From her unconscious to yours: my sister-in-law Christina Bothwell’s show Toy Chronicles runs at Heller Gallery September 4-27.
No other artform is as simultaneously trivial, vulgar and sublime as cinema. The film industry lives for the idea of profit, so how can one have an approach that’s as egotistical as wanting to share with an audience something that’s an intuition, a fragment? Yet real cinema is a way of transforming the technical and industrial material and making the sublime coincide with it. And I think sensuality is the key. Cinema cannot exist except through eroticism. The position of the spectator is like a kind of amorous passivity and hence is highly erotic.
The Dances of Leos Carax
Let’s suppose there is an ideal entry point to a filmmaker’s work (I include in this list any shaping creator: actor, editor, cinematographer, Shakespeare). Approach too late in a catalog and you won’t understand a reputation; too early, and you won’t detect that hint of promise when an overarching artistic project becomes apparent.
Maybe the place to begin with director Leos Carax (or where I wish I began – I saw the third and fourth films first) is Mauvais Sang, his second feature that springs from the primary colors and formal geometry of first wave Godard. Here is meaning through dissonance; the whisperings of one’s inner ear and eye transposed into narrative inquiry.
Like Godard’s Alphaville, the film resides at the intersection of science fiction and thriller. There is a story to follow, even if story becomes increasingly irrelevant as you succumb to the sensory pleasures of the close up, the jump cut, the kinetic joys of balletic action. Binoche and Lavant suspend from a plane without stunt doubles. Julie Delpy guns an engine. In the mode of Pina Bausch, Lavant stumbles into a dance that becomes a run, then an acrobatic act. Prompted by the David Bowie song, “Modern Love,” this quasi-dance is a perfect example of how cinema bypasses logic and heads toward viscera.
Thank god Nile Rodgers and David Bowie knew to add that rhythm guitar that warns us to take notice of “Modern Love” before the melody starts and the drumbeat possesses the listener. The song is like a car engine starting, a metallic heart jumpstarting life in the viewer and the picture.
The lyrics converse with the film’s concerns, in which a young man who agrees to work for a crime lord while attempting to resist the crime lord’s mistress. (The scifi element relates to an HIV-like blood disease that is transmitted only when couples in love copulate.)
No confessions, no religion, don’t believe in modern love.
Puts my trust in god and man.
Carax’s films want to defy orthodoxies even when they dance with them.
Boy Meets Girl, Carax’s first feature, is not about realism or a recognizable 19th century picture of subjectivity. Carax works in parable, and his luminous black and white nods to the cinema of Henri Alekan, that gorgeous illuminator of Jean Cocteau’s La belle et la bête and the chalk white statuary characters in Cocteau’s Orphee (cinematography: Nicholas Hayer).
Carax’s cinema is not a record; it’s a dream fabricated externally and has the persuasive elements of nocturnal imagining. His cinema beats upon the emotions; its characters are unprompted and inexplicable; they work as the unheimlich.
Here Denis Lavant is less multi-valenced subject than spirit wanderer. Like Wim Wenders’ flaneurs and road-trippers, Lavant watches the beautiful and the discordant. Lavant does not haunt nighttime Paris exactly; he witnesses, and by witnessing, commemorates.
Carax has Lavant don headphones and listen to a Bowie song, “When I Live My Dream” while he walks. Like a helmet, music separates Lavant from the rest of the night, but elevates and aestheticizes the subjects of his attention. Lavant breezes through a crowd of roller-skaters, stops to stare at a couple caught up in their own hermetic dance on a bridge. He tosses coins at them like they’re an art installation, thereby making them both noteworthy and an artifice.
Unlike Juliette Binoche, Carax’s later muse and mistress, Mireille Perrier didn’t really travel as an acting export but she has a persuasive gravity. Her solemn, small face studies a book of tap dancing. This was a time when the printed word still conveyed lessons, not only for the brain but for the body. As Lavant haunts the city, Perrier dances alone, reminding us of the absorbing consolation of movement.
Les amants du Pont Neuf begins with documentary realism: a long passage follows the dispossessed of Paris as they are collected by the police, locked up and cleaned up. The film works as a duel between two disenfranchised souls, who communicate in guttural remarks and feral gestures, while squatting on the unused bridge.
Literal fireworks set the film on fire: Carax mixes fireworks and gunfire on screen. For these Chaplinesque characters, love’s a battle, it’s a celebration, it’s a pas de deux, it’s a war.
Holy Motors records Lavant’s ability to pantomime all humanity in a day. Monsieur Oscar is a businessman who acts out characters in all walks of life, high to low: a beggar woman, a subterranean troll, an assassin, a mark. The roles are assigned as cases. Oscar seems to be on some divine mission, with an implied link to Carax’s role as filmmaker: it is a time for estrangement over familiarity. Perhaps depicting all these lives in one day suggests an equality in all these mortal roles, in the scope of humanity.
The dance/sex/scifi scene when Oscar suits up in a motion-capture leotard is ne plus ultra of Carax. The scene dismantles the effects of cinema by recording its tricks, and in doing so, changes it into something more compelling than any possible ‘finished’ version, before transforming it again into a CGI sequence that is completely unexpected.
Bonus: Claire Denis’ Beau Travail
The more you see Lavant the better. Claire Denis' and Carax’s films seem in dialogue with each other, exchanging actor-protagonists and influences (Herman Melville, for one). Here’s Beau Travail’s debt to Mauvais Sang.
This terrific interview with him and with Kenneth Lonergan (Margaret, You Can Count On Me, This Is Our Youth) - with nominal lens of addressing Irish American writers - talks about personal inquiry through story telling and drama.
Do u remember? - Marley Marl
Wonderful at every age. Also, she loved her papillon (pictured).
How Little We Know - Lauren Bacall & Hoagy Carmichael
Bacall is such a confident flirt with the camera that she can be understated in her movement; the cut-out black dress against the background’s pale wardrobe; her baby faced smile; Hoagy as Cricket.