Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Salvatore Giuliano

Salvatore Giuliano -- Francesco Rosi's 1962 Sicilian epic is unknown to American audiences.  The film's subject matter is complicated and its politics indecipherable.  Part of this movie's allure is its invitation to explore a history that was wholly unknown to me before watching this picture.  Salvatore Giuliano is objective, pitiless, and wholly astounding -- the film is humbling in this respect:  it reminds us that there are masterpieces, great films, that have completely eluded us.  The world of cinema is vast and has many centers and just because you have seen 10,000 films doesn't mean that there isn't concealed, just beyond the horizon of the familiar, an undiscovered picture possessing strange and amazing power.  Salvatore Giuliano is hard to assimilate to a view of film history focusing on Hollywood and Hollywood's critics, the counter-Hollywood, in Paris and at Cinecitta and Japan.  The film seems rooted in Italian neo-realism, but the picture seems bigger, more dauntless, and more vast in scope than most pictures in that genre.  The movie that Salvatore Giuliano most resembles in Gillo Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers, a movie that now seems unimaginable without the precedent of Rosi's picture.  In some respects, the movie expands on the sequence involving the doomed partisans at the conclusion of Rossellini's Paison, surely the most savagely objective and radical part of that film.  But Salvatore Giuliano is even more relentlessly Homeric in its icy indifference to human suffering and its relentless portrayal of political betrayal.  An outlaw, forced into the barren mountains, fights first against the local police, then, against the Fascists, and, finally, as a monarchist and separatist, leads a guerilla war for Sicilian independence -- this is the title character.  The guerilla fighters, as in many insurgencies, can't be defeated but neither can they win the war.  A political solution is reached and the guerillas, led by Giuliano, previously supported by the United States (did you know that America briefly supported Sicily's independence from Italy?), become terrorists and affiliates of the Mafia.  Giuliano is gunned-down in an ambush -- the exact truth of the guerilla fighters final shoot-out is contested by a mob of Roman journalists who skitter up and down the desolate, ruinous streets of Palermo like the crowds of paparazzi in La Dolce Vita.  After the guerilla leader's death, a show-trial of his associates is convened, ostensibly for the purpose of determining the identities of fighters who participated in a massacre of local communists at a May Day celebration.  The trial is violent chaos, the guerillas confined in seething groups in big iron cages, crowds of lawyers shouting questions and objections from the floor, ranks of weary judges and a gallery of hooting, shrieking spectators.  Curiously, the trial scenes are more violent and vehement, then, the abstract combat sequences visualized as men crouching in a jagged terrain of boulders on mountain slopes firing machine guns at scarcely visible targets.  Rosi's innovation in this film is to never show the title character except at great distance or as a corpse lying in a puddle of blood in a courtyard shot from a pitiless -- the adjective necessarily applies again and again to this film -- overhead angle.  (Later, we see the dead man  framed like Mantegna's Christ on a slab with huge wedges of ice around him.)  As far as I can determine, Giuliano has no dialogue in the film and is a shadowy figure -- I'm not sure that we see him closely enough in any of the battle or truce scenes to identify him.  Accordingly, the film is radically decentered -- we see violence, but it seems to be the effect of social and historical conditions and remains curiously impersonal.  Rosi compensates for the film's indifference to its title character by staging highly emotional scenes involving peripheral characters -- a strategy that gives the film its epic character and that prevents the violence and political maneuvering from becoming purely and inertly schematic.  We see Giuliano's mother as a ghostly figure in black grieving over her son's corpse -- her high-pitched keening is primordial, prehistoric, like something from an age before Greek tragedy; a shepherd lured into joining the guerillas throws himself on a prison floor and weeps like a girl about being separated from his family.  Rosi's objective camera shows a riot in which a vast crowd of aggrieved women, appalled to see their men hauled off to Palermo, attack the police -- the staging of the scene is rational, geometric, primarily analytical with overhead shots predominating:  the women surge forward and the carabinieri lock their rifle butts together to oppose them while, in the background, the army trucks freight the men away.  The women's ferocity is palpable as is the despair of the arrested peasants and the confusion and panic of the soldiers.  In a Hollwood film of this kind (and this is a misnomer -- there really aren't Hollywood films like this), a picture like Elia Kazan's Viva Zapata, the women's attack would serve a plot point, the men would be saved or the violence would escalate into a massacre and some sort of narrative would arise from these intensely dramatic images.  Rosi is content to simply record the women's desperate assault on the police -- it accomplishes nothing; men with guns will always repel unarmed women.  Nonetheless, Rosi's skill at staging episodes of this kind, frequently played-out in deep space, is nothing short of astonishing -- his battle scenes encompass vast mountain landscapes and, yet, are as precisely and lucidly observed as the gunfights in an Anthony Mann western, there is an indelible sense for light, terrain, the texture of weathered walls, and ancient boulders.  The massacre of the communists, filmed mostly from a great distance, is like the representation of a great, impersonal force of nature -- an ebb and flow of human beings and flags and horses across a heartless landscape as barren as Monument Valley.  Rosi uses non-professional actors, presumably the people to whom these events occurred only a few years earlier (Giuliano was murdered in 1950) and he stages his action sequences in hugely extended takes that range over acres of territory -- one scene in which police round-up suspected guerillas fluidly moves across a half-dozen city blocks, recording five or six arrests, each particularized, each featuring a new and distinct chorus of screaming women, the whole thing intensely palpable, true-to-life, and intricate and all done in one tracking shot.  A film without a hero, even without any real  protagonists, Salvatore Giuliano seems to me a unique masterpiece.  

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Holy Motors (film-notes)

Holy Motors

visa d’exploitation no. 130.255

"Men don’t want visible machines anymore."
           One limousine in dialogue with other parked limousines in Holy Motors
Premiered at Cannes in 2012, critics didn’t know what to make of Leos Carax’ Holy Motors. Variety called the film "certifiably nuts." Another reviewer said the movie was "completely bonkers." The Guardian used a British idiom: "it is barking mad." Indiewire said: "balls-to-the-wall crazy."

In Cannes, the director granted no interviews, made no apologies, and offered no interpretation. Viewers either love this film or despise it will all their heart. There seems to be no middle ground.

Cinema, Carax said, is a "cemetery". When asked whether Holy Motors was reasonably tailored to popular audiences, Carax morosely said: "I don’t know what you mean by ‘popular audiences’, you mean a crowd of people who will soon be dead." In the context of these comments, many reviewers analyzed Holy Motors in distinctly funereal terms. But other critics argued that when the Cannes’ jury awarded its grand prize to Michael Haneke’s Amour, a film explicitly about death and dying, the festival chose "death over vibrant life, that is the life embodied in Leos Carax’ Holy Motors."
Some quotations
Leos Carax, the director of Holy Motors, says that he doesn’t like giving interviews. But, when he speaks, Carax is frequently memorable. Like his hero, Jean-Luc Godard, he can be both secretive and voluble.
About cinema, Carax says: "I’m not a cineaste. I’ve made so few films. Sometimes it feels each one is the last one or the first one. I’ve done ten, maybe 12, hours of film in 30 years." He argues that "cinema is a territory. It exists outside of movies. It’s a place I live in. It’s a way of seeing things, of experiencing life. But making films, that’s supposed to be a profession." Most of Carax’s films feature a woman who was his lover when the movie was made: "very few people have filmed their lovers so many times. It does affect life. It’s beautiful but it’s also destructive."

At 51, Carax feels the icy wind of mortality. The mother of his seven year old daughter, Yekaterina Golubdova, died last year as did his long-time cinematographer and his producer: "You make films for the dead," Carax says, "but they are seen by the living."

"I’m not only my films, but I’m pretty much my films," he has told interviewers.

As to casting Denis Lavant in the film, Carax said: "If Denis had turned down the role (of Mr. Oscar), I would have offered the part to Lon Chaney or to Chaplin, possibly to Peter Lorre or Michel Simon. But they’re all dead."
Leos Carax
"Leos Carax" is the professional name of Alexandre Oscar Dumont – the stage name is an anagram of "Alexandre Oscar". Carax was born in Paris in 1951, the son of a French father and American mother.
In the eighties, Carax was thought to be the Bruce Springsteen of French cinema. He made three pictures in a highly individual and poetic style and was hailed as the most important film maker of his generation. But, then, the inevitable setbacks and disillusion occurred – and, for many years, Carax has barely worked.
Carax collaborates with Denis Lavant, an actor that he regards as his surrogate and alter ego. (The relationship is similar to that between Fellini and Marcello Mastrioanni or Bergman and Max von Sydow.) His first three films were poetic, moody variations on a single theme or set of themes – boy meets girl, boy loses girl. Indeed, his first feature film was called Boy Meets Girl (1984). This was followed by a science fiction film on the same general theme, Bad Blood (1986). His most expensive and grandiose treatment of this issue was Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, a descriptive title that sounds better than the film’s English name, The Lovers on the Bridge (1989)
Les Amants du Pont-Neut proved to be Carax’ catastrophe, the film that wrecked his career. Carax wanted to film this morbid romance on the Pont-Neuf bridge in Paris. Not surprisingly, Parisian authorities only authorized a ten-day shoot on the structure – only in cinema-mad Paris would the authorities have been so generous. Les Amants du Pont-Neuf is fantastically elaborate and rococo involving many complex tracking shots across the bridge, all designed with complex studio-style lighting. (Much of the film looks like a hypertrophied MTV video – much fast cutting with globs of brilliant starburst radiance and dense chiaroscuro, zigzag camera motions through melodramatic fogs and torrential downpours sculpted by backlighting.) Paris was too busy and difficult for the effects that Carax was attempting and so he had the entire bridge re-built in a provincial city in the south of France. The picture’s delirious mise-en-scene propelled it way over-budget and the industry developed an Erich von Stroheim aversion to Carax – he was too expensive, too temperamental, too quixotic, and too perfectionist.
Despite largely positive reviews (some critics called Les Amants "the most beautiful movie ever made), the picture lost money and Carax didn’t work for ten years. His next film was Pola X released to great fanfare in 1999. Pola X is completely perverse and a paradox, a big-budget lavishly produced experimental film. The picture adapts Herman Melville’s critically controversial novel Pierre or the Ambiguities, a book that has been variously praised as Melville’s greatest work and denounced as unreadable kitsch – "incest in a cottage" is a charitable way of describing the novel. Pola X baffled everyone and, like the book it was based on, was either overpraised or derided as a confusing mess.

Producers were no longer willing to gamble on Carax. For another ten years, Carax tinkered with various projects on which financing was unavailable –he wrote an adaptation of Henry James "Beast in the Jungle" and tried to raise money to make a documentary on "the female voice," pitched as a film about "lullabies around the world." In 2007, he made a short picture for an anthology film about Tokyo – the unimaginatively named Tokyo! That film featured a monstrous character invented by Carax, the alarming Monsieur Merde – a figure that appears in one of the segments in Holy Motors.

In order to make Holy Motors, Carax had to compromise. Although he had vehemently attacked films made digitally with high-definition video cameras, Carax agreed that he would shoot Holy Motors with this process in order to control expenses. Carax promised to make the picture cheaply. Audiences and critics had liked Monsieur Merde and so Carax also agreed to revive the character for the picture. Carax has said that the film was inspired by stretch limousines that he saw prowling the streets of Paris. The stretch limousines, Carax notes, are like movies – they "are meant to be seen," but, at the same time, resist vision in that you can not look into them.

Holy Motors was a critical success in France and was named by Cahiers du Cinema as the best film of the year. The movie has been universally praised by film critics – often a bad sign in my view – and was on all ten-best lists for 2012. The British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound ranked Holy Motors as the second best-reviewed picture of 2012 after Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.
Holy Motors has restored Carax’ bankability – he now has funding for his next film, a picture called Scars based on the Faust legend and presently in production in Paris and Moscow.
What does the phrase "Holy Motors" mean?
Here is clue derived from a remark made by Carax and published in Australia:
The film is...a form of science fiction in which humans, beasts, and machines are on the verge of extinction – "sacred motors" linked together by a common fate and solidarity, slaves to an increasingly virtual world, a world from which visible machines, (as well as) real experience and actions are gradually disappearing.Holy Motors refers, then, to man and his tools conceived as a mechanism. After the Descartes, philosophers found it possible (even, perhaps, necessary) to perceive of human beings as complex equipment, intricate devices that operated according to certain scientifically established principles. Pre-modern man was an ensouled being, poised between eschatological eternities. Post-renaissance man is a mechanism, but, nonetheless, sufficiently beautiful and complex to be regarded as "holy" – a kind of residue remaining from the earlier religious perspective on human beings.
Carax seems to think that man as a machine, a visible device that exists in the world and that has an instrumental character, is vanishing into the image of man. Carax has said that the limousine is an example of an anachronistic tool, a big car that soon no one will need since machines that operate mechanically, that is by gear and lever and internal combustion, are rapidly being absorbed into the virtual universe. The world is becoming "digital;" human beings and their tools, including their art (and film), are becoming extinct – the film, Carax’ first shot digitally, embodies the retreat of the real and tangible behind a streaming veil of digitized data. Carax shows us the image of man as portrayed by Muybridge at the very dawn of the age of cinema. This allusion suggests that man remains the measure of all things and that the image of man is decisive in our culture. But if the image of man lacks a referent – that is, a real breathing, sweating, palpable human being, what is the status of that image? Since the renaissance, the image of man has assumed the dignity of the sacred – the image of man replaces the image of God and his Saints as being the "holy motor" that drives our civilization. But what is the dignity of an image that has no actual thing to which it refers.
How exactly human beings are vanishing, as maintained by Carax, seems mysterious to me. Surely, Carax can’t mean that humans, as "holy motors" have ceased to exist. We can refute that bizarre notion by masturbating or pinching ourselves. But what if the idea of a stable, socially defined and culturally constant identity has dissolved? What if people are lost in a maze of potential images and identities? What if the proliferation of digital media presents so many contradictory images of human potential to us that the entire notion of a fixed, articulable, and coherent identity ceases to exist. In that case, what does the sacred icon of the human being, then, represent? If we are lost in a digital hall of mirrors, how can the image of man have any real, or definite, meaning.

Has the image of man become something that is no longer self-evident, but rather just one of millions of questionable, photo-shopped, motion-captured, fabrications? Is the image of man now something that is fundamentally insoluble?
The German Ideology
In Marx’s 1845, The German Ideology, a famous passage asserts:
In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity, but each can be accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and, thus, makes it possible for me to one thing today and another tomorrow: to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisher, herdsman, or critic.The end of history defined in terms of the class struggle liberates human potential – or, perhaps, turns everyone into a dilettante.

We can apply this idea toCarax’ Holy Motors to assert:
In digital virtual society, all information is equally available to all and, therefore, consumers may become accomplished in any field of endeavor that they wish. This makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow: I may hunt on my computer in the morning, pursuing virtual prey, study the distribution and population of fish in the afternoon, impersonate a porn star in the evening, and write learned treatises on any subject that interests me after dinner. But I experience these things and acquire this information without ever becoming a real hunter, without ever actually seeing fish in the water, without having actual sex (although I can use my computer and YouTube if I desire to make movies) and my learned treatises are based on Wikipedia entries that may be completely false and distorted. The essence of digital existence is impersonation. A tabula rasa inhabits various computerized avatars – encounters dungeons and dragons, serves as a tough Marine killing lizard-men and fire-sprites on a devastated planet, constructs cities and civilizations, runs imaginary households, drives a Formula One in the Gran Prix and plays NFL football. But the person who does this is not a race-car driver, sedentary to the point of desuetude, often inaccessible to his real family and household and passive. The computer gamer playing a game in which he or she builds an entire civilization, an enterprise with god-like characteristics, may be wholly powerless in transactions with the actual hardware comprising what was once called the "world.".
But all this pretentiousness, this highfalutin’ exegesis, disregards most of the evidence on the screen. Holy Motors is mostly a surrealistic gag, directly related to Bunuel’s similarly episodic The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie – indeed, the opening sequence in Carax’ film, the director waking from a dream to find his bedroom connected to a movie theater cites Bunuel’s film. (Although Carax has said that the scene derives from a story or anecdote from E. T. A. Hoffmann – imagery of this sort was hoary in the early 19th century when Hoffmann wrote – The Discrete Charm is more proximate as an influence.)

Carax wants to make a film that denies the possibility of making a conventional narrative picture. My suspicion is that this denial is based upon Carax’ personal incapacity, his own failure of the imagination with respect to devising a conventional narrative with plausible characters and motivations. The movie seems to me to be a variant on Fellini’s strategy in 8 ½ (and most of the Italian’s later movies) – if you are creatively "blocked" and can’t figure out a way to make a movie, then, you film your frustration and make a film about not being able to make a film.

Jules Marey
At the outset of Holy Motors, as well as before the Entracte, Carax films animations derived from the famous chronophotographs made by Jules Maray. These images appear in black-and-white in the film and study motion – a boy jumping and a hand flexing. Jules Maray (1830 - 1904) was a French scientist and pioneer photographer. He invented a device called the Chronophotographe, a sort of camera-gun capable of recording sixty images a second. The Chronophotographe made prints showing successive stages of motion distributed across a single large image – that is, all frames were printed on a single large picture. The effect is to graph animal and human motion across a black and white grid.

Maray published his first book of Chronophotographic pictures in 1873. The book is called La Machine Animale, a title that has significance in the context of Carax’ film specifically invoking "holy motors." Eadward Muybridge, in California, saw Maray’s images tracking animal motion and was particularly impressed by Chronophotographes showing horses running. These pictures led Muybridge to his famous bet – namely, that he could prove that during race horse’s gallop all four feet are raised off the ground for an instant in the animal’s stride. Muybridge developed his technique of stop-motion photography in response to images that he studied in Marey’s volume. (Muybridge and Marey are, generally, considered originators of photographic techniques that evolved into the early cinema.)

Marey’s work became increasingly abstract. In 1890, he published a book called Le Vol des Oiseaux, comprised of images of birds in flight. His last work involved Chronophotographes of smoke trails filmed in aerodynamic wind-tunnels. These images were made around 1900.

Holy Motors cites Maray’s images for several reasons. First, Holy Motors is Carax’ view of the death of cinema. A film that posits itself as the end of cinema, accordingly, begins with pictures from the prehistory of the movies. Carax means to show us both the beginning and the end of the sacred machine, the ‘holy motor’ of film. Second, Maray’s pictures are the ancestral predecessor to the "motion capture" images used in contemporary special-effects driven movies – the episode involving Mr. Oscar’s choreographed copulation with the lizard woman, and his appearance in front of a special effects "blue screen" foreground the technology of cinema. Movies are machine-driven; they are a technology involving a "visible machine" – that is, a camera, motion capture apparatus, or, primordially, a Chronophotographe. Finally, Maray’s images capture the mechanical aspects of motion. They reveal the "holy motor" of animal and human locomotion, that is, the image of man as a mechanical apparatus, La Machine Animale.  
What does it mean?
For about a century, from 1910 to 2010, human beings organized their perception around photographically rendered moving pictures. Film was the instrument by which people perceived the world. It was the Holy Motor, the technology that managed both our expectations about, and our understanding of, the world. Godard famously proclaimed: "Photography is truth. Cinema is truth 24 times a second." And in Histoire(s) du Cinema, Godard says: "Cinema projected and men saw that the world was there."

How did the movies shape our perception of reality? Carax posits the "Holy Motor" of the camera as establishing a Holy Mot (RS) – that is, a sacred writ or holy word. His film explores how the moving image, and its narratives, configures reality. As I have argued previously, the image stands at one remove from the real things that it portrays. Hence, the world is already partly dematerialized by film narratives that impose templates on our experience. As film cedes its hegemony to digital media, the image itself dissolves and is dematerialized – the transformation of the shared experience of a movie, an immersion in darkened space with other spectators gazing at a bright light, for a solipsistic digital picture, something "smaller than a human head," indeed, smaller than a human fist, seems to accomplish something like the abolition of any kind of jointly experienced, communal reality. (French philosophes are as prone to exaggeration as Bishop Berkeley – the dissolution of the image, certainly, doesn’t necessarily equate to an existential dissolution of reality. I can still stub my toe on a rock even though my smart-phone digital picture of that obstacle is a bit blurry and insubstantial. But the point is that reality is fundamentally constructed with respect to its meaning and different technologies do, in fact, engender different perceptions of reality.)

Carax ends the film by showing us white limousines parked in the lot at Holy Mot(o)rs. The limousines lament their demise as the "visible machines" that carried narrative meaning for human beings. Necessary to this understanding is a pun – the word "vehicle," at least in English, means both a physical conveyance as well as denotes a device for transmitting narrative meaning. We say that a melodrama, for instance, was a "Bette Davis vehicle" – "Douglas Sirk’s films in the fifties are vehicles for covertly conveying Rock Hudson’s ambivalent sexuality." I have no idea whether the meaning of the word "vehicle" in French is equivalent. It doesn’t matter anyhow. English is the international language and Carax’s mother was an American. Thus, Holy Motors represents an encyclopedia of vehicles that have hitherto comprised narrative film. (Notice that the lineage of film as a black and white medium is invoked by the pictures of the white limousine trailed by the black sedan full of menacing bodyguards. As Holy Motors progresses, black and white, as well as color, however, yields to the green-screen infra-red night vision imagery periodically inserted into the film – in this century, film has become the medium for night commando raids, bombing attacks of Iraqi cities, Zero Dark Thirty (the attack on Abbottabad), all evidence of a drone world, of virtual reality increasingly detached from actual reality.) Carax uses his film to demonstrate the futility and exhaustion of the old vehicles, that is, the old structures for portraying human affairs in images.

The movie begins with an image of a man sleeping, perhaps, dreaming. (The man is Leos Carax). The sleeper wakes to find himself is a strange room. The sequence is shot to confuse us as to what is real and what is virtual – we can’t tell whether a shiny surface in the man’s bedroom is glass or a mirror. A peculiar digital image appears in the bottom of the screen next to the window’s perspective on Paris. Like Dante, Carax is middle-aged and lost in a dark wood. The wall of his room is papered with images of a forest, birch trees. The reference to the selva oscura, the dark forest, suggests that Carax is confused, troubled, and has lost his way. Suddenly, his finger sprouts a prosthetic key or screwdriver and he finds that the wall can be opened to lead him into a corridor and, then, onto the balcony overlooking the silent audience watching what is probably the last movie in the world – we hear the surge of sea and waves, but can’t see the pictures that seem to enthrall the people in the theater. Carax’ image of the shadowy audience in the theater seems related to Abbas Kiarostami’s film, Shirin, a movie that also can be interpreted as an elegy for a lost, and discredited, narrative movie-making – in the Iranian director’s movie, we see an audience of women of various ages watching a romantic melodrama and reacting to it. Kiarostami shows the women’s faces and their reactions but not what they are watching. In Carax’ prelude, a little girl and a monstrous-looking dog are patrolling the aisles of the nightmare cinema. (The dog will later re-appear in the penultimate of Oscar’s "appointments" as the big black mastiff on the dying man’s bed.) The cinema has become Tarkovsky’s Zone – that is, the space in which desire becomes dangerously manifest. The black dog cites the dream-dog in Stalker and, indeed, no sooner are we conscious of this allusion, then, the film cuts to an image that is explicitly similar to those in Tarkovsky’s films – the child in the round glass window, her features obscured by the reflections on the pane (again a confusion between whether a surface is transparent or opaque: window or mirror?). The film’s opening, accordingly, establishes several themes: Carax’ confusion and discomfiture, the funereal cinema, the prosthesis that will later be echoed again and again in Mr. Oscar’s Lon Chaney-like transmutations, and the notion that it is important that reality be projected in order to be seen.

The first episode, Mr. Oscar’s departure from his "home," is intentionally misleading. Carax deceives us into thinking that Mr. Oscar lives somewhere, has a wife and family, and that he leaves this abode in order to attend on the nine appointments prescribed for him by his chauffeur Celine. In fact, as the film’s ending shows us, there is no "home" from which Mr. Oscar departs, in fact, no Mr. Oscar and no Celine, every part of the film is an impersonation, a parody or travesty of some kind of movie-making – there is no solid ground underfoot. Mr. Oscar’s actual identity is unknown and unknowable – he simply moves from one role to another ceaselessly. There is no point in the film where anything that we see is real – everything is staged, acted-out and this, of course, is always true of a movie: it doesn’t show us the truth but is a kind of dream. In fact, in the larger scheme of the film, Mr. Oscar’s departure from his hyper-modern house seems to enact certain conceits and structures defining the European art film circa 1963 – the house looks like something from an Antonioni film, La Notte or L'Eclisse.

Mr. Oscar is the prototypical man of the cinema. He is the little neutral statuette that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences distributes annually at its program in Los Angeles. Oscar is as featureless as Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus idol, a neutral cipher that can be all things to all people. Oscar’s name signifies the cinema and the remainder that the picture represents an encyclopedia of the "holy motors" of cinema, a compendium of the narratives that have comprised the history of the movies. (With several exceptions: Carax doesn’t travesty the American Western and can’t exactly duplicate the joi d’vivre of silent comedy.)
Appointment one – Mr. Oscar masquerades as an old beggar woman – parodies Italian neo-realism. The old woman proclaims that no one loves her and wishes that she were dead. Carax films her interactions with passers-by using a hidden camera, the footage is documentary in character.

Appointment two is the antipodes of Italian neo-realism – that is, imagery derived from special-effects driven Hollywood science fiction. In this episode, we see Mr. Oscar participating in motion capture for a big budget blockbuster. This sequence accordingly epitomizes the kind of film that you see in the summer at an IMAX theater, all violence, sex, and explosions. (Motion capture, however, also is fundamental to the cinema. As the examples of Muybridge and Marey demonstrate, the moving picture is, in effect, a technology for "motion capture.")

Appointment three involves Monsieur Merde, the demonic leprechaun, at Harry T-Bone’s fashion shoot for Wave magazine. This sequence dramatizes the "Beauty and the Beast" narrative that is the motor "driving" innumerable films as well as the nexus between cinema and the world of glamorous fashion. Carax suggests that this type of narrative is fundamentally a form of silent picture – the sequence invokes the underground lakes and sewers in The Phantom of the Opera (and, also, The Third Man) and uses silent film techniques, such as vignetting to advance its narrative. Carax suggests an important dynamic in film making – the homely, middle-aged man directing a beautiful woman. We see this represented in the grotesque and comic figure of Harry T-Bone at the fashion shoot in Pere Lachaise. Hollywood’s film industry is very much about corpulent businessmen and gawky directors exploiting beautiful women (and being exploited by them). Carax goes so far as to imply that the sexual politics of fashion magazines (and feature films) is somehow equivalent to the reactionary program of the Taliban. In one instance, men exploit women by disrobing them – this is Hollywood. By contrast, the Taliban oppresses women by covering them up, while the man’s sexuality is fully exposed. In any event, the ‘motor’ that drives many feature films is the exploitation of the image of the woman. Roger Corman once said that the cheapest of all special effects is a pair of naked, nicely shaped breasts – "it’s better and cheaper than a car crash or a fiery explosion."

