Jan 28, 2015

Oslo, August 31st

Since France has always led Europe in terms of collective degeneracy, especially in the cultural, social, and artistic realm, it is only natural that they would adapt a decadent novel about four decades before any Nordic filmmaker would ever dare to touch it, but then again, the book in question is also French. Indeed, the great French dandy turned literary fascist Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s addiction-and-suicide-themed novel Le feu follet (1931) aka Will O' the Wisp was originally adapted by famed frog filmmaker Louis Malle (Lacombe, Lucien, My Dinner with Andre) as the melancholy classic Le feu follet (1963) aka The Fire Within starring the somberly suave Maurice Ronet, so it seems somewhat strange and almost inexplicable that a contemporary Norwegian auteur would also cinematically adapt a book inspired by the suicide of a largely forgotten real-life Dadaist poet some 80 years after the work was written, but relatively young auteur Joachim Trier (Reprise, Louder Than Bombs)—a more restrained long distance relative of Danish eternal ‘enfant terrible’ Lars von Trier—did just that for his second feature-length film Oslo, August 31st (2011) aka Oslo, 31. august.  Though Malle and Trier's films are superficially similar in terms of plot and storyline in their depiction of the last day or so of a recovering drug addict who decides to commit suicide after having various less than ideal encounters with old friends, aesthetically speaking, the two works have virtually nothing in common and certainly make for great comparison pieces in terms of how much European cinema has changed over the past four decades or so.  The works are also quite similar in that the central city where the story is set is a sort unofficial guiding character that is only secondary to the protagonist, especially in Trier's film, as the seemingly living metropolis seems to have sucked the soul out every single person in the film to one degree or another, but especially the hopelessly forlorn lead, who has come to the bitter conclusion that, “I'm 34 years old. I've got nothing” and decides to take decisive action for one of the first times in his perennially stagnating life. Having more in common with Drieu’s source novel in that the protagonist is a H-shooting junky instead of an alcoholic (the protagonist of the novel was addicted to opium, which was considered old-fashioned during the early 1960s when Malle made his film), Oslo, August 31st depicts one man’s losing fight with a deadly drug that has been eating at the Nordic world and white world in general since the late-1960s, but has become even worse since the growing popularity of narcotic prescription painkillers over the past could decades. Indeed, I can think of at least two pill popper turned dope fiend ex-friends of mine who died after overdosing on the Big H, but it is unclear to me as to whether either the two intended to die, though another ex-friend of mine who did survive admitted to me that he did it intentionally. What is arguably most interesting and original about Trier’s film compared to Malle’s is that the protagonist is depicted as more or less a casualty of a leftist academic upbringing as a fellow with a mother who “held a tolerant view on drugs” and a physically weak pansy father who “said people who valued military experience were dull.” Shot in a quasi-realist handheld style the falls somewhere in between Gus van Sant’s Elephant (2003) and the work of Philippe Grandrieux (Sombre, La vie nouvelle aka A New Life), Oslo, August 31st is certainly a bummer of film that lacks the refined eloquence and cultivation of Malle’s The Fire Within, yet its sterile and primitive aesthetic certainly reflect the lack of poetry, culture, warmth, love, and life that both contemporary Oslo and Occidental metropolises in general lack, thus reflecting our devastatingly decadent, spiritually bankrupt, and emotionally glacial zeitgeist. 

 Oslo, August 31st begins with a quasi-nostalgic montage featuring vintage footage of Oslo over the past three decades or so (the protagonist is 34) juxtaposed with various faceless and nameless citizens discussing what they remember most about the city, stating mostly mundane things like “I remember how tall the trees seemed compared to those in Northern Norway” and “We moved to the city. We felt extremely mature,” thus giving the viewer the feeling that the utopian dream has died in the Nordic metropolis. Protagonist Anders (played by childhood actor turned physician Anders Danielsen Lie, who also starred in Trier’s first feature Reprise) does not seem like he has many happy memories of Oslo even though he is a self-described “spoiled brat” who had a rather comfortable, if not deleteriously liberal, upbringing, but then again he has spent the last ten months living as an impatient at a drug rehabilitation center so he could wean himself off various narcotics, especially heroin and alcohol. Anders had been given an “evening pass” from the clinic, so he decided to use it to go have sex with a Swedish chick named Malin (Malin Crépin) instead of meeting up with his estranged sister Nina as he had originally planned. After sex, Anders just stares into space and when unclad Malin wakes up and smiles at him, he cannot bring himself to smile back because, as he later tells a friend regarding the anti-climatic carnal experience, “I wasn’t quite there. I felt nothing.”  As is quite clear by his melancholy demeanor, Anders no longer enjoys the hedonistic activities that used to make his life worth living, hence his disillusionment with life in general. After leaving Maline’s apartment, Anders walks to a nearby forest, fills his pants and jacket pockets with tons of rocks, picks up a large boulder, and somewhat absurdly attempts to drown himself in a nearby lake, but he botches the job and then proceeds to cry hysterically upon emerging from the water. Unfortunately for Anders, he has to go back to the rehabilitation center and keep up a charade of seeming to have the semblance of a sound of mind for at least one more day before he ends his life for good. 

 On the last day of his life, Anders plans to do at least two things: meet with his sister and go to a job interview. Not surprisingly, both of these plans fail miserably, thus reinforcing the protagonist’s undying desire to off himself. In between the interview and attempting to meet up with his sister, Anders attempts to reconnect with some old friends who he has not seen since he became a full-blown junky and they kicked him out of their lives. After being given a ‘day pass’ to leave the clinic, Anders takes a taxi to Oslo and swings by the apartment of his old best friend Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner), who could not have a more different place in his life as a straight and somber bourgeois family man and pedantic academic professor who quotes Proust during personal conversations as if he has been completely zapped of any genuine personality. Married to a beauteous blond babe named Rebecca (Norwegian singer Ingrid Olava) that he has two young daughters with, Thomas does not really know how to talk to Anders about his problems and even absurdly jokingly describes him as a “drug troll” to his prepubescent daughter after she creates a crude drawing of the protagonist. When Anders describes his soulless sex with Malin, Thomas nonsensically replies, “Proust said, ‘Trying to understand desire by watching a nude woman is like a child taking apart a clock to understand time,’” so his wife Rebecca berates him for not only pretentiously quoting Proust during a highly personally conversation, but also for saying something that is the exact opposite of what his comrade expressed. When Thomas mentions that he recently saw Anders’ parents and remarks, “They still seem so much in love, attentive, like a model couple,” the protagonist confesses that his parents had to sell their house so they could pay for him to go to drug rehab.

