Down in the Flood – Housekeeping (1987)

For Notebook at MUBI, I wrote about Bill Forsyth’s adaptation of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping. The full article text is reproduced below.

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On first viewing Bill Forsyth’s film Housekeeping (1987) I was somewhat unimpressed by its low-key television-movie feel; a small town family drama lacking cinematic spectacle, featuring relatively unknown actors. It seemed thrifty, in keeping with the unfussiness of the story’s central character, Sylvie. By contrast, Marilynne Robinson’s novel, on which the film is based, describes moments of fantastical prophecy, strengthened by the author’s knowledge of Scripture, in images of dead souls recovered from a deep lake resonant of the Bible’s account of the Flood and Apocalypse. Forsyth’s better-known Local Hero (1983), a comedy set in a remote Scottish village, gives viewers a meteor shower, the Northern Lights and Burt Lancaster descending from the sky, so the director’s use of Robinson’s text could certainly have reached for very different effects.

Though the film retains the perspective of the book’s youthful narrator, Ruth, inclined to the imaginings of childhood, Forsyth makes no attempt to visualise these poetic evocations, and divests the township of Fingerbone of any overt religious associations, preferring to let the natural landscape present a majesty of its own, and working on the delicate personal bonds between the three protagonists. On closer inspection, though, Housekeeping belies an eloquent audiovisual arrangement, submerging profound aspects of the original material in an unpretentious style, leaving them to rise to the surface of their own accord.

Sylvie, a young itinerant woman, returns to her hometown of Fingerbone to become the primary carer of her two nieces, Ruth (Sara Walker) and Lucille (Andrea Burchill), following the suicide of their mother. Like Robinson’s novel, and contrary to the melodramatics of the average ‘real life issues’ soap opera, Forsyth’s film makes no explicit reference to the mental health of Sylvie. But the history of spectacular death in the family, the symbolism of the lake which claimed the bodies of both Sylvie’s father and her sister—the former in the train accident that has become the town’s most famous episode—and the increasingly manifest unconventionality of Sylvie’s behaviour (with actress Christine Lahti skillfully revealing layer beneath layer of her character, from untroubled eccentricity to painful self-awareness and misgivings about her relationships) suggest a shadowy realm populated by ghosts of the past that threatens to encompass the young girls. Lucille senses it, expressing her discomfort primarily in relation to the embarrassment it brings to her as a typical high schooler, and the townsfolk sense it.

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Water and flooding are here more simply but subtly associated with the irruption of different currents—of emotion; of memories of events, images and sounds—that risk pulling the characters into their undertow. While Ruth remarks that the family have always been comforted by the fact that their home was built on a hill and so less liable to floodwaters, they are nevertheless inextricably tied to the lake and continually drawn to it. Ruth and Sylvie spend days playing truant, idling down by the water, near the railroad bridge off which their grandfather’s train slipped “like a weasel sliding off a rock.”

Sylvie is eager to show Ruth a valley unknown to many among the mountainous surroundings, and accessible only by boat, which sees the pair staying out all night on the lake in a leaking vessel. This striking image is an intensification of a more humorous early scene when the family home is first flooded by several inches of water. Ruth’s relative acceptance of these commonly disruptive circumstances and her growing fascination with her aunt—whom we come to see, with both empathy and concern, as a reflection of her and her own mother—is transformed into the image of the two women on the perilous waters, under the railway tracks in the dead of night.

It is in this scene, too, that the evocative use of sound is made more apparent, and creates an ambiguity that is not suggested in Robinson’s novel. When Sylvie pulls herself up, hugging the rickety skeleton of the railway bridge, we loudly hear the cross-country locomotive shuttling through Fingerbone. But we don’t see it. The sound of clanking metal on the bridge and the lapping currents against the boat are, again, a kind of amplification of the earlier scene, where the gentle bumping of metal tins and other household items bobbing in the flood water is heard as Lucille tries to sweep them into a closet to no avail.

The passing train is also suggested by the use of intermittent light, to simulate the illuminated carriage windows at night, but perhaps owing to nothing more than budget limitations and/or logistics, this key symbol of the town’s identity and the family’s history is at this moment invisible. It is now that we might question whether Ruth and Sylvie have seen a train at all, or rather if we are aware finally of a folie á deux—or less dramatically, a shared poetic sense—that has been deepening throughout the film. And then one recalls that in the novel, too, Ruth tells us that nobody in Fingerbone actually saw the famous crash.

