Thursday, 22 August 2019

los últimos romanticos (w&d gabriel drak)

It would be tempting to use Los Ultimos Romanticos as a template for a less than perfect script development process. The film is essentially a buddie movie, constructed around the affable characters of Perro and Gordo (to Spanish readers those names alone perhaps suggest something slightly too easy), who get by selling marijuana plants in a small Rio de la Plata balneario. The off-season seaside village is deserted, as most of the residents are Europeans summer there in the European winter. However, one Hungarian couple have remained. Perro finds them dead in their bed. He also discovers a stash of four million euros in their home which he removes and hides with Gordo’s help. The title of the script refers to the fact that the two are in theory writing a film script, (although they seem to have no connection at all to the film business in any shape or form), hence the maverick cop who will prove to be their nemesis ascribes the duo the titular nickname. A couple of bohemians living their lives free from the system. The problems with the film are thus: firstly, neither character seems in any way ‘romantic’ (in the poetic sense of the word). Secondly, the discovery of the money should be a Maguffin, rather than the driver of the plot. Thirdly, the twists feel predictable. Fourthly, there’s no tension at all. In the end, Los Ultimos Romanticos falls into that dangerous comedy-caper territory which is so hard to pull off. For undisclosed reasons, filmmakers all over the world choose possibly the hardest genre of them all to carry off with recurring frequency. The bonus is this allows the script to include jokes for the locals to enjoy. The downside is that it’s very hard not to make a pedestrian comedy-caper movie, especially when the caper element is as contrived as it is here. 

Sunday, 18 August 2019

the wind will carry us (w&d abbas kiarostami)

The film’s title makes it sound as though this might be an Iranian version of a Douglas Sirk movie. In practice this film couldn’t be further from melodrama, or even drama. Essentially, it’s a study of an engineer who visits a remote rural village with a team of work companions who are never seen and spends most of his time trying to find reception for his mobile phone. His phone has no problem ringing, but he cannot hear what’s being said. So he runs across the village, gets into his car, drives up a hill, gets out of the car, and speaks to someone in Tehran. Either his boss or his family. This happens approximately 75 times. The use of repetition is clearly deliberate, but the intention behind this use of repetition remained cryptic. The engineer’s desperate need to communicate? The chasm that exists between rural and urban Iranian society? All of the above? The engineer also befriends a boy, who is constantly (repeatedly) sitting exams. At the end of the film someone falls into a hole they have been digging but gets out alive. Which in some ways felt like a metaphor for watching the movie. I realise that Kiarostami is considered a genius, and I think I’ve seen other films of his which I engaged with more readily, but I have to confess to a feeling of bemusement brought on by The Wind Will Carry Us, a film whose hermitic qualities escaped me upon this occasion. Having said that, there is always the subjectivity of the moment to consider when watching cinema; perhaps on another day the film might indeed have blown me away. 

Monday, 12 August 2019

dolor y gloria (w&d almodóvar)

Sometimes a filmmaker succeeds in occupying a role within their culture which permits them to grow old gracefully, like an artist or a novelist. There’s no need to worry about commercial viability, because there are stars who will line up to take part; the filmmkaker is free to indulge their whimsy or their genius as they see fit, without the interference of script development or production executives. Almodovar has never been near Hollywood, no matter how much his aesthetic contains elements that tally with that other culture. There’s nothing austere about his films, or overly intellectual. They possess a design elan, a delight in colour, music, artifice, which would sit happily across the Atlantic. But he’s never strayed far from Madrid, where he’s allowed to get on with doing what he wants, with budgets that more than meet his needs. The fact that the films are produced by his own production company no doubt facilitates the process.

