Endless Poetry (2016)

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Dir: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Starr: Adan Jodorowsky, Brontis Jodorowsky, Leandro Taub, Pamela Flores

Viewed: Filmhouse, Edinburgh (Screen 3)

 

“Another dead man among the dead. I will grow old… and rot.”

(Alejandro speaking to the younger Alejandro, as if a prophetic voice inside his own head)

 

“Old age is not a humiliation, you detach yourself from everything.”

(Alejandro addressing Alejandro, and the audience, a form of pervasive solipsism in need of attention to justify it)

 

A strong part of me wishes that this octogenarian burst of creative activity from Jodorowsky had simply never occurred. It would make any chronicling of his career that much easier, as The Rainbow Thief (1990) would then stand as the tired epitaph to an exhausted imagination. Alas, Jodorowsky wants to take a proper account of his career before he slopes off into the sunset. That accounting demands that the director’s overbearing ego act as arbiter in a re-evaluation of Jodorowsky’s formative years in Chile as the emergence of a poetic consciousness which places him at the centre of a 20th century surrealist lineage (preferably Artaud and Breton). Yup, Jod really is that pompous, but he’s also a clown, and an angel, so we will forgive him his extravagances, even though he clearly does not forgive us. In 2013’s The Dance of Reality, Jodorowsky sought to make a demon of his ideologically Stalinist father, whilst simultaneously seeking to build a bridge of understanding between them. In his peculiarly perverse way, which is neither truly insightful or shocking, Jodorowsky chose to cast his eldest son Brontis, in the role of his own father Jaime. Endless Poetry makes things a truly family affair, by casting Alejandro’s younger son Adan as a twentysomething incarnation of his father in early 1950s Chile, on the eve of Carlos Ibáñez del Campo’s re-election as Chilean President.

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A key scene in the film was clearly meant to be this one in which Alejandro and his poet friend Enrique Lihn decide to walk across Santiago in a straight line, regardless of obstacle. It ended up feeling like a good idea that hadn’t been thought through on film.

 

The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry are, in effect, Jodorowsky’s cinematic version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), replete with escape into cosmopolitan exile at the close. The first film trod a fine line between Alejandro’s youthful and passionate desire for rebellion and the aggressively enforced, and wholly reductive, ideological worldview of his father. It was a film about giving shape to the conflict that gave birth to the artist, and made that conflict a crudely oedipal sex game between father and son for the attention of Pamela Flores’ Sara, Alejandro’s mother. With Endless Poetry, Alejandro has now struck out on his own, moving away from the family home, and entering the bohemian milieu of Santiago’s poets, painters, musicians and philosophers. The conflict between father and son is now writ large as a conflict between Alejandro’s creative individualism and Chilean society’s embrace of warring political ideologies. The egocentrism of the artist refuses to concede any ground to the potential politics of the creative act, making the film a laboured attempt to paint the creative life as removed from any sense of societal politics. Alejandro is already seeing himself as belonging beyond Chile, as part of the international poetic landscape of Breton, rather than the provincial nationalism of Neruda.

Working with the exceptionally gifted Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle, rather than Patrice Leconte’s regular DOP Jean-Marie Dreujou (who lensed the first instalment), it should be expected that Jodorowsky’s much heralded ‘visionary’ aesthetic would come to the fore in a way that it never quite did in The Dance of the Reality. Yet aside from an initially engaging opening section in which, in a piece of genuinely Brechtian theatre, Jodorowsky reveals the poetic artifice of this autobiography, by pulling up a series of black and white theatrical flats to take us back to an older Santiago (or is it still Iquique?), there is little beyond the trite, mundane and sentimentally excessive. The latter was an increasing problem in Jodorowsky’s work up until 1990, often drowning out and undermining the more radical elements of his films. Whereas genre grounded much of Jodorowsky’s early film excesses, in Endless Poetry the director seems to be most fascinated with the ridiculous bathos effect created by his deployment of a TV soap aesthetic, particularly in those moments of dramatic exposition that punctuate his surrealist whimsy. The banality of this image making is undoubtedly supposed to make the surrealist flights of fancy more evocative and seductive, but to these eyes it merely creates an unceasing flow of garishly coloured tableaux that amount to a depressing evocation of Alejandro’s expanding consciousness as a creative artist. Frequently the director gives us a dully realised visual metaphor and then further diminishes any power that it may have had by drawing attention to the construction of the visual metaphor (witness the family dinner party in which Alejandro seeks to chop down the family tree, yawn).

