Friday
Oct312014

Saura: Cría Cuervos (Raise Ravens) (1976)

Released in the wake of Franco's death, Cría Cuervos takes its title from the Spanish maxim “Raise ravens, and they’ll pluck out your eyes” and cemented Carlos Saura’s reputation as the pre-eminent Spanish director of his time. Wondering how long fascism might be expected to linger in the deepest pools and darkest corners of Spanish middle class life, Saura’s screenplay focuses on a young girl, played by Ana Torrent, who murders her father, a wealthy patriarch and senior military officer who flourished under Franco’s patronage, because she believes that his philanderings precipitated her mother’s fatal illness and death a few years before. Once both her parents have died, she remains in their family home with her sisters, maid, aunt and grandmother – there are no major male characters - but the distinction between present and past is confounded by the continual appearance of her mother, played by Geraldine Chaplin, in fantasy segments and flashbacks, as well as Ana’s own interjections from the vantage point of 1995, some twenty years in the future, where she’s also played by Chaplin. If part of the allure of Franco’s Spain, and of fascism more generally, was its promise to eternalise traditional values, and turn the nuclear family stucture into an escape from the vicissitudes of history, then Saura’s film over-identifies with and exhausts that fantasy, stifling and embalming his actresses in a limbo that rarely allows his camera to leave their house and, when it does, compensates with Francoist architecture that’s even more melancholy, gloomy and haunted than their own. With the exception of a couple of records that are played, jarringly, at key moments, there’s no music and virtually no sound outside the dialogue, unless you count the rumble of distant traffic, somewhere far beyond the family’s sprawling garden and abandoned swimming pool, which is continuous as it is remote, more a vibration than a sound. Every word falls on that void, just as Saura’s muffled mise-en-scenes exude the unearthly hush that descends on a house after someone has died in it, even or especially as we move further and further away from the opening wake, whether by going back in time, forward in time, or further into fantasy, following the train of Ana’s impassive, pregnant stare as it absorbs the sound and substance out of any space it lights upon, much like her performance in Spirit of the Beehive. At one point, her adult self describes childhood as an “interminably long and sad time, filled with fear,” and the film sinks into that strange sense of time as well, suspended between stillborn facism and barely conceived democracy, like a child who’s longing to mourn but has never really learned how.

Sunday
Oct262014

Truffaut: Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

Francois Truffaut’s first and only English film was an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s classic dystopian novel, which details a future society in which reading is illegal, and books are routinely sought out and burned by “firemen” appointed to maintain law and order. However, you never really feel as if Truffaut is directing in a second language, just because, with the exception of the banned books themselves, there’s no writing or text anywhere in the film. Not only are the opening credits spoken, rather than displayed on the screen, but the dialogue is minimal as possible – it’s Truffaut’s least talky film – with great stretches of it playing more or less as silent cinema, or silent set pieces. While Bradbury may have tapped into something peculiarly powerful by presenting us with a novel about a world in which novels are illegal, Truffaut seems to suggest that one of the advantages of telling this story as a film is that he can evoke the excommunication of language as well as literature from this dystopian future, generating an incredible suspicion and paranoia from talk and verbal communication more generally. At the same time, however, the very eloquence and elegance with which he does so tends to cut against Bradbury’s vision somewhat, or at least deflate the splendid isolation of its dystopian universe. Where Bradbury was envisaging a future in which literature was illegal, it often feels as if Truffaut is merely describing a present in which written language is irrelevant, the beginnings of a totally visual culture, a wasteland of widescreen televisions and reality programs, which is perhaps more dystopian than Bradbury’s vision, depending on how you look at it. Similarly, where Bradbury’s novel proceeds more or less narratively, Truffaut’s version is driven more by visual cognates than by language, especially Julie Christie’s dual roles as wife and confidante to Montag (Oskar Werner), the fireman whose gradual change of heart sets things in motion, in something like an early forerunner of the stiff-upper-lip fascism of The Lives Of Others. Abstracting his visual scheme, and anchoring it in a few key colours, Truffaut removes language only to make his objects and tableaux feel peculiarly and uncannily legible, perhaps explaining why this also feels like his tribute to Hitchcock, especially when Bernard Herrmann’s score starts to swell. And at the most suspenseful – and Hitchcockian – musical moments, you start to look at every space much like Montag is trained to do, as a series of places where books, words and meaning might be concealed, in what must be one of the strangest and most sinister primers on film language ever committed to film. 

Sunday
Oct192014

Varda: Les Plages d'Agnès (The Beaches of Agnès) (2008)

