A Man Escaped: Robert Bresson as Maker of Stealth Games

19 01 2016


A Man Escaped has often been called Robert Bresson’s masterpiece. I’m not sure about that claim. Lancelot du Lac is formally richer; Au Hasard Balthazar is more moving. But the director’s breakthrough prison escape film is, if nothing else, a perfect experience. Every shot counts, every composition works. The pace is flawless. Bresson uses off-screen space in ways that have since been extensively copied. Even unique modern masterpieces owe their debt to him, such as Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman, about a housewife who might or might not have run over a child with her car, and who spends much of the running time walking in a daze, feeling guilty about the victim she might or might not have left behind on the road, terrified by the noises and figures at the borders of her (and our) perception.

In A Man Escaped, there are many things our protagonist cannot see, and we don’t see them either. This is a powerful narrative mechanic. Bresson insisted, in his writings, on the need for cinema to remove the corset of theatrical tradition, and his productive use of off-screen space (among other techniques) allows him to do that. The camera captures just a small fragment of a larger world.

Now, in theater, there is always an unseen narrative universe beyond the limits of the stage. But, as critic André Bazin argued, that kind of spatial limitation is to be expected in theater. We’re not, however, used to such limitations in cinema, and when they’re imposed on the medium, the effect is more claustrophobic, more impactful. Even if the protagonists are stuck somewhere, the movie can always – and very easily – cut to a new camera angle, so that we can be rescued from the architectural prison. When this doesn’t happen, we grow restless and terribly aware of our entrapment. Bresson knows this only too well. He never rescues us. He forces us to share the prisoner’s perspective, his limited vantage point, his ignorance about what surrounds him and what’s beyond his cell. It’s this that makes A Man Escaped so persuasive and why we identify so much with the protagonist.

Like many art house classics, it can now remind us of a videogame. As much as interactive entertainment tries to resemble Hollywood blockbusters, its real kinship is with this kind of austere, slow-moving fare. Which is what the latest so-called art games and walking simulators, like Gone Home and especially Dear Esther, have understood, and what earlier masterpieces, like the Thief games, had grasped. According to videogame historian Jimmy Maher, back in the 80s, Steve Meretzky, the man responsible for the epochal text-adventure A Mind Forever Voyaging, once sat down to breakfast and had the following epiphany: “Interactive fiction does setting incredibly well, perhaps better than it does anything else. Intricate plotting it does painfully and reluctantly and usually clunkily. Therefore why not make the player not so much a participant in the plot as an observer?” Scrap typical character development and three-act structures. Let’s do setting. Let’s focus on space, on exploration, on movement. On observation.

Bresson did something similar, but in cinematic terms. There’s little psychology in A Man Escaped. Yes, there’s a constant voiceover. But the protagonist’s thoughts are pragmatic: what he sees, what he needs to do, what items he has, how he will get past the Nazi security guards. Interactions with other characters always serve immediate needs. What’s most important, for the protagonist, is mastering his surroundings. Only after doing so might he deliver himself from the encroaching walls. The plot, or what can be called that, is structured around his growing familiarity with the prison’s layout. Transcendence needs physicality, needs a tangible, “realistic” environment. (Paul Schrader, in his study of the director, points out how Bresson highlights the surface of “everyday reality” precisely to undermine it, to make us doubt it. Just like our hero, in this film, wishes to undermine the very defenses he so restlessly studies with such zeal.) We need to feel the material world in our bones before we can imagine anyone’s emancipation from it.

Unfriended, or Two or Three Things I Know About Her Facebook Profile

8 01 2016


The cluttered frame of this movie-on-a-laptop-screen can’t quite hide the fact that our Skyping and Facebooking protagonists, persecuted on the Internet by a vengeful spirit, will – if they die – die alone. Most horror films, in one way or the other, are about loneliness. Even those about groups of youngsters, like many slashers, are really about the whittling down of their numbers. Near the end of such movies, only one or two usually remain. The real horror is being left alone. But in this case, our heroes are alone from the outset, each inside his or her own room, and all it takes is a bad connection to sever what binds them together. They can’t come to each other’s aid, since they’re too far away. In fact, they can’t even move: if they leave their rooms, says the spirit, they die, so they have to remain seated while yet another Skype window winds down.

