A Quiet Week in the House: becoming a voyeur to view, record and pass on news of desperate attempts to be free

Jan Svankmajer, “A Quiet Week in the House / Tichy tyden v dome” (1969)

A strange little film even by my standards of strangeness, this combines live action with stop-motion animation that also features cross-fades which give the film a rough and crude look that befits the plot and its setting. An unknown man on the run takes refuge in a deserted and decaying house in the Czech countryside. Each day for six days he drills a hole in the wall and peeks through it to observe the activity in the house. After observing the activity, he scribbles off that day on a wall diary. On cue over six days, objects come alive: nails unwrap themselves from candy wrappers and arrange themselves like erect steel phalluses; a slug-like tongue minces itself into long screws; a mechanical toy chicken frees itself from its leash only to be buried under falling piles of mud; a feathered chair attempts to fly to freedom but smashes itself onto the ground; a jacket sucks up water from a vase of flowers and ends up urinating on the ground; and a pair of dentures binds pigs’ feet with wire. All of these scenes suggest hope that is dashed by an unfortunate accident.

On the seventh day the man plugs up the holes he has drilled with dynamite, wires it to a remote control and a timer, takes his equipment outside the house and is about to run away when he remembers he has forgotten one last thing. While the clock is counting down, he rushes back inside the house …

The sepia-toned look of most of the film when the man is active gives it a fresh and rough-hewn appearance; only the animated parts have some colour. These sections are also completely quiet so as to give the suggestion that they might be projections of the man’s imagination as he peers voyeuristically through the holes. He is rewarded with rare treasure indeed: small everyday objects yearn for freedom and to determine their own identities but end up being thwarted by their ambitions and their nature or by something beyond their control. A psychosexual message is hinted at when the man plugs up the holes with phallic dynamite, intending to blow everything up.

As with most Svankmajer films, “A Quiet Week in the House” can be creepy and puzzling, and the animations and the man’s actions at the end of the film can be interpreted in very different ways. The man may be a spy and the secret activities in the house, not the house itself, may be the target of his bombing attack. We ought to feel lucky then that we have seen what goes on in the house and are able to remember and pass on the knowledge to others. Having been made a year after the Prague Spring, this little film could be about as politically subversive and biting in its comment on then-current events in Czechoslovakia as the authorities allowed.

 

The Fall of the House of Usher / The Pit, the Pendulum and Hope (dir. Jan Svankmajer): two film shorts of fear, terror and oppression

Jan Svankmajer, “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1981), “The Pit, the Pendulum and Hope” (1983)

Both these live action / stop-motion animation films by Jan Svankmajer are quite faithful adaptations of the famous Edgar Allan Poe short stories of psychological fear and terror. In both stories, told from a first-person viewpoint, the terror exists in the minds of the main characters who attribute to their tormentors greater malevolence than these might deserve. The use of black-and-white film in both shorts focusses viewer attention on shadows and the textures of objects and structures around the protagonists, and conveys an atmosphere of decay and retrogression that may be man-made. The live-action film emphasises close-ups of objects and fragments of large structures such as underground tunnels; fear or alienation seems to fill up the available space behind the screen like invisible swirling smoke.

In “The Fall …”, a narrator visits his friend Roderick Usher’s home and both entomb Usher’s comatose sister Madeleine in the Usher family vault in the basement of the mansion. No actors are seen: the action occurs entirely with any figures and stop-motion animation is used to move Madeleine’s coffin as though it were being pushed by invisible hands. Fantasy imagery of clay and soil moving and forming themselves into rows of frills and ridges, or of mound-like cakes is a major highlight of the film as is also the climax in which chairs fling themselves out of windows (a reference to the famous defenestrations that have occurred in Prague throughout its history since 1419 when the first known major one occurred) and sink into a muddy quicksand moat, and other furniture flee a disintegrating building as the coffin bursts open. The unseen narrator speaks throughout the film in a measured, sober voice but the fact that viewers never see him means that the voice sounds very alienated from the events of the film. Unfortunately the version of the film I saw lacked English-language subtitles but in spite of having no actors and all the furniture and soil having to move themselves about, the film carries a strong sense of physical and psychological isolation and the associated strange and deranged mentality that leads Usher to kill his sister but which also maintains the sister’s life and desire for revenge. There is something of an incestuous relationship implied for Roderick and Madeleine: the two may have had the hots for each other in the past, and if both are mad, that in itself might suggest their parents were also close relatives and had unwittingly passed on a defective gene or two.

“The Pit …” is more conventional in its story-telling approach: a silent, trapped prisoner is condemned to death by being cut in two by an overhanging pendulum suspended from a portrait of a leering God skull on the ceiing above; the pendulum sweeps ever lower to the prisoner, to cut him in two eventually. The man, noticing rats about, grabs meat from bowls with bound hands and smears them over his body’s bonds. The rats grab the food and take the pendulum’s sharp ends, the man is soon able to escape the ropes. Next, moving walls of metal demon puppets that thrust knives and belch fire through eye and mouth apertures menace the prisoner and force him to fall into a pit. He manages to escape and at this point the Poe story ends and another short story “A Torture of Hope” by Auguste Villiers de l’Isle Adam takes over: the man runs through labyrinths of tunnels, panting and panicking as he spies the prison wardens in their hooded cloaks walking from one tunnel to another. He finds a way out of prison but is met by an unpleasant surprise.

