Robert Altman’s IMAGES

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In search of Unicorns…

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Arrow Video’s release earlier this year of their new restoration of Robert Altman’s Images gives a wider audience a chance to reevaluate a film that seems to have been buried over the decades. Poor initial distribution, especially in the US, and mixed critical reviews combined to stifle the reception of this remarkable effort that occurs in the middle of Altman’s celebrated decade of the 1970s. He made Images in Ireland with backing of a British production company after his huge hit MASH, the bizarrely inventive Brewster McCloud,and the celebrated McCabe and Mrs. Miller, but before he returned to the US to create a quartet of films in 1973-75 that culminated in the epic Nashville. It is inevitable with a director with as long, varied, and prolific a career as Altman that some films will be better than others, and that some would find an audience while others would not. But it isn’t always the case that the quality and the popularity of a movie are perfectly correlated, and Images is a case where this is out of joint.

Images is the story of a woman who is going mad—more precisely, she is experiencing a type of schizophrenia that leads her to see and hear people and voices that aren’t really there. The woman, Cathryn (Susannah York), is writing a children’s story called In Search of Unicorns, which we hear portions of in voice-over narration throughout the film as she meditates on the story, or perhaps is composing it in her mind. She is writing at home alone when her work is interrupted by a phone call from her friend. The first intimation of a break in literal reality comes when there is an apparent crossed line on the phone, and a new voice on the phone interrupts her conversation to warn Cathryn that her husband is at that moment meeting another woman. If the line was crossed by chance, then how would the voice on the other end have been able to tell Cathryn this intimate information? Before we can find a resolution to this mystery, a more startling one is presented. When her husband Hugh (René Auberjonois) returns, he assures her that the phone message was untrue. But just as he moves to embrace Cathryn to provide her comfort, she sees a different man in his place, and leaps up from her bed screaming in fright.

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Violence or Enlightenment in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY

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I had the rare privilege of seeing Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in the “unrestored” 70mm film projection, which proved to be one of the top two theatrical viewing experiences of my life so far. I was inspired to immediately request Michael Benson’s new book, Space Odyssey, on the making of the film. Having neither read it, nor Arthur C. Clarke’s parallel novel, these notes reflect my questions based solely on the text of the film, and my familiarity with Kubrick’s other films.

The films of Stanley Kubrick often depict war, human brutality, and the ways that violence interpenetrate our social structures. I venture to say that 2001 is probably not thought of in terms of those themes primarily, or very often. (I welcome anyone pointing me to writing along those lines, though!) The bloodless expanses of the film still contain moments that indicate that Kubrick is considering these themes in new dimensions, and perhaps more obliquely. Kubrick folds them into brief scenes of action that are layered among long sequences of slow-moving beauty, accompanied with music borrowed from Strauss, Strauss, and Khachaturian.

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The dawn of Man?

Kubrick employs the most conventionally distressing and dissonant music (from Ligeti) to provide the theme for the awe-inspiring obelisks, themselves the symbolic or actual spurring into the next stage of human advancement. It was fascinating to me to see that the evolutionary advance prompted by the proto-humans’ encounter with the obelisk led to the discovery of the first tools, yes, but tools that were immediately put to violent use. Technology, in this myth, is at its inception a product and means of death: the tools are weapons made of bone. The weapons are not only used for hunting game though, but are immediately used to threaten a rival tribe, and then murder its leader. The famous jump-cut image from bone to satellite, while drawing attention to man’s leap in technological power, also suggests that even benign technology (a satellite) may not be morally neutral, or at least that humans inevitably corrupt technology to violent ends.

If, in the mythology presented in 2001, humans required an alien intelligence to help them advance to the next stage of evolution, with the Star Child transformation presumably the ultimate end, what is to suggest that humanity, even in the evolved state, will not continue to practice domination through violence and deception? Are we, in the story of 2001, formed over the course of evolution into the image of extraterrestrial intelligence, rather than made in the image of God? Survival of the fittest cannot be its own justification on a moral level, but the aliens that guide humanity don’t seem to offer an alternative.

Humanity’s own attempt at creating a more transcendent intelligence, HAL 9000, a perfect and flawless realization of mankind’s technological aspirations, is revealed ultimately to be paranoid, insane, and murderous. Truly a being created in man’s image. Does this point toward an answer to the question of whether the film sees technology itself as inherently morally corrupt? Again, if the alien intelligence prompting the development of humanity point toward a higher form of existence, why is it that the enlightenment of the obelisk produces only more efficient means of violence?

