Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Good Comedy Should Be About Serious Things: Two Films by Jiří Menzel

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2008)

Near the beginning of Jiří Menzel’s 1965 film Closely Observed Trains – his Oscar-wining feature debut that he made at the age of 28 – there is a lovely offhand moment. The station porter, Mr. Novak, goes to pull a cart along the platform but the handle comes off in his hands, and in a scene of pure slapstick, he falls backwards on the ground while the two station guards look on. At that moment the station clock chimes. ‘That clock has such a beautiful sound,’ he says, smiling on the ground. No histrionics, no complaining, just an acceptance of things and the finding of beauty in a situation. It also serves the purpose of calling attention to the importance of the clock and timing in the station, as the hour approaches for young Milos’s appointment with fate in the form of a Nazi munitions train. In that one small moment, themes of beauty, laughter, survival and liberation, are subtly connected and evoked.

As with I Served the King of England, Menzel adapted Closely Observed Trains from a book by the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal. The scene I have mentioned was Menzel’s own however and calls to mind Hrabal’s words, quoted by Peter Hames in his essay on the film in the Wallflower Press book, The Cinema of Central Europe: ‘we keep complementing each other, like two mirrors flashing at each other with the reflections of our poetic vision.’

I Served the King of England was Menzel’s sixth adaptation from Hrabal, and I’d like to look at how he adapted it for the screen, and some of the inclusions and omissions he made in order to maintain a certain tone, but also how the context of the story itself has changed over time.

Given the Czech Republic’s physical situation and history, it’s not surprising that the figure of a person caught up in circumstances beyond their making but trying to make the best of a given situation while others play out their grand plans, is a familiar one in Czech film. The protagonist of I Served the King of England, the diminutive Ditie, a barman, and then waiter in ever-grander establishments in 1930s and 40s Prague, is one such figure. It’s worth calling to mind that Menzel has said that the character of Ditie is related to that of Milos – the central character in Closely Observed Trains, but whereas Milos was a sexually naïve figure whose preoccupation with losing his virginity was tied up with an anti-heroic sacrifice for his country, Ditie is fired by his boundless enthusiasm for money and sex, the latter of which, courtesy of an affair with a German woman the same height as himself, leads to him becoming a ‘tolerated Aryan-Boehmian’, having his sperm checked for suitability to populate a future German race, and practising his art of waiting on naked blonde women in a ‘selective human breeding station’ in the hills. As Menzel says, ‘It's the same hero, but after 40 years, you know better who the man is. What is at first view innocent, later you see is more complicated. But he is just like the rest of us. Nobody is perfect.’

The film opens with Ditie being let out of prison, where he has been put by the communists for being a millionaire. Ditie’s first words set the tone of his undimmed, if now world-weary optimism: ‘I was sentenced to 15 years, but because of the amnesty only served 14 years and 9 months’. In a moment of pure slapstick that reminds us of Menzel’s love of silent comedy, he then finds his bagged trapped in the prison door.

As with the scene of Novak the porter, this is entirely Menzel’s work. In the book, Ditie gets just two years in prison (courtesy of his having two million crowns in the bank); here it’s fifteen years by the same rule, which is partly down to sounding more impressive, but crucially, makes for a better punchline. It’s also worth noting that the English translation of the words that appear on screen at the opening are ‘It was always my luck to run into bad luck’. In the novel the line is translated is ‘I was always lucky in my bad luck’. I like to think of them together, as two sides of the same coin.

Bringing Hrabal’s novel to the screen was a long-cherished project for Menzel, and time and familiarity with the material have given the film, filled with lovingly recreated period detail of 1930s Prague, a rosy glow of nostalgia in which wistful remembrance frames farce and troubling recollections. This is interesting as it shows a mutation on the part of the original material. Hrabal’s novel was originally published in illegal samizdat form in Czechoslovakia in 1971. Now, a novel about the ineffable wonder of sex and money, circulated clandestinely while communist ‘normalization’ was abroad in the land, obviously had a different, and far more subversive resonance then than it does today, with us as consumers of the work as a neutral product in the form of a book bought online or a big-budget film distributed internationally on DVD.

The film of course does go into darker areas not normally asociated with comedy – witness Ditie running after a cattle truck of Jewish prisoners with a sandwich to slightly doleful silent film chase scene music – but Menzel’s words: ‘Good comedy should be about serious things. If you start to talk about serious things too seriously, you end up being ridiculous,’ should be remembered here.

Hrabal’s book is both more grisly and more graphically sexual than the film could be. in the novel, Dite‘s love of deorating women's bodies with flowers meets its match in the German woman Lise, who, after they have made love, tears apart spruce branches ‘the way hunters do when they‘ve killed an animal,’ and decorates Ditie’s own body, then taking him so roughly that he is almost afraid of her, as the spruce sprigs tear her mouth until she bleeds. This scene is missing from the film, though Dite’s fear is communicated in a another way entirely, and one unique to the screen, as Lise’s face momentarily morphs into that of Adolf Hitler as they are trying to conceive a child under his portrait.

Another section from the book that doesn’t make it into the film is of Ditie talking about his grandmother, who lived by a mill, and fished out salesmen’s underwear, to wash and sell on. It reads: ‘I can still see Grandma waiting at night by the open window, which wasn’t easy in the autumn and winter, and I can still see that rejected shirt caught in an updraft, hovering for a moment outside our window and spreading its arms. Grandma deftly pulled it in, because in another second the shirt would fall akimbo, like a white bird shot out of the sky, down into the black gurgling waters, to reappear like a tortured thing on the rack of the mill wheel, without a human body inside it, rising in a wet arc and then coming back down the other side, and slip off the wheel and fall into the rushing black waters, to be wept down the millrace under the black blades and far away from the mill.’

It’s a powerful piece of writing, filled with understated threat, which, notwithstanding its tangential relationship to the material selected for the film, was left out I suspect because its contemporary relevance of people mysteriously disappearing has gone.

Menzel has said on adapting works for the screen: ‘An adaptation is always a challenge for a filmmaker. When you write an original screenplay, you create it directly in pictures. In a book, you must turn the words into an image. The challenge is looking for expression in film. For example, how to describe what is going on in the mind of the characters. Sometimes situations in a book are only illustrated, which is often a shame.’

I find a little of such illustrations in I Served the King of England, whereas in Closely Observed Trains, you have to look no further than the opening scenes in which Miloš takes us through his family history, accompanied by illustrations and photographs sharply edited together, to see how adeptly a novel’s material can be given new life on screen. Here, Menzel’s approach has sprightly jocularity that never undermines the reverence for the original, and preserves just that tone of joking about a serious subject. In I Served the King of England, the nostalgia that comes through a man reflecting on his own life, has added a new, less satisfactory element into the mix. At its least successful this approach ends up in, well, the ending, where an aged Ditie, living in an abandoned bar near the German border, raises a glass of beer to the camera. It looks like nothing so much as an advertisement for Stella Artois (though I guess Pilsener would be more appropriate for the beer). If I’m feeling generous though, and bearing in mind that it has taken over two decades for his adaptation to get to the screen, I can read this as an ironic comment on the apparent new golden age of possibility that Menzel finds himself in with regard to filmmaking. Generosity is a good place to end when talking about Menzel I think. As well as his wry, compassionate humanism, irreverence and mischief, and subtly ambiguous characters, unresolvable except to contrary human nature, there is a simplicity about his purpose that is immensely appealing. He says, ‘I can’t stand artistic declarations, the need for a work to say something. In the theatre and on film, I want people to laugh and at the same time to discreetly see themselves as they are. In a way that isn’t too painful.’

Son of Man (Mark Dornford-May, 2006) & La Vie de Jésus (Bruno Dumont, 1997)

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2008)

Here I’m going to look at two films that take as their starting point the life of Jesus. One, Mark Dornford-May’s Son of Man, is directly based on his life story while the other, Bruno Dumont’s La Vie de Jésus, is a reflection on the latent qualities of divinity in man. First, Son of Man.

Son of Man comes from the same production team that brought us U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, which transposed Bizet’s opera to a Cape Town township. Here, it is the life of Jesus that is transposed to a contemporary, reimagined southern Africa. Filmed in the eastern Cape and the township of Khayelitsha the film mixes the physical – the details and textures of everyday life such as Mary’s cheap print dress, a tin shack that is a birthplace, a command to register male children shouted through a megaphone from the back of a Land Cruiser, with the metaphysical – this is a place where the devil with his twisted goat’s foot cane, and angels, quite literally range abroad in the land.

The film opens with Jesus and the Devil in the wilderness. “Get thee behind me, Satan” says Jesus, pushing his tormentor down a sand dune, “this is my world.” “No, this is my world,” Satan replies, and immediately we cut to the crunch of glass, fighting in the streets and the thud and ricochet of gunfire. A news channel reports: “Chaotic scenes in Judea this morning as forces of the democratic coalition invaded settlements. Control of the country has been split between Herod’s militia and the insurgents for several years. The coalition says its aim is to bring peace to the troubled region”.

And then we are in a school compound. Mary is hiding from a rampaging child army in yellow t-shirts. To escape she must lie down with slaughtered schoolchildren. It is then she is told she will bear the son of God.

After an angel’s warning, Joseph and Mary leave the compound with their child. The group they travel with a meet a roadblock on the way and hide in the trees when they see the leaders of the group being herded to the sides of the road. Male children are covered with blankets and beaten to death. Mary removes her hands from her son’s eyes. ‘Come’ says the child angel Gabriel to him afterwards. ‘This is my world’ responds Jesus, and turns to follow his parents.

