Fragmented Films June 2012 (2)

There are only a handful of truly great films. Solaris (Distinction Series) is one of them. It’s often billed as Russia’s answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey, yet whilst sharing a desire with Kubrick to create intelligent science fiction, filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky (Stalker) uses the setting merely as a launching pad to grapple with some of the broader existential questions of our existence. Made in 1972, it’s one of the most unconventional love stories you will ever see, a mystical, at times hallucinatory parable of love, loss, and what makes us human. Sent to assess the crew at the remote space station Prometheus (Yes Ridley), in orbit above the mysterious planet Solaris, a psychologist discovers a crew in chaos, exhibiting strange paranoid, possibly delusional behaviour. Gradually though he too falls under the spell of Solaris, retreating into his memories and grappling with an unresolved past that threatens to consume him.

The film is an artistic masterwork, it’s visually spectacular, particularly on Blue Ray, and Tarkovsky is one of those few directors who know how to fully utilise sound, with incredible musique concrete techniques mixed with score. In fact Solaris redefined the cinematic language. At 166 minutes its effect on you is gradual, sensory and experiential. Don’t be fooled by cheap Soderbergh imitations. This is the best cinema has to offer.

Speaking of which David Lynch’s remarkable debut Eraserhead (Umbrella) has finally secured a Blue Ray release. This too redefined the cinematic language, though sent it confused and whimpering into an entirely different direction. It’s a dark, surreal and unsettling tale that has something to do with childbirth and fear of responsibility. Elevator doors take too long to close, chickens wriggle on the plate whilst eaten and miniature ladies with bad skin sing from inside the radiator. It has the greatest sound design in the history of cinema, is visually remarkable and funny as hell. No one creates atmosphere or scary cornball wrongness like Lynch. Despite Blue Velvet, or even the incredible Inland Empire, Lynch has never surpassed this act of pure artistic genius.

2008’s Ex Drummer (Siren) was one of the most audacious, dark and intelligent debuts in some time. Its bleak, at times violent humour and raw punk energy singled out Belgium director Koen Mortier as an idiosyncratic storyteller unafraid to lurk in the shadows. 22nd of May (Accent) is his follow up, a gentler more art house orientated deconstruction of a bombing in a shopping centre. It’s from the perspective of Sam the security guard, who after the explosion attempts to save victims trapped in the centre, before becoming overwhelmed and running through the streets until he collapses. This is where it enters Wings of Desire territory, with the near deserted streets an existential purgatory, populated only by victims of the bombing, who unburden themselves to Sam, some accusatory, some apathetic. Sam discovers lives with hopes and dreams, all extinguished via one senseless act, whilst also grappling with his own feelings of guilt and complicity. The finale is spectacular. Think Zabriske Point but with shoes.

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Fragmented Frequencies June 2012

Chris Watson is a founding member of the early 70’s Sheffield synth pop outfit Cabaret Voltaire, though to be fair during his involvement they were a little less synth poppy and a lot more experimental weirdo. In 1983 Watson left to form the Hafler Trio, an art project of steadily revolving members anchored by Andrew M McKenzie, that used techniques like music concrete, montage and cut ups to create their unique sound. Yet it’s the next step in his evolution that is perhaps the most interesting. In the early 90’s a growing fascination with field recordings led him to work with the Royal society For the Protection of Birds and into television sound production. These days he is a freelance sound recordist for film TV and Radio, working regularly for the BBC, with a particular interest in wildlife and nature recordings. In parallel with this activity he has been releasing his material in varying forms for the Touch label in the UK for the last 16 odd years. Perhaps the best evidence of his love of the natural world is 1998’s Outside the Circle of Fire (Touch), which contains 22 intimate recordings of everything from the purring of an adult cheetah to the rattle of Deathwatch Beetles. He used techniques like tying two omnidirectional microphones to the carcass of a zebra to record the sounds of vultures tearing at the flesh. He speaks of 24 hours later hopping on a plane to the UK, wiping the blood off the mic, and attaching it to the lapel of an English MP for a BBC interview.

Watson’s fascination is about putting the mic where the ear can’t reach to uncover sounds that could never otherwise be heard. He speaks of dropping mics in lakes, digging them into sand, embedding them in bees’ nests, you name it, he’s tried it.

