Twin Peaks – the return.

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Twin Peaks is different, a long way from the world.

Never was this more true than with the return to Frost & Lynch’s world of donuts and lumber and damn fine coffee.  Except, this isn’t that world.  Or is it?  It looks familiar, yet its different – older, sharper, under the harsh modern light and HD digital cinematography.  And where is the music, the quirky characters with their fetishes for shoes, food and silent drape runners?  Well, all that is in the past.  And deliberately so.

When it first came out, Twin Peaks shook television to the core; nothing would be the same again after it.  Cinematic, long form, artistically surreal, sexy, violent – in short, a medium that declared itself an art form.  27 years later, Lynch and Frost were to return to television, to Twin Peaks, and both were a very very different landscape.  We are, many have said, in a golden age of television.  From Breaking Bad to Mad Men to Game of Thrones, high quality, high budget, long format series’s without the restrictions of mainstream network tv, are the mainstream.  While Hollywood disappears down its own rabbit hole of superhero effects fests of increasingly dumb returns, it is in tv that the real drama is being made.

And so what of Twin Peaks.  What would be its place in this new terrain?  Much has been made of the fandom, of their passion and commitment being behind its eventual return.  But fans are a strange bunch – some might say none more so than Peakies.  Fandom tends to have a craving for familiarity, while at the same time they bemoan repeats of the same things.  Take, for example, the fan reaction to the new Star Wars films: the return to tropes, locations, characters and plots that are familiar was greeted with mass adoration and acclaim.  So would Twin Peaks go straight back to the RR Diner, order a damn fine coffee, and dance to Angelo’s tunes again?

In short – no.  Nostalgia has always been the province of danger in Lynch’s worlds.  From the picket fences of Blue Velvet to the classic Hollywood dreams of Mulholland Drive, the past is a false refuge, a weakness that lets the darkness in.  They were never going to simply repeat themselves.  And so new Twin Peaks is a very different beast.  It is, after all, 27 years later.  Much has changed: television, technology, Lynch himself, the actors, the world.  And so we have, from the first two hours of this much hyped “return”, an unsettlingly clear, high-definition digitally shot world of older people, strange rooms, murder scenes, roadside diners and motels, and occasionally some of the actual locations of “classic” Twin Peaks.  There is much that is familiar – the real time pacing of mundane events, easily confused law enforcement officials, dirty deeds and alluring women, and the surreal other-world of the Black Lodge.  But, as noted above, they appear almost ultra-realistic under HD digital cameras and plain, stark, lighting and, most noticeably, the deafening lack of Angelo Badalamenti’s famous score.  Classic Twin Peaks is now remembered in the soft, warm hues of late 80s tv, with lush scores and beautiful young actors and every scene too sexy for the screen: it has become the object of nostalgia.  While watching the new episodes, I could imagine many Peakies longing for its cosy quirky familiarity – imagine, a series about the abuse and murder of a high school girl by her father, while possessed by a woodland demon, has become the object of warm nostalgia.  And there is, I believe, Lynch and Frost’s masterstroke, the danger and darkness inherent in nostalgia.

Other aspects contribute to this feel, too.  Twin Peaks is a town, a singular location full of familiar places and soon to be familiar faces.  Never did the series depart from its north-western locale.  And yet new Twin Peaks barely touched on the town.  Instead we see startling vistas of night-time New York and visit a strange tower with a glass cube at the top floor; we see a crime committed in a resident’s block in a town in South Dakota; there’s a luxury office in Vegas, and a dingy motel somewhere in the mid-west.  There is also technology to contend with.  In classic Twin Peaks, we remember tape recordings of secret diaries, Cooper’s dictaphone, clumsy video cameras and earpieces that never worked.  Now we have digital cameras with memory cards connected to what appears to be massive network hubs, an internet and phone connection in a briefcase that seems able to cross time and space, bad Cooper’s digital dictaphone can tap landlines, mobiles calling to police in the depths of the woods, near-instant identification of bodies and recalling of suspect records.  All of this adds to the lack of centre to this new series – a distinct lack of Twin Peaks in Twin Peaks (yes, we do go there, but in brief moments between bigger scenes).  All of this combines to fuel the nostalgia for old Twin Peaks.  This is Lynch’s view of today’s world – disparate, isolated, spread out across continents, connected by inexplicable technology, viewed in cold, clear HD digital images.  And what we see is familiar, but dark, discombobulating, and deeply unexpected.  In a word – unheimlich – the uncanny, and that is the bedrock on which Lynch has built all of his work.

So new Twin Peaks is different.  We should never have expected any different, and yet it is so different as to be unexpected.  In our cosy familiarity of classic Twin Peaks and the golden age of modern tv, Lynch and Frost have once again completely pulled the rug out from under us and taken tv to a completely different place.  A place both wonderful and strange.  And I, for one, could not get enough of it.

