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Sunday, December 6, 2009

Close Readings

Writing originally generated during 2005/6 by participation in a Film Studies course run by University of Cambridge Board of Continuing Education and Cambridge Arts Picture House. Focussing in turn on the work of filmmakers Geoffrey Jones, Lynne Ramsay, Carlos Saura and choreographer/director Wim Vandekeybus, each text was revised during October 2009.

Geoffrey Jones:

British short filmmaker Geoffrey Jones found employment during the 1960s with the Shell Film Unit, and British Transport Films, locating much of his output within the tradition of the British Industrial short. Jones’ distinctive editing style relates to the rhythmic interaction of elements as screen composition. In Shell Spirit , created as an advert for the company in 1962, a large amount of visual information is compressed within a two minute timeframe, tightly edited to the accompaniment of a jauntily melodic penny whistle soundtrack.

The work begins and ends with an opening, and subsequently closing, human eye. Juxtaposed with the Shell logo, the image conflates both the start and end of the viewing experience with the company’s visual branding. The eye’s use as a framing device lends a sense of distance, presenting a window-on-the-world exoticism as found in children’s T.V. programming, documentary and public information film of the period.

A journey begins with the purchase of petrol, and continues through cityscape and country-set locations before arriving at a seaside location. Jones manages to convey large amounts of visual information with great economy of means, as close-ups of a petrol cap’s removal, and insertion of a syphon establish the journey’s garage forecourt starting point. No driver is ever seen, and visual detail is presented at almost subliminal level, as rows of eyes on an advertising billboard flash past. Car wheels, bicycles and white lines of road marking are framed from vehicle level, as the overhead patternings of telegraph wires blur into passing abstraction. The serial passage of picket fence posts and newly-ploughed furrows become visual counterpoints to specific musical content. A woman turns her head to one side, dark hair disarrayed in slipstream. A group of pigs turn to run, apparently in fright, and the silhouette of a galloping horse is superimposed against country road, as though travelling alongside, before veering off on an adjacent path. Birds in flight and the spores from a dandelion clock mark the journey’s country-set passage, while a gull and breaking waves herald an end point by the sea. Throughout, visual imagery equates the purchase of Shell’s product with ease of movement and the carefree liberty of unfettered motor travel. Horse, birds, waves and an open sky locate the car and its driver within the freedom of the natural world, as a fleeting shot of a roadside cottage presents an image of solidity and immovability, left behind for dust.

Jones, G. (dir.) 2004 Geoffrey Jones: The Rhythm of Film BFI

Lynne Ramsay:

After initial study of photography, Lynne Ramsay trained as a cinematographer, and her directorial output can be read as the weaving together of often visually-led images and episodes.

Ramsay begins her debut feature Ratcatcher (1999) with a striking image, as a head and torso twist, close-up and in slow-motion, shrouded in a nylon curtain. A muted soundtrack of childhood shouts is abruptly broken by a blow to the head, restoring an external world of normalised sound and parental discipline, as the curtains slowly unwind.

Windows recur as a framing image. From the upper deck of a bus, the film’s central character, James, watches the landscape shift from the oppressive, rubbish-strewn streets of his urban neighbourhood to an expansive countryside location. Encountering a golden-lit view of a field from an uncompleted kitchen window, lack of glass allows him to sit within the frame, before passing through as though into another dimension of being. Reflections recur, distorted or clear, within the surface of the canal.

Throughout, Ramsay uses wordless images and episodes to illustrate emotional states. James escapes from the pressures of family by running along the canalside at dusk. Filmed from the opposite bank, his reflection is visible in the water’s surface, with laboured breath amplified, as though heard close by. In the wake of attack, James’ father and mother slow dance in their living room, entwined against a darkened background, visible from the waist up. The couple’s close bodily contact as they slowly revolve presents an image of wholeness and tenderness, temporarily resolving gender-based, societal and inter-familial conflicts. Escaping his father’s anger, James externalises his own by attacking the rats infesting black rubbish bags, his movements blurred, filmed in jarring close-up with dislocatingly rapid cutting rate.

