Notes from CPH PIX: Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman, USA, 2010)

American cinema, Blogpost, cph pix 2011, Uncategorized

Having just waxed lyrical about the joys of seeing unexpected films at any point in time, but perhaps at film festivals in particular, it might sound contrary to now write a blog that in part is about disappointment – although the two feelings go somewhat hand in hand.

Monte Hellman is something of a cult figure, and someone about whom I certainly have read more than I have seen. That is, I have seen Two-Lane Blacktop (USA, 1971), which some feel is perhaps the finest ‘underground’ American film of all time – and I did like it, not least for its pure obsession with cars and engineering and to hell really with plot.

But as far as seeing Hellman’s other output goes, that is it. I have not seen – though I do really want to see – Cockfighter (USA, 1974), for example, if for no other reason than to see the film the (apocryphal) tagline of which is ‘He came into town with his cock in hand, and what he did with it was illegal in 49 states.’

For a career that now spans 50+ years, for which the first feature was Beast from Haunted Cave (USA, 1959), Hellman has not made that much in the way of feature length films. Alongside the few already mentioned, there are some 1960s westerns, including Ride the Whirlwind (USA, 1965) and The Shooting (USA, 1968), and then Iguana (Italy/Spain/Switzerland/USA, 1988), the last feature that he made.

A Roger Corman protégé, Monte Hellman has in fact been relatively unproductive, given that films from Corman and his acolytes was intense, particularly in the late 1960s period (when Hellman was, admittedly, most active, it seems).

Anyway, given that this is his first feature in 22 years, given that I have only seen one of his films before, given that I liked it (though not as much as some people), and given that he has a magnificent reputation, I was expecting great things from Road to Nowhere.

Disappointment is a sensation one can often have at the movies. In fact, since a lot of my research is on digital technology and cinema, I often find myself in front of special effects rubbish that really I ought to have known better than to watch – especially at this stage in life – and which – as is to be expected – was not the film I hoped it would be. If I get the chance to blog about it, perhaps I can elaborate on this feeling with regard to the recent Sucker Punch (Zack Snyder, USA/Canada, 2011), which not only disappointed me (though to be expected from Zack Snyder), but in fact also appalled me in certain respects (though perhaps to be expected from Zack Snyder).

Don’t get me wrong: there could be a perverse satisfaction in being disappointed – I am fully prepared to admit it. But whether I go looking for disappointment or not, this does not mean that I do not feel it.

Strangely, disappointment is about the most negative feeling I feel towards any film, or at least I don’t feel much worse about a film for very long. Sucker Punch might have appalled me at moments, but I don’t really hate it; I am just… disappointed. Since I cannot pinpoint with more finesse my feelings, perhaps this feeling is unclear to some. But I suppose it is like wishing the best out of one’s team members, only to find that they are cynical players who either do not care or, worse, will cheat to win.

That said, there are grades of disappointment. Sucker Punch can disappointment because Zack Snyder has not suddenly grown up and decided to use his talents for creating striking images in (what I would deem to be) a mature manner. And Road to Nowhere can disappoint because sometimes one expects so much – too much – from a filmmaker like Hellman, an expectation in part built up out of hype and reputation and not necessarily out of personal experience of the filmmaker’s films – that it is perhaps almost inevitable that the film will not live up to it.

To be honest, I am not sure how – or even if – I was disappointed by Road to Nowhere. Sometimes one is overwhelmed by a film (Zulawski’s Possession, for example). And sometimes one is underwhelmed by a film (Sucker Punch). Sometimes, however, one is simply whelmed – neither over nor under, though there is always a sense that a whelming film is ever so slightly an underwhelming film, but one sticks with whelming to convey the neutrality, or better the indifference, of one’s feelings and thoughts.

There is much to commend Road to Nowhere:

– It is slow – but in a challenging fashion that makes one want to think about the reasons why ’empty’ moments are not in mainstream films more often, or even at all, as opposed simply to finding it a ‘slow’ and boring film. It is also a Hollywood ‘insider’ movie in that it is a film about filmmaking (I’ll give the plot – as best as I can explain it – below).

– It is a film featuring much mise-en-abyme, which is to say that the film is a film about a film, and one never quite knows whether one is watching simply ‘the film’ (after a fashion, one is always only watching ‘the film’), or whether one is watching ‘the film within the film.’

– Furthermore, Hellman, according to a review in Cinema Scope, shot the film on Canon 5D Mark II cameras – that is, cameras that are predominantly used for still images – and this has a very interesting effect on the look of the film. For, while much of the film seems to take place in sunny locations, at every moment there seems to be a quasi-visible filter of darkness between us and the ‘image.’ I don’t know if this was achieved with the Canons, but I’d not seen this sort of view quite so insistently before and so attribute it to the unusual cameras used to make the film. Of course, this strange grain of darkness is not between us and the image; it is in the image, even if the effect is that somehow we cannot quite see clearly what is going on in the film. Interesting, and appropriate for a film that has noir-ish elements like this one.

