roland barfs film diary week 32
max ophüls, ben sharrock, a documentary about scorsese, janicza bravo, arakawa + gins
August 2. Monday. There are a few sunny moments, but for the most part the weather is dull and overcast and not particularly warm. I spend a lot of the day trying, fairly unsuccessfully, to edit one of the pieces of writing work I have at the moment. I listen to the Cocaine and Rhinestones podcast with a sense of embarrassment at having broken my strict no-podcasts rule. I don’t make much progress on my essays but I at least learn a lot about the Nashville Sound. I go for a walk around the Botanical Gardens and sit outside the glasshouses for a bit. All day I’m waiting for an email which doesn’t arrive. In the evening I drink a couple of beers and watch La Ronde (dir. Max Ophüls, 1950). This is a wonderful film which is both extremely elegant and sophisticated and extremely prurient and sordid. It’s an adaptation of an Arthur Schnitzler play from 1897; perhaps Schnitzler will be familiar to most readers of the diary through Kubrick’s adaptation of his Dream Story as Eyes Wide Shut, but he’s well worth reading in his own right—a writer who intuitively understood the relationship between dream-life and sexuality, grasping the connection in his work before Freud, who was his contemporary, writing about it at length despite the heavy censorship of the time. Ophüls’ adaptation of La Ronde stars Anton Walbrook as a Master of Ceremonies, who glides between an external narrator and a participant in the action: the film is constantly concerned with reminding the viewer of its artificiality, opening with an explicit reveal of the sound stage being used to depict Vienna in 1900, showing the camera and lighting equipment. By 1950 Walbrook’s cinematic persona had been nurtured so richly through his work with Powell and Pressburger that you really feel like he’s completely in his element here, as a wry, sophisticated, discreet and knowing figure, a genuine treat to watch. He guides us through the transmission of love in a circle through the city’s population, across class boundaries: starting with a prostitute and a soldier sleeping with each other in an alleyway, we see ten erotic encounters—chambermaids, young men, wives, husbands, shop girls, poets, actresses, counts—before the libidinal drive returns to the women who it started with, and the circle is closed. Obviously, this is about venereal disease, but Ophüls is so arch and knowing that it never needs to be made explicit; the genius of this work is the interplay between the perfectly-timed cuts that tactfully refuse to show too much and the long, elaborate, smooth glissades of the camera. There is a moment, coming at the consummation of one of the trysts, when the camera cuts away to Walbrook holding a strip of film and a pair of scissors, tutting and talking about censorship. This is a film that knows exactly how far it can go, and gets right up to the limits of good taste. It’s a real joy to watch, a delicious film. I have enjoyed other Ophüls films—Lola Montez particularly—but I think this is the best of his that I’ve seen. The mise-en-scène is almost fetishistically fixated on fabrics; there’s a constant emphasis on artificial sensation and texture in the images. I get the sense of Ophüls as a head waiter in an impossibly expensive restaurant in Paris in the early twentieth-century, the kind that appears in Proust: a man who knows exactly what you want just before you want it, who understands your foibles and keeps your secrets, who knows just how much gossip to share and is absolutely confident in receiving an enormous tip at the end of the evening. La Ronde is a cinematic sorbet—elegant, light, refined, balanced. Really fantastic.
August 3. Tuesday. I’m not in work but I get a call asking me to go into work for the next three days. I am reluctant but reason to myself that if I let go of this big chunk of time I am pretending to myself I’ll spend editing, then I’ll actually be forced to get on with something today. Surprisingly, it works. I do a few hours work on a piece and send a second draft off. I don’t know if it’s better, but it’s in the editor’s hands now. I listen to some more Cocaine and Rhinestones. In the early evening I walk to Showroom to meet L, where we watch Limbo (dir. Ben Sharrock, 2020), which is on MUBI Go at the moment. Limbo is a warm slice of sentimental humanism about the refugee crisis, and I find it very moving and compelling. It’s Sharrock’s second film; quite a modest proposition, very gentle and subdued but pretty assured and confident in its style and tone. I’ve seen some comments comparing the aesthetic here to Wes Anderson, but I think that’s completely off the mark: there is some occasional use of a heavily stylised visual symmetry but it’s not used as a replacement for emotional development (as it is in Anderson-land) and the more accurate comparison would be to the recent films of Aki Kaurismäki. Sharrock doesn’t quite go for the artificial, stilted dialogue to the extent that Kaurismäki does, and Limbo doesn’t feel quite as peculiar as it might, but this seems like a question of artistic development: Kaurismäki has been honing his voice for decades; Sharrock is a new talent who seems to be figuring it out. And he’s done pretty well so far: Limbo is a lovely little film which brings me to tears multiple times. I’m feeling a little emotionally disjointed beforehand anyway, so I’m open to being manipulated already, but there are plenty of other films out there which would have just left me irritated. In terms of plot, Limbo is a story about four asylum seekers who have been sent to a remote Scottish island to wait out the decision on their claims. Omar, the doe-eyed and quiet protagonist—looking like a Syrian Buster Keaton—is carries around but refuses to play his grandfather’s oud. There’s some comedy of manners stuff, some fish out of water stuff, some gestures towards the eccentric or quirky which a less skilled filmmaker might allow to slip into the twee. There are some moments where you feel that Omar and his friends have died and are waiting to realise it. There are some moments where the brutal reality of the experience of crossing the Mediterranean is discussed in painful detail, and it is to Sharrock’s credit that he doesn’t shy away from or sanitise the refugee experience for the sake of giving the audience an easy and heart-warming time. There’s a happy ending, but it doesn’t come easily. Throughout, the film is shot in a very close and claustrophobic tight aspect ratio, which, combined with the stylisation and the artful cinematography, gives the film an atmosphere of unreality—as if the characters can’t quite accept the absurdity of their situation. Then, at a crucial cathartic moment, the aspect ratio expands to fill the whole screen. Again, this is the kind of thing that could feel like a cheap technique if it hasn’t been earned, but in Limbo this movement provides a welcome sense of release and emotional expansiveness. I think it’s a really excellent film; ambitious in tone and form, well-executed and deeply serious behind its eccentricities. I’ll be looking out for more work from Sharrock.