Reflected in the distorting oval of a bus’ stairway mirror, James observes his surroundings change as a journey progresses. Partial and constricted camera angles give way to a fuller framing choice, exposing a vista of open countryside from the bus’s upper deck. James encounters the exterior of a partially-completed housing project, jumping into a pile of sand, and making use of an adjacent spade. In the house’s interior, after lying inside a plastic-covered bath, and urinating into an as yet unplumbed toilet, he encounters the kitchen-set, window framed view of a golden field, and, once inside, is filmed in a montage of running, jumping, rolling and lying. His head, briefly visible against the shoulder-high crop, disappears from view, to be replaced by feet in the air, followed by a shot in which he stands upright, surveying the landscape.

This physical and emotional terrain is revisited at the film’s end, as a procession of figures appears over the horizon line, through the field and towards the house. Led by James’ father and followed by his mother and younger sister, reflected in the mirror she carries, the processional party is framed through the rectangular shape of the kitchen window. The formalised quality of painterly composition and strong golden light adds to an idealised sense of beauty, bookended by footage of James’ body floating in slowed underwater motion.

Ramsay’s second full-length film, Morvern Callar (2003), is an adaptation of Alan Warner’s novel, with narrative’s requirements allowing Ramsay to contrast the enclosed, winter-set landscape of a small port town in the north of Scotland with sundrenched expanses of rural Spain.

Use of dialogue-free imagery surfaces in a repeating engagement with intermittent light source. Highly selective framing for the film’s opening sequence provides an ambiguous viewing perspective, with Samantha Morton’s face shown in close up, in proximity to another, partially seen, figure. Further visual information is provided gradually, ending in a shot revealing Morton’s body lying adjacent to another on a living room floor, lit by the rhythmic pulsing of Christmas tree lights. Morton, in the title role, later inhabits the night-time darkness of the shore’s edge, as a lone fisherman, passing in his boat, illuminates her presence by torchlight. Circularly framed and surrounded by blackness, Morton lifts her skirt to her waist, maintaining visual engagement with the camera/viewer, by staring into the light. Within a club setting, an at times over-saturated red or blue flash fleetingly discloses faces, hands and arms within the surrounding darkness, in addition to Morton’s face, hair pulled back exaggerating eye sockets and cheek-bones to otherworldly effect.

Ramsay also conveys Morton’s attempts to overcome a sense of her character’s alienation from environment by connecting through touch. In the film’s opening sequence, she traces the length of her dead boyfriend’s arm, and after burying his body, appears to find a moment of release in the natural surroundings of moorland landscape, shown in a montage of running and laughing, accompanied by the sound of her own breath. Using one hand to trace the pattern of a branch to its tip, both are then immersed in water, observing the insect life in the surrounding mud. Later sitting against a tree in the Spanish countryside, an insect climbs over a hand, establishing connection to the life of the earth.

The absence of any obvious sound in the film’s opening sequence provokes an unsettling viewing experience, akin to the holding of breath. The muted noise of computer screen scrolling, where the instruction ‘Read Me’ resonates with the start of an Alice-like journey, emphasises an environment of extreme quietness. Later, the sounds of wrapping paper; the snap of jacket fasteners and the clicking of a cigarette lighter appear to take on heightened levels, while outside, the sound of a passing train and a ringing phone evoke a jarring sense of intrusion. Morton’s walkman provides an insulating and private soundtrack to her own experience. Entering her supermarket workplace becomes a music video-like marriage of aural and visual imagery, as the sweep of a motorised buggy coincides with a lush string arrangement, and a camera pans along the butcher’s counter as staff wave in greeting to the camera. Morton is filmed front-on in tight facial close-up in her progression through the store, before her walkman is removed and placed in her locker, heralding a return to working life.

Ramsay, L. (dir.) 1999 Ratcatcher Holy Cow Productions

Ramsay, L. (dir.) 2003 Morvern Callar Momentum Pictures

Carlos Saura:

Carlos Saura collaborated with choreographer Antonio Gades on two works, with Gades’ setting of traditional Spanish flamenco form within highly theatricalised narrative frameworks subsequently translated to screen. In Blood Wedding (1981), documentary-style footage contextualises the production, as company members arrive backstage, and prepare for performance. Footage of class in the studio/performance space allows for experimentation with tightly framed feet and faces. Dancers and musicians remain visible by the side of the studio throughout, emphasising a sense of the familial, enclosed and self-created universe of company life. Christina Hoyos’ Bride changes costume by the side of the space, making visible the demarcation between performance and non-performance states. Intimacy of scale provided by studio setting emphasises the extreme theatricality of Gades’ approach, while also highlighting moments of screen-specifc engagement. Grouped facing out towards the camera, the performers hold positions without movement, accompanied by a complete cessation of sound. Elsewhere, floor-based duet work is framed from above, and extreme close-up of faces in profile and clicking fingers heightens a sense of claustrophobic menace. A slow-motion fight takes place in real time, with close in framing on faces and the sound of breath intensifying the intimacy of the encounter. As the piece ends, Hoyos, clad in blood-smeared bridal dress, is reflected back to the viewer through studio mirror.

