Up Wollstonecraft Street and Down with Rhodes

June 10, 2020 § Leave a comment

I originally posted this in 2015, when the issue of the Rhodes statue erupted. And I had some thoughts on street names as commemoration which I think are worth returning to, now that various Labour councils plan to review these as well as reconsider monuments. It’s high time for this conservative country to confront the past at street level.

Liz Heron`s blog

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There’s no Wollstonecraft Street in the London A-Z, but there will be soon, in a new development behind King’s Cross, where local residents, among others, were given a say in street naming. Mary Wollstonecraft’s was the first name to be picked from a shortlist. It’s an honour long overdue for this passionate philosopher who advocated equal rights and education for both sexes, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, justly known as the mother of feminism; she died in 1797, still in her 30s.
Mary has a blue plaque in Dolben Street near where she once lodged in Southwark, put up by the local council in 2003. In 2011 Islington Council put up a green plaque on the approximate site of the girls’ school she established at Newington Green, where Newington Green Primary now stands. I was there; after the unveiling by the Council’s leader, Catherine…

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Turning to Burton and Apollinaire

May 15, 2020 § 2 Comments

All week I’ve been listening to a new Radio 4 series, ‘The New Anatomy of Melancholy’, which takes Robert Burton’s insights in his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) as the comparative basis for an exploration of mental illness in present-day Britain, in particular the experience of depression. It’s very timely, though probably prepared before the Covid lockdown, and comforting, because, in its emphasis on the social, past and present, it gives context to the lonely, downcast individual, and it always ends with music. Today’s episode, the 5th of 12, looked at poverty and housing, and how mental health in general is affected by cramped living.

I’ve never lived in a house, only flats, first in Glasgow and Lanarkshire, later in Madrid, London, Paris, Venice and London again. It’s not something I’ve ever felt as a deprivation, until now. Low-rise tenement architecture in the west of Scotland was often built so that each flat had its own door to the street, with the privacy of coming and going. For most of my childhood that was the case, in two different locations. In one of these there was a communal backcourt, where washing was hung out and children played.

Right now I’d be very grateful to have my ‘own door’; I’d go out more. Instead I share a staircase and narrow hallway with a dozen other people, with the risk of bumping into one or more of them as I come or go. Fortunately, my neighbours, all of them younger, are helpful and aware of my situation, but I still feel trapped. I do have a small balcony overlooking greenery and I know I’m much better off than many others living in flats.

Black moods have become part of the domestic landscape for many of us, particularly those living alone. Limitations on movement for a couple or a family are one thing, perhaps akin to life in an open prison, whereas solitary confinement has always been designed to drive people mad. And, alas, I find I don’t quite have the staying power of Benvenuto Cellini or the Count of Monte Cristo, though they are great examples to us all. The Count has often cheered me up, especially once he engineers his escape. Dumas was writing a sharp and funny social satire.

Robert Burton said a lot about what can alleviate black moods: shared mirth and merriment, reading…. ‘I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy’ – good advice. We are all finding different ways to avoid it and inevitably sometimes failing. I try to get some mirth and merriment from FaceTime.

I’ve thought often in these weeks of Apollinaire’s necessities for happiness in his short poem ‘Le Chat’, which I’ve always loved.

Je souhaite dans ma maison:

Une femme ayant sa raison,

Un chat passant parmi les livres,

Des amis en toute saison

Sans lesquels je ne peux pas vivre

I’ve sometimes tried to translate ‘Le Chat’, but never succeeded to my own satisfaction. Please respond with your own translation if you’d like to. For the duration at least, there are no longer any friends in my house, and just the fond memory of a cat who would step between the books. So far I am managing, just about, to hang onto ‘ma raison’, however you translate it.

Apollinaire died in the 1918 flu epidemic, while recovering from a head injury in the First World War.

I recommend ‘The New Anatomy of Melancholy’. It’s on at 1.45, after the less cheering World at One.

Emblems and Anthems

February 1, 2020 § 2 Comments

Last night, as people repeatedly shouted ‘Freedom!’ on the radio, and on Channel 4 News I watched the jubilation at a working-class pub in South Shields, the angry, irrational part of me came to the fore and shouted back: Fools! Damn your stupid eyes!
Of course, these triumphalists are not the ones to blame for yesterday’s sad outcome. I just needed to shout at them.
In the years since the referendum, the sensible, rational part of me has urged an attempt to understand the emotions behind what seems wilful misrecognition of what freedom might mean on the part of those who are economically marginal and who feel themselves disregarded by decision-making at Westminster.
Brexit’s right-wing advocates played on this sense of injustice and outdid any logic of the economic and social value in remaining part of the European Union by using the symbolism and frequently sinister rhetoric of nation, shading into that of race. I know understanding that dynamic is important, but today I’m thinking first about those outward things that influence feelings and loyalties, and not just for those who today are triumphant, but for those of us who voted to stay in the EU.
I increasingly find myself despairing at the existential unease of living in the country referred to as the United Kingdom. What do we mean by ‘this country’, ‘this nation’? Britain? England? Scotland? Wales? Ireland (the bit of it broken off in 1922)? It depends on who is speaking and of what, among the many discrepancies involved. For myself, I’m a Scot and an adoptive Londoner. I’m also a native European, by conjunction of birth and geography, an identity reinforced by my having lived in countries on continental Europe, but one also available to all of Britain’s inhabitants. My country lies somewhere among these.
England used to subsume the other nations on the island of Britain, this being not merely the carelessness of insensitive individuals, but part of public discourse. It had long been so (Shakespeare’s ‘this sceptred isle’) and it continued throughout my childhood and youth…. Hearing ourselves disappeared into the dominant national identity was maddening and sometimes painful. In the 80s Scotland acquired a stronger presence, a cultural boost through the dawning prominence of writers, artists and musicians. A boost for our sense of ourselves as Scots, and a little shift in English awareness. The SNP was making waves and in 1997 came devolution to the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood. Wales too got its own devolved government.
Since then there seems to have been a crisis of English identity, in great part deriving from vociferous right-wing sentiment inside and beyond the Tory party. At some point the flag of St George became adopted by extreme right-wing groups, replacing their fondness for the Union Jack, England needing to be plucked out of that flag of four nations and made distinct. The flag of St George has remained a right-wing emblem, while also becoming a little more respectable.
The sense of shortfall in Englishness has fuelled much of the Brexit cause. While loss of empire was the often unspoken feature of the compensatory arguments for national greatness and going it alone, there was a more open fear of England shrinking as the other nations of Britain fill their own space and even threaten independence, and a case has been made that England is politically under-represented in some of its regions. Not straightforward things to address.
At primary school in the west of Scotland I was taught about flags. We learned that the Union Jack was a composite and that we had our own flags: the blue-and-white Cross of St Andrew, now commonly known as the Saltire, and the Lion Rampant, which I preferred as a child: it was the more colourful and had an animal on it. Both predate the Union. The Saltire is now firmly established as the Scottish flag. As for the Union Jack, to me back then it was the emblem of both the sectarian and political divides, because deployed by the Unionist Party (what the Scottish Tories called themselves). The majority of working-class Catholics in the west of Scotland voted Labour while most Unionist voters were Protestants.
I have a memory of our class being hurried out one day to the bridge near the school, under which the Royal train was due to pass, and lined up against the railing with little Union Jacks placed in selected hands, to be waved at the right moment. The train hurtled along the track so fast that it came and went in a flash. We hardly saw it and the Queen certainly wouldn’t have seen us since we looked down facing her direction of travel. Did our teachers put us there (out of Republican sentiment perhaps, since we were mostly at least half-Irish) or is it just my unconscious that constructs the memory that way. Or that nobody instructed to drag us out there had any idea where the Queen was going or coming from. The little flags had no more outings. They weren’t us. Nor was the Queen.
In the 70s I often went out and about with a camera and I have a series of pictures from the Royal Jubilee in 1977, where there is a grotesque amount of Union Jack waving. That same year, in August, the National Front marched through Lewisham carrying industrial-size Union Jacks on long poles and placards inciting racial hatred. This was to be an extremely violent event and it was most fully documented in Camerawork magazine with the pictures of freelance press photographers. I’ve just been looking at my copy of that issue; those Union Jacks are very menacing.
Not a flag to be proud of. Flags have to be benign, untainted by racism or overweening nationalism in the way this flag of empire has become.
It might soon become obsolete, if Scotland does achieve independence, or Ireland unites. But now that it has become the flag of Brexit it has already had its day.
Scotland continues to fly the European flag above the Holyrood parliament. Why shouldn’t we elsewhere follow suit? We could ask our town halls to raise it (assuming we live in non-Tory remain constituencies where such a plea might be welcome). I suggest this because bereft of European comfort I feel the need to cling to some benign and positive emblem: a show of European solidarity.
Yesterday, as a kind of solace, I listened to Beethoven’s ninth Symphony, which concludes with the Ode to Joy, the composer’s expression of the French Revolution’s ideals and the EU anthem. It would be good to hear this wonderful, uplifting masterpiece played more often in public – and there can’t be any ban on that. Personally, I’d recommend that it be played at the end of every classical music concert, which makes perfect sense since these are so often performed by international musicians. Otherwise we have no anthem. Rule Britannia and God Save the Queen are an utter disgrace, the musical debris of empire. Ditto Land of Hope and Glory. And it wouldn’t take a Beethoven to write a superior replacement for them.
For now, I’m signing up to ask for individual EU citizenship through the campaign for an EU associate membership scheme. It might not result in the desired document, but if millions of us do it we keep our European flame alive. So please join me:
https://www.stayeuropean.org/?fbclid=IwAR3bE9Y9EKxdOroM-hIZ1YWeakVgOzo77mkX9zJF0zqUAUO81HyaFUhWL9E
We only lost because we were out-manoeuvred by the December election. And the parties promising a second referendum got more votes in total than those supporting Brexit. Doesn’t that make us the people’s voice? Let us continue to be listened to.

Film Highlights of 2019 and Films Re-seen

December 31, 2019 § Leave a comment

Film highlights of 2019

Pedro Almodróvar’s Pain and Glory

Jafar Panahi’s 3 Faces

Once Upon A Time in Hollywood

Always controversial, often dislikeable, Tarantino nonetheless succeeds again. His satire on Tinseltown heroics is hugely funny and entertaining.

Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma

Transit

How the past lives in the present and the present constructs the past. Another powerful exploration of European history from Christian Petzold, who is probably the foremost director in Germany today.

Ash Is the Purest White

Another of Jia Zhangke’s stunning fables of Chinese capitalism’s brutality and indifference, a vision of the 21st-century’s Wild West; it’s the story of a woman’s strength and self-sacrifice for the sake of love. She’s ultimately defeated, yet remains unforgettable.

This year, though only on DVD, I also finally saw Claire Denis’ Chocolat. And, for the first time, Vampyr (1932): Carl Dreyer’s first sound film and one of cinema’s greatest masterpieces.

Films Re-Seen in 2019, though not in cinemas

The Battle of Algiers (1966) – I may have forgotten how good Gillo Pontecorvo’s account of the Algerian War really is, or just not realised this in the first place, when I saw it some 40 years ago.

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) – Illuminating and heart-breakingly eloquent about Spain under Franco, a country of which I have my own distant memories, Victor Erice’s first film is a cinematic poem full of yearning.

Top Hat (1935) – I need to re-see the rest, but this may well be Fred and Ginger’s best dancing and best movie.

Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story (1942) – screwball comedy of the highest order. Claudette Colbert gets the best lines in a wonderfully witty script that delights in small weirdnesses of character and situation.

To Be or Not to Be (1942) – a worthy candidate for the best comedy ever made. Lubitsch combined with the great Carole Lombard, in Warsaw, against the Nazis.

As well as People on Sunday, Muriel, A Man Escaped, L’Atalante, The Third Man, The Wind Will Carry Us, The Lady from Shanghai, The Lady Vanishes

It’s a list to cheer myself up. A reminder that film helps make the intolerable less intolerable, be it a broken country or a broken shoulder.

The list could be longer, but time is short. Tomorrow is another year.

Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory

August 24, 2019 § 2 Comments

I think this is Almodóvar’s best film since Volver, and probably even better than that energetic women-centred comedy thriller.
Pain and Glory features familiar Almodóvar themes of romantic love, passionate desire, friendship and the mother-son relationship. But the director is about to turn 70 and there’s a new theme: the one about being old. And this is the best film I’ve ever seen about ageing, though it’s also true that when I was younger I might not have noticed earlier candidates for that kind of praise. Anyway, this is ageing lived, as one can expect from Almodóvar, in primary colours.
Whether or not it’s foregrounded, autobiography is always there in his films, and always richly transformed. With just the right amount of irony, humour and charm, Antonio Banderas plays the Almodóvar figure of Salvador Mallo, a hugely successful film director now afflicted by too many disabling physical ailments to continue working, and a daily slave to a pallid cocktail of crushed pills and yoghurt. Flashbacks to childhood punctuate bouts of depressive idleness and the boy Salva appears, first with his mother, the glamorous and dynamic Penelope Cruz, then at school in 60s Spain, where, a talented choral soloist, he is nurtured as a singer while being deprived of a broader education. Inventive use of graphics and illustration shows us what he missed out on and later acquired: geography through travel, anatomy through a growing familiarity with migraines, arthritis, back problems, tinnitus, insomnia and a worrying propensity to choke when eating, drinking or smoking ‘horse’.
The heroin is a new experience, introduced to him by Alberto, an actor in a state of extreme disrepair and, no longer able to afford Madrid, exiled to the sticks near the Escorial, that vast grim palace built by Philip II. (I remember, decades ago, when Franco still ruled, hitchhiking there in the snow from Madrid, on a Sunday, so it turned out to be closed – but the sight of it was more than enough). Salvador hasn’t seen or spoken to Alberto for 32 years, since his fury at Alberto’s work on the last film they did together, which must have stalled the latter’s career and led to this seedy decline. Now the film is to be re-released and, revising his opinion, he invites Alberto to join him in a Q&A.
This kind of reunion after decades can only happen with ageing, when there’s actually been enough time, and it happens more than once in the film, in part restoring the past and refreshing the present with revived emotions, and even new, defining choices. Of course, it’s a consolation that numerous events, experiences and insights can only occur if life is long, even though living it gets annoyingly complicated.
For three of the film’s characters, heroin leads to addiction. Addiction underlies the whole of the film’s trajectory, and not just to heroin.  Then what it takes to overcome it: a small decision, a step  towards it, and, together with contingency, so much can change (coincidences are an Almodóvar trope).
This must be Almodóvar’s most meditative film. Its pace is slower; it has less melodrama; less, but more limpid, dialogue, and more visible thinking on the part of characters, as they stop for second thoughts or seize at chance.
At the heart of Pain and Glory, more than anything, is the process of creative work: writing, acting, film-making, drawing, crafting, its capacity to revitalise, and how through it we better understand what we know and feel. There’s a wonderful scene when Alberto, thanks to Salvador’s generosity, has uncovered a project that he senses means renewal, and we witness this: the actor who transforms himself through performance, becoming compellingly stronger and more alive, the audience transfixed, and in it someone whose presence has consequences for Salvador. One of its consequences is a long sensual kiss.
There’s the deeper discovery on Salvador’s part, with help from his agent and loyal friend, Mercedes, of a moment from his childhood turned into art.
Visiting an exhibition of naïve art, and seeing the drawing relating to his past, a find from a flea-market, he’s told by the gallery owner that what’s in the show is largely ‘by people who don’t know they’re artists’. It’s a line that expresses a very poignant truth about wealth, poverty and opportunity, Salvador’s s own knowledge of life.
The drawing illuminates a memory, of first erotic awakening. Having it leads to the film’s culmination, an ending that could so easily be corny and sentimental. Here it’s done with unexpected delicacy.
Pain and Glory is vivid and vibrant, like the best of Almodóvar’s films. I think in the end it may be the very best, and surely not a swansong.

Remembering (and Mis-remembering) Tiananmen

June 4, 2019 § Leave a comment

This is what I blogged five years ago on the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Today is the 30th.
Last weekend I saw Jia Zhangke’s film, A Touch of Sin, in which he continues to show us how life in China is shaped by the economic and social upheavals initiated in the 1980s. In Platform (2000), set on a remote edge of the Great Wall as that decade proceeds, and Still Life (2006), shot in the midst of flooding for the Three Gorges Dam, the country’s physical and moral landscape is seen to be degraded in the interests of a brutal free-market capitalism driven by a dictatorial and corrupt state. All the while that state still describes itself as Communist.
Both Platform and Still Life intimate the staggeringly destructive speed at which changes have been imposed. Enormous disparities in wealth have arisen as the fruits of China’s globalised economy fall into the hands of the few. There is an expanding middle class, but also a large and growing class of the industrially exploited, the displaced and dispossessed, who are merely the tools of this enrichment. A Touch of Sin draws its material from actual events to create a contemporary compendium of four intertwined stories whose characters have reached a breaking point that provokes extreme violence. This is China as the Wild West, a place of lawless greed, sickening corruption and shocking despair. I’ve seen only these three of Jia Zhangke’s films, but their beauty and squalor stay in the mind. They indict the crime of inflicting the drudgery and tedium of lives with their potential squeezed out. If cinema can have a poetics of boredom while never being boring, Jia Zhangke is its master.
I hadn’t noticed that the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre was imminent. Once reminded, I remembered how, 25 years ago, we were gripped by what was happening in Beijing and beyond. Night after night we watched the news as, through May into June, the student occupation grew, prompting huge demonstrations by its sympathisers in Beijing. The capital was the focus, Tiananmen the symbolic space for resistance, but we heard too about the surge of protest in cities across China: Chengdu, Wuhan, Nanjing (names that meant nothing until located on an atlas), and Shanghai – where factory workers went on strike, as did railway workers elsewhere. These shared the Tiananmen students’ demands for greater freedom of speech and of the press, and for a return to workers’ control in industry. The principle of equality prevailed along with the call for freedom; we watched students in Tiananmen Square singing the Internationale.
Our warm feelings of solidarity were shattered by disbelief at the savagery of the outcome, at the knowledge that the millions watching live TV from sofas all over the world had been of no avail, afforded no protection. All we could do was join a demonstration outside the Chinese embassy in London.
But it matters that we saw, even though we saw little of the murderous repression that followed (Beijing became unsafe for curious journalists, with or without cameras). In 2014, for all the contradictions of its apparent openness, much in China’s vastness is hidden from foreign eyes. It ruthlessly continues to persecute protesters and suppress democracy, maintaining a state of amnesia about 1989 through internet censorship. It goes on giving the lie to Western claims that a free market will inevitably lead to a free society, as if capitalism itself were a prerequisite for democracy.
On Wednesday, the anniversary, I watched Newsnight. After some footage of Tiananmen and the account of a photographer who was there, there came a studio discussion with three guests: Wuer Kaixi, a former student leader who is now a merchant banker in Taiwan, Keju Jin, an LSE lecturer in economics and Martin Jacques, in the 1980s editor of Marxism Today, a publication whose title was in itself contentious, given its Euro-Communist roots and its appeal to the right wing of the Labour Party. While the ex-dissident spoke vaguely about being anti-Communist, the latter two proved to be apologists for the Chinese regime, the woman from the LSE blandly pronouncing that the Tiananmen massacre was insignificant compared with the fact of  ‘800 million people lifted out of poverty’. Martin Jacques echoed her point that there is not enough emphasis on major improvements in China and agreed on the need for ‘stability’ if there is to be economic development. Even more astonishing was his dismissal of Tiananmen’s significance: ‘It wasn’t a China-wide movement that drew in loads of people’, he said, blatantly contradicting recorded coverage at the time.
I wondered at the absence of the BBC’s own highly regarded China editor, Carrie Gracie, who has been filing TV and radio reports since the 90s, and of any notable China specialists: scholars, researchers or journalists with sound experience of the country and the events of 1989. This shabby discussion left the impression of a last-minute cobbling together for an unplanned slot. Not just shabby, but shameful. Newsnight has been sadly in decline ever since the Jimmy Saville debacle, when several of its more distinguished journalists left the programme. But its coverage of Tiananmen hit a very low point. It’s what impelled me to write this piece.
Isobel Hilton has been researching China for some four decades. You can read her New Statesman article of June 4 online:
http://www.newstatesman.com/2014/05/tiananmen-s-hungry-ghosts
If you’re too young to remember Tiananmen you can also read the Amnesty International report published in August 1989. It gives a detailed chronicle of what happened in Beijing and an account of the following days in Chengdu, when more than 300 workers and students were killed.
http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/ASA17/009/1990/en/f5924218-ee6a-11dd-96f1-9fdd7e6f4873/asa170091990en.html
Some years ago I saw a documentary screened by Channel 4 on the Tiananmen aftermath, filmed by stealth as the students’ parents converged on the square demanding to know what had happened to their children. Wave after wave of them were shot. When I googled yesterday I could find no reference to this film (if anyone knows about it, please tell me). However, my googling threw up something unexpected: the US National Security Archive documents on Tiananmen Square in 1989. These include cables from the US ambassador, commenting on the situation. One document describes splits in the military and fighting between different military units: ‘By the morning of 6 June it appeared that the situation in Beijing was teetering on the brink of political chaos or even civil war…’
You can read these at:
http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB16/#d13
Another way to remember Tiananmen would be to see A Touch of Sin. It is one more of the regime’s contradictions that Jia Zhangke is allowed to make his films.

High Life

May 21, 2019 § Leave a comment

High Life appears to deny us the sensory pleasures we have come to expect from the films of Claire Denis, whether it’s the vibrant light and colour of Chocolat and Beau Travail (filmed respectively in Cameroon and Djibouti), the busy emotional warmth of 35 Shots of Rum or the comedy of Let the Sunshine In. As I watched this stark film I felt both gripped and reluctant. Afterwards I decided it lacked what had made her other films successful, perhaps because her choice of science fiction was too much of an experiment, interesting and probing while failing to generate excitement. More precisely it’s space fiction, a genre whose claustrophobia tends to repel me: confinement, exterior darkness, exile from Earth. But this is Claire Denis; the film took hold overnight and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
It’s hard to say what’s at the heart of High Life. That’s how her films work, elliptically, leaving us to fill in narrative gaps and consider our responses to a scrutiny that never simplifies the complicated nature of human behaviour. They make us think, first of all with our senses.
Viewed from outside, the spaceship owes nothing to the baroque or streamlined forms of cinema’s interstellar vehicles. Instead it’s a numbered crate, a utilitarian container for the ‘refuse’ of humanity, criminals who have exchanged the death penalty for a trip beyond the solar system, most of them young. Their hazy mission involves collecting data from the dangerous vicinity of black holes, research that might give a boost to Earth’s dwindling resources, though Earth is now much too far away and long ago for rescue or return. This information emerges only in the film’s middle section, in fragments. To start with we see a young man, Monte and his baby girl, Willow, alone.
The camera wanders, taking in a lush green garden where vegetables grow, prompting the thought that perhaps the spaceship set is nothing more than that, a trick now exposed – Denis often sets up such ambiguities: about relationships between characters, about how rooms and buildings are inhabited (space in its general sense), and these serve not only to make us more alert, but to suggest lingering perceptions. There’s a more striking instance towards the end of the film: a new character, it seems, until we realise who she is, though by then we’ve constructed a scenario that doesn’t quite get revised. It just thwarts taboo.
Robert Pattinson’s Monte moves briskly between childcare and maintenance tasks, assailed by earthly memories, along what appears to be a circular corridor that immediately recalls Tarkovsky’s Solaris – while his shorn head and remembered walk with a dog through marshy puddles hark back to Stalker. Tarkovsky is an avowed influence for Denis. The mood of memory and solitude persists, broken only by Willow’s crying, to which Monte reacts with parental tenderness.
As well as attending to the dilapidated spacecraft’s leaking walls and fleeting power cuts, he reports daily to a computer with the false updates required to maintain life support: all is well, most of us still alive. Soon we see him retrieving bodies from cyrogenic refrigeration, encasing them in spacesuits and casting them into the black void. They descend, very slowly, in a concerted upright drift.
Flashback introduces us to these former companions and to the regime of Dr Dibs (Juliette Binoche), on board for crimes of her own, and obsessed by her mission to bring about reproduction. Sperm is collected with the bribe of a pill, while the women are tied down for insemination. Among the men, only Monte refuses participation. Likewise he never enters the ‘fuckbox’ (where we do see Binoche in a lengthy scene). He describes himself as choosing monkish celibacy. Violence and fury erupt as bodies are manipulated and drugged. There are two rapes, one committed by a man, another by a woman.
Bodies and their functions come to the fore all the time in this film.
Then there’s Monte and the baby again, the film’s pace slowed by quiet calm, an absence of panic and a greater use of close-ups. Robert Pattinson’s finely shaped head next to the baby’s: love and intimacy. Monte gives her advice she’s unlikely to need, and cites taboos regarding what not to eat or drink, even if it’s recycled. With Denis there’s always humour.
What I couldn’t stop thinking about is the passing of time. An early intimation comes when Monte’s friend Tcherny mentions that his wife on Earth will be taking care of their son and is reminded that this son will now be old or dead, but it’s only much later that the stretching of time is truly felt. When Earth days were logged with corresponding ‘local days’ I tried a mental calculation; tricky and mind-boggling. Time doesn’t flow; in deep space there’s an awful lot of it to get through.
Until that point the film had largely ignored the cinematic conventions for conveying the lapsing of time: dissolves, fades, blank screens etc, and, primarily, the visible ageing of characters. It concertinas the vast tracts of years that the narrative allows to have passed, a narrative where cause and effect, event and consequence have to be recalibrated. Puzzling, perhaps shocking actions acquire explanations; further mysteries emerge. Of course there’s repetition. I keep seeing Monte scrape at his facial stubble with something that’s not a razor and is probably actually a scraper.
Ideas, moral questions, reversed assumptions are embedded in High Life; they’re not obvious or easy to grasp, yet they’re potent. This is Denis’ most gnomic film. It resists any overall interpretation; the effect is disturbing and peculiarly stimulating.

