Tuesday, December 25, 2007

away notice

Please note that even though Film Club is on hiatus until 2008, I'm still viewing things personally and doing little capsule write-ups on them: they're all archived on the "20 Most Recent" page, here. (They're also viewable through my Facebook or Flixster profile, for those of you who use those services.)

Happy holidays to those of you who are celebrating them this week.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

aswang, by wrye martin

I'm a little bit behind on my Film Club writeups, and in the interest of catching up, I'm going to skip No. 16 (Herzog's Nosferatu) and jump straight to No. 17, a low-budget oddity entitled Aswang (1994).

We're still in our run of vampire films, although this film represents something a little more cross-cultural: the vampire-type creatures that the film centers around (the eponymous "Aswang") are drawn from a Filipina folkoric tradition rather than the familiar Euro-centric tradition. We first see one of these creatures in a painting, thusly:

That stuff coming out of its mouth isn't blood, but rather a kind of feeding tube, which the Aswang uses to—there's really no delicate way to put this—consume fetuses out of hapless pregnant women. Needless to say, we need a hapless pregnant woman to come along... oh wait, here's one now!

That's our protagonist Katherine and her boyfriend, engaged in that cinematic standby, the in-the-car, you-could-go-get-an-abortion-right-now conversation. But Katherine doesn't get an abortion, instead she signs her baby over to these two:

...who, surprise surprise, are up to no good. They eventually take her out to meet Mother...

...who actually turns out to be one of those Aswang things. Let the baby-eating hijinxs ensue!

This actually isn't half bad as a first act, but it presents something of a screenwriter's dilemma—you've written a situation where you have one defenseless, pregnant teenage protagonist, without resources, versus a clan of supernatural beasts (with a diabolical Filipina maid / witch thrown in to boot). She's hopelessly outgunned, but in order to survive to the end of the movie she has to escape not one but several attacks on her person, which she manages to do through luck, intervention, or some other (increasingly silly) deus ex machina-type contrivance. And then once she's escaped she needs to get back into peril, usually by some staggering lapse in logic (running back to the house once she's escaped into the comparative safety of the woods, for instance). (The failure of the script during this portion of the film gives me an all-new appreciation of the utility of the one-killer / many-victims formula as a screenwriting device.)

But anyway. It's a maxim of Film Club that the films we watch don't necessarily need to be good, as long as they're interesting. The emphasis on the unborn as the nexus of desire and anxiety certainly has some promise (insert your own Juno joke here). Even more intriguing is the way that the villains are adamant that they have a legal authority to do what they're doing—after all, Katherine has signed over the rights to the infant, way back in the first act. "This is America!" bellows the male Aswang, after Katherine has once again escaped into the woods. "We have laws!"

There's the germ of something interesting there—some kind of anxiety about surrogate motherhood? It was, after all, the mid-Nineties—but ultimately Aswang lacks faith in the interesting elements of its own premise. Instead of exploring that stuff in any kind of sustained way, Aswang is all-too-willing to fall back on the most shopworn stuff from the horror-movie playbook:

And I'll leave you with Aswang take on the "cop who gets a little too curious." Not exactly breaking the mold:

Go ahead and guess what happens to him. (Hint: nothing good.)

This is the last Film Club post for 2007; we will re-convene in early 2008. Happy holidays!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

a query

So I've been giving some thought, over the last week or so, to next semester's syllabus. It will be a reprise of last spring's "Researching and Writing About Film" course, although I'm giving thought to integrating more group readings into the course. As a result, I started thinking about the BFI Modern Classics series of "succinct and beautifully illustrated paperbacks," in which "distinguished film critics, scholars, and novelists explore the production and reception of their chosen films in the context of an argument about the film's importance." I've read two of the books in this series (Ryan Gilbey's Groundhog Day and S. S. Prawer's Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht) and enjoyed both of them: they each were smart and substantial, and (more importantly for classroom use) they each seemed accessible to a audience of (relatively bright) general readers. They might need to work a little bit, but they wouldn't need to learn a whole body of esoteric film theory (or any other critical theory) in order to get the main points.

