The Wayward Cloud (Tian bian yi duo yun&lt, Taiwan, 2005)

Not Busby Berkeley

Not Busby Berkeley

Definitely a film for outre tastes as it combines bonkers musical sequences with explicit sex scenes, virtually has no dialogue and concludes with a deeply disturbing scene where the protagonist has sex with a comatose/dead woman on the set of a porn movie. I’m unfamiliar with director Tsai Ming-liang but he’s clearly an auteur and knowledge of his other films are obviously required to help make sense of The Wayward Cloud (see Rouge).

The mise en scene is beautifully composed and the film’s engaging and funny until the climax which should lead you to question ‘why am I watching this?” It is part of the role of cinema to question our sensibilities but, by its nature, transgressing norms is bound to be contentious. Many will find the final scene misogynist; I’m not sure whether it is or representing misogyny; so I need to watch more of Tsai’s films…

The film details the alienation of modern life with pornography as a metaphor for soulless existence. A fairly common view but one expressed in a unique fashion.

Burn After Reading (US-UK-France, 2008)

It really is bad

It really is bad

This blog is meant to be for films ‘with something to say’, but I can’t resist stating how crap the Coen bros. latest film is. Farce must have momentum and requires audiences to care about characters. This bunch of lame set-ups is as flaccid as a bad ’70s sitcom and the caricatures are either too ill-defined (Clooney’s philanderer) or too ridiculous (Malkovich’s ‘fucking’ dialogue). The talent on offer is prodigious but none of it belongs to the scriptwriters, producers or directors. I did like No Country for Old Men but ‘blame’ the performances and source novel for that and I have watched Oh Brother Where Art Thou? twice – but that was probably the music.

Gomorrah (Gomarra, Italy, 2008)

Living with death

Living with death

Whilst Gomorrah is clearly a gangster film, representing the Naples Camorra, it also resembles the (so-called) fly-on-the-wall documentaries that trace a number of contemporaneous narrative strands about lives in, say, airports or hotels. These, however, use voice overs thereby disallowing them as ‘observational’ documentaries as their meaning is anchored. That said, if Gomorrah had had a voice over I would’ve been able to follow it more readily!

We’re offered several,  violent, slices of life that portray existence in the poverty-stricken area (that resembles the Kidbrooke estate in SE London)  in the thrall of the Comarra. Silvia Angrisani, in the current issue of Sight & Sound, complains that we can’t understand the social context from the film. However, this is true of this form of documentary; by necessity it shows a limited view. To extend the film to show, say, the role of politicians, would make the film a melodrama (no bad thing). Clearly Matteo Garrone (who, reportedly, is wanted dead by the Camorra before Christmas) wanted to focus on life at the bottom.

Much of the film is shot handheld (the image above is the only stylised shot in the film, a tour de force featuring one of the characters escaping having survived a bloodbath), probably the only way to shoot given the locations, its  use of non professional actors and in keeping with its ‘documentary’ feel.

The film also acts as reportage, many won’t know of the Camorra’s role in dumping toxic waste on farmland and the death toll in Naples (one every three days). It doesn’t deal with the corrupt nature of the Italian state, which allows this to happen, but that’s for other films.

Snow Falling on Cedars (US, 1999)

Xenophobia in Washington State

Xenophobia in Washington State

Director Scott Hicks came to prominence with Shine (Austrailia, 1996), a melodrama about an unstable pianist (brilliantly played by Geoffrey Rush). Nabbed by Hollywood, Snow Falling on Cedars was his follow up. This is also a melodrama intermingling a murder trial, a young man bitterness at, apparently, unrequited love, US internment of Japanese-Americans during the war and racial prejudice. A heavy amount for any film to carry but this carries it off brilliantly with stunning visuals (the image above is typical) throughout.

It succeeds, primarily, because of Hicks’ direction and editing. Using a variety of lens, varying depths of field and unusual angles, the Expressionist mise en scene reflects characters’ states of mind. The editing is often extremey rapid, pausing for the long take of Max von Sydow’s moving, closing speech for the defence; Sydow has a great line: ‘If I acted my age, your honour, I’d be dead.’ The narrative is riddled with flashbacks, sometimes of only one shot in length, and uses montage almost as much as continuity. The montage includes Eisentstein’s techniques of having shots ‘clash’ to create another meaning; so images from the central character’s (played by Ethan Hawke) war experiences are directly linked to his lonely and disabled (he lost an arm is emotionally crippled by his lost love) existence nine years after Pearl Harbor.

As in classic ’50s Hollywood melodrama, characters are often framed claustrophobically, trapped between door frames or behind ‘bars’. The incessant gloom of the weather adds to the melancholy that infuses the film.

Jeffrey Reichert shares my astonishment at the critical mauling the film received (I can understand why it failed at the North American box office – the mass audience isn’t good at questioning their own values). He says its one of the most visually stunning films of the ’90s; I agree, but wouldn’t limit it to that decade.

The Spirit of the Beehive (El Espíritu de la colmena, Spain, 1973)

Ana shares with the 'monster'

Ana shares with the monster

“Now without bitterness nor contempt

now without fear of changes;

only thirst…a thirst

of a little something that kills me.

Rivers of life, where do you run?

Air! it’s air I need.

What do you see in the dark depths?

What is it that makes you tremble and fall silent?

I can’t see! I look on like

a blindman face to face with the sun.

I’m going to fall in the place where

they who fall can never get up.”

This poem is recited by a primary school child directly to the camera (text quoted from and is a plea for enlightenment, a state impossible in a fascist society. Set during the Civil War (1936-9) The Spirit of the Beehive is a poetic meditation on childhood innocence and the reality of fascist hatred. Its poetic, tangential, take on repression was necessary because it was made whilst the victor of the Civil War, Franco, was still in power. This was just over 30 years ago. 25% of Austrians voted for neo-fascists in their recent election and even the British National Party is attractive to some! The problem is still with us.

The attraction of fascism is in some people’s need for a strong leader and others need to dominate. Neither psychological state is healthy but may be intrinsic to human personality so it is something we should be ready to fight.

What is the ‘spirit of the beehive’? The central character, in the benchmark performance by a child in cinema, is 6 year-old Ana (Ana Torrent) who cannot tell the difference between reality and film (the movie starts with a screening of Frankenstein in the village). Her sister tells her that the monster lives just outside the village so Ana seeks it only to find a wounded Republican (who opposed the fascist Nationalists). Her father devotes his life to studying bees – trying to understand their spirit – and her mother longs after a lost lover – presumably a victim of the War. Their house is itself shot as if it were a hive – honeycombed leading is on the windows – suggesting that the father is trying to understand the human spirit; how could it have succumbed to the fascists?

The film is not only poetic in its use of metaphor, the imagery is often breathtaking to observe. The director, Victor Erice, is not afraid of using the long take to allow audiences to think about what they are seeing. The Spirit of the Beehive is undoubtedly one of the greatest of films.

Fallen Angels (Duo luo tian shi, Hong Kong)

Can't connect

Can’t Connect

This is probably my favourite Wong Kar-Wai film. I love its portrayal of urban alienation and Chris Doyle’s cinematography is sensational. WIth its companion piece, Chungking Express (Chung Hing sam lam, Hong Kong, 1994), Fallen Angels offers a vision of Hong Kong as a hyper-real landscape on the brink (of Chinese takeover). Hong Kong, as a place that is defined by business, is the definitive postmodern environment and the surface glitz of the films’ imagery emphasises this aspect of the place. However, the ‘lost’ and ‘longing’ characters, humanise our understanding of late 20th century existence.

Manufactured Landscapes (Canada, 2006)

Disappearing into the distance

Disappearing into the distance

This visually astonishing film starts with a Godardian 8-minute tracking shot of a factory at work. Unfortunately that’s as close as the film gets to politics as photographer Edward Burtynsky, whose work is the focus of the film, takes the naïve liberal position of letting people decide for themselves. The decision they need to make is whether global capitalism is a good thing as Burtynsky’s images show the immense scale of manufacturing in China; as well as the minutiae of checking whether the ‘squirter’ works in a steam iron. If Burtynsky stays neutral the images of dehumanisation and exploitation leave no doubt as to the destruction, to the planet and souls, wrought by our consumer society.

So the film’s message is clear why criticise the photographer whose images are truly stunning? Well his occasional voice over is a limp soundtrack that suggests that we need not worry too much about what we’re seeing. It’s as if all he cares about is the opportunity for a good photograph; we do see him choreographing hundreds of Chinese workers.

The film also mixes in the ‘self-reflexive’ documentary mode that sit uneasily in the film as most of it’s a montage of images and image-making. It feels as if director Baichwal is padding an already short film.

I shouldn’t be so irritated as this is a fine film conveying the idiocy of consumerism in staggering and surreal beauty.