place and shape his actors more than direct them, turning on their features and gestures as if illuminating them from within, just as they seem to switch on his gorgeous tableaux in turn, electrifying his camera with a rich American romanticism that would only make it a matter of time before he attempted to adapt Walden to the big screen. For all that the story calls for quite a bit of exposition – the most simple version is that it’s about a blind doctor’s widow (Jane Wyman) who falls in love with the billionaire playboy (Rock Hudson) responsible for making her a blind doctor’s widow – something feels forever secreted and concealed from Sirk’s shots, allowing them to establish contact with the “infinite power” that’s introduced early on as the goal of a new transcendentalist life-philosophy in which only the most invisible acts of selfhood can open you up to the full complexity and infinity of emotion around you. For both Hudson and Wyman, that’s tantamount to a new kind of perception, or perhaps a new kind of blindness, but that doesn’t detach them from Sirk’s visual flourishes so much as attune them to their most mercurial moments - moments at which emotion seems to dissociate from individual and even human agency to imbue the invisible, ineffable edge of every space with all the stifling expectancy of a waiting room, until even the most serene domestic fixtures feel like antechambers to some vast apocalyptic catharsis. Far from casting light upon that mystery, Russell Metty's trademark Technicolor conceals it in turn, shrouding each scene in all the colours we can’t quite see, and setting the stage for a romance that just seems to intensify all the pleasures and sorrows of privacy, as Sirk opens up Hudson and Wyman to everything they can’t quite discern in each other, drawing them together alone as they commune with an expanding emotional universe.

Wednesday
Dec172014

Herzog: Mein Liebster Feind - Klaus Kinski (My Best Fiend - Klaus Kinski) (1999)

It’s hard to think of a working relationship in cinema as sublime as that between Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski. Together, they made five of the greatest films of both their careers – Aguirre, Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, Woyzeck, Nosferatu, Phantom of the Night and Cobra Verde – while pursuing a love-hate courtship that was most productive when it achieved what Herzog describes as “the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder.” My Best Fiend is a film about that bond, but it’s even more a film about Kinski himself, a premedicated, demonic-psychotic speaker of tongues whose destructive fits and manic convulsions led Herzog to place him in the company of Villon, Dostoyevsky’s Idiot and Paganini, and to even briefly consider murdering him for a particularly trying second during the filming of Fitzcarraldo. For such explosive, personal subject matter, then, it’s perhaps surprising that it’s one of Herzog’s most formally modest and understated documentaries, and perhaps the closest he comes to something approaching a traditional talking heads mode, recounting his own anecdotes about Kinski to camera and then interviewing other contemporaries in turn. Of course, Herzog himself is an extraordinarily charismatic presence, even when he’s as diminutive as he is here – it’s hard to think of a film where his wonderful storytelling and eye for detail are so nakedly on display – but the real drama of the film comes from the way in which Herzog’s words play out against the film’s backdrops, which take us through a succession of spaces that he shared with Kinski, from the Berlin apartment where they met at the age of thirteen, to the African landscapes where they concluded their collaboration with Cobra Verde. However, for the most part, their relationship is recounted and mediated through the epic Peruvian backdrops to Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, which not only convey something of the monumental scale of both their love and their hate for their each other, but are shot as if just recovering their – comparative – calm and serenity after Kinski ploughed through them some thirty years previously. Even more so than in Les Blank’s Burden Of Dreams, which is excerpted here, you feel that Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo were both sublime events that simply exceeded the films they produced, and even the films about the films, perhaps explaining why it’s absolutely impossible to discern whether Kinski is in character during the various out-takes, just as the excerpts from the films feel like so much documentary footage of Kinski, whose “innermost qualities” Herzog could only bring to life “in front of a camera.” By the end, Herzog himself feels like just another facet of Kinski’s madness, even or especially when he arrogates the most critical distance from what finally feels like one of the last genuinely larger-than-life personalities, “a genius who had fallen from heaven” and never quite realised or recognised that he’d landed on Earth.

Friday
Dec122014

Scott: Exodus: Gods And Kings (2014)

Ridley Scott’s latest film is the first cinematic adaptation of the Book of Exodus since The Ten Commandments, but it couldn’t be more different from Cecil B. DeMille’s vision. For DeMille, making the film was tantamount to a third testament, a realisation of the American as the apotheosis of both Christian and Jew – and a vision of Moses himself as the first American, a role that Charlton Heston was born to play. Here, by contrast, we’re presented with an incarnation of Moses, played by Christian Bale, who may be just as sharply distinguished from the Egyptians, but who doesn’t seem to be especially aligned with the Hebrews either, or to even identify as Hebrew himself, except insofar as oppression and exploitation stirs his sense of justice. As a result, the tone is often closer to the class dystopias that have become so prevalent in recent times than to the conventional sword-and-sandal epic, especially during the astonishing depiction of the Twelve Plagues of Egypt, a miniature film-within-the-film that alternates visceral horror and dark comedy as Scott’s best epic moments so often do, not least because Moses himself gazes upon the Plagues with a dismay and bewilderment that’s perhaps the closest he comes to apprehending an Old Testament God, an elemental force of nature responsible for what has to be one of the most extraordinary depictions of Passover ever committed to screen. In fact, Moses is relegated to an awed and somewhat ambivalent spectator for a great deal of the film, with the result that there is virtually no communication or even correlation between him and his God – the delivery of the Ten Commandments is pointedly relegated to an epilogue – reimagining the centrepiece of DeMille’s version, the crossing of the Red Sea, in quite an astonishing manner. Far from leading his people across the splendidly parted waters, Moses awakens from his moment of greatest misgiving to find the water level gradually falling, and only just manages to wade over to the other side before almost being swept away again, providing the climax, or anticlimax, to a film in which all power feels somewhat unsettling, no matter how or where it arises. Perhaps that’s why it occasionally recalls the brutal powerplay of Game of Thrones, coalescing Rameses’ (Joel Edgerton) court into yet another of the upper-storey, open-plan, conference-and-council spaces that Scott has specialised in over the years, a direct descendent of the Tyrell Corporation in Blade Runner and the Court of Queen Isabella in 1492, especially once Sigourney Weaver reappears as Tuya, the most sinister embodiment of power in the entire production. For all that it’s been compared to Gladiator, then, it's really the last part in the trilogy that started with Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood – right down to the arrow lesson montage – and just as willing to risk absurdity in the name of epic ambition, which is as stirring as it is sometimes soporofic, refreshing as it is occasionally oppressive. 

