Melbourne's Lessons in the Darkness

From the Melbourne Int'l Film Festival, Everest climbed & filmed, Commedia all'italiana, Saul Bass's ant psychoscape, & Jean-Pierre Léaud.
Daniel Kasman

I don’t make films myself, but it seems obvious to me there are but two places to learn how to make movies: in the outside world constrained by so-called reality, and in the inside world of the cinema’s darkness, constrained by so-called illusion. Travelogue tales and quotidian reportage being of little interest here, a log for illusionary research and experience, I must duly deliver my film report on the films that came upon me in the darkness of the Melbourne International Film Festival, which ran from July 31 - August 17, and the lessons learned.


Epic of Everest

So many academics and cinephiles alike seem consternated by Walter Benjamin's paen to the the aura of an original artwork, something squandered, lost, obfuscated, or obliterated in the mechanical reproduction of art in post cards, photographic duplicates, and, of course, cinema. But upon encountering at the festival a restoration of the 1925 travelogue Epic of Everest, a documentary on the ill-fated 1924 attempt to reach the summit of the highest peak on Earth, I'm now thinking "aura" is the wrong "a" word to seek in cinema—it should be "awe."

Beginning in a mode familiar to ethnic documentaries preceding Epic of Everest’s own era all the way forward to the present, of capturing and condescending local populations and cultural traditions, the film is quickly overwhelmed and left aghast by the images it captures, the remote report it relays, and the alien geographic-mystical sovereignty it abuts and is thenceforth conquered by. Lives were lost on the adventure, including the mysterious disappearance of the two men who climbed the furthest, and no amount of director (Captain) John Noel's vaguely desperate, overreaching language and rationalization of the attempt and supposed failure of the mission can disguise the flabbergasting effect of the scale, rarity, and sheer unmasterability of the place which the film attempts to surmount and claim—and fails to. This failure is the ultimate grandeur of the movie, the direct and in fact documentary analogy between the inability for the imperialist mountain men to conquer yet another foreign territory, and for imperialism's great subjugating tool, the cinema, to itself lay claim to unrecorded, unimagined image territory.

And is the aura indeed important? Melbourne, which screened a remarkable number of films on celluloid—and indeed has a section of its 2014 program dedicated to movies shot on film—projected the BFI's digital restoration of this 1925 film, and in so doing slickly eliminated so many of the material and sculptural experiences an audience knowingly or unknowingly has when encountering the receding echoes of a celluloid negative's aura. And yet the awe remains, the reminder, as Werner Herzog can so attest, that cinema is about startling encounters. That the aura may be lost—or was never there in the first place—but that awe can still spill over from the screen and out of the screening room. As long as there are still cinematic adventurers there will be cinematic adventures.


Divorce, Italian Style

Film direction being such an ineffable and essentially unexplainable thing, I am always tickled to come across a movie whose creative choices not only are clear, but are inspirationally instructive. At Melbourne, the sublime lesson is Pietro Germi’s comedy Divorce, Italian Style, shown on film in the small and classically tuned but nonetheless raucous “Commedia all'italiana” section.  The first reel of this 1961 favorite is a marvel that should have prospective filmmakers scurrying to take notes, rushing out to attain the Criterion Collection home version to break down its component parts to get at its confident verve and fluidly channeled cultural menagerie.

What can be learned here? That your opening should go for the throat, that the scene setting and story exposition are one and the same, a frenetic union of real place (provincial Sicilian town) and buffoonery conventions (comedic-decrepit aristocracy, pathetic lechery, chafing social precepts). That, like contemporaneous films by Alain Resnais, you can apply varying forms—say, documentary, essay, burlesque, self-reflexivity—in a way that is both coherent and surprising. The film doesn't stand still to get the story gimmick running—Marcello Mastroianni fumbling to attempt a justifiable homicide of his faux-homily wife so he can marry his teenaged cousin—until at least half way into the picture. And indeed that's when the film slows down. Before that, it is movement, a montage of buildings, seedy old rich interiors, an anxious, horny tracking shot, the sun blasted, socially scrutinized central concourse of town, and the preening self satisfaction of Mastroianni’s unforgettably morose, persistent, slick-haired and decadent lech, an irresistible portrait collapsing 19th and 20th century Italian masculinity.