Those not familiar with Svankmajer’s way of telling a story might find “The Pit …” easier to follow though no less frightening and filled with dread; if anything, it is highly claustrophobic, panicky and paranoid. The fear is of a dread theocratic regime as suggested by the appearance of the sinister hooded monks who run the prison. The prisoner’s bid for freedom and the fate that awaits him suggest that no matter how far and how long you run, the system will always find you and imprison you again.

The suggestion that machinery and simple household objects, even small items like nails, and natural objects and phenomena like soil and stormy weather might have a life of their own is played for sinister and terrifying effect. There are messages about how people can be manipulated by others through suggestion and religious belief into torturing others or being forced to undergo torture. Svankmajer creates a unique world in which natural or man-made objects can be made supernatural and humans quickly become slaves of their technology and the systems that help produce this technology.

 

Xerox Missive 1977 / 2011: investigation of alternative, intersecting views of reality from historical archives

Ms&Mr, “Xerox Missive 1977 / 2011”, multi-channel video installation (2011)

Technically not a film but a multi-channel video art installation using old archived video recordings among other media on exhibition at the New South Wales Art Gallery (December 2011 – February 2012), this homage by the Australian art duo Ms&Mr (Richard and Stephanie nova Milne) to the American science fiction writer Phillip K Dick and his fifth wife Tessa uses old film footage of the couple as a launch-pad into investigating alternate narratives of history in which paranoia, spiritual faith and identity dominate. This work is an immersive experience: it has to be seen in a dark environment where the viewer is surrounded by four preferably very large screens onto which are projected four looped videotapes of the couple and Tessa’s jewellery. As the tapes run, an ambient looped soundtrack, also created by Ms&Mr, consisting of a rhythmic drone over which hovers a spaced-out noise ambience suggestive of giant hovering machines in a huge vacuum, cold and creepy, runs continuously and concurrently with sound recordings of Dick and Tessa making a speech or talking generally.

The films are really something to see, meshing old film footage of Dick dating as far back as 1977 when he attended a science fiction convention at Metz, France, and gave a speech about his belief that the fictional worlds he wrote of in his novels and short stories existed for real and that what we take to be real and true might actually be false, with film footage of Tessa taken by Ms&Mr in California in 2011. In one film, Tessa intrudes on the science fiction convention and sits down with Dick; in another, more remarkable film loop, the two circle each other and the camera circles them as well. Dick’s face appears to dissolve into fragmented mini-images of himself in a silhouette of his head; the camera continues to revolve around him and the images revolve and shift as well. The couple appear to float in a bright orange space like astronauts in a strange alien psychedelic universe. The voice soundtrack does not synchronise with Dick and Tessa’s moving lips or facial expressions and this lack of concurrency adds to the disorienting nature of the entire work.

The work cuts against time and memory; old archival film footage, shown in continuous repetition, loses its outdated feel and seems recent in spite of having not been tampered with at all apart from having to repeat; and seeing Dick and Tessa as a 50-something woman together looks the most natural thing in the world.

The experience of “Xerox Missive 1977 / 2011” itself is oppressive and sinister: the floating voices, the cold music and the huge screens around a dark room combine into a prison of colour, images and sound. Memories that should be warm and friendly take on a malevolent tone and even the film of still life (Tessa’s jewellery) looks otherworldly and creepy. The room, separate from the rest of the gallery by walls. might be a portal between the world of the living and the world of the dead, and the viewer confronts the real possibility that what s/he thinks is real isn’t real at all and that the world as imagined by Dick in his novels and short stories is the real world.

Arrietty: disheartening social conservatism and narrow prospects for a plucky heroine mar a charming film

Hiromasa Yonebayashi, “Arrietty / Karu-gurashi no Arrietti” (2010)

A charming offering from Studio Ghibli, based loosely on Mary Norton’s novel “The Borrowers”, this film is beautiful yet melancholy with themes of children on the verge of adolescence and a promise of love dashed, and a reconciliation between humans and nature, with all that that might promise, thwarted by ties of family and tradition. Sho is a young boy sent to live in the countryside with his grandmother to rest before major heart surgery, his parents having divorced long ago and with very little time for their son for reasons particular to them. During his stay he learns of a family secret: that the mansion his grandmother inherited from her parents has been host to a family or families of little people no bigger than the proverbial grasshopper’s knee. As it turns out, a tiny family does live below the house: Arrietty and her parents have made a comfortable home and eke out a living taking bits and pieces from the family mansion at night when everyone is asleep. However during her first night foray with her dad Pod, Arrietty is accidentally seen by Sho. Over the next several days, Arrietty and Sho form a friendship but inquisitive housekeeper Haru, spying on Sho, discovers the little people’s home and devises her own scheme to flush them out. Fearful of the human “beans” and their possible intentions towards them, Pod and Arrietty’s mother Homily make arrangements to leave their home and migrate to a new territory where they hope to meet others of their kind.

