Monday, 30 May 2011

M.JAINET'S ETERNAL ZIGZAG (Francois Lepin Eziot, 1949)

Plotwise, this is as simple as those early cinematic experiments entitled Tennis Match or The Motorcar Departs: A man is pursued, endlessly, across borders. We pick up our sympathies from the details: small habits and clothing tell us that he is a member of the resistance and his assailant is a Nazi spyhunter. His name is M. Jainet, and he will run and run and run. The Nazi, trapped in hopeless caricature, has no name. Even as the film begins, we are clued in to what they both know: that this chase does not end when the war does. This is their own private battlefield, a psychic chess, and it knows no international law or politick. Their situations could be reversed, and they would behave in the same manner. Like Japanese soldiers lost in the jungle, a mutual suicide, keeping alive only to spite the other, clueless as to what death to either would mean.

Eziot takes a simple stylistic concept and holds it for 85 minutes, a captain clinging to his mast through a storm. An exercise in repetition, each scene is made up of a single shot, usually with an unmoving camera. Sometimes, a scene can sit empty for minutes: an abandoned market at night, a doorway outside a glowing bar, a towpath along a canal at dusk. But always, it seems, stairs are present, lifting through the darkness hopefully, to who knows where. Frequently, we have a three-quarter view, slightly elevated, a privileged angle on these cityspaces as smoky, desperate Eschers, cold geometries which our pair pass through. Diagrams freshly-built but anciently anatomical. Tension is never relieved, as every revelation is followed by a mind-wiped new scene. As soon as one man spots another (his body stiffening ecstatically out of the jetlag for a moment), his actions are quick and decisive, but ultimately mean nothing. Not unless we see capture and an end to the cycle, and we do not. For a new scene, in a new part of town, will surely follow. Sometimes Jainet finds the stairs, and our hopes are lifted. But he has only escaped to the next screen, to begin again.

In some scenes, nothing happens; there is no-one. In others, we might only see the pursuer or the pursued (perhaps searching eagerly, or hiding, or even, on occasion, relaxing, putting the danger aside for a moment (the latter of which is frequently the most affecting)); in at least one, both pass each other without noticing. Every time, we look for those faces: the twitchy, hopeful Jainet (played by Serge Reggiani, the popular French-Italian singer) and the lumbering never-tiring Nazi (Gaston Modot, who played another angry German in Jean Renoir's La Regle du Jeu (1939)).

At first, Eziot's espionaged theatricals seem like a game for the viewer, and each scene a mystery puzzle, a Where's Waldo? in frosty greys and blacks. But soon, the beautiful complexity of an eternally repeating screen (with the water-torture tension of infernal Pong) affects us, as does the knowledge that when Jainet ricochets himself into the edge of the screen, that is the end of it, but only for now.

Eziot tinkered repeatedly with his film, and the most widely seen cut from 1949 is by no means the most definitive. In 1972, He toured a 72-hour version entitled M.Jainet's Eternal Zigzag '72, with reels replayed in random orders; a stiffening, endless, Spy vs Spy, zen warfare, perpetual fear.

Francois Truffaut wrote about the experience of watching this version for Cahiers du Cinema: (1)

'In the theatre, the fans celebrated this event in various ways: there were poetry recitals at the back, and a drinking game near the front that fell away by the halfway point of the film. One group began to cheer the Nazi, perhaps finding in him the perennial despair of Wile E. Coyote, perhaps just yearning for a conclusion. Near me, a couple slept in each other's arms for the entire weekend, not looking up once. At one point, I became convinced that the roles had been reversed, and that Jainet was tracking his pursuer; Eziot had hypnotised me, or perhaps Jainet had realised that the best way to avoid capture was to follow... Despite the singular pacing of the film, the overall mood ebbed and flowed throughout: at one point, almost everybody cheered each carefully created scene, at another they were slow-clapping, and at others it seemed like it didn't matter what we were watching... after about eighteen hours, the backgrounds through which the two men move become less like Vichy France and more like other wartime outposts- Morocco, Stalingrad, Cyprus. By the fiftieth hour, I recognised nowhere. The longer one watches, the further away from the original place we are. One comes to feel that if one were to watch Jainet running for several weeks, he might end up leading his pursuer into the sun, or the outer rings of heaven; similarly, the viewer would leave the cinema to find themselves in a completely different city, on another planet, or in another body entirely.'

The film was homaged in Rick Marving's home computer games for the ZX Spectrum in those glorious early-1980s years of quick inspiration, bedroom programming and whimsical in-jokes. Monsieur Janney's Eternal Zig-Zag '82 and Monsieur Janney's Still Running, were both famous for being never-ending, self-generating puzzles, with no game over or prize screen.

M.Jainet's Eternal Zigzag Directed by Francois Lepin Eziot Produced by Jean Eziot Written by Francois Lepin Eziot Starring Serge Reggiani, Gaston Modot DisCina Films 99 mins Release Date UK/US: March 1949 'How long can you avoid yourself?'

