30 October 2008

Murder and the Man: Vengeance Is Mine/Fukushû suruwa wareniari (Shohei Imamura/1979)

The presentation of Enokizu (Ken Ogata) as simply a man – though a serial killer – is paramount to how potently Vengeance Is Mine (1979) wields its chronological narrative to examine the mechanics of an illusive and impulsive killer’s mind. The film begins with Enokizu’s capture, then jumps back to the beginning to chart the 78-day manhunt to bring him to justice. The pivotal flashback to Enokizu’s childhood, where a Buddhist soldier is humiliating his Christian father, Shizuo (Rentaro Mikuni), in front of him, only to have Enokizu be the one to fight back, could be Vengeance’s most revealing scene; perhaps going some way to explain both the film’s English language title and the germs of Enokizu’s future murderous pursuits. Though nowhere in the film is there anything that suggests he is on a personal mission to kill those that have wronged him (his victims are mostly innocents). It’s just an impulse, a guttural desire to commit murder that drives Enokizu on in his killing spree. The childhood flashback seems to be there to merely show us that Enokizu was rebellious and troubled from an early age.

Some scenes seem intentionally underlit throughout. The lighting subtly spotlights the actors within the film’s frame. The final meeting between Enokizu and Shizuo suggests this directly; reflecting the fact that the literal background mirrors the metaphorical background of the characters – not in any trite way (in, say, that Enokizu has a murky past), but in the way that, at this point, both men have prior grievances and regrets that they are only now semi-acknowledging to one another, albeit in an indecisive and dispiriting manner. Resigned, Shizuo reveals very little, but Enokizu shares his final, most telling thought with spiteful pride (snapping, “I want to kill you,” to Shizuo at the last minute). Ogata stands throughout much of the scene, towering over his father, and thus dominating the frame. This highlights the significance of their last meeting, and concludes their fraught relationship on a sad note.

Many of the killings happen off screen. It’s not really about showing how Enokizu kills his victims, or why, but just that he is matter-of-factly doing it. It’s less a psychological portrait than one of simple, curious observation. The killings we do see are given as much screen time as moments of mundane inaction: Enokizu and two women on a ship, watching the dark waves below (him ominously commenting that, “the sea is black”); Enokizu staring blankly out of an inn window as his “girl” Haru (Mayumi Ogawa) is semi-raped in the next room, and so on. The only killing that Imamura’s camera dwells on at any length is Haru’s, emphasising her importance to both Enokizu and her place in the narrative itself; her murder is shown as a painful, desperate struggle for Enokizu. Such moments go far in telling us everything we need to know about him. Imamura displays no moral judgement of his main character whatsoever. This reluctance to judge – matched with the close attention to characterisation – is what makes Vengeance so boldly affecting as a fictional, though factually-based, treatise on murder, one that skirts around the absence of any redemptive conclusion. The restless, almost pragmatic camerawork never lets the narrative pause for too long as it tracks Enokizu through the duration of his murders. We are to keep up pace with him at each stage, even in the multiple, frenetic flashbacks that add a hurriedness to the narrative, but never halts its flow.

The best scenes - though to pick out individual scenes as more significant than others in a film where each one crucially enhances the next so richly; one scene’s immediate predecessor pushes the narrative on intrinsically from the last - are those that feature one character with a respective older opposite: Enokizu with Haru’s mother Hisano (Nijiko Kiyokawa); or Haru with Enokizu’s father. Two particular scenes (one with each pair) reveal key, emotionally relevant details about them. The scene where Enokizu is walking home with Hisano – after the two have had an almost idyllic, and financially successful outing at the boat races – is beautifully filmed and gentle in tone; broad skies and swaying grass are shot in muted, muddy greens and browns. But it hides a deeply sinister undercurrent. Both have spied a fishing hook in the water (which seems placed to act as a kind of psychic totem of their connectedness - a signifier of death), and both instinctively know Enokizu wants to kill Hisano. She nonchalantly tells him not to kill her (she has discovered, from Haru, his ruse as a professor), and then reveals a past of imprisonment for murder herself. The two seem connected almost cosmically somehow (though he does kill her at a later stage, though, significantly, this occurs off-screen).

An earlier scene featuring Kazuko (Mitsuko Baisho) and Shizuo – one of their first together, after she leaves the family home – has them initially both innocently naked in a hot spring. Shizuo is begging Kazuko to return home out of concern for Enokizu, but she only agrees to return for Shizuo’s benefit; divulging an erotic attraction to her own father-in-law in the process. The forthright, Christian Shizuo is close to being drawn in by her caresses but moves away out of religious and familial duty. The rest of the film links these two pairings together, more so the latter pair who appear inseparable; Kazuko is devoted to Shizuo in every way. The film’s ending belongs to the two of them: together they scatter Enokizu’s ashes from a cliff-top; the pieces of decimated bone are frozen mid air and linger in the final frame as the film ends. In death, it suggests, Enokizu won’t touch Japanese soil again.

