Hollywood


Austerity of Style

Radio Cinéma Télévision no. 408; 10 November 1957.

A King in New York

In this quixotic narrative, whose only point of reference is the central character, various themes intertwine as they do in music. This style goes hand in hand with the expression of a complex reality that words can hardly express: everything can be both irritating and pleasant. “Life would be dull without all these worries”, affirms King Shahdov. Hiding behind the hysteria of rock’n’roll is the beauty and sensitivity of a night club singer. Polemist, Chaplin still is, but having become wiser and more lucid with old age, he towers over events and ideologies.

His style? He presents facts without technical affectation and in a very concise manner (see the revolution scene), but lingers over that which seems secondary to us. Every other scene is a discussion in a hotel room, an interlude but also a reflection of reality: modern life alternates action with the rhythm of a telephone. The triteness with which the scenes are presented without relief only increases the force of the smallest original notation, be it dramatic – the young hero’s tears – or comic – Dawn Addams’ play with legs in the shower – or the king’s abrupt emotional attack.

Like all creators, Chaplin forces himself into extreme austerity. Dramatic surprise is avoided, the gags pitilessly dissected and the end effect predictable from a long way away (see the fire hose). Product of subtractions more than additions, the result is better, bringing to cream pies their intellectual coefficient.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Nothing but Facts

Radio Cinéma Télévision no. 383; 23 June 1957.

Men in War

If war movies make for the best box office in America, they are also highly subject to commercial and philosophical conventions. And rarely has this amalgam been rewarding: From Here to Eternity or Attack (whose last shot is reprised here in contrast), despite their audacities, don’t entirely win us over. Men in War, last of the series, rejects both philosophical theories and traditional psychology about the small group. The synopsis is extremely barebones: in the course of the Korean War, seventeen American soldiers separated from their division must, in order to get back on track, conquer “Hill 465”. Only two of them will make it. To mention a few elements of secondary interest borrowed from the original novel – war novels today are constructed on the image of films: the Black foot-soldier with a soft heart, the paralyzed colonel and his hot-headed companion. But these bits of information, rather than being harnessed by the mise en scène, are neglected in favour the mystery that the simplicity of each character’s traits hints at. Anthony Mann likes heroes who are all of a piece since these are the richest. Each of them being more or less crudely stereotyped, it would have been easy for him, as it is for his peers, to fill his hundred minutes of film with detailed psychological analyses, tedious dialogue about homesickness. He didn’t do that: at one point, the exhausted captain looks at the photo of his wife and kids. This simplicity of trait has all the power of evidence.

This new style is to be explained by the fact that we are dealing with the work of a metteur en scène and not that of an auteur. And, for once, it’s for the better. There’s nothing here that isn’t justified by some notion of a purely physical order. For example, the character of the sergeant is a purely cinematographic creation: he is fascinated by the immobility of his paralyzed colonel, which contrasts with this ever-changing world, and devotes great care to him. “Tell me the story of the foot-soldier, and I will tell you the story of all wars”, goes the epigraph. And the story of the foot-soldiers is summarized through an accumulation of facts: the best shots of the films depict soldiers, dishevelled, sweaty but always active, the one scratching himself, the one removing his shoes in fatigue, the one contorting on ground, the one struck down dead with a weapon in hand, like a Hugo hero (played remarkably by Anthony Ray, son of the director); others show us, thanks to excellent photography, all the sparse “black and white colours” across nature, shadows of clouds that cover combatants in darkness, the sun that seeps through the woods, the blades of grass of unreal tones that form the real setting for the battle. One should also note some very nice ideas, the paralyzed colonel getting cured suddenly while mechanically holding the cigarette he smokes, the sergeant who pretends not to see the enemies on his heels and kills them in one blow, the lieutenant’s clenched fist on which the film closes.

Despite inspired by a classicism of admirable reserve, Men in War could be criticized for some overly studied shot sequences, especially the first one, for some borrowings from the crude art of ellipses, the radio face cut in two by the framing, the militiaman’s hand spread over the tree he hides behind, a soldier’s death seen through the movement of his feet. But the discretion of the mise en scène that seeks, most of all, the effectiveness of a simple and unique detail, there where others prefer to disperse interest, succeeds in imposing itself on us. Let’s note, finally, the remarkable musical score by Elmer Bernstein (whose services are sought by the greatest directors today).

Is Men in War warmongering or anti-militarist? I would be hard pressed to say since it’s one of those rare films whose impartiality we can praise. The work of a man preoccupied solely by appearances and their infinite richness, it allows us to see, and therein lies the essential. Up to you to make up your own mind.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Frozen in Hate

Radio Cinéma Télévision no. 392; 21 July 1957.

The Last Hunt

We know that almost all Westerns are of great topical interest. The journey back in time gets the viewer interested in political theses and it gives progressive filmmakers a greater latitude in establishing their ideas.

The Last Hunt, like certain other films by director Richard Brooks (Blackboard Jungle, Something of Value) attacks racism: it tells us the struggle of two buffalo hunters, who have directly contradictory ideas about their professions, at the turn of last century. Charlie kills for the pleasure of killing; Sandy needs money and is repulsed by the massacre he commits. This contrast explains the attitude of the two heroes towards their fellowmen. Charlie has a profound contempt for Indians, whom he kills every time he has the chance, and for humanity in general. Disgusted, Sandy leaves, taking with him the squaw who refused Charlie’s animal love. The last hunt is not to be, since Charlie, on watch outside Sandy’s refuge one winter night, dies in the cold. This statue of ice from the film’s last images – the evil eye, revolver in hand – resumes in a striking way the sterility, impotence and the ridiculousness of ultimately self-destructive, racist hate.

The intelligence of Brooks’ scenario lies in the fact that it explains the conflicts of a racial order through psychological motifs, through the taste for violence: killing Indians or massacring buffaloes helps satisfy one’s unhealthy needs without being pursued by justice. In contrast to literature, like that of a number of directors from across the Atlantic (Losey’s The Lawless, Biberman’s Salt of the Earth), it refuses pure and simple racism and relates it to the vagaries of individual conscience with great objectivity.

