Friday, November 11, 2011

BIFF Reviews: My Persona is a Tyrannosaur

Tyrannosaur: This is the kind of film which I quite enjoy while watching it but which doesn’t tend to stick with me or demand that I write about it. It’s a well observed, superbly acted slice of lower class, kitchen sink drama. The kind of film that tugs relentlessly at your heartstrings but, despite a surfeit of anguish and hard won deliverance shot in close-up, is well enough balanced by a believable milieu and rounded characters to avoid being shamelessly manipulative. Still, one can’t help but feel that while all three stories in Tyrannosaur might be believable enough on their own they feel a little forced when taken together.

But critiquing it on the basis on veracity is a little foolish given the position I’m writing from and it’s a little unfair when it comes to Tyrannosaur. The film does have more to offer than misery and bitter-sweet redemption having as it does a couple of directly presented, but not ham-fisted, through-lines. The first is about those who are open to forgiveness being not to blame for those who take advantage of them: a defense of sorts against cynics who argue that bleeding hearts ought to just harden up and get used to life as it is rather than being infinitely generous and kind. The second is a less surprising one, arguing as it does that the context of, and the way we feel about, our actions are almost as important as our actions themselves. They’re rather nice sentiments to find in an otherwise well-crafted but familiar film.
Persona: I’ve never been this physically overwhelmed by a piece of cinema before. Granted the end of The Wrestler was an emotional pile driver, and the end of Uncle Boonmee who can Recall his Past Lives left me shaken in a way I can’t fully explain: although I think it had something to do with the contrast between the forest, so full of the past, and the stultifying urban life Weerasethakul portrayed in its extended coda. Emotional content of films aside, I once thought the effect was something I only experienced in the cinema – but even when played on my laptop the miracle in Silent Light left me gasping.

Still, all of those examples are of highly emotional pieces of cinema. As such I have a harder time explaining why I was so moved by Persona. For all the psychological torture its protagonists have experienced and do experience, it played for me as a film as close to a cinema of pure ideas as is likely in narrative film.*To some extent I think it might be the film’s style. In order to heighten the sense of trauma, and I suspect, heighten the sense of artifice, Bergman makes much of the first two thirds a rather jarring experience.  He uses any number of cinematic tools: smash cuts, at least one jump cut, harsh atonal music and occasional quick pans and tracks executed without any obvious motivation.

The film played well for me on a thematic level as well. Although I think I might have gotten more out of it if I had a firm grasp on the concepts of Id, Ego and Superego Bergman doesn’t make it hard to work out what he’s on about. Indeed he lays out the nature of the actress’, and the nurse’s, and the acturse’s (!) dilemma multiple times: How do you reconcile your public, um, persona: the things you do and say in full view of other people, with your private thoughts and dreams? How do you live with playing roles for other people, with being something other than what you feel you truly are? And what does this mean for the artist who works through yet another layer of artifice?

It’s heady stuff indeed but it didn’t really hit me until Bergman broke the fourth wall and showed his camera crew recording an image of Ullman’s face and a film reel reaching its end. In any other context it might have struck me as, ugh, sophomoric, yet coming after all the material above it felt like a hammer blow, a blow which I only fully shook off half an hour or so later. 
*Excepting, perhaps, Hiroshima, Mon Amour
PS: I'm quite aware that I haven't grappled with Persona so much as described it. Trust me when I say that after just one viewing any attempt would be totally inadequate and probably be analogous to a fish trying to wrestle a bear.

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