The Phantom of Liberty: a snapshot of modern life where social conventions and hypocrisy limit personal freedom and responsibility

Luis Buñuel, “The Phantom of Liberty / Le Fantôme de la Liberté” (1974)

This film might be seen as a snapshot in the life of modern France as it appeared to  Luis Buñuel, with all its bourgeois hypocrisies and contradictions. “The Phantom of Liberty” is a string of loosely linked episodes and sight-gags that celebrate chance and randomness while mocking social institutions, conventional behaviours and etiquette, and taboos such as necrophilia, sadomasochism, incest and paedophilia. For this film, Bunuel assembled an ensemble cast in which no one actor stands out – though I did recognise Michel Lonsdale from an old James Bond movie of years past – and everyone plays his or her part perfectly with completely straight faces.

The film’s loose narrative wends its way smoothly from one tableau to the next. A stranger offers photographs to two young girls in a public playground and the kiddies promptly hand them over to their parents who are shocked at the pictures – which turn out to be scenes of famous architecture around the world. The children’s father then visits his doctor about strange dreams he’s had and offers a letter given him in one dream as proof. The doctor’s nurse excuses herself to drive into the countryside to visit a sick father; on the way she stops at an inn where some Carmelite monks offer prayers for the elderly man and then hang around in her room playing cards, drinking alcohol and smoking excessively as though they were Mafia gangsters. Next day the nurse gives a lift to a police academy lecturer who later has to deal with a class of unruly gendarmes behaving like bored high school students. The lecturer drones on about the relativity of laws and customs, and recounts the time he went to a dinner party where all the guests sat on toilets around the dinner table and hungry people retire to private rooms to eat meals. Later on in the film, a sniper kills various people around Paris, is arrested and tried for murder, and sentenced to death; he leaves the courtroom by himself and signs autographs for eager women. A couple report the disappearance of their daughter to the police and the police treat the couple’s statements seriously – all while the child is in plain sight of everyone at the police station.

The film forces people to think very deeply about how much influence social conventions and expectations, coincidence and chance have on our minds and behaviour, and thus how they and their interactions limit our ability to think and act freely, and in some situations to act morally (even though our minds might rebel at having to act immorally). Particular scenes show how the things we take for granted can be bizarre if they are reversed, as in the scene where the dinner guests sit on the toilets while talking crap at the table yet have to eat in private. A very humorous and quite creepy scene in which a police commissioner is caught desecrating his family burial vault to find an apparently revenant sister and brought before another man in his job, and the two of them then discussing and carrying out an attack on political activists noisily campaigning against democracy, has the power to chill. This scene suggests that the functions of a job (in this case, that of a police commissioner), its status within a hierarchy and the attendant reputation and traditions reduce complex individuals to mere cogs in a machine. All the comedy sketches, no matter how far-fetched they are, are plausible in some way: the police can be just as disorderly and unruly as the crooks they apprehend (largely because police and crooks are members of the same society after all, and were it not for some chance occurrence, a police officer could have ended up on the wrong side of the law) and the sketch with the girl trying to convince her parents and the police that she has not disappeared may tell us something profound about how children are often ignored by adults. Social taboos like incest and young men falling in love with elderly women may be played for laughs yet at the same time force people to question the nature of these taboos, why they exist and how they are perpetuated.

The movie moves at a fast pace and the characters are drawn in such a way that they clearly represent social or occupational stereotypes. The cinematography is beautifully done in a way that makes the various sub-plots look like moving tableaux. The direction is deft and flows very smoothly: this is important for a film where there’s no clear traditional story-telling narrative and chance incidents linking two sub-plots must not look contrived.

Anomalisa: an incompletely developed film on alienation and the struggle to live in an oppressive conformist society

Charlie Kaufmann and Duke Johnson, “Anomalisa” (2015)

Not often does a film come along that encapsulates in its appearance and format its themes of human alienation, rootlessness, loss of identity and individuality and fear of the same, and the lack of authenticity in modern Western civilisation. By telling its story through animation and the use of three voice actors, two to voice individual characters and the third actor (Tom Noonan) to voice all other characters, “Anomalisa” says something about how modern society has robbed people of their uniqueness and crushes them with a banal, insincere culture through a particular if rather biased and narrow point of view, that being of its main character Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) who himself embodies much of what is trite and troubling about the society he lives in.

