Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Capsule Reviews: Wavelength, Begone Dull Care, Bezhin Meadow

Wavelength (Michael Snow, 1967)

Michael Snow' legendary 45-minute structuralist work feels about three times its length, a slow zoom across a vast, near-empty office to a photo on the opposite wall. Yet the time and space experiment is a fascinating work of cinema, the steady shot using variations in exposure and other in-camera tweaks to subtly transform one space into another, and to turn day into night with a filter change. Further challenging the makeup of cinema (and the audience's patience) is the soundtrack mixing synthetic an oceanic waves into steady wails of unending noise. It is an undeniably infuriating experience, but also one of the most brilliantly conceptual breakdowns of cinema ever made. And as Snow's different filters and exposures warped space and time, I found myself bizarrely moved, the director's intellectual, self-critical use of the camera also something of an exhibition of the "magic" of film. Maybe it's weird to look sentimentally upon a film with a soundtrack gradually building to the hissing shriek of a boiling kettle, but there you go. Grade: A+

Begone Dull Care (Evelyn Lambert & Norman McLaren, 1949)

This 8-minute visualization of jazz music (specifically a three-movement piece by the Oscar Peterson Trio) is a triumph of early experimental filmmaking, using paint, scratches and animation in an abstract ballet of synesthesia. The frantic layering of unclear imagery and sound prefigures so much experimental cinema, yet the sheer giddiness of its dance of light and the complex layering of painted strips and extreme-close-ups on symbols gives Begone Dull Care a vivaciousness that rates it over all but the best of the works to clearly derive inspiration from it. This kind of filmmaking can seem closed off and intellectualized, but from the rolling, danceable bounce of Peterson's licks to the listing of credits in multiple languages, Begone Dull Care is clearly meant to be enjoyed by all. Grade: A

Bezhin Meadow (Sergei Eisenstein, 1937)

Reconstructed from a suppressed work about a boy who prevents his father from destroying the collective's food, Bezhin Meadow is, even as nothing more than a progression of film stills, a work of stunning beauty. The edit of the "film" that I saw opens on lush shots of nature, of branches criss-crossing the frame, before telling the audience that the evil father has beaten his wife to death and now plots against the son for loving the Soviet cause more than him. I normally can't bear to watch reassembled stills presented as a lost film; it's like finding fragments of poetry, or uncollected bars of an unfinished composition. But the stunning composition of Eisenstein's images is so gorgeous and the rhythm of his montage so unexpectedly preserved in the stacking of these static photos that Bezhin Meadow is not only watchable but one of the great director's most stirring works. That's true despite, or maybe because, of its unbearable irony, its propagandic shots in service to some of the most insane public collusions with communism—paranoia over "wrecking" of collective farms, the lionization of the child who reports his parents—apparently insufficient to prevent harsh censorship. This is never more clear than in the scenes in which religious imagery and symbolism is mockingly upended even as the film subtly supplants Christ for Stalin and upholds a new, secular fanaticism that relies upon the stifling religious iconography it seeks to destroy. So many of Eisenstein's film bear the burden of this sad irony in retrospect, but they are never anything less than stunning, even when censoring crackdowns reduce his work to nothing more than a glorified slideshow (and we're lucky to have even that).

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