Resource and Environmental Degradation: LESSONS OF DARKNESS (Herzog, 1992)

Disclaimer: This is a continuation of a collection of my thoughts for a personal film portfolio; ideas deriving from Nadia Bozac’s, The Cinematic Footprint (2012): ‘Introduction’ and Ch. 2 ‘Resource’.

In Lessons of Darkness, Herzog’s genre-bending strategies and unconventional approach to cinema separates his documentary from the conventional; merging – as Bozac writes – nonfiction and fiction, the real world with the imaginary, to capture a sense of truthfulness that is only obtainable when the bounds of representational accuracy are exceeded. By breaking down specific contextual barriers, Herzog encourages his documentary to invoke an extended exploration into war and resource conflict, and the horrific consequences of this on humans and the land.

By refusing to narrow itself down to the context of 1991 politics (but still exploiting the spectacle of Kuwait’s oil spills and burning wells), Herzog’s science fictional landscape situates it as a futuristic environmental war; the after-effects of what surface after humans have left, conflict has ended, and the environment has now been left degraded.

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Through the diegetic music, the operatic music dramatises the scale of furnaces and ironically conveys the “triumph” of human destruction at the consequence of wealth and greed. Herzog is also consciously abstract – through this science-fiction lens, he offers little to no context, alienating objects as an explanation for this post-apocalyptic reality. By blurring fiction with fact, Herzog self-consciously acknowledges the inability for documentary to truly represent objective fact; instead embracing its flaws through a fictionalised interpretation to uncover a larger and deeper truth.

To separate himself from other modern documentaries, Herzog avoids new media technology – which aim to create urgent, spectacular and “present-tense” liveness. Instead, he embraces the analog through shooting on a 16mm film camera, reducing many shots to single-shot shots. Here, he interrogates the scope that a single camera has to examine the wasted terrain and aftermaths of an oil war on its ecosystem – refuting the idea that multi-cameras are needed to properly capture authenticity.

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His desire for simplicity and rigidity afforded by the analog format means he relies on a stationary camera and minimal editing – avoiding any excess cuts, freeze-frames, zooms and studio shoots. Instead, he works with what Bozac calls a “vulturous patience”, shown through the use of slow pans and aerial helicopter shots, which work to let the havoc of the landscape speak for itself. This patience is accompanied by a loss of words – where the sonorous voiceover of Herzog is sparsely used to let the land speak for itself. Lessons of Darkness is void of any sort of political commentary, relinquishing it from skewed manipulation that film is subject to. But whilst the environment no longer depicts humanity living on it, the scars that impact the innocent are emphasised. The silent child in his mother’s arms, whose inability to speak after witnessing the murder of his father, epitomizes the hidden after-effects of warfare upon both its people and the land.

In addition, transforming the casualty of combat from the human being to the natural environment – Herzog reduces other human life forms to what Bozac describes as “nothing less than extraterrestrial beings”. With the final closing sequence in Lessons of Darkness featuring extinguished oil fires being indulgently reignited from the display of waste and wealth, this horrific representation of humanity’s greedy appetite for oil, and the delight in their palpable desperation for it has led to the burnt land and human misery. Herzog thus undermines the war by challenging the audiences to remember the power of such fires in burning, wasting and polluting the atmosphere. He suggests for a new mode of cinema to tackle such theoretical engagement; self-reflexively using the oil-reflection as cinema’s self-reflection – demanding a reevaluation about cinema’s dependency on war, and how war is dependent on the oil it fights for.

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The Avant-Garde Documentary: LEVIATHAN (Castaing-Taylor & Paravel, 2012)

Disclaimer: This is a continuation of a collection of my thoughts for a personal film portfolio; ideas deriving from Scott McDonald, Avant-Doc (2015): ‘Introduction’ and section on ‘Sensory Ethnography’.

Castaing-Taylor & Paravel’s Leviathan offers an affectual and physical experience through documentary style, but diverts from the conventional documentary through its experimental camera work and desire to depict raw reality. The Sensory Ethnography Lab formed by Castaing-Taylor, has had such a reputation for combining this avant-garde approach with an ethnographic consciousness – aiming to refute the “truth claim” of conventional documentaries, and instead armed with a purpose to “shake us out of our dogmatic…slumbers” by representing the sensory elements of cultures and complex, multifaceted experiences.