Let’s get the best and the worst bits out first: The film’s main joys are to be found in the detailed visual backgrounds of lush green nature and an ambient soundtrack of chirping crickets suggesting a late summer atmosphere in which days are hot, humid and often rainy. On the other hand, the musical soundtrack by Breton singer / harpist Cecile Corbel, whose style initially seems appropriate to the film’s whimsical subject and lightly serious scope, is instead loud, intrusive and saccharine. The animation hasn’t significantly advanced since the early days of “Nausicaa and the Valley of Winds” – Arrietty’s dress even flips up a bit to show off her pants – and a brief appearance is made by sinister rats, drawn to evoke the malevolence of the black monsters encountered in the likes of “Nausicaa …” and “Princess Mononoke”, which turn out to be the film’s red(-eyed) herring. Apart from these self-references, Studio Ghibli thankfully makes no other attempts to butcher motifs from previous works to insert into “Arrietty”.

That said, we can go on with the plot and narrative which skilfully combine beneficent and sinister aspects of both human and Borrower nature: both Sho and the housekeeper Haru are curious about the Borrowers and wish them no harm but whereas Sho desires to help them in their precarious existence on the margins of human activity, Haru wants to keep them as pets and curiosities, perhaps to show off to friends or to treat as a little circus. Sho’s grandmother exemplifies a different attitude: she has long had a doll’s house ready for the Borrowers to accept and we must accept her generosity at face value; but it is possible that she also views the Borrowers as a secret family curiosity, something to pass down to younger people as a weird heirloom. The Borrowers for their part shun contact with humans to the extent that when an opportunity for reconciliation and a better, more mutual understanding is offered to them, they reject it and force Arrietty to bow to family ties and the need to be with others of their kind.

Character development is weak and one-dimensional and the friendship between Arrietty and Sho appears not so deep that Arrietty will necessarily remember the boy. He may well remember her as giving him hope and courage for the future. Arrietty is a typical plucky Miyazaki heroine but the film doesn’t give her much to play on her strengths and parents Pod and Homily play family man and woman stereotypes: the patriarch as physically strong, stoic and whose decision is final, the mother as kitchen-bound, fearful and hysterical. Sho is a quiet, sensitive boy who meekly accepts what Fate dishes out to him and Arrietty, and the elderly, child-like Haru is played for slapstick laughs.

I can’t see much really to recommend “Arrietty” to a family audience: the social conservatism is disheartening and it seems Studio Ghibli has all but given up on hope for young people to question and change their society, be it human or Borrower, in a way that accepts other cultures and points of view as equal and valid as their own. The message seems to be that the Borrowers as a metaphor for First Nations are doomed to die out anyway due to the sheer size of human populations compared to the number of Borrowers left: what a despairing message to leave with young viewers. The future for Arrietty herself looks dismal: settlement in an unknown territory might sound good in the short term but there’s the possibility that her family will find it necessary to uproot itself again and any new friends the girl makes will have to be abandoned and forgotten like Sho. Rootlessness will always be this family’s lot. Marriage to Spiller, a Borrower befriended by Pod, beckons and Arrietty will be expected to settle down to Homily’s level. The treatment of adult women like Homily, Haru, the grandmother and Sho’s unseen mother, however much played for laughs, is cruel to them and to Arrietty’s prospects.

Guy Maddin quartet of short films: a unique style and vision at work

Guy Maddin, “Fancy, Fancy Being Rich” (2002), “My Dad is 100 Years Old” (2005), “Spanky: To the Pier and Back” (2008), “Send Her to the ‘Lectric Chair” (2009)

Canadian director Guy Maddin presents a very singular vision and style in his films. His short films are an excellent introduction to his work. From what I have seen so far, his short films at least are mostly silent and are presented in black-and-white; and they have the style of old films made in the late 1920s / early 1930s. Sometimes they may be set in near-recent historical or alternate historical periods. There is usually a definite narrative and the subject nearly always revolves around the subconscious and may be treated in a bizarre, surrealist way. His work has been likened to early Eraserhead-period David Lynch in its use of absurd imagery and juxtapositions, the implied sexual psychology and humour involved, but it could just as easily be compared to films made by Luis Buñuel and Jean Cocteau.

I’ve seen four film shorts so far and they’re at once similar yet different. “Fancy, Fancy Being Rich” is close to being a music video of sorts: a housemaid (Valdine Anderson), singing the eponymous song taken from Thomas Ade’s opera “Powder Her Face”, reminisces about all her drowned sailor lovers who are shown rising from the ocean waves as they roll onto a sandy beach, reuniting briefly with her and then returning to their ocean graves. Quick editing and a fast pace sweep viewers breathlessly along with the floridly sung song. The singing is not synchronised very well with the speedy images and the film doesn’t quite succeed on current music-video terms but as a self-contained story with its own themes about the power of the subconscious in enabling someone to cope with unfulfilled love and a mundane life otherwise lacking in hope, it’s very touching. There might be a deliberate metaphor in the images of the dead men rising from the waves as these roll up the beach in early scenes.

“Spanky: to the Pier and Back” is an affectionate piece that might be about Maddin’s home city of Winnipeg: a small pug dog takes a long, long walk around various landmarks and scenic spots in an unidentified city. The style of the film is fast and choppy and suggests a home-made video by its jerky quality. Most noteworthy is the music soundtrack by Matthew Patton which starts off slowly and builds up amid the sounds of breaking ocean waves.

