Sunday, 30 September 2012

Edvard Munch: painter, director and tragic actor

Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye at Tate Modern puts a very cinematic spin on Munch’s work. The show’s layout is focused on repetitions. One room solely has paintings of a woman weeping, the colourful, jerky brush marks providing each one with lively movement, reminding me of a noisy, flickering, 35mm camera, with each painting a frame from the celluloid strip.
Many of Munch's paintings such as Red Virginia Creeper are like scenes straight out of a horror movie. He paid close attention to viewpoints, perspective and used long diagonal distances to evoke horror and discomfort, just as Hitchcock did in Vertigo (1958) (it has been suggested that Hitchcock took inspiration from Munch's paintings). Munch formed strong characters captured in monumental story telling moments, with ethereal yet brisk brush strokes.
I love to think that Munch lived in a film like daydream, where he was both the lead character and the director of monumental dramas. Apparently his neurotically puritanical father would torment his children by telling them that their dead mother was constantly watching their bad behaviour. Munch’s subjects are intensely autobiographical and his life itself was akin to a tragic and romantic screenplay. The painting, Still Life (The Murderess) illustrates the moment when his lover, Tulla Larsen shot him in the hand. The painting is like a screen shot of the scene, with significant attention to the props, costumes and colour palette.

Edvard Munch, Brothel scene from the Green Room series

In Peter Watkin’s stunning biographical film, Edvard Munch (1974), Munch’s character stops and gazes out of the screen, right at the viewer, conscious of his existence in an obscure and false world. Munch was making paintings at the dawn of the photographic age and this is reiterated throughout the exhibition. There is a substantial display of candid self-portraits and abstract amateur video footage taken by Munch himself. Later on in life he collaborated with a friend who set up cinemas in Oslo by putting on painting exhibitions in the foyer of the cinema.

Edvard Munch (1974) directed by Peter Watkins

Edvard Munch’s work feels remarkably contemporary and also in keeping with one of Hans Jaeger’s bohemian commandments, ‘thou shalt write thy life’.

Kirsty Buchanan

Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye, is at Tate Modern until 14 October 2012

Monday, 24 September 2012

Austere architecture and human redemption in The Lives of Others.

The Lives of Others (2006) directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, is set in East Berlin, five years before the downfall of communist East Germany (or the German Democratic Republic). The story centres on a covertly activist playwright and his actress girlfriend. Both professions notoriously monitored for any deviations from the status quo during the cruel years policed by the notorious Stasi.
The film follows the appointment of Captain Gerd Wiesler, who hopes to boost his career by taking on the job of bugging and spying on the couple. Over the following months the couple’s intimate lives are revealed to Wiesler. The depth of their creativity makes him very aware of the emptiness of his own life, which is echoed in his lonely existence within the system.

Cathy Lomax 25.08.09 He wondered if he should get the kid's family arrested; 2009, oil on paper, 23x30.5cm

There is an element of Schindlers List (1993) about the storyline, as Wiesler faces his own internal crisis of conscience. But although the film can be seen as uplifting and in praise of human compassion against the backdrop of this tragic, claustrophobic and paranoid era, it has been noted that in the real communist East Berlin an individual would never have been allowed, nor would have been able to have such a crisis of conscience. The system in this particular totalitarian state (as opposed, say, to that of apartheid South Africa, which had opposing ‘sides’) ruled over its entire people and the ones closest to the system were under just as much scrutiny, if not more than the other inhabitants. This was backed up by state jobs being delegated to more than one person, so no individual would ever have complete control over any one task, especially surveillance. However, the simple act of a human having the ability to change their mind during such a pressurising regime, offers hope.
The apparent reconciliatory nature of people when the Berlin wall came down and the regime ended as shown in the film is in stark contrast to the actual feelings that were shown at the time. All the records from the regime went on public display for people to trace family members who had disappeared, but this happened for only two years, as it prompted many bloody reprisals against the Stasi who were now living as ordinary civilians.
As with so many films made soon after a time of dramatic social change, the need for openness and truth emerging from a cloudy and secretive past can become distorted in the pursuit of just that, through blame. Hence people directly involved in the former republic during the time the film was set have had differing reactions to it as a portrayal of how events could have actually happened. 
After the state was dismantled a new kind of openness emerged and the Stasi were generally employed not, as depicted in the film, doing a job they were over qualified for but instead as private detectives, managers (they were highly trained in psychological management of people), and estate agents. Much of the press and literature at the time seemed to be preoccupied with the now and moving forward, and not the recent past of the GDR. Not everyone accepted what had happened, and there have been accusations of facts still being hidden by the people who suffered at the hands of the Stasi and claims of victimisation by the ex-Stasi.
Germany over the last 80 years has faced two major totalitarian states and has suffered the denial of and fighting for subsequent truths. This film does have a place in documenting the history of the former GDR, and is beautifully shot, its atmosphere enhanced by the austere state architecture. My one proviso is that I hope someone is making a film, not about an individual’s redeeming act, but how to avoid the individual being subsumed in the first place.

Debbie Ainscoe

Monday, 17 September 2012

Anna Karenina: A Brechtian Re-telling of the Russian Imaginary

In reviewing the recent Joe Wright directed film Anna Karenina I have to admit to a bias, well not so much a bias as a grand obsession with the Russian Imaginary which for me, chimes with the Deleuzian concept of mirroring, duplication, reversed identification, and projection.

For me, It is not the Putinistic state which cruelly imprisons beautiful dissident punkettes, nor a country of gangster millionaire oligarchs, nor even the country which voted against a formal UN Security Council condemnation of the Bashir al-Assad government for its attack on civilians in the city of Homs in February 2012.

For me, the soul of Russia and the birthplace of my Babcia (grandmother) is located within a mythical vastness of silvery twinkling, clinking, chandeliering, icicling whiteness. A frozen lakeland, sparkling with Imperial diamonds, rustling with lilac taffeta ball gowns. It is bundled up in fur-lined boots and hats, snuggled up in troikas, it crosses itself before enigmatic mysterious icons, is lit by burning candles and resonates with the soulful, lamenting sound of singing church bells. In Spring it moves to the countryside (na wsie), where mushroom and cherry picking begins and is bottled in glass jars which catch the light of the ice-melting sun.  It is here, that we are propaganded with visions of noble peasants, forever bending towards the good earth, scything, ploughing, believing in God, ground down by fate and serfdom waiting, waiting for that moment when the whiteness will be stained with revolutionary red blood letting.

The allure of 19th Century Imperial Russia is that it holds within its diamontine image a tragic end-of-history denouement.

In this moment of economic downturn, in our own western crisis, popular culture is going through a Downtown Abbeysation of nostalgic nodding to a time when the toffs and the plebs knew their places. Where grand country house glittering and linen starching re-plays the Capitalist dream machine.

So how are we to hold this dialectic and approach a contemporary filmic representation of a Tolstoyian classic? The tragic transgressive story of Anna Karenina. For me, director Joe Wright has managed something extraordinary in his beautiful enchanting film. From the first frame which announces the film in Cyrillic style lettering and looks like the page of a 19th century novel transposed onto theatrical curtains, he can do no wrong. By setting the action in a theatre, Wright uses the Brechtian device of the Verfremdungseffekt (translated as ‘defamiliarization, distancing or estrangement effect’) The idea being to destabilise or question the bourgeois concept of theatre by stating from the outset that what we are seeing is a fiction, something made up for our entertainment.

Wright was originally going to film Karenina on location in Russia but as this was going to prove too expensive, decided to film it mostly inside an old theatre. This economic restraint however proved to be dramatically and creatively important. As Wright has stated, people in Russian society in St Petersburg and Moscow at that time acted as if they were on a stage, they spoke French and events such as balls and meals were all carefully choreographed and defined affairs.
Alongside the sumptuous costumes, and sets there are some dazzling effects, such as when Alexander Karenin (played by Jude Law) tears up a letter from his errant wife, and throws the fragments into the air which then turn into a snow fall. In another scene Levin (played by Domhall Gleeson) decides to leave the city and go back to the countryside, as he turns his back on the stage a curtain opens and we are suddenly in a real snow filled Russian landscape. It is the first time that a real location is seen and again the effect is stunning. 

Anna’s lover Vronsky played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, is perfect as the handsome army officer all tousled blonde locks, (reminiscent of Terence Stamp as Troy in Far From the Maddening Crowd) strutting gait and dreamy blue eyes which are set off by his white and blue uniform. Keira Knightly as Anna, has come in for much criticism, almost like the character she is playing she is dammed for being ‘too young’, ‘too thin’, ‘too chinny’. Knightly like Karenina cannot help being beautiful, and in the novel (which I am re-reading) she is described as looking about 20 years old despite her real age which is about 32 (considering that she married Karenin when she was 18 and has a 12 year old son)

For me, Wright has put on screen exactly the Russia of my imagination, he has taken a classic piece of literature and re-assembled it, like a puppet theatre within a snow-shaker. Tom Stoppard has done an admirable job with the screenplay which remains remarkably true to the original cutting out mostly the very boring agricultural details. For me, even with my grand obsession (I have seen the film twice) what I think Wright has done with this film is very important in that he has found a new way of telling an old and well known story, he has not been afraid of employing a very obvious construct and it is this very construct which saves it from Downtown Abbeyisation and which makes some important points about contemporary film storytelling. 

Alex Michon

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Emo-Cinema in the age of Tumblr

When I was a kid I was allowed to watch men getting sliced up and peppered with metal, soft willing tits and fearsome pirate jive, killer sharks and babes from space. I sobbed in five-year-old terror through Jurassic Park (1993), dad called it an education while mum wrung her hands. So I was always surprised when friends had rules and adhered to the rating system. For most of them the Euro art house and contraband slashers came much later. More scrupulous parents tutted at my watch list. Poor innocent babes, my sister and I.

The Red Shoes (1948)

But it wasn’t Barbarella’s orgasmatron or Hannibal Lecter’s Chianti supper that fucked me up, it was Catherine Deneuve. The onscreen ice queen in La Chamade (1968) and Belle du Jour (1967), the glamorous blonde who, way before Tyra, said it all behind the eyes. And then there was Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes (1948), the prima ballerina forced to campily decide between great talent and great love. Technicolor passion splashed across the screen and into my teens. I became a master of the loaded glare, the tragic glance. I drank Oolong tea and stole my mother’s clothes. While everyone else was out having fun in tank tops and blue WKD I was busy staring mournfully out of the window or listening to Serge Gainsbourg and reading A Certain Smile. I started smoking and thought I was as glamorous and damaged as panda-eyed Gwyneth Paltrow in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001).

Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Then one day – LOL, OMG – along came Myspace. From the glowing window in my teenage bedroom I could stare into a sea of similarly kohled-up girls and sensitive boys. And now there’s Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram and 8track to host a new generation of troubled femmes in soft grain and pastels, subtitled avatars artfully reflecting their emotional state. Not so unique a tortured soul after all.

I still like Catherine Deneuve but, for the record, I’m pretty big on tank tops now too.

Ella Plevin

This is an online extra 'Notes' feature from Garageland 14: Film