REVIEW – Dark Habits (1983)

A few weeks ago, I was offered a chance to take a look at a newly-released box set of remastered films by Pedro Almodovar and despite having nothing much else to write about at the moment, I hesitated.

I think that my hesitation was born of a historic inability to parse Almodovar’s sense of humour. Indeed, despite enjoying many films whose themes and images are reminiscent of Almodovar’s work, I have always struggled with his tendency to make light of his own subject matter. In hindsight, I wonder whether this blockage might not have been due to the fact that when straight guys make light of melodramatic women and camp gay men, the mockery comes from a very different place to when the laughs are created by members of those groups. As a result, I would see the transgressive jokes about sex and death, be reminded of the 1990s and feel that the entire scene was rather tired and unpleasant. The thrills of transgressive imagery can only last so long. For an example of this jaded world-weariness that is actually a form of emotional constriction, look no further than this review I wrote all the way back in 2007. I’d like to say that I outgrew this lack of sensitivity but this review from 2013 suggests a similar (albeit less blinkered) frustration with Almodovar’s sense of humour.

Despite my hesitation, I agreed to review The Almodovar Collection and I am so glad I did as I now realise that Almodovar is so much more than transgressive images and a succession of dick jokes. My Road to Damascus moment came about half-way through watching Almodovar’s third film Dark Habits. I reviewed it for FilmJuice over here.

 

One of interesting things about Almodóvar’s career is that while most of his films deal with sexuality in quite a comic fashion, his work rarely comes across as either exploitative or patronising. This not only makes him singularly brilliant at handling female characters, it also allows him to steer his films in some quite unexpected directions. For example, despite revolving around a group of nuns who struggle with unusual desires and unfortunate histories, Dark Habits systematically locates the characters’ humanity and treats them all with the utmost respect. This desire to handle matters of the flesh with the same kind of high-minded seriousness that is usually afforded ‘respectable’ spiritual crises serves to both date and electrify the film as Dark Habits now feels a lot like an attempt to understand the kind of abuses and moral compromises that led to the clerical abuse scandal. How else are we to view a film in which religious figures use their positions to seduce and silence the vulnerable? How else are we to view a film that presents giving in to your hidden desires as a moment of spiritual triumph? Never anything less that morally and spiritually serious, Almodóvar extends understanding but not forgiveness.

 

I reviewed all six films included in the superb Almodovar Collection box set and I’ll link to a different review every day this week.

REVIEW – Nostalgia (1983)

My Tarkovskyian odyssey continues… FilmJuice have my review of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia, the film he made in Italy prior to his self-imposed exile from the Soviet Union.

Nostalgia is a film that rather took me by surprise. Much less well known than the science fiction films Solaris and Stalker, and less-widely discussed than the historical epics Ivan’s Childhood and Andrei Rublev, the film can be viewed as an attempt to isolate and explore the same devout ambivalence towards the search for spiritual truth that exists in all of Tarkovsky’s films but without the genre scaffolding that accompanies his better-known works.

As with Mirror, Tarkovsky responds to the lack of genre boundaries by exploring experimental narrative structures: In Mirror, he used a non-linear structure inspired by the idea of images flashing before the eyes of a dying man. In Nostalgia, he uses a structure known as a mis-en-abime in which different layers of reality run together:

 

Nostalgia is a film that is fuelled by Tarkovsky’s unhappiness at the realisation that he would most likely never be able to return home to the Soviet Union. Tarkovsky explores these feelings through a complex narrative structure known as a mis-en-abime. The structure begins with the figure of Gorchakov, a respected Russian poet who visits Italy in preparation for writing the biography of a composer who left Russia a serf and returned a celebrated artist only to wind up ending his own life in a fit of despair. The fact that Gorchakov’s situation resembles that of Tarkovsky is evident from the details of the two men’s lives, from the fact that Gorchakov’s first name is Andrei, and from the fact that the film is littered with references to Tarkovsky’s real-world films and writings. The second level of the structure revolves around the subject of Gorchakov’s book, a man who left Russia a slave only to find success and later return home before killing himself in a fit of despair. The life of the composer thus serves as a warning to both Gorchakov and Tarkovsky. While Tarkovsky blurs the boundaries between himself and his protagonist, he also blurs the boundaries between his protagonist and the composer in a series of dreams that could just as easily feature the family of the poet as the family of the composer. The term mis-en-abime comes from the French and refers to the practice of painting blocked up windows to look like real windows through which one could see the world. Thus, the world is literally placed in an abyss, a truth refracted back up to the surface through layers of text and metaphor all pointing straight to the anguish that Tarkovsky was feeling about his looming exile.

What surprised me about Nostalgia was the fact that I think I now prefer it to Stalker.

