Wednesday, 29 November 2017

híbridos, los espíritus de brasil (d. vincent moon y priscilla telmon)

Híbridos is an immersive documentary, which explores the connection between spirituality and music in Brazil. There’s not a word of dialogue. The film floats, effortlessly, from place to place. The camera is a vivid player, getting right in there as as its subjects dance or dream. From time to time, the camera appears to becomes part of the dance. The frame is almost always tight. A mass of people cling to a rope in Recife and we see their impassioned faces, barely getting a glimpse of the architecture or the setting. We are another face, crammed in to this ecstatic process. Just occasionally the camera pulls back and shows a crowd in Rio or Salvador from a distance, but it’s no more than a breather, before it plunges back into the maelstrom. A group of barefooted dancers on what appears to be waste land on a hill in Sao Paulo dance for Jesus, the city just discernible in the dying light behind. A vibrant, African-tinged dance erupts in a tiny space in the North East, men and women jostling for space; a group of what appears to be Ayahuasca users enter into an orgasmic trance, their faces contorted and covered in mud. The film ends with a lengthy sequence of a shaman, struggling to contain whatever it is that has possessed him, in a hut in the middle of nowhere. There are few countries that have as diverse a range of influences, both musical and spiritual, as Brazil. African, evangelical, native traditions blend and merge. The cumulative effect is disorientating, stupefying, terrifying, any of these words. It’s a remarkable film and testament to the power of the documentary to conjure worlds within worlds with nothing more than an elastic camera, high-end sound recording and a savagely brilliant edit. 

Monday, 27 November 2017

good time (d. benny safdie & josh safdie, w. josh safdie, ronald bronstein)

I’m not really sure what this film was about. For a while it looked as though it was going to be captivating. Then it wasn’t. Then you can’t help thinking that bloody Marty has got a lot to answer for. Because it’s not a bad film, it’s got an edginess, which the camera captures, it’s got an energy, it feels for a long time that it’s going to be about what it means to be young and scared and lost in this modern world, and then all of a sudden you realise it isn’t about that at all. It isn’t really about anything. It’s just about a guy who wants to rob banks and isn’t very good at it. The film never really tells you why he wants to rob banks, and drag his mentally disabled brother into it, what he wants to do with the money, what he’s running away from or where he thinks he’s running to. All of which might have been helpful. It just depicts a vaguely charismatic man who must surely have been able to find a better way to use his talents than holding up a bank with a degree of incompetence which is impressive. There’s a hint of Victoria in the set-up, without the parallel romantic sub-plot, which was the thing that gave Victoria its charm. Like the German film, Good Time takes place over the course of a single day/night and ends in anti-climactic disaster. Like Victoria it also benefits from some astute camerawork and a striking lead performance. However, the longer the film goes on, the more hoops Pattinson’s protagonist is made to go through, the less convincing it becomes; and the lack of any kind of driving reason for the action we’re watching becomes more and more apparent. Maybe US filmmaking is reducing itself to a grammar of dramatic beats; which becomes the raison d’être for the experience of watching the film. No-one cares what it’s about anymore. Watching movies has become a purely visceral process; in which case the Safdie brothers might well be destined for a long and successful career. At the same time, if I had the time and/or energy to indulge in a more adventurous interpretation of the film’s narrative and what this says about cinematic storytelling, I’m not sure there would be anything there; life is a series of tweets that constantly provoke the next reaction; we are all Pavlov’s dogs. (Which is completely unfair as there was clearly a great deal of artistry in the creation of Good Time, but that made it, for this viewer, all the more frustrating that there wasn’t more ambition concealed within the film’s ostensible premise.) 


Since writing the above, in transit, I’ve read reviews which praise the way in which the film captures New York’s racial diversity and the inherent racism of the US, noting that Pattinson’s Connie Nikas befriends a Haitian refugee (I didn’t get that she was Haitian when watching it) and manipulates the fact that the security guard he assaults is of Ethiopian descent to get himself away from the police. Retrospectively, I can just about get this; I can also understand why the film was praised and seen as evidence of a fresh and distinctive new voice. I can get all of these things, but it doesn’t alter that fact that there’s something mundane and implausible about the narrative, that the film appears to aspire to emulate Scorsese or Cimino or even Five Easy Pieces, but to this viewer’s eyes it lacks both the pathos and the narrative risk-taking necessary to pull off the comparison successfully. However, let’s not deny that I looked at the film from a glass half-empty perspective, rather than a glass half-full. Good luck to the brothers; I know I’ll be curious to see where they go next, and, in the context of my recent London industry weekend, I’ll be prepared to pay my tenner at the box office to find out. Which is as big a win as anyone can reasonably hope for. 