August 4. Work in the morning. A step closer to resolving my ambiguous work situation, which is simultaneously a further deferral of any clarity. Whatever. My shift is pretty menial today: I mop a bunch of floors and clean a bunch of toilets. It’s actually quite a nice shift. I walk home and get rained on in the process. Waiting for me is the job lot of 13 small raku pots I bought off eBay the other day. I think about doing some editing but I’m too tired, so I write a letter and listen to some George Jones. I cook and L and I watch some TV and then I go to the office with the intention of reading but end up watching Movies Are My Life: A Profile on Martin Scorsese (dir. Peter Hayden, 1978). This is the first documentary about Scorsese’s work and career, made just after he’s finished The Last Waltz, which I’ve not seen. In fact I’ve not seen that many of the films from this point in his career: not Mean Streets, not American Boy, not Italianamerican, not Boxcar Bertha, not New York, New York, not Who’s That Knocking at My Door. I have seen Taxi Driver, years ago—I keep meaning to rewatch it now that I know a bit more about film that I did when I was fifteen. So I guess the only early Scorsese films I’ve actually seen while I’ve been quote-unquote serious about watching movies is Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, which I liked a lot. Anyway I watch this Scorsese documentary—which, by the way, is apparently extremely rare and hard to come by, but is now available to stream for free on the wonderful resource that is Rarefilmm—because today has seen some more reheated discourse about the opposition between Scorsese’s approach to cinema and the trash that’s shovelled down people’s throats under the label of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m not going to get into that conversation here, because I’m sure you all know or can already guess my feelings about it. Movies Are My Life is a solid talking heads documentary which doesn’t really do anything too new but is compelling primarily because almost everyone in it is talking at one thousand miles an hour and sniffing regularly. There’s a lot of myth-making—Marty sleeps maximum three hours a night, etc—and it’s interesting to see this process happening at this stage in Scorsese’s trajectory, while he’s still a pretty wild figure who is making pretty out there films but is also profoundly successful. There’s a moment where Liza Minelli says that Scorsese’s success comes from his ability to make art films that are also popular. Cassavetes turns up and says, wisely, that (like himself) Scorsese only makes one film, but he makes it over and over again. Someone says Scorsese’s films will last forever because emotions don’t change but ideas do. There’s a lot of people blowing smoke up each other’s asses, but there’s also a pretty nice interview with De Niro, where he actually seems at ease and not on the defensive. There’s an anecdote told in this film about Scorsese going to see Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo (a bloated epic which I watched last year on a commission from Scott) and having a cocaine- and anger-induced asthma attack during the climactic scene, meaning he’s sat through a lengthy build up to miss the actual battle of Waterloo. It’s pretty enjoyable. It’s not groundbreaking, obviously, but if you’re interested in New Hollywood it’s worth an hour of your time. Maybe now I’ll watch all the early Scorsese stuff I’ve not seen! Or maybe, as is usually the case, I’ll think about it for a bit and then maybe watch one or two and then get distracted and get into something else.
