Çarşamba, Ekim 25, 2006

Witches' Hammer

Witches' Hammer (Czech Republic, 1969) * * * 1/2
D: Otakar Vavra

At one point in Otakar Vavra's document of a 17th Century witch hunt in the Czech Republic, an accused witch, tied to a stake, screams through rising smoke, "I was made to acknowledge my guilt! I was tortured for nine days." The Inquisitor, watching the proceedings with the esteemed lady of the estate, assures her, "That's a lie. She was interrogated with the usual application of thumb-screws and boot. Of course, that's quite common."

In October 2006 it's difficult to watch this scene without thinking immediately of the Bush administration's queasy attempt to redefine the word "torture" as well as the Geneva Conventions, with the intent of interrogating accused terrorists at Guantanamo Bay and secret prisons abroad. A common argument levelled by critics of the administration is one that forms the central obsession of Vavra's powerful film: when someone is tortured, they will say anything. The information should not be acted upon. Furthermore, it is more likely to be inaccurate and spoken only to cease the torture.

What does torture really mean? The Inquisitor, one Boblig of Edelstadt, believes that thumb-screws are not torture, but in his own secret court he applies even crueller punishments, so perhaps he only parses the word out of diplomatic respect in the presence of fine persons. Say what you want in the light of day, as long as you can do what you wish at night. The lady certainly doesn't want to hear any of it. The Bishop, who appointed him, remains aloof and deliberately separate from Boblig's witch-hunt, only expressing alarm when his friends attempt to defend those who have been accused of witchcraft. Forming an argument about the method of torture is meaningless when the one person in the position to stop it will end the conversation at the mention of the word "witch." Everyone outside of Boblig's immediate court clears a path out of fear. Those within, like Boblig himself, indulge in every hypocrisy because they gain the spoils of the hunt.

It's a matter of social climbing, and Vavra might overstate his case, for he has made Boblig the central character of his story, and follows the man from a filth-covered innkeeper (retired from a position as director of Inquisitions) to the most powerful man in the community, wallowing in his greed, throwing feasts for his close friends; meanwhile, they plot to see whose estate they can claim next by accusing the owner of sodomy with Satan at nearby "Peter's Rock." Inquisitions are expensive, Boblig carefully explains when he is first interviewed for the job, but Inquisitions pay for themselves, as the witches' belongings and homes are claimed for the court. When a skeptic scoffs, "A fat lot we'd get out of those beggars," he makes clear that he has no idea how quickly the flames of a witch-hunt can spread, and how lucrative it can really be. Soon Boblig is deliberately targeting enemies and anyone for whose power or privelege he's become jealous. Those who express a privately-whispered protest are reassured that Boblig has "forty years' experience." And anyone who speaks up to defend an accused is immediately put under suspicion: why would you defend someone in league with Satan, who already has a flock of bloody-thumbed witnesses?

"Witch" is the sensitive word. "Witch" is the word to seize power. It might be "terrorist," or, if that doesn't grant you what you need, "enemy combatant." Every law has loopholes. In fact, in one scene the Deacon, the man with the firmest moral integrity in the narrative, and the rare religious man with a deep and studious regard for law and science, pulls one of Boblig's books from the shelf to directly point out the very loopholes that allow Boblig to torture his accused, promise them cessation and peace if they name names, and burn them at the stake anyway.

The Deacon is the subject of intense, if unspoken, jealousy by Boblig and others in Velke Losiny because of his ravishing young cook. He's single, and much is read into their relationship; in fact, much of it is true, but he is still one of the most respected men in the community. He has actually ended their affair to devote himself to his duties as a clergyman, but, as he says late in the film, he will not discuss his relationship with God to the lowly ones who deal with the Inquisitor. He is brought down. First his friends, then the young cook are taken before the court and tortured into confessions. When he is arrested, he asks to see his accusers, assured that they will not lie to his face. In the most compelling scene in the film, each is brought before him, accusing him, then begging for forgiveness. He studies their bloodied limbs, forgives them, and refuses to admit anything to Boblig. Finally, the cook begins repeating the testimony that has been scripted for her by the wardens, but can't bring herself to address the Deacon directly with the lies; when she sees him, she breaks down. Then the Deacon is taken away.

