At the New Zealand International Film Festival, power, violence, and the lingering scent of death awaits.
If the opening night film (Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild) was difficult to describe, the closing night film is almost impossible. Holy Motors is comprised of a series of set-pieces featuring director Leos Carax’s long-time collaborator, Denis Lavant. Among other things, the film is a wry criticism of, and affectionate ode to, French cinema, social mores, and contemporary culture. Where Carax’s Les Amants des Pont Neuf (1991) was a vivid celebration of Paris and passion, Holy Motors is darker but no less passionate, playful, inventive or energetic. The mood is ultimately melancholic, recognising that all things must not only change, they inevitably pass. Along the way, Carax and Lavant dazzle with one entertaining slight-of-hand after another, offering us plenty to be amused by, wonder at, and ponder over. It’s probably best not to work too hard at trying to figure things out, although cinephiles will find much to keep them entertained as Carax alternately honours and takes swipes at various fads, movements and cine-gods, from Cocteau to Kubrick, the Nouvelle Vague, melodrama, theatre, dance, fashion, celebrity, commercialism, action movies, musicals, sci-fi, Matthew Barney (why not?), French intellectual angst and various socio-political hot potatoes, and finally the uncertain future of cinema. In the penultimate shot, Edith Scob dons the famous mask from Eyes Without a Face (directed by her husband Georges Franju, who, 25 years her senior, died in 1987) then walks out of shot saying, “I’m coming home.”
Holy Motors is dedicated to the late Lithuanian actress Yekaterina Golubeva, once married to the exceptional but little-know director Sharunas Bartas, whose films she appeared in prior to their divorce. Relocating to France, she worked with some of the most important directors of the last decade, notably Claire Denis and Bruno Dumont. For several years she was Carax’s partner, but in August 2011 she committed suicide. It’s likely that the ‘bitterness’ some reviewers sense in the film may stem from Carax’s personal grief. One of the most affecting sequences features Kylie Minogue (in homage to Jean Seberg?) singing a poignant song by Carax called ‘Who Were We?’. The sequence ends with Minogue removing the Seberg costume before jumping from a building to her death. Whatever you make of the film, it’s obvious that Carax made it with his heart. Every frame brims with blood and passion, and a genuine love of cinema.
Programmed at the end of the Auckland festival, Holy Motors functioned (as Bill Gosden succinctly put it) as the ideal digestif to conclude two-weeks of cinematic gastronomy. Well, almost—a number of fine films were scheduled for the following and final day, including one of the best of the festival for me, Darezhan Omirbaev’s Student. As far as I know, this is the first Omirbaev film to be screened in New Zealand, which is a shame given the quality of his relatively modest output (most of which can be sourced on DVD). Omirbaev is one of a handful of directors (along with Aki Kaurismaki and les frères Dardenne) whose work reflects the formal and thematic influence of the great French auteur, Robert Bresson. Lean and elliptical, Student is an aesthetically singular re-setting of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which Kaurismaki successfully transposed in 1983. Dostoyevsky influenced Bresson too, most overtly in Pickpocket (1959, inspired by Crime and Punishment), Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) and Four Nights of a Dreamer (1974), but also A Gentle Creature (1969) and L’Argent (1983, an adaptation of Tolstoy’s The Forged Note). References to these and other Bresson films abound in Student, but they are by no means slavish. Omirbaev juxtaposes Bresson’s faith in Spiritual Renewal through Grace with images implying that enmity is the intrinsic defining characteristic of humankind and the natural world alike, a world where notions such as Divine Intervention have long-evaporated. But in the end, love and forgiveness (if not Love and Forgiveness) endure.
