Monday, November 5, 2012

I Want To Be Like Everybody Else: Fragments toward a review of Holy Motors

Courtesy of Indomina Releasing
In Leos Carax’s befuddling, beautiful all-the-world’s-a-stage revue Holy Motors, the incomparable Denis Lavant plays a very peculiar sort of everyman. Monsieur Oscar is seemingly an actor who’s been kicked upstairs — he doesn’t work in the confines of a stage or a set (with one weird exception), but takes appointments out in the real* world, interacting with others who may or may not also be actors. (In one episode of Sellars-ian multiple casting, he has a fatal encounter with an individual who may or may not also be him.)

Motors certainly doesn’t hide its basic philosophical investigation, but it goes well beyond a metafictional exploration of performance, constantly fascinated with technology and setting and modes of perception or observation. I’ve been mulling over Holy Motors for three weeks, trying to parse it or at least find a good angle for attack. Without the benefit of repeat viewings, I can’t help but feel I’m only scratching the surface. So I’m going to come at it from every direction — below is a series of brief considerations on different aspects of the film, I think a fitting approach to an episodic and many-splendored work of art.

Rather promptly if somewhat obliquely, we are introduced to Oscar’s profession — he rides around in a limousine converted into a dressing room. There’s a mirror framed with bright bulbs, and everything he needs to transform himself bodily for each successive appointment. He can become an old lady, a spry acrobatic performer, a crass imp, a scarred thug, all with the application of some makeup. At first, it seems he’s interacting with non-actors — “real people” — but the lines are blurry from the start.

One of Oscar’s assignments calls for him to dress up as a motion capture performer and participate in a movie shoot. The actress who he encounters on the set: is she a performer like him, or just a “regular” actress? As we later learn, many of Oscar’s engagements seem to be with other performers, so it’s hard to say.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Today Is Not Like Today: Surrealist Language in 'Dogtooth'

Censorship is a powerful tool -- it limits imagination, potentiality, expression and agency. It can create stigma with a stamp, make moral judgments and draw boundaries with a thick line. Powerful censorship doesn’t always take the form of political power or pure prohibition -- it can appear in a remarkably insidious form through translation, an equation of meaning from one thing to another. Dogtooth’s title, the 2009 Greek film directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, is already a translation of signifiers, a colloquial version of canine teeth. The [d]ogtooth is significant because it is the harbinger of maturity and independence for three adult-children, who have been confined by their parents to the boundaries of their house’s property since birth. The eldest is a boy, the other two are girls who patiently, at least at first, wait for their dogtooths to fall out so that they can encounter the outside world.

The world within the house is acutely defined through the parents’ rigid control on vocabulary. Words whose signifieds refer to the outside world are reassigned to refer to objects within the house, a boomeraging of linguistic signifiers back to the children’s immediate physical surroundings, so as not to even hint of concepts larger than “swimming pool” or “airplane”. A “zombie” is a little yellow flower, a “telephone” is a salt shaker. Questions of what-is and why-is are rigorously limited to familiar terms and objects, leaving outside objects that would otherwise be common or harmless taking the brunt of descriptors like fear, danger, mystery, threat. When a stray cat finds its way into the compound, it’s an opportunity to create fear in the mundane, as the father rips his own clothes and covers himself in fake blood to explain an encounter with the beast. The father is slipping certain words into his own children’s dialect, and making words like “swell” sinister and threatening.

The children, ignorant of all this linguistic substitution, live in complete surreality -- the pipe is not a pipe, cats are murderers, zombies are flowers. Words exist in stark authority over the physical world, as a method of parental control that is so ambiguous in its rationale and so pious in its application that you start to question the sanity of the parents themselves, rather than fault them. As restrictive as the use of language is, it pales in comparison to the application of sex -- as a biological energy to control and appease. The plot bends with the sexual drive of the oldest son, mediated by the father with the almost pharmaceutical prescription of encounters with a woman security guard from his workplace. He drives her to and from the house blindfolded and pays her for her compliance and silence (towards their agreement and with the son’s sexual preferences). It is when her sexual demands of the son are denied that she seeks satisfaction from others in the house, taking advantage of their malleable relation of signifier to sign. A lick becomes a lot more here, leading surreal censorship to upturn the family entirely.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Convergences: Deren / Bush

from Meshes of the Afternoon, 1943, d. Maya Deren & Alexander Hammid

cover of The Dreaming by Kate Bush, released 1982

Monday, September 3, 2012

William Vollmann and Michael Glawogger in Conversation

Is it funny how you end up reading the right books and watching the right films at exactly the right time, or is it freaky? 