Russian Ark

Russianark

Dir. Alexander Sokurov. (2001)

Russian Ark is a monumental film, a true milestone in cinema history. From its inception, cinema’s uniqueness lay in its editing. And in over 100 yrs, the production of meaning through this procedure has been at the heart of cinema theory. For many, artistic equated with the long uninterrupted take.
In 1948 Hitchcock made “Rope”, a film of long takes edited to make it look like it was one continuous long take. There was a limit to take length, however: the cine camera’s film reel was 12 minutes long, maximum. Physically, there could not be a film with longer takes than this. Godard’s 1967 “Weekend” famously used a full film reel to shoot a single tracking shot. in 2000, Bela Tarr’s “Werckmeister Harmonies” consisted entirely of just 39 long takes.
Not until the advent of digital could this change. On 23rd December 2001 Alexander Sokurov’s crew recorded, on their fourth take, a complete 94 minute film in the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, with a cast of 2000 costumed actors and extras, using a steadicam and a hard-drive in a backpack unit.
As a story, Russian Ark follows a mysterious figure (the Marquis) in a wander through 33 rooms of the Winter Palace, going through periods of the museums 300 year history. The voyage is a voyage through time, with characters both real and fictional appearing as we witness moments of Russian history. but it is not as simple as that: at times the marquis and accompanying camera seem to be invisible, passing contemporary museum visitors, other times speaking to them and likewise to the camera.
Past Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky, who Sokurov is often cited as heir, wrote a book “Sculpting In Time”, in which he outlays his artistic theories on the nature of editing and the relationship between the cut and time. If editing is the mastery over time, then whence the film without a single edit? A clue may lie in Sokurov’s working title/subtitle of the film “In One Breath”. The film drifts, not just in the way of the steadicam, but its languid journey from room to room uses those doorways as substitute edits. Sokurov equates, or even replaces, time with space. This is the key understanding of the film – and it is completely apt for a film in, and about, a museum. For what is a museum but time gathered in spaces?
Taken in this view, the single take is far more than a gimmick or an over-extended device (a la Birdman), the very language of the film speaks of the defying of time that this remarkable place the Hermitage encapsulates: fluid, dream-like, breathlessly contiguous.
The camerawork aside, the staggering beauty of the Hermitage alone is breathtaking. The costumes of over 2000 actors and extras in glorious period detail is equally stunning. The Marquis is a mischievous, mysterious, guide, conversing with a never-seen figure that is the camera’s POV. Snippets of history, courtly rumour, philosophising on the exhibited art, the nature of art, and the passage of time through, over and around Russia. And as the film progresses, that breathlessness builds in the almost impossible to believe  ballroom scene – with a full orchestra and hundreds of ballroom dancers  perfectly choreographed with the Marquis and camera blending perfectly in. The ball ends and the hundreds file out, the camera joining this endless river of humans, a flow of time and history pouring to – what end? A glimpse outside to a (cg rendered) cold, dark, river shrouded in icy fog – the Hermitage revealed as an Ark, caught in the never-ending current of time and history.

Knight Of Cups

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Dir. Terrence Malick (2015)

 

Taking a director’s films on their individual merits, without referring to their previous works, is tricky.  This is doubly so when the director has such a recognisable and distinct style.  Writing on Ozu, Bergman or Tarkovsky, for example, could hardly fail to refer to the respective director’s approach to pacing, themes, shot lengths, music amongst other traits and their prevalence and evolution in the director’s career.  In the case of Malick the evolution of his style, from the static and painterly approach of “Badlands” and “Days Of Heaven” in the 1970s, to the transitionary return of “The Thin Red Line” which featured impressionistic cutaways to character reveries and a multiplicity of voice-overs.  After this, “The New World” marked a complete shift in style: a roving, restless camera, all natural lighting, associative non-linear editing, a preference for voice over and a rejection of traditional dramatic structure.  In his subsequent features, “The Tree of Life” and “To The Wonder”, he took this style to either an un-diluted focus on a determined artistic vision, or repetitive self parody, depending on your view.

“Knight Of Cups” follows Rick (Christian Bale), a successful screenwriter in Hollywood, drifting through the glamour and glitz of Los Angeles, from parties to film sets and photo shoots, various luxurious apartments and hotel rooms, the freeways around LA and the coast of the Pacific.  Rick, like many late era Malick heroes, is lost, spiritually empty and in a state of longing.  He drifts between a succession of beautiful women (Imogen Poots, Teresa Palmer, Freida Pinto, Isabel Lucas, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett), all of whom seem to recognise Rick’s weakness and emptiness, particularly Cate Blanchett’s Nancy, his ex-wife and a nurse, who is scathing about his failings.  Also in his travels are his wayward brother, somewhat prone to emotional outbursts, and their father, who while he admits (finally, one gets the impression) is proud of Rick’s achievements, is less enamoured of his lifestyle.  There are pushy agents, quasi-spiritual drug users, an ageing lothario (played by Antonio Banderas), two armed burglars, a pimp who although a believer admits his weakness for wealth and sin, a zen Buddhist teacher and a tarot card reader on Rick’s Los Angeles odyssey.  None of these encounters are played out in traditional dramatic manner, with dialogue, shot and reverse-shot, character and plot progression.  The vast majority of Knight Of Cups sees Rick wandering as an aimless observer; we hear him speak on camera once, perhaps twice, the camera follows him, spending a lot of time directly behind Bale, glancing around and seeing things at all manner of striking angles and locations.  Voice over is the dominant form of expression for characters here, something those familiar with Malick’s late style will be  aware of.

