Monday, June 2, 2008

Rated: Are (Nicolas Provost)

Nicolas Provost

Due to the combination of losing my internet access and some surprisingly productive research time, the Court Metrage posts sort of fell off a few weeks back. However, I do want to write a summation (I saw them all!) soon. Before that, however, I have to write on the highlight of the festival: a screening of short films by Nicolas Provost that will likely take my movie interests further away from the mainstream, with the consequence that my posts may become more elitist and more condescending towards the traditional narrative film.

Nicolas Provost, a self-described "experimental filmmaker," not only made me rethink the rest of the festival, but has likely provoked a general interest in what may be called non-narrative art films. This is really good stuff, and proof again that the world is almost always more interesting than you give it credit for.

More than half of these films were made entirely in the editing room by altering old films. The two most striking involve reimaginings of Kurosawa's Roshomon by a technique called "mirroring." that, as the name would imply, takes one half of the screen and creates a mirrored image on the other side. The scenes Provost choses from Roshomon are two of the most powerful in cinematic history - the possession of the soothsayer woman and the fight. Reworking a classic of cinema, and adding music, is an ambitious idea, but Provost manages to create images as striking, and in some cases moreso, than the originals. I could try to explain the beautiful monstrosities that are created, but fortunately Papillon d'Amour (soothsayer scene) is available here.

The fight scene, called Bataille, is almost as effective even without the industrial sounds, as the two warriors seem to dive into and out of the screen. There are distracting moments when the mirrored images do no quite match up, but the effect is still magical. Mirroring may seem like a simple (or contrived) idea, but I count anything this engaging and memorable as great success. I imagine that 99% of the time if you tried to do this, the result would be awful.

Provost's other two video "mash-up" are less effective, especially I Hate This Town which takes (I think, I can't find citation of the source film) scenes from Debby Does Dallas and turns them into the visuals for a bad techno video. I appreciate the intellectual idea here of stripping (heh) all the eroticism away and showing filmed sex acts for what they are - monotonous and ugly - but the end result is as empty and dull as your average porn flick.

Better is Gravity which functions as a love short to the history of classic cinematic embraces. Using a stobe-like effect that alternates between split second scenes from different films, Provost creates odd images like Kyle MacLachlan from Blue Velvet embracing Jimmy Stewart, and Ingrid Berman walking away from Carey Grant (though neither of the spliced images are from Notorious). Golden era Hollywood is not my strength, but this short would definitely appeal to cinephiles steeped in knowledge from this era. Probably the sweetest film of the bunch, it is remarkable for the time and effort it must have taken to put all these images together and for the lasting impression it leaves.

But Provost isn't only interested in collage and exploring the history of cinema; he also makes great original narrative films. The two showing here - Exoticore and Induction - were stunning. Both staring Issaka Sawadogo, an arresting actor from Burkina Faso, they demonstrate a definite Lynchian sense of a deep horror lurking just beneath the placid surface of everyday life.

could almost be a normal film about the struggles of an immigrant in a new country. Sawagado, as an African in Norway, is just about as isolated as possible, yet in a broken Norweigian he does his best to meet new people, offering to go out with drinks with his fellow co-workers, and inviting woman to see The Lord of the Rings. Mostly he fails however, despite an indefatigable spirit and genuine willingness to get along. There is no real indictment of Norway (where Provost lived for a time) or its people; it's just hard to get along in a foreign land.

Now a story like this could be depicted in a straightforward way, where we see the hardships of the hero, and do our best to identify with him (however impossible that is). This would lead to a recognition, one we likely already have, that it is difficult to be an African immigrant in Norway, and that we feel sad. But Provost I think doesn't want a simple recognition of misery or unhappiness, he wants you to feel what Sawadogo feels: terror. While some of the shots are staged in a normal way, Provost also hints at terror through keeping certain images just off-screen or (again, here's Lynch) in adding bracing industrial music to seemingly banal shots.