With that in mind, I've decided to choose two films for next semester that have BFI volumes written about them: it's a good way for me to narrow down the otherwise bewilderingly-large field of potential movies. I put a few other restrictions in place: nothing too violent or disturbing (so Salo or The 120 Days of Sodom is out, although I'm sure Gary Indiana's book on it is worth a read), nothing too sexually explicit (ruling out Eyes Wide Shut), and nothing that's just plain weird or esoteric (bye-bye WR - Mysteries of the Organism).

That still leaves a good list of films. Here are the ones I'm leaning towards most heavily...

Unforgiven, by Clint Eastwood (a finalist held over from last time)
Do the Right Thing, by Spike Lee
Amores Perros, by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Pulp Fiction, by Quentin Tarantino
and The Terminator, by James Cameron

What would you pick? I should make a decision by week's end so as to order the books and start doing the secondary research.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

gumbasia, by art clokey

[This entry is not part of Film Club proper, but is rather an entry for Short Film Week, organized by Ed Howard (Only the Cinema) and Jeff Ignatius (Culture Snob).]

Gumbasia (1955) is a short animated film by Art Clokey, the man who would achieve lasting fame as the creator of Gumby. Gumbasia predates the character of Gumby by about a year, and is more far more striking than the Gumby cartoons which accompany it on the DVD on which I found it ("Cartoon Craze Vol. 20").

As the title implies, Gumbasia is a response piece to Walt Disney's Fantasia (1940): like Fantasia, it consists of animation set to music. Like the "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" sequence that opens Fantasia, Gumbasia is abstract: concerned with form, motion, and syncopation instead of narrative or representation.

That's about where the similarities end, and it's perhaps the differences that are more illuminating. Instead of classical music, Clokey chooses to set his piece to a rather angular piece of jazz. And, of course, instead of choosing to use cel animation, Clokey uses stop-motion clay animation. The film's muscularity and energy make it easy to read as a forceful manifesto for clay as a medium, a sort of shot across Disney's bow: a way for Clokey to say "anything you can do with drawings (and a huge studio), I can do just as effectively with clay (on my own here as a USC student)."

Certainly the use of clay is more effective at making visual statements about form: Gumbasia is perhaps more interested in the tactility and mass of primal, Froebel-derived forms as any other abstract film I can think of, as these stills should attest:

These stills, of course, don't quite do it justice: part of the delight of the film is watching the speed with which the forms mutate and change. YouTube to the rescue:

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

on the act of seeing with one's own eyes, by stan brakhage

[This entry is not part of Film Club proper, but is rather an entry for Short Film Week, organized by Ed Howard (Only the Cinema) and Jeff Ignatius (Culture Snob).]

Stan Brakhage (1933-2003) is perhaps best remembered for his abstract, hand-painted films, but he also did a number of films that, for lack of a better word, we might call "documentaries"—although Brakhage's films are radically more personal than most documentaries. Think of them, perhaps, more like records of things seen, documentary in the same way a diary is documentary.

In 1971, Brakhage completes a set of three of these "documentaries," known collectively as "The Pittsburgh Documents." They include: "eyes," covering three days of activity witnessed while riding around the city with a pair of policemen; "Deus Ex," shot in the surgery wing of a hospital, including footage of open-heart surgery; and "The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes," also shot in a hospital, but this time in the coroner's area.

"Act" is widely available (it is included on the By Brakhage 2-disc set available via Criterion), and before viewing it the good people at Criterion gently warn you to "please be advised," for "this film consists entirely of footage of actual autopsies." And so it does.

They are perhaps right to warn you, for many of the images in this film are difficult to look at, and once seen, they are difficult to un-see. (As is my fashion, I've included some stills with this write-up, but I've hidden them behind a cut to protect the squeamish.) Brakhage himself, in an interview with Richard Grossinger (collected in the Brakhage Scrapbook (scavenged here)), writes about the experience of filming in these terms:

"I just began photographing desperately. I really overshot because I was so desperate to always keep the camera going; every moment I stopped photographing I really felt like I might faint, or burst into tears, or come apart, or something like that."

