Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ridley Scott's The Duellists, 1977

I have always been a Blade Runner (1982) fan, from the day it was released, even before it reached cult status. So coming away from the restored print of The Duellists tonight, Ridley Scott's first feature made five years prior to Blade Runner, I couldn't work out why I had never seen this gem of a film. It really is one of those sumptuous cinematic worlds I could happily live inside of for the rest of my life. It is apparently always juxtaposed with Kubrik's Barry Lyndon (1975), mainly because Scott cites the film as an influence. The two are period pieces set in the first half of the nineteenth century, both are overflowing with breathtaking cinematography, feature sword fights, and they converge in their concern for the codes and mores of European society. But the similarities don't go so much deeper. At least there is another way to see The Duellists: Ridley Scott at his very best before he becomes infected by the razzle-dazzle of special effects and the narrative demands of the Hollywood box office.

This is the opening scene of the film - how divine is that?

There is something about the 1970s that enables this film to be as sumptuous and extraordinary as it is. The use of lighting, color and costume, the choreography of the sword fights, the focus on the gradual unfolding of what my students would call, “the point” of the film, are all carefully crafted so that I see them quite clearly as belonging to a pre-digital age. The glorious use of lighting is at its best when it measures the tensions between the individual and private world in contrast with the soft focus glow of the French countryside. The cinematography is superb when it follows the dueling soldiers in their bloody game of honor, and is as naturalist as the cinema has ever allowed. And all of these effects tinge the film with some nostalgia for a 1970s way of making films. Even the slowly unfolding narrative in which action is not as important as the almost phenomenological interrogation of what is honor for the soldiers is a thing of the past. Just as I did when I recently saw a restored print of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), I came away from The Duellists lamenting that “they just don’t make films like that any more.”  

The film’s narrative is an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s short story, The Duel, about two French soldiers who spend fifteen years doing battle over what was originally a very minor incident. The two French Hussar officers, Armand d'Hubert and Gabriel Féraud’s conflict is the vehicle for Scott’s discourse on honor, what is honor, and a reflection on the way that honor becomes the jailer of d’Hubert for years and years as he obeys Féraud’s unexplained hunger for violence and revenge. D’hubert is shown to be an otherwise reasonable man, a good officer and a loyal, but reserved officer of the Emporer’s army. He cannot refuse the challenge to duel as he must obey the code of the army in which he fights. Thus the impetus of Scott’s film is, at heart, humanist. And it reminded me of the humanist motivation of Blade Runner. All Roy Batty and his fellow cyborgs want is “more life, damn it”. And at the end of Blade Runner, Roy lets Deckard go in a gesture not so different from D’Hubert and Féraud’s confrontation at the end their film: like d’Hubert, Batty isn’t interested in killing, he is interested in living a life of freedom from the conditions that enslave him. 

"I want more life, damn it" Blade Runner, 1982
Ultimately, if Blade Runner is a better film, it is at least in part because Scott doesn't attempt to reach into what for him are the netherworlds of historical drama. The Duellists makes that familiar, and unsuccessful, Scott move that we saw in Robin Hood (2010) and films such as Gladiator (2000) where he gestures towards a broader political or historical comment through placing his humanist concerns against an historical background. And as was the case with the Roman Empire, and again in 13th Century England, the representation of Napoleonic France in The Duellists is never enough to be convincing, and too much to be easily set aside. All in all? Ridley Scott should stick to the future and somehow make films in which the possibilities of light sensitive film itself matters. This is an impossible ask, but diving into the gloriously rich cinematic experience of The Duellists did remind me of why Scott's later films are never quite satisfying.

Monday, October 25, 2010

A Vicarious Parisian in October

Hotel de la Ville, at the center of Paris life

October is the month that we foreigners begin to feel like Parisians. October is the month when Parisians hunker down and immerse themselves into the routines of daily life. October is like few others months in Paris because there is very little talk of holidays as summer is now in the past, and Christmas still on a distant horizon. And unlike November and May, the other months in transition, there are no public holidays in October. The only holidays to be had are those forced on us by a government that insists on lowering the retirement age, and therefore, drives workers into the streets, thus businesses to close day after day. The obligatory strikes and demonstrations that are the fabric of Parisian life aside, October is a month consumed by life as usual.  Similarly, all of the things that come hand in hand with life as usual in Paris are lived with gusto in October.

