Thursday, August 27, 2009

orlando, by sally potter

When we last convened, we watched Brand Upon The Brain!, a film deeply fascinated with the mystique that androgyny, er, engenders. From there, it wasn't much of a leap to Sally Potter's Orlando, from 1992, a film for which gender (and the conturbations surrounding gender expectations) are even more central.

In this particular film, androgyny is embodied in the form of Tilda Swinton, playing the title character, an effeminate young man in the during the 17th century. Swinton's always excellent, and it should surprise no one that she's utterly striking in this role:

This strikingness—the strikingness of Swinton's / Orlando's androgyny—is not just there to delight the audience: it is, in fact, the motive force for the entire narrative, For it is Orlando's beauty that attracts the attention, of Queen Elizabeth I (played, in a sly bit of casting, by Quentin Crisp):

And it is Elizabeth's attention (perhaps envy) that causes her, like some folk-tale gypsy, to place a benediction / curse on Orlando: specifically, that his beauty shall never fade. This has the effect of eliminating Orlando's aging process, effectively converting him into an immortal. And Orlando's progress through the centuries thus comes to form the armature upon which film's narrative is structured, following him through various historical episodes, including an entertaining comic stint as a political ambassador in North Africa:

But the movie has a lot more up its sleeve than simply being a collection of entertaining episodes through history. What follows is a spoiler, I suppose, although it's also a major component of the movie's conceptual thrust, and there's virtually no writing on the film (including the Netflix summary-blurb) that doesn't reveal it. Perhaps it's best to just say it simply: halfway through the film Orlando's biological sex changes. "He" simply wakes up one morning and discovers "himself" newly female.

Many of us would likely be alarmed by such a development, but Orlando takes it completely in stride, declaring "Same person. No change at all. Just a different sex." This puts the film pretty squarely in line with contemporary theorists and medical professionals—beginning with John Money and Anke Ehrhardt in 1972—who distinguish between sex and gender, with "sex" referencing the anatomical apparatus of a given individual and "gender" referencing the performance (or lack thereof) of certain sets of social behaviors associated culturally with one's sex. Orlando has changed sex, but initially she seems determined to carry on as before—to proceed with the performance of an essentially androgynous gender.

In a perfect world, this might have been possible, but in our world (as theorists like Judith Butler or Mia Consalvo have pointed out), an individual's ability to "author" one's own gender is constrained by institutional and ideological practices. This is true today and is, of course, no less true in the early 1700s, when Orlando undergoes this transition. Put another way: she may want to stay the same, but social norms of the time demand that women engage in a very different set of performances:

Watching Swinton navigate around in an unwieldy dress is good for a laugh, but institutional practices involving gender don't simply begin and end with the strictures of fashion, and before long Orlando is learning that they are reflected and codified in the practice of law. At this point, things grow deadly serious, specifically around the issue of whether it is legitimate for the transformed Orlando to retain property.

The film's great merit, ultimately, comes from the way it represents, in very pointed fashion, the rather diabolical repressive network that emerges when state networks use sex as a justification for regulating gender performance and legal status. It may, however, lack the force of some its convictions: it refuses, for instance. to represent what would be the likely result of the wrath of this repressive network coming down on Orlando with the full brunt of its ideological force. But maybe that's to the good: I'd rather watch the scene we're given, including a lovely one of Tilda Swinton and Billy Zane indulging in post-coital snuggling—

—than watch a scene wherein Orlando dies a penniless Dickensian death in the gutter. Asking why that might be is a question I don't intend to meditate on today. Instead, I'll point out that, happily, Swinton's post-Orlando career has been pretty sunny: loads of films, from Michael Clayton to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, seem to have supporting roles that are well-suited for a "Tilda Swinton type." But I haven't seen her as the lead in a film since this one. This is the situation I intend to rectify with next week's pick, Julia, a 2009 crime drama in which she plays the title character.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

brand upon the brain, by guy maddin

So it's been a while since I've updated the Too Many Projects Film Club blog. We'd convened a little less frequently than normal because of a couple of busy months, but it looks like we might be getting back to some sort of a regular schedule right about now.

