Thursday, 15 December 2011

Phase IV — A film by Saul Bass

"A celestial incident bathes the Earth in energy waves of an undisclosed nature. The incident passes harmlessly until scientist Dr. Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) investigates odd happenings in Arizona: ants are changing their basic social natures, ceasing to fight among themselves and banding together to wipe out their natural predators. Hubbs sets up a research lab in a sealed-off dome, and invites cryptographer and communications specialist James Lesko (Michael Murphy) to join him. Hordes of ants have already driven some farmers off the land, and the experiment is barely underway before the lab is under siege. Survivor Kendra Eldrige (Lynne Frederick) arrives; Hubbs doesn't report her or the killings because he doesn't want the experiment shut down. The super-intelligent ants attack the dome by building dirt-obelisks with reflective surfaces, to focus sunlight. They then infiltrate the lab to knock out the humans' air conditioner. Hubbs wants to keep fighting but Lesko has a longer view - the ants will eventually prevail, and mankind's only chance is to communicate with them"

Bass's optical effects have dated somewhat but the many insect microphotography sequences (by specialist Ken Middleham) have yet to be bettered. No filmmaker has been able to repeat Stanley Kubrick's melding of Science Fiction and experimental cinema but 2001 did spawn a number of films with ambitious themes. Douglas Trumbull's Silent Running had good intentions, good visuals and a rather draggy storyline, and George Roy Hill played some good tricks making Billy Pilgrim get unstuck in time in the Kurt Vonnegut adaptation Slaughterhouse-5. Movies with ecological themes tended toward sticky sentiment (Silent Running), paranoid conspiracies (Rage) or duck-amuck exploitation (No Blade of Grass).

The drama is a bit constipated, with Nigel Davenport behaving a bit like Quint in the next year's Jaws and then going berserk when he realizes he's no match for the ant horde. Cool customer Michael Murphy trades discoveries with Davenport, but wisely puts his energy into communication. The ant colonies have developed a mass intelligence, and become a vast communal creature. Individual insects are like cells of this body, reasons Davenport: they're expendable suicide fighters. When Davenport wipes out hundreds of thousands of attacking ants with a yellow foam, we see a series of ants dragging a piece of the foam back to their queen, each dying in turn from the poison. The queen processes the yellow goop and immediately adapts by pumping out yellow, poison resistant ant larvae. The next generation will be that much closer to victory.

Phase IV revisits the concept of a communal multi-organism creature, as proposed in Nigel Kneale's Quatermass 2. When Murphy breaks down the ants' mechanical language, the film also harmonizes somewhat with Close Encounters.

The key to everything is communication, as the ant intelligence seems to be truly curious about humans. Security comes first, though, and most of Phase IV is a curious battle between the isolated lab dome and the ant onslaught. The ants surround the dome with towers topped with heat-reflectors -- like the Markalites ray cannons that lay siege to the Mysterians' battle dome in Chikyu Boeigun, but on a much smaller scale. Saboteur ants sneak in to gnaw away at crucial lab wiring -- the communal ant mind has analyzed the dome's defenses.

Saul Bass's main talent, even in his famous title sequences, is visual communication, and his optical tricks conjure up weird space phenomena, strange silhouetted shapes on the horizon, and a few impressive (if dated) surreal images. Some of these are on the grainy side. The real wonder of the film are Ken Middleham's incredibly good micro-cinematographic views of the ants and other insects going about their business. The film could easily use a number of generic "bugs milling about" shots, but these are planned, choreographed and executed for maximum graphic appeal. Focus is good and the bug action is fascinating - many shots are even over-cranked in beautiful slow motion. We see ants arranging the bodies of their dead in long funeral rows, a chilling vision. What looks like a multi-phyla, multi-tribe meeting shows a number of incredibly enlarged ant, each with a distinctive badge on its forehead. The little emblems can't be bigger than pinheads -- how'd they do that? The proof that Phase IV is working is that we follow their strategies without one word of explanatory voiceover. We understand what they're doing...

Glenn Erickson

Further information here, here and here.

Additional Phase IV screenshots can be viewed by clicking on this link...

Friday, 2 December 2011

Hermann Nitsch - Viennese Actionist

(b Vienna, 29 Aug 1938). Austrian performance artist, painter, writer and composer.

He attended the Graphische Lehr- und Versuchsanstalt in Vienna from 1953 until 1958, after which he worked in the Technisches Museum in Vienna as a graphic designer.

Most of his work of the 1950s was conceived as a form of written preparation for the projected staging of a large-scale Gesamtkunstwerk, the form of which, as a six-day festival, was first thought up in 1957 and entitled the Orgies–Mysteries Theatre.

In 1960, following his return to painting influenced in particular by Arnulf Rainer, he held his first performances at the Technisches Museum, which were based around the art of painting, but which gradually came to incorporate such props as animal carcasses. In this year he also met Otto Muehl, Günter Brus and Rudolf Schwarzkogler.

By 1962 he had moved from the painting performance to the performance or Aktion itself, when, tied to the wall of Muehl’s flat in Vienna as if crucified, blood was poured over him. This established the crucifixion as one of the major themes of the Orgies–Mysteries Theatre.

In 1964 he was a founder-member of the AKTIONISMUS group and also in 1966 of the Institut für Direkte Kunst.

While sharing an anti-aesthetic that focused on the body, the literary origins of Nitsch’s work marked out the essential differences between his activity and that of the other members of Aktionismus, which was less overtly symbolic in its imagery. However, it was in the positioning of the Aktion in the context of rituals derived from religious liturgies that the differences became acute.

Muehl criticized this pseudo-religious structure, for where he sought to achieve catharsis through the personal investigation of repressions and the achievement of personal freedoms, Nitsch was interested in the manner in which organized ritual could lead to a collective state of catharsis. This stimulation of the awareness of repressed feelings and emotions was further emphasized by Nitsch’s development of the concept of the Abreaktionsspiel, an appropriation of the psychoanalytic term ‘abreaction’.

In 1971 he established a studio for his performances at Schloss Prinzendorf, near Vienna, and in 1975 he staged a performance lasting from sunrise on 26 July to sunrise on 27 July, using a bull and 11 sheep. This represented the first realized part of the Orgies–Mysteries Theatre, after which, while continuing the performance element of the work, Nitsch pursued musical composition and other aspects of the Gesamtkunstwerk.

A later performance lasting three days and nights, Three Day Play, was also staged at Schloss Prinzendorf in 1984.

He also exhibited works in which the activities of the Aktionen appear to be documented and the quasi-religious garments of the performers are fixed to massive canvases, splattered with intense colour. Although these recalled the spontaneity of the Aktionen, they also used orthodox painting materials...

More information here, here and here.

The films of Alejandro Jodorowsky

Venerated by cult cinema enthusiasts while dismissed by most other critics, the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky present strange and magical visions that are not easily categorised or understood. Informed by a lifetime of spiritual journey, Jodorowsky’s cinematic output is filled with violently surreal images and a hybrid blend of mysticism and religious provocation. His completed films are few in number (only six features to date, two of which he has subsequently disowned), and are typically associated with the youth counterculture movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, especially the “head film” subgenre and the “midnight movie” phenomenon...

1957 > Les têtes interverties

Believed lost for fifty years, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s first film, La Cravate (aka Severed Heads) was found in an attic in Germany in 2006, and released on DVD in 2007.

Adapted from Thomas Mann’s short story, “The Transposed Heads - A Legend of India in Paris”, La Cravate was made between 1953 and 1957 and starred Denise Brossot, Rolande Polya, Raymond Devos, Saul Gilbert and Jodorowsky. The film tells of a young man’s desire to win the love of a woman. To do this, he visits a store which allows customers to switch their heads, and thus their personalities. The young man trades in his head for a variety of different models, and while his body continues to woo the woman of his dreams, the store’s proprietor, a young woman, takes a fancy to the man’s original head and takes it home. The moral is never to lose your head over unrequited love, but find someone who loves you as you are. It’s bizarre, amusing and charming, and an impressive first film... > Read more here.