Thematically, the two films are very similar in that they are both heavily symbolic works that deal with man’s search for meaning and conclude on images of profound spiritual ambiguity. They are also quite similar visually in so far as they both feature long takes comprising beautifully composed shots of architectural decline that mirror the protagonist’s mental state. What surprised me about Nostalgia was the way that it seemed to do pretty much everything Stalker tried to do but does so in a far more focused and purified manner, almost as though someone had taken Stalker and boiled it in a enormous cauldron until all that was left was a thick black paste of existential alienation. Where Stalker provokes, Nostalgia demands. Where Stalker eludes, Nostalgia disappears.

I did not expect Tarkovsky to make a better film than Stalker and yet Nostalgia is precisely that.

Another reason Nostalgia surprised me was that I have only just seen it for the first time and have encountered it at a time when my relationship with science fiction is in something of a state of flux.

Much of the coverage of contemporary science fiction revolves around the battle between people who want the genre to become more diverse in its representation and people who want to genre to remain wedded to the same old characters and story-patterns. Despite being both instinctively sympathetic to calls for more diversity and instinctively unsympathetic to the suggestion that science fiction should focus upon pandering to the deplorable tastes of right-wing Americans, I am struggling to find anything of interest in the output of genre imprints.

The problem is that the big genre imprints appear to be cutting back on the kind of experimental or difficult books that I have grown accustomed to reading. As margins are squeezed and companies become more risk-averse, the rational choice is to focus on the more profitable market sectors and my choice of novels has always been something of a minority interest. Given that I do not enjoy reading commercial genre fiction, the question of who is represented in those kinds of works can never be anything more than an irrelevant abstraction, at least as far as my choice of reading matter is concerned. It’s almost as though there were a debate raging about the diversity of professional rugby league teams: Instinctively, I am naturally inclined to defend the people calling for more diversity but even a suite of perfectly diverse and representative rugby league teams would fail to get me to go and watch a game of rugby. This is why my Future Interrupted column has tended to look at works that are published on the margins of the genre.

This alienation from the field has also had the knock-on effect of prompting me to consider the purpose of genre storytelling. The conventional defence of science fiction is that it allows writers to explore ideas and areas that are difficult to approach from a mainstream perspective. Works like Nostalgia suggest that this is completely and utterly false: Nostalgia does everything Stalker and Solaris try to do and yet does so without a single genre trope.

So, given that films like Nostalgia do science fiction better than science fiction and much of the interesting works of literary science fiction are being published by non-genre imprints, is it time for me to abandon science fiction to the people who want nothing more than character-based escapism?

Andrei Rublev (1966) – Some We Call Nothing at All

Towards the end of his life, Andrei Tarkovsky decided to set down some of his ideas not only about film in general but also about his own artistic process. The resulting book – Sculpting in Time – is extraordinary in so far as it manages to be both lightly conversational and intensely theoretical without every seeming to break stride or shift emphasis. While the book covers a lot of ground, it is forever returning to these sweeping metaphysical proclamations about the nature of art and the quasi-spiritual role of the artist as a figure in 20th Century culture. As befits an artistic genius like Tarkovsky, most of his proclamations are in direct opposition to each other and yet themes and methods do emerge from the chaos.

One of the book’s recurring motifs is the idea of the artist as destroyer who does not so much create new meanings as remove extraneous in an effort to reveal hidden patterns of truth and meaning:

 

What is the essence of the director’s work? We could define it as sculpting in time. Just as a sculptor takes a lump of marble, and, inwardly conscious of the features of his finished piece, removes everything that is not part of it — so the film-maker, from a ‘lump of time’ made up of an enormous, solid cluster of living facts, cuts off and discards whatever he does not need, leaving only what is to be an element of the finished film, what will prove to be integral to the cinematic image.

 

The eccentricity of this worldview is perhaps best expressed through one of Tarkovsky’s own thought experiments: Imagine making a film that captures every detail of a person’s life. Imagine filming every last second of their life and doing so with a mastery of style and technique so flawless that you convey not only the objective facts about your subject’s life but also the nuances of their inner turmoil. According to Tarkovsky the resulting document could be beautiful, thought provoking, and compelling to watch but it could never be a true work of art. For Tarkovsky, art was not about capturing and reflecting objective truth but about simplifying reality to the point where it becomes comprehensible to the human mind.

The question we need to ask when watching the films of Tarkovsky is whether the truths uncovered by the process of simplification are supposed to be anything more than the reflection of our own prejudices. Was Michelangelo’s David literally present in the marble before he picked up his tools or did he simply hack at a piece of stone until it started to resemble our pre-existing ideas about men with huge hands and tiny cocks? Like many Soviet filmmakers of his generation, Tarkovsky understood the psychological processes involved in making sense of cinematic imagery and he understood that a series of evocative images would encourage audiences to leap to their own conclusions as to the ultimate meaning of the film. These questions become even harder to answer when you realise that Tarkovsky not only acknowledged the death of the author but viewed his audiences as active and equal participants in his own artistic process thereby ensuring that the truths we uncover in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky are always at least partially our own.

