Saturday, 9 May 2009

Stan Brakhage & the Subconscious Cinema

It has been a long time since I posted anything for this journal but today I discovered that I will be presenting my paper on avant-garde film maker Stan Brakhage and his notion of the Subconscious cinema at this years Scottish Word and Image Group conference which takes place in Dundee on June the 18th & 19th. Hopefully this news will prompt me to begin publishing more often again on here. I will keep you updated on the event once the programme has been officially announced.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Come and See

Elim Klimov’s Come and See (1985) is an astonishing and harrowing depiction of the “Nazi’s destruction of the Belorussian village of Khatyn” as seen through the eyes of a young boy – our protagonist, Florya. The film is remarkable not only for its seemingly anti-war sentiments, but also because of what could be considered an anti-Soviet focus on the struggle of the individual, Florya, opposed to the Soviet principles of the importance of the over that of the individual. In his essay ‘Come and See: Klimov’s Intimate Epic’, Lloyd Michaels describes exactly how Klimov manages to emphasise Florya’s struggle through his use of cinematic technique:

Klimov deploys an array of cinematic techniques—most prominently close-ups, moving camera, and sound track—to memorialize both the sufferings of the individual survivor, a village boy of about 14 who joins the partisans, and the anonymous tens of thousands of victims of Nazi atrocities as the army burned its way through rural Byelorussia.

Indeed, through his extraordinary use of soundtrack, Klimov manages to take the “formal conventions of socialist realism” it relies upon and turns them into a sort of ‘socialist hyper-realism’. During much of the film we find ourselves seeing the devastation from Florya’s point of view, but for the films entirety the soundtrack serves as a window into the physical and mental impact the events are having on young Florya; for example, after a bomb causes his ear drum to rupture, Klimov uses the soundtrack to portray the confusion and struggle Florya undergoes as for the next half hour or so of the film the sound becomes muffled with a constant ringing noise, replicating the physical sensations Florya is suffering as a result of the explosion. Further still, Klimov intertwines non-diegetic sounds with the diegetic sounds Florya is actually hearing; perhaps used as an indication of what is going on in Florya’s imagination, but certainly in order to heighten the effect of the devastation being portrayed on screen.

Over the course of the film we witness Florya age drastically; originally resembling a young, innocent child, by the end of the film Florya looks like a defeated old man – his hair grey along with severe bags under his eyes which themselves portray a look of sheer terror after witnessing the events exposed to them. It is evident that by portraying the struggle of the individual, particularly through his own eyes, ears and mind, Klimov successfully manages to leave the audience with an unforgettable account of the effects of war through his use of cinematic techniques, a sentiment echoed by David A. Cook’s statement:

We are taken on a relentless 142-minute journey toward the centre of a horror so profound that the film itself is actually rendered speechless... it achieves such an extraordinary level of intensity in its montage of swooping Steadicam shots and shattering images of atrocity, visual and aural, that we are left with a nearly physical sense of devastation.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Landscape in the Mist

Described by New York Times critic Stephen Holden as a filmmaker who “belongs to a stately modernist tradition that embraces figures as divergent as Michelangelo Antonioni, Robert Bresson and Wim Wenders”, it is easy to draw comparisons between Theodoros Angelopoulos and the aforementioned; however, I get the impression that doing so would not quite do Angelopoulos’ work justice. Much like Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), Angelopoulos’ Landscape in the Mist (1988) deals with the search for someone who is not there; a search which becomes a “symbolic quest for value in a world that has grown spiritually hollow.” However, whereas the search in L’Avventura is instigated by a disappearance, the search we witness in Landscape in the Mist is a much more “anguished and hopeless” one than in L’Avventura – if you could imagine such a thing.

The film centres around two children, Voula and her younger brother Alexander, who run away from home in an attempt to find their father – who there mother has told them now lives in Germany, far away from their native Greece. It is not long before we realise that the children are not going to find their father; however, the film takes on a much deeper meaning, as the children begin to learn about the real world through the events and people they encounter on their travels; Alexander learns that he must work in return for food; Voula learns about the dangers and brutality one can encounter in the real world in what is easily the most horrific scene in the film; and both children learn about love, trust and friendship from Orestes, a helpful acquaintance they make along the way.

