Amour

 

amour4

Honesty is a rare quality in films these days. But every once in a while, a film comes along that presents an honest view of the world, a pure slice of reality, without trying to manipulate the viewer’s feelings. Amour by Michael Haneke is one such film. The premise is quite simple: An elderly, cultured, middle class couple live their life quietly, doing the things they enjoy: attending piano concerts, reading, listening to music. Then one day, the woman suffers a mild stroke. And then another. Her condition gradually deteriorates. Her husband is left to care for her and witness the transformation of his beloved partner from an intelligent human being to a vegetable.

While it is sometimes uncomfortable to watch, it is ultimately a profoundly moving film. Its emotional impact starts with the casting; the mere fact that 2 giants of French cinema like Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, have in their 80s agreed to be a part of this undignified journey of physical disintegration, is by itself quite touching. Actors, even octogenarians, tend to be image-conscious, and it is hard to imagine any actor who would willingly tarnish their image this way in the twilight of their career. Their performances are among the finest I have ever seen in a film.

I could go on about the qualities of this film; the clear-headed, unbiased direction by Haneke, the restrained cinematography (by non-other than Darius Khondji of Seven and Panic Room), but what really stands out for me is the production design by Jean-Vincent Puzos. Set entirely in one apartment (with the exception of one scene at the beginning) it is a lesson in carefully personalised set dressing, thoughtful texturing and ageing of surfaces, and an ingenious layout that both drives and enhances the emotional journey of the characters.

amour2

Built entirely on a soundstage, this is a typical Parisian apartment with big windows and parquet flooring – which apparently was made from old wooden blocks to get the right creaking sound when actors walk on it.  It features an unusually big hallway (adorned by a large Aubusson wall tapestry), which works as the nerve centre of the house; around it all the rooms are circularly laid out and the lives of the characters revolve. The size of this hallway gives the characters long walking distances between rooms, emphasising their increasing difficulty to move independently. It also provides stunning long shots through doors, sometimes looking at 2 rooms at the same time. Doors are a powerful symbol in the film, representing the stages of life and the passing from one stage to the next. It is no coincidence that in the final shot of the film, after the inevitable end, all the doors are open in the empty house for the first time, allowing the couple’s daughter to walk freely between rooms.

amour3

By contrast, we find that the rest of the rooms are modestly sized. The kitchen, which is where the elderly couple spend a lot of their time is a small, intimate space, just big enough to fit a small table and 2 chairs.  It is in this small room that Anne has her first stroke. The tired Windsor chairs, the condensation-stained walls and greasy wall tiles, all echo a long life of companionship that is now coming to an end.

The rest of the rooms are equally evocative of the life the couple has lived; the study, with the baby grand piano, the wooden panelled walls and the record collection, is testament to their affiliation with music. The walls are lined with pictures and paintings. There is a sequence where Haneke shows us in full close up 6 different paintings hanging in different places around the house, all in the style of classic French landscape paintings of the mid-19th century. They are the only images of nature in the entire film, and they offer the audience a much needed respite after one of the most intense scenes of the film.

amour1

There is nothing flashy, or even impressive in the design of Amour. It is after all just an architectural space filled with a selection of props. The difference is that these mostly old things (with the exception of a modern CD player) look like they truly belong in this particular place. All things, bid and small, look like they have been slowly and lovingly collected throughout many years of coexistence, and represent a lifetime of experiences, tastes and feelings. They are personal belongings that signify everything that these people are, and everything that they are about to lose. I believe this to be the highest achievement of a production designer, to create a set that reflects the characters with no frills, no cheap sentimentality, with an honesty that ultimately shows life as it is; wonderful, tragic, real.

 

The Politics of Trauma

https-%2f%2fblueprint-api-production-s3-amazonaws-com%2fuploads%2fcard%2fimage%2f257334%2ffc5b8fa7078947b1b71f7e8e9bd9f359

The writers of the hugely popular TV series The Walking Dead — now in its seventh season — established very early that in a world where civilisation has been all but extinguished by flesh-eating zombies, the most dangerous creatures are not the zombies, but the survivors. Survival is an exercise in brutality and cruelty, and the main characters’ humanity diminishes from one episode to the next. As a viewer, you are aware that this is not going to be an easy ride. That this is a journey through a road so bleak that your emotions can be trampled on at every corner.