 When the two friends go for a walk, Anders hints at his plans to commit suicide, stating to Thomas, “…it’s not about heroin, not really. Look at me. I’m 34 years old. I have nothing. I can’t start from scratch. Don’t you understand?” When Thomas mentions to Anders that he has more options than most of the people at his rehab center, he cynically, “Yeah, but they are happy to work in a warehouse and have kids with some ex-raver.” Indeed, Anders is a bourgeois failure who physically and emotionally resembles a wigger low-life and he could never submit to a loser working-class lumpenprole life of mediocrity, as he considers it a fate worse than death. When Anders says, “If that’s how it ends, it’s a choice I’ve made” regarding his intention to overdose on dope, emotionally autistic academic Thomas seems somewhat baffled and replies, “I can’t relate to you tell me you’re planning to commit suicide.” As for Thomas, his life is not exactly as perfect as it seems as he virtually never has sex, no longer has the desire to write, and spends his free time passively watching his wife defeating players while playing Playstation games, which he describes as “the best part” of his banal and highly domesticated life. After parting ways with Thomas, Anders heads to his job interview with nice and smug magazine editor David (Øystein Røger), which seems to go good at first, at least until when the protagonist is asked why he does not have a work history after 2005 and he admits that he is a recovering drug addict. When David asks Anders what kind of drug addict he was, he replies, “Just about anything…Cocaine, ecstasy, alcohol…Heroin as well. I was dealing a bit as well. Should I put that on my CV?” and then reveals he has been clean for ten months. When David patronizingly replies, “Not many people manage to get through that. So that’s…Extraordinary,” Anders gets angry and acts rather self-destructively by demanding his resume back, storming out of the building, and trashing his resume.  Indeed, Anders' self-esteem is about as low as that of a crack-smoking American ghetto negro.

 When Anders goes to a restaurant to meet his sister Nina, he attempts to call an ex-girlfriend, Iselin, who he has been trying to contact throughout the entire day, but he has no luck.  After waiting forever, Nina's friend Tove (Tone Beate Mostraum) shows up instead of his sister, which rather angers Anders, who gets the keys to his family home from the girl and leaves. Apparently, Anders’ sister Nina is afraid of the fact that he will be getting out of the rehab center soon and could not bring herself to confront her big bad druggy bro. After spending hours wandering around various parks in Oslo whilst thinking about his pretentious liberal intellectual parents’ somewhat deleterious parenting skills (in his mind, he never references his parents as ‘mom’ or ‘dad’ but instead ‘she’ and ‘he,’ thus reflecting the cold, sterile, and detached nature of his relationship with them), Anders heads to a party at his friends Mirjam (Kjærsti Odden Skjeldal) and Calle’s apartment where he finds himself feeling increasingly lonely and detached being around so many old friends who, unlike the protagonist, all have things going on in their lives. Anders used to date Mirjam and during the party he decides to talk to her after seeing her sitting all by her lonesome and looking rather lonely. Mirjam is depressed that her birthday is tomorrow and complains, “It’s a bit easier for you guys to reach the thirties. Look at your pals. None of them have girlfriends their own age. My flat’s full of girls I don’t know. 20-year-olds with perky tits,” so Anders attempts to cheer her up by stating, “Your tits seem pretty perky to me.” Although having been together for nine years, Mirjam and her boyfriend still do not have kids and she is feeling fed up with the banality of life, which the protagonist can surely relate to. Of course, things get awkward when Anders kisses Mirjam in a sensual fashion, so she goes somewhere else. Depressed about Iselin not returning his calls, among other things, Anders decides he needs to buy enough heroin to kill himself with so he robs the coats and purses of the party guests, but unfortunately Mirjam walks in on him doing it and looks at him disapprovingly, though she does not confront him. 

 Ultimately, Anders decides to buy a gram of heroin from his drug dealer friend and then spends the rest of the night partying with his degenerate mustached pal Petter (Petter Width Kristiansen) and two young and dumb college girls in their early twenties. While Anders flirts with one of the girls, he is far too detached and dejected to seriously pursue her, even telling her that their night together is more or less meaningless, stating, “No, no, you’ll have a thousand nights like this one. You won’t remember this…Everything will be forgotten.” While at a bar, Anders spots a guy named Øystein (Anders Borchgrevink) who slept with his ex-girlfriend Iselin when they were still together, so taking what he learned at drug rehab, he absurdly decides to ‘forgive him.’ Needless to say, Anders' meager attempt at atonement does not go well, with Øystein letting him really have it by stating, “I don’t know you…But I’ve seen the consequences of how you treat people close to you […] whether I slept with her or not, I mean, does it matter? [...] I don’t have to listen to this. I have friends far worse off than you…But they don’t act like assholes. And this isn’t about…the fact that you’re an addict.” Shocked by the fact that a virtual stranger has more or less summed up his shitty loser character, Anders salutes Øystein in a sarcastic fashion and heads to a local rave with Petter and the two chicks where they spend the rest of the night getting drunk and acting stupid. When the sun rises, they all head to a closed pool and everyone gets in except Anders. Indeed, not even the prospect of a hot topless 20-something-year-old who wants to jump his bones can get Anders into the pool. While Petter and the girls are having fun in the pool, Anders randomly walks away without saying goodbye and heads to his empty childhood home where he plays piano for a bit, leaves Iselin a voicemail telling her to ignore everything he said previously, and then shoots up enough heroin to stop his heart from beating within mere seconds. 