Nevertheless, this is not (only) another technophobic dystopia about how, in the era of interconnectedness, we’re less connected than we’ve ever been. It is cautious and pessimistic, sure, but it expresses that caution through uninhibited immersion into what it’s cautious about. That is, through deep familiarity with the subject. The filmmakers don’t wish to turn back the clock and do away with our technological toys. If that were to happen, there would be no movie and, more importantly, no audience to watch it.

The online environment of social media might be banal and commonplace to us, but it becomes alien and strange in this film, which uses the language of this environment, the loading screens and message alerts, the stuttering videos and pixelated cam feeds, to fulfil the requirements of the genre, for suspense and dread. Actions we perform every day are appropriated by the plot and milked for dramatic effect. Suddenly, these actions no longer seem purely utilitarian but hide more sinister possibilities. The movie-on-a-laptop-screen isn’t new: earlier examples include critical, experimental shorts like Transformers: The Premake. What’s more novel is how the online environment is resignified through horror genre tropes and expanded as a surface of expressive possibility.

Significantly, the vengeful spirit roams the online wilds because that is where she was shamed and bullied in the public forum of social media, which led her to commit suicide. What the film says, then, is not that we’re disconnected in the era of interconnectedness, but that, maybe, we’re too connected, not just to each other but to everything all of us ever do, to our pasts, accumulating in the endless, stupid, unfiltered archive of the Internet. As the bodies pile up and friendships are nipped in the bud, the real bogeyman becomes not the vengeful spirit but the endless exposure of our virtual selves, the collection of videos and photos and text messages that roam undeleted from one browser window to the next, waiting for another Google search. Our protagonists become not just strangers to their friends, but to themselves: they can hardly control their unruly online reflections, which outlive them in the form of a digital afterlife. Phrases like “In Real Life” no longer make any sense. What happens online doesn’t stay online and is very much real life. It’s so important, even, that it must be filmed, somehow. It cannot be ignored by cinema, because this new environment is, also, a new home for cinema itself and for the traffic of images.

The Assassin, or movies we’re not meant to follow

22 12 2015


Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s latest is complicated. It’s so complicated someone went ahead and created an infographic outlining the characters’ relationships. Still, I enjoyed the movie, and I think the reason I did is that, with cinema, it’s not always necessary to understand what’s going on.

This has to do with the nature of the medium, especially in a theatrical setting, where viewers can’t rewind or pause the screening. Overwhelming amounts of visual and aural information are always flitting past them, so it’s expected that they won’t grasp everything. And they truly can’t when the images are as breathtaking as they are in The Assassin. How can they simultaneously keep track of such gorgeous compositions, layered period detail, and dense webs of spoken exposition? Well, the answer is: they can’t. Or: they should consult the infographic. Or perhaps: they should stop worrying and love the Hou. Or maybe: they’re not supposed to keep track of it all, because that failure is part of the meaning, part of what the film has to say about the prickly brambles of politics, legacy, and heritage, in which every action in the present is an equal but opposite reaction to innumerable factors stretching into the past.

Now, unlike movies, novels often include family trees, maps, and other paratextual elements so that readers can, indeed, keep track of it all. With literature, as tangled as a story might get, the unwritten assumption is that readers can handle it because they have all the time in the world to wrap their noggins around it. They can flip back pages, look up information, scribble notes on the margins. The story isn’t going anywhere until they force it to. Even if the author hoped to instil a sense of disorientation, readers will still try to assimilate the whole unwieldy edifice.

This might explain why so many readers become frustrated with, say, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, an extreme example of  confounding art. Since it’s a book, total understanding seems to be simply a matter of perseverance. And if total understanding never comes, well, that’s a problem. Jorge Luis Borges, in his famous pan of the book, mentioned his “total bewilderment” and admitted to only stealing “useless and partial glances” at the Irishman’s “verbal labyrinth.” Had it been a movie, I suspect some might have more readily accepted it as a brilliant mind-fuck and rolled a joint. (As it happens, there is indeed a movie version, an acceptable one made in the 60s by Mary Ellen Bute, but it’s considerably more coherent and sedate than the original text. Bute’s own experimental shorts from the 20s, with their dreamy abstraction, are probably closer to Joyce’s vision.) Or maybe not: early responses to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, as many will recall, were similarly baffled. As a culture obsessed with rationality, perhaps we’re terrified when an artwork exceeds our capacity to comprehend it.

