Psychic Penetration

While the surveillance state inserts its proboscis into our psychic circulation systems, I will attempt to look on the bright side. It’s an audience. I am accustomed to revealing my most private thoughts and wrestling with my demons in public and listeners are listeners, after all. It’s not for me to pick and choose. I should be glad for the company but seldom has anyone from the public hung in there past the first act. Does this mean at least someone might get through the entire output? What if it sucks? What if it’s so great, they come out of the woodwork as fans? Then, by their word of mouth, my public expands and expands. Pretty soon everybody’s sending me salutations and money. Is that worse than toiling away in obscurity?

It’s not for me to judge you personally. I include myself in the surveillance community. The variety of voyeurism practiced at the multiplex is non-intrusive. Those that subscribe to the golden rule won’t take advantage of their neighbors the same way as films do characters. There is a kind of vigilance about the world around us that is rewarded through natural selection and we can develop that through movie watching. We don’t have to pry into real people’s private lives. Filmmakers have tamed and civilized the act of eavesdropping for us. Movies provide an outlet for our nosy, curious nature without anyone’s privacy actually being disturbed.

Whereas its obvious that the vast majority minds their our own business pretty well, the preponderance of audio/video and other recording technology all around us begs to be turned on. Still, it tickles me to think how far behind the curve the intelligence gathering agencies are. No one keeps tabs on his or her fellow citizens as well as movie watchers. In our society, you can learn more about human beings in a two-hour movie than by living next to them on the same street for years. Anyway, the information we seek most diligently, by scrutinizing the actions of others, should be whatever teaches us most about ourselves and that’s how the movies work.

“Requiem for a Dream,” (2000) is a story of addiction, a gorgeously grimy picture that cuts to the bone. Each time I’ve watched it, it has stayed with me for days. Opening act scenes of the budding romance between pretty addicts make their risk-taking appear glamorous, but love gets mixed-up with getting off, pushing them over the edge. If you’re inquisitive, like me, you’ll hop on the danger train with them while director Aronosvsky examines the tragic spiral from feel good scratch to fetal clutch.

In the same story, there is an elderly woman that lives by herself. She spends her lonely hours watching television. She becomes obsessed with trying to make herself look better and fancies appearing on television as a substitute for a more meaningful connection with her son. What would be considered a softer addiction proves to be equally devastating.

“I wanted to show how addiction is about repetition and obsession.’ Listening to Aronovski’s comments while re-watching the film was informative. “When we were amoebas in the primordial soup we were looking for carbon molecules to get high off of.”

The mix of fantasy and denial that allows addicts to plunge themselves into the abyss is blatantly familiar to us all, at this juncture in history. Unhealthy habits assail us from all directions and none is more potently self-destructive than our dependence on fast, cheap, easy fixes for our complex, long-term, critical challenges.

“It’s about the lengths that people will go to escape reality and when you escape your reality, you create a hole in your present, because you’re not there, you’re off chasing a pipe dream in the future and you’ll use anything to fill that vacuum, coffee, TV, tobacco, heroin to feed the hole. The hole grows and grows until eventually it will devour you. This film is about how you can use anything to get high off of, anything to fill that hole.”

He’s saying everyone wants safety, security and connection. When we feel powerless to get it, we settle for a substitute, but there is no substitute. He said that back in the year 2000, before everything changed. We’re going to follow this filmmaker into next month to review his latest film entitled “Noah,” made 14 years later. The story of the great flood appeals to the part of us that longs for a clean slate. It’s a metaphor for “cold turkey.” Civilization must go through withdrawal, if we’re going to survive, but we’re so badly hooked that we convince ourselves the correction will come from God, or in other words, don’t count on us to do anything but what addicts do.

Aronovsky is fascinated with excess and that works well in a movie that is literally about addiction, such as of “Requiem for a Dream,” but not so swell in his movie about death and dying, “The Fountain” (2006). He achieves mixed results in his films about performers, “The Wrestler” (2008) and “Black Swan” (2010). The work is always daring and visionary, but his stories, with the exception of “Requiem,” tend to collapse under the weight of their own excess. If you’re not up on The Theater of Cruelty, this director will school you with his moves.

