Un Chien Andalou: a special once-in-a-lifetime visual experience

Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, “Un Chien Andalou” (1929)

Famous surrealist film that never fails to shock and surprise despite having been made over 80 years, “Un Chien Andalou” is that special once-in-a-lifetime what-the-fuck-did-I-just-see?! picture that you must treat yourself to, to say that you have truly lived. No plot or narrative to speak of, this is a series of scenes mostly unrelated to one another except by a dream logic in which Freudian free association of dream images determines what happens next after each scene. No point in looking for hidden messages then: but there are messages a-plenty in the objects that appear throughout the film, many of which represent ideas and themes that were to recur in Buñuel’s films throughout his career.

The short memorably opens with a scene in which a man (Buñuel himself), mesmerised by the full moon, prepares a razor and cuts into the eyeball of a young woman (Simone Mareuil) who sits calmly on a chair. The film cuts abruptly in time and space to a man (Pierre Batcheff) dressed in nun’s clothing with a box around his waist riding a bicycle and coming to grief on the road; the young woman we met earlier sees him from her apartment window and rushes to help him. There then follows a series of scenes in which it’s not clear whether Batcheff is playing one man or two men or even two cloned representations of the same man with perhaps one of them being the real thing and the other something imagined by Mareuil’s character. Batcheff studies his hand from which ants crawl out of a hole, attempts to seduce Mareuil whom he imagines in various stages of undress and manages to haul out from nowhere in particular in the apartment two grand pianos with animal carcasses draped over them and two dazed padres (Jaime Miravitilles and Salvador Dali) attached to the lot with ropes.

The film jumps around in the temporal dimensions – we go back in time, forwards in time, whatever – and spatially as well: “narrative” flow moves from the apartment to meadows without an intervening transition from urban to suburban to rural landscapes; and Mareuil steps out from the apartment straight into a beach scene. Books turn into guns, moths carry grinning skulls on their backs and if someone’s mouth disappears, be careful not to apply too much lipstick to your own mouth or your smelly armpit hair ends up on the other person’s face.

There’s probably a vague over-riding theme about human relationships and the ritual of courtship and many visual ideas in the film were to recur in later Buñuel films: bashing priests and religion generally, fetishism, lust and desire, rebellion, to name some. Everything is played straight and matter-of-fact and this is an unexpected paradox for a film about dreams and free associations of ideas and visual images. The shock value may have disappeared but the film’s playful and cheeky manipulation of narrative, plot and montage still threaten a major rearrangement of one’s brain cells with every viewing.

 

Rabbit’s Moon: two very different films in mood and themes in spite of superficial similarities

Kenneth Anger, “Rabbit’s Moon” (started 1950: long version 1972, short version 1979)

Based on a Japanese myth about a rabbit on the moon, this film comes in two versions: a longer 15-minute version released in 1972 with a soundtrack of love songs laid over the action and a short 6-minute version with just one song “It Came in the Night” by a group called A Raincoat playing twice. The short edited version is quite cute with the bouncy song but I prefer the longer version as the songs seem more appropriate to the story-line and their mood aligns readily with the emotions of the main character Pierrot. The film is done in shades of almost neon blue and purple-blue in the long version and in a narrower range of blues in the short version.

The story is fairly basic: Pierrot (Andre Soubéyran) is enraptured by the full moon and tries to capture it. A friend, Harlequin (Claude Revenant), tries to dissuade him by dancing, juggling and somersaulting and then by bringing over a delectable fairy, Columbina (Nadine Valence), onto the scene to distract the clown. At this point the two versions diverge: in the long version, Harlequin claims Columbina for himself and Pierrot resumes his quest, only to be thwarted violently; in the second version, Pierrot is shocked to discover the object of his desire has been mutilated. Both versions are completely without sound save for the music soundrrack.

