Les vampires (Feuillade, 1915)

Photobucket

Paris, 1915. A city of darkness, thrown into paralysis by an unusual, uncontrollable epidemic: Vampires. These creatures of the night are not the famed blood-suckers of folklore however (though causing bloodshed is certainly of their essence), but a fearsome gang of cat burglars and criminal masterminds who orchestrate the virtual strangulation of an entire metropolis. So great is their proliferation of French society that even the president of the nation’s Court of Cassation is eventually exposed as one of their accomplices – and somewhat tellingly, he’s seen as totally expendable. Having initiated a wave of corruption that poisons every rung of the social ladder, the key members of this hedonistic troupe retreat into underground lairs and sordid taverns (their destination of choice: a club called “The Hissing Cat”) where they concoct ever greater heists and swindles during raucous bacchanals, all the while plotting the extermination of their primary foes: Philippe Guérande, a self-righteous newspaper editor, and Oscar Mazamette, his happy-go-lucky sidekick; a pair of (relatively) law-abiding citizens intent on bringing the Vampires to justice. The imminence of impending doom reverberates upon both sides of this war, and with the streets of the city curiously shorn of life (a different, greater war is felt in spirit but never once referred to), Paris becomes a shell of its almighty reputation – humiliatingly stripped of its populace as it nervously awaits an inevitable showdown between the forces of good and evil.

Louis Feuillade’s famed ten-part serial is nowadays renowned as one of the high points of cinema’s formative years: a sprawling epic that continues to withstand the hazardous tests of time almost a century after conception. Nevertheless, on the basis of artistry alone, Les vampires can read like something of a disappointment. The director’s construction rests almost entirely upon the long-takes of a stationary camera – a decision that fails to distinguish the film from its innumerable peers of similar, theatrical pretensions. Look again however, and Feuillade reveals himself to be an early master of mise-en-scène, utilising remarkable depth of field to reinforce the tension within his modest set-ups. His is a cinematic world built upon audience uncertainty, induced by actively encouraging the awareness of off-screen space. Thus, although his staging appears conventional, the director frequently bestows atypical prominence to doors and windows, ensuring that they remain centred within his static frames. Given that Feuillade’s Paris is conceived as a labyrinthine series of tunnels and passageways which allow the Vampires ease of access to their victims, his decision has major ramifications upon both his narrative and the viewer’s response to it. Any opening that provides contiguity with the exterior world consequently breeds anxiety, allowing the acrobatic gangsters an orifice from which to penetrate the lives of others; psychosexuality, naturally, simmering beneath all surface action. Additionally, the director’s settings are often more complex than meets the eye, boasting a series of trap-doors, secret compartments and false artefacts that render even the familiar unsafe (as if to reinforce this, one of the film’s more ludicrous scenarios finds the Vampires-as-estate agents letting an apartment with a particularly conspicuous “safe” – whose removable back opens up into their own, adjacent domicile). Alongside the agoraphobia (open spaces are recast as playing fields in which criminals are free to plunder humans at will) and distrust (duplicitous identities are abound and double-crossing is rampant), Les vampires plays out like a full-scale assault on the very notion of bourgeois security.

Photobucket Photobucket Photobucket

Its gumption now apparent, the film’s key problem nonetheless continues to linger: six hours with a motionless camera is a stultifying, archaic experience for the modern cinephile. But alas, Les vampires just so happens to be an exceedingly modern film. For all the innate darkness within Feuillade’s depiction of a menacing criminal empire, his treatment of the material is defined by an airy lightness of touch and a host of moral ambiguities. Accordingly, whilst the aura of unpredictability hangs over proceedings like a dead weight, the director seeks to counter the discomfort by actualising this threat in its most outlandish forms, thereby diverting his narrative into increasingly preposterous directions; a progressive knotting into if ever there was one. In the space of mere nanoseconds: unsuspecting daydreamers can be lassoed from third-storey windows; enormous cannons can appear as if from nowhere; and sizeable ballrooms can morph into luxurious gas chambers – all to the growing bewilderment of the audience. The last of these cited spectacles is both the most exhilarating and, more importantly, the most emblematic. Les vampires, at its gleeful peaks, is a daringly anti-establishment tirade that lampoons Paris’ ineffectual police force and ridicules its pompous aristocracy. When its supposed villains therefore decide to asphyxiate a group of these clueless buffoons, it’s almost with sadness that we discover that the inhalant which they deploy provokes little more than an extended slumber – so successfully does the director glamorise his merry band of thieves. Still, the deaths that are caused by the outfit are notably almost exclusively reserved to members of the ruling classes, and when at film’s end the Vampires meet an overdue demise, Feuillade appears to intimate that its their own accession to these patricians’ vices which causes their undoing.