However, the film takes into account only one aspect of the problem, whereas the transposition should have allowed it broach more burning topics without fear of repercussions: if racial prejudice still exists in the United States, it’s to be explained first of all by a certain intellectual movement, typically of academic origin and completely alien to the desire for violence. Discrimination today affects Whites too, who are now victims of Blacks or, especially, dissident Whites, as much as it does Blacks.

Richard Brooks’ well-known honesty, so far rewarded, finds its limits here and the mise en scène affirms both the high and low points of the script. The Last Hunt is a curious Western, extremely slow and barely commercial. Brooks substitutes for the application and inventive sobriety of his previous films a somewhat belaboured sobriety. And there’s no contradiction between these two propositions: it’s a question of placing the characters within a framework that eliminates elements foreign to the psychology and the intentions of the auteur, particularly grand spectacle, fights and situation scenes. But if this kind of intellectual cinema is new and more probing than in the rare films that inaugurated it, is it desirable? Does it indicate progress? It seems to me, perhaps wrongly, that the anti-racist plea would’ve found a greater force in the exploitation of genre conventions than in this rather literary style, which instils – deliberately, I believe – sadness, boredom, barrenness through a sluggish narrative, perpetually dark colour palette and uncertain direction of actors.

These comments don’t stem from a misplaced sense of severity. The suspension of the mise en scène can be explained by the orientation of the script: the film describes beings in flight, real bodies without soul, and their blood-tainted existence. One must recall the splendid final image in this regard, which justifies the film’s style to the letter. None of this is cheerful. If The Last Hunt stands the test of time, it’s perhaps because the cinematographer, Russell Harlan, foremost of the chief operators in Hollywood, has been able to pin down this curious universe in images and because Stewart Granger and especially Robert Taylor, who gets his best role here, have been able to “embody” beings who are tortured and tormented for no reason other than the emptiness of their conscience, beings “devoid of life”.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

A “Nonsense” Gem

Arts no. 471; 23 September 1959.

Never Give A Sucker An Even Break

We aren’t surprised that Passez muscade, whose original title is the deliciously euphonic and mysterious Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, appears in France some eighteen years after it was made. This attempt, which the Surrealists gladly categorize among the twenty greatest dates in the history of cinema, perhaps constitutes the best example of nonsense offered to us on screen. W. C. Fields’ film, like Hellzapoppin’ which follows it chronologically, goes farther than the Marx Brothers without however equalling them. And the public is likely to express its frustration by a certain reserve.

The champions of nonsense for the sake of nonsense will praise it to the skies for its intentional alone. Those who hate nonsense will leave the theatre furious at the end of fifteen minutes. However, in fact, if this film is so amusing, it’s somewhat despite the nonsense. Because the idea of this genre is to go against all established rules, especially those of good taste, quality and reason. To put it simply, let’s say that the result tends to become better when the film becomes worse. The critic has nothing to counter this perfectly-founded argument, all the more so because Fields has thought ahead. Through a device often reused since, he tells us the story of a crazy old actor who submits a nonsensical script to a director, a script which will obviously be rejected but whose unfolding on screen we follow.

To be sure, it’s not unpleasant to see the cinematic materialization of automatic writing, which so far has seemed to be the domain of animation. Animation makes everything possible and it’s been a long time since the viewer has batted an eyelid to such excess of improbability. On the other hand, the unreality of the filmed image, rarely highlighted, strikes us at every step. These mad car races, these inaccessible rocky peaks, these free falls of the hero across space fire our imagination. But a film like Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys!, which accepts the laws of logic, is ten times funnier, ten times truer and also ten times more beautiful. To discover the real through falsehood, or falsehood through the real, is a more successful approach than that of Fields, forced to remain forever in a purely critical universe.

The absurd soon becomes tiresome and the amusing aspects that remain could also have been part of a more realistic and commercial movie. I’m thinking of the beautiful scenes between Fields and the bar owner, between the director and his young actress. Such observational humour, which has no place in a burlesque and which is generally banished from the Marx brothers’ films, is ultimately Fields’ greatest success.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

“Or maybe Tarantino decided that the best way to pay a tribute to the upheavals of new Hollywood was to make a film that’s as amoral and provocative as Bonnie and Clyde; and that provocation today means to go against the liberal pieties of his industry. For all their shocks, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained were on “the right side of history”, somewhat softening the enfant terrible image Tarantino had cultivated till that point. Hateful Eight can be seen, in this light, as a statement of non-alignment, the image of a woman (whose character Tarantino equated with a Mansonite) strung up by a black man and a white man encapsulating the film’s ideology. In this new film, he has managed to stir up the dominant, liberal side of film culture by taking a political U-turn. For taboo-breaking in our time starts with the thought that everything’s too PC these days.”

[Full article at Silverscreen India]

Staying Vertical

With Staying Vertical, Alain Guiraudie sustains his standing as the maker of enigmatic, beguiling films. The mystery here doesn’t stem from concealed character motivations or narrative convolutions, but by the creation of a world where familiar social rules don’t apply. The film opens with shots from the dashboard of a car moving through the countryside. The driver is Leo (Damien Bonnard, a potentially-great comedian) and, given it’s a Guiraudie film, he’s likely cruising. He solicits a young man with an instantly-suspicious body language and is turned down. The boy is Yoan (Basile Meilleurat) and lives with old man Marcel (Christian Bouillette) whose waking time is accompanied by booming metal music. Though in rase campagne, neither of them is scandalised by Leo’s solicitation – a behavioural detail symptomatic of the universe Guiraudie constructs here.

Leo continues and arrives in the prairies in the south of France, where he hooks up with Marie (India Hair), a shepherdess living with her farmer father Jean-Louis (Raphaël Thiéry) and two sons. Leo frequently escapes to the city: he’s a screenwriter short-changing his producer with a non-existent script. In an abrupt time-leap, we see Marie giving birth to Leo’s baby. Depressed and anxious about Leo’s regular absences, Marie departs for the city with her two sons, leaving Leo and her father with the newborn. Leo wanders with the baby, sometimes consulting a therapist living in the woods, always keeping an eye on Yoan and Marcel. Jean-Louis discovers him, takes him to Marie by force and, given Marie doesn’t want to return from the city, keeps Leo with him. Leo escapes the farm after Jean-Louis makes sexual advances and uses his baby as bait for wolf-hunting. At the end of another series of encounters with all these characters, Leo ends up with the lonely, suffering Marcel. He helps the old man alleviate his pain by screwing him to death. He’s arrested and his baby handed over to Marie by the child services.

