Monday, March 9, 2009

An Amusement (XI)

Some films are immensely improved by the “mute” button on your remote control, as I discovered while watching a few minutes of In Bruges last night. Bruges is a staggeringly beautiful and mysterious place – city of Bruges-la-Morte, William Caxton, and Jan van Eyck – and the continual swearing and obnoxiousness of the central characters (begorrah shure now, that’s the Irish for you! We’re such an irreverent, dodgy, foul-mouthed lot!) irritated me to such a degree that I silenced them so as to appreciate the setting all the more. And with the dialogue removed, one can imagine that the characters were spouting fragments from Pascal’s Pensées:
Colin Farrell: “This f***in’ town is a f***kin s***hole, you f***in’ c**t!”
Brendan Gleeson: “We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us seeing it.”
Colin Farrell: “Yah f***in’ wha’?”
Brendan Gleeson: “The parrot wipes its beak even though it is clean.”
Another film that benefits from this treatment, in my experience, is the woeful Blame It On The Bellboy, a septic pustule of a film, but one which features lengthy chase scenes through that most magnificent of cities, Venice. But if the purpose of a blog (well, of this blog anyway) is to recommend things that you might find interesting, then I beseech you, I implore you, to drop whatever you’re doing and watch the Quay Brothers’ In Absentia immediately. No, I don’t care you just put on a roast! No, the dog can do without its walk! Go now! In any case, the film’s only twenty minutes’ long, so once you’ve found a copy it shouldn’t take too long to sit through; the only danger is that, like me, you will immediately want to watch it again. I’ve been a fan of the Bros. Quay ever since I saw the astonishing Street of Crocodiles years ago; their short films, which are animated and feature doll-like puppets, are quite beautiful, oneiric things, full of half-seen glimpses, enigmatic whispers, strangely organic machines, miniature landscapes, wonderful music, and are thoroughly saturated in a dream of European culture (the Quays grew up in a culture-free suburb of Pennsylvania). In Absentia has all those qualities, being based on a true-life story of an insane woman named Emma Hauck (1878-1928), who wrote “Herzensschatki komm” (or “Sweetheart Come”) thousands of times on sheets of notepaper, obsessive entreaties to an absent husband which have been preserved in the Prinzhorn Collection of the art of the insane (I can't find a decent copy of one of her "letters", but if you buy this film, or the catalogue for the Hayward Gallery's exhibition of the Prinzhorn Collection, Beyond Reason, you'll be able to view them along with the equally remarkable works by other psychotic artists).
This film, made in black and white with snatches of colour, uses strange angles, at times baffling close-ups of everyday objects, sudden cuts and juxtapositions, to evoke a reality that’s profoundly uncertain, unfamiliar, and unsettled, yet is absolutely compelling. Of course, an integral part of the Quays’ films is the music, and here it is provided by the late, great Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose marvellous score, utilizing electronics and voices, helps to create a darkly magical, haunting, private world which mesmerizes from the first second right up until the end. I cannot recommend this film, and other by the Quays, highly enough. If you haven’t already sampled them, a treat lies in store for you.
I might mention that the Quays have directed two feature length movies, Institute Benjamenta and The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes. Both are, like all the Quays’ work, very remarkable, and they benefit from repeated viewings, but their very slow pace, extremely stylized dialogue and settings, and oblique plots, might not be for everyone. It’s a long time since I’ve seen Benjamenta, but I watched The Piano Tuner recently and can say that while it is brilliant – the Quays create the closest thing to pure cinematic poetry that I’ve seen – some of the dialogue does require a certain amount of excusing, even within the strange, metaphorical world of the film. But as they say themselves in the interview on the DVD:
Timothy Quay: “Something that we noticed in the vast amount of criticism the [the film has] gotten is quite clearly that some people object to the fact that it hasn’t satisfied a certain criteria that they expect from films. Rather than letting the film talk to them and riding with it, they’re continually trying to impose control over it. We’re rather surprised by that … [you have to be] open to the possibilities, the way a film can move…”
Alan Passes (screenwriter): I’m not saying that we succeeded in our aim [with this film]… but I think there’s very much a question of cultural conditioning with Anglo-Saxon ordinances. There’s the great tradition of naturalism, which obviously includes the written word … and for this kind of film, it’s nice if people leave those preconceptions at the door of the cinema and just allow themselves to float with what we’re attempting…”
On a very vaguely related topic, might I also recommend catching an Irish animated film called The Secret of Kells? It’s a children’s film about the production of the Book of Kells, the brainchild of the Cartoon Saloon, a very talented bunch of lads from Kilkenny who’ve moved Heaven and Earth to get this film into the cinemas. The story is a bit weak, and it sails a little close to cliché at times, but the film’s style is very striking and inventive, and if (like me) you are tired of the sheer blandness and mediocrity of so many animated mainstream films, you might find something in it to admire. It ain’t great art, but it’s very promising and definitely worth seeing in a cinema. Support your local filmmaker!

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