Cinema of the UK


The Death of Stalin

Stalin jokes place the listener in a moral double bind. If there’s beauty in the capacity of humour to sublimate unspeakable horror and make life bearable, the idea of laughing at these jokes strikes us as ghastly precisely because it trivializes terror of the purges and the gulags. There’s no such dilemma about Hitler jokes, possibly because the kind of evil he stood for lives among us to date, whereas we are allowed to assimilate Stalin into history’s endless roster of multi-coloured dictators. Who, though, has the right to make Stalin jokes? The common people who lived under his rule, surely. But can today’s Russian citizens? Or the descendants of those who disappeared? Armando Iannucci, the writer-director of The Death of Stalin, certainly doesn’t think that’s a quandary, and chooses to treat Stalin as a collective civilizational inheritance like Jesus Christ or Julius Caesar. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, Alan Alda’s TV producer declares that comedy is tragedy plus time. It may be either too soon or too late to make a comedy on Stalin’s death. Iannucci, however, has decided that it’s just about time.

The film opens with its finest sequence, a brilliant, concentrated set-piece that blurs the boundary between comedy and horror, beauty and savagery, and terror and absurdity—just like the Stalin jokes. It’s 1953, a couple of hours before Stalin’s death, and Radio Moscow is having a live performance of a Mozart symphony. The Soviet premier calls the director of the station and asks him to ring back in seventeen minutes. The terrified director calls the premier back exactly in seventeen minutes just as the studio audience explodes in applause. Only then does he (and do we) realize that Stalin has timed the call to the end of the symphony. Stalin gives curt orders for the recording of the performance to be sent to him right away. The only problem: the concert wasn’t recorded. In panic, the director rushes to the orchestra, asking them to take their positions and replay the entire programme. To replace the part of the audience that left, the guards at the radio station go pick up random peasants from streets at gunpoint. Meanwhile, the police of the interior ministry, NKVD, is busy rounding up people on Stalin’s execution list. The film intercuts both these commotions, not making it clear which set of people are being picked up for what—an uncertainty reflective of the detainees’ own experience.

While the shell-shocked director prepares for the call, Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) adds new names to his execution list, with Mozart playing on the radio. He hands over the list to Beria (Simon Russell Beale), whom he joins for a dinner alongside Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Molotov (Michael Palin) and Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor). The men make bawdy jokes, force themselves to laugh at Stalin’s dumb repartees and sit through his movie screenings unwillingly. They will later note down the jokes that worked and the ones that didn’t so that they can improve their performance the next time around. It’s not the contrast between a decadent elite and a country in fear, but the necessity for maintaining an appearance at all levels of Russian social life that is suggested here. The symphony and the dinner are simulacra, like Stalin’s funeral pageantry later in the film, intended to hide less cheerful realities (The fear of punishment, Molotov’s imminent arrest, the internal hatred for Stalin). The remarkable set-piece lasts all of fifteen minutes and its astute plot-driven comedy is fleshed out by Iannucci’s customary, razor-sharp dialogue (“—He’s a great man with a great ear.” “—Two great ears.”), which is likely the film’s primary reason to exist.

The stellar opening sequence sets the rest of the film for a failure, which is understandably more mechanical and less inventive and funny. Divided into arbitrary chapters based on ridiculous protocol to be followed upon the premier’s demise (appropriately presented in an equally ridiculous Copperplate Gothic-like typeface), the plot follows the power struggle between Beria and Khrushchev, both of whom want to reshape the republic’s future per their own less-violent conceptions. Their real ideological differences are ignored by the film; this fight over non-existent differences is perhaps the point, just as its implication that Beria could have been any fall man, that Khrushchev could’ve just as well lost the war for history. The content of the Soviet politburo’s policies is of no concern to the film, it’s the form it has ideas on: Iannucci presents the politburo as a man-eat-man battleground for power, its meetings as verbal minefields where one wrong word could change the course of history. Upon Stalin’s death, something similar to democracy emerges within the chief committee, with all the contradictions of that system in place: in order to take control, Beria and Khrushchev find themselves having to influence the other members of the politburo by whatever means necessary, psychological or tactical. In outlining the surprisingly short roads between democracy and groupthink, the film boomerangs halfway back at its Western audience, whose own political climate of “saying the right thing” its satire resonates with.

