Wednesday, 30 November 2011

hugo (d. martin scorsese, w. john logan, brian selznick)

The watching of Hugo was not so much about the film, more about the event. And I suspect that was true for just about everyone in the cinema. The event being the night of the Royal Film Premiere, something that has happened every year since 1946.

As Leicester Square is being currently turned into dust, the red carpet was a somewhat obscure affair, which took one round the houses, past several pubs, full of people with pints in their hands wandering what the fuss was about. As well they might. In spite of some well-tooled paparazzi, there was a shortage of luminaries. Damian Lewis, whose wife is in the film, seemed to be getting more attention than perhaps he’s used to, largely because the next most famous personages not in the cast were the latest graduates of X Factor. The security was desultory. As I took my place I speculated about how easy it would have been to have followed in the footsteps of Andrei Bely or Conrad’s anti-heroes. Which is perhaps reassuring. Once in the auditorium the entertainment consisted of watching a screen which showed live footage of nothing happening outside. The comedy was supplied when the hired compere’s rehearsal of her lines (something about David Niven) was mistakenly picked up by her live mike, to the audience’s delight. It wasn’t quite up there with Gordon Brown’s “bigoted woman” or Reagan’s plan to nuke the USSR, but it helped to pass the time. A few buglers took the stage, looking lost. They did some bugling which seemed to make them feel better. The highpoint was when the cinema’s Wurlitzer was used for the national anthem, giving it a kind of Blackpool-pier variety flavour.

As for the film, Scorsese’s latest… It has to be said that he uses 3-D more effectively than Herzog and, so I was told, Tim Burton. At its heart, Hugo is a paean to the art of cinema, with the narrative revolving around a young boy’s re-discovery of  the forgotten George Méliès, played by Ben Kingsley. At the end of the film there was the strangest use of 3-D I’ve encountered yet as the fictional, cinematic Kingsley made a speech in almost exactly the same spot the actual flesh-and-blood Kingsley had made a speech introducing the film earlier. Life imitating art imitating…

There’s some lovely use of Méliès’ films, the discreet nod of a veteran director to cinema’s capacity for delight and improvisation. All of which makes this a meritable project for Scorsese’s first use of 3-D. The pity is that the magic is all in the technology: apart from Sacha Baron Cohen’s droll turn as a vindictive station master, there was a shortage of the sort of charm that Jeunet might have brought to it, in his heyday (or even Billy Wilder). Everything works, but in a strictly functional manner that’s ultimately un-involving: the most memorable moments are provided by Méliès and Harold Lloyd.

Still, the night was not really about the film, it was all about the occasion. One wondered if its low-key tone was reflective of the British indifference to the art of cinema: pitch up, watch something made by a North American which stops you thinking for a couple of hours, and then escape by any means possible. In our case this involved being ushered out through a dangerously-packed fire escape, men in black tie shouting into their mobile phones, glamour at a premium. To be thrown out into the Soho night just in time to catch last orders.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

the housekeeper and the professor [yoko ogawa]

When Christopher Nolan’s film Memento appeared, it contained a device which seemed breathtaking in its simplicity and full of an unquantifiable dramatic potential. The device is that of a man whose memory is reduced to a very brief span of just a few minutes. He writes notes which he uses to remind himself of the things he will need to try and remember when he “wakes up” again with his memories once again eradicated. The one problem with Nolan’s idea (developed with his brother) is that it is so dazzlingly original that it cannot really be repeated, as everyone will just say – they already did that in Memento.

Which leads to the question of how successful that film was in Japan and whether Ogawa likes the cinema. Because her novel, published long after Memento was released, employs exactly the same device. Given that this is a novel and its timespan has greater scope that that of a movie, the maths Professor who suffers from the disease has an 80 minute memory span, allowing him to develop quite a profound relationship with his housekeeper, the narrator, and her son, who is known as Root, because his haircut reminds the Professor of the sign for Square Root.

