On Formalism: 5 Films

None of these movies merited a whole entry, but maybe we can find an interesting gestalt amongst them. I watched them in a 24-hour period last weekend in an attempt to clear my mind of impinging quotidian matters.

Dillinger is Dead (Marco Ferreri): Ferreri copped Godard and Bunuel’s provacateur attitude without putting much substance behind it. Everyman Michel Piccoli comes home from his job, puts his wife to bed, putters around the house for about an hour, then shoots his wife dead and takes off for Tahiti as the cook of a ship. But Ferreri doesn’t have the chops to move beyond the overt cinematic critique to something more interesting; you’re always at a distance from Piccoli, especially when you shouldn’t be. Godard could have pulled off an involving and alienating portrait of such ennui; hell, Bresson should have! (Am I the only person who thinks it would have been hysterical to see his non-acting and serious-serious-serious approach applied to modern domesticity?) Ferreri can’t, and the thing turns out to be a relic of the 60s in which edginess was charmingly naive and free of the tired shock tactics that Haneke, Noe, Von Trier, and others would bring to popular art film later on.

Anguish (Bigas Luna): And speaking of shock tactics, this is a film about a dentist who kills people and extracts their eyes under the hypnotic suggestions of his mother. Actually, no, that’s The Mommy, the movie that is being watched by a movie audience in Anguish while a killer stalks the theater. Then, of course, mother’s boy goes to a theater and much self-reference ensues. Were it merely a horror movie, the characters and settings would be all at the mercy of frights and gross-outs. Here, the characters and settings are at the mercy of the metafictional gimmick. Unfortunately, good horror movies know to provide payoffs every 10-15 minutes or so, and after Anguish shoots its metaphorical load in its first reveal, Luna runs out of tricks, though he tries his best.

Of Freaks and Men (Alexei Balabanov): A gang of S&M pornographers in turn of the century St. Petersburg wreak havoc on families and a pair of Siamese twins. Very formalistic, down to the sepia-toned film, it resists any but the most superficial psychologizing of its characters (the arid plot description that the link gives does not disguise any deeper depths). Spurred by dissatisfaction at what the film appears to present, I drew my own interpretation that the film is an analogy of exploitation and art film. By giving the (presumably highbrow) viewer all the signifiers of classicist, formalist “art,” it serves the same purpose as the short pornographic reels shot by the characters do for their intended audience. I’m pretty sure this was not Balabanov’s intent. Nonetheless, a beautiful final shot.

The Silver Globe (Andrzej Zulawski): Considerably chewier than the above. Based on the Jerzy Zulawski’s science-fiction trilogy The Lunar Trilogy about the colonization of the moon (published in 1903-1911!), the film was never completed due to government interference. It’s a bonkers tale of astronauts founding a primitive civilization on the moon, who then receive a later astronaut as their savior, who saves them from the hostile, animalistic bird creature civilization that is native to the moon. Fascinating but endlessly problematic, the film’s entire first hour is presented as documentary footage shot by one of the original astronauts via his helmet-cam, and everyone speaks in leaden, impenetrable metaphors. There’s much that could be construed as some sort of criticism of Communism, but the film is such a mess that its ultimate statement against Communism is the idea that such a whack film could be made in Poland in the 70s.

Street Trash (James Muro): I actually only saw the last half of this one, which probably wasn’t such a bad move. It bears all the markings of its time: 80s splatter gorefest about homeless people exploding and beating each other up. I wasn’t aware, but apparently the whole genre dried up when the Japanese banned the films after some serial killer claimed inspiration from them. Anyone have a cite? Anyway, I’m not much of a fan of splatter films because they all blend together, but this one has a few tricks. The standard schlock double irony is there (the film towards its material, and the audience towards the film), but the aggressively random plotting (mafia and Vietnam vets, but they never meet up)sends it into slightly more memorable Ray Dennis Steckler territory, even as the higher-than-usual puzzlement of the actors over how seriously to take themselves signals a death knell for the genre.

What I will say is that these films left me with little that I could take back with me as a writer, and with the exception of The Silver Globe, they left me with little that I could take outside of the realm of film itself. (The Silver Globe is something of a special case, as the movie text is mostly incomprehensible but its literary origins still show through.) So leave aside Zulawski’s film. Of the remaining four, even Ferreri’s film, supposedly about modern everyday life, is subsumed by the overwhelming sense of “Can you believe what they’re putting on the screen?!” For me, they all point out the fallacy that formalism must restrict itself to addressing the limits and variations of its own form. It cannot; instead, formalism must invoke other media and forms–real life being only one of them–in a way that is not explicitly representational. This is evidently not easy to do, but one glance at Godard and Jancso reminds me of the ever-fruitful possibility. But for formalism to comment on its own form alone: this is the point at which film becomes a fetish rather than an art.

One thought on “On Formalism: 5 Films

  1. Re Street Trash: I can’t remember when it happened(watched ages ago), but if you didn’t see the bit where the bums play Monkey in the Middle with someone’s severed penis, you need to go back to it. It’s…special.

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