Tag Archives: Robert Bresson

A Quiet Passion

I saw Terence Davies’ film A Quiet Passion (2016) the other day. It was the most thoroughly engaging cinematic experience I have had in the last year. Davies, true to form, grounds his subject within the context of the family unit and, within this context, examines the effects of the passage of time, of human mortality. Unlike his best known works Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992), A Quiet Passion focuses on a historical celebrity (Emily Dickinson, played by Cynthia Nixon) and is set in the United States as opposed to Liverpool.

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A Quiet Passion echoes heavily with the influence of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet in its privileging of duration and silence as a means of revealing the interior of characters without relying upon such tired devices as voice-overs. When Davies does employ voice-overs, it is always a recitation of one of Dickinson’s poems as an auditory counterpoint to the visual of the narrative, never as a means of taking the psychological elements of character and perverting it into exposition.

There is also a hint of latter day Robert Bresson to Davies’ sound design in A Quiet Passion, particularly if one recalls Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review of Bresson’s Lancelot Of The Lake (1974). If one looks at the scene where Emily Dickinson, her sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle), and the Wadsworths (Eric Loren and Simone Milsdochter) have tea together one will immediately notice how high the sounds of glasses clinking have been brought up in the mix. These sounds lend a sense of tension to the scene while also making the space more visceral. This tactic prevails throughout A Quiet Passion.

Visually, Davies is at his best in two sequences. First, in showing the passage of time from Emily Dickinson’s adolescence to adulthood via a transformative portrait. Davies seizes the opportunity of each member of the Dickinson family sitting for their portrait as a means of moving the narrative forward in time while also drawing our attention to the technical limitations of 19th century photography and subverting the aesthetic conditions of photography itself. The second sequence is Emily Dickinson’s funeral procession. The unusual perspective born out of unorthodox camera placement, coupled with eerie tracking motions and a detached voice-over lend the scene gravitas without giving way to sentimentality.
This is Terence Davies’ true gift as a filmmaker in my opinion; his ability to construct highly emotive film experiences without ever becoming bogged down by sentimental signifiers or narratives capable of any easy closure. This places Davies within the same vein of filmmaking in terms of sensibilities as John Cassavetes. But unlike Cassavetes, Davies finds the source of his visual language not in social realism or naturalism but within the school of avant-garde formalism. The consistent use of visual tableaus and narrative vignettes are the direct descendants of Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet and Derek Jarman.

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Spring 2017

Lynch & Gifford’s American Dreams

Wednesday was David Lynch’s 70th birthday.  Popular culture’s favorite scary oddball is a senior citizen and hipper than ever.  Due to popular demand, more than anything else, Lynch and original co-creator Mark Frost will be reviving Twin Peaks as a new series in the 21st century.  This highly anticipated event, along with Lynch’s birthday last Wednesday, have spurred an abundance of write-ups about Lynch’s films, focusing predominantly upon the show Twin Peaks (1990-1991) and his films Eraserhead (1977), Blue Velvet (1986), and Mulholland Drive (2001).  But in all of this Lynchmania there has yet to be any considerable recognition of his collaboration with author Barry Gifford; a collaboration that, for David Lynch, dominated the mid-1990s.

Laura Dern & Nicolas Cage as Sailor and Lula

Laura Dern & Nicolas Cage as Sailor and Lula in Wild At Heart

Barry Gifford’s first forray into the “world” of David Lynch came when Lynch adapted Gifford’s novel Wild At Heart into a feature film in 1990.  Though Gifford did not participate in Lynch’s adaptation of Wild At Heart, there is a clear syncopation of preoccupations between these two artists.  If Lynch’s Blue Velvet is a synthesis of “coming-of-age” story with noir thriller then Gifford’s novel Wild At Heart similarly transplants the Romeo & Juliet archetypes into a post-modernist Beat context.  Lynch and Gifford’s works both thrive on their mutual insistence that their narratives take place in a timeless America; an America that is both All That Heaven Allows (1955) and the nihilist present, whilst neither being truly here nor there.   What is in my mind the most significant of the numerous similarities between these artists is their desire to subvert every expectation established by the genres from which they draw upon.  Blue Velvet clearly gives evidence to this, but in Gifford’s case I would site Night People or Sailor’s Holiday over Wild At Heart.

