Withholding Patterns

the host

This essay was first published in Underline Issue 4, ‘The Abadan Issue’, Autumn 2018.

Miranda Pennell’s hour-long documentary The Host (2015) is a work of striking contrasts: between the apparent simplicity of its narration and use of photographic images, and the abundance of historical information it conveys; between the avowed lack of a clearly delineated arc and the intricately stitched patterning in the film; and between the economy of artistic means Pennell uses as against the story of capitalistic exploitation that the history of Abadan reveals. Without being didactic, Pennell underscores the distinction between official histories and the public image on the one hand, and private experience and the perspective of the individual on the other. Finally, unable to gain any all-enveloping vantage point, the filmmaker reminds us of what is always off screen, in the margins of written texts and behind the camera, waiting to reveal itself to us.

Ostensibly, The Host follows Pennell’s investigation into her family connections to the oil trade in Iran, her father having been employed by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) in the 1960s during her childhood, some of which she spent living in Abadan. But rather than simply revealing secrets and coming to firm moral conclusions about the activities of British interests in the region in general and her father in particular, her exploration of public archives, private memory, testimony and speculative fiction affirms and undermines clear judgements. Pennell begins the film by mentioning a curious connection between the rare form of leukaemia that affected both her mother and her father – as if to embark on a scientific enquiry into the working conditions of those in Abadan in its heyday as Iran’s ‘Oil City’. But this track is left and Pennell becomes lost in the volumes of records held in the BP archives at the University of Warwick; in an obscure text by a former Abadan worker that leads her to the author’s later fantastical alternative to the Genesis myth of humanity’s origins; meeting’s with the author’s wife and family friend, and finally the touristic images drawn from the Pennell family photo albums.

Lines of questioning open further out, while Pennell expertly weaves together all these disparate materials as well as found sounds to emphasise visual resemblances across eras, cultures and subjects. The snaking lines on a geological diagram match the appearance of the thin cable trailing from the earbuds of headphones. The towering columns of ancient Persian ruins are shown alongside the billowing smoke stacks of the Abadan refinery. Christian O’Brien’s account of the ‘Shining Ones’, mysterious visitors whom he believed initiated human culture and society from above, is set against the condemning evidence of British power interests and the manipulation of the public image of their affairs in Iran. The eyes are repeatedly drawn to these resemblances, to provoke attention, to spur interrogation and to suggest credible links between what might previously have been kept apart.

And yet, while these unexpected connections are forming throughout the course of the film, the way in which Pennell withholds information and shapes our perspective becomes ever more conspicuous. There is the initial reference to the sickness that affected her parents, which is never returned to. And there is a subliminal image, one presumes of Pennell, that appears only once again – almost as briefly – towards the end as we see more of the family pictures from 1960s Iran. Her slog through the unending BP archives and her reports on the poor metadata in the holdings – which, for instance make it impossible to search by her father’s name – contrasts with the manner in which Pennell primes us to look at the photographs she chooses to include.

Pennell introduces many images by first withholding them, while describing them in the voiceover narration, which is played over another image. Rather than allowing our eyes to roam over the images, as viewers are able to do at the beginning of the film, Pennell increasingly comes to limit our perspective. She refers us to the background elements of a seemingly uninteresting domestic scene – two ashtrays in the form of figures – before scanning quickly through a succession of private holiday photos without commentary. In this way, one gets a sense in The Host of the way that investigations into the past, especially one’s genealogical history, and autobiography is both complicated by emotion and driven by a compulsive need to answer questions. Add to this the public interest of reviewing Britain’s national and imperial interests in the twentieth century and the complexities of perspective multiply.

In looking over personal and public history, details are uncovered, perspectives shift, but other elements are pushed out of the frame, other troubling matters are masked – whether consciously or not. In showing the history of Abadan, and the workings of the AIOC, the British government and BP in a new light; by showing us the faces of the workers, as if they wish to tell us all that has been forgotten or left out of the public records; drawing on autobiographical details to make crucial history more personal to us, Pennell makes judicious, poetic use of audiovisual materials to connect historical memory with criticism. In doing so, however, Pennell reminds us of the ways in which she is limited, in the ways she wishes to shape our experience of her materials, to see the connections she sees. As enthralling and curious as this process is in The Host, what remains is the question: what else are we not seeing?