The problem often lies with where Aronovsky choses to begin. To my own sense of correct proportion, the third acts of his last three films overshoot the mark by a power of ten. Imagine if Beethoven started his Ninth symphony in the middle. There would practically have to be bombs exploding at the finale.

So we will see if an apocalyptic deluge will be a subject that lends its self to Aronovsky’s predilections. I hope it doesn’t fly off the rails. All concessions to the Theater of Cruelty considered, at one point does one begin pushing back at the screen?

Entre Noose

It’s gone down in the history books that “Dancer in the Dark” director Lars Von Trier was an author of the Dogme 95 Manifesto. I look on it as a publicity stunt, much like the New Wave employed to pull audiences away from Europe’s classical, old school directors in the 1950’s and 60’s.

Neither Von Von Trier nor his pal Vintnerburg took much time setting out the regulations for their “vow of chastity,” and like the patriarchs of many a holy order, they never observed the rules themselves. The guys were undoubtedly high when they wrote it. Not that it wasn’t a good plan. Doors were opened for independent filmmakers that could do more with less thanks to them.

“The Ascent” was made long before Dogme 95, or anything like it. Yet it is a predecessor by default. There was no budget for modern FX shots in Shapitko’s film, so it conforms to that Dogme regulation. The killings are about as low-tech as you can get. Death by rope. While it is a period piece with guns and costumes, I will argue that Shepitko’s choice of time and place was meant strictly to comment on the “here and now” staying true in spirit to the Dogme protocol. It’s scenes were shot on location so, in that way, it conforms as well. The film is not in color but neither is the Russian winter, so the color rule is irrelevant here. It all costs money and so Sheptiko didn’t apply much of a score. She kept music spare using some where it counted most, abandoning it wherever the wailing wind on location could provide more.

My point is that if Dogme 95 was a return to purity of story, superiority of performance and economy of production, “The Ascent” was the kind of movie that Dogme was meant to be a return to. The seal of authenticity in Dogme’s chastity vow will never be more sacrosanct than in Shepitko’s films. We are talking about the anonymous attribution rule. Even though her name was attached, Shapitko was an artist in a socialist country. Ideologically speaking, at least, the films she made were property of the state. The State as Auteur sounds like a great topic for film scholarship, by the way. If someone will commission it, I’d be interested in contributing a piece.

Larissa Shepitko succeeded in convincingly capturing her character’s transformations in long takes. Lars Von Trier goes to the extreme opposite, cutting together Selma’s song and dance routines from a thousand different clips. Every time his blind heroine comes to an emotional turning point, the filmmaker speed shifts into overdrive, covering the action with no less than 100 cameras at the same time. That’s what he claims, anyway. I find the prospect of looking with that many eyes intriguing. Not only is this daring filmmaker spiking his fine tuned drama with good, old-fashioned, mid-20th century song and dance, but all these scenes, featuring Selma’s psychological shape-shifts, are virtually hosed-down. There are cameras concealed everywhere.

“Dancer” is not Dogme. Dogme 95 rhapsodizes ironically over the virtues of chastity which, in this case, was a rejection of superfluous technology of any kind. Even things like props were considered too contrived unless they happened to be found in the place where the scene is filmed. Such constraints appeal to all kinds of artists, not just Dogme directors, for economic considerations if none other. “Dancer” is not a Dogme film anyway. Lars Von Trier has never made one. Anyway, almost everything the man says and does turns into something for him to contradict later on.

When I poled my movie loving friends about “Dancer in the Dark,” a couple of them said they were put-off by Bjork repeatedly breaking into song. Was it because it was Bjork doing it and they don’t like her? Or is that they just don’t like musicals? You know who you are. I’m asking you now.

I’m not fond of many musicals myself, but, by sheer coincidence, I just got home from a screening of Footlight Parade (1933) with James Cagney and Joan Blondell. What a lot of fun that was. If you don’t like musicals, try that one. It sports just the kind of numbers Selma concocts her emotional eclipses with in “Dancer.” My favorite motion picture musical is “Cabaret.” Both “Cabaret” and “Dancer in the Dark” portray single women seeking refuge in the song and dance.

