Wednesday, May 8, 2013

J’entends Plus la Guitar - Phillipe Garrel (1991)

The counterpart of the suicide is the seeker; but the difference between them is slight.

Paul Watzlawick

I recommend this unlikely mix of the playful and austere to anyone who doesn't shun ‘darkness’ because there's too much of it in the world. Affable Garrel's characters may be, but they are doomed by their hunger for intoxicants and the transports of intimacy. They are just addicted enough to make their desires absolute, the objects of their craving the thing 'most needful'. Marianne (Johanna ter Steege) and Gerard (Benoît Régent) belong to the lot of those not destined for the long haul; seeking, finding, and losing the non-negotiable and unquantifiable magnitude--one another--that makes life the high-stakes treasure hunt that it is.

Garrel frames their muse-ful repartee with unhurried precision; capturing their exchanges so cannily they assume disquietingly personal import. It is impossible not to feel implicated by their intimacies. Close-up framing alone doesn't explain the power of their encounters, which feel more like surreptitiously over-heard conversations than enactments of a script--as if the actors were playing themselves rather than the personages of Garrel's autobiographical re-imaging. 

Johanna ter Steege and Benoît Régent

I had the sense that each character was a giant partition, a moveable screen perfectly suited to receive my projections. They serially fixated, seduced, and abandoned me.   

Contrast Fassbinder’s films, in which the pulse of shots, the deliberate display of reactions in lingering close-ups, defines an over-determined style at once Germanic in its explicitness and borderline campy. Any close-up magnifies, but Fassbinder's reaction shots obtrude in such a way as to show the seams of his transitions, heightening our sense of reality while exposing the nuts and bolts of art's transfiguring ["verfremdete"] truth. More often than not, his augmented framings confront us with defiantly unfathomable, mask-like countenances. 

This heightened realism is not due merely to montage and framing, but to the stylized, methodical, quasi somnambulant performances. Vide Margit Carstenson's out-sized telescoping of word and gesture in the opening scene of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Fassbinder's actors often appear in an insular, ruminative mode that induces spaced-out states in the iewer; a surplus of significance spirals around a hollow core of excitement. The hollowness is the opening which allows meaning to be anticipated. It is excessive in potentia and by intention, as is all mannerist art. Promising more than it can fulfill is here an achievement, not a short-coming. 

To be able to arouse expectations in this fashion is the sign of genius. An alienating genius. Enlarging emotions is an essential ingredient in, if not the essence of, melodrama. Their augmentation has much in common with camp, though it cannot be equated with its exaggerations anymore than kabuki or the conventions of Attic tragedy. All are species of abstraction/focus and stylization. Camp's heightening of the outré and ridiculous brings it close to the satirical, the opposite of the 'naive'. And the opposite of Phillipe Garrel's artless, confessional, first-person aesthetic.

Garrel does not obtrude on his characters, he tracks souls at their most naked and vulnerable. He's not an artist of Fassbinder's conspicuous stripe; he doesn't seek nature--he is nature, to use an old but valid trope of aesthetic theory.*  

Fassbinder--a third generation film-maker in the mold of Sergio Leone--sought nature yet distilled it through supra-nature: the consciously deployed [displayed] conventions of cinema. His inspiration by von Sternberg and the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, to whom his work frequently pays homage, is well known and adds a quasi satirical ambivalence to his cinema that Garrel's--inspired by the very different conventions of Bresson, the Nouvelle Vague and Bertolluci--lacks.  

As a form of imitation, homage flirts with satire. Imitation, homage, and reference constitutes the stylistic subtext of Fassbinder's films for the cinematically literate. They speaks in quotes, playing with conventions without ceasing to be stunningly original.† The impact of his films is all the proof of originality we need. Genius is always a matter of a virtuosic play with conventions--vide Bach, Beethoven, Wagner.

Garrel conspires to make it feel as if his film were the first. And what is an unprecedented work if not 'naive'? J'entends plus la Guitar has neither the cynicism or the sentimentality of Fassbinder's melodramas. His characters may be doomed, but they exist in an eternal spring of cinematic immediacy. Even in a film of endless close-ups there's no added emphasis; no ostentatiously drawn curtain or cue as to how anything is to be interpreted. Nor does Garrel 'point' insistently à la von Trier's body-cam. He seems simply to show [up], aperture open, and record events unfolding. His art is of one of austere intimacy. 

Watching J'entends plus la Guitar marked the second time 
I became infatuated with a ghost; discovering a beguiling "new" actor several years deceased. The first was Marie Trintingant, daughter of the great Jean-Louis, embodying Chabrol’s Betty. That such a fragile, perpetually bemused creature worldly-wise beyond her years was real only through the medium of celluloid, having been beaten to death by her rock-star boyfriend some years previous, came close to incomprehensibility. The sheerest of absurdities.
Now Benoît Régent, whose wistful, anguished, wise countenance casts such a spell. If he seemed somehow familiar it's because he was in Kieszlowski's Blue. This elfin slip of a man promising happiness no longer walks among us, having made his final exit in Zürich in 1994, possibly of an over-dose of heroin.

Film as a medium of external memory, is an unwitting vehicle of immortality. Motion pictures save lives. That's miraculous, but it harbors dangers for the impressionable seeker out here in the dark. The filmic apparition is an actual ghost; a reality-haunting appearance. Benoît may in some sense be fininished, yet he belongs to the future and willcontinues to appear--'figuring' in fictional flesh through the medium of celluloid. 

* Schiller's distinction (On the Naive and Sentimental in Poetry), premised on the observation that mourning, idealization, and cynicism belong together as expressions of the same disruption/loss [my interpretation], retains its validity. For while authors are almost categorically 'crippled' in some fashion, how they respond to their disruption depends on ēthos. Or "destiny."
† Imitators by nature, imitation constitutes our specific product [work] as human beings. Originality has to be conceptualized against the horizon of the ontologically definitive function of duplication, absent which it is meaningless. It can only ever be a matter of greater or lesser unoriginality. Being completely determined by it--originality is independent of imitation. 

A Man Escaped - Robert Bresson (1956)


French art does French resistance, or: How to break out of prison with nothing but a spoon. And no panning. Austere instructional film about tight-lipped terrorist spy in cell who doesn’t masturbate. Mozart C-minor Mass adds emphasis to tragic heroism of incarcerated French spirit during Nationalist-Socialist collaboration. (Shower-scene not included.)

American Beauty -  Mendes (1999)

Suburban liberationist phantasy about beating the system (as it beats you). Main messages: materialism and narcissism corrupt; homophobia (exposed as -philia and thwarted desire) leads to violence; opting-out as the path to authenticity: sex (or its intention), drugs, and the transcendence of middle-class conformism through the cult of hedonic American style "beauty." 

Kes - Ken Loach (1969)


Unvarnished late British kitchen-sinker and all-time top-tenner about degradation of adolsescing boy who finds short-lived state of grace through falconry. Think: The Yearling set in a northern industrial town, sans Delius' score. Man’s iniquity (socio-economic oppression) wages war on unwitting emancipation attempt from class-dependent bondage. (With shower-scene.)

Berlin-Alexanderplatz - Fassbinder (1980)

I-VII : Ponderous sepia-toned chamber-opera about Weimar-era wife-killer released from Tegel prison into post-war Berlin’s socio-political chaos only to be tempted away by corrupt circumstances from his path-to-regeneration and righteousness. 

VIII-XII : ‘Mieze’s’ [Barbara Sukowa] miraculous innocence emplotted as synesthetic-reverie. Aural-dramatic counterpoint to end all counterpoint. Consummation of the Fassbinder-Peer Raaben collaboration and apotheosis of “New German Cinema.” With epilogue.

Plein Soleil - René Clement (1960)


Highsmith’s Talented Mr. Ripley as mediteranean sun-drenched noir. A symphony of blues, reds and whites frames breath-robbing fleur du mal Alain Delon and his till-the-end-successful revenge-murder-theft from envy. Who needs Hitchcock? 

Maria’s Lovers - Konchulowsky (1984)


Home-coming to a Russian-American community finds veteran struggling with flash-backs and a reluctance to penetrate idealized virgin bride's vagina. Nastasia Kinskey, Jon Savage, Keith Carradine and Robert Mitchum star. A paradigm of authentic Sitz-im-Leben mis-en-scène. The incomparably intense Savage invites you in. 

The Yearling - Clarence Brown (1946)

Bucolic innocence meets life’s hard facts. Father and son bond in exotic Florida swamp-land while bitter odd-man-out mother kills joy. Yearling transitional object represents the unmasculine as miraculous in its own right. Alas, as per Schiller: “Auch das Schöne muβ sterben,” and Bambi [spoilers!] has to be double-barreled out of its misery by the one who most adores it. Claude Jarman Jr. will rip you apart. 

Shane - George Stevens (1953)

Gun-obsessed frontier boy finds true hero-love in laconic gunslinger only to be jilted. Message[s]: guns are bad, but real men know how to wield 'em. Size counts less than manner of use. Courage is always sexy, especially if you die trying. Memorable lines: “I saw your gun in there one day... Are you mad?” “A man has to be what he is--can’t break the mold.” 

Goodbye Mr. Chips - Sam Wood (1939)


Homely professor finds inspiration in saintly woman and lives to be ripe-old (ugly) professor adored by small-town folk for moral fiber. Sanctimonious, unsexy British homeland pride display. Message: A man’s honor is a post executed to the best of his ability--even civilian positions in times of world conflagration. Promotion is always possible. Faith in self comes through the faith others have in us. Huh. 

Rebel without a Cause - Ray (1956)


Middle-class Californian adolescents duke it out with peers and parents. Symphonic score lends gravity to uppity teens’ struggle to dismantle oppressive parental over-site in impassioned bid for “sincerity.” Ray's paean to unphoniness marks the beginning of America’s obsession with high-school as the arena of institutionalized authority-vs-spontaneity confrontation. Teenagers as tragic we-just-want-to-love individualists. Parents as greying, histrionic meddlers.

Marnie - Hitchcock (1964)


The devil is a (neurotic) woman (but not beyond redemption by an undeceivable Hero). Kleptomaniac liar and frigid man-hater Marnie [Tippie Hedrin] helps herself to employers’ cash reserves, only to be detected by righteous he-man ethnologist and amateur psychoanalyst Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) who marries and sorts out the tangled threads of her [spoilers!] obsessive-compulsive derangement through free-association & return to crime-trauma scene. Prissy, pious old mama who can’t love once was whore. One day sailor-John, who just wanted to comfort little Marnie, winds up on wrong end of poker during flash-back storm with.