Friday, 20 April 2018

a quiet place (w&d john krasinski; w scott beck, bryan woods)

For reasons more to do with the professional than pleasure, I found myself watching John Krasinski’s acclaimed horror. And then wondering why or on what terms or in what parallel universe this film is worthy of being acclaimed. A Quiet Place could be a model exercise in how to take a great idea and proceed to disembowel it. The premise is that the killer aliens have finally arrived, only they function acoustically. If they hear noise, they’ll attack. Humanity has failed to be smart enough to find a solution and society has collapsed. People live in a state of Carthusian silence. Make too much noise and you’re a gonner. It’s a smart premise which functions on both a narrative and technical level, one that demands an audience pay attention  and listen. The significance of silence is amplified. Unfortunately, the film which can’t even respect the beauty of its premise. There’s a clunky score which infiltrates whenever it looks as though there’s a risk the film might flag. Which it does repeatedly. Added to which, there’s a use of jump scares akin to an over-enthusiastic barman going mad on the jaegermeister shots. ANDDD here comes another one! Down the hatch. The incongruities in the narrative are legion. There are almost more than there are rampaging monsters. The dialogue, for a film with next to none, is so reductive it deserves to be put down. And yet, dear reader, this film has been a critical and commercial success. The latter one can perhaps accept; in a list of the top 20 grossing films of all time, there are two from the F&F franchise and none that this writer would have have paid to watch. Which means there’s no accounting for taste. But how straight-laced critics can allow themselves to be seduced by this nonsense defeats me. One imagines they have been beguiled the beauty of the idea; like a child being given a shiny toy they are so distracted that their faculties are incapacitated. Much like the young boy whose merciful death at the start of the film spares him from having to negotiate the following 80 minutes of increasingly vapid sound and fury signifying nothing but the jangling sound of dollars landing in the box office coffers. 

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

the square (w&d ruben östlund)

When you’re developing a film in this part of the world (I don’t know what it’s like in Sweden), you are repeatedly requested to clarify the film’s themes. One can imagine what someone like Hitchcock might have made of this. As a writer, I tend to be inherently resistant to this way of thinking which can lead to a tendency to over-explain, even to patronise the audience. You shouldn’t need to state your themes. They should emerge. At least that’s my line. The Square is a classic example of a film that seems far too concerned with making sure there’s absolutely no doubt about its themes. Which is a real shame, because this ends up spoiling what would otherwise have been a terrific film. 

Christian is a gallery curator whose latest project, an installation by Lola Arias, is all about creating a space which is both a haven and a place which forces individuals to face up to to, or square up to, their social responsibilities. This film ends up being Christian’s ‘square’. The place where he will confront his responsibilities, something he’s not very keen on having to do, either as a father, a lover or a human being. The first hour of the film has several sequences which display the director’s razor-sharp satirical brilliance. The world of the gallery is beautifully constructed. Christian’s understated arrogance meticulously captured by actor, Claes Bang, and script. But gradually the film starts to lose its shape. Increasingly it becomes a string of sequences rather than a cohesive narrative. The ape-man dinner, the press conference, the girls’ acrobatic team, the star cameos, the kitchen sink. It dawns on you that the director is struggling to leave anything out. Whilst simultaneously putting as much in as he feasibly can to make sure that we, as an audience, get what it’s all about. The themes. It starts to feel like being hit over the head with a paper hammer. It doesn’t hurt, it even tickles, but in the end it can’t help but become irritating. 

Force Majeure had an economy, reinforced by the single location, which helped lend the film a remarkable power. The Square, in spite of its title, feels as though it sprawls all over Stockholm. No-one’s going to deny that Östlund has serious talent, but The Square is never as neat as its premise suggests. In some ways it’s reminiscent of the film of Arias’ compatriot, one she actually appears in, Mariano Llinas’ Improbable Stories, a film which also suggests a wunderkind at work, but one which ends up giving the impression of a director over-reaching themselves, both in length and insistence (in Llinas’ case it’s an over-reliance on his aesthetic). Or even Lanthimos’ The Lobster: all of these films indicative of talented directors grappling to get to grips with bigger budgets and wider reach. 