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Robinson’s prose, too, emphasises the auditory, with descriptions of the sloshes of water, and the distant sound of the ice on the lake breaking in thunderous cracks. The latter phenomenon is again presented in the film only as something beyond the screen, beyond the window of the girls’ bedroom. Lucille worries that the sound is like that of a train crashing off the bridge. Ruth assures her that it is only the ice. By now, Ruth is growing comfortable with her unusual lifestyle, living with her aunt, in a house of compulsively stacked newspapers and food cans, growing used to Sylvie’s odd habits.

The sound of ice breaking is, then, both comforting and unsettling. Getting to know their wayward aunt, uncovering some of the mysteries of their past, learning more about themselves and the women they are starting to become places new stresses on the girls’ precarious young lives. The way in which the past haunts the present and the consequent difficulties of intimacy between people are ideas that Robinson would return to in her following three novels, GileadHome and Lila, all set in the town of Gilead. In these stories, everyday gestures, words and apparently unremarkable objects are again invested with a miraculous quality. In doing this, Robinson avoids the prophetic visions of her first novel, and brings the books closer in feel to Forsyth’s subtle, moving adaptation—suggesting that Forsyth had indeed grasped from the start the underlying poetic qualities that make Robinson’s prose so affecting.

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Echoes Across LA

Five film connections in William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in LA

Warning: This article contains graphic images

 

Following the protests and critical reception surrounding his 1980 masterpiece Cruising, and the disappointing arms dealer comedy Deal of the Century (1983), William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in LA (1985) marked a return to the energetic, stylistically thrilling crime genre filmmaking that first made the director’s name. While its expansive, sunlit, West Coast take on shadowy, claustrophic film noir – soundtracked by the lush, pulsing pop music of Wang Chung – refuses many readymade clichés, the film retains striking, sometimes unexpected connections to the cinematic past.

Friedkin has always professed the influence of a number of stylistically and formally innovative European films of the 1950s and 1960s – notably those of Clouzot, Melville, Resnais and Buñuel – on his own creative blend of documentary, genre tropes and expressionism, best realised in The Exorcist (1973) and Sorcerer (1977). The director has also confirmed the profound influence of Costa-Gavras. The films noir of the 1940s evidently informed Friedkin’s approach to the film that first made his name, The French Connection (1971). But To Live and Die in LA also carries in it less obvious echoes, and ones which function in somewhat different ways to the type of conscious homages to beloved filmmakers one can often find amid the works of Hollywood studio directors of the era. Each of these echoes make the film a richer, more mysterious experience than it might first appear – even presaging one indelible image that was to follow in the work of another groundbreaking filmmaker only two years later.

The Friedkin connection: The director has avowed on numerous occasions that he is not an auteur, in the sense in which that word has been used to discuss the unique, identifiable styles and themes of filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Jean-Luc Godard – all of whom Friedkin has expressed admiration for. Despite these claims, one can find throughout Friedkin’s films from the 1960s to the present, certain distinctive, recurring images; a potent fatalism and a creative play with genre and filmic structure.

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Popeye drive

Above all, To Live and Die in LA is a mirror image of sorts to the earlier The French Connection. Where the latter gives viewers an unromantic glimpse of New York in the Seventies, To Live and Die in LA treads the fetid terrain of the often romanticised City of Angels. As critic Kent Jones writes in his book Physical Evidence, ‘like Abel Ferrara, Friedkin films only in places that Woody Allen would never dream of visiting’. The plots are not dissimilar: a loose cannon cop vows to bust a master criminal. One crucial link is the mesmerising dynamism of the films’ respective car chases, with Friedkin seemingly intent on taking the already iconic chase of the earlier film to an even more nauseating, technically stunning new level in To Live and Die in LA. In keeping with the tone of noir, both films elicit a sense of pessimism, dread and uncertainty; a sense of paranoia that clouds any easy resolutions.

A premonition: Chance (William Petersen) and Vukovich (John Pankow) return to the station, after the failed stakeout that has resulted in the murder of attorney Max Waxman, to sign their firearms back in. Vukovich realises that Chance has lifted a notebook of Waxman’s from the scene of the crime and warns him about the risks he is running and how he is threatening to jeopardise not only the investigation into counterfeiter Rick Masters but also their careers as federal agents. This is a fulcrum point that will determine how the rest of the drama will unravel, a point at which Vukovich hesitates in following Chance any further on his reckless course.

