Saturday, July 27, 2013

Five Phenomenological Films

In a sense the whole of philosophy...consists in
restoring a power to signify, a birth of meaning, or a
wild meaning, an expression of experience by
experience, which in particular clarifies the special
domain of language. And in a sense...language is
everything, since it is the voice of no one, since it is
the voice of the things, the waves, and the forests. 

                                                                   ~ Maurice Merleau-Ponty 

Phenomenology is a philosophical movement that arose in the early 20th century, concerned with the study of subjective experience and consciousness. By critiquing films objectively through a phenomenological lens, we can better understand what it's like for certain characters to exist. I believe there are three things you can do with a film.

1. You can view it. All you have to do is have your eyes open and face the screen on which the film is being projected. You don't have to be interested. You could be thinking about what's for dinner that night for all I care. You just have to look at what's happening on the screen. 

2. You can watch it. The majority of films are watched. You pay attention to what's happening. You either love or hate the characters. If someone asks you about that film one week later, you can recall particular details.

3. You can feel it. These are the special films that I'll be addressing in this post. Some films are made with the specific purpose of eliciting a reaction from you. The director may want you to feel nauseous. You may feel like fainting. You may feel cold and isolated. You may even want to empty your bowels. 

Without further ado, here are five phenomenological films that will make you feel like you're standing within them alongside the characters. And just a word of WARNING: This post contains spoilers. 

1. Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008) 

Hunger is one of the best films from the past decade, but it is not for the squeamish. The film takes a brutal, uncompromising look at the 1981 Irish hunger strike, with a focus on Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), who was elected as a Member of Parliament during the strike. The film is often acclaimed for an unbroken 17-minute shot wherein Sands discusses the validity of the strike with a priest, but what I'll remember most is how repulsed I was by the squalid scenes of everyday life in Maze Prison. We see Republican prisoners cooped up in their cells, immune to their grotesque surroundings. The hunger strike was preceded by the "dirty protests", whereby prisoners refused to wash and smeared their excrement all over the cell walls. I had to imagine the brown stuff on the walls was chocolate to avoid puking. In one scene, a prison guard wearing protective gear and a face mask blasts fecal matter off a wall using a pressure washer. I could almost sense the putrid smell of breakfasts-gone-by wafting into my nostrils. In a similar scene, one guard mops a urine-filled corridor.

This scene lasts almost four minutes, yet an act of tedium is somehow made utterly fascinating. The symmetry of the shot creates an enveloping effect, trapping the guard in this cold, miserable setting. The sound is also very important. Not only does it heighten the level of disgust, but the consistent rhythm of the mop strokes lulls us into a trance-like state. The scenes of prison violence are quite harrowing and difficult to watch. They are uncomfortably visceral, and you forget that you are watching actors at work.

You feel like a passive bystander, unable to intervene in any way. There is very little audible dialogue, and the scenes are characterised by the clatter of batons on shields and panicked screams. Quite frankly, it feels like an invasion of personal space. You can only imagine what it feels like to be manhandled by aggressive guards who use the same pair of latex gloves to probe every prisoner's anus and mouth. Actually, no, I can't even imagine it. Another disturbing aspect of the film is following the deterioration of Bobby Sands' body. Fassbender lost 14 kilos for the role, and it's quite unnerving to look at him towards the end of the film. 

The human body is not made to starve, and there's something frightening about a man who abstains from indulging in what keeps him alive. The body is thrown into a state of confusion. When Sands pokes at his very prominent ribs through his skin, you can almost feel them too. When he passes out, he collapses like an accordion. Extreme close-ups capture the pained expressions of a man fighting his human impulses.  

2. 127 Hours (Danny Boyle, 2010)

For the uninitiated, 127 Hours is based on the true story of Aron Ralston, an American canyoneer who went hiking through Utah's Blue John Canyon in 2003. While descending a slot canyon, a boulder dislodged and crushed his right hand, pinning it against the canyon wall. Ralston remained trapped for five days and seven hours. The most depressing aspect in all of this is that he was alone—not only in the sense that he was unaccompanied, but also that no one else was in earshot. This is illustrated when the camera rapidly zooms out from Ralston's (James Franco's) face into an aerial view of the canyon, presenting a vast, barren stretch of rocky land. This is one of those films where you really have to appreciate the breezy preamble because once tragedy strikes, it's pretty dour viewing. If you're claustrophobic, you may want to skip this film altogether. Unsurprisingly, numerous people fainted during screenings of the film. This was mainly due to the arm amputation scene. 

We hear bloodcurdling snaps as Ralston breaks his radius and ulna bones. It is not only the presence of sound that affects my senses, but also the lack thereof. After Aron cuts through a vital nerve in his arm, his mouth gapes open as he lets out a scream, but as an audience, we do not hear this scream. It is a scream so horrific that it cannot be known to anyone but Aron himself. To dramatise it in a motion picture would not do justice to its raw ferocityThe heavy amount of blood and overall graphic nature of the scene makes the experience more real for me. Blood circulates around our body to keep us alive. Thus, I associate it with life; with being alive. To see such a great amount of blood makes the scene come alive for me.

Before his epiphany, Aron becomes delirious and sees a mirage of himself playing with a child. His grip on reality has weakened, and phantasmagorical visions cloud his mind. There are other mirages, too, and I'm reminded of a scene from the HBO series Six Feet Under, where David Fisher reflects that he couldn't find any image to hold on to when a mugger forced him to suck on the barrel of a gun. What do you think of when your life flashes before your eyes? Is there any one thing you can truly cherish? Or is it just a scrapheap of emotional detritus? All I know is that, in 127 HoursI felt just as relieved as Aron did to see something other than the inside of a canyon, even if it was only an illusion.

3. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007)

On December 8, 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby suffered a massive stroke at the age of 43. It wasn't enough to kill him, but some would argue that it left him in a state far more agonising than death. Waking up 20 days after his stroke, Bauby found that he could not speak. In fact, the only movement he was capable of was blinking his left eyelid. He was the victim of what is known as locked-in syndrome, where the mental faculties remain, but most of the body is paralysed. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a biopic that tells the story of Bauby's quest to write his memoirs using a complex communication system. In a process called partner-assisted scanning, Bauby's speech therapist would recite the alphabet and get Bauby to blink his left eye when she reached the letter he was after.  

The early scenes in the film are shot from the point of view of Bauby, waking up from his coma. The camera shifts in and out of focus as we get an idea of what sight must have been like for Bauby, editor of French fashion magazine ELLE. Vague impressions crystallise and then blur again. It's excellent filmmaking. We hear him speak, but these are just the voices in his head. Of course, these stylistic choices made me feel 'locked-in' myself, and it's why I so strongly identified with Bauby throughout the whole film. The following scene is especially well-executed, as Bauby's right eye is sewn up. You almost feel the stitches penetrating your skin, and the eventual darkness has a crushing finality to it. 

As the film progresses, we are no longer trapped in Bauby's body. We see him from an outsider's perspective, and we see him against picturesque scenes of nature. This not only humanises him, but also contrasts greatly with the scenes where our field of vision is restricted to what Bauby sees. Bauby seems so small compared to his surroundings, and it's a reminder that nature outlives us all. Just as you don't know when a debilitating stroke is around the corner, you don't know what nature can offer up. It is so beautiful, but it can be incredibly cruel with no warning. That is why watching this film is such a sensory experience. There are times where it makes you feel huge, but in the next moment you feel so small.

4. The Seventh Continent (Michael Haneke, 1989)

Almost every Haneke film could lend itself to phenomenological analysis. There are few directors who could rival his ability to make an audience uncomfortable. I love films that lead me down a smooth path before pouring gravel all over it. The Seventh Continent is based on the true story of a middle-class Austrian family that committed suicide. The family consists of a couple—Georg and Anna—and their young daughter, Eva. The film is divided into three parts. The first two parts follow the family in their daily routines. There is so much distance between this family that the film could serve as an advertisement for the merits of marriage counselling. In one scene, Eva feigns blindness at school just so she can receive attention—something that's severely lacking at home. Haneke uses close-ups to excise the family from the real world. They exist in a bubble, and the use of long takes highlights the tedium of life in a materialistic middle-class suburbia. When Anna breaks down in tears going through a car wash, this is the final straw for the family. 

Note the importance of silence in this scene. It says more than words ever could. The family is somewhere where no one else can hear them. It's an ideal place for a private conversation, yet the best that is managed is an emotional breakdown. The last part of the film contains some of the most harrowing images I have ever seen in a film. After finishing a meal, the family decides to destroy all of the possessions in their home. 

These scenes are done with hardly any speaking. The destruction is aggressive, calculated and frightening. It amazes me how we have become desensitised to seeing dramatised murders, yet the destruction of property is so worrisome. We get a variety of sounds in this scene, including ripping, clanging, sawing and smashing. The result is auditory overload, and it makes everything very scary. When Georg breaks the family's fish tank, Eva is distraught, and why wouldn't she be? There is something extremely disquieting about seeing a fish flailing out of water. I think the most disturbing thing is seeing the fish struggle for life, endangered by a man who has lost all the will to keep his own one going. There is a cruelty here that few can rival.  

5. La Grande Bouffe (Marco Ferreri, 1973)

La Grande Bouffe is a repulsive film about the dangers of excess, and it may be the only film that has ever made me physically sick. In a decade that brought us films such as I Spit on Your Grave and Salò, this may be the sickest of them all. It's by no means the scariest or most depraved, but it's right up there in terms of its ability to elicit disgust. The premise for this film sounds like something concocted by a group of teenage boys during a tree house meeting, right after they tried trapping their farts in a jar. Here's the plot: A group of men hire some prostitutes and head to a countryside villa where they strive to eat themselves to death and indulge in gratuitous sex. You may think that food and sex are fantastic, or that the premise sounds like a Utopian ideal—"We all have to go some day, and what better way to end it all?" But I'm telling you that there's nothing titillating about the sex, and there's nothing satisfying about watching others pig out. It's hard to find relevant clips from this film, let alone ones with English subtitles. Here's the trailer to give you a general idea of what you're getting into.

Notice the contrast between the warm colours used for interior scenes and the icy colours used outdoors. You either feel too intimate or too distant in relation to what's happening, never finding that pleasant balance of familiarity. In one scene, a character goes to the toilet to empty his bowels and causes the sanitary pipes to explode. As a result, the mansion is flooded with fecal matter. One man finds this hysterically funny, and I'm reminded of Gene Kelly savouring the downpour in Singin' in the Rain. The scene triggered my olfactory system, and I began to imagine how vile it would smell in there. 

As I mentioned earlier, this is possibly the only film I've seen that's caused me to feel sick. No, I did not throw up, but I felt as though I needed to. I felt a distinctive ache in my stomach. I had a headache. You could say I was almost nauseous. I've seen people get shot and stabbed countless times in movies. I've also seen all the Final Destination films. Basically, I've seen a vast array of movie deaths. Nothing will compare to seeing someone gorge on food until their body simply gives up. I do not like this film, but I commend it for making me feel terrible. 

I hope you enjoyed reading this list. Something I noticed: four out of the five films are based on true stories. Perhaps knowing certain events happened to real people makes the viewing experience more visceral. 

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