3 Faces: Panahi’s Iran

April 15, 2019 § Leave a comment

Cinema has an honourable history of exiles: directors, actors, writers, producers and others with the diverse skills involved. Some 3000 left Austria and Germany when the Nazis came to power, or soon after, most of them ending up in Hollywood. McCarthyist blacklisting brought Hollywood refugees to London and Paris. Pinochet’s Chile and the Argentinian Junta drove the likes of Raúl Ruiz, Valeria Sarmiento, Fernando Solanas and Eduardo de Gregorio to seek safety in Europe. There must be many more recent examples of persecuted filmmakers, since the world right now isn’t short of repressive regimes, but Iran is striking for the new wave of cinema that’s come out of it in the last two decades, bringing us the films of Abbas Kiarostami, Asghar Farhadi and Jafar Panahi among others.

Before I saw Panahi’s 3 Faces I supposed that, like Farhadi (A Separation, About Ellie) and a number of other Iranian directors, he had left Iran by now. State condemnation has meant that, starting with The Circle (2000), all his films have been banned. After several arrests and a period of imprisonment he himself was banned from making more films. Watching 3 Faces, I was convinced it must have been filmed in rural Turkey, near the border – Turkish is the first language of the local people in the film. In fact the location was a province of Iran which borders on Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iraq, and Panahi is not only still living in the country but, against great odds, he continues to make films illegally.

To continue working in flagrant opposition and ever-present risk (not least for those who smuggle the films out of Iran) would probably be impossible for Panahi were his case not supported internationally by the protests of prominent cinema names.

For Offside (2006), whose characters were young female football fans aiming to circumvent the ban on women at football matches, he secretly filmed at a World Cup match using a small video camera. This Is Not a Film (2010) is a house-arrest diary where he plays himself, at home, as people occasionally turn up and a pet iguana climbs the bookshelves. Taxi Teheran (2015) is filmed with him driving and talking to a succession of (clearly prearranged) passengers. In 3 Faces he still plays himself, only this time in remote countryside, on a road trip with the actress Behnaz Jafari, also playing herself. Their destination is a village where mobile phones and satellite dishes speak of modernity, but the status of women remains medieval.

Panahi put women’s suffering in Iran at the centre of The Circle, the very first Iranian film I saw. Its protagonists are women who have been in prison for opposing or defying state edicts on what women are allowed to be and do. It’s devastating, full of shadows and fear, terrifying in its intimate immediacy. Yet it left me feeling heartened, that such courageous women as these exist and resist in Iran and that such a film could be made. All five of Panahi’s films that I’ve seen, and The Circle is the darkest, have left me feeling strangely cheered.

3 Faces is at first reminiscent of Abbas Kiarostami’s 1999 The Wind Will Carry Us (in fact Panahi worked as assistant director on one of Kiarostami’s films). A city-dweller fetches up in a remote village with exploitative intent and instead has his eyes gently opened to other, more empathic ways of valuing life. It’s funny and mysterious, a beautiful film in which nature is scrutinised with wonder. 3 Faces is also gentle but it avoids pastoralism – even though the hills and the winding road have parts to play. Its realism is humorously alert to what separates city and country dwellers, and with no illusions. His critique of the regime is unmistakable though unemphatic.

Panahi on the screen, but beyond the confines of a flat or a taxi, made me momentarily think I was seeing not a film he had made, just one he was in, in other words a documentary about him finally at large, by someone else. And this awareness of the director on or off duty, himself or self-as-character remains interestingly alive throughout. At the same time the other main characters are actors: the aspiring drama student, the flourishing star and the shunned has-been.

The film opens with a mobile-phone video of a desperate teenager embarking on suicide because, as she explains, her life is not worth living: forbidden to take up a place at drama school in the city, she has been tricked into a marriage engagement. Both Panahi and Jafari have received the video and, though doubting its veracity, have undertaken to find the young Marziyeh or her dead body, knowing also that whichever it is will involve a cover-up for the sake of ‘honour’. No one in the village knows what has become of her.

Thinking about the documentary manner in which things unfold, I realised that Panahi’s style doesn’t derive from the neorealists, but perhaps more from Antonioni. His camera lingers enigmatically, on a streetlight where there isn’t a street and there is a scarcity of electricity, on the village darkness that swallows up houses and people, on the landscape, as if asking it a question or waiting for a visual revelation. And the film’s rhythm relies on its silences. This apparent slowness, however, is frequently interrupted by great economy of action and abrupt, perfectly judged edits.

3 Faces reminded me of L’Avventura, though here there’s a disappearance from the start and the ensuing search has a great deal to tell us about what happens in this place.

There’s a dialogue between Panahi and a local man asking him about two actors whom he imagines both living in Teheran. One, from before (the theocracy is only implied), has left Iran and cannot come back, the other cannot leave, so they will not meet, Panahi tells him, lightly describing what must be his own deeply felt sense of disconnection. We’ve already heard about the famous actress from ‘before’ who lives on the outskirts of the village and is despised as an outsider because she’s alone and without children. Jafari visits her but Panahi stays on the road above the woman’s rudimentary little house. This non-meeting of the two is symbolic of the same kind of separation: she is in internal exile, either forced or by necessity, and he is not allowed to leave. She sends out gifts to him that indicate her continuing creative life: a recording of poetry, a book. We never see her face. From the little house there comes music, and we glimpse the silhouetted figures of the two women dancing.

Jafari has abandoned the shoot of the film she was in to travel to the village. Tearful because of the video, she contains her anxiety and adopts the smiling, actress face the villagers recognise. Later, her distress erupts into violent anger filmed from some distance. The only other instance of violence is handled obliquely. Waiting in his car, outside Marziyeh’s home, Panahi is stared at by her brother, an enraged young man so aggressive he seems deranged. He’s juggling a rock from hand to hand. So much is condensed into this very short scene: Panahi gets out of the car, exposing himself to the threat while turning his back on it. The camera moves closer to show his weary stoicism as he looks out through the wire mesh fencing; visible across a field is the despised actress, painting, also back turned, her canvas a splash of far-off colour.

I noticed one brief review that with faint praise dismissed 3 Faces as minor in relation to Panahi’s other work. On the contrary, it’s of a piece with it all, driven by his commitment to persist in engaging with what it means to live in Iran. This is a film of questions and ideas about freedom and equality.

Meaning is played out at different levels between image and subtext, what is unsaid and what is visible or only heard. The closing shot, framed by the now damaged windscreen, shows two women getting further and further away, moving with urgency and in haste, ahead of the car stalled by oncoming vehicles. The road, metaphorical or otherwise, might well lead them nowhere safe, but they embody an autonomous and active force; we might call it solidarity. The emotional effect is potent.

After Life

April 5, 2019 § Leave a comment

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life is now on at the BFI in a season of his films. Of those I’ve seen, the most recent being Shoplifters, this is his best. It’s extraordinary.

In a shabby building surrounded by autumnal trees, a benign and diligent bureaucracy presides over the arrival of the newly dead. This is a place of transition where a new intake is received routinely every Monday morning. In the course of the week each of them must choose and relive a single happy memory which will then be recreated on film. The bliss of this memory will accompany them into eternity, erasing all others.

It’s a tall order choosing a memory for once and all. Koreeda shows us the first responses of the assorted group, who range in age from a teenage girl to people in their 80s. He cuts from one to another as they try to decide, helped by the facilitator’s gentle prompts or eliciting of details. Some come already prepared, like the woman who describes the joy of meeting her fiancé, believed dead, on a Tokyo bridge at the end of the Second World War, or another who is radiant at the memory of holding her newborn child after the pain of labour. Some talk about the happiness of childhood: playing in a bamboo wood after an earthquake, dancing.

One man has nothing good to remember, a dark hint of shame in this confession. A 21-year-old with spiky hair asks whether the place he’s come to is for everyone, the good and the bad. Yes, is the answer, and likewise there seems to be no division for an ultimate destination. What a relief to have Hell dispensed with, one of Christianity’s most appalling inventions, a horror-filled escalation from the nether realms of antiquity.

There’s a naturalness in these interviews, nothing contrived or sensationalised, as if we were watching a documentary on a typical week in a post-death processing centre. And there’s a corresponding vein of quiet humour. In fact Koreeda began as a director making documentary films that explored memory and its depletion through cognitive loss caused by injury or Alzheimer’s.

Unfolding through different memory-scopes, the film subtly and intricately expands. As characters talk we are reminded that remembering involves not just the visual image in the mind’s eye, but the auditory and every kind of sensory: touch, taste, smell, movement in the air and the kinetic movement of the body. ‘My tongue remembers’ says one of the caseworkers, recalling a flavour from childhood. We are reminded too that memory is an act of creation; it can call up its own fictions, unaided or often suggested by images, most often photographs and films. After Life continually plays on the conjunction of memory and cinema. Just as film, especially when viewed on a big screen in the dark, can approximate to dreaming, it can also take us through a tunnel to the past. It can give form to memory. This potential is literally enacted on the day when the chosen memories are recreated by the caseworkers and their technical helpers, with amateurish means but painstaking care.

The centre does not deal only in subjective memory: it has an archive of the lives that pass through it, a kind of celestial record of daily scenes, held on celluloid or videotape (Heaven following in the wake of technology, if not exactly keeping up). Viewing them is only for special cases, such as the man who can’t think of anything in his ordinary life worth choosing.

Everything in this film is understated; even its revelations, the answers to its hovering unvoiced questions, are intimated gradually rather than made dramatic. There are no flourishes. The pace is slow. Yet, in its fluid dynamic between the physical and the metaphysical, so much is happening. There are present lives here (of a strange and interesting sort) as well as past lives. Every shot is charged, with colour that flashes or glows, altering like the facets of a jewel to lift the sombre mood of institutional rooms: on an office folder, a flowering pot plant, a cardigan. Koreeda uses a static camera for the interviewees. Behind them we see the same section of wall between two windows, or else another wall, framed by handsome pieces of furniture. The two compositions are beautiful in the way of the formal Japanese aesthetic. The first is active as the camera seizes the movement of light at different points in the day or evening, so that the wall can change from pale green to mauve to beige, varying under each window, through which we discern the shapes or shadows of the trees outside, while the second composition derives its energy from the arrangement of light and colour against objects. He does something similar with sound, so that we may have to work at locating the speaker in a group, to orientate our perception towards a voice off-camera. All of these nuances compel us to see and hear better, to notice the particularities of things.

And we cannot but enter into the choice his characters face. What would we choose and why? Or would we refuse to make that choice?

Death has great weight in all of this, despite the moments of lightness, of equanimity. The first interviewee is greeted with the words ‘You died yesterday. I’m sorry for your loss.’ The narrative advances bearing a mute sorrow for the death blow to the young. We watch how they mourn their bereft selves.

But the film’s original title apparently translates from the Japanese as ‘Wonderful Life’. This is more apt by far than ‘After Life’, for the film is above all about life, supremely using its own materiality, as cinema singularly can, to convey this. It is about seeing, hearing, feeling what life gives us so that death cannot steal it before we know it’s there.

Goodbye Agnès Varda

March 29, 2019 § Leave a comment

Agnès Varda died today, aged 90. Seeing her just a few months ago in her last film, Faces Places, so full of life and spirit, I imagined she would have at least another decade ahead. She seemed to be planning an exhibition as her next project. It’s ridiculous to talk of someone’s premature death at 90, but that’s how it feels.
Had she made only Cléo from 5 to 7, one of the defining films of the New Wave and of cinema to come, she would have achieved greatness. The rich visual imagination and the wealth of ideas that shaped all of her films showed her to be an uncontainable genius, playful and witty, serious and utterly original. Her short films are extraordinary: poems and commentary on the art of seeing. Of the rest, I’ll return first to The Gleaners and Vagabond, both films for our darkening times, the latter tragic, the former celebratory and optimistic about surviving on the margins.
Adieu, Agnès, and au revoir. Your films remain.

McCarthy/Trump

March 5, 2019 § Leave a comment

I’m reading Robin Robertson’s wonderful The Long Take, published last year and Booker shortlisted. It’s both a novel and a poem, in which Walker, a young man traumatised and haunted by the horrors of combat in the wake of the Normandy landings, heads for the US at war’s end rather than return to his native Nova Scotia. In search of work and a new life, he makes his way from New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco. Along with the characters who populate them, the streets of these cities, their politics and corruption, are seen through the darkening perspective of film noir. The book begins in 1946 and advances into the Cold War and McCarthyism. This bleak post-war America is no place for the heroes of a war against fascism.
There is a note at the back of the book relating to the ‘hearings’ of spring 1954, when the US Army was under McCarthyist investigation for communist activities. Robertson tells us that in this particular endeavour McCarthy’s legal adviser was Roy Cohn, one of the lawyers behind the infamous trial of the Rosenbergs for espionage in 1951, and their resulting execution. Roy Cohn was ‘the friend, mentor and legal adviser to Donald Trump’ in the 1970s.

The Favourite

January 9, 2019 § 2 Comments

In Dogtooth and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Yorgos Lanthimos depicted families drastically ruled by patriarchal fathers. The Favourite presents a wholesale reversal, centring on three women each vying for the role of despot. Here, the solemn tone of the two earlier films is replaced by one of dark comedy where the ratio of hilarity to shock is high.
Dogtooth and The Killing were both weird, both located in a vague and uneasy present. The Favourite is perfectly entitled to be even weirder given the horribly outlandish nature of its time and place: 1708 to be specific, and the court of Queen Anne. Duck races merely hint at a universe of strangeness and absurdity in the Royal Palace. Hierarchies are savage. All of which contrives a bracing departure from the politesse of your average costume drama, where the past is air freshened and made familiar. The past is weird.
The Favourite visually conjures Hogarth, but with a touch of Blackadderish silliness in its male characters. No euphemisms, much swearing, an approximate attention to historical accuracy underlying its extravagant refusal of realism. It has a terrific script, full of quick, scabrous wit, and a soundtrack that includes Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, Purcell and Elton John.
Anne (Olivia Colman) isn’t really despot material: she’s ageing badly, crippled by gout and other ailments, sad and easily manipulated. But the imperious neediness and capricious tantrums have something of Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen about them. Her occasional spite stops short at ‘Off with their heads’, though as she gapes at the assembled Parliament, not mad but clueless, she might well be asking ‘Who in the world am I?’ She’s anxious, paranoid, unseeing – as tyrants tend to be, particularly when flailing.
The natural despot of the trio is Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), Anne’s intimate companion of the bedchamber and the bed, and the real wielder of royal power. Treating the Queen like an infantile subordinate, she conducts her political schemes with militaristic discipline and ruthlessness, turning herself from general manqué into de facto supreme commander. She it is who sends her husband, the famous Duke, back to war. She it is who sends her cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), to work as a scullery maid and be birched for a minor infringement of royal privacy, before taking her on as instrumental protégé (Sarah’s big mistake).
Clever and not without low tricks of her own for surviving in this eat-or-be-eaten world, Abigail insinuates herself into the Queen’s bed and favour. She stops short at nothing.
Labyrinthine candlelit corridors, Escher-like staircases, overbearing decor are all heightened by cinematography that squeezes and distorts space into claustrophobic proportions. Wide-angle and ultra-wide fisheye lenses shrink grand ceremonial rooms. The Court’s inhabitants are thus visibly trapped inside the hostilities of power and ludicrously remote from the populace they govern. For them there is no world outside.
These perspectives make what is funny even funnier: the physical comedy of the ball where Sarah and her peremptorily chosen partner end up showing off and stopping the show with the kind of moves derived from jive or Strictly; the fight in the forest where Abigail runs rings around her would-be rapist – both delightful set pieces of choreography. Anne craves comfort and affection, Sarah is ravenous for power and Abigail, disdaining politics and the men who practice it, will go to very nasty lengths for the sake of being left in peace to read. In pursuit of their wishes, all three suffer indignities which they manage to shrug off, albeit with some petulance in Anne’s case. Power struggles are a free for all.
Laughing at tyranny is unlikely to oust the tyrant, but it can give us the satisfaction of seeing it for what it is, be it monarchical, presidential or petty. The Favourite is a splendidly subversive farce.

Roma

January 3, 2019 § Leave a comment

Roma’s director, Alfonso Cuarón, has described it as ‘a year in the life of a family and a country’ and so it is, but what he’s done with this framework is something formally and thematically more ambitious.
Cuarón acknowledges the autobiographical roots of the film. Roma is the district of Mexico City where he grew up, in the spacious modern house of a bourgeois family cosseted by the labour of servants. His central character is the nanny cum maid of all work, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), inspired by his own nanny, Libo, to whom the film is dedicated. With affection and devotion Cleo looks after the family’s four children as well as doing housework and calmly containing the crisis of the parents’ marital breakup. In return she is loved but often bears the brunt of the mother’s angry unhappiness at her husband’s disappearance to live with another woman.
Class becomes immediately apparent as racial hierarchy: Cleo is a dark-skinned india from Oaxaca who speaks the indigenous language with her friend Adela, the cook, while speaking Spanish to her employers, their children and their dog, Borras (subtitling indicates which). There are many dogs in the film, guard dogs or hunting dogs treated by their owners with a carelessness bordering on cruelty, rather as they take their servants for granted. Borras is confined mainly to the building’s roofless tiled entrance, where cars are narrowly parked. In the film’s opening shot a murky puddle of water fills the screen. Someone or something is sweeping it, clearing it, until it suddenly reflects the sky and a plane far above. The shot opens out to show us Cleo with a broom; later, when we see her perform the same chore we realise she’s repeatedly cleaning up dog mess.
Throughout, the camera is either observing Cleo or taking her perspective as she observes others. We wait some time before we are allowed her face in close-up. First we watch her at work, with an attention to labour and its surroundings that’s reminiscent of Italian neorealism, all the more so because the film is in black and white, monochrome being more consonant with memory than colour. This is above all the monochrome of the Italians; Antonioni and, in particular, Fellini resonate. It’s sharp though sometimes greyish, sometimes harshly sunlit, yet, whatever the season, the light always feels muted – memory again, its distance and the distance of those movies that influence its feel and look. For the streets of the city instead there’s Hollywood widescreen, with virtuoso lateral tracking shots as Cleo walks quickly and purposefully across its intersecting bustle and traffic.
The camera is nearly always on the move, shifting angles, following the family up and down the stairs of the Mexico City house, panning around a vast room crowded with people and sofas at the country estate where they’ve gone with Cleo to spend Christmas, pausing to scan detail in smoky close-up: brimming ashtrays, glasses, sweet wrappers, comic strips (I spotted Nancy, which I instantly recalled from my childhood, but in colour). Sometimes it fastens on unlikely objects: the front of a car that’s struggling to fit into that narrow entrance, driven by the shadowy father who is soon to vanish.
In its search for memory Roma is a very Proustian film, and just as Proust’s great work becomes more and more surreal as it progresses to its end, so in Roma there are times when memory melts into dream-like hallucination, notably at that country retreat. We watch the bourgeoisie on a little spree of animal-killing sport on the bank of a river or lake. We don’t actually see what they’re shooting at, just their enthusiasm for the opportunity, and in which they encourage the children. The scene becomes even more grotesque when a forest fire breaks out in the night and the party continues in its midst. Luis Buñuel made 20 films in Mexico over 15 years, so Cuarón might have had him in mind here, consciously or otherwise.
The year encompassed by the film includes Cleo’s pregnancy and the Corpus Christi massacre of June 1971, when a student demonstration was attacked by state-sponsored paramilitaries who killed 120 people. These events form part of Roma’s narrative, in a way that brings those vicious killings frighteningly close. There’s an undercurrent of violence evident not only within the fractured family and fights between two of the boys, but in the nature of the society and the city, its machismo and the lurking contempt for women made plain by Cleo’s boyfriend. But villainy or heroism isn’t cut and dried. We catch sight of the children’s father again in the hospital – a decent, dutiful doctor.
Roma is imbued with love for the cinema and it sets out to capture the speed and density of the world as immersive experience, layered both in image and in sound: conversations half heard, a small earthquake, music on the street, the maternity ward where the camera clings to a traumatised Cleo about to give birth and where we hear women’s screams of pain all around. There’s the everyday and there are strangenesses: the youngest of the children chatters about the life he had before he was born. The long takes and frequently deployed deep focus cram the screen with movement and objects; sound and image, light and shadow together create an uncanny sense of being present. The senses are enveloped by the thunderous waves at Vera Cruz that threaten Cleo and the children, and us too, it feels. We are in that water and its danger, one of several highly charged moments.
It’s the stunning beauty of the mise en scène that conjoins the epic and the intimate in this film, and it’s as much a source of its life and emotional power as the skills and direction of its actors.
Cleo does not articulate herself in words, she is still and self-contained until a final cathartic release of feeling. But all along we see her strength and courage as well as her socially-decreed entrapment.
Two days before seeing Roma I saw Hirokazu Koreeda’s Shoplifters. They are very different but have some similarities. Both are about the family as connection other than the ties of blood. In Roma Cleo’s familial status goes unacknowledged, yet the children and their mother have an intense emotional dependence on her as well as a practical need. The family of marginal workers and petty thieves in Shoplifters wills itself together for love and mutual support through unorthodox forms of adoption. Shoplifters is an oblique portrait of the gig economy and its consequences in contemporary Japan, Roma shows us a specific cultural and political moment in Mexico’s history, a moment of land grabs by the powerful as well as brutal state repression in the city.

Peterloo

November 13, 2018 § Leave a comment

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The Mike Leigh film I’ve most enjoyed and found most touching is Topsy-Turvy, whose story of the Gilbert and Sullivan partnership and the D’Oyly Carte troupe is brought to life as a homage to the camaraderie of performers and their everyday struggles. Shirley Henderson ends the film with an acutely poignant rendering of Yum-Yum’s ‘The Sun and I’. The camera holds her face (and what we have learned about her) in close-up before tracking back into and above the audience, leaving us to see what they see, from a distance: only the role and the performance. It’s what Leigh does well and with subtlety. The period film is clearly within his grasp.
Nearly all of his films could be described as ensemble pieces, in which a family is explored: its loyalties, crises, conflicts and weirdnesses. Family can mean close relatives or, more loosely, some kind of intimate group or pairing. This applies to Turner (father, son and servant) and Topsy-Turvy, as much as it does to Secrets and Lies, Vera Drake, Life Is Sweet and High Hopes.
With Peterloo, Leigh has faced an enormous and very different task, not only in departing from his familiar arena of intimate experience and connection, but in confronting British history on a grand scale, and those significant parts of it that remain little-known because of being so much obscured.
Mike Leigh has talked about his realisation that the Peterloo massacre is not taught in schools today, just as it wasn’t taught in his own schooldays. How to remedy this crucial absence of historical context for a film audience who probably won’t know much about the Corn Laws, the suspension of Habeas Corpus, the extent of Parliamentary representation in 1819, or even be aware that Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo established a period of reaction across Europe?
Leigh has recognised the problem. Peterloo is driven by a commitment to authenticity, so that we see how people lived and dressed, what their food cost and looked like, where their political meetings were held, the activism of the reform clubs (including the Female Reform Club) and the nature of their discussions. The camera shows us the desperate hunger and hardships visited on working-class people with the cutting of wages and the rise in food prices, as Maxine Peake’s character attempts to feed her family. We see some of the leading figures in the fight for reform, from the young servant John Bagguley, an eloquent revolutionary, to artisans, labourers and small manufacturers. But the effect of relying on expository dialogue to lay out a detailed social and political background means that both speech and action are often stilted. Of the many public speeches, some have a passion and fire inspired by the French Revolution, while the repetitive rhetoric of others slows the film’s momentum. It’s already overlong in its build-up to the massacre – a problem for a film that aims to reach a very wide audience that might lose patience in the waiting.
There are moments of vitality that work because of Leigh’s talent for domestic tragicomedy. One of these is when the self-important orator Henry Hunt finds himself a guest at the modest home of a middle-class reform supporter and we see a live tableau of awkwardness and overweening condescension. But Peterloo only comes fully alive on the day of the mass demonstration, a festive expression of solidarity that brings people together from across the North of England, many with their children, and again there are notes of the familial, humorous and hopeful.
The colourful banners proclaim not just anger at economic oppression and class injustice, but the demand for the right to vote and be represented in Parliament. Most reiterated are ‘No Taxation without Representation’, rooted in the American Revolutionary War, and the French Revolution’s famous cry of ‘Liberty or Death’. This vast scene buzzes with the elation of possibility.
Yet we know what’s going to happen; we’ve seen the ‘Yeomanry’ have their sabres sharpened. Shock upon shock arrives when, after the first onslaught, the hussars ride in and they too hack at the defenceless crowd. The bloodshed and terror have all the more power as we witness the visceral hatred at play in the massacre from a soldiery that gladly does the bidding of a ruling class determined not to lose its privilege.
Leigh has shown us this ruling class of gentry, judges and others as they meet to plan the measures taken, squabbling among themselves over hierarchy. Villains all, they are the objects of needless caricature, as is the bloated Prince Regent.
This is a country where labour history has few instances of public commemoration (you have to seek them out or stumble upon them), and the overwhelming narrative is one where British democracy and British freedoms trump everywhere else (a refrain throughout the Brexit debacle). The historical truth is at odds with this myth: until the 1832 Reform Act, Manchester and many other industrial centres had no representation in Parliament. Most MPs represented the countryside and were more likely to be chosen or bought by a local landowner than elected at all. In 1832 the vote was extended in a very small way and it took another century of Chartism and other working-class movements to reach the franchise we can all now take for granted.
If only Leigh had diverged a little from dependence on his script, to free the drama from the weight of the history lesson, this would have been a much stronger film. He could have corralled his didacticism and made it more straightforward. Even historical fictions from Hollywood resort to the black screen for plain statements a drama might otherwise struggle with.
Despite its weaknesses, Peterloo tells a story that sorely needs telling, like so much else in this country’s rich history of labour’s long fight for rights.

