Hollywood


It only takes two minutes for Sam Mendes’ WWI saga 1917 to set up its premise. A pair of lance corporals (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) are entrusted by the General (Colin Firth) no less to courier a message to another battalion camping nine miles away. Failure to convey the message before dawn will result in the sure death of 1,600 soldiers. Its implausibility aside, this is an extremely cinematic setup, allowing the story to follow a pair of characters from point A to B. But Mendes chooses to film the entire two-hour narrative in an apparently single take, in the process snuffing out the rich possibilities of the premise.

            Like Dunkirk, 1917 is an experiment in film narrative. And like Nolan’s film, it is a failure that’s instructive in the way it fails. The director of Dunkirk had interwoven not just three timelines, which is standard practice, but three timescales: unfolding over a week, a day and an hour but sharing the same screen time. But in popular cinematic grammar, multiple closely intercut narrative threads evoke a sense of simultaneity. Failing that, a thematic correlation as is the case with films like Cloud Atlas or Wonderstruck. Nolan’s consciously anti-grammatical film demands the viewer to actively shift the time markers in their head back and forth, compelling him/her to recognize the various ways war is experienced by its participants despite a unity of mission. Whatever the mechanistic thrills of this formal scheme, the process remains intellectual, far more exigent than the intuitive pleasures offered by the accelerated editing of The Dark Knight series.

            1917 complements the challenge, choosing to preserve the spatial and temporal integrity of the narrative by filming it in a single shot. We understand right away, thanks to the history of war movies, that the corporals are going to make it to their destination no matter what, but we also know that they cannot possibly cover nine miles in two hours of real time, considering that they travel mostly on foot. It’s then immediately clear that Mendes has to fudge his filmmaking for the story to reach its conclusion. While the single shot setup purports to offer a slice of real time, as in Jafar Panahi’s Offside, the narrative itself is telescoped artificially into two hours.

            Mendes conveys a sense of passing distance and time, without it actually happening, by chaining together a series of starkly different landscapes: cramped trenches, marshlands, lush meadows, drab fields, a surreally lit, ruined city, water bodies and trenches once more. The movement of the corporals from one landscape to another serves the same purpose as a fade-out in conventional movies: to evoke a sensation of ellipse in the viewer. What we then have is an edit-less edit, like in those commercials where the actor seamlessly moves from one vastly different environment to another while seeming to simply walk across rooms. The principle is that of video games, where we find the same idea of telescoping longer durations and distances into shorter screen time, even when the player has a feeling of contiguous experience.

            The lack of cuts undermines the effect in another way too. Given that the viewer is planted in the here and the now, there’s no suspense against which the corporals’ action is to be measured. Hitchcock’s theory of suspense involves the revelation of dramatic stakes by a cutaway (to a ticking bomb, for instance). But considering we never know what’s at risk while the corporals are getting delayed, or if they’re getting delayed at all, we don’t share the urgency that the protagonists express time and again. The French film critic and theorist André Bazin championed long take realism, but only insofar as it preserved the spatial tension of a scene. The shot of an Inuit trying to hunt a seal, in Bazin’s example, has more impact presented in a single shot because it reproduces the danger involved as is. In contrast, conceit of 1917 perennially relegates the danger off-screen, rendering every dramatic development merely a shock.  

            “We experience life much closer to one longer continuous shot”, says Mendes in an interview. But do we? Anyone who has ever watched two people converse across a table will realize that we don’t pay attention to the empty space between them as our eyes leap from one speaker to the other. Our cognitive processes don’t track our ocular movement; our brain incessantly edits out insignificant information. Even our eyes constantly shuttle within a scene, causing counterintuitive mental compensations. Classical Hollywood continuity editing, which relies on closely stitching together vital bits of information from a single space, is thus perhaps more truthful to real experience than the long take. Defending classical scene construction over long shot filmmaking, Jean-Luc Godard wrote: “I would even see in that spatial discontinuity occasioned by shot changes, which certain devotees of the ‘ten-minute takes‘ make a point of despising, the reason for the greater part of the truth which this figure of style contains.

            Indeed, the formal schema of 1917 ensures that it lacks the psychological charge that even the most rudimentary war films contain. Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins rightly suppose that their camera must be able to move 360 degrees around the actors to capture their expression. There are even a handful of closeups in the film to underscore dramatically important moments. But these closeups are simply relayed as discrete packets of new information (grief, shock etc.) without actually anticipating them. The viewer’s identification with a protagonist often passes through a combination of an action and the protagonist’s immediate reaction to it. Think of Kirk Douglas walking through the trenches looking at the cowering soldiers in The Paths of Glory. The continuous camera movement of 1917, however, prevents shot-reverse shot constructions. Here, the roving camera introduces a delay between action and reaction, allowing the viewer to get ahead of the protagonists. Or we see the actors’ reaction before the camera pans to what they are reacting to, which makes the reaction only mysterious.

