Thursday, October 23, 2014

Let the Right One In; The Sky Crawlers

For Halloween, reposting an old article on one of the more original bloodsucker flicks out there; plus one of the better science fiction films this side of the new millenium:

Love is stronger than death
Lat den ratte komma in (Let the Right One In, 2008) is fondly remembered, apparently, less for Tomas Alfredson's bleak storytelling than for the low-key romance that blossoms between two-hundred-year-old vampire Eli (Lina Leandersson) and twelve-year-old youth Oskar (Kare Hedebrant).

I see it a little differently, however; I see the blossoming of a low-key seduction of Oskar. I see Eli eyeballing Oskar as a possible replacement for Hakan (Per Ragnar), her adult companion and facilitator. From what I understand about the source novel, writer John Ajvide Lindqvist makes it clear that Hakan and Oskar are in no way similar, and that Eli has genuine feelings of affection for Oskar. Alfredson chose to cut out Hakan's backstory, making his relationship with Eli more ambiguous, and pointing up the parallels between Hakan and Oskar. 
It's telling, how Alfredson views Oskar--basically as a serial killer-in-the-making. Central to Alfredson's take of the character is Oskar's brief scene with a knife and a tree; without a word of explanation, Alfredson makes it clear that this is what Oskar would like to be, this is how Oskar would like to treat his tormentors. Sad fact of life, but victims of bullying sometimes aren't martyred saints, but passive youths forced (by bullies, by authority) to repress their anger and frustration until they find some other outlet for their anger--or, ultimately, explode in a paroxysm of violence. In this case, Oskar finds a tree; in later years in a series of chosen victims, perhaps. I see this happening where I work. 
Does Eli love Oskar? I say--why not? One can love someone at the same time one is exploiting him or her. If there's anything I don't believe in, it's a pure, untainted love. At our best we try, as much as possible, as often as possible, to think of what's best for our beloved, and hope this is enough. 
Alfredson takes his cue from the cold, bleak weather and landscape; the camera rarely moves (as if frozen in place) and at night the snow seems to have its own faint glow, less fairyland than nightmare, less enchanting than chilling. Not the greatest vampire film ever made (you can see the influence of Abel Ferrara's The Addiction (1995), George Romero's Martin (1977), even of Ingmar Bergman at his most gothic), but easily one of the best recent examples of the genre. 

Sky's the limit

Mamoru Oshii's Sukai kurora (The Sky Crawlers, 2008) is, in a word, breathtaking. Based on the novel by Hiroshi Mori, the film tells the story of a group of pilots engaged in a series of aerial battles, their struggle enveloped in an air of mystery--how this happened we don't know; why, we don't know either; for whom isn't really made clear, other than the fact that they and the pilots flying against them work for opposing companies. This is corporate warfare pushed in extremis but beyond the canny observation (how many of the world's conflicts are inspired, abetted, maintained by corporate interests?) that's not really the film's point; rather, it's the pilots' psychological state, a (as Oshii noted) state of stasis where they don't know how and why they came to be fighting, and don't really care. 
I've seen these kind of people before, not in a movie but a novel--or rather, a series of novels; Oshii's film may be the first animated attempt to bring the works of J. G. Ballard to the big screen. All the hallmarks are there: the disaffected characters, the sense of alienation, of dislocation, the occasional surreal imagery against perfectly blue skies (maybe it's Magritte, but when I picture an image surreal, I picture it against flawless blue skies). The pilots don't so much gaze at each other as they do past each other, or past one another's faces at some unknowable, invisible goal; their priorities are all askew--serenity, not survival, some kind of equilibrium achieved by any means possible, seems to be the objective here. 
Animationwise, Oshii combines documentarylike digital animation (3-D planes with unusual propeller designs (double propeller and canard wing configurations) with more traditional 2-D animated characters--the solidity of 3-D for the fighter sequences, the expressiveness of 2-D faces for the dramatic exposition (no, Oshii's characters are not known for being expressive, but this makes their minutest gestures all the more important--where a digitally animated human face would seem robotic, a hand-animated human face would seem to be underacting). 
But one doesn't go to Oshii for seamless integration of cutting-edge technologies; one goes to him for a certain dry emotional tone, an austere look, a metaphysical sensibility. In this case, the results are what Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun (1987) might have been like if the film were told from the pilots' point of view, totally in the spirit of Ballard's novel. An enthralling film.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Espiritu de la colmena (Spirit of the Beehive, Victor Erice, 1973)

Reprinting this because--well, there's no reason not to read about Victor Erice either.