As with his other films, there is a lot of symbolism especially in the long version in which mediaeval illustrations of the moon and an eye are inserted into the film as though to convey an esoteric message.  The characters possibly represent archetypes that demonstrate some aspect or aspects of Aleister Crowley’s Thelema philosophy, possibly a lesson in the use of magic to achieve certain goals. The use of blue filters puts the film into dreamland territory which suits the actors’ miming and lifts it into the experimental film realm for adults to watch without feeling they are watching a film for children. Characters are borrowed from Italian Commedia dell’arte and conform to that genre’s stock roles of master (Harlequin), servant (Pierrot) and lover (Columbina). The drama that plays out is stagey but very beautiful to watch.

The short version is a light-hearted piece with rapid action and the looping soundtrack and might be considered a family-friendly copy; the long version is darker in tone and message with Pierrot undergoing a major soul-changing transformation. Elements of horror and possibly sadomasochistic homoeroticism can be found in both films, particularly in the longer film where Harlequin assumes a demonic appearance at times. That the same material is used for two very different films in spite of their superficial similarities demonstrates Anger’s skill as a story-teller and educator of sorts as well as his technical abilities in telling a story visually.

Fireworks: an ambivalent and powerful celebration of sexual attraction, submission and sadomasochism

Kenneth Anger, “Fireworks” (1947)

Quite a remarkable debut film this is from a 17-year-old Kenneth Anger which is a coming-of-age piece recreating a dream he had: the film explores homosexual attraction, submission and sadomasochistic violence. A young man (Anger himself) wakes up from a dream about being saved by a sailor in a large room of objects: among other thing, several photographs of a sailor carrying an unconscious man who could be Anger’s character himself, a hand with its middle finger amputated, a clay figurine. He dresses and goes out into the night; at a bar, he picks up a sailor who struts and poses for the enthralled youngster. The sailor beats up our man who then goes back outside but is accosted by a group of sailors who strip him, gang-rape him and thrash him with chains. The scenes of violence are extreme and painful to watch but are skilfully done so that the viewer imagines the worst being done to Anger’s character, but not actually see any torture or punishment.

The 14-minute film appears to be ambivalent about celebrating gay sexuality: Anger’s character experiences liberation but it looks extremely degrading and you wonder how much suffering he undergoes is necessary. Sure, scenes at the end of the film suggest the youngster is fulfilled – the photographs can be disposed of, the hand is mended and the visual narrative hints at an important rite of passage being completed – but all the same, you feel the young man will keep going back for more of the same punishment. Still, the depiction of raw sexual attraction, willing submission, violence and pain leading to transformation and fulfillment is very powerful, even beautiful at times, especially as it’s coming from a very young film-maker. There is humour both bawdy and witty, particularly in scenes featuring the pouring of milk over the young man (hint, hint) and some fireworks being set off from an unusual launch-pad!

The piece looks conventional enough and Anger hadn’t yet learned how to layer images one over the other and edit shots to enhance the narrative and bring the film to a climax. Instead the orchestral music score, sounding very typical melodramatic Hollywood of the period (1940s), is put to work creating the appropriate moods, ratcheting up tension, bringing suspense and celebrating the protagonist’s sexual awakening. Though there are a couple of scenes where the joins in the musical soundtrack are awkward, overall the marriage of music to plot and mood is well done. Close-ups at critical points in the film, taking place during the rape and torture scene, bring out the protagonist’s pain and the brutality of sailors beating him with chains as he suffers without protest. There’s a little bit of a religious element here: the young man is Christ-like in his willingness to suffer and the pouring of milk over his body could be construed as a resurrection.

Even at this early stage of his career, Anger was demonstrating a unique vision and a style of filming quite unlike what his film-director contemporaries were making. Sound is completely unnecessary: the protagonist is never named and so he might be considered representative of all young sexual novices who must undergo necessary ordeals to become fully adult and sexually aware.