1. July, 1972

Monday, 16 May 2011

GOONER (Peter Harris, 1996)

'Homo sapiens is the species that invents symbols in which to invest passion and authority, then forgets that symbols are inventions.' Joyce Carol Oates

'The recurring image, the one that says more than any of his videos or statements, is the Warholian one we now have: bin Laden watching a video of himself, caught in a jihad for fame.' Christopher Hitchens

Some real-life fictions have an immediate impact on Hollywood ones. Nothing stops production, of course, but this month, the death of the world's most wanted man has created a conundrum. Two weeks ago there were two Osama bin Laden films being shot, and both must be hurriedly rewritten. Now, the general public will not abide by Kathryn Bigelow's as-yet untitled film about the fruitless search for the al-Qaeda leader. The ending must now be bloody and final. Word is that Bigelow's liked tale only because it had no 'closure' (a hopelessly modern term that, when used, sounds like it means something, but rarely does); now there must be, imperfect and prosaic. Similarly, Oliver Stone's fever dream With Us Or Against Us, (imagining a predictably bombastic afterlife in which a certain former US President and his nemesis collide with sticks, resulting in mutual destruction) was due in 2012, but now seems an exercise in angry cartoonish bloodlust too far: why put up with such overcooked satire when the wreckage of a real-life lynch-job is ripe for the picking?

Through flickering videotape, one man slipped into an iconography that it seems it didn't need his death to seal. He was already a ghost, turning up in Western dreams since before he was born.

He is there in Vick Kissing's The Phantom (1942), which follows a manhunt through Montana that ends in starvation and freezing to death. The group discuss the whys and wherefores of their eye-for-an-eye existence, but the audience never discovers the extent of the actual murderer's guilt. His size, ethnicity and gun hand are all argued over, and their harried accounts seem to describe a several different men. The fracturing and failure of the group seems inevitable from the outset, leaving the question of whether the killer exists at all (and by existential extention, whether a group hunting a non-existent man can 'exist', not to mention an audience of a film about them). Clint Eastwood,(1) himself existing somewhere between icon and human, remade it as A Horse With No Rider (2004). His last Western, it fit into a Bush narrative all too easily, with a posturing son leaning ever more on the Descartian double-bind: 'We're chasin' him. He must exist!'

1996: The year the Taliban took control in Afghanistan, and Arsene Wenger began introducing a new purist mindset to Arsenal Football Club. Twin narratives, two sets of idealism. Arsenal were hitherto the epitome of English gung-ho: Tony Adams drink-driving, Ray Parlour letting off fire extinguishers in Pizza Hut (and is there a more tawdry metaphor than that?), on a heroic death-charge for the old guard of banal boozers, facing up to their own terms of endangerment in a new world. Footballers in England would now eat pasta and drink soft drinks. They would no longer be seen gurning down the lens on Top of the Pops, arms around each other in a parade of uncool fun, like rictus Astleys.

1996 also saw the filming of Nick Hornby's loveletter to boyish men and Arsenal, Fever Pitch (David Evans, 1997). It also saw the release of a lesser known North London narrative: Gooner (1996) is Peter Harris' account of Osama bin Laden in London in the 1980s, going to see Arsenal play at Highbury. Or is it? Harris took the loose facts, that bin Laden had been known to frequent Gunners matches in the Thatcher years, and spun a tale about how a rich and bored man might be swayed by religious dogma or weekly worship of a sporting kind. This came out before the World Trade Center fell, of course, but after the earlier failed attempt in 1993. Harris' film does not predict the significance of his subject to a worldwide narrative (and it must be said, he has always claimed his character is a fiction, known only by the name 'Al'; Harris he also denied all knowledge of bin Laden until after his film was finished, but this matters little). Alfred Molina (2), that man of a thousand ethnicities, plays Al with no little sympathy. He seems lost and unsure as he buys up Arsenal memorabilia.

This could be the lost British terrorist film, Molina flickering across London like M.Vurloc in Conrad's The Secret Agent, unsure of his sympathies, building his resentments. Harris' denials fit the Osama myth perfectly, erasing a man from his own biography, until he is only a figment of the world's imagination, hiding in a dark cave of the collective mind. There are parallels with Chris Morris' Four Lions (2010), but the action is looser, less dramatic; like Gus van Sant (in Elephant or Last Days mode) if he had been asked to interpret a Hornby novel shorn of women and music, leaving only the football.

Gooner Directed by Peter Harris Written by Peter Harris, Rob Watts Produced by Rich Robbin Starring Alfred Molina, Dexter Fletcher Flickknife/BBC Films 99 mins Release Date UK: Sept 1996/US: N/A Tagline: 'Who Are Ya? Who Are Ya?'