Appointment four is a venture into Indie cinema. We have peculiar ultra-hip music on the radio, the city at night, and a realistic-seeming confrontation between characters playing "father" and "daughter" – all the furniture of the post-modern Indie film. It is surprising how the genre of the independent film now seems to ground our reality. Many critics writing about Holy Motors have mistakenly argued that this episode in an interpolation of "reality" – that we are seeing Mr. Oscar with his real daughter. (But if this is true – what about the opening scene? And what about Mr. Oscar’s simian family in the last reel.) Viewers tend to perceive this sequence as grounded in reality as opposed to Mr. Oscar’s other appointments because there are no elaborate prosthetics, no fake blood or putty noses, and the acting (as well as subject matter) seems realistic. But this episode is no more "grounded in reality" than anything else in the film. Viewers are deceived by the pseudo-realistic texture of this sequence and Denis Levant’s Tom Waits’ style appearance and delivery – but just because an Independently-financed film posits itself as the "new realism" doesn’t mean that the conventions of the genre are any more valid or true-to-life than a Tom Cruise movie. And, in some ways, the colloquy between father and daughter is more disturbing, more frightening, in fact, than anything else in the movie.

There follows the musical Entracte in the church. Since the early 1980's feature films have been heavily influenced by music video and so there’s no reason that Holy Motors shouldn’t highlight a brief bit of this kind of movie-making.

Appointment five catapaults us into the world of gritty and brutal crime cinema – it’s like Quentin Tarantino redux. Appointment six is the confrontation with the producer in the limousine. This sequence is programmatic in that it states some of the principles behind the film. Surveillance is continuous and cameras are ubiquitous – but what if there is no one to watch the footage ceaselessly amassed? The death of cinema, in part, is due to the proliferation of the image – there are pictures everywhere, far too many, to be seen. Denis Lavant, as always in a Carax film, speaks for the director. Why did he begin producing images? "Because of the beauty of the act." But what if there is no one else to behold this beauty? The discussion about making images is mirrored by Celine’s statement: "isn’t Paris particularly beautiful at night?" But Carax doesn’t show us the beauty. Instead, we see the city by night-vision, as a terrain for commando raids and police assassinations – the city as refracted through the lenses of a million surveillance cameras churning out images that no one will see. This dialogue raises one of the crucial problems that the film presents: why is Mr. Oscar performing these parts? What is the purpose for his ceaseless mutations? Is there someone watching? If so, who is it? (Someone is watching: it is you and I.)

The sixth episode embodies another interpretative problem, an issue first raised in the dialogue between Angela and her father (appointment four). Are we seeing a scheduled appointment, that is, one of Mr. Oscar’s pre-scripted adventures, or something else – that "something else" specifically an intrusion of the "real" into the appointments that have been plotted for Mr. Oscar on this night? Ultimately, the film will demonstrate that there is no foundational reality at all – the scenes that seem interventions or random events or framing episodes (the producer in the car, Mr. Oscar leaving his "home" at dawn), all of these moments are part of the film that we are watching and none of them is ontologically privileged to signify the truth. What happens in the limousine between appointments is just as "unreal" as the appointments themselves. This thesis is demonstrated by the apparently opportunistic murder of the banker – after all in the wake of the financial crisis wouldn’t we all like to kill a banker? Mr. Oscar seems to be inspired by a sudden frenzy, leaps out of the car and puts a bullet in the bankers’ brain, paying for his importunity by falling under a hail of bullets. But, as we see, this episode is no more "real" than anything else in the movie.

I count the banker’s murder as appointment seven, although Celine characterizes it as a "mix-up." Appointment eight is lush melodrama, a novelistic interpolation in the form of a richly appointed adaptation of a best-selling book from the Victorian era – Dickens or Balzac or Proust light. This scene incorporates the lines that Mr. Oscar was memorizing when he went berserk and killed the banker – accordingly, we are clearly back in the realm of Oscar’s designated appointments for the evening. As Mr. Vogen dies, we see the sinister black dog from the opening episode curled up on his death bed.

Appointment nine takes Mr. Oscar to La Samaritaine, a formerly palatial department store located immediately adjacent to the Pont Neuf. (La Samarataine, built in 1900, was closed in 2005 – it is rumored that the building will re-open in 2016 as a Japanese-owned hotel.) The Pont Neuf was the site of Carax’ movie The Lovers on the Bridge and represents an intertexual citation of that earlier picture – films cite films; movies are about movies and there is no "bottom" or ground in reality to allusions that allude to other images and texts that are, themselves, constructed from quotations from previous works. The eerie interior of Samaritaine simulates the inside of the Bradbury Building in Ridley Scott’s iconic Bladerunner and the image of the woman falling through huge letters, the Holy Mot, also derives from the climax of that science fiction film.  I think it may be asserted that the Samaritaine episode is self-referential -- in this sequence, Carax presents a  "Carax film".

Mr. Oscar’s night-journeys concluded, Carax brings his hero "home" to a wife and child who happen to be chimpanzees. Here is why audiences either love or detest this movie: if you thought that the opening scene showed Mr. Oscar leaving behind his "real" wife and daughter, Carax has made a "monkey of you."

Celine brings the limousine back to Holy Mot rs. The film has trained us to regard the enigmatic chauffeur as the only stable and immutable presence in the movie. If nothing else, Celine is real. But, of course, she is also merely playing a role. She calls someone and says that she is coming home, donning a scary-looking mask. This mask is a prop from Georges Franju’s 1960 horror film, Eyes without a Face. The actress who starred in that film was Edith Scob, the same woman, now aged, who plays Celine, the chauffeur in Holy Motors. In Eyes without a Face, Scob played a horribly disfigured woman whose father, a plastic surgeon kidnaps beautiful young women, slices off their faces, and grafts their skin over his daughter’s ruined features. What is behind the mask? Nothing. The image dissolves into nothingness – nothing is real but looking. A movie is "eyes without a face" – a machine for looking that is not grounded in anything tangible or real. Since the image is without foundation it is also completely disposable – hence the lament of the limousines in their funereal rows, flashing their lights as they whisper morosely to one another.

Weird -- or What? revisited

Weird -- or What? (revisited)   Undeniably strange, even disturbing, the second season of this Canadian TV show stretches cognitive dissonance to the breaking point.  William Shatner, the bemused and, apparently, half-demented host, no long jauntily scoots up to his suburban house on a Segway. In these episodes, he rides up to his front door on a horse, dismounts a bit warily (or, at least, his body-double does) and, once again, enters his gloomy mansion proclaiming that it's a weird world -- 'or what?' The series' formula remains unchanged, a sequence of triads -- three semi-dramatized events that are posited as inexplicable, each of the three encounters with the "weird," then, explicated by three pundits.  The pundits always present one scientific explanation for the story, one explanation that relies on outre psychological theorizing, and, then, an overtly occult explication -- space aliens, ancient astronauts, monsters, and ghosts.  The show's stable of pundits is bargain-basement at best -- most of the talking heads are identified as "psychologists," although a few seem to be boozy, discredited Professors Emeritus from reputable colleges.  Some of the so-called experts look like they are deranged themselves; some seem to be about 13 years old and the camera treats them brutally, using fish-eye lens effects to make their un-handsome faces and beady eyes bulge like tumors against the screen of your TV tube.  (I particularly admired the "rogue" taxidermist from Minnesota who specializes in attaching lizard skulls or chimp heads on squirrels and rabbits -- the guy seemed to have been smoking dope in the minutes before his on-screen interview.)  Another peculiarity of the show is that the staged reconstructions of events perversely use actors and actresses who are even uglier, older, and fatter than their actual counterparts morosely narrating the horrors that have befallen them.  (Normally, shows like this use low-grade starlets and male underwear models to dramatize the accounts of the witnesses -- the conceit is that these adventures occurred in the past when the hapless witness was considerably younger, sleeker, and better-looking; Weird -- or What? reverses this equation:  the homely witnesses are portrayed by people even more off-kilter, older, and stranger-looking:  it's as if the real-life witnesses are talking about things that will happen in their miserable future and not in their miserable past.)  Shatner's contribution to this grotesquerie is completely bizarre:  he mugs and makes lame jokes, nudges extras in rubber monster masks, boils eggs and sips whiskey.  Shatner is collecting his pay-check for periodically pronouncing, in portentous tones, the show's title and catch-phrase, grimacing as if experiencing a particularly unpleasant bowel movement.  In one episode, the real-life witness, a fat guy who was literally bisected by a train, explains how he managed to get split in two by a freight car's iron wheels.  This grisly tale, told by a bearded torso uneasily perched on a wheelchair, is supplemented by "actual scene photos" so  horrific that they have to be blurred into Jackson Pollock style mists and splashes of red -- an effect that only makes everything worse.  It made me physically sick and I had to retreat into the dining room and watch the episode as reflected in the glass of a window looking out onto my driveway.  After 20 minutes of spilled guts and arterial bleeding, Shatner appears in his kitchen and makes a few jocular remarks, essentially jesting about the whole thing.  In the next sequence, a British tour-guide in Zambezi (or some such place) gets eaten by a hippopotamusThis guy is also reduced to a bearded torso sitting like a buddha on his wheelchair and we are regaled by tales of how the river-monster's 20 inch fangs penetrated the man's body, how the hippo sat on the Brit's crushed belly on the bed of the river, how the guy was, in effect, desanguinated.  Shatner appears just before the commercial in his backyard and uses a hippo's scimitar-shaped incisors to stab at a watermelon, apparently attempting to simulate the way that the beast's jaws skewered the unfortunate man -- and, all the while, he is hamming it up for the camera and chiseling raw, red chunks of watermelon, supposedly representing the victim's torso.  This show is uniquely addictive.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Happy People -- A Year on the Taiga

Happy People - A Year on the Taiga - On first glance, Happy People seems indistinguishable from a PBS Nature documentary or something on the National Geographic channel.  The film chronicles the activities of sable hunters embarking into the wilderness from a tiny, isolated village in central Siberia.  The pictures are mostly prosaic, You-Tube videos that show you how to split wood with wedges, set deadfall traps, protect the rotor-props of your boats against rocks, clean a northern pike.  The 90 minute picture has lush Hollywood score and a highly conventional structure -- the cycle of the seasons programmatically depicted with Brueghel-esque detail on the activities necessary and appropriate to each time of year.  (This is a structure perfected in many old Disney documentaries.)  But the picture is a production of Werner Herzog and, about ten hours after seeing the film, it's eerie extremism detonates in your imagination.  Although infinitely milder and more benign, Happy People is stylistically a variant on Grizzly Man -- Herzog is shaping someone else's more profuse film into his own vision:  Happy People is Herzog's edit of a four-hour Russian show, presumably a TV series, equipped with his trademark dead-pan narration and, in fact, the picture is a work of thoroughgoing and anarchic extremism -- an ode to self-reliance that is not merely right-wing conservative but paleolithic.  Someone once asked Gary Snyder to identify when it was that human beings lived happily and in accord with Nature.  Snyder answer was something like this:  "The Paleolithic -- by the early Neolithic, we had already screwed things up."  Herzog's perspective is similarly radical.  The hunters of the taiga seem to live an ancient, primeval world -- although they own snowmobiles, they use them cautiously, in a strangely primitive way, forcing narrow tunnel-like passageways through dense forest.  These men build and temper their own skis and, at one point, Herzog says that they look like cavemen trudging through the wilderness on their stubby wooden homemade skis.  They are truly "happy people" in Herzog's view because they are wholly self-sufficient and isolated from a modern world that the film maker seems to despise.  These hunters, if interview statements are typical, reject domesticating animals for slaughter.  According to the ethic of a hunter, it is cruel and deceitful to feed an animal and raise it only to butcher the friendly beast.  "I couldn't kill my cattle," a hunter says, "because the animal would come to me hoping that I would pet it or give it a treat and instead I'm supposed to put a bullet in its head."  To the hunter, the sable are co-equals -- the hunter and his prey try to outwit one another and the sable fox knows to stay away from people; it's not deluded about the good intentions of human beings.  Thus, the community that Herzog celebrates (almost wholly lone men) lives according to moral principles that pre-date the domestication of cows and pigs -- the men work in solitude for half of the year accompanied by the only domesticated animal worthy of a hunter, big tough and hardworking dogs.  (One dog runs 150 kilometers without stopping beside his hunter's snowmobile -- another pooch dives into a river that is about a mile-wide and fierce with currents to chase a caribou; Herzog notes "the dog can't catch the caribou, but he must try.")  Ultimately, the film functions as an intensely romantic and bizarre critique of civilization.  A politician appears in the town and, in a classically Herzogian sequence, surrealistically delivers a stump speech to a dozen children on a muddy riverbank, buys votes with sacks of flour, and, then, serenades the townspeople and their dogs -- the sequence could be an outtake from Fitzcarraldo.  The native people have been reduced to penury and alcoholism.  An old woman makes enigmatic wooden dolls as protective spirits for her house -- but no one seems to know what the dolls mean or exactly how they protect the home. (In fact, a fire destroys one of the native drunk's home and he laments the loss of his "dolls" in that blaze.)  We see the old lady depart, presumably because she is terminally ill, by helicopter -- we don't know where she is going or why and Herzog's narration doesn't even mention these images, but the effect is suitably strange and dire.  In fact, Herzog doesn't explicitly articulate the dangers associated with these people's lives -- we see them confronting all sorts of deadly perils -- and makes no attempt to dramatize the risks associated with hundred mile hikes in minus 60 degree weather or crossing raging rivers a mile wide; this is implicit but never stated, an effect that makes the peril seem even more extraordinary.  When the ice breaks up in the river, a vast landscape of white surges north past the village, an astounding apocalyptic image.  Civilization in Herzog's eyes seems to be a detestable failure and the last people in the world preserving ancient values, the secret code of humanity, are these villagers surrounded by halos of mosquitos or trudging through the snowy frigid forests a belt of sable foxes frozen solid around their waists.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013