Even with this in mind, nothing can prepare you for the emotional and visual trauma delivered in the first episode of the seventh series.  Nothing can prepare you for the brutality, unleashed with unprecedented amounts of gory, graphic violence, on characters we have grown to like over several seasons.  Critics have hailed and booed this episode in equal measure. It has been described as torture porn by the haters and as turning point in prime-time television by those who liked it. I’m still torn on this; I watched it with a strange combination of disgust and excitement, kind of like a freak roller-coaster ride where you question the reason for doing this to yourself, while the thrill is so palatable you can taste it.

There are definitely questions raised by this episode regarding the limits of depiction of violence and the boundaries between visual storytelling and bad taste. There is also a discussion on the desensitisation of a modern audience that — in the age of live beheadings on YouTube — needs increasing doses of gore to be ‘entertained’. What I found truly astonishing was the calculated confidence with which both director and writers chose to deliberately traumatise their audience as a means of raising the show’s ratings. It was emotional trauma as entertainment.

What I also found very interesting was an article in Forbes magazine suggesting that Trump’s recent victory in the US presidential elections was partly due to his advertising team deliberately targeting the vast Walking Dead audience. They apparently figured that people who thrill to the idea of battling flesh-eating human-like monsters will also be against immigration and very sympathetic to building a huge wall. I think this is a simplistic analysis. If anything, this series is quite open-minded in its depiction of interracial relationships. It also features strong female characters and gay couples, hardly the kind of mix that an alt-right audience would find to their taste.

There is, however, more than a hint of politics in the way power and governance are depicted in the Walking Dead dystopia. After the global breakdown of government and the collapse of the justice system and law enforcement, people group together in small, protectionist clans, which build walls to protect themselves from the undead and from other clans. Communities are run by psychopathic dictator figures who use extreme violence, fear and manipulation to rule over terrified and vulnerable citizens who have lost all hope and lack a moral compass. This is where the horrible baseball-bat sequence fits in. It is a form of primeval politics of trauma.

I think that The Walking Dead is the meeting point of two very dark sides of the human condition: the use of trauma as entertainment and the depiction of trauma as politics.  Whether this is a good place to be is of course up to the audience to decide. Despite the onslaught, classic Hollywood storytelling is not dead yet — the writers are already setting the ground for the protagonist’s big comeback, and the bad guys will probably get what they deserve. But right now, The Walking Dead is (maybe unwittingly) also the place where we can get some valuable insight into who we are and where we are heading as viewers, as individuals and as a society overall.

About coolness

bullitt
Steve McQueen in Bullitt (1968)

There is a scene in Bullitt (1968) where Jacqueline Bisset asks Steve McQueen, her San Francisco police lieutenant boyfriend, to stop the car and let her out; she is disgusted by his daily dealings with violence and death. “Do you realize you live in the sewer?” she says, and then: “What will happen to us in time?”. Steve McQueen looks her in the eyes and replies: “Time starts now”. He then goes back to his gruesome line of work with even more vigour, and comes back to his home after a night of more death and violence, to find Bisset sleeping peacefully in his bed.

When I was a film student, someone in my class asked: “Who is the coolest actor ever?” It started a discussion that generated a lot of interesting answers (including David Hasselhoff, which made everybody laugh). This was in 1998, long before social media and internet polls, and I don’t remember ever having read or thought about the subject of coolness in cinema until then. Nevertheless, I gave an answer that everybody seemed to agree with: Steve McQueen. Since then, I have been thinking about Bullitt and McQueen’s laconic answer, and what constitutes coolness in cinema.

Most people tend to confuse coolness with good looks; although it definitely helps to be easy on the eye, there are a lot of good looking actors that are definitely on the wrong side of cool. Other people attribute coolness to attire, style and dress sense. This is also debatable, in my opinion. Look at the various actors that have played James Bond, consistently the most stylishly (and expensively) dressed secret agent in the history of cinema. They include the ultra-cool Sean Connery as well as the hapless George Lazenby, even though they all wore Savile Row-tailored suits, and the most expensive of watches and accessories. And deep down, we all know that no matter how hard the merchants of cool will try to convince us that wearing Bond’s sunglasses will make us by association as cool as Bond, unfortunately this is not the case.

