Before I Go to Sleep (Rowan Joffé, 2014)

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A film I feel like I’ve seen a million times at this stage due to my usually reliably lesbian best friend’s obsession with both Colin Firth and Mark Strong, Before I Go to Sleep combines the Memento premise of reoccurring short-term-memory loss, the “is my partner secretly a psychopath?” trope of Suspicion, and the “spooky hotel corridor” visions of The Shining, but with a dispassionate Britishness of sensibility that produces the psychological thriller equivalent of a soggy, grey-skied afternoon.

Goodness knows, the London-based melodramatic kitchen sink thriller (surely there must be a potential abbreviation in there somewhere?) needn’t be nothingy – I mean, I’m hardly in love withNotes On a Scandal, but it was at least pretty meaty in terms of character development and interaction, cause and effect. The problem in Before I Go to Sleep may lie in its presentation of Christine (Nicole Kidman)’s anterograde amnesia: by having her memory reset to a time long before the incident that caused her brain damage, every time she goes to bed, her personality itself becomes essentially a blank slate each day. Now, that’s actually a pretty good set up, but only when either the writer is skilled enough to establish and re-establish interpersonal relations between characters both efficiently and meaningfully, or at the very least the actor gives a strong enough performance to tease out said emotional veracity which, unsurprisingly, Nicole Kidman as ever fails to do. Thus, most conversations in Before I Go to Sleepessentially translate to:

“Agh! Who are you?”
“I’m X, you can trust me, honest…”
“Oh… ‘kay.”

The absence of personality in Christine, not to mention the absence of charisma in Kidman, leaves Colin Firth’s suspicious husband character as the character most worthy of our interest though, even then, the dialogue never really takes off: “Christine, you’re 40,” he tells her as the film starts, in a tone of voice that implies she just walked into the room in fishnets and a miniskirt. Mark Strong’s dashing doctor character is yet another phone-in who never manages to raise tension – of dread or sexuality – high enough to have any particular impact on the plot. Thus, when The Revelation finally occurs, the audience can essentially rest easy that the mystery is over, but sigh deeply for the film isn’t yet.

**

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The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (Stan Brakhage, 1971)

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Though I’m unsure how many times I have seen this film at this point, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit this was the first time I had realised the meaning behind the title: that “autopsy” (derived from the ancient Greek autos meaning “self” and optos meaning “seen,”) can in fact be translated to “The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes.” This information massively contextualises the content: rather than the film providing us with a typically unseen vision – corpses – in a manner one might describe, for example, Mothlight as doing, Act of Seeing instead places the kino eye within the morgue as locus of the revelatory event of autopsy. The reality of the film itself merely provides an entrance to a very literal unveiling. Stripped away is skin, fat, muscle, organic matter and what is left is… hard to say. But impossible not to see… and that, in a nutshell, is Brakhage’s game.

Such discomfort that I endure during Act of Seeing is not on account of gore; rather, much like sea-sickness, which is the visceral response to cognitive dissonance between perceptions of balance and vision, the nausea arises from the cognitive dissonance between the loss of these human bodies living, experiential subjectivity, and the addition of their objective potential as containers of mystery. Perhaps most disturbing is seeing the removal of faces, peeled away like a mask, revealing largely un-individual skull. The barrage of graphic imagery inducing a certain nigh-intoxicated effect, I mused, stoner-like, about the etymological meaning of “person” – mask. I recalled Alan Watts’ discourse on “who am I?” in which he discussed the ways in which one may not know oneself, in the same way one may not taste one’s own tongue or indeed see one’s own eyes with one’s own eyes, without the use of a mirror. How interesting that what we use to identify one another, read one another, be attracted to one another, is that about ourselves we are unable to see unaided…

I could go on but, as an act of mercy, I shan’t.

That Brakhage is able to elicit just as much wistful navel-gazing as he is pure revulsion is highly impressive, but perhaps also to be expected from his mastery of camerawork. Act of Seeing performs a certain phenomenological Cubism: flattening, thus relativising, the relief of subjectivity by stripping away the outside world, as so too is stripped away the flesh of the bodies, vision once again becomes an act of holism, just as it did in Dog Star Man. When the body of a larger woman is wheeled in near the end, green, the whiteness of the fat revealed as her chest is sliced open giving the effect of mattress foam more than anything as shocking as body tissue, it becomes ever unclear through the juxtaposing montage with other corpses of hues white, brown and grey, if the green-ness of this body was an effect of decomposition, or a trick of the light. The universal eyeball of the kino eye makes no valuation. Not this time. The final conflict between the lyrical hand and the Bazinian objectif in this film ends, I believe, in the latter’s favour. Though these corpses may no longer possess the subjectivity of the anima of their former living hosts, the gaze in the Act of Seeing feels considerably more akin to that expressed by Todd McGowan than by Laura Mulvey: this is no controlling gaze. Neither Brakhage’s eye, the camera’s eye, nor our eye has anymore say in what happens to these bodies than the bodies themselves; all we can do is see them, or turn and look away.

 

*****

Cat’s Cradle (Stan Brakhage, 1959)

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The thing about works of “lyrical film,” such as Brakhage’s is that the artist’s ideology can be understood in many ways to permeate the film to an extent often far surpassing the majority of mainstream cinema’s most recognisable auteurs. Cat’s Cradle is by no means an exception to this rule. Brakhage was, without a doubt, one of the most formally and aesthetically accomplished key figures in the world of artist’s film throughout the entire latter half of the 20th Century and, goodness knows, when his striving to open the door to a cornucopia of visual experiences, as far removed from ideology as cinematically possibly was successful, it was really successful. However, there are also nigh-countless examples of him almost bizarrely making use of archetypal signifiers that act in total accord with the standard symbolic order. Thus, Brakhage may earnestly believe that Cat’s Cradle is an example of “sexual witchcraft involving two couples and a ‘medium’ cat,” but what appears before us is two women, doing womanly duties, and two men lounging around, smoking. The only things missing are a couple of martinis and pairs of slippers.

Thus, although Carolee Schneemann does specifically point toWindow Water Baby Moving as the film against which her ownFuses can be said to fight back, it would seem highly remiss not to mention Cat’s Cradle, not least of all because it involves Stan, Jane, Carolee, James and Kitch the Cat – the latter 3 all having starring roles in Fuses. Window Water Baby Moving assuredly is problematic in taking a film of Jane giving birth and successfully making it all about Stan, it is Cat’s Cradle that so clearly assigns men and women traditional, hetero-patriarchal roles, with which Carolee and James look particularly uncomfortable.

The formal elements of the film, from the red glow to the rapid, chaotic juxtapositions and visual dialogue from gaze to gaze is as beautiful as it is impressive – enough to gain it 3 stars in my estimation – but, with regard to the “sexual witchcraft” remit, it ultimately fails.

***

 

Dog Star Man (Stan Brakhage, 1961-1964)

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Multi-layered in both content and form, the panoply of holistic vision which Dog Star Man presents makes the magnum opus of this stage in Brakhage’s career a pretty clearly intentional candidate for the lyrical film’s equivalent of the Great American Novel. Wholly representative of the Brakhage family’s participation in the Back-to-the-Land movement, Dog Star Man seems to meditate on in the interconnectedness of all things, from – appropriately enough – dogs, to stars, to men. Gratifyingly, the technical brilliance of Dog Star Man‘s post-production is considerably more self-acknowledged than in, for instance,Window Water Baby Moving or The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes, in which descriptions tend to include phrases such as, “completely unedited, except for ____ and ____ and ____,” thus the deftness with which juxtaposition becomes comparison, which in turn becomes abstraction carries weighty meaning in line with some of the more compelling aspects of New Age woo: namely, the similarity between such things as the appearance of galaxies and, appropriately, the human eye.