Thursday, 12 April 2018

the doorman [reinaldo arenas]



A long, long time ago, New York felt like it had to be the centre of the universe.
On both a political and personal level. Even though I’d never been there.
It was culturally dominant. The films, Scorsese, Allen, natch, and a whole
lot more besides. The music, The Velvets, Dylan, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson
and what the kids now call post-punk. Blondie, Richard Hell, Johnny Thunders,
all that jazz. The art. Warhol, Basquiat, Schnabel. The club scene, which to
the ears of a curious youth sounded like the apogee of a new Roman Empire
(And from subsequent accounts it probably was.) The literature.
Interesting to note that this periodemerged before NY became ‘gentrified’ to the
extent that it supposedly has today. When there were still no-go areas. Also
interesting to note the role that a type like Kushner has occupied in this
cleansing of the city. Kushner, the mini-me Trump, the bruiser who will also
have played his part in the process of remodelling it as a sanitised, deracinated
environment which has little to do with its earlier incarnation.

The literature was spearheaded at that time, by Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the
Vanities. A vast book which we read with avid expectation. One of those
books which is no longer in fashion, but, in its moment, felt as though it
defined the shape of the world.

The first half of Arenas’ novel, which is a profoundly New York novel,
reminded me of Bonfire of the Vanities. Its premise is the travails of a
spiritual doorman in a high-end NY block of flats, and his interactions
with the residents, who seduce him, abuse him and ignore him. The
clash of cultures, which made the city seem so vital, is present in
spades. Juan, the doorman, is the beautiful immigrant ingenue, the
type who will go on to help construct the city. Although many of the
characters have a Cuban connection - Juan is a recently arrived Cuban
immigrant, others have been there longer or have more tenuous links to
the old country, Arenas succeeds in keeping this theme and his personal
issues regarding Castro’s regime in the background. In the foreground
is the satirical vision of the city.

At least for the first half of the book. The second half veers off into
the realm of metaphorical fable. Perhaps, it could be argued by the
PhD student that this fable, which involves a biblical exodus of the
rich owners’ pets, presages the way in which the city would be stripped
of its vibrant, animal life over decades to come. Although, as is the
way with metaphorical fables, it could be read in many other ways.
Needless to say, Arenas’ novel is something of a tale of two halves,
and the first Wolfeian half is the one that engaged this reader more
effectively than the second. The Doorman is one of those books which
is perhaps more interesting for the position it takes up within a cannon
than the text itself, but its a fine example of the author’s Swiftian aesthetic,
capable of mixing extreme satire with what might pass for a children’s book.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

visages villages (w&d agnes varda; jr)

It’s impossible not to warm to Agnes Varda, the great survivor. Truffaut has gone, Godard is in hiding, Rohmer, Rivette, Chabrol all dead, but Varda keeps going. This film, according to IMDB her 52nd as a director, is co-directed with the geekily enthusiastic JR, an interventionist photographer. It sees them criss-crossing her native country, With Varda helping her co-director put up giant photo-murals of common people in the provinces. This showcases Varda’s democratic instincts: the objective of the exercise is to put ‘art’ in places it wouldn’t normally be expected to find a home (the side of a farm shed; the port of Le Havre; a factory). The reflections of ordinary people to the art is fascinating and the directors’ down-to-earth intervention makes a mockery of so much well-intentioned, pretentious attempts to diversity culture’s reach. It really isn’t that hard: get in a van, go to places, and do something which gets the locals involved. 

At the same time, the film is an examination of the relationship between Varda and JR. At one point he takes her to meet his only slightly-older grandmother, whose lack of faculties helps to remind us, in case we needed to be reminded, what a remarkable woman Varda is. There’s something slightly contrived about this strand of the film, not least when they go on an abortive relationship to visit Godard. Here the film skirts over the deeper issue it touches upon, namely Varda’s relationship with death, approaching more rapidly now in the rear view mirror.

Nevertheless Visages Villages  is a relentlessly charming film. Let’s hope it’s far from being her last. 

Sunday, 1 April 2018

the doll’s alphabet [camilla grudova]

It felt appropriate to be reading Grudova’s strange stories in Mexico, the North American antipode to her native Canada. The skulls, the stitched-up painted faces, the anthropomorphism are all elements her stories and the country have in common. Grudova constructs her gothic universe across the course of the book’s thirteen stories, some brief, some more extended. The book is full of slightly vulnerable female narrators, whose relationships with the opposite sex are rarely straightforward. It’s perhaps a book to be dipped in and out of; sometimes there’s a feeling of repetitiveness as the same tropes reappear. If you like Saunders and Kafka and surrealism, The Doll’s Alphabet will probably delight.