Lucifer Rising: a heartfelt expression of Aleister Crowley’s Thelema philosophy

Kenneth Anger, “Lucifer Rising” (1981)

Begun some time in the 1960s but not fully completed until 1981, with the music soundtrack having to be revamped completely, Kenneth Anger’s “Lucifer Rising” is an eye-popping visual cornucopia of ancient Egyptian and Celtic Druidic mythological figures and ideas mixed with elements of the natural and the supernatural to detail a lesson about the cycle of birth, death and rebirth and the transformations that occur therein. The ultimate message is that all such myths and the forces of nature and beyond-nature are emanations of the power of Lucifer, in this film portrayed as an Angel of Light. The actual workings of the film’s plot, if such a thing exists, are a mystery to me, I who have very little knowledge of Aleister Crowley, that English occultist, astrologer and magician who founded the religious belief system known as Thelema. Even though for many years I was a Led Zeppelin fan and my favourite member of the band was Jimmy Page who was much impressed by Crowley’s life and works and even owned Crowley’s Boleskine House estate from the 1970s to 1991, Crowley’s philosophy largely passed me by; I frankly wasn’t interested in something that to me seemed a hodge-podge of bits and pieces of various unrelated religions bolted on and stuck together with nails and duct tape. Crowley was a rebel against many of the religious, moral and social restraints in early 20th century English society, a society still struggling under 19th century Victorian conservatism, and in some ways his life-style and the philosophy he practised and preached with its slogan “Do what Thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” are phenomena that can still resonate with people tired of contemporary social, political and economic hypocrisies in a new century.  It has to be said also that Aleister Crowley worked for intelligence agencies, in his case specifically British intelligence units MI5 and MI6 and British naval intelligence – meeting future spy thriller writer Ian Fleming along the way – and possibly had ties with secret elites in the British and US governments who may have an interest in spreading Thelema philosophy with its notion of an elite ruling over the masses through Western mainstream popular culture media such as the music and film industries.

There is a vague narrative starting with spectacular volcanic eruptions leading into scenes of a priest and priestess in pharaonic garb welcoming the dawn of a new day. A woman (Marianne Faithfull) is killed by a young man (Chris Jagger, brother of the more famous Mick) and while he purifies himself of his act, the woman is reborn with bluish skin in a forest. Images of nature at its most beautiful, savage or repellent are inserted into the story structure in which rituals are performed, UFOs start to appear and the way is prepared for the arrival of Lucifer on Earth. The style of filming matches the narrative: fairly relaxed at first with several static images, steady tracking or panning of the camera and slow edits. The camera pauses over postcard scenes of Stonehenge and Egyptian pyramids and sphinxes. Any layering of two or more images is done very sparingly and close-ups of nature scenes emphasise colour or texture. As the film progresses, the scenes get shorter and the editing speeds up in anticipation of the great event. Somehow the appearance of spaceships doesn’t seem all that incongruous in a film that whacks together Egyptian and Druidic myths and symbols regardless of whether the two belief systems have anything in common.

Faithfull and Jagger do fine as non-actors in a film that doesn’t demand much of them or of the other actors who appear. One of them is Bobby Beausoleil who also wrote the music for “Lucifer Rising” and an outstanding work this is, perhaps the best part of the film overall, when I consider that while composing the music he was in jail for his role in the murders of Sharon Tate and four other persons in 1968 by various people under the influence of Charles Manson. The music is a psychedelic orchestral opus with layers of organ, synthesised brass and electric guitars, the last of which become more obvious in the last half of the film; it’s a rich tapestry of shimmering sounds that suits the film’s subject matter. I have heard the original music soundtrack that Jimmy Page, who also briefly appears in the film, composed while I watched an early 20-minute version of “Lucifer Rising”: the music is a dull droning affair devoid of guitar so Anger was right to reject it.

The film might be loopy to most people but it does have an inner logic and power. It might not be totally serious and there are scenes of high camp but overall “Lucifer Rising” is heartfelt and passionate about the Thelemic philosophy it illustrates.

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.