“Dancer,” is an anatomy of hope, an autopsy on denial  and a kind of primer on going blind. The project was an experiment with hybrid filming techniques and on the cutting edge in other ways besides. It won the Palme dé Or at Cannes. Bjork won the best actress prize. Von Trier’s gamble allows us to watch a 1950’s American melodrama and a 1930’s Busby Berkley musical, simultaneously, through  21st century eyes.

Bjork wrote the songs for “Dancer in the Dark,” with an assist on lyrics from Von Trier and Sjøn. For the most part they come across. Only the first and the last numbers left me unmoved. I wonder if it’s because Bjork sings with her tongue sticking out that some non-fans can’t take her. She’s too quirky for some, a shaman to others. In any case, the bulk of her musical contributions to this film work wonders.

Art film veteran, Catherine Deneuve makes every line count in her supporting role. She’s a real friend. There are a handful of actors from Europe in the film. All of them except Bjork and Deneuve are playing rural Washingtonians. Deneuve’s character Kathy plays an immigrant and the only actor with a credible accent, I might ad.

With Von Trier, the use of foreigners to play Americans becomes part of the text and works especially well, in the case of character Jeff, played by Swedish actor Peter Stormare. His inconsistent intonations and ninety mile stare contribute to the intended impression that Jeff’s not quite all there.

There are lapses in craft, when it gets right down to it, on both sides of this film. The handheld camerawork, for instance, must have made thousands of more skilled handlers curse Lars Von Trier.

The French New Wave fetishized such accidents, in each other’s work to popularize a new, fast and loose aesthetic. When a movie sweeps me up as profoundly as this one does, to be honest, I don’t really care.

…to be continued next month.

Not About Capitol Punishment

In memory of the most illustrious hanged man in history, whose birth we commemorate this month, I’ve decided to explore two European motion pictures that end with institutional hangings. The first won the Golden Bear in Berlin in 1977. “The Ascent,” by Soviet director Larissa Shapitko. It details a young revolutionary’s climb to the gallows. The second film, from year 2000, Lars Von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark,” features Icelandic pop singer Bjork as a blind, young, single, factory worker bound for the noose. Watch these two films and then come join the discussion.

We often reach back through literature to find parallels in treatment of subject matter. This months subject being capitol punishment I didn’t have to delve very far back for something stellar. Like Kafka’s “ In the Penal Colony,” “The Ascent” is not about capitol punishment. Nor are the two films in this series.,Even though their story lines climax with executions, they are about something much more personal to each of us. As I see them, both films are focused on the integrity, or lack of, in each character more than the right or wrong of the punishment. At least Von Trier states as much, on the commentary track for “Dancer in the Dark” (Criterion edition).

We aren’t given that much time to sift through credos or dogmas in either film. The masterstroke in Shepitko’s opus must be how we are permitted to acquire sympathy for the humanity even in the enemy, especially the ruthless police inspector, whom the camera successfully susses out for that torturing angel of conscience that flits up in his eyes.

“The Ascent” becomes, essentially, a passion play. We don’t realize it until the very end. Gradually, the character Sotnikov’s peculiar compassion takes us in, but his motives can not be instantly, fully ascertained. When he finally does transcend, we don’t have long to admire him. That’s is usually how this type of story unfurls. But instead of thieves on the crosses beside this savior, there swing innocent folk on those ropes, including an elder farmer, a single mother and adolescent girl. All three of those punished with Sotnikov are utter strangers to the condemned man, which seals his second to last breath with karmic remorse. The last one is reserved for a redemptive exchange between the accused and an innocent in the crowd of onlookers for whom this hanging has been staged.

I cannot adequately describe the poignancy with which the execution scene in this movie is presented. We’ll try to provide you with a reference. The image above, of a painting by Paul Delaroche, “Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1834) seems to harbor some of the same spirit. This roughly 8 X 10 foot canvas is among the most emotionally overwhelming objects I have ever seen. Coincidentally, this particular image of the painting that you are looking at has been cited as one of the finest images on the entire English Wikipedia. Search your conscience, while examining this image, for a key to the end of “The Ascent,” and “Dancer in the Dark.” What’s wrong with this picture? Lady Jane was elevated to the throne for less than a month before she was deposed and beheaded by a relative, in a bid for power by protestants against Catholics during that time. The victim was scarcely 17 years old.

“Dancer” will be zoomed in on next month. In “The Ascent,” the child actress, Lyudmilla Polyakova, gets to be a part of one of the most tender and lyrical passages in cinema, just as the noose slips around her neck.  Shepitko orchestrates the scene for maximum heartbreak. It’s like something straight out of Chaplin’s “The Kid,” but with darker twists. Let’s begin dissecting this sequence with her approach to the noose. It was obviously tied up there for someone much taller. Because, evidently, not even the chief of the gallows could correctly anticipate the needs of this hanging. So a square apple box booster is hastily brought out and laid on top of the too short trunk of tree. All these things look gigantic next to the sparrow-like frame of the little girl. Those heavy implements of demise take on the scale of sandbox toy or circus ring geometry, reminiscent of children’s playthings. She’s a hatchling, for God’s sake. Those goddamn Nazi’s plan to hang her. That’s an act of terror. Tissues please.

Shepitko cares about human beings that will die before they outgrow the playground. She confronts us with an innocent being blatantly victimized.  Watch this one take that giant step. She’s literally lifted off the ground by the hangman, by taking hold of his hand. The staging evokes some father helping his daughter on the jungle gym. She slips her head through the loop and peeks out at the spectators like baby bird on a limb. It is an evocation of pure pathos. Why should a child go through this? Authorities commit such atrocities to provoke fear.

What are we afraid of? Before he’s captured, in those wintery wilds of Russia, near the close of WWII, Sotnikov appears too physically weak to buck the status quo. Marooned in the forest, sporting a bad cough in his chest and a slug of lead in his leg, he rails against the branches on a low hung bow. Right out on the screen, for all to comprehend, here, a “man for the people” rues the masterplan’s unraveling, but at this stage, all we can see is a hurt soldier trapped like a rabbit under a tree.  There’d be scant evidence that he’s a figurehead for the resistance, except for this one, raw expression of rage.

The backdrop for this rabbit hunt is rendered all the more claustrophobic with shrouds of snow dust whipping about all the time and a howling wind singeing everything else back down to zilch. By the way, let’s own up once more, thanks to Shepitko’s camera crew, to how old-fashioned 1:33:1 black and white film can convey the menace of frigid skies and fields as good as anything digital and new.

“The Ascent” has been called Shapitko’s masterpiece. I can’t find any reason why not. The filmmaker made her warm-hearted tragedy in the bitterest cold. Her ability to capture such subtly nuanced performances, consistently, in uncommonly long takes, under harsh conditions indicates bona-fide directorial grace. Her actors display world-class gifts. Sensors often made it hard for auteurs working inside the Soviet egg to make their movies competitive at international contests, but this one broke the shell.Prolonged, intimate close ups invite us to witness and be amazed at the ways ligament and scruple can hitch and mesh inside the human face.

In the political chess game of that took place during those times, history lays much of the blame on Nazis. Including this in her anti-war film probably helped Shepitko avert big showdowns with censors, but it was popular with everyone because she struck a universal chord. There was evidently enough of an openness to gender equality built in to that republic at that time, for an enlightened woman director to make positive contact with the outside world. Shepitko’s movie as well as Delaroche’s painting propose, at the level of conscience, we are all pretty much the same. Everyone that looks at them comes to the same conclusion.

“The Ascent” is an adaptation from the novella “Sotnikov” by Vasili. Bykov. I don’t know how it begins, but the opening of Shepitko’s film frames a blizzard on a Russian landscape. Violent gusts whip snow crystals and ice dust into pale, grainy gradations of grey.  Silent telegraph poles lean both ways like staggered burial markers along the railroad right of way.

A vanishing veil of snow serves as a wipe reveal of a village, in the near distance, in which no one is left to defend.

This and a hand full of other shots are re-inserted after the finale of the film, like bookends. Was the filmmaker suggesting that the way out in of this predicament is the same as the way in? Or are we simply left reminded of home and liberty lost at the end?

A vacant village and machine gun fire is the first sign we see and hear as the film begins. Then a man’s upper body pops up from a hiding place and signal’s to retreat with his arm. Many heads pop up. What’s left of the population of that village ascends into view from the bottom of the frame. We watch from behind, the backsides of folks in retreat, fleeing in fear. Does this ascension accentuate a notion of this population’s “rebirth” as refugees, or perhaps The Rapture is being interpreted quixotically?