Throughlines are clearly traceable from aspects of Blood Wedding to Saura and Gades’ subsequent collaboration Carmen, created from 1983. A feature length film, with complex narrative structure, Gades, Hoyos and the company play versions of themselves, engaging with the conventions of dramatic naturalism in fictionalised preparations for a flamenco-based theatre production. Scenes retain a flavour of documentary-style origin, with the image and significance of mirrors greatly expanded, exploring issues of identity, performance and duplicity. Gades and Laura del Sol, as the dancer chosen to play the production’s title role, are initially seen together reflected in a dressing room mirror, while a full-length, mirrored studio wall provides a constant view of company activity from director’s office.

As the film begins, Gades’ eyes, framed tightly in close-up, scan the screen, immediately reflected by camera pan across a studio-set sea of moving arms and torsos. In later class footage, a continuous, percussive journey of feet, followed by floor-level moving camera, crosses the space. A fight, framed through bodily mesh of performers, creates a sense of oppressive crowding, while overhead shots reveal a careful patterning of costumes for two opposing factions - purple, blue and green contrasting with red and black. A moment of knife-wielding is framed in close-up, with throat-slitting in soundless slow motion. Gades and another dancer duel, armed with sticks. The performers’ silhouettes expand the duet to a quartet, until only two shadows remain.

Moving from the universal to the particular, static camera positioning records an initially empty studio space filling with performers, as couples engage in partnered social dancing. The camera pans across densely-packed faces and bodies, locating Gades and del Sol in close-up. Music is used as a key element signalling emotional shifts and states. Paco de Lucia supplies a flamenco version of Bizet’s score for Gades’ ‘live’ production, while non-diegetic use of the orchestral version signifies undercurrents surfacing elsewhere within Gades and del Sol’s emotional interactions. This tension is established from the start of the film, as de Lucia and other musicians play by the side of the stage, as Gades, in headphones, listens to Bizet at an adjacent tape-deck. Gades and del Sol leave the production’s rehearsal area to the accompaniment of the opera’s climactic musical passage, and the stabbing of Carmen is enacted partially out of shot. The camera subsequently pans out and away from the main characters, revealing company dancers engaging in everyday, inter-rehearsal activities, in a final image underscoring the film’s ambiguously shifting exploration of performance and reality.

Saura, C. (dir.) Gades, A. (chor.) 1983 Carmen Momentous Pictures World Cinema Collection

Saura, C. (dir.) Gades, A. (chor.) 1981 Blood Wedding First Classic Films

Wim Vandekeybus:

Flemish choreographer Wim Vandekeybus achieved international acclaim in 1987 with his company Ultima Vez’ debut stage production What The Body Does Not Remember. Vandekeybus’ signature movement vocabulary emphasises extreme physicality and athleticism, with gender relations often portrayed as a zone of combat. Blush, which screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005, concerns the physical, emotional and mythic dynamics of passion. Vandekeybus convincingly transcends the work’s stage-based origins, making use of a range of cinematic styles with great confidence and fluency. The sense of a distinctive choreographic language is retained and expanded to engage with visual storytelling in a mix of poetically-oriented imagery and devices.

Blush is located within a mythic world, where naturalism blends with dance in extreme emotional states such as dreaming and dying. The film bypasses traditional linear narrative structure, but explores a layered and highly associative narrative progression. A Bride is identified early on, and also, by association, her bridegroom. Threshold states function as a boundaries between life and death, waking and dreaming, poetic lyricism and naturalism. Frogs appear throughout the film, in their capacity as amphibious creatures inhabiting both water and land, and as the symbol of fairy-tale related romantic transformation. The human performers also inhabit a recognisably naturalistic world of social gatherings, a pastoral idyll of land and water, and a netherworld of dream and myth.

