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.

The Tenant: psychological study of alienation, paranoia self-repression and loss of identity and control

Roman Polanski, “The Tenant” / “Le Locataire” (1976)

A very good psychological study of a young man, bullied by others and trying to make his way in a society that is self-absorbed and indifferent to the needs and problems of individuals, this low-key flick is the kind of movie Polanski does best. Present in nearly every scene to the point of suffocation are claustrophobia and a strong sense of alienation due to the film’s spatial confinement to interiors with very few outdoor scenes. The plot revolves around main character Trelkovsky (Polanski himself) going about his daily activities and meeting with scorn, indifference, ridicule and people using him as a punching-bag for their neuroses nearly everywhere he goes. This blow-by-blow approach immerses viewers deep into Trelkovsky’s world so we feel and understand his paranoia and delusions even though we know there is no substance to them and many slights he experiences exist in his mind only; the situations that cause and feed his mental deterioration are so ordinary and ambiguous in nature that they are equal parts horror and comedy. The whole structure of “The Tenant” is of a series of black comedy sketches that build on one another to overwhelm their protagonist so that by the end of the film, his wacky behaviour is the only logical way of ending his nightmare.

Trelkovsky rents an apartment in an old building inhabited mainly by elderly residents who apparently have no other entertainment than to complain about the noise Trelkovsky supposedly makes, even though by nature he’s quieter than a mouse in a vacuum. The concierge (Shelley Winters) tells Trelkovsky the previous occupant of his unit – a girl called Simone – fell through the balcony windows and plummeted several floors to the ground. Trelkovsky tries to appease the landlord and other tenants and keep his head down at work but the constant grind of sniping attacks from his neighbours, teasing from co-workers, the indifference of police to a robbery and his entanglement with a kooky girl, Stella (Isabelle Adjani), and her bohemian friends wears him down. Add to that mix the mystery of Simone’s self-defenestration, which Trelkovsky comes to believe was a suicide attempt, and strange clues such as graffiti written in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics in his bathroom(!) and a tooth found in a wall, and tension and suspense build up steadily and slowly to a bizarre climax.

Of course the plot makes no sense and Trelkovsky is over-sensitive to all incidents inflicted upon him. All support characters are deliberately exaggerated for effect: Adjani’s character in particular comes over as a concentrated amalgam of the kooky middle-class girls who populate Woody Allen films. Winters does a marvellous job as the insulting, sneering concierge. I have seen reviews elsewhere that comment on how Muppet-like the support characters are (Adjani as Miss Piggy and the landlord and the concierge as Statler and Waldorf) and they do indeed appear very puppet-like! – which suggests that Trelkovsky in his own deranged way constructs his reality to revolve around his apparent “helplessness” which enables him to control and cope with his victim status.

However Trelkovsky’s need to fine-tune and update his status leads him to obsess that the neighbours are trying to drive him to suicide; at the same time, he chooses to adopt Simone’s identity to the point where he wears her dress, uses her make-up and buys a wig and high-heeled shoes. At this point, you wonder how much in control of his fantasy world he really is and whether he is acting out a repressed sexual fantasy or memory; for all we know, Simone might simply be a useful tool for Trelkovsky to act out and embellish his anger and frustration. Viewers may be put off by Trelkovsky’s cross-dressing (it does look very self-indulgent!) but as a visual indicator of how Trelkovsky succumbs to his delusions and repressions, it’s very hard-hitting and serves to increase the film’s tension.

Visually the film is in thrall to Polanski’s vision: the window and camera are deliberately dissolved into one, the window / camera as peep-hole into one’s soul and desires and as symbol of repressed sexuality, and there are many repeating images of people looking through windows or being framed by window or door frames. The look of the film is superficially realistic but camera shots and the use of panning emphasise the plot’s voyeuristic aspects. The music tends to be sparing and large parts of the film feature no dialogue. The outer appearance of people and objects contrasts strongly with their inner “reality” in Trelkovsky’s world; even Stella and her dotty pals get press-ganged into the neighbours’ supposed conspiracy.

The improbable plot is played as much for laughs as for suspense and horror, and that in itself is true horror: viewers can’t help but laugh at the final indignity Trelkovsky heaps upon himself as, convinced that everyone is out to get him, he insists on torturing and degrading himself once and then twice. The mystery of Simone’s accident becomes completely irrelevant, a mere McGuffin device Hitchcock would surely have applauded. Trelkovsky’s humiliation is that he imagines everything to excess, and excess overcomes any doubt or skepticism he may have had about the things that have happened to him. Repetition forms part of this excess and itself is overdone with numerous images of windows and people looking through them.

As a portrait of one man’s isolation / alienation from a hyper-individualised society and how his past experiences and background as an outsider without known close social ties help him (or not) to cope with the daily difficulties and upsets of Western life, and how these feed into his fears and control over a fragile self-image, “The Tenant” is at once creepy, hilarious and devastating. Compared with “Repulsion” and “Rosemary’s Baby”, it’s not quite as scary or as subtly layered and it does sag in its middle section but it’s still a worthwhile look at how Polanski mines his favourite themes of isolation, alienation, paranoia, mental breakdown, lack of social connections and loss of control over one’s destiny.

