Monday, April 30, 2007


Back from a hectic weekend in NYC. Four movies in 48 hours + a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald short stories + 5 hours of commuting time = 1 Exhausting Weekend.

The weekend (for me) began with a screening of Grigori Chukhrai's Forty-First, a 1956 Russian film being included in Tribeca in tribute to the camerawork of Sergei Urusevsky. The film was introduced by Martin Scorsese (yup, old Marty himself, in person) who blathered incoherently for five minutes about his personal love for all the other films that Urusevsky had made - an introduction no one really listened to because they were all too busy bathing in the glow of being in the same room as Scorsese and saving up the memory to tell all their friends afterwards (which, of course, is what I'm doing - hey, if you've got a name, drop it).

Forty-First isn't a particulary original or profound film - it's plot is predictable to the point of cliche, and both the story and the performances have the subtlety of a Bollywood tear-jerker - yet it's a visually stunning film, with image after image projecting the haunting, timeless quality of a great painting. The visual metaphors are obvious enough - when the hero is dying of fever in a cabin by the shore the sea is rough and churning, when he recovers the sea turns calm; when the two lovers quarrel, they are shown walking on two narrow strips of beach separated by a narrow strip of water - but they're executed so superbly that the final effect is one of breathtaking beauty. You know that scene in From Here to Eternity where the two lovers kiss on the beach while the waves wash over them? The second half of Forty-First is like watching that scene over and over again for an hour. That intense, that poetic.


Saturday evening found me in church. No, I haven't decided to mend my sinning ways. I was there for a screening / performance of Passio, a film by Paolo Cherchi Usai that is meant to be accompanied by a live performance of Avro Part's Passio. (Stephen Holden's review in the New York Times here). The setting itself was awe-inspiring: the cathedral of St. John the Divine, an echoing stone hall whose very magnitude reduces you to insignificance, and a giant screen hovering high up on the wall like some white, nameless God.

As for the movie, well, experimental is the word. Passio isn't so much a film as a collection of video-clips - some mere images flashing for a second or two, others over a minute long - with long pauses of blackness (and columns of vertical letters that flash by too fast to read, but which are, I'm told, the text of the Passion according to St. John). It's all very subliminal. You sit there, staring up at a blank screen, then these letters flash, then you get the blank screen again, then you get a quick five to ten second image, then it's back to the blank screen. And all the while Part's music swells in the background. There is no narrative here, not even the pretext or hint of one, the only obvious connection between the images is a series of motifs that runs through the film. This is collage of disconnected images, fragmented almost to the point of abstraction.

And what images - a close-up of an eye operation (the cornea being slit open and cleaned from the inside); naked men lying on the ground in their death throes; kaleidoscopic abstractions of colour; a helpless, struggling horse being lifted onto a table; one snake swallowing another, the tail of the one being eaten still thrashing even though its head has disappeared inside its adversary; a close-up of what looked like open heart-surgery; shots of cameramen filming; scenes of film editing; two beetles fighting; a naked human form dancing, surrounded by swirling fabric; scientists measuring the diameter of an aboriginal's head, and comparing it to a collection of skulls they already have; a buffoon dismantling a woman and packing her away in a trunk; things seen through a microscope; a baby being thrust back into its mother's womb. The clip that most impressed me showed a man standing squirming between two others, presumably held captive. The shot is cut off just above the waist, so that the chests and faces of the people involved are not visible, nor are there any real clues to the context or setting - just three pairs of legs. Yet the scene somehow manages to convey terror and helplessness.

At this point you're probably wondering - why would anyone want to watch an hour and ten minutes of this? There is much in Passio that is gruesome; this is not a film for the squeamish [1]. Yet the overall effect is hypnotic, and the film leaves you with that authentically religious feeling of having experienced something profound yet mysterious, something of great import and significance whose meaning just escapes you. Comparisons with Bunuel are inescapable, especially after the eye surgery scene, but the thing the movie kept reminding me of was that line from Dickinson: "I like a look of agony / because I know it's true". The director clearly agrees. [2]

The speaker who introduced the film implied that it contained a message of redemption and hope. Personally, I can't say I saw anything like that in the film. Putting down the 'meaning' of a work or art as complex and subtle as Passio is always tricky, and every interpretation is necessarily personal and subjective, but what I saw was a paean to human fragility, the human capacity for suffering. Our bodies, the film suggests, are like images - weak, destructible. They can be poked and prodded, violated, abused. They can withstand a great deal of punishment, but are, in the end, defenseless, ephemeral. Like a reel of film, our lives can be cut short arbitrarily, are subject to the whims of the Editor. Yet something survives, something transcends the frailty of our existence. Something beautiful and living swells underneath this destruction, this pain, supports it, makes it bearable. Something like music. Something like the soul. And grace, like a dancing form, is more than the diagrams, the measurements, the X-rays; is something that cannot be analysed, computed or assembled from its visible parts. There is a deeper mystery behind the patched together narrative of our lives.

And this, I think, is the heart of the Passio experience. More than anything else, the film captures the fragmentary nature of understanding, of vision. Meaning, for most of us, does not come as some grand, coherent epiphany: it is experienced through whatever glimpses of the truth are vouchsafed us, lived in short bursts of inspiration, in those brief moments when knowledge seems almost within our grasp. These are the moments when we think we understand our lives, when we truly see; then the revelation flickers and we are left in the dark again.

Passio is a difficult, perplexing and often frustrating movie to watch (the fact that I was watching it seated on some intensely uncomfortable wooden seats didn't help). But that, I suspect, is the point of it, is what makes it true to life. If the test of a great work of art is that its images stay with you long afterwards, if the test of a great film is that it rewards contemplation, that you can spend hours afterwards meditating on it and having it grow more significant, more meaningful - then Passio is a great film.


But, of course, humankind cannot bear very much reality. So it was a pleasant change to slip back into more conventional film making Sunday morning, with Jindabyne. Jindabyne isn't part of Tribeca (though it did feature two weeks ago in the Philadelhia Film Festival, thus rescuing it from the stigma of 'commercial' film and making it worthy of notice by snobs like me). Directed by Ray Lawrence, Jindabyne is the story of the discovery of the corpse of an aboriginal woman by a group of four men out on a fishing expedition, and the effect this discovery, and their callous reaction to it (they tie the body up in the water, carry on fishing, and report it only when they get back home) has on their families and relationships. In particular, it traces the impact on one family, the Kanes, whose slumbering resentments are catalysed by the incident, plunging husband and wife into emotional turmoil.

Jindabyne is, in a sense, a ghost story. It is a film about the things that lie sleeping just under the placid surface of our lives - memories, prejudices, regrets, guilt, hostilities, longings - so that the smallest misstep can plunge us into a bewildering and helpless spiral of questions and recrimination. But it is also a film about the dead - that asks not how we should deal with the dead, but rather whether and why we need to deal with them at all.

The movie is a little too hectic - crammed full of details and sub-plots, as though the writer had started off writing the script for a mini-series, then decided to compress it into a two hour movie - and the ending is a little too pat for my taste. Every now and then Lawrence throws in a 'suspense' scene, as if worried that his audience may lose interest unless given a quick dose of excitement, but these scenes are always anti-climactic, and frankly, Jindabyne would be a better movie without them. Where the movie shines is in its quieter moments, both in its invocation of the easy intimacy of friendship, and its tauter, more intense emotional exchanges. This is human drama at its finest, and adding the elements of a thriller to it simply does not work.

I'll be honest. The main reason I went to watch Jindabyne was because it stars Laura Linney, and I wasn't disappointed. There is a role that Ms. Linney plays better than anyone else - a deeply unhappy human being, struggling to define and make her own identity, struggling to assert her control over a world that she (and often she alone) sees as falling apart. It is a role that requires ambiguity - the character must come across as strong and intelligent, yet also tormented by insecurity and self-doubt; she must be caring and compassionate, but also guilty and unthinkingly heartless; we must sympathise with her and understand her point of view without necessarily agreeing with it. It is a role that I've seen Ms Linney do again and again (more or less), and each time it's a pleasure to watch. She does it again in Jindabyne, and delivers yet another stunning performance.


The final film of the weekend put me firmly back in Bunuel territory. This was the French comedy Avida, a hilarious and entirely whimsical film very much in the classic Surrealist tradition, complete with lobsters, burning giraffes and extreme close-ups of a pair of lips. Ostensibly the story of the kidnapping of a rich heiress's dog by a trio of bumbling zoo-keepers, Avida is a mad-cap farce set in a dream-like world. Like all good surrealists, directors Kervern and Delepine take great delight in taking everyday scenes and transforming them just enough to make them ridiculous. Thus we get a matador who fights rhinos instead of bulls, a village of refugees who live in closets instead of houses, a bodyguard with performance anxiety who has to gather his concentration before he shoots at the fleeing bad guys (and breaks down in tears when he misses), two friends who spend their time shooting each other up with a tranquilizer gun, a game involving the throwing of plastic chairs, a saviour in the form of a woman singing African songs who offers our wretched heroine the potato chip of grace etc. There's also the usual obsession with the macabre - a bloated death wish lies at the heart of much of the 'plot', vultures scuttle about, and there's an entire sequence where we get to see a dead dog being decapitated, skinned and (as a sort of visual bonus) having his brains extracted from his skull with tweezers. For all that, Avida is delightful fun, it's only real flaw an a-ha moment at the end that provides a (to my mind) entirely unnecessary 'explanation' for what's been going on.


Ironically, the best movie I watched last week was right here in Philly - a screening of Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker. But that's another post.


[1] As evidenced by the number of people who walked out of the screening during the movie. I blame the New York Times. At least half the people around me had no idea what they were watching. I can only imagine how disorienting it must have been for them to walk in expecting a normal film and stumble upon something as experimental as Passio.

[2] The other thing I kept thinking of was Clockwork Orange. Not the movie so much as the book - you know that part where they condition violent criminals by making them watch footage of terrible atrocities. Passio feels a little like that at times.


bess said...

What did you think of Part's music as paired with Usai's film?

Falstaff said...

bess: A difficult question that. On the one hand, I think it worked well - mostly because Part's music is moving and 'sacred' enough, without being so grand or stirring as to overwhelm the film. It works well as background. Too many of the pieces I would pick as being more evocative of death and suffering - Shostakovich, Mozart, Penderecki - would have dominated the film too much. And Usai does a good job of capturing the basic emotion of the work. Plus there were a couple of scenes where the image and music synced really well together. So on the whole I'd say the two work reasonably well.

Having said that, there was a little bit of a disconnect for me between some of the images and the music. I felt some of the images demanded something more powerful and violent, something more outraged. I suspect the lack of outrage was part of Usai's point - the passion, after all, is about accepting suffering, not crying out against it - but it's not a point of view I'm personally supportive of. When I think of some of those images what I hear in my head is not Part's Passio but Shostakovich's Baba Yar symphony. But maybe that's just me.

bess said...

I've read that Usai had Part's music in mind when creating his work about humanity and our frailty.
At first I thought Part had written for the film and perhaps had spent too much time living in Berlin...the description of the film had me thinking of SNL's Dieter (Sprockets) "His agony was gorgeous. I need to be slapped."
As for expressing death and suffering, Mahler's music comes to mind.
Maybe one day I'll get the opportunity to experience Usai's happening. Thanks for sharing