Monday, 26 March 2018

la región salvaje (the untamed) (w&d. amat escalante, w. gibrán portela)

I had the good fortune to watch Escalante’s film in Mexico City, with an attentive local audience. I say this because, although cinema is such a private event, there is clearly a communal aspect to the act of attending a film in the company of others, something which lends the viewing another dimension. The only films I watch that I discuss here are ones I have seen in a cinema, or at a public screening. Whilst for many cinema is increasingly something to be experienced at home, there is still a distinction to seeing it in a cinema, and the instance of watching La Región Salvaje only emphasised this.

La Región Salvaje is quite off the wall. In Europe, were it to be released it would probably be marketed as an art film. Escalante’s Cannes hit, Heli, was seen in this light, and well received because, one suspects, it could be treated as such a serious dissertation on the state of narco-Mexico. In spite of the fact that it’s very much a film about real people living real lives. La Región Salvaje might be said to be even more so. Its high concept premise is based around the existence of a creature which landed on the earth, dedicated to pleasure, which is kept by some old hippies in the countryside. However, it needs feeding, (or pleasuring), so the hippies use a beautiful girl, Veronica, as bait to lure a young doctor, who’s bisexual. His experience with the creature proves too much and leaves him in a coma. The doctor had been having an affair with his sister’s husband, something she finds about. Through Veronica, the sister learns about the creature and visits it, which in her case does her no harm at all. But when her estranged husband tries to come back into her life, she offers him up to the creature, which kills him. 

The plot then is complicated, perverse, pretentious, daft. It’s really hard to place La Región Salvaje: is it a horror film? Is it social realism? Is it a sex comedy? Of course, the answer is that it all of these things, as well as being, no doubt, a metaphor for the current state of the nation. (Is the creature that can only deliver pleasure but also kills an analogy for the drugs/ narco world?). At the same time, as the audience reaction made clear, it’s also extremely entertaining. The laughter of the local audience was a corrective to any pretension. And perhaps goes to show, as does Escalante’s film, how cinema has found itself so entrapped in a high/ low culture divide. La Región Salvaje seems to mock the very notion of an “art” film. The director and writer steer a narrative course which belongs to neither camp, or both camps, at the same time. It defies categorisation, something that might be tricky for the marketing men, but is more reflective of cinema’s capacity to tackle issues of import (politically/ aesthetically) whilst at the same time engaging with an audience on a visceral level. 

Thursday, 22 March 2018

this little art [kate briggs]

This Little Art is an extended essay about the art of translation. It looks at the author’s process as she translates a series of lectures made by Roland Barthes towards the end of his life. It also examines the complex relationships between Gide and his translator, Dorothy Bussey and Thomas Mann and his translator, Helen Lowe-Porter, whose versions of his novels helped establish Mann’s reputation in the Anglo-Saxon world.

And straight away I’ve walked into the first trap, which is the kind of trap Brigg’s book sets out to explain and elucidate. I used the word “version”. Is a translation a “version’ or is it a re-presentation of the thing itself, which is the work in its original language? When we read a translated novel, to what extent could it be said that we’re reading the work of the author, and to what extent are we reading the work of the translator? 

Briggs’ book takes on all these questions and a thousand more, all questions that arise from the practice of her ‘little art’. At all times, her writing exhibits a fascination and love for the very business of writing (which dovetails neatly with Barthes’ similar passion). How words are put together, how the order that words are strung together matters, resonates, fails or succeeds. How meaning and language play on one another, sometimes tripping each other up. How the writer’s mind works, no matter whether the writing is ‘original’ or not. 

Briggs also exhibits much of the playfulness that Barthes so enjoyed. Her book is a dance, of words and ideas. This is true down to the very way in which the text is presented on the page, (hat-tip once again to the publisher for not selecting the cheaper option). This Little Art manages to pull of the trick of being thought-provoking and entertaining, as well as both scholarly and moving. Translation is an undervalued art, and Briggs’ book goes some way towards giving it the credit it is due. 

