In Media Resistant: Tony Conrad (1940-2016)

Conrad in his Greenwich Village apartment, 1966. Photo: Fredrick Eberstadt

For LOLA, I wrote about Tony Conrad, specifically the late artist’s interest in control, autonomy and resistance:

“A throughline which runs adjacent to Conrad’s interest in authority is his attention to psychological manipulation, and the interior experience of shifting one’s perspective. Whether by way of linguistic content, sonic or graphic animation, Conrad was fascinated by the phenomenological and psychological effects of sociocultural structures, and the media technologies that might operate within these structures.”

To read the full essay, visit http://lolajournal.com/7/conrad.html

My thanks to the co-editors, Adrian Martin and Girish Shambu.

All Watched Over – Bug

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For the Notebook at Mubi, I wrote about William Friedkin’s 2006 adaptation of the Tracy Letts play Bug.

Bug…reflects something worryingly off balance in the contemporary mindset, where sense is sought ceaselessly despite the assurance with which religious faith has been dismissed by many in secular societies. Where Friedkin’s 1973 blockbuster The Exorcist explores the loss of faith in God in the face of demonic evil, Bug shows the disturbing effects of the loss of faith in a Godless society, and the desperate search for meaning amidst loneliness and trauma.”

To read the full essay, visit https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/all-watched-over-bug-10-years-later

Of Mourning and Evening

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For the Notebook at Mubi, I wrote about William Basinski’s Disintegration Loop 1.1.

“As evening descends, the cityscape below is bathed in shadow first, giving a Magritte-like surrealness to this most surreal of American days: September 11, 2001. The title of the painter’s ‘Empire of Light’ might be applied here, with an additional descriptive: fading. Not only will the natural light ebb from the picture, shifting first through red hues and darker blues; the musical motif on the soundtrack, too, will slowly wear away to little more than a resonant drone.”

To read the full essay, visit https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/of-mourning-and-evening-william-basinski-s-disintegration-loop-1-1

Delayed Flight – Wings

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For Keyframe, I wrote about Larisa Shepitko’s Wings (1966).

“Shepitko uses recurrent, lyrical images of aircraft gliding across a clear sky, manifesting Nadya’s interior life. This might suggest a commonplace desire to get away from life’s troubles, to “slip the surly bonds of Earth” in a purely felt elation of flight, such as was described by the poet John Gillespie Magee Jr. But these flashes cannot simply be seen as an longed-for escape, unconstrained by care. Nadya’s past was one of proud, resolute commitment to her country in the midst of conflict. Solidarity, personal responsibility, and strong relationships of intimacy and trust are the very things of which Nadya’s wartime recollections remind her.”

To read the full essay, visit https://www.fandor.com/keyframe/flight-delayed-but-not-denied-wings

The Writing’s on the Wall

Travis is watching a melodrama on television. He is idly rocking the crate on which the set is resting with his cowboy boot, as he sits clutching a .44 Magnum. On TV, a couple exchange painful truths as they come to the end of their relationship. Travis has recently been rejected by the woman whom he has idealised, Betsy, and his growing isolation and distaste for the city in which he lives and works as a cabbie is driving him to take action.

We have experienced the city through his perspective, via a diaristic voiceover narration, but we are not privy to his thoughts at this moment. He is not busying himself preparing for imagined confrontations. And he seems unperturbed by the fact that he has killed a convenience store robber with an unlicensed gun. Though quiet, there is a palpable atmosphere of unease; the camera does not pry, it is still for a minute.

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On the wall, towards the top left of the frame, is a sign that reads ‘ONE OF THESE DAYS, I’M GONNA GET – ORGANIZ–IZED!’. This is the sign Travis mentions when he takes Betsy out for coffee and pie, early in the film. Prompted by Betsy’s comment about the amount of effort and co-ordination that has gone into Charles Palantine’s election campaign, Travis admits that his own life could use some organisation. Betsy does not immediately catch on when Travis first tells her, ‘I actually got one of those signs that says One of These Days I’m Gonna Get Organizized,’ and then repeats ‘Organizized’, before adding, ‘It’s a joke.’

