Thursday, March 26, 2009

Lancelot du lac (Lancelot of the Lake, Robert Bresson,1974)

(The last of my previously unpublished Bresson articles)

Bresson goes to war

Robert Bresson's Lancelot du lac (Lancelot of the Lake, 1974) comes as something of a shock if you've been watching Bresson's films in chronological order. Not so much the fact that it's in color (it's his third color film), but because the opening sequence shows violence; not just violence, but graphic violence, the lopping off of heads, the spurting of blood in bright arterial red.

But the film is recognizably Bressonian--the camera is trained on a pair of sword-wielding arms as they swing and parry; cut to a sword fallen on the grass, the winning blade hovering over it in voluptuous anticipation before swinging up and knocking (like a perched tenpin) the opponent's helmet off his shoulders. We get few glimpses of the figures involved, much less their helmeted heads, and none at all of their faces--this is violence inflicted as if by robots, the only indication of humanity being the squirting crimson juice. Quick succession of killings--a man stabbed in the groin (we see the blood seeping down the blade (a questionable sight, as the blade is angled downwards, and the blood, one assumes, would seep in that direction)); another is knocked on a corner of his helmet by a blade, and as he falls towards the camera we see the breached dent, the seeping blood, the arterial spray. Then images of corpses--armored skeletons hanging from trees, blackened metal hulks lying in a smoldering field, an altar full of candles and a tabernacle; a knight on a horse rides by sweeping the altar clean with his sword, an unseen crowd roars in protest. All are tied together by the image of a group of mounted knights charging through the forest, a symbol of war--of national policy pursued by other means--charging relentlessly across the landscape. It's Bresson's vision of man's favorite sport (and I don't mean sex), and as is typical with this atypical filmmaker he uses unexpected images, stitched together in swift yet precisely timed (like a march in quick-step) succession to give the impression of determined slaughter.

Then drums (another startling touch, I think--Bresson usually uses classical music in his soundtrack), and a rolling prologue give us the situation--Arthur's knights have gone in search of the Holy Grail, and they have come back not only empty-handed, but diminished in numbers (one can't help but think that the film instead of remaining in the safely remote mythological past has actually grown more relevant--think of the United States' adventuring and resulting frustrations in the Middle East).

The rest of the film is Bresson deftly sidestepping the highlights of the Arthurian legends and focusing on specific details--Lancelot explaining his newfound oath of chastity to Guenevere (who is far from happy at the news); Mordred skulking in the sidelines as he blurts out the dissenting view; Gawain persisting in his belief that his hero (the knight of the lake of course) embodies innocence and virtue, despite the views of fellow knights and his own brothers.

The film's showpiece is a tournament, and while undoubtedly a rousing piece of cinema it is so only in Bresson's unique manner. When Lancelot enters the jousting field his appearance couldn't be simpler: he bears a white shield and a helmet topped by a simple gold sphere (the other knights' headgear are adorned by more elaborate spikes and loops and wings), and does not reveal his true identity. The camera isn't fooled, however; it favors him, holding onto him a moment longer (enough to follow his horse round the railing, along which both jousters charge on either side) than it does his opponent. When they charge, Bresson teases us by withholding the moment of actual contact--he gives us only the muted gasp of awed appreciation as bodies crash and thud offscreen (Gawain, ever the worshiper, realizes who the white-shielded knight is and whispers his name). The sound reminds us of the earlier cries uttered by another unseen crowd when an altar was desecrated; Bresson seems to be equating the two events, implying that this collective sound, uttered in either approval or disapproval, is provoked by the same violent impulses (implying as well that both competitors and desecrator act to deliberately inspire said sounds).

