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BELOW ZERO is a thinking person's mystery horror. A scriptwriter, Jack the Hack, has writer's block and arranges to be locked in a slaughterhouse freezer until he comes up with a script. Believe it or not, scriptwriter Signe Olynyk tells me she also did this when writing the movie. On screen, the story is dramatised for us as Jack writes, so we have two on-screen narratives: Jack's world (think, Fargo) and that of the alter ego in his story (think Saw). As he considers various re-writes, the story within a story changes. But a third story is at hand: that from Jack's own psyche. His basic plot, surprise surprise, is someone accidentally being locked in a freezer, in a building owned by a serial killer. But, if you can stand back from the subsequent on screen gore, there's maybe time to work out what's really happening! This Kaufmanesque horror story keeps you on your toes all the way through. Signe doesn't recommend new writers try the freezer trick at home, but she does run a scriptwriters' workshop, Pitchfest (www.pitchfest.com), and invites any budding writers reading this to get in touch with her.
Director Juan Martinez Morena (LOBOS DE ARGA) complains that he's tired of seeing vampires and werewolves that are 'cool and f**kable.' He wants monsters you can believe in when you go to bed at night. Not the Bugs Bunny horror of CGI that couldn't fool a five-year old. His werewolves will have maximum special effects and stunts but minimum computer graphics. With a limited budget (much of which went on hair from China), Moreno dishes up a picture that is by turns seriously scary and seriously funny. Meet Thomas, a hapless failed writer who holes up in his parental village of Galicia, Northern Spain. A hundred years ago, his great grandmother cursed the village after abducting and forcing a gypsy to procreate with her. Thomas doesn't know a werewolf is out to get him. He doesn't know the villagers are out to get him. Mayhem ensues. But with a cutting edge comedy narrative you'd better examine yourself for bruises after you leave the cinema. When you laugh that hard, it's easy to forget the damage from where you kept jumping out of your seat. Lobos de Arga is a frank and sincere homage to movies such as An American Werewolf, and swooped the audience awards at the Edinburgh Dead by Dawn horror film festival to come first in competition.
To find that new angle on an idea repeatedly cudgelled to death is always hard. In THE UNLIVING, the zombie 'infection' has been going for a quarter of a century. Technology adapted them for modern society. Control-implants. They're now the country's most valuable economic resource. Zombies do everything. Elder-care. Catering. Smile at the check-out, serve me some coffee. There's one that's an opera star with a fanbase following. Finding a cure would destroy society as we know it. So that's out - it would be political suiciode. And keep that drug which restores memory in short supply for goodness sake. Dead? Terminating an 'unliving' is a criminal offence. Even for the 'catchers.' You've got to watch them. One zombie catcher finds his mother among the unliving. Idiot. He takes her home, cleans her up, ties her young but utterly disgusting body to the bed - before the girlfriend walks in. The Unliving is cool, brave and Swedish. Don't take granny. Especially if you think she has Alzheimers.
Have you ever watched a movie and been aware of how much your emotions
are being manipulated? Your buttons being pushed?
Just before I watched this film, I'd seen neuroscientist Susan Greenfield say how modern media encourages a sequence she calls arousal-addiction-reward. And stimulating that mental pathway releases dopamine, which inhibits the part of the brain associated evaluating social behaviour, planning complex cognitive behaviour, personality expression, and decision making. Most films are designed to produce emotional response. We are aroused (for instance) by the plight of the leading lady, addicted to the drama long enough to see what happens, and then suitably rewarded when she marries and lives happily ever after. Not only have we been told what to feel, but our critical thinking is subjugated into passive viewing. Unbiased appraisal of hypothetical outcomes is largely overridden by dominant subtexts. Critical thinking off: mainstream message on.
Godard claims he makes films to invite audiences to think, not to feel. The complex concept and metaphor (rather than adrenalin-filled) stories, can at first seem boring. Lacking in formal narrative, they flop at the box office, yet go on to critical acclaim and canonical status. Passion examines this discrepancy between a film as a piece of art versus the demands of commercial cinema.