Malick’s rejection of traditional narrative structure means that searching for a plot, searching for events or direct character dialogue or exposition is fruitless.  This is not story driven cinema, it is purely poetic, with the intention being to deliver emotions via images, actions, montage, mise-en-sene, movement, format and music.  Rick’s life is fragmented, without meaning, surrounded by wealth and glamour, sensuality and scraps of spirituality, thus Malick’s film follows such a path.  Scenes are often joined after something seems to have happened, or just before, leaving us with a collection of traces of feelings and memories suffused with ennui, melancholy and longing.  One is expected to travel with Rick, and Emanuel Lubezki’s searing camera, standing on the shore as wave after wave of imagery and music wash over you.  There are a handful of allegories that the film alludes to throughout, the most obvious being the tarot.  The eponymous card is said to represent change, new excitements, particularly romantic in nature, as well as opportunities and invitations.  The Knight is a bringer of ideas, is constantly bored and in need of stimulation, but also artistic and refined. Reversed, it represents fraud and false promises, a person who has difficulty discerning truth and lies.  Seen in this respect, Bale’s character is quite clear.  The rest of the film is divided into eight rough segments, each identified with an inserted title card.  They are in order:

The Moon (the life of the imagination away from the life of the spirit.)

The Hanged Man (life in suspension, but life and not death)

The Hermit (soul-searching introspection, being alone, inner guidance)

Judgement (reflection, self evaluation, judgement, rebirth, absolution)

The Tower (disaster, upheaval, sudden change, revelation)

The High Priestess (intuition, higher powers, mystery, the subconscious)

Death (endings, beginnings, change, transformation, transition)

And lastly Freedom, which is not a tarot card and can, presumably, refer to an escape from the pre-destination and fate of things like tarot.

Then there is The Pilgrim’s Progress, a Christian dream allegory written in 1678 by John Bunyan.  Like Dante’s venture through Purgatory, we are invited to follow Rick’s quest as a liturgical allegory in the manner of the Pilgrim.  The film opens with the unmistakable tones and gravitas of Sir John Gielgud’s reading from Bunyan’s text.  Indeed with the title and first lines being recited over the opening titles it gives the feel that this is a re-telling of the tale, from the  City of Destruction (the modern City of Angels) to the Celestial City atop Mount Zion, burdened by knowledge of his sin.  The final liturgical layer comes from  an early 3rd Century Apocryphal text The Acts Of Thomas, in particular a passage called the Hymn of the Pearl, described thus:

The hymn tells the story of a boy, “the son of the king of kings”, who is sent to Egypt to retrieve a pearl from a serpent. During the quest, he is seduced by Egyptians and forgets his origin and his family. However, a letter is sent from the king of kings to remind him of his past. When the boy receives the letter, he remembers his mission, retrieves the pearl and returns.

And yet, despite all of Malick’s allegory and structural devices, this remains a sprawling epic of a detached view of a familiar yet altogether alien world.  Lubezki’s camera sees the LA we have seen in countless films, tv series, music videos, fashion shoots and computer games.  It moves from being populated by interchangeably “perfect” men and women in various states of intoxication and undress, to empty streets and back lots of film studios.  “Do you know anyone here?” Rick asks Freida Pinto at one party, by means of introduction and eventual seduction.  Nothing is real – Rick’s work is the production of fiction, Hollywood being the “dream factory”, reminding one of the similitude of a dream in the title of The Pilgrim’s Progress.  From fake pre-revolutionary French architecture in ostentatious mansions to film sets and the brief sojourn to Las Vegas, with replica pyramids and Eiffel Tower.  Rick’s progress through this hall of mirrors in search of genuine meaning and connection leads to a number of baptismal dips in the Pacific, and a drive out to the desert, isolated and away from the Babylonian trials and temptations of LA.  Just as the structure and narrative are dramatically non-conventional, so there should be no expectation of dramatic resolution.  What to take from this morass of shots and ellipses and rumination ?  Many will find subjects, methods and shot to be similar to those from “The Tree Of Life” and especially “To The Wonder”.  Some have seen it as a reductive retreading of the same ground.  However, his is such a different and unique style, one that is clearly evolving and being taken further and further on a singular vision.  Rarely in contemporary American cinema is there any such reflection, contemplation, honest spirituality and unapologetically unconventional form.  That, alone, makes it a tremendous and worthy achievement.  Even if the stunning cinematography, the masterful editing, the incredible soundtrack, didn’t combine to make a beautiful, engaging and deeply moving cinematic poem.

A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence.

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(Dir. Roy Andersson. 2015)

Roy Andersson is a 72 year old Swedish director who has carved a unique niche in cinema with his style of remote, black, humour.  In a career that has spanned from 1970’s “A Swedish Love Story” through to this year’s equally self explanatorily titled film.  The title, by the way, comes from Pieter Bruegel’s 1565 painting “Hunters in the Snow”, which contains a rural winter scene including various birds perched on branches.  Andersson wondered what the birds would think of the people below and saw his film as “a different way of saying ‘what are we actually doing?’”.  But Andersson is not a dramatist in the conventional sense.  Some might call him a surrealist, others a (rather deadpan and bleak, admittedly) humorist or even satirist.  The Village Voice once described him as a “slapstick Ingmar Bergman”, and while slapstick might be a (comedic?) exaggeration, it gives a good indication of the themes and contradictions contained in his films.

This film (even the acronym, APSOABROE is something of a mouthful) is a collection of short vignettes, mostly unconnected though some feature returning characters in later scenes.  They are all set in a bizarrely perfect yet utterly drab stylised Swedish city, with floors and streets immaculately swept and wiped clean, all in varying tones of khaki, olive and pine.  Furnishings are sparse – empty spaces are more predominant than any distracting detail – and seem to come from a certain Swedish furniture store, if it were locked in an impoverished 1970s.  The characters, likewise, seem to be timeless: men are mostly in dark grey suits and/or off-white shirts, with women in a style locked somewhere in a 1970s remembering the 1940s apparel.  The scenes range from a cafe in a ship, an underground bar, a medical laboratory, a school hall, a dance class, a street outside a restaurant, a hospital room, a flop house reception, corridor and a room, an executive office, a living room, a museum and a handful of joke shops where the two most frequent characters appear failing to sell outdated and absurd “joke” items.  All are lit universally so that almost no shadows are cast, creating a sense of studio-based unreality to the otherwise hyper-real mundanity of the production.

Within a couple of the scenes, one realises that there is one unifying device throughout the film – the camera is fixed  and does not move, zoom or cut at all during each scene.  Everything is as if watching a scene from a play from one vantage point, an unflinching stare at a scenario that unfolds at a pace as discomforting as the setting itself.  Not all scenes are confined to, somewhat claustrophobic, interiors but even when outside, the colours are drawn from the same palette, the lighting the same blanket shallow white, and no change in the pacing and placid absurdity.  Whether it is on a beach or a park beside a pond, there is no indication of where this city is, but we do see a grim industrial landscape on the horizon in some scenes.

What are these scenes, then?  If there were “main” characters to this extended sketch show, it would be Jonathan and Sam, a pair of travelling salesmen who produce from a case three ridiculous comedy items – long vampire teeth, a laughing cushion and an “uncle one tooth” rubber mask causes more fear than laughter.  The pair, like a Laurel and Hardy on ketamine, run through the same routine when trying unsuccessfully to sell these items, with perhaps unsurprising lack of success.  We also see them in a flop house, with a scene where one of them sits at a table listening to the same few seconds of a song on a portable record player again and again.  In another scene they demand payment from a shop owner hiding in the back room while his wife placates them at the front desk.  We understand that Jonathan and Sam are under pressure to sell their items and pay their bosses, as if there is a crap comedy mafia pressing its dark influence over this bland Scandinavian society. In another scene we jump back in time to 1943 but stay in place, in the bar below street level, as if the patrons memories are recorded in the exact same style as the film reality they live in.  Half populated by sailors and soldiers, an older barmaid with an outrageous limp begins a song about shots for those without pennies, instead in exchange for a kiss.  As the sailors and soldiers partake in the song, they line up to get their shot and give her increasingly amorous kisses.  Like in other scenes that have bystanders, they sit and watch impassively.

The role of  bystanders only becomes significant in one of the most memorable, and bizarre, scenes.  At a bar with a wide front window, when soldiers on horseback ride up from the 1708 Swedish invasion of Russia.  A cavalryman rides into the bar, first ordering the music from the jukebox be turned off, then the women to leave – which they do in fear while the men remain, impassive.  Then to some fanfare and absurdity King Charles XII rides in.  Three of his men kneel down before him to provide a human staircase and carpet (they remain so for the rest of the 16 minute scene) and the young king is seated at the bar and his order relayed via his servant – a glass of sparkling water.  The King decides he likes the young bar tender and has him join his march to the Russian front.  Then the King mounts up and rides out, all the while dozens of uniformed soldiers march or ride by in full 18th century uniform.  We return to this scene, to the same bar, as the army returns, bloodied and defeated.  The wounded King is led back in and this time, the women of the bar break down into howling and weeping.  A scene that would normally be moving becomes utterly bizarre, a dislocation of time that confounds the emotion into something that one can do little but laugh at.

This is the emotional timbre of the whole film.  When a passenger on a ferry dies from a heart attack after ordering a meal and drink at the cafe, the concern of the staff turns to what will happen to the beer and food.  They turn to the typically passive bystanders, and an agonising silence grows until an even more agonising character raises a hand, stands, and moves forth to collect the prize.  The bleakness is thrown into sharp relief, not punctured or dispelled, by the awkward absurdity.  Throughout, the dark sense of futility and desperation is as universal as the unflinching, shadowless, light – with exception.  Sprinkled amidst the Bergmanesque slapstick are respites, interludes even, of light.  They are simple, wordless, isolated scenes: a young couple laid on a blanket on a sandy dune, a woman with a pram sat on a park bench, a couple leaning on a balcony sharing a (post-coital) cigarette.  But these breaks in the cloud are bracketed by scenes that go beyond the absurd and touch deeply discomforting nerves.  Foremost of these comes toward the end, where men dressed in pith helmets and khaki of an old African colonial soldier unit are whipping and prodding black Africans  into a giant copper barrel suspended above a fire pit like a barbecue.  Once in, the door is sealed, the first lit, and it begins to rotate.  In the first and only cut of the film, we go to a wide shot of  a patio door above  row of low steps.  The rotating copper barrel is seen in reflection until the door opens and a group of elderly and decrepit (white) men and women  in what looks like evening wear hobble out and watch the spectacle, impassively.  This scene encapsulates the wider question viewers may have as to if the darkness, the absurdity and (bleak) comedy have any actual purpose or meaning.  Andersson has given no further insight beyond that it is looking at how life is lived and what we do.  The director’s style is persistent and rigorous, a singular method of representation and tone of voice and is far from regular in terms of tone, style, narrative (not that there is one) and character.  But what is there within the perfectly familiar yet alien locations and quite desperate and somewhat disturbed characters is capable of being quite affecting.

