ICA Harris Savides Tribute – Birth (2004)
The second part of the recent ICA hosted tribute to cinematographer Harris Savides was a screening of Birth, a 2004 mystery film which was directed and introduced by UK helmer Jonathan Glazer. Having directed a number of striking music videos, most notably for Radiohead for a couple of tracks from their seminal OK Computer album Glazer graduated to the movies in 2000, giving Ben Kingsley a memorably menacing role in his British gangster yarn Sexy Beast, a UK crime sub-genre film which is normally known for radiating shivers of fear up the spine for critics for all together more qualitative reasons. Decanting across the Atlantic a few years later Glazer delivered Birth, a frosty high society allegory which has gone on to build up quite a cult reputation over the past decade, so it was a pleasure to catch the film again with a modestly brief introduction from Glazer in honour of his cinematographer Harris Savides, and given that this was the directors own silver nitrate 35mm print from it’s Venice premiere (complete with unobtrusive Italian subtitles) this was possibly the most aesthetically appealing possible format to see the film – it was certainly a change from the cramped Screen 4 of the Hammersmith Cineworld visit of 2004…..
A russet Winter, New York’s Central Park, and slowly this very psychologically and geographically interior film is unfurled in the coolly aureate apartments and antechambers of the East Coast privileged elite. Nicole Kidman is career best as Anna, her usual frosty demeanour cast in a particularly porcelain and feline mode, bereaved from her beloved husband Sean a decade earlier she has recently become engaged to her new persistent suitor Joseph who is played with an imperious imposition by Danny Huston. An unwelcome gate crasher breaches the buildings polite security and neutrally instructs Anna not to marry Joseph as he is her deceased husband, the only questionable quality of his claim being that he is actually a ten-year old boy who happens to share an identical Christian name. Slowly however Anna’s hostility to the precocious tyke (played with a mysterious distance by Cameron Bright) begins to thaw as he incrementally reveals confidences and secrets that only her departed husband could possibly have known, as Joseph slowly simmers in broiling rage at their union being jeopardized by such an absurd claim of identity.
This is actually quite a difficult film to excavate, it takes quite the critical effort to chip away at the hyperborean exterior to expose its molten emotional core, in that sense Kidman was the only actress on the planet who could possibly have played Anna to such perfection given that flawless combination of a frosty screen persona and aristocratic complexion shielding a sensitive vulnerability. Birth is one part an adult fairy tale given its luminous photography, the wispy score and the just slightly exaggerated performances and plot designs, posing a ridiculous assertion at its centre which forms the films central narrative hook – it’s ridiculous of course but just what if it is Sean? Savides famous quote that he ‘lights rooms rather than characters, I let the actors then inhabit them’ is never more apparent than in this film, the perfectly expensive glowing heirlooms and tasteful interior design vernacular of Manhattan’s gentry litter ochre and autumnal hued rooms, which the characters politely glide through like regal statues until the adolescent interloper shatters their privileged personas. The entire film has a bracing, cup and blow warmth into your hands while stomping your feet flow, you can almost sense the frigid cracks snaking from the edges of that chilled oblong screen, with wonderfully disciplined scenes such as this hinting at the turbulent emotional depths churning beneath the veneer of cordial propriety;
Don’t worry, no spoilers but I was actually a little surprised at just how unambiguous the conclusion to this film was, I remember it being far more open to interpretation and argument but evidently my memory is defective, as there is a very clear solution to the mystery of identity if not necessarily the motives for behaviour, and this has somewhat torpedoed my initial intentions to talk a little about ambiguity in Glazer’s work with reference to his most blatant influence Stanley Kubrick but here we are. Yes, guilty as charged m’lord I know Ido tend to dovetail into discussions of Stanley’s work quite often here but in the case of Birth and the more recent Under The Skin the influences are simply unavoidable, particularly in the latter in which the opening disorienting opening aria is the closest approximation to the phantasmagorical collusion of abstract art, of rotating orbits and celestial images that closes 2001: A Space Odyssey which has been mounted in recent cinema history. Well apart from Tree of Life of course. Or maybe Melancholia. OK, I’ll shut up now as I’m arguing myself into a dizzying circle…..
In Birth Glazer uses the slowly creeping zoom-in to centre on a character’s turbulent internal thought, it centres our attention and thought processes much more subtly and reflexively than a simple cut to a close-up to signal dramatic emotional importance, giving the film an opportunity to slowly respire through a succession of measured and paced scenes which generate a holistic aura of distance, of studious poise and ascetic removal. Of course there is the celebrated opening dolly shot which tracks the adult Sean through a winter’s jog through central park, it’s a wonderfully penetrative introduction to this chilly New York yarn, signaling the pace and tone of the film and its arctic colour palettes which Savides sprinkles across the film like a crystal confetti. As previously alluded the photographic style is more muted and impressed into the film when compared to the starker compositions and contrasts of The Game, this film hesitantly glows with a flame of flickering candle, fluttering like Anna’s internal uncertainties over Joseph and the apparition of her beloved returning from the grave.
The film became quite controversial for the scene where a naked Nicole Kidman is joined in a bath by the naked ten-year old Sean, and in another scene she lightly grazes his lips with her own in a more affectionate than sexually orientated kiss, and only when the inevitable outrage erupt did the producers exasperatedly reveal that Kidman was not only wearing a full body stocking for the ‘nude’ scene, and in fact she and Bright were never on set together through a careful deployment of surrogates, so there was no basis in any accusations of it endorsing any inappropriate behaviour. In that sense it has some tenuous links to Lolita and its mirrored outrage back in 1961, where producer James B. Harris and Kubrick engaged in a cordially fierce battle with the moral majority over the depection of the unconventional love story (and that’s putting it mildly), winning concessions through some rather clandestine visual maneuvers. In Birth these scenes could have been quite icky and slimy to use a professional critic’s term, but the intent is obviously not to provoke a prurient reaction but to take the premise to its logical and dramatic conclusion, in again I stress an emotional, affectionate rather than physical, lustful sense.
Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery? Well with Glazer evidently so, you can’t pilfer entire shooting techniques and styles – those slow forward and reverse zooms, the long languid dolly shots – and combine those with a specifically designated form of muted performance and ingrained lighting patterns – again like latter period Kubrick all the lighting is sourced from the set, from the actual lighting embedded in the scene (as you can see on the left) – you can’t implement these established routes without inviting some critical examination, as to my mind there is a thin line between homage and outright theft, I mean just look at the majority of Tarantino’s Xerox’s (and this list is quite spectacularly US focused for a so-called champion of Asian cinema) which are fun to be sure but rather implode these absurd claims of being some sort of artistic genius of the form. What is absent at the moment which I don’t think has or maybe will surface is a consistent worldview and connective membrane between Glazer’s projects which I don’t think has solidified yet, but to be fair I haven’t seen Sexy Beast since one initial viewing a decade ago and he’s only produced three movies in thirteen years so we should give him the benefit of the doubt. In any case this is a beautiful film with ravishing photography, some superb performances, an almost unique narrative premise, a further gestation of a new pretender to the throne, pregnant with potential;