October 31, 2008

Black wings

Terrestrial life is a drama directed from above. Or it is in the medieval world of Murnau's Faust. His Nosferatu was set in the open air, in the depopulated backwoods of Europe; his Faust unfolds in large and detailed but clearly artificial sets. There is expressionist distortion and supernatural realism: the winding steps in the German village are impossibly steep, the flowers, fields and girls impossibly pretty. This teeming human life is someone's dream -- that of Faust himself, caught in the sickness of his temptations, hypnotised by beauty, dreaming himself as perpetually young.

I caught a screening of Faust on a recent trip to the Melbourne Arts Festival; it came with a new live score by Phillip Johnston. Someone detected a hint of Robert Johnson blues guitar during the crossroads scene; the new libretto kept coming back to a theme about enjoying life while you can, because the plague is imminent. As they say, it's a film shot in darkness and light, not black and white, made with astonishing perfectionism and a painterly eye. And can you detect Murnau's own alleged solitude and aloofness in the doomed Faust, struggling to make meaningful human contact, or in Mephisto himself, keeping up his end of the bargain only to have the bland and beautiful angel over-rule him in the end with the universe's ruling word, "love"? (Yes, the house wins.)

The great critic Robin Wood has said that sexuality is the source of evil in Murnau. And it is here, through Mephisto's smirking seduction of Gretchen's aunt Marthe as little more than a time-killing prank, and through the pursuit of Gretchen by Faust that will take two lives and ruin a third (Faust's). But evil, also, is about the manipulation of events. Thomas Elsaesser in Weimar Cinema and After, on Nosferatu: "Not unlike Nosferatu himself, mastermind but also enmeshed in the events, the majority of the characters are at once 'inside' the fiction and also standing apart from it." Similarly, Mephisto sets up an earthly drama, and then steps into it.

And so the most famous shot might still be the early one (above) of the giant Mephisto looming over the medieval village, his black wings casting a long shadow over the streets and houses. It's also an image of the plague, of death sweeping in from the east. And it was imitated more than ten years later at the beginning of the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence in Disney's Fantasia -- a sequence that gave us a lively Halloween night of Satanic revellers vanquished by the sound of church bells and the peaceful light of day. "A picture of the struggle between the profane and the sacred," as Fantasia's narrator says, and it's still impressive, as most of that strange, ambitious Disney project continues to be. But Walt's devil has no human qualities, no charm, no cunning -- he's all monster, a horned, greedy Moloch. And he retreats without much complaint when the morning arrives and we see and hear a religious pilgrimage set to "Ave Maria". It's about a co-dependency between light and dark, not an opposition. In Murnau's film, the devil puts up more of a fight.

October 15, 2008

The drained world

Science, knowledge, learning … all that stuff is useless in the face of the slow, passive threat, the art-directed apocalypse, in M Night Shyamalan’s The Happening. This is a strangely gentle, inert and suspense-less horror film – a horror film without any genuine menace, all effect and no cause. Elliot (Mark Wahlberg), Alma (Zooey Deschanel) and others run from nothing in particular, just a plague of unattributed deaths, a suicide contagion, in a drained and introverted world. What is Shyamalan getting at? Maybe this. In its open-endedness – among the possible causes invoked are planetary payback, terrorists and “the government” – this thing might be meta-comment about the impossibility of making a straight-forward disaster movie in a world of so many real threats (war, terror, climate, nukes in Asia, now the economy) where even traditional movie monsters are routinely read as modern-anxiety metaphors. Zombies are really consumers and War of the Worlds is really about al-Qaeda. So Shyamalan gives us just the metaphor without the monster (or the sizzle without the steak). Which is in keeping with how he's been working all along, presenting horror's structures as symbolic maps for stories that are really about troubled relationships. In Signs, the Shyamalan film that this most resembles, the aliens became a hypothetical threat to direct Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) towards a mystic-religious message about the power of love. So it is here, only with the threat even further backgrounded, as the passing disaster acts as couples therapy for Elliot and Alma.

You might see that as colossally narcissistic as well as deeply conservative. But as an auteur, he's been doggedly persistent, and not just in his cool perfectionism. I’ve written before about Shyamalan’s obsession with big-city crime. It gets yet another airing here: as Elliot flees Philadelphia, there’s a quick shot of a newspaper headline about soaring murder rates – “Killadelphia”. So, regardless of any world-destroying toxic threat, you’re already better off in the country, in small groups, away from the bulk of humanity. Which is where Elliot and Alma end up -- “We’re in a small town, nothing can happen to us here,” he says. Eventually we reach a remote country house that could be a scene from 100 years ago or more, where a “Mrs Jones” gives the small girl who travels with the pair a lesson in decent, old-fashioned manners. The past is safer.

And knowledge is useless? This marks Shyamalan out once again as a man with a mystical bent. Elliot’s maths teacher friend believes in percentages and winds up dead; a girl who is getting confused repeats “calculus … calculus” like a malfunctioning robot. Why rely on numbers and logic? Trust the man who talks to the wind, the trees, the spirits. The only person with any valuable learning here is the guy who communicates with plants – a fellow mystic. This lets Shyamalan make vengeful, all-powerful nature a new version of God’s mysteriousness – as an expert “explains” late in the film, “It’s an act of nature and we’ll never fully understand it”.

October 3, 2008

Invisible war

"It's a film about the Love Generation, but seen in depth -- like the Fourth Dimension . . . There's an invisible war going on. It's of Miltonic proportions and it's a war between the forces of life and death, love and hate. The film Lucifer Rising is a prophecy."
-- Kenneth Anger, 1967
Lucifer Rising is about human and divine scales, human and divine time. The private pageant is a ritual that wakes old gods, bringing simultaneous reactions across different levels of reality. It’s Anger’s masterpiece, a tranquil and triumphant religious film that ends with a new age image as daring and simple and original as any ever conceived: those pink flying saucers hovering over the Egyptian pyramids. That’s an image of hope – just like the proposed ending of an earlier version, in which a crowd of hippies kneeled at the San Andreas Fault, praying for "a liberating earthquake" (shades of Zabriskie Point) – and altruistic generosity.