Friday
Dec122014

Godard: Je Vous Salue, Marie (Hail Mary) (1985)

It’s odd to contemplate the enormous conservative and religious backlash that greeted Hail Mary, since in many ways it feels like one of Godard’s most devotional and reverential films. Transplanting Mary (Myriem Roussel) and Joseph (Thierry Rode) to mid-80s France – Mary is the daughter of a petrol attendant, Joseph a taxi driver – it’s utterly devoid of even the residual whimsy of Godard’s early 80s output, swathing Mary in a chaste, cool fluorescence that settles over her like a dispersed halo, a beatification that’s never complete. For the most part, Godard opts to defamiliarise rather than retell the story, moving from one extraordinary, elliptical composition to another, as if to intuit rather than explain the mysteries of virgin birth, while subjecting Mary to all the quotidian vulgarities of everyday life only to couch and cushion her inextricable virginity in the process. For that reason, it often feels like the point at which Godard really starts to break down his narrative film work to the building blocks of his later quasi-documentary output – virgin images, immaculately conceived shots, in which his camera seems to spontaneously calibrate itself against everything it lights upon, leaving Godard with little to do but bear witness to the mystery. That gives a sense of revelation, but incomplete, ongoing and collectively available revelation, as is proper to Godard’s socialist sense of history, which is perhaps the ultimate reason why it generated such negative publicity from some quarters. Every moment and space, however incidental or casual, seems to reach out with a collective yearning that had always been there in Godard’s work, but is intensified here to a Second Wave nocturne that’s like watching the endless mornings and long languorous afternoons of his 60s films finally arriving at their evening. Even the few daylight scenes are draped in cool turquoise tints that make it feel as if the blue hour is never far away, while every gesture seems to converge on dawn or dusk, a gathering austerity and purity that’s as striking against this 80s backdrop as Godard’s promiscuity and hyperactivity was against the 60s. Poised on the brink of the Mitterand-Chirac period, it’s the palette of a cohabited France, but also the palette of video seguing into Godard’s subsequent digital murk, a breathtaking vision of a neon-world growing dimmer and dimmer as it waits for an epiphany that seems to arrive with each shot, only to be displaced and dispersed by the next.

Friday
Dec122014

Godard: Sympathy For The Devil (1968)

Released as the concert film was just starting to gain traction, Jean-Luc Godard’s first documentary offered a fascinating alternative – a rehearsal film – that in some ways feels more prescient of music television than music cinema, although its style and aspiration is highly cinematic. Setting out to answer the question of where a song actually comes from, Godard alternates footage of the Rolling Stones rehearsing what would come to be “Sympathy For The Devil” with a series of tableaux that range from a personification of Democracy to a series of interviews with Black Panthers, and are connected mainly by a certain tendency towards socialist propositions, statements and manifestos. At first, the two parts of the film feel a little incongruous, but as time goes by, it starts to feel as if Godard is aiming to evoke the whole swathe of competing, often contradictory voices simmering beneath the surface of this countercultural anthem, the crowds behind the song, and the crowds that would end up listening to the song, which feel even more viscerally present than they might in a conventional concert film. While it’s fascinating, then, to hear the song evolving and transforming, it’s even more fascinating to witness how organically and subliminally Godard intertwines it with cultural marginalia, bric-a-brac and detritus that at first glance would appear to be light years away from it – an unconscious palimpsest of influences that often makes the band feel more like a radio antenna than a collection of individuals, absorbing sound bites and frequencies from near and far. As much as the song does move towards a finished, refined work – in fact, you only feel that it’s only by absorbing Godard’s own radical presence in the studio that it manages to becomes such a perfect anthem – Godard also beautifully expands and elasticises the different layers and parts until it feels like a collaboration with its historical moment, a pressure point for an entire generation and epoch, as the rehearsal gradually turns into a jam session, devolving the music back into the ether, not unlike the first few moments after you’ve finished listening to a song but can still hear it in the air and world around you. Shot in its entirety in long, liquid pans, as if Godard were trying to gather up as much of the present moment as possible, or trying to make the song as panoramic and expansive as possible, trying to fit it to its historical horizon, it’s mystical and materialist at the same time – a vision of the Stones as so many vehicles for cultural energies that exceed and dwarf them, while making them seem more flamboyantly attuned to their moment at the same time.