The Page Turner: a pleasing though cool psychological study of revenge through music

Denis Dercourt, “The Page Turner” / “La Tourneuse de Pages” (2006)

A cool, elegant psychological study of revenge, this film will certainly speak to a lot of people hard done by judges or examiners more concerned with flattering their egos or bolstering their reputations with their friends than with finding and appreciating genuine and original talent when it hits them in the face. A socially ambitious working-class couple who run a butcher’s shop lavish piano lessons on their only daughter Mélanie and the girl proves to be so talented that she qualifies to sit for a strict practical piano exam which if passed will be her entrée into a brilliant career as a concert pianist. Unfortunately Mélanie fails the exam when a judge on the panel judging her performance distracts her unnecessarily. Melanie gives up her dream of ever becoming a pianist and breaking out of her working class background.

Ten years later, Mélanie (Dèborah François) joins a Paris law firm as a temporary intern and meets one of the partners there. He (Pascal Greggory) happens to be looking for a temporary babysitter for his son while he’s off on business in November and Mélanie offers to babysit. The time comes, Mélanie moves into the partner’s country mansion and realises his wife is none other than Ariane Fouchécourt (Catherine Frot), the famous concert pianist and the same judge who distracted her during her exam. Ariane is planning to relaunch her career as a pianist with a chamber music trio after suffering psychological problems as a result of a past car accident and needs someone to turn the pages of her sheet music while she plays. Mélanie happens to be the perfect choice.

The scene is set for a complicated psychological duel that drags in Ariane’s son Tristan (Antoine Martinciow) and husband and her chamber trio partners as innocent collateral damage. Mélanie, quiet and discreet, quickly discovers Ariane’s weaknesses and sets about using them to destroy the older woman. There are suggestions that she experiences some inner conflict in doing so: she develops a warm friendship with Tristan and is attracted to Ariane who also has feelings for her, and these relationships have the potential to derail her intention to get even. In one scene, she appears to want to drown the boy but thinks better of it. François is an ideal choice as the po-faced Mélanie whose watchful, intent eyes and blank expression speak what her voice will not: how she can use what she observes of Ariane’s dependence on her husband, Tristan, friends and herself to her own advantage. Genuine respect and love for Ariane and her family seem to be present though the apparent warmth may be part of Melanie’s ruse. Frot’s Ariane is both a counterbalance and complement to the shuttered Mélanie: Ariane is nervy, fragile and self-absorbed to the point that she fails to listen to her violinist’s warnings about Mélanie.

Admittedly the plot is implausible: it’s by sheer luck Mélanie comes in contact with Ariane ten years after their first encounter and then in circumstances that favour Mélanie at nearly every turn. The film throws out numerous suggestions as to how the plot will resolve itself but most hints are dead-ends, their only purpose being to add a little more tension here and there. The film leads you to expect violence with shots of people chopping meat and the presence of an indoor swimming pool in the country mansion implies a drowning death which never happens. Mélanie’s ultimate revenge on Ariane occurs with the perpetrator being absent rather than present which is unexpected, though the relevant scenes are cleverly set up.

“The Page Turner” though is very low on tension and suspense and part of the reason is that Mélanie maintains a blank countenance and calm aloofness throughout the film, revealing her natural personality in only one scene where she meets an old boyfriend. Even in the film’s final moments there is only a faint change in her face’s expression. All characters, even Tristan, tend to be stand-offish towards people they’re familiar with; the cellist in Ariane’s trio is cool towards his wife but tries to seduce Mélanie (a relative stranger). The overall cool and stiff acting indicates the life that Ariane, her family and social circle lead is hollow and lacking in genuine warmth. Ariane and Tristan try to fill this hollowness with music and amusements; the husband in his way tries to be close to Ariane who is too absorbed with her own pursuits to respond. At the same time, the general style of acting and the film’s emphasis on action and behaviour revealing the stresses professional musicians are under in performing music publicly can be quite cold, cerebral and alienating towards non-French audiences more used to open displays of emotion and expression as indicators of character under duress. Even the film’s look with clear, calm views of the mansion, its tennis court and surrounding fields is cool, intellectual and refined.

The film might have been stronger if more attention had been given to Mélanie’s relationship with her parents both together and individually, with the contrasts between her ambitious mother and easy-going father played up. Then the differences between the social layers that Mélanie travels between would have been prominent. We learn nothing of Mélanie’s impressions and ultimate opinions of Ariane’s family and their wealthy life-style: is she glad that, in a way, Ariane’s thoughtless behaviour actually freed her from the pressured hothouse life of a concert pianist? – and in causing injury to Tristan by forcing him to play piano faster, is she trying to do the same for the boy?

The men in the film are passive yet hold the power that the women rely on: Mélanie’s father pays for her music lessons that Maman insists on and Ariane depends on her husband for shelter and the stability she needs to pursue her music. The men seem happy and satisfied with their lot while the women are brittle and strive for more.

Overall this is a pleasing little gem whose main assets are its two star actors Frot and François playing strongly delineated if restrained characters in an elegant plot in which the victim becomes a bully and the initial bully becomes a victim. Issues of class in French society, how an individual can move from a lower level of society into a higher level, what sacrifices are needed to progress socially and whether that person actually loses more than gains in personal integrity and security through such progress, are among the film’s concerns. Where the film fails is in showing the effect that pursuing revenge must be having on the avenger herself: the enigmatic coda carries a subtle hint that Mélanie is finally free of her social fetters but at what cost? She appears as empty and lacking in feeling and personal authenticity as the people and social level, represented by the Fouchécourts, she has come to despise.

