Napoléon (Abel Gance, 1927)

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One of the few films for which you can employ the term “epic” with absolute confidence, Abel Gance’s 1927 magnum opus Napoléon is a triumphant crescendo of the late silent era which cannot help but fill me with a certain resentment at the introduction of sound to cinema at all (or, at the very least, to the blockbuster). Over-optimistically intended as merely the first part of a six-film-series, documenting the whole of the French Emperor’s life, Napoléon covers his school days to the invasion of Italy, over a five-and-a-half-hour that flies by, balanced well enough as to leave the spectator wanting more, purely on the basis of not wanting to leeave that world just yet.

However, to maintain circus analogies, one might describe Gance’s directorial method not merely as a balancing act, or even juggling but perhaps a veritable flying trapeze act between historical documentation, speculative dramatisation, superimposition, multiple exposure, unchained camera techniques and multi-screened “polyvision.” Thus, Napoléon achieves a breathtaking simultaneous marriage of celebrating France’s greatest moments of yesteryear with a vibrantly modernist format that proffers a knowing and participatory form of phenomenological reception over any standard suspension of disbelief. This is not the “transparent cinema” that so draws Godard’s ire; rather, by taking the impressionist mode of representation and signification, and expanding to it beyond-Griffith grandeur, this is truly the climax of the blockbuster’s existence as a form of genuine experimentation.

Perhaps the one and only pitfall lies in Napoleon himself – by no means at all in Albert Dieudonné’s performance, which is second only to the incredible child actor Vladimir Roudenko’s portrayal of the child Bonaparte – but in one aspect of his portrayal. Namely, Gance’s choice to use, wherever possible, genuine quotation, combined with the protagonist’s typical laconism results in a character who is enigmatically, stoically silent, who then occasionally blurts out such prideful remarks as “I am the revolution!” This establishes a certain point of confusion between the historical and the symbolist Bonaparte which inevitably results in him remaining perhaps a too-unknowable character for someone I just spent 5 and a half hours with.

However, the knowledge that this was intended as the first in a much longer series of films investigating his life leads me to the satisfied conclusion that we would have gained more insight, had Gance been able to finance such a titanic feat. Even so, my sadness at the absence of its sequels is not for lack of a sense of completion, but merely the eager desire for more. At least we have this!

****1/2

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There’s Method in the Method

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When it comes to “method acting,” I’m very much on the fence. On one side, there’s still that child within me, very much alive, who loves grand stories about grand acts. I don’t know how many times I’ve read Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon at this stage and, indeed, I even recorded an album inspired by the imagery it conjured. Like the rock fans of decades past, reading up on the outlandish and, routinely, morally repugnant acts committed by bands like Led Zeppelin in planes and hotel rooms all round the world, ridiculous tall tales about Marilyn Manson having ribs surgically removed to perform auto-fellatio, not to mention the extent to which the character of The Thin White Duke allegedly had on David Bowie’s nervous breakdown during the production of Station to Station, film journalism even in 2016 cannot get over romanticising the self-destructive exploits of certain, otherwise abundantly privileged Hollywood stars.

The other side of me, and I cannot stress this strongly enough, doesn’t give a toss about actors. When some of the greatest films ever committed to film have been made without so much as a single camera, let alone a single actor, the necessity for the obnoxious toadyist personality cultism, and the obnoxious cultish personalities upon which cinema is allegedly dependent really starts showing its holes. There’s more and purer cinema in Paul Sharits’ Ray Gun Virus than in Room and Spotlight combined, so please don’t insult me by suggesting we need to put up with Christian Bale disgracefully losing his shit at a blue collar worker for “throwing him off” his unintentionally hilarious performance in a Terminator sequel nobody ever asked for.