“Send Her to the ‘Lectric Chair” features Isabella Rossellini as a Woman hypnotised from afar by a sinister elderly man and lured to his secret hide-out where ghost men materialise out of the air and strap her carefully into an electric chair full of dangly wires, leather straps and steampunk-styled gadgetry. One ghost guy proceeds to tap-dance on a sparkboard while a ghost lady tickles the ivories on an upright piano; other ghost gals in skimpy sequinned costumes start shimmying about the place. The Woman, obviously distressed, is forced to sweat out her torture while her boyfriend (Louis Negin) – we’ll call him the Man – races up the spiral staircase (how did he know where she was?) to rescue her. In the chaos that follows when the Man bursts into the room, the senile Svengali looks to have the last laugh on the unlucky couple. Again the action is fast and agitated with several overlapping images and lots of quick, choppy edits; and the music is stormy, brassy and screechy.

Rossellini pays tribute to her father Robert – or rather, his gravid belly from the looks of things – in “My Dad is 100 Years Old” by appearing as various famous producers and directors he knew (David Selznick, Federico Fellini, Alfred Hitchcock and an angelic Charlie Chaplin, complete with wings and sub-titles) and as her mother Ingrid Bergman, all engaging with the belly in a conversation about cinema as art and what the purpose of cinema is for. Should cinema reflect reality or should it just be about commercial entertainment? What should the film director’s role be in making films: is s/he merely a hack in service to commercial imperatives or can s/he, should s/he, must s/he encourage viewers to question the world as it is and broaden their horizons and awareness? “My Dad is 100 Years Old” looks at Roberto Rossellini as an eccentric who did most of his best work in bed (well, one of them is talking to him!) and who experimented with and stretched the boundaries, stylistically and technically, of what film-makers in his day could do.

The film itself is surreal and has at times a noir flavour, notable in the Hitchcock scenes where the portly one appears mostly as a silhouette in profile, standing in a distant balcony. Bergman appears on a screen larger than life in front of Isabella Rossellini, making the daughter appear very small. In contrast with the other films reviewed here, the pace is leisurely and most shots are maintained for more than a few seconds. Rossellini herself commands Maddin to bring the camera down low and close to her and her embrace of the giant belly in emulation of her father’s style and Maddin unhesitatingly obeys.

Rossellini’s tribute certainly is self-indulgent and in the hands of a lesser director would be laughably silly and kitsch; but in Guy Maddin’s sphere of control, the film is lovely to watch, comic and affectionate, and in itself is a homage to cinema history and its development. The surreal and the real blend easily, the ordinary becomes extraordinary and the extraordinary becomes ordinary.

These shorts may not be representative of Maddin’s corpus but viewers certainly get an idea of and a feel for his style and vision.

Orpheus: visually lovely meditation on triumph of love over death, the role of the artist and life in Vichy France

Jean Cocteau, “Orpheus / Orphée” (1950)

Intriguing re-telling of the famous ancient Greek legend set in post-WW2 Paris, this film combines surrealism, fantasy, situation comedy or soap opera depending on your point of view, mystery thriller and romance in its story of doomed passion, artistic inspiration, the cult of celebrity and inquiry into the nature of fascism. Orpheus (Jean Marais) is a famous poet whose mere appearance in a cafe filled with bored university students listening to the latest beatnik jazz causes a riot during which a young man Cegeste (Edouard Dermithe), a would-be challenger to Orpheus’s crown, is killed by two motorcyclists. A mysterious woman called the Princess (Maria Casarès) calls Orpheus as a witness and whisks the bemused poet off to her villa. He tries to follow her but she avoids him and he ends up being returned home by the Princess’s chauffeur Heurtebise (François Perier). Reunited with his wife Eurydice (Marie Déa), Orpheus tries to settle back into his quotidian life but becomes obsessed with death and with recording a mysterious radio code on a strange radio station in his car. In the meantime Heurtebise becomes infatuated with Eurydice but the missus, worried about her husband’s new obsession, tries to get help and is hit by two motorcyclists. She descends into Hades and the grieving Orpheus, led by Heurtebise, goes down there to get her back.

Everything pans out more or less according to the original legend but with an extra twist: the Princess is but one personification of Death and she has fallen in love with Orpheus to the extent of breaking some unknown rule of Hades. This transgression brings her before a panel of judges in the ruins of Hades in a blackly hilarious Kafkaesque scene that most likely satirises the bureaucracy of Vichy France. The judges allow Orpheus and Eurydice to return to the upper world but one condition of Eurydice’s return leads to the couple having to live more or less separate lives in a parody of what real-life couples often go through when they’ve been married for some time and realise they don’t get on well but not so much so that they feel like divorcing, so they live parallel lives under the one roof but barely look at or speak to each other. Needless to say, Orpheus breaks the taboo and not only does Eurydice shoot back to Hades but Orpheus too is shot (literally: Heurtebise produces the gun) there as well so that he and Death can fall into each other’s arms.

In “Orpheus”, the mundane becomes the extraordinary and fantastic as mirrors become portals to the underworld and humble dishwashing gloves enable people to literally plunge through the mirror and walk into a world of beautifully lit and shadowed ruins of buildings. The car radio relays Death’s messages to Orpheus in scenes that perhaps mock poetic inspiration and at the same time recall the methods that the French Resistance and Allied Forces used to disguise their radio communications during the war against Vichy France. Scenes often have a dream-like quality with the stand-out scene being the one in which Heurtebise leads Orpheus on his first trip to Hades: Heurtebise himself floats serenely through the underworld while Orpheus struggles to keep up and a boy selling glass keeps wandering and interrupting him – a beautiful and magical scene. The special effects which include backwards-running of film and the use of mercury for some mirror scenes may be very low-budget primitive by modern standards but are dazzling all the same. There seems to be a running theme about how film itself is a mirror on human psychology.