 

 

The Trial: brave and visually striking attempt to bring classic Kafka dystopia to screen

Orson Welles, “The Trial” / “Le Procès” (1962)

This film is a visually striking adaptation of the famous Franz Kafka novel. Welles’s directorial approach tries to incorporate as much of the spirit of the novel and its themes if not exacting faithfulness to the novel’s plot and the result is a work that is very heavy on dialogue which can seem mumbo-jumbo at times with much symbolism and not a little humour that can be missed by viewers. The style of the film is film noir / thriller: the plot proceeds as straight drama and lead actor Anthony Perkins plays the unfortunate anti-hero Josef K in a near-heroic, tight-jawed way while other actors play their roles in styles that may be called comic or parody. The look of the film is formal and stylised with an emphasis on over-imposing office or public buildings in modern brutalist, neo-classical or Gothic styles and exterior scenes empty of pedestrian and vehicle traffic that give the world where Josef K lives the appearance of a 20th-century police state relying on technology and bureaucracy to bolster its rule.

Josef wakes up, as if from a dream, in his apartment and is immediately apprehended by police on charges of having committed a crime of which details they don’t inform him. They then leave him and he embarks on a series of adventures to find out what he’s been accused of and to clear his name. Each incident in which he tries to get information ends in vain though he has quite memorable sexual encounters with various women. His uncle and guardian Max takes him to the family lawyer Hastler (Welles himself) who’s of no help whatsoever and Josef sacks him from his case. In the meantime the case proceeds through secretive layers of the court system and Josef is informed by a priest (Michael Lonsdale) and later by Hastler that he has been condemned to death.

The episodic nature of the film, in which Josef’s encounters with the legal system appear as more or less self-contained skits, contributes to the lack of tension and the impression that a plot as such doesn’t really exist. The climax appears as just another skit that conveniently ends the story. Welles could have added other skits not in the original novel or left out skits and the movie could have been 90 minutes or even 3 hours long without changing the general thrust of the plot. The comedy aspect is too subtle for a general audience and the potential for absurdism, for commenting on the craziness of society, especially one governed by techno-bureacratism, remains mostly unrealised. The timing of the film is unfortunate: made in the early 1960s when society was repressed and repressive, the sexual comedy is very muted; had the film been made a few years later with the same actors in a different and more relaxed social climate, able to look back on its past and realise how stultifying it had been, the sexual comedy with Hastler’s nurse Leni (Romy Schneider) and Josef’s neighbour Ms Burstner (Jeanne Moreau) seducing our hero might have been more open and a lot funnier with the characters in various states of undress in situations that could have segued into further embarrassments for Josef.

Another problem with the film is the way Welles tried to shape the character of Josef into something more heroic and positive for a general audience, standing as a lone defender of truth and justice in a corrupt society, than leave him as a distracted everyman while at the same time throwing him into an existential hamster-wheel to remain true to the novel as he (Welles) saw it. Perkins never seems to settle down into any particular interpretation of Josef: by turns he is nervous, scared, discomfited, full of bravado, malicious and righteous. At times he seems to be channelling US actor James Stewart in his more assertive scenes and not succeeding well at all, otherwise in scenes where his character is out of his depth, especially with women and young girls who represent aspects of the system, Perkins becomes touchingly vulnerable. Swinging from one behavioural extreme to another, and not fitting in completely, the actor is more brave than effective but then that’s the point: Josef is condemned to die because he never fits into his society but insists on sticking out like a sore thumb.

The oppressive yet perplexing society is portrayed well with staged Expressionist scenes that highlight contrasts in light and shadows and the skilful deployment of unusual camera angles, long tracking and deep focus that Welles had used in “Citizen Kane”. In particular interior scenes which take place inside abandoned buildings, in buildings where furnishings appear to have been ripped out to expose pipes and frameworks or in places of disarray or where structures have been set up in haste convey the chaos behind the façade of order strenuously maintained by police and legal authorities. (This of course suggests that the passage of Josef’s case through the courts doesn’t proceed smoothly or logically and the decision to execute him itself is irrational and based on a line of reasoning riddled with errors, false assumptions and plain malice.) Overall the look of the film and the way the camera is used complement the straight film noir drama genre approach Welles used though perhaps using film noir as straight drama doesn’t quite suit “The Trial”; a more ironic and parodic film noir approach, such as was used by Jean Luc Godard in “Alphaville” which looks very similar to “The Trial” in its use of modern office buildings as the setting for a similar technocratic dystopia, might have been more appropriate. Nice to see Amir Tamiroff appearing in minor roles in both films too!

Welles departs significantly from the novel in two scenes: the first such scene is one where Hastler screens an animated film, “Before the Law” to Josef and the two then talk about the film (which viewers have seen already in the prologue to “The Trial” proper in pin-screen animation format), at the end of which Josef defies Hastler and Hastler then appears to make his mind up about Josef; we may infer that Hastler plays some part in sentencing Josef to death. The other scene is Josef’s execution which, unlike the novel, gives Josef a chance to escape death while allowing his executioners an excuse that they are not directly responsible for his death. The implication is that Josef would prefer to die while being true to himself and his values rather than continue to live in a dysfunctional society with others who don’t share his desire for an honest life.

