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I watched Kathryn Bigalow’s The Hurt Locker (2008) and Tim Hetherington’s and Sebastian Junger’s Restrepo (2010) in quick succession last week. Placed so close, each film provides a useful counterpoint to the other. Both handle similar themes: THL is set in Iraq, while Hetherington and Junger follow a US Army platoon in Afghanistan. Restrepo’s tag line is startling to consider: ‘One Platoon, One Valley, One Year’ makes us pause and consider the achievement and bravery of the directors (along with – but separate from – that of the servicemen). A friend in the US Navy pointed me towards the picture and it was with sadness that I heard he had attended Hetherington’s funeral. The photographer died in Libya earlier this year.

In a sense, the camerawork in Restrepo is dictated by the action: often jolty and cramped whenever stable, Hetherington and Junger have to move and film however they could. In contrast, THL – shot on location in Jordan – has the luxury of artistic choice. We can hold up Kubrick’s Fear and Desire (1953) as an example of shooting war steadily: I’m thinking specifically of the scene where the camera glides above a solider who has gone over the top and is struggling to progress.

THL’s presentation is close – but not identical to – that in Restrepo. Both cameras are restless. Restrepo’s picture is constantly adjusted because of necessity (shook by a nearby explosion – jolted through fear of bullets). The movement is understandably forced. THL relies also on adjustments to the zoom (as well as the camera position) to achieve a similarly anxious tone. By jolting forwards and back, it adjusts the focal length and, as a result, the relationships between the various visual planes. The background is nudged slightly closer to the foreground, before being flung slightly back.

It is the size of these adjustments and how they are handled that creates the atmosphere. THL ‘s camera movement is not the assertive and emphatic lurch forward that characterises Hitchcock’s use of a zoom lens. But neither is it the smoothly orchestrated movement of an Ophulsian tracking shot. In other words, the camera neither guides the viewer to important figures or objects nor follows the principal characters around their environment. Instead, it is not so certain. As if suffering from terror induced ADHD, THL’s camera cannot decide where to position itself.

Dieter Dengler’s story is awe-inspiring. Though we’re prone to exaggerate, the phrase is absolutely bang on in this case. The narrative evokes a mix of wonder and horror: amazement at his strength, terror at what humanity – and fate – can do. It’s one of the most subtly affecting films I’ve ever seen: there were no tears at the end but it may have changed how I see the world.

As for Herzog’s craft, there are two decisions which I think are particularly interesting. The first is his method of presentation: flying to Vietnam, he gets Dieter to recreate moments from his ordeal. In the jungle, it produces a gesture that is haunting because it cannot help but reveal a certain vulnerability. As the elderly man runs with hands tied and guards in front and behind, we see him, after a few metres, stop and glance back over his right shoulder at the camera. Usually armed with a staggeringly upbeat and forgiving mood, it seems that fear and uneasiness fill his head at that moment. Perhaps he worries that it’s all a dream and that he’s woken up back in the jungle.

The second is the reference to Dieter’s fiancée. She is a domestic detail that is only hinted at – mentioned once and never picked up again. Dieter talks about her briefly and Herzog does not question him. Rather than made clear, her absence is marked simply by the silence that surrounds her in the rest of the picture and we’re left to wonder what happened to her. A bit like the sub-plot involving the social worker in Read My Lips (2001), the mention of the fiancée poses more questions than it answers.

See this film.

A friend recommended Audiard’s Read My Lips (2001) to me almost a year ago. For a while, I struggled to get hold of a copy and, having seen A Prophet (2009), I watched The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005) and A Self-Made Hero (1996) instead. Now though, finally, I’ve seen the picture. It seems to mark the beginning of a move in Audiard’s canon towards an idiosyncratic shooting style, a development perhaps continued in his later films by the use of cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine for both The Beat That My Heart Skipped and A Prophet.

