A Clockwork Orange: a political and social comedy satire relying too much on audiovisual shock tactics

Stanley Kubrick, “A Clockwork Orange” (2013)

Not a bad film but for what it is, “A Clockwork Orange” is fussy and relies too much on shock, bright colours and the juxtaposition of apparent high-brow symbols and low-brow brutality and violence to wow viewers. The main character Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is an out-of-control working-class teenager running wild in a near-future London where law and order have broken down. Leading a gang of three others, all of whom and he dress in the same outfits of bowler hats, walking sticks and bland suits, Alex fights other gangs, vandalises buildings, rapes women and breaks into the houses of rich people to trash the furniture and beat up those who get in their way. Alex’s friends eventually tire of his self-indulgence and lack of respect for them and they set him up to be captured by police. While in prison, he volunteers to undergo aversion therapy which leaves him completely broken, unable to defend himself or cope with life after he leaves prison. After a failed suicide attempt, the British government “acknowledges” that it has treated him badly and takes him back under its wing – to act as a tool of its surveillance of the general population.

Seen from the point of view of Alex himself who narrates the film’s proceedings in a neutral and emotionally drained voice, the film has an oddly remote style and so much of the real shock that Kubrick could have inflicted on audiences is blunted. Had audiences been forced to be complicit in Alex’s crimes, by hearing his descriptions of how he felt during his acts, the shock of the victims’ sufferings could have made a much greater impact on viewers. As it is though, viewers are more or less expected to feel pity for Alex once he has undergone aversion therapy and is victimised by the various people he has abused in the past, in a circular pattern common to Stanley Kubrick films.

McDowell puts in a great performance as Alex and the role may have typecast him as a villainous baby-faced anti-hero. Other actors play a constantly shifting parade of stereotypes around Alex; there is great political and social satire in the way these characters behave towards Alex. Alex’s former thug friends end up in the police force, people who express horror at the way prisoners are abused change their tune when they meet Alex and recognise him, and the government minister who approved Alex’s “rehabilitation” and carried it out enthusiastically later admits his error and then happily returns him to his brutal and thuggish ways in a way that insinuates the youngster will do so on behalf of the State.

The main worth of the film is that it presents a moral dilemma about social and cultural breakdown and the ways in which society deals with its consequences. None of the characters appearing in the film is at all attractive and all are mean-spirited and debased in some way. Even the intellectual writer who might be expected to show some compassion for Alex is revealed as vengeful and small-minded; ironically he ends up in the tender embrace of the British prison system which appears as an adulterated version of a World War II concentration camp. Several contradictory themes are presented: coercion and conditioning of people to make of them conformist and compliant versus allowing them to express free will and choice; the use of technical fixes to clear up problems in the short term but which create more problems in the long term; the role of violence in modern society as a tool of control and how the public views it (good when used to put away criminals, bad when inflicted on law-abiding or helpless individuals) and the issue of nature versus nurture in the making of Alex himself. Is Alex a product of the family that reared him or of the society in which he lives? Was he really born bad and should his moral compass, which inclines him towards violence and self-indulgence, be taken away from him?

For all the questions the film asks, there is nothing that questions the society itself and how it is that everybody in the world Alex lives in has ended up as selfish and self-absorbed robots in their differing ways. While the comedy template drives home the unsympathetic brutal anti-hero nature of Alex, it also has the effect of distancing audiences from the characters and action and I wonder if that was done mainly to get the film past the censors at the time than as a necessary vehicle to carry the plot and action.

 

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: a psychedelic slapstick comedy satire on American society and its values

Terry Gilliam, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (1998)

From that period of Johnny Depp’s acting career when the films he was making were actually quite significant and not a waste of his talent comes this road movie corker based on journalist Hunter S Thompson’s memoir of his car trip to Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle race. For the role of Thompson in his alter ego Raoul Duke, Depp had to shave the top part of his head: not the usual thing for self-obsessed actors to do. Accompanied by Benicio del Toro playing Thompson’s gun-crazy attorney, Depp takes viewers on a roller-coaster ride to Vegas at the dawn of the 1970s, after Woodstock and Altamont. Directed by Terry Gilliam, the film simulates something of a drug addict’s viewpoint of the culture he encounters in Vegas, the values and assumptions that inform it and how this culture reflects and is reflected by the hippie counter-culture he’s familiar with back in California.

