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Sous Le Sable (2000) – Everyone Needs a Little Cup of Stars

April 24, 2014

SLS1There are few situations to which the opening lines of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House are not pressingly germane:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.

Often spoken of as a ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House is more rewardingly read as a portrait of a fragile mind under intense pressure. Scarred by decades of servitude to a sick and deranged mother, Eleanor Vance is a woman who carries her reality with her like a snail carries its shell. While the novel’s melody is dominated by Hugh Crain’s house and the miseries that befell his family, the harmony is all about the way that Eleanor picks things up and uses them to fashion a world more comforting and endurable than absolute reality. Everyone needs a little cup of stars.

One of the great joys of Jackson’s novel is the way that she manages to blur the boundaries of the real, the supernatural and the outright hallucinatory without ever bothering to draw attention to the lack of subjective difference between these different categories. For Jackson, this uncertainty is so universal that it simply does not merit commentary… it’s all one big sordid mess. Many films and books have been drawn to this ambiguity but while great works such Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw or Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl add their own ingredients to the ambiguous brew, most works that use these tropes yearn for clear dividing lines between the metaphorical and the concrete, the material and the fantastical, the sane and the insane, the true and the false. This is why you are more likely to encounter the carefully nested realities of films like Inception and Jacob’s Ladder than you are the happy ambiguities of a film like Total Recall or The Descent. Though definitely a film with a clear dividing line between reality and fantasy, Francois Ozon’s Sous le Sableis a film that is intensely relaxed about the ambiguities of madness.

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The Yellow Sea (2010) – A Rising Tide of Gonzo

April 22, 2014

TYSWhile people are prone to getting sentimental about the power of story, the truth is that narrative is nothing more than a means of providing structure to a series of disconnected things. Thus, rather than delivering their ideas in the form of bullet points, artists use stories as a means of linking different ideas and providing an emotional context that will shape how a particular work makes you feel about those ideas. On the crudest possible level, having all the bad guys smoke while all the good guys drink Pepsi is a pretty good way of encouraging your audience to gain a good impression of Pepsi and a bad impression of smokers. However, while narrative is one of humanity’s most enduring and effective methods of structuring information, it is far from the only means at our disposal.

Literary culture has long resented the cultural primacy of narrative and so many literary types are prone to treating the ability to read for style and subtext rather than plot as a sign of intellectual sophistication. One way of approaching the history of art house film is to date its creation to the point in the 1960s when European directors stopped trying to tell mere stories and began making art. In fact, one could push this analysis even further and suggest that European art house film was born amidst the boos that echoed round the cinema during the first screening of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, a film that begins as a missing person story only to rapidly lose interest and set about trying to recreate the emotional texture of feckless upper-class Italian lives.

Just as literature has experimented with alternate means of ordering information, film has developed techniques that allow directors to structure their ideas around such abstract principles as character, theme or mood. An excellent example of this type of filmmaking is Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life where a series of incredibly disparate vistas including family drama and warring dinosaurs are held together by the concept of ‘grace’ or (as I argued in my review) the pointlessness of seeking to impose narrative order on disparate lives. For those people not used to using principles other than narrative to make sense of a film, Tree of Life was a mess of incoherent and portentous ideas. For those people well versed in the techniques that Malick chose to deploy, Tree of Life was as beautiful as it was transparent. There is nothing inherently better about building a work around a theme rather than a story but our culture does a pretty good job of teaching us how to make sense of stories and so works built around moods and themes have acquired a touch of exclusivity. If you can make sense of The Tree of Life then it’s a sign that you’ve put in the effort of watching difficult films rather than just filling your headspace with Doctor Who and rolling news.