Begotten: film explores Christian and pagan myths of fertility in cycle of birth, death and rebirth

Edmund Elias Merhige, “Begotten” (1989)

A remarkable student film that explores Christian and pre-Christian creation / fertility / life cycle myths, “Begotten” was inspired by a near-death experience director E Elias Merhige had after a car accident at the age of nineteen. For a 72-minute film, “Begotten” has a straightforward plot: a suffering god, alone in a derelict building, sacrifices himself and from his remains emerges an earth goddess who impregnates herself with his semen. She gives birth to a son and abandons him. He is soon found by ragged nomads: the son dispenses largesse to them and they gladly take it. They torture and burn him and leave him for dead. The mother returns for the son and starts taking him away but the nomads return and overpower them both.

With regard to plot, the film is very slow and often repetitive and viewers must decide for themselves what the motives of the nomads might be. Why would they want to kill something that helps them, does them no harm and even offers no resistance when they beat it? Logic and rationality would have no place here. It’s only at the very end of the film that everything that’s gone before starts to make sense. Death is required for the cycle of life to renew itself. This lesson must be learned again and again and so perhaps that’s why the film labours over the initial suicide scene, the birth of the son and a later scene of sexual violation. The film is deeply immersive and viewers who are prepared to take the mickey when it comes to plot and character development will find themselves transported to another realm altogether, especially if watching the film late at night.

The outstanding feature of “Begotten” is its cinematography and look of the film. For a moment early on I thought this might be similar to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film “Vampyr” in look (Dreyer used bleached film-stock to achieve a bright and unnatural psychedelic effect). Merhige’s treatment of the film to produce something that looks so aged as to resemble an archaeological artefact breathtakingly original: he photographed his work on 16-mm B&W reversal film and then rephotographed it frame by frame on B&W negatives through density filters (Phil Hall, “Begotten Not Forgotten” http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/3.12/streetcred.html?pg=14). The flickering twilight result has mysterious two-dimensional shadows and much shadow play, looks incredibly abstract in style and partakes of a strong sinister Expressionist poetry in its scenes of full-moon night-sky and needle-like birch trees.

In addition to the deliberately aged look of the film-stock, Merhige uses slow-motion tracking and movements in several scenes to bring out the weird, unearthly aspects of the plot and the cast of characters. In some scenes, images may be layered over one another and animation might have been used. Scenes tend to look very staged with characters not usually facing one another and repetition and slow movements suggest a ritualistic aspect to sections of the plot. A mix of scenes filmed from far away and close-up with some tracking and panning of the camera is usual: the close-ups can be very in-yer-face – that early scene in which the goddess impregnates herself will sure blow away a lot of male viewers!

Dialogue is non-existent which also enhances the Expressionist tone of “Begotten”; instead what we get is an eerie soundtrack, reminiscent of a black metal / ambient / musique concrete soundscape, of night crickets, a tinny guitar rumble, grunting, found sounds and other ambient noises relevant to the scenes against which they appear. The lack of dialogue helps to turn its main characters into symbols or stereotypes and makes the film representative of various creation myths that revolve around gods giving of or being forced to give up their material being for the benefit of humankind: I think of how Aztec gods had to sacrifice their blood to get the sun going across the sky, of Osiris being cut up by Set and being put back together again by his wife Isis, and of Lemminkainen’s mother having to drag her son’s dismembered body from a river and singing him back to life in the Finnish epic “Kalevala”. In Greek mythology, Gaia castrates Uranus to allow their children room on Earth; later, one of these children, Kronos, swallows his children to avoid being usurped by one of them but the youngest child, Zeus, escapes Kronos’s appetite and ends up overthrowing his father anyway. Zeus himself swallows his first wife Metis to thwart a prophecy about Metis’s first-born child overthrowing Zeus if it were a boy. Needless to say, the first-born turned out to be a girl.

Pain, suffering and death occurring over and over yet the life-force continually resurrecting and reasserting itself is a major theme: no matter how depressing “Begotten” gets, no matter how dreadful the violence or ghoulish and unthinking the ragged nomads are, there’s always hope of new life, a new beginning, at the end. Perhaps it’s this aspect of the film that gives it its unique flavour and force. Film lovers must see “Begotten” at least once for its intense vision, beauty and imagination.

