Sunday 18 March 2012


Mastering Visual Ostinato

HE Ireland 2012
Directed by Rouzbeh Rashidi
Experimental Film Society

I’ve been kind of looking forward to seeing HE because it’s the second feature length collaboration between two people I follow on twitter, director Rouzbeh Rashidi and the actor James Devereaux. I know I’ve reviewed films by the prolific and mercurial Rouzbeh Rashidi before on here (as I have Devereaux’s) but I’m beginning to get more of a handle on his creative signature now, I think (not that he’d neccessarily want a creative signature).

HE has a really strong opening... especially for people of my age and maybe just a little older. A man who may or may not be Devereaux, wearing some kind of white environment suit, is exploring an abandoned and run down office corridor in long shot with film colouring somewhat reminiscent of sepia tone. There is a grating, scratching sound causing tension on the audio track and visual cycling on the picture indicates that we might be watching a surveillance recording, as the man makes his way slowly, over the course of a few minutes, to the front of the shot, armed with his torch, carefully exploring the debris he finds on the way.

It’s a really, really strong opening and most of the films I’ve seen by Rashidi so far have a knack of opening with a really arresting sequence. This one, for me, had a very obvious early to late 70s Hollywood science-fiction vibe to it. The white environment suit giving the visuals a definitive and provocative sense of the sinister and unknown. The sound design is fantastically effective and reflects this sense of unease... coupled with this one long take of a shot, it contributes to a tonal pitch of almost fear and paranoia. Was really impressed with this opening again.

This is followed with a bit of a mood changer as Devereaux delivers a monologue in black and white, intercut with initially sepia footage of him exploring the odd contents of what looks like the same abandoned building (in terms of budgetary influences, I’m guessing it’s the same place anyway). In these sequences, however, the environment suit is not present... which puts this footage in another timeframe, if you want to stick with a conventional reading of a less than conventional film maker.

The actual monologue is very starkly shot but not to the point that any excessive tonal contrast pops out at you immediately. In this sequence the acting tour-de-force that is Devereaux, details his dissatisfaction with a recent lover, Mary, with whom he's presumably broken up. Devereaux's pacing is deliberately slow, like a man trying to find the words he wants to say... and having an inkling of how Rashidi does things, this may be a very accurate description because it might even all be improvised on the spot. Even so, this is not to suggest that Devereaux is making his character up as he goes along... more that he’s already in the character (to the extent that you can be to create that illusion for an audience), and that character is exploring his words with a sense of slow precision, because they are important to him.

As Devereaux continues what is the first in a series of extremely long, one take scenes and the first of two, quite lengthy, monologues... the shot starts cutting backwards and forwards between the footage of him exploring the building. Sometimes the two bits of footage are cut to a very fast rhythm of roughly a second as shot. Setting up an almost hypnotic sense of pacing, as the fast cuts set up a new mood in your brain. Things settle down a bit then and the cuts to and from the juxtaposed footage come slower as new layers are added to what are presumably memories... which is what the human brain will pick up from the language of cinema as the correct interpretation of the same person being cut against footage of himself (whether this is a correct interpretation or not). Rashedi knows this and exploits that basic self-taught human response to his own uses... I was very much expecting him to pull the rug from under me in this sequence to be honest.

After a while, the director/editor sets up another intense sequence of similar rhythmic cutting within the same monologue. So what we now have is a secondary layer of different rhythms creating a larger, slower rhythm which is being received directly into the mind as a fast series of rhythmic cuts... when what is actually happening at a deeper, and probably subconscious level for the majority of the audience, is that a larger and more serene rhythmic response is being set up... much like the way the music of Philip Glass can play out in the ear as speedy repeat phrases when they are actually piecing together a slower melody inside your head. So what we have is a very striking and initially grating visual ostinato making up a slower piece, which owes as much to Dennis Hopper’s similar cross-cutting effects in his directorial debut Easy Rider as it does to anything else.

The quality of the intercut footage starts to get more colourful and dreamlike in some places and then knocks back down to a state of distress in others. In this second tier of footage, Devereaux continues to wander a rundown building interior, randomly exploring and interacting (passively at first) with his immediate environment on a purely physical level. After a good long while he picks up a load of big Garrick Glen bottles of still water (product placement in a Rashidi movie?) and places them on a ramshackle table he finds. This is a red herring that something pivotal is about to happen because, after undoing the tops of each one and sniffing them in turn before putting the tops back on, he knocks them off the table with a walking stick he's been carrying and carries on exploring his environment. As I write these words now and revisit the movie in my head... I suddenly realise I’ve got a very strong idea of what he is looking for, but to reveal that here would possibly spoil things a little for potential viewers.

Towards the end of this first monologue section, Devereaux’s HE reveals that he is recording his monologue to send to Mary, because he is going to kill himself. It's an audio suicide note.

We then have a scene change with a more colourful and sharper picture, as we cut to what can only be Mary herself. She is talking with someone (possibly her latest lover) in a room as they both gaze out of large windows. We cannot hear the actual conversation they are having, however.

At first Mary is occupying the same basic space to the left of the screen that Devereaux was visually filling during his monologue... so this scene cuts very naturally into this segment before quickly cutting to a long shot of Mary and the other guy in profile... Mary still occupying the left of screen so this is already not nearly as jarring as the sequence with Devereaux in it... until the intercut footage of Devereaux wandering the building continues to be intercut into this sequence, enabling a more intense rhythm mixed with a more aggressive, almost musical sound design... we are now entering the realms of pure visual poetry, ladies and gentlemen, which makes Rashidi something akin to a direct descendant, mutant love child of the cinematic poetry of Andrei Tarkovsky cross pollinated with late 50s beat generation writing (somebody needs to give this guy a big budget and see if he can handle it without losing creative impetus... come on all you slap dash producers!).

