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Key Films #15

A Talking Picture [Manoel de Oliveira, 2003]:

The film is titled A Talking Picture, and as a description, or as a prelude to the thing we're about to see, it doesn't mislead.  The dialogues throughout are lengthy and invigorating, relevant to the film's main journey into the past as a reflection of the present - into this idea of communication - but also naturalistic; drawing the audience into the story of these two characters and the people they meet along the way, while also managing to make a broader, more allegorical point on the development of our shared histories in the context of the no less violent struggles - both moral and political - of our own contemporary existence.  Seen through the eyes of a mother and her daughter (who literally cross thousands of years of civilisation on a journey to reunite with their respective husband and father) the film becomes a kind of a loose travelogue, where each port of call, from Lisbon to Goa, presents an opportunity to explore the various historical sites, from the ruins of Pompeii beneath the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, to the mighty pyramids of Giza, where the interactions between these modern-day characters in the presence of these fallen civilisations, create a dramatic statement in keeping with the main emphasis on the progression of history as a shared experience; something that is already a part of history; some echo of the past reflecting on the modern age. 

The central journey from Lisbon to India recalls that of the famed Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, but the route - traversing the Mediterranean and making stops in France, Italy, Greece, Egypt and eventually Turkey - brings to mind a similar progression from Jean-Luc Godard's more recent work, Film Socialisme (2010).  Like that particular film, the presence of the ocean liner becomes a microcosm of Europe in the 21st century, where the dialogues between business woman Catherine Deneuve, model and fashion designer Stefania Sandrelli, stage actress and singer Irene Papas and the ship's captain John Malkovich, allows Oliveira to discuss the idea of nationalism (or colonialism) in the age of the European Union, as well as the struggle to retain a cultural identity in light of the growing homogenisation of western culture, as it flourishes (or did) under the rule of capitalism, in a very direct and unguarded approach.  These dinner table conversations punctuate the more charming and leisurely sequences shared by the mother and daughter, where the sense of history - of these places and their stories - is overwhelming, both emotionally and cinematically.  The end of the film, which I won't spoil, takes this idea of the past as a mirror to the present in an entirely different direction.  The logical but no less shocking conclusion that all this talk of conflict has been leading to.  An impression that civilisations every bit as cultured and enlightened as our own, rose and fell in the blink of an eye.

Gods of the Plague [Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1970]:

The film's overwhelmingly bleak, almost-existential title, Gods of the Plague, is explained in the subtitles of the film's theatrical-trailer, which when not giving away the entire plot, states, via on-screen text: "Criminals are our modern day Gods.  Capitalism our Plague."  From this, the ideological implications of the title establish, in a figurative sense, the allure of the gangster as a modern-day Robin Hood.  It also illustrates, on a more deconstructive level, the role that the film-noir, as a sub-genre, plays in its ability to offer commentary and critique on the state of the world through an exaggerated fatalism, personal detachment and occasional undercurrent of stylised melodrama.  Fassbinder, like his early idols of the French New Wave, looks at American genre cinema and sees the political context that motivates these stories of crime and misdemeanour.  As such, he dispenses with the more conventional or contrived emphasis on things like the heist, the job, the "plot", and instead focuses on the displaced characters - the "underclass" - and the various economic hardships that make the criminal transgressions of these protagonists necessary, if not actually worthwhile. 

The socio-political or socio-economic ideas aren't explored as thoroughly here as they are in later works, such as Fox and his Friends (1975) or The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971), but they do still provide some context (or perhaps even a justification) for the cruel and pitiless world that these characters find themselves drawn into.  In terms of its approach, Gods of the Plague is both a continuation and a refinement of the experiments of Love is Colder Than Death (1969), incorporating many of the same influences - specifically Hollywood noir of the '40s and '50s and the early films of Jean-Luc Godard - alongside Fassbinder's growing interest in a kind of ironic melodrama, as typified by the films of Nicholas Ray and Douglas Sirk.  While Love is Colder than Death was notable for its contemplative pace, long takes, extended pauses and a general feeling of emptiness and introspection, Gods of the Plague seems somewhat more focused in its plotting and in the development of its characters.  As such, it is perhaps the greatest of Fassbinder's early films and one that points the way towards the style and tone of the director's later, more celebrated works.

Cosmopolis [David Cronenberg, 2012]:

Beneath the slow crawl of the opening credits, an abstract, Jackson Pollock-esque image of spattered paint takes form; suggesting from the outset the influence of the conceptual, the nonfigurative, on this narrative of meetings and encounters; where the motivations of characters or the progression of certain scenes seem almost elusive; more of a series of starts and stops, like the journey itself, which play to their own natural rhythm; like jazz; the words replacing the music.  This image - this invocation of Pollock - in its appearance at least suggests the same chaos and disorder as the riots and protests that unfurl like living theatre through the cinemascope-like frame of the limousine's stretched windshield; the texture of the paint itself, spattered and streaked in lines and drops of green, black and grey on a canvas that has the shade of decaying flesh, looks to me like the mess of a city; the scrawl of a black metropolis where anarchy and remonstration flow like the veins through a body; reaching out; destroying everything from within.  If this painting - this facsimile of Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) - is a mirror to the character's own conflicted state-of-mind, then the use of Mark Rothko's work during the closing credits suggests some sense of closure or resignation.  A blank state, calm and serene; more a mood or a state of being that is eventually achieved by the central character at the end of this long passage into (self) discovery.  No longer conflicted, just free. 

It's all open to interpretation, but I took the film to be a critique of the current generation.  A generation that has profiteered from the internet, from social-networking; a generation that is affluent, upwardly mobile, secure but insular; ultimately self-involved.  It is a portrait of a generation that has achieved great wealth and privilege by doing very little and is now, collectively, bored with everything.  Life for these people has become hermetic, detached; a series of appointments, everything a transaction, everything for sale.  The limousine that cuts a path through the crowded streets is not only a garrison from the outside world (a symbol of wealth and status, as well as anonymity) but also an extension of who this character is.  The gradual deterioration of the car as it is attacked by revellers and protestors, becomes an on-screen representation of the character's own psychological deterioration, as the world outside the car - outside his own influence and control - becomes a protest against an uncertain future; one that threatens to upend the influence of capitalism, destroying the dangerous thread that creates balance; that keeps us in place.  Like many characters in Cronenberg's work, there is a sense of someone embracing their own destruction.  The form of the film, static and stilted - creating a feeling of inertia, of time standing still - communicates the boredom of a man who longs for revolution - for death! - just to create some kind of change to the stagnant social order.


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