Monday, March 25, 2013

Three Kurt Kren shorts, 1969-1982

[This is part of a sporadic series in which I explore the work of the Austrian DVD label Index DVD. This company has released a great deal of valuable European experimental cinema onto DVD, naturally focusing on the Austrian underground but occasionally branching out as well. Index's DVDs are distributed in the US by Erstwhile Records, so anyone intrigued by Index's catalog should take a look and support the fine work both these companies are doing for obscure and avant-garde cinema. The three films reviewed here appear on the Kurt Kren collection Which Way To CA?.]

Underground Explosion is Kurt Kren's approximation of the feeling of being frazzled and high at a rock concert. Kren was recording a performance by Krautrock band Amon Düül II at a 1969 underground music festival, but the recording is anything but a straightforward documentation. Instead, the frenzied, fragmentary nature of the film captures the drug-fueled, hazy nature of the music itself, communicating the confused, confusing sensation of this music and these kinds of experimental 60s festivals. The images are shaky and rapidly collaged together so that the action is often unclear: lights, mobs of people, a stage full of musicians, men slow-dancing with one another, performers stripping down at the microphone, a guitar, someone singing. Only sporadically does the frantic flow of images slow down, and then as often as not it's only to photograph some near-empty corner of the auditorium, the camera not settling down on anything in particular. The jagged pace of the editing is what really counts, the shapes and colors that go flying by, rather than the actual content.

Similarly, the soundtrack seldom provides much of a clue as to what the band actually sounds like, their spiky, dissonant rock jams only occasionally coming through clearly. Most of the time, the sound is as unpredictable as the images, giving the impression not of listening to a rock band but of listening to their bassy, distorted pulses through thick walls in a room next door to where they're actually playing. The soundtrack is muted, distorted, sometimes seemingly even reversed and manipulated, the sound occasionally fading out almost entirely to a dull headache-like throb at the edges of awareness.

Like Andy Warhol's famous deconstructive portrait of the Velvet Underground, this film is unsatisfying as a concrete document of a performance, but very satisfying indeed as a blurry, subjective suggestion of the feeling of being there.

Auf der Pfaueninsel is a devilishly simple conceptual joke told with Kurt Kren's characteristic deadpan wit. The film is a minute and 21 seconds long, which consists of a solid minute of methodically displayed credits followed by a few short snippets of "home movies" showing members of the Vienna Aktionists and family members at leisure. The joke is one of expectation, as Kren's opening credits lists the names of Günter Brus and the other Aktionists who will appear in the film. One expects something like Kren's other Aktionist films, a frantic collage of horrifying excerpts from the group's scatological, provocative performances.

Instead, Kren shows the provocateurs offstage, outside of the theater, as family and friends. They're taking a walk, visiting the zoo, goofing around a bit. Brus sees a van with some writing on the side and uses his hands to cover up some of the letters so that it spells "Brus," the kind of goofy, self-conscious joke that anyone would do in a home movie made while hanging around with friends. The other shots in this quick flash of footage are even more mundane, showing the members of the performance art troupe standing around looking at zoo enclosures or just walking along; most of the people named in the credits are never even seen clearly, just appearing from behind as they stroll with their family and friends. It's a very simple gag but a very clever one as well, a way of interrogating the public/private divide. Just because this is a film introduced with a cast list, does that make it every bit as much a performance or a piece of art as the Aktionists' usual displays? Or is it merely a "home movie" like any other?

Getting Warm was the third and best of the three self-described "bad home movies" that Kurt Kren made on a 1981-82 trip to the United States (the other two films in this trilogy of three-minute shorts were Which Way To CA? and Breakfast im Grauen). Shot in New England and Austin, Texas, this is the only one of the three films to be in color, and the change in film stock makes a big difference, giving the film a sensual, evocative quality very different from the dull, quotidian, washed-out grays of the other two films. Kren has said that these films are purposefully more amateurish than real amateur movies, the joke of the "bad home movie" description being that even amateur home documentarians usually edit their tapes a little, whereas Kren leaves in everything he shot. All the banal moments are left in, creating a home movie that simply captures a string of disconnected, soundless, usually quite unassuming moments. At one point, Kren even leaves in a shot in a room where it's too dark to see anything, and the frame goes entirely black for a few moments, the darkness too a document of something that happened, something seen and experienced and captured for posterity on film.