 It should be noted that long before he became a filmmaker, Oslo, August 31st director Joachim Trier was a top Norwegian skateboarder who, not unlike Harmony Korine, originally intended to become a pro-skater. Unlike Korine, Trier actually had the talent to become pro but fate had much different plans for him and he blossomed into one of Norway's most interesting contemporary filmmakers. Ultimately, both filmmakers where obviously influence by the gritty aesthetics of skate videos, albeit in somewhat different ways, with Oslo, August 31st certainly reflecting the sort of  shaky, erratic, and voyeuristic ‘realist’ handheld digital video essence of modern sk8 tapes. As anyone who has ever been seriously involved with the so-called ‘extreme sport’ will tell you, skaters look at the physical world, especially urban areas, in a completely different way than non-skaters and I have to admit that as an ex-skater, I felt that Trier’s film oftentimes feels like it could have been filmed in between skate sessions in Oslo with the director’s friends and family. More importantly, the film demonstrates how the city is a sort of soul-draining and socially alienating postmodern pandemonium of sorts that makes it impossible for anyone with any sort of vices to live in peace and harmony. It is interesting to note that, aside from the suicidal protagonist, virtually every other character in the film is either depressed and/or drug addicted as well and everyone seems to be too consumed with their own lingering dejection to bother to notice that their friend is about to engage in self-slaughter.  Undoubtedly, Trier's film does not make for the most enjoyable of filmic experiences as a sort of cinematic condemnation of the modern era that offers no solutions, not relief, and, arguably most importantly, no redemption to abject hopelessness of the modern world. For me, it is nearly impossible to think of Oslo, August 31st without comparing it to it's French predecessor The Fire Within, as the two make perfect companion pieces when attempting to distinguish the innate soullessness and cultural and social retardation of today with the eloquence, cultivation, and cultivation of yesteryear. Indeed, even the dope fiends and dipsomaniacs of Malle’s film seem dignified compared to the Nordic bourgeois nihilist slobs of Trier’s film, which features a protagonist that, unlike the character played by Maurice Ronet, seems devoid of even the most rudimentary virtues as a completely charmless chap who probably did himself and everyone else a favor by shooting a lethal dose of Cocteau's kick into his scrawny arm. Also, seeing a bunch of towelheaded camel jockeys walking around Oslo is not exactly a pleasant sight to see, thus reflecting the racial and cultural suicide of the Norwegian people in general (notably, in 2013, 40% of Oslo's elementary school pupils were registered as having a first language other than Norwegian or Sami, which indicates almost half of the city's adolescent population is foreign and thus will replace the indigenous population in a couple generations). Indeed, it certainly a sign that something is wrong when young upper-class whites are suicidal junkies while Arabs are sucking on the supple teat of the inexplicably generous Nordic welfare state.  Of course, as the protagonist of the film states himself, he is a brat who refuses to accept anything other than a life of upper-middleclass luxury as a decidedly decadent young man who is a direct product of a lazy liberal upbringing, hence why he did not even have the testicular fortitude to off himself like a man like the protagonist of Malle's film and instead takes the easy way out with a pleasurable narcotizing death that is surely symbolic of his life in general as a self-destructive hedonist.  Degenerate bourgeois liberal upbringing or not, Oslo, August 31st is surely the last film you should watch if you're a recovering addict.

-Ty E

Jan 26, 2015

The Blind Photographer

Like many Dutch ‘war children’ who grew up knowing hunger, defeat, and occupation by various foreign entities including the krauts and yanks, auteur Adriaan Ditvoorst (Flanagan, De Witte Waan aka White Madness) was a great fan of writer Willem Frederik Hermans and even adapted one of his stories for his debut feature Paranoia (1967), but when the writer came on the set of the film and began interfering with things, the two great creative egos naturally collided, so it seemed more than a little bit dubious that the two Dutchmen would ever collaborate together again. Luckily, a certain arrogant scheming producer named Rob du Mee was committed to making a W.F. Hermans celluloid triptych and he felt that Ditvoorst was the only right man for the job since they had both worked together on Paranoia which, although a pathetic commercial failure, proved the auteur had a certain uncompromising vision that complimented the novelist’s distinctly dark and nihilistic post-WWII Dutch worldview. At the strange ‘medium-length’ of just under 50-minutes and featuring a sort of distinct and almost ‘Gothic’ doom and gloom black-and-white film stock, De blinde fotograaf (1973) aka The Blind Photographer—a work based on the short story of the same name taken from the Hermans short story collection Een landingspoging op Newfoundland (1957) aka An Attemptive Landing on Newfoundland—seems like it was specially tailored to be an abject commercial failure as a paranoia-plagued piece of darkly mirthful existentialist eccentricity that falls somewhere between Franz Kafka and early David Lynch, albeit with a distinctly Dutch sort of terror-tinged absurdity. Both anti-media and anti-art-faggotry, Ditvoorst’s strange little filmic freak show is like an episode of The Twilight Zone for nocturnal nihilists and autistic acidheads, as a work with its own singularly loony logic, distinctly deranged cinematic language, and delightfully unsettling atmosphere of the farcical yet equally foreboding sort. Created at a time when ‘social realism,’ cinéma vérité, and other forms of largely static and aesthetically sterile cinematic styles were vogue in Europe, The Blind Photographer is most certainly one of Ditvoorst's most perversely potent pieces of celluloid rebellion, or as his friend/collaborator Thom Hoffman—the star of the director’s swansong and magnum opus De Witte waan (1984) aka White Madness—stated in his documentary De domeinen Ditvoorst (1992) aka The Ditvoorst Domains regarding the demented flick and its equally demented director: “Realism fared well in the cinema. Adriaan was instinctively drawn to the absurd, the Kafkaesque. Mystery. Surrealism. He said: ‘I despise everything superficial. Certainly when it sneaks up on you.’ Again he turned to Hermans, the chronicler of Dutch impotence.” Indeed, Ditvoorst’s film transforms the seemingly banal into the deranged, the everyday into the eccentric, and the pedestrian into the preposterous as a work that, in terms of tone and visuals, seems like it was seen by David Lynch when he was assembling Eraserhead (1977), as work that does for the ancient proletarian ghettos of Amsterdam what the American auteur’s first feature did for the post-industrial rot of Philadelphia. The story of an ass-licking yellow journalist who is assigned to cover a story about an visually impaired photographer of the somewhat enigmatic sort whose creepily coddling parents have turned their home into a gigantic darkroom, The Blind Photographer is truly a work that transcends the line between humor and horror, as well as art and anti-art as a sort of absurdist Gothic parable with sometimes Expressionistic overtones.