For one of Lancelot's jousts, Bresson proposes an impossibility: the camera peers over Lancelot's shoulder at the approaching knight, we see the knight's lance eclipsed by Lancelot's body, hear the thunk! of wood on metal; all aural and visual clues point to the opponent's lance hitting first, but Bresson cuts to a shot of the knight tumbling off his horse--a sleight-of-hand that only serves to emphasize Lancelot's uncanny, almost magical martial skill (this time it's Gawain's seated companion who whispers: "Lancelot!" Even to the most obtuse the white-shielded knight's identity has become all too apparent). The footage becomes more explicit--we see shots of Lancelot's lance breaking on the opponent's shield, followed by shots of the knights hitting the ground (more impossibility; more magic). At one point we see an unseated knight crash through the center railing--a startling image that serves to put an exclamation mark on the man's downfall. Bresson manages to enthrall us with an eclectic series of shots and sounds, carefully woven together.

A side thought: Bresson's focus on sounds, signs (flags, shield insignias), indicators of all kinds (the crowd's gaze) tends to shift one's attention offscreen, that is, outside of the camera frame. One asks the question: is this Bresson's way of prodding us to look beyond what's apparent, search for some hidden meaning, probe for invisible connections? Is this, in effect, his way of using material details to lead us to some immaterial concept?

Lancelot's scenes with Guenevere are the heart of the film, I think; here we see the contrasting struggle between noble duty and carnal passion, between soaring spirit and clinging flesh. The 'models' (the director's preferred word when referring to his actors) utter their lines in that trademark impassive manner--here more than in any of Bresson's other films explained away by the characters' sense of decorum (royalty's constant obligation to always appear calm and composed before their subjects) and (in the case of the two lovers) need for secrecy. It's also tempting to imagine that they weren't always like this, that before the knights had left to search for the Grail everyone had feasted and laughed and had a wonderful time, but years of suffering and the decimation of their ranks (Arthur closed off the room containing the Round Table because so few are left) has reduced them to this unsmiling, inexpressive state (they have, thanks to the vicissitudes of life, been bent into Bressonian shapes--shapes not unsimilar to our own oppressed, war-weary selves). Any indication of profound feelings come from the words themselves and from the grave, measured delivery (given the words, a more heated exchange would have been melodramatic). When Lancelot asks Guenevere to release him from his vow (presumably of faithful love), she replies: "No, I'll save no one at that price…To think yourself responsible for everything is not humility."

You might say Guenevere's self-centeredness is of the Ayn Rand variety--false modesty is the worse kind of pride, and she is suspicious of Lancelot's. She may seem expressionless but her seeming passivity, the doll face that expresses womanly sentiments, belies a potent erotic charge: when she tells Lancelot "you may do what you want of me," you could almost see Lancelot swallowing in frustration. There's an almost necrophilic voluptuousness in her offering herself like that--the very lifelessness suggests total surrender.

Bresson's camera notes the dramatic contrast between Guenevere's soft plush clothing and Lancelot's severe metal armor, a metaphor for the contrast between her supple stubbornness and his brittle pride. The metaphor is pushed further when Bresson presents Guenevere's naked body being bathed: with its slim limbs and full, rounded buttocks looked upon with a level (if, one senses, tender) camera lens. One might say one has glimpsed at what Lancelot swore undying fealty to, nor is it unworthy of the tribute. Guenevere may seem selfish but the consistently privileged position of her figure in Bresson's mis-en-scene (she's an equal of the film's eponymous hero), the passion suggested by her eyes and voice and words, the gloriously obvious physical splendor of her (lovingly lit and framed) body argues eloquently for the gravity of her cause--a cause that will lead to the downfall of Lancelot and his fellow knights.

Bresson skims lightly over the drama that follows, referring to offscreen battles and informing us of who is wounded and why; Gawain expires along the way, believing all the while in his idealized knight (or, if you like, remaining willfully blind as to the identity of his killer)--all to allow sufficient time for the final apocalypse. Bresson prepares for this with a montage sequence that builds momentum the way the earlier tournament did, out of carefully chosen and presented elements: bright blankets thrown over horses' backs; knights hoisted up high for mounting; visors pulled over the knights' faces.

