22 Feb 2017

Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun: Ten Years in the Sun from the Inside Out

by Dean Kavanagh

Rouzbeh Rashidi’s Ten Years in the Sun was not shot on Earth; it was filmed between worlds, from scaffolding that could have only been erected on a cold, craggy and cavernous moon somewhere in the great nebula of Cinema. Here, space and time are entwined, bending backward on themselves in some detailed sex act, leaving consciousness floundering in the agglutinative secretion of their union. This film deals with eroticism and notions of perversion in a variety of forms including that of Cinema itself. It opens with Ketèlbey’s In a Monastery Garden with the complete (and controlled) breakdown of image and format, interlaced fields out of sync, frame drop-out, bleeding signal lines, rolling distorted artifacts and noise roaring with a scatological, cosmic energy; this is Rashidi’s take on a ‘comedy of manners’.

I was one of many involved in the production of the film and also performed the part of ‘Nicholas Fox’. Though an impartial review is quite impossible, I will attempt to briefly map a journey from the inside out of this very important film.

Rouzbeh Rashidi’s previous film HSP: There Is No Escape From The Terrors Of The Mind (2013) was a globetrotting epic with a fragmented structure that begins in a womb of static snow and image feedback from which a face emerges. From birth to the mysterious final shot of a corpse, the film aligns itself on an invisible track that extends, penetrating and guiding an audience through a free fall of events that swarm around the elusive characters. His climatic chapter of Forbidden Symmetries (2014) catapults characters through the claustrophobic terror of space leading to the formation of a star. Could this be our sun? With Ten Years in the Sun there is no up, down, left or right, there is no sturdy track along which the audience is sent, it is a place where all structure collapses inward. Here, we find ourselves in the midst of some diabolical plan. The time: in flux. The landscape: Cinema itself, where the cosmos and the molten bowels of the earth form a unique hanging place for the main structures and concepts of the film. The image/technology breakdown is used as a bookend, and it appears like a burst heart, with an arterial spray of malfunctioning technology bleeding from the screen. Though in these moments the soundtrack may intentionally behave in a humorous fashion, the scene is heavy with regret and wonder. This romantic call-back to the barbed wire of Terrors or even the oceanic wonder of Rashidi’s earlier short Drowned Fish (2008), is what he achieves when attempting to reach a distant form of sentimentality. Though hardly sentimental in the traditional sense, this cinematic dial up only connects for a few moments before plunging into apocalypse and dysentery. For those who lament the loss of tactility through the cinematic adoption of digital technology, I present you with the mental image of a shelf of melted cameras. And that is just what was required to achieve the opening moments of Ten Years in the Sun, both camera and tape internally and physically pushed to the point of disintegration. A beautiful intensity registers here and just as celluloid would pass along the rollers and across the gate, Rashidi’s digital cinema is the combination of digital and analogue formats pushed through a blitzkrieg of their own history with their dying moments recorded and presented for autopsy. The screen erupts with calamity and distortion, there is no way back from this landscape. Just as it takes years for starlight to reach us, the life of a single tape can only be truly represented once a cassette nears the end of its cycle. The years of wear develop into personality and in the death throes the material seems to reflect inwardly, posing questions on its own genesis represented in the flicker of horizontal lines and the images of people, places and objects caught between them.

In Terrors codec compression noise was used to a beautiful and impressionistic effect. Structurally it was cleverly deployed as a device to merge one place with the next, to create a tapestry of scenes where the frayed ends of one connect to another resulting in a pulsing and contorting mass.Terrors is a film (quite suitably) allergic to itself. However in Ten Years this contact results in an explosion, a ‘big bang’ from which the rest of the film is delivered and eventually returns to; characters caught in the shockwave of a nuclear blast and then sucked back into the source with miles of debris (audience and cinema seats) now in tow, leaving only a blast site and a radioactive usher too terrified to light a cigarette. As we ride upwards to the toroidal vortex we can hear the most wonderful music until, finally, we are discarded and sent raining down on ourselves in a million pieces.

WEARING THE INSIDE OUT

Filmmaker and critic Maximilian Le Cain perfectly described the film as a “sensory onslaught” that“seems to plunge viewers into its ripe, magnificent decadence”. The atmosphere is certainly damp with all kinds of precipitation and the attitude is decidedly sexual, while perhaps also approaching the concept of what constitutes a perverse act if everything is sensual. Rashidi twists the reigns at various points, reducing any lingering sense of normality (or indeed reality) to a perverse notion and thus crushing it entirely. The level of eroticism seems to move from the human body to Cinema itself, and the ‘perversions’ soon follow suit. When the director described to me his intentions for the project and what the film would entail, immediately I thought of some rather sexual ideas that were inextricably linked to Cinema itself. Perhaps a short unexposed reel of 35mm is left to gestate inside a very unlucky female consort for several weeks, the fruits of her labour projected on a rectangular plane the size of a bus. Or alternatively a dark-haired, Italian beauty moving from set to set of Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), maneuvering her breasts over every inch of the detailed and ornate wallpaper. The early concepts of Ten Years in the Sun that catalyzed these rather unconnected mental images soon began to take the form of a thin and ghostly fog. These were the origins of the distinct atmosphere that pervaded the film shoot. When Rashidi would return to divulge more information on the characters or expand concepts, the fog would roll back into town and soon any traces of morality would perish.