 

 

Finding the Telepathic Cinema of Manchuria: an ingenious look at how a country’s history is made, remade and reinterpreted

David Blair, “Finding the Telepathic Cinema of Manchuria” (2010)

After finishing “WAX or the Discovery of Television among the Bees”, director David Blair set about picking up some of the themes of that film to work into a new project which was originally tentatively titled “Jews in Space” and which would trace the wanderings of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel to Japan. “Finding the Telepathic Cinema of Manchuria” forms a bridge between “WAX …” and “The Lost Tribes”, the latter of which also forms a major theme of the short. Half-documentary / half-drama, “Finding …” traces the journey of an unseen narrator from Austria and Berlin to Shinkyo aka Hsinking in the Japanese territory of Manchuria some time during the 1930s or early 1940s, to find a famous telepathic cinema. There the narrator finds that a lost movie “The Lost Tribes” was made there to be screened and experienced telepathically. In case viewers don’t quite get the point, the narrator goes into some detail about how the human brain will process the information received while its owner views and experiences the lost movie (should it ever be found) with its unique sights and sounds. The narrator is eventually informed by his gracious hosts that he has come to fulfill his destiny to create the finest and most important of the telepathic films – “The Lost Tribes” itself!

Mixing live action, computer-generated and traditional animation forms and archival footage, this is quite a convincing and witty film that calls into question accepted notions of what is historical truth and where fact ends and conjecture and rumour begin. Contrary to what people are usually taught at school, history is revealed as never fixed or static but instead is constantly re-evaluated and reconstructed by each succeeding generation of people. New questions are asked, new connections made or discovered and a new aspect of the history of and knowledge about a territory comes into being to embellish the current narrative of the subject.

The film is calm in tone and Blair’s voice is measured and detached without sounding soporific throughout. In most scenes small groups of silent frog people (created by frog people who in turn were created by movie-talkers) dance in individual or group formations in odd places around the screen. The pace travels at a steady-to-fast clip. Cleverly put together with sharp edits that jump from one piece of footage to a cartoon-style animation piece to visual computer-based graphics, the film looks completely authentic with many cartoons styled in ways popular in the ’30s – ’40s period. Some delicately beautiful layered juxtapositions of exotic Manchu writing over diagrams and illustrations catch the viewer’s eye. The music soundtrack is a whimsical mix of popular Chinese and Western tunes of the same period played on traditional Chinese stringed instruments. Another whimsical feature is the way the title credits are put together: capital letters fall slowly into their correct order as little frog people skip and cavort in circular group dances. Strange white tapeworm things rotate on the screen and the viewer meets two strange groups of triplets, the all-male Toyoshis and the all-female Amepures.

Not so ambitious or complicated as “WAX …”, this is a neat little breather that should keep keen viewers occupied long enough (but please, Mr Blair, not too long!) until “The Lost Tribes” is released.

(The film can be found at the Waxweb site http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/wax/.)

Medea (dir. Lars von Trier): human struggle against forces of Nature and God in a beautiful and emotional film

Lars von Trier, “Medea” (1988)

Originally made for TV and with a script based on that other famous Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s adaptation of Euripides’s play “Medea”, this Lars von Trier film is a beautiful and sombre piece where people struggle for existence in a harsh and unforgiving land. Here Nature is a sinister, unknowable force and those who, like the central figure Medea (Kristen Olesen), can command its control are regarded with awe, fear and hatred. In this version of the Greek legend, Jason (Udo Kier) is preparing to marry the princess Glauke to secure his future and that of his two small sons. The teenage Glauke is suspicious of Medea and fears Jason still loves her so the girl convinces her father King Creon to banish the older woman. The King allows Medea time to pack her things and leave Corinth with her children. Medea however has other plans which include destroying Creon and Glauke and denying Jason any chance of future happiness by refusing access to their children … alive.