The work begins with the green of a sun-drenched cane field, and a close-up of a frog. A monologue, delivered by female voice-over, is heard as the film’s titles appear. The speaker’s face and head appear as the monologue progresses, framed tightly against Corsican sky and sun. The film is composed as a series of disparate scenes, beginning with female narrator, flanked by a group of other young women, entering a darkened interior to sit, and continuing her emotionally charged address of apparent renunciation and loss to the camera positioned in front of her. A widened shot reveals an attentive male figure, seated opposite at a large table, and surrounded by male dinner guests. While no traditional dance content is featured, Vandekeybus makes use of a number of distinctively choreographic strategies in relation to filming as the dinner party progresses, making use of a more naturalistic performance style, incorporating dialogue. The camera slowly and continuously pans around the table, alternating with overhead shots of table-dancing guests, and eye-level framing of their moving feet. A series of close-ups foreground the bride and groom in a competitive ‘toast’, which ends as the bride’s glass shatters in slowed-motion. Guests assemble for a full-figure group picture, captured by traditional, front-on, camera positioning, as the performers hold the static gaze of the camera/audience for longer than is entirely comfortable.

An abrupt switch is made to an outdoor location, as the character of the Bride, in a flowing white night-shirt like dress, feeds pigs, and four men, including her groom, walk towards an open expanse of field. A stretch of water, occupying the bottom half of the screenspace, is counterbalanced an overhanging outcrop of rock. Four female heads appear in turn from under the water’s surface, placed at differing proximities to the central, static camera position. The women emerge from water to shoreline, appearing equally at home on land in a sensually animalistic movement vocabulary. A trio of men in a clearing engage in a vigourously physical series of rolls, drops and jumps, with movement and vocalisation mimicking the sheep and goats in their care. A female interloper breaks into the trio, initiating a sequence of chase and pursuit through the rocky landscape. Filmed as a series of quickly-moving close-ups of feet, legs and earth, the chase is illustrated from the perspective of both pursuer and pursued. In a series of underwater shots, attendant slowing of motion provides a sense of partial abstraction, with performers glimpsed close-in as kicking legs and feet. A trio dance in sand by the shoreline, their arms linked in playfully changing circular formations, suggestive of solidarity in shared female identity. A series of mixed gender trios retain the part-playful circular linkage of bodies, connecting in close proximity and rarely straying beyond the distance of arms length. Hands connect to faces, initiating turns, with sudden inward pulls towards the axial figure conferring a sense of a tight social grouping and kinship. The Groom dives underwater, as the Bride negotiates a pathway down stone steps and along a narrow path. The movements of two men and one woman develop into increasingly problematic sexualised content. The bride climbs upwards, arrestingly framed against the blue of the sky and the whiteness of the rock. Three trios, filmed in differing proximities to camera, reveal partially-abstracted movement configurations. The Bride, framed against the sky at the edge of the cliff-face, sways. Trio performers fall to the ground, leaving the Groom alone standing upright. A series of fast edits, in tight close-up of the Bride’s face, are suggestive of a fall. The Groom runs with great urgency and the Bride’s face appears, falling in the slowed-motion movement language of the underwater state.

A new sequence signals a shift to an interior space, gradually revealed as church or village hall, with a stage at one end, occupied by a band. Performers of differing ages are seated around the edge of the floorspace, functioning as impassive chorus of observers/spectators. Choreographic content mixes with more naturalistic narrative advancement, interconnecting on an equally illustrative basis. The Groom lies prone on the hall’s empty floorspace, face-down as though incapacitated by grief. The Bride stands near to his outstretched arms in her white dress, combing her hair. Other performers enter the space, as women fasten dresses and men button shirts. The movement vocabulary contrasts the reaching, unfolding, and lengthening of the floor-based figures with the upright progression of the standing. Floor-bound hands reach to connect with ambulant feet in an overtly unequal contract of dependency and need. Floor-level camera travels the length of bodies. Two men uncurl, as two pairs of female feet walk over their backs, and lying feet connect side-on around arcing pathways to stepping ones. The Bride tends to the Groom and to other of the men, straightening ties and smoothing collars. Outside the hall, she holds an item of clothing to her face, as though inhaling its smell. The performers gather in a repeat of the portrait grouping, this time clothed in black, with the figure of the white-clad Bride visible in the background, before an apparent continuation of her underwater fall, her hair in close-up streaming like seaweed. Her mouth opens and a frog swims out and away.