That’s not to say books or movies should never make sense. Sometimes their stories or themes call for sense to be made. But other times, that’s obviously not the point. Joyce was doing a novel about the night, like Ulysses had been about the day. Kubrick was imagining bedrooms beyond the known universe. And Olivier Assayas, in his brilliant Demonlover (roundly criticised for being as infographic-worthy as The Assassin), was studying the endless twining and interweaving of corporate intrigue, even flirting with satyrical absurdity. (As we discover, the company all the protagonists work for is entirely and comically comprised of double agents from other, competing companies). When judging their merits, we should not ask how much sense they make, because they don’t always make that much of it, but how well they keep our attention despite the “total bewilderment” they sink us into. The best mind-fucks are those we’re forever close to figuring out, but can’t. Or rather, we can’t while in the process of watching them, because the pieces often do fall into place after post-credits reflection – or reading an infographic.

The examples I just mentioned often deceive us. They seem to straddle the line between sense and nonsense, the shadow and the light. Finnegans Wake seems written in an alien language, but… is that an actual English word? Are those repeated names or initials? Is that the faint outline of a discernible narrative structure? 2001, inversely, is so glacially slow and its images are so transparently beautiful and clear, that it seems impossible to be flummoxed by anything in it. And then, suddenly, there’s a white room with a black monolith – and is that a space-faring baby? In the same vein, Demonlover and The Assassin include reams of exposition. Characters talk and talk, they name names. Viewers suspect that, if they keep listening, their burning questions will finally be resolved. Except they’re not. These masterpieces of confusion know that confusion isn’t fun unless we feel we’re perpetually close to an epiphany that might never come.

It’s a Wonderful Life, but not for old maids

31 08 2015

What I admire about Frank Kapra, based on what little I have seen, is that he descends into depths of despair few filmmakers are willing to explore, and he does it in such a way that many viewers are unaware of how far down the rabbit hole they’ve come. Or rather, they don’t realize that, despite a happy ending, or what appears to be a happy ending, they’re still down there, deep inside the rabbit hole. Happy endings, in Kapra, are meant to reassure audiences, yet the slightest analysis reveals a more disquieting picture: the protagonist might have achieved a temporary moment of respite, or been saved from hell, or realized his worth as a human being, but what he has not done is solve the problems of the world, which he hoped to amend and which have brought him to his knees. Kapra shrouds the despair without nullifying it. What’s troubling in Kapra never disappears. It gets pushed to the background, but it remains there, waiting to burst forth.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a particularly obvious example (and to explain why, I am obviously going to have to spoil the ending, so avert your eyes, those who do not want to know or do not yet know): corruption wins. Smith’s famous filibuster, in which he attempts to clear his name and expose a graft scheme carried out by his unscrupulous fellow senators, is a disaster. The movie’s iconic shot, of James Stewart (i.e. Smith) standing next to a pile of letters, represents his final defeat. Those involved in the graft scheme have forged hundreds of messages, purportedly from citizens of Smith’s unnamed state, asking the protagonist to step down from his senatorial seat. The only reason we get an apparently happy ending is because one of the “villains,” Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), has a crisis of conscience, right there in Congress, and reveals all after a botched suicide attempt. There are two interpretations to make of this: either innate human goodness saves the day, in which case evil cannot win, because empathy and guilt eventually have their way; or rather, democracy is in the hands of the corrupt, who are the only deus ex machina capable of counteracting their own corruption. No one can sabotage their designs, except themselves. We depend upon the corrupt to regulate their own sins. The system cannot do it for us. It has failed, it has broken down. Idealists like Smith are powerless and their heroism is without consequence. Happy ending, indeed.

It’s a Wonderful Life is not much different (and to explain why, again, spoilers). George Bailey runs a savings and loans firm with a social conscience, lending to poor citizens who dream of owning a house. Mr. Potter, the most powerful man in Bedford Falls, wants his bank to be the sole financial institution around, and Bailey’s shenanigans prevent this from happening. Following a series of unfortunate events, Mr. Potter successfully and unscrupulously pins a case of bank fraud on George, which threatens to dismantle his firm and ruin his finances, and consequently, George contemplates suicide on the edge of a bridge, hoping his family can cash in on his life insurance policy.