Dog Star Man ventures on a journey of sight that includes the spectacular cosmos and details, actions and events of the human anatomy, external and internal, beautiful and shocking. The miracle of birth and the flow of blood through capillaries share space with stars and the trees of the Colorado mountains. However, predictably, at the centre of it all does seem to be Brakhage himself, journeying through said trees, up said mountains, felling for firewood. As with any (proto-)hippie-esque piece of artwork, man’s interaction with nature is one of ambiguity, Brakhage himself describing the act as “man felling the tree of the world.” However, sensitive as Brakhage may on occasion consider himself, he is frankly a bit too much of a patriarchal caveman not to tip the balance in his favour: he with his axe and his dog, trudging through the snow, was always going to end up looking more majestic than ecocidal and why wouldn’t it? It’s his visual poetry, and I’m sure he left considerably less of a carbon footprint on this planet than the most of us.

The parenthetical sections Prelude and Part IV are, to my mind, simultaneously the film’s most kaleidoscopic and strongest points, with the middle sections focusing on his mountain-climbing and his baby the least engaging, simply for being the most standard bits of filmmaking. The direct engagement with the celluloid itself, most particularly through the method of scratching patterns into it, is a beautiful precursor to the painting films of his last 15 years. Dog Star Man is wonderful in its ability to express so much of Brakhage the man – both the poetic genius and the patriarchal jerk, and both somehow come across with flair and charm in this essential milestone of the American avant-garde.

 

*****

Desistfilm (Stan Brakhage, 1954)

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An engaging if rough-round-the-edges look at sociality and sexuality in group settings, Desistfilm certainly feels like one of Brakhage’s more “acted” films and, holding the place as one of his very few sound films, makes distinctly impressive use of sonic/visual juxtaposition with a great, noisy soundtrack that sits somewhere between free jazz and the first wave of industrial artists like Nurse With Wound – all the more impressive, 5 years before Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come. Overall, Desistfilm is a slight, yet compelling, preferable alternative to the ever-overrated (albeit funnier) Pull My Daisy.

 

***1/2

Cassette (Zack Taylor, 2016)

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Cassette, on its international quest to explore the cassette tape – and above all, the mix tape – its origins, its influences, its demise and its resurgence, absolutely has its heart in the right place. It manages to interview all the surviving inventors, it has the obligatory talking heads of Henry Rollins and Thurston Moore, not to mention live footage of presumably grateful Williamsburg hipster bands.

The problem is almost paradoxical: Cassette documents a great many people with a huge passion for the subject matter; something that does not appear to be particularly shared by the filmmakers, themselves. The film is consistently permeated by a largely impassive atmosphere which one can only assume is the reason behind its general lack of pursuit. Absolutely, a lot of people are consulted – we hear from DJ Ron G and others about the mixtape’s major influence on hip hop, we see Mike Watt discussing the impact it had on the garage band’s ability to get recordings out there, but we never really explore the impact on such movements and phenomena; all we get are some anecdotes as a camera scans over collections of tapes, or someone holds the cover up to the camera, the majority of the time, the lens is too unfocused to capture the titles or images, anyway.

When you think of all the eccentricities of cassette culture out there, all the crazy packagings noise and experimental artists like Aube, A Band, The Gerogerigegege, Merzbow and others have been involved with that isn’t mentioned at all, you really can’t help but feel a little cheated. Instead, we hear X number of people saying the exact same thing about the tape’s relevance to hip hop, X number of people saying the exact same thing about the tape’s relevance to punk, X number of people saying the exact same thing about how their tape-related manufacture/distribution/retail business hasn’t yet folded.

I absolutely agree with the sentiment that a documentary is not the same as an adult educational video, and there is no necessity to “learn” in the strictest sense anything from one. However, feeling like I’ve gained almost nothing phenomenologically has led me to the conclusion that, whilst nothing at all is particularly bad about Cassette it is the standardest of standard boilerplate kickstarter-funded pet project documentaries, without even really showing the “love” implicit in the term amateur. Shame, really.