In October I commute on the Eurostar to the United Kingdom to do my job. For an expatriate in Paris, the Eurostar is a part of daily life. We all seem to be on that train, to know its timetables, and to be relieved that it does not get affected by the French wont to go on strike. And because I am in the UK for part of each week, coming home to Paris is all the more enjoyable. Even at those times when I feel most acutely that I don’t belong here, even though I am so obviously a foreigner, I love Paris in October even more than I do in other months. 

While they all slide into their routines and prepare for the winter ahead, October is a month that also sees me partake in rituals I have experienced nowhere but Paris. October is the month when I have no choice but to do what they do. I always thought I was alone, until I spoke to a Parisian friend who assured me that it’s a shared tradition to spend most of October wondering daily if the winter clothes can be taken out of storage and the summer ones put away. While the Paris Fashion shows are in full swing, I am thinking of what clothes I can give away. Only in Paris is there not enough space to have all of one’s wardrobe hanging in the closet. Only in Paris is there such a shortage of space that everything to do with one season is put away while the other goes on outside in the streets. And now that I have been here for a number of Octobers, I know that the trick to being Parisian is to cram the “mi-saison” clothes into the wardrobe together with the winter coats and cardigans:  This will then retard the moment when the winter clothes need to go away and the summer taken out of mothballs.

October in Paris begins with “Nuit Blanche.” Eager to see and to know the city in all its many forms and colors, despite the fact that I was tired and wanted to go home, an American friend managed to drag me through the Marais to see start discovering the all-night excitement at around midnight, and as I rode home around 3am, I was glad she did. I never get the sense that the art, mostly in the form of second-rate video installations by unknown artists is the motivation for walking the streets of Paris way into the wee hours on the first Saturday night in October. Rather, there were other things to love and to revel in on Nuit blanche, one of the few nights in the year when Paris is open 24 hours. As we wandered among the hoards of people, young and old, for the most part quietly gathering, walking, waiting and watching, I couldn’t help thinking how Parisian the whole affair was. Unlike other cities I could imagine staging such an event, only in Paris could public art works bring crowds into the streets. I kept thinking of the Londoners, drunk, loud, maybe vomiting on the street, staggering around and needing more drinks as their motivation to stay up all night. There would be shouting, anger and all that repressed British emotion spilling out where it should not, on the streets of their city. And when I think of New York on such occasions, I imagine people trying to sell things, to capitalize on the crowds, the chance to make a buck. But in Paris, everyone was contained, quietly, patiently waiting in lines, wandering, talking and just enjoying their city and each other. In Paris, the “esprit de culture” and the “culture d’esprit” are the only motivation needed to spend time with friends in October. And it is often at these times, times to celebrate, times to appreciate culture and art, times to open my eyes wider, that I most feel at home in Paris. 

I stole this photograph from Franglais & Frenglish
This, together with the fact that many of the installations are in places otherwise forbidden to the likes of me and all the others in line on Nuit Blanche. This is our chance to see behind the locked gates and to walk through the secret gardens of the city’s hidden courtyards. I have no history in Paris, no old school friends, or long lost acquaintances to offer me a glimpse of other walks of life, here the wealth, the style, the sophistication behind the stone walls and 14th century gates of the Marais. October brings an open invitation to do just that. It is also the last month for walking, for watching each other, for sauntering, activities Parisians love to pursue. Because in November, the cold will set in, and the slithers of sunlight on the terraces that make sitting in the sun as we watch the proud Parisians parade before us, are not strong enough, or or do not last long enough to make being outside an option. Nuit Blanche was one of the last balmy Parisian nights of the season.

In October, I remember why I love to be in Paris more than any other city. As I set about my routine, and they theirs, I start to feel a sense of belonging. I know their routines, their behaviour, am familiar with their likes and dislikes, even if they are not mine. I know I am not French when the men in the street notice me, and as is their particularly Parisian habit, they let me know as much. If I were a French woman I would ignore the men, their eye contact, their flirtations, their street seductions. But I am not French, and everytime, I acknowledge their overtures in some way, even if to convey my disinterest in them. My response of anything other than a stock cold indifference codes me as a foreigner, everytime. It’s what we do, as opposed to what they do. And so in October, even as I enjoy the vicarious joys of the Parisian, even as the days get shorter and the cold approaches, even as I get caught up in the rhythm of a daily life which is not always so different from theirs, I am always reminded that I am not one of "them" and oh, what a relief that is! 