 

georgelazenby
George Lazenby

So if coolness is not about the clothes, the looks and the style, what is it actually about? Well, it is about several things, according to research from the University of Rochester Medical Center in 2012. People perceived as cool seem to navigate through life’s adversities effortlessly. They don’t feel they have anything to prove, they are not fazed by flattery or intimidation, and they operate in the most difficult circumstances with a confidence that for most of us is unattainable.  Kind of like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca; his bar is a snake pit of political and emotional intrigue, but he manages to negotiate all the difficulties of war and romantic love with ease, and do the right thing in the end.

But I believe the clue about true cinematic cool is in Steve McQueen’s answer in Bullitt. The coolest of actors and cinematic characters are down to earth, understated and uncompromisingly on the side of the righteous. They are determined to make the world a better place and they will never stop until they achieve it. Look at Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. Bruised, beaten and battered, he goes on and on, despite the brutal punishment by the corrupt union bosses, to stand up for justice and for what he believes is the right thing to do. So does McQueen in Bullitt. In doing so, these actors provide us with the reassurance that everything will be OK in the end. That no matter how deep in the sewer we are, things will be better in time. And we don’t have to wait too long until then. Because in cinema “Time starts now”.

What is cooler than that?

 

casablanca
Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (1942)

The Chris Cunningham hypothesis

All Is Full Of Love.jpg

So the sequel to the 1982 science fiction landmark Blade Runner has finally been announced. It is called Blade Runner 2049, and a couple of somewhat uninspiring visuals have already surfaced from pre-production. The director is Denis Villeneuve, who’s done some very tightly directed, action-packed thrillers recently, including Sicario (2015).  In fact, if there was ever a “passport” to directing a Blade Runner sequel, this would be his 2008 short film Next Floor (which will also put you off eating meat for the rest of your life). So it seems that Mr Ridley Scott has made a good choice of director for the long-awaited sequel. Or has he? What if the director for the Blade Runner sequel were Chris Cunningham?

Cunningham exploded onto the music video scene in the mid-90s with the now classic videos for Aphex Twin, which were in turns funny, disturbing, and visually thrilling. Using cutting-edge technology with traditional make-up effects, Cunningham created dark, visceral and sensual narratives that stayed with you long after the end of the video. He was almost instantly proclaimed a genius by the press, and all the big names in the music industry were lining up to work with him. For a period of about 6 to 7 years he created seminal music videos for artists like Bjork, Leftfield and Madonna, winning Grammys and MTV video awards (his video for “All is Full of Love” can still be viewed in the MoMA in New York). He also created memorable adverts for PlayStation, Levis, Nissan and Orange.

And then, after releasing a DVD collection of his work in 2003, and a brilliant if slightly deranged short film called Rubber Johnny in 2005, he all but disappeared. For some time, blogs and fans were speculating on his whereabouts and unconfirmed reports suggested that he was secretly developing feature film projects. The fact is that Cunningham just retreated to a more esoteric kind of creative work, making his own music and working on installations like Jaqapparatus that blend his love of music and technology.

tumblr_lfl8geyjxg1qe0eclo1_r6_500

So this is my Chris Cunningham hypothesis: What if he was to direct the Blade Runner sequel? His particular, powerful brand of film-making would have been perfect for this. Just check out his three-screen installation for a reworking of Gil Scott-Heron’s “New York is Killing Me“, and try to think of any other modern director who can visually capture the neon-lit, rain-soaked atmosphere of the original Blade Runner. Cunningham is not just an excellent visual stylist; his work has emotional depth, and the ability to both reference and play with pop culture, whether in a twisted homage to “Singing in the Rain” in “Windowlicker“, or in a tribute to fake alien videos in his Playstation commercial.

All of the above are why I think Mr Ridley Scott should maybe reconsider his appointment of director for Blade Runner 2049. Or, he should at list get on the phone, book Chris Cunningham for any future instalments, and give him the job he was always destined to do — providing, of course, that he is interested.

Carlo Simi: Framing the Action

Picture-202.png

You may or may not be a fan of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, but there is no escaping the fact that they have an enduring influence; Quentin Tarantino, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese are self-confessed fans, and Clint Eastwood dedicated his Oscar for Unforgiven to Leone. I grew up with spaghetti westerns — there was a time in the ’80s that they were a staple on Greek television, and not just Leone’s well-known ones, but also obscure ones by Sergio Corbucci, Enzo Barboni and others. Some of these were real gems — I still think Corbucci’s The Great Silence is one of the best revisionist westerns to come from either side of the Atlantic. The main reason I liked spaghetti westerns was the iconography: the low-angle shots of larger-than-life characters, the stylised action and the comic-book sensibility that was so different from anything coming from the United States. They were also great fun to watch.

Instrumental in the creation of that iconography was the work of production designer Carlo Simi, Leone’s collaborator and designer of films like For a Fistful of Dollars, Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Looking at Leone’s films again, one can identify the visual devices and the carefully structured staging that Simi and Leone used to establish this highly stylised world. One of these visual devices was the way they used the architecture, the locations and the landscape to frame the action. A good example is the famous shootout in Sad Hill, the cemetery in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Setting this climactic scene within the big circular centre of the cemetery elevates the characters from mere combatants to high-drama actors on stage in an ancient tragedy. This action framing is found everywhere in Simi’s work; every whitewash archway, every telegraph pole or wooden fence frames or complements a dramatic moment.

comparison.jpg
Above: Ancient Roman Amphitheatre in Fiesole, Italy. Below: Sad Hill cemetery.

Highly stylised staging can be risky in cinema. In the hands of a less talented director, actors can become parodies of themselves, and in the hands of a less talented designer, stylised settings can lose their grounding in reality. Leone and Simi were clever enough to infuse their stylised settings with a great deal of historically accurate detail, thus making them believable. The Spanish location builds, like the famous town of ‘El Paso’ built in the desert of Tabernas in Almeria, look more real than the real thing. They easily compare with or surpass the detail in the best films of Ford or Peckinpah. But Simi did not just create the sets. He also designed the costumes, and is credited with the creation of the iconic poncho-caped look of Eastwood’s “man with no name” character.

A testament to Simi’s influence is how much his costume and set designs have been imitated throughout the years, not just in westerns, but also in commercials, music videos and indeed in the work of postmodernist directors like Tarantino. Carlo Simi’s work in realising Sergio Leone’s vision of the Wild West illustrates perfectly how a production designer’s influence can occasionally define and characterise an entire genre, but also reach beyond that.

For more information about Carlo Simi, check out a Facebook page dedicated to his life and work here.

simi leone.jpg
Carlo Simi (left) with Sergio Leone (right)

 

The Beauty of the Landscape

ca2bybc

Of all Miyazaki’s films, The Wind Rises is the one that resonates with me the most. The main character’s inexorable quest for beauty is something that all slightly obsessive, creative types can relate to. There’s a scene in The Wind Rises where the protagonist, WWII aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi and his colleagues are having lunch. Jiro stops eating to admire the beautiful curves of a bone of mackerel, only to be dismissed as a daydreamer. It is an excellent scene that summarises Jiro’s character in just a few seconds. In a beautifully self-referential way, it also illustrates Miyazaki’s (and Studio Ghibli’s) fascination with the natural beauty of this world hidden in every little detail of our physical environment.

Miyazaki’s environmentalism is well documented. His obsession with all things natural is well known, and his criticism of modern life’s effects on the environment (as well as on the individual) is manifested in some way in all of his films. But nothing illustrates better his love of the natural world than the exquisite background art of his films. Celebrated in full glorious detail in sweeping tracking shots, wide-angle vistas and intricate close-ups, the splendour and vibrancy of the backgrounds is as much part of the storytelling as Miyazaki’s characters themselves. Art directors like Nizou Yamamoto, Yoji Takeshige and the great master Kazuo Oga lead a Studio Ghibli art department loaded with talent. Guided by Miyazaki, they have forged the Ghibli aesthetic through years of painstaking attention to detail. In the process, they have also (perhaps unknowingly) forged a new appreciation of the sacredness of nature, and the urgent need for its preservation among their audiences.

