Monday, 14 November 2011

Programming notes

This year is my final year at university, leaving me with little time to do anything but study (theoretically: the lure of film-watching is often hard to resist). However, one thing I have thankfully found time for is film programming at our local film society. Having been mostly learning the ropes in my first term, I haven't exactly had time to really think through what programming means, and in which new ways it forces one to think about films. Is any film programmed an endorsement? Are we saying we think it is a good film, or only that it is one worth watching for reasons that might not be related to quality per se? How does one pair films? For that last question, one of my ideals has been Brad Stevens's comments on his ideal double bill of Inland Empire+Céline et Julie vont en bateau, but how possible is that kind of fusion in practice on a regular basis?

Anyway, these are thoughts I need to sort out for myself. I do intend to do that, as I raelly do think that however small the scale I'm doing it on, I really should be using my programming to question and enrich some of my critical positions and a prioris.
In the meantime, however, and since I've written shamefully little in the past few months on this blog, here are the blurbs I wrote for films which were shown and I supported (I have tried not to let marketing interfere too much with criticism, but a certain measure of hyping has been inevitable):

The Bad Sleep Well (Akira Kurosawa, 1960)

Kurosawa remains famous, especially outside Japan, for his historical epics; yet his contemporary works are often equally stunning, and one of the best windows into the transormations Japan went through following World War Two. With The Bad Sleep Well, Kurosawa delivers both one of the greatest post-noirs ever and one of the most atypical.

Taking its subject matter from one of the countless corruption scandals that has mired Japanese political life since 1945, The Bad Sleep Well follows a real estate bribery case as it unravels from within. It opens with a breath-taking twenty-minute wedding ceremony that presents social systems as contractual arrangements with no place for individuality, an extraordinary feat of mise-en-scène that uses splendid Scope framings to illustrate power relations between all the main characters while giving us only the barest hints as to where the actual narrative will go. Incorporating elements of noir (high-contrast black and white, a view of society as fundamentally corrupt) and modernism (as in l'Avventura and Psycho, it takes a while to understand who the main characters will be), the film even anticipates many of the conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s (The Conversation, The Parallax View) in its presentation of impersonal power relations where corruption is not a moral conundrum but a system. In the implacability of its progression as in the total mastery of its directing, it stands as one of the most under-rated monuments of its author and the genre he was working in.

Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato, 1980)

Without a doubt the most (in)famous of the many Italian exploitation films of the 1970s, Cannibal Holocaust is also one of the best. Mixing the usual violent and erotic elements required to put bums on seats with an equally important but less acknowledged political focus, it is a ferocious satire of the media, and a forerunner of many trends in horror cinema, from Blair Witch Project to Cloverfield.

From the opening, where a reporter's speech about places on Earth that still live as if in the stone age, with survival of the fittest as the only rule, plays over images of downtown Manhattan, it becomes clear that the film has more on its agenda than just shocks. It is split in two parts, the first of which sees an anthropologist going into the Amazon jungle to look for four documentary film-makers who vanished without a trace after attempting to film a tribe of cannibals deep inside the “Green Inferno”. This sequence sets up all the archetypes of the exploitation film (civilized whites going into the jungle and encountering evil savages), archetypes the film will spend the remaining half deconstructing. As the anthropologist discovers the team's footage, it becomes clear that any image of savagery the film might have offered possesses its mirror in the horrors the young American film-makers committed. Both deconstruction of media reporting, arresting blood-and-guts spectacle, and comment on Western colonialism more generally, Cannibal Holocaust remains a milestone of exploitation cinema.

Mother and Son (Aleksandr Sokurov, 1997)

It says something about our awareness of world cinema that two of Sokurov's greatest films, Days of Eclipse and The Second Circle, are unavailable in this country. Mother and Son, however, is. A major achievement by anyone's standards, it is one of the most original films of the 90s.

Annointed by Tarkovsky as his heir, Sokurov shares many characteristics with the master: a measured sense of time pushed almost to the point of stasis, a deep mysticism that finds expression in languid shots of nature, and an almost mythological view of the Russian people. Mother and Son, which brings these traits to their aesthetic culmination, details the last few days that a son spends with his mother before she dies. The two enjoy each other's company, delve into the past, and take walks in the fields to admire nature one last time. Sokurov's use of distorting lenses transforms his characters into icons, and the painterly visions of nature he gives us here are among the most gorgeous landscape shots ever committed to film. The moments of contemplation add up to reveal an undercurrent of muted grief, and as the film unfolds, its' silent epiphanies gain a cumulative impact unlike anything else in current cinema. A quietly devastating masterpiece.