 

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The incredible Pamela Flores as Stella Diaz Varin. I sincerely hope this is not the last time I get to see this actress on screen.

 

The one light amidst the monotony is the voluptuous excessiveness of Pamela Flores, who plays both Alejandro’s mother and later his first lover, the Chilean poet Stella Diaz Varin (he just cannot resist tired provocations like this). If there was any reason to justify Jodorowsky’s return to filmmaking the gift of Flores is surely it. The Dance of Reality showed her to be a bold performer and I am still haunted by that film’s night-time sequence (a moment of old Jodorowsky) in which she chases her son around the house, whilst naked and coated in black paint. Donning a scarlet wig and rainbow paints, Flores plays Diaz Varin as a force of nature dominatrix, brawling, beer-swilling and waspishly belittling anyone who has the temerity to bore her. Compared with the sentimental rendering of Enrique Lihn, as played by the irritatingly impish first-time performer Leandro Taub, Flores breathes something approaching an independent life into Jod’s caricature of his contemporary.

The repetitious return to sites from the first film point to more than just the budgetary constraints of a crowdsourced film production (lest we forget Michel Seydoux’s key role in developing both films). These are the markers of a moviemaking imagination whose poetic vocabulary has long ago been exhausted. Dancers, dwarves, body artists, faceless masses, broken piers, circus rings, political demonstrations, cafes, these are all elements that echo through both films, but not in any way that suggests even an associative control of their iconography. I am very much with J. Hoberman’s assessment of Jodorowsky, in his seminal film text Midnight Movies (1983), as closely resembling Dali in his “literal-minded, self-parodic and commercial” image-making. There is always a sense with Jodorowsky that behind the symbol there is nothing more than a caption description of that symbol. The true laziness of this late-period work is in the way it coolly rehashes earlier works, looking to make a grand gesture toward art as life, life as art, and sounding as hollow and empty as that suggests. Long before this Endless Poetry had reached an end, I was longing for less.         

 

Rating: 5.5/10

 

Ten of the Year 2016: A Quiet Passion

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A Quiet Passion

Dir: Terence Davies

Starr: Cynthia Nixon (Emily Dickinson), Jennifer Ehle (Vinnie Dickinson), Catherine Bailey (Vryling Buffam), Keith Carradine (Edward Dickinson), Duncan Duff (Austin Dickinson)

UK / Belgium, 125mins

A few years ago I had the good fortune to interview Terence Davies in London whilst he was working on the post-production elements of his Sunset Song (2015) adaptation. That film was his second feature in the space of four years, which hinted at a return to the productivity of the 1990s, before the funding problems of the new millennium. During the interview Davies claimed that he still had three more projects that he wished to realise, time and money allowing. One of them was a biopic of the great American poet Emily Dickinson, a literary figure that academic studies, led by the likes of Harold Bloom, have somehow converted into a romanticised and idealised secular saint of suffering and repression. Less than a year after Sunset Song Davies has realised that project, and Davies being Davies he cannot resist giving Dickinson’s life a tragic arc, yet her final pain-wracked years of insularity are not his main concern. In A Quiet Passion he appears to have set himself the task of locating all the vibrancy and vital spark in a woman carving out a niche for herself in the forbiddingly patriarchal spaces of a puritanically-minded and rapidly industrialising late-19th century United States. This is not the remote, detached and seemingly apolitical figure of literary legend, but rather a determined and self-determining passion artist.

 

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Of central importance to the film is the sororal relationship between Emily and Vinnie.