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Better living through physics.

Significantly, perhaps, when the Star Child arrives back at Earth, he does not do so by means of a spaceship or any recognizable form of technology. He is a new form of Man, naked and illuminated from within. During the poetic final sequence in the white room, the technology that allows Dave to have traveled “beyond the infinite” is gradually stripped away, as first his pod and then his spacesuit disappear.

Even if we take this to mean that humanity has to transcend the limits of technology to realize their evolutionary potential, can the brutal journey be justified, one that is red in tooth, claw, and silicon processor? I assume that the team of Clarke and Kubrick are telling this story from the point of view of a Godless universe, but I’m not one who conflates atheism with an amoral outlook. It may just be another example of the deeply ingrained irony present in his other films. Whether it is droll social commentary as in Barry Lyndon; violence pushed to the point of absurdity as in Dr. Strangelove; a depiction of doomed injustice yet tinged with hope, as in Paths of Glory or Spartacus; or even the caustic and horrifying vision of several other films, the ironic mode permeates Kubrick’s stories. The irony seems to be subtler here, yet no less integral to the structure of the story. Does the destiny of humanity, our desire to ascend to the heavens, require us to deal in murder and violence to reach our full potential? Whether we believe in God, in a guiding alien intelligence, or in mechanistic evolutionary processes alone, the never-ending violent struggle among humanity is a fact that must be accounted for.

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Happy(?) birthday.

The concluding section of 2001 enters an abstract cinematic language that nothing leading up to it has really prepared us for. It seems to be a yearning for the spiritual ascension of humanity, much as what preceded it depicts the physical and intellectual ascension through the long process of time and (assisted) evolutionary processes. Twice earlier in the film birthday celebrations are depicted, foreshadowing the birthday of the Star Child that will conclude the film. The dazzling and hallucinatory images that lead us to the emergence of the new Man, along with the triumphant return of the portentous Strauss theme, underscore an ironic question that is left, I think, open ended. Does this birthday, midwifed by unknown and inscrutable intelligences, bring forth the attainment of innocence and enlightenment, or is this new dawn of man a prelude to the next cycle of violent development, proceeding into the infinite future?

24 FRAMES

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“From my very first movie, what was my concentration, my inspiration, was I didn’t want to narrate something, I didn’t want to tell a story. I wanted to show something, I wanted for them to make their own story from what they were seeing.”

– Abbas Kiarostami

The final film from Abbas Kiarostami has been released into the world, and it is our job now to complete it for him. He reportedly spent several years meticulously crafting the film, and it serves as a culmination of his life’s work. I was able to make my first attempt at engaging with it recently at a screening in Houston, as part of the annual Iranian Film Festival.

Before I share the thoughts that the film inspired, I feel it necessary to make a confession of a movie-going sin, and then make an excuse for myself. When I saw this film, it was at the end of a particularly exhausting week, and I frankly had a difficult time staying awake. I found myself battling in nearly every part of it against heavy eyelids that threatened to take me into unconsciousness. I did battle, though, and I believe that I got an experience from every section of 24 Frames. It has proved an experience that I have continued to turn over in my mind in the weeks since. My justification for excusing this sin comes from Kiarostami himself. If you aren’t familiar with his opinions on watching movies, I offer these quotes in my defense:

“I absolutely don’t like the films in which the filmmakers take their viewers hostage and provoke them. I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theater. I think those films are kind enough to allow you a nice nap […] Some films have made me doze off in the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks.” Source

“I’ve said that many times, and I’m not sure if it has been understood right, because very often they take that as a joke, whereas I mean it. I really think that I don’t mind people sleeping during my films, because I know that some very good films might prepare you for sleeping or falling asleep or snoozing. It’s not to be taken badly at all.” Source

 

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Is there a significance to the 24 tree groupings?

This film has been described as a series of 24 still images that were brought to life by computer-aided animation. This, as it turns out, is partly true, like many of the stories in and behind his films. Most of the films I have seen by the late Iranian master deal, on some level, with the relationship between representation and reality, exploring the ways in which film is or isn’t able to depict an objective truth. He has played with these ideas in the labyrinthine dialogue of Certified Copy, in the meta-ending of Taste of Cherry, and through the very form of the film itself in the documentary reconstructions of Close-up.