            Finally, the notion of transforming the most horrifying of wars into an awe-inducing spectacle carries a stench of Big Money cynicism. To be sure, the idea is to immerse the audience into a time-space where there’s no time for mourning or contemplation, where the only action allowed is to move on, physically and mentally. “It doesn’t do to dwell on it”, tells a higher-up to one of the corporals after a tragedy. And there are references to the “horrors of war”, to death and destruction. But all of that is wrapped up in a triumphalist narrative closer to a speedrun through a particularly hard third-person shooter than a meditation on war. Deakins and Mendes concoct several visceral, stunning passages, breaking the monotony of the conceit with regular changes in scale, pace and tone. The viewer is perpetually aware of the creation of this spectacle, even when it tries to conceal it. This self-awareness, though, is led nowhere but a dumb submission to technical virtuosity.

Writing about his son’s enthusiastic visit to the offices of a comic book publisher, American critic Robert Warshow reflected on the benefits of disillusionment: “I think Paul’s desire to put himself directly in touch with the processes by which the comic books are produced may be the expression of a fundamental detachment which helps to protect him from them; the comic books are not a ‘universe’ to him, but simply objects produced for his entertainment.” Maybe 1917 is a new kind of war movie, a proto-Brechtian project that produces an illusion of the world even as it induces a doubt as to how that illusion was produced. And maybe that’s a good thing. We’ll know in time.

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

“Produced by Warner Brothers, the film traces its lineage partly to psychiatrist Robert Lindner’s eponymous book on psychopathy. While its script does offer ample psychoanalysis of its characters, Nicholas Ray isn’t interested as much in offering a study of these wayward youngsters as obliging the viewer to share their viewpoint. Criminal behaviour is evoked, but it remains off-screen, registering simply as symptoms of a more fundamental problem. Classical Hollywood’s poet laureate of youth, Nicholas Ray immerses us into a world in which adults are only powerless spectators. His focus is on young people living through the final hours of a tumultuous period in their lives. The film unfolds in just over a day, a duration in which the teens break with their parents, make friends, experience death, find love and come of their own.

In one famous scene, the school takes its students to the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles for a show on constellations. The youngers’ rivalries and grudges seem positively petty set against the commentator’s remarks on the insignificance of human life on the cosmic scale. On the other hand, the emotions they are living through is a veritable end-of-the-world scenario for them. Jim and his peers are, as it were, “half in love with easeful death”, even though they don’t wholly understand the concept. They engage in a sensational knife fight outside the observatory in a display of one-upmanship. That night, they continue their battle in the form of a “chickie race”, which involves driving stolen cars towards a cliff and jumping off at the last moment. Jim survives, but his rival Buzz (Corey Allen) perishes. As Jim unsuccessfully explains to his parents that he should turn himself in and walks away to the police station, the other youngsters decide to threaten him against it. This leads to a long night of strife in which all the teenagers of the town are out on the streets, the adults relegated to the margins of this failed society. Running away from the mob, Jim, Judy and Plato end up at a deserted mansion near the observatory. They romance, crack jokes and horse around in the dark—a behaviour much removed from the death-stricken panic of the hour before. If the film’s depiction of the youngsters’ amoral power games was a sharp deviation from the clear moral binaries of classical Hollywood, this indifferent response to a fatal incident borders on the scandalous.”

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

“The film is adapted from a short story by Ernest Haycox, but there’s something European, particularly French, about its suspicion of mainstream society. It might have to do with the fact that Stagecoach traces its lineage partly to Guy de Maupassant’s short story “Boule de Suif”. Ford’s cinema isn’t particularly known for its affection for outsider figures, but Stagecoach exhibits a deep affinity for outcasts and deadbeats, conventionally unsuccessful characters who are “victims of social prejudice”. Perhaps Ford the Catholic saw in Dallas the fallen woman, Ringo the orphan, Boone the drunk and Peacock the unmanly a kingdom of the meek. In contrast, the Law and Order League, the group of society women that kicks Dallas and the doctor out of the town, is presented as a bunch of busybodies scandalized at the smallest gesture of nonconformity. When Dallas and Ringo drive away from the town at the end, the doc cries out, “saved from the blessings of civilization”.

            The critique of an exclusionary community is conveyed primarily through the character of Dallas, who is the heart of the narrative. All through the film, Ford emphasizes her pain of not belonging and her gratefulness at those treating her with dignity. Everyone, except the banker, eventually comes to respect her, yet she can’t become a part of them. Towards the end, when the group reaches its destination, Mrs. Mallory and company are taken indoors by the townsfolk, Dallas left standing at the doorstep. A contemplative moment finds her alone gathering her belongings from the coach. It’s a direct predecessor to the last shot of Ford’s The Searchers (1956) where it’s John Wayne standing alone at the entrance, incapable of taking part in the community.”

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

Frances Ferguson (Bob Byington)

Was it Beauty that killed the beauty? Frances Ferguson (Kaley Wheless) is pretty, and that is her problem. Byington’s “story of a woman cast adrift in the Midwest” follows the sin, punishment and redemption of Fran, a substitute teacher in a high-school in North Platte, Nebraska. Twenty-five years of age, Fran is going through a failed marriage to a sleazy, loafing husband. Sexual frustration and a mistaken replacement lead to an infatuation with one of the students. In vein of pornographic tales, she arranges to meet the boy secretly, tries to seduce him at a laundromat with a pathetic cheerleader costume (for the “Cougars”) and hooks up with him at the motel. She is promptly arrested, tried for abuse of authority to sexually exploit minors and incarcerated. Frances Ferguson outlines her parole life in detail, structuring it through different penal procedures Fran has to follow: probation debriefing, compulsory group therapy, behavioural counselling, community service, supervised visitation of her daughter, probation exit interview and even voluntary group therapy sessions. Life outside the prison turns out to be even more distressing, uninvited attention for her looks now compounded with the notoriety of being a sex offender. All through the ordeal, the question that arises is whether Fran’s good looks are responsible for her trouble as for the townsfolk’s vivid memory and negative perception of her. Her warden wonders why female sex offenders are invariably pretty. When she tells her therapist that she hardly had authority at the school to abuse, he retorts that beauty is a kind of authority.

The story is recounted by a humorous, at times tendentious, male narrator (Nick Offerman), whose personality constantly comes in way of his objectivity. He contradicts Fran, who also gets to narrate the story from time to time (“joie de vivre”, he corrects Fran who is trying to fake her way through a French class). He inserts his own opinion on the proceedings and acts as a Greek chorus for Fran’s impending tragedy (“Was this breaking the law”? he asks at every turn of Fran’s). The narrator calls to mind Listen Up Philip, but one that’s less world-wise and serious about himself. Byington avoids traditional shot-reverse shot constructions, preferring to build conversations out of separate close ups; the scene of Fran’s interrogation by two police officers is particularly well-edited. He employs an 8-bit video game-like music cue, and a camera that goes out of focus to bid farewell to characters, to funny ends. The sound-bridges and the on-screen texts introducing characters and situations sometimes recall sitcoms, but the comic sense here is much more subtle. It’s still characteristic American sarcasm at work, but Byington pares down the exchanges, cutting away the excess fat that usually burdens American comedies with an insufferable smugness: when the prison cab driver asks Fran to use regular cabs as they are cheaper, she only asks him: “the next time I’m released from prison?”, dropping out the obligatory “sure” at the end. Wheless’ blank-stare performance, accompanied by internal screams, is the visual correlative of this muted comic strategy.

Immortal (Ksenia Okhapkina)

The only contextualizing text of Ksenia Okhapkina’s Immortal speaks of the gulags that were built to industrialize the arctic stretches of Russia. When the camps were opened after Stalin’s death, we’re told, the prisoners stayed back in the town. It’s a telling detail, whether you choose to see it a gesture of helplessness or the product of Pavlovian indoctrination. This three-line title card has more insight to offer than the film that follows. Okhapkina’s 60-minute film presents impressionistic vignettes from one of these erstwhile gulags, a mining town in the arctic still bearing the visual signatures of the Soviet era: image and quotes by Lenin plastered on walls, alongside posters of other Russian heroes. It would seem that it wasn’t just the people who stayed back, but the ideology too. Immortal examines this persistence of ideology in two spaces. In the first, a group of girls are being trained at a ballet school. The instructor asks them to exert themselves and fall in line with others. This exigence, as well as the ballet music, overflows into the second space: a military camp mostly for boys and young men. We see different groups of children and youth being trained for various competences: instruction in training assault rifles, mission simulations, marching drills, shooting practice, screening of nationalistic videos about Soviet kamikaze pilots with promises of concomitant greatness. The boys are insulted by the instructors over looks and behaviour, punished for minor mistakes and questioned over their origin.

The synchronization of military drill to ballet music and the marshalling of soldier bodies into harmonious movement, filmed here in disorienting closeups, brings to mind Beau Travail. Both the ballet (?) and the military camp, it’s revealed, are preparations for an enlistment ceremony on Russia’s Fatherland’s Heroes Day. The show, and the oath, anthem and photography session that follow, seem remnants of Soviet pageantry. Okhapkina pads these two narrative strands with repeated imagery from the town: the spectral to-and-fro of freight trains carrying mined material, hooded miners knocking about in the snow, buses that convey the youth from their house to the camp and back, the dingy corridors of the apartments where they live, a worker using a blowtorch to melt ice off a national monument, an empty factory and the barbed wire fence around it, and so on. The deserted public spaces seem to belong to a ghost town, or a place with no sense of freedom and life. A lone dog barks in the snow, until its fur is covered with frost, forcing it to find shelter. Faces of young men and women are intercut with drawings of heroes, which themselves are intercut with shots of tombstones and cradles, suggesting individualities hollowed out by state apparatuses. Immortal is unquestionably successful in evoking a despairing mood, but it also feels like an exercise in shooting fish in a barrel. Curiously, the film is at its weakest when dealing with concrete events such as the ballet class and the drill—who’d ever suspect a military camp to be a space of ideological indoctrination? I can imagine the material better suited for a book of photos or illustrated poems.

For Sama (Waad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts)

Whatever Russia Today or Al Jazeera will have you believe, whatever you think of American deep state’s collusion with Islamist fundamentalism, whatever objections are raised about the funding of “rebel” reporters, the brute facts regarding For Sama are there for everyone to see: Waad Al-Kateab stayed back with her doctor husband Hamza in rebel-controlled east Aleppo, delivered a baby and lived through the worst months of Putin-backed state bombing of her district. She kept filming, even when the bombings were at her doorstep, even when bodies piled up at the makeshift hospital that she had made home. Edited and telecast this year on British television, For Sama is a record of Al-Kateab’s life between the first student protests in 2012 to her eventual emigration in December 2016. It is presented as a filmed letter to her baby, Sama, to explain her parents’ decision to stay back in east Aleppo despite the impossible conditions of living, despite the inevitability of defeat. Filmmaking here becomes an existential cry against an order of things that would rather not hear these voices. The regime denied that the student protests were going on, says Al-Kateab, filming was the only way to show otherwise. For Al-Kateab, it becomes increasingly important to film as the military makes advances into east Aleppo, reducing the rebels to a few square kilometres. Filming, she says, gives her a reason to believe.

“Silence makes you feel that the city is dead”, notes the filmmaker when she finally leaves the city. Indeed, the incredible shock of For Sama stems from the extraordinary disconnect between image and sound, between the visual illusion of normalcy and the constant noise of shelling. So much so that even Sama doesn’t react to the explosions. The film is an inexhaustible series of harrowing sights—a mother carrying her dead son wrapped in plastic, a baby resuscitated from the clutches of stillbirth, a pan shot from a dead child to Sama in the operating room, Waad and Hamza singing to calm Sama down as they sneak back into their district, a young boy talking about his missing friends, two hospital attendants warming themselves over the shell that has pierced the building—whose horror is redoubled by the facts of normal life punctuating them: a wedding, Sama’s birth and antics, reunions with other families who are staying back, everyday school, painting sessions, a persimmon fruit as a gift, Waad’s repeated declarations of love to Hamza. To be sure, Al-Kateab makes only a passing mention of the extremists running her city, and we don’t get a clearer idea of what’s holding them back from leaving this nightmare, except their faith in revolution. In a sense, it is problematic that For Sama excises politics out of its narrative, rendering it an account of the extraordinary bravery of people fighting an abstract force of annihilation. On the other hand, it’s a deeply disturbing reminder that peace is not a stable condition interruptions to which are wars, but a fleeting, fragile state that can be swept away overnight.

The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)

The story of Prometheus, with its democratic challenge to the keepers of the fire, represents a metatext of Western modernity, but its tragic vision also dovetails with the Christian worldview. Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse reinterprets this pagan myth, infusing it with a stark (anti-)Catholic flavour. Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe play lighthouse keepers, Winslow and Wake respectively, posted on a remote, deserted island for a month. Wake the boss has Winslow do all the menial chores on the island, while he reserves the lofty task of maintaining the light on the tower. The bearded Wake, who is indeed a walking parody of a seaman, delivers long, literary monologues in sailorspeak, even when he’s only ordering Winslow to wipe the floor or cursing him for not liking his cooking. He pulls rank over Winslow every time he can, at times gaslighting his subordinate and weaponizing his original sin, which Winslow confesses during a night of drunken revelry. With mounting isolation, sexual frustration and a possibility that his stay on the island will be permanent, Winslow starts to lose it, abetted in no small part by alcohol. Soon, the pair bickers like the seagulls hovering above the island. The Lighthouse is set in no particular place or time, and it’s deliberately set at a register far above ordinary realism. This lack of particularity, combined with the simplicity of the outline, give the film a horror fable-like texture. This ethereal quality is countered by a grimy realism of mise en scène. Scenes of violence and physical degradation are visceral and the film features every bodily emanation possible.

There’s another reason that The Lighthouse floats unmoored to history. It’s evidently a very cinema-aware work, echoing if not quoting a range of films from the Expressionist classics to Ingmar Bergman and Bela Tarr. Its memorable monochrome cinematography, with geometric movements of the camera, looming shadows and an ominous atmosphere, its boxy aspect ratio, its actors staring back at the camera, and its use of medium and ‘American’ shots all make it feel familiar without locating it within a specific cinematic tradition or time period. That said, it is to Eggers’ credit that, despite the evocations, the film never feels like a pastiche. The Lighthouse employs horror movie tropes in its foreboding sound and visual design, but it doesn’t go where traditional horror films go. In fact, the stakes as well as the outcome of the premise, that the two men are going to go stir crazy, is clear right at the outset. The disintegration that does happen is played out with ample dose of comedy: Wake’s farts echoed with the sirens of the lighthouse, his towering self-seriousness that must inevitably mask a sense of uselessness, and Winslow’s eventual outburst when he blows his superior’s cover. Dafoe and Pattinson are fascinating to look at, especially in their very physical scenes with homoerotic undertones, but the film itself feels like a slight cinephilic sortie.

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

“There is courage and optimism, but there are no heroes or villains in The Southerner. Renoir being Renoir, everyone in the film has their own reasons. Granny Tucker is a caricature of a nagging old woman, but the film lets you see her bitterness as the product of a long, bitter life marked by loss and grief. Devers’ resentment towards Sam’s success doesn’t come across as jealousy as much as an anxiety about the limited resources of the region and about his own failed life. Unlike the typical Hollywood villain, Devers incites pity, not anger. In an exchange about farming and factory work, Sam’s friend Tim (Charles Kemper), whose character and physicality both resemble Jean Renoir, tells Sam that “it takes all kinds to make up the world”, a cogent summation of the French filmmaker’s worldview.

As is expected of a Renoir film, The Southerner is alluring in its visual beauty: deep space compositions in natural locales, tracking shots through cotton fields and floodwaters, gentle pan shots inside the Tucker household, a measured editing rhythm, intimate two shots with Sam and Nona, Vidor-like framing of the horizon and a painterly shot design with foreground elements acting as repoussoir. But if there’s one element that most characterizes The Southerner as a Renoir work, it’s the harsh, realistic outlook that pervades the narrative. In contrast to the Hollywood tradition, no triumphalism marks the Tucker story. There are no miracles here that turn Sam’s farming enterprise into an immediate success. Renoir recognizes the impossible odds and appeals for a stoicism in face of these failures. Their farm washed out, the Tuckers get back to fixing their house. The stove burns once more, there’s coffee for now, the fields need to be ploughed and the seeds planted again. C’est la vie.”

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

“All through Lubitsch’s film is an osmosis between reality and artifice. In the film’s first scene, a street corner in Warsaw (itself recreated on a studio lot) is visited by Hitler behind whom a shop window closes like theatrical curtain. A while later, it’s revealed that this Führer was simply one of the troupe’s actors in disguise. A Gestapo interrogation scene turns out to be a scene from a play, while the bombing of Warsaw is described as a “show” put up by the Nazis “without a censor to stop them”. As the play is interrupted by real world events, the troupe finds itself converting real world into a play, transforming the theatre into a fake Gestapo office, scripting plot lines to fool the real Gestapo, writing new roles on the fly, and rehearsing their great escape. Running away from the spotlight, the professor dies on stage in a dramatic fashion. Lubitsch’s film, in which Americans masquerade as Europeans, is a battle of appearances, where Jewish actors masquerading as Nazis try to outwit a Nazi masquerading as a Jew.

This interplay between theatre and politics has an intellectual coefficient. “The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life”, wrote Walter Benjamin, and “all efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war.” The Nazi ideology, with its supremacist racial theories, its cult of beauty, its romanticisation of destruction and its eugenic researches, was at its heart aesthetic. It’s significant that To Be or Not to Be climaxes in a theatre where the Nazi top brass attends a play while the troupe attempts to sabotage it by mounting a little theatre outside the theatre (a scene that’s the direct precursor to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009)). Shakespeare serves as a thematic backdrop to the film, embodying the noblest impulses of mankind in contrast to the fascist project. Hamlet’s eponymous monologue becomes an existential question for the Jewish actors, the answer to which lies in the “Hath not a Jew eyes?” monologue from The Merchant of Venice they use in one of their ‘skits’.”

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

“For a film that was made at a time when the wider public was wary of bankers and fat cats in general, Gold Diggers shows no resentment against the institutional power that Brad stands for. All anxiety about the Depression dissolves into a lukewarm comedy involving bumbling billionaires, shrewd showgirls and a cloying true romance. The film confirms Lawrence’s perception of showgirls as gold diggers all the way till the end, when their machinations are justified by profession of love. For the girls, on the other hand, the rich men represent a ticket out of the poverty permeating their lives. Like Hopkins’ show, Gold Diggers monetizes the Great Depression, but it offers hope and cheerfulness as the guiding response to economic problems. Like other contemporary backstage musicals, Gold Diggers is about people in need helping each other out. In its narrative of creative folks coming together to produce something beautiful amidst gloom and hardship, the films functions as an expression of the optimism that characterized the New Deal era.

The narrative, though, is little more than an excuse for Gold Diggers to chain together its main draws: the four musical sequences directed by legendary choreographer Busby Berkeley. Trained as a military choreographer, Berkeley had an unmistakeable style that directly or indirectly influenced scores of choreographer-filmmakers across the world, including Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Ashutosh Gowariker and Prabhu Deva. His orchestra of human bodies often involves an army of young men and women marshalled into striking geometric or organic patterns, supported by disproportionate, flamboyant props and stage design. Individual performers in these pieces are subsumed into a larger scheme made of repeating motifs, captured by a gliding, craning camera, which regularly pulls back or hovers above to record these formations.”

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

Cynical

Arts no. 715; 25 March 1959.

Like Lucchini in Bonitzer’s Nothing about Robert, I probably didn’t see the film I’m talking about (or maybe one reel, or the trailer, I don’t know)

NB: Fess Parker was rechristened “Fier” Parker in France1.

Alas, the censors are guilty of authorizing this execrably psychoanalytical, misanthropic and incurably zoophilic hagiography for mutts. Cinema is dogs, says Disney, in agreement with De Sica, painter of the bitchiness of life. The SPA2 must get such movies banned because if, coming out of Cinéma Avenue, I’d found some pup at my feet, I assure you that it would’ve gone through hell as a reward for such nonsense instead and in place of its fellow dogs, of Robert Stevenson, an usurper who has nothing to do with the master of adventure, of Dorothy McGuire, worse than the dog, of Fess Parker, a little too “Fier” in our country. Go for it, dogs and even cynephiles. But cinephiles, stay away.

 

1[Translator’s note] Presumably because Fess sounds like fesses (buttocks). Fier: proud.

2[Translator’s note] La Société protectrice des animaux, the society for animal protection.

 

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

 

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

“While the transition to sentimentalism can seem jarring for viewers used to tight film noir narratives of the era, Cloak and Dagger deems it important and just to give Gina this passage of peace and warmth before the spy film resumes with all its violence and mayhem. For Lang’s film is first and foremost a fable about the loss of innocence—a theme that preoccupied the filmmaker throughout his working life. In 1945, the year before the film’s production, the Nazi concentration camps were discovered, shaking western civilization’s deep-rooted faith in progress. It was also the year atomic bombs were dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, catapulting humanity into an age of fear and uncertainty.

One of the first Hollywood films to deal with the moral and existential repercussions of the nuclear era, Cloak and Dagger evokes the disillusionment of a civilization with the stories it has been telling about itself. The film was written by Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner Jr., screenwriters blacklisted in 1947 as part of Hollywood’s anti-communist drive, and Jesper’s opening speech spells out their pacifist dispositions. In an interview years later with Peter Bogdanovich, Lang revealed that the film’s original ending had Jesper discover an abandoned concentration camp with several thousand deceased inmates who had been forced to work on the bomb. This conclusion, with its suggestion that the real danger had only begun, was too strong for producer Milton Sperling, who instead ended the film triumphantly with Jesper returning to America with Polda.