“The Trial” is a brave if not successful attempt to bring Kafka’s novel in its thematic entirety to the screen. Other adaptations of the novel including a 1993 film version starring Kyle MacLachlan and Anthony Hopkins have been even less successful so any faults in Welles’s film are as much due to the novel being all but unfilmable in its structure and characterisation. If Welles hadn’t tried to force the film into a form agreeable to mainstream audiences but instead made the kind of film he and only he plus a few close friends wanted to see, “The Trial” still wouldn’t be perfect but it would have come closer to “perfect” – the black comedy might have been more obvious and that in itself might even have made the film a celebration of a brief life in a depressing dystopia.

Birds of a feather, let’s flock together: four film shorts about birds illustrate something universal about human behaviour and social life

Pierre Coffin, “Pings” (2 shorts, 1997)
Ralph Eggleston, “For the Birds” (2000)
Dony Permedi, “Kiwi!” (2006)

All four films are about birds obviously but they’re also about some universal aspect of the human condition and can be understood by all except the very young due to their short, simple plots and duration (less than 4 minutes for each). French animator Coffin made two short films under the “Pings” which feature cute baby penguins dying horribly if deservedly for their silly behaviour. In one film, some chicks follow and bounce a green blob about and share their plaything with a polar bear. The polar bear sits on the green blob and squashes it. One of the babies offers itself as a replacement blob. Wooh, instant candidate for an avian Darwin award! In the other, an adult penguin patiently babysits three yelping youngsters who annoy him so much that he pops one chick into the ocean. The other chicks fall silent as a killer whale homes in on the unexpected dinner. Do the chicks learn their lesson about annoying Dad?

These are thin little pieces that make their point quickly and exit just as fast. The plots rely on surprise and black humour and make the most impact the first time you watch them; as a result, they don’t bear repeated viewings. Compared to Coffin’s later work, the CGI animation looks simple and parts look hand-drawn. The interesting thing about the little stories is that in the world of the Pings every chick is on its own and all are equally dumb and dispensable. No need to feel sorry for any of the little buggers as there are probably plenty more where they came from! And we must admit … we did really enjoy those little shorts for their deliciously sly humour.

The next two animation shorts are more sympathetic to their subjects and have deeper messages. “For the Birds”, in which a flock of little tweeters sitting on an overhead telephone line are joined by a gawky critter of a different species who upsets their little party, brings us a moral about discrimination. The goofy gatecrasher has the last laugh when, forced to drop off the line, he sees it zing up catapult-like causing his tormentors deep humiliation. Actions and behaviour are shown to have important consequences for both perpetrators and recipient. Made for Pixar, the animation is typical of the company’s style in featuring highly individual and comic characters and very bright colours.

“Kwi!”, made as a student project by Permedi, is a touching story about a kiwi with ambitions to fly. He spends Herculean effort and time in dragging and hammering large trees to the side of a tall cliff. Our little friend becomes quite adept at roping conifers into place and hammering them hard into the granite with just his two feet grasping the hammers and nails. At the top, he puts on his aviator’s cap and glasses and jumps off to simulate the effect of flying. The film rotates sideways to show him in full flight over the trees, flapping his feeble wings. He passes into the distance and disappears into the mist. Admittedly the story is simple to the point of banality – we all know what happens at the end – but what stands out is the kiwi’s stubborn and determined nature in achieving his lifetime goal. Doubtless his relatives and friends have called him a fool and told him to get a life and be happy staying on the ground, pecking and rooting away like everyone else. Yet the dream is not only near-impossible, but when achieved, it brings only short-lived happiness. As the kiwi flashes past us, a tear falls from his eye and the mix of emotions is obvious: he’s proved the impossible really is possible, he’s having the most exhilarating flight of his life, he never knew flying could be so much fun, he’s lost for words … but sudden, violent death will claim him all too soon.

The CGI animation is nowhere near as detailed as for “For the Birds” but its simplicity is actually a bonus as viewers have their work cut out reading the kiwi’s face and the emotions it might be feeling. Changing perspective by rotating the film’s focus creates an epic feeling during the flying scenes and plunges viewers deeply into the kiwi’s world so that we experience what he feels and experiences; it also deftly takes us out of the kiwi’s world as he flies on ahead to spare us the agony of what awaits him down below. Of the films under review here, this short features no simulated bird vocals; the other films have twittering birds or chicks. In all four films, some human emotion or behaviour is highlighted for comic effect; “Kiwi!” uses emotion to structure and pace the film from puzzlement (on the viewers’ part) to wonder, anticipation, expectation and finally joy and ecstasy edged with sadness.