**1/2

Star Spangled to Death (Ken Jacobs, 1957-2004)

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Between its anarchic genderfuckery in the form of Jack Smith, its sociopolitical cynicism and its extended, barbed, and wholly sardonic use of found-footage from throughout Hollywood’s history, Star Spangled to Death may potentially warrant the bizarre honour of being the American Underground’s radical response to Myra Breckinridge. However, and I say this without a hint of sarcasm, compared to the tragically disorganised and honestly quite dull 94 minutes of fairly uneventful camp posturing, Star Spangled‘s 7 hours genuinely fly by.

Building on the avant-garde’s propensity for creating film analysis in the form of film itself, Star Spangled exploits 20th Century Hollywood and TV broadcasting’s dominance over the Western world to, in turn, critique that world itself. By focusing itself multiple times on, but by no means limiting itself to, milestone figures of cinema’s development Al Jolson and Mickey Mouse (and the indisputable influence of blackface minstrelsy over both), it allows the intersectional ideologies of Capitalism and racism flowing through the film industry to be revealed in clearer terms than even Comolli and Narboni might have achieved.

Throughout the film, text appears, sometimes for only one or two frames, often challenging the assertions of documented figures such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and it invites us to become Laura Mulvey’s partially-dreaded “possessive spectator” – disrupting and restarting the film as many or as few times as we care to read Jacob’s comments – in so doing, we engage in some of the same techniques as him.

However, Star Spangled exists not solely as a found-footage documentary, nor as an essay film, rather as the synthetical product of these two dialectics which, in turn, results in what may only be described as “fiction” – Jacobs and fellow artist friends playing “characters” such as Jack Smith’s “The Spirit Not of Life But of Living.” As is the case with Jacob’s Little Stabs at Happiness, there are wistful, tragicomic references to the fallings-out Jacobs experienced with Smith and co. before the end of the film’s production. Star Spangled of course, is all the more poignant for its gestation period outliving not only Smith’s firm friendship with Jacobs, but also Smith, himself, who died of complications related to AIDS the lion’s share of 15 years before the film’s completion. In the final chapter reaches a level of deep profundity when it references Smith’s apparent inability to shake off the internalised queerphobia instilled by a hardline Christian education, believing himself deserving of his fate, followed rapidly by footage of the anti-Gulf War 2 protests in New York, in which Jacobs believed he had encountered Smith’s ghost, in the guise of a similar-looking young protester, leading chants and drum circles.

Star Spangled to Death is a blisteringly angry, bitingly funny, but most of all desperately vital masterpiece of American Underground cinema, documentary and anti-kyriarchal self-expression.

 

*****

The Mask You Live In (Jennifer Siebel Newsom, 2015)

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The Mask You Live In is a solid and vital, if unadventurous, documentary on the crossover between gender performativity and toxic masculinity and the societal feedback loop that cultivates it / which it cultivates. Its primary tool is an impressively varied set of talking heads and interviewees, the former including neuroscientists, behaviourists, sociologists, sports coaches, social workers and psychiatrists; the latter including reception-age children, high-school kids and young male felons with life sentences. Mask‘s strong point is looking at current affairs and developing recent discussions on pop culture – for example video games – and contextualising the young men – young boys, even – and their engagement with misogynist and hyper-masculine representations of violence as the only means of conflict resolution and rage as the only emotion – if any – worthy of expression to a degree which Anita Sarkeesian has somewhat often fallen short.