This was something of a breakthrough film experience. There are only a few features that I can think of as truly experiential, rather than empathetic, where the filmmaker does not what to just present a story but wants the viewer to be the story. Off the top of my head, I can think of 2001 as being like this, Apocalypse Now maybe, and just about anything by Lynch. I mention the last again not only because Provost's style so clearly resembles the best modern director, but because I have a tough time thinking of many filmakers who really approach film in this way. I think Herzog does this some in some of the non-Kinsky films (Klaus is just too big a personality to allow the viewer to share in the experience) like Wild Blue Yonder and Stroszek and my personal favorite Tarr, but even these two directors still present their stories in an understandable chronology. Tarr especially is capable of unbelievably beautiful shots, but they don't grab you quite the same way as something like Exoticore.

The other feature, Induction, basically eliminates any narrative at all, instead offering a series of almost still images: a naked Sawadogo frightening a bourgeois couple in a country house; their child creeping around the house; Sawadogo fucking the wife; plumes of smoke from the child's hiding space. I won't make much of an effort to explain this, because aside from the seeming commentary on racial fears and sexuality (Provost is from Belgium, after all), I don't think I can. But again, the images themselves are stunning and you feel something while watching the movie, and not a feeling that can easily be explained. Most likely, you are feeling the same kind of anxiety that Provost himself has felt, the same anxiety that caused him to make the movie in the first place. In other words, Induction is a direct transfer of the director's state of mind to yours, bypassing the normal medium of narrative.

It's strange when you think about this, about how an ordinary director will have some feeling (I say anxiety but it could just as easily be a fear or joy), then will set about trying to craft a story in which the actors in some way portray this feeling to the audience. The audience member, then, if they are even a halfway decent viewer, goes beyond the literal reading of the story to uncover the themes or whatever hidden behind the story. In all, it's a very elaborate process.

But with experimental films, or at least with Provost, the artifice of story is just abandoned and the feeling of the director is, well, mainlined right into the viewer. This isn't really so odd, it's how most big "A" Art (painting, sculpture, etc.) has worked for about 100 years, but films are not like art in that they generally cost a lot more money and involve a lot more steps. Therefore, the stories, the action, the movie stars, etc. While the art business is far from a meritocracy, the scales of economics are at least such that pretty much anyone can paint and exhibit their work without either a) running their idea through 20 different levels of bureacracy or b) being famous enough to secure overseas funding.

I certainly don't hope or expect all movies to be Lynch or Provost anymore that I would expect all books to be literature. So I'm not just excluding 98% of movies because they bother with all of the superfulous elements, but rather realizing that only some mainstream directors understand that the story, or the narrative, is the just the element by which to get the feeling across, but that it is the feeling that matters. I would see this group would include Kubrick, both Anderson's, the Coens, Spike Lee, and some others. All of these directors seem to understand the balance between the means of film and the ends of emotional and intellectual expression (for a contrast, see the comments from the previous review of Speilberg, who I think is all means, no ends).

James Joyce had a famous response when asked what Ulysses was "about." He said: it isn't about anything, it is something. On a large spectrum of movies ranging from about something to is something, Provost is all the way to the side of is. To talk about what his movies are about sort of misses the point, in the way that saying Picasso's early cubist period was about guitars. His movies just are.


Sean said...

Provost sounds like a real find. I'll have to check out that youtube link. One of the nice features of our new Wii is that it allows for easy couch-internet video watching.

I must say I'm digging the Brussels reportage. Are you keeping an eye on the Brussels Film Festival itself?

As an aside, the new Wii is also allowing for less couch-movie watching. I'm sure it'll wear off soon... maybe I should start reviewing Wii games.

Padraic said...

Hmmm, two Wii references in one comment? I'm worried I'll be doing the heavy lifting for a while. But feel free to review the video games, since that is certainly within the confines of the site's name and purpose.

The BFF is definitely on the radar, especially now that they have actually released the program.

It's all first or second time European directors, so I'm clueless as to what to expect, but maybe you'll be so kind as to head to the site and tell me what's good.