The problem with experimental techniques is that the good ones inspire imitation and the more a technique is imitated, the more likely it is that it will enter the mainstream and lose that hint of exclusivity. What many people now think of as the Golden Age of TV is really just a rather grandiose way of talking about the fact that art house techniques have escaped the cinema and begun turning up in TV dramas. Indeed, people who have watched more than a single season of Mad Men will find themselves perfectly capable of making sense of a film like L’Avventura as both works put a lot of effort into emotional texture whilst refusing to provide narrative closure and stressing the existential void that lurks at the heart of every character. Aside from depriving art house film of its much-valued hint of exclusivity, the democratisation of post-narrative techniques also speaks to a growing conservatism and intellectual exhaustion at the heart of art house film. If Millions of people tune in to watch Don Draper wander around an existential wasteland of mild-depression and meaningless sex, then how experimental is a film that makes use of precisely those techniques and subjects? Clearly, art house film is getting old and it’s time for something new… something like Na Hong-jin’s The Yellow Sea.

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The Hunt (2012) – This is my Rifle, This is my Gun… Both Make Me Superior to Women.

April 15, 2014

TH1Despite a small budget and funding secured from about half a dozen Scandinavian film funds, The Hunt premiered at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival where it was the first Danish film to make it into the competition for about 14 years. Well-received by judges and critics alike, the film landed a prize for its leading man and then went on to secure Best Foreign Language Film nominations at both the Oscars and Golden Globes. The reason for this warm reception is that the man responsible for directing it has pointedly refused to claim responsibility for his best-known film. The man in question is Thomas Vinterberg and the film in question is Festen, the first film created under the strictures of the radical Dogme 95 filmmaking manifesto that also launched the career of Lars von Trier.

Shot entirely on location with hand-held cameras and without props, sets or lighting, Festen told of a disastrous birthday celebration at which a family patriarch is accused of having molested two of his own children. Far from shutting the matter down, the family’s inevitable denial of the patriarch’s guilt only serves to fan the flames of anger and resentment until years of distrust explode in a fireball of violence and madness that consumes what is left of the family’s loyalty and trust. I mention Festen not only because it is easily Vinterberg’s best-known film, but also because it shares a good number of themes and ideas with The Hunt. However, while Festen is an unashamedly youthful film that draws on feelings of betrayal and confusion and hurls them into the face of a complacent older generation, The Hunt draws on a decidedly more traditional emotional palette including smug moral certitude and emotional restraint. The difference between to the two films is so stark that it is tempting to view The Hunt as the result of an aging Vinterberg having chosen to shift his sympathies from angry accuser to vilified accused but a more straightforward reading of this film would be to view The Hunt as a celebration of patriarchal values and women who know when to keep their cunt mouths shut.

 

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Classe Tous Riques (1960) – Ten Paces Behind

April 11, 2014

I have often thought that there was a great book to be written about why it is that particular genres catch on in particular places and times. What is it about post-War America and Victorian Britain that made Science Fiction so vibrant? What is it about 1980s Japan that so perfectly fit the mood of Cyberpunk? How was it that post-War France seemed capable of producing one classic piece of hardboiled crime fiction after another? An answer to this final question can be glimpsed in the life of one Jose Giovanni.

Giovanni was an educated man who spent the War as a rural guerrilla. When France was liberated, Giovanni decided to put his Maquisard skills to use in the Parisian underworld where his presence at the scene of a murder lead to him being sentenced to death. While in prison awaiting Madame La Guillotine, Giovanni made the acquaintance of a man named Abel Davos, a gangster and collaborator who went on the run with kids in tow. In 1947, Giovanni attempted to escape from prison but while the escape ultimately proved unsuccessful, it did not prevent either the lifting of Giovanni’s death sentence or his eventual pardon and successful retrial. Upon release from prison, Giovanni began writing and rapidly produced books that would go on to be adapted for the screen as:

  •  Jacques Becker’s Le Trou (1960)
  • Claude Sautet’s Classe Tous Risques (1960)
  • Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Deuxieme Souffle (1966)

All three films draw directly from Giovanni’s life story and all three films are classics of cinematic noir. While I have a good deal of affection for both Le Trou and Le Deuxieme Souffle, the most puzzling and least generic of all three films is the long-forgotten and recently-rereleased Classe Tous Risques directed by Claude Sautet and starring Lino Ventura as a man on the run with kids in tow.

