Saturday, July 22, 2017

Farpões baldios

Entrance Is an Exit (Field-Trip) / Commanding of the Soil


Marta Mateus, the director of this 25-minute long Portuguese film, provides an English prefatory note for Farpões baldios [Barbs Wastelands, 2017], her debut, which reads:

"In the end of the 19th century the peasants in Portugal started a courageous struggle for better work conditions. After generations of starving misery, the Carnation Revolution sowed the promise of an Agrarian Reform. Mostly in the Alentejo region, these rural workers occupied the huge properties where they were once submitted to the power of their Masters. Perhaps the lost seed of other fruits...

It is said in Alentejo, when something is lost, those who are looking should start to walk back to the beginning. We must pray and ask Saint Lucy [Lucia] to clear our vision, so we can see and look better.

The protagonists of this film, resistants of this struggle, many of them illiterate, working since childhood, tell their story to the youngsters of today, in their own words."

The opening shot is an entrance or an exit: A man emerges from a slab of darkness. No arbitrary diction: Mateus posits the void as material. As a monolith. This idea will recur a few times through the rest of the film. The idea is that of the ephemeral against the material — "against" in the sense of both "up against" (leaning against; material) and "versus" (pitted against; ephemeral, relational). The emerging man drags a pitchfork in his wake — the tines claw the clay — the sound is terrible.

"When the light is mine / I felt gravity pull""Feeling Gravitys Pull", R.E.M., 1985

Saint Lucia (Luzia), the light is hers. Patron protectress of eyesight.

Black holes, infinite density: wastelands, barbs. Entryways, portals. An illusion of men emerging. Ghosts. Data. The barn is the citadel. The men are protecting their citadel. "Walk back to the beginning."

The kids are the inhabitants of the forests; they're the tourists of the forest. They cross the border of the old wall and enter the citadel ("the barns"). The two men chase them; they forbid Catarina and the boy to tell of what they saw.

A sylvan community. "Ashes from home will save the world."

"Now we weed. Then the pruning. And we sow the carnations."

In all of this, Mateus's Iberian Lucia. The eyes of the boy who attempts to stare ahead, focusing hard outward, but still kept navigating a crazed contradictory interior.

Sacrilege has been attributed to nearly every saint before her or his beatification. The boy who walks backwards can sight the road behind him.

"Maria, Teresa, Luzia. Three shoots, three flowers, three fruits. A trunk, a treetop, a life. A beam, a table, three chairs. Three days, three tales, a handful of times. Two mules and two oxen, for a tractor. A hundred steps forward, a hundred years back. An empty plate. And a shot in the back."

"The accused ascends to the high throne, the shepherd moves to the deep valley." Mateus moves the aphorism back, so to speak, into the mouths of babes, itself a tradition biblical, Huilletian-Straubian, Godardian, Costan. (Philip Roth, in a later interview, in Talmudic paraphrase: "Let the child speak.") —

The woman gathering brush and wood recounts the story of the snake around her leg, to Catarina: "Squeezing, squeezing," she inserts. The woman: "I was screaming, screaming... That day, half a leg, a pay of hunger." Her companion: "All of this was the Defesa, from the mountain, to here, where the pigsties were." The tale of an uprising. "Out of crying, my mother's eyes cut holes in the ground." They perform upon the kids a blessing of Saint Lucy/Lucia. The sounds of sheep bells. The community gathers, watches.

On that: Patrick Holzapfel's excellent essay, published last month, on Farpões baldios is here. He too senses the back-and-forth, simultaneity, whatever you want to call it, about the history and the present, the void and the open, the paradox that is the wound: he says: "It is a film in which two hearts beat: The first belongs to tenderness, the second to severity. The first belongs to the present, the second to the past. The first belongs to the young, the second to the old. Between those movements lies a shaking that opens a world of concentration." He also says: "One could argue that many shots are seen through the eyes of children or ghosts." He says: "The film looks at the stones and dirt with eyes that want more."

I have nothing theoretical to say about this movie I've watched seven times: the above are my notes mingled with my thoughts, neither closed off. Much of these little images are pointless without the sound: take:

Some of the children board the bus that penetrates the building (same threatening vector as a bar-surface in My Darling Clementine), it pulls away from Alentejo. The citadel, closed Parthenon or what you want it to be, stands silent. Fine. There is a new term they use in American media called "the optics of" something — meaning how it looks, to the media camera. I of course hate this word but I also like how simple it is to flip its letters to its antithesis: "the topics of." I'll leave this piece here then, for topics, optics, close-offs in talking, and rewatches, in anticipation when more see this masterpiece —

— That lets the cast in the titles read their respective names, one by one.

Argumento, realização e montagem: Marta Mateus.


Friday, June 30, 2017

Youth of the Beast

"Minami, Let's Get It Over With."

