Monday, April 26, 2021

Lions Love... and Lies / Lions Love

Spaced Children

This entry on Agnès Varda's 1969 feature will be made up of a numbered succession of notes and observations. Prelude: What's with the title: a plural noun as subject and an intransitive verb... an ellipsis... a  conjunction with a noun. The restoration-info card and other period ephemera insist on giving Lions Love... and Lies as the name of the film, though the onscreen title stands resolute in its repetition: Lions Love. One of the hippies intones the full title over a card onscreen that reads just Lions Love ten-and-a-half-minutes in. Take it as part of the jumble that is the film itself. — Or, as Varda deconstructs the title in her 2014 video introduction: Lions (the three leads have sprouted leonine manes), love (the three leads give themselves to one another freely), lies (television).


(1) Applause for the arrival of Viva and her stoolies at the play (staged by Rip Torn). It's the height of the late-'60s vogue for all that '20s fluff à la Harlow or Paper Moon. Truly their entrance seems one with the performance on-stage.

(2) Viva shares her rented house with two preening kooks, who utter as though under a spell of inspiration the glib monstrosities of dim American Hippiestein thought ("I hate everything about entertainment, including living.") and as though cameras are recording their sensational devil-may-fuck faux-brilliance for posterity — precisely what's going on before Varda's device, revealed a few times later indeed to be capturing the proceedings as faux-documentary. Here's the first thing to surmount as an intelligent viewer of the film: that Viva is a natural presence and legitimate personality on camera, but the other two (Jim Rado and Jerry Ragni) are off on narcissism trips that, accordingly, get them repeatedly laid. (In 2021 they're either dead or, I'd wager, come off a little less than effulgent.)

(3) The arrival of Shirley Clarke, the heroine of the film. Her lightly fed-up New York attitude goes over well in Los Angeles, where she's treated like something of a novel new gift from the sun (or at least from Max Raab, who's flown her out to see what a New York filmmaker can put together on the subject of Southern California, LA specifically). ("It's funny, I don't like the sun in New York, but I like it here," she says on the car-ride back from LAX, and I'll second that emotion. Her pal Carlos on Hollywood: "It looks like you're coming into a city, but the city's never there.") The hotel rooms are booked because of the Eugene McCarthy / Robert Kennedy primary debates, so Shirley opts to crash at Viva's — she's seen her in Warhol's films and loves her. "Which comes first, the movie or reality?" 

(4) The difference nowadays is that Varda's film, while it once could have been seen as a breaking away from the tenets of traditional movie-core, must now look like the pregenitor of subsequent breakaways from a classicism or '60s post-classicism, come to new form by way of an Olivier Assayas or a Nicolas Klotz. Shirley smiles at Jerry's verbal-horseshit, explaining, "It's very simple, I just use real people." What would this movie be without Jerry and Jim Jag-Off? Something else I quite concede, baby. I wish it were made in the future these poltroons couldn't predict, where their smartphone messages would blow them out of the frame to require tending to. 

(5) June 3rd Monday 1968. Insufferable sequence of the Triangle in bed dialing phones and playing 'a game' where they pretend they're ordering food, while the editing moves the playback between normal speed and speeded-up. "Show me money." "Call the Bank of America!" This is the hippie subversive folderol that really gets Jerry's rocks off. "Mr. Rosenbaum was so rude to me I just couldn't barely believe it!" Trust us, honey, Mr. Rosenbaum don't know where it is...

(6) Shirley gets up in the morning sporting a white sportcoat, skirt, and hat-with-chinstrap, all set to meet her producer, and Viva warns that, "If you're nervous, don't drink so much coffee..." "You're right," responds Shirley. The immediate joke is that Shirley might shit all over her wild white wardrobe, but previously the other two assholes au jus Jerry and Jim in their begging for nude coffee fixes had no regard for wet farts in the bed.

(7) The most thrilling parts of the film take place in Max Raab's office as Shirley's people negotiate with the producer-exhibitor on the terms of her film in the way of final-cut privileges and eventual release. Haggling over decimal points and helping to "amortize [his] studio""Let's not be silly over a point..." Jesus Christ. "This girl is used to making a final cut... When people give her the money she HONORS that obligation... And that's one of the reasons she's a talented person, that's one of the reasons her name on a marquee MEANS something. We're trying to make a breakthrough here, she NEEDS final cut..." Max Raab, sincerely curious: "Do you think it means that much to her?" Well Max, the film won't be for you. May not be for most. What comes first, the movie or reality? Whom are we talking about — Shirley or Agnès?

