The Image Book: a demanding critique on the role of film in contemporary Western society

Jean-Luc Godard, “The Image Book / Le Livre d’Image” (2018)

At 84 minutes, in no way is this a long film, yet it’s far more demanding of one’s attention in so many different aspects than more commercial films that are at least half as long. This film works on so many levels and probably needs to be seen at least a few times for Godard’s message/s to sink in.

On one level, the film questions and criticises the dominant role of cinema as escapist entertainment in an age where so many technologies and trends that have developed at the same time and in parallel or even enmeshed together with cinema have had destructive effects on humanity around the world: modern warfare, the development of weapons capable of destroying all life on earth, propaganda, societies dependent on technology (including cinema) and materialism to keep people distracted and unaware of their repression by Deep States. On a second level, in its use of snippets of other directors’ films, film audio soundtracks, music and paintings, Godard pays homage to directors and films that he may consider significant: I managed to pick out Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Salo”, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and Georges Franju’s “Blood of the Beasts” among the films referenced. By juxtaposing audio soundtracks from other films with the snippets of film organised collage-style, Godard creates a new narrative that, among other things, criticises Western viewpoints of Arabic-language peoples and their cultures and histories, and invites viewers to question how their opinions and worldviews have been moulded and manipulated by film in all its variety, documentary and newsreel film as well as film drama. This narrative includes a completely fictional story about the despotic ruler of an imaginary Arab country called Dofa which has no resources – not even oil or natural gas to speak of – but which lack does not stop this ruler from dreaming of dominating all the Arabian Gulf oil states.

There is much beauty, a lot of it deliberately over-coloured or overlit in ways to make the film look psychedelic and hallucinatory, as if to call attention to the power of film and film narrative to keep people in a heightened state of addiction and to change their neural networks (not always for the better). For all its experimentation, the film does present a linear narrative based on the five fingers of the hand – because the hand does much if not most of the work of the imagination and creation – with each chapter in the narrative representing some form of motion or conflict: water, trains, warfare, the law and the Western view of the Middle East.

The film’s collage nature and confrontational message make it difficult viewing for most people. I must confess I did find the middle section of the film quite heavy and tiring.

Last Year at Marienbad: a comic and often repetitive satire on the empty lives of the wealthy

Alain Resnais, “Last Year at Marienbad / L’Année dernière à Marienbad” (1961)

At times hilarious, and at other times maddeningly boring and repetitive, this film is notable for its deliberately ambiguous narrative, in which time and space are non-linear, and characters may be coming or going, living or dying at once – or have done so in the past, or will do so in the future. The whole film seems to take place in a hermetic dream-like world and characters are continually repeating themselves, in their thoughts, obsessions and memories as well as in their speech and behaviour.

The plot is very simple – but from this apparent simplicity, myriad possibilities arise and the film attempts to accommodate them all. In an opulent, baroquely decorated hotel, set in a converted country estate, where wealthy couples socialise, a man (Giorgio Albertazzi), known only as X, approaches a woman (Delphine Seyrig), known as A, and tells her that they had met exactly the year before in Marienbad. The woman has no memory of their ever having met but X insists that they have and that she told him to wait a year while she decided on whether to elope with him or stay with her husband, M (Sasha Pitoev). X constantly tries to remind her of their romance while she continually rebuffs him. In the meantime, M asserts his authority over X and various other men by beating them all at the same card game over and over. M may very well be a gangster or a spy. The various possibilities that arise in the plot include a rape, a murder and two figures running away together in the dead of night.

Through flashbacks, edits that jump from one time or location to another, and through repeated conversations and events, the film explores the relationships between the three characters. Beyond this though, the main characters remain undeveloped and mysterious, even a little sinister. The rest of the cast, playing the hotel guests, are robotic in their actions, expressionless and lacking emotion, and repeat their actions and speeches over and over. In this respect, the film may be seen as a criticism of the empty lives of the wealthy, condemned to living in an eternal present where there is no political, cultural or social historical context they can relate to and which would give their lives meaning and direction – because they have deliberately sealed themselves from reality.

The film’s cinematography emphasises the self-contained universe of the hotel: the camera glides over details in the elaborate furnishings; the architectural trimmings, architraves, arches and other extravagances; and tracks through the labyrinthine corridors towards bedrooms that are exactly the same. The gardens surrounding the hotel are laid out in a strict geometrical order, and the pools of water are mostly still and serene, but beyond the hotel’s boundaries, the forest is unruly and chaotic. The use of edits and panning conveys something of the sterility in which the characters seem to be trapped. The organ music is loud, droning and repetitive.

