Michel Chion and Eyes Wide Shut

Eyes Wide Shut by Michel Chion
Film and film criticism have been a huge part of my life, I’ve been watching films intensely since I was five years old, starting with Robin Hood swashbucklers. I started reading the film criticism of Roger Ebert and Jonathan Rosenbaum in my teens and listening to Elvis Mitchell’s radio podcast The Treatment on KCRW, which celebrates twenty years on the air this year. These days at the age of 26 I read Michel Chion, Adrian Martin, Kent Jones and Mark Cousins. Some of my favourite films include Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Nichols, 1966), Bad Timing (Roeg, 1980), L’humanitè (Dumont, 1999) and Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick, 1999). A special mention to Kent Jones who writes for Film Comment and is the director of the New York Film Festival. His book Physical Evidence is great, especially in my memory is his piece on the Argentine director Lucrecia Martel, whose films I’ve yet to see.

L'audio vision by Michel Chion

Since the late 1980s The British Film Institute (now Palgrave Macmillan on their behalf) have published monographs each on an individual film in a series entitled BFI Modern Classics, they’ve since renamed it BFI Film Classics. They are truly great books, one of them is Eyes Wide Shut (2002) by Michel Chion, it is my favourite book. Mr. Chion was born in Creil, France in 1947, he is a composer of musique concrete, an author on music since the 1970s and an author on film since the 1980s. Chion has been making experimental films since the 1970s such as Le grand nettoyage (Chion, 1975), Eponine ou Le fer à repasser (Chion, 1984) and La Messe de la Terre (Chion, 1996).

His specialism is in film sound, he taught the relationship between image, sound and speech at the University of Paris III Sorbonne Nouvelle from 1990 to 2012. His book L’audio-vision: Son et image du cinema (1991) is seen as one of the definitive studies of sound and image. His writing style is so passionate, articulate, clear and alive. I’ve recently read his great monograph on David Lynch which was the perfect companion as I was revisiting Lynch’s work. Chion’s book on Eyes Wide Shut is divided into 34 passages, each titled after dialogue from the film, which explore his ideas and interpretations in ways which are wonderfully non-linear. Such as the reception of other French critics, one of whom remarked that Tom Cruise’s character living in West Side Manhattan would never drink Budweiser from the can!! Also on the music in the film and how a character repeats what the other character has just said which Chion calls ‘parroting’. Chion says that two areas of frustration upon first seeing the film were Nicole Kidman’s lack of screen time and the orgy sequence which he found boring. He states that Fellini’s Casanova (Fellini, 1976) is a prime example of sex in cinema and that he can accept (as I can after repeated viewings) that Kidman’s screen time is no longer, it is Tom Cruise’s film.

Bad Timing

I will state that Eyes Wide Shut is my favourite film and Michel Chion is my favourite film critic. Bad Timing is very close my close to my heart too, nothing in cinema beats that opening sequence, Theresa Russell’s face on the bridge is the beginning and end of cinema. A prophetic definition of what the medium is, which of course will never end. But of course that scene in particular has Pachelbel’s Canon in D playing on the soundtrack, one of the first films to use it. Bad Timing ultimately ties with Eyes Wide Shut. Michel Chion’s favourite film is Blade Runner (Scott, 1982), Chion states that it is the most beautiful film in the history of cinema.

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A scene in Eyes Wide Shut that always sticks in my memory is of Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) on his first visit to the Rainbow Fashions costume shop. Cruise ‘s gestures in that scene are wonderful; anxious and very awkward. The gestures of Milich (Rade Serbedzija) are hilarious; hands raised, head sharply turning and finger pointing. The whole film is centred on Bill’s encounters with various people which becomes a night’s journey into day as he returns to the places he has been. It is also of note that Bill gets a taxi from the Sonata Cafe to Rainbow Fashions, which are actually just across the road from each other! Cruise’s performance is his best, much less showy that some of his other roles like Magnolia (P.T. Anderson, 1999). The awkwardness of Bill, a man who defines himself by being doctor with loads of money, his encounters provide him with twists of fate which are constantly interrupted.

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Many times while I was on my way home late at night I could not help feeling like Bill Harford walking the dreamlike streets of New York. Chion states that “The right way to work on a film – to avoid too closed an interpretation – seems to me to be to watch it several times with no precise intentions… As in a police enquiry, one should not set up any hierarchies or look in any particular direction. One should not banish emotions and projections, but rather bring them to light, formulate and be aware of them, let them float.”

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Chion continues “A film is a system, not of meanings, but of signifiers. We must go in search of these signifiers … and we can do this only by means of a non-intentional method; for in cinema, that art that fixes rhythms, substances, forms, figures and all kinds of other things onto a single support, the signifier can sit anywhere.” (2002:37-38)

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Nicolas Roeg

Nic and Theresa

Nic Roeg films have taken us to London, the Australian Outback, Venice, New Mexico, Vienna, Vancouver and back to London. He co-directed his first film Performance (Roeg and Cammell, 1970) with Donald Cammell in his hometown of London, Roeg lives not far from Turner’s house in Notting Hill. He turns 87 this August and from what I’ve seen he is full life and humour. He began as an assistant cameraman in the early 1950s, becoming a cinematographer in the 1960s, working with the likes of David Lean and Francois Truffaut. I’ve been reading John Izod’s Jungian study of Roeg, The Films of Nicolas Roeg: Myth and Mind (1992), I find half of it difficult to grasp but the other half is fascinating. Roeg also wrote a book, a memoir of sorts, The World is Ever Changing. It is a joy of ideas and wealth of experience, structured like one of his films. Credit must given to the wonderful screenwriters such as Paul Mayersberg who wrote The Man Fell to Earth (Roeg, 1976) and Eureka (Roeg, 1983) and Allan Scott who wrote Don’t Look Now (Roeg, 1973), (with Chris Bryant) Castaway (Roeg, 1986) The Witches (Roeg, 1990), Cold Heaven (Roeg, 1991), Two Deaths (Roeg, 1995) and Samson and Delilah (Roeg, 1996). All of which are literary adaptations. Dennis Potter who adapted his television play Schmoedipus (Davis, 1974)  into Track 29 (Roeg, 1988). Roeg and Potter were a partnership made in heaven, each are interested in human discourse and themes of alienation and time. Bad Timing (Roeg, 1980) was Yale Udoff’s first screenplay, further themes of alienation and time, Theresa Russell’s character writes “I wish you could understand less and love me more. I wish you would not defining”.

Performance was the beginning of Roegian editing, time going forward and back. The final image of the car driving away into the distance with voodo music is enigmatic, one of the great endings of all-time. Then again so many of Nic Roeg’s endings are great. John Barry’s score of Walkabout (Roeg, 1971) might be his best, poignant and soulful. Walkabout’s script was 14 pages long, it is about tone, mood and the breathtaking cinematography by Roeg himself. The ending of Walkabout moved me deeply when I first saw it, A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad took me beyond the end credits. I was lost like Jenny Agutter was. Don’t Look Now is Roeg’s best known film, it about a couple who lose their child, then go to Venice so that Donald Sutherland can restore a church. Pino Donaggio’s score is first solemn then starling. The film knows fear only too well.

In New Mexico a world away from Venice, David Bowie is The Man Who Fell to Earth, it is the beautifully simple story of an alien who comes down to earth looking for water to save his planet, he becomes an alcoholic. Roeg’s narrative structure is unique and ahead of its time. He wrote a sign for audiences going in to the see film, saying ‘go in with an open mind, it won’t connect up like you might expect it to’. Bowie’s thin figure and Anthony Richmond’s spacious cinematography give the film its own world.

I spent an afternoon in Vienna with a friend searching for the apartment of Theresa Russell from my favourite Roeg film Bad Timing it was sadly demolished for a shopping centre still in early stages. Re-watching Bad Timing recently cemented in my brain its soul, uniqueness and the touch of that Roegian juxtaposed editing. In one scene in a POV shot Art Garfunkel looks as a nurse speaks to him, she stares at us, whilst Harvey Keitel appears in the foreground, he winks at Garfunkel. Everything about it is Nic Roegian; uncomfortable, bizarre and stupendous. Garfunkel and Keitel both wear black suits, Roeg juxaposes the two with a picture, Garfunkel puts it up on his wall and Keitel takes it down. Roeg and ex-wife Theresa Russell made seven films together. She told Nic that he has such bad timing with the producers, that’s where the title came from. Russell starred as Gene Hackman’s daughter in Roeg’s next film Eureka, a film that after seeing it a few times I still struggle to piece it together. There is a wonderful courtroom scene in which Russell states to her husband Rutger Hauer “You tripped and you stumbled and I picked you up”. I’ve gone back to that scene many times, I think it’s Russell’s finest moment.

Insignificance (Roeg, 1985) with Russell as Marilyn Monroe is interesting, but it loses me in its ideas. Oliver Reed is a great actor but Castaway isn’t one of Roeg’s films to revisit. Roeg contributed a segment for Aria (Roeg et al, 1987), a fictional account of the attempted assassination of King Zog I of Albania to the music of Giuseppe Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. Russell plays the king. In the opening scene she appears as an actress overlooking Vienna once again. Track 29 may be Roeg’s last great film. It stars Russell once again, in relationship with an older man (common in her film roles) Christopher Lloyd. Gary Oldman at his maniac best may be Russell’s son. Even though Russell is exactly one year and one day older than Oldman, the film is strong enough to edge away from it. Russell’s friend Colleen Camp looks and dresses like Russell. Russell is trapped in a generic lifestyle, her husband struggles to communicate with women, he fears them. In the opening scene Oldman flickers onto the screen on a bridge which is reminiscent of The Man Who Fell to Earth, Oldman even has Bowie’s red hair style. John Lennon’s song Mother blares on the soundtrack, perfectly emphasising Oldman’s rage. This is a fitting contrast to Russell smiling before driving away to escape the madness at the end of the film.

The Witches was the first Nic Roeg film that I saw, I was too young to know much about cinema then. Having just re-watched it it such a bizarre film, it veers towards Ken Russell’s The Devils (Russell, 1971) especially when the hotel is in chaos after an unexpected mass of mice. Some of the witches are clearly men in drag, Roeg’s sense of humour no doubt. Allan Scott gives Rowan Atkinson some fine comic moments. Roald Dahl hated the film’s ending of a recently turned white witch played by Jane Horrocks turning Luke back into a boy. In the book he stays a mouse. There is scene in the hotel where Anjelica Huston sees a child in a painting, she smiles and taps the image with her finger. Horrocks approaches the painting, before she can touch it Huston calls her away. I’ve seeing this film so many times, I never realised that this is a sign of Horrocks’ goodness by attempting to release the child. After the Horrocks walks away, there is a close-up of the painting, the child disappears.

The poster of Cold Heaven has Theresa Russell looking knowing and ever beautiful dressed in black. The film isn’t one of Roeg’s best efforts though Russell is endearing. Her brief voice-over strikes a cord in my memory. Roeg and Russell’s final collaboration together was an erotic short drama Hotel Paradise (Roeg, 1995). I have only seen six of the film’s thirty minutes, it still has Roeg’s touch of fluid camera placement. Roeg’s most recent film is the Northern Ireland set supernatural mystery thriller Puffball (Roeg, 2007) starring Kelly Reilly, Miranda Richardson, Rita Tushingham and a cameo from Donald Sutherland. I struggled with its plot and devious characters. Nic Roeg really was ahead of his time, the most alive of any filmmaker I know. Roeg has said after Puffball that maybe the last film he ever makes will have a happy ending, he had one in The Witches but I’ll go with Track 29’s blissful hysteria, Theresa Russell was made for cinema.

Note:

I’ve yet to see Glastonbury Fayre (Roeg and Neal, 1972), Sweet Bird of Youth (Roeg, 1989), The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles episode, Paris, October 1916 (Roeg, 1993), Heart of Darkness (Roeg, 1993), the rest of Hotel Paradise (1995), Two Deaths (1995), Full Body Massage (Roeg, 1995), Samson and Delilah (1996) and The Sound of Claudia Schiffer (Roeg, 2000).