Sunday, 31 January 2010

a prophet (d audiard, w audiard & thomas bidegain)

The French like a good crime movie. Godard played around with the genre. Truffaut admired it. Les flics y les crims. Recently there was the Mesrine double bill. So Audiard's latest slips into a well-worn tradition, and it does so with predictable style and verve.

The classic template for a successful movie is the coming of age tale. Take a young man (or less often woman) and follow them as they get to grips with their society and their psyche all at the same time. Tahar Raham's portrayal of Malik El Djebena, a French/ Arab/ Corsican petty criminal who gets six years for assaulting a policeman, is an exemplary portrayal of this coming of age. After an opening of great tension, Audiard lets the movie sprawl as Malik gradually takes control of the prison, learning from the Corsican mafioso Luciani, as he moves into organised crime, setting up his own firm and becoming a man in the process. Whilst the film has a host of influences, the movie it most closely seems to echo is Coppola's Godfather 2, with Raham taking on the Pacino role, only that his humanity is augmented by his ascension, whereas Pacino's was all but nullified.

It's a long movie, I would suggest a great afternoon movie. The sequence wherein Malik kills someone and hence becomes absorbed into the Corsican family, a sequence which occurs towards the film's beginning, is gripping, and Audiard captures Malik's huis clos with terrifying exactitude: kill or be killed. However, the tension thereafter ebbs, as it charts Malik's gradual rise through the ranks. It feels as though the director is seeking to create a more rounded, less pragmatic vision of his character's evolution, showing for example, how the act of going on a plane trip is all part of his evolution, the opening up of his world. Raham's portrayal captures the character's growing awareness of his own intelligence, and possibilities, as well as his sense of destiny. He is only referred to once as a prophet, and whilst the film plays on the notion that he can see flashes of the future, this is incidental to the plot. However, the closing sequence suggests that even more than for himself, this sense of destiny has a significance for the Muslim community he chooses to embrace, for reasons which are pragmatic rather than spiritual.

A Prophet is one of those big films whose sum is perhaps greater than its parts. Audiard seems restrained in his use of cinematic or narrative trickery, in spite of the doffing of the hat with the use of Reyeb's ghost. Most of all he seems to have set out to create a grand, overarching piece of cinema, a definitive contribution to the canon, a film that can be revisited time after time. He restricts his capacity for the extraordinary, letting the sheer weight of story, and the power of Malik's depiction do the work. Next time I see it, a few years down the line, I shall watch of a dismal afternoon, the kind of day you want to sit in a cinema, and watch a tale of how intelligence can still be used to shape the world, no matter how ruthless the world purports to be.

the road (d john hillcoat, w joe penhall)

Mr Curry told me I had three choices. The Audiard, already seen, The Valley of Eli, which I couldn't really face, and The Road. Before I begin writing I should say that I knew I wouldn't enjoy The Road. Or rather, the odds were stacked against it. I was not a great fan of the book, and suspected that in order to make it work as a Hollywood movie, the creators would be forced to highlight the sentimentalism that exists in the book. However, Mr Curry had left we with only two choices, so The Road it was.

As he gets older, it seems to me, McCarthy becomes more Jack London than Dostoyevski. His writing is capable of an almost biblical power, something The Road seeks to make the most of, with its clockwork prose and stark apocalypism. However, an increasingly extremist view of human nature, echoed in the boy's enquiries of his father whether they are 'still the good guys', which occasionally feels almost Bush-ist, perhaps inevitably leads towards a sentimental take on this notion of 'goodness', a precious flame that must be guarded, its keepers the bearers of some kind of grail. In order to 'humanise' the bleak message of McCarthy's novel, (the civilised world will end as a result of human folly, humans will descend towards the amorality of the animal), the film, even more than the book, makes the father and son who are the subjects of the story into saintly figures, struggling manfully to retain their humanity in the face of inevitable doom.

