Update 2018: Such an old, out-of-date review from my youth, and so little time to re-review. But after watching Stalker again, I’m still floored by its meditations on apocalyptic time, and the way it seems to persist with the weight of eternity and the pressure of stillness yet still evoke a diaphanous, ever-fluctuating quality. The film visualizes experiences that temporarily illuminate before us and yet constantly seem to be shuddering apart before our eyes.
government protecting something in lieu of rebellion
It’s Tarkovsky, so Stalker is tinged with a dose of the Burkean sublime, but never before or since did his quest for transcendence seem so embattled, so threatened, so clearly aware that achieving sublimity isn’t a linear motion toward another realm of physical being but to another way of thinking, another form of consciousness aimed not at stringing together life narratively – looking for the accruals, the goals, the definitives – but toward noticing the fluctuating states of being around you. The sublime, in Tarkovsky’s framing then, is a poetically doomed project, where one reaches new temporary truths only to confront how partial, provisional, and ephemeral they are. Obviously rebuking Soviet modernity’s mechanical modernities and reconnecting Russia to a long-lost mysticism, Tarkovsky’s film has much in common with earlier Russian radicals, reanimating their spirit much as his closest American contemporary, Malick, rekindled the currents of Emerson and Whitman. Both filmmakers resist definitives in their search for cosmic connection, observing nature with a spectral fluidity that moves from the majestic to the terrifying but always remembers the friction in the moment, treating each image not as a statement but a constantly-perusing question, a verb, an unresolved mosaic. His films are about finding a world elsewhere and living with the knowledge that this elsewhere is forever unfinished. Continue reading →
Apichtapong Weerasethakul clearly has his own idea of what cinema ought to be, and arguably more than any currently working director, he is ready to shape the medium to his whims to achieve that vision. Who are we to tell him otherwise? Syndromes and a Century, bizarrely commissioned for Vienna’s celebration of the 250th anniversary of Wolfgang Amandeus Mozart’s birth, has only the most tentative connection of Mozart – indeed, it may not even recollect who Mozart is, largely because it doesn’t seem to exist on an Earth where Mozart himself existed. But it remains Weerasethakul’s masterwork. Continue reading →
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is little more than a New Hollywood pastiche, a loving and careful waxworks recreation of a style and type of cinema that was at one time, a great many years and Hollywood eras ago, the most lively and startling thing to ever happen to American cinema. As a film, David Lowery’s recreation of that style has not one new idea to bring to the table the New Hollywood built out of rustic, unpolished wood and then abandoned long ago. All Lowery is doing is digging through scrap heap, separating out the noble rust from the ignoble variety, and refashioning it into a garage sculpture where the very nature of the metal – falling apart, worn to the point of triteness – is a badge of honor, a reminder of how old this sort of tale really is, and how lively it can still feel when it is carted out after it hasn’t seen the light of day in too long. It doesn’t offer a new idea, but it offers a more humble reminder: in the New Hollywood of the 1970s, we now see not only a scorching fresh breath into the room of Hollywood’s musty old classicism, but a peculiar, well-worn form of old-timey comfort. Those New Hollywood films are now part of the classic American cinematic tradition, and Lowery is merely playing a requiem for them. Continue reading →
In Victoria, Australia, on Valentine’s Day, in 1900, three female boarding school students and their teacher disappeared. Or so Peter Weir’s 1975 anti-genre classic Picnic at Hanging Rock, adapted from Joan Lindsay’s novel of the same title, shows us. It didn’t actually happen, but that doesn’t matter. It could have happened, and the literal truth of the tale is a red herring contrasted with the emotional truth of the tale. Plus, on the subject of “Western society making play with the world”, few films have spoken more emotional truth than Picnic at Hanging Rock. You might imagine the story on your own: a hard-hitting, grisly dissection of a mystery. A dissection that is very much not what Weir himself had in mind. But then, that’s why we are mere mortals, and Peter Weir is one of the great, underappreciated directors of the modern age. Continue reading →
Eyes Wide Shut was Stanley Kubrick’s final completed feature film, and fittingly for a director who did more to redefine and test narrative cinema than arguably any other director of the 20th century, it feels like the summation of his decades-long quest to test how Machiavellian cinema could be. It feels like the completion of his life quest, but it also feels pointedly incomplete, like a work that remains alive and growing to this day. A work that refuses to be batted down or defined. A work that always has something to say to us, that invites discontent and disagreement, and a work that shows a talent still learning new tricks right up until his final moments. Kubrick was a director who always seemed both wise beyond his years and too young, too reckless, and too much of a social provocateur to fit in with the supposedly mature, normative adult world of cinema. Eyes Wide Shut, inviting both the age of wither of a great old-school fable and the heedless, impulsive, devil-may-care gravitas of an unformed New Hollywood bad-boy, is the culmination of all the contrasts that made Kubrick himself. Continue reading →
A word on Terrence Malick, and not a terribly original word at that: the crux of the Malick state of mind, for at least its pre-Tree of Life existence, is fundamentally cinematic poetry, with any presumption of an artistically unmediated reality shot-through with an oneiric potency that nonetheless conjures Malick’s unique fascination with the vibrations of human being better than any more obviously “realistic” film could convey. Malick was introduced to the world through a high-minded treatise on the idea of an American New Wave film, releasing his debut, 1973’s Badlands, in a thick-on-the-ground decade of American grit and what many directors would call “realism”. The late ’60s and early ’70s had their Bonnies and their Clydes, their Bunches that were Wild, and even their Streets of indefatigable Meannness, and the consensus around those films was that they gallantly and brutally brought some fighting words for the Old Hollywood ways of geniality and safety. The general consensus is, in other words, that America got nasty in the ’70s, and specifically, that their films brought the “hard-won realism” in a way America never had before.
Update 2018 with Roeg’s passing: Slightly less taken with Walkabout’s politics this time out. As a critique of settler colonialism, it’s both vaguer and less eloquently abstract than Peter Weir’s wonderful Picnic at Hanging Rock, a truly poignant and critical take on a cloistered community corseted by their own haze of superiority and indifferent curiosity about other ways of life.
But I’m possibly more enamored this time of Walkabout’s metaphysical vision of sensory experience. Its vision of the conviction of colonial consciousness shuddering apart, of transfixed youths suddenly spellbound by the limits of their own minds, is problematic, but also intoxicating food for thought. And Roeg uses it to divine a film of internal ruptures and wanderings into the unknown, exploring the irregularity of human experience and the non-totality of any individual culture with frighteningly fractious editing and cinematography that veers from the acrid to the oneiric. Above all, he dares us to touch the jagged poetry of the world in disarray. It’s a flawed experience, and perhaps too nihilistic, but it boasts its own truly singular poetry, an elegiac and tragic meeting of minds that explores the fallout of cultural connection and clash.
Nicolas Roeg was not an Australian director, nor did he have much to do with Australia for the rest of his career. But, when he wished to explore the elusive mystery of human distance and find the frightful regions of human history and modernity in what would seem to be majestic from a distance, it is no surprise that he looked to Australia as his canvas. The always damaged mystery of the location is unspooled across the unforgiven lateral extension of a landscape leftover from history, stretching on forever into the regions of madness. Not knowing the history of the region, the fading crimson of the sun staring at the fleshy human form instills its own sweat and sickly grime on the viewer. The unforgiving chill of the forlorn landscape dotted with an abject tree or two every now and again gives off a wafting aroma of decay and empty space, selling the history of this location as an abstract space of eternal rupture, the kind ever-primed to refract social fissures and psychological shattering. Continue reading →