This allows him to make this kind of film; one which is about a topic that doesn’t get much airing: the ageing of a middle-aged man. Salvador, played by Banderas, is a film director stricken down by illness. His youthful brio has faded. He mopes. Banderas plays this in a splendidly low-key tone. At one point, pace Hamlet, he offers advice to an actor: don’t cry, don’t force the emotion. Which is precisely what Banderas succeeds in doing. He offers a portrait of a man who has everything but at the same time feels as though his life is lacking. He tries heroin, (a slyly subversive twist, for those who might say that Almodovar has lost his punch; how many other directors casually introduce heroin into their films without it being for heightened dramatic purposes?), he visits old friends, he finds a lost lover, he drifts through doctors’ appointments and, above all - he remembers. Age accrues memory and the more we age, the more memory there is to process. Dolor y Gloria articulates this in three ways: firstly through the reconstructed scenes, staring Cruz, from Salvador’s childhood. Secondly in the lucid and brilliant theatre sequence, where the actor who has appropriated Salvador’s memory text, delivers a soliloquy about the lost lover (which the lost lover happens to see), and thirdly in conversation. There’s something almost Beckettian about all this, albeit a gaudy, gay Beckett, who lives in the kind of apartment with the kind of art one imagines would have made Beckett deeply uncomfortable. 

The sum of all these parts is a meandering movie, with characters who appear and then slip away, with a narrative which is tenuous, contrived, charming. It’s a film of quirky moments and high tenderness. It’s ostentatiously and gloriously self-indulgent. It’s as akin to reading a novel as cinema can be, a loose-limbed novel that celebrates the process of ageing and the exquisite library of memory. 

Thursday, 8 August 2019

tale of two cities [dickens]

Dickens is such a canonical part of British culture, whilst at the same time there’s something so relentlessly pedestrian about him, that it’s hard to know how to engage with him. A contemporary of Flaubert or Eliot, lacking any real psychological insight; a political writer who rails against injustice and yet manages to feel profoundly conservative in his approach to the act of writing. The connection between Loach and Dickens runs deep. A very British instinct to disassociate content and form which makes for the creation of stylistically barren works of radicalism. The British addiction to social realism writ large. 

All of which is, of course, not entirely fair. There are passages in Dickens’ writing which possess a heightened, poetic quality, one which offers another dimension to the storytelling. Not merely descriptive passages, but meditations on the nature of contemporary existence. Dickens looks down on his characters from on-high, a puppet master. They dance to his tune, which is part of the reason they never seem to be three-dimensional; they are too in thrall to the requirements of their creator. As a result, these sequences always feel slightly disconnected from the novel, they are rhetorical flourishes which frame the narrative, rather than propel it. 

Tale of Two Cities is a curious novel in so far as it’s one of the few Dickensian works which is largely set beyond the borders of the UK, as well as being set in the past.  An innate patriotism is stirred. The cornerstone of his writing, a critique of contemporary British society, is neutered. The writer seems genuinely conflicted regarding the subject matter he has chosen. On the one hand, he’s a writer who rails against social injustice. On the other, his horror at the forces unleashed by revolution is evident. Somewhere in the middle of this dialectic lies the synthesis of British moderation, a common sense or common humanity which means the British remain reluctant to engage with the forces of extremism. (There are traces of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Coriolanus to be found in this dilemma). It’s here that the Dickensian conservatism seeks its redemption. Change must be evolutionary, rather than radical. Flights of fancy might be permitted, but the characters will remain grounded, servicing the story at all times. Perhaps this is what makes Dickens seem like such a quintessentially British writer. 

How curious to find ourselves living in an epoch when it seems as though this Dickensian dialectic has been turned on its head. For the first time in 350 years it is the British who are acting in accordance with what has always been perceived, on British shores, to be a radical, dangerous continental model; whilst paradoxically seeking to move away from what is being represented as the over-regulated, straight-laced narrative constraints of the Europeans. So much of modern European history, on both sides of The Channel, can be traced back to the events of the French revolution. The Dickensian distaste for revolution, made plain in Tale of Two Cities, has been cast aside. The sober continentals look on in dismay as the furious Brexiteer tricoteurs knit their utopian dreams. 

