Sunday, August 30, 2009


Winner of the Academy Award for Best Animated Film in 2003, 'Spirited Away' was my introduction to Miyazaki. I saw it on the big screen in a subtitled print (Miyazaki's subsequent films 'Howl's Moving Castle' and the forthcoming 'Ponyo' were dubbed for theatrical release) and it was one of those rare and delightful occasions where I fell in love with a film immediately and wholeheartedly; loved every frame of it; floated out of the cinema high on the pure joy of spending two hours under the spell of a genuinely feel-good film made with love and intelligence and attention to detail.

The plot - or at least the mechanics that set the plot in motion - could be straight out of a horror film. 10-year-old Chihiro's parents make a wrong turn en route to their new home and end up in a strange deserted township. Victims of their own greed, a curse befalls her parents. Then darkness falls and insubstantial, ghost-like shapes appear in the streets. Chihiro flees. Sseeking refuge at a huge old bathhouse, she discovers that yet more spirits, some benign and some quite definitely malevolent, are waiting ... and that her destiny is inextricably bound up with theirs.

The visual style is that of an opulent fantasy, sometimes creepy, sometimes delightful.

The film itself is quite simply a love story. In the most explicit (and superficial) sense, it's a love story between Chihiro (or Sen as she becomes known, having been tricked into forfeiting her name) and Haku, half youth half dragon, the unwitting apprentice to despicable witch Yubaba. Like Sen/Chihiro, his true name has also been stolen.

It's a love story about the cameraderie of friendship. Chihiro's parents are self-centred and foolish. Nonetheless, her adventures in the spirit world are motivated by a desire to free them from Yubaba's curse; and during these adventures she benefits from the support of a makeshift family of friends: a multi-limbed old man in charge of heating the bathhouse who commands a fur-ball army of sprites lathered in coal dust to keep the furnace stoked; an older girl slaving away as a cleaner who takes her under her wing; a river god bloated with a human waste pumped into his realm whom Sen cleanses; and a mysterious spirit called No Face whose personality reconfigures according to the characters he meets. Faced with the greedier denizens of the bathhouse, No Face becomes ravenous, rapacious and repellent. In Sen/Chihiro's company, he is calm and accommodating.

Most of all, though, 'Spirited Away' is a love story about the power of imagination. Chihiro's parents are scornful of the world they find themselves in, take advantage of what's on offer, and pay the price. Chihiro, though initially scared, integrates with her new surroundings and finally, as Sen, embraces them, particularly in her alliance with Yubaba's considerably more humane sister Zeniba.

Miyazaki's realisation of the spirit world, of its infrastructure, of the trompe-l'oeil architecture of the bathhouse, is breathtaking. He creates a world as believable as it is fantastical, a world his characters live in, rather than just a backdrop against which a story takes place. A world with structure and protocols and systems of transport.

It's a world I've lived in every time I've watched the film and been reluctant, when normality is restored at the end, to leave.

Friday, August 28, 2009


The title of Bela Tarr's opus translates - logically enough - as 'Satan's Tango'. But if that conjures visions of demonic doings at a dance academy, put all thoughts of 'Suspiria'-stylee film-making from your mind. Whereas Dario Argento, at his best, is flamboyant and demented, a grand guignol poet, Tarr's visual poetry is wrought from different material and fashioned in resolutely downbeat cadences.

'Satantango' is a seven-hour Hungarian film shot in austere black-and-white and made up of long takes. Very long takes. Tarr holds the average shot so long it makes Tarkovsky at his most soporific look like a director of MTV videos fired up on crack and a double espresso. Many of these long takes, moreover, contain little visual information beyond what the first few seconds of the shot communicate.

Sometimes Tarr's camera moves and he'll follow his characters through oppressive tracts of woodland, along muddy and rutted country lanes, or down streets lashed with rain and strewn with trash. Take the still below. Imagine the two men walking, the wind and rain battering them, the litter blowing around their feet. Imagine this lasting about five minutes.

Other times, Tarr has his actors arranged in tableaux, immobile and unspeaking as the camera slowly zooms in or out of the scene. During dialogue scenes, he'll often pan away or slowly zoom past the characters and focus on, say, the patterns of a grubby bit of net curtain. I've used the word "slowly" twice in as many sentences, and with reason. 'Satantango' is a slow movie. Sometimes it's slow in a hypnotic, almost mesmerising way. Sometimes it's slow in a watching-paint-dry kind of way. And sometimes it's downright patience-testing.

There's an eight-minute scene when some cows wander out of a barn, past some houses and congregate in a bit of wasteground. That's it. Cows wandering around. For eight minutes. While a moodily minimalist score drones on the soundtrack. But this is an exercise in brevity compared to a single-take set-piece wherein a group of villagers engage in a drunken dance to an endlessly recycled accordion tune for twenty minutes. Apparently, Tarr had them all get drunk for the take. Christ knows what they thought when they saw the rushes.

'Satantango' comprises twelve chapters (mirroring the six steps forward, six steps back of the tango), many of which contain overlapping scenes or events played out from different perspectives. The villagers' interrelationships and often gruellingly difficult lives are painstakingly established, from the doctor who spies on his patients and keeps the company of whores while he drinks himself insensate, to the mentally disturbed child whose deprivation of parental guidance and affection leads to a hard-to-watch scene where she mistreats and later kills a pet cat ... and a just-as-uncomfortable corollary, the implications of which the mephistophelean Irimias (Mihaly Vig) plays on when he persuades the villagers to join him in a collective.

