Friday, 27 May 2011

Persona versus The Matrix

Persona is one of the most talked about films in world cinema. There have been huge reams of essays written just about the psychoanalytic motifs alone. Whole books have been written about the film. Therefore it makes sense to ask a question no-one has asked: How does it compare to The Matrix?


In The Matrix, humans are fed false images by machine overlords. In Persona, we see that false images are of human making; our hopes, fears, and dreams projected onto each other. Alma wants her patient, the mute-by-choice Elisabet, to say anything, any word at all, to preserve the illusion of everyday reality. Alma tries different roles to cope with Elisabet's silence: titillator, intimate confessor, tragic sinner, happy holidayer, chatterer, sulk, vociferous injured party... but without feedback to smooth the transitions, we see each role in isolation, as a tactic, as a part played, never wholly sincere. Lacking the validation (or even refutation) of reply, we see much of ordinary speech for what it truly is: a coathanger for the playing out of emotions.

Persona features burning film and the movie completely coming to a halt at one point. The reality of the film about Elisabet and Alma competes with the surreal beginning, which is reprised midway through the film. The "film within the film", about Elisabet and Alma, is preceded by a young boy running his hand over the giant blurred images of the actresses. Later we wonder if he is Elisabet's son.

It is difficult to tell where Persona ends and we begin. In the Matrix it is never clear why Neo should accept the reality he finds himself in with Morpheus and the gang after taking the red pill. That world may be just as false as the one he had been living in previously. Yet he accepts it without question. One layer of false-reality is all The Matrix dares; whereas Persona breaks through the fourth wall and doesn't stop.

Who am I?

In The Matrix, identity must be fought for. Or at least at first. Neo has to uncover his true identity, yet the film mainly treats identity conventionally: Once Neo has broken out of The Matrix, we know who the good guys are, and the bad guys are parodies.

In Persona, identities merge. Elisabet's husband makes love to Alma, mistaking her for his wife; Elisabet and Alma's faces merge into one. Alma has projected herself onto Elisabet.

Elisabet's silence threatens Alma's most coveted illusion, her sense of self. Alma's most revered emotive secret, her great defining event, was an act of copying. Only by seeing her friend have sex with the boy on the beach does she take part herself.


Neo's true identity is as a Christ figure, "The One", leading humans away from the false everyday reality into a promised other world.

In Persona, we have the nails going through the hand in a disconnected crucifixion shot. Jesus is barely in the same film. There is no redemption, only the suffering. Speech throughout the film is met by silence. God is notable by absence. There is no guarantee of a better world. Persona shows that when we try to turn away from the world, there is nowhere else to go.

What did we learn?

In The Matrix, we are told never to take anything for granted. Persona goes further, and dares us to question ourselves (or our selves). Don't take you for granted. The Matrix ultimately uses the falsity of reality only to say we can be as cool as we like. It panders to the American Lie that nothing is impossible. Persona warns us of the rocky shores of transference, that to be a realized self is an everyday struggle with others. In life we cannot really achieve whatever we set our minds to. The truth is that we feed off of others to do what we can, and not always with a positive outcome for the other.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

La Dolce Vita: The Mechanical Fellini

In Italian cinema there is no tradition for live sound. Not only are foreign films dubbed rather than subtitled, but Italian films always have been filmed silently and the dialogue recorded later. So Italian audiences are used to a disparity between lip movements and sound. Federico Fellini takes this to an extreme, often recording dialogue completely different to that spoken during filming. To British and American audiences, the effect is to make the film seem mechanical, even clunky, especially noticeable in La Dolce Vita which includes a fair smattering of English dialogue.

Yet Fellini's intent in this film, as with 81/2, is to show the mechanics of film-making, of art, and even life itself.  This is the kind of film in which cameras are everywhere, in which the anti-hero, Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni), climbs a gantry to watch proceedings from next to a huge spotlight, and in which he later argues with his girlfriend under a set of floodlights. At one point sounds are completely divorced from action as the host of a civilised party plays a tape recording of a storm.

The film opens with a mechanical second-coming, a statue of Christ flown over Rome suspended by wires from a helicopter. So the scene is set for a film in which a capital city's values, not only its traditional values, will be stripped of all pretensions and reduced to machinations.

At first we have cover-ups. Chinese masks and stage make up. We see a woman (Maddelena, played by Anouk Aimée) glamorously wearing sunglasses indoors. Then she lifts them and we see that she is covering a bruise on her face. Maddelena is just one of the partygoers, in a succession of parties, playing a part that ultimately can't keep out more brutal truths such as violent husbands, infidelity, boredom, and loneliness.

Fellini also uses these parties to serve up his usual visual feasts, perhaps the most famous being the buxom Anita Ekberg splashing around in a fountain, and one of the most memorable a sad trumpet-playing clown who pathetically calls a floor full of balloons to follow him offstage - and off they shuffle. The journalist Marcello wanders through all these episodes, enjoying brief moments of sweetness, but slowly losing himself until, drunk and tired, he himself becomes a clown, and then an automaton, repetitively throwing feathers around for no-one's amusement.

Yet Fellini does not condemn his characters. Marcello's ultimate fate is one of resignation, perhaps pragmatism, as he accepts his lot with the debauched revellers, shrugging off the attention, even misplaced admiration, of an innocent girl. She still thinks he is a writer, but he's given all that up.

