Thursday, 31 December 2009

FILMS OF 2009 (Part One):

Time was, when I seemed to do nothing but review films here. This time, I find I’ve only previously written about three the whole year long. So perhaps an end-of-year catch-up is timely. This will be done in reverse order, in the vain hope of generating some kind of excitement. This time, those films I have ranked Tin-Plated and Not-Even-Going-To-Say-What-Substance. Coming soon, The Bronze, closely followed by The Silver and then The Gold!

Please note, if I seem to have more to say about some films than others, that shouldn’t be taken as a measure of appreciation but just the way the words came out.


THE TIN-PLATED:



Broken Embraces

I either end up persistently seeing the wrong Almodovar films or else he’s quite absurdly over-rated. But this was almost definitively a ‘meh’ movie. The film-within-a-film they keep making is often played as a joke, yet it seems so much more alive than the film we’re actually watching.

Che (Parts 1 & 2)

The great thing about the old Cold War films about Cuba, whether pro or anti, is that they’re so impassioned. Even Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment, so insistently a tale of non-involvement, is ferventlynon-involved. By contrast, these two films feel almost un-involved. It’s like the difference between a speech by a political campaigner and a dry broadsheet analysis, stuffed with diagrams and tables. They’re like a project, another weighty topic to research and add to your film-maker’s CV.

Admittedly I would be less harsh on this two-parter if comparing it to its contemporaries rather than predecessors, and the second part is more involving than the first. And it was a lot better than...

THE NOT-EVEN-GOING-TO-SAY-WHAT-SUBSTANCE:

The Baader Meinhof Complex

aka The Baader Meinhof Simple As reviewed here.



Public Enemies

After seeing the trailer, I was actually looking forward to Michael Mann’s presentation of John Dillinger’s life of crime. That trailer didn’t lie, particularly. In fact you could stick together pretty much any scenes from this film to engender the same sense of excitement. The problem is when you stick them all together. There’s no take, no engagement either with Dillinger’s life or his public image. There didn’t necessarily have to be insight, but some kind of through-line might have helped! All we get is a shopping-list of (apparently well-researched) moments from the mobster’s life transformed by a crew of professionals into event movie-making. It’s like picking nice-sounding words and calling them a sentence.

But even that was better than...

Il Divo

A great artist can take a complex subject and present it to you simply, memorably and with great clarity. This film does the reverse. It’s not even that it’s gimmicky and expensive-looking. It just looks expensive-looking. Somebody could make a fantastic black farce out of the current state of Italian politics. (Whose stinky goings-on seem even more egregious than here in Britain.) Hopefully, somebody still might.

But even that was better than...

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The risible low-point of my filmic year. I can’t believe David Fincher... yes, the man who made Fight Club... was behind this sickly-sweet slice of Oscar bait! If anything surfaced that was worse than this, I simply don’t want to know about it.

What really sums the film up is that bloody humming-bird, so clearly signposted as ‘symbolic’. But doesn’t a symbol have to be a symbol of something?, not just some slo-mo arthouse stand-in for redemption. Or transcendence. Or rejuvenation. Or whatever. I don’t know which, and neither does anyone who made this overlong indulgence. It was like eating sugar from the bag whilst a tuxedoed waiter compliments you on your “excellent choice, sir!” No it isn’t.

Friday, 25 December 2009

CINE-CITY 2009 (Part Two: Wojciech Has retrospective)

Apologies for the late arrival of this second part of my Cine-City retrospective. A third part was originally promised, but that no longer seems current now. Perhaps I should be wary of making such rash promises this time of the year. I have at least kept up my tradition of always posting something on Christmas Day.



THE NOOSE (1958)

Perhaps the prevalent view of the Polish director Wojciech Has is summed up by Wikipedia, that he “was independent of the over political themes that dominated the prevailing Polish (Film) School.” In fact it could be possible to push this line too far. Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds, often regarded as the very definition of the Polish Film School, is itself very much an ‘inner’ story of a conflicted individual - a Hamlet not a Julius Caesar. Yet the issues which beset this individual are very much social and political. Conversely Kuba, the central character of The Noose, wears his alcoholism like an existential curse. He makes no excuses for drinking, along the lines of poverty or unemployment. It’s much more one man’s way of dodging life’s central question ‘what is a man to do?’

