Tuesday, 27 January 2009

milk (d. gus van sant, w. dustin lance black)

The friend with whom I went to see this film found it moving - as we walked out into the night she said something about it being a wonderful film, then looked in my direction and saw I wasn't responding and said - oh, didn't you like it?

It wouldn't be accurate to say I didn't like it, but it did feel like a bit of a mess. The film itself got me thinking about all the issues it wanted me too (and even researching why the poignancy of Milk's achievement is just as great today), but it also got me thinking about what makes a good film, a good story, a good biopic. If not in that order.

Milk's story is inspirational, and in the exhortations to change, and the film's emphasis on minorities, possesses a seemingly conscious hint of Obamisation. It's one of those stories that needs to be told, and Penn's performance as Milk is impressive, capturing the fey steeliness which Milk discovered in his forties. Van Sant threads archive footage into his narrative, and the sequence when Milk first arrives in Castro with his boyfriend has a verve and energy which seems to conjure up that heady time, on the cusp of the sixties' end. Milk's transformation from rakish hippie back to clean-cut businessman who could fit into the machine, also seems indicative of the sacrifices the minority/ counter culture had to make to secure representation and status, a process which also seems to have reached a logical conclusion in the election of the US' new president.

However, and I'll comment on that word in a moment, the screenplay seems to struggle to keep up with the succession of events which comprised the last ten years or so of Milk's life. Boyfriends come and go, (there were more who were edited out) and Milk tries year after year to win political office. The confusing details of Proposition Six are fought and defeated, whilst Milk learns to become a politician, making strategic alliances and campaigning on populist issues, such as dog shit. Somewhere in it all, yoked together by the recorded monologue Penn/ Milk makes in the event of his death, there is the narrative of a man overcoming his own insecurities, his own struggle to come out, as well as his fascination with the edgier side of gay culture (personified in the film by the underdeveloped suicidal boyfriend, Jack Lira). This story - the story of the man as well as the activist - keeps getting in the way of the other story, which is the story of the activist as martyr, and to my mind these stories (and perhaps others as well) ended up cluttering the two hours of screen time to such an extent that, charismatic though many of the characters depicted were, as well as being beautifully acted, the whole never hung together, and the movie seemed to move along like a car caught in the wrong gear.

However... I spend all my days dwelling in the portals of Character, Narrative, Premise and those other touchstones of the orthodox script. Scripts are constantly being skewered on the railings of my 'however'. And it is, in part, by these terms that I choose to judge Milk. Whereas my friend found herself absorbed in the simple story, which is, without doubt, moving and uplifting. Which is all that matters, as films are not made in search of perfection, rather, they seek to strike a chord with their given audience. And there's not much doubt that Milk does this. Given this my cavils seem kind of beside the point.


Briefly, on the subject of biopics. This is a curious phenomenon, and one perhaps has different rules to the usual objectives of dramatic cinema. Where most films are seeking to make entertainment, the biopic is more concerned with writing history. Which is an elusive thing to capture in a narrative-friendly fashion, (ay there's the rub), as history doesn't conform to the rules of storytelling, which recreates truth to meet its own ends. (Apologies for the amount of brackets, but please imagine a whole host of notes in the margin, or a flurry of inverted commas packaged around almost every thought herewith expressed.) Milk's flaws (in my eyes) are perhaps nothing but the determination of history to refuse to let facts work in a programmed, machine-like, manner. Given all this I started to think that it's almost impossible to create a dramatically satisfying biopic. And then I remembered how much I enjoyed Che: Part 1, earlier this month; and then, as I write, I recall how much I took from The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, which is when all's said and done, a biopic. The trick, of course, is to be subjective, and also, to have no fear of distorting the apparent truth in the quest for those truths which are not so apparent, which do not lie on the surface. If that's what you're looking for.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

snow [w orhan pamuk]

In the week or so since I've finished Snow the economic crisis in the UK, and other parts of the world, has slipped another notch, a new leader of the Western world has been installed, with great fanfare, there have been no terrorist outrages, and, apropos nothing at all, I have read another ten thousand scripts.