Beginning simply enough with the mundane inter-title “A Day in the Life of a Reporter,” The Blind Photographer soon introduces the super smug and obscenely arrogant anti-protagonist ‘Journalist’ (Gees Linnebank, who played a ‘homosexual’ in Paul Verhoeven’s Spetters (1980) and had a small role in Dick Maas’ Flodders 3 (1995)), who bitches upon waking up in the morning, “Damn it, I have to get up!” and then proceeds to complains to his half-asleep wife about not being able to find his cufflinks. Before leaving for work, the Journalist’s wife tells him that her mother will be coming over for dinner sometime in the evening and then asks him when he will be home from work, but he claims to have no idea. Of course, little does the Journalist realize that he will never be coming home from work after being assigned to do some investigative reporting on a famous blind photographer that still lives with his parents in a pre-multicultural Amsterdam ghetto. While walking to work, the Journalist, who walks like a spastic chicken with his head bobbing in and out, bumps into a beauteous blonde and he does not even have enough courtesy to apologize to the delightful little dame, thus reflecting his generally repugnant character. When the protagonist finally arrives at work, his slob of a boss says “I found an article…The Blind Photographer” and recommends “We add someone else’s picture. He won’t notice anyway.” After a strange and unsettling walk, the Journalist arrives at the Blind Photographer’s house and is greeted by a somewhat unfriendly old man (Frans Vorstman of Fons Rademakers’ De aanslag (1986) aka The Assault and Alex van Warmerdam’s De jurk (1986) aka The Dress) who tells him that he is the boy’s father and then reluctantly invites him into his home. Unbeknownst to the scummy reporter, the Blind Photographer and his parent’s know all the tricks of the trade when it comes to yellow journalism and he is about to get lost in a labyrinthine nightmare realm of no return.

Upon entering the Blind Photographer’s home, the father asks what the Journalist wants to know and he replies like a true media whore, “Everything. Everything interests me. I’d like to have a chat with your son. The man behind the work, if you know what I mean,” to which the patriarch strangely replies, “Talking to him is one thing, but seeing him is another. Why see him? He’s blind. He can’t see you. So, why should you see him? Something’s wrong, Mr. Journo.” When the Journalist absurdly argues that he would be willing to wear a blindfold to see their son, the Blind Photographer’s mother (Elizabeth Hoytink, who also appeared in van Warmerdam’s The Dress)—an initially seemingly introverted but ultimately exceedingly extroverted woman who hasn’t said a word up until this point as she has been engaged in some hardcore knitting in a rocking chair—abruptly yells out of nowhere “Entrance fee is a buck,” so the protagonist hands over the money and the viewer is soon startled to hear the illusive eponymous character yell, “Well done, mother” in the background. After hearing the Blind Photographer, the Journalist asks if he is coming out and his father hilariously replies in a matter of fact fashion, “He’s a photographer, you know. A photographer is in his dark room. That’s where he feels good. That’s why he is blind. You don’t know much about life. Mr. Press Parasite” and the mother adds, “The paper’s always full of bullshit.” Despite paying the entrance free, the parents are still reluctant to introduce the Journalist to their mysterious son and instead brag about their dark home, which they have more or less turned into a gigantic darkroom in tribute to their superstar son. After calling the journalist a “little newspaper brat” and belching in a fairly rude and raunchy fashion, the father tells the protagonist that he needs to purchase a lantern if he wants see their son since he lives in the darkness, even preposterously bragging regarding his family's lack of flashlights, “You can go buy one. We don’t have one and we are proud of it.”

When the Journalist goes to a local bike shop under the Blind Photographer’s father recommendation to buy a lantern, he discovers that they only have broken ones, with the shop owner arguing, “black light is sufficient when meeting a blind photographer,” so the protagonist thanks the proprietor for his “black light bullshit” and goes on his merry way to a local bar so he can contact someone at his work about getting a properly working flashlight. After bumping into an old fart with slicked back white hair passionately singing some exceedingly intolerable oldie song, the Journalist goes to use the telephone at the back of the bar and discovers a wayward young woman (Pamela Koevoets, who appeared in most of Ditvoorst’s films) on the phone crying to her assumed lover, “so I won’t see you again?” and then proceeding to mumble gibberish while succumbing to a total mental breakdown. Ultimately, the loony lovelorn lady covers her lips and face with lipstick in a sloppy fashion à la Blue Velvet (1986), wraps a scarf around her eyes as if she is a heartbroken fan-girl of the elusive Blind Photographer, and runs out of the bar where she bump into various walls and buildings. After calling someone at his work to tell them to bring him a lantern, the Journalist leaves the bar and is soon approached by an overtly salacious semi-butch prostitute with a dyke haircut and strange eye makeup who ultimately gives him a handjob for ten guilders. After having his pecker waxed by a sub-proletarian pussy-peddler, the Journalist goes into middle of the streets and laughs hysterically while looking fairly proud of the fact that he was just jerked-off by a dirty dame with dude hair. After receiving the lantern from a fat man who also buys some time with the streetwalker, the Journalist is now ‘ready’ to meet the Blind Photographer, though he has no clue what he is getting into.

After going back to the Blind Photographer’s home, the Journalist must endure a number of sentimental stories from the eponymous character’s highly hysterical mother. Indeed, as the mother states regarding her son while lying in bed like an elderly cripple, “Please don’t think we locked him in permanently. In the past he did not even photograph. We used to go out. Together. I remember going to De Rijp. Taking the bus. Happily next to each other. He wore binoculars.” The mother also brags that her son used to wear “normal glasses…special glasses, made by a professor. Real blind people’s glasses” and “People thought he could see very well. That nothing was wrong with him,” which causes the Journalist to laugh hysterically in a rather disrespectful fashion. The Mother also tells a seemingly fanciful story about how she saved up 15,000 coupons so that she could get her son a “free camera.” When the mother gave her son the camera, apparently, “He photographed like a mad man. Each day we went out. He was so delighted. Sometimes a thumb before the lens, but happiness counted. Photography is expensive. A rich man’s hobby. We didn’t care. We would do anything to please him. Until the moment came, we told him: ‘a real photographer belongs in a dark room.’ Then we gave him that large back room. Dark as hell.” When the mother hears her husband coming, she warns the Journalist that he must leave, so he makes his way to the Blind Photographer’s ‘darkroom’ where he takes a seemingly endless hallway that resembles a dark abyss. When the Journalist trips over something and complains of losing his suitcase, the Blind Photographer (Dutch TV actor Roelant Radier) laughs maniacally and is finally revealed.