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In order to achieve this, both Castaing-Taylor and Paravel subvert dominant rules and regulations of filmmaking by elevating the importance of style over subject – immersing its audiences within its avant-garde aesthetic. As stated in the interview with McDonald, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel are much more “interested in the world” than the conforming to norms of cinematic or artistic convention. This is shown through the use of smaller DLSRs and tiny GoPro cameras handheld and attached to fishermen’s bodies, which visually and unusually convey the rocky, messy experiences on board – using different angles to submerge the audiences from the sea and onto the happenings of the ship. This, along with the colour palette of the film (yellow and red against the black of day and night), works to evocatively expose the experiences of the sea, summoning an abstract beauty to its nontraditional shot composition.

Interestingly, these unique perspectives enable the documentary to give equal weighting of animals/natural creatures to humans. This ontological favour subverts the chain of authority of human subjects otherwise seen in films and documentaries, where the fishermen of the ship are instead positioned as ‘The Other’. This is shown through the inaudible, muffling of the fishermen and the rare cut to a human subject. Such is depicted in the long take of a fisherman watching TV, where the stationary camera simply observes the human subject nonverbal like its other creatures – retracting from an interview-style which places humanity at the understanding and forefront of audience attention.

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Concurrently, the perceptual engagement of Leviathan is not only achieved through the shifts between subjective viewpoints (humans, fish, birds) – but concurrently through its intricate and wild sound design. It captures the details of this unsettling netherworld, from the nets, the winches, cutting tables – the acoustics of commercial fishing intentionally function in an imaginative and abstract manner to evoke the metaphysical and affectual sensations of this audiovisual documentary. By paying attention to these two aspects in all their complexities, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel have unearthed a strange but illuminating tone poem for its audiences.

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Disgust and Mise-en-Scène: THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER (1989, Greenaway)

Disclaimer: This is a continuation of a collection of my thoughts for a personal film portfolio; ideas deriving from Eugenie Brinkema, The Forms of the Affects (2014): ‘Preface: Ten Points to Begin’, Ch. 2 ‘Film Theory’s Absent Centre’, Ch. 6 ‘Disgust and the Cinema of Haut Goût’ and UNSW lecture conducted by Julian Murphet (8 April 2016).

A traditional definition on affect derives from its resistance of structure  – the conveyance of the visceral, immediate, and sensed. However, Brinkema’s polemic stresses the need to look beyond this interiority of feeling, and to turn to other forms of examination, such as the textures, form and technical aspects which amalgamate to create affect. The argument that the turn to affect corresponds with a turn away from detail, thus excludes the importance of aesthetics, structure and form of a film to generate affect – something that is heavily displayed through Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover elevates the high art of cooking, eating and choosing good food – gastronomy – not only serving as a vehicle to comment on consumerist greed and an allegory for Thatcherism, but concurrently works to emit aesthetic value. The formal language, themes and variations, of high gastronomy evoked through the mise-en-scène, function as a powerful tool to which film theory remains a metaphysical dominant term. This is shown through the red colour scheme of the dining room, expressed through the deep red costuming and set design, where the close-ups of aristocratic paintings, the lavish chandeliers and a harpsichord Baroque-like score by Michael Nyman exacerbate the excess of wealth and opulence of Albert’s restaurant.

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And yet concurrently the artificiality of the film works to distance the film from reality – something that Brinkema notes as a self-conscious display to bridge the representational and gastronomic concerns of the film. This is illustrated in one of the first sequences, where the camera pans across the green kitchen to reveal that the high singing the audiences assumed were be heard non-diegetically, is actually diegetic opera singing from one of the kitchen boys (Pup). Both the shocking and comical value of this operate to self-reflexively break down any preconception of Greenaway’s film as truthful to reality.

This inauthenticity is further conveyed in the overt colours, which separates spatial dimensions. The camera transitions between these locations with an elegance; horizontal linearity is delivered by means of an ever-restless tracking camera. Brinkema notes that the colour schemes (the dining room as red, the washroom as white, the kitchen as green etc.) constitute an independent structure, working autonomously to reveal the structure of the film, rather than operating as symbolism for the film’s meaning. This formal structuralist sphere is extended through the film’s repetition of days, location and activities. The cut to the days of the week, from Thursday to Tuesday, in addition to the order of the filmic shots (menu, arrival, dining, fucking, returning, departure, beating) highlight the strict arrangement of Greenaway’s film, giving him flexibility to seep in the negative affect of disgust through this mise-en-scène.