Anglo-normative (“Beria-r”) without feeling the need to justify it, The Death of Stalin makes no pretence to realism or accuracy—a fact that attenuates its arguably offensive intentions. In fact, the film works off the incongruence of language and setting, treating Soviet Russia as mere costume and décor in a mostly-British sitcom (tea and buns for Stalin’s daughter) where Buscemi and Olga Kurylenko are guest performers with native accents. While the film goes through the motions in its second half, the jokes keep coming (—Malenkov after his inaugural speech: “Yes, ‘bread and peace’. I knew it would work. It was between ‘peace’ and ‘sausages’.” —Khrushchev: “Both good things, but you know where you are with a sausage.”). And it’s surprisingly inventive on the visual front. The tortures at Beria’s NKVD facility are relegated to the edge of the frame, making them perversely register with greater force and humour. A shot of Stalin’s son fighting with a guard over a pistol is milked for all its absurdity by contrasting it with the dignified pose of others in the shot. And I think the film might be unique in that it makes shots of people standing in a circle or a line talking (as in a bad TV drama) carry an ideological weight. Sophisticated, dialogue-driven comedy is a kind you don’t expect in English-language films anymore (it’s in the purview of television), so The Death of Stalin is a rarity. Your mileage may, however, vary.

Loveless

In The Student, Kirill Serebrennikov’s film from three years ago, a young man becomes a religious zealot and polices his classmates using quotes from the Bible. This shocks his progressive Jewish teacher, but the management shrugs its collective shoulder, considering him merely misunderstood. This return of suppressed superstition into current day Russian life is very much present as an undercurrent in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s new film, Loveless, but it’s only touched upon, not hammered down like in The Student. The director’s fifth feature, Loveless revolves around a husband and a wife who hate each other to the depths of their being. They are in the process of a divorce and neither wants to take custody of their taciturn twelve-year-old son Alyosha (Matvei Novikov), on whom their hatred spills over. Aloysha is not like the Antoine Doinel of The 400 Blows, who could just escape the domestic orbit into a premature adulthood. He is crushed by this everyday hell. There’s a heart-breaking shot of him hiding behind the bathroom door crying when he learns that his parents plan to pack him off to a boarding school.

The year is 2012 and speculations about the end of the world are in the air. The ‘family’ lives in the outskirts of Moscow in a high-rise apartment that they are selling off. Boris (Aleksey Rozin) the husband has a desk job and is worried that his boss, an orthodox Christian, would sack him were he to learnt of his divorce. Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) the wife works at a salon. Both of them are having an affair. Following their first, incredibly sordid fight, the film pursues their everyday routines separately: Boris at the office and later with his pregnant lover, Zhenya at the salon and then with her rich businessman lover. As the film loses sight of Aloysha, so does the couple; the boy vanishes from the house without a trace. Zhenya informs the police, but they wash their hands off, deeming the complaint too trivial and pointing her to a civil organization involved in such cases of lost children. Marshalling scores of volunteers, this group sets out to look for Aloysha with a concern and rigour that’s the only silver lining in this utterly despondent film.

Boris and Zhenya aren’t just horrible parents, but hideous people worried about Aloysha’s disappearance only because of its potential impact on them. Zhenya is presented as a shallow woman who spends her time instagramming, waxing herself and sleeping with her lover. Boris comes across only a notch better, but is just as despicable in his selfishness and cowardice. Thoroughly compromised early in the film, their declarations of genuine love and good faith to their lovers doesn’t fly at all. In a discomfiting scene that can find its home in a screwball comedy, Boris and Zhenya are forced to drive together to her mother’s house to look for Aloysha. She wants to smoke, he warns her not to. She asks him to raise the windows, he turns up the volume of the metal music. She screams at the top of her voice. Such unbound mutual hate calls for an act of violence to resolve it, but it never comes. It’s instead deflected onto Aloysha’s unknown fate. The question at the core of Loveless seems to be this: what does it mean for two completely broken, empty people incapable of giving love (outside of compensatory proclamations) to be responsible for a child?