British expat Stone is a motivational speaker and author based in Los Angeles whose recent book on customer service has become a best-seller and who has been invited to speak at a conference in Cincinnati, a city in the industrial rust-bucket Midwest region of the US. On the plane there, he re-reads a 10-year-old letter sent him by his old girlfriend Bella who happens to live in his destination city. After landing at the airport in the evening, he endures vapid chatter from the taxi driver who takes him from the airport to the four-star Hotel Fregoli (the name is taken from a mental disorder in which the sufferer imagines everyone to look and sound the same) whose stodgy interiors and furnishings resemble those of a prison, albeit a comfortable one. He calls his wife and son and engages in dull stereotyped conversation with them. He contacts Bella and they meet in the hotel bar – for the first time in over 10 years – but she is still upset over their break-up and she carries considerable psychological baggage from her recent relationship which has also broken up and the two former lovers separate in anger and distress. Michael then saunters off to find the toy-shop the taxi driver had told him about – and which turns out to be a toy-shop for adults – to buy a present for his son.

Back at the hotel and feeling depressed – it’s late at night by now – Michael meets two young women who have travelled all the way by car from their small-town call-centre jobs to see and hear him speak at the conference. Emily is just like everyone else he meets but her companion Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is another thing altogether: her face a bit disfigured and hidden under a thick irregularly shaped mop of hair, having had a limited education and suffering from low self-esteem, Lisa is not at all what Michael has come to expect of Americans in all their commonplace conformity. She speaks what’s on her mind (out of nervousness perhaps), admits that she likes Cyndi Lauper and, after some persuasion from Michael, sings Lauper’s biggest hit “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” right off the bat. The older man is smitten with Lisa’s charm and after drinks with the two girls, manages to persuade her to come back to his room with him. One thing leads to another and next thing you know – after a brief detour into a dream scene that might riff on current American fears about pervasive surveillance and the possibility of being blackmailed or arrested for associating with people different from yourself – Michael and Lisa are having breakfast together. At this point, Michael looks at Lisa anew … and the day ahead (the conference, the return home, family reunion) starts to unravel.

The film moves at a fair clip covering what is basically mundane material – a jaded and depressed middle-aged man goes on a business trip, preys on a young woman and has a one-night stand with her – which it uses to explore its themes of alienation and trying to survive as an authentic being in a society of stifling conformity. The audience comes to realise that Michael’s depression and alienation are as much a result of past refusal to take personal responsibility and an unwillingness to listen to and connect with others, as demonstrated early on in his failed reunion with the fragile Bella, as it is of the machine-like soulless corporate nature of American society. A couple of scenes in the film in which his identity appears to be fragmenting and falling apart to reveal the robot beneath highlight the depth of his depression and the fragility of the identity that he has. The fact that Michael is not American-born might give a hint of his rootlessness which might lie at the bottom of his feelings of alienation; one would like to know something of his childhood and youth that led him to flee Britain and go to Los Angeles, that citadel of reinvention and manufactured identity.

For all his search for authenticity, as represented by Lisa, Michael’s reaction to it turns out to be depressingly selfish and banal: he tries to possess it and Lisa through sex and fantasises about leaving his wife and son and shacking up with Lisa. The breakfast scene is significant in that signs of incompatibility between Michael and Lisa appear as Michael starts picking on Lisa’s eating habits and Lisa’s voice increasingly changes to those of everyone else around Michael. The scene breaks off midway through and the audience does not see what happens next, which some viewers may consider a major weakness of the film, but it should not be hard to guess that Michael and Lisa start arguing and break up in almost the same way that he broke up with Bella all those years ago. Fortunately, for all her hang-ups about her appearance and her lack of confidence, Lisa is not as fragile as Bella and treasures the evening she spent with Michael. For his part, Michael returns to the existential hell that he in part has made for himself.

The film dwells very little on why US society has become so oppressively conformist although Kaufmann and Johnson do include one remarkable moment in which a confused and disoriented Michael, giving his address to the conference, goes off script and starts railing against the US government and its foreign policy, and declares that the world “is falling apart”, at which point his audience begins booing. This can only further alienate Michael from the people and country that he calls home, and this is as daring as Kaufmann and Johnson come in suggesting that the entire US nation is living in an alternative universe far removed from authenticity and reality. Michael later dutifully returns to his wife who has put on a home-warming celebration but to him everybody there is a robot looking exactly the same as all the other robots he knows.

The film’s narrative does appear incomplete at times and the action can appear forced. It is odd that Emily allows her sexually inexperienced friend to go off with a much older man and the brief affair is rather creepy. The breakfast and conference address sequences are woefully incomplete and we do not know whether Michael’s woozy performance of a speech (which he has probably delivered hundreds of times before) has ruined his career as a motivational speaker and writer. The film gives no sense of closure as the characters return to their everyday lives and routines, perhaps never to meet again. Given the themes though, the incomplete nature of the plot and underdeveloped ideas might be considered part and parcel of what the film aims to achieve: how to cope and survive in a society whose true horrific nature we have only a fragmented knowledge of, with not much in our arsenal save force of habit, our self-centredness, desire for immediate gratification, and the need to please and to conform as our weapons against evil.

