Sunday, 29 January 2012

shame (d steve mcqueen, w abi morgan)

If anything makes me want to quit writing these things it's a film like Shame. To find myself reacting negatively to the work of someone who's debut feature I enjoyed so much takes the wind out of my sails. It probably makes me look like a malcontent, wilfully perverse. When these essays are supposed to be part of the process of being an active participant rather than a passive one. A mark of respect as much as an indication of my taste, good, bad or indifferent. Perhaps that makes the whole process somewhat narcissistic. Yo que se, as they put it so succinctly in Rioplantense Spanish.

Narcissism is appropriate, because if Shame is anything else, it's an almost grotesquely narcissistic film. Preening in the mirror of its attractive star. And his self-conscious attractiveness. He's a man without any real suggestion of a sense of humour, a kind of idiot savant womanising machine. No wonder he's unhappy. His unhappiness is revealed by shots of his face, contorted, repeated. Or shots of him hiding his face, as though he realises that this face is the cause of all his troubles. People have said that this is a film about sex addiction, or just addiction. It's clearly to a large extent a film about family. And its disfunctionality. But above all it's a narcissistic film about narcissism.

Narcissism isn't terribly attractive. The way to deal with this within a narrative is to observe the narcissist from outside, as in the case of Keats' poem. Try and get inside a narcissist's head and it's not going to be anything other than dull. How does the film attempt to combat this? It does so by purporting to be risque, to be out there, to be about sex and sexual deviance. But in reality that's just the arena for Brandon's narcissism to flower and for McQueen's camera to titillate. Any attempts at narrative within this context have nowhere to go, they are all going to end with an agonised portrait of the agony of Fassbender in his agonising penthouse. The character of Sissy has far more depth than that of her brother; but she is dealt with in the cursory fashion of unhappy females, doomed to do everything you'd expect, coming to a jarringly obvious end.

Hunger was a remarkable film in so far that it felt as though the director trusted his cinematic instincts to triumph at the expense of plot and character. There's a boldness to this attitude which allowed McQueen's visual and aural flair to flower. In Shame this flair is yoked to a pedestrian narrative which if anything seems to dilute McQueen's talents.

There's been a lot of love and garlands for this movie, but to my mind it felt, no matter how much I wanted to like it, like the work of people who inhabit a rarefied world where the makers' brilliance has become so all consuming that they need to make a film about it.  There's an almost Cameroonian air of self-satisfaction to its purportedly bleak examination of what it's like to suffer being overwhelmingly successful. The more Fassbender's face contorts - the agony and the ecstasy - the falser the whole farrago felt. In a way, it's a perfect film for our times, set in the uber shrine of mass individualism which our society is still aspiring to, in spite of the clear failure of the world it depicts.

Maybe I've misinterpreted it. I kind of hope so. 

Friday, 27 January 2012

nine muses (w&d john akomfrah)

Figures in fierce coats stand braced against the cold. These are the immigrants. The ones who came to this country, left the sun behind, and now have to contend with the snow and the ice, find a place in a new world, join the madness.

There's some riveting camerawork, as these figures face lakes, open roads, the North. This is a portrait of Britain, seen from the skewed angle of the...

Hang on, I thought, about 45 minutes in. That's not Scotland! That's not Loch Maree! All those 4x4s aren't in Britain. Those traffic signs look kind of... American? Indeed, as my learned colleague observed later. It's all part of the metaphor. The immigrant confronting the barren cold... I'd got this. I just thought the barren cold was British. Which is what all the beautifully selected archive footage implies. I mean, this is a film about the experience of being an immigrant in Britain, isn't it?

So the subtlety of the use of Alaska as a metaphor went over my head. It seemed to me that the filmmakers had received a hefty grant and made the most of it. By going to Alaska. This is a point that Nine Muses makes somewhat relentlessly, as the Alaskan footage recurs and recurs and recurs and recurs. It's cold out there. You need a good coat.

This footage is punctuated by the above mentioned archive footage and series of increasingly ponderous readings taken from the "Naxos Classical Archive". After the initial Paradise Lost quotation which seems appropriate, we then get Dante, Hamlet, Richard 2, Beckett and Joyce. All of which succeeds in elevating this film into a work of massive pretentiousness, which, were it to have been done by a German featuring Goethe, Kant et al would probably have been laughed out of court.

There is something refreshing about the director's take and presentation of the immigrant process. Buried deep within Nine Muses, under the snowdrifts, it feels as though there might have been a bold and compelling film. But in the end there's an Alaskan wooliness to the whole endeavour which holes it below the waterline.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

weekend (w&d andrew haigh)

It might be that the will is flagging, as I saw Haigh's surprisingly successful movie before 2011 had drawn to a close. The film itself has a clear agenda: to tell its gay narrative with as much vigour as any straight narrative, not to pull its punches, not to be in any way embarrassed about what it's doing. It's a gay Before Sunrise and just as wordy as Linklater's film. The two lead characters are convincing, their relationship, doomed to be nipped in the bud, is, in its way, quietly affecting.

Which perhaps explains the film's success. In truth, despite all the noises recently about the rude health of the British film industry, it seems to me that even at our most maverick we still seem to be producing films which are parochial. Little stories that search out their niche in the market. In that sense we're not that far removed from the fledgling film business of the country I'm returning to shortly, in spite of the money, energy and kudos lavished on the film industry here. Weekend isn't that far removed from Archipelago or Tyrannosaur or much else in terms of the scale of its ambition. Of course, so much of that ambition is re-routed to Hollywood, where people go if they want to get paid well. Thinking on the films of Anderson, Roeg or even someone like Lean, they seem to come from a different, less risk-averse time. As ever, this says more about the industry and the financiers (and hence, obliquely, the intellectual optimism of the country) than it probably does about the filmmakers themselves. There probably are plenty of filmmakers with a grander vision, but there's not much chance of the films they want to make being produced here. 

Thursday, 12 January 2012

the artist (w&d michel hazanavicius)

Leaving the cinema there was some debate over whether this is a reactionary film or not. In difficult times, the public takes succour in escapism. A film about silent cinema becomes an unlikely success as we look for anything to take our mind off recession and the collapse of Western capitalism. Into the breach steps a tale from a time when stars were stars and cinema was simpler.

I could buy this argument, but I’d like to offer the counterpoint. Hazanavicius’s film instead compels us to revisit a brief, golden time when the filmmaker’s message wasn’t sullied by language. When the image was paramount. It could almost be seen as a tribute to Derrida. We revisit a less forensic, cynical age, when delight in the image was still permitted to flourish and watching cinema was akin to stepping on the Moon. In this regard it would appear to have something in common with Scorsese’s Hugo, albeit The Artist is a more satisfying, witty film than the old master’s.

So I’m not convinced that The Artist, no matter how enjoyable, is all that escapist. It’s more of a paean to those things we have lost than an invitation to bask in the delights of what we have. Perhaps that’s why it’s weirdly moving. Valentine is a man out of time, losing touch with the world that is to come. A feeling that all of us are constantly condemned to repeat in this hyper-technological age, forever one step behind whatever is just about to emerge and turn the world around again.

I sometimes wonder what it must have been like to have lived a normal life before the invention of the printing press. If you didn’t speak Latin or live in a monastery. Were minds less rich for the lack of information? Did the intellect not sing its own song still in whatever form it took? The Artist reminds us that for all our so-called sophistication, we’re still susceptible to those things which have shaped human perception since before time began. Things such as the other and the heart. And dogs.