Reading David Thomson’s 2004 book The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood a few weeks ago, I was particularly intrigued by the implications he makes in a long passage about the initial developments of the moving image. Essentially, he argues that there were several inventors working to project a moving image, with Edison and the Lumière Brothers (Auguste and Louis) being the leaders in initial developments. Edison’s first working film concept was a small film viewer that an individual would put to the face and hold there as the image played in a small viewfinder inches from their nose. Meanwhile, the Lumière Brothers concept was more in line with what we know today; a projected image displayed on a screen for multiple people to collectively experience. Thomson’s point is essentially that Edison’s thoughts remained in an older age, an age of reading a book alone, while the Lumière Brothers let the technology dictate the presentation. Even if the Brothers didn’t think the concept had any commercial market potential (how wrong they were there!), the point is one that when Edison’s individual viewfinder did become the norm (what else is the television but this) is when the movies were forever changed.
It’s an interesting premise, one originated on the idea that if Edison’s concept had stuck from day one then we as a culture may have never had movies like we know them. We’d never had gotten them as large spectacle (what’s the point of a large epic if it’s only going to be reduced immensely at final presentation?), or as such a profoundly collective experience with regards to the base level theater seating relationship you have with a stranger. How differently would film grammar be ordered, and how would the stories change (the shot sequence we take for granted that starts with a panoramic establishing shot would no doubt be re-imagined)? One can’t begin to comprehend the butterfly affect that this premise re-orders.
What then, my brain wandered, did happen when the small individual viewfinder as envisioned by Steve Jobs (et al) transplant Edison’s previous transplanter. Well, computers offered more than just watching. They offered the ‘other’ too; the room, the theater of collectivity, the forum. The forum to converse and arrange partnerships of conversation on the things that could be theoretically also playing in another window inches in either direction.
Sometime in late March or early April 2009 I, through nothing but shear good luck, stumbled upon Allan Fish’s writings on film at the blog wonders in the dark. Finding it was, like the name of the blog itself, akin to a bumbling journey through dimly lit portals and passageways; tirelessly reading and scouring the web for serious minded film analysis to quench my sudden—though, in retrospect, a lifetime in the making—thirst for discussion on the flickering gems I was beginning to devour at a breakneck pace. The first piece I consciously remember reading just happened to be on perhaps my favorite film of all time. I didn’t consider it a sign in the slightest, but in retrospect it probably was. From there I realized he hasn’t even at the half-way pole (even if several decades had been already covered in countdown presentation), and as the calendar years passed more and more came from Allan Fish’s miraculously prolific pen, always wonderfully succinct in that Northern English way, a trait he only belied when his pen couldn’t contain the poetry his obsession stirred in his heart. I can imagine that heart growing beyond measure and breaking the scale like the Grinch’s in that great animated Seuss tale when he first saw a picture to spur him to the action of writing his tome. This will always be denied, but one can’t hide this level of love. Even if it’s a love of obsession that would make Jimmy Stewart’s character in Vertigo blush.
His pieces, and the films that he covered, have remained my greatest personal discovery on film in the blogosphere. His opinions vast, his reach immense. Not a country, or era, or genre is disproportionately represented in his work. His hero may be Thomson (why else was I even reading The Whole Equation in the first place?), but Allan’s eventual book will be an encyclopedia of the masterpieces of cinema to which is second to none.
So as Allan faces an incredibly trying time, here’s a small projection to the world via this small blog portal and its display mechanism (whichever you’re on now; a phone, a computer, a tablet device): get well Allan. You old malcontent. The world needs your take on the flickering silver grey images you’ve so painstakingly offered over the years. But more importantly, we need your unique bit of grey.
Best wishes. Get well.
Below I’ve posted two recent Allan Fish pieces that show his current ability. For a more thorough presentation to his work, please use this nifty presentation of his decade countdowns (for my personal favorite piece of his, go here).
Under the Skin – Jonathan Glazer’s radical masterpiece reimagines the entire medium
by Allan Fish
(UK 2013 108m) DVD1/2
The girl who fell to earth
p Nick Wechsler, James Wilson d Jonathan Glazer w Jonathan Glazer, Walter Campbell novel Michel Faber ph Daniel Landin ed Paul Watts m Mica Levi art Chris Oddy
Scarlett Johansson (Laura), Paul Brannigan (Andrew), Jessica Mance (alien), Krystof Hádek (swimmer), Scott Dymond, Michael Moreland,
After watching Under the Skin Mark Cousins tweeted “if movies hadn’t evolved out of other art forms, like the novel or theatre, what would they have looked like? Like Under the Skin.” Ne’er a truer word was tweeted, and yet it’s a statement that also gets to the heart of why the film was always going to be so divisive. Many film writers, critics and commentators and the vast majority of audiences are set in their ways. They like their films to have a linear narrative. They can jump forward and back in time, so long as they explain everything by the end credits. Under the Skin is a film that is happy to explain nothing. It revels in its ambiguity. To appreciate it one has to take a quantum leap, not to wonder what will happen next but to wonder what we will see next.
Ostensibly it’s about an alien in the disguise of a young woman, soullessly going round Glasgow and its surrounding environs in a white van picking up stray male passers -by and offering them a lift that will be their last. We are given some idea about what happens to them, but even that is left opaque. It’s primarily about her wanderings, and after a while she ditches the van and takes to foot and, as she does so, she grows ever more introspective, barely saying a word.
What it’s really about, though, is the breaking down of barriers, the shifting of parameters, in a way that borders on cinematic re-education. This is transcendent cinema of a type so rare as to make it seem like a solitary beacon shining out through a sea of sewage. Or a dim white dot, coming ever so slowly out of a black void, such as we see at the opening. It’s a bleak, brutal existence, with Johansson’s alien at first seeming like an angel of death but transforming, rather like the doomed replicants in Blade Runner, into something quite touching. The pick-ups may be doomed, but they experience a sort of nirvana, where the basic touchstones of reality as we know it are ripped apart and everything around them dissolves into a pool of black emptiness where they are seemingly left hanging like flies put aside by a spider to be eaten later.
Glazer’s singularity of vision owes something to Nicolas Roeg, naturally, but also to Kubrick, with individual shots recalling such diverse luminaries as Lav Diaz and even Roy Andersson. It’s splendidly shot in grimy hues by Daniel Landin and scored, if that’s the right word, by Mica Levi, in a way that recalls Jonny Greenwood’s work on There Will be Blood. Yet it’s the star that provides the soul and Johansson is extraordinary. Much has been said at her courage in taking on a role in which she’s not only divested of her clothes – don’t get excited, there’s nothing sexy about any scene in Under the Skin – but all the trappings of Hollywood fame. This is more than a mere performance; it’s a complete surrendering to a director’s vision. Glazer had been a decade waiting to get the film made and his star, too, had been in the doldrums. Reduced quite literally to the level of comic book sex icon, directors forgot to utilise her greatest attribute, the attribute that once spellbound us abandoned in Japan and reflected through Vermeer’s light plays; her uncanny sense of observance. (Without it she’d not have been able to walk about on the streets of Glasgow incognito during the shoot.) Forget the unanswered questions, revel in the visual and tonal texture, then briefly imagine cinema as it might have been. But before you get too optimistic, remember Glazer took ten years to get Under the Skin out in the world, while Johansson has three upcoming films playing Marvel’s Black Widow, like cinematic Hail Marys as penance for countenancing art. Be under no illusion who the real black widow is, though; it’s from this quite impossible film, emerging as if defying the laws of physics, from a black hole, before retreating into the matterless void.
