At some arbitrary point this year I decided I was getting more-than-usual behind in my posting, and that something had to give. At the time I picked live music for the ejector seat, and even drafted a post that said so. (Which I never got round to posting. I was, you see, getting behind with my posts around then.)
Since when... guess what?.. I seem to have written almost exclusively about live music (alongside visual art), and almost nothing about films. Which is what is commonly known as ironic, at least in the Alanis Morrisette sense of the word. Just to rub it in, I've written less about films than last year, when I commented that I'd written even less about films than the year before.
There may be reasons for this beyond natural contrariness. Firstly, the picture isn't (honest guv) as bad as it looks. I may have only covered 'The Amazing Spider-Man', 'Alien' and 'Prometheus' here. But I have written about three... count 'em... three films over at 'FA Comiczine.' (Yes, a comics site. Someone needs to invite me to post for a film site, as that would doubtless get me writing about comics again. Or, should anyone want me to write about early modern history, a needlecraft site...)
More to the point, I'm not entirely convinced this has been that fine a year for film in the first place. Admittedly it's been such a stellar period for live music and visual art, film may simply have been eclipsed. But Brighton's Cine-City festival, whose previous instalments have almost run my life for a month, raised barely a flicker of interest.
If pressed to name a favourite, I might have cited as joint contenders Nuri Bilge Ceylan's police procedure turned existential drama 'Once Upon a Time in Anatolia', and Peter Strickland's tale on human corruptibility for Seventies movie buffs 'Berberian Sound Studio.'Though 'Mysteries of Lisbon', 'Beasts of the Southern Wild'and 'The Hunt' should also be considered among the cream of this year's crop. It's probably a blessing I never tried to capture any of them, as I'd doubtless have been reduced to a valueless set of stuttering superlatives.
As a fan of Nordic noir who somehow hadn't seen the original, I did find much to enjoy David Fincher's English-language remake of 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.' It may have even made for a twist to the usual genre rules, which I tend to regard as reflecting the current crisis of social democracy in the Scandinavian countries. (Marked by events such as the Youth House demolition protests in Copenhagen.) Though the film is again centred around an unsolved crime, pushing that crime back into the past creates a historical perspective that suggests social democracy as a flower not wilted but poisoned at the roots. Not unlike the last season of 'The Killing', it's proposed solution is to get the hell out of Scandinavia.
However, any recommendation needs to be come with quite hefty caveats - one formal and the other more sociopolitical. First, it has to be said the twist ending is rather telegraphed. Secondly, while inevitably the film centres around another autistic savant woman, Lisbeth seems a fair way from 'The Killings' Sarah Lund or 'The Bridge's' Saga Noren. Ironically when she seems the one most explicitly presented as a feminist icon, the solution to Lisbeth's social maladjustment would seem to be the love of a good man. At the end of 'The Bridge', conversely, Saga may have found a more regular boyfriend, but he's not a significant character and there's no suggestion this represents some kind of redemption in her life.
Furthermore, the rape revenge scene feels like having your cake and eating it - a way to bring in torture porn while still appearing to hold onto go-girl political correctness. It doesn't feel at all true, either to the world presented in the film or the more compromised one we inhabit - particularly in a year which saw Jimmy Savile dying having completely got away with his crimes. (Having never read Steig Larsson's novel, I can't comment on his partner's claim the film has distorted the original character.)
Had I actually reviewed 'The Hunger Games' I would have had a lot of positive things to say, not least the way it would recklessly crash cinematic styles into each other as a means of portraying different social worlds. But at the same time, it still exhibited the two great weaknesses of modern genre films. Firstly, they can never actually have a finale, as the door has to be left open for a possible sequel, leaving all the disadvantages of the episodic format without ever necessarily getting round to the benefits.
Also, there's a fashion for absolute dystopias in which 'they' are in total control and will stop at nothing to stay that way. But then that clashes with that staple of genre fiction the heroic individual, and a general reluctance to send the audience home on a downer. So absolute dystopias are always being unfurled, then retreated from for the final reel. For an Exhibit B, think of the final episode of 'Homeland.' Film can't decide whether to face the world as it is, or run from it into homespun fantasy. (But then again, can any of us?)
Despite it's general soaking up of audience acolytes, 'The Artist' was not favoured by film buffs - who commented the later silents were not these charming little melodramas but had become highly accomplished - and should actually be seen as a high point of film history. Von Stroheim was not making innocent, charming two-reelers with cheery dogs.
But I disliked most the way, in a similar conceit to TV's 'Life On Mars', it allowed for an indulgent double take over the past. We can see it nostalgically as a simpler, happier time while crowing over our greater sophistication, with the disjunction carefully pasted over. The best scene by far was the magic realist moment when sound first appears - but only for some!
I did enjoy 'The Master', but still got that heretical niggle that often plagues me with the films of the feted Paul Thomas Anderson – what does all this sound and fury signify, exactly? I mean, beyond Scientology = con. Which works a little like Holocaust = bad or falling in love = good as far as movie themes go. 'There Will be Blood' remains my favourite of his films.