Guenevere argues for the primacy of her "us"--for the primacy of the love between her and Lancelot, above all else--and this may have provoked the war, but the knights' preparations show in turn the ultimate consequences of supporting Lancelot's cause instead: erased identities, mechanized humans, general slaughter. Guenevere's love as implied by her naked form--the wide hips perfect for the passage of children she will never have the chance to bear-- inspires and encourages life. Lancelot's ostensibly higher duty leads to scenes of violence that recall the film's beginning, the difference being the recurring image of a lone horse, bereft of any rider, running aimlessly through the forests. Through this image Bresson suggests that the killings have stopped being war (the determined execution of national policy) and have become instead chaos, entropy, useless death.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Taken (Pierre Morel, 2009)


Pierre Morel's
Taken (2008) is an anachronism, a thriller George W. Bush might have enjoyed or--more to the point--something Dick Cheney might have chortled over, reminiscing of better times, if they had remained in power. One can imagine it screening in the White House's private theater, only not for its intended audience: the two little girls sent to bed, the wife close by his side, both set of presidential knuckles tightening over their armrests--not so much in awe of the derring-do depicted onscreen (the action sequences are incoherent and therefore dull) as in wonder at the idiots who can dream up this garbage.

The plot is silly enough--former spy Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) scoops up his collection of forged passports and wads of foreign currency again when his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace, who likes to run around in an irritatingly dorky manner) is kidnapped by white slavers intending to sell her into prostitution (or at least high-end mistressing)--but it's the unquestioned assumptions underpinning the plot that truly offend. I mean--is France really a seething cesspool of sex traffickers, wealthy hedonists (mostly Arab) and corrupt bureaucrats? Are ex-CIA operatives really so noble as to give up their career for the daughter they love? Is time so short and matters really so desperate that torture is the only alternative (and anyway, are the answers produced reliable?)? Are the filmmakers (Morel and his writer-producer Luc Besson) really so intent at earning the all-important American dollar they are willing to slander their own country? Are teenaged American girls really so stupid as to be abducted hours after landing in a foreign country (in which case is one really out of line in feeling she deserved what she got?)?

Mills' CIA-honed mind isn't all tactical brilliance; he stages a one-man raid on a construction site office for no apparent reason (other than to pad the running time past the 90 minute mark) and escapes only through sheer dumb luck. In probably the most controversial scene in the picture he shoots a government official's bystander housewife to obtain much-needed information--maybe it's me, but isn't it possible a man, even a Frenchman, would go ballistic when you shoot his spouse? Wouldn't offering a bottle of Chateau Latour of good vintage be more effective? Way to go for international diplomacy and the righteousness of the American Way, by the way--after all it isn't just Mills' daughter at stake, but her purity as well (Boo! Hiss! European and Middle Eastern degenerates!). The value of a Western Caucasian's hymen has always been high, at least in Hollywood movies.

Mills' torture of the gang boss is cleverly staged--electricity looks clean, just a buzzing noise, flashing lightbulbs, and an actor pretending convulsions; audiences wouldn't be half as comfortable if Mills had uprooted a few fingernails or pulled a tooth or punctured an eyeball. But shoot, he's no barbarian--it's either this or waterboarding, the technique first used by Americans on Filipinos in the Philippine-American War (when it was known as the 'water cure') about a hundred years ago, more recently one of five reportedly approved methods used by the previous administration on Iraqi prisoners during 'enhanced interrogation' sessions.

One watches with a kind of appalled fascination; if Morel were a talent in the same league as, say, Don Seigel (Dirty Harry, 1971), one might announce the American debut of a new fascist film master, able to serve up conservative drivel with an artist's flair; regretfully (I mean this, too) not the case. Morel's setpieces are of the Paul Greengrass school of action moviemaking, with camerawork done as if by an alcoholic and footage cut as if by a John Deere power mower. One can sense that Mills is supposed to be a formidable fighter and crack racing driver, but one can't be quite sure--the action is so chaotically presented it's hard to tell which fist is pummeling whose face where, and why.