Monday, 16 May 2011

2001: Three lies that made a classic

1. The dourness of man

One particularly notable fact about '2001: A Space Odyssey' is that, apart from a brief exception, none of the characters is having much fun. The ape-men at the beginning of the film live in fear of predators, the spacecraft air-hostess struggles in zero g, life aboard Discovery One is strikingly solemn, and Bowman ends up in a sterile zoo - an alien's misconceived idea of home comfort. Bowman plays a game onboard Discovery One, chess, but we see him resigning. And remember that comically garguantuan list of instructions on the zero-grav toilet? Dr Heywood cannot even enjoy a good dump.

To pursue the idea of man limited by his bodily functions, you have to exclude all those real instances when the body is a source of pleasure, such as sex and sport. You also have to make all the meals look rather unsavoury.

This theme of man's biological inheritance as hindrance is followed through to the point where the film almost becomes, with the ageing Bowman dining in his white room, a meditation on anhedonia.

That one moment of 'fun'? When an ape-man

2. Guided evolution

discovers that he can use a bone as a weapon. This discovery that needs no external inspiration is inspired by the monolith, a piece of Catholic wish-fulfillment that Pauline Kael described as the "the most gloriously redundant plot of all time." We are in the sort of anti-historical territory that calls to my mind Inglourious Basterds, and as with that film I start to wonder if any allegory can be applied to our world, or whether we are committed purely to entertainment.

3. Technology will turn against us

From where comes the idea of the evil computer? I think it is a natural progression of the "technology is dehumanizing" trope, which itself stems from the fact that we all use technology we don't know how to fix. A decade past the year 2001 and technology is perhaps becoming more transparent, and at least one product of technology, the internet, is something that we the public see as "ours", such that we (or at least the younger generations) may be moving away from the old trope. Not that I don't appreciate HAL as a classic old-fashioned villain and, as it often goes with old-fashioned villains, the most sympathetic character in the piece.

Beyond the parts

For all its flaws, 2001 is a beautiful visual poem, and remains a unique cinematic experience. It manages to be philosophical while containing hardly any dialogue, and there is something numinous about the whole. Much parodied, it is perhaps impossible to sincerely emulate, although you can see its influence in such diverse films as Star Wars and Tarkovsky's Solaris (which lifts some of the psychedelic visuals from the denouement to depict its own alien intelligence). 2001, with its cleverly composed visuals that, with few exceptions, still hold up today, inspired a new grandeur in science fiction films, both realistic and poetic.

If you haven't seen the movie and would like to read a full-length review, see Roger Ebert's review of 2001: A Space Odyssey

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Schindler's List and The Individual

Stanley Kubrick is reported to have disliked Schindler's List because it was a film “about success”, when the Holocaust is about failure. Such unbalanced focus on the positive is the enduring criticism fired at Hollywood itself. Hollywoodization of a Holocaust film would seem to be a serious charge. At face-value, Kubrick's criticism may be damning enough, but Hollywood means more than success simple. When we see the sign Hollywood we think glamour, glitz, trappings... a superficiality to be despised, whatever remains to be praised.

You will find no glamour in the three and a quarter hours of Schindler's List. Shot in stark black and white, the film is first and foremost a document of atrocities during WWII. Much of the film is shockingly bleak footage of ordinary people being treated worse than cattle. It is a testament to Spielberg's film-making that all of these scenes are shocking. After all, the average person has seen someone get shot in the head countless times before. Bodies pile up in modern films at a much greater rate than the most problematic Shakespeare melodrama. What is a body on a cart, to us?

At the dramatic centre of the film, Spielberg presents us with a harrowing twenty minute sequence of the liquidization of the Jewish ghetto. Here, Spielberg uses one splash of colour to show a little girl in a red coat. It is a little sign of hope. We are then shown several people finding clever hiding places, almost all of them ultimately futile. We get brief relief when a mother and girl are “saved” (for the concentration camps) by a little boy who is working for the Nazis. Then we see the little girl in the red coat, dead on a cartful of bodies, and all hope dies. Seeing her, Oskar Schindler realises, along with us, that each of the victims is an individual human being. It is this moment that persuades Schindler to save as many people as he can. It is powerful use of image to tell the story, simple but clever film-making.

Spielberg does more than show that the Holocaust is a tragedy for the Jews. He shows that it is a tragedy for humanity, and he does this by showing the tragedy of the worst of Nazis. Ralph Fiennes plays a sadistic capricious psychopath, yet one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film is when we realise that he denies himself his own humanity (specifically, his feelings for a Jewish girl). This scene alone (brilliantly acted) elevates the film way above mere sentimentality. Any film that makes me cry for a Nazi is not as one-dimensional as Kubrick's alleged criticism (if he did indeed say it) implies.

However, in a wider context Fiennes' character does somewhat play into the stereotype that the Nazis were a priori monsters. Of course the real horror of Nazism is that Nazis were for the most part ordinary people. We are not most of us immune to the charms of fascism, so of all criticisms of Schindler's List, this is the one that sticks.

What of Schindler's “Hollywood” heroism? Heroism it is, and the film does dwell too long on his final parting (Was it necessary, even if factually accurate, to show the Jews giving him a ring?), but as a whole the film cannot be said to be “about success”, except in the most glib of terms. The repeated brutality, the many callously killed, those who couldn't find a hiding place, the girl in the red coat, the scenes in the concentration camps... all speak loud of man's failure.

The line of thought goes that Spielberg is too optimistic, too focused on the individual hero, to make a great film about the Holocaust. However, it may be the case that only a director like Spielberg could make a great film about the Holocaust. For the individual is the antithesis of fascism. This simple insight, the beginning of empathy, is what we must remember most of all. Long live, then, the children of Hollywood.