Catharsis Ray Tube
I’d been wanting to see Rouzbeh Rashidi's feature length experimental movie Closure of Catharsis for a while now for two reasons... One, I had mixed but positive reactions to some (though not all) of the director’s shorts and I find his work compelling... almost raw, where the artifice of film allows for that. Secondly, it stars one of my Twitterati v-friends James Devereaux... an actor who has made me re-appreciate, precisely because of his blog and his presence on Twitter, the art of acting as an important part of the filming process. I’d kinda grown into the habit of seeing actors as merely cardboard cyphers who would say their lines and do their best not to knock over the scenery and hit their marks. Sloppy thinking on my part... convenient, but sloppy. Devereaux has made me remember that it’s the actors that you look at first on screen and that their performance is what often allows the film to breath and turn a fair to middling piece of entertainment into a film with some really great or memorable moments.
Now I knew before I even started watching this movie (on my laptop, the film is not available through any of the usual distribution routes) that this may well be a tough one to negotiate and get my head around, if the director’s shorts were anything to go by. Actually it wasn’t that hard a watch but, at the same time, I don’t think we’ll ever be seeing stuff like this in a cinema anytime soon... but I’ll get back to that later.
99% of this film consists of one of a few tight shots of Devereaux, who is sitting on a park bench, improvising and talking to the camera... his head in tight close up, framed by two craggy trees with branches reaching towards his head and threatening to grab him if the illusion of perspective fails. Devereaux then engages the audience for the majority of the next hour and 40 minutes with a slow and thoughtful series of monologues, some of them connected, others less so. Objects and notes are passed to him off camera to inspire or provoke his mental process and his outward projection of this is fascinating to watch (actually, the director is another star of this movie, turning up in the background several times and also as a reflection in a train carriage window... Devereaux even references him a few times). But there’s also a sense of tension within the movie which only gets little moments of relief and... this is why...
Pardon me while I go into a little riff on Arthur Penn’s best remembered movie here... if you’ve heard me saying this stuff before, skip the next couple of paragraphs.
Rouzbeh Rashidi's Closure of Catharsis is a movie which reminded me a lot of Bonnie and Clyde... and I bet if I said that to Rashidi he’d be really surprised and have no idea of what I’m talking about... but there’s a definite connection with the technique that both Arthur Penn and Rouzbeh Rashidi have taken to create (and in Penn’s movie, “release”) tension... they both do it in the same way.
To briefly explain... Bonnie and Clyde is a film which starts off with the entire first ten minutes or so in either tight shots or medium shots of the two characters... without any kind of traditional establishing shot which allows the audience to gain a “scene setting”, I-know-where-I-am-and-what’s-happening sense of comfort from the action. This is pretty much why the “establishing shot” was invented in the first place... or at least, if it wasn’t, then it’s become firmly entrenched in our collective way of decoding a film that it’s generally needed to help set up in our minds just where we are with the beginning of a sequence of moving image. The long shot is a much needed crutch with which we can get a little lift up into the world of the movie... without it we’re struggling. Now Penn knows this and so he keeps the tension going until Bonnie and Clyde commit their first robbery and then he hits us with his first long shot... thus the audience receives tension release and with that collective audience sigh of alleviation, even though we’re watching two felons commit a crime, we come to sympathise with them because the syntax of the shot flow allows us some sense of relief which we now come to associate with Bonnie and Clyde committing crimes. Kind of a Pavlovian way of working but isn't that what cinema does best?
Rashidi does the same thing with his movie but you never, ever, get the act of tension release within the frame. The shots, and these are done in very long takes, when they cut... just keep on getting tighter (and sometimes blurrier, this guy wants you to feel challenged and uncomfortable and reacting to his movie) and tighter until the movie finishes... without the closure promised by its title. There are respites of other footage edited in and I’ll get into that in a moment but it’s almost like Rashidi is feeling the audience is getting used to the intensity of the shot... and then he moves in closer again. I don’t know if that last thing is a deliberate act but... something’s going on there and my guess is he wants that unrelenting closeness to the main character to ratchet up every now and again.