“I should paint my own places best”, English landscape painter John Constable famously wrote to his friend John Fisher in 1821, adding that “painting is but another word for feeling”. Just as Constable drew inspiration from his beloved Dedham Vale in Essex, Kazuo Oga and his colleagues draw inspiration from regions of their native Japan to create a heightened sensibility of landscape, and help us develop a deeper appreciation of the world around us.

 

As close to the first time as it gets

ΕΤΟΥΑΛ 31052008 b

I got into film making because of Star Wars. In the summer of 1982, at the age of 10, I walked over a kilometre on my own to my local cinema to watch – alone ­­– The Empire Strikes Back (amazing that there was a time when a 10-year-old was allowed this in Kallithea, one of the busiest suburbs of Athens). I remember the cinema’s name was Etoile (Star in French) which, in hindsight, adds an extra layer of magic to my memories. I remember the lights going down, John Williams’ score booming through the stereo speakers and then … well, an experience like nothing I had ever felt before. When the lights went on again, I emerged from the cinema awestruck, floating above the pavements of Athens like a mesmerised X-wing pilot. It was a life-changing event, and needless to say, I was hooked. Hooked on Star Wars, and hooked on cinema.

When the prequels came out, like a lot of Star Wars fans of my generation, I found the weak characters and video-game aesthetics extremely lacking. I thought Lucas had not treated his own franchise, and the fans’ expectations, with respect. And like a lot of Star Wars fans, I greeted the news of a new Star Wars film with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. The snippets of information emerging from the film’s production were encouraging: the original characters were back, practical effects were replacing the CGI onslaught, real three-dimensional sets had been built, etc. When J. J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens finally came out, I was more than pleasantly surprised.  Despite my cynicism, acquired over 34 years of watching and studying film, I felt this was a worthy successor to the film I had watched back in 1982.

I have to say that I was not a fan of J. J. Abrams work before The Force Awakens, mainly because I had moved on from fantasy TV series and action-adventure genres. But I thought The Force Awakens was the work of a very clever director. He made a film catering to both new and old fans, with a dose of nostalgia and with new vibrant characters to advance the franchise. OK, the plot wasn’t terribly original, but Abrams made a shrewd decision to build on the old universe rather than replace it. He also realised that the main theme of the first trilogy was loyalty – loyalty to family, to a cause, to one’s beliefs. With Finn, Abrams introduces a protagonist whose awakening and launch to the limelight arises from an inner conflict: between loyalty to his masters and loyalty to his own values — a reflection of Luke Skywalker’s predicament in the first trilogy. Rey has all the charm and focus of Princess Leia, and she carries the baton of dynamic female characters with remarkable ease.

Star-Destroyer

Apart from the very clever work on the characters, there was some outstanding work in the design department. Star Wars, for the first time since Return of the Jedi in 1983, looks and feels familiar. Rick Carter, Darren Gilford and their art department have studied carefully the original Ralph McQuarrie designs: the new planets, vehicles, interiors and characters look like they belong to the same familiar universe. All the real-world references to existing or historic structures and objects (which contributed to the success of the original Star Wars) are there. I love for example how the triangular shape of a Star Destroyer crashed in the desert of Jakku resembles the pyramids in Egypt. The fact that a lot of the sets are built with real three-dimensional materials, aged and weathered, instead of being a sum of pixels on a computer screen, adds the realism that even sci-fi needs, to properly come to life.

Watching The Force Awakens made me feel a bit like a child again. That’s why I enjoyed it and that’s its biggest accomplishment, at least for a 45-year-old fan. Of course, as with all things in life, there is only one first time. They say that you can never repeat the excitement of your first kiss, the thrill of the first time you were given a pet, or the pleasure of the first time you read your favourite book, and this is definitely true for me and Star Wars. While the impact of the first time I watched The Empire Strikes Back can never be repeated, The Force Awakens is as close to the first time as it gets.