(8) "If you were as good an actor as Bobby Kennedy you'd be where Bobby Kennedy is, up on the podium." "Who wants to be up there, you could get killed." "Influencing the masses." God bless you. They knock some suddenly-appeared toddlers out with pills then Varda cuts to an alcove or oubliette ivy-strewn where Jim is pretending he's St. Augustine and Jerry is St. John of the Cross — hippie trends; no-one gives a shit about Biblical prophet history post-'69 — with some nymphs thrown in the aquarium windowed behind their bench; it's only a pastiche of Pasolini and Buñuel in the place of a scene from Hair. [NOTE: I had no idea before writing this, then watching Agnès's 2014 introduction, that Ragni was in fact responsible for what is... Hair.]

(9) A cut back to "Max" and his negotiators, pleading with him that 'this' is the New Cinema. God help us. Let's see what Max has to say: "Artistic control is good and fine — up to a point. She can make her film, she can deliver it to us, but then it has to be previewed." Max is a man who likes to say 'NO,' as exhibited by the phone-call he jumps on in the middle of his guest's imploration re: Shirley-would-be-Agnès. The latter negotiator finally gets in edgewise: "Sometimes you make a little investment for the next step.""The final say on how this film goes out to the public has to remain in this company and that's it." Shirley goes home.

(10) Or rather she takes some pills on Viva's bed. "It's a fake bird-of-paradise except it looks prettier." Varda is obsessed with the naked physiques of her three principals — why? The wife of Jacques Demy can't get enough of Viva's bony flanks and teepee breasts, Jim's pre-cancerous blandness, and Jerry's dipshit's pectorals, follicles, overall Vitruvian sculpting. ("This is the man to be.") Thankfully, an intertitle spells the word: "EXAGERATE" [sic]. Shirley: "I'm sorry Agnès .... I certainly wouldn't kill myself about not being able to make any goddamn movie." Well this is the suicide point in the film. Varda swaps the blouse with Clarke, gets in front of the camera, swallows the pills with the Dr. Pepper, and states matter-of-factly: "I'm trying to make a movie." At last the movie is liberated. The ultimate phrase. Actors' whims and misgivings be damned. I'M TRYING TO MAKE A MOVIE...

(11) "Leave the picture; kill the sound." It was all true. Reaction in the aftermath of carnage. Bobby was shot, then on the phone: Andy Warhol was just shot. Shirley's in bed OD'd on 'red candy.' Viva: "I can't staaaaaaaand it. Shirley, Kennedy, Andy... everybody's dyyyyyying..." One of the greatest line utterances in the semi-modern cinema. 

(12) Viva again: "The national pastime is televised death." The funeral "cortège" arrives...

(13) Eddie Constantine shows up at Viva's door. It's the only time I've ever heard him speak English. The two kooks urge him to stay, after he's mid-bolt, having discovered their presence. What a scene, what with two spinal-tapped jerks... 

(14) Shirley comes back from the hospital. Viva assembles a Theda Bara puzzle. Shirley says, in that '60s way that Didion might document, "Oh that really is too funny..." — Plain folks doing their thing. A montage of the stars. "What else is Hollywood but Babylon and sunshine?" 

The space children future!

But: "I would just like to breathe for one minute." Thus comes the greatest liberative allowance of Varda's camera. Propriety dissuades the image. And: The End.


Other writing on Agnès Varda at Cinemasparagus:

La Pointe-Courte [1955]

Ô saisons ô châteaux [O Seasons, O Châteaux, 1957]

L'Opéra-Mouffe, carnet de notes filmées rue Mouffetard par une femme enceinte en 1958 [The Opéra-Mouffe: Diary Filmed on the rue Mouffetard in Paris by a Pregnant Woman in 1958, 1958]

Du côté de la Côte [Around the Côte, 1958]

Les fiancés du pont Mac Donald, ou (Méfiez-vous des lunettes noires) [The Fiancés of the Pont Mac Donald, or: (Beware of Dark Glasses), 1961]

Cléo de 5 à 7 [Cléo from 5 to 7, 1962]

Le bonheur [Happiness, 1964]

Elsa la Rose [Elsa the Rose, 1966]

Les créatures [The Creatures, 1966]

Uncle Yanco [1967]

Black Panthers [1968]

Lions Love... and Lies / Lions Love [1969]


Saturday, April 24, 2021

Poemquotes 20: Two Poems from Baudelaire's "Spleen and Ideal"

  (my translations)

XXXVI. Le balcon
[36. The Balcony]

Mother of memories, mistress of mistresses,
O you, all my pleasures! o you, all my duties!
You'll recall the beauty of the caresses,
The gentleness of the hearth and the evenings' charm,
Mother of memories, mistress of mistresses!