Though the plot and its events, and the entire nature of the hotel universe and its inhabitants, might suggest “Last Year …” should be a horror film, the whole creation proceeds with a light touch and the po-faced characters seem not to take themselves very seriously. There is plenty of comedy in the scenes in which M challenges X and others to play his card game. Even the accident in which X falls off a balustrade and part of it collapses on him is played for laughs in its deadpan minimalism. The most sinister elements in the film – M himself, the Gothic organ, even the hotel and its zombie cast – can be seen as very comic.

The Mirror: a loose autobiographical work on memory, history, nostalgia and regret

Andrei Tarkovsky, “Zerkalo / The Mirror” (1975)

For most viewers, Tarkovsky’s “The Mirror” won’t be the easiest film to follow: the narrative follows a stream-of-consciousness structure and dives at will (and going back and forth between them) into three time periods representing its main character’s childhood, adolescence and current situation in which he, a poet, is in his 40s and dying from an unknown respiratory illness. In all of these time periods, he has unresolved issues in his relationships with both his parents (and his mother also has unresolved issues and conflicts with others), his ex-wife and his son. The ex-wife and the son have difficulties in their relationship as well, and a big part of that problem may stem from the difficulties each is having with the husband / father. Now on the verge of death, the poet (unnamed and not shown to viewers) looks back over his life and regrets the decisions he made and actions taken or not taken, and wants to make amends – but time and his failing health do not permit such atonement.

The plot relies heavily on aspects of Tarkovsky’s own life and that of his parents – as in the film, Tarkovsky’s father was a poet (and some of his poetry is quoted in the film) and his mother was a proof-reader. Scenes of the poet’s childhood take place in a beautiful bucolic countryside that could be close to Moscow – but already there are forebodings of dark events to come. A strange man claiming to be a doctor visits the poet’s mother and she seems to fall in love with him. The family barn bursts into flames and people stand by watching slack-jawed when fire destroys it – during a rain shower. Strong winds start up without any warning whatsoever, rippling over overgrown grass and knocking over tea cups and saucers on garden tables.

Scenes set during the poet’s adolescence take place during the Second World War (known as the Great Patriotic War in the Soviet Union and the current Russian Federation) and here the film starts to make connections between the poet’s personal life and the wider historical context in which he lives his life, and how major historical events impinge on people’s lives, taking away loved ones and thus setting off a cycle of actions by the poet and the people he associates with, the repetition of which the poet appears to recognise only when he is dying.

In keeping with the film’s dream-like world, the experiences of the poet’s mother and ex-wife (both roles played by the same actor, Margarita Terekhova) and their son Ignat (Ignat Daniltsev, who also played the poet as a young boy) are also very surrealistic, particularly in a scene where Ignat, left on his own at home in the apartment block, visits a neighbouring apartment and the woman there invites him in for tea, asks him to read from a book and then later disappears mysteriously, crockery and all. The rooms seem to change as well and we do not know if Ignat is back at home or still next door. Real or naturalistic scenes co-exist with scenes from the imagination; it may be that Tarkovsky is attempting to capture as much of the human experience in all its beauty, glory, pain and suffering (there is considerable historical archived film of the Spanish Civil War and the Chinese-Soviet border wars included) into a visual work that reflects back that experience.

Themes of guilt, regret, nostalgia and longing, desire, and the repetition that reinforces these emotions, along with how memory and history can cause or buttress them, are very prominent in this film. The natural world with its mystery and apparent randomness is a significant character to whom humans accommodate themselves. The poet’s mother accepts her place in the universe, having done what she could, and achieves a contentment her son has always sought.

Climax: French society in microcosm with all its stresses, anxieties, hidden secrets and a dark puppet-master

Gaspar Noe, “Climax” (2018)

In the hands of Argentine-French director Gaspar Noe, a story about a group of young dancers hired to be part of a dance troupe to tour the US becomes a launching pad for a downward exploratory spiral into the deepest, most depraved chasms of human psychology. The young cast of hip-hop hopefuls, each individually interviewed and eagerly expressing their ambitions to take the dance world by storm, rehearse in an old school building for several days and then hold a party to celebrate. Too late they discover that the bowl of sangria punch has been spiked with LSD and they all succumb to the drug’s hallucinogenic and other more serious side effects. As the music throbs and pounds in the background, and coloured lights flash and pulse overhead, the young dancers’ psychological barriers and inhibitions give way, any desires, prejudices and grudges they hold for or against one another come out into the open, and they explode into physical and sexual violence.