The greatest Spanish film ever made?

First saw Victor Erice's Espiritu de la colmen (Spirit of the Beehive, 1973) maybe seven or so years ago, on a poor video projection with a standing crowd in the way, and it looked impressive, but I wasn't moved--which was a pity; in a thirty-three year career, Erice has made only one film a decade, starting with this one (he makes Terence Malick look prolific). Saw it again in TCM recently (I just caught it by accident) and it's just tremendous--he plays with the metaphor of the Frankenstein creature, transforming Shelley's myth of hubris and failed responsibility into one of the lonely outsider (which is more in line with Whale's vision, and with what kids readily respond to). Over that is the metaphor of the beehive, which Erice has Fernando Feran Gomez looking at repeatedly like a god observing his subjects under glass. And over that is the developing consciousness of the children, which sees all through enchanted eyes, transforming the Spanish countryside into a fantastic dreamscape.

It draws from disparate sources: Spanish political history, Grimm fairy tales, Mary Shelly's novel, and I would say Swift in Gulliver mode (the creature is to the girls as the girls--or the father--is to the bees; perception shaped or modified by perspective), and I suspect Rene Clement's Forbidden Games. In turn, it has probably influenced films like Cinema Paradiso (a coarser, more sentimental treatise on the power of the cinema to fascinate the youth), My Neighbor Totoro (two girls exploring a lovely countryside, and encountering a mysterious figure (both have their threads of pathos, which the creators take in different directions)), much of present-day Iranian cinema (especially those that deal with children) and even The Shining (dysfunctional family in a large habitat; plus a shot of Ana at the typewriter, hearing a strange noise, moving away (along with the camera) from the typewriter into a series of doorways, to glimpse something terrifying behind a closed door). 

 Incredible complexity, and yet it comes across as hushed, simple, moving: you choose to see the connections if you so wish, but it works supremely well as the story of a young girl who wishes to make a friend and finds one, with all the attendant consequences.

Some notes: Erice rhymes and repeats images, sounds, textures, emotions. The day after the children watch Frankenstein, a schoolteacher unveils the figure of a man without internal organs; her lesson consisted of the kids putting the correct organs in place, a schoolroom parody of Dr. Frankenstein's work method. The sequence ends with Ana putting in the crucial component--the eyes--with which the figure, previously a collection of colored cardbored cutouts, suddenly acquires life and expression and perhaps even a soul. Ana looks on her creation with an ambigiuous expression: just what is she feeling? Longing? Fear? Pride? A masterful example of child acting. The mother writes to a French lover, posts the letter at a drop box by a train's side, spots a handsome young man seated in a cabin. When her husband prepares for bed, the camera remains focused on the mother's face as she pretends to sleep, the father heard clomping around much as Frankenstein's creature does; when he finally climbs into bed, we hear a train whistle, and we're almost certain we know what--or who--she's thinking about.

Erice creates incredible imagery (with the help of the great Luis Cuadrado, who started to go blind during this production, and took his life in 1980). There's one that stays with me, even if it has little other significance: the father comes out of the house, the day just dawning, the the windows still lit, the house beautifully framed in the strengthening light; we follow him as he crosses down the path to the fields beyond and suddenly it's another composition, this time of the sun breaking over the horizon, the camera moving slowly past some tree branches to get a better view.

