Grammar Lessons

The Ecstasy of the Angels

Despite all odds and with no obvious financial incentives, a few directors still make movies that seek to re-imagine the form

I sat down for the late Koji Wakamatsu’s batshit crazy, free jazz tinged, Japanese terrorist agitprop “pink” flick The Ecstasy of the Angels at MoMA on the first Friday night of 2013. Back then, I had no idea who Edward Snowden was, but like the characters in The Ecstasy of the Angels, I assumed we were living in a cruel world of misaligned priorities I knew too much about, run by powerful elites who I knew too little about. What I didn’t know was how much they likely know about me, and you, of course.

Looking at clips of it again the other day, it’s striking how liberated from traditional formal strategies, how unhinged from supposed good taste the outlandish violence in The Ecstasy of the Angels (and many contemporaneous Japanese “pink” films for that matter) is, both political and sexual, even when viewed now, in our era of nothing-can-shock-us-anymore postmodernism. Sure, members of a revolutionary party known as The Year carry out acts of political terror, depicted with Wakamatsu’s voluminous sequences of Eisensteinian montage. Even more exuberant and strange, terrifying and oddly hypnotic are the movie’s notorious scenes of intra-party, politically motivated murder and rape, following a series of defections, that cause spasms of grotesque disbelief. They are carried out with such panache that I recall stifling laughter, thinking Wakamatsu, who cut his teeth making soft-core, couldn’t be serious — was this the ideologically engaged, artistically relevant smut that was promised to us in Terry Southern’s seminal if mostly forgotten novel Blue Movie? Had Japanese Communism found its Marquis de Sade?

Wakamatsu’s film is a work of political propaganda dressed up as a thriller dressed up as a deviant sex farce dressed up as tantrum about the grievous nature of American overreach, made by someone who had likely smoked a lot of pot and read his share of Gramsci, seeing how the movie is trying desperately to parce exactly why the revolution doesn’t happen. A year past the director’s death, it’s clear this is a movie which, while neither great nor good, is much more valuable as a thing, a cultural product, a symptom of the times Wakamatsu lived through and sought to satirize than much of what passes for relevant cinema from the era. Movies like this almost never get included in those categorizations of quality our self-destructing culture is seemingly so obsessed with at year’s end, when you can’t visit a site on the popular web without encounter a Ten Best List. The Ecstasy of the Angels has a grammar all its own, one constructed to support a politics that are also all its own. Movies like this are too busy inventing there own film language from the ground up to be so adored, even by the most astute observers, in their own time.

The pleasure most people claim to draw from movies has little to do with aesthetics and everything to do with storytelling. This is at least partially, perhaps mostly the case. The David Mamets and Syd Fields of the world will (or in Field’s case, would, since he dropped dead about a month ago) tell you that all audiences care about is what happens next. Since the earliest days of the American studios, popular movies have, by and large, assumed a narrative form. These narratives told were told using a progression of moving images and later the marriage of moving images with sound of various kinds; sync’d speech, music, both diegetic and not, foley effects, etc. This progression of moving images I’m speaking of, at least in most narrative films, generally adhere, with surprisingly few exceptions given the millions of movies that have been made in the past 120 years, to a series of rules. These rules then form a sort of language that the broad majority of filmgoers are unaware of but through a sort of osmosis, one which occurs throughout a childhood of watching motion pictures, can read. This language must have a grammar and the best film theorists, from Bazin to Bordwell, have explained it to us, using terms like continuity editing, match of action, the director’s line, and so forth.

This language has become so ubiquitous and effective that for the most part, film viewers become uncomfortable when confronted with anything else.

Every year, for reasons that are still somewhat unclear to me and others like me, I seek movies that tell stories which ignore or subvert these rules, that tell (or don’t tell) stories in unique and or wholly original ways. I usually am able to find them in all the familiar places — film festivals, long forgotten dubbed VHS tapes from post-structuralist obsessed film professors, lonely Friday nights at MoMA and these days, Youtube. Of course, Youtube.

But the cinema, if not of the popular, multiplex variety, provided a duo of received-wisdom-goes-out-the-window filmmaking in 2013. Every once in awhile we get bestowed with a Hunger, or an Enter the Void, but the audacious is rare most years. In 2013, they were less rare than usual and found in the unlikeliest of places — the seemingly tired genre of heterosexual relationships in discord, spruced up by Christian mythology and aesthetics that speak in a language even the N.S.A. can’t decode.

***

I saw Post Tenebras Lux for the second time on January 9 at a late morning press screening in Lower Manhattan. I had seen it in northeastern Poland the previous November, accompanied by a mysterious European woman who I’d met through the great Ed Lachman, the lauded cinematographer and expert wearer of black hats; he puts Lee Marvin in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to shame. The first time I saw it the English subtitles came in and out — they were being generated live, underneath the DCP, which had a Polish translation running at the bottom of the screen, and whoever was creating them was not the most diligent person to ever hold such a responsibility. It didn’t matter. My companion related a translation of the dialogue when the English subtitles were missing and Carlos Reygadas is a filmmaker who builds his cinema from the ground up, who doesn’t smash pre-existing forms and codes and genres, who simply invents his own rich, full bodied and spectacular film rhetoric each time, usually to bold and meaningful effect.

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Post Tenebras Lux 

In his story of a bourgeois, attractive, young Mexican family oasis’d in a rural mountainous area of the country (one not unlike his own — his own kids and lover are in the film) who are victimized, perhaps tragically perhaps not depending on your (cosmic) perspective by a laborer in their employee who may or may not be influenced by the devil itself. Reygadas feels free to include a CGI representation of the devil, frank discussion of porn addiction and the oddest, most eerily affecting local Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in a run down shack on a hill the movies have ever seen. Most of the film seems smeared by Vaseline or drunk goggles, all of it leading to a a beguiling, physically impossible, Teorema-on-steroids suicide in the final reel, but that still doesn’t truly give the correct impression of how spiritually alive the entire endeavor feels.

Reygadas also indulges us, on the way to some small glimpse of enlightenment, with several glimpses of a seemingly unconnected amateur English rugby match, a remarkably sad deathbed singalong, a bravura upscale European sex club sequence in which the protagonist watches his wife get stimulated to orgasm by a group of men and women, and willfully makes us watch the same man beat a dog to death. That’s our first glimpse of his entitlement and brutality, but as things go from bad to worse, the movie refuses to judge him directly, or even place us in a framework where we might identify with him or anyone; when he (and by extension, his class, his family) receives his comeuppance, the movie shocks us, but refuses to place us in a position to judge it. We look out at the proceedings taking place in his home (it all stems from a botched robbery by people in his employ) from a remarkably low and wide angle, a shot from an almost a satanic point of view.

As a young filmmaker, Reygadas’ influences wear heavily on his practice. His debut feature, 2002’s Japon, was clearly influenced by Andrei Tarkovsky. His 2007 film Silent Light is more or less a Mexican-German Mennonite remake of Carl Dreyer’s Ordet, a filmmaker who also populated his films with investigations into the spiritual that retained their ambivalence despite their willingness to suggest that grace is a real thing in the world.

It his newest film however, Reygadas influences have became far less discernible. The film interweaves glimpses of the other side of the tracks in this rural Mexican outpost, the poisoned relations between various laborers and their wives, and the mystery behind a child’s eyes as they play in the mud or look the devil right in the face. All of this unfolds in a more or less linear fashion, albeit with significant ellipses (spoiler alert — the protagonist dies off screen and we don’t find out until two scenes after) Although it shares certain qualities with the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Alexander Sokurov, there’s simply nothing else quite like Post Tenebras Lux. Reygadas asks you to encounter these events in a form that requires you to actively participate in constructing the work’s meaning, one you may find deceptively simple or all too remote.

Sad as it is, given the sorry commercial prospects for projects like Post Tenebras Lux, it almost seems preposterous that anyone tries to make movies like this anymore. Movies that effortlessly take the love and frailty of humans and the love and frailty of God very seriously, in a deeply unhip and strange and hypnotic way, that is. But Reygadas does. So too does Terrence Malick.

***

Released in April of this year, Malick’s To The Wonder was greeted with as many hisses as plaudits. Most of the cinerati found this picture Malick-lite, but it’s private cinematic rhetoric has been constructed from a place of true inspiration, one that shouldn’t be so easily dismissed. Perhaps the most formally radical American film by a major director to be released on motion picture screens since the nascent days of the New Hollywood, To The Wonder does almost all the work for the audience in one sense (it eliminates narrative and character as the driving force through which the movie communicates meaning) and asks it do a tremendous amount of work in another sense (it tell its story in a truly revolutionary form, one that has few antecedents as extreme in the history of narrative film.)

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To The Wonder

Despite employing the services of recognizable movie stars like Ben Affleck, Javier Bardem, Rachel MacAdams, and Olga Kurylenko, doesn’t have characters who, you know, talk to each other. Character develpment in the traditional sense is utterly abandoned. They have no pasts and the vaguest of futures. They are seeking nothing except, well, grace (through love, either received or given). To The Wonder asks the audience to do almost none of the work of constructing meaning from the narrative — its narrators openly ponder, as they are wont to do in Malick film’s, the delicate nature of the universe and there place in it while what’s happening between them inter-personally is never a source of tension or propulsion for the viewer. As such, it gives viewers the chance, given the filmmaker’s trademark voice over with different voices and characters continuing the eternal Malickian debate with God, to focus on the movie’s truly revolutionary aesthetic.

With its elliptical editing — jump cuts, spacial disorientation, odd sound bridges — it doesn’t really contain what one could call proper “scenes” — moments of continuous time constructed in fragments shot and edited in a way to suggest temporal normalcy and written and preformed to deliver information about character, theme and action. And you know what, who needs em?

Given that it’s a tiny sliver of a film compared the massive canvases he’s been working on for the last 30-plus years, it’s understandable that many critics called To The Wonder “slight” upon its release last spring. Perhaps, at least on the surface, it is slighter than all the rest, another wandering tone poem about innocence and love and hurt, set in the north Texas plains. Many observers kept referring to its revealing nature, suggesting that it’s as autobiographical as Malick’s likely to get, unless you know something I don’t about Brad Pitt’s sons in The Tree of Life. Is this a man whose Christianity has roots in blowing up a frog when he was 12? I know not. But there’s perhaps no one else working in the medium who’d have both the odd respect of and indifference to the Hollywood machine to achieve what Malick has with his latest effort.