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Key Films #20

 The 'Burbs [Joe Dante, 1989]:
The film Rear Window (1954), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, has always been something of a key text in my approach to understanding the nature of film criticism and the relationship between the audience and the work.  While on the surface a taut, gripping thriller, Hitchcock's film is one that also deals, theoretically, with the voyeurism of the cinema audience.  In particular, the way the audience, as a kind of collective witness - safe behind the screen - observes the various clues to understanding the development of events, while also allowing themselves to be led - emotionally at least - by their own subjective thoughts, fears and prejudices, which colour their investigation; creating a misunderstanding (or miscommunication) that can be exploited by the filmmakers to create tension and suspense.  Although played as more of a screwball comedy than a genuine mystery, The 'Burbs could (and really should) be seen as a continuation of the same hypothesis; a film where the idea of the protagonist as voyeur - as "viewer" - is explored in relation to the film's commentary on the madness of small town suburbia; the way the suspicions and insecurities of the central characters are fuelled by that outer-conflict between the reality - the tangible 'everyday' life that exists beyond their living room windows - against their own "inner", subjective, somewhat limited perception of events.  Therefore, the real pleasure of Dante's film is in seeing the appropriation of this concept as refracted through the director's own highly sophisticated, even 'post-modernist' sensibility; where the line between the audience and the work - the 'window' itself - has already been removed.
If Hitchcock's protagonist L.B. Jefferies looked through the eye of the camera - through the makeshift cinema screen of his own 'rear window' - and found his neighbourhood street-scenes becoming a "Hitchcockian" thriller of his own invention, then the characters in The 'Burbs filter their own perception of events through the standard 'Dantean' influences of exploitation cinema, Mario Bava style Gothicism and old Abbott & Costello movies.  With the arrival of the Klopek family - Eastern European stereotypes who live in a state of dereliction - the lure of these influence help to arouse the suspicions of a conservative community that sees individualism (or eccentricity) as a personal affront.  As a concept, this would work great as a social satire, exploring the reactions of the film's protagonists as they deal with the "otherness" of the Klopek family (taking suburban xenophobia to its logical conclusion).  However, the real intention of the film is again to show the influence of 'influences'; the way the iconography of certain horror movies - like The Exorcist (1973) or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) (both seen in the film) - can get under the skin of an audience; transforming the way we look at the world, psychologically.  Through this, Dante uses the suburban commentary of the film to illustrate the blurring of the line between real life and that which appears on screen.  Not just as a projection of an overactive imagination, or as symptomatic of some psychological disarray (fear and obsession, etc), but as a genuine breaking of the fourth wall.  A movement, as if the world of the film itself is physically encroaching or intruding on our own reality; our fears made real.
Hot Knife [Paul Thomas Anderson, 2013]:
Cinephiles, cineastes, movie buffs or whatever you wanna call 'em, fall over themselves in rapturous droves to acclaim the latest piece of shit commercial, or promotional video, when directed by the likes of Wes Anderson, David Fincher or Wong Kar-wai.  The name alone makes it significant, regardless of whether or not such works actually strive to differentiate themselves from any other generic (corporate) product deigned to sell 'content' and little else.  I've railed against this practice in the past (not so much on the blog, but through other outlets, like message boards and such) so excuse me if this consideration makes me seem somewhat hypocritical; but the appearance of this latest collaboration between singer-songwriter Fiona Apple and filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson seems genuinely worthy of such acclaim.  What elevates Hot Knife above many other recent music videos (those directed by well established filmmakers as well as those by unknowns) is the quality of the central performance.  Though obfuscated by Anderson's formalist tendencies - such as associative transitions between colour and black & white and the split-screen effect, which seems to reflect the multiplication of the voice on the soundtrack - this is essentially a performance video; it is led by the appearance of the singer and by the emotion that she invests in these words.
Apple may be filmed almost entirely in mid-shot (head and shoulders, like a portrait) or in ECU (her mouth like an open wound, as redolent with association as the protagonist's mouth in Beckett's unsettling Not I...), but the weight of feeling conveyed through the delivery of the text, the facial expressions, body language, etc, is powerful enough to present the different shades of a character; capturing the complexity, not just of the actual subtext (or even of the natural conflict and rebellion that we associate with the Apple 'persona') but as a reflection of the complexity of the song's harmonic structure.  The movement of her body ripples and undulates in time with the rhythm, while her face becomes an open book: conveying fear, excitement, anxiety, passion, naivety, vulnerability, innocence, bitterness, violence and beauty simultaneously; all genuine and conflicting.  Apple (and her sister Maude, in profile, to the left of screen) dismantle the meaning of these words through the phrasing, taking their function as conventional lyrics and twisting them through the delivery and repetition, turning them into a dialogue; something that is spoken and felt.  The further attempts to deconstruct the emotional subtext of the song though transitions of light and colour, and through the layering of the voice itself, is as intricate as anything I've ever seen.
Still Life [Sohrab Shahid Saless, 1974]:
In long shot, an elderly man - crippled by toil - turns the wheel to raise the level crossing that acts as a barrier between worlds.  This is his job - his responsibility - and a reason for living.  Throughout the film his movements are slow and precise.  His speech direct, unhurried.  This slowness - the lack of urgency - is in time with the pacing of the film.  The lingering shots, the static frame, seem intended to match the slowness of life in this village, forcing the audience into an almost pensive state, quiet and reflective.  Looking at each scene as we might look at a painting in a gallery; not simply following the action, but projecting our own thoughts, feelings and concerns upon the lives of these characters as they work and sleep and eat.  The result is studied and exact, capturing a feeling of time and time passing, of the stillness of life, the chores and the routines.  This is a life without hope, excitement or colour, and the filmmaking communicates this, numbing the viewer through the repetition of scenes, the stillness of the frame.  In the house, the colours are washed out, faded.  Chalk blues turning grey with time; rusted browns and nothing through the windows.  Outside on the track, beige shades and the harsh black of the tree trunks against a cold metallic sky.  Only the vague hint of green from the grass that lines the embankment on either side of the track suggests something bucolic; a hymn to nature, stifled and barely felt.
Through the emphasis on this character, his wife, and their struggle to survive, Saless evokes the struggle of a community left behind by the modern-world.  This character - the signalman - is a relic of this world but also the living embodiment of it.  The development of the country was built on the hard work and physical contributions of characters like this; their employers grown fat (and rich) off the sweat of their labour.  While the first half of the film could be called a character study - a precursor to the kind of observational cinema of a director like Pedro Costa in his films In Vanda's Room (2000) and Colossal Youth (2006) - the second half is more political, with Saless depicting the decline of this character as an indictment of the cruelty of a burgeoning world that cares little for its own history or the struggle of those that made this progress possible, now forced to see their own environments shut out and ignored.  Decades later, the Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke would release a work with the same English-language title.  There, as well as here, social interactions - a shared cigarette and a cup of tea becoming little rituals or customs to pass the time - suggest the struggle of a community in an ever changing world.  A world, in a sense, out of place and out of time; decaying, disappearing, left behind in that mad rush of progress, as the present becomes past .  This place and these characters survive, still living - still "life" - as relics, both beautiful and chaste.


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