Politically, 'Satantango' (adapted from a novel by Laszlo Krasnahorkai) is a metaphor for the failure of communism, the aftermath of lives betrayed by its ideology. Artistically, its a challenge to the viewer; a weeding out of the cineastes from the film fans. It's the 'Remembrance of Things Past' of cinema, a subtitled and determinedly serious Mount Everest for moviegoers. An hour and a half in, when many a rom-com or shoot-'em-up actioner would be winding things up and spooling the end credits, and you're barely at base camp.

I've sat through some long and challenging films before - from Tarkovsky's exercises in "sculpting in time" to the full four-hour cut of 'La Belle Noiseuse' (most of which consists of an artist painting his model) - and I can honestly say 'Satantango' is one of a kind. It's as profound as it is pretentious, as immediate as it is oblique. It's fascinating and tedious, artistically valid and up its own arse, utterly gripping and frustratingly oblique.

It would make writing this flimsy and indecisive piece a lot easier if I could honestly say that I didn't like 'Satantango' and leave it at that. It would only be half a lie: there were instances where I actively disliked the film. But I was equally impressed by it. And there's no denying that Tarr has a visual and directorial style all of his own. I'll certainly make the effort to seek out his other works, but I'll approach them knowing I'm in for the long haul.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Blind Chance

SPOILER ALERT: Minor spoilers abound. Moderate spoilers are also in evidence. The big mo-humba, however, has been kept under wraps.

Krzysztof Kieslowski’s ‘Blind Chance’ opens with a sequence of fragmentary vignettes that may be memory, contemporaneously occurring events, or glimpses of what’s to come. The first shot is of a man screaming. By the end of the film, it’s fairly easy to place this in the chronology of events – in each of the three alternative chronologies, actually – but the other bits of visual information prove thornier, even with multiple viewings. Basically, though, this opening sequence establishes Witek (Boguslaw Linda) as a medical student doubting his vocation, unsure about a possible relationship with fellow student Olga (Monika Gozdzik), and trying to deal with his father’s death.

Obtaining Dean’s Leave to postpone his studies, he rushes to catch a train back home. The train is already pulling out of the station, gathering speed, and Witek is rapidly running out of platform as he goes pounding full-tilt after it.

Three alternative realities diverge at this point. Kieslowski follows them through individually and chronologically, but that’s his only concession to simplicity. What follows is a thinking-cap-on piece of filmmaking: deep, profound, thought-provoking and played out in scenes which alternate between Tarkovsky-like extended takes and elliptical brevity.

In the first scenario Witek catches the train by the narrowest of margins and meets Werner (Tadeusz Lomnicki), a hardline communist who introduces Witek to empire-building party member Adam (Zbigniew Zapasiewicz). Witek joins the party and is treated as something of a golden boy. His naivety about party politics is countered by his enthusiasm, and he acts effectively (though not necessarily by the book) when the dirty job of dealing with a hostage situation at a mental health facility is foisted on him. A chance meeting with old flame Czuszka (Boguslawa Pawelec) leads to a rekindled relationship. But things start to turn sour: Czuszka is arrested; Adam’s mentorship of Witek is revealed as having a darker aspect; an important trip abroad is cancelled at the last moment. Witek’s standing in the party is compromised, and both his relationship and his ideology are in tatters. This scenario ends with Witek, turned away from his flight, committing an act of vandalism at the airport.

The second scenario opens as Witek almost makes the train, before a jobsworth station master tackles him. Witek struggles with the man, striking him. Police arrive. Frustrated, Witek throws more punches. A magistrate gives him 30 days hard labour. While toiling with a shovel and counting off the days, he meets Marek (Jacek Borkowski) who involves him, on their release, in an underground political group. He channels his anger at the establishment in his work with a cell producing subversive literature. He mellows a little, though, when he meets old school friend Daniel (Jacek Sas-Uhrynowski) and begins a relationship with Daniel’s sister Werka (Marzena Trybala). Nonetheless, Witek’s ideologies are dealt a hammerblow just as brutally as in the first scenario when the cell is infiltrated, print equipment destroyed and members imprisoned. Witek is singled out in the fingerpointing and, as before, he finds himself persona non grata.

In the final scenario, Witek again misses the train but this time without getting into a brawl. He jogs to a stop and catches his breath. He lets it go. He sees Olga on the platform. They talk. Later they make love. Witek returns to his studies, the Dean encouraging his new-found commitment. Witek and Olga marry. They have a child. Satisfied with his life, Witek gives little thought to politics except to accept an invitation from the Dean to speak on his behalf at a foreign conference; the Dean’s ability to travel has been affected by the arrest of his son for producing subversive literature and the old man expects to be dismissed from the faculty at any time. Although Olga tries to convince Witek not to make the trip, he sets off for the airport. En route to the departure lounge, he walks past the communist party members from the first scenario who are being turned away from their flight; he walks past some of the cell members from the second scenario who are being scrutinised by airport security staff. He doesn’t give them a second glance.

‘Blind Chance’ lives up to its title. Not only does it examine the life-changing implications of such a trivial event as a man running for a train, and how just a slight variation can produce - chaos theory-like - such differences in outcome; but there are also any number of "blind chances" scattered throughout the individual scenarios, notably Witek’s renewed acquaintanceships with Czuszka in the first and Daniel in the second. The story that Werner tells Witek about a life-changing event in his and Adam’s past also hinges on chance. And it’s chance that puts the contented Witek on the plane at the end while Witek the politico and Witek the reactionary are prevented from taking it in their story strands.