We cut to a single shot of the guy which holds for a longer time, like the first shot in this section of the female lead and, yes, he's occupying the opposite space within the frame of the shot to what she and Devereaux did. Is this sequence a mirror image of itself developed through the rhythm of the shots? Well yeah and that’s obviously the intent but it’s almost here as a visual bookend to bring us into a second monologue while still retaining continuity of the cross-cut footage, because as this shot sequence ends we cut to a new scene of Deveraux in a standard colour shot with a new monologue delivery... but intercut with more footage of Deveraux wandering the building, this time (at first) without any deterioration to the quality of the film stock... perhaps symbolic of less mental deterioration as this monologue seems a little faster and more confident... it being another recording, this time to the parents of the character.

The intercut footage grows more angry and destructive and is perhaps a visual echo of the anger that the central character feels to his parents. The content of these shots calms down for a while but the monologue drops out with aggressive audio phase shifting (or some such technique) in what seems like a key place, to deliberately restrict the viewer from being spoonfed certain information and to instead fire the potent imagination, I would imagine... before dropping back into the natural sound of the monologue. It could also, of course, be a way of cutting out material which didn’t, in the final analysis, gel with the tone of the piece... but if so it’s a valid and creative solution to that particular kind of problem and so not to be seen as an invalidation of a piece of work. I suspect half of what happens on a film set is accidental anyway (even with Hitchcock, but I’m not going to try to defend that statement here).

This monologue also becomes an aggressive diatribe against the evils of television and the lack of a role model in the character’s parents which is actually quite heartfelt and somewhat amusing (I can really identify with certain parts of this stuff and believe I’ve said similar about the evils of daytime television to various friends over the years).

We then have another break from the format after a while and various experimental techniques are applied to crosscut footage intertwining with contemplative shots of other characters. Devereaux continues his explorations and antics within the building, this time back in the environmental suit, while sound and atonal music dictates the intensity that these shots are informed by... or at least a retrofitted sense of the informed, if such a thing is possible (and of course it is in cinema).

A sequence intercut to this with the couple from earlier in bed with the guy not being in any way responsive to the world about him, even when aggressively shaken, is cut against a new and hard to digest rhythm.

This is followed by a sequence where Devereaux’s character discusses his impending suicide with a friend, which is a great sequence of two really masterful actors who seem to work pretty well together, juxtaposed against footage featuring a character played by director Maximilian Le Cain, who meets with Devereaux as he assists him by providing him with the means to take his suicide objective a step closer. Le Cain isn’t in it much but adds a little more intensity in his static performance. I once wrote of him in my blog review here that he seems like someone who would “be chasing me down a street brandishing a big board with a nail in it” but in these short scenes he seems somehow less physically aggressive... perhaps more like someone who would be “paying and organising subordinates” to be chasing me down a street brandishing a big board with a nail in it, instead. Either way he has an intensity in this that’s hard to ignore.

Devereaux and his friend explore the motivation and reasoning behind his decision to kill himself and it’s a very rational and almost calm conversation, one that perhaps contradicts the inherent struggle of Devereaux’s first monologue and naked aggression of his second. This gives a sense of depth to the character because it’s clear that he is not telling his friend everything... or at least that’s the way I interpreted it and I’m really not going to say anymore about the content of the film because I think this seemingly inherent but unhighlighted contradiction pretty much sums up Rashidi’s directorial style, which I touched upon somewhat in my review of his movie Bipedality.

That is to say...

In terms of visual aesthetic, this is very much a film which pits beautifully framed, static and crisp shots against more downgraded and less palatable textures and moving camera work. But no answers are provided and visual touchstones are deliberately (I believe) set up to create a “story space” to make up your own ways of reading and interpreting the text. Is the environment suit needed, for instance, because the building is radioactive and Devereaux’s character didn’t know and now he has cancer? Is that the reason why he’s decided to take this course and reexamine his life? Or is he a ghost from the future in a post apocalyptic time period. I don’t know and neither, do I think, am I supposed to.

Rashidi doesn’t tell stories, he sets them up and then leaves them absolutely to the audience's own struggle to provide a shape to house the visual and aural ideas prevalent in his movies. He doesn’t leave it completely without structure and, as we have seen, there is plenty of structure and rhythm within the editing of his sequences... but he does provide a rough guide to an exploration of the narrative and not the key to a fixed narrative conclusion itself. This is the strength of this director’s films and, I suspect, one of the reasons why they have interest independent of their obvious visual beauty. I won’t say more on this because I don’t want to over think this guys working method but I will say that, while some audiences for this kind of, almost challenging but certainly not passively consumed, cinematic dish may find this kind of meal less palatable than others, I would have to say that I quite enjoyed HE and think it’s an another fine example of a director who is making really unique films which unfold on the director’s own terms and which don’t cowtow to commercial pressures. Seek this one out, if you can, if you are into watching a purer (I hesitate to say rawer given the obvious craftsmanship which goes into these kinds of films) and more demanding form of cinema.

For more information on Rashidi and Devereaux, go here and then follow the links...

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