Eight Films. Eight Gardens.

The following text was written in response to a proposal from Fergus Feehily.
See List ‘Action (C4-23)
Eight Films. Eight Gardens.

Gardens, like the cinema, are often places of repose. Invented primarily for pleasure they provide occasion for the contemplation of nature, and for the really hard thinkers, man’s role within it. Invited to write about gardens and the cinema it seems natural to look for correspondences between them. The spaces of the garden and the cinema screen are clearly demarcated, and require our attention to come to life. A garden is experienced with all our senses; its drama unfolding in time, as we move through its physical setting. In the cinema we sit in a time suspended, the surface of the screen bringing everything before us, in a cultivated world of appearances.

Cinema and the garden can come together directly. On a September evening last year I watched ‘The Phantom Carriage’ (1) projected onto the side of a garden shed. James McCreary and I set up the projected images so they matched exactly the dimensions of the wooden building. This had the uncanny effect of making the ghostly action appear to be unfolding inside the shed itself. On another occasion we placed the projector just beyond range of the spitting barbeque, and watched, beers in hand, as the sight and sound of Godzilla tearing up downtown Tokyo brought a frisson of terror to otherwise quiet Drumcondra lanes.

In my choice of the eight films here I have ignored criteria like balance and objectivity and have simply chosen films I like that seem interesting in the context of the proposal.

Silent Running – Douglas Trumbull (1972)
Silent Running is a surprisingly touching film about four men and a handful of robots drifting somewhere off the outskirts of Saturn. Set in a post Armageddon future, this motley crew is in command of Earth’s last greenery, preserved in enormous glass-house domes attached to their ship. Bored out of their wits, when the order comes through to destroy the domes and return to earth, three of the men are delighted to be going home. Captain Freeman Lowell is less pleased. He hasn’t spent eight years in space just to carry out ‘Executive Order AUC-3423’, and he becomes increasingly wide-eyed at the prospect of his beloved gardens being lost forever. Slightly mad in real life, Bruce Dern was an ideal choice to play the zealous protector of the world’s last cantaloupes.

The crew of the Valley Forge eschews Lowell’s fresh produce in favour of plasticated portions vomited up by the kitchen robot. There is a scene where the boys are trying to enjoy dinner together but they’re reeling from the “stench” of Lowell’s fresh food. Queue a speech on the joys of organic produce, the diatribe extending to a moving description (and helpfully filling in the back-story for the audience) of what’s been lost back on earth. Crew man Wolf doesn’t get it, “… almost no disease, no poverty, everyone has a job”, he reasons. But Lowell isn’t convinced of the merits of full employment. He laments for a world without beauty or imagination, “a world with no more frontiers to conquer”.

It doesn’t say much for the human actors when it’s the robotic ‘drones’ that put in the starring roles. Five years before R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant (2) the drones are genuinely affecting in their strangely anthropomorphic suits of air-vent and radio parts. These charming robots waddle unhurriedly through mounting catasrophies with a fatalistic chutzpah. When they beat Lowell at poker, and complete a successful operation on his injured leg, you begin to wonder who’s the real brains of the outfit? The drones are renamed Huey and Dewey, and despite their superior poker skills, remain loyal to their set-chewing (consisting mostly of foliage) captain to the end. After all hell has broken loose aboard the Valley Forge Dewey is left alone on the last surviving dome. We see him tending to the plants with his pathetic little watering can. “Take good care of the forest Dewey”. Like I said, it’s a heartbreaker.

Stalker – Andrei Tarkovsky (1979)
“What was it? A meteorite? – A visit of inhabitants of the cosmic abyss? – One way or another, our small country – has seen the birth of a miracle – the Zone.”
Stalker and Silent Running make unlikely companion pieces but have a number of common threads. Both contain a ‘hero’ at odds with the world he is in. Both contain worlds removed from ordinary experience, and inner worlds inflected with the mysteries of outer space. The theme of the garden is expressed in different ways but in both films they are presented as possible sites of man’s salvation.