The plot narrative is a string of incidents coming one after another so viewers should not expect a straightforward and coherent story with a clearly defined beginning, the unfolding of the story and its characters, rising tension culminating in a climax and then a denouement. At just under two hours, the film can seem much longer due to the lack of a conventional story-line and it does sag in parts. But that’s the point: the film is as much a fictional documentary of mainstream American culture of the period when the Vietnam War was raging and occupying people’s attention, civil rights was also a significant issue though barely referenced in the film and the youth culture of the time both critiqued the dominant culture and sought an alternative way through various avenues positive and negative. Gilliam resorts to clever camera tricks, a loud and garish emphasis on colour, slapstick, a voice-over narration by Depp in character and special effects to maintain audience attention; Gilliam’s bag of tricks works to an extent, to the point of drowning out the film’s criticism of both mainstream consumerist culture and the culture that arose in opposition to it.

The comedy is entertaining and the rare moments of seriousness when Duke reflects on the worlds he moves within – the dominant culture of materialism and greed, the counter-culture of youth, rock music, drugs and a shallow understanding of love and peace – are to be treasured. Duke’s drug haze allows the audience to view Western culture from a very different angle from what they are familiar with and what they see can be very ugly: fat middle-aged people obsessed with gambling and easy wealth, their own selfish needs and narrow and prejudiced minds, and the businesses and people who pander to their every whim and pamper them like infants. At the same time, both Duke and his attorney suffer severe side-effects of the substances they constantly imbibe and viewers become very aware of how the hippie dream turned sour for so many people. The film is very clear on the harm that drugs can do and on how a generation threw away so much hope because people believed that drugs were an easy way to achieving enlightenment and would somehow help bring about an end to war and divisions in society and instill a period of love, equality, connection with all humanity and peace. Few people realised at the time how deeply wounded American society was from its history and racial, political and class divisions.

For all its assets – and those are many: Depp and del Toro’s acting, the support cast that includes some quite illustrious actors like Harry Dean Stanton, the directing, the look of the film – I somehow feel that “Fear and Loathing …” does not give very much insight into Duke’s character, why he takes so many drugs and continues to take them after the ravages they wreak on his body and mind, and what he might be escaping from by taking them. Fortunately I chanced to read a review of a documentary by Alex Gibney on Hunter S Thompson, “Gonzo: the Life and Work of Hunter S Thompson” on the World Socialist website, and was able to see where Thompson was coming from in terms of his upbringing and social background, how his view of society was affected by the events he witnessed and the cultural phenomena he experienced, and the pessimism, demoralisation and depression he developed as he realised how corrupt and unredeemable American politics and culture had become. This explains his constant drug-taking which to his credit he understood was a way of running away from and denying the ugly reality of America, a path that so many other people also took. Thus the film “Fear and Loathing …” itself documents the fall of the hippie dream and the culture that it spawned as well as the degradation of the society that the hippie generation criticised. It is appropriate that the film ends on a somewhat sober note.

In its own way, “Fear and Loathing …” is something of an existential film, using Thompson’s drug haze as a metaphor for a search to a deeper meaning to existence, one in which humans can finally learn to live together in true love and peace, in harmony with their environment and all that’s in it, without relying on props like lies, propaganda, class divisions and drugs.

Fantastic Voyage: call for the doctor, this film of inner space has no vital signs!

Richard Fleischer, “Fantastic Voyage” (1966)

Set during the Cold War in the 1960s – or was it the 1990s? – “Fantastic Voyage” has a wonderful premise of space exploration … within the human body! Unfortunately the small budget allocated to the making of this film was used up in the design of the sets and effects and the salaries of the people who did them. While the plot must have looked interesting enough on paper, on film it’s so low-key it hardly generates any heat close enough to normal body temperature. Whatever the plot was meant to be, it was never fully realised in this film; director Fleischer and his crew were too caught up in the wonder of having a tiny submarine take five people through blood vessels through the heart and into the brain to think about bringing to life (ha!) the plot, its themes and the characters in the film.

