MYSTERIES OF LISBON (2010)
Lockdown was a good time to finally sit down, maybe even lie down, and watch those films whose running time demanded an entire day devoted to them, and their extras.
The Chilean director Raúl Ruiz, in the extras on the New Wave Films DVD of his last film Mysteries Of Lisbon, talks about immersing the viewer in ’16th century time’, which seemed like an attractive prospect, a way of switching off that neurotic impatience for the world to begin again.
Mysteries is based on a novel by Camilo Castelo Blanco and is informed by the – quaintly old-fashioned but still alluring – idea of ‘losing yourself’ in a book. That notion is further complicated here by the way the story develops, abandoning characters who later re-emerge in quite different form as narratives drift into new narratives, stories emerge within stories, until you start to wonder (hope, even) that it will never end.
It does end though (after four and a half hours) and quite disconcertingly, as Pedro, the boy we encountered at the beginning – cruelly separated from his mother but reunited with her after being struck by a fever – dies a prematurely-aged man (Alfonso Pimantel), still in thrall to the mystery of his past. Leaving the viewer, who has taken annual leave to watch this, wondering quite what he’s doing with his life. Though in a aesthetically-enriching kind of way.
It is also implied that the bulk of the film may only have been a dream the young Pedro had before dying of the fever; in spite of which Mysteries has little of the overt strangeness of other Ruiz films like 1983’s Three Crowns of the Sailor, one of the most sustained cinematic evocations of a dream-like atmosphere that I can think of.
There a few scenes here that depart from realism (a portrait comes to life and levels a gun at someone) but for the most part this relies on the old-fashioned concept of story to propel it along, albeit a story that takes eccentric turns (Ruiz began his career in TV soap operas) even while the painterly style maintains a careful distance from the proceedings.
That tension between being drawn in to the plot and our awareness that this is a fiction (from a past now inaccessible to us and possibly all the more attractive because of it) is part of what keeps us engaged, along with Ruiz’s sense of mischief, which so thoroughly impregnates the action that it doesn’t need to be made explicit.
In fact the oddest conceit emerges in the extras, where Ruiz recounts a ‘myth’ he has devised – a view of the world in which everyone dies at the end of every day, then on waking in the morning boards a plane whose destination is the past.
The plane suffers from ‘turbulence’, however: this turbulence, says Ruiz, is our experience of the present.
I like this; it makes sense. After all, if there was such a plane, the future could hardly be its destination. The future doesn’t exist. The past at least did exist – we know it, or we think we do.
Of course we can’t really go there, and in the myth we never arrive – the turbulence presumably causes the plane to crash, so that we die, and then wake up in the morning and get on the plane again.
So we think we are ‘looking forward’ to the future, even ‘progressing’, but we are secretly driven by an impossible desire to go back to what we once knew and were comfortable with. I can understand this, especially now, when what we are ‘looking forward’ to is essentially the resumption of a past, even if it is framed as a ‘new normal’.
OUT 1 (1971)
Jacques Rivette’s 13 hour opus, subsequently edited down into the slightly more manageable 4 hour Out 1: Spectre, represents a real achievement – at least for me, in watching it.
I have lockdown to thank, and a pre-Christmas offer in Fopp, which persuaded me to buy the Arrow Blu-Ray as part of a discounted bulk purchase.
And I did not regret my purchase, which exerts a curious fascination even though Rivette’s film is less elegantly labyrinthine than Mysteries of Lisbon – much of it, at least early on, consisting of extended footage of two separate theatrical troupes rehearsing two separate productions of classical plays (Prometheus Bound and Seven Against Thebes) about which I didn’t know much and, despite everything, still don’t.
Set against these theatrical experiments are the activities of two outsiders, Colin (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and Frédérique (Juliet Berto). The former is a deaf-mute hassling restaurant customers for cash (presumably an elective deaf-mute since later on in the film he starts listening and talking); the latter is a chancer, constantly on the lookout for money-making opportunities in the bars and cafes of Paris (though sometimes seeming to operate more in a spirit of play than in the expectation of reward).
They both rub up against a mysterious conspiracy that seems to involve members of the theatrical troupes, notably Thomas (Michael Lonsdale) and Lili (Michèle Moretti), but which is never really defined, is not currently active (as far as we can tell) and seems to hinge upon the activities of two individuals, Pierre and Igor, who are constantly talked about but never seen, though Igor is thought to be haunting the house by the sea that some of the characters occasionally retire to.
Becoming aware of this conspiracy in different ways – Colin through being handed cryptic messages quoting Balzac and Lewis Carroll, and Frédérique through stolen letters which she attempts to sell – both characters investigate but fail to penetrate the mystery, leaving Colin to claim that the whole thing must be ‘systematically designed to cast the uninitiated into an inextricable mental confusion’.
The viewer sympathises, particularly under current circumstances. Out 1 is in one sense a snapshot of a certain time, specifically about the fallout from the revolutionary fervour of 1968, of which this conspiracy is the ghostly remnant, but the ‘conspiracy’ also works as a way of viewing society itself, the very thing Colin and Frédérique find themselves excluded from.
(A functioning society is, after all, based around a tacit conspiracy theory, which can broadly be described as ‘They know what they’re doing’ or ‘They have our best interests at heart’, statements which are – let’s face it – unsupported by historical fact.)
The film’s vision of society is one in which those who are outside it want desperately to get in and those who are inside it want to get out, or at least reshape it beyond recognition, even if only through experimental theatre.
In another sense the question of whether we are ‘in’ or ‘out’ has been a pertinent one recently, and there’s a definite feeling that society is being reshaped, one way or another. The current uncertainty about the powers governing us – are they oppressive or progressive? – makes Out 1 particularly relevant to the ‘turbulence’ of the moment I think, a moment where everything is up in the air and (perhaps) about to land in a new configuration; or an old one.
