Saturday, October 25, 2014

Artists under the Big Top, Perplexed

Alexander Kluge's 1968 film, Artists under the Big Top, Perplexed is neatly summarized on the Facets DVD box:  "Lena Peichert inherits her father's circus when he is killed in an accident, tries to run the show as a kind of politically engaged "reform" circus, and goes bankrupt (twice)."  The summary is succinct and accurate so far as it goes, but doesn't begin to characterize this peculiar, discursive film.  Kluge begins the movie with a few minutes of footage of Nazi rallies, including a parade in which huge statues, ineptly mimicking Greek sculpture, are hauled through the street in the midst of adoring crowds.  On the soundtrack, we hear McCartney and Lennon's "Yesterday" crooned in a language that I couldn't recognize to the accompaniment of a Muzak band that sounds like something you might hear in the lounge of an airport.  Without further ado, Kluge abandons the Nazi footage for beautiful color shots of circus acts.  Then, we get close-ups of fantastically homely circus performers who speak directly to the camera in a strangely inflected, curiously bombastic form of German that seems to have been invented for the film.  Kluge cuts in historical images of circuses, panned and zoomed in the best Ken Burns style, documentary shots of circus animals, and strangely desolate and empty landscapes -- the autobahn at night, a big top tent slowly being deflated for removal from a dark and empty vacant lot.  From time to time, we see the ostensible heroine, Lena Peichert, engaged in transactions that the film's Marxist-materialist orientation renders in pedantic detail.  Peichert buys a hapless-looking elephant for 12,000 DM -- the beast obligingly stands on its head for her.  She has a boyfriend named Dr. Horst, who belabors her with abstract statements of principle that seemed derived from Adorno.  Dr. Horst is completely self-absorbed.  Lena washes his back as he sits in a tub, eating from a tray that discretely conceals his genitals, reading a book with an English title, and, at the same time, watching a show like Bonanza or Gunsmoke on a TV mounted at the foot of his regal tub.  Lena has driven many miles to see him.  Kluge cuts to a shot of the Bahnhof and, then, Lena, whose little car won't start, pushing the vehicle along a deserted and muddy country lane.  The soundtrack is a collage of political statements, speeches, commercials, and florid music that stops and starts apparently randomly, a formal tic that the film has appropriated from Godard's films of the same vintage.  Kluge's movie seems less narrative than a sort of encyclopedic essay, something similar to movies by Chris Marker.  The problem for the audience is discerning the thematic or stylistic principles that motivate the inclusion of material in the movie -- why, for instance, does the movie begin with images of Hitler's festival of culture? (I think Kluge is suggesting that Hitler's politics of spectacle was circus-like and bears a resemblance to the antics presented in the Peichert family circus -- although the comparison is strained, and, possibly, suggested only for the purpose of being refuted; I have the sense that some of the comparisons and metaphors suggested by the film's montage are experimental or hypothetical -- they are advanced only to be rejected.  I come to Kluge through two of his books that I have recently read, both of them about World War Two, and am an admirer of his literary work.  Kluge's writing embodies the montage-techniques of his films:  he splices together apparently discordant and unrelated materials and asks the readers to draw connections -- a project that I think is more readily accomplished in the format of his prose than in the breathless, throw-in-everything-and-the kitchen-sink style of his filmmaking.  The movie is exhausting in its difficulty:  too much too quickly and, in this effect, resembles Godard.  I have the sense that Kluge's film is like Godard's pictures with Anna Karenina -- Kluge seems to be infatuated by his leading lady, Hannelore Hogar, and the camera shamelessly admires her. The film is crammed with huge close-ups of the actress' intelligent, if somewhat angular, face and Kluge contrives pointless episodes to feature Leni Peickert fully nude. (The actress has a nice, trim girl-next-door figure and she is lit to highlight her very slight moustache.)  The movie is a kind of love letter to his hapless heroine, a woman who thinks that she can reconfigure the circus to feature clowns pursuing dolphins through tanks of water and animal acts in which tigers and lions chase "fifty mice wearing yellow stars."  Kluge foregrounds his movie-making technique, shifting between different types of film stock, shooting episodes in fast-motion, and using a variety of narrators to tell the story such as it is.  (Leni fails with her post-modern circus and ends up working in television exactly as her pompous boyfriend, Dr. Horst, predicted.)  There are some lyrical passages showing circuses at night in deserted and poor parts of town, but the film is primarily about the words that are spoken and they are so numerous and difficult that the movie's thematic content is mostly impenetrable.  The film ends unexpectedly and abruptly with one of Leni Peichert's colleagues wondering aloud whether the microphone is operating and, then, struggling to tell the plot of Verdi's Il Trovatore -- why this totally arbitrary scen concludes the film is mysterious to me.  The disc comes with an addition forty minute addendum, even more of a love letter to the leading lady -- The Indomitable Leni Peichert (the German is "unzaehmbar" --meaning "untamed").  This is more of the same and chronicles Leni's work in television -- she gets fired for running an unauthorized film in prime-time and schemes to return to the circus industry.  This is just more of the feature film -- and, one must say, there's quite enough of that to go around without adding another forty minutes of additional material to that narrative. Also on the disc is a really extraordinary and disturbing ten minute short, Electrocuting an Elephant, a movie about the 1903 Edison silent picture with that title -- this little movie is very interesting and intellectually rigorous, although, also, curiously playful.     

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