At the same time, visual echoes key the film into earlier cinematic traditions, as Hollywood is both invoked and reacted against. In its first few scenes, Read My Lips presents a lonely protagonist and establishes a situation familiar to a romantic comedy. The opening series of close ups, showing Carla (Emmanuelle Devos) fitting her hearing aids and washing her mouth with water, root us to the secretary’s sensory perception. Yet in the tedious everyday surroundings of her workplace, we see her socially separated and sensorily sealed-off – despite her aids, unable to interact. Tight framing, often claustrophobically filled with coworkers that ignore her, reinforces that she is alone.

There’s a gesture in this opening section which is reminiscent of an earlier work from  Hollywood – Howard Hawk’s Bringing Up Baby (1938). As Carla returns to her desk after completing a task, she sits on some spilt coffee which has been (accidentally?) left on her seat. When called again into her boss’s office, panicked, as well as upset, she tries to cover the stain on her skirt. Devos moves her hand and herself in such a way that the gesture and the particulars of the framing bring to mind Katharine Hepburn’s ripped dress in Bringing Up Baby.

Read My Lips both invokes the earlier Golden Age comedy – chiefly through similarities of gesture – and distances itself from it. The different means used by Devos and Hepburn to resolve their parallel problems construct two distinct social contexts. While Hepburn must fill an absence (a large hole in a ripped dress) with Carey Grant, Devos seeks to hide an unexpected and unwanted addition (a coffee stain) simply with her own body. While Hepburn and Grant are left to stroll hilariously through the convivial setting of a bar and restaurant, Devos must walk unnaturally through her place of work, avoiding the harsh gazes of her coworkers.

So Bringing Up Baby‘s social situation is hinted at before quickly being recast in a minor key. As Grant’s parallel in Read My Lips is not an archaeologist but a criminal, the divergence between Audiard’s picture and a comic Hollywood hinterland only gets greater as the film progresses. In fact, by casting Vincent Cassel (who plays a skinhead hoodlum in Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995)) as Paul, Audiard gives Read My Lips an iconically French cinematic face. Furthermore, the entrance of Paul in the picture begins to usher in a shift in genre, as the criminal world of La Haine starts to pervade the (albeit already slightly more tragically presented) situation of domestic loneliness.

Carla stands as a bridge between the two worlds, as the film blends the generic expectations of a thriller with a relationship drama. So, having dressed herself for a night out in the club in which Paul works, Carla becomes enmeshed not in a lighthearted fling but trapped in the threat of rape. The situation (which Paul rescues her from) reinforces the violence of his criminal past and its inescapable contiguity with the present situation. Earlier, when Paul tries to jump Carla, attempting to repay a flat and an advance on his wages with sex, it’s clear that he also struggles to adapt from one mode to the next. For him, sex – like keys or cash – is something simply to use and to exchange.

Despite what is, in some senses, an excellently neat resolution of the criminal and emotional elements through Carla’s deafness, Audiard’s script (written with Tonino Benacquista) refuses to settle entirely. The picture’s haunted by a sub-plot involving Paul’s parole officer Masson (Olivier Perrier). Only given a few fleeting moments, this story is revealed almost in a series of set pieces: in one scene, for example, Masson sits drunk with opera loudly leaking from his headphones; later, he covers his head with a bag and screams; finally, as Carla and Paul drive away, we’re given a glimpse of him being arrested by the police. Carla reveals, reading his lips, that he says he loved her, though whether he killed her is left uncertain.

If Tom Hardy can be as convincing as a brawler as he was psychotic in Bronson (2008), then Gavin O’Connor’s upcoming picture Warrior (2011) could be as successful as The Fighter (2010) was last year. Whether Hardy can be as good as Christian Bale though, who played Dicky Eklund in the latter film, remains to be seen.

I’ve been meaning to write about Werner Herzog for a few months. After a period of oppressive academic commitments, I was lucky enough to get away on Wednesday night to hear the director speak in Cadogan Hall in London. The event, entitled Filming the Abyss, was run by Intelligence² and put Herzog in conversation with Paul Holdengräber (the director of LIVE from the New York Public Library). As well as wide-ranging discussion, we were provided with short clips from his then unreleased new film Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), as well as a picture that he is in the process of editing, which involves a series of interviews with members of the Texas 7. Cave of Forgotten Dreams opened on Friday and I saw the film on Sunday afternoon.