In his otherwise positive review of the film, Holden accuses Angelopoulos’ imagery of verging on the “heavy-handed.” Personally, however, I do not think this is a bad thing. Whilst having a seemingly blank piece of film symbolise the ambivalence of the children’s ongoing search (Orestes tells the children that if they look hard enough they may find a landscape of trees in the mist of the film) only to have the film end with the children embracing a tree they find upon a misty landscape (even if it is suggested they may be dead) isn’t entirely subtle symbolism, it is perhaps Angelopoulos’ ‘heavy-handedness’ that makes these images all the more effective and is perhaps why, as Holden put it, “there are sights in the film that once seen cannot be forgotten.”

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Aguirre, Wrath of God

Werner Herzog's Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) is an incredible film depicting the decline of Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), an officer who becomes the leader of a detachment of Spanish conquistadors in search for El Dorado in the steaming rain forests of the Andes. Herzog's use of landscape in Aguirre plays an integral role to the psychological impact of the film. It is a prime example of Herzog's continuous search for the sublime through his images; something Herzog himself noted when describing the difference between the landscapes of Aguirre and those found in Hollywood and television:
In my films landscapes are never just picturesque or scenic backdrops as they often are in Hollywood films. In Aguirre the jungle is never some lush, beautiful environment it might be in a television commercial. Sometimes when you see the jungle in the film it is a reality so strange you cannot trust it, and maybe think it is a special effect. The jungle is really all about our dreams, our deepest emotions, our nightmare. It is not just a location, it is a vital part of the characters' inner landscapes. The question I asked myself when first confronted by the jungle was 'How can I use this terrain to portray the landscapes of the mind?'
The (mostly) languid pace of the Amazon River helps heighten the increasing sense of paranoia and madness present within the film and its characters, especially when combined with Herzog's ominous, lingering close-ups (fig 1); something we see repeated in his later Amazonian work Fitzcarraldo (1982), particularly during the scene where Kinski cautiously plays Caruso from his gramophone whilst floating downstream towards an uncertain fate (fig 2).

(fig 1)

(fig 2)
Much like John Ford before him, Herzog successfully uses his surroundings in order to "portray the landscapes of the mind". Indeed, when commenting on Aguirre Herzog highlighted the similarities between himself and Ford in terms of landscape:
I like to direct landscapes just as I like to direct actors... Most directors merely exploit landscapes to embellish what is going on in the foreground, and this is one reason why I like some of John Ford's work. He never used Monument Valley as merely a backdrop, but rather to signify the spirit of his characters. Westerns are really all about our very basic notions of justice, and when I see Monument Valley in his films I somehow start to believe - amazingly enough - in American justice.

WR: Mysteries of the Organism

Dušan Makavejev's WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) is a curious juxtaposition of a fictional plot set in Yugoslavia and a documentary concerning the life and beliefs of radical thinker Wilhelm Reich, intertwined with archive footage of Mao, torture, electric shock therapy, un-simulated sex, interviews with Warhol superstar Jackie Curtis, clips of Fug's front-man wandering the streets of New York with a toy machine gun, amongst other things, which combine to create what Peter Cowie referred to as a "dazzling collage" of a movie.