The film is slow and highly absorbing with many outdoor scenes set in a flat, bleak landscape alive with rain, wind, sea water, sand and grass all alive, bleeding into one another and brimming with malevolent intent. There are at least two shots of lone figures walking in the distance over moving sand or grass: both are very surreal in look and atmosphere. Backgrounds may be bleached or coloured strangely and some scenes hark back to the 1920s – 1930s in their layering with more natural figures in the foreground against a pre-taped background in a homage to Dreyer who had planned to make the movie himself but never was able to work on it. Close-ups offer an intimate, immersive, almost voyeuristic tone to the movie. The film stock used reveals soft lines and a soft white outdoors light; a fairy-tale quality to the movie is the result. Colours are usually muted and limited to dark tones and brown and blue colours, and the style of the film is rustic in a way that suggests the action takes place in Iron Age Denmark, parallel with the Roman empire in time and space.

The acting from the two leads Olesen and Kier is superb: Olesen dominates much of the film with a highly expressive emotional range that covers grief, anguish, sullenness and desire for vengeance. Kier is almost as good as the cynical Jason who thinks he can score one over Medea, claim Glauke as his bride and keep the kids but ends up losing everything he treasures; in the film’s last ten minutes, completely dialogue-free, he madly dashes about in circles on his horse and then on foot in the blowy grasslands, finally stabbing blindly at the ground, his spirit broken while Medea prepares to sail away. The actors who play Creon (Henning Jensen) and Glauke (Ludmilla Glinska) are quite good in their limited roles.

In this famous story, the moment when Medea despatches her two sons is always chilling and needs care to act and film well; von Trier treats the scene with restraint and pathos. As with many other scenes there isn’t much dialogue and the pain on Medea’s face as the children die is too much to bear. It’s creepy to watch too as one of the children is a willing helper in both his and his brother’s deaths. The suffering and deaths of Glauke and Creon are cleverly foreshadowed by the behaviour of Jason’s horse which was scratched by the poisoned crown that Medea gives to Jason as Glauke’s bridal gift: the animal goes mad and races out of the palace to a beach where it convulses and dies.

Men are revealed as having no control over their destiny but are instead manipulated by women suspicious of one another and fearful that the other may steal her man. This might say something about the nature of the society in which Glauke and Medea live: a society where women surrender their lives completely to men and depend on them totally for their security and well-being. It’s a society where men call all the shots and women are helpless so they must resort to subterfuge to get their way. A man may plan well but all his plans will come to nought due to unseen deception and the Fates don’t care at all what happens to him.

Of all the films by Lars von Trier I have seen – I have seen five others (“Breaking the Waves”, “The Idiots”, “Dancer in the Dark”, “Dogville”, “Antichrist”) – “Medea” is the most emotionally moving, the most flowing without formal separation into chapters as with many of his films and the most visually beautiful and abstract. There is an authenticity here that his later work lacks and his treatment of women is more sympathetic and less ambiguous as well. “Medea” may well be the best film he has ever made.

Compared with Pier Aolo Pasolini’s version of “Medea”, the Danish film is smaller in scale and more intimate overall but nowhere near as complex and ambitious in concept.

 

Medea (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini): rich film of social analysis and the oppression of women

Pier Paolo Pasolini, “Medea” (1969)

This film will always be a personal favourite of mine for its exploration of a human society and the kind of woman it produces, who, transplanted to another society built on completely different values which rob her of most of her powers save that of love, must respond with a terrible and deadly vengeance when the man she loves disowns her. “Medea” is based on Euripides’s play of the famous Greek legend in which Jason, attempting to claim his rightful inheritance as King of Thessaly from his uncle Pelias, is sent away by the other man to the Kingdom of Colchis on the eastern shores of the Black Sea to retrieve the famous Golden Fleece. Accompanied by a group of heroes (the Argonauts), Jason arrives in Colchis and meets Medea in a temple: they both fall in love. Medea helps Jason to steal the fleece and take it back to King Pelias who rejects it. The couple are forced to live in exile for ten years in Corinth where Jason, concerned for their sons’ future, decides to marry Glauke, the daughter of the King of Corinth, and repudiate Medea. Medea, furious at Jason’s betrayal, destroys his future happiness and leaves him a lonely and disconsolate man with nothing.

