Friday, January 08, 2010

le rayon bleu de Deneuve

Xmas is over and I'm now in the Blu-ray group. It's cool and all but, man! All that detail and clarity scares me motionless. Two minutes into it and I'm really missing the blur that used to cover all the tiny beads of sweat under actors' stage makeup. Luckily there's Criterion, who manage to make Blu-ray look just better enough to be worthwhile, but not so sharp as to cut the nose off a snoopy detective. Shall we all not be punished for seeing too much? Well, not all the time: REPULSION (1965) looks heavenlier than ever, not that I've seen it in any form before except on my auld streaky pan-and-scan VHS wherein it came on after UNDER THE VOLCANO but before CARNIVAL OF SOULS

Hell was, ash yew know, Hugh, my natural habitat... 'til now.

REPULSION's eerie but glacial frisson makes it actually ideal for being the first film to watch on Blu-ray: we see just enough ugliness outside the flat to make us cling to Deneuve's soothingly blank visage all the more. The "too much detail" problem is sidestepped via her stunning countenance. The way Blu-ray sharpens her features into a realm of "too much sight" is usually reserved only for the insane -- the sight of particles and energy actually changing in the face second-by-second. Her face, hair, and expression oscillate into her sister Francois, Cybil Shepherd and/or Gwyneth Paltrow at times; other times it seems like she's trying not to laugh as she walks down the street, hiding how amused she is by Polanski's camera, and we realize that---for some of us--beautiful girls in particular-- the camera never shuts off. 24/7 they're watched by a million slavering, arrogant or competitive eyes, all longing to be toasted in her flaming wicker head... or singed on the edge of a straight razor. As Saul put it in THE OLD DARK HOUSE, "Flames... are really knives... and it's cold, flame is!"

(the camera is a hallucination)
Such madness is, I'm afraid, generally the result of too much clarity rather than too little. As REPULSION's side cast makes clear, the ones who get along in this crazy social order are half-asleep savage brutes, the Stanley Kowalskis of the world.  A younger, quieter, more homicidal version of Blanche Dubois, Deneuve's heroine by contrast suffers at the (unintentionally brusque) hands of her sister's arrogant, cheeky lover, a balding bullethead (you can practically smell his stifling aftershave from down the lift) who can't imagine why little sister wouldn't find him adorable; he presumes she must be dumb and daft just because she's sensitive, vacant and almost Zen-like in her stillness. She should be in a nunnery, only she'd have to cover up that dynamite hair... and that would be a crime even Jesus could not abide.

Sometimes I wonder if all this clarity is revealing stuff even Polanski didn't see when picking out shots. In the Criterion commentary track, he seems almost indignant that critics and fans could find themes and subtexts he didn't put there (it's funny how often that reaction springs up in auteurs - you'd think they'd have been to enough shrinks to know better). He sure doesn't seem to miss much, though, and this is the kind of film that craftsmanship was made for since it's the accumulation of small details that reflect a decaying latent schizophrenic mind: The gradual shading of light and darkness and the way the world keeps turning outside your door even as you stay locked up in your house, afraid to go out because of the weird breathing you coming from your drain. If it's too pronounced and over-produced you sense the trickery and think someone's working a gaslight. On the other hand, if it's totally unnoticeable you think maybe they really are out to get her. One tentacle of Polanski's genius is that even when the script decides which is which, he doesn't. Naturally we can come away with all sorts of in depth readings as to what actually is there. When the only one who hears it can't trust their own ears, did that falling tree really make a sound?