A defecting Russian scientist is badly wounded during an ambush and he lapses into a coma. Because his knowledge of secret technology is valued, the US government arranges for a secret medical unit within the Pentagon to miniaturise a medical team in a submarine and inject the lot into the man’s artery to perform internal neurosurgery, since this cannot be done from the outside. Once inside the body, the team must battle a series of obstacles to reach the brain where the injury was done. One of the team, a security agent (Stephen Boyd) discovers there is a saboteur on board. He must discover who the saboteur is before that person can stop the operation from going ahead. The team is given only 60 minutes to repair the damage before the effects of miniaturisation wear off, the submarine starts returning to normal size and is attacked by white macrophages.

It all sounds quite exciting but the genius of the film is that its small budget forced a bare-bones style of narrative and action. The acting is just sufficient to keep the dialogue and action going; the only real acting we see belongs to Donald Pleasance who plays the villain of the piece. Raquel Welch as one of the crew members provides an eye candy moment when, during an emergency repair job on the sub, she is hurled into some lymphatic nodes and is attacked by antibodies. The rest of the crew rescue her and have to pull the antibodies off her curvaceous form. Boyd’s agent carries out most of the heroic action and thinks up the most risky ideas to keep the mission going.

The real star of the film though is the body through which the sub travels: it supplies beautifully coloured backgrounds of lava-lamp blobby blood corpuscles glowing red and blue, seaweed-like forests in the lymphatic system, hay-like wax in the inner ear canals and ice-crystalline caves in the brain that periodically flash lights (representing nerve impulses). Much imagination went into the set design and its colouring.

Due to the wooden acting and skeletal plot, the film relies very heavily on the technology of its time and as a result has dated very badly. There are themes about God versus Darwin and religion generally, and the film opts for a point of view in synchrony with the prevailing conservative political and cultural views of 1960s mainstream American society. The Cold War context intrudes at a critical point in the film but otherwise is left as a loose end; indeed, several loose ends are left dangling when the mission has concluded. We do not know whether the operation is successful and what secrets the Russian scientist was carrying. “Fantastic Voyage” could have been more than a jaw-dropping visual experience but instead it’s very lumpen. There are rare moments of humour involving a couple of Pentagon generals waiting out the 60 minutes with cigarettes, coffee and sugar but apart from those the film flat-lines more than shows any vital signs.

La Belle et La Bête: a visually sumptuous film both clear in its themes and ambiguous in its details

Jean Cocteau, “La Belle et La Bête” (1946)

A beautiful and sumptuous film, this interpretation of the famous fairy tale by surrealist writer / film-maker Jean Cocteau is an investigation into the polarity of deceptive appearance and hidden reality. Within the story of the young girl who sees the loneliness and suffering of a fellow being in spite of his repulsive and bestial visage is other layers of fairy tale stereotype – Cocteau throws in a faux-Cinderella piece with two wicked sisters, a cowardly brother and handsome but spiritually beastly suitor – and a motif of duality expressed in the casting of Jean Marais as both the suitor Avenant and the Beast. There may well be a Freudian sub-text at work here, most notably in the ending when the hero and heroine of the piece fly into the clouds, never to return (or at least not until they’re required to smoke cigarettes in bed together).

The glory of the film is in its design: most scenes are set up as dioramas in which the action takes place. Long white curtains swirl from windows like wisps of smoke as Belle walks down a corridor. As characters pass by props, candelabra lights held by human hands turn on, doors open and close of their own accord and a statue’s eyes move to follow the character’s movements. In one memorable scene, Belle glides through the Beast’s castle in slow motion, her veil and the drapes of her dress flowing out behind her like a wedding-gown train. There are many scenes of similar exquisite beauty, many of them suggesting purity and innocence but with a suggestion of something a little more sinister within. The unearthliness of most scenes is highlighted by the use of unconventional camera angles: furniture and other props are placed in such a way as to emphasise something unusual about them.