Invocation of My Demon Brother: not an essential film to see for Kenneth Anger fans

Kenneth Anger, “Invocation of My Demon Brother” (1969)

If like me, you’ve already seen a considerable number of films by Kenneth Anger, this one won’t add much that’s new to your knowledge: Anger creates what’s basically an extended rock music video with scraps from another film “Lucifer Rising”, shots of bikers, a group of people smoking from a skull and a Satanic funeral ceremony for a cat. Filming techniques such as the layering of images (a constant Anger motif), film speed distortion, placing the camera at odd angles and juxtaposing shots drawn from different sources to suggest a narrative and create unusual connections are combined so as to extract maximum shock and horror, and disturb viewers with intimations of occult evil. Bold red shades are emphasised to invoke Western stereotypes about devil worship. A multi-lens filming approach so as to suggest an insect’s point of view adds an extra sinister impression.

Some viewers will obviously find this film very dark and frightening, especially in scenes where a Satanic high priest flourishes a flag with the swastika symbol: this could very well be Anger in a cheeky mood, knowing that (in 1969) Western audiences were sensitive to the horrors of Nazism and Nazi flirtation with pagan religion and the occult, and so he uses a Nazi symbol in the context of an occult ritual to shock people. The joke is that the ritual is in honour of a dead cat! – in this way, Anger plays with images and their sequencing, and the cultural associations they have for Western viewers, to create a spectacle that makes fun of people’s fears and the things they avoid without understanding why they do so.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is the soundtrack, composed on Moog synthesiser by famous Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger: it ain’t much to hear, to be honest, but it’s probably the most significant work of solo music he’s done in nearly 50 years.

The film is not essential viewing: you’re best directed to Anger’s other works “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome”, “Lucifer Rising” and “Scorpio Rising” if you want a psychedelic experimental film experience with occult themes.

The Man We Want to Hang: a subjective if not very experimental homage to Aleister Crowley

Kenneth Anger, “The Man We Want to Hang” (2002)

After over 20 years in which he made no films, the American cult underground film director Kenneth Anger released a visual homage to British occultist Aleister Crowley. The homage consists of a tour of drawings and paintings made by Crowley plus other artwork featuring Crowley, all of which were exhibited in The October Gallery in London in April 1998. Several if not most of these works came from British rock musician Jimmy Page’s private collection of art. In common with Anger’s other films, there is no spoken word soundtrack, only more or less continuous orchestral music by Anatol Liadov, and the film is short at just under 14 minutes.

Anger’s camera pans steadily over the paintings and for most of them he zooms in on a particular feature, such as a face, a group of figures, an erupting volcano or a scene within the painting that means something to him and which he wishes to share with the audience. The erupting volcano in one painting ties the whole film to earlier Anger works like “Fireworks” and calls attention to homoerotic themes that often flavour Anger’s films. Of course with the film being soundless, viewers might feel rather put upon having to view the paintings and drawings the way Anger does. There is not much scope for viewers wishing to see and interpret Crowley’s work for themselves. Crowley admittedly was untutored and his style of art is naif; he was rather better at landscape painting with lots of yellow shades than portraiture.

Seeing the paintings in close-up is intended to immerse the viewer in Crowley’s world, to see things the way he might have done (as interpreted by Anger). Though there are objects or figures in the paintings intended to reveal aspects of the Thelema religion that Crowley conceived and elaborated on, there are very few such things (like a group of devils) that appear sinister or malevolent to the adult viewers who see them.

It would have been good if Anger had given viewers some information about the paintings and why he chose to film some works and not others. What was the significance of the paintings for him, did they relate to something that occurred in his life, did they inspire him to do something special … these are questions some viewers may want to know. But it’s not Anger’s style to explain himself or the films he makes: whatever value the audience derives from his films depends very much on what viewers themselves bring to the film-watching experience. That the film is a very subjective one though comes across in one scene in which Crowley’s Law of Thelema, reduced to its first four words, suggests that Thelema is no more than a philosophy of self-interest and self-aggrandisement: the actual Law is “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the law, love under will” and is intended to encourage people to discover their true purpose and will in life, free of manipulation and oppression by external actors such as conventional organised religion, governments and institutions working to maintain conformist societies in thrall to unseen and opaque agendas.

As an experimental film in Anger’s oeuvre, this visual montage makes no major demands on viewers and is the quietest and most accessible of the works of his that I’ve seen. The layering of images associated with Anger is reduced to an absolute minimum. He really does love the colour yellow too.

