Sunday, May 22, 2005

Werckmeister Harmonies d. Bela Tarr, 2000

Since I have now scoured the web in a fruitless search for a sufficient explanation of Tarr's film, I think I'll try to make one up on my own. To me it is clear that Tarr is dealing with two ideas: 1) Chaos v. Order and 2) Lamentation On Account of God's Absence. Idea 1 is the thesis of the film (but, really, the far less interesting idea - at least to this often doubt-ridden, yet faithful, born-again.) The idea is illustrated in a monologue roughly 1/4 of the way into the film, wherein a composer/musician of sorts (one of many uncles to our protagonist, Janos) discusses the natural tonal scale vs. the Werckmeister tonal scale. The second (the Order, also the Octave scale you and I are most familiar with) is inferior, he says, making each individual note of value only in relation to other notes, and leaving out many notes in between. The former (by elimination, Chaos) is complete, singular, individualized, i.e. the way it should be. Throughout the rest of the film, Tarr gives us mob violence, a committee for the organization and cleaning of our unnamed Euro village (did I mention this took place in an unnamed Euro village? No? Oops.), and the like to illustrate his Chaos v. Order idea.

Now: the God thing. Janos represents a fulcrum of sorts, a balance between Order and Chaos, and the one lamenting the loss of God. But not only the loss of God, the loss of soul, the loss of spirituality, the loss of something to cling to beyond ourselves. Whether you find yourself agnostic, atheist, or theist (from there, mono- or poly-), the idea that there is more to life than ourselves is a compelling one. Tarr loads his long, pensive takes (of which, apparently, there are only 39) with the omniscient gaze of God. The opening in particular, where Janos constructs a model of our immediate solar system in the midst of an eclipse with the aid of some inebriated bar patrons, invokes this feeling. (And not only invokes this feeling, but is one of the most awe-inspiring openings, ever.) As the "eclipse" occurs, and darkness and silence overwhelm the bar, the camera tracks back, pulling out to one of the most phenomenal compositions I have seen. Each man - somber - alone. Janos looks up and, before he speaks, realizes that everything will be alright. The "alright" here is God's presence. Later when encountering the centerpiece of the film - a circus boasting the world's largest whale - Janos admires the beast, dwelling on God's humor in creating the whale. But Janos is the only one who mentions God, and the only one who seems in the least bit complete. It's an interesting idea, to lament the passing of the idea of God rather than the passing of any particular God, but I'm not quite sure as to whether Tarr completely nailed it. His ideas - as compelling as they are - stand as muddled.

Some hail the film as a masterpiece, and it indeed it feels like a masterpiece, but I challenge anyone to state clearly why that is. Some call it a dull waste of time. This is much easier to prove - Tarr's shots are obviously loaded with symbolism, and perhaps the whole thing is a metaphor, but not very many (if any) signposts are given as to what is being symbolized. I find myself somewhere in the middle. I would love to declare this Tops, A+, Mid 90's, 10!, Masterpiece, but I simply cannot. Bela Tarr is certainly close to making a masterpiece, but a bit more willingness to be understood is required.

edited to add that Theo posits an interesting idea re: Chaos v. Order, distinguishing further between artificial and a natural order. Which makes sense when you examine the creation of Aunt Tunde's "order committee," and how it more closely resembles Chaos. Natural Order = Divine Order perhaps? I think I'm onto something, but I also think that - barring greater clarity upon future viewings - Theo's 53 is a bit closer to reality than the volumes of praise. Nonetheless, that opening...

Saturday, May 21, 2005

general protocol and what-have-you

Finals: finished.

Shakespeare: done.

Other films: are go.

I guess I've jumped back into the watching with a bang. Exotica & F for Fake both knocked me out. Both Top 100 films - which is becoming a rare thing, ergo these films gots to be hella' good.

So I've decided that I don't really like my film log format. I'll be experimenting a bit, I believe, as of now I'm definitely dropping the country suffix, because it's pretty much superfluous. Think Lars von Trier or my newly beloved For for Fake. If I wanted to correctly geographically notate the origin of an LvT film, I'm looking at 4 countries, minimum. As is, I only abbreviate directions (e.g. North, South), the United States, and the United Kingdom (which is its own bother, really. Think about it: if a film is made in England do I say "England" or "UK" (I have been doing the latter)? What then of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales? I've yet to see a Welsh film, but I think it'd go under "UK," yet I put Ireland and Scotland under their own heading.) So, once again, to try and free my self from some OCD - and unless there are people who think I should do otherwise - the country suffix is dropped, gone, axed. In short, it sleeps with the fishes. Any other ideas? Can I make it more readable? I don't know; if you have suggestions, fire away.

Oh yeah: a couple more lists are on their way.

1) Genre List. Meaning, top tens by genre. E.g. Western, Film Noir, Road Film, Screwball, Slapstick, Coming-of-Age, etc. I imagine some type of explanation as to why I consider Film Noir generic enough to be listed as a genre will be included.

2) Top 100 Foreign Films. Which leads me to this, which has been nagging me for a bit. One might think (if one were so inclined) that I am a list freak. And one would be, well, right the fuck on. But there is a point to my enumerations. I don't grade. I've tried. I cannot. One day I might adopt the letter grade system (it seems to me the least heartbreaking of all possibilities), but until that day there's no quantitative way in which to tell how much I liked a film. The lists, as a whole, stand to qualitatively suggest my affection (or lack thereof) for a particular film in relation to others. The flaw is that only films that make the list fit this mold. In that case, at best I found the film to be "alright." So there. And unlike others that I know of (this really has no bearing on the matter at hand, but it might help you to grasp my "non-rating" rating system with a bit more firmness), I tend to be relatively lenient w/r/t the worthiness of a film. (Also note that this is relative to the, ahem, others. When compared to the viewing public, I'm an asshole, a high-minded prick with little understanding of the common man, the working stiff who slogs 9-5 just to earn enough to take his wife out to the picture show on the weekend, where he can forget his troubles and bathe in the majesty of the latest studio glossy.)

Ok, enough, you get the point. Anyhow: spring is in the air, which means change is in the air, which means it's about time I got my shit together.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Throne of Blood d. Akira Kurosawa, 1957

Throne of Blood - a loose adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth - deals less with the corruptive nature of and transfixing greed for power (an idea mined by Roman Polanski in his adaptation) than the ultimate pointlessness of humanity's busy machinations. Bookending the film is a medium shot of a shrine, whereon the inscription reads, "Here stood Spider's Web Castle." Here, once, a castle stood. Many women and men died for the ascension of power to that castle's throne. And now that castle is laid to waste, like the piles of bones surrounding its ruins.

In Macbeth it is very clear that Macbeth is Macbeth. Meaning that, even though he does represent humanity as a whole, his primary purpose as a character is to be Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, and King of Scotland. Kurosawa's characters are more protean than this; they are types - broad character sketches - that stand instead for all humanity. Ergo, Throne of Blood is something of a morality piece, a cautionary tale whose purpose is, at least in some way, didactic. The lesson, then, is simple: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. When Washizu's (Kurosawa's Macbeth character, played by the great Toshiro Mifune) army turns on him, he cries out, "It is high treason to kill a great lord." And they reply, "Who killed the last great lord?" Indeed, it was Washizu himself - what goes around comes around.

As with Macbeth, death pervades Throne of Blood. The Weird Sisters are replaced by a solitary spirit in the form of an old man; an old man who sits at a spinning wheel reminiscent of the wheel of justice. Surrounding this man are piles of bones adorned with the raiment of war. Here the idea of reciprocity is furthered. All die - here the soldiers of war, and later, with the former great lord, Miki (Banquo), Asaji (Lady Macbeth), and Washizu, the nobility die too. Seen in the context of inevitable death, Washizu and Asaji's actions are tragic - laughably pitiful in their inconsequence, but horribly terrifying in their intention. (It should also be noted that Kurosawa's Lady Macbeth is given an even stronger role than Shakespeare's, commenting perhaps on the traditional debutante stature of women in Japanese society.) The impermanence of the very thing Washizu is chasing - the castle, as signified by the beginning and end of the film - makes it clear that not only is his life (and therefore humanity as a whole) ephemeral, but so are his dreams and aspirations. This is a theme that Kurosawa would revisit throughout his entire career, most notably in his other Shakespeare-based film, Ran.

Throne of Blood is less an adaptation than one master riffing on another. No one has ever directed a camera better than Kurosawa, and his wide vistas interspersed with pensive close-ups are a perfect match for the psychological study/war extravaganza that is Macbeth. Shakespeare wrote, tongue-in-cheek although it is now taken as gospel truth, "To thine own self be true." In Throne of Blood, Kurosawa syncopes the proverb, "Be true," an idea far closer to Shakespeare's heart, I imagine, and one that should be much closer to that of humanity as well.

Macbeth d. Roman Polanski, 1971

There is a good deal of difference between respect for the source material and genuflection of it. In the case of William Shakespeare's Macbeth, genuflection would be ignoring the ignobility of the characters, the mired fields of Scotland, and the utter lack of morality in reverence of Shakespeare's words. Because his language is so evocative - even amidst pure squalor - the temptation to "beautify" a filmic adaptation is understandable, albeit, at least in the case of Macbeth, a misstep. Thankfully, Roman Polanski, et al, embrace the squalid nature of Macbeth, turning medieval Scotland into a cesspool and emphasizing the depravity of the characters.

Shit, piss, blood, and a general matter of filth pock the Scottish plain, sparing not a one. Beggar and noble alike wade through the refuse, seemingly never free of the dirt and mud. This filth stands as a nice visual metaphor - contributed by Polanski - for the soiled depravity of the characters' souls. Just as the landscape and the bodies of the nobility are never clean, so are their actions.

Unlike most of Shakespeare's plays, there is no hero in Macbeth. The eponymous Macbeth is so overcome by desire for power that he in no way can be called a hero. The same goes for Lady Macbeth. So look to the opposition, right? Well, Siward is like a reed in the wind, playing to the current power. "All hail, King of Scotland," he yells twice - once for Macbeth and once for Malcolm. Macduff is ultimately a reactionist, never actually pursuing any protagonist deed, only responding to crimes against his family and person. It could be assumed rightfully from Banquo's imploring of the witches for his fate that he, if in Macbeth's place, would chase power in the same manner. The key to this lack of "good guy" lies in Malcolm. In a speech unfortunately exorcised from the film (although the spirit of the film knells this idea the whole way through), Malcolm expresses his doubt as to whether he could be king. He tells Macduff that his vices are just as bad as Macbeth's, if not worse. There's the point of the play, and the key to Polanski's success. Polanski understands that the point of Macbeth is interminable human depravity. All humankind is susceptible to soulless greed; the only thing separating one person from another is circumstance.

So Polanski runs with this idea and modifies it slightly, redistributing lines (most notably the "All Hails" cried by Siward) and, most striking of all, altering the ending. Clearly Malcolm is an important character, but what do we make of Donalbain? Polanski gives him a limp, making it clear that he is inferior to his brother, ergo his lack of complaint when his brother commands the throne. But a clear point in Macbeth is that man's desire for power is incessant. To illustrate this further, Polanski adds a scene for Donalbain at the very end. Donalbain stands in front of the hovel, where Macbeth encountered the Weird Sisters, and enters. He is after fortune, he is after power, and the desire for power continues.

Polanski's adaptation is far from perfect though. The acting is clearly amateur, with nearly every soliloquy internalized - an editorial decision that I imagine must have had something to do with the ineptitude of the actors. Most every other flaw can be traced to the acting, and I imagine that in itself is due to budget constraints. Admirable is Polanski's respect for Shakespeare and lack of respect for the characters. The point is this: to make the characters as repellant as possible in order to emphasize their flaws, flaws that illustrate the theme of the play and humanity at large. In this, Polanski's adaptation succeeds.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead d. Tom Stoppard, 1990

Clearly Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, both the film and the play (also by Stoppard), is a work of brilliance. The rub is, I'm not quite sure why. It is based on a work of genius, Shakespeare's Hamlet, and particularly focused on the characters of Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern - excuse me, Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz. Moreover, R&G.a.D. deals with an initial conceit that is clearly capable of brilliance - Newtonian mechanics within the framework of a renowned classic - but capability and execution are two things separate entirely. Stoppard's execution, however, is spot-on.

Much like Shakespeare used the opening scene of Hamlet as a microcosm for the play, Stoppard inserts, for lack of a better term, "science projects" into the film to allude to the film's purpose. Experiments in gravity, actions with equal & opposite reactions, mass & density in a vacuum, and probability litter the film. The fact that these experiments rarely succeed is perhaps a sign that the characters in the film understand the Newtonian principles that surround them as little as I - a decent stand-in for the average human, I guess - do. The macrocosm that these microcosms point to is Rosencrantz & Guildenstern as Newtonian particles, bouncing around in their world controlled by something other than them. Or, as Guildenstern says to Rosencrantz, "We're going in circles."

Accompanying these experiments are pieces of paper, sheets of the script from Hamlet, which begin to appear when R&G meet the theatrical troupe on both their ways to Elsinore. These sheets of paper have several purposes:

1. They are a constant reminder to the viewing audience that - in case they somehow forgot amidst the Danish castle and Shakespearean dialogue – R&G are, indeed, characters within a play.

2. They are a device to remind the audience that Stoppard is using Hamlet for his own experiment, just as Rosencrantz uses the script-shreds to construct his own scientific experiments.

3. When they (the sheets of paper) first appear is when Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are first alluded to in the play; that is, when they meet the troupe. Which leads us to...

4. The sheets are a reminder that R&G are finite characters - they exist within the play only and are limited to the dramatic action of the play.

This last enumeration is most interesting. At one point Guildenstern (or is it Rosencrantz, they're never quite sure of their identities and neither am I) says to Rosencrantz, in response to Rosencrantz's reasoning that, if they jump off the ship they will ruin the plans of the king, thus negating their fixed position in a story, "[That will work] unless they counted on it." Rosencrantz replies, "I shall remain on board, that'll put a spoke in their wheel." The point is that, because R&G are fixed characters in a fixed story, any action they take is an action already anticipated. Now: any play, film, book, et cetera worth its salt must also stand, in some way, as a microcosm for humanity itself. So: Stoppard is saying that humanity is a fixed enterprise with a beginning, an end, and some stuff in between. Any action we endeavor If I understand it right - and I'm not quite sure I do - this is the stuff of Newtonian mechanics entirely.

A confession: I lied in my opening. I do understand why Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead is a brilliant work. Shakespeare's works are not brilliant merely because they deal with challenging ideas writ in beautiful prose/poetry. No, they are brilliant because they maintain this eloquence while remaining accessible and entertaining. Many books have been written on Newtonian mechanics, but not many of those books will make one laugh and feel as if her two hours were passing by as if one. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead is a treatise on Newtonian mechanics and its frightening application to humanity, but in the form of a near cloying pill. Whether you choose to see it as two bumbling fools attempting to figure out what the hell is going on, or two particles swimming around in circles while figuring out the science of the world, the film is enjoyable and rich, entirely worth one's time.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Hamlet d. Laurence Olivier, 1948

Hamlet stands out among William Shakespeare's tragedies and histories in that it lacks the bombast, the epic quality, often associated with them. Shakespeare's plays lend themselves so well to filmic adaptation because there is something inherently cinematic in them. Not that these effects cannot be powerful on the stage, but elements such as the storm in King Lear, the Battle of Agincourt in Henry V, or the outright gore and slaughter in both Macbeth and Titus seem to have presciently predicted the medium of film. Hamlet has only the final duel between the young Dane and Laertes, and the on-march of Fortinbras' and his army as semblance of the episodes found in the other plays. Much in the same manner, Olivier's Hamlet stands out among his Shakespearean oeuvre. Whereas Olivier's Richard III and Henry V either relished in their battle sequences, virtuoso and speechifying leads, or formal invention, Hamlet more closely resembles a chamber play, denuded of epic nature entirely, a feature made more apparent by the lack of Fortinbras in toto.

The film begins at the end of play, with Hamlet - dead - carried by four men to the top of Elsinore's ramparts. Olivier then inserts through voice'over a line of his own, "This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind." Hamlet is the ultimate creation of Shakespeare as far as character is concerned. He is the epitome of the many-humored man, dominated not by any one humor, but employing them all - choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic, melancholy - in order to achieve balance. He displays melancholy in the sadness of his father's death, choler in the anger of his father's murder, sanguine in the joy of his friends, and phlegm in the hesitation he shows in not murdering his uncle when given the chance. Balance Hamlet has, but indecision is also a product of this balance. The temperance of the film - especially when one compares it to Olivier's other Shakespearean works - seems, by design, to express this balance and indecision. The tone of the film is one of sorrow, joy, anger, and cowardice mixed into one, but every part slight unsure as to when its turn has come. It moves at a good pace, not so fast as to sprint or so slow as to dawdle. The camerawork (which special attention should be paid to, more later) is neither bland in its fixed position nor overly fluid in movement; instead it provides enough travel to interest, but not so much as to overwhelm. In a word, the film is centered on the idea of balance, befitting the stable, indecisive hub - Hamlet - and the unstable, humor-dominated characters that surround him.
The camera plays a very interesting part in the film. As Terrence Rafferty, in his essay on the film, notes:

Desmond Dickinson's deep-focus camera roams freely through Elsinore and its craggy windswept environs, sometimes traveling through vast empty spaces before finding the poor human characters it seeks, and then fixing them with a spectral, eerily detached gaze. The restless but oddly serene camera movement is unnerving because it feels subjective yet we can't quite identify the subject.

Further along in the essay, Rafferty identifies the subject as God. I think a more interesting idea is to see the camera as the elder Hamlet, the Ghost of the murdered King of Denmark. The Ghost's presence is felt throughout the play of Hamlet, but he only appears twice. He is the impetus behind Hamlet's actions and inactions, his presence - even if it be felt only - is essential to the integrity of the original play and any adaptation thereof. Olivier achieves this by allowing the camera to play the Ghost. Excepting the two times we see the Ghost - the second displaying a clever subjective camera trick to show that Hamlet sees the king and his mother does not - his spirit is embodied by the camera. It glides into close-ups of Hamlet, seemingly - and often actually - reading his thoughts, then quickly cranes out, suspended in the air, to take in the expanse of its castle and the wretched workings therein. In pivotal scenes, such as the moment when Hamlet fails to kill Claudius or before and during the final duel, the camera/Ghost slides through the characters, into empty corridors, and above their heads, as if to show its dis-/approval at the workings below. Mostly, excepting when Hamlet is alone, the camera remains aloof, unwilling - more likely unable - to be intimate with the affairs of the mortals. It seems that, as if dismayed by its tangible ineffectiveness, the camera/Ghost remains distant.

Just as Hamlet - although differing greatly from the majority of his corpus - stands as a gem among Shakespeare's work, so to is it with Olivier's adaptation. Olivier has a clear understanding of the major themes in Hamlet - balance, disjoint, death - and he pares down the play (a crime in lesser hands) so as to highlight these themes while maintaining the integrity of the plot. His performance as Prince Hamlet, too, is very good, and after watching Olivier's adaptation it becomes clear as to why he is heralded as a foremost student of the bard.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Ran d. Akira Kurosawa, 1985

Akira Kurosawa's Ran - his take on Shakespeare's King Lear - ends with perhaps the most powerful visual metaphor for humanity ever captured on film: A blind man, standing on a harrowing precipice jutting out from the ruins of a castle and overlooking a broken kingdom, slips, nearly losing his life. In his stead drops a piece of parchment he was clinging to, bearing the image of the Buddha. The camera then cuts to a series shots that, while becoming larger in scope, successively miniaturize the blind man standing on the edge of the ruins, carefully sounding his way lest he fall to his death.

Whereas King Lear was set in England near the beginning of the last millennium, Kurosawa's film is set in feudal Japan. The stand-in for Lear is Hidetora, lord of the Ichimonji clan. Growing old, he intends - as Lear did - to separate his kingdom in three, giving the largest part to his eldest son Taro (Goneril), the second largest to Jiro (Regan), and the smallest piece to Saburo (Cordelia.) Saburo, objecting to this division (based on Hidetora's remaining competence), is assumed by Hidetora to love him less, to be an outsider attempting to destroy the house of Ichimonji. Saburo is banished, along with Tango (Kent) who argues for Hidetora to reconsider. The Lear machinations ensue - brother turns on brother, husbands turn on wives, and sons turn on their father.

As is the case with King Lear, there are many themes at work in Ran. Hidetora's fool cries out:

Are there no gods, no Buddha? If you exist, hear me! You are mischievous and cruel! Are you so bored up there you must crush us like ants? Is it such fun to see men weep?

Tango replies:

It is the gods who weep. They see us killing each other over and over since time began. They can't save us from ourselves [...] it's how the world is made - men prefer sorrow over joy, suffering over peace [...] they revel in pain and bloodshed. They celebrate murder.

While Kurosawa takes a good deal of liberty with Shakespeare's lines ("As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods; / They kill us for their sport" King Lear Act IV, sc. 1, 37-38), he hits on something with Tango's reply. This, while not the core of Shakespeare's play, is the main theme at work in Ran - mankind's destruction of itself.

Where the realization of his nobility in relation to the "baser" kind sent Lear into an insanity-limned tailspin in King Lear, the remembrance of past wrongs is what pushes Hidetora into insanity in Ran. When he encounters Sue, and later her brother Tsurumaru, Hidetora recalls the way in which he destroyed their kingdom. The recollection of this destruction, and the remembrance of robbing Tsurumaru of his vision, sends Lear into a spell of madness, wherein he recognizes not even his friends. Earlier, following the battle between his guards and his sons' army (n.b. as magnificent a battle as ever was captured on film), Hidetora also descends into madness. This first-hand experience of mankind's self-destruction leads Hidetora to return to nature. Amidst the madness of a raging storm, and the madness of his mind, Hidetora collects flowers - an image meant to evoke a time when nature was pure, before it was tainted by the atrocities of humankind. Where King Lear indicates the King's madness through the breakdown of syntax and the loss of verse, Ran indicates Hidetora's madness by adding the sound of an echo to his voice. The echo sets off his voice from others, implying both hollowness and a sort of god-like reverberation. The result is twofold - we understand Hidetora's madness and when that madness is onset, but we also understand that his madness is, in its grandeur, a sign of the gods' or God's displeasure with humankind.

Kurosawa's adaptation is a visually stunning, thematically pregnant version of Shakespeare's King Lear. The ultimate difference is in that final visual metaphor: The blind man on the precipice is still on the precipice. His existence is precarious, but he still exists. Ergo, Ran offers a glimmer of hope. There is a way off of that precipice, that castle can be rebuilt. King Lear, on the other hand, is a complete subtraction, a reduction that terminates at nil. What Kurosawa did with King Lear is admirable - he borrowed the main plot, re-tooled the theme, and made the play his own. The result is a laudable, multi-faceted work, visually brilliant and worthy to stand next to the greatest of Shakespearean film adaptations.