Now about those little vignettes that Rashidi keeps inserting... the first one appears after half an hour and is a group of drunks at a bus stop... this is easy to decode since Devereaux has just mentioned that the park is full of alcoholics. As we go on, other footage of a young man and a couple of “parents” (two sets) are introduced and what Rashidi makes use of now is the “space” or “understanding” of conventional cinema narrative to create meaning from footage as applied to a very unconventional movie...
And so, by way of demonstration of just what I’m talking about... I’m going to evoke Pleasantville (a movie which you should all check out if you can just get past the first twenty minutes which gives it the appearance of being just another Hollywoodland teen comedy). By way of demonstration, I’m going to show how the director of Pleasantville is able to play with our narrative assumptions to best explain how Rashidi uses those same narrative assumptions to help shape his movie in your brain... and then make it harder for us.
Pleasantville opens up with a series of close up shots of two characters, a boy and a girl, talking to each other. First the camera focuses on the boy as he says something. Then the camera focuses on the girl as she continues the conversation. Then the camera goes back to the boy and so on... then the director pulls the rug from under us and shows a long shot where it’s clear that the girl is actually talking to her group of friends and the boy is just rehearsing what he’d like to say to the girl... from quite some distance away. This “joke” wouldn’t work without the audience assuming that, because we’re seeing two characters individually talking and pointing towards different directions, these two characters are having a conversation. It’s deeply ingrained from when we first watch movies and we subconsciously pick up on the visual language of cinema... we can’t help it. There’s a space in our head which decodes those kinds of sequences of shots and arranges them like that in our mind’s eye and this is continually maintained and spoon fed to us in this way on a daily basis in all forms of visual media. Advertising, for example, absolutely relies on the quick understanding of what is going on... a thirty second spot is a thirty second spot. Time is money. They need to sell us on the idea of their problems quick... nobody’s going to be rocking the boat too much when it comes to our rich inheritance of the language of visual narrative.
And this is what Rashidi does when he inserts footage which really wouldn’t seem like it has anything to do with the narrative. He relies, at first, on the audience building up the idea that we are seeing visual representations of this character’s memories of his youth and also the visual representation of his parents when Devereaux starts telling stories like the hierarchy of his childhood household being symbolised by... no television, black and white television and then colour television... before drifting into some quite heart-rending ponderings with which he creates a tension which comes close to the catharsis of the title but... then concludes with the understanding that the lack of conclusion can be the necessary ingredient of a better conclusion later on (much later on... after the movie has finished!).
Rashidi doesn’t however, probably out of sheer bloody mindedness that he’s not going to give the audience such an easy time (I suspect), make all of those “flashbacks” so easy to decode. There are things going on which are left entirely with the onus on the viewer to make some kind of connection to the inserted footage with the ever tightening close ups on Devereaux’s character... which kind of reaches “Blur-gio Leone” proportions towards the end. :-) This does generate a certain kind of Godardian concentration from the audience and I’m sure this is probably why Rashidi does it... unless he’s just re-using old shot footage and best making use of it where he can... but I prefer my first assumption because it’s more glamorous. This stuff isn’t always that easy to assimilate into the main dialectic of the, for want of a better term when it comes to this movie, “narrative”.
This is not the kind of film that could ever play at your local multiplex or get a DVD issue, and this means that the majority of people will never get the opportunity to see it and this is sad because I can’t ever imagine the pendulum swinging back to this more challenging and vital cinema anywhere in our lifetimes.
That’s not to say that this kind of movie-making is in any way unimportant or to be ignored. Truth be told, I really enjoyed the experience of watching this movie and will possibly watch it again at some point in the future. Where I think this kind of film would really prosper and flourish, I suspect, is as an installation in an art gallery setting (not that I’m admitting to such a phenomena as arthouse cinema, you understand). I could just see this movie being projected in a continuous all-day loop at somewhere like the Tate Gallery because, if you come in half way through and are not necessarily picking up on the way the shots get closer on the central character as the film progresses, I reckon it would be hard to determine where this movie starts and ends. That’s not intended as a slight to the director, I think this is a strength of the movie... I think it can stand multiple back-to-back viewings without anyone getting bored as I found the whole experience rather entertaining too.
If you can find a way to see it, check out Closure of Catharsis at some point. It’s something you don’t get to see that often.
Another of my reviews of Rashidi and his contemporaries can be found here, should you be so inclined.