Staying Vertical spans the entire breath of France, but we don’t really get a sense of the scale of geography the characters traverse—perhaps a product of the film’s piecewise funding. Guiraudie’s film is a series of a journeys into and out of the heartland of the country: young people like Leo, Marie and Yoan are able to get out and return at will to the backwoods, but old men like Jean-Louis and especially Marcel have to resign themselves to this life of isolation. So, in a way, Guiraudie is mapping out the tragedy of queer aging onto the landscape, the city offering more chances of at least passing connections than the endless prairies. Leo loses his car, becomes penniless and makes it on foot across the country dodging the police. The film contains several wide-angle shots of him walking across a seemingly infinite geography. This isn’t an existential image as in Ceylan’s films, but a metaphor for gay loneliness that Staying Vertical is about.

Guiraudie’s film develops what might be called a non-normative—or even homonormative—world. Characters recognize desire in each other’s eyes instantly, their changing sexual affinities being a surprise to no one within this world. Guiraudie cycles through various permutations of his five central characters, just as he cycles through the same spaces and same framing of these spaces, to create several fleeting family-like units. Leo’s desire to retain his baby parallels Marcel’s wish to hold Yoan and Jean-Louis’ to keep Leo with him. Within these two-member units, characters are bound to each other by traditional, heterosexual familial relations as well as by their own romantic coupling. The nature of relationships between people in this world oscillates constantly between sexual and platonic. Guiraudie refuses to make a distinction since, for these gay men of vastly different ages, the same relationships must fulfil multiple needs.

Staying Vertical does have elements of melodrama in that it follows the romantic quest, fulfilment and disillusionment of a sympathetic central character. When Leo returns to the same locations, he’s always worse-off than before: all his objects of interest vanish from his ambit, he and his baby are held hostages by Jean-Louis, he loses his car, goes broke, is attacked by a group of clochards, gets implicated in assisted suicide, loses his son to child services. Without his baby by his side, he sleeps in Jean-Louis’s barn maternally clutching a lamb. This appropriation of ingredients from the woman’s weepie for queer ends finds its summit in the symbolism of the prairie wolves. Threats to the sheep and general life in the region, the wolves reside in the outer margins of the grasslands and come to represent the external world in face of which Leo must stand tall and fearless. It’s a blunt symbol that’s somewhat softened by Guiraudie’s matter-of-fact treatment.

Wonderstruck

Is Todd Haynes an auteur? Sure, he exclusively makes period films that deal with the question of personal identity within a society in flux. But Haynes’ works are so different from each other in terms of subject matter and style that they seem to be a product of many subjectivities and no subjectivity at once. If there’s any doubt as to whether this is intentional, look no further than his masterpiece I’m Not There (a title that should be read as “there is no such thing as I”). Bob Dylan stopped singing protest songs as a protest against an establishment that was expecting protest songs from him, just as Haynes frustrated the expectation from him to keep up the melodramatic high of Far from Heaven. Todd Haynes is an auteur whose preoccupation is a denial of that label. He’s done the flip again with Wonderstruck, following up a heartbreaking film about the assertion of queer identity in a conservative milieu with an equally-felt straight up children’s picture on the value of traditions.

Adapted from Brian Selznick graphic novel of the same name, Wonderstruck weaves together two stories set fifty years apart. The first unfolds in New Jersey in 1927 and follows a deaf-mute girl Rose (Millicent Simmonds) who runs away from her authoritarian father to her mother, a famous silent film star (Julianne Moore) in Hollywood. The premise and the timeframe allow Haynes to realize this section like a silent film—soon to make way for the talkies—without necessarily imitating its aesthetics. He pays tribute to Gish, Chaplin, Griffith, Murnau, and Vidor, but also shoots in widescreen monochrome, with a modern camera choreography and a conventional-sounding musical score by Carter Burwell. Information is revealed visually through texts that Rose writes and shows to others, producing plot surprises that wouldn’t have been possible with sound.

The second story takes place in 1977 in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota. Having recently lost his mother, Ben (Oakes Fegley) also loses his hearing in a lightning strike. Ben is a curator of sorts, he collects various models in his house, one of which is an old illustrated book published by the American Museum of Natural History. He sets out to New York city in search of his father, the only trace of whom is a scrap of letter addressed to his mother tucked in the book. As expected, the two stories come together in the third act in a predictable but meaningful way. But Haynes intercuts them right from the beginning in a thematic manner that allows each story to take turns in anticipating each other. This editing pattern, perhaps a little too neat, underscores the living weight of history and helps each narrative thread furnish information missing in the other. There are also a handful of psychedelic montage sequences recalling Guy Maddin where the past is evoked in the present.

Haynes’ film is most of all a tribute to museums as institutionalized memory creating and outlasting personal memories. The plot revolves around two people who manage to find their roots in a particular room of the American Museum of Natural History. The film’s key moments involve the act of touching—a proscribed yet instinctive gesture for first-time museum visitors the film understands well. Rose and Ben connect to each other in their coming in physical contact with the meteorite at the museum. The shooting stars they see in the sky, themselves, are emissaries from the past. The two stories come together in a voiceover that is cut to a miniature NYC panorama at the Queens museum, a double metaphor of museums as living histories that provide narratives and whittle down time and place to human scale. Haynes’ film is a kind of museum too, depicting the changing face of New York over a long period. Like those institutions, it aims to connect people across ages through a shared geography.