And yet I don't think it is Brakhage's intent to terrify us with this film. Over and over in his writings he has said that his intent is only to be faithful to certain types of experience, to use film to aid us in seeing things that he has seen: certain qualities of light, etc. (Prior to screenings of "Act," Brakhage reportedly said to audiences "that it was nothing to be afraid of, it was only about light hitting objects and bouncing back and seeing it with your eyes.") If Brakhage wants us to see what the inside of a body looks like, it is likely that he thinks there is a virtue to the experience of seeing (with one's own eyes) what the inside of a body looks like. (A similar motive likely influenced his 1959 film Window Water Baby Moving, a film which depicts his wife in childbirth.)

It is difficult, for me, to look at these things—a body cut apart on a table, a scalpel moving through flesh, a hand removing organs from a cavity—and not think that I am watching "violence." But is that apt? More likely this is a result of my own imaginings, my horror-film-induced ability to think of these things being done in malice to a person still living. We can perhaps critique the whole idea of an autopsy as a Western-logic act of violence in the name of dispassionate observation (possible), but unless we are willing to take that step then we must concede that there is, in fact, no violence in this film; we don't even see evidence of a callous joke at the dead's expense. No one engages in mischief like propping a Santa hat up on a corpse. What we see is carnality, as close to the reality of it as a film can get us, and when we are done watching the film we have added something to the catalogue of things we have observed. This is one way to become incrementally more complete as a human being.

Stills here, but please exercise your best judgment when considering whether or not to click.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

nadja, by michael almereyda

This week for Film Club, I chose to keep going with the vampire theme that we've been on for the past two weeks. Last week's choice, Blood for Dracula, was pretty offbeat, so I chose to follow it up with Michael Almereyda's 1994 postmodern indie film Nadja.

If you were watching postmodern indie films in the mid-nineties, as I was, you'll be familiar with the work of Hal Hartley, who during that time was using the techniques of early Godard to tell the stories of New-York-area outsiders and outcasts. Nadja owes a lot to Hartley —it's got the semi-philosophical digression, the genre riffs, the emphasis on artifice, the cute girls—heck, it even borrows key members of his (nineties-era) ensemble. Any fan of Hartley's early work will recognize Martin Donovan, who plays our protagonist here:

And Hartley regular Elina Lowensohn's exotic / skeletal good looks make her a natural casting choice for the vampiric Nadja:

As a vampire story, Nadja hits many of the marks of Bram Stoker's novel—it includes, for instance, familiar characters like Lucy, Renfield, Van Helsing, etc. How much mileage you will get out of Nadja, then, depends squarely on how much you'd enjoy seeing a Hartley-esque revamp of Stoker's tropes, set in the East Village of the 1990s. It's not going to be to everyone's taste, but I think it mostly works. How can you hate Peter Fonda as Van Helsing, playing him as the sort of guy you might move away from on the bus, a crackpot babbling on about "shadow zones" and using ridiculous sunglasses as a vampire-detection technology:

Curiously, though, Almereyda almost entirely steers away from representing Dracula himself: as the story opens, Dracula has just been killed by Van Helsing, and the vampires the film focuses on are his two children, Nadja and Edgar. We see him a bit in flashback, but this is about as close as we get:

Other times we see him presented as icon or cliche, represented through brief snippets of found footage:

Or as kitsch:

By representing Dracula only in these oblique or pre-digested ways, the film is maybe saying something about the difficulty of fruitfully reinventing the Dracula figure (or denying us the pleasures that inhere in the cinema that surrounds that figure?). The gesture gets more provocative when Van Helsing describes Dracula as "like Elvis at the end. Drugged, confused, surrounded by zombies. He was just going through the motions. The magic was gone. And he knew it."

The parallel between Elvis and Dracula is intriguing: it establishes a certain kind of basic continuity between disparate cultural icons. Sort of simultaneously over-known and unknowable? (This might go part of the way towards explaining the next film project that Almereyda took on: Hamlet (the 2000 Ethan Hawke version, which is more fun than many people give it credit for)).