It’s perhaps the first film I’ve seen which uses 3d technology in a sophisticated way, justifying its appearance as a crucial element of the storytelling, rather than a hollow gimmick. The documentary tells us about the Chauvet caves in the south of France and the rock paintings contained therein (the oldest yet discovered). The horses, lions and other animals depicted all rely on the dimensions and contours of the rock for their elegance and a 3d presentation more fully recreates the total effect of the experience. In Herzog’s own words, the decision to shoot in 3d attempts to ‘capture the intentions of the painters’. As a technical exercise alone, it’s very impressive. The crew, limited to four men, was allowed only six four-hour shooting days; they used a 3d camera built especially for the project, which had to be assembled in the cave itself; they had to stay on a two foot wide walkway for the duration of their time.

And, after all this hard work, it is the caves and the paintings and the artists that are the stars. Most of the interviews and most of the narration is quite quickly forgotten (though there are a few crazy characters and a few striking phrases). The stalactites and stalagmites stunningly shimmer as Herzog (who’s operating the battery-powered handheld light) shines the beam onto the sculptures. Footprints, both animal and human, rest frozen, well preserved in the floor. A far-off wall (far away from the walkway) is spotted with red handprints. Charcoal-black horses seem to gallop across the rock, looming towards the viewer, while never losing their figures or becoming a series of lines. One of the most stunning creations is the form of a large male lion in profile, achieved simply with a single unbroken line.

These details hint at stories which are now impossible to uncover fully. A scientist points out two footprints that rest together. They were made by a wolf and a small child. We’re left to wonder how this formation came about: as Herzog muses, the animal may have been stalking its prey, though it could instead have been prowling beside the kid in friendship. It could also be the case that two moments separated by thousands of years have been juxtaposed together in calcite crystals. The red handprints, we are told, are all from one man: we can tell because he has a crooked little finger. Not only does this signature allow us to follow his path through the cave, as his handprint appears in other areas, but it also invites us to wonder what went on outside the cave that resulted in a broken bone.

If Herzog has a tell-tale little finger – a filmic signature – it may be an explicit suggestion that he knows when not to show us something. In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, his hand is somewhat forced by the limits of the walkway. There is a certain rock formation upon which is drawn the lower half of a woman fused with the upper half of an animal. But unfortunately the floor is too delicate and he must stay quite far back, showing us only one side of the three-dimensional structure. He attempts, with the aid of a camera on a stick, to reveal the other half, though this technique is only partly successful: some of the work remains hidden. In The White Diamond (2004), he soars above the forest canopies of Guyana but when the camera reaches the cave behind the overwhelming Kaieteur Falls, a space where the white-tipped swifts nest and local spirits rest, he refuses to show us the resulting footage (captured using similarly ingenious means, if my memory’s correct). When faced with the gruesome, he decides it’s better to turn away: in Grizzly Man (2005), he doesn’t play the audio recording of Timothy Treadwell getting eaten (and actually recommends destroying the tape entirely). In Cadogan Hall, he suggested that he knows what not to show, when it comes to his presentation of the Texas 7 on death row. He believes some of the details of the crimes are too revolting to bear repeating.

On a (slightly) lighter note, Herzog left the audience in London some homework. We were to watch a short by Ramin Bahrani called Plastic Bag (2009). Herzog provides the voice for the bag as it makes an epic journey to reach the Pacific Vortex. It’s elegant and entertaining and I think I’ll end with that.

A friend of mine recently showed me Alexandra Monro + Sheila Menon’s short film No Way Through (2009). One of five winning scripts entered into Ctrl.Alt.Shift’s short film competition, the picture tries to ‘highlight […] mobility restrictions imposed in the West Bank, that are limiting its habitants’ access to health care, thus violating a fundamental human right.’ On the whole, it’s an effective film. You can watch it here: http://www.ctrlaltshift.co.uk/video/nowaythrough.