© Craig Bloomfield 2007

Girls on the Sidelines: Offside (Jafar Panahi/2006)

Offside (2006), Jafar Panahi’s most recent film about a group of Iranian girls' attempts to gain entry to a crucial football match (2005’s World Cup qualifying game between Iran and Bahrain; Panahi actually filmed on the day of the match) was one of the most joyous and affecting films of 2006. It is often very funny, but the darker implications of Panahi and Shadmehr Rastin’s loose, partially improvised script permeate the edges of the comedic action. In Iran women are forbidden to enter football stadiums; if found they face arrest or possibly worse, so they resort to dressing as men to evade detection.

The first girl (Sima Mobarak-Shahi) that the film chiefly follows – from a nerve-wracking minibus ride to eventual capture by guards at the stadium gates – is only one of a handful of girls who have all been detained in a specially constructed holding pen just behind Iran’s Azadi stadium under the watchful eyes of several soldiers, who are present by stint of duty; they would all rather be watching the game themselves or be away from the army entirely, tending cattle back home. Panahi spends almost as much time listening in on the soldiers’ stories as he does the girls’ plights.

From the start the viewer is dropped straight into the expectant bustling of pre-game fever. The agitated, documentary-like camerawork creates both empathy and identification: because the game is real you feel the excitement of the occasion, and also feel for the girl, not wanting her to get caught. The whole match is just out of her and the other girls’ reach, (and also for the viewer, as we never directly see any of the game; it’s barely glimpsed in background shots). The soldiers – at the girls’ request - commentate it on; beyond duty they obviously sense a shared passion for the reason they are all present.

It’s tempting to surmise that the actual game isn’t of narrative importance, that it’s more that the occasion supplies Panahi with a social situation in which to explore themes of significance relating to contemporary Iranian women. But of course the game is important. It’s the focus of everyone’s attention, whether or not they (or we) actually get to see it. The way in which the camera so closely tracks the girls’ desperate attempts to sneak a peek at the action on the pitch creates a consuming but frustrating drama: as the film progresses we more and more want the girls to actually see the match. That’s why they’re there, and what they’ve risked so much for. Through this situation, Panahi manages to tell a story that is both incredibly relevant and sadly real. That he does it through a humorous framework is all the more commendable. The humour needles out the inherent bizarreness and exposes the unfair social restrictions of inequality.

Offside includes footage of the actual game, so its dramatic outcome could’ve gone either way depending on who won. Iran did win (1-0), so it ends on an optimistic note in one respect. Although some specific dialogue in the penultimate scene points at Iran’s wider social troubles – which this beautifully concise, small-scale depiction of female support goes some way to highlight. The final scene shows the streets of Iran as an uproarious flurry of celebratory whoops and hollers: sparklers held aloft by a sea of both male and female football fans pave the way for Panahi’s camera to follow the celebrations into the night.

© Craig Bloomfield 2006

29 October 2008

Road, Sweet Road: The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (Asia Argento/2004)

Having read the novel by JT LeRoy some time ago, I was intrigued to see what kind of film Asia Argento had turned The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things into. The film didn't reach a cinema near me on its release (although it did receive a UK theatrical release, instead of going straight to DVD - a surprise considering the near all-out bad notices it received elsewhere). But I eventually managed to get hold of a copy and it actually isn't the awful mess I was lead to believe. Far from it. It isn't a particularly great film by any stretch, but it does contain many very inspired moments.

Argento was an interesting choice to make the film. She clearly has some kind of affinity with the short stories' subject matter; her treatment of it leans more on the open-handed side, even if the outcome feels slightly apathetic at times. LeRoy's characters somehow personify the idea of indifference. They live for themselves and often feed off others without much care for the repercussions, as the solitary, archaic environments they dwell in don’t really inspire reciprocal connections.

The fragmented and listless way he pens his grim fables more around his character's behaviour patterns than constructing them around the detailed background of their lives is surely harder to flesh out on screen. Conveying the kind of luckless selfishness demonstrated by the characters in the book must be tricky to get a firm handle on. On the whole the cast pull it off, Argento especially. The bite-size vignettes of the book are here threaded together to form a loose narrative, so that the direct and concise parts of the story are now smoothed out creating an extended and ramshackle whole. It didn't really matter too much though, as this approach worked to the characters’ benefit; it may initially appear like a mis-step, but it’s ultimately in complete accordance with the style of LeRoy's prose.

In the pivotal role of Jeremiah’s mother, Sarah, Argento dangles plenty of rope to hang herself with, and gives as gritty as she can muster. She made Sarah intriguingly creepy in the same way that, say, road kill is. That's not a discredit to Argento’s acting abilities at all (I’m one a handful of people who thinks she can actually act), but it's a car-wreck performance, full of affected lip biting and furious glares, but she treads the line between trashy and defeated well. If, say, Courtney Love had taken the role it would have come across as a whole lot more eye-rollingly obvious. The line-up of cameo performances, including cultish supporting actors (John Robinson, Jeremy Sisto, Ornella Muti, Kip Pardue) and familiar, often controversial celebrity names (Winona Ryder, Marilyn Manson, Peter Fonda) fit snugly into the scheme of events nicely, too.

The photography - by sometime-Gus Van Sant collaborator Eric Alan Edwards (My Own Private Idaho (1991), To Die For (1995), Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993)) - is excellent at times. Some scenes seem intentionally underlit, especially those depicting the more seedier interiors of Jeremiah's upbringing: close-up shots of Day-Glo toys sit next to dank wallpapers; and truck cabs are, fittingly, made to look more homely than the austere hallways of Sarah's Christian father's house. It’s in aspects like this that Argento visually replicates the grimy descriptive tone of the book accurately. Certain scenes give way to flights of surreal fancy, too; red animatronic birds spew feathers over Jeremiah in times of despair, and a series of anonymous male faces flicker past the camera at one point. This breaks up the generally flat visual sheen, but also nudges the film close to looking like an arty magazine spread; if you pressed pause at any stage of the film, it would almost be like hovering over a page from a particularly drug-chic-heavy copy of 'Dazed & Confused'. Put it next to something more openly welfarist like, I don’t know, a Diane Arbus or Nan Goldin photograph maybe, and the film’s tone might lose a bit of its substance. As a sisterly companion piece to something like Gummo (1997) it feels about right.

One thing that struck me as a bit unnecessarily precious was Argento's reluctance to display her body. Not that she should, of course, and it's not a major gripe as such, as it may not have added much if she did, but it seemed integral for Sarah to be as provocative as possible, and seeing as Argento is renowned for the openness of her liberal attitudes, it was strange to see how coyly she avoided her own camera's roving eye in some instances. It was the one part of the film where she held back and showed a prudish side (maybe for the worry that the film might be too closely associated with her directorial debut, Scarlet Diva (2000), perhaps?). It felt odd taking into account her overall throw-it-all-out-there approach with the rest of the film.

I completely admired that Argento had the guts to make the film her way though. In the end it’s not anything truly amazing, or resoundingly fresh, but it contains an individual spiritedness that can be lacking in films reminiscent of this type - I'm thinking of Larry Clark's Kids (1995) and Another Day in Paradise (1997), and the faux-MTV grit of Spun (2002) here. And would she really care about critical back-slaps of approval and star-ratings anyway? I doubt that she was after all-out universal adoration. She stuck to her convictions and created a piece of work that came from the heart; deceitful or not, it was firmly in the right place as far as she was concerned.

© Craig Bloomfield 2006

Death Clicks: Time to Leave/Le Temps qui reste (François Ozon/2005)

In 2000, acclaimed French film-maker François Ozon took a restrained, poetic view of the grieving process in Under the Sand, which explored the life of Charlotte Rampling’s English professor after the sudden disappearance of her husband. In Time to Leave (2005), Ozon reassembles that earlier film’s themes and posits gay photographer Romain (Melvil Poupard) as the recipient of bad tidings: he has terminal cancer with a few months left to live. Whereas Rampling glided from tragedy to uncertainty, here the scenario is reversed; through the foreknowledge of impending death, the protagonist grieves for himself. It is the second film in a proposed trilogy: Under the Sand explored the death of a loved one; Time to Leave looks at one’s own imminent death; the third, as yet unrealised part will examine the death of a child.

The slight narrative unfolds with a forlornness that befits Romain’s condition; he briskly segues from one encounter to another in an attempt to understand the reality of his situation. Over the course of a slim 85 minutes the film gradually reveals how the news seeps into Romain’s mind: Ozon seasonably uses several fluent flashbacks to Romain’s childhood, allowing us access to his formative innocence and elegantly drawing comparisons to how he is presented to us now – a man at conflict with himself, trying to do what he deems right. Romain keeps loved ones at bay; his sister, Sophie, and boyfriend, Sasha, are two casualties of his new-found dispossession – he may appear selfish in his actions, but the sacrifices he makes are for the benefit of those around him.

With the film’s emphasis on the photographic image, it’s fitting that Ozon’s eye for delicate compositions – aided by Jeanne Lapoirie’s luminous camerawork - is evident throughout. Whether it’s the image of sleeping lovers or a sunlit park, the cinematography is tenderly distinctive, becoming darker as the finality of Romain’s condition draws near (a foreboding air looms disconcertingly over the beach in the last scene). At times it veers into shop-worn territory (images of dead flowers and unmade beds literalise the death metaphor and are reminiscent of the work of such photographers as Wolfgang Tillmans and Nan Goldin), but it also reinforces the nature of Romain’s profession.

There is a beautiful economy to the editing. Ozon regular Monica Coleman succinctly cuts scenes to act almost as bullet points, punctuating key moments in Romain’s life. The reactions of family to the news – save for Jeanne Moreau as Romain’s grandmother and sole confidant, Laura – aren’t shown, not only because Romain neglects to tell them, but also because the one reaction that matters most to Ozon is Romain’s own. Romain has a seemingly selfish agenda to put right his wrongs, and in doing so focuses on what matters to him. That Romain doesn’t come across as wholly insensitive is due to the vulnerable sincerity of Melvil Poupard’s performance; it is fearless, yet fragile. The camera, through the use of probing close-ups, scrutinises his face for every touch of emotion; there is torment behind his eyes despite the steely façade. Indeed, the acting, all round, is superb. Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, who suffered gracefully in Ozon’s 2004 film, 5x2, brings a desperate sensitivity to the small, crucial role of a waitress who provides Romain with an unexpected legacy; and Moreau is nicely wry in her brief cameo, lending a maternal shoulder on which Romain pours out his woes.

Occasionally Time to Leave teeters towards melodrama. The sentimentality imbued in the narrative propels events, but the film skillfully avoids descending into mawkishness, unlike the more saccharine moments that threatened to consume Isabel Coixet’s similarly themed My Life Without Me (2003). The story is clearly personal for Ozon (both he and Romain see the world through a lens), but this film noticeably diverges from the restrained depiction of life-changing events in both 5x2 and Under the Sand: Ozon has moved on, but not necessarily ahead. Ultimately Romain becomes a mere silhouette, reposed against a picture-postcard sunset, evaporating into darkness. This last image could have easily come across as cloying and needlessly trite, but (despite being somewhat overly metaphorical) under Ozon’s firm control it retains a spare beauty that closes the film on an elegant note.

© Craig Bloomfield 2006

28 October 2008

Life Lessons: The Forest for the Trees/Der Wald vor lauter Bäumen (Maren Ade/2005)

I saw The Forest for the Trees/Der Wald vor lauter Bäumen (2005) purely by chance. It was playing at the 2005 Cambridge Film Festival, so I went on a whim after being intrigued by a single still featured in the brochure (Eva Löbau staring wistfully out of a car window, included below). I'd been interested in trying to ferret out these kinds of unassumingly small-scale, strictly character-based films at the time, and Maren Ade's debut feature ended up being the highlight of the festival.

More often than not, simple and inflexibly straightforward narratives require a commanding presence at their centre to act as a balance to all the simplicity. But The Forest for the Trees has an almost non-entity for its lead character - Melanie Pröschle, played by Löbau. Strangely, instead of diminishing the effect of the film, her not there-ness enhances it tenfold. The whole film is about someone who disappears from the gaze of those around them, despite their best intentions. And whatever someone’s personal experience, it’s sad to say that a lot of what happens here can ring true in any social circle.

Löbau (who I’ve unfortunately not seen in anything before or since) approaches the role of a new schoolteacher – on her own in a relatively small town, making a life for herself in an overcrowded, urban comprehensive school – with a weird kind of pathetic conviction. She’s pretty much almost willingly used as a dogsbody in the job. Initially it’s as if she were a useless bag of bones shoved in bad clothing, and plonked down without being told how to function accordingly with others. Through the film she doesn’t go through any kind of social elevation, and no triumphant message resounds. Her clothes just get worse.

There are scenes that contain such accurately minute instances of estrangement or identification that they concisely penetrate right to the heart of social ostracism, resulting in some effectively poignant filmmaking: the nervous hesitation as Melanie pauses before entering her classroom for the first time (the raucous kids inside are like baying wolves to her); the ineptitude that arises when no-one wants to talk to her at a party, even though she persists and persists; and it’s in the sparse and scattered objects that litter Melanie’s poky flat like beacons of distress. The attention paid to these things is minimal, often not the direct focus of a scene, but incredibly telling.

It’s in the making of new friends that she falls flat on her arse. Melanie is so timid and socially awkward that purposeful acceptance is a constant battle. It's like Melanie sees it as her reason for being. And work merely brings a truckload of shitty problems. The thing is, the film doesn’t exactly go down the route in celebrating the meek in the way that many of those championing-the-underdog type films do, whereby the “loser” is allowed some kind of celebratory triumph by the end. Here the character just takes herself out of the situation. Ade’s camera detects Melanie out of the bustle of an overcrowded populace, tracks her in potentially awkward situations, and then, like a concerned case worker, nudges her to do something about them. The film unwaveringly shows what happens when the people around you simply don’t want you there.

I admired the approach Ade took in terms of constructing the film’s bleak, carefully orchestrated tone; it’s unstrained, unfussy and downright spartan. Much of this is achieved through the editing; its efficiency creates dramatic, and occasionally funny, moments with ease. I was amazed to discover that this was Ade’s first feature. Although I can’t quite see the overall comparisons to Fassbinder that some critics have afforded the film, it doesn’t fall shy of some allusions. (In some ways Brigitte Mira's lonely cleaning woman Emmi in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) could almost be an older version of Melanie.)

The right actress completely makes the film. In fact Löbau was, by-and-large, my favourite female performance from the last few years. It's the first time in a long time - maybe since Julianne Moore in Safe (1995), or going further back, Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence (1974), or more recently, but to a slightly lesser extent, Kate Dollenmayer in Funny Ha Ha (2002) - where I've really wanted something unbelievable, something miraculous even, to occur in a character’s life; something to jolt them off their ill-judged path to social oblivion. But a tug-of-war occurs; conversely, I wouldn't want them to behave in any other way; these women are individual to the core. Löbau broke my heart in the role. I felt both sympathetic to her, and strangely protective of her, despite sharing little of her experiences (although I do share a similar job description, so I guess I can identify with some of the film's situations, which is perhaps why I took to the film as eagerly as I did). Either way, identification can be universal. Something about Melanie appealed to me in an unfeigned and affecting way. Certain fictional creations somehow manage to strike a wholly personal chord, one that reaches out to relate beyond mere viewership.

The level of empathy or sympathy for Melanie, and how much anyone will get out of the film is obviously dependant on individual interpretation, and it also either makes the film work or closes its world off. Some scenes are almost too embarrassing to watch that you want to look away; some moments would be funny - like something out of The Office - if they weren't so painful. But through Löbau’s performance, the film has a character with whom it's hard not to feel something for (which is especially commendable considering the complex shading of personality added to the character as the narrative progresses). It's very much a small and unassuming film with no grandstanding moments; it has at its centre a performance full of complexity and awkward charm, however cringe inducing. You don't get to see characters like this very often, if at all.

Toward the end, a sequence occurs which details with simple urgency all the resignation and sheer fucked-off-ness Melanie feels. (It relates to the bit I mentioned earlier about Melanie taking herself out of the situation.) A Grandaddy song, 'He's Simple, He's Dumb, He's the Pilot', fades in on the soundtrack and something unexpected and unbelievably heartbreaking happens without much indication, but with plenty of justification in hindsight to how Melanie reached this point. It’s probably my favourite moment in any film from 2005, and possibly the decade so far.

© Craig Bloomfield 2006

27 October 2008

Mad Cow Unease: Dariush Mehrjui's The Cow/Gaav (1969)

Hassan (Ezzatolah Entezami) loves his cow dearly. It’s clear from the very first scenes in Dariush Mehrjui’s lustrous, though rough-cured film – where he walks it over hillsides and delights in washing it in a river, himself alongside it – that he’s made some kind of personal bond with it, defined sometime before the film’s narrative begins. Though, it’s his love for the eponymous cow that ultimately destroys him. He lives in a tiny, remote Iranian village with his wife and the cow, which happens to be the only one in the community. When the cow is found dead, the other villagers decide to bury it and tell Hassan that it ran away. Hassan is so singularly devoted to it that when he discovers it "missing" it sends him literally mad.

The village of the film’s setting (a real one, indicating Mehrjui as a champion of near-realism, and a forerunner to the likes of Kiarostami, Panahi etc) is treated much like a stage set (indeed, the film was taken from a play by Gholam-Hossein Saedi). The villagers assemble in their daily routine, around its central area: a rectangular, man-made reservoir surrounded on all sides by houses and a few paltry trees. Most of the action occurs here, with several scenes taking place on the hilly outskirts. Mehrjui initially maps out the location in a series of still shots depicting in a calm, discreet manner its occupants. His camera casually observes them, letting them interact with the emerging narrative as and when. The opening montage doesn’t seem typical of standard narrative establishing shots. It very much seems to adhere to its own unique template; any one of these concise still images is held for no longer than necessary; all are economical and completely unfussy, effortlessly and gracefully seguing the story forward.

The focus on the silent faces of the men and women (who witness a “village idiot” being tied up and ridiculed) show with straightforward precision what a barren, desolate place this is. The use of sound, particularly in the early scenes, was the first of many impressive things noticeable about how powerfully The Cow creates mood; how the sound is designed to immediately set the tone of the film, in conveying this quiet desolation. The wind noisily blowing through trees, that accompanies the parade of blank faces, signifies an impending unease, as each shot gently but ominously gives way to the next. It somehow distinguishes the film from other early examples of Iranian cinema of the time through a resolute individualism; while there was a similar background muteness surrounding the solitary old station master (Zadour Bonyadi) in Sohrab Shahid Saless' Still Life/Tabiate bijan (1974), the pared down diegetic sound cemented the character's loneliness, whereas the constant aural activity in The Cow suggests a busier, more communal environment.

Imagery of swaying grasses and pelting rains sit side by side the often troubling events in the film, most often those that take place on the periphery of the village, where the threat of intrusion by Boulouris soldiers is likely (though they ultimately prove no threat despite the community’s fear of them; the villagers themselves actually create and execute their own downfall, fatefully entwined in Hassan’s situation). The black and white photography is illuminating. It may feel rough around the edges (the film has certainly aged somewhat), but the stark whites reflected off the houses in daytime contrasts elegantly with the pitch black, more fast-paced nighttime scenes. This balance is achieved so effortlessly that I was struck by how fluidly it progressed the film.

The Poetic languidness at the very heart of The Cow arises organically out of the story, and is enhanced beautifully by Hormoz Farhat’s evocatively pared down score, which readily echoes the lively observation of the villagers and their relationship to Hassan. As events turn sour, and get strangely dark, the imagery loses none of its fable-like lyricism, making the more troubling aspects of Hassan’s plight all the more saddening. When he’s in the cowshed – after seeming to have had his personality somehow merge with that of his dead cow’s – the camera solely films from Hassan’s viewpoint inside, showing the villagers looking in, isolating him from them but keeping us, the audience, with him. It's a simple piece of direction, but it's entirely apt in earning our empathy. Mehrjui’s well-placed camera ensures we see how tiny the window is, crammed full of the peering faces of people that once cared more than they do now, and may never again therefater. But here, in what feels like a minor but still revelatory move (within the environment the film describes), Eslam, Hassan’s most loyal friend, brings him food. Stigma makes way for kindness. The two men momentarily catch each other’s down-turned gaze and the terrible weight of regret is visible in their eyes. It’s a small, almost throwaway moment that manages to contain a gut-wrenching force: betrayal, comradeship and loss are too briefly addressed in a mere glance.

The Cow ends on a note of hopelessness, but it doesn’t undermine any of the humility on show elsewhere in the film. If anything it underlines it. A shot of Hassan’s wife on the roof of the couple’s former home, alone and deflated by her husband's demise, shows how the resigned despondency of events in the village has replaced the joviality of the daily grind. but it doesn’t eradicate it entirely. Eslam seems to have had some sort of mini-epiphany through his observation of Hassan’s experiences. There's something, a regrettable longing perhaps, in his decisive last minute actions in the film’s closing moments that suggests Hassan won’t be forgotten. As Hassan’s wife watches Eslam walk off toward the empty desert on a probably fruitless mission of belated salvation, the realisation dawn's that the village won’t ever be the same again, but somehow still may perhaps go on in exactly the same way regardless.

© Craig Bloomfield 2006

Departing Canada: Cronenberg's A History of Violence (2005)

I never thought I’d see a David Cronenberg film that didn’t feel like a David Cronenberg film. At least on the surface anyway. Look a little deeper and A History of Violence is Cronenberg through and through. Everything is initially presented as straightforward, and not the least bit abstract: there are no gristly fish guns, penile-enhanced armpits or a talking assholes in sight. From the outset it seems as if he’s sidelined his core concerns, put them away for another day and decided to give us something simpler and, perhaps, family-orientated for a change. The emphasis is certainly on family, but it's not like Cronenberg has pulled a fast one and remodelled The Waltons as a bunch of revenge-hungry vigilantes. Although, strangely, that's not exactly a million miles from what we have here. The title, though, says it all, and despite first impressions it is certainly written in Cronenberg's signature.

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Edie (Maria Bello) live in the homely town of Millbrook, Indiana with their son Jack (Ashton Holmes) and daughter Sarah (Heidi Hayes). Tom runs a small diner, which is typically, and actually far too strangely, average. It could have come straight out of Norman Rockwell’s or Frank Capra’s imaginations. It’s a setting familiar from a countless number of rural smalltown folk-populated films that could have been made during any given year since the America of the post-war '50s idealised such places as a shorthand depiction of everyday normality. Some of A History of Violence's earlier scenes (bar, of course, its abrupt opening massacre) do superficially resemble those one-page ads from 1950s Good Living magazines.

Two gangsters - fresh from the opening shoot-out - come to Tom's diner one slow Saturday night and for reasons unknown threaten everybody inside, waving guns around like tokens of authority, seemingly intent on some random stick-up. In a quick act of intuitive (or is it?) heroism, Tom bests the thugs and kills them quickly and efficiently. It’s an apparently out-of-character act for such a well-respected and work-a-day type guy; and thus the ensuing media frenzy posits him as hero and saviour of the community. Only that this new-found public adoration, and the widespread TV attention that comes with it, brings the possibility of more gangsters, of further violence. Things have already got very icky, but it’s peanuts compared to what is on its way (in the form of Ed Harris). And it’s not so random the next time.

In a sub-plot Jack overcomes his meek nature and retaliates against his high school tormentors. The central narrative with Tom is counterbalanced with Jack‘s experiences. This goes to suggest that the capacity for violence is maybe something that can be inherited and passed down the family line. But the film never tells us this explicitly; it leaves the question open-ended. Jack could simply be imitating the family atmosphere, and lashing out because dad has "shown him the way", or it could be that the focus on their relationship, which is almost given as much weight and emphasis as that of Tom and Edie’s, or Tom’s and the gangster’s, has more serious thematic repercussions. Without these father-and-son scenes the film would lose a bit of its essential driving force; the quiet juxtaposing of the dual narrative concerns speaks volumes, albeit softly.

The film is less a commercial move onto safer ground and more a subversion of pre-established action and western genre conventions. It’s a slyly subtle subversion, but an incredibly effective one. Many saw A History of Violence as Cronenberg going mainstream. But it only reads as such when synopsised or take on face value: the meat here is firmly embedded under the flesh. With the first and second scenes of violent death, Cronenberg is proposing we take issue with the murder of a child by ruthless killers, only to see if we feel the same when the killers themselves receive their comeuppance. We are put in a position where ideas of violent disgust or satiation are combined, opposed and questioned. The key to this is in how Cronenberg manipulates these scenes through suggestive direction. The camerawork is so concisely assured and balanced throughout so as to create a deep internal dichotomy that is hard to immediately fathom, but worth the overall investment.

It’s like someone finally decided to make a film to question, or perhaps even to piss off, all those dusty old western buffs that herald an outdated film like The Searchers (1956) as a masterpiece. Long live the new breed, Cronenberg seems to suggest. The John Wayne classic is not the only film that Violence reconfigures either. The competition comes bang up to date too: it wipes the floor with Sin City (2004). For films based on acclaimed graphic novels, that use aggressive ideas with the very nature of violent acts as both a springboard for gunplay and a way of life, Violence gives us, in a deceptively simple way, a grounded sophistication and depth that Sin City, with all its false plot twist-and-turn complexity, never even had to begin with. Of course they are both very different exercises in the exploration of violent cinematic themes, but they essentially say the same - or at the very least similar – things. The difference being that Cronenberg’s film has an abundance of style and uses it to integrally push its ideas forward, to reach a fully-rounded and emotionally draining conclusion. Whereas Rodriguez and Miller’s film is all hollow trend-driven trickery that ultimately says nothing at all. Both films took up a fair share of column inches both online and in print, on their respective releases, in regards to how they treat violence, but time will tell us which one has lasting strength.

I like the fact that Cronenberg has tried something slightly different in his approach. It’s obviously not the first time he’s adapted someone else’s material (in fact he does this a great deal; 8 out of his last 10 films have been adapted from pre-existing material). But it’s perhaps the first time where his adaptation hasn’t outwardly resembled what we’ve come to expect as a typical Cronenberg. It’s what he finds deep down, at the core level, then dredges up to the surface that makes all the difference here.

With his adaptations there is always a clear and integral distinction between source material and film. Naked Lunch (1991) felt very little like Burroughs’ novel and was more accessible and interesting for it; with Crash (1996), the kinky absurdities of Ballard’s book were distilled into simple, intentionally savourless scenarios that brought out the story’s damning points in visually interesting ways. Whether he is adding, or indeed adding by actually taking away, he ploughs his own path through the use of others’ original texts. With A History of Violence he is doing the same, but it just seems out of character at first glance.

Anyway, is he supposed to repeat himself in an obvious manner from film to film? If he explored exactly the same themes verbatim in all his films wouldn’t that be sadly typical? It’s like when David Lynch (not that I’m comparing ‘the Daves’ outright, as they really do have very little in common) made The Straight Story (1999), his ideas there were different enough to appear as a new path for him, but still linked with his staple concerns to warrant the use of his established stylistic gestures (it was still very much a Lynch film, despite it not “looking at the seedy underbelly of Everytown”). The same goes for a filmmaker like Gus Van Sant. Gerry (2002), and by extention the three other films in his unofficial ‘death trilogy’, Elephant (2003), Last Days (2005) and Paranoid Park (2007), were departures in one respect but they all still distinctly felt personal, like the Van Sant of old, in that no-one else could’ve possibly made them. In comparison to these other contemporary filmmakers, Cronenberg is doing what he does best: giving us something questionable, debatable and refreshing. The result is astounding.

The acting by all is complex and understated (with the exception of William Hurt – in a funny, but terrifying cameo toward the end of the film). Viggo Mortensen plays Tom with a reserved and intense conviction; you have to study his face hard to see that underneath the gruff façade an altogether different man could be lurking. Maria Bello’s role is crucial to the overall themes of the film, and she gets every scene totally right; there’s a simple and devastating undercurrent to her performance; the occasionally straightforward ‘wife’ role hasn’t seemed more integral or as connotative as it is here (she should’ve won every supporting award going).

Backing up its title, the film indeed places violence front and centre. It asks us to question whether we are really truly safe in any real way. If something like this could happen to a guy like Tom, then it could happen to any of us. Tom’s position is that of the ‘everyman’; it is given as both straightforwardly simple and with a hint and a wink of ironic suggestion. The stylised and almost hyperreal rendering of the “normal” family scenes isn’t simply there to make the acts of violence (the many gun deaths) stand out as oddly realistic (although they do), they are there to nudge us in the ribs and make us pay attention; surely we can’t assume that the whimsical overindulgence in homespun wisdom and the stereotypically-rendered family life is to be taken on face value? It’s broadly laid out, very much there for a reason, and open to interpretation. A History of Violence deserves any, and every, kind of positive attention thrust its way.

© Craig Bloomfield 2005

21 October 2008

An Introduction to Dark Eye Socket

I wanted to create this blog as a place where I could write about film. A place where I can collect together all the things I've written over the last five-or-so years - whether for festivals, for other blogs, or for print - and to continue to explore my thoughts about the films I watch. At the risk of having it sound sappy, I've essentially written for myself: to somehow attempt to relay back in words the experience of what I see, to create some kind of understanding about how incredible the sensation of watching, exploring and thinking about a film can be.

People who love cinema often do this, and there are a lot of passionate writers out there. I'm merely joining the long list of course, but each one of us might be able to offer up something different, something that might just add to the experience of film-watching. Cinema being my chief passion, I always seek out new writers and new reviews or articles just as much as I like to seek out new films. I find that any piece, whether a healthy celebration or a constructive dismissal, has the possibility of enhancing the film it's written about. I'm all for debate, expansion of thought and reappraisal, as long as it's written with vigour, respect and love for the medium. With Dark Eye Socket, this is what I'm attempting to do.

In the past I've written for the Cambridge Film Festival, in 2005 & 2006 (I reviewed films for the Festival Daily Newspaper and for their online site) and I completed a Graduate course in Film Journalism in 2006, run by the BFI with Sight & Sound - the pieces from which will be included here, as and when, and will probably be expanded upon from what I originally wrote. (One of the blessings of maintaining a self-edited blog is the freedom to simply write more. Well, with one eye on a blog's limitless capacity for more and one eye on a concise word count)

Having bits and pieces all over the place was just too unorganised for me (ever the tidy soul), so this blog will act as a home, a dropping-off point for everything I think about and ponder on regarding film. Some of the pieces will be reviews of both new-release films (seen on the big screen) and older films (caught up with on DVD), whether they are short or long in length; some will possibly be stand-alone observations or general thoughts on a given film or filmmaker, or, indeed, one particular moment in a film, in an attempt to mull over and elaborate what the film/filmmaker means to me; other pieces will simply be lists of what I thought were the best theatrical releases of the year.

I don't want to limit the content to just reviews, as sometimes there's a lot more to be said than a simple assessment of merit. Also, I'll include images, where possible/applicable, to alleviate the word flow and give examples of what the films I'm talking about actually look like (cinema being primarily a visual medium and all). Whatever the pieces are, I hope to convey my passion and enthusiasm for the medium that means more than any other.

Craig Bloomfield, October 2008.

A note on the title. I wanted give this blog a name to suggestively sum up something about the kinds of films that essentially mean the very most to me: world and horror cinema. I called it Dark Eye Socket for a couple of reasons:

Firstly, it was the working title for Tsai Ming-Liang's 2005 film I Don't Want to Sleep Alone/Tian bian yi duo yun. As a fan of his films, I liked this title and was sad to see it unused for the finished film, so I "borrowed" it for here.

Secondly, throughout my (mis-spent?) youth, the one thing I did more than any other was watch films, often when they appeared on television late at night. It was in my teens when I started to get more enthusiastic about what cinema had to offer, that it was much, much more than what was topping the box office. Staying up late to catch one of Alex Cox's MovieDrome horror double-bills I'd videotaped earlier, or aiming to catch a one-off showing of an Ingmar Bergman, Derek Jarman, Akira Kurosawa or Otto Preminger flick, relegated to the graveyard slot, started to become more of a nightly, than a weekly, occurrence. All this was to the detriment of sleep. Indeed, I didn't want to sleep alone; I wanted film to weave its way into my dreams, too. The dark circles appearing around my eyes the day after a night spent drinking in a variety of cinematic concoctions may have betrayed an unhealthy obsession, but the reason for doing it, the wonderful outcome, made me more invigorated, movie-wise, in the long run. This title, in a round-about way, also somehow conjures up to me images from one of my very favourite films of all time - and the photo in the header of the blog comes from that film: George A. Romero's splendid masterpiece Dawn of the Dead (1978).

I'm glad for all those sleepless nights.