There's a lot more that can be said about this film (I'd specifically like to say something about what the film is or isn't saying about the tension between heteronormative marriage and vampirism / lesbianism / polymorphous modes of interpersonal relationships) but I'm low on time. Next week we'll be looking at another vampire film, 1994's Aswang, a tale of Filipino vampires feeding on the unborn? Sounds great.

Monday, November 12, 2007

blood for dracula, by paul morrissey

Continuing with the theme of offbeat films about the undead, this week Skunkcabbage chose Paul Morrissey's Blood for Dracula (1974). The gloriously weird Udo Kier plays Dracula, and as the film opens, he is (as the title might imply) desperate for fresh blood. This is a familiar enough vampire-film narrative device—it effectively does the work of setting up a basic conflict—but Morrissey uses it as an opportunity to have the narrative take an odd left turn right out of the gate. See, it turns out that the Romanian people have grown suspicious of Dracula, making it harder for him to get the particular kind of blood he needs (more on this later). The solution? Pack up the old coffin and head on down the road to Italy!

This makes just about no sense whatsoever—I'm not sure if it was just because it was easier to fess up that they were filming in Rome than to try to make a convincing fake Romania—but it does give them the opportunity to present Dracula as a kind of tourist. And as a tourist, Kier's Dracula is entertainingly moody and fussy, griping about the oil-heavy Italian cuisine, the weird vegetables, and the bad accomodations. See if you can spot two things that Dracula is going to complain about regarding this room:

Anyway, on this journey Dracula adopts the pretense of being a widower looking for a young Italian bride. The pretense is necessary so that Dracula can gain access to young girls—the particular kind of blood he needs is virgin blood. (This is part of why they choose Italy: because it's so religious the number of virgins per capita should, theoretically, be higher.)

Theoretically is the key word there. Dracula eventually settles on the Di Fiore family, an aristocratic family fallen on hard times and desperate to marry into a better lineage. They've got four young daughters, two of whom are in their prime marrying-off years:

Only problem is they've been sleeping, for some time, with the farmhand. Establishing this gives the movie plenty of opportunity to indulge in softcore episodes:

Dracula, of course, doesn't have access to these episodes, and so he spends the bulk of the movie fervidly machinating to get the girls alone and convincing himself of their virginity, only to drink their impure blood (a poison to him) and having to pay the consequences:

There's something ghoulish about watching Udo Kier vomit up stage blood, but also something comic about seeing Dracula presented so haplessly. In fact, at around this point the movie takes on something of the flavor of a sex farce, or even a dirty joke: did you hear the one about the vampire looking for a virgin? He goes to this farmhouse and meets these four beautiful daughters...

Just to add to the mix, the movie also throws in some elements of political allegory:

Yep, the farmhand is also a Communist. Since pretty much everybody else in the movie is an aristocrat, this gives him lots of opportunities to excoriate them, talking about how they'll all be up the creek once the revolution comes. This could pass for Morrissey's attempt to sneak in some radical prostelytizing if this guy weren't also presented as such a tremendous brute, seen again and again visiting violence upon the daughters:

So I don't know what's going on here. Either Morrissey is taking the same tack Robert Zemeckis took in Forrest Gump (1994)—where the radical male gets neutralized by also being a woman-hater—or he's guessing that the average soft-core filmgoer is going to identify with the male who is sexually dominant, and so making this figure the one who has the Marxist ideologies is actually intended a very, very sly bit of indoctrination. Your guess is as good as mine.

In conclusion: Blood for Dracula is a horror film that's not really scary, a sex farce that's neither funny nor particularly sexy, and a class-warfare allegory that has no coherent stance. So: a mess. But a unique mess, and worth seeing in that regard: I'm hard-pressed to think of another film like it. That said, Michael Almereyda's postmodern vampire film Nadja (1994) might give it a run for its money, so that'll be my pick for next week.