...and similar feelings over 'A Dangerous Method'. All very good I'm sure, as far as film-making goes. But were there any ends among those means? And those scenes of Keira Knightley getting spanked couldn't help but make me think of the old Kenny Everett line - “all done in the best possible taste.”
But it was fault-free compared to Cronenbourg's later 'Cosmopolis'. The film is in many ways fascinating, but every point of interest lies in how it manages to be such an absolute failure. The premise may be an interesting one. It's often assumed filmic analysis of capitalism must be either a documentary or in a realist style, which doesn't necessarily have to be the case. But this attempts to hold a distorting mirror up to capitalism, which already requires such a distorting mirror in order to keep seeing itself as the fairest of them all. Making the stretch limos bigger simply isn't going to do it.
It seeks to portray a capitalist trying to escape his own world, in an era when that has been deemed formally impossible. But it ends up seduced by it's own target. The image bloats monstrously on the screen but never cracks. It's summed up by the endless analysts studying currencies like they're holy texts, a concept it's not sure whether to treat as keen insight or absurdist satire. At times it seems keen to incorporate it's own failure into the picture, an idea which comes across as more intriguing on paper than the screen. As the line about “money talking to money” suggests, it simply becomes a feedback loop of garbled information.
And inevitably the only proletarians who aren't bit parts are inverted capitalists; destructive nihilists, feral rats or both at the same time. Joe Strummer said it all years ago - “I don't want to know what the rich are doing.”
Trend-watchers, alert! Not one but two movies which suggest the stretch limo somehow sums up the modern condition. (Get it? We're like pampered but itinerant, innit?) I might have felt more favourably about 'Holy Motors' had others been less exultant about it. (In the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw called it “a genuine surrealist movie... unfettered by logic and common sense.”) To me it all felt neither-nor, the individual sections not strong enough to stand in their own right, the over-arching stuff with the actor in the limo never much more than a framing device, despite the heavily underlined stabs at symbolism. Ultimately it felt self-celebratorily weird, like surrealism played by session musicians. Perhaps significantly, by far the best section was with the father and daughter, the most naturalistic and the most stand-alone.
I'd imagine 'Room 237' would disappoint only those actually expecting a documentary on the making of 'The Shining.' For the focus here is clearly the obsessive fan, for whom no detail can ever be the result of chance. (Check out some of their theorising here.) As so often, it's simultaneously inspiring and crushing to see so much human creativity at work, only to be marshalled into absolutely no purpose whatsoever.
The most horrific thing in the world is of course not ghosts or axes or overacting, but the notion of that world defying all rational analysis – which essentially reduces us to powerless children. Kubrick was doubtless toying with us in his film, setting up readings like breadcrumb trails only to gobble them up again as soon as we started to follow them. There's a reason things end with a man lost in a maze.
But of course, more than anything else, ambiguity is the one thing the obsessive fan cannot cope with, so he keeps coming back and back again to impose his coherent reading on the madness. (And it always is his singular reading. The idea that the film may be tapping into, for example, guilt over the Native Americans and Holocaust disgust... well, no-one even considers that.)
There's absolutely no doubt that Haneke's new Palme d'Or winner 'Amour' is immensely powerful and affecting. And there's absolutely no doubt that it's leading characters are the sort of folk who almost never turn up in films – an old couple who have had a long and happy marriage, and now tend to potter about at home a lot. The near-opening shot which stays fixed on a concert audience, never the figures on the stage, seems a statement of intent.
Yet in another sense they're the sort of folk who always turn up in this sort of film. Art movies aren't just colonised by middle class people, but by music teachers or concert performers with grand pianos in their over-large Parisian lounges. It's not just the exclusion of other classes which galls, it's also the way this reflects the middle class's cultured self-image. After all, we're being told, we're a bit like these people we've come to see, aren't we? We haven't gone to some multiplex to gawp at CGI and chew popcorn with with the chavs.
Yet the majority of middle class people have tedious commercial careers, which they bore other middle class people about at parties. A true film about the middle classes would be populated not by grand pianos but by spreadsheets. This seems doubly disappointing after Haneke's earlier 'Cache', which focused on a similar subject group but dug into their nature to dredged up their repressions. Here their status is naturalised. The epitomising moment comes when the husband gives the sacked nurse a wodge of Euros from his wallet, without having to worry unduly about the change. It's simply taken for granted that those notes are there.
'Coriolanus' admittedly overdid the “making the Bard contemporary” business something rotten, reaching that particular nadir with Jon Snow on a current affairs TV show spouting blank verse. But if... big if... you could overlook that, things started looking a whole lot better. I may have been more pulled into it by not previously knowing the play.
I was quite taken by 'In Darkness', but cannot think of anything wise or clever to say about it now. Cult expose 'Martha Mary May Marlene' held within itself a promise I am not entirely sure was delivered on. Alas, slowness and/or ineptitude on my part meant I missed a string of things - 'Cabin in the Woods', 'Lawless', 'The Angel's Share', 'Rampart', 'Looper', 'The Hunter' and 'Sightseers'. My loss, doubtless...