These are not very profound films though some viewers will become very attached to the hero of “Kiwi!” and wish beyond hope that he has actually passed onto a better plane of existence where he is accepted for wanting to be more than his ratite heritage gave him and can fly freely with his tiny little flappers. It’s likely that as more people watch “Kiwi!”, it will become a beloved little cult classic and acquire more layers of meaning that include the desire for and intangibility of freedom from a restrictive headstart in life.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams: too much whimsy and overbearing music, not enough facts and editing mar a fine documentary

Werner Herzog, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (2010)

In 1994, three speleologists discovered and explored a cave in southern France and found prehistoric paintings apparently dating back over 30,000 years. The paintings are of large animals that were present in southern Europe during Palaeolithic times: horses, bison, mammoths, cave bears and lions. This documentary, made by famed German film-maker Werner Herzog,  gives both a science and history lesson about the artwork found and the probable culture of the people who produced it, and a discussion about the spiritual life they might have had. Something of the work of the archaeologists, art historians, geologists and other scientists on documenting and preserving the cave paintings is presented and the documentary also comments on the painters’ attempts to capture animal motion in ways that resemble early forms of film animation such as rotoscoping, and to interact with the paintings and the cave walls themselves through shadow-acting.

The film is structured in a supposedly detailed and matter-of-fact way that immerses viewers in the travails of the film crew and the people involved in investigating and preserving the paintings. We become quickly aware of the claustrophobic and dark conditions Herzog and company had to work in and of the restrictions imposed on them. Along the way Herzog intersperses interviews with scientists and art historians which tend to focus more on what they think of the spirituality and culture of the artists, than on the actual work they do and how they arrive at their conclusions about the painters’ culture and spiritual lives. Herzog attempts to draw out the individuality and eccentricity of his interview subjects: one scientist admits he used to be a juggler and unicyclist in a circus and another clumsily demonstrates how the prehistoric cave people made and used spears and spear-throwers. Slow as it is, the film gradually builds up a superficial picture of the spiritual and cultural life of the cave painters based on the findings and musings of the scientists and others documenting the paintings so that near the film’s end, viewers are primed psychologically to respond with awe and ecstasy at the paintings revealed in as much full-on glory as Herzog and his crew could film on their last visit to the cave.

Herzog’s narration and interviews descend into shallow purple-prose philosophical babble: there is talk about people, animals and plant life having fluidity (in the sense of one species adopting the behaviour and abilities of another) and the spiritual and material worlds blending into one another but there is not much speculation about the kind of (presumably) nature-based religious beliefs the artists might have had, the role played by the art in their beliefs and daily lives, why they painted large animals and not small animals, and how the paintings themselves support notions of fluidity and the links between the spiritual and the material. There is little discussion of shamans and their role in the painters’ society. It is possible much of Herzog’s questioning and musing is shaped by stereotypes he has absorbed unwittingly; there is the assumption that the prehistoric painters spent their off-time chasing and spearing large dangerous animals when archaeological evidence and comparisons with modern hunter-gatherers suggest gathering plants, hunting small animals and driving animals off cliffs and butchering them later on were the preferred methods of getting food. A cave ceiling protrusion apparently shows a bison having sex with a naked woman but the representation could also be of a female shaman. Some of his interviewees prattle on a fair bit but are not very informative. They engage in whimsical actions such as playing the US national anthem on a bone flute not found in Chauvet Cave.

The music soundtrack is jarring, inappropriate in style (it’s a mix of choral music and chamber music) and mostly unnecessary, adding very little enjoyment to the viewing of the cave art. In some parts of the film where Ernst Reijseger’s cello becomes low and droning, the music acquires a sculptural quality and fits the filming and the camera tracking around the cave walls and paintings which themselves often follow the walls’ contours. The rest of the time though, viewers will wish the choral voices and shrill violins would just shut up and the paintings be allowed to speak for themselves. For a film of this nature, if music is necessary, then a varied style of sound sculpture music incorporating quiet and loud music is called for. Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson come to mind but I am thinking also of installation / sound artists such as Maryanne Amacher whose music can be very epic and awe-inspiring, Spanish ambient / noise purveyor Francisco López and Germany’s Thomas Köner who has specialised in frigid Arctic-sounding electronica.

A brief coda is necessary after the climactic viewing of the paintings but it’s very unexpected: Herzog takes the audience on a quick whip-round lecture tour of a nuclear energy facility some distance down the Rhone River and the greenhouses and a biosphere set up around it to use the heated water produced by the facility. Rather than use the facility’s presence to make a strong case for preserving the cave and its surrounds from further encroachment by the plant, the greenhouses and the wastes they may produce, Herzog muses on the alligators at one hot-house and in particular on an albino ‘gator “found” there. One’s gotta wonder if Herzog’s sponsors write and veto parts of his script to make sure he presents a “balanced” and “neutral” position on nuclear energy production (as in saying nothing at all).

The film could have been much shorter and better if the jokey whimsy had been edited out; the product could still feature much of the film-making process and the scientists’ work. There is considerable repetition of the cave imagery which suggests that there are not very many paintings in Chauvet Cave, or at least not many that are spectacular and have recognisable representations of large animals. Still, the documentary is worth watching but in an environment where viewers can control the sound level (such as at home). Then the paintings can be appreciated on the home-theatre big-screen in all their silent lustre.

The film would have been improved too if Herzog had been able to define more clearly what he wished to emphasise about the paintings and their creators that could be related to the scientific effort to preserve the cave art. Rather than try to impose ideas about the artists’ spiritual relationship with their land and the flora and fauna onto Western audiences – we have enough trouble already trying to understand the spiritual relationship First Nation peoples in Australia, Canada and other parts around the world have with their lands – Herzog might have concentrated more on the artists’ curiosity about their world and why it operates the way it does, their keen powers of observation and wish to “capture” the spirit or vitality of the animals they observe, perhaps in the hope of being able to appeal to the animals’ spirits and get them to do certain things for them (the artists); and the film-maker could then emphasise the parallel between the process of making the art and the scientific endeavour generally.

