Thursday, November 21, 2013

Thoughts on Gods of the Plague (Fassbinder, 1970)

In Gods of the Plague,  Fassbinder is aesthetically and structurally working from Godard's noir deconstructions(Band of Outsiders, Breathless) - a copy of a copy but still unique and personal, perhaps a mutation of a mutation would be more apt. The plot isn't particularly important and Fassbinder freely stops the the story dead in its tracks to wallow in melancholy. One break takes place when Franz listen's to a children's record, the rhymes are silly and meaningless, but there's a longing for the naivety of youth - when all you had to worry about was what sound the cows make. These deviations from plot and story accentuate a feeling of meaninglessness - that progression is useless and will only end in suffering or death, which in film noir is always the case.

Here the light draws attention to the door, in which someone will, of course, walk through momentarily.  By using the light in such an obvious way, Fassbinder is reminding you that this is a movie. It's a Brechtian technique to keep you engaged with the message of the story rather than using the film as an escapism.
Film noir lighting is generally high contrast to accentuate the inky black shadows, for Gods of the Plague the lighting is at times more extreme stark and overblown and with its own agenda. It encircles the characters, isolating them further within the frame and from each other. Like a prison spot light searching for escaped convicts, it leaves no place to hide, while also serving as an extension of the camera probing and violating the depths of the characters - what it reveals is the frustrated malaise of the oppressed. This theme of oppression is set up at the start - the first moment of the film is a close up of a sign to a penitentiary. We can hear a gate open and close before Franz walks into the frame, and the camera tracks him as he moves along the prison walls. We never saw Franz go into prison, and we never saw him actually come out. Moments later when asked what it was like on the inside, Franz responds "It's not much different than out here." This remark is the verbal punctuation to the visual statement made in the opening: if we didn't really see the inside of the prison or Franz's exit, then we're left with the feeling that Franz has really been set free and he confirms this feeling with his attitude and dialogue.

American noir from the 40's and 50's is seen as a existential conflict with post-war and post-Depression ideologies. Characters are trying to take a short cut to prosperity promised after sacrifices made abroad, knowing that the old fashioned way of working hard up the ladder is a pipe dream sold to suckers. However they know that their business is high risk and high reward, and this desperate drive in the face of mortality is the dark matter that holds the genre together. Taking this art form of American disenfranchisement and transplanting it in 1970 Germany means one has to take a moment to understand this new context from which the film is created. Based on the film alone, there is a clear ideological conflict in regards to capitalism and sexuality. Character's are open with their bodies and orientation. Franz has both female(Margarethe) and male(Gorilla) lovers, and they would rather do nothing else than just share each other all day, especially if the alternative is working. When Margarethe suggests she prostitute her body to support their lifestyle, Franz reacts violently. The motivation doesn't seem to come from misogyny but disgust at the idea that she would take her body, the only thing a person will always have direct power over, and pervert it with capitalist endeavors. This link between capitalism and sexuality is further defined by the smut peddler, who sells pornographic magazines. In the scene in which the following still is taken from, she sits at a table with Joanna and a corrupt cop, and tells them that her new black market merchandise has exciting "new positions" to stimulate. The shots of the magazine are graphic, depicting fellatio and vaginal intercourse, but the characters regard them with indifference. Selling sex strips it of its passion, making it a sterile transaction, while at the same time the ban on these materials perverts natural human act, not to be enjoyed. Intercourse rarely seems to bring any type of pleasure. Franz is undressed by his lover but his mind is elsewhere - the weight of the future is crushing him. 

For more context to aid in understanding this ideological conflict, one should read this highly informative thesis "Pornography and the Sexual Revolution: A Comparative Study Between West Germany and the United States" by Patricia Sannie Lee. She explains that during the reconstruction the Allied forces utilized the Church to "...reestablish 'normality' and 'decency'". Under this mandate, Christian conservatism won out over Christian progressives, putting an emphasis, much like in the United States, on getting the woman back in the home to focus on being a mother, wife and cook, and restoring the familial unit. Sexual education disappeared or, at the very least, severely limited by parents for fear that instruction would be mistaken as promotion, and pre-marital sex and promiscuity were considered detrimental to the rebuilding process. By the 1960's the post-war generation was fed up. There was a sexual revolution, not only in Germany but across the globe, with women particularly taking more control over their bodies, and with a general acceptance of humanity's sexual nature. In addition to the war over the body, there was also the German student movement of 1968 which protested Western imperialism, and rallied behind socialist ideologies. This movement also called for a more introspective focus on Germany's fascist history, specifically during the Third Reich, which lead the country to be divided by the Allied powers. The recognition of the fascist "sins of the father" hadn't truly been dealt with up until that point - only ignored and repressed. Gods of the Plague is born of this national discontent and and is pessimistic about the struggle.