Either way, through lashing wind, extended families and neighbors carry what they may and make their way over snowscapes warily. A few rifles hang off uniformed shoulders of mutinous soldiers, shepherding those gentle folk as kin. As 2013 comes to an end and 2014 begins. Let us pray this historical trend stops before it sweeps us all in.

…next month, “Dancer in the Dark.”

A Gift to You

Symbolic History Through Sight and Sound by Charles Greenleaf Bell is a comprehensive, compendium of milestones in artistic and scientific achievement through out history. Bell’s magnum opus has already educated thousands of people over decades. The episodes contained in it are arranged in chronological order, marching us through the centuries with enlightened flashbacks and fast-forwards intended to lead students, researchers and truth seekers to a well-rounded understanding of the profound transformations of human advancement and fundamental designs underlying all progress.

Professor Charles Bell’s life spanned nearly a century. Most of it he dedicated to acquiring, accumulating, compiling, cataloging, collating, coordinating the circulation of and commenting on, the wealth of images and audio clips in this series; contributing his own voice and luminous prose to confer historical fluency upon anyone with a hungry eye and ear.

Charles G. Bell’s life’s work examines humanity’s life’s work. The scale and reach of this digital publication is on par with the Vedas or the Bible, incorporating both, along with all great works, but with multi-media immediacy and post-modern insight. At times it attempts to integrate the total freight and occupancy of history and would seem to require an expenditure of equally prodigious scholarship to take full advantage. But a single viewing of Dr. Bell’s magnum opus will make anyone much better informed and attuned to our changing world.

Inside the 42 volumes of this series is revealed the evolving mindset of our predecessors, over the layered passages through which we’ve progressed as a species, onward through time to the present. Dr. Bell was a master at identifying symbols in the collective consciousness and imprints in the collective unconscious. This is obvious in his marrying visual with audio content for conjuring vivid glimpses of our past and connecting them with relevant realities in our present.

Charles G. Bell was on the Physics faculty at Princeton University with Albert Einstein. He switched to the English department to make this series his life’s work. Humankind, as observed through Dr. Bell’s filter, appears, ingenious, intelligent, endearing, fascinating, fated, fallen, savage, bedeviled and capable of transcending all.

His multi-disciplined voyage of discovery, through art and architecture, philosophy and physics, poetry and music, intertwined throughout this series, present the viewer with an encyclopedia of masterworks, anecdotes, example upon example of the genius of every generation, for all to discover, appreciate and learn from. There were many occasions over the course of one of Dr. Bell’s lectures and later watching his series in which I was introduced to works of art or ideas that I’d never known, and that is invaluable, but there were also a fair amount of art and ideas put forth in these volumes which I was already familiar with, but I felt as though I was encountering for the first time, owing to the illuminating text and context provided by Dr. Bell.

For example, lets suppose you were researching the Gothic Era. Dip into Symbolic History for cherry-picked images of those resplendent, hand-made cathedrals in Europe. Notice how their imposing towers preside over the landscape, or go inside and observe how the sunlight pours in through stained glass. See how those windows depict gospel scenes and project pools of vivid color on to the adjacent wall at the same time.

Dr. Bell explains with genuine amazement how church builders in the Middle Ages progressed from massive, shady bunkers of block, to colossal, ornate sheds of light. At the same time, underneath all these stunning images, adoringly presented. we’ve been listening to a recording of voices shaping a song. The singers happen to be standing in the very church we are looking at. So we can comprehend how the design of such a place converts the human voice into something godly inside. By the way, that musical composition happens to have been commissioned for that very cathedral and heard by its occupants on the day of dedication 800 years before. This gives you an idea of the time travel capabilities owing to the immediacy and intimacy of this series.

Now imagine being able to delve into more than 5000 years of western civilization this way. With a little of our own imagination, we are allowed to advance or retreat anywhere on the timeline of human history.