Given that you’re currently reading the blog of someone with a Maya Deren tattoo, but is as yet bereft of any Spielberg-related designs, you’re presumably less than surprised my main interest is not, in fact, contemporary Hollywood. That’s not to say, however, that I don’t have a certain adoration and fascination for its potentials – just read my recent love letter to Some Like It Hot if you need convincing of my faith in Hollywood as an entity’s abilities. It takes considerably less practical or academic knowledge of the machinery of the American film industry (which, I’ll be the first to admit, is not one of my strong suits) to know that everything is a product, every product has an “image,” and make no mistake, the image of having no image at all is the most meticulously constructed one there is. Thus, concepts such as “truth” and “reality” become aesthetic choices in their own right – André Bazin discussed “realism” as essentially the dialectical synthesis of reality and the inherent artifice of the cinematic medium, and that was when he was describing people wandering through bombed-out Rome with a 16mm, let alone the studio sets of tinseltown, complete with traumatised runners, dodging traffic whilst desperately clutching Mr. Cruise’s almond milk extra foam double shot decaf mint mocha matcha macchiato in one hand, and his prize pet salamander in the other.

See, here’s the thing: there’s a certain undiscussed, unacknowledged violence in empathy. Alejandro González Iñárritu is quite correct in saying The Revenant would never have worked if, the moment he yelled “cut,” Leonardo and Tom could happily pop back to their trailers for hot coffee. Thing is, though: coffee is still available at the end of the road. It always is. Lived experience is not simply some room you can walk into; it’s a complex intersection of an array of nuances, multiple pasts, presents and futures. Who cares that you’re hungry today? You were at a 5-star restaurant last month and, come the wrap party, you’ll be at one again. Dumping your girlfriend and selling your house is not, actually, an accurate way of accessing first-hand experience of being a victim of Shoah. Losing masses of weight by only eating melon and steamed fish for a set period of time will teach you nothing – repeat, nothing – about destroying and ending your life through heroin addiction at the tender age of 21. Trust me. Still, I have no objection to someone changing their lifestyle to one degree or another during a role in order to achieve better the constructed aesthetic of realism, as opposed to the constructed aesthetic of “stageyness;” knock yourself out. What I object to is not the addition of realism to a role; what I object to is the complete undermining of the “method” by creating such a performance out of the method itself that the only thing embellished is the star’s own image, to the great detriment of their character.

Unsurprisingly, Jared Leto is the strongest example here, and not just on the basis of his remarkable levels of self-satisfaction, but also on the basis of his remarkable levels of self-preservation. See, Leto represents quite simply the ultimate hypocrisy of outlandish method acting: not only do you get to pretend that lived experience is simply a room you can just walk into, you also get to choose exactly how long you stay in the room, and even how far into it you’re willing to walk. “He started watching footage of actual violent crimes on YouTube, until he had to stop himself.” Oh, fuck off. It’s 2016. Who hasn’t? I couldn’t go to school without someone shoving a phone in my face, with footage of Saddam Hussein’s execution, or a military contractor’s beheading. I imagine for a moment the cornucopia of “useful” method experiences that were so easily accessible to him for which he apparently did not opt – namely, anything that might have put him remotely in harm’s way.