In contrast to the Nolan, Ogawa uses the device to develop a gentle, sad but affecting tale of the way in which the human instinct towards kindness and affection can succeed in transcending even the annihalatory process of time. In spite of his illness, the Housekeeper succeeds in developing a rich relationship with the Professor, which changes both her and her son’s life. The idiot savants of this world know far more than us ordinary mortals will ever be able to forget. Underpinning this is the Professor’s belief that mathematics, the art of which he studies, precedes and will postdate humanity. The mathematical laws offer a transcendent vision to those who learn to study them. The Professor communicates through maths and as the Housekeeper gets to grips with the science, along with Root, their relationship flourishes.

So, now it can be said, if anyone were to use this narrative device again: you can’t use it because Nolan and Ogawa have already used it. It is perhaps worth noting the way in which two separate cultures have chosen to use the same trick. Ogawa’s version is less viscerally dramatic, perhaps, but in her hands it shows the way in which the ability of humans to connect can transcend even the most extreme of obstacles. Whereas Nolan’s use of the device was rather more nihilistic.

Monday, 21 November 2011

the beach beneath the street [mckenize wark]

McKenzie Wark’s book narrates the history, theory and practice of the Situationists, an apparently marginal movement in twentieth century cultural history. It couldn’t be much more timely. The likes of Paul Mason have recently been labelling the nascent “Occupy” movement as a kind of Situationist protest. Highly visible, non-confrontational, this movement converts town centres into a kind of playground/ camping site. In keeping with the reclaim the streets movement, it’s aim is both to reappropriate public space and to flag up the potential for alternative modes of living within the heart of the capitalist domain.

Exploring alternative methods of living is all part of the Situationist project. Attempting to find cracks in the system which would allow people to engage with their humanity and creativity in a post-capitalist, even post-Marxist fashion. In a strange way, from Wark’s account of Debord, Jorn et al’s thinking, in some ways modern capitalism seems to have embraced some aspects of the project. In an Apple-shaped world, we are all potential filmmakers, writers, musicians creatives. I-men and i-women are expected to incorporate these qualities into their everyday existence. It’s almost a crime not to. On the other hand, capitalism’s dependence on individualism means that this activity tends to occur in a fractured, isolated context. Society as a whole still prioritises the individual’s economic production as the index of their worth. The situationist dream of a restructured society, liberated from the tyranny of wage labour, seems as far away as ever.

Wark’s prescient book steers the reader through this evolving and frequently complex history, ranging from the theory of Debord to the seemingly dilettante antics of the likes of Isou in the fifties. There’s something about Situationism which appears on some levels to be Romantic and insubstantial. In part this is because it’s a movement that never proselytised, content to remain a club one was invited to join (or was thrown out of) rather than a party seeking members. Wark does a strong job of rectifying this, examining the texts and the more rigorous philosophical writings of the movement’s key members. This is a detailed introductory handbook to a way of thinking that might just be on the point of coming into its own, fifty years after its heyday. It also makes one wonder who are the contemporary intellectual architects of the current political movement, labouring away in obscurity, their work filtering through into the mainstream, their names as yet unheralded.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

contagion (d. steven soderbergh, w. scott z burns)

The classic modern text dealing with issues of pestilence is Camus' The Plague. Contagion is basically The Plague reworked and distilled, on a global scale. Just not as good. It feels like something everyone - writer, stars, director - has done for the cash. Indicative of another plague which has always haunted society: the plague of mediocrity.

Soderbergh usually creates films which have some element of surprise. He might be the closest Hollywood mainstream gets to having a maverick, with his unusual career pattern and portmanteau projects. But in learning to play the Hollywood game, he has taken on the Coppola, Scorcese tactic of Quid Pro Quo: I'll do something for you if you do something for me. Contagion seems like one of the ones he's done for them, to put some credit in his fantasy box.

It's a pity because the ingredients are there for a compelling drama. The bio-political state is an under-reported one, as someone must have said. The politics of contagion are there to be explored and are backed up by that great movie trope, the Doomsday scenario. Initially, the film nimbly traces the disease's exponential kill pattern, moving from Hong Kong to the US to Switzerland. The script seems to be positing a globalised movie, Camus's wartime town morphing into the whole of the 21st C planet.