By setting the story in southern Africa, the film reclaims Christ as a universal figure of hope and resistance, deliberately moving him away from the limited form into which he has mutated in the popular iconography of the western imagination. In his teachings here, Jesus’s words are updated to contemporary relevance. Although ‘unrest is due to poverty, overcrowding and lack of education’ are words that any politician might agree with, his central speech may have them twitching their feet. He says, ‘When those with imperial histories pretend to forget them, and blame Africa’s problems on tribalism and corruption, while building themselves new economic empires, I say we have been lied to. Evil did not fall. When I hear someone was beaten and tortured in the middle East, I say we have been lied to. Evil did not fall. When I hear that in Asia, child labour has been legislated for, I say we have been lied to. Evil did not fall. When politicians in Europe and the USA defend trade subsidies and help to restrict the use of medicine through patents, I say we have been lied to. Evil did not fall. When we are told, and you will be, that people just ‘disappear’, you must say we have been lied to, and evil will fall.’

Pertinently, there is also evil here in the name of democracy, which has become a flag of convenience for craven abuse of power. After Herod has died, the ‘Governor for the Democratic Coalition’ stands up to talk to the TV cameras about the threat to the country’s stability. ‘We have watched the situation once again deteriorate. We have tried to reason. We have tried threats to no avail, so reluctantly I have no alternative but to impose martial law ... In order to protect democracy in the world, we sometimes have to make difficult decisions. To restore order we must be strong. To establish peace, we must use force.’ We have heard this before.

Against this, Jesus and his followers discuss in crowded shacks how to fight poverty, epidemics and thuggery with non-violent means; how to do this without letting hatred destroy their future, while believing in the inherent goodness of men. Hearsay of his teachings spreads throughout the township. After Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, and cures the epileptic child, his deeds are painted as brightly-coloured murals on walls throughout the town.

As with the murals, the film excels in moments that are almost offhand, such as when the devil is a grasshopper on a grass stalk by the roadside, or when Jesus washes the mud from his face after his initiation ceremony, and as he does so leaves a faint trace in the towel with which he wipes himself, or when Mary is shown briefly with the outline of an electric fan for a halo after she has given birth, or when we see that soldiers’ temporary beneficence at a roadblock, allowing the three Magi to pass, is due to a child angel watching from their Land Cruiser. The Magi continue on their journey from the mountains of Lesotho to see the infant Jesus, who is shown wearing a yellow paper crown from a cracker.

The use of traditional south African songs lends great power to scenes. The exultation at Jesus’s birth is thrilling, while his followers confrontation with the soldiers at the end, with Jesus on the cross behind them, is powerful indeed.

This is stirring, highly relevant filmmaking that has the capacity to inspire resistance to forces of injustice. It ends with a quote from Genesis. And God said let us make man in our own image after our likeness. And so we make the world in our own image too: with townships and razor wire, traumatised children bearing guns, the suppression of people’s voices, oppression in the name of peace and democracy. Every child born has the potential to become one who creates life or one who destroys it.

Geographically, socially, stylistically and in its treatment of the nominal subject it’s hard to imagine a film further away from Son of Man than the next film I want to look at, which is Bruno Dumont’s La Vie de Jésus, set in and around the commune of Bailleul in Flanders.

Dumont took as one of his source texts Ernest Renan’s 1863 work, Life of Jesus. In that, Renan talks of “the manifestations of God hidden in the depths of the human conscience”, and that is Dumont’s subject here. As he says, “evil is a part of life. It is necessary to confront it. Perhaps in that confrontation man can raise himself.”

In this regard, the film’s main subject is Freddy. His mother runs one of those bars that is oppressive in both its emptiness or its fullness – it has no states in between, no hum of conversation. It’s fed instead by the tv, talking all the time in spite of its poor reception. What else should we know about Freddy? He rides around on his bike with his friends, takes solace from his sexual relationship with Marie, he teaches his caged chaffinch to sing, he plays a drum, as do his friends, in a marching band, he has epileptic seizures.

There is little of direct biblical reference. Indeed the couple of times that we are presented with such scenes, as in the hospital early on where Michou’s brother is dying of AIDS and we see a reproduction of Giotto’s painting of ‘The Resurrection of Lazarus’ on the wall, they serve to point up the difference between the film’s approach and any expectations of a miracle. There is no miracle this time round. Freddy aproaches the bed but leaves with the gang. Michou’s brother dies. There is no resurrection.

The film has its genesis in the land. It is set mainly in a rural landscape of scattered hamlets, furrowed fields and rich pastures, haze and low horizons, muddy roads and farmyards where boys customise cars. The film’s palette is predominantly green grass and dark earth. The boundaries between the town and the surrounding countryside are not fixed. Fittingly, the film takes place through four seasons, from autumn to the following summer.

The young people who populate the film are in the main, disaffected, practised at coping with boredom. Neither are they articulate, “It’s not easy to talk about death and all that” says Michou, but no matter how halting the attempts at intimacy between the boys, there is a companionship present that too many words sometimes obscures. I think of it as a companion piece to another film that deals with the question of spiritual salvation among outcasts, the damaged and the scarred, Artur Aristakisyan's Palms. The country is different but the tone is similar. Both films are, quite deliberately, also an affront to conventional viewing habits and perceptions that assume that articulacy is a precondition for salvation.

“The film is not important” says Dumont. “What is important is the person who watches it. He continues to live … it’s not for me to say anything, it is for people to do something.” And at the end, just as Dumont wanted, the onus is on us, the viewers. After venting his rage in a stupid, murderous act, Freddy lies in the grass, staring up at the sky after he has banged his fit into the earth, and he cries. Who are we to sit in judgement on him? By what right? His rehabilitation, if that is what it shall be, will require setting his newly-found inner promptings to work within the limitations of his environment. His predicament makes me think of another young man from a recent film, from Haneke’s Code Unknown. There, Jean, a young man living on a farm with his father in northern France and longing for escape, is the person who sets in train the motion of the film by throwing a food wrapper into a beggar’s lap. Just less than half way through the film, he disappears, leaving a short note for his father which says, “Dear Papa, I’m leaving. Please do not try to find me.” He goes out of the film and into our world, and we have no way of telling where he will turn up and what his motivations will be, whether he will be a victim, a prophet, or a seed of illness. We just know that, in the same way that the Arab men who appeared in one brief scene on the metro in Code Unknown returned to play out their story in Hidden, he will return. Like Freddy, he is one of the people who, as Dumont says, “must invent a new world, but for the time being they’re bored as hell”.

I return to the thought that accompanied me at the end of Son of Man: every child born has the potential to become one who creates life or one who destroys it.

Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004)

(written in 2008; the poem appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Vertigo magazine - Volume 4, Number 2)

I am the street lamps and market stalls
whose bursting rings of light devoured you
the slashed red seats were the work of my claws
I am the night that surrounds you

My prey, my hunter, sleep for me
that I may stalk the paths of your dreams
and renew your ancient fears

I feel your every tread
every stroke of the saplings
that bend to your path

for I am the forest earth and I am the vine
and I am the leech that suckles your skin
I am the branch that sways from your light
and I am the trunk that accepts your weight

The tiger swallows the night with his roar
I am the roar and I am its silence
I am the twig crack, the twitch in your eye
the blood on a leaf, the husk
I am the monkey’s trill

All of this is mine to share
but, my lover, my soldier
you must let yourself be broken
fractured into a thousand leaves of moonlight
and this moonlight will be shattered
and sluiced by storm rain
into my decaying, fertile earth
and there be made anew
through the tree roots that will absorb you
and lift you to their highest leaves
to be bustled into song
at the start of each new day

My hunter, my companion, my firefly
I am the tree aflame in the night
join me, feed me, sleep for me

This is Who We Are: Our Daily Bread (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, 2005) and Manufactured Landscapes (Edward Burtynsky, 2006)

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2008; a version of the review of Our Daily Bread also appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Vertigo magazine - Volume 4, Number 2)

Here I look at two documentaries that consider the mechanisms and processes that make the habits of western life possible: Our Daily Bread (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, 2005), and Manufactured Landscapes (Edward Burtynsky, 2006).

Our Daily Bread is a film about industrial food processing in Europe, taking in greenhouses, fisheries, salt mines, abbatoirs, cattle sheds, olive groves, salad bowls and sunflower fields, among other locations. There is no voiceover, there are no interviews, and there is no obvious angle that the filmmakers are taking. It has been described variously as ‘too gruesome for words’, ‘eccentrically lovely and frequently horrifying’, ‘the 2001: A Space Odyssey of modern food production’, and, in Der Standard, “Geyrhalter, as director and cameraman, can also be compared with suspense master Hitchcock in this respect; a pure cineaste and motion scientist’ – comments which may leave you intrigued but not much the wiser about the film. In a way, they highlight one of the film’s crucial aspects; it appears to be studiously neutral in stance about its subject. It describes itself as ‘a widescreen tableau of a feast which isn’t always easy to digest – and in which we all take part,’ which is about right.

As Wolfgang Wederhofer – credited with editing and dramatic structure – says, he edited deliberately so it would create an open space onto which many thoughts can be projected. ‘It would be wrong to say that Our Daily Bread is just about the horror and spectacle of industrial food production. I think it’s also a positive film about human existence: We like to invent and build machines that we can look at in wonder.’

I suppose it is a platitude to say that one’s reaction to any film depends on the background and predilections of the viewer, but this is especially true here. As it doesn’t push you in any particular direction about its subject, viewers’ reactions are likely to be wholly reliant entirely on their own tastes, experiences, diet and thoughts about food supply in the 21st century.

