Monthly Archives: July 2008

  • Kiss Me Deadly – Robert Aldrich USA 1955: Ralph Meeker – Maxine Cooper

    adrin neatrour writes: Retrocrit: pleasure for pain; sex for death
    Kiss Me Deadly – Robert Aldrich  USA 1955:   Ralph Meeker – Maxine Cooper
    Viewed Star and Shadow Newcastle  13 July 08 Ticket price £4-00

    Retrocrit:  pleasure for pain; sex for death

    The Kiss Me Deadly (KMD) opens with a disorienting travelling shot that is dominated by its sound.  We are in almost complete darkness.   We’re in the back seat of a car, behind the driver and his female passenger and we’re driving through the night.  Our attention is fixed not on the visual field which comprises of poorly defined shapes outlined in the blackness, but on the sound issuing from the woman.  At first I thought that the panting and clonic gaspings of the woman were sexually stimulated which given the year of production surprised me.  It was only when the film cut to the reverse shot, face on to the couple, that I realised that in fact the woman was crying. 

    The mistake had the effect of making me feel self conscious for being so palpably wrong footed, for completely misconstruing the sound effect and interpreting pain as pleasure.  Was I conditioned by the sexual crudity of contemporary drama so that I automatically equated rhythmic female panting with sex? Or did Aldrich exploit, as his opening gambit, the ambiguity of the sound made by the woman,  intending to put the viewer on alert, to induce latent uncertainty as a core premise in the working out of the movie.  Beware:  pleasure is uncovered as pain; beware what men covet and prize beyond value is deadly and worthless: it will lead us into doom. 

    The female passenger in the car – a hitchhiker on the run – is the first victim in the film: the first of many.   And the opening sequence, the unrelenting drive through the hell black night, ends with her words –“ Remember me!”  The drive has a dream like ominous quality that engendered in me a gloomy and oppressed state of mind, a mood that remains imprinted in the film till its explosive eschatological ending.  This driving sequence is a powerful filmic device, a metaphor that anticipates the terrible drive into the future, and its cost in human dignity and lives, not just in the play out of the mechanics of the plot of KMD but also for the  future of a planet driven by consuming desire to possess nuclear weapons that ensure mutual annihilation. We are on the road to the doomsday machine of Strangelove.

    “Remember me…!” the hitchhiker commands Mike the gumshoe as they drive through the night.  The film lingers and worries about the meaning of her words, the words of the first victim, underlining and reemphasising them in the course of the plot.  What did she mean?  But where else do we have we heard and read these words?  “They shall not be forgotten…”   “Remember!” is the rubric that adorns the graves of the war dead, the headstones and walls where the names of the Fallen are carved in stone so that they are not forgotten but remembered.  “Remember me” is the command of the war dead lest we forget the reason for their dieing.  The young woman’s words are a sign pointing to the potential bleak future where millions of innocents might be annihilated in nuclear war.     

    Neither the mechanics of the plot nor the acting are any more than accessories to the real dynamic of the movie which is the strategic use of the camera set-ups and movements to create both worlds of immanence and amplified circuits of tension that inform the states of mind of the viewers.   Two long sequences in particular stand out (the sequence establishing the swimming pool at the gangster’s house is also very fine) that are composed in one single shot: Mike’s visit to the gym; and his visit to the garret of opera singer.  The in-frame edit of the action through camera movement engenders in both scenes an amplified spatial tension.  And as the camera tracks through the spatial axes it works as a force amplifying and transforming the spatial tensions in relation to the verbal intercourse that takes place between Mike and the other players.  This heightened tensile awareness could not have been created through use of the  traditional montage device of cross cutting which generally through action cutting increases pace and attempts to induce tension through juxtaposition opposition etc but at the cost of losing durational time dynamic.  In KMD Aldrich has produced a movie that creates its spatial tensions not through action cuts but through time images. Having noted above that the mechanics of the acting are accessories to the film it must be said that all the players, in particular Meeker, have the fine technical sense of timing necessary to the delivery of the film in this particular form. 

    The set-ups used by the camera are also definitive of he KMD.  The consistent framing of shots so that they conceal rather than reveal. The framing of feet and legs is integral to the style of the film.  This has of course been done before, but integrity and panache with which the shots are et up and incorporated make them part of what KMD is expressing, a world that is corporate rather then individual.  Likewise the use of the camera set-ups from surveillance angles points to more than just a Hitchcock conceit: it seems to be saying something a society which is in the process of developing  collective paranoia.  Likewise the most noteworthy prop on the set: Mike’s early prototype Anasphone which is a ¼ inch tape recorder fixed into the wall and tripped by the phone.  It’s prominence and position in the film rather than its role in the plot suggest that like the rubric ‘Remember me!’,  it is a sign not a symbolic function.

    Some Hollywood films have gone for fiery Armageddon types of endings – White Heat for example. But as far as I am aware although the visual effects were uncompromising the message of such endings is always moralistic.  Aldrich in KMD brings down the curtain with a holocaust, a nuclear explosion from which his protagonists vainly flee.  There is nothing moralistic, only the moral that the technology that we have brought into the world is indifferent to our desires and works on the simple logic of being a force for universal annihilation. No prisoners are taken. There is no salvation.  There is no hope. I imagine Antonione watching KMD with some interest.
    adrin neatrour

  • There Will Be Blood – Paul Anderson – USA – 2007

    adrin neatrour writes: Film as installation: first there was drive in now we got walk through movies. There Will Be Blood – Paul Anderson – USA – 2007   Daniel Day-Lewis, Dillon Freasier, Paul Dano, Kevin J O’Connor
    Viewed Tyneside Cinema Newcastle   30 June 08  Ticket: £6-80

    Film as installation: first there was drive in now we got walk through movies.

    There Will Be Blood (TWBB) is a Hollywood gloss on Upton Sinclair’s big novel, Oil!  One of the most politically radical of America’s 20th century writers, Oil! is written on a broad historical canvas taking in the Great War, the Russian revolution and the tide of socialism in Europe and setting it against labour and political strife in the oil fields of Southern California.

    Oil!  Chapter X11 The Monastery: ‘It had become clear to him that the present system could not go on forever – the resources and wealth of the Country carried off by the greediest.  And when you asked who was going to change the system there was only one possible answer – the great mass of workers who had learned that wealth was produced by toil.’

    Anderson’s solution as to how to film Oil! is to replace Marx with Freud, to deflect the shaping of the narrative away from  political concerns inwards into psycho familial dynamics.  Upton Sinclair’s observations that chiliastic religious fervour de-energised and deflected American labourers from more pointed class concerns is taken up by Anderson, but then twisted and deformed to serve his own purposes in  providing TWBB with a final gothic  tableau:  the death of Eli bludgeoned to death by Daniel Plainview in private bowling ally of his mansion.  In TWBB religion justifies the final cryptic setting for this contemporary take on American Gothic involving the oil business –  fire – murder – blood.

    Anderson has styled TWBB as  modern American Gothic, and it is Gothic script which provides the only opening title of the film, the date 1898  (white on black field)  which opens up the first of Anderson’s photo tableaux.  Sinclair’s novel is not stylistically gothic.  Rather it is informal and conversational in form and politically didactic in content.  Anderson’s solution to the transposition of the written to the filmic is to make of the film a series walk through photo installations, a set of tableaux as beloved of nineteenth century artists or current practitioners such as Bill Viola

    So TWBB opens with the silver mine installation (birth)  and proceeds through a series of linked set-ups, the business meeting (sharp practice),  buying the farm to exploit the mineral wealth below its surface (underhand mendacity); the oil well blow out (the demonstration of the forces of nature), the dismissal of the son (rejection), the murder of the false brother (Cain and Abel), the humiliation of Daniel at the Temple by Eli (shame and humiliation) and the final tableau, Daniel’s slaying of the Preacher Eli ( Death: revenge on God and his two faced priests on earth)  The tableaux are spread over time, each temporal sequence introduced with the date in Gothic.

    It is the camera work that indicates that what we are watching has been conceived as a photo installation. The film is characterised by a large number of long tracking shots that take us through each of the tableaux. I wondered at first what the tracks were accomplishing: they didn’t seem to have an obvious purpose either moral or instrumental. In fact the tracking shots in TWBB are a simulated replication of the effect the audience would get if they were walking through a photo installation.  The film is simply an installation in film form. The big production value centrepiece of TWBB the Biblical column of fire caused by the oil blow out reminded me of one of Viola’s walk through installations that featured a  cascade of water.  The hyperrealisation of natural phenomena, overdetermines response of the viewer to create awe (Fear and Awe) without engaging the question of meaning.  Anderson has adapted Oil! as a walk through installation.    TWBB has been made to fill out the gaze of the audience as it moves through the film.  TWBB is filmed to be cool  and to satisfy  all consuming but ephemeral vapid ambulatory curiosity.  It has not been written and shot for audience engagement with either context issues or emotions.  

    To complete the installation effect, two other characteristics of the film production  are fully articulated.  The sound design concept is central to the walk through experience.  From the opening establishment shot of mountains accompanied by a crescending siren effect TWBB is only rarely (for instance when cutting to the deaf  mute point of view) without a sound accompaniment that fills out and points to the angle of the gaze; and meaning that the gaze should construe.  The score literally presses down and in and onto the film. With the its surround technology the sound is an active physical presence that preempts audience reaction to the visual stimuli.  By turns it is  ominous, the biosuggestive,  cosmic and of course weird.   The object of the sound concept is the colonisation of the viewers understanding, or at least the denial to mind of coherent response to the offered stimuli. Like the adverts on TV the sound track to TWBB is an enforcer; it is not a deepener of insight or reflection.

    In similar manner, the mis-en-scene,  sets and costumes. are designed to fill out the gaze’s field of vision with confirmations of authenticity.   Attention to detail, another aspect of photo installation work, ensures all the detailing of the sets has a hyper real perfection so that nothing interferes with the smoothen path of the spectator’s trail through the film.  Anderson’s objective is total immersion in the encounters with the installations mediated by the richness of the interiors and costumes of the turn of the nineteenth century.  TWBB is populated by a series of players whose screen persona is characterised by a sort of Biblical patina invested with fake mythological persona.  DDL looked at times like a gremlin sorcerer out of the Lord of the Rings.  

    The fragmented temporal structure serves Anderson’s purposes by being coherently inchoate.  TWBB time fragments intrerconnect but not in a way that compels specific readings; rather in such a way that the individual viewer can construct there own understandings as to what has happened.   Anderson\s replacement of Sinclair’s out front Marxism with back door Freudianism results in subjectivities determining meaning.  The viewer instead of  looking at the failure of organised labour in the US, instead can muse on the meaning the death of Eli in the bowling alley or the deafness of HW. In Anderson’s recourse to ever more heavy handed symbolism, an increasing vacuity and emptiness characterises the film.  By the final credits I had a feeling that I had been watching a shell of a movie in which  the core of the drama was missing: as indeed was the case.  I left the cinema saying to myself, not Oil! but So What!
    adrin neatrour