I think back to all of his godawful interviews with regard to the character Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club. It’s actually quite incredible how many people are willing to blow smoke up an actor for the most trivial and frivolous of pursuits. Take John Patterson’s pitifully obsequious interview with Leto, in which he, riotously, describes Rayon as yet another example of Leto’s “total immersion.” What method of total immersion is that, you ask? To go out, dressed as the transgender female character. Once. TO WHOLE FOODS. Let’s break this down for a second: Jared Leto, method actor extraordinaire, “immersed” himself as his character once and only once, “to get a little judgement, some meanness, a little condemnation…for the part,” from those notoriously violent denizens of spelt bread, purple cauliflower, and ultra-conservative social politics: Whole Foods. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve gotten the occasional dirty look, passing through a farmer’s market, but it’s not exactly the same as wandering into a Plaistow lock-in, either. Of course, the irony of Leto’s choice lies not only in the stereotypically liberal stance Whole Foods projects – however genuine or ersatz these projections may be – but in the fact that, at the steep prices of Whole Foods’ organic gourmet produce, there’s not a snowball’s chance in Hell that Rayon, or indeed most trans women – real or fictional – would or could ever shop there, anyway. Perhaps Leto is too solipsistically self-involved to realise that, or perhaps he knows perfectly well, but didn’t feel like taking a bigger risk. Still, it was vastly apparent that his “method” was founded upon ignorance, hypocrisy, or both. Beyond the issues’ amplification due to Leto’s inappropriateness as an actor for the role, by being cisgender in the first place and the hilarity of his jaunt round the supermarket being called “total immersion” is that, for trans women desiring genital reconstructive surgery, required time for “total immersion” into the role of one’s true gender can be a year or more. Had he the desire, Leto could have got estrogen and anti-androgen medication delivered to his trailer on a silver platter within the hour but, no. Some total immersions can be a little too immersive, apparently. Am I suggesting that Jared Leto should have altered his hormone levels, thus reducing body hair and developing breasts? I don’t know, I’m no actor; I’m just a film-loving tranny with an axe to grind.

Leto can flatter himself into thinking he “got into the mind of a psychopath” by sending his fellow Suicide Squad cast and crew dead pigs and used condoms because it didn’t affect him. He was surrounded by professionals who were kind enough not to leave him, picking up his teeth with a broken arm, but also were kind enough not to have him sectioned under any local mental health acts for doing so, as would of course happen to anyone who was actually suffering bouts of mental illness, and was making others suffer, too. It seems particularly pertinent because, of course, there are uncountable people who have had front-row access to abusive, sadistic, psychopaths and narcissists their entire life, in the form of their mothers, fathers, husbands, boyfriends… But who cares about the survivors of those kinds of psychopaths, the real ones? They’re boring, right Jared? Perhaps, more than anyone else, Leto represents the ultimate paradox of a “method” actor, who is clearly bereft of the experience of being told “no,” on account of who he is: there’s no chance of a character’s fictional psyche EVER dominating an ego already so inflated. I might politely suggest that, for his next role, Leto might want to try and get cast as a decent human being, mindful of others, with more than a shred of humility. But I’m sure he’d manage to interpret his remit as requiring him to shoplift from charity stores and prank-call orphans, pretending to be their parents.
The meticulous cynicism with which actors like Jared Leto pick and choose which roles demand what levels and what means of “method” approach reveal all too clearly that we aren’t dealing with an actor “losing himself in the role.” We’re seeing someone push all known boundaries to ensure that the role gets lost in him.

You will never understand
How it feels to live your life
With no meaning or control
And with nowhere left to go
You are amazed that they exist
And they burn so bright
Whilst you can only wonder why
Rent a flat above a shop
Cut your hair and get a job
Smoke some fags and play some pool
Pretend you never went to school
But still you’ll never get it right
‘Cause when you’re laid in bed at night
And watching roaches climb the wall
If you called your dad he could stop it all
Yeah

“Common People,” Pulp

Ten Great Atmospheric Soundtracks

So, in addition to reviews and the odd academic whatever, I’ve decided to start doing the occasional article, dare I say it, “listicle,” to add a little variation in my blog posts. The first recommendation has come from my good friend Ilhana, who suggested “Top Ten Moody/Atmospheric Soundtracks,” so here we go… I decided to rename it to “Ten Great,” as I’m sure I’m missing off so many stunning soundtracks and scores right now. Numbers are indicative of nothing other than the order in which they sprang to mind:

1. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2014) – Mica Levi

I’ve always said that, were I ever to curate a music festival, I’d need to dedicate three separate slots to the Mica Levi: the first, naturally, for her incredible, danceable left-field post-no-wave band Micachu and the Shapes. The second as a DJ slot for her unbelievable noisy indie grime productions. The third, of course, would be for her to perform solo, with an orchestra, or somewhere in between, her masterpiece of an original score for Under the Skin. The subdued response to the maximalist notion of “space rock” afforded us by Spiritualized, or the overt coolness of Autolux, Mica Levi’s score encapsulates all the simultaneous oxymorons of space itself: it is at once engulfing, and sparse. It is measured, yet elusive. It is ominous, yet beautiful. It is threatening, yet vulnerable. Rarely has a soundtrack reflected the external progression and internal conflicts of a film’s protagonist so astutely and effectively. Winning 11 awards internationally, and being nominated for 7 more, that none of those were for an Academy Award is a disgusting reminder of just how artistically irrelevant the Hollywood meat parade truly is. Micachu, however, seems largely unfazed and just humbly shuffles along, seemingly embarrassed by her own genius. That we could all learn something from her.

 

2. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher, 2011) – Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross

I mean, I was always going to pick something by Trent Reznor, wasn’t I? In many ways the most tragically overlooked of the Reznor & Ross / Fincher collaborations, both in terms of the soundtrack and, indeed, the film itself, this is certainly my favourite score of the three. Whilst the compositions for The Social Network and Gone Girl may be said to reflect the psychology of their protagonists (or, at least, their narrators), the score for Dragon Tattoo reflects the film’s greater preoccupation with questions of an aggressively Darwinian existence in the modern age: survival, adaptation, subterfuge, camouflage, and any level of violence deemed necessary. Thus, much like the visual motifs of the film, the score performs a balancing act between ice and fire, routinely exchanging the precision of The Social Network‘s modular synths for tremolo guitar reverb and detuned pianos. Adaptation and, indeed, evolution play a strong role in the development of sound – what is staccato routinely becomes sustained, and vice versa – aggressive percussion and the distant sound of bells compete for space and the listener may sometimes be surprised which side wins. The breaks for moments of true sentiment are few and far between but, as Dragon Tattoo at its most hopeful may suggest, are entirely worth the struggle.

 

3. Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, 2000) – Mihály Vig

Undoubtedly a film that should have been compulsory viewing for all British citizens before the farcical referendum, with the disastrous results only beginning to ripple through this stupid, petty little island, Werckmeister Harmonies, aligned for the most part with the engagingly loquacious, if a little unsettling, protagonist János (Lars Rudolf)  bears witness to a civilisation destroying itself in mass brutality, seemingly triggered by the arrival of a “circus” – in reality, the giant, decomposing body of a blue whale, and a deformed, malignant “Prince,” of whom we only see a silhouette, who may or may not be the Devil himself. The complete antithesis of High-RiseWerckmeister Harmonies looks on with a spiritual sadness that finds faith and hope where it can, which is absolutely nowhere. Such a profundity of paradox is reflected wholly in longtime Tarr collaborator Vig’s breathtaking score. I challenge anyone and everyone not to weep with a sense of melancholy beyond their understanding as they, with János, stare into the unblinking eye of the whale and the tinkling piano notes of “Valuska” begin to play. Reassuring in its repetition, yet so sombre in its melody, so frail in its timbre, with occasional rushes of emotion in its percussive rolls, this is the music of those who survey the sins of the world and with tears streaming down their face, in the manner of Beckett’s muddied narrator in Worstword Ho!, somehow move forwards.

 

4. Marketa Lazarová (František Vláčil, 1967) – Zdeněk Liška

Considered by a great many to be the jewel in the crown that was the Czechoslovak New Wave, Marketa Lazarová is a delirious immersion into the theological, tribal and sexual politics of 11th century Czechoslovakia, as bestial Pagans war against Teutonic Christians, each side’s vindictive brutality rivalling the other’s. Zdeněk Liška’s music is the only accompaniment imaginable to such a kaleidoscopic vision of dialectics, as it pits ecstatic choral voices against primitive percussion – the grand majority of the percussion either designed via the input of historians to help Liška achieve the most legitimate sound of the era, or alternatively completely new inventions to achieve sounds not heard neither the 11th century, nor yet in the 20th. It is appropriate for a film whose very overhead narrator may be God himself to have music that may imply we are all seeing the action from the heavens, with all the glory and violence we associate with religions both organised and chaotic.