The characters are portrayed well by the actors though Jean Marais as suitor Avenant, the Beast and Prince Ardent dominates through his physicality and expressive and handsome face. As Beast, heavily made up and wearing prosthetics, his eyes manage to successfully convey the Beast’s inner torment about the curse laid upon him and the encroaching “bestial” nature that threatens to subsume more noble qualities. The minor characters of Belle’s sisters Felicity and Adelaide, her ne’er-do-well brother Ludovic and his equally lazy pal Avenant embody the idea that appearance is not everything and it’s the inner person who matters more. Belle is a Cinderella character who appears innocent yet reveals an ambiguous nature when she confesses to Ardent that she did indeed love Avenant in spite of his boorish behaviour towards her earlier in the film.

It’s possible that a number of in-jokes feature in the film: in Marais portraying both Avenant and the Beast, Cocteau not only draws attention to the polarities of beauty / ugliness and outer appearance / inner spirit but also aspects of human sexuality: both Avenant and the Beast have good and bad qualities that respect and threaten Belle respectively. Avenant may be selfish but he is also brave, energetic and, well, ardent; the Beast may be a saintly figure in some respects but he’s also creepy in demanding that Belle must say whether she will marry him or not.

The dialogue is made simple enough for children to be able to follow though the fairy tale retelling works for both adults and children. Children will quickly see the moral behind the narrative: the good and faithful are rewarded while greedy people get their just desserts. Adults are sure to catch the many little ambiguities that appear in the film.

The stunning look of the film and its effects are all the more wondrous when you consider it was made in post-war France when the country was still in ruins: the film-makers used ingenuity and creative thinking in setting up a number of effects. The result is a film with a gorgeous look and a magical quality that back up its themes.

 

Black Moon: surreal film on death and rebirth that satirises political, cultural and social issues of 1970s

Louis Malle, “Black Moon” (1975)

A curious film this is, based on Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”, in which Alice figure Lily (Cathryn Harrison) is fleeing a civil war and ends up in a mysterious remote country mansion where the normal logic of life she is used to is completely overturned. Here, humans are mute but animals speak and plants scream; an elderly woman (Therese Giehse) stays in bed all day, listening to her radio and being breast-fed by one of her children, Sister Lily (Alexandra Stewart); feral naked children romp around the grounds with a pig; a strange young man, Brother Lily (Joe Dallessandro), communicates to Lily by touch; and the only being Lily can have a rational conversation (well, sort of) with is a tubby black unicorn.

The pivotal point of the film after a series of rather comic and twee sketches that involve Lily running all over the place, trying to understand what’s going on, and throwing temper tantrums in frustration is in the evening lounge-room scene in which Lily plays a piece from “Tristan und Isolde” on piano that becomes ever more deranged before a group of the feral children. Immediately after this piece, the sun rises and Lily witnesses Brother Lily decapitate an eagle with a sword, emulating a scene in a painting in which an Indian Hindu prince does the same. Later, while Brother and Sister Lily fight each other almost to the death with knife and stave, and army forces from outside surround the mansion, Lily retires to the old woman’s bed and offers to breast-feed the unicorn which has mysteriously appeared.

The film has a stream-of-consciousness dream narrative which explains the loose structure in which incidents come and go and viewers are left scratching their heads at whether there is any connection or meaning that will become apparent later in the film.

“Black Moon” is really very mystifying and I must confess that after reading a review on the IMDb database that a lot of things became clearer. If one refers to pre-Christian Germanic mythology, some things do make sense: Lily represents the birth of a new world (as demonstrated when she enters the bed of the old woman who represents the death of the old world) and Brother and Sister Lily are her children who in their fighting represent the dualities that might be inherent in human nature and indeed the cosmos. The most basic duality in humans is the male-female one and the opposition between men and women is a theme threaded right through the film. The eagle might represent one of Odin’s messengers that fly over the world during the day and report back to him at night; its death might represent the battle of Ragnarok. The unicorn carries the horn that itself contains the antidote to the poison of conflict, violence and warfare including chemical, biological and nuclear warfare.