by Allan Fish
(France 1967 87m) not on DVD
A place where one can’t afford to be bored
p Michèle Arnaud d Pierre Koralnik w Jean-Loup Dabadie ph Willy Kurant ed Françoise Collin m/ly Serge Gainsbourg art Isabel Lapierre
Anna Karina (Anna), Jean-Claude Brialy (Serge), Marianne Faithfull, Serge Gainsbourg,
It’s one of the great intoxicating scenes in movie history, but it’s not in a movie (it was made for French TV) and few people have even seen it. It’s simple enough, just a girl in an apartment. Not dissimilar to an artist’s garret – well, she is a colourist at a local company – but she’s just wandering about, making and eating fried eggs from a pan, supping red wine from a glass. She’s daydreaming about an alter ego. She’s dressed in just an orange shirt and thigh length multi-coloured striped socks. Then suddenly she starts to dance about, like a toy that’s just had fresh batteries put in. There are other props, a tall stool, a motorcycle helmet, a mirror, it only lasts two minutes. Just a girl singing; the song is ‘Roller Girl’ and the girl is Anna Karina. It’s like Bardot’s dance in the bar in Et Diu Créa la Femme mixed with Donald O’Connor singing ‘Make ‘em Laugh’. It’s like music and movement as a drug. Everything else is just going cold turkey.
Karina was at a crossroads; divorced from Godard and beginning her parallel career as a singer. The nouvelle vague was at crossroads, too; indeed, one could argue it was in its death throes. She carried on working as an actress away from Godard – Rivette’s La Religieuse, Cukor’s Justine, Delvaux’s Rendezvous at Bray, Visconti’s The Stranger, Fassbinder’s Chinese Roulette. And yet it could be argued she never really acted at all. Think of her in Vivre sa Vie watching Falconetti, or clowning as if in a silent comedy. Karina was a throwback to that era, possibly the one star that came closest to the indefinable being of a Louise Brooks. Anna captures that sense of ‘being’ as well as any of Godard’s films did. It begins with her arriving in Paris on a train. The wardrobe is carefully chosen – blue jumper, yellow skirt just above knee length, and red bag, Godard’s favourite three colours. But she’s also wearing round-rimmed spectacles as if she’s Harold Lloyd arriving in the big city in Safety Last or Movie Crazy.
The ‘Roller Girl’ scene is the highpoint of Anna, nothing really touches it. Yet it’s an absorbing and intoxicating piece as a whole. It’s the nearest the cinema has come to producing a film that equates to a musical jamming session. The plot is merely an excuse to string together a series of songs that Serge Gainsbourg may have made up on the hoof. And what a selection they are; without that moment in the flat we’d cherish Karina singing ‘Soul le soleil, exactement’ on a beach as a desert island memory. Oh, and ‘Pistolet Joe’, with Brialy in a western setting and Karina in blue-bleached wig, hanging from a saloon chandelier and wearing calf-length leather boots, shorts, leather jacket over bikini top…and a gun. Godard’s girl and a gun, or Serge’s elusive dream.
It’s a hymn to Karina, but it’s also an offering to the nouvelle vague; appropriately starring Brialy, while one can also spot the references to Rivette, Demy, Resnais. But throw in nods to Blow Up, Help! and possibly Andy Warhol’s Factory. There’s even an interpretive dance in its opening; film not of meaning but of being. The plot feels like an elusive Cinderella, with Brialy chasing Karina round the city from a blown up poster, but without a glass slipper, and sure enough she slips away, as if gone up in smoke at the touch, like all daydreams. The irreverence and disregard for conventional form is like a breath of fresh air, so when Brialy sends people off to find his dream girl and mutters “with those eyes, you’d have to be blind not to find her” it’s logically followed by a line of men in sunglasses and holding white sticks appearing from behind a colonnade as if from a Hans Richter or René Clair avant garde short. For a second you wonder what cinema gloss and widescreen would have brought to it, but it’d lose its soul and its greatest quality, of a group of talents getting together on a weekend to make a movie. Besides, it would mean more people would hear of it, and Anna is a film to just come across by chance, totally unprepared and surrender yourself to its spirit of ecstasy.