 

5. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007) – Jonny Greenwood

Obviously a toss-up between this and Greenwood’s equally brilliant score for the equally brilliant Inherent Vice, I elected on the earlier composition largely for the reason that, unlike Inherent Vice which also has a soundtrack of 60s and 70s pop (my personal favourite being “Les Fleurs” by Anderson’s late, great mother-in-law Minnie Riperton), There Will Be Blood‘s lack of any music other than Greenwood’s score and is thus all the more affected by it. Sergei Eisenstein, master editor for the Soviet Union, viewed not only the filmic narrative but the filmic form as reliant on conflict – certainly, my captions in this article so far have borne that out in the description of juxtaposition after juxtaposition. There Will Be Blood is preoccupied with the ungodly, primal beast lurking within a well-tailored “of the people” oil driller who manipulates, dominates and kills in his lust and quest for a success he can only understand in terms of victory or defeat. Scoring the film as it follows Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) from a hopeful silver miner down a shaft to a violent, decrepit and alcoholic oil baron in an all-but empty mansion, Greenwood’s composition doesn’t so much explore juxtapositions between instruments as find alternative, often highly aggressive, uses in instruments – oftentimes allowing his ondes martenot to take control of some of the most legato passages, whilst giving his violinists guitar picks to turn their stringed instruments into tolls of unique and alarming percussion. Thus, the theme of ugly revelation carries on beautifully from the narrative to the music.

 

6. Queen of Earth (Alex Ross-Perry, 2015) – Keegan DeWitt

As a film, Queen of Earth still perplexes me. Although on a narratological level, I’m still unsure of its ultimate success, its formal brilliance was absolutely enough to keep me pretty enraptured until the end. The acting is spot on, the editing is as revealing and obscuring as it’s clearly intended to be, the cinematography is fantastic, with the lens focus being played like a violin as it masterfully captures the two protagonists’ destructive selfishness and crippling loneliness all at once. Not to mention, of course: the original score by Keegan DeWitt. Rarely straying too far from its classical influence, Queen of Earth‘s  main theme works contextually in much the same way as the music from Tristan und Isolde interacted with the simultaneously idyllic and apocalyptic visuals of Melancholia – clearly a not unreasonable filmic comparison to make. However, its chattering high notes and echoing, Chinese-water-torture-reminiscent percussion recall both the other-worldliness of Under the Skin and the paranoia of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, expertly reflecting the dissociative truculence of, in particular, Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) and, according to DeWitt himself, is a tonal reference to Polanski’s criminally underrated psychological horror The Tenant. Add to this busily arpeggiated and scale-running woodwinds à la Philip Glass, and you have a score that reflects perfectly internal projections onto an otherwise beautiful world.

 

7. Made in USA (Ken Friedman, 1987) – Sonic Youth

Okay, I’ll admit it: I haven’t seen the film. Honestly, I’ve never met anyone who has. I notice it is on YouTube, so perhaps I shall to cure me of the shame of discussing the soundtrack to a film I have not yet seen, but all reports say that the best thing about the film is the soundtrack, and the film severely underused it at that (Sonic Youth’s music for Made in USA wasn’t even released until 8 years after the film’s release). Recorded in 1986, the soundtrack to Made in USA was made during what I always refer to as Sonic Youth’s “dusty period” – immediately following Bad Moon Rising and EVOL, Sonic Youth’s two albums that turn their attention away from the New York City no wave scene to a more expansive sound, and to more Californian topics such as the Manson murders, not to mention titular nods to Creedence Clearwater Revival. Slowly but surely, their sound transitioned towards one with more pop sensibility – something that would be confirmed by the the more conventionally palatable Sister in 1987 and their double-album magnum opus Daydream Nation in 1988. Made in USA undoubtedly expands upon the Americana implications of Bad Moon Rising and EVOL, not simply employing increased use of detuned pianos and even harmonica. The guitars, whilst remaining entirely Sonic Youth, do employ that countryfied element in their bent notes that feel not unlike pre-eminent noise rock parodies of perhaps, Hans Zimmer’s work in Thelma & Louise and, in an attitude heavy criminal road movie, why would it not?