THE CLOCK

October 24, 2018 § 5 Comments

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I arrived just as a red-haired woman snuggled up to a sleeping Paul Newman. It’s 4 o’clock she said, to my surprise, then, as he woke, she confessed that she’d lied. It was 25 to, which indeed was the time on my watch. The Tate showed us the door at 5:55, just as Cary Grant was edging anxiously through the crush of a railway station, on the run in North by Northwest. In between there was Marilyn Monroe, Romy Schneider, Humphrey Bogart, Jack Lemmon, Gregory Peck, Alec Guinness, along with Belmondo, Montand , Binoche, Delon, Trintignant,  Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight; Bette Davis in All about Eve. There was Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Gian Maria Volontè, each clutching a pocket watch in For A Few Dollars More …. And even more that I’m yet to see, because Christian Marclay‘s The Clock lasts for 24 hours, in sync with real time for its audience.
The Clock dates from 2010 but has been hiding out in the art world (where it has drawn the crowds), seeming rarely to have been reviewed as a film. It’s a montage of clips, from films great and lesser, put together in a tremendous feat of editing that involves creative continuity and painstaking sequencing of on-screen time as it appears on clocks, watches, phones, whether digital or mechanical, sometimes just in dialogue or otherwise intimated.
Clips vary in length: mere seconds, leisurely minutes that deceptively let us settle in, or recurrences (Big Ben; the clock at the old Gare d’Orsay, now the museum;  George Chakiris at various stages of a chess game in a French movie – I imagined he’d been loath to leave France after Les Demoiselles de Rochefort with Gene Kelly and Catherine Deneuve). The cinematic suspense or threat that’s conveyed through minutes ticking away isn’t lost in these swift transitions, but sustained through juxtaposition that sometimes threads a primary narrative with others. It does this with The Stranger, where Orson Welles is a Nazi with a new identity in small-town Connecticut and Edward G Robinson on his trail; both men have keen eyes on the clock tower.
Narrative interrupted is continually revived and re-activated by visual association: a door that opens in one film has someone step through the space of the next; a figure walks along the pavement, its framing or the configuration of angles and light to be echoed in a different setting, maybe shifting from colour to monochrome or vice versa.  Events involving clocks themselves (being shattered or shot at) occur in patterned succession. Themes converge. The effect of this incongruous seamlessness can be delightfully comic.
The Clock triggers memory, excites the imagination, offers the pleasures of puzzle-solving (Which film is this? Which actor? Which connections am I making?). And because we can only name the character on screen if we already know the film and remember it, the actors themselves assume primacy. Foreign-language films have no subtitles, incurring another level of enigma. Marclay has clearly tinkered with soundtracks so that background effects intrude less. Sound can overlap between two films, maintaining a beat, while adjusting an atmosphere (he’s a sound artist and musician and in much of his work has used readymades that he reshapes). Certain points in time’s division acquire the momentum of countdown – for instance the build up to the striking of the hour, then the scattered bursts of sound.
Cinema is the most oneiric of the arts. Watching a film unfold on a big screen in surrounding darkness is as close as you can get to dreaming while awake. The Clock’s rich visual fragmentation, its displacing of context, makes for even busier deciphering of the elusive meanings in that almost-dream experience. In the wake of viewing a film we are sometimes directed inwards, but it’s often the case that after seeing in the dark our eyes are sharpened for the world outside, so we leave the cinema with our perceptions heightened. The Clock has this effect redoubled; it stimulates and impels alertness, simultaneously absorbing us and making us acutely aware of time passing. We are immersed in the intense parallel world of cinema while observing its workings.
Memory adds to this experience. A glimpse of one film might bring to mind another. Heists depend on strict timing and a succession of these made me remember Mario Monicelli’s I Soliti Ignoti (1958), maybe the funniest film I’ve ever seen, where Roman petty thieves (Mastroianni et al) plan a robbery modelled on Rififi, the French thriller about a precision-executed jewellery heist. When they reach the point of synchronising watches it turns out that nobody in this down-at-heel gang owns one.
Thinking about how time is foregrounded in The Clock and can’t be ignored, I realised that, paradoxically, it’s also expanded – so many parts, poignantly autonomous, each with its own hinterland of plot and character and setting. According to the precept of Aunt Augusta in Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt, the more you fill time the longer it feels, which is why she ceaselessly travels, stretching it with changes of scene, a good antidote to the terrible shrinkage of hours and weeks that comes with ageing. We have day and night and the seasons, but clock time is a construct. Our subjective responses govern the passage of time, as do the laws of physics, something about which I understand little, though I did gain some insights from Carlo Rovelli’s recent and very readable book, The Order of Time (while a great deal was beyond my grasp). We know that noon, when the sun is at its zenith, does not coincide in London and in Cairo, and the same goes for noon in London and Southampton. As well as latitude, altitude creates differentials: Rovelli explains that a person living at the top of a mountain ages more quickly than another at sea level, and that a watch placed on a table will go faster than one lying on the floor beneath it. Gravity has something to do with this. From his perspective as a physicist, there is no present. But the present is where we all wrestle with time and mortality. And time in art has its poetry.
The Clock is a wonderfully exhilarating experience. It feels approximate to watching films serially at a film festival, but accelerated, magically joined up, where time in alignment with our time brings their reality closer to ours. It’s addictive and it acts on the senses a bit like a drug. When I left the Tate the last of daylight was on the Thames, by the time I got to King’s Cross there was a serene blue October twilight, mild enough for people to sit outside at café tables, and it was dark when I got home. London was more alive and beautiful than I’d seen it for a while.

The Wife

October 6, 2018 § 4 Comments

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The opening scene of The Wife is a scene from a happy marriage: a couple in their 60s in bed together, awake in the middle of the night because he, the writer Joe Castleman, is full of nerves at the prospect of receiving or not receiving a morning call from the Nobel committee to tell him he’s won the prize for literature. They laugh and joke, attempt sex and laugh a bit more before sleeping. The call comes and it makes them even happier, both of them bouncing up and down on the bed, chanting ‘We’ve won the Nobel!’ before wife Joan calms down the boyish silliness and sensibly reminds Joe that the day ahead will be busy.
Joan is played by Glenn Close. She is the film’s centre and the camera’s darling – it never leaves her face alone, so that in close-up after close-up, we see the subtlety of her acting, the extraordinary eloquence of the eyes that even closed speak volumes, her mouth taking over to relay messages from them. I wondered why it was that though a Hollywood star, she has never starred in an outstanding film.
What do those eyes tell us? They intimate a range of feelings, but so insistent are the close-ups that we know they are suggesting a whole hidden narrative, and fairly soon we understand from them that not all is well between Joan and Joe (Jonathan Pryce), particularly once they reach their hotel in Stockholm and preparations begin for the grand awards ceremony. ‘I don’t want you to thank me in your speech’, she says.
By then we’ve seen the first of Joan’s memory-flashbacks to her youth – the film unfolds in 1994. In 1958 Joan was a young student at a college where Joe, already married, was her literature professor. He flirted with her and praised her writing talent. Next, they are married and Joe is writing a novel that Joan takes to the publishing house where she works. Small revelations unfold.
While in 1994 Joan displays impeccable wifely devotion, her quietly expressive face and her flashbacks nudge us towards an answer to what’s being hidden. Meanwhile, Joe’s importunate would-be biographer, Nathanial Bone (Christian Slater), drops heavy hints in the same direction, and David, the couple’s discontented son, blurts out his suspicions.
It struck me that what was being suggested, hinted at or openly suspected might just be a red herring, so obvious that something more complicated was bound to emerge.
Of course, I’m not supposed to give too much away, although I imagine that most of you reading this will have already seen the film. I’ll stick to what it might be implying about writers, male and female.
Women in the 19th century sometimes had to use male pseudonyms or resort to initials to get published; women in the mid-20th century were often viewed with condescension or contempt by the men who ran publishing; women in succeeding decades continued to be paid smaller advances than men and be less favourably reviewed (or not at all) by the men who populated review pages.
These days, when editors’ choices have been partially usurped by accountants and marketing people, one can assume that men still have the major say. In Britain, with the exception of Virago, the sundry feminist presses launched in the 1970s have disappeared (the only new arrival is the tiny, but admirably committed Silver Press, set up in 2016). Yet their influence has been long-lived. Publishing has always been harder for women, but it’s got better and better, and that’s because of the networks of writers, editors and readers that grew out of the women’s liberation movement and women’s increasing visibility in public life. The same goes for Nobel Prize winners in literature, with almost as many women laureates in these early years of the 21st century than in the whole of the 20th– an acceleration that started in the early 90s with Nadine Gordimer and Toni Morrison – though they still fall short of being 50%.
The film doesn’t enter into any of this history and it appears to conflate the two periods of its narrative, as if nothing had been achieved in between 1958 and 1994, either in publishing as an industry or through female authors’ perspective on the world. It shows us the young Joan (Close’s daughter, Annie Starke) at a literary event with the cartoonish figure of an ageing and embittered author (Elizabeth McGovern) who urges her to abandon her writing ambitions because women don’t get read. More than 30 years later the older Joan tells Bone that the writing life wasn’t for her because she’s shy and doesn’t like the limelight, while acknowledging that she has made sacrifices for her husband’s sake.
We do discover the precise nature of those sacrifices, but questions remain. What were the big ideas in Joe’s first book, ideas that the young Joan felt were beyond her talents? We’ll never know, nor do we know anything about the themes of his work, its perspective on the world. All we have is the Nobel speech with its eulogies to his insights and his prose style. The film is all broad strokes and emphatic signalling, without any meaningful detail.
There’s no interrogation of a marriage that, though conventional on the surface, could only practically function by other means. One line of dialogue made me laugh out loud: Joe’s, in the middle of a confrontation between the couple: ‘What about all the cooking, all the childcare…’– nicely ironic, but a role reversal that’s hard to disguise from the world at large, yet oddly unnoticed.
It’s hard to believe that the young Joan, already a woman of considerable strengths and maturity, could fall in love with a brash, insensitive and immature young man, and sustain 36 years of married life marred by his serial infidelities, while making such sacrifices for his benefit. An unlikely bargain.
So unlikely that The Wife could have been much more effective as a comedy.
Instead, we are in the realm of the nebulous and artlessly artificial. Visually, the film is uninteresting, which is of a piece with the shortcomings of the screenplay and its schematic progress, these partly saved by Close’s bravura acting and Pryce’s solid performance; they flesh it out into something we are meant to take seriously and they make it watchable, if ultimately unsatisfying.

Varda’s Faces Places

September 26, 2018 § 1 Comment

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At the start of Faces Places we see a sequence of small, playfully constructed scenes where Agnès Varda, aged 88, and her co-director JR, aged 33, might have met. In fact their meeting was engineered by Varda’s daughter, Rosalie, who produced the film. JR is a not a filmmaker but a photographer – which was how Varda began her career – known for his gigantic images pasted onto public structures or politically declarative spaces. Varda was inspired by JR’s work, seizing on its possibilities and steering it exclusively towards the portrait. So begins a small odyssey, a little in the manner of The Gleaners & I (2000), with the two collaborators criss-crossing France in JR’s camera van.
In the North-East they visit a deserted mining village and photograph its one remaining inhabitant, Jeannine, the elderly daughter of a miner, who recalls her father’s working life. She’s moved to tears by the house-height portrait covering the front of her home (pasting such huge poster images around pipes and over rough brickwork is clearly a highly-skilled business). From here Varda follows the local trail of ex-miners or their elderly children, talking and prompting memories, sometimes with old postcards from her prodigious collection.
At a chemical factory, workers on separate shifts finally come collectively together in the choreography of two mirroring images. Later, at Le Havre container port, Varda interviews three dockworkers’ wives, one of them a lorry driver. This trio of black-clad blondes winds up as 60-feet women on one side of a massive container mountain.
A rural postman in the South enjoys the sociability of his job, a farmer relishes the solitary nature of his, brought about by dramatic advances in technology; with an array of high-tech machinery he now farms alone a much bigger acreage than what needed four or five people some 20 years ago. Conversations intimate how work changes landscapes and people; they illuminate the little-known goat-horn controversy: goats farmed for their milk now have their horns removed because it makes them easier to manage. One dairy woman detests this practice, and she shuns mechanised milking, preferring the more contemplative manual kind.
In the Vaucluse hill town of Bonnieux, Varda and JR find a waitress frequently snapped by tourists. They transform her beyond her tourist-selfie self into a free-spirited, perhaps fin-de-siècle, lady with a long dress and a parasol, her photographed bare toes tickled by her two little boys. As elsewhere, everything is staged and we see the staging: the discussions, the search for props, the often fraught logistics. People get involved and lead to other people; the man who comes up with the parasol turns out to be the bell ringer. He isn’t photographed but filmed from below performing a wonderfully energetic carillon against the open sky above the bell tower.
The giant images are subject to wind and rain and sunlight, their ephemerality demonstrated overnight by the effects of tide on a Normandy beach where Varda’s photograph of a now dead friend becomes a poster to fit the side of a wartime bunker. She commemorates more old friends: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Martine Franck, Nathalie Sarraute. She is present and part of the story.
She still has all her quick wits about her and a generous, engaging personality undiminished by age, along with certain physical limitations that call for a helping hand from a co-director. There’s no point in wondering what the film would have been like if entirely in Varda’s control, since this particular film could only have been made with JR. The pairing works, despite JR’s sometimes condescending supercool-street-artist banter. In the end it’s Varda’s film, her humour and her insights, her dialogues with the new faces she meets, her close-ups. One conversation at the chemical factory is with a man who tells her it’s his last day at work. The film camera moves in tight to capture his smiling wrinkles, his joy in not knowing what retirement will hold, and an eruption of vitality. The faces, the portraits delivered by that camera, bring their subjects alive just as those produced on paper make a gift to them, more fragile but preserved with pictures of themselves beside themselves, ultra-selfies.
Whimsy creeps in, clearly encouraged by JR, who is more enthusiastic than Varda about the photographed fish he wraps around a water tower. Her whimsy is creative play, ever inventive, bent on seeing anew. And with it she communicates the reality of how she sees now. What’s it like to be losing that faculty? She shows us, laughing, how her sight’s failing, having blurry people hold up great big blurry letters in front of her eyes, and we laugh too.
This, like Varda’s other documentaries, is at heart a work of the imagination, where she fuses cinema’s two-stranded origins in the documentary films of the Lumière brothers and Meliès’ fantastical trips to the moon. She’s one of cinema’s magicians.
At times the film is a squeeze away from being sentimental, but it doesn’t succumb. The tone is never elegiac, though towards the end nostalgia prevails. I confess to it taking me by surprise earlier in the film, as Varda and JR sit chatting on a bench, in front of them a fabulous view they seem not to notice. It’s been raining and the ground is puddled but the air is clear. In the foreground are the spiky crosses of the clifftop cemetery beside the little church of St Valery, at Varengeville; Georges Braque is buried there. I have my own photograph of this same view, taken 30 years ago, with a second-hand Pentax that only blotted out the crested sea and the distant curve of the cliffs we see in the film. In those days I spent time in nearby Dieppe and we would often take the cliff walk from there. I haven’t been back since.
From the Normandy coast to the Provençal fields of lavender and sunflowers, Faces Places shows us a very different country from the one on this side of the Channel. Its ‘Places’ are ‘Villages’ in the French title, and this is the French countryside, and whatever industry it has left .
To lift Varda’s spirits in a moment of sadness JR photographs her eyes and her toes; they decorate the tanks of a goods train that trundles off into the night. Eyes and toes: body parts much favoured by the Surrealists. The power of the former to receive the whole world, the lowly earthbound status of the feet that carry us to it. Varda is 90 now and may never make another film, but this genius of seeing and showing isn’t giving up. She still has plans.

The Guardians

August 29, 2018 § Leave a comment

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Nathalie Baye’s face in The Guardians is oddly compelling. In it I kept seeing the face of the young woman who starred in films by Godard and Truffaut, as if it were aged artificially. Despite the wrinkles, it looked smoothed, and the eyes were still young, a sparkling blue. Baye is now 70, with a busy career behind her, and her energy here, in a role that must have been physically demanding besides the rest, suggests an old woman with a young one alive inside her, the one sweet, the other tough – but which way round?
As Hortense Sandrail, the matriarch of a well-to-do peasant family, her two sons and her son-in-law both at the front, she has been left to run the farm along with her daughter Solange (Baye’s real-life daughter, Laura Smet), the only remaining male her older brother, played by 78-year-old Gilbert Bonneau, a non-actor persuaded to combine the role with looking after his dozen or so cows in a local village. It’s a small part but it brings added value in the gnarled authenticity that needed no rehearsing and stands in marked contrast to the worldly-wise Hortense. The year is 1915.
Xavier Beauvois’ film seems at first like an anniversary homage, with a certain documentary intent, to the women who farmed the land as men fought and died during the First World War. This is France, and France as a national entity, for there’s no indication of any specific region. Instead the camera recreates a bucolic world, season by season, of female agricultural labour in all its aspects, slowing it down to the particulars with languid tracking shots. Women plough with oxen and harvest with scythes in hand, mechanisation still to come.
The effect is painterly, faintly evoking Millet (The Winnower, The Sower, The Gleaners etc.), and the Impressionists, but forsaking any attempt at realism, so that when they clean out a barn, spread manure on the fields, or struggle to change a mucky cartwheel the women’s fetching pinafores and skirts stay impeccably laundered, unsullied by any trace of dirt. It reminded me of Polanski’s Tess (1980), based on Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, a memory of over-prettification.
Little by little this nostalgic idealisation diminishes. Grime becomes discernible as the film shifts firmly into narrative mode. The labour shortage has compelled Hortense to employ Francine, a young woman who has grown up in an orphanage, as labourer and maid of all work. She is sturdy and tireless, uncomplaining, honest and welcomed by the family with an appreciative warmth that approaches inclusion. And she sings as she works. From the first we realise that something will change because of her.
One by one, the men return on leave: Constant, a schoolteacher, Clovis, Solange’s husband, and Georges, Hortense’s younger son. With them they bring their choked-down misery, their anger and their nightmares. There are different views of the Bosches: the hatred the children have been taught in the classroom in Constant’s absence and now recite to him; Clovis’s fierce observation that ‘they are like us, workers, peasants…’; Georges, more taciturn, furtive in his courtship of the openhearted Francine, and leaving us in doubt of how honourable it is. There’s a telling scene on the eve of his departure, when he expresses his love in turn to everyone around the table, but fails to mention her. Cowardly retreat, or mere discretion?
The men are deferred to, the women, as temporary custodians, seeking their approval for changes they’ve made and plans to invest in machinery that will lighten the work and the need for day labourers. A combine harvester arrives, and, by the war’s end, a tractor, Solange at the wheel (both, we notice, foreign imports). Greater change looms and they all have a sense of it.
Meanwhile, the family is under strain, touched by loss and jealousies, both within and from outside. Some American soldiers help out on the farm as they wait to be sent to the front, their behaviour arrogant and crass. An ambiguous moment gives Hortense a pretext for dispelling rumours that hurt the family’s reputation. She saves it, cruelly, at Francine’s expense.
Francine finds kindness elsewhere, but ultimately must rely on her own resources, which prove to be considerable. Her first shelter is with a woman, a charcoal burner, struggling on her own with a young child. It’s a relief when the film veers away from what has threatened to be a family saga.
War for the most part had brought about a truce in age-old family conflict over land and the spoils of inheritance. Renewed quarrels see Hortense rejoice to have her men back to how they were before. Her cruelty towards Francine makes her a monster, but one for whom the director wants to elicit not just our admiration but our sympathy for her suffering, her recognition of what she loses. Yet even given the chance to reverse her betrayal, she doesn’t relent.
In The Guardians we’re a very long way from the harsh and ruthless world of the peasantry to be found in Zola, and before him Balzac. It was still hard to be convinced by the relative absence of hypocrisy in the village, or the Catholic moralism that would surely have showed its face, suggesting again a nostalgia for a France that never was.
I saw much to enjoy in this film: good acting, luminous photography, a subtle use of colour. There is a heartrending moment when Constant takes the road of return to duty, walking away from the farm and us, until his sky blue uniform is swallowed completely by a mist that’s another lighter blue. Here and elsewhere I surmised borrowings from the films of Jean Renoir. But the mood overall is elegiac while misaligned with past realities.
There is compensation: The Guardians is lifted in the end by Francine’s spirit and strength of character. She is wonderfully played by Iris Bry, whose first film this is. The final scene is terrific, with Francine on stage, now emerged from her chrysalis, clothed in the brilliance of a modern woman. It reminds me of the opening scene in Sebastiano Leto’s A Fantastic Woman: likewise a singer accompanied by musicians, her voice full of joyous defiance.

The Heiresses

August 23, 2018 § Leave a comment

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I’ve just seen my first Paraguayan film, set in Asunción, written and directed by newcomer Marcelo Martinessi and starring Ana Brun, who had never acted in a film before. She won the Silver Bear for best actress at this year’s Berlin Festival. Besides having a male director, The Heiresses has a mostly male crew, but an entirely female cast, with the exception of a few walk-on parts for men (just one line of dialogue, from a late-night street vendor, from whom Brun’s character, Chela, buys a hotdog).
Chela lives in the large, grandly appointed house where she was born, inherited from her wealthy parents, and for some three decades shared with her partner Chiquita, from the same privileged class. In the world they inhabit women don’t work for a living and they regard servants as a necessity. But with unearned income apparently drying up, Chiquita has got them into a bank debt legally classed as fraud. As she serves a prison sentence, funds are found by selling off domestic valuables: the paintings, crystal glassware, solid silver cutlery and fine items of furniture that were handed down to Chela.
In prison, with its inescapable communality, rubbing shoulders with seasoned thieves and one-time husband murderers, the outgoing and bossy Chiquita thrives. Chela, anxious and depressive, shrinks from life and is fearful without Chiquita’s organising presence to manage its practicalities. While she listens behind a door, the maid Pati, although illiterate, handles viewings for potential buyers, and likewise manages everything else in the household, being already instructed by Chiquita to buy all groceries on tick and only pay the butcher. Chela continues to be seen in or behind doorways, on shadowy thresholds that emphasise both her loneliness and the hesitations that stand in her way.
These early scenes make for an underlying comedy that quietly asserts itself as things progress. This is a subtle, intimate film, observing the texture of these lives often indirectly, through sidelong looks and small gestures, through sound at the edges or in the background as it adds emotional weight, through music that is sometimes wistful or seemingly incongruous for characters already past middle age. And through Ana Brun’s exceptional performance, where a range of feeling is conveyed with minute shifts of expression and posture. All of which is reminiscent of the Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel and her capacity to make us, the audience, attend to nuance.
Accustomed to passivity and Chiquita always at the wheel of their car, Chela balks when a neighbour asks for a lift to her card game with other old ladies. She reconsiders and becomes a regular driver for the circle of gossipy widows, who are happy to pay her rather than risk a taxi in this dangerous city of economic extremes. And so we see her begin to swap timidity for confidence, to look and move and smile with tentative ease.
At the card games and at a 50th birthday party the couple earlier attend we see only women, most of them over 60 and some much older. One exception is the flirtatious and sensual Angy, only in her 40s, for whom Chela becomes a regular chauffeur. She confides about her various male lovers and a friendship is kindled between the two women, with signs that it might go even further. Thanks to Angy’s support and the kindness of Pati, in her role as maid the most perceptive of all the characters, Chela grows in strength.
One day the doorbell rings and Chela’s face brightens in expectation of Angy. The camera follows her into the next room. Just when we want to see that face, the camera withholds it. Hanging back, it confines the shot to Chela’s profile as she is greeted by Chiquita, newly released. But the profile is enough to show her disappointment.
At the film’s start we are struck by Chiquita’s vibrant and cheerful personality. In the end she strikes us as overbearing, one half of a couple that stifles the other. Without her presence, Chela has discovered her own vitality and has acquired a taste for independence.
This film takes us inside the small, fossilised world of the Paraguayan bourgeoisie. But its themes are wider, its feminism illuminating. The Heiresses is the remarkable product of a country where inequalities remain stark and sexual freedoms unconquered after decades of dictatorship followed by coup after coup in which right-wing governments prevail, a country whose film industry has only got underway in the last five years. The Heiresses could not have been made without its production support from Uruguay and Brazil, France, Germany and Norway. It’s funny and touching, a cheering achievement whose success is amply deserved.