The cinematography is beautiful and includes close-up shots of centipedes, a praying mantis and snakes (symbols of fertility) with one close-up concentrating on a snake crawling up Lily’s leg while she’s lying on the old woman’s bed and into … well, you can guess. The symbolism in this part of the film should be obvious to all but the very young or very naive. The three young actors themselves have quite an unearthly, almost pre-Raphaelite beauty.

The film isn’t intended to impart a message or whack viewers over the head about what they’re doing to the planet: it’s a reflection of Malle’s times and the social, cultural and political issues prevalent then, expressed in a way that perhaps satirises them in a gentle way. The absurd nature of the film points up the absurd nature of many of humanity’s concerns and obsessions which block our connection to nature. In our world, only animals and plants make any sense and perhaps speak the truth, however strange it may be.

Spring Breakers: surprisingly well-made and sarcastic film about the search for a meaningful life

Harmony Korine, “Spring Breakers” (2012)

Contrary to most reports I’ve seen or heard about this film, “Spring Breakers” is actually a very well-made piece with a strong if sarcastic plot and a universal theme that is very moving. Four young college-age girls, fed up with their boring lives swotting at school and yearning for something different, exciting and above all fun, scrape together money obtained in an unusual way – well, all right, three of them robbed a diner – and take the long-distance bus down to Florida where together with all the other bored college-age kids from across America party-party-party, do drugs, flirt with horny guys, crash out in hotel rooms and leave trash wherever they go. The law catches up with them for being under-age and doing things they shouldn’t, and the frisky fillies end up in county jail. A hiphop DJ gangster called Alien (James Franco) is impressed with the girls in their court-room appearances, so much so he bails them out to use them for his own ends.

Two of the girls, Faith (Selena Gomez) and Cotty (Rachel Korine, Harmony’s wife), bail out for reasons of their own, leaving their friends Brit (Ashley Benson) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) to assist Alien when he is threatened by his arch-rival Big Arch (Gucci Mane). At this point the film becomes very surrealistic and the question for audiences to ponder is whether what they see in the rest of the film is for real or is the girls’ fantasy. The end when it comes is very surprising and one questions whether, beneath the girls’ apparent dumbness, there lurks more animal cunning in their little fingers than there is in most men’s heads.

The film is very artfully made: it has the look of a home movie with the use of different film-stock, crazy camera angles and lots of deliberate repetition. The music soundtrack is an integral part of the film: the different songs appear to be just another soundtrack collation of dance tracks to look cool but sound effects are inserted into the songs to emphasise darker, more sinister subterranean suggestions that foretell doom. The music and effects complement the film’s plot perfectly and play up the girls’ apparent innocence as they stumble into one situation after another that would seem to be more than they can handle either as individuals or as a group.

The acting is adequate for the film but special mention should be made of Franco’s performance in giving his narcissistic character Alien more depth and nuance than it deserves. One starts to feel some sympathy for Alien, where he has come from, why he collects so much firepower machinery and Oriental weapons, and his collection, kitschy though it may be, of what passes for culture in the shallow and materialist world that is mainstream USA. Likewise, Big Arch becomes concerned that with Brit and Candy, Alien is making more inroads into his territory than he should be allowed to; we see him at home with his baby girl and his family, and we start to see him more as a family man than as the drug king-pin gangster he is. The girls themselves are very one-dimensional with Faith, the most “developed” character, being not much more than a pretty girl with a conscience and a conservative Christian background that isn’t of any help to her.

Repetition of scenes, the girls’ basic hedonistic and yearning character, and plot points serves to point up the banal and kitsch nature of US culture and society. The girls, brought up on Barbie dolls and Disney princesses, are bored with the shallow life they have led so far and the shallow life they see ahead of them, and spring break represents all that they yearn for: a break from conformity, a chance to experiment with a new life and outlook, the desire to be individuals, the opportunity for personal expression. Unfortunately spring break turns out to be just as empty and hollow as the life they left behind: other kids are just interested in exploiting one another or escaping from life through chemical means. The police intrude on their fun and the girls are forced to face, temporarily at least, the consequences of their self-absorbed and selfish hedonism.