Puce Moment: a nostalgia piece that foresees the arrival of pop music videos

Kenneth Anger, “Puce Moment” (1949)

In the space of just 6 minutes, this short acts as a homage to Kenneth Anger’s grandmother, a dressmaker and designer who owned the flapper-style gowns displayed in the film, and as a nostalgic and whimsical celebration of Hollywood’s silent-film period of the 1920s and the glamour and mystique associated with the major celebrities of the time. In that celebration is a sharp and witty criticism of how far Hollywood had slumped by the late 1940s. This criticism would continue in Anger’s documentation in book form in his “Hollywood Babylon” series that began in 1977. In its idolisation of the silent film era, using no other audio soundtrack other than music (originally music from an opera was used, to be replaced by two pop songs in the 1960s), “Puce Moment” becomes a precursor of the pop music video: music and visual montages are juxtaposed in such a way that the music seems to comment on what the audience sees. The film sequences are arranged so as to suggest a narrative that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

What would merely have been a film of a young woman (Yvonne Marquis) choosing and putting on an evening gown, reclining on a chaise longue that moves of its own volition and later taking four borzoi hounds for a walk acquires a decadent and opulent lushness under the gaze of Anger’s camera. The film focuses hungrily and wistfully on the beautiful dresses and closely follows the woman’s hand fondling various coloured ornaments and glasses, and selecting her jewels. An air of languor and luxury surrounds the lady and the various objects. There is something quite jaded and even ritualistic as if this activity is all the lady lives for.

Originally intended as part of a longer film, “Puce Moment” is at once a fond romantic idealisation of a past era of popular culture and a portent of what was to come in the second half of the 20th century.

Scorpio Rising: an amazing concoction of film collages, music and themes

Kenneth Anger, “Scorpio Rising” (1964)

One of the most amazing concoctions of film collages and music soundtracks, “Scorpio Rising” is perhaps Kenneth Anger’s most famous and influential film. It’s a showcase of Anger’s interest in outsider and gay sub-cultures, homoeroticism, and ritual behaviour and activity that result in transformation usually through the medium of sexual violence and death. The juxtaposition of various visual sequences in parallel can have read into it a connection between and among Roman Catholic belief, the attraction of cults (religious and political) and Anger’s ambivalent opinion about them, the role of ritual in sustaining such cults, and the place of violence and sacrifice in ritual practice that helps to sustain belief and restrain and keep people in their place.

On a basic level, the film follows a young biker, Scorpio, as he customises his bike and lavishes love and care upon it. He later dresses, slowly and carefully, in full biker gear before going to the bar where he and his friends usually hang out. They subject one of their own to a hazing that involves stripping and humiliating him and then possibly raping him. They then engage in a mock celebration of Mass culminating in one of the guys pissing into his helmet and offering it around to his flock. The fun climaxes in a furious bike race in which someone falls and breaks his neck. The police are soon at the scene to cart everyone off to jail.

In amongst all that activity, Anger includes footage from an old Cecil B de Mille film (“King of Kings”) of Jesus restoring sight to a blind man and later mounting a donkey to enter Jerusalem, from which city we know he’ll never leave alive. Photographs and propaganda material showing Adolf Hitler as a saviour figure and Nazi swastikas also appear. It’s as if Anger wants his audience to infer that religious fervour for Christianity and its major figures is no different from Nazi fanaticism and that religion, political cults and youth sub-cultures are as one in celebrating their distinctive rituals, fetishising objects of worship, incorporating violence and death with sexual undertones in their most important celebrations, and using that violence and the transformation of sacrificial victims as a focus for releasing social tension and unease in a world that pays lip service to freedom and individuality but fiercely suppresses both.

About 13 deliberately chosen pop and rock songs of the mid-1960s, all used without permission, make up the soundtrack in a way such that they heighten the audience’s sense that a ritual is underway, that a sacrifice is being prepared and death (and the transformation that it represents) will be the crowning result of both the ritual and the film. The audience plays an active part in interpreting the music and the visuals to draw out meaning that would not exist with the music and the film apart and in isolation from one another. We are very much participants in the ritual when we watch this film.

The beauty (if such a thing can be said) about Kenneth Anger’s films is that they are precise enough and vague enough that audiences can read a myriad of messages that all overlap. One can read nostalgia, a love of dressing, fun and teenage rebellion into the film; darker themes such as uncritical hero worship and the close relation of sexual violence, death and repression also appear.