(Postscript: the film had a postscript so I’ll add my own – just after writing this review, I heard news of an accident at a nuclear waste treatment facility in Gard department in France on 12 September 2011. One person died and four were injured. Gard department is located in southern France and borders Ardèche department where Chauvet Cave is located. As far as is known, there was no leakage of radiation)

Fantastic Planet: absorbing animated science fiction film with messages and ideas that are still important

René Laloux, “Fantastic Planet” / “La Planète Sauvage” (1973)

A very absorbing animated science fiction film that superficially looks as if it might have been created for children with a plot that starts out with a human-like baby being adopted by a blue-skinned alien child ten times bigger than the baby in a world that looks like a mix of psychedelic rock album art of the 1970’s and Monty-Python collage-style animation and dark jokes with double entendres. Though as the film progresses, it becomes very clear indeed that several scenes in the film, some of the suggestive animation itself and the plot’s preoccupations are aimed at an older audience, one that, at the time of the film’s release, might have been described as politically and socially liberal and eco-conscious, even counter-cultural or underground. A joint Czech-French production, “Fantastic Planet” lives up to its name in its visual style and creativity if not its story-line or characterisation. Made in 1973, it doesn’t look too dated though the animation is hardly sophisticated by current standards and many scenes are just drawn and coloured-in sketches with the odd moving character going across them.

The plot traces the rise of the human-like Oms from a primitive foraging way of life dominated by ignorance, superstition and near-despotic rule by a few to a progressive society in which the Oms are literate, have mastered science and technological principles sufficiently enough to build and operate spaceships, and can challenge the giant blue-skinned aliens called Draags who regard them as simple and unintelligent. The way in which this turnaround in the Oms’ fortunes occurs is due to one Om called Terr who was adopted as a pet by a young Draag called Tiva. Tiva treats Terr as a plaything and lets him sit with her at lessons which she absorbs through meditation with the help of head-phones but viewers’ overall impression will be that Terr is a household slave / domestic pet completely at the capricious mercy of his mistress. Terr tries to escape often but his collar responds to Tiva’s magnetic bracelet. One day Terr runs away with Tiva’s head-phones and is helped by a wild Om who breaks his collar. The wild Om takes him to her people who eventually adopt him as their own. Terr uses Tiva’s head-phones, which turn out to be a vast repository of Draag knowledge, to educate his new family and in spite of opposition from some of the senior tribal members, the Oms give up those traditions that hampered their progress and kept them inferior to the Draags and embark on a tortuous path that frees them from slavery and repression. They create a new home and force the Draags to respect them so that the two species can co-exist in peace.

The journey towards enlightenment isn’t easy and many Oms are slaughtered along the way when the Draags try to cull their numbers and resort to more desperate and deadly methods, finally deciding to exterminate the little beings. There may be a political allegory here: the Oms might serve as a metaphor for Third World peoples striving for independence and the freedom to determine their own future while the Draags represent those First World elites who prefer the majority of humans to live in corporatised slavery and poverty. Or when we consider the film’s historical and cultural context, the Oms could represent the oppressed Czechs and Slovaks and the Draags their Soviet Russian masters.  There’s also a lesson here about how we humans treat our own pets: Terr is indulged a lot by Tiva but she also forces him to fight other domesticated Oms in battles that are parallels to cock-fighting bouts. The film does an excellent job of demonstrating the complex relationship that exists between the Draags and the Oms: the Draags regard the tame Oms as cute as long as they are obedient, the wild Oms are seen as vermin for breeding too fast and multiplying too quickly.

The Draags possess a sophisticated technology and culture that revolve around constant meditation; the film reveals this meditation to be necessary for their continued survival and propagation of their species, and it also powers their technology. A scene in which Tiva’s father participates in a group meditation session and the participant’s bodies change colour becomes very surreal; viewers will feel their minds simply cleaned out several times by this scene that breaks all the laws of physics and conservative morality. Don’t worry, there are more scenes in the film that will clean that scene out of people’s minds! Landscapes filled with exotic plants and animals prove to be very menacing to the Oms: a flying anteater licks up Oms with its penis-shaped tongue and Terr and a friend are nearly stomped on by a five-eyed / four-legged insectoid dragging a cumbersome ovipositor. Another critter with a nose that sprouts feelers spends its time in a cage grabbing and shaking little piggy flies with the antlered proboscis. Most mind-fucking of all is a contoured landscape of tubular worms that arch their backs during periods of rain. Perhaps there are too many unnecessary sexual jokes in the fauna and flora of the Draags’ world: the whole place is teeming with eroticism. It’s as if the animators deliberately set out to bait the conservative political establishment of their day, which in Czechoslovakia would have been the Communists and in France would have included most of the major political parties along the entire political spectrum and the Roman Catholic Church as well, by creating a universe in which everything is a sexual metaphor of some kind. In those days people believed sexual repression went hand-in-hand together with political repression and political freedom would lead to sexual freedom or vice versa. Little did folks at the time realise that sexual freedom mightn’t necessarily lead to political and social freedom, and could encourage the further oppression of women by objectifying and sexualising their bodies and clothes.