William T. Vollmann's semi-fictional travelogue The Atlas just happened to be splayed next to my bed when I first watched Michael Glawogger's docu-triptych on third world prostitution, Whores' Glory. Had I not encountered Vollmann prior to watching Glawogger, I probably wouldn't have realized how kindred they are, and I might not have been as profoundly disturbed by their work.

If you had to boil Glawogger's films or Vollmann's books down to one word, "prostitution" could work for either of them.
Vollmann is much more prolific, churning out thousand-page books on violence, San Francisco prostitution rings, the John Smith legend and California desert counties seemingly every few months while Glawogger took thirteen years to finish a trilogy on globalization. But both share an obsession with prostitutes and everything that they represent about the cruelty of desire, the exploitation of the developing world and sexual/economic/political/cultural domination.

Stalking Stalker: The Film Critic as Guide

Lately, like a bunch of scrawny preteens pathetically slap-fighting in the middle school parking lot, critics have been bickering with other critics about how to be a critic. "You're a wimp!" someone shouts. "Yeah? Well you're a meanie!" another retorts. "Fight! Fight! Fight!" others cheer from the sidelines. Problem is, the model of criticism at the center of all this mudslinging—a model based on binaries like nice/mean, good/bad, recommended/not recommended—is a paradigm that serious critics have long outgrown. If all you have to say about a film is that you liked it, or alternately that you hated it, you're perpetuating a very dull and hackneyed form of criticism. I hope Roger Ebert will forgive me for saying this, but readers who only want the thumb verdict on a film are better off relying on sites like IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes or Netflix than flesh-and-blood critics.

Now I'm not saying that critics are useless. I mean, I consider myself a critic, so I sincerely hope we're not useless. What I'm saying is we have to go beyond the subjective act of pronouncing our assessment of a film's worth. We have to enrich our readers' experience of a film somehow. We have to justify ourselves as worthwhile voices apart from the film we're reviewing. Of course we'll always be leeching off another's artistic labor, as Richard Brody argues. But in doing so, we're still capable of creating something that retains value on its own.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Fashioning The Original From A Copy: On 'Certified Copy' and 'Vertigo'

Disclaimer: This post contains so, so many spoilers, and it probably won’t make a shred of sense unless you’ve seen both Certified Copy and Vertigo.

Some films are riddles -- puzzles waiting to be put together, codes waiting to be cracked, jokes waiting for a punch line.

At their core, riddle-films are cinematic questions -- ones that require viewers to come up with answers on their own. Films like Mulholland Drive, Last Year at Marienbad, and even gimmicky blockbusters like Inception may seem indecipherable on first viewing, but they’re not total enigmas. Those willing to do the painstaking, obsessive detective work these films demand will find clues for deciphering the films’ central mysteries. There’s a lot of heavy interpretive lifting involved, but never without some kind of pay-off.

In this sense, Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy is a textbook riddle-film.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Case of the Mondays: Cindy Sherman’s Office Killer and Genre Violence

Office Killer (1997) dir. Cindy Sherman

Horror movies are an excellent example of cinematic rubbernecking. The audience strains to see the evidence of violence beyond the frame, suspense grows from knowing that something horrible is lurking, and if there’s a glimpse of the gore, it is only for a second, leaving a flash of blood or splintered bone imprinted in the audience’s mind. There is no lingering on these images, maybe because the longer the gaze is sustained it switches from shock and terror to something else, like disgust and fetishization -- it’s impolite to stare. Which makes Office Killer (1997), Cindy Sherman’s directorial experiment, an awkward intersection of these glances.

Sherman’s photographs from Untitled Film Stills (1977-1980) managed to supplant an entire film’s narrative with a single image, and her care for cinematic perspective is definitely not lacking in Office Killer. There are some soppingly gorgeous character shots, pretty when they hide something, but not suspenseful -- Sherman prefers to linger on gore, either when pulling what appears to be a food processor blade from the mailboy’s neck, or stitching up a chest-wound with packing tape. The titular mousy copyeditor, Dorine (Carol Kane), is a clownish representation of sad, sexless spinster -- cats everywhere, live-in crippled mother, lots of ‘60s knitwear, giant eye-glasses, slip always showing, and eyebrows drawn (presumably) during an earthquake. After choosing not to report the accidental killing of her boss, she begins murdering coworkers seemingly without motivation. The audience receives hints at Dorine’s psyche with a cocktailing of horror tropes, lazy Freudian stuff from the likes of Psycho and The Bad Seed, but it’s really only the materiality of the film that seems to concern Sherman. Dark stairwells, stormy nights and nervously smoking women take up a lot of screentime, as do shots of office supplies at askew angles.