The significance of this series to anyone interested in the history of art and ideas is obvious. Dial yourself in to the time, place and mindset of any period in western history. For scholars contemplating exhaustive research, Charles Bell has done much work for you here. To designers and visual artists interested in evoking or reenacting history, for their films, theatricals, or operas this is a windfall. To authors writing, plays, screenplays, novels, histories, biographies, or other period pieces, the substance of this series can hardly be matched. From any other single source, it would be hard to find a more rich resource.

With his family’s blessing, Open Channel Content is pleased to introduce Charles Greenleaf Bell’s Symbolic History Series, in its entirety, to the World Wide Web free of charge. The artists and thinkers whose work is featured here were helping to fulfill humankind’s highest potential. We believe this was Dr. Bell’s intention as well. It is with that same commitment we pass these enlightened volumes on to you.

Watch the entire series here:

For a much improved viewing experience, order the full series on DVD from NE Historic Film (Bucksport, ME) at 207-469-0924

“Resisting Domestication, or the Reclamation of our Wild Nature.”

Most of us who watch a lot of movies share a fascination with human nature. I could say I’m a movie lover or that I am in the midst of a lifetime research project, either would be accurate. I’m particularly interested in examples of heroism such as the kind exhibited in our movie this month.

Just like every art form before it, movies will pass out of fashion some day. This may come to pass far in the future, or maybe way sooner. The mode in which they are told will continue to evolve, but stories and storytelling will never die.

A story is a product of our necessity to ruminate with language. It is the tongue of the soul. Stories began sophisticating our human brains long before they could be applied to any commercial pursuit or conscious artistic statement. Stories are a shared context inherent in everything we do. As storytellers humans themselves are the living record.

Motion pictures, coupled with the digital domain, are morphing into something more that we can’t yet fathom. Even as we speak, something more wondrous than cinema is being born in a way similar to how painting and music delivered us to the doorstep of motion pictures, but let us not forget that humans are the repository of these stories.

Neither the libraries, nor universities, not Netflix, Amazon or any religious institutions, nor even the gathering clouds of digital domination will ever have a corner on the market of story. We are supplying the stories to them. Nevertheless, while new mediums of storytelling are always being born, in our day and age, the common tongue is still spoken most eloquently with cinema.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), directed by Josh Zeitlen, has already garnered the film world’s most prestigious awards. It achieves awe-inspiring performances, gritty splendor and universal relevance with amateur actors, a miniscule budget, and a script adapted from a one-act play.

The most universal stories are also the simplest and this is the great achievement of “Beasts.” With stubborn, giddy pride and self-reliance, a motherless child and her undomesticated father obtain material sufficiency, one day at a time.

None of the three antagonists in this story are human. The foremost is Nature, with whom the characters collaborate for survival. The next most formidable threat is everything beyond the levee–our world in other words–regarded as a kind of modern Mordor by those gentle folk.

The opening shot elegantly represents the entire microcosm of the pre-adolescent protagonist’s ordeal as she coddles a little bird in one hand while fashioning a pillar of mud for the creature to stand on by itself. This procedure comes across as both child’s play and a demonstration of maternal instinct. If the bird represents the little girl, then the little girl represents a benevolent influence providing refuge in a dangerous world.

Who is the protector, while her six-year-old figure wanders half-naked through a shabby, littered landscape, interacting familiarly with a turtle, chicken and hog? When she confides how little she understands them, the filmmaker is inviting us to discover how inadequately we comprehend his subject and the squalid environment she calls home. A visual clue is inserted in the introductory shots to listen for the heartbeat, the mystery that unites the greater universe.

Her immediate universe is revealed to us as a rag-tag regiment of raunchy revelers on Fat Tuesday. They savor their seclusion and simplicity relying on meager livestock, abundant booze, and semi-regular boons of gulf shellfish for subsistence. In that universe life is a party and the party goes on pretty much uninterrupted on top of whatever calamity happens to befall them.

With the glow of moonshine and fireworks on their faces, an assortment of sodden misfits, young and old, parade, royalty-like, down the same single track that most of them will jamb in order to escape nature’s wrath the next day. Among them are fishermen, freeloaders, saloon owners and a witch/teacher that warns her of global warming and the cowardliness of “pussies.”

