Some scribblings on two recent viewings.
CHAIN (2004). A hybrid "docufiction" from Jem Cohen, who has also made films about music and musicians, like the Fugazi documentary, Instrument. Chain has two selves: its documentary self consists of footage of the commercial landscape in which we all live: malls, chain stores (thus the name of the film), corporate skyscrapers, vast parking lots, highways, hotels, airports. We see this commercial-scape every single day but hardly ever notice it. Wrenched free from the banality of our everyday vision and placed on the screen without being at the service of an engulfing narrative, we are suddenly confronted with both the size and the extent of "reshaping" our living environments have seen so quickly. And here's the most damning part: the footage is from over 25 locations around the world, and there's no way to tell as Cohen cuts from one shot to another. We feel like we are in one seamlessly flowing space: The images capture a perfectly, namelessly, homogeneous place.
The fictional part of the film consists of two stories of women who never meet. One of them is a teenage runaway who lives in abadoned houses and spends her days at the mall, trying to divert attention away from mall security guards who assume she's "a legitimate consumer" because they see her talking on her cell phone every now and then. (It's a broken and dead phone she pulled out of the trash.) She also finds a lost video camera and records (a Marker-ian touch) a video diary to send to her family. On the one hand, being poor and homeless, she stands outside the desired demographics of the commercial world. This allows her to observe that world from a distance, and learn how to forage in it like a wild animal of the steel-and-glass jungle. On the other hand, she is on a path of entry into joining that commercial world—where, one way or another, all of us live—and ends up becoming a chain-store employee herself.
The other woman is Japanese, and has been sent to America to scope out prospects for a Japanese-style theme park. She memorizes her company's vision statement chapter and verse and utters it to herself for inspiration. She looks upon the West, through the eyes of her employers, as a vista of commercial opportunity. But as time passes, her communication with her home office starts to dry up and her future as a foot soldier (and casual casualty?) in the reconfigurations of the corporate army is most uncertain.
Cohen dedicates the film to Chris Marker and Humphrey Jennings and thanks Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project in the credits. In his personal appearance at the screening, he called them all "collagists" who have influenced his own methods of working. For Chain, he shot footage for several years without knowing what it was going to turn into. The fictional narrative strands were added much later. The single biggest strength of the film is that it does not come across as a heavy-handed, screechy condemnation of the "chain-world" in which we live. We see thousands of images, neutrally, with no commentary. It is their accumulative effect of relentless uniformity and standardization that gets to us in the end. Favorite shot, towards the end: A dilapidated "Sam's Club" sign on a store long since abandoned. In the base of the "B," a bird has built its nest. One might sardonically say: The detritus of the chain-world serves some purpose.
THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943). Val Lewton is that rarity: the producer as auteur. Scores of “A-films” from the golden age of Hollywood have all but faded from memory, but Lewton’s B-movies burn even brighter this year, thanks to their arrival on DVD. Lewton died in his mid-forties, but not before he had made a handful of now-classic low-budget horror B-movies.
In The Seventh Victim, directed by Mark Robson, Kim Hunter comes to New York to find her missing sister who may have taken up with a group of Greenwich Village devil-worshippers. (Michael Almereyda used The Seventh Victim as the inspiration for his 2002 film Happy Here And Now. A young woman goes to New Orleans to look for her missing sister who has vanished not into some devil-worshipping cult but into. . .the Internet itself.) Jacques Tourneur once said, “During war, for some mysterious reason, people love to be frightened.” Fact is, Alexander Nemerov convincingly argues in his book Icons Of Grief, Lewton films like Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie can be seen as a wartime response of grief on the home front.
Befitting this grieving tone, The Seventh Victim is a quiet and melancholy movie. (The “horror” is interior and invisible.) Going hand in hand with this calmness of temper is the deliberate image-making. Light and shadow appear to possess, each, an architectural solidity. Nearly every single scene has a little touch of ingenuity motivated probably by the miniscule budget but persuading us that it is just the right aesthetic choice, irrespective of budget. Case in point: As Kim Hunter leaves her school to go look for her sister, we see her descend the stairway with not a soul in sight. In the soundtrack, we hear a patchwork of school sounds interwoven: vocal scale practice, French verb conjugation, poetry recitation. An offscreen world is evoked amply without showing you any of that world.
George Sanders had one of the most glorious voices—and dictions—in the movies. He's not in The Seventh Victim, but Sanders' identical-sounding brother Tom Conway is. Like in Cat People, he plays a psychiatrist named Dr. Judd. (Is it the same character? We never find out.) The devil-worshippers turn out to be a strikingly normal bunch, sympathetic even. They're genteel, polite, and never raise their voice. It's a nice touch, and completely consistent with the ever-placid Lewton tone.