Photobucket Photobucket Photobucket

If the text is guilty of mild socialist/anarchist leanings, then it’s surely also a progressive pioneer of early cine-feminism. Les vampires‘ most compelling character by far is the notorious ‘Irma Vep’ (a much-noted anagram of “vampire”), perhaps the nascent medium’s first real femme fatale, dependent upon interpretation. Enigmatic yet completely alluring, she assumes a mind-boggling array of disguises throughout the film’s runtime: bank clerk, chemist, hotel receptionist, housemaid, noblewoman, spinster – at one point, she even dons drag in an delightful (though not quite subversive) gender-bending exercise. Of course, her most iconic garb remains the black, skin-tight catsuit worn to scurry across Parisian rooftops by night; a breathtaking injection of identifiable, earthy sexuality (the get-up does an unsurprisingly great job of accentuating her curves). More than any of the film’s purported heroes, it is this bewitching villain who comes to embody its (admittedly limited) emotional core: late into the drama, the instinctive shock that she displays when confronted with an act of genuine benevolence marks the only instance in which Feuillade alludes to a character’s backstory (life has been cruel, to the point where she no longer comprehends what kindness is). Ferocious and independent in spite of the numerous capitulations enforced upon her by male suitors, Irma Vep is a character who honours defiance until the bitter end. After her entire world has crumbled around her, she steadfastly maintains her refusal to submit to the accepted patriarchy – instead, it’s a fellow female (albeit one who’s not half as interesting) who ends up pulling the fatal trigger on her. And even on the verge of death, this anti-heroine finds time to make one final, blazing statement: a clenched fist, raised to the air in fury.

For all its sinister overtones and ideological undercurrents, one needs to remain aware of the director’s primitive, primary goal: to entertain. To this end, Mazamette (one of the film’s two purported ‘good guys’) scampers around the screen like a vaudeville clown, constantly breaking the fourth wall and communicating directly with his audience – primarily by offering a jocular wink every time he senses another triumph/escape. If Irma Vep bestows Les vampires with its substance, Mazamette is designed to comically undermine it at all costs. Wielding a photo of his children and pulling puppy-dog eyes every time he finds himself in trouble, and constantly turning up at opportune moments of crisis in order to save the day, the character’s boisterous pantomime act is very much a product of its time. And yet, although it initially seems outdated, with another lens it’s also quite strikingly ahead of its era. Mazamette can easily be seen as the chief proponent of the film’s meta-narrative, commentating upon on-screen events as they occur whilst simultaneously participating in their development. Moreover, he’s not the only such device in the film – his young son, a juvenile delinquent, turns up in a particularly farcical episode and offers a dastardly imitation of his father (thereby causing a riot as not one but two characters take on this extra-filmic role in close proximity to one another), and even Irma Vep herself offers more than one knowing glare into her audience. Feuillade’s integration of such humour is, if not quite postmodern, then at least somewhat Pirandellian in its design – and he deploys it most brilliantly in an act of self-reflexivity which gets to the very lifeblood of his opus. After an ill-fated bank executive declares that he’s “fanatical about the cinema”, he promptly takes a trip to a theatre called the Gaumont Palace and proceeds to watch newsreel footage of the head Vampires travelling incognito in the forest of Fontainebleau. This simple act at once discloses: an early endorsement of cinephilia; an advertisement of the film’s production company (Gaumont Films – the theatre used was an authentic one); and, crucially, a tribute to a still fledgling medium and its potential to innovate in the field of storytelling. Les vampires may not fully utilise the tools available to it in terms of technical ingenuity, but in its infectious spirit of blissful abandon and unruly escapism it sets an early standard for high-concept cinema – and it’s a standard that’s rarely been equalled in the years since.

Photobucket

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

The Cloud-Capped Star (Ghatak, 1960)

Photobucket

Wearing its melodrama firmly on its sleeve, The Cloud-Capped Star takes aim at the pre-eminent cornerstone of Bengali life – the dreaded and revered family unit – and subsequently proceeds to chew it up and spit it out with unbridled venom. Resting his gaze upon the trials and tribulations of a relatively bourgeois home in post-Partition Kolkata, director Ritwik Ghatak unearths only desolation, degradation and despair. His tale is woefully familiar: a self-sacrificial heroine, too benevolent for the unforgiving world that so spitefully disregards her, suffers an elongated decline into anonymity. But Ghatak’s work is suffused with a generosity in spirit and an ingenuity in technique which aggrandises an otherwise predictable tragedy; the film ultimately attaining a stratum of effusive spiritualism that’s singular in essence and breathtaking in experience. Our characters’ various states of dysphoria thus find themselves illuminated by humanistic brushstrokes which tactfully balance empathy alongside the director’s acuminous critiques. Star‘s compendium of politics, psychology and passion consequently scales depths of feeling that belies its parentage, gradually filtering its genre’s embellishments before culminating in a conclusion that marks an apex in exorbitant realism.

With a narrative founded upon simplicity, Ghatak offers up a parade of types – fickle fiancé, superficial sister, artistic (read: lazy) brother, hapless father, bitch mother from Hell – and uses them to repudiate the standardised deference to the family (although the pessimistic depictions of the film’s peripheral characters quite probably extends the grievance towards society as a whole). His veneration of Nita (our ever-suffering protagonist) as some sort of downtrodden saint is thus contrasted with the reduction of her relatives’ personalities to digestible traits: avaricious, self-absorbed, even hateful. Whilst Star‘s early scenes establish an aura of playfulness and warmth in these familial interactions, Ghatak’s plotting is swift in exposing the callous heart of a desperately unhappy home: consider how the recurrent bickering of the parents, initially played for comedic value, finds itself tinged with genuine contempt as the film progresses; or how the amoral vanity of the sister eventually results in the collapse of the film’s key relationship. Constantly harassed by the feuding, rapacious clan that raised her, Nita finds herself driven into the misery of total subjugation; deluded by a misplaced obligation to a group of individuals intent solely upon devouring her already-overstretched income.

Photobucket Photobucket Photobucket

Photobucket Photobucket Photobucket

Though seething with anger at the traditions that dictate subservience to a potentially detrimental institution, the director acknowledges that shared familial bonds are indubitably natural – and thus, the problem confronting our protagonist is that of escaping her own nature; the issue compounded by the contradictions and limitations of the society in which she lives. In one of the film’s bittersweet ironies, it’s Nita’s fellow females – the permanently-embittered mother and the jealous sister with their grossly overinflated senses of entitlement – who most vigorously wield the axe of the patriarchy against her. Indeed, the only characters who appear to offer genuine concern for her debilitating plight prove to be her father and elder brother – theoretically the film’s two foremost exemplars of male dominance. Ghatak’s conception of the patriarchal order is loaded with similar subversions, and one notes that not one of the men in Nita’s life conforms to our expectations of alpha masculinity. The qualities that unite these would-be patriarchs instead reveal themselves to be cowardice and weakness, thereby resulting in a glaring inability to head so unsettled a household. It’s accordingly left to Nita to unwillingly emerge as the breadwinner in a full-time, thankless role that extinguishes her private desires (ideals and sentiments are still very much a luxury in so precarious a middle class) whilst leaving her utterly at the mercy of an unsympathetic public domain. She abnegates out of ingrained beliefs in the power of duty and devotion (“We all love each other, but we shy from saying so”), but these beliefs will come to be ruthlessly dismissed as deceitful fallacies. Amidst this mishmash of personal and collective needs, Ghatak’s message resounds loud and clear: men are merely the faces of a system that’s incapacitated without the support of women like Nita – women who exist in the background, suffering silently, invisibly.

Just as inescapable as our heroine’s spiritual incarceration is the technical flair of our director, fearless in the exploration of his creative potential. Ghatak’s stylistic idiosyncrasies embolden the film, at times courting hagiography (low-angle shots during unwanted epiphanies immortalise Nita as a goddess in turmoil) whilst in other instances repelling it (at her lowest ebbs, she finds herself shrouded in the darkness of shadows – a tactic whose effect is heightened when recalling that one of Star‘s most noteworthy elements is its astounding depth of field). The director appears as adept when wallowing in the rich pastoralism of the Bengal landscape as he does when interrogating the disordered urbania of a developing metropolis. Thus, picturesque long shots contrast with near avant-garde flourishes, the oscillations in style alluding towards a bifurcated crisis that extends beyond Nita’s increasing hysteria. The clues to this turmoil’s source lie in Ghatak’s cluttered soundscapes, themselves roaming the boundaries of diegetic and non-diegetic space: the frenzied amalgam of drums and sitars; the howling horns of passing trains; the unsettling cracks of a not-distant whip; and always, always the mumblings of a vibrant, restless society. The director aurally embeds his protagonist’s suffering into the wider narrative of his divided homeland and, in his most inspired move, borrows from Bengal’s rich musical heritage to reinforce the point: Star explodes into cathartic relief when brother and sister engage in a sorrowful rendition of a poem by the region’s cultural hero, Rabindranath Tagore, a moment that completely upends contemporary understandings of music in Indian cinema. Ghatak’s manoeuvres posit the film as some sort of modernist Bengali folk opera; his measured deployment of temporal ellipses allowing his politicised sentiments to engulf the audience much like one of the torrid cyclones that so frequently batter his motherland’s terrain. The director’s pronouncements on Partition and its traumas – infiltrating and corrupting even the most sacred of human relationships – could not be more apparent. Behind this assessment however, there lies a tribute to the resilience of a sequestered populace, clinging to their dream of eventual unity. Nevertheless, as Ghatak’s harrowing coda so poignantly realises, there are certain dreams which simply cannot be.

Photobucket

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Peckinpah, 1974)

Into the high country we ride. A lakeside idyll, sometime in the 19th(?) century. The picturesque scene exists in an achromatic epoch, though the attire of a delicate young maiden (possibly with child?) and the scurry of a man on horseback allows for an informed guess. No matter, the dissolution of this harmonious vision is merely around the corner: assertive stooges escort the damsel (yes, with child) to a solemn, possibly religious gathering where her father, “El Jefe”, awaits. His power: self-evident (henchmen everywhere, all others silent in deference); its nature: to be left unclear. Who impregnated his daughter? The girl in question admirably attempts defiance in response to her inquisition, but this is clearly a world with little to no room for such feeble feminist stances. A few seconds later, her arm now broken, she cries out: “Alfredo Garcia!” – and Fortune’s wheel can halt its turning. Destinies have now been determined: Sr. Garcia’s head is to be severed to appease this vengeful patriarch, and he who commits the deed will be rewarded substantially. For those that have it, money can buy anything. For those that don’t, it can buy a whole lot more.

Photobucket Photobucket Photobucket

But wait! This is not the 19th century. Cars pile out from El Jefe’s compound as his lackeys begin their hunt, and stock footage of aeroplanes suggest a temporal proximity that inverts our understanding to date. Furthermore, we soon learn that Alfredo Garcia is already dead – a fact that the lackeys remain oblivious to, but which certain others are only too happy to capitalise on; the task of severing the cursed man’s head now considerably alleviated. (Sanctity is a concept that went six feet under long before our ‘new’, contemporary setting.) One such other is Bennie, our irascible host for the remainder of this macabre adventure. A barfly-cum-pianist, he lives inside a permanent hangover; a gringo out of water, prowling the sleaze-dens of Mexico in search of lost time – not even a poor man’s hero. He barks and he snarls, primarily at women (male chauvinism is the prevalent order here), and he sniffs out the scent of a dollar like only a lamentably unlucky loser could. Still, a swipe of a blade and a theft of a head and the future shall be his. As he insists to the gay hitmen who hire him: “Nobody loses all the time!” (Oh yes they do, Bennie.) Is this what life has come to? Profiteering from death? Amorality colours the walls of every bar, every motel room, every heart. The shattered dreams of our exhausted troubadour have no place in the realm of social reality, and so they must be relocated – forced to lurk along the peripheries of plausibility. But surely, there must be something else… anything else…

Photobucket Photobucket Photobucket

Love! Elita. A battered siren, former flame of Alfredo Garcia himself; a woman so entrenched in resignation that she embraces a would-be rapist with a tenderness that betrays her history of heartache (worry not, for she “knows the way”). Is she Bennie’s saviour? Together, they enact a desperate, tequila-soaked romance invested with the transformative passion of fatalistic hope. Her conscience is yet to be savaged to the point of disrepair, so she attempts in vain (half-heartedness?) to save him from Fate. She: “Jesus, just being together is enough!”; He: “No it’s not, baby. It takes pan, bread, dinero.” Alas, salvation is not an option here, and so the pair must succumb to the capitalist vagary that’s orchestrated by an oversized bigwig whose name they’ll never know. Dinero, after all, will help them withstand the increasing desertification of their souls. No longer will the rivers of their miserable, septic little world flow with sorrow: a skull for deliverance equals an escape from perpetual mediocrity. Yes, it makes perfect sense. In pursuit of their happily ever after, Elita leads Bennie to Alfredo Garcia’s resting place – and, in an eerie twilight assailed by invisible ghosts, they unearth his casket. Its door – a portal into an alternate universe – is creaked open, and Bennie stares into the abyss. A momentary existential crisis is swiftly discarded, and a sword is finally raised.

Photobucket

There’s nothing sacred about a hole in the ground, or a man that’s in it. Or you, or me.

Photobucket

Welcome to the death march! Was it not that all along? How misguided we were to believe otherwise. (Did we really believe?) The road to Hell is paved with bodies… carnage, everywhere. Beware the no-hoper armed with no hope; the loneliest man in the world. Heroism is dead. Machismo is dead. Love is dead. Somewhere, a headless corpse is filling the world with howls of laughter. Perhaps a coping mechanism? Futile and cruel. Horribly cruel. Even drink won’t solve this quandary – there will be no release from the charnel house of emotions that we’re in. What to do? Where to go? Gaze into a mirror (who’s the fairest of them all?)… no, it’s too much. Rambling soliloquies in the company of decaying flesh clearly make better sense. Alfredo Garcia turned out to be the perfect wife! Alas, Bennie is not the perfect husband. How pitiable this soul is. How despondent, how pathetic. Blistering sadness now overwhelms the universe alongside the irrational and the absurd. We must sink to the deepest depths of despair – to lose oneself is to find oneself. STOP! A revelation: this road trip must continue. Drive! Drive through the eschatological wilderness and towards the maker’s hacienda. Escape from the quagmire and persist in the quest for truth, a truth that’s ceased to exist… that may never have existed. (Cruel. Horribly cruel.) The impending victory will be pyrrhic, but fear not for at least we have the slaughter. Yes, slaughter: a bloody ballet; a mesmeric act of beauty that relieves us from a wretched, thankless existence. Surrender to it. Surrender to the slaughter, Bennie. Surrender to life.

THE END.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Earth (Dovzhenko, 1930)

Photobucket

Communism is great. At least, that’s what Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth appears to argue on the surface. Reviled in some quarters as little more than Stalinist propaganda, and dismissed by Stalin himself as not being Stalinist enough, Dovzhenko’s stirring paean to the natural world has found itself the victim of libellous and slanderous claims ever since its controversial release some eighty years ago. Credit the director then, for crafting a film that sustains such accusations despite conforming to its preordained function (a celebratory brochure for the collectivisations that were a crucial component in the First Five-Year Plan). Earth‘s threadbare narrative completes its designated task with aplomb: a straightforward tale of heroes (socialist peasants) vs. villains (capitalist kulaks) that features a solid dose of class warfare and concludes with a triumphant affirmation of communism as an instigator of positive, radical change. The problem therefore lies with Dovzhenko’s presentation of this material, which restyles the text’s Soviet proselytism into a universal, philosophical treatise that ruminates upon the transience of mortality. The director subsequently incorporates the fervent ideological conflicts of his era into a wider, pantheistic framework that exalts Mother Nature as society’s pre-eminent driving force alongside – or, perhaps even above – the Party itself. Today, the film’s propagandistic tendencies threaten to render it an intriguing historical relic, but its numerous aesthetic and thematic nuances offer an alternative outlook: that of Earth as a timeless, essential work of art.

There exists within the discussion of cinema an understandable tendency to lump Dovzhenko’s oeuvre alongside those of his Soviet contemporaries; the formalist inclinations of Eisenstein and Vertov presumably offering an easy point of commonality to complement their shared ‘nationality’. But whilst Dovzhenko certainly utilises the theoretical frameworks advocated by his estimable peers, his Earth finds itself prone to sentimental impulses that enervate such comparisons. Consider the film’s bookending sequences, ripe with images of outstanding beauty: flocculent cloads, rain-drenched apples, windswept wheat-fields – simple, evocative tributes to the wonders of nature that nestle themselves firmly inside the viewer’s psyche. The director draws from the organic allure of such visuals, using them to reorient the film’s introductory death scene to the point of exquisite absurdity: a village elder ends up confronting his fate on a bed of wild fruit, bathed in the gorgeous radiance of the morning sun. Nary has the act of dying seemed so beguiling, viewed here as an opportunity to be absolved directly by Gaia herself. And therein lies the deviance of the Earth‘s approach, for where his compatriots chose to electrify their audiences with the kinetic furore of their editing, Dovzhenko spends much of his time actively tempering the ferocity of this revolutionary spirit, preferring instead to embed his own montages within the cyclical, apolitical revolutions of the cosmos (just as it begins with a death, the film concludes with a birth).

Photobucket Photobucket Photobucket

Not unexpectedly, Dovzhenko embeds some Party policy within this spiritual roundelay in an attempt to appease the powers that be. Accordingly, the emergence of the kolkhoz is viewed through a near-Darwinian lens; an evolutionary necessity, born to nudge humanity further along the road towards enlightenment. Evolution however, can be a painful and elongated process – something which the director explores with surprising depth thanks to the generational conflicts that intensify his subtexts. From the aforementioned opening sequence (which posits the old man’s death against the indifference of youngsters playing in the fields) to the weight that’s afforded to the ideological tensions between a father and son (the former is initially sceptical of collectivisation, whilst the latter is one of its strongest proponents), Earth is brimming with friction between past and present, tradition and modernity. These differences brew to an ire and, erred on by the Marxist doctrines upon which the entire conceit is built, overflow into an obstreperous dismissal of the religious orthodoxy that enfeebled yesterday’s peasantry. The director’s denunciation steers clear of outright hostility however – religion is merely another of those archaic afflictions weaned out by the eternal cycle of natural regeneration. In a society on the verge of industrialisation, the maledictions of hysterical preachers (“Punish them, God! Punish them!”) eventually fade into obsolescence behind a vociferous congregation of class unity.

Photobucket Photobucket Photobucket

Acting as the agent for all this development is an unassuming tractor. Cast alternately as a saviour by the farmers and an adversary by the kulaks for the very same reason (its potential to erase social inequality between the two groups), its messianic arrival is captured in a frenetic montage where the entire agricultural community – livestock included – awaits in fervent anticipation as the vehicle (a surrogate for modernisation) makes its painfully slow encroachment upon the village. In a new, mechanised age, man-made creations assume a disproportionate significance in relation to their masters: “WE WILL PROSPER WITH MACHINES!”, exclaims a villager; “This is the end!”, mourns a kulak. The question therefore arises as to how Dovzhenko himself views all this commotion. Although the jubilation of the peasantry proves well-founded as a result of the increased productivity engineered by their new acquisition, the director’s montages provide scope for ambivalence. For all its anti-clericalism, Earth remains a curiously metaphysical film: a pastoral cine-poem whose rural landscapes are infused with the palpable presence of paganistic wraiths (wheat-fields have never seemed so alive). Dovzhenko, moreover, isn’t above taking discreet potshots at his government, with an early dialogue exchange appearing to query the validity of the Soviet Labour Medal. Thus, the extended sequence in which he charts the tractor’s gargantuan capability to plough offers a cause for alarm, particularly given that it’s contrasted against a farmer wielding his primitive (but comparatively innocent) sickle. The director’s rhythmic editing focuses on the destruction that these new machines can wreak upon the serene, diffident earth, and overtly questions man’s abuse of his symbiosis with nature. An early precursor to current ecological movements this could well be – especially during an extraordinary funeral procession where the branches of apple trees and the leaves of sunflower plants actually caress an embalmed corpse in a credible act of grief – but Dovzhenko’s text is unavoidably as dialectic as it is bucolic: he reveres and yearns for the modest past, but he recognises that a new future must be forged if his comrades are to progress.

Riddled with ambiguities and complexities that belie its citizenship, Earth is at its most galvanising as an affirmation of the human spirit. “Propaganda” is a slur that befits, but one that refuses to account for the uncharacteristic warmth that heartens the work. Dovzhenko’s socialist anger has a winning sense of humour: consider the peasants who feel compelled to urinate into the tractor’s radiator, or the ridiculous graphic matching that attempts to twin cows with kulaks. Throughout the film, the director displays a commitment to emotional matter that invigorates his class-conscious lyricism; dispensing entirely with establishing shots and relocating his narrative’s momentum to the forthright, honest close-ups of isolated faces. Always, Dovzhenko spares time to outline the human costs of his drama, and never more so than in his corybantic finale which interweaves birth and death, politics and religion, despair and ecstasy into a stupefying montage that belatedly unleashes the revolutionary zeal that he’d previously repressed. It’s a perfectly-executed climax, and a resounding tribute to the potential of cinema itself. Yet the honour of Earth‘s greatest montage must surely go to that which is also its simplest. After nightfall, the narrative’s nominal hero opts to take a casual stroll through his village following a day in which his dream of mass production (and consequently, class parity) became a reality. Brimming with joy and pride, he spontaneously begins to substitute walking for dancing, and then proceeds to caper into the surrounding fields, his feet restless with sheer elation. Dovzhenko captures this impulsion and, in an inspired move, refuses to let go – engulfing his audience in his protagonist’s euphoria, and following his sentimental journey through to its complete realisation; all the while cutting to increasingly distanced vantage points that memorialise his surrounding homeland. This apparent divergence serves as a reminder of the bliss that progressive change can offer, yet it draws its poignancy from the benefit of our hindsight: Earth was filmed in the director’s native Ukraine – once the “breadbasket of Europe”, and the republic which suffered most of all under the Holodomor, an event that occurred as a direct result of the policies that the film exalts. The bitter irony of life after the film’s closing frame is devastating, but rather than detracting from Dovzhenko’s central message, history has done him a favour and movingly eulogised it: once upon a time, there was hope.

Photobucket

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Pasolini, 1975)

Photobucket Photobucket Photobucket

ANTE INFERNO

Heil Pasolini! From the dying embers of Italy’s fascist nightmare, this provocateur extraordinaire found truth, beauty, freedom and above all things love. Make no mistake, the iniquitous repute of cinema’s most notorious bête noire is entirely just: Salò depicts the debauched, the depraved and the disgusting with indefatigable relish. Even so, the film is not deplorable… never deplorable. No, the surface repugnance of the director’s masterpiece may overshadow the appeal of its naïve extremism and its truculent fury, but the rectitude behind his achievement sears the memory long after its numerous horrors have subsided. Pasolini’s sentiments are as pure as his visuals are lewd; exemplars of a tormented artist’s last stand against a world dismissed as beyond redemption. Galvanised by this incendiary vitriol, Salò unleashes a violent barrage of ideas and images whose cumulative impact achieves the coup of transplanting its inter-filmic suffering directly into the viewer’s psyche; this dualistic infliction of abuse forming the crux of the director’s hermetic dystopia – a cause and product of the nihilism that so repulsively engulfs his subtexts. His is a work that seemingly revels in the darkness of the abyss; a work that venerates murder, rape and torture whilst denigrating their respective meanings unto the level of sadistic pleasure; a work that trades in on its puerile shock value to actively lust after reprehensibility – eventually attaining the ideal with incomparable causticity.

But Pasolini was too skilled an artist – or perhaps too conflicted a man – to wallow so unremittingly in literal misery-porn. The director’s pessimism finds itself both emboldened and muddied by the ridiculous, possibly even humorous treatment of his material. Salò‘s problematic hinges upon this dogged refusal to capitulate to our understanding of tragedy: its narrative’s mechanisms grind out devastation that’s deprived of sentiment and laden with camp, nonsensical satire. Thus, the perverted quartet of oppressors who invoke its infernos are rendered nothing more than mere pantomime villains at the heart of an elaborate farce; the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse recast as hysterical drag queens, dancing their way toward a 20th-century Armageddon. Pasolini’s tone is wild and unruly, veering from the cataclysmic to the gelastic with the blink of an eye (provided, of course, that the eye in question hasn’t been gouged from its socket). Nevertheless, his purpose is clear, for nowhere in Salò is it possible to properly process the magnitude of its victims’ pain – and in thwarting his audience’s cathartic needs, the director endeavours to expose and then redefine the limitations of human empathy. Unable to reconcile the abominations on-screen with any depth in the film’s emotional matter, we end up lapsing puritanically into a moral panic (though not unjustly). Pasolini’s relentless antagonism drives the film into a crevasse unto itself, in which it harbours a disaster so incomprehensible that it become an exercise in the anti-tragic. Reason – as we once understood it – no longer exists.

Photobucket Photobucket Photobucket

CIRCLE OF MANIAS

If Salò succeeds in the anti-tragic then it surely excels at the anti-erotic. Populated by the lithe, pubescent figures of its uniformly-unclothed teenage captives, the film invites titillation only to emphatically molest it. Pasolini’s camera doesn’t always shy away from the expected gaze – skin, torsos, pubic hairs and genitalia all appear in close-up – but his imagery’s pornographic potential is either offset by the victims’ howls of anguish or supplanted by the perverse glares of their tormentors. The director thus pries open a chasm between object and desire that’s impossible to traverse; our latent aphrodisia neutered by the all-too conspicuous framework of exploitation which effectively desexualises an otherwise attractive group of bodies. The distance that Pasolini begets between viewer and content subsequently materialises inside his frames themselves. Brandishing his mastery as an aesthetician beyond compare, he constructs a series of tableaux informed by the classical elegance of High Renaissance paintings, carefully dividing the action within each of these impossibly-perfect compositions: trauma relegated to the background, with emptiness and/or irreverence dominating the foreground. As the atrocities increase, so too does the physical distance between the two planes; the director at once emulating the reality of marginalised agony, maintaining the tradition of its artistic veneration, and posing the question: is the horror any less real if we’re forced to remain blind to it?

In this paraphilic paradise, the characters’ suffering finds itself incarcerated by the inexorable allure of Pasolini’s artifice. Beauty is therefore as much a curse as it is a blessing: a distraction; a masquerade that protects barbarism; a fallacy. Whilst condemning his own aesthetics, the director incorporates a not-unrelated discussion on the subject of eugenics. Salò‘s victims are chosen as such for their physical perfection, their masters’ filtering procedures unmistakably calling to mind the Nazis’ vision of a flawless gene pool (the geometrical precision of the film’s mise-en-scène further evokes the regime’s ruthless sense of order). However, where Hitler & co. were intent on preserving the “master race” (albeit by destroying others), Pasolini proves hell-bent upon obliterating it altogether. The hollow ideal of an Aryan utopia is thus disembowelled, evaginated and then beautified as the director lambasts the very notion of unnatural selection; his total disillusionment with the modus operandi of interwar Europe’s purportedly “developed” societies blisteringly apparent. Given his Marxist sympathies, it’s unsurprising that this contempt should extend beyond the obvious extremist targets and into the more general domain of capitalism itself. It’s the ubiquitous value of rabid consumption which he denounces most vehemently of all, and it’s the culture of greed that it perpetrates which enables his clinical debilitation of intercourse: he invades this most intimate of acts and reduces it from its zenith as the utmost expression of love to its nadir as the vilest demonstration of hate – where bodies are rendered commodities (if that) in transactions impelled by the privileged perversions of the ruling classes. Enveloped by this ever-decaying morality, Pasolini’s eroticism perhaps appears not quite anti-erotic per se, so much as a mere reflection of the dominant, ruthlessly systematic approach to human life engendered by the reverence of money over man.

Photobucket Photobucket Photobucket

CIRCLE OF SHIT

Adopting as his mantra the notion of “absolute power corrupting absolutely”, the director retools Sade’s lascivious libertines (in Salò: a Bishop, a Duke, a Magistrate and a President) and uses them to launch a multi-pronged, defiantly allegorical critique upon the vestiges of authority. The centrepiece of the film’s infamy – a Last Supper-inspired banquet of faeces – is therefore not simply an exercise in maximal revulsion, but also the very axis to all Pasolini’s promulgations. This grossly hypnotic celebration of the coprophilic, conducted at the whims of the merciless foursome, takes the film’s debasements to their inevitable extreme – though lest we forget, the scatological is a genuine fetish to which the libertines are far from alone in subscribing so avidly to; Salò‘s ignominious feast of shit is first and foremost a part of its sexual paraphernalia. Regardless, the scene in question remains irrevocably coloured by the director’s manifold political subtexts: Pasolini himself reportedly contended that the entire conceit was a figurative representation of a world increasingly obsessed with junk food, a statement that may seem somewhat ludicrous on paper but nonetheless keeps entirely in tune with the film’s acerbic depiction of social regression in the face of corporate esurience. The director thus pre-empts the acknowledged McDonaldisation of society and pushes the notion of immediate gratification to its entirely natural breaking point. In this typically sardonic twist, “fast food” is given a new meaning altogether whilst materialism backfires spectacularly upon the materialists.