I read a college website that considers Ana a representation of the innocent Republicans, the older Isabel a representation of the corrupt, materialistic Nationalists. Possible, but I can't help but recoil from such bald symbolism. Isabel tells lies and teases Ana, but they both seem equally innocent, equally caught up in their childhood world (Isabel just seems more capable of using it to her own ends). One startling image of her developing beyond childhood is a scene of her with the cat. She strokes it lovingly, then in a fit of childish pique or excess affection, squeezes it; it hisses and bites her finger. She goes to the mirror and, looking at her face, spreads the blood across her lips. Remarkable image of oncoming sexuality, with the blood on her lips forshadowing the blood that will come forth another time (it's her only film role, incidentally)

This is considered by some the greatest film ever to come out of Spain. I don't know if I disagree; at the very least, I think I understand where such people are coming from.


L'Argent (Robert Bresson, 1983)

Reprinting an old article Bresson because--well, because there's no good reason not to read about Bresson (list of my posts on him as follows): 

Au hasard, Balthazar, 1966), Journal d'un cure de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, 1951), Mouchette (1967), and Un condamne a mort (A Man Escaped, 1956)

On bread alone

(Note: plot discussed in close detail)

The ostensible subject of Robert Bresson's last film L'Argent (1983) is money (hence the title), and in fact Bresson uses the pulling out, counting, and passing over of franc notes from one person to another as a kind of repeated motif throughout. But it's the love of the stuff that causes the real trouble (a distinction Catholic priests like to remind us of in Sunday mass) and initiates the central movement in the film, the downward slide of Yvon Targe (Christian Patey) from heating-oil deliveryman and husband to convict and axe murderer.

The film could play double bill to Bresson's earlier Pickpocket (1959), where Michel, the eponymous petty thief, traces an opposite course: already outside of society at the film's beginning, he makes his long and tortuous way to prison and a strange, ironic redemption (ironic in that it's when he's shut away that he finds spiritual freedom and human contact). The conventional wisdom is that Bresson was deeply religious in his early films, became deeply pessimistic in his later ones; Bresson himself, according to Colin Burnett's 2004 interview with crew-member Jonathan Hourigan, preferred to use the word "lucid"--implying that he believed his view of the world has become clearer, not just darker.

Bresson takes characters and incidents from Leo Tolstoy's "The Forged Coupon"--a story about the widening effects on several people's lives caused by the spreading of counterfeit money--and to some extent modifies them. In Tolstoy's story as in Bresson's film those who do wrong are not immediately punished, and those who are wronged are not immediately vindicated; the workings-out of fate (or God's will, as Tolstoy might put it) are more tortuously complex than that.

Where Bresson differs radically is in the emphasis and emotional reading he gives each story and its outcome--and I don't mean just the characteristically stylized acting of his "models" (so termed because Bresson never uses actors, never allows his performers to act in the conventional sense). In the case of the photographer (Didier Baussy) for example, he is saved by an unexpected act of kindness in Tolstoy's novella; in the film, the same miraculous rescue occurs, but the reading of the scene is more ambivalent; the photographer and his partner (Beatrice Tabourin) are as much insulted by the effrontery (the benefactor had stolen the money from them, and is actually returning a portion of the loot) as they are grateful for the gift.

In Yvon's case the changes are even more radical. Yvon on film is a conflation of the novella's Ivan Mironov, the man falsely accused of intentionally spreading counterfeit money, and Stepan Pelageushkine, the man who murdered him--a strange combination, you might imagine. Yvon shows the stubbornness and pride of the labor class: when accused he attacks his accuser; when found guilty and fired, he refuses to beg for his job back; when financially desperate, he resorts to being hired as driver in a robbery, is caught, and sent to prison.

Bresson carefully documents Yvon's transformation in prison, a transformation with no direct equivalent in Tolstoy. A series of letters (and we know how much Bresson loves the use of correspondence, and the reading of them) bring a series of catastrophically bad news; a fellow convict, commenting on Yvon's life, says philosophically "We fear death because we love life." He says this at the sight of Yvon face down on bed, weeping; it's Bresson's classic technique of having an act or idea spoken aloud same time he presents it onscreen--in this case, we see Yvon mourning his lost love. But weeping also implies an outpouring of tears, emotion, an outpouring that stops when tears and feelings run out. Yvon has lost much of his love of life, has also lost his fear of death--both of his own (he attempts suicide), and of others (he reacts to an insult by raising a hand intent on violence).

