Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Goddess ("Shen nu" China 1934)

"We are but a moment's sunlight fading in the grass"
- The Youngbloods

A silent masterpiece from Wu Yonggang starring Ruan Lingyu.

A mother's anguish a revolutionary act.  The existential  heroine made flesh. A profound and mesmerising critique of greed and bourgeois hypocrisy, set against the tender counterpoint of the bond between mother and child.  The streets of Shanghai a glittering purgatory. The fallen woman walks the dark streets of oppression and shame. Trapped and struggling, loving and kind, a whore and an angel, she soars with wings of  joy for a brief instant above the sordid infamy of vanity, exploitation, and deprivation.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Isle of Flowers: God Doesn’t Exist (Ilha das Flores Brazil 1989)

“The industrialized capitalist world has become an outside world of impenetrable material connexions and relationships” - Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art (1959)

Isle of Flowers is a 15 minute documentary film by Brazilian film-maker Jorge Furtado. This short is a fast-talking polemic on money capitalism and the failure of the human imagination. The critique is a sardonic ‘educational’ treatise on the food chain, consumerism, injustice, and how free markets operate. A spoiled tomato discarded by a middle-class housewife is tracked from a tomato farm to the slop fed to pigs on the Ilha das Flores, where the garbage not good enough for pigs is given to the landless poor in strictly controlled 5-minute intervals. There is no dialog only a voice-over narration.

On this trip we segue onto related topics as the story progress, in a canny prefiguring of the world-wide-web, where clicking on one hyperlink leads to another. The pace is frenetic with many scenes made up of dynamic collages of printed media and vivid unsettling scenes offering a banal yet forceful commentary on the theme. The narration is deliberately redundant and almost indifferent, and this technique enforces the visual irony. There is an element of the surreal as we are confronted with graphic imagery in the segues as juxtapositions to the common-place narrative which follows the food chain as metaphor. A metaphor of social hierarchies and oppressive imperatives. The soundtrack includes snatches of music as an effective counterpoint, and is most powerful over the closing scenes when a plaintive electric rock guitar riff ratchets up the emotional intensity.

Furtado is not so much portraying deliberately malevolent actions but the insularity of the bourgeoisie, who are protected not only from the stink and disease of their rotting waste, but from the realities of existence at the edge of an unequal society where pigs as a commodity rank higher than the poor who must scavenge after the fat porkers. Eisenstein move over.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Jammin’ The Blues (1944)

Director: Gjon Mili
Cinematography: Robert Burks.
Cast: Lester Young – on tenor sax, George ‘Red’ Callende on bass, Harry Edison – on trumpet, Marlowe Morris – on piano, Sidney Catlett – on drums, Barney Kessel – on guitar, Joe Jones – on drums, John Simmons – on bass, Illinois Jacquet, Marie Bryant – singer, and Archie Savage.

In 1944 Life magazine captured in a Warner Bros Hollywood studio the making of a jazz music short by an obscure 40 year-old still photographer born in Albania, Gjon Mili.

Gjon Mili (front left) on the set of Jammin' the Blues

This was to be Mili’s only directing credit and the 10 minute film of a group of black jazz musicians jamming was nominated for an Oscar in 1945, and in 1955 was entered into the National Film Registry of America.

The movie has been perfectly preserved and to me is the smoothest music short ever made. Totally avant-garde. The music and the singing is superb, and the direction amazingly modern. Cinematography was by the later Hitchcock stalwart Robert Burks on his very first DP assignment. There is a noir ambience to the film and each scene has a formal elegance that is enthralling. Gili has total command of his form, and the mise-en-scene and the continuity are impeccable. A must-see.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Jean Vigo: Joy is now

Jean Vigo (1905-34) was the son of a French anarchist and consumptive. He made only four films in his short life. His first and third films À propos de Nice (About Nice 1930) and Zéro de conduite (Zero for Conduct 1933) are exhilarating forays into an artist’s discovery of cinema as personal expression. These two films are anarchic joyous experiments in which we enter the world of a magic lantern. A mosaic surprise of the potential of cinema to not only observe the concrete in new ways but to express our humanity, to wonder, to rebel, and to laugh.

À propos de Nice

À propos de Nice is a silent 23 minute candid documentary study of the people of Nice at play. The bored stuffy bourgeoisie sunning at the beach are contrasted with the less privileged enjoying simple pleasures in the littered streets of the workers' suburbs. The joy of Carnivale and the angst of its aftermath are giant exotic paper-mache masks donned and then discarded, flowers lovingly thrown and then seen rotting on the empty road. Young women dance with abandon and uninhibited sensuality. Tall industrial chimneys billow smoke into the sky an uncanny premonition of the industrial stacks of Ozu's Tokyo Story. A chic young woman reclining on a cafe chair is cheekily undressed until she is naked, and a man sun-bathing turns black. Capricious satire and sweet melancholy. Working men laughing and kids playing on the streets. The camera swoops up and around at luxury hotels and cuts to the narrow alleys of teeming tenements. A true kaleidoscope... like life itself too short.

Zéro de conduite

Zéro de conduite
a 43 minute fiction talkie of boys at an elementary boarding school rebelling at the mindless discipline, is not only anarchic, but inspired comic lunacy from a fountainhead of deep love for childhood, and the joy of life lived with spontaneity and without pretense. A new teacher points the way: he is indulgent and playful. He is awed by everything. In the playground he suddenly starts impersonating Chaplin's tramp, then grabs a ball from the boys and runs. On an excursion into the town he leads the boys a merry chase after a young woman he fancies, and while she runs you see she is having as much fun as we are in the audience. The rebels take to the roof on a civic occasion and pelt the literally stuffed shirts from the Board of Governors on the dais below with rubbish. The stern midget principal with a beard nearly as long as he is short scurries away for shelter. Surrealism as fun shot at all angles and in frenetic montage, with a liberating asynchronous score of unbridled vitality. Mad pillow fights, irreverent language, and kids sick of eating beans throwing them at each other... Zero for conduct!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Noir City Blues: the cinematic city

The dark night of forsaken city streets, vistas of blissful angst and unholy pilgrimage. I have been there and known their inhabitants: deadly dames, drunken losers, dangerous hoods, crooked cops, dreamers of broken dreams, and flawed heroes.

LA, Frisco, Chicago, and New York. I know these cinematic cities though I have never been. A resident knows his locale, but the city in its ectoplasmic center is not reached corporeally, only in the phantasmagoria of a thousand and one shards of shattered night. Luminescent environs of a cosmic b-movie. Wet asphalt, fog-laden piers, deserted streets, rusting hulks at anchor, the neon glimmer of purgatory dives, cigarettes and booze, dark tenements, the skid of car tires, and the wailing sirens of the dead. Staccato rhythms and aching horns, crowded pavements and desperate loneliness.

One more fix, the last heist. Treachery, misplaced loyalty, and courageous infamy. The denizens of a nether world trafficking in sordid magic and lurid hopes.

A kiss before dying, the desperate lurch before oblivion, and the erotic click-clack of stilettos on pavement. Dank stairwells and silent corridors. Closed doors and hidden secrets. You break in and fall into a bottomless pool of black. Cut to a bare light-bulb burning on a current wired from hell. Lying on a steel-framed bed you stare through the bars of perdition at yourself a wraith in a cracked mirror on the ceiling.