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REVIEW – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

April 8, 2014

TDoSFilmJuice have my review of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, a film that rivals Iron Man 2 and Man of Steel for the title of Worst Film Ever Made.

Peter Jackson is a terrible loss to the special effects profession and a terrible addition to that of professional film direction. Right from the start, his films have been filled with technical excellence and entirely devoid of artistic merit. The flaw in Jackson’s approach to direction is most evident when you consider his adaptations of existing works:Regardless of whether we are talking about Lord of the Rings, King Kong or The Lovely Bones, the involvement of Peter Jackson means that the resulting film will invariably be worse than the source material.

  • King Kong took a very simple and elegant story and expanded it into a 187 minute-long monstrosity in which the elegance and drama of the original were entirely lost.
  • Lord of the Rings bent over backwards to put as much of the books on screen as possible but whenever Jackson was called upon to make an interpretative leap, his interpretations were invariably less interesting and more prosaic than those of conventional understanding.
  • The Lovely Bones made the most of Jackson’s mastery of visual effects to create an impressive vision of the afterlife but Jackson’s interpretation of the book mislaid the original horror and settled instead for a jarring combination of brutal violence and horrific sentimentality.

Jackson’s interpretation of The Hobbit is plagued by these exact same mistakes:

  • A short children’s book has been expanded into three over-long films thanks to tedious CGI action sequences that unbalance the plot and submerge the original drama.
  • Every time that Jackson is called upon to make an interpretative leap, his interpretations tend to be less interesting, more prosaic and prone to moving the film into the realm of fantasy cliche.
  • Having decided to transform a whimsical children’s story into a portentous epic, Jackson struggles with tone and so veers between horrific violence, grinding sentimentality and childish comedy.

My review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug focuses on two particular areas: The paucity of the writing and the intense ugliness of the visuals.

Of the writing I say:

Given that The Desolation of Smaug contains much less of The Hobbit than its predecessor, the joins between source and additional materials are far less noticeable. However, while this frees us from the first film’s bizarre tone changes, it does mean that the film comes to be dominated by an array of characters and sub-plots who owe a good deal less to Tolkien’s brilliance than they do to Peter Jackson’s fondness for fantasy clichés. The additional plotlines are not only thin and crippled with incredibly cheesy dialogue, they also feature a grand total of three lank-haired white dudes with soulful eyes, tragic backgrounds and a need for redemption when even one would have been too many. With so many unconnected characters and plotlines to follow, the film haemorrhages thematic focus and dramatic energy and so keeps relying on orc attacks to jump-start the plot and keep things moving.

Of the look of the film I say:

The root of the problem lies in the first film’s revelation that traditional sets, effects and make-up tend to look absolutely terrible when shot at 48 frames-per-second. In an effort to stop his film from looking like something shot between takes with an old-fashioned camcorder, Jackson has taken to replacing sets and actors with CGI backgrounds and figures. When a scene cannot be done entirely in CGI, Jackson limits himself to superimposing CGI over the sets and actors in an effort to make them look less real and so provide a more even distribution of unreality. What this means in practice is that all the actors wind up with enormous bulbous noses but at least it doesn’t look like they’re being interviewed on the set. The real problem occurs when Jackson switches entirely to CGI and creates the kinds of figures and landscapes that only exist in videogames. Lacking the weight and reality of actors and practical effects, the CGI character bounce around the screen in a manner all to reminiscent of the Legolas sequences in the original trilogy and the monster fights in Jackson’s laughable remake of King Kong. Taken on their own and in small doses, these digital inserts are technically impressive and reasonably well choreographed but, taken in the context of an extremely long film where they are allowed to continue for upwards of twenty minutes, their cartoonish lack of realism rapidly devolves from unintentionally funny to downright excruciating.

The reason why I consider The Desolation of Smaug to be one of the worst films ever made is that I believe in grading on a curve: Whenever people talking about the WORST. FILM. EVAH. their minds turn to Ed Wood and Uwe Boll despite the fact that both men were operating with comparatively small budgets and incredibly tiny pools of talent. How many great technicians and actors would answer the call if Uwe Boll approached them about working on his latest adaptation of a shitty video game? Now how many actors and technicians would answer the call if Peter Jackson asked them to fly to New Zealand and work on an incredibly expensive production of much-beloved and hugely successful books? Works like The Desolation of Smaug, Iron Man 2 and The Man of Steel operate with virtually unlimited budgets, unlimited good will and immediate access to the best writers, actors and technicians operating in contemporary cinema. To take all of those resources and turn them into a tedious mess like Desolation of Smaug is not only an obscene waste of money, it is also a sign of true directorial incompetence.

REVIEW – Wake in Fright (1971)

April 1, 2014

wake-in-frightFilmJuice have my review of Ted Kotcheff’s sensational Australian film Wake in Fright.

Released this week by Masters of Cinema, Wake in Fright is one of those films that stays with you forever. Set in the middle of the Australian outback, the film is structured around a descent into madness after a middle class school teacher gets stuck in a working class mining town called The Yabba. Initially smug and contemptuous of the working class culture that surrounds him, the teacher is forced to make friends and make do and so finds himself drinking, gambling, hunting and fighting… his life one bender after another without room to think or breathe. However, rather than being a simple critique of working class habits from a middle class perspective, the film broadens its critique to all of Australian society:

Kotcheff uses John’s journey through The Yabba as a means of exposing the violent alcoholic nihilism that lurks beneath the surface of the Australian national image. John’s reactions are obviously quite bourgeois and, presented on their own, might have resulted in a film that spends over 100 minutes sneering at working-class Australians. However, the film’s use of John as an emotional touchstone is intriguingly refracted through the impressions of two other characters, a middle-class drunk (Al Thomas) whose wit and discernment become less and less obvious the drunker be becomes and an educated nihilist (Donald Pleasence) who has chosen to embrace the Yabba-lifestyle because he sees all forms of social, moral or spiritual advancement as a sign of vanity. The result is a film that manages to walk a fine line between demonising elements of working-class Australian culture and expressing real empathy as to why these people have come to think and act the way they do. There’s a wonderful scene late in the film where John hitches a lift with a trucker who invites him in to have a drink, terrified that another drink might send him back into the Yabba’s downward spiral, John refuses the drink only to be insulted and described as mad. How could anyone avoid descending into alcoholism when refusing to have a drink with a complete stranger is treated as a mortal insult?

As I point out in my review, the film functions almost like a non-genre revisionist western in so far as it sets out to debunk and deconstruct the national icon that is the Australian bushman. Interestingly, while the Australian film industry has produced a number of revisionist westerns (including the excellent Red Hill, which I wrote about a couple of years ago) almost all of them are devoted to addressing the various ways in which white Australians mistreated  Indigenous Australians. One of the ways in which white Australians mistreated indigenous Australians is by making them invisible and perpetuating the myth that Australia was an uninhabited landscape before the arrival of the white man. As I point out in my Red Hill piece, this tendency to make indigenous Australians disappear is actually being perpetuated by the fact that all of these films about terrible white people are themselves directed by white people! As a result, Wake in Fright‘s decision to pick a fight with the predominantly white bushman and give his culture both barrels is far less problematic than most of the real Australian revisionist westerns.

There’s also a lovely bit in one of the interviews included on the DVD where someone describes how the first Australian screenings went quite badly with one person standing up and shouting “this ain’t us!” to which a member of the cast responded, gloriously, “Sit down mate, this is us!”.

This film is really something special.