The commercialism of sex looms over the bedroom.

Who the "Gods of the Plague" are isn't exactly clear, at least not at first. The Greek god Apollo, who presided over truth, healing, poetry and music, among other thing, was also known as the god of the plague. Perhaps Fassbinder looks at the social revolution as a plague, not out of disagreement with the ideas, but because of the difficulty that comes with shouldering the responsibilities of healing a country and being more socially conscious. In Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy, Apollo is the one who, via an Oracle, gives Orestes the order to avenge his father's murder by killing his mother and her lover. When Orestes is brought to trial by the Furies, Apollo defends him arguing that marriage is a sacred bond that needed to be preserved, and from this perspective the "gods" in question are perhaps the people who enforced the oppressive conservative values in the first place. Despite the sense of defeat and hopelessness in Fassbinder's characters, this doesn't mean that Gods of the Plague sees the fight against social oppression as a pointless struggle, it clearly recognizes this ideological battle as urgent and necessary - it just doesn't know what to do about it.

Thursday, November 7, 2013


In this scene, Sanshiro Sugata, a feared judo-ka who earned his reputation after inadvertently killing his opponent, learns that the young woman he has been visiting, Sayo Murai, is the daughter of his next opponent. Their relationship began after Sanshiro admired her praying for her father.

The following two shots are Sanshiro realizing that Sayo's father is Hansuke Murai, his next opponent. Kurosawa shoots Sanshiro from below, but contrasts his literal higher status with his low feelings. This image itself is contrasted again with Sayo, who is shot at a position lower to Sanshiro, but her feelings are considerably more positive.

Kurosawa then re-frames the characters inside an archway. This creates a box that both characters are trapped in.

Sanshiro, uncomfortable and afraid, attempts to leave this "box" but despite moving further down the stairs is unable to escape it.

After a moment of contemplation, Sanshiro returns up the stairs and informs Sayo that he is the man her father will face at the judo match.

Their positions have not changed, but Kurosawa doesn't film them at as steep an angle as before. The camera seems more level to both. Sayo's joy turns to horror, and Sanshiro begins dealing with his responsibility as a fighter and as a human. They're complicated emotions that can't just be implied by obvious camera angles, Kurosawa lets the actors do the work instead.

We now cut back to a similar shot looking down the stairs, but this time the camera is placed in front of the door frame. Sanshiro is now "free" to move down the path. The camera is also placed in front of Sayo, perhaps it is her point of view, but this also keeps the two characters separated now that Sanshiro has revealed his identity.

This next shot shows Sayo caught in the middle of the stairs, unsure of to go up or down. Above her is the shrine where she prayed, and thus represents her father. Below, of course represents Sanshiro Sugata, the man she is attracted to but also the man who may seriously injure her father.

Kurosawa cuts again to a more distant shot, the stairs seem to extend even further from her on either side. This fully illustrates how lost and alone she feels at this moment. 

Friday, November 1, 2013

Thoughts on Maniac(Khalfoun, 2012)

