November 11, 2010

Death House Comedy

This is another project I'll be developing further on The Moving Picture Writes and, I hope, eventually as a booklength study.
Fellas I'm Dying Out There!

The Death of M. Hulot

In the latter part of his career Jacques Tati increasingly found his most famous creation a burden he’d prefer to be free of. He described how he might kill off the bemused pipe smoker with the gangly frame and the fore...-tilted walk, without violating the form and logic that animated his films. (I’d hoped to quote this directly from Tati in a critical biography I read some years ago, but I don’t own it any longer, can’t find it in Toronto’s excellent library system, and find no trace of the passage through the magic of Google, so I’m obliged to reproduce the gist from memory and leave its full elaboration to readers luckier or more patient than I: M. Hulot is in the back kitchen of a restaurant where an incident of gunfire occurs in the dining room. A bullet passes through into the back and strikes Hulot, instantly killing him. The first concern of the restaurauteurs is to make certain this death doesn’t cast a shadow on the reputation of the restaurant, so they arrange to have him transported in a box disguised as goods being shipped out. He passes by the guests of the establishment unnoticed, and the story continues on.)

The instrumental point of this would have been to remove the Hulot millstone from around Tati’s neck, but the significance of the scene should he ever have filmed it—even of that bare description of the scene as here given—would have been much the same as Breughel’s The Fall of Icarus (as Auden described it):

how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

W H Auden, Musee des Beaux Arts

But even people watching the never-to-be-realized film in which, as it happens, this tragicomic death did not occur, would have had another and sharper reaction. Hulot might well be easily dispensable to the people who hustle his body out of view, and of no account to the people who don’t even notice, in either sense, his passing, but he’s been the fulcrum of the film to this point—assuming Tati has followed the strategy of Les Vacances de M. Hulot, Mon Oncle, Playtime and Trafic—he has anchored the story in some sense and his sudden death must cast the narrative adrift. Therefore his death may impact little on the busy, personally preoccupied lives of the other characters, but it’s a powerful, deranging event for anyone who’s been taken up with the hilarious action to that point.

Astute reviewers—which is to say nobody—would have pointed out how this resembled Tolstoi’s The Death of Ivan Illich—equally profound, funnier of course, and with the added frisson that Tati hadn’t given away the shock of the ending in the title, and in fact hadn’t ended the film there—as in Breughel, death’s an episode, almost invisible—unless made prominently visible for an instant—in a movie whose tidal flow carries on for another full hour of hilarity, minutely observed, crowding every frame. What a moment, and what a film that would have been!

That film would certainly have had a place of honour in a festival of death house comedies. None of those Tati actually did make could—not because they never concerned themselves with death (what self-respecting comic artist could ignore it altogether?) but because they tend to concern themselves with everything, and death is never emphasized as it necessarily would be if Hulot died on camera.

This isn’t a criticism of Tati, merely an attempt to establish boundaries. Death house comedy is by no means the only style of film, or even of comedy, that is serious and engaged at the highest level—but if we’re going to talk about it as a viable category parameters (and other high sounding words) are going to be required. A film needn’t be exclusively about death, or funny all the time (neither of which is even possible) to be a death house comedy. But I think it can reasonably be required to be at least as much preoccupied with death as any subject, and at least as funny as it is anything else.

(I’ve discovered through online filmographies that this was intended as the opening scene of his last, unrealized project, Confusion. It would have taken place behind the scenes on a film set apparently—nice metacinematic touch. According to these commentators it would have been his first non-comedy, but I’m not so sure. I recall Tati’s description of it in an interview I read in the mid seventies—savage satire was what he envisioned, and that was certainly within his range—all his films have passages of that, never as the single dominating mood. And satire is a comic form, even if in the way described by Peter Barnes: “I’ve laughed a lot when I haven’t felt a lot like laughing.” Easy sell? I can imagine the typical response of the money men (les personnes d’argent):

“Let me get this straight Monsieur Hu—Monsieur Tati. You’ve made a number of highly successful comedies, one hugely expensive flop, and one film since that gave a modest return on a very modest budget. You want to reconnect with the huge international audience you once enjoyed how? By killing off one of the most beloved characters in the history of cinema while the virtual impression of the opening credits is still fading from your viewers’ eyeballs? With the promise that things can only get worse from there? I foresee rows and rows of bumless seats. Now a remake in colour of Les Vacances de M. Hulot—that I could slap together a finance package over half a lunch, everone says you’re a master of colour, a true impressionist. Maybe with a younger comic in the role of Hulot.”)