Our compulsion to look, our lives as voracious viewers makes the act of reading an image second nature. But it is the second look that The Host encourages us to take, time and again. And there will certainly be elements of Pennell’s film itself that will be missed on first viewing. Subtle evasions, unremarked details, connections between images that appear at different ends of the film. The ability to suggest the seeming inexhaustibility of information, the impossibility of gaining a firm footing on which to view the past while making such economical use of old-fashioned media – as well as imaginative use of online resources (YouTube and audio files from freesound.org) – make The Host at once a work of remarkable concision and depth. It is full of untold stories, unfinished histories, people just outside our purview. But it gives us a profound sense of relationships that are compelled to make themselves evident; of details that demand magnification.

There is no way of viewing the past but from a specific point of view, and there is always more buried history to dig up. Pennell is aware of all this, and in showing us what she remembers and what she sees one feels that she is a welcoming host, inviting us in – not an unwanted guest, imposing on us.

Advertisements

Wavelengths – Archipelago (2010)

archipelago1

On the living room wall of the holiday house on Tresco there is a square of paint that is a lighter shade, where a picture once hung. The Leighton family, who are staying for the first time in years, took the painting down because none of them could stand to look at it. At the end of Archipelago (2010) it is replaced. A neatly framed mass of a water building to a wave. It is like the film in miniature; it mimics the way in which director Joanna Hogg carefully assigns the camera its place, and lets the emotions swell between the characters within the frame; the way in which the quiet, polite Leightons each try to maintain composure despite their growing upset. But the noise will not be contained. The winds whipping around the small island are heard offscreen, and arguments suddenly break out.

At the beginning of the film, Edward arrives to join his mother Patricia and sister Cynthia, who have planned a send-off for him. Edward is leaving a job in the City to spend time in Africa raising awareness about the risks of AIDS. Their father, neither seen nor heard in the film, calls each day making excuses for his delay, to the increasing distress of Patricia. Meanwhile, the rest of the family spend their days picnicking and painting, riding and conversing. They are joined by Rose, who has been hired as a cook, and Christopher, who is teaching Patricia about painting. During their brief time on the island, Edward is increasingly drawn to Rose, wishing to include her in more of the family’s activities, while his mother and sister are worried that he will embarrass her, and leave her without much of the work that she is being paid to do. Besides, Edward already has a girlfriend, Chloe, who will not be able to join him in Africa and whom, to his disappointment, his family declined to invite on the holiday.

Archipelago is a film about a group of people unable to get on the same wavelength. Cynthia cannot understand why Edward is giving up his secure job to go to Africa, dismissing it as a “gap year”. She is also incredulous about Edward’s anxieties around Rose. Patricia places her faith in her husband appearing and cannot understand what the hold-up is. She is also reluctant to raise a complaint about the guinea fowl served in a restaurant that Cynthia is adamant is “dangerous”. Edward has doubts about his trip and spends more and more time in the kitchen with Rose, who seems unsure how best to handle his interest and concern for her, but appears to enjoy his company and their conversation. (There is a moment, both sweet and awkward, when Edward assists Rose in pinning her Remembrance poppy to her clothing and one senses that he might attempt a kiss, but doesn’t.) And Christopher attempts to give Edward a pep talk, but can only manage masculine cliché, which he later explains was a needless parroting of advice he was given and could not use as a young man.

There are tensions beneath the calm surface, of fine dining, relaxing rides through the landscape and patient art instruction. Between the uncomfortable discussions are documentary like scenes; first of a local fisherman explaining to Rose the difference between male and female lobsters, and a hunter who details the method of skinning and preparing a pheasant for dinner.

Cynthia’s judgmental attitude towards her brother and Patricia’s rising impatience on the phone to her husband soon dissolve the etiquette. The restaurant scene is a masterpiece of middle-class horror, of fraught cuisine. Appearances are of no concern, since there are no other diners, but Cynthia’s dissatisfaction with the food and her interactions with the staff show up her isolation among those she supposes to be closest to her – the family to which she compares Edward’s relationship with Chloe unfavourably. Edward, fed up of his sister’s treatment of others, storms out of the restaurant.

archipelago2

The tentative peace is finally shattered not with a gunshot, but when Cynthia bites down on a piece of shot that has not been removed from the pheasant cooked by Rose. Disappearing for hours, she returns after dark to a waiting Edward and Patricia and heads straight to her room. The camera stays on Edward, who sits quietly in the growing darkness, while offscreen, on the floor above, Cynthia unleashes her rage at her mother. It is an extraordinary directorial choice, to allow the distress to flood onto the soundtrack, while keeping the viewer’s eyes out of the room, on a clearly upset Edward. Without the dramatic use of facial and other bodily gestures so commonly associated with flare-ups on film, Hogg is confident in the effects of sound alone – of the psychological power of the argument heard through walls, more typical of the type of family incapable of expressing such raw emotion openly, or so long intent above all to keep up appearances of the contented family – even within the privacy of their own home. It also allows the argument to be seen (and heard) to register on all members of the household – there is a cut to Rose, made uncomfortable by being present in the house during the row – rather than simply those engaging in the argument directly.

The waves subside and Edward makes a touching, apologetic gesture using a sock puppet around the edge of Cynthia’s bedroom door. But another crash comes when Patricia realises that her husband will not make it to the house before Edward has to leave to spend his last night with Chloe.

The metaphor of the archipelago is obvious; that of each person as an island, even the members of a seemingly perfect, well-to-do family. But they are not so far apart, they are dear to one another, only unsure of how to connect. Each has their own ideas about how to conduct oneself, of obligations to family and others, but struggle to maintain expectations in the face of the decisions of the others. They take in the same view, but paint their own pictures of it, in different colours and tones.

archipelago3

The scenes of relaxed eating in the outdoors, of shooting and cycling the countryside might remind us of Renoir’s countryside stories and the still frames of Ozu, or the domestic scenes of Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). But there is a final reference that suggests the more experimental interest that Hogg takes in Archipelago. As the seascape painting in replaced on the living room wall, suggesting a resolution – if an uneasy one – there are two successive close-ups that finally show the picture without its frame, only the water. It is a clear homage to Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967), a film as equally attentive to the possibilities of drama within a limited formal setup; of the play of tonal and chromatic variation and the sensitivity to the way in which what is within the shot and outside the shot can give equal life to a film. And how subtle focus and patience can elicit such remarkable effects.

The Long and Windy Road

waw

This essay was first published in Underline Issue 2, February 2018. The theme of the issue was ‘Journeys’.

In terms of the geographical space covered, one might not readily consider Willow and Wind (Beed-o baad, 1999) to be a film about a journey – the action being restricted to a sparsely populated Iranian village. But in its protagonist’s race against time to get from point A to point B, in its exploration of locale, its visual emphasis on the distances travelled between a few local landmarks, and the emotional shifts experienced in between, Mohammad-Ali Talebi’s children’s tale plays like a road movie of sorts – with several roadblocks along the way, and an eventual return.

It follows an unnamed young boy’s attempt to source a pane of glass, with which he must glaze a window at his school that he broke during a football game. He is pressed for time. Having left the task unattended for two weeks, hoping his father would make amends on his behalf, he faces expulsion. Unaided by his teacher, who does not accept his excuses and expectations of help, the boy must find money, reach the glazier’s shop before closing, and then carry the glass frame back precariously through his home village, in the midst of howling winds, making sure not to break it.

Two other boys become involved in the task. They each have a practical sense of what must be done, who can help and how to manage priorities. Moreover, there is an acceptance that all one’s efforts might be in vain, as the film’s final moments underscore. Willow and Wind could be viewed as a children’s take on William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977), a gruelling, atmospheric cinematic realisation of Georges Arnaud’s novel Le salaire de la peur about the joint efforts of four men in undertaking a potentially fatal transportation through jungle terrain.

The film was written by Abbas Kiarostami. As with several of his own films, particularly Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987) and the sombre and philosophical Taste of Cherry (1997), the movements made to complete a task are foregrounded, so as to go places even within a restricted context. This movement is often slow, or even circular – typically roaming a single Iranian city or village by car or on foot. But what is also conveyed is the sense of an emotional trajectory. Resolutions are not guaranteed, however, or else may be accompanied by unexpected negative consequences. The same elements are found in other Iranian filmmakers’ works, a more recent example being Jafar Panahi’s Taxi Tehran (2015), a film determined by the director’s own legal restrictions on movement, in which the end of the cab driver’s journey is soured by a theft, witnessed only by the viewer.

In English speaking cultures today, the metaphorical sense conveyed by the word ‘journey’ is increasingly common. Especially in the UK, one is used to hearing of the journeys undergone by others. Not recollections of recent trips but rather accounts of personal experiences and particular difficulties overcome. This tendency, a side effect of important campaigns to lessen any stigma surrounding mental health problems by promoting awareness of acute psychological conditions and encouraging sufferers to seek help for stresses and strains, regularly gives the impression of a whole society lacking will and resilience; having little or no sense of another, stoical attitude. It has come to seem an expectation to account for even relatively commonplace matters of life in terms usually reserved for a mythical story, with a premium placed by publishers and broadcasters on conveying the most ordinary experiences of loss, regret and pain as having been uniquely felt, and heroically overcome. How much many grown-ups could learn from the experiences of the children in Willow and Wind.

Of course, in the context of the film’s production in Iran, such an attitude might be read as an internalisation of a sense of invisibility, powerlessness, or hopelessness. And there are likely to be those who, in keeping with the turn described above, see in Willow and Wind only neglect and cruelty – from an uncaring adult world that instils a fear of failure in youngsters. References to the boys’ fathers are characterised by a sense of absence, or of limited time spent with their sons owing to work obligations. But consider the way in which the school teacher allows newcomer Ardakani to leave his mathematics class to watch the rain, which he has never seen before. Talebi gives us a moment, too, to revel in the physicality and sensation of the rain – more distracting because of the broken window – before the boys move off. Ardakini’s father is happy to assist when he is asked for money, although he is busy on an engineering project. And the glazier treats his customer with fairness.

Talebi’s film encourages a necessary practicality, responsibility and self-reliance in the face of difficulties that ought to appeal to many audiences, young and old. For a national film industry diminished by problems of censorship, much of Iranian cinema, including its children’s cinema, is unsparing in its view of the travails of living and the need to find ways forward in the most testing circumstances. The young boys in Talebi’s film must negotiate their own contracts, resolve their own problems, make reparations. “True the rain is beautiful,” the maths teacher tells his students. “But everything must be done in its proper time.” Even the other schoolchildren, whose studies are being disrupted, have their say: “Glaze the window!”

Certainly, one’s sympathies are sharpened when the realisation dawns on the protagonist that he has the wrong piece of paper, after he has sought out the measurements his father has written down. And one frets with him as he is carried unsteadily on the back of a fellow boy’s motorcycle, terrified that the successfully acquired glass is going to shatter. His attempts to get the attention of a teacher in the school grounds while he is struggling to install the glass is also moving. But despite everything there is admiration – at the unwillingness to abandon the task, and the instinct and empathy the boys show to one another.

Talebi here also gives us a powerful metaphor for the difficulties of the creative process in general, and filmmaking in Iran in particular: the necessity of carrying a frame through which the world can be viewed, undamaged, through numerous trials and obstacles; to secure it, and to share it with others.

As the director told film writer and researcher Neil McGlone in an interview in 2014:

‘Filmmaking in Iran today is like carrying that piece of glass on an uneven landscape… If you want to make a film in Iran, you will see some old men who talk very slowly and make long speeches, and the bureaucracy, which becomes insane. You have to be patient for every shot you shoot. That’s why I think Iranian filmmakers are the most patient, stubborn filmmakers in the world. Only after finishing the film, like bringing the piece of glass to the classroom, the main troubles begin, such as not being able to distribute the film or problems with censorship and that’s when they have to start all over again.’ [1]

The sense of a resolution that is sought in all accounts of personal journeys is not a given here. The journey of the filmmaker, and of the boy whose task remains incomplete at the end of Talebi’s film, just as with the personal experiences that we each face, is if anything without end. Willow and Wind reminds us of this truth in a visceral, simple way.

Notes:

[1] Neil McGlone, ‘To the Wonder’ in Vérité, July 2014. Available to read online at https://issuu.com/veritefilmmagazine/docs/verite_july_2014/27

The current issue of Underline is available to download for free via the British Council.

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.

housekeeping1

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.

housekeeping2

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.

housekeeping3

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.

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.

Chance drive

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

electra2

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

laughing policeman

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.

Wings Fig 1

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.

Wings Fig 2

Wings Fig 3

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.

Wings Fig 6

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.

Wings Fig 7

Wings Fig 8

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.

Wings Fig 11

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

tc-citp

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

ss may

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.