Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Twin Images #4

Last Year in Marienbad
(Alain Resnais; 1961)

(Stuart Cooper; 1975)

Overlord (Stuart Cooper, 1975)

Stuart Cooper’s elegiac anti-war film, Overlord, contains a heady brew of images, mixing documentary and live-action footage together.  In the film, one sees a cylinder propelled by rockets, the Great Panjandrum, thrashing across ocean waves, looking like a super-sized firework.  One sees a large vehicle, a mine flail, tearing across a beach, shredding up barbed wire with elevated spinning claws.  These machines seem like the creations of mad scientists.  Intermittent with such hypnotic images of destruction are shots of a young British soldier’s preparation for the D-Day invasion.  In effect, the image potpourri creates a film, which is part spectacle and part lyrical dream. 

To get a better idea of the effort put into blending the various pieces of footage together, I’ll give you a brief sketch of the film’s production history.  Initially, England’s Imperial War Museum tapped Cooper to make a 20-minute documentary about a large embroidery depicting the Allies invasion of Normandy.  While researching at the museum’s archives though, Cooper got the idea to create a feature-length film from the sources at hand.  Cooper spent well over 3,000 hours pillaging through the museum’s film archives over the course of three years.  By the end of his stint, he got permission to use the footages’ nitrate negatives.  So, once inserted into the film, the texture of the archival footage matched the crisp shots of Cooper’s cinematographer, John Alcott.  In fact, Alcott used ancient German lenses to shoot Overlord, foreshadowing the period detail and the natural lighting of Barry Lyndon.

For all his research though, Cooper doesn’t cue the viewers on historical details.  He eschews exposition, which is fitting, since the film’s title is the code word the Allies used for the invasion of Europe.  He’s not interested in visual history.  Instead, what interests him is the sense of being, of existing during wartime.  He zooms-in on one life, which could stand-in for countless other soldiers in the war.  He focuses on Tom Bellows (Brian Stirner), a fresh-faced English boy.  Tom leaves his parents, trains, makes a few friends, meets and falls in love with a girl, but never fights.  With Tom, Cooper achieves a macro view of the war by focusing on the micro.  

Cooper intercuts Tom’s narrative with archival footage, some of which includes aerial shots of planes dropping bombs on ravaged landscapes and cities.  It is this found footage that Cooper expands the focus of his film.  It is with these images that Cooper links an individual account of the war with a collective one, one filtered through the media.

Harking back to this micro-macro point, the film has a tinge of spirituality, which is even apparent in the name.  Early on in the film, as Tom goes off to train, Cooper cuts to a baby being baptized.  Later, as Tom approaches the shores of Normandy, he imagines encountering the girl (Julie Neesam) he had a one-night romance with.  Cooper cuts to a scene where the two are in an empty, spacious room.  Laying him down, taking off his clothes, the girl demonstrates to Tom how to prepare the dead before kissing him tenderly on the lips to “revive” him.  Tom lies on the floor, splayed like Christ crucified.  Tom was born into this war, and he will die in it.

Constant aerial footage from the POV of bomber planes suggests an omniscient God of war, destroying whomever it chooses.  One of the first people we see in the film is Hitler.  In grainy footage, he peers out of a plane window, looking at bombed out cities below – the lord of war.  Yet, immediately, as the film progresses, we lose an individual entity, and the overlord is war itself, ubiquitous, the concept of war, war as an institution, with all the mechanical procedures leading up to the fighting – boot camp, letters from home, traveling.  Colonizing mind and body, war as a way of life kills Tom before he even engages in combat.


For more on Overlord, here’s Kent Jones insightful essay included with the Criterion DVD.  He places the film between those made in England about the "preparedness of war," such as the works by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, as well as the staunch, ironic films coming out of America about the Vietnam War – Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, M*A*S*H.

At the time of Overlord's 2007 re-release, Stuart Cooper wrote this article for the Guardian, offering some context about the film’s production history.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Twin Images #3

The Honeymoon Killers
(Leonard Kastle; 1969)

Pink Flamingos
(John Waters; 1972)

Duck Amuck (Lord Love a Duck, 1966)

On several occasions, George Axelrod characterizes his film, Lord Love a Duck, as a cross between Love Finds Andy Hardy and Dr. Strangelove.  This may be so, but the film could use some of the formal rigor Kubrick applied to his.  An anti-beach party film, Duck unloads a scattershot of rounds at all things sacred – education, religion, family, and marriage --, sacrificing rhythm and narrative coherence as a result.

At the center of this freewheeling film is Barbara Ann Greene (Tuesday Weld), a Lolita clone who wants.  Want twelve cashmere sweaters?  Done.  Want out of botany class?  You got it.  Want that boy-toy who has the hots for you?  No problem.  Granting all her wishes is Allan “Mollymauk” Musgrave, a brainy teenager played by a going-on 40 Roddy McDowall.  He is the genie granting her every wish.  He will even resort to murder in order to make her happy.  In Duck, Musgrave’s mad, devotional love is the only kind of love.  All the other men in the film are sex-crazed. 

Sex rules the day here.  In one of the film’s most bizarre moments, sex merges with materialism.  Heeding Musgrave's advice, Barbara calls on her absent father, Howie (Max Showalter).  Spending the day with dad is an excuse to buy twelve sweaters on his tab.  As she comes out of the dressing room wearing a sweater, Axelrod cuts to a googly-eyed Howie.  Barbara comes out with another, causing Howie to cackle wildly.

 There are some “freaky frames” in this scene.  Axelrod cants camera angles as the shot-reverse-shot quickens.  Out of nowhere, the film enters into delirium.  Howie’s yuck-yucking belly laughs give way to grunting and moaning between him and his daughter.  The scene climaxes with the two covered in a pile of sweaters – a clothes orgy.  Here, Axelrod captures commodity fetishism as a sexual frenzy.

“All that’s missing is an ‘ahh-oooo-ga’ sound effect for this incestuous pairing to go full cartoon,” R. Emmet Sweeney writes.  Resembling a live-action Tex Avery cartoon, nothing before or after rivals this scene.

With the sweaters, a prerequisite for admission, Barbara becomes part of a girl’s club.  Now part of the “in crowd,” she spends spring break at Balboa beach, since everyone’s going.  There, Barbara starts a relationship with Bob based purely on physical attraction, which inevitably leads to marriage. 

Barbara just wants attention.  “Everyone has got to love me, everybody!” she tells Musgrave during their first meeting.  (A fitting subtitle for Duck could be “The Loved One,” which is also a film some critics compare Axelrod's to.)

Axelrod offers a parallel to Barbara -- her mother, Marie (Lola Albright).  With her, the film slides into sorrow.  She’s a 42-year-old pixie that hits the bottle, brings home middle-aged men, and works as a cocktail waitress during the day. 

In one scene, we see Marie sprucing herself up before going to bed.  She looks into a magnifying mirror, which distorts her face.  It’s an image of her mangled mind, perhaps.  Reflected in a vanity table mirror in the background is Barbara, a miniature version of mom.  One wonders if Barbara is following in Marie’s footsteps.  Yet mom and her way of life just seem like a roadblock to what Barbara wants, Bob.

Marriage, however, involves mutual agreement.  When Bob tells her not to make a screen test for a B-movie, it’s time for Barbara to leave.  If Bob gets in the way, so be it, murder the man for its time to be a star.  

Near the film’s end, once Barbara reaches celebrity status as a B-Star, as the lead role in Bikini Widow, the camera follows her from the POV of the paparazzi.  Here, the camera turns handheld and the frame starts to shake.  Removed from school, from home, the camera captures Barbara as a beauty, empty of personality, of character, of psychology.  The last glimpses of her, Barbara is an image, glowing with the aura of fame.

The aesthetic, however, is just as empty as Barbara.  Although Axelrod packs Duck with acerbic wit, he doesn’t seem to fair the transition from writing to cinema too well.  Little contrast in the lighting, most shots come off as a muddled gray.  (To be sure, the paltry look may be due to the poor DVD transfer MGM released in 2003.)  The shabby décor and clear use of sound stages seems to indicate that little of the 1.2 million spent on the film went into its look.  Of course, Axelrod may have wanted an artificial look, but I don’t think so, since the aesthetic varies from scene to scene.  Perhaps his next film, one I hope to see eventually, The Secret Life of an American Wife, Axelrod irons out the particularities of the medium.  For this film, however, he’s not shooting a film, but writing one.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Preparation for Annihilation (United Red Army, 2007)

Kôji Wakamatsu certainly had one of the more colorful backgrounds than many filmmakers. He worked for the yakuza, “supervising” location shooting in Tokyo.  He served a six-month prison sentence for robbery.  He supported the surge of Japanese political activism in the sixties and seventies.  In one of his last films, United Red Army, Wakamatsu circles back to this period in his life and in Japanese history, looking at the rise and fall of that ultra-left movement.  Unlike many of the films (and TV series, in one case) released in the last decade, which took revolutionary groups or figures as their subject (Carlos, Che, The Baader Meinhof Complex), United, Dennis Lim rightly noted, is unique because an insider directed it.  

United Red Army, centers on the establishment and early days of the ultra-left movement.  Starting as a mass of student protesters, organizing as a small cultish unit (comprised of two URA sub-groups, the Revolutionary Left Faction and the Red Army Faction ), struggling as a rag-tag quintet, the URA mutates throughout the film.  Whatever iteration the URA takes though, Wakamatsu has a style to go with it.  In fact, make that three, for a film in which Wakamatsu brings to bear his personal and professional experience.

For the first of three-plus hours, Wakamatsu blows through events leading up to the Red Army’s mountain training: the US’ Anpo Treaty with Japan, the rising cost of tuition in Japanese universities, the death of civil rights leaders, and the Vietnam War.  This is a history lesson stuck on the fast-forward button, ever moving to create a flow of found and re-created footage. 

It is within this hour that Wakamatsu begins a formal pattern that remains throughout the rest of the film: amid the fact and the fiction, the recruiting or arresting of revolutionaries, Wakamatsu freezes the frame, pausing on an activist as text on the screen reads their age, name, and some sort of context – arrested, executed, etc.  By stopping to focus on these individuals, Wakamatsu consecrates them as victims of a delirious ideology. He consigns them to cinema as faces, names, and ages once written out of history. 

Once in the mountains, in the Gunma Prefecture, with a band of Red Army members, United becomes a different film, one gripped in cabin fever.  As the film’s tempo slows, here, ideological rigor leads to ideological paralysis.  Instead of engaging in an “all-out war” with the Japanese government, in-fighting sets in.  Under the warm glow of lantern lights, URA leaders issue “self-criticisms,” in which activists are beaten, tortured, and executed for actions counter to the group's cause.

Punishment and entrapment, two themes that Wakamatsu seems to work through even in his early, “pink films.”  In fact the cramped quarters of this middle section recalls Violated Angels. A nihilistic work based on the rape and murder of eight student nurses by Richard Speck, Violated doubles as an allegory for US imperialism according to Jasper Sharp.  With United, however, Wakamatsu does away with symbolism.  He collides various styles instead.  What emerges is historical “truth.” Indeed, United begins with the claim that "The events depicted in this film are all true."  Followed cheekily by text that reads, "But some fiction has been incorporated."

Both movies have a, blunt look.  Low-grade video in United, however, replaces the searing black-and-white (with occasional color) film in Violated.  Video gives the image a flat look, blanched of color that fits in well with the DIY mentality of the activists. 

By the third section, United enters another cramped space.  Hewing away the number of exterior shots, Wakamatsu makes this space more restricted than the last.  Finished with what seems like interminable training, the remaining members of the group, those eluding arrest or execution, barricade themselves in a lodge, holding the owner hostage for ten days.  This is the Asama-Sanso hostage case.  Although a media blitz during its time, Wakamatsu shies away from this aspect, rendering the event from within the lodge as an action film.

Dissonance between spouting and acting on ideology gives way as a gun battle erupts between the leftists and the police.  In the end, the lodge (which Wakamatsu owned) loses.  Over the course of the stand-off, the lodge endures blasts from water cannons, thick gas, sparks and flames, before crumbling as the police infiltrate it and take the URA members in by handcuff.

And like many docu-dramas, the obligatory on-screen text explains away events that stretch beyond the plot, a lazy way of saying “this film is only a small moment in the continuum of history.”  On the other hand, for me, this final section, United’s epilogue, is the most frightening part of the film.  There’s a chilling historical precision as the text appears and disappears, scrolling across the blank screen.  The screen’s emptiness is a striking contrast to the text, which tells of the rising level of terror acts to come. 


Here's two pieces by Rea Amit and Dickon Neech that I think are quite good.  One contextualizes United Red Army, the other looks at the different periods of Wakamatsu's oeuvre