Then it runs out of steam and gets stuck in the US. A succession of bizarre cameos, not least from Jude Law, fail to interconnect with one another. We get the decline and fall of Western Civilisation in the space of about 20 minutes, followed by its sudden recovery (to the refrain of a U2 track; this time the world reincarnates with a whimper). As though the film's ambition outstrips its capacity. The globalised vision is shrunk to a few streets in San Francisco and the Midwest. Perhaps there's another subtler allegory here? The globalised dream, the world as cyber-village, destined to collapse in on itself under the weight of the sheer detail it cannot bear. In the end there's no room in Soderbergh's movie for Asia, Africa, Latin America or even Europe. In another misconceived cameo (in a misconceived film), Marion Cottilard spends the whole of the epidemic holed up in a village in rural China after being kidnapped. When she's freed, after a dodgy deal, she chooses to run back to the village. Better to live in humane seclusion than our bastardised techno-commercial world, slaves to the bio-capitalists.

Contagion is ripe for Zizekian interpretation. However, this has nothing to do with its quality and all to do with the territory it has tried and failed to assimilate. In an echo of Camus' great novel, the film attempts to link the vagaries of fate with the exigencies of morality, investigating whether the two are connected: is the good man/ woman more like to survive than the morally neutral? Unlike Camus' book, having set up this territory, the film seems to duck all the issues it has raised, and everyone, apart from Winslett's saintly health officer, survives, be they good, bad or somewhere in the middle. (This being a film made for North Americans about North Americans, they are on the whole unfailingly and tediously 'good'.)

Incidentally, since seeing the movie on Wednesday night, I've picked up a cynical, malevolent toothache. Let's hope this isn't the harbinger for a global outbreak. I can't really face the prospect of Contagion 2: The Killer Toothache.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

muriel (d alain resnais, w jean cayrol)

Somewhere in my head Muriel had acquired iconic status. I'm not quite sure why. There's a book of Truffaut's reviews I was given at the age of 17 which probably talked about it. (It's boxed up somewhere so I cannot check.) Maybe it's just the simplicity of the title. Maybe it's Resnais himself, the mysterious maestro of detached emotion who ended up being a devotee of Ayckbourn. A grand survivor from the heyday of Nouvelle Vague, still doing his idiosyncratic thing. You wonder if they still talk to one another, the survivors, him and Godard and Varda and a few others. Do they head to Cineworld to check out the latest Soderburgh and then have a few pints afterwards in a quiet bar, where maybe someone half-recognises them and comes over in a drunken haze, mistaking one for Truffaut or the other for Giscard D'Estaing?

I kind of hope so. Maybe, if they do, they spend the odd twenty minutes trying to work out what Muriel is really all about. I've rarely seen a film edited in a more unusual fashion. The first 45 minutes is given over entirely to a slightly stagey evening meeting between four people, including the worldly-wise Helene, played by Delphine Seyrig. Then the movie rattles through a whole dollop of plot with a string of three- second edits, which seemingly move everything forward to a new starting point. Which is the cue for the next wordy scene, before another fast forward. As though Resnais had discovered the art of the music video twenty years earlier, dispensed with the music and slotted these sequences into what at times does indeed feel like an Ayckbourn play.

The film's most arresting moment comes when it includes a five minute documentary-style passage, seemingly out of keeping with the remainder of its aesthetic, about the Algerian war. In fact this war haunts the film, with one character still affected by the abuses he witnessed there, and another falsely claiming to have served there. These strong, political themes are mixed with dry humour and melodrama. The whole concoction makes for a film which is frequently baffling and constantly wrong-foots the viewer. We never quite know what type of movie we're watching. It challenges our patience; which is not such a bad thing, but in a somewhat peculiar twist it does so through it's banality. Perhaps in the end it's what you would get if you were to blend Sartre's seaside tale, Nausea, with a dash of Ayckbourn and a soupcon of Battle of Algiers. One awaits the remake.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

days of eclipse (d. aleksandr sokurov; w. pyotr kadochnikov, yuri arabov)

Has a film ever had a better opening? The camera falls to earth. Yuri Khanin’s astonishing score plays out over images of the Turkmeni community. Faces stare out at us. We listen and we watch.

