Our Lady of the Sphere: experimental film’s welcome wears out quickly

Larry Jordan, “Our Lady of the Sphere” (1969)

An intriguing and colourful film, “Our Lady of the Sphere” is based on the Bardo Thodol, a Tibetan funerary book usually known in the West as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. This book describes the experiences a soul may have in the interval between death and rebirth. (Death and rebirth are represented by outer space scenes in which a figure passes into or out of a pock-marked moon.) The film short is a collage of scenes usually dominated by one colour that appears as a blanket shade over the scene or in various shades throughout the scene. Objects float or slide over figures and backgrounds in the various settings; the animation resembles old Monty Python cartoons made up by Terry Gilliam or album cover sleeves for old Amon Duul II recordings like “Tanz der Lemminge”. (Amon Duul II was a famous German space rock band of the early 1970s; I have the band’s first three albums.) In several scenes mysterious astronaut figures with Christmas baubles for helmeted heads appear and it seems that these figures are guides to the soul making its way through the shadow world towards its new life.

Viewers not familiar with the Bardo Thodol – and most won’t be as most Westerners are not believers in Tibetan Buddhism – will find the film’s novelty value wearing off very quickly: there’s no apparent plot to speak of, there’s no narrative structure to be discerned, so the film presents as just a series of pretty unrelated collages with lots of floaty objects or somersaulting gymnast figures. The music soundtrack is based on “Largo for Glass Harmonica in C minor” by Johann Abraham Peter Schulz, interrupted at intervals by an annoying buzzing doorbell noise which usually heralds a transformation. The central part of the soundtrack is taken up by a famous circus / carnival / sideshow musical motif which everyone knows but whose name remains obscure. Probably the most interesting part of the film short is a scene near the end in which two astronauts, representing the soul and its guide, pass through a rapid series of backgrounds which change quickly, their colours shifting as well and drenching the astronauts in different hues, and arrive at a staircase that may lead back into the material plane of existence.

Worth a look just to hear the circus music and watch the performing gymnasts but the film’s experimental nature is not much consolation for those expecting a message or theme.

Les Astronautes: droll and inventive animation collage film about an irrepressible scientist-hero

Walerian Borowczyk, Chris Marker, “Les Astronautes” (1959)

An entertaining little film short, “Les Astronautes” is a stop-motion animation collage of photographs copied, cut and pasted onto coloured or still-photograph backgrounds combined with some live action. An amateur scientist (Michel Boschet) builds his own space rocket in his garage and with his pet owl goes for a ride in the craft around his home city Paris, ogling at a scantily clad woman (Ligia Borowczyk) through a window and buzzing a big-shot businessman (Philippe Lifchitz) in his open sedan, before zooming into space and meeting a bigger space rocket which engages him in a dog-fight. The scientist saves a smaller red craft from the big space rocket but he is in for an unpleasant surprise when he tries to contact the pilot of the little ship.

At once rough and raw in appearance and apparent execution, yet witty and cutting in its plot, the film zings along with energy and creativity to spare. I’ll hazard that Borowczyk took care of the animation and Marker might have been responsible for the photography and the narrative technique used in which the particular sequencing of pictures alone suggests the story-line but does it really matter who did which? The whole film is inventive and brims with the film-makers’ eccentric creativity. The scientist grins foolishly at the young woman through a double periscope whose lens show his blinking eyes and his little rocket resembles a crude newspaper origami figure that flits about gaily over photographs of Paris and paintings of outer space and alien landscapes.

The whimiscal soundtrack is a major highlight and could stand on its own as a major piece of musique concrete: light little metalloid melodies jostle for attention with sparse spoken word monologues from the young woman and the pet owl, and various sound effects such as firing bullets where appropriate in the plot.

I wish the film had been longer and developed its story more, particularly near the end where the identity of the pilot of the red spaceship is never identified, nor is the reason for the red ship’s battle with the large space rocket explained. The film’s ending is dark and ambiguous, the owl turning out to be an avian psychopompos, and though the finale is as light-hearted and droll as the rest of the film, viewers can’t help but shed tears at all the other wannabe but ultimately failed scientist-heroes our man joins. This may say something about the irrepressible and curious nature of the human spirit, that despite its often vain attempts to go beyond dull conformist or even oppressive society, people will continue to strive to reach for the heavens – and some day, someone will succeed in breaking away.

 

Din of Celestial Birds: exploration of evolution and development of consciousness in short film

Edmund Elias Merhige, “Din of Celestial Birds” (2006)

Astonishing little film – it’s just 10 minutes long – about evolution and the development of consciousness, “Din of Celestial Birds” is the second episode of a trilogy of experimental films that began with “Begotten”; like the first film, “Din …” is black and white with a grainy look that helps make objects blurry or downright fuzzy. There is no dialogue so viewers who know nothing of this film are best advised to find some information about it (Wikipedia can help in this respect) to understand its plot. There is musical accompaniment so the whole piece can be viewed as an extended music film clip separate from the trilogy if viewers so desire.

I do wish Merhige had made it as a colour film; he could have kept the grainy aged quality and it would still look esoteric and underground. The film could have started off black-and-white and acquired colour progressively with red being added first, then yellow and other colours as Merhige wished. It might even have ended up looking like something Kenneth Anger made in his younger days and forgotten about. As it is, the constant riot of imagery coming at you from the middle of the screen, like the opening credits of 1970s-era Doctor Who episodes (only more bleached out and psychedelic) with the wailing electronic music, or certain spiralling screensavers that you can download from various websites, is wonderful though not very confronting. The images are controlled enough that a definite narrative is obvious: continents and oceans appear, life blooms in a suspiciously bilaterally symmetrical way that appears to replicate human female genitalia, and multi-cellular organisms in their spectacular variety and complexity colonise the planet. Time passes qucikly and finally the Son of Light (Stephen Charles Barry) is born and becomes conscious of his separate existence from Nature. Whether the Son of Light rejoices in his separate and individual consciousness or not is something viewers will have to decide for themselves.

The music is rather a let-down and doesn’t do the visuals justice: it’s highly rhythmic and is mostly dark ambient / near-industrial in style with a fair amount of reverb to give it a cavernous tone. Ghostly choir tones pass in and out and the ambience is quite dark and sinister. Towards the end the music becomes a near-angelic one-tone sound hymn. I would have preferred a sound sculpture piece with a bit of a sharp electronic edge from people like Maryanne Amacher or KTL (Stephen O’Malley and Peter Rehberg) in parts, or even something noisy and melodic from Masami Akita / Merzbow. A few instructions from Merhige to incorporate musical highs and lows and some emotion here and there and I’m sure a good electronics / drone / noise music act would have delivered an appropriate soundtrack.

Still “Din of Celestial Birds” is worthwhile watching at least until the third film in the trilogy is released. I hope some time in the future Merhige revisits the film and decides to make something more substantial out of it with a soundtrack that suits the theme and the visuals.

La Jetée: a brave experiment in film-making about the nature of time and memory as it depicts a tragic romance

Chris Marker, “La Jetée” aka “The Jetty’ (1962)

Unusual in its use of still black-and-white photography to tell its story of time travel, this short movie is a study of the nature of time, memory and notions of past, present and future and how these intersect. In the future, World War 3 has brought many cities, Paris among them, to irradiated ruin; beneath the surface that was once Paris, survivors have been gathered, mostly as prisoners, into concentration camps under authoritarian rule. In one such camp a group of scientists conduct experiments on inmates to send the prisoners’ psychic beings or conscious selves into the past or the future where they are “reborn” in adult form to get help or provisions that can be brought through the time vortex back to the present to help the camp survive. One nameless prisoner (Davos Hanich) willingly submits to the experiments despite the risk of death or madness as he happens to be haunted by a childhood memory of seeing a man shot dead on a jetty at Orly airport and a beautiful woman (Hélène Chatelain) witnessing the murder in horror. This man whom we’ll call D hopes to go back into his past to meet the woman – let’s call her H – and learn more about her and the murder victim and the possible connection between them.

After several sessions of time travel, D meets H and they become close friends. Astute viewers with experience of watching films about time travel will quickly figure out how the friendship fares and its link to the murder on the jetty. A subplot in which D travels into the future and brings back a power generator for the camp slots into the story. Sketchy hints that the camp leaders and scientists don’t trust D when he ventures into the past repeatedly to see H and suspect that he might try to escape the camp physically as well as psychically (he can manifest physically to H in the past and to other humans in the future). The deterministic loop the plot falls into calls forth questions about predestiny and how memory, dreams and imagination can influence one’s decisions and behaviour, and ultimately one’s fate. When D discovers his life is in danger, he receives an offer of escape into the future but rejects it.

The film is at its best in its early scenes when the narrator (Jean Légroni) recounts the destruction of Paris during WW3 over a series of photos of ruined buildings and neighbourhoods. As the plot narrows to D and his travels, the photos become repetitive and there is a risk of viewers becoming bored with the flat monotone narration, the repetition of images and the slow pace of the film once H is introduced into the plot. The photographs often flash across the screen too quickly while the plot slowly unfolds. There are background sounds but they appear as if by accident and are not used as an integral element of the plot. Major plot developments suddenly pile on one after the other in the film’s last five minutes and viewers may be left wondering why all of a sudden the camp leadership wants to get rid of D so much that it sends somebody after him.

The film might have worked better if Hanich had delivered the narrative from his point of view rather than use an unseen speaker: we would then learn more about the character D and why the memory of the murder means so much to him. We would discover how intense his love for H is and learn earlier of his fear of his pursuer. We would learn why he repeatedly and obsessively visits H to the extent that the camp leaders and scientists suspect him of using her as a means of permanent escape. We would learn how he uses his visits into the past to reconstruct it, to create a love and happiness that in reality perhaps never existed, and how he uses the love to gain freedom (and thus arouse the jealousy and suspicion of the camp leaders).

In a film relying solely on stills, atmosphere should surely play an important role in creating despair and a sense of hardship and oppression in the camp scenes and in building warmth, a sense of connection and happiness in H and D’s scenes together. Yet this viewer had little sense of the film having a definite ambience with mood changes as the plot scrolls along. Quick editing, repetition of images and a failure to use the background sounds and the soundtrack music as integrated elements in the story don’t help.

Viewers do get a sense of how the camp where D is a prisoner operates and how it uses and abuses its inmates like disposable units. Once D outlives his usefulness, the camp leaders decide to kill him. The future society that D visits appears to be a very conformist one in which individualism and freedom are non-existent. Yet how much free will does D exercise anyway, given that his traumatic memory drives him to do the things he does which endanger his life and seal his fate?

For all its flaws and the uneven and predictable Moebius-strip plot, “La Jetée” is a brave experiment in film-making that is very moving in the way it depicts a doomed romance with rich if repetitive imagery.

 

Palindromes: dark comedy fable of Western society’s exploitation of children and value of life

Todd Solondz, “Palindromes” (2004)

A dark comedic fairy tale about a girl trapped in a life that goes around in circles, “Palindromes” does have the air of something unfinished (as it should, I suppose) but features some very strong and delicate acting performances. Aviva is a young girl on the verge of puberty who desperately wants to have a baby: we don’t know why as she never gets the opportunity to properly express her reason but we suspect that a baby would give her the unconditional love that Aviva’s parents assure Aviva they give. She loses her virginity to a family friend’s son, Judah (Robert Agri), and becomes pregnant. Aviva’s mum Joyce (Ellen Barkin) hits the roof and, between tearful bouts of smother love and shrill histrionics, forces the unwilling girl into having an abortion at a clinic. Complications during the procedure render Aviva permanently sterile and after the operation, she runs away from home. She hitches a ride with a truck driver, Bob (Stephen Adly Guirgis), who abandons her at a motel. Aviva wanders around the countryside and finds shelter and comfort in a foster home for disabled children run by a Christian evangelist, Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk), and her husband (Walter Bobbie).

Aviva is accepted into the family and even joins the children’s pop-singing group but soon discovers Papa Sunshine has engaged the truck driver, Bob, to kill a doctor who performs abortions. Aviva, infatuated with Bob, leaves the family and accompanies him on his assignment. They drive into a suburban neighbourhood and pull up at the home of the doctor who performed Aviva’s operation. Bob accidentally shoots the doctor’s young daughter as well as the intended victim and he and Aviva flee to a motel. The police soon surround them and Bob, anguished about what he has done, commits police-assisted suicide. The cops return Aviva to her parents who celebrate her 13th birthday by throwing a family party. Some time after the party, Aviva again meets Judah, now named Otto, and the two have sex. Aviva, believing she is pregnant, is happy and at peace.

The choice of eight actors to play Aviva illustrates how the character of Aviva essentially stays the same despite the different opinions others may have about her, how Aviva might feel about herself as her body undergoes puberty, and how changes in her circumstances might affect her behaviour and responses to people and situations. Such differences are reflected in the height, age and general appearance of the actors who play Aviva. Viewers quickly pick her out even when she lies to Mama Sunshine and her brood, and says her name is Henrietta. The girl seems passive and easily influenced by others, and her vague, generic character (her name is Hebrew for “life” so she must be taken as a representative of humanity generally) won’t endear her to viewers, though near film’s end when she meets her cousin Mark (Matthew Faber), who tells her free will and the ability to change are fictions and everyone’s actions are predetermined by their environment and genetic history, she argues fairly passionately in a faint, deadened way that people should have hope and can change. The most notable of the several Aviva players is Sharon Wilkins who plays the Mama Sunshine Aviva: her performance embodies the previous performances and experiences of the younger Avivas and adds genuine feeling, a sense of having suffered trauma and an attitude towards her adoptive family that varies from wariness to cautious enthusiasm in the family’s get-togethers. Though Wilkins is much bigger and taller than her fellow foster siblings in the family pop group, she conveys the sense of being a young girl so effectively that she blends in successfully with the weeny warblers.

Ellen Barkin is superb if creepy as the self-centred Joyce who, with her husband (Richard Masur), showers Aviva with toys and material possessions but fails to give her the two things she most needs: love and some form of spiritual or moral guidance. As viewers can guess, the mother is most genuine emotionally when told of Aviva’s abortion going awry; through Aviva’s dim, semi-conscious gaze as it were, we see the woman rage then collapse against the doctor. Debra Monk is also effective as the mother substitute Mama Sunshine who offers what Aviva’s mother doesn’t; her beaming smile, clucky mother-hen style and occasional tears may however mask a steely authoritarian nature that exploits her charges’ disabilities and charm as tweeny Christian pop singers for profit. Of the several child actors in the film, Alexander Brickel makes the most impression as the chirpy foster child Peter Paul who doesn’t miss a beat in cheerfulness even when he takes Aviva to the garbage dumps to look for aborted foetuses.

The film lampoons both the mainstream secular suburban life with its spiritual and moral sterility, and its mirror in the Christian evangelist family which, though accepting of people’s physical imperfections and embracing the unwanted disabled children with warmth and love, is just as much a moral desert where money and differences of opinion are involved. The extreme family types don’t seem very outlandish due to Solondz’s direction under which everyone tends towards a deadpan, almost frozen-faced standard of dialogue delivery unless a situation calls for emotiveness. If the film takes a stand at all on any moral issue, it may be to suggest that, regardless of religious or socio-economic background, children can be vulnerable victims of extreme indoctrination and exploitation by parents, especially if the parents use the children as tools to fulfill their own needs for self-worth and validation. This can create situations where children become trapped in a hell not of their own making, for which they don’t have the knowledge and resources to escape, and end up as adults recreating that hell for their own children.

Ultimately as the film’s title and the most significant characters’ names suggest, people here end up zinging between two extremes in a situation or two sides of a problem or issue but never achieve a resolution or breakthrough. Though not a work that will appeal to most people, “Palindromes” is a brave if not very successful attempt to address difficult and controversial issues about the value of life, how it is abused and exploited by others for personal gain, and the effect that such exploitation might have on people’s lives and society generally. Solondz seems to have a pessimistic view of humanity’s potential to break out of structures and patterns that no longer have any value or meaning, and this vision makes the movie bleak and hopeless.