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Monet/Benning

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Monet

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Benning

Critical Cycle - Daney, De Palma, Straub & Huillet

In an enthusiastic review written at the time of the release of both Brian De Palma’s Blow Out and Straub and Huillet’s Too Early, Too Late in Paris (published by Libération in 1982), Serge Daney manages to synchronise the cinematic strategies of these apparently dissimilar works, by focusing on their shared attention to sound [1]. Daney is moved by the ways in which each of the films privileges sound in relation to the image, so that the commonplaces of viewer audiovision are jolted, and the bearing that sound can have on narrative is foregrounded. For much of the article, Daney places Straub and Huillet’s project into the wider framework of the development of sound in motion picture history, before addressing some pertinent aethestic and political questions raised by the film.

But I want to return to the image of Travolta and Straub side by side that Daney begins with, because there are more unexpected similarities between Jack Terry’s technical assemblages and Straub’s deceptively calm landscape reflections than is apparent at first sight. The sound effects wiz Jack (played by Travolta) teaches us to use our ears, to be sensitive to each sound and what it has to tell us. Straub’s slowly turning camera gives us time to see, to intensely survey the scene and read the city and countryside as text, shaped by historical forces. Both films protest; against injustice, murder and betrayal. Travolta might not be a Marxist, as Daney points out, but the character of Jack invests all of his physical and emotional resources in a fight against the local pressures of the political order; a conspiracy of powers; one that culminates, tragically, at Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell. And it is liberty that is at the heart of Too Early, Too Late, a title which forewarns us of inopportunity; of social resistance coalescing outside of a perhaps unreal, idealised revolutionary moment. It is exactly this tension in relation to time that underpins the thriller as a genre, which De Palma has excelled in.

Aren’t those opening minutes of Straub’s film a thrill ride anyway? The camera hangs out of the window of an automobile that whips round the vicinity of the Bastille in Paris again and again; the frame taking in the same buildings and roads over and over, as the traffic spills past, sometimes too close, risking a collision. On the soundtrack, the sound of the street and the horns of the passing cars. And then the voice of Danièle Huillet, reading from Friedrich Engels’s letter to Karl Kautsky of 20 February 1889. Outside of Godard’s combination of Leftist attack and panoramic scans in Weekend, and the rigour and physicality of Michael Snow’s structural experiments <—-> and La Region Centrale (the latter of which is already referenced in Daney’s article) what other moment in cinema does this bracing introductory shot closely resemble? None so much as the repeated 360-degree pan around Jack Terry’s burgled studio, the camera suddenly locked into an aberrant cycle as Jack is gripped by psychic horror at the realisation that his labour has been effaced.

An intertextual spasm snaps these works into synch, extending their respective echoes backwards and forward in cinema and social history. Too Early, Too Late returns us to the Lumières, through the image of workers pouring out of a factory in Egypt. It reminds us of cinema’s ground level origins, but also of violent grassroots historical movements – the French Revolution and the Egyptian Revolution. De Palma reminds us of Hitchcock’s powers of montage and all the colours of the dark that Italian Giallo films have shown us; and of the death of JFK, and Nixon’s lies and the death of the American Dream.

Straub and Huillet’s film ends with a coda comprising newsreel footage of protests on the streets of Cairo, of Nasser and Neguib. Scratched and spliced evidence for scrutiny; a reminder of a struggle and a crime. In a comparable sequence in Blow Out, Jack Terry snips pictures of the moment of the assassination of a presidential candidate out of a news magazine and edits them together to replay the event, looking for clues to prove that the commanding narrative surrounding the death is a fiction. Both encourage us to question reality, to challenge political consensus, to recover history.

Notes:

[1] Serge Daney, ‘Cinemeteorology: Too Early, Too Late’ Originally published in Libération, February 20-21, 1982. Translated by Jonathan Rosenbaum. http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/1982/10/cinemeteorology-serge-daney-on-too-early-too-late/

Lengths of Emptiness

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In at the deep end

The currents of the unconscious

Waves of memory

The pressures of time

Disturbing suburban living

A past that cannot be washed off

Amnesia hits the bottom of the pool

for The Swimmer (Frank Perry, 1968)

Ahead of the University of Lincoln&#8217;s colloquium on drone culture, &#8216;As Above, So Below&#8217; which took place on Saturday 24th May, the conference organisers invited me to suggest a film for screening in the run-up to the event. I selected Harun Farocki&#8217;s Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1989) and requested that Lincoln&#8217;s Society for Ontofabulatory Research present their short film Airminded (2013) as part of a double-bill. I had previously written about the two films for The Notebook, over at Mubi.com and this gave me and the attendees the chance to review the films together. Below is my introduction to the screening:

Choosing to screen Harun Farocki’s film Images of the World and the Inscription of War as a precursor to the University of Lincoln&#8217;s colloquium on drone culture may not seem immediately relevant. It is not a film that explores the practical uses and the issues surrounding drones as a military or industrial technology head on. Rather, there are historical anecdotes about developments in perspective in the representational arts; a discussion of precious photographs of Algerian women taken in the 1960s; remarks on the decline in manual sheet metal work and the study of waves under laboratory conditions; and a startling report on the oversights of Allied reconnaissance photography taken over Auschwitz in the Second World War.
First appearances can be deceptive, as this film emphasises. A closer look will confirm that there are all sorts of vital insights related to the utilisation of drones today; remote viewing and remote control technology; automation; surveillance, image interpretation and associated politics, that link Farocki’s film with ongoing concerns about the military-industrial complex, virtuality, high-tech devices for modern warfare, its extensions, practicalities, limits and failures.
Farocki’s film is intellectual and subtly associative. Although the connection between the various scenes may seem unfathomable at first, through repetition and expansion the film begins to proceed with an almost musical structure, with refrains gaining a deeper emotional resonance as the film progresses. It begins by enabling the viewer’s thoughts to free up, to break out of conventional interpretative frameworks. In this respect, too, it serves as a fitting prelude to the University’s forthcoming event.

 

Ahead of the University of Lincoln’s colloquium on drone culture, ‘As Above, So Below’ which took place on Saturday 24th May, the conference organisers invited me to suggest a film for screening in the run-up to the event. I selected Harun Farocki’s Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1989) and requested that Lincoln’s Society for Ontofabulatory Research present their short film Airminded (2013) as part of a double-bill. I had previously written about the two films for The Notebook, over at Mubi.com and this gave me and the attendees the chance to review the films together. Below is my introduction to the screening:

Choosing to screen Harun Farocki’s film Images of the World and the Inscription of War as a precursor to the University of Lincoln’s colloquium on drone culture may not seem immediately relevant. It is not a film that explores the practical uses and the issues surrounding drones as a military or industrial technology head on. Rather, there are historical anecdotes about developments in perspective in the representational arts; a discussion of precious photographs of Algerian women taken in the 1960s; remarks on the decline in manual sheet metal work and the study of waves under laboratory conditions; and a startling report on the oversights of Allied reconnaissance photography taken over Auschwitz in the Second World War.

First appearances can be deceptive, as this film emphasises. A closer look will confirm that there are all sorts of vital insights related to the utilisation of drones today; remote viewing and remote control technology; automation; surveillance, image interpretation and associated politics, that link Farocki’s film with ongoing concerns about the military-industrial complex, virtuality, high-tech devices for modern warfare, its extensions, practicalities, limits and failures.

Farocki’s film is intellectual and subtly associative. Although the connection between the various scenes may seem unfathomable at first, through repetition and expansion the film begins to proceed with an almost musical structure, with refrains gaining a deeper emotional resonance as the film progresses. It begins by enabling the viewer’s thoughts to free up, to break out of conventional interpretative frameworks. In this respect, too, it serves as a fitting prelude to the University’s forthcoming event.

 

To accompany Cinema of Childhood, a season of films curated by Mark Cousins to complement his recent documentary A Story of Children and Film (2014), I was encouraged by Ehsan Khoshbakht to write about the films that make up the programme. He kindly published my text over at the Cinema of Childhood website. It can be read here: http://www.cinemaofchildhood.com/images-of-childhood/

To accompany Cinema of Childhood, a season of films curated by Mark Cousins to complement his recent documentary A Story of Children and Film (2014), I was encouraged by Ehsan Khoshbakht to write about the films that make up the programme. He kindly published my text over at the Cinema of Childhood website. It can be read here: http://www.cinemaofchildhood.com/images-of-childhood/

The 70 Minute Mark - The Exorcist III

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To contribute to Nicholas Rombes’s project ‘The 70s’, I wrote about the seventy-minute mark in William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist III (1990). The entirety of the project has now been published by Berfrois (http://berfrois.com/2014/05/the-70-minute-mark-nicholas-rombes/), and my own text is reproduced in full below:

This remarkable plan-sequence places the little-known third instalment in The Exorcist series in a lineage that connects it with the works of Jacques Tati and Michael Snow. Largely comprising a single shot, using a fixed camera, the hospital corridor scene nevertheless opens up numerous possibilities for the use of offscreen space, with an unlocatable sound and a false alarm ratcheting up the suspense. A nurse on the night shift – left alone temporarily by police officers securing the ward – is perturbed by a strange noise. The clinical environment, the light and the length of the hallway are reminiscent of Ernie Gehr’s Serene Velocity (1970). The visual framework appears minimalist – the repeated arch pattern, the flecks of bright red and blue, and the white lamp – but the scene is charged with the potential of genre shock-tricks . In horror cinema much of the tension arises from our awareness that the unknown might at any time be lurking around the corner, or behind the door. The woman is trapped; locked in the sightline of the camera’s lens, caught within the walls of the building. Like watching a passage from Playtime (1967), our eyes start scanning every part of the frame for activity. Perhaps something behind the camera is menacing her. Anything could happen, we don’t know what will arise next or from where. Here Legion finds its own velocity, and its own unsettling wavelength.

As part of the series &#8216;The Details&#8217;, I wrote about the money forging scene in William Friedkin&#8217;s To Live and Die in LA (1985) for The Notebook at Mubi. The article can be read here: https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/the-details-masters-copy

As part of the series ‘The Details’, I wrote about the money forging scene in William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in LA (1985) for The Notebook at Mubi. The article can be read here: https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/the-details-masters-copy

Uncomfortably Numb

To coincide with the screening of Manhunter (1986) at the Bradford Film Festival, I wrote about the film for Little White Lies. I then travelled to Bradford to savour the chance to see the film on 35mm. This is likely to be the one and only time that I have the honour of seeing this masterpiece in this way. My article can be read here:  http://www.littlewhitelies.co.uk/features/articles/in-praise-of-manhunter-26209

My book review of Virtual Hallyu: Korean Cinema of the Global Era by Kyung Hyun Kim was published in Film International Volume 11, No. 3-4

My book review of Virtual Hallyu: Korean Cinema of the Global Era by Kyung Hyun Kim was published in Film International Volume 11, No. 3-4

Lesley Sharp, as Valerie in Road (1987)

Lesley Sharp, as Valerie in Road (1987)

Judge and Genre

At its climax, Follow Me Quietly (1949) uses a simple filmic convention to bolster the ambiguity of its central criminal figure, The Judge. A dummy, like the one used by the police as a placeholder for the as-yet-unidentified serial killer throughout much of the film’s short duration, is ultimately put into action as a prop for The Judge’s plunge towards death. This occurs after the killer is revealed to be a somewhat unremarkable man, named Charlie Roy, and is chased down by police lieutenant Grant, to a vacant gasworks on the edge of the unspecified city where the story is set.

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“Here, the placeholder subsumes the place.”

This early film by one of Hollywood’s best directors, Richard Fleischer, has already been the focus of a rich, informative essay by B. Kite and Bill Krohn. (1) Rather than pay similar attention to the dummy – nicknamed Deadpan – as a link to the figure of the Golem, and the relation between spiritualist and materialist notions, I will focus more on the way in which the film creates a generic substrate for the serial killer film – a point which the two BK’s do not neglect to mention – while maintaining an interest in the metaphysics of the affair. It is useful to draw on some select passages from the existing article as I go.

“Deadpan is–among other things–the first image in cinema of the Profile, the keystone of the conceptual edifice of the serial killer genre”

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Deadpan is a monad, a smartly dressed basic unit, the serial killer as an inextinguishable force in society and crime drama. And this metaphysical status is confirmed primarily when the pursued Charlie Roy (identified from the profile of Deadpan by a local waitress) falls to his death resisting arrest by Grant. At this moment, ‘the placeholder subsumes the place’. According to the various script changes that Krohn makes reference to, this might not have been the case:

“So in the movie we get a shoot-out at the gasworks and lose the suggestive scene where Garant confronts The Judge for the first time in the empty subway car…Garant… shoots the man in cold blood”

Following this plan for staging the action, the film might have retained the powerful scene that forms the basis of Kite and Krohn’s essay – the moment when the dummy comes to life in the police station office – and enough raw material to give their analysis sufficient weight, but Deadpan’s status as ‘conceptual edifice’ would have been somewhat eroded. By forcing the figure of The Judge to revert ultimately to an inanimate, provisional element in the narrative – through the conventions of film at the time that required that either a stuntman or a dummy be used for dangerous actions – that staus is more fully intact at the end of the film.

Follow Me Quietly is the first film to focus on a cop whose obsession with catching a serial killer could well be his ticket to the bughouse.”

Describing the proposed subway car ending, Krohn refers to “a rather downbeat last scene at the bar to keep us from actually seeing the final transformation of cop into killer.” Although we do not see Grant literally kill Charlie Roy, who loses his balance and support and plunges from a high stairway at the gasworks after having the cuffs slapped on him by Grant, there is more than enough evidence to lead us to connect Grant and The Judge.

“The script has a more dramatic equation to propound: the dummy mediates a merger of personalities between cop and killer.”

By referring to different drafts of the script, Krohn suggests that the identification of Grant with The Judge had been more boldly underlined previous to the final film version. But the film does plenty to plant this troubling fact into its fabric. The first dramatic close-up in the film, in which the fourth wall is almost broken, comes as Grant expresses the necessity of having an image of The Judge’s face to identify with. It is Grant’s face that we are confronted with.

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When Deadpan is first unveiled he is given a voice by Grant. When the demonstration is over the police officers discuss the model with Grant standing face to face with the figure, dressed almost exactly the same. During the pursuit of Charlie Roy by Grant, each man tries to disable the other by attacking the right hand, and the shot of Grant’s steady climb up the gaswork steps to arrest Roy mirrors the moment when we get the first close-up of Roy, on the front steps of his apartment building.

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But it is the final scene that more subtly and most chillingly aligns the cop and the killer in our consciousness. Disguised as a joke about the inevitable and imminent nuptials between Grant and the crime reporter Ann Gorman, Sgt Art Collins claims that the police will be looking for another ‘Judge’ soon. At this moment there is a cut to Grant, with Gorman, enjoying a drink at the table of the Tavern.

“Its brisk 59 minutes contain, in embryo, virtually every theme of the serial-killer film as it later developed”

In Manhunter (1986), the identification between FBI special agent Will Graham and the killer known as the Tooth Fairy is established as the fundamental term on which the series of murders is brought to an end. The characterisation of Graham (not far off ‘Grant’ following American pronunciation) as a man tormented by his experiences in bringing other criminals to justice, and the imaginative leaps that he has had to make in empathising with, or sharing the viewpoint of, the killers makes Manhunter itself a template for many contemporary crime thrillers. After all, despite its prescience, Follow Me Quietly is little known. It is Hannibal Lecktor who confronts Graham with the fact of the agent’s own emotional similarites with the psychotic profiles he creates in order to assist the FBI. When we see Graham questioning the Tooth Fairy, yet all the while talking to himself, we not only glimpse the doubling that he is able to achieve, but also an echo of Grant’s late-night conversation at the station with Deadpan.

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Another influential example from recent decades is Seven (1995) which shares with Follow Me Quietly the creation of a knowingly generic identity for the pursued serial killer – his name is Jonathan Doe, and note how the artist’s sketch is almost as vague as the one of The Judge. Seven also resembles Fleischer’s film in its logic, which determines that by being killed Doe persists; his destructive schema is fully realised and his work will be studied for years to come. And here it is the cop who is the killer at the end, driven offscreen in the back of a squad car.

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But it is with William Friedkin’s controversial thriller Cruising (1980) that Fleischer’s film bears a more complex likeness. Not only is Cruising more properly a successor that portrays the serial killer as an indestructible type (not specifically a homosexual one, as most of the film’s detractors argue) but it also conveys this metaphysical condition in ways that foreground the artificiality of the reality onscreen; by reusing a shot seen earlier in the film, for instance, as well as adding the same distinctive recorded voiceover when the killer speaks. Just as Follow Me Quietly resorts to the use of the dummy and thereby reinstates Deadpan as the eternal placeholder for all future serial killers, the repeated shot of the leather clad figure approaching the underground bar in Cruising creates a confusing ambiguity and suggests that the criminal is still at large, and might even be the cop who has been after him. While Deadpan could be anyone – his outfit, height and build enough to see him in almost all of the men at the police conference and the everyman of the time and city – the culprit in Cruising is everyone, played by a different actor for each murder scene.

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At the end of Friedkin’s film we are left with an unnerving vision of Steve Burns, and his girlfriend Nancy (casually trying on Burns’s undercover clothing) both captured by the character and look of the interminable murderer.   

“when the paradoxes of the serial killer as boundary figure and faceless integer, as sacred scapegoat and as nameless Thing, finally took center stage after the Aristotelian form of the genre had flowered and decayed, this un-authored phantom in a film that Richard Fleischer seems to have forgotten he ever made would already have pointed the way.”

Notes:

(1) ‘Deadpan in Nulltown’ by B. Kite and Bill Krohn, published online in Mubi Notebook, 18 February 2013. https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/deadpan-in-nulltown (NB: I am assuming which writer contributed each passage to the aforementioned article - any errors are my own).

Tactile

Silence (2012)

Die Wand (2012)

Manhunter (1986)

‘I think this is one of the shots I should hold, ’ says director Werner Herzog at the very end of his 1990 film Echoes from a Sombre Empire. His familiar, reflective voiceover narration has until now been absent from the story, which follows journalist Michael Goldsmith as he looks back on the history of Jean-Bedel Bokassa’s rule in the Central African Republic. Interviewing Bokassa’s family members, colleagues and lawyers, as well as locals of all ages about their memories of his merciless command, an uncertain but unnerving image of the man is created.
Imprisonment was typical of Bokassa’s time in power, as head of state and later self-proclaimed emperor, which lasted from 1966 until 1979. Those suspected of working against the former French military officer were beaten mercilessly and kept confined, and thieves lost their ears. Experiences of captivity are recounted by several participants in the film, and Goldsmith himself was locked away, accused of being a spy whilst in Africa to report on Bokassa’s coronation.
The chimpanzee which appears at the film’s close is one of a few animals left in a closed down zoological garden – the end of a cruel circus, but the damage remains evident.  The domestication of nature, the taming of urgent impuses to life – those impulses felt in the equally startling vision of a multitude of red crabs scuttling inland at the start of the film, the depiction of a dream of Goldsmith’s.
The zoo attendant requests a cigarette from Goldsmith, who expects the African to smoke it, but his inability to light it is soon explained, as it is not he who has the nicotine addiction. The man hands the Marlboro over to the caged chimpanzee – he was told it was a gorilla. Lies, insanity and the echoes of death everywhere. Bokassa, we are told, treated people like his animals, and is widely reported to have been a cannibal, with human bodies stored in a refrigerator and prepared on his orders; a man who was considered an animal by others.
Goldsmith asks Herzog to promise that this sight will be the last shot of the film, bringing the collaborative decision making usually kept out of a picture into the content of the documentary itself. Or is this decisive moment staged? This history too is uncertain. A Schubert composition, Notturno Op. 148 plays on the soundtrack, and the majesty of the music gives the sombre image of the chimp a black humour. At once, it is an ending that captures the terrifying spectre that Bokassa cast over a country, Herzog’s disinterest in adhering to filmic conventions and the potential of cinema to offer images that can haunt us long after the credits.
And yet this image somehow mocks our desire for silence at the end of a film. Recognising our need for contemplation, which often dictates that we leave a theatre quietly, not speaking to our companions for several minutes, Herzog refuses to privilege our human silence or the hope we routinely seek as the drama onscreen fades out. Herzog gives us an unforgettable reminder of the violence of mankind. It provokes thought, but it despises the dignity we might simply perform for ourselves and others.
“Humans seek silence because they seek redemption from themselves, other animals live in silence because they do not need redeeming.” – John Gray

‘I think this is one of the shots I should hold, ’ says director Werner Herzog at the very end of his 1990 film Echoes from a Sombre Empire. His familiar, reflective voiceover narration has until now been absent from the story, which follows journalist Michael Goldsmith as he looks back on the history of Jean-Bedel Bokassa’s rule in the Central African Republic. Interviewing Bokassa’s family members, colleagues and lawyers, as well as locals of all ages about their memories of his merciless command, an uncertain but unnerving image of the man is created.

Imprisonment was typical of Bokassa’s time in power, as head of state and later self-proclaimed emperor, which lasted from 1966 until 1979. Those suspected of working against the former French military officer were beaten mercilessly and kept confined, and thieves lost their ears. Experiences of captivity are recounted by several participants in the film, and Goldsmith himself was locked away, accused of being a spy whilst in Africa to report on Bokassa’s coronation.

The chimpanzee which appears at the film’s close is one of a few animals left in a closed down zoological garden – the end of a cruel circus, but the damage remains evident.  The domestication of nature, the taming of urgent impuses to life – those impulses felt in the equally startling vision of a multitude of red crabs scuttling inland at the start of the film, the depiction of a dream of Goldsmith’s.

The zoo attendant requests a cigarette from Goldsmith, who expects the African to smoke it, but his inability to light it is soon explained, as it is not he who has the nicotine addiction. The man hands the Marlboro over to the caged chimpanzee – he was told it was a gorilla. Lies, insanity and the echoes of death everywhere. Bokassa, we are told, treated people like his animals, and is widely reported to have been a cannibal, with human bodies stored in a refrigerator and prepared on his orders; a man who was considered an animal by others.

Goldsmith asks Herzog to promise that this sight will be the last shot of the film, bringing the collaborative decision making usually kept out of a picture into the content of the documentary itself. Or is this decisive moment staged? This history too is uncertain. A Schubert composition, Notturno Op. 148 plays on the soundtrack, and the majesty of the music gives the sombre image of the chimp a black humour. At once, it is an ending that captures the terrifying spectre that Bokassa cast over a country, Herzog’s disinterest in adhering to filmic conventions and the potential of cinema to offer images that can haunt us long after the credits.

And yet this image somehow mocks our desire for silence at the end of a film. Recognising our need for contemplation, which often dictates that we leave a theatre quietly, not speaking to our companions for several minutes, Herzog refuses to privilege our human silence or the hope we routinely seek as the drama onscreen fades out. Herzog gives us an unforgettable reminder of the violence of mankind. It provokes thought, but it despises the dignity we might simply perform for ourselves and others.

“Humans seek silence because they seek redemption from themselves, other animals live in silence because they do not need redeeming.” – John Gray

Good Housekeeping

Taxi Driver (1976)

Favourite Blu-rays and DVDs of 2013

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1. OUT 1 – Jacques Rivette (Absolut Medien, Germany) Critic Brad Stevens once wrote: ‘It is surely evidence of how widely cinema is still considered a second-rate art that one of its supreme masterpieces has been denied to English and American audiences; if a similar situation existed where literature was concerned, we would only be able to read Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu in the form of clandestinely circulated photocopies.’ For those who have relied upon a widely circulated fan-subbed Italian TV recording as their only way of experiencing Jacques Rivette’s magnum opus, the absence of the Raitre stamp in the top right hand corner of this wonderful DVD release of Out 1 may seem odd. Long desired for home viewing, rarely screened in cinemas, Germany’s Absolut Medien have finally done the legwork and got it done. Advantage cinephilia.

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2. SUPER-8 TRILOGY – Ericka Beckman (JRP|Ringier, Switzerland) I am very sorry to have missed the Whitney Museum’s exhibition Rituals of Rented Island this year, which is focused around a vibrant locus of performance art, in New York in the 1970s and early 1980s. Already deeply affected by the documentation of the works of Michael Smith, Stuart Sherman and Richard Foreman that I have been fortunate to see from this period, I have been eager to look further into the activities of the other artists involved in the exhibition. While I couldn’t make the trip to New York to visit the show, the accompanying catalogue is some consolation. And thankfully, Ericka Beckman’s Super-8 Trilogy has now been released on DVD – so some small rituals at home are now possible.

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3. ATTRACTIONS, INSTRUCTIONS AND OTHER ROMANCES – Peter Tscherkassky (Index, Austria) Another great collection of films by a titan of avant-garde cinema, Peter Tscherkassky, making available Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine, a riveting experiment with a western, alongside other various works dating back to 1982. Together with the first collection, Films from a Dark Room, this constitutes an essential publication for anybody with an intense fascination with the possbilities of cinema as an art.

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4. VIOLENT SATURDAY/THE BOSTON STRANGLER – Richard Fleischer (Carlotta, France) Fleischer does not seem to appeal to auteurists, who perhaps see little more than a fine craftsman plying his trade in the heart of the industry, across myriad works and genres. But even if a personal vision or signature is difficult to discern, Fleischer was incontrovertibly one of the best Hollywood directors, whose early to mid 1970s run is almost flawless, and who has inspired countless filmmakers from William Friedkin to Kiyoshi Kurosawa. The appearance of Violent Saturday, a riveting multi-stranded film noir shot in widescreen colour, for the first time on Blu-ray and in its correct aspect ratio is a gift from the fine French label Carlotta. Alongside it, The Boston Strangler also reveals its longstanding influence on contemporary police procedurals, though outside of television series 24 few have dared to test their mettle with orchestrating split-screen action to create such a rich worldview and tension as Fleischer did here. 

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5. THE DRIVER – Walter Hill (Twilight Time, USA) A masterpiece of American cinema, shown in its best, crepuscular light.

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6. FEAR AND DESIRE – Stanley Kubrick (Eureka! Masters of Cinema, UK) Though the history of cinema is one of lost treasures, destroyed negatives and neglect, it is heartening to know that the entire completed works of one of the artform’s supreme visionaries are now available in the best format possible for home viewing. Thanks to the Masters of Cinema label, the long unavailable early films of Stanley Kubrick can now be seen, giving us a clear view of the artist’s development. Fear and Desire is an impressive debut, a war drama in which the trauma of combat, the identification between opposing sides, the inherent violence of humanity and the insanity of institutions anticipates many of the director’s later films.

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7. WAKE IN FRIGHT – Ted Kotcheff (Drafthouse Films, USA) “New to the Yabba?” A real revelation and the cause of nightmares, this is the story of a respectable teacher stranded in a small town, plied with drink and dragged into a psychological vortex by its sinister locals. Visually and dramatically arresting, the stifling onscreen environment is powerfully discomforting and the lead performances are perfectly accentuated to convey a world unhinged.

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8. EARLY FASSBINDER – Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Eclipse, USA) It is a cruel irony that one of cinema’s most prolific, colourful and complex artists is largely represented with lacklustre DVD releases and barely any sumptuous Blu-ray treatment. Still, this boxset released by Eclipse packs enough punch in the film material alone that grievances about curatorship go out the window.

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9. ANNA – Grifi and Sarchielli (Viennale, Austria) Admittedly, I haven’t sat down to watch this yet, but it is through releases such as this that the current wealth of the Blu-ray and DVD market is reflected. With specialist labels unearthing and presenting all manner of long-forgotten or barely-recognised-in-the-first-place works from many countries and eras, the enthusiastic cinephile today would appear to have better access to the history of film images than previous generations and is tasked with enriching and even revising popular notions about the development of the art form, shedding new light on surprising encounters, overlaps and resonances across time and space.

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10. ALPS – Yorgos Lanthimos (Artificial Eye, UK) Alps explores the fantasy of replacing beloved family members after death, as a kind of exploitative service that will inevitably be sold, shoddily, to vulnerable people as technology stakes its claim to more and more of the metaphysical terrain of existence. Lanthimos and Filippou have again crafted material that is comedic, full of pop cultural references, but which hits heavy and moving moments. By foregrounding matters of performance and by stripping language of its sincerity Lanthimos deprives us of two key elements that cinema still so often relies upon to captivate audiences. Or, at least, the film challenges itself with regard to these commonplaces up front, in order to get to other places. As a result, something unexpected and affecting happens.

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11. EYES OF THE SPIDER/SERPENT’S PATH – Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Third Window, UK) Kurosawa has always been a filmmaker who has worked at curious intersections between crime, horror, fantasy and family drama though for too long his talents were subsumed under the J-Horror bracket. These two films are appropriately packaged together, since they were filmed back to back over the course of two weeks with the same cast and crew. Taking the revenge thriller beyond trite and sensationalistic black-and-white moralising, and the typically questionable vigilante heroics of  Death Wish, the films open onto a bleak existential terrain where personal responsibility is placed under rigorous interrogation. The influence of Lumet and Boorman are evident here, in the clarity of the mise en scene and the psychological expression through not only performance but non-linear editing also.

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12. PARADISE TRILOGY – Ulrich Seidl (Soda, UK) In his usual manner, Seidl here depicts contemporary life as fundamentally lonely, where love is a transaction, or a ritual, or unrequited, and communion seems hopeless. The films are linked by lead characters and refer back to Seidl’s previous films Jesus, du weißt and Der Busenfreund (with a surprising return to the screen of the master of mathematics and mammaries, Rene Rupnik). Seidl has always placed personalities and bodies that might be deemed too crude or ugly by most into his stringently composed tableaux. The static, rectilinear shots always present to us the characters and their environments together, their interrelation. As always, there is a black humour in the work - a much-needed opposition to the crap slapstick and frat boy inanities that still dominate commercial cinema. “I show how people behave in their longing for happiness. If the viewers have a problem with my films, it may be that they have a problem with themselves too.”

Monet/Benning

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Monet

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Benning

Critical Cycle - Daney, De Palma, Straub & Huillet

In an enthusiastic review written at the time of the release of both Brian De Palma’s Blow Out and Straub and Huillet’s Too Early, Too Late in Paris (published by Libération in 1982), Serge Daney manages to synchronise the cinematic strategies of these apparently dissimilar works, by focusing on their shared attention to sound [1]. Daney is moved by the ways in which each of the films privileges sound in relation to the image, so that the commonplaces of viewer audiovision are jolted, and the bearing that sound can have on narrative is foregrounded. For much of the article, Daney places Straub and Huillet’s project into the wider framework of the development of sound in motion picture history, before addressing some pertinent aethestic and political questions raised by the film.

But I want to return to the image of Travolta and Straub side by side that Daney begins with, because there are more unexpected similarities between Jack Terry’s technical assemblages and Straub’s deceptively calm landscape reflections than is apparent at first sight. The sound effects wiz Jack (played by Travolta) teaches us to use our ears, to be sensitive to each sound and what it has to tell us. Straub’s slowly turning camera gives us time to see, to intensely survey the scene and read the city and countryside as text, shaped by historical forces. Both films protest; against injustice, murder and betrayal. Travolta might not be a Marxist, as Daney points out, but the character of Jack invests all of his physical and emotional resources in a fight against the local pressures of the political order; a conspiracy of powers; one that culminates, tragically, at Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell. And it is liberty that is at the heart of Too Early, Too Late, a title which forewarns us of inopportunity; of social resistance coalescing outside of a perhaps unreal, idealised revolutionary moment. It is exactly this tension in relation to time that underpins the thriller as a genre, which De Palma has excelled in.

Aren’t those opening minutes of Straub’s film a thrill ride anyway? The camera hangs out of the window of an automobile that whips round the vicinity of the Bastille in Paris again and again; the frame taking in the same buildings and roads over and over, as the traffic spills past, sometimes too close, risking a collision. On the soundtrack, the sound of the street and the horns of the passing cars. And then the voice of Danièle Huillet, reading from Friedrich Engels’s letter to Karl Kautsky of 20 February 1889. Outside of Godard’s combination of Leftist attack and panoramic scans in Weekend, and the rigour and physicality of Michael Snow’s structural experiments <—-> and La Region Centrale (the latter of which is already referenced in Daney’s article) what other moment in cinema does this bracing introductory shot closely resemble? None so much as the repeated 360-degree pan around Jack Terry’s burgled studio, the camera suddenly locked into an aberrant cycle as Jack is gripped by psychic horror at the realisation that his labour has been effaced.

An intertextual spasm snaps these works into synch, extending their respective echoes backwards and forward in cinema and social history. Too Early, Too Late returns us to the Lumières, through the image of workers pouring out of a factory in Egypt. It reminds us of cinema’s ground level origins, but also of violent grassroots historical movements – the French Revolution and the Egyptian Revolution. De Palma reminds us of Hitchcock’s powers of montage and all the colours of the dark that Italian Giallo films have shown us; and of the death of JFK, and Nixon’s lies and the death of the American Dream.

Straub and Huillet’s film ends with a coda comprising newsreel footage of protests on the streets of Cairo, of Nasser and Neguib. Scratched and spliced evidence for scrutiny; a reminder of a struggle and a crime. In a comparable sequence in Blow Out, Jack Terry snips pictures of the moment of the assassination of a presidential candidate out of a news magazine and edits them together to replay the event, looking for clues to prove that the commanding narrative surrounding the death is a fiction. Both encourage us to question reality, to challenge political consensus, to recover history.

Notes:

[1] Serge Daney, ‘Cinemeteorology: Too Early, Too Late’ Originally published in Libération, February 20-21, 1982. Translated by Jonathan Rosenbaum. http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/1982/10/cinemeteorology-serge-daney-on-too-early-too-late/

Lengths of Emptiness

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In at the deep end

The currents of the unconscious

Waves of memory

The pressures of time

Disturbing suburban living

A past that cannot be washed off

Amnesia hits the bottom of the pool

for The Swimmer (Frank Perry, 1968)

Ahead of the University of Lincoln&#8217;s colloquium on drone culture, &#8216;As Above, So Below&#8217; which took place on Saturday 24th May, the conference organisers invited me to suggest a film for screening in the run-up to the event. I selected Harun Farocki&#8217;s Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1989) and requested that Lincoln&#8217;s Society for Ontofabulatory Research present their short film Airminded (2013) as part of a double-bill. I had previously written about the two films for The Notebook, over at Mubi.com and this gave me and the attendees the chance to review the films together. Below is my introduction to the screening:

Choosing to screen Harun Farocki’s film Images of the World and the Inscription of War as a precursor to the University of Lincoln&#8217;s colloquium on drone culture may not seem immediately relevant. It is not a film that explores the practical uses and the issues surrounding drones as a military or industrial technology head on. Rather, there are historical anecdotes about developments in perspective in the representational arts; a discussion of precious photographs of Algerian women taken in the 1960s; remarks on the decline in manual sheet metal work and the study of waves under laboratory conditions; and a startling report on the oversights of Allied reconnaissance photography taken over Auschwitz in the Second World War.
First appearances can be deceptive, as this film emphasises. A closer look will confirm that there are all sorts of vital insights related to the utilisation of drones today; remote viewing and remote control technology; automation; surveillance, image interpretation and associated politics, that link Farocki’s film with ongoing concerns about the military-industrial complex, virtuality, high-tech devices for modern warfare, its extensions, practicalities, limits and failures.
Farocki’s film is intellectual and subtly associative. Although the connection between the various scenes may seem unfathomable at first, through repetition and expansion the film begins to proceed with an almost musical structure, with refrains gaining a deeper emotional resonance as the film progresses. It begins by enabling the viewer’s thoughts to free up, to break out of conventional interpretative frameworks. In this respect, too, it serves as a fitting prelude to the University’s forthcoming event.

 

Ahead of the University of Lincoln’s colloquium on drone culture, ‘As Above, So Below’ which took place on Saturday 24th May, the conference organisers invited me to suggest a film for screening in the run-up to the event. I selected Harun Farocki’s Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1989) and requested that Lincoln’s Society for Ontofabulatory Research present their short film Airminded (2013) as part of a double-bill. I had previously written about the two films for The Notebook, over at Mubi.com and this gave me and the attendees the chance to review the films together. Below is my introduction to the screening:

Choosing to screen Harun Farocki’s film Images of the World and the Inscription of War as a precursor to the University of Lincoln’s colloquium on drone culture may not seem immediately relevant. It is not a film that explores the practical uses and the issues surrounding drones as a military or industrial technology head on. Rather, there are historical anecdotes about developments in perspective in the representational arts; a discussion of precious photographs of Algerian women taken in the 1960s; remarks on the decline in manual sheet metal work and the study of waves under laboratory conditions; and a startling report on the oversights of Allied reconnaissance photography taken over Auschwitz in the Second World War.

First appearances can be deceptive, as this film emphasises. A closer look will confirm that there are all sorts of vital insights related to the utilisation of drones today; remote viewing and remote control technology; automation; surveillance, image interpretation and associated politics, that link Farocki’s film with ongoing concerns about the military-industrial complex, virtuality, high-tech devices for modern warfare, its extensions, practicalities, limits and failures.

Farocki’s film is intellectual and subtly associative. Although the connection between the various scenes may seem unfathomable at first, through repetition and expansion the film begins to proceed with an almost musical structure, with refrains gaining a deeper emotional resonance as the film progresses. It begins by enabling the viewer’s thoughts to free up, to break out of conventional interpretative frameworks. In this respect, too, it serves as a fitting prelude to the University’s forthcoming event.

 

To accompany Cinema of Childhood, a season of films curated by Mark Cousins to complement his recent documentary A Story of Children and Film (2014), I was encouraged by Ehsan Khoshbakht to write about the films that make up the programme. He kindly published my text over at the Cinema of Childhood website. It can be read here: http://www.cinemaofchildhood.com/images-of-childhood/

To accompany Cinema of Childhood, a season of films curated by Mark Cousins to complement his recent documentary A Story of Children and Film (2014), I was encouraged by Ehsan Khoshbakht to write about the films that make up the programme. He kindly published my text over at the Cinema of Childhood website. It can be read here: http://www.cinemaofchildhood.com/images-of-childhood/

The 70 Minute Mark - The Exorcist III

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To contribute to Nicholas Rombes’s project ‘The 70s’, I wrote about the seventy-minute mark in William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist III (1990). The entirety of the project has now been published by Berfrois (http://berfrois.com/2014/05/the-70-minute-mark-nicholas-rombes/), and my own text is reproduced in full below:

This remarkable plan-sequence places the little-known third instalment in The Exorcist series in a lineage that connects it with the works of Jacques Tati and Michael Snow. Largely comprising a single shot, using a fixed camera, the hospital corridor scene nevertheless opens up numerous possibilities for the use of offscreen space, with an unlocatable sound and a false alarm ratcheting up the suspense. A nurse on the night shift – left alone temporarily by police officers securing the ward – is perturbed by a strange noise. The clinical environment, the light and the length of the hallway are reminiscent of Ernie Gehr’s Serene Velocity (1970). The visual framework appears minimalist – the repeated arch pattern, the flecks of bright red and blue, and the white lamp – but the scene is charged with the potential of genre shock-tricks . In horror cinema much of the tension arises from our awareness that the unknown might at any time be lurking around the corner, or behind the door. The woman is trapped; locked in the sightline of the camera’s lens, caught within the walls of the building. Like watching a passage from Playtime (1967), our eyes start scanning every part of the frame for activity. Perhaps something behind the camera is menacing her. Anything could happen, we don’t know what will arise next or from where. Here Legion finds its own velocity, and its own unsettling wavelength.

As part of the series &#8216;The Details&#8217;, I wrote about the money forging scene in William Friedkin&#8217;s To Live and Die in LA (1985) for The Notebook at Mubi. The article can be read here: https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/the-details-masters-copy

As part of the series ‘The Details’, I wrote about the money forging scene in William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in LA (1985) for The Notebook at Mubi. The article can be read here: https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/the-details-masters-copy

Uncomfortably Numb

To coincide with the screening of Manhunter (1986) at the Bradford Film Festival, I wrote about the film for Little White Lies. I then travelled to Bradford to savour the chance to see the film on 35mm. This is likely to be the one and only time that I have the honour of seeing this masterpiece in this way. My article can be read here:  http://www.littlewhitelies.co.uk/features/articles/in-praise-of-manhunter-26209

My book review of Virtual Hallyu: Korean Cinema of the Global Era by Kyung Hyun Kim was published in Film International Volume 11, No. 3-4

My book review of Virtual Hallyu: Korean Cinema of the Global Era by Kyung Hyun Kim was published in Film International Volume 11, No. 3-4

Lesley Sharp, as Valerie in Road (1987)

Lesley Sharp, as Valerie in Road (1987)

Judge and Genre

At its climax, Follow Me Quietly (1949) uses a simple filmic convention to bolster the ambiguity of its central criminal figure, The Judge. A dummy, like the one used by the police as a placeholder for the as-yet-unidentified serial killer throughout much of the film’s short duration, is ultimately put into action as a prop for The Judge’s plunge towards death. This occurs after the killer is revealed to be a somewhat unremarkable man, named Charlie Roy, and is chased down by police lieutenant Grant, to a vacant gasworks on the edge of the unspecified city where the story is set.

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“Here, the placeholder subsumes the place.”

This early film by one of Hollywood’s best directors, Richard Fleischer, has already been the focus of a rich, informative essay by B. Kite and Bill Krohn. (1) Rather than pay similar attention to the dummy – nicknamed Deadpan – as a link to the figure of the Golem, and the relation between spiritualist and materialist notions, I will focus more on the way in which the film creates a generic substrate for the serial killer film – a point which the two BK’s do not neglect to mention – while maintaining an interest in the metaphysics of the affair. It is useful to draw on some select passages from the existing article as I go.

“Deadpan is–among other things–the first image in cinema of the Profile, the keystone of the conceptual edifice of the serial killer genre”

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Deadpan is a monad, a smartly dressed basic unit, the serial killer as an inextinguishable force in society and crime drama. And this metaphysical status is confirmed primarily when the pursued Charlie Roy (identified from the profile of Deadpan by a local waitress) falls to his death resisting arrest by Grant. At this moment, ‘the placeholder subsumes the place’. According to the various script changes that Krohn makes reference to, this might not have been the case:

“So in the movie we get a shoot-out at the gasworks and lose the suggestive scene where Garant confronts The Judge for the first time in the empty subway car…Garant… shoots the man in cold blood”

Following this plan for staging the action, the film might have retained the powerful scene that forms the basis of Kite and Krohn’s essay – the moment when the dummy comes to life in the police station office – and enough raw material to give their analysis sufficient weight, but Deadpan’s status as ‘conceptual edifice’ would have been somewhat eroded. By forcing the figure of The Judge to revert ultimately to an inanimate, provisional element in the narrative – through the conventions of film at the time that required that either a stuntman or a dummy be used for dangerous actions – that staus is more fully intact at the end of the film.

Follow Me Quietly is the first film to focus on a cop whose obsession with catching a serial killer could well be his ticket to the bughouse.”

Describing the proposed subway car ending, Krohn refers to “a rather downbeat last scene at the bar to keep us from actually seeing the final transformation of cop into killer.” Although we do not see Grant literally kill Charlie Roy, who loses his balance and support and plunges from a high stairway at the gasworks after having the cuffs slapped on him by Grant, there is more than enough evidence to lead us to connect Grant and The Judge.

“The script has a more dramatic equation to propound: the dummy mediates a merger of personalities between cop and killer.”

By referring to different drafts of the script, Krohn suggests that the identification of Grant with The Judge had been more boldly underlined previous to the final film version. But the film does plenty to plant this troubling fact into its fabric. The first dramatic close-up in the film, in which the fourth wall is almost broken, comes as Grant expresses the necessity of having an image of The Judge’s face to identify with. It is Grant’s face that we are confronted with.

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When Deadpan is first unveiled he is given a voice by Grant. When the demonstration is over the police officers discuss the model with Grant standing face to face with the figure, dressed almost exactly the same. During the pursuit of Charlie Roy by Grant, each man tries to disable the other by attacking the right hand, and the shot of Grant’s steady climb up the gaswork steps to arrest Roy mirrors the moment when we get the first close-up of Roy, on the front steps of his apartment building.

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But it is the final scene that more subtly and most chillingly aligns the cop and the killer in our consciousness. Disguised as a joke about the inevitable and imminent nuptials between Grant and the crime reporter Ann Gorman, Sgt Art Collins claims that the police will be looking for another ‘Judge’ soon. At this moment there is a cut to Grant, with Gorman, enjoying a drink at the table of the Tavern.

“Its brisk 59 minutes contain, in embryo, virtually every theme of the serial-killer film as it later developed”

In Manhunter (1986), the identification between FBI special agent Will Graham and the killer known as the Tooth Fairy is established as the fundamental term on which the series of murders is brought to an end. The characterisation of Graham (not far off ‘Grant’ following American pronunciation) as a man tormented by his experiences in bringing other criminals to justice, and the imaginative leaps that he has had to make in empathising with, or sharing the viewpoint of, the killers makes Manhunter itself a template for many contemporary crime thrillers. After all, despite its prescience, Follow Me Quietly is little known. It is Hannibal Lecktor who confronts Graham with the fact of the agent’s own emotional similarites with the psychotic profiles he creates in order to assist the FBI. When we see Graham questioning the Tooth Fairy, yet all the while talking to himself, we not only glimpse the doubling that he is able to achieve, but also an echo of Grant’s late-night conversation at the station with Deadpan.

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Another influential example from recent decades is Seven (1995) which shares with Follow Me Quietly the creation of a knowingly generic identity for the pursued serial killer – his name is Jonathan Doe, and note how the artist’s sketch is almost as vague as the one of The Judge. Seven also resembles Fleischer’s film in its logic, which determines that by being killed Doe persists; his destructive schema is fully realised and his work will be studied for years to come. And here it is the cop who is the killer at the end, driven offscreen in the back of a squad car.

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But it is with William Friedkin’s controversial thriller Cruising (1980) that Fleischer’s film bears a more complex likeness. Not only is Cruising more properly a successor that portrays the serial killer as an indestructible type (not specifically a homosexual one, as most of the film’s detractors argue) but it also conveys this metaphysical condition in ways that foreground the artificiality of the reality onscreen; by reusing a shot seen earlier in the film, for instance, as well as adding the same distinctive recorded voiceover when the killer speaks. Just as Follow Me Quietly resorts to the use of the dummy and thereby reinstates Deadpan as the eternal placeholder for all future serial killers, the repeated shot of the leather clad figure approaching the underground bar in Cruising creates a confusing ambiguity and suggests that the criminal is still at large, and might even be the cop who has been after him. While Deadpan could be anyone – his outfit, height and build enough to see him in almost all of the men at the police conference and the everyman of the time and city – the culprit in Cruising is everyone, played by a different actor for each murder scene.

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At the end of Friedkin’s film we are left with an unnerving vision of Steve Burns, and his girlfriend Nancy (casually trying on Burns’s undercover clothing) both captured by the character and look of the interminable murderer.   

“when the paradoxes of the serial killer as boundary figure and faceless integer, as sacred scapegoat and as nameless Thing, finally took center stage after the Aristotelian form of the genre had flowered and decayed, this un-authored phantom in a film that Richard Fleischer seems to have forgotten he ever made would already have pointed the way.”

Notes:

(1) ‘Deadpan in Nulltown’ by B. Kite and Bill Krohn, published online in Mubi Notebook, 18 February 2013. https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/deadpan-in-nulltown (NB: I am assuming which writer contributed each passage to the aforementioned article - any errors are my own).

Tactile

Silence (2012)

Die Wand (2012)

Manhunter (1986)

‘I think this is one of the shots I should hold, ’ says director Werner Herzog at the very end of his 1990 film Echoes from a Sombre Empire. His familiar, reflective voiceover narration has until now been absent from the story, which follows journalist Michael Goldsmith as he looks back on the history of Jean-Bedel Bokassa’s rule in the Central African Republic. Interviewing Bokassa’s family members, colleagues and lawyers, as well as locals of all ages about their memories of his merciless command, an uncertain but unnerving image of the man is created.
Imprisonment was typical of Bokassa’s time in power, as head of state and later self-proclaimed emperor, which lasted from 1966 until 1979. Those suspected of working against the former French military officer were beaten mercilessly and kept confined, and thieves lost their ears. Experiences of captivity are recounted by several participants in the film, and Goldsmith himself was locked away, accused of being a spy whilst in Africa to report on Bokassa’s coronation.
The chimpanzee which appears at the film’s close is one of a few animals left in a closed down zoological garden – the end of a cruel circus, but the damage remains evident.  The domestication of nature, the taming of urgent impuses to life – those impulses felt in the equally startling vision of a multitude of red crabs scuttling inland at the start of the film, the depiction of a dream of Goldsmith’s.
The zoo attendant requests a cigarette from Goldsmith, who expects the African to smoke it, but his inability to light it is soon explained, as it is not he who has the nicotine addiction. The man hands the Marlboro over to the caged chimpanzee – he was told it was a gorilla. Lies, insanity and the echoes of death everywhere. Bokassa, we are told, treated people like his animals, and is widely reported to have been a cannibal, with human bodies stored in a refrigerator and prepared on his orders; a man who was considered an animal by others.
Goldsmith asks Herzog to promise that this sight will be the last shot of the film, bringing the collaborative decision making usually kept out of a picture into the content of the documentary itself. Or is this decisive moment staged? This history too is uncertain. A Schubert composition, Notturno Op. 148 plays on the soundtrack, and the majesty of the music gives the sombre image of the chimp a black humour. At once, it is an ending that captures the terrifying spectre that Bokassa cast over a country, Herzog’s disinterest in adhering to filmic conventions and the potential of cinema to offer images that can haunt us long after the credits.
And yet this image somehow mocks our desire for silence at the end of a film. Recognising our need for contemplation, which often dictates that we leave a theatre quietly, not speaking to our companions for several minutes, Herzog refuses to privilege our human silence or the hope we routinely seek as the drama onscreen fades out. Herzog gives us an unforgettable reminder of the violence of mankind. It provokes thought, but it despises the dignity we might simply perform for ourselves and others.
“Humans seek silence because they seek redemption from themselves, other animals live in silence because they do not need redeeming.” – John Gray

‘I think this is one of the shots I should hold, ’ says director Werner Herzog at the very end of his 1990 film Echoes from a Sombre Empire. His familiar, reflective voiceover narration has until now been absent from the story, which follows journalist Michael Goldsmith as he looks back on the history of Jean-Bedel Bokassa’s rule in the Central African Republic. Interviewing Bokassa’s family members, colleagues and lawyers, as well as locals of all ages about their memories of his merciless command, an uncertain but unnerving image of the man is created.

Imprisonment was typical of Bokassa’s time in power, as head of state and later self-proclaimed emperor, which lasted from 1966 until 1979. Those suspected of working against the former French military officer were beaten mercilessly and kept confined, and thieves lost their ears. Experiences of captivity are recounted by several participants in the film, and Goldsmith himself was locked away, accused of being a spy whilst in Africa to report on Bokassa’s coronation.

The chimpanzee which appears at the film’s close is one of a few animals left in a closed down zoological garden – the end of a cruel circus, but the damage remains evident.  The domestication of nature, the taming of urgent impuses to life – those impulses felt in the equally startling vision of a multitude of red crabs scuttling inland at the start of the film, the depiction of a dream of Goldsmith’s.

The zoo attendant requests a cigarette from Goldsmith, who expects the African to smoke it, but his inability to light it is soon explained, as it is not he who has the nicotine addiction. The man hands the Marlboro over to the caged chimpanzee – he was told it was a gorilla. Lies, insanity and the echoes of death everywhere. Bokassa, we are told, treated people like his animals, and is widely reported to have been a cannibal, with human bodies stored in a refrigerator and prepared on his orders; a man who was considered an animal by others.

Goldsmith asks Herzog to promise that this sight will be the last shot of the film, bringing the collaborative decision making usually kept out of a picture into the content of the documentary itself. Or is this decisive moment staged? This history too is uncertain. A Schubert composition, Notturno Op. 148 plays on the soundtrack, and the majesty of the music gives the sombre image of the chimp a black humour. At once, it is an ending that captures the terrifying spectre that Bokassa cast over a country, Herzog’s disinterest in adhering to filmic conventions and the potential of cinema to offer images that can haunt us long after the credits.

And yet this image somehow mocks our desire for silence at the end of a film. Recognising our need for contemplation, which often dictates that we leave a theatre quietly, not speaking to our companions for several minutes, Herzog refuses to privilege our human silence or the hope we routinely seek as the drama onscreen fades out. Herzog gives us an unforgettable reminder of the violence of mankind. It provokes thought, but it despises the dignity we might simply perform for ourselves and others.

“Humans seek silence because they seek redemption from themselves, other animals live in silence because they do not need redeeming.” – John Gray

Good Housekeeping

Taxi Driver (1976)

Favourite Blu-rays and DVDs of 2013

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1. OUT 1 – Jacques Rivette (Absolut Medien, Germany) Critic Brad Stevens once wrote: ‘It is surely evidence of how widely cinema is still considered a second-rate art that one of its supreme masterpieces has been denied to English and American audiences; if a similar situation existed where literature was concerned, we would only be able to read Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu in the form of clandestinely circulated photocopies.’ For those who have relied upon a widely circulated fan-subbed Italian TV recording as their only way of experiencing Jacques Rivette’s magnum opus, the absence of the Raitre stamp in the top right hand corner of this wonderful DVD release of Out 1 may seem odd. Long desired for home viewing, rarely screened in cinemas, Germany’s Absolut Medien have finally done the legwork and got it done. Advantage cinephilia.

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2. SUPER-8 TRILOGY – Ericka Beckman (JRP|Ringier, Switzerland) I am very sorry to have missed the Whitney Museum’s exhibition Rituals of Rented Island this year, which is focused around a vibrant locus of performance art, in New York in the 1970s and early 1980s. Already deeply affected by the documentation of the works of Michael Smith, Stuart Sherman and Richard Foreman that I have been fortunate to see from this period, I have been eager to look further into the activities of the other artists involved in the exhibition. While I couldn’t make the trip to New York to visit the show, the accompanying catalogue is some consolation. And thankfully, Ericka Beckman’s Super-8 Trilogy has now been released on DVD – so some small rituals at home are now possible.

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3. ATTRACTIONS, INSTRUCTIONS AND OTHER ROMANCES – Peter Tscherkassky (Index, Austria) Another great collection of films by a titan of avant-garde cinema, Peter Tscherkassky, making available Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine, a riveting experiment with a western, alongside other various works dating back to 1982. Together with the first collection, Films from a Dark Room, this constitutes an essential publication for anybody with an intense fascination with the possbilities of cinema as an art.

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4. VIOLENT SATURDAY/THE BOSTON STRANGLER – Richard Fleischer (Carlotta, France) Fleischer does not seem to appeal to auteurists, who perhaps see little more than a fine craftsman plying his trade in the heart of the industry, across myriad works and genres. But even if a personal vision or signature is difficult to discern, Fleischer was incontrovertibly one of the best Hollywood directors, whose early to mid 1970s run is almost flawless, and who has inspired countless filmmakers from William Friedkin to Kiyoshi Kurosawa. The appearance of Violent Saturday, a riveting multi-stranded film noir shot in widescreen colour, for the first time on Blu-ray and in its correct aspect ratio is a gift from the fine French label Carlotta. Alongside it, The Boston Strangler also reveals its longstanding influence on contemporary police procedurals, though outside of television series 24 few have dared to test their mettle with orchestrating split-screen action to create such a rich worldview and tension as Fleischer did here. 

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5. THE DRIVER – Walter Hill (Twilight Time, USA) A masterpiece of American cinema, shown in its best, crepuscular light.

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6. FEAR AND DESIRE – Stanley Kubrick (Eureka! Masters of Cinema, UK) Though the history of cinema is one of lost treasures, destroyed negatives and neglect, it is heartening to know that the entire completed works of one of the artform’s supreme visionaries are now available in the best format possible for home viewing. Thanks to the Masters of Cinema label, the long unavailable early films of Stanley Kubrick can now be seen, giving us a clear view of the artist’s development. Fear and Desire is an impressive debut, a war drama in which the trauma of combat, the identification between opposing sides, the inherent violence of humanity and the insanity of institutions anticipates many of the director’s later films.

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7. WAKE IN FRIGHT – Ted Kotcheff (Drafthouse Films, USA) “New to the Yabba?” A real revelation and the cause of nightmares, this is the story of a respectable teacher stranded in a small town, plied with drink and dragged into a psychological vortex by its sinister locals. Visually and dramatically arresting, the stifling onscreen environment is powerfully discomforting and the lead performances are perfectly accentuated to convey a world unhinged.

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8. EARLY FASSBINDER – Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Eclipse, USA) It is a cruel irony that one of cinema’s most prolific, colourful and complex artists is largely represented with lacklustre DVD releases and barely any sumptuous Blu-ray treatment. Still, this boxset released by Eclipse packs enough punch in the film material alone that grievances about curatorship go out the window.

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9. ANNA – Grifi and Sarchielli (Viennale, Austria) Admittedly, I haven’t sat down to watch this yet, but it is through releases such as this that the current wealth of the Blu-ray and DVD market is reflected. With specialist labels unearthing and presenting all manner of long-forgotten or barely-recognised-in-the-first-place works from many countries and eras, the enthusiastic cinephile today would appear to have better access to the history of film images than previous generations and is tasked with enriching and even revising popular notions about the development of the art form, shedding new light on surprising encounters, overlaps and resonances across time and space.

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10. ALPS – Yorgos Lanthimos (Artificial Eye, UK) Alps explores the fantasy of replacing beloved family members after death, as a kind of exploitative service that will inevitably be sold, shoddily, to vulnerable people as technology stakes its claim to more and more of the metaphysical terrain of existence. Lanthimos and Filippou have again crafted material that is comedic, full of pop cultural references, but which hits heavy and moving moments. By foregrounding matters of performance and by stripping language of its sincerity Lanthimos deprives us of two key elements that cinema still so often relies upon to captivate audiences. Or, at least, the film challenges itself with regard to these commonplaces up front, in order to get to other places. As a result, something unexpected and affecting happens.

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11. EYES OF THE SPIDER/SERPENT’S PATH – Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Third Window, UK) Kurosawa has always been a filmmaker who has worked at curious intersections between crime, horror, fantasy and family drama though for too long his talents were subsumed under the J-Horror bracket. These two films are appropriately packaged together, since they were filmed back to back over the course of two weeks with the same cast and crew. Taking the revenge thriller beyond trite and sensationalistic black-and-white moralising, and the typically questionable vigilante heroics of  Death Wish, the films open onto a bleak existential terrain where personal responsibility is placed under rigorous interrogation. The influence of Lumet and Boorman are evident here, in the clarity of the mise en scene and the psychological expression through not only performance but non-linear editing also.

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12. PARADISE TRILOGY – Ulrich Seidl (Soda, UK) In his usual manner, Seidl here depicts contemporary life as fundamentally lonely, where love is a transaction, or a ritual, or unrequited, and communion seems hopeless. The films are linked by lead characters and refer back to Seidl’s previous films Jesus, du weißt and Der Busenfreund (with a surprising return to the screen of the master of mathematics and mammaries, Rene Rupnik). Seidl has always placed personalities and bodies that might be deemed too crude or ugly by most into his stringently composed tableaux. The static, rectilinear shots always present to us the characters and their environments together, their interrelation. As always, there is a black humour in the work - a much-needed opposition to the crap slapstick and frat boy inanities that still dominate commercial cinema. “I show how people behave in their longing for happiness. If the viewers have a problem with my films, it may be that they have a problem with themselves too.”

Monet/Benning
Critical Cycle - Daney, De Palma, Straub & Huillet
Lengths of Emptiness
The 70 Minute Mark - The Exorcist III
Uncomfortably Numb
Judge and Genre
Tactile
Good Housekeeping
Favourite Blu-rays and DVDs of 2013

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