There’s also more than a hint of the Sartrean concept that ‘hell is other people’. Take for example the recurrent emphasis on windows and mirrors, and indeed characters often become windows and mirrors to each other. Tellingly, the inevitable noose of the title is made from a telephone wire – the mechanism by which others assail him.

The film follows the ‘faux unities’ of time, as we follow him for a day trying to stay clean and sober. (There must be a term for this ‘compressed real time’, used in films like High Noon, which I don’t know.) Reflecting it’s psychological themes it’s quite a theatrical piece, indeed too much so during some of the scenes when he’s alone in his flat. Yet, for a cracked portrait of so flawed a man, that is surely it’s only failing.

FAREWELLS (1958)

Though only made later that same year, this couldn’t be more of a contrast. It’s a historical film, covering a wide span of time. But despite this emphasis on the crushing weight of history, in its way it’s as much a chamber piece as it’s predecessor. Though not entirely made up of interiors, it feels dominated by them. There’s a great importance attached to where characters are staying, from the young runaways early in the film onward. Only at the very end do the events of history actually intrude. (Particularly odd is the reduction to a passing reference of a character’s imprisonment in Auschwitz.)

The theme is the decline of titled families between and (especially) after the wars. Not a single character welcomes the Soviet invasion, the reactions range only between fear and indifference. In this way it’s closest cousins would not be the Italian neo-realism which so inspired the Polish Film School but its’ immediate successors, particularly Visconti’s The Leopard or The Damned. (Though intriguingly this film predates them both.)

Though The Noose was also based on a novel, Farewells betrays its literary origins more, and (for all its grander themes) is the lesser of the two films for it. Just as it’s span is greater, it’s grip is weaker.

HOW TO BE LOVED (1963)

This later film takes the historical span of Farewells, but uses it more successfully. It is also the only one of the three to place a woman in the lead role. (Though her life is given to obsessing over a man, and she is much more similar to the supportive surrogate mother in The Noose than the more independent woman from Farewells.)

Though the Polish School never subscribed to the restrictive connotations ‘realism’ might imply, here is the point were any such notions are actively attacked. Set among actors, it uses their world to question reality rather than just portray it. Indeed the central event of the film occurs off-screen and is left ambiguous, with several different explanations given for it. The ending actually copies what had earlier been a false rumour.

Character voice-over is used, but to enhance ambiguity rather than clarify it. The protagonist’s thoughts are more stream-of-consciousness than ordering; at one point she even becomes drunk and the voice-over itself becomes incoherent. At another she veers off-script while recording a drama, seemingly preferring her own words better. In this way it almost becomes a synthesis of the two previous films, despite their first seeming so far apart.



THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT (1965)

This, perhaps Has’ best-known film, marks a major break from his earlier realist works. Though there are links for those who go looking (such as his interest in psychology) it’s hard to think of another director from the era who so completely changed their style. Compared to Has, even Fellini remained in the shadow of neo-realism.

It’s most commonly said that Has moved from realism to surrealism. Indeed, he claimed himself that he ”was brought up on surrealism.” Yet, though this was often cited by Bunel as his favourite film, pedants might debate just how surreal it is. After all, it’s based on a pre-surrealist book from 1815 (by Jan Potocki). Though supernatural events occur, it could be argued that it is actually closer to folklore.

The film’s fascination comes from its byzantine structure – it’s not merely a portmanteau but presents nested and even overlapping stories, as if they are coagulating together. Yet the frame story device is primarily a literary conceit, and in a way the film fetishises the book object as something with almost magical powers, drawing in the reader in an almost literal sense. Which all makes for an engrossing film, but weren’t the surrrealists one of the forces who encouraged film away from literary traditions?

(NB: I didn’t actually see the film as part of this festival, having watched it only recently beforehand.)

THE HOUR GLASS SANATORIUM (1973)

This, the only film Has made in the Seventies, must surely count as his magnum opus. This time based on a Bruno Gans collection, if it is not surreal then surely nothing is! It’s hard to comment on after seeing only once, the viewing experience being so overwhelming. (It often fascinates me how, even in the pre-video era, so people made films which demanded multiple viewings.) You emerge feeling some strange combination of intoxicated and travel sick, split between the desire to see it all again and the wish to have a good lie down. There’s a repeated motif of a wave of activity, one character entering a still setting which leads to it erupting into activity, though I’m at a loss to explain this apart from that being the way the film feels on your mind.

Much of its style comes from incorporating a standard trope of neo-realism, deep field photography, but thrusting it into a surrealist settings – resulting in a kind of baroque surrealism. (Has’ influence is all over Gilliam.) Each scene seems so crammed with detail, but you are only able to take in any of that for a minute before being whisked off again. Like Saragossa Manuscript it tells a family story through employing disdainful approach to time. Scenes are rarely linked naturalistically but juxtaposed, the protagonist impossibly leaping and lurching from one place and time to another.

Here’s something I wrote last year, about Wajda, the other great ‘Polish school’ director, following last year’s Cine-City.

More about Cine-City here.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

THE LIMITS OF CONTROL



PLOT SPOILERS AHOY!!!

This new Jim Jarmusch movie has proved controversial in many quarters, generating a lot of baffled resentment. As a longtime fan of his work, I have to tell you it looks, feels and sounds absolutely great – in particular with some fantastic photography. More than any previous Jarmusch film, it is surely challenging Antonioni (in particular The Passenger). The soundtrack (by drone outfits such as Earth, Sunn))) and Boris) is so superb you wonder if all films should have such a soundtrack by law. You feel such music as much as hear it, it has a subliminal effect upon you as if creeping beneath the radar of your critical faculties - the perfect soundtrack music.

Some commentators have despaired of the way this espionage story doesn’t have any literal kind of resolution. Yet even classics of the genre, such as The Big Sleep, had supposed ‘plots’ which even the makers couldn’t follow – without it mattering much. Indeed, such an absence may even count as an improvement. As the comics artist Eddie Campbell has pointed out of this genre, “the solution is often a pin that lets the air out of the balloon, dispersing forever anything that was there in the first place.”

You would in any case need fairly hefty blinkers not to recognise that proceedings here merely use the form of an espionage film to get you watching in a particular way. As Jarmusch has commented:

“This is not a neo-neo-realism style of film; it’s fantastic in a certain way. I didn’t want to make a film that people had to analyze particularly while watching it. I really wanted to make a film that was kind of like a hallucinogenic in the way that, when you left after having seen it, I hope the audience will look at mundane details in a slightly different way. Maybe it’s only temporary, maybe for only 15 minutes, but I wanted to do something to… I don’t know, just trigger an appreciation for one’s subjective consciousness.”

The film mostly follows nameless ‘Lone Man’ as he undergoes a series of encounters, which may or may not be full of clues. Each individual he encounters seems to embody some discipline – film, music, science. There’s something almost Gnostic about it, the scenes are structured as if he’s being imparted knowledge but the sense of them is more that he’s becoming steeped in a worldview.

More neatly still, Jarmusch achieved this effect mostly through improvised filming, turning up to locations with only the most minimal script to see where the journey took him. One way to read the title is that ‘Control’ is a conventional shooting script, insisting reality conforms to it.

This is of course a great idea for a film. It’s surely no accident that one of the great blockbusters of our time was called Titanic, while it’s successors have become increasingly obsessed with gargantuan disasters. Hollywood feels virtually the last Fordist industry left, oversized, clumsy, it’s projects impossible to resteer once they’re set out on. What better counter than to make a film more like an improvising troupe?

And if it didn’t have a hallucinogenic effect on me, it did bring back to my mind the spy games we’d play as kids. We had nothing in particular to say in those messages we’d elaborately code, nor anyone to hide them from. But this very lack of function gave them their significance, the medium was the message. We wanted so much to talk to each other it wasn’t enough to just say things, new languages had to be invented just so they could be used. So much effort was put into the form, the content was rendered important.

But does this cool idea actually come off? First, there’s a formal distinction to contend with. Unlike music or theatre, film doesn’t happen live before the audience; we never see the process, only the result. So when we see, for example, a black helicopter at the start then again at the end – in a sense it was already present at the end, the film exists for us in a kind of simultaneity of time.

But worse, rather than counter this tendency the film instead enhances it. The character we follow doesn’t extemporise on what he sees (like say in Fellini’s 8 1/2), he follows what appears to us a pre-set arrangement of clues which take him to a denouement. The end result is not impressionist but deterministic; we don’t make sense of the world we are thrust into, we soak up these clues and wait for their sense to be made manifest to us.

This is reinforced by the style of the film which (though arresting in itself) is not freely associative but rigid and almost minimal. At one point, in the art gallery, a big painting behind the Lone Man’s head carries only a big cross, as if marking the spot where he should sit. It’s surely no co-incidence the camera here seems so in love with architecture and design. If it was a painting it would be by Ed Ruscha, with it’s sterile yet numinous empty urban spaces, not a Dadaist collage or teeming Futurist street scene. Objects arrive almost labelled as clues, like some cerebral kind of video game.

I am also unsure whether there is the connection between imagination and the figure of the secret agent which Jarmusch seems to be implying. A character like James Bond is clearly an agent of chaos, breaking into the clockwork order of the secret base in order to disrupt it. But is chaos the same thing as imagination? (Crucially, the hero here is explicitly not sexualised.)

Admittedly, I may have been weighted against the film by being wrongfooted by it. Early on, I assumed that this heady stew of significance somehow existed only in the lead character’s mind. He’d see paintings in a gallery which he’d later translate into encounters. Yet something I always responded to about so many previous Jarmusch films (including the direct predecessor, Broken Flowers) was the way the protagonist would be not so much an unreliable narrator as a hopeless one – the last person who was ever going to reach an understanding of the world he was in.

But the biggest weakness of all is the denouement, which spells out the antagonism between imagination and control and in the process lets all the air out of the balloon just as surely as if the caretaker had dunnit. Though, as Jarmusch has indicated, the title references Burroughsian control he doesn’t really honour the concept. Bill Murray’s American is really just The Man, a one-dimensional authoritarian Aunt Sally. Try comparing the ending here to the face-off against Number One in the final episode of The Prisoner. Both endings employ genre conventions to subvert them more deeply, but The Prisoner. The Prisoner’s subversion is deeper, a much more challenging and ambiguous sequence which tantalises the viewer with easy answers yet ultimately deprives them. And with such a view of Control, the film itself cannot help but feel limited. Imagination good, Control bad. That’s not actually very imaginative. Just as The Baader Meinhof Complex wasn’t really very complex, The Limits of Control is ultimately rather limited.

Conversely, perhaps the problem with this character is that he is all too tawdrily accurate. Against widespread speculation that the American is a thinly veiled stab at Dick Cheney, Jarmusch has responded:

“It’s not pointed at the Bush administration. That’s a great example. But it continues; it’s continuing now. Who is telling us what world economic/financial structure are we trying to repair? Are we trying to prop it up, are we trying to patch up its wounds? It’s something that’s already dead; the structure is the problem.”

But by being so perfunctory and one-dimensional the American fails to represent any such structure but becomes almost the perfect description of Bush or Cheney – whose role on the stage of history was only ever as bad melodrama villains. Brecht referred to Hitler diminutively by turning him into Artuo Ui, a Chicago gangster with designs to control the vegetable trade. But a fictional biographer of Bush and Cheney, attempting to make them into characters deserving audience interest, would be forced to do the opposite - magnifying their dimwitted scheming and elevating their grasping into something grander. As the old New Model Army song went: “Not foolish and brave, these leaders of ours/ Just stupid and petty, unworthy of power.”

I’m finally torn between two responses to this film. In some ways it left me feeling as I did with I’m Not There, a success in it’s own refreshingly idiosyncratic terms, but not ultimately terms I favour. Or perhaps it was simply a failure, a brave and noble failure but nonetheless unable to live up to it’s own intentions.

NB: The resy of my Cine-City write-up is coming shortly. Honest, guv. Would I lie to you?

Saturday, 5 December 2009

CINE-CITY 2009 (Part One: New Features)

Coming Soon! Features on the documentaries and Wojciech Has retrospective from Brighton's Cine-City Festival.