Kieslowski, already a couple of dozen films into his decades-spanning career, made ‘Blind Chance’ in 1980. Due to state censorship it didn’t see the light of day until 1987, when Kieslowski was gearing up to make a succession of world cinema masterpieces that would define the last decade and a half of his life and cement his reputation as one of European’s most important directors: ‘A Short Film About Killing’, ‘A Short Film About Love’, the ‘Dekalog’ sequence, the poetic and mysterious ‘Double Life of Veronique’ and the critically and commercially popular ‘Three Colours’ trilogy. Stunningly assured and intelligent, ‘Blind Chance’ is the equal of any of these.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (a review in five chapters)

Chapter one:
Once upon a time ... in the New York Times

There's a review of 'Inglourious Basterds' in the New York Times - an organ normally dependable for its film criticism - which not only misses the point by a country mile, but in its last line writes off the very concept of the anti-hero as a valid fictive creation. This is what reviewer Manohla Dargis has to say:

"The film's most egregrious failure [is] its giddy, at times gleeful embrace and narrative elevation of the seductive Nazi villain ... Unlike those in 'Schindler's List', Mr Tarantino's Nazis exist in an insistently fictional cinematic space where heroes and villains converge amid a welter of movie allusions ... 'Inglourious Basterds' is simply another testament to his movie love. The problem is that by making the star attraction of his latest film a most delightful Nazi, one whose smooth talk is presented as lovingly as his murderous violence, Mr Tarantino has polluted that love."

Firstly, 'Schindler's List' exists in a cinematic space every bit as "insistently fictional" as that of 'Inglourious Basterds' - it's in black and white; much of its visual style is non-naturalistic; ash from crematorium chimneys falls as gently and lovingly as snow - so the comparison doesn't hold water. Secondly, Dargis argues that Christoph Waltz's SS Colonel Hans Landa is the best thing about the film simply because he gives the best performance. Ralph Fiennes's is similarly the best performance in 'Schindler's List'; Dargis's argument is further weakened. Thirdly, why does a "gleeful embrace and narrative elevation" of a Nazi character perforce constitute a flaw in a film's aesthetic? I've always found Paul Scofield's erudite von Waldheim far more appealing than Burt Lancaster's monosyllabic Labiche in John Frankenheimer's 'The Train' - and this dynamic, if anything, makes the film even more interesting. (See also: 'Cross of Iron': German protagonist, excellent film. And where does Dargis's argument leave the "good German" in, say, Powell and Pressburger's '49th Parallel' or 'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp'?) Fourthly, criticising Tarantino for creating his vision of cinema within a deliberately fictive space is as facile as slating a Bollywood film for being three hours long and containing a bunch of song and dance numbers. It's little more than an admission that Dargis doesn't like a certain style of film-making, only dressed up in the kind of cheap point-scoring that there should be no place for in the New York Times.

Also, Dargis seems to imply that premeditated empathy with a villainous character - ie. the writer and/or director specifically setting out to make an anti-hero not only palatable but laudable to the audience - is reprehensible. Excuse me? Some of the greatest characters in both classical literature and pop culture and at all points inbetween are anti-heroes. From Hamlet to Hannibal Lecter, from King Lear to Freddy Krueger. Everyone loves an anti-hero. It's the thrill of a character doing and saying the things we could never do or say - things, frankly, that we wouldn't want to do or say. It's the delightful frisson of a character whose moral disconnect imbues them with a fascinating unpredictability; a character who could quite literally do anything.

Chapter two:
Glorious basterds

And while I'm kicking against mainstream film critics, can I just say that I don't understand why so many critics still carp about violence in Tarantino's work. Sure, everything he's done contains scenes of violence, but I'd argue no more so than most tentpole summer blockbusters. While, say, your average Michael Bay film doesn't feature scalpings (how would Transformers scalp each other? "each one of you Autobots owes me one hundred Decepticon pistons ... and I want my pistons!") it buys wholly into an aesthetic of violence - explosions, shoot outs, cars flipping over and smashing into other cars at high speeds - which leaves you in no doubt that sheer, unmitigated destruction is Bay's raison d'etre. Tarantino, however, is more interested in the build up, the tension, the dialogue and character dynamics.

When action or violence happens in a Tarantino movie, it erupts suddenly and is over quickly. There is, per capita, very little onscreen violence in his work. The first chapter of 'Inglourious Basterds' is a clammily tense interrogation by Landa of a French farmer harbouring a Jewish family. It quickly becomes apparent that Landa knows full well the family are there and where they are hidden; he's simply toying with the man. The scene is intense and gripping, punctuated by an inspired mine's-bigger-than-yours visual joke, and what makes it work is not the thirty seconds of gunfire it culminates in but the twenty minutes of dialogue that build up to it. Landa arranging his pen and pot of ink on a table carries far more weight than the machine guns slung over his men's shoulders.