Robert Rossen’s idiosyncratic Lilith was released in 1964. The film is an interesting attempt to apply narrative techniques and photographic methods developed in European art cinema to a star-driven American movie. The picture is notable for fine performances by Warren Beatty and Henry Fonda, Jr. The movie is famous for Jean Seberg’s acting as the titular demon, Lilith, the familiar of screech-owls and the malign spirit of the air.
The dark maiden Ki.siki.li.lu (Lilith) makes her home in the trunk of the huluppu tree in Uruk. She is not a wife, she is not mother, she has not known happiness, has not undressed in front of her husband, has no milk in her breasts.
                                                    Sumerian myth: Inanna and the Huluppu Tree 
Robert Rossen
Like Paddy Chayefsky, although a generation his senior, Robert Rossen (born Rosen) was a tough, high-strung New York Jew. His father was a rabbi and he was born on the Lower East Side in 1908. As a young man, Rossen hustled pool, lived on the streets, and did some prize-fighting. After a stint at New York University, Rossen became involved with radical groups promoting workers’ theater – he directed a show about a strike called Steel and another theater-piece about lynching. Broadway types, slumming in the lower East Side ghetto, saw these shows and Rossen was encouraged to submit his scripts to Hollywood. Mervyn LeRoy, a director at Warner Brothers, admired one of Rossen’s plays and suggested that the young man move to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the film industry.

In Hollywood, Rossen wrote a number of highly regarded scripts. He was a card-carrying member of the American Communist Party between 1937 and 1947 and remained sympathetic to the party in solidarity with "poor Jews" until 1949. In that period, he worked on many films and developed his trademark style (not in evidence in Lilith), a kind of vivid, socially conscious melodrama. Noteworthy films that he wrote were The Roaring Twenties (1939), The Sea Wolf (1941), A Walk in the Sun (1945), and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. (1946). Rossen was working on adapting B. Traven’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre when political problems intervened and the project was transferred to John Huston – he was unofficially blacklisted in 1951. Despite the looming crisis, Rossen was very successful and productive in the late forties. He wrote Abraham Polonsky’s boxing film Body and Soul (1947) starring John Garfield and directed All the King’s Men, based on the Robert Penn Warren novel, in 1949. That film won several Oscars including Best Picture. Rossen followed All the King’s Men, with The Brave Bulls (1950), a well-reviewed bullfighting picture.

In late 1951, Rossen was subpoened to appear before the House Unamerican Affairs Committee (HUAC). This was the application of the Red Scare to Hollywood, a proposed purge of the film industry of "Communists and fellow travelers." Rossen appeared, pled the Fifth Amendment, and refused to provide testimony. This resulted in a de facto blacklisting that proscribed employment for Rossen – at least in Hollywood. Rossen appeared before HUAC again in 1953 and, hoping to regain his status with the Hollywood studios, cooperated with the Committee and "named names" identifying about fifty other film workers who had been members of the Communist Party. These measures were unsuccessful, however, in restoring Rossen to active status in Hollywood. His next film, Mambo, was made in Italy. After a couple years hiatus abroad, Rossen was back in Los Angeles by 1955.

By 1956, Hollywood was promoting large-scale spectacle films – not really Rossen’s metier. Rossen directed Alexander the Great to mixed reviews and, then, didn’t work again until 1961. In that year, he directed The Hustler, the first of two films for Rossen shot by the great German cameraman Eugen Schueftten. The Hustler, a film about pool sharks, was a critical and popular success – Rossen was very pleased with the film and, frequently, said that if he had accomplished nothing else, "at least I made The Hustler." The Hustler won many awards and is credited with a resurgence of pool and billiards in the United States – that sport had seemed antiquated in 1961, a remnant of the pre-World War I Music Man past, but The Hustler revived people’s interest in the game.

Rossen was sick by 1964 when he made Lilith. On the set, he clashed repeatedly with Warren Beatty. The experience was catastrophic for Rossen who was diabetic and exhausted. After shooting Lilith, Rossen said: "It isn’t worth that kind of grief. I won’t take it any more. I have nothing to say on the screen right now. Even if I never make another picture, I have The Hustler. I’m content to let that stand for me."
Rossen died in 1966. Like Chayefsky, he was very young – only 57.
Eugen Schuefttan
An astounding feature of Lilith is Eugen Schuefttan’s pellucid, statuesque photography. Born is Silesia, Schuefttan was one of the great cameramen during the majestic (and monstrous) period of German expressionist films. He worked on Metropolis (1925) as well as Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen, (1924) shot many pictures for G. W. Pabst, and was chief cinematographer on Abel Gance’s vast Napoleon (1927). On the Lang spectacle-films, Schuefttan invented a technique using mirrors tilted to 45 degrees to film actors and miniature buildings in the same shot – this process allowed Schuefttan to create special effects that were uniquely convincing and integral to the success of Lang’s conception in these pictures – small, impotent mobs of humans dwarfed by colossal structures. The Schuefttan process was used extensively throughout most of the twentieth century – it was a particular favorite with Hitchcock, employed, as an example, to make it appear that Cary Grant is dangling from the nose of Abraham Lincoln on Mount Rushmore. In fact, many scenes in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings – The Return of the King were shot with the Schuefttan process. Only recently has CGI, traveling matte, and blue-screen technology banished the Schuefttan process to merely historical status.

Schuefttan was amazingly versatile. None of his pictures look alike. Shortly after achieving the dense, heroic chiaroscuro in Lang’s Metropolis, and the swarming canvases of Gance’s Napoleon, Schuefttan shot Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday), a landmark in impressionistic cinema detailing the romantic adventures of working class Germans on a typical summer Sunday – drinking beer in cafes, flirtations in the park, everything filmed in the most matter-of-fact and, yet, luminous style imaginable. Schuefttan seems to have had a chameleon-like ability to adapt his style to the needs of the director for whom he was working.
Schuefttan worked in Germany and France during the Second World War – his politics remain unpublished. (Some sources say that Schuefttan came to the United States in 1940 – but he has a variety of European credits, mostly French, after that date). He lensed important early films by Max Ophuls and Marcel Carne. After the War, he continued working – gaps in his record of film work seem attributable to the fact that, like his colleague, Karl Freund, he worked extensively in Fifties’ American Tv. Schuefttan is famous for his photography on Georges Franju’s horror film Eyes without a Face (1960). It is not clear to me how he came to work for Robert Rossen. But he shot The Hustler in 1961 and was given the Academy Award for Best Cinematography for that work. He made another five or six American pictures before retiring in 1966. Schuefttan died in New York City in 1977.

Although Schuefttan’s camerawork is wonderfully effective and persuasive, the editing in Lilith is sometimes ineffective. An example is the sequence in which Jean Seberg’s Lilith entices her admirer, Peter Fonda, into the gorge above the waterfalls. Fonda ends up dangling from a cliff and must be saved by Warren Beatty. The staging of the scene suggests that Fonda is hanging by his fingertips above a rocky abyss in which a raging river is churning downward through a series of waterfalls. If Fonda loses his grip, he will plunge into the whitewater forty or fifty feet below him. Cut into this sequence are inserted shots taken from a vantage below Fonda – that is, the camera looks upward to film him dangling above. These shots are a mistake, distracting and discordant. Since a camera can be positioned below Fonda, the audience senses that his apparently perilous situation is, in fact, not that dangerous – clearly there is a ledge of some sort below the actor sufficiently capacious to hold a heavy camera and its operator. If Fonda falls, at most he will merely damage the camera that is somehow positioned below him. Of course, the footage taken from above Fonda emphasize his peril and the fact that he is dangling over an abyss, but the spectator’s sense of danger is undercut by the shots taken from below the actor – the viewer senses, in his or backbone as it were, that there is a convenient ledge or platform below the actor and that there is no real peril. The reason that this sequence is poorly edited is that earlier images have emphasized the camera’s point-of-view – repeatedly, we have seen Warren Beatty tentatively touring the insane asylum from Lilith’s perspective. The camera is mounted behind Lilith’s shoulders and shows her scrutinizing Beatty through windows with wire rather ominously protecting the glass. The effect of these shots is to sensitize the viewer to camera angle as a identified with a specific point-of-view. Having encoded this perception, the film maker can’t simply ignore point-of-view in the waterfall scene. (There is another discordant shot in this part of the film – we see a perspective from Lilith’s window when she is no longer in her room. This leads to the question: who is looking down on the lawn if Lilith is outside of her room? Throughout the film, there are point-of-view shots that are rather mysteriously motivated – we seem to be seeing someone’s perspective but don’t know through whose vantage we are looking. This is a common technique used in horror films and may be employed in Lilith to suggest the schizophrenia of the title character – but my impression is that the effect is haphazard and, probably, not intentional.)

Jean Seberg
Writers on film and politics are wont to derive all kinds of morose surmises from the sad biography of Jean Seberg. Books have been written about her and her fate has launched a number of polemics. Whether so slender of reed can support this weight of significance seems questionable to me.

Here is the outline of this melancholy parable: Seberg was capriciously plucked from the obscurity of small-town Iowa, made famous by Hollywood, lived in France, and, then, was destroyed by the toxic political climate of the late sixties. She was beautiful, intelligent, and ambitious. She was also quixotic and half-mad. Her story is better than most of her movies.

Born and raised in Marshalltown, Iowa, Jean Seberg seemed destined for small-town life: a little local fame as the prom queen, early marriage to a banker or car dealer, children, perhaps, some community theater as she aged. Had she followed this path, Seberg would probably be alive today, living in comfortable and wealthy retirement as a widow in Jacksonville, Florida or Orange County. But her biography poses a question often asked of Thomas Grey’s "Elegy in a Country Graveyard" – is there such a thing as a "mute inglorious Milton"? That is, if you are born to be Milton, can you possibly be "mute" and "inglorious"? It is likely that Seberg’s ambition and intelligence and radiant beauty set her apart from the rest of Marshalltown and that her destiny was always for larger, and more problematic, venues than the main street of the county seat of Marshall County, Iowa.

In the late forties and fifties, Otto Preminger was regarded as one of Hollywood’s leading directors. In 1956, as a gimmick, an open casting was conducted for the title role in Preminger’s film Saint Joan, a picture about Joan of Arc. (The picture was based on George Bernard Shaw’s play.) Seberg was selected from the 18,000 young actresses who auditioned for the part. The movie was highly touted, primarily as "the Pygmalion experiment," critics and breathless fan magazine writers treating Iowa as if it were Timbuktu or the plateaus of Tibet. Saint Joan wasn’t a good film and Seberg’s acting was derided. She later wrote that she was "burnt at the stake" twice, once by Preminger and once by the critics and that she was "scared as a rabbit and it showed."

But Preminger recognized Seberg’s latent talent and cast her again in Bonjour Tristesse, a film he made the next year in France. This picture also was a failure and Seberg was again mocked for her wooden performance. She did better a little later as the ingenue in the Peter Sellers’ comedy The Mouse that Roared. By this time, she had married a French lawyer and moved to Paris. In that place, she became, briefly, the muse of the French New Wave, appearing most famously as the vicious and charming American girl in Breathless (1959). Francois Truffaut proclaimed her "the best actress in France."

Seberg spent most of the rest of her life in Paris, but, curiously, didn’t really like the city or the French. (She said that she despised the "formality" of French society, the rigid etiquette, and the lack of "thick milk shakes and thick steaks" in Parisian cuisine.) The actress divorced her first husband and married the novelist Romain Gary. She worked hard, appearing in dozens of film both in Europe and Hollywood. Along the way, she indulged in many love affairs, including a brief fling with the Mexican novelist and politician, Carlos Fuentes.
At some point in the mid-sixties, Seberg came under the scrutiny of the FBI and appears to have been listed as a subversive on indexes personally maintained by J. Edgar Hoover. Like many Americans, she publicly opposed the Vietnam War. But she lived in Paris, consorted with known Marxists, and had been seen in the company of Jane Fonda, also residing in France at that time. Freedom of Information Act disclosures show that the FBI’s COINTELPRO operatives targeted her for harassment. COINTELPRO agents planted defamatory information about her in the media and attempted to implement an informal Hollywood black list against Seberg. Her crimes seem to have been related to her wealth. Seberg had made a lot of money and was generous. She donated some money to the Mesqwakie Indians at Tama near Marshalltown – now mostly millionaires on the basis of the casino at that place. That money was used to buy jerseys for the Bucks, the boy’s basketball team on the Reservation. Seberg also gave money to the Black Panthers and spoke publicly in favor of their political initiatives. The FBI countered these activities by implying the Seberg was sexually involved with various radicals, including members of AIM and the Black Panthers. When her second child was born in 1970, the FBI persuaded Newsweek, among other mainstream media outlets, to proclaim that the little girl’s father was a prominent Black Panther activist. (The story was a lie, although the child’s father was another revolutionary, a Spanish anarchist.) The baby died after a couple of days and Seberg had an open casket funeral to show the world that the baby was white. She and her husband sued Newsweek and won a significant libel judgment against the magazine. But FBI harassment seems to have continued until her death.