Oozing Life

I never got very far in my one shot at a career in standup. I don't project well and I'm not good at memorizing lines--too lazy really--or at improvising in high pressure situations. I do all right with a few friends in a bar--k...eep my end of the conversation up at least. Onstage I'd clam up, the pipes would shut tight as bivalves and even with the mike at maximum amp I couldn't always guarantee I'd be heard by the back tables--God help me if I'd ever played a hall. I've often wondered how my career might have progressed if I'd taken Idi Amin up on his friendly offer to lend me his bodyguards when I went out to do my five minutes. "I guarantee you'll soon be doing 15 minutes, 30 minutes, even whole nights to yourself."

"Myself and two burly men with loaded Uzis flanking me on either side. Wouldn't it be better to get ahead on my own natural talent?" I don't know why he laughed at that, but he laughed loud and long. Many others, not just me, have attested to how often he'd burst out laughing for no apparent reason at things nobody else could see the humour in.

It's not that none of my lines ever got laughs, and if you want to know the truth, to this very day I still resent that. Time and again I'd be sitting in the crowd watching a comic kill with lines I'd tossed off the night before in my cups. We were working for beer or beer money at best in those days so I could hardly ask 'em to pay for my material, but a word or two of acknowledgment would not have gone amiss. Some have gone on to greater success and throw me the odd buck out of shame, but regrettably the richest and most famous of them are completely shameless, my standard of living and position in the industry would be very different today if it were otherwise. What I wouldn't give for a second chance to take up Idi's offer of lead weighted muscle. I can't recall a single instance of any comic lifting one of his gags.

If you were unaware of Idi Amin's brief stab at making it in show biz, you're not alone. You could fill arenas with people who don't know that about the iconic figurehead who went on to become Uganda's strongman/funnyman/absolute leader. I couldn't tell you for certain when it was--around the time of the first village massacre? maybe as late as the expulsion of Uganda's entire Asian immigrant population?--but somewhere in there he quietly deleted those couple of years from his resume.

He didn't exactly fail as a standup, matter of fact he was steadily building a following before he abandoned it for greater, more terrible ambitions. The click of the safeties was easily as effective as a drum roll for punch line punctuation, particularly if you as an audience member knew or suspected these were not prop weapons clutched in those huge mitts. The laughs may have been nervous but they were plentiful and if by chance they weren't? "It's a sure fire thing with me," he'd chuckle. "One way or another, when I do a show, I kill."

November 7, 2010

Ceci n'est pas un livre du cinema

Ceci n’est pas un livre du cinema
At present ceci n’est pas un essai seulement—in ten sections, nine thousand three hundred fifty words, mostly taken up with analyses of films like F for Fake, Vanya on 42nd St, Fellini’s Clowns, which I characterize as ‘documentary fictions’. Also a couple of self-written examples:
One of the two children I’d invited to join me across the street was hanging out the back of a helicopter taxi giving grid coordinates to where they were meeting us—must have seemed strange to the driver, but t...he crosswalks are intricate up here by this last subway stop before open water and people lose their way easily. I was more nervous about the boy hanging out the back, but he scampered back in as the ‘copter began its sweep round a tower in the middle of the harbour to look back on the city beyond. What had surprised me was the country coordinate (which you always have to give a helicab driver, it’s a formal requirement even for intra-city travel: pilots have intricate guidelines and restrictions concerning flight to certain countries and better safe than sorry, also sometimes they can hook you up with a helicopter at another destination that is allowed into that country and perhaps has regulation armour and defensive weaponry as the situation might require, not that you’d need that in Wales but it did surprise me—knew the call I was taking was well outside my usual boundaries but Wales!? maybe unbeknownst to myself I was part of a courier exchange) now the helicopter rounds back on a slow circle to its near destination—first look I’ve had at the skyline though ‘I’ am not technically on board the helicopter—ever shifting multi-perspective view, don’t get a lot of that in real life. Distant skyline dominated by a row of smoke belching industrial behemoths, don’t see that in a lot of cities anymore, suspect it’s not at all typical of Wales. Shaped a little like a sooty, flame-shooting pipe organ. When the helicopter arcs toward the dockside where my friends and I are waiting it’s completely changed from my first view of it when I walked over from the subway just moments before. Then the complex of buildings behind it were square-edged and mainly of pink brick, now they’re round-edged—interwoven half globes ten storeys high—and mainly of white marble. Not every city can house two completely different building complexes in the same space depending on what? time of day, fall of light, angle of approach from which they’re viewed? At least the floating dock the helicab touches down on hasn’t changed, except I half remember it was a fixed dock before.