Even though it’s not a long film at 96 minutes, “Climax” nevertheless can feel like an endurance test, due to the relentless, in-your-face intensity of the dancers’ suffering and helplessness under the influence of acid. It is cleverly structured in three parts: the first part, consisting of the dancers’ audition interviews, establishes who the youngsters are and their hopes and feelings about the great adventure they’re embarking on; the second part of the film, shot in one single take, showcases their energetic free-form krumping style, followed by a succession of quickly edited pieces where various dancers converse in pairs about others in their group; the third part of the film, when the dancers realise they have been drugged, is the most nightmarish and technically inventive section as the camera closely follows individual dancers, smoothly switching from one to another as they pass each other in dimly lit corridors or on the spinning dance floor. A definite narrative hierarchy is established, suggestive of a transition from stability or life through a portal into chaos and death, and investigating in cursory ways issues that evoke anxiety in modern human society: unwanted pregnancies, abortions, suicide, incest, mutilation, ostracism, death. Like the ritual it is, sacrifices are demanded by this narrative, and sacrifices in all their dreadful tragedy there are.

The cinematography may be disorienting, with the camera taking bird’s-eye views or hanging upside down, and usually following characters closely behind as they run and stumble for help, but the scenes are never jumpy or jerky, and the picture is always clear. I never felt nauseous at any time while watching the film (and I have had problems in the past watching films like “The Blair Witch Project” where the camera often jerked about). The intense, garish red and green lighting adds to the general sense of unease, disorientation, paranoia and the hellish surroundings of a school building that has seen better days.

The ethnic and religious diversity of the dancers, their varying sexual orientations, the French flag as a backdrop behind the DJ spinning the vinyl, and the anxieties, prejudices and fears the young people express as they are overcome by the combination of alcohol and acid may all symbolise 21st-century French society in microcosm, with all its hidden issues, stresses and problems, whose causes lie far back in France’s dark colonial or politically and socially conservative, often repressive past, and which threatens the delicate social balance that (now as never before) might break at any moment. One might discern that the LSD represents dark forces in French society – it has its own Deep State that may be at once separate from and linked to other nations’ Deep States – that manipulate different groups in France and pit them against one another in constant conflict and violence, all so they are easier to control and can never discover who their true oppressors are. The revelation at the end of the film of who is responsible for spiking the sangria suggests as much.

The film’s end credits are placed at and near the beginning of the film so that when it finishes, viewers are suddenly and unexpectedly thrust back into cold reality. One does not know when the nightmare really ends … or has it really just begun?

Steppenwolf: a stodgy and soporific adaptation of a cult counter-culture novel

Fred Haines, “Steppenwolf” (1974)

There was a period in the 1960s when this 1927 novel was the darling of the psychedelic counter-culture in the United States, due in part to its depiction of drug use and free sex, and to its themes of introspection and self-examination, a quest for a more authentic way of living as opposed to living like an automaton in a society of frivolity and shallow values, and the possibility of personal transformation and hope. No surprise then, that in spite of the novel’s fantastic plot and its metaphysical themes, a film adaptation was made in the mid-1970s: the major problem with the making of “Steppenwolf” seems to have been its financing and the question of its ownership which ruined the marketing of the film and sent it straight into art-house obscurity.

Having read the novel a long time ago, I don’t remember much of it but I do think the film follows the novel fairly closely. Solitary intellectual Harry Haller (Max von Sydow) despairs of ever fitting into bourgeois society with its shallow people and values, and contemplates suicide. By chance he is given a book called “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” by a man carrying an advertisement for the Magic Theatre. Astonishingly, the book is addressed to Haller personally and describes his state of unease accurately: he is of two natures, one being human and spiritual and the other being that of the Steppenwolf, the lone steppe wolf, essentially animalist. Haller’s problem is that he is unable to recognise his dual nature and thus reconcile both these aspects. He resolves to commit suicide on his 50th birthday but before the big day arrives, he meets a mysterious woman (Dominique Sanda) at a dance hall. The woman sees Haller’s distress and arranges to meet him a second time. On this occasion Haller discovers the woman’s name is Hermine, and Hermine starts to introduce Haller to aspects of what he had previously regarded as frivolous: he learns to dance, to listen and appreciate jazz music, to indulge in drugs and to take a young woman, Maria (Carla Romanelli), as a lover. All of these activities are presented as aspects of a worthy life. Haller later meets jazz saxophonist Pablo (Pierre Clementi) who runs the mysterious Magic Theatre. Once in the Magic Theatre, Haller is confronted by all his fears, anxieties and fantasies of his mind.

While Max von Sydow has no problem playing the angst-ridden Haller – having acted in no fewer than eleven films directed by Ingemar Bergman, von Sydow should have regarded “Steppenwolf” as a walkover – Sanda and Romanelli’s portrayals of their respective characters come close to being soporific. One would think that Hermine would be alternating between acting flirtatiously with Haller and being serious and concerned for him. Clementi does a fine job as the flamboyant and sexually ambiguous Pablo in the few minutes allotted to the character. The real attraction of “Steppenwolf” though is in its surreal animation: it may look very outdated to modern viewers, and is of a piece with films of its time that also relied on surreal / psychedelic animation, but nevertheless it can be quite imaginative. The cartoon that is the “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” is fun to watch with animated cut-outs and collages reminiscent of the animation used on the Monty Python and the Flying Circus comedy series; the later animation used in the Magic Theatre scenes is more psychedelic than surreal but is surprisingly easy to follow and digest. There are scenes in the film which used bleached film stock to emphasise their dream-like, hallucinatory nature.

By contrast the live action parts of the film are stodgy and slow with uneven acting and dialogue that is harder to understand than it should be due to the cast’s different accents. (The entire cast speaks in English, yet English is not the first language of any of the major actors.) Fans of animation must wait until the film is well past its halfway point. At least the plot is not difficult to follow and viewers following Haller right to the end will be relieved to know he does find some peace with himself. On the other hand, viewers may not find much peace in the music soundtrack in the film’s later scenes: there is too much boring blaring synthesiser in the psychedelic prog-rock instrumental sections playing over the Magic Theatre scenes, and not enough dissonant jazz to set the mood in earlier parts of the film.

The film has achieved cult status due to its obscure viewing history but that does not mean it’s a great film. Readers of the original novel are likely to find the film a disappointment and need to set their expectations low.

Inherent Vice: a faithful if meandering and flat adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon neo-noir comedy

Paul Thomas Anderson, “Inherent Vice” (2014)

Director Paul Thomas Anderson must be commended for daring to tackle a Thomas Pynchon novel and managing to be faithful to the book’s convoluted comedy neo-noir plot with its quirky cast of characters and Pynchon’s themes of paranoia, conspiracy theories in sub-plots that are never resolved, and strange sinister groups and individuals operating underground as both criminals and law enforcement. Beneath an apparent surface of late 1960s / early 1970s hippie counter-cultural ideals lurks an evil force – the “inherent vice” – that is infecting US politics and American institutions. Not for nothing “Inherent Vice” is set in a period just after the infamous murders committed by acolytes of Charles Manson at Spahn Ranch in California in 1969 and during Richard Nixon’s first term as US President (and presumably before his meeting with Elvis Presley): this is a period when US soft power (through its youth culture and music) was at its peak, together with US prosperity, before the Vietnam War and its huge expenses, financially and socially, along with Nixon’s own corrupt activity, among other things set the nation on its path to slow decline.

Everything seems to begin simply and innocently enough when down-and-out private investigator Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) receives an unexpected visit from ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston) who tells him that she has been approached by the wife of her current lover, property developer millionaire Michael “Mickey” Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), to help the missus and the missus’ boyfriend to arrange for Mickey to be kidnapped and committed to a mental asylum. At the same time, Sportello gets a call from Tariq Khalil, a black underground activist with a prison-based revolutionary group, to find white supremacist Glen Charlock who owes Khalil money and who happens to be working for Wolfmann. Visiting a massage parlour in one of Wolfmann’s developments, Sportello meets Jade (Hong Chau) while searching for Charlock; unbeknownst to him, Jade and the police have already set him up for murdering Charlock. Facing murder charges, Sportello is interviewed by detective Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) who tells him Wolfmann has disappeared. Sportello’s attorney Sancho (Benicio del Toro) rescues him.

If that sounds complicated enough, another sub-plot develops: Sportello is asked by junkie Hope (Jena Malone) to look for her missing musician husband Coy (Owen Wilson), whom Sportello finds in short order. Coy is in hiding because he is a police informant and he fears for his life. Sportello gets a message from Jade who apologises for setting him up and warns him to “beware of the Golden Fang”. Meeting Jade in an alley, Sportello learns the Golden Fang is an international drug-smuggling ring. Some time later, Sancho gives Sportello information about a suspicious boat called the Golden Fang which apparently sailed away with Shasta Fay on board. Sportello later receives a postcard from Shasta and uses it to search for and enter a recently constructed building shaped like a golden fang. There, he meets eccentric cokehead dentist Dr Blatnoyd (Martin Short), making out with teenage girl Japonica Fenway (Sasha Pieterse), whom Sportello had found as a runaway and returned to her parents some years previously. Sportello explores the building and discovers the Chryskylodon Institute, an asylum run by the Golden Fang organisation (the name “Chryskylodon” itself refers to Golden Fang) where, lo and behold, Coy and (later) Wolfmann happen to be inmates.

