Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Tulse Luper Suitcases Part 1: The Moab Story (2003): Americans are corrupt

The Tulse Luper Suitcases Part 1: The Moab Story (2003)
dir: Peter Greenaway

Peter Greenaway has been at the forefront of pseudo-interactive cinema. Starting with The Pillow Book, Greenaway was beginning to experiment with cinema that broke every rule of conventional and arthouse cinema by using onscreen text, screens within screens, scenes within scenes, juxtapositions, voice-overs, repetition, overlaid imagery, intentionally fake sets, image projection, and a whole variety of other methods that smashed through the fourth wall with the force of a wrecking ball. In no other place has this more heavy-handed than here in The Tulse Luper Suitcases.

The Tulse Luper Suitcases is a huge scope of a project. It has its roots as a web project which was a sort of contest examining the life of Tulse Luper through 92 characters in his life, 92 suitcases he left behind, 1001 stories he had to write, and 92 random objects of life. 92 is the Atomic number of Uranium, which is a major theme in The Tulse Luper Suitcases, which is subtitled The Personal History of Uranium.

The website for The Tulse Luper Suitcases, however, appears still somewhat unfinished, as it is supposed to be a whole network of suitcases, events, characters, and real life history. But, as you'll see over the next three days, The Tulse Luper Suitcases isn't simple or easy.

Following The Tulse Luper Suitcases website were three 2-hour movies. Six hours to explore the life of Tulse Luper. Following that, there was a television show of 16 episodes, which seems to use a lot of the footage of the initial 2 hour movies (and has close to the same running length), as well as A Life in Suitcases which is a condensation of the 6 hour edition into 2 hours.

And, following the website, the 3 movies, the re-edited movie, and the television show, Greenaway also had installations which explored the life of Tulse Luper through the use of short repeated videos projected on multiple screens throughout a warehouse. In essence, the Tulse Luper Suitcases are the basis of what is now termed a Vine, in that most of these videos are very very short loops of 10 seconds or less. But, Greenaway used these to form a singular pastiche as an installation.

One of the debates that should be surrounding The Tulse Luper Suitcases is whether any of the above information is actually necessary to the project. Should the movies be stand alone films completely separate from the website? Or, should everything be taken as one big whole with the installations, that very few people had a chance to see, and the website and the show and the films all recalling and informing each other, making this a project for one person to get lost in for months as they create the lists upon lists and networks that the website was attempting to make.

The review that follows, as well as the next 2 reviews, will ignore all of the other media and focus solely on the 3 2-hour movies. While, I am not of the mind that no project can have appendices outside the main body of work, if a project is of a large enough scale, then each piece should be able to stand on its own.

The Moab Story

Peter Greenaway has stated that Tulse Luper is his alter ego. Indeed, Tulse Luper has had periodic references made to him throughout Greenaway's oeuvre. But, Tulse Luper is also a physical parallel to the development of Uranium in the modern world. And, to top it off, he's also a figure to explore the various aspects that eventually went into the development of the bomb.

The film version of The Tulse Luper Suitcases is subtitled "a life in 16 episodes," with the first movie containing the first three episodes of Tulse Luper's life, moving Luper from London to Utah to Belgium in episodic formats during the run up to World War II.

The first episode is Tulse Luper as a child in London, playing World War I games with his friends. They had a game crossing yards which were in reference to the historic areas or battles of World War 1. At the end, they break the final wall and Luper is punished by his father with imprisonment in a shed. Though, his friend Martino Knockavelli visits him and tries to define him according to a book with facial elements segmented out.

The second episode is Tulse Luper exploring Moab, Utah around the time of discovery of Uranium in Utah. While he is looking around at old abandoned towns, and discovering the importance of Utah, he also spies on a hot Mormon wife, and is punished through honey and bees to the genitalia...and then through imprisonment again.

The third episode is Tulse Luper writing in Belgium during the rise of the Nazi party, with his friend Martino while also looking after friends of the Mormons. Until he is imprisoned again, and the Mormon family comes looking for him and for everybody else.

These three episodes just form the bare bones plot on which Greenaway does whatever the fuck he wants to the structure, themes, and style. Some of the post-modern structural elements will stretch through the three movies, some only through two, and others only through this one movie. But, they're all telling.