Beside the last point, all of the above has some pertinence to Pamuk's novel. Although this is a novel set in Kars, a small town in a distant corner of Turkey, Pamuk succeeds in convincing the reader that what he is actually writing about is the great ebb and flow of ideas and ideologies which shape the margins, and therefore by definition, the very structures themselves, of this world, this world being the one within which all of the above information might seem of pertinence.

The novel describes the brief stay in the city of a minor Turkish poet, Ka, who finds himself trapped there by heavy snowfalls, as the army seize power in a theatrical coup. The coup is conducted with the aim of suppressing the radical Muslim influences in the town. It's doomed to be unsuccessful, its lifespan no longer than the time it will take for the snow to start melting. During his stay, Ka meets all the city's key political players. He falls in love with Ipek, who he later learns is a former lover of Blue, the leader of the radical Muslims. Ostensibly in the city to investigate a recent spate of suicides by girls who have refused to take their headscarves off, Ka finds himself possessed by his poetic muse, writing a flood of poetry for the first time in years.

Snow is therefore, about many things: the value of love, the nature of creativity, the curse of politics. It's a multi-layered book, which can be read from a variety of perspectives. There are all kinds of themes one could choose to highlight, and a variety of readings to be had. As such its invidious to select one, but given the week that's passing, it feels prescient to choose to nominate the way in which Snow unfurls the great dividing line that exists between the world of the 'West' and the world of those who feel alienated by this 'West' with its laisser faire morals, economics and social structures. In his travels round Kars, Ka walks the tightrope which is this fault line, understanding the need and value for belief, whilst also cherishing his right to write what he wants, and to love in accordance with the urgings of his heart.

It comes as little surprise to learn that its not a tightrope that can be walked for long. Ka finds it impossible to resist his tragic destiny, falling under the sway of what he perceives to be an inevitable unhappiness. The novel skillfully diffuses tension, constantly leaking information about what the future holds for its characters. Pamuk's book doesn't seem so much interested in the tension inherent in his plot (the survival of a hero adrift in an anarchic cut-off border town) as the tensions that collectively create a context for the hero's plot to unfold. Tensions which provoke his creativity, which force him to come to terms with what really matters in life. Tensions which underpin the aspirations of both 'Western' society, and the parallel society which defines itself in opposition to 'the West', one shaped by its poverty just as much as the West is shaped by its wealth.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

slumdog millionaire (d. danny boyle, w. simon beaufoy)

There's a short interview on the Guardian website with Boyle, where he says that he doesn't want Slumdog to become this year's Mamma Mia, suggesting that any audience looking for a feelgood movie is going to find the first hour of the film hard work. It seems to me, in saying this, he's identifying the complex conundrum at the heart of the work, which we'll get to in a moment.

Firstly, though, let's talk about the grade. Boyle also mentions in the interview how much he loves digital film making. It's not every day you watch a film and get excited by the grade, more or less the last thing to occur in the film-making process. After the footage has been shot, assembled, sound mixed, comes the grade, the process whereby the pictures themselves are enhanced and an overall look can be imposed. Slumdog is a luscious visual fest. Chillies glow hyper-red; the golden hue of an evening interview room is hyper-golden. This is a world saturated in colours which seem larger than life. The colours heighten everything, giving the film a vigorous, energetic beauty which matches Anthony Dod Mantle's percussive cinematography. Boyle manipulates all the technical tools at his disposal to impressive effect, cajoling the technology to drive the narrative forwards.

The narrative is one of those too-good-to-be-true stories, both a screenplay and a marketing perfect storm. It's impossible not to admire the chutzpah of Celador: having planted themselves on the film-making landscape through the money laid by their golden goose, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, they then discover a novel manufactured entirely around their product, and turn it into a blockbuster which not only works cinematically but also re-invigorates a flagging core brand. The simple structure of each answer Jamal giving as he climbs the Millionaire ladder tying into his personal history is a wonderfully effective piece of storytelling, allowing the narrative to flit backwards and forwards in time. Beaufoy lashes this into shape, keeping the pace up, even if the film descends towards cliche in its treatment of the fraternal relationship. In the list of Slumdog's antecedents, The Full Monty is the fairy godmother. Having learnt from the rather more downbeat Yasmin, Beaufoy has gone back to the positive messages which made his name, and whilst Slumdog is very much a testament to Boyle's directorial facility, it owes a lot to Beaufoy's feelgood muscles.

