Tuesday, 13 September 2016
(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2010)
Although the story of Vlacil’s film about clan rivalry in the middle ages is essentially straightforward, its whys and wherefores on a first viewing are occasionally opaque. Surprisingly, this matters little as the film’s realisation of a medieval world, shot through with mysticism, folk beliefs, and an interpenetrating paganism and christianity is so convincing that the disorientation helps to draw us into the film. It is as if we had been dropped bodily in a world we only dimly apprehend, but which is alive with portent and ancient significance. We are like the child shown gnawing on a joint of meat by the fire as the adults talk of important matters with an unknown guest. We hear and recognise the names in their talking, their voices increasingly rough with drink, and we will follow their will. What follows are notes made after a first viewing which, I hope, give a taste of the world in which the viewer is immersed and which also try to preserve that delicious state of partial comprehension that is so thoroughly involving.
The lamb of god wandered through the mud of the early spring thaw and into an encampment, where it was slaughtered and eaten; eaten even by its own shepherd while he was drunk. Bereft, he then stumbled to the hills where he followed the bleats of an escaping thief. Later he took to the tracks once again and a goat served for his needs.
This is a thoroughly elemental film, a film of wind and flame, of marshes and mud. The winter is long here. We are so long with the snow that when an hour in, Lazar announces that the thaw is coming and water drips from the melt on the rooves, we are also expectant for the tentative warmth of spring. Instead we see the cold glister of chain mail on a man’s back as he rides home. At dusk, horses’ silhouettes skitter across the thawing ground which has the sheen of mercury, a slippery bed for the rough violation of a stolen girl. Wet, claggy snow clings on cart wheels. Pied carriage dogs hold their ears alert.
Marketa’s sleeves extend to the base of her fingers, a comfort nearly as soft as the down of the dove she pulls from her breast, its feathers loosed to the wind; an offering for the devout. Alexandra offers a blood sacrifice and a necklace of beads and feathers to the skulls on the fetish tree, kisses her brother’s left arm. The seeds of the wild grasses ripen in the sunlight. A serpent watches.
The creaking of ice, the wind through stone passageways and windows, the muted hammering on an anvil, the clank of implements hanging from carts, the splitting of carcasses and the beating of hides, the thunk of stone on a head, a chain against a breast-plate, the clash of swords, bells on a sled, the splash through water and the rolling of wheels, the burning of wood, the howl of wolves. These are some of the sounds behind Zdeněk Liška’s film music.
Clear air after snow, horses and their muck, burning brands, coltsfoot and butterburr, leather and hide, warmed skin, charred meat, pine woods, a bed of leaves, marsh mud, burning tallow tapers, burning logs, stale sweat, fear, blood. These are some of the film’s smells.
Characters call out to each other and catch sight of one another across time and space. Premonitions and memories fly, land and flash into vision, as if the falcons tethered to branches had been loosed. Men and women are assailed by visions, and omens have as much bodily presence as any reality. Black beasts and deer approach. Kozlik’s antlers are bigger than branches. Man is transient as a shadow.
The air is thick with voices, arrowed from the darkness of a wood at dusk. The trees talk. Later, limbs are but logs among the twisted branches and the leaf mould. Voices are ever on the air, echoing through Straba’s delirium around the walls of Rohacek, along with cries, whip cracks and the faintest of knocks on a thick wooden door. A sister offers the warmth of fur, a brother feels the rough, thick knots of a cord garment across his shoulders.
There is much hiding here, behind scrub and lacerating thorn-thicket. A white mare struggles to escape from the marsh, leaps through the water, but cannot pull herself out from the suck of the mud, watches us, then grazes on the marsh grass as we look back over our shoulders. We are caught, like the wood mice that snuffle between apparently sleeping fingers.
On a blasted bone-strewn heath, love and certainty fought with cruelty and doubt for the issue of the children’s souls. As ever was.
May your house be filled with health and happiness. May your oxen thrive.
(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2010)
Sundays and Cybèle (Les Dimanches de Ville d’Avray) is a profoundly elemental film. Water, fire, trees, even glints of light are shown to be of essential significance to the story. They are filmed not as mere background to the human interest of the relationship between a pilot (Hardy Kruger), traumatised by the killing of a child in a colonial war and the young orphaned girl (the 12 year-old Patricia Gozzi) whom he meets as he waits to recollect both memory and the scattered parts of his self, but as central elements of their time together.