In McCarthy's prose, this is already somewhat grating, but in a Hollywood take it becomes cringe-worthy. Penhall's script lifts the supposed 'pre-story' of the man's (let's call him Vigo) relationship with his wife and punctuates the first half of their film with their supposedly metaphysical debates about whether its right to give birth, and whether she (let's call her Charlize) has the right to commit suicide and leave her family by walking out into the void. Which she does, leaving Vigo with nothing more than some very sad flashbacks of hammocks, thighs and flowers. These scenes are purely external emotion-by-numbers, and presumably, aware that there's only so far you can squeeze an audience before you're in danger of turning them into jelly, they don't figure in the book.

Thereafter, Vigo and Son (a Danish law firm?), trudge through CGI invested sets. The camerawork is beautiful, and Hillcoat coaxes great aesthetics from apocalypse. In fact you could almost say, if it weren't for the scary cannibals, that apocalypse looks kind-of fun, like a slightly downbeat video game (Your destination is South; You must not get eaten; You must avoid strangers). The paradox conjured by using state of the art techniques (and all that that culturally and environmentally implies) to depict a time of desolation brought on by man's abuse of technology means that this film inevitably possesses a level of crassness which virtually shoots it in the foot, and this is only ramped up when we get to product placement and a muted eulogy for Coca Cola.

In a way The Road feels like a peculiarly US take on its subject. In part it harks back (cf Jack London) to the not-so-distant epoch of the frontiersman, exploring an alien environment and doing whatever he could to survive. However, it also seems to be a vision which emerges from a society which has become so unremittingly individualistic that faith in humanity has eroded beyond recognition. The Road is a logical extension of Wall Street, a dog-eat-dog society where kindness is a luxury, unless its towards your family, the only sacred cow in the States. Whilst apocalypse is unlikely to be a fairground ride in any part of the world, you'd hope that some societies might make a better fist of it than McCarthy's vision of what would happen in his homeland.

As Mr Curry said as we left the slightly sterilised world of Docklands, where they search your car on the way in, and the streets are so dead that it, the apocalypse, might have already happened, it ain't no Time of the Wolf. Talking of post-apocalyptic screenplays, did anyone spot that passing Truck?

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

the lost camels of tartary (w. john hare)

In common with most, I suspect, I was unaware that in the depths of the Gobi desert there range the last remaining wild camels in the world, threatened by gold prospectors, hunters, and the fact the region is China's preferred nuclear testing site. Neither did I know much about the Gobi itself, one of the world's true wildernesses, a place from where explorers as often as not never come back, their bodies and souls absorbed in the vastness of shifting sands and hysterical temperature changes.

Fortunately John Hare did return, though as the book describes he cut it fine upon occasion. The book documents his four visits into the region, in search of the wild Bactarian camel. Hare doesn't seem like the type of figure likely to be intimidated by the threat of the Gobi. Neither is he the model of the rugged adventurer. Pushing old age, in his tweed jacket, he's a quintessential British eccentric, engaged on the kind of foolhardy, quixotic missions for which his survival skills, his gregariousness and his diplomatic tact make him well suited.

I haven't read many of the most popular travel writers, the Theroux's, Bryson's and so on. So I don't have much to compare Hare with as a travel writer. However, the way in which he gets under the skin of this desolate part of the world, drinking with the locals, peppering his text with anecdotes from the Wild East, and bringing the most foreign of worlds to life suggests to me that he deserves a wider readership than he probably has. In addition, he's someone who actually puts something back into the places he visits, helping to establish a reserve for the camels, eating several dog legs and drinking all kinds of concoctions to help make it happen.

At a time when reading has felt like a secondary exercise, Hare's book, opening doors to the lost cities of the Silk Road, and the realities of late twentieth century Mongolia and China, has kept my reading juices flowing. Perhaps most tellingly of all, his book has made me jealous, taking the reader as it does to the kind of lost worlds which all too often seem, in our globalised modernity, to be under just as great a threat as the Bactarian camel.

