Friday, 22 February 2008

there will be blood (d. paul thomas anderson)

In the opening, hypnotic, dialogue-free minutes I was reminded of Cerro Rico, the Potosi mine, where people still work like that today, chewing coca to keep themselves awake. It seemed unlikely that anyone still mines with a pick and a shovel in the US. The restraint of this opening section, capturing the hardship of the solitary miner's life, was so simply done it was reminiscent of the silent movies (emerging somewhere across them there hills). A tale told through edits and action. Where were the promised thespian pyrotechnics?

The script is adapted from a book by a writer steeped in social realism. Back in the York days with the sinking lake, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle was on the syllabus. Through Sinclair's eyes it was possible to discern the lost history of the United States. Real class struggle. A society that might have taken a different turn, if the capitalist instinct hadn't been so avaricious, so insatiable. Sinclair's sinuous take on the american struggle is the kind of voice that's been drowned out by the maudling sages of malcontented capitalism. The Updikes and the Roths, even the Bellows.

Which is part of the reason Anderson's decision to make a film of his novel seems so unlikely, and so exciting. Anderson the kittenish genius, the spinner of Carverian tales. Perhaps the greatest storyteller in contemporary US cinema. Choosing to go right back and explore some kind of root - the very soil itself. The scene where Plainview catches his first glimpse of the Pacific comes from that most potent of 19th century US tropes - its westernisation, its inevitable consumption of itself, but also its journey of discovery and self revelation.

On the beach, Plainview learns about his fallibility, something he's succeeded in avoiding ever since he fell down a mineshaft. One would imagine that the discovery of his supposed brother's treachery would be the cue for his fall from grace, love of family becoming his Achilles heel. When he's woken by the wily homesteader who's aware of his crime, it seems he's about to receive his come-uppance. But There Will Be Blood doesn't operate like that. The narrative arc never quite kicks in. Plainview just keeps on going, laughing off every enemy and obstacle he faces. Like capitalism, perhaps.

Day-Lewis' leonine performance as the craggy misanthrope is remarkable. Towards the end he draws comparison with Welles as Kane. Whether this is to the benefit of Anderson's film or not is debatable. Day-Lewis' turn is immensely enjoyable (when he praises Paul Dano's rather less convincing performance as a possessed preacher with the line 'great show' one can't help thinking that it takes a virtuoso ham to recognise another), but there is little danger to his demeanour. For all his ability to slap a kid around, he remains a somewhat cuddly, avuncular figure, like some renegade uncle in an Irish boozer. The greed and avariciousness are always overpowered by Day-Lewis' hard-working charm. When he finally wipes out his nemesis with a ten pin bowling skittle, it feels neither psychotic nor disturbing. Perhaps this is Anderson's (or Sinclair's) point - the violence within the man has reached such a point of saturation that killing in cold blood is no more serious than killing in theory - but one wonders how much more powerful the film might have been with a more restrained performance from its protagonist.

Nevertheless, Plainview's ambiguities keep us hooked. As ever, the scale of Anderson's ambition possesses an americanity that almost beseeches admiration. Plainview is a retrospective forefather to other robber-barons of US cinematic folklore. Corleone, Kane, Kurtz. It is more than likely that Anderson's oilman will find himself striding in their company. Thinking big worked for all of them, in artistic terms at least. PT Anderson's film celebrates that most american of qualities: size. Day-Lewis' performance is entirely in keeping with this, for better or for worse.

Monday, 18 February 2008

the oxford murders (d. de la iglesia)

7pm in Madrid. The plan had been to go and see There Will be Blood, but we'd misread La Guia. The Oxford Murders, yet to come out in the UK, was proposed. Several years ago I dragged the Director to see La Comunidad on a whim, so thought it was worth a shot to see what de la Iglesia might pull off with a film set in the weird world of Oxford. The queues in the Yelmo cineplex were impressive. The Madrilenos like their Sunday night out, and the auditorium was full.

Perhaps they were there for Elijah Wood. Perhaps they'd come to support a homegrown director. Perhaps they were all dabblers in mathematics. The sheer awfulness of large swathes of the movie didn't seem to phase the audience. No one left. No one threw popcorn at the screen. Some people even seemed to laugh in the right places.

If you marry a foreign director with a distinct national culture, it can go one of two ways. Something unexpected can be revealed, throwing a new light on images, habits and textures. Or it can look like the director hasn't really got a clue what he's dealing with. The theory of marrying de la Iglesia with the baroque and peculiar world of Oxford might seem worth a punt, to anyone who's seen La Comunidad. The practice is disastrous. Histrionic conversations in the Bodleian; caricatured coppers; John Hurt dressing up as Guy Fawkes; Elijah Wood being seduced by a nurse in the squash courts; a Russian student climbing over refectory tables; these were just some of the moments that felt as truthful as a dodgy WMD dossier.

