The protagonist of Otto Alexander Jahrreiss's Zoom (2000) stalks and videotapes a Romanian prostitute, aiming to take her away from the life. He's named "Tom Waller," after Fats. The jazz score reminds me a little of Bernard Hermann's ballad for Taxi Driver (there's an obvious plot resemblance). But there's also an element of trance/downtempo or whatever you want to call it, as suits a project shot mostly in digital video. While I might have been one to weep and moan at the cold, flat look of digital video blown up to film, Jahrreiss makes something original out of it - like Wong Kar-Wai, he knows how to pick the right "stock" (in this case, digital effect) to sound the right emotion out of his blank, doltish anti-hero.The director explains that the wide horizontal compositions were meant to evoke a sense of anonymity; this is often seen in wide-angle peephole-views, which shows you almost 180-degrees of an apartment building hallway with no distinguishing characteristics. There's a beatifully simple shot where Tom falls back against a white wall that looks as if it could be the backdrop of a passport photo or driver's license - the amateur videographer as institutional object.
Kuroneko (Kaneto Shindô, 1968) starts as simple revenge. A mother and daughter are raped and murdered, their house burned down by samurai. Two black cats the women kept lick their mistresses' open wounds. The next night, a samurai on horseback meets a beautiful woman at the edge of a dark forbidding forest. He escorts her home, following feline footsteps and mysterious meows. The woman feeds and seduces the samurai, mother dancing in circles before daughter tears the man's neck and drinks his blood. The next ten minutes repeat the pattern of samurai, forest, dancing, bloodthirst. Black cats. A woman in flowing white robes somersaults across the black and white widescreen frame. Then it gets really interesting. A samurai lord assigns a man to capture these vampires. The man has just returned from three years at war. He seeks out the mother and wife he left behind and finds only ashes. At the edge of the woods he meets a beautiful woman who looks just like his wife...
If life is disordered, can art put it
in order? Doesn't life sometimes come off like an avant-garde joke? The
inspired structurelessness of Olivier Assayas's Irma Vep
(1996) seems to ask these questions. Jean-Pierre Leaud plays a director
of French art films who hires Maggie Cheung (playing herself) to
star in his remake of the silent serial Les Vampires. I love the
sense that they're making it up as they go along - they're not really
sure what will happen until they get there. It was a largely improvisational,
fast-paced production (it took three weeks to shoot), and that instability
is reflected in the characters, who may not be fully developed, but, like
the director, are trying out new things as they go along. There's the
sexual tension when a female dresser on the crew gets a crush on
Together (1997) is one of Wong Kar-Wai's typically stylish, loosely
structured improvisations. If Irma Vep becomes experimental, Happy
Together is experimental from the get go, as the cinematographer Christopher
Doyle routinely switches between different film stocks and black and white
and color, seemingly at random. Alternative sexuality is toyed with in
Irma Vep, but here it's all out in the open: the very first scene
is one of rough gay sex. The lovers (played by Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung)
are the focus of the movie, Hong Kong natives
Jacques Tati was a tall lanky, loping comic; in most of his movies (well, four of seven features - he didn't make a lot) he played Mr. Hulot, with a trademark cap and pipe and trenchcoat. He was a big influence on Michael Richards - when Kramer enters a room, his rubbery legs and arms splaying almost out of control, he's partially channeling Tati. Like Kramer, Hulot is an overgrown kid.
In the first part of Playtime (1967) he's trying to keep a business appointment and is directed to a waiting room in a modern glass-walled office furnished with squat black leather-padded steel chairs. While he's waiting for his appointment, he - well, he plays in the room. How many times did I do that as a kid? Leaning on the back of a chair, he scrunches an edge of the cushion. When he lets go, the cushion keeps its scrunched shape for a few seconds, until it returns to it's original shape with a resounding thwap. (Tati's films are full of such exaggerated sound.) He moves on to another chair - it responds the same way, with an adaptive scrunch, a return to form and a thrilling thwap. A businessman comes in. He's all seriousness, dutifully taking a pen and pad from his briefcase, never a moment's rest - but he's a fascinating source of noises: from percussive footsteps to short sweeping at pants cuffs to pen click to briefcase zipper to sniffles. Hulot is enchanted; the first several times I saw Playtime I watched the businessman in this scene, but because I was sitting a little closer than I probably should have this time, I tried to just watch Hulot, and unless there was a slight vibration in projection I think I saw Hulot nodding his head imperceptibly at the auditory wisdom this unlikely shaman was imparting.
The movie was Tati's folly. He spent millions building a glass city on the edge of Paris (you only see her landmarks - the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, Sacred Heart - in reflection), and eventually ended up losing the rights to all his work as a result of the ensuing debt. It was eerie to watch this film in light of the events of September 11, because among the celebrations of the modern world and all its steel and glass abstractions and gadgets, is an admiration of towers. But I laughed like hell - boy did I need that. It's also terribly romantic, though Hulot never so much as kisses the pretty brunette American tourist. The whole thing is a dance, a study in the wonderful sights and sounds that you can find in the most banal environment if you just open your eyes and ears.