Which is when, famously, his guardian angel descends from heaven and offers him a tour of a world in which George was never born, a dystopian Bedford Falls renamed Pottersville, a case of unchecked capitalism gone wild, as the town, now owned by Mr. Potter, has been overrun by the crassest of commercial interests, the charm of traditional Rockwellian America consumed by the expanding tumor of casinos and nightclubs. An unintentional moment of hilarity, which inspired the title of this brief post, is when George, having just learned that his brother has died in this alternate reality – because George was never around to save him from an accident, and thus more than a hundred American GIs died during the war, because they were meant to be rescued by George’s brother – having just learned such harrowing details, he then asks his guardian angel about his former wife, and so the angel recoils and tells him that, oh, he won’t like this, this is going to be really terrible for him. It turns out she’s an old maid! She never married! Apparently, in 1939, having your brother die was pretty bad, but being a middle-aged woman who had chosen to remain single – now that was tragedy.

Anyhow, the point is that George finally returns to Bedford Falls, realizing, after the angel’s tour, how crucial he is to his community, a lesson driven home when, upon returning to his family, he finds that all his friends and associates, seemingly the entire population of Bedford Falls, have agreed to pitch in and raise money for George to avoid legal trouble. So, happy ending? Not quite: George receives enough to stay afloat, but the years ahead, since he is the sole obstacle halting Mr. Potter’s domination of Bedford Falls, as revealed by the nightmare of Pottersville, will be years of struggle. The uphill battle against the amoral banker continues.

The Dystopia We Want

27 08 2015

As part of my job, I watch plenty of TV spots and promotional videos, and read piles of print ads. Sometimes, I come across some curious examples. This is one of them. Corning, the company behind this YouTube short, wants everyone – tech and construction companies, even governments – to use its product. That is, glass, obviously, which might be used, in some science-fictional future, for smart televisions, smart phones, smart bathroom mirrors, smart fridges, smart kitchen tables, smart dinner tables, smart shop fronts, smart bus stops, smart traffic signs, smart billboards, even smart panels in clothing stores to browse the catalogue. This is not your grandfather’s glass, that’s for sure. This is glass in the Internet of Everything era. Connected, all the time.

The curious thing, of course, is the inevitable question: do we want this? Is this a good thing? Is this our future? The prevalence of blinding brightness – white or faintly beige or lightly grey surfaces – throughout this video would seem to suggest some sort of heaven. Certainly, all the characters look very, very happy. They’re calm, comforted. They spend the entire day enjoying the endless delights of interconnected devices. But they also spend every waking minute surrounded by surfaces reminding them of their jobs, of their appointments, of the products they do not need but will consume. And the efficiency gained from such technology has a drawback, as anyone who owns a smart phone knows. The drawback being that social expectations change as technology expands the realm of the possible. You can contact people with more speed now, sure. But they also expect you to. Unanswered messages – and by unanswered I mean not replied to within the hour – convey a message: about how much you care about a person or project or team or whatever. The meaning of our interactions has been altered.

What I found intriguing about Corning’s video, quite simply, is its assumption about the absolute, unarguable, unambiguous goodness of the ubiquitous smart technology on display, its assumption that these images – of endless screens surrounding us and bombarding us with information all the time – are attractive, that they make the underlying product (glass) desirable. But, then, maybe that’s true: certainly, tech and infrastructure seems to be moving in this direction. And Corning, here, means to woo other businesses and governments, not street-level consumers or bloggers (in ad-speak, this video is B2B, or business-to-business). Maybe we’ll end up having to get used to this future. Maybe this is the dystopia we want. We’ll doubtlessly grow used to it, whenever it comes about, but it is no more desirable because of this.

Blade Runner: reestreno, antecedentes, legado

10 03 2015

Vuelve al cine (al menos en Inglaterra) una de las obras maestras de la ciencia ficción, capaz lo mejor del género en su versión estadounidense, junto con 2001 de Kubrick. Para encontrar algo comparable, es necesario ir hasta Rusia (el Stalker de Tarkovsky o El visitante del museo de Lopushansky), Francia (La Jetée de Marker o Alphaville de Godard), Japón (Cowboy Bebop o Ghost in the Shell) o Alemania (Metropolis).

