Wednesday, January 25, 2006

40. No Gazing Game

I suppose Hitchcock's comment about movies being a machine for manufacturing emotions in the audience--or whatever it was he said--is so blasted ubiquitous that I shouldn't be able to write about anything else. And I suppose, then, that all I should write about is the effect of editing; because isn't that the real machine here, more than the poor camera, which becomes a mere ocula rasa (right or wrong, how much fun is it to make up Latin expressions?) that is given shape only by the moviola? Maybe I should.

In the meantime there's Stupeur et tremblements (Fear and Trembling) (2003), which manages to manufacture emotions the old-fashioned way: by pulling us along an episodic progression of scenes as fraught with violent swings as any bipolarized teen, sunny and outgoing one minute, scarily sullen the next. It charts the experiences of a young Belgian woman during her one-year contract as an interpreter for a huge Japanese corporation. She narrates the film, and appears in virtually every shot, often in full-face close-up. The film does not want us to draw our own conclusions, but to consume hers, whole and complete. We are the clean slate on which the movie writes.

Of course, the mechanisms of editing--sound as well as image--play a key role here. The DV immediacy, the discursive/ironic music, the dreamy bounce of the camera as it swings us out the window to fly with Amelie (Sylvie Testud) in her fantasy escapes over Tokyo's New-York-Meets-Vegas skyline; this and more conspire to draw us into Amelie's perspective to more intimately share her disintegration. At the same time, her self-deprecating narration undercuts the absurdist menace of Japanese corporate culture and turns it into--well, a movie: At one point, Amelie identifies with David Bowie's Mr. Lawrence from Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), seeing herself as the buried-to-the-neck prisoner of war--and of love, as she contemplates the seamless (and oh boy, inscrutable; this movie plays with stereotypes as though it were a game of pinball--or is that Pachinko?) beauty of her superior, Fubuki-san (Kaori Tsuji), who conspires with everyone else to observe protocol, and in the process reduce Amelie to near-catatonic subservience. Like the doorman in Murnau's Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh) (1924), Amelie descends to the position of lavatory assistant, where she continues to serve, and submit.

What really drew me, though, were not the visual/aural elements, but the mere sequence of the scenes, an inexorable catalogue of scary--and hilarious--mishaps, punishments, victories (her stint as "calendar-turner" has a Chaplinesque air; it is the start of her decline, but she doesn't know it; and we share with her the fleeting exhilaration of her celebrity in the office, as she flips over everyone's desk calendars with an endearing exuberance worthy of the Little Tramp)--and eventual defeat. I couldn't wait for the next scene to begin, and didn't want the one I was watching to end. The triumph of plot is not to be ignored--although I sometimes try, in my urge to gaze at a film; I was watching the Seinfeld episode with the 3-D hidden picture subplot, and thought of the hypnotism of the film image: did I need to unfocus, or, as Mr. Pitt exclaimed, "deep focus"? Well, with Fear and Trembling I think I had the chance to rest my eyes so that I could have the cozy pleasure of reading a good movie.

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