The Martian

August 7, 2018 § Leave a comment

Choosing a film from the pile-up I’ve recorded is often a matter of mood, the less worthy prevailing because of tiredness or the need for sheer escapism. So last night I finally watched Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015), a film it didn’t occur to me to see in the cinema, or to read any reviews. It was Matt Damon stuck on Mars for 500 Martian sols, at a not-too-distant future time when it takes a mere three or four years to get there and back (maybe just two – hard to keep up with the discrepancy between Earth days and Martian sols). Matt Damon (the shorter, less handsome version of George Clooney, both of them liberals with their own line in wisecracking) as scientist/astronaut Mark Watney growing potatoes on Mars for 2 ½ hours – that was all I knew about the plot. But it wasn’t entirely a waste of my time.
Here was a height of US optimism film, a demonstration of how that confident country really can do the impossible: shipwrecked astronaut grows vegetables to feed himself on a planet without water, after healing himself from a very nasty wound inflicted by debris during a tornado-like Mars storm – the one that had forced the emergency departure of fellow crew members when their spacecraft was threatened with destruction. They believed him to be dead. Instead, knowing time is not on his side, he faces a Robinson Crusoe challenge.
From what I remember, Robinson Crusoe did quite a lot of soul-searching. Mark Watney doesn’t, he just gets on with it and we don’t have a moment’s doubt about his survival. This Crusoe is the closest you get to Superman in human form: not only is he a botanist by training, but he also turns out to be a very clever physicist, a brilliant chemist, thermal engineer and technical whiz, and even gets to do some Iron-Man style flying. He is all he needs to be to take on Mars, chirpily good-humoured, fearless and self-deprecating, matching every apparently insurmountable problem with a light-bulb moment.
Not only is this a survival movie where an individual performs the work of a specialised team, it’s also a rescue movie with teamwork required in space and on Earth. More light-bulb moments: ‘I’ve done the math!’ (that amputated little word, so jarring to British ears it’s no wonder we haven’t adopted it). When things go wrong, international cooperation saves the day in the shape of a benign pair of Chinese scientists.
Neil Armstrong planted an American flag on the moon. No American flags fly here on Mars, but Mark Watney does plant those potatoes and makes a little joke about crop cultivation constituting a first action of colonisation – one of many tongue-in-cheek lines.
Is there romance in this movie? Well, spacecraft commander Jessica Chastain betrays a certain tendresse in her sorrow at leaving Mark behind, dead or not. They are finally reunited in a bulkily suited space embrace, gazing into each other’s eyes, framed by the pretty orange-pink tangle of the spaceship tether that holds them safely together. She has a partner on Earth, but the astronauts seem to cling more to the bonds of mission team than to family. So it’s a happy ending, even if they never meet again.
What struck me most of all about this film is its unlikelihood: I couldn’t imagine it being made now. It belongs in 2015, the tail end of Obama’s presidency. It plays with light comedy on the idea of US supremacy in a way that makes that time three years ago a distant era, the world before Trump.

Varda and Cléo

August 4, 2018 § Leave a comment

How strange to see Agnès Varda described as ‘the matriarch of the New Wave’, when for decades her name was so often left off the New-Wave rollcall. She’s a matriarch only after the event, now that, aged 90, she has survived all but one of those male directors who were her peers and her friends, this being Jean-Luc Godard. It’s good to see her celebrated, her feminism and stature acknowledged.

Yet, despite the revivals of her work, most recently a BFI retrospective and currently a season at various cinemas in London and beyond, I feel that Varda is still denied her due. Perhaps because her films have been less available than the work of those peers and friends, but maybe also because she is pigeonholed as a grande dame who serves as an example to women film-makers. Let her example continue to flourish, but let her films be assessed by a wider measure, singly and as a body of work that ranks among the highest. Cléo from 5 to 7 is proof enough.

Cléo was made in 1961 (and released in 1962). The date is important for a film that is shaped and structured by precision of time and place.

It begins in colour, sombre in an ill-lit curtained space and in close-up that excludes everything except hands and the shuffling or dealing of Tarot cards. Nine cards have to be chosen, three threes representing past, present and future. The predictions contain hope but also hint at doom. When the frame opens out to reveal the two speakers, in an unusual reversal everything shifts to monochrome and remains so for the rest of the film. So accurate has been the Tarot reader’s account of Cléo’s past and present that what’s relayed from the future floods her with despair.

In France, from 5 to 7 is a knowing reference to afternoon sexual assignations. But for Cléo (Corinne Marchand), a young pop singer narcissistically enamoured of her own good looks, these two hours represent the time until a phone call gives her the result of a medical test that could mean cancer. Before leaving the Tarot reader’s building she seeks consolation in her reflection, multiply echoed in facing mirrors. She speaks to it, with the assurance that beauty will protect her from death.

There are more mirrors and more of Cléo’s temperament: obsessive superstition, capriciousness, petulance, uncontrollable weeping in a café, tantrums at home when the musicians turn up with new tunes (Michel Legrand on the piano). ‘You treat me as if I’m an idiot or a doll, she rages. ‘Don’t tell them you’re ill. Men don’t like it’, advises Angèle, her assistant/companion. She complies, as she has done with her lover, a wealthy and much older man who arrives on a fleeting visit, their affection genuine but passionless, born of mutual convenience. At odds with herself and needing to fill that empty waiting time, she changes into a black dress and discards her elaborately coiffed wig before setting off into the city again, this time alone.

While reduced by ellipsis to a 90-minute duration, the film effectively takes us on Cléo’s journey in real time. To start with it’s aimless, a dérive on foot, by taxi, in her friend Dorothée’s bumpily driven car…. You can plot it with topographical precision (indeed, a book that maps it has already been published). This is a documentary inhabited by a fiction. Streets and parks and squares are recognisable and filled with extraordinary life: shops, faces, gestures, vehicles, the randomness of passers-by and café tables, crowds gathered around street performers, strangest of all a man who makes a show of swallowing live frogs. At this spectacle Cléo recoils, elsewhere she’s a restless and unmoved observer, looking and looked at, repeatedly catching fragments of conversation that intimate sundry stories, ending or beginning, or somewhere in the middle.

‘Today everything amazes me’, she’ll say before the day is out.

This must be the richest representation of Paris in a fiction film (and there have been many), syncopating the rhythms and pulse of a great city with the mood of its main character. We see it through her eyes and gradually we see her notice what she sees, finding what she didn’t know she was looking for. Anyone who has ever anticipated a cancer diagnosis would surely recognise that welter of fast-changing emotions: dread and anxiety, elation, new-found alertness, the sense of life’s urgency. But Varda is telling us how much we all can gain by really looking, and, self-referentially, how cinema prompts us.

Cléo started out on the right bank, then crossed the Pont Neuf, veering into the Latin Quarter. Now alone, she heads towards a sculpture workshop where Dorothée does life modelling and her friend’s sunny company cheers her. From there they drive to Dorothée’s boyfriend, a projectionist. To their delight, he shows them a silent short full of comic knockabout. This film within a film stars Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina alongside Sami Frey and Eddie Constantine. It’s a neat little parable about seeing, reaching its conclusion as Godard whips off the dark glasses that have caused him to misinterpret Anna’s misadventure as something worse.

From 5 to 7: the film’s title ushers us into a realm of time that is finite, and text on the screen divides it into timed chapters. Its setting is Paris on the longest day of the year, June 21. For all that light, hitherto we’ve watched Cléo pass through ominous spaces of darkness: corridors, under a bridge, through a tunnel. Shadows seem to clear with her smile on hearing the word Montsouris; ‘It’s like saying the English word ‘Cheese’ she remarks and, on a whim, takes a taxi to Montsouris Park. She makes a joyous entrance at the top of high steps, a wide bright sky above her. Meanwhile, on an otherwise quiet soundtrack, Michel Legrand’s music reaches a crescendo.

A few years ago I set out with a friend from her flat in Montmartre to find the exact spot in Montsouris Park where Cléo has an awkwardly begun but happy encounter with a stranger: a rustic little bridge above a miniature waterfall. It took us some time wandering up and down steps and among wooded slopes, but we got there in the end, and everything was as in the film. There’s something very satisfying about that parallelism of entering the real space of a film made many years before.

There’s no trite resolution in Cléo’s meeting with Antoine. Its conversation moves within the light and shade either side of that little bridge. Cléo is already calm, already more open than the young woman she was on the other bank of this the Seine. She tells Antoine about her looming diagnosis and he suggests they go together to the hospital instead of phoning. It turns out he’s a soldier on the last hours of leave before returning to Algeria, where he might die ‘for nothing’, as indeed did many French conscripts. She suggests a taxi, he observes that the bus is more fun, and so they travel towards the Salpêtrière, which isn’t far.

Love enters into this conversation, a very tentative beginning.

Varda filmed Cléo in the last summer of the Algerian war. It ended in March 1962, just in time to avoid disappointment for three of us from my school who were going on an exchange to Versailles and Paris in July. We’d been told cancellation was likely and the fate of our trip was our only concern amid those fatal uncertainties between war and peace. So the Paris streets of 1961 in Cléo have given definition to my recall of the following summer. They have entered my memory.

I really love this film. It’s about a young woman’s route to self-possession and courage. It’s about the vitality of a great city at a precise point in its history. It’s about time and the fragility of life, about the nature of cinema and its relation to the world. I never tire of it.

 

Zama

June 19, 2018 § 2 Comments

 

It’s the late 18th century, in a backwater of Spain’s American empire. A man in a tricorn hat and wearing a sword stares mournfully across an expanse of water then retreats to the grassy dunes above to eavesdrop and spy on a group of Indian women laughing as they take a mud bath. When they notice they call out ‘Peeping Tom!’ and one of them gives chase until he turns and slaps her to the ground. Diego Zama is neither hero nor anti-hero, but a pathetic and ineffectual figure from the start, a magistrate of minor powers, toyed with and tantalised by his superiors and by the coquettish wife of an absent dignitary, mocked behind his back and to his face, even by his inferiors, and unable to exert authority except against those who can be enslaved.

This is not where he wants to be. Years pass with Zama thwarted at every turn in his aim of being reposted to the town where he has a wife and children. The reason may be his lesser status as a functionary not born in Spain, but as hopes are repeatedly raised then dashed in the game of bureaucratic persecution, his disappointment and anxious bafflement assume a Kafkaesque fixity.

For the greater part of Zama we as viewers have entered a world obscure in time and place, one which we cannot of course fully understand because many things stand in our way, and this is made literal by the intervention of physical obstacles to sight, such as a wooden column, mazy corridors, doorways half closed, too narrow or low, characters escaping or ducking in and out of them – it’s impossible to work out any spatial sense of interiors. The past should, after all, disorientate, and the film does this with sound too, so that we don’t always know who is speaking and where speech is coming from, and we hear unexplained noises that might express threat or violence. Exteriors shape the latter part of the film, its colours and textures blooming into a surreal madness reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, and with a beauty that also recalls (at least in my dimmed and distant memory) the films of the Brazilian, Glauber Rocha.

The Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel is of that great company, those for whom cinema can create truly new ways of seeing the world.  In Zama, she makes the past as strange as it needs to be to 21st-century eyes, giving it a visible life that’s startlingly instructive, remote from anything we might encounter in a costume drama. It’s slow-moving, yet each frame is quickened with peculiar details and perspectives. There’s the deadpan comedy of ill-fitting wigs and a wandering llama, the non-payment of salaries from Spain, itself a source of nostalgia for those who have never been there and long to exchange the lush heat of the tropics for the elegance of snow. Incongruities abound: the colourfully painted nails and grubby fingers of the powerful, male and female alike, the squalor and mess adjacent to their pretence at splendour, the musical soundtrack where the 1957 hit ‘Maria Elena’ recurs.

Its lack of penetrable meaning is part of the film’s beauty. This isn’t quite the same as mystery, unless you think of that as our sense of how the past was inhabited. Martel draws us to peer beyond what is hard to see and offers more than one viewing can take in. The film looks at us out of that past where shaky hierarchies tyrannise everyday life, and where slaves and servants, both indigenous Indian and black African, are a pervasive presence, in the frame or at its edges, almost invisible to their white masters until there’s a use for them. Martel allows us to observe how or whether they give the latter attention: sometimes looking with eloquent muteness or talking in untranslated tongues while not looking at all, all of which makes us alert to the interior life the masters might deny.

The ending? With it Zama does at last recognise himself, resigned to who he is rather than clinging to his waiting and hoping (the same verb in Spanish: esperar), and finally emboldened. It’s an Indian child who asks him a crucial question, the film’s last audible words.

The two other films I’ve seen directed by Martel, The Holy Girl (2004) and The Headless Woman (2008), have female protagonists. Both are complex and darkly concentrated on their themes in ways that can be read as commentary on Argentinian society. Zama, on a much bigger scale, is a multinational production, involving Argentina, Brazil and Spain, and many co-producers who include the Almodóvar brothers, Gael Garcia Bernal and Danny Glover. I doubt Hollywood will ever get a look in where Lucrecia Martel is concerned. May she make more masterpieces.

Phantom Thread

February 11, 2018 § Leave a comment

 

 

All five senses play a part in Phantom Thread, plus one or two extra, though vision tends to dominate, the camera looking through doors, up or down stairwells, the frame lavishly filled with jewel-like fabrics, their folds animated by light and shadow under the controlling hand and eye of designer Reynolds Woodcock, whose clothes are made for wealthy or aristocratic women, even royalty. He is London’s answer to Dior’s New Look, recalling Norman Hartnell or Hardy Amies (all three names that chime, along with Hitchcock’s) and he rules with tyrannical detachment over the beautiful house where the beautiful dresses are made and where he lives with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville). Overseeing both couture house and family home, she exerts the trenchant efficiency of a grand vizier, despatching those whose role as Sultan’s favourite has run its course. Alma (Vicky Krieps) enters his sights as replacement, but one with a touch of Scheherazade.

She has no surname in the film, no past, no elsewhere, other than in a hesitant foreign accent. On her first encounter with Reynolds, she stumbles into a piece of furniture and blushes, then smiles at her own self-consciousness, clearly enraptured by his attention. This brings Hitchcock’s Rebecca to mind, where the (nameless) new wife of Max is chronically clumsy – until at last she knows she is loved. And Rebecca’s ancestor Jane Eyre, with Woodcock echoing Rochester.

Acknowledging Rebecca as a source, Paul Thomas Anderson has described his film as a gothic romance. It’s stitched with fairytale elements, sometimes literally, and it also has patterns of a mythic kind.

Alma has advantages over Max’s wife. Although besotted, young, and without Woodcock’s utter self-possession, she has a mind of her own, and, as we discover, a complicated soul (it’s what her name means, after all). She wants to keep both as well as to be loved. She welcomes Woodcock’s claims on her body, as a lover, but for him above all she’s a creature to be moulded, transformed from waitress to elegant muse and model. There’s an ambiguity about his sexuality, certainly signs that the he fears getting too close to women: ‘I’m a confirmed bachelor’ he tells her in that now obsolete euphemism for gay men.

Eating here is a branch of eroticism. Through luxuriance in the flavours and textures of food it connects to other kinds of appetite. Yet when Alma proves to be a sensualist at table Reynolds takes her home not for seduction but measurements. Enter Cyril to write these down, asserting an authority that’s both infantilising and intrusive. Like a charming ogress scenting prey, she sniffs out the components of Alma’s fragrance. At this trespass on the intimacy of body scent, the latter’s indignation breaks out on her face, a face that always betrays feeling. Only in this does she give herself away.

Food has sounds as well as taste. Alma is a noisy eater and the scrape of butter laid on toast incurs Reynolds’ wrath, as does any attempt to wean him from his rigid regime of habits. It is her task not just to soften Reynolds’ tyranny, but to overturn it. The tyranny of a spoiled child.

Alma, in love, does want to give herself, but on her own terms. And from the start: smiling happily as his satisfied eyes stake ownership, she warns Reynolds that in any staring match with her he’s bound to lose. Cyril’s role is to smooth all paths to her brother’s ‘genius’, coddling and indulging, but she too warns him – against a quarrel that she’s bound to win. Within this particular trio the instability of Reynolds’ power becomes suddenly apparent.

To shore up his talents and success, he relies on the shadow presence of his dead mother and the protective magic of talismans and artisanal spells secreted in linings and seam flaps. We see Alma furtively remove one of these from a wedding dress. Meanwhile, her campaign of taming Reynolds’ narcissism starts with a thimble for drastic measures, and it’s by way of culinary sado-masochism that things proceed.

Alongside its classic cinema references Phantom Thread reminded me of quite a different film: Secretary (2002), a pared-down, off-kilter romcom with Maggie Gillenhaal and James Spader as secretary and boss who engage in a casually sadomasochistic office relationship that, through Gillenhaal’s stubborn efforts, is transformed by genuine feeling. Phantom Thread is much richer of course, and much odder too, with its uneasy strain of humour. Stylishly furnished with clothes and objects, teasingly full of filmic and fabular allusions, archly suggested meta-texts, it is a great pleasure to watch, and almost to touch, taste and lingeringly inhale (leaving aside the over-lush soundtrack). Peel away the surfaces and what’s left, however, depends not on substance but the performances, by those being dressed and by those wielding pins and scissors, as well as the principals.

Day-Lewis is loaded with enough charisma to save him on the verge of being ridiculous. He’s a handsome man, as Alma tells him, though at times, according to Reynolds’ fluctuating mood, whether in charge or with nose out of joint, that high-browed face assumes the look of an eagle or buzzard (not some woodcockish little bird). The two women are no less to be admired for their subtle and strenuous dislocations of male power. Any Pygmalion deserves what he gets.

I’d rejoice at these feminist sympathies were I able to take the film a little more seriously. I’d have laughed more too.

 

 

Judge Roban’s Ringtone

February 5, 2018 § 1 Comment

How does Spiral season six compare with the previous five? I have no idea, since this was my first. So I missed out on several years of what’s clearly become a cult in the manner of The Wire. Have the characters changed over time? Have they always been the same detective team, always led by Caroline Proust’s pigtailed Berthaud, always on the same patch? Have Joséphine Karlsson and her ‘Pradas’ always featured?

These entirely believable characters, along with Tintin, Gilou and Judge Roban, have familial and emotional histories, neuroses and compulsions that continually nudge the actions of their working lives, while the ambiguities of their all-consuming work compound these traits. That’s already obvious, on one season’s viewing.

Spiral draws everything into a kind of vortex: the characters, their police or legal work, their home lives or the absence thereof, the villains they chase and the city (an unglamorous Paris of the periphery). There are no boundaries between these separate components, just unrelieved restlessness and motion, driven by fast, reckless impulse. After a couple of episodes what really struck me was the mess; the way they screw up everything, both personal and professional, and the way things hardly ever go according to plan, because of betrayal, oversight or traffic jam. It seems as close as you can get to life.

Season six has tackled murder inside the police force, connivance at burglaries, enslavement of young girls in sex trafficking, to say nothing of a subplot involving harassment and rape. The goals of solving crimes and arresting perpetrators (even rescuing a victim before it’s too late) are all ultimately achieved. But that’s not the point.

Too many things remain that can’t be solved or laid to rest. Too much of the process, its violence or breaking of rules, its lesser and greater corruptions, the frequent lawlessness of the law and its failures to protect. The mechanisms at work within the interlocking worlds of society, politics and policing will persist, as will the cost to those who fight against and sometimes collude in them, whether in scruffy plainclothes or courtroom robes.

All this makes British police dramas look extremely tidied up. Spiral is distinctively French in its affinities with aspects of the polar, a thriving genre of noir fiction that often explores the darkness of both present and past in relation to state power and the role of the police. The novels of Didier Daeninckx, one notable exponent, have highlighted episodes from the Nazi occupation and the Algerian war.

Corruption and moral rectitude coexist in Spiral, along with a flexibility that may aim to do the least harm. The fundamental integrity of the investigating judge, François Roban, makes him one of the most fascinating characters. Reserved and apparently without a personal life, he’s a stoic and he rarely smiles. What incongruity towards the end of the final episode when his mobile phone explodes with what sounded to me like the Rolling Stones. He’s the right generation, but it’s unexpected. There’s probably a lot I don’t know about Judge Roban that all you fans out there can tell me.

Three Billboards (2) – Obscure to Whom?

January 20, 2018 § 2 Comments

 

This follows on from my previous post, Three Billboards, published on January 15.

Dixon, stopping his police car in front of a billboard: ‘What’s this?’

‘Advertising’ replies the young man pasting on the poster. His is the first black face we see.

Dixon: ‘What kind?’

Young man, smiling: ‘Something obscure.’

That ‘something obscure’ is arresting. Obscure to whom? Maybe not to someone who uses the word.

Dixon, never quick on the uptake, is at a loss with this answer. He doesn’t recognise Jerome, but Jerome knows him, as a cop notorious for ‘torturing black folks’– in Mildred’s words – and maybe from having been the one tortured.

In a sense the film is all about what’s obscure, though not to its black characters. Which is why they aren’t at its centre. They’re not sidelined, they see the present more clearly, from a position of acute experience. And in the case of Abercrombie (Clarke Peters, late of The Wire, like the actor playing Jerome), ultimately of control.

Although Frances McDormand’s portrayal of Mildred is forceful and convincing, this isn’t entirely a realist movie. Martin McDonagh has a talent for mixing genres (In Bruges combined gangster crime with comedy) and, behaving as if they’re stuck in a Western, his central characters in Three Billboards fail to perceive the realities of their world, a world that has mistreated them and filled them with fury.

Three billboards is a serious film, about things that matter. It doesn’t preach, it uses metaphor as it uses humour, for its indirectness, its potential to engage an audience in difficult questions to which it might otherwise be hostile. Since it’s a film with wide appeal, that audience is likely to include many of those working-class Americans who, against their own interests, voted for Trump.

Mildred and Dixon end up not as heroes but allies just beginning to see the light.

 

Three Billboards

January 15, 2018 § Leave a comment

Amid green hills by a shining lake, the fictional town in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has literally been bypassed (by a new highway) and left behind for its bigotries to flourish. The film feels so unanchored in time that it’s a surprise when, towards the end, a mobile phone rings and is pulled from a pocket.

Small-town slowness compounds this sense of the present being stuck in the past, the slowness of a place where nothing happens until violence does. What the film most resembles is a Western, with all the grit, stubbornness and wilful momentum of that genre, its lawlessness, even its characters’ names, and its topography too: Main Street becomes the centre of the action, with a double-fronted police station across the road from a bar and a cramped advertising agency (what might once have been a newspaper office).

The trailer for Martin McDonagh’s film suggests a tale of a woman’s brave fight for justice when failed by police incompetence or corruption, but one to be lifted from worthiness by the reliable heft of Frances McDormand’s acting. When her character, Mildred Hayes, buys billboard space to challenge chief Willoughby about the stalled investigation into her daughter’s rape and murder we soon discover nothing so cut and dried.

Willoughby is a decent upright lawman who has done his best while hampered by his slow-witted and near-psychotic deputy, Dixon, a vicious racist and misogynist. Mildred, separated from a violent husband, displays a courage and determination fuelled by righteous anger about her life and her poverty as well as her daughter’s death. Adept in foulmouthed repartee and sometimes randomly spiteful with those who obstruct her, she’s no angel. It’s Willoughby, after an early and surprising exit, who assumes that role, effecting changes of an unlikely kind, offering wild last chances and new hopes.

Anger (too often misdirected) is what the film turns on. And, from start to finish, humour, which runs through a script that has quickness of dialogue in abundance, making you smile and gasp by turns. Of course it’s one of Mildred’s qualities, and Willoughby’s. Without it, how would you begin to deal with that shambolic sense of dereliction, with hatreds left over from the past of the southern states, with the madness that has gripped so many? How would you turn what would otherwise be corny sentiments about human love and kindness into serious truths?

I was struck by the differences between the three central performances. McDormand and her character seem indivisible here: she has always, to my knowledge, played tough determined women, yet Mildred is both a heightened version of these and something more complicated, strength of character without power or awareness of what she’s really up against. Woody Harrelson’s Willoughby is an almost transparent rendering of the part and we see through it to Harrelson’s skill. Dixon’s visceral and savage performance, caricatural at first, makes it hard to believe there’s an actor (Sam Rockwell) inside it. It’s pure rage.

Other characters have their distinctness: Welby, the billboard renter, the butt of Dixon’s homophobia, played by Caleb Landry Jones; the startling eloquence of Peter Dinklage as the town dwarf. Even minor parts have a purpose, a story or a line of dialogue that enlightens or stings with its poignancy. Among these are the black characters, just stepping in occasionally, saner and surer than anyone else – so alert to the present it’s as if they’ve come from the future.

Throughout, the film continues to surprise us, and gradually to move us. We might even be prompted, if not to forgiveness, at least to glimpsing some reason for the vileness of the vilest character of all.

The last Western I saw in the cinema was Tarantino’s Hateful Eight, a state of the nation film from before Trump’s election. At the risk of making facile parallels, I’d say that Three Billboards represents a small but piercing insight into the desperation that brought it about.

