Sunday, May 27, 2012

Pictures from a revolution/the sounds of Satan

By 1968 Jean-Luc Godard had abandoned the commercial film industry completely, despite international notoriety and success making films that already pushed fiercely against the boundaries of what a commercial film could be. His last such film was the magnificently apocalyptic Weekend (1967), which I wrote about last week. Sympathy for the Devil (1968), also known as One Plus One (Godard’s original and preferred title), is probably Godard’s most famous work from this radicalized, little-seen period, the reason being that the Rolling Stones appear in roughly half the film, though they are not there to provide excitement in any conventional sense.

Godard documented the Stones in the studio in long, uninterrupted, ominously slow tracking shots. They were working on an especially difficult to apprehend new song. Godard isn't dismayed by the ordinary tedium of studio labour; he lets it all play out. ‘Sympathy for the Devil,’ which would become one of the most distinctive, sinister, irresistible tunes in the Stones catalogue, chronicles the eponymous narrator’s diabolical accomplishments across two millennia, wearing many guises: “I stole many a man’s soul and face,” Mick Jagger sings. Jagger came in with lyrics and chords but the band had yet to summon the right groove. When they find it, turns out it’s samba, with Keith Richards on bass, Bill Wyman shaking maracas, and later, in the film’s best documentary moment, the whole band, sans Jagger, huddled around a microphone singing the woo woos, along with a thin woman in huge hat and huge pants who I presume to be Anita Pallenberg. Decades of domestication makes it easy to forget that there was a time when some really believed the Stones were in league with Mephistopheles. (For more on this moment in Stonesology see Zachary Lazar’s excellent 2008 novel Sway.) But the cultivation of rock mythology was very far from Godard’s agenda, as is evident in cutaways to people spray-painting slogans like SOVIETCONG and FREUDEMOCRACY on London’s walls, cars, sidewalks and bridges, and in the film’s many elaborate staged sequences.

In the first such sequence a black man reclines in a wheelbarrow, under a bridge, surrounded by piles of wrecked cars—just one year after Weekend and it’s the end of civilization all over!—reading aloud from a book about musical appropriation and the roots of blues. Another man enters the frame to hand the reader a rifle; the camera then follows him back into the labyrinth of this Battersea scrapyard, where still more men, all of them pretend Black Panthers, read from other texts into recording devices, texts about race war and black unity. Soon a red Mini arrives with captive white girls wearing white shifts. One of their captors reads from an ode to white women, how he loves to smell their drawers, and so on. Later a camera crew follows a pretty young woman through a wood, posing questions about drugs, culture, politics, Vietnam, to which she answers only “yes” or “no.” Later still there’s a bookstore crammed with pulp and girly mags, where another man reads aloud and captive Maoists sits miserably in one corner.

So what’s it all about? The film’s too cryptic to be didactic, too detached and adrift to be agitprop. Something forming in the studio, something forming in the streets. Something about rising up, violence, overturning order, but always with posterity in mind. In every scene something’s being enacted, recited, and, above all, recorded. The revolution will not be televised but it will be spoken into machines for future reference. Somewhere in all this, between takes, Jagger sings the title verse of ‘No Expectations.’ Sound advice for prospective viewers of this film. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

(Con-)fusion is sex (by which I mean gender)

He grew up misunderstood, beat up every day at school, and quickly nurtured his flamboyant freak credentials (this is the glam era) in the realms of music, shock value, and cross-dressing. She left home at 14, went to Alphabet City, put herself through med school, created performance art that questioned gender roles and the body’s limits, eventually becoming a nurse. They first met when he was crashing at a friend’s dungeon in the East Village.

They fell in love, and were swept up by this thing love does to us sometimes: it makes one want to consume the other, to fuse, to become a mirror to the other. Genesis P-Orridge and Jacqueline Breyer took this to heart. They didn’t want to part, ever. They wore each other’s clothes, got the same haircut and, despite their notable physical differences (his bulldog torso versus her pixie figure, a 20-year age gap), they eventually began their most ambitious project, one involving arduous surgeries, including matching breast implants, to make themselves resemble each other as much as possible. Can you imagine the luck? To find someone who not only shares your taste in fashion and art but also is willing to join you on the long, uncharted route to surgical symbiosis? Marie Losier’s The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye is a portrait of this singular love story.