In Taxi Driver (1976), playful gestures and off-the-cuff humour are frequently transmuted into violence, as if elements of the world through which Travis moves get grimly distorted simply by proximity to his seething fury and psychological unravelling, and manifested again as acts of terrible cruelty. I have previously illustrated the way in which gunplay gestures made with characters’ hands are each mirrored by the use of real firearms. (Similarly, Betsy’s co-worker Tom’s attempt to light a match with three fingers ‘missing’, and his tale of mafia punishment, prefigures the moment when Iris’ timekeeper gets his fingers shot off by Travis.) [1]

The sign on Travis’s wall even falls within this scheme. The sign, as it is positioned on Travis’s apartment wall, and within the frame, at several points during the film, reiterates the shift in the meaning of a single word: ‘organisation’. By the time that the scene appears, we have already seen the sign, clearly, above Travis twice. The first appearance is a key moment. After failing to impress Betsy by taking her to a porno movie, and then encountering a psychotic passenger in his taxi – who tells Travis of his plan to murder his wife, along with her lover – we find Travis writing in his diary, desperate for a sense of worth and direction in his lonely life:

‘June 8th. My life has taken another turn again. The days move along with regularity, over and over, one day indistinguishable from the next – a long, continuous chain. Then, suddenly, there is a change.’

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As Travis utters these words in his voiceover narration, the sign that he has talked to Betsy about appears clearly in the frame. The ‘change’ that Travis is referring to is not made explicit through his diary, but it is clear from the writing on the wall what he has in store.

Travis’s desire for ‘organisation’ at first suggests the mundane affairs of everyday life – in fact he specifies to Betsy, ‘little things, like my apartment, my possessions’ – but we are now being given clear signals that Travis has something more sinister in mind. In the following scenes he arms himself and begins a strict health regime. ‘Organisation’ soon becomes rigorous self-discipline, in preparation for decisive action:

‘June 29th. I gotta get in shape now; too much sitting has ruined my body; too much abuse has gone on for too long. From now on it’ll be fifty pushups each morning; fifty pullups. There will be no more pills, there will be no more bad food, no more destroyers of my body. From now on it’ll be total organisation; every muscle must be tight.’

Though Travis’ plan is never disclosed to us verbally, the film makes specific uses of cuts that clarify what the writing on the wall is telling us all along – the shot of Travis taking aim with his fingers at the screen in a porno theatre, to a reverse shot of the posters on his apartment wall, for instance, and a threatening intimation in the narration:

‘The idea had been growing in my brain for some time. True force: all the king’s men cannot put it back together again.’

Travis’s organisation is, then, directed towards a goal whose result will be destructive. He stands among the crowd gathered for the Senator and exchanges a few words with a Secret Service agent, and his behaviour provokes suspicion. Travis seems less the articulate, lovelorn wanderer and more like a ‘creep’.

And then he kills a robber in his local convenience store, without any grandstanding, no tension, no voiceover explanation from the scene of the crime. Just one guy opening fire on another, quick and messy – and a signal that Travis is hurtling uncontrollably into chaos, rupturing his orderly, self-contained existence.

We also see the sign on the wall as Travis writes a card to his parents wishing them well on their anniversary, and again in this scene, which immediately follows, as we see Travis watching television for the third time. The daytime soap characters discuss their marriage – the woman desires to leave in order to be with another man. Travis’s seated position now mimics that of the illustrated figure on the sign, with its feet resting on an almost identical small, wooden table. The television keeps rocking gently until Travis applies too much pressure and the set tips over, crashing down onto the floor and breaking. It follows the trajectory of the falling letters on the sign – the exclamation mark on which seems to represent the sound of the television as it shatters, just as the female voice onscreen says, ‘I love you.’

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What comes between Travis’s unfocused, alienated existence and the organisation, the purpose that he craves? It is foreshadowed by the other stickers that adorn the wall, visible from the first moment that we glimpse the sign about which Travis at first jokes, repeated as if in chant: ‘Palantine’, ‘Palantine’.

The scene conveys what Travis has recently experienced in his romantic endeavours, through the drama unfolding on the television. Has he used this show and those similar to it as his guide in matters of love in the real world (as his matinee idol air, as he walks into Betsy’s workplace, suggests)? It makes clear Travis’s desire for action, for that ‘organisation’ he has needed all along, and where that action will now lead him, now that romantic love has failed him. The joke is not funny anymore.

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Notes:

[1] ‘Taxi Driver – That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore’, Audiovisual Salvage (2011)

More Than Meets the Eye – The Face of Another

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For Fandor’s Keyframe I wrote about The Face of Another (1966) and identity in postwar Japan.

“Just as Abe’s protagonist Mr Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai) delves into the depths of his identity and potential for moral action with the encouragement of his psychiatrist Hori (Mikijiro Hira), so does Teshigahara uncover ways of manifesting onscreen particular social undercurrents. Using a variety of structural and stylistic elements, which include a film within the film, frames within frames, remarkable chiaroscuro by cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa, imaginative use of sound and figuration, Teshigahara builds outward from Abe’s story with a thematic development that suggests the problem of Japanese identity as much as personal identity.”

To read the full essay, visit https://www.fandor.com/keyframe/more-than-meets-the-eye-the-face-of-another

Tony Conrad – Critical Audiovisions

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For the Notebook at Mubi I wrote about Tony Conrad, who died 9th April, 2016.

“In creating endgame works—such as the ever-playing Yellow Movies—that resist subsequent extension and modification by other artists, as well as launching open-ended interventions into social and artistic history using different media, Conrad was continually alert to the ways in which cultural values and styles become entrenched. His work provokes further critical rethinking about accepted modes of film and music practice…”

To read the full article, visit the Notebook at Mubi.

Mise en scène and Film Style by Adrian Martin

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This book review was originally published in the magazine 24 Monthly, February 2016. My thanks to Ehsan Khoshbakht for the Farsi translation.

 

Mise en scène and Film Style

By Adrian Martin

Palgrave Macmillan, £63 (hbk)/ebook £49.99

Disassembling so vague a term as mise en scène is no easy undertaking. As an early chapter of Adrian Martin’s new book makes clear, the term has come to mean “everything and nothing” over the years. Developing his own complex ideas about mise en scène and film style, Martin suggests ways in which audiovisual material might be studied afresh, in order to better articulate not only the value we might ascribe to specific works, but also the many passions and perceptions that they prompt in us – which the language of ordinary film criticism so often fails to capture. Along the way, Martin outlines the different uses of mise en scène in film writing through the decades, and the various responses among critics and filmmakers to shifting stylistic approaches and technical possibilities in audiovisual production.

Martin’s interest in the audiovisual here runs the gamut from reality TV and the European New Waves, to web videos and gallery installation art. Martin resists clichés concerning those ideas typically associated with mise en scène – including auteurism and symbolic signification – and has no truck with those who would restrict what cinema, as a medium, is or should be. The author challenges the persistent attempts to hive off cinema as epitomised by 1950s Hollywood, and mise en scène as being synonymous only with the moment of staging and shooting a scene during the production stage. Martin pushes beyond those elements of mise en scène merely expressive of narrative content (including lighting, set design and actors’ movement) to highlight other surprising dynamics, logics and materialities on the screen. Still, he includes examples by John Ford and Otto Preminger within his expanded understanding of the possibilities of mise en scène.

Although Martin sets out to focus on one aspect of filmmaking – as Michel Chion has previously done for the voice, and James Naremore with acting – he actually finds a way to talk about all levels of production. He moves beyond discussion of mise en scène to outline a related idea, that of the dispositif, by which artists initiate a system of rules and patterns that are elaborated and modulated to create multiple textural, compositional and emotional effects over the course of a single work – aspects which can be worked over at any stage of the film’s production. However, the extent to which this opens up critical analysis to a field of unbridled relativism, dependent upon a critic’s ability to tease out interesting motifs and turns within any given film, may be faced with reasonable dismay by some.

It is not often that one gets a sense from even esteemed critics that they are as well read as they are ‘well viewed’. The inspiration found in the writings of influential and also relatively unknown theorists, from various language sources, including French, Spanish and German, is continually foregrounded. Martin’s ability to underline inventive concepts in difficult texts in order to refine his own ideas, and apply those to specific films, all communicated in a prose style that uses exclamation marks unapologetically to convey the author’s cinephilia, makes for some of the most accessible and enjoyable film writing in English.

The book exemplifies Martin’s skill in introducing original concepts through succinct, often entertaining, examples, as well as more detailed moment-to-moment analyses of a given film scene – as in the section focusing on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Martha, and the book’s final chapter on Ritwik Ghatak’s film The Golden Line. Martin finds apposite examples from many of his own favourite films to illustrate his points; though not even the intelligent remarks about the fusillade of post-production effects in Tony Scott’s Domino or the formal inventiveness of the videos of pop duo Pomplamoose encourages me to return to the source material discussed once seen and heard.

Longtime readers of Martin’s work will likely find the experience of reading the book one of revisiting some of the author’s guiding interests, and gaining a better sense of how they intertwine: specifically, figural theory and the notion of the dispositif – elsewhere analysed in the short publication Last Day Every Day, and the essay ‘Turn the Page: From Mise en scène to Dispositif.’ The sheer breadth of references and unusual critical methods that Martin presents here will take newcomers longer to fathom but ulitmately offer illuminating and energising new approaches to film criticism.

The book serves as a most valuable reference work on what has long remained a loosely defined aspect of cinema and a masterclass in audiovisual analysis that teachers and writers on cinema will benefit from re-reading. It ought to find a place in any library of film writing alongside such comparatively wide-ranging, and equally slim, surveys of style as VF Perkins’s Film as Film and Noel Burch’s Theory of Film Practice, two early cornerstones for Martin.

Up the Establishment – The Ruling Class

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For Fandor’s Keyframe I wrote about The Ruling Class (1972), its satirical force and the possibilities of blasphemy in film today.

“While more than a century of cinema has given audiences all manner of attacks on Christian traditions, there remain taboos of the screen that even that arch-antagonizer Luis Buñuel did not lay the groundwork for. The resurgence of interest in Barnes’ material suggests that there might yet be some traction to be gained from such unapologetically savage humor. Agreeing on where such humor ought to be directed today is another matter.”

To read the full essay, visit https://www.fandor.com/keyframe/up-the-establishment

Love is Blind – The Lobster

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As with his last two films written with Efthymis Filippou, director Yorgos Lanthimos presents in The Lobster a horrifying social arrangement where performance is key – a distorted mirror image of the contemporary world of incessant measurement, analysis, diagnosis, review and self-improvement. It is a send-up of the belief in the perfectability of individuals and society. A recognition of the anxieties concerning personal value and our capacities to love, and to be loved, that these trends give rise to. The drama is again centred on those desperate to escape the strictures of the operating system in which they find themselves enmeshed. The Darwinian, dog-eat-dog version of society that is unquestionably accepted by many people today is shown up for its brutality and stupidity.

Lonelyhearts are dispatched to a seaside hotel, to find a new partner in forty-five days, or else be transformed into an animal of their choice. Those who refuse to play by the rules of the game have decamped to the nearby woods, but the options there are just as constricting. More so in the city beyond – the terminus of the hotel’s ‘successful’ couples and the last hiding place for the woodland Loners – where spot checks on those milling about alone are the norm. Invented rules restrain real emotions, sexual desires and the individual’s sense of identity. Repetition, administration, surveillance: the control of social relations, with a barely repressed violence underscoring everything, leaves little hope for a way out.

While the normative, comforting image of the nuclear family is again exploded, Lanthimos and Fillipou here make their vision much more expansive and fatalistic, to encompass society as a whole. While the members of the dysfunctional groups in Dogtooth and Alps saw that the possibility of escape existed – one seeking  to break out of a family, another wanting to break into a  family – here the two possible directions are shown to lead nowhere. If Dogtooth and Alps led us to suspect that male dominance is at fault, then what can we say of the matriarchal control of the hotel and the woods in The Lobster? Female power has as much a destructive association in the imagination as one of maternal love, as those Greek myths taught us. Each false utopia yields to another, taking things into an even darker zone than with Dogtooth and Alps. But this is to suggest that The Lobster is without humour. Far from it.

The oddly international mix of comedy and drama styles takes actors from British comedy, Hollywood and European cinema and collides them together, piercing the impermeable borders that seem to exist between them in the wider culture. This is another reflection of Lanthimos’s anti-conservative spirit. Cruel wit, deadpan jokes and bizarre occurences seesaw between farce, facile and profundity. Many of the most coarse aspects of contemporary social relations in a free market economy are depicted with an especially black humour. A suicide is sneered at, common interests are faked in the hope of sexual partnership, sex is simulated or emptied of love. In this world of every man for himself, any weakness, any trace of transgression will hold you back. You dig your own grave, literally, because the burden ought not to rest with anyone else, too desperate are they to make it through alive – an adjusted, productive, reproductive member of society.

The imagination on display in creating the sense of a unique world goes further than Lanthimos’s previous films. Not only does the introduction of three systems (hotel/woods/city) rather than one involve even more defining quirks and rituals, but the way in which the implications of each system’s codes are shown in both the short and long term – with the use of background action and passing references to remind the viewer that procedures mentioned eariler in the film are ongoing – shows a great amount of precision, and suggests much more than is conveyed by dialogue. Animals that seem natural inhabitants of the woods suspend our disbelief, so that by the time a passing camel or peacock appears momentarily, the surreal effect is imbued with sadness and humour alike and is readily accepted within the world of the story – another of the lovelorn whose time is up. This is why the length of the film is integral to its effects. Many commentators have criticised the second half of the film, obviously preferring the initial conceit and the comedy sketch qualities that follow from it, with little sensitivity to the time in which it takes for the totalitarian elements of The Lobster to make themselves deeply felt, and the existential weight to be measured.

The guests at the love hotel come to understand what Gregor Samsa must have understood: how bad it could get when the ceaseless cares of the workaday proceed unabated, unsympathetic to those who find themselves out of step – only a sense of dismay that the weak link in the chain risks the rest coming undone. Has it always been this way, or is this about the overly systematised, administrated, legislated Now that has become too nonsensical, too stupidly rational and potentially harmful to human decency, love and empathy?

Lanthimos again achieves remarkable tonal shifts through the multiple use of motifs that go from flat humour to desperation, or solemnity. Gestures, words and sounds return altered, more ambiguous, less ridiculous: a hand behind the back, a woman alone at a dining table, a sentimental song about love. The attempt to prescribe and proscribe is rejected, as is the given meaning of any particular element in the world of The Lobster. The rules of the game are subverted. New, intimate languages and rules upend the attempts to impose an unquestionable order on the hotel and the woods’ residents.

Viewers might see flashes of Buñuel, of Kubrick and of Pasolini; might be reminded of those filmmakers by the uneasy feeling that arises from the formality of the surroundings; might feel that the matchmaking hotel creeps like the Overlook and Salò; that the Andalusian dog has returned as a border collie – there’s a dead donkey here too. But what lifts the film above its surface resemblance to previous surreal horrors is its expression of the human experience of love. The possibility of love remains – compromised, and surreptitious, but deeply felt.

In The Lobster love is first shortsighted, and then it blinds itself in a moment of unbearable pain. Those who sought to ascribe some vague ‘Greek-ness’ to Lanthimos and Fillipou’s previous collaborations will no doubt reach for an Oedipus reference once they have seen how this one ends. But things are not as they seem, or as we want them to be. A spirit of resisting the commonplace is all-important in Lanthimos’s work. Clichés are overturned, or re-interpreted, or made literal for us to see their ghastly implications, to make us feel something true again.