Sunday, March 25, 2012

Interpretation x 3

It's hardly news that the various technical and genre requirements mainly serve to make interpretation easier or at least focused. And "interpretation" to some degree means "communication" but it's better to avoid the latter term with art because art rarely communicates anything in the sense that word is generally used. But there are some works that for whatever reason confound standard interpretation - it could be anything from a misjudged line that breaks the illusion to a full-out rethinking of aesthetic convention. Here are three:

Four Lions (Christopher Morris 2010) - This might be the easiest example to consider since it's simply a shift of tone but it's such a major shift that it makes the film feel unstable in some sense. The first part could almost be considered It's Always Sunny in London as it details the comic exploits of four wannabe terrorists as they attempt to train and plan despite clearly being nowhere near as smart or focused as they think. Dark comedy certainly but it's quite effective with a perfectly timed sight gag at a training site and a sitcom-ish character determined to bomb his own mosque based on stark logic that could have come from a bitter Python sketch. Towards the ending the comedy starts to dissolve until the film is pretty much a tragedy by its end (and oddly a tragedy in very nearly a classical sense). One scene where the most aware character visits his wife at her job to say goodbye but can't because two cops are standing right there is a tipping point. When the film moves this decisively from comic to tragic I can't help but wonder when this was planned. Did the filmmakers feel the plotters needed to suffer for their plans (though they hadn't actually hurt anybody)? Did they need a decisive ending? Did they work backwards and feel that comedy would simply make a more marketable film? I don't know of course and mostly don't particularly care though I think that Four Lions is a stronger film for this genre mix.

YellowBrickRoad (Jesse Holland & Andy Mitton 2010) - I'm as firm an advocate of the intentional fallacy as anybody but at some point applying it constantly just turns it into dogma, in short into a technique to avoid thinking. With YellowBrickRoad some of its strongest moments are things that I'm not sure anybody intended but it's also accomplished enough that it's hard to be sure. Basically the film is on the pattern of The Blair Witch Project. In 1940 the population of an entire New Hampshire town walked up a nearby mountain and were mostly never seen again. Almost seventy years later a group of people head off to find out what happened. They get lost, wander around the woods, experience weird things and then we have an inconclusive ending - y'know Blair Witch stuff though at least this isn't a found-footage film. This is one film that I'm glad to have not seen in a theatre because there's a sequence in the middle that I think would have made me physically quite queasy - not what's shown on screen but a technical full assault on the senses that may be more disorienting than anything I've ever seen. Now this was clearly intentional and is in fact part of the story but I'm not sure about other elements. Some of the characters, for instance, suddenly act in unexpected ways and I've seen reviews that criticized this inappropriate build-up. But isn't the whole movie about sudden and irrational changes? I'm not really sure this is a defect as it might be another strategy of the filmmakers. I also don't get the feeling that there is an "answer" to the film's premise but rather just a lot of weirdness. Viewers know for sure that there is something/somebody in the woods because a body is moved and mutilated and because towards the end we see a walking foot (the rest of the body is offscreen) that can't belong to any of the characters. And the ending is just a real headscratcher that I'm not even sure was meant to be taken seriously (even viewing it as a character's hallucination doesn't seem to take you anywhere). The most violent scene involves a guy pulling somebody's leg off with his bare hands and again I wonder whether the filmmakers knew this is impossible and meant it to illustrate what's happening out in the woods or if they simply made a mistake. Or the psychologist who asks strange questions that for all I know are genuine real-life ones but in the film I can't tell if they're slips or intended to also indicate something odd about him. Yes, to some degree none of this matters but in this case that degree is a bit smaller than I'd like. Even if YellowBrickRoad is the work of fully conscious artists who intended absolutely everything on screen (and in this case also definitely on the soundtrack) it still doesn't completely hang together. Then again I possibly admire them even more if they weren't able to accomplish everything they set out to do because they still managed a more memorable film than many.

Noroît (Jacques Rivette 1976) - If nothing else I think it's safe to say that this film was completely intentional though it's one of the most cryptic I've ever seen. Ostensibly it's an adaptation of The Revenger's Tragedy but apart from the basic premise, a few bits of scenes and some English-language dialogue there's almost nothing I can match to the supposed original. The film is periodically interrupted by a black screen with numbers like "II.iv" that appear to be act and scene designations so I do wonder if it's closer to the play than it appears but have a feeling not. There's certainly no soliloquy to a skull at the opening of the film. Very little in the film really connects. It's about a group of female pirates but they're dressed like fashion-conscious society women. The time appears to be roughly 18th century but they attack a diesel-driven boat. One character is seeking revenge for the death of her brother but then he appears alive for no reason at all later in the film (and in fact during the opening death scene is so visibly breathing that this had to have been intentionally left in). We hear an underscore only to see in a pan that it's an on-screen ensemble which the first time reminded me of nothing so much as the Basie band appearing in Blazing Saddles. Out of nowhere we see a dance, there's a practice sword duel that becomes serious or does it, camera movements at times seem arbitrary and I'm not even sure that the characters are even meant to be separate since the dialogue sometimes feels like it could have been spoken by anyone. In short, nothing quite fits. And so far this could almost be describing some Ed Wood-esque b-atrocity but the thing is that Noroît doesn't feel that way. Perhaps it's best to call it an abstract narrative so that just as a painting isn't required to resolve into recognizable images then this film has story and story-like elements that don't resolve into a patterned narrative. It's often quite stunning to see (cinematographer William Lubtchansky worked on numerous other Rivette and Godard features) and makes the most of its ruined-castle setting. In fact I half want to see this again even though I know it won't make any more sense than before. Jonathan Rosenbaum pretty much nailed it when he wrote it "contains the most beautiful images and sounds of any Rivette film, and the fewest indications of what a spectator is meant to do with them, apart from look and listen."