We left off back in April [!] with Johnny Got His Gun, a film which dwells on the horror of a young person's radical facial disfigurement. We followed that up with my pick, Eyes Without A Face, a surprisingly ghoulish French film from 1960, which centers around a psychotic doctor's disquieting attempts to repair his daughter's own facial disfigurement. Here's the trailer, which gives some sense of the film's creepiness:

The imagery of that trailer is pretty much all sinister labs, diabolical parents, and vulnerable young people, which leads quite neatly to our newest pick, Guy Maddin's marvelously unhinged Brand Upon the Brain (2006).

Like Eyes and Johnny, Brand Upon the Brain is obsessed with the beauty of the young. Brand, in particular, is interested in the particular androgynous beauty of adolescents:

This concern fits well with Maddin's career-long fascination with the "look and feel" of early film. Here he seems especially interested in recreating the capacity of the silent cinema to evoke a nearly otherworldly glamour. (Watching this film, I was reminded of filmmaker Maya Deren's remarks that early film stars constitute "a mythology of gods of the first magnitude whose mere presence lent to the most undistinguished events a divine grandeur and intensity.")

It's not unusual, of course, for a film to be enamored with the appearance of the young: we can see this everywhere from (say) Larry Clark's Kids to, I don't know, National Lampoon's Van Wilder. What makes Brand a little more interesting (and less prurient) is that it seems especially interested in making its viewer inhabit the subjectivity of the young, specifically this kid here, who is our protagonist:

The movie's greatest merit is perhaps located in the way it ends up being a spot-on recreation of the confused fever dream that is existence on the cusp of puberty: a welter of strange adventures, intense infatuations, and erotic pleasure / confusion made all the more bewildering by the fleshy horror involved in the actual realities of carnality.

Of course, to a sensitive child, everything that is disturbing about carnality is most literally embodied in the form of any given adult, and so it follows that the adults on display in the film should be appropriately monstrous, a mix of repressive attitudes, undecodable rituals, and grotesque physicality:

It doesn't give too much away to say that since youth is, by its very nature, fleeting, that the pleasures of youth to be found in the film are also presented as fleeting (see also: Krapp's Last Tape, Film Club XXXV). It comes as no surprise, then, that every single adult character in the film is to some degree concerned with recapturing their youth, eventually driven to the extreme of consuming the young, both metaphorically and/or literally (!). Great stuff; thanks to Tiffanny for her pick.

We followed up by pursuing the idea of androgyny, and just yesterday we watched Sally Potter's Orlando (1992). I hope to have a write-up of it ready soon...

Friday, April 17, 2009

johnny got his gun, by dalton trumbo

So this week for Film Club, we continued our string of films about restless minds trapped within radically damaged bodies, watching Dalton Trumbo's anti-war classic Johnny Got His Gun (1971).

People who are around my age and who share my basic bank of cultural references may know Johnny through the Metallica song "One," a song written from the point of view of Trumbo's protagonist, Joe. The video for this song goes so far as to incorporate pretty substantial chunks of the film's footage:

I include it here because does a good job of presenting the basic narrative conceit of Johnny: a young man, in the prime of life, gets blown literally to pieces by a mortar shell, losing his arms, legs, and facial features, as well as his capacity to see, hear, and speak.