Passion is a film within a film. Jerzy, a Polish filmmaker in western Europe, is re-creating tableaux vivants - masterpieces by Goya, Rembrandt, El Greco, Ingres and Delacroix. Tableaux vivants were a popular 19th century pre-cinema entertainment (described, for instance, in Sontag's novel, The Volcano Lover). Actors don't speak or move, and Jerzy is obsessing over light and shade while making up scenarios on the fly. His aesthetically ambitious film is two billion francs over budget. Money is needed. Meanwhile backers harangue Jerzy over his lack of storyline.
The filmmakers occasionally go to a nearby hotel and factory to find extras. Jerzy seduces both the factory owner's wife and a worker, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), who has been laid off and wants her money. They are attracted to the artistic environment, finding an aesthetisized mirror of their daily life. Squabbles off-set seem to be echoed in set pieces (for instance, where a Crusader carries off a half-clad maiden). The idea is voiced that work and love share the same movements, underlined with typical Godardian 'food for thought' such as, "One has to work on loving or love working."
With painting, image takes precedence over movement. The viewer supplies movement, or 'narrative,' by imagining a backstory or the painting's creation. With film, movement takes precedence over image. Brechtian techniques can be used to jolt audiences into awareness of stillness, or a concept contained in the film, allowing us to approach it from different angles much as we would a sculpture. Some techniques here used by Godard include extended L-cuts: we hear one woman talking but the camera is on another woman who is talking at the same speed, her voice muted (symbolically unheard). We watch an actress as she watches herself: on a video monitor, where she is struggling to lip-synch an operatic aria. That the film mirrors the film within the film, and also its own making, focuses our attention on the idea of what we are watching rather than the visual spectacle itself. Godard breaks down the barrier between documentary and fiction: "It's not a lie but, rather something imagined, not the exact truth, nor the opposite of truth. It's set apart from the real as it appears by the thoroughly calculated approximations of verisimilitude."
In making his Passion (the word can be taken in all three senses), Godard, like Jerzy, experienced resistance from actors because action is organised around images rather than a script. He created scenarios on a day-to-day basis as the film was being shot. For non-Godard fans, Passion is less hard work than his most abstruse work, but still takes effort to figure out what is happening rather than dismiss it as meaningless self-indulgence (which on casual viewing would be very easy to do). Once that investment has been made, it contains not only considerable satire, but enough material to engender repeat viewing. Although there are some political overtones, they are more in the background than with his earlier work. The film can also be admired for sheer exquisiteness, attention to detail, and perfect lighting in its re-creation of famous paintings. Amidst the mayhem of the studio and the baring of the director's soul, the young woman dancing clumsily around with a robe falling off, the young girl told to lie naked in the pool as a star-shape, or the cherub with a pointing finger all are transformed into images of utter beauty. Godard's rendering of Rembrandt's Nightwatch is uncanny to anyone familiar with the painting. Goya's Nude Maja closely resembles Godard's live copy. The characters in Godard's version of Ingres' Small Bather might be inexact, but a comparison draws attention to the perfectly reproduced luminescence of the woman's skin an effect achieved by perfect lighting lighting that makes the human image semi-divine. "An image is not powerful because it's brutal or eerie," muses Jerzy, "but because the solidarity between ideas is distant and just."
Passion is an outpouring of the creative process, inspired, according to Godard, by Titan's Bacchus and Ariadne. Together with First Name Carmen and Slow Motion, it is is one of three films by Godard showing directors struggling with 'impossible' projects. I sometimes find Godard almost spoils me for conventional cinema. Like one of his characters, I find myself muttering, "Don't push my buttons! OK?"
In recent years, the title of this film has become overshadowed by two
modern movies of the same name: a superb Japanese movie and its
American remake, respectively entitled Shall We Dansu? and Shall We
Dance. Yet this 1937 classic is worth revisiting not only for its
famous Gershwin numbers, but as the last of a series of classic-format
films between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Deeply flawed, yet the
tremendous effort poured into its production is evident. And, when
viewed as part of a series, touchingly beautiful.