The acting varies from ordinary in Déa (to be fair to her, Eurydice wasn’t required to be much more than either simpering or dead) to extraordinary in Casarès and Perier: Casarès in particular is alluring and sinister yet turns out to be a deeply affecting character with whom we find ourselves falling in sympathy with as she sacrifices not only her happiness in love but also her freedom and that of Heurtebise in reuniting both Orpheus and Eurydice for the second time. The couple return to the upper world and domestic bliss (?) together while Death and Heurtebise, their respective loves unfulfilled, must face eternal and grim punishment.

The whole shebang could have been laughable and pretentious camp but in Cocteau’s hands the film becomes a visually lovely and dreamy meditation on self-sacrificing love and the role of the artist in the present-day world and how to navigate it as s/he becomes famous, shot through with a parallel narrative of what life must have been like in Nazi-ruled France with its sinister motorcycle police, the tribunals to flush out French Resistance fighters and the threat of torture and death to those who disobeyed bureaucracy and acted on their own initiative.

 

 

Ghostwatch: very funny hoax documentary that blurs reality and fiction, and raises issues about authenticity

Lesley Manning, “Ghostwatch” (1992)

Subject of a post on Adam Curtis’s BBC blog, this BBC hoax drama is quite a laugh to watch. Hard to believe that many adults were convinced this show was for real when it first broadcast in the UK in 1992; it’s understandable that children and teenagers would be taken in as the film looks fairly realistic overall and young people would not pick up the stagey quality of the production, evident in early small-crowd scenes around a house which have the look of something deliberately set up.

The show is in the form of a reality TV show of the same name as the hoax itself and features real-life TV presenters Michael Parkinson and Sarah Greene as respectively host of and reporter for the TV show. Greene leads a team of BBC reporters investigating suspect poltergeist activity at a London house – the investigation is shown live. Through the team’s investigations and interviews with the woman and her two daughters living in the house and with neighbours, viewers discover that the spirit menacing the family belongs to a disturbed man who himself is spooked by another spirit of a woman who once took in babies for wet-nursing and killed them.

The presentation and narrative are cleverly done in spite of the limited budget – the show includes a team of people receiving phone calls from viewers reporting sightings of the poltergeist in film clips of the children’s bedroom. Parkinson maintains a sceptical stand with regard to the paranormal occurrences while paranormal expert Dr Lin Pascoe (Gillian Bevan) plays the credulous paranormal researcher in the manner of The X-Files characters Dana Scully and Fox Mulder. Filming techniques using jerky hand-held cameras give the film an immediate newsreel feel. Current technology of the period including a thermographic camera and secret cameras, and motion and temperature sensors are emphasised throughout the film, making it look even morre realistic and impressive. (Which in itself says something about people’s faith in cutting-edge technology.) The sets look real if camp with Halloween slapstick decorations like a tarantula on one wall and ghost magnets on the kitchen cabinets. An American psychologist is consulted for his opinion on the ghost activity. At a critical point in the film, one of the children is exposed as generating some of the poltergeist activity which adds an interesting slant and a new tension to the film. The poltergeist decides to bring proceedings to a predictably hokey end by advancing all the way to the BBC studio where the reality TV show is being filmed and broadcast live.

The film touches on interesting issues such as puberty and neuroses affecting young teenage girls, children as innocent (or maybe not-so-innocent) channels for the supernatural, the struggle between belief and scepticism and the consequences of both, the effect of publicity and obsessive national attention on the girls who start playing up to the BBC cameras, and the deliberate blurring of reality and fantasy as the cheeky spirit finds a conduit through the BBC’s technology and travels to the very studio where Parkinson and the doctor are sitting; too late the good doctor realises that the entire show itself has been hijacked by the poltergeist who proceeds to trash the studio. This in itself brings up questions about the role of technology as a portal between the real world and the fantasy world which in earlier times was played by shamans, religious rituals or ouija boards played by Victorian-era party-goers high on mild ether: now folks can sit back passively and allow modern electronics gadgets to bring the spirit world to them. (The only problem is the gadgets and the spirits connive to hassle the owners in their own sweet time, not that of the humans!)

I thought the film lost its nerve by descending into conventional horror-film theatrics: lights blow out overhead in the “Ghostwatch” studio, a piece of filming equipment turns Dalek-feral and Parkinson doesn’t know what to do even after most of the cast has fled the studio. His dazed and mumbling presence which becomes pathetically infantile holds the final scenes together. On another level though I can see the conclusion is appropriate: believers in poltergeists and the worldview they represented are “raptured” into the spirit world (where they don’t find any comfort) – it’s interesting that Dr Pascoe is nowhere to be seen in the studio after the poltergeist whirlwind hits it – and sceptics like Parkinson are left on the material plane trying to make sense of the sudden chaos that’s hit them and just as quickly left them in a material void. The spirit invasion leaves believers in the rational teetering on the edge of insanity.