 

 

Haneke’s Happy End

December 15, 2017 § Leave a comment

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A recent radio discussion of Michael Haneke’s Happy End concluded that, as ever, he aims to punish the bourgeoisie, characters and audience alike. Though I don’t see his films in quite those terms this prompted me to anticipate something akin to the claustrophobic rigours of Amour or The White Ribbon, perhaps even the horrors of Funny Games or The Piano Teacher. But Happy End struck me as one of Haneke’s least ‘punitive’ films. It brought to mind his Code Unknown, another film that shows us the world beyond the enclosed one of a family, couple or group, and where we also have a sense of physical spaciousness and light, an effect less liable to implicate the audience in either crime or the punishment here patently self-inflicted by the principals.
First we see images and text mediated through a smart phone with an unidentified voice-over, followed by a surveillance video of a building site where workers and machines plough along until a sudden disastrous collapse. Other screens appear in the course of the film, digital means whereby things are revealed or suggested.
We are in Calais and the building site belongs to the wealthy Laurent family, introduced at an uneasy dinner table: Georges, a decrepit and muddled 85-year-old (Jean-Louis Trintignan), his daughter, Anne (Isabelle Huppert), in whose hands he has placed the family business, his son Thomas, a surgeon, daughter-in-law Anaïs, and Anne’s son, Pierre. The on-site collapse arises as a problem to be dealt with, legal liabilities to be warded off, since one of the workers has been badly injured. It has caused Anne to cancel a trip across the Channel to see her fiance-to-be (Toby Jones).
Throughout, perspectives shift between these and other characters in the household: Rachid and Jamila, a Moroccan couple employed to look after it, and 12-year-old Eve, the daughter of Thomas from a first marriage.
The camera’s movements and placing keenly show and deliberately thwart what we might want to see, or else they open up an ambiguity. As Anne, Huppert’s face is frequently confined to profile, mid-shot or shadow, and what we are privy to in close-up is her public face: corporate, social, or dealing with the servants. She rules the family mansion as well as its business interests, conciliatory manner at the ready. By contrast, her brother has a face devoured in recurring close-up, its look of hangdog helplessness reminding me of Malenkov’s in The Death of Stalin, out of his depth as a ruthless dictator. In Thomas it’s the needily apologetic look of a weak man abdicating responsibility for the harm he’s done or is about to do to his children or his wives.
Both Thomas and Anne are morally unknowing, he driven by the selfishness of narcissism, she by the expediency of the profit motive. Even her engagement to the Toby Jones character (I didn’t catch his name, just ‘Darling’), a finance lawyer, appears nothing more than a tepid business arrangement for the convenience of cross-channel deals. They appear together only twice, fleetingly and in public settings. Jones has a solo moment in London, toying with his dinner in front of BBC News, when Anne phones for a chat about the building site problem. His goodbye smile at once freezes to an alert concern provoked by a report on striking oil-rig workers in Aberdeen.
Meals in the film never get to be enjoyed. Dramatic interruption or loss of appetite see to that. (A punishment indeed, recalling Buñuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie).
Love and affection don’t belong among the Laurents, while deceit, hypocrisy and manipulation triumph at every turn. The younger members of the family most visibly suffer the consequences, beyond repair it would seem. Eve might be the conscience of the film were it not for her own criminal tendencies; Pierre has no self-worth.
The ensemble work is fluent, actions damned or questioned through small gestures and little pieces of dialogue, with occasional passages where emotional distress leaks out. Haneke is generous with these characters (as in Code Unknown), inviting us to consider their flawed humanity and, at times, to laugh at their discomfiture. It’s Trintignan‘s Georges who supplies a blackly comic running gag with his repeated foiled attempts to find a final exit from the hell of decrepitude and family, and it’s he who takes us into the light of the sea and the streets, where some Calais refugees get a walk-on part. Their encounter with Georges is in long shot, across a busy road; we can’t hear any dialogue but we can draw conclusions. Refugees have a second brief role as pawns in the Laurents’ ongoing drama.
In comparing this film with Code Unknown I realise that the latter has an entirely different dynamic, so much that Happy End is its inversion, a film whose characters stay trapped in a closed circle so that no chance event can touch or change them, whereas Code Unknown was all about contingency, the effect of chance on the lives of disparate people. Both have a female protagonist (Juliette Binoche in Code Unknown) called Anne Laurent – the most emphatic of several echoes Haneke creates between this and earlier films.
Happy End has a lightness I’ve never seen before from him, but it nonetheless has bite and quite literally so. The first blood is drawn by the mansion’s guard dog – another character whose face we hardly see, though it’s clear from the outset that he’s dangerously fierce. We’ve observed Anne’s stingy payout to the family of her incapacitated employee, delivered as kind, caring capitalism, but when she bares her teeth in earnest we witness how vicious her politesse can be.
The film really demands a second viewing to do justice to its finely balanced scenes and visual pleasures. Haneke’s use of light and shadow achieves a painterly eloquence without being lavish – that high, brilliant light of the French channel coast to be found in Boudin and, later, the Impressionists. His cinematic connection to the New Wave is also apparent. This time he’s a director to rejoice in, and certainly not to dread.

Only Connect?

November 23, 2017 § Leave a comment

Howard's End 2018
Its liveliness and acuity make the script of Howards End the best thing about it. Straining to read the rather fuzzy opening credits, I was delighted to see it’s the work of Kenneth Lonergan, the writer and director of Manchester by the Sea and Margaret, films that explore the difficulties of relationships in relation to the private and the social. An apt choice for adapting this particular novel by E M Forster.
The 1992 Merchant Ivory film was re-released last year. I think it escaped me, but I wouldn’t have been drawn to see it again. I can’t help but make comparisons between it and the new BBC drama series. Where the film was showy, in typically lavish Merchant Ivory fashion, all lacy Edwardian frocks and fancy hats, tea tables groaning with cake – and committing similar excesses in acting style – this four-parter exerts its strengths quietly, at least at first (two episodes in), noting finer class distinctions and changing mores in the London of the years before World War I.
There are three families at the heart of Howards End, but two of them matter more than the third. These are the Wilcoxes, their uppercrust wealth deriving from business interests that reach across the Empire, their leisure pursuits sporty and not of the mind, and the affectionate Schlegel siblings, two sisters in their 20s and a younger brother, orphans freed from parental limits and with inherited private incomes that enable them to pursue a comfortable existence as intellectuals on the fringes of liberal bohemia. Their name gives them a high-cultural resonance with the Schlegel brothers and the German Romantic Movement a century earlier: one likely to have been more familiar in Forster’s day than now.
Lonergan’s script observes the Schlegel sisters in the mould of the New Woman, interested in and pithily commenting on other things new around them: ideas about diet as well as music, literature, the suffrage movement. They are open-minded and generous spirits, which explains why their German holiday encounter with the Wilcoxes led to friendship rather than the friction their divergent outlooks would only later engender. All the same, Margaret Schlegel’s growing attachment to Henry Wilcox is made rather implausible with Matthew Macfadyen in the role, an actor who has always struck me as impeccably dull. At least Anthony Hopkins brought charm and alertness to the unpalatably capitalistic paterfamilias in the 1992 film.
But the sisters’ casting certainly has the edge in this new version. Instead of Margaret Schlegel cast as Emma Thompson, Helen as Helena Bonham Carter, rather than the other way round, we see Hayley Atwell and Philippa Coulthard respectively achieve a more interior sense of character. Atwell in particular impresses as a woman who, devoid of Thompson’s archness, listens and thinks, responding with what Forster calls her ‘potent vitality’. Neither is showy but both are vivid, and this vividness is heightened through their clothes, their elegantly painted rooms, and the inspired use of colour in the setting of wider scenes – like the one where, seen from above, Helen’s scarlet beret becomes a flame travelling across the busy greyness of a London square.
The script is alive to the structures of class and gender behind the appearances of the Edwardian city, and the presence of a black maid in the Schlegel household adds nuance to the perspective on its liberalism. Another black actor, Rosalind Eleazor, plays the part of Jacky, the common-law wife of the clerk Leonard Bast, in whom Helen takes a well-meaning interest. Jacky and Leonard form the story’s third, and lower-middle-class, family, which is incidental to the central drama while being instrumental in its resolution.
I’m curious to see how Lonergan’s script deals with this problematic resolution, which can so easily be read as a reconciliation of the bourgeoisie in comfortable compromise through the sacrifice of lesser lives.

Going to a Party, Killing a Deer

November 13, 2017 § Leave a comment

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I’ve been thinking of how we remember films over subsequent days and weeks. Sally Potter’s The Party outsmarts Woody Allen: the melodramatic foolishness, the ensemble acting from familiar faces and pleasingly unlikely pairings. But it’s no less evanescent. This black comedy has its darkness undercut by the knowing lightness of its satire, which rarely proves funny (little laughter from the audience I was in) precisely because it’s both strenuously engineered and scattershot. The source genre appears to be French farce – players rushing in and out of adjacent rooms or spaces, within a confined stagey set.

What lingers is style, the effectively glowering monochrome, the camera often lurking below the frame before it rears into sweaty close-up or scenes of frenzied movement.

Unlike The Party, The Killing of a Sacred Deer lingers as something to puzzle over. ‘Weird and disturbing’ was my initial impression. Online it’s summed up as a mystery thriller or, more widely, as psychological horror. Dogtooth, an earlier film, made in Greece by the same director, Yorgos Lanthimos, is judged ‘frighteningly funny’. Both are about families in which patriarchal control is wielded with obsessive rigidity.

The Killing immediately creates an uneasy sense of place, its generic city locations seeming fake, its hospital corridors noiseless. Flat stretches of dialogue poise on the deadpan edge of comic, until the ominous mood, made so present by the soundtrack and the movements of the camera, reminds us that doom is in the offing, its imminence rising and subsiding until it reaches a prolonged crescendo.

Colin Farrell plays Steven, a heart surgeon who is rule-bound in everything, including sex with his wife, played by Nicole Kidman, an ophthalmologist. Strict routines keep the lid on things: his children, his own alcoholism and the incipient violence only unleashed when Nemesis appears in the shape of Martin, a sinister teenager who threatens retribution for his father’s death under the knife in the operating theatre. Earlier, Martin has unsettled the protective facade of privilege he finds on a visit to the doctor’s home. Admiring it, he adds, almost neutrally: ‘I live in a not so nice house in a not so nice neighbourhood’.

With Martin’s threat events appear to turn supernatural. In the horror genre this tends to involve demons and nightmares. The Killing has a director who works with fellow Greeks (co-writing, cinematography, music) and its title evokes those ancient gods who terrified with their powers of life and death in Mediterranean daylight. The sacred deer refers to the animal killed by Agamemnon, incurring the wrath of the goddess Artemis. By becalming the sea, she prevents the Greek fleet he commands from setting sail to make war on Troy, and demands appeasement by the sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia.

Parental power is rendered angrily impotent in Steven’s household when his children sicken. Both will die according to Martin’s decree unless Steven chooses one to kill. With the matter-of-factness of his dilemma, the film becomes increasingly surreal in tone. The tight coils of family loosen and rampant addiction replaces control – there’s so much smoking it made me want to cough, and simultaneously to laugh as release from the film’s severity.

Here the bourgeoisie is under siege, as it is in the films of Buñuel, where the social is ripped apart by the panics of the psyche in the face of discomfort and ridicule, the humiliation of a pattern from which there is no escape. Lanthimos’s focus is more ferociously on the family, his invoking of Greek myth more brutal than Buñuel in his ironic, and often very funny demolitions of Catholic culture.

I’d happily see every one of Buñuel’s films again. I’m less sure about returning to The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but only because it is so weird and disturbing.

Not long after seeing it I went to a screening of Medea, made by Lars von Trier in 1988, one of several versions inspired by Euripides’ play. Medea’s story is that of a woman betrayed, a stranger far from her native land, who kills her children, not from lack of love, but perhaps for revenge, from the need to reassert her own power, or also, as this visually beautiful and strange film imagines, out of desperation.

The Greek myths are Ur-stories that show us people doing terrible as well as heroic things. They offer the spectacle of human suffering at history’s beginnings – war, exile, enslavement, parricide, fratricide and all the variants of family murder – and they also probe the emotions and impulses that can underlie these still-present tragedies: love, lust, fear, greed and the rest. There is nothing stranger than Greek myth, with its transformations and mysteries, its gods, monsters and decrees of fate. Yet in our cultural resources there is nothing more relevant to our understanding of human behaviour, because the myths, in their many ancient versions, retold across the centuries, speak of its roots, and, in the modern world, have become a kind of guide to the human unconscious.

 

BLADERUNNER 2049

October 9, 2017 § Leave a comment

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Daylight is rationed in Bladerunner 2049, as one might expect, given the drizzly urban night and claustrophobic interiors of its source film. Punctuated by pitch darkness flickering with neon and digital colour, the light that increasingly prevails comes in various shades of sulphur, trembling from water reflections on the walls of a corporate villain’s den, massed into a dull orange fog or seeping more palely through once luxurious rooms filled with the relics of a high culture whose artefacts belong nowhere else in the episodic world that we’ve seen so far.

Here we find a hologram of Frank Sinatra shrunk under a glass dome of the kind the Victorians used for dried flowers and forever singing It’s a quarter to three… And this is where Ryan Gosling as officer K (why choose that initial unless you want to remind people of Kafka) of LAPD finally meets the aged Deckard of the original Bladerunner, Harrison Ford again – aged 75 and displaying a welcome vitality and world-weary wit that at last lets 2049 shake off the ponderousness of its metaphysics.

I’m beginning towards the end because the film makes us wait for it so long. When you’re not being bludgeoned by Dolby Sensurround’s clankings and grindings, there’s a lot to be impressed by on the way: the look of things, a screen-drenching scenography that shapes moods of unease and dread; some good performances, notably from the female actors, and even Gosling’s bland good looks and acting style are roughened and bloodied into characterful humanity (he’s a replicant) by the final stages; and yes, though I wouldn’t agree with the critics who’ve praised its philosophical profundity, I’d say the film has no lack of ideas. But they’re scattered across an action-impelled plot heading always towards the main event between Gosling and Ford. And squandered by being incidental, hence over-literal.

In the original Bladerunner, Deckard swerves from his course as the killer of rogue androids because he falls in love with one of them. The film’s strengths lay in its density, both in mood and through the questions it suggested about humanity and consciousness, identity and feeling. 2049 sacrifices depth and themes to the expediency of fast plotting and stretched set pieces that intimate sundry references: Dickens (child exploitation), James Bond (fiendish cruelty), Ballard (apocalyptic devastation) and Tarkovsky. Yet it manages to be hurried where those ideas are concerned.

Officer K has a live-in hologram girlfriend, Joi, a product we see customised to supply his every fantasy of woman, showing off an extensive wardrobe (women’s clothes matter in this film), before she settles into the warm personality of a sensitive, intelligent partner, ahead of K in his detective work, seizing on what’s about to surface from his unconscious; in other words she’s a projection of it, anticipating wishes, desires, insights. Or might such a fine-tuned, albeit fleshless being (or device? app?) have a will of her own, selflessly motivated by devotion to K? And what about that replicant unconscious of his, apparently programmed for those instincts beyond the rational that any detective needs?

There’s enough here to take a stand-alone film much further than Spike Jonze did with Her, but the narrative moved on and away from Joi, as I was on the verge of being moved by her. Indeed, each of the film’s four main female characters has a narrative function and potential significance that’s stopped short of resonating. This, need I say it, is a boys’ film. With no shortage of flying cars, explosions and punitive violence, even enforced by a replicant woman.

When the boys do get together it’s in Las Vegas, in a deserted nightclub where full-size holograms of Elvis and Marilyn live on. Gosling and Ford start their bonding with a cartoonish fight. Ford terminates it, less as Deckard than as Indiana Jones, with an invitation to have a drink. We can relax now, knowing we are in good, entertaining hands that have an ample supply of Johnny Walker Black Label, more than enough for himself and his boozy, suitably shaggy dog, who might or might not be real, for he doesn’t bark, regardless of the mayhem that ensues.

The problem of being real or not and its role as the engine of the film’s quest to root out a threatening anomaly proves to be something of a MacGuffin when we realise that the replicants outnumber humans, who seem to have fled the planet they’ve largely destroyed. That the replicants long not just for equality but a share in being human carries a sad streak of irony. Maybe it’s intentional, or maybe the film just lost its own plot.

THE HOURGLASS – AN UPDATE

August 18, 2017 § Leave a comment

The Hourglass still needs you.
https://unbound.com/books/the-hourglass
Through Unbound, I’m still crowdfunding for my novel, The Hourglass. I’ve now reached 54% of my target and I’m very grateful to all of you who have helped me so far.
Unbound operates as a crowdfunding publisher. It selects the books it takes on, then it’s up to the author, using its website, to raise funds that will cover production costs, and also to demonstrate that there are potential readers out there, by persuading a large crowd to sign up as supporters. In some respects this resembles 18th and 19th-century subscription publishing.
Supporters’ names appear in all editions, including the e-book, unless they prefer to be anonymous,
I have an agreed target to cover production costs and once I achieve it Unbound will publish The Hourglass as a paperback and an e-book. At 54%, I’ve made good progress. The support and enthusiasm I’ve discovered has been fantastic, but there’s still a long way to go and I need to rally a much greater number of supporters, which is why I’m asking you to consider pledging your support, if you haven’t already done so.
The link will take you directly to my project page on Unbound. There you can read an extract from The Hourglass, along with a synopsis, and watch a home-made two-minute video of me talking about what inspired it, as well as viewing the names of my existing backers. You’ll also see a series of pledges and rewards (following formulas devised by Unbound), ways of pre-purchasing, from £10 for an e-book.
Some of those who follow the blog already know about the project and have given their support. I’m asking all the others. And if you’ve already pledged support please help me rally more backers by passing on the link.
If you enjoy reading my blog, please support The Hourglass.
https://unbound.com/books/the-hourglass

Thursday

June 6, 2017 § 6 Comments

‘I don’t have the figures’ snapped Amber. I don’t know which figures she meant (I’d missed what preceded) but their irrelevance was surely made plain by the answer. Emily had the policing figures: ‘I’ve found them at the bottom of my handbag’ – a nice touch, more endearing than figures on an iPad – and she read them out. Labour always has the figures, even if it means a bit of rummaging. The Tories disdain exactness; it’s beneath them.

It was the Woman’s Hour election debate, this morning from 9 to 10.45, where Emily Thornberry and Amber Rudd were joined by Kirsty Blackman of the SNP and LibDem Jo Swinson – and a waffly woman from UKIP, the only one never to have been an MP. Jane Garvey handled phone-in and discussion with an even hand, upholding the programme’s general mission to keep things sisterly and civilised. (Listeners’ expectation of courtesy was what made Jeremy Corbyn’s encounter with the true-blue Emma Barnett such a shocker. Aiming to emulate the Paxman bellow and the Kuensberg snarl, and managing to outdo both in rudeness and hostility, Barnett turned what should have been an interview into a pretext for relentless verbal harassment).

Unpleasant as she is, I’ve been entertained by Amber Rudd’s recent appearances. An unexpected asset to Labour, she replaces May’s wooliness of presentation with a peremptory definiteness resting on the belief that it’s better to cow an audience than baffle it. She’s the deputy headmistress out there to bat away all the flak while headmistress May hides in her office rehearsing her Brexit lines and election victory speech. Rudd’s so bossy she’s the second coming of Margaret Thatcher’s Spitting Image puppet.

Getting to know Amber on Woman’s Hour was just one more little pleasure in what’s become an increasingly enjoyable campaign. When the election was announced so many of us who had supported Corbyn feared all would be lost. But something extraordinary happened. He appeared to relish the prospect, he shone with such confidence that he clearly had a secret weapon. He is now hailed as a master of Zen – maybe that’s it. Whatever it is, his performance on the media stage has been impressive, albeit with some glitches. And the exhilaration of the manifesto! The policies we’ve waited for all our adult lives! I’ve never known such an exciting election campaign. I’ve never wanted to cheer politicians so much: Corbyn, Thornberry, Lucas and others. Cheer them because they mean what they say, because they speak the truth about the appalling corruption and inequalities of our society, and propose to remedy them. And this is new.

If the Tories win (would it be surprising, given the combined efforts of The Mail, The Sun, The Times, The Telegraph etc etc) something will still remain, have changed, and who knows what might come of that.

It isn’t only optimism that’s making me rule out that possibility. I’ve seen two Labour election broadcasts that couldn’t be bettered. I don’t know what effect such things have as campaigning tools, but Vote for Me was inspired: a series of girls and young women cheekily and sagely demanding that their parents and grandparents cast a vote for their future, for their education, health and well-being. Last night’s brought us doctors and nurses speaking to camera about the NHS with a candour and power that was heartbreaking.

There’s been heart, soul and humour in this campaign. Maybe the Tories are facing a truly irresistible force.

Judith, Offred and Lady Macbeth

June 4, 2017 § Leave a comment

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In the course of the same week I watched an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale on Channel 4, saw William Olroyd’s film Lady Macbeth in the cinema, and attended the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s performance of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle at the Festival Hall. All three narrate extremes of female subjugation.

Coercion directs Offred’s every move in the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel (she has credits as co-writer and co-producer). The Handmaid’s Tale depicts the United States as Gilead, a newly formed theocracy where women lose all autonomy. I remember Atwood’s declaration that everything it described has already been inflicted or is being inflicted on women somewhere in the world – she hadn’t of course foreseen the current threats to so many freedoms in Trump’s America.

Adding to our awareness of barbarisms elsewhere, the contemporary references now introduced bring Gilead’s regime of evangelical Christian fascism an imaginative step closer to the present. As in Orwell’s 1984, there’s ubiquitous surveillance, paranoia, betrayal for the sake of survival. Punishments, like salutations, are biblical, in a viciously literal manner; rape is systematic, institutionalised as sacred and pure.

These horrors are the more disturbing for being seen in fragmentary glimpses, spoken of in whispers or choreographed to conceal, like the scene where victims are themselves commanded to enact collective murder. Women’s enslavement parallels the killings of gays and others whose existence offends the rulers. Silence prevails, not just in the voicelessness of the oppressed, but pervading sunlit streets as well as shadowy rooms and corridors, stifling spontaneous life. Offred is played with watchful intelligence by Elisabeth Moss, and her tale unfolds through interior monologue.

Power in this near-future dystopia is achieved by reversal, the brutal stripping away of prior freedoms. Olroyd’s film explores Victorian forms of coercion. It’s derived from Nikolai Leskov’s novel, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, published in 1865, which tells a different story about power than that of Shakespeare’s play. Among the many rights that women didn’t have in that particular year were those of property in the event of marriage: everything a woman had owned belonged to her husband. Katherine, the film’s teenage protagonist, has been acquired by her violently dictatorial father-in-law along with a parcel of land. Her bridegroom is middle-aged and bullying, her new home a cheerless and loveless house that comes with a warning not to step outside.

The film’s style and imagery emphasise confinement, the domestic cage, in sundry ways. Strict morning routines of shutters opened, corset painfully tightened, unwieldy crinoline frame (both cage and sign of status) set in place, followed by static shots of Katherine unwillingly demure on the sofa – all establish a claustrophobic, imprisoning world. Rare moments of release occur during the absence of both patriarchal figures (not gentry but uncouth owners of industry with crises to manage), when we see her stride off across the moors (like the Northern accents, they suggest Yorkshire and, by association, the Brontës). These first intimations of rebellion offer us a nature-loving heroine to sympathise with, but Katherine becomes an anti-heroine whose defiance takes her over the line to villainy.

Strong willed and impulsive, she discovers passion in the arms of a servant, the dark-skinned Sebastian. Race as well as class powerlessness has an unforced visibility in the film. Anna, Katherine’s black maid, is a mutely alert witness. She might be expected to turn ally, but driven by sexual desire, Katherine shows no need of sisterly solidarity. Events proceed at a pace appropriate to the abrupt curtailment of the classic Victorian marriage scenario from which women can’t escape. Murder puts a stop to it. Not just once.

In its script, editing and soundscape Lady Macbeth displays perfectly judged economy, both when it conveys cramped resistance to reiterated dullness and futility, then the wild and startling actions of a victim suddenly unbound by wilful disregard of morality. Nobody triumphs, two fates are horribly sealed, and we are left with nihilism as one answer to deprivation of a woman’s freedom. A very young woman and a disastrous answer that visits even harsher injustice on others. This tale is told with acute penetration. What the camera shows us, most often in insistent close-up, is a shockingly uneasy view of the past, convincing in its unfamiliarity, and not without mystery.

However much we expect our heroines to be good, the story of violence begetting violence on women’s part has deep roots in Western culture, starting with Medea. Bluebeard is another age-old story, one of Perrault’s fairy tales, published in 1697 but, like most of those we know, originating in oral tradition. Its many elaborations over time carry a cautionary weight for women, about the dangers of romantic love, about male secrets and threats. Charlotte Brontë makes explicit references to it in Jane Eyre, where the locked doors at Thornfield Hall prompt Jane to wonder what Mr Rochester conceals, before she discovers the truth about his locked up wife. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca reworks Brontë’s novel, with the mystery of Max’s dead wife shadowing the life of the new one, while both male characters exhibit an emotional carelessness bordering on sadism before their husbandly devotion is confirmed. Angela Carter subverted the Bluebeard narrative in ‘The Bloody Chamber’, the titular story in her 1979 collection, and Margaret Atwood’s ‘Bluebeard’s Egg’ was likewise the central story in her collection of 1983.

Bartok’s one-act opera has only two singers. Judith has eloped with Duke Bluebeard, forsaking her family and the man she was meant to marry, recklessly ignoring sinister rumours and proclaiming a love that overrides fear, which she believes will bring light to the castle’s menacing darkness. Her words and song vie with his as she lays claim to the truth, demanding keys to the locked doors, even when the first opens on a torture chamber. The libretto, by the Symbolist poet and film theorist Béla Balázs, has a visual density that animates each vision of wealth, power and beauty, tinged with blood, until the seventh door reveals Bluebeard’s three previous wives in living death. The music, composed for a large orchestra, expresses this battle of wills in a maelstrom of ambivalence, deep sonorities of foreboding shrouding mesmeric rippling chords that suggest the magical or uncanny.

We can see in Judith not so much a willing victim as a woman who overestimates the power of love and the power of her own eloquence. Neither she, Offred or Katherine is subservient. All three are active figures. Before her capture Offred had a husband and young daughter, the former killed (it would seem) as they tried to escape to Canada, the latter taken from her. She’ll fight to find her. There’s a resistance movement out there, and nine more episodes.

Elle

March 18, 2017 § 2 Comments

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Paul Verhoeven, best known for Hollywood action films, seems an unlikely director for this French arthouse movie. He excels, not just because of his manifest skills, but because of the real auteur at work here: Isabelle Huppert, its star in a part she had determinedly wanted before Hollywood turned down the project and it came back to France, where it had originated in a novel. Thankfully, this is a very French film; funny, playful yet serious.

Previous Huppert roles have shown us women variously endowed with character and courage, imperious and even ruthless, without sentimentality. In Elle she has all of these traits. As Michèle Leblanc she is fearless, a woman who calls the shots, who takes the initiative with men, who is a clever businesswoman, co-owner and CEO of a computer-games company largely staffed by men. Regardless of this power, and all the more because of its affront to masculine vanity, she remains subject to male physical dominance, which we encounter even before the first image appears. The film opens with the sounds of vigorous sex behind a dark screen that then reveals a brutal scene of rape. Michèle’s furious resistance to her masked attacker is met with increasing violence. There’s nothing erotic about any of this.

Alone, regaining self-possession after moments of numbness, Michèle sweeps up the smashed debris of the struggle, bins her torn, soiled clothing, lies in the bath then orders a takeaway. We see her having a medical check-up but she doesn’t contact the police; instead, she buys a rather dainty axe and puts it under her pillow. In the ensuing tumble of events and disclosures, Michèle’s behaviour makes perfect sense, as much sense as you’ll find in a film so provocative, so richly full of contradiction and perversity as this one.

Michèle is clearly bent on refusing victimhood. She feels vulnerable, checking locks, but she also seems to be waiting for the rapist’s return. Mentally, she reruns the rape scene, eventually making it a fight she’s able to win.

First she must identify him. We watch her detective work, with all the men around her lined up as suspects: Richard, her ex; her lover; resentful employees; the man across the street whom she eyes lustfully through binoculars. Suspicion, it turns out, is an alibi for more than one kind of vengeance. Richard, caught up in a minor axe-wielding incident, takes this and further offences lightly, proving to be a devoted ex-husband and an engaging exception among the film’s male fauna. Despite mutual jealousies, he and Michèle are almost best friends. Yet in a friendly moment, seemingly without rancour, comes the following dialogue:

She – You left me.

He – You threw me out.

She – Because you hit me.

Nothing is rational, but there’s an abundance of logic, perhaps too much to be manageably helpful. Isn’t that the way things often are?

Once I think about it, vengeful, controlling Michèle strikes me as the counterpart to the stoical Nathalie of Huppert’s last film released here, Things to Come. The latter is shot mostly in broad daylight, whereas Elle moves from interior to darkened interior and wintry evening streets. Both Michèle and Nathalie are at the centre of a family group. Nathalie’s (the more conventional) is rapidly undone by her husband’s infidelity and rejection, while Michèle’s messy, misshapen family web persists in clinging to her, and this makes Elle more of an ensemble piece (something French cinema is particularly good at: the light, sharp comedies of Agnès Jaoui or Arnaud Desplechin’s dramas of family cruelty are examples). Both protagonists have a mother obsessed with her looks and unable to accept ageing. Natalie’s is a narcissist, Michèle’s a grotesque and never without a gigolo.

Nothing is natural, but some things are lethally harmful. The one family member who will always be there, albeit behind bars, is Michèle’s hated father, a peculiarly Catholic psychopath. Because of him she is still pursued by the guilt and shame of a very public childhood, when the yellow press reviled her as complicit in his crimes. This might explain the hints of masochism beneath her need for control. Or it might not. Nothing is fixed, not just the terms of sexual behaviour but the emotional bonds entailed in intimacy, friendship and family. It seems there’s room for escape from what the past might dictate. A cheering suggestion, perversely optimistic though it is, given the context.

Vincent, Michèle’s son, so lacking in his parents’ talent for success, is in fact the quasi-son of her business partner and real best friend, Anna, who breastfed him in hospital (no milk, or maybe just no urge on Michèle’s part) after her own child’s still-birth, bonding with him forever. He himself has a quasi-son, an infant he insists on claiming as his despite appearances to the contrary. Michèle tries to reason with him over this delusion, but at one point she announces, to her own puzzlement: ‘I’m a grandmother.’

Ambivalence bedevils her. As for that putative touch of masochism and the guilt at its source, Catholicism features as more than a backdrop. One of Elle’s classic moments is a Christmas Eve dinner party where Michèle brings together family, friends and enemies. It promises to be fun, especially with midnight mass on the telly at one guest’s request. Classic in the sense of the dinner party trope deployed in both Chabrol (with whom Huppert made seven films), who was rarely playful, and Buñuel, who hovers both playfully and sardonically over the whole of this film. Both directors had the Bourgeoisie in their sights. Elle does too, and it’s not oblivious to the Patriarchy. What it says about the objectification of women is sometimes playfully conveyed, more often with passing shock effect, as in the unpleasant equivalence noted between a live woman modelling for a photographer and the synthetic figure to be derived from her in a computer game, or as in Michèle’s final tryst with her lover.

No one acts with ethics or consequences in mind, only needs and desires. There are no innocents, well perhaps Vincent and that baby, or even Anna, about whom we know little, only that she’s Michèle’s good object.

In Michèle’s search for vengeance she’s led astray by desire, succumbs to ambivalence, then takes the biggest risk of all. All’s well that ends well, but what a rocky road to get there, what catharsis, what relief.

Elle really does end well, in the most satisfying way, the whole carefully patterned to contain unruliness while giving it free rein. The director should be given his due, and the writer, and most of all Huppert’s subtle acting, which combines inscrutability with depth and mischief with a kind of steely charm.

And, by the way, at no point does the film remind us that its main character is in her 60s, or even that she’s an ‘older woman’; in fact this is quite deliberately blurred without Huppert being made over to look younger. Of course, her face can shift from radiant to faded and a little crumpled, which is how things go after a certain age. She is never ‘past it’, because she’s fully alive.

Elle made me think of Angela Carter’s Sadeian Woman and its moral lessons.

Berger 2: Lost in Europe

March 10, 2017 § 2 Comments

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I never met John Berger, though I nearly did. In the spirit of the enigma here’s a piece I wrote for a collection about the intersections of reading and reality, published by Penguin in 1994 (Brought to Book, eds Ian Breakwell & Paul Hammond). It’s my recollection of a trip across central Europe in 1974.
LOST IN EUROPE
I’m in a seat by the window, but a sheet of grime shuts out the landscape going past. The train is heading north to Prague from Bratislava, but the book my nose is in takes me to Trieste. It’s John Berger’s G: 1915, not 1974; Slovenia, not Slovakia… Which is darkening anyway, outside the dirty window.
One of those journeys where you’re thrown into your imagination all the more, not because there’s nothing new to pull on your attention, but because the strangeness around you is lulled; not like being on a plane, though, where you’re dislocated, held prisoner by your placeless surroundings. Planes are distraction, not absorption; snooze, not reverie. A train travelling through the night is the space of a dream.
There are four of us in the compartment. A blank-faced, fidgety youth occupies the far corner seat next to an old woman who sits with her eyes closed, a sturdy peasant frame in a headscarf and a wide black skirt. A basket encrusted with hardened soil is planted between her feet, in it a huge pair of shears loosely wrapped in newspaper. They got on the train at different stations and in the hour or two since haven’t uttered a word. Gillian and I occasionally look up from our books and speak, in English, and neither shows any sign of noticing this foreignness.
I bury myself deeper and deeper in G: Slovenes, Italians, Austrians, riot and resistance, the Habsburg Empire in terminal spasm. In this novel time is a fraud, ‘now’ and ‘then’ collapsing into each other. Trieste itself is riven by history: a city on the cusp of shifting frontiers, languages, cultures. One of those fictions where place and time rock together in mutual instability. Where am I? When? Just the ticket for a ride across middle Europe.
We started out in Venice. Gillian had arrived along with another friend, Jan, a Czech, who had gone back to London leaving us a list of Czech friends we were to look up along the way, in Vienna, Bratislava and Prague. He and Gillian had brought me a bundle of recent paperbacks, among them G. My holiday reading.
Through the cracks in Vienna’s surface dullness, its suspect air of propriety, the past sends silent screams. At least so it seems in the fevered state I’ve entered with the onset of flu.
Schönbrunn, Prater, the Kunsthistorisches Museum are all perceived through a thickening of reality as my temperature climbs. These hallucinatory perceptions are heightened in a haze of slivovitz and schnapps that envelopes all of us: the over friendly Czech architect who gives us hospitality for two nights, the Polish-German couple who are the other houseguests. Then there’s the heat and the babble of languages in the long queue for visas at the Czech Embassy. At this point I get dizzy and faint. Where…? Against the odds we get our visas before the office closes; my head clears on the bus to Bratislava.
Bratislava is too subdued and rural, too centreless to be taken seriously as a city. The country market, the red-carpeted silence of the Lenin Museum, the high-rise flats on the outskirts where we spend a night, warmly received by two more network names: all like a rehearsal for our real destination.
But on the train Prague gets further away. Anticipation is in abeyance. Inhabiting Trieste, I find myself reluctant to arrive elsewhere and journey’s end drags me too abruptly out of fiction’s living words and sentences into the void of the waking world. On the ill-lit station platform the here and now remains obscure. The empty late-night station forecourt and the greyness that seeps towards the rest of the city give it only provisional substance. As we straggle after other passengers in the direction of the tram stop I bend Gillian’s ear, eager to talk about G now that I’ve had to stop reading it.
I’m still talking about it as the long-awaited tram jolts us off towards the centre. Everything is as dark as an East European city could be back then in the 70s, and how are we to know where to get off and how to locate the student hostel we’re supposed to stay in?
The driver, impervious to our mangled attempts at pronouncing Czech street names, waves us back along the aisle when we approach him. People stare, there are murmurs of interest at our plight, and a middle-aged woman rises and speaks to us in English. We show her the address we want to find; she says she’ll tell us when we reach the right stop. Smiles all round.
She asks are we from London. Well, yes… She has a daughter who went there in ‘68, and she hasn’t been able to see her since. We must be the daughter’s age she thinks. And she goes on talking, becoming more emotional as the tram lunges on through the still undifferentiated darkness. More people stare at us now, and at the woman, then they look away. She speaks softly.
Just as we reach the stop she scribbles an address. ‘Please come and see me,’ she says, as if our encounter had really mattered: maybe we reminded her of the exiled daughter. ‘By the way, I have an English writer staying at my flat. Perhaps you’ll meet him if you come. His name is John Berger.’
‘Look!’ I blurt, just before we leap off the tram. I’m reading one of his books.’ I pull G from my bag so that she can see its red cover. She smiles again, and gives us a wave.
‘Fancy that!’
And off we trudge into the dark, to have Prague claim us for itself and get us lost and send us wandering around in circles, tired and bedless until, around 1 a.m., it takes pity on us in the form of complete strangers on their way home. It falls to the lot of a young woman who works as a make-up artist at the TV station to give us a roof for the night. In her tiny flat she houses a splendid collection of platform shoes that have entered the country from the West, courtesy of a German boyfriend.
A few days later we think about the woman on the tram and wonder whether to pay her a visit. Our meeting had, after all, seemed fated. Odd enough even for us to doubt its reality. So one afternoon we track down the address and climb the stairs of a sombre narrow building that has two flats to each dim-lit landing. There’s not a soul about, not a sound escapes from behind any of the heavy panelled, firmly closed doors, all with solid brass nameplates.
We find the right floor, the right name. We ring the bell, whose thin tinkle barely penetrates the hush, and when nothing stirs on the other side of the door we knock, several times, hard. No one answers. We loiter for ten minutes, hoping that a neighbour might appear and gather up the loose end we now feel left with. But no one does.

Berger 1: Re-reading, Re-seeing

March 9, 2017 § Leave a comment

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On the side of the powerful there is a conformism of fear – they never forget the Wall – and the mouthing of words which no longer mean anything.
John Berger wasn’t referring to Donald Trump here, but concluding an essay published in 2008 where he revised his earlier unfavourable judgement of Francis Bacon. What he had in mind were the walls of exclusion and imprisonment, whether metaphorical or solid, that remained beyond the destruction of the one in Berlin.
Berger was the first art critic I read, and I’m sure that applied to many other readers of Ways of Seeing in 1972. I still have the original copyright-free edition, but I’ve lost The Moment of Cubism, the next of his books I came to. Thanks to the two companion volumes of Berger essays, Portraits and Landscapes, published by Verso in 2015 and 2016, and prompted by his death in January, I’m revisiting the Berger of more than four decades ago while discovering for the first time the prodigious range and reach of a lifetime’s writing. Portraits is structured as a compendium of 74 extracts on artists he wrote about, from the prehistoric painters of the Chauvet Caves to generations born in the 1970s and 80s. Landscapes is more theoretical in its placing of how art is culturally constituted; it also pays homage to those whose ideas have nourished Berger.
I learned only in an obituary that he was born in Stoke Newington, which adds to the lustre of this, my own part of London, with its history of dissidents. He was above all a European, his ideas developed through close engagement with the work of thinkers such as Walter Benjamin, Berthold Brecht, Rosa Luxemburg and, later, Roland Barthes. His own writing encourages that sense of rich cultural connection. Reading him now, I feel I’m absorbing an antidote to some of the dread and dismay wrought by the Brexit vote.
To call him an art critic is inadequate. He was a novelist who wrote about art and a consummate essayist who looked at art from the perspectives of history, politics and cultural change, often through the fluctuations in his own experience of these wider dimensions. Accordingly, art kindled and illuminated his understandings of them. In 1963, he first saw Grünewald’s altarpiece in Colmar, a vast polyptych of saints, angels and demons, birth and resurrection, whose crucifixion panels vibrate with intense suffering and grief. He was aware only of its bleakness. Living in a time of hope: ‘I had no need for anything else.’
Seeing it again, more than a decade later, on the other side of 1968, he describes how he was forced to place himself historically:
In a period of revolutionary expectation, I saw a work of art which has survived as evidence of the past’s despair; in a period which has to be endured, I see the same work miraculously offering a narrow pass across despair.
Grünewald had painted colour and light radiating within darkness, and the present is not a culmination, a peak from which we can look down on the art of the past assured of our superior progress.
Berger knew about the productive space between what the artist makes and what the viewer brings. He believed not in dogma or even certainty, but in looking hard and probing deep.
Where his thinking is imaginative rather than analytical the lines of reasoning can resemble tightrope walking. However many over-risky steps he takes, we are carried along by the passionate enthusiasm of his insights and the fullness of his conviction in telling the tale. In everything (and it’s his self-description) he is a storyteller. Or else he presents the forceful summations of an aphorist:
It is the lives lived during the last 50 years that have turned Michelangelo into a revolutionary artist. (from 1959)
Goya, the first artist of the 20th century…
What I did not know when I was very young was that nothing can take the past away: the past grows gradually around one, like a placenta for dying.
All genuine art approaches something which is eloquent but which we cannot altogether understand. Eloquent because it touches something fundamental. How do we know? We do not know. We simply recognise.
Art cannot be used to explain the mysterious. What art does is to make it easier to notice. Art uncovers the mysterious. And when noticed and uncovered, it becomes more mysterious.
I suspect writing about art is a vanity leading to sentences like the above. When words are applied to visual art both lose precision. Impasse.
Berger’s commitment as a Marxist and materialist was made the subtler by such recognitions. He set great store by the mysterious: what lies behind a painting or story. The original sceptics of antiquity, he says in a piece on Velazquez, ‘rejected any total explanation (or solution) concerning life because they gave priority to their experience that life really lived was an enigma.’

Hope from Hollywood?

February 1, 2017 § Leave a comment

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My first experience of applause for a film was in early 1970, at a Curzon Mayfair screening of Costa-Gavras’ antifascist thriller Z. I’d gone with a Czech friend who, along with many others, had settled in London after the Soviet invasion of his country less than two years earlier. The film would have resonated as much for him as for the Greeks in the audience, hence the loud, prolonged and heartfelt clapping. Catharsis through recognition and political identification, and for others too; at the time there were dictatorships even closer to home: Spain, Portugal. Applause as the credits roll is still fairly unusual, and I’ve only ever heard it at film festivals and in arthouse cinemas. Until recently.

At a Cineworld multiplex in December I wasn’t entirely surprised by the scattered applause following Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake. My surprise was greater at a local Vue last weekend, when some people stayed in their seats and clapped as the rest streamed out, after La La Land.

La La Land is a curious phenomenon. ‘THE FEEL-GOOD MOVIE OF THE YEAR’ screamed a full page ad in The Guardian’s Weekend section, emblazoning its accumulated five-star ratings across the LA sky and listing its multiple award nominations. Where does all this success come from?

I love musicals (films, I mean, not theatre stagings), their energy, their lavish expansiveness, their very artifice, out of which can bloom transgression and reversal of rules and expectation, and, not least, the dizzying virtuosity of the dancing. Musicals can convey meaning in so many modes, can be simultaneously simple and complicated. I’m thinking of the Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire movies of the 30s and 40s, Gene Kelly’s roles in Singin’ in the Rain and paired with Judy Garland in The Pirate (a kind of anti-Taming of the Shrew) I’m thinking of South Pacific and West Side Story and the sublime Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. And I’m thinking of my favourite musical of all, a film joyously infused with the optimistic spirit of the 60s, which didn’t come out of Hollywood although it borrowed some of its dancers: Jacques Demy’s Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967), a French New Wave musical with a vital abundance of wit, glamour and irresistible music by Michel Legrand. Gene Kelly, George Chakiris, Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac do the dancing, among others, while Michel Piccoli and Danielle Darrieux feature as middle-aged lost lovers. Searching, finding or failing to find is the motor of the plot, which moves in vaguely Shakespearean fashion.

Unlike most Hollywood musicals, it was filmed on location, in a made-over Rochefort which later named a square and a street after Demy and Dorléac (Deneuve’s sister, killed in a car crash soon after the film). The director of La La Land, Damien Chazelle, has acknowledged the influence of Demy, and his film’s opening, on an LA freeway, plays with immobility and motion in a way reminiscent of how Les Demoiselles begins, with travellers stepping out of their vehicles and starting to dance on what’s revealed to be the spectacular transporter bridge across the river Charente. Chazelle’s freeway sequence is terrific, a riot of primary colours and different dance styles shot from lane to lane among the stalled cars. Below them traffic flows on oblivious, in a duller parallel world.

Yet this set piece gives way to a mood that seems to derive more from Demy’s earlier film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), a melancholy love story against the background of the Algerian war, sung throughout, without spoken dialogue, and forever remembered for its subsequent English-language hit, ‘I’ll Wait for You’. La La Land employs a variety of pre-existing music, but the tunes played by Ryan Gosling’s character, jazz pianist Seb, are often pastiches of Legrand’s scores for Demy’s films, which is puzzling, as if making references, or hommages, to other musicals means more than the character’s coherence. Gosling and Emma Stone don’t do a lot of dancing, and dance well enough for non-dancers, but are light-years away from the aerodynamic panache of the genre’s great exponents. The freeway sequence is a grand chorus full of diverse life, but it’s not until the film’s closing sequence that it achieves any similar vibrancy, and here the couple step happily through a vivid montage of studio sets that evoke classic musicals. What’s between beginning and end is remarkably bland, particularly once the couple’s ambitions – he for his own jazz club, she to succeed as a writer and actor – contrive to hurry them apart.

La La Land lacks two qualities that made those classic films powerful and sometimes subversive: comedy and sexual chemistry. It’s a romance without a hint of sex, unlike those films of the 30s and 40s, 50s and 60s, before on-screen nudity became prevalent, but where the potency of sexual attraction was visible, and often mixed with the comic.

Why has this film been viewed as an escapist antidote to the grim times we live in? Do audiences just leave feeling elated by that final upbeat nostalgia for the musicals of a distant Hollywood, despite the earlier mood of melancholy? Or is it the sweet, charming blandness itself that makes for the film’s appeal?

I don’t think there are any antidotes, but I’ve been gladdened by some of the new films I’ve seen in the last month and they bode well for Hollywood. The Chilean Pablo Larraín now has a foothold there. If you’ve seen Post Mortem (2010) or The Club (2015), or even his more straightforward No (2012) you’ll know his films resist easy interpretation. Jackie is no celebration of the Kennedy presidency and its Camelot myth. Kenneth Lonergan’s success with Manchester by the Sea will open more doors for future films to be financed and distributed – he’s an outstanding director and he writes intelligent screenplays. Both these filmmakers set the mind to work.

I have another favourite musical I’d like to recommend. It’s the Egyptian Youssef Chahine’s Le Destin (1997), about the 12th-century Arab philosopher Averroes in the caliphate of Al Andalus (Andalusia). Here the music (a mixture of Arab and flamenco style) and dancing (a touch of Bollywood in its exuberance) is a release of joy and sensuality. It expresses untrammelled freedom, freedom of action and ideas being the argument that runs through the film, as Al Andalus ceases to be a refuge for fugitives from France, where books and heretics alike are burned, and falls prey to punitive fundamentalism. Music, among other things, is banned.

The banning of music, or certain kinds of music, has been a feature of so many dictatorial regimes. Costa-Gavras’ Z had a score by Mikis Theodorakis, whose music was banned in the Greece of the colonels. You could be arrested if you were caught listening to it in your car; as Greeks have told me, they were careful to keep the windows rolled up. No wonder they clapped at the Curzon in 1970.

Manchester by the Sea

January 18, 2017 § 5 Comments

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The main reason I wanted to see Manchester by the Sea was its director, Kenneth Lonergan, whose Margaret had impressed me some years ago. Lonergan had become embroiled in lengthy legal battles with his producers over editing this ambitious film that tackled ethical questions of contemporary scope and had a starry cast surrounding its lesser-known central actors. The result, six years delayed, was untidy and imperfect, but tinged with a genius recognised by critics and Hollywood luminaries such as Scorsese.
A world away from the post-9/11 streets and skies of New York, the setting for his new film is the eponymous New England town, a small coastal community. After the sprawl of Margaret here’s a work that’s controlled and finely structured, especially in its use of flashbacks, which, rather than signalling a clear-cut temporal shift or hazy recollection, exist as wholly experienced within the present consciousness of the film’s main character, Lee Chandler. They are the fulcrum of his inner life.
We first encounter Lee in Boston as a janitor and drudge of all work for an apartment complex, in which he inhabits a dismal cell-like room. He’s an angry man whose brooding surliness is easily provoked to violence. What takes him back to Manchester is the news that his brother Joe is in hospital and by the time he gets there Joe has died. From this point the film pivots on the relationship between Lee and his teenage nephew Patrick, now virtually orphaned – his alcoholic mother has long been incapable and elsewhere. For all his enormous affection for Patrick, Lee cannot accept what the inherited task of guardianship would involve. Nor can he express this affection. Joe’s premature death assumes a familial ‘normality’, but the earlier tragedy that haunts Lee (and is hidden from the audience until almost halfway) defies any kind of commonplace response.
Yet life is assertive in this film that’s so plainly about death and grief.  There are lightnesses of touch, kindnesses and pleasures, even comedy. Although less in control than he allows himself to know, Patrick has an engaging sunniness to see him through; he’s an alpha teen, in a band, on the hockey team, taking his pick of the girls. More laid-back and confident than the teenage Lisa (played by Anna Paquin) at the centre of Margaret, indeed quite a different personality, he nonetheless shares her adolescent combination of intransigence and appetite for experience. Late in the film we see him in a sideways shot as he contemplates a set of framed photographs: we don’t see his eyes or expression, we don’t see the photographs, though they’ve already appeared in the film; it’s a moment of changing perspective, finally belying the boy’s apparent selfishness. And it’s characteristic of Lonergan’s observational intensity.
This is a very physical film, not just in Lee’s disruptive violence, or in the emphatically absent physicality of affection between its two main characters. Lonergan’s sensitivity in the direction of actors makes him attentive to nuances of physical presence that can create character. Though part of Lee‘s story, the other characters have their own weight, they solidly populate the larger scene of life. It means that subsidiary, even incidental figures embody a reality that’s authentically singular. Posture, small gestures or mere flickerings of expression convey this with the same economy Lonergan (the film’s writer as well as director) can deploy in a single line of dialogue.
Closeness and distance are acutely calibrated in exchanges between characters, or by their placing in the frame, to the point where awareness of touch or its refusal can become almost unbearable. One scene stands out: where Lee enters the hospital morgue to see his brother’s body and his slow but unhesitant caresses show us all the love and loss he feels.
The bleached colour here reminded me of the new wave, low-budget Romanian cinema of recent years (The Death of Mr Lazarescu; Police,Adjective; The Happiest Girl in the World, to mention a few) and there’s a similar quasi-documentary quality in parts of Manchester by the Sea. That’s an accidental echo of Lonergan’s heightened naturalism, but the director whose spirit presides over the two of his films I’ve now seen is surely John Cassavetes, the great pioneer of US independent cinema and a particular ciné vérité style. The road accident at the start of Margaret is paralleled by events in Cassavetes’ wonderful Opening Night (1977).
The acting is superb throughout (Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges, Gretchen Mol and everyone else). Where Margaret had a decidedly female focus, in Manchester by the Sea the women deliver their nonetheless impactful performances at the edges of this essentially masculine drama.
Lee’s life is bleak and the gradual movement of the film gives us a clear account of why this is so. Yet it’s the nature of this movement that makes it so compellingly immersive; we’ve seen the processes at work in despair and resistance to it as Lee endures his guilt and self-hatred. Though Manchester by the Sea offers no easy resolution, it isn’t cheerless. Painful, yes, but without that effect we might fail to see how much this film is intelligent and wise.