Described by Amos Vogel in his book Film as a Subversive Art as "a hilarious, highly erotic, political comedy which quite seriously proposes sex as the ideological imperative for revolution and advances a plea for Erotic Socialism", much of WR: Mysteries of the Organism deals with the political differences between Makavejev's native Yugoslavia and Communist Russia. This is perhaps most obvious within the two characters within the fictional Yugoslavian sections of the film who come to represent both Yugoslavia and Russia; Milena Dravic's character and the Russian figure skater she attempts to seduce and sexually liberate, named Vladimir Ilyich blantantly after Lenin. In one of the films most memorable scenes, we witness Dravic address a group of Yugoslav workers and peasents, telling them to "fuck merrily and without fear!", and suggesting that free love was where the October Revolution failed. However, Dravic's character meets a tragic end when she is beheaded by Vladimir's ice skate - perhaps symbolising that those who seek "Erotic Socialism" will always be struck down, with Dravic's character suffering an unfortunate end much in the way Willhelm Reich was imprisoned in real life, where he eventually died, for his radical beliefs.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008


Described as his “most savage attack upon the values of Western capitalist society”, Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967) is a brute of a film through which Godard critiques the values of the capitalist west, resulting in “an apocalyptic vision of the collapse of civilization in the West.” Despite not directly capturing the events of the time – La Chinoise (1967) being a more honest account of the state of affairs in France 1967 – Weekend still successfully manages to portray the mood of the time it is made in. Worlds apart from much of his work earlier of the same decade – À bout de souffle (1960), Une femme est une femme (1961), Les petit soldat (1963), Bande à part (1964) etc. – Weekend was intended to not only critique or disenchant the audiences which had come to admire Godard’s earlier ‘bourgeois’ work, but full on attack them.

Perhaps the most famous scene in the film, and also one of the best examples of Godard’s provoking style, is the traffic jam sequence, described here by Peter Cowie:

A traffic jam serves as an admirable metaphor for the fatal indigestion afflicting consumer society. In a brilliant travelling shot, almost a reel in length, Raoul Coutard’s camera gazes dispassionately at men playing cards beside the road, a cart-horse deep in its own mire, lorries filled with animals for some zoo, overturned cars and even one vehicle facing the wrong way, rammed up against a petrol tanker. Off-screen proclamations mingle with the din of crashing dustbins, in characteristic Godardian dialectic.

As the camera slowly moves alongside the traffic jam the audience is left feeling frustrated, wondering if the irritating sounds of car horns and never ending queue of traffic will ever come to an end – themselves ironically becoming stuck in a traffic jam which somewhat reflects the never ending boredom Godard sees in materialist western civilization. Other moments in the film, such as the shot of Mireille Darc’s character bathing from the shoulders up – deliberately not showing the audience Darc’s naked body, but instead placing a portrait of a naked woman directly behind her – as well as Darc’s materialistic screams of “No! My Hermes handbag!” after just escaping a burning automobile – her concern being not for her or her husbands well being, but for the well being of an expensive hand bag – add to Godard’s scathing critique, further highlighting the absurdity prevalent in the material world of the capitalist West.

The infamous traffic jam scene.

Friday, 21 November 2008


Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1968) is a film which successfully challenges the role of authority and discipline within society through Anderson’s use of technique and setting; a film that is especially effective when one considers the social context of its time. Set in “the privileged milieu of the British public school”, many observers have interpreted the films setting as a metaphor for the climate of society at the time of the films release, as noted by Peter Cowie when speaking of the films success at Cannes in 1969; “the top prize for If… seemed to legitimize the spirit of revolt that had swept through Europe and much of the United States.” Even when interviewing himself in the press release for If…, Anderson highlighted the potential his boarding school setting had as an allegory, when he said of the film:

The other aspect that appealed to me, I think, was the extent to which a school is a microcosm – and particularly in England, where the educational system is such an exact image of the social system. I like very much to show a little or a limited world which has implications about the big world and about life in general existence… I should have thought that such an intimate and authentic picture of these great and influential establishments would be appreciated by anyone interested in the way the world works.