While the Journalist flashes his lantern in the blind man’s face, the titular character states in a somewhat sinister fashion, “Everybody does what I tell them…And they don’t regret it,” as if bragging of the talent that some artists have in regard to coercing people into doing stupid and nonsensical things for their art.  When the Blind Photographer asks the journalist how he found his way to his room, he replies, “I wonder myself. Straight ahead all the time, so to say.” The Blind Photographer, who seems to suffer from Asperger syndrome, does not like the Journalist’s answer, so he states “Straight lines don’t exist” and then proceeds to deliver the following philosophical tangent: “A circle is the geometric place in which all points are at equal distance to a given point. The so-called center point. Every diameter ends at the center point on one end. Why talk of endless circles when there are no circles like that? And every diameter ends at the center point. Nobody will ever be able to point out the center of an endless circle. Then we would have to cut eternity in half…Which can only be done if times comes to a halt…But time doesn’t stand still.” After the Blind Photographer’s longwinded rant, the Journalist remarks that he would like to hear about his work, so the eponymous character shows the reporter a gigantic lens and states, “I have this to thank for everything. A lens made by the famous Petzval. Ingenious object.” Needless to say, the Blind Photographer acts offended when the Journalist is reluctant to write down his mathematical “optical calculations” for his story. Naturally, the Blind Photographer becomes even more offended when the Journalist remarks “I don’t think my paper is interested. Your mother’s story was beautiful. The mother figure is sacred. How can you expect me to write that it’s all lies?” after he tells him that all of his mother’s sentimental stories all complete fabrications.  Indeed, the Journalist and Blind Photographer both have their own bullshit interpretations of reality as men that make a living off of fabricating false realities and perspectives, thus they naturally butt heads when in one another's company.

When the Blind Photographer asks the reporter, “What are you writing about? A mother or a blind photographer?,” he replies “Perhaps about neither of them. I only write what my audience wants to read about. I don’t care about who.”  Not surprisingly considering his profession as a blatant public novelty and absurd gimmick as a mensch who cannot see yet snaps photos for a living, the Blind Photographer also reveals that he was already famous before anyone had even seen his pictures, adding regarding his parents' supposed scheme to have him imprisoned in their home after he became a household name, “Suddenly it was a good idea to have the film developed…With all the double exposures…Afraid that I would ask for more, they decided to lock me up. I can’t make any new pictures…[I] have to chew on old fame.”  According the the Blind Photographer, he is a perennial prisoner in his own home and his parents do not even have the decency to buy him new film stock.  On top of that, apparently to save the money, the Blind Photographer’s father merely reloaded his son’s camera with the same film over and over again, thus created warped double exposed photographs. When the Journalist asks the Blind Photographer how he knows that his father did this since, after all, he cannot see, the titular character gets rather offended, gets out of his chair, and says to the reporter while approaching him in a menacing and almost vampire-like fashion, “You think I’m blind as a bat? How I found out…I saw it! It’s not that I can’t see. It’s that I cannot look. You’re a big crook like I am…And an asshole too! You think I didn’t see it.” From there, the Blind Photographer flashes the lantern light in the Journalist’s face and begins choking him. While the Journalist laughs hysterically while being choked to death, the Blind Photographer is revealed to have ominous and particularly penetrating completely white pupil-less eyes that radiate a certain sinister soullessness. As the Journalist dies while he is being strangled, his laughter wanes while transcendental neo-classical music plays in the background in what is ultimately an almost sinisterly sardonic climax to a sinisterly sardonic film.  In the end, the Journalist is finally able to 'see the light' (or something).

In the documentary The Ditvoorst Domains, The Blind Photographer producer Rob du Mee states regarding auteur Adriaan Ditvoorst and his relation to the second Hermans adaptation they collaborated on, “He was a strange guy. He was a poser. Always withdrawing. This was often entertaining. Charming in a way. A con artist. But that’s film.” Apparently, Ditvoorst acted a lot like the eponymous character of his film while directing the work, with du Mee also remarking in the doc regarding the director, “The more bizarre it was, the more he started to giggle. He would really get a kick out of that.”  Not surprisingly, du Mee never got to finish his planned W.F. Hermans trilogy, as he and Ditvoorst never collaborated together on another film again.  Interestingly and almost somewhat unbelievably, The Blind Photographer was shot by none other than world-class Dutch cinematographer Jan de Bonet who also shot Paul Verhoeven’s classic arthouse (anti)romance Turks fruit (1973) aka Turkish Delight—a work that is not only considered the most successful Dutch film of all time, but also received the award for ‘Best Dutch Film of the Century’ in 1999 at the Netherlands Film Festival—the same year. It is kind of hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that the same man that did the cinematography for Ditvoorst’s The Blind Photographer would also go on to shoot Hollywood blockbusters like Die Hard (1988), The Hunt for Red October (1990), and Basic Instinct (1992), but that just goes to show the kind of serious whoring a European artist has to do if they want to be in anyway monetarily successful in this Americanized day and age.  Of course, this also explains why Ditvoorst—a filmmaker that is well known for hating producers and not caring about what audiences thought of his work—only directed a mere nine films (including his shorts) during his nearly twenty year filmmaking career despite the fact he originally intended to direct 3,000(!).

As the grandson of a blind woman, I found The Blind Photographer to be an especially idiosyncratic experience that straddled a strange line somewhere between absurdist surrealism and horrifying hyperrealism. Indeed, on top of the titular character’s mother’s fanciful stories reminding me of my own grandmother’s fanciful stories, the Blind Photographer’s borderline ‘sixth sense’ gave me an eerie reminder of what it was like to be in the company of someone that is more than just a little bit visually impaired.  Undoubtedly, it is somewhat of an awkward experience for a blind person to call you handsome or know that you're are doing something that shouldn't be as a child even though they cannot actually see you doing it.  Of course, Ditvoorst’s film is more about the oftentimes overlapping con-artistry of both journalists and artists than the perennial darkness that the blind must endure. When it comes down to it, The Blind Photographer is a somewhat short and rather savagely sweet celluloid joke at the expense of not only both the journalist and artist, but the viewer as well. Indeed, unlike most serious avant-gardist, naughty nihilist Ditvoorst was fully willing to admit that there was a certain amount of preposterous pretentiousness and bullshitting that comes with being an artist. After all, what kind of cynical trickster makes a film about a blind photographer?! 