Electra

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Only briefly glimpsed as the two agents are pacing through the station, at a moment when the pair are seen to literally make a turn, is a lifesize cardboard cutout of a traffic cop in uniform, boots, helmet and sunglasses. The figure is one of four that originally featured in a promotional poster for the 1973 film Electra Glide in Blue, the only film to be directed by James William Guercio. More than simply a connection to an earlier police film, the cutout serves as a subtle premonition of what is to come.

In the final moments of Guercio’s film the protagonist Wintergreen, played by Robert Blake, is killed suddenly and brutally. The shocking effect of this moment comes as the character – whose initial, unswerving commitment to protocol has by the film’s end shifted towards a more sympathetic outlook – gives those he has pulled over the benefit of the doubt. Chance, on the other hand, ventures ever further from legality and crosses ever more moral boundaries throughout To Live and Die in LA. Yet, in keeping with the pessimism that characterises many of Friedkin’s films, notably The Birthday Party (based on the play by Harold Pinter), The French Connection, Sorcerer, Cruising and Bug (adapted from a play by Tracy Letts), the endgame would seem to be inevitable, whatever the moves taken to reach it. Wintergreen and Chance meet the same fate.

Blurring identities: The end of To Live and Die in LA sees Vukovich paying a visit to the home of Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel), the parolee and informant with whom Chance has had a longstanding controlling, sexual relationship. Finally feeling herself free of Chance’s threats after his death, she is confronted by Vukovich, now more closely resembling Chance in appearance and with a colder persona. In this way, the surviving agent – used to taking on false identities in undercover work – seems to have absorbed the personality of his former partner. This blurring of one identity into another is familiar from many of Friedkin’s films – the demon Pazazu possessing both Regan and Father Karras in The Exorcist; the fake IDs of the fugitives in Sorcerer; the wild casting of multiple actors as both perpetrator and victims in Cruising – and in To Live and Die in LA an episode of mistaken identity results in the killing of federal agent Thomas Ling.

Such slippages and transferences of identity, suggesting a worldview based around fundamental instability, are realised in more or less enigmatic ways. The most unusual in To Live and Die in LA comes as Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe) is seen greeting members of his girlfriend’s dance company backstage following a show, he is approached by an apparently male performer shown only from behind and begins to kiss him. A reverse shot and as the lovers pull away from one another, the other person is now revealed to be Masters’ girlfriend, Bianca (Debra Feuer). Despite his criminal activities, Masters is shown to exist in a world of sexual free play, aesthetic refinement and bold artistic expression – as against Chance’s rampant machismo. The moment is described in the original script for the film, in which the stage performance featuring Bianca is said to feature women dressed as men and vice versa. The decision to use a different actor briefly to achieve the effect is certainly uncommon.

But in fact, the effect is identical to one used in Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s Performance (1970). Here identities and gender are similarly untethered within the psychosexual circle into which the criminal Chas (James Fox) is drawn, when he is forced into hiding and arrives at the home of the reclusive musician Turner (Mick Jagger). Eventually drawn far from the blunt certainties of his thuggish, former life in London, in one scene Chas is seen lying in bed with Turner resting beside him. As the figure of Turner turns over to embrace and kiss Chas, he magically transforms into Lucy (Michèle Breton), one of Turner’s two live-in women friends.

A cinema of symbiosis: There are few humorous moments in To Live and Die in LA but one is undoubted. As Chance and Vukovich take to running after two men they suspect of moving Masters’ counterfeit money, one of the men yells behind him to Vukovich: ‘Why you chasin’ me?’ to which Vukovich calls back: ‘Why you runnin’?’, only for the suspect to reply, ‘Cos you’re chasin’ me.’

The same logical loop of dialogue also features in The Laughing Policeman (1973) loosely based on a novel by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, which shares a similar plot to Friedkin’s film. The death of a police officer’s partner leads the officer – played by Walther Matthau – to pursue those responsible, with the help of a new partner (Bruce Dern), tossing out the law enforcement rulebook along the way to make their bust. If this is little more than a direct lift on Friedkin’s part, it is somewhat justified since, as critic Brad Stevens has remarked, director Stuart Rosenberg was clearly influenced by Friedkin’s The French Connection.

LA bust

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A sudden shot of inspiration: A longtime admirer of the films of Stanley Kubrick, Friedkin would end up providing the template for one of the older director’s most indelible images of violence. As recounted in the audiobook version of Matthew Modine’s diary of the shooting of Full Metal Jacket (1987), Kubrick enquired after a ‘really good head wound’ that might be used as a reference point for staging Private Pyle’s suicide in the bootcamp ‘head’:

Modine (narrating): ‘Stanley looks at the video of the head wound experiments. He too is disappointed. He wants something big, something that will put a period on bootcamp and send us off to Vietnam. We go for a walk and he asks me if I’ve ever seen a really good head wound in a film. I say I have.

Modine: Yeah, there’s an incredibly violent head shot in To Live and Die in LA.

I tell him how a guy walks into a room with a shotgun, sticks it in another guy’s face and shoots. The man’s face explodes into a mass of blood and bone.

Kubrick (writing in his notepad): I’ll get a print, and we’ll see how they did it.

Time: Shortly after. Stanley is excited.

Kubrick: I got the print.

Stanley agrees that the head wound in To Live and Die in LA is incredible. He wants me to see it. He takes me to a large truck and we climb into the back. Inside is a huge Steenbeck editing machine. I’ve seen a lot of them. But never in the back of a truck. Amazing. Stanley has the scene cued up and he shows me the film at the normal 24 frames a second.

Kubrick: Is this the scene?

We watch the scene and it is just as I remembered it.

Modine:  That’s the one. It’s great isn’t it?

Kubrick: Now, watch it again.

Stanley slows the speed to about five five frames a second. At this speed, everything becomes surreal. It’s the speed at which things move when something violent is happening to you. The actor enters the room and raises a shotgun into another actor’s face. We watch without sound so there isn’t the magic, the sleight of hand, the added illusion that sound can provide. There is no bang when there should have been a gunshot. And there isn’t the flash of gunpowder I was sure I’d seen. There is only a big wad of red and white mush flying from off-camera right. We stop the Steenbeck and look at each other. Stanley is smiling. We talk about how it might have been done and figure it was some special effects guys with a catapult, flinging guts into this poor actor’s face. We watch a couple of more times at speed and in slow motion.

Kubrick:  It’s really good. But I know how I can make it better. I’ll find a way to throw the blood and guts faster. And the moment it enters frame until it hits Vince’s face will only be about 2 frames of film. I’ll cut them out.

Modine: A jump cut?

Kubrick: Yeah but you won’t notice. It’s too fast, too violent. And the rifle shot will fool you into not noticing.

I’m happy that he’s happy. I’m happy that I was able to help. Working toward a common goal and all that crap. It’s cool when it works out.’

Chance shot

Pyle

A filmmaker whose work has been shaped by innovators of the cinematic past, Friedkin ended up providing inspiration for the work of a visionary artist whom he admired. All the while, with To Live and Die in LA, Friedkin reignited his own aesthetic, pushing images and themes that had preoccupied him for many years into a feverish, chaotic new dimension.

These intertextual linkages, peculiar resonances and mirrorings in To Live and Die in LA form a map of receptivity, revision and feedback – an ‘intrahistory’ of cinema as worked out by films and filmmakers themselves.

Delayed Flight – Wings (1966)

Nadezhda Petrukhina, a former Second World War pilot and now a city council deputy and head of a civil engineering school in the postwar Soviet Union, studies an exhibition board at the local museum that celebrates the achievements of her youth. The photograph of herself, radiant, decorated, ready to defend her nation, conveys a vitality and pride that has noticeably ebbed, as life has changed around Nadya.

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She recalls her wartime experiences daily, with fondness, in particular her love for her late comrade Mitya; yet the duties and manner demanded of Nadya then seem to be complicating the present. The discipline, self-reliance and duty that Nadya expects of herself and others gain her much respect but little warmth. The difficulty she finds in expressing her passions and fears – the aborted letters to old friends, the relayed telephone calls from her newlywed daughter – and the uncertainty about the way a young journalist has described her in an article, leave her isolated and lead her to retreat into her memories time and again.

Nadya is the central character of Larisa Shepitko’s film Wings (1966), an understated and rich portrait of a woman forced to reconsider her values and the place of her past in the personal and social circumstances in which she now finds herself. Set over a period of several days, it represents an interval in its protagonist’s life when, as the director herself described it, “the harmony of living is destroyed…when a deep feeling of dissatisfaction forces one to look back critically at one’s life”.

Shepitko uses recurrent, lyrical images of aircraft gliding across a clear sky, a manifestation of 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 a longed-for escape, unconstrained by care. Nadya’s past was one of proud, resolute commitment to her country in the midst of conflict. Personal responsibility, strong relationships of intimacy and trust, and solidarity are the very things of which Nadya’s recollections of wartime remind her. Her insistence to her daughter that she does not understand the words “Let someone else do it,” when encouraged to give up some of her workplace undertakings, confirms the importance that Nadya places on accounting for oneself; of not flying in the face of what duty requires, despite the threats and losses that they might bring about.

The discipline of military life, however, offer no practical solutions to Nadya’s current, unreconciled emotional life – her strained relationship with her daughter Tanya; her reluctance to commit herself to her male intimate, Pasha, the museum curator. Her effort to welcome her son-in-law into her life; her struggle to maintain discipline among her teenage students whose tempestuous, desiring natures threaten the order of her school; and her eventual offer to marry Pasha, all signal the importance that Nadya sees in grounding herself and building a family, in spite of her flights of imagination. But these desires are hindered, not helped, by the rigour and seriousness that characterises Nadya’s interactions with others, shaped by the past to which she still clings to, which the younger generation did not know.

Nadya’s memories are darkened, too, by a devastating personal loss; that of her lover Mitya, shot down in his plane, recoverable now only in the remembrance of moments shared together as young soldiers, as they wandered from the field hospital in which they were both treated during the war. Both a flight from the past and a flight towards the past bring no true consolation. The empty roads and empty corridors down which Nadya is seen walking are so many possible runways, if only they might lead her somewhere. Shepitko again finds the perfect visual schema in these scenes to convey Nadya’s inner life, while maintaining a social realism characteristic of the Soviet era’s filmmaking.

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Nadya’s attempts to maintain her stoicism while yearning to reconnect with the world around her, are movingly suggested in the exquisite performance of actress Maya Bulgakova. Unable to articulate her feelings in a way that brings true conciliation with those closest to her, and increasingly uncertain of her authoritarian attitude towards her young students, we are left to read Nadya’s subtle physical gestures for what they may reveal to us. The way she hesitatingly throws her suit jacket off her shoulders and unbuttons her blouse as she walks out in the sunlit streets. The moment she stays stock still in deep thought on a packed tram, as the other passengers turn their heads in unison at the sight of a dog. The repeated digs of the heel of her shoe into the concrete underfoot – a lack of firm footing made literal; and still more literally, a glimpse of the weak foundations of the Soviet Union. In this ground-level close-up image is a reminder that, despite the universal subject matter of Wings, the film is set in a very specific context.

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Struggling to let her guard down, and to admit the effects of her behaviour on those around her, there are still small pleasures that Nadya allows for herself. Bulgakova skilfully discloses a confluence of feelings and transformative sensations; the tenderness and vulnerability beneath Nadya’s stern posture: a longing glance at a man cooling himself in the heat, who averts his eyes and walks away; a glass of beer and a sausage relished; an impromptu waltz with a local waitress as they remember a song of their youth; and a handful of fruit bought from a street vendor, held out to be washed in the rain. Though her public roles demand rectitude, it is clear in these moments that Nadya has so much passion still to give.

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Wings Fig 9

Nadya does not have to look far to see that her identity as a woman need not be so deeply constrained by the dictates of the past. Nadya’s own expectations, experience and judgment are countered strongly by other, very different women around her: the schoolgirl Yermaloeva, whose dignity Nadya seeks to protect after she is hit by a male pupil, is resentful that Nadya has ruined her chances of romance; Tanya, who doesn’t feel particularly beholden to her mother, unaware of her real parentage, and wishing to live independently with her older husband; and the young journalist who grows quickly impatient when Nadya is asked to proof the copy of an interview she has agreed to give. ‘Beginning’ is a word that does not sound right to Nadya.

But it is a beginning that she eventually resolves to make, alone. Declining the comforting hand of the man to whom she has unsuccessfully offered her own hand in marriage, Nadya must find a new path to take. This moment is one of incredible poignancy, as Bulgakova keeps her hand held up over her own shoulder as she backs away from Pasha and announces that she is to turn her life around. Her manner suggests an uncertain optimism, the sense that she is not altogether convinced that she can do it.

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Wings Fig 12

There is then, eventually, a change in Nadya. While early in the film we see Nadya reprimanding an insolent student, Vostriakov, for his misbehaviour, Nadya now helps a young boy who has sneakily slipped away from his classmates and teacher during a school trip – where the children are being shown the exhibit of Nadya’s wartime achievements. The previous rules are no longer imposed. Past commitments are no longer what they were. Presumed loyalties cannot be relied upon. Vostriakov bluntly admits to Nadya when called into her office after having run away from school: “I despise you.”

Nadya cannot be free of the past, she must carry its weight. Visiting the local airfield, Nadya is irresistibly drawn to a parked aircraft, and to the possibilities of recovering a feeling long absent; of bringing the emotions long preserved in the local museum back into her life. The trainee flyers are soon pushing her, cheering Nadya along the runway.

Wings Fig 13

Then suddenly comes Nadya’s high flight, as she backs up from the hangar into which the plane is directed; this is the culmination of Nadya’s crisis, which sees her spin away from the men on the airfield and take off. It is a thrilling moment, a determination to change, to lift oneself above the pain and the uncertainty. But it too might only be in Nadya’s imagination, as suggested by the sudden cut from stationary aircraft to engines and propeller fully engaged. Is this another subtle merging of the figurative and the literal; an image of a spirit lifting itself above that which would ground it?

Wings offers, finally, a vision that expresses individual will, but Shepitko is keenly aware that we are bound – by that which came before, by the circumstances in which we find ourselves, by our inability to shape the future exactly how we would wish to. It is an admission by a clear-eyed filmmaker that while we may alter our direction of flight as events around us do, there is no changing our point of departure, and no certainty of where we shall next land.

First published by Fandor (http://www.fandor.com) – 2016

Opening Remarks: A Conversation with Tyler Hubby about Tony Conrad and Documentary Filmmaking

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For The Notebook at Mubi, I spoke to Tyler Hubby about his documentary Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present.

“…I wanted it really approachable. And then there’s the humor in Tony’s life and in his work that I felt needed to be there. There’s a way you could make something that’s really opaque and stand-offish but that’s not who he was. I mean, you could read the work that way but that’s not who he was. So there was that too, bringing forward the experience and my experience of being around him, capturing the essence of his persona. I didn’t want to make a visual resume or, you know, a tombstone. I wanted it to feel like you’re on this wild ride with this crazy guy for 96 minutes.”

To read the edited conversation, visit https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/opening-remarks-a-conversation-with-tyler-hubby-about-tony-conrad-and-documentary-filmmaking

Little Malcolm and His Big Brother

John Hurt as Winston Smith. His own personal sadness helped him

For Keyframe, I wrote about John Hurt in Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs and 1984:

“Those seeking to oppose their social and political circumstances would probably prefer the image of Winston Smith, determined not to succumb in their own Oceania. Maybe they are like Malcolm Scrawdyke, in distinctly non-totalitarian surroundings, eager to express their frustrations through infantile and delusional fantasies, and wishing to assert their viewpoint by force—without realising the impotence and destructiveness of their behaviour. In these films John Hurt explored a spectrum of political resistance and showed how two seemingly opposing pathways can open up from a single point—and at times blur dangerously into one another.”

To read the full essay, visit https://www.fandor.com/keyframe/little-malcolm-big-brother

 

Phill Niblock – Sight & Sound interview

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For the May issue of Sight & Sound I spoke with the composer, filmmaker and photographer Phill Niblock.

“Niblock’s concentrated visual approach was defined by the early 1970s, as the Environments series progressed. He began to favour shooting in extreme close-up and restricting camera placement and movement in specific ways. The parallels are close between his musical compositions, building out from a single musical note into drones, and the long durations and detailed focus of the films.”

To read the full article, visit http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/may-2017-issue

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

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.

Up to this point in Taxi Driver (1976) we have experienced the city through Travis’s perspective, largely via a diaristic voiceover narration – but we are not privy to his thoughts now. 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, playful gestures and off-the-cuff humour are frequently transmuted into violence, as if elements of the world through which Travis moves necessarily become grimly distorted, simply by proximity to his seething fury and psychological unravelling, and are manifested again as acts of terrible cruelty. Instances of gunplay using only the hands as stand-ins are mirrored by the use of real firearms. Similarly, Betsy’s co-worker Tom’s attempt to light a match with three fingers ‘missing’ – his tale of a typical mafia punishment prefiguring the moment when Iris’ timekeeper gets his fingers shot off by Travis at the climax of the film.

The sign on Travis’s wall even falls within this scheme. The sign, as it is positioned in Travis’s apartment, 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 television viewing 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. He narrates:

‘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, 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, and a reverse shot of the posters on his apartment wall, for instance. And there is 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’s speech and exchanges a few words with a Secret Service agent. His behaviour provokes suspicion. Travis seems less the articulate, lovelorn wanderer and more like a ‘creep’.

And then soon after 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 now in this scene, which immediately follows, as Travis is shown 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, too, Travis’s distraction, his desire for action, for that ‘organisation’ he has needed all along, and tells us where that action will now lead him, now that romantic love has failed him. The joke is not funny anymore.

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