A woman who’s held on in the street vending trade long after the rest of us abandoned it is here, having packed up a little while ago. I asked her how business was and she said not too bad. She could use an easily portable tent for the rough weather days, a friend was improvising something light and flexible until she could afford a proper one, maybe at the next economic turnaround she wasn’t holding her breath. I know it’s not a sustainable life anymore, what with the harassing regulations and the drying up of business, even at Christmas, to virtually nothing. Still when I see one of us pioneers at it yet, I feel a twinge of nostalgia. Maybe the regulations are more vendor-friendly this corner of Wales. Wonder what the distance charge on the envelope I just delivered is going to be?

A writer friend I’ve never met personally, just know through an online workshop is among the dozen or so of us assembled now the two children have landed. She’s in a wheelchair which I think is only temporary, and is asking directions to a stop I already know—it’s where I started from on my trip to make this delivery. She’s prepared to wheel the ten blocks I walked from the last connecting bus, but now I know there’s a subway so near I can direct her there—even accompany her, it’s on my way and the 100 interconnecting subway and lrt lines are confusing for a newcomer. We’ll soon discover that seven of them interconnect with the stop she wants to go to.
Meanwhile the whole group of us has a lottery ticket we bought by assembling every nickel, dime and occasional quarter we had in our pockets, and are trying to check it in a newspaper whose format’s a little baffling. Strange to see so many visitors to our fair city gathered on one dock, says the kiosk vendor, especially as it’s not at all the high tourist season. What’s kiosk business like? I ask, still pining for the old days in micro-scale street level retail.

What’ll we do when we win the lottery? someone asks and I notice there’s a high level of confidence that we will. It won’t do us much good, I say, as this is all happening in a dream. Hey! everyone shouts back in unison, don’t rain on our parade! Last time we had serious flooding, says the kiosk vendor, it washed away the entire city which had to be hastily reassembled for an international conference. Terrible sudden deficit expense, but a boon for the construction trade. That’s neither here nor there but thinking it over I decide to go with group consensus and look on the positive side. Stranger things have happened than that a lottery ticket in a dream . . . but what I’m really wishing is that I could have gotten a movie camera in for the duration of this and gotten it out after.

The project began, and grew from, a study of Chris Marker's Sans Soleil where:

Tokyo is mostly a night or interior city in Sans Soleil, seen under a wide range of artificial lights that grow progressively more distorted. The simplest level i...s familiar to every city dweller: street lamps, neon (fixed and firm or lightly sputtering), the grey –white pallor cast by tube lighting in pachinko parlours, the dancing light show on pachinko boards (roughly analogous to pinball consoles) and video terminal screens. (There’s a brief passage on the historical significance of Pac-Man.) At another remove are passages drawn from television screens (one of many sorts of incorporated ‘found’ footage in the film): Marker makes no effort to soften the distortion that normally occurs when televised images are filmed direct from the screen. There’s even the suspicion he may be in some way enhancing it, but I think that’s more the effect of the images themselves, supersaturated with vivid colours that sometimes clash violently enough you might almost say they’re at war with each other. A degree of harmony is restored, paradoxically, by the thoroughly jiggered images of the computer programmer Hayao Yamenake (according to Wikipedia, another of Marker’s inventions—he created these manipulated images himself), deranging naturalistic images partly by pixilation, partly by altering their colour fields, into something whose pattern is still discernible—at least if you’re familiar before hand with the image being altered, and he largely transforms images previously seen in travelogue or documentary footage—but considerably abstracted, kaleidoscoped, taking on an other-worldly glow. He calls the region of virtual space these images occupy The Zone, after that region in Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Stalker.