All this ludicrousness would be easier to dismiss if it weren't for Neeson. Tall and stooped, with a distinct melancholic air about him (he's both hunchback and belltower in one forlorn figure), Neeson invests Mills with all the humanity the filmmakers apparently lack. He even pulls off the shamelessly sentimental early scenes, of Mills watching from the sidelines as his precious daughter receives a birthday pony from her rich stepfather and Mill's ex-wife (Morel sketches the man's situation with such economical and understated skill one is tempted to call out to him: "forget action, do drama--you've got a real flair"). One can accuse the movie of Neanderthal politics, blatant racism and gratuitous violence, but one can't accuse it of bad acting, at least not the lead actor (and only the actor; the dialogue ("I'll tear down the Eiffel Tower if I have to!") is an entirely different matter). Give me Neeson as the fearlessly questioning Kinsey in Bill Condon's 2004 film of the same name (can an actor be so clueless about the script he's reading?); give me also Neeson in Sam Raimi's Darkman (1990)--every bit as sadistic, but Neeson's character Dr. Peyton Westlake at least openly admits to the monstrousness in him, and Raimi's film has more of a sense of irony about it.

As for Besson--hard to think of any other names left to call him. From modestly talented director (Le Dernier combat (The Last Combat, 1983)) to international hitmaker (Nikita, 1990; Leon, 1994) to Hollywood camp stylist (The Fifth Element (1997), maybe my favorite of all his works) to pretentious hack (The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, 1999) to just plain hack writer (this movie) with distinct reactionary leanings, he's run almost the full course of his downward trajectory.

This could all be a gag, of course, some elaborate effort on the part of Morel and Besson to signify that they're just pulling the legs of the present United States administration instead of sucking up to the previous one (What, were they actually counting on John McCain to win?). I don't know, I don't know--in the movie's distinctly unironic ending (please don't read any further if you for goodness knows what reason still want to watch this atrocity) Morel and Besson has Mills nobly presenting his daughter to her mother and stepfather (yes, she still runs like a dork), safe and sound, not a hair mussed, hymen still intact.

First published at Businessworld, 3.13.09

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Mike de Leon's 'Sister Stella L.' 25 Anniversary special screening

In celebration of Sister Stella L.’s 25th anniversary, the UP Film Institute is holding a special screening of the film on March 20, 5 p.m., at the Cine Adarna, UP Diliman.

Dubbed Sister Stella L. @ 25: Tuloy ang Pakikibaka, the activity is organized by the Film 280 class in cooperation with the Vilma Santos Solid International, Inc.

My article for the occasion:

Stella for star

It was 1984, and the mood was angry. Difficult to describe just how angry, but the film was released less than a year after the assassination of Benigno 'Ninoy' Aquino, Jr., after the massive parade bearing his body from Santo Domingo Church down Quezon Avenue. The milling crowds watching Aquino's coffin pass were in a peculiar mood, a mood perhaps not unlike what the Roman centurions might have sensed from the surrounding crowd two millennia ago, while escorting their condemned Jew--veteran soldiers troubled, trembling, knowing how dangerous the moment was. Activists who knew all along, who struggled for years against the Marcos regime, felt vindicated, the same time they felt keenly the loss of one of their more outspoken members; people who wandered through the martial law years under varying degrees of slumber felt shaken, stirred--they never realized how it was, and they were angry. They wanted justice and it was not immediately forthcoming, perhaps never will be.

Caught up in the moment was Regal Films producer "Mother" Lily Monteverde. She had approached filmmaker Mike de Leon for a possible project, any project, as long as she could do the casting. De Leon suggested a Jose "Pete" Lacaba script he had been trying to develop since 1982--about a labor strike and a nun played by famed Filipina actress Vilma Santos. Lured by the prospect of de Leon--arguably the Philippines' most brilliant director--doing a film with Santos, Monteverde greenlighted the project (as to the possible controversy over the film's politics, one wonders if she perhaps didn't think things through, or simply didn't care).

Sister Stella L is arguably the first motion picture from a major Filipino studio to respond to the Aquino assassination. Not directly--the story focuses on Sister Stella Legaspi (Santos), her involvement in a cooking oil factory strike, and her gradual awakening into full political awareness; no mention of Marcos, or of martial law. But the very fact that the film spoke frankly of labor unrest, featured songs and chants with a decidedly socialist slant (it must be remembered that for the longest time Marcos presented himself as the best qualified leader to fight communism in the country), and towards the end suggested that police or military officers might be involved as strikebreakers--those were outright acts of courage. Everyone assumed Marcos' grip on the nation was tight as ever, his ability to silence critics--or worse, make them 'disappear'--as absolute; everyone assumed--and in those early days, they may have been right--that people's lives were in danger, thanks to this film.

But they were in an angry mood, and would not be silenced. You feel it radiating from Pete Lacaba's script--like fever heat--and you feel it in the chanting that on occasion is heard from the soundtrack. Make no mistake, this is a Pete Lacaba film more than it is even a Mike de Leon film; the narrative is linear, the script construction muscular, the dialogue lean and functional. The film resembles other Lacaba-penned films of the period (see Bayan Ko (My Country, 1985), and Orapronobis (Fight for Us, 1989)) more than it resembles other films de Leon has directed (I'd heard that de Leon himself admitted it was his least personal film). If (as I suspect) Lacaba's biggest flaw is an abiding fealty (once quaint, now with the passage of time somehow heroic) to neorealism and straightforward, Hemingwayesque storytelling, it's a flaw one wished would afflict more Filipino scriptwriters; if (as one Filipino filmmaker once told me) Lacaba's fault is that his characters talk far too intelligently, with too much self-awareness, it's a fault too few Filipino characters suffer from nowadays.

I'd mentioned Mike de Leon's direction. The man has one of the strongest if not the strongest and most distinctive visual style in all of Philippine cinema, and subsuming it to the scriptwriter is no small feat--if I find the film at all interesting, it's because of this unusual fact. De Leon's camera serves his story at all times, but the choice of material, the way the story unfolds, the overall tone you sense from one of his pictures--dark if not sardonic, at times both--is so unmistakable it's startling to see the warmer, more earnest emotional palette found in this film (Lacaba's scripts are rarely bathetic or unnecessarily sentimental, but there's a camaraderie found among his characters, particularly those committed to the cause--to his cause--that one finds irresistible). This combination of passionate (but rigorous) intelligence, and the intellectual chill surrounding it, holding it together, giving it form and structure, is a bracing mix--de Leon and Lacaba have not worked together since, so it's possible this may be the only example of such a brew in local films, at least for now.

Of the film's imagery, allow me to cite two--the scene where Sister Stella and Ka Dencio (the inimitable Tony Santos, Sr.) are captured and interrogated most clearly bear de Leon's imprint. Sadism and cruelty are a de Leon specialty, and what makes it so startling isn't so much the physical pain inflicted as the casual, almost cheerful bonhomie of the torturers--it's as if they're playing some adolescent game, and from accounts I've read the attitude of some of the actual people involved isn't too far off. Sister Stella at one point is seated surrounding her interrogators, and her helplessness is palpable--what is it with de Leon and the straight-backed chair that the mere sight of one in his films can inspire so much terror (see also de Leon's Batch '81 (1982) for at least two other memorable occasions)?

The second is the film's finale (please skip this paragraph if you haven't seen the film), which was altered--de Leon had originally added footage of a rally that marched on Epifanio de los Santos (EDSA) Avenue (this was before the People Power revolt that eventually toppled Marcos), footage that would have put Sister Stella's struggles in a nationwide context. The film instead ends with Sister Stella framed against a serene blue sky, speaking. It's a plain speech--easily Lacaba's most characteristic moment--using simple but heartfelt words. Santos to her credit (it's the performance of her career) gives the lines very little histrionics: just the facts, ma'am, no palabok. The film's contemplative end, oddly enough, ties it with a more contemporary socialist filmmaker--Lav Diaz, whose Hesus Rebolusyunaryo (Jesus the Revolutionary, 2002) concludes on a similar note. I'd asked Diaz why such a strange finish, and he said "it's necessary--after a period of action, Hesus has to step back and meditate on his actions. He has to pause and consider the meaning of it all." Sister Stella L. is a clean dive into political consciousness and a clear call to action, at the same time there's a thoughtfulness underneath the picture that lingers in the mind and haunts one's memory.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Au hasard, Balthazar (Robert Bresson, 1966)

(Some old articles I never got around to publishing; a couple of more Bressons in the following weeks)

Gift of a Magi

What's so remarkable about Au hasard, Balthazar is that Bresson uses the simplest things--a donkey; a girl; a camera that tends to look at things askance; some piano music--and with them creates (as Godard puts it) the whole world, or about as beautiful and complex an evocation of that world as anything I've ever seen.

Bresson eschews most special effects, most camera moves, uses only one lens for the entire film (50 mm), doesn't resort to surrealism or trick cutting or even makeup, yet what he creates is as immediate as anything by de Sica or Rosellini, and as strange as anything by Bunuel or Godard. His lead actress hardly twitches a muscle throughout the film, yet you feel you know her inside out; his lead actor--a donkey--has at most a pair of darkly liquid eyes and a head of unkempt fur yet you're moved by his predicament, and ultimate fate.

Bresson throws in the story of a man accused of murder who comes to believe he is guilty (even if he isn't), and it's of a piece, as integrated into the film as if the film had wrapped roots around the man's story and just kept on growing into maturity. From an encounter between an old miller and the film's heroine (insomuch as the film actually has a heroine) Bresson manages to sketch an outline of the girl's father without the man being present, just the miller contrasting the father's philosophy against his own (honor vs. material wealth; pride vs. avarice); with every word he speaks the miller condemns her father's philosophy, then, for good measure, his own. In the end the girl succumbs to the miller, corrupt and decrepit as he is, partly because she must (he's taking her in for the night), partly because it appeals to her sense of perversity, her need for degradation. All this psychologically plausible, the simplest realism, yet somehow poetic, stylized, cinematic.

Bresson believes he's trying for a film where everything "is in its place," and cites the story of Bach reacting to a student admirer, saying what he does is not all that special: he just hits a note at the right time, and the organ does the rest. Bresson claims to be doing the same infuriatingly simple, mysterious act: he points the camera, then glues the resulting footage together. The projector, or so he would like you to think, does the rest.

The classic reading of the film is that the donkey stands for Christ, and all who abuse it are the sinners of the world. Recent critics think otherwise: the village folks' cruelty and vice, the village priest's ineffectuality contradict a strictly Christian interpretation and suggest, among other things, that the donkey is more the victim of an unfeeling materialist world. Bresson immerses us in the textures and sounds--the materials, in effect--of that world, presenting to us through Ghislain Clouquet's crystalline photography the rough weave of the characters' clothes, the crudely hewn rocks that make up their houses; his soundtrack emphasizes specific sounds--clacking cart wheels, clanking chains, Balthazar's defiant, pathetic bray.

If I may throw in my own two centavos (into a pot probably brimming over with currency): Balthazar's behavior in the film is like a base line for all living creatures; the animal acts the way man would act, bereft of human intelligence and given only a basic level of consciousness--move when able, resist when tired, ignore pain when struck, flee when the pain is unbearable. Simple yet, I would say, sane.

The donkey reacts as any animal would react; everyone else reacts differently, self-destructively you might say, because they're cursed with self-conscious intelligence and are capable of doing things against their immediate interest. They are for much of their lives insane, and the film continually compares the donkey's behavior with theirs to sometimes comical, sometimes tragic, effect. The girl sleeps around, her father refuses to compromise, the boy who loves her allows himself to be humiliated, the boy she loves is allowed to humiliate her, the accused man drinks heavily, the miller counts his virtues as covetously as he does his money; through it all Balthazar ambles along, a braying, four-legged condemnation of humanity's perverse craziness. If the donkey dies, that's because the world itself, or the part of it infested by human civilization, has gone mad, and no sane, sensible creature can long survive in it.

August 26, 2007