I've been cutting trailers for The Spectacle in Brooklyn for the past few months. I wanted to write a little bit about the films too, because it's been such a good critical exercise. It's taught me to look for the little glimmer of goodness in bad films, and given me a master class in sound, editing, cinematography, performance on the great ones.
I'll post these reviews after the month the films are shown, so I can take some of these films apart when they're broken, get deep into the mechanical failures of their style, suggest some replacement parts, without any fear of trashing the screenings I'm supposed to be promoting.
First though, I want to write about a film series I loved, which was a Alexander Sokurov's Great Men of the 20th Century series. One film is missing, Faust, the film programmer couldn't secure the rights to show it, but he was able to get Moloch (on Hitler), Taurus (for Lenin), and The Sun (for Emperor Hitohito). Here's the trailer:
Sokurov's project could be called "a history of mood." All the films are full of details particular to their subject's cultures and their personal eccentricities. They don't chronicle important events as much as an atmosphere around these men at critical moments in history.
Sokurov often draws our attention to a character in these scenes who is keeping a record of what's being said, suggesting that when we're listening to Hitler's awkward jokes and casual apocalyptic rants to his friends, or watching Hirohito examine a hermit crab with a marine biologist while the Allies are fire bombing Tokyo, we're examining an oddity from the historical record.
Tethering the films to The Record in this way allows them to fly into the fantastic when a history of mood needs a scene of Lenin barking like a dog at his minders, Eva Braun dancing and flipping like a Reifenstahlian superwoman through an Expressionist landscape shot through distorted mirrors, or Hirohito continuing to move his lips even when he isn't talking, like a man possessed by language he can't control, or a dying fish, or a poorly dubbed samurai. When the record keepers are present, we consider the curiosity or obscenity of these little details along with Sokurov, when the fantasy begins, he expands his own opinions at length.
The only thing I disliked about these films was their sense of humor. The dialogue clips I included I thought were much funnier than the actual jokes, like the Chaplin-esque dance of manners between Hirohito and a scientist who doesn't know where to sit or how to bow in the presence of a god. This is Sukorov taking pains to make sure his painterly compositions, the complex blocking, the architectural ideas in the sets, and the poetic and historical concerns of the dialogue don't weigh the films down. In cinema, a shot that's good enough to stand on its own as a photograph often gunks up the movement of a film. Shots need to be a little incomplete, like jig saw pieces. This is true of sound, of text, etc.. Sokurov's humor helps break up the these perfect instances of style, but sadly, it doesn't really make these films funny.
It's when these films bear down on the despair the whole edifice is built around that one laughs. A prohibition has been lifted, one the audience experiences with the all the soldiers and servants who watch these men throughout the films: a prohibition on despair. We lose our hope that any one man could stand on top of the world and direct its forces, a good theme for a director whose made a universe where every movement, every word, every look has meaning. We laugh when the spell is broken, when we’re free of Hitler, Hirohito, Lenin and Sokurov. But there's no future in these films, it's a freedom to go nowhere. It's just a freedom to despair. We laugh so life can go on anyway.