Utilising talent from their earlier films, Shall We Dance pushes the established formula of light romantic farce coupled with stunning dance routines. But here are many innovations and subtle references to delight fans. At the end of their previous film together (Swing Time), Fred serenaded Ginger with the song Never Gonna Dance, so Shall We Dance? suggests a delightful comeback through association. Their respective characters have grown through successive films, as has their on screen relationship. Now, for the first time, both play fully fledged divas in their own right. Fred is Petrov, a Russian ballet star, and Ginger is Linda, a celebrated jazz dancer. Many of the gags involve rumours about the characters being secretly married or having children. By way of a complex plot, half conducted on a transatlantic liner, the couple do actually get married for the first time in their films together. Copy picture
The star personas of both Astaire and Rogers have been carefully managed by the studios since their debut together in Flying Down to Rio (1933). Fred woos her with increasing conviction or intensity in each successive movie. To suspend disbelief effectively, the audience has to be thoroughly confused for a while about the nature of their relationship (in real life, both Astaire and Rogers are married to other people at this time). The on screen characters are not married at the start of the story Fred is pursuing Ginger, as usual. But an offhand comment by Petrov to an over-persistent admirer (to the effect that he and Linda are secretly married) is blown up by the newspapers in the story. The only way they can dispel rumours is to get a divorce which means they first have to get married.
In terms of dance routines, most things had been done already, so Shall We Dance has to come up with something new. One idea is a duet on roller skates. Depending on which account we read, it took filming up to fifty takes to complete (unusually, as Fred would mostly insist on a single one). It's filmed in Central Park, and the idea is to make it look like something people would naturally be doing. It's also the longest dance Fred and Ginger have together in the film, and is made even more enjoyable by their singing Let's Call the Whole Thing Off.
Another innovation is the way the story line is tied up. (Note a light spoiler follows, but I think it's worth knowing what is coming in this case, so as not to miss the full effect). Petrov, now distraught that Linda won't dance with him, has a choreographed scene where he serenades with numerous showgirls who wear Linda masks. This in itself recalls earlier scenes involving a dummy positioned next to a sleeping Petrov, to 'prove' in the tabloids that they are married; and also in a flick-book he has that creates moving images of Linda. Unbeknown to Petrov, Linda yearns for them to be together. She insists on being taken backstage. Petrov's dance involves unmasking the lookalikes only to find that none are the real Linda. When he touches the real Linda's chin, he finds it is not a mask but really her. She extends her hand and, whoever the 'real' Petrov and Linda have been (they both have several identities even within the film), the audience is satisfied that the real living couple finally have a dance of love. Almost all the emotion of the film has been saved for this moment.
Shall We Dance not only reprises two established stars; it examines the real life pressures and glare of publicity facing them. They were both under pressure: during filming, Ginger Rogers received a real-life extortion notice and a death threat to her mother. The movie's final dance scene maybe hints at something that is beyond words, beyond the glare of the limelight, and something eternally personal as the song implies: "They Can't Take That Away from Me."
The film's weaknesses include living up to expectations when a formula has peaked. In earlier pairings, Fred's character woos Ginger through dance rather than words. Here, they enjoy some comedy together but there are maybe one too many dance solos. The plot and characterisation has weaknesses too Astaire is a very accomplished dancer performing balletic moves, but he was the first to admit he is no ballet star. Dance fans may feel unconvinced (similarly, the songs have been covered by much more competent singers). One of the main dance routines sees Harriet Hoctor, not Ginger, imported to dance with Fred largely on account of her ability to tap through remarkable back-bends. Shall We Dance lacks much of the natural dance chemistry between Fred and Ginger displayed in earlier films, but it is an outstanding piece of their film history that should not be missed.
What is the one thing of which you are most certain?. . . certain
beyond your wildest dreams? your worst nightmares? Justine is getting
married. A wonderful wedding. Best wedding planner. And as she lifts
her head to enjoy the kisses of her groom we sense the sparkle of love
entering what almost might be a world of darkness. Kirsten Dunst comes
of age as an actress in this finely sculptured character as a
successful career woman, enjoying a magnificent day in all its finery,
where no expense has been spared. Yet somehow we can sense, in this
beautifully interiorised performance, that the tinsel of the outer
world means little to Justine. It is not that she is some new-age
unmaterialistic hippy: on the contrary, her powerful mind commands a
high salary as a tagline creator for a powerful advertising concern.