Before seeing the film, you could think that the subject matter might be repugnant, and for some people, some of the scenes will be, yet I think such repugnance probably comes from the scale of operations as much as anything else, whether these be in an abbatoir or for salad production. Indeed, the sight of mechanical olive harvesting, or vast expanses of plastic covering the land, as if the artists Christo & Jeanne-Claude had been given permission to cover large tracts of the Netherlands, is as striking as anything here. There is also much here that is bewildering, fascinating and occasionally surreal or comic. For example, the scene of a red potato harvester moving horizontally across the screen in a field with the blades of wind turbines turning in the background, the only sound the busy rumble and clatter of the machine looks like it could be part of the aesthetic of a Kaurismäki comedy in another life, as does the tractor sprayer extending itself in a field of maize. At other times, we are so thoroughly dislocated we don’t know what to think, as with the two men chatting away during their 90 seconds of rapid descent in a lift shaft. To do what?

It was made between October 2003 and October 2005 in Europe ‘with the friendly support’ of the companies involved. This seems right. In many cases scenes look like promotional films advertising the cleanliness and smooth operations of the various food processing companies involved, even if they do reveal strangely unfamiliar worlds to most of us watching. As director Nicolas Geyrhalter says, ‘I’m fascinated by zones and areas people normally don’t see … the production of food is also part of a closed system that people have extremely vague ideas about. The images used in ads, where butter’s churned and a little farm’s shown with a variety of animals, have nothing to do with the place our food actually comes from. There’s a kind of alienation with regard to the creation of our food and these kinds of labour, and breaking through it is necessary.’

I’ve already mentioned that there is no narration in the film. Instead the soundtrack is filled with the hum and whirr, clank and spray, thump and rattle, wash and tick of machinery and processing units, from hatcheries that look like the spotless corridors of precious archives or isolation wards to conveyor belts of chirping yellow chicks to production lines readying countless chickens for human consumption. Now and again there are hints of where we are – a labelled box here, snatches of conversation there, but this is not important. Nor is it concerned particularly with the people who make up the gangs of workers or where they come from. in this regard it is studiously apolitical. The processes are the thing. The processes that pick and pack, or kill, wash, gut, clean and cut up in the most efficient manner possible.

One of the most unforgettable scenes involves a shed full of chickens. Anyone who has caught, killed, scalded and plucked just one chicken will know that to replicate it on any large scale, in a calm and efficient manner, requires another method entirely. When you have a barn full of countless thousands to be loaded into trays to be loaded onto lorries, how do you deal with them? I won’t spoil the surprising solution to this question. logical it may be, but it’s completely unexpected.

There’s something compelling about this film, which I would urge people to watch. As the director says, ‘viewers should just plunge into this world and form their own opinions’.

If Our Daily Bread is about the food systems and processes that support predominantly western eating habits, Manufactured Landscapes is about manufacturing, industry, transportation, and the consumer goods that make the habits of western life possible.

In fact, the film has dual subjects. It is nominally a portrait of the photographer Edward Burtynsky (and shares its title with his book of the same name), but it is also a film about the subjects of his photographs – ‘the new landscapes of our time’ – places where industrial activities scar and poison the earth, places where the raw materials from these sites are assembled into consumer goods of every description, and the places where the concomitant human detritus is dumped and sometimes sorted for re-use.

Burtynsky visits places that have been disrupted and disfigured in pursuit of progress, and pictures the industrial and post-industrial landscape as a way of investigating who we are today. As he says, he deliberately goes out to find ‘the largest industrial incursions’ he can find, places that ‘show the evidence of accumulated taking’.

He photographs the warehouses and distribution centres, the docks and shipping container yards. We see ships being built, looking like flayed whales, or chameleon-eyed metal monsters, and ships being broken in Bangladesh, which is just one of the dumping grounds that feature in the film. Much of Baichwal’s film is made in China – the place that receives many of the raw goods and products extracted from the places Burtynsky photographs. Here they combine and are then shipped out in manufactured form, only to return some time later as waste and scrap. We see whole towns dedicated to recycling e-waste by hand, from breaking chipboards by hand with a small hammer to smashing computer screens, regardless of the poisonous metals released that seep deep into the earth and poison the water table.

Burtynsky’s photographs of mounds of such waste are not without a certain desperate irony of beauty – shots of chipboards from above look like an overhead map of an urban sprawl or even a bucolic scene of autumn leaves, computer wires and cabling resembles a tangle of fishing nets. Other indefinable parts have taken on the colour and allure of fool’s gold.

Burtynsky is of course aware of the irony of what he does. Says he, ‘I arrive in a car made out of iron, filled with gas, I put up a metal tripod and grab film that’s loaded with silver and start taking pictures, so everything I’m doing is connected to the thing I’m photographing.’

We see a little of the mind-numbing work of manufacture a little way into the film – a woman checking nozzles for sprays for example. Later, in a brief interview, we listen to a young woman named Tan Yanfang talking about her work in a circuit breaker factory. It’s put into the film for the tension between her own thoughts and the factory notes of marketing platitudes in her pocket that she relies on after she dries up. However, there is a more interesting story here that is left unexplored. She has worked in the factory for six years, and can construct 400 circuit breakers a day. This means she has made nearly a quarter of a million circuit breakers. Her work has has gone all over the globe and undoubtedly saved lives. It’s a small human-sized moment in a film on the scale of vast manufacturing. A moment that makes a connection between one woman in China and an electrical safety appliance that may very well be in your house. It gives a face to things we take for granted. More could have been made of this but it would probably take a whole other film to do this theme full justice.

From its opening 7-minute tracking shot along near-identical workbenches in ‘The Factory of the World’ somewhere in China, this is a film that overwhelms with its scale. It doesn’t preach though. Instead, it shows the world of manufacture, transportation and waste, says ‘this is who we are’, and leaves us to think – hard – about the state of current human life. As Burtynsky says, ‘many people today sit in that uncomfortable spot where we don’t necessarily want to give up what we have, but we realise what we’re doing is creating problems that run deep. It’s not a simple right or wrong – it requires a whole new way of thinking.’

Gnawing Things About the House: Rat-Trap (Adoor Gopalakrishnan, 1981)

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2008)

‘Watch a rat being trapped,’ Sridevi tells her older sister in a line that serves for the film as a whole. Her brother Unni has apparently been bitten by a rat, though as there is no mark on him, we infer the rodents are in his dreams as well as scuttling around the house. The following morning, Sridevi fetches the large wooden trap down from the attic, removes the cobwebs, greases it and primes it with a tasty bite of coconut.

Rat-Trap takes place wholly in and surrounding a landlord's house in Kerala. The house belongs to another age, as does the ‘young master’ Unni, the lazy, taciturn brother and sole surviving heir of a decaying feudal family surviving on the increasingly meagre resources of its estate produce. His older sister Rajamma waits on him hand and foot, supplying him with food and hot water; Sridevi, the younger, is studying at school and is drawn only reluctantly into his service. Barring occasional incursions into the courtyard with produce from the estate, the house is isolated. Within the house too, siblings have little meaningful contact with each other, leaving each in their own world – of ennui, of servitude, of study. Dialogue is spare and details accrue through the character’s carefully rendered surroundings and personal effects. Matching her role as the servant of the house, Rajamma is often shown framed and partially obscured by doorways, dependent on others for her position; she is rooted there and her removal will require force. Sridevi however has claimed a passageway to and from the compound through her visits to school. Rajamma’s blue clothing of submissiveness is conrasted with Sridevi’s red of ambition.

Unni’s movements in the film are ever inwards. He is sunk in introspection, entirely self-absorbed. As the days go by, he withdraws completely from meaningful relations with others. As his world contracts from village (in one of the very first scenes we see him dressed to go to a wedding, only for him to hesitate at a large puddle that spans the road, then turn back), to estate, to chair on the veranda, to inside the house, to his bed, his listlessness sours to psychosis and he becomes an unshaven, sweating, red-eyed, frightened wreckage of a man.

The film’s situation brings to mind Ibsen’s play Little Eyolf (‘Are your worships troubled with any gnawing things about the house?’ says the visiting Rat-Wife in that play, giving tangible form to the household’s unspoken darkness.) In Rat-Trap the house is certainly troubled with gnawing things. After rats shred Unni’s carefully-ironed shirt, Rajamma suggests using poison on them all but realises that then the dead rodents would lie stinking in the walls or under the floorboards. Throughout the film characters are shown with scent or talcum powder, as if trying to cover up just such a rotten smell in the house. It is as if the rats have already been poisoned, but the stench, coming instead from familial decay, is pervasive and lingers. Likewise, when characters disappear from the film their space is retained. The screen is haunted by their absence.

The haunting musical theme is an aural equivalent to this smell of decomposition. Consisting of five descending bowed notes against a discomfiting drone, it was deliberately designed to be un-hummable and incomplete, suggesting disintegration and falling. Punctuated by sound effects – the creaking of the attic trapdoor and the rat cage door, the clanking of the lid of an iron, the discordant, jarring strikes of sound that accompany Sridevi’s trips to the pond with the contents of the trap – adds to the sense of menace and unease in the film that we get from the uncertain, ill-defined relationships between people. At the centre of it all is Unni, bloated from keeping everything for himself.