When released, he's a changed man, literally--he has become Tolstoy's Stepan, who thanks to the act of having killed Ivan (in the film, Yvon before imprisonment), has acquired a taste for shedding blood (When someone puts the question to him, Yvon replies simply: "I enjoyed it." Bresson's trademark deadpan performance style has never to my mind been put to a more chilling use). He's torn through the fabric of French society to end up in prison; inside (thanks to his antagonistic attitude towards fellow inmates) he's torn through the fabric of prison society to end up in a state of near-total isolation. When released, he's reached as low a status as anyone can possibly reach--has broken past (so to speak) all levels of civilization to stand alone on the other side.

Which might be the film's true subject--money not as a source of evil per se, but as symbol and operative medium (both fuel and lubricant) of a larger concept, civilization itself. Money here is the crust on which we all subsist on, stand on, and we'll do anything--lie, cheat, steal, kill--to keep that brittle, fragile crust from crumbling, and us falling through. Yvon has fallen through, and has found the experience strangely liberating--he kills, then carelessly spends the little money he has taken from the murders. Money has stopped being the motivating factor--it never was meant to be one anyway; rather, it was the signpost that marked where society begins and ends, a signpost Yvon has uprooted and is swinging wildly over his head.

Yvon follows an elderly woman (Sylvie Van den Elsen), presumably with the intent of robbing her, perhaps killing her; instead, she takes him in. It's tempting to see the kind lady as Yvon's second chance--his opportunity for redemption, in Tolstoy's terms--and at one point she does explicitly say "If I were God, I would pardon the whole world." She is reprimanded for this, however, even slapped (as is usual with Bresson, we hear the slap, not see it), and Yvon as a result becomes curious about her as a person. She explains that she cleans and cares for her father (grown drunkenly bitter after being widowed) and married sister. "Why don't you drown yourself," Yvon asks with the directness of the truly innocent "Are you expecting a miracle?" The housekeeper's kindness, especially in the face of her knowledge of Yvon's crimes, is well nigh inexplicable, unless you see them as being two of a kind--people who have been brought so low they recognize each other in their loneliness. I think it's telling that when Yvon lifts the axe he's holding the housekeeper looks upon him with a terrible serenity: she seems to see Yvon not as a dangerous stranger, but as a liberator.

Yvon turns himself in and the film abruptly ends--no credits, no music, just the crowd of men and women staring at the doorway where he just passed, staring even when Yvon is long gone; then cut straight to black, arguably the single oddest cut in the film (in all of cinema, arguably). You wonder if the crowd realizes that Yvon's arrest is incidental, that what they're really looking forward to is this black, blank screen, the way the housekeeper, gazing at Yvon, seems to be looking forward to the massacre to come.

In Tolstoy's novella, Stepan goes to prison and undergoes a gradual change of heart, made convincing by Tolstoy's detailed chronicling of the man's inner state; Bresson telescopes this, suggests that Yvon has already had his change of heart in prison, that he emerges from prison free of all illusions of society's essential goodness and necessity, that he goes forth with knife or axe in hand ready to free us from our miserable lives. Not exactly kosher Christianity, and Michel from Pickpocket (to name someone from an earlier work) might look upon this later incarnation of his character with profound horror, but this seems to be the kind of bleak conclusion to which Bresson has arrived, at the end of his career. If there's a note of hope at all in all this, it's in Yvon's willingness to turn himself in; he of all the characters in the film, from the photographer to the counterfeiting youths to the photo shopkeeper to the shop assistant, feels the urge to answer for his actions. He, of all the characters in the film, seems to have arrived at a state of terminal lucidity. 


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