In addition to the films setting, much has been said about Anderson’s switches between colour and black and white throughout the film; do they depict, as if often the case in cinema, the difference between fantasy and reality?; are they used in a Brechtian fashion to alienate and disenchant the audience?; were they originally used because of time constraints and difficulty of filming in colour inside the chapel?; or was it simply because Anderson ran out of money? Whatever the true meaning behind this device is, what is certain is that by doing so Anderson does indeed heighten the “confrontation between youth and age, between anarchy and discipline” by further unsettling and disenchanting the audience; a disenchantment that was reflected in the “spirit of revolt” present both on screen (in If…) and in real life at the time.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Jean-Luc Godard Film Club

For the past two mondays, Kathryn, Danielle and I have met up to watch films. For the most part, it is their drawing club - where they can practice sketching and illustration from the films we watch - but it means I get to watch some great films projected on a big screen and sometimes I even join in. So far we have watched the fantastic Je T'Aime John Wayne (a sharp and short parody/critique of Nouvelle Vague style set in London), and two Godard films; Bande a Part and La Chinoise. I'm sure we'll watch other directors, but right now it seems to be the Jean-Luc Godard illustration film club.
Kathryn tells me that it's more difficult than it looks to draw a moving image, but I think both of their attempts manage to succesfully capture what is on the screen - the black and white of Bande a Part as well as the colour of La Chinoise. Anyway, here are some of the impressive drawings that have been done so far:
Belmondo and the kids from Je T'aime John Wayne by Danielle.

Anna Karina & Co. in Bande a Part by Danielle.

Finally, my less impressive attempt at drawing Henri from Godard's La Chinoise.

Saturday, 8 November 2008


The story behind Polish director Ryszard Bugajski's Interrogation (1982; released 1989) is a fascinating one; one which some have compared to "a scene from a Cold War novel". Originally filmed in 1982, the film underwent a series of complications and set backs, mostly due to the communist state it was made under, as well as several fortunate near misses; for example, Bugajski, and Poland for that matter, ran out of 35mm film during production, leaving Bugajski to rely on the help of Western European and American friends to bail him out by shipping him enough film to finish the project. Luckily, the film was completed days before martial law was declared across Poland in December of that year, giving Bugajski and his assistant director time to hide the film - bury, in fact - in order to protect both the film and themselves from the state. After editing the film, Bugajski had to present it to the Cultural Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Incredibly, someone present at the hearing managed to record the whole discussion on a smuggled-in Dictaphone, the transcript of which provides an intriguing insight into the mechanisms - and paranoia - of the censoring state, who unsurprisingly shelved the film.

However, the story does not end there; far from it. In his notes on Interrogation, Andy Townsend explains how the film managed to slip through the hands of the state:
Bugajski realised that the film could be 'lost' or destroyed and so, risking imprisonment at the very least, he surreptitiously made a copy on tape... In what seems like a scene from a Cold War novel, Bugajski then met a friend at a bus stop and gave him the tape for safe keeping. From this tape VHS copies were made and were leaked out into general circulation. Interrogation became a genuine underground hit. A population otherwise fed propaganda were holding secret viewings of the film all over Poland.
"While Bugajski's harrowing film of Stalinist-style police tactics was being seen all over Poland, the director himself was forced into exile in Canada" notes David A. Cook. The film stayed underground until its eventual release in 1989, gaining critical acclaim and winning Krystyna Janda the accolade of best actress at the 1990 Cannes festival.

Perhaps the  moral of the remarkable story behind Interrogation, is that it illustrates that cinema is more than just entertainment. In stark contrast to the glamour of Hollywood, for several Eastern-European directors it is a matter of life and death: "Interrogation remains a profoundly powerful film. It is a testament to the determination of a director who risked everything to bring it to an audience" whilst simultaneously highlighting the irony that "a Communist regime, for whom 'propaganda' was once the proudest weapon in its ideological arsenal, has in the end come to fear it too."

Friday, 31 October 2008

Day for Night

"If one were to take one of his later films to a desert island, it would have to be La nuit américaine (1973), in which Truffaut succeeds gloriously in capturing the frenetic joy and frustration of making a film with a team of actors and technicians."