Which is the fundamental praxis of receiving cinema. Listening and watching. Only, usually, there is so much information to be processed that we almost forget this is what we’re doing. Sokurov follows in the footsteps of Tarkovsky, who sought to make his art of cinema into an experience to rival that of the great masters; which is also to say to rival or equate to a religious experience. Perhaps the key to this experience is to become aware of our existence through the act or art of engagement. This demands something most of our cinema rejects: self-consciousness as a part of the process; rather than the eradication of the self (also known as escapism) so much of cinema has sought to bring about.

Days of Eclipse lasts for over two hours but it reached a point where as far as I was concerned it might have lasted for six. The film depicts a Russian doctor who is living in Turkmenistan at the fag end of the Soviet empire. He is young, good looking and listless. The world is draped in the torpor of heat. It’s as though it’s under glass. A friend of his dies and there’s no explanation of why. Another friend of his has a weird, animalistic stain growing out of his wall. The doctor crosses a road and gets involved in a fight. He’s told his work is potentially seditious, so he decides to burn it, but then, the papers already alight, he has second thoughts and puts the fire out. Strange beasts crop up in his life: lizards, snakes, lobsters. Finally he escorts his friend as he leaves, heading for the sea.

What does it all mean? There are undoubtedly narratives at work here, about the demise of an Empire, about the search for significance in a world where the quest for Utopia has stalled and ground to a halt. However, perhaps as an aspect of these themes, or perhaps as part of the director’s own investigations into the real nature of and potential of cinema, the film also comes across as a dialogue between viewer and screen: an exploration of how the act of viewing oscillates between the passive and the active. Sometimes Sokurov’s images and use of sound overwhelm us, demanding nothing but reception. But at others the film asks its audience to make an effort, to engage, to find the humour and the pathos without these things being spelled out.

Sokurov has achieved belated fame beyond his country’s borders. I recently saw his feted Russian Ark on DVD. Where that seemed showy, slightly ponderous, with occasional flashes of brilliance, this earlier work felt swathed in a viscous genius, which seeped through the colour distorted print, frame after frame.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

the moon and sledgehammer (d phillip trevelyan)

Once upon a time in a land far, far away, called England, there lived a teller of tall tales, who took tea with kangaroos and got tired on his way to the moon. His name was Mister Page and he lived in a nook in the woods with his four children who were all grown up. Together they drove steam engines and played the organ and cast spells in the coals of the fire. They climbed trees and drizzled oil all over the world. They were the inheritors of Falstaff and the progenitors of Rooster Byron. The world belonged to them and they had all the time in the world to make it theirs. It was nature and machine and human rolled into one. The steam engines played with the doves and the bugs. They made telescopes and submarines and televisions that killed you if you got too close. Before televisions existed. They'd been to the moon and seen the volcanos. Sometimes they didn't like living there, because sometimes we don't, but most of the time they were as happy as Larry.

And if you think this is could be one of Mister Page's tall tales, think again and get hold of a copy of Trevelyan's film. The old man, the filmmaker who captured this gentle madness, a madness lost in time but one which will always exist so long as we have groves and nooks within this land, seemed sad at the passing of time. He sat on the stage at Rough Trade records in the most advanced corner of London's hipsterdom and answered questions about his film with what the Hispanics would call nostalgia, as he talked about the Alice-in-Wonderland world he'd stumbled upon back in 1971. With the aim not of exposing or poking fun at its inhabitants, but paying homage to them by capturing their rhythms and their quirks. His film is a mellifluous amble through their lives. It represents one of the great documents of a rural culture (or counter-culture) which has persevered in this country in spite of everything the 19th and 20th centuries had to throw at it.  As well as an example of why documentaries work best when they find their own way; when their narratives and pacing reflect the worlds they're observing, rather than the demands of a market.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

ides of march (d. gerorge clooney, w. clooney, grant heslov, beau willimon)

It's that time of year in the twentieth century's greatest empirical force, when the farrago of selecting the next leader gets under way in earnest. It is, as Cheney might have said, a duck shoot. Candidates line themselves up waiting to be shot down; if they somehow survive, who knows, the title of the most powerful man on the planet could be waiting for them. At the moment, a man called Herman Cain is the surprise leader in the Republican polls, but already his campaign has started to falter amid innuendo and rumour. Who knows: in ten years time he could be a household name (given his political & economic strategy one is inclined to hope not) or he could be mired in obscurity, the answer to a pub quiz question.