Occasionally there would be hints of the film that de la Iglesia perhaps wanted to make: the flashbacks; the demented Maths student who self-lobotomises himself. It's noticeable that the director also has a screenwriting credit, and it seems astonishing the actors were persuaded to articulate some of the clunkiest, clearly translated-from-Spanish-lines ever heard. Actors who by and large didn't seem to have much of a clue what they were doing, or even, in one or two cases, what accent they were supposed to be adopting. (There is little more distracting then spending an entire movie trying to work out where an NHS nurse is supposed to come from.)

It does seem tragic that potentially one of the greatest locations for a film, the cast room of the V&A, will now be known for featuring in The Oxford Murders (viewers around the world will, perfectly legitimately, assume that this and indeed the V&A are in Oxford), but no doubt there have been other locations too good for the movies they feature in, just like actors, or costumes, or lighting states. Cinema is a communal enterprise, and the culpa for The Oxford Murders should be shared collectively.

Back in the now-rainy streets of Madrid, the movie was but a prelude for a visit to Toni's, a tapas bar down the road which did molleja and setas and patatas bravas; home cooked food washed down with a few canas which one hopes might appear in de la Iglesia's next film, rather than the ripe ham on offer in The Oxford Murders.

Monday, 11 February 2008

the diving bell and the butterfly [d. schnabel]

I've been trying to work out why I found this film so powerful. What it was doing that, so far as I was concerned, made it work so well. I went of a Sunday afternoon, walking across the tracks to Notting Hill, feeling on a beautiful day as though this was a film I ought to be seeing rather than one I had a desperate need to see. It caught me out like a southpaw, I was looking for a soft right, and got whacked with a jackhammer left.

The opening ten minutes are arresting, but also somewhat ennervating. In advance I'd been thinking about Schnabel's 'painterly eye'. The film is indeed beautiful. But this is a rough beauty, in and out of focus, scavenging colour and form. The trouble with beauty in cinema is that it can all too easily leave one cold. Pretty pictures are all very well, but if they are not arresting, then they might as well be ugly. What Schnabel is dealing with is not beauty, but perception.

Which is the source of beauty, in the end. There is a reason Jean Dominique Bauby's book works so well in the hands of a painterly director. Bauby's book, at the end, is a celebration of perception. Once again, (cf Reygadas's Silent Light) there is a metaphor for cinema itself at the heart of the film. Bauby's perception of life mirrors our perception of the film: we observe but cannot participate.

For the opening ten minutes at least. Which is enough to establish our identification with the paralysed protagonist. Later in the film, Bauby says he has two things going for him - imagination and memory. However, with memory comes the knowledge of loss, which is ultimately what makes this film so heart-rending. Bauby has to learn to live with the knowledge of that which he has had and shall never have again. Something we all have to do at some stage in our lives, if not in such dramatic circumstances as the film's protagonist. Likewise, we all use our imagination as an escape valve. Bauby's humanity seems hightened by his catastrophe rather than belittled by it. The distortion between physical frailty and mental fecundity provokes an increased understanding of what it means to be alive in this world.

Mathieu Amalric's performance at the heart of the film breathes life into these ideas. Playing someone afflicted by illness, be that mental or physical, often brings out the star in an actor. Amalric does remarkable things with nothing more than a roving eye, but beyond all this his performance is created by his voice, the inner voice of Bauby. The pitch of a voice often tells more about a performance than anything else. A director cannot tweak a voice, and the actor cannot hide it behind his or her attractiveness or art. The character of Bauby needs the voice to be just right, because this is what reveals his humanity, his sense of self. Amalric's delivery is beautifully weighted, as varied as a Warne over but steady as McGrath. All the humour, cynicism and pathos of the man he portrays is captured, whether you speak French or not.

Again, this voice is an article of perception, both for the speaker, and us, the listener. Schnabel is bold enough to let the voice, over which he has so little control, speak for itself. It's his surprising reticence as a director which allows the film to work. The edits within the film are sharp and unsentimental. The effects are almost always to the benefit of the narrative, as the film flowers from its opening constrained Bauby-eyed view to the tragedy of the final car journey, the one time the camera is truly allowed off the leash as it pirrouetes through a Parisian sky. Schnabel does the simple things well, such as cutting from Bauby to his speech therapist after Bauby's father's final call, allowing the emotion that wells through the scene to be released in her tears.

Finally, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly succeeds not because of its ability to elicit emotion, but through its humour. Humour is a touchstone of common humanity. Bauby is an up-to-the-minute Beckett character, trapped in his physical self. His powerlessness is that of an infant. Yet he retains the ability to find his predicament funny. One of the smartest scenes occurs when a telephone is delivered to his room and the workmen laugh at the man who can't speak being given a telephone. His speech therapist chides them, but Bauby laughs with them.

I'm not sure I've got anywhere near to the root of discovering why this film is so powerful. It is about perception, the notion of humanity, it is beautifully directed, remarkably well acted, it is funny, it's sad, it makes 'em laugh, it makes 'em cry. All this and yet, as with any cinema that really works, the sum is so much greater than the parts. All the critic can do is break the film down into its constituent elements, some of which s/he might get right, some wrong. A modest exploration of something which has been honed and worked over for years. And in this case, it is not just the film which has been worked over, but the book as well. Doubtless, most of the elements of Schnabel's film which make it so powerful are to be found within Bauby's book. Yet the director brings his own eye to that book, he mediates it through his perception. The marriage of Bauby's blinking brilliance and Schnabel's flashy modesty have produced something out of the ordinary.

