April 25, 2010

"There's no such constellation"

Antichrist explained:
Von Trier peels away the veneer of a domesticated, civilised religion and shows us the human condition as it appears in the darker, more pessimistic aspects of the Christian tradition, suggesting a fall into evil which plunges man, woman and nature into a state of savage alienation and violence.
STILL Charlotte Gainsbourg and the “three beggars”, nature's unChristian trinity. We're near the brutal end. I suspect my own feelings come close to this, from Ty Burr in the Boston Globe: “Like a nightmare you recall during waking hours, and then only in its vast outlines, Antichrist has the power to haunt beyond words.” But I also think that Bergman -- of The Virgin Spring, Persona and Through a Glass Darkly, which might in some way combine to form Antichrist -- would have been a better dedicatee than Tarkovsky.

April 21, 2010

A cult of her sadness -- Anne Perry: Interiors

This slight, German-made documentary about an English writer living a lonely existence in rural Scotland will surely get more attention in New Zealand than anywhere else in the world for a simple fact: in New Zealand, crime writer Anne Perry is who teenage murderer Juliet Hulme became; everywhere else, Hulme is who Perry used to be, decades ago.

The difference is crucial and it struck me with some force at a recent Sunday morning screening of Anne Perry: Interiors in Christchurch as the cinema slowly filled up with -- myself and one or two others excepted -- women who are Perry/Hulme's age. Of course: they were probably at school with Hulme and Pauline Parker in the early 1950s, knew the girls and remembered the murder, and were here to assess her version of events or to see what time had done to her.

There is no question that Perry has paid her dues. Both her and Parker got five years in Auckland's Mt Eden Prison, including -- in Perry's case, at least -- three months in solitary confinement. Hard sledding for a 15-year-old girl. In 1959, five years after the murder, Perry was given her new name and sent abroad (she was English to start with and had been in Christchurch for two years when she and the New Zealand-born Parker killed Parker's mother). One condition of their release was that the two would never see each other again.

That was 50 years ago. At some point in the intervening decades, Perry converted to Mormonism -- and given the fanciful alternate realities dreamt up by Parker and Hulme and so obsessively recreated in Peter Jackson's film of the murder, Heavenly Creatures, this most fantastic of Christianities seems like an apt choice. She also began writing crime novels, without ever trading on her notoriety.

Last year, I speculated that Stephen Daldry's The Reader -- starring Kate Winslet, who famously played Hulme in Heavenly Creatures -- could work as an unofficial Heavenly Creatures sequel, with Winslet's Hanna living in "penitential gloom'', in constant fear of her war crime being revealed and judged. And it seems that Perry did live in a similar way and still does. Dana Linkiewicz filmed over six weeks during a Scottish winter and that timeframe can't have been accidental: as Perry's gardener prunes dead wood in the dim light and cold outdoors, Perry is shown as unable to completely move on from the way she felt in prison five decades ago, which was "frozen''. And she has made a cult of her sadness, surrounding herself with trusted friends who double as assistants -- including her younger brother, Jonathan -- and who are, more often than not, also Mormon converts. "The thing that happened'' has clearly never been fully talked about or deeply explored. She is still every bit as imperious as the young Kate Winslet's portrayal suggested.

The prevailing mood is intimate yet oblique, a tell-all seemingly done on Perry's terms. Two sentences of terse surtitles tell us about the murder, but not its background or shocking detail (a brick to the head, 45 times), nor the strange giddiness of the girls before and after. There are no pictures of Pauline Parker, no clips from Heavenly Creatures -- indeed, the film is referred to but never named.

But should we want or demand more? Writer Peter Graham has a book out next May on the Parker-Hulme murder, to help feed our seemingly inexhaustible appetites. It will be published by Wellington's Awa Press. He saw the documentary and gave his view in a recent NZPA story:
Perry refused to be involved in [Graham's] book, but wrote Graham a letter last year mentioning the murder, which she referred to as "the tragedy".
"I thought this is a strange word to use when you've brained somebody to death and talk about it as 'a tragedy' as if somebody got run over by a train or something, " Graham says.
"But then when you think about it -- and I think this also came through in the film -- when she talks about this ghastly thing, she's really just seeing it as a tragedy to her. She's entirely seeing it through her own eyes, she doesn't consider at all what a tragedy it was for poor old Mrs Parker or Mr Parker or the rest of the Parkers, it's all about her.
"I think you do see that narcissism is still there. The mere fact that she wants to have this film crew in her house, following her around . . . is a rather sort of egotistical thing to do, and that was certainly what she was like as a child and as a teenager and she doesn't seem to have changed greatly."
Graham says Perry's tearful explanation in the documentary for what she calls "the thing that happened" appears staged.
"At the very end you get her breaking down in tears and talking about it, and really what she's saying is something that she's said before in numerous interviews: in effect 'it was all Pauline's fault, Pauline was suffering from bulimia and Pauline was threatening to kill herself and I honestly believed that if I didn't help her kill her mother then Pauline would kill herself and that would be on my conscience'."
It can seem like we want to keep punishing the teenager Juliet -- now 71 -- for her playacting, her lack of honesty, her manipulativeness. For the strangeness of her story. For her successful new life. She has done her time but we are still not satisfied -- we won't be until she cries on camera, tells us everything and we finally believe it. It may even be that we thought she was too grand, too posh, and had got away with it -- five years in Mt Eden notwithstanding. More from that NZPA story:

His book will also look at the life of Pauline Parker, but in less depth than Perry's.
Parker has refused to give interviews about the murder and little is known about her, other than she converted to Roman Catholicism, runs a children's horse riding school, and lives in Scotland's Orkney Isles.
"I'm not so interested in Pauline ... I kind of feel that she should be left alone," Graham says.
"She's never courted publicity unlike Juliet, Anne Perry. My publisher thinks I'm being far too wimpy about it but that's the way I see it."
By the way, you get more forthrightness and detail about the murder in this seven-minute interview with Scottish author Ian Rankin than in the entire 70 minutes of Linkiewicz's cautious Interiors. But is Mt Eden really "the toughest prison in the Southern Hemisphere''? I guess fiction writers are allowed the occasional embellishment ...

April 20, 2010

The White Ribbon

The question I'm trying to raise is: what are the conditions necessary to make people susceptible to an ideology? Around the world, in every country, in every age, it's always been the same thing: when people are suffering, when people are being humiliated, when people have a sense of hopelessness, then they'll listen to the first person that comes along and says, "I know the solution to your problems." They're willing—eager, in fact—to follow that person. That was the idea behind the film, and for that reason I chose the most prominent example of ideology that we know, which is German fascism. But I think it would be wrong to limit the film to the subject of German fascism for the reasons I mentioned.
-- Michael Haneke, interviewed in Newsweek, 2009.
I saw four films from the World Cinema Showcase over the weekend: A Single Man, The White Ribbon, Fish Tank and Anne Perry: Interiors. But it was Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon that I went back to, seeing it again a few days later. And I suspect there is still more to find in this. Partly because Haneke, as he did in Hidden, opens up a mystery that he doesn’t entirely solve, while also pointing in the direction of a greater philosophical meaning. Unlike Hidden -- a film I liked much less than I like The White Ribbon -- the meaning is laid out at the very start and we are told what to look for: in the narration, a school teacher is describing a series of events that took place in a German village in 1913 and 1914; he was 31 then and he is narrating as an old man. He says that “the strange events that occurred in our village may cast a new light on some of the goings-on in this country”. We immediately think we know what Haneke is talking about: the roots of fascism.

Which he locates in what Theodor Adorno et al called the authoritarian personality. The teacher is an outsider in this village, and of a generation between its parents and its school-age children. He is in the ideal position to observe -- although he also makes it clear that some of what he is relating is “hearsay” and if I was able to go back to this for a third time I might focus on which events he was present for and which he only heard about (and we have no way of knowing when he heard). We do know that he witnesses the first strange event: a horse riding accident that puts the village’s doctor in hospital, caused by someone stringing wire between two trees. There are other attacks, some of which seem like revenge and some of which seem random. An air of guilt and shame, Protestant repression and punishment, hangs heavily over the village, reinforced by the northern European austerity of Haneke’s beautifully reproduced classical style, channelling mid-century Dreyer or Bergman. As in Hidden, there is dramatic distance; a strange flatness or evenness of tone means that the audience cannot locate any climaxes or emphases in the storytelling – nothing in the editing or soundtrack, the usual places we might look, does that work for us. This is a mystery in which every moment and every character must be taken as equally significant. Which makes the film both utterly compelling and more than a little exhausting.

In many ways, it is a mirror film to Hidden. In Hidden, reminders of crimes from the French colonial past disrupt the present. In The White Ribbon – named for a symbol of newly-minted innocence worn by village children after being caned by their parents – crimes from the past are intended to shed light on the German future. Again, we assume fascism is the end result of these deeply entrenched traditions of pain, punishment, duty and authority, but Haneke is seldom as straight-forward as he appears; he would rather destabilise expectations than hand out sincerely-meant messages. The White Ribbon soon started to suggest something else from 20th century German history, which Haneke also talked about in a Time Out

The narrator also causes us to think of later German history.
In the 1970s, the narrator could also know something about the Red Army Faction and everything that was taking place here in Germany.
That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of the film in relation to the Baader Meinhof group at all.
Some of the big names from that movement also came from Protestant homes. But I don’t want this to be thought of as against Protestantism in any way. A lot of German intellectuals also emerged from preachers’ homes. But Protestantism has a certain rigidness that’s very close to fanaticism.
I think the lesson is that while this film is partly about many things, it’s not entirely about any… Did you have an exact year in mind that the narrator was telling this story from? The 1970s?
Yes, of course. The man’s voice suggests he could be 85 or 90.
Haneke, who was born in 1942, would be more or less the same age as some of the key protagonists in the Baader-Meinhof group. One way to read The White Ribbon is as an essay on how authoritarianism reproduces itself. Another is to see it as a depiction of the attempts, often futile, to rebel against that authoritarianism or overturn it. The children in The White Ribbon are at war with their authoritarian parents just as the Red Army Faction saw their own parents as complicit in the crimes of the Nazi regime, by either supporting it or simply letting it happen. Rhetoric about the sins of the parents was overt for Baader-Meinhof; in one of The White Ribbon’s worst terror crimes – the blinding of a boy with Down Syndrome – a message about the sins of the parents visited on the children is made just as explicit. In fact, it is delivered like a ransom note.
Your work seems an ongoing critique of current western civilization.
I think you can take that interpretation, but as I'm sure you know it is difficult for an author to give an interpretation of his or her own work. I don't mind that view at all, but I have no interest in self-interpretation. It is the purpose of my films to pose certain questions, and it would be counter-productive if I were to answer all these questions myself.
-- Michael Haneke,
interviewed in 2004.

April 13, 2010

Motherless child

I rewatched Jarmusch's Dead Man last night. His best film? Probably. At once minimal, mystical and deadpan and a haunting template for the films about aloneness that have followed: Ghost Dog, Broken Flowers, The Limits of Control. Jonathan Rosenbaum -- one of the film's great champions -- points out that Neil Young's improvised guitar soundtrack has melodic similarities to "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child", which I think I had heard but never fully processed. Those melancholy undertows, but more raw and psychedelic here. But it is why Jarmusch's film sometimes feels like this ....

April 12, 2010

Everybody hurts

Having finally caught up with The Hurt Locker over the weekend, I'm inclined to agree with this commentary from David Sterritt, posted at Counterpunch last year:
The Hurt Locker, the widely praised movie about American soldiers on a bomb squad in Iraq, has arrived in theaters with enough rave reviews to fill two dozen quote ads. While the film is excellent in some respects, its politics are worrisome not because they're wrong, but because there are no politics in a film about the most politically fraught conflict in recent memory. And the eagerness of critics to overlook or excuse this bothers me just as much.
Kathryn Bigelow's film is indeed well-executed but is rigorously -- even perversely -- uninterested in the Iraqi point of view. Who plants these bombs? Why? What dangers do they face? Is every Iraqi man, woman and child seen as a potential threat?

Bigelow and writer Mark Boal clearly want to convey the jittery experience rather than worry too much about context, and I recognise that they are putting us directly inside the trigger-happy, over-wired mindset of the American soldier, but it would have been useful if they could have found some perspective on that mindset other than simply punishing the characters who aren't brutalised enough to share it (Eldridge and Cambridge). Put me down as one of those -- with this guy and this guy -- whose says an Avatar win in the big categories at the Oscars would have been a more daring anti-war statement than the surprising -- or was it, really? -- success of this film.

April 11, 2010


You can watch all nine and a half hours of Claude Lanzmann’s grave and inquisitive documentary Shoah – with its slow, unwavering emphasis on trains, green forests, wide rivers and the faces of survivors; its refusal to “depict” or raid the familiar archives for footage, its strict requirement that you imagine; its collection of no more than two Holocaust artefacts (a bureaucratic deportation order, a Warsaw Ghetto diary) – and think that maybe the best thing you could do, by way of trying to describe it, is just to quote a line from its first scene. In fact, it’s one of the very first lines spoken in the film. Simon Srebnik, who as a boy was one of only two survivors of the 400,000 killed at Chelmo in Poland, is taken back to the site by Lanzmann. They walk for a time and then Srebnik looks at a field says: “It’s hard to recognise but it was here.” In Shoah, Lanzmann presents an unnameable crime – as he has called it – with no clear start, no clear finish and no chronological shape; a crime that only one of the many he interviewed, historian Raul Hilberg (author of The Destruction of the European Jews), is able to see in full. Other survivors and witnesses talk about the experience as “utterly incomprehensible”, “not the world”, unable to be described “by the human tongue” and so on, as though they had been in a world separate to but closely resembling this one. That is the experience of the film and that line – It’s hard to recognise but it was here – is in that tradition too, but it is also a summary of the film’s role as a memorial, as an indictment against dramatisations and as a lasting collection of the memories of survivors, witnesses and others, many of whom – Hilberg and Srebnik among them -- have died since Lanzmann interviewed them in the 1970s and 80s.

April 9, 2010

Malcolm McLaren, 1946-2010

"I don't know if punk started out as a rejection of pop music or life in the UK at that time. Certainly, as soon as it started, as soon as the Sex Pistols began to perform as a public outrage and even before they released their first record, a whole conflict of symbolism immediately gathered and was drawn to what they were doing. None of this was accidental because Malcolm McLaren and Jamie Reid, who were the real college-educated Col. Parkers of this movement, had a Situationist background and were schooled in a haphazard way in nihilist European art politics going all the way back to the 19th century. They knew that architecture could be as repressive as a law (that would) put people in jail for criticizing the government. They believed that the music that people heard every day had as much of an effect on how people thought of themselves as anything people learned in school. They saw records as a way to disrupt the assumptions that people didn't question, that people used to hold themselves together. This is to say that these were the assumptions that held society together. I don't think they saw records, performances and songs as a way to change the world as such. It was more of a theft- 'let's set off a bomb and see what happens.'
"Within that perspective, everything was a target. Pink Floyd are no more or no less the enemy than the government."

Greil Marcus, 1997.