The film’s theme of the search for happiness and fulfillment is a dark and troubling one: four youngsters, ill-prepared by their sheltered upbringing (sheltered in the sense that watching too much bad TV, spending all your time on social networks and exposure to feel-good fundamentalist Christianity together teach a false view of human nature and society), go on a journey to find the meaning of life, which they believe revolves around being happy and rich and enjoying material pleasures. Their adventures turn out to be empty and unfulfilling, and the girls become corrupted by their experiences. Though the film ends well for the four girls and all survive physically, spiritually they are dead inside: ironically, the right preparation they need to be Stepford wives – but that of course is another story …

 

The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 3: Escape in Time): the past really is a different country from which there’s no escape

John Krish, “The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 3: Escape in Time)” (1967)

A particularly memorable episode, “Escape in Time” is premised on the theme of time travel and how one can use it as a form of escape. Most of the time though, time travel occurs in our heads to escape the mundane present, to imagine a more exciting past than what actually existed or to consider a range of future possibilities, usually fun but sometimes more frightening than now. In this episode, a travel agent offers time travel to various corporate crooks and ex-dictators on the run from justice but invariably they get their comeuppance in that ultimate form of time travel: a river, in this case, the Thames River. When a couple of agents are also caught up in this vortex of time, those agents extraordinaire Steed (Patrick Macnee) and Peel (Diana Rigg) are called upon to retrace their predecessors’ steps as it were and themselves are thrown into England’s past. It’s a past with four dead-end itineraries which neither agent is able to get a refund of their deposits back on, and Steed and Peel must battle the travel agent (Peter Bowles) and return to the present (or the future as it were) if they are to take their complaint to the Department of Fair Trading.

Not a bad episode but the time travel idea is thin and its novelty wears off quickly. Much of the episode is taken up by tricky labyrinthine sequences in which an ex-dictator, then Steed, then Peel negotiate their respective ways through a toy-town to Thyssen Travel using stuffed animals as barter; there is also a later sequence, also done entirely without dialogue, in which Steed zips through the Georgian and the Restoration periods to the Inquisition to rescue Peel whose torture is taking its own sweet time. Although these sequences are nods to Alfred Hitchcock and silent films in being completely free of dialogue, they are very twee and contrived and serve to reinforce the idea that “The Avengers” takes place in a hyper-idealised world within layers of other idealised versions of Britain. Even the periods in which Thyssen claims he can send his customers to are very distorted and concentrated versions of what they really were: the Elizabethan Age as one of extreme religious fanaticism and use of torture, the 1680s as more refined and the 1790s as effete. Most fight sequences between Steed and a series of other villains are silly and overdone and don’t add anything to the plot.

The time travel itself is deconstructed as a scam and the time machine is simply a dizzily coloured corridor made more so with a whiff of sleeping gas given to the traveller. There is plenty of wit but to this reviewer who has seen the episode three times already, the dalliance between Peel and Matthew Thyssen on feminism is tired – Peel is not really all that emancipated, being a so-called amateur spy and in most episodes needing to be rescued by Steed – and the puns on time can be anticipated a mile away. The stand-out acting is by Bowles, playing several roles as the stammering Thyssen and his smooth-talking forebears, with honourable mention going to the actor who plays T Sweeney (ha!) the barber.

The episode has a very distinctive atmosphere with emphasis on bright colours; a slight psychedelic flavour is introduced during the “time travel” shots which are cleverly done with changing camera angles. Objects and set designs gain a lot of significance here with the primitive poker machine that initiates the time travel (who would believe that a simple slot machine could send a person back into the past?) and the various stuffed animals proving a real hoot. The Indian shop-keeper (Imogen Hassall) who gives Steed his instructions and introduces him to a statue of the Hindu elephant god Ganesha is an unexpected surreal touch that owes more to the influence of late ’60s hippie culture on Western society at the time than a prediction of the dominance of Indian subcontinental communities and culture on British society and culture 40 years after the episode was made.

As with other Avengers episodes, “Escape in Time” has many plot holes – the episode never makes clear what happens to all of Thyssen’s customers apart from the ex-dictator and the two agents who infiltrated the Thyssen mansion – and it was done on the cheap so many sets used do look artificial. The episode succeeds in making the artifice its theme: everything that happens here is artificial and the way in which Thyssen draws his victims into his web is also artificial. His “Tudor” mansion is a nineteenth-century country house. Ultimately the message seems to be that there really is no time like the present: escaping into the past is a kind of death sentence.