Wonderstruck is untainted in its innocence. To be sure, there are several failed parental figures and Ben has all his money stolen in the city, but the children in the film aren’t subjected to any real loss of innocence. Rose and Ben leave for New York on pure faith—a faith that is returned by its residents and institutions. In doing so, I think Haynes divests himself of his camp, ironic sensibility and pays a more profound, close-grained tribute to the silent movies. Julianne Moore is incredible, but it’s the sublime Millicent Simmonds, deaf-mute in real life, who is the very face of the film. With her cropped hair and deep, sparkling eyes, she recalls the great waifs of silent cinema. I hope we see more of her. The wolves are symbols.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

[Spoilers below]

Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, weaves a fictional narrative around the Tate murders of 1969, in which a pregnant Sharon Tate and four of her friends were killed by members belonging to the cult of Charles Manson at her residence in Hollywood. The film unfolds through a collage of four perspectives: Rick Dalton (a hammy Leonardo DiCaprio) a waning Western TV star ruing his sunset, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), once Dalton’s stunt double, now his pal and go-to-guy, actress Sharon Tate (Robbie Margot), who has just moved in next door to Dalton with her husband Roman Polanski, and the Manson Family, a hippie commune living in Spahn Ranch, a run-down movie and TV studio where Dalton and Booth used to shoot. The film begins six months before the murder and charts Dalton coming to terms with his imminent professional irrelevance, Cliff’s apathetic life alongside Dalton and Tate’s stuttering rise to public recognition. If not for its ending, the film registers as a transitional work for Tarantino in the way it leaves behind many of the filmmaker’s stylistic traits.

To be sure, Once Upon a Time turns out exactly the way one would expect a film written by Tarantino about the Tate murders to. But it doesn’t look anything like a Tarantino movie. For one, there’s a lot more “dead time” here than in any of his previous films. Nothing much happens in these long stretches except for characters driving around Los Angeles, the radio turned on, wind in their hair, Tarantino asking us to just absorb the atmosphere. The extreme close-ups that he usually reserves for a telling detail is generalized and multiplied. There are at least three identical shots of the Manson Family members walking towards Tate’s house – a superfluity that is symptomatic of the whole film. The pace is measured and the individual scenes themselves are much longer than usual, many of them outlasting their nominal purpose. There are three protracted sequences dedicated to Dalton bemoaning his decline. The last of these unfolds as a conversation with a precocious eight-year-old child actor (Julia Butters). It’s a remarkably insipid scene, even more than the other two, too shallow to be sincere and too cliched to be smart, and it’s surprising to find it in such prominence in a Tarantino film.

Secondly, Tarantino’s relationship with his influences is given much more showcase and precious attention than we’ve come to expect from the filmmaker. Tate looks at a poster of The Wrecking Crew (1968), her newly-released picture with Dean Martin. While this would’ve been a passing glimpse in the director’s previous works, here we get a shot of Tate looking at the poster, then a close-up of the poster and a reverse-shot of Tate again. Scenes of the real Tate in the film are also played for us. When producer Schwarz (Al Pacino) names the Dalton movies he’s seen, we see a detailed film reel of fake films starring Dalton. The reel comprises of Westerns, a musical, and an action movie where Dalton torches Nazis with a flamethrower, and serves as a wish-fulfilment for the Tarantino. Home turf for QT, the Hollywood milieu might have allowed for many more tributes, a temptation that he avoids for fewer, more elaborate quotations.

What most distinguishes Once Upon a Time from Tarantino’s earlier works, however, is the startling absence of suspense and a curious undercurrent of sentimentalism. While the film intercuts between Dalton, Booth and Tate from the outset, there’s no tension that the juxtaposition produces. It’s February 1969 and we know that the murders happened only in August. The first conflict of the film, and its first instance of accelerated editing, doesn’t occur until two hours in, when Booth visits the Spahn Ranch and picks up a fight with one of the Manson Family members. The only expectation the viewer has all through the film derives from the tragic consciousness of the Tate murders and even that is thrown into doubt considering Tarantino’s tendency to rewrite history. Unlike in any other QT film, the film’s only real tense sequence arrives at the end, on the day of the murder, when the filmmaker quickens the crosscutting with arbitrary, pointless time markers, expanding the sequence with extreme detailing of events.

The film’s emotional locus is instead vested in the friendship between Dalton and Booth, one of the few sincere relationships in Tarantino’s body of work. The friendship gets its own emotional climax, in a restaurant scene where Dalton, now married and washed-up, confesses he can’t afford Booth anymore, and a parting shot in which Dalton tells Booth he was a good friend. Also nagging the film’s conscience is Booth’s tragic professional situation. Like countless professionals Hollywood’s technological progress has left behind, Booth leads a ghost-like existence in the shadow of Dalton, himself fast becoming a shadow. He lives in a trailer park, drives Dalton around and even does household chores. His vocation is of no use anymore in the new Hollywood, where actors are expected to do their own stunts. Tarantino’s ode to the profession includes a fight between Booth and Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), presented in long takes, and several shots of Brad Pitt doing stunt-like activities.

This sentimentalism might be interpreted as nostalgia, but what Once Upon a Time deals with is nostalgia for a time when nostalgia was possible. His yearning is not for the old movies and movie studios but the neon lights of cinemas and restaurants that once dotted the Hollywood landscape. It’s a yearning that’s second-hand, for Tarantino couldn’t have himself lived the experiences he describes. The film is set in 1969 (two years before The Last Picture Show was made), a time when the studio system had collapsed and the movie brats had started to shape up the business and method of making films. The Vietnam War (and protests against it) continues under the newly-elected Nixon. Tarantino frequently cuts from Dalton to Tate to set up a contrast between an eclipsing, old Hollywood of the fifties and the rising, new Hollywood of the late sixties. Somewhat of a relic, Dalton is modelled after the suburban, middle-class, Eisenhower-era executive. He is mostly seen at the lot or back home. He spends his evening preparing for work or in front of television. He prefers his beer over drugs, hates the hippies and wants nothing to do with the debauched lifestyle of the times. It’s noteworthy, for a film set in Hollywood, how little of Hollywood or its people we actually see. The only party we are shown owes to the presence of Tate, Jay and Polanski, people wholly of their era, unlike Dalton. As Tate watches The Wrecking Crew, Tarantino regularly jumps to Dalton’s shooting of a TV Western. It’s a “old-timey” Western, but made in Tarantino’s style of long takes and direct sound. We don’t see the camera crew for the most part and the decoupage is presented as Tarantino would conceive it. There are several shots in Once Upon a Time of actors snoring, spitting and slurping – sounds rare in classical Westerns. The intercutting between an actor performing and another actor watching herself performing signals the shift of American movies towards greater self-reflexivity.

This opposition between the simple forms and moral clarity of old Hollywood and the darker, self-reflexive anti-authoritarianism of new Hollywood takes on a politically-noxious flavour when combined with Tarantino’s desire to deny the Tate murders. In Once Upon a Time, the Manson Family members enter Dalton’s house instead of Tate’s. Booth, under the influence of an acid-soaked cigarette a hippie sold him, kills all of them with the assistance of Dalton, who is finally invited home by a relieved Tate. In other words, the old heroes of old Hollywood, with their clear-cut notions of good and evil, have protected the Polanski household from crazy hippies squatting over the ruins of Hollywood. The implications are odious: that though home-grown antisocial elements denigrate them, it takes soldiers and war heroes, like Booth once was, to protect the country; that the movies and TV shows of old might have shown violence, but the mediatized images of the Vietnam War have rendered the violence in movies more real, more immediate, making them even more responsible for the violence in society. Tarantino’s reactionary re-revisionism is the opposite of the necessary process of cultural reexamination filmmakers such as Penn, Peckinpah and Altman were undertaking during the time the film is set in.

In Tarantino’s dichotomous image of Hollywood, hippies, cultists, druggies, squatters, libertines, the counterculture in short, are pitted against a pragmatic, intuitive world of cowboys and Mexicans – a strangely anachronistic vision that seems to belong to the film’s era and not current day. There’s no equivalence between the Manson’s Family’s real violence and the fictional violence that Booth and Dalton exercise on them. They are home invaders and so any violence on them doesn’t carry the same moral sanction as their own violence does. Before they leave their car, the Manson Family discusses television shows. One of them wants to “kill the people who taught us to kill”. This twisted reasoning helps Tarantino justify his excesses: movie violence, no matter how graphic, is ultimately harmless compared to real violence. This gives him the carte blanche to abandon himself in the thrill of brutal imagery, as Booth smashes the face of one woman against various hard surfaces of the house, including a framed movie poster. Dalton burns another one down with a flamethrower.

It is, however, impossible to precisely pin down the politics of a Tarantino film and Once Upon a Time, like all Hollywood tentpoles, is riddled with ideological paradoxes that makes any reading tenable. It is quite possible that Tarantino simply wants to further his project of harnessing cinema’s capacity to forge myths and correct historical-representational errors. His film is set in Hollywood, an ahistorical zone where fact and legend mix. Booth is said to have killed his wife, but nobody knows. The production of its films is based on a lie that the actor and the stuntman are the same people. Tarantino recreates a scene from The Great Escape with Dalton/DiCaprio in place of McQueen, even as Dalton clearly states that he was never in the running. It’s a lie that QT visualizes nonetheless: why shouldn’t cinema belie history, when every sane person in their implicit contract with the movies knows it is all made up? One has to be as deranged as the Manson Family, the filmmaker seems to say, to take what is represented for fact. Most auteur films Hollywood tend to be bitter about the industry and its people, but Tarantino’s too much in love with its history for that. In the final passage of the film, he cycles through various characters watching prime-time television. Through the cross-cutting, this shared cultural experience takes on a communal quality. Something resembling a prayer, which is what movie-going is for Tarantino. The prayers have been answered. The movies have made America safe again, if only on screen.

First Reformed

[Spoilers below]

With First Reformed, Paul Schrader moulds his lifelong influences – Bresson, Ozu, Dreyer – into a film that resembles theirs in many ways, but is an entirely personal project. Veteran Ernst Toller (a terrific Ethan Hawke) lost his son in the Iraq War and was down in the dumps. Abundant Life, a corporatized megachurch in Albany, decided to give him a break by appointing as the reverend at the eponymous church in a small town in New York State. The church is of historical significance, but is mostly a tourist spot surviving by the grace of Abundant Life. As preparations are on for the 250th anniversary celebrations, Toller is requested by Mary (Amanda Seyfried) to talk to her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), a militant eco-activist despondent over climate change. In an arresting conversation, which he compares to Jacob’s tussle with the angel, Toller turns out ill-equipped to console Michael, who doesn’t want Mary to have their baby. When he thwarts Michael’s plans for a suicide attack, presumably against a locally-headquartered, super-polluting corporate behemoth, Balq, Michael commits suicide. The reverend gives Michael a service that includes a protest song, a gesture that doesn’t go well with Abundant Life or its sponsor Balq. Disappointed with the Church’s blissful inaction towards pressing questions of our times, Toller finds himself filling the dead man’s shoes in several ways and experiences a crisis of faith of his own. Alcoholic and suffering from cancer, he decides to continue Michael’s mission.

The Gordian knot at the heart of Toller’s spiritual crisis, it appears, is the incompatibility between two world views, between the Church’s teaching of courageous acceptance and the global consciousness of the young people the reverend encounters. When Michael despairs about bringing a child into a world that’s heading towards disaster, Toller has no convincing answer; he asks Michael to choose courage over reason in face of uncertainty. It’s an appeal for resignation that Toller himself gets from Pastor Jeffers: it may be that the destruction of the world is part of God’s plan. That advice is not just an absolution of individual responsibility, it’s a falsification of one’s spiritual turmoil – the same kind of emotional violence that positivists wreak on people claiming to have experienced religious transport. What elevates Toller’s crisis of faith above a notional concept and gives it a particular force is that it’s rooted in the character’s personal history. Toller’s disillusionment with the Church’s tendency to reduce political issues to an abstract question of providence stems from his own guilt of not having questioned his faith in abstractions like patriotism. That his son was killed in Iraq is a political tragedy, not simply a personal misfortune as the Church would have it.

