Les Jeux des Anges: blackly humorous indictment of concentration camps and police-state societies

Walerian Borowczyk, “Les Jeux des Anges” (1964)

So far the strangest film I have seen from Borowczyk, “Les Jeux …” at first doesn’t appear to have anything resembling a plot but on second viewing I realised the short is a minimalist satire of the concentration camp experience in WW2-era Poland and of Soviet-style collectivisation of agriculture in Poland’s post-war period. The first half of the film is a survey of a factory, its tools and machinery; the second half shows how human beings are processed by the machinery in the manner of a sausage-machine (I use the metaphor very euphemistically) into angels.

The original film’s colours emphasised red but in the version I saw on Youtube, the predominant colours were variations of dark blue and grey which made the film more sombre and depressing to look at but not so much so that I couldn’t appreciate Borowczyk’s blackly wicked humour which turns church-organ pipes into rifle butts and people’s heads into so many little metal balls to roll down little funnels while the camera’s focus switches from one funnel to the next and back in clockwork rhythms. A glamorous blow-up doll figure, possibly representing a warped mother / Virgin Mary figure, presides over the factory work.

A minimal approach is used to portray the factory and its interiors with an emphasis on repetition; there is no narration which forces the viewer to watch the film’s proceedings closely and judge for him/herself what the message is. Several shots are done “close-up” to various subjects and acquire a very abstract quality that Borowczyk uses to advance the film’s theme and “narrative”, and for comic, satirical effect as when he turns the pipes into weapons. The music soundtrack which features much church organ is droll, cheerful and unnerving; its association with the industrial processing of humans into angels speaks mountains about organised religion’s all-too-ready acquiescence to powerful political elites and its willingness to co-operate in the subjugation and oppression of populations.

The angels are sent out on the train tracks in a way that suggests their function is to collect more human materiel for angel-making and so the film concludes as it begins in a closed loop. A more devastating indictment of a police-state society and culture couldn’t be made in a film that blankly and silently presents its case in just under 10 minutes. Perhaps the true horror of such states is to be found in the film’s banal presentation of the factory and its inner workings: the matter-of-fact, almost casual yet relentless and repetitive mass-production processing of death.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hiroshima Mon Amour: simple story of two lovers hides complicated message about memory and the fragility of existence

Alain Resnais, “Hiroshima Mon Amour” (1959)

This famous film tells a very deceptively simple story: a French actress whom we’ll call She (Emmanuelle Riva) is in Hiroshima for a few days to film an anti-war movie and meets a Japanese architect, He (Eiji Okada) in a bar at night. They fall in love and begin a short affair. The story really starts with their conversation in bed after sex: She tells He what she knows about the atomic-bomb devastation of Hiroshima in August 1945 and that she identifies with the city’s loss and sorrow, and he denies what she says. Though they have their separate lives with marriage partners and families, the two are strongly attracted to each other and He follows She obsessively through the city. She reveals to him her early life: as a teenager during the German occupation of France, she had fallen in love with a German soldier (Bernard Fresson) in her home town Nevers. After the Allied victory, the soldier is shot dead and She is disgraced and banished by her family to a basement cellar for a long time. Eventually She leaves Nevers for Paris.

The film revolves around when, not if, She returns to Paris to her own life and He goes back to his; in the meantime, the couple fight against the forgetting of memory and past love. She wants to return to Nevers to remember the soldier-lover; He wants her to stay in Hiroshima. There’s no indication on his part though that he will leave his wife and it’s just as likely that once She returns to Paris and her husband, that she won’t return to Nevers. Eventually She will forget He and He will forget She, or at most they will remember each other as one of several lovers each will have in an effort to remember previous lovers. Indeed She identifies He with her German lover and addresses the Japanese man as if he were the soldier; he readily accepts the identification but doesn’t reciprocate with identifying her as a past love he might have had. There’s the other possibility that She is emotionally fragile enough because of past history that she will give in to He’s demand to stay in Hiroshima but if she does so, both their marriages and careers are likely to be destroyed.