 

Gods of the Plague: a character study on social hypocrisy, loneliness and the destruction of dreams

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, “Götter der Pest / Gods of the Plague” (1970)

Following on from “Love is Colder than Death” in R W Fassbinder’s trilogy of gangster films, “Gods of the Plague” follows the adventures of one Franz Walsch (Harry Baer instead of Fassbinder himself) after his release from prison.  He attempts to turn over a new leaf with his singer girlfriend Joanna (Hanna Schygulla) but mainstream society is hostile to him and gradually he falls back into his old mode of life. He drifts away from Joanna and takes up with two other women, one of whom is the girlfriend of his brother  who had been killed some time ago by a gangster Günther (Günther Kaufmann), also known as The Gorilla. Walsch meets The Gorilla and the two strike up a friendship and plan to rob a supermarket to get money and supplies for a trip to Greece with a lady friend. Joanna, feeling sore at being abandoned, finds friendship and romance with a police officer charged with tracking Walsch down. The police officer persuades Joanna to turn informant on Walsch and she in turn relies on a woman who sells pornographic magazines to supply her with information on Walsch’s movements. Eventually Carla tips off Joanna about the planned supermarket heist and Joanna passes the news onto the police officer who resolves to foil Walsch and The Gorilla’s plans …

The most salient feature of the film is its listless and lackadaisical style due in no small part to Baer’s portrayal of Walsch as uninterested in conforming to social expectations and having his own self-centred outlook on life. Society spurns him so he sees no reason to buckle down and accept his allocated space at the bottom of the social ladder; he lives to enjoy himself and whatever time he has on the planet. Through Baer and his interactions with others, and the general indifference shown him by the general public coupled with the police department’s interest in spying on him, the film expresses scorn for the hypocrisy and double-dealing nature of Western society that result in people being chewed up. Baer’s attitude to The Gorilla, initially hating him for killing his brother but later changing to affection and an acceptance that the brother’s death is just part of the business of gangsterdom, seems to have a homosexual frisson and this may be reflective of Fassbinder’s own bisexuality which led to his having an affair with Kaufmann.

Use of black-and-white film-stock together with a formal, minimalist look and experimentation with lighting endows the movie with a strong dark film noir flavour. Creative use of panning with the film camera gives the film a highly artistic and stark look and reiterates the film’s themes of boredom, alienation from the mainstream, loneliness, a sympathy and fascination with the underworld, and how relationships between and among characters can lead to their downfall and loss. Dreams of freedom and escape from a humdrum way of life are dashed forever. Money is an ever-present concern with several characters who resort to seedy or degrading occupations to make ends meet. Character development is privileged over story-telling and viewers see how Walsch develops as an essentially passive character who allows the river of life to take him where it will. The beautiful Schygulla is a welcome treat to watch – even if by now she has become stereotyped in playing duplicitous blonde floozies – and Fassbinder himself has a very small part as a customer interested in buying a pornographic magazine from Carla. Although the acting is not of the highest standard – everyone looks and acts doped out much of the time – it’s sufficient to portray character, motivation and hints of a personal nihilistic outlook on life.

As in “Love is Colder than Death”, there’s considerable wry humour and the music soundtrack is very important though if I have to hear the ditty about the passengers on Noah’s Ark that played during Walsch and The Gorilla’s sojourn in their new (shared) girlfriend’s apartment again, my brain will burst and splatter from the sheer cheesy kitschiness oozing out of its rhyming couplets. A three-way fight scene at a farm-house in which all combatants knock one another out cold is very comical.

Perhaps this isn’t one of Fassbinder’s better efforts but this is quite a dark film about desperate people living on the fringes of society who cope with life as best they can in the only ways they know how … because society callously treats them as little cogs in a machine, only of value when they serve but to be disposed of when they show signs of independence or of wanting more from life than work and money.

 

Love is Colder than Death: a study of nihilism and individuals’ relationships in a mercenary society

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, “Liebe ist kälter als der Tod / Love is Colder than Death” (1969)

Gangster films might be an unusual choice for film-makers to explore questions of the nature of an individual’s relationship to society, the place of freedom and free will, and how people are thwarted by others and by their own desires and weaknesses from achieving what they need, yet a surprising number of such films has been made. R W Fassbinder’s debut full-length explores issues of freedom, desire, the place of outsiders in modern bourgeois society and the conflicts that arise when these intersect. A crime syndicate attempts to recruit a small-time pimp, Franz Walsch (Fassbinder himself), into its ranks but he refuses and prefers to go his own way. The syndicate sends stylishly dressed mobster Bruno (Ulli Trommel) after Franz and Bruno decides to throw in his lot with Franz and his prostitute girlfriend Johanna (Hanna Schygulla). The three live together in Franz and Johanna’s apartment and carry out various robberies and murders.  The bonds among the three prove to be their breaking point: Johanna, jealous of Franz and Bruno’s growing closeness, informs the police of the men’s plan to rob a bank and her action leads to tragedy for Franz, Bruno and herself.