But there are sunlit exterior scenes in Tokyo as well, and daytime exteriors predominate in footage from other locations—Iceland, the Ile de France, Guinea Bissau. Odd in a film called Sans Soleil, but sunlight (bonsoir Magritte) is absent in its presence here, since it’s captured on film, not by the eye (ceci n’est pas la lumiere de la soleil). On the other hand the ultimate source of all light on earth (it would be different in another solar system) is our sun; in that sense, no matter how processed, distorted, artificially extruded, the source of all light in Sans Soleil remains the sun. (It’s curious incidentally how readily we think of sunlight and rain in the same language: I had to throw away earlier drafts in which I persisted in talking of light ‘streaming’ or scenes ‘drenched’ in light.)
Like the sun, the film’s two narrators are omnipresent yet absent. The author of the letters that describe its various scenes and actions, Sandor Krasna, is neither heard nor seen: the reader of them, played by Florence Delay in French, Alexandra Stewart in English, Riyoko Ikeda in Japanese, Charlotte Kerr in German, is heard almost constantly but never seen. The words she speaks are written in another’s voice but spoken in her own, which must be assumed to inflect and alter their significance in subtle ways—there’s a sense of constantly listening for the voice behind the voice, reinforced by ritual repetitions of “He wrote to me”. (Besides which she acts as editor, selecting from a presumably large body of letters the comments that will represent them over particular scenes.) More present in absence than either of these is the true author, not only of Krasna’s letters but of Krasna and the narrator, the film’s maker Chris Marker. (This being the pseudonym of a director whose given name is something completely different, Chris Marker too is one of the film maker’s inventions. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, a large section of the film is given over to a meditation on Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.)

Fiction or documentary? Yes, and a subtly powerful inquiry into the porous borderland between the two, frequently thought of as having no point of contact, let alone impermeation. The fascinating sequence on Vertigo—clearly a fictional film—plays off against passages sampled from purely documentary works like The Death of a Giraffe—one of the few passages left entirely without commentary—for a reason that’s self evident, watching: the horrific sequence as it unfolds is its own commentary, words of any kind would be superfluous. The commentary on Vertigo may be more nearly documentary than the samplings from other documentaries, since these are assimilated to the musings of the fictional Sandor Krasna. (This brings to mind other mixed form experiments: Fellini’s I Clowns, Herzog’s Fata Morgana, Moretti’s Caro Diario. This being a ‘genre’ unusually free of established rules—for purists even a genre that perhaps shouldn’t exist, though I think it’s only problematic if the elements of fictional contrivance are perfidiously concealed—it’s unsurprising that each has a peculiar signature of its own, unique as a fingerprint.

In keeping with its theme of presence-in absence, the fingerprint of Sans Soleil is perhaps invisible to some viewers altogether, and keeps appearing and vanishing once you become aware of it. Many viewers I’m sure glance over the final credits perfunctorily or make for the exits while they’re playing, and that’s the only place in the film where the fictional letter writer Sandor Krasna is mentioned: so it’s easy enough to assume these are simply Chris Marker’s own comments on materials from a video diary of his travels into several remote regions of the world. (In fact they wouldn’t be entirely mistaken in thinking so.) It’s even likely there fare fans of Chris Marker who are unaware that’s not his real name—I know because I’ve been a fan for decades, since I saw La Jetee (which makes a cameo appearance in Sans Soleil), and only discovered this myself a few years ago, reading it in the notes on a Chris Marker retrospective at Cinematheque.

The voice of Sandor Krasna is persuasively mundane yet conversational, with an eye for the telling image, an ear for the telling image, a natural bent for elaborate theorising—it requires a real effort of concentration to remember that this is a narrator, perhaps not at all times a reliable one. That concentration may open the mind to wider speculations: is sunlight natural or artificial? Is the image I see on the screen present? In a sense yes, for there it is; in a sense no, because with rare exceptions every image we see on film was recorded in the past. (Sandor Krasna speculates, or appears to, at one point that images might be sent back from the future as well—but this has little relevance at our present state of comparatively primitive technology: we don’t even know yet how to send a camera into the dream.) Ultimately we might be driven back to Heraclitus’s question: is the river I step in the river I stand in? the film I began watching the one I see through to its end. And then perhaps to wonder. . . )