Knight Of Cups

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(Dir. Terrence Malick, 2015)

Taking a director’s films on their individual merits, without referring to their previous works, is tricky.  This is doubly so when the director has such a recognisable and distinct style.  Writing on Ozu, Bergman or Tarkovsky, for example, one could hardly fail to refer to the respective director’s approach to pacing, themes, shot lengths and music, amongst other traits, and their prevalence and evolution in the director’s career.  In the case of Malick the evolution of his style, from the static and painterly approach of “Badlands” and “Days Of Heaven” in the 1970s, to the transitional return of “The Thin Red Line” which featured impressionistic cutaways to character reveries and a multiplicity of voice-overs.  After this, “The New World” marked a huge leap in style, marked by is collaboration with the brilliant Mexican cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki: a roving, restless camera, all natural lighting, associative non-linear editing, a preference for voice over and a rejection of traditional dramatic structure.  In his subsequent features, “The Tree of Life” and “To The Wonder”, he took this style to either an un-diluted focus on a determined artistic vision, or repetitive self parody, depending on your view.

“Knight Of Cups” follows Rick (Christian Bale), a successful screenwriter in Hollywood, drifting through the glamour and glitz of Los Angeles, from parties to film sets and photo shoots, various luxurious apartments, the freeways around LA and the coast of the Pacific.  Rick, like many late era Malick heroes, is empty, lost, spiritually empty and longing.  He drifts between a succession of beautiful women (Imogen Poots, Teresa Palmer, Freida Pinto, Isabel Lucas, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett), all of whom seem to recognise Rick’s weakness and emptiness.  In particular is Cate Blanchett’s Nancy, his ex-wife and a nurse, who is scathing about his failings.  Also in his travels are his wayward brother, somewhat prone to emotional outbursts, and their father who, while he admits (finally, one gets the impression) he is proud of Rick’s achievements, is less enamoured of his lifestyle.  There are also pushy agents, quasi-spiritual drug users, an ageing lothario (played by Antonio Banderas), two armed burglars, a pimp who although a believer admits his weakness for wealth and sin, a zen Buddhist teacher and a tarot card reader on Rick’s Los Angeles odyssey.  None of these encounters are played out in traditional dramatic manner, with dialogue, shot and reverse-shot, character and plot progression.  The vast majority of Knight Of Cups sees Rick wandering as an aimless observer; we hear him speak on camera once, perhaps twice, the camera follows him, spending a lot of time directly behind Bale, glancing around and seeing things at all manner of striking angles and locations.  Voice over is the dominant form of expression for characters here, something those familiar with Malick’s late style will be  familiar with.

Malick’s rejection of traditional narrative structure means that searching for a plot, searching for events or direct character dialogue or exposition is fruitless.  This is not story driven cinema, it is purely poetic, with the intention being to deliver emotions via images, actions, montage, mise-en-sene, movement, format and music.  Rick’s life is fragmented, without meaning, surrounded by wealth and glamour, sensuality and scraps of spirituality, thus Malick’s film follows such a path.  Scenes are often joined after something seems to have happened, or just before, leaving us with a collection of traces of feelings and memories suffused with ennui, melancholy and longing.  One is expected to travel with Rick, and Emanuel Lubezki’s searing camera, standing on the shore as wave after wave of imagery and music wash over you.

There are a handful of allegories that the film alludes to throughout, the most obvious being the tarot.  The eponymous card is said to represent change, new excitements, particularly romantic in nature, as well as opportunities and invitations.  The Knight is a bringer of ideas, is constantly bored and in need of stimulation, but also artistic and refined. Reversed, it represents fraud and false promises, a person who has difficulty discerning truth and lies.  Seen in this respect, Bale’s character is quite clear.  The rest of the film is divided into eight rough segments, each identified with an inserted title card.  They are in order:

The Moon (the life of the imagination away from the life of the spirit.)

The Hanged Man (life in suspension, but life and not death)

The Hermit (soul-searching introspection, being alone, inner guidance)

Judgement (reflection, self evaluation, judgement, rebirth, absolution)

The Tower (disaster, upheaval, sudden change, revelation)

The High Priestess (intuition, higher powers, mystery, the subconscious)

Death (endings, beginnings, change, transformation, transition)

And lastly Freedom, which is not a tarot card and can, presumably, refer to an escape from the pre-destination and fate of things like tarot.

