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Summer Hours (2008) — On the Meanings of Stuff

April 16, 2015
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Earlier this week, I wrote a piece in which I commented upon the extent to which our impressions of films are coloured by a lifetime’s worth of experiences. While all critical responses may be anchored in a shared humanity, there is no such thing as a clean or dispassionate read and what you think of a text is likely to be as much a product of your bullshit as it is of the inherent qualities of the text itself.

I wrote that piece and immediately sat down to watch Summer Hours by Olivier Assayas, a film that so closely matches my own personal experiences that it is at times quite uncanny.

A number of years ago, my mother died leaving quite a complicated estate. While I had been serving as my mother’s carer for a number of years, her death put me in a situation where I was legally involved with my much older half-siblings. While these siblings had always been a presence in my life, they had all left home by the time I was about 10 and their subsequent visits became increasingly sporadic and tense as my mother’s emotional stability declined. By the time I was legally manacled to them by my mother’s estate, I was effectively a complete stranger who had been parachuted into their existing group dynamic. While the stress of the situation meant that we all found a way to more-or-less cooperate, it rapidly became quite clear that my siblings and I had very different attitudes towards my mother’s possessions.

As someone who had been in the firing line of my mother’s emotional instability for my entire life, I viewed my mother’s things as a burden in need of lifting… I wanted to be rid of the stuff because I wanted to be rid of my mother and every item that went out the door brought a tangible sense of relief. Though my siblings expressed a number of different attitudes towards my mother’s stuff, one prevailing attitude seemed to be that the stuff was almost sacred in that it allowed one of my siblings in particular to reconnect with his (seemingly far more pleasant) childhood without the person my mother became getting in the way and spoiling his feelings of nostalgia. To this day, I could not tell you which of these two attitudes was the more ‘sane’ or ‘rational’ but we not only saw the objects in very different lights, we were also using them as props in what turned out to be very different psychodramas, which is precisely the theme of Summer Hours.

 

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Leviathan (2014) — Dismay Goes Before Him

April 14, 2015
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We would like to believe that our critical faculties are impartial and that our impressions of the media we consume are a direct result of its inherent quality. We would like to believe that we can sense aesthetic excellence in the same way as we smell burning or taste strawberries but the truth is a good deal more complex. While our culture and neurological make-up certainly train us to expect certain aesthetic benchmarks, much of our reaction comes not from the text but the stuff around it.

At a very basic physiological level, it is quite hard to enjoy a 3D film when you arrive at the cinema with a head-ache only to discover that the cinema’s sound-system is malfunctioning along with its air-conditioning. As we progress past childhood, we learn to make allowances for things likely to affect our moods but it is still incredibly easy to sit through a bad screening of a film and conclude that the film itself is to blame. Conversely, go to see a stupid movie with a bunch of friends who respond to every beat with gales of laughter and you are just as likely to praise the film for that evening’s entertainment as you are your friends.

At a more psychological level, we seldom enter a cinema without baggage. We carry with us a lifetime’s worth of ideas and learned emotional responses that cannot help but influence how we respond to depictions of fictional events. Indeed, the very concept of a Trigger Warning assumes that exposure to images and situations will produce similar emotional responses regardless of whether those situations are real or fictional. We often talk about children becoming ‘desensitised’ to media portrayals of violence and a normal suite of emotional reactions does include the capacity to distinguish between real and fictional contexts but lines are often blurry, slopes are often slippery and the emotions we choose to police are largely a question of cultural norms and individual tastes. For example, while we may learn to endure the unpleasant imagery of horror films in the same way as we learn to endure the sting of spicy food, we are not generally in the habit of distancing ourselves from the emotional payload of comedies or conventional dramas. In fact, some of our most enjoyable artistic experiences happen when an author whose experiences resemble our own manages to connect to the emotional baggage we carry around with us by virtue of being human. Some art is well made, and some just happens to speak directly to us.