The Beaches of Agnès is a kind of companion piece to The Gleaners and I. This time around, Agnès Varda is gleaning more extensively from her own life, but any resemblance to a biopic, or autobiopic, is somewhat offset by the way in which she tends to treat her own memories and experiences as if she’s stumbling across their sustenance for the first time, right down to discovering a pair of old photographs of herself and husband Jacques Demy at an old flea-market in southern France. For the most part, the film proceeds chronologically, but it quickly confounds any sense that Varda’s life and work are operating independently of one another, as a seemingly endless series of ingenious and irreverent re-enactments tends to cut against the splendid isolation of her earlier mise-en-scenes, even in the midst of her most canonical films and personal crises. As in Gleaners, the film’s more or less sustained by the artless irreverance with which she moves from one preoccupation, passion or distraction to another, without a trace of either irony or the knowing oblivion that might pass for twee, focusing on her interests – it’s hard to think of a director who’s more interested than Varda – with a sincerity that’s quite mercurial, the sincerity of someone who wore a camera on their sleeve pretty much their whole life, whether or not they happened to be officially shooting a film. Although there are moments of real and enduring grief, they’re untouched by nostalgia, while Varda’s activist rage never feels separate from her joy in everything she’s agitating for. Drifting into the world of “senior citizens and beyond” – the film was released on the eve of her eightieth birthday – she’s somehow able to puncture the pretensions of all her dreams while leaving dreams open to anyone else who might still want to have them, discarding the detritus of her life as she sifts through it even as she remains “willing to enter a reverie” with any object that might still speak to her, or listen to her. More like an eccentric, marginal directorial commentary on her film-life than a film or a life in itself, it’s the perfect swansong for a figure who came of age in an “age of questions” and never stopped asking them, whether in Sète, Nantes, Venice Beach or any of the other windy, watery expanses that anchor this beautiful web of associations and ruminations.

Wednesday
Oct152014

Robespierre: Obvious Child (2014)

Gillian Robespierre’s debut film stars Jenny Slate as Donna Stern, a comedian trying to make it big in New York’s indie stand-up circuit. We're introduced to Donna by way of one of her sets, during the opening credits, and it’s so painfully confessional and self-deprecating that you feel as if you know her almost uncomfortably well within a matter of moments. Like so many stand-ups, her comedy seems to be a way of keeping tragedy at bay, a mechanism for containing the spikiest, nerviest parts of her life, which makes it pretty dramatic when a pair of crises - being dumped by her long-term boyfriend and getting pregnant after a one-night stand – suddenly exceeds her ability to translate them into stand-up. Following Donna as she tries to get over her boyfriend, contemplates what to do about her pregnancy, and searches for a way to get her comic mojo back, Robespierre’s loose ambience is not dissimilar to Louie in the way in which it suggests a world beyond stand-up, or at least a world in which stand-up no longer has the powers of catharsis and containment it might once have had. For all that Slate is given several opportunities to exercise her considerable stage presence, most of the film takes place in the lonely hours after all the stand-up venues shut down, and confession starts to seep back into conversation, suddenly bereft of its powers to contain the depressive substrate of New York that Robespierre evokes so beautifully. That’s not to say that it’s not funny – Gaby Hoffmann, Jack Lacy, Gabe Liedman and David Cross all play supporting roles – but that there’s something oddly and powerfully aborted about Robespierre’s screenplay, which tends to feel either like a series of observational riffs that aren’t quite allowed to gel into a full set, or a sequence of wacky, eccentric incidents and encounters that would work perfectly as stand-up anecdotes, if only Donna could just find a way to pull them together. As it stands, there’s a sense that stand-up has become part of everyday life in a new way – again, not unlike Louie – as every character has painful anecdotes to brand, advertise and circulate as never before, but also a new kind of comic attention to just how unremarkable that actually makes them. And against that backdrop, the film manages, remarkably, to find the right comic register for abortion, if only because it's a sit-down comedy, a comedy that can’t stand apart from its subject any longer than Donna can stand apart from her pregnancy, as Slate and Robespierre feel their way though a world in which comedy no longer seems to exist in the way we once knew it.

Thursday
Oct092014

Scott: 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)

Poised on the brink of a globalised world, early 90s cinema saw a resurgence of interest in the horizon, discovering a new kind of synthetic pantheism and syncretic paganism at the furthest extremities of the screen. While Waterworld may have taken that widescreen moment to its extreme, in a film consisting of almost nothing but horizons, 1492: Conquest of Paradise perhaps provided its single greatest personification, in the form of Christopher Columbus (Gerard Depardieu) – or Ridley Scott’s Christopher Columbus, celebrated and canonised here as the first truly global citizen, the first explorer to truly apprehend the horizon in all its sublime curvature, and the first person to think in both Eastern and Western hemispheres at once. That might sound historically simplistic, but 1492 is less a period piece than a perceptual experiment, an attempt to see whether Scott can set his eye on the horizon as steadily as Columbus might have done, keeping it consistently in his sights while never losing sight of the diplomatic vision needed to envisage it as a truly multicultural, pluralistic threshold. That’s even more of a feat in that Roselyne Bosch’s screenplay is largely preoccupied with Columbus the colonist-governor rather than Columbus the sailor-explorer, with the result that the horizon becomes a state of mind more than anything else, a quasi-mystical mode of apprehension that ensures that even the most constrained close-ups feel as if they’re shot in staggering widescreen, not unlike the various chamber dramas in William Wyler’s Ben-Hur. In the short sequences when we are actually at sea, Scott seems to distill every possible permutation of light and water in a few shots, fading dusk and dawn into a luminous, numinous ether, while Columbus’ treatises on the quadrant give the whole film an astronomical scope, really making you grasp just how much a journey like this was the equivalent of outer space travel in our own time. Combined with Vangelis' most monumental, ceremonial score to date, that makes for something like Scott's strongest sci-fi film since Blade Runner – the Tyrell Corporation remade as Queen Isabella's court – in which even the quietest, most sheltered moments aim for nothing less than to be the widest widescreen film of all time, the last port of call before cinema spills out into the surrogate horizons of IMAX rides and amusement park adaptations.