Jesper, too, experiences this loss of innocence in a stylized-yet-austere scene set in an apartment foyer, where he’s forced to fight a henchman tailing Polda. It’s an unsettling, very physical sequence of hand-to-hand combat in which the henchman digs his nails into his rival’s eyes while Jesper, with Gina’s help, strangles the man to death. That this peace-loving scientist of lofty ideals could suffocate a man with his bare hands is the kind of dark irony Lang was adept at driving home. A master of mixing tonalities, Lang amplifies the brutality of the sequence by cutting it with sweet accordion music playing in the streets. As the dead man lies on the floor, a ball comes bouncing towards him from the staircase—a quintessential Lang image of corrupted innocence that harks back to his German-language masterpiece M (1931).

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

Synonyms (Nadav Lapid)

Nadav Lapid’s third film, Synonyms, like its predecessor, The Kindergarten Teacher, exhibits a special attention to words. It comes in the form of Yoav (Tom Mercier), a young Israeli ex-serviceman who leaves his home country for France. In Paris, he picks up a French dictionary and amasses synonyms to describe his hate for Israel. He refuses to speak in Hebrew, even when he works at the Israeli embassy and rubs shoulders with fundamentalist Batar volunteers. Identity being socially determined, Yoav can neither completely abandon Israel nor assimilate into the French culture that he loves unilaterally. Lapid realizes that a realist approach to this autobiographical tale would be both tedious and unoriginal, so he pegs the film on a register where psychological causality doesn’t hold. A non-professional, Mercier invests all his energy into the shots, his extreme physicality threatening to spiral out of control at all times. The film is likewise rugged, mixing nausea-inducing handheld shots with more graceful movements of the camera. The extra space available offered by the widescreen also allows for much movement and dynamism within shots.

Inspired by the location as well as his sojourn in France, Lapid draws liberally from the art film tradition. Yoav, and the bourgeois couple who shelter him after he is robbed, are variants on Bresson’s disaffected young men, and their half-naturalist, half-theatrical line delivery is similarly inflected with poetic stylization even when the content is ordinary. The constant interaction between youth, poverty and the sense of dislocation also recalls Carax, while the makeshift ménage à trois Yoav forms with his hosts could be from any post-68 French film. It’s to Lapid’s credit that he’s been able to mould these influences into a personal style. On the other hand, there’s really no framework that contains Yoav’s actions. Just when Yoav obtains French citizenship through a sham marriage, he rejects the idea owing to some undefined moral compulsion. He belts out the Marseillaise and Israeli national anthem with equal zest at the integration class, but the film also undercuts the Republican values taught at the same course. Yoav’s contradictions, as a result, feel artificial, a dramatic contrivance with very little context to back it up.

Midsommar (Ari Aster)

Having tragically lost her sister and parents, Dani (Florence Pugh) leans on her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) for support. While Christian is understanding, his friends think she’s taking too much advantage of him, offering little in return. When one of Christian’s friends invites them to his village in Sweden to participate in midsummer festivities, Christian asks Dani to join them in order to not offend her rather than out of concern. When the film actually gets going, the group finds itself in an isolated commune in central Sweden. The commune, uniformly of Scandinavian extraction and sporting white costume, is welcoming of the strangers, offers them psychedelic drugs and lets them tour their facilities. But movies have prepared us to read communes as cults, and this one turns out to be no different. The summer festivities grow bizarre by the day and includes ritual suicides and sacrifices. Anthropology graduates, Christian and a friend, meanwhile, fight over the rights to write a thesis on the commune. Soon enough, the visitors make those idiotic moves characteristic of horror movies and end up disappearing, leaving Christian and Dani to fend for themselves.

If Midsommar takes its own time to move the story along, it’s because it fashions itself as an intimate film about lovers’ paranoia expressed in horror movie terms. If the film has an insight to offer, it’s that couples in isolation from each other are prone to being brainwashed into doubt, be it by well-meaning friends or by murderous cults, into believing that they deserve better than what they have. It would have served the film better then to have characters that aren’t off a stencil as they are here. Dani, especially, comes across as needier, clingier than the film supposes, and her constant anxiety about Christian ignoring her make her even less sympathetic. Nor does the film have any ambivalence towards the commune to genuinely propose it as a solution to Dani’s perennial loneliness. The tragedy of her past is inserted in flashes, claiming psychological weight in a film whose pleasures are on its surface. Midsommar succeeds primarily as an assured iteration of the last girl template and is noteworthy in how little it relies on traditional horror movie tropes: it’s shot in broad daylight of northern summer, all shocking information is signalled beforehand, and visitors to the cult meet the exact fate you imagine for them. The film has passages of alluring visual and sonic rhythm, and the long-tether narrative moves through different perspectives and spaces freely once at the camp. The camera has a life of its own, pushing and pulling, craning up and down to describe a world out of whack.