The picture is quickly rooted in London. We recognise the squashed together suburban housing of the opening and notice the almost obscured ‘LONDON’ on the front of Rob’s (Tim Plester) folded-over roadmap. Almost as quickly, we feel this is not the city we know; as Rob approaches a roadblock, rather than a hospital, greeted by armed guards, rather than paramedics, we begin to wonder where we are. Monro and Menon convincingly establish a sort of dystopian Never Never Land. Their London invites comparison with Gilliam’s unidentified city in Brazil (1985) or Jeunet and Caro’s post-apocalyptic France in Delicatessen (1991): all three films present, with varying emphasis, worlds that are both governed by seemingly strange political situations and at the mercy of authoritarian military control.

But Brazil has its steam-machines and Delicatessen has its cannibalism: these films make more telling comments than No Way Through because of their surface absurdity. There is, perhaps, in both the feature films, a moment of insight, when the distorted world of the picture snaps in line with ours. I’m avoiding phrases like ‘political comment’ because I’m not sure that Brazil or Delicatessen attempt to make any; it’s also reductive to root all the joys and questions that come from watching these films into a single ‘pop’ of realisation. Nonetheless, we’re sure that No Way Through has a political point to make. The directors outline it explicitly in their accompanying text.

The one weakness of the short is that Monro and Menon try to bring their dystopia too close to reality too quickly. The epiphanic ‘pop’ becomes instead an instance of dramatic irony. The pieces of graffiti really rubbed: ‘FREE PALESTINE’ written on corrugated iron, for example.

With this political signpost obviously positioned, we’re invited simply to join the dots. If references to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are removed, though, notice how much freer we are to revel in the nightmare. The situation would seem so absurd that we would take solace only by thinking that it doesn’t really happen. (How, after all, is a crying child comforted after seeing a particularly scary film? ‘It’s only a film,’ The accompanying adult says. ‘It never really happened.’) Equally, a niggling notion that something like the situation presented on screen happens somewhere in the world is not the same: the loss of specificity is enough to maintain the illusion for a time.

Instead, then, of waiting for the text at the end of the film to explain the link already made between ‘PALESTINE’ and the picture we’re watching, the revelation would be more shocking and longer-lasting if this link were cut. We are told that ‘Around Jerusalem the average ambulance journey time for a Palestinian is now almost 2 hours, compared to 10 minutes in 2001.’ It’s fair to wonder how much more brutal the realisation would be if we weren’t already expecting this grim punch line.

Despite this one arguable point of structure, there are moments of wonderful craft in the picture. My favourite shot in the short is a beautiful image of Amy (Amy Loughton), bloodstained, looking through the car window. The camera is positioned above her and outside the vehicle so we’re presented at once with the girl and the city through the filter of the window.

It’s horrible to realise that Amy will die before she reaches hospital (and we have such a suspicion quite early on). We wonder what she’s thinking and we wonder whether the world reflected in the window is the one in which she wants to live. Just like a similar shot in Midnight Cowboy, Monro and Menon manage to blend Amy’s subjective experience and the objective reality in one shot, finding room for her implicit hopes alongside the grim actuality of her situation.

The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005) is the second film I’ve seen by Jacques Audiard. I’ve also watched his later effort A Prophet (2009), which is quite simply outstanding. While the two films deal with similar sorts of criminal violence, the director’s remake of James Toback’s Fingers (1978) should be seen as more than just a prelude to A Prophet: it’s a terrific picture in its own right, a complex character study of the piano playing real estate broker Thomas Seyr (Romain Duris) which uses sound in sophisticated ways.