Everything about this film I find original and stupendous: it often has the look of an anthropological documentary and the most significant scenes are ones not in the original story. The centaur Chiron (Laurent Terzieff), who embodies both the rational, intellectual side of humanity and its savage, irrational animal side, tells Jason of his royal inheritance and predicts that he will travel overseas in search of the Golden Fleece. Here Pasolini tells us that thinking a thought and making it concrete in speech or (later) visualising it is a necessary first step in carrying it out: the concept precedes reality. An early highlight of “Medea” is a fertility ritual in which a young man is sacrificed while the royal family of Colchis including Medea (Maria Callas) undergo ritual humiliation from the common people. The sacrifice’s flesh and blood are used to bless and nurture the crops and the soil in the fields. Medea is revealed as the child of a society based on animism, ritual and attachment to symbolism, a society in which life serves the gods and every action demands a reaction and has consequences. People’s thoughts are governed by emotion, custom and impulse; identifying closely with nature and perceiving no boundaries between themselves and natural phenomena, folks may not always understand why they act the way they do – they see a sign from the gods and simply have to obey. The Golden Fleece possesses meaning and power for the citizens of Colchis. Jason (Giuseppe Gentile), coming from a society of reason, logic and intellect which perhaps is disconnected from its irrational, emotional side (he never seems to understand why he fell in love with Medea), steals the fleece but realises that once he takes it away from Colchis, the fleece means nothing to him or to his uncle. In Colchis also, Medea is powerful as a sorceress and speaks to the sun, the land and water; in Greece however, she loses her powers and is reduced to the role of a traditional housewife. The second significant scene is one in which Medea, dreaming, communes with the sun which energises her to plan her revenge against Jason: she leads her servants in a ritual in which her nurse, interrogating her, helps to rouse the necessary psychic energy she needs to carry out her plan to the full, subvert the social structure that took away her sorcery skills and reclaim her full feminine powers.

Symbolism is very powerful in this film: Medea’s clothes and her costume changes signify the various changes in roles she undergoes and indicate changes and developments in the film’s plot. The two deaths of Glauke are no mistake: the first death, in which she burns, is the visualisation of the spell Medea casts over the wedding gift for her; the second death in which Glauke leaps off a wall is the actual death. Glauke (Margareth Clementi) says nothing but her face reveals all: on donning the wedding clothes, she becomes aware of another woman’s anguish at having given up everything including her royal inheritance for love, only to be spurned. Overcome with guilt and grief, the girl commits suicide.

The acting is very naturalistic and convincing, and the casting is unusual: Callas in her mid-40s at the tail-end of her opera singing career is a mesmerising beauty and there are many camera shots and close-ups of her sculpted face and beautiful eyes as she sits or stands. Her face and body language alone – she has few lines of dialogue – convey the full range of Medea’s emotions from romantic love, lust, submission, motherly love and tenderness, despair and distress at betrayal and loss, and full-blown rage. This is acting as it should be done. Gentile, much younger than Callas and with no previous acting performance I know of – he was actually a triple jumper who won a medal at the 1968 Olympic Games – is astonishingly credible and uninhibited as Jason: lover, warrior, loving father, yet cynical enough to desert Medea for political reasons. As with Callas, Gentile is given little dialogue yet he seems a man of much substance and complexity.