Seberg divorced Romain Gary and lived for several years with an Algerian radical in Paris. The radical beat her and extorted money from her so that he could start a restaurant in Barcelona. Seberg began to drink heavily and use barbiturates. In 1970, a white Renault parked for ten days on a quiet residential street in Paris attracted attention on the basis of the stench coming from the car. The police broke into the vehicle and found Seberg badly decomposed and wrapped in a blanket. A bottle of barbiturates was found next to her rotting body. The autopsy showed a high concentration of alcohol in her blood. Seberg was so drunk that she would not have been able to get into the Renault by herself, nor would she have been capable of wrapping herself carefully in the blanket that concealed her body for so many days. It is fairly evident that someone else was involved in Seberg’s death and that, in fact, she may have been murdered. (At the time of her death, Seberg was hiding from her Algerian lover who had recently beat her severely.) Romain Gary announced that Seberg had been "harassed to death" by the FBI and that she had been "driven mad" by COINTELPRO activities. Gary later killed himself, leaving a note carefully distancing his death from Seberg’s mysterious demise – he said his motive was despair that he had lost his creative powers.
We now know these things: first, Seberg was systematically wire-tapped and harassed by the FBI; second, her file was frequently on the desk of J. Edgar Hoover himself and various operatives in the Nixon White House including John Ehrlichman, John Mitchell, and Richard Kleindienst. President Nixon himself is said to have amused himself by reading transcripts of wiretaps on her Swiss home. Third, as always, the American media that famously prides itself on independence is generally nothing more than a tool of government agencies. Fourth, as Obama’s surveillance, and drone-strikes, on American citizens proves, there is no limit to the wickedness of the American government.

Seberg was found dead in 1980 and was 40 years old when she died.

I saw Lilith in the British Museum. While strolling amidst the mud tablets and the cylinder seals, an object beckoned to me from within a glass case. I drew close and peered into the display and saw a tablet on which a buxom woman was are represented frontally. The tablet appeared to be a ceramic, a plaque baked to form the bas relief image. The figure is naked and eyeless – apparently once lapis-lazuli or some other precious gem had been inserted in the almond-shaped eye-sockets. Her calves are feathered and her toes are the talons of a great raptor, pitiless and clawed, and she wears wings behind her shoulders, spread like a immense, feathery cloak. A phrygian cap, like a ziggurat, covers her hair and two stylized owls, more exercises in involutional, spiral patterns than fowl, flank her. Her clawed feet rest on a plinth comprised of two lions, tail to tail, beneath the monstrous female’s talons.

This plaque is strangely magnetic and enchanting, and the lissome female figure with her mutant features is curiously seductive. No one knows exactly what is shown on the tablet. Some speculate that the ancient figurine was made to occupy a niche in a brothel inhabited by sacred temple prostitutes. Others have claimed that the image represents Ishtar or Inanna – that is, fertility goddesses of the Assyrians and Babylonians. But this is also contested and no one is really confident as to the identity of this clay apparition boldly baring her nudity to the spectator. (Her affrontery was originally even more pronounced – there are traces of paint on the plaque that show that the woman’s nude body was painted a fierce, fire-house red, her crimson flesh contrasting with the background representing the blue darkness of the night.) The British Museum simply refers to her as the "Queen of the Night." You might spend a long time looking into her vacant eye-sockets and, perhaps, she might whisper something in your ear.

In Hebrew, L-Y-L is the root consonant formation of the word "night." This formula occurs only once in the Bible at Isaiah 34:13-14 – in that passage, the desolate ruins of a city are described and a Lylit is said to repose there, among the hyenas and carrion birds. In the renaissance, this passage, apparently referring to some kind of animal or bird, was translated as "the lamia reposes there..." (Lamia is a term used by Burton in his Anatomy of Melancholy for female demon and derives, apparently, from Greek legends.) In the King James version of the Bible, the word is translated as "screech-owl." Modern Bibles say that the Lylit is a "night-bird."

In the period between the 8th and 10th centuries, a pseudo-epigraphic book The Alphabet of Ben Sira circulated in Jewish community. This written text collects earlier traditions about Lilith in her role as Adam’s first wife or, perhaps, invents that mythology – it isn’t clear whether Ben Sira developed the legend or based his references to Lilith on previously existing stories. In summary, Ben Sira says that Lilith was Adam’s first wife, made from clay and not engineered from the First Man’s rib or flesh. As such, Lilith was equal to Adam and, immediately, clashed with him. Lilith was not willing to subserviently lie underneath Adam when he had sex with her, but, instead, insisted upon mounting him. This power struggle escalating to the point that Lilith fled from Adam, and, invoking the tetragrammaton, sprouted wings and flew away from Eden. She is said to have become the consort of a demon named Samael and, later, was punished for her hubris by the death of her children. Lilith compensated for her children’s death by snatching the children of other women and devouring them.

Throughout the medieval period, Lilith was regarded as a demonic succubus, the vector of lethal childhood diseases, and the cause of nocturnal seminal emissions. The renaissance and enlightenment forgot about her. But her ill-fame revived in the Romantic period. Goethe installs her in his Faust and Keats wrote about her as Lamia. Today, Lilith has gained some currency as the figure of a matriarchal, defiant feminisim. Wiccans and neo-Druids and some New Age types purport to admire her.

Closer Analysis
Superficially, Lilith may seem to be similar to a standard star-driven Hollywood movie. But, in fact, the texture of the film is quite different from an ordinary studio film from the early sixties. Comparison with the style evident in films by Howard Hawks may be instructive. Hawks is a director famously associated with classical Hollywood narrative films – his movies are the paradigm for a cinema that is based upon transparency, visibility, and lucidity. In a film by Hawks, we look through the image, as if it were a window or proscenium, to see what is being shown to us. We are only rarely conscious of how things are presented for our perception and interpretation. By contrast, Rossen’s style in Lilith emphasizes the way in which we are shown things; frequently, the actual subject matter of the image is relegated to secondary importance – Rossen’s camera style and editing is expressionistic: it foregrounds the techniques used to show us the people and things in the scene. Watching a movie like Scarface, we scan the image for details as to how the characters are interacting and the editing follows the movements that comprise the story. Lilith, by contrast, presents us with dense surface texture comprised of relatively short shots, often not edited according to motion or narrative, but, rather, presented as a sort of cubist collage – discordant elements jarring up against one another. Furthermore, Lilith is constructed using non-narrative leit motifs – images of water, for instance – and intrusive camera effects, most notably a vast number of dissolves, shots in which one image melts into another. The use of the dissolve is the film’s expressionistic signature – the dissolve signifies that reality is fluid, that characters blend into one another, and that our perception is not grounded in objective reality but in subjective impressions and emotions. The prevalent dissolves between short images are equivalent to the many shots of flowing, rippling, and cascading water.

We can sample the film’s stylistic resources by examining closely the jousting sequence, a pivotal scene in the movie since the episode culminates with Beatty’s character announcing his love for the heroine and, then, having sex with her. The jousting imagery, involving thrusting a lance through a small washer-shaped ring, is overtly – even painfully – Freudian, a over-obvious nod to psychoanalytic notions prevailing in 1964 and there is no need to dwell excessively on phallic implications of this episode. The imagery of men jousting resonates with the mythological symbolism in the film, particularly the medieval aura that surrounds the mentally ill heroine, the sense that she is witch or some sort of demon from the dark ages mysteriously revived into our day and age. Further, the jousting episode clarifies the young man’s character, establishing him as sort of damaged warrior and knight errant – although it isn’t clear if Beatty’s hero seems himself in that light, if Jean Seberg views him in that way, or if we are supposed to draw those connections. (This is a characteristic of the film – we are never entirely certain whether the characters grasp the mythological Jungian implications of the narrative or if this aspect of the story is available only to those in the privileged position of spectators to this story. Does Beatty’s doomed character see himself as knight-errant or is this vantage only available to the audience?)

The jousting sequence is generally constructed by imagery that obeys the principles of three codes. These sign-systems may be identified as the documentary, the Hollywood narrative and the Soviet-style montage code. Hollywood narrative code imagery highlights the interaction between hero and heroine and consists of two-shots featuring the main protagonists or tracking/panning images that follow them through the crowd. Sometimes, the clash between the film’s expressionistic techniques and standard Hollywood mise-en-scene or shot construction is jarring. After the sex scene, comprised entirely in ecstatic dissolves, and, in which we see Beatty’s naked back, the narrative cuts to a shot of the two stars lying in the meadow, fully dressed and their clothing and coiffure showing no evidence of disarray. How are we supposed to interpret the strange juxtaposition between ecstatic dissolving shots of Jean Seberg’s orgasm and the prosaic image of the fully clothed Hollywood stars, looking like matinee idols, lying chastely side-by-side? Was the sex purely imaginary?

Documentary images, generally deployed in series of four or five shots, show the crowd, the small band, and the vendors at the fair where the jousting takes place. These images are short in duration and signaled to be different from the Hollywood narrative sequences because overtly handheld – the camera jiggles and the focus is unsteady. The shots have off-balance compositions and strange combinations of light and shadow. The imagery seems designed to resemble Robert Frank’s innovative still photographs from the 1950's (his book The Americans) and Walker Evans concealed camera pictures of people riding the New York subways. These images are raw, seemingly unmediated, and don’t have the glossy pictorial style that we associate with a Hollywood studio product. Documentary footage of this sort provides a contrast to the somewhat operatic Hollywood narrative simultaneously presented – the jousting tournament that will result in Jean Seberg being crowned the "Queen of Love and Beauty". Signifying the code of the real, the arbitrary, something that is shown because it just happens to be there, these elements of the sequence are similar to other interpolated details that don’t carry narrative meaning but are designed to simply show that what we are seeing is plausibly real and that we can know it to be real because it has the hallmark of the real – it is untidy, unnecessary, non-narrative. Two examples of the interpolation of the code of the documentary real into this sequence are noteworthy as examples – the small detail that Seberg leaves her doll on the fence-post and has to run back to pick it up, an element of the scene that has no apparent narrative valence and the small child crossing in front of the men on horseback, triggering a protest from the narrator: "Clear the track!" he shouts.

The third element of the tournament scene is the use of Soviet-style dialectical montage to define the actual imagery of the jousting competition. This part of the sequence is characterized by deep focus, telephoto lens imagery of horseman riding at an oblique angle toward the camera, the camera’s open eye signified by the washer-target looped on a dangling string and intercut with the shots of the approaching combatants. These sequences have something of the archaic silent film style that we see Eisenstein deploying in similar scenes of knights in Alexander Nevsky. Furthermore, Soviet-style montage techniques including dynamic editing of the horsemen, the same general shot and motion repeated over and over again to emphasize and give heroic substance to the dramatic action of the tournament. As previously observed, these three codes of signification are substantially different in visual texture and can not be reconciled stylistically – in effect, the clash of these three types of images suggests tensions between the characters and, even, something like the heroine’s schizophrenic relationship to reality.

Rossen designs (some might say "over-designs") the sequence by including all sorts of portentous and intricate details. Warren Beatty’s character doffs and dons sunglasses and many of the spectator’s conceal their eyes as well behind hideous-looking dark glasses. (Beatty even approaches the vulvar target with his eyes hidden behind sunglasses.) By contrast, Seberg’s character always shows her eyes to the world and, unlike many of the other women, doesn’t wear sunglasses. The deployment of the sunglass imagery rhymes with the many shots – once again "too many" for some tastes – of sunlight glinting on water. Seberg’s Lilith is correlated to the water, fluid, the dapple of brilliant scintillation on the rippling surface of the lake or pond where she stoops, like a forest animal to drink. She is a scintillant object – another name for a "star" – that others must protect their eyes from. Similarly, the pattern of shots involving the mysterious encounter with the two little boys is also fraught with meaning. At first, we see both boys from above – that is, from an adult vantage. But as the scene progresses, Seberg’s mad-woman seems to seduce the older boy – he has a peculiarly sneaky-looking, half-depraved look on his face. As her seduction proceeds, the camera angle drops until we are looking at the boy directly, no longer from an "adult" vantage, but more from the perspective of a potential lover. By contrast, the smaller boy, who is not complicit in the implied seduction, remains observed from above, from an angle that separates him from Lilith and the older child.

The film’s soundtrack is similarly complex. The tournament sequence seems to use only diegetic music – that is, the music played by the small band nearing the jousting course. But, as the sequence proceeds, the same heraldic phrase is played again and again as punctuation to the narrative. Thus, the music now has become non-diegetic – we have slid from documentary use of sound to an impressionistic sound design that mirrors the emotions of the characters. In contrast to ordinary Hollywood sound design, Beatty’s character announces his love in a mumbled aside that we can scarcely hear. And, in the forest scene leading to the sexual encounter, we hear a plaintive flute melody, only a few bars of non-diegetic music, that suggests an archaic pan-pipe, an instrument suitable to the bucolic sex-on-the grass scene that it orchestrates.