It is hardly controversial to suggest that our emotional reaction to a work of art is likely to be coloured by factors external to the text but the same could also be said of more complex critical judgements and the formation of our own interpretations. An excellent (fictional) example of this process can be found in an early episode of The Sopranos when Tony visits his therapist only to accuse her of deliberately planting a picture of a rotting tree. Of course, there is nothing in the painting that would lead us to conclude that the tree is rotten and so we are invited to conclude that it is Tony’s emotional baggage that is encouraging him to ‘see’ a generic painting as somehow inherently bleak. The bleed between our own personal experiences and our interpretation of texts is one of the reasons why I see criticism as a creative rather than a reactive form but the process of interpretation can be ‘gamed’ or deliberately influenced.

The great French director Claude Chabrol began his career as a film critic and so stepped behind the camera with an excellent idea of how critics formed judgements about the films they reviewed. This insight encouraged Chabrol to ‘embellish’ the text of his film by including references to other books and works of art. As Chabrol would later admit, these references were rarely thought-through but Chabrol realised that if he allowed the camera to linger on the cover of a book then some bright critic would invariably take the bait, assume a link between the two texts, and produce a more involved (and flattering) interpretation of his film. This anecdote may paint Chabrol as something of a rogue, but priming audiences for particular interpretations is now absolutely central to the PR process and Hollywood blockbusters will often contain under-developed references to important events (such as 9/11 in the case of J.J. Abrams’ Cloverfield, the Occupy movement in the case of Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises and Afghanistan in the case of Favreau’s Iron Man) in an effort to create the illusion of thematic depth.

Where you stand on these types of interpretative games will, in part, be a function on where you stand on issues such as a the Death of the Author and whether you see works as the sole responsibility of an auteur or something that artist and audience create together as part of a symbiotic relationship. Personally, I tend to shuffle back and forth between the two extremes but I generally think that if a director and a film are to be credited with a particular set of ideas then considerable effort needs to go into developing those ideas within the text of the film. This brings us to Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, a Golden Globe-winning Russian film whose title contains almost the entirety of its thematic substance.

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REVIEW — The Decent One (2014)

April 9, 2015
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FilmJuice have my review of Vanessa Lapa’s documentary about Heinrich Himmler, The Decent One.

The Decent One draws on some private correspondence that was uncovered in Himmler’s house at the end of the war and sold into private hands by light-fingered American soldiers. Following the scandal surrounding the so-called Hitler diaries, the documents never made that much of a splash and were never made public until Lapa’s parents decided to buy them for her so that she could make a documentary about them. The result is a rather frustrating experience as while the film does give some fascinating glimpses into what life must have been like for the friends and family of prominent Nazis, Lapa chooses to focus most of her attentions on Himmler rather than the people around him.

This evidently put Lapa in something of a sticky situation as how do you produce a biographical documentary about a prominent Nazi without inviting unflattering comparisons to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem or more psycho-sociological writing such as Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality. Lapa tries to overcome this problem by unearthing scandalous biographical details such as Himmler’s penchant for sadomasochistic sex and his habitual drug use but the methods she uses to present these so-called biographical details are so manipulative that you can’t help but raise a sceptical eyebrow:

Lapa makes a great show of putting the documents in the foreground of the film and many shots of Himmler’s angular hand-writing give the impression that the documents are being allowed to speak for themselves. However, take a step back from the images of Himmler’s correspondence and you start to realise that Lapa’s editorialising is so aggressive that it smacks of desperation and frequently borders on the outright manipulative. For example, one of the earliest exchanges of letters between Himmler and his future wife finds Himmler referring to himself as a ‘naughty man’ for spending too much time away from his fiancé, to which the woman playfully responds that she will exact a terrible revenge for his absence. Now… in the context of hundreds of personal letters, this exchange would probably come across as the slightly awkward flirtations of a sexually active couple but Lapa isolates these sentence fragments and instructs her voice actors to deliver readings that encourage the audience to conclude that the future Mr. and Mrs. Himmler has a relationship that was a bit kinky if not actually sadomasochistic. Also suspect is the way that Lapa juxtaposes a document relating to stomach problems caused by prolonged opium use with Himmler’s passing assertion that he had experienced a touch of constipation while on the Eastern front. Again, when seen in the context of an on-going personal correspondence, such an admission might come across as little more than a comment on Himmler’s health but Lapa frames the information in a manner that encourages us to infer that Himmler was a habitual drug user. Aside from being dubious historical practice, such manipulative sensationalism only serves to highlight the extent to which Lapa struggles to find anything new to say about Himmler that hasn’t been said before: There are no private doubts to be found here, only the belief that he was doing the right thing and that history would prove him right.

