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Key Films #33

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre [Tobe Hooper, 1974]:

The film is bookended by two extraordinary if very different representations of light.  At the beginning, darkness is pierced by staccato bursts of flashbulb photography; revealing, in small fractures of illumination, the grisly aftermath of a terrible crime.  Later, at the very end of the film, we find the unforgettable image of the demented antagonist, Leatherface, wielding his chainsaw in a macabre dance against the amber sundowing of a rural plane.  The first scene is significant in as much as it initiates the audience into the story - teasing us with those blink or we'll miss them flashes of violence and gore as an appeal to the viewer's natural sense of morbid curiosity - while the second image is one that seems to exist outside the realms of reality, instead, becoming symbolic; a physical manifestation of the violence that stalks and sears the American landscape.  While the first scene is a prelude to the carnage that will follow - the glimpses of degradation becoming a promise of things to come - the later scene is a culmination; the madness and murder of the preceding seventy-some minutes finding an expression in this strange and unsettling image of a fury, uncontrolled.

Both of these scenes - these moments - are inherently cinematic.  By "cinematic", one means, more specifically, an image (or images) where the physical expression of a particular emotion or psychological state is expressed through movement and motion, light and sound.  A moment that could not be written, or even spoken (a short one-line description would rob the image of its significance, or its power to provoke), but only filmed.  Throughout The Texas Chain Saw Massacre it is images like these that define the experience.  Images that can only work on the screen; they need a particular actor, the correct light, the right setting and the natural atmosphere that comes from these locations; the house with its startled chickens trapped in undersized cages, its metal doors, its skull and bone ornaments.  The power of the film is as such entirely visceral; it comes from the impression of different places, the sense of the heat and dirt, the interactions between characters and the accumulation of moments and images that get under the skin; strange images, but ones that are presented with a matter of fact practicality, as if simply documenting a scene of everyday life.

For me, this is the essence of cinema; the use of images to evoke and influence a particular emotional or psychological response.  Not something that is written (literature) or even performed (theatre), but something much more sensory; the experience of entering into a pitch-black space with only the flicker of the screen providing a relief from the darkness.  In the gloom of the cinema, the play of light and shadow (which in turns creates the illusion of movement, bringing images to life) and the horrendous din of the buzz saw cutting through a disharmony of shrieking screams will play on the nerves of its audience, putting us on edge.  Just as those staccato flashbulbs at the beginning of the film work to dazzle and disarm us - the brief sight of the rotting corpse unsettling us, but also drawing us in - the later scenes, like the encounter with the menacing hitchhiker, the family dinner or the killer's dance of death, work - like the most iconic and powerful cinematic moments - to translate complex thoughts and feelings into images that are indelible and entirely direct.  These images seek to translate the horrors of the modern world into something primal; giving "form" to them; visualising, in tangible terms, our deepest and darkest fears.


New Rose Hotel [Abel Ferrara, 1998]:

What begins as surveillance will end in a memory.  The "reality" (this story of warring corporations, business deals, industrial espionage, role-playing, seduction and manipulation) is just pretence for the existential dilemma that dominates the final act.  A kind of context; a reason or justification that motivates this character; that compels him on a journey towards an endless oblivion in a box at the "New Rose Hotel."  The location of the title - a derelict capsule hotel somewhere in a multicultural future-space indebted to the iconography of the modern Japan - is more than just a setting; it becomes an on-screen illustration of the character's psyche; a cell, or void-like sarcophagus, where memories play like the scenes from a film.  These memories are in fact repetitions from the film in question; scenes previously shown as part of the conventional narrative arc, now linger, phantom-like, as echoes through an empty space.  However, in repeating these scenes in the context of what we've seen since, Ferrara, his co-writer Christ Zois and his editors Jim Mol and Anthony Redman, find subtle variations in the dialogue (the re-emphasis of certain words, the discrepancy of information, inconsistencies, etc), demonstrating how easily a smile, a glance, a frown or a gesture can change its meaning when viewed in retrospect, or in the context of something new.