REVIEW – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

March 31, 2014

hungame2A little while ago, the editor of Videovista approached me to review the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ second Hunger Games novel Catching Fire. I had read the first two books in the Hunger Games series and reviewed the first one in a mood of profound ambivalence that carried me through into the first film. In short, I liked the way the book captured Katniss’s reactions to the world but I found both the world itself and everything that happened in said world to be somewhat tedious… hence my decision to interpret the books as a sort of psychological fantasia in which the emotional touchstones of teenaged life are recreated using the language of dystopian science fiction. The problem with this interpretation is that it doesn’t really survive the decision to adapt the books but drop the internal monologues. However, rather than simply being honest and describing Francis Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire as a typically dull and expensive-looking Hollywood epic, I decided to work through some of my feelings about The Hunger Games, Young Adult Fiction and Hollywood Blockbusters in an essay that runs to over 4,000 words.

On psychological fantasias:

This is why President Snow is little more than a vaguely threatening beard: Collins is drawing on a particular set of cultural images to create an image of patriarchal authority that will be comprehensible to her intended audience. Though not a particularly common approach to writing, this transition from psychological realism to metaphorical fantasy is fairly common in psychological thrillers as well as T.H. White’s children’s novel The Sword And The Stone (1938), where Arthurian knights sit around drinking port and discussing Eton because even though neither of those things actually exist in the world of the novel, the words ‘port’ and ‘Eton’ serve as placeholders for a drink, and a training establishment, with a comparable set of emotional and cultural resonances.

On the incompetence of the film’s direction:

As with the opening act, a savvy director might have played up the paranoia underpinning these scenes and turned them into simmering pots of tension that occasionally explode into violence, but Lawrence follows Ross in choosing to focus on the melodrama thereby depriving the film of any sense of lingering danger or tension so that, when the angry baboons and poisonous clouds do turn up, they appear more comical than harrowing. There is one particularly wonderful scene where Katniss’ group meets up with some other tributes and decides to make peace. Noting that they appear to be covered in sticky brown liquid, Katniss asks what happened and one of the female tribute rolls her eyes and talks about blood falling from the sky in the same tone of voice that one might talk about a ruined wedding reception or barbecue; a damp squib indeed.

On adults reading books aimed at children:

The reason that people respond to works like The Hunger Games is the same reason they cower in the shadow of their parents and feel empowered by mass-market therapy sessions written for a teen demographic: we are subject to a culture that encourages us to view ourselves as creatures that are as passive and as powerless as children. Works like The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and Twilight benefit from this cultural mood as much as they contribute to it.

An interesting corollary to some of the ideas I explore in the essay is something written by Adam “Great Sage, Equal of Heaven” Roberts who ponders the question of why Young Adult fiction has become obsessed with Victorian imagery. I think that Adam reaches some of the same conclusions that I do but expresses them in a manner that is both more erudite and sympathetic to the materials in question. Another interesting corollary is Julianne Ross’s piece in the Atlantic which asks “Must Every YA Action Heroine Be Petite?” in which she ambles down objectivisation avenue and stumbles across a far more interesting truth:

But this is the same double standard that we’ve been subjected to again and again; just as women are expected to be sexual but not slutty, pure but not prudish, heroines should be strong but not buff. Powerful, yet still delicate enough to be cradled by their male love interests. Mature enough to lead those around them, yet so small that people confuse them with innocent little girls.

I don’t think this aesthetic has as much to do with sexual objectification as it does with the fact that Young Adult fiction is partly about allowing grown-up readers to escape into worlds dominated by melodramatic treatments of banal coming-of-age stories. Indeed, as I explain in the review, The Hunger Games is all about Katniss gaining access to the rooms in which grown-ups have grown-up conversations. Her rebellion against President Snow has less to do with real-world politics than it does with standing up to Daddy. I am not a fan of escapist fiction but I have a particular contempt for escapist fiction that presents banal teenage rebellion as something worthy of book, film and song. Stories like The Hunger Games shrink the horizons of our minds to the point where the banal seems heroic and the heroic seems impossible. Give it another ten years and adults will be reading books that make them feel empowered about the fact that they are potty trained.

 

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