It follows, then, that any director who places more importance on words than action - and how refreshing is that in contemporary American cinema? - must needs be an actor's director. And this is where I still don't think Tarantino gets his dues. Love or loathe the deliberate movieness of his movies, the man gets fucking great performances from his actors. 'Pulp Fiction' made Samuel L Jackson and resurrected John Travolta. Pam Grier and Robert Forster in 'Jackie Brown' - we're talking about finest hours. Uma Thurman's never been as good outside Tarantino's cinema. And now in 'Inglourious Basterds' we have a bravura, multi-faceted performance from Christoph Waltz, vacillating between charm, cruelty and - daringly in the finale - a touch of high camp. It's full-throttle and hugely memorable. But so is Diane Kruger's irresistible diva-like turn as Brigitte von Hammersmarck, the dahling of the German film industry.

Melanie Laurent's character Shoshanna (the only survivor of Landa's first chapter massacre) is almost overwhelmed by Waltz and Kruger, but she's never less than the true main character of the film, and evinces a quiet determination underscored by a melancholic sense of vulnerability. That she understates just emphasises the importance of her character. Michael Fassbender comes within a plummy vowel of stealing the show as Lt Archie Hickox, a British officer despatched to assist the Basterds and make contact with Brigitte (a double agent) in a mission to assassinate the Nazi chiefs of staff. Bouncing off an audaciously cast Mike Myers (as fellow Brit, General Ed Fenech), Fassbender takes up the mantle of George Sanders and gives us a smooth, unpeturbable Brit (his staring-death-in-the-face speech about there being "a special place in hell reserved for people who waste good Scotch whisky" is priceless).

Elsewhere, as the Basterds, Brad Pitt is a scream as hillbilly platoon leader Lt Aldo Raine, drawling his cod-philosophical down-home dialogue with relish; Til Schweiger as the only German member of the outfit, officer-hating Hugo Stiglitz, gives a breakout performance comparable to Waltz's; B.J. Novak makes the most of a bit of comic relief when Landa taunts him that his nickname amongst German soldiers is "the Little Man"; and only Eli Roth seems ill-at-ease as baseball bat wielding Sgt Donowitz.

Chapter three:
European night in Tarantino-land

Because Tarantino's movies are movie movies, references to other films come thick and fast. Since the 'Kill Bill' opuses, his soundtracks have been culled from existing movie music. Character names reference favourite actors (Aldo Raine is a nod to Aldo Ray; Hugo Stiglitz to ... well, Hugo Stiglitz). Movie posters, characters talking about movies, and clips from movies are part of the fabric of a Tarantino film. Prior to 'Inglourious Basterds', he revealed a very '70s aesthetic, culminating in his and Robert Rodriguez's homage to the era of exploitation movie drive-in double bills, 'Grindhouse'.

'Inglourious Basterds' throws open the doors of Tarantino's movie love wider than ever before - and none of it, as Manohla Dargis would have you believe, is polluted. Tarantino - knowledgably and contextually - incorporates the work of Leni Riefenstahl, G.W. Pabst and Paul Martin. The latter's 'Gluckskinder', a loose 1936 remake of 'It Happened One Night', is referenced during the first meeting between Shoshanna, now running a cinema under an assumed identity, and Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), a Nazi sniper heralded as a hero of the nation. Smitten by Shoshanna, he wants her cinema to host the premiere of a propagandist film based on his exploits in which he plays himself.

Zoller proves one of the most slippery characters in the film, charming to the point of being self-effacing, almost sickened by the cinematic representation of his prowess as a marksman, yet still capable of ruthlessness and a threat to Shoshanna despite his feelings for her. Bruhl, impressive in everything I've seen him in since 'Good Bye Lenin!', does more good work here.

An interview with Tarantino at Sunset Gun goes into fascinating detail on the power Goebbels wielded in German film production during the Third Reich. Tarantino pertinently makes the point that many of the propaganda films produced (a staggering 800 titles during Goebbels' tenure) were comedies or historical epics. Parallels can be made, messages got across, without hammering the audience over the head in a blunt and obvious fashion. America and Britain made their fair share of propaganda films, too, many of them - including Powell and Pressburger's first eight collaborations - emerging as bona fide works of art.

Chapter four:
Operation cinephile

'Inglourious Basterds' confounds expectations from the off. Hell, it confounds them from its very title. A dictionary-defying variant on Enzo G. Castellari's 'The Inglorious Bastards', it sets up an expectation of a death-or-glory men-on-a-mission balls-to-the-wall actioner in the vein of 'The Dirty Dozen' or 'Where Eagles Dare'. But 'Inglourious Basterds' doesn't focus solely on the unit put together to undertake one of these missions, nor does it wind up at vertiginous clifftop stronghold or a chateau deep behind enemy lines.

Its denouement takes place at a cinema. Its heroine runs the cinema. Her would-be suitor Zoller plays himself in a film that makes hagiography of atrocity. Landa is put in charge of security at the cinema by Goebbels, who has overseen production on the Zoller film. Lt Hickox is handpicked for his mission because he was a film critic specialising in UFA during peacetime. Even Lt Raine is moved to inform a captured Nazi soldier who refuses to co-operate that he's glad of the man's refusal because "watching Lt Donowitz here beat Nazis to death is about as close as me and the boys get to going to the movies". The climax takes place during a film screening.

The film-within-a-film, 'Nations Pride', was directed by Eli Roth and constitutes a frenzied gun battle between sniper Zoller and hundreds of enemy troops; a shot of a man targetted by Zoller falling into a decorative pool apes a similar shot in 'Scarface'. It's both a nifty in-joke and a provocative anachronism, emphasising (as the title of chapter one - "once upon a time ... in Nazi-occupied France" - suggests) that 'Inglourious Basterds' is a WWII movie only in that it embraces some conventional war movie themes and imagery. Otherwise, it plays by its own rules and doesn't apologise for doing so!