Saturday, 17 March 2018

in the forests of siberia (w&d safy nebbou; w. sylvain tesson, david oelhoffen)

The Romantic tradition has long had a strong hold over French sensibility. Rimbaud and Gauguin are just the tip of the iceberg. This film taps right into it. It’s based on the book written by Sylvain Tesson (Consolations of the Forest) which told the story of the author’s six months in Siberia. A desire to get away from it all, armed with nothing much more than vodka and literature. Not having read the book, I can’t comment on how faithful the film is to Tesson’s story. The lead character isn’t called Sylvain, he’s called Teddy, and the curious thing about the film is that it ends up not being about solitude, but companionship. The film hinges on Teddy’s meeting and getting to know Aleksei, a Russian who fled to the wilderness after he killed a man, many years ago. 

The first act of the film traces Teddy’s journey towards his solitude as he arrives in his cosy hut by the banks of a frozen Lake Baikal. He has an interesting visit from a bear. He seems quietly content on his own, although he does make a cross-lake skiing trip to the nearest settlement to get provisions. When he comes back he ignores the advice he’s been given and heads out into a snowstorm, an action which might have been the death of him if it wasn’t for the intervention of the mysterious stranger, who turns out to be Aleksei. 

The film from there on in feels faintly formulaic as the two men bond over the course of various adventures. What keeps the movie ticking over is some agile editing by Anna Riche. There must have been a temptation to linger on the ravishing scenery. The natural world Teddy inhabits is the third character in the film, sometimes antagonist, sometimes consolation, sometimes philosophical partner. However, in a movie of an hour and a half, there’s always a danger of overkill, something the rhythm of the film manages to avoid. Nevertheless it feels a pity that the Aleksei-Teddy storyline takes quite such a predictable course; the more profound learning that Teddy might have encountered in his sojourn in the wilderness never quite comes across. In the hands of Herzog, Teddy’s journey might have been more unsettling (and there are moments when one is reminded of Grizzly Man), or more spiritual; instead Safy Nebbou chooses to veer towards a more sentimental, (romantic?), vision of life in the Siberian wilds. 

Saturday, 10 March 2018

red sparrow (d. francis lawrence; w. justin haythe)

Heathrow, waiting to catch a plane to Houston, where I will not leave the airport. 

Mr Curry decided we should go and see Red Sparrow rather than A Fantastic Woman for reasons which were never entirely clear and the truth is that the movie offers less to get excited about than its ‘hot-under-the-collar’ press would hope. Within ten minutes Mr C had murmured to me “This is an airline movie, right?’ And he was. Any film which has a plot point revolve around floppy disks feels unlikely, introducing a degree of contrivance which undermines even the most far-fetched of narratives. At some point, even though we know we’re watching a Bond-esque fantasy, we need to feel there’s some kind of underpinning in at least a hypothetical truth, and a detail like this seems is so unwieldy that even the most tenuous connection to that hypothetical reality is ruptured and we start to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. Which may or may not annoy the filmmakers, who knows. Maybe they don’t care and they’re just laughing all the way to the bank.

What is interesting, however, about Red Sparrow, is its representation of the the American other, in the shape of the Russians. These Russians, are ruthless. They have a devotion to the nebulous idea of the state/ motherland. And, in Red Sparrow, above all else, they are obsessed by sex and its power dynamics, rather than its pleasure dynamics. One can’t help thinking that this is no more than a mirror to the state of US society: that the portrayal offered within the film of the Russians is a way of exploring the concerns and values of the filmmakers themselves. None of which reflects their country in a particularly flattering light. 

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

strong island (d yance ford)

Strong Island is a meditative, deeply felt and personal documentary, made be Yance Ford about the death of his/her brother, William. William was shot after a petty dispute. His killer was never brought to trial. The documentary analyses the impact of the death on what had been an aspirational family. Her mother was a successful teacher and William himself had just qualified as a correctional officer at the time of his death. Following his murder, their close-knit family was devastated by the way that the state refused to bring his killer to trial. Had the tables been turned, had William been white and his killer black, they had no doubt that justice would have been pursued. There are other aspects of the case which the film touches on, albeit in fleeting detail, such as the unmarked car that sat outside the family home in the days after William’s death and the calls in the middle of the night. But, more than anything else, it feels as though the making of this film is a cathartic, necessary journey for the filmmaker, whose face is captured in vivid close-up, wrestling with the duty bequeathed to ensure that a brother’s death would not be forgotten; that the art of the director’s cinema would offer at least a hint of justice, where the processes of the state have offered none.