Friday, November 2, 2007

black sunday, by mario bava

Unscrambled decided to follow up last week's Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) with Mario Bava's 1960 horror film Black Sunday (also known as The Mask of Satan). Both deal with women accused of being in league with Satan, although they represent, uh, pretty different takes on the material. Lead actress Barbara Steel(e) plays the condemned Princess Asa, and, like Renee Falconetti's Joan, she's pretty striking-looking:

But when Joan's captors make their accusations, she turns the tables on them, claiming that they're the ones who are agents of the devil, sent in order to test her faith. Impolitic? To be sure. But then we have Princess Asa's response:—"Go ahead. Tie me down to the stake. But you will never escape my hunger nor that of Satan! The unchained elements of the powers of darkness are lying in ambush ... My revenge will strike down you and your accursed house. And in the blood of your sons and the sons of their sons I will continue to live, immortal!"—which makes Joan, by contrast, seem pretty much like, well, a saint. End of comparison!

The purple dialogue should give you some sense of the level of subtlety going on in Black Sunday's script, and there are a lot of ways in which this film is pretty much a piece of schlock. But I can also see why Bava generates so much adoration among aficionados of horror. For one thing, he's clearly the torch-bearer of a certain kind of dark ambience: the film's moody Gothic effects can be traced straight back to the the Universal horror films of the 1930s (and from there back to the German Expressionists). And as far as torch-bearers go, Bava's a pretty good one. He's got a real eye for creepy crypts:

And spooky woods:

And foreboding castles:

which are loaded with shit like with huge fireplaces with secret passages back behind them:

Etcetera. This kind of stuff lost a little bit of its cinematic force once Young Frankenstein (1974) came along and lethally parodied it, but Bava's not at a complete disadvantage: he's operating at a real transitional point between two types of horror. This is an early film (his first), and it's definitely a catalogue of old-fashioned High Gothic effects, but it's worth remembering that Bava is going to go on (along with Fulci and Argento) to be one of the influential Italian giallo directors, who are essentially going to invent the tropes of contemporary gore and slasher movies. And there are hints of that here: Black Sunday is a considerably nastier film than its forebearers were. There are some grisly proto-gore bits during Princess Asa's trial, and the film often lingers on the wet grue and muck of human decay. It's not a zombie movie, exactly, but people do rise from the grave in rather ghoulish fashion. Remember that these shots predate 1968's Night of the Living Dead by a comfortable margin:

As the linkage between two discrete modes of horror, Bava's an interesting enough figure, but the really unique (or, more likely, uniquely Italian) touch is the explicit eroticization of the grotesque. Princess Asa's resurrection is witnessed by a hapless academic; he finds her on a stone slab, writhing, breasts heaving:

His reaction, naturally, is to go for it:

He may be mystically compelled, but he might simply be taking his one shot to make it with an undead Satanic princess. This is the kind of sequence that if you watched it around the time of your sexual awakening it would fuck you up forever. Thumbs up!

Writeups from Unscrambled and Skunkcabbage are forthcoming. Next week: Blood for Dracula (1974), made by Warhol's protege Paul Morrissey.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

the passion of joan of arc, by carl dreyer

There's no real way to talk about Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) without talking about the faces. Take a look at some of Joan's adversaries:

I'm hard pressed to think of a better collection of cinematic grotesques, although Fellini Satyricon (1970) might give it a run for its money (as could the opening sequence of Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)).

Now, by contrast, take a look at Joan, played memorably by Renee Falconetti:

Joan is almost always shot this way—a frame-filling close up on her intense, reactive face, and the camera is never off of her for more than a few seconds, making the above shot, or some variant on it, a kind of steady beat throughout the film. Alternate this "beat" with the "beat" of the menacing faces of her enemies and you have basically the entire narrative of the film, represented as visual rhythm. You could cut out every intertitle and you'd still have the story of Vulnerable Beauty versus Arrogant Ugliness: it's built into the film at a nearly molecular level.

There's a way, then, in which this film presages one of the central tenets of "visual culture": the way a powerful Image can trump persuasive rhetoric. Being essentially a sort of courtroom drama, there are a lot of arguments in this film, and even though the film steers well clear of showing anything that would definitively establish Joan's version of events as factual, our sympathies nevertheless align with her near-instantly. If it's strictly because she's more telegenic than her captors, then we're talking about something that's like the 1928 version of the famous Nixon / Kennedy debates, and one could criticize the film for a certain superficiality in exactly the same way as some people have criticized the infamous public response to those debates (or, for that matter, to how people criticized the Fahrenheit 9/11 sequence I referenced above).

Of course, Dreyer's not taking any chances, and he stacks the deck in various other ways. Her interrogators could look like cute fluffy bunnies and they'd still blow their rhetorical credibility the second they break out the torture implements:

Or so I'd like to believe, anyway—television, over its last few seasons, has been putting a new archetype out there, that of the Beautiful Torturer (as seen on shows like 24 and Lost). Whether this is a valid aesthetic choice—a way to cross wires in our heads and generate the spark of complicated feelings—or a systematic attempt to determine just how much human thinking Beautiful Images can override, is a question I don't think I'll dwell too much on today.

Skunkcabbage's and Unscrambled's write-ups on Passion of Joan of Arc are forthcoming....

Monday, October 15, 2007

daughters of the sun, by maryam shahriar

This is how Maryam Shahriar, director of the Iranian feature Daughters of the Sun (2003), chooses to shoot a wedding procession:

And this is how she chooses to shoot a funeral procession:

Does the similarity between these two shots imply a world-view? Something about the relationship between human beings and the larger forces of the World? Before you answer, check out a few more shots of human endeavor from the film:

So, OK. Film club compatriot Skunkcabbage picked this film as the follow-up to last week's pick, Thirteen (2003), in part to investigate how the experience of teenage girlhood plays out cross-culturally. In our own culture, adolescence is a period in which we (ideally) have the luxury to undergo the process of "individuation," but given that the role of the individual seems pretty radically downplayed in the Iran we see in Daughters of the Sun, we should maybe expect the process to look pretty different. And, sure enough, adolescence in this film functions as little more than mark the period at which you get to go off and start laboring as a weaver:

Maybe if you're especially canny you can get a marginally better supervisior-type position at the weaving station by concocting a scheme wherein you disguise yourself as a boy, like our protagonist does:

It's important to underline here that Amanagol's disguise here is something born of sheer financial necessity: it is never presented in the film as anything resembling self-expression or gender exploration. There's no "I don't know who I am" angst in this film, any more than there are any of the other "normal" (read: Western middle-class) dramas of adolescence ("no one understands me"; "I never get to do anything"). If there's any familiar marker of teenage girlhood in this film, it's in the occasional expressions of palpable yearning for a better life, but there's never any sense the social system they're in will ever reward that yearning with anything but a swift reduction to dust.

The film, in fact, takes some pains to systematically discount the potential of hopeful alternatives. We see some, here and there, including a rough-and-tumble travelling musician who looks like he might function as a romantic lead:

Or this guy, who has a homemade Ferris wheel that looks like it's meant for a world where there's some mirth, somewhere:

Or this guy, a person from the government, vaguely associated with the promise of social services:

The overlapping narrative lines here begin to recall something like Do the Right Thing (Film Club V), but whereas Do the Right Thing portrays a lively (if tense) community, Daughters of the Sun is very much the opposite: there's no community at all, just a series of atomized individuals, who could potentially help one another but who end up amounting to nothing but so many missed connections. The musician turns out to be a common thief, the Ferris wheel operator never encounters a single child, and the government agent, in a near-Beckett-grade development, spends the whole movie driving around looking for the village he's assigned to. Pretty grim stuff, not exactly the celebration of "the strength of Iranian women" that the Netflix sleeve promises.

Next week we continue with the theme of Suffering Teenage Girls with my pick, Carl Dreyer's 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, the fourteenth-most acclaimed film of all time, according to the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? aggregate list.

Unscrambled's write-up is here.