Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on September 13, 2011
Two sixty-something masters of their domain have new work showing in the U.S. John Landis, a dean of the low farting arts, has his morbid comedy Burke and Hare playing cable-on-demand services and a limited theatrical run. Harun Farocki, of the high brow-furrowing arts, has a new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art entitled Images of War: At a Distance. Landis has been tagged with artistic decline, something Hollywood directors have to deal with as soon as they sprout their first grey hair (Burke is his first narrative feature since 1998, was financed and made in the U.K., and released there in Oct. 2010). This kind of ageism doesn’t appear in the gallery world, where Farocki is now being embraced after decades as an experimental video artist. The MoMA exhibition is running his most recent work on a loop, Serious Games I-IV (2009-2010), but also providing nearby monitors that are showing nearly all of his previous videos (which they acquired for their library). As artists, they are similar mainly in their dissimilarity, but both have a deep and playful sense of film history.
Burke and Hare tells the frequently adapted tale of the two eponymous Williams, who murdered 17 people in Edinburgh during 1827-1828, and sold the corpses to an anatomy lecturer. It is a production of Ealing Studios, that venerable institution of British comedy (famous for Alec Guinness’ multiple personality marvels like Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)). Landis takes full advantage of the studio’s connections by hiring some of the great British stage and screen actors to fill out his cast. The leads are semi-familiar faces Simon Pegg (Burke), Andy Serkis (in the flesh this time as Hare) and Isla Fisher (Ginny Hawkins), but small roles are enlivened by Ronnie Corbett (from BBC’s long-running sketch show “The Two Ronnies“), stand-up comic Bill Bailey, Stephen Merchant, Tim Curry and Christopher Lee.
These casting decisions are not marketing filler, for each of these faces fills a particularly exaggerated space in Landis’ palette of caricatures. Serkis purses his lips to bring out the frogginess of his features, with the battered top hat adding to the impression of a dissolute Mr. Toad from Wind in the Willows. His Hare is the insatiable id of the duo, pushing them onward to more profitable indignities while remaining dutifully horny towards his equally greedy wife (Jessica Hynes). Burke is the apparently sympathetic one, Pegg’s kindly weasel features reluctantly acceding to Hare’s plans, as it’ll give him the cash he needs to wrangle Ginny, who wants to put on an all-female version of Macbeth. Isla Fisher is the most conventionally attractive, but her disconcertingly manic energy, and bizarre artistic ambition, place her with the freaks.
The supporting actors all provide comic accents to this unfortunate quartet. Corbett plays Captain McLintoch, of the Edinburgh militia, who is in charge of wrangling the local body snatchers. At 5′ 1″ and 80 years old, he waddles in front of his young recruits like an asthmatic Napoleon. His face squeezes into helmet and uniform reluctantly, jolly rolls of wrinkles unwillingly curling down his neck. Corbett is delightfully game, berating his charges with drill sergeant anger, and eager to flash his superiors a disarmingly adorable grin. He plays it straight and walks away with the movie. Then there is Tim Curry’s tortoise-headed scientist, Stephen Merchant’s stork-like dope, and the blustering Christopher Lee, who is no animal but simply himself, which is enough.
Landis lovingly arranges his menagerie into cleanly executed frames of clean executions (Bill Baily plays the sarcastic hangman and narrator). The jokes move swiftly, and the actors maintain a jittery pace that injects life into the material even when it sags. It’s the best comedy I’ve seen this year.
Harun Farocki’s videos aren’t funny, per se, but they are certainly playful. The centerpiece of the MoMA exhibition is Serious Games I-IV (2009-2010), which focuses on the military’s use of video games, but I immediately latched onto a few other video works. The first is On the Construction of Griffith’s Films (2006). This simple but brilliant short (2min. 30 sec.) splits D.W. Griffith’s use of shot-countershots into two screens, so you can see the eyeline matches line up next to each other. It begins with an example of a one-shot scene from The Lonedale Operator (1911), where “a door connects two shots, or separates them.” Then five years later Farocki broke down the varying camera angles and setups that Griffith innovated in Intolerance (1916), where there was “an exchange of glances, instead of words.” With close-ups and shot-countershots, actors could convey emotion without the use of inter-titles. Doorways still connect shots now, but the space has become elastic. Farocki shows a scene between Mae Marsh and Robert Harron, and a repeated sequence of shot-countershot. Farocki writes how cinema creates “structures of its own making, parallel worlds.” As you watch Marsh and Harron glance at each other in their little boxes, it’s possible to see Farocki’s fascination with two-channel video pieces, giving him the ability to have his parallel worlds communicate simultaneously, instead of the cuts made necessary in single-screen narrative cinema.
He brought this two-screen conversation to the fore in Counter-Music (2004), his version of a city symphony, set in Lille, France. This densely allusive piece uses Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera and Walter Ruttman’s Berlin, Symphony of a City as comparison points against a modern metropolis. Instead of footage shot on the street, he re-purposes footage from a sleep study lab, security cameras, heat maps and CG modelings of car and train traffic. These are images made without a cameraman, capturing the daily life of the city without the intervention of an artist. It is, Farocki contends, something Ruttman and Vertov dreamed about.
One of the early connections Farocki makes is inspired by test footage pushing forward inside a sewer pipe, checking for the integrity of welds. In a deadpan voice-over, he he has “recollections of a film with Raquel Welch”, of the ship flying through a human body in Fantastic Voyage. To him, this shot of the sewage pipe shows, “man as a world, the city as a body”. These systems and constructions are extensions of human thought, and therefore our body. But what kind of body have we created?
This multiplicity of images would have stunned Vertov and Ruttman, but not the sterility of their content. In one evocative passage Farocki runs a clip of some of Vertov’s textile workers on the left channel, working balletically around a giant machine, while on the right channel a single modern office worker sits silently in front of a glimmering screen. The man and his world have been overtaken by his body. Another comparison: between circling traffic and loitering teens. As industry jobs decline, Farocki opines, we circulate to instead of sitting about, and whoever doesn’t move makes themselves suspicious. Sitting still is a kind of revolutionary act. Near the end, a boy in a sleep study, covered in sensors and wires, struggles awake and waves to the camera, happy to be conscious.
These are wildly divergent artists, but both draw from their obsessive cinephilia to fuel their art. Landis mines the history of British comedy to sculpt the physical comedy of his cast of grotesques, while Farocki uses Intolerance (and Fantastic Voyage) to define his approach to cinema and to the cities that we inhabit. Go see both, and ignore their brows.
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