Which brings us back to Mamma Mia. And Los Olvidados, ie neo-realism. And a far wider discussion which I shall try to address as succinctly as possible, raising issues rather than answering questions.

Slumdog is quite obviously a feelgood movie. The guy gets the girl, and the money, and a whole nation is delighted for him. The guy, Jamal, played with a perfect downbeat insouciance by Dev Patel, is a sympathetic hero who goes on a classic journey, encapsulated by the film's title. We want him to succeed and he does. So why should Boyle be looking to play this down? 

The director talks about how he went to film in the real Mumbai slums, surprising his Indian crew, who normally build slums when they need them. This is a token of the film's authenticity. It opens with a dynamic chase sequence, as Jamal and his brother flee the police.  The brothers' mother is killed by a religious mob. They end up living on a rubbish dump. They are slumdogs, and the audience is invited into their home. This is neo-realist territory, but Boyle's filmmaking is anything but low-key. If the experience of watching Slumdog has anything to do with living in the slums of Mumbai, its purely an accident of time and place. In Boyle's version, life there is an endless riot of escapades and adventures; losing a parent here or there is a glitch to be shrugged off as you get on with the business of living in this heightened, hyperactive environment. Even Jamal's police torturers end up seeming like people you wouldn't mind hanging out with for a while, basically jovial fellows who just happen to have a car battery and some jump leads lying around. (Irfan Khan's performance, to be fair, suggests layers of subtlety which the film by and large avoids.)

The feelgood narrative kicks in, (including the only time Ricky Ponting's likely to be happy he's scored less centuries than Hobbs), and the film heads towards a Holly/Bolly ending, the final dance sequence a splendidly throwaway feather on its cap. The perils of poverty are left behind, and the whole world can delight in the power of Celador to make dreams come true. 

I'm not sure what I think about all this. On the one hand, it seems remarkable and impressive that Boyle, Beaufoy and Celador can create a globalised product out of Mumbai. Whilst Bollywood has a global reach, its likely that Slumdog will infiltrate places no Bollywood movie can. (And the film's affectionate nods towards Bollywood felt appropriate.) In a globalised world, there's no reason why the majority of international film stories should feature white casts and suburban lawns (or crinolines). Boyle, who seems to have been re-energised as a filmmaker by his bold move, has created a film which might one day stand in the pantheon of the great feel-good movies, with not a star in sight. 

On the other, there's a hint of colonialism. Not so much with the fact that a group of Brits have returned to India and used the environment to make a film there; but in the ludicrously wish-fulfilling nature of the narrative they've employed. One which would appear to re-affirm the wonderful Western dream which Celador is founded on: we can all become millionaires, no matter where we're born. We just need to learn how to find the right answers and the world can be our oyster.

Monday, 5 January 2009

bring me the head of alfredo garcia (w&d. peckinpah, w. dawson)

There are films that linger in the background, which might also be the sub-conscious. Half seen, once, on a black and white TV screen late at night in a cold Dunnington flat. Beyond remembrance. The title awaiting the day it catches up with you, nails you to the seat, and asks: what kept you so long?

The co-director is a big Peckinpah fan. I've watched Pat Garrett and Cross of Iron with him. He says Peckinpah's title sequences are worth the entrance fee alone. I'm more take it or leave it, respecting all the things for which the director is clearly to be respected, including his disreputability. However, Alfredo Garcia is another matter, a title so evocative that it conjures up films which could never be made, made out of myths which have been long since forgotten.

