Day 11: WITTGENSTEIN (Derek Jarman, UK, 1993)

Jarman’s penultimate film, an imaginative biopic of the great Austrian-born philosopher. I can’t make any definite claims as to accuracy in terms of historical facticity or the representation of actual philosophical ideas—but who really wants realism when an artist as endlessly inventive as Jarman is involved? The project originated with a script by Terry Eagleton but was deftly reshaped to fit the distinctive Jarman mold, as well as address the restrictions of a tiny budget and minimal production time (less than two weeks for actual shooting, as well as the additional pressure posed by the filmmaker’s rapidly deteriorating vision and health due to AIDS-related complications). In a brilliant move, the director and his collaborators decided to flaunt all logistical constraints, creating instead an aura of resonant symbolism; the resulting film, just over 70 minutes long, races through Wittgenstein’s life by stringing together some 53 sequences entailing anecdotes, personal events, fantasies, and glimpses into his immediate social circle. In the end the production limitations turned out to be a great boon, as the interplay of an inventive narrative structure (a precocious, bespectacled young Wittgenstein serves as both narrator and guide, drolly interjecting himself throughout the film) as well as the distinctive visual design that distills the mise-en-scène down to a limited number of meaningful items and articles of clothing ultimately seems a most fitting manner through which to convey the life of a man who devoted his life to logically paring down reality into its most fundamental forms. Like everything Jarman created, it doubtlessly deserves—and will reward—multiple viewings.

[Watch Wittgenstein on Fandor here.]



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Day 2: ALICE UNDERGROUND (Kate Kline May, USA, 1984)

Reading an oversized book as she waits for BART, Alice is minding her own business when she notices a group of odd figures milling about the platform (who hasn’t?); once on the train a man in costume dashes by and she takes chase, first through several BART trains and then across the cavernous corridors of Civic Center Station. So begins Bay Area photographer Kate Kline May’s appropriately anarchic adaptation of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” which casts 1980’s San Francisco as a surrealistic space just as unpredictable—and full of possibility—as the one encountered in Lewis Carroll’s famous book for children. Shot on grainy black and white 16mm film and flaunting an infectiously inventive, DIY attitude, for a half hour the film follows Alice as she stumbles through a series of vignettes inspired by the original book (the most wonderful being a rowdy croquet match presided over by Sigrid Wurschmidt as the Queen of Hearts, who seems at once to be channeling Joan Collins and the great silent film vamps).

May dispenses with the gentle, child-appropriate whimsy of the original material and draws instead from the gritty aesthetics and sensibility of the “underground” film and performance art communities of the 1960’s and 1970’s for her evocation of a modern day wonderland; the improvisatory films of Warhol and Jack Smith often come to mind, as do the fantastical dimensions of the everyday as glimpsed in the work of Rivette. But it’s the spirit and artistic vision of Maya Deren that seems to hover most dominantly over the proceedings—there are moments, particularly in the sense of unsteady spatial dislocation, where the film almost feels like a reimagining of the classic At Land.

In the end what is most irresistible about this playful adaptation is the sense of comradery it evokes, the tangible excitement generated by a group of friends who as artistic individuals band together to create something and have a marvelous time doing it. It’s no wonder that once Alice returns to “real life” she frantically descends back down the escalator into Civic Center Station once again, as if desperate to begin the cycle all over again. An undersung Bay Area gem.

[Watch Alice Underground on Fandor hereAt Land is also available to view]

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soft-core cinematic art

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I waited a long time to see one of the difficult-to-find films directed by French author-filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet, so I was excited to finally watch La belle captive, the 1983 film adaptation of his own novel by the same name.  A fusion of Robbe-Grillet’s groundbreaking nouveau roman narrative techniques and René Magritte’s paintings (the original novel is illustrated with some 77 paintings by the surrealist master), Robbe-Grillet the director is obviously attempting a visual tone drawn directly from the famed Belgian surrealist―enigmatic, haunting, and vaguely, indefinably disturbing―but unfortunately ends up with a rather silly concoction of metaphysical pronouncements and rather insubstantially airy concoction of archetypal images and figures.  One can sense a desire to tap into a mythic quality in the film’s vampiric ghosts, fetish figures, detective film overtones, erotic interludes, and invocations of sadism, but it all plays like an outlandishly “arty” (and now amusingly dated) Emmanuelle film, almost evoking a soft-core porn parody of Last Year at Marienbad, whose Oscar-nominated screenplay remains Robbe-Grillet’s most enduring and well known cinematic achievement.

That’s not to say that La belle captive is completely without merit.  Considering the character she plays–some kind of mysterious combination of angel, ghost and vampire–the lovely Gabrielle Lazure makes the most of a figure that functions as little more than a male erotic fantasy; leather-clad, motorcycle-riding Cyrielle Clair cuts a striking figure, but is given even less to do than Lazure, and becomes little more than an object of fetishization. belle-captiveThe film’s closed off, artificial atmosphere does manage to conjure up a sense of languid, erotically overheated hypnosis and is the film’s primarily source of merit, though the dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream structure eventually become oppressive.  When it comes down to it, I found a lot of words and color and images but very little of the poetry I expected.  A disappointment, though I remain intrigued by Robbe-Grillet’s overall aesthetic project, and remain eager to further explore this iconoclastic figure’s work.

entomological absurdities

Wladyslaws Starewicz’s The Cameraman’s Revenge (Russia, 1912) is a 12 minute short that a century on still bristles with a vitality and life so modern–or to be more precisely, so timeless–that someone could have shown it to me and I could have been convinced it was, say, the latest YouTube sensation currently trending on Twitter.

The story itself isn’t much: a rather banal, très French romantic farce regarding the sexual hijinks of a bourgeois married couple.  But the wonderful, unique twist: the characters are preserved insects brought to life through the wonders of stop-motion animation.  There are many elements to savor–the casual depiction of Mr. and Mrs. Beetle’s marital infidelity, the intricate mise-en-scène, the sophisticated sight gags, a prophetic proto-paparazzi depiction, the complex commentary on both the filmmaking process and the act of film watching–but the most dazzling accomplishment of The Cameraman’s Revenge is the way Starwicz is able to so uncannily anthropomorphize these most inhuman of creatures.   This is made possible through a highly attuned sense of movement and gesture, demonstrating a precision that is unexpectedly graceful, and at moments surprisingly moving.

While watching it I couldn’t help but think of it as a the perfect counterbalance to that great artistic meditation of humanity-as-insect that is practically the film’s exact contemporary: Kafka’s classic short story The Metamorphosis, first published in 1915.  But rather than Kafka’s existential depiction of deteriorating, debased humanity, Starewicz relishes in the comical foibles and absurdities of life and love, and instead discovers within the inanimate insect form the means to explore a flipside of the human condition: its surrealistic humor.

[Watch The Cameraman’s Revenge online at Fandor or Ubu Web.]

introducing visions of a city

Fandor‘s selection of Larry Jordan’s luminous Visions of a City (USA, 1978) as one of its “Featured Films of the Week” reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to start on this blog for a while now: a semi-regular series of posts showcasing cinematic San Francisco.  And what better name could there possibly be for such a series than the title of Jordan’s own film?

As the emphasis is on visual representation, I don’t usually intend these posts to contain reviews, but a few contextual notes seemed called for in this particular case.  Visions of a City is comprised of footage shot in 1957 but not edited until 1978, for in Jordan’s own words: “I found that it was one of those rare films that I have always deplored the scarcity of: documents of how it really looked in a certain place in a certain year.”  It is also serves as what he calls a “filmic portait” of the poet Michael McClure as a young man.

By focusing his camera on reflective surfaces such as windows, mirrors, and even bottles and car bumpers, Jordan captures glimpses of a vibrant cityscape that become layered in complex and strikingly beautiful ways that resemble dissolves.  San Francisco, then, is at once represented as simultaneously a tangible location and a fleeting, dreamlike mirage.  And the screen captures presented below hardly do justice to the film, as it is often in the intricate camera movement that the true wonder of Jordan’s images are revealed, so check out the entire film–it’s a painless and rewarding 6 minutes–either on Fandor or Ubu Web.