Here, though, is what lockdown was made for, a seven-hour black-and-white Hungarian art film. What better way to spend a rainy March day off? Needless to say, it was raining in the film too. My eyes drifted from the screen to the bedroom window, and I experienced ‘resonance’.
In truth, much as I have always wanted to love it, director Bela Tarr’s work has always come up short for me. Perhaps that is because at a mere two and a half hours (Werckmeister Harmonies, The Turin Horse) many of his films are too short – only when he gets to the seven hour mark does he truly hit his stride.
Even though it seems largely to consist of scenes of people trudging over muddy fields, Satántángo proves to be quite fascinating. There is even a plot. As with Mysteries of Lisbon this is based on a novel (by László Krasnahorkai) and is anchored in a narrative, even if the timeline is not always straightforwardly linear.
In disc 1 of this Artificial Eye DVD presentation (watched in my bedroom) people in a Godforsaken village are arguing about money and worrying about the rumoured return of a former inhabitant, Irimiás (Mihály Vig) previously thought to be dead.
In disc 2 (living room) a little girl torments and kills a cat, then kills herself out of remorse while the villagers dance drunkenly, though quite joylessly, in the village pub.
In disc 3 (bedroom again) Irimiás, using the death of the child as leverage, persuades the guilt-stricken villagers to give him all their money, with the promise that he will use it to set up a model farm in which they can live and work.
While the building he claims to have settled upon for this purpose does materialise (at the end of another long muddy trek by the villagers) it proves to need work, and Irimiás sends them away for the time being, all the while reporting on them to the authorities. His view of leaders, which he expounds to his sidekick at one point, seems to be that people only need them to embody qualities like ‘pride, dignity and courage’ which they lack themselves – the leaders, however, don’t have them either, what’s important is that they are perceived to do so.
Finally, the villagers’ exodus leaves a decrepit alcoholic doctor (Peter Berling) back in the otherwise deserted village: he is last seen boarding up his windows, so that the credits can show against the resulting blackness.
I had expected a more overwhelmingly apocalyptic conclusion I must say. At one point towards the end Irimiás is seen inquiring into the purchase of large amounts of explosive, but Tarr is unafraid to break the golden rule of movie-making which states that if you mention large amounts of explosive in the dialogue, you must show things blowing up.
I can live without explosions anyway. The mood here is more post-apocalyptic – as if everything that anybody ever looked forward to (Communist utopia, inspirational leadership etc. etc.) or feared has either already happened or is never going to happen: we are left with mud, rain, and gloom. This is the future, in other words. Get used to it.
WORLD ON A WIRE (1973)
Or don’t. After all, one great benefit of modern technology is the endless distraction it provides – we have the luxury of being able to ignore reality, if such a thing still exists.
German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s only venture into science fiction was a three hour TV series, appearing in my world via a two-disc DVD from Second Sight. It’s a vision of the near-future that, unsurprisingly, given the time it was made, looks vintage now – but Fassbinder intentionally backdates it further than the 70’s by featuring, say, a singer pretending to be Marlene Dietrich in a nightclub, and hiring actors (like Adrian Hoven) whose heyday was behind them, creating a kind of temporal delirium.
In this adaptation of Daniel F. Galouye’s novel Simulacron 3, scientists have created an artificial computer world mimicking the real one – mainly, it seems, as a way of forecasting marketing trends.
However, when one of the ‘identity units’ in the simulation manages to leap into the real world by switching minds with a visitor ‘hooking up’ to the system he raises the possibility that our world might be just another simulation. This messes with the mind of our hero, Dr. Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) who starts to look for a way out – or is he just cracking up?
The idea that we may all be just electronic circuits thinking that we are human beings is not going to boggle the mind of anyone who has seen The Matrix of course, but the subject fits Fassbinder like a glove. He adds layers. And then he removes them, stripping them away to leave us with a disquieting sense of emptiness at the heart of it all.
His world has always been artificial, populated by ‘identity units’ trying to make their presence felt using half-remembered gestures from old films, a world that was never anything more than a poor substitute for… well, what? A socialist utopia maybe: at any rate something that demonstrably isn’t there.
Certainly Fassbinder isn’t interested in computers acquiring consciousness so much as in human beings realising the ways in which their sense of self is a construction.
Nevertheless Stiller does (apparently) attain a higher level of reality, though this is only after falling foul of his boss (Hoven) – who is exploiting the simulation for financial gain – and getting shot dead. This higher level, however, is just a bare room with metal blinds which, once raised, appear to show an unremarkable cityscape. In this context, his hysterical joy at finally arriving in the real world does seem mad.
(It is in any case suggested that this may well be just one more reality in a possibly endless series of realities, none of them the provably ‘real thing’.)
‘My head’s a funny head’, says Stiller at one point, earlier on. ‘There are things in it that don’t go on in any other head.’ The point being, I suppose, that we all live in a simulation of reality, the version of it that our minds are comfortable with, but which is necessarily inauthentic in that it belongs to us alone and only gives us part of the story.
Reality is a word so over-used in our culture of ‘reality stars’ on ‘reality TV’ that it has surely lost its meaning by now. And to make matters worse we have now been forced to live in the simulated reality of lockdown, an enfeebled version of what we used to think of as life.
Although, as we return to our ‘real’ lives, we might expect to find ourselves jumping madly for joy like Stiller, our excitement may just be a cover for the disconcerting realisation that this is also a simulation, that a simulation was all we ever had.
The world is what we make it, it said on the cover of Sight and Sound last month. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Who knows? One thing we can be reassured about, however, is that there will always be someone, like Stiller’s boss, happily ignoring the philosophical complexities and skimming off the top.