Rossen highlights elaborate camera techniques. The joust sequence has jarring editing combined with its opposite, fluid dissolves that melt images into one another. In one notable edit, the camera both zooms toward Jean Seberg and dissolves her image simultaneously – this showy transition is playfully referenced by the following shot showing a small boy aiming a boxy movie camera at the men galloping by on horseback. (Rossen seems to acknowledge the elaborateness and intrusive character of the hybrid zoom/dissolve by showing the small boy’s camera in the right lower corner of the next frame.) The innumerable dissolves suggest that reality is fluid, shifting, difficult to grasp and retain. Further, the dissolution of the image reaches its climax, figuratively and literally, in the rapid sequence of dissolves showing Jean Seberg’s face during the sex – the grass haloing her head reads as spider-web as it flickers in and out of focus, rhyming the image with the previous references to predatory (and schizophrenic) arachnids. The use of the dissolve, at times, suggests the content of a character’s thoughts – in one shot, showing the joust, we see Seberg’s luminous face while Beatty on horseback, aiming his lance, rides toward her eyes.

Even more remarkable for those interested in film history are the shots in the dark glade of the forest, Beatty on horseback with Seberg riding behind him. These shots culminate in an expressionistic landscape – Beatty’s horse tentatively approaches a brilliantly lit meadow, appearing on screen as a swath of luminous light. However, we see the meadow from the shadows of the dark forest and, prominently displayed at the right side of the frame, are two columns of birch tree. These images have a deeply textured primordial impact. And, in part, this derives from the fact that we are seeing an expressionistic landscape that is closely related to the mystic forest through which Siegfried rode his white horse in Fritz Lang’s 1924 film of the Nibelungenlied. In that movie, the hero rides his beautiful steed through a gloomy forest, passing colonnades of noble birch trees that appear like the columns of Greek temple, approaching a bubbling spring surrounded by luminous flowers – this is one of the signature images of the German expressionistic cinema, also shot by Rossen’s great cameraman Eugen Schuefften. And it is interesting to note that the landscape signifying the arena for the characters’ sexual encounter becomes increasingly unrealistic and symbolic: one of the final shots in the sex sequence shows Beatty and Seberg embracing in the cleft of the cliffs of the river gorge, a place that seems remote from the forest and meadow where their embrace began. Rossen demonstrates that once their embrace has been consummated, the placid and idyllic forest and meadow must immediately give way to the menacing and potentially deadly cliffs of the canyon roaring with waterfalls.
But this lyrical landscape interpolation in the film comes to an end designed to graphically clash with the symbolic, sun-filled nature imagery. Suddenly, the image darkens and we are back in the asylum with an embittered woman standing against constructivist-style travel posters, an image that is blackened with angular shadows, harsh and cubist in its composition.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Picture of Light

Picture of Light -- On two occasions in 1991, Canadian film maker, Peter Mettler, traveled to Churchill, Manitoba to film the aurora borealis.  The resulting film plays like a Canadian version of Werner Herzog's Fata Morgana, less overtly lunatic, rather more polite, less obsessive-compulsive but more attentive to truth, verity being a value that Herzog disdains. (It is also possible that Mettler's approach to his subject, in part the nightmare cold and isolation of Churchill, influenced Herzog's Antarctic documentary, Encounters at the End of the World.)  Mettler, or a surrogate, pronounces a lyrical voice-over to the images and the pictures are stark, icy, and often very beautiful -- I have never seen a film that better conveys the sensation of sub-zero cold:  we see the shadowy snowdrifts grey at down, watch a man rhythmically rocking back and forth as he tries to start his car and we hear the distinctive squeak of boots on super-cold snow in one alrming scene in which the film maker tracks a meteorologist walking through an icy labyrinth of deeply furrowed drifts in the darkness.  The film has three apparent subjects -- the arduous difficulty of filming at minus 27 degrees Celsius, the Northern Lights shown in all their incandescent majesty both from the steppe and from 195 miles in space (from the Challenger flight-deck), and the eccentric loners living in Churchill.  In one scene, clearly influenced by Herzog, a man fires a rifle through a motel door to test whether the snow from a blizzard outside will penetrate the room through the bullet-hole -- it does, making a razor-edge snowdrift that cuts the motel room in half, a surrealist image worthy of Bunuel.  The soundtrack doesn't match images -- in some scenes, we hear one person talking while another witness gestures to the camera.  From Herzog's bag of tricks, we get a long passage in an Inuit language that is not translated; the camera shows us heaps of pack ice.  Mettler's narration is rhapsodic and associative:  the aurora signify to the film maker thoughts flickering in the darkness of the mind, images projected on a great black screen, a spray of magnetized electrons like that on the blurryTV screens we see in the empty rooms filled with Arctic kitsch.  A man's toes suffer 4th degree frost bite and will auto-amputate -- we see the fellow motionless in bed, but cheerfully talking to the camera.  Every evanescent flicker of light over the North Pole is exactly mirrored by an identical fluxion in the magnetosphere at the South Pole.  Did you know that?

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim -- "Today we face the monsters...Today we cancel the apocalypse."  Always good lines to hear in a movie, and auspicious as well.  Guillermo Toro's Pacific Rim is not too bad and, with respect to the sloppy idiocy intrinsic to most summer blockbusters, this is high praise.  In the near future, giant sea monsters, called by their Japanese moniker Kaiju, rise from the sea to devastate the hapless geographical region named by the movie's title. (We briefly see Pres. Obama looking very concerned about the fate of the earth.)  For reasons that are best left inexplicable, the only way to defeat these skyscraper-sized monsters is to deploy 600 foot robots to beat the bejeezus out of them.  This sets the stage for the film's raison d'etre -- a series of old fashioned pugilistic encounters between the robots and the lizard-beasts, combat staged as noisy wrestling matches between men in spiny rubber-suits, whaling on one another chest-deep in vats of syrupy-looking blue water.  It's hard to resist this sort of stuff and Toro's tongue-in-cheek special effects, combining the maximum of impressive scale and pyrotechnics with the maximum of cheesy implausibility gives the film its kinky charm.  The characters are reasonably interesting and their interactions, although predictable, maintain audience interest and, although 20 minutes too long and 15 million dollars too noisy and destructive, the picture never gets boring.  Toros fills the screen with huge, crowded compositions, but your eye is invariably guided to what you are supposed to be looking at and the images make sense graphically.  The cutting is too fast, but this is necessary, I suppose, to conceal the defects in the animation and special effects.  Toros has to stage everything in blue-screen murk and his big climax takes place at the bottom of the sea in a Brueghel-esque hellscape of oozing magma, but the patently fake imagery adds to the film's appeal.  The movie has a few witty moments -- at one point, a man and woman who are falling in love look across a vast hangar highlighted by acetylene torches and enormous shadowy scaffolding to see a robot the size of the Empire State Building; as they whisper to one another, the machine's  huge heart begins to glow.  The monsters, looking like hybrids between sharks and iguanas, with bioluminiscent maws that flicker like the Blue Grotto on the Isle of Capri, emerge into our realm through a series to sphincters identified as dilated to a certain degree -- it's obvious what Toros means by his gash in the bottom of the sea oozing reddish ichor.  The first iteration of the robot war-machines, called Jaeger, are said to be "analog" -- this means you pilot them by imitating with your body the motions you want them to undertake; we see the pilots kicking their feet against steel stirrups that are linked, in steam-punk fashion, through old-fashioned gears and levers to the vast engine of the robot's legs.  For reasons detailed by the script, but unimportant to the movie except as a plot device, the robots require two operators, right and left hemisphere -- a theme curiously echoed in the monsters equipped with two brains; this allows the movie to stage "mind-meld" sequences as the two pilots join in spiritual communion to operate the vast killing machines.  (This mind-meld imagery -- old when it was used in Star Trek -- is the closest the film comes to consummated romance, although the conceit allows for some touching moments of warriorly bonding between the principals.  For all the millions on screen, the movie can't get little details right -- at the bottom of the sea, the combatants bound along as if they were not compressed by thousands of tons of water-pressure.  At the film's climax, a small woman dives into the ocean wearing her combat-pilot's suit, a suit that we have earlier been educated to believe as weighing about 600 pounds.  (The donning of the armor in this film clearly derives from similar imagery in Iron Man, and wrecks the plausibility of the climactic rescue.)  For all its defects, the picture is enjoyable and pictorially impressive -- it's a film that someone should project upside-down and backwards.  In that form, many of the images would resemble Gerhart Richter's huge abstractions, coruscating fields of metal fragments, fire, and blue fog, all squeegeed into a giant shimmering blaze of colors. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie

The Discrete Charm of Bourgeosie

Spanish surrealist Luis Bunuel directed The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeosie, a picture released in 1972. It is one of several well-regarded pictures made in France toward the end of the Bunuel’s career. Born in 1900, he died in 1983. Bunuel’s other films from this late flowering are The Phantom of Liberty and his last picture That Obscure Object of Desire. In an understated way, Bunuel is the most uncompromising of all directors, a man who never deviated from a rigorous and morally scrupulous aesthetic. He was the last of the real surrealists, although he would not have accepted that label – indeed, all attempts to characterize systematically the tenor of his imagination, or anyone’s imagination, would have been repugnant to him.
Each movie is a long march through small connected events (dragged out distressingly to the last moment; just getting the movie down the wall from a candle to crucifix takes more time than an old silent comedy), but it is the sinister fact of a Bunuel movie that no one is going anywhere and there is never any release at the end of the picture. It’s one snare after another, so that the people get wrapped round themselves in claustrophobic whirlpool patterns...
When it’s good...a Bunuel movie has a heady, haunting effect, like an exquisitely enjoyed meal, the weather of a foreign country, something private and inexpressible: a favorite pornographic book...
Manny Farber (Summer 1969)

The luminous edge of the razor
Jackie Robinson, the baseball player credited with integrating the Major Leagues, appeared in a film made in 1950. That film is called The Jackie Robinson Story. It is cheaply made and woodenly acted. A chief flaw in the picture is the fact that Jackie Robinson is unconvincing playing Jackie Robinson. A better actor should have been hired to impersonate the baseball great. At the end of the movie, Jackie Robinson testifies before Congress on the dangers of Communism. "It is important for all Americans," Jackie Robinson tells the camera "to reject this dangerous ideology."

Surrealism is based on disjunction. At a trivial level, such disjunctions involve the collision between things that don’t belong together in the same frame of a picture or film: for instance, the decomposing donkeys freighting a grand piano to which two priests are tethered in Un Chien Andalou. Bunuel’s practice evolved far beyond these powerful, but simple images, made in the early thirties. By 1970, Bunuel had devised a way to make his surrealism integral to his pictures, a discordant presence vibrating throughout his films although mostly not overtly obvious.

The surrealist disjunction achieved in Bunuel’s late films has this effect: a completely lucid, nondescript and fluent narrative style is coupled with the portrayal of events that are absolutely non-narrative, that can’t be coherently assimilated to any kind of dramatic representation of a story. The effect is like that of suspenseful film noir techniques used to depict a still-life, for instance, a bouquet of flowers or a dinner setting. In this respect, Bunuel’s master is de Sade. The French writer is notorious for representing the most atrocious and violent fantasies in a measured, dignified prose style that is the very embodiment of Enlightenment serenity and calm.

Similarly, Bunuel portrays the most outrageous and inexplicable events in the style of a conventional TV sitcom – his interiors are usually well-lit and clearly defined, his special effects rudimentary and unconvincing, his actors merely bemused mannikins; there is no pretense toward beauty or meaning and no straining after significance: his late pictures, although competently made, are completely devoid of any kind of excess – except for the inexplicable and disturbing subject matter shown. Bunuel uses his intentionally inexpressive style to defeat any attempt to impose a thematic meaning on his material. He achieves this paradox – an intensely expressive art that is wholly undemonstrative – by several techniques. First, his pictures, although not exactly without plot, are extremely repetitious – the same general thing keeps happening over and over again. Bunuel avoids anything like a narrative arc – things begin in media res, but there is no progression, no rising action toward a climax and no resolution in denouement. The pictures just begin and end arbitrarily. He scrupulously avoids anything like psychological characterization – his bourgeois characters in The Discrete Charm are polite, well-mannered, and, more or less, devoid of any personality; they are ciphers representing their social class, characterized like medieval saints by one or two attributes, but, even, these emblematic features are inconsistent and not developed throughout the film. (One of the couples is very lustful until they cease to be; one of the women throws up when she drinks martinis – the point is established only to be abandoned.) Bunuel is careful not to privilege any image or sequence over any other part of the film. The way that a maid serves a meal is just as important as the image of a man carefully aiming his rifle at a woman that he believes to be a terrorist – no hierarchy of importance is imposed on the material: every shot is equally significant (or equally insignificant), lit in the same TV studio fashion, edited with the same nondescript precision. It is a cinema without highlights.