Unease also comes from the way in which, right from the film’s opening credits, details of objects and textures of the house – keys, a clock, a chipped storage jar, a split wooden roof boss – are delineated with a near-hallucinatory clarity that gives us the impression our minds have already been disoriented by Kerala’s punishing heat.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Dreams of Distance: Shame (Ingmar Bergman, 1968)

(Published in the Summer 2008 issue of Vertigo magazine - Volume 3, Number 9. Walking on the hill behind the house one night I saw beams, headlights presumably, raking the air from below the horizon of a distant hill. Their cause remained unseen; it could have been nighttime harvesting or a gamekeeper out lamping, but their quantity and duration made exercises on an army range seem more likely, with the silence that attended so much visible light disturbance  strange. Suddenly, our home in the hills could be imagined as encircled and a little more fragile than hitherto, and Bergman’s Shame, which I had seen not long beforehand, was understandable on a visceral level. The piece of writing that resulted from this – Horses – I turned into a chapbook, sections of which have been interpolated here between reflections on the film.)

Shame is not about the bombs; it is about the gradual infiltration of fear.’ Ingmar Bergman

Jan, after we have already been pierced and grated by sounds of squeaks and interference on the radio, by hectoring announcements, by loudspeaker commands, by machine-gun fire and a martial drum, you begin with a dream in which you talk of you and Eva playing once more in your orchestra. You say that all you have at that moment in your lives is already behind you, and that you remember your life of contentment as a nightmare. Here is a dream for you, from another time entirely.

The firestorms spread inland from the coast. Birds blackened the sky and starlings congregated on the wires. This tired me and I sat on the bench, my arm taking the weight of my head as I waited to be consumed. When I felt the fire at my back however, I rose and moved off with the throng, knowing that I would survive.

Jan, like you I once thought that distance from conflict could be measured in kilometres, but this is something I no longer believe. Refuge is always temporary, and always conditional. Perhaps you already know that this space you have put between yourselves and the events of an unnamed war will be eradicated, at first by nothing more than sounds made fractious and unfamiliar. Your alarm clock is as insistent as a school bell, and the upward tear of your bedroom blinds and the laying out of crockery on the breakfast table are no longer sounds of homely innocence. As Eva washes herself, the second hand on your alarm clock is ticking, ticking. A wisdom tooth is starting to penetrate your gum.

These are uncertain times in this valley where we have settled. People are working conscientiously, making up for lost time. We do not want to be called to account with our work unbegun. A few tried drinking in defiance of the moment but the beer was sour and the enjoyment forced. Most have returned to their worksheds and applied themselves to old jobs: freeing seized machinery, making new handles for tools, joining wood. News comes from outside but we pay little attention. The same names are repeated, now good now bad. What have they to do with us? Our villagers have become industrious, even puritan. Our nights are heavy with sleep.

Other sounds will soon cross the distance to where you are, involving you, drawing you in. You will hear church bells on that ordinary Friday at five past six in the morning as you load lingonberries into your van; Eva will answer the ringing telephone and no one wil be at the other end; a convoy of military trucks will tow rocket launchers past your yard.

When you reach the town, with its temporary signposts and military police, you will see people carrying suitcases, heading away, they hope, to safety, and your open boxes of berries will suddenly seem just one small trip away from spillage. The stream of military vehicles rumbling through the cobbled streets will make you feel like vulnerable strangers in your own land, as later, will the raising of a door latch in a house no longer your own.  You will be dealt intimations of fragility, objects of a life so easily smashed; an 18th century Meissen music box, good wine in a bottle, a violin that has been played and cherished through one and a half centuries. Fredrik, your acquaintance who lives among his antiques, will reveal unexpected intimacies of his life to you and Eva, so that you can be witnesses that there was another time, a time when he was not discomfited by an ill-fitting uniform. Your drink together in contemplation of this place of polished, preserved stillness, as a pendulum clock measures out the time behind you, will already seem like a memory.

Two days now of violent winds. The trees sound like the sea, a booming roar through the sycamores, a dragging shingle through the firs. The winds have the rhythm of waves. A cuffing of leaves gives way to a restless worrying till the wind tears through, whipping and gusting the branches. There was a wicked storm this morning, the sky a thin and sickly yellow blushed with pink. It darkened and a westerly flung sheets of hail through the valley, arteries of lightning across the sky. It cleared but has left us on edge.

The screaming, burning rip of jets through the sky will terrify you. You will try to leave at dusk in a hastily packed van, the wind jostling the pines and spats of rain flinging against your faces. And you will be stopped, and lamps will be shone into your eyes, and you will be asked whose side you think you are on, and your confusion will be filmed, and somehow you will be spared. Did you think you would sleep after this? The bombardment that wakes you will have the sound of whip cracks and ricochets, smashing glass, dropping chains, flares, piledrivers. The attack will end with a low, lingering rumble; the thunder that signals the end of the storm. Then you will be able to hear the elements – the dripping of water, the draw of air through flame – against a backing of silence once more.

Weaver returned from the market today with stories of war. She told of a foreign city being ‘macerated’, the word apt. None of us knew how to react, though I suppose that some campaign is being fought in our name. We drifted away. We have turned our backs on anything irrelevant to our present situation – the situation that we can see in front of us and that requires hoeing, planting, cutting, making or mending. That is enough for us and that is all.

You wil feel Eva, that you are in someone else’s dream. ‘What happens when the one who dreamed this wakes up and feels ashamed?’, you will ask, after you and Jan have been herded into a primary school with other citizens suspected of collaboration. There will be no time for an answer before your names are called and you are taken for interrogation in a room with children’s drawings on the walls and their scrawls on the chair backs.

At night, the sky to the west is lit by the headlights of vehicles moving behind the hill. Through the darkness they continue with their work, eerily soundless from this distance, shifting earth, or equipment, or people. By day there are no such signs of their presence and we can once more pretend that the familiar, reassuring boundaries of these hills are our own to command.

Eva, when you are at sea, parched and abandoned in your small boat, you will no longer be able to tell what it was that you had to remember that was so important, as you watch the terrible beauty of a high wall of burning roses reflected in the water, with the daughter you believe you will never have cradled in your arms.

I was standing on a rock, watching the waves rolling in to break around and under me, the water thumping and booming in the hollows beneath my feet. I was woken at dawn by the ravens that circle the house, gulping and croaking. The low clouds were the colour of liver and snuff.

There were people in the yard.

I, Pierre Rivière, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister and My Brother... (René Allio, 1976)

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2008)

This week, I want to look at a remarkable one-of-a-kind film made in France in 1976 and a concomitant documentary, filmed thirty years later.

The film has the startling title of I, Pierre Rivière, having slaughtered my mother, my sister and my brother... and if that sounds unwieldy, it is nonetheless necessary. I’m tempted to add to it to give further explanation. So, the extended version: I, Pierre Rivière, having slaughtered my mother, my sister and my brother,  a film based on the collective work concerning a first person account of a 19th century parricide, edited by Michel Foucault and published in 1973 and brought to life on film by the residents of the commune of Athis-de-l'Orne in Normandy, near to where the original event occurred 140 years previously. The film was directed by René Allio; one of his assistant directors was Nicolas Philibert, known for his wonderful 2002 documentary about the life of a rural primary school, Être et Avoir. In Philibert’s 2007 film Back to Normandy, he revisits the people and places in which I, Pierre Rivière was filmed. I’ll return to his film later.

The title of I, Pierre Rivière comes from the first words of the testimony by a young man of the same name who had committed the acts described in June, 1835, killing his mother and siblings with a sharpened billhook, acts for which he accepts culpability. His memoir, written in his prison cell before he is sentenced, outlines his reasons for his actions. This is the story that director René Allio has adapted for the screen. As he says, it was a representation of rural life that needed ‘to answer the requirements of documentary film and of dramatic fiction‘. Although the exact spot of the original events was unsuitable for filming, having been altered by land consolidation, roads and construction in the meantime, it was filmed nearby, and by using inhabitants of the very same region in which the events took place, Allio created a unique film that is also part ethnographic and historical study, his reasoning being that, as he said, ‘those known as farmers could help him restore the words, gestures and tasks that Pierre Rivière describes. When this works well, as with the grandmother’s account of the murder, the father’s aspect throughout or a villager’s testimony about Rivière, you can see exactly what he means and the effects he was aiming at, with a certain phlegmatic stiffness borne of long suffering and a knowledge bred in the bone of the land and toil characterising the film’s atmosphere. It also comes out in more practical ways too, such as ways of eating and serving food, wearing clothes (many donated locally) or the correct way to hold and use a pitchfork.

Pierre’s father Joseph had made a bad marriage to a spiteful, malevolent woman. An early scene of Joseph sucking pus from his sick wife’s breast is a striking symbol of their relationship. Pierre sees so much misery and cruelty in their relationship that he takes what seems to him to be the only option left, one that cuts through their impossible relationship. To free his father from a wife who has driven him to despair, he kills her. Because his sister sided with his mother, he killed her too, and because killing his brother also would make his father despise him, so much did he love his father, he killed his young brother too.

In seeking an explanations for his actions, numerous witnesses are called up – the doctor, prosecutor, priest, interrogator, maids, neighbours and farmers. Their psychologising about the accounts of his strange behaviour and callous actions towards birds and animals gets them no closer to the reasons for this enigmatic young man’s behaviour. He is dismissed as an idiot, described as ‘solitary, wild and cruel‘, or ‘an uncommon individual‘, ‘a man that asked of his father if it was possible to live in the woods on roots and herbs‘. It is left to Rivière to clarify his deeds, and in a surprising and lucid final section we see that he really is ‘an uncommon individual’, but in a way only previously hinted at. As well as torturing frogs and birds, nailing them to trees in aspects of crucifixion, he has a prodigious memory, especially for books of the Bible, and a thirst for knowledge. He attends markets and listens to people talking about their wares and their animals to learn from them. He invents machines (albeit for bird-killing) and gives them made up names – Caliben in the case of his bird crossbow – draws up plans for a butter churn or a self-propelled car and carries out curious semi-religious rituals. One of Allio’s strongest achievements in the film is that he makes Rivière’s pathology seem a logical, convincing course of action. Pierre for example talks of the importance to him of doing the deed in his Sunday suit.