So said Peter Cowie when referring to François Truffaut's magnificent Day for Night (La nuit américaine); a film - much like Federico Fellini's (1963), Jean-Luc Godard's Le Mépris (1963) and Andrzej Wajda's Everything for Sale (1969) before it - about filmmaking itself. Whilst I believe Cowie is right in stating that if you were to become stranded on a desert island and had to take one of Truffaut's later films it would "have to be" Day for Night, I myself would go one further and say that if you were to take a film about making films then, again, it would have to be Day for Night, hands down.

In his annotation of Day for Night, Brian Hoyle pinpointed exactly why I would opt for Truffaut's Day for Night over the likes of and Les Mépris; it's tone is "far removed from the introspection and lofty artistic ambitions of Fellini's film in this mode and the cynicism and alienation of Godard's." Indeed, unlike Fellini and Godard's films - which focus more upon the struggles of the director (themselves) and some of the more negative aspects of film making, at times rarely focusing upon the actual art of filmmaking - Day for Night acts as Truffaut's love letter to cinema, reminding us that not only is he a director, auteur and critic, but also a cinéphile like you or me. Throughout the film Truffaut constantly pays tribute to his cinematic influences, heroes and contemporaries; whether it be through Ferrand's recurring dreams involving Citizen Kane (1941) or Ferrand's pile of books on directors, auteurs even, such as Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Ingmar Bergman, Luis Bunuel, Robert Bresson and Godard.

Despite creating Day for Night over a decade after the peak of the Nouvelle Vague he helped instigate, Truffaut still manages to use the same sharp editing and freeze frames present in The 400 Blows (1959) and Jules et Jim (1962). Whilst one could talk endlessly about Truffaut's majestic composition and subtle touch through which he pulls back the curatin and reveals the magic of making cinema - the crane shots of crane shots, the cat and milk scene, the electric candle etc. - there was one particular recurring sequence I found even more interesting than most. More than once during the film we hear an uplifting piece of orchestral music set to Dziga Vertov style, Man with a Movie Camera-esque (1929) montages illustrating the mechanism of the camera as well as the film making and editing process, romanticising the entire notion of cinema and once more reminding us that this is Truffaut's love letter to the art of cinema; this is his Man with a Movie Camera, his and his Les Mépris all in one.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Fellini's 8½

In his book The Films of Federico Fellini, Peter Bondanella notes both the impact and the artistic and autobiographical nature of Fellini's (1963), by stating:
For many audiences, critics, and film historians, remains the benchmark film by Fellini, the work that justifies his statues as a master and continues to reward the spectator after numerous screenings... The films occupies an important role in the director's complete works, not only because of its obvious autobiographical links to Fellini's life but also because it focuses upon the very nature of artistic creation in the cinema.
It is true that whilst watching it is practically impossible for one not to notice the blatant parallels between our protagonist, Guido, and Fellini himself. Both are directors who are having difficulty expressing what they want to say - yet with Fellini somehow manages to say it all. Also, much like Ingmar Bergman's Persona (1966), a lot of Fellini's is to do with the "very nature of artistic creation in the cinema" Bondanella speaks of. Whilst in the later and more radical Persona Bergman attempts to deconstruct cinema completely - making the viewer constantly aware that what they are viewing is a fictional construct - Fellini focuses on the struggle of the director - mirroring himself - by presenting us with the story of a man who, like Fellini, does not to what to say and, in doing so, manages to create what is undoubtedly a cinematic masterpiece which is somewhat ironically all about making films.

In his book Revolution! The Explosion of World Cinema in the 60s, Peter Cowie observes that " could not have existed prioer to the New Wave, but all too few New Wave films aspired to the same level of intellectual surmise as Fellini's masterpiece." The same could be said about Bergman's Persona; however, unlike Persona, Fellini's was made during the early, formative years of the New Wave. It is evident that whilst the emergence of the New Wave allowed him to create such a film as , Fellini manages to outdo those films which influenced him, allowing him to create this masterpiece which has gone on to influence countless other auteur's films - including Bergman's Persona.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008