Some time later, Bigfoot notifies Sportello that Dr Blatnoyd has been found dead with fang marks in his neck and tells him to look for a guy called Puck Beaverton. While going about his business, Sportello is visited by Shasta who is oblivious to the fuss she has caused. He later gets a file from Deputy District Attorney Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon) on contract killer / loan shark Adrian Prussia: the file not only shows that Prussia was hired by Los Angeles Police Department to get rid of people but also that he killed Bigfoot’s former partner Vincent Indelicato. Hey presto, Prussia is also connected to Golden Fang and most likely killed Charlock. Sportello pays a visit to Prussia and Beaverton, and narrowly escapes from their clutches when the visit turns sour. Bigfoot rescues Sportello and plants drugs in his car. Sportello arranges through Japonica Fenway’s wealthy dad (Martin Donovan) to return the drugs to Golden Fang in a deal that also releases Coy from being a police informant and returns him to Hope and their daughter Amethyst.

The fiendish nature of the fragmented plot and inter-linked subplots and the rich cast contrast with the lackadaisical characters, the meandering narrative and the minimal direction and music soundtrack. One expects the film to be quite colourful given its Los Angeles setting and time-period, and it is though not to the zany extreme that might also be expected for a comedy neo-noir film. While the characters are not especially deep, given that most of them occupy a few minutes of film-time and then they’re gone forever, they can make quite an impression through their sheer loopiness or (in the case of Adrian Prussia and Puck Beaverton) hardened brutality. The one character viewers really care for is Sportello, played with all his stoned-out eccentricity by Phoenix who immerses himself in the role fully. As corrupt cop Bigfoot Bjornsen with a fixation for sucking on chocolate bananas in an embarrassingly explicit way, Josh Brolin sends up the stereotype suggested in the character in his distinctive no-nonsense, hard-bitten way.

Some of the coincidences that occur, especially those near the end, seem very forced – Prussia’s connection to Golden Fang and Charlock’s death seems a bit too stretched and convenient – and the film resolves all its plot threads rather too tidily for a conventional Hollywood ending in which Sportello unites a family before he and Shasta sail off into the sunset happily ever after. In the Pynchonesque universe where few things are ever that neat and plots and sub-plots may come and go without resolution, such an ending would never be entertained.

While well acted and looking distinctly day-glo bleached-out, and with a casual style all its own, “Inherent Vice” does meander at a slow pace and probably should have been made as a two-part mini-series. The various characters may be too kooky and stoned-out for present-day Western audiences to accept. Why Sportello and several characters should be this way, and whether being high on drugs is actually a way for people to cope with repression, brutality and a fear that society is becoming more dysfunctional and not less, are never explained. A better Pynchon novel to adapt into a film might have been “The Crying of Lot 49” and some of Pynchon’s longer works may lend themselves to mini-series adaptations. The possibility that Anderson made “Inherent Vice” as a vanity project just to prove that a Thomas Pynchon novel can be made into a film is too strong to ignore; the film does reek of self-indulgence on Anderson’s part.

Batman: The Movie – a cult bad-movie masterpiece with a daring and subversive edge

Leslie H Martinson, “Batman: The Movie” (1966)

In an age when comic book superheroes were treated with the respect and dignity they deserved, this film – spun off from the television series of Batman and Robin’s crusades against crime in Gotham City to cash in on its cult popularity – is not only a comic bad-movie masterpiece but brilliantly captures the mood and style of 1960s pop culture. The film and TV series together also reflect the mood and style of the Batman comics of the time, with no little exaggeration and parody (and in their parody, criticise US censorship laws of the period that forced comics to didactically uphold traditional middle-class American values). The acting is exaggerated and hammy, the dialogue oozes cheese throughout and the plot is basically a string of comedy skits that only really make sense after the film finishes.

Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) are tipped off that Commodore Schmidlapp is in trouble aboard his yacht and attempt to rescue him when they sight it. The yacht suddenly vanishes and the dynamic duo discover they have been led into a trap. They later deduce that the trap was laid for them by the United Underworld, a new organisation formed by their most deadly enemies: Catwoman (Lee Meriwether), the Joker (Cesar Romero), the Penguin (Burgess Meredith) and the Riddler (Frank Gorshin). The fearsome foursome have kidnapped Schmidlapp to seize his invention: a dehydrator gun that turns humans into coloured powder. The criminals use various means to try to destroy Batman and Robin, including a plot using Catwoman disguised as Soviet journalist Miss Kitka to lure and kidnap millionaire Bruce Wayne (Batman’s alter ego) so as to draw the superheroes into rescuing him and thus falling into another trap. All the various schemes hatched by the supervillains – most of the brilliant ideas coming from the Penguin – ultimately fail to affect the dynamic duo though in some scenarios the superheroes’ survival is due to pure and improbable “deus ex machina” luck such as a porpoise hurling itself in front of a torpedo to save the humans.