Losier’s approach is hermetically sealed, told very much from the inside, in certain ways willfully naïve, and something like the opposite of journalism. There’s no commentary, no talking heads, just P-Orridge’s narration over a montage of home movies, archival footage and fragments of musical performance. I think the approach works very well, prizing intimacy over critical assessment. Why not? There’s a great story there, a forced identification with what is for most an alien lifestyle choice, and Losier crafts a very specific, oddly charming aesthetic experience from her material to boot, blending voice and image into a twinkly memory stream. But I would suggest that the film’s one major flaw is its lack of balance between its two subjects, its overwhelming focus on P-Orridge (who seems to have a knack for making himself the focus in most situations). I can’t help but think the ideal Ballad would be one in which the individual narrative of one its titular characters shifts seamlessly into the other before blurring the two, division leading to fusion. Cinema can splice reality like no other medium, and Losier’s approach, bold and precise as it is, only lacks this one great conceptual push, a way of having her project perfectly align with that of her subjects.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Weekend: Godard's eternal flaming car wreck

Title cards flash across the screen in the opening minutes of Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967); they inform us that what we’re watching and listening to is both “a film adrift in the cosmos” and “a film found atop a scrap heap.” Very different settings in which to discover a masterpiece of radical post-classical cinema, but either suggests that this is an artifact from a lost time and place, cine-notes from the end of the world. The film’s key images and sounds support this: protracted lines of stalled traffic, the drivers relentlessly, futilely honking their horns, as though the sustaining of this cacophony will do anything to quell their sociopathic road rage; rural landscapes in which the flaming ruins of crack-ups litter the freeways, corpses hanging from shattered windows or scattered across the shoulders like abandoned refuse. A three-car pile-up is overseen by a woman screaming bloody fucking murder, crying out in soul-agony, not for a loved one trapped or maimed or impaled in the wreckage, but for her Hermès handbag. In this only slightly exaggerated version of our world rape and murder is just a shot away, but the loss of designer accessories prompts a level of suffering too painful to bear in silence.

Describing such scenes risks rendering Weekend a very broad anti-consumerist satire, but the film, Godard’s fifteenth feature from his insanely prolific first decade, which begins as something of a neo-noir (a couple conspires to collect a substantial inheritance while each secretly plots the other’s demise) before descending into car-centric social breakdown and casual cannibalism, is dense with nuance, allusion and calculated misdirection. This is an audaciously blunt, bitingly politicized work in so many ways (most notably in its depiction of widespread affectless avarice as a result of high capitalism), yet its overt didacticism, delivered though rampant branding, on-screen text, militant monologues, literary quotations, and absurdist scenes of violent conflict over the most incidental damage to private property, is counterbalanced by formal strategies and narrative twists that, while firmly grounded in the era’s dominant Leftist ideology, always assures us that there's nothing noble about either side of the film’s battle between its haut bourgeoisie and forest-dwelling, Sgt. Peppery anarchist revolutionaries. Godard doesn’t need us to identify with any individual or group in Weekend; his interest seems to lie in the formation of a vast canvas, à la Bruegel, of social turmoil, drawing our attention to horrors that would feel unnervingly true-to-life as the West became increasingly embroiled in Vietnam and France would erupt into strikes and protest the following spring.

Yet Weekend’s prescience expands beyond the special chaos of the 1960s. Its use of the car as the quintessential object of consumerist idolatry is only more resonant in our age of rising oil prices, status anxiety and gaping class divides. Its formalist strategies have inspired countless subsequent satires, even if precious few strike Godard’s uncanny balance of wit, intelligence, craft and provocation. Weekend makes a brilliant double feature with Crash (1996), David Cronenberg’s inspired adaptation of the novel by J.G. Ballard, whose entire body of work could be seen as aligning itself to Godard’s vision of civilization’s auto-destruction (even if in Ballard’s version the cars are fetishized instead of demonized). So what we’ve got here is an apocalypse movie that speaks both to its moment and to the ages, a durable, colorful, endlessly fascinating, surprisingly entertaining ode to catastrophic collapse from an artist who to this day has yet to be outdone in terms of bridging the commercial cinema with the avant-garde. Vive la fin du monde! Vive Weekend!