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Brinkema writes that disgust not only relies on its viscerality for affect, but simultaneously necessitates “active dissecting and analysing”. Greenaway showcases this by exposing the paradox of disgust – the way attraction and revulsion meld into each other. He elevates decay, suggesting it alluringly brings out pleasurable characteristics, represented most explicitly in the horrifyingly slow pan of Michael’s cannibalistic serving – which is garnished with delectable food displays. Gastronomy in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is thus portrayed to communicate the negative of good taste, and the heightened pleasures which derive from the specific forms of rotting and decay. Georgina’s dress, which changes colours according to the contrasting spatial locations, reinforces this – where the bleeding and blending of colours between frames highlights the slow decomposition of form, generates disgust.

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Consequently, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover demonstrates Brinkema’s reasoning of the need to return form (including mise-en-scène) to affect, indicating that aspects of a film’s construction cannot be separated from sensual experiences with film, as they are understood and conveyed through them.

 

A REFLECTION: Boarding Gate (2007, Assayas)

Disclaimer: This is a continuation of a collection of my thoughts for a personal film portfolio; ideas deriving from Steven Shaviro’s Post-Cinematic Affect (2010): ‘Introduction’ and ‘Boarding Gate’.

On the surface, Oliver Assayas’ Boarding Gate (2007) is not remarkable – it is riddled with  a thin plot and vague characters – two elements that can make the dismissal of the B-grade thriller easy. But looking beyond its encapsulation of conventional genre tropes (which can render it as lacking any sort of new commentary), sees an intriguing examination of its transnational backdrop. Stephen Shaviro’s insightful arguments, in his book ‘Post-Cinematic Affect’, attempts to justify Assayas’ choices, incorporating a critical evaluation of its postmodern landscape, and resultant capitalisation of cinematic affect.

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The world of Boarding Gate is never stable – it moves between countries, cities and spaces.

Affect, as defined by Shaviro is a primary and unconscious feeling, and differs from emotion, which is derivative and susceptible to be waned. This distinction becomes important when interrogating the “world of global capitalism” that is presented in Boarding Gate, where the profit-driven motives of a modern day society encourages immaterial transaction of products. In this environment that ensues a tactile ‘new world’ away from the roots of historical and cultural society, the paradox is that each location in the film have become “empty spaces”. This is shown through the sterile offices in the Paris scenes, where the juxtaposition of gritty construction worksites and factories, shatters any pre-conception of Paris as a romantic setting, as it is represented in classic movies, such as the An American in Paris, the Before Trilogy, Amelié, etc. Instead, Assayas suggests that the commodification of a modern landscape consequently manifests into a mise-en-scène depicted in Boarding Gate –  where the melding of “local” locations (Paris with Hong Kong) makes them virtually indistinguishable spaces – transforming the world into empty, spectacular displays of surface appearances.

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Visual space becomes a mere container for objects, metaphorically reflected through the empty and cold glass windows of a corporate office.

It is not only spatial uniqueness that is shattered, but Assayas also stresses that personal identity is under threat in this constant shifting world. The transnational flows of people, goods and money have led to the disposition of  individual identity – generating a sense of anonymity, which stems from a world where everything has become “interchangeable and exchangeable”. This is depicted through Sandra’s character, who must rid herself of her legal and social identity as she moves between countries, shown through the close-up of the cutting of her French credit card and passport. It is here that Shaviro draws the link between the personal and business, suggesting that the greases of commerce have penetrated into realm of the affective, such as immediate and unconscious feelings of spatial belonging and human trust.

Sandra’s inability to maintain a stable identity is complicated by the manipulation of these emotions; her love for Lester is only used to his own benefit – illustrating the dire consequences of a fragmented capitalist world where human intimacy has evolved into a commercial transaction. Consequently, Shaviro highlights that in order to survive in this unpredictable context, one must reinvent oneself to be adaptable and flexible to changing conditions and threats.

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Through a out-of-focus final shot, Sandra blends into the background through her realisation of her lack of agency to enact change in a rapidly-consumerist world.

But where Shaviro asserts that the conclusion of Boarding Gate symbolises hope, through Sandra’s decision to not shoot Lester, I would argue that it is a pessimistic ending. After a 2-hour running time of chases, slow tension and dramatic events, this despondent ending instead represents the powerlessness of individuals to alter a world that has ultimately driven itself into a materialistic and irremediable state. Whether or not Sandra chooses to shoot Lester will not amend anything; this consumerist society will continue to cyclically perpetuate unscrupulous behaviour for economic interests.