The evenings illumined by the glow of the coal,
And the evenings on the balcony, veiled by rosy vapors.
How soft your breast was to me! how good your heart was to me!
Often we said imperishable things
On the evenings illumined by the glow of the coal.

How gorgeous are the suns in the warm evenings!
How profound is space! how powerful is the heart!
Leaning toward you, queen of the adored,
I thought I breathed the perfume of your blood.
How gorgeous are the suns in the warm evenings!

The night was growing dense, like a partition,
And my eyes in the darkness made out your pupils,
And I drank in your breath, o sweetness! o poison!
And your feet fall asleep in my fraternal hands.
The night was growing dense, like a partition.

I know the art of evoking happy minutes,
And relive my past nestled in your knees.
For what's the good in seeking your languorous beauties
Other than in your dear body and in your so gentle heart?
I know the art of evoking happy minutes!

These vows, these perfumes, these infinite kisses,
Will they be reborn from a gulf forbidden to our probings,
As the rejuvenated suns rise to heaven
Having been washed in the bottom of deep seas?
— O vows! o perfumes! o infinite kisses!


XXXVII. Le possédé
[37. The Possessed One]

The sun was covered with a crêpe. Like him,
O Moon of my life! swaddle yourself in shadow;
Sleep as or smoke what you will; be mute, be somber,
And plunge wholly into the gulf of Ennui;

And so I love you! And yet, if today you'd like,
As an eclipsed star leaving the penumbra,
To swagger in the places Madness encumbers,
That's all well and good! Charming dagger, spring from your sheath!

Light your pupil with the flame of chandeliers!
Light desire in the gazes of boors!
All of you gives me pleasure, morbid or petulant;

Be what you will, black night, dawn red;
There's not one fiber in all my trembling body
That doesn't cry: O my dear Beelzebub, I adore you!


Thursday, April 22, 2021

Louis Skorecki vs. the Power Rangers


The following pieces were written in French by Louis Skorecki circa January 2001, and are translated here for the first time in English by me.

The End of the Power Rangers

by Louis Skorecki

Kids love to mimic grown-ups. They’re barely playing with a full deck and they start taking themselves for characters out of Pagnol. In “Happy Families,” an especially moronic game they like taking part in with their parents, they learn fast how to cheat. Pim, Pam, and Poum are no exception. The problem is that their parents got wiped out days ago, right before Christmas. All of a sudden, there’s no more presents and they’re sentenced to play Happy Families among themselves. It’s a lot less amusing this time around. Uncle Paul, who in the middle of the festivities tried to have a go of it, didn’t get the rules. He preferred to tell stories by the fireside. This horrified the three brothers. They’d been taught by TV and by Uncle Paul’s stories how all this seemed to come from the last century. Poum, the oldest, thought that the doors hadn't been completely shut by the previous centuries. He kept it to himself. In any case, Pim and Pam didn’t understand. Next to Happy Families, they only cared about the Power Rangers. They even preferred it to the TV series. [1] Pim, not yet even five years old, thought up a Happy Families Power Rangers game — the Rangers being almost as old as he [2], branded as monsters and mutants he knows by heart. He still regretted the disparition of Rita Repulsa, the violet-horned witch. Pam and Poum knew that he had designs on the family of the red Ranger, his favorite, but they pretended not to see it. They let Pim win, as always. Then they tried to pull off a Letmaster party, but as they only knew twenty-some letters between the three of them, they didn’t go too far. [3] Everything cooled down again when Pim, Pam, and Poum decided to call it a day. The next morning, on their way to school, they got run over by a car. Uncle Paul assumed mourning garb. Come tomorrow eve there’d be no more stories.

[1] Flash bulletin: The eighth season of Power Rangers arrives in full force on Fox Kids and TF1. Ask the kids, they know what time it’s on.

[2] Éditions Tournon. Out-of-print for a while.

[3] For those who know more than twenty letters, Letmaster (Lexibook) is a perverse variation on Scrabble mixed with Chutes and Ladders. Recommended for ages 7 to 77. You’ll lose your mind.