Monday, May 14, 2012

A deep kind of blue

In a coal-smeary London still recovering from the Blitz, in rooms of hanging smoke in which despair nestles in the wallpaper, in the backseats of cars and back corners of bars, in the lonely hollows of tube stations and the yellow gloom of side streets we find this unnervingly gorgeous, desperate woman struggling to find something to do with the most potent item in her possession: desire. Neither gender has it very easy when it comes to the expression, much less the fulfillment of real longing in postwar England, but the women, those meant to be desired rather than to do the desiring, hold a special challenge (a theme you'll find fleshed out in greater depth by our articulate friend over at Feminéma). 

This is the milieu of The Deep Blue Sea, Terrence Davies’ adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play. It begins, in a sense, where Davies’ adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth left off: with a woman alone in a room with suicide. This, what we used to call a woman’s picture, is a story of transgression as recklessly valiant as it is inevitably destructive: Hester (a particularly brilliant, courageous, and sexy Rachel Weisz) is married to William (Simon Russell Beale), a judge, portly, much older than she, a mama’s boy, and very tender-loving in a way that has nothing to do with passion. Hester leaves William for Freddie (Tom Hiddleston), a lanky former RAF pilot who happens to be a war hero, a would-be bon vivant in silly ascots, a guy who lets a woman know when she gets his engine running, and a cad, neglectful, and not much more sensitive to the scope of Hester’s needs than William. So, if you’ll forgive the blunt language, this is about a woman trying to choose between a man who forgets her birthday and a man who forgets to fuck her. And it’s just about perfectly realized by Davies and his collaborators, at once raw and elegant, generous and merciless: people have their reasons, and Davies finds reasons to sympathize with everyone.

1950s England is also the milieu where Davies seems most at home, the milieu of his childhood, the one that allows him to stage people singing the good old songs in pubs (the director’s favourite on-screen activity). Shot by Florian Hoffmeister, the film glows with mostly muted colours under flickering penumbra—for the first 20 minutes I wondered if the projector’s lamp was burning out—and the elegiac strains of a Samuel Barber violin concerto. The décors, the details in behaviour—the lick of a shoulder, or the bowed head that accompanies the giving of an achingly ill-chosen gift—are all so much of a piece. But I think what I admire most about The Deep Blue Sea is its delicate balance of the subtle and the explicit. Hester’s curtains are freighted with symbolism, and characters actually speak aloud phrases like “Beware of passion.” Yet in the hands of these fine actors even the most on-the-nose dialogue brims with subtext. At its best, Davies’ work exudes an intuitive understanding of the richness of melodrama, that potentially sublime interplay between surface and depth. Even in the film’s seemingly straightforward bookend device we can trace an over-arcing lyricism: in the final shot the camera pulls back from Hester’s window, glides down the face of her rooming house, then down the street, then toward this rubble where there was once a building, and I couldn’t help but notice: that bomb just missed her.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

" was always the camera and me": Stephanie Sigman on being held captive by Miss Bala

Unfolding in bracing, often unnervingly confusing scenes constructed from lengthy methodical takes, the dominant tone of Miss Bala (a bleak pun of a title, exchanging “Baja,” as in Baja, California, for “bala,” as in bullet) is one of traumatized trance. The film follows Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman), a 23-year-old living somewhere above the poverty line with her father and little brother, somewhere on the outskirts of a city we presume to be Tijuana. Apparently on a whim, Laura decides to enter a beauty contest and, by sheer chance, subsequently becomes the pawn of a gang of drug traffickers, led by the very scary yet quietly charismatic Lino (Noe Hernandez). He sees something special in her, some unique utility. A moll? A hostage? A Mata Hari? It’s not entirely clear. What is clear is that Laura’s fear-fuelled helplessness and forced collaboration leave her caught in a catch-22 that’s more or less symbolic of the current plight of Mexico as a whole, in the grips of a drug war that just seems to get worse.

Shifting radically from the giddy, cutty, winkily melodramatic Godardisms of his 2008 tween-lovers-on-the-run film Voy a explotar!, director and co-scenarist Gerardo Naranjo has his camera hold very, very closely to Laura, who spends much of Miss Bala frozen in a state of shock, rarely speaking but almost always busy, running, crawling, hiding, changing clothes, following instructions. We can’t know what she’s thinking, even in the scenes that require some calculation on her part, but we often know how she’s feeling, thanks to the peculiar doggedness of the film’s MO and to Sigman’s passive yet highly nuanced performance. Miss Bala is chilling, relentless, intelligent, and, if one’s inclined to notice, quite funny in a dark, dry, acid sort of way (my favourite example: the flaming tire that rolls through one especially chaotic scene of street violence like it's fallen loose from a Mel Brooks picture). It’s absolutely a must-see for many reasons, some aesthetic, some sociological. And one of those reasons is Sigman, a skillful novice with excellent instincts, particularly when it comes to cultivating a sense of intimacy with the camera, and thus with us.