THE ROAD
This is quite definitely not another entry in the burgeoning genre of theme-park apocalypse porn, whose excessive budgets and rampaging levels of tedium must surely be hastening the destruction they ostensibly warn us about. In fact not since Children Of Men has a dystopian future been so convincingly realised on screen. Present at the screening, director John Hillcoat described it as “a love story between a man and his son, with an apocalypse in there too.” Indeed you could almost see the movie as an extreme form of one of those lovers-versus-society films, like Betty Blue. Yet while others do intervene they have little to fear from society – no such thing is left.

Perhaps what’s smart about the film is its ability to permanently skirt horror movie territory without ever tipping into it. Which is of course what makes it so genuinely horrific, it’s appalling credibility. Hillcoat also smartly used real locations, depriving the viewer of that glossy sheen that accompanies CGI and tips the wink to the viewer that all is actually allright. It becomes quite compelling to watch these two tiny figures perpetually lost against such a vast landscape of ruin. What few objects they have (bin bags, a shopping trolley) take on an almost fetishistic importance.

True to Hillcoat’s description, the apocalypse is very much taken as read. However it is still something literal. This film isn’t akin to Godard’s Weekend or Haneke’s Time of the Wolf where the ambiguity of the apocalypse turns it into something metaphysical. (With the combination of forever occluded skies and the father’s continual coughing-up I assumed that Cormac McCarthy’s source novel had specified a nuclear winter, which Hillcoat had assumed rather than described so as not to foreground. But according to Wikipedia the book is similarly ambiguous.)

Unfortunately, like those crumbling bridges, the film has a fracture line running right through it. Inevitably, as it follows its foraging leads, it falls into something of an episodic structure. But this structure requires a strong ending, something to tie everything together into some sort of perspective. Unfortunately the ending we are given is quite banal, and strangely out of place. If apocalypse porn is a theme-park ride, this becomes an instillation piece – giving us a taster of how such a bleak non-future would pan out, but sadly nothing more.



PONYO

Some of the imagery in Miyazaki’s new animation is rich enough to turn Pixar green around the gills! (The opening scene itself is little short of stupendous.) And yet you can’t help but feel that something of the taint of Disney lies around things, as if his western distribution deal with them was enough to cause some degree of contamination. (I later read that he had been inspired by their Little Mermaid.) This feeling was probably exacerbated on my part by watching the dubbed version, while I normally go for the subtitled.

Now an old man who has come back from retirement more than once, it’s even possible that Miyazaki’s prodigious talents are now in decline. This is not the equal of Howl’s Moving Castle, itself no match for Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away. Yet even a below-par Miyazaki turns out to be well worth turning out for. Still present is his archetypical insistence that the aim must be balance not victory. (Even if the resolution here is rushed and neat.) The film is filled with images of things frothing over, even a can of drink from a fridge. Yet though the swelling sea unsurprisingly represents the unconscious, it neither stands for a twee belief in fairies nor a vengeful id, but is something strange and otherly. Much of what happens isn’t simply unexplained but feels convincingly inexplicable.



TREELESS MOUNTAIN

Those who like to cling to their cultural stereotypes may be surprised to find a Korean film so far removed from vampires, extreme sex acts or other manifestations of ‘extreme cinema’. However, the programme’s comparison to Iranian films such as The Apple surely misses the point. While Iranian films always have a beguiling quality, So Yong Kim’s film is much closer to social realism. It’s success lies in conveying the way children perceive the world without degenerating into kitsch. The way the young girls take what the adults say so literally is often simultaneously charming and heart-rending. It’s also notable what a women-centered world the girls live in, male characters are at best marginal and those that do have a strong effect on the plot tend to be shown the least. (In one case, not at all.)

I wondered if it might be perceived differently in the West, whose cinema so often indulges in a saccharine feelgood “belief” in childhood. Though we see the girls get poorly treated, it’s theme is clearly their reaching a kind of rapprochement with adulthood, including the importance of chores! Thematically it might be similar to the otherwise worlds-apart Spirited Away.

I have no idea about the title! Is there a Korean saying about the treeless mountain being hardest to climb?

THE LIMITS OF CONTROL

It’s difficult to talk about this new Jim Jarmusch film without going into the ending, and seems a little pointless to give plot spoilers on films before they go on general release. So I shall be holding fire on it until then...