Tuesday, 31 January 2017

la la land (w&d damien chazelle)

It’s been a fortnight since we watched La La Land in the company of my parents at a packed-out Ipswich cineworld. In that space of time the world has already changed so radically that it feels like it’s almost time to do the re-evaluation of the re-evaluation.

La La Land is a great big feel good hit. The type of film you can go and watch with your parents, who don’t really like cinema, and everyone comes out feeling like the job has just about been done. There’s a (very self-conscious) bravura and a technical pizzaz which marks this out as being the work of an auteur director. No matter what you think of their performances, Gosling and Stone deliver good old-fashioned film star wattage. It feels like a film that has set out its stall to be a classic, one to rival the quoted references of, among others, Singing in the Rain and Casablanca (no less). This might be hubris, or it might be the bold statement of a young genius.

Having said which, here’s the first re-evaluation. This is supposed to be a film about jazz, but truth be told, even though it tries hard, it’s poor on that particular musical genre. At one point Gosling goes on an extended riff about how the instruments talk to one another, and as he does so he’s actually talking over the instruments. Which feels not just gauche on his part but also on the film’s. The plot, such as it is, is wafer-thin, and doesn’t bear close examination, compared to a movie like Casablanca, where the dexterity of the plot is what dazzles as much as anything else. Similarly, the film achieves the notable trick of making its two characters increasingly 2-D. It’s as though they’re more believable at the start of the movie then at the end. Nothing sums this up more than the Stone character’s choice of husband. He’s not a real person: he’s a kind of sub-exec figure who looks good in a suit. Why has she chosen this dork, when she has the world at her feet? It’s a curious touch, which again makes the comparison with a film like Casablanca seem foolish: in Casablanca every figure who appears carries the weight of their history with them. As has been pointed out, there are no secondary characters in La La Land. There’s just two stars. The treatment of the other musicians is derisory. All of which leads you to think, upon re-evaluation, that La La Land is something of a con. As so often, Hollywood brio and straight cash delivers a product which, when all the bows and whistles are removed, proves to be far less than the sum of its parts.

That was last week’s re-evaluation. Now for the re-evaluation of the re-evaluation, given all that has happened since; the way in which the sickness of the state of the American nation has been revealed so candidly (no matter which side of the political fence you are on, even if regular readers won’t have too many problems deducing the reviewer’s side.) This second re-evaluation is triggered in part by the title itself. Where is La La Land? Or what is it? It’s a pretty stupid title, all things considered. It could almost have been the title of a subversive satire on Los Angeles, or the States itself. A place where silliness and shallowness are glorified, whilst real values have been trashed. Gosling’s sometimes ambivalent performance could also be attributed to this reading of the film’s intentions. His hand-in-pocket, too-cool-for-school look borders on the ridiculous. As though the actor himself is sending up the whole business of this ridiculous film, presumably with the director’s approval, a la Belmondo. This re-evaluation would lead us to suggest that the film is a neo-Godardian take on the Hollywood musical: a subversive vehicle which captures the imminent degeneracy of the Trumpian era. (Weirdly you can’t help feeling that both the Obamas and the Trumps might have been happy to have a screening of this at the WH private cinema, even if the snacks would have been very different). In which case Chazelle, rather than seeking to dazzle with nostalgia, is actually doing that thing which no filmmaker is supposed to do and condescending to his audience, only no-one’s got round to calling him out for it. If this were true it would make him closer to Refn/ Von Trier than Gene Kelly, and neatly tie-in with the Gosling love-in.

In the end, I suspect that the re-evaluation of the re-evaluation is a case of the reviewer being too smart for his own good, rather than the filmmaker. What is interesting is that part of the backlash against La La Land is that, within two weeks, it’s come to be seen by many as too pastel, too feel good. Chazelle is going to have plenty of opportunities to get his teeth into some more demanding narratives. Maybe he’ll get round to making his Casablanca one day, after all. The conditions that helped to make that film so remarkable, a context one would would hope would never be repeated, seem far closer today than they did a fortnight ago in the naive shrine of cinema which is the Ipswich cineworld. 