The imagination of our child hero concocts an apocalyptic myth, woven through her voice-over, about how she prepares for the return of prehistoric predators unlocked from the melting ice-caps. The quest for her present day mother is contrasted with this and her future, destined with the fate of mother earth, to be drowned by the flood. It’s either that or be domesticated and formally introduced into institutionalized poverty.

Most of humankind huddles closely together over the dividing line between poverty and self-sufficiency and Josh Zeitlen’s lens stands squarely over that fulcrum in “Beasts.”

“When you get sick over there,” she says, “they plug you into the wall.” Is this meant to epitomize the sacrifice of the “wild” who become domesticated? The country they are talking about is our country. We must be the “pussies,” they keep referring to.

Like any animal in her jungle, the turns of events in the life of this little girl are fateful and decisive from the beginning. In an early scene her daddy collapses from a mere thump of her fist. Shocked and bewildered, she skedaddles to the witch,” I think I broke something.” When the flood does come, engulfing everything, she faces fear valiantly, while her juiced-up father calls out the rain groping with shotgun blasts for the jugular of the hurricane.

In nature, there are always casualties. This film is an ode to the offspring that survives. “For all the animals that got caught in the flood, the end of the world has already happened.” The little moppet grows philosophical under pressure, with wisdom well above her years, yet never do any of her quips seem fake spilling from her lips. “They’re all down at the bottom now trying to breath through water.”

This film speaks so elegantly in the common tongue to anyone that feels the constant dread of impending disaster hanging over their head. It articulates the pressures of living on the shifting sands of modern existence and it indicts preceding generations for inadequately providing for and preparing us to meet the future.

Therein lies the real antagonist in this rural chamber piece and how you would identify it depends on your social orientation. It’s been called poverty, ignorance, the ravages of alcohol, the existential crisis of being human. I grant it a distinct regard from the previously described beasts because, while we can not tame the monstrous destructiveness of Nature, or reverse the damage our bad upbringing has had on the modern world, we can, and this diminutive heroine does, confront the adversary at her core and does so in a way that is an example to us all.

Building a Better Venus – Creating Beauty in Our Own Image

From a certain angle, “The Skin I Live In” makes a fascinating time at the movies out of some au courant medical ethics issues. More importantly to my own fascination is the fact that one more master has held up the fable of “Beauty and Beast” before the eyes of a modern audience.

Re-imagening our fable in his characteristic, tawdry, telanovela fashion, if I were called upon to name Almodóvar’s 2012 masterpiece, it would be, “The Recently Widowed Super-Surgeon’s Revenge,” but thematically “The Skin I Live In” lovingly teases apart our obsession with human perfection and makes art out of the slick sciences that promote it.

Sr. Almodóvar imagines his story at the junction of where art and science are increasingly intertwined and how that phenomenon, coupled with the film medium itself it would seem, along with the characters in the story, all combine to reflect our current disposition towards gender. His characters also conveniently embody all the archetypes of the popular fable we have been discussing in the past three posts.

The fable “Beauty and the Beast” fits perfectly under the surface of this “Skin,” with an opening identical to the other three–the Beast eavesdrops on Beauty through a glass. From there on out,“The Skin I Live In” takes the notion of scrutiny, surveillance and invasion of privacy to outlandish lengths through the character of Robert, the super surgeon who uses every means at his disposal, from giant screens to microscopes to get to the bottom what makes Beauty immortal.

At home he sits in front of a monitor zooming in and out on his captive with the leer of a peeping tom. At work Robert busies himself in the operating theater with research, examinations and invasive procedures upon his unwitting model.

The story threads together a panorama of relevant scenarios involving the sculpture of skin, the culture of clothes, assorted aspects of gender identity that relate to flesh, fashion, hide, masks, mirrors, armor and genitals.

As far back as we look there exist stories of gods and mortals who suffer from such dire cases of unrequited love that they simply must sculpt an idol to their ideal and make love to it. Almodóvar assumes we are still caught up in this preoccupation in modern times.

In this case Robert’s ideal is a dead ringer for his wife. He just happens to be fashioning her out of a young man who Robert believes ruined his daughter’s life. In the most perversely artificial way imaginable, Robert’s revenge conveniently manages to keep his love for his wife alive as well.