I don’t think Andrey Z’s interest is solely personal here and Loveless, like his earlier works, is obliquely political. In one of the first shots of the film, the camera is planted at the entrance of a building. Children storm out after a day’s school and walk past the camera. After a while, the camera follows a boy who happens to be Aloysha, but it could’ve been any of the other kids. Loveless presents his parents as merely a symptom of an extremely self-absorbed consumer society. The authority figures in the film—Boris and Zhenya, her paranoid mother, but also the police—just don’t care. The state having failed its subjects, it’s up to the civic bodies to fend for the people. The institution of loveless parents produces the machinery of lovelessness that is the volunteer group looking for Aloysha. They search for the boy high and low and end up in an abandoned facility in the woods—a dilapidated hotel with peeling walls, dripping roof and rotting furniture which combines with the winter landscape outside to produce a post-apocalyptic picture echoing Chernobyl. It may not take a village to raise a child, but it certainly takes a village to look for one. At the end of the film, Boris and Zhenya aren’t happy even with their lovers. He dumps his new toddler into a cradle to go watch the news on the Russian intervention in Ukraine. She walks away from her new husband watching the news to go exercise on a treadmill. Wearing the Russian Olympic jersey, she’s running but going nowhere—a blunt symbol to end a blunt film.

Up

The ninth edition of the monumental Up series of documentaries aired in Britain and Australia this June. Produced by Granada television for the Britain’s ITV, the first edition of the series was telecast in 1964. The original producers set out with a quote from Ignatius Loyola as their hypothesis: “Give me the child until seven and I will show you the man.” Politically committed, they wanted to demonstrate in particular that the socioeconomic prospects of British citizens are foreordained at childhood. To this end, they selected fourteen seven-year-olds, of which four girls, from various income backgrounds from across Britain, and posed them questions related to money, school, romance and future plans. The producers and director Michael Apted, have visited the same set of participants every seven years since the first episode to see whether their original theory was indeed correct, whether the master key to the adult was still the seven-year-old.

The Up series is not unique in this respect, having itself inspired several remakes around the world. There have been many other instances in cinema where the same set of on-screen participants have been brought together after long periods of time by the same filmmaking outfit. Truffaut’s group of films on the Antoine Doinel character featuring Jean-Pierre Léaud is also a documentary on the actor aging from the reticent teenager of The 400 Blows (1959) to the mature thirty-five-year-old of Love on the Run (1979). James Benning made a shot-for-shot remake of his film, One Way Boogie Woogie (1977), twenty-seven years later with the same people and locations. Long-running franchises such as the Harry Potter films (2001-11) double as records of their actors’ physical and emotional maturation. A more recent example, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014) was periodically shot over 14 years with the same group of actors who portray a family in the film. Not to mention numerous movie sequels and spinoffs where performers reprise their original roles.

The special force of the Up series, on the other hand, derives from its social, historical and human value. “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards”, wrote Kierkegaard. The participants of the Up films are real people living out their lives, figuring things out as they go along. As they approach the twilight of their existence, the films accrue more and more meaning, narrativizing their lives for themselves and us. In their own way, these films chart the changing political landscape of Britain – from the orthodox conservatism of the early-sixties, through the international cultural tumult of the seventies and the economic upheavals of the Thatcher era, to the promises of the European Union and, now, a post-Brexit period. When it started out, the series wanted to illustrate the thesis that class position in Britain was predetermined by one’s birth and that social mobility was well-nigh impossible. However, as the series unfolded, reality turned out to be more complex: Tony, the East End taxi driver, rose up to middle-class while Neil, with his middle-class upbringing, fell way down the ladder.

Throughout the Up films is this dialectic between theory and reality. There are questions that the first telecast raised that every subsequent episode keeps coming back to: the participant’s financial situation, their relationship with the opposite sex, their schooling system, their perception of other social classes and their impression of the series itself. In the initial episodes, Apted (only fifteen years older than his interviewees) seems to have the answers preconceived in his mind. In the second and third editions (1970, 1977), he handpicks passages from the interviews that seem to suggest that Tony will likely get mixed-up in a betting racket while the private school boys, John, Andrew and Charles, will cruise through their check-listed lives. It didn’t exactly turn out to be so. The social-minded Bruce is now settled into a middle-class life while the Oxford-alumnus John is involved in philanthropical work. These strange turns of reality soften the filmmaker’s convictions and the later Up films open up to the nuances of human existence. The progression of the series, then, coincides with Apted’s own intellectual and sentimental development.