Monday, 18 January 2010

see how they fall (w&d audiard, w. le henry)

Audiard seems like something of a johnny-come-lately, with the success of The Beat that my Heart Skipped putting him on the map, a success cemented by his yet-to-be-released-in-the-UK, A Prophet. Of course there's rarely such a thing in cinema, no-one hands you a million squid and says, get on with it, unless you're already in the know. True to form, Audiard has been around the block a few times. However, his earlier films, whilst possessing a remarkable cinematic lucidity, (and ludicity, if such a word exists), were never overly feted, and it's difficult to connect the johnny-come-lately with the struggling auteur. So much so that when I was told in a Jaipur hotel room that Audiard was also the director of A Self-Made Hero, I couldn't quite believe it, just as Mr W couldn't quite believe after seeing See How They Fall that this was by the same director as The Beat That... There may be something heartening in this; the knowledge that early invisibility can lead to universal acclaim later in life, the fairy tale that talent will out.

In keeping with this theme, I'd forgotten that I'd seen See How They Fall, back in some kind of day, presumably when it first came out. As a result the NFT offered me that most curious of cinematic experiences, which could be called 'seeing a ghost', when everything you're seeing really has been seen before, but the original viewing is so dim and distant that its memory only exists as odd traces or intuitions, which lurk on the screen, interfering with the present. Hence, the calibrated pairing of Kassovitz and Trintignant; the lugubrious charm of Jean Yanne; and the delirious noir-ish genius of the screenplay didn't have the freshness they might have done. See How They Fall is in some ways a muddy film, full of loose ends, some of which get pulled, drawing the viewer in, an ambitious film which seems chaotic but is in fact as taut as a narrative drum. It's a film made to be seen more than once, and such is its lack of obviousness, that I found myself both trying to work out what was likely to happen next, and simultaneously trying to work out what I remembered as happening next. Only for the film to come up with something I neither expected nor remembered.

Audiard has retained a kind of intensity to his film-making. There's something feverish screaming beneath the surface, hints of violence, suggestions of love, everything draped in a white cloth waiting to be removed, like a body in a murder scene. In his first film it's there in the Trintignant's stick which helps him walk but is also a repeated weapon; in the creeping madness of Yanne, revealed through his impassioned assaults on an electronic keyboard; in the shape of the voiceovers, one by Yanne, the other by an unnamed woman - who is she? All of these are tricks which snare the audience, which keep you hooked even when you haven't got a clue what's going on or where it's heading. They're the mark of a film-maker who knew what they were doing, (even to the point of making it appear as though they didn't), part of which involves forging a distinctive style which can be picked and unpicked over the years in the films which are to follow.

Friday, 15 January 2010

the lady and the beard (d. ozu; w. kitamura; ozu (gagman))

Cinema, more than any other art, is a hunter of the verisimilitude of life. Ozu's images may be grainy, but here is a Japanese martial arts competition, taking place in 1931, there or thereabouts, with an appreciative, masculine audience. However, the swordsman isn't any kind of obvious Zen master. He fools around, stopping to tie a shoelace, taking the piss, entertaining the crowd, before delivering the telling blow that wins the fight.

Aha, you say as you settle into your seat, so this is what it was like. However, verisimilitude is a curious beast. You don't capture the heart of things by just showing images. You have to find a way under the skin. And the film, in it's rambling way, does just that, taking the swordsman, removing his costume, his weapon, his dignity and finally, the ultimate sacrifice, his beard. The dashing hero is revealed as an oddball misfit, struggling to find a way through the complexities of a Japan where swords and platform shoes are being replaced by smart cars and even smarter suits.

Accompanied by a pianist, The Lady and Her Beard meanders through the story of Okajima's various potential love affairs, and a film which started as a macho action flick turns into a somewhat winsome comedy of manners. However, it also strips bare the local class system, and feels like a convincing portrayal of a hero trapped in a world which has no need of heroes anymore. Which helps to substantiate this visit to a lost world which is Japan at the turn of a decade, almost a century ago.