The film opens with Joe getting wounded, and being taken to reside permanently in a convalescent hospital. Opening your film this way presents a certain amount of screenwriting difficulty in that it sets up a situation wherein the protagonist—the character who, in a classical screenplay, would be the primary active agent driving the narrative—is specifically defined by a near-absolute lack of agency. He's silent, mostly immobilized, and literally under wraps:

It's fruitful, at this juncture, to compare Johnny to last week's pick, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. That film opens nearly the same way, and so faces this same problem. Diving Bell's director, Julian Schnabel opts to solve this problem in a fairly classical way: he introduces a desire on the part of the paralyzed protagonist (specifically, the desire to dictate a memoir). Joe also has a desire—he wishes to be put on display as a cautionary spectacle—and, as in Diving Bell, this desire requires that the protagonist communicate effectively with the outside world, which necessitates the development of an ingenious means of non-verbal communication. But whereas Diving Bell shapes this into an (admittedly slender) narrative through-line, Johnny lets this desire crop up only intermittently, and it really only takes shape as a coherent problem around the exact time that he comes up with the solution.

So we might be forgiven, at this stage, for thinking that maybe the Metallica video is actually the appropriate format for this story: it delivers the payload of the ghastly concept and the arrestingly creepy key visuals without needing to be burdened with the necessity of trying to develop a story around this character. It's win-win!

Except... well, the primary way Trumbo attempts to fill up the run-time is by presenting us with the phantasmagoric weirdness that's unfolding in Joe's head: a mish-mash of hallucinations, memories (often of psychosexually-charged interludes), and fantasy sequences. This is the stuff that gets discarded when you reduce the film to a music video or an anti-war soundbite, and really, more's the pity: it represents some pretty whacked-out filmmaking, somewhere between engagingly weird and just plain addled. This dimension of the film can maybe best be illustrated by this shot of Donald Sutherland, portraying Jesus the Locomotive Engineer:

Or perhaps by this interlude, which is the type of sequence for which the word Fellini-esque was coined:

Or the sequence in which Joe hallucinates his former girlfriend, lost in a kind of Neoclassical nightmare landscape, of the sort that only 1971 can really deliver:

I'm choosing images that have a bit of camp value, and that's not by accident: it must be said that the film doesn't always stay on the safe side of that line. Often the sequences threaten to collapse into the simply laughable. But at their best, these sequences are actually oddly mysterious and compelling. (Which is not also to say that they're not also totally bonkers.)

The whole film's like that, in a way, even its more celebrated passages—the actor who plays Joe, Timothy Bottoms, has a willowy softness to his voice that often seems at odds with Trumbo's weighty dialogue: a seeming mis-match which threatens, again, to skew the proceedings into camp. But then it goes around the bend and becomes affecting again: after all, what is it the film wants us to look at if not the suffering that war visits upon the people least equipped to bear it?

There are other movies that look at that same point, and I considered choosing some of them for the next Film Club pick, but ultimately I was more intrigued by the theme of disfigurement, and the aspects of personhood that cohere around our recognizable features, a line of thinking that led me to choose Georges Franju's Eyes Without A Face (1960).

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

the diving bell and the butterfly, by julian schnabel

So here's this week's Film Club pick, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Netflix summarizes it thusly:

"In 1995, author and Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby suffered a stroke that put him in a coma; he awakened mute and completely paralyzed. Mathieu Amalric stars in this adaptation of Bauby's autobiography, which he dictated by blinking."

That should maybe have a spoiler warning on it, since these two sentences encapsulate the central narrative arc of the film, from beginning to end. (The movie fleshes out its run-time with some stuff about Bauby's relationship with his wife, mistress, father, children, and friends, but the dictation of the book is the strongest through-line, and the one granted the most classical resolution.)

So, even if you only know that much, you essentially know the entire story. And then Netflix's summary goes on, revealing the film's theme and overall tenor: something about it being a "poignant film about the strength of the human spirit." This doesn't really constitute an additional spoiler because "the strength of the human spirit" is a cliche, and if we're going to be watching a film about a paralyzed guy who writes a memoir by blinking, the only way it's not going to be about the strength of the human spirit is if it's made by the Kids in the Hall.

None of this is to call out the poor Netflix synopsis-writers; I'm sure they have more serious things to worry about. It's to make the point that this film faces a real dilemma at the outset. We know how the story ends, and we know that the central thematic motif of that story is, well, "shopworn" is putting it kindly. So the challenge becomes: how can you take a film that in synopsis sounds like a Lifetime TV movie and pitch it to an art-house audience—an audience that (at least theoretically) is supposed to be more adventurous in its narrative and thematic tastes?

Well, the film's French, which probably helps.

But to find a more serious answer, we have to turn to an appreciation of the film's craft. Having been trained as a fiction-writer, I often approach films from the perspective of analyzing what works and what doesn't in the film's narrative. But the director of Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Julian Schnabel, is trained as a painter, and so a more appropriate method might be to try to appreciate the film's "painterly" qualities. In this regard, the film is not a series of stale cliches, but rather a smashing success, especially in its opening scenes, which masterfully manipulate focal depth, color, and light:

There's something else that Schnabel does from a craft perspective, and it involves an exceptionally canny control over the usage of point-of-view, at least for the first third of the film. Bear with me for a minute while I explicate...

After his stroke, protagonist Bauby suffers from something they refer to in the film as "locked-in syndrome." Schnabel perceives a relationship between locked-in syndrome and cinematic spectation: like Bauby, we, the film's viewers, can perceive things, but are prohibited from interacting with them. To cement this relationship, Schnabel chooses to present the majority of the early portion of the film in first-person POV shots.

This sort of extended use of the first-person POV has been experimented with in the past rather dubiously— see: Lady in the Lake (1942) —but that was a film which promised to put you "in the action," which feels awkward in a passive medium like the cinema (it works great in an interactive medium like video games, though not when those video games are translated back into first-person film experiments). Schnabel's film, in effect, promises the opposite: it puts you in "the inaction," which works surprisingly well (perhaps most viscerally in a striking, memorable sequence in which Bauby has his right eye sewn shut to prevent infection).

Schnabel cheats a little, breaking from a strictly naturalistic POV by using effects like jump cuts (which could arguably be said to have a rough analogue in the way our vision works, but it'd be a stretch), and by bringing people so unnaturally close that they'd practically have to be bumping noses with Bauby. This is maybe plausible when it's his wife:

...but a bit less believable when it's his doctor:

These deviations have their effect, though: they contribute to an overall sense of disorientation and invasive presence, both of which help to get the viewer into Bauby's head (and body) better than a strict adherence to first-person POV might have done on its own.

Eventually, the film quietly begins to move us out of the subjective POV and into an objective, third-person POV. We start getting shots like this:

...which increase in both frequency and duration throughout the first third of the film. As a viewer, attuning yourself to your consciousness' flow into and out of Bauby's body is an odd experience: it is as though you are some kind of restless spirit. Adding to this are the moves into and out of memories (via flashbacks) and into and out of Bauby's imagination (via fantasy sequences)—it's safe to say that the film strives to get its audience to be aware of itself as a living perceptual apparatus, which is a damn sight more interesting than getting its audience to be aware of the "strength of the human spirit." It's also a generous approach to filmmaking, one that—at its (unsustained) best—invites comparison to avant-garde work which goes further with drawing attention to the audience's status as perceptual agents (Stan Brakhage's work is the best example I can summon to mind).

Schnabel shouldn't be faulted for not making an avant-garde film, though, especially when he's able to use his manipulation of POV for such striking narrative effects. One notable effect is that Schnabel navigates us through over a third of the film before we ever get to see what our protagonist looks like, in the present—this is something that most films, of course, provide within the first few minutes. By the point where we finally get an unobstructed view of his face we've already become familiar with him as a lively, handsome man in flashbacks and fantasies, and seeing him with the distorted features of the stroke victim comes as a vivid shock, even if you're expecting it. At this moment—which essentially constitutes the "turning point" that most films put at the end of their first act—the film chooses to move us suddenly outside the consciousness of Bauby himself, and abruptly into the consciousness of someone who knows him from before and is experiencing the shock of seeing him transformed. (It fits, not least because the middle third of the film is largely occupied with the changing relationship between Bauby and his network of loved ones.)

So. As a story, not that compelling, but it's a finely-wrought piece of cinematic art. This might lead to an interesting follow-up question—something about the decision to transform someone else's suffering / disability into a beautiful aesthetic object?—but let's hold off on that until next week, when we look at a very different portrayal of disability, Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun (1971).

Monday, March 2, 2009

best films of the 1980s

So in my spare time lately (I'm underemployed at the moment) I've been tinkering a lot with my Film Viewing database.

Basically what this means is "doing data entry"—entering and rating more and more films. It's fairly tedious work but somehow it's also engaging and engrossing. And the database as a whole is starting to get "robust"—it's starting to reach that sweet spot where I can command it to produce certain types of output, and get results that I feel are reasonably accurate. For instance, just as a test, I asked it to show me all the movies from the 1980s that I've given a rating of 8 or higher to (out of ten). I'm pretty pleased with the results, a list of 30 films which I think I could defend as the "best films of the 1980s."

Anyone want to have a good-natured argument about it? Anything I've left out? Anything I've wildly over-rated?

I chose the 80s more-or-less at random, and will happily present the results of a different decade upon request.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

a man escaped, by robert bresson

For the last few weeks, Film Club has been interested in movies that present strategies—some successful, some not—for weathering the forces of cultural oppression.

At a certain point, when a film has amassed a sufficiently complicated set of interrelated strategies, I think we can officially say that it is actually depicting a scheme. We have good reason to perk up here: the development of a scheme is a great narrative device, and, in the hands of a competent filmmaker, a deeply satisfying one. Think of films like Rififi, Man on Wire, and Oceans 11: very different films, but each one is built around a scheme, and as their schemes unfold they each yield similiar pleasures.

To this list we could add this week's pick, Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped (1959). The plot is simplicity itself. A police liutenant in occupied France is imprisoned by Germans. He intends to escape. That's pretty much it. He is planning this escape literally every second we see him on screen, starting when he's being driven to the prison. Before we even see his face we see him trying to figure out if he can get out of the car and make a run for it:

It's not the most successful attempt:

So, OK. He chalks this up to "if at first you don't succeed" and carries on. The next attempt, made from within the belly of the prison, is going to have to be more complicated than a simple jump-and-run. But that's OK: the more complicated the scheme is, the more enjoyable it is to see enacted.

This hinges, of course, on a filmmaker who is willing to visually represent the details as they unfold. To his enormous credit, Bresson lavishes loving attention on these details. There are passages in this film that are practically like an Instructables video on How To Break Out of Jail:

Part of the reason that Bresson can spend so much narrative time on examining these details is that he rigorously strips out any element of the narrative that doesn't have to do directly with the protagonist and the plan. It's not hard to imagine a less assured filmmaker building in a villainous German character, as a way of establishing their threat level: Bresson just takes it as a given and moves on. A less assured filmmaker would likely show us the other prisoners being executed: Bresson just relies on word-of-mouth, and the occasional sound of machine-gun fire.

This may sound like its short on visceral thrill, and, it's true that we're not dealing with Oz here. But Bresson has a different goal in mind: he wants to put us in the head of our protagonist, to impress upon us the "thrill" of the smallest details. Bresson is right that, to a prisoner, something subtle like approaching footfalls or the quickest glimpse of a weapon can hold enormous menace:

...and he is right that, to a prisoner, the smallest utilitarian object can convey enormous advantages:

...can be, in fact, a source of hope and courage:

This goes all the way down, in Bresson's conception, to finding a splinter of wood that is the correct size for one's purposes:

When we begin to discuss the ways in which the quotidian can be charged with enormous meaning, we begin to move out of the realm of filmmaking, and into the realm of spiritual or mystical belief. (Bresson himself has been quoted as saying "The supernatural is only the real rendered more precise; real things seen close up.") His religious belief has been amply discussed elsewhere, and it's really beyond the scope of this blog post, but I will say that by the point in the film where one character refers to incarceration as a way of moving into a state of "grace," I'm prepared to believe it. (Especially impressive: the film has invested this observation with the weight of truth through craft, rather than through the easy application of sloppy sentimentality.) This film makes a great introduction to Bresson; I hope to watch more of his films in the future.

Next week: Film Club member Tiffanny E. writes "I wanted to explore more the idea of being imprisioned but avoid actual jails ... so I am picking The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." Stay tuned~

Friday, February 20, 2009

the loneliness of the long-distance runner, by tony richardson

Last week, Film Club looked at They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, which presents a world so exploitative that the only meaningful gesture of resistance is to refuse existence itself by engaging in violent self-destruction. Choosing death by a bullet certainly holds no shortage of dramatic force, but we here at Film Club wondered whether the movies didn't have some other, better strategy to offer in response to a hostile world.

With that question in mind, we turn to The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1962), which tells the story of Colin, played memorably by Tom Courtenay:

Colin is a working-class adolescent, and has some sense that the world is not really prepared to offer him what we'll call a rewarding life. This understanding, as we see it in Colin, is inchoate—it manifests itself more as ennui than as critique. He's bright enough to have an intuitive sense that the future looks like a dead end, but not bright enough to avoid making bad decisions. As such, he resembles the kids from La Haine (Film Club 4), or (especially) Antoine Doinel from The 400 Blows (1959). Like Antoine, he's likable without really being good.

And also like Antoine, he eventually runs afoul of the law, and ends up in a reformatory. Not the happiest-looking place:

Colin does have one thing that Antoine doesn't have, however: athletic skill. Before long, this has attracted the attention of the school's ambitious headmaster, who sees in Colin an opportunity to gain recognition for the school (a competition against an upper-class prep school looms in the distance). As a result, Colin gets some degree of preferential treatment: while the other students / prisoners are doing routine exercises, Colin is permitted to leave school grounds to practice his long distance running. This image nicely captures the dynamic:

There might well be a component of loneliness to this, but the film doesn't dwell on it. Instead, the film presents these afternoons, when Colin is out in the woods practicing, almost frolicking, as opportunities for exhiliration and joy:

...although, as my Film Club compatriot Tiffanny E. pointed out, this kind of officially-sanctioned liberty constitutes a kind of "freedom without freedom." Does that matter, when the happiness it generates seems genuine?

That question is one that persists up until the end of the film, coming fully into its own during the final intramural race, in which Colin faces a single important choice. I won't discuss the outcome, but I will say that it raises a number of additional questions, most of them interesting. Some of them: what constitutes "winning?" If one participant in a competition proves themselves the superior athlete, does it matter whether that athlete is also designated the winner? To whom? When an athlete is a member of a team, who benefits the most from that athlete's victory? When sports represents a form of escape, is it wise for someone to take advantage of that as an opportunity, even when it benefits to those who have entrapped you?

These questions could be loosely categorized as questions that pertain to the philosophy of sport, and to a degree I was interested in pursuing sports films as a possible avenue of future inquiry (we've flirted with this idea once before, when we watched Dazed and Confused (Film Club 21), which also represents organized sports as a morally-complicated form of salvation). But in choosing a pick for next week, I kept coming back to the tension that this film presents between the poles of repression and escape, which led me instead to choose Robert Bresson's prisoner-of-war film A Man Escaped (1956).

And a final note: no aspect of this film has given me much insight into why the former Governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, would have compared himself to Colin in the middle of his political meltdown (link contains a spoiler, btw). Colin may be likeable, but he's also stubborn, impulsive, and (arguably) nihilistic—he is also unambiguously guilty of the crime he is jailed for committing.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

they shoot horses, don't they? by sydney pollack

Last week, when writing about Bonnie and Clyde, I spoke on how the film makes a life of crime look exciting and glamorous. Even though we know that the film probably won't end well for the central couple, and even though this knowledge generates a few moments of real pathos, the overall tenor of the film is largely playful: the film invites us to join the Barrow Gang, and succeeds in making that invitation enticing by making the experience of being among the gang one that is, in a word, fun.

