In the Shadow of the Sun (Derek Jarman, 1981)

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(Screened at Cafe OTO with a live score performed by Psychic TV)

In the Shadow of the Sun exists essentially in the dead-centre of a triangle made of Lucifer Rising (Kenneth Anger, 1974), Begotten (E. Elias Merhige, 1991), and From the Pole to the Equator (Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, 1987). As one might thus expect, it is an oneiric, haunting and paradoxically apocalyptic world-creation, wholly intoxicating in the well-established avant-garde-cinematic mode of queer orientalism and yet, in eschewing a good three-quarters of the campiness we would associate with Anger or Jack Smith, the contrast between skeletal ritual masks and race/class-signifying top hats allows Shadow to approach a slight critique of the colonial “magickal tourism” so often in play. Note I do say “approach,” rather than “reach,” however there is a notable absence of naiveté within the gaze of these blown-up 8mm images.

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The use of repetition and superimposition, as with Jarman’s earlier shorts (from which some of Shadow‘s footage is evidently lifted) invokes a particularly cabbalistic reading of montage – a visual praxis of solve et coagula – that demands numerous rewatching and reinterpretation. I certainly plan to oblige.

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Telephones (Christian Marclay, 1995)

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Pleasantly humorous and humorously pleasing, Telephones is a classic Christian Marclay film, utilising montage as a visual DJing technique, mixing up films of all eras and varieties, focused on the classic device of the telephone conversation. Unlike the unique formal premise of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid , Telephones does not establish new dialogues between characters in a series of shot-reverse-shots; instead, we may imagine characters from such films as Psycho, Sleepless in Seattle, Ruthless People and Goldfinger encircling a black hole, absorbing these bisected conversations, these half-stories – all these classical Hollywood films (whether in terms of era, or narrative construction) now have their leading characters speaking into the void – the void that is, what? The cutting room floor? I don’t wish for the existential angst of my art student review to detract from the light comedy at the centre of Telephones – merely to praise it for its function as film-as-film-theory. However, its restricted premise never allows the full potential of this function be reached as it might in a Peter Tscherkassky or Martin Arnold film and, my own navel-gazing aside, Telephones remains little more than I described at the start of this review: pleasantly humorous, and humorously pleasing.

***1/2

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

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (Ben Rivers and Ben Russell, 2013)

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Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness is a, confusingly enough, hypnotic yet frustrating documentation of Estonia, Finland and Norway that undoubtedly shares much of Stan Brakhage’s “back to the land” philosophy, albeit few if any of his aesthetics. Certainly, as a visual and aural reflection on a spiritual commune between man and nature, A Spell works best when it is at both its quietest and its loudest – both of these states most brilliantly carried on the shoulders of semi-protagonist, avant-garde / black metal / drone pioneer Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe.

Unfortunately, what certainly feels like the lion’s share of A Spell is not devoted to Lowe, silently rowing staring with stoned, unblinking eyes at a burning wooden hut, or performing some of the most surreal harsh vocals in extreme music today, but instead to a group of fairly insufferable hippies who mumble and murmur aimless anecdotes and half-baked social theories which, speaking as a mid-20s Arts & Humanities graduate living in east London, I really don’t need to watch a Ben Rivers film to hear. I don’t want to be giving A Spell the relatively pedestrian rating of only 3.5 stars but, beyond having to dock the rating due to the tedium of the aforementioned section, it had to lose another half due to the actual – presumably unplanned – alienation effect this section has on the rest of the beautifully serene film. As I alluded to earlier, A Spell does operate on a paradox here – if the rest of the film didn’t operate so beautifully, it might have ironically ended up with a slightly higher rating. Life is strange.

There is, undoubtedly, a Bazinian beauty to A Spell which absolutely works to the benefit of its philosophy – it is the realism of the cinematic praxis here which endows the film so much with a spirituality of form. Such a relationship to the pro-filmic environment is what allows the opening shot and the final 45 minutes such consistency. Much of this rests on the camerawork, which achieves at its best moments a perfect harmony between phenomenology and restrained documentation. The opening shot is a methodical volley of pans, back and forth across a vast and seemingly completely secluded lake, all of which stop short of being 360⁰ as though to self consciously deny the camera the privilege of an omniscient position. Likewise, in the black metal performance in the last half hour, shot entirely in one take, the chiaroscuro on-location mise-en-scène of the stage, only emphasised when contrasted with the band’s corpse paint, gives the scene an ecstatically disorientated ambience, as the camera snakes around the performers, almost entirely in close-up to extreme-close-up, in such a way that we are left with no concrete understanding of the geography of the stage, or the positioning of the musicians. They seem to appear randomly in the line of the lens’ sight, again stressing the limitations of the artist’s hand in the face of an holistic omnipresence of of man-nature communal spirituality (an ever-increasing preoccupation of black metal lyrics, both in its Scandinavian birthplace and beyond, from France to the Pacific Northwest).

There is so very much to love about A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, I can only hope that, the next time I watch it, I’ll be in a slightly better mood and be able to afford it at the very least half an extra star.

 

***1/2

We are the Flesh (Emiliano Rocha Minter, 2016)

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Okay, now this is something very special. Tenemos la carne / We are the Flesh is one of those feature films for which the concept of the 5-star rating was invented: it is a film I feel, on some level, truly grateful for. I hesitate to give any real synopsis as part of this review as it is a delirious enough experience to make it unclear what would be a spoiler and what would not. Suffice to say, my assumption of the premise on the basis of the (still very good) trailer with regard to narrative events and character dynamics was pretty much erroneous, though for all the better, as my anxieties about this simply being a Mexican answer to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were quickly allayed.

Instead, We are the Flesh appears to be the brainchild of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, not to mention Jean-Luc Godard, the late playwright Sarah Kane and a whole host of video artists, devised theatre groups and installationists. In fact, what The Revenant may positively be described as being to European Art Cinema (a not-inappropriate link to make, considering Iñarritu’s backing of this film, alongside Carlos Reygadas and Alfonso Cuarón), I feel We are the Flesh may be said to be to a contemporary Artist’s Film & Video. The premise meanwhile combines what appears to be Catholicism, folklore and fairy tales, with a central figure whose name may be Mariano who appears and acts all at once akin to Charles Manson, Rumpelstiltskin and the Devil incarnate (no pun intended). The first act, amongst other things, details the transformation of an abandoned floor on an abandoned office building in an unexplained post-apocalyptic landscape into a womb-cave that may act as venue to each character’s Id to fully express itself. The film’s themes of sexuality, violence and cannibalism all have direct connections to psychoanalysis, as much as they do to the concepts of sin, and both are exploited to full symbolic effect in the film. Meanwhile, We are the Flesh rallies between states of modernism and post-modernism as the “film itself” struggles and seemingly fails to contain the jouissance within – visuals break to singe photographic frames as someone foams at the mouth; a sex scene turns into a music video shot in heat-cam and, later, another sex scene reaches a level of volatile intensity that the film distorts and colour-shifts into oldschool anaglyphic stereoscopic vision.

At pivotal moments (though I may not intend the pun, I’m not so sure the filmmakers don’t) throughout the film, the camera appears to spin 360⁰ in a style highly reminiscent of other recent Satanic Mexican art film Lucifer (interestingly enough, I believe the titular character’s actor, Gabino Rodriguez, may make a cameo in We are the Flesh though I’ll have to check when IMDb is more accommodating)’s use of “tondovision.” At others, it exploits a fantastic score, masterful editing, and psychedelic post-production values to elicit anything from empathetic lustmord to kolpophobia (at these points, one may detect faint echoes of William S. Burroughs’ writings in Central and South America, above my personal favourite, all Cities of the Red Night).

If We are the Flesh may be understood as a response to anything, I feel inclined to view it as a response to Ben Wheatley’s infinitely disappointing adaptation of High-Rise, whose ironic detachment from the narratologiccal grisliness was far too distant in the former and far too “stylish” in the latter – certainly a word of which all film-goers should be wary, due to its typical indication of little more than plenty of shiny things in the mise-en-scène. In the papier-mâché catacombs of We are the Flesh, nothing shines, though the entire film glows with an intoxicating, evil beauty of which I cannot wait for my next fix.

 

*****

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

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.

 

*****