Memories of a Serial Killer And Other Childhood Things

December 13, 2016 § Leave a comment

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‘I saw Mrs Manuel at Mass again this morning’, I overheard my mother say. ‘Poor woman, she’s got a lot to bear because of that son of hers’. I pictured Mrs Manuel as one of the stooping old ladies regularly seen at the Chapel (which is what we called our Catholic church, as distinct from the Kirk); surely to be the mother of a serial killer you had to be really old. In Plain Sight, the three-part drama series on ITV, shows her as middle-aged, half doubting the son about to stand trial for a sexual attack on a young woman who has gone to the police in defiance of his murderous threats. The series is based on Peter Manuel’s crimes and one detective’s fight to bring him to justice.

At the point when episode one begins I must have been eight, so I’m not well placed to compare it with reality. What I remember are later reports of the murders in the Daily Record, with blurred photos of the victims, young women in their late teens. I don’t recall any discussion of them at home, not in front of me. The remark about Mrs Manuel at Mass gave me my first realisation that a murderer had been in our midst.

Until now, I didn’t know the extent of those crimes, and whatever foggy awareness I had of Manuel’s fate, execution by hanging in July 1958, has been forgotten. I knew he’d been found guilty.

Never before have I seen a place and time I grew up in become TV drama, or any other kind of fiction. I spent seven years of my childhood in Uddingston, a Lanarkshire town on the rim of greater Glasgow. The Radio Times description of this setting as ‘quiet suburbia’ might well apply to the present, but not then. There were run-down cottages, well maintained ‘villas’ and some council houses. I lived in Muiredge Street, a double row of solidly built sandstone tenements where each flat had the luxury of an inside loo, but no bathroom. It was a great improvement on the housing miseries we had moved from, and further from the city centre, but it was still largely working class. Some of my schoolmates were the children of miners (the colliery is long gone, as is Muiredge Street, razed to be replaced with a council estate), and some would have had parents working in the Tunnock’s factory where caramel wafers were made, the teacakes being a later addition. Some had pianos, and some were impoverished, unable to get to school in bad weather for want of proper shoes. Suburbia lay in the posh enclave of Kyle Park, on the far side of the railway tracks, near the wooded banks of the Clyde, and to us a world as remote as Paris or London, one, I’ve been told, now favoured by well-paid Glasgow footballers.

Quiet, though, it certainly was. The emptiness made it that way: not a lot of people and hardly any cars, even on Main Street. We children played in the middle of the road. It felt safe. Watching Douglas Henshall (he’s the detective, Muncie) leaving Uddingston police station I wondered whether it was the same building (it looked the same) my dad visited to report that our dog was missing (returned by a policeman two or three days later) or that I went to, aged 12, hoping to find a little leather purse I’d lost, containing fourpence (they’d found that too). Hardly crimewave territory, at odds with In Plain Sight’s recourse to the contemporary cliche of ace detective hindered by myopic superior’s instructions – not to waste scarce resources on obsession with a suspect, a suspect yet to commit a murder that Muncie aims to prevent.

Henshall is what made this series promising. He starred in Peter Mullen’s surreal black comedy, Orphans (1999) and was perfectly judged as Jimmy Perez, the complicated and tremulously conscientious detective in Shetland, our home-grown example of Nordic Noir. Shetland was much praised for its treatment of a rape, the rape itself not shown, with the emphasis instead on the reverberating trauma of the victim, and how she and her colleagues deal with it. Mary, who survives Manuel’s attack at the start of In Plain Sight, also impresses as a characterful female victim whose courage we see as well as her fear. But the script sells her short at Manuel’s trial, which ends as he embarks on conducting his own defence. Manipulative as he is, it’s still puzzling that this Borstal boy managed to convince the jury she was lying.

It seems more likely they believed a decent young woman wouldn’t have been out at a dance on her own. Along with religious sectarianism and alcoholism, an old and powerful strain of misogyny still blighted Scotland in the 50s and 60s, lying at the heart of those psychopathic murders, although Manuel went on to kill men too. There are only hints of it in the drama.

I hope the next two episodes won’t disappoint. In any case, I have my own reasons for continuing to watch.

Impossible Is Not French

November 15, 2016 § Leave a comment

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Nothing prepares you for Abel Gance’s Napoleon, whether or not you’ve seen other 1920s masterworks of silent, modernist cinema, the likes of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, or Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. From its dazzling opening scene, a snow fight at the Brienne Military Academy, an exercise in strategy and siege craft where the young Bonaparte first distinguishes himself, it seizes us wholly into its world. Snow was of course to be Napoleon’s downfall, but the film ends long before the retreat from Moscow in 1812. Here, in 1783, it makes for beautiful cinematography, a triumph of monochrome, where subtle greys and rich blacks take shape against ice-white entrenchments, and the siege itself, schoolboy play at its most serious and ferocious, develops with the fast cutting and mobile camera work that give the whole film its staggering dynamism.
The next set piece is the dormitory pillow fight that must have influenced the equally wonderful blizzard of feathers in Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite (1933), a film which in turn was to inspire Lindsay Anderson’s If (1968). Vigo’s film is an anarchic rebellion against authority; while Napoleon the hero cherishes calm, order and discipline, Napoleon the film is a riotous adventure in experimentation with cinema’s visual language.
It has to be said that its ideological trajectory would not displease Marine Le Pen’s Front National. Napoleon is a man to whom Destiny hints at the future with mystical regularity. The strong-leader-in-waiting narrative at last receives its confirmation in the reactionary disarray that follows Thermidor, when Robespierre and other architects of the Terror are themselves marched off to the guillotine. Even in the overemphatic terms of silent cinema these men are caricatures, but caricatures to be enjoyed, with Antonin Artaud as a snarly-faced Marat and Gance himself in the role of St. Just, the clever but bloodthirsty zealot responsible for some of the Revolution’s best quotes. We see Couthon in a wheelchair stroking his pet rabbit, surely a precursor of the best-known Bond villain.
For all their crimes, when the moment arrives for Bonaparte to assume his first mantle of greatness he takes a detour to the Convention, by now emptied of debate and pandemonium, and communes with the ghosts of Danton and the rest. They urge him to continue their work and uphold the tenets of the Revolution.
To this day the Revolution remains the property of both left and right in France. Its great anthem, the Marseillaise, has the very first of its cinematic outings in Napoleon, when Rouget de Lisle teaches a revolutionary crowd to sing his freshly written words and music. A decade on, the years 1936-37 saw a stream of light-hearted and optimistic films in the spirit of the Popular Front government that, among other things, gave French workers paid holidays for the first time. One of these was Jean Renoir’s La Marseillaise; here the story of the anthem unfolds in the lower ranks of the revolutionary army. It’s the anthem sung in defiance against the Nazis in Casablanca, and it’s also sung with gusto by the Front National. It has even been known to move some of us to tears.
This is a roundabout way of saying that the overt politics of Napoleon matter less than the film itself. It expresses them and contradicts them, visually most of all. Albert Dieudonné plays Bonaparte as aloof, proud and madly courageous, charismatic and even Christ-like, but not as a rapacious dictator in the making. He’s the Napoleon initially admired by Beethoven, who features largely in Carl Davis’ extravagant mash-up score. There’s nothing solemn about the film, it has moments of high comedy and deadpan humour that are reminiscent of Buster Keaton. The adventure sequences display a level of hyperbole and grandiloquence that strikes me as knowing, an allusion to what a superhuman hero is meant to be (escaping his pursuers on a dinghy with neither oars or sail, Bonaparte hoists a French flag instead), and an excuse for stunning Corsican landscapes and unsurvivable stormy seas – Bonaparte as the Count of Monte Cristo in cinema at its most spectacular.
It’s also cinema at its most alive, each frame literally bursting with a life that’s pushing at its edges. When we see Bonaparte in the foreground often behind him something quite extraneous is going on that we scarcely have time to make out: a couple kissing, two men dancing together, a joyous outbreak of jumping up and down. The joyousness is uncontainable; disagreements in the Convention (which at times resembles a football stadium) can turn into the kind of free for all that’s familiar from those Western saloon brawls where nobody actually gets hurt. There’s a great deal of anarchic glee. Apparently many of the extras were striking workers from a nearby Renault factory.
There are spellbinding battles (and battles aren’t at all my thing) that don’t obscure the foulness and savagery. Who else in cinema can keep you gripped by endless artillery assaults in torrential rain? Wit, humour and soldierly solidarity compel us to cheer on the army defending revolutionary France from occupation by the English and other counter-revolutionary powers. Here the brisk editing and warm colour tints draw us into a kind of realist intimacy that balances the world of the epic.
Reflecting on Napoleon the demagogue, dispenser of jobs as kings and princesses to family members, I thought of Trump. But Trump, to quote Irving Welsh on Newsnight, is a mere ‘toytown fascist’ (though clearly far from harmless). Bonaparte was beloved not only by Beethoven, but by Stendhal (who accompanied him to Moscow) before the megalomania and plunder brought on their disillusionment. What’s more, Napoleon the on-screen idealist foresees Europe as an open Republic with free frontiers, peaceful after many wars.  And now there’s only heartbreak, also known as Brexit. We 21st-century Europeans are unused to seeing history this close up, this cruel, with Trump the crowning cruelty.
So much in the film leaves you in wonderment: young Napoleon’s pet eagle, the swooping cameras, the screen that splits into nine pieces, the screen that becomes a triptych (at the time needing three separate projectors), the use of colour tints: pink to mauve, red to yellow gold, an overlay of the tricolour – how was it possible to do all that in 1927. Impossible is not French, says Bonaparte in one of his many refusals to accept retreat or defeat. So it seems.
This is a film that takes the breath away, that pre-figures much of cinema to come and surpasses it. Why on earth do we pay money to go and see Hollywood dross when a film such as this was made nearly 90 years ago, way ahead of SFX and CGI.  It has made me aware that in relying on the primacy of the image the silent can exert a greater power and eloquence than its offspring, the talkie.
At 5 ½ hours, plus three intervals, Napoleon has the speed of life lived fast. It exhilarates like no other film. Don’t miss it. And take your own sandwiches.

THE FUTURE: Huppert in L’Avenir

September 8, 2016 § 1 Comment

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It’s hard to believe that Isabelle Huppert is 63. I remember The Lace Maker, the first film I saw her in (it must have been 1978), where she plays Pomme, a young working-class woman, shy and apparently passive, who falls for a middle-class intellectual and is casually discarded by him. It launched a film career that has made her the most impressive actress on screen today. The Huppert of L’Avenir (Things to Come) is at her peak, compelling in a role of great complexity, where it isn’t her looks (though she’s surely now more beautiful than the baby-faced Pomme) that belie her age so much as the intelligence and spirit with which she endows the character. In happy conjunction, this wonderfully resonant film, in part about ageing and the griefs that accompany it, has a writer-director, Mia Hansen-Løve, of extraordinary maturity, who is only 35 and has already made her mark with the fine Father of My Children (2009).
L’Avenir begins with the past and a family visit in winter to the grave of Chateaubriand at Saint-Malo: parents arm in arm and two small children. The present is during the Sarkozy presidency, with protests against his policies in full swing. Nathalie teaches philosophy in a lycée, (we glimpse the facade of the prestigious Henri IV, whose former pupils include illustrious thinkers and writers) displaying a rigorous commitment to both subject and students that is reflected in her daily life. Married for 25 years, her children now grown, she has a narcissistic mother whose decline and depression produce constant demands and unfailing rescues on Nathalie’s part (in scenes not without humour). Her warmth sits behind the briskly assertive manner of a woman who knows and speaks her own mind.
Unwelcome change arrives first on a visit to the publisher of the textbook she’s long had in print and the series she edits. To her cost, she refuses dismaying revamp proposals. Then Heinz, her husband, announces he’s leaving her for another woman. ‘I thought you’d love me forever. What a fool I was,’ she tells him. ‘I will always love you,’ he mumbles, nonetheless merciless in his subsequent stripping of Nathalie’s treasures from the bookshelves. Her mother’s death soon follows. These are the losses, great and small and not so uncommon, that seem to dismantle a life, especially if they come in quick succession.
Stoicism, of course, has formed Nathalie by intellectual training and probably by temperament. When it cracks and the tears flow she is with Fabien, a former student of a decade before with whom she has a strong bond. ‘I’m free’ she howls in misery, ‘for the first time in my life’, knowing how curtailed women’s options are by her age. She was Fabien’s mentor, now he’s a brilliant scholar preparing a Ph.D. and already publishing studies on Foucault and Horkheimer. They are intellectual soulmates, mildly flirtatious even before Heinz left Nathalie. At this point, a conventional script would develop into a superior romcom, sparking a love affair defiant in the face of the 30-year age gap. But she isn’t looking for a lover, nor is he, which makes for something more interesting: an exploration of freedom, choices and principles, an engagement with both the closely examined life and the world it is a part of.
This is not merely a portrait of a brave woman, the film’s figure of moral authority, grieving for what she has lost. Through his sober commitment to a political activism he combines with earning a living Fabien too acquires authority, widening the perspective on what we have seen through Nathalie’s eyes. When he and his girlfriend move to live with friends in a political collective on the Vercors plateau, Nathalie is invited for a summer visit.
As a bastion of the wartime Resistance and a shelter for those fleeing the Nazis, the Vercors is strongly symbolic. It is here that Fabien decides to confront Nathalie with a philosophical challenge, questioning her line of demarcation between the ethics she lives by and their extension into the public sphere of politics. This returns us to an early sequence where, at the lycée, a picket line of demonstrating students blocks her way.  She pushes through it and one of them asks whether she’d be happy to work until she’s 67 before she gets a pension. ‘I love my job’ she snaps, which is clearly not an answer to a question about solidarity.
Fabien’s question is likewise rebuffed.
Being young with adult powers of action and comprehension puts you at the start of things, ready to make change decisive. Like Fabien; like Nathalie’s children, whose role has been that of witnesses to marital breakdown; like her enthusiastic students, some of whom have plans that include her. They all, patently, are the future. The process of growing older makes time speed up, while we ourselves take longer to adapt to what it brings. We know that we belong more and more to the past. Yet, besides what we’ve passed on to the young, our future isn’t over, so long as we’re still alive to the present. Like Nathalie.
When her mother dies, she takes in the cat, the overweight Pandora, a creature she detests, pleading allergy. For all that, Pandora becomes a kind of transitional object, a source of comfort when Nathalie feels at her most bereft. Having known only the confines of a Paris flat, Pandora accompanies her to the streams and forests of the Vercors, where Nathalie comically attempts to keep her safe indoors. Too late; she leaves the cat to contemplate the view from the window. An exterior shot closes in on the darkness of the room and the eyes that glitter out of Pandora’s black fur, surveying an unimagined paradise in a flash of feline revelation. It’s one of the film’s many moments of grace. Cats can be allowed to have it all, wild nocturnal freedom and security by day. Unlike us.
Come winter Nathalie returns to leave Pandora in the Vercors with Fabien, from whom her parting seems final. We see his sadness as he drives away and it’s held in his eyes for a long time.
Although its sadnesses are palpable this is not a sad film. Its intimacies and emotional understandings, the agility of its ideas, give it a bracing richness. And the camera loves the world it shows us, the light and the darkness, the eloquent interiors and exhilarating landscapes, and the city, whose streets and parks are lived in with a tantalising fluidity that incites nostalgia – for a Paris experienced and one perhaps familiar through the films of Rivette and Rohmer, Varda and Godard.
A year later and Natalie is reading to her students from Rousseau on hope: ‘We can live without happiness, so long as we still desire it.’ When the Pandora of myth opened the fatal box releasing the world’s ills and miseries, hope was the one thing left in it.
L’Avenir looks at ageing and loss, but it’s essentially a film about how to live.

 

Versus and For

September 1, 2016 § 1 Comment

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They call us baby boomers because we were born when the birth rate peaked in the years after the Second World War (highest in 1946-1947). The phrase has become a shorthand resentfully labelling us a privileged generation. Yet the point of what benefited us – the welfare state, the NHS, greater access to education, university maintenance grants and no fees – was to erode privilege, to foster equality, by investing in children as well as infrastructure. The hero of that hour was Clement Attlee, the first Labour leader to win an overall majority, in the landslide of 1945.
Strictly speaking, he was a great reforming prime minister rather than a socialist. I wouldn’t attempt to unravel the strands of Labour-movement history knitted into that word, but it surprised me to see the description ‘democratic socialist’ on the Labour Party membership card I received last September when, along with so many others taking that unforeseen step, I joined for the first time, after Jeremy Corbyn’s election. I’d assumed that the designation must have been abandoned once Tony Blair extirpated Clause 4 from the party manifesto.
Corbyn’s election released a whirlwind of hope, not because he’s a saviour, but because until that moment the Labour Party held out only the dispiriting prospect of Blairite business as usual, the atrophied politics of the dogma that to win elections you had to pander to Middle England and resemble the Tories. How can a party call itself ‘democratic socialist’ and subscribe to the neoliberal project launched by Margaret Thatcher, how can it continue to support Tory cuts and fail to oppose the loss of workers’ rights?
We left-wing baby boomers ought to remember how that road was taken, from the promise of 1945 to 1997 and a Labour Party establishment no longer committed to any kind of equality. But time tarnishes long memories. Mine was refreshed from an unexpected source last weekend when I watched a BBC2 film I’d recorded from a month earlier: ‘Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach’ (directed by Louise Osmond). I’d expected a straightforward celebration of Loach’s achievements. What I saw was more interesting than that.
When Loach and his collaborator Tony Garnett started working at the BBC in the early 60s their dramas about working-class experience were ground-breaking. Cathy Come Home provoked a wide debate about homelessness. Kes became a classic. Versus opens with Loach’s words: ‘If you say how the world is, that should be enough. Just the sense of simple connection between people. Just being.… Politics is the essence of drama, the essence of conflict.’ This faith in a direct rendering of people’s lives, an emotional realism that will in itself reveal the truth about the world, has often been the strength of his work. Sometimes, however, it is not enough.
The Loach films I like tend to have a light, humorous touch: the elements of comic farce in Riff Raff, set on a building site and starring Ricky Tomlinson; The Angel’s Share, which offers the age-old pleasures of a folktale where the resourceful poor outwit the wealthy – it’s also an antidote to the idea of ‘Scotland’ as commodity, its Highlands and Islands and prestige whiskies peddled by grouse-shooting Anglo-Scots lairds for Trump dollars.
Less successful are the films that tackle politics on a momentous scale: the Spanish Civil War and the Irish struggle for independence. Interviewed in Versus, the actor Cillian Murphy talks about the ‘raw emotion’ that Loach aimed for in The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Alas, in this film and in Land and Freedom the emotional emphasis overwhelms and confuses, so that their didactic purpose is undone, even though the audience may be moved to tears as they leave the cinema. They only affirm what we already know and feel. I can’t help but compare Loach’s methods with the work of the Liège-based Dardenne brothers (Two Days, One Night; L’Enfant; The Kid with the Bike) also didactic in approach, but more distanced, where rhythm and editing create gaps for viewers to form their own questions and construct meaning. Theirs is a quieter realism that encourages intellectual breathing space.
For all that, Loach is greatly loved across the Channel, winning sundry awards at Cannes and elsewhere. Perhaps what they specifically love is the typically English absence of philosophical intent, coupled with an un-English emotional charge. Abroad he is seen as a hero because of the enormous difficulties he has faced over censorship of his documentaries and dramas, deemed too partisan within the narrow range of judgement and opinion we still see in the media today.
Irrespective of my criticisms, I have to acknowledge Loach’s unique and important place in British filmmaking and on the British left. This map of his life as a director tortuously parallels the course of post-war politics and its relationship to culture. Who’d have thought that at the low point in his career, when his work went uncommissioned or rejected, he would be reduced to making commercials (for Caramac and McDonald’s!). ‘Me berating other people for betrayal, and I’ve done that’ he says, shamefaced.
Versus is an honest film, penetrating about the man and his politics. When it came to betrayal he could indeed be ruthlessly unsparing towards those who failed him. In his own work he shunned the concessions that might have made it more acceptable. He has always been tenacious.
Tony Garnett talks about Loach’s collaboration on documentaries with the writer Jim Allen, and his concordance with Allen’s view: ‘He knew about the betrayals of trade-union bureaucrats, that the role of the Labour Party was to deliver the working class to betrayal’. These are strong words, but it’s easy to forget that in the devastating climate of the early Thatcher years, many trade union leaders were despotic right-wingers at odds with their left-wing membership; some were instrumental in the banning of Loach’s 1983 television series ‘Questions of Leadership’. This was also the period when under Kinnock’s baleful leadership Labour Party democracy was being diminished through rulebook changes and the expulsion of left-wingers, tactics similar to those wielded today by the hierarchy against the leadership.
That was a different world, a different working-class. Trade union defeats and anti-union legislation sapped membership, industries died and the nature of employment changed. Even young people understand this, but the savagery of those times begins to fade from memory; and those of us who lived through them may prefer not to remember. The miners’ strike marked a final defeat. 30 years later, in 2014, Pride, a film directed by Matthew Warchus, took us back to it, fictionalising the events of a real alliance between London gay activists and striking Welsh miners. It had audiences weeping everywhere, not just from sorrow, but from fresh pride, making the film’s title multiply apt. Cinema can be powerful in all sorts of ways.
Fractured, neglected, super-exploited and under-represented it may be, but there is still a working-class. It took the same 30 years for the first of the upheavals to wake the Labour Party from sleepwalking over a precipice. That was the Scottish referendum in 2014. Scotland, where the party had its earliest socialist roots, came close to choosing independence in a vote boosted not so much by the nationalism that’s used as excuse and explanation, but by rejection of the Westminster stalemate: Tory rule and an official opposition to the right of the SNP. It was in the Labour heartlands of the Glasgow region and Clydeside that the Yes vote was strongest, and that choice was reflected again in the SNP’s election victory last year.
Scotland had had enough of Blair and Brown’s Labour and was unimpressed by Miliband’s diluted version. Last September Corbyn’s election as leader laid down a full-blown challenge to what had become the Blairite orthodoxy. It came from all quarters: veteran Labour members who had been loyal to the party’s socialist roots and many who had left it because of Blair and now saw a reason to return, as well as a great many new adherents, including baby boomers who had never joined before, because we hadn’t seen it as a genuine force for fundamental change – in the wake of 1968 we allied ourselves with the New Left and the sundry movements that blossomed from it.
Shocking as they are, the anti-Corbyn dirty tricks and the current repertoire of viciousness strike me as predictable. Behind them are figures who counted on having taken possession of something that has never truly belonged to them. They’re still hanging on and they’ve shown that they have no scruples. Hence what amounts to an internal civil war. It’s depressing, but there is surely cause for hope that solidarity can break through the battle lines within the party and flower again. Then we can take on the real enemy.

Blair’s Downfall

July 8, 2016 § 1 Comment

Maybe we need a little comic relief.
The anti-Corbyn coup is the latest political event to get the Downfall treatment, with Bruno Ganz doing his rant as Blair:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5C5skg6Ywo

 

Tale of Tales: Cinema of Globalisation

June 20, 2016 § 1 Comment

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In order to find an English-language audience Elena Ferrante’s novels had to be brought to the world in translation by an Italian publisher, Europa. This is because publishers in the UK and the USA are notoriously reluctant to take a risk with unknown writers of foreign literature, a very small proportion of whom make it into the dominant world language. The success of foreign crime fiction has shifted this perspective a little and the number of translations is relatively higher, but, everywhere, in business, science, and the circulation of academic papers English continues to rule and expand its linguistic empire.
Like Ferrante, Giambattista Basile was a Neapolitan, a poet, man of letters and the author of Tale of Tales, a rich compilation of folktales written in Neapolitan, combining classical scholarship with scabrous vernacular and published posthumously between 1634 and 1636. It contains the earliest known versions of Cinderella and Rapunzel, providing material for Perrault and, much later, in the context of the German Romantic movement, the brothers Grimm. Basile’s 50 stories, also known as The Pentameron, have a framework derived from Boccaccio’s Decameron, and unfold over a period of five days, set within the complicated courtly fabulation of an unsmiling princess and a prince waiting to be awakened from the sleep of death. They cross Baroque with Medieval. The tellers are a group of female servants, described as hunchbacked, cross-eyed, lame, incontinent and otherwise afflicted, all of them bidden to provoke laughter.
Laughter is largely absent from Matteo Garrone’s film, which loosely draws on three of the tales. It sticks to Basile’s intention in having an adult audience in mind and has a corresponding visual sophistication. Indeed, it looks very beautiful, with stunning images of Ovidian transformation, and of breathtaking landscapes – southern Italy abounds in fairytale castles, whether clifftop Gothic or shining monumental Vaubanesque. The film has genuine moments of strangeness revealing tenderness in monsters, ferocity in innocence; in one of these a fairy of sorts, in the guise of a crone, dispenses what art historians know as Roman charity by giving suck to an equally old woman. The style is deadpan, the humour ironic rather than comic. Its underlying moral, as in Basile, suggests that we be careful what we wish for.
Lust, longing, envy, loneliness, the passage into adulthood or old age and the relationships between parents and children, as well as poverty’s struggle with wealth and power – the tortuous nature of human experience is heightened to its extremes in Basile’s tales. Angela Carter once remarked that the folktale can be a matter of one King going to the King next door to borrow a cup of sugar; in this realm kings and queens, princesses and princes become stand-ins for us all.
The film is admirably well paced, flitting from one tale to another at crucial moments, melding them together. But in doing so it dissipates some of their energy and visceral shock. The bloodiness is elegantly done, the sex fleeting. It’s not a short film but greater length might also have allowed greater depth. Whatever the case, I had a sense of something held back. Might Garrone, who directed the shatteringly violent Gomorrah, have been constrained? Maybe not, but the more I think about the film, which has stayed with me, the more I think that the constraint is linguistic.
This is a Franco-Italian production, predominantly Italian and funded to a large extent with Italian corporate finance under the Italian tax credits scheme. In Italy, where everything is dubbed, it will be seen as an Italian film. It’s not an Anglo-Italian film but an Italian film made in English, and, with the exception of the French actor Vincent Cassel, its stars are anglophone. Of course, cinema is now globalised, with multiple forms of financing from different national sources, but this hybrid strikes me as a peculiar development of the tendency to produce for the Anglo-American market without anyone having to read subtitles.
The fairytale doesn’t have a native language, yet it’s worth looking at its earliest sources. Greek myth inspired Basile, Zoroastrian folktales are to be found in the biblical Apocrypha, so we can add Persian to the list, along with Arabic and its cycle of Arabian Nights, Boccaccio’s Italian and so on across the world. The Celtic and Slavic languages have spread their stories through time and place. When I think of folktales/fairytales in English, pantomime comes to mind, a knockabout form that owes its existence to the Italian clown Grimaldi. The film Tale of Tales had four scriptwriters, including Garrone, all of them with Italian names, so I’d surmise that dialogue was written in Italian and subsequently translated into English. Had the film been made in Italian, with perhaps a flavour of Neapolitan, it would not just have sounded different to the ear, it would have made a different emotional and aesthetic impact. It might well have been funnier. I suspect that English as well as editing contributed to my sense of something held back.
Coinciding with this film’s release comes BBC2’s Versailles, a French-produced historical drama made in English. It has a multinational production team, British/American actors and a script full of contemporary anglo idioms that sound deracinated. It’s ridiculous and very watchable, a soap opera about the Sun King. I’m sure we can expect more of the same.
The pleasure of The Killing and the successful Nordic series that have followed on TV comes not just from the qualities of script, acting and camerawork, but from their distinctiveness as the creative products of another culture. Much of the joy of cinema resides in its great diversity of aesthetic and artistic roots. That distinctiveness will be compromised if the trend to make movies more palatable to English-speaking audiences gets the money-driven upper hand. It raises the nightmare prospect of an increasingly monolingual culture that stifles the infinite nuances and meanings of other languages. That would be a huge loss.

Mustang

May 16, 2016 § 2 Comments

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” You have to be a mother and at home, and that’s all. When you see a man, you should blush and look down.”
In Mustang, these words are spoken on television by Turkey’s current president, Erdogan, as the family eat together. We don’t see the screen, only the faces of those around the table. Nor do we know who is speaking, but Deniz Ergüven, the director of Mustang, has quoted Erdogan’s pronouncement in an interview about her film. What such statements mean for Turkish women’s everyday lives and autonomy is the subject of the film, but this is handled without over-emphasis, with such elliptical subtlety and even humour that one can understand its ready description by some reviewers as a fairytale. We have to bear in mind that fairytales are often cruel.
Mustang’s luminous summer landscape on the Black Sea coast of Anatolia is certainly enchanting and our first sight of it could hardly be sunnier. Once upon a time there were five beautiful sisters and on the euphoric last day of school they plunged into the sea, laughing, splashing and riding on the shoulders of boys, their school uniforms getting thoroughly wet. All except the youngest, Lale, in tears as she says goodbye to her teacher, Delit, a young woman leaving to live in Istanbul, 1000 kilometres away, Lale clearly a cherished pupil.
Orphans, the sisters live with their grandmother and a bullying, predatory uncle in a large house nestling in greenery on the edge of a tiny village. “One moment we were fine, then everything turned to shit,” says Lale in voice-over, as the sisters make their way home. News of their transgressive behaviour has widely preceded them. Beating each in turn, the grandmother rages that what they’ve done – rubbing their genitals against the necks of boys – will make it hard to find them husbands. This sexualising of female actions, however innocent, is not unique to conservative Islam; it reminds me of my Catholic girlhood.
What truly shocks is the remedy: a sundering of modern freedoms, mobile phones and computers banished, jeans and T-shirts exchanged for loose “shit-coloured” clothes, enforced virginity tests; education reduced to lessons in stuffing vine leaves and home-made quilts, with no return to school, the house turned into a “wife factory” which they can never leave unless accompanied.
At first, the girls put up a spirited fight, remodelling the hated dresses, making gestures of defiance; they climb out of windows, break out to see a football match, forbidden despite all-female spectators. Each act of resistance brings even stricter confinement until bars and grilles imprison them completely and hurried arrangements for marriages numb them into powerlessness. One has the luck of a proposal from the parents of her secret boyfriend; for the rest there’s no mercy.
Together, in their shared cage, they display the boisterousness and sensuality of young animals, rolling about or curled up in a single affectionate tangle. Then their number is brutally, horrifically diminished by marriage and suicide. It’s up to Lale to deploy her courage and resourcefulness. She’s the film’s heroine and at only 11 or 12 she embodies a character who is both extraordinary and believable, devoid of any child cutesiness. Her escape plan has been long in the making, its boldness impelled by desperation, its hope founded on the one adult who encouraged her education.
Ergüven allows the grandmother and the neighbours to be more than punitive wardresses. But their moments of kindness and sympathy will in the end spare no one. They are like the eunuchs guarding the seraglio. The young have to fend for themselves.
This is the first Turkish film I’ve seen directed by a woman. It’s also influenced by Iranian cinema, as well as being a French film, with a majority of French funding in its low budget. So low that financial crisis hit late in the day and the Turkish producer bailed out. The film was saved by the intervention of Charles Gillibert, Olivier Asssayas’ producer. It won the foreign-language Oscar for France this year.
When the new regime is laid down for the sisters we see everything being swept away that might connect them with the world outside. In her room Lale hastily clears a shelf of a keyboard and other objects. Among them we glimpse a postcard. It’s Delacroix’ Liberty Guiding the People, almost subliminal.

Ferrante’s Naples: Plebeians and Proletarians

May 6, 2016 § 1 Comment

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Over the past week I’ve been listening to Lynsey Hanley reading from her book, Respectable, on Radio 4. By coincidence I was immersed in Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the first volume in her Naples quartet. In different ways Hanley’s account of her 1980s working-class childhood in the English Midlands and Ferrante’s Neapolitan world of post-war poverty both connect with my own experience as a working-class child in 1950s Scotland. Hanley explores the dislocations of identity in moving from one class to another through education: ‘like emigrating from one side of the world to the other’, like travelling between ‘parallel worlds’; Ferrante’s novel recreates the past as a shifting space of economic and social change seen intimately from within the lives of characters close-knit by neighbourhood.

For a while I resisted the vogue for Ferrante. The hype put me off and I’d been unimpressed by an earlier novel of hers I read at least a decade ago. In the end, a friend thrust a copy of My Brilliant Friend into my hands and told me I had to read it, because it was so good, but also because, reading it, she had thought of me. One reason she had in mind was the little-known affinity between Naples and Glasgow, where I was born.

Twice in the 90s I visited Naples. Even though the city was more southern and more foreign than any I knew in Italy, even though it dazzled me with its light and exhilarating beauty, in a way I couldn’t explain I felt a little bit at home (Glasgow being the complicated default for that). Only later, meeting two young women from Naples engaged in postgraduate study in Glasgow, did I understand. They told me they loved Glasgow, it reminded them so much of Naples, its energy, its truculent wit. Glasgow, of course, was the great proletarian city of the 19th and 20th centuries; Naples, in the words of Pier Paolo Pasolini, was ‘the last plebeian metropolis’. Both cities have a working-class heart.

I don’t want to overdo the comparison; Glasgow can’t compete: it has shipbuilders, philosophers, one notable, much-misinterpreted economist and a great deal of proud labour history, but no volcanoes, no bay with paradisical islands. Founded as a Greek settlement, Naples is the oldest great European city outside Greece; next came the Romans, Byzantines, Goths and Normans, Angevins and Spanish, leaving sundry architectural traces; then there was the short lived and brutally concluded Parthenopean Republic of 1799. Naples derives musical fame from a string of composers including Scarlatti, Porpora, Pergolese, Cimarosa and Bellini, yet in the courtyard of its Conservatorio I remember there being only one statue, of Beethoven, which strikes me as typical Neapolitan generosity.

But just as in the 50s and 60s I found Glasgow grey and dreary, a place to be escaped from, so Lenù and Lila, Ferrante’s heroines in her epic of female friendship, carry no sense of being fortunate to inhabit Naples. Its cultural riches do not belong to them. Their lives are bounded by one small impoverished corner of the city until secondary school (in Lenù’s case) and marriage (in Lila’s) take them a little further. Shame frequently accompanies these displacements, which can also give rise to humiliation. This at a time when Italy’s boom is getting underway in the North, while in much of the South agriculture still depends on the horse and wooden plough. When a little prosperity seeps into the neighbourhood its main beneficiaries are the Solara family, wealthy thugs who rule the local economy, their investments and moneylending activities shored up by Camorra and Fascist affiliations that have an insidious reach.

Ferrante’s writing is addictive, to be relished headlong in a rush. Its dramas have a visual intensity. The pleasure of reading was deepened for me by knowing places she describes, thinking of how Lenù must be feeling on the Maronti beach where I too swam and sunbathed (It was November, but Maronti is sheltered and south facing, the best microclimate on Ischia). And I kept thinking of Rocco and His Brothers, Visconti’s masterpiece of a family’s migration from the South of Italy to the North in the 1950s. I remembered Amore Molesto (Troubling Love), a film by Mario Martone adapted from an earlier Ferrante novel that I haven’t read, and another of Martone’s Naples films, Morte di un matematico napoletano (The Death of a Neapolitan Mathematician) about Renato Caccioppoli, the grandson of Bakunin, who killed himself in the 1950s.

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Ferrante’s exploration of class is all the more fascinating and complex for its intense focus on gender. The girls are aged eight when we first encounter them, taunting and daring one another to small acts of bravery, with Lila the more fearless, the one without restraint and, in Lenù’s eyes, the more powerful intelligence. We follow the tensions, rivalries, doublings, oppositions and separations of a friendship sustained, despite all, by mutual support. It is Lenù who does the telling, in first-person narration of heartbreaking candour, and everything emerges through that fragile distance as she struggles to keep up with her clever, wilful friend and to discover who and what she herself can be, her sense of self-worth constantly derailed. Their intellectual conversation begins when together they read Little Women, that childhood primer for feminism read by so many of us. It flowers, is crushed by events, and sometimes flowers again. It would make the novel sound schematic to suggest they typify in any way. They are wholly original creations, they are two and they are one, both in turmoil: the girl who does not see herself as fully formed giving a fierce reality to the girl only seen from outside whose impulses and actions often defy any logic. Both trajectories intimate the pain of challenging or splitting from a world so grounded in the injustices of class.

Reading is central to this novel at every stage. Fiction temporarily frees the reader from the limits of gender, class and geography; books can open up the world of politics and history, be a tool for understanding and creating, and a source of conflict with those who do not read. Yet knowledge through reading is not the only key you need to take a confident place in the wider world, as Lenù finds repeatedly, having entered the culture of learning, where she is an exception.

My Brilliant Friend has two girls becoming women as its fulcrum. It also illuminates the masculinity that surrounds them, violently traditional in its ideas of what it is to be a man, put under stress by corruption and economic impotence – and of men’s ideas of how women should be. From these ensue numerous domestic tragedies, in scenes vibrant with emotion, yet almost forensic. It is also mothers who beat their daughters.

Lynsey Hanley talks of casual violence as endemic in working-class life. ‘Middle-class people are nicer’ she notes. ‘They manage the dark things better, keep them hidden’. Besides, there are other ways of inflicting violence than the physical. Class still blights our lives, perhaps more than ever. Access to education has been diminished by cuts and tuition fees; pay gaps have widened, and the divisions, inequalities and embarrassments of class have grown.

Nowhere in Europe does class have such dominance as in Britain. It isn’t simply a matter of wealth. Schooling divides us and class privilege fostered by a private education system is further entrenched by networks of privilege within many professions and public institutions, by the imbalance that gives those from private schools an easy route to Oxbridge and the rest of the Russell group, to careers in publishing, journalism and broadcasting. When I was told by someone who works at the BBC that all the presenters on Radio 3 are privately educated it didn’t surprise me, given the discrepancy in resources for music education.

Dividing children by social class isn’t only a force for deprivation but a way of producing an unhealthy ignorance, a potential lack of empathy. Those educated in privilege often seem to have trouble in grasping of what their privilege consists and how anyone they meet as a social equal might have had a different kind of life, might not have family heirlooms or relatives to leave them property. Consider the small things: how speech and everyday words are stratified. I know of no other European country where meals eaten have different names according to your class: dinner in the middle of the day and tea in the evening; lunch in the middle of the day and dinner in the evening. Like Lynsey Hanley, I’ve got used to lunch and dinner, but what’s supper?

There’s one word I’d really like to get rid of in the discourse of class: aspirational. I think of it as a Thatcher/Blair word, a word I’d twin with the phrase ‘deserving poor’, except that when you’re ‘aspirational’ you’re aiming to be part of the deserving rich. It suggests that only some working-class parents want the best for their children. And it suggests a society where not all children deserve the best.

It isn’t the general custom in Italy or France for children to be sent to fee-paying secondary schools rather than the lycée or liceo. Of course there are still class divisions in Italy now, but to friends of my generation there, the British class dystopia has no parallel in their experience of school. In cities, the children of doctors and lawyers, and the grandchildren of aristocrats, often mixed in the classroom with the children of cleaners and factory workers. I recall one friend telling me about her son’s teenage years at the liceo: he would feel embarrassed when one of his better off friends who lived in spacious luxury (with a second home in the background) came to visit their cramped family flat. The embarrassments would diminish over time but there would remain a recognition of differences in wealth and parents’ status, of undesirable inequalities. Privilege needs to see itself in relation to others who are valued, and see those others not as inferiors. Turning education into a shared experience would make it richer for everyone.

Ferrante’s novels (I’ve now nearly finished the second one) are neither formally innovative nor stylishly written, but they have depth and insight and they achieve something very rare in fiction, by giving working-class characters organic life in a world of great complexity.

Journey to Italy

March 3, 2016 § Leave a comment

After the death of Jacques Rivette last month I wanted to see one of his films, on a big screen in a cinema rather than through a DVD in my living room. There were no public screenings in the offing, but by chance, through a friend, I got invited to a private one with a roomful of people watching La Belle Noiseuse, which I had never seen before, on a big roll-down screen. That’s for another time. For now, I thought I’d re-post what I wrote about Rossellini’s Journey to Italy in 2013. The film was a great influence on Rivette.

Liz Heron`s blog

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When asked by Eric Rohmer and François Truffaut about Journey to Italy in a Cahiers du Cinéma interview, Roberto Rossellini described the importance of Naples: “… that strange atmosphere which is mingled with the very real, very immediate, very deep feeling, the sense of eternal life.”

The city of Naples, its bay, its islands, its volcano and the site of Pompeii are not merely the setting for the film, they are its pulse, the vitality of its human figures and the potent endurance of its ancient places quickening the slow-paced drama of an English couple who have driven to Italy to sell a recently inherited villa. As plot, Journey to Italy meanders, yet, watching, I found shot after beautiful shot elusive, tantalising, and I wanted to stop the couple’s Rolls-Royce and enter the flow of the busy Naples streets, where Ingrid Bergman’s character is disturbed by the presence of so…

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Jacques Rivette Is Dead

January 29, 2016 § Leave a comment

The great Jacques Rivette died today.

He was one of the 1950s critics on Cahiers du Cinéma, who not only transformed serious film criticism but became the New Wave, a generation of directors influenced by Hitchcock and Hawks, Nicholas Ray, Fritz Lang and Rossellini– and they left their own indelible mark on the cinema to come. He was a Marxist (of anarchist persuasion, it seems to me) who made films about the mysteries of human life.

Rivette was the most philosophical of the New Wave directors and his films often made things complicated, even cryptic, but were always compelling. Maybe the best known here in Britain is the joyously strange, psychedelically pill-popping Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974). In more than one of his films there is a magician, and in several it is the magic of the theatre that he conjoins with that of cinema: the Pirandellian Va Savoir (2001), a quick, vivid comedy, or the dreamy Paris Belongs to Us (1960), his first full-length feature, where Cold War conspiracy lurks and actors rehearse Pericles.

For me, it’s another of his early films that stands out. This is The Nun, based on Diderot’s novel of that title. Anna Karina has the role of the young woman condemned by her family to life in a convent, and her struggle to be free has a resonance that goes far beyond its 18th-century setting. Of course Diderot was a banned writer; it’s more extraordinary that Rivette’s film should have found itself banned in France in 1966.

Now only two of the New Wave group survive: Jean-Luc Godard and Agnès Varda, the one woman, so often overlooked. She and Rivette were born in the same year, 1928, and were friends and political allies. I keep seeing affinities between their films, not just in their similarities but also their differences. Rivette is a visual poet of Paris; Paris Belongs to Us shows us an atmospheric labyrinth of hills and steps, where Varda takes an almost documentary view of Paris in Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), but with both what we see on screen forms a new idea of the world rooted in the city.

Rivette remains one of the very greatest directors. Even though he had been ill for a while, it’s sad to know for sure that there will be no more films directed by Jacques Rivette. I have some still to see, and some of these are very long, which is a consolation.

No Girl, Too Many Guns: THE HATEFUL EIGHT

January 13, 2016 § Leave a comment

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Tarantino’s last four films before The Hateful Eight have been revenge fantasies. Kill Bill I and II were martial arts frenzies driven by a bride’s fury against her murderous husband and his cohorts, the violence so kinetically efficient as to be cartoonish, the sword-slashing deftly balletic. It felt claustrophobic, as if embodying fantasies cooped up inside the Uma Thurman character’s vengeful head, which had in fact been hit by a bullet or two, whereas Inglourious Basterds sprawled into a grand anti-Nazi feast of retribution, with humour aplenty. It also had a heroine, sole survivor of her massacred Jewish family, who has escaped to Paris, where she runs a cinema, a crucial element in the film’s spectacular culmination. Django Unchained set loose a black hero bent on saving his enslaved wife and punishing the plantation owner along with those complicit in his crimes. It had exhilarating pace and energy, and the compensatory release of laughter in the midst of brutality.
Violence is a given with Tarantino. Reservoir Dogs, I have to admit, proved impossible for me to watch because of it. But I’ve come to appreciate his films more over time, specifically since Jackie Brown, an Elmore Leonard adaptation with characteristic attention to race and class within a clever, fast-moving comedy crime drama. There are always surprises in Tarantino’s films, simultaneously rocking expectations and reminding us that for him nothing is sacred. This boldness is a strength that Hollywood now lacks, and carrying pure cinema unconfined by plot, developed characterisation or filmic convention into overt politics seems to have been a natural development akin to that of Tarantino’s auteur hero, Jean-Luc Godard.
Godard famously said that ‘all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun’. With girls, guns and a certain amount of genius, he duly tested the formula with such films as Breathless (1959), Bande à part (1964) and Made in USA (1966). (Tarantino named his production company A Band Apart, a commitment as well as a homage). For these Godard took American crime fiction as a template to be worked on. To speak explicitly of guns Tarantino has chosen the other quintessentially American genre. His Django drew lavishly on the spaghetti western, and now The Hateful Eight (with a majestically prowling Morricone score) pays the expected homage to Sergio Leone, while undertaking nothing less than a dismantling of the Western in its various moods and mutations as the mythic American narrative. It’s his most political film yet.
Even compared with gangster movies, which are mostly male affairs, ‘girls’ in the Western are allotted marginal space. You could say that The Hateful Eight doesn’t have one at all, despite Jennifer Jason Leigh’s star billing and her character’s name: Daisy. We first see her bundled up and dirty, a bag lady with a black eye, and as the film proceeds, its assorted gunslingers holed up to sit out a blizzard at Minnie’s Haberdashery (where’s Minnie? – that’s the first of several mysteries), she becomes ever more grotesquely battered, bloodied and sexless. All the same, she fights back.
In any other Western, the fact that Daisy’s a living corpse, shackled to a bounty hunter (Kurt Russell) and on her way to the gallows, still wouldn’t have left her so de-eroticised. Tarantino deploys and subverts sundry Western tropes, making sure to leave out the old-style gallantry that could be counted on from John Wayne and his like. The same applies to the fleeting flashback appearance of six-horse Judy, a rosy-cheeked blonde in fringed buckskin, sunnily reminiscent of Doris Day as Calamity Jane. She’s allowed a moment’s stock flirtation over the sweet jars before any opportunity for barn-dancing romance is thoroughly thwarted and the Western as pioneer idyll snatched away from us.
We’re in snowy Wyoming, in the aftermath of the Civil War (maybe two years later, maybe ten), a classic setting and time. The temporary occupants of Minnie’s Haberdashery include an ex-Union major (Samuel L. Jackson), a Confederate general (Bruce Dern), a young Johnny Reb who says he’s the new local sheriff (Walton Goggins) and an English hangman (Tim Roth). The snowbound cabin is like a stage set and dialogue expands theatrically to fill it, heavy with the kind of paranoid unease that sets fingers itching on triggers. The wounds of war fester, hostilities revive. Jackson’s provocative words in a powerful set piece with Dern are timely, for now as well as then.
T.H.E. crackles along with a terrific script and a degree of comic brio that darkens once the slapstick running gag runs out. When it does there’s enough gore to fuel a Jacobean tragedy, which is what the film’s conclusion grimly recalls. Guns are handled with love, emptied, filled with bullets and emptied again. With only Tarantino’s chapter titles and intermittent voice-over to guide us through the thick of events as they twist and turn at speed we probably miss as much as we notice. It’s hard to write about this film after only one viewing.
It’s also hard to feel good at the end: without the buoyancy of revenge for catharsis, without the villains seen off by heroes. There aren’t any heroes.
Lethal racism, capital punishment and guns everywhere: a vision of America that’s still recognisable. And no one can get rid of the guns.
This is an antidote to Spielberg’s sentimental liberalism, which always has a battle to fight just so it can boast Americans are always the good guys – all too evident in his latest film, Bridge of Spies, set in the 60s and with covert reference to the present.
Spielberg’s Lincoln was a film about the struggles of the 19th century president, and about Obama in the 21st-century. In T.H.E. Samuel L. Jackson’s character carries around a letter from Lincoln that everyone wants to see. What happens to the letter in the final scene confirms a terrible bleakness. All that can be said about such absence of hope is that there’s so much anger in this state-of-the-nation film that the bleakness is almost rousing.

Hackney Flashers at Tate Britain

December 12, 2015 § 1 Comment

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The Hackney Flashers currently have a display at Tate Britain. It’s combined with a spotlight on Jo Spence, a member of the group who went on to do a photography degree and produce innovative solo work, as well as collaborating with others. She died in 1992.
One side of the room is taken up with Jo’s prints, including some from a photo-therapy project with Rosy Thomas. On the other you can see examples of Hackney Flasher pictures from Women and Work and Who’s Holding the Baby? There’s also a slideshow with images from both exhibitions.
This is material the Tate has acquired from sources other than ourselves, and it will be kept in the Tate’s archive. The curators have described us as ‘an arts collective’. Right now there is a revival of interest in 1970s photography. Hackney Flashers’ work has appeared twice this year at major art institutions, the Tate and the Hayward, and is also on permanent display in Madrid, at the Reina Sofía Museum, yet we’ve never thought of ourselves as a collective of artists (even though at least one of our number had a fine arts training). This is all accidental, deriving from the confusion between art that is agitprop and agitprop that becomes art by virtue of being in an art gallery.
Our work was made to be shown at Women’s Movement and trade union events, in libraries and community centres, and that’s where it was seen in the 70s. Of course, people can call it what they like, but we are in no doubt that what we were doing then was agitprop. Agitprop is indeed a category within art (applicable in part to the Russian avant-garde: Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Tatlin, Stepanova etc – as well as to John Heartfield and Hans Haacke among others), but one which the art establishment has forgotten about, or perhaps is just uncomfortable with, because it’s political.
After much debate on the subject in the past, we have no objection to our work being seen in museum and gallery contexts, because we think it still raises questions about women’s work and childcare within a wider political framework. At the moment you can’t see it anywhere else (except on our website).
It’s a free display at the Tate and will be on for some time (on the upper level, above the ticketing area).

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