The truth is that Justine suffers from clinical depression. A disease with which our director, Lars von Trier, is also afflicted. Yet does the film tell us how depressing the world is and ask us to feel sorry for its leading protagonist? Not at all. While von Trier has used his own experience to create a vivid reconstruction that goes beyond sympathy or melodrama, the film is ultimately a celebration of Justine's strength and inner clarity. Her non-attachment to the trappings of happiness things in which most people would seem to find such joy is almost Zen-like in its conviction. Why do we go to such lengths to find meaning in transitory and superficial sense-gratification? Love, the deep and wonderful communication of one person with another, can't be bought or bartered. Yet we spend our lives building castles of sand even as expressions of 'love' and if Justine can't have the real thing in each touch, she certainly doesn't want to settle for lust dressed up in lace.
Von Trier is becoming increasingly operatic in his films. The theme music from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, both as a soundtrack and, by implication, the doomed love it's saga represents, is a perfect setting for this grand vision of life and meaning. The leitmotif reminds us that, beneath everything, there is a more serious theme at work. If death is the only real certainty of life, this is symbolically illustrated in the second half of Melancholia. For someone who is deeply depressed, death is a mere detail. But for others, it is the worst of all possible eventualities. To get the point across in the most vivid way, and also show how Justine's illness gives her a strength denied ordinary mortals, von Trier turns his film into an end-of-the-world movie. A rogue planet (aptly named Melancholia) hurtles through space and, having narrowly missed some of the other planets, is on a collision course for Earth. As the actual collision has been previewed in the film's opening scenes, we already know that last minute intervention (for instance, to save the earth Hollywood-style) is not likely.
As supporting characters struggle, and eventually lose the battle to convince themselves that everything is OK, Justine warmly embraces the development. There are two nude scenes when one might say that our heroine is not only naked but that her soul is stripped bare. One is when her sister, trying to care for a 'mentally unbalanced' Justine, is trying to persuade her to have a bath. The wretchedness of her sorrow is profound: having endured the symbolic show of an overblown wedding reception, she has lost the one thing that meant something to her. It is stark contrast to her self-assured second half of the film, where her calmness is like something I have occasionally witnessed in gently smiling hospice patients (who know they are about to die). The second instance is more beautiful, although completely unglamorised. As other characters swither between denial, fear and bravado ("Let's have a glass of wine outside"), Justine calmly enjoys the epiphany. Identifying with the earth about to meet its nemesis, she bares herself to the onslaught of the coming planet in a gesture that finds her sprawled in adoration on a hillside.
Von Trier's controversial furore at the film's Cannes premiere ensured wider distribution than might otherwise be expected for an art-house offering as dark as Bunuel. This maybe misleads some people into seeing a film with the false expectation of something more mainstream. As one teenager exclaimed, walking out of the multiplex screening I went to, "I've never sat through such gash in my whole life." But to cinephiles more attuned to von Trier's style of filmmaking, it probably represents his greatest triumph since Dogville. One could even imagine allusions to Justine's name with the eponymous novel of de Sade, an abused protagonist who accepts approaching death. Raw, original and uncompromising, yet also a work of uplifting beauty, Melancholia is an end-of-the-world movie the likes of which you have never seen before.
I get quite excited at the prospect of a new Godard. Not that I see his
work as any ultimate example. It's not. But somehow it is in a
different milieu to most films you can watch. Like poetry, it's not
about the words or images, but the joy that comes from exploring, from
original thought. Sound and vision used not to entertain but to seek
deeper levels than can be expressed in prose or 'narrative cinema as we
know it.' Yet the slew of bad reviews prepared me for the worst.
Perhaps age had caught up with the grand master of Nouvelle Vague? Or
perhaps Godard was not beyond playing a joke on his audience, just to
see what they make of it?
Omens weren't great. A small auditorium and no more than a dozen people there as I walk in. Some obviously by mistake. As they walk out halfway through. But I am already entranced. Wondering if I will be able to see it again in the final screening tomorrow. Looking forward to the DVD so I can stop-start for quotes that send my head spinning like I'm back in my alma mater's philosophy class. A dizzying array of original and masterly techniques. And, like poetry, enough fluidity to offer meanings in ways that suit the individual viewer (persons who walked out excepted).