Michael’s response to his despair is calculated political violence. When Toller takes the explosives away from Michael’s garage, he also takes his life purpose away, turning the violence inward and killing Michael. Toller’s response to his crisis is identical. He comes in the line of Schrader loners, present in every scene of the film, trying to work through their anguish by acting on the world around. Toller’s spiritual sickness feeds on and into his physical sickness. He tries to give meaning to his impending death and cherry-picks ideas from the Bible to justify his turn to extremism, just as Jeffers cherry-picks to justify status quo. To preserve is to participate in creation, he writes, and thus to do God’s work. And to preserve, you have to sometimes destroy. When his bombing plan is hindered, Toller wraps himself with barbed wire and tries to drink drain-cleaning acid. Mary stops him, they embrace each other in a coupling of love and death as the camera roves around them to end the film. Ultimately agnostic, Schrader’s film cannot claim to provide a solution to the dilemma, only a momentary suspension.

The Franciscan austerity of First Reformed derives from an acute film-awareness. Right from its 1.37:1 aspect ratio (same as that of Winter Light) and its old-style cursive credits, the film announces itself as the inheritor of a cinema that Schrader described as transcendental. There is, specifically, a Bressonian vein in the choice of having a priest maintain a diary, his solemn voiceover, the opening shot of the church and the style of editing. The major part of the film unfolds between two Sundays, but the film doesn’t give provide any explicit markers. Sparsely furnished, with a large living room containing a sole, inexplicable chair, Toller’s Ordet-inspired quarters as well as Mary’s house are products of a theatrical mise en scène, a possible one-act play in which the character paces around the stage and monologues to the audience. Scenes transition from master shot to close-ups sparingly, which renders the latter more effective. A shot of Toller pinned in his seat holding a coffee cup drives home his agitation all the more directly. The tight, fixed-camera shot of the reverend and Mary on bicycle is Ozuvian in its liberative simplicity. Toller himself is an extremely self-aware character, analytical about his own feelings and cognizant of the vanity of his diary-keeping project. He compares writing to praying and, in his torment, Schrader recognizes the spiritual quandary of an era.

mother!

Another film with religious overtones, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! couldn’t be more different from Schrader’s sober film, what with its unabashed formal and thematic excesses. It showboats from the opening shot where Lawrence’s bloody face stares at the viewer against a burning backdrop. A writer (Javier Bardem) and his wife (Jennifer Lawrence) live in their isolated bungalow surrounded by vegetation. The building, the writer’s childhood home, was burnt down in a fire and the woman is rebuilding it entirely from memory. Her husband is experiencing a writer’s block and is growing aloof from her. When a suspicious fan (Ed Harris) comes into their house, he senses inspiration and invites him to stay over. The following day, the guest’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) moves in and one of their sons murders the other in the bungalow. The writer lets the mourning take place at his house, making way for the encroachment of dozens of obnoxious friends. When he finally finishes his play, it becomes a success and a horde of fans invades his house, destroys his property, and kills his baby, the writer welcoming all of it. The woman remains a helpless witness to the disintegration of her own life. Aronofsky’s film shifts from psychological horror to outright camp by the time it ends. The transformation is deliberate and is intended to sever the film from wan realism.

Aronofsky’s film is of a piece with The Wrestler and Black Swan, but with one crucial change: the narrative perspective is no more that of the artist figure, but of the woman he lives with. This tempers the overarching narcissism of the earlier films and turns the gaze back on to the artist, whose self-love now becomes a problem, the main problem. The artist here is a needy, vampiric god, sucking all the love and attention from his environment. The filmmaker is entirely critical of Bardem’s writer, to the point that he becomes a caricature, a pawn in sway to the adulation of his fans. Aronofsky’s sympathy is instead with Lawrence’s character. She is a caregiver, a homemaker maintaining the house and nurturing their child. Her dedication is met with indifference, the writer preferring to be left alone or recognized by others. Pfeiffer’s character grills her about her love life and insults her for not having a child. Ed Harris calls her a pretty face. Most direct and effective among the many allegories mother! accommodates is that of the universal mother itself.

The value of mother!, however, resides less in the interpretations it yields, which are no doubt numerous, than in the unrelenting atmosphere it creates that doesn’t allow the viewer a moment’s breather. There is perhaps a streak of sadism in dragging a character through an endless series of distressing situations which she has no power to tackle. This, of course, is a horror movie trope, the last girl who has to go through hell to come out alive. Aronofsky’s success lies in how closely he binds the viewer’s perception to that of the character. His characteristic, ever-moving camera is always fixed on Lawrence and from up close; the viewer is hardly allowed a glimpse of her surroundings before she is. This claustrophobic locking down of the viewer amplifies the horror and the suspense tenfold. Adding to this is the accentuated sound design that magnifies ambient noise to a point of threat. There are low frequency hums at certain points, but there’s no real musical score – a lack that’s barely noticeable.

Aronofsky can direct the hell out of a scene and if mother! provokes extreme reactions, it’s less because of its raw material than the way the filmmaker has turned it into a bludgeon that assaults the viewer from the get-go. He threads one gratuitous, strong image over another, one potent sound choice over another to effect a sensory overload. Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique draw their visual cues from Andrew Wyeth as much from Tarkovsky, Malick or Hitchcock. It’s all one steady, monotonic build-up till the apocalypse at the end. Every time Lawrence’s character has a chance to intervene or get a word in, there’s an interruption – a fit of cough, the phone ringing, the stove going off – that pulls her back on the everyday treadmill. She’s always cleaning the house, fixing stuff, trying in vain to prevent its inevitable collapse. In this respect, she’s a reincarnation of the Deneuve character from Repulsion as much as she recalls Rosemary. The house is her sanctuary and its violation constitutes a rape. She is destroyed by the film’s end and replaced by another woman. The film’s campiness veers into noxious territory at times, but Aronofsky must be given the props for hyperbolizing as full-blown cinematic horror what is otherwise low-key everyday horror.