-Ty E

Jan 24, 2015

The Fire Within

In certain contexts, I have a certain amount of respect for people that decide take the most irreparable of actions by committing suicide, as it demonstrates the power of man’s singular consciousness, sense of autonomy, and will power, hence why certain groups of lower intelligences (i.e. black women) are much less likely to do it despite their sorry lots in life while some of the most intelligent and creative individuals in human history have. Indeed, how many times have you heard of a welfare negress or a starving African committing suicide?!  In fact, despite all the starving Negroes and third world Asians in the world, virtually all of the countries with the highest suicide rates are white or East Asian.  Of course, different people commit self-slaughter for different reasons. While people like to make the libelous claim that many Nazi leaders and their followers committed suicide because they feared revenge from the Allied powers, it probably had more to do with the fact that the utopia they knew and grew accustomed to had been totally destroyed and thus they had no reason to go on living, but people in the contemporary Occident would not understand this because they believe in nothing. Naturally, most people commit suicide because, for whatever reason, they cannot bear to keep on living. Maybe it is because a family friend unexpectedly committed the act not too long ago or because I have recently watched a number of cinematic works surrounding the theme, but I have noticed some of the most potent films that I have ever seen are suicide-themed pieces, even though you know what is going to happen at the end. Indeed, it is nearly impossible for me to empathize with men that chop their cocks off and pretend to be women but In a Year with 13 Moons (1978) is arguably Fassbinder’s greatest and most original work. Additionally, underrated Dutch auteur Adriaan Ditvoorst, whose first feature Paranoia (1967) concludes with the antihero jumping out of a window and who committed self-slaughter himself by drowning himself in the Scheldt river, concluded his singular and largely overlooked career with his magnum opus De witte waan (1984) aka White Madness which ends in a bittersweet fashion with a rather romantic mother-son suicide pact. Despite his reputation as a master of micro-budget celluloid necrophilia, Aryan artsploitation Jörg Buttgereit was surely at his most creative and seemingly personal with Der Todesking (1990), which features a brutal suicide (and/or murder) for each day of the week. As someone who has never found French filmmaker Louis Malle (Lacombe Lucien, My Dinner with Andre) to be a particularly intriguing director as a man who, not unlike like his kraut pal and protégé Volker Schlöndorff, mostly directed literary adaptations that reflected his safe and banal bourgeois background, I was quite surprised to discover that he directed a particularly potent work on the subject of suicide that I would argue is the greatest film the man ever assembed. Indeed, Le feu follet (1963) aka The Fire Within aka Will O' the Wisp aka A Time to Live and a Time to Die—a work adapted from French dandy turned literary fascist Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s 1931 novel of the same French name (known as Will O' the Wisp in English) that was inspired by the 1929 suicide of the writer’s opium-addled surrealist poet friend Jacques Rigaut—depicts the last 24 hours or so of a recovering alcoholic writer who has decided to kill himself and spends the next day reuniting with disconnected friends of various stripes who ultimately reaffirm his seemingly unshakeable will to self-slaughter. 

 Like many high-profile self-loathing bourgeois left-wingers, Malle was born into a wealthy family and seemed to resent that fact despite the fact that his opulent background helped to jumpstart his filmmaking career. Before he was even 30 years old, the filmmaker how already directed a number of successful films, especially Les Amants (1958) aka The Lovers starring Jeanne Moreau in a role that would make her an international star, yet he was apparently hating life at the time and wanted to direct a more personalized ‘auteur’ work that reflected his own mind and worldview which he ultimately found upon being lent a copy of Drieu’s novel Le feu follet, which the filmmaker had actually previously read in his youth. Much like how Fassbinder became obsessed with the character of ex-convict Franz Biberkopf of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) which he adapted into his 1980 15½ hour magnum opus of the same name, Malle found himself thoroughly identifying with the protagonist Alain Leroy of Drieu’s novel. In fact, also like Fassbinder with his work, Malle found himself tormenting the lead actor of his film adaptation, Maurice Ronet (who previously starred in Malle’s Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (1958) aka Elevator to the Gallows), out of jealously because he felt such a personal identification with the protagonist and even wanted to play the role himself (though, as Malle eventually realized, he did not have the acting talent). As Malle would reveal in a September 1994 interview with journalist Angelika Wittlich for German television a little over a year before he died, he was not necessarily suicidal like the character of his film but could relate to his dismay with life, incapacity to love, and personal crisis in regard to not wanting to confront adulthood, stating of the work that: “It was very simply a way to exorcise my desire to commit suicide.” Updating the story from the late-1920s to the early-1960s and changing the protagonist’s drug of choice from opium to alcohol, The Fire Within is a darkly touching and unrepentant “nocturnal poem” (this is how Malle once described the film) that is much more empathetic to its perturbed protagonist than Drieu’s source novel as a work that penetrates the viewer’s heart in a fiercely unflinching fashion comparable to when lead character finally decides to end it all by unloading a bullet in his chest with a German Luger. 