Acting was quite credible although the girls might have overplayed their parts (inevitable, since they would have had a lot of fun and encouragement from the BBC crew). Some scenes in the film look like tongue-in-cheek references to famous movies like The Exoricist (one girl lying catatonic on her bed with scratch marks over her body) and possibly Fatal Attraction (scene where Greene fishes out a drowned toy bunny from the kitchen sink). Parkinson and Bevan are credible as the voices of scepticism and incredulous belief generally and the growing tension between them and their attitudes and belief systems. Sarah Greene and Chris Charles as the on-site reporters hold up their end fairly well though Charles mugs a lot for the camera, perhaps because if he didn’t he’d be laughing the whole way through and that would have blown “Ghostwatch” for the fiction it is. The camera crew, reminiscent of the film-makers following the serial killer in the hilarious Belgian mockumentary “Man Bites Dog”, stoically follow Greene all the way to their (presumably grisly) demise. Hope the guys haven’t left behind any pregnant girlfriends called Marie-Paule to grieve over their loss.

Overall this BBC production is a gentle and funny satirical mockumentary on the modern narrative construct of the paranormal (haunted suburban house / children and prepubescent girls in particular as conduits for supernatural activity / the conflict between belief and non-belief) and perhaps this in itself gives the program considerable power, more than its makers had anticipated or the program itself deserves. The overwhelming response that “Ghostwatch” received, reminiscent of the panic that followed Orson Welles’s infamous 1938 radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds”, delivered as a series of news bulletins and itself a throwback to Ronald Knox’s BBC radio news hoax “Broadcasting from the Barricades” in 1926 which also generated panic, suggests as much. Seems that people and the BBC especially have short memories about causing mass hysteria by presenting programs that have the look, feel and structures of “genuine” news, and this in itself raises questions about how much people might rely on the format of news rather than the news itself to judge if a particular news report is authentic.

 

 

Howl’s Moving Castle: cut-and-paste job of previous Studio Ghibli films masks a conservative message for women and girls

Hayao Miyazaki, “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2005)

Up to and including “Spirited Away”, the animated films by Studio Ghibli are of a high standard both technically and in spirit. With “Howl’s Moving Castle”, the soulful quality of the earlier films that peaked with “Princess Mononoke” disappears and what we get is an empty shell of a story that exploits typical Studio Ghibli motifs and themes and the studio’s technical virtuosity. All the familiar devices of earlier films – a young female protagonist on the verge of adulthood, elderly women, a flawed hero with shamanic characteristics, heroes and villains manipulated by more powerful characters of uncertain quality, sophisticated flying technology in an alternative 19th-century steampunk world – are worked over in a fantasy aimed (cynically it seems to me) at a mainstream Western audience and the result looks very cheesy and manipulative with an ulterior message that superficially celebrates female bravery but channels it into socially restrictive roles.

The story’s heroine is a plain-jane working-class hat-maker called Sophie who accidentally meets a young wizard Howl and so arouses the jealousy of the Witch of the Waste who turns her into an old woman. Sophie runs away and meets a scarecrow called Turnip who takes her to Howl’s over-sized trailer-park home. Here she meets a fire demon called Calcifer and Howl’s child assistant Markl. Sophie insinuates herself into Calcifer, Markl and Howl’s lives by claiming to be a cleaning-woman and through her association with the unlikely trio, is drawn into a war between Howl’s country and an enemy realm missing its Crown Prince; during the film’s course the war also moves into Sophie’s country. Howl is forced to participate in this war at the cost of eventually losing his humanity through repeated transformations into a bird creature. Sophie comes to realise that Howl and the Witch of the Waste are pawns of more powerful forces, represented in part by Madame Suliman, the former mentor of Howl, and Sophie’s work for the rest of the film is cut out trying to locate Howl’s missing heart, the mysterious connection between Howl and Calcifer, ending the war and locating the missing Crown Prince.

Working out all the different strands of the film and connecting them together might take viewers 2 – 3 viewings which would expose them to an excess of saccharine musical schmaltz and a deadly “love conquers all” radiation cloud in the tradition of Beauty-and-the-Beast stories. I think if I had to sit through this film again, my hair and teeth will start falling out, my skin will break out into ulcers and bruises will mysteriously appear and spread. Characters are poorly developed and the love Sophie feels for the feckless Howl is so unbelievable as to be laughable; she would have been better off taking her chances with Turnip who performs a noble act of voluntary self-sacrifice in comparison with Howl who fights because he is compelled to, not out of free will.

The war merely forms a backdrop to the events and all the various characters can do is try to stop it without understanding anything about the lead-up to it and why Suliman forces Howl to do her dirty work; or participate in it. Even the animation of the war and its participants looks like a cut-and-paste job of previous Miyazaki / Studio Ghibli films like “Nausicaa of the Valley of Winds”, “Porcorosso”, “Laputa: Castle in the Sky” and “Princess Mononoke”: several flying machines look like those giant bug monsters of “Nausicaa …” with wing-flaps added as an afterthought. Backgrounds are visually gorgeous at first but turn out to be generic according to the role they have to play so, for example, town scenes have a dreamy alternative-universe quality similar to scenes in “Kiki’s Delivery Service” which takes place in a similar alternative 1950s universe that might well follow on in the future from “Howl’s Moving Castle”.