Bunuel’s friends characterized his late pictures as a "linked series of gags" – indeed, a movie like The Discrete Charm is more like a Monty Python show than a conventional seventies’ film. The effect is like watching a procession, a parade, a series of episodes sutured together but independent since they don’t cohere into narrative – it is like a tour, a walking trip to nowhere. Jean-Claude Carriere, Bunuel’s frequent collaborator on his late scripts, said that the films are "a narrow passage, a path that threads its way through many dangers." Bunuel described the process of making a movie as strictly linear – a film, he said, is "a silent procession of images through my brain." Like Hitchcock, Bunuel didn’t shoot a movie until he had imagined each image, and sequence of images in full detail. Then, he shot his pictures with unerring economy and efficiency, generally one-take per shot. Once ,Catherine Deneuve accused Bunuel of having committed a showy crane shot that she declared to be "beautiful." Bunuel told her that he was the enemy of all beauty and made an exception with that shot to his one-take method – he re-shot the sequence from the opposite angle making certain that nothing of any picturesque interest could possibly intrude on the image.

Surrealist disjunction is evident in Bunuel’s famous response to a question about whether he was an atheist. "I’m still an atheist, thank God," Bunuel responded. Three of his best friends were priests.

The Deep Blue
You can see the fireworks today. You can hear the boom of the ordinance. You can watch the morons celebrating in the street. They are always celebrating in the street.

Bunuel’s mother was an innkeeper’s daughter who married his father when she was 17. Bunuel pere, 45 when he was wed, was a war profiteer who had made his fortune shipping armaments in the Spanish Civil War. Little Don Luis was the eldest son, much-beloved by his mother – she financed his first films. The family was well-to-do and lived in a place called Calanda, a town that Bunuel said was wholly medieval when he was growing up.

In 1908, Bunuel told interviewers that the town’s ancient slumber ended when a traveling circus brought a cinema peep show to the village. Bunuel was astounded by the moving pictures. Later, he saw Fritz Lang’s Der Muede Tod ("Tired Death"), sometimes called Destiny, in Madrid. The movie made Bunuel want to be a film maker. When he was an old man, Bunuel saw Fritz Lang, who was even older, at a film festival, and excitedly begged him for an autograph.

Bunuel attended college in Madrid. On weekends, he went with his roommates, Salvador Dali and Federico Garcia Lorca, to Toledo where the young men drank wine and wandered around the ancient streets. Garcia Lorca, who was homosexual, was probably in love with Bunuel. Back in Madrid, a place that Bunuel said "had the best brothels in the world," Don Luis had no one with whom to go whoring. Several of best friends were priests, Garcia Lorca was gay, and Dali said to be "as asexual as a coffee table." Later, both Garcia Lorca and Bunuel despised Dali’s girlfriend, Gala. Once, Bunuel tried to strangle her.

In Calenda, the patron saint had lost his leg in a cart accident around 1623. The man’s limb had to be amputated but, shortly after, the surgery it grew back – something like the way a salamander is able to regenerate a missing leg. The patron’s saint feast is celebrated by men and boys pounding on drums. Bunuel was very deaf in his old age and said that this was because of the incessant drumming that he had endured when he was a little boy. (In most of his films, he has an episode that is scored to drums – this is his signature.)

In Los Olivados, Bunuel’s harrowing study of juvenile delinquency and poverty in Mexico City, a group of street kids beat up a legless man, rob him, and, then, send his push cart rolling down a steep hill while the unfortunate beggar shrieks and flails his arms like a turtle on his back. Noteworthy about the scene is Bunuel’s complete lack of empathy with the cripple – he is just as morally corrupt and vicious as the children who are tormenting him. The savage cruelty that flows like a vicious and destructive river through Bunuel’s films is motivated by human nature – people get what they deserve and what they deserve is pain and suffering.

When Bunuel’s father died, Don Luis celebrated by smoking his old man’s good Cuban cigars. But he liked his father, was impressed by his rigorously chauvinistic ways – women and girls ate only after the men – and imitated his good manners throughout his life.

A Republican
When Bunuel was in Hollywood – from 1944 to 1946 – the producers thought that his politics were suspicious. He was asked to explain to a government committee the nature of his politics. Bunuel proudly declared that he was a Republican. Some of the committee members were slightly affronted – Roosevelt was the President and the committee members, patronage government workers, were New Dealers, that is Democrats. Nonetheless, the Committee passed Bunuel as "probably loyal". None of them seem to have understood that Bunuel meant that he was Republican in the sense of opposing Franco’s nationalists and supporting the Spanish Republican cause against the Fascists.

But, even, this affiliation was a bit confusing. Bunuel had fled Spain during the Civil War in 1936, hidden out in Paris for awhile, and, then, taken a job at MOMA in New York. For awhile he roomed with Alexander Calder. When he worked for the Museum of Modern Art, Bunuel was tasked with the job of editing Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will from a 2 ½ hour cut to a forty-five minute version. Bunuel went to work on this project with gusto. The version of Triumph of the Will that most of us have seen is Bunuel’s abridgement. No one has ever been able to detect a trace of ideology, either pro or con, in the way that the Spaniard edited the film.

Nonetheless, Bunuel was a little too intimidating for Hollywood. He was blacklisted unofficially although no one really could figure him out.

So he went to Mexico and became the leading film maker in the so-called Golden Age of Mexican Cinema.

St. Michael’s sword
What was Bunuel like? When he was young, he was very ugly with eyes too large for his face protruding from beneath prominent eyebrows. His appearance was Moorish – there was something uncouth and African about him. His nose was broken in a fight when he was a young man; his friends say that he "had a boxer’s nose and an asymmetrical face." His stare is described as "sideways". As he grew older, his ugliness was intensely attractive to beautiful women. He was addicted to martinis that he made using a special technique – he called his drink a Bunueloni. Later in his life, his hearing was very bad. Since he was opposed to "acting" in the popular sense of the word, he generally refused to give much direction to his players – he gestured where they should stand and would wave to them when they were supposed to mouth their lines. His leading ladies in particular observed that he didn’t really care how they spoke their lines, disliked any attempt they made to mime emotion, and, frequently, directed with his hearing aid turned-off so that he would not have to hear the lines said by his actors. He liked to attend costume parties dressed as a priest and, when he was a young man, would frequently wear clerical clothing and impersonate members of the Spanish clergy. Photographs show that he made a fetching nun and, sometimes, dressed in that fashion. Nudity and on-screen kissing disgusted him. He said that "sex without sin is like eggs without salt." He was faithful to his wife Jeanne, a Parisian that he married in the mid-thirties. When he became impotent in his old age, Bunuel rejoiced and said that he was glad that "this tyrant" had departed from his life. He told interviewers that he would "gladly give up sex" if only old age would "spare (his) lungs and liver" so that he could continue to smoke cigars and drink martinis.

Once Marilyn Monroe came to see Bunuel. She hoped that the Spaniard would make a picture with her. Bunuel was shooting The Exterminating Angel in Mexico. In order to increase his actor’s discomfort, Bunuel had smeared their hands and faces with honey and made them act immured in that sticky substance for several days on end. Marilyn Monroe was impressed with his rigor as a director but disturbed by the appearance of the actors smeared with honey It is not recorded what he said to her.

In Mexico, Bunuel was able to make some films in five days. He had no budget but this didn’t bother him. Bunuel didn’t like Mexico, a place that he thought barbaric. He spent the last decade of his life in Paris, but died in Mexico City.

A dead deer
Los Hurdes
, about an impoverished province in Spain, is sometimes called "The Land without Bread." It was made by Bunuel after Age d’Or. Bunuel collaborated with Ramon Acin on this project. In the film, Bunuel dramatizes events and persuades his miserably poor peasant participants to act out various rituals, some of which seem to be invented for the film. Most critics now characterize the picture as a "Mockumentary" – that is, a faked or staged documentary. People who have seen the film regard it as very disturbing, probably Bunuel’s darkest and most fearsome movie.
Nationalist forces in Spain regarded the movie as an affront and they came calling on Ramon Acin in 1936. Acin wasn’t home and so the Nationalist death squad abducted his wife. Acin learned that she had been kidnapped and agreed to meet the thugs who had taken her. The death squad shot her and tortured Acin to death. Bunuel grasped the message and left Spain on the next train.

The Nationalists also killed Bunuel’s college buddy, Federico Garcia Lorca, possibly Spain’s greatest modern poet. Although Bunuel made no public declarations about this murder, he was deeply affected and, apparently, mourned Garcia Lorca’s death all his life. Hollywood film makers today sometimes act as if history is a burden. The great European film makers have a different relationship, of course, to the travails of history. To them, history is a great speckled bird, a fountain, the parking lot of our Walmart, the door to the night, truth, and scandalously low prices.

In Los Hurdes, cretinous-looking children are shown being taught to write, Bart Simpson-style, a sentence over and over again: Respect the property of others.

Fassbinder is a boxer-pitbull mix running on a treadmill that powers the turntable on which a 45 rpm record, probably a Buddy Holly single, is playing. Howard Hawks is a room above Main Street filled with well-worn, if comfortable, furniture; the upholstery smells of cigarettes. Erice is a landslide that has blocked a mountain stream flowing through a stony canyon. Bunuel is an elderly crocodile lumbering through tastefully appointed apartments in the 17th arrondissement at 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier.

Bunuel wrote The Discrete Charm of Bourgeoisie with Jean-Claude Carriere, a Parisian writer who collaborated with him on many pictures during the span of 19 years. Carriere came to prominence in the early sixties when he adapted Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe into an immensely popular five-part TV series.
Carriere is fantastically prolific – he has written more than ninety films, many of them classics. In this group, we have seen Carriere’s adaptations of Guenter Grass’ The Tin Drum, Proust’s Swann’s Way (both directed by the German Volker Schloendorff), and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Carriere remains active and films made from his screenplays are in production today. He is famous in France and has been the president and director of a famous Parisian film school. Carriere began working with Bunuel in 1964 on an adaptation of Mirabeau’s The Diary of a Chambermaid, also a film that we have seen, although in the Renoir version. Subsequently, he worked on every film made by Bunuel until his death – Belle du Jour, The Milky Way, The Phantom of Liberty, That Obscure Object of Desire, and, of course, The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Carriere has written every kind of film, except, it seems, a Western – he has scripted Z-level horror films and worked on highly prestigious European "White Elephant" art films. In 2012, for instance, he was the screenwriter for Abbas Kiastorami’s first film not produced in the Iranian Republic, the excellent Certified Copy.

Bunuel said that he had chosen Carriere to be his collaborator because "(he) liked the sound of his voice" but "usually couldn’t understand anything he said to me" – something that Bunuel thought was helpful in making the kinds of movies that interested him.

Tom is a Misindicator
Ever suave and debonair, Fernando Rey plays the part of Rafael Acosta, Miranda’s ambassador to France. Like all bourgeois men and women, he is a criminal. (In Bunuel’s eyes, to be bourgeois is to be a homicidal criminal; of course, in Bunuel’s view, it is also indisputably true that to be human is to be criminal.) Viewers of the film unfamiliar with the history and geography of South America may not be aware that Miranda was formerly small republic, a protectorate of Bolivia, that has now been absorbed into that nation. It is not surprising that Bunuel imagines Acosta as a man from Miranda. The lost kingdom of Miranda, with it’s "dolphin-haunted lagoons" is a surrealist subject par excellence.

Miranda was comprised of a low-lying archipelago separated from Bolivia’s southwest coast by the main channel of the Cochin river where that watercourse, descending from the Andes, flows into the Pacific Ocean. Formerly, a riparian zone of about seven to eight miles of labyrinthine swamps, salt-marshes, and, more or less, impenetrable mangrove forests divided Miranda’s sodden, but arable barrier islands from the Bolivian mainland. This topography was decisively altered by the Great Krakatoa Tsunami of 1874. Inundation of Miranda by waves generated by the huge eruption in the south Pacific devastated the nation and irrevocably silted the Cochin delta, damming the river north of the archipelago and eliminating the wetlands dividing the small republic from Bolivia. The larger nation annexed Miranda, then, completely depopulated by the deadly tsunami without the world taking much notice. The flood in Miranda had been so lethal that there was no one left to protest Bolivia’s absorption of the small republic.

Although sparsely inhabited by Amerindians, fishing folk who used the shells of large Galapagos tortoises as kayaks, Miranda was claimed for Spain in 1531 by Adrian Trinculo and Alonso Gonzalo. They named the archipelago "Miranda" meaning "admirable" or "worth of admiration" and explored the islands, seeking gold. In fact, Miranda’s only natural resources were its tropical flora and bitumen bubbling from the "Negro" region of the northernmost barrier islands – these islands, later drowned by the great flood, were one of the few places on earth where pitch and asphaltum geysers existed, huge black plumes of bituminous sludge rocketed into the air and spattering the landscape for hundreds of yards around the discharge vents. Humboldt described these geological features as "among the most extraordinary (‘merkwuerdig und ausserordentlich’)" landforms in the world. For almost two-hundred years, the bitumen geysers provided sealant for sea-going vessels and, in fact, Sir Francis Drake visited the islands in 1580 to re-bottom several of his galleons that had suffered damage in action against the Spanish. (Although Miranda was nominally a Spanish colony the archipelago’s isolation from the mainland allowed it’s tradesmen a substantial degree of autonomy from the Crown. In fact, during the era of the Waterhouse concession, when British entrepreneurs were granted a license to exploit the bitumen resources Miranda was more closely aligned with London than the Iberian peninsula.)