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Tagfish à La Ferme du Buisson

La Ferme du Buisson

After a weekend of theater that doused us in the alienation of contemporary British (Forced Entertainment) and Japanese society (another Okada’s We are the Undamaged Ones), on Sunday night Anne and I ventured out to La Ferme du Buisson, a former factory site scattered with nineteenth century heritage buildings that have that been transformed into a cultural playground – there’s an art gallery, a theater, a hall, a cinema and, because it’s France, at the center of it all, sits an expansive bar and restaurant. The fun doesn’t begin and end inside the buildings, but continues outside with projections, sculptures, outdoor performances. For people like me who only move beyond the péripherique on the way to Germany or London, it’s always a surprise to find life, let alone high quality experimental culture, in the suburbs. And so, La Ferme du Buisson east of Paris was a real find.

And what better introduction to this vibrant cultural space than the performance of the collective Berlin, Tagfish. Billed as a docu-fiction, Tagfish is a video/performance ostensibly about the building of a hotel at the site of the Zeche Zollverein, the former coal mine in Essen, in industrial Germany. Six white middle-aged German men sit around a boardroom table, in ornate chairs. However, the architect, the town planner, the regional government representative, the journalist, the UNESCO representative philosophize, dream, debate and disagree about the project to come from the comfort of their own offices. The men do not meet, but are filmed individually, their discrete image shown on its own screen that forms the back of the chairs they would otherwise be sitting in. Thus, the men of this committee only come together on the stage of performance, as a series of video screens, mounted to chairs, placed around an on-stage table. And one chair, thus screen, is empty, but the occupant’s presence, his desire and his thoughts pervade the piece: this is the chair reserved for the Sheik who will finance the prospective hotel. After endless conversations in which the idealist urban designer, the pragmatist local government and so on, don’t so much disagree as prolong the conversation.

For me the piece extended beyond its specific subject matter to become a reflection on the ineffectivity and endless procrastination, the mire of decision making in institutions anywhere other than in the business sector. Painfully long pauses, the repetition ad infinitum of issues at stake, the needless digressions into other points of view reminded me all too well of the institutional committees on which I sit, committees that rarely make a decision and never convince me of the need to meet again. Predictably, there is no decision about whether and how to go ahead with the hotel at the Zollverein, even as the Sheik sits in the Middle East primed to sign the check. A work such as Tagfish so convincingly captures the ineffectivity and absurdity, even surreality, of these kinds of government orchestrated commitees in general: under the guise of democracy and consensus, they prolong the process of decision making until they can include everyone’s point of view, and then stymie all possibility of doing anything other than performing the fiction of their own necessity.

All of this said, however, I am not sure whether the collective Berlin was interested in this more general level of identification. Perhaps they were, but the uncertainty of their intentions is one of a number of flaws in the piece. There is much left undone and unexplored by Tagfish, shortcomings that leave the audience disappointed and frustrated. Thus, for example, while the discussions proliferate about whether the hotel should be above or below ground, whether it should have air-conditioning or not, there is only passing reference to the insufferable condition of the miners who once occupied the Zeche Zollverein. The briefest mention of the heat, the blackness, the humidity in the mines might be at the level of the discussions. However, if this is the case, Tagfish does nothing to critique the ignorance of the committee members, and the irresponsibility of their thinking. When they discuss the hotel designs, it is hinted that building underground works with the existing ethos and structures of the Zollverein. However, to reiterate, it’s worth getting angry over the idea that the experience of being in a luxury hotel could somehow compare with that of being in a mine, a comparison that is nowhere addressed, let alone analyzed.

Similarly, I couldn’t help wondering if the novelty of the use of an individual screen for each committee member, and in turn, their co-existence solely on the stage, was intriguing but empty of any further significance. Yes, it may be that the form of Tagfish is somehow echoing the ultimate breakdown of communication among the group. But I don’t think that is enough of an impetus or substantiation for such an otherwise innovative mode of presentation.  All of this said, Tagfish is one of those pieces that is so potentially rich, and that points to so many interesting and complex issues, particularly as they are raised across the landscape of Germany’s Ruhr Valley regeneration, that it’s worth the journey out to La Ferme du Buisson just for the après-performance discussion of the issues it raises.  And, of course, this discussion can take place in the inspiring and creative environment of an industrial site that was successfully transformed and is able to celebrate the vibrancy of contemporary culture. 

All images courtesy of Anne Steichen's iphone

Friday, October 15, 2010

Perestroika, dir. Sarah Turner, 2009

Perestroika, dir Sarah Turner, 2009

I watched Sarah Turner’s Perestroika (2009) on the Eurostar tonight on my way back to Paris, my back to the window onto which my computer screen reflected Turner's film. It was an extraordinary experience to be watching Turner’s sumptuous images coursing across my computer screen when behind me the countryside of Northern France moved at breakneck speed. The one echoed the other, accentuating the sense of motion, of begin carried along on a journey, the goal of one set of images very clearly defined (Paris), of the other, beside the point. At Turner says repeatedly in her sensuous voiceover, Perestroika's journey through Siberia as it is seen through the window of the train in which she travels, is a process. 

Inside the Dining Car, Perestroika, dir. Sarah Turner, 2009

Turner’s images are lavish, dreamlike and entrancing: we board the train with her to go on an attenuated journey through the twentieth-century avant garde at the same time as we are taken across the desolate, alienating and otherwise unremarkable expanse of the Russian Steps. To lovers of the American avant-garde Perestroika will appear like an ode to the greatest of its directors. As the camera watches, gazes, entranced by the magic of its ability to capture an image, by the changing qualities of light at different times, in different temperatures, flickering across the screen, I am reminded of the gorgeous archival, reworked footage of Joseph Cornell. The lights of Russia appear to dance outside the window, the daylight, the sun on a flat landscape of nothing turns into a deep blue sky, and the artificial light of night woven with electrical lines, train tracks, trees, buildings in fast motion. And like the greatest of the American experimental films, while the images may appear to record nothing, they are everything because they echo the very image of film itself, reminding me of a Peter Kubelka flicker film, sometimes a Warhol single camera epic, and at other times, a Brakhage poem to the materiality and texture of film. The landscape changes, but in its repetition across the film, degraded and simultaneously overwhelmed by the reproduction of the image, and the screen of the window through which Turner’s camera looks, it becomes an abstract, pure image.

Perestroika, dir. Sarah Turner, 2009
This mesmerizing image is accompanied by a voiceover; we hear Turner telling her story, Russian orthodox chanting, the deeply seductive clicks of a photographic camera, the hypnotic sound of the train as it speeds on its tracks, and voices of Turner and her friends. It’s difficult to follow the voiceover narration as it is fragmented and lyrical, not teleological, echoing the rhythms and patterns of the movement of the train on its tracks. The voiceover is Turner’s memory of a journey taken ten years earlier with her friend Sian, and another friend who subsequently died, a journey that Turner retakes, so she says on the soundtrack, in order to understand, to work through the trauma of Sian's death in a biking accident. The intermingling of all these voices alerts us to the presence of archival video footage, taken on the initial journey, across the same landscape, in summer, not winter. The editing together of past and present produces words that don’t make a complete and coherent story, being more like a journal, the mind’s wanderings over and around the past, endlessly churning out thoughts, most of which are old, had over and over again, in its attempt to capture and make sense of the ineffabile, to "process" death. Turner’s voice reinforces the intensity of this inner voice through its deep, textured profundity.

The dining car again
 Perestroika can’t help but be placed within the history of  the cinema’s great train journeys. The film speaks to, and looks at, a long history of filming trains and train journeys that stretches back through the earliest days of the cinema, through the representation of the Holocaust and into Hollywood chase films. Trains have always appealed to filmmakers because of their birth as siblings in the transformations of modern industrial life, a life that brought with it perspectives in motion not available to the naked eye. Turner expands and extends this tradition when in Perestroika the train becomes the vehicle of memory. She says at one point that she needs the image in order to remember, to trigger her own images in language, that the image shot from the train will aid in her recovery from the trauma of her Sian's death.

However, there is more to Perestroika than its situation within this history of cinema. And the film's depth comes from the fact that we don’t ever see, and thus, we assume the camera’s inability to see what we most want it to show us: Turner herself. While we are taken inside the train at certain moments, usually through glimmers of a reflection on the window through which the camera looks, but also through its corridors and into the dining car, I found myself wanting to see Turner’s compartment, with all her technical equipment, and the friends now dead, Sian and the man with whom Turner travelled on her first journey through Siberia twenty years ago. Of course, the refusal to show us is just the point: we never get to see inside the protagonist’s reality to be fully present to her past, no matter how much she and the camera claim they are revealing to us. These moments are gone, only recaptured courtesy of the archive footage interwoven with the present.

Perestroika, dir. Sarah Turner, 2009

And so, in her characteristic merging of narrative and experimental, I understand that in Perestroika,  Turner has given us an elegy to the cinema, the beauty of its images, the enthrall of its magic, its capacity to traverse and connect disparate times and spaces, mimicking the view from a train window. And we are also tempted by the moving image's ability to create fragmentary, disparate realities that we nevertheless want to enter. Simultaneously, Perestroika transports us through the ultimate failure of film to reveal the reality of what we most persistently seek: a logical explanation of why we go back again and again and again, in search of an explanation, of an answer to why we do what we do, what happened, and how then to make sense of, to tell the story of what it was that we did, saw, experienced long after it is all over. 

Monday, October 4, 2010

Toshiki Okada, Hot Pepper; Air Conditioner; The Farewell Speech

Hot Pepper

On Saturday I had my first Festival d’Automne adventure for 2010 with the journey to Théâtre de Gennevilliers to see Toshiki Okada’s latest trilogy of short scenes, Hot Pepper; Air Conditioner; the Farewell Speech.

My first and most immediate response to these Okada works was a sense of alientation thanks to their relentless repetition. Okada’s is not repetition in the Philip Glass or Sol Lewitt vein of American modernism, where repetition leads ultimately to a place of insight and revelation even when the work itself does not reach that place. Okada’s repetition frustrates, cringes and could easily irritate an unsuspecting audience. This is a repetition that entraps and alienates, and as the characters are at the mercy of the inhumanity of their work place, so might we become hostage to the repetitions of the performance. In each piece the two or three characters repeat the same lines over and over and over again. They repeat their gestures, the intonation of their voices, they repeat their ideas, and their questions to each other. The repetition creates an insistence on the part of characters who are either not heard, or not understood in the alienating work environment of contemporary Japan. The three pieces cohere around the laying off of a young woman named Erika from her job in what we assume to be a large, inhumane, Japanese corporation.

The piece I “enjoyed” the most was Air Conditioner perhaps because it was the most frightening. A young woman and equally young man stand at the center of the stage while she writhes in self-conscious agony explaining to him that someone keeps turning the air-conditioner down to 23 degrees, even as she turns it up, and so she is always cold in the office. The disrespectful and misogynist male employee dismisses her as he keeps insisting that she is cold because she is a woman as he gyrates his hips and makes obvious sexual advances. The young woman is so self-conscious that she continues to grab her arms, and rub her legs to warm them, it is as though she wants to make her body disappear from before the man. The uncomfortable distance at which she stands from him, her inward turned feet, and everything else about her gestures and words, registers with the audience as “abuse” “disenfranchisement” and sexism in the office. The power of this piece comes in its passing on to us of the pain and agony she experiences in the office.  

Air Conditioner

For all the sparsity, there is an adornment to the three workers’ discussion about, for example, in Hot Pepper where to go for Erika’s farewell dinner, or in Air Conditioner the question of who keeps lowering the temperature of the air conditioner. Namely, the unpredictability of the lighting, the organicism of the characters’ movements and the lilting, almost singing, quality of their voices elevates the pieces to sophisticated representation. Although my only access to the language is the French surtitles, the dialogue in these pieces is apparently colloquial, fractured, code-like. Thus, the banality of the characters’ conversations is, on the one hand, the banality of most of our conversations on most days. And, on the other hand, their performance is highly aestheticized. The speech rhythms are determined by the music — looped pieces by John Cage, Stereolab, Tortoise und John Coltrane — the unconnected, seemingly random body movements by the interaction of the words, speech and music. And the multi-colored lighting effects appear customized to the individual performer.

The Farewell Speech

Thus, while the three pieces might appear to be laced with banality and inanity, their complex and sophisticated presentation far exceeds the said entrapment through repetition to create a searing critique of the sheer hell of the capitalist workplace. The fact that these young people are doomed to one of two social states — unemployment or discrimination in the workplace — is all the more impressive because of the way their inevitable disenfranchisement is performed.