Friday, 27 January 2017

jackie (d. pablo larraín, w. noah oppenheim)

Watched the day after Trump’s inauguration. Someone has been quite smart with their distribution strategy for Jackie, as the cinema was packed, not a spare seat to be had. Perhaps not the kind of reception Larraín is accustomed to in this country. Many will discover him for the first time through Jackie. He delivers with exemplary independence. This is a forthright portrayal of a North American heroine, chiseled in unconventional style. The film’s primary brief is to humanise the political gods. Where the standard biopic too often gets trapped in exposition and wonky re-enactment, Larrain delivers a fractured portrait of a woman whose strength and vulnerability appear to go hand in hand. At the same time, the film echoes her mission to make the White House more accessible. Larraín and Oppenheim’s Jackie is versed in the history of the house and its presidents. She realises that she and her husband now form part of that history and its traditions. (“For tradition you need time.”) The first lady is given a deeper understanding than the men who exercise power, an understanding that comes to her aid as she struggles to come to terms with her grief. It is also an understanding the film communicates to its audience. At this particular historical moment, a supremely timely understanding.

The history of the US and Larrain’s home country is notoriously complex. Even in so far as his family is concerned. (Pablo was born into the Larraín family just as Jackie was incorporated into the Kennedy family: he understands dynasties and history.) Yet, in a way, this would appear to have made him an ideal biographer for the outsider subject. He’s in no way overawed by the subject matter; rather he seeks to contextualise it. This film has a lot in common with his sly masterpiece, Post Mortem, in that regard. Larraín looks at the other side of the historical coin; what it’s like to find yourself caught up in the vortex of terrible times. Larraín is aided by a script which just manages to stay on the right side of pretentiousness, but it’s the mercurial, everyday camera work and the elegant use of music, along with the supple editing which mark the film out. Not to mention Portman’s bravura performance. There’s one set-piece shot, when the camera looks down from the sentinel position on Kennedy’s coffin as it reaches the Capitol, which shows you what this film could have become. An exercise in the grandiose and faux-stateliness. Instead, Jackie is a film which, almost against the odds, succeeds in being both humane and wise. History belongs not just to those who exercise power, but to those who are caught up in its wake. Which is all of us. 

Sunday, 22 January 2017

endless poetry (w&d alejandro jodorowsky)

I wonder what I would make of this if I was Chilean. There are moments when Jodorowsky’s vision of Santiago has echoes of Larrain’s Tony Manero, or even Patricio Kaulen’s Largo Viaje, but these moments are fleeting. Pinochet gets some mock-ironic treatment at the end, but it’s all a little arch. 

To return to the beginning, and why should a film be judged according to geography? Jodorowsky is an acclaimed director, whose cinematic heritage includes Cocteau, Dali and Fellini. As well as containing his trademark surreal flavour, Endless Poetry is also an autobiographical work, which stars his son. Adan, as the filmmaker himself. It narrates the story of his young life in Chile, before emigrating to Paris; his struggle to become a poet and his bohemian adventures. He befriends the poets Enrique Lihn, Stella Díaz Varín, Nicanor Parra, and breaks free from his family. It’s refreshing to see film used as an autobiographical medium. It might occur on a clandestine level, but rarely explicitly. (The Terence Davies trilogy comes to mind) Much of the world’s great literature is autobiographical. The process of creating an autobiographical text involves a self-conscious incorporation of the learning accrued by the author; something they then go on to share with the reader. There’s no reason film shouldn’t do this too, and Jodorowsky makes a bold stab at it. He uses surrealist language to broaden the film’s scale. Some of the effects are beguiling. The opening sequence converts a rundown barrio of Santiago into the thriving working class district of his youth using the wonderful imagination of his art department, a sequence which signals a playful break with naturalism, exploring the frontiers of film’s capacity to incorporate dream and memory. 

The narrative as such is episodic, revolving around the various personal relationships in young Jodorowsky’s development. Much of this is quixotic and stylised. Whenever the film tries to break though into a more authentic emotional register, it falls flat. This is partly because Adan Jodorowsky isn’t a great actor, but also because it seems to go against the film’s playfulness. At other times it feels as though the imagery is being employed for the sake of it, rather than from any dramatic need. The film’s big set-piece scene, a vast carnival sequence involving devils and skeletons, feels forced, as though there was money that needed spending. The director and his DOP (Chris Doyle) needed fireworks and this is what they came up with. 