By 1600, the first of the archipelagos’ citron and narcissus (a savory tropical fruit with prismatic seeds armoring its surface) plantations had been established. Slaves were imported from the Barbados and sugar cane was also grown in great quantities. The indigenous people were decimated by disease and, in fact, the last Aylanda-speaking tribesman died in 1823. (A missionary, Friedrich Untergang (1837 - 1874) compiled an interesting dictionary of Aylanda words and grammar, a work cited by both Levi-Strauss and Chomsky in their work.) Utilizing Suku Kollus agricultural methods, additional arable land mass was added to the barrier island archipelago and stilt-techniques of horticulture were also employed to make Miranda, briefly, one of the world’s great exporters of orchids and sully-plant, the fibrous grass used extensively in the whaling industry. (Herman Melville wrote a dispatch from Miranda in 1847 when the whaling vessel on which he was serving stopped at El Hado on the northern island for bitumen repairs and to mend their harpoon reels with sully-grass woven rope. Melville said that he thought the islands fortified by mangroves were "steambath colonnades, like the Hamams of the Turkish sultanate, but without odalisques, sunstruck meadows silent except for the somber hum of the moskito and the gnat, a lotus-eaters’ Venice trapped in the revery engendered by the sulfurous stench of boiling asphaltum." Melville was not the only writer to compare the watery lagoons of El Hado with Venice. Prosper Merime also called the city "this melancholy Venice of the equatorial oceans." and said that it’s canals were "dolphin-haunted."

For several hundred years, Miranda slumbered, a drowsy Spanish colony, mostly ignored by Europe and, indeed, the mainland of South America. By all accounts, El Hado developed in a comfortable provincial capitol, a reef of miniature buildings crisscrossed by sultry lagoons with British-style cottages on its outskirts incongruously perched on stilts above the Pacific’s high tide. Miranda’s principal connection with Bolivia was smuggling, mostly rum but also slaves, across the seven miles of estuary and tidewater marsh separating the islands from the mainland.

History aroused Miranda from its torpor during the first half of the 19th century. Thomas J. Waterhouse negotiated a formal bitumen concession between Spain and his firm, Southwest Passage, Ltd, ratifying several centuries of trade between English seamen and the islands. Spain took notice, and during the Napoleonic period, attempted to embargo the bitumen trade. This lead to several sea battles between British man-of-war vessels and the lumbering, ungainly Spanish battleships, combat that inevitably resulted in victory for the Englishmen. Miranda was isolated from the various rebellions and revolutions that convulsed the continent starting in 1825. Miranda had always considered itself essentially independant from both Spain and the Bolivian mainland, too remote and poor to be of much interest to any of the major European powers and so the province remained uninvolved in the battles for South American independence. Unfortunately, however, that movement was to have a decisive and destructive effect on Miranda.

Rather haphazardly, Miranda, through its council of Aldermen, had voted itself independent from Spain in 1830. Spain, occupied elsewhere on the continent, took no notice. Miranda’s first president, Washington Flores, immediately tried to sell his country to the British, attempting thereby to elude some of the contractual obligations embodied in the Waterhouse concession. The British, true to their mercantile principles, declined to interfere with the contract pending between Southwest Passage and the important trading families in El Hado. Someone assassinated Flores shortly thereafter. In 1845, Bolivia’s independence from Spain was finally acknowledged by the European nation. In the decree formally granting Bolivia’s independence, the territory of the newly freed nation was said to encompass the protectorate of Miranda. Although this decree merely stated the obvious, the leading families in Miranda were incensed. They had considered themselves independent from not only from Spain but also the Bolivian colony since 1830. Bolivia sent ministers to El Hado and imposed taxes on the sully-grass cordage factories and the bitumen trade. These measures were deeply unpopular and Miranda’s council of alderman announced that the territory regarded itself as distinct and independent from Bolivia. From these events ensued the so-called "War between the Swamp and the Mountain" – a conflict waged in a desultory fashion between 1860 and 1874.

Briefly stated, the Bolivians purchased seven gunboats from Prussia, iron vessels transported piecemeal in big boxes over the Andes. With this small armada, the Bolivians sailed down the Cochin River and, then, attempted to mount an invasion of Miranda, angling across the mangrove swamps for El Hado. The Bolivians relied upon the good offices of local smugglers to guide them through the intricate web of marshes and tidal ponds forming Miranda’s natural defenses. The smugglers were treacherous and the Bolivian fleet became mired in a pestilential and mosquito-ridden swamp a couple miles from the capitol. According to contemporary accounts, the unfortunate Bolivians, reduced to cannibalism on their entrapped vessels, were only too happy to be taken prison by the Mirandan forces. The ironclad gunboats remained inextricably mired in the mud, useless to both Bolivia and Miranda.

In retaliation for this hapless raid, the president of Miranda, Ferdinando Gonzaga (1822 - 1874) manumitted a force of 800 black slaves on the condition that they agree to form an army against Bolivia. The slave battalion successfully sailed up the Cochin River to make a beachhead on Bolivian territory and, then, advanced into the Andes, winning several small engagements and, ultimately, launching an attack on La Paz. The slaves had spent their lives working in the rum distilleries and sugar cane fields in Miranda, that is, laboring a few inches above sea level. The high altitude at La Paz was lethal to them. In the course of their siege, the army’s troops suffered disastrous altitude sickness, their lungs filling with fluid, and almost all of Miranda’s troops perished on the high altiplano.

The war continued on a small-scale, but both sides deemed it best, apparently, to avoid any additional pitched engagements. Miranda continued to prosper. It’s orchid trade was known throughout the world and explorers from the South American country made important discoveries in Bali, New Guinea and Papua in the course of seeking rare flowers in those places. Miranda’s bitumen reserves guaranteed a reasonably high standard of living in El Hado and the rum business flourished. It was during this time that Miranda’s "slave laureate", Oracio Waterhouse-Castellan (1841 - 1874) wrote in English his great novel The Solitudes of Jamaica, a seven volume picaresque work derived from Cervantes but closely plotted on the model of the Greek epic poet, Nonnus’ sixth century Dionysiaca. (The book was printed in London by the publishing firm predecessor to Faber and Faber in 1872).

Bolivia was preparing to mount a massive campaign against Miranda in early 1874 when the great tsunami rendered those efforts moot. The explosion at Krakatoa engendered a massive series of waves, some of them reputedly 200 feet high, and the full brunt of that tsunami was hurled against Miranda. The result was more than catastrophic. Miranda simply ceased to exist. The impact of the waves against the Bolivian coastline sheered off huge sections of mountain that blocked the Cochin river, damming the watercourse and dislodging vast amounts of silt clogging the wetlands between the battered islands and the mainland. The calamity from the sea was combined with torrential rains and flooding in the highlands, conveying more waterborne detritus to the coast line and effectively converting the mango and saltwater marsh territory into a desolate, muddy prairie. Miranda was now irrevocably linked to Bolivia by a land-bridge made of silt and boulders cast down from the mountains.

Of the population of El Hado and Miranda’s plantations, all perished with the exception of one survivor. According to a tale that is, perhaps, apocryphal, a local villain was waiting to expiate his crimes on the gallows when the tsunami struck El Hado. The scaffold of the gallows made a serviceable raft and the condemned man, trapped on the instrument of his execution, was swept away and to the south. The gallows-raft was said to have made landfall near Puntas Arenas in Patagonia and the castaway was found to be raving mad, the victim of the incessant howling winds that blow north from the Antarctic in those latitudes.

Thus perished Miranda. The Atacama desert has proven relentless in its advance southward. The terrain once enlived by waterfowl and endless mangrove swamps is now a mummified terrain of barren desert, where "lone and level sands" are sometimes blown aside by typhoon winds to reveal to the wreckage of old piers, mission bells, and desiccated mangrove trees. The world-wide energy crisis has impelled the Bolivian government, in partnership with British Petroleum, to survey its coastline in the hope of discovering the bitumen deposits once surrounding El Hado. Five years ago, one of those asphalt geysers, now quiescent under eight feet of water, was discovered. Bitumen is a preservative and the mining engineers studying the site excavated from the asphalt several exquisitely worked silver bridals and harnesses that had once graced pet dolphins, a pair of petrified and intertwined lovers, many bottles, still intact and corked of El Hado’s famous Encantadas rum, and a variety of orchids, perfectly embalmed by the bitumen, and comprising hitherto unknown species of those flowers.

"A journalistic intromission"
The great Mexican poet, Octavio Paz once showed one of his poems to Andre Breton, the leader of the French surrealists. Breton criticized several lines. Paz was surprised that Breton was applying critical standards to a surrealist work of the imagination. "I thought everything was equally valid," Paz said, noting that the offending lines had arisen from the process of "automatic writing." Breton agreed with him, but said that the lines that he had disliked were a "journalistic intromission."

In an important new book on the Spanish artist, Picasso and the Truth, T. J. Clark assets that Picasso’s painting embodies a "retrogressive" response to the catastrophes of the Twentieth Century on the so-called "Dark Continent" of Europe. Picasso’s painting turns away from the disasters and calamities that beset Europe, and Spain in particular between 1900 and 1960 – although his work tangentially addresses Franco, Hitler, and Stalin, Picasso’s principle subject is the "discrete charms of the bourgeoisie," the pleasures of sex, music, and literature. Clark introduces his thesis by writing that "Picasso’s understanding of life is an unshakeable commitment to the space of a small or middle-sized room and (the artist’s) little possession laid out on a table." Clark observes that "his world was of property arranged in an interior, maybe erotic property, but, always with bodies that...may be transposed into familiar instruments and treasures...his view of the world and it’s occupants was essentially room-bound, near at hand, and entirely possessable..."
Ultimately, Clark concludes that bourgeois art, best represented by Picasso, is about the poetry of ownership, possessing and holding things. Marxism, freed from it’s pathology of "chiliasm and scientism," the remnants of the Victorian era that produced it, is, at its best, "a theory – a set of descriptions – of bourgeois society and the way it comes to grief." Thus, Picasso’s work, made from a Marxist perspective, studies with immense grace and tenderness "bourgeois society, its pleasures, and its ending."

At the World’s Fair in Paris in July of 1937, the most distinctive pavilion was that erected by the Spanish Republic. In that pavilion, Picasso’s Guernica was displayed. On the wall facing the vast mural, the Spanish Republicans had posted a huge blow-up image of the lost poet, Bunuel’s old roommate, Federico Garcia Lorca. In between the canvas and the photograph of Lorca, there was a strange fountain designed by Alexander Calder. The fountain substituted mercury, an export from Spain, for water. So between Guernica and the assassinated poet, there was a fountain of deadly quicksilver. Thirty feet away, a large movie screen was installed in one side of pavilion. On that screen were projected moving pictures of the Spanish Civil War. The film had been edited from newsreels by Don Luis Bunuel.

The Solitudes of Jamaica
Five weeks after his death in 1983, Luis Bunuel returned to Paris and announced that he hoped to raise funds to make a new film, tentatively titled The Crimes of Christ. This passion play was to be primarily enacted by tarantulas – Bunuel specified that the spiders be Mexican Redknee tarantulas. Predictably, Christian groups protested and resources for the film became unavailable.

Next, Bunuel worked with Jean-Claude Carriere, his great screenwriting collaborator, attempting a film version of Julio Cortazar’s novel Hopscotch. Carriere said that he had difficulty working successfully with his old colleague because of the "infernal stench emanating from under Bunuel’s bandages and facial mask." The project was abandoned, Bunuel explaining, through a spokesperson, that the novel was "too great to be travestied by film." Rumors circulated that Bunuel intended to make a TV series based on the long Victorian novel by the Miranda novelist, Waterhouse-Castellan, The Solitudes of Jamaica. But this project also failed to materialize.

At last, Bunuel approached German television, Zum Deutschen Fernsehen (ZDF) and sought funding for a new version of the always popular Beyond the Pleasure Principle. At first, ZDF expressed considerable interest in the project but, then, balked when Bunuel demanded that the picture be shot on-location "on the moon or in the caverns at Lascaux."

Frustrated in his attempts at posthumous film making, Bunuel retired to his grave and has not been seen since.

A Cocktail
Admirers of Bunuel and mixology have long debated the precise contents of the Bunueloni, the cocktail Luis Bunuel invented and enjoyed daily. The fundamental source for all recipes seems to be a short film by the Mexican director Arturo Ripstein called El Naufrago de la Calle Providencia ("The Hermit on Providence Street"). In this film, Bunuel is shown several times mixing this drink. There are various interviews, including several with the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, but no one provides the recipe. Mixologists have pored over this film with great interest, studying the images in slow motion, freeze-frame, and enlarged with compute enhancement. Nonetheless, controversy persists as to exactly what is in the drink. Adding to the dispute is the fact that Bunuel seems to describe making the drink in a way that is different from what we see his hands do.

The simplest formula for the Bunueloni is this: mix over ice one ounce Punt e Mes red vermouth, one ounce bianco vermouth, 3/4 ounces gin, shake through a sieve, and, then, garnish with orange and lemon peels. Variants include adding one ounce of orange juice and one ounce of lemon juice – these seem questionable to me. (I don’t see, nor can I imagine, Bunuel adding fruit juice to his drink.)

One observer, who has carefully studied Ripstein’s movie, says that this is the recipe:
Mix over ice
1.5 oz of gin with
1 oz of Carpano Antica formula vermouth and
1 oz of Cinzano Rosso vermouth.
Shake and pour into a cocktail glass garnished with orange and lemon peels.

People who have enjoyed this drink say that it induces reveries that are necrophiliac, and involve mud, gunshots and gunshot wounds, as well as old-style high-heeled ladies’ boots. If drinking alone, you should peruse de Sade, Marx and Engels, Freud, and the entomologist Lucien Fabre, who was Bunuel’s favorite writer.