Power Rangers (2)

by Louis Skorecki

You thought we were done with them, but they’re back. The Power Rangers are returning to primetime, no joke — on an actual cinephile channel at that. Two feature-films have been produced to profit on the television success of the most celebrated five multi-colored Rangers in the galaxy. Power Rangers Turbo, rebaptized Power Rangers 2, is the sillier of the two. An attempt at adapting to the big screen, with bigger technical and financial means, the formula of the feuilleton, Power Rangers Turbo is a complete “artistic” disaster, “artistic” of course not being the suitable word — let’s  instead say that the scheming, minimal, troubling concept of the Power Rangers is diluted in movie-form. To take a closer look, the reason for this failure is simple: the Power Rangers series is only so much bricolage, cris et couinements [crying and whining; Skorecki is punning on the French title for Bergman’s Cries and Whispers: Cris et chuchotements —CK], simian menacings, child’s play with the children themselves disguised as heroes or monsters with designs on other children looking up to them, themselves in even better disguise. Live-direct, roulades, whistles that never strike fear, ridiculous witches, Quantrons that take flight like wasps at the most inconsequential alert. Without forgetting the shots of the barely realistic karate, the rubber, the latex — a fine effect that recalls King Kong mixed with Sankukai, Goldorak, Cocteau, Laurel and Hardy, Happy Days, Star Trek, Les Envahisseurs, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and, of course, Star Wars. Where the Power Rangers finds their novelty, and mind you this is a film glum in its ridiculousness, is that in place of continuing to steal ideas left and right, to recycle without the hint of an aesthetic marketing plan (accumulation, bricolage), we are besotted precisely with the “serious” in the Star Wars manner. The genius of the serial is its faculty of amnesia. Each year, new actors, a new “concept.” No child will ever have a clue as to the story, and still less the genealogy, of the Power Rangers. Frivolity, inconsequence, intemporality. As for the film, like any film, it aspires to cultural legitimacy. This is the wrong idea. Tough shit.


Tuesday, April 20, 2021

The Face (aka The Magician)

(This piece was originally published at this blog on December 30, 2010. It's reprinted here with new stills.)

On Bergman's First Summary-Masterpiece

In the opening scene, a troupe of wandering charlatans emerges, primordial, from the earth — the images, from the presence of the carriage to its distant traversal across a wide horizon, recall the travelers of The Seventh Seal

An old gypsy woman (Naima Wifstrand) spits on a raven (the group's family surname Vogler suggests fågel, or bird) / 

The scream that does not register on the soundtrack — a theater of the mind / 

As Granny paints the picture (Bergman's eminence of language and dialogue-image) — "A fox on two emaciated legs, covered in blood, with its head hanging by a few sinews. A fox with no eyes, and a rotten hole for a mouth." — the head of Albert Vogler (Max von Sydow) enters the frame in close-up, an artificial visage, constructed out of fake beard, ersatz locks, perched top-hat — a first expression, then, of the title, The Face [Ansiktet, 1958], and all this might imply / 

(The film has forever circulated in the U.S. on prints and in Criterion's release under the less abstract The Magician) / 

But the title is not only a call to examine Albert's face, or the faces of any characters in particular — it's a signal to take note of the human face in general, both inside the film and beyond it — the phenomenon of the face / 

The man found in the woods, "Johan Spegel" (the actor is Bengt Ekerot), bears a name which extends this theme — "spegel" the Swedish word for "mirror" / 

Albert gets in close to better hear the man's murmur, and the two come face-to-face (another apt Bergman title from later in the oeuvre), and with this image a potential fate is suggested for Albert Vogler specifically as for any man / 

After Spegel calls Albert out on his dummy beard and wig, the two venture to cross a small stream, and when Spegel stumbles it's because Albert — expert framing here by Bergman, ambiguity of action — has tossed him down / 

Albert is not the passive entity that a first impression might insinuate / 

And Spegel's facial hair, plotted in haggard patches, is no less a formulation / 

The 'capital of the state' is some zone on the outskirts of a woods / 

Kakfa / 

The troupe has been summoned to a castle, as it were, in the drawing-room of which they are greeted by Consul Egerman (Erland Josephson), while a police commssioner, Starbeck (Toivo Pawlo), and a "medical advisor," minister of health Dr. Vergerus (Gunnar Björnstrand), hover on standby, each figure armored in wigs and slathered makeup / 

Surnames which recur — menacingly, by virtue of the fact — from earlier Bergman films: "Egerman," "Vergerus," etc. / 

Manda Vogler (Ingrid Thulin), Albert's wife, takes cover as a man, named "Aman" (we will learn later on that the couple have assumed these disguises as a means of facilitating their survival as fugitives on the run) / 

'Identity' is humored by the observers: "Aman" is a theatrical trope — Aman is not 'realistically' perceived as actually being a boy, any more than Vogler's beard and moustache, once Dr. Vergerus compels him to submit (as though by the 'suggestion' of authority — again, everything here involves a suspension of disbelief) to an up-close "oral" examination, cannot possibly be taken for genuine / 