Oddly enough, the trends cited above as being the defining aesthetic concerns of Gifford and Lynch do not actually apply to Lynch’s version of the climax to Wild At Heart.  It has become one of those famous anecdotes about the director considering that it flies in the face of his usually morbid sadomasochistic sex operas that he should rewrite the ending as a happy one.  In Gifford’s novel Sailor and Lula do not come together in the end, rather they diverge paths, each too unfamiliar with the other to truly confront their would-be status as a family unit.  However Lynch’s “happy ending” is not derived from the filmmakers own personal desire for narrative closure or reassurance.  Instead it seems to originate in the film’s concern with the mythology of mid-twentieth century American popular culture and coinciding signifiers born out of Hollywood in the form of The Wizard of Oz (1939), Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley (a pantheon of Gods and legends not dissimilar to that of Andy Warhol, Jack Smith or Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train).  This subtext of Lynch’s Wild At Heart exists in the novel, though the legends that formulate Gifford’s allusions are almost exclusively literary, born out of the works of Kerouac, Burroughs and Mailer.  For each artist this retrospective catalogue of America’s shared consciousness provides a historical context into which Sailor and Lula are thrust forward, sensual monoliths of late 80s culture.

This mutual desire to employ their aesthetics as a means of contextualizing a fictional interpretation of the present through the guise of mass culture American history is at the heart of Hotel Room, a three episode miniseries Lynch and Gifford collaborated on that aired on HBO in 1993 (in actuality Gifford only wrote two episodes, the same two Lynch directed).   The premise of the show is born out of No Exit, restricting all of the episodes to the confines of a single hotel room.  Gifford’s off the wall idea of narrative reflexivity as well as the premise’s inherent necessities of space all seem to have influenced Lynch’s much later web-series Rabbits (2002).   Like Hotel Room, Rabbits again finds Lynch jettisoning contextual signifiers into the “world” of his fantasy, though without the contemporary dressings of Hotel Room, preferring a Dadaist sensibility manifest in unorthodox lighting, blocking, and gigantic humanoid bunnies.  Gifford’s contribution is almost singular to his career if the influence of these teleplays weren’t to be found in his novel Perdita Durango.  As is often the case with self-aware stage/television writing (remember Paddy Chayefsky?) the author often finds themselves emboldened by the physical restrictions of the medium to explore more subtle, if not existential, qualities in human nature.  In turn, this direction in Gifford’s writing of Hotel Room returns Lynch to the singular “nightmare” spaces of his earlier The Alphabet (1968), The Amputee (1974), and Henry’s bedroom sequences in Eraserhead, though with an intentional coloring of post-modernist irony.

The personal artistic innovations of Hotel Room marks a departure for Gifford in that, unlike Sailor and Lula, these characters exist in a single space, abandoning Gifford’s Romantic metaphor of car travel along American highways.  In fact the forward motion of Hotel Room is one of time.  The presence at the heart of the series is one hotel room, but this room’s journey through time serves as the testament of a silent observer, an observer that remains within the confines of Gifford’s two episodes apparently objective.  This complicates things immeasurably for Lynch in terms of the histrionic signifiers discussed above which he employs so readily in his visual designs, whose very use is born out of the filmmaker’s highly stylized and subjective world view.  Remarkably it would be this particular anomaly that marks the “tormented genius” of Lost Highway (1997).

pornography and voyeurism in the hands of David Lynch

Lost Highway: pornography and voyeurism in the hands of David Lynch

Could it be more telling that Lost Highway should open with David Bowie’s ferociously schizophrenic song I’m Deranged?  Or that the song should be married to an image that is the absolute visual summation of Gifford’s literary stylings?  I think not.  Nor should it be surprising that Barry Gifford and David Lynch’s only outing as co-screenwriters should also be the most brazen celebration of American Film Noir’s hyper-hetero culture.

And yet Lost Highway suggests the unorthodox narratives to come in Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire (2007).  It presages a subtlety of characterization, a sort of minimalism, that would flavor Gifford’s Night People.  But superficially, if one were to watch Lost Highway for the first time, one would invariably be struck by the film’s obvious preoccupation with other filmic devices, primarily those best represented by Brian DePalma and Jacques Rivette.  In the case of Brian DePalma one finds the duality of the film’s female protagonist, once brunette and then blonde, or should I say housewife and then femme fatale.  From Dressed To Kill (1980) to Snake Eyes (1998) DePalma has been dramatizing the incongruities and polarities of the female as signifier in his often Freudian world of masculinity in jeopardy.  This device is implemented by Gifford and Lynch within the Balthazar Getty portion of Lost Highway to color the audience’s reading of the Fred/Pete character and the duality it represents as opposed to dwelling on the female duality which, to DePalma, functions as a potential means for masculine castration.

Jacques Rivette’s influence is, like Depalma’s, entirely conceptual as well as totally focused again upon the duality of two psychoses in the process of a merger (Fred/Pete).  But where Rivette is concerned with the philosophical from a similar vein as Robert Bresson, Lynch and Gifford implement a strategy that moves the device into the reflexive world of heightened genre mechanics (Film Noir).  Where Celine & Julie Go Boating (1974) tackles the breadth of cinematic humanism in all of its potential Lost Highway prefers a harrowing journey into a genre familiar to mass audiences with the intention of exploring why it is audiences feel comfortable, if not fulfilled, by the sexual politics of Film Noir.

That is not to say that Lynch and Gifford are at all plagiarists, on the contrary, the addition of these motifs or concepts to the amalgamation of interests and devices that already compromise their recognizable style serve to better equip Lost Highway.  Consider Lost Highway as the polar opposite of Wild At Heart.  Wild At Heart championed a visual language of allusions that drew upon the Hollywood of Lynch and Gifford’s youth to articulate their own nightmare version of the American Dream.  Wild At Heart is akin to Norman Mailer’s An American Dream in this fashion.  But if this referential dialect represents a chic nihilism that has remained in constant vogue, then Lost Highway is most certainly a singular case for Lynch and Gifford.  The dialect of Lost Highway reprises the voyeurism of Blue Velvet, but thrusts it into the wider popular consumer context of the still taboo porn industry.  Wild At Heart had it’s yellow brick road, Lost Highway has its back room casting couch.

It is the porn industry that ultimately unites the dissimilar narratives and dual identities of Lost Highway.  Likewise, the pornographers are the villains (Mr. Eddy, a surrogate Frank Booth) as well as the whores with the heart of gold (femme fatale Alice Wakefield).  Here is perhaps where Lost Highway loses a good percent of its audience.  The cinema has proven time and again that an audience uncomfortable with the narrative environment cannot see the forest from the trees, so to speak.  For Lynch and Gifford this is clearly intentional.  Once the pornographic element of the narrative reaches its fever pitch the film breaks into a reprisal of the Fred narrative, a narrative that has, at this point, lost all tangible relation to how the audience understood it at the films outset.

Patricia Arquette in her dual roles

Patricia Arquette in her dual roles in Lost Highway

The sum of all of these disparate elements couched in the familiar facade of Film Noir bring a closure to Lynch’s recent work.  1992’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me sought in vain to define the paradox of a girl like Laura Palmer in a town like Twin Peaks.  However Lost Highway gives the worlds of Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet their antithesis which is no less than the dramatized duality of our ability to order and recognize images within a ready-made context whose aesthetic divisions are so intertwined, along with the narrative, that they contradict one another.  Lost Highway brings us the first Lynch film that works as a cycle, ending as it began.  This narrative trope clearly comes from Gifford’s early novels, offering audiences an ambiguous understanding of Film Noir precisely because Lost Highway contradicts every other mandate of the genre’s narrative conventions.  Therefore Lost Highway represents a maturity of the aesthetics that popularized Blue Velvet as well as a more sophisticated approach to surrealist narrative represented by Eraserhead and suggested by Hotel Room.

The first time I saw Lost Highway I was fourteen.  I had not read any of Gifford’s novels, but I had seen Wild At Heart, The Elephant Man (1980), Eraserhead, Dune (1984), Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks.  I remember being struck that Lost Highway did not feel very much like Lynch’s other works.  Upon reflection this is perhaps due to the fact that Lost Highway was photographed by Peter Deming and not Frederick Elmes or Freddie Francis.  Lost Highway, more than any other Lynch film in my mind, makes better use of wide tracking shots and blocking.  Overall the visuals are more formal, more like something by Michael Mann.  It was at a time that I was very much impressed by long takes with subtle camera moves, which explains my passion for Werner Herzog’s Woyzeck (1979).  The opposite was true about my interest in Barry Gifford.  It was two years later that I finally got around to reading him, and it wasn’t even Wild At Heart, it was Sailor’s Holiday.  The novel is composed of three parts, each moving quickly with a vicious gallows humor and a strong penchant for sexual violence.  Yet, for my angst ridden teenage self, Sailor’s Holiday was reassuring, if not hopeful.  In my mind Sailor and Lula represented a classical manifestation of “true love”.  And it was this love that they shared that saw them through the violence and sleaze that is Gifford’s American dream.

This is what both David Lynch and Barry Gifford are about; the American dream.  They see its pitfalls, its contradictions and its ugliness for what it is (no matter in what genre it is expressed).  They know that the dream cannot survive without the good nor the bad.  The American dream is just a good narrative after all, with all of the grandeur, posturing and truth of fairy tales and myths.

-Robert Curry

 

 

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Filed under Winter 2016

Pola X & The New French Extremity

James Quandt’s concept of the New French Extremity, while striking at its time, has, with age, become somewhat outdated, a number of the films initially categorized as such have proven to be something else entirely.  Defined as having a leaning toward the exploitative, the New French Extremity can perhaps best be defined by the works of Walerian Borowczyk while he was living in France, though the last films of his career were released a good decade before Quandt coined the term.  With that in mind it seems rather peculiar that Leos Carax’s Pola X (1999) should be considered an early component of the “genre”.  What exploitative qualities possessed by Pola X can clearly be seen as being motivated, if not dictated, by Herman Melville’s novel Pierre: Or, The Ambiguities which provided the basis for Carax’s film.

Pola X

Melville’s novel, published in 1853, provides an early prototype for the psychological portraiture that became one of the fundamental aesthetic concerns of twentieth century novelists as diverse as Malcolm Lowry and Martin Amis.  Pierre: Or, The Ambiguities performs as a quasi-gothic rendering of a psychological portrait of the book’s title character, pinpointing a number of concerns regarding identity in all of its many facets in the face of social and political change halfway through the nineteenth century.  In translating Melville’s novel onto film Carax has found his cinematic footing somewhere between Robert Bresson and André Téchiné.  What exploitative qualities that exist in Pola X simply serve to better render Melville’s concepts within a filmic vernacular and do not, in my mind, constitute any fetishistic tendencies on the filmmaker’s part.

The single scene that is clearly informed by exploitation films is the love scene between Pierre (Guillaume Depardieu) and his half-sister Isabelle (Yekaterina Golubeva).  The scene’s duration is long, explicit, and features a close-up of actual penetration.  Yet, within the context of the larger film, this scene of love-making serves two distinct purposes.  The first is to clearly allow the audience time to consider the event they are watching and its ramifications.  The second is a dramatization of a psychological anomaly in the film.  During this scene neither Pierre’s nor Isabelle’s face can be seen clearly, [similar to love scenes in John Cassavetes’ Faces (1968) and A Woman Under The Influence (1974)].  It’s as though the physical union of these characters in this sexual act is an identity unto itself, with components of each.  Prior to this scene, and throughout the film, Pierre makes references to being an “impostor” and to finding his “true self”.  What’s intriguing is that these often rhetorical statements are motivated by his half-sister Isabelle.  So it seems Carax’s point to make visual Pierre’s statement that because of Isabelle he has “found his true self”, just as surely as Isabelle’s sense of “home” is derived from Pierre’s physical presence.

Another example of what might be construed as an influence from exploitation film could be the scene in which Marie (Catherine Deneuve) dies in a motorcycle crash.  The obvious artifice to the sequence, in which it is clear Deneuve is not actually driving the bike, recalls the low-budget effects of Borowczyk but with a self-consciousness towards genre one associates with Luc Moullet’s The Smugglers (1967).  The effect of this brief scene, however, is entirely expressionistic, making it akin to the Gothic imagery and language of Melville’s novel, though quite clearly rendered in a post-modern context (and not dissimilar in terms of lighting design to Carax’s Boy Meets Girl).  Again Melville is the catalyst for Carax’s stylistic choices, motivating the employment of cinematic tactics associated with exploitation films.

The single most stylized moment in Pola X has scantily anything to do with exploitation film genre mechanics or with the New French Extremity.  Not a conventional dream sequence but more of a fantasy interlude is a brief sequence in which Pierre and Isabelle appear naked in a river of blood rushing through a jagged stone ravine.  This nightmare speaks metaphorically to the strain of keeping the secret of familial relations experienced by Pierre and Isabelle.  There is no other sequence I can think of like this in Carax’s films.  Typically moments of fantasy employed to reflect the emotional states of a film’s characters are rooted in the reality of those characters.  So Pola X represents the inverse of Carax’s usual aesthetic as exemplified by the fireworks scene in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991).

Pola X

What separates Carax’s use of exploitation film tactics from a filmmaker such as François Ozon or perhaps Pascal Laugier is that Carax uses these devices to articulate character and subtext within precise visuals and not merely to advance plot or shock the film’s audience.  What is shocking about Pola X is due to how visceral the fictitious world of the film becomes in the hands of its actors and the powerfully emotive soundtrack produced by Scott Walker.  Like Carax’s other films, Pola X fabricates a reality that is only the slightest apart from our own.

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Autumn 2015

Casual Observations & Off The Cuff Ideas

During the last few weeks I have begun again a survey of the cinema focused upon the “alternative” of cinematic expression.  This is not a scheduled nor customary revisit, rather it is almost motivated exclusively by the demands of a new project.  In this case a short film that functions as an anthropological video essay that is entirely the product of my own invention titled Three Sisters.  Though Jean-Marie Straub’s particular brand of cinema has little to do with my own recent work, it was the cinematic inventions of he and his wife, Daniele Huillet, that were of uncanny interest to me personally.  I must confess that I do not feel intellectually equipped to properly analyze or debate a majority of their films in writing.  Nonetheless, their contribution to the cinema at large is as immeasurable as that of Jacques Rivette or Mark Rappaport, though all of these filmmakers seem to go on ignored, for the most part, in this country.  But what struck me in particular about Straub and Huillet’s films was not just their anti-nationalism or reflexivity, those are simply by-products of the mechanisms functioning within their cinematic language.  Rather, it was how the two fundamental mechanisms of cinema itself, sound and image, were stripped down to their absolute minimum so that only in their repeated convergence could anything decipherable be communicated to the audience.  This reduction in the mechanisms of cinema has been the work of a fifty year career for Straub and Huillet, and is, perhaps, best exemplified in the films Chronicle Of Anna Magdalena Bach (1966), Sicilia! (1998) and Une Visite au Louvre (2004).

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When one considers the critical impact of these films one is struck by the degree of objectivity achieved by these films in terms of how they present narrative, character, and object.  Most dynamic in terms of contrasting opinions whose convergence results in an objective presentation is Une Visite au Louvre.  The camera, or eye of the film, majestically caresses the forms housed within the Louvre with an awe for artistic achievement and cultural evolution whilst the soundtrack consists of a recitation of Joachim Gasquet’s critique of the particular works shown, as suggested by Cezanne, that vary from praise to condemnation.  Thus the viewer, while contemplating the differing ideas and opinions suggested by the film, must inevitably draw their own conclusions.  This is a cinema that demands the participation of its audience.

This demand on the audience is self-aware and part of Straub and Huillet’s objective as filmmakers.  Like Brecht, or Straub’s own mentor Robert Bresson, Straub believes that the cinema should stimulate ideas in its audience.  Of course, any critic could see how more traditional films that are far less structuralist, essayist, or theatrical than Straub’s could stimulate an audience’s collective intellect.  Look at what Fire (1998) did to India when it was released.  But those films are simply “matter”, to use Straub’s word.  To better elaborate, in 1975 Straud told the magazine Enthusiasm “When you leave (Michael) Snow’s film (Rameau’s Nephew By Diderot) and see the end of Citizen Kane-on the TV screen admittedly-then you have the impression that that doesn’t function anymore”.  What Straub goes on to say, paraphrasing a little, is that the cinema of Citizen Kane and a majority of narrative feature films use the “matter” of sound and image to create an illusion containing an idea, and that the function of this mainstream cinema is to sell the idea to the audience.  In the quote above, Straub advocates a cinema where the “matters” are pinpointed in their convergence so as to have the effect of stimulating the audience so that, as a result, the audience manufactures its own subjective ideas with regards to the subject of the film.

It is in creating a cinema around this principle that has kept Straub and Huillet from being identified with any particular artistic or national movement in the cinema.  Their expressions in film have remained entirely their own and have kept them among an elite of what I would consider truly innovative cinematic iconoclasts beyond critical categorization such as Chantal Akerman, Jacques Rivette, and Chris Marker.  But this is the cinema at its most cinematic and, therefore, inaccessible.

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Winter 2015

Whity

“I love you.  Now I know I can finish this film!”-R.W. Fassbinder to production manager Peter Berling on the set of Whity.

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Whity (1970) is a first in many respects for its writer and director Rainer Werner Fassbinder.  For one, it is a Western, a genre of filmmaking foreign to Fassbinder.  But it is also Fassbinder’s biggest production up to 1970, costing about 680,000DM and shot in vibrant color on 35mm CinemaScope film stock.  For Fassbinder this was a tremendous move away from the small productions and formalist exercises of his previous films.  Whity is also the first of Fassbinder’s films where the influence of the French New Wave, in particular the films of Claude Chabrol and Jean-Luc Godard, cannot be felt in Fassbinder’s approach and at times appropriation of classic American cinema.

Whity takes its name from the film’s central character (played by Günter Kaufmann), the black valet and illegitimate son to Nicholson (played by American B-Movie star Ron Randell).  Eventually, Whity rebels against his father and brothers (played by Harry Baer and Ulli Lommel) as well as Nicholson’s manipulative young bride (Katrin Schaake), killing them all in cold blood with a revolver.  After these executions, Whity runs off with his saloon singer girlfriend Hanna (Hanna Schygulla), only to presumably die of thirst in the desert.

Whity (1970) marks Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s last production with his own antitheater-X Films as a result of personal differences among many of his Anti-Theater collaborators, with whom Fassbinder had worked on all of his previous films.  Fassbinder himself was in the midst of emotional turmoil.  His lover and the star of Whity, Günter Kaufmann, had begun breaking away from the director sexually and emotionally.  As a direct result of this Fassbinder began exhibiting violent behavior toward his crew, climaxing with two physical altercations.  First with production manager Peter Berling, and second with the production’s script girl.  In both cases Fassbinder was beaten by his adversaries, most memorably by the film’s two stuntmen.  Fassbinder’s personal situation is essential to understanding the themes of Whity as well as providing a biographical context for the film in the author’s life.

For Fassbinder Whity is a film whose central concern is American Romanticism in the classic Hollywood tradition.  In one respect Whity is a deconstruction of the Romantic elements of Raoul Walsh’s film Band Of Angels (1957).  For much like Band Of Angels, Whity’s central narrative is melodramatic and centered on the power struggles within a family unit.  But Whity also grapples with the tradition of the movies romanticizing American history, effectively transposing the melo-dramatic narrative devices of Walsh’s film into the heightened camp environment of Nicolas Ray’s masterpiece Johnny Guitar (1954).

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Thus, as a genre picture, Whity makes two essential gestures of deconstruction.  Firstly, Fassbinder’s narrative is as preposterous as that of Band Of Angels.  But to strengthen the artifice of this narrative proposition, Fassbinder slows down all of the character interactions with an almost novelistic approach.  Characters react with delay to reveals to the audience, often accompanied by slow camera moves whose composition and accompanying score raise the tension to Wagnerian heights and a sort of dream like reality.  In this way the mechanisms of Romantic story telling in Western genre filmmaking become clear to the viewer, challenging the audience to question their necessity to accept these mechanisms in the context of film as truth.

Secondly, Fassbinder will visually quote the trademark close-ups of Sergio Leone’s westerns.  This technique imbues Whity with self-awareness indicative of New German Cinema.  Yet, what is of primary importance concerning this quotation is the implication that Westerns are just as essential to the mythos of European cinema as they are to the American cinema.  By 1970 westerns had been part of the standard regimen of B-movie production in Germany for the better part of five years.  And it is during those five years, just as it occurred simultaneously in Italy; the Western became assimilated into the collective national consciousness.  This means that in Germany, as well as Italy, the Western genre existed as entertainment for the masses, the working class, functioning as a tool for communal unity.  This signifies a conscious effort on Fassbinder’s part to endow the genre, by making an intellectual Western, with a political relevance to contemporary West Germany, even going so far as to illuminate the pitfalls of leftist thinking among the working classes, primarily the growing Anarchist movement.

Whity is not, however, exclusively bound to the American cinema via its genre but also by it’s depiction of female sexuality and in particular one sexual relationship within the film.  The relationship between the valet Whity (Günter Kaufmann) and the singer/prostitute Hanna (Hanna Schygulla) is derivative of the relationship between Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper in Fassbinder’s favorite film by Josef von Sternberg Morocco (1930).  What attracts Dietrich and Schygulla to their male suitors above all others is their simplicity and their romantic devotion.  This is essential to the theme of Whity, that it is Whity’s intellectual simplicity and his willingness to accommodate his mistress that he in turn can be controlled and eventually (though the film never sees this through) oppressed by her.  This is an undercurrent that runs throughout Fassbinder’s work, that there are two kinds of people, the oppressor and the oppressed.  Fassbinder proposes that one needs the other, and that even when one relationship of this sort is destroyed (as it is in Whity), either the oppressed or the oppressor must then carry on the symbiotic relationship with a suitable opposite.

That relationship is in turn the center of Fassbinder’s political message within the film.  One can therefore assume, given Fassbinder’s fear and disdain toward West Germany’s Anarchist movement that this message is for them.  In fact, Fassbinder saw the Anarchists much in the same way he saw the protagonist of his film, as short sighted and prone to violent action and martyrdom that does not permanently resolve any conflict nor does it achieve any sort of solution.  The paradox described in the above paragraph applies again to either Whity or the Anarchists.  If one is oppressed and violently removes the oppressor, then one will inevitably seek out a way in which to be oppressed again.  So to continue the metaphor proposed in a political reading of Whity, the Nicholson’s are representative of the conservative West German government.

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For all the points I make about Whity above, the film has largely been either misread or dismissed for its affiliations with the Western Genre.  Even when the film premiered at the 1971 Berlin International Film Festival the film was received with a cool reserve.  Admittedly, Whity is a difficult film in many respects, but it is the many parts of its whole that allow the film to transcend the tropes of your standard deconstructionist Western, becoming a film of the highest order much in the same way Robert Bresson’s Lancelot Of The Lake (1976) did with French Romanticism.

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Autumn 2013

Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac

Robert Bresson began his career in filmmaking in the years following the German occupation of France.  His earlier films are heavily steeped in a contemporary nationalist portraiture, often obsessing over the fringes of French society.  One of his most significant films, made near the end of his life, adheres to neither style.  That film, released in 1976, is a visionary retelling of Arthurian legend Lancelot du Lac.

The narrative is a familiar one.  The film begins with the Knights of the Round Table returning from their quest for the Holy Grail in failure.  Sir Lancelot (Luc Simon), once back in Camelot, resumes his affair with Queen Guinevere (Laura Duke Condominas).  King Arthur’s knights break into factions, one led by Sir Lancelot and the other by Mordred (Patrick Bernhard), when the Queen is brought up on charges of treason.  It is this conflict between Arthur’s knights, which leads to the immediate demise of Camelot.

Bresson casts his film in the tradition of Italian neo-realists such as Rossellini.  By employing amateur actors Bresson endeavored to populate the film with singularly unique faces, whose interactions would be so purely reactionary as to endow the film simultaneously with a naturalist believability and a natural artificiality which both work as organic responses from the films primary players.  To heighten this effect, Bresson also chose to use predominantly long takes that compel the audience to focus their gaze onto the behavioralism of the cast and characters.  This makes for a highly nuanced effect in the interactions of the characters, whose naturalist responses are in total juxtaposition to the plasticity of the films melodramatic narrative.

Bresson goes further still to discredit the environment of Arthurian legend, for his interests are in the morality of his films characters.  The films opening is a montage of repeated actions (horseback riding, decapitation, mutilation, the crossing of swords) whose frequency of repetition negates any genuine purpose to the actions themselves and leaves the audience with a sense of futility in so far as it concerns the chivalrous actions of King Arthur’s nights.  The derring-do of Hollywood retellings of the same story are concerned primarily with these shows of strength and chivalrous valor.  The emphasis is almost exclusively this in Richard Thorpe’s film The Knights Of The Round Table (1953).  The plasticity of action in Bresson’s film highlights the reality and therefore honesty in the portrayal of character’s relationships, primarily between Guinevere and Lancelot.  These interactions between Lancelot and Arthur or Lancelot and Guinevere become the only organic components of Bresson’s film, contrasting uncomfortably with the superficiality of the films action sequences.

Often, Bresson will sandwiches shots of the films location (landscape or setting) between scenes of action and scenes of character interaction (or one may say melodrama).  Constantly Bresson is grounding his fantastic narrative into some sort of recognizable context.  However, the duration of these shots is long enough to make the audience uncomfortable with what they are viewing, and after a time (many of these shots repeat throughout the film) the audience even begins to doubt the validity of these images.

This is what is crucial to understanding the purpose of Lancelot du Lac.  Bresson is analyzing, via the retelling of Arthurian legend, the relevancy of European heritage and history.  He is forever skeptical, and always insisting that the audience question or doubt the defining mechanisms of Arthurian storytelling.  The one element of Arthurian legend he does not invite us to scrutinize is the validity of love between Lancelot and Guinevere, and the necessity for romance in human relationships, as well as the negative ramifications of such relationships.

Despite what may seem like a long list of formalist complexities, Lancelot du Lac is an easily understood film.  It is simple in it’s composition and moves leisurely in revealing its true agenda.  The compositions of the visuals themselves are often so compelling that the film takes on a poetic quality despite itself.

-Robert Curry

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