The plot and the look of the film are very minimal. Even the acting and the dialogue seem stripped right down. The entire world in which Franz, Bruno and Johanna live looks very artificial and formal: nothing, it appears, happens by accident and every action seems rather studied. The low budget allocated to the film is rather obvious:  the gangsters’ weapons look like painted plastic models, indoor sets are very spartan and black-and-white film stock is used. Settings are stark and highly expressionistic. The main characters are stylishly dressed, Bruno’s sartorial style in particular based upon that of gangster Jef in Jean-Pierre Melville’s film “Le Samouraï” which had been released a year previously before Fassbinder’s debut.  The deliberate decision to pare down the plot details to fragmentary and the dialogue to only the most essential to drive the plot on has the effect of highlighting the characters’ loneliness and the emptiness they feel in their lives to the extent that they care very little for mainstream society – and ultimately one another. They reject even the overtures of the criminal syndicate to form a business relationship with them. Long silences emphasise the underlying conflicts within the unusual love triangle. The film’s apparent amateurish quality as demonstrated by the way it is edited, the props used and the overall minimal style throw weight onto what is (or may be) unsaid, the characters’ feelings about one another and the pressures of modern life and social isolation bearing down on them.

Fassbinder pays homage to a great many influences: the French New Wave cinema of the 1960s is one influence as are also Hollywood gangster and film noir films, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and German Expressionism. Avant-garde film techniques are used: in one scene the camera slowly pans to the left, then back to the right, then left again, right again, back and forth as a minor character paces a room. Static shots are often emphasised and a two-dimensional painterly effect is often achieved. At times it seems that Fassbinder is in love with Bruno, or his clothes and fedora hat at any rate, as the camera sometimes freezes on Bruno and makes him appear as a sculpture and work of art. The music soundtrack is very distinct and out of the ordinary: wobbly vibrating violins in some parts of the film may draw viewers’ attention away from the slow action, and in a couple of scenes demented harpsichord-like music enhance the fantastical ambience and cynical mood of the film.

Characters express a nihilistic view of the universe in their ruthless behaviour towards one another and others, with devastating results for everyone. In the end, the main characters’ attempts to get what they want or need come to nothing and audiences are uncertain as to what will happen between Franz and Johanna after Bruno departs from their lives.

The film can be quite confusing to watch as the plot is so threadbare that viewers must work to pull all its pieces together. The important elements are the characters, their relationships, their attitudes to themselves and life generally. Through this film, Fassbinder expresses contempt for a society in which such characters with a cold, calculating approach to life can exist and thrive.

Dogville: failing to understand complexities and contradictions of American people, culture and history

Lars von Trier, “Dogville” (2003)

First in a series of films on American culture from Lars von Trier’s own rather idiosyncratic viewpoint, “Dogville” is a minimalist parable on how good people quickly turn nasty and commit acts of evil. Dogville is a tiny hamlet located in rural Colorado; the setting is some time during the Great Depression of the 1930s. A young woman, Grace (Nicole Kidman), is on the run from gangsters and comes to Dogville. The young town philosopher Tom (Paul Bettany) persuades the sceptical townsfolk to accept Grace as a refugee in a social experiment he is conducting on the town’s ability to be open and accepting of others. The Dogville denizens initially put Grace to a test lasting two weeks during which she assists with the town’s work. After that test, Grace is accepted by the town. In the months that follow, law enforcement officers arrive on two occasions to inform the Dogville residents that Grace is a fugitive who may be connected to crime. The townsfolk’s attitudes toward Grace change and they begin to abuse and exploit her in the most sordid and disgusting ways. She is chained up and forced to wear a heavy collar around her neck, the men use her as a prostitute, the women accuse her of sluttish behaviour and even the children of the town treat her like dirt. Finally Tom, who is supposedly in love with Grace, pulls out a business card given him by the gangsters earlier in the film to call them to come and take Grace away.

Unfortunately when the gangsters do come for Grace, the film’s punchline is revealed: rather than Tom using Grace as a tool in his social experiment, Grace was using Dogville as a laboratory and pawn in her own ongoing bizarre intellectual debate with her Mafia dad (James Caan) on the nature of evil in humans and the role that forgiveness – for Grace has been forgiving towards the townspeople in spite of their abusive and degrading behaviour – should play in how she deals with them. Daddy accuses Grace of being arrogant for constantly overlooking the townspeople’s motivations and reasons for abusing Grace and excusing their behaviour due to the peculiar circumstances in which she has come to the town; she is an outsider with an understandably shady past, police officers have warned the people about her and the town has been isolated for so long that hospitality towards outsiders does not come natually to them.

The film alludes to von Trier’s earlier film trilogy (“Breaking the Waves” / “The Idiots” / “Dancer in the Dark”) of the golden-hearted girl who gives of herself unceasingly and without question until she has nothing left to give and even then is willing to sacrifice her life to keep on giving; but mostly it’s an exposition of a pessimistic view of humanity and its potential for redemption. (Perhaps von Trier himself got fed up with his golden-hearted heroines’ unceasing passivity and goodness and decided it was time Grace took collective revenge on their behalf as well as her own.) The townsfolk come to dislike Grace because she is a mirror of what is lacking in their lives or what they try to suppress in their natures in order to live from day to day. Von Trier seems to suggest that ultimately humans do not deserve to survive because when they meet something good that does not come with strings, they ultimately trash it. Morality or what passes for morality and ethics in Dogville is shown to be very fragile, especially when the realisation dawns on Tom and the townsfolk that Grace has very few choices and the safest choice for her is to stay in Dogville forever. Thus the people turn her into a slave.

