Monday, January 26, 2015

The Circular Square (For the Plasma, 2014)

Helen (Rosalie Lowe) lives in a big house off the coast of Fort Clyde, Maine, a location that is seemingly cutoff from the rest of civilization.  We see another woman, Charlie (Anabelle LeMieux), moving into the house at the beginning of the film.  Charlie is Helen’s research assistant.  Their daily work consists of Helen looking at CCTV monitors that display images of the woods that surround the home.  Meanwhile, Charlie spends a day, sometimes a night, going to, gazing at, and analyzing the spots filmed by the cameras.  Suspended in the air, large grey squares indicate where these spots are.  These strange goings on are all in the service of Helen’s talent for predicting the stock market just by interpreting the images of the forest.

Bingham Bryant and Kyle Molzan’s first film is a mystery.  The film knows it’s a mystery, one that’s whimsical, one with its own rules to abide and break, recalling Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating.  Where Rivette’s film is loose, limber, and improvisatory, Bingham and Molzan’s is precise, cerebral, and yet tranquil.  Considering the secluded location, there are no signs of cabin fever.  Helen and Charlie stave off restlessness by the work they do.  Or, should I say, the games they play. 

For the Plasma is all about making meaning from the environment around, about converting the natural world into data to interpret.  Although different in terms of agenda, mood, and genre, For the Plasma belongs in a conversation with a recent spate of Hollywood films fascinated with data: Zero Dark Thirty, Gone Girl, Blackhat.  Where those films are epic (globe-trotting) depictions of worlds swamped in images, generating paranoia for whoever has to look and analyze them.  For the Plasma, on the other hand, is more reassuring.  It seems to say, this work, this analysis offers stability in one’s life.  Stability turns into stasis though if unchecked, if pursued for too long of an interval, then its time to leave this hermetic environment, cocooned by the familiarity of people, places, and especially things. 

Even if the film presents us with squares (monitors, screens, windows, suspended metal frames, the use of academy ratio), For the Plasma is actually a circle, a circular narrative in fact.  In one key moment in the film, one that inspired me to write this post, Helen explains her peculiar method of interpreting the market in the newspaper, circling a section with a red marker.  In turn, Charlie demonstrates how the fictionalized insect in Kōbō Abe’s The Ark Sakura, the “clockbug,” survives.  At a slow pace, the insect moves in a circle, eating its own shit.  The clockbug’s movement conveniently describes the film’s movement, with its looping structure in which Helen and Charlie frame, observe, analyze and repeat.  The square becomes the circle.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

All Hail (Hail, 2011)

I’ve always been fascinated by shifts in texture, and the surface of the image, and juxtaposing textures in the context of a single work.  Amiel Courtin-Wilson


Hail opens with a mythological painting, Peter Nicolai Arbo’s Åsgardsreien, and the twinkling grandeur of Moondog’s “High on a Rocky Ledge,” a song about a man climbing a mountain to his beloved maiden, his mountain flower, and only winning her love by falling to his death.  Like Alain Resnais’ Guernica, Amiel Courtin-Wilson animates the painting by shooting different spots of the artwork with his gliding camera: horses riding in clouds and huntsmen holding or dropping naked women from the sky.  “We’re so deliriously happy on our ledge where I pledge my / love to my Lady Fair,” Moondog croons.  On “deliriously,” the film opens with a blurry image.  Moving closer and closer, the camera comes into focus on a pair of eyes filled with anxiety, fear, or something else.  These are the eyes of our protagonist, Daniel (Daniel P. Jones), and today, he’s getting out of prison.  He’s getting out of a cage and into a bigger one, the world.  

Daniel reunites with his love, his maiden, his mountain flower, Leanne (Leanne Letch).  He finds a job in a car yard.  He struggles with a post-prison life.  His mind is back in there while he’s out there in the world.  “If I told you what went on in my head, you’d run a thousand fucking miles,” he tells Leanne at one point in the film. “I’m a danger to me.”

Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s Hail achieves that sweet mix of social realism and lyricism (“-isms” that don’t do this film justice).  The film externalizes emotional states that fuel and shatter lives.  Courtin-Wilson does so by using the focus as a formal organizing principle.  The camera goes in and out of focus, giving the film tactility, an epidermal quality, making bodies turn into blurs, lines, and abstractions.  Indeed, the body is a nexus for figural transformation.  The DP, Germain McMicking’s camera captures straggly hair, a face’s wrinkles, and tattoo ink.  To cite a Marco Bellocchio film, Hail is all about the eyes, the mouth. 

At the center is Daniel and Leanne, the film evoking the moment-to-moment changes in their mood, perhaps similar to Terrence Malick 2.0, Malick post-Days of Heaven.  Pulling in and pushing out, Hail moves through liminal states, before entering a new realm.  When Leanne dies, we enter Daniel’s delirious headspace.  One moment shows him having what looks like a seizure: his eyes rolling to the back of his head, the camera peering into his gaping, crater-like mouth.  It’s as if Courtin-Wilson spliced in some of Philippe Grandrieux’s DNA into the film. 

In this latter half, Hail evokes Daniel’s vengeful rage, moving from pulsation to pulsation, from one sensation to another.  This part is all the more terrifying because his actions appear to be deluded, most definitely illogical.  He’s hell-bent on killing a man because he thinks he murdered Leanne, when we see her dead from (possibly) falling and hitting her head in the shower.

Hail comes from a long line of filmmakers dedicated to capturing surfaces.  Hail’s haptic brethren are a mix of filmmakers -- Andy Warhol, Stephen Dwoskin, John Cassavetes, Philippe Grandrieux, and Terrence Malick.  Like them, Hail knows where the action is.  It’s not under the skin, but on it.