With the series gaining popularity, the participants, too, cease to be isolated, passive subjects of study, their lives now touched by the exposure the films give them. The great learning of documentary filmmaking in the 20th century is also that of 20th century physics: that the observer impacts the observed through the very act of observation. Thanks to his appearance in the series, Tony, an amateur actor, gets bit parts in films as a cabbie. When Neil’s down and out, letters of support pour in. Peter, a lad from Liverpool, was subject to tabloid humiliation for his criticism of the Thatcher government. He dropped out of the series for four episodes, but came back in 56 Up (2012) to promote his band. John used the series to raise awareness about his charities. The interviewees become more vocal about the series as it progresses: in 56 Up, Lynn, one of the London girls, shreds Apted for being blind to the women’s lib movement and for trying to box her into a housewife type in 21 Up (1977); John objects to Apted’s original portrayal of his him as traditionally upper-class and Tony, to his depiction as a potential felon.

As the years go by, the mist of mortality that hangs over the series becomes thicker. French film critic André Bazin likened filmmaking to Egyptian mummification in that it preserves a slice of a person’s existence for eternity. Conversely, every photographic portrait carries with it a mark of death. A future viewer of the Up films – their ideal viewer – will inevitably be burdened by a tragic consciousness. Watching these films end-to-end is to be aware of the fate of these participants, the hope and wonderment in the children’s eyes slowly giving way to the weary wisdom of their adult selves. Like the director, the viewer will then have recognized herself in these lives, in the transience of these lives. Therein lies the ultimate lesson of the Up series, an unfinished work that will end when the last of its interviewees passes away: though shaped by forces larger than itself, every life is irreducibly unique, worthy of attention in itself; but every life can only be understood in generalities, through frameworks larger than itself.

 

[An edited version published in The Hindu]

Toni Erdmann

Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is what the American president would call a world-class loser: a divorced, middle-aged man living with his ailing dog, eating frozen food and making ends meet working at an old-age home. He makes occasional visits to his old mother, plays pranks and has a sense of humour only the viewer can understand. When his dog dies, he goes into crisis and flies into Bucharest to be with his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller). Ines is too busy with her consultation project that’s helping an oil giant outsource its jobs – a term that her client doesn’t want uttered. By his appearance and wilful behaviour, Winfried sticks out in Ines’ corporatized mise en scène – an endless alternation of offices and business meetings masquerading as parties – and is sent home after a costly faux pas. Out of desperation or concern – we don’t know – he decides to stay back in Bucharest and shadow every move of Ines’. The objective: to jolt his daughter out of her Hamster-wheel existence. Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann takes the familiar scenario of estranged relationships and gives it a new life by fleshing it through a series of set-pieces brimming with incident.

With his loose T-shirt, unkempt, flowing hair and split spectacles, Winfried is clearly a pathetic figure, midway between Fellini’s clowns and Lisandro Alonso’s inarticulate loners. The film doesn’t pretend that he’s any more than that. He has no self-esteem, his jokes and the schtick with the false teeth fall flat. So do his attempts at playing the wise fool, his views on what’s important in life revealed to be vague and incoherent. For Ines’ birthday, he gifts her an off-the-shelf cheese grater. It’s only partly a joke. When she’s understandably taken aback, he shows her the wad of Euro bills attached to the grater and says that that’s the actual gift. He realizes that each of the two gifts is more offensive than the other, each serves as alibi for the other. This kind of double act, one insuring against the failure of the other, is typical of Winfried, who leads a kind of ironic existence. He’s always pretending to be someone else, pretence being his way of guarding himself from hurt. In the first scene, he asks a courier to wait at the door, only to come back as “his brother” to collect the package. We see him in costume and make-up throughout the film, weaving stories about himself and others.

Pranking is the only way Winfried can keep the world and himself at bay, but it is what helps him connect with his daughter too. After he forgets to wake her up for an important dinner, Ines all but forces him to go back home. That evening, she complains about him to her girlfriends at a party when Winfried, now sporting a suit and a wig, barges in as Toni Erdmann, a high-profile “life coach”. Toni is a parody of the corporate type, the only one that Ines understands or has time for. Toni encounters Ines wherever she’s with her coterie, thus authorizing himself with all her contacts. Through the figure of Toni, Ade’s film puts in confrontation Winfried’s open approach to life with the fakery of corporate culture, both staking claims on Ines’ time and energy. While Ines’ company wants her to be more charming, throw parties to show that she’s cordial, and basically imitate real life in order to succeed in business, Toni appropriates a corporate way of being, forcing Ines’ to take responsibility for him whenever he’s around. In a spoof of “bring your kids to work day”, Ines is obliged to take her father along with her to an important meeting because he’s handcuffed her to him, a favour he returns by dragging her to a middle-class Romanian family’s Easter gathering and coercing her to sing.

The film is hence centred on Ines’ “thawing”, her movement from her self-denying role as the perfect corporate middle-manager to her role as Winfried’s daughter. Fed up with having to put up a façade, she breaks down just before her big party for her Romanian colleagues, spontaneously turning it into a prank and acknowledging her inheritance. It’s an original set-piece, moving in an organic fashion from sad to weird and finally to hilarious and Sandra Hüller aces it. As much as Simonischek’s Wilfried is a type, Hüller contained response to him saves their dynamic from becoming one. The big outburst that the viewer expects never comes and is instead sublimated in a song Ines belts out. Ade dedicates dozens of shots just to observe the unique way Hüller moves. There’s an amazing shot of her working the zipper of her dress with a fork. She often reacts to Winfried’s excesses with an inward withdrawal, with accelerated blinking and subtle inflections of her posture. Though her Ines is expected to be on top of things at office and at dinners, she proves eminently capable of tuning out of her surroundings – a nuance in performance that makes final passage of the film where she spends an extended moment with her father entirely credible. It’s apposite that the film ends with her blank stare.

Toni Erdmann comes in the long line of humanist films championing the outcasts and deadbeats – that historically-bound section of humanity out of step, voluntarily or not, with the forward march of capitalism. Ade’s film is sensitive to class differences both within Winfried’s extended family – everyone tolerates him with a plastic smile – as well as between Ines and her surroundings in Bucharest. Ines is there in Romania as part of a larger project to take it out of post-communist doldrums, to bring the country up to speed with the rest of the European Union. But the oil industry is privatized, malls are running empty and jobs are going away. Ines and her clients seem to be in a bubble untouched by these details, meeting each other at upscale restaurants and pubs far from Romanians and Romanian life. So, Winfried’s uninvited intervention also has for result the breaking of this bubble. Ade’s intelligent and empathetic film plays out in a handful of languages and is a veritable snapshot of the European Union in all its promises and failings.

You Were Never Really Here

Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is a muscular psychological thriller, less successful than We Need to Talk about Kevin but cut of the same formal fabric, that revolves around Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a veteran turned hitman, who specializes in bringing back abducted girls. Joe is known for his brutal but effective, seamless operation. Joe lives with his old mother in their New York home, likes a certain kind of candy and shops for his weapons in supermarket. His latest mission is to rescue the teenage daughter of the local senator who’s being held captive at a city brothel. Joe infiltrates the facility, kills the keepers and frees the girl, but she’s soon abducted again by an army of henchman sent to eliminate Joe and everyone close to him. He learns that the senator has been killed and that these men have been sent by the governor who’s running the whole racket. Joe decides to get into the governor’s house and rescue the girl again.

This is Ramsay’s first film set in New York and the milieu heightens the echoes the work gives of Taxi Driver. You Were Never Really Here is, in fact, in constant dialogue with Scorsese’s film. For one, both deal with ex-marines trying to integrate back into civil life and who experience a strong revulsion towards the condition of the city and the political figures exploiting it. Both protagonists see innocence embodied in the figure of the white, blond teenager forced into prostitution. And both films feature several shots of the lead male topless, their vulnerabilities exposed. But while Taxi Driver depicts Travis’ descent into hell rather graphically, You Were Never Really Here is insistent on eliding violence. All the violence in Ramsay’s film is only suggested, never shown. A shot of Joe punching a drug dealer is filmed from the side with only Joe visible, the viewer not allowed to identify with the aggressor but observe him from a distance. The entire shootout at the brothel is presented as CCTV footage cut to “Angel Baby” in monochrome and without a single violent visual. Joe’s final raid at the governor’s house is implied through tableaux of the aftermath.