 

The film does not stray far beyond Davies’ preference for interior space, being almost entirely shot in studio spaces at AED studios in Belgium, with key sequences and external shots utilising Dickinson’s actual home at Amherst. Yet where it differs from Davies’ previous work is in the sheer radiance with which Dickinson’s home is lit. This is generally a bright and airy domestic space, that makes the disarmingly erotic night time interludes seem even more effective in their suffocating combination of curiosity and dread. One of the few scenes that does occur outside the confines of the Dickinson home and grounds is the one with which the film opens. This is a brilliantly compressed and compacted condemnation of organised religion’s desire for dominance – again the kind of thing that Davies’ has frequently excelled at in the past. As a stern headmistress of a convent school attempts to break the young Emily’s (played by Emma Bell) wilfulness by isolating her from her more pliant and conforming peers, we clearly see the tyranny of a society structured around personal repression and the expectation of female servitude. It is as pugnacious a political statement as Werner Herzog’s brutally straight-forward boot heel opening to his adaptation of Woyzeck (1979), and reminds the audience that Davies initially made his mark with the searing sledgehammer imagery of his early Trilogy (1976-1983).

 

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The opening sequence is a masterfully compressed piece of pugnacious politicking, reminiscent of Davies’ work in his Trilogy.

 

This is Davies’ third film that takes the US as its location after the literary adaptations of The Neon Bible (1995) and The House of Mirth (2000). Whereas, both of those films were shaped, to a large degree, upon their literary source texts, this is Davies’ first venture Stateside with a script entirely of his own devising. This appears to liberate the director as A Quiet Passion works as a biopic through the certainty with which it goes about imagining a living, breathing and impassioned Dickinson, quite rightly paying scant attention to her documented life.

Cynthia Nixon unexpectedly dazzles as the adult Emily, at once waspish, principled, venomous and ethereal. Nixon’s comic abilities have never really been in doubt, and the caustic and witty repartee she shares with Catherine Bailey’s Vryling Buffam, are some of the funniest exchanges of any film this year. Yet the way in which Nixon subtly inhabits the physical pain of Dickinson’s later years, and the complexity that she brings to Dickinson’s relationships with her father (another well-rounded patriarchal turn from Keith Carradine) and sister Vinnie (a piquant performance from the wonderful Jennifer Ehle), makes one wonder why she has never really been entrusted with a dramatic lead role before. The latter sororal relationship is central to Davies’ humanising of Dickinson. Vinnie is both confidante and grounding force in Emily’s life, and Davies frequently frames the sisters in neatly composed two-shots that convey a sly personal language of knowing looks and secret gestures.

Sparing use of Dickinson’s poetry exemplifies Davies’ absolute control of his material. Where other directors would have found it difficult to resist the temptation of letting the poetry blandly narrate, Davies’ always finds a way to relate these poetic inserts to dramatic action, so that they become outpourings of Dickinson’s passion, an interior within an interior. This is never more effective than in the film’s most overt moments of eroticism. There are two sequences within the film in which Dickinson imagines her domestic sphere invaded by a shadowy male figure, who opens a door within the house that illuminates the darkness, and appears to create a doubling of perspective, as the camera apprehends the male figure in motion, before seeming to assume this male figures’ perspective, which ultimately reveals itself as Dickinson’s gaze. This is comparable to Jim Jarmusch’ use of reflective surfaces within another poet film from 2016, Paterson. It encapsulates the poetic process as one which involves the conversion of ‘reality’ into ‘poetry’ through the experience and poetic imagination of the poet/perceiver.

 

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Davies and his DOP Florian Hoffmeister make much of the extremities of light and dark throughout the film.

 

After the profound disappointment that I experienced with Sunset Song, an adaptation that I had, perhaps, far too much invested in, A Quiet Passion came as a welcome return to form from a filmmaker I have a great deal of affection for. Strikingly Davies’ worked once more with his DOP from The Deep Blue Sea (2011), Florian Hoffmeister, but to very different effect. The muted and musty imagery of that post-WWII melodrama, gives way to an intense concern with the extremities of light and dark, day and night in A Quiet Passion. The sharp clarity of sun-drenched drawing rooms, are matched by the obscuring shadows of night’s blackness. There is an interesting ancillary dichotomy at work in this visual patterning, with the revealing light of day proving all too chastening to Dickinson, bringing with it an initial sense of domestic propriety that the poet feels oppressively. The deep, enfolding darkness of night, punctuated by the occasional flare – or glowing orb – of lamp and candlelight, is a private, and by poetic extension, liberating space in which Dickinson can locate those things that elude her daytime existence. This Emily is both imaginatively revealed and deliberately obscured in Davies’ lithe comic drama, that casts darkness into light and then asks its audience ‘what do you see’?