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Key Films #12

Othon [Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub, 1970]:
To give the film its full title, 'The eyes will not close at all times, or maybe one day Rome will let herself choose in turn; after 'Othon', by Pierre Corneille.'  The title establishes the filmmakers' rigorous attention to language - the use of language as 'form', its textures and its rhythms - and the significance of the text; the 1664 tragedy by the French playwright and poet, Pierre Corneille.  The text - set during the short reign of Emperor Galba, 68 to 69 BC, and concerning both matters of the heart and matters of the state - is not filmed, it is spoken.  Only by communicating the words aloud can it be filmed, personified, made real; finding its expression, not through the conventional "cinematic" manipulations required to condense the plot into a series of significant set-pieces, or 'events', but through the meticulous delivery of the actors, who adapt the play through speaking the words; creating the sense of narrative as rhetoric, the audience, not so much the 'viewers', in the traditional sense, but spectators; observers to the scene.  This gives the film a theatrical quality, but a living theatre; a theatre of life.  The approach, where once again old words are placed into a contemporary setting - suggesting the idea of the past, as an echo, running parallel with the present - recalls the ideology of later films by Angelopoulos, such as The Hunters (1977), or Alexander the Great (1980). 

The notion of the past existing within the present, side by side - like a revenant, or as a reverberation through time - is further suggested by the filmmakers' daring approach to staging; wherein the use of anachronism - of locations that are significant to the actual historical events, used, irrespective of their current, contemporary position - deconstructs the reality of the film; reminding us throughout of the artificiality of a scene; the subconscious truth that these characters are merely actors, reciting words as they're written on the page.  However, it also suggests the theoretical idea of the past as an ongoing spectacle that takes place all around us, unseen, again, like an echo to prior events.  The notion that the past (or pasts) is always amongst us - that any place we visit, any place where we stand, is a part of history - a part of our own history, and a part of someone else's.  As the drama unfolds, these actors in period costume, posed like living statues among the ruins of Mont Palatin or within the grounds of the Villa Doria Pamphili, recite their lines against the noise and confusion of busy streets; the sights and sounds of cars and traffic, or the passing aeroplane that rumbles overhead, all remind us of the flow of the present; of time still moving forwards, oblivious to these old ghosts, which still exist; living and re-living their personal dramas and dilemmas, from one century into the next.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon [Michael Bay, 2011]:

Let's take it for what it is: Godzilla meets Gamera, updated for the modern age.  A 'kaiju' movie with a multi-million dollar budget and a screenplay that consists of thirty-minutes worth of exposition followed by over a hundred minutes worth of explosions and debris.  And yet, buried somewhere deep beneath the standard Baysian miasma of product placement, vulgar nonsense and rock 'em sock 'em robot carnage, there is the sketch of a more interesting movie; one that gestures towards the state of America - the state of the world - both politically and socio-economically.  In essence: a film about a young couple, struggling through the current financial crisis.  'He', realising that his university degrees aren't worth the paper they're printed on, has to suffer through the indignity of the job interview process, corporate career politics and watching ineffectually as his girlfriend is slowly wooed by a billionaire playboy with powerful industrial connections.  'She', having to take responsibility for the couple's desperate monetary situation, is forced to endure the leering advances of an arrogant boss, objectified by his sordid gaze (and by the gaze of the director) so as not to jeopardise the financial security of the couple, still learning, as young couples do, how to make things work. 

There is a lot of truth to this aspect of the film; a lot of things that I recognise from my own experience or the experiences of friends.  Of course, it's just one facet of the film - one facet that exists in the shadow of the more necessary sci-fi extravaganza  - but one that nonetheless dominates the entire first act, and feels, almost - in its construction, or in the development of its scenes - like a self-contained 'miniature-movie' that was somehow just dropped into the narrative.  Granted, there is still much of Dark of the Moon that is repellent (the racial stereotypes, the crass sexism, the homophobia, etc), but nonetheless, I still found myself floored by the honesty of these early scenes; the way the situation of the characters is tied intrinsically into the destruction of the world (almost as metaphor), as well as the more sensory aspects of Bay's approach; the impressionof the film, or that experience of a film reduced to an endless blur of images, colours, sounds and movement.  The noisy chaos and disorganisation that the director is often scolded for works perfectly in the context of the story, where the sense of urgency is reflected in the urgency of the run-and-gun aesthetic, or where the reminders of 9/11 as acknowledgement of the true contemporary context of any current disaster movie, suggests a sense of heightened reality, giving this fantasy an edge of very real, very physical danger.

Phantom [F.W. Murnau, 1922]:

The necessity of the framing device is unclear until the very end.  Only then do we finally grasp the meaning of the character's initial unhappiness; his despondent disposition, which seems improbable given his obvious accomplishments; the nice house, the pretty wife, the sheltered existence, etc.  As the protagonist sits down to write out the story of his past-life, the justification of this wayward gloom becomes apparent.  That age old story of ambition, corruption and greed.  The protagonist of Murnau's film, Lorenz - a bookish clerk who works for the local government and has hopes of one day becoming a successful poet - is presented from the outset as an idle dreamer; a man sensitive to the dire circumstances of his family life - the domestic hardships of his ailing mother, the scandals of his younger sister - but is, to some extent, weak to their suffering; much preferring to lose himself in books and fiction than to face such harsh realities head-on.  It is this inability to engage with reality that ultimately leads Lorenz into peril; his blinkered view of life - not quite selfish, but still seeing the world from his own limited position - blinds him to the deceitful nature of those around him.  It is only during the course of the film - or his own retelling of it - that Lorenz is confronted by the duplicitous nature of the world; his own lack of perspective or emotional maturity leading him astray; corrupting him, like so many characters before (and since). 

In this respect, the narrative of the film is not so remarkable; just a standard melodrama with a crime and punishment edge.  However, it's the adaptation of the film that makes it work.  That initial framing device - the extended flashback - allows Murnau and his writer Thea von Harbou to imbue the film with an aspect of meta-fiction; an acknowledgement of the story's inherent fabrication.  As such, the film becomes a sort of confessional, informed by the central character's own recollections of events and therefore marked by a more personal and somewhat 'subjective' sensibility.  By recognising the voice of the protagonist - as 'narrator' - Murnau is able to be more creative with his depiction of the character's eventual descent.  In one sequence, the feeling of isolation felt by the tortured Lorenz (his sense of paranoia; of the world closing in on him) is depicted literally, with the buildings collapsing, three-dimensionally - like in a children's 'pop-up' book - suffocating the character and recalling a similar, more famous image from the recent blockbuster Inception (2010).  It is this haunted, dreamlike aspect to the subjective stylisation of the film that for me separates (or elevates) Phantom from the many other silent melodramas that deal with similar concerns.


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