The three episodes in Part 1 are separated by auditions for the various characters in the movie. The characters will repeat lines that haven't happened, yet, change actors or actresses, and faux-explore the various elements that go into movie making. In a way, Greenaway is having a conversation with the audience, and also with other movies that have preceded him.

It's rather obvious that Tulse Luper's three main conversationalists are History Channel documentaries, Zelig, and Forrest Gump. But, Luper borrows deconstructive elements of the hyperlink culture we started living in, some of which was seen in early adopter movies like Run Lola Run, sketch comedy shows, and sitcom cartoons like The Critic. Of course, Greenaway had already been exploring the limits of the frame and the constant delivery of condensed information since The Pillow Book and Drowning By Numbers.

With The Tulse Luper Suitcases, Greenaway begins deconstructing the constructions of the historical documentaries and biographic shows, and also pointing fingers at the fictionalization of historic events through popular culture. The set he constructed for London was an open stage set with cardboard blocks to represent the various yards or sections that the children crossed. A deconstructionist trait that Greenaway shared with Lars Von Trier's 2003 released Dogville, which even removed those walls for a completely open set.

By exposing the filmic trappings of set design as pure constructionist fiction, Greenaway already opens his firing shots at discussing the corruption of the world. Corruption, of course, being one of the most major themes in every single episode of The Tulse Luper Suitcases. In the first episode, the father is corrupt, the game children play is corrupt, the fictionalization is corrupt, the rehearsals we're shown are probably corrupt, the suitcases are corrupt. Everything is a corrupt commentary on everything else.

As I mentioned, Greenaway isn't just content to tell the story in a linear format. The traditional narrative film is frequently interrupted by talking head historians who are putting false context to the events happening, explaining or over explaining the story, and also introducing us to the various suitcases, most of which are filled with elements taken directly from the story, or with symbolic gestures that comment on the story.

In additional to that, Greenaway uses a style of placing frames over frames, sometimes of the same event, and using the same dialogue, starting to expose the repetition in modern culture for the confused corruption that it is.  We see commercials on repeat, we hear songs played over and over again on the radio, and this was just before America would be plagued by that terrible commercial for HeadOn. By constantly interrupting his own various styles, Greenaway participates in a cinema of frustration. All of our traditional narrative expectations are destroyed, and we try to build our own network of events and suitcases and history, all of which has been corrupted and fictionalized by Greenaway.

Greenaway uses the techniques the heaviest in the first 40 minutes, as he's acclimating us to the techniques he'll be using, as well as to the world he is creating. He will frequently return to his techniques throughout the films, but as he moves into the world of Moab, Utah and Belgium, Greenaway more and more frequently allows the story to play through for longer periods of time.

The main story-based element that Greenaway is criticizing in this first part are the Americans. He seems to be criticizing their handling of the first World War in the London segment. In the Moab, Utah section, he is openly critiquing the weird hyper religions, capitalism, the obsession for torture, and the self-serving nature of Americans. By the time we get to Beligum, and the Mormons enter sided with the Nazis, Greenaway is being completely critical of the Americans, even going so far to hint that they are more corrupt than the Nazis themselves. The Americans in Belgium act more like jackbooted thugs who rape, abuse and imprison people at their will, moreso than the Nazis do on screen.

Contrastingly, Tulse Luper is the constant victim in the first three episodes. He's imprisoned by his father for playing a game. Luper is tortured for spying on the Mormon wife. He is again imprisoned for succumbing to her charms after he was tortured. And, in Belgium, he's imprisoned by the Nazis and then by the Americans as Nazis. By making Luper be an ineffectual victim, Greenaway is starting to expose the corruption of our victim culture, where people who sacrifice are considered to be better people than the ones who do the punishing.

What Greenaway does in Part 1 is lay the corrupt groundwork for Tulse Luper's corrupt journey through the world of World War II, and the history of the 20th century. He introduces his dense post-modern techniques, and basically informs the viewers that, if they can't keep up with his attitude, they're going to suffer. The Tulse Luper Suitcases is a game within a conversation within a corruption within a movie, and it forces you to keep up or die. Some will say that it is cinema of the unpleasant, but I find this overindulgence entertaining, even if it is kind of exhausting.

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