The Beach Bum (Harmony Korine)

Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum immerses the viewer into the bohemian life of Moondog (Matthew McConaughey), a seasoned hedonist spending his days on the beaches of Florida in sex, alcohol and drugs. Moondog is a poet of unusual talent, we are told, and lives off the inherited wealth of his wife Minnie-Boo (Isla Fisher), who has an open affair going on with Moondog’s friend Lingerie (Snoop Dogg). When Minnie-Boo leaves behind a will that obliges Moondog to publish his long-pending book in order to inherit her money, the decadent poet becomes a nomad, reaching out to old friends for help. With a highly expressive colour palette, Korine’s sensual direction evokes a particular, self-indulgent view of life on the beach. Cycling through sunlit exteriors, interiors of gonzo tones and moody fluorescent streetlamps, the film progresses in a mosaic-like fashion, never lingering on any event for long, just like its protagonist, even as it deals with plot mechanics. Moondog’s treads light on the ground underneath, even when he’s pushed to a corner. And the film’s breezy aesthetic beguilingly captures this sense of transience of things.

Korine punctuates Moondog’s uncommitted life with moments of pathos, culminating in a charming romantic sequence with Minnie-Boo, the nightfall, the sea breeze, the white streetlight and Peggy Lee’s If That’s All There Is brought together into a fatalistic mix overseeing the tragedy that immediately follows. The Beach Bum is evidently on the side of Moondog, whose excesses it subsumes in a Romanticist notion of the downbeat artist who flouts conventions, but sees things more clearly than those around him. Moondog is a flaneur, perennially on the road with nothing but typewriter and a sack of books, depending on the universe to see him through the day. But the film also makes it plain that Moondog’s poetry is juvenile. He plagiarises from Lawrence, Baudelaire and Whitman, but his own work reads like bathroom scribbling. The people around him indicate again and again that beneath Moondog’s shallow life lies a core of genius, that behind his ironic relation to people and things likes a being of deep sensitivity—an intimation that never comes to fruition. These assurances of greatness subsidise his vulgarity and provide a reason to consider his humanity—an instrumental morality that goes against the film’s generous-seeming outlook.

The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)

In contrast to The Beach Bum, Joanna Hogg’s Souvenir presents a modern, wholly original vision of the artist figure. Her autobiographical Julie (a heartbreakingly beautiful Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda), a filmmaker in training, is neither a tortured genius, nor a social outcast. She is everything one doesn’t associate with artists: generous, unassuming vulnerable, passive, docile and supremely decent. She is in a romantic relationship with Anthony (Tom Burke), an opinionated, strong personality who looms large over Julie’s life. His yearning, poetic letters of love—presented as interludes read by Julie over shots of the countryside horizon—ascribe to her a power over him that (a) she doesn’t possess and (b) only serves to further disempower her. “Don’t be worthy, be arrogant”, he advises her. But Julie is incapable of feigning arrogance or authority, and that’s what gives The Souvenir its unique force. She is literally self-effacing, seen as she is at the edge of the frame for most part of the film. Julie is told to make films based on her experience, but she can’t bring herself to be arrogant enough to believe it’s worthy of being filmed. She’s always seen writing something else than her own life.

What The Souvenir gets so right is that Julie’s self-doubt as a person—in her relationship with her parents, with Anthony—feeds on and into her self-doubt as an artist. At shoots, Julie is never in control, allowing her work to be overshadowed by her collaborators. She’s mentally elsewhere, carrying the guilt of ignoring Anthony and regularly calling him back from the set. Hitchcock is invoked, and The Souvenir can be seen as a loose reworking of Suspicion, where Julie lets Anthony overpower her despite her better judgment. But unlike the swooning Joan Fontaine who is quite obviously head over heels in love with Cary Grant, Julie’s irrational attraction and jealously towards Anthony feels somewhat theoretical and laboured, added in retrospect. Shooting in 16mm in a beige-brown-white aesthetic, Hogg evokes the eighties through events entirely offscreen—money problems, Irish bombings, the flourishing of cinéma du look in France. She frames every shot with thoughtful consideration, with plenty of negative space. She often films Julie through reflective surfaces, accentuating the sense of her fragility, and cycles through familiar spaces and compositions, rendering them as intimate as the subject.

Next Page »