 

8. Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) – Vangelis

In a manner not dissimilar to the panoply of editions in which Blade Runner as a film has itself been released, there is a long and messy history relating to the soundtrack’s release I shan’t go into here, but it is interesting how many hurdles at times stand between us and works of greatness. Vangelis’ unforgettable composition strikes me as owing a debt to Wendy Carlos’ masterpiece of a score to A Clockwork Orange (my heart breaks that I was unable to add a trans woman genius like Carlos to this list but, sadly my aim for as many original compositions as possible restricted me from adding the soundtrack so defined by her stunning “switched-on” reworks of the classics) but arguably diverts from her tone inasmuch as Vangelis doesn’t allow the dystopian noir to overshadow the impressive, if ecocidal, grandeur of the gargantuan urbanisation of Planet Earth. Electronics, of course, take the lead, though Vangelis does employ oneiric use of some organic instruments, not limited to saxophone, gamelan and tubular bells, in such such a way as to refer to the particular type of lounge jazz emitting from 80s radios (regularly and appropriately associated with the erotic thriller and other such bastard offspring of film noir) as a half-forgotten memory in this future Earth. The urbanity, the despair, and the sleaze are thus all readily accounted for in the soundscape, though all may still play second fiddle to the brimming crescendos that accompanied the first audience’s gasps of such oppressive beauty.

 

9. No Country For Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007) –  Carter Burwell

Fully aware of the cheekiness of this one, I simply couldn’t not add a soundtrack of (save for the end credits) almost complete silence to the list. I initially considered adding the silence of The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes, though I have unfortunately seen a naturally sub-par screening of that with musical accompaniment, so I feel a mainstream cinematic release such as this works for the best. No Country For Old Men is certainly nothing if not laconic with regard to dialogue and even the most violent and murderous of character interaction. Nearly every single character being a Vietnam vet, the act of not discussing the traumatic burdens one carries Certainly borrowing from the western and the film noir, No Country deals to a certain degree with archetypes on an individualist level, but not to such an extent that anyone’s personality can truly dominate a given situation – with the one possible exception of the nigh-Satanic antagonistic juggernaut Anton Chigurrh (Javier Bardem), whose alien and obscure moral code feels not at all un-reminiscent of “The Bad” Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) from The Good, the Bad and the UglyNo Country is a film that meditates on evil within a world of negative space. Thus, the absence of any sound, save for the extremely occasional distant Tibetan singing bowl, or a piano detuned to the frequency of a refrigerator’s hum, is precisely what is required: un-embellishing, un-relieving, and un-forgiving.

 

10. Performance (Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg, 1970) – Various

My favourite feature-length film of all time, Performance  – much like my favourite musician, Keiji Haino – fundamentally represents for rock ‘n’ roll both its apex, and its annihilation. Sublime as it is nasty, femme as it is macho,  Performance‘s soundtrack accesses rock ‘n’ roll’s roots, and its future, and then surpasses it. Thus, Jack Nitzsche, Randy Newman, Merry Clayton, Buffy Saint-Marie, Merry Clayton, Bernie Krause and, naturally, Mick Jagger himself (with his greatest song of all time) contribute music both diegetic and non-diegetic that nods to gospel and the blues, makes use of one of the first moog synthesizers to create foreboding, Schaefer-esque pulsations, not to mention play the inimitable Black nationalist spoken word artists The Last Poets – rapping astute and powerful politics ten years before the Sugarhill Gang would form. Naturally, the centrepiece of Performance is the proto-music video for “Memo From Turner” (yes, my namesake) by Jagger, which makes the most thinly of veiled Ronnie Kray references throughout, as it delights in sending the casually racist butch world of London thuggery and queer Surrealism in head-on collision with one another inside a washed-up genderqueer rockstar’s daydream: