Saturday 5 January 2013


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...


  1. You know, I was thinking that, while I did get you to cough up your general opinion of the William Hartnell era, I don't think I ever got your specific opinion about The Gunfighters, which I urged you to watch (years?) ago. (It must have been prior to July 2011 because I remember thinking it might be a problem for you to watch since it wasn't yet out on DVD.) So, worst Doctor Who ever? Comic masterpiece? Somewhere in between?

  2. Actually, it occurs to me that you might have said and I've just forgotten, in which case you probably had something disappointingly lukewarm to say about it. So I'll defend my opinion by saying that I went into it expecting to hate it, which might explain why I still find it so very charming.

    If you did say, as way of apology, I'll say something which actually relates to this post. I haven't seen any of the films you review here, but I think it's a bit crazy to prefer There Will Be Blood to Magnolia or Boogie Nights. Granting that Daniel Day-Lewis turned in a great performance and the movie was certainly great at first, the ending of the film only made sense on a purely symbolic level (granting you could say the same of Magnolia, but that was more overt and therefore more forgivable). So I couldn't, ultimately, give There Will Be Blood my approval, much as I wished to.

  3. ”Actually, it occurs to me that you might have said and I've just forgotten, in which case you probably had something disappointingly lukewarm to say about it. So I'll defend my opinion by saying that I went into it expecting to hate it, which might explain why I still find it so very charming.”

    Yeah, I think you have the whole thing right there. Hardcore SF fans tended to have it in for both the historicals and the comedy aspects of the Hartnell era, so time was when ‘The Gunfighters’ made a perfect target for them. (More perfect than ‘The Chase’, which at least had the decency to give us Daleks.) Others came along and rightly rejected that, as fixated. But I was really coming in with the third wave, past that debate. From which perspective it merely looks okay. 

    ”I think it's a bit crazy to prefer There Will Be Blood to Magnolia or Boogie Nights. Granting that Daniel Day-Lewis turned in a great performance and the movie was certainly great at first, the ending of the film only made sense on a purely symbolic level (granting you could say the same of Magnolia, but that was more overt and therefore more forgivable). So I couldn't, ultimately, give There Will Be Blood my approval, much as I wished to.”

    I’ll confess upfront that I’d forgotten all about ‘Boogie Nights’ when I wrote that line! But I have a defence…

    ‘Magnolia’ seemed to me to turn a corner for Anderson, which has to do with the overt symbolism you mention. Someone could come out from ‘Boogie Nights’ and say “it's a film about the Seventies porn industry” without sounding gormless. Whereas if someone said “Tom Cruise’s Dad died, they sing a song then frogs fall”, they’d obviously have seen the film only at a surface level. The plot is a means more than an end. So I probably tend to think of them as the work of different directors who merely share the same name.

    Take the opening of ’There Will Be Blood’. Plainview dragging himself out of the ground, not speaking or walking, is obviously a kind of introductory metaphor for the archetypal self-made man, a combination of birth imagery with Napoleon’s self-coronation. Literally, it probably pushes at the limits of what the human body would be capable. But that’s fine. With the focus falling on the symbolism, I’m happier for any sense of realism to bend. But should that actually break we’d be in another kind of film entirely.

    Just to clarify, we are talking about a bowling pin versus a rain of frogs? Funnily enough, I think I was the other way around. To me, when the frogs started to pour down, it was like we were suddenly in magic realist territory. Which I’d have been fine with, had we been there all along.

    Granted, the symbolism and the literalism of the killing effectively work against one another. Having effectively crushed Eli by drinking his milkshake, it would if anything be crueller for Plainview to keep him alive. The film probably had pricked its own balloon at that point, and needed to end there. But the film did end there. I found myself going with it.

  4. I thought it made sense as historical metaphor - the triumph of capitalism over religion and all that. However, on a purely story level, it just comes out of nowhere. There was nothing organic in Plainview's character that made it logical for him to snap like that. So it made for a rather unsuitable ending for the film. Seemed pretty clear to me that this was a writer who had no idea how to end his film and just decided that would be suitably climactic. Rather took me out of it.

    I'm not really defending Magnolia's ending either, though, which has much the same problem really. The difference is that the ending of Magnolia is a beautiful piece of work in its own right (the use of Amy Mann's "Wise Up," etc.). It is capable of standing on its own in a way the ending of There Will Be Blood can't and Anderson does have the decency to foreshadow the rain of frogs (though admittedly the foreshadowing is really subtle, particularly if you've never heard of Charles Fort before). The problem with the ending of There Will Be Blood is there's precious little in the way of foreshadowing for it. Also, I think Magnolia's ending is superior because it almost can't make sense on anything other than a symbolic level, so you don't bother trying. When I rewatched There Will Be Blood, I tried to figure out why Plainview kills Eli at the end and the only answer I had was "because the author made him do it."

  5. ”I thought it made sense as historical metaphor - the triumph of capitalism over religion and all that.”

    Yeah, that's definitely in there. The semi-allegorical surnames, Sunday vs. Plainview, and so on. Also, I think the bowling alley may well represent Plainview's Newtownian conception of the universe, but that may well just be a sign I need to get out more.

    ”However, on a purely story level, it just comes out of nowhere. There was nothing organic in Plainview's character that made it logical for him to snap like that.”

    The only story-level explanation I could come up with is that Plainview's reached that Caesar-like pitch of power where he can just dispose of people he dislikes, so he might as well. The last line, “I'm finished,” is delivered just like he's finished eating, and now expects his butler to take the plates away. But, yeah, it's a stretch. It's more likely there as a literalisation of a more symbolic victory. Which was achieved before the scene even starts, when he drank Eli's milkshake.

    ”Also, I think Magnolia's ending is superior because it almost can't make sense on anything other than a symbolic level, so you don't bother trying.”

    Yeah, that's a valid point. 'Magnolia's multi-narrative structure also makes you look for connections between the strands, which in itself takes you away from literalism. It's just that, at the end of the day I'd have a hard time telling someone what the film is actually about. Which isn't necessarily a problem, I've liked for example some David Lynch films without having much of a clue what theey're about. But I felt 'Magnolia' kind of wavily said “about family, about connections, about identity”, without ever coming out with anything definitive. There's a kind of promise it's going to deliver, whereupon the frogs come out.

  6. So is his best film actually Boogie Nights then? I guess that's what I'd actually go with if pressed. Both Magnolia and There Will Be Blood were much closer to being great films. Boogie Nights doesn't soar as high, but it doesn't crash at the end either. And I do know what Boogie Nights is about.

  7. 'Boogie Nights' is the most successful, quite definitely, but I'm not sure that equates to best. I'd be more likely to watch 'Magnolia', 'There Will Be Blood' or 'The Master' again. ('Hard Eight' was promising but had an odd shunting structure, like it never really got going. I'm yet to see 'Punch-Drunk Love')

    Aronofsky might be an interesting comparison for Anderson. Good ideas that make for interesting films, but not necessarily everything working. I'd say things generally work better for Anderson, though.

  8. Had I half a brain I would have said this earlier...

    'The Master'... you know the film I was supposed to be talking about in the first place, doesn't have a bad ending. It probably won't make one of those top ten movie ending lists, but there's certainly nothing wrong with it. So I wasn't suggesting later Anderson films inherently have a problem with endings.

  9. You know, I haven't seen Boogie Nights since it was out in theaters either and don't really have a desire to see it again. So there is that. But then I don't think I've seen any Anderson film more than once even though I like them. Magnolia's the one I'd probably be interested in seeing again. Punch Drunk Love was interesting, but not even close to great. Haven't seen Hard Eight or The Master.

  10. I think 'Magnolia' is the only one I've seen twice, first in the cinema then when it made it to the telly. I even have an old-style video cassette of 'Boogie Nights' I ended up with somehow, and genuinely would like to see it again. But it's never made it so far as to be played, there's always other priorities....