January 2014, arsenal cinema

Magical History Tour — Bodies in Film


Since cinema began, part of the fascination of the moving image has stemmed from the way in which the bodies of the people acting on the screen are represented: it’s no coincidence that the first ever film footage shows contented workers, men exercising or boisterous children. It wasn't long until Méliès extended these short documentary scenes by adding cinematic (corporeal) experiments of a fantastical or dramatic nature: images of elegant dancers that disappear as if by magic, images of headless skeletons on the prowl or heads that inflate like balloons and explode. With these two poles as a starting point, the staging of bodies (and body parts) in film went on to become a fundamental means of cinematic expression whose diverse manifestations have had a substantial effect on how we think about human physiology. This month's Magical History Tour presents notable images of the body from 80 years of film history, showing the special physical presence exuded by bodies of longing, objects of projection, foreign or collective bodies, the re-animated and corporeal hybrids.

PERSONA(Ingmar Bergman, Sweden 1966, 1. & 11.1.) Actress Elisabeth and her nurse Alma have withdrawn to a remote island so that Elizabeth's emotionally triggered loss of speech can be treated with the necessary care and relaxation. Isolated from the outside world, a relationship of mutual dependence develops between the two of them that leads to their identities becoming fused. Shots of faces and bodies that mirror mental states culminate in their two faces being visually combined.  

IN EINEM JAHR MIT 13 MONDEN(In a Year with 13 Moons, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany 1978, 3. & 7.1.) RWF's film is often regarded as one of his most personal melodramas, depicting a body as the scarred battlefield of life. The film tells the story of transsexual Elwira/Erwin, who has a sex change from man to woman in Casablanca following a dark childhood spent in a monastery and an equally unhappy adulthood spent working as a butcher. 19 scenes or rather 19 states of suffering form the last five days in the life of the protagonist, 19 fragments of unhappiness and misfortune, rejection and crisis all inscribed onto an increasingly damaged body.

RAGING BULL(USA 1980, 4. & 14.1.) Life is a battle and the body is an instrument for fighting: Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) stays doggedly true to this credo both inside and outside the ring, thus falling into a self-destructive tailspin that takes him from being an aggressive young boxer to becoming a has-been entertainer who loses his wife, brother and eventually his boxing matches too. Based on the autobiography of a middleweight boxer, Scorsese has his psychological portrait unfold in harsh black and white, with the protagonist's physicality being illuminated by De Niro in a dramatic acting tour de force.

FREAKS(Tod Browning, USA 1932, 5. & 8.1.) Midgets, Siamese twins, living torsos – Browning’s horror melodrama centers on a group of physically impaired people who have the odds stacked against them, exhibited as fairground attractions and exploited and betrayed by their "normal" circus colleagues. Audiences of the time were scandalized at how frankly these “Freaks” physical infirmities, everyday lives, and longing for love and passion were portrayed; shortly after the premiere, the film was censored for 30 years.

DER GOLEM, WIE ER IN DIE WELT KAM (Paul Wegener, Carl Boese, Germany 1920, 10. & 15.1., with a live piano accompaniment by Eunice Martins) Wegener's film adaptation of the old Jewish legend about a humanoid being made of clay was one of the most successful films of the 1910s and 1920s. His portrayal of its space-consuming, heavy form and restrained energy, slow gestures and mask-like facial expressions is related to Expressionism and gothic fiction in both representation and construction, coming across today as an early vision of the now commonplace human machine. 

BEAU TRAVAIL(Claire Denis, France 1999, 12. & 18.1.) Beautiful work – the title of this drama surrounding a legionary without any sense of home refers to the leitmotif of the recurring images of work the foreign legionaries carry out on their bodies, completing their physical training like an elegant drill – lonely foreign bodies in the African desert landscape, trapped in their own lives.

GOSHOGAOKA(Sharon Lockhart, USA 1997, 20. & 25.1.) Six shots each ten minutes in length show a Japanese female basketball team running through different training sequences and units. A precise study of the harmony of the voices and physical movements of these young women, a veritable choreography that moves according to its own rhythms and laws. A structuralist (de-)construction of physical movement in which the calm uniformity of the action appear to bring matters to a standstill as the individual athletes are subsumed into a collective whole. 

A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE (John Cassavetes, USA 1974, 21. & 28.1.) Gena Rowlands is the titular woman under the influence, channeling stabs of neuroticism, pent up aggression and suffocating maternal care in an acting tour de force of jarring physicality. She laughs and cries and trembles and screams, with a sense of burgeoning insanity determining each of her movements. Her nervous tempestuousness doesn't just rub off on her surroundings in the film but also on the audience too, who leave the auditorium two and a half hours later as "spectators under the influence". 

42ND STREET (Lloyd Bacon, USA 1933, 23. & 24.1.) A host of dancers and a 90-man orchestra form part of the minimal production design of choreographer Busby Berkeley, whose work revolutionized the US musicals of the 30s. This is also the case in 42ND STREET, which centers upon a vamp, a choleric director and a young dancer. Yet the true star of the film is Berkeley's corps de ballet: a homogenous "body" that only exists in the spectacularly ornamental dance formations.

HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR (Alain Resnais, France/Japan 1959, 29. & 31.1.) Two bodies intertwined in the dark – Resnais contrasts the famous blaze of images of intimacy at the start of the film with glittering visual sequences of Hiroshima, taking in images of damaged bodies and missing people. These documents of the catastrophic effects of the atomic bomb thus appear to become inscribed onto the bodies of the lovers, retrospectively subjecting them to the destruction of the past. Resnais uses a series of mosaic-like flashbacks to structure this reflection upon memory (and forgetting), which weaves together the love story between a French woman and a Japanese man in Hiroshima, extracts from their respective life stories following the end of the war, and documentary footage of the destroyed city. (mg)