Surveying some of the film’s other reviews, I notice that I am not the only one to dislike the heavy-handedness of Lapa’s editorialising. Setting aside the fact that films like Shoah set the tone for Holocaust documentaries by allowing people to speak for themselves, I am also struck by the fact that there is now a very fine line between a serious documentary about the Nazis and the type of sensationalist trash you get on cable TV. Massage the primary sources a bit too much and your careful documentary turns into Hitler’s Henchmen by way of Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe.

REVIEW — The Turning (2013)

April 7, 2015
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FilmJuice have my review of the Australian short film collection The Turning, based on Tim Winton’s short fiction collection of the same name.

Short films as undeniably a good thing: Their reduced run time means that they are not only cheaper to make, they’re also less thematically demanding in that it is easier to come up with an interesting idea that will sustain a ten minute short film than it is to come up with an idea that will support a 90-minute feature film. The fact that short films are considerably shorter than feature films also means that they are a lot cheaper to make and so ambitious filmmakers can experiment with short films in a way that they simply cannot do at feature lengths. The problem with short films is that they are incredibly difficult to sell… indeed, no stable market for short films exists outside of a Horror genre that has somehow managed to maintain its fondness for anthology formats. The Turning is an attempt to rekindle the market for art house short film by getting 18 different directors to make short films based on stories taken from an award-winning short fiction collection in which some of the stories share characters, themes and recurring motifs. As I point out in my review, the idea of using the motifs in a short fiction collection to bind together a set of short film does not really work as:

while Winton’s short stories connect using recurring characters, themes, and motifs, the production’s failure to create a sense of visual continuity means that almost none of the recurring motifs or re-used characters survive the transition from book to film. What this leaves is a series of short films that only inter-connect in so far as they often share a fascination with regret or alcoholism, and frankly those types of themes pop up so often in art house film that they seem accidental.

In fairness, I can see why the producers chose the path they did as making the connections in Winton’s fiction work on film would have required not only the imposition of particular actors for particular parts but also a shared visual palette that would have seriously hampered the vision of the individual directors. This reminded me quite a bit of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as creating a sense of visual continuity between the films has robbed individual directors not only of the power to cast for themselves but also to shape the look of their own films. In the case of the MCU, the need for visual continuity has resulted in films that look depressingly similar but, in the case of The Turning, the lack of visual continuity means that a curated collection of short films comes across as almost completely unconnected. Swings and roundabouts I guess…

Another thing that really struck home when watching The Turning was quite how male-gazey the films directed by men turned out to be compared to those directed by women. One of the recurring saws of this blog is that art house film has ossified around a set of visual shortcuts that contain sexist assumptions but seeing similar characters and themes tackled by both men and women really drives home the extent to which female directors are more willing to question those shortcuts than their male counterparts. Having said that, the single most objectifying film in the entire collection is directed by a woman so it’s evidently not just men who fail to unpack their own cinematic vocabularies.

 

REVIEW — The Grandmaster (2013)

April 3, 2015
Grandmaster

FilmJuice have my review of Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster, an art house kung fu film based on the life of Bruce Lee’s trainer Ip Man.

I think I like the idea of kung fu films a lot more than I like actual kung fu films… In my early teens, I worked my way through much of Jackie Chan’s back catalogue but I have always struggled with films that did not recreate that particular style. Well… I say ‘style’ when what I actually mean is ‘competence level’ as being able to direct extended scenes of hand-to-hand combat requires a constellation of skills that surprisingly few directors manage to acquire. Every Frame A Painting has a truly excellent video about Chan’s directorial style but what has always drawn me to Chan’s direction are his clarity and his spatial awareness. Chan is first and foremost a performer and he directs in a way that emphasises the grace and skill of the performer rather than trying to compensate for it in post production as has become the norm in Hollywood where it is always much easier to add a bit of CGI or do a bit of extra editing than it is to keep re-shooting the scene in the hope of getting it just right. While action films are generally considered a lot less ‘worthy’ than the films I tend to write about on this blog, a good action director will have just as much skill, vision and sensitivity as the most celebrated Cannes winners. Hollywood may have created a generation of action directors whose logistical expertise outweighs their technical competence but that is a failing of the contemporary Hollywood machine… not the action genre.