The main gimmick in Maniac (Khalfoun, 2012) is that, with the exception of some fantasies, it’s all filmed from the killer's point of view. Your perspective of the film is shaped purely by the antagonist vision of the events. In this respect, it's like the anti-found-footage movie. The tension in found-footage films like Atrocious (Luna, 2010) or [REC] (Balagueró; Plaza, 2007)  works because of what you don't know and can't see. You only get as much information as the person, usually the protagonist, holding the camera. By isolating your perspective in this way, these films effectively simulate the feeling of being stalked or terrorized, becoming a virtual reality for people who like being scared. With Maniac, Khalfoun switches perspectives to the villain, and the antagonist’s view in horror films is generally more omniscient. Think of Jason, Freddy, or Michael Myers, who seem to always know where you are and can be behind whatever corner you’re going to turn. Frank (Elijah Wood), the killer in Maniac, is just like them, able to hide in the shadows and see everything you're doing without you knowing it.  As an audience member, who surely doesn’t want to play the role of the bad guy,  this means you have to fight against the forced perspective and attempt to identify with the victim in the distance, but it’s too difficult - they’re too distant and for the most part you don’t know anything about them other than they’re not going to make it. There is a strange feeling of guilt, having to lurk around with Frank, and stand idly by while he hacks and scalps. It doesn't really make for good tension, but it does make for an interesting, albeit dirty, experience.
The film often displays characteristics of POV Porn, where a character gets to know a girl in a fantastical situation, like picking up a hitchhiker in your bus and she just so happens to be willing to have sex with them. Maniac has this in certain situation, like the dancer on the train station which just so happens to be completely devoid of anyone who can catch them in the act. But in Maniac, sex is rejected for violence, and because of our brain’s inclination to empathically take on the first person perspective as our own, this causes us to experience something we wouldn’t really want to experience. It’s reminiscent of video games, in which you control characters that are expected to kill or destroy in order to progress the story. If you want to see how the movie ends, you have to stick with Frank the whole way. However these games, in which you assume a virtual reality as your own, are generally considered to be enjoyable, while the experience in Maniac is unsettling and uncomfortable. This is most likely because of the very real human beings conveying suffering as opposed to pixelated avatars that no one feels bad for when they bleed out. Unless their name is Aeris.
Additionally there's an aspect of misogyny that can't be avoided, but because it's so intentional it becomes more interesting than your garden variety macho bullshit. Frank desires an idealized version of women, not wanting to take in any particular flaws that would actually make them human beings. Take the girl he meets over the internet for example. She is not virginal or angelic, but a rebel and very forward sexually. This give her power and independence that unsettles Frank, even though she hasn’t exhibited any truly negative behavior. Even though she questions his masculinity when he becomes uncomfortable about the idea of sleeping with her, she also subjugates herself to him by performing oral sex. Her character has a balance of independence and submissiveness, but Frank is upset by her nature and decides to kill her. Since this is the perspective of a villain it's okay, but the film takes it further by adding a cliche backstory involving his mother, who was a bad mom doing drugs and banging dudes in front of her son. The women Frank desires are meant to fill a void left by his mother. They need to be the opposite of her, taking on qualities that he feels best represents a good mother. This backstory attempts to create sympathy for the villain by saying he's a product of nurture and puts blame on the female character for not being a good mother. She created the beast, and he's now wreaking havoc on women everywhere. Thanks mom.
Another cliche is then added: The Shitty Boyfriend. Take The Wedding Singer (Coraci, 1998) as an example. Robbie (Adam Sandler) falls in love with Julia (Drew Barrymore) but Julia is engaged. The good news is that Julia's fiance is a complete dick bag. He's so awful that you can't fathom why someone perfect like Julia, who is funny, smart and cute, would be with a callous, materialistic, douche. The Shitty Boyfriend disposes of any ambiguity regarding the protagonist's quest to obtain his heart's desire, even when she's given herself to another - so we have no other choice than to root for Robbie, or whatever underdog in a similar situation, to succeed. She deserves better! This character somehow finds its way into Maniac. Anna (Nora Arnezeder) is not unlike Julia from The Wedding Singer. She's cute, smart, and appreciative of art. Frank isn't unlike Robbie, socially awkward with anger issues. Jason, Anna's boyfriend is the belligerent alpha male, assuming Frank is gay and marking his territory by wiping his hands on Frank's jacket after using the bathroom. Exposure to countless stories have given us a Pavlovian response to the Shitty Boyfriend, and Maniac uses that, much like The Shitty Mom, to garner more sympathy for someone whose actions should render him completely unsympathetic.
There’s a strange false catharsis at the end of Maniac. Frank seemingly has everything he think he wants, Anna is added as the crown jewel of his collection, but succumbs to the wounds sustained from their earlier confrontation. As he dies he imagines the women he’s killed tearing him apart and eating him alive. This moment, in which we can witness all the victims getting a gruesome revenge on their killer, while visually engaging, doesn’t feel like a denouement meant to purge all those icky feelings we’ve had to deal with the whole film. Maybe we’re supposed to get some solace in knowing that Frank still didn’t get what he wanted, but at what cost? Frank getting ripped apart was merely a fantasy, the victims didn’t really get any revenge - they died horrible and sad deaths. And because we’d developed some kind sympathetic relationship with the character, it comes off more like a release for Frank - who no longer has to suffer and create suffering.

In many films from the “extreme horror” niche, to which this film’s writer/producer Alexandre Aja helped pioneer with Haute Tension(Aja, 2003), there is almost always a lack of catharsis for the audience. It’s a classification of horror films characterized by nihilism, seeing the worst in human nature, while victims are reduced to carved meat.The characters will undoubtedly die in a cruel way, and usually the villains will walk away, leaving little hope to hang on to for the viewer. And what could be scarier than hopelessness? At their worst, these types of films are two dimensional gore fests in which the audience stands by waiting for the villains to just end the pain so we won’t feel bad anymore. The best of these, Martyrs (Laugier, 2008), leaves the audience with questions about the film’s purpose and what the big idea is with watching all this suffering.  Maniac isn’t as interesting as Martyrs but it feels closer to that direction, philosophically, than other films of this ilk. We’re left with conflicting feelings about compassion for horrible people, but because of the cliche and simplistic methods used to create these feelings, it doesn’t explore the themes as effectively as it could. However, the ideas are there and interesting enough to discuss, which is probably more important than any quality issues.