Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Arthouse: Northfork

I like arthouse films. I like them on principle. It is necessary to like them because unless some of us do they don't get made, and cinema can be much more than variations on the seven main plots added to whatever the zeitgeist, the state of technology and the current star system permit. I like them slow, I like them enigmatic, I like them a bit dotty. I don't mind them being portentous, I don't mind them being a little up themselves, as people say. It is fascinating to see what the visual imagination can do over a stretch given a bit of equipment, a bit of money and a lot of devotion. It doesn't mean I can't walk out of them as I did out of Derek Jarman's The Tempest many years ago. I just thought, I love this play, the one by Shakespeare, and there is only so much self-referential crap I can take at a sitting, and, come to that, there must be more comfortable places to sit. (Granted, I might have been wrong about both the film and there being more comfortable places to sit.)

And there is Tarkovsky and Béla Tarr and Jim Jarmusch...

So, yes, in principle, I am all for them. It is a civic duty - though I do sometimes lapse in practice.

A Christmas present from H & R, we watched Northfork a couple of nights ago with a certain gawky fascination. Rather than try to describe events in it I want to take a commenter from IMBd, one machineart, who sums it up like this:

"Northfork" tells the story of a '50s era small town in the middle of nowhere that is two days shy of being inundated and submerged thanks to the U.S. government's desire to make a reservoir on the place where the town stands. It's a wry parable about loss and remembrance, featuring angels, dreams, premonitions, and the most hilarious government reclamation functionaries since "Repo Man."

Adumbrated by another commenter, psychdiva1, who says:

Whether you wish to view the more fanciful scenes as literal or the product of a dying boy's imagination, one strong theme connects all the stories. Change happens. Each sub-story revolves around a profound change. The little boy is dying. The town is being evacuated. The movie illustrates how we get dragged along by changes we are powerless to stop. We should ideally make the best of them and accept whatever heartache they cause. Some look forward towards a new freedom (the little boy) and some obstinately refuse to accept them (the ark family). And Walter has to learn the lesson that there are some changes we think are over and done with that must be relived (reburying his wife). Just because we think we've buried a chapter in life under the ground doesn't make it so. This is shown so clearly by the conversations between Walter and his son Willis.

So now you have the scenario and you know about the dying little boy, and the repo men, who are really angels, as you can tell by the little white feather in each one's hatband, and the ghosts who are more or less everyone else, and Daryl Hannah who plays a ghost character called Flower Hercules who hangs around with a sinister English ghost called Cup of Tea who keeps offering everyone cups of tea, a melancholy juvenile cowboy called Cod, and a blind-as-a-bat-yet equipped with a range of fold-out spectacles character (see picture above) who can tell by very close examination whether a set of angel wings are really angel wings. His name is Happy and at one point his arms seems to fall off. Ah, well..

But I haven't yet told you about the man with two wives who lives in an ark, or that brief moment of sex in a deserted house (they are all deserted houses) and about the woman with a strange driftwood face, straight out of David Lynch, via Nosferatu, who serves the repo men soup in a deserted empty eaterie. And there is a strange creature, like a neckless giraffe made out of an old broken laundry rack and a lot of old pyjamas that teeters here and there for about five minutes without amounting to much then finally keels over. David Lynch's man, Kyle MacLachlan, gets a little less screen time than the pyjama-giraffe, but you also get Nick Nolte as Father Harlan who prays a lot for the boy and may actually be alive, or at some stage between life and death, though I wouldn't put much firm money either way.

As for the narrative (why havent I mentioned the narrative?) it consists of the repo men trying to get all the remaining ghost folk out of the valley before it's turned into a reservoir. And the little dead boy, who is dead.

When I put it like that you will see that Northfork does not lack for variety and invention, and why it is everything an arthouse film can be (see list above). The black and white photography is insistent and edgy, sometimes comically yet statuesquely beautiful, the acting is generally fifties-deadpan, the pace - it does have pace of a sort - is quirky, slow and properly dreamlike, because, I suppose, a heavily symbolic yet enigmatic, elegiac dream is what it is supposed to be. The dream is of death and vanishing and lingering human presence.

People have compared it to Jarmusch's Dead Man(which is marvellous) and Wenders's Wings of Desire, which is also rather splendid. In fact both Dead Man and Wings of Desire - two films about ghosts and angels, haunted places and dream journeys - are considerably grander than Northfork. But Northfork is not bad. I wouldn't unwish Northfork . I'm glad it's there. I might even watch it again just to see what the giraffe was up to.

Oh, and Daryl Hannah wears a wig. There is no suspense about this, it is clear from the start.


Mark Granier said...

'Art house' films are, as I understand it, those which are, at least initially, outside the commercial mainstream. This would include many films I love, including the remarkable 'Hidden' (or 'Caché'), which is one of the best films I have seen in quite some time. Weirdly enough, the same director, Michael Haneke, is responsible for the misbegotten, sadistic 'Funny Games' (which he actually remade in English!).

'Hidden' became something of a cult movie, as did 'Wings of Desire'. I loved Wenders' 'Paris, Texas', but I went to see 'Wings' with my cousin and we both walked out somewhere near halfway. As far as I recall, we both found it much too self-consciously stylised and dreary (even the children playing in the streets seemed weighed down with angst). Not that any film actually needs to be (god forbid) 'upbeat'; a film can and should be as downbeat as it needs or wishes to be, but 'Wings' tried my patience in a way that films by (say) Bergman never have. There was only so much I could take of earnestly philosophical, seriously Teutonic angels in trench coats. That said, I haven't seen it in about 15 years, so maybe I'll try it again one of these days. Tarkovsky's 'Stalker' is another film that bored me to tears (a far cry from 'Andrei Rublev'), as did
Lars von Trier's 'Dogville'; 'Antichrist' is one I probably won't be sampling.

George S said...

I don't know 'Hidden' Mark. I seldom find myself at a cinema nowadays, though, in my desired alternative life as a flâneur, I would spend a lot of time there.

I don't mind films trying my patience, it's just that my patience is not guaranteed. The first time I saw Wings of Desire, I found it puffed up, over mystical and generally drenched in self-conscious gloomy lyricism. The second time was better. The melancholy of the trench-coated Teutonic angels seemed less mawky, more justified.

Try Béla Tarr's The Werckmeister Harmonies. Distinctly arthouse (or art house) and easier on the seat than his Satantango, that runs to about seven and a half hours.

But even when such films don't work, when they are bombastic or dull or childish or mad, I'm glad they're still there buzzing away in people's heads, gathering earnest commenters in cramped bedsits.

Oh, and Paris, Texas is a brilliant film. I've seen it about three times and my opinion of it hasn't changed.

Stephen Foster said...

I love Paris, Texas too, and I don't think it has nothing to do with Natasha Kinski. It's quite conventional though, isn't it, in narrative terms? (Is it a quest narrative?) And also falls into the 'alternative' or 'independent' catagory rather than 'arthouse?'

I've never been able to sit through Wings of Desire, not if there's a cnahhel switch button to hand.

I used to like Eric Rhommer's improvised movies, when I was a jeune flanneur. Nothing ever happened, which suited my stoned mind.

Stephen Foster said...

'...Channel switch...'

: ) I put one of those in every sentence I ever write.

George S said...

Well, yes, Natasha Kinski. The thing is you don't in fact see a lot of her in the film, and maybe it is only as the lost object of remembered desire we want to see her, and remember her afterwards...

'The lost object of remembered desire' - now there's a fine phrase. Someone ought to coin that.

Meanwhile, Natasha Kinski... where was I?

Foster, your spelling is atrocious! You will come round to dinner soon.

Mark Granier said...

Speaking of seven hour (plus) movies, I once sat through Hans-Jurgen Syberberg's 'Our Hitler', when I was living in San Francisco for awhile in 1982. A 'collage' film, it 'straddles the line between fiction and documentary'. We did consider leaving during the halfway break, but went back (perhaps because we had nowhere better to go). Parts of it were interesting, particularly a longish interview with (and/or) voiceover by one of Hitler's servants (I think, maybe from the Wolf's Lair). Then there is Warhol's 'Empire State', which seems much more of an idea than a film; like the silent piano (and similar kinds of avant set pieces), it can probably be best appreciated in absentia.

George S said...

I like the idea of appreciating in absentia, as if to say, 'He wasn't here. He loved it.'

But then there is - I hesitate to extend the list - Abel Gance's Napoleon that I have never seen right the way through at a sitting but which was shown on TV in a few episodes, in the late 70s, I think. Five and a half hours in one available version, and dizzyingly beautiful. Watching it in parts was bliss.

It was Kevin Brownlow who restored the film, Gance was still alive (just) and when shown in its restored version, 6,000 people packed the hall.

Apparently the film was supposed to be even longer. Heading on towards nine hours, I read somewhere.

Stephen Foster said...

I once saw Ronaldo and Clara, Bob Dylan's self-directed narrative film of the Rolling Thunder tour, It was showing at the Film Thatre Stone-on-Trent when I was eighteen. It's just under four hours, and staying in the cinema remains the most avant garde gesture of my life.

I remember cycling home in the dark afterwards, without lights, which had, of course, been nicked during the four hours, thinking what an utter utter Philistine population the rest of Stoke-on-Trent was compared to me.

Stephen Foster said...

Should be a full stop after tour, and Thatre is Theatre : )

Avant garde possible has a hyphen.