À propos de Nice: silent film satire on social inequalities and contemporary culture of 1930s France

Jean Vigo, “À propos de Nice” (1930)

Posing as “a day in the life” travelogue of the French city of Nice, Vigo’s documentary short is a cunning satire on social inequalities and contemporary culture of France at the dawn of a new decade. What gives the film its power is its soundless montage of images and scenes filmed and spliced together in ways that mock the pretensions of the nouveau riche / bourgeois classes and celebrate the earthy and more vital culture of working-class people.

The film begins with stunning aerial shots of the city followed by lapping waves on a beach and puppet forms of a couple visiting Nice for a holiday. The puppets, superimposed upon by images of a game of poker played at a casino, are quickly swept aside into a third layer of the beach scene and the film then focuses on early morning scenes of workers cleaning the promenades and generally prettifying the city to receive its daily wave of rich tourists. And arrive they do, only to plonk themselves down on cheap deck-chairs, read newspapers, snore and not pay attention to the flow of life around them. Vigo commences to deconstruct the sterile life-style of the wealthy by contrasting it with the vivacity and energy of the workers, most revealingly in parallel scenes of rich couples strutting stiffly in ballrooms while the ordinary people celebrate a carnival in which they carry giant papier-mache statues of grotesque figures, some of which are parodies of the rich. Throughout the film also we are treated to repeated images of ocean waves washing up and over sandy beaches and to images that stress the circularity of life from birth to maturity and finally to death.

The film’s major asset is its cinematography, courtesy of one Boris Kaufman the brother to Dziga Vertov (Denis Kaufman), he of “Man with a Movie Camera” fame: camera angles emphasise the phallic nature of huge towers and other buildings in a mock fetishisation of industry. The architecture and urban design of Nice are as much under attack by Vigo as representative of the power of the plutocracy as are the elites themselves. In one very memorable shot, the camera traces the curves of a building’s colonnade as if to blow invisible raspberries at the structure’s pretensions to classical grandeur. Near the end, there are brazen images in slow motion of otherwise dowdily dressed women mugging for the camera by dancing the can-can, flinging their legs high up in the air and knowingly flashing their knickers and stocking suspender belts at the audience. There are some distressing shots as well: a boy with what looks like a serious skin disease on his face stares at the camera briefly and a startled cat is caught next to a pile of rubbish on the ground.

A surrealist influence appears in a couple of sequences played for laughs: we see several shots of a woman on a deck-chair, her outfits constantly changing with each shot until in the last shot she appears nude; and a juxtaposition of three shots of a man on a deck-chair too, sunning himself until he appears mummified and then to reptilian form as suggested by the shot of several crocodiles at the end of the sequence!

If ever people need proof that with the arrival of sound, the film industry lost some pizzazz and an inventive, curious spirit, this film and other experimental pieces like it would be it. While modern audiences would be uncomfortable without a soundtrack, this first film by Vigo is recommended to art film connoisseurs and to film students to see how a completely silent story can be told simply by the judicious juxtaposition of unrelated images and techniques such as layering, use of slow motion and repetition.

 

Taris, Roi du L’Eau: swimming is the gateway to a world of freedom and beauty

Jean Vigo, “Taris, Roi du L’Eau” (1931)

Sports documentaries don’t come any more poetic, beautiful and experimental than this early short by Jean Vigo about the 1930s French swimming champion Jean Taris. In just 10 minutes, Taris imparts lessons on how to swim freestyle, backstroke and breaststroke, and how to change direction using the swim blocks. There’s actually nothing about Taris’s early life, how he came to swimming, what made him decide to strive for championship natational glory and what he hopes to give back to society: the usual structure of sports documentaries, at least those made in Australia. As swimming lessons go, the film is not remarkable and is out-of-date, butterfly-stroking being all but unknown at the time, and possibly techniques are demonstrated in that film that are no longer being taught.