Tom’s love of music is handled with a delicacy that throws it into relief against the darker day-to-day tasks of his job. We see him struggle to balance the growing desire for something better (set in motion by the prospect of a successful audition) with the often violent demands of his job and his aging father, who seeks retribution against a Russian mobster. The same hands that carry a bag of rats or punch a squatter in the face also stroke the piano keys late at night and caress Aline (Aure Atika), his associate’s wife, in a stolen moment. His hands become a familiar and important image as they are often the focus of the frame. Sometimes they’re cut and occasionally they’re bleeding but most often they wriggle, frustrated, playing imaginary notes on an imaginary piano.

The tension between Tom’s life and his wishes is expressed through the music itself, principally in the modulation of Bach’s Toccata in E minor. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) comes to mind after hearing the opening section a few times: Bach’s piece becomes for Tom, like the titular conversation for Harry (Gene Hackman), not only a cause of his anger or happiness, but also an indicator of his mood. We’re reminded that directors can use mimetic music (sound in the filmic reality) to reveal, as well as influence, the psychological states of the characters. It is clear, though, that the role of such music is difficult to pinpoint when it functions both digetically and mimetically. Nonetheless, in the beginning, we hear Tom trip repeatedly over the opening few bars, trying excitedly to play the piece. While he does get better, we notice, along with his tutor Miao Lin (Linh Dan Pham), that his rhythm is out: he rushes through the notes and get frustrated, shouting, slamming his fists and stomping his feet. Eventually, he plays confidently and feels ready to make his dream a reality. So, then, it’s a sad disappointment when the nerves of real life overpower his fingers in the audition and he fails to get past those opening bars. Frustrated and embarrassed, he quickly leaves the room and, with space to breathe outside, puts on his headphones.

This moment is only one example of a general pattern in which other forms of music interrupt the key piece. The Bach in Tom’s head is repeatedly challenged by the bass of electronica or the voice of Kele (fronting Bloc Party) that spills from his mp3 player. The device, which he uses earlier in the film in an attempt to block out the world, confining his ears and confirming his passion, at this climactic moment of failure becomes a way of forgetting, rather than solidifying, his personal musical desires. We see with hindsight, though, that his headphones do not act as a barrier to the world at all: instead they help Tom to streamline himself against the demands of his job and his society. The rhythm of his life – the interaction between his classical dreams and his contemporary reality – is revealed in the orchestration of the music.

On the note of pianos, here’s a fun article about mad pianists and here’s Bach’s piece being performed by Clara Haskil:

While Tomas Alfredson’s Let The Right One In (2008) is difficult to place for certain, I think it sits closer to romance than horror.

Yes, one of the kids is a vampire but who’s to say they can’t fall in love? Vincenzo Natali’s contribution to Paris, je t’aime (2006) is a short about an infatuated female vampire, who ends up devouring Elijah Wood. Violence is always near the surface of the film, though so too is tenderness. For every instance of a teenager being strung up by their feet, drained of blood, there is the touching delivery of a Morse code message from Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) to Eli (Lina Leandersson), tapped out gently on a dividing bedroom wall.

While watching, I thought of Żuławski’s picture Possession (1981). It’s pretty crazy and the lump of tentacled flesh with which Anna (Isabelle Adjani) is captivated is certainly more monstrous than eleven year old Eli. But, like Let The Right One In, Possession does not sit easily in the horror genre. It probes the nature of love (and the loss of it), exploring a messy divorce and its effect on a child.

Here’s a short post on two complex films that are beautifully shot and about which there is a lot more to say.

What a shot. It brings to mind the beautiful interior scene near the beginning of Inception (2010) or the mountain training centre in Batman Begins (2005).

In a fit of enthusiasm for Christopher Nolan’s work, I recently watched his 2006 film The Prestige, from which the still above comes. The story of a rivalry between two magicians is told with an elusiveness typical of the director: extensive fragmentary flashbacks are intertwined with elements of trickery that the subject matter allows. (‘I think he’s dead.’ ‘No, wait, he’s not.’ ‘What?’) The film invites comparison with Inception, though its narrative arrangement feels closer, for me, to that in Memento (2000).