More recently he has begun to edit his sounds. Perhaps the most successful is 2003’s Weather Report (Touch), which collapses recordings of Kenya, Iceland and Scotland, blending and editing time to create new narratives. The Guardian listed it in its top 1000 albums you need to hear before you die. He won a BAFTA in 1998 for his work on The Life of Birds and regularly works with David Attenborough, most recently on The Frozen Planet. His latest album is El Tren Phantasm (Touch), a nostalgic soundtrack to a train journey through the heart of Mexico from the Pacific to the Atlantic on a railway that no longer exists.

Watson is coming to Australia as part of Liquid Architecture, Melbourne’s longstanding festival of sound art and culture. Liquid Architecture 13: Antarctic Convergence is their first themed program, designed as a means of “investigating the philosophical, social and environmental ramifications of the growing human presence in Antarctica.”

Alongside Watson, the festival will host works from numerous artists from disparate disciplines whose practice has taken them to the frozen continent. People like Scott Morrison, whose AV release Ballad(s) For Quiet Horizons (Room40) from last year was nothing short of extraordinary. There’s Argentinean video and installation artist Andrea Juan, Douglas Quin a US sound designer who recently worked on Werner Herzog’s Encounters at The End of the World, French artist Anne Colomes, and New Zealand sound and video artist Phil Dadson. Everyone’s favourite laser (or giant Theremin) dude Robin Fox will be there along with Melbourne sound artist Phil Samartzis who recently visited Davis Station in Eastern Antarctica to document the effects of extreme climate and weather events on the human condition. Room40 honcho Lawrence English, no stranger to Antarctica will also perform. Liquid Architecture is a different kind of festival, placing as much importance installations and sonic experiences as live performances. It begins on the 28th of June. Check http://www.liquidarchitecture.org.au.

Fragmented Films April 2012

If you can’t handle my worst then you don’t deserve my best,” Lars Von Trier paraphrases Marylyn Monroe in the directors commentary of Melancholia (Madman), where the eccentric Danish auteur continues his recent trawl through the darker emotions of mood disorders. He’s referring of course to the controversy that had the at times infantile, yet always interesting provocateur kicked out of Cannes. “I’ve learnt to not talk about Nazis or my admiration for their architecture,” he offers later, simultaneously demonstrating both his ability to learn from his mistakes, and his inability to resist poking the bear one more time. As for the film he self depreciatingly refers to it as kitsch, lamenting that it’s too romantic, without enough roughness. Mood disorders commonly skew your perception and Von Trier is a case in point. Melancholia is a film about the deep all encompassing depression of Kirsten Dunst, her condition seemingly underscored by a planet careering headlong towards earth. The romance here is very difficult to find. Dunst won a best actress award at Cannes for her gruelling portrayal, her marriage disintegrating with Alexander Skaarsgard (True Blood) on the night of their wedding. Kiefer Sutherland pops up as does Charlotte Gainsbourg, one of the few female leads willing to work with him again, and that’s after having sliced off her genitalia in their last outing. It’s typically self indulgent, a unique blend of surreal imagery, apocalyptic sci fi, and social drama imbued with a palpable sense of emotion that is simultaneously tragic and devastatingly beautiful. Particularly on blue ray.

Black Mamma White Mamma (Umbrella) is a women in prison film that begins with sadistic lesbian prison wardens and gratuitous shower scenes before ending in a deluge of bullets. It’s a cross-cultural exploitation buddy film with prostitute Pam Grier (Jackie Brown) and revolutionary Margaret Markov (The Hot Box) finding themselves chained together on the run and fending off gangsters, guerrillas, potential rapists and the police. It’s sleazy episodic b grade fare, shot in the Philippines by Eddie Romero, which is streets ahead of many in the genre, but admittedly that’s not saying much. The highlight is Sid Haig’s (The Big Bird Cage) outlandish cowboy outfits.

Guilty of Romance (Monster) is a dazzling descent into degradation, the third in Japanese director Sion Sono’s (Suicide Club) hate trilogy. It follows the life of a famous author, a serene domestic slave, who lives solely to serve her husband. “You may touch my penis,” he offers early on and she rushes down to grab it eagerly. “I’m so happy, “ she gushes, and you know this is only the beginning. She begins her journey by posing for erotic photos, though when she meets a street prostitute by night and university lecturer by day it appears she has found a kindred spirit. She hasn’t. And it gets much much worse There’s a real cynical darkness to this film, blatant psychosexual exploitation masquerading as arthouse fare. Sono enjoys the sex-fuelled descent way too much, and the appalling consequences of her newfound freedom are examined with voyeuristic relish.