In other words, the film had no hope of living up to the hype my imagination had bestowed upon it. And yet... somehow, it does. Pull it off. More as a result of its rough edges than its perfection. (The quest for which dogs and demeans any film industry.) 

Once again Mexico plays its weird role in the Gringo psyche. The other side of the border, where lawlessness is the norm. Just like a McCarthy novel, the film opens in a seemingly timeless epoch, a girl sitting by a lake, approached by peones on horseback. Only when there's a brutal cut to a plane taking off do we realise this is the twentieth century. This Mexico is the place to go to lose your soul and see if there's anything left at the end. Warren Oates' character, Bennie, has already lived in Mexico City a number of years, his soul a thing of the past. Somehow the quest to locate and deliver a severed head offers him the chance of redemption. It comes as no surprise, however, that Peckinpah decided to change his ending, and ensure the pay-off that was always awaiting Bennie after his dance with the devil. A website informs that the thick shades Oates wears throughout belonged to Peckinpah: it's clear that the director of this film knew a thing or two about flirting with damnation.

But it doesn't seem entirely appropriate to talk too much about the film that exists, the one I saw on Saturday. I prefer to believe that the head Oates lugs around like a curse isn't Garcia's at all. Alfredo Garcia never existed. That head belongs to someone else, someone who's waiting to meet you, or me, at the end of some kind of line. The film's merely pointing us in the right direction. It's up to us to climb into the grave, get dirty, get thrown out of a dustcart with the love of our life, smelling of nothing like roses, get up, keep going, knowing it's only a question of time before we die in a hail of gunfire (if we're lucky) or from some other terminal conclusion. (Please, Bennie, not quietly in our sleep.) Who knows, if we're lucky, some avatar, seeking to save his or her soul, will come for our heads when we're gone, knowing they contain some kind of value which was never reckoned upon whilst they sat, proud but inane, on our shoulders.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

august: osage county (w. tracy letts, d. anna d shapiro)

Not with a bang but a whimper.

Thus ends this three and a half piece of drama, employing possibly the most portentous line of anglo-saxon twentieth century poetry, in the mouth of a native american indian, the words being sung to the distraught learesque matriach as she finally comes to terms with her isolation on the great plains of america.

The play opens with Eliot as well, as Beverly, the patriarch, (so say the cast notes), talks to the same native american indian, the homely Johnna, about his work and offers her a job as housekeeper in his old, three storied home. 'The last thing one discovers in composing a work' Eliot also wrote (a rapid google search reveals), 'is what to put first'. August: Osage County seems to have put its beginning firmly at the beginning. This is going to be a big play about poetry, the american soul, and last, but not least, the great american play. 

Which is where the problems begin. Osage knows exactly what it's about: what it doesn't know is how to weld these notions into a comprehensive piece of theatre. Length alone does not stature grant. (Wild Bill Hickock). Neither does a solid agenda. Just because you write a play with three sisters set in the sticks doesn't mean you're making Chekhov. (Lou Reed)

Which isn't to say that Letts can't write. There's a great deal of snappy dialogue and one-liners which wouldn't go amiss on Frasier. However, the increasing tendency to resort to a joke as the play ploughs on into the night eventually seems to indicate a lack of faith in the weight of the material as much as a handy comic turn of phrase. The acting likewise seems to suffer from a lack of clarity over which furrow is, in point of fact, being ploughed - light hearted family drama or eviscerating examination of the american malaise? The tendency of the script to throw in moments where characters lament the way that america has changed and is no longer the place it used to be help neither the actors nor the audience.

Some might see these tonal inconsistencies as a strength, and the audience seemed to be lapping it up, so maybe I've missed something. Osage isn't unenjoyable, it's just not particularly powerful or moving, and fails to live up to the agenda it appears to be setting for itself. One feature of the play, above all, seemed to encapsulate this. That opening scene indicated a drama exploring the divisions between a european america and the native american one that existed before it: and the way in which america the land creates inclusivity (or not) for all those people who have lived off it. However, rather bizarrely, as the play unfolds, Johnna is given nothing to do, and no dramatic weight. Indeed, her role as cleaner, cook and housekeeper is mirrored in the staging: when a fold-up mattress needs to be moved offstage, it's Johnna who does it. The ambition of including a native american in the drama seems like it will prove to be elucidatory, but in the end Letts has no more idea of what to do with the character than the European immigrants have known what to do with the peoples they have displaced, and Johnna's presence feels tokenistic at best and exploitative at worst. Having her sing Eliot's lines at the end feels like a cheap trick rather than a piece of theatrical nuance.