Given that the metaphysical and epistemological issues surrounding Man’s Search for Meaning are obviously present in mature works like Stalker or Mirror and obviously absent from his debut film Ivan’s Childhood, Tarkovsky’s second film Andrei Rublev can be viewed as an important transitional work in so far as it spends nearly three documenting the life of its subject without ever managing to secure a definitive meaning beyond those generated by the speculation of the audience.

 

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REVIEW – Stalker (1979)

Frequent visitors to this site will know that I value Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker above all other films. The reasons for this are really two-fold:

Firstly, I think that Tarkovsky’s films set the bar for a cinematic golden age known as the European art house movement. Tarkovsky was one of the first Soviet filmmakers to reach maturity having seen early works of European art house film and I think his films took those methods, combined them with approaches developed by Soviet filmmakers, and produced a series of works that have — in retrospect — come to define that particular sensibility. Stalker is special as it is not only devastatingly beautiful and enormously rich, it is also one of those rare films where everything seems to work both individually and collectively.

Secondly, Stalker is one of my critical compass points. It is not just that I tend to judge other films in terms of how well or poorly they compare to Stalker, it’s that my critical methods have been (consciously or unconsciously) been shaped by how well adapted they are to the task of writing about films like Stalker. Our culture teach us how to respond to the culture we consume and I have definitely found myself drifting closer and closer towards the task of writing about these kinds of beautiful but complex films.

I have actually written about the film before a couple of times before but I think I am most satisfied with this latest nihilistic take. FilmJuice have my review of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which has just been re-released on Blu-ray:

Tarkovsky may have been a genius but he was also the product of a very specific cultural moment. His films are littered with religious symbolism and articulate a profound yearning after spiritual truth but his stories inevitably seem to deposit their characters in states of complete existential crisis. The tension between the content of Tarkovsky’s stories and the style in which he chose to tell them speaks not only to the absence of religion in Soviet lives but also to the brutal materialism implied by Soviet Montage Theory. Indeed, if people can extract meaning from the juxtaposition of two completely unrelated images, how can we imbue this meaning with any form of value? If ‘meaning’ is just a product of the way human brains process information, what are we to make of our desire to find meaning in the chaos of our lives.

Tarkovsky’s Stalker is about man’s search for meaning and how all searches for meaning are doomed to failure. The world is a beautiful place, filled with bliss and horror but the meaning we place on these experiences are ours and ours alone.

Ivan’s Childhood (1962) – Adolescent Dreamscapes

Andrei Tarkovsky’s first film began life as a respectful adaptation of an autobiographical story about a child’s experiences working as a military scout during World War II. The story had already been translated into over twenty languages as well as critically acclaimed both at home and abroad but the studio’s first choice to direct the film had somehow managed to bungle the project resulting in nothing but thousands of feet of wasted film and a sizeable number of debts. After firing the director, the studio reached out to his classmate and offered him the project on the understanding that we would need to deliver a completed film as quickly and as cheaply as possible on the grounds that another man had already burned through the reserves of patience and good will that were usually accorded to novice filmmakers.

As with a number of Tarkovsky’s films, the production of Ivan’s Childhood resonates with many of the same issues as the film itself. For example, just as Tarkovsky had been denied a professional adolescence by the mistakes of his classmate, the film’s protagonist finds himself plucked from childhood and forced into premature adulthood where the world offers no protection from the consequences of his actions. Equally spooky is the way that the protagonist of Ivan’s Childhood is forced to run across minefields for the sake of those who follow just as Tarkovsky was forced to fight for the idea that directors should pursue their own artistic visions rather than contenting themselves with adapting the visions of others.

Setting aside the somewhat uncanny details of the production process, Ivan’s Childhood remains an impressive piece of filmmaking. Beautifully acted, astonishing to look at, and thematically rich, the film explores the interlocking boundaries between childhood and adulthood, dreams and reality, as well as between conscious and unconscious thought.

 

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Grey Gardens (1975) – Hell is a Collection of Dead Raccoons

Before they are made flesh and born into this world, works of art exist as clouds of pure possibility. Every work is born of ideas and the creative process requires artists to make those ideas material through a combination of different elements including plot, character, style, and theme. While certain ideas bond more naturally with certain elements and certain combinations of elements prove more or less popular at certain times, it is the artist who sits at the creative mixing desk and shapes how their idea will move from possibility to actuality.