I was intrigued to see The Grandmaster as Wong Kar-wai is undoubtedly one of the most highly skilled visual directors in world cinema. David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film dismisses Wong’s films as cold but this is the result of focusing on the actors rather than everything that Wong chooses to put on the screen. When I think of Wong Kar-wai’s films I think of characters whose muted emotional tones are radically and deliberately at odds with the colourful complexity of the worlds they inhabit. Wong’s foregrounds are always cold, still and immaculately controlled but his backgrounds are rich and almost overwhelmingly evocative. Somewhat unsurprisingly, this means that Wong is an absolute natural when it comes to shooting kung fu as his characters are the cold, controlled centre to a world that is filled with beauty and movement:

Like many of Wong Kar-Wai’s films, The Grandmaster sets up a tension between the stillness of the characters and the churning chaos of the world that surrounds them. Unable or unwilling to acknowledge their own feelings, Wong’s characters feel deliberately out of place as every set and every shot hints at the passions they keep chained up inside them. While the tension between Ip’s physical mastery and emotional backwardness is beautifully realised thanks to a cast and crew at the absolute peak of their respective games, you cannot help but feel a bit frustrated by the shallowness of Wong’s character study. Ip was a fascinating man who lived at a fascinating time and while action directors like Winston Yip and Herman Yau have been content to present the man as little more than a generic action hero, Wong breaks with this tradition only to strip his subject back to the equally simplistic lines of a generic romantic lead who struggles with feelings that would not overly bother a teenager.

In hindsight, this is almost certainly unfair to the romance genre as I suspect most characters in romance novels have a good deal more emotional complexity than Wong’s Ip and Gong. As I point out in the review, this cut of the film is significantly shorter than the version that was released in China and I suspect that much of the film’s connective tissue was left on the cutting room floor by Western distributors with one eye on the action market. This perhaps is the problematic legacy of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as you can also see it in the Western release of John Woo’s Red Cliff: The Chinese action genre is desperate to grow up and to use bigger budgets and action sequences to draw big audiences to weighty themes but the West has little time or interest in 3 hour action epics that contain 2 hours of mood-setting and characterisation. Not for the first time, our debased palette seems to have prevented us from sampling the dishes served by cultures that have not followed the same reductive cinematic path.

REVIEW — Day of Anger (1967)

April 1, 2015
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FilmJuice have my review of Tonino Valerii’s awesome spaghetti western Day of Anger, also known as Gunlaw and I Giorni Dell’Ira.

The film is set in a prosperous frontier town where the ‘fatherless’ child of one of the local sex workers makes a living emptying chamber pots whilst being systematically beaten and demeaned by the men of the town. However, this situation comes to a sudden end when Lee Van Cleef’s ageing desperado rides into town and decides to take the young man under his wing. As the old gunfighter hatches a plot to take over the town, the young man becomes quite an accomplished gunfighter… so accomplished that he eventually becomes the only man who could possibly take down the old gunfighter. However, the young man’s loyalty towards the old man is compromised when another old man steps in and starts filling his head with paranoid thoughts:

For much of the film, Van Cleef plays Talby as something of an antihero; a man whose violent and manipulative actions are somehow humanised not only by the villainy of his victims but also by the praise he lavishes on Scott. Talby winds up being more of a father to Scott than any of the vicious hypocrites who might actually be his father but the more of an adult Scott becomes, the more he starts to question Talby’s apparent viciousness. Why would a man so cold go out of his way to raise a son when he could just as easily hire a bunch of goons to do his bidding? One potential answer surfaces in a fantastic scene in which Murph explains how older gun-slingers sometimes take an apprentice in an attempt to compensate for their slowing reflexes. However, as Murph points out, there comes a time when the reputation of the henchman begins to surpass that of the master and that is when the father inevitably begins to question the loyalty of the son.

As I explain in my review, the film is often thought of as an ‘Oedipal’ text about a son who is forced to kill his father before he can become an adult. However, a less Freudian reading suggests that Day of Anger might actually be more interested in the practicalities of parenting than in the father’s role as a symbol. Indeed, the film’s final act hinges upon the fact that Van Cleef’s character is so distracted by his awesome plotting and scheming that another man was able to sneak in and raise the son to hate the father.