But the more crucial reversal with respect to Taxi Driver lies in the film’s treatment of masculine self-image of the hero. Travis counters his powerlessness in face of the inhuman machinery of the city with a bloody fantasy of triumphal reassertion. Like many of Scorsese’s films, Taxi Driver plunges the viewer right into the lead character’s mind-space and lets the viewer sort out the implications. Ramsay’s film, on the other hand, affords the viewer a distance. Joe has glimpses of a childhood memory flash by now and then: his psychotic father brandishing a hammer, looking for his mother hiding under the table, while kid Joe stands helpless. This helplessness is reinforced in another series of flashing images: his inability as a soldier to prevent the murder of a girl by a teenager over a chocolate bar. This fear of having inherited his father’s toxicity and his repeated inability to save women under duress feeds into his anxiety as a rescuer of abducted girls. Joe’s (unintentionally humorous) self-flagellating reproaches of being weak is a far cry from Travis’ putting up news items lauding a local hero. The fount is corrupt: the men have failed, it’s up to the women to save themselves.

Like in Kevin, Ramsay appropriates horror movie tropes, employing them to illuminate urgent, personal concerns. Ramsay’s associative editing, which connects different elements of the film in unusual, subconscious ways, isn’t as visceral as it was in Kevin, perhaps because the flash inserts are all neatly tied to Joe’s war trauma, but it’s still uncanny in the way it’s hinged on flinch-inducing sensations: sand on feet, candy in mouth etc. You Were Never Really Here invokes film history without that awareness weighing down on it too much. The spirit of Hitchcock’s Psycho looms large and is pertinent given Joe’s obsession with cleanliness and his tortured relationship with women, his mother in particular. There are also recalls from The Searchers, Le Petit Soldat and Kevin itself. A man Joe fatally wounds holds his hand during his final moments, an existential truth that reappeared in cinema the following year, more successfully and less preciously, in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, another film about a resentful ex-serviceman trying in vain to get back to normal life in a city that doesn’t make it easy.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

I’m one of those who think Lanthimos has something to say as an artist, even though The Killing of a Sacred Deer makes that opinion somewhat hard to defend. The film goes back to the universe of Dogtooth, with its isolated family governed by arbitrary internal regulations. Steven (Colin Farrell), his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and their children are the prototypical, white middle-class family with a posh suburban house and successful careers as doctors – unremarkable traits in all respects. When crisis strikes in the form of supernatural happenings controlled by Martin (Barry Keoghan), son of one of Steven’s unsuccessful patients, the family devolves into a primitive formation, with every member sucking up to the patriarch to stay alive. There are certainly echoes of Pasolini’s Teorema here and I do think Sacred Deer takes forward The Lobster’s reflection on the demands modern life makes of individuals as members in a social contract.

As is standard in Lanthimos’s cinema, the dialogue is wooden and delivered by the poker-faced actors as though reading out of a page. The subject matter is either meaningless everyday talk, whose painful banality and falsity are brought out more strongly by the toneless diction, or quaint remarks reminiscent of Wes Anderson. Even when the characters breakdown in rage or grief, there is a studied quality to the expression: the voice changes pitch, but still remains colourless and removed from the vacillations of real human speech. This, at times, produces hysterical exchanges such as the one about a lemon cake. The anxiogenic score, made of high-pitched oscillations, doubles the threat implied by the fluorescent-lit, antiseptic halls of the hospital or the yellow-tinted interiors of the house.

Lanthimos’ is an art first and foremost of framing. He thinks like a graphic novelist, taking as his challenge to find a point of view that is arresting in its obliqueness. He takes the least intuitive angle possible for a shot. A woman knocks at the door of a house with someone inside. While another filmmaker would put the camera behind the woman who is knocking the door or behind the closed door, Lanthimos plants it at right angles to her, showing no interest in the opening of the door. Shots are constantly saying something other than what the scene is about. A shot at the hospital with a bare-chested doctor and patient is scandalous without there being a scandal. The discerning viewer is always invited to study the framing of every shot, to reflect on why something is being presented this way. This, on the other hand, is also an invitation to be put off by the affectedness of it all.

Even when there are camera movements – and there are many – the primary interest is in the angle along which the camera glides. In wide-angle tracking shots at the hospital, the camera hovers just above the head of actors, who walk onward like characters in a first-person shooter. Other camera movements involve starting with close-ups of actors or objects and craning back to a wider view. This amplifies even banal gestures and words, such as when the camera tracks back from Kidman flossing her teeth talking about how wonderful their dinner guest was. But Lanthimos is not solely behind optical bait. There are several shots in Sacred Deer that are tender and beautiful too: like the close-up of Steven’s daughter on a bike with city lights reflected in her pupils, the Oliveira-like shot of feet in a three-character conversation scene, or the soaring rehearsal of a Christmas carol.