A warning: there is a 'looking for answers' but no real story. On a difficulty level, this film is much harder than Breathless, Le Mepris, or Vivre Sa Vie. It is warmer and more captivating than Weekend or Made in USA, but only just. Neither does it have the clear expository style of his last most recent well-known movie, Notre Musique. It has three main sections: 1 - scenes on a Mediterranean cruise ship ('Things'), 2 - a European family ('Our Europe'), and 3 - scenes of conflict and war ('Humanities'). Each seeks understanding to certain questions on an individual, interpersonal and political level.
The first section held my attention the most. Inside the cruise ship is a plethora of "things" (if this was Godard of yesteryear, I'd maybe have written 'bourgeois distractions.') Only when we go outside, or see the light shine in, do we experience crisp photography, scenes of genuine beauty, and people spending their time at least trying to solve some of life's deeper puzzles. Perhaps this is just my own interpretation, but I like the way it is depicted visually. Money is a 'common good' like water but party-people onboard use it for nothing but bloated consumerism. Meaningless dance classes and revelry. As two people engage in philosophical discourse outside the main hall, a woman repeatedly falls against the glass partition. Is she dancing and letting her spirit free? Apparently not she falls face down into the swimming pool.
There is a young girl seen frequently with an old man. Something strange there? A hooker perhaps? A maybe rather a scholar or seeker of truth availing herself of the rich variety of elderly experience onboard (a philosopher, a UN bureaucrat, a Palestinian ambassador, and so on).
Characteristic Godardian effects are used with casual precision. There is no attempt at reality if it stands in the way of the point he is making. Such as when the background noise cuts out momentarily for the word 'happiness' to occurs in the girl's dialogue. Deliberate camera distortions emphasise an alcohol-sodden mentality of the majority of passengers, images often obscenely blurred, as if taken on a mobile phone. Or the mother in Section Two who talks to the camera about how she is totally unaware of the part she is playing.
There are more hidden references than an afternoon of Tarantino movies. Except, unlike Tarantino's work, Godard is not entertaining pub quiz movie geeks; but giving clues to further meanings within his experimental and exploratory work. A young lad gives a young woman a copy of 'La Porte Entroite,' (a coming of age novel). There are nods to Husserl's philosophical geometry which fit the film but will need hours of study to fully appreciate (we see a projection of a man lecturing on 'geometry as origin' to an empty auditorium). And Balzac's 'Illusions Perdues,' which anticipates themes of aristocracy vs poverty as well as journalism as intellectual prostitution. And don't miss the homage later to Battleship Potemkin's Odessa Staircase slaughter.
Dialogue sparkles from witty "The United Nations have been somewhat disunited since 1948," to surreal and Zen-like "Once in 1942 I have encountered nothingness . . ." I'm quoting from memory and leaving the end of the quote for you to enjoy on screen.
The individual's relation to government is addressed by the adolescents in the second Section, posing a difference between the State and Society. The dream of the State is to be 'one'; whereas the dream of the Individual is to be two, to 'pair up.' Aggressively intrusive foreigners demanding driving directions are given a cold shoulder ("Go and invade some other country!") An intrusive camera, making a documentary about a coming election, similarly distances everyone from any (inner) reality.
Some of the phrases from Section Two bleed over into scenes of Section Three bloodshed. The young girl wants people to, "learn to see before learning to read." Godard's intertitles come fast and frequent, and in many different languages. At one point, a prayer in Hebrew and a prayer in Arabic are overlaid, visually and aurally. It recalls Godard's offhand response to the question, "Peace In the Middle East - when?" by replying, "As soon as Israel and Palestine introduce six million dogs and stroll with them as neighbours who don't speak, who don't speak of something else." Cinema is a remarkable opportunity sometimes to communicate without speaking those things which are often too difficult, or too sensitive, or simply whitewashed of their core by aimless chatter. Or by narrative movies.
It's a little after midnight and I'm leaving an Internet café at the
junction of Prado Junior and Avenida Nossa Senhora de Copacabana. "Hang
on a minute," the Net café manager bids me. He looks outside. A
late-night world shielded from me by thick double-glazing. "Yeah, it
must be okay," he says, "The buses are running again, so I guess the
shooting has stopped." I make my way gingerly back to my apartment.
