sunday 17 april 2011

Road to Nowhere; the ultimate magic trick by Monte Hellman!

« I am somewhere between George Lucas and Ingmar Bergman. » Monte Hellman.

Monte Hellman has always loved magicians. He confided this elsewhere to Paul Joyce in the superb documentary about him: Plunging On Alone. It is therefore not surprising to find in his latest film (a masterpiece, is it necessary to say it?) a scene from The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) by Victor Erice in which someone makes a pocket watch disappear under the gaze of an enthralled child. And crossing this director's pronounced taste for magic is the mystery of cinema, in the face of which we are all enthralled children, that takes place in plain sight. On the other hand Hellman loves that which resists meaning or interpretation, that which presents a problem (hence the taste for magic). Within a Hollywood film which is entirely fed by the rich dialectic between meaning and mystery the filmmaker leans more towards mystery, a cinema of opacity which tends to lose its spectator where Hollywood has always had a great tendency to favor big stories of sense, where everything is explained and finally back to normal. That is the single common point of the filmmaker with Lynch (Road to Nowhere clearly falls in tune with Inland Empire) so when we read everywhere that Road to Nowhere is "Lynchian" one says stop. Road to Nowhere has formally nothing to do with the style of Lynch (Thomas's friend K, who was also my happy companion during the screening of the film, holds David Lynch especially close to his soul, can speak far better than I and is welcome to leave a comment if he wishes to enlarge on this.) A goal or purpose seem to be lacking in films like The Shooting (1966), Ride in the Whirlwind (1966) or the cult Two-Lane Blacktop (1971). The Hellman films wander a lot and speak little. He likes to stretch time to make shots last longer than they should (that is his trademark) in order to intrigue the viewer: Is there some important thing to see, is there going to be something happening? As in the first very long duration shot of Road to Nowhere when the heroine dries her nail polish with a hair dryer. With Hellman one constantly brushes against chaos, absurdity, i.e., the absence of logic. Road to Nowhere is obviously no exception, quite the contrary it is the one film in which it is most apparent. Lack of logic in the narrative construction and the linking of sequences have a logic all the same: that of explosion, of the dynamiting and scattering of the standard narrative codes and genres. Remember, with The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind we had the Western (the original Hollywood myth) which hit us like a sharp blow to the back of the head. There was certainly a quest objective: to find the murderer in The Shooting for example, but it got lost along the way, and all that was left were our characters seemingly abandoned by the great creative authority: the filmmaker. As if he had knowingly allowed them to ripen in the sun and continue in vain until the destruction of all goals, with a resolution known only to them. Hellman¶s heroes are driven by a logic of impenetrability: what do they want? what do they seek? who are they (GTO in Two-Lane Blacktop is a typical example, who every time he picks up a hitchhiker lies continually, inventing stories corresponding to the nature of the person sitting next to him )? They seem to have no past (and no future either), simple immaterial visual surface, lacking in depth and made to disappear as soon as the light comes on in the projection booth and the film ends. We can conclude a lack of depth (it is not at all pejorative) that strikes Hellman¶s cinema. A lack of full thickness desired by a filmmaker who questions our belief in the medium, in the stories, in the fiction of every film. What is the power of cinema? He who is only projecting images on a flat screen, which is illusion, that is ... nothing! And yet we like it, we love it, we worship it, we respect it, it overwhelms us, it fascinates us, we¶re lost. And Hellman most of all! His film is full of references (the characters watch Bergman¶s The Seventh Seal, The Lady Eve by Sturges, or The Spirit of the Beehive already mentioned.) And then of course the film itself is primarily a film about film, a meta-film as they say in the jargon. His hero Mitchell Haven wants to make a film, his masterpiece, his "piece of shit Hollywood movie" as he says. Obsessed, stubborn (like all of Hellman¶s characters) Haven is willing to do anything in order to make his film. And through Mitchell Haven what appears is certainly Monte Hellman (note also the similarity of the names). Because one can say that Road to Nowhere is above all a film about Monte Hellman (small points: it is the home of Hellman and Hellman's dog that appear in the film). Over twenty years he could not make a