All of this makes for an uneven film. For all it’s moments of brilliance, it feels never quite grabs the viewer by the throat as it might have done. There’s a self-indulgence which doesn’t help the cause of this kind of much-needed aesthetic adventurism. Likewise, it feels, in the end, as though it’s a shame that the film doesn’t have more to say about the politics of its provenance. Much as Chileans might not care for a constant referencing of Bolaño, the comparison has relevance. Bolaño, like Jodorowsky,  is a Chilean exile enamoured with the notion of the poet, to such an extent that his work includes real poets, just as Jodorowsky’s does. However, Bolaño, succeeds in ensuring that any flights of fancy always feel rooted in political realities. An investigation of this poetic phenomenon is also an investigation of the society the poet emerges from. Jodorowsky, by contrast, seems to have constructed something which floats free of its political origins. Endless Poetry ends up feeling too magical realist for its own good; for all its chutzpah it ends up reinforcing Latin American stereotypes without revealing their origins. 

Sunday, 15 January 2017

a history of violence [oscar martinez]

Martinez’ book consists of 14 terrible chapters which document life on the wrong side of the tracks in Guatemala and El Salvador. There is no way to do justice to the stories Martinez recounts. The author puts his hand in the lion’s jaws. He describes a world which seems medieval in the way in which power is orchestrated. The powerful’s capacity for brutality is that which defines their power. Souls are just pawns in their games. The logic is that survival, that of the powerful, depends on their capacity to be more brutal than the next man. Martinez talks to the practitioners and the middle men and the victims, those who have escaped with their lives. The things he discovers come straight out of Hieronymous Bosch. 

Why does any of this matter? Martinez’ introduction, as fine a piece of writing as you could hope to come across, addresses this. Why should we, who live in privilege, even take the trouble to learn about the sufferings of those caught up in the Central American drugs wars, or stuck on the immigrant trail? (And here Martinez’ book takes on an even more telling prescience.) Martinez acknowledges that the problems in Guatemala and El Salvador are so extreme that there is no quick solution. However, in his words: “My proposal is that you know what is going on. Because I believe that knowing is different from not knowing. I believe that knowing, especially with people like yours, who know how to wield politics, is the beginning of a solution. I believe… that knowing is what moves the waves. You can be one of the waves.”

Martinez here is addressing a US audience, whose workforce and economy is shaped by Central America labour and immigrants. Who knows what will happen over the course of the next four years. But the book shows us that political structures we believe, in our sheltered states, to have been despatched to the annals of history, continue to thrive. Progress is a myth that belongs to the privileged few. Martinez’ book needs to be read to see what’s on the other side, (pace Cormac McCarthy), all the more so as so much we previously took for granted begins to unravel, We need to be vigilant in our societies to protect them against the terrible forces of unmediated power, which Martinez describes. We also need to do all we can to seek to help those that suffer in those states where the State is too weak to protect its own citizens. Borders melt. The problem on the other side of the fence will get here in the end, if we allow it to fester. 

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

juventud [vanessa blakeslee]

I was, perhaps, mislead by the title into thinking that this was a novel by a Colombian author. As it happens, it appears the author, Vanessa Blakeslee, is North American. Whilst the majority of her novel is set is Cali, and deals with the complexities of growing up there (narcos, guerrillas, assassinations), the novel’s aesthetic has a straightforward anglo-saxon vibe. In many ways, this is chick lit with politics thrown in. Which is not to dismiss it. There’s no reason why Colombia’s history shouldn’t be told through the eyes of a young woman struggling to come to terms with its paradoxes and deceits. The book feels well researched and gives a vivid portrayal of Cali at the turn of the last century. Nevertheless, there are moments when it feels as though the heroine’s story might have benefitted from being a little less linear and a little less spelt out. Particularly in the book’s second part, where Mercedes life changes radically and the novel’s scope expands to incorporate Israel, Florida, Washington DC and Mexico. At which point the supposed object of Mercedes’ concern, the landless peasants who have suffered as a result of the drugs war, begin to feel more like wallpaper for her story, and the whole book begins to veer dangerously towards cultural tourism.