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Key Films #27

Greetings [Brian De Palma, 1968]:

In a key scene, Robert De Niro's budding filmmaker Jon Rubin persuades a young woman to take part in an art project that he's been developing.  He claims that it's an installation on the subject of still life.  In truth, the project consists of De Niro's character filming the young woman through an open doorway as she readies herself for bed.  As the woman undresses (and amusingly over-acts the part of the unconscious starlet, unaware of this intrusion) the camera becomes De Niro's eye and the eye of the viewing audience.  As it records, unmoving and unbroken - observing the woman as if not even there - the voice of De Niro continues on the soundtrack, directing; leading the actress through this "private moment" (as Rubin calls it), which culminates in a clear act of seduction.  In doing so, De Niro's character breaks the fourth wall of his own conception; stepping into the frame, literally, in an effort to claim the beauty that is captured, physically, within the texture and the grain.  It's an important scene in the context of the film, which throughout makes explicit references to the authenticity of the image in relation to the assassination of JFK and the general disparity between the image of youth-culture being sold as a vibrant commodity against the entirely less vibrant reality that is depicted, as well as the more conventional misuse or manipulation of images for the purpose of creating propaganda; in this instance, both for and against the war in Vietnam.

However, the scene is even more important in establishing a thread of continuity that will be further refined and developed through the evolution of De Palma's career.  The voyeurism, misogyny and exploitation that the director has frequently been criticised for is already beginning to take shape.  The "private moment", filmed here by De Niro's 'Rubin', will find a further expression in later films, such as Hi, Mom! (1970), Sisters (1973), Body Double (1984) and even Carlito's Way (1993), just as the nods to Blow-Up (1966) by Antonioni in Gerrit Graham's obsession with investigating the Zapruder footage will eventually meld with De Palma's own interest in the power of the filmmaking process to find the truth behind the lie (a concept quite evident in the director's subsequent masterpiece, Blow Out, 1981).  The film is full of relics that point to the direction of later De Palma works, from the counter-culture themes that would reoccur in the aforementioned Hi, Mom! (itself a continuation of the Rubin sub-plot) to the mock-newsreel footage of the conflict in Viet Nam, which suggests, on an obvious level, the same era and setting as the markedly more conventional Casualties of War (1989), but also the post-modern, mixed-media approach used in the no less political Redacted (2007).  In this sense, Greetings is perhaps more of a retrospective introduction to the world of De Palma than a film for the uninitiated; where the time-capsule look at '60s America ultimately says more about its director; his fears and obsessions laid bare.

Profound Desires of the Gods [Shôhei Imamura, 1968]:

The film deals with the usual Japanese concerns - loss of tradition, dishonour, the influence of the west, etc - but presents them as part of a grand tapestry; a collage of conflicting influences - including elements of melodrama, allegory and adventure story - all meshed together; the separate elements blurring, vividly, into one.  In approaching the film - this tribal study, which, in essence, seems to question the resolve of the pre-war Japanese mentality as it thrives in a forgotten enclave of the country as yet untouched by the vulgarities of the modern world - Imamura daringly combines a documentary-like emphasis on the everyday running of the community - this island where the film takes place - with a more colourful phantasmagoria; an air of fantasy, or magical realism, which, on occasion, threatens to metamorphose into genuine terror as superstition and retribution cause panic and eventual unrest.  The anticipation of violence is prominent throughout, suggested not just by the natural progression of the narrative but by the atmosphere of the setting - this island left behind by the modern world - with the filmmaking techniques creating a heightened feeling of sweltering conflict and claustrophobia; the isle itself becoming a kind of prison system; a paradise, but also a living hell.

Staggeringly, the narrative itself unfolds, not just as a conventional sequence of events, but supernaturally, from the legends of a legless minstrel, both colourful and vague.  This works against the more documentary influenced intonation of the direction, creating a parallel between the mythic story of these Gods and their downfall and the more intimate social dramas taking place within the frame.  The approach lends the film a fable-like theatricality, where the minstrel becomes a kind of orator, and where the words of his song become the story unfolding on screen.  This story - the legend of a family marked by years of hardship; their indiscretions, including sacrilege and incest, having cursed the island to an uncertain future - entwines with the eventual story of the island itself.  Throughout the film, Imamura observes the politics and daily lives of the island's inhabitants and the moral dilemmas of the "cursed" family with an unflinching intimacy, though he juxtaposes this closeness with a number of epic wide-shots of the imposing landscape, where the beach and the mountains again seem to suggest the idea of characters trapped, not just geographically, but psychologically as well.  Through this, Imamura and his co-writers are almost critiquing the way tradition can become a kind of weapon; a way to punish or persecute those who submit to their most base and animalistic urges, without acknowledging that the violent prejudice implicit in this supposedly civilizing creed is itself an affront to the way people live.

This hypocrisy is best defined by the film's third act conflict, in which the supporting characters rise up against the cursed family and descend into a fierce, tribal reckoning.  The tonal "shift", in contrast with the film's more contemplative coda, once again seems intended to present an image of the traditions of Japan as both corrupt and self-destructive.  A cultural time bomb that would inevitably make possible the country's submission to western consumerism, spiritual emptiness and capitalist greed.  If Imamura charts the decline of this culture, he's also suggesting, somewhat provocatively, that if such traditions were to be celebrated from a historical standpoint, then it is the violence, superstition and persecution that makes this culture what it is.  It is to the credit of the filmmaker that even when the film disintegrates into ancestral retribution, the audience is never forced to judge these characters, or to see them as either justified or malevolent in nature.  Instead, Imamura suggests that this story (as spun from the minstrel's tale) is as much an allegory for the present day.  By placing the main narrative in the past, as a reflection, Imamura seem to be contrasting the beliefs and prejudices of an earlier time with this image of twentieth-century modernity; making the connection between something that happened before with our own impending fate.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street [Tim Burton, 2007]:

Another Burton film with a hidden subtext; a surface of ornate stylisation that belies a more serious objective; a purpose of commentary and critique.  If Dark Shadows (2012) could be read as a thickly veiled industrial satire on the plight of the family-run business against the influence of a more powerful conglomerate, and Alice in Wonderland (2010) could be interpreted as a psychodrama exploring the horror of third world genocide and the damage left by war, then Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is about the exploitation of the working classes.  The iconography of the world, as well as the progression of its central character(s), seems, in this respect, almost explicit.  The backdrop of the film - a stylised re-creation of Victorian London - is a world of squalor and darkness.  The black cobbled streets, chimneys and smokestacks (pumping smog into the dismal air) seem to emphasize the reality of a world without hope; a world of toil, hard work and suffering, where the struggle of characters seems both incessant and unspeakably cruel.  The stylisations of the film - its musical theatricality and its own self-aware use of influences (from Hammer horror to the period of German expressionism) - don't undermine the grittiness of this subtext.  Instead, the look and style of the film exaggerates the cruelty of the reality, as it perhaps existed at the time.  Like the purpose built Wales of John Ford's How Green Was My Valley (1941), the impression of the place - the memory distorted by time - is somehow more "real", emotionally, than if it were to be experienced as a documentation, firsthand.

Creating an air of mystery, the film begins with the protagonist returning from sea, haunted by the past.  The back-story of this character is tragic; one of abuse and sorrow at the hands of a corrupt system that has everything, but still feels entitled enough to take from those with less.  Through the context of the flashback, Burton illustrates, visually, the psychological damage inflicted by the malice of these circumstances and the effect that such exploitation has had on this character's worldview.  The golden glow of the past, or the recollection of it, is now replaced by a dark, monochromatic malaise; a gloom that swallows up all sense of hope; the light of life painted over with a blackness and decay.  As the character himself laments in verse: "There's a hole in the world like a great black pit / and the vermin of the world inhabit it / and its morals aren't worth what a pig could spit..."  The sung verses express, much like the design of the film, a reality - a level of observation - but also express a psychological projection.  It presents the world as the character sees it; a world turned sour and bitter by experience; a world without light, without reward.  The darkness of the world mirrors the darkness of the character's wounded heart; the loss felt when all that he'd worked for was robbed by a fraudulent system; the Judge as personification of corruption on a wider level; the violence as a metaphor for the moral and ethical destruction that this personal exploitation begets.


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