movie (Iguana was released in 1988) although he has never ceased to work (scripts, productions, editing). Hence the fact that Road to Nowhere is a movie that¶s quite simply monstrous, literally abysmal (a movie within a movie within a movie ...) where everything has been thought, worked and matured, and reflected on lengthily and where one feels every sentence uttered by Mitchell Haven is spoken by Monte Hellman. Arising from what we just discussed it seems logical that Road to Nowhere borrows from the genre of film noir; doubles game, con game, femme fatale brunette and blonde, intrigues, switching bodies and murder are present. But, as with the western, Hellman blows up the genre, pushing its point of evanescence. The propensity of the incomprehensibility of basic plots in film noir is well known. Consider the specimen case, Hawks' The Big Sleep adapted from a novel by Raymond Chandler, whose film director used to say jokingly that he never understood the story. Besides the hero, Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart), it must be said, was not much included in the sordid affair in which he was plunged, mostly simply counting the corpses as they piled up as a measure of the narrative. And since we¶ve brought in Marlowe we must acknowledge that we don¶t understand it much either! It¶s that symbolically in The Big Sleep ... the film is missing. How is film missing? But yes, remember you dear cinephiles! At the Geiger murder scene Detective Marlowe discovers a camera from which the film is missing. Nice metaphor which applies very well to the elusive and explosive nature of the story and film (about this and about the film itself I refer you to the book by Jean Michel Durafour in which he develops and analyzes it at length) . Film noir has always been very conducive to the abyss in film, to an awareness of the medium itself (remember the more recent Black Dahlia or Femme Fatale by De Palma.). So obviously when Monte Hellman gets into it, it hurts. Imagine The Big Sleep a thousand times... Hellman pushes it to the maximum impermeability of the genre, the lines of stories are mixed, the viewer can no longer distinguish truth from fiction, present and past, he has no basis, no benchmark on which to understand, There is a total narrative dispersion. Where does fiction end, reality begin? Maybe it just does not stop anywhere, and because it is without conclusion will get us nowhere (hence the title of the film)? Beginning and end mix in Road to Nowhere, (SPOILER WARNING) we may be in the final sequence still trapped in the movie like Mitchell is himself a prisoner in the last scene. We might never leave the film narrative in which we became visually engulfed in the first shot (a zoom which penetrates inside a screen.). Never have the disconnection of the power of space and time, which is that of cinema, looked so strong as in the movie by Hellman: places keep coming, piling up, we do not know them, they appear between time sequences to find them later. "The essence of the dark is not to be in color or black and white, but to be free of time," wrote Pierre Berthomieu (hence the fact that in the excerpt from The Spirit of the Beehive that Hellman chooses it is symbolically a watch that the magician makes disappear). Needless to say, therefore, that Hellman endorsed the formula, his film was freed from linearity, without any pre-defined sequence, so much so that it would sometimes almost give the illusion of having been assembled at random ... Everything finally is only cinema, and Hellman plays with the viewer, trying to get him lost in the intricacies of the image. Hence the last shot where the camera travels in a barely perceptible movement ever closer to the lips of the heroine on a photograph. In this foolhardy expansion one thinks obviously of Antonioni's Blow Up (besides Mitchell and his Canon 5d with which he shot his film which was also the instrument used by Hellman to shoot Road to Nowhere refers directly to the photographer hero of Blow Up). In the film the hero of the Italian filmmaker enlarged his photos as much as he could to try to understand something. The trouble is that the closer you get the less it¶s distinguishable and understood. Leaving only spots, shapes, masses, colors, and shadows, the image completely ceases to be figurative. Do not be looking to understand! So says Hellman, because trying to get closer to the image to pierce the sense only becomes more confusing. There is finally no truth in an image which has so much power to lie, a power so seductive and alluring as in the sensual lips of the heroine which we approach in Mitchell¶s picturel, it is nevertheless always with happiness and eagerness that we accept to get lost.

And finally, when Mitchell turns his photo apparatus / camera toward the camera shooting him, therefore directly towards us the audience, in an unforgettable gesture, it is less an attempt at a first connection between the viewer and the character than an ultimate distance: the camera covers almost the whole of his face completely dehumanizing it. All that remains is cinema in which the character is completely forgotten. This means that we not only have a banal look and conventional camera, oh no, we have a look through the camera at a camera! Traditionally the camera gaze is Brechtian: establishing a distance with the viewer, exposing the fiction as a simulacrum, as a decoy and break with immersion. But is this really happening here? There is not really a break with immersion as there has never really been immersion, only denunciation of fiction as a sham, nothing is less certain because it's not the heat of a human eye pointed at us but that black eye, empty, almost monstrous (for the readers of Harry Potter it¶s a bit like the mouth of the dementors), with which we are fixed. It is the gaze of the abyss, the look of death. Film as preservative power (it captures on film) certainly is well known, but also as a destructive force because during this process of mechanical recording of a living being, something of the interiority, of the substance of the individual is lost, and then what remains tragically are flat surfaces, without depth, on which we project our own fantasies and our own desires, hence the fact that what Mitchell Haven looks at through his camera is not just us little spectators! But also and especially Monte Hellman, since he is as we¶ve mentioned his alter ego! It¶s the great impossible encounter with the creator, leaving the fantasized subject (Mitchell) conscious of his own status in relation to the power of the fantasy (Hellman) and through it with the very tool of propagation and creation of fantasy (the photographic apparatus / camera that is it will be recalled, and it is a joyful logic, exactly that used by Hellman to shoot the film)! And in this search for the texture, grain, the substance of the image, as with the last shot of Road to Nowhere, it is still the desire to pass behind to the other side of the mirror, make holes in the canvas and uncover the mystery of cinema, but behind it find only emptiness, and this process can lead to nothing other than the destruction of the image itself. In searching for the essence, the nature, the life of the cinematographic image, Hellman can film only death (hence the last shot of Two-Lane Blacktop where the film ignites slowly) because what the cinema captures is certainly not life (but not death either), it is ... With Road to Nowhere Hellman presents (we dare say!) the greatest meta-movie in film history. We could probably go on for pages. We encourage you to just go see this movie (it¶s playing, unfortunately, what a pity, only in three cinemas in Paris and in twenty six in France) difficult, certainly unusual, but with an intelligence and a rare beauty and with a murder scene (which is also a sequence of pseudo-resolution that confuses the viewers even a little more) breathtaking (the great moment of cinema in 2011 with the ultimate Black Swan in my opinion). It also remains to hope that we will have another opportunity to see a new film from this great filmmaker Monte Hellman. In any case he can no longer afford to wait twenty years (he¶s 78), which is good for us! Pierre Andrieux

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