No, the true glory of this sports documentary lies in the fact that Vigo has made it and has brought avant-garde filming technique and narrative to make of the swimming lesson a poem in how humans can be at home underwater and fly freely about in a medium  like a bird. A link between this documentary and Vigo’s other films exploring rebellion and freedom in a repressive society might be made here. The diving instruction is the key and the swimming lessons are the gateway into another world. The highlight of the film is the sequence of silent scenes in which Taris wriggles, turns and flies towards the camera and away from it like a flirtatious flighty creature, enticing the viewer to come follow him where he will.

The filming itself is quite extraordinary: in closing scenes, Vigo makes clothes appear suddenly on Taris standing by the edge of the pool; the swimmer then walks across the ground away from the camera in a scene superimposed over the pool itself. Taris looks back at the viewer, doffs his hat and continues to walk into the background, all while water is lapping and rippling behind him. It’s as if having given us the key and the directions to his world, the swimmer now expects that we will follow and enjoy the freedom (and presumably the equality and quality of life he enjoys also) that he has. The experimentation is not limited to the narrative structure and visuals: the voice-over swimming instructions alternate with the sounds of choppy water and this call-and-response soundtrack sets up a rhythm that can be hypnotic in effect.

Of course the short isn’t to be taken entirely seriously as demonstrated by the chirpy music, the diving scenes which include shots run backwards and a hilarious bit near the beginning where a man attempts to swim in a chair.

A minor work in what could have been a long and illustrious career in film-making for Vigo, this short is still outstanding for its treatment of a sport as an art-form in itself and a way of life that promises freedom.

Zéro de Conduite: zero for film convention and conformity, maximum score for lively presentation on social oppression

Jean Vigo, “Zéro de Conduite: Jeunes Diables au College” (1933)

One of four films made by French director Jean Vigo before his life was cut short at age 29 by sickness, this featurette is an unusual and goofy commentary on political and social repression and rigidity in French society in the 1930s through the prism of a boys’ boarding school. Four cheeky monkeys – Caussat, Colin, Bruel and Tabard – find the strict boarding school regime unreasonable and ridiculous  and plot to rebel during a public commemoration that involves the school and the wider community. In a loosely structured plot that leads up to the rebellion, the children engage in various small acts of revolt in front of their horrified teachers. One young professor sympathises with the students and encourages them in their rebellion.

The film was filmed on a tight budget in a restricted time schedule and these constraints are reflected in the film’s admittedly cheap sets and general look and in the disjointed plot that brims with many unrealised ideas. Early on a student collects all his classmates’ glue pots and pours the glue behind a shelf of books but that’s about it for the prank they play on their teachers: presumably the glue dries and keeps the books stuck to the shelf for all eternity, to be touched let alone be tugged at never again. The resolution appears incomplete as the ring-leaders walk off into the far distance. Characters talk at one another rather than to each other and no-one carries on a conversation beyond one call and one response. The narrative has the appearance of a series of unrelated skits that merely take place in a common context. There are many surreal sequences and improbable characters, done so deliberately as satire: probably the most surreal character is the boarding-school headmaster who looks and speaks like a child wearing a long beard.

The acting is almost completely natural with children acting like children and not as little automatons mouthing lines they’ve learned. One teacher mimics the English actor Charlie Chaplin in his Little Tramp role in his waddle with the twirling walking-stick. There are several passages that are completely silent save for Maurice Jaubert’s music soundtrack. The climactic scene is the pillow fight in the dormitory done entirely in silent slow motion with music: the kids charge down the passage-way, carrying one of their number like a king on a palanquin, while white feathers flutter down from the ceiling like manna to ancient Israelites.

Whatever viewers think of the loose and disjointed narrative, the message it conveys is clear and sharp: if people are pushed to their limits by governments and corporations wielding oppressive tools of control against them, those oppressors had better watch out – the oppressed will revolt and carry out acts of vandalism and violence, revelling in them all the way. At the same time, the film works as a joyful paean to the cheek and spirit of young children on the edge of adolescence, and suggests that if adults wish to shake off the shackles of outdated ideologies and political / economic systems, they should be as creative and full of verve as children.