Everyone, in their makeup and get-up, is a performer in the comedy / 

The autopsy that Vergerus wishes upon Vogler in his initial examination, complete with the removal of the eyes (the organs of control — and of the cinema, and of the spectator — the 'see' of the face), will in fact come to pass later in the film / 

We have the sense of actors exiting a stage as the troupe withdraws from the interrogation and passes into the antechamber, dark as the wings, while on the soundtrack the examiners' laughs resound, bizarre, hollow, echoes inside the soul / 

When troupe-member Tubal (Åke Fridell) sells chambermaid Sofia Garp (Sif Ruud) the "love potion," he consults with Granny on how to make do given their exhausted supply — the two address one another in 'stage whispers,' the para-diegetic quality of which is accentuated + nullified by the presence of two common chairs placed on top of the table — they converse through the footrests — of course this is very funny to watch, but it also highlights Bergman's visual brilliance and magnificent aptitude for blocking his actors in a manner, with a solution, that is always, always interesting / 

Love potions, gulped in tandem by trouper Simson (Lars Ekborg) and Sara (Bibi Andersson) are another facilitator, agent, of 'disbelief-suspension,' self-suggestion, pretense, a precursor to the bonbons of Rivette's Céline and Julie Go Boating

The camera moves and faces come into frame like discrete beats, shocks, a montage without montage / 

"There's a bird's nest in the window." — omniscience of the Voglers — a second-sight that spreads: Sara looking out of frame in the laundry-room where her tryst with Simson's underway announces that she can see (a framing invisible to us) simultaneously the two men in the kitchen, and the light in Vogler's and Aman's bedroom / 

The magic lantern, the autobiographical touchstone of Bergman, — the magician the filmmaker, the filmmaker deemed a fraud, not solely out of the artifice of his method (though that too — reality comes into focus at what proximity?) but out of the efficacy of his acknowledged charlatanism, too / 

Vogler's nails bloodied after digging into his palm — Vogler smashing his fists off the table — Vogler striking the back of his skull against a closed door: the terrible limits of the body, of this very physical reality, for the being that thinks and feels / 

"A shadow of a shadow."

And: "The movement itself is the only truth."

Spegel resurrected in his ragged mockery of a 'magician's top-hat,' returned back to death in a coffin with a seal like a labial slit / 

Dr. Vergerus to Aman-Manda, as he drunkenly invades her bedroom with the hope of seduction: "Because you represent what I despise most of all: the inexplicable."

"Pretenses, false promises, double-bottoms."

Vogler, a golem (see, later, Fanny and Alexander) / 

Manda asks Vogler in their bed: "Remember when..." but of course this is more or less a soliloquy, life cannot yet have progressed into this realm of historical, immemorial distance for the young, middle-aged couple; what Manda recounts are episodes, created for the expostulation / 

The chimes of the clock / 

The parts of Vogler's disguise which will shift to the corpse of his double, Spegel, for the autopsy carried out by Vergerus, likewise his "V"-twin — Vergerus will not recognize the unidentical anatomy, physiognomy of the decoy, in the same way he didn't recognize the artifice of the beard and wig close-up during the initial examination of "V"-twin Vogler when the two first went face-to-face / 

How the coffin makes its way up to the attic (this contains Vogler, alive) as the black trunk containing 'Vogler's corpse' (i.e., Spegel) is carried up at the behest of the police commissioner — the move, the swap... a certain suspension of disbelief, or suspension of peering too deeply into the logistics, is required now on the part of the spectator / 

For in The Face 'real' magic is possible, and in Bergman, trunks possess an eldritch capacity (again see Bergman's second and final 'summary-work,' the prism-work which consciously recalls so many of the earlier films — Fanny and Alexander) / 

"Please stop the clock."

Vogler can 'be' in two places at once, as he bids A(Man-da) within her own room to lock the door to the attic (where he's already present) / 

Vergerus to Vogler at the climax of their magickal, virtuoso confrontation in the attic: "You induced a momentary fear of death — nothing more — nothing else." — Yet is that not the sum totality at the cusp of actual death? / 

"I've never seen you before." "I was in disguise — does that make a difference?"

Personae / 

And then at the ending, we're graced with one of the great final dialogues in movies (after, of course, the deus ex machina of the happy-end swoops in at whose accord but... the magician's, i.e., Bergman's): 

"Gather my apparatus and send them to the palace. But be careful — they're very valuable."