The Favourite

Based on a screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, The Favourite, presents a character study of three historical figures: Anne (Olivia Colman), the queen of England, her confidante and second-in-command, Sarah (Rachel Weisz), the Duchess of Marlborough, and Sarah’s cousin and maid Abigail Hill (Emma Stone). Anne is a broken woman, buried in grief over her dead children and cottoning on to whatever love she can get. The iron-willed Sarah is in love with the queen, but the political interest of the country is primordial to her. Abigail is a social climber, trying to rise up the strict hierarchy of feudal England and navigate its coded spaces by whatever means necessary. Abigail and Sarah’s vying for the queen’s attention and love have a direct influence on the country’s efforts in the ongoing war against France.

Handling such an elaborately-detailed material brings a new dimension to Lanthimos’ work, which has so far been built on strings of events pinned on an extraordinary, sparely-sketched premise  On the other hand, the filmmaker’s peculiar choices impart a rough texture, a modernist edge to the costume drama: fish eye lenses that suggest a cavernous, collapsing world, a workshop-like two-note musical score complementing the classical repertoire, the emphasis on the bawdier aspects of the script, the tongue-in-cheek division of the film into chapters, the caricatural, slow-motion inserts of palatial amusements resembling advertisements.

The Favourite is, however, atypical of Lanthimos’ style in several respects. Firstly, he’s working off a script not written by himself for the first time since his debut. Davis’ and McNamara’s writing is suffused with sharp lines that are a world away from Lanthimos’ dry sense of humour. Characters have clearly-defined ambitions and traits with hardly any gratuitous behaviour. The movement of the camera is more motivated than ever by that of the actors. Lanthimos and his regular editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis use dissolves, superpositions and sound bridges – not common sights in the director’s work. The edits are also less jarring and more conventionally meaningful, as when a shot of the queen lying laughing on the floor is followed by a shot of Sarah looking at her and then at Abigail, then by a shot of Abigail smiling at Sarah and finally by a shot of a bird being gunned down.

The most obvious deviation is, of course, in the manner of acting. In contrast to the poker-faced monoliths in Lanthimos’ earlier films, Coleman, Stone and Weisz portray their characters like open books, laying their complexes out in the open and giving them a tangible presence. A look at Sarah’s surprise when she finds Abigail in bed with the queen or the queen’s compassion as she sees Abigail melt down for her or Abigail’s piercing gaze after she’s gotten rid of Sarah is all one needs to understand their entire being. Leaning on these three stellar performances, Lanthimos brings to surface the tenderness latent but only sporadically visible in his previous films. In The Favourite, he creates a film with genuine affect that doesn’t undercut the love, jealously and heartbreak the characters feel towards each other. A Barry Lyndon comparison is valid in more ways than one.

The View From The Train
Patrick Keiller
Verso, 2014

 

British filmmaker and photographer Patrick Keiller’s The View from the Train features thirteen essays written over a period of almost 30 years – roughly overlapping with the length his career – dealing with cinema, architecture, public housing system in the UK and physical space in general, seen in the context of the city of London. Presented in the order they were written, these essays were written originally for various architectural journals and catalogues and hence contain considerable repetition of material. While some of these pieces are not very rewarding for those unfamiliar with London’s townscape (or the works of Charles Dickens, which forms the subject of one of the essays), the others offer valuable and original insights into not just the subjects discussed but also Keiller’s own filmography, his working methods and his artistic ambitions.

Like his third feature film Dilapidated Dwelling (2000), The View from the Train deals primarily with London’s public housing in whose dilapidated state Keiller finds a kind of contradiction in late capitalism’s promises of material abundance and universal prosperity. To be sure, since the Industrial Revolution, the general condition of life has improved in Europe. The life expectancy has seen an increase while access to luxury goods has become easier. The cost of housing, on the other hand, has not stopped increasing, especially in London where, Keiller says, the rate of construction of new buildings has saturated and the majority of the existing structures are over a century old. He points at the economic system as reason for this domestic malaise:

…under advanced capitalism it is increasingly difficult to produce and maintain the dwelling…Modernity, it seems, is exemplified not so much by the business park or the airport, but by the dilapidated dwelling.

Moreover, he sees this characteristic as belonging to a bigger tendency in modernity, perhaps descending from the protestant work ethic that dominates Anglo-Saxon nations: the glorification of the values of work over those of domesticity. He summarizes thus:

The dominant narratives of modernity – as mobility and instant communication – appear to be about work and travel, not home. They are constructions of a work-oriented academic elite about a work-oriented business elite.