Washed-up French writer Alain Leroy (Maurice Ronet) is such a hopeless alcoholic that his estranged American wife Dorothy, who never appears in the film (aside from in photo form), had to pay for him to stay at an expensive Versailles clinic where he could undergo alcohol detoxification in relative comfort. In fact, Alain is so fed up with life that, despite being 'cured' of alcohol addiction and reaching equilibrium in terms of his physical health, he does not want to leave the clinic as it allows him escape from the pain and responsibility of real-life and being a man. Indeed, Alain is more or less a lost and morbidly depressed man-child who is afraid of becoming an adult and leading a normal life. Despite being a born lady’s man, Alain is an exceedingly emasculated fellow who has spent his entire life living off woman, who he seems to inspire an almost instinctive maternal nurturing quality in due to is innate helplessness, as if he is a cute little puppy dog that has been abandoned. While Alain has no problem attracting women, he has a complete and utter incapacity to love or be loved, thus all his romances always end in abject failure, thus reinforcing his undying sense of loneliness and instability. As for his parents, Alain simply describes them as being “very old” and even depresses an old woman at clinic when she asks about them and he less than emotionally responds, “I don’t see them anymore.” The Fire Within begins with Alain lying in bed with his old friend/ex-lover Lydia (Léna Skerla) after having what seems to banal and passionless coitus. Indeed, while Alain is a sort of dapperly dressed Don Juan who can pretty much charm any woman, his seductive persona, like his clothing, is merely a strategically placed mask that disguises a self-admitted poor lover, or as he later states in the film, “I’m awkward, inept. The sensitivity was in my heart, not my hands.” While Lydia begs, “Let me see you smile,” Alain is incapable of even giving her so much as a contrived smirk. Lydia wants to marry Alain and tells him that his yank wife is no good because “You need a woman who won’t let you out of her sight,” but as he tells her before saying goodbye to her for the last time regarding the futility of marriage, “You’d be unhappy…Another Dorothy. Anyway, you can’t help me. It’s too late.”  Indeed, it is too late because Alain has a date with a bullet that will penetrate his heart like no woman ever could.  Of course, also unlike with women, Alain's affair with the lead love letter will last forever, thereupon offering him the sense of permanence that he has always been seeking but could never find.

 Alain has turned his room at the clinic into a morbid hermetic fantasy realm that more resembles the unrefined habitat of a rebellious child than that of a grown man. Aside from photographs, toys, and odd trinkets, Alain has adorned his room with newspaper clippings about death, including a 5-year-old boy that accidently hanged himself with a curtain cord while attempting to fly. When Alain’s personal doctor Dr. La Barbinais (Jean-Paul Moulinot) comes into his room under the pretense of playing chess to tell him he is ‘cured’ and that he should prepare to move out and move on with his life, he reacts by acting like a drama queen and proclaims that, despite being sober, he still suffers from “a single feeling of constant anxiety” that makes living a normal life impossible for him. The doctor gives Alain various recommendations as to what he can do with his life, including opening a store, but he disregards them all and complains of being ridden with debt. Before leaving his room, Dr. La Barbinais says “Life is good” and Alain cynically replies, “good for what, Doctor?” and says to himself “tomorrow” in regard to his intention to kill himself the next day. Before going to sleep, Alain tells himself that he is going to commit suicide. Against his doctor’s orders, Alain heads to decadent Paris—the city that devoured his soul—the next day after hitching a ride from two sloppy proles who assume he is a rich man due to how he dresses. Upon arriving in Paris, Alain cashes two large checks that have been given to him by Lydia and his wife Dorothy, but being off the booze, he does not have much to spend it on. 

 The first person Alain reunites with in Paris is, somewhat ironically, his old bartender friend Charlie (René Dupuy), who is shocked when his favorite alcoholic turns down a free drink. At the bar, Alain becomes rather dejected when he bumps into a young man named Michel ‘Milou’ Bostel (Bernard Tiphaine) who reminds him of his younger self, as he cannot live with the fact that he misspent his entire life on beers and boobs and has nothing of intrinsic value to show for it. Next, Alain stops by the apartment of his old pal Dubourg (Bernard Noël ) who is now a bourgeois family man and academic of Egyptology who is quite comfortable with his new life as a father, scholar, and respectable tax-paying and law-abiding French citizen. Alain tries to mock Dubourg by sarcastically asking him “playing daddy now?,” but he sees it as no laughing matter. When Alain tells of his intention to end his life, Dubourg attempts in vain to talk him out of it by stating, “Life still has things to offer. You must have a sense of your life. That sense can’t perish,” but it is no hope. Needless to say, Dubourg’s words are lost on Alain when he proudly remarks, “Don’t judge by appearances. You see me as a resigned bourgeois…But my life’s more intense now than when I drank and slept around.” As Alain tells Dubourg, “It’s hard to be a man. You have to want it,” as the last thing he wants to be is a man as that would require him to take responsibility for his life.  Before parting ways with Dubourg, Alain confides in him, “I wanted you to help me die. That’s all,” but his friend still tries to talk him out of it by offering him the opportunity to stay at his flat where he and his family lives an “ordered life.” Of course, Alain is deathly allergic to order of any sort. 

Alain seems to have the most in common with his painter friend Eva (Jeanne Moreau) as she is similarly miserable and pessimistic, calling his wife Dorothy an “American witch” and Dubourg “deadbeat Dubourg,” but he cannot tolerate hanging out with her for long as she lives with an art collective of pathetically pretentious and zombified dope fiends who make fun of him for going to rehab. Repulsed by their lifeless inebriated stupors, Alain remarks to the thoroughly narcotized art fags, “Drugs are life. Boring, like life” and sarcastically adds, “some addicts live until 70.” Alain is especially repulsed by an effete hook-nosed poet named Urcel (Alain Mottet) who describes him as a jealous failure when he leaves, but Eva rebukes him and states, “He’s a very sweet guy and deeply unhappy…and I should have let him go.” Surely out of all the women that Alain interacts with during the film, Eva seems like the only one that understands him and may have been able to save him, but she lacks the strength to take action. Alain also decides it is not much fun hanging out with his pals François (François Gragnon) and Jérôme Minville (Romain Bouteille) because they are self-professed “stubborn” members of the dissident far-right paramilitary organization OAS (aka “Organisation de l'armée secrète”) who keep getting thrown in prison for fighting against Algerian independence. While sitting outside of a café while all by his lonesome, Alain decides to break his sobriety by drinking a glass of wine and naturally gets rather sick as a result. While Alain is walking around sick in a restaurant, an old queen states to another fag about him, “See that face? Alcohol. He’s done for. A shame. He was good-looking. Richard was in love with him.”  Indeed, you have certainly hit a low point in life when you have a couple of snide little faggots gossiping about your decline right in front of your face.