The plot is a dialogue between two cities, one revelling in victory but unwilling to let go of the past, the other humbled in defeat but ready to move ahead and forge a new beginning. There are many contrasts demonstrated between Nevers and Hiroshima: Nevers is a quiet, provincial town of old stone buildings and cobbled streets, faded and worn; Hiroshima is lit up well into the small hours of the morning, neon signs and billboards blaring new material goods and pleasures to be had. She’s affair with the soldier possibly represents a rebellion against old forms and conventions; for this blasphemy She suffers banishment and is unable to talk about it until she meets He, who can empathise because the old forms of the Hiroshima he once knew are broken.

One-third of “Hiroshima Mon Amour” is taken up with a documentary-style montage of images of Hiroshima after its destruction in 1945 and the effects of radiation exposure on the vicitms, interspersed with images of the lovers in each other’s arms, overlaid by voice-over dialogue between She and He that isn’t necessarily connected with the parallel visual narratives. This section of the film is the most fascinating and innovative part. The film is highly self-referential: She is an actress making an anti-war movie (yet “Hiroshima Mon Amour” is hardly a movie about war and peace in their conventional meanings) and He is an architect who might have designed some of the buildings that will appear in her film. The rest of the film bounces between the present in Hiroshima and the past in Nevers smoothly as if the divide between the two temporal periods doesn’t exist and the events that happened in Nevers are happening at the same time as the lovers are meeting in Hiroshima. There are also references to other films in which lovers are torn between impossible demands: in one scene, She and He visit a night-club called Casablanca, a reference to the famous Humphrey Bogart / Ingrid Bergman film.

The two actors are to be commended for their portrayals of two characters, one emotionally scarred and vulnerable, the other apparently sensitive yet a bit creepy in his obsession with the foreign woman. The camera comes in close to their faces and focusses on their wide eyes, filled with fear, longing, desire and lust in turns. Riva in particular is convincing as She, torn between her desire for He and wanting to return to Nevers, unable to make up her mind between upholding the past and her memory of the German on the one hand and and on the other staying with He who would fade away like the German were she to leave Japan: a scene in which she returns to her apartment, opens the door, hesitates and then races up and down a staircase, returns to her apartment again … reflects her state of mind and also sums up her existential dilemma of being torn between the past and the present. Excellent cinematography work turns the town of Nevers and the city of Hiroshima into significant characters in their own right: scenes in Nevers are constantly contrasted with scenes in Hiroshima in a way that demonstrates Nevers as looking back to the past in spite of being victorious in war and Hiroshima as being brash and self-confident in striding to the future though it suffered defeat and tragedy on a tremendous scale.

The film shows itself to be more complicated than just a love story between two lost souls carrying lots of emotional baggage from towns that have suffered collective traumas of their own. The importance of memory, the present’s links to the past, the transitory nature of existence as demonstrated by Hiroshima’s unenviable history and the affair with the soldier, and the contrast between victors looking back and losers looking forward are demonstrated very well. There are subtle ironies in the film: during war-time, She was free with her soldier boyfriend but when peace comes, it spells death for the soldier and discrimination, imprisonment and ultimately exile for She. Hiroshima’s destruction provides a wealth of creative opportunities for He the architect. She and He’s paths cross at a particular point in time and although they seem to be together forever in the film, it actually covers the space of less than two days and when the film ends, the couple’s time together is already counting down to zero and they will (may?) depart forever.

At the same time, there’s something not quite real about She and He and the whole film itself is quite artificial and insubstantial in feel. The characters’ dialogue isn’t natural and Hiroshima and Nevers have a staged look about them. The film looks deliberately self-indulgent and pretentious, and it’s possible to interpret it as lacking in meaning. Nevertheless “Hiroshima Mon Amour” is a very moving film to watch, particularly in its first twenty minutes when the documentary montage sequence and the lovers’ conversation run in parallel.