Past dubious drinking companions, their backs pressed against the wall,
beer in hand, and frivolous smirks lighting up their faces. No way was
a simple gun battle going to spoil their evening's revelry! From the
safety of my 13th floor apartment, I watch the streets for a while,
high tech armaments barking deadly colours through the night, like an
obscene light show, on the nearby hill. Earlier, stray bullets had
wandered from the high-up slums into the town below. The Net café
manager and other residents take such things in their stride.
Gun battles erupt in Rio de Janeiro from time to time as the three drug cartels fight over territory. A clean-up operation was the subject of the first Elite Squad movie, a fictional account that was too close to fact for comfort. Years after my brush with live ammo, and four years after that movie, comes a major update. The special police force, BOPE or 'elite squad' is still riddled with corruption. Drugs (long seen as an 'American' problem anyway, as the US provides the main demand) are no longer quite as profitable. But extortion, by police and politicians, is running wild.
Generically, Elite Squad II is a good-cop / bad-cop movie. But what marks it out is painstaking realism and accuracy in relation to actual events, with script contributions, as in the first movie, by a former BOPE captain. It struck such a chord in Brazil last year that it quickly became the biggest selling movie of all time.
But it is not the 'story that no-one dares to say' that makes Elite Squad II so powerful. Nor the 80 real cops drafted in as extras. Nor even the hair-raising battles, the bloody prison riot, nor the consistently fine acting. It is the way the action reveals a division of opinion over what to do about Rio slum-violence. There are intellectuals, human rights groups, 'reformists' (as well as a lot of international pressure groups) who press for clemency, education, and the reform of criminals. Then there are many non- slum-dwelling citizens, from intellectuals to café owners, who just want any of the hoodlums dead at any cost. And at the bottom line is votes. Votes, votes, votes. The public will not support any soft-line politician. Letting two gangs kill each other during a prison riot seems temptingly politically expedient. Corrupt BOPE officers, creaming off extortion money from every type of business in the slums, can guarantee votes. This is Brazil. A country that fights to enshrine a modern, accountable political system but in the face of pressures it can barely control. BOPE, designed to eradicate corruption, has become corruption's main source. And Lt. Colonel Nascimento, who created the monster, has been promoted to a 'safe' desk job. There, he realises that his superiors right up the political ladder are on the gravy train.
The dichotomy between peaceniks and blood-bathers is represented by (the now more mature) Nascimento and his trained officers on one hand, and Diogo Fraga, a left wing Congressman on the other. As Nascimento puts his own life in danger to uphold integrity within BOPE, rabble-rousers urge more bloodshed. Nascimento's son turns against him, his wife leaves him to marry Fraga. The differences in approach are thrashed out not just with guns and armour-plated vans. They are thrashed out in the more emotional battlefield of a family torn apart by their beliefs. And a problem to which there is no easy answer.
The first Elite Squad movie became so influential that it is frequently cited by scholars and authorities whenever violence breaks out in Rio. Elite Squad II seems likely to follow suit. But will Western audiences find it so interesting when they could instead be watching a (far more fictional) cop drama such as Scorsese's The Departed? Subtitled movies tend to appeal to an art-house crowd and, of those, the ones with little or no interest in a country that is barely mentioned on the Western news (even if Brazil is the size of the USA) may not feel inclined to immerse themselves in two hours of tightly woven plot full of blood, guts and heartache. For what? To better understand a system that seems to have little or no relevance to life in the 'West.' And this is a shame.
How can you make someone see what is staring them in the face?
Tarr is nothing if not serious cinema. It may not move, entertain or give you a thrill to the bottom of your popcorn. But it is also, for many cineastes, a standard by which other art cinema can measured. And if that introduction is overweening, perhaps it will deter anyone even vaguely faintly thinking about popcorn - but encourage serious-minded cinema-goers to consider dropping everything to see this.
Hungarian Grandmaster Bela Tarr uses a technique made famous by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky that of incredibly long takes. We are forced to immerse ourselves in real time, to experience the minutiae of existence (and its totality) in the same way the characters do. But in terms of 'suspension of beliefs', Tarr goes one stage further than Tarkovsky. The latter's films were often connected with metaphysics and decorated with religious iconography; whereas Tarr eschews God and religion in favour of the people, in favour of human rights, in favour of righting wrongs, or simply in favour of what is most basic to any individual. At times seen as heavily political, his films are careful to portray only a 'documentarist' style reality. They are films designed to make you think, rather than make you entertained. In this respect, his work preserves a thread from the fierce artistic integrity of Godard - perhaps by way of Fassbinder, who would also at times exemplify a fierce minimalistic style.