Aldo Raine is as nominally the hero of the piece as Landa is the villain. The real hero of 'Inglourious Basterds' is cinema itself. When Shoshanna plans her revenge, its not explosives she uses to incinerate her enemies but reels and reels of nitrate film. There's something indescribably creepy about that pile of film reels lurking behind the cinema screen - particularly when you're watching 'Inglourious Basterds' on the big screen - and it's an image Tarantino plays on effectively.

Chapter five:
Revenge of the giant controversy

When 'Inglourious Basterds' screened at Cannes, opinion was divided. This is nothing new for Tarantino; there were boo's as well as cheers when he took the Palme d'Or for 'Pulp Fiction'. Debate will doubtless rage on the internet in the coming months, opinion chasmically divided. I'm confident that 'Inglourious Basterds' will prove the love-it-or-loathe-it audience divider of Tarantino's career.

Personally, as you might have gathered from the couple of thousand words I've waxed lyrical on it so far, I love 'Inglourious Basterds'; I still need to watch it a few more times, but I have an inkling it might end up, if not my favourite Tarantino film, then certainly joint first with 'Pulp Fiction'. It has no regard for history, it is supremely self-indulgent (Tarantino is perhaps the only film-maker I can think of for whom self-indulgence is a positive trait), and it continually defies audience expectation. It's a film only Quentin Tarantino could have made, and I can't foist upon it any higher a recommendation than that.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (first thoughts)

It's me and Paula's first wedding anniversary today, and what more romantic a way to mark the occasion that an afternoon showing of 'Inglourious Basterds', Quentin Tarantino's alternative, subversive, brutal and often funny as fuck war movie?

(We're out for a meal shortly, so I've only got a few minutes to blog a quick hit-and-run immediate thoughts type review. Expect a more considered article in the next few days. Oh, and I know I said August was foreign movies month on The Agitation of the Mind, but half of 'Inglourious Basterds' is in French or German and subtitled, so it kind of counts.)

Immediate thoughts, then:

Everything you've heard is true: Tarantino happily rewrites history, sticks David Bowie on the soundtrack of a movie set (mostly) set in 1944, and confounds any and every expectation you go into the cinema with. This isn't so much a war movie as a western (the opening chapter is chock full of iconography that wouldn't be out of place in a Sergio Leone opus, right down to the chapter title "once upon a time ... in Nazi-occupied France") which segues into a men-on-a-mission caper (only without anything as pifflingly audience-pandering as an actual mission*) which then takes time out to spoof the stiff-upper-lip ethos of '50s British war films (the nonsensical verbiage between Mike Myers and Michael Fassbender is a scream) before wandering into a basement bar to revisit the Mexican stand-offs so brilliantly realised in 'Reservoir Dogs' and 'Pulp Fiction' (only with SS officers, undercover operatives and a glamorous double agent thrown in for good measure), with all of the plot strands resolving at an art deco cinema where 'Inglourious Basterds' stops being anything even genre related and reveals itself as a bullet-riddled, explosive and endearingly self-indulgent love letter to cinema itself.

Maybe I'm throwing this out a little too early (I'll certainly be seeing the film again on the big screen - and soon - so I'll save my more considered write-up till after this second viewing), but 'Inglourious Basterds' is the Tarantino film I've had most fun watching since 'Pulp Fiction'.

"This might well be my masterpiece," Lt Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) declares in the film's last line (apropos of what is something I'll leave you to find out for yourself), and it's impossible not to take it as self-acclamation on Tarantino's part. Thing his, he could - could - be right.

*Broadly speaking, "I need me eight men ... we're gonna kill Nazis" doesn't really constitute a mission. It's more like, you know, a mission statement.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

The original German title of Werner Herzog's 'The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser' is

which translates as 'Every Man for Himself and God Against All'. I prefer this original title. It's apposite for a study in social hypocrisy and exploitation, even if it does make the film a harder sell!

'The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser' is based on historical events. In 1828, a young man was found on the streets of Nuremberg carrying a letter addressed to the captain of the city's cavalry regiment. The letter, unsigned, stated that Kaspar had been instructed in reading and writing and wanted to join the cavalry. It transpired he could write nothing beyond his name and his vocabulary was limited. What little he could explain indicated he'd spent his life chained up in a cellar. The council initially housed him in a gate tower under the care of a jailer; later, he took up residence with schoolteacher Friedrich Daumer. Public interest in Kaspar turned him into a celebrity-cum-sideshow freak. A much-debated conspiracy theory had him as the hereditary prince of Baden, swapped at birth with a dying baby so the Countess von Hochberg could ensure her son Leopold's ascension to the throne. (Historians have deemed this nonsensical.) Rumours continued to fly when Kaspar was the victim of an apparent attack with a razor in 1829. He died of a stab wound in 1833. His epitaph fuelled the legend: "Here lies Kaspar Hauser, riddle of his time. His birth was unknown, his death mysterious."

Even the most cursory research on Kaspar Hauser (Wikipedia provides a good overview) reveals inconsistencies in his story of a lifetime's incarceration. Historical accounts show him as vain and quarrelsome. It has been suggested, plausibly, that the wounds he sustained from the "attacks" were self-inflicted. A film approaching the Kaspar Hauser story from the perspective that he was a fraud would be a fascinating project.