The Bellies: delightful film about human greed and avarice, and how materialistic societies eat themselves

Philippe Grammaticopoulos, “The Bellies / Les Ventres” (2009)

Delightful short film inspired in part by Rene Laloux’s animated work, “The Bellies” features a simple story about human avarice and arrogance in controlling nature, and how eventually nature and unacknowledged guilt prevail over greed and materialism. An unnamed gentleman, gross and piggy-eyed, gorges on snails for lunch at a restaurant; his fellow diners, all much the same as he is, eat the same meal in a bizarre co-ordinated Mexican-wave mass action. After lunch he goes back to the company laboratory where visitors await him: he explains the process by which small snails are genetically engineered to grow into ginormous gastropods for human consumption and takes his admiring guests on a tour around the facility. After the tour ends and the gentlemen sign a deal, the self-satisfied owner walks around the facility grounds where giant empty snail shells abound. On a whim, he crawls inside one such shell to assure himself he’s not hearing strange ghostly noises …

The animated figures are CGI-created while the backgrounds look as though they’ve been done with pencil and paint. Special effects are computer-generated. The figures don’t appear at all realistic but they are meant to satirise self-satisfied bourgeois conformity. There’s no speech but sprightly and playful acoustic music accompanied by sound effects emphasise mood and create, sustain and build tension. The whole cartoon has a very clean, spare look in keeping with the sanitised and conformist future society portrayed.

The last third of the film is the most surreal and really fits in with a dream-like Laloux-inspired universe: our piggy-eyed company director is forced to suffer as his factory-farmed snails have suffered and must run for his life. The film makes a point about how pursuit of materialist pleasure ends up eating you, how ultimately a culture based on gluttony will cannibalise itself. The giant fork that pursues the man turns into a creepy spider predator with a life of its own.

It’s a little slow and drags out the story in parts, especially during the graveyard scene where the company director starts thinking he’s hearing distant voices … but overall “The Bellies” is an entertaining piece with a surprisingly deep message about a future, materialistic society and how it dooms itself into extinction.

The World According to Monsanto: hard-hitting documentary about the infamous agribusiness corporation

Marie-Monique Robin, “The World According to Monsanto  / Le Monde selon Monsanto” (2008)

At issue in this informative documentary directed by the investigative journalist Marie-Monique Robin is Monsanto’s astounding record of environmental and food safety thuggery across the world and its collusion with and manipulation of governments, scientists and scientific research, not to mention the extraordinary extra-legal (and plain illegal) tactics and practices used, to dominate global agriculture. Robin opts for a hard-hitting approach with voice-over narration, interviews with US government officials, scientists, farmers, lawyers, activists and people affected by Monsanto’s activities and occasional animation and diagrams to detail the long history of Monsanto’s destructive practices in the pursuit of profit and domination of agriculture and food supply. Robin herself makes frequent appearances in the film.

Various examples of products made and promoted by Monsanto provide the meat, potatoes and structure of the documentary. Robin speaks to various people about the effects of Monsanto products such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), Roundup herbicide, transgenic crops and recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH): the results can be horrific and include cancers affecting the prostate gland and women’s breasts and ovaries among other things. Robin goes into great detail investigating each and every case study of a Monsanto product and some of the information she uncovers is astounding: Monsanto-produced Agent Orange (a brand-name for dioxin) was used as a defoliant in Vietnam to flush out Viet Cong fighters. The methods the company uses to get its way and to deceive governments and the public verge on the criminal: one interviewee describes the lax procedures Monsanto researchers used to determine that Agent Orange was safe for people to use; another interviewee tells of how a whistle-blower at Monsanto who questioned the veracity of Agent Orange studies and the results achieved ended up being bullied and harassed by Monsanto management.

The promotion and spread of GMO or transgenic crops and how their increased use promises more profits to Monsanto through intellectual property law in US get special attention. False advertising and claims of working with farmers to ensure fair treatment when the contrary is true are par for the course; the only difficulty Monsanto seems to have is in how low the company can go scraping the bottom of the ethics barrel. US farmers growing conventional soy crops are visited by the so-called “gene” police from Monsanto who check that the farmers aren’t growing crops with Monsanto-invented genes in a way that intimidates and frightens the farmers. In addition Monsanto buys up seed companies so as to be able to control the gene pools of non-transgenic crops (and perhaps convert them to transgenic crops). In India where transgenic cotton is grown, government officials admit that farmers cannot NOT grow transgenic BT cotton due to seed dispersal; at the same time, farmers must buy transgenic seed from Monsanto at huge prices, forcing them to borrow money from money-lenders at exorbitant rates. Many farmers fall so deeply into debt that they commit suicide.