If one were to try to piece together the plot or in this case debris or fall-out, it would resemble something quite humorous, absurdist and disturbing. The ideas for a ‘plot’ Rashidi came up with were very unusual and he offered them as a guide for his performers and actors to help negotiate the tough scene landscapes he set them to manoeuver. Later, in editing, he eradicated the plot points, destroying the bridge once everyone was across. The initial synopsis that was suggested to me still excites and proves to be an interesting route through the lower levels of the film: A devious and low-grade hustler named Nicholas Fox is trying to make contact with the infamous Scorpio and Boris Remy, two evil (and perhaps supernatural) individuals who run some kind of notorious, hush-hush, underground society/club. His only connection to them is through an ex-henchman, Sergeant-Major Barrett, who is now a patient in a mental institution. Fox makes contact with others in order to complete his mission but it appears Boris and Scorpio have plans of their own…

We are introduced to characters such as Massaro and Sylvia, two mysterious individuals who reappear throughout, and in the case of the former, we are offered an antidote to the film itself, but he purposely eludes us. For me, Massaro is the emotional core and he is crushed between some of the heaviest scenes with the weight of the film balancing on his shoulders. He exercises, lifts weights and appears lost in thought as he sits alone, almost as if he is preparing for war. The spellbinding rituals of the two characters named ‘Strange Woman 1’ and ‘Strange Woman 2’ are central to the film’s key themes. The scenes with ‘Strange Woman 1’ involving paint and miniature objects are ethereal and gentle while also extremely sensuous and disturbing. Similarly ‘Strange Woman 2’ is mysterious and erotic as she devours a bowl of strawberries in an intensely assertive performance. We are introduced to Herr Käferholz, perhaps the central character, who embodies both Cinema and apocalypse. Käferholz, as it reads in the press release, “becomes so engrossed in his erotic fixations that he experiences humankind’s most primal state of existence”.  Though ultimately the film itself is the protagonist, a God-like container negotiating its own terms, finally, and self-detonating and killing everyone.

The experiences of working on this film were very special and exciting. The work was vigorous and highly concentrated since some of the most intense scenes were shot back to back with bulk of Le Cain’s brooding and mysterious upcoming feature, Cloud of Skin, in which I play a lead character. Naturally the proceedings took place in a relic, a haunted seaside hotel where we stayed for the duration of the shoot. By day, Le Cain took us through empty dining rooms, bedrooms and rooftops, and by night Rashidi had us waltzing in ballrooms and screaming in desolate bars. Nights would often culminate with Le Cain leading expeditions down into hidden corridors, deeper and deeper into the bowels of the hotel. On the final evening we sat in the lobby, hunched over our equipment and staring into the mirror-surface of the coffee table: still seeing patches of mascara and face paint in the reflection, the residue of the makeup Rashidi and Atoosa Pour Hosseini had created for our characters. Only then did we acknowledge the one or two other guests who had probably heard our howling and illness from beyond their locked doors.

While Rashidi shot several key scenes at the Bray Head Hotel, the rest of the film was scheduled and photographed in a variety of locations such as abandoned buildings, a film studio and various natural environments all over the course of a full year. But one remarkable (and consistent) element was the tangible atmosphere that was created even before the camera started recording, and that atmosphere exists in the final film. The mood was established in a detailed and methodical fashion and it was so strong and successful at times that the actors were literally twitching and grinning with anticipation in between takes as the director slowly fed them the next piece of the puzzle.

“The tables have turned, now you are completely destroyed, you recall what Boris and Scorpio made you do…those horrible acts that will haunt you to the end of your days! You don’t care about hustling anymore…  it means nothing to you! You are stuck in this insane asylum; your only visitor is this asshole! He only wants to use you, just as the others did… what are you going to do?” I could overhear directions such as these issued by Rashidi for one of the characters. Once the lights went down and the focus was set, you were transported to a foreign universe with a system of forces urging your forward.

The destruction of mise-en-scène is very powerful and intriguing from the perspective of a viewer and a participant. A simple source lamp with a small kick from the side rendering the characters to the center of a black mass, that might well have spread, top to bottom, beyond the frame across a mile of darkness. The more the scenes progressed, the more the black seemed to close in on the performers until it was so intense that while pursuing the dialogue you felt entirely swallowed by darkness. When it became too much, you would find yourself surfacing for air only to be blinded by the source lamp which hovered over the scene like the searchlight from a police helicopter. Once we arrived on location and set up the equipment, the set threateningly formed around us, and we had no choice but to film our way out!