Foucault said that he and his fellow researchers spent more than a year compiling and editing the Pierre Rivière documents. Why? As he says, partly because of ‘simply the beauty of Rivière‘s memoir. The utter astonishment it produced in us was the starting point.’ There is certainly a powerful simplicity in Rivière‘s words that carries the film along and gives it an unadorned, mythical directness. ‘My father was too discouraged to work. He would lay down to rest, and when he woke, he would take the wrong direction,‘ is just one very small example of the style.

Allio’s filming style also has a direct, unaffected, yet extremely effective, simplicity about it, beginning with the opening credits which are shown over a cleft tree in a divided field. We immediately see the aftermath of the murder. There are split logs, an overturned cooking pot and glimpses of red clothing, intimations all of the deed. Other nice underplayed touches in the editing are shown in something like a cut from Pierre‘s father pouring milk into a churn which goes to a inversely echoing shot of a circular skylight in the council chambers in Calvados. At other times the film resembles a series of tableaux vivants based around birth, death, sickness, earth and toil. Filmic associations come to mind: it shares something in its approach with Werner Herzog in general and his 1974 film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser in particular. (Also – and this is only partly serious – with its rural setting, plans hatched in shadowy attics, the persistent cawing of rooks, primitive religion, murder, a deluded child that meets with the devil in the woods, its melodramatic British counterpart might be the 1971 Tigon production Blood on Satan‘s Claw.)

Although Pierre Rivière initially says he was motivated by religious conviction, that he was ‘roused by God‘, and his acts were committed ‘to justify God's providence‘ and avenge his father‘s persecution by his mother, he does not continue with this line and admits that it was for the love of his father that he carried out his terrible deeds. His testimony gives a strong feeling of a man constrained by his times and setting. It is a feeling that spreads to other characters too – the father, even his mother, whose spite seems as much a product of frustration at the lack of opportunities for self-expression in such a world that gave them all such limited opportunities for the fruition of their needs and desires. This was part of Allio’s design. He said: ‘the project is a difficult one yet doesn’t paralyse me. But one cannot enter the memoir, accounts and text and get to know the characters without friendship and compassion for the prisoner of the peasant condition. For Pierre Rivière first, but also for the others. Their words take on the urgency of a nightmare and we are eager to listen to them.’ These words come from a letter that Allio wrote to Michel Foucault at the time of filming.

Thirty years on from his role as assistant director on the film, Nicolas Philibert went back to Normandy to seek out the original cast of the film to see what impact the film had had on their lives.  His journey we learn is also a personal one for him and has meaningful resonances with the theme of fatherly love in the original film. As is to be expected, it’s a compassionate portrait of a place and its inhabitants, who examine their shared experience of making the film. Familial stories from the present day chime with those of characters in I, Pierre Rivière, sometimes tragically, sometimes not, and while listening to people talk of their experiences in the film we can’t help but consider how much things have changed with regard to opportunities and whether the film could be made again today. Who would play the roles? Could they be played or is the visceral link with the region’s rural past so broken that the approach would no longer work? One of the questions left hanging throughout, after we have heard interviews with the people who played Pierre’s father and sisters, and other sundry villagers, is what happened to the strikingly enigmatic actor Claude Hébert, who played Pierre Rivière, and who was by all accounts a loner himself charged with religious conviction. He made ten more films, the last of them in 1982, and then his trail went cold. Philibert does, finally, make contact.

It is a result of the rightness of his casting that I can immediately call up his intense face from the 1973 film, addressing the camera with the first words of his unique manuscript. Allio said that he made the film for the lives ‘of those who cannot speak, who leave no trace and yet display skill, imagination, bravery, invention and love in order to simply exist, to go on existing or to change or simply endure.’ Here, he gives them voice.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

So Many Roads: Wim Wenders’ Alice in the Cities (1974)

(written in 2008 and previously unpublished, this is one of twelve texts that recently, under my ‘Colva Books’ guise, I put into a ‘cine-series’ of booklets on films which have touched me deeply in some way)

America has so many roads–
On every road, someone lost.

(1971, from Donald Justice’s 1973 collection, Departures)

At about the same time as Wim Wenders was making Alice in the Cities, the photographer Walker Evans, at the age of 70, was revitalized in his work by the purchase of a Polaroid SX-70 and the offer of free film from Kodak. In 14 months he took over 2,500 Polaroids: pictures of signs and deserted buildings, stations and empty store fronts – much the same subjects as those that interest Phil Winter – a disenchanted German writer ostensibly engaged in writing a piece on ‘the American scene’ –  in Wenders’ film. In its opening minutes, as we watch Winter taking Polaroids of the places he passes through (and the extent to which this device informs these early scenes meant that a few days after watching it I was convinced that the Polaroids were shown in colour and had to check to make sure that this wasn’t the case), the film itself looks like a series of subjects for Polaroids – a boardwalk, railings, street signs and intersections, a water tower, gas stations  and grocery stores – as if Wenders was himself engaged on a similar project to Evans, but with 16mm black and white film. The point is reinforced by scenes fading to black as they come and go, as if behind a slow-motion shutter. At one point Winter pulls up in his car to take a photograph (after driving past a wall crudely scrawled with ‘Save – Discount – Sportswear’ that itself looks like a subject passed by). He stops adjacent to a billboard (Ward Realty Co.), and Wenders presents us with a man taking a Polaroid of an unseen view next to a subject for a Polaroid that he is himself capturing on film.

Winter is no Walker Evans though. Whereas Geoff Dyer described Evans’ Polaroids, with their otherworldly colour saturation, as ‘the dream a room or road might have of itself,’ Winter complains that his Polaroids ‘never really show what it was you saw’, and later that ‘they never caught up with reality’. Maybe he should have taken the advice of Evans, who said that ‘nobody should touch a Polaroid until he’s over sixty’. It’s noticeable too that Winter’s urge for instant photography declines markedly as soon as he returns to his home soil in Europe.

As for dreams, they permeate the film, from Winter’s TV-influenced dream in the Skyway motel in North Carolina, in which Young Mister Lincoln’s playing on his Jew’s harp is transmuted to the squawking of gulls, to Alice’s bad dream that she relates in Amsterdam, about being tied to a chair in front of a television, unable either to loose her bonds or close her eyes. On the plane fom New York, the pair of them play hangman. Appropriately enough, the word that remains uncompleted is ‘Traum’.

An incessant pump of light arrows into the E of motel
Interference on the TV is a windscreen
speckled with the grain of travelling
as we take the straight road across grey water

Through Winter’s disenchantment, the film feeds on Wenders’ own attitude to America. In a piece he wrote a little later after living there for seven years, he reflects on ‘The American Dream’ – both his own and the country’s. He wrote, ‘Nowhere else is vision harnessed like this, to the service of seduction. Nowhere else, therefore, so many longings and needs, because nowhere else has vision become so addicted. Nowhere else, therefore, has vision been so eroded.’ His film is fed by a dismay that the country which produced John Ford is happy to reduce his films to the level of the commercials which interrupt a TV screening of the same with intolerable frequency.

This attitude is personified in the film by Rüdiger Vogler – Wim Wenders’ ‘altes-ego’ – who plays Phil Winter with a mix of sulky, frustrated displacement and distracted amiability. He is no longer in the moment in America and needs to get away so his thoughts can coalesce into something coherent.

Car lights stitch the dusk, closing up the city around me
Across the block from your apartment
a wall ad for Manhattan Storage:
Moving  Packing  Shipping

He goes to the airport to fly away. In a lovely emblematic moment, he is swung around the revolving doors by a young girl on entering the building. Then he discovers there is a strike in Germany and the nearest he can get is Amsterdam the following day. He meets the woman whose daughter it was that swung him round, who needs to take the same plane. The three of them wait out their time together. The mother has to finish a relationship; she leaves Alice in Winter’s care.

A rip of notepaper on the sideboard
and the warmth of scent on the pillow
in the next room, slats of morning sunlight
angle across the sleeping girl on the couch

She doesn’t show the next day at the time arranged, but leaves a note at the hotel instead: ‘Please take Alice with you or I’ll never get away’, it says. She will meet them in Amsterdam the day after next. And so begins the next stage of the story, with the relationship between the grudging Winter, who feels he has been set up with the girl’s care, and the wilful Alice, who takes on a role as a kind of guardian for him – not that he knows this – shielding him from complete aimlessness.

A room next to the Schwebebahn
In the space that follows the squeals of a train
I talk a child into her dreams
through a forest, across a bridge, as far as the sea

As well as taking the lead in their relationship – offering to show Winter round the city of Amsterdam while they wait for her mother, translating for him at the hairdresser’s, needling him about his incessant scribbling to little apparent end, taking a Polaroid of him so at least he’ll know what he looks like – Alice also keeps the story rolling through timely hints and gifts as to where they need to go to search out her grandmother. When they arrive in Wuppertal to look for her house, they journey on the suspended monorail, and for a short moment as it takes off from a station, it is as if they, and we, have escaped gravity for a while on their return to Europe. It is, temporarily, an exhilarating moment of liberation.

At breakfast you find the Skyway’s errant motel key
its edge notched into a city skyline
Drop In Any Mail Box it says
We Guarantee Postage

In an Eis-Café, Alice finally confesses that her grandmother never lived in Wuppertal; she does so with a look of pity for a little boy as lost as she is, before it shades into regret for her deceit.

Café window sunshine is warm on the cheek
glints on the coffee spoon warm in the mouth
as icecream drips from your spoon
a boy burbles along to the jukebox

As Winter wonders what to do, a young boy in a crocheted waistcoat sings and hums along with Canned Heat’s ‘On the Road Again’. It is a scene that recalls Wenders’ own memories of discovering rock ‘n’ roll. He says, ‘the first time I put money in a juke box was for ‘Tutti Frutti’ by Little Richard. I didn’t speak any English, but I hummed along and mouthed the craziest variants on the lyrics.’ Early on in the film, Wenders himself had foreshadowed this scene, appearing in the background of a bar and sticking a coin in a jukebox as Winter lays out his Polaroids on the window ledge. In fact, the film was partly birthed in music, specifically ‘Memphis, Tennessee’, Chuck Berry’s song to an estranged 6 year-old girl, and sounds are dabbed throughout with the lightest of touches: Winter half-singing a couple of lines from ‘Under the Boardwalk’ in the only place it really can be sung, flicking through the stations on a car radio and finding snippets of surf guitar and ‘Smoke on the Water’, Chuck Berry seen on a poster for a concert and then in the concert itself, Sibylle Baier singing ‘Softly’ on a ferry across the Rhine, Alice with portable radio held to her ear, and Can's mesmerising, melancholy eight-note guitar and synthesizer hook, which appears every time you have just forgotten about it to reinforce the mood of the film.

Alice in the Cities was made at a crux in Wenders’ career when he was wondering what form his artistic expression should take. Should he remain a filmmaker? And if he did, could he make a film in his own handwriting? With a tiny budget and a four-week shoot, he and his six man crew made the film on the road and on the fly, which accounts for its lightness of feel in spite of its subject matter of a jaded journalist falling out of love with an adopted land. As Wenders has written of his own still photography, in Written in the West (1987), ‘photography enables you to grasp a place first time round. In fact, photography often tends to become impossible in a place you’re already familiar with. Going back somewhere seldom accompanies a desire to take photos … photography is a means of exploration, it’s a vital part of travel, almost as essential as a car or a plane. The photo camera makes arrival in a place possible.’ In Alice in the Cities, Wenders, cameraman Robby Müller and their Arriflex BL explore places with the freshness of arrival.

The two of us on a train to München
to meet a woman in a photograph
For now, we simply open the window
and let the wind tousle our hair.

After I watched the film, I could speak to no-one until a night of sleep and dreams had sifted my thoughts. I was inhabited by a profound sense of loss in various forms. There was the subject matter and the innocence of the central relationship, between a 31 year-old male journalist and a 9 year-old girl, a stranger whose mother he has just met but who nevertheless turns her over to him for temporary custody. Its tone would be impossible today in a society haunted by fears of abduction. That was one form of loss. Another was the loss of the pleasure and freedom to be had from travel; in an interview about the film, Wenders talks about how hard it is not to be a tourist these days, when everywhere is set up to cater to this (non)-experience. Stronger than these though was the feeling that the film depicted a past, my own, now lost. An idealised past of the imagination for sure, but a past in which I was neither held nor claimed, a past when I was free to be drawn to places and people, and had the time to follow my nose and take things as they came. And if this past was characterised by a vague feeling of the melancholy of unsettlement, it was also tempered by the expectation of as yet unknown people and possibilities just around the corner. I don’t recognise the themes of alienation and angst that have characterised some responses to the film. Instead, I see more a beautiful drift of melancholy in a time where belonging was not such a stark choice.

Family Portraits: Two Films From the 1951 Festival of Britain

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2008)

A number of films were made specifically for the 1951 Festival of Britain, notably John Boulting’s The Magic Box, a biopic about the pioneering filmmaker William Friese-Greene, Basil Wright’s Waters of Time, about the Port of London, and some experimental films in 3-D from Norman McLaren. The two I’m going to look at here – Humphrey Jennings’ Family Portrait and Paul Dickson’s David – reflect on nationhood.

Before the films though, a few words about the Festival itself. A centenary commemoration of The Great Exhibition of 1851, the 1951 event also looked to the future in sciences, arts and architecture, technology and industrial design. Its guiding principles can be summed up by the introduction that the Archbishop of Canterbury gave in the official book of the Festival, in which he wrote: ‘The chief and governing purpose of the Festival is to declare our belief and trust in the British way of life, not with any boastful self-confidence nor with any aggressive self-advertisement, but with sober and humble trust that by holding fast to that which is good and rejecting from our midst that which is evil we may continue to be a nation at unity in itself and of service to the world. It is good at a time like the present so to strengthen, and in part to recover, our hold on the abiding principles of all that is best in our national life.’

The words are worth quoting at length because they so precisely capture the tone of Family Portrait, Humphrey Jennings’ last completed film, made for the Festival in 1951. It’s one of his best late works in which he recaptures in part some of the confident collage of words and image that reached such profound levels in his wartime films. Of course, this is propaganda for a different purpose here, namely for the celebration of Britain’s past and future, instead of the initially urgent but increasingly subtle affirmations of the human qualities of stoicism, resolve and dignity whose loss simply could not be countenanced, and which informed Listen to Britain, Fires Were Started and Diary for Timothy. As such, reaction to the film is bound to be different. There was something almost subversive about making wartime propaganda films that were subtle and poetic rather than strident. Family Portrait, accomplished as it is, plays by the officially sanctioned rules. In fact, Jennings’ great early proponent Lindsay Anderson said in 1981 that it was a ‘sentimental fiction’ which played on the ‘fantasy of the Empire’.
Watching it now, I like to imagine that Jennings, in time, would have found new subjects in which to become subtle and subversive all over again.

That is not what Family Portrait is for however. A film ‘on the theme of the Festival of Britain’, it is propaganda for the nation that urges the nourishment of tolerance, courage, faith, discipline and mutual freedom. Jennings’ central conceit is that the fabric of the nation takes its texture a mixture of poetry and prose, the poetry of imagination combining with the prose of industry and engineering, with its culmination coming in an invention such as a ship’s radar, which perfectly matches the two. Jennings took his cue for the theme from one of the Festival displays, that of the Lion and the Unicorn symbolising the two main qualities of the national character, ‘on the one hand, realism and strength, on the other, fantasy, independence and imagination.’

Jennings’ characteristic eye for a good picture is present; this is a film of beautiful silhouettes and shadows. Also characteristic is his wry humour in matching image to words. When the narrator talks of the astronomer at the Greenwich observatory studying the phases of the moon, the astronomer is shown with his own face in three-quarters shadow.

The films ends by stating the necessity of the free exchange of knowledge and the tradition of free enquiry for the good of the nation. Interestingly, it also talks of the need for the country to overcome its pride and ‘come inside the family of Europe’.

The theme of family on different levels is also central to Paul Dickson’s film David, made by the Welsh Committee for the Festival of Britain, and which is a poignant and touching portrait of a man’s life and his community. Filmed in and around the Welsh town of Ammanford and featuring the townspeople as actors, it is an unaffected piece of work that celebrates community and friendship as the bedrock from which individual talent, if the luck is with it, can rise, and if not, then no matter; the community is what survives and is enriched.

It is based on the life-story of the collier-poet DR Griffiths, who plays himself under his character’s name of Dafydd Rhys. He plays a school caretaker reflecting on his life to a schoolboy, and the film builds a portrait of a nation through one man’s experiences – as a child leaving school at 12 to go down the pit, surviving a gas explosion on the same day as his son is born, printing a book of poetry, O Lwch y Lofa (From the Dust of the Pit), to raise money so a fellow miner can afford to take up a scholarship that he has been offered.

The little glimpses of mid-century life are fascinating – the cobbler’s blackboard announcing ‘we save your soles’, the baker’s cart and whistle, the circus coming to town with its elephant, zebra and llamas processed through the streets, scenes from the Aberavon Eisteddfod, and pit life with miners with books in their pockets (the older men were great readers, ‘they could have been teachers, engineers, writers,’ says Dafydd). However, what really endures are its abiding spirits of humanism and dignity, qualities that were immediately recognised on it successful release in 1951, when it was named as one of Sight and Sound’s ‘Films of the Month’.

Perhaps most surprising for a fim that was made as the portrait of a nation is its ending, in which Dafydd, having come second at the Eisteddfod with his poem, pronounces himself, without the slightest hint of self-pity, a failure when he returns home. He says to Ivor, the boy who has taken an interest in his life and who has just passed his exams, ‘I failed. We can’t all be successful. I failed, you passed.’ Nowadays, when a word such as ‘failure’ is anathema, and has been all but ousted from anyone’s official record of achievements, or lack of them, it’s a sentiment that stands out in its realistic, harsh assessment. It’s also presented as nothing to be ashamed of. Dafydd always knew he wouldn’t win. It’s a rare film that proposes fatalism as a national characteristic. It also shows that being proud and being broken, being haunted and being still defiant, all characteristics that make up the character of Dafydd Rhys, need not necessarily be mutually exclusive.

I’d like to mention two more films about the Festival itself. Festival in London is a bright and bold introduction to the events and displays at the South Bank, accompanied by William Alwyn’s Festival March, while Brief City, made for The Observer newspaper, was filmed two weeks before the exhibition closed. In it, the reporter Patrick O’Donovan tours the South Bank site (described as ‘a gigantic toyshop for adults’) in the company of the director of architecture, Hugh Casson, who introduces and explains the layout and structures and the concepts behind them. He has a nice answer when asked about the purpose of  the  ‘Skylon’, the distinctive structure in aluminium, steel and wire that was emblematic of the Exhibition. It’s there merely ‘to hang upright in the air and astonish,’ he says. The film is firmly set in its time, which is alluded to by O’Donovan at the end of the film. ‘There were no resounding proud messages here – no-one was taught to hate anything. At a time when nations were becoming more assertive, here was a national exhibition that avoided these emotions and tried to stay rational.’