Beginning with a clash of cymbals that we later learn is taken from a Tibetan ceremony that signifies the encircling of the universe, we see Pierre, a fighter pilot, through a screen of flashback, in a raid over an Asian village. As he flies, water appears to sparkle in the sun in the fields below him. We then see that these glints of light are reflected from his own cockpit. He flies in close and fires at the village. His bullets pummel the quicksilver land which accepts the seeds of his future harvest. As he flies in closer still, a child’s terrified eyes are imprinted in his mind, he rips away his oxygen mask and floats free into stilled silence.
when I was glass
the land below me was glass
that would shatter at my touch
but at my approach it was water
and then earth I was seeding
and my body was this earth
rent by my fire
and a child took my eyes
and filled me with her fear
The surge of a train recalls Pierre to his surroundings, the railway station of Ville d’Avray. Now a bewildered man-child living with Madeleine, the woman who nursed him, he rises from his bench to regard the passengers that go past, looking for some kind of contact or recognition. A man and a chld arrive in his orbit and he is asked for directions to a convent which he cannot give. He catches eyes with the child and, distressed by her crying, follows them outside, where he attempts to console her by offering a handful of shining stones which he shows her by the light of a match. ‘Take one’, he says, ‘it’s the piece of a star.’ Her father will not allow it. ‘But it was just for fun’, says Pierre. ‘It’s water, only water’, and points of light, the first of those that gleam and sparkle throughout the film, twinkle in his and the girl’s eyes. As they head to the convent through the inky night, the whites of their faces, and the car lights that pass seem like planets in a dark night sky. A little while later, when, through chance and happenstance, Pierre has come to be taken for her father, and he and the girl, Françoise, are shown together, in silhouette in the dark of his room, the light from the landing catches the few reflective surfaces around them, and, for a while, it seems that they have formed their own universe.
They make their home in water, in the ripples of a lake that are set in motion when they dislodge a stone as he spins her around in play. As they look into the water, the trunks and branches of trees loom large above their reflections, protective but dominant, knowing all already. ‘We’ve entered the circle’, says Françoise, and we see their reflections walk among trees in the water. Pierre’s vertigo, his fear of falling into water, is replaced by a fear of falling into the present.
with nothing to offer but stones
I offered stones, in lamplight
spilled across a cobbled road
a child appeared, and made
a home for me in water
that rippled our reflections
wavered the winter trees
and these I hung with flames
These ripples circle out into the rest of the film, into the coffee bowl that Pierre holds when he visits his friend Carlos, to help him construct a circular cage for his birds, into the music of the Tibetan ceremony that they listen to, into the windows of the derelict temple on the hilltop that Françoise first sees while looking through the facets of one of Pierre’s stones, into the finger bowl into which Pierre drops a stone at a wedding lunch when he cannot be with Françoise, into the dampened glass rims on which fingers circle their notes, into the broken rim of a champagne glass that cuts Pierre at his private Christmas celebration with Françoise at the derelict temple.
During one of their Sundays, Pierre carries Françoise through the trees around the lake. She stretches out across his arms as if she is floating upside-down and dreams of a Christmas together, a fir tree hung with stars and garlands, and glistening champage, this image resonating with Madeleine’s eyes as Pierre tries to tell her, but cannot, why he is happier these days. The curious mixture of healing with subterfuge and misunderstood intentions, the adult conversations and emotions between children, one of whom is an adult, is too difficult to broach. Then winter comes and the lake is iced over. Their stone skitters across the surface, and they must break the ice with a foot for their weekly homecoming ceremony.
As part of his Christmas gift, Pierre hangs the boughs of trees around the ruined building with candles liberated from the church, and which shine like picture-book stars in their own sky. As her gift of thanks and love to Pierre, Françoise gives him the one thing that matters more to her than anything – her real name, the ancient one the nuns have tried to erase, which she writes on a piece of paper that she tucks into a matchbox and hangs on a tree. Her name is Cybèle, the earth mother, goddess of trees and the earth, of fertility and nature, of regeneration.
Meanwhile, the film has been heading ineluctably towards the tragedy borne of misunderstanding that has been intimated all along, the payment perhaps for Pierre’s actions against the earth that began the film, but which is worked through people’s habitual suspicions about the couple.
Best to leave instead with two of the many beautiful images from the film that come to my mind. The first is of the headscarfed Madeleine, secretly watching Pierre and Francoise in the trees by the lakeside to assuage her fears. As she sees them playing, listening to trees, her face relaxes into a smile tinged with melancholy as she turns and walks away.