While many have dismissed this final montage as lazy filmmaking or joked that its inclusion resulted from an obvious lack of funds, I found the presentation of this almost "psychological reiteration"of events to be profound, shocking, even moving.  What this third act does is push the subjectivity of the film to breaking point.  While the earlier scenes - the more conventional three-act structure; where characters are introduced and the narrative established through exposition - have a more observational, even recorded objectivity (though one occasionally broken by the inter-cutting of different film formats, such video and super 8), the feeling of the third act is essentially that of being trapped in the mindset of a particular character as he sifts through his past recollections; through events that at the time seemed relatively mundane - just business as usual - but which now seem loaded with the intrigues of a greater conspiracy.  Is it truth or paranoia?  The character, having lived by the sword of this world of corruption, surveillance and betrayal, now feels the walls closing in on him; the practicalities of the job - his lifestyle - being used as a weapon against him.  Like the tormented Harry Caul in Coppola's The Conversation (1974), the protagonist of Ferrara's film knows the realities of this world from his own involvement in its illicit practices; his suspicions fuelling a kind of emotional fallout that is profoundly devastating and all too real.


Whispering Pages [Aleksandr Sokurov, 1994]:

I've gone back and forth on this one, trying to clarify my opinion.  At first, I was stunned by the cinematography - the sense of "world building" - but found the narrative disengaging and hard to read; the characters never becoming more than just vessels for poetic expression, or direct quotation.  These characters - the man and woman - might exist on the pages they've been ripped from (primarily, the work of Dostoevsky) but unfortunately appear lifeless on the screen.  Their lives of squalor and desperation are not felt - in the emotional sense - just ornamental; an affectation on the part of the filmmaker to give a social and political weight to the material; an air of significance, dignity or intellectual prestige.  I didn't believe for a second that Sokurov had any feeling for these characters and their situation, but was simply using them to make possible an exploration of this world that is rich, both in design and physical direction.  Through the development of the film this location becomes a legitimate character.  It "lives", suggests a particular psychology, an atmosphere; it intercedes on behalf of these characters that have neither light in their eyes nor life in their voices.

It was only in hindsight, as I thought about the film a few days later, that this particular detail struck me as significant.  Maybe this was the point?  The characters don't define the world; the world defines its characters.  This man and woman, speaking, without emotion or engagement, the dead words of a departed author, do nothing to comment on the human condition.  Instead, it is the world of the film, stylised and exaggerated, that gives a context to the various themes.  The full course of the relationship between these characters, wracked, as they are, with suffering and betrayal, says, in its entire eighty-minute duration, less about the struggles of the underclass than a film like The Immigrant (1917) by Charles Chaplin conveyed in a single shot.  However, the presentation of the world, which traps its characters, feels like an attempt to adapt, dramatise or personify (as an immaterial space) the emotions and subtext of these works of Russian literature.  An adaptation, not in the conventional sense of providing an illustrated text, but approaching the work as if it were an architectural narrative, apropos The Library of Babel (1941) by Jorge Luis Borges; a physical space that becomes a materialization of the emotions and psychologies of characters torn from the whispering pages of Dostoevsky and those of his assorted contemporaries.

This world, eerily lit by cinematographer Aleksandr Burov in a sickly, soft-focus monochrome (the aspect ratio often distorted as if to suggest the presentation of a fever dream; its characters, drifting like sleepwalkers through a laboured trance) is used to tell this story that the characters themselves are unable to put into words.  If their loneliness, fear, anger and destitution cannot be spoken, then it is there in the cavernous walls of the city, in the stagnant reflections of its waterways, in the black fog that obscures the frame, in the dust and debris that covers objects (and the characters as objects) as if the world no longer has use for them.  The rhythms and rituals, attitudes and routines of the setting and its inhabitants and the way Sokurov films them, tells the story.  This mix of Caligari (1920) and Tarkovsky, which seeks to express the life of the mind, to make the internal "external" and as such plain to see, becomes a projection of who these characters are and what these stories are essentially about.  And if an image of beautifully lit doves, glowing, iridescently, as they glide off the surface of a murky canal might push the symbolism to levels of cliché, it's only as a brief respite from the drudgeries of a world that drives its inhabitants towards madness.


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