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.