Secondly, I think of the smiling, earnest face of Cybèle, eyes sparkling with promise in the light of a fire, as she tells Pierre that when she drinks her Christmas champagne she will make a wish, a wish that they will go to the seaside. She has never been, but she has read that there you can see fish that have wings, and which can fly.
when the water froze
glints of ice lodged in men’s eyes
let us go to the sea, the child said
I have heard there are fish that fly
this I can give you
(written in 2009 and previously unpublished)
To the sound of a pulsing alien hum that intensifies into an ear-splitting squeal, a forlorn and desperate Dr Mark Davidson runs through the inkily damp, lamplit London streets to his office at the Royal Institue for Space Research, where he charges up the spiral staircase, parks himself in front of a Grundig reel-to-reel, waits for Edward Williams’ music to stop, and then begins to speak his final words into the microphone: ‘John, in a little while I expect to die ... to be killed, by something you and I know is here, visible, yet moving unseen, amongst (here fixing the viewer with a significant raise of his eyebrows) us all, each moment of the day and night. There were times when you thought I was insane, but listen to this tape I beg you, so you know what it is you have to fight. Or is it too late? Even if I had known what I know now, could I, or anyone, have held back … the terror?’
So begins Unearthly Stranger, John Krish’s treatment of the ‘they are here with us already’ fiction. In truth, its dramatic start is a little at odds with the fairly low-key approach of the rest of the film, nearly all of which takes place in an office suite, a cottage and a car in a lane, and whose best bits are in the details rather than the overall conception. (Its opening is nothing next to the ludicrously inaccurate text used for the posters; anyone enticed into the cinema with the words ‘Terrifying … Weird … Macabre, Strange things walk among the living to quench their vile desires’ would have nursed a justifiable grievance on their exit). In terms of the plot, the real beginning comes with Professor Munroe (a Scottish Warren Mitchell) announcing to Miss Ballard that he has solved the first part of a formula and that she should immediately telephone his colleague with the news. Well, Jean Marsh’s face full of foreboding is unlikely to be a wasted on the minor role of a secretary without an ulterior motive. Very soon afterwards, the alien shrieking (seemingly made up of strings, squealing train wheels and ghostly cries punctuated by the occasional whiplash twanging of overhead train lines) fills the air, the camera tilts, there is the sound of an explosion and Professor Munroe, brain ‘blown out of existence’, is no more.
Called back from Switzerland, with his mysterious new wife in tow, Dr Davidson takes over Munroe’s job at the experimental research unit. An intense, pursed-lipped boffin, with little more than a slide-rule to help him solve the unit’s pet theories of harnessing the power of concentration to enable minds to travel across time and space, he is also – surprisingly for one engaged in such research – unerringly and irritatingly dim to the conclusions that certain facts, such as his unblinking wife not having a pulse, might awaken in others. In fact, characterisation in the film is inconsistent throughout, with knowledge and scepticism regarding who knows and suspects what passed around like a game of pass the parcel. ‘You will find there must be some logical explanation,’ says the momentarily sniffy Professor Lancaster of Munroe’s mysterious death, moments before outlining his Department X theories of mind-space travel using ‘a hitherto unknown force that lodges in the back of all our minds – the force we call TP91’. Not being mentioned again, this mysterious force remains unknown for the remainder of the film too.
As security chap Major Clarke, Patrick Newell brings his enjoyable Dr Watson-ish persona to the mix, switching between sweetie-sucking Bunterish bonhomie and sly scepticism, occasionally even turning on an assassin's grin. He unwittingly hits the nail on the head to Davidson when he asks him about his new wife: ‘She’s a alien isn't she?’, ‘She was born in Switzerland' flat-bats Davidson in reply. When the Major visits said wife Julie in her home, his enigmatic, man-in-the-moon face seems to imply that he could well be an unearthly stranger himself, though this tricksy notion is soon quashed when he, and Davidson’s precious documents in his hand, are zapped by an attack of the alien squeals.
The film makes good use of simple effects, such as picturing Davidson against a blind which makes shifting binary pattern criss-crosses with the lined opaque glass behind it, or the tear tracks that scald Julie’s cheeks after she has made a baby cry and repelled a playground full of children by simply staring at them over the fence (her particular ‘vile desire’ being to fall in love with the human being she is meant to kill). Notable too is the film’s dramatic music from composer Edward Williams (who would go on score David Attenborough’s Life on Earth), especially the moment when his romantic ‘new wife waiting at home’ theme curdles into something more sinister as Davidson enters the house to find Julie cataleptic on the bed.
Unearthly Stranger makes a few pointed barbs along the way about integration of foreigners into a society, not least when Davidson notes that the programme director’s wife wouldn’t need to undergo the same level of scrutiny as his, being from ‘a nice respectable English family’. Such lines add another dimension to the film that perhaps grew out of Krish’s own experience as the son of a refugee and who had also, in 1960, made the film Return to Life for the Foreign Office to celebrate World Refugee Year. This context makes Miss Ballard’s final lines linger in the mind. ‘You talk a lot about love,’ she says to Davidson, ‘love of freedom for example, but do you have it? Do you really have it? It’s an illusion, and we have learned to live without illusions.’