The film is too long and its story is too intricate to work as a family film, the characters are shallow and implausible, the animation is cynically overwhelming and unoriginal. Worst of all is the film’s message about what happens to girls eventually: they get to play brave heroines for a brief while and once they are adults, they can be either beautiful scheming bitches like Suliman or domestic-goddess workaholics like the geriatric Sophie slaving away for love. Issues like the nature of war – Miyazaki made the movie partly in protest at the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 – are sidelined so much that all the eye-blinking in the world couldn’t make them more missed. No way in the world would I recommend this film for families with young daughters. I feel so cheated having seen it.

 

Melancholia: meditation on depression and cosmic indifference to humanity waylaid by emphasis on shallow characters

Lars von Trier, “Melancholia” (2011)

Fed up with the deadbeat rate of intellectual and cultural evolution that the human species was demonstrating on planet Earth, the evil reptiloid aliens in the star system located deep in the constellation of Scorpius petitioned with one million collected signatures the relevant Imperial Herpetilian Department of Interstellar Interventions to wack one of their home galaxy planets onto a collision course with Earth and remove the bugger so a new little planet could be placed in our solar system and the whole story of life could start all over again without any mistakes like intelligent life forming by accident. OK this isn’t mentioned anywhere in Lars von Trier’s meditation on depression, “Melancholia”, his beautifully realised contribution to the sci-fi apocalyptic fantasy / black comedy / Romantic arthouse movie genre. The film continues ideas from “Antichrist” concerning the nature of the universe and humankind’s insignificance within an indifferent and even hostile cosmos: all the knowledge, science and religious faith we can muster won’t help us solve our own problems and certainly won’t help us survive a collision with a stray extra-solar planet. The only thing we can do is face the certainty of annihilation with the serene and passive calmness born of depression and lack of hope: a pretty despairing message, yes, but one that’s perhaps more reasonable than trusting in a non-existent God or belief systems that so far haven’t delivered on their promises of benefitting humans across the Earth.

I saw this film at the Dendy cinema in Newtown where I was unpleasantly treated to the trailer to “The Iron Lady”, a horror film starring Meryl Streep as the eponymous self-made Frankenstein monster. After this torture (the trailer reduced a male Sydney Morning Herald reader to uncontrolled weeping at the memory of living through the 1980s in the UK), anything will come as welcome relief and “Melancholia” does not disappoint. Eight minutes of silent slow-motion visual beauty in which the film’s main characters and motifs appear in haunted nature tableaux to the music of Richard Wagner’s prelude to  the opera “Tristan und Isolde” form the extended introduction. (The music repeats throughout the film to overwrought drama-queen effect.) Allowing for possible inaccuracies and bad science in the collision scene creation – after all, no-one’s ever witnessed anything the same or similar and lived to tell the tale – I find this perhaps the most gorgeous and poetic summation of the film’s concerns.

What follows after is pretty much a footnote character study of two sisters and how they cope with life generally and the knowledge that everything that’s hit them before which they survived won’t help in a Final Judgement. The first half of “Melancholia”, labelled “Justine”, follows bride Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and new hubby Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) as they arrive a little too fashionably late for their reception thrown by Justine’s sister Clare (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her rich husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). The reception lasts most of the day and well into the night but it’s not a happy one: Justine’s estranged Mum and Dad  (Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt) disgrace themselves; Justine’s boss (Stellan Skarsgård) trails her for advertising copy; and John whines constantly about how much money the reception is costing him and Justine had better be happy and grateful for the generosity. Justine becomes depressed: her parents fail to show any sympathy but remain self-obsessed, her boss attempts to manipulate her and corporate invertebrate Michael shows no indication of being able to understand Justine and her problem family. By the end of the evening and the dawn of a new day, Justine has told off her boss for the prick he is and her parents and new husband have abandoned her.

In the second half, titled “Clare”, the film targets Clare and John in their reaction to the news of the looming collision between Earth and Melancholia. Justine has descended into full-blown depression. Although John attempts to protect Clare and their son (Cameron Spurr) from the dreadful news about Melancholia, he ends up giving in to despair. Justine accepts the news of Earth’s demise with calm and serenity and Clare bounces from helplessness to headless-chook panic and action to fruitless religious “ritual”.

Apart from Justine herself, delivered by Dunst in a sterling performance in which her blank face masks a million-and-one emotions and thoughts, the acting tends to be cardboard cut-out cartoonish. Rampling redefines snarling bitterness and sarcasm, Hurt sleepwalks through his role as feckless womaniser and Sutherland’s character is a mere whingeing rich-boy incapable of having a decent civilised conversation with his wife or sister-in-law. Gainsbourg, looking gaunt and nervy, nails the panicky sister down pat. The cinematography, jumpy and amateurish in the style of a home videorecording, throws viewers’ attention onto the to-ings and fro-ings of the characters as they grapple with belief and faith in science and the reality of what’s happening in the sky. It might be said that the choice of filming style is unfortunate for the subject matter and is ultimately the film’s downfall: the camera really should have kept still most of the time and all the characters portrayed in a remote way as though in a diorama setting that shows off Clare and John’s palatial home and the surrounding forests and other greenery. Clare and John would then be seen as symbols of a helpless hysterical elite that has no more idea about how to deal with global crises than we plebeians do. As it is, we lose sight of what “Melancholia” is really telling us about human society and its self-centredness in a world and universe that demand our attention more than ever, and the film becomes a fussy study of shallow rich people. Depression becomes one character’s way of realising that humankind lives in fantasy la-la-land where having a dream job, a dream spouse and a dream family and home turn out to be unfulfilling and oppressive; depression becomes an escape and a form of freedom.