I admit I am uneasy about this film: by reducing the world to a small town and filming the story on a stage with props, von Trier ends up over-simplifying the view that people are basically quite shitty in their natures and will resort to abusive behaviour given the right circumstances. An inkling that all’s not quite right with the town comes early in the film in Tom’s own behaviour as a self-styled thinker and town philosopher who lives off his father’s fortune and the way in which he decides to use Grace in his experiment to expose the flaws in the town’s communal mentality. Of course, Tom himself is undone by his experiment: he is just as mean-spirited as the townsfolk and in fact is even more so as he betrays Grace to the gangsters seeking her. There is nothing in the film about the role that other institutions and historical factors , such as the former institution of slavery, the genocide of Native Americans by whites in Colorado and the exigencies of the Great Depression might possibly have on the townspeople, to say nothing of the effects of social and cultural isolation from other communities on the people. There also isn’t anything about the town’s economy mentioned and how it might contribute to the people’s treatment of Grace: it seems significant to me that during her stay in Dogville, Grace has to work for wages to pay for board and her acquisition of a set of figurines and that the work she does, as well as her status in town, influences what she is paid. As her social status decreases, her work becomes more onerous and dangerous, and her pay drops.

Ultimately the film’s message seems to be that no matter how much grace is bestowed upon humans, human nature is so dark it cannot really be redeemed and in such a situation humanity is better off destroyed so that the world can be cleansed and be born anew. This is a despairing conclusion and one that belittles the acting performance given by Kidman as Grace. Kidman displays understated elegance in playing a Christ-like character who suffers endlessly and who represents a New Testament view of God as loving and forgiving. Bettany is quite good as the would-be disciple and Caan plays a judgemental mafia version of God who challenges Grace’s continued desire to forgive by suggesting that this desire arises from her own arrogance. (Say that again?) Other fine actors like Lauren Bacall and Patricia Clarkson play fairly minor roles that could have been performed by others far less talented.

There is an underlying theme of the abuse of power by both the townsfolk and also by Grace and her godfather dad through the social and religious institutions these people have grown up with. Von Trier does not make much out of how individuals use religion, culture and social mores to gain and misuse power, nor how such institutions are moulded or lend themselves to people in ways that make the acquisition and abuse of power easy or difficult. The character of Tom is significant in this respect: he may have his real-life parallel in those sections of academia, science, industry, culture, religion, media and other intelligentsia who happily co-operate with their masters in government in oppressing the ordinary people but who just might find themselves thrown under a bus should the powers that be wish to dispense with their services.

I have the impression that von Trier in his own way was trying to grapple with the contradictions and paradoxes of an America that posits itself as a land of freedom, equality and democracy with the country where slavery lasted so long and racial prejudice has poisoned and corrupted many of its institutions, where money talks louder and more powerfully than abstract ideals and corrupts American people and their social, religious, political and economic institutions; and what he came up with is a comment on American society as he sees it from his narrow point of view without really exploring and understanding it much. It’s easy to sheet the blame home on a biologically deterministic view of human nature. As a result, despite the efforts of Kidman and company in giving life to the characters of “Dogville”, the film comes across as overly earnest, a bit shallow and very confused.

 

 

Branded to Kill: existentialist yakuza thriller parody of the corporate rat-race and its values

Seijun Suzuki, “Branded to Kill / Koroshi no Rakuin” (1967)

After his previous gangster flick “Tokyo Drifter”, director Suzuki fell afoul of his bosses at Studio Nikkatsu who were irked that this particular worker bee was refusing to obey their orders to churn out formulaic fluff. They punished him by forbidding him to work with colour film among other things. Hence, follow-up film “Branded to Kill” is in B&W film. Apart from this restriction, Suzuki gleefully snubbed his employers by parodying corporate loyalty, ambition and conformity in his film about a hit-man who is not content with being Olympic bronze-medal status in the hierarchy of assassins – no, only the gold medal (and probably breaking a world record) will do.

Professional assassin Hanada (Jo Shishido) and his wife Mami (Mariko Ogawa) land in Tokyo and meet a former hitman Kasuga who wants to rejoin the killing profession. The three decide to team up and go to a club where they receive orders to escort a client from yakuza boss Yabuhara. Yabuhara tells Hanada that he, Hanada, is the Number 3 hit-man in Japan and then reels off the names of other top hit-men; Number 1 hit-man however remains unknown. The men take off with the client and Yabuhara seduces Mami who is staying behind. On their trip, Hanada, Kasuga and the client are ambushed twice and though the incompetent Kasuga ends up dead, Hanada manages to finish off Numbers 2 and 4 on his hit-list. On the way back to Yabuhara and Mami, Hanada’s car breaks down and a mysterious woman, Misako (Anne Mari), who nurses a death-wish, gives him a lift.