Due to the overarching themes, the plot’s complexity and the film’s short running time, character development is weak: viewers get no sense of Terr changing and maturing in personality as he adapts from his sheltered life with Tiva to life with the wild Oms, learning responsibility, independence and leadership along the way. The unnamed wild female Om who rescues him remains a minor character and the romance that develops between her and Terr is unconvincing. Neither the Draags nor the Oms come across as more than one-dimensional archetypes for class struggle and revolt against colonisation: the Draags appear over-refined and have a love-hate relationship with procreation. The Oms struggle against ignorance and superstition in their society and the process itself says something about the role of religion and the enforcement of ignorance in keeping a slave class oppressed.

Unfortunately even after the collapse of Communism across Europe, the ideas and messages of “Fantastic Planet” are still needed in our societies; many former Communist states in eastern Europe are falling under fascist government and economic inequalities are creating new social divisions and discrimination. The film is worth several viewings if only to acclimatise to the distinctive animation style and get over the sexualised look of the exotic wildlife and landscapes. The music is a mix of seventies prog(ressive) guitar rock pop with a lot of wet-sounding wah-wah pedal effects and some jazz.

 

 

 

Paris qui dort: amusing and light-hearted short film about human nature and Paris as a fantasy city

René  Clair, “Paris qui dort” (1925)

An amusing and light-hearted moral fable about what would happen if individuals suddenly had unfettered freedom to do what they wanted without having to answer for the consequences, this short film is an early example of science fiction based around a stock character stereotype of the mad scientist and the idea of a city made immobile, in this case by sleep. A night-guard on duty on the Eiffel Tower wakes up one morning to discover the whole city of Paris has fallen into a deep slumber. He hurriedly descends the tower and, walking around the city, can’t believe what he sees: empty streets, abandoned buildings, eerie spaces. He meets five people who have just come off a plane and who are just as bewildered as he is at the city’s apparent desertion. Before long though they discover the delights of being able to do what they like without getting into trouble: they start stealing small items from people frozen in walking or running stances, snatch a jacket from a slumbering woman sitting in a restaurant and take bottles of wine from waiters’ hands. Like children, they rejoice by joining hands and dancing in circles in fountains and swimming pools and going up the Eiffel Tower to see the sights for free but quickly endless freedom spoils them and petty jealousies and rivalries lead to fisticuffs on various perches of the Tower itself.

Fortunately the six people are saved from falling into complete savagery by a young woman (Myla Seller) who sends out an SOS. The cause of Paris’s slumber is quickly diiscovered and the solution is found just as fast but the film has made its point: a potentially new society with opportunities for new growth and development doesn’t necessarily turn out any better than the old society with all its social conventions, foibles, laws and other restraints. After the city is restored to its normal circadian rhythms, the film continues with the night-guard and the young woman trying to force the city to fall asleep again so they can steal money but their plan is foiled and they end up arrested for robbery: a telling comment that unlimited freedom, once tasted, is difficult to let go.

Images of 1925-vintage Paris landmarks, standing in their lonely and dignified grandeur, can be very eerie or can stir up deep emotions: their geometry and the geometry of the city streets and park layouts suggest a perfect fantasy world. The night-guard can’t quite get his head around this unexpected alien beauty – is he dreaming or is the deserted city for real? – and insists on inspecting cars in the street and trying to wake up people he encounters. The early third of the film in which the night-guard wanders the streets alone is perhaps the best part: the plot stands still while a montage of still shots of city locations passes by. For this reason too the film is of historical value to students of Paris’s growth and urban development.

There is plenty of slapstick comedy in the six wanderers’ adventures as they start to bicker and then fight, and in their discovery of the mad scientist (Charles Martinelli) who turns out to be an imposing yet absent-minded eccentric. Oblivious to the potential power his invention gives him, the scientist proves to be just as human as the six wanderers as he is dotty: he gets into a fight with a fellow scientist and the invention explodes on them. Paris ends up racing at hyper-kinetic speed and, as far as some foreign visitors who have visited the place and experienced the city’s traffic are concerned, has stayed that way since.

Special effects are used imaginatively and some simple animation shots that explain how the night-guard and the plane passengers escaped being put to sleep are very well done. The film chugs along at a medium-fast pace with fighting scenes sped up quickly to suggest emotional frenzy. It seems to this viewer that director Clair uses the limitations of the film technology available to him at the time as much as its benefits: scenes where everyone moves at a fast clip (often common in 1920’s silent films) are used to suggest that the scientist’s invention can influence the speed of life as well as cause it to sleep or to wake.

Although “Paris qui dort” is over 80 years old and the characters’ fashions and mannerisms and the cars they drive have come to look more quaint than dated, the film’s comment on human nature and society and its exploration of Paris as a fantastic sleeping beauty come true while the real Paris of human activity, all dirty, smelly and ill-mannered, exists in the night-guard’s head temporarily ensure that it will continue to enthrall audiences.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Man Bites Dog: strong satire on Western cultures’ obsession with sadistic violence

Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoorde, “C’est arrive près de chez vous” (“It could happen in your neighbourhood”)  aka “Man Bites Dog” (1992)

Made by four Belgian film students, this mock documentary on the daily routines of a professional killer remains a powerful criticism of Western cultures’ obsession with sadistic violence. Although it often looks aimless and appears to be a series of skits, it’s actually well constructed with a definite narrative and an overall mood that’s at first light-hearted, jokey and comic with Spinal Tap moments but becomes darker and sinister towards the end. Shot on grainy black-and-white, the film has the air of a fly-on-the-wall independent documentary as a film crew zealously follows Ben (BenoÎt Poelvoorde) as he goes about his daily or monthly routine of robbing and/or killing postmen, pensioners, security guards, taxi drivers and various others he meets.