Then there is The Pilgrim’s Progress, a Christian dream allegory written in 1678 by John Bunyan.  Like Dante’s venture through Purgatory, we are invited to follow Rick’s quest as a liturgical allegory in the manner of the Pilgrim.  The film opens with the unmistakable tones and gravitas of Sir John Gielgud’s reading from Bunyan’s text.  Indeed with the title being recited over the opening titles it gives the feel that this is a re-telling of the tale, from the  City of Destruction (the modern City of Angels) to the Celestial City atop Mount Zion (the rock peak in the desert at the end?), burdened by knowledge of his sin.  The final liturgical layer comes from  an early 3rd Century Apocryphal text The Acts Of Thomas, in particular a passage called the Hymn of the Pearl, described thus:

The hymn tells the story of a boy, “the son of the king of kings”, who is sent to Egypt to retrieve a pearl from a serpent. During the quest, he is seduced by Egyptians and forgets his origin and his family. However, a letter is sent from the king of kings to remind him of his past. When the boy receives the letter, he remembers his mission, retrieves the pearl and returns.

Rick’s father recites this tale in voice over, over low-res video footage of a childhood, presumably memories of Rick’s.

And yet, despite all of Malick’s allegory and structural devices, this remains a sprawling epic of a detached view of a familiar yet altogether alien world.  Lubezki’s camera sees the LA we have seen in countless films, tv series, music videos, fashion shoots and computer games in utterly different ways, turning this oh so familiar simulacrum into a non-euclidean city of nightmares.  It moves from being populated by interchangeably “perfect” men and women in various states of intoxication and undress, to empty streets and back lots of film studios.  “Do you know anyone here?” Rick asks Helen (Freida Pinto) at one party, by means of introduction and eventual seduction.  Nothing is real – Rick’s work is the production of fiction, Hollywood being the “dream factory”, reminding one of the similitude of a dream in the title of The Pilgrim’s Progress.  From fake pre-revolutionary French architecture in ostentatious mansions to film sets and the brief sojourn to Las Vegas, with replica pyramids and Eiffel Tower.  Rick’s progress through this hall of mirrors in search of genuine meaning and connection leads to a number of baptismal dips in the Pacific, and a drive out to the desert, isolated and away from the Babylonian trials and temptations of LA.

Just as the structure and narrative are dramatically non-conventional, so there should be no expectation of dramatic resolution.  What to take from this morass of shots and ellipses and rumination ?  Many will find the subjects, methods and shots to be too similar to those from “The Tree Of Life” and especially “To The Wonder”.  Some have seen it as a reductive retreading of the same ground.  However, such a different and unique style, one that is clearly evolving and being taken further and further on a singular vision, deserves applause.  Rarely in contemporary American cinema is there any such reflection, contemplation, honest spirituality and unapologetically unconventional form.  That, alone, makes it a tremendous and worthy achievement.  Even if the stunning cinematography, the masterful editing, the incredible soundtrack, didn’t combine to make a beautiful, engaging and deeply moving cinematic poem.

The Assassin

the-assassin

Dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien

Variance from the norm is such a common feature of auteurist cinema that it almost can become expected.  From Kubrick to Herzog, cinema goers have become used to the phrase “a unique take on the genre”, be it horror, western, gangster and so on.  It has become a game for audience and director alike to show their awareness of the genre conventions, and to note the variances from the norm and how this is in line with the directors own artistic methods and milieu.  Which brings me to Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien and his latest film, the exquisitely filmed “Cìkè Niè Yǐnniáng” (The Assassin).  Ostensibly a Wuxia martial arts film, people would be better prepared knowing they were watching a Hsiao-Hsien film than a genre defined by flashy personal combat.  As such, this film is defined by characteristic long takes, meticulous composition, long periods of stillness and silence, gorgeous cinematography and only fleeting regard to traditional narrative structure and character development.  In many ways, I found myself thinking of this as the “Barry Lyndon” (Kubrick, 1975) of Wuxia films.

The story, such as it is, is set in 8th century Tang Dynasty China and concerns the eponymous Nie Yinniang, a young woman taken at the age of 10 and trained as a deadly assassin by a nun-princess.  Her targets are corrupt officials in the turbulent internecine conflicts of the Chinese empire at the time.  The film begins with a prologue piece shot in crisp, high contrast, black and white that demonstrates  the startling skill of the assassin.  After failing to complete a mission due to her “heart lacking resolve” her master dispatches her to the troubled Weibo province where she is to kill a warlord – who happens to be her cousin.  The conflict of loyalties is further complicated when we learn that the warlord was once betrothed to the assassin.  The film then plays out on these conflicts, political, personal and physical, in a series of stunning tableau’s that are more indebted to Hsiao-Hsien’s elliptical style than the requirements of the Wuxia genre.

Everything seems to float or drift in this film, a gesture that seems to become a device, a representation of the ghost-like presence of the assassin and the brief touch on the pages of ancient history that these characters make.    The camera, while not making Scorsese-esque winding steadicam moves, is always wafting as if on a slight breeze, observing long takes as if from a respectful distance.  Candle flames dance throughout the mise-en-scène, and countless curtains and sheets of gossamer silk flicker and drift in layers within the frame .  On more than one occasion a scene is observed from behind a wispy curtain that drifts in and out of focus, obscuring the characters in a silken mist before, imperceptibly, unveiling them again.  This device echoes the way narrative and character details are dealt out in this film; nothing is presented directly or as a matter of fact.  In the monochrome prologue, we see a warlord watching his child play, first with a ball and then a passing butterfly.  Yinniang drops, ghost-like, from the rafters and we cut to the warlord cradling his child – presumably slain, though we do not see the act, only the reactions from the warlord (a contained mix of rage and grief) and the assassin (again contained, seemingly emotionless and cold, but still with something, remorse, guilt, fear, buried inside).  Containment of emotions is the dominant form for the characters, with codes and traditions observed with such tenacity that one wonders if there is any individuality in such society.  We see this in the way costumes and hair identify people far more than their personalities would, but more importantly in the way Yinniang is a figure under control and duress throughout her life.  She is chosen and given to martial arts training as a child, an act that took her from another choice made for her – that of marriage to her cousin, the warlord.  As a grown woman, the assassin is still controlled by her master, and it is the initial act of disobedience, an expression of free will in refusing to kill, that leads to her involvement with her cousin and the personal and political battles that will ensue.  The combat, which would normally be the centre piece of Wuxia films, are few and fleeting.  She either appears and acts with unerring skill, or one of the zen-like stillnesses where characters, and audience, seem invited to contemplate what has transpired is suddenly disrupted, exploding into the frame.

Hsiao-Hsien places his characters within a natural world not normally associated with his cinema. And his lens pays attention to nature in an almost Terrence Malick like way.  After the first assassination, the film cuts to a shot of leaves in tree branches against the sky.  Later, as a procession of dignitaries on horseback ride through a valley, they remain out of focus and instead the camera focuses on a small, bright, bush in the right hand foreground of the frame.  But, like other aspects of the film – such as the mysterious gold-masked female assassin that is seen walking through a forest and, towards the end, engages in battle with Yinniang – they are there and then gone, like the silken curtains, like a torchlit procession at night, an assassin leaping unseen from rafters to kill and vanish.  Likewise, the film offers no epic conclusion to the political conflicts in which this story is set.  We are there to witness one character breaking the bonds imposed on her by masters, family and warlords.  By film’s end, she travels on like the Ronin of Kurosawa’s epics, her own woman in an uncertain time.

The Three Colours Trilogy

Krzysztof_Kieslowski_2_fot._Tomasz_Komorowski

Dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski

Twenty years ago, Krzysztof Kieslowski created what was to become his swan song, a trilogy of films based around the revolutionary concepts of the French flag – liberty, equality, fraternity.  Shot and edited to be released at the Venice, Berlin and Cannes film festivals, this was cinema that bestrode Europe like never before.  Kieslowski, star of the Lødz film school, went from a gritty social realism of his Polish roots and, upon the fall of Communism in his homeland and across eastern Europe, moved to France and developed an aesthetic that was more internal and personal.  With the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the influx of European democracy and capitalism into the former Soviet vassals, perhaps Kieslowski felt that the political struggle was over, not of his concern.  Or perhaps it was a new Poland he did not understand.  Either way he left for France, Poland’s state funded cinema no longer being able to fund his projects.  One suspects the cut throat world of the Warsaw portrayed in White was his satirical view of what had become of his homeland.

Of the three films it is White which spans the two sides of that new Europe.  Karol is impotent in the west, but a feted winner of competitions and diplomas in the east (another self deprecating portrait by the director?).  It is only when he has mastered this beast and become a successful and wealthy businessman that he is finally able to consummate his annulled marriage, and then back in Poland.  But how far do the qualities of the French flag bleed into White?  Liberty involves being trapped in a suitcase, smuggled across borders, and faking one’s death to imprison your ex-wife in a misguided revenge plot.  Fraternity exists in agreeing to kill a friend for money, but firing a blank (literally, not sexually), calling on friends and family to help in the fake death (even so far as getting a corpse – a Russian one with a crushed head, of course).  Equality, too, is questionable – Karol’s trial before French law he feels is biased because of his nationality and language barrier, while Dominique’s arrest and trial is the result of being framed.  Are Poland and France equal?  Far from it.  Poland is seen as a land of spivs, violence and greed, a cheap competitor to France’s cultured society.

I am looking back at the trilogy from a Europe that is far from unified.  Britain, in particular, has become obsessed with the migration from eastern Europe of workers that would have been teens or less at the time of the films release.  The fears that seem to dominate the press and politicians are of Poles that do not fit the portrayal in White of cunning, hard working, entrepreneurial and ultimately successful persons.  The view is that of Karol the vagabond in the underground, begging.  The catastrophe at the end of Red that brings the trilogy’s main protagonists together is a ferry disaster caused by a terrible storm that raged, unpredicted, across the continent.  How apt that the unforeseen financial crash and subsequent social, political and economic storms that have raged across Europe since have indeed highlighted the values of the French flag and our failure to live up to them.  The freedom of people to move across the united Europe is challenged unlike the freedom of capital to evade taxation.  Conversely the freedom of those who caused the catastrophe remains.  This clear lack of equality before the law for the wealthy and the poor means we are a continent of Karol’s before the Paris courts, impotent and unable to consummate the continent’s union.

