Zama

Dir. Lucrecia Martel

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Argentine director Lucrecia Martel made a significant name for herself as a maker of intimate, often claustrophobic, studies of character and atmosphere in her native Salta region.  Her first three films all made the cramped social and cultural environments of the (upper) middle-class family as a form of pressure cooker, to study their mores and means under the intensity of a dire moment or incident.

What Martel made more important in this loose trilogy was far less what was on screen, but what was not – the ellipsis of both her camera and the characters illustrating what they did and did not acknowledge.  Some eight years from her last film, the critically acclaimed “The Headless Woman”, Martel has turned her cinematic myopia away from suburban bourgeoisie, to delve back in time to the late 18th century.  Has her palette, and lens, expanded on this journey?  Yes and no.

Environment has always been important to Martel’s cinema (any film calling itself The Swamp cannot help but call attention to it), and in this instance she broadens to a few wide shots of the tiny outpost on the shores of an Argentine river.  We hear this all pervading environment before we see it – a device Martel returns to time and again here – with the lap of the river waters and the symphony of insects, trees, birds and natives.  The shot fades up on the eponymous hero, Diego de Zama, a minor official of the Spanish Empire.  He stands in profile, a proud figure in striking attire, staring out to the watery horizon, as oblivious to the frolicking naked natives around him as they are of him.  This one shot telegraphs much of the mood and content of the proceeding 2 hours: the division between colonist and native, the dominance of the environment on the humans and their differing approaches to it (conquering vs inhabiting), and Zama, on the edge of the land, of the empire, of the (in his view) civilised world, gazing endlessly at the horizon, looking for something that will, inevitably, never be seen or arrive.

Zama is stationed at the far reaches of the Spanish Empire and longs for the letter from Europe to confirm his transfer back to his home, his wife and family, to the culture he knows and feels he belongs to.  While being an official, he is forever a victim to this system, always struggling to get his case heard by the Governor, a venal and corrupt Spaniard who holds court with gambling friends and taunts the frustrated Zama with his impotence.  For it is not just social and political frustration hamstringing him – we see him early on being a voyeur on some women bathing in the river, and his entreaties to a blue-blooded temptress who holds court like a New World Marie Antoinette, oblivious to her position if not her effect on men, by her fondness for brandy.  At the local brothel, Zama looks on not with disdain, but fear – he says he does not go with native women – a statement found to be untrue when he later reveals he has an illegitimate child with a native woman.  Like in all things, Zama is frustrated, overlooked, forgotten.  He is a functionary without function, a European without Europe, a man without manhood.

This duplicitous attitude toward native women is part of the colonial politic that is  subtly explored here.  Natives are naked or in rags, Spaniards in European finery; a personal assistant is mute and has to buy her right to marry (though her muteness is used to cast doubt on her power to do so), a black slave is a messenger for the Spaniards, in a loin cloth and dirty jacket.

 

Hanging over this perpetual world of unfulfilled waiting is a spectre, of a famed robber baron called Vicuna, rumoured to have been killed, then to be alive and murdering and raping.  Years later, in an effort to gain some sense of motion in this swamp-like existence, Zama forms a hunting party to capture Vicuna.  This act of action meant to prove his manhood to his peers, and to the all important but eternally distant and unseeing King.  It is during this last third of the film that one thinks of other such doomed treks upriver in unfriendly jungle, particularly Herzog’s “Aguirre, Wrath of God“.  And it is here that some of the surreal, magic realist, elements hinted at earlier come to the fore, as Zama’s mind disintegrates.  Indians dyed head to foot in red paint, warriors in animal masks appearing as if from nowhere and, most hauntingly, an entire tribe that moves only at night, blinded by Spanish forces years before, feeling their way past the Spaniards camp.  Spoiler: when it is revealed that the villainous Vicuna is actually one of their hunting party, the folly and self destructive nature of the colonial project is laid bare.  When one is hunting only oneself, there is only emptiness and the horror at that emptiness to be found.

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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.