Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Invigorating Viewing

Today I watched three films, two of which were second viewings, and the last of which was a very impressive title from out of nowhere. Raúl Ruiz's On Top of the Whale: A Film About Survival is a masterpiece that I didn't appreciate so much on my first encounter with it; but the film certainly stuck with me, and when I sat down in Bobst Library's a/v center to give it another go, I was convinced that I had totally underestimated and misunderstood this film (which, to be fair, is practically daring to be misunderstood).

One thing I think I can latch onto a little bit is the discourse of the mirror here. The concept of the mirror here is closely linked the principle of production. In one scene near the end the anthropologist's daughter, Anita, talked to the mother, Eva, about how she looks at the mirror and thus "has a child"--always the reverse sex of the viewer, so thus she sees her son in the mirror. I think Ruiz is allowing for an immature elaboration of a certain childlike discovery of Self and Other here, not too unlike (but not quite the same as) the Lacanian notion of the mirror stage as I understand--one of the major differences being of course that Anita is far too old for the "mirror stage." But there is additional material about the mirror, a shot with dozens of splintered mirror images of Ewa as well as a few of Narcisso (think Lady from Shanghai on crack), intercut with more straightforward shots of mirrors and dazzling unclear perspectives. These shots link the mirror to production but not also to childhood or to Self/Other distinctions, but rather, to the idea of multiplicity, continual reproduction, the rise of the reproduction and the extermination of origins--I'm bowdlerizing it, of course, but the moment of mirror recognition entails a bifurcation of our perception of a single conception (e.g., me) into two phenomena (myself-the-observer and myself-in-the-mirror). And if the scene with Anita recalls Lacan ever so slightly, the great Wellesian multi-mirror shot must then recall Deleuze. I kind of enjoy this, being rather anti-psychoanalytic in temperament, and I wonder if Ruiz was thinking at all along these same lines as he was making the films. (And did Deleuze, with or without Guattari, ever put forth extensively commentary on mirrors that was not a critique of, say, psychoanalysis?) What we see in the mirror is a representation of a moment, an approximation of another's view of ourselves, and to represent reality in an omniscient way might be to represent it multiply--and the multi-mirror shot literalizes this principle, comically and profoundly!

Brian De Palma is a ferociously skilled and funny director, and revisiting Carrie confirmed that. The only thing he takes seriously in most of his films seems to be his own critical attitude toward society, which on paper no doubt makes De Palma seem one-note and containable. But with such an incredible eye and sense of rhythm, he's able to pull off pretty banal material, and what's more, I think he's smart enough to inject his screenplays with fascinating ideas, so the material is rarely banal. Carrie is a film that never offers any advantage to a particular social or ethical position: we're all guilty in our own ways, and instead of indicting humanity, De Palma takes a cue from Buñuel and smiles generously at us, too. That's why the final scene (spoilers!) is so important--it becomes clear that Amy Irving is the implicit sensibility behind the Carrie-narrative, if not the film's totality, because she feels guilty--and in fact is guilty to an extent--for her own relatively minor part in mocking Carrie. The fear that her own penance is insufficient is no less Christian-puritanical than is Carrie's mother; the final horror of Carrie's bloody hand trying to drag Sue below the surface (and into hell) simply brings to the surface the pervasive guilt embedded into our culture, and into the horror narrative. In some sense we deserve to be frightened and punished. Nobody is quite intelligent enough to realize this all the way, though, and De Palma is pretty cold toward all of his characters here, even Carrie herself (on whom Lars Von Trier would heap obscene amounts of sympathy). The scene where Tommy Ross and his friends get tuxedoes is clearly a jab; the locker room and exercise scenes are clearly meant to underscore the pettiness and feeble rebelliousness of these girls. (And De Palma shoots these scenes with obvious humor, even as he's partaking in a certain celebration of young female flesh that, without the comic excess, would be too leering: it works too, because the likes of Nancy Allen, PJ Soles, and especially Amy Irving are easy on these eyes.) What's interesting to is the gradual force of Carrie's split-screen images. Early on they employ a technique wherein De Palma can get a close-up on one side of the screen while he has an in-focus long shot on the other side--it's a single shot with a lens that allows for two focii. But the prom night debacle, which is the calcification of Carrie's telekinetic rage, sees a switch from this relatively subtle technique to the incredibly overt split-screen with a black line dividing the center. The violence to the rectangular cinema image that was suggestive for the first hour of the film becomes literal in the prom scene.

Finally, Allan Moyle's Times Square (1980) stars two young women, Trini Alvarado (Pamela) and Robin Johnson (Nicky), who give probably the greatest pair of teenage performances I've ever seen. The line these two walk is amazing. The adventure begins when a destrucive, streetwise punk (Nicky) meets the quiet, bookwormish commissioner's daughter (Pamela), and the two run off and cause havoc in NYC, becoming underground heroes with the help of an "amoral" late night DJ (Tim Curry) and much to the chagrin of Pamela's father. A lot of conventional pathways are set up in this film, only to be judiciously avoided. ("If you ever need me, just scream my name!" Guess what? The big dramatic name-screaming never comes, at least not in the obvious way you'd expect.) According to a comment on the IMDB, there was more lesbian-themed material filmed that remained on the cutting room floor; as it is, the idea of teenage lesbianism is only subtext (though not taboo). The frankness with which these girls encounter certain aspects of X-rated NYC is refreshing. This is not to say there's not a slight fairy-tale component informing the whole film; one gawks at how easily these two seem to elude violence, including rape. But I think Moyle is more honest with himself and with the issues that confront his characters and their actions in this film than in the two others of his I've seen, Pump Up the Volume and Empire Records, which have enough things on their own to recommend them--but Times Square tops them as far as I'm concerned. See the film for Alvarado and Johnson, especially though. The fact that they didn't have illustrious careers resulting from this is nothing short of scandalous. (And if they happen to give bad performances in later work--quite possible, I haven't seen them in anything else that I can recall--it only means a director didn't work with them well enough!)


Winstrol said...

Could you tell what your profession is? Is it something related to film making?

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pharmacy said...

On Top of the Whale: A Film About Survival is indeed a great film, it took me the three times to watch it to really comprehend the film.