Monday, 11 January 2010

the limits of control (jarmusch)

Jarmusch, where do you place him? Where does he place himself? In this instance in Spain, and that doesn't seem too wrong, if you view Spain as a kind of non-place, fundamental to European culture yet at the same time stuck out on a limb, protruding, secretly influenced more than it cares to realise by Africa and Islam, both a finger pointing towards the new world, and the tip of an Islamic crescent which stretches from Kashmir through Mecca to the gates of Madrid. A place in the centre of itself and yet on the edge of almost everything else, one way or another. Which, perhaps overwhelmed by its potential for influence, retreats into seemingly static traditions whose foreign roots are scarcely remembered.

All of which seems more than appropriate for the lesser spotted Jarmusch, as he corrals a multi-national cast of primetime art-movie luminaries, steering them through a movie of high European art-house pacing, whilst referencing Hitchcock and an older Hollywood school, the whole thing coming to an understated climax when the black man of unclear provenance, wearing his fancy suits, (Isaach De Bankole), assassinates a Rumsfeld impersonating Bill Murray. De Bankole is poker faced throughout, and the narrative makes no attempt to enter his mind. The title and the fact that he has to spend a good portion of the film fighting off the nubile advances of a naked Paz De La Huerta, imply that the script might be an exploration of his ability to maintain control over his anime, but this may also be a red herring in a film so full of them it's almost constantly swimming out of view.

In truth, like many Jarmusch films, Limits of Control is a slow-paced shaggy dog story, which could be accused of being an exercise in style, but does just enough to suggest that it's more than that, although you might need to belong to another form of consciousness, which could be Zen, or could be simply Spanish, in order to work out what precisely this 'more than' might be. Despite the fact that both people sitting either side of me dozed at various points, I found myself enjoying the sheer inanity and probable vacuity of the elongated tale; as though guided round a maze for three hours with your eyes shut. You're either going to hate it or go with it. Neither Hollywood nor European, the Limits of Control is resolutely Jarmuschian, a land all of its own. The fact that it ended in Atocha station, the place where all the best stories begin, only added to its unlikely charm.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

mishima (w&d paul schrader, w. leonard schrader)

It had been twenty five years since I saw this film at the York floating cinema. At the time the reasons for going had more to do with the curiosity of my fellow filmgoer than any particular personal fascination for the Japanese novelist, as was the case this time round. As though Mishima has a lurking role to play in the life story. If this is the case, then Schrader's film suggests its a slightly disconcerting presence.

In the intervening years I have read some of the writer's novels, but cannot claim they have stayed with me. Schrader's immaculate film pays due homage to the writer's work, including in three beautifully composed sequences a condensed version of three of his novels. These are performed as filmed plays, on stage sets which may or may not have influenced Von Trier, permitting a stylised, colour-soaked imagination to run wild. The imagination of Mishima, of course, but also the director. The three novels are the cornerstones of three of the film's four chapters, which also develop the narrative of Mishima's last, vainglorious day, the result of which becomes the subject matter for the final, forth chapter. Schrader also succeeds in threading the writer's life story through the film, the flashback sequences captured in black and white. It's a masterly piece of story telling from a master of the screenplay, underpinned by Phillip Glass's remarkable score, the forerunner of many a Glass-like score, (some of them composed by Glass himself), but one which may never have been surpassed in its ability to reveal the agitated energy which lurked beneath the surface of the ostensibly super-cool novelist.

The bio-pic has to be one of the hardest of all the genres to weld into an innovative, engaging cinematic narrative. Schrader might just have written the finest pair of biopics in movie history. Mishima's skill is that it gets under the surface of its subject. It does so by approaching him from various tangents, as well as integrating his work as a facet of his life. The result is a near cubist depiction of a man whose flair and lunacy constantly flirted with each other, culminating in an action which attempted to combine them both, and perhaps succeeded. Perhaps this is the message that the recurring presence of the film is trying to convey to me: keep your flair and your lunacy at a distance. When you try to put the two together, it's going to end in tears. Or seppuku.