Ranging across so many Monsanto outrages against farmers and communities, Robin does miss a few issues: the destructive effect Monsanto’s products and GMO crops must have on soil quality, water and ecosystems, and ultimately on the water cycle itself with troubling consequences for the oceans that receive water contaminated with GMO herbicides or crop waste containing genetically modified bacteria; the possibility that GMO crops may permanently cripple people’s health and immune systems when eaten; and the reduced genetic diversity that GMO crops brings to food crops, making global food supplies vulnerable to even small climatic changes and potentially threatening food insecurity and food shortages across the world. One particular issue that’s probably beyond Robin to cover is Monsanto’s political clout with the US politicians themselves: though she documents the revolving door between Monsanto and the US Food and Drug Administration staff, she doesn’t address the possibility that Monsanto may be a significant lobbyist on Capitol Hill and contribute money to politicians during election periods. There’s some investigation into the potential transgenic crops may have for altering land ownership patterns that favour large landowners and agribusinesses at the expense of small farms and the rural-to-urban flight that may cause with consequences for the future of cities in many countries, already bursting at the seams with slums and the social problems that often accompany them, not to mention the loss of agricultural knowledge and practices and the destruction of rural communities.

Robin makes no claim to impartiality, piling on one Monsanto offence on top of another relentlessly, to the point where it all seems too unreal. Except of course, this is one very real nightmare that’s gone on far too long and which tragically many people like those Indian farmers who have taken their lives in despair have never been able to wake up from.

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.

 

 

Blood Coltan: fact-finding documentary on coltan mining in DRC tells the horror like it is

Patrick Forestier, “Blood Coltan” (2007)

Saw mention of this documentary in Arena magazine (December 2011 / January 2012 issue) so I was curious as to what it has to say about the coltan industry and trade in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As if I couldn’t already guess at what it might say: the insatiable global demand for coltan and other “rare earth” minerals for consumer electronics gadgets fuels an ongoing war which according to the film resulted in the deaths of 4 million people at the time of its making. There are other consequences of the war, some of which the film covers, even if superficially: the mass rapes, the recruitment of children as miners, the corruption in everyday life and the breakdown of traditional life and degradation of modern life in the eastern DRC where the coltan mining industry is based.

The film is structured around a fact-finding visit some French journalists make to the eastern DRC on behalf of an activist to track and describe the process of mining, transport and air-freighting of the mineral: the purpose of the exercise is to highlight the connection between the political instability of the DRC and consumer desire for electronics toys. Along the way the reporters meet a church priest dedicated to fighting the exploitation of his flock and community by outsiders; they also come across a ropey character in the form of General N Kunda who is both a military leader and a spiritual leader peddling a very dodgy form of Christianity to both Christians and Muslims. The film reveals that N Kunda is supported by Paul Kagame, the current Rwandan President at this time of writing. The documentary then follows the path unrefined coltan material takes to factories in China which are contracted to Western corporations to refine the coltan and insert the material into consumer electronics goodies.

The film may look very bare-bones and sometimes is barely there but the narration and visit (probably heavily edited to fit a narrative stereotype) provide a definite direction for the images. “Blood Coltan” ends up looking as if it was made for a TV current affairs show and that might have been the original intention. As hidden cameras had to be used to film several scenes, the documentary sometimes is quite jumpy and the visuals are very distracting. There is considerable detail in the descriptions of the coltan trade combined with some very good visual images and often colourful scenery.

