Saturday, March 14, 2009

Three Films By Martin Arnold

Martin Arnold's Pièce touchée (1989), Passage à l'acte (1993) and Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy (1998) have been grouped together as a trilogy, although I don't know whether it was Arnold's plan to make a trilogy all along (like Kryzstof Kieslowski's "Three Colours" trilogy [1993-94]) or if the films were packaged as such later on (like Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "BRD" trilogy [1979-82]). Considering that the films were made over a period of ten years, it's also likely the idea of a trilogy occurred to Arnold sometime after the making of Pièce touchée but before the completion of Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy--but then, I don't know for a fact that it was Arnold's idea to assemble the films as a trilogy in the first place. (My source on this is Jonathan Rosenbaum's review of Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy in the Chicago Reader, in which he writes that films "are described" as a trilogy without specifying by whom.)

All three films appropriate found footage from black-and-white movies made in Hollywood between the 1930s and 1960s. And in each film, Arnold uses an optical printer to replay the same action over and over, slow it down or play it back and forth. However, I'm less struck by the similarities between the films than the huge evolution from the nearly non-narrative Pièce touchée (the most severe of Arnold's films in its manipulation of the source footage) to the frankly Oedipal Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy, in which Arnold applies his techniques both more sparingly and more expressively than before.

In Pièce touchée, the footage Arnold begins with is practically irrelevant: a single shot from a forgotten 1950s film noir. It begins in an apartment with a woman sitting in a chair and reading. For a long time (at least, in terms of film viewing), the image is completely static. Arnold has replaced the original audio with a mechanical droning that remains constant throughout the film. Eventually, a man opens a door directly behind the woman, and Arnold plays this movement back and forth, as if the man can't decide whether he's coming or going. Then he walks over to where the woman is sitting, and by playing the action back and forth, Arnold turns this motion into a kind of spastic dance. The woman stands up, and she and the man begin walking to the other side of the apartment, the camera tracking with them. In addition to playing the action back and forth, Arnold splices in shots of the same action flipped horizontally and vertically. The editing in places is so rapid, it looks as though two mirror images have been superimposed over one another. What matters isn't what the footage shows (which is fairly banal) but how Arnold manipulates his raw material.

Although Passage à l'acte appropriates a longer stretch of film (an entire scene rather than a single shot), and the footage is taken from a film that's easily recognizable (Robert Mulligan's To Kill a Mockingbird [1962], which is ripe for taking apart), I don't think that the content of the source footage is any more important in this film than in Pièce touchée. For one thing, the chosen scene is fairly inconsequential in terms of plot. It begins with a boy racing out the kitchen door after finishing breakfast and being called back in by his father, who tells him to wait for his sister. Although a black maid is visible in the background of one shot, and the children's mother never says anything, I don't think one could reach any conclusions about the film's representation of minorities and women or the nuclear family that aren't already on the surface of Mulligan's film.

In contrast with Pièce touchée, here Arnold includes the original audio, and his manipulation of it is more striking than what he does with the images. When the boy runs through the screen door, Arnold replays it several times so it sounds like a series of gun shots. In alternating close-ups, the boy tells his sister to "Hurry up," and she replies, "I'm plannin' to." (In a third shot, the father raises his head from his meal to look off-screen right, presumably at the boy, and the mother raises a teacup to her mouth while looking off-screen left, presumably at the girl.) Arnold stutters the footage, showing a little less of the boy's command and a little more of the girl's response each time. And the resulting squawking and squealing makes this for me the funniest of the three films.

Although Arnold seems to have been attracted to the "Andy Hardy" films of the 1930s and 1940s as a source of footage because of their banality, the content of the images used in Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy is of far more importance than in the previous two films. Significantly, it's Arnold's only film that references the source in the title. And it's even possible to summarize a plot. However, not having seen any of the "Andy Hardy" movies, I can't say whether the film's Oedipal drama was latent in the source material or if Arnold invented it, nor do I know if all the footage comes from a single film or if it's a composite of several.

The film begins and ends with a kiss. In the first scene, Andy Hardy (Mickey Rooney) is standing behind his mother in a kitchen and kisses her on the back of the neck. Arnold plays the image back and forth several times so that the look of anguish on the mother's face registers more fully. Jarringly, Arnold cuts from this tender, borderline incestuous scene to one of Andy being slapped by his father and told to, "Shut up"--a transition that recalls Terence Davies' Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), a film about an abusive father. A close-up of Andy touching his cheek is made creepy by the presence of a ghostly Judy Garland in the background. Arnold uses Garland's spectral presence as a kind of pivot point to cut to her in a brightly lit dressing room, singing a plaintive song about loneliness that gives the film its title. In the next scene, Andy is dressed in a tuxedo and his mother asks him where he's going. Andy replies coyly as he walks out the door, "You know where I'm going." Arnold cuts rapidly between the mother's horrified expression in an isolated close-up and Garland's surprise at seeing Andy in a tuxedo. "Andy, you look beautiful!" she exclaims. The film ends with Andy and Garland kissing and then laughing nervously about it. Arnold plays their laughter back and forth, extending their mutual embarrassment. Where Arnold's techniques in his earlier films made the people in his films seem inhuman, here he uses the same techniques to emphasize strong emotions. In other words, the difference between Pièce touchée and Passage à l'acte and this film is the difference between livening up banal footage through avant-garde techniques and using those same techniques to unearth troubling feelings in a seemingly innocuous movie.

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