Tuesday, 25 March 2014

under the skin (w&d jonathan glazer, w. walter campbell)

Some points referring to Under The Skin:

Confused Narratives

Films don't have to make sense. They’re often more enjoyable if they don’t. As long as they’re not trying to make sense. The enigmatic can be the best cinema game in town. (cf Kubrick; Resnais; Antonioni) Albeit something that the British are rarely aware of. (Honourable exception Roeg, whose The Man Who Fell to Earth might be the godfather of UTS.)

Is this the most expensive low budget movie ever made?

One of the various clever things Glazer does in his film is appropriate a low-budget sensibility. By which it is meant: low budget filmmaking uses little-known actors or even non-actors. Low budget filmmaking doesn’t have the budget to try and “create” an ‘alternative’ world. So it focuses on the actual world. Which is what frequently gives low-budget filmmaking a sense of immediacy and relevance which a more, arch, “created” world does not. The first half of Under the Skin has the feel of an ob-doc about Glasgow street life. Which a glamorous alien/ hollywood star happens to be passing through. This juxtaposition sets off all kinds of sparks and gives the film a freshness which a more honed product lacks. Kudos to director and star for having the nerve to go down this route.

A little bit of humour goes a long way.

This is a film that’s laced with a mischievous sense of humour. Which helps to buy it space for the more esoteric angles it adopts. Humour gets the audience on board; the moments of humour are like way-stations on the film’s cryptic path. This is what Malick’s po-faced Tree of Life patently lacked, for example.

Is this a feminist movie?

Version 1: Men try to pick up chick thinking (correctly) she looks like a Hollywood star only to find she’s an alien luring them to their oily fate. Moral: men are fools who cannot see under the skin.
Version 2: Men try to pick up chick but in the process reveal their fundamental decency, to such an extent that the alien ends up taking pity on her victims and trying to discover her own humanity. She (it) only meets a truly malicious soul at the very end of the movie whose misguided attempt at rape preempts the finale. 
Whilst Glazer’s film clearly pokes fun at the masculine, there’s a warmth to its tone which belies the probable reading which the film will receive on Cinema & Gender courses in the 2020s.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

only lovers left alive (w&d jim jarmusch)

There’s something sad about watching someone who possessed a winsome flair slowly losing their grip on it. I have yet to see some of Mr Jarmusch’s finest films, including Dead Man and Broken Flowers. However, in those I have seen (Night on Earth, Coffee and Cigarettes, Down by Law) there’s a distinctive aesthetic to be savoured. Part of their charm was the feeling of a creator capable of making a film that was more than the sum of its parts. The ingenuity involved in fooling the machine, which is one part of the great skill of beat-the-budget filmmaking (whether that’s a big budget or a little one). You don’t need to blow up skyscrapers in order to make something watchable. Or sink the Titanic. 

Unfortunately, Only Lovers feels as though if anything, the filmmaker was in possession of more funds than he needed. Locations in Tangiers and Detroit. Reasonably famous actors. Well dressed sets. To tell what is a sparse vampire narrative. There’s something about the vampire narrative that seems to bring out the worst in filmmakers. From Ms Denis to Mr Coppola. Maybe the directors are lured by the notion of cinema as innately vampiric: the immortality celluloid bestows, preserving its stars in the amber of perfect youthfulness. Or they see themselves concealed within the genre's narrative: the director as vampire, appropriating the actors’ blood to realise their own dreams. With the possible of exception of Dreyer, and by default Herzog, it rarely seems to work. Hiddlestone and Swinton’s decadent immortals are supposed to come across as louche and sophisticated but actually come across as an unsophisticated idea of what a louche, sophisticated Englishman or woman might be, a kind of cartoon version. The whole film, with many a ridiculous line, feels as though it might have worked better as a cartoon, which would at least allow the creator’s imagination to take the viewer to places which this stylised naturalism aspires to but never reaches. 

Friday, 21 March 2014

gravity (w&d alfonso cuarón, w. jonás cuarón, clooney)

Something has slipped out of kilter in the three weeks or so since I watched Gravity, the most expensive film ever seen in a cinema. I know, when we walked out into the Leicester Square evening, on our way to somewhere else in another galaxy far far away, I did so with slack jaw and a genuine sense of wonder. Wonder at rediscovering what cinema is capable of. Wonder of truly discovering the power of 3D for the first time. Wonder at the sense of having been closer to being in space than I had ever been before and knowing that this is testament to the skill of the technical team who took me there.

I know I felt all this, but when, sitting on a tube or something, I think back to the film, this is not what I remember. The thing I remember is the hokum lines that Clooney hokums his way through, in that neo-50s. sub-Jimmy Stewart style of his. They don’t come back to me in a specific fashion. I intuit a memory of lines about the Greenpackers and cherry pie and the value of striving, of never giving up, of being a homespun US citizen. I have no idea why this has become my dominant memory of Cuarón’s movie. I know that I read that Clooney himself came up with much of his dialogue. I also know that this diminishes my memories of the film to an unwarranted degree. All of a sudden it has become little more than a banal treatise on American values. All the fireworks have melted into thin air. There are no more flying spanners. There’s just George, bumbling away, taking it all in his stride.

I think that the moral of this story is that, no matter how remarkable the film, it can never supersede the limitations of its characters. Of course, many would say that Clooney’s character is perfect. I even remember at the time of watching it thinking how much better it was that he should have been cast than say, Robert Downey Jnr. (Who was scheduled to play the part until he dropped out.) But I can’t help it. That impression has not lasted and what remains in the memory tract, which should have been the glorious artistry and dazzling effects, is the faintly annoying message of yet more Yankee heroism. Which, in the cold light of day, I just don’t buy. 

But, hell, it’s only a movie. The most expensive movie I ever saw. 

Thursday, 20 March 2014

dream of ding village [yan lianke]

My mother pressed this book on me. My mother and I have always had a soft-cell literary side to our relationship. Her taste and mine don't coincide all that much, but as one might expect, the influence is there. In my younger years I would steal books from her shelves: Woolf, Forster, David Garnett and the like. She always wanted the books back. Which for a long time seemed slightly petty to me, but as I got older I began to understand. A book is more than the words written within its pages. It is a tangible memorial of the time, place, reason, mood, cares and concerns adjacent to the reading of it. Which is why, although my reading has now been compelled to come to terms with the digital word, I will always be more fond of the printed one.

Anyhow, my mother belongs to one (or several) book groups in Ipswich. Most of the books they select to read fail to impress her. I gave her Onetti, which she liked, and she passed that on to the group. They hated it. She came across Dream of Ding Village via one of her many groups and as it’s the first book she has recommended via that source, I decided I ought to read it. 

I also wanted to read it because it's written by a Chinese author. For all the changes of the past thirty years, Chinese culture, if not society, still has a remote feel. There are weighty tomes about the impact of the Cultural Revolution, but the literature has yet to permeate. Lianke is credited as being a major Chinese novelist, but I'd never heard of him. 

About a hundred pages into the novel I began to wish my mother hadn't recommended it. Not because it is poorly written. The style is concise, the storytelling engaging. Because the subject matter of the book, the annihilation of a village by the transmission of Aids, is truly galling. This is a visceral, shocking book, in a way that Brett Easton Ellis, for example, could never be. Aids strikes, people fall to bits, and there is no redemption. The great disease which threatened but somehow more or less bypassed Western consciousness, finds more hospitable territory in rural China, and it doesn't let up. 

The book it might perhaps be compared to is The Plague. As in Camus' novel, there's a clear philosophical voice at work, narrating events. Lianke's narrator is a dead child. The world's cruelty has already done all it can, so nothing can surprise him. His even-handed tone as he describes the horrors visited on his village over the course of two years makes the events all that much harder to bear. 

However, above and beyond the description of the decimation of a village, the book turns into a powerful eco-critique of capitalism. The narrator's father is one of the great amoral villains of modern literature, a man for whom the acquisition of wealth vindicates any decision he makes, no matter how inhumane. He sells coffins and dead spouses as though they are apples and pears. His reward is not merely wealth, but also status and respect. Money, or the obvious capacity to exploit others' weaknesses in order to acquire wealth, becomes an almost Kantian 'good'. Ding village is stricken by more than Aids. It is also been stricken by the unconscious stupidity of the capitalist mentality. Lianke's book is a harrowing critique of the changes occurring in his native land. 

And, walking around a mutating London on a sunny Spring afternoon, a London that is cannibalising its own self in the name of commercial development, it's hard not to think that Lianke's dream is relevant to more than just China. It's relevant to everywhere where tomorrow is placed on such a high pedestal that yesterday can be instantly forgotten, its buildings and culture raised, its trees cut down, its soil turned to dust. 

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

bastards (w&d claire denis; w. jean-pol fargeau)

I lost my phone during the screening of Denis' film. I'd arrived that morning in London after flying from Montevideo via Miami. Mr Curry put me on a bus and together we went to watch Denis' latest. When I came out, I realised that after going half way round the world and managing to hold on to everything I needed, I'd left my phone in the cinema. I went back, without much optimism. And there it was. The man on the door was very friendly. Everyone in the cinema seemed friendly. As though they were on a mission to deny the validity of Denis' latest film.

Which took an altogether bleaker view of humanity. It's a few weeks since I saw it so the ins and outs of the plot and chronology have become foggy. In her best films, Denis' tricksiness is a delight. In the ones that don't quite come off, it becomes an irritation. It wasn't helping not knowing when the events were taking place, who arrived when in the elegant Parisian apartment block; who abused whom when; who robbed whom when. The intensity, focussed to such good effect on the character of Huppert in White Material, was diffuse. The warmth which made 35 Shots leap off the screen was absent. Everything felt cold and mechanical, which might have been in keeping with the film's thematic but didn't assist the viewing process.

When Denis is good she does things no other living director achieves. There's a fluidity to the narrative, the camera work, the score, the acting. But when that fluidity doesn't feel rooted in a narrative which can handle it, that same fluidity becomes overly opaque, leaving a film in search of its focus. Sadly, Bastards belongs to the latter camp. Fortunately, my phone retained its narrative focus, (to travel to the ends of the earth [Hackney] and feign loss but eventually be found), with more alacrity than the film.