Little background history as to why the eastern DRC and the whole country generally are so unstable and dangerous, and the role that Rwanda plays in the country’s ongoing disorder are absent. Viewers can easily get the impression that the DRC has always lurched from one crisis to another with no breaks in-between when in fact throughout its history since independence in 1961, certain deliberate choices were made, politicians were assassinated and Western governments and their intelligence agencies supported a ruler (Mobutu Sese Seko) who violated human rights, suppressed all opposition and generally was a poster-boy for corrupt dealings and hiding vast amounts of money that belonged to his people in overseas bank accounts.

The connection between coltan mined in war zone areas and consumers, the levels of grey middle-men types in-between and the cynical exploitation of children and teenagers either in the mines or in Chinese-owned factories under contract to larger Western corporatons like Nokia are made very clear. There are probably some other issues the film failed to cover which it should have done – for one thing, the film says nothing about the impact that mining for coltan has on animals, vegetation and water supplies and disposal – and likewise there is nothing about the dangers of mining for adults and children alike or of the possibility that deforestation to make way for mines harms landscapes and increases the likelihood of stress on the land resulting in avalanches that could bury mines and the people inside them. There are even indirect effects of coltan mining on the health of the people in the area: in addition to obvious examples of workplace injury leading to permanent disability or even death, the encroachment of coltan mining on places where apes and monkeys live gives people opportunities to hunt these primates for bushmeat, and there is the possibility that exotic diseases may pass from apes and monkeys to humans with devastating results.

Overall this is a good exposition of the coltan industry and trade and of our role as consumers of consumer electronics products in the network that includes shady parties out for a quick buck and no consideration as to whether their activities will harm communities and the natural environment.

 

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.

 

 

Blood of the Beasts: horror, death, poetry and beauty co-exist in slaughterhouse

Georges Franju, “Le sang des bêtes” / “Blood of the Beasts” (1949)

An amazing if very graphic realist film documentary of the work done in abbatoirs on the outskirts of Paris in the late 1940s, Franju’s “Le sang des bêtes” helped to establish the director as a distinctive voice in French cinema who combined both matter-of-fact realism and dream-like surrealism in his work. And this documentary is both very uncompromising in its portrayal of casual butchery of animals whose meat humans rely on, and poetic, even lyrical, in its deliberate depictions of city and suburban scenes of Paris.

The film slyly immerses viewers into its world with a montage of static shots of the Paris landscape, its bridges and historic buildings, edging us to the city outskirts where there are tableaux of children at play, an old man sitting in the sun and young lovers kissing. It’s a short casual trot over to the abbatoir where, after viewers get a quick look at the workers’ tools of the trade, we and they get down to business: killing the animal, draining its blood, skinning it and cutting out the meat, viscera and other parts either for human consumption or other uses. The scenes are very graphic but filming in black-and-white reduces the gore factor of what we see and replaces that loss with a clinical, dispassionate look at the workers as they go about their necessary tasks. Seeing the hot blood draining away in channels on the ground beneath the slatted frames where the sheep and calves have their throats cut, the light and dark tones of the liquid swirling in a psychedelic monochrome pattern, strikes me as a lyrical, almost meditative scene: blood as the fluid of life ebbing away into a larger, perhaps cosmic river that might power the universe.

The men working in the abbatoir are shown as ordinary humans, neither degraded untouchables nor heroic beings, performing hard but necessary work using skills that are as specific and specialised as the skills needed to be an electrician, a blacksmith, a carpenter or a plumber. The way the men work looks casual but then they’ve had years of experience to hone their skills; even so, the voice-over narration informs viewers that there are health risks (for example, a cyst on the wrist that that suggest repetitive strain injury) involved in carrying out often repetitive and heavy work.

Two narrators, Georges Hubert and Nicole Ladmiral, were employed for this documentary: Ladmiral describes the environs of Paris and Hubert in a neutral tone observes the abattoir workers’ activities. The narration intrudes only when necessary to explain some aspect of the work that’s not obvious on the screen to viewers and very long sections of the film are completely without speech. There’s very little music apart from one worker singing “La Mer” (the tune is familiar to Australians as it has been used in TV commercials promoting tourism in South Australia) who might have been thinking of his former job as a sailor while washing away streams of blood into the abattoir ground channels with water from a pressure hose.