First Man

Made during the runup to the golden jubilee celebrations of the first moon landing, First Man begins in the middle of action: Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) manoeuvres his plane at the edge of atmosphere, veers close to catastrophe, but manages to land back on earth without much damage. The reason for his lapse of judgment, it is revealed, is that his toddler daughter is suffering from an incurable tumour. She dies shortly thereafter and Neil moves with his wife Janet and son to Houston, having been selected for the test programmes in NASA’s moon mission. Life in Houston has all the trappings of middle-class normalcy – sub-urban house with a lawn, grill parties with neighbours, pastel-coloured wallpaper – but Neil and Janet can never blend in. The moon mission is proceeding at full throttle against all odds, resulting in the loss of several astronauts, all Neil’s friends and neighbours.

It appears that, constantly touched by death, Neil is a stoic, melancholy man, not yet on the moon, but entirely not of this earth. He removes himself completely from family life, content to gaze at the moon every night. In the film’s most effective scene, he is forced by Janet before he leaves for the mission to have a final chat with his sons, which Neil completes like a press meet. Gosling channels some of his work from Lars and the Real Girl and one of the ironies First Man is going for is that this man, brilliant engineer but a social outcast, is constantly asked to bear the burden of history, to be in the eye of media attention, give press conferences, attend White House dinners, and be the receptacle of popular anger against the mission; that he had to go to the moon to be able to get back home. The thrust of Damien Chazelle’s interspersing of Neil’s incurable gloom and the agitations of the sixties is that, no matter one’s privileged social-historical situation, private grief is all-consuming and can’t be relativized.

In this, the film also seems to want to paint a metaphysical portrait of the sexes. Like Western heroes, Neil’s and his fellow male astronauts’ straying away from the pull of domesticity towards the unknown and the endless suffering of their wives and children comes across as descriptions of an eternal condition. The repeated superposing of the domestic scenes at home featuring Janet and children and NASA’s commentary of the mission is supposed to have an Odyssey-like weight, but only grows increasingly wearisome. Janet’s character, more than Neil’s, remains greatly underdeveloped (Claire Foy’s drama school tics condemn it to a type) and it’s symptomatic that this film, which namechecks various discontentment of the sixties, completely sidesteps the sexual revolution that could’ve given Janet a more rounded presence.

Some of the formal choices are interesting, especially its low-budget-movie tendency to avoid spectacle for suggestion of spectacle: most of the thrill is conveyed to us not through rocket ballets but via numbers on screen, the low-key score, the sound of metals clinging, the actor’s frenetic breathing and the claustrophobic setting of the capsule. Not allowing for sights outside the capsule makes for a subjective experience of impending death. It also reinforces the film’s parallel theme about man’s conflicted faith in technological progress. In a recruitment interview, Neil says that he wants to go to space in order to get a better perspective of life on earth, hinting at a distrust of technology that wasn’t able to save his daughter.

Given that everyone knows how Apollo 11 or the preceding missions panned out in reality, screenwriter Josh Singer pegs the dramatic power of his script on the time-limited nature of the mission. Kennedy’s declaration that an American will be on the moon within the decade taken alongside the impossible odds against which that goal has to be achieved lends the film the thrill of a countdown. Chazelle employs glass as a crucial element of his mise en scène and the material comes to reflect Neil’s emotionlessness, his distance from his family as well as the vastness of the unknown facing him. The last scene, loudly understated, is La La Land Redux.

High Life

The human aspect of space travel is also at the centre of Claire Denis’ first full-length English language production, High Life. Far in the future, death row inmates are given a choice to volunteer for a one-way mission to the nearest black hole. Strict rules are observed on board, the inmates are still treated like prisoners, with everyday tasks to be completed. Overseeing the ship is a slowly-disintegrating captain (Lars Eidinger) and a cookie scientist Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who is trying in vain to produce babies by artificially inseminating the female prisoners with semen samples from the male prisoners. With exposure to radiation mounting as they near the black hole, the prisoners get increasingly restless and Dibs keeps them sedated by adulterating their rations. But the strict prohibition of sexual contact between inmates leads to a breaking point and the mission is thrown into jeopardy.

Well, that is the story, but we don’t get to it right away. The film’s opening fifteen minutes constructs an otherworldly ambience. A glide through a misty garden with a mysterious shoe hints at earth. A baby is seen in a cradle surrounded by screens and electronic equipment, her father Monte (Robert Pattinson) speaks to her through the computers, but he’s perched on top of a spaceship trying to fix an issue. There’s no information about how these spaces are linked and the enigma creates fertile connections in the viewer’s mind. The film proceeds in several stretches through such mosaic of details, which are glued together through clumsy expositional elements such as an Indian professor in a train on earth spelling out the premise. The image of a man and his child aboard a ship heading nowhere is a combination of hope and doom that the film drops for the more ordinary spectacle of the inmates going bonkers.

The everyday events on the ship unfold gradually with sudden bursts of violence, causing the attrition of the crew. We are never sure how big the prison-ship is or what the exact relation between the spaces we see is, except that the garden is a more spiritually-invested zone that disinfects the inmates, gives them an experience of home and helps them come to terms with their dire situation. Monte resists Binoche’s charms to preserve his essence, but is overpowered by her and fathers a baby unbeknownst. His resentment and eventual acceptance of the child perhaps is perhaps what the film is most committed to, turning the story into an allegory of sorts for life on earth. The narrative shifts back and forth in time and there’s a twenty-year jump that finds the baby all grown, now picking up human concepts like faith and cruelty through videos still being transmitted from earth – an improbable Bildung we are asked to take on faith.

As is customary for Denis, particular attention is given to the various textures of the ship: the plastic curtains overseeing the garden, the fabric in “The Box” where prisoners go to let out steam, the padding on the ship’s walls, Binoche’s writhing skin, the actors’ hair which seems to have some special power in the narrative. Every bodily fluid that exists is roll-called and becomes a resource to be harnessed. Denis shoots in odd aspect ratios and that adds to the echo of Solaris resounding through the film. The film, to be sure, is a distinct auteur excursion into this derided genre. But it lacks the consistent ambiguity of The Intruder or the emotional beats of 35 Shots of Rum. Going one-up on the cynicism of Bastards, High Life seems to embody a bitter outlook towards not just civilization, but the human race in totality. Why bother?

Roma

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is no doubt full of memories. But the question is whose? Made as a tribute to Cuarón’s childhood nanny, Roma unfolds solely through the perspective of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the indigenous-origin housekeeper of a middle-class white family living in the Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City. The family stands for the director’s own and one of the four young children represents Cuarón himself. But we don’t know which one. Roma is not about him or any of his family members. Unlike in Spielberg or Fellini, it’s not the child’s experience that the film intends to recreate. Instead, the film presents the life of Cleo as conceived by the adult Cuarón. This results in a greatly sympathetic and reverential portrait, but the sympathy and reverence often cloud the humanity of Cleo.

One’s intellectual reaction to Roma might depend on where one stands on the issue of appropriation in art: is it right for a white, male filmmaker such as Cuarón to narrate the life of a native woman? I think Cuarón’s decision to hinge a film based on his personal life to the point of view of someone outside it is admirable and shows a humility and maturity surprisingly absent in the most intelligent of filmmakers. Roma makes it amply clear that this is not about Cuarón or his family, even though they are at the centre of it all and have their own cross to bear. It’s the story of Cleo over one tumultuous year.

At the same time, the life that Cuarón imagines for Cleo is curiously circumscribed by his own limited perspective of it. Cleo has little life outside the family and, whenever we see her away from home, it’s in service of the larger narrative thread regarding her romantic betrayal and pregnancy. Played by a non-professional, Cleo barely speaks except for the functional chitchat with the children and never expresses herself. This, of course, could be an empirical reality Cuarón has lived, but he extends this trait to her life outside work as well. Cleo has no inner life and her interaction with the other maid of the house, Adela, are almost always responses to Adela’s remarks. Political and social reality are strictly in the background and Cuarón limits the film strictly to the description of an everyday, emotional reality. We never know, quite intentionally, what relation Cleo bears to others of her community and station, or what she thinks of the protests going on in the city.

Much of Roma exhibits this disconcerting dual-perspective. Cuarón fills the film not with general cultural artefacts of the period but very specific memories – the toys sold outside movie theatres, two men taking shelter from rain under a small protrusion on the street, the tune of a wandering flute seller, stuffed heads of dogs displayed like trophies, the fanfare of the military marching through streets, a Fellini-like forest fire following an evening of revelry – so specific that they couldn’t be anyone else’s but Cuarón’s. Outside of an unsettling shot of earthquake debris fallen over a baby on a ventilator, there’s no sense of Cleo’s memories finding a place in the film. This tension between two incomplete perspectives is never resolved: Cuarón’s commendable intent to give Cleo the narrative space is undermined by the limitation of his vantage point. He can only imagine Cleo as a noble sufferer giving her all to his family – a stance that runs the risk of dehumanizing the character.

Given the “unmarketable” subject matter, the acclaim for the film on either side of the Atlantic is surprising and perhaps even welcome. Roma has the logistical muscle of Hollywood and the calculated reserve of an art film. The long-shot filmmaking with real sound, the use of non-professional actors, the stoic rhythm enabled in part by slow pan shots, measured editing patterns and muted dramatic progression is complemented by the spectacle that the film’s expert set-pieces offer (the scene at the beach is as breath-taking as the opening sequence of Gravity). Too bad that the space left behind by Cuarón’s conscious self-effacement isn’t filled by what he wishes would fill it.

BlacKkKlansman

At the beginning of BlacKkKlansman, a clip from Gone with the Wind is cut to a fake-archival harangue about miscegenation delivered by a white supremacist (played by Alec Baldwin), whom we never see again. The point is blunt; that Gone with the Wind was racist. This cut-and-dried approach is not new to director Spike Lee, whose previous work Chiraq used a range of in-your-face agitprop devices to animate a classical text and imbibe it with a welcome urgency. But here that MO falls flat, applied as it is to a material that has other ambitions. Inspired by a true story, BlacKkKlansman follows Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel), a Black detective from Colorado Springs who manages to get a membership to the Ku Klux Klan.

The year is 1972 and, as his first mission, Ron has to attend a speech by Kwame Ture to sense the response of the black students who’ve invited him. At first ambiguous, Lee’s attitude towards the speech is clarified in the precious way he edits it to show its power and influence over the awakening of Ron’s own Black-consciousness. It’s an abrupt transformation for a character that we’ve just been introduced to as a man who knows what he’s doing. Lee’s film proceeds by several such fickle happenings. The supremacists of the KKK that the Ron’s stand-in, Flip (Adam Driver), meets are all intentionally cartoons. They whoop and holler at a screening of The Birth of a Nation – a film geek’s idea of redneck entertainment. There’s a lot of racist slur thrown around whose purpose is not realism but provocation.

Poised between the Black Panthers and the KKK is the Colorado Springs police department Ron is part of. While the racism internal to the department is a talking point, the police force finally comes off as a group of well-meaning, tolerant individuals marred by a few bad apples. There’s an interesting idea about race as performance in the film, but the film’s thrust is towards an emphatic reassertion of identities. Early on, Ron’s assurance that the talk about race war among the Black students is just that, empty talk, is matched with Flip’s comment that the KKK members are blowhards who won’t dare to get into action. Just as one thinks the film is setting up a false and dangerous equivalence, Lee cuts between initiation rituals at the Klan and a gathering of Black students listening to a testimony about the lynching of Jesse Washington. The idea is that the two congregations are fundamentally, qualitatively different: one is about a violent assertion of power and the other is about memory and resistance. The blossoming of Flip’s Jewish consciousness when faced with ghastly antisemitic speech reiterates the notion: that minority identity politics is a defensive reaction to the threat of majoritarian aggression.

Lee is nothing if not topical and BlacKkKlansman is wrapped in a presentist perspective whose target is the current American government. Ron is warned about David Duke’s attempts to become mainstream through politics, the Klan members rail against PC culture, and slogans about making America great abound. After the film wraps up its excuse for a plot, scenes from the 2017 far-right rally in Charlottesville are played: the tiki torch march, Duke hailing the renewal of the right, the car attack and, finally, Trump claiming that both sides are equally condemnable, clarifying Lee’s primary reason for making this film. As the final shot, an upside-down American flag becomes black and white, in case you just woke up.

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