I spoke with Sigman during last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. She was very friendly, very excited, very forgiving of both my Spanish and my hangover, very tall in her blue dress and heels, and not altogether difficult to look at.

JB: How closely related are the stories of Laura Guerrero and Laura Zúñiga, the Sinaloa beauty queen whose ties to trafficking presumably inspired Miss Bala?

Stephanie Sigman: I don’t think they’re similar at all. It’s impossible for us to know what really happened to Laura Zúñiga. That’s one of the reasons why Gerardo made this a fiction. Of course, her story is symptomatic of a lot of things that are happening in Mexico, so it was useful to research. But because we went in a very different direction I didn’t want to focus too much on her.

JB: It seems to me that one of the major challenges for you would be that you’re the protagonist, you’re present in every scene, yet you’re far more reactive than you are active. Much is done to Laura, but she herself doesn’t really move the story forward.

SS: It’s funny, but I don’t think I was very conscious of that challenge while we were actually in production. When I saw the final film I was kind of shocked. I guess I couldn’t imagine how the pieces were going to fit. It’s weird to see yourself up there. There were moments when I actually forgot that it was me I was looking at. I would grab my chair, start to react like any other person in the cinema. It was exciting! [Laughs]

JB: Even though Laura spends most of Miss Bala in this state of suspended trauma, one of the great things about your performance is its gradations. There are distinct levels of panic or confusion or resignation. You’re always doing something that, for the most part, only we in the audience can pick up on. 

SS: Yeah, it was always the camera and me. It’s just the nature of this movie—there are only about 130 cuts in the whole thing, so what happens in any one shot is really important. Single moments go on for a long time. So I had to contain, contain, contain. We needed to keep Laura passive, which I think was Gerardo’s way of commenting on the passive nature of a lot of Mexicans right now—people just don’t know what to do anymore. But at the same time there’s a lot of things going on inside that needs to be expressed somehow.

JB: You grew up in Sonora. Has your life become more affected by violence, given how things have been escalating these last several years?

SS: You’re always hearing stories about a friend of a friend, but I feel like its getting closer. The degrees of separation are fewer. That’s pretty frightening. Things have definitely gotten worse since when I was there just five years ago.

JB: I remember back when Mexico City seemed kind of scary. These days it feels like the safest place in the country.

SS: [Laughs] Yes, that reversal still seems funny to me.

JB: Obviously Laura’s ambition to become a beauty queen is different than your ambition to act, but still I wonder if that was an aspect of her character that you could relate to.

SS: I feel like most girls at some point wants to be models or beauty queens, to have something to do with the idea of beauty. I never wanted to be Miss Mexico, but I did want to model. I was in a contest, and I didn’t win. I think every girl has that princess fantasy. But that might be a very Latin American thing.

JB: That’s interesting that you were trying to model, because I would think modeling skills would come in handy in a film like Miss Bala. Again, so much of what’s required of you is to convey something powerful and specific with just a look, or with body language.

SS: Maybe. Certainly models need to have a special awareness of the camera; even when many things are going on you have to have that undistracted relationship to the camera.

JB: Throughout Miss Bala, Lino calls Laura “Canelita,” or “Little Cinnamon.” Is that because of the colour of her skin, not too dark, not too pale?

SS: I think it has something to do with that, but it also has something to do with a story about Lino himself. Noe told me that it was related to something from Lino’s youth, some girl that Laura reminded him of.

JB: Was there a lot of that? Did you all bring in backstories?

SS: I would write things, but just for myself. I prefer not to share them, because the great thing about the seeing a movie is when it stimulates your imagination and lets you figure things out on your own.

JB: I can only imagine that spending so much time in Laura’s skin could leave one feeling deeply unsettled, kind of wrung out. Were you able to shake off the residual effects of the role?

SS: I was afraid of that. I kept thinking that I was spending more than 12 hours a day in this character, and that she might start to become me. There comes a point when you start to talk like the character, eat like the character, dream like the character. But by the end I was very, very ready to lose Laura, to let her go. So I did. Just like that.