Early morning: Close-up of a face in profile, strong, pensive, looking straight ahead. The man is moving slowly through a desolate industrial landscape. Everything is wet. The loud, ponderous rhythm of a railway handcart pulses beneath another sound, high and sinuous, metallic reverberations twisting through the lethargic beat. Two others appear. The faces of the ‘Stalker’ and his two companions, known simply as ‘Professor’ and ‘Writer’, remain fixed by the camera. The blurry, monochrome setting glides by. (3)

The film stock changes to colour and the soundtrack is suddenly muted. A wide shot reveals a green, sodden expanse. The trolley riders have entered, “the quietest place in the world”. The camera pans slowly across delinquent telegraph poles and abandoned military vehicles. There are no people. The tangle of black poles are slowly ceding to the embrace of unchecked vegetation. Tanks are idled in a terrain that appears to be slowly swallowing them up. There were flowers here once, their smell lingering, we are told, for many years. There are no smells here now. The stalker stretches, and stands up, “Here we are”, he says, “home, at last”. The men disembark. They have entered the Zone.

The film tracks the men’s journey through the Zone towards a room where innermost desires can be realized. The film’s irresistible promise is resisted nonetheless by the tortuous physical and mental negotiations the travelers endure as they come ever closer to their Holy Grail. Eventually the men return to their starting point and nothing appears resolved. The Stalker is frustrated by his companion’s lack of faith, he goes to sleep lamenting, “Their organ of belief is atrophied for lack of use”. Though Stalker is a mysterious film, the area of the Zone itself is harshly tangible. Overgrown, rubbish strewn, and intersected with sulfurous rivers, it is a desolate garden, an anti-Eden, its forbidden terrain (4) holding secrets and intimations only partially revealed to the three men and the audience alike.

Late Spring – Yasujiro Ozu (1949)
The great thing about greatness is the confidence it gives you. Watching a film by Yasujiro Ozu you’re saved the bother of asking yourself is it any good and left to concentrate on the important business of enjoying a masterpiece. Ozu characters inhabit a downbeat world of post-war ennui, occasionally enlivened by massive bouts of sake drinking. His quietly brilliant films invite oxymoronic description – understated drama, extreme nuance, powerful delicacy. His story lines are simple and don’t bother too much with beginnings and endings. Where Hollywood cinema is in love with the twin finishing poles of tragedy and bliss, the denouement of an Ozu film arrives without fuss, once the ninety minutes or so have run out.

The garden has a role in many of Ozu’s small dramas, set mostly around the tiny households and environs of Japanese family life. The drama of ‘Late Spring’ is founded on the relationship between a devoted daughter and her widower father. It’s impossible to mention Setsuko Hara (5) without going into rapture but I will limit myself to the observation that she is an event horizon illuminating many of Ozu’s best films. In ‘Late Spring’ she plays the daughter ‘Noriko’, shining like a dark star in Ozu’s quotidian gloom.

The significant garden appears towards the end of the film, just after the famous ‘vase’ scene at the Kyoto Inn (6) where, in a moving exchange, Father and daughter have come to an important understanding. Ozu follows these emotionally charged moments with moments of perfect calm. It’s the next morning and Noriko’s father and an old friend are sitting on the veranda of a traditional Zen rock garden. (7) A sequence of static shots reveals the garden from different angles. With a resignation and good humour typical of Ozu’s characters the two men reflect on their lives and the joys and woes of their children growing up. The garden in the background becomes symbolic, the rocks, like the men, sitting tranquilly in the centre of a carefully ordered universe, a universe governed by rules, and the pressures they inevitably produce. In six shots, three each book-ending the men’s conversation, images of the garden seem to encapsulate the film’s twin themes of stasis and change.

Mon Oncle – Jacques Tati (1958)
Cut off without a sou by an unsympathetic father for refusing to enter the family picture framing business, Jacques Tati decided to frame some pictures of his own. Inspired by Buster Keaton (the great dead-panner of American comedy) Tati created the wonderful Monsieur Hulot , a bumbling gallic charmer, dedicated to chaos and the resistance of all things modern. Introduced in, ‘Les Vacances de M. Hulot’ (1953), Monsieur Hulot went on to wreck a gentle havoc through Tati’s remaining oeuvre.