 Ultimately, Alain decides to sleep off his alcohol-induced sickness in the lavish home of his opulent old flame Solange (played by Canadian actress Alexandra Stewart, who director Malle later had a daughter with) and her wealthy cuckold of a husband Cyrille Lavaud (Jacques Sereys) where he makes a huge ass of himself after a fancy dinner that his arch-enemy Brancion (Tony Taffin) attends. Like at a lunch he attends at the beginning film with his co-patients at the clinic, Alain seems completely detached at the dinner and barely even reacts when he is directly spoken to. When Cyrille makes the mistake of giving Alain drinks after the dinner, the protagonist gets so erratically drunk that he smashes a glass, cuts his hand, and embarrasses himself in front of all his friends and enemies, especially Solange, who he begins groveling in front, stating things like, “You’re life itself. Yes, life.” While Solange clearly cares for Alain, she is a married woman with a stinking wealthy hubby and must reject her ex-lover's drunken romantic advances. After deciding he has suffered “enough humiliation,” Alain leaves the party and, unbeknownst to them, says goodbye to his friends forever. Before going back to the clinic, Alain gives some quasi-fatherly advice to the young man Milou who reminds of his younger self while the two get drunk and discuss the enigma of the opposite sex. As Alain remarked to his friend Dubourg earlier in the film regarding women, “I have no power over them. I was handsome at 20. They still find me fun and nice. But it’s not enough. I have no hold on them. And yet, it’s only through women that I’ve felt some hold on life” and it certainly seems that young playboy Milou will be resigned to a similarly lonely fate, though he does not seem to realize it yet.  After waking up in his room at the clinic with a champagne bottle in his bed the next morning, Alain takes a couple more chugs of alcohol, pays a maid money to not visit his room for the next couple hours, locks his door, packs all his photos and money into a suitcase, shaves his face, has a small chat with Solange on the phone where he lies about agreeing to meet her and her friends for lunch (he gets jealous when she calls his enemy Brancion a “force of nature”), finishes reads F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, and shoot himself in the heart with a Luger. As for his suicide note, Alain writes: “I’m killing myself because you didn’t love me, because I didn’t love you. Because our ties were loose, I’m killing myself to tighten them. I leave you with an indelible stain.” 

 As Dutch auteur Adriaan Ditvoorst once wrote, “Pasolini said suicide was the only freedom given to man” and in The Fire Within, the protagonist demonstrates this ‘god given’ freedom in a most perturbingly potent and morbidly fitting way to officially conclude an already aborted life. As Pasolini also wrote, “Death does determine life” and “Once life is finished it acquires a sense; up to that point it has not got a sense; its sense is suspended and therefore ambiguous.” Indeed, not until protagonist Alain Leroy actually kills himself does his degenerate life of aimless dipsomania and depression derive any meaning, as he, like so many drug addicts and alcoholics, was someone who had already long given up on life and his profession and no longer believed any of the will-o'-the-wisps he built up for himself, thus taking the only rational course of action for someone in his beyond forlorn situation of no return.  Although none of Alain's writings are ever revealed during the film aside from his short but sweet and brazenly biting suicide letter, one can almost certainly guarantee without reading them that his self-slaughter only added to their meaning and literary prowess just as Austrian Jewish philosopher Otto Weininger's suicide was more or less the natural course of action to take after penning his ideas on Jews, gender, and even suicide in his magnum opus Geschlecht und Charakter (1903) aka Sex and Character. More importantly, Alain realized he would never be able to truly love or be loved, hence his state of perennial loneliness despite the fact that so many beauteous women adored and even financially supported him, as a sort of tragic frog Don Juan. Although The Fire Within can certainly be described as a dark and gloomy work, Alain’s exceedingly pessimistic weltanschauung and eventual suicide will probably only scare or disturb those that can relate to his personality and predicament in life, but then again, people that far gone are more typically afraid of life than death, hence why they commit self-slaughter in the first place. Auteur Louis Malle could certainly relate to the character, confessing: “It was such a personal film…that I thought, ‘If possible, I’d be glad if it were never released.’ I made it for myself. I might show it to some friends, but I really didn’t want it to be released. I thought it was such a personal film. It’s not entertainment. It’s the first film I made that is in no way ‘entertainment.’”  Maybe if Malle was not so afraid of making personal films, he would have become a much better director and had created other works of a similar artistic integrity to The Fire Within, but aside from a couple exceptions like his somewhat anomalous dystopian work Black Moon (1975), he mostly went back to directing 'safe' entertainment and literary adaptations, hence why he was later able to have a fairly successful career working in Hollywood during the last two decades or so of his life.

Featuring a lead actor that seemed to be born to play the part in what would ultimately be the greatest performance of his life and a striking use of French self-described ‘gymnopaedist’ Erik Satie’s classic minimalistic composition Gymnopédies that immaculately accentuates the perturbed protagonist’s lingering state of impenetrable melancholia, The Fire Within is one of those oh-so rare films that seems perfect in its entirety, which is certainly not something that can be said of most of Malle’s other largely pansy ass works. It should certainly be noted that Malle was not just obsessed with the source novel Le feu follet, but also the real-life poet that inspired the story, as well as the man that wrote it. Indeed, if one watches the 1994 German television interview with journalist Angelika Wittlich featured on the Criterion Collection release of The Fire Within, Malle describes his longstanding fascination with Pierre Drieu La Rochelle who, despite being his political opposite as a fascist and Vichy collaborator, intrigued the filmmaker due to his lifelong obsession with suicide. Of course, unlike the character of Malle’s film, Drieu did not commit suicide until he was 52 while in hiding after the ‘liberation of Paris’ in 1944 (Malle had to go to Drieu's friend, novelist and Gaullist resistance fighter turned French Minister for Cultural Affairs André Malraux, who protected his fascist writer friend before he committed suicide, to get the rights to the novel). Interestingly, Malle’s colleague François Truffaut (who was half Jewish, though he did not find out this until later in his life) stated regarding the political beliefs of Drieu and his compatriot Robert Brasillach (who was actually executed for ‘thought crimes’ as a collaborationist) that, “views that earn their advocates the death penalty are bound to be worthy of esteem.” Despite Malle’s left-wing idealism (as especially epitomized by the characters of the Minville brothers), somehow I suspect that Drieu would have more appreciated The Fire Within than anything that Truffaut ever directed. Notably, Drieu’s novel was somewhat recently adapted by Norwegian auteur Joachim Trier (a distant relative of Lars von Trier) under the title Oslo, 31. august (2011) aka Oslo, August 31st and though it is an excellent modernist reworking that works quite well in its somber Nordic setting, it is not quite as good as The Fire Within and I say that as someone who prefers Germanic languages over French and who has always thought of Malle as a sort of obscenely overrated arthouse hack. 

-Ty E