I did not find “Melancholia” at all depressing or pessimistic and there are actually frequent moments of deep black humour throughout the film. The look is beautiful and the themes are deep and worthy of attention; shame that the film is not tighter in its narrative and the camera style is completely wrong for the film’s subject and themes. The science could have been a lot better: where are the earthquakes, over-blowing volcanoes and tsunamis that should have been the result of the intense gravitational attractions, what happened to the atmosphere burning up as the planet Melancholia draws near, does Earth or the Moon get knocked out of its trajectory around the Sun, what about all the conservative politicians and the geologists and engineers in the pay of mining companies trying to convince all and sundry that Melancholia doesn’t exist or won’t endanger Earth even though the evidence is 99.9% against them? I suppose though, as John says in the film, we should allow for a margin of error.

 

 

 

 

L’Age d’Or: cheeky and hilarious attack on religious, social and political repression and corruption

Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, “L’Âge d’Or” (1930)

On the heels of “Un Chien Andalou”, a short film, comes this proper full-length surrealist feature by Buñuel and Dali in which they cheekily send up everything prim and proper in Spanish society. These days “L’Âge d’Or” gets plenty of laughs and is seen to be the comedy it is but over 80 years ago, it was definitely seen as subversive and dangerous and was banned not only in its native Spain but elsewhere. The film revolves around two lovers who try to get it on but circumstances, society, the Roman Catholic Church and ultimately their own inhibitions, drummed into them by their upbringing, prevent them from consummating their passion.

The gags are hilarious yet stinging at the same time: crippled soldiers hobbling on rifles for crutches rally to the war cause against the Majorcan enemy; an Imperial Roman delegation, dressed in modern clothes, pay their respects to four dead bishops (they died from total uselessness); and the male lover of the doomed pair hates dogs so much he’d rather kick them and send them flying long distances than pat them. The narrative divides into three unequal parts: the first part revolves around the soldiers on crutches; the second encompasses the delegation’s founding of modern Rome and saluting the bishops, and the male lover’s arrest by police whom he eventually outwits by handing them a map then hailing a taxi and kicking a blind man; the third part which is the major part takes place at a fancy high-society party. Strange things take place there: some peasants detour their ox-drawn cart through the dining-room and a maid flies from the kitchen and crashes onto the dining-room floor while a burst of flame rips out from where she’s just come. In scenes highlighting social hypocrisy, all too reminiscent of modern mass-media-directed selective attention-mongering, the guests studiously ignore her and the peasants but when a man in the gardens OUTSIDE the mansion shoots his young son for disobedience, the attendees hurry out onto the balconies to gawp at the scene. In the meantime, the lovers find each other at the party and sneak outside for a kiss, cuddle and maybe a quickie.

The male of the pair turns out to be a diplomat for the humanitarian International Goodwill Society; he shirks his duties in pursuit of the lovely lass and as a result several zillions of innocent children, women and elderly folk in distant parts die violently and his boss has to commit suicide out of shame. While the two men shout each other down the phone, the diplomat’s amour greedily sucks a statue’s toes and the camera hilariously shoots a glance at the statue’s face as if to check for a reaction! Later the diplomat discovers his love is unfaithful and in anger he storms into her bedroom and flings out through the window her pet objects: a priest, a giraffe doll and a giant Christmas fir on fire!

Religion, the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, authoritarian modes of bringing up children and the snootiness of high society all get a skewering here: these are themes that Buñuel would revisit throughout his career. The dinner party scene is a motif that repeats in other famous films like “The Exterminating Angel” and “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”. Dream sequences are important and make more impact against the conventional narrative than they do in “Un Chien Andalou”: in one early unforgettable scene the diplomat day-dreams about his lover, a toilet next to which something slithers up the toilet roll, and huge chunks of liquefied lumpy brown lava rolling and slurping against each other to the sounds of flushing toilets – lovely! Another important aspect of the movie is its use of overly melodramatic music especially during the party scenes in which the lovers scrap at each other without achieving much (the scenes are highly erotic even though no clothing is shed) and the passion and climax are provided by a garden concert: the climax turns out to be an anti-climax though as the conductor gets a headache!

The really blasphemous part of the film comes at the very end after a short retelling of the Marquis de Sade’s “120 Days of Sodom” (more famously represented in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s shocker “Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom”, reviewed elsewhere on this blog):  the figure of Christ is lampooned as a plaything of the depraved rich. This says something about religious hypocrisy among the wealthy and the corruption of religion itself, that its standard-bearers prostitute themselves before representatives of worldly power. There is no connection between this part of the film and what’s gone on for the past 55+ minutes but I say there’s no need to look for connection other than that this section expresses Buñuel’s low opinion of Catholic doctrine.

So many laugh-out-loud moments abound here that to absorb them all, you need to watch “L’Âge d’Or” (the title itself is highly satirical – who would associate a Golden Age with religious, social and political corruption?) at least twice; repeated viewings will also help you get a foothold onto what the narrative might be saying. There is no right way of viewing the film and seeing what its main issues are, so multiple interpretations of what’s really happening and what Buñuel might be saying are possible.

No wonder Alfred Hitchcock once named Buñuel as his favourite director: Buñuel dared to express his obsessions and hang-ups in direct ways that Hitchcock could only envy.