Okay. So the film starts with a DVD being inserted into a laptop. On the laptop screen a film starts playing and the camera closes in on the laptop screen until it feels the entire cinema screen that we are watching (unless we are watching the film on our own laptops). We never know from this point on whether what we are watching is still the camera recording the screen of a laptop in one single and unbroken take, or whether we are seeing a or the ‘real’ film.

The film that we see on the laptop screen is called Road to Nowhere and it is directed by Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan – cinema’s doppelgänger of Matthew Holtmeier). It tells the story of Velma Duran, a seeming seductress of sorts, or perhaps just the patsy of a corrupt politician, who ran away/was framed for running away – or so we are led to believe – with US$100 million of North Carolina state money. Duran is played by Laurel Graham (Shannyn Sossamon), although it transpires that Laurel Graham is in fact a false identity developed by none other than… Velma Duran, in order to cover up the fact that she is not dead. Except that this may not be true – since it may be a pre-arranged identity swap carried out by Laurel Graham with her co-actors.

In short, then, Road to Nowhere is a good old puzzle film in which it is hard – if not impossible – for us to discern ‘truth’ (whatever that is) from ‘fiction.’ There is breaking the fourth wall a-plenty in this film, including in the climactic moments of the film when Haven kills Bruno (Waylon Payne), who has killed Laurel/Velma. Like a crazy film director who can only filter things through the lens of a camera, he starts to film the victims (on his Canon 5D Mark II), before his camera looks directly into ‘our’ camera and we are offered a reverse shot, which shows the entire crew working and watching the scene. Nonetheless, there is no ‘cut’ this time (as there are at other moments in the film) and the cops turn up and arrest him.

We are then perhaps taken back to the beginning of the film and the DVD in the laptop. Haven is in prison being shown the film by Natalie Post (Dominique Swain), a local investigative blogger who had been helpful to Haven in filming his Road to Nowhere movie by giving him insight and facts. The conversation between the two of them ends as a guard takes Post out of the cell – and the film ends.

In other words, and in a manner that for many audiences will be frustrating, the film goes nowhere and, like Two-Lane Blacktop which never reaches its destination, the film challenges the whole myth of teleology, or reaching a fixed goal, as a whole.

This is not the disappointing, or whelming, thing about Road to Nowhere. This, in fact, is perhaps the most pleasing thing about the film. An unresolved conundrum is here very pleasing, and much more so than the ‘ooh, is it still an illusion?’ malarkey that is the end of Inception (Christopher Nolan, USA/UK, 2010).

What is whelming, for me, about Road to Nowhere is that I have been to nowhere so many times now that I feel quite familiar in it. Perhaps this is hubris on my part; but there comes to be something very predictable about the film that has no easy resolution. Perhaps this is in part the point: life is banal and certainly it has not set goal that we can foresee at all – and we, like the film, always end up other than where we expected, in a place that is a strange mix of what we expected (our fantasies) and a contradiction of that (‘reality’). But some films can take you to weird places and still leave you lost.

Hellman’s nowhere just seemed to feel a bit too familiar, then. This I can compare to Andrzej Zulawski’s Szamanka (Poland/France/Switzerland, 1996), which I also saw at CPH PIX, and which is so weird (like Possession about which I blogged yesterday) that I do not know what to make of it at all. For all its ‘faults,’ I am rather just fascinated by its strangeness. And so the familiarity of Nowhere‘s nowhere seemed to let it down.

Road to Nowhere is better than 50, maybe even 100 Sucker Punches. (By how much it is better is a silly thing to quantify. It is just better by virtue of being more interesting, even if Sucker Punch, too, wants to try to get you to think about ‘is it real or not?’) But one wonders whether the illusion/reality question needs to be posed in new ways for something truly startling to come out of it. The question is still a good one – but there are perhaps other, more penetrating questions, lying somewhere in wait.

Notes from CPH PIX: Sumarlandið/Summerland (Grímur Hákonarson, Iceland, 2010)

Blogpost, cph pix 2011, Icelandic cinema, Uncategorized

Summerland is not the only Icelandic picture that I have seen – but I must admit that I have not seen many, and certainly not all of the recent ‘landmark’ Icelandic movies that have come out since 2000.

(Think 101 Reykjavík (Baltasar Kormákur, Iceland/Denmark/France/Norway/Germany, 2000), Nói albínói/Noi the Albino (Dagur Kári, Iceland/Germany/UK/Denmark, 2003), and Beowulf & Grendel (Sturla Gunnarsson, Canada/UK/Iceland/USA/Australia, 2005) and you have more or less my complete knowledge of Icelandic cinema.)

The film is a comedy – perhaps in the vein of Aki Kaurismäki, if to revert to comparisons with Finns is not too condescending or ‘obvious’ a step to take – about a family who live in Kópavogur, about which I know nothing, but who try to run a local tourism business. This they do by stealing visitors from the ‘official’ tour of the vicinity and taking them to their ghost house, where pater familias Óskar (Kjartan Guðjónsson) tries to scare visitors. Mother Lára (Ólafía Hrönn Jónsdóttir) is also in the ghost business – but as a (seemingly) genuine medium, who talks to the dead, or those who live in the titular Summerland, as a result of the energy that is channeled through the local elf stones, in which live Iceland’s long lost but historical elven ancestors.

However, because the family home is threatened with repossession as a result of debts, Óskar sells the elf stone in the family garden to a German art dealer (Wolfgang Müller) – and even though he makes a tidy 50,000 euro from the sale, everything proceeds to go wrong from here: Lára falls into a coma, their daughter starts a relationship with a local anti-spiritual campaigner, their son loses his best friend (because, or so the son thinks, the best friend is or was an elf), and the town decides that it is going to sell off other elf stones in order to save the local economy.

However, Óskar sees the error of his ways and although he does not get back the money for the elf stone that he sold from his garden, he does stop the town’s larger elf stones from being sold by placing himself between the digger that will extract them and the stones themselves. Hailed as a martyr, a sense of community is restored and the town itself becomes something of a tourist destination, Óskar’s ghost house in particular, meaning that, in theory, everything is well in the world.

There are two differences between this film and the others mentioned above – or at least there are two differences that I want here to discuss. Firstly, this is the first film that I have seen since Iceland went bust in 2008. And secondly, this is the first Icelandic film that I have seen that is not an international co-production.

The reason for mentioning the first is hopefully self-evident: this is a film that deals with Iceland selling off its traditional assets as a result of being too international-minded in the pursuit of both profit and, perhaps more tellingly, ‘survival.’ In an Iceland that denies its history, signalled here by a belief in the spirit world – the land in the past where it always was summer and Icelanders were happy – and by the fact that both Óskar and the town in general want to sell the elf stones, the message of the film seems strongly to be: hold on to what is truly Icelandic, because it is only in this way that we will be able happily or in a satisfactory manner to ‘compete’ internationally. In fact, it is by embracing its past that Iceland emerges as a viable tourist destination – and not by becoming a bland destination that has the same things as everywhere else (Kópavogur is home to Iceland’s largest shopping mall, not that it features in Summerland).

Secondly, the fact that this is not a co-production suggests more or less a similar thing, but on a filmic level. Rather than trying to make a Europudding featuring (with all due respect) famous stars like Victoria Abril (Reykjavik 101) or Gerard Butler (Beowulf & Grendel), Summerland is a ‘uniquely’ Icelandic film – and perhaps it benefits all the more from being so. For it is potentially a downside of the international co-production that it becomes obsessed with markets: who does it please from where, how can it make money in various territories, et cetera. Instead, Summerland arguably just does what it wants to, and in the course of this it sticks (proverbially speaking if not literally) two fingers up at the rest of Europe, here signified through the presence of the (problematically) gay German art collector (and his lover).

Given that Summerland is a comedy (albeit one that is – and I hate this term when applied to comedy – ‘bittersweet’), and given that – or so the cliché goes – comedy does not travel, then Summerland is a ‘risk.’ But then again, if the packed house at the cool Husets Biograf is anything to go by, comedy does travel (we could mythologise this about some sort of interest in ‘Scandinavian’ cinema), and, indeed, the more ‘Icelandic’ the film is, the better it fares. For what – paradoxically – sells better (than comedy) is a sense of making a film that one cares about as opposed to making a film that is intended to satisfy certain so-called needs in certain markets.

(I hope that Afterimages, my film showing at CPH PIX, is taken in this way – even though it is not ostensibly a comedy.)

Now, the above is more or less all that I have to say superficially about the film – but it is of course more complex than the above words can convey. Óskar and family got into debt for trying to do something ‘authentic,’ or at the very least independent and different in Iceland. Had they played safe, they might not have got into debt at all. Furthermore, Óskar does sell off his elf stone and does ease his financial worries through doing so – regardless of the subsequent romantic consequences of this act.

In other words, interpreting the film ‘economically’/as an allegory of recent economic history (which is my doing and therefore my mistake, if mistake it is) is not necessarily an easy task. The economic crisis is caused by localism, while globalisation can and does bring financial rewards, even if at the expense of ‘culture’ (here, elves).

Sure, following a sacrifice of the pater familias, Iceland can re-emerge as both economically viable and as ‘Icelandic,’ but then it seems that the very terms of economic imprisonment are the same as the terms of escape. In other words, there is no clear or easy history to the Icelandic economic crisis, and certainly no clear or easy solution, even if at first blush Summerland seems to suggest as much.

Furthermore, the film also requires the removal of the patriarch (who never really was that empowered?) for this to happen. That is, the cause of all of the problem – the guy that sold his country out – is also the route towards greater economic well-being. I have nowhere specific to go with this analysis, but I find it interesting nonetheless.

Either way, as has happened already a couple of times – and as should become clear from subsequent blogs – Summerland was not a film that I had intended to see here. In fact, I was hoping to see Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, USA, 2010), but missed it because I stupidly got wrong the time of the film’s start.

But this is also one of the incidental pleasures of festivals as I understand them: having missed or simply not being able to attend the higher profile stuff can, if one is determined and can afford to see a/any film anyway, one always ends up seeing something of great interest and warmth. I am sad I missed Meek’s, although I am sure I’ll catch it at some point before too long.

But in hindsight, I am happier for having seen Summerland, not least because of the fantastic atmosphere engendered by the full house at the Husets Biograf (there is so much to write about what being in the cinema with a warm crowd can do to one’s response to a film, as opposed to the solipsistic practice of watching films on DVD on one’s laptop). I am also happier for having seen Summerland because in all likelihood I will be able to see Meek’s Cutoff before too long anyway (it had just started playing in London before I came out to Copenhagen).

In some respects, this sounds like the ‘festival twat,’ who can namedrop films that no one else has seen, nor will they likely get the chance to see, except indeed on DVD at home, where the experience might be all the more disappointing by virtue of the viewing circumstances (being with people is always better, or so say I).

But in another respect, I hold by it: I don’t normally get the chance to see films like Summerland, and I might not normally take up such a chance when I do get it (not least because I wanted to see the Reichardt film ahead of it). But, be it by hook or by crook, I have seen it – and this is what going to the cinema in general, and festivals in particular, is all about, or the experience that for me is the most pleasurable.

That is, the less I know about a film in advance, the more fun I have. I don’t know if others feel the same way, but in certain respects I sometimes wonder that it would not be great simply to have films showing – and one gets what one receives, without having to ask for a particular thing in advance. Bring on the days where promotion and publicity count for nothing…

Afterthought (which I meant to include in the main blog, but forgot about): Summerland‘s presence at film festivals, including CPH PIX, might make of the film’s story something like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe not many, but some people will see the film, and – be it consciously or otherwise – somewhere in their line of reasoning it will play a part in deciding them to go to Iceland, be it for a full-on holiday or for a weekend break. Other scholars study set jetting in more detail than I do, but an independent Icelandic film plays a part in helping the Icelandic community to recover, both economically and culturally, by functioning as a film that plays abroad and as a film that might inspire tourism. In other words, although the ‘recourse’ to an Icelandic as opposed to European co-production might seem to reinvigour nationalistic sentiments, paradoxically its ‘meaning’ is always already ‘global’ as soon as the film circulates beyond the boundaries of its home nation. Again, I’ve not much to add to this, but it is an interesting and almost contradictory process nonetheless.

Notes from CPH PIX: Xavier Dolan vs Andrzej Zulawski

Blogpost, Canadian cinema, cph pix 2011, European cinema, Film reviews, Uncategorized

I am writing this blog from CPH PIX, where my new film, Afterimages (William Brown, UK, 2010) will be playing on 22 April at 14h15 at the Dagmar and on 27 April at 22h30 at the Husets Biograf.

I include this information on the off-chance that anyone reading this blog is from or in Copenhagen – and that this mention might in turn boost the number of people attending. There is very little web presence for Afterimages at present – although this is understandable because not many people have seen it. And so I thought I ought to do some self-promotion. Apologies if this is too callous, particularly on the day that Tim Hetherington was killed in Libya.

Either way, while no doubt I shall blog a bit about the experience of being at CPH PIX as a festival, really I shall try to dedicate this blog to the films that I see here (and to promote my own, as mentioned above – although this is not strictly limited to Afterimages, since I also had a very small part – apparently on the cutting room floor – in Abdellatif Kechiche’s new film, Vénus Noire/Black Venus, France/Italy/Belgium, 2010, which also plays here during my stay).

So… The first film I saw today was Les Amours Imaginaires/Heartbeats (Xavier Dolan, Canada, 2010).

I had been told by one of the CPH programmers whom I met this morning that Heartbeats was a departure from the disgustingly young Dolan’s first film, J’ai tué ma mère/I Killed My Mother (Canada, 2009). The programmer did confess to not having seen Dolan’s first film, made when he was 19, and so I don’t feel too bad about contradicting him, for, if anyone has seen and liked J’ai tué ma mère, then you will in part know what to expect and should enjoy Heartbeats. For, like its predecessor, Dolan’s new film features arch framings, lots of slow motion shots of people walking and touching, an elliptical narrative style separated by black frames, some prolonged MTV-style sections, and a delight in leafy, autumnal forest scenes.

How it differs, perhaps, is the way in which Dolan seems to have swallowed some Pier Paolo Pasolini in the gap between the films. I say this because Heartbeats is somewhat redolent of Pasolini’s wonderful Teorema/Theorem (Italy, 1968) in that it features a mysterious young man (here, Niels Schneider, as opposed to Terence Stamp) who enters into the lives of a young couple (here Dolan himself and Monia Chokri, as opposed to a family environment), and he seduces pretty much everyone (although here he sleeps with no one, at least as far as we can tell). This may make the film in fact sound very different to Theorem, and it might be my over-reading of Dolan, like Pasolini, as a ‘queer’ filmmaker that links them (with François Ozon, who himself sort of remade Theorem with his own Sitcom (France, 1998), also playing a role in my thinking). But this is what struck me most throughout the film, not least because of the way that Dolan frames Schneider at several key moments – against a monochrome background, looking down and to the side, as if lost in whimsical thought.

(To continue the ‘queer’ links, there is also a strong reference to Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki, USA/Netherlands, 2004), in that Dolan’s character, Francis, dreams of Schneider’s Nico at one point in a similar pose, but standing under a shower of marshmallows, which is similar to the shower of sugar-coated breakfast cereals that Araki’s paedophile movie pictures.)

Like Theorem, Heartbeats is about the violent effect that beauty can have on us – violent in the sense that we lose our sense of reason and carry out acts that normally we would never do simply for the sake of catching a greater glimpse of the subject of our admiration. But where Pasolini does go for the family, here Dolan simply goes for 20-something Québecois.

Obsession must involve an element of projection: to (believe that we) feel so strongly about someone we barely know must involve us creating a version of the person whom we crave that does not necessarily conform to how or who they really are. Dolan captures this well, not least through the When Harry Met Sally… (Rob Reiner, USA, 1989) style vox pops that other, otherwise uninvolved stalkers offer from time to time during the film.

However, while Nico is supposedly the reason that best friends Francis and Marie (Chokri) become so obsessed, they seem to get more access to him than we do. That is to say, Nico does tell them that he does seismological work from time to time (though this is probably a lie, because while he says that this pays him very well, his mum – a dancer played by Anne Dorval – still gives him an allowance every month), and he does tell them that he also studies literature at McGill, but beyond this we learn next to nothing about him. Whatever conversations and good times that the trio have – either as a trio or as Nico-Marie or Nico-Francis configurations within their triangle – we do not see them; instead, as mentioned, Dolan offers us slo-mo shots of hands conveying longing and frustration, of contemplative glances, and little actual conversation.

The superficial nature of the obsession from both Francis and Marie is signalled early on: Nico, supposedly a country bumpkin Adonis who has just arrived in Montreal, is sat at a table while they prepare food in a kitchen. At this dinner party, then, Nico is only ever already an image to both Marie and Francis, and penetrating beyond that not only does not happen, but also deliberately does not happen. In other words, it perhaps not supposed to happen.

I hesitate with where I want to go next in this review. I feel tempted to say that Dolan shows his age by allowing his characters to become so obsessed. Marie is 25, and so should in theory be beyond such infatuations, and so I don’t really credit this as a believable story. This is borne out by the end of the film: as is to be expected, not only might Nico be a liar, but he also strings along and then ‘brutally’ discards both Marie and Francis, only to disappear to Asia. Upon his return a year later, he throws a party, at which Marie and Francis both spurn him in public – with Francis letting out some strange cat hissing noise that signals that he does not want contact with Nico anymore. In other words, while I might conceivably not put obsession past someone over 25 years of age, this childish response a year after everything has fallen apart seems to me to be a cut caused by Nico that surely could not have been that deep since he, or we at least, never got to know him that well. And because, from this, we can only conclude that Nico is in fact a bit boring, if utterly beautiful.

Marie and Francis love images. Marie styles herself on Audrey Hepburn, not least because Nico says that she is his favourite, while Francis is a sucker for James Dean. Dolan’s stylised mise-en-scène would suggest that he loves images as well – and that he wants us to love them, too. As a cinephile, I can happily say that I also love images. But even if Dolan’s film is a reflection on what I shall nebulously call ‘soullessness,’ it becomes hard not to believe that his film is also a bit soulless.

Not only is this because the film is an exercise in good looks with little attention paid to character (even if there are pensive gazes aplenty), but also because of the ending of the film. I had caught myself thinking that Schneider bears more than a passing resemblance to French heart-throb Louis Garrel on several occasions during the film, and as the film ends, both Marie and Francis see none other than Louis Garrel at a party and, so the soundtrack – the recurring them of ‘Bang Bang’ by Dalida – suggests, the whole cycle starts again with them walking towards him in slow motion.

It is possible that we live in a universe in which self-involved humans are obsessed only with images and the surface of things, and in which humans never learn anything, but instead are condemned repeatedly to making the same mistakes. But I am not sure that I believe this; and I think that if I did believe this, I would love Dolan’s film. When the truth is that I really do not. Images are great, and the force and power of images are great. We live in a superficial, Barbie world, and whatever feelings we have for people are real enough, at least to us. But the power of feelings suggested in Heartbeats were not convincing for me. And while in J’ai tué ma mère, I got the sense of a wickedly detached sense of humour from time to time, there was not enough evidence here for me to think of this film as a critique. At a certain point in time, elliptical editing may well still challenge the norms of narrative cinema, but it also reduces films to moments that do not cohere – in terms of our understanding of character psychology at least – across time.

I shall perhaps be able to express this better through a comparison to Possession (Andrzej Zulawski, France/West Germany, 1981), which also has an elliptical method of telling its story. But first I might also compare Heartbeats to another threesome film featuring the self-same Louis Garrel, namely The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci, France/UK/Italy, 2003). In that film, not only do all three members of the love triangle have sex (and in that film, two of the three are brother and sister), but the film also has political resonance, since it is perhaps ultimately about the failure of the 1968 generation to create a meaningful alternative to ‘the system.’ Dolan’s film, alas, lacks this political bite, even if it is a film that has cynicism as a common ingredient. Perhaps Heartbeats is trying to suggest that a new 1968 is around the corner (as many dyed-in-the-wool – and potentially outmoded – Marxists like to think). But given the ‘no sex please’ attitude – particularly of Nico – who just turns out to be a bit boring – then Heartbeats – perhaps as a final recuperation of the film – becomes an account of the self-destructive libidinous forces of the ill-communicating, self-absorbed urban generation that is all trousers and no nudity. And which want affirmation in terms of sexual orientation by having the most beautiful not just fuck, but also (fail to) fall in love with you.

In comparison to Heartbeats, the mindfuck that is Zulawski’s Possession takes elliptical narration to a whole new level. Zulawski’s work is part of a retrospective here at CPH PIX and apparently I missed the director by about half an hour when I arrived in Copenhagen. A pity, but then again, I had not seen any of his films before Possession, so the real pity is not that I missed a director by whom I had not seen a film, but that I had not seen a film before I missed him.

Possession tells a 1980s-set Cold War story of a seeming spy, Mark (Sam Neill), who returns home after a prolonged absence to wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) and son Bob (Michael Hogben). It quickly transpires that Mark and Anna have drifted apart during his absence and that she has taken up with new age transcendental sex explorer, Heinrich (Heinz Bennent). Except that in actual fact she has not. Instead, she has really taken up with a demonic creature whom she keeps in an apartment downtown, and who will be ‘complete’ once Anna has fed to him enough people, including a pair of homosexual private detectives that Mark hires to follow her.

The film ends up with Mark killing Heinrich and going round to his house to tell his mother (Johanna Hofer), with whom he still lives. She takes some drugs and kills herself. Anna, meanwhile, kills her best friend Margit (Margit Carstensen), or so we are led to believe, and shags the weird creature in her house. Mark, desperate to save Anna (perhaps), stops the police from finding her by shooting one of his former spy colleagues. They give chase, end up killing Mark as he tries to reach the top of a high rise. Anna arrives with the ‘complete’ creature, who looks just like Mark. Anna and Mark die – leaving the creature-Mark to go find Bob, who has been left in the care of his school teacher, Helen (also played by Isabelle Adjani). As the creature knocks on Helen’s door through a pane of frosted glass, Bob tells her not to open the door and goes to drown himself in a bath, while the sound of (presumably) nuclear bombs starts to fall. In part this might be because Mark, who had quit whatever spy forces he was working for to work on his family life, did not fulfil the contract with another, unnamed spy, who, refusing to ‘trade’ (or whatever was supposed to happen) now that Mark is no longer on the job, perhaps sets off the end of the world. Except that this other spy, who is known his pink socks, might also be one of Mark’s employers/colleagues, as we see at the end of the film when one of them (Maximilien Ruethlein) is seen wearing said socks in the chase sequence at the high rise.

Add to this the fact that the film is set in Berlin, with images of East German guards looking at Mark through binoculars from the other side of the Berlin Wall, and this is not only a confusing film, but one that lends itself deeply to a projection of Cold War paranoia.

Nowhere is this better marked out than in the mise-en-scène, where many of the sets are just empty apartments and empty streets; one would think Berlin almost deserted from this movie. And this, in turn, reflects perhaps the empty interior that Dolan, in another context, is trying to reach for. Except that Zulawski’s cinematography, although never as beautiful as Dolan’s (in fact, just plain ‘ugly’ at certain moments), is also significantly more thought out (as far as this viewer is concerned). For, while Dolan never really gives depth to his images, meaning that we concentrate almost at all times on what is at the surface, Zulawski is happy to film in long shot with a startling regularity, meaning that his characters become lost in the empty spaces through which they wander.

Furthermore, Zulawski puts his props into play with more powerful effect than Dolan does. Meat, knives, creatures, detritus, car wrecks, and other figures that occasionally make it into frame such as tramps (one weird scene has Anna sit down on a Berlin metro train in a fluster, only for the tramp next to her to take a bunch of bananas from her shopping bag, take one, peel it, eat it, while replacing the rest, all without any clue as to why this is happening or what this means) and disabled people in wheelchairs outside a church. Each of these seems deliberately placed and no doubt has a role to play in the overall effect of the film. But where Dolan’s beautiful use of filters (during love scenes that Francis and Marie have with anyone other than Nico) and framing of body parts are glorious to behold, their vacuity is disappointing in comparison to Zulawski’s objects and framings, which seem utterly pregnant with meaning.

The other thing to say about Possession is the emotional pitch at which it takes place. This is a nervous breakdown of a movie, that is hilarious and hysterical in equal measure from start to finish and with no let up. So powerful is this, then I really did find myself wondering why more films are not made like this.

CPH PIX has a strong emphasis on experimental cinema – the kind of stuff you will not see week-in, week-out at the local Odeon. Perhaps this is why my films have been allowed to play there (although this may not say anything special about my films). And watching Possession, one indeed wonders about the grip that narrative expectations have on mainstream film viewers. People walked out of both Possession and Heartbeats, so obviously they are not pleasing everyone – but this also is perhaps more fuel in the fire that cinema seems to have become enslaved by narrative. And in the same way that slavery dehumanises humans such that we only see their function as opposed to their humanity (a wider issue with capitalism?), so, too, does the hegemony of narrative encourage us to see films not as individuals who perhaps have the life of a human being in some respects, but as simply objects that should do certain things only – and we are not really that interested in the secret talents and the hidden aspects of cinema. But watching Zulawski, it makes it feel as though we should be…

I have no idea what the ‘meaning’ of Possession is – but it is fascinating in its desire to put humans into the most extreme emotional situations imaginable, and to let rip. One scene – almost unexplained except in that Anna is talking about a ‘twin’ part of her personality that has died – features Adjani in a metro tunnel literally screaming and shouting and shaking for, who knows?, three or four minutes, before she breaks her shopping bags against a wall, rolls around in milk and mashed up food for a bit more, before vomiting spunks and bleeding from her ears until she is truly covered in filth.

The film is, as I have said, pregnant with meaning. It seems to be ‘about’ lots of things (jealousy, love, marriage, the Cold War, paranoia and surveillance culture). But before this gets too vague, let’s just stick to pregnancy. Zulawski’s film is a monster of a movie that impregnates all who see it. Humans have a tendency to abandon that offspring – the disabled, the unlovely, the unbeautiful – that it can and does give birth to. Zulawski seems to want precisely to explore the possibility of having ugly children, of we viewers having foul and disgusting thoughts, while at the same time seeming to insist that this is not some separate and to-be-discarded aspect of humanity, something that is almost inhuman. Instead, the inhuman thing is not to consider those aspects of humanity, for they are still us and we should cherish or at the very least accept ourselves in all of our limitations, shortcomings, perhaps in short our evil, if we are to understand ourselves and to be able to live a life that involves anything but hypocrisy.

Dolan offers us a study of hypocrisy. One scene does (comically) features Francis masturbating with one of Nico’s pullovers over his head. But even with this ‘unlovely’ scene, the film seems to want to seduce us via its beauty. I don’t believe that this cliché is really true except as precisely a cliché, but we can use it here: beautiful is sometimes a bit boring, whereas an ‘ugly’ film like Possession can be something that we love so much more. I have childish tastes and am a sucker for ‘beauty,’ though putting Heartbeats into comparison with Possession makes me think that I should always be looking for something more, otherwise my life will not only be superficial, but empty and perhaps eschatological on the inside, too.

Two Quick Thoughts for Friday – With Herzog

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Thought 1:

Gilles Deleuze writes of the shift from the society of discipline to the society of control:

“A control is not a discipline. In making highways, for example, you don’t enclose people but instead multiply the means of control. I am not saying that this is the highway’s exclusive purpose, but that people can drive infinitely and ‘freely’ without being at all confined yet while still being perfectly controlled. This is our future.”

The genius of Werner Herzog comes to mind, since he has been making films in the jungle and in the wilderness for longer than most filmmakers.

But while Herzog no doubt was ahead of the curve, others are now on it, as we arguably see a shift away from the road movie with its ill-informed myth of freedom – from the Beats to Easy Rider – to a more desperate search for freedom from control as witnessed in Into the Wild and 127 Hours.

How interesting that madness and danger are everywhere in the wilderness. Maybe there is no escape.

Thought 2:

We are in the world. At no point in our brief existence can we look at the world from a separate vantage point such that we can identify it correctly. At no point does it not have an effect on us in the same way that we have an effect on it.

With-ness (after Jean-Luc Nancy): we are fundamentally with each other in this world. At no moment in time are we without others, no matter how alienating certain experiences that we do have can make us feel.

Perhaps for cultural reasons, we suffer from the illusion that we are not with each other, that we are not together.

There is a paradox here that needs explaining. Culture is the product of human society; that is, culture is the product of being with others, of not being alone. Culture is something that fundamentally, therefore, we share.

To say that a culture could produce a sense of alienation, then, is contradictory.

What produces the sense of alienation is the decision taken, somewhere, by someone, to say that ‘this is my culture’ and ‘that is your culture.’ Inevitably, because we are in this world together, we are with the world and with each other, these supposedly separated cultures come up against each other. Of course they come up against each other: the fundamental with-ness of the world cannot isolate or, as per the above thought, control men for long enough.

And so this thing, culture, which some humans feel makes them feel part of a society, is the very same thing that causes conflict – precisely at the moment when cultures are drawn together, not necessarily as they should be, but as they cannot but be.

In other words: there is only one culture, and when mankind tries to argue otherwise, it acts in a fundamentally uncultured fashion. Clashes of culture are proof of with-ness; dividing culture into cultures is the source of the clash.

The ‘one culture’ of which I speak is not this or that particular culture; it is all cultures. It is the plurality of cultures. With-ness fundamentally needs plurality; if we were all the same, we would not know that others were there for us to be with them. In other words, celebrate difference. It is the one true thing that we all share. Difference is our culture.

The relation to cinema: I wonder whether this is why almost all of the most moving films are for me films that involve acts of altruism. I shan’t give examples; but altruism is at its core an act of with-ness, it is communal, common, compromise, complicit, and complicated.

Sacrifice is even greater than altruism, and moves me yet further when I see it rendered well on film. Sacrifice: to make (facere) sacred, or other (sacer). To make oneself other (to sacri-fice oneself) is an act of such paradoxical with-ness that it is overpowering.

To tie these two thoughts together: these are thoughts for Friday. Not just for the day, Friday (today), but for the man whom Robinson Crusoe called Friday, that human that proved to Crusoe, had he eyes to see it, that we are always with others.

Although he’s not made a straight adaptation of it, the spirit of Robinson Crusoe sits in Herzog’s films. In The White Diamond, Graham Dorrington tells Mark Anthony Yhap about how the children in Guyana cannot see his airship because, like the aborigines failing to recognise James Cook’s ships in New Zealand, it does not register in their visual vocabulary.

Aside from the possible/likely apocryphal nature of Dorrington’s story (if he is referring to Maoris, they were seafarers before Cook arrived, so this cannot be true), only one thought seems to come to mind: what is it that Dorrington cannot see? Does Dorrington even ask himself – as he fails truly to register the man with whom he is speaking? – this question?

In my understanding of the film – but perhaps this is Herzog’s trickery – Dorrington does not seem to ask himself this question, as indeed he romanticises and almost fails to see Yhap, who otherwise hijacks Herzog’s film and becomes the centre of Herzog’s attention.

It is a pity that we have to go, after Leshu Torchin, into the cinema’s cave of forgotten dreams, to get a sense of with-ness, both with those around us and with those from our past.

But either way: if cinema can help to see that we are always and forever with others, then cinema may unite us yet.