It’s interesting to note that Neil Burger’s The Illusionist also came out in 2006. I don’t know the details of the two releases, though it’s funny to think about the timing. (Was it a similar case, for example, to the production of  Antz and A Bug’s Life, both of which were released in 1998?) I’ve not seen The Illusionist recently enough to make any comparisons between the two pictures, though the similarity of subject matter is enough to think themes and images may echo between the two.

When I was trying to place The Prestige in a context, The Illusionist was the first film that came to mind. Inception, Memento and others directed by Nolan were also floating around. The parallels that formed quickest were both those drawn with a broad thematic brush and those from within the director’s own body of work. That’s probably normal. As I was watching the picture, I also found a number of weaker echoes – in the sense of those less well formed – coming to mind from other films. They feel all the more enticing because they are fleeting and difficult to explain. I mean brief similarities both formal (for example, the construction of a particular frame, the camera movement or the lighting) and narrative based (a section of dialogue, an actor’s movement or a series of events). Such comparisons that are not restricted by chronology or genre but instead centre on thematic and visual parallels are, for me, often the most vivid and the most exciting. (That’s not to say, of course, that chronological or generic study is useless. It isn’t.)

So, for example, when Angier (Hugh Jackman) luxuriates in the applauds of the audience, achieving a moment of success and adoration tinged with an (at the time) ambiguous sadness, Randy the Ram (Mickey Rourke) standing on top of a turnbuckle for his (possibly) final finisher in The Wrestler (2008) comes briefly to mind.

I felt a similarity between Spike Jonze’s Being John Malcovich (1999) and the moment when Angier reveals that, each time he performs his greatest trick, his machine produces an identical copy of himself and that, to combat this oddity, he must endure a process of suicide and rebirth.

As Borden (Christian Bale) walks out of Angier’s storage facility, surrounded by flames as the building burns down, I was reminded of a similar shot from Barton Fink (1991).

It’s also quite fun to imagine who would win in a battle between Wolverine and Batman, though that’s a different sort of connection.

I saw Vincenzo Natali’s film Splice (2009) just last night. It’s an over the top and slightly silly pseudo-scientific affair that plays on a growing public awareness of the potential possibilities of genetic engineering. It’s good, in some places.

The picture is at its most engaging when Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) must struggle with the question of just how human Dren (Delphine Chanéac) could become. The early scenes, in which the two try to create their human-animal hybrid, are forgettable. The corporate aspect, Joan Chorot’s (Simona Maicanescu) search for the ‘magic protein’, feels like background noise. In the final scene, when Joan presses Elsa to continue with the experiment (not to give any plot lines away), before offering a mere gesture of compassion with a rub on the shoulder, she seems as two-dimensional as Aaron in Titus Andronicus.

Even the two slug-like creatures, the experiments that precede Dren, though perhaps quite sweet in their own way, are not more than odd. Their need to ‘imprint’ is as unconvincing as the Na’vi’s ‘connections’ in Avatar (2009): the interweaving of little tentacles, each slotting into their correct place, is reminiscent of a USB flash drive and suggests that both directors may have drawn inspiration from their computers, saying to themselves, ‘that could be suitably sci-fi, though I’ll need to make it more organic’.

At it’s best, though, the film is emotionally demanding and morally challenging. It is certainly strange to witness Elsa treat a young Dren as if she were her own child. Later, though, we learn that she uses her own DNA to create the creature. We’re made to ask two questions: in what sense is Dren human and to what extent is she Elsa’s offspring? I certainly began by treating Dren as a creature, as something else, but it is indicative of the skill of the picture that in a climactic scene, when Elsa, driven by anger and fear, cooly operates on Dren, I felt quite revolted. Elsa says into her dictaphone: ‘Cosmetically “human” affectations should be eliminated where possible’; it has become ‘necessary to remove her […] stinger.’ When Elsa begins to cut Dren’s dress, it feels as degrading and as dangerous as a rape.