The main difference is that in prior films, he used narrative and meta-narrative devices to pose questions on the nature of truth. The cinematic tools he used were primarily the script, editing, and the manipulation of performances by actors and non-actors in his films. In this film, a yet purer or more distilled form of cinema is in play. It is the world of silent cinema. And not even late, fully-formed silent cinema, but something like the very earliest surviving short films we have. Image and sound alone are his tools. Editing is effectively dispensed with (within each four minute scene) and there is no dialogue. So what we are left with is a drawn-out meditation on the “truth” of representational imagery itself, and its relation to time.

Let’s back up a bit, though. What is this film, and why is such a simple concept so hard to describe in both its particulars and in its overall effect? Well, it’s an experimental, non-narrative, pictorial film, composed of 24 mostly fixed-perspective images, assembled mostly from digitally photographed or filmed sources. These 24 “Frames” are each introduced with a title card that counts upwards and labels each segment: Frame 1, Frame 2, and so on. Preceding all of this is a title card bearing an introductory quote from Kiarostami:

I always wonder to what extent the artist aims to depict the reality of a scene. Painters capture only one frame of reality and nothing before or after it. For 24 Frames I started with a famous painting but then switched to photos I had taken through the years. I included about four and half minutes of what I imagined might have taken place before or after each image that I had captured.

Kiarostami had a notable artistic career as a still photographer as well as a filmmaker, and most of the Frames purportedly originated as photos he had taken. The first Frame, however, is a famous painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Hunters in the Snow. Kiarostami takes the liberty of creating a minimally animated version of the painting, where smoke begins to rise, snow begins to fall, and some animals begin to move about, notably the crows alighting on the branches of the tree.

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The Hunters, prior to being brought to life by Kiarostami.

I think that Kiarostami’s prefatory note is indispensable in trying to form an interpretive evaluation of this film, without which it might remain an esoteric curiosity. Having seen many of his other works gives an additional, very important context to this swan song from the great artist, because you can view it as a subtle refinement or reevaluation of some of the themes he has explored in previous films. Can a single, still image capture the truth of what it depicts? After all, we do not see anything in life in that way, but always through the never-ceasing movement of time, with one moment slipping imperceptibly and inescapably into the next. When a painting or a photograph stills that time to one, composed moment, what is left out in the preceding or subsequent moments? By shifting to a motion picture, to use the term for movies that has fallen out of fashion, do we gain something that wasn’t present on the still image? Do we lose something? Is one form more “true?” How are the two art forms related, and how are they incompatible? Any possible answers to these questions are part of the story that Kiarostami asks his viewer to complete for him.

The question of truth becomes even more central in listening to this essential talk between Abbas Kiarostami’s son, Ahmad, and Godfrey Cheshire, perhaps the foremost scholar on Kiarostami working in the English language.

Ahmad helped bring his father’s final film to completion, by making some minor editorial tweaks to the Frames and their soundtracks, and by making the choices to eliminating several Frames created by Abbas in order to bring the total down to the intended number of 24. In this interview, Abbas reveals that some of the truth-bending that characterizes films like Close-up also is present even in Abbas’s description of how these images came to be conceived. Ahmad reveled that not all of them originated as photos, despite what was stated in the opening epigraph. Some were created from scratch as films to begin with. Additionally, Ahmad said that only a handful of people actually worked on the film, despite the long list in the closing credits. Most of the people listed are fictitious, many of which have humorous sounding names when pronounced in Farsi.

I have already called this a non-narrative film, but that may be, like the meaning of any of Kiarostami’s other films, open to one’s own interpretation. One of the most fundamental concepts in film is that images will convey differing meanings depending on the sequence of their ordering. There are 24 discrete Frames, each separated by a black screen and titles, and apparently given a democratic equality of screen time (I didn’t have a stopwatch to confirm it absolutely). The recurring appearance of certain animals, though, (particularly crows) lends a quasi-narrative relationship to these Frames. When the crows appear, it almost seems like Kiarostami is daring me as the viewer to see (or create) the linear relationship between the different scenes, and to recognize the recurring character of the crow from earlier Frames. When a crow is absent from a particular Frame, it paradoxically seems to strengthen the desire to create a narrative, especially upon its inevitable return in a later Frame in the series. It’s certainly possible that I was simply reading too much into this, finding a theme where only a coincidence of visual subject exists. But given the context of Kiarostami’s previous films, and his stated aims in wanting to the audience to “make their own story from what they were seeing” in those works, I don’t feel that I’m out of bounds in suggesting that he is again playing with the notion of an incomplete narrative, in a new and even more subtle formal context.

Most of the scenes in the Frames depict images of nature—trees, animals, snow. I have to call it “nature” with reservations, though. The images are composited mostly from stock footage and computer animation in order to create precisely arranged vignettes. They are in no sense a collection of mini-documentaries representing the natural world. All are artificial renditions, arranged together to satisfy the artist’s vision, just as surely as the hunters, dogs, and other elements in Breughel’s painting. This blatant artifice, which dares us to take it at face value, is one of his most persistent and profound themes as well, and has again been distilled to its most abstract and concentrated essence in this film.

Presumably Kiarostami selected 24 as the number of Frames as a reference to the 24 frames per second, which is the predominant standard rate of projecting film images. I don’t know if the number itself holds any additional significance to Kiarostami, but it seems that this title itself hints that the film is going to have film itself as the primary subject matter. In one of the Frames, the window we view has 24 panes on each side, and in another, there are 24 groupings of trees visible. This may be a coincidence, or misdirection even, as if the number is more important than what is being enumerated.

The 24th, and final, Frame contains an extraordinary vision. As it is Kiarostami’s valediction to cinema, it is indeed remarkable: he brings together a juxtoposition of elements that evokes at once many of the themes and trajectories of his work in film. A figure, seen from behind, is sleeping at a desk near an open window. Upon the desk sits a computer monitor, where we can see that frames are being rendered slowly, one at a time, from the very last shot of William Wyler’s classic film, The Best Years of our Lives. As the music of Andrew Lloyd Weber plays on the soundtrack, we see the still photographs that made up the Hollywood movie laid out one after the other, revealing the frozen photographic images underlying what we understand to produce the illusion of life when it is run at speed. The frame within a frame within a frame is an elegant visual poem that presents very simply his recurring theme of asking the viewer to question the reality of what they see. And to consider if the Copy is meaningful in a new context. Just to take the Wyler film, there are so many levels of representation we are asked to contemplate simultaneously: the original photographic frames, the film played at standard speed (not seen here but implied), the film rendered on the computer screen in the image, the film as seen in the Frame 24, and maybe even the film as rendered in the computer where Kiarostami assembled this Frame. The sleeping individual also reminds us that there is the film as “completed” or remembered in the mind of the sleeper, of us as the viewer, and of the artists who created it.

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The End

24 Frames is a bold experiment that, like Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, presents the audience with an unabashedly personal collection of visions. As with many experimental and abstract works, much of what you will take from this is what you put into it. After only one drowsy viewing, I was given many questions to ruminate upon, and I expect future viewings to open even more. As a prompt for meditation on art, truth, and beauty, this is a work of exceptional maturity and confidence  I believe that it will stand as a lasting testament to the totality of Kiarostami’s work as an artist, summing up his work as a filmmaker, photographer, and poet.


For further reading on this film, I recommend Isiah Medina’s essay, and Melissa Tamminga’s review.

Blind Spot 2017: Othello

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Welles as Othello, and MacLiammoir as Iago

I waited a long time to finally watch Orson Welles’s Othello, in order to see it in fully restored glory on Criterion’s new Blu-ray release. Othello is the second of three great Shakespeare adaptations that Welles created, between Macbeth and Chimes at Midnight. Whereas Macbeth was created on the low budget studio lot of Republic Pictures, and filmed rapidly in under a month, Othello was filmed almost entirely on locations in Europe and Africa, and was to take over 3 years to complete filming and post-production. Very different sets of difficulties presented themselves in making a studio picture versus an essentially guerrilla-style independent film, but the result was to be the harbinger in many ways of developments in his style that would result in films as varied as Mr. Arkadin and his later masterpieces The Trial, Touch of Evil, and Chimes at Midnight. While it does not reach the heights of that latter trio of films, it is nonetheless a worthy visual meditation on the core of Shakespeare’s great tragedy.

I say, “visual meditation,” because what is most striking about this version of Othello is not the power of the poetry (as one might expect from the gifted orator Orson Welles), but the primarily the power of the imagery. In scene after scene, Welles takes us through the emotional core of Shakespeare’s story, while taking out many of its most celebrated (and also its most controversial) lines. Despite being forced to piece together a patchwork of shots filmed literally across thousands of miles and years apart, there is a remarkable visual consistency, and a thematic unity to the black-and-white imagery. I cannot disagree with Welles scholar James Naremore, who wrote, “Of all Welles’s films, Othello is the one for which the adjective ‘beautiful’ is most justified.”

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Ragtime – TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon

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Cagney returns to the screen for a final time.

Miloš Forman’s 1981 American epic Ragtime, based on the acclaimed novel by E.L. Doctorow, has a sprawling patchwork structure that reminded me of the films of Robert Altman. I was unsurprised, therefore, to learn afterwards that Altman had originally been attached to direct the picture before Forman took over the project. The kaleidoscope of characters and Americana from the beginning of the 20th century, before the Great War, is apparently pared down from the tangled branches of narratives in the source novel. The story of the film becomes primarily focused around the tragic events in the life of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (played brilliantly in an Oscar-nominated performance by Howard Rollins), a black piano player who turns to violence to try to achieve personal vindication after suffering a series of gross injustices.

Forman apparently saw something in the hopeless plight of Walker’s character that reminded him of the injustices he saw under communism in the Czechoslovakia of his youth. The choice to elevate Walker’s story to prominence gives a narrative focus (as Ebert points out in his review) that brings an emotional clarity and sharpness to the climax of the film, which might have been diffused if more time had been spent on the other threads of the story.

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Daron Hagen and Orson Rehearsed: An Interview with the Composer

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Composer and Prestidigitator Daron Hagen. (Photo by Karen Pearson)

 

American composer Daron Hagen has had an impressive and varied career, having worked with many of the 20th and 21st centuries’ greatest musicians. He has received numerous awards, including a 2014 Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His works in a diverse array of styles and forms range from symphonies and concerti, to song cycles, and nine operas. His forthcoming opera, Orson Rehearsed, is being premiered next year, in September 2018, with his collaborators, Chicago’s Fifth House Ensemble. Orson Rehearsed is based on the life and work of Orson Welles, but it is as groundbreaking and category-defying as many of Welles’s own projects. It draws inspiration from Welles’s career as a stage director, radio star, filmmaker, and even as a magician. Mr. Hagen has created a trailer for the project, which gives some idea of how unique this opera will be:

I was pleased to discuss this new work with Daron Hagen in an email interview.


F for Films: What makes Orson Welles the man an attractive subject for an opera?

Daron Hagen: I consider Welles to have been the quintessential American Artist, and his life story a parable with which every intelligent American can, on some level, relate. His intense commitment to social justice, manifested so clearly in his choice of subjects and in his personal decisions as a “self-made” intellectual whose first act was destined—from its explosive beginning with Citizen Kane—to be perceived (rightly or not) as his best. He was emotionally, intellectually, and by nature in pursuit of that which is larger than himself, and, as he got older, physically, the toll of that quest was written on his body. His choice of Kane, Othello, and Falstaff as artistic avatars alone would make him ripe as a figure for operatic treatment, but his fascination with the artifice required in the articulation of truth makes him the perfect operatic hero.

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Suspicion – Till Death Us Do Part Blogathon

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An attack, or playful flirting?

I had the privilege of revisiting Alfred Hitchcock’s 1941 thriller Suspicion with my daughter this week. The film is a fascinating example of Hitchcock’s work, because though it is often seen as a weaker entry in his filmography, I find it to have some of the most startling possibilities for a viewer of any of his films. Most of his films wrap up with a neat finish, whether tragic or triumphant. This one presents ambiguities that are not really resolved, right up to the final moments of the film. The film is a psychological examination of an unhealthy marriage, with an ending that is dramatically different from the novel that it was based upon. The way we interpret that ending can be quite different, however, depending on what perspective we bring to the film, as I discovered while discussing the film with my daughter after our viewing.

Suspicion is the first of four films that Cary Grant would make with the Master of Suspense. He would go on to star in my favorite Hitchcock film, Notorious, as well as To Catch a Thief, and finally North by Northwest. The story is based on the novel Before the Fact, by Francis Iles, and tells the story of a young, bookish woman named Lina (Joan Fontaine) who impetuously falls in love with gadfly, socialite, and playboy Johnnie Aysgarth (Grant). The two marry, and it soon becomes apparent that he his charm and seductive manner covers over his lack of means: his “wealth” is an appearance built out of gambling windfalls and friendly loans, and eventually theft. François Truffaut summarized the scenario, and how it differs from the source material in this way:

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