Our heroes are unable to prevent the kidnapping of the diplomats representing the member nations of the United World Organisation Security Council by the supervillains who use the dehydrator gun on them. Batman and Robin hop into the Batboat and chase the crooks who are trying to leave town in the Penguin’s submarine. Robin uses a sonic charge gun to force the submarine to surface and from there the dynamic duo must fight the supervillains and their minions to recover the phials of coloured powder that the diplomats have become.

The film’s first half is a colourful riot of sight gags, in-jokes, silly acting and the most deadpan silly dialogue ever to pass between two individuals in the history of superhero films, which West and Ward dutifully carry out with the straightest of straight faces. Batman and Robin are essentially incorruptible figures of goodness that fight for justice and radiate the innocence, even naivety of such virginal symbols. While the cast enjoy themselves, their roles are very uneven: Meredith and Meriwether as the Penguin and Catwoman respectively have more work to do than Romero’s Joker and Gorshin’s Riddler who do little more than go along for a ride in the Penguin’s submarine and behave clownishly. The criminals ham up their evil tendencies and just barely manage to get along to get their plot to hold the world to ransom off the ground. West is called upon to demonstrate a more romantic side of his character and passes muster with a surprising mix of earnest po-faced style and aggressive intensity.

After the halfway mark, the film becomes a more formulaic piece as the superheroes race to rescue the diplomats and unexpectedly deliver a possible gift to the world in their attempts to rehydrate the politicians. The novelty value of the individual characters, the colourful sets, and the comedy episodes in which Batman and Robin stumble into ingenious traps and must escape death quickly wears off. The film delivers its own comment about the Cold War and the ability or inability of world leaders and diplomats to bring about world peace. (That a comedy parody featuring hammy acting, silly dialogue and a laughable plot would introduce comment on global politics and its worth and carry it off is sheer genius.) At the same time, Batman experiences wrenching heartbreak when he discovers that Miss Kitka and Catwoman are one and the same; his reaction is genuinely tragic to watch but he continues to carry himself with dignity.

For all its limitations, the film is a cult classic of its time: its highlights include its high production values, including the sets; the science fiction elements and gadgetry; the glee with which scriptwriters invent traps and dilemmas for the superheroes; the subversive undercurrent running beneath Batman and Robin’s strait-laced relationship; and the suggestion that our political leaders do not serve us well but greedily pursue power and influence over us.

 

Sans Soleil: a pretentious and confusing film that plays a stupid joke on its audience at its end

Chris Marker, “Sans Soleil” (1983)

Picture yourself receiving a letter from a long-time friend who has been living and travelling for many years in Japan, Iceland and Guinea-Bissau (a small country in western Africa). Everything he writes about in the letter – and it’s a very long letter too – revolves around the transience and fragility of memory, the malleability of history, what people across the world yearn for and dream of, and the quest for meaning in life wherever it is. He wants to capture everything he sees and hears, whether in writing or in filming it (he’s a film buff and knows Alfred Hitchcock’s work, especially the classic “Vertigo”) and he’s trying to find a story-line or narrative that can encompass all he experiences of contemporary Japanese culture with all its contradictions and complexities, its startling ultra-modern technology co-existing with ancient temple ceremonies, social rituals and superstitions; and what he knows of Guinea-Bissau’s history and politics. (You know your friend is sympathetic towards leftist politics but is not heavily concerned with socialist ideology.) No matter how he tries, the concept seems to be too overwhelming so he hits you with everything that makes a deep impression on him, all the things that made him cry for joy or weep in despair; but out of all this melange, he hopes to inspire you, to break all barriers of time, space, cultures and all our mental constructs to reach out to you and to connect with you.

In a nutshell, that’s “Sans Soleil”, French director Chris Marker’s attempt to combine in one very long and overwhelming visual work his meditations on the nature of time, space and history, and their circular nature which climax in his overwrought discussion on the treatment of memory in the movie “Vertigo”. While the images presented are often very beautiful, thanks to various special effects and filming techniques that renders some very hallucinatory and abstract, others can be extremely disturbing and still others seem quite pointless.