Friday, 2 January 2009

che part one (d. soderbergh, w. buchman)

Looking for clues as to what forms Soderbergh's take on the great Ernesto debate, it's worth noting that he uses Silvio Rodriguez over his credits, and credits Jon Lee Anderson as a consultant. Rodriguez, as most Latin Americans and very few Westerners are aware, became the troubadour of the Cuban revolution, albeit some years later, with his poetic chansons of occasionally mystical struggle (you're likely to find references to both Brecht and Unicorns in his songs). Rodriguez's presence adds authenticity, if any were needed, and shows a director making sure he's crossing his T's and dotting his I's. Anderson is a distinguished correspondent who's written one of the major biographies of Guevara (as well as frontline reports from Baghdad, etc): if his name's attached you assume a high level of historical accuracy is being sought. Even if history is something written by the victors.

The presence of this pair on the credits affirms Soderbergh's intention to tell the unadorned truth. None of Salles' exotic romanticism. Del Toro's Che is a doughty asthmatic. The early scenes show him coughing his way through the Cuban jungle. He's happy to play second fiddle to Fidel, (a highly mannered portrayal from Demian Bichir, suggesting he's rather overdone his research), and for the early stages of the invasion, he's relegated to doctoring and teaching duties, only being allowed near the front line as the campaign develops.

This is all in keeping with Soderbergh's mission to create a great historical epic without going all Hollywood on us. At times the approach seems reminiscent of his contemporary, Van Zandt. The film is all atmosphere and mood. Despite the occasional date being flashed up on the screen, it's unclear how long the revolution's been going and whether or not it's making any progress. The director seems almost at pains to avoid drama, as far as he can get away with it. Che breaks his arm, but we never learn how he did it. Che wanders through the Cuban backwoods, and doesn't fire at any soldiers. A skirmish begins and then the action cuts away, suddenly, without really informing the viewer what the final score was. 

Whilst it can be hard work, the approach is ultimately effective. The audience begins to get some kind of handle on what it's like to fight a guerrilla war. (Long and painstaking and occasionally dangerous). War isn't glamorous, it's hard labour. However, this is still war conducted with the benefit of hindsight: no matter how flinty the script, performances and cinematography, there's no escaping the fact they're going to win. The narrative saves its one cathartic moment of military action for the final sequence, as Guevara takes Santa Clara. One stunt, when a train leaps the rails, seems oddly out of keeping in such a low-key film, but is undoubtedly historically accurate.

The action is punctuated by moments from Guevara's address to the UN in 1964, when he's also interviewed by the clipped Julia Ormond. These scenes are filmed in a cine verite black and white, the director again flattening out the drama, the historic moment of the UN address bathed in a bureaucratic pallour. Soderbergh seems to realise that the glossiness of modern cinema isn't really equipped to capture the hard caulked realities of fighting and winning a revolution. (Perhaps it's haunted by previous takes on the subject - it's hard not to be curious how Omar Sharif played the great revolutionary in 1969 biopic, Che!, not to mention what kind of Fidel Jack Palance must have made.) The line between entertainment and historical accuracy is a hard one to tread. You kind of suspect a lot of people aren't going to possess the revolutionary stomach for the double bill, anymore than they would for yomping through jungles if the need suddenly arose. Those who do stick with it will, however, be rewarded, as the film stays with the viewer after it's ended, and its slow moving pace conceals a deceptive power. It has left me hungry to find out what Del Toro and Soderbergh, the most curiously versatile of modern US directors, have made of Part 2, more jungle, Bolivia, and the clearest narrative line possible.