As a response to this near-impossibility of changing public and domestic spaces of London, Keiller proposes, the idea of subjective transformation of space enjoyed a growing popularity in the city. This, he believes, harks back to artworks and movements of the past, such as the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe and Eric Baudelaire, in which we witness a subjective capacity to reinterpret the city space, and the theories of Surrealism and Situationism, whose proponents sought a subjective metamorphosis of everyday reality in their ‘rediscoveries’ of abandoned objects and buildings. Keiller reminds us that this is not an academic concept without practical application:

Transformations of everyday space are subjective, but they are not delusions, simply glimpses of what could happen, and indeed does happen at moments of intense collectivity, during demonstrations, revolutions and wars.

This remark above recalls the aesthetic transformation of public spaces during moments of great political crisis (as demonstrated in Sergei Loznitsa’s recent film, Maidan (2014), where the central square in Kiev becomes a site for the theatre of revolution). Nevertheless, according to Keiller, this return to popularity of Surrealist and Situationist – movements with revolutionary intentions – practice and philosophy in the 1990s in London doesn’t signify as much an atavism as the bourgeois appropriation of these movements:

The dérive and psychogeography were conceived, in a more politically ambitious period, as preliminaries to the production of new, revolutionary spaces; in the 1990s they seemed more likely to be preliminary to the production of literature and other works, and to gentrification, the discovery of previously overlooked value in dilapidated spaces and neighbourhoods.

Elsewhere, Keiller investigates the mutual influence of architecture and cinema. He argues that cinema in inspired by architecture, but more importantly, it opens up various possibilities for the latter in the form of spatial critique. Cinema illustrates and critiques existing spaces and points at the possibility of new, unrealized spaces. Old films reveal historic changes in architecture and landscape and help us reevaluate current day architecture and city design.

The best passages of the book, are however, the last essays in which Keiller studies the relation between cinema and trains. Cinema is intimately related to the railways ever since its birth. The first films of the Lumière brothers present a train arriving at a station. The rapid succession of passing landscape seen from inside the train bestowed in the spectator-traveller a thoroughly modern mode of perception which made the comprehension of cinema’s moving images possible. He writes:

Both cinema and the railway offer more or less predetermined and repeatable spatio-temporal continuities, so that it is perhaps not surprising that railways crop up in cinema as often as they do. Films even physically resemble railway tracks – long, parallel-sided strips divided laterally by frame lines and perforations, as is the railway by sleepers.

In the best essay of the book, Phantom Rides: The Railway and Early Film, he analyzes films made before the 1900s and characterizes two film genres in which the railways played a pivotal role. The first consists of films that depict passing panoramas during a train journey. Scholars call the second category Phantom Rides – films that present the view of railway tracks as seen from the front or the rear end of the train. Taken together, these two genres of early cinema offer perceptual experiences which embody in them a unique image of modern times:

This sequence [from Brief Encounter (1948)], with its added superimpositions and narration, confirms an interpretation of the railway panorama – suggested by Promio’s first examples – as an image of the stream of consciousness. In 1913 Sigmund Freud wrote, famously, that psychoanalysts might usefully tell their patients to ‘say whatever goes through your mind. Act as though, for instance, you were a traveller sitting next to the window of a railway carriage and describing to someone inside the carriage the changing views which you are seeing outside. The phantom ride, on the other hand, more particularly resembles Henri Bergson’s ‘predatory’ image of duration introduced in Matter and Memory (1896), in which the present is ‘the invisible progress of the past gnawing into the future’

 

(Originally posted here)

The Man In White Suit

[On Alexander Mackendrick’s The Man in the White Suit (1951), for The Mubi Notebook]

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)


The Turin HorseFor 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)


A SeparationAsghar 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)


The Tree of LifeJuxtaposing 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)


The Story of FilmA 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)


We Need to Talk About KevinWhat 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)


Life in a DayAn 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)


Kill ListOn 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)


Sleeping BeautyYour 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 Kid with a BikeThe 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)


The MonkDominik 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.

Project Nim (2011)
James Marsh
English

 
Project Nim

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’.

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Pina (2011)
Wim Wenders
German/French/English/Spanish/Croatian/Italian/Portuguese/Russian/Korean

 

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.

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