When I left the cinema day had turned to night. I walked back to my side of the tracks feeling exhausted and alive.

Friday, 8 February 2008

still life (d. Jia Zhangke)

Still Life, is, in its discreet way, another dystopian fable, dealing with the end of civilisation. The film is set in the last days of a 2000 year old city, Fengjie, over an unclear period of a time. The town will be submerged as a result of the Three Gorge's dam being built on the Yangtze river, and the film follows the journeys of two unconnected characters who travel there looking for their missing spouses.

The currents of history, both personal and political, flow through the film, suggesting the rootlessness caused by the political act of destroying the city is mirrored in the lives of the citizens in the new China. The labourer Han Sanming comes to the town by river to seek a wife who left him sixteen years ago. His story is counterpointed by that of Mrs Guo, the wife of a party official, who has not seen him for two years. Her story is sandwiched within Han Sanming's, and any connections are implicit, rather than direct.

Han Sanming's is played with a kind of virile docility by the actor who shares his name. A labourer who knows little of the city but arrives and becomes a part of its destruction, working in the demolition teams. These are frequently captured on film like the still lives of the title, the labourers framed from a distance, sometimes sillhouetted. The act of labour eclipses the artifacts of labour - buildings and monuments collapse at the whim of history (Mrs Guo's contact for her husband is an archeologist, excavating ruins within soon-to-be-ruins) but human toil continues until the bitter end.

Still Life is a stately film, infused with the torpor of Sichuan Province. Nothing happens in a hurry. A cigarette lingers, a husband waits sixteen years before he decides to find his lost wife. When he does she asks him to sit down and offers him a plate of noodles. Civilisations come and go, but history is subject to the sluggish tide of human development and perception. Some of the most eye catching scenes in the film are a-historical: the monument blasting into space; and the filmmaker's whimsical depiction of a UFO, the only point of connection between the twin protagonists, suggesting that no matter what influence the historical powers of China seek to exert on history, even geography, there will always be forces beyond their control.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

cloverfield (d. matt reeves)

When I was still a nipper at boarding school in Cheltenham, there was a fortnightly film screening in a big hall with plastic bucket seats. I have recollections of Oh! Mr Porter and Reach for The Sky. But the film that really sticks in my mind was The Omega Man. It affected many of the pre-teen audience so much they ran crying from the hall. It remained the most impactful Charlton Heston performance until his appearance in Bowling for Columbine.

The brains behind Cloverfield, JJ Abrams, is two weeks younger than me. He might have similar disturbed memories of the dystopian world of Omega Man. Even if he doesn't, he's smart enough to know that a well-made disaster flick is the apple of the commercial eye. The thing is, it has to be done differently. It needs a catch.

The star of Cloverfield is not an actor. It is the cinematographer, Michael Bonnevillain. The artfulness lurking behind the seeming artlessness of a gauche young man videoing the collapse of a city is highly skilled. If it really looked like something you or I might have filmed, it would have been unwatchable. As it is, the camera flirts with its audience, implying a banality which is deceptive.

Beyond the historical disaster flicks, Cloverfield's other source of inspiration is more pressing, and more scary. It's the jerky footage of dust storms billowing through Manhattan on the day the Towers came down. That footage has an immediacy which has helped to enbed 911 in popular consciousness, and there's no doubt that the filmmakers of Cloverfield have studied it carefully. The film is at its most compelling in the immediate, confused aftermath of the first 'attack', when pandemonium reigns and no-one knows what's going on. This is what we're viscerally reliving as we watch confused affluence running blindly for the Brooklyn Bridge. It's a vision of the potential hell which 911 showed the world, a time when mobile phones grind to a halt and looters steal televisions which will soon have nothing left to show.

As the reference to The Omega Man (or The War of the Worlds or Escape from New York, etc etc) indicates, dystopian fantasies are nothing new. We want to see the world brought to its knees, knowing that when we leave the cinema normality will cocoon us with its charms. There has been criticism of Cloverfield for the way it shows a slightly ludicrous King Kong-meets-Alien monster pottering around midtown. However, by the time the monster appears, the movie is already almost over. It's now about camerawork and denouement. The filmmakers wisely keep it as a short sharp rollercoaster and don't innundate the audience with plot or explanation. The hard work has already been done, the audience is hooked and will stay on for the ride. The neo-jerky camera work is ever-ready to spring a surprise should the tension flag.

Cloverfield is a brilliant but cynical piece of filmmaking. It reassures more than it disturbs, thrills more than it reveals. It's a film for the post-Playstation era, but it's sassy enough to tap into older cinematic myths, whilst riffing off contemporary phobias. It will fit into many a post-modern thesis and it might just scare the life out of a generation of ten to twelve year olds.