A Year of Refusal – L’annee Derniere a Marienbad / Last Year in Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961)

Regarding my comment at the end of this review –  I’m glad to see that, next month, the Irish Film Institute are showing the newly digitised,  Last Year in Marienbad – running from August 12 – 18.  Good news.

A Year of Refusal – L’annee Derniere a Marienbad / Last Year in Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961).

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Radio On (Christopher Petit, 1979)

In the mid to late 70s when he was working on the script of what would become his first film, Chris Petit was Film Editor of Time Out magazine. Petit was very influenced by the New German Cinema that was taking hold in Europe, spearheaded by directors like Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Wim Wenders.  During an interview with Wenders for the magazine, Petit decided to pitch the script idea to him, in the hope that through Wenders’ involvement, he could potentially secure funding for the project. Much to Petit’s amazement, Wenders liked the pitch and asked for a copy of the script, and so Radio On crackled into life.

Radio On is the story of Robert B, a DJ who works nights for the internal radio station of a large factory in London (actually based on United Biscuits Network), spinning discs to keep the workers company during their overnight shifts. Robert’s estranged brother, who lives in Bristol, has died in mysterious circumstances, and so Robert decides to drive from London to Bristol to investigate his brother’s death.  What follows is a road trip through what Petit called the “Ballardian Landscape” of late 1970s England; a disappearing cityscape of Modernist high-rises, motorways, flyovers, pylons and spaghetti junctions. Petit’s monochromatic images; soundtracked by German Electro pioneers Kraftwerk and David Bowie amongst others, lovingly document the urban “non-places” of  industrial estates, petrol stations, lay-bys and motorway services that Robert robotically glides through.

Petit mostly dispenses with character psychology and plot, filling the narrative spaces with a contemporary soundtrack in place of exposition. And it’s that fantastic soundtrack, coupled with the visuals, that gives the film the feel, at times, of an extended pop promo. Petit secured permission directly from Kraftwerk and Bowie to use specific songs and also did a deal with Stiff Records to use some of their stable; utilising songs by Ian Dury, Lene Lovitch, Wreckless Eric and others to great effect.

Radio On was an Anglo/German co-production, with the British Film Institute and Wenders’ production company, Road Movies, as production partners.  Wenders’ cinematic influence is apparent too; earlier films of his like Alice in the Cities or The American Friend feature displaced characters finding refuge and solace on the road. This alliance lead to Petit utilising some of Wim Wenders’ crew members, including his regular cinematographer Martin Shafer; a crew who were adept at shooting quickly and on a tight budget. Wenders’ then wife, Lisa Kreuzer also stars, playing Ingrid, a German woman who is looking for her estranged husband and child in Bristol. It is this shift in the second half of the film that I find less satisfying; the inclusion of Ingrid’s scenario feels almost shoe-horned in, as if Petit felt he had to include some semblance of a story.

Speaking in 2008 in an interview for the BFI’s DVD release, Petit said that, unlike the way all cinema works firstly as a combination of images with sound; he intended Radio On to be the opposite – sound with images attached – and to my mind the film works best, when viewed and thought of in this way.  Petit allows the soundtrack to make time for transitory moments, such as the scene where Robert stops for a drink, and puts Wreckless Eric’s Whole Wide World on the pub jukebox.

Even though news of Northern Ireland trickles out over various radio sets in the course of Robert’s journey, there doesn’t appear to be any overtly political message to the film; Robert even says at one point, “I never understood what the problems were”.  Petit seems more interested in the almost existential disconnection of his characters; cut off from their environment, each other, themselves.

There are, however, some moments of connection in the film – Robert’s aforementioned interaction with Ingrid, and a nicely played interlude with an Eddie Cochrane-fixated petrol pump attendant (played by a soon to be famous Sting). Despite Robert’s soul(less?) searching, the film’s ending leaves him no more enlightened than when he began. He eventually drives himself into the dead-end of a deserted quarry, and to the strains of Kraftwerk’s Ohm Sweet Ohm, leaves his car and walks back to a nearby train station. Trading the solitary, isolated autonomy of his vehicle for the shared commonality of the train; perhaps he is finally ready to move on, to another brave new world.

Watch the trailer here:

Chris Petit continues to be intrigued by the possibilities of the open road in a new installation, made in collaboration with Ian Sinclair. See here for more:

Recalling Past Lives – Apichatpong Weerasethakul At The IFI

As mentioned in my previous post, Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul was at the Irish Film Institute today, in conversation with Dr Maeve Connolly of the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art and Design.  The interview focussed on a number of Apichatpong’s films; specifically Blissfully Yours, Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century; and featured extracts from them as well as the short films, Third World and Letter To Uncle Boonmee.

It appears that Mr Weerasetthakul’s films have found great favour with Irish audiences, which is pretty remarkable given that his films are usually regarded as difficult and impenetrable. Dr Connolly explored the main themes of Apichatpong’s films: the dichotomy of city and countryside, the role of education and health, and his subtle but ever-present references to Cinema. The director filled us in on his background in Thailand, and spoke of his time in Chicago studying Experimental Film. He was an amiable, intelligent and humourous interviewee; when asked if his films contained “a message”, he laughed saying this lack of any overt meaning was one of the problems he himself has with his films, and which also caused problems when he went looking for funding.  He spoke about his belief in the “shared authorship” of his films – seeing the process of filmmaking as collaborative and open, though admitting that he is something of a “dictator” when it comes to putting the final film together.

The interview also covered Apichatpong’s love of music and popular culture (national and international), and his approach to finding the stories of his films, often developed with his actors as he is actually filming. He likes to mix professional and non-professional performers, and often finds actors in unlikely places – one cast member of Blissfully Yours was a casting agent who was supplying Apichatpong’s film company with potential actors, and kept slipping her own photo in amongst the others. She was eventually cast in one of the leading roles. Not the kind of thing I imagine happens very often in Hollywood.

One thing that strikes me about his films generally is the lack of any cynicism or criticism. He seems to be genuinely in thrall to national character and idiosyncrasies, while finding surreality in certain mundane aspects of Thai culture; his interest in Thai folk music for example. His films usually feature old Thai folk songs, sometimes performed in Karaoke settings within the film story or played on the soundtrack. In conversation, he talked about his love of this kind of music and routinely shows his characters finding solace or escape through song, sometimes in unconventional ways (see the singing dentist of Syndromes and a Century). He also talked about the importance of the spiritual element of his films, his interest in buddhism and reincarnation; and registered his surprise that some buddhist friends found that his films had an ability to help them achieve a kind of meditative state!

Apichatpong hinted at a possible change in direction for his film style, which may be signalled by his upcoming installation at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, “For Tomorrow, For Tonight“, which opens on July 27.  The exhibition mixes film, photography and installation art and should be a must-see for any admirers of his films. The IFI is currently running a retrospective of the director’s films, which I believe will run into August, to coincide with the IMMA exhibition, and with more of his short films scheduled.

Watch the trailer for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jk-EoUb0nvg

Apichatpong Weerasethakul At The IFI

The Palme D’or winning Thai film director visits the Irish Film Institute tomorrow, July 23rd, for a public interview and Q+A with Dr Maeve Connolly of Dun Laoighre Institute of Art, Design and Technology.

This appearance is part of a film retrospective currently showing at the IFI, which will be followed in August by an exhibition by the filmmaker at the Irish Musuem of Modern Art. Weerasethakul’s films are playful, elliptical, funny, mesmerising and strange – so this public interview to discuss his work, and his working methods, is sure to be interesting. The event is free to attend, but you must pick up a ticket in advance from the IFI box-office.

To get you in the mood, here’s a clip from his 2006 film, Syndromes and a Century –

A Year of Refusal – L’annee Derniere a Marienbad / Last Year in Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961)

2011 marks the 50th anniversary of Alain Resnais’ acclaimed 1961 collaboration with Nouveau Roman figurehead Alain Robbe-Grillet, Last Year in Marienbad.  Resnais was part of an unofficial off-shoot of the Nouvelle Vague, along with like-minded film-makers Agnes Varda (for whom he worked as an editor) and Chris Marker; his style sometimes referred to as “Left-bank New Wave”. He differed from New Wave contemporaries like Godard and Truffaut, in that his influences were perhaps more literary than cinematic. Marienbad was Resnais’ second feature; his first, Hiroshima Mon Amour started life as a short but Resnais, learning the process of filmmaking by doing, ended up extending it to feature length. Better known as a maker of short films and documentaries up to this point, Marienbad was a striking early departure.

As with Hiroshima Mon Amour, Resnais again turned to themes of memory and time with Marienbad; however this time, aided by Robbe-Grillet’s script, he would create a whole new cinematic language and challenge the conventions of classical narration. The story takes place within a beautiful and elegant Chateau, where guests wander the gorgeous grounds, dressed in formal evening attire at all times. A Man (not named in the film) is entreating a Woman (also not named) to remember a previous liaison they had, possibly in this very Chateau, possibly somewhere else. He wanted her to leave her husband/lover, and come away with him, but she would not go. He tells her that she promised to meet him again, one year later, which is why he’s here, but the Woman has no recollection of any of this. Is what he says true? Did it happen, or was it imagined? Did something unspeakable occur which prevents her from remembering?  This is the central conundrum at the heart of the film, which is only the starting point for a puzzling, labyrinthine story which keeps unfolding, back-tracking, turning in on itself and leading us into many dead-ends before starting all over again.

The style of the film is formal, theatrical. Resnais has his actors behave in a completely stylised, unnatural way; standing off staring into space, moving robotically, saying their lines blankly, without emotion or effect. The only character with any real agency is the Man (Giorgio Albertazzi) who is trying to convince the Woman (Delphine Seyrig) that they did indeed meet. Of all the characters, he seems more than one-dimensional; he appears to be aware, conscious of his surroundings. The others behave as if in a dream; they lack psychology, motivation, identity.

Of course, for Resnais, this is the whole point. Marienbad as a film, is a refusal of classical storytelling, a refusal of plot, naturalism, narration, point-of-view; all the things, in short, his New Wave contemporaries were also busy dismantling, but in far more conventional ways perhaps. Just as the “New Novelists” were as concerned with how words looked on the page, as they were with playing with conventional notions of storytelling; so Resnais put forward images and scenarios which constantly reflected, refracted and referenced other scenes in Marienbad, turning the film into its own surreal hall of mirrors. Everything in this film feels like it is forever slipping away; as if the place, people and situations occur in some other realm, some nether-land; like ghosts forever doomed to walk the gilded corridors and stately rooms of this elegant hotel.

Needless to say, almost since its initial release, Last Year in Marienbad has given rise to varied and plentiful speculation as to its “meaning”. Almost all areas of film theory have been applied to the film, each giving its own particular reading to this Modernist masterpiece. It also struck me, especially in light of the widely varying reactions to Terrence Malick’s recently released The Tree of Life, that we don’t often see this kind of “cinema of ideas” on our movie screens anymore.  Certainly Art Cinema is alive and well, but often it can feel overly serious, too self-aware or just plain weird for the sake of it. Mind you, those very same criticisms were levelled at Marienbad back in 1961.

However many times I watch the film, it always feels fresh and utterly contemporary. I’m always struck by the wonderful cinematography (courtesy of Sacha Vierny) and Resnais’ beautifully fluid camera work. It really is a unique and original film. If you haven’t yet seen it, you’re in for a treat.

While the film has been reissued in a new digital print for its 50th anniversary, regrettably it doesn’t appear to be showing in Ireland as of yet. You can see a trailer here.

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)

Though actually completed about three years ago, now after many delays and distribution issues, Terrence Malick’s fifth feature finally arrives on our shores. Was it worth the wait? I’m still not entirely sure.

I’ll dispense with a plot summary, as I really don’t believe it’s necessary – this film is all about the music and the visuals. For this film Malick takes his template far beyond what he has set down thus far; yes there are still copious shots of grass and trees waving in the wind, there is still voiceover narration, there are still jaw-droppingly beautiful compositions; but this time he has added elements of science-fiction, fantasy, nature documentaries and Christian doctrine to the mix in much fuller fashion.

He elevates family life – in this case a 1950s Texan family with Brad Pitt as the Father and Jessica Chastain as the Mother – to a near mythical, quasi-religious status. The narrative flashes back and forth between the present day reflections of Jack (Sean Penn), one of the three boys in the O’ Brien family, and the urban idyll of his 1950s childhood, presided over by hard-ass Dad (Pitt) and loving, graceful Mother (Chastain).

There are many shots of Chastain wandering barefoot in the grass in her lovely 50s dresses, a beatific smile playing over her lovely features (everyone in this film is good-looking). We see her time and again framed by sunlit windows, behind lace curtains, holding, hugging, kissing and generally smothering her boys with love and affection.  She seems to represent the Grace that Malick pits against Nature in his opening sequence. He suggests that Grace “doesn’t need to please itself”, while Nature is violent, self-serving and selfish. As if to illustrate this, in one of the film’s key sequences, Malick visualizes the origin of life itself.  Raging lava-like liquids shift and move explosively giving rise to microbial life,which then become jellyfish-type creatures swimming in turbulent seas, eventually morphing into shark-like creatures, and eventually making it on to land as dinosaurs – yup, you read right, dinosaurs.  The special effects for this section of the film were designed by Douglas Trumbull, who worked with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey; and it is Kubrick’s masterpiece that comes to mind most often when watching The Tree of Life.

This is a film that, I can imagine, will not only divide Malick’s supporters, but will also give fresh ammunition to his detractors. I loved his earlier 1970s films, Badlands and Days of Heaven, for many of the same features which he still utilises in The Tree of Life – the use of natural light, beautiful cinematography, breaking away from narrative to bask in the joy and beauty of the natural world. However, with the Tree of Life, there is a weaker narrative, and much heavier emphasis on Christian doctrine, philosophical rumination and on generally Asking The Big Questions. Also, Malick’s usual (more so since The Thin Red Line) use of voiceover is used more widely here, irritatingly so in my own opinion.

And actually, the voiceover script, for all it’s attempts at profundity and high-mindedness is really quite banal and child-like at times. Lines like “The only way to be happy is to love”, and “Help each other, love everyone” made me want to hurl my popcorn at the screen. For me, some of the best moments in the film are the scenes depicting the young boys playing and fooling around in gorgeous summer sunshine. Malick somehow seems to catch the essence of childhood here, as the kids spend long days running wild, looking for things to do, away from the adult world. One of the problems I had with the film is that there’s just too darn much of everything. Too many shots, too much voiceover, too long a running time and too much proselytising. Some scenes seemed shoe-horned in, and others didn’t seem to make any narrative or contextual sense.

But for all that, what I can admire is the scope and the reach of the film. The sheer scale, ambition and mastery of the medium on display is, I suspect, what garnered Malick the Best Picture Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. He seems to be reaching for something beyond cinema; as if he is trying to capture on film the very essence of what it is to be alive – living, loving, being loved. For that, you have to admire him, perhaps.

There is no doubt that it is a film that will provoke heated debate; is it a profound, moving masterpiece; banality dressed up as profundity, or just a load of old cobblers? Who knows? Possibly none of the above. What is certain is that not many films being made today are as maddening, intriguing, frustrating and downright ravishing as this. For that I guess we should be thankful. Shouldn’t we?

The Tree of Life is currently showing at Cineworld and The Irish Film Institute.