Thursday, 31 December 2009

going native (w stephen wright)

It's New Year's Eve. Thoughts turn to friends, family, the diaspora both national, international and temporal. None of which has much to do with Going Native. Save perhaps for the fact it's deeply rooted in the States and was read in India by an Englishman. In this instance.

As a book it befuddled me. This may have been because I was befuddled by the sub-continent. But I'd like to think it's because I assumed it was a novel, reached the second chapter, found no connection with the first, and it then took me about two more to realise that it was in fact a collection of short stories. The fact that you can move from one chapter into another and not realise that is not a novel has something to do with an abrupt switch in styles, as Wright moves from a fairly regulation sub-Updike register into something altogether more hallucinogenic. His versatility would appear to be both a strength and a weakness, as Going Native darts between various tonal frequencies, never allowing the reader to settle, constantly searching for patterns. Perhaps it might be said that he appears on occasion to be trying a little too hard. From Updike to Burroughs via Pynchon and who knows what else proves skill, but doesn't make for an unbefuddling read. Or maybe it was just the sub-continent.

Happy New Year, both to readers and non-readers, those who are real, those who might be ghosts, and those who are ghosts.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

the red shoes (powell & pressburger)

Powell and Pressburger. The alliterative combination itself seems to conjure up some kind of lost golden age of British cinema. When their curious, quixotic talents were allowed to flower, producing unconventional gems, against the odds, quintessentially British, both for their charm, and their peculiarity.

It's the end of a decade, and there all sorts of lists drifting around quoting the finest films of the last ten years. As ever, this prompts reflection on what makes for a great film, what are the magic ingredients that enable a filmmaker to achieve something with the medium which lends a distinction to their work which others can only hope to emulate. Of course there are a hundred and one analyses available. However, The Red Shoes, it all its curious glory, brought to mind the idea that for a film to rise above its peers, to shine, it requires a boldness of vision, a kind of majesty, which is quite likely to be at odds with given diktats of genre and form, but which the filmmaker(s)' chutzpah somehow pulls off. These are films which aren't afraid of boredom or loose narrative threads, which are prepared to test their audience's patience, but which reward them in the end.

The Red Shoes is a film about ballet. So perhaps it's not surprising that about two thirds of the way in, the film abandons its narrative to enter into a twenty minute sequence (at a guess) which is pure ballet, a ballet conceived and executed for the screen. Only, of course, it is surprising. Because what rule book allows a narrative to cut itself off for this length of time, suspending character development and narrative action? Yet, without the ballet sequence, the Red Shoes would not have pulled of its strange, fairy tale alchemy. Whilst there are characters, and a narrative to speak of, in fact the filmmakers are consciously creating an exploration of what it means to create art, the tension between life and art, the irresistibility of the will to create. It's Nietzche wrapped up in technicolour. However, it's also dazzling entertainment, a son y lumiere show underpinned with philosophical intrigue.

These are (some of) the reasons why it works. Whilst the acting is engaging, and the quirky humour engaging, and the louche charm of this itinerant ballet world is engaging, ultimately it's the film's near absurdly grandiose ambitions which lift it out of melodrama onto another plane altogether. Ambitions which demand a cinematic verve; it's hard to think of any other film of any other era which has captured the process of dance so compellingly, something which its lofty ambitions absolutely require. Powell and Pressburger do indeed reach for the stars, and in the act of reaching, take their audience with them, offering a perspective which the everyday or the banal or the rulebook cannot permit.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

unmade beds (w&d alexis dos santos)

Once upon a time, a long long time ago, on another website entirely, before the doe-eyed days had been born, I found myself writing a somewhat critical piece about Winterbottom's Wonderland, a film I didn't enjoy, in spite of the fact his more recent work proves him to be one of our more creative and intriguing filmmakers. One of the few in fact. Anyhow, at this point in dim distant history, this ancient website was in fact the communal property of a group called The Focus Group, which is another story altogether. It so happened that one of the members of that group was independently in discussions with Revolver, Winterbottom's production company, and when he saw the somewhat critical review, (which probably took about six months, as it was not a website which was consulted with any great regularity), he wasn't best pleased.

For understandable reasons. At the end of the day, the UK film industry is a small business, more of a cottage industry than an international finance industry. The players are known to one another, and the same names will regularly feature in production credits. These are the gatekeepers, who control production capital, green lights, and most of all, our cinematic sensibilities. If you want to get anywhere in cinema in this country, at some point you're going to have to convince them of your worth. And presumably not offend them by criticising their recent output.

Which brings us to Dos Santos' movie, Unmade Beds. The premise of a movie directed by a young Argentine, set in London, for reasons which regular readers of this blog will understand, was highly inviting, not least because I'm currently on the hunt for films appropriate for 'non-native speakers' to use a well-honed TEFL phrase. The film had received a bit of buzz on the grapevine, and I happily handed over my money to the Curzon chain for the second day in a row. The first fifteen minutes seemed promising. Potentially beguiling figures speaking in a subtitled polyglot mooched through a highly recognisable Hoxton context, threatening to have minor crises, drink too much, suffer a little, and laugh. In theory this could be New Wave Latin American cinema meeting Nouvelle Vague meeting New British Waving not Drowning.

Then, before it had even emerged from the first act, a terrible dawning began to shroud the cinema. The film seemed to decelerate. The apparent premise of the title, (the various beds in which the film's hero finds himself waking up), was abruptly jettisoned. Much of the film became dedicated to a narcissistic, post-Linklater love story. The plot atrophied. Hours passed. Beguiling moments were lost in the fog. The pie had been left in the oven for twelve years. This was a film which would never cook, and seemingly, never end.