At another point, Kren cuts from night to day and back to night again, with three consecutive shots of a Safeway sign, glowing an eerie neon blue in the darkness, one of the only points of light, but rendered ordinary and unremarkable again in the light of day, in the daytime shot sandwiched in between those two quick slices of neon-lit night. Similarly, a television set flickers and glows, sometimes a square of light surrounded by black, sometimes just a focal point for the bored gaze of a reclining man on the nearby bed. Kren cuts in different views, different times of day and different lightings, to show how ordinary objects can shift and change depending on context, sometimes acquiring a weird prosaic kind of beauty for a few brief moments before a cut.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Hell Bent

Hell Bent is a rare early John Ford Western, once thought lost, one of the director's many collaborations with the actor Harry Carey, with whom Ford made a total of 25 Westerns in the early part of his career. Carey plays a signature character called Cheyenne Harry, inevitably a no-good, low-level crook who's redeemed by the love of a good woman; that general narrative runs through both this film and the earlier Straight Shooting from the previous year. Carey is simultaneously anti-hero, hero, and comic buffoon, balancing his heroism with the rougher aspects of his persona, which often play out in comic drunkenness and general shiftlessness.

Even early in his career, Ford was already interested in combining comedy and drama in his films. Harry is introduced, in a way, while he's offscreen: the first evidence Ford shows of his presence is a saloon in shambles from a raucous fight over a card game, with Harry, accused of cheating, already having fled the scene. When the film finally catches up to him, he's manically pulling cards out of his sleeves and pockets, throwing away the evidence of his misbehavior. He's no good, a cheat and a brawler, and he promptly spends his winnings on alcohol, stumbling drunkenly through a series of comic showdowns with Cimmaron Bill (Duke R. Lee), which eventually lead to the two men bonding and becoming friends over a drunken singalong.

Naturally, Harry has to be tamed by the moderating influence of a woman, in this case Bess (Neva Gerber), who tames Harry so thoroughly that he's soon giving her a cuddly little puppy as a present. When Bess' brother Jack (Vester Pegg) gets mixed up with the outlaw Beau Ross (Joseph Harris), of course it's Harry who has to defend the girl and defeat the crooks, redeeming himself from his own less-than-legal ways and becoming the hero that, as the lead, he had to become. Interestingly, the film's framing device acknowledges Harry's status as a fictional archetype, opening with an author receiving a letter requesting a hero who's an ordinary man, "as bad as he is good." The novelist, musing on this request, walks over to Frederic Remington's painting A Misdeal, which Ford then restages as the aftermath of Harry's violent card game.

Also already apparent at this early stage of Ford's career is the director's penchant for striking natural vistas. The scenes of outlaws and posses scrambling through the rocky terrain have a casual splendor, with the emphasis always placed on the landscapes rather than the men and horses racing through this rugged territory. Criminals ride up into the foreground and raise rifles over their heads, signaling to the rest of their gang, while the hills stretch off into the distance behind them. Ford has a real feel for the landscapes of the West, and the exterior scenes here are uniformly stunning in composition and natural beauty: narrow canyons running down the center of the frame, tall hills that push the riding figures all the way to the top of the frame, big empty skies that tower above the land, pregnant with clouds.

Especially striking is the climactic sequence in which Harry chases Ross into the desert, a bleak expanse of nothingness where the hero and the villain are reduced to black specks against the large swaths of white sand. Their shootout is staged in a long shot, the two men stumbling towards one another in the wasteland, firing their guns and falling to their knees in the sand. The subsequent sequence in which they struggle to make it back to civilization without a horse similarly makes compelling use of the sparse surroundings, capturing the emptiness and desperation of this journey across the desert, culminating in mirages shimmering into view in the wastes and a sand storm that buries the two rivals.

Hell Bent isn't Ford's best collaboration with Carey, nor is it among the best of his early Westerns, but like the other surviving Ford/Carey movies, it's a spirited and well-crafted Western. Ford's visual sensibility, though still mostly static here, is already striking and promising.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Battle of the River Plate

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Battle of the River Plate is a scrupulously authentic film about a real World War II battle, in which a trio of British cruisers pursued a German battleship that had been sinking ships along British supply lines. It's a tense, well-crafted war movie that uses real World War II era ships — including at least some of the ships that were actually involved in this encounter — to recreate this intense naval battle and its aftermath along the coast of Uruguay.

The film opens by humanizing the German Captain of the Graf Spee, Langsdorff (Peter Finch), who takes aboard the British Captain Dove (Bernard Lee), the skipper of the Graf Spee's latest victim. The two captains, from opposite sides of the war, nevertheless immediately strike up a gentlemanly repartee based on mutual respect and rivalry. Later, after the battle, Langsdorff expresses awed admiration for the cruisers that had attacked him and sent him into retreat. Seemingly stunned by the way the battle had occurred, he is shocked that the three smaller ships had charged directly at him as though they were much bigger; so great was their bravery, he says, that he was convinced they were actually trying to drive him towards an unseen fleet of much bigger ships, which in fact did not exist. Langsdorff is obviously an honorable man: when, during the post-battle diplomatic negotiations, the propagandistic Nazi reports about the battle are read aloud, Langsdorff paces anxiously back and forth, bristling at this distortion of the battle, which minimizes the bravery of the British sailors and the damage taken by the Graf Spee.

The film is steeped in the value of coolness under fire, valorizing the British officers and sailors who always maintain their gentlemanly reserve and their dry wit in the face of battle and death. The captain of one ship, under heavy fire, is injured in his legs and spends the rest of the battle dispensing commands while a medical orderly applies bandages and stitches to his wounded legs; when the captain notices that the doctor is applying bandages to his left leg as well as his right, he remarks that he hadn't even noticed that both legs were wounded. The same valor is displayed by the lower-ranking sailors as well. When the gunnery station of one ship is blown apart by shells, the wounded and bleeding men struggle to maintain their stations, asking only that doctors are sent down below to tend to them while they prepare to fire again. One of the men, when asked how he is, remarks only that it's "a bit drafty" with all the jagged holes in the hull.

At the height of the battle, Powell and Pressburger cut back and forth between the three British ships and the captured British officers imprisoned in the hold of the Graf Spee. They're in a tough position, cheering on the British navy even though they know that a direct hit on the enemy means their own deaths, that they'll likely go down with the German ship if their own side wins this battle. The heroic sailors cheer on the pursuing British cruisers anyway, speaking as though they're with the British: "we're on their trail," they cheer, even though in fact they're in the heart of the German ship, awaiting destruction at the hands of their own side.

Powell and Pressburger create a moody, potent nighttime atmosphere in scenes of British ships drifting through the night, hunting the Graf Spee with a red-tinged night sky hanging overhead. The nights are eerily quiet, the ships cutting through the water with the dull murmur of their engines and the water lapping at their bows. The images have a sightly unreal magic hour beauty, the red glow in the sky setting the bulky silhouettes of the ships off from the glistening water. Later in the film, Powell and Pressburger's depiction of the harbor of Montevideo, where the Graf Spee takes shelter after the battle, is equally compelling, as the film shifts from the claustrophobic intensity of the naval war sequences to the tense diplomacy and negotiations that take place over the German battleship in this neutral country. The atmosphere of this small harbor, now flooded with journalists, sailors and diplomats, is rowdy and colorful, with much of the action here centered in a small bar where an American reporter (Lionel Murton) sends out breathless dispatches on the struggle over the Graf Spee.

This is a film all about the glory of war, about the nobility of the men who face death so bravely and stoically, whichever side they fight for. It's an almost romantic film, with its depictions of calm battles where no one seems especially ruffled even when men are dying all around them, and images of war ships smoothly gliding through the water beneath dramatically lit skies. The film's climax occurs right at twilight — "the twilight of the gods," one observer in Montevideo remarks dramatically — as the long-awaited showdown between the Graf Spee and the ships amassing to prevent its escape occurs against a blackening sky, the flames of an exploding ship lighting up the night while red and purple hues fill the sky above.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Bridesmaid

The Bridesmaid is a somewhat typical film for Claude Chabrol, a chilly, unsettling, at times darkly humorous movie that's nominally a thriller but doesn't put much emphasis at all on plot or mystery or even suspense. Philippe (Benoît Magimel) is a serious young man who falls in love with Senta (Laura Smet), a bridesmaid at his sister's wedding, a cousin of the groom. Senta, unfortunately, turns out to be utterly crazy, a lunatic femme fatale who says that the couple are fated to be together, and whose declarations of love are from the very beginning tinged with more than a hint of obsession. Philippe, who must be somewhat crazy himself, just can't stay away, even when she demands that he kill for her, and he keeps convincing himself that her crazier moments are playful performances — she's an actress, she says, who's had roles with Woody Allen and John Malkovich — rather than genuine expressions of the deeper malaise lurking behind her placid face.

Smet gives a fine, subtly creepy performance here, projecting a mild, blank exterior with an occasional slyly upturned smile, her very tranquility what makes her so unnerving. Magimel is playing a role very similar to his part in Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher: a handsome, ambitious, slightly smug young man who gets way over his head in a relationship with stakes he doesn't fully understand. Not that Philippe is entirely normal, and there's an aura of sexual dysfunction throughout the film that feeds into the passionate affair between Philippe and Senta.

There's some awkward sexual tension between Philippe and his mother, Christine (Aurore Clément), in the opening scenes, some ambiguity in their relationship which is then transmuted into the stone carving of a woman's head that the family has dubbed Flora. Christine's boyfriend says that the statue looks like her, and when Philippe first sees Senta, he says that she looks like Flora, whereupon the camera pans over to the now-empty pedestal where the head had once sat, since they'd given it as a gift to Christine's boyfriend. Philippe steals it back and keeps it illicitly in his room, taking it out to admire when no one is around, as though it's a pornographic secret that he can only appreciate in private. This stone head is a locus of complex, unstated feelings, a surrogate for Senta with her blank, unreadable expressions, and Philippe frequently sleeps with the stone head curled up in his arms as though he's embracing a lover with an invisible body. At one point, he even holds the head tenderly and kisses Flora on the lips, kissing both his mom and his lover through this unfeeling stone, an uncomplicated stand-in for the flesh-and-blood women in his life.

Chabrol was, of course, always a big admirer of Alfred Hitchcock, whose thrillers provided something of a structuring principle for Chabrol's entire career, a central influence that he was continually mining and circling around. This is especially true here, and The Bridesmaid is built around a warped version of the murder-exchange deal from Strangers on a Train, with Senta asking Philippe to commit a murder for him, and she'll do the same for him, as a way of proving their love for one another. Chabrol doesn't delve into the suspense of the situation, since it's obvious from almost the moment she's introduced that Senta is disturbed, so the only real questions in the film arise from various misunderstandings and coincidences, with the "wrong" men being murdered. Chabrol then ends the film with a not-so-shocking but still satisfying revelation, unveiling a dessicated corpse with all the flair of Hitchcock's shot of Norman Bates' mother in Psycho — though of course Chabrol, never terribly interested in pat psychology or definitive explanations, ends the film there rather than dealing with the psychoanalytical aftermath.

There's some chilling material here, hinted at by the opening scenes in which Philippe and his family watch a TV report about a missing girl, which Chabrol uses as an opportunity to mock the exploitative, grisly sensationalism of TV news reports of violence, projecting these spectacles of suffering into meticulously decorated suburban living rooms. But the film is also darkly funny, with a subtle undercurrent of humor that tweaks the thriller and murder mystery conventions of the story; this is best seen in the moment when a police detective, tailing Philippe through a park, walks across the frame and steps in a big pile of dog shit, wiping his heel on the ground as he continues to follow his target. It's this kind of deadpan humor that cleverly shows Chabrol's slightly tongue-in-cheek perspective on this otherwise serious psychosexual thriller.

There's also a rich vein of sexual humor, since it's sex that blinds Philippe to the danger of his lover; he's having so much fun in bed that he manages to overlook the girl's obsession with murder and her strange, contradictory stories about a globe-trotting past of acting and prostitution. At one point, Philippe is talking on the phone about his home decoration job, discussing "pipework" with an elderly woman while Senta puts her hand between his legs and lowers herself to her knees in front of him. Everything becomes sexual, charged with eroticism, with passion in the bedroom tangled up with the violent passions broadcast over the TV and published in newspapers.