Herzog, however, considers the legend. And this makes 'The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser' doubly fascinating. Herzog, certainly in his documentaries, pursues what he calls "ecstatic truth". Which is not the same as factual truth. Before this article gets bogged down in semantics, I'll let Herr Herzog himself explain:

"There is a much more profound level of truth than that of everyday reality, for example in the dreams that Kaspar talks of, and it is my job to seek them out ... I am interested in the verifiable historical facts up to a point. But I much prefer to evoke history through atmosphere and the attitude of the characters rather than through anecdotes that may or may not be based on historical fact." (Herzog on Herzog, p. 113). That would be a moral minefield for most directors; for Herzog it's a mission statement.

The most controversial aspect of "ecstatic truth" in 'The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser' is the casting of Bruno S. Kaspar was thought to have been born in 1812, making him 16 when he turned up in Nuremburg. Bruno S. was 42, a self-taught musician whom Herzog had seen in a documentary about street performers in Berlin. I'm not sure what the right word is to describe Bruno S. without sounding patronising. Beaten so severely as a child that he temporarily lost the ability speak, his formative years spent in care homes, institutions and prisons, there remained about him, however, a curious sense of child-like innocence. This single piece of casting is Herzog's masterstroke: Kaspar, if his story is taken at face value, was a boy who had no childhood. Herzog has him played by, essentially, a man-child.

Herzog approaches the material not as the enigma of the English title - no speculation is given to Kaspar's identity or that of his guardian (an eerily shadowy figure in the early scenes) - but as a study of how society behaves towards Kaspar. The authorities question him (his non-response to stimuli is tested by feigned sword parries and a candle flame). The church tries to convert him (when it's established that he has no concept of God, the curt response is "he'll just have to have faith"). Children treat him almost as a plaything, encouraging him to recite nursery rhymes. Labourers mock him, deriving much hilarity from his fear of a chicken. The town council, concerned at how much he's costing them, happily exploit him. A visiting nobleman considers "adopting" him.

Only Daumer and his wife seem interested in Kaspar as a person. And even Daumer's academicism leads to an unfortunate invitation: a professor is summoned to test Kaspar's intellect. This he does by posing a logic question: there are two villages, one whose inhabitants speak only the truth, while the other lot tell only lies; meeting a person at a crossroads between villages, what is the one question that can determine which village they're from? It is of course, "Would you answer no if I asked you if you came from the liars' village?" (The answer forces the liar into a double negative that betrays him.) Kaspar posits a different question: "Are you a tree-frog?" The simplicity is brilliant: the liar perforce has to say that he is, therefore proving himself a liar. The professor rubbishes Kaspar: "Your question describes, it doesn't deduce", adding - in what for me is the film's key line - "In logic and mathematics we do not understand things. We reason and deduce."

Herzog's Kasper Hauser is a metaphor for honest, unpretentious simplicity in a world defined by social strictures and scientific enquiry (the closing scenes have a group of surgeons remove and probe Kaspar's brain while a clerk chortles over the potential importance of his report on the autopsy). The Kaspar Hauser of Herzog's film may be the legend, but there's not a trace of hagiography or 19th century conspiracy theory in sight; instead, by eschewing mere facts, Herzog posits some probing questions about the human condition.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Whisper of the Heart

Thanks to my wife Paula for the following article:

The opening credits of ‘Whisper of the Heart’ play out to "Country Roads", an incongruous choice given that the song is all about the rural idyll – fields, mountains, open spaces – and the film is set in the bustling sprawl of Toyko.

Shizuku, a 14-year old girl with a talent for writing, spoofs the song as "Concrete Roads". A copy of her lyric falls into the hands of self-assured 15-year old Seiji who passes judgement: "It’s just as corny as the original."

Shizuku, a typical young teenager for whom this minor slight is the end of the world as she knows it, storms off muttering "Stupid jerk, stupid jerk, stupid jerk."

The scene is funny, true to life, and beautifully animated – it’s the point at which, only a short while into the two-hour running time, ‘Whisper of the Heart’ completely won me over and remains one of my all-time favourite Studio Ghibli productions.

Although not directed by Hayao Miyazaki – it was made by his protégé Yoshifumi Kondo, who tragically died aged just 47 a few years after ‘Whisper of the Heart’ was released – it certainly has the look and feel of a Miyazaki film, owing in no small amount to the master himself having storyboarded it. More than that, though, I think it’s a case of ‘Whisper of the Heart’ being a Studio Ghibli film. A Ghibli is a Ghibli the way a Pixar is a Pixar and that in itself is a guarantee of quality. You don’t really have to worry about who directed it.

‘Whisper of the Heart’ defies easy synopsis – it’s more about family interrelationships, friendship and first love than an actual clearly-defined narrative – but two wonderfully random plot devices set things in motion. The first is voracious reader Shizuku’s realisation that every book she checks out of the library has already been borrowed by the same person. She’s intrigued; it fires her imagination.