It's this curious selection process that the Ides of March focuses on, looking at the course of rival Democratic campaigns as they reach Wintery Ohio, with the knockout blow waiting to be dealt. Who will be the last duck standing: the charismatic but morally compromised Clooney or his anodyne rival whose name is Pullman but who isn't played by Bill Pullman. (Perhaps some kind of in-joke?) This is the backdrop for the story of Stephen Meyers, played by Ryan Gosling, a naif, ambitious, would-be political strategist-guru, who is about to learn the real dirty realities of politics.

Gosling's journey is at the heart of the film and it's his performance that redeems a sometimes verbose script (adapted from Willimon's play). The opening scenes are self-consciously laden with "great" dialogue: ie the kind of dialogue where you can almost see the written words on the page. It's heavy handed and not helped by the uninspiring cinematography. Gosling sleeps with an intern who's in all kinds of trouble before she kills herself. For a moment, as he resorts to speaking on public payphones and the camerawork becomes edgier, it feels as though we're about to enter political thriller territory. But gradually Gosling begins to flex his acting muscles and the latter half of the film is all about his journey towards political anti-karma. Tellingly, it's Gosling's silence which is the most effective thing about the film; the morally compromised outsider, like Iago, who says more saying nothing than he would if he spoke. In contrast to the falseness of the words that the campaigns are made of. Gosling ditches any idealism he might have had, accepts the compromise and joins the bandwagon, which would appear to be rolling all the way to the White House.

There's something rather clunky about Ides of March. It's like a slightly undercooked Three Days of the Condor without the thrills. The polish and the resources and the cleverness have such a sheen that they can't help but feel tawdry. It would be nice to think that this is all part of a bid to authentically capture the vaudeville aspects of the campaign trail, but one suspects that in actuality it's all part of the film's own bid to pick up votes at Oscar time and in the multiplexes. Which is reasonable: that's what Hollywood films are designed to do. It's just that, given the scope of the film's political critique, it feels as though a little bit more cinematic ambition might have been warranted. What redeems Ides of March is Gosling's performance, his increasingly blank face as the film progresses encapsulating the glassy hollowness of all he is caught up in.

Friday, 4 November 2011

the she-devil in the mirror [horacio castellanos moya]

Moya's book is a jaunty read, told from the perspective of a young woman immersed in the baroque world of El Salvadorean high society. When a friend of hers is murdered she takes it upon herself to try and discover the real killer, having no confidence in the police chief. The fact that her friend was involved in a series of vapid affairs with a selection of San Salvador's movers and shakers means that the list of potential killers is a long one. It also means that the more Laura, the narrator, mouths off about it, the more danger she places herself in. The fact that she is too blasé and privileged to realise this adds to the sense of impending doom.

The book consists of several breathy chapters, each of them a monologue by Laura to her supposed friend. One can't help suspecting that a great deal of nuance is lost in translation, as she intersperses her theories with observations about society: the malls she meets her friend in; the church; the press, etc. There's nothing sympathetic about Laura and it's clear we're not supposed to like her much. Rather the author is setting out to skewer an elite, to hoist them on their own petard. The book, published in 2000, looks at the way El Salvador, even post-dictatorship, continues to be run by a wealthy, corrupt section of society. There's a quote from Bolano on the front cover of my edition saying Mora is the only writer of his generation who "knows how to narrate the horror, the secret Vietnam that Latin America was for a long time." I'm not sure She-Devil in the Mirror quite lives up to that billing, maybe his other books do, but nevertheless it's an enjoyable, satirical, eminently readable take on a country which had a long way to go before recovering from the crimes of the late twentieth century.