It becomes apparent to viewers that violent death and its horror are much closer to us than we realise and that every time we eat meat and wear or use leather and other animal-derived products, we condone the deaths of innocent creatures that have been conceived, born and raised simply to die for our material benefit and comfort. The horrors also of the crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau and other death camps in Poland which occurred several years before the film was made also spring to mind.

 

Pierre Henry, or the Art of Sounds: subjective documentary says nothing about pioneer’s place in experimental music

Eric Darmon, Franck Mallet, “Pierre Henry, or the Art of Sounds” (2006)

A so-so documentary about the French experimental music pioneer, Pierre Henry, who with his mentor and early collaborator Pierre Schaeffer, helped create musique concrete, a style of avant-garde / experimental music using recordings of everyday sound as material for constructing musical works. The film’s focus is to follow Henry closely as he bustles about his routine at home, records his music in the studio or perform before a live audience. Excerpts of Henry’s music, beginning with an early gig before a bemused audience of young and old in the 1950s, feature throughout the documentary in more or less chronological order; a mix of archival material and present-day film accompanies the music.

The musical soundtrack of snippets of Henry’s work is playful and quite spacious, often energetic and whimsical in nature. One work is titled “The Love Life of the Octopus” and it is indeed a curious and humorous aural survey of how a bunch of cephalopods flirt and court each other with plenty of, erm, tentacle sex (just not of the porn kind). The early music is fairly abstract and seems deliberately provocative; the later music, especially the music composed in the period after the year 2000, turns out to be disappointingly very conventional, even a bit lazy, with wholesale looping orchestral-music samples overlaid by clicks and bits of noise. There may be rhythm (achieved with sound loops) and the music can be strongly layered and dance-oriented; even so, the sound is always sharp and clear. In one work, “Berlin, Symphonie der Grosser Stadt”, Henry uses samples of an old Jimi Hendrix piece as a major part of the opus.

Following Henry closely and featuring just his voice, the documentary is strongly subjectve: viewers learn about his work methods, what he aims to do and what he strives for. He talks about the things that have influenced and which continue to influence him (for example, his library which seems heavily swayed towards art); the sounds he heard in his childhood; his audience; his experiences as a public musical performer; and the concert as a place of ritual. We do not learn about Henry’s setbacks and failures if there were any; according to the film, Henry seems to have had a steady if not hugely successful career as an experimental music composer/performer.

Viewers get no sense of how successful, popular or influential Henry has been in the course of his career: the film could be much, much better if it had examined Henry’s place in the music world. Interviews with French and other experimental music-makers, producers, concert organisers and roadies would have been enough to convey some of the magnitude of Henry’s renown without making him look like an ageing hippie rock star. Henry’s friend Bernadette and their lady-friend stay more or less in the background; how they met Henry and what they think of him as a musician and composer of obscure experimental music are never known. The ladies are very long-suffering especially when Henry holds regular and well-attended recitals of abstract electronic music in the narrow confines of his house where the walls are positively stuffed with shelves of obscure art books!

For viewers unfamiliar with Henry’s work, the time-line of significant pieces which include ballet and music scored for operas can be confusing: overally, it is chronological with maybe jumps going back a few years before the forward pace takes over again. Curiously, Henry’s childhood experiences with sound come very near the end of the film when one would expect such influences on his music to come close to the beginning.

The music is much more melodic than might be expected from an abstract genre and is perhaps the best part of the film. Henry and only Henry talking about himself and his music can be boring – the fellow makes no concessions to viewers by trying to be entertaining and can come across as a slightly grumpy old git – and maybe something from Bernadette or the other lady-friend would have given us a different angle on Henry himself or his music. While we are fortunate to have any documentaries at all on early pioneers of experimental music who are happy to share with others their methods of working, how they approach creating a new work and how they feel about performing in public, at the end of the day I think a better and more objective documentary on Henry could have made and viewers would have a sense of his importance in the history and advancement of experimental music.