Los títulos aludidos no son casuales. Trazan un árbol genealógico: Blade Runner es heredera de una tradición francesa del noir futurista, que va desde Alphaville hasta los comics de Metal Hurlant. También, de cierta puesta en escena (poética, melancólica) de lo distópico, elaborada en La Jetée y Stalker. Y, obviamente, de un modelo de ciudad moderna basado en Manhattan (aunque el film sitúe la acción en Los Angeles), especialmente cierta idea febril de una Manhattan colosal y fantasmal, expresada en Metropolis y, también, en muchas ilustraciones especulativas de los años 20, como las del delineador y arquitecto estadounidense Hugh Ferriss. A su vez, Blade Runner se convirtió en un punto de referencia ineludible para la producción ciencia-ficcional que la sucedió: desde animés (las ya mencionadas Cowboy Bebop y Ghost in the Shell) hasta video juegos (Deus Ex, Perfect Dark y The Longest Journey) y otras películas del género (Star Wars: Episodio II, Hasta el fin del mundo de Wim Wenders).

Incluso, en el campo literario, William Gibson, que popularizó el cyberpunk con Neuromante, admitió que, cuando se estrenó Blade Runner, no la fue a ver porque temía que anticipara los temas e imágenes que ansiaba volcar en su novela. Años después, confirmó sus sospechas, y no escatimó elogios para el film. Otro escritor que se entusiasmó con el proyecto fue el mismo Philip K. Dick, autor del libro en el que se basó Blade Runner. Los dejo con sus palabras, que redactó luego de ver tan solo un avance en un programa televisivo (nunca alcanzó a ver la película completa: falleció unos meses antes del estreno):

El impacto de Blade Runner, en el público y en las personas creativas -y, creo, en el campo de la ciencia ficción-, será sencillamente sobrecogedor. (…) Nada de lo que hemos hecho, individual o colectivamente, está a la altura de Blade Runner. Esto no es escapismo; es súper-realismo, tan crudo y detallado y auténtico y convincente que, pues, tras ver el segmento (por televisión) encontré que mi realidad cotidiana era comparativamente insípida.

Ida, transcendence, history

9 03 2015


The film’s 1.37 aspect ratio is crucial, as it emphasizes vertical length. We’re used to interpreting film images horizontally, so Ida can be an exercise in visual disorientation. Compositions are not only “tall,” but decentered. Characters sometimes occupy the bottom third of the screen, with the upper two-thirds filled with negative space. This is crucial in a movie about transcendence: spiritual and historical. We’re made to look upwards, above the protagonists’ heads, at what’s beyond them. They are part of an inexplicably larger whole, in both existential and sociopolitical terms. History can be as mysterious and bottomless as God, though efforts to understand it are nevertheless necessary, like a believer must struggle to come closer to his or her deity.

Sebald’s Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn are literary takes on similar themes (especially the former, which shares more than a few plot points with Ida): on the slipperiness of History, on the need to recall those things which others have forgotten. His approach is more essayistic, however. Whereas Ida forgoes historical exposition, Sebald recovers the past through research, returns to the sources. There is no turning back time, but things survive: pictures, films, documents, buildings. Pathways across decades and centuries are opened up by remaining materials. Memories can be stirred by paving stones. In Ida, meanwhile, there are voices and testimonies, often ambiguous. The material, when unearthed, only has meaning because of what is said about it. This has earned the film some controversy. Richard Brody, at The New Yorker, calls the movie unbearably, even dangerously vague. And in Poland, some have claimed, from both the right and the left, that it reinforces distortions of Polish history.

These are fair concerns. The film focuses on a small, local narrative, which is not meant to represent or convey History. Its minimalism works against generalization, and its protagonists – a novitiate nun who discovers her Jewish past and her aunt, a Communist judge and former WWII resistance fighter – are not “everywomen,” but peculiar, specific people. At the margins of the narrative, as argued in the above article by Filip Mazurczak, are other kinds of Jewish characters and Poles, who react differently to Nazi occupation and subsequent Communism. Individuals don’t experience History, but their own histories. The question, then, is whether a film should be true to this incomplete experience, even though it might be at odds with History, or whether it should transcend the characters, move beyond their point-of-view. In Ida, the negative space signals a continent where neither film nor protagonists can go, where there might be full historical and spiritual understanding. Sebald, it seems, has a more conciliatory answer: his books are about fragmentary individual experience, but their protagonists, as historians and academics, nevertheless try to investigate beyond themselves, even when their attempts to explicate History are driven by personal trauma.

Panorama Mundial de historia y actualidad

Análisis de la Política Internacional

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A collection of my posts on Asian cinemas, arts, and entertainments.

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