Monday, April 27, 2015

Take Back the Night

When, we say that a film is visually "dark," we tend to conjure the all-swallowing darkness that drapes Gordon Willis' Mid-'70's work, in which all of the film's subjects--objects, human faces, space itself--seem to be enfolded in shadow. But the color palette of Ana Lily Amirpour's black-and-white Jarmuschian vampire film, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night hearkens back farther, to the high-conrast, chiaroscuro of the noir era. Here, light borders directly on shadow. White draws its meaning from black. Black is both richly textured and bottomless, both the presence and absence of all color, somehow both devoid of light and humming with a dark radiance all its own.

As the title suggests, the film takes place almost entirely after sundown, in the dark, deserted streets of the Farsi-speaking Bad City. This is fitting, because A Girl Walks Home Alone... occupies a cinematic dreamworld, a hybrid of gothic horror, Iranian social-realism and Hollywood gun/girl/car noir, all set to a mix of Persian psych-pop and Anglo-American new wave. It is fantastically beautiful and fantastically cool. It observes the characters on society's margins--junkies, dealers, prostitutes, renegade kids--but sets them within the louche ambience, the blase, dreamy swagger, of mid-century Hollywood. David Lynch has perfected this commingling of B-film style and deep existential dread, and Amirpour has tapped into that vein beautifully. As with Jim Jarmusch, the characters' coolness always seems to be a desperate bid to ward off boredom and, deeper down, something much worse. We never directly encounter the regime and its mechanisms of social control, but we always feel the presence of some abstract authority pushing deviant behavior into the shadows. We sense a kind of heavy malevolence in the air even before we see the casually observed, un-remarked-upon image of a drainage ditch filled with corpses.

*     *     *

Enter the majestic Sheila Vand. Playing a character known only as "The Girl," she silently haunts the streets, her pale, regally inexpressive face framed by her black headscarf. She glides along the walls like a shadow and cruises toward the camera on a skateboard, chador flowing, cape-like, behind her. She dances--very slowly--in her bedroom. And yes, she feasts on the blood of the city's predatory men. But this is not some morally unambiguous revenge pulp. It doesn't go down easy. As in Hollywood noir, the shadows signal a malignant presence in the heart of the world, a corruption of the societal fabric.  The darkness is like the air they breathe. It creeps around corners and through windows; it seeps into the characters' facial expressions and envelopes their relationships.

In this sense, the heroine's vampirism, and the black clothing in which she shrouds herself, suggest that she herself is implicated in the film's fallen moral world. Her first victim is a spectacularly detestable pimp, drug dealer and abuser. Seems morally straightforward enough. But from there things become more complicated. She kills a sleeping homeless man. She approaches a ten-year-old street kid and asks him if he is a good boy. This turns out to be a rhetorical question. When he says yes, she replies, in a truly monstrous voice, "I can tear your eyes out of your skull and give them to dogs to eat." And then, for good measure: "Till the end of your life, I'll be watching you. Understand?" He understands.

This is, without question, a profound indictment of a misogynistic culture; she knows that in some essential way, the boy cannot possibly be telling the truth. But the film--and The Girl--recognize that in making this indictment, she has also indicted herself. She devours human blood; she terrorizes children; she is not immune to the moral sickness plaguing her world--because nobody is. This recognition allows for an uncommon moral ambiguity. A ten year-old-boy holds within him the potential for horrible acts. An abusive John might be complicit in violence but he is also someone's father. "I've done bad things," she says to her maybe boyfriend Arash, and we know it's true.

But The Girl's self-implication is also a radical act. In walking the streets alone at night, in occupying this dark, forbidden space, she reconfigures the symbolism of the black chador. What was a marker of female modesty now signals her dark magic, her transgressive power. The veil is a symbol of invisibility. But in haunting the men of the city The Girl becomes visible. Paradoxically, this visibility allows her to step outside of the traditional fundamentalist, not to mention cinematic, dynamics of female virtue. She has discovered an un-policed space.

What does this look like? Well it's fucking magnificent. Cinema bestows a kind of luminosity. The cinematic subject projects an aura, something like a radiant self-ness. The male gaze circumscribes that aura, channels that self-ness through its lens of normalizing, heterosexual desire. You're not seeing a human person, you're seeing a fantasy. But The Girl is relentlessly herself. Her desire, her thirst, is unchainable. She seethes and smolders like a goth Barbara Stanwyck. She glides on that skateboard; she vamps with her cat; she loses herself in the music; she stares down the camera with a mouthful of blood. She does violence and performs acts of grace. Just like a real human being. And when she does all of this this her wild identity, that radiant self-ness, just explodes on the screen.  "You don't remember what you want," she tells the aging prostitute that she has been following. "You don't remember wanting." This is perhaps the most damning thing she could say about the culture she inhabits. That The Girl's irruption of strange, intemperate desire reads as transgression--that it lives in darkness and shadow and evokes terror--is a testament to cinema's bad conscience, and the world's.

No comments: