Cinema of the UK
April 22, 2012
January 1, 2012
It was the best of years, it was the worst of years. Best because a dizzying number of big and important projects surfaced this year and worst because I haven’t even been able to see even a fraction of that number, even though my film viewing hit an all-time high this December, That last bit was possible thanks to the city’s major international film festival, the first full-fledged fest that I’ve ever attended – a key event as far as my cinephilia is concerned. Although, I must admit, none of the new titles I saw at the fest blew me away, I was surprised by a handful of films that I think deserve wider exposure. (I’m thinking specifically of Jean-Jacques Jauffret’s debut film Heat Wave, a tragic, graceful hyperlionk movie in which piecing together the disorienting geography of Marseilles becomes as important as piecing together the four intersecting narratives.) Instead of continuing apologetically to emphasize my viewing gaps and to rationalize the countless number of entries on my to-see list, I present you another list, The Top 10 Films I Didn’t See This Year: (1) House of Tolerance (Bertrand Bonello, an indisputable masterpiece, probably) (2) Seeking the Monkey King (Ken Jacobs) (3) Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan) (4) This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi/Mojtaba Mirtahmasb) (5) Century of Birthing (Lav Diaz) (6) Life Without Principle (Johnnie To) (7) The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev) (8) Hugo (Martin Scorsese) (9) Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan) (10) La Havre (Aki Kaurismaki). Now that that’s out of my system, here are my favorites from the ones I did get to see.
1. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr/Ágnes Hranitzky, Hungary)
For a number of films this year, the end of the world became some sort of a theme park ride taken with ease, but none of them ventured as far as Béla Tarr’s mesmerizing, awe-inspiring farewell to cinema. With The Turin Horse, Tarr’s filmmaking traverses the whole gamut, moving away from the wordy realist pictures of his early phase to this extreme abstraction suggesting, in Godard’s phrasing, a farewell to language itself. Centering on a man, his daughter and their horse as they eke out a skeletal existence in some damned plain somewhere in Europe, The Turin Horse is the last chapter of a testament never written, an anti-Genesis narrative that finds God forsaking the world and leaving it to beings on earth to sort it all out by themselves. Tarr’s film is a remarkable cinematic achievement, primal in its physicality and elemental in its force. Nothing this year was so laden with doom and so brimming with hope at once as the ultimate image of the film, where father and daughter – now awakened, perhaps – sit in the darkness with nothing to confront but each other.
2. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)
Asghar Farhadi’s super-modest yet supremely ambitious chronicle of class conflict in Tehran is a massive deconstruction project that strikes right at the heart of systems that define us. Accumulating detail upon detail and soaking the film in the ambiguity that characterizes the real world, A Separation reveals the utter failure of binary logic – which not only forms the foundation of institutions such as justice but also permeates and petrifies our imagination – in dealing with human dilemmas. Farhadi’s centrism is not a form of bourgeois neutrality that plagues many a war movies, it is a recognition that truth lies somewhere in the recesses between the contours of language, law and logic. Working with unquantifiable parameters such as irrationality and doubt, Farhadi’s film is something of an aporia in the discourses that surround cinema and reality and an urgent call for revaluation of approaches towards critical problems in general. Rigorously shot, edited and directed, A Separation is a genuinely empathetic yet highly intelligent slice of reality in all its messy complexity and breathtaking grace.
3. The Tree Of Life (Terrence Malick, USA)
Juxtaposing the cosmic, the macroscopic and the infinite with the particular, the everyday and the finite, Terrence Malick’s fifth film The Tree of Life seeks to ask big questions. It is here that the director’s longstanding philosophical concerns find perfect articulation and efficacy in the specific form of the film. Seamlessly shifting between perspectives both all-knowing and limited, The Tree of Life posits the existence of a single shared consciousness across time and place, only a small part of which is each human being. It is also Malick’s most phenomenological film and mostly unfolds as a series of sensory impressions that both invites and resists interpretation. An awe-instilling tug-of-war between finitude and permanence, omniscience and ignorance, narrativization and immediate experience and rationalization and incomprehension, Malick’s unabashed celebration of the birth of consciousness – in general and in specific forms – locates the particular in the universal and vice versa. What lingers in the mind more than the grand ideas, though, are extremely minor details, which is pretty much what the medium must aspire to achieve.
4. The Story Of Film: An Odyssey (Mark Cousins, UK)
A scandalous history, a disproportionate sense of importance and a frustrating accent. Critic-Filmmaker Mark Cousins’ project to present the story of cinema as a 15-part TV series appears doomed right from the conceptualization stage: can you even attempt to tell a story of film without omitting whole schools of filmmaking or national cinemas? Omit it certainly does, and unapologetically so, but when Cousins chronologically hops from one country to another, halting at particular films, scenes or even shots, providing commentary that is as insightful as they come and situating them in the larger scheme of things, you wouldn’t hesitate to lower your guard. Not only does Cousins’ 900-minute tribute to filmdom introduce us to names in world cinema rarely discussed about, but also presents newer approaches to canonical entries. Admirably inclusive (Matthew Barney and Baz Luhrmann find adjacent seats, so do Youssef Chahine and Steven Spielberg) and never condescending, The Story of Film exhibits towards the history of the form a sensitivity comparable to the finest of film criticism.
5. We Need To Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, UK)
What is stressed in Lynne Ramsay’s rattling third feature We Need to Talk About Kevin is not only the continuity between mother and son, but also the essential discontinuity. Where does the mother end and where does the son begin? Every inch of space between actors resonates with this dreadful ambiguity. The film is as much about Eva’s birth from the stifling womb of motherhood as it is Kevin’s apparent inability to be severed from her umbilical cord. Every visual in Ramsay’s chronicle of blood and birth works on three levels – literal, symbolic and associative – the last of which links the images of the film in subtle, subconscious and thoroughly unsettling ways. For the outcast Eva, the past bleeds into the present and every object, sound and gesture becomes a living, breathing reminder of whatever has been put behind. Ramsay’s intuitive, sensual approach to colour, composition and sound locates her directly in the tradition of the Surrealists and deems this unnerving, shattering, personal genre work as one of the most exciting pieces of cinema this year.
6. Life In A Day (Various, Various)
An heir to the ideas of Dziga Vertov and Aleksandr Medvedkin, Kevin Macdonald’s Life in a Day is a moving, bewildering, charming, frustrating and dizzying snapshot of Planet Earth in all its glory, stupidity and complexity on a single day in 2011. An endless interplay of presence and absence, familiar and exotic, lack and excess, similarity and difference, the homogenous and the un-normalizable and the empowered and the marginalized, Life in a Day is a virtually inexhaustible film that is a strong testament to how many of us lived together on this particular planet on this particular day of this particular year. (That it represents only a cross section of the world population is a complaint that is subsumed by the film’s observations.) Each shot, loaded with so much cultural content, acts as a synecdoche, suggesting a dense social, political and historical network underneath. Most importantly, it taps right into the dread of death that accompanies cinematography: the heightened awareness of the finitude of existence and experience and the direct confrontation with the passing of time.
7. Kill List (Ben Wheatley, UK)
On the surface, Ben Wheatley’s Kill List comes across like a sick B-movie with a mischievous sense of plotting, but on closer examination, it reveals itself as a serious work with clear-cut philosophical and political inclination. That its philosophy is inseparable from its mind-bending narrative structure makes it a very challenging beast. Kill List is the kind of kick in the gut that video games must strive to emulate if they aspire to become art. Indeed, Wheatley’s chameleon of a film borrows much from video games – from its division of a mission into stages announced by intertitles to the third-person-shooter aesthetic that it segues into – making us complicit with the protagonist and his moral attitude, later pulling the rug from our feet and leaving us afloat. Early in the film, Iraq war veteran and protagonist Jay mumbles that it was better if he was fighting the Nazis – at least, he would know who the enemy was. He learns the hard way that this ‘othering’ of the enemy into a mass of unidentifiable groups is a psychological strategy to protect and redeem himself, that it’s judgment that defeats us.
8. Sleeping Beauty (Julia Leigh, Australia)
“Your vagina will be a temple” one elderly procurer assures Lucy, a twenty something university student who takes up odd jobs to pay her fees. Not only is the vagina a temple in Julia Leigh’s markedly assured debut feature, but the human body itself is a space that is to be furnished, maintained and rented out for public use. Leigh’s vehemently anti-realist examination of continuous privatization of the public and publicization of the private works against any kind of psychological or sociological realism, instead unfolding as an academic study of the human body as a site of control. Setting up a dialectic between pristine, clinical public spaces and messy, emotional private ones, Sleeping Beauty attempts to explore not our relationship to the spaces that we inhabit, but also to the space that we ourselves are. Consistently baffling and irreducible, Leigh’s film displays an eccentric yet surefooted approach to design, composition and framing, revealing the presence of a personality beneath. Sleeping Beauty is, for me, the most impressive debut film of the year.
9. The Kid With A Bike (Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France)
The Dardenne brothers have turned out to be the preeminent documentarians of our world and their latest wonder The Kid with a Bike sits alongside their best works as an unadorned, incisive portrait of our time. Admittedly inspired by fairly tales, Dardennes’ film might appear like an archetypal illustration of innocence lured by the devil, but its parameters are all drawn from here and now. Structured as a series of transactions – persons, objects, moral grounds – where human interaction is inextricably bound to the movement of physical objects, the film presents our world as one defined by exchanges of all kind, but never reduces this observation to some cynical reading of life as a business. Also characteristic of Dardennes’ universe is the intense physicality that pervades each shot. Be it the boy scurrying about on foot or on bike or the countless number of doors that are opened and closed, the Dardennes, once more, show us that cinema must concern itself with superficies and it is on the surface of things that one can find depth.
10. The Monk (Dominik Moll, France/Spain)
Dominik Moll’s adaptation of Matthew Lewis’ eponymous novel concerning a self-righteous priest tempted by the devil could be described as an intervention of late nineteenth century tools – psychoanalysis and cinema – into a late eighteenth century text. Located on this side of the birth of psychoanalysis, Moll’s film comes across as essentially Freudian in the way it portrays the titular monk as a human being flawed by design and the church, society and family as institutions responsible for suppressing those basic impulses. Incest, rape and murder abound as hell breaks loose, but the film’s sympathy is clearly with the devil. The Monk uses an array of early silent cinema techniques including a schema that combines an impressionistic illustration of the protagonist’s sensory experience and expressionistic mise en scène to signal his irreversible descent into decadence. Alternating between metallic blues of the night and sun bathed brown, Moll’s film teeters on the obscure boundary between Good and Evil. Exquisitely composed and expertly realized, The Monk supplies that irresistible dose of classicism missing in the other films on this list.
December 25, 2011
Project Nim (2011)
Project Nim (2011), directed by James Marsh of Man on Wire (2008) fame, gives to us the life of Nim Chimpsky, the chimpanzee at Columbia University that was being trained to communicate in sign language, as narrated by Dr. Herbert Terrace (the head of the project) and his team of trainers. We see the animal being taken away from his mother by force, brought up along with human children at one of Terrace’s friends’ home, transferred back to the university, sold to a drug-testing facility and, finally, to a private ranch. We witness the devastating tragedy of Nim’s life, as he is deracinated, trained for years to become human-like only to be expected, subsequently, to behave like chimpanzee. Throughout, there is an ambivalence based on the nature versus nurture question that we experience: Is Nim’s rapid learning curve an indication of the dominance of social relations in shaping communication or is his random acts of violence a clinching proof for the presence of an innate animal essence? The interviewees describe their relationship to Nim in very human terms and one wonders if some of it is not the projection of their own anthropomorphic understanding of the animal’s behaviour. Consequently, Nim becomes something of a MacGuffin that everybody is talking about, but no one knows what it exactly is. The film’s sympathies clearly lie with the animal, to such an extent that it refuses to see the complexity of the situation. Abstracting scientific research as animal cruelty, the film fails to take into account the more pressing issues that are being addressed by such projects. To add to this gross simplification, Marsh’s questionable fictional restaging of facts and regular use of unrelated footage in order to prevent the film from becoming a talking-heads documentary betrays a lack of faith on the material and an unwarranted fear that a straightforward presentation would be ‘uncinematic’.
December 18, 2011
September 24, 2011
Maya Deren, committed perhaps more than anyone else to marrying choreography with film, once wrote: “There is a potential filmic dance form, in which the choreography and movement would be designed, precisely, for the mobility and other attributes of the camera, but this, too, requires an independence from theatrical dance conceptions.” This could well have been a mission statement for Wim Wenders’ Pina (2011), which attempts to re-imagine Bausch’s most famous works for a cinema audience and, specifically, for 3D technology. Consisting of an assortment of performances of Bausch’s famous pieces – performed on stage as well as outdoors in the choreographer’s home town – and interviews with her protégés, the film locates itself on this side of her passing and plays itself openly as a tribute rather than a cine-profile. Although it appears that art forms are being nested one inside another – Wenders’ film records Bausch’s choreography, which, in turn, is viewed as painting-on-stage – Pina comes across as collaboration between two art forms, as it is between two of its eminent practitioners – one feeding into another. Dance and cinema are presented as two universal forms bypassing verbal language, as is made explicit in the frequently interrupting (and consistently impoverishing) interviews in which we see Pina’s dancers – of different ethnicities, cultures and languages – sitting idly before the camera while their testimonies play as voiceovers, as though reducing both forms to their very basics – image and gesture. As for the dances themselves, we respond to the sheer physicality of them, more than their meaning, which is enhanced by Wenders’ restive, ever-tracking and craning camera that provides us the best of vantage points and brings us close to actually taking part in the performances.
April 17, 2011
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The Neon Bible (1995)
Terence Davies’ The Neon Bible (1995) opens with a patently surreal, metallic-blue image of a steam engine coughing to a start. The landscape we see is uncannily alien not only because it is shrouded in steam, but also because it is Davies’ first film in a foreign country. Davies, possibly inspired by the horizontality of south side America, shoots in widescreen for the first time (and how!), departing from the cozy aspect ratios of his British films, with a healthy contempt for the shot-reverse shot grammar, squarely centre-framing his characters and providing a palpable sense of isolation marking them. Adapted from John Kennedy Toole’s debut novel (written when the author was just 16), The Neon Bible is ostensibly a transition work for Davies. One could have, in fact, seen this sort of a picture coming right after his previous film, given how it had exhaustively mined the British filmmaker’s interests, providing a magnificent summation of his career thus far. Consequently, The Neon Bible straddles not only the experimental, elliptical structures of all his earlier works and the more straightforward narrative of The House of Mirth (2000), but also the honest, affecting, personal expression that had so far been the hallmark of Davies’ work and genre conventions and tropes that seem to have tagged along with this American outing of his. Davies attempts to impart a personal dimension to the text by punctuating it with sequences involving church, cinema and classroom – the three most characteristic spaces in Davies’ cinema – and the indistinct borders between each of them. But then, he also designates a rank cliché borrowed from independent cinema as one of the two important characters of the film: the aging, washed-up artist played by Gena Rowlands (who reprises and recycles her work with Cassavetes). However, the scenes involving the lead David (Jacob Tierney) are much more authentic and moving, especially the Sokurov-like episodes with his mother.
April 4, 2011
The Dilapidated Dwelling (2000)
British helmer Patrick Keiller’s third feature, The Dilapidated Dwelling (2000), constructs its discourse around the housing industry in Britain. Examining how buying a house in England is becoming an increasingly expensive affair – at a time when capitalism, ironically, provides us with every facility to bring the world inside our homes – Dwelling presents an elaborate critique of modern British architecture, while branching off into other directions as well. Keiller seems to have found in the housing system some sort of blind spot in the economic logic of late capitalism, wherein its claims – apparent freedom of choice for the consumer, predictable demand-supply-price relationships and total automation – run into dead ends. Taking off from this, Keiller investigates the work of Buckminster Fuller, whose futuristic designs for mass-produced houses could never see the daylight, in order to find out why automated housing systems – such as in Japan – could never make it in the West. Unlike any of his other films, Keiller uses interviews and news reels in Dwelling, making the film more conventional and streamlined than his other works. But then, facets that pretty much define Keiller’s cinema, like the love-hate relationship between image and sound (Keiller’s images always seem to float feely underneath the tight textual fabric), moods and surfaces, the private and the public, the visible and the intangible, psychology and sociology (abandoned in the later works), the aesthetic and the ethical (the paradoxical narratives of his early short films), literature and cinema (his cinema is, in a way, about the corresponding advantages and shortcomings of both), also mark Dwelling, which explores the intertwined relationship between social and domestic formations and which attempts to rethink spaces – national, ideological and domestic.
October 17, 2010
Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010)
Noted British street artist Banksy’s Exit through the Gift Shop (2010) is a confounding beast in that it purports to be a documentary by Banksy on a man called Thierry Guetta who attempts to make a documentary on Banksy (along with other street artists). The first section of the film brings us the essence of street art, its intention to democratize art by bringing it out of arthouses and into the streets. (One of Banksy’s “guerilla installation” works depicts a lady wearing a gas mask). Gradually, the film’s focus shifts to Guetta himself. He is presented as an inarticulate, passionate camera buff fetishizing the recorded image (presaging his unrestrained fetishizing of pop culture later on), as a romantic who believes that recording every moment of one’s life increases the value of one’s gaze and, in a sense, as a Banksy-like artist working on the streets of life. Along the way, it takes a lot of potshots at the reception of avant-garde art centered on the grand debut of Guetta. The interesting thing here is that it doesn’t judge Guetta’s works till the very end, thereby toying with our perception of these works as well (some of them indeed seem praiseworthy and were probably made by Banksy himself). But then, Exit does have an agenda of its own. It evidently stands against celebrity culture and the commodification of street art. It seems to propose that street art has to be a physical endeavour more than a conceptual one and that the physical presence of the artist during creation is of utmost importance. Ironical it is that Banksy himself has held a number of exhibitions and is a revered name in art circles. This is perhaps the whole point of the film. Exit could be read – if not as a self-serving promotional campaign – as Banksy’s attempt to come to terms with his failed anonymity, as an effort to resolve the contradictions associated with his name (through the figure of Guetta) and as a form of self-criticism which recognizes that he has become a brand despite himself.
July 31, 2010
February 7, 2010
Death and the Maiden (1994)
(Spoilers, sort of)
This scene here is the climax of one of Polanski’s very best films, Death and the Maiden (1994). Let me not elaborate on the plot details and just say that Dr. Miranda (Ben Kingsley) is making a certain confession to Paulina (Sigourney Weaver) about his dark past as her husband, Gerardo (Stuart Wilson), watches on. If the whole of Polanski’s filmography is to be summed up in one line, is must be that key quote from Chinatown (1974) – that man is capable of doing anything given the right circumstances. This monologue where Miranda, himself a variant of John Huston’s character from Chinatown, confesses is, arguably, the most important shot in all of Polanski. Death and the Maiden is not a film dealing with the Holocaust per se, but, as it is with most Polanski films, the parallels are striking (it’s kind of like how The Pianist (2002) wasn’t about the Holocaust at all, even when it dealt with it). The film, and particularly this sequence here, is exactly what Holocaust cinema should all be about. There are no painstakingly recreated details of the war here, no tacked up statements about the triumph of the human spirit and, thankfully, no beautification of the horror (a trap that films as latest as Polytechnique and The City of Life and Death (both 2009) fall into) for the sake of creating art. It’s a film that deals with the impact and significance of a holocaust rather than the mishap itself. And, most importantly, it’s a rare film that truly knows, in Peter Rainer’s words, that “it is the artist’s job to show us that the monster is, in fact, a human being”.
This scene here is filmed as a close up and records Miranda, looking slightly towards the left, recollecting the past in fine detail. The composition is noteworthy here. Polanski could have filmed Kingsley head-on, with him staring into the camera, whereby cinema would intimately and truthfully perform its humble, ethical and mandatory function of acknowledging that “the monster is indeed a human”. But, despite its advantages, if it were done so, the image of Ben Kingsley would overwhelm that of Miranda and break the credibility of the diegetic events, thereby going exactly against the purpose of the shot. The casting of Ben Kingsley here as Miranda is remarkable. He is, I believe, one of those stock stars who wouldn’t be as comfortable when cast in roles much different from one another (Brad Pitt, Bill Murray and Jack Nicholson are few others I can think of now). Kingsley excels in indifference. There is something both pitifully innocent and terrifyingly sinister about his introversive image. His voice is flat, nevertheless brimming with pathos. It is simultaneously befitting of the scene’s intent and appalling to realize that this “Gandhi” turns out to be such a “Hitler” and, more importantly, that this Hitler belongs to the same species as Mohandas Gandhi and Itzhak Stern. (It’s the exact kind of casting decision that von Trier made recently when he bestowed Willem Dafoe with the twin distinction of having played both the Christ and the Antichrist). The result is one of Polanski’s finest and a new direction for Holocaust cinema.