Short notes on Suzuki's Youth of the Beast [Yajû no seishun, 1963], which I originally wrote for the back-cover blurb of the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray in 2014. "The film that Seijun Suzuki considered the first to execute his full-formed kaleidoscopic style."


Right on the heels of the riotous Go to Hell, Bastards: Detective Bureau 2 3, Seijun Suzuki unleashed what would come to be seen as his true breakthrough, the film that cement "the Suzuki sensibility": Youth of the Beast [Yajû no seishun]. A delirious fantasia that contains "youth" and "beast" only insofar as in 1963 youth culture, yakuza, and yakuza movies were violently upstart things...

Youth of the Beast is a yakuza tale with a premise like Akira Kurosawa's Yôjinbô, whereby neither of two rival gangs can claim moral superiority over the other. The film stars Suzuki's iconic '60s regular Jô Shishido, with his dare-you-to-call-them-out artificial cheek implants like a new kind of screen-star blasphemy. There are drug-addled whores, gunfights in a toxin-hued apocalypse, and at least one alien landscape — a a mind-searing eruption of sulphur yellow desert like an action-figure playset reeking of sex.

Suzuki's infectious go-for-broke energy is assisted by wide-angle lenses and stunning production design that add a Minnelli-worthy sensuousness to the picture's 'Scope framing. His film would go on to inspire John Woo's forthcoming remake titled Day of the Beast [—??? CK.]; Nikkatsu have in recent times deemed Youth of the Beast one of their treasures. •


More writing at Cinemasparagus on the films of Seijun Suzuki:

"Jûsan-gô taihisen," yori: Sono gosôsha (w)o nerae ["Sidetrack No. Thirteen," or: Take Aim at That Police Van, 1960]

Subete ga kurutteru [Everything Goes Wrong, 1960]


Saturday, June 17, 2017

Muriel, or: The Time of a Return

Guess What's Coming to Dinner?, or: The Amnesiacs

(All images are details from iPhone photos taken of the film playing on the Criterion Blu-ray disc; no screen-capturing is capable during playback.)


A furious montage, then we learn that objects are too fleeting and, so, too silent to yield up symbolic interpretation — if, if we're looking hard enough. These are zero-hand, 1.5-hand, items. They permafrost the flat at first glance but will ostensibly be sold at appointment by their merchant Hélène (Delphine Seyrig). Clearly, dig the ambiguity around the whole situation with these solids. For example: what of Seyrig in this wig — an item like the rest? We think of Hitchcock, or: we think of Godard thinking of Hitchcock — as he says in the Histoire(s) du cinéma Alfred's "the inventor of forms."

And Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thierrée) says: "You never know what period you'll wake up to in this place." I pause personally not so much at "this place" as I do "wake up to". Muriel, ou le Temps d'un retour [Muriel, or: The Time of a Return, 1963] is no dream-saga or cannot be so easily internalized as such regardless of Last Year at Marienbad — this is dedicated hardcore montage form confronting and abutting in certain prolongation Cocteau, materially.

The town of Boulogne (or Boulogne-sur-Mer) — is there such a place? Was there? Whatever you do, don't ask Hélène. We see it starkly in the light of day, concealed at night except in neon or half-shadow, Jeanne Dielman's Brussels with a casino. Present-time and morning-after, then back, or not — eruptions of time immemorial, frozen, eternal, personages present or not... place, place, place... More profoundly strange than Marienbad, Hiroshima, Nevers. And Algiers is the Mission San Juan Bautista.

Nearly twenty years after the Liberation. Muriel Carlotta is the victim of a war crime that Bernard participated in the act of — or observed — during his time in Algeria, 'down-there.'

Does a fight between friends mean you're finished for life? No, not a war-crime — an argument, a misunderstanding. But what misunderstanding! Alphonse Noyard (Jean-Pierre Kerien) (character's last name an emendation of noyé, par exemple, des clochards) has this put-on about having owned a café down-there, constructed history, but in essence he's a lunatic who cut free from the asylum. However: look at proximate cause. (Paradoxical thoughitsobe: for Muriel is one of the greatest films about cause-and-effect, which is to say, the lack thereof, ever made, existentialist Sartrean strain.) Who in this menagerie could make a fair claim to moral high-ground, or to truth? Hélène is a lie, Bertrand is a lie, Françoise (Nita Klein) is a lie. Property, ownership, is a lie.

Hélène, Alphonse, and Françoise march to the entrance of Hélène's building (one of the four post-war Neubauten of Boulogne), cuts between them twelve-tone, chromaticism in the close-ups (the storied detail: no camera movements in Muriel till the last shot). Hélène: "Many died, were shot. I don't remember how many." Bob Dylan: "From the boat I fish for bullheads — / I catch a lot, sometimes too many."

Françoise: "This is paradise."