Red is the one film that relies entirely on technology for its narrative success.  A Europe “united” by telecommunications is the pre-requisite, enabling Valentine to remain in touch with her jealous boyfriend in England (and Hungary and Poland), for a personalised weather forecasting service to exist and the romance that arose from it.  It allowed the suspected organiser of half the heroin trade in Geneva to function, untouched by the authorities; and the secret gay affair of the family man living across from Joseph Kern.  But, as illustrated in the opening sequence, this technology is fallible and throughout the film missed, mis-directed, monitored and un-monitored calls are all key to the web of communications that envelop the characters and the consequent dramas that arise from them.  It seems personal, face to face, contact is impossible, if not extremely uncomfortable.  Valentine’s brother finds it unbearable, others have to lie about their health and their groceries, about their secret love affairs.  All of these scenarios rely on secrets and unwillingness to communicate the truth – something that Kern personally decides is a lack of modesty, a vanity.  Listening to these deceptions he clearly feels his world view validated.  What he lacks is the emotional connection that comes from direct, personal, communication.  Valentine says that people are not bad, only weak.  Kern understands this – he is not the emotionless rock that Julie longed to be in “Blue”; he says that he, too, in their position would lie, cheat, steal.  He has, however, never been in the other’s shoes.  His self imposed exile and isolation, echoing Julie’s in the earlier film, stands as a metaphor for the isolated nations and peoples of Europe.  They may hear the goings on of their neighbours, witness violence but only stand by and let it happen, refuse to sign to evict a sex worker, but they do not involve themselves – for better or for worse.  The unification of Europe, the freedom to cross previously sealed borders, the equality between people and the fraternity of a continent together in peace, is the overriding dream of the social and political parable the trilogy tells.  Come out of isolation, Kieslowski calls out via his characters; do not let your neighbour suffer, do not leave the old woman to struggle to dispose of their rubbish – join with and help.

Such an optimistic and fraternal call seems a distant dream in the economically fractured landscape of contemporary Europe.  In 2015 the lack of equality has brought about the curbing of freedoms and the loss of the sense of fraternity.  The economic powers of Germany, France and Britain look down in horror at the collapsing economies of Spain, Greece, Italy, Portugal.  Migration from former Communist states in the east into the north-western powerhouses is a political issue giving rise to far-right anti-European (isolationist) parties.  New threats are touted – a resurgent Russia and radical Islamism in the post 9/11 and Iraq war world.  While capital is free to be shifted from place to place and thus enable it to be free from taxes that benefit the ordinary population, free movement of people (migration) is a rallying cause for many right-wing parties.  Equality is scarcely a concept, unless it is seen in the American neoliberal concept of opportunity to become grossly un-equal, one way or another.  The state is seen as something not to be involved in the concept of equality, a left wing, socialist, ideal that, in the aftermath of the fall of Communism, was a failure.  The market was to decide, as we saw in “White”.  As Kieslowski left behind the overtly political and social films of his Polish period to take up more personal themes, he seemed to acknowledge that politics was a spent force as far as conflict, drama and change was concerned.  Fukuyama’s “End of History” narrative may have been rescinded after 9/11 launched the “New American Century”, but for the Europe of the 1990s it seemed that capitalism was the end result and everything now would be life style choices of the individual.  Aiding an old woman at the bottle bank or taking an injured dog to the vet may be, as Kern intimated, to stop you dreaming of a dog with a crushed skull, but that was how it would be; there would be no factory strikes, no workers actions.  The trials we see in this trilogy are for divorce and eavesdropping, and a retired judge is a benign and tragic character, far removed from the trials under martial law in Kieslowski’s 1985 feature “No End” or the death penalty so excruciatingly portrayed in “A Short Film About Killing” (1988).

In the end, Kieslowski’s swan-song trilogy exists as a perfect testament of the time, that optimistic hope of survival and fraternity  after the storms of the cold war.  He would never know that the symphony for the unification of Europe would become a desperate gasp of a floundering project, not a bold beacon of  peace and hope as was.  If he had lived, he would be 74 – still able to make films (Godard is 83).  What films might he have made about the troubled continent his art spanned in a way its ideals could not?  He always searched for the feelings that united people, and always gave his struggling protagonists a second chance.  In an interview at Oxford University in 1994 he said:

“There are too many things in the world which divide people, such as religion, politics, history, and nationalism. If culture is capable of anything, then it is finding that which unites us all. And there are so many things which unite people.”

Looking back at his wonderful trilogy 20 years on, the social and political moment has passed, but their artistic perfection remains undoubted.  Indeed given the obsession with superheroes, attention-seeking transgression and the faux-realities of CGI, his vision elevates to something of a treasured height of the past, like Julie’s blue lamp shade, Karol’s two franc coin and Kern’s pen.  Kern’s pen failed and the “error in time” (as Kieslowski described the logic of “Red”) was corrected to pass to Auguste and his pen.  And so what do we write now?  What judgement do we pass on our time?