The second comes in the very obsese shape of a cat named Moon. Casually sharing Shizuku’s seat during a train ride, Moon trots off as the train stops and Shizuku finds herself following him across town. He leads her to an antiques shop whose avuncular owner is Seiji’s grandfather. He shows her a figurine of a cat in top hat and tails, a cane elegantly clutched between its paws, which he tells her is called The Baron. He avows that he’ll never sell the piece until its reunited with a matching, female, figurine. Again, Shizuku’s imagination is sparked.
Moon and The Baron: cats as catalyst. Shizuku begins writing a story inspired by The Baron. The world of her imagination drifts in and out of the real world. A lovely scene has her imagine The Baron and his companion riding the airwaves through a skyline dotted with floating planetoids; the camera pans down into the more corporeal atmosphere of the sky above Toyko and down further as Shizuku goes racing to the bottom of a flight of steps. In another memorable moment her imagination takes the discovery of a jewel by the heroine of her story (which is fast becoming a novel) and replaces the gem with a dead baby bird. It’s a reminder of the dark areas a child’s imagination can drift into, as well as a potent metaphor for the stresses and insecurities Shizuku experiences as she engages with the writing process, scared that she doesn't have a literary gem inside of her.
Kondo depicts realistic issues in Shizuku’s thorny relationship with her elder sister, her parents’ concerns over her isolationism as she shuts herself away to write (eventually, though, her father comes through in full support, urging her to follow her heart), and the tentative and sometimes prickly beginnings of her romance with Seiji.

‘Whisper of the Heart’ is fairly slowly paced but as rich in characterisation and emotion as it is visually. The humorous and the heartfelt are perfectly balanced. There’s an inspired reference to earlier Ghibli film ‘Porco Rosso’ that’s as cleverly placed as it is unexpected. The animation is detailed and evocative. And "Country Roads" sounds so much nicer in Japanese.

by Paula Fulwood

Sunday, August 16, 2009


Diego (Nacho Martinez) gets his jollies masturbating over video nasties; instructing his fashion model girlfriend Eva (Eva Cobo) to play dead during lovemaking; and committing the occasional sexually motivated murder.

Maria (Assumpta Serna) gets her jollies picking up men for sex and killing them, by the application of a stiletto-length hairpin to the back of the neck, at the point of orgasm.

Diego is a former matador, his leg damaged in a goring, who now teaches bullfighting. His least promising student is Angel (Antonio Banderas), who faints clear away at the sight of blood. When Diego taunts him as to whether he's gay, Angel responds by trying to rape Eva. From trying to menace her with a Swiss army knife (he fumbles with the scissors and the corkscrew before he finds the actual knife blade) to ejaculating prematurely, he makes a complete hash of it and the only injury Eva suffers is a small cut when she slips on the rain-slicked pavement as she walks away. Predictably, it's enough to make Angel black out.

Nagged into taking confession by his sanctimonious and domineering mother, Angel continues at the police station what he commenced in the confessional. With a major fashion show imminent and a lucrative overseas modelling contract in the offing, Eva doesn't press charges. Still consumed with guilt, desperate for some form of expiation or punishment, Angel confesses to Diego's murders.

Maria is a high-flying lawyer who takes Angel's case. She and Diego soon become drawn to each other, kindred spirits for whom sex and death are interlinked.

'Matador' drips eroticism and perversity from every frame. Assumpta Serna smoulders so intensely you begin to worry that she's a walking case of spontaneous human combustion. Nacho Martinez is a study in death-haunted libido, a cross between a matinee idol and the Marquis de Sade. Eva Cobo is sultry and lovelorn as the third point of the triangle.

Elsewhere, Eusebio Poncela does good work as the world-weary and moderately confused cop trying to make sense of it all, Carmen Maura makes the most of a slightly underwritten role as a case worker sympathetic to Angel, and Chus Lampreave is a hoot as Eva's cluckingly disapproving mother.

The melodrama is writ large - Almodovar explicitly references King Vidor's histrionic slab of masochism 'Duel in the Sun' - but so, frequently, is the humour. Angel's attack on Eva is the kind of thing that really shouldn't be funny (so too the rape in Almodovar's most maligned film, 'Kika') but the scene plays out so absurdly that it's not until Angel's fumblings with the Swiss army knife have incited laughter that you stop to wonder whether you should have laughed.

I'm put in mind of the "Singin' in the Rain" sequence in Kubrick's 'A Clockwork Orange' (still to come on the personal faves list): Alex (Malcolm McDowell) joyfully doing his song and dance routine as he viciously administers a kicking to one victim and gets ready to sexually assault the other is not normally the stuff of comedy; but the unexpectedness, the patent absurdity of it makes light of a horrible and reprehensible moment. It also thoroughly implicates the audience, because who up till this point hasn't guiltily been enjoying Alex's arrogant swagger, casual egomania and sarcastic dialogue?

'Matador' doesn't quite make the same point about audience complicity, but it still has the cojones to see things through to the end. The have-sex-and-die ethos, usually applicable to randy teenagers in generic stalk 'n' slash flicks, here provides an amoral, arousing, aestheticized finale.

Alongside 'Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down', 'Matador' is Almodovar's most sexually charged film; like that slightly less successful work, what could easily have been an another anonymous title in the "top shelf" section of the rental shop (what a mate of mine would call "a trouser arouser from the erection section") comes to life through the director's provocative humour.