Chatty and friendly, Ben introduces the film-makers and viewers to his family (Poelvoorde’s real-life relatives), girlfriend Valérie and his boxing trainer throughout the film. He expounds or rants at length on a variety of topics. Among other things, viewers learn from Ben that there is an art to weighting dead people with ballast so when they are dropped into rivers they don’t float and that people’s lives can be improved or blighted by the decisions governments make on urban renewal and aesthetic details of architecture and interior design. He fancies himself a gourmet and treats the film crew to a sumptuous lunch of mussels and wine. Viewers see him playing a musical duet on the piano with Valerie on flute and sparring with his trainer at the grotty sports club. He is interested in art, literature and film culture and spouts poetry (self-composed and crappy) about pigeons and the change of seasons. Altogether a thoroughly cultured and intellectual if pretentious being is our Ben; but how does he finance his activities? – on the first day of every month, he kills postmen to steal pension cheques and visits the homes of the people they’re addressed to, kills them and looks under the beds and cupboards for more money. To keep limber as it were, he robs and kills other people in hilarious sequences that reveal his ignorance and prejudices towards others as well as his education and culture.

As the film carries on, the film-makers – and with them, the audience – become deeply involved and implicated in Ben’s crimes as witnesses and participants. The change is subtle and gradual: Ben begins to finance the making of the documentary and directs parts of it himself; the film-makers help him chase a boy and participate in a gang rape / murder of a woman. Ben orders them also to re-bury bodies in a quarry he uses to dump his victims when the water dries up. Viewers, initially charmed by Ben’s warmth and generosity, now see his arrogant and more psychopathic side, lacking in true empathy and compassion for others. Sure enough his pride and smugness get the better of him, he makes some slip-ups and he ends up being chased by a never-seen criminal gang and the police who jail him. On his release, Ben discovers the criminal gang has killed his family and girlfriend, and his life and those of the film-makers are in grave danger.

Viewers stand as much indicted as the film crew itself as observers and accomplices, however passive, in Ben’s trail of mayhem and chaos. The handheld camera style and use of frequent close-ups create intimacy and draw viewers in as voyeurs. When Ben and his crew meet another film crew following a criminal in an abandoned building he uses as his hide-out, we find ourselves rooting for Ben as the film crews prepare for a stand-off. Uncomfortable questions about the sensationalisation / trivialisation of violence by mass media in our society, the ways in which reality TV shows encourage people to behave in extreme ways, celebrity worship and the numbing effect continuous exposure to violence and trauma must have on viewers’ mental states arise. The relationship between a film crew and the subject that is the focus of its film is also questioned – how objective can a documentary be when its subject and the film crew are friends? – and the Spinal Tap sequence of two sound-men dying one after the other, each leaving behind a pregnant girlfriend called Marie-Paule, while funny, also makes for uncomfortable viewing. At what point does a film or any other venture become so important that people’s lives become secondary to it? The project takes on a life of its own and Ben exploits the film-makers’ friendship and hero-worship of him into making the film a never-ending diary celebrating his banal exploits to feed his ego. For all his supposed sophistication as an aesthete, Ben lacks the self-reflective insight, the depth of feeling and emotion, and empathy needed to be a true aesthete and a talented poet.

The film does become repetitive and the meeting of the film crews in the hide-out surely alerts viewers that ideas are starting to run out. After this point, the film seems to lose direction although in fact unseen criminals associated with the other crook followed by his own film crew are now trailing Ben and his crew. At the same time Ben’s crimes become more serious and brutal and viewers should consider the possibility that if he didn’t have a film crew following him around, Ben would confine himself to cutting queues for nursing homes and denying thousands of dogs in Belgium the pleasure of chasing posties. Ben mugs for the camera and some scenes where he is drunk could have been edited or cut altogether. On the technical side the film-makers do a good job of knitting all the various skits into a seamless, smoothly flowing whole and the skits have the appearance of naturally following on from one another even if they actually didn’t. How much of the film was improvised, how much was scripted and how much just happened to be there at the time of filming – especially the hospital scene with Ben being in the same room as an elderly patient engaging a nurse in verbal jousting over his toilet habits – is hard to tell.

At once compelling yet repellent, looking unfocussed as it progresses but with a definite goal in mind, this film still has a lot of power to shock and intrigue audiences. The nature of violence in Western societies, our fascination with it and how that fascination is pushed and manipulated for profit by media organisations and others, how that affects our psyches and might determine our attitudes and behaviour in situations where diplomacy rather than violence is called for, and the attitude that people are only worthwhile when they have cash or can be exploited (Ben only kills people if they have money) – these issues continue to make “Man Bites Dog” more relevant than it was when first released. Education and culture prove not be civilising influences on a mind lacking in self-examination and compassion for other people and the central character of Ben turns out to be as hollow and cold as the society being satirised.