Monday, December 12, 2011

The Majesty of Melancholia

When the opening sequence of a film is reminiscent of a series of Surrealist painting you know you are set for both a aesthetically and intellectually challenging ride.

"I'm trudging through this grey wholly yarn.  It's clinging to my legs.  It's really heavy to drag along."

These days Lars von Trier is more infamous for his strange Nazi outburst at Cannes this past summer, which is a shame because that has overshadowed what he has achieved with Melancholia and will inevitably damage the film's chances at future award ceremonies, though it is one of the cinematic stand-outs of the year.

Both visually and thematically, von Trier re-imagines the genre of the apocolyptic film.  The all consuming nature of depression has been given the an allegory as a new planet dubbed Melancholia that is veering towards the earth, threatening existence.  Compared to previous work, von Trier describes Melancholia as the moment when a deer wanders in to listen to Jiminy Cricket at the end of a Disney Christmas special. It is just about as comforting as the cruel manner in which Disney films lure you into a false sense of security only to then reveal a horrible reality.  Melancholia deals with the horror of existence and fear of non-existence.

Part One focuses on the perspective of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and sees her public facade crumble on the night of her wedding.  Those around her personify the underlined tension, which magnifies each time Justine disappears from the party.

We not only experience Justine's disintegration due to the overwhelming gravitas of the wedding reception organised by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her "filthy-rich" husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), but also the effect that Justine's illness and erratic manner have on the various members of her family.  Her guileless husband (Alexander Skarsgard), her oblivious father (the exquisite John Hurt), and a mother (Charlotte Rampling) who has no filter.

The film becomes disconcerting because at first Justine has a vivacious energy, then comes her mental descent, as the stifling ritual of the wedding etches away at her vulnerable psyche.  Though Claire sees Justine's behaviour as disrespectful, there is a sense that Justine is desperately trying to fight and repair herself before the evening is ruined.  When she goes AWOL to take a bath, this is a healing action, an effort to cleanse away what is perceived as mental impurities.

Melancholia will be appreciated because of its refusal to depict unnecessary hysterics to communicate Justine's experience.  The indeterminacy her mentality in contained in an authentic and relatable mode of communication.

Throughout Part One, though an underlying resentment does emerge between Justine and Claire, yet Claire still remains loyal to her sister through her suffering.  In Part Two this theme is extended, though in reverse perspective.

We witness Claire battles her own neuroses, and the threat of Melancholia's ever-nearing presence reassigns the position of the sisters.  Justine is acquiescent and calm of impending events while Claire is frantic.  Call it her maternal instinct in wishing to protect her son, but Claire is unable to accept the forthcoming doom.  Her pragmatism unravels in the face of looming threat.

Dunst and Gainsbourg achieve a great symbiosis on screen.  They flesh out these sisters, their relationship and history, meanwhile never detracting focus from one another.  

Those familiar with Trier's older work, and Dogme '95 will see glints of the original guidelines within Melancholia's makeup. The manifesto included rules that emphasis the use of handheld camera, the work to be filmed in colour, and no superficial action (aka murder).  While the aforementioned aspects are noticeable here, von Trier has largely abandoned the restricting methods of Dogme.  

 The most impressive element of Melancholia is that it is able to maintain engaging momentum throughout its meditative exposition.  As surreal and disjointed as proceedings are, the emotion is relatable as it never veers in to the overblown territory that Hollywood would have taken it. 

Friday, December 2, 2011

Something's Fishy

Finally starting playing around with my fisheye camera

Will post the (hopefully decent) results up whenever I develop the film.

To progress I have decided to take a step back in technology.

Next stop, my own film developing hut. 

Image via 

Femme Power #1 - The Huston Collection

It feels like our society is depriving women of strong females to whom we can aspire to.  When I say this I am obviously negating the likes of Lady Gaga, Madonna, and the like.  This is not to take away from their achievement or creative genius, nor to discredit the empires which they have built.  I aim more to comment on the fact that it is gimmick and ostentatious flare that has catapulted these into the annals of our history.  Justified, but for the right reasons?

Because I endeavour writing on film to be my ultimate forte, I think it would be fun to begin a series that looks at specific women on film, or in the film industry, whom I admire, along with a selection of their projects, and the reasons for such choices.

What with it recently being October, breast cancer awareness month, and my own life has spiraled into a period of reflection in my postgraduate state of limbo, I feel it is important that as I enter in the abyss of adulthood that I celebrate my fellow females, and recognise their humility, hilarity, empathy, strength, and fearlessness.

And so the Femme Power series begins with - Anjelica Huston.

To begin, I must introduce this legend.  She was the Hollywood seductress with a humanitarian heart before Angelina Jolie was of age.  She tamed Jack Nicholson intermittently over a sixteen year period.  She is Wes Anderson's on-screen mother of choice.   She has never been afraid to play the dominant female.  She never gave in to commodity pressure to be a rom-com Queen.  In saying that she has also, in her older age, not been afraid to participate in cinematic flavours of a lighter fare, and she owns the screen in doing so (she rocked those six-inch heels while working as a lollipop lady in Daddy Day Care.)

The site Nowness published an editiorial on Huston last year, and proposed that looking through her life and work is a study in elegance.  This is what Huston contributes to each character she inhabits.  It is not an elegance that manifests through the procurement of luxury, but rather the complete self-possession and sheer confidence she commands.  On top of all that it remains neither intimidating or off-putting.

50/50 served to reawaken me to what a complete powerhouse this woman is.

The following offers a snippet of evidence of why the world needs Huston.

This is Spinal Tap
As Polly Deutsch 

She cameos in one of the greatest comedies of all time.  This was the mockumentary that launched a thousand like it.  This is the mid-eighties and when you think back to the era now, 80s film history is weighted by the Brat Pack, Spielberg, and James Cameron's fledgling steps into cinema.  Christopher Guest's social satire broke the mold paved the way for a more wry, calculative comedy and Huston's brief role is not to be overlooked.  Ever minor role in film such is this is the sum of its part, and turns this bitch up to 11.  Huston chose wisely when signing onto Tap, after all who else could have handled the portrayal of an irate designer commissioned to craft a scale, replica Stonehenge.  She got her order from a napkin blueprint and she was not going to concede to Nigel's flakiness.  Being part of an independent project such as this obviously reinforced her indie-cred, a superficial observation, but true.  An early role for Huston, it ultimately provides a glimpse to the comedic versatility that she will demonstrate throughout her career. 

The Addams Family
As Morticia Addams

"They're creepy and they're kooky, mysterious and kooky..."
Not only do this lyrics describe the Addams Family collectively, but they encompass the entrancing beauty of Morticia, and the actress who brought her life on the big screen.  Here I emphasis the life.  Huston refused to simply hone a caricature of, well, the character.  With Huston at the helm, you don't focus on the macabre elements.  Morticia becomes first and foremost a mother.  She's protective of her little angels, to a certain extent, by protecting their integrity as individuals and their creative aspirations.  
Found this quote of perfection within the article at this link where Huston discusses Morticia
Whimsy, thy name Anjelica:
"She's optimistic, and she's a wild dancer."

The Wes Anderson Series

The Royal Tenenbaums
As Etheline Tenenbaum

As the matriarch of an abundantly dysfunctional dynasty, Etheline is a beacon of comfort to her estranged husband and troubled children.  Etheline is the sole Tenenbaum to whom progression in appealing.  Royal and the children are burdened with past glories as well as being reluctant to let them go.  Huston begins her work with Anderson by continuing a trend of choosing strong female characters.  Etheline has a command of herself as well as others, and Huston bring the right balance of quietude, empathy, and maternal compassion to reflect a woman aging gracefully in the midst of familial chaos.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
As Eleanor Zissou

Eleanor is the muse to Steve Zissou's successful oceanographer, but as their relationship dissolves, his career wanes.  The central arc the film revolves around Anderson's own quirky interpretation of the revenge film, as Zissou seeks to avenge his fellow oceanographer who was killed by a mythical Jaguar shark.  Zissou's credibility is already suffering, and this vengeful expedition incites further pressure.  The true source of Zissou's lethargy is the estrangement he and Eleanor are experiencing.  Huston resembles a heroine suffering in the abyss of existential uncertainty.  She has command over Zissou, but reflects vulnerability in her uncertainty while caught in an uninitiated love triangle. So while Huston can seemlessly inhabit women of strength and fortitude, so too can she explore the darker, insecure vestiges of the human character.

The Darjeeling Limited
As Patricia

In this Anderson tale, the mother is curiously an absent figure.  It is with trepidation that her three sons, Francis, Peter, and Jack, meet her.  Even when profiling a mother who is essentially indifferent to her sons' lives and crises, Anderson illustrates a pragmatic and ambitious woman who emerges from her portrait fairly unscathed.  The woman of strong will has always been a source of intense scrutiny, in film we saw the femme fatale, while in literature these independent women often become catalysts of disaster, a la The Great Gatsby.  This is hinted here with Patricia too, as the tension and distance between her and her sons is palpable.  Huston pursuit of strong females brings her to a the onscreen territory of un-likability, where the non-maternal mother is the most taboo of all.  She carries it off with enviable aplomb. 

Agnes Browne 
The Eponymous Character

Huston's second foray into directing.  Here her source material located in the milieu of working class Dublin.
Brendan O'Carroll's narrative follows the misfortunes of an Irish mammy, left widowed with seven children and little money.  While it may not have been received well in America - unfortunately texts that are so class specific tend to not translate well when out of home ground - there was no fear of Huston Americana sensibilities whitewashing the authenticity of the impoverished 60s Dublin.  This may even be Huston homage to her own Irish youth, where she spent most of her childhood in Galway.  Be it a love story to Ireland who knows, but as director and star she controls proceedings with a steady hand, developing each character's, even the numerous children, personal dimensions, and evoking the survival instinct of Agnes.  She evades the  tragedy and instead focuses on the spirit and humility that has become hallmark of quintessential Irishness.


Another reason why she's become a personal hero of mine, while viewing the WB Yeats Collection at the National Library last year, she spoke of her desire to make a film about the unconventional tale of Yeats and Maud Gonne's love story, one of unrequited love on Yeats's part.  I have literally had this idea in my head for years, but as I am not a filmmaker, nor have any plans to become one in the near future, I will depend on Huston to fulfill this venture, because let's face it, Yeats's genius was spurred on by the passion that nestled within him because of the effects of Gonne, what could be more romantic or compelling?  Hollywood, pay attention to Huston and get this done.

On the To-See List
Prizzi's Honor

Her father, John Huston, directed her to Academy Award glory in this black comedy about two assassins who fall in love.
Will review once I get my hands on a copy.