The music is important to the film: Pasolini didn’t care too much about which cultures he nicked his music from so we are treated to Persian orchestral or Moroccan music, Japanese shamisen soloing, droning Tibetan Buddhist monk singing (reminiscent of Hungarian singer Attila Csihar when he performs with US drone metal band SunnO))) and its offshoot projects Grave Temple Trio and Burial Chamber Trio) and possibly folk music influences from Bulgaria and other lands. In scenes depicting Medea’s Colchis heritage, the male throat-singing roars and droning bugles come to the fore and they create a rich, sensuous, rippling sound. It’s creepy and exhilarating at the same time, pulsing with raw life-force.

Most scenes are shot like dioramas and the rich and sometimes static look of the film invites comparison with Sergei Parajanov’s “The Color of Pomegranates”, Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” and some Kenneth Anger films I’ve seen. A golden sheen suffuses the film with many scenes apparently shot at sunset and twilight. The flavour is exotic with a fresh, raw feel that comes with the use of non-actors and much improvisation, and the desert settings (much of the film was made in Turkey) take viewers back to a time when civilisation had barely begun to spread across the eastern Mediterranean region.

The social analysis hidden in this film – Pasolini had socialist views and disliked materialism and globalisation – makes the left hemisphere of my brain reel excitedly while the right side is enthralled with the film’s layered beauties, the sights and sounds, and distinctive style. Pasolini must have known one day that I would watch the film for it seems perfectly made for someone like me; but that’s the way I believe great films should be done – they should be done for yourself and for maybe five other people on the entire planet who think the way you do and hold the values you hold.

 

The Awakening: tasty little film of death and how suddenly it comes

Ignacio Cerdà, Ethan Jacobson, Francisco Stohr, “The Awakening” (1991)

This 8-minute short is the first of three films forming a trilogy about death and how we are subject to elements beyond our control. In this short, these elements include time, objects and our own bodies. A student dozes off in class briefly and when he wakes, he finds the teacher and all his classmates frozen in time and space. He investigates and discovers the roll call has his name left off. He realises he is trapped in the classroom. Strange images of crucifixes and an eye atop a pyramid (this latter image appearing on a US dollar bill the student is observing when the film opens) and snatches of childhood memories flood his mind. His mind clears and he sees a commotion: someone is on the floor, apparently dying, and people are trying desperately to revive him. The student leans over and recognises the victim.

The whole film is very dream-like and surreal especially with the image of the eye and the pyramid suddenly appearing in full and precise detail on the blackboard and the student aware that the frozen figures before him are looking at him and through him. There is no dialogue and the music alternates between overly melodramatic and glitchy-electronic, reminiscent of crickets making a constant clicking and buzzing noise, creating a creepy mysterious atmosphere throughout the film. The student, wandering warily around the still classroom, starts to panic and his face twists under the strange images invading his mind. His face expresses startled horror as he realises what has happened to him. All the terror and suspense that appear are expressed in the student’s body language which up to the climax was very effective indeed; at the climax, the full horror doesn’t appear to hit the student, at least not in his face anyway, and he retreats into a dazed, passive state that continues to the end.

Although the setting is very ordinary and banal, and the student is no-one special – the teacher, played by Cerdà, even hands him an assignment marked “F” – the whole short is very unsettling with a sinister mood. Excellent camerawork which immerses viewers into the plot by assuming the student’s point of view at several points during the short including the horrific climax and its brief denouement helps to infuse suspense in what is otherwise a predictable little story. Experienced horror fans are sure to see the film’s revelation a mile away once the student wakes up from his snooze.

The music does tend to overwhelm the film especially during its most dramatic parts and viewers are left to wonder at the significance of the image of the eye and the pyramid in the film. According to Wikipedia, this is a representation of the Eye of Providence and in Christian mediaeval lore symbolises the Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; in other ideological contexts and belief systems such as Freemasonry, it also symbolises the all-seeing God who observes our thoughts and actions. Is it possible that in communing with the dollar bill, the student actually does see God or something of God’s power? Does God give him a foretaste of what is to happen to him?

Quite a good little short, filled with mystery and deep symbolism, “The Awakening” is a small tasty appetiser into the world of Nacho Cerdà.