Lacking the overt humour of Kaurismaki (which is not to say that Student is devoid of wry wit) and the visceral energy and empathetic emotional engagement of the Dardenne brothers, and with a subtext that considers Kazakhstan’s transition from a socialist economy to oligarchy-dominated survival-of-the-fittest capitalism, Student may not find an enthusiastic audience beyond cinephiles with a taste for minimalism. Yet, this is no unforgiving exercise in Bressonian austerity. Omirbaev’s style is certainly measured, but through his unforced and highly attractive expositional economy, the titular student becomes the metaphoric locus for a number of complex and often deliberately contradictory political and moral viewpoints. The relatively mundane and inexpressive surfaces also speak to the integrity required when making aesthetic and formal choices for films with socio-political or philosophical subtexts, where the tropes generally associated with mainstream movies are likely to be insufficient or inappropriate. Alas, this can lead to films being misread as cold, empty, boring, or simply bad (as some responses to Student have alluded), the implication being that “better” films conform to a set of clearly defined (i.e. non-alienating) principles. Even a relatively mainstream film such as Compliance runs the risk of being read primarily in terms of surfaces rather than its potentially more troubling subtext.
Owing much to Steven Soderbergh’s superior (and wholly fictional) Bubble (2005), Craig Zobel’s Compliance is based on a string of true-life events (some 70 incidents similar to the one depicted in the film), where a man masquerading as a police officer phones the supervisor of an American fast-food outlet and instructs her to detain a young female employee, Becky, who is accused of stealing from a customer. The “officer” assures the supervisor that the owner of the outlet has full knowledge of the situation and expects her to assist the police unreservedly. So begins a protracted ordeal for all involved (including the audience), as Becky—stripped not only of her clothing, but also her rights, dignity, and self-worth—is systematically humiliated and abused.
One could argue that the true-life events are disturbing and substantial enough without the need to read further metaphoric subtext into the film, particularly when there is a clear thematic parallel with the famous ‘authority and obedience’ experiments of the 60s, in which people were willing to commit potentially lethal actions against others when told that an authority figure would assume responsibility. Many reviews have predictably cited Nazi atrocities, but I have yet to read one that points to the real elephant in the room: the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, and the complicity of a nation for the policies and actions of its political and military personnel under the auspices of ‘security and defence’. It’s hard to know whether or not Zobel intended such a specifically close-to-home reading of his film, but the complete lack of commentary along these lines in reviews (American or otherwise) is surprising. Or is it?
I’d like to think that the following story/metaphor summary isn’t mere conjecture on my part: a man assumes a position of unquestioned authority (leadership, government); lies to and manipulates a group of workers (the nation, interchangeable cogs within a consumerist system); gains their complicity and, against their better judgement, involves them in a pernicious and amoral activity (unethical imperialist expansionism) in which an innocent individual is convincingly accused of false criminality (the demonising and dehumanising of false enemies) before being repeatedly abused by co-workers (“collateral damage”). Ironically, the film has been accused of indulging in the same degradation and humiliation it depicts, and of antagonising audiences with increasingly nasty provocations, presumably because Compliance is at times an excruciating experience, even for the most moderately empathetic viewer. Such accusations are similar to those levelled at Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997), Soderbergh’s Bubble, and (long before them) Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo (1975), films with subtexts that can still elude viewers.
More conventional and aimed at a broader audience, Compliance relies on identifiable character types, the requisite music score, and a wholly unambiguous narrative arc. There is no narrative distanciation here, and points are often made heavy-handedly. For the most part, Zobel handles Becky’s nakedness with tact, but there are moments when he treads on thin voyeuristic ice, where the viewer might rightly feel unnecessarily complicit. I was disappointed too when Zobel shifted from the effective disembodied voice on the phone (an unseen malicious presence) to seeing the character in his home, casually making a sandwich while victimising his quarry. Something potent was lost at this point, and for seemingly no gain. By acquainting us with the perpetrator, Zobel was then obliged to show his eventual arrest, a concession to the mainstream expectation for narrative closure and some semblance of justice. Given that 69 of the 70 attacks were successful, allowing the unseen perp to hang-up and vanish might have been a more haunting and damning conclusion. The final section of the film shows another no less unsettling form of victimisation when the hapless supervisor is called to account on television (a sequence referencing an ABC news item of the actual event, which can be viewed here.) The approach taken by Zobel is interesting in that the media are shown to be more aggressively judgemental than the disquietingly passive style of the actual ABC interviewer, but there’s an even greater and more telling difference in how the supervisor is portrayed…
Another film that examines the persuasive power of authority, the manipulative power of language, and the demonization, humiliation, victimisation and abuse of the powerless by the powerful is Amy Berg’s West of Memphis, an extremely potent example of the corrupted mindset depicted in Compliance. Such a mindset is invariably given to enmity, and to a rationale of expediency where no cost is too great to achieve the “greater” goal—especially when paid by others. In its embryonic form, the ‘greater goal’ could be very noble: freedom from tyranny, the protection of the innocent, justice, or something as modest as the aspiration of likeminded friends pursuing a good and worthy enterprise that gradually succumbs to enmity. What don’t we know about humankind? What don’t we know about warmongering and backstabbing, guilt and cover-ups, prejudice and fear, greed, shame, pride, envy, deception, contempt, and perhaps above all the ingrained impulse to covet? Compliance may not have been the best film in the festival, but it laid it out for all to see. West of Memphis made it palpably real.
The attendance of Damien Echols, Lorri Davis and Peter Jackson at the Q&A following the screening of West of Memphis in Auckland brought the film to vivid life. Barely a year since he and fellow prisoners Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelly Jr were released from an eighteen-year term (ten of which spent in solitary confinement), Damien Echols stood before a packed and enthusiastic Civic theatre audience fielding questions with disarming candidness, lucidity, humility, and most affecting of all, humanity. Berg’s film is very skilfully and intelligently constructed, with the first hour devoted to the backstory (familiar to those who have seen the three preceding films, but here presented with great articulation and economy), and the remainder following the attempts of Damien’s wife, Lorri Davis, and the many other men and women (including Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh) who worked for years to bring something resembling justice to a scandalous judicial sham that may never be put right.
Echols and his two friends were wrongly incarcerated for the 1993 murder of three 8-year old boys. Jesse and Jason got life sentences while Damien was set to death row. He might have been executed years ago if not for the documentaries, the books, and the many who fought to have the convictions quashed. Eventually they were offered the opportunity to enter an Alford Plea, which grants freedom on condition that they plead guilty to the murders while also allowing them to maintain their innocence (?!). More pertinently, this twisted piece of fuckery protects the state of Arkansas from being sued by the men, or exonerating them. Meanwhile, the killer of the three boys walks free.
One of the most striking aspects of the film is the revelation that some of those harmed or affected by this case refuse to accept the innocence of the so-called ‘West Memphis Three’ because to do so would mean the collapse of their faith in a sacrosanct system. I’m not sure if I can empathise with such a conundrum. Perhaps I’m too cynical, or maybe my core values have yet to be as deeply or vehemently shaken, but I can understand not wanting to accept the unacceptable. If one’s identity is intimately integrated into something absolute and indivisible, the collapse of that thing—the disintegration of one’s most deeply held principles, precepts, codes and structures—could be akin to embracing chaos and anarchy, particularly if that ‘absolute something’ offers meaning and hope in the wake of unimaginable trauma. It’s hard to fathom the depth of betrayal felt by the families of the slain boys when they realised that those representing the system that ostensibly serves them had so cynically used it against them. That these “avatars of absolutism” hold positions of unquestioned authority only emphasises the fundamental point made by Craig Zobel’s Compliance. The people angered by Zobel’s film, those who claim that no one could be so stupid to unquestionably comply with the demands of a pervert, should see West of Memphis. Mind you, one can never underestimate the power of denial.
Was it a coincidence that Michael Haneke opened Funny Games with an aerial shot of a car winding through the Austrian alpine landscape, or was it a conscious nod to Stanley Kubrick’s thematically complimentary The Shining? Could it have been because he too had murder in mind? While their directorial styles are markedly different, Kubrick and Haneke both had/have a longstanding interest in violence—its place in human affairs, and its function in cinema. Where Haneke alerted viewers to his intentions by breaking the fourth wall and pointedly inviting them into the discussion, Kubrick kept the wall intact—but only just. His comic book winks and nudges came close to addressing the audience directly, but he chose to embed his subtext, leaving it to be teased out by those so inclined, but kept hidden from those looking for a generic ride. I would have gone to Room 237, a film about the many theories claiming to reveal the “real” meaning of Kubrick’s Stephen King adaptation, but I wanted to see The Shining uninfluenced by theories or opinions. In terms of ‘real’ meanings, one of the most acute was that Kubrick wanted to follow his poorly received previous film, the masterful Barry Lyndon (1975), with something that would appeal to a wider audience.
Kubrick enjoyed watching films that offer the viewer room to make their own discoveries, where one might come away wondering if the filmmaker was even aware that “they were in the film” (as he put it). He invested himself in every film he made (with the exception of Spartacus  perhaps), but refused to comment on or explain them, believing that allegory is crucial to our relationship with any work of art. One could surmise that he might have enjoyed seeing his films through the eyes of others. It’s also interesting that most of them met with lukewarm critical responses upon release, but were later revered as masterworks. It’s fair to say that a Kubrick film takes time to absorb, and that one viewing is never enough. Thankfully, his cinematic mastery is such that each viewing is a sensuous pleasure, aesthetically and intellectually satisfying.
Many of Kubrick’s central preoccupations are evident in The Shining: hierarchical power structures; violence as a form of control; individual, institutional and/or corporate narcissism; the dehumanisation of the individual; crises in masculinity and/or personal identity; social and/or political dysfunction; etc. There’s also a satirical wit running through The Shining that can be discerned in all of Kubrick’s work, even the most sombre and serious, such as the seemingly dispassionate 2001, A Space Odyssey (1968), the brutal Full Metal Jacket (1987), and his widely misunderstood final masterwork, Eyes Wide Shut (1999, a film about fidelity, partnership, the ego and the id, narcissism, celebrity, worldliness, and finding the strength to love unreservedly). The Shining is as much about the then relatively new Steadicam technology. Being one of the first to use it, Kubrick put the camera to great thematic purpose, emphasising the maize-like paths throughout the film, weightless and vertiginous, an effective visual correlative to the theme of haunted psyches, long-buried atrocities, murder and madness.
The film stars Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance (i.e. ‘torrents’, as in a sudden, violent outpouring of rage), a struggling writer who takes an off-season caretaking job at an isolated resort built on an Indian burial ground called the Overlook Hotel. The name of the hotel is a wry joke about glossing over or conveniently forgetting (or rewriting) the past. Likewise, when Jack meets the “ghost” of a butler from the 1920s, the butler tells him, “You are the caretaker—you have always been the caretaker.” The implication is that Jack is like every Jack before him and every Jack to come, the one who ‘takes care’ of things, which of course is a euphemism for murder—or as Jack’s psychic young son Danny writes it on a wall, Redrum. If Jack represents all caretakers, Danny is every caretaker’s son, the innocent generation who gradually discover the truth. Hence the “psychic” ability Danny shares with the hotel chef, African-American Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers), a shared secret knowledge that alludes to the eventual revelation of hidden truths. There’s a nice line in the film describing the presence of ‘ghosts’ as “…the smell of burnt toast lingering in the air…” The line evokes the lingering scent of death, the silent and invisible residue of violence and trauma, and of past misdeeds waiting to be rectified. For many, the central subtext of The Shining is the massacre of Native Americans (a reading supported by the film in many ways), but I’m inclined to see it as a broader commentary on the devastation wrought by the American urge for expansion at the expense of other peoples. The long wake of US imperialism stretches from the years of African enslavement and indigenous oppression to Vietnam and beyond, to a time when 70 young women can be systematically abused by co-workers at the behest of an “invisible” authority. Is that what they mean by having ghosts in the attic?