Sunday, 15 February 2015

The Essential Mystery in All Things Should Be Maintained: Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2008, occasioned by an introduction to Belle de Jour at Borderlines Film Festival the same year)

‘The essential mystery in all things should be maintained and respected’ said Luis Buñuel. I’ve long thought this sage advice when approaching Buñuel’s own films and so have never much sought to dull them with clarification, analysis or over keen scrutiny. Like Buñuel too, I am completely indifferent to the psychology and motivations of his characters. However, as I introduced a recent screening (2008) of his 1967 film Belle de Jour at the Borderlines Fim Festival in Hereford recently – the film shown, appropriately enough, at 2 o‘clock in the afternoon – it’s in my mind, so I thought it might be useful to consider it a little. I want to do this for two reasons. Firstly, because shorthand appreciation of Buñuel often goes only as far as saying something along the lines of ‘his films are a skewering of religion and the bourgeoisie’. It’s a tired phrase, as much to do with marketing as anything else these days, albeit one with a kernel of truth – Buñuel was nothing if not thoroughly alive to exploring the workings of human hypocrisy in all its myriad forms – but it’s a phrase that obscures some of the more subtle elements in his work. The second reason is that the fairly substantial audience for the screening was made up almost wholly of people who had seen the film the first time round in 1967, and I wondered what Buñuel’s films hold for a different generation, other than a few iconic moments, or even stills, referenced in histories of cinema, from films such as Un Chien Andalou and Viridiana. His films are after all self-effacing, ordered, subtle, tangential, even obscure – qualities that are unlikely to find ready favour nowadays. It’s not surprising that his DVDs are sold on the back of past outrage instead. Watched with only this in mind, I suspect that one’s expectations are likely to be deflated, so I thought I would look at a few of the subtle pleasures to be had from a Luis Buñuel film. I’ll use Belle de Jour as it’s in my mind – though any of his last 10 films, from Viridiana through to That Obscure Object of Desire, could have done equally as well.

I suppose this situation was only to be expected. Controversy in one form or another attended most of his late films, starting with the one that announced his return to Europe in 1961, Viridiana. Although this won the Palme d‘Or at Cannes in that year, it caused a right rumpus in Franco’s Spain, where it was banned until 1977, and following representations from the Vatican about its blasphemy, its main offending scene being a restaging of the Last Supper as a drunken orgy for beggars to the tune of Handel’s Messiah, Buñuel, in his absence, was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment there should he have wished to visit the country.

This attention directed towards possible outrage in subject matter seems to have stuck, and what is less appreciated now is that Buñuel was a master craftsman at work, one whose economical skills in filmmaking and editing had been honed during his time in Mexico, when he made 20 films in 18 years, nearly all of which were made in less than a month and edited into shape in just 3 or 4 days more. This economy of means in realising his ideas on screen is part of the special atmosphere of a film such as Belle de Jour.

In case the story is unfamiliar, the film sees Catherine Deneuve play Séverine, a bored, sexually unfulfilled bourgeois housewife for whom the thought of polite lovemaking at night with her husband in a quiet, darkened bedroom is intolerable. Following the lead of a chance conversation, she finds work in a maison specialisée in the afternoons between 2 and 5, hence her name, ‘Belle de Jour’. Her suppressed fantasies and feelings of guilt coalesce in her daydreams and reveries are also shown in a manner largely undifferentiated from that of her daily existence. The film gave Buñuel his biggest commercial success, something probably not unconnected with its subject matter, though anyone watching for titillation would have been disappointed. For its potentially exploitative subject, it is both discreet and even chaste in its approach. It was, as critic David Thomson mischievously observed, ‘the perfect movie for wealthy women with free afternoons’.

So, what are its subtle delights. Well firstly, there’s the script, one of nine written in collaboration with Jean Claude Carrière, six of which Buñuel turned into films. It treads between the deliberately banal, the ironic, the evocative and the unexpected. ‘I love you more and more every day,’ says Paul to Séverine in an early fantasy scene of hers before he assumes a role of mastery. ‘What are you thinking about?’ asks Paul, awaking her from her reverie. ‘About you,’ she says.

In two later scenes with Husson, whose coolly distinguished decadence and depravity Michel Piccoli embodies so well, he says to his companion, ‘I’ll tell you something pleasant. I love you.’ ‘Merci,’ she says, in an equally trite tone. Then comes the punch: ‘Your scars are healing wonderfully,’ he says, casting his eye along her forearm.

Phrases dip in and out of Séverine’s reality and her secret life, with talk of cats (whips as well as animals of course) and forgiveness. Some of the best lines come in the fantasy sequence before she is pelted with thick, dark mud. ‘What time is it?’ asks Husson. ‘Between 2 and 5, but no later than 5,’ says Paul.

Interesting too is how the film’s dialogue hints at thoughts of stains in Séverine’s mind. After she has first learned of the existence of brothels she drops the vase with Husson’s roses onto the ground. ‘Don’t worry, it’s clean water. It won’t make a mark,’ says the maid. Later, on first returning from the brothel, she burns her underwear in the fire.

This scene is also a fine example of a subtle reinforcement of Séverine’s perturbation. She is told in a taxi by her companion about a mutual friend who apparently works in a brothel. When, in response to her question, the taxi driver assures her that such places do still exist, although they no longer use lanterns to advertise themselves, the screen for the next few minutes is touched with flashes of red in each scene – passing cars, a red traffic light, the red lining of a car door, the red roses in the vase on the table, and red bottles in Séverine’s bathroom. On the borderline of being unnoticeable, it is just slightly, purposefully accentuated reality.

As is often the case, Jean Claude Carrière has a telling phrase about Buñuel’s approach: ‘He wanted his films to have a power of strangeness without being strange.’ His films ‘follow a narrow path through many dangers – too much fantasy, too much absurdity, too much mystification, too many jokes … without going too far either way.’

The camerawork on Belle de Jour, by Sacha Vierney, who also lensed Last Year in Marienbad, is typically economical and unfussy and forms part of the Buñuel style, that, in a nice phrase, has been called ‘insolently effortless’. Wartching the film at the screening I set myself the task of trying to follow its camerawork. Time and again I would watch as a shot progressed and before I knew it I was hooked into and carried along with the film again, not noticing its self-effacing style.

Buñuel would famously pretend a deafness more profound than he already had when he was pestered with bothersome actor questions. Typically he would give no psychological indications or motivations to his actors. What he would give were postures, movements and gestures. I think of Madame Anais spooning cherries in brandy into a glass for Séverine on her arrival in the brothel, an action later echoed by Séverine when she prepares her paralysed husband’s medicine. I think of Séverine’s gold-toothed lover Marcel visiting in her apartment, eventually departing just before her husband returns, but leaving Séverine perturbed. She bites her thumbnail twice, a typical action of nervousness, but one that recalls Marcel’s habitual action of pushing his own gold teeth into position. I think of Séverine running her thumb along the edge of a chipped marble hall table before she goes to face her husband, but more than anything I think of Michel Piccoli sniffing the curtains in the brothel.

In my view, it is these small offhand moments that are as important as the set-pieces in setting the particular tone of Buñuel’s films. ‘I don’t systematically look for eroticism or subversion. I’m just me,’ said Buñuel. ‘His eyes were laughing the whole time – he was like a child ready for mischief,’ said Carole Bouquet, one of the two leading ladies in his final film, That Obscure Object of Desire.

While on the subject of set-pieces though, I must mention one of the central fantasy scenes, in which Séverine dreams of Husson and Paul on a plain with black bulls. It is a compendium of gestures and phrases that have percolated through Séverine’s mind: the soup is cold and cannot be warmed; Husson throws his bowl of soup to the ground in an offhand manner that recalls M Adolphe, Séverine’s first cusomer who threw a champagne glass to the ground; there is the phrase, ‘between two and five, but no later than five’, that I have already mentioned, these images mixing with that that recurrent motif beloved of the surrealists, Jean-Francois Millet’s ‘The Angelus’, the poses of which are adopted by Husson and Paul.

The depiction of dreams in film have had a mixed and not entirely successful history. At their most banal level, we have a shimmering screen or billowing clouds accompanied by glissandi on a harp, or the sound of a theremin. The latter was featured in Salvador Dalí’s dream sequence in Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Although Dalí’s full 20 minute sequence is now lost, the surviving part shows that his was a painter’s imagination that couldn’t struggled to reconcile itself to the demands of a different medium. In Belle de Jour, as with The Phantom of Liberty a few years later, Buñuel simply ignored boundaries between reality and fantasy and presented them both as plain as day, so that daydreams look like reality and vice versa. In fact, and this is a point that Carrière makes, the conventional storyline, adapted from Joseph Kessel’s novel, is fictional, Séverine’s fantasies were based on documentary fact.

Lastly, that notorious box that one of the clients brings to the brothel. Buñuel said that of all the senseless questions he was asked about his films – and he was asked many – the most common one was what was contained in the box that repelled one girl in the brothel but intrigued Séverine. When not responding by saying that it contained a picture of Monsieur Carrière, Buñuel’s answer was, ‘whatever you want there to be’, well knowing that as soon as you try to force an understanding on an image by explaining it away, you reduce the power of that image.

