Wednesday, October 1, 2008

La Vallée close

Dir: Jean-Claude Rousseau
Viewed From: The Balcony

It is difficult to know how to talk about experimental film. Thinking about La vallee close, I couldn't help alternating between pretentious analysis on the one hand and vapid praise on the other. What I do know was that it was an amazing experience, so maybe I'll just offer a little description on what appears on screen, and a few immediate reactions.

La vallee close (The Enclosed Valley) is shot in Super-8 film, and lasts 143 minutes. There is no dialogue and almost all of the "action" appears to be natural, as if the camera was just set up and left to run, with no pans, zooms or motion at all. There are a few basic scenes, each of which is repeated throughout, though always slightly altered; tourists visiting a cave which appears to be the titular Valley; a man in a hotel room talking on the phone; shots of streams, mountains, etc.; a cafe along the river, and shots of the interior of a decaying apartment building. Though none of the people who appear on screen speak, there are two occasional monologues that are repeated (I think) word for word: the first, one side of a conversation in which a man is making plans for lunch and the second a series of lectures by a professor to (presumably) an elementary school class. The movie itself is divided into 13 "lessons," each with a title related to nature ("Mountains," "The Rain and the Clouds," "The Cardinal Directions," etc.), but I wasn't able to discern much of an overlap between each lesson and the subsequent scenes.

Needless to say, such a film doesn't work for everyone. Before entering, we were actually warned about the pace of the film and I am not exaggerating when I say that a good one-third to one-half of the audience walked out, some within minutes of the film's beginning, and others (inexplicably) minutes from the end. One set of deserters was a couple of teenage kids who clearly didn't get the warning, and who were munching on snacks and talking through the first ten minutes. I had thought about saying something, but I had not completely understood the 'warning' we received (it was in French) and thought that maybe talking and moving about were encouraged a la Einstein on the Beach. But no, soon a large man came over and told them to shut up and put away the food. Five minutes later they were gone.

My friend and I had arrived a few minutes late, and had the good fortune to enter the film during a two-minute shot of a black screen which turned out to be the valley itslef. After stumbling in complete darkness to our seats, the first light on the screen revealed that there were only about 30 people in the audience in a room that can seat a few hundred (yes, do the math and you can determine how many were left at the end). I would venture to say a near-empty theater is almost a necessity to see this movie, as it provides the opportunity to engage in all sorts on complicated seating positions without worrying about blocking a neighbor's view. While there are many scenes that completely captured my attention, I will admit to spending a good deal of the movie thinking about how I was sitting, and managed every cross-legged-foot-on-chair permutation imaginable.

But for the most part, I was really engaged in the images on screen, especially when I decided not to try to figure out their purpose. It's difficult at first, but just watching a bunch of tourists toss rocks into a river can be a pretty powerful cinematic experience given that you can shut your investigative brain down.* My enjoyment also may have been helped by the fact that the monologues were in French with no subtitles, and that I was able to experience them as ambient sound rather than communicative language. Initially I put a lot of brain power into translating it, but soon gave up. It was probably to my advantage, as whenever the talking started, there were small grumbles of discontent among the people who could actually understand the words.

*Just as turning off your rational brain is important to getting pleasure from some standard action pic, I would argue shutting down your "what's going on" brain is essential to most experimental film. Once you start asking this question, you can forget about enjoying the film.

The closest thing I've seen to La vallee close is the kind of film shown at modern and contemporary art museums. I'm not particularly interested in a lot of contemporary art, so if I find myself at an exhibition, I'll eventually lurch off into the corner where some black-and-white thing is being shown on a repeated loop. Almost universally, the stuff is great, but it's a frustrating environment to watch film - if you're with someone, they generally don't share your interest in the film and want to move to the next room; or there is some dead-eyed security guard standing two feet away; or there are just other annoying people in the room with you. Really, this stuff needs to be in a theater rather than cordoned off in an exhibition, where people spend twenty seconds looking at a piece meant to run for an hour. Therefore, I will admit, I can't really tell if La vallee close is great experimental film or if it was just a solid effort helped by the darkness and size of the theater experience.

But if I had to guess, I would say this is the real deal. One reason why it works so well is the Super-8 footage, which breaks up long shots into staccato bursts, where the picture will cut out quickly, followed by darkness, and then the same shot again. Sean probably knows how long a single shot of Super-8 can last, but it can't be long. The short clips, even if they are repeated, work better, and the frilly edges and grainy images are less demanding on the eye than high-resolution film stock. It may seem odd, but there really isn't much work to watching the film. The relatively short shots and rough composition mean you can stare at it for a long time without getting tired. There is also the additional (and unplanned) benefit that much of the film was shot in the late 80s, and so the tourist scenes provide some unintentional levity because of the shorts, t-shirts, and assorted mullets (not to mention the lounge singer doing a French-language "I Just Called To Say I Love You.") In all, there is really a lot of serious things to look at and ponder like the nature scenes and the burned-out building, but the relief of the goofball tourists breaks up these scenes perfectly.

At the end of the film, there is some sense that a narrative could be constructed, but I'm not sure it's worth the effort. We get some idea of who the other person on the phone was, and a better understanding of the relation between the building and the valley, but the film closes on an emotionally resonant note (it just feels right), and so logical closure is beside the point. Two hours and twenty minutes after you arrive, the lights go on and the last thing you want to do is think. Personally, I stood up and did a long stretch, and after looking around to see my fellow brave souls, realized I felt pretty damn good.

A few informed pieces on the director Rousseau (often described as Bressonian) by people that follow this kind of stuff: (Mostly French, but some English in the middle).

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