In his essay 'Persona and the 1960s Art Cinema', Wheeler Winston Dixon writes of how, with Persona (1966), Ingmar Bergman "finally breaks free of the proscenium arch tradition" that was so prevalent in his earlier films - The Seventh Seal (1956) et al. - through his use of "elaborate optical effects", which make the audience constantly aware of Bergman's presence behind the camera, and that what they are watching is fictional; "a film, a construct, a world that Bergman has invented solely for cinematic consumption." From its opening shot of a projection lamp igniting, right through until the closing image of the same lamp switching off, Bergman's presence off screen heightens the already overwhelming sense of alienation present not only between the two central characters of Alma (Bibi Andersson) and Elisabet (Liv Ullmann), but also between these characters and the audience; it is difficult for the audience to interact when Bergman creates what Dixon referred to as a "spiritual and material darkness."

Having already influenced a new generation of filmmakers with his earlier works, such as The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries (1957), it is evident that, in Persona, Bergman had himself become influenced by the new generation of auteurs which had emerged accross Europe; particularly the Nouvelle Vague. When watching Persona, one can clearly feel the influence of Jean-Luc Godard on Bergman as he takes his role as an auteur to a new extreme, incorporating Brecht's distancing effect into his editing in order to break down the fourth wall much in the same way Godard had in several of his early films such as À bout de souffle (1959), Une femme est une femme (1961), Le Mépris (1963) and Masculin féminin (1966). In turn, Bergman's Persona has itself gone on to influence numerous directors, such as Woody Allen, and its influence is still present in cinema to this day, with movies such as Fight Club (1999) referencing - practically plagiarising, one could argue - the subliminal shot of an erect penis present in the opening montage of Persona.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Last Year in Marienbad

Much like Béla Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), Alain Resnais' Last Year in Marienbad (1961) is another prime example of cinematic beauty; a joy to behold both visually and aesthetically. Also like Werckmeister Harmonies, Last Year in Marienbad is a complex film; difficult to deconstruct since it is difficult to assert what actually happens - it is impossible to tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined, and by the end of the film nothing has been resolved. Whilst with my review of Werckmeister Harmonies I avoided discussing the symbolism and true meaning of the film in favour for its aesthetic qualities, in this review I intend to do the opposite in an attempt to gain a better understanding of what exactly Last Year in Marienbad is all about.

Having once stated "Make of it what you will... whatever you decide is right", Resnais allows his audience to apply practically any meaning they want to the film - something critic Pauline Kael somewhat scathingly referred to as "making a mess and asking others to clean it up" in her essay 'The Come-Dressed-As-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties'. Kael continues to talk of how, by doing so, Resnais invited the audience and critics to "make fools of themselves" by fabricating theories such as Marienbad works as a sort of Rorschach test; you are to apply whatever meaning you want to it - a theory Kael disagrees with, since a Rorschach test is a blot onto which you project your own emotions, whereas Marienbad is a work of art.

However, one critic who does not make a 'fool' of himself whilst attempting to decipher Last Year in Marienbad is the influential Roger Ebert. In his review of the film, Ebert suggests that what we are witnessing is the creation of the character X's imagination:

Can it be that X is the artist--the author, the director? That when he speaks in the second person ("You asked me to come to your room...") he is speaking to his characters, creating their story? That first he has M fire a pistol, but that when he doesn't like that and changes his mind, M obediently reflects his desires? Isn't this how writers work? Creating characters out of thin air and then ordering them around?

An idea echoed even within the film, as the play which we see acted out at the start of the film reflects the plot and scenario of the film itself, perhaps reminding us that, like the play, Last Year in Marienbad is nothing more than a work of fiction.

Kieślowski's Dekalog

With A Short Film About Killing (1988), Krzysztof Kieślowski presents us with a bleak, harrowing account of one mans actions - namely murder - and the punishment he must face as a result; execution. One of the things which interested me most about the film was its opening credits, which act as a precursor for the events which are about to unfold. Indeed, the opening minute or so of the film could itself be considered 'an even shorter film about killing': first we see the carcass of a rat followed by a shot of a cat hanging whilst a group of young boys run away. The cat (representative of our protagonist, Jacek) presumably killed the rat (the taxi driver) before being hanged itself by a group of young boys (perhaps symbolising the wardens who execute Jacek, or perhaps the society from which he is removed).