Big Deal on Madonna Street

The film's modernism of form, softly buried in its insinuating vitality, popular comedy conventions, and Mastroianni’s own comforting presence (he always has a limpid gentleness about him, even when worked into a fervor of perversity), is sublime. Whereas three years earlier in Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), also in the program, the film feels stuck trying to catch up to 1930s Hollywood working class genre cinema, its lone zazz of modernism, its capacious deep spaces indoors and out, and a hanging of its fresco of manic minor criminals upon real locations. Where American audiences of the 30s looked upon lone figures of criminal ambition as charismatic, rule-breaking models of anti-Depression can-do, Big Deal is unable to find a hero on which to pin its audience’s post-war hopes. Instead, it must fracture one Scarface or Caesar into a gang of equally gesticulating urban bumpkins, each with his own sad scheme to get rich, get famous, get the girl. Director Mario Monicelli poses this amoral cadre's affable mania (a cadre including Mastroianni) as many of the best Italian films of the era do, on social images of the real Italy, poverty, apartment blocks, a hard-scrabble existence where men previously unknown to each other unite simply because of some kind of local thieving instinct. We understand this is a collective farce, but also that the stage on which it is performed cannot be separated from its players' desperate motivations and amateur results.

Divorce, Italian Style by returning to a single charismatic protagonist may seem like a particular and therefore limited joke without Big Deal’s collective breadth, but in it fact hones the artifice on display of Monicelli’s picture, with its conceit of more than one too many desperate types, to discover a sharper approach eliminating the semi-realism of cluttered deep focus community portraiture and aligning itself, subjectively, with its depraved hero. Which is where lays the source of Divorce, Italian Style’s energy: the efforts taken to be subjective but not empathetic, to capture even in an afternoon's sun-beaten lethargy the fluttering pulse and unconsummated frustration of a class now inwardly as psychologically and morally impoverished as outwardly withering away in finances, stature, and breeding.

The specific and plentiful lessons and solutions exhibited by the film would of course take closer study than this admittedly vague and general epistle, but what is clear on a revelatory re-viewing at Melbourne with a crowd clearly delighted, was an uncompromising creativity that clearly didn't seek solutions to the problems of story or of filmmaking but rather took up with its hero and subject and went with it, using its allegiance as a fund for inspiration and energy. The filmmaking doesn't follow the subject: it is one with the subject.


Design god Saul Bass made one feature film, 1974’sPhase IV, and, as with Charles Laughton, the lesson from these one shot wonders seems to be if you are only to make just one, make it a doozy. But in this ridiculous tale of a cosmos-inspired ant war organized against a small avant-garde of scientists—one a maniac Englishman, one an unflappable American—in the original ending to the film Bass upstaged even himself. The alternate conclusion was only recently discovered in 2012 and was shown restored at the Melbourne screening (it can be seen here, unrestored). This ending is pure rapid fire audacity, inwards and outwards, scorchingly saturated, chock full of single-double-and-triple exposed imagery, La jetée's sci-fi dystopia, Dalí-Hitchcock's psychoscapes, schlocky B-terror, the ultimate Maurice Binder 007 title sequences, and 70s proto new age hippie sentimentality. It’s an overripe flood of images, all the variables and components and suggestions of the previous 90-odd minutes of spare, concentrated ant warfare compressed and fermented into a redolent, orgiastic explosion. The consummated fever dream of dozens of untold lower budget and less inspired exploitation genre fare, it is a direct descendant of Roger Corman's ecstatic final solution to X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963).

These few minutes seem made from a lifetime of work—not to mention actual dreams and nightmares—outpacing all previous effort on the very movie just watched. A stunningly unusual film outlandishly conceived but meticulously executed around the idea of directing ants—paradoxically in a plot about the threat of ants directing us—Phase IV at its original finale leaves the mix of eerily stilted human chamber drama and macro-sized ant army logistics for a pure psychotropic immersion into a utopic/apocalyptic space of subjugation at once vague and precise, coupled with an ensuing sensory collapse and overload. Terror and horror and domination as vision, as an altered, hallucinogenic, space obliterating vision, a pure cinema. Which doesn't seem too bad, except for the ants crawling around in your brain.