1967 > Fando Y Lis

Maker of fabulous worlds, Alejandro Jodorowsky is himself a wondrous, many-tentacled, creature. Born in Chile of Russian Jewish parents, he first moved to Mexico and later to France. Best known as a film-maker, he has also worked as a circus clown, stage actor, mime artist, puppeteer, author, avant-garde theatre director, graphic novelist, Tarot reader and psycho-shaman… Belonging nowhere, unfettered by the constraints of any one art form, Jodorowksy has been free to let the wildest visions sprout out of his extravagant imagination for the last forty years, distilling visceral images, provocative spirituality and lashings of abrasive humour into a head-turning bootleg firewater. Greatly influenced by Surrealism, Jodorowsky travelled to Paris to meet André Breton in 1953 and was a fervent reader of one-time Surrealist author Antonin Artaud – one of many artists expelled from the movement by the narrow-minded, doctrinaire Breton.

Artaud’s revolutionary manifesto ‘The Theatre of Cruelty’ provided the foundation for Jodorowsky’s conception of his own art. Believing that theatre had lost its emotional power, Artaud called for a violently expressive, physical theatre that would ‘restore an impassioned convulsive concept of life to theatre’. Rejecting the traditional reliance on the written text, the Theatre of Cruelty would use movement, gesture, shouts, rhythmical pounding, puppets and masks in order to transmit meaning through an urgent physicality... > Read more here.

1970 > El Topo

A man in black rides the desert vastness of Mexico with a naked child in front of him on the saddle. Three hee-hawing gunmen appear from out of hiding, laughing that they have been sent to kill him. The man carefully places the child behind him on the saddle.

So opens Alejandro Jodorowsky's "El Topo" (1970), one of the legendary "lost films", out of circulation for years before it was finally released on a DVD in 2007. A lone rider confronted by gunmen is nothing new in the Western. A naked child is, and adds a queasy undertone of danger and transgression. Jodorowsky finds a way to evoke that uneasiness throughout the film, and all of his work. There is always something incongruous, something unexpected that does not belong.

The lone rider is El Topo. The name translates as "the mole". The movie informs us that a mole spends his life digging tunnels to the sky, only to go blind when it sees the sun. This is not quite true, but truth is not allowed to interfere with its use as a convenient symbol. Will El Topo dig free and go blind? And if he does, what will that mean? Pauline Kael observed that Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" is filled with symbols, and they're all obvious. "El Topo" is filled with symbols, and they're not obvious. I am reminded of one of Ebert's Laws: "If you have to ask what something symbolizes, it doesn't". Or it stands for itself... > Read more here.

1973 > The Holy Mountainn

A man (later identified as a thief) representing The Fool, a tarot card typically depicting a young man stepping off a cliff, lies on the ground with flies covering his face like excrement. He is befriended by a footless, handless dwarf (representing the five of swords: defeat) and goes into a city to make money from tourists.

The thief's resemblance to Christ inspires some to use his likeness for the crucifixes that they sell by casting an impression of his face and body. After a dispute with a priest who rejects the thief's likeness of himself, the thief eats off the face of his wax statue and sends it skyward with balloons, symbolically eating the body of Christ and offering "himself" up to heaven. Soon after, he notices a crowd gathered around a large tower, where a large hook with a bag of gold has been sent down in exchange for food. The thief, wishing to find the source of the gold, ascends the tower; finding the alchemist (played by Jodorowsky) and his silent female assistant. After a confrontation with the alchemist, the thief defecates into a container. The excrement is transformed into gold by the alchemist who proclaims: "You are excrement. You can change yourself into gold"... > Read more here.

1978 > Tusk

Such were the strange fortunes of Alejandro Jodorowsky in the 70's that he went from the mind bending Holy Mountain to the abandoned multi-million dollar production of Dune to directing Tusk, his 1980 film adapted from a children's book about a girl and an elephant born on the same day on a plantation in British controlled India.

