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.

 

 

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.