And praise be for that! Were it not so funny, 'Matador' would be a despairing film. None of the characters are aware of what's important in life, so consumed are they by their wrong decisions: Diego and Maria are hellbent on symbiotic self-destruction; Angel is in denial of his sexuality and tries desperately to "be a man" (he trains as a bullfighter even though blood makes him faint); Eva gets sidetracked from her career because she can't get over Diego; Eva's mother tuts judgementally at every aspect of her daughter's life without ever treating her like a daughter; Angel's mother is so obsessed with religion that she, too, fails to treat Angel like a son. The backdrop to the film is as shallow as the characters are wrong-minded: a bullfighting academy, awash with machismo; a fashion show, where image is everything. It's fitting that the finale occurs during an eclipse, a red haze descending as all-pervasively as that which agitates Diego and Maria's minds.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Warm Water Under a Red Bridge

Shohei Imamura's 'Warm Water Under a Red Bridge' could easily be mistaken for a pleasant and affable little movie rather than a wickedly subversive adult comedy. This is because, for the most part, 'Warm Water' actually is a pleasant and affable little movie. Exactly how it manages this I haven't entirely worked out, but the fact that I haven't quite got a handle on a film that nonetheless bubbles away in the back of my mind and keeps drawing me intermittently back to it is testament to Imamura's cinematic alchemy.

Plotwise, it offers a peculiar melange of crime movie, social drama, sex comedy and small town surrealism a la David Lynch. In a nutshell: shortly before his death, vagrant philosopher Taro (Kazuo Kitamura) recounts to his friend Yosuke (Yakusho Koji) an episode from his younger days involving the theft of a golden buddha and the hiding of same in a house overlooking a red bridge in a small village. Taro's getting old; wannabe entrepreneur Yosuke's business has gone bankrupt and he can't even land the poorest paying office job.

When Taro passes on, Yosuke - pressured by his ex-wife to continue maintenance payments - decides to follow up his story. He finds the village and the red bridge in short order, and loses no time insinuating himself into the house in question, whose current owner is the eccentric but captivating Saeko (Shimizu Misa). The first time Yosuke meets Saeko, she's shoplifting a piece of cheese from a local convenience store. She also appears to be peeing herself. Intrigued, Yosuke soon discovers that Saeko suffers from water retention and can only "vent" as a result of kleptomania or orgasm.

Disapproving of her tendencies to the former, he actively accommodates her in achieving the latter. Between heroic bouts of intercourse, during which he gets drenched, Yosuke becomes acquainted with some of the villagers. Shintaro (Yukiya Kitamura), though initially hostile, wangles Yosuke a job on his father's boat. African exchange student Ramin struggles to comprehend Japanese culture while he trains to become a marathon runner (his coach cycles full-tilt after him, swinging a baseball bat!). Saeko's mother obsessively writes fortune cookie messages (Saeko opines that she's on the receiving end of most of the negative ones) .A trio of anglers who barely seem to move from the riverside benefit from a teeming mass of fish suddenly enervated as a result of the apparently fertile waters trickling from Saeko's house, along runnels and outlet pipes, and into the river.

So far, so quirky. Then things begin to take a darker turn. One of Taro's fellow vagrant's shows up, also looking for the golden buddha, a reminder of Yosuke's erstwhile motives. There are revelations about Taro. Yosuke picks up on local gossip regarding Saeko and discovers he bears a strong resemblance to a former lover of hers who came to a bad end. Saeko's orgasmic deluges ebb to a trickle and Yosuke suspects infidelity.

Imamura's penultimate film, made when he was seventy-five, is as slippery as an eel (pardon the in-joke). Charming and feelgood for the most part, its more cynical moments creep up on you, trip you over and give you a sharp kick even as the next scene, accompanied by Shinichiro Ikebe's playful score, restores that warm fuzzy feeling. Make no mistake: under the colourful veneer and slightly disconnected aesthetic lurks as incisive (and sometimes as despairing) a meditation on human relationships as anything by Ingmar Bergman.

But unlike Bergman's work, which is often precise and formal, I am more inclined to think of 'Warm Water Under a Red Bridge' as a film-poem. As in poetry, cadence and nuance are more important than literal meaning. As in poetry, imagery is used as metaphor, emotionalism is derived from juxtaposition, and the simplicity of the thing is deceptive.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Fata Morgana

'Fata Morgana' is a film in three parts (entitled "The Creation", "Paradise" and "The Golden Age") which consists of footage shot in the African desert. Such commentary/narration as there is comprises readings from the sacred Mayan text 'Popol Vuh'. As well as landscapes, townships and abandoned military and industrial machinery, Herzog and his small crew (four men including the director) come across indigenous people as well as a smattering of eccentric westerners including a schoolteacher who instructs her charges in German. The sentence they're learning when Herzog films them is "Blitzkreig ist Wahnsinn".

'Fata Morgana' is hypnotic and, appropriately for a film whose very title means "mirage", hallucinatory. There's no adequate way of writing about it. More than any other film I think I've seen, 'Fata Morgana' exists on its own terms, refuses to define itself, and is its own achievement.

Here are some images, punctuated with Herzog's own words:

The first scene of the film is made up of eight shots of eight different airplanes landing one after the other. I had the feeling that audiences who were still watching by the sixth or seventh landing would stay to the end.

All the machinery ... was part of an abandoned Algerian army depot. I liked the desolation and the remains of civilization that were out there.

It was as if I woke up after a night of drunkenness and experienced a moment of real clarity. All I had to do was capture the images I saw in the desert and I would have my film.

Maybe more than any other films I have made it is one that needs to be completed by the audience, which means all feelings, thoughts and interpretations are welcome.