Le départ

Of the many celluloid-focused strands at Melbourne, the most singular was dedicated to one of the axiom's of post-war cinema, actor Jean-Pierre Léaud. The retrospective, like the similarly tidy “Commedia all'italiana” strand, was almost entirely canonical, though no less revealing for it. And indeed it gladdens the cinephile heart that that once obscure Holy Grail of cinephilia, Jacques Rivette's sprawling eight-part, 13-hour made-for-television-but-screened-almost-never conspiratorial serial Out 1: noli me tangere (1971) is seen as canon and theatrical screenings of it are increasing year by year. Léaud in that film crystallizes the actor's preceding work in the 60s, a presence here born in Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959) and matured through the same director’s short film Antoine and Colette (1962), Jean-Luc Godard's Masculin féminin (1966), Jean Eustache's Santa Claus Has Blue Eyes (1967), and Jerzy Skolimowksi's late-stage alternate world New Wave film (by way of Poland and Belgium), Le départ (1967). The instructive portrait drawn is that of 1960s French cinema's holy fool.

As a teenager and as a young man, Léaud cuts variations of the same figure. Simultaneously intense and interior, he's a youth burning from the inside out, unable to articulate his passion, which inevitably turns obsessive in the face of an outside world not quite able to understand what drives him. Cloaked in trench coats, hands habitually pushing his dangling hair back off his face so as to present himself better—a touch of vanity in this introvert—he is always a bit unkempt, uncomfortable, and on the move. His nervous, often manic, energy and eagerness produces spasms kept in check by the locked focus and persistence of his running interior monologue.

This insideness often makes him tone deaf, unable quite to fully comprehend the words, thoughts, and bodies of those around him, as he's always half submerged in his own feverish mind. Physically he appears a cartoon character let loose in a semi-real world: the actor as a prankster in the mise en scène, an analogy to the filmmaking as a playful prank on the outside world, especially true of the films by Godard, Skolimowski, and Rivette. His physical antics, zany intervention, overexcited maneuvers, and tensely coiled gestures are of a body's reaction to a halfway conservative, halfway reinvented society that was all promise and conflict in the 60s. His body wanders, propelled by his churning mind.

He is a true introvert, a scholar pursuing private research for his own ends, sifting through his experiences and thoughts often in the moment, ready to report on his findings to an audience that either doesn't exist or does but is deaf to his particular aspect of disgruntled 60s faux-intellectual and politicized youth. Head bowed in thought to an unseen ground he wanders, he paces. His head, with its birdlike profile thrusting forward, lifts up, on the verge of epiphany, expectant of it and ready to declaim upon its revelation.

Masculin féminin

In his moments of most heightened fervor, Léaud is a paranoiac, a contemporary of Philip K. Dick, psychically aware of some discrepancy between his consciousness and the world in which it happens to move, perceive, and think. In moments of unconscious, of a direct perception of another person or the outside world which drills behind his thick shell of solitude and distrust, you can still catch sweet glimpses, brow unfurled, of a boy's face, that boy from The 400 Blows. His romances, in which these moments often come so unexpectedly, on the whole take the form of passkeys for his own private pursuits, giving an uncomfortable sense of infatuation and sociopathy rather than of the fragments tenderness found within.

Best emblematized in his quixotic and vague quest in Out 1, his search, never quite put to words and never fully satisfied with the human, social, and material world in which he roves, is metaphysical and existential, and all the more risky in that it seems unnamable. Its end has yet to be discovered, and the thirst which drives it is unquenchable.

Le départ

Perhaps his is only the search for the name of the thing for which we all search. A search that Léaud has merged with, body and spirit, so as to become even closer to some answer, some treasure. I saw many at the Melbourne International Film Festival like Léaud navigating the mammoth program of films and plentiful (and beautiful) theatrical venues with furtive, private intensity. But I saw many more who managed to turn the quest of that most lonely of holy fools, the cinephile, into something to be shared with others, a communal inquisitiveness, a group euphoria, a crowd's awe and laughter and grave silences, a desire to be joined together in the dark and in smaller clusters before and after screenings. Melbourne, like the best festivals, stands as a mise en abyme of the world in which it exists, the world of film and the world itself, in which Léaud's figure of the never-deterred scholarly scout is vivaciously and almost painfully relevant.  Birthed from the French New Wave, it's hard not to see Léaud's private quest of intellect and passion a mirror to that of the cinephile on a restless journey of moving image discovery. For those in the cinema's flickering shadows, he serves as a both a guide and a warning for how completely consuming such a quest can be, a quest which extends beyond the long reach of the camera's lenses and the projector's range out into a world that cannot be captured on film.

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MelbourneMelbourne 2014John NoelPietro GermiMario MonicelliSaul BassJean-Pierre LéaudFestival CoverageLong Reads
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