The work then switches to an engagement with ‘real world’ naturalism and dialogue, delivered in a variety of languages. A party or reception takes place, with the same guests in dark suits and dresses. Over the course of the scene, two arguments develop, shown in parallel. In a kitchen, a flirtatious exchange on love and death is interrupted by a confrontation from an aggrieved partner. Elsewhere, three men discuss love as a chemical reaction, which develops into a vigourous argument, continued outside. The argument can be heard as three women shift into more stylised movement content, turning and swirling skirts as they change positions from sitting to standing, and all of the guests join together in a toast.

The film’s narrative line subsequently advances by means of montage, revisiting the green of the cane field, and a close-up of the frog. Footage of the Groom in a rural, exterior location, is intercut with that of the Bride as she disappears into an opening in the earth. Propelled along a darkened, subterranean passageway, other faces, nightmarishly distorted in close-up, travel along the same route, while the Groom’s progression is tracked by following camera. Action moves into a red-lit studio location, suggestive of the decaying interior space of an industrial warehouse. A moving camera explores slowly, as the Bride is pulled from the opening in the earth, surrounded by men who strip her of her white dress, taunting with words and blows. The viewer is moved into further recesses, encountering disturbing tableaux of loveless interaction, before returning to the Bride, whose tears are sucked through straws. The Groom reaches her, attempting comfort, and heralding the start of a new sequence presenting Vandekeybus’ choreographic language in a variety of inventively filmic ways.

The camera is used to suggest a series of interlocking and oppressive cell-like interior spaces, each housing an ongoing strand of choreographic development. Two opposing factions of a crowd face one another, later converging into a melee. Two men closely circle before locking shoulders and then heads, with framing tight in on moving bodies throughout. Composer David Eugene Edwards, already a performative presence in previous scenes, is sporadically seen, filmed by jerkily moving camera. What appears as a continuous tracking shot moves through a series of adjacent spaces, each inhabited by a duet or trio, engaged in the ongoing combat of physical blocking. The Bride and Groom engage in an ambiguous meeting, with the movement vocabulary of conflict tinged by alternative possibilities. As the sequence ends, the Groom, flanked by a group of men, gathers up the Bride, running the length of the passageway, and out of shot. In an exterior landscape of water and sunlight, the Groom carries the Bride in their return to shore, where a line of men stand between the water and the land. A male voice-over is heard, with the Bride shown alone and upright. A close-up of the Groom as he turns his head to look behind him is followed by an abrupt cut to a new sequence.

The viewer is returned to the aftermath of the reception. A man lies, snoring in an apparently drunken state, as a woman climbs on top of the sleeping figure. Footage of their one-sided coupling is intercut with imagery of the Bride, emerging from the water, staggering and falling in an attempt to reach land, and of the Groom by the shoreline, accosted by a woman in a vivid red dress. Three red-costumed duets enact a movement vocabulary of lifts and falls with passionate physical abandon. At the party, the sleeping man awakes to find himself alone, as the Groom runs, and the Bride continues her attempt to emerge from the water. The Groom reaches the grounds of a ruined building at night, and the red-clad duets develop their vocabulary of embrace and surrender. Images are revisited as a man, finding a frog in the grass, raises it to his mouth. The couples talk intensely, later shouting, although no sound can be heard. The film’s end titles appear against an underwater background, and a lone swimming figure ends the piece.

Blush appears to show a series of events co-occurring in a variety of inter-related, non-linear psychological states, such as dream and myth, as well as external reality. Many influences are apparent, with the Bride and Groom functioning as archetypal figures, rather than as named characters. Dialogue is used sparingly and in a highly stylised way, and Vandekeybus convincingly utilises passages of formalised choreographic content as one element of an integrated, filmic whole. A range of choreographers recently directing screenbased versions of their stage-based work include Edouard Lock, Lloyd Newson and Vandekeybus. All three are drawn from the performance-making traditions of dance-theatre, where a choreographer is likely to arrange multi-disciplinary collaborative elements, generating material by devising tasks, rather than concentrating purely on the creation of codified, step-based dance. Vandekeybus has undoubtedly benefited from a history of collaborative work with actors, musicians and filmmakers in the creation of his stage-based output, and this translates in Blush into a facility for weaving strands of elements and imagery within a distinctively overarching creative vision.

Vandekeybus, W. 2005 Blush CCCP/Total Film


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