The film suffers from its own ambition and Marker’s own arrogance: the narration covers far too much ground in such a superficial way that much of the film where it covers Guinea-Bissau and aspects of Japanese culture (that is to say, the bulk of the film) almost seems racist. In particular the film’s broad sweep across Japanese culture and the attention it devotes to social fads that blow away Japanese people from time to time suggest not so much a deep love and understanding of the nature of Japanese people and society, and why they are the way they are, but instead a kind of creepy voyeurism that exoticises and makes fun of its subjects. There is nothing in the film that hints that Marker makes any attempt to know and try to understand the strains that Japanese society might be under, why the country was (even in the 1980s) heading for a demographic crash and to connect with Japanese people themselves, even if that connection is with one or two individuals.

The narration is dull and repetitive and the music soundtrack with its bleached acid-psychedelic sounds and effects is so badly dated that it gives the impression of the film being ten years older than it actually is. Although the version of the film that I saw was digitally remastered, some images are very blurry and substandard in their appearance and the soundtrack desperately needs remastering and cleaning up.

A confused and confusing film that ends up saying the worst about its director, that presents his superficial observations about aspects of foreign cultures (removing them from their proper historical contexts); and moreover contains a cheap twist about the real nature of your friend – so the “narrative” itself includes you as the antagonist, not as a narrator removed from the action, and everything in the film could have been imagined by a political prisoner or an asylum inmate (and now you know why the film is called “Sans Soleil” meaning “without sun” in English)- can only be considered a buffoonish and pretentious fantasy. The notion then that memory is fragile and history is circular becomes a tool that could be used to serve a sinister agenda and exploit people – as Scotty discovers (in “Vertigo”) that he and the woman he thought was Madeleine are used and exploited by the real Madeleine’s husband to cover up the murder of his wife.

The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover: a parable on the decline and fall of neoliberal British society and culture

Peter Greenaway, “The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover” (1989)

Straight away viewers can tell there’s much more simmering away in this story about a cook, a thief, his wife and her lover. This is no simple tale of a love triangle, with all its messy and emotional complications and unfortunate consequences, that forms over food and its consumption – especially when Peter Greenaway is the one shaping the narrative and the film’s visual appearance which draws heavily on Renaissance and Baroque art in a very formal and artificial way. This is a film of rage at the decline and fall of Western civilisation and British civilisation in particular, through an allegory that tells of the greed of an elite that ravages society and culture to feed its own spiritual and moral emptiness, that destroys life and imposes its rule on vulnerable people, and which can only end up destroying itself through its own gluttony.

Through means fair and foul (but mostly foul, I suspect), the mobster Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) claims ownership of Le Hollandais, a high-class restaurant run by French chef Richard Boarst (Richard Bohringer), and crudely demonstrates who’s boss by holding court at the main table every night with his retinue of thugs, gorging on food and fighting with customers who dare to criticise the food and with kitchen and waiting staff alike. Forced to accompany Spica is his timid wife Georgina (Helen Mirren) who quickly catches the attention of bookish regular customer Michael (Alan Howard) with whom she begins a secretive affair aided and abetted by Boarst. Spica learns of the affair from the girlfriend of one of his myrmidons and Georgina and Michael are forced to hide at his book depository. Spica eventually tracks down the lovers through young kitchen-hand Pup (who is also tortured) and he and his men suffocate and kill Michael while Georgina is away visiting Pup in hospital. Georgina and Boarst plot to avenge Michael’s death in a way that unravels like a 17th-century Jacobean revenge tragedy parable that traps Spica in his own greed, gluttony and violence.

The formal artificiality of the film and its self-referential nature help to smooth over much of its intense brutality and the high emotion and drama. The colours of the film – which also pervade Georgina’s quaint Victorian-styled bondage costumes, changing their hue as she passes from one part of the restaurant to another – reference the close relationships linking life, food, sex, death and rebirth. It is with the death of Michael that Georgina finally discovers her true nature and is reborn – though that new nature itself is not pure. It is with the death of the restaurant that Boarst is able to assist Georgina in paying back Spica for all the abuse and violence he has meted out to her. It is only with the death of Spica that everyone he has belittled can finally heal and become normal human beings entitled to freedom, love and a culture that prizes learning, contemplation and a love of the written word.

While the film is horrific in its extreme and gross violence and the filth and corruption that surrounds the restaurant and follow Spica and his band of murderous men, what saves it is the complexity of the characters: Spica genuinely desires to be and to have what Georgina has (refinement), even if he doesn’t quite know how to achieve it except by bullying his minions, and he weeps for what he and Georgina will never have together (children, a stable family life). Georgina changes drastically from timid put-upon abused wife to secretive and vivacious lover, to cold-blooded and vengeful bitch. Exactly what Michael offers Georgina is not too clear – it’s certainly not freedom as she keeps returning to Spica every evening – and his character more or less remains bland while he is alive (though perhaps to a woman whose husband’s behaviour goes from one violent extreme to another, the lover’s very blandness must be his most attractive quality).