In the film, the elephant, known as Tusk grows up to be a powerful and intelligent beast of some renown. Elise who has matured into a head strong and determined young woman secures Tusk's freedom from the plantation but with their fates entwined, danger looms for both of them from hunters and poachers. Tusk is a difficult film to approach. The film has little of the transgressive imagery of El Topo, Holy Mountain and Santa Sangre and has inevitably been dismissed as a minor footnote in Jodorowsky's career. Even the director himself disowned the film due to producer interference. All this has done a great disservice to a film which is actually a very fine piece of work and in many ways a very worthy Jodorowsky film.

In terms of pure visual technique, Tusk is one the director's best looking films - Jodorowsky soakes up the Indian landscapes, and his camera steals some remarkable shots - the opening 3 minute tracking shot which rises and swoops over an elephant corral is one of the director's most visually arresting sequences... > Read more here.

1989 > Santa Sangre

Circus and church, and a whole lot of other extremes, come up against each other in bewildering opposition in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s re-released 1989 Santa Sangre, a cult film of which it could truly be said, “They don’t make them like this any more”. It’s practically a one-off, visually spectacular and musically vibrant; if you’re looking for equivalents, Buñuel, Ken Russell at his most hysterical, and the Italian horror-and-gore genre of the Seventies (think Berberian Sound Studio) are the nearest you might get. The opening scene finds hero Fenix seriously out-of-his-tree (literally) in a lunatic asylum. (The director kept casting in the family - one son, Axel Jodorowsky, plays the adult Fenix, another, Adan, the character in childhood, with other relations in smaller roles). Flashbacks suggest just how strange that childhood was. Fenix is a child magician in a travelling circus, Circo del Gingo, which seems stuck in a small Mexican town - though the playfully wooden dialogue is in English, the atmosphere is exclusively Latin American. His boozy American father Orgo (Guy Stockwell) has a speciality act throwing knives at “the Tattooed Woman” (Thelma Tixou, pictured below right), who taunts her own deaf-and-dumb daughter Alma (Sabrina Dennison) to improve her tightrope technique.

Alma is Fenix’s special friend, along with a midget and a pack of clowns, and the lad much loves the circus’s diminutive elephant. Somewhere across town Fenix’s mother Concha (Blanca Guerra), whose speciality is wire acts, is doubling as the leader of a church sect devoted to the memory of a wished-for martyr who died at the hands of attackers, her arms cut off (a motif that runs throughout the film); the “holy blood” of the title refers at least in part to the red pool in their ramshackle church, outlawed by the religious powers-that-be and duly demolished by developers... > Read more here.

1990 > The Rainbow Thief

Rudolf Von Tannen is an eccentric millionaire who cares for no one but his dalmatians. One night he welcomes his guests - all of them related to him, expecting to cash in his fortune once he passes away - to a dinner party.

The dogs are fed caviar and the people are given bones to eat. This sends them away in anger. Then Rudolf's predilect brothel service arrives, the Rainbow Girls, big-breasted women dressed with the colors of the rainbow. After dancing and partying with them, Rudolf has a heart attack that leaves him comatose. The relatives gather to argue over the will, but since Rudolf is alive but in a coma, nothing can be done. The relatives suspect that Rudolf will leave all of his fortune to his equally eccentric nephew, Meleagre. Meleagre arrives in time to overhear the back-talk, and walks away unnoticed with his dog Chronos.

Five years later, Meleagre and Dima (a beautiful thief) live together in the sewerline. Chronos has died. Together they wait for Rudolf's demise and the subsequent inheritance. Dima has set to stealing in order to make a living for the two of them, and takes advantage of carnivals and traveling circuses in order to do so. He has frequent run-ins against a bartender (played by English rock musician Ian Dury), whom he owes large amounts of money, as well as several low-life individuals (a midget, a giant, phony blind beggars) and Ambrosia, a large woman whose love he exploits for money... > Read more here.

Further information here, here & here.