1. Eastwood's films frequently deal with the potency of symbolic masculines. Could any other action hero dissect his own mythology so frequently and cuttingly? Compare and contrast with other tough guys as the butt of their own jokes: Vin Diesel, Hulk Hogan, the second half of Sylvester Stallone's career. And don't think that Arnold Schwarzenegger's barrage of limping comedies of the early 90s (think
Twins, Cinderfella, Kindergarten Cop, Austrian Thunder and Last Action Hero) display any kind of self-examination, as they are all one-note riffs on the same big-guy slapstick he'd always wrought.

2. There is a rumour that Alfred Molina has appeared in every film made during his lifetime, and even some that preceded it, such is his multi-faceted glory. He is one of those faces that link texts, jumping between them at rapid speed, cementing them as real live artifacts. His startling turn as John O'Neill in
He Knows Everything And It Doesn't Even Matter (2006) was as hidden from view as Osama Bin Laden at the time: sporadic video showings, unverified. Peter Bradshaw praised the film, but said that 'it suffers from a huge problem. That John O'Neill's story spins on a real-life irony too implausible for fiction: the FBI's best man on al-Qaeda who, having been forced out of the Bureau for maverick genius, takes up his new job as the head of security at the World Trade Center. He died on his first day at work, on September 11th, 2001, and this is too perfect to ring true, even though ity is true. Truth can be stranger than fiction, but it can also be more truly fictional. Sven Hassel's gutbusting By Their Necks (1965) does not suffer from the same problem, as the musclebound romps through Torah Borah lay no claim to credibility.'

Saturday, 7 May 2011


There is a sequence in F.G. Hoch's Mensch Versus Mittwoch in which protagonist Eli, played with brilliant care by Emil Jannings, leaves a bar drunk and walks down a Berlin alleyway. He is set upon by an unseen assailant, who beats him to a bloody pulp. The whole thing is filmed in the reflected retina of a feral cat, watching the action before passively turning away to toy with a dying mouse. It is such an extravagant piece of camerawork, stepping beyond the stark theatricals of the Weimer Expressionists (and through a portal of territory unmarked at that time, except perhaps by Man Ray's Alice dans le Pays des merveilles, the lost bravura short from 1932) that it jars the viewer from the narrative: Hoch acknowledges this by showing the next scene, in which Eli recovers in his room, twice. Many first-time viewers do not notice this playful repetition, this record-skipping break of the verisimilitude.

He was rarely so bold again. As film scholar Joseph Pranden said in 1962 when reviewing F-G's career downward spiral, 'the early prognosis of 'terminal genius' was hasty, and with time the outlook receded to the less spectacular: extreme spells of inspired sickness (Gestalt Honey in 1932, Zwölf Jünger (Twelve Disciples) in 1935) punctuating long spells of banal and lazy health, in which the ability to function is taken for granted (and too many titles to mention fall into this category).'(1)

His departure to America in 1937 was an ending. Far from flourishing in Hollywood like counterpart Fritz Lang, he froze. But here he fires beautifully, his promise coinciding with Weimar studio Ufa, just as the Expressionist movement was both flourishing and about to be stifled by the rise of the Nazis.

Man Against Wednesday applies overt noir sensibilities to a plot that stretches whimsy until it is a desperate and sad dirge. Eli experiences the week as seven individuals with an agenda: to him, each day is a person, lurking in the shadows, bumping into him in the same sequence, over and over. They all wear different colours, he is certain, and although their appearance is otherwise identical, he becomes convinced that they all have defining features. Monday, always one step ahead of the dullard Tuesday, is a red-pen wielding thought-editor whose vision has receded so much that he can only swivel his eyes in two dimensions, across the ledger and down the page, to the bottom line. Sunday is calm and apologetic, meeting Eli in parks and cafes, but the others all mix brawn with punctuality, a frightful combination.

Eli tries to reason with Sunday, asking her to visit more frequently, maybe twice a week; but she clams up, refusing to talk. This is how it must be, Eli.

Eli formulates a plan. If he can avoid Wednesday, the most timid of the rest of the days, he might disrupt the chain, and escape the clutches of their routine. But where can he go where Wednesday cannot? Week after week goes by, no refuge can be found. Eli changes his regular paths, throws everything out of sync, and loses his job and friendships because of it. But still, the days always catch up with him, and their aggression only grows. Eli drinks, and tries to sleep through entire days, but wakes to find that his assailants have visited, destroying his room.

He resorts to a final plan: barricading his room and waiting. If Wednesday can't find him, Eli wins. In a sickeningly slow final scene, Hoch allows us to live with what we know, and what Eli should know: that someone else is there in his small apartment. It takes an age, but when Eli finally turns his back, Tuesday steps out from behind the long curtains and unlocks the door, letting in his eternal successor. They nod grimly, their celestial relay handover as smooth as ever, and Wednesday enters, knife drawn.

Mensch Versus Mittwoch Directed by F.G.Hoch Produced by Franz Lammer Written by Lisbeth Heinz, F.G.Hoch Starring Eli Jannings, Maly Delschaft, Max Hiller, Werner Krauss UFA/ Goldwyn Distributing Company (USA) 87 mins Tagline: none.

1. Film As A Popular Art Form, Scholar Books