I’ll leave the last words to Jean Claude Carrière, who said of Buñuel that ‘he was a bunch of contradictions living together quite easily: at the same time very Spanish and very international, totally involved in his Christian Latin tradition and totally without any sort of religion. He was an instinctive scriptwriter, a surrealist, concerned with structure and plot development. He was the most subversive filmmaker but in the most classical form.’

The command of his resources and skills, and how he translated his ideas to the screen is equally as interesting as the more notorious outrages in his films. There is still plenty to learn from him there.

Bad Men’s Tricks: Three Films from Miklós Jancsó

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2008 after a London screening of The Round-Up attended by Miklós Jancsó)

“Even I don’t like films with bad endings, but unfortunately that’s life – the good guys fall for the bad men’s tricks.” That was a paraphrase of what Jancsó said after the screening of his 1965 film The Round-Up in London recently (2008), the first time he had seen his film in 27 years apparently. It’s an appropriate comment for that film, in which gendarmes pitilessly root out the survivors of a rebellion from among the group of peasants that they have corralled into a stockade, introducing discord and uncertainty by setting former comrades in arms and family members against each other.

The Round-Up is one of three of Jancsó’s films from the 1960s happily now available on DVD from Second Run, along with My Way Home from 1965 and The Red and the White from 1967. Although these only make up a small proportion of Jancso’s filmography, which boasts over 70 films across a career of nearly five decades, they are three of the main films on which his reputation rests and are all major works that belong in any self-respecting world cinema collection.

All three films deal with specific historical times and events – My Way Home details the journey home of a young Hungarian man in the final days of the second world war, The Round-Up, set in 1869, shows the corralling, isolation and methods of capturing the holdouts among the resistance fighters from the 1848 rebellion, men that were seen as a threat to the wealth and stability of the Austrian rulers, while The Red and the White takes place during the 1919 civil war in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, in which Hungarians joined Bolsheviks against the counter-revolutionary forces looking to restore the old Tsarist order. However, it would be wrong to categorise them only as historical films, as all three use their given situations as starting points for astoundingly clear-sighted, coolly distanced and unemotional investigations into such areas as the nature of power and control and the behaviour of men in wartime. They were films with contemporary significance too. The Round-Up may have been set in 1869 but it was also about the Soviet crushing of the 1956 Hungarian uprising and the ways and means of rooting out rebellious elements then.

Before I look at the films in more detail, here are two quotes regarding Jancsó’s films. In a nice phrase, the film critic Penelope Houston called them ‘dream documents of civil war’, and there is certainly something of that about them in their distilled, uncluttered, disorienting visions, while Tony Rayns once likened them to what you would expect to see if Michelangelo Antonioni took it upon himself to make a western. As Rayns admits, even though Jancsó was certainly influenced by Antonioni in his approach to film, the comparison has something of youthful exuberance behind it, but it does give a compelling idea of what to expect from the films if you haven’t seen them.

All three of the films share common characteristics, not least the dominant feature of the Hungarian plain which is a character in itself – mercilessly open and affording neither hiding places nor escape routes. A place where women can try to run from the gendarmes, who unconcerned and leisurely, send out horsemen to bring them in again, knowing that running from them is futile and where men are told that they are free to go, even though all parties involved in the conversation know that at some point before the man gets out of rifle range, he will be shot in the back with the single crack of a rifle’s report. All the films also, partly because of the apparent sparseness of their settings, transcend their location and are studies of friendship, betrayal and the indifference of death to its random subjects. In The Round-Up for example, in the prison stockade on the featureless plain, wherein hooded prisoners execute circular movements at the whim of their captors – nominally exercises but which resemble scenes from a minimalist theatre of cruelty performance – the very sparsity of context intensifies its oddity and it becomes an example of psychological cruelty that, with its hooded figures, cannot fail to resonate in our own time, recalling scenes of prisoners in Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo.

Character is likewise stripped to essentials. Psychology is replaced by movement, position, action and commands. Indeed, after watching the three films the viewer will feel that he has gained a rudimentary grasp of Hungarian, as speech in all three is largely restricted to curt, repeated, barked orders: Go back, stay there, come here, stand up, line up, hurry, stop, yes, no.

It is worth stressing however that each film has its own particular atmosphere – of temporary respite from war in a chance friendship between men on opposing sides in My Way Home, of remorseless inevitability of capture or death in The Round-Up, and of the temporary nature of power in a futile battle in The Red and the White.

My Way Home is certainly the most humane of the three films, though even here mundane killing and the random nature of survival still figure large. It even begins with people sharing useful words for once – bread, water, to eat, give me food. However, in a move typical of Jancsó, within minutes we have left these apparently important figures to their own fates, and we instead follow the one man who separates from their group, a young Hungarian man who decides to follow his own path, possibly because of jealousy – though that is far too strong a word for something denoted by a brief wartime tumble  with a girl in their group – possibly on a whim. He is nominally the Hungarian Joska, though through the course of the film he is referred to variously as Fritz, Magyar, Joseph, Russki, fascist, Nazi, tovarich. He also changes uniform in the course of his journey, one man perceived many ways. A long central section of the film sees him sent out to a cattle post to assist the young Russian man working there. Suspicion, and lack of a common language is overcome, and they begin to play games in an all-too brief respite from the daily occupation of survival in ragged times.

Nearly every study of Jancsó’s films rightly mentions his exceptional camera movement, noting crane shots and the choreography of characters through extended scenes. Fewer mention the beautifully sculpted sound design of his films. It’s apparent in My Way Home for example, where in a scene at the cattle post, where, just before Joska takes it into his mind to escape, the soundtrack becomes an extraordinary rendition, through low bowing on a cello, of the lowing of cattle, with skylarks mixed in above this, the sounds together approximating to the buzzing of the decision to run hardening into action in Joska’s mind. Later, when Joska and Kolya, his Russian captor, have grown in friendship, the music becomes a playful twittering on an oboe as they investigate their surroundings and play among the ruins of a building.

Early on in My Way Home, Joska bathes in a river with a group of other prisoners he has been temporarily allotted to. One of his group tries to escape by swimming under the barbed wire that stretches across the river but fails when he finds that the fence goes all the way down to the river bed. When they are called out of the water, the barbed wire fence divides the screen at the left hand edge, roughly into the ratio of 9 to 1. That thin strip on the narrow side of the fence is emblematic of Joska’s route home, with its unexpected luck, anf the misfortune that turns to opportunity. The film shows part of one man’s extraordinary route home, threading a course that is his only. Although he doesn’t complete the journey, he ends on a road and we never have the impression that he won’t make it. Through the course of the three films, this possibility is something that is snuffed out.

Both The Round-Up & The Red and the White begin with a piercing martial bugle call, setting the scene in The Round-Up for what Jancsó referred to as a film of defencelessness and humiliation. After the scene-setting introduction, we see figures moving towards us on a plain. Horses ride out to circle them and return whence they came in a movement that seems wholly unnecessary except for the purposes of domination and control. It is like the constant predatory circling of the gendarmes around their prisoners, a movement reinforced by the camera’s own circling movements. Is a compulsively addictive film, repellent in its relaxed detailing of the way to entrap and crush the spirit, beautiful in its large-scale choreography mixed with close-ups of faces of men who have so far survived on their wits. It is often referred to as Jancsó’s masterpiece. Astoundingly it was made in 28 days.

The Red and the White takes as its subject an obscure battle for the land between an abandoned monastery and a river in the Russian civil war. it is a film of ceaseless ebb and flow. It is, quite deliberately, notoriously difficult on first view to completely follow the action. The Reds of the title are the Bolsheviks, the Whites the Tsarists, yet there is really little to tell between them, and though certain characters impress themselves on our minds, they soon move on, or are shot. This deliberate confusion is part of Jancsó’s intent of course; though this may be a film set in war, it follows none of the conventions of such films. It is not really important that we know their characters or causes. Orders are unexplained, there are no larger goals to lend a sense of purpose to the actions taken, and few characters stay long enough for us to empathise with them. Command passes though a succession of people in the film as in a game of tag; soldiers impose order for a brief while on a situation before another relieves them of command, through capture, death or seizing a situation. Again, speech in the film occurs almost entirely in the form of commands, and here again we are in constant motion: Go away!, Stay!, Come here!.

The Red and the White is not a bloody film; death is a random, abrupt punctuation, nothing more. It is a film too of ritualisic nakedness; time and again characters are stripped bare before escape, ordeal or death.

There are moments of surreal beauty too (and on one level, the elegant, luminous black and white photography stands in contrast to the subject throughout), no more so than when the nurses are rounded up and marched to the middle of a birch wood, there to waltz for the watching soldiers. There is relief that they are not abused as we half-expect they will be.

The Red and the White was less well-received than The Round-Up, possibly because survival is by now a matter of completely indifferent chance (which may however seem something very like destiny to the survivors), but also because the clinically detached mode of representing death and the vagaries of power and survival in such an aesthetically pleasing way was considered repellent. Watching the three films together however, this seems like a natural progression. The movement in My Way Home is more jittery and choppy, journeys are broken as people move to and fro. The Round-Up, as its title suggests is a film of circling and entrapment, while The Red and the White is a film of horizontal ebb and flow.

Time and again, action in The Red and the White returns to the river. A natural feature so important to the soldiers, it is entirely indifferent to them and their futile movements, knowing they will soon all be gone. In The Round-Up too, one of the most dominant sounds in the film is that of skylarks singing, utterly indifferent to the ritualised figures of power and abuse that the humans trace out beneath them on the plain.