August 6. Friday. I do some editing in the morning. Then I walk to work and get drenched in a downpour. A pretty busy shift during which I feel constantly distracted and unable to really focus on anything. I get out at 8:40 and walk down to Showroom, where I meet L and Nadia to watch Zola (dir. Janicza Bravo, 2021), which is currently on MUBI Go. Zola is a film adaptation of a Twitter thread from 2015 (the thread has since been deleted but you can read it in screenshot form here; it’s 148 tweets, from before threads were an actual feature of Twitter, and when the character limit was lower). I guess it’s actually, like, an adaptation of an article which fact-checked the Twitter thread, but whatever. Zola is the first Twitter movie. I love that it shares a name with the master of French naturalist prose, a figure committed to exploring how social processes shape personalities in such a way that life feels like a prison, because that’s kind of what Zola is like too: the false promise of a kind of unfree libidinal freedom in contemporary America. Zola is a film about stripping and sex work, about exploitation, violence, class, race, mania, and regret. It’s also probably the most convincing cinematic depiction I’ve seen of what it’s like to live half-way inside your phone all the time; the first film I’ve seen in which phones don’t seem like a clunky diegetic problem that needs solving, but where they’re fully incorporated into the world on show. It’s a fun time, in the same universe as Spring Breakers or American Honey or The Florida Project or a bunch of other recent films about the struggle to keep afloat in the US. Zola, a some-time stripper working as a waitress, meets Stefani at her job. The next day Stefani invites Zola to come to Tampa with her to dance and make some money. The trip is a chaotic shit show, and there are a lot of moments of increasing tension and anxiety. The sound design and soundtrack, done by Mica Levi, is really effective at creating the mood of distracted stress and noise—working in a similar way to Oneohtrix Point Never’s soundtrack to Uncut Gems, but slightly less claustrophobic. Zola is tense and there are moments that are pretty horrible in it, but it’s a heavily stylised film—very much in the A24 house style—and it unsteadily treads the line between lurid sexploitation and anxiety-riddled horror film, while also allowing the comedy and absurdity to break through now and then. It’s well done: this is the kind of film that could have been trash, could have been a cynical cash-in on an online phenomenon that did not translate to screen, a way to profit from black Twitter. There are moments that it feels like that’s what’s happening, but Janicza Bravo seems like a very smart choice of director for it and she really pulls it off. It is exactly the right length: 86 minutes that feel taut and varied enough and which don’t outstay their welcome. It’s a very fun movie, trashy and enjoyable and knowing enough. Not a masterpiece by any means, but I would be very pleased if there were more films like this out there.
August 8. Sunday: downpours. Last night L and I went to the pub with Ruth and Ed and it felt, for a few hours, like a normal Saturday evening, as if there hadn’t been a pandemic. It was pretty nice. Today I move quite slowly and don’t get very much done; a few chores, a bit of reading, this and that. In the afternoon I watch Why Not: A Serenade of Eschatological Ecology (dir. Shûsaku Arakawa, 1970), which is available to stream for members of Collaborative Cataloguing Japan throughout August—membership costs $5 per month and is worth it just to watch this film. Why Not is an experimental 16mm art film, a product of the aesthetic partnership between Arakawa, an artist and architect, and Madeline Gins, a poet and architect. I don’t know that much about Arakawa and Gins, who appear to have moved in the same circles as people like Hannah Wiener and Charles Bernstein—American experimental poets concerned, very broadly, with the making and representation of meaning. I’ve no doubt that any attempt to describe their practice as a whole here will butcher it, because I’ve not really engaged with their work deeply at all, so I’ll restrict my remarks to Why Not, which is a very strange and hypnotic film. It’s nearly two hours long, black and white, very roughly shot and edited, following the moments of a young woman (Mary Window) around an apartment, where she becomes erotically and physically involved with a series of objects: door handles, books, tables, chairs, sofas, and, ultimately, in a long concluding scene, a bicycle, which she uses to masturbate in a very creative and surprising way. It’s a playful, strange, joking film, but which also seems to be concerned with something very serious—something that perhaps might be best described as an architecture of the body, and the relationship between pleasure and mortality, as open-ended and high-falutin’ as that sounds. Why Not was made in the year after Marcel Duchamp’s death and seems to share his interest in the potential for everyday mundane household objects to take on a sexualised aura, and, in the process, to move from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Heady stuff indeed. It’s pretty good, though—in full honesty—I actually started watching it yesterday and had to take a break, and there was a reasonable chance that I wasn’t even going to finish it, but it’s such a strange film, so compelling in many ways, that I wanted to share it. I want to resist the temptation to describe any film or artwork that involves someone being stuck inside a couple of rooms and, out of boredom, taking a renewed interest in their surroundings, as somehow having something to do with the experience of lockdown, but it’s an irresistible connection to draw from Why Not. Watching this in 2021, it is very easy to read this as a film about being bored and horny during a period of isolation like lockdown. It’s much more than that too. From what I gather, it’s very hard to come by, despite making an appearance in Amos Vogel’s Film as Subversive Art, and so its appearance this month on Collaborative Cataloguing Japan is a rare opportunity to actually see it. If you’re into weirdo art films from the late 1960s about the erotic character of everyday life, this is surely an essential film. If you don’t think you’re into that, then, well, why aren’t you? What’s wrong with you? You should strap in and start here.