It did, of course. All things end. Even websites. It ended in a sudden flurry of post-dated plot, the final half hour suddenly knitting everything into place, like the neatest of Richard Curtis scripts. 'I took that photo' the French girl says as she stands outside the club where her flatmates hang out every night, flatmates she seems to have no knowledge of, and perhaps has never met. The photo lures her into a club she was going to anyway, where she meets the man she'd thought she's lost who's singing a song which might have been written... for her! It's too beautiful to be true, and indeed, truthfulness has been abandoned in favour of animal heads and the odd breathy orgy, approximately three hours ago.

The credits rolled. There were the names. There were the script editors. Two of them. It's impossible not to imagine the interminable script meetings Unmade Beds must have been through. Because if there's one thing the British film (cottage) industry prides itself on, it's script development. I have a sneaky feeling that sometime long long ago, when the director first presented his premise, and original script, it might have been the quirky, counter-culture vehicle it seemed to be aspiring towards. However, after a million regurgitations, Unmade Beds has been shorn of its inventiveness and charm.

It might be shooting myself in the foot to make these (subjective) observations. Biting the hand which could theoretically feed were the writer to crampon his way up the food chain. However, the experience of Unmade Beds was just too disheartening. Anyone who's watched a film by Sorin or Trapero, Rebella & Stoll, Linklater or Payne or etc knows it's possible to make a winsome and effective slacker movie. However, if you try and script edit in nuts and bolts, the whole house of cards is likely to collapse. All over again.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

the white ribbon (d. haneke)

My mind is a little blunted by the return of insomnia, and perhaps also the crunching, megalithic nature of Haneke's latest offering.

As a result of which I have only one observation of any note about The White Ribbon. First, however, the observations of little note. Which include the fact that, in spite of hints of narrative, the film in fact appears to be another impressively gruelling example of Haneke's slightly obsessive reluctance to favour an audience with anything in the way of what they expect or (so he might argue) have been lead to subliminally desire. As in Funny Games (and perhaps Hidden), the evil kids walk away unpunished, most of them implicitly destined to become successful members of the National Socialist party. As well as its reluctance to bestow any kind of Grecian notions of justice, the film is also a whodunnit whose detective, the engagingly buffoonish teacher, spends a year putting clues together and then fails to act on them. The unnamed school teacher is no Poirot, and in spite of an implicit decency, it seems unlikely that, having survived the first world war, he will put up much resistance to the rise of Hitler. Brecht wrote, unlucky the land in need of heroes, but Haneke appears to offer a bleak counterpoint: cursed is the land lacking in heroes. Firstly it will suffer the persecution of the evil children, then it will run the risk of fascism; finally it will fall prey to the moral vacuum of modern consumerism.

Having noted all of Haneke's usual barbed contrariness and general cassandrism, my one point of real note relates to his aesthetics. With The White Ribbon the director has followed up on his success d'estime with Hidden (and ridden the strange hurdle of his misjudged US remake of Funny Games), with a film that, in spite of its inherent audience antagonism, has been hailed as a masterpiece, and lauded with the Palme D'Or. Part of the film's success is probably attributable to its inordinately beautiful cinematography, composed on a stark black and white print. Haneke has always been a secret stylist, and here he gives this vice free rein. Given this, no matter how stringent he is in his adherence to his narrative principles, there's something about The White Ribbon's production values that gives it the feel of a weighty classic, redolent of a great European literary tradition, something enhanced by the unusually wordy narration. Perhaps this is part of another game within a game, but it's not hard to see how the lofty aesthetics allow critics to drool; and have helped The White Ribbon to have generated a contrarily eulogistic response, which somehow doesn't seem in keeping with Haneke's aspirations. As ever, with cinema, the production values themselves contribute and in some way seem to impose their own set of values, irrespective of the filmmakers' own intentions.

home (d. yann arthus-bertrand)

The Tibetan Environmental Society’s showing of the documentary Home takes place at 5.30 pm in an unheated hall 2000 metres above sea level. The majority of the audience are gringos of one description or another. The film is projected onto a large screen, with an introduction given by the society’s Tibetan head.
You might think that this location, not so far from the roof of the world, would be the ideal place to take in the film’s abstract narrative about the fate of the world and the environmental mess homo sapiens has made of it. The movie is made up of edited sequences, filmed from the air. Volcanoes. Elephants on the charge. Fisherman on an African beach. Vast lorries in a hyper-mine. However, in practice, the venue in no way alters the unfortunate juxtaposition the film presents between the terror of its message and the beauty of its images.
When you’re actually within the exploited, impoverished world which the rich 20% is abusing to both fund its lifestyle and abuse the planet, the lush power of cinematic technology can feel faintly offensive. Your mind can’t help but speculate on the costs of hiring helicopters, exec producers salaries, and expense accounts. And even if everyone involved was working for 500 rupees a day, there’s still something jarring about the way in which its expensively graded images are employed, as though the film’s beauty is somehow necessary for its message to be put across to the Western world.
A somewhat preachy American voice, which I later learn belongs to Glen Close, narrates the film’s loose narrative from Genesis to imminent Apocalypse. Perhaps I’d have felt more comfortable if the accent was Malaysian, (say), or had gone for subtitles. However, ultimately, no matter what it was saying, I wanted it to get off its helicopter plinth, go to ground, and actually speak to people.
Travelling opens your eyes to the harshness from which the Western world is so often inured. Pigs rooting through burnt rubbish on the streets, affirming the conjoined crimes of poverty and environmental degradation. Whilst we know its out there, we don’t want to face up to it. Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s beautiful but banal movie seems symptomatic of this attitude.
Outside in the cold air of McLeod Ganj, itself something of an island within India’s teeming sea, the real fight continues on the millions of frontlines which the West is only aware of through news reports and sanitised, graded images on its TV screens.