In The Turin Horse, Tarr gives us a six-day prelude to an actual event that we never see. Even in those six days, nothing very much happens yet you could probably write a Masters philosophy dissertation on that 'nothing very much.' The ontological lynchpin of the film is Nietzsche: in terms of storyline and also the dilemmas a viewer might confront.
Our movie begins by informing us of a well-known tale concerning the German philosopher. Nietzsche had caused a public disturbance apparently by attempting to save a horse being flogged. Immediately afterwards, Nietzsche collapses and succumbs to mental illness. He will remain that way for the rest of his life. Tarr's film is an imagined reconstruction of the days leading up to the incident. It features the ailing horseman, his grown-up daughter, a visitor who provides the film's only monologue, and a brief visit by a band of gypsies. The horseman and his daughter live in the most spartan of conditions trying to survive, surrounded by a harsh and barren landscape. He probably would have rejected Nietzsche's philosophy, the rejection (or death) of God, and the idea of the 'slave-morality' dominating society. Indeed, the horseman dismisses the reflections of the visitor, whose thoughts are perhaps a shadow of Nietzschean ideas, as "rubbish." We can perceive a shift from classical belief to atheism as the ideas move quite politically: 'man is responsible for his own fate, but there is something greater that takes a hand' - yet that 'something' might be nature, rather than 'God' and it seems undeniably demonstrated in the harsh conditions that gradually drive the horseman and his daughter nearer extinction. Or it could, of course, be 'the ruling classes.' But this is not a film where intellectual arguments are expounded or debated. Most of the dialogue, in the rare instances where dialogue occurs, comprises an occasional monosyllable. The film is in black and white, and consists of merely thirty long takes that would be excruciating were they not mesmerizingly beautiful. Each shot is perfectly composed, right down to the individual hairs on the horseman's Rasputinish beard. (This is one reason why it could not work as well on a small screen the other being that its impact depends on being a captive audience.) As in The Man from London, Tarr uses environment as main 'characters' the buildings, the landscape. They are 'major players.' This gives not only a tremendous sense of grandeur and majesty in simple images, but allows Tarr to convey a more cosmic point, even with such a miniscule budget. The characters each form a microcosm, doing what they do (what Man does) in order to survive. We are aware of the oppression and hardship of the plebiscite oppression we can say is caused by 'conditions', but equally by the ruling classes. Dirge-like music, a daily meal of boiled potatoes eaten without cutlery, and a bleakness from which there is no apparent escape.
On the Second Day, the horse, once hitched, won't move. The daughter expresses some sympathy for its abject refusal. Yet the horse's gradual deterioration (to a point where it is starving itself to death) almost mirrors the plight of its owners. The horseman and daughter struggle against becoming dehumanised: he by fighting, she by gentleness. What does it mean to be human? As the wind whips dust across the landscape, she reads of the "holy places violated."
The downsides of The Turin Horse are that, given its minority-appeal audience, most people will only see it on DVD. The political landscape about which Tarr is so passionate demands extra study in order to be illuminated by the film. Nietzsche declared that art is the proper task of life, that it is not merely an imitation of the reality of nature, but a metaphysical supplement to nature's reality. But can The Turin Horse stand philosophically on its own merits? Some may feel that Tarr has indeed flogged his point to death, and fails to offer any man or super-man to triumph at the end of his inevitable Gotterdammerung.
Constant use of steadicam gives the impression that we are personally observing what happens - even when all motion stops and the last light is extinguished. Susan Sontag once championed Tarr as a saviour of the modern cinema. If she had lived to see this, probably his last film, she surely would probably have felt doubly justified.
A big budget movie with religious themes treads warily to recoup
investment without alienating viewers. Tree of Life (at $32 million)
is no exception. Even with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. It succeeds not by
pleasing a mass audience but by being sufficiently wonderful to
behold so enough people will come to stare. Each scene is almost a
master-class in sound and vision.
Malick is true to himself, and draws a central line with philosophical sleight-of-hand. On one hand Tree of Life is a semi-biopic of a 1950's, God-fearing, small-town family in America. On the other, momentous special effects look at the 'God question' in cosmological terms. God as the formlessness from which all things spring (including the Big Bang); versus an anthropomorphised Old Testament God that lives in the sky. Christians can well enjoy the large-scale attention given to their beliefs in general terms. Tolerant atheists (as opposed to Dawkinesque evangelical ones) may appreciate the spectacle, and honest commentary. Just as one marvels at Gothic architecture or gargoyles, without condoning the questionable practices and beliefs of the mediaeval Church.
Malick's stated approach posits a fundamental choice between grace and nature. (This is a red herring: the film is conceptually broader than these two 'options' from the voice-over.) Standard religious questions (and answers) fall from the mouths of the characters. The 2001-Space-Odyssey style visuals might suggest God (if he/she/it exists) is light, from whence cometh all things: evolution, the world, disparate beliefs, and so on. By adroitly avoiding the biblical Jesus, Malick gets reasonably close to harmonising science vs religion camps, as well as the more atheistic creed of early Buddhism (to which Pitt often seems to give more than the occasional career nod).
But on to our story. A Christian reading needs no interpretation. The struggling family (by middle-class America standards) is raising their three young boys. They 'do their best,' go to church, deal with bereavement, and look at their own shortcomings as parents. The story of Job is recalled as inspiration.
Brad Pitt plays Mr O'Brien. A strict, controlling father. Although there is only one instance where O'Brien verges on violence, the (well-intentioned) power he emanates is still intimidating. Mrs O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) is housewife-mother, exuding a simplistic love-and-peace. She leaves hubby to deal with the harsh realities of the world - and lets children (and hubby) walk all over her. (Critics of Judeao-Christianity might observe that the father epitomises faults of the Old Testament Jehovah, and the mother many of the faults of New Testament Jesus).
Our oldest son, understandably, makes hard work of his Oedipal journey. He reacts against Dad's unbending discipline. He fails to respect Mum's lack of backbone. Mrs O'Brien, with the luxury and frustrations of a 50's kept woman, opines that love is nevertheless smiling through all things. "The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by." Of course, she doesn't find true love or such meaningful and lasting reflection of it hubby. True to New Testament thinking, her love is one of self-sacrifice (though the angels do offer her some comfort).
Mrs O'Brien's "giving" of her son to God, as a way of mentally coping with bereavement, struck me as unrealistic. Compare, for instance, Nicole Kidman's character, faced with a not dissimilar loss, in Rabbit Hole . . . (soothing voice): "God had to take her he needed another angel ." (seething Kidman in reply): "Why didn't he just MAKE another angel!!?" Similarly Tree of Life feebly tells us that the suffering of bereavement will, "one day go away." Whereas Rabbit Hole (with a script far more worthy of shouting about) says more realistically, "At some point it becomes bearable. It turns into something you can crawl out from under, and carry around like a brick in your pocket."
With or without love, at 139 minutes, Tree of Life doesn't flash by; and a lot of people in the screening I went to walked out. Although I felt entranced for almost its entirety, I admit, nothing much 'happened.' This is a warning to cinema-goers demanding 'a good story.' There isn't one. You could write it on the back of a communion wafer. But more precisely, there is no plot development. Mrs O'Brien recalls the Julianne Moore character from The Hours. Trapped 50's housewife. But whereas Moore made a break for self-enlightenment and freedom, O'Brien doesn't. The Tree of Life is not so much a story as a painting, a meditation, a beautiful canvas. The result is truly magnificent. Its staggeringly gorgeous visual collage of ideas is used almost to convince us that the Heidegger-like approach to the phenomenology of religion isn't full of holes. Serious viewers might recall that this elision of God and Nature was done with far less profligacy in Tarr's recent Turin Horse (which also managed to discard it with Nietzschean frugality). It's almost like an enthusiastic preacher saying, "If I play the beautiful Mozart Requiem captivatingly enough, will you please believe in my God?" The Tree of Life offers little in the way of answers to the deep questions it pretentiously tries to raise: yet that should not stop you meditating on them or even just enjoying the wonderful spectacle.
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