Humans may be flawed and finite creatures but commerce assumes us to be more broken than we are. One side effect of this great conspiracy of under-estimation is that the marketplace tends to interpret our natural desire for different stories as a desire for different sets of mixes. Thus, mainstream realist literature encourages us to yearn for stories that can only be told with the character slider all the way up while Hollywood encourages us to watch films that require a focus on plot and a narrow explosive-laden visual style. Even art house film falls into this trap by emphasising a certain set of stylistic tics and then giving us more or less character and theme. There may be sound economic and historical reasons for this elemental fetishism but it does tend to encourage the assumption that trade-offs between the different elements represent some sort of zero-sum game. Why else remain wedded to such absurd superstitions as the belief that style can be severed from content or that thematically complex works cannot be stylish, exciting and full of humanity?

The truth is that the basic elements of artistic composition relate to each other in ways that are almost completely unpredictable. Some films – like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker – feature no characters, follow no plot, manifest no interest in the world and yet somehow manage to work on every conceivable level. Other works – like The Force Awakens –feature lots of plot, lots of character, a limitless budget for the provision of visual spectacle, a real desire to use mythological tropes to say something profound about human relationships, and yet somehow manage to be boring, empty, and utterly disposable.  One film that demonstrates how emphasising certain elements can have unexpected consequences is the (recently re-mastered and re-issued) cult documentary Grey Gardens.

 

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REVIEW – Louder Than Bombs (2015)

FilmJuice have my review of Joachim Trier’s third feature film Louder than Bombs. I must admit to being rather disappointed with this film as, on paper, it is pretty much exactly the type of film I tend to enjoy. The film revolves around the family of a successful war photographer played by the wonderful Isabelle Huppert. After years of bickering with her husband, the photographer agrees to retire only to wind up dying in what appears to be a car accident. Without the photographer’s cycle of anxious departure and grateful return to hold the family together, the husband falls out with his two sons until a retrospective of the photographer’s career brings them all together to forces them to confront old problems.

What I liked about this film was Trier’s willingness to break with conventional style, narrative, and character-development to suggest that while the photographer may have been a different person at home and in the field, the same is also true of those she left behind. In effect, the film suggests that rather than having a ‘true self’, people have (a) an internal conflict between the person they are and the person they want to be, and (b) a series of external conflicts between the personas they inhabit and the way that other people see them. In essence, this is a film about the chaotic groundlessness of the self and why every attempt to understand each other or define ourselves is doomed to failure.I tend to like art that deals with the concept of the self and I particularly appreciate it when works ride out against the Victorian novelistic idea that people have well-formed characters that exist as part of dramatically-satisfying narrative arcs.

What I didn’t like about this film is that while Trier seemed willing to ride out against these Victorian ideas, he seemed weirdly reluctant to give up a lot of the storytelling aesthetics and narrative techniques that accompany the Victorian novelist’s ideas about selfhood:

The problem is that while Trier uses a number of clever cinematic techniques to articulate his ideas about identity, the bulk of the film remains grounded in a very traditional approach to both storytelling and character. Thus, while the film builds towards moments of family reconciliation and acceptance of hidden truths about the mother, it also wants to suggest that the mother is fundamentally unknowable and that true reconciliation is a psychological impossibility. The result is a film that contains some lovely moments and a few nice touches but feels both unfinished and half-hearted.

The FilmJuice review was originally going to be a bit longer as reading a bit about Joachim Trier’s career brought to mind an interesting quirk in the way film critics write about the industry.

Usually, when people write about the careers of creative people they tend to emphasise the individual agency of their subjects. While these types of stories have their place, they tend to downplay the extent to which the film industry requires a steady stream of supplicants who will inevitably be broken and remade to fit into whichever professional niches happen to need filling. In truth, it really does not matter what brought the likes of Chris Pratt and Ryan Reynolds to the acting profession as Hollywood will always need charming men who are handsome and easy to work with.

Hollywood has a long history of making ‘inside baseball’ films that dwell on the harsh realities of the acting profession but American film tends to pull its punches when it comes to considering the people say behind the camera. For every Living in Oblivion there are a dozen films like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Sunset Boulevard. In fact, one of the most refreshing things about the French New Wave was that films like Le Mepris and Day for Night were happy to suggest that writers and directors are often just as disposable as actors.

Looking at Joachim Trier’s career thus far, I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised if he wound up directing Oscarbait at some point in the next ten years. Louder than Bombs contains some cleverness but not so much cleverness that it overwhelms the acting and the excellent cast suggests that Trier is already proving adept at attracting bankable talent. While I won’t labour the point, I think that the careers of ambitious directors like Trier should be spoken of not in terms of personal vision but in terms of their ability to do a job and fill a professional niche. Hollywood needs people who can direct actors and be a little bit clever just as it needs people who are used to working quickly and taking orders from executive producers.