It’s a trippy and affective experience, watching such a film as a young woman, raised in childhood to be someone’s son and, perhaps it was as someone with such a relatively unique perspective that I noticed the morals of the film being disappointingly simple – essentially a “don’t do that.” It was a little jarring that it focused so often on language relating to queerphobia and misogyny, but didn’t bother too much to pursue the narratives of queer young men. It was a little tiring to see such an un-nuanced attitude of suspicion and blame towards sex work, including but not limited to pornography, to the extent that there were points at which it did become difficult to see too much distance between Mask and any other special news report. Much like a special news report, Mask mixes agenda with information in a way that, whilst not teaching me very much I didn’t already know, it did have me jotting down the names of some of the consulted experts to find out about any related TED talks etc – without a doubt the most impressive of these is Ashanti Branch.

Problems aside, The Mask You Live In‘s heart is indubitably in the right place and it comes away with considerably more wins than losses. We must just look at this film as the beginning of a much longer conversation.

 

***1/2

The Human Stain (Robert Benton, 2003)

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My stance with the obnoxious whiners, both the ones for and against what is so often frankly mislabeled “political correctness” ever in flux, my opinion on The Human Stain‘s own argument is not unlike the opening joke of Annie Hall about two elderly Jewish ladies complaining about the awful food, and in such small portions: it is all at once desperately stupid, and isn’t made at all strongly enough.

It is almost universally acknowledged that Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman are woefully miscast in this film. I mean, obviously, Nicole Kidman, a nigh-perpetual charisma vacuum, appears miscast in pretty much everything but the casting of protagonist Coleman Silk is at least slightly interesting, if still pretty lousy. Better qualified and more dedicated people than me could explore the potential racial-identity-oriented implications of having the young Coleman Silk played by a man of Afro-Carribean and Jewish descent (Wentworth Miller), and the old Coleman Silk being played by a man with neither, with regard to Silk’s choices regarding his familial and racial disconnection, but I don’t feel all that comfortable exploring it right now, myself. What I shall instead say is that, despite my general lack of interest in Miller, I think he does a pretty fine job, all things considered, both of portraying Silk on his own terms and also reflecting Hopkins’ mannerisms enough to make one a believable younger version of the other. However, this only further establishes something of a star-power-dynamic, as the latter’s performance is a wholly workaday Hopkins-as-Hopkins which, especially in the context of the May-December relationship between Silk and Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman), makes The Human Stain appear an overly-serious dummy-run for the equally underwhelming Allen comedy You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.

The catalyst for the lacklustre narrative, Silk’s loss of his academic post on account of his use of the term “spooks,” meaning “ghosts,” being seemingly intentionally misconstrued as “spooks,” meaning “Black people,” is wholly dependent not on the clandestine racial origins of the speaker, but the lack of level-headedness of his colleagues, given the clarity of context of the word, situated in the phrase “do they exist, or are they spooks?” This is ever so slightly alluded to, right near the very of the film which, given what’s just happened at the climax, everyone essentially goes – “who cares?” However, the bulk of the film is essentially predicated on a deeply inane “freezepeach” babble: “What do you mean I can’t use a racial slur? What if I’m secretly Black? Didn’t think of THAT one, didya?” An argument made predominantly by the whitest of white men.

Nicole Kidman is, of course, awful but, to be fair, so is her character. The Wentworth Miller-led flashback sections are, without a doubt, the most engaging, but are entirely cheapened and embittered by the fact that what is actually a fairly compelling story of one man is being used, inappropriately and poorly, as smoke-and-mirrors for a completely fatuous argument. The tensions surrounding Faunia and her obnoxious PTSD outbursts, one-dimensional allusions to childhood molestation, dead children, and her not-at-all-menacing menacing ex husband (Ed Harris), beyond being dull and grating, also distract from the point the story is trying to make. The result is, rather than complexity, The Human Stain merely gains confusion.

The Human Stain suffers through its underuse of good actors in good roles, overuse of good actors in bad roles, and overuse of bad actors in bad roles, never with enough conviction or narrative drive to express its point to the extent that it could be described as a “commentary” or “satire,” and it’s a stupid point anyway.

 

*1/2