Yabuhara hires Hanada for another job in which he must dispose of a customs officer, an oculist and a jewellery store owner. Hanada does away with the trio in fine style, the oculist most memorably when Hanada in a basement undoes the drain pipe leading to the oculist’s wash-basin and shoots the oculist dead through the pipe when the man leans over the basin to wash an artificial eye. After killing the jewellery store owner, Hanada ingeniously escapes by climbing through a window and flinging himself onto an advertising balloon that fortuitously happens to be passing by! Not long after, Misako appears at Hanada’s front door with a job: he is to kill a foreigner whom she will indicate to him. Hanada reluctantly accepts the job and, if a butterfly hadn’t landed on his gun sights, would have successfully executed the foreigner. An innocent bystander dies instead and Hanada, his reputation in ruins and fearing for his life, has to go on the run. Mami leaves him and burns down their apartment. Hanada, dazed after Mami has attempted to kill him, visits Misako in her apartment where he seduces her.

Hanada goes after his wife, kills her and then chases down Yabuhara who is discovered dead with a bullet hole in his forehead. Hanada goes to see Misako again at her apartment and discovers a film playing in which she is being tortured. He is given a message to go to a breakwater where he is forced to engage in a gun battle with various hit-men. He gets rid of them all and then the mystery Number 1 (Koji Nanbara) turns up and challenges him to a duel. The preparations for the duel are quite arduous as Number 1 subjects our man to divers trials and tribulations that take them both to a boxing ring in a darkened gymnasium in the early hours of the morning.

Now those dastardly bosses at Studio Nikkatsu thought they had thwarted Suzuki by denying him the use of colour but instead Suzuki turns the B&W format to his advantage by nicking German Expressionist ideas about shadow and creating mystery and sinister ambience with contrasts of light and dark. He also uses film negatives in a few scenes to express Hanada’s paranoia when he is trapped by Number 1 and animated cut-outs of birds, butterflies and abstract illustrations of rain showers when Hanada mentally torments himself over Misako. The camp noirish world Hanada and his associates inhabit has its own soundtrack of jazz and Sixties pop which heighten the surreal atmospheres and emphasise the eccentric characters. And boy, are they ever eccentric! – Hanada is sexually aroused by the smell of boiling rice, Misako decorates her apartment with butterflies pinned to the walls and ceilings, and Number 1 is 110% dedicated to the craft and Tao of The Professional Assassin. The plot travels in some rather peculiar and comic directions and many gunfight scenes stretch the boundaries of credibility as Hanada single-handedly dispatches several hit-men all at once even though they have all the advantages of being many against one.

The editing can be strange and choppy and the effect is to give the film a fragmented narrative in which everything happens as an episode in the life of your everyday average Number 3 hit-man. At times the plot can be hard to follow; it seems deliberately to want to lose its viewers if only to see how they manage to grasp and pick up the gist of the plot. This further heightens the sense of being in a unique world where all the people worth knowing are gangsters or their molls and where the usual societal values are turned upside down on their heads and made fun of. Hanada determines that he will be the best hit-man in Japan and works as zealously as if he were a typical corporate sarariman in a huge Japanese conglomerate.

Shishido with his cheeks stuffed with cotton wads to give him a distinctive chipmunk look is very memorable as Hanada and his female co-stars give him a run for his money in the acting (or maybe over-acting) stakes. In line with the outrageous levels of violence, there are several explicit sexual scenes and a lot of female nudity. Japan’s famous censorship laws which permit almost every kind of sexual perversity but don’t allow exposure of female pubic hair are in force here.

For all Suzuki’s assertions to interviewers that his films were just for entertainment, there appear brief moments in the film where Hanada confronts what might be profound existential moments about why he exists and what is the purpose of his life. Choosing to strive for the Number 1 spot would be a worthy goal in any other occupation but as it is, the path is literally strewn with many obstacles and dead gun-men and viewers can sense a mile away that being Number 1 won’t be what it’s cracked up to be for Hanada. The climax in the boxing ring is beautifully done from an existentialist point of view, a perfect illustration of the futility of seeking the top dog spot and how ephemeral and empty is the joy of achieving it before eternal darkness descends.

The film is a joyous and wacky ride through Sixties pulp noir-crime cinema with a lot of energy and humour to spare. For making this film, Suzuki was fired by his bosses and blacklisted for a long time. He was reduced to making TV shows and did not direct another film until 1980.