It is easy to draw comparisons between our protagonist, Jacek, and the protagonist of Albert Camus' novel L'Étranger, Meursault; both are alienated from the societies they live within and neither have any clear motives for the murders they commit. However, through Kieślowski's cinematic techniques it is apparent that, unlike Meursault, Jacek's murder of the taxi driver may have been premeditated: Kieślowski's use of lens filters, which "turn Warsaw into the putrid hell of the mind of the future murderer", help heighten the tension and sense of alienation present during the scenes leading up to the murder in which we see Jacek contemplate his decision, wrapping the rope around his hands as he eats in the café.

Originally part five of his ten part interpretation of the Ten Commandments, Dekalog (1988), A Short Film About Killing is extremely stylistically different from Dekalog 6, which itself was released separately from the series as A Short Film About Love (1988). Despite their differences, due mainly to Kieślowski's use of different cinematographers, the two films still have certain subtle details in common. Kieślowski uses a remarkably similar shot in both films which helps illustrate the distance between our protagonists, Jacek and Tomek, from society and their object of desire respectively: Kieślowski places a physical barrier between Tomek and Magda in the form of the cashier's window in the post office, something we see repeated when Jacek talks to the cinema box office girl.

Whilst Jacek's motives remain unclear (did he want the driver's car in order to impress his female friend, or did he kill the driver simply because he could?) what is certain is Kieślowski's critique of capital punishment (still legal in Poland at the time), tackling the subject head on and perhaps acting as a catalyst for the abolition of the death penalty in Poland, raising awareness of the subject much in the same way Ken Loach's Cathy Come Home (1966) had raised awareness for homelessness in Britain. Kieślowski asks us what exactly those in authority will achieve through capital punishment; a sentiment echoed in Jacek's lawyer Piotr's statement "Since Cain, no punishment has proved to be an adequate remedy".

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Werckmeister Harmonies

Having once stated in an interview "When we are making a movie... we only talk about concrete situations - where the camera is, what will be the first and the last shot. We never talk about art or God" it is difficult for a true cinéphile to know whether or not to believe Béla Tarr entirely. Indeed, it is nigh impossible to watch Tarr's seminal Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) without wondering what exactly is going on; what does the whale represent?; who is this mysterious 'prince'?; what will become of our protagonist János Valuska? In truth, none of this matters. Whilst I could write page after page discussing the potent political symbolism present within the film, the fact of the matter is that Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies is truly a masterpiece of modern cinema, regardless of whether or not there is any real meaning behind it.

In another interview, Tarr described the difference between 'cinema' and his own work by stating he hopes that he is "closer to like than cinema". This is exactly what Tarr achieves with Werckmeister Harmonies. Whilst the idea of a travelling circus - carrying with it the stuffed carcass of a whale - inciting such terror may seem unrealistic to some (particularly when taken out of the sociopolitical context of the film), it is within the subtlety (near lack) of Tarr's editing that the realism lies; every scene being shot majestically in real time, often only cutting when the film runs out - something Tarr has somewhat humorously, and somewhat perversely, referred to as 'Kodak censorship'.

Taken at face value, the cinematic technique witnessed in Werckmeister Harmonies is awe inspiring. The entire 145 minutes of the film are compiled of just 39 shots; an artistic achievement in itself, only outdone, perhaps, by Russian Ark (2002). However, whilst Russian Ark stands as a milestone in cinematic history (filmed entirely in one 96 minute take on high definition cameras with a cast of over two thousand; an achievement many may see as a challenge to better), Werckmeister Harmonies shall never be out done; Tarr brings so much more to the table. From its extraordinary opening scene to its incredibly elegant shades of black and white, Werckmeister Harmonies is beautiful; one can simply watch it and appreciate Tarr's composition regardless of any subversive meaning.