Monthly Archives: January 2015

  • He who gets slapped Victor Sjostrom (USA 1924)

    He Who Gets Slapped
    Victor Sjostrom (USA 1924) Lon
    Chaney; Pauline Goddard; John Gilbert

    Viewed Star and Shadow Cinema 10 Jan 2015 Ticket: £6

    Retrocrit: Rituals of eternity

    Victor Sjostrom does not only directs He Who Gets Slapped, but also plays the role of psychic ring master presenting his film as an elaborate ritual. The core of Sjostrom’s vision is the ritual, the deliberate playing out of the forces he has assembled in a choreography of death. The film reminded me of: the ceremonial aspect of the bull fight; of the elaborate costumes of the auto da fe with the doomed penitents dressed in white and of large folk processions commemorating ancient sacrifice and fertility rites.

    The elements put into play in the story of ‘He’ all have a primal quality: theft and humiliation, ritual self punishment, revenge and death. Sjostrom from first to last image sets the story in this symbolic framing opening and closing the movie with elided superimposed images of the spinning globe, the ball and the circus ring dissolving into each other. An eternal recurrent destiny holds us all. Death is the only escape; in the films final image the clowns hurl ‘He’ ‘s corpse off the ring parapet into the void.

    Silent films with their immobile sets, fixed camera and gestural playing contain the seeds for scenarios drawing on ideas developed out of archaic ceremony. Seldom is this potential realised. Most film companies and directors played out the scripts for melodrama: complex plots held together with regular inter-title cards. Noticeably ‘He’ needs few inter-titles. The film ‘s flow guides the audience’s attention to the inner psychological unravelling of the scenario. With the elemental forces set in play the characters and scenes speak in the screen images. There are extraordinary visual sequences: ‘He’ before the academy with its mocking academicians; ‘He’ in the circus ring where surrounded by and regaled by the clowns in their penitent white make up and costumes, he is subjected to pain and humiliation for the amusement of the public and his own personal need to suffer. A perfect alignment of an objectify and a subjectivity. The power of these sections carries an empathic charge for the viewer who needs little extra information as to the motivation of ‘He’. Trapped in ritualistic abasement there is only one way out: revenge and death. Primary elements.

    Sjostom’s visual design complements his ritual form. The lighting is stage-like. The characters often caught in high light, with the settings around them darkly etched in. The visual look is reminiscent of Rembrandt’s paintings, calling to mind that Rembrandt’s powerful use of light effect to highlight the depiction of his characters and settings. Sjostrom’s lighting also heightens the psychological intensity of ‘He’s’ experience isolating him and allowing the viewer space to see. One shot in particulate stands out: a shot of ‘He’ in clown costume and make-up. When we see ‘He’s’ clown make up lines drawn through his eyes and the disturbing three tufts of stiff hair sticking out symmetrically from his bald head there is the overwhelming feeling of understanding the lies ahead for this doomed abused figure. We see there is nowhere left for him to go. In Sjostrom’s devising of ‘He’ we can see at once why Bergman claimed to have been so much influenced by him and how the same sort of thinking, the unity of psychic truth and devised settings is implicit to Bergman’s cinema.

    By using archetypal material, Sjostrom understands that the power of the setting and the form of the story releases his actors from the need to adopt the mannerist gestural playing that characterises many films of this era. At times the acting comes across as naturalistic, without artifice and Lon Chaney’s performance in particular has an unforced quality that doesn’t over play or indulge the nature of his sacrificial role but allows it to unfold with dignity as the simple consequence of the decisions he has made. Again there is something here of Bergman, certainly as seen in the character of the knight in the Seventh Seal. An underplaying of the fate that one has freely chosen. Adrin Neatrour

  • Birdman or the unexpected virtue of ignorance Alejandro Inarritu (USA 2014)

    Birdman or the unexpected virtue of ignorance Alejandro Inarritu (USA 2014) Michael Keaton

    Viewed Tyneside
    Cinema 20 Jan 15; ticket: £8.50

    Showboat camera…

    Inarritu’s film peddles a film version of magical
    realism, a dishonest melange of images where
    real and imaginary are seamlessly mixed to manifest the idea of a sort of
    omnipotency through will. Inarritu’s
    elision of the real and imagined/hallucinated accords with the dominant theme
    of contemporary Hollywood scripts: the individuation of life and the abandonment
    of the social. Hollywood’s scripts
    comprise multiple variants of the individualised: ‘story’ ‘dream’ or ‘overcoming’. The Birdman scenario mines this worked out
    vein of vainglory. And the protagonist Riggan is an assimilation of these
    ‘dream’ vanities; an all too contemporary character, playing out all too contemporary conceits.

    From his literary originated material Inarritu has
    contrived a confused story line. An
    SFX superstar wants to do his Hamlet thing by producing an on Broadway, ‘art’
    play based on a Robert Carver short story: ‘What we talk about when we talk
    about love. ‘ Of course this being 2014
    not 1981 when the story was written, the point of the film story is melodrama
    and action. Inarritu replaces the passive ending written by Carver with the
    film convention of guns and screeching dialogue/ monologue (since no one
    listens to anyone all dialogue is in effect monologue). The story is confused because its subject focus
    is never clear. Love, schizophrenia, (split personality) and personal ambition
    all get mashed up to meet the needs of the camera as it doggedly pursues its
    quarry. Personal relations are mixed in with magico realism – telekinesis
    and levitation (the movie’s first image), to produce the workflow of a seemingly
    seamless camera which follows through the action of the whole movie (more
    thoughts on this later).

    For most of the film schizo Riggan (with his
    hallucinations visions or whatever) is compartmentalised into particular places
    in the shot flow where he occupies his own private space. His schizo mental states are not represented
    in his relations to other aspects of the script – relations to his play as a
    project, his family etc. This compartmentalisation
    which asks the audience to put into the brackets the nature of his images of
    paranormal power, is breeched by the scripting of final sequences which depict Roggan’s real or
    imagined ability to fly. In the last
    sequence Riggan’s daughter looking for
    her father out of the top floor hospital
    window appears to either affirm the actuality of his being able to fly or colludes in Riggan’s
    schizo fabrication. Either way the film
    at this point becomes a fantasy, a
    product suitable for the delusions of an infantilised society.

    Birdman’s confusion of subject matter is compounded
    by its jack-ass cod philosophy.
    Sententious meaningless truisms in the form of words (as beloved by Terrence
    Malick) run like a swollen sewer through
    the script. Epitomised by the film’s
    alternative title and the clapped out questions in the beginning: did you get
    what you wanted from this life? And Riggen’s
    opening soliloquy asking: “How did we get here …? We don’t belong in this
    shithole…”. Roughtrade wiseacring a la
    Taxi Driver. But all these faux maxims in
    terms of the Birdman scenario, don’t
    mean anything, they lack grounding in
    the script or scenario. Like an aerosol
    cream layer of a cake, injected into the script they comprise only hot air.

    The film is actually held together, both content and
    form, by the way the camera structures the reality experience for the
    viewer. The camera work comprises the
    illusion of capturing and composing the images as one seamless shot. The camera in general follows the action of
    Riggan or picks up tangential engagements on the side before returning to flow and
    picking up the protagonist again. It is
    a dogged camera never shaken off. In
    fact it is like a dog, with a dogs eye of view of what is happening. Inarritu is never able to establish an ‘eye’
    or define any perspective in relation to what we are seeing. In fact we cannot see because the
    camera blocks our vision.

    This camera is not a privileged spectator. Inarritu’s camera as an information carrier is
    like internet billboards or social media picking up multitudinous strands of
    comment and image but failing to put together anything that coheres or
    converges on a theme. This is a self
    satisfied camera. A camera that regards
    itself as the star of the movie. The
    camera is a showboater happy to jump up from behind itself and project itself
    into the limelight. The camera in itself
    replicates social media in as much as platforms such as Facebook and Twitter
    are in themselves the stars of their own shows.
    In themselves they are the
    signification of their usage. The
    medium is the message. The subject
    matter of Birdman, like that social media is mostly insignificant seldom going
    beyond indulgence of melodrama and ranting dialogues. The real message of Birdman is the perfection
    of a certain type of technical achievement and the omnipresence of recording. The camera is the star.

    The key to Birdman’s success is that the film replicates
    something of the matrix of life in the era of social media (twitter starts to
    play an increasingly significant role in the script). Like social media, the technology is the star
    that feeds back to the viewer a world where: there is no centre no point of
    view, images and text seamlessly stream in from multiple inputs, data overload feeds constant acceleration of
    media and information in a confusion of voices and digital media feeds and accelerated
    emotionally driven feedback drives cycles of re-action. This is a dog world, a world of reaction.

    My own response to Birdman is that it is a film that
    does not allow the viewer to see. Like social media its object is to wrap up the
    viewer in a delusional world that has a delirious quality of being real, but
    simply allows the user the more space to immerse themselves in its shadows.

    Adrin Neatrour