The film is too long with an overly loud and shrieky musical soundtrack to be one of Greenaway’s better films. The end when it comes is abrupt compared to the rest of the movie and one isn’t too sure that Georgina, Richard and all the others wronged by Spica are justified in what they have done to him; but then, that’s the lesson of life: greed and violence corrupt people, culture and society wherever they go.

 

My Winnipeg: an intriguing blend of memoir, documentary and surreal dark fantasy in a paean to a little city on the prairie

Guy Maddin, “My Winnipeg” (2007)

An unusual blend of memoir, documentary and dark fantasy, Guy Maddin’s “My Winnipeg” probably does more to promote his home city, out on the prairies in the middle of Canada and the entire North American continent, than a hundred thousand travel agency brochures could do. Instead of presenting an overgrown railway transportation hub town that freezes over five months a year (although the city is also surprisingly one of Canada’s sunniest places), Maddin gives us a Winnipeg as an unlikely chthonic deity with a darkly magnetic sexual energy and an occult, even sinister personality. At the same time, Winnipeg is a universal city, suffering from the same problems that large cities the world over are blighted with: underhand and corrupt city politics, the demolition of beloved landmarks like the ice hockey stadium or an old elm tree, and conflicts between the city’s political and economic elites and the factory workers they exploit. This presentation runs in parallel with Maddin’s exploration of his past, in particular his complicated relationship with his mother (played by Ann Savage) and his equally complicated sexuality, as a way of coming to terms with the environment that made him what he is.

The film’s plot structure is ingenious: it takes the form of Guy Maddin (played by Darcy Fehr, with Maddin providing voice-over narration) on a train leaving Winnipeg to where he possibly knows not, lying on a bed in his compartment and wrestling with the problem of what he needs to do to be able to escape Winnipeg, where he has lived all his life. He decides to film a fantasy documentary recounting events from his life in Winnipeg and from the city’s own history as a way of coming to terms with Winnipeg and his own family history so he can leave. Hence the reason for the film already scrolling before our very eyes. From here on in, the road-movie theme encompasses a series of episodes that leap from the personal and family experiences to the greater experiences of the city and back again. ot

To be honest I found Guy Maddin’s recollections of past incidents involving family members not all that interesting, not to mention suspect in their veracity in case readers are wondering; these “remembered” incidents only appear to underline the sexual links, real or imagined, between family members (especially Mom) and Winnipeg, and the hold they have over Maddin. The incidents in Winnipeg’s history, real or not, are far more intriguing, bizarre or eccentric: a fire at a racetrack panics horses in nearby stables and they rush out into the cold wintry night and plunge into a river, only to freeze to death, their frozen heads above the icy surface of the waters the only evidence of their deaths when they are found the following morning. (The incident is relayed with animation and still shots in such a way as to suggest there was something predetermined about this tragedy, that the horses – themselves often symbolic of sexuality and sexual control in dreams – were following a script laid out for them even before their births.) A determined attempt by elderly matriarchs to save an elm tree from being destroyed to make way for a city development ends when the tree is attacked by a gang of thugs during the night. In the 1930s a spiritualist craze spreads like fever to the highest echelons of Winnipeg city council. Such a quirky selection of events in the city’s history makes Winnipeg seem more alive and vibrant than a coach tour of its museums, art galleries, restaurants and cafes does.

For the most part the film is shot in black-and-white which helps give the blurry cinematography a mysteriously shadowy Gothic style. Historical film of actual events (whether relayed accurately or not), acted scenes of past family dramas and animated sections are united by Maddin’s voice-over narration which lends the movie a faux-documentary sheen. In lesser hands the film could have been laughably bombastic but Canadian self-deprecating humour ensures that Winnipeg, whether representative of all cities, an overgrown set of houses on the prairie or a network of layers of narratives of different cultures that combine to give this cow-town a richer tapestry than it could have hoped for, has a charm all its own. Even the fact that Winnipeg gets covered in snow for several months a year is treated in a way that induces a sense of wonder – and frequent still shots of black criss-crossed by white noise slash add to the mystery – rather than fright in potential tourists.

As to be expected with films by Guy Maddin, “My Winnipeg” defies convention and becomes a surreal dream-like paean to home, family, community and city, and the stories (real, depressing or fantastical) that they carry or threaten to carry.