The office setting doesn’t engender so much creativity within the horror tropes, but it does offer a semi-technophobic motivation for Dorine’s murders. Turns out the new manager of the office is embezzling funds by over-inflating the compensatory price of the new computers that threaten Dorine’s job. But when Dorine murders the mailboy, she enacts the next phase of technological development, making some positions and characters obsolete. That she also murders the head of the company, by placing a butane canister into her asthma inhaler, shows that she does not discriminate based on professional hierarchies -- a characteristic reinforced by the random murder of two girl scouts.

We rarely see the act of violence and more often linger on its effects -- instead of accelerating the tension towards climax and then cutting away, the film likes to wallow in the aftermath. Office Killer's horror seems to work best as an animation of photographs, easily packaged as a film but best enjoyed piece by piece, where the wallowing time is up to the viewer. As a film it explains and shows too much; as photos, you’d strain your eyes to see what is kept in suspense.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

I Don't Know Anybody: Six Shooter's Parallel Lives and Tactical Jokes

Six Shooter, 2005, w./d. Martin McDonagh

Before there was In Bruges, there was Six Shooter. Before either, writer-director Martin McDonagh was already a celebrated playwright, though I'm not familiar with his plays in print or performance, and evidently none of them have been adapted to film. It's easy though, with this knowledge, to draw a lineage from modernist theater to McDonagh's cinematic language. The opening of In Bruges bears more than a passing resemblance to the beginning of Harold Pinter's The Dumbwaiter, and his thematic concerns and black-as-pitch, frankly rather sick sense of humor echo a bit more distantly his countryman Samuel Beckett.

Reams could be written on the linguistic and conceptual density of In Bruges (look for my book, coming on the fifteenth of never), but Six Shooter deserves attention as well, on its own terms as well as a sort of prototype/dry run for McDonagh's approach to film storytelling. The title of the short, much like its feature-length successor, may be taken as a morally ambiguous object that weighs upon the plot — the revolver that is revealed in the final six minutes, one of a pair, is both an instigator and an escape route.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Six Shooter opens on the apprehensive face of Mr. Donnelly (Brendan Gleason), as he is being told — by the camera, by us — that his wife has passed away in the wee hours of the morning. The utter absence of his wife as a character, save for a few implicit details about her love for a pet rabbit, stands out starkly. Donnelly is facing a loss, but we are facing a void. His experience hits home quickly, though, when he mutters to his wife's corpse, "I dunno what to say. I dunno where you are now." Donnelly can't contextualize the death, can't reassure himself as he is told later that she is "up with God." And so, in shock, he goes where McDonagh's characters go to forestall suicide — he gets on a train.

McDonagh is very interested in trains and restaurants and how they simulate privacy in public space. Think of the restaurant scene in In Bruges — the Canadian diners, despite sitting in the smoking section, feel invaded and offended by Chloe's cigarette. When Ray encounters them again, he's in a train car, trying to look inconspicuous. Each time, he's essentially passive, but his assumption of privacy clashes with others' sense of privacy or control. In Six Shooter, the train car offers a parallel arrangement of falsely private spaces similar to a restaurant.

Donnelly finds himself sitting across from a cordial sociopath, a sort of ur-Ray played by Rúaidhrí Conroy, who dare not keep a single crass thought to himself. He's particularly loudmouthed toward a couple sitting across and over from them — the weeping wife is being futilely comforted by the husband, and the kid heckles them constantly. A shower of "fucks" and "shites" sets the husband off: "If you use that language one more time, I'm gonna come over there and beat the shit out of you." To analyze the pleasures of that moment is to ruin a joke by explaining it, but here goes, in brief: what the husband is really upset about is not the foul language at all, but his own lack of control over his surroundings. We soon find out that he and his wife have lost their infant son, another bereaved party heading nondescriptly away on a train.

What follows is a series of causally linked events, seemingly decorated with jokey banter from Conroy's character. But he goes on, relating an anecdote about "a cow with trapped wind" and the diminutive stranger who relieves its bloating at a cattle show, and the film switches focus to this grotesque tale. This is the only diversion from the otherwise linear progression of the plot, framed as a flashback but just as likely a flight of fancy. For McDonagh, jokes are never mere fancy or distraction, though — they're fundamentally rhetorical, a space for exploring the absolute depths of human possibility without consequence (but nothing is without consequence, for jokes can always offend or strike a nerve, which can equal an act of emotional violence).

As the short feature reaches its climax, racking up gruesomeness, it never stops being funny. This is the masterstroke of McDonagh's writing and filmmaking. He doesn't make dramedies, he makes comedies about grief. He experiments with the social spaces people occupy, and pits them against each other at their worst, to gauge the volume of these spaces. Six Shooter does exactly what comedy ought to: it puts salt in the wound.