Lancaster and Davidson’s answer is a clumsy attack that sends her through the window, ignoring her warning that there are already too many of them to combat – something they soon realise the truth of as they lean over her empty coat and find themselves staring up at the encircling faces of ordinary women, who before that moment they would have passed in the street without a second glance.
(written in 2009 and published in 2012 in Offbeat: British Cinema’s Curiosities, Obscurities and Forgotten Gems)
As the opening credits roll over bleached, cracked earth, an apocalyptic orange sun and sketches of fleeing figures that recall prehistoric rock-paintings (albeit with a gun), to the tune of a doleful guitar, Roger Whittaker sings words that – if you weren’t already aware of John Christopher’s flintily unsentimental 1957 source novel – give a fair idea that things are going to end badly, for everyone: No blade of grass grows and birds sing no more / No joy or laughter where waves washed the shore / Gone all the answers, lost all we have won / Gone is the hope that life will go on.
’By the beginning of the seventies’, says director Cornel Wilde, also on narrator duty, in words that chime closely with the sharpened concerns our own age, ’man had brought the destruction of his environment close to the point of no return. Of course there was a great deal of rhetoric about saving the earth, but in reality, very little was done.’ To press home the point, stock footage of car dumps, belching chimneys, sulphurous skies, exhaust fumes, clogged roads, and brown smog blanketing a city lead us into the film, and then – to press home the point a little harder – there’s more footage of smoke-belching chimneys, sewage-spouting pipes, poisonous river spume, open-cast mining, oil spills and dead fish. And then a nuclear explosion to cap it all off. No blade of grass here and no blue above / No you and me, it’s the end of love, sings Roger.
‘And then, one day, the polluted earth could take no more,’ says Wilde, as the blue planet seen from space is smeared with orange clouds. Welcome to Earth, circa 1970, where London is no longer any place to be, a fact to which architect John Custance is alerted by a middle of the night phone call from her daughter’s boyfriend Roger, telling him that, as they have been expecting for some while, the situation has suddenly turned critical and the government is sealing off the cities. As they grab their suitcases and ready themselves for a hasty exit, the film winds back a year to the news breaking on television of a desperate famine in China and south-east Asia caused by an epidemic of grass disease, derived, according to the ‘emergency committee of world ecology’, from cumulative residues of pollutants and pesticides in both soil and atmosphere. As joints of ham are carved on a buffet table and diners feed their faces, images of famine appear on the screen. More worrying reports then come through, of cannibalism and, in China, nerve-gas bombings of major population areas. Well at least that couldn’t happen here. Could it?
With the themes of eco-disaster and over-consumption now well and truly established, the film then – barring a few intermittent fill frames of more dead fish – drops them for a by-the-numbers treatment of the well-worn theme of a band of disparate survivors travelling through a decimated, dangerous country of unofficial checkpoints and intermittent crackly wireless news, mixing action scenes with disconsolate wandering across bare moors as the party head to the safe haven of Blind Gill, a Yorkshire farm owned by John’s brother. Nigel Davenport plays the eyepatch-sporting leader of the group, the archetypal decent man forced to adjust his behaviour to the needs of the time, while Jean Wallace, as the director’s wife, takes the role of Mrs Custance. Their party is boosted by Pirrie, handy with a rifle, and his pouty, petulant wife (a black-haired and well-upholstered Wendy Richard), who has an eye for anything in trousers. Her attempted seduction of Custance leads Pirrie to debate throwing her out of the group. ’She's got a survival kit between her legs,’ he says, but then he shoots her anyway so she doesn’t get the chance to use it.
Although Wilde attempts to jazz up proceedings with flash-forwards that signal (in tinted blinking red) the dangers they will face along the way, including a rape and an attack by horned-helmeted bikers, the leaden script, which veers between shock one-liners and flaccid sentimentality (‘a year ago I wouldn’t have believed it could happen to us’), means the film loses its way on the journey. At one point, Burnell Whibley’s music signals, somewhat unexpectedly, that we are in a western, following a group of pioneers on the trail, but by the time we get to watching a biker’s nightmare as a motorbike hits a rock and explodes in slow-motion, the plot, and any focus on ecological issues, has long taken a back seat to set-pieces and not-so-fancy effects. It doesn’t help that some time before a coup has been announced on the car radio by a spokesperson who seems to be none other than Peter Sellers in the guise of Fred Kite: ’This is the, er, citizen’s emergency committee in London,’ he says, ‘we've taken charge of the BBC’. Let’s just say that the film’s ambition outstrips the talent and judgement available for its realisation.
It does capture some of the matter-of-fact, casual brutality of Christopher’s novel in which killing has become a necessary part of survival, and a scene that plays out in negative in which men seem to kill a squealing dog for food with rocks and a spade is genuinely unsettling. (’No living creature was killed or mistreated in the making of this film’, assures a disclaimer.) In the end though it can’t justify its grandiloquent final claim that ’this motion picture is not a documentary ... but it could be’.
As evidenced by Penguin's 2009 ‘Modern Classics’ edition of the original novel, with an introduction by Robert Macfarlane (who notes that Wilde’s film is so ’arrestingly bad that Christopher himself has never been able to watch more than a few minutes of it’), the story itself still carries a powerful charge and relevance over half a century after its creation. It still awaits a film adaptation that does it justice.
Monday, 15 August 2016
(published in 2012 in Offbeat: British Cinema’s Curiosities, Obscurities and Forgotten Gems, with a different version appearing as a podcast for MovieMail in 2009)
Conceived in 1962, shot between August 1964 and June 1965, assembled into a final edit in 1967, given its premiere in May 1968 when it was the first film shown at London’s ICA cinema, and unavailable on any home-viewing format until its release on DVD and Blu-ray 41 years later in 2009, Herostratus now looks like a key film of the 1960s – though you would be well advised to leave any Aquarian age preconceptions about the era at the door. If the film has a totem it is Francis Bacon’s 1954 painting Figure with Meat, while its signature sound is a raw and desperate scream that is only sometimes silent.
The film (which takes its title from the fame-seeking man who sought to immortalise his name through the destruction of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world – the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus) is ostensibly about a young poet, Max, who offers his suicide to a marketing agency as an act of protest against modern society. However, this is only half the story. In his only recorded interview about the film with Clare Spark in 1973, Levy said that the film – he calls it a documentary in fact – was edited together to form ‘a network of resonances’, with its narrative set like ‘jewels in a necklace‘. Indeed, as much as its story, the film is composed around the rhythm and punctuation of sounds and silence, emotional resonance, colour, the flashes and repetition of scenes from elsewhere in its narrative cycle, and even the gestures and movements of its characters.
It begins with the exhausted Max, seen in snatches of running through streets and across waste ground, fetching up in his cheerless room in a dilapidated house next to a main road. The room, scrawled with layers of broken slogans, pasted flyers and cut-up thoughts, is an extension of himself. It is irredeemably stained and even appears to be rusting – with this colour echoed by a low winter sun catching and reddening Max’s blond hair. Throughout, traffic drones and buzzes by. The few of Max’s thoughts that do surface through this noise are pounded into submission by the sporadic sound of a trench rammer, working on a site somewhere in the distance. As Max looks at himself himself in the mirror, flash frames slash through his own self-pitying sighs and the film’s linearity, showing us glimpses of his fate.
He then embarks on an exhilarating, axe-wielding bout of cathartic destruction in his room, which he leaves with axe and tape player in hand to seek out ad-man Farson, or ‘Fars’ as he calls him, to sell him his death. ‘I am going to commit suicide’ he says to him. ‘My congratulations,’ replies the icy-eyed Farson, calling his bluff. ‘Why do you want to commit suicide?’ he asks Max. ‘I’ve got a headache,’ he replies.
Soon, Farson and his hatchet-man Pointer are outlining their plans for Max’s jump from a building. They need to give him a ‘good selling image for the general public’. ‘What do you think I am, a box of detergent or something?’ says Max; ‘As far as we’re concerned, you are,’ replies Farson, who adds that they feel, on consideration, that the best time for a jump is on a Monday at a quarter to two ... to help people get over their ‘black Monday’ feeling. ‘They’re dying for something to happen,’ says Pointer, without irony.
Sensuality is never far from the grotesque in Herostratus. A striptease is juxtaposed with scenes from an abbatoir, while Max, now in Farson’s studio bed, spends his time cutting and collaging magazine pictures. Breasts are served on a silver salver, a woman eats hair, and in a Family Circle treatment of the Francis Bacon theme, a houswife’s head with large upside-down lips emerges from a roast joint of lamb. The comparisons with Bacon are here made more explicit as disturbing time-lapse collages of Max’s distorted face are created and held in moments of brief and terrible silence. All of these scenes, together with the archive footage of the century’s obscenities, make Max and Clio’s bodies on the bed, surrounded by an inky blackness, all the warmer and more precious, and the blue-white morning fog that Max steps out into all the colder.
Clio is bought, Max is betrayed – or perhaps just gets what he deserves by offering his life to a ‘Human Crapology Machine, selling it to the native’ (as he describes Farson). What Max is blinded to by youthful egotism is that ‘human crapology machine’ applies as much to self-pitying poets placing themselves voluntarily on ‘the scrapheap of humanity’ as it does to cynical ad men looking for new material to exploit. For all Max’s youthful posturing, it’s seen-it-all ad-man Farson who runs the game: ‘You've been doodling on water ... go through with it … achieve something’ he says. His predatory circling of Max on the bed as he reduces him to a fame-seeking failure is bracingly cruel.
There are only two credits in the film; at the beginning, the title, and then at the end, that very word. It seems appropriate for a film that, as Levy said, ‘scoured the truth of ourselves’ during its making. Neither Levy nor his cinematographer Keith Allams made another feature. Gabriella Licudi, whom Levy describes as being ‘busted’ after the film, gave up acting in 1974, Don Levy took his own life in 1987, Michael Gothard took his in 1992.
Herostratus is important today because it helps to explain some of the peculiar energy of the age. It provides the psychological mortar behind such films as Antonioni’s Blow-up (1966) – filmed after Herostratus, released before it – with Michael Gothard a close cousin to David Hemming’s photographer (even down to the blond hair and white jeans). It shows how revolutionary energy and liberating, youthful destruction is underpinned, and eventually undermined, by vain, attention-seeking egocentricity. It’s a brilliant, if depressingly clear-sighted premise that, especially in the light of Max’s involvement with advertising, resonates in our own fame-hungry, image-greedy age.
(written after attending DocLisboa, the Lisbon Documentary Film Festival, in 2009. One of the presiding themes that year was migration, and the films shown addressed with clarity and deep understanding the issues Europe is still wringing its hands about now, seven years later. It appeared in the online Vertigo magazine in 2010.)
Two men with flowering branches
The first reaches up to smell the blooms
in Prospect Park, N.Y., Spring 1950
a rare moment of colour
between nights walking out the loneliness
and finds that for now
he is exiled even from the scent of lilac
The second was already old (so he says)
when he married 54 years ago
his belly is like a big cheese
(or so his wife tells him)
and as he climbs the hill
to the tractor driver
turning the earth of his field
he stops on the way
to smell the apple blossom
of one more year
The first man is Adolfas Mekas, filmed by his brother Jonas – an image that appears in the first reel of Lost, Lost, Lost, his 1976 assembly of a quarter of a century of footage, described as ‘some images, some sounds, recorded by someone in exile’, before he learned how to turn his estrangement into a process of continual belonging through the recording of the moment.
The second occurs in Andrei Dascalescu’s Constantin and Elena (2008), about an ageing couple who have lived at home in a Romanian village, together, through most of their lives. Their joys derive from family and familiarity, from re-use – a wooden cot fetched from the attic now serves the third generation (at least) of the family – and the film is warmed by walls of woven rugs, by reminscence and the couple turning over the fabric of their marriage. Their story is one of contentment through being happily bonded to a person and a place.
The two films bookended one day at DocLisboa 2009 (the Mekas as part of a retrospective), where films featuring themes of exile, displacement and unofficial migration were predominant. They are stories of movement that take place between the flowering branches of these two scenes.
Sometimes the journeys end with the authorities, as in Fernand Melgar’s The Fortress (2008), a snapshot of the lives of those waiting for the State’s decision inside a Swiss centre for asylum seekers. Beginning with a Securitas guard allowing us through a gate, it is a film of screens, doors and fences, the building shown continually jutting into the days of the centre’s inhabitants. Hope appears like the occasional shaft of sunlight that slants into the stairwells and corridors, warming rooms, melting chocolate. It is a film that makes you aware of the many different types of currency among migrants: the currency of stories or smiles, a shared prayer, fatherly advice, even a trick with a pack of cards. It makes you aware too of sounds such as the showery pattering of fingers at a keyboard, translating stories from places beyond pain into the neutral words of a report on a computer screen. A young Somali talks of extreme hunger leading him and other passengers to eat a child who had died on board their small, crammed boat as they crossed to Europe. A priest sympathises but his story is rejected for lacking detail and sounding second-hand. His application for asylum is refused; we see no more of him. The centre’s interviewers have had to become judges of stories, judges of eyes, judges of tears, grading them according to need and plausibility.
Another journey that ends with authorities is told in Jorgé Leon’s 10 Min., a police testimony given by a Bulgarian girl lured to Belgium on the promise of work from a childhood friend she thought she could trust. ‘You should have doubted there was any care work,’ says Leta to her when she arrives. It is a crushing film told at arm’s length; no people are shown and the girl’s statement is read, straight and without sentiment, by a Dutch man. Accompanying the narration, we see rooms of impersonal human traces waiting for new victims to use them for a while: dark rooms with shelves lined with sex toys and a kitchen timer to ensure a 50 Euro trick doesn’t overstay; a house in Bulgaria, lit by a streetlamp, where neighbours ‘saw everything but dared not intervene’, a room where the pimp’s father assumed he could come for sex, cheap clothing on a bed. I imagine this clothing is still there, in a bedroom somewhere, along with the blue star-shaped pillow, arm extended to greet or to comfort.
The journey itself gives shape to a film such as Olivier Dury’s Mirages, in which he travelled for five days, ‘the time it takes for a citizen to become an undocumented immigrant’, with migrants across the desert, from Niger into Algeria. Heavily-laden landcruisers head into the dark, travelling roads being reclaimed by sand until the roads are only sand, with tyres finding new tracks, heading for a landmark on a horizon not yet quivering and broken with heat; a horizon that is both the sea and an island, but is in the end just sand.
‘Where should I sit?’ asks one man as he tries to mount the truck bed, its space already full with bags and belongings before twenty people and more climbed on top. When the storm arrives the sand hits like hail and roars like the sea, visibility down to that of a north sea coastal fog. ‘People don’t know how to travel these days,’ says one man dismissively as another, through cold, falls off the side the truck somewhere in the middle of the desert.
Then there are the interrupted journeys such as in Bettina Haasen’s Hotel Sahara, in which we hear the stories of the stranded in the windblown, plastic-strewn town of Nouadhibou in Mauritania, a major embarkation point for unofficial migration to Europe. For those who have left their homes in search of a better life, it is a place of waiting, its temporary inhabitants caught between the impossibility of returning home empty-handed after their family has somehow raised money to send them on their way, and the danger and expense of moving on. Rusting hulks of ships lie off the coast; ‘the small stream’ (as one Nigerian woman is told), is quicksilver and sparkling.
Father Jerome, a young Nigerian priest, dwells on the inequality that has brought his congregation together. ‘We talk of freedom of movement, but some people can move, other people cannot … the world is not equal and people want to have the same experiences. Nobody gives you your freedom, you have to take it by force.’ ‘I have so many dreams to realise but time is passing and nothing is progressing,’ says one man; ‘If I don’t find what I’m looking for I will never go back home again,’ says another.
The laying bare of this disillusionment takes place in Oriol Canals’ Letters from the Shadows, a film born of the need for truthful contact. Tired of hearing once more the same stories of beached refugees arriving in Spain, ‘the same sad litany of figures’ on the morning news, he resolved to meet them and record their stories. But as he says in the film, ‘how can you show people afraid to be seen? How can you tell their story when all they want is to forget?’. In answer, he set up a room in which the men could speak unhindered to a camera, with the tapes then being sent to their homes as a way of breaking the illusions that so many families held about coming to Europe. The men speak of their ordeals in their own languages, in Bambara, Haoussa, Peul, Soninké, Twi and Wolof, and liberated from interview, speak candidly of their journeys, their sadness, hunger, fear, and their current drift in a world where they are wholly present but marginal, tolerated but ignored. Their film is suffused with the images and rhythm of waiting and uncertainty.
Letters from the Shadows gives voice to a few of the many who set out with dreams of bettering their lives and seeing the world. ‘When I decided to go for adventure it came from the heart’ says one man. Adventure: it is a charged and energising word that claims ground hitherto regarded as some kind of western birthright.
In his closing speech to a 2009 Gulbenkian Foundation conference on interculturality, Can There be Life without the Other?, also held in Lisbon, Jorge Sampaio concluded that in addition to national strategies, a sense of individual responsibility will be crucial in the challenge to create inclusive societies founded on mutual respect. Perhaps this is the most important aspect of Letters from the Shadows, that through a need to see beyond the barriers of mainstream coverage, one person created the conditions for furthering the possibilities of dialogue. These days, little else counts for as much.
(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2009)
’These two people are honest, they do not lie to themselves, nor do they try to deceive each other.’ This may seem a strange way of thinking about Jean and Catherine, the tortured central couple of Nous ne Vieillirons pas Ensemble (We Won’t Grow Old Together), a couple always on the verge of parting, but unable either to leave or to make their peace, but there it is.
If you have ever walked away from someone, knowing you need to leave, but also knowing how futile the attempt is to do so, with your bodies still belonging to one another, drawn to each other over and again by each other's taste and scent, then Nous ne Vieillirons pas Ensemble will resonate strongly. It is a film that recalls the feeling of parting, in the full knowledge you are so vitally and so hopelessly intertwined that to pull apart would cause real, raw damage, as much as staying together will continue the needling pain.
To watch Nous ne Vieillirons pas Ensemble it is to share in the feeling of being abandoned in some way; a feeling of needing to go home but no longer having a home to go to. Much of the film takes place in awkward, gut-gnawing times of uncertainty: that blank space of waiting for a train to leave after you have said your goodbyes, the time of waiting in bed for your lover to come home and then waking to an empty bed at dawn with the first birdsong after a fitful half-sleep; it takes place after the slam of a door, or after you have been grossly insulted but – having nowhere to warm yourself except from stinging nettle words – you remain still and try to warm yourself from their heat. It takes place in the time of waiting while a lover reads a letter of apology you have written for her, the time of waiting for a phone call that should have come an hour ago. It takes place in the time of leaving, and waiting to be called back.
Likewise, the film is shot in transitional places – a street, a car, a station, a bedroom, on a bench, on a beach, in the sea, where Jean and Catherine are shown together in scenes of love, rejection and frustration. Pialat trained as a painter, and this shows in his way of picturing his characters together, held by their tension and their mutual reliance.
The leavetaking in Pialat's third feature, La Gueule Ouverte (The Gaping Mouth), allows no second or third chances. The very opening scene takes place in a hospital, where a scan reveals the need for radiation treatment on a woman’s spine. Thereafter, the film follows the time of Monique’s dying as she rapidly becomes bed-bound and wholly reliant on others for her care. ‘There’s no point in our keeping her here’ says a Doctor to her son, Philippe, and she is taken home, where, to the discomfiture of her husband and her son, now confronted with the sour tang of sickness and the sound of laboured breathing in the couple’s Auvergne home, she becomes little more than a mouth – hence the title – an automaton winding down, in one scene even a grotesque mockery of a chick needing to be fed, and which is fed and cared for.
This is a chamber drama of beds and doorways – often seen in the same shot. Even when Philippe and his wife Nathalie return to the car through vines after making love outdoors, Monique's bed seems to be superimposed upon the scene, an unseen but keenly felt presence of immobility reduced to a body’s primary needs, a sort of ghastly chick whose death will not come. Her presence lends anger, or urgency, or off-handedness, or devil-may-care lecherousness to people's actions.
It has been said that the family members behave despicably during Monique’s death. I don't see that so much as family members coping in their rough and ready ways with the death of a woman who was a lover to one, a mother to another. There are no rules for such times, and given that it is a situation that most people only face a very few times in their life, each time, and each death is different. How does one deal with the indignity of death?
Nathalie’s non-committal blankness when told by Philippe that her mother-in-law has only a few months left is honest – there’s that word again. People generally do not know how to react to news of impending death. As much as anything, her reaction – which is not ‘so what’ or ’why should I care’ but a refusal to fake emotion for the sake of it, sets the tone of the film early on. She will be on hand for support, but this is a woman who has never cared much for her, so she will remain at a distance.
In one lengthy scene – I was going to call it a ’central’ scene but this would be to wrongly characterise it; all of these Pialat films progress in a continual, urgent present, in which no one scene takes precedence over another – Monique, her pallor increasingly deathly, lies in bed, the bedside lamp shaded with the local newspaper, while her husband and son, wander to and from the room, both listening to the sound of her laboured breath, breath that sounds like distant waves on a shingle beach. They need something to do, a way to be helpful, but apart from covering up a shoulder, they are impotent. ‘In the cinema, one has every right, except that of being an imposter.’ said Pialat in a 1973 interview. Remarkably, even in such scenes as this, one doesn’t feel like an imposter.
As with Nous ne Vieillirons pas Ensemble, the colour scheme of La Gueule Ouverte appears offhand, but is actually precise. The film’s opening titles are printed in a sickly yellow that seems leached of vitality, with the colour recurring throughout the film on nightgowns, dresses, walls and window frames. indeed, the film’s palette is suffused with the muted, pastel tones of interior colours, and shaded rooms; there is nothing brash here. Indeed, it’s only with the small-talk about geraniums and red petunias after the funeral that a splash of virtual colour comes in, but even this is tainted by the context of avoidance and the presence of the desolate Monsieur Roger at the table.
After watching the film, details stayed in my mind. I recognised the combination of the forbidden and the futile in Philippe, as he looks through his mother’s personal possessions, object that no longer animate a person’s life, leafing through photographs in a chest of drawers while she lies motionless and unaware nearby. I found myself wishing that Philippe had held his mother’s hand that was just waiting to be touched at the kitchen table in an early scene, but grateful for the tenderness that Roger shows as he rubs her feet. It is a film that makes us keenly aware of such opportunities, both missed and taken, in our own lives. After watching it, and Nous ne Vieillirons pas Ensemble, you can’t help but approach people with a little more understanding, and with ready judgements held in reserve.