Hélène's bedroom at one point functions as an impromptu dining room, or vice-versa. (All the furniture and appointments are in flux from scene to scene.) The Hélène-Alphonse relationship is often swapped/echoed with the Hélène-Bernard relationship: after Alphonse shows up, she says, "The two of us should have gone into hiding."

Bernard: "I don't want to be a filmmaker. I'm just collecting evidence."

The Alsatians say, Merci vielmol. Two shandies. •


More writing at Cinemasparagus on the films of Alain Resnais:

Nuit et brouillard [Night and Fog, 1955]

Le chant du styrène [The Song of the Styrene, 1958]

Hiroshima mon amour [Hiroshima My Love, 1959] — a piece I regret now, from 2007


Thursday, May 11, 2017

Letter from Siberia {American-Language Version}

A Place on the Earth

(All images are details from iPhone photos taken of the film playing from the FilmStruck app on Apple TV; built-in screen-capturing is disabled during playback from the Web and from the FilmStruck app on iPhone/iPad.)


Chris Marker (Господин Маркер) was interesting to me because he self-fed genuine and insatiable interest re: planets' civilizations, cultures, societies. — Could I keep up such enthusiasm from day to day? It would always be difficult... and these days, 2017!... The suitability of self-extinction regards the face of mediated terror, repression, and — resultant guilt... — I might piss a spider-line of faith to social governments in better moods... Yet they are metonymies of indifferent ecocide and of petty self-interest, they double-dog-down my typical temperament to the level of red-state farmers (au contraire to Rohmer's Fermière de Montfaucon), my parents, and all those who sow 'good' poison wisdom.

Never take Marker for an optimist. (If you can believe it, never take me for a pessimist.) There's no surprise that the opening shots in Lettre de Sibérie [Letter from Siberia, 1957] will be landscapes. And I recognize it's very easy to get upset with the exploratory mode 'striking off.' Yet Marker begins the narration and his consideration post-haste — does a quick switch to contemplate the Tyga: "I'm writing you this letter from the edge of the world..."

For Marker, Siberia is the earth and the sky. The Eastmancolor does what it can to reproduce the blue of the latter — but it was really made for the tan of the pastures. After all, Siberia is something of a byword for 'Geography' itself: it's always spoken of in terms of "it could contain the United States" or "it sports the longest railway in the world." Marker puts it better: "A rationalistic aspect of Siberia is that a hiker walking in a straight line is always sure to get lost in the forest. If he walks north long enough, his reward will be 2,250,000 square miles of tundra and ice-floe that will have to be transformed and studied."

Implicitly, explicitly, no easy categorization for this monster-mass Siberia on our planet can be told. Marker in Letter from Siberia — his letter mind you — allows the escalation of the fortitude of thought to jump from the "epistolary" which was always just a feint past the framing "film"-form itself! — Letter from Siberia is films within films! Animated films about the woolly mammoths, with voice-over written by Marker in terrible (he knew it) English pentameter! — the peril of the rhinoceroses!

He can't help himself but cut to (mechanical) cranes, the good materialist... He can't help himself but cut from the frames to the predicament of the native black fox!

Reindeer as an alternative to vehicles! The preciousness of Chris Marker is the eradication of the line between the ironic observation and the critique. He always grants us, the spectators, the respect of being equal to the intelligence or to the innate-quotient of the animals...

You've got to see the owl-interludes. No Tootsie-Pop, but...'s hard to gauge how much the Siberians loved Yves Montand. This is not, after all, a documentary film, let the permits read what they will. Four impressions of the Irkutsk foundation-laying with the drag-beam — the patriot, the critical, the objective poet...

"The season of dying water is winter..."

Letter from Siberia is Marker's newsreel — even though the black-and-white segments are false. When he goes back to color: "We might realize what a victory even the simplest achievements represent: houses protected from the cold; schools; libraries; and all the other things which they point out to us so proudly, we can't help smiling. And yet our irony may be more naïve than their enthusiasm."

Images of both the blank fields and the construction of the houses recall the method of Resnais's Night and Fog — and, adding the "I Hate Elvis" and "Mishka" scenes, of live-action Disney television. Ten or fifteen minutes after, sure enough, the narrator remarks of Aldan, the Camp Invisible prospectors' settlement: "You're in frontier-America."

Unabashedly I admire the gaiety of Marker's investigations — cf. Siberia's gold rush, "on those same steamers with the tall smokestacks that would one day bring Charlie Chaplin home a millionaire."

(Sidenote of personal local interest: "The American 49ers were already exploring Arizona...")

As in Marker's previous Sunday in Peking a local theater performance cadenzas the final section of the film. From opera to Sputnik: "Switching from sleds to rockets is the Siberian way of keeping abreast with the times."


Other writings on Chris Marker at Cinemasparagus:

Sunday in Peking [1956]

Leila Attacks [2007]
(posted in 2007, and including a note in the Comments from Chris Marker himself)