Addressing the artist/model relationship from the previous posts, there is always a predicament for the model in having to share the attention of the master with the creation he is working on, “The Skin I Live In,” imagines a case of the model being literally transformed into his creation.

Gender hybrids in art interests me in the light of the fact that Leonardo and Michelangelo, among others, painted women’s heads as well as their organs on men’s bodies to communicate the Renaissance concept of God-given human perfection. Though this all sounds chauvinistic now, we cannot possibly judge the mentality behind such choices with accuracy from the cultural reference point of our times. Was this really blatant disregard for woman, or some desire to imbue her with man’s strength? In other words, if only you could take the best of men and combine it with the best of women, that would be perfection. But who knows if that’s what was intended or something else?

If you are an artist absorbed in the act of creating, you work at all hours, often in the middle of the night, imagining, observing, probing, shaping, and caressing. The work becomes like a lover with whom you gladly elude sleep. Robert’s falling in love and sleeping with his Vera would be nothing scandalous if it weren’t for the revenge plot which makes a twisted horror flick out of our familiar fairy tale.

Most, if not all, of Pedro Almodóvar’s films portray situations of abduction and victimization. He’s well known for trafficking in images of rape, incest and assorted taboo which I’ve always assumed relates to the director’s feeling like a female trapped in a male body.

Within the first forty minutes of “Skin,” we’ve been shown kidnapping, drug abuse, burglary, a flaming car wreck, rape, bloody murder and several shameless breaches of medical code. Vera’s story should be interesting to anyone that feels trapped in a male dominant paradigm. Almodóvar’s story should be interesting to all genders when it addresses anxiety generated within our rigidly enforced hierarchy’s dominant sexual codes, and Beauty’s story should be interesting to all humanity in any way it might articulate our frustration when we are confronted with any of life’s polarizing dilemmas.

Indeed, one could read endless comparisons into the dynamic between the super-surgeon and his subject, not the least one being the corporation vs. consumer relationship and perhaps that is what makes the horror of Vera’s situation so disturbing to us.

Irregardless of connotations, intended or otherwise, the quality of the film making is superb. His country’s illustrious fine arts heritage seems to have taught the director well. Visually speaking, the flourish with which some of the technological imagery is presented recalls the most poetic science sequences in cinema from Lange to Kubrick.

“The Skin I Live In” expresses an undeniable dedication to the goddess of beauty. The filmmaker’s deeper allegiance is made obvious for us, for example, by posting enormous reproductions of “Venus D’Urbino” by Titian, along side “Venus in a Mirror” by Rubens, in the upstairs grand hallway. Like those masters before him, this one lavishes loving attention even on the most obscure element in the piece, investing painstaking care in the way it contributes to the refinement and dimensionality of the finished product.

A meticulously matched soundtrack selection, for instance “Shades of Marble,” by Anders Trentemøller evokes, with strident strings, the violent occlusions of geological upheaval. Almodóvar repurposes it ingeniously to express the fragility and vulnerability of flesh to intrusion by the scalpel, or the violent will of rapist against victim while, at the same time, paying homage to the classic Greek sculptors that labored to encode our modern obsession with flawless beauty.

Beginning with this past June’s post, I have been discussing Bertolluci’s charming coming of age flick, “Stealing Beauty” from 1996. Along side it, I have compared Jacques Rivette’s artist/model drama “La Belle Noisseuse.” From 1991, and proven that all are re-workings of the Jean Cocteau’s venerated classic, “La Belle et la Bete,” from 1947.

This final variation is the most exotic extreme. Whereas, in “La Belle Noiseusse”, the role of Beauty was stripped down and exposed, by the rigors of the master’s process, to possess a kernel of the beast inside. The genius of Almodóvar turns the screw a notch deeper, forcing man to be changed into woman against his will, for the purposes of sexual slavery, effectively transforming the Beast into Beauty to let him feel what it’s like to be preyed on.

In the opening credits of “Stealing Beauty,” Bertolucci casts his audience as the Beast to achieve essentially the same thing. All three are cinematic stunts designed to place the Beast in all of us, in Beauty’s point of view in order to foster compassion and respect for her. All three are acts of homage to idealized feminine and an appeal for her welfare which is too often taken advantage of in real world scenarios. All the more reason why she must be defended in our make believe ones.