Sunday, 4 August 2019

the guilty (w&d gustav möller, w emil nygaard albertsen)

The Guilty was much heralded in the UK last year, so it was with a certain anticipation that I finally settled down to watch it. People had told me that it was gripping, compelling, an astonishing manipulation of meagre resources. Essentially the film is a fine advert for the Aristotelian virtues of time, place and action. There’s always a frisson to be had from engaging with a film in ‘real time’, watching the clock tick down. It permits the spectator to feel complicit in the action: if you were to leave now, would this affect the narrative? Hence, the edge of the seat-ness of the movie. In addition it’s a wonderful riposte to the “show/ don’t tell” brigade - because all the action occurs ‘offstage’. The protagonist, Asger, works as a police response handler, (He’s no longer on the beat for reasons which become clear as the movie unfolds), tracking an apparent kidnapping. He is trapped in the passivity of his situation, as he attempts to influence events beyond his immediate control, at the end of a phone line. The script provides numerous twists as it unravels, keeping the audience guessing. We are in the same place as Asger; we share his information and his ignorance, and as a result we ride the rollercoaster with him. It’s skilful and effective screenwriting, even if the milieu ends up feeling something out of an episode of a cop drama series, which restricts the narrative potency to a certain extent. 

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Watching the film, it struck me that there might be another reason for its effectiveness. In a way, Asger’s situation reflects and captures the modern condition. We are all prisoners in our private shells today. Incarcerated by information we receive through our phones or our computers. We stare at screens which deliver terrifying information and search for a way to influence events from a position of passive ignorance. These events, as seen through the screen, are also deceptive. The heroic anti-establishment Assange becomes a stool pigeon of the Bannonite extremists. Our judgement is faulty, unreliable. Our impotence is repeatedly exposed. We could, like Asger, smash up the furniture in anger at the destruction of the rainforest or the contamination of the seas or the latest racist comment by a politician we have no way of ejecting, but this anger serves no purpose at all. Gustav Möller’s film is an excruciating metaphor for the tragic hopelessness caused by our modern technological servitude. 

Thursday, 1 August 2019

the naked kiss (w&d sam fuller)

Sam Fuller is one of the cult auteurs of post-McCarthy Hollywood, beloved of the French New Wave, among others. His films are out there, on a melodramatic edge. The Naked Kiss recounts the story of Kelly, a prostitute trying to change her ways, who falls in love with someone who turns out to be a child molester. Not a bad set-up for early sixties USA, about to tumble down the rabbit hole of that decade. The movie plays with the idea of an ideal US small-town, Grantville, which is all peaches and cream, but is actually the de facto domain of the pedophile Grant, the man Kelly falls in love with, after working in the paediatric hospital he has set up. There’s nothing particularly subtle about the movie and things that must have been shocking in the early sixties don’t come across as anything like today. Nevertheless, Fuller concocts a curious dreamlike vision of the USA (not a million miles away from either Wilder’s Our Town or Von Trier’s Dogville), where there’s a constant sense of menace beneath the surface, and the sensation that nothing is ever quite what it seems. One can just about conceive how impactful this must have been in its day, (and why Truffaut, etcetera were so enamoured), so that even the weirdly upbeat finale feels as though it carries a disturbing subtext. 

Monday, 29 July 2019

in the night of time (w. antonio muñoz molina, tr. edith grossman)

Plaza Santa Ana, a place where a young American rents a room, living beside washerwomen and labourers The smell of homemade food wafts its way up to her third floor apartment. Caldos, or sopas, tomato based, heavy on the pimenton, earthy flavours which make the most of the leftovers from the day before the day before. Down the road, on Alcala, just off Sol, a politician sits in a bar and consumes vast quantities of prawns and beer. The city hums with a life which reflects the way the capital has become a pole star, integrating every corner of the country, Andaluz, Asturian, Catalan, Galician and so on and so forth. It’s a far cry from the Santa Ana and Calle Alcala of today. Today, Santa Ana is full of dainty restaurants with prices geared towards the tourists. Sol is a catch-all, gaudy to the point of ugliness. As such, Molina’s novel, which is about many things, feels like a lament for a lost Spain, a Madrid which has been appropriated by the tourist dollar. The first time I ever visited Madrid, it still had a provincial feel; a town for insiders, full of secrets. Now, its secrets have been cast to the wind and it bustles with the energy of a modern, global capital. 

The novel captures Madrid on the eve of the Civil War. It’s framed around the affair conducted by its protagonist, Ignacio Abel, with Judith, a youngish American who is falling in love with him and Madrid. The novel has a double focus. On the one hand it’s a brilliant portrayal of a city which is teetering on the brink of disaster. Day by day, as the affair unfolds, the city steps closer and closer to the abyss, never realising where it will end until it’s too late. Molina details this process immaculately. The reader feels as though they are entering the vortex alongside the characters, many of whom will meet, we know, a tragic end. Hindsight is the novelist’s great weapon, and Molina wields it like a fencing sword. At one point he writes: “How strange to imagine with such clarity what I haven’t lived, what happened more than seventy years ago.” That strangeness is communicated to the reader, looking on in horror as the net closes. For an English reader in these times, the novel is more than disconcerting, it’s positively scary. 

The secondary focus of the novel is the affair. This too is detailed meticulously. Every step of Judith and Ignacio’s voyage is mapped. The novel itself is framed around Ignacio’s voyage from Penn Station to Rhineland, the university town on the Hudson where he has been commissioned to design a library, (his ticket out of Spain). At the end of this journey, he will meet Judith once again. The novelist never seeks to place his protagonist in a sympathetic light: he’s not merely fleeing Spain, he’s also running away from his family. There’s a coldness to Ignacio which perhaps goes with his chosen profession, a coldness which Judith succeeds in melting. At times it’s hard not to question Ignacio and by implication the author himself. if there’s any part of this novel which felt less than satisfactory to this reader it was the last twenty five pages, which might be said to allow Ignacio to have his cake and eat it.

Nevertheless, this last section cannot take the shine off a novel which succeeds brilliantly in conjuring up the lost world of pre-Civil War Spain, capturing in the process the way in which families and communities were rent asunder. At one point in the novel there’s a barbed reference to Hemingway and the other foreign writers who passed through Spain during the Civil War. In non-Spanish speaking countries, our understanding of that conflict is very much shaped by an outsider’s perspective. Here, in a fine translation by Edith Grossman, Molina recalibrates that, offering a compelling, evocative portrayal of a land teetering on the brink. 

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

doubles vies (w&d olivier assayas)

Assayas is prolific. He’s one of those directors who makes almost a film a year. There aren’t many who manage to do this nowadays. (Allen, Eastwood, Winterbottom.) You need a well-oiled machine to be able to go through the whole process of development, financing, pre-production, production, post with such consistency. Studios are set up to do this, but individual directors generally aren’t. The problem with the machine is that there’s a danger that the product starts to feel like just like that. A product. And there’s a sense with Doubles Vies, for all its fleeting moments of brilliance, that this is just that. 

The film opens with a wordy, brilliant sequence where publisher Alain informs the novelist Leonard Spiegel that he’s not planning on publishing his new novel, but he does so in a roundabout, amiable fashion, inviting him to lunch before stabbing him in the back. The decision is taken in he context of where Alain’s publishing house is going, with much discussion about the destiny of the novel in the digital age, both as an idea and a tangible product. Alain is having a fling with his head of digital operations, the go-getting bisexual Laure. The film appears to be laying down all kind of markers, as an investigation into the shape of thought in the future; the value of the word; the death of the attention span. In which context the highly wordy script makes sense: the film is challenging an audience to pay attention, to roll with intellectual ideas, a revindication of cinema as a space of thought/ philosophy rather than pure entertainment. There’s a lovely running joke about Haneke’s White Ribbon as well as a mediation on the ethics of auto-fiction, which might have struck a nerve with the Uruguayan audience. 

And yet, beneath all this, Doubles Vies ends up a very traditional French sex-comedy. Everyone is sleeping with someone else. The deceit stacks up and is mined for comedy. The ideas don’t really go anywhere, or if they do, it’s over this viewer’s head. The final pay-off is unadulterated sentimentalism. This is a bouillabaisse of Frenchness, pungent, reliable, a heartwarming dish. It reaffirms the tropes that the french are intellectual lovers, who drink in elegant bars whilst talking with aplomb about les idées du jour. Whether there’s any real substance behind all this is another matter altogether. 