This week, we turn to They Shoot Horses, Don't They?. This film also is made in the late 1960s, and also examines the lives of people struggling through the Great Depression, but it could not be more different from Bonnie and Clyde in terms of its tone or its narrative devices.

The premise is simple: a canny promoter (Gig Young, in an Oscar-winning role) orchestrates a dance marathon, in which various couples compete for a cash prize. Essentially, it's an endurance test: the couples get a ten-minute rest period every hour, but beyond that they must remain on the dance floor, in constant motion. (You're welcome to sleep on the dance floor, as long as your partner can keep holding you upright.)

It should go without saying that this isn't going to be as much fun as robbing banks, and, indeed, as the contest wears on, from days into weeks, the contestants slowly transform from dancers into zomboid shells. I've seen Saw, and I've seen Hostel, and I've seen my share of Asian shock cinema, and They Shoot Horses, Don't They? still took me aback: its depiction of physical and mental suffering is as sustained and extensive as any that I've ever come across.

Focused as it is on the anguish of the participants, the film mostly keeps its attention on the dance floor and the complex of rooms that immediately surround it. This zone, inhabited by a shifting field of couples, functions interestingly as a kind of networked narrative space, but there is, indeed, a central couple, who function essentially as the film's protagonists. Here they are:

If the Protagonist Factor—discussed here last week—is operational in this film, it should dictate that we identify with this suffering couple, even though the circumstances are more grim, and the process of identification more discomfiting. But director Sidney Pollack, in a series of exquisitely cruel gestures, attempts to deny us whatever cathartic pleasure we might glean from this identification. He does this by emphasizing the presence of the audience that consumes the spectacle of human ruination unfolding before them.

Our protagonist couple has an observer, a little old lady who roots enthusiastically for them:

...and by including her, and the other audience members, Pollack reminds us, repeatedly, that to imagine ourselves as the body that suffers is falsely self-validating. We aren't the dancers there on the floor, exhaustedly jerking; we are the the ones who watch them, the ones who, for some unexamined reason, enjoy witnessing the horror of other humans undergoing something terrible.

Now, one could argue that making a movie that criticizes people for coming to see your movie is kind of a cheap thing for a filmmaker to do (see also: Showgirls (Film Club 42), or the flap that emerged last year around Michael Haneke's Funny Games remake). I'd argue, instead, that it's a variant on the benign masochism that undergirds the bargain that horror films and tragedies make with their audience (see also: The Vanishing (Film Club 40). In either case, I'm impressed with the lengths to which Pollack's critique extends: this film is not only anti-capitalism and anti-spectacle but also explicitly anti-narrative (as anti-narrative as a narrative film can be, anyway).

This emerges from the way Pollack presents the character of Rocky, the promoter, who also serves as the Master of Ceremonies.

In order to engage the audience more, Rocky literally narrates the entire event, verbally adorning the occurrences on the dance floor with little story hooks. And yet, we repeatedly get a sense that these story hooks are simplistic, distorting—in a word, false. And Pollack refuses, really, to provide any counternarrative: we're given only the most fragmentary and incomplete backstory for any of these characters. The protagonists are our protagonists not because they're better or more likeable; not because they're more noble than any other couple, but simply because they're the ones put in front of us. (The old lady, our nearest analogue, favors them for chance reasons: the number assigned to them is her favorite number.) What Pollack seems to be saying, ultimately, is that there's no story here, only spectacle, specifically, the spectacle of desperate humans being transformed, by capitalism, into twitching meat-puppets. Extend this logic to the entire world, and it becomes clear that the only real way to retain any kind of dignity is simply to opt out, to take death by a bullet over the agony of continued existence. (Hence the title.)

Next week, though, we'll attempt to see if there aren't other strategies for surviving and navigating a hostile world: we'll be watching "angry young man" Tom Courtenay in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962).