Upon reflection, it now occurs to me that there is something distinctly Christlike about the figure of Scott Mary in so far as he is the fatherless ‘son of man’ who is forced to suffer for the sins of the community he inhabits. Scott Mary does eventually turn against his morally questionable father but only after the father was distracted and Scott Mary was attacked echoing the themes of abandonment found in Psalm 22’s cries of My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me? In fact, one could almost imagine Day of Anger as an alternative vision of the crucifixion in which Jesus pulls himself off the cross, kills God and positions himself on the throne of Heaven but that might be pushing this interpretation a little bit too far in the direction of awesome.

Another thing that occurred to me while watching Day of Anger is how influential Eastwood’s Unforgiven has been on the Western genre. Indeed, most of the spaghetti westerns were violent to the point of nihilism but their visuals were invariably sunny and colourful. By contrast virtually all of the most notable American Westerns of recent years have taken their cues from Unforgiven and portrayed the old west as a cold, muddy place that was full of ugly farting men and drug-addled sex-workers. Even Tarantino’s Django Unchained paid lip service to that aesthetic in its early scenes before going on to recreate the carnivalesque melange of blood and sunshine that you find in many of the old Italian Westerns. As someone who really quite likes Westerns, I find the genre’s lack of visual innovation really quite frustrating as the Western seems to have emerged as yet another victim of grimdark’s stanglehold on the American psyche. Day of Anger is actually a really interesting counterpoint to the rise of the grimdark aesthetic as while the film is so bright and colourful that you could film an upbeat Western-themes musical using the same sets and costumes, the themes of the film are actually much darker and messed up than anything that has emerged from the later years of the post-revisionist Western.

 

Future Interrupted — Doctor Johnson’s Awesome Mix Tape

March 28, 2015
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Issue #257 of Interzone is now a thing in the world: Subscribers will have received their copies while non-subscribers have been left to experience its absence, like an amputated limb or a press-ganged lover. As ever, physical subscriptions are available via the TTA Press website and digital subscriptions can be found on Smashwords. Buy it for the fiction… buy it for the non-fiction… buy it because it is almost certainly the only genre magazine published this year to feature an astronaut with an albatross strapped to his chest.

This month’s issue contains some really interesting work, including:

  • “Songbird” by Fadzlishah Johanabas
  • “Brainwhales are Stoners, Too” by Rich Larson
  • “The Worshipful Company of Milliners” by Tendai Huchu
  • “Blossoms Falling Down” by Aliya Whiteley

I say ‘including’ as the cover story is “A Murmuration” by Alastair Reynolds. I think this is the best thing that Al Reynolds has written since Revelation Space. Ostensibly a hard science-fiction story about bird-watching, “A Murmuration” is also a study of professional obsession, isolation and creeping madness. Much like Ian Sales’ BSFA Award-winning novella Adrift on the Sea of Rains, Reynolds fills the foreground of the story with lots of detailed scientific ideas only to then hint at what is actually going on behind the infodump. Sales beat his readers over the head with NASA acronyms and maintenance procedures in a way that hid his protagonist’s growing madness, Reynolds does something very similar here with a scientist who is trying to publish a paper that models avian group dynamics only to find himself getting more and more obsessed with the paper’s referee while the experiment spins wildly out of control. As with Adrift on the Sea of Rains, there’s something intensely satisfying about stories that combine the subtlety of art house film with the directness of hard SF and it’s a real pleasure to see Al Reynolds exploring that particular literary space.

Issue #257 also includes interviews with Helen Marshall and Aliya Whiteley as well as the usual columns by Nina Allan, Nick Lowe, Tony Lee and yours truly. I won’t spoil this month’s column for those of you who aren’t subscribers but it does include the line “Science fiction could stand to learn a lot from Malcolm McLaren”. Anyway, enough of the new stuff and on with the old stuff! Unlike many of these columns, this month’s is dated by my decision to write about a film that happened to be in the cinemas at the time of writing… so please excuse my apparent inability to tell the difference between Summer 2014 and Spring 2015. The curious may be interested to know that I expanded my views on the Marvel Cinematic Universe while posting my review of Ari Folman’s The Congress.

 

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