Take it from anyone whose ever been confined to their flat in the middle of a sprawling, car alarm and siren-ridden rush hour midtown work week while recovering from drug binges or emotional trauma, for days on end without human contact, not even daring to move from a sitting or lying position, watching the sun come and go, the hustle and bustle of commuters like a syrup-paced Koyaanisqatsi, the slowly cohering spiderweb in the corner contains your only companion, every little shadow twists into a million almost-things--REPULSION is 'true'. Now on Blu it makes sense that Deneuve's so hypnotized by wall cracks in the film; now we can see deep inside them ourselves (in ways we couldn't on video)... like the barrier between the viewer and the image has been damaged, and any minute we might reach into one of the cracks and pull Deneuve's hair, or be pulled in ourselves... no wonder she's so crazy! Just be glad her razor's not in 3-D... not yet, and that--beautiful or not--she's safely on the other side of the screen.

It's an alarming trend that imagination has grown so undernourished while being paid so much lip service by Hollywood - the ability to do anything with CGI has led to a kind of pixelated torpor. I'm happy that geeks are gettin' rich and powerful, but every new format and digital breakthrough leads us further from the ability of our own personal imaginations to fill in blind spots, to see details where none actually are. Imagining a hook dangling off a car door during a round of ghost stories around thefire is a hundred times more vivid (and scary) than the inhuman precision of CGI in a movie version. The more detail we actually see, the less we imagine and thus the less scared we are, as Val Lewton well knew. Like so much corporate red tape, digital image "clarity" results less in capturing the transformative beauty and power of our dreams than the reverse, reducing even the wildest alien vistas to ones and zeros, ever-so-slightly pixelated and airless, "more human than human."

It'll keep getting worse until one day we'll look in the mirror and have one of those meta-mecha Cyberdine/Rydell Corporation moments (realizing all our memories are not our own) and, when that happens, we can only hope Polanski will still be there, slicing our noses and rubbing his lens in our lifeless doll eyes until we're blocked, shocked and pleasantly clockworked, like Deneuve in the arms of her painted-white rapist walls, waiting for the cool of night and the absolving obsidian dark into which we can, at last, see nothing.


  1. Weirdly, I've been getting nostalgic for video lately. I saw What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? on DVD for the first time and missed the murky quality of the video. I think it's because my video store has all these out of print movies on VHS for a dollar rental fee. I guess I wouldn't mind seeing Senso on blu-ray but for now I'm enjoying the nostalgia trip...

  2. The clarity on HDTV really scares me. Beyond theatrical movies on Blu-ray. The digital stuff shot for TV. Actresses who used to look so magazine centerfold hot now appear close to human and a little funky. I was scoping out one actress and started to see the sag lines jiggling beneath her upper arms. You don't see that shit on a regular TV set.

    You don't even see that shit in real life unless you're right on top of them.

    On my cable's HD on demand they have a promo with scenes of Amy Adams, who's this young woman, but in HD you see all the make-up that's been pasted onto her face. She looks like Bette Davis in BABY JANE.

    Like someone once said, I don't want my movies to look like reality, I want them to look like movies.

  3. Ricky, you took the words right out of my mouth regarding Bette Davis. She'd probably be the first to admit blu ray would have killed her career if it was out in the 1940s - 1970s. Imagine the pain of that great scene in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane when Davis is prancing around and forgets she's not a kid, then sees her reflection in the mirror morph like Dr. Hyde into her real old self.... they should crank the blue ray high def right there and you'd have a swell meta momen... or at least I would, damn how did I get all old?

    And Anonymous, you bring up Baby Jane as well? We're all on the same page!

    "All I know is, I watch Bette in some of these DVDs, like Now Voyager, and I long for the blurriness of VHS. As our world moves more and more to high definition and blu-ray, that eye of the beholder is going to see some things better left obscured by Blanche's paper lantern, that's all I'm saying, with all the format changes. Even the most airbrushed and metallic of goddesses won't catch any fanboys if they can see "that" much. You know what I mean, bro? Do I got to underline it in highlighter marker? Darkness makes everyone equally attractive. It's key! The high-def future will mean the end of sex for all but the supermodels. The rest of us will punch our way through days so gray and isolated they make Gilliam's Brazil look like Christmas with Bing Crosby. No matter how lovely you think you are, we'll be able to see into your pores from the back row." (BLFJ 5/09)


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