Throughout the production of Ten Years in the Sun Rashidi used the official film blog as a personal journal and over the twelve months he projected his thoughts on the project and its metamorphoses. From this you can deduce that producing a film under a significantly small budget is not necessarily detrimental to the finished work. Rashidi has constantly challenged the perceptions of zero budget filmmaking. And what is zero-budget filmmaking? It is something that can strand filmmakers on a lonely, twisted and bitter island with nothing but their own Stockholm syndrome for company. Hardly the case for this filmmaker whose filmography offers many unique projects of all sizes ranging from moderate funding to zero budget and back again.  In fact I cannot imagine Ten Years in the Sun being any more refined, bigger or louder even if it was assimilated into an industry mega-structure. Perhaps the only difference is that he would have lowered Jann Clavadetscher into an actual volcano as opposed to exploding the universe in his face through a series of 4K plates and fast shifting timelapses of a natural world in disarray. In his vast filmography it is hard to tell the difference between his funded projects and many of his zero budget works; the establishment and maintenance of a high standard in aesthetic and sonic quality is first and foremost in his philosophy and he has found methods of imposing this across the whole spectrum of his work. Having said this, it is clear that each project is developing from the last and the usual slipstreams of very low budget production have lately become inadequate for nurturing his increasingly ambitious projects. Whatever its degree of success, Ten Years In The Sun is a clear indication that Rashidi requires and deserves more substantial means for his future filmmaking.

When making a film you have to acknowledge the elephant in the room; a film must know that it is a film and the audience must be aware of that too. Furthermore, in order to truly express yourself in a medium you must fully know the history of that medium. A film critic and friend of mine once made this extreme and provocative statement: “there are two types of cinephile: one is a vampire who feeds on Cinema, only watching films here and there; partial filmographies with large spaces in their cinematic knowledge, in fact this type of cinephile is not a true cinephile, he/she is a cancer on the Art of Cinema. While the other is a person who seeks out everything they can from a director and digests the entire filmography. Then investigates who that person’s influences were and absorbs their filmography, and so on. They repeat this process and soon they have swallowed a whole period of time. They must watch every single piece of work by a director and perhaps (sometimes without realizing it) they are living their lives in terms of Cinema. Constantly seeking more knowledge- they go further and further in order to see more- they would sell their own mothers for a trip to the cinema.” Rashidi is clearly a case of the latter category, a passionate and hardcore cinephile whose existence has integrated entirely into the seventh art, and whose work illustrates an expressive and symbiotic relationship with the history of Cinema. Ten Years in the Sun is a detailed love letter to film history.

While discussing Dušan Makavejev and ‘the country of Cinema’, lecturer and writer Lorrain Mortimer quotes Stanley Cavell, who said that the history of film has human faces “more familiar to me than the faces of the neighbours of all the places I have lived”. She continues contextualizing his words by saying that memories of movies “are strand over strand with memories of life” and that certain moments from films seen many years ago “will nag as vividly as moments from childhood”. In the case of Rashidi’s (and indeed Maximilian Le Cain’s) films, what if the assumed structures of memory break down, where do memories of life end and memories of Cinema begin? Taken as concepts, these notions have been subjected to constant interrogation throughout Rashidi’s work to date. Just as audiences apparently cowered as the train arrived at the station in 1895, or stared in awe when Buster Keaton leapt through a cinema screen and into a film in Sherlock Jr (1924), Ten Years in the Sun marks a point where cinema has come tumbling forth, once again opening a unique window to a strange realm populated by bizarre and colourful creatures. Most of them here, devious, evil degenerates, contained in a single stream of light that glows on a matte-white cloth in the center of a dark and potentially infinite space.

For me, the greatest films are those that truly reach out and take something from you, even sometimes by force! You leave the cinema in a daze and pat down your pockets before rushing back through the aisles to see what you could have dropped. Only it is not that simple. Whatever Cinema takes, it keeps it for good; whether it is a specific feeling tied to a particular thought, image or something completely inconceivable, it has been extracted and the audience must give it up to the screen. And though you cannot recall what was ‘taken’, the next time you watch that film you will see it, and it will all come rushing back, harder than before- biting through any nostalgia- and there it is, actually in the film itself, waving back at you like a ghost. I think Ten Years in the Sun is a film that truly meditates on this idea while simultaneously fulfilling this cinematic relationship for all those lucky enough to see it. There are very few films that will help you remember to forget.

Ten Years in the Sun will recieve its world premiere at Jameson Dublin International Film Festival on March 27th, 2015.

Words: Dean Kavanagh Thanks to: Maximilian Le Cain