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Moving Forward…

September 2, 2015

Last week saw me complete my review of all the Kim Longinotto documentaries that are currently available on DVD and this week will see me complete my long, slow read of James Salter’s final collection of short stories Last Night. Given that two quite long-term commitments have now concluded, it seems like a good time to think about what I’m going to be doing next.

 

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Firstly, as you may have noticed, I’m posting more than I was. It used to be that I’d maybe put out one or two posts a week with the occasional lengthy silence but I seem to have stumbled into a 3 posts-a-week habit and