Saturday, 25 November 2017

transit [anna seghers]

Transit is a novel, set in Second World War Marseilles. The unnamed masculine narrator is in flight from Germany, keeping one step ahead of the Nazis. He ends up being another one who lands in the last open port in France, waiting for a ship which will permit him to escape Europe. However, the narrator proves to be a jaundiced, disengaged figure. On his way to Marseilles he stops off in Paris and somehow inherits the identity of a dead writer whose wife, he learns from a letter plans on leaving him. Once the narrator comes across the dead man’s wife, he inevitably falls in love with her. Meanwhile, in a port city that is at once ferverish and dull, he half-heartedly goes about the business of seeking the permits he requires to both remain and leave. He is caught in a life-and-death Kafkaesque game, but the writing strips the drama out of the scenario, because the only thing the narrator is interested in his ersatz wife, whom he dreams of fleeing with. His machinations are all targeted towards trying to achieve this dream, albeit done in the knowledge that his actions are morally dubious. However, what does this mean in a world where the need for survival trumps any moral instinct? 

Seghers’ novel is a downbeat text that feels wilfully anti-dramatic. Her characters are stuck in limbo, somewhere between the hell they are fleeing from and the heaven that might await, should they escape. She casts a surgical eye over this black joke of history. It’s as though the life and death scenario, with all the drama this might implicate, is secondary to the way in which history has cut and pasted people’s lives in a manner that could never have been anticipated. Like her narrator, the author’s eye is distant and ironic. Every now and again the gods play with people to remind them that they exist. When that happens, the futility of being human becomes achingly apparent. 

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

triple agent (w&d rohmer)

Rohmer’s chamber piece has a curious topicality, in a modern day era of Russian spies and double crosses. A white Russian in exile in pre-war Paris and his Greek wife get caught up in the machinations which eventually lead to the HItler-Stalin pact. It would appear that the film is based on fact, with an addendum that the sympathetic heroine died from TB in prison in 1940, after being tried for her alleged part in her husband’s plot to abduct an exiled Russian general on Stalin’s behalf. (A charge which Rohmer’s film suggests was ridiculous.) There’s a stately feel to the film., which appears to lack the subtlety of Rohmer’s earlier work. The delicate character study of the heroine is swallowed up by the march of history and the film’s epic scope as it covers the years leading up to the second world war. The film’s attempt to show the way in which ordinary people become victims of historical contrivance, though supremely relevant, is never as effective as the story suggests it should be. Having said which, there’s something peculiarly haunting about the way in which the film incorporates black and white archive footage, charting events which retrospectively appear inevitable. Are we in the midst of a similar era today? Are there ordinary or not-so-ordinary couples whose lives are on the point of being torn apart? 

Friday, 3 November 2017

confession of the lioness [mia couto]

Confession of the Lioness is another journey with Couto through the fabular land of rural Mozambique. It’s a story told from two points of view. The mysterious female character, Mariamar, and the weary hunter, Archie Bullseye. The premise is that there have been a succession of lion attacks in Mariamar’s rural village, the latest of which has claimed the life of her sister, Silência. Archie has been hired as a hunter to come and kill the lions. But the more we read, the more we realise that Archie’s not that interested in killing anything anymore. He’s in love with his brother’s wife, his brother who’s in a mental hospital after killing their father. He’d rather hunt with his pen than his rifle, and takes to writing a journal, which the book contains. Meanwhile, Mariamar fell in love with Archie when he visited the village 16 years ago to kill a crocodile and now she pines for him. 

As the book unfolds, it becomes, somewhat wonderfully, far less clear, rather than more clear. Is Mariamar actually a lioness? Is the Mariamar who talks about Archie and lives in her mother’s house the fictional invention of this lioness? None of the presumed threads leads where you expect. Archie and Mariamar never have their moment together. Archie loses all interest in his mission. Things don’t work according to the narrative rules we’ve been taught to expect. We’ve entered a weirder, more complex narrative world. Which at the same time paints a portrayal of a strange rural society, one which the inhabitants of the city will never really understand. Like Archie and his writer companion, we are these visitors, offered a glimpse of another way of life and thought, one which belongs to the lions and their antagonists, the people who co-exist with the lions.