As the multitudinous images of excrement-smeared faces recedes from the consciousness, what persists in residing is the perturbing perception that, in Salò, anything is possible. Pasolini crafts an alternate reality which conserves a familiar social structure (the hierarchical pyramid from top-to-bottom: elites → accomplices → victims), but he shatters the legislative glass ceiling designed to curb hegemonic abuses. Consequently, all restrictions to the tyrannies inflicted by the elites are eradicated – it is, after all, these individuals who make the laws of governance – and so it follows that there is no end to the complacency of the accomplices, nor any respite to the exploitation of the victims. As one of the libertines memorably declares: “We fascists are the only true anarchists.” – and the shit-eating episode therefore comes to epitomise the height of authoritarian anarchy; an anarchy of power that gleefully nurtures brutality. Even the slightest hint of dissidence is swiftly repressed in Salò‘s monstrously insular milieu (though one of the film’s most resonant images remains the Communist salute of a nude, recalcitrant guard, causing the libertines to collectively gasp in momentary disbelief before gunning him down). Detached from the outside world and shielded from its scrutiny, Salò can turn upon only itself. How appropriate then, that its inhabitants should end up ingesting the faecal so vividly – what better metaphor could there be for the transgressions of a societal microcosm hung up on self-extirpation?

Photobucket Photobucket Photobucket

CIRCLE OF BLOOD

Lost amidst the grotesqueries is an assertion that offers cause for greater alarm than any of the film’s disconcerting visuals. Although frequently damned for his simplistic, bludgeon-like approach, Pasolini’s treatise decisively embraces the complexity within the historiography of fascism. So it stands that totalitarianism is acknowledged as an impossible goal and, with the film degenerating into its murderous finale, it suddenly emerges that a significant proportion of the prisoners have been covertly flouting the libertines’ preposterous “rules”. Naturally, the disobedience offers little cause for concern in its own right (given the context, its almost certainly admirable), yet the manner in which the dissent is exposed betrays the full, staggering extent of the director’s despondence in his fellow man. It’s easy to view Salò as an (overzealous) cautionary tale against the concentration of power in relatively few hands, but the film is interlaced with telltale signs that suggest something is gravely amiss with such perspectives: the prevailing passivity of the victims; the brief close-ups that allude towards not just their acceptance, but the actual enjoyment of their suffering. Bowdlerised emotions are biding their time and awaiting their release, and when the investigation into the adolescent deviance eventually commences, each of the detainees makes an attempt to delay their demise by accusing another of greater misdeeds. And so a domino effect ensues; the instinct for self-preservation devolving into a pathological desire to destroy one another, thereby provoking a battle for survival where it’s no longer the fittest that necessarily triumph, but the most ruthless. Salò‘s very foundations now crumble before our eyes – not due to the futility of the totalitarian ideal, but because its entire order is upended: absolute power doesn’t merely corrupt those who wield it, it defiles those that are subjugated by it too; the director contending that victims can become just as complicit in their victimisation as their oppressors. Faced with the banality of evil and the silence of humanity, Pasolini sees only one answer: a wave of annihilation – which, in this setting, is an act of love if ever there was one.

Salò‘s allegorical indictments threaten to read like failures; the insane ramblings of a misguided, troubled radical. Indeed, the director’s dejection becomes much easier to dismiss when one considers that his action takes place in a theatre of cruelty that’s like no other in cinema. If innocents and tyrants subsequently become indistinguishable, it’s because he coerces them into illogical scenarios from which it’s impossible to draw reasonable conclusions. Except therein lies the problem. Salò‘s extremities aren’t as extreme as decades of censorship would imply, and the horrors that occur within its confines are all too plausible for the contemporary viewer. For all his Brechtian distancing manoeuvres (his formalism, his abrasions, his vulgarity), Pasolini can’t quite suppress the devastating reality that lurks beneath the veil of his entropic vision. And he knows it. Painfully aware of his art’s woeful inability to incite a revolutionary overhaul of Italian society c. 1975, he retreats into a nihilistic wilderness and defecates on each and every one of his fellow citizens. In the film’s most confrontational gesture, he reverses a pair of binoculars to implicate his unwitting audience in the slaughters on-screen; challenging us to question the integrity behind our voyeurism, imploring us to look directly into the eyes of the inhumane. And yet, in spite of all the violence that occurs before our eyes, the utmost act of savagery is saved for the very last scene – a scene that yields nothing in the way of bloodshed and terror but instead offers a revelation which, really, we knew all along. That is to say: Salò has stamina; Salò has stealth; Salò is a survivor. Salò lives!

And long may it continue to do so.

Photobucket Photobucket Photobucket

We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full.

– Marcel Proust

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment