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Key Films #11

The Territory [Raúl Ruiz, 1981]:

I return to that unforgettable illustration; a map within a map, like a skull within a skull.  Similar folds and echoes reoccur throughout as these characters try to navigate this terrain, this territory; hopelessly adrift in a subconscious expression of events, like a narrative within a narrative, or a dream within a dream.  The 'territory' of the title is both the location of the forest, as a physical space, where these characters vacation in an effort to get away from the chaos of the modern world, as well as the psychological topography of the situation, as they inevitably - through isolation and the gradual erosion of their accepted roles and responsibilities - succumb to a kind of shared delusion, or psychosis.  The allegorical journey as descent into madness motif is further obfuscated by the meta-deconstructions of the narrative.  Like so many films by Ruiz, there is the disquieting implication that the gothic reverie that we've just been witness to is in fact a fabrication; part fiction, part truth.  A clever work of deception, told by an unreliable narrator, and further abstracted by the director's vivid approach to staging and composition.  The distortions of the frame, the bizarre perspectives and the saturated colours - all characteristic of Ruiz's work - blur the recognisable line between fiction and reality. 

The feel of the film - mysterious, hypnotic, enigmatic - becomes, through the layering of the various perspectives (the different levels of insanity), like a startling hall of mirrors.  A cracked reflection of the original event - the disappearance - refracted as an endless repetition; each recurrence, each reverberation, more distorted than the last.  Again, we go back to that image of the map - the country within the skull - and the metaphorical implications of the title; 'the territory', and what it represents.  Although the iconography of the film might evoke the tropes and conventions of certain exploitation movies popular during the late 1970s - with the ghostly woods, the unseen threat, the party of missing travellers and the use of cannibalism as a metaphor for the decline of western civilisation recalling everything from The Hills Have Eyes (1977) to Cannibal Holocaust (1980) - the ultimate intention of Ruiz's film is perhaps closer to Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend (1967), where the descent into tribal violence carried a socio-political significance, or to Peter Weir's masterpiece The Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), where the disappearance of a party of young school children suggests the supernatural presence of the location as a state of meta/physical awakening.
Holy Motors [Léos Carax, 2012]:

A series of sketches.  Fragmented, loosely connected.  At first, the whole thing - every scene, every vignette - seems randomly put together.  A collision of different influences, quoted, cited, but nonetheless dropped, as if by accident, into the framework of the finished film.  No real rhyme or reason, just indulging, for the sake of it; for the beauty of the act.  There is an inner truth to the presentation of these scenes, to the progression of its central character(s), but also a feeling of wilful eccentricity; a kind of dress-up David Lynch, albeit without the context of Lynch's continual obsessions or his specifically 'American' way of seeing.  And yet, in spite of this haphazard approach, the film still came together, in retrospect.  In the jumble of thoughts, the initial disappointment; in the imagination of certain scenes, I understood.  Yes, the film is about 'performance' and the nature of performance - in life as well as art - but it's also a hymn to the death of cinema - to the end of film as it once existed for the generation of its director - and yet a hymn that also celebrates the endless possibilities that the cinema can still possess. 

The "holy motors" of the title refer to the film camera, the cinema projector, the moviola; these artefacts, which for well over a hundred years defined and made possible the process of making films, have been replaced, by digital technology.  Machines that now replicate the same process, but without the heart and soul of a living person to operate them.  If the film works at all (and it does), it is in mourning this loss of tradition, while simultaneously demonstrating that the thrill of cinema is not necessarily found in the technique, but in the expression.  The escapades of the film are therefore allegorical and not so much exclusively limited to the idea of 'performance', or the end of cinema as the beginning of something new, but an extension of the mindset of Carax; his ambivalence to what the cinema has become, and his frustration for what it could still, potentially, be.  His own appearance in the film suggests a thread of auto-biography; beginning with the self-exiled author himself as 'the dreamer', asleep in the wilderness.  He finds his way back to the movies, to a subconscious space, but to an audience now bored by the magic and the mystery of the silver screen.

JLG/JLG - Self-Portrait in December [Jean-Luc Godard, 1995]:

It begins with the image of an image.  Godard as child; a portrait, in black and white.  An image of youth, expressive of all the potential and possibility that we associate with youth; with that period between childhood and adolescence; the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end.  A shadow falls silently across this image, creating a darkness that is suggestive of both the dark winter nights of December - that gloom of the winter months - or the dark mood of its protagonist as he evokes, in agonising voice, the cruelty of age.  The silhouette of Godard as a middle-aged man - present but not present - is like a spectre.  A revenant, existing as a shadow of the former self; a reflection; a body, incomplete.  Like the silhouetted form that haunts the near-silent images of the masterpiece I... Dreaming (1988) by Stan Brakhage, the presence of this shape, the dark void of the soul, suggests the loneliness of the man as he reflects on the image of the child he once was, on the promise he once held.  The image (of the image) once again defining, in the visual sense, the notion of the self-portrait.  The past selfas witness to the present; the present selfas living evidence of the past. 

Like Anne-Marie Miéville's revelatory The Book of Mary (1984), much of JLG/JLG is focused on the domestic spaces that define a life.  For Godard, the remnants of his own existence can be found in the contrast between the interior and exterior spaces that characterise the two facets of his personality.  The introvert 'thinker', alone in his study, marking time with his books and his films, and the public figure, the maker of films, still roaming the wilderness in search of stories; an exile of his own volition.  The disparities between the two - the house, dark and cavernous; littered with books and filmmaking paraphernalia - and the landscape - frozen, crystal clear; tranquil but possessing a natural drama suggested by the crashing waves and ominous clouds - create a mirror to this character; this 'Godard' by Godard.  The contrast between the two spaces once again evokes a tender loneliness.  Godard, who once helped to re-define the cinema, is now outside of the culture; forgotten, ignored.  Although there is a great sense of  humour to the film, the overall mood of JLG/JLG is reminiscent of the mournful, wounded expression of a work like Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (1991); another film in which Godard, indirectly, questioned his own mortality; his relevance as a relic in the winter of his years.


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