Monday, 22 July 2019

la flor, parte 1 (w&d mariano llinás)

Paradox: should one write a review of La Flor, having only seen one third of the whole film? Under normal circumstances, the answer would be no. But La Flor is 808 minutes long. The first part alone is nearly three hours long. The film is made up of six stories, featuring the same four actresses, stories which are not connected. In the only part of the film which might be described as brief, the prologue, the filmmaker gives a rundown of each story, supplying an elegant diagram describing the shape of the film, a diagram which has the forma of a flower (or ‘flor’ in Spanish). The film, we are told, consists of four unfinished stories, another story which has a beginning, a middle and and an end, and a final story. Last night, in the company of Snr O, I watched the first two parts. 

Llinás specialises in shaggy dog stories. Another three part epic, Historias Extraordinarias, used voiceover to construct three narratives over several hours which never really went anywhere. Something similar occurs here, even though there’s no private-eye style narration. The first tale is a self-consciously B-Movie Mummy story, of possession in the Andes. It’s rudimentary and effective. The second chapter is more complex. This tells the story of a singing duo, who were a couple, albeit a couple whose story has been fictionalised in order to create a false marketing myth. The conflict between the two singers leads to a highly charged, brilliant rendition of their hit song, a duet in which the couple use the song like a weapon with which to wage their ongoing conflict. There’s shades of a sixties french romantic drama at work, something quasi-Godardian, very nouvelle vague, with faces in profile dominating the screen and much use of depth of field. 

Interweaved in this second story is another B-Movie strand, as one of the singer’s assistants is involved with a shadowy gang which is seeking to extract a serum for eternal youth from the venom of a “centurion scorpion”. The two narratives sit awkwardly within the same tale. The B-movie strand undercuts the potency of the music narrative. The chapter drags on, loses focus, becomes self-indulgent. Llinás’ temporal ambition, converting cinema into a kind of epic, oneiric poetry is revelatory. It sings of a lost art, part Abel Gance, part Homer.  However, it feels as though the filmmaker is wary of permitting any kind of emotional engagement; he wants this to be a definitively ludic, Borgesian viewing experience, nothing more and nothing less.

Which left me, as a viewer, frustrated; wanting to see the other episodes to see if the film could rise above its addiction to intellectual tomfoolery. It seems more than likely that La Flor will acquire a cult status. Like Tarantino, Llinás is an auteur of self-indulgent brilliance. Whether the whole adds up to more than the sum of the parts is something that can only be assessed after watching the film in its entirety. Perhaps it’s unfair to write this review without having seen the film as a whole; but then again it’s entirely within the spirit of La Flor’s ludic narrative philosophy to react in a manner which is not entirely coherent.

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

the inheritance (peter stephan jungk, tr. michael hoffmann)

The Inheritance is a novel about a man who is seeking to realise his inheritance. There’s not much in the way of subtext. Daniel has an uncle who lives in Venezuela. Daniel is his only kin. He has left a will, but the will is less definitive than it should be and Daniel accuses the Venezuelan executors of the will of stealing two million dollars which is rightfully his. The struggle to reclaim the monies takes years. Daniel gyrates from London to Caracas to Panama to Miami. It also leads to the breakdown of his marriage. However, there is another factor in the breakdown of the marriage: Daniel has an affair with a neighbour which his wife finds out about. The fact that he has no income; he is a listless poet; that his family live from hand to mouth and that he’s having an affair are never really acknowledged by the narrator as the real reason for his problems: rather he blames it all on his failure to realise an inheritance, which he doesn’t really seem to deserve on any kind of higher moral grounds. If this was a novel about misplaced obsession and fatal flaws, it might have been powerful; however the author seems, for reasons that aren’t always easy to discern, devoted to his protagonist, for whom it’s impossible to feel any kind of sympathy as his case goes from bad to worse.