Vavra is clearly influenced by Carl Theodor Dreyer (which is like saying that a novelist is influenced by The Odyssey--who isn't?), but the parallels to The Passion of Joan of Arc extend from the loving (and economically necessary) use of black-and-white, to the close-ups of anguished faces, and to the fact that much of the courtroom dialogue is taken directly from transcripts. Still, the license of the Czech New Wave allows him to illustrate more explicitly the motivations of the cruel men. He begins with our narrator--a fevered man sitting in a dark cell, describing in sordid and too-fantastic detail the methods of Satan's disciples--whispering, "Sin reached the world through woman. Woman is sin." We are quickly shown a woman's fully nude form slipping out of a bath, and Vavra cuts across this giddy utopia of nude or semi-nude women bathing, gossiping, nursing, laughing. In the early scene in the church, there's a throwaway shot of a female at worship, her hands folded in prayer squeezing against her chest, while the parishioner standing next to her steals a furtive glance of the moving breasts. Later these passions will be freed for all the priveleged who sit on Boblig's court, as they leeringly inspect the pretty young cook for the Devil's mark. While Vavra might initiate you into the sin game in the opening scene, he's not in the exploitation business; the opening scene is poetic, lively--the later scenes acting as a righteous call for outrage.

Mercilessly, this play happens as it happened, and travels along to its necessary, despairing and cynical end-point. Boblig, rising drunkenly from his banquet table, the others passed out from the orgy, almost addresses the camera when he declares that now no man is above him. Was it all just a matter of wounded ego? In fact, the witch-hunt began in the smallest imaginable manner: an old woman steals away her sacrament in a folded cloth; when questioned by the furious clergymen, she says a witch instructed her to give it to her cow, so that it would give milk again. Although the Deacon tries to assure everyone that local superstitions are common and harmless, he isn't heeded, and the wheel is set rolling.

It can be a bit heavy-handed, as any screed can be, but Vavra's approach is, for the most part, measured. The film clips along, and he finds ways of sharply defining even minor characters--everyone has a moral crisis, for in the days of a witch-hunt, everyone must choose a side. When Vavra calls for outrage in the film's final scenes of torture, you're ready to take your marching orders. There are no witches. The Devil, as the Deacon tries vainly to explain, is only in the hand that harms.

The existing, 2003 U.S. DVD from Facets is badly in need of an upgrade. The titles are lazy and fail to keep up with the action, not to mention riddled with grammatical errors; the packaging is absurdly exploitative, rewriting this stunning film as Euro-sleaze for the grindhouse theaters. It's still worth hunting down.

Pazar, Ekim 22, 2006


Satantango (Hungary, 1994) * * * *
D: Bela Tarr

I arrived at ten to noon, having decided not very much before that I would attend, and hastily packing some hidden bottled water and a collection of Marvel Comics' 1970's "Son of Satan" for the breaks (this was Satantango, after all). I wanted to find something like an airplane pillow, but had nothing around the house that would suit. It was a rainy day, a "Bela Tarr" day, as Tom Yoshikami, curator of the Cinematheque, put it. He was there to greet us as we stood outside, huddled like grim Bela Tarr characters, waiting for the morning politics & commerce conference to be let out; Tom, by contrast, was hellishly excited, and when we did pile in he snapped pictures of the lot of us, the damned passengers on the S.S. Satantango. By David Bordwell's count, there were about 35 of us at the start. Surprisingly, not so many would leave by 9pm, when Tarr's 435-minute, 26-reel film would be completely unspooled. As Tom explained, the film would be shown as the director intended: in one sitting, with two "intervals"--a ten-minute break for some much-needed stretching after the first two hours and twenty minutes, then an hour-long break for dinner after the next two-hour segment. The final segment would be a marathon three hours. (Tom, having--like the rest of us--never seen the film before, actually got the segment running times mixed up, and told us that the middle section was three hours. Not that it made much of a difference, as you lose track of time within the film.) At an earlier Cinematheque screening during the Godard series, Tom had promised some kind of certificate would be printed up and handed out to everyone at the end of Satantango, but no such luck. Anyway, by the end, the rewards of the film were obvious. Although whatever I say about the film must be preluded by mentioning that David Bordwell, at the end of the dinner break, was telling us to keep Satantango's secrets to ourselves, and that if our friends who didn't come asked us how the film was, we were only to say that it was the greatest filmgoing experience of our lives.

Well, it's up there. Bela Tarr is one of the few contemporary directors to make work so directly inspired by the brilliant Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (Andrei Zvaygintsev, director of 2003's The Return, is the only other director to seem as influenced by Tarkovsky). Tarkovsky's films are of a singular style: extremely long takes and tracking shots, with an emphasis on nature--falling rain, the wind, running streams--and with signature motifs: stray dogs running through the frame, intense portrait studies as his characters stand stock-still, looking off into the distance, and a touch of the fable, or magical realism, in the plotting. Almost all of these traits--even the stray dogs--are incorporated into Satantango. But Tarr is too unique a director to owe everything to Tarkovsky--it's only that Tarkovsky is the easiest frame of reference (Robert Bresson is another, in the way Tarr directs his actors to show little to no expression while delivering their lines, and the way he lovingly frames their stark and stock-still faces in black-and-white.) Tarr has his own hallmarks: most obviously, he is obsessed with creating a sense of everything being filmed in "real time." His edits are almost invisible, when they do occur, and Satantango reportedly only contains approximately 150 shots. (Most films, a fraction of the length, contain thousands and thousands.) His landscapes are always despairingly grim--here, a muddy and stormy wasteland that its farmers must take pains to traverse, strapping on boots and layers upon layers of clothing. And the buildings in the world of Bela Tarr always look uninhabitable, with the paint peeling off the walls and the floors covered in dirt and cigarette butts. It's as though Tarr must create the most unsparing landscape in order to achieve his moments of transcendental beauty.

Satantango is based upon a novel by Laszlo Krasznahorkai. Apparently in synch with the source material, it is arranged like a tango: six steps forward, six steps back (but not in that order). Some scenes advance the plot, while others step backward and show the same scene from a different character's perspective, so the audience slowly learns what is happening to multiple characters concurrently as they criss-cross each other's paths, each trapped in his own world to the point of obsession and paranoia. In this, the villagers and farmers are not very different from the citizens of the village of Werckmeister Harmonies, the more accessible feature that Tarr subsequently made; in Werckmeister, the villagers are in such a panic at the coming arrival of "The Prince"--a sideshow freak who delivers fascist speeches to accompany the presentation of a preserved whale--that their fear of riots and violence almost seems to make the mayhem happen. Nothing is so pronounced in Satantango, but the idea is similar: two men, Irimias (Mihaly Vig), described at one point as a "wizard," and his lackey Petrina (Putyi Horvath), were thought to be dead, thanks to the rumors spread by a young thug in their employ, but one day are rumored to be "resurrected" and on their way back to the small farming community that Irimias once lorded over. The announcement of his coming and its effects upon the paranoid, frightened farmers dominates the first two segments. Schmidt, Mrs. Schmidt, Kraner, and Futaki--who's sleeping with Mrs. Schmidt, as much of the village seems to be--were on the cusp of escaping from the village with a pool of cash; Halics, a timid schoolteacher, tries to make plans with Mrs. Schmidt of his own; but all these plans seem doomed upon Irimias' arrival. The proprietor of the local tavern is in an outright panic over Irimias: he thinks the man will want to claim ownership of the bar, as Irimias can, in an indirect way, claim credit for the man's modest wealth. On one drunken night, all of these characters and more gather at the tavern to dance to a maddening, broken tune played by accordian, feverishly stewing in their pot, while just outside, two strays--a young, damaged girl with some rat poison, and a doctor who relies upon the care of the villagers to sustain his life--stagger through the night and, freed from anyone's care, tangle with death.

We do see Irimias and Petrina as they journey to the village. Most stunningly, in one long shot we follow them down the avenue of another town, while a windstorm sweeps garbage up from behind them, as though they themselves are the billowing wind. We actually meet them as they're being reprimanded by a police captain--told that they're outlaws, and asked to contribute to society. Petrina calls Irimias a poet; what people seem to fear the most about Irimias is his charisma, for he seems able to command anyone to do anything. But he's also deeply disturbed, and in a mad fit in a local bar not far from the police station declares that he'll blow up everyone, as a droning hum which only he can hear builds and builds. (The idea of a "calling" noise which only one person can hear is repeated, crucially, a few more times in the film.) Sometimes he is treated as a Jesus, but he warns one character that he will liberate no one, and it becomes clear that he has more diabolical aims as he arranges for the purchase of some explosives from a dealer who is, it seems, faced with a pretty stark moral choice. The final, three-hour stretch of this film spins in unexpected directions, and we are left with plenty of time to ruminate on the film's themes of fear, moral crimes, and penance.

What's most astonishing about Satantango is that, at seven-hours-plus, I can't imagine removing a single scene. What seems insignificant or like "padding" early on gains greater meaning at the film's conclusion; it's actually a tightly plotted film that could be longer, and more obvious, but is trimmed lean. What accounts for the film's length are those very long shots in which very little happens. We watch characters recede into the distance on errands, or disappear into the darkness on doomed journeys; we study the wretched existence of the doctor for an endless interval as he struggles to support his drinking--and his voyeurism (for he plots the comings and goings of every villager in exhaustive notebooks, while living a deeply internal life); we follow the mad satan's tango on that pivotal, drunken night until every dancer collapses--and still the accordian player summons the strength to continue another tune. There is a lot of talk about "eternity," particularly from Irimias--humorously, at one point a policeman, editing one of Irimias' screeds, says "cut all that about 'eternity'"--and certainly Tarr wants to play with the viewer's conception of time. It's as though he knows you were dreading the viewing of Satantango, and knows that you expect to spend a lifetime in this theater, so why not discuss it? By opening up that end of the discussion, Satantango becomes much more than a film about fear: it becomes a film about time and lifespans and the long crawl everyone takes toward death. Like The Brothers Karamazov, Satantango is a work of great length that is able to incorporate a great variety of ideas within its chapters. By the time it's over, you do feel as though you've spent all day reading a novel from beginning to end, and the result is just as disorienting and just as satisfying.

We staggered out of the theater, our newly formed club, our elite, at 9pm, and it was snowing: the first snowstorm of the winter. (Devilishly enough, the film is even set during the last weeks of October.) I had been inside so long that a whole season had passed by. By next morning, the images did not leave my head. I still see the horses escaping the slaughterhouse, clopping through the empty town square. I still see the little girl thrashing cruelly with the cat, exercising her power. I still see the lunatic ringing the knell. Even parts that seemed irrelevant, confusing, or infuriating seem to have sealed to the greater image. There is a great clarity to that 435 minutes, and every minute seems vital. It's a wonder that Werckmeister Harmonies, Tarr's next film, could cram so much incident into two-and-a-half-hours (so much more than happens in Satantango). I wonder how much more weight and meaning it would have had at twelve! Susan Sontag said about Satantango that she would "be glad to see it every year for the rest of [her] life," but even as I prepare to face Tarr again in a month's time (with his considerably shorter film, Damnation), I think it will take at least another year before I'm ready for Satantango again.

Remarkably, Facets is releasing the film on DVD. I can only think it would suffer, given that at home there is no compelling reason to stick with the film through thick and thin, and more distractions are likely to intrude. Still, I'm glad it will get more viewers, and my advice to everyone: set aside a day, turn off the cell phone, get comfortable, sit it out to each of its two "intervals," and open yourself up to Tarr's hypnosis. It's a masterpiece, but you must meet him more than half-way: you have to walk the full length of that muddy road, to that church-tower, that speck in the distance.

A big thank you to Tom Yoshikami for sharing the photos: above, we await entry to Satantango; below, ready for the screening (I'm four rows back in the black sweatshirt, glasses and gray hair, dead center; David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson are front and center, as always)

Cumartesi, Ekim 14, 2006

All You Need is a Girl and a Gun, Part 3

Band of Outsiders (Bande a part) (France, 1964) * * * *
Alphaville (France, 1965) * * 1/2
Pierrot le fou (France, 1965) * * *
D: Jean-Luc Godard

At this point in the Cinematheque series of the early films of Jean-Luc Godard, you can see Godard arriving at a crossroads. While continuing to receive great critical acclaim (if not exactly box-office success), he finds he can continue to produce a couple of features a year with a relatively low budget and a great deal of creative freedom. Yet after what might be his greatest cinematic achievement, Band of Outsiders, his next films seem to be treading water, however entertainingly.

Band of Outsiders was a film I admired when I first saw it on television a number of years ago; but it's a revelation in a theater packed with enthusiastic Godard fans (old and new). Like Breathless and Contempt, the genius of it is that it manages to combine comedy and satire with an underlying sense of tragedy--even if nothing outwardly tragic happens. And all the while, Godard continues to invent new, delightful cinematic tricks. Godard's "muse" (and I put it in quotation marks because it is now her nickname) Anna Karina plays a seemingly much younger girl, Odile. The benefactors with whom she is staying keep a giant stash of money in an upstairs wardrobe. She lets this bit of information pass to newfound acquaintances Arthur (Claude Brasseur) and Franz (Sami Frey), two young rogues who quickly draw her into a plan to rob the house. Odile goes along with the plan half-heartedly; more, one suspects, out of loneliness than anything else. She seems to have led a sequestered life, and while her past is not filled in by Godard, one surmises from Karina's alternately shy and carefree performance that she's had a few friends, a few enemies, and a boyfriend or two, but has never had a great night out. She seeks to remedy that with her two rebels: in the film's most memorable scene, she dances the Madison with Franz and Arthur--Godard occasionally removes the music so that we only hear the tapping and stomping of their feet and the panting of their breath--until, winded, first Franz drops out, then Arthur; Odile continues, as entertained to have no partner as she was to have two. She is completely absorbed in her own universe. This may be why Godard referred to the film as "Alice in Wonderland meets Franz Kafka." Odile would be a perfect substitute for Alice--she is also driven by curiosity--but there is an underlying dread that is signature Kafka. The dance must end, the robbery must be done, and Arthur shows his true, darker nature when they are alone in the house and confronted with the act. Still, there's farce to come, and an ending of dizzying elation, much in the spirit of the opening of his friend Truffaut's film Jules and Jim. But my favorite wrench thrown into the works is the narrator's penchant for attributing cosmically profound observations to each of his characters at comically random moments. That narrator, naturally, is Godard.

Band of Outsiders is the film where Godard got his formula right (however he may have been resistant to the very idea of a formula). The anarchic, youthful spirit of Breathless and A Woman is a Woman is perfectly tempered by a wiser, more well-rounded treatment of its young cast: the characters are much more interesting, and more believably real. Godard's treatment of human relationships, post-Contempt, becomes more sophisticated with this film, and it is the apex of his art. From here, Alphaville seems like a half-held thought, something hastily scribbled in his notebook, and deliberately put to film before the thought took too much structure, and spoiled its surprises. Alphaville is Godard's science fiction film, and seems to form part of a New Wave sci-fi trilogy alongside Truffaut's adaptation of Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and Chris Marker's seminal short film La Jetee. I love French science fiction, but the problem with Alphaville is that Godard does not. He seems to detest the genre. Granted, this leads to the brilliant and influential decision to merge the genre with one that he does love: the crime picture. This may be the first science fiction film noir, and without Alphaville, you probably would not have Blade Runner (a film that more closely resembles Godard's than the novel upon which it's based). But one conceptual stroke of genius does not necessarily elevate an entire 90-minute film to the level of masterpiece. Godard decided to cast Eddie Constantine as his long-running character Lemmy Caution--sort of a 40's equivalent to Bogart's Sam Spade. Constantine was older, and had aged; with his wide, black eyes and pale, pockmarked face, he looks like he could have been better suited to playing The Lizard in a Spider-Man film. The charm seems to have also weathered over time. Lemmy Caution travels through "intergalactic space" to Alphaville, on a mission to thwart a professor who's building a deadly weapon. Instead, he falls for the professor's daughter (Anna Karina, obviously), who has succumbed to the emotionally sterile environment of Alphaville, in which sex is provided as readily as fast food, poets are executed (poetically, off the diving board of a swimming pool), and a master computer has installed itself as a dictator, barking commands with the froggy, straining voice of a tracheotomy-patient. That last part gets really annoying by the end of the film. While one can forgive Godard his central conceit--despite the futuristic setting, no special effects are used, and the audience is expected to apply its imagination to fill in the details--the fact is that the story's plot was already stale by 1965, and Godard was too disinterested in the SF genre to bother enriching it in any way. This isn't unexpected: Godard was never too interested in plots, which he offers, in both Band of Outsiders and Pierrot le fou, as summarizing fragments told in staccato by the narrator, but rather in human relationships. But this is sabotaged by the plot: Caution is not in love with the professor's daughter, and we know this, however much Godard might insist. Those who had a problem with the Deckard-Rachel love affair in Blade Runner will never buy this one. So there you have it: without a plot that's worth caring about and which Godard abandons at the starting gate, and without characters that are at all appealing or convincing, you are stuck with a stylistic experiment that will either spark your cylinders or leave you cold. La Jetee, with its high-concept plot and a love story worth caring about, is much better, and over an hour shorter.

After that experimentation, Godard returns to the familiar with Pierrot le fou, yet another film about two young criminals falling in love while on the run from the law until violence intervenes, and unsurprisingly starring Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo. It's shot in Scope and saturated with color, like Contempt (both Alphaville and Band of Outsiders are black-and-white). You get the feeling that Godard wanted to go back and remake Contempt without the compromises forced upon him by his financiers. No Bardot here: the comparitively boyish Karina is actually far more attractive, and that probably has everything to do with Godard's camera, which is capturing his "muse." Not to mention that she's an incomparably more gifted actress. Pierrot le fou, which is divided by its author narrator into chapters, begins as a domestic satire: Belmondo, as Ferdinand Griffon, barely tolerates his socialite wife; as he's dragged to one of her parties, he drifts among the attendees, eavesdropping upon absurd conversations--some of them merely product endorsements! Surely the party scene in The Graduate was influenced by this. (He even meets director Sam Fuller, who compares filmmaking to war.) When he offers to take the young Marianne Renoir (Karina) home, she divulges her intense love for him, and although he doesn't seem to pay her much attention, he's quickly drawn into a gun-running scheme possibly tied to the Algerian war--possibly not--and becomes a Clyde to her Bonnie as they steal cars and cash and go on the run and into hiding. All of this happens quickly and deliberately nonsensically; Godard doesn't expect you to believe the mechanics of the plot that get them where they'll go: the important thing is that they get going. Eventually the love affair intensifies, some songs are sung (unlike their earlier "musical" collaboration, A Woman is a Woman, they actually get to sing in some lovely sequences--but the music never rises, and seems to be played on a toy piano in the distance, as this is Godard and nothing can ever be 100% conventional). Finally, there is a kidnapping, some grisly killings that foreshadow Week-End, a key betrayal, and a spent finale, in which Belmondo resigns himself to his sad clown reputation with a series of tragic decisions.

Pierrot le fou is not Godard at his best, yet it seems to be a clip-show of Godard past and (immediate) future. The songs call to mind A Woman is a Woman, the plot Breathless and Le Petit Soldat; the technique of using blue-sky beauty to counterpoint the dissolution of a relationship owes to Contempt, and the distracted, almost disinterested narration owes to Band of Outsiders. But the broad, antiseptic satire and the splashes of brutal violence foreshadow both Week-End and the overtly political films to come. One suspects that Godard is about to make a drastic change in his approach, but in the meantime, Pierrot le fou seems a bit like treading water. Most distressingly, he's beginning to show the seams in his bag of tricks. At one point, as though worried that his audience might be involving themselves too much in the plot and characters, he flashes the neon word "Cinema." Much like the incessant flashing of the neon "E=MC2" in Alphaville, this is pretty lame. Godard was a critic before he was a filmmaker, and at this crossroads, one can wonder if Godard will finally allow himself to surrender to the techniques of storytelling--bourgeois, yes, but they work--or continue to distance himself from the audience by sabotaging any hint of rhythm or emotional investment with the characters. I'm worried I might know how this one ends.