Smart new street signs host ‘Mon Oncle’s’ opening credits. In the background a huge swinging crane delivers its cargo, while the din of a pneumatic drill stands in for a theme tune. Changes are afoot, and in the first scene proper a pack of local mutts lead us from the relaxed world of the old quarter through a rapidly expanding new townscape and up to the slick metallic gates of the Arpels. Slipping through a gap, the Arpel’s sausage dog has come home for inspection and his arrival allows our first glimpse of their new garden. Designed (8) to repel ease, the garden is laid out with a complex mosaic of gravel beds and tortuously serpentine little paths. It is an exercise in the ultra-modern, composed by Victor Vasarely perhaps, or a drunken Mondrian. The geometric arrangements are populated by slide-rule plants that receive a regular dusting from Madame, and the piece de resistance, a ludicrous galvanized fish fountain that gets turned on with the arrival of each visitor. It’s not long before the pristine garden suffers at the hands of Hulot (the uncle of the title) who conspires unwittingly with his young nephew, Arpel junior, to reduce its geometries to mayhem.

With the arrival of ‘Mon Oncle’ a didactic note appeared in the otherwise avuncular Hulot. But it is not a French ‘Modern Times’, (9) and for an unapologetic modernist like myself the modernist ‘follies’ at the heart of Mon Oncle (and later in ‘Playtime’) are too beautiful for satirical effect. If Tati was becoming didactic he may have missed his targets by making them just too damn appealing. Tati’s disapproving father was gravely ill while the film was being made, a fact that may have influenced its final scene. Standing on the street with his son, the uptight Arpel’s impatient whistling inadvertently causes a passerby to walk into a lamppost. Laughing together, the mischievous son and his bourgeois dad exit the film newly bonded.

Last Year in Marienbad – Alain Resnais (1961)
The modern garden in ‘Mon Oncle’ represents the quintessentially new. The 18th century French garden and Baroque palace of ‘Last Year in Marienbad’ provide a more classical setting for the quintessentially Nouvelle. The partnership of novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet and filmmaker Alain Resnais was a dream combo of Alains from the more austere wing of the French new wave. (10) Their conspicuously modern tête-à-tête produced a landmark of highbrow filmmaking, regarded as either modernist masterpiece or pretentious nonsense; depending on which side you like to butter your baguette.

The film reads like a set of connected tableaux, the formally attired thespians as stiff as the statues overlooking the ornamental pond. Through opulent corridors and precise garden paths the actors move like somnambulant mannequins on a mission of eternal recurrence. The camera glides after them, down the mirrored halls and along the neatly clipped hedgerows, in a movement that mimics their trance.

At the film’s cool heart is an un-touching love story between a man called ‘X’ and a woman called ‘A’. (11) Though elegant and aesthetically pleasing, the pair resist our empathy by the neat trick of being already dead. At least that’s one interpretation. Uncertainty is rife, with the two Alains piling up the no-nos, refusing discernable plot, recognizable character, and the clarity of a chronological timeline. In a love story less concerned with ‘Will they or won’t they” than, “Did they or didn’t they”? ‘X’ tries to convince ‘A’ they were lovers, ‘last year in Marienbad’. ‘A’ begs to differ. The couple’s contested rendezvous provides the film’s metaphysical framework, and the pointy-headed tree garden, a setting for their miss-matched reminiscing.

Being There – Hal Ashby (1979)
Chance the Gardener is a middle-aged man of gentle demenour and regular habits. His sole domain is the garden he works in and the adjoining house. His sole escape is the television set in every room. Chance is a man in all innocence, when told of his employer’s sudden death he takes in the news with the air of an uncomprehending child. He speculates on the weather; then puts on a smartly tailored suit to watch the early morning cartoons.

With his employer dead, Chance is cast out from his isolated eden and finds himself cluelessly adrift in downtown Washington D.C. He is disorientated by his new surroundings and confused when a hostile gang of youths fails to disappear with a click of his TV remote. Continuing on his uncertain journey it’s not long before the new world finds him an Eve, Eve Rand, the delicate wife of Benjamin Rand, a powerful political figure and businessman.

Chance is adopted by the Rands and through a series of mishaps and misunderstandings, Chance the Gardener, becomes ‘Chauncey Gardiner’, an admired friend and valued advisor to the waspish and wealthy Rands. Chauncey’s simple gardening tips are misinterpreted as allegorical musings on the state of America. The media latch on and he becomes established as a modern oracle, his uncomprehending innocence a blank screen for the nation to project its hopes onto.

Though gardens appear only briefly in the film the wisdom of horticulture permeates the script. “As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden” he tells the American President, by way of fiscal advice, and, “In the garden, growth has its season. First comes spring and summer, but then we have Fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again!” The films audacious conceit is perfectly realized. It is funny, warm, and complex, with wonderful acting, especially from Peter Sellers (14) in the central role.

The Gospel According to St. Mathew – Pier Paolo Pasolini (1964)
Exterior – night. Several figures are shrouded in the darkness of an olive grove. Heavy branches obscure the moon but here and there the light comes through to reveal a man, separated from the rest of his group, pacing restlessly. The man admonishes his colleagues for falling asleep, before suddenly turning from them and running towards a figure we see entering from the distance. The two men go towards each other in an almost unseemly haste, running as though afraid their resolve might disappear, “Friend”, says Jesus, as he embraces Judas, ”On what errand have you come”? Cut to the next morning, we watch through the eyes of a guilt ridden Judas the man, whose fate he has sealed with a kiss, being humiliated and condemned. Moments later Judas is flinging his bounty of silver coins towards the Pharisees who paid for his act of betrayal, and then running again, in an imitation of the earlier scene, hurrying towards his own impatient end.

Pasolini’s treatment of the New Testament is bracingly direct and leaves little room for sentimentality. Dramatic moments can pass quickly, almost unnoticed, while at other times the camera dwells on faces (12) that seem incidental, or lingers in places that seem removed from the main action. Much of the film’s emotional power comes from the accumulation of these careful details. In the garden of Gethsemane the details are kept very simple. Filmed in almost complete darkness, the shadowy landscape is punctuated with sudden close-ups of a pale and faltering Christ, “Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass me by.”

Diary of a Country Priest – Robert Bresson (1951)
Gardens prove useful metaphors for the cycle of life, seasonal changes repeating familiar scenarios, growth and decay, death and rebirth. In ‘The Gospel According To St. Mathew’, Pasolini made an almost documentary style film, his Jesus more political agitator than Messiah, and the cycle that Christ’s story represents closer to Marx’s historical materialism than the Christian idea of life after death. Robert Bresson, like Pasolini, was a deeply serious filmmaker. Unlike the communist Pasolini, Bresson was a devout catholic. His brand of realism was less concerned with documentary truth than with creating the conditions for truth to emerge. His bleak visions can seem tough and unhopeful but are often marked with moments of intense feeling and insight. Bresson’s published aphorisms help to illustrate his thinking and methodology.

“Hide the ideas, but so that people find them. The most important will be the most hidden” (13)

The life and example of Christ are recurring themes in Bresson’s work. In a scene from his film, ‘Diary of a Country Priest’, the increasingly ill and depressed young priest talks with an older colleague about the places they imagine for themselves in the gospels. Spoken as a voice-over track the young priest’s inner voice describes a sudden revelation, he realizes that he is, “…a prisoner of the holy agony”, that he,“ … always returns to the olive grove”. His inner voice recognizes his attachment to the suffering of Christ, but also to the redemption it prefigures. The garden of olives exists for the young priest both as a place of suffering and as the threshold to his place in eternity. He feels this fatalism so powerfully that he appears to will himself to death; refusing or unable to believe he has a more useful purpose on earth. His garden is paradise.

The films and gardens discussed here set up different kinds of spaces, symbolic, sacred, allegorical. During the coming weeks this modest account, itself a kind of space, will be distributed in the public spaces of some of Dublin’s parks and gardens.

John Graham – September 2009

Notes and Credits;
1. The Swedish silent film directed by Victor Sjostrom in 1921. We watched the Tartan 2008 DVD release with a newly recorded soundtrack by the group KTL. Their, ‘Dark Ambient’, sound provided the perfect musical setting.
2. A classic Sesame Street moment.
3. This early scene from ‘Stalker’ can be glimpsed in a funny episode in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s film “Uzak/Distant “(2002) Mahmut and his cousin, Yusef, are sitting on the couch watching cheerlessly as Tarkovsky’s solemn and lugubriously paced film plays on the home video. Bored out of his tree, the nephew eventually goes to bed and a relieved Mahmut switches over to more prurient entertainment. The scene seems to play on the idea of ‘Stalker’ as the model of a worthy but dull art-film, the type of film the majority audience ignore in favour of more licentious thrills (the type of film Ceylan, to a degree, makes himself) In neatly deprecating his own and Tarkovsky’s work, Ceylan displays a sense of humour not always present in the work of the sublimely serious Tarkovsky.
4. Tarkovsky’s Zone is eerily prescient of the exclusion zone around the city of Chernobyl after the nuclear accident there in 1986. Shot in 1979 ‘Stalker’ has its own history of contamination, including the premature deaths of many of those who worked on it. Tarkovsky himself died of cancer while exiled in Paris, the same year of the Chernobyl disaster.
5. Setsuko Hara’s place in Japanese cinema is comparable to Garbo’s in the west for the drama that her face alone can bring to the screen. Unlike ‘The Divine’ Garbo, whose ‘admirable face-object … offers to ones gaze a sort of platonic idea of the human creature’ (Roland Barthes, Mythologies, p.56) Hara San’s countenance is never an ideal mask. The thinnest of expressive membranes, her translucent skin seems to vibrate between an inner and outer reality that leaves no room for character, or for acting, or for any of the qualities we might consider imperative for a great actress to possess. Setsuko Hara’s great possession is herself. Ozu himself testified to the importance of this idea, telling Donald Richie, “In casting it is not a matter of the skillfulness or lack of skill an actor has. It is what he (she) is.”
6. The two shots of the vase in this scene are so-called ‘Pillow shots’. In Ozu these are used as transitional shots between scenes or key moments of a scene. They are precisely composed static shots, or a short sequence of such shots, usually held for several seconds. Ozu’s use of them is much debated. They often come at moments that seem pregnant with meaning and can have the effect of removing the viewer momentarily from a physical or emotional setting. Their use in this scene is regarded as particularly inscrutable. The second ‘pillow shot’ of the vase lies between two shots of Setsuko Hara, the first one smiling, the second one no longer smiling.
7. The traditional rock garden depicted is the renowned Ryoan-ji garden in Kyoto. I visited this garden in 1997 and experienced its famous tranquility in the midst of a multilingual commentary coming through loudspeakers placed around the perimeter. Anyone who has traveled in modern Japan is likely to recognize the peculiar mixture of reverence and tackiness in this recollection.
8. Jacques Lagrange designed the house and garden sets. Lagrange, also a painter, was a relatively unsung collaborator on all of Tati’s later films.
9. Charlie Chaplin’s earlier ‘Modern Times’ (1936) was an equally funny but far more vitriolic criticism of the dehumanizing effects of automisation.
10. The so-called ‘Rive Gauche’ or ‘Left Bank’ contingent of the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave), who along with Resnais and Robbe-Grillet, included filmmakers like Chris Marker, Jacques Demy and Agnés Varda, and the writer Marguerite Duras.
11. Perfect for the character of ‘A’, Delphine Seyrig proved good at automatons. In Chantal Ackerman’s 1975 mordant epic, ‘Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles’ she memorably portrays a bored housewife who spends four hours of film time successfully suppressing all emotion, until the final dénouement, when things get a little out of hand.
12. Pasolini used local non-actors for most of the roles. His concentration on their humble faces–farmers, shopkeepers, truck-drivers– adds greatly to the richness of his film.
13. ‘Notes of the Cinemaphotographer’ Robert Bresson 1975. English translation, Quartet Books. 1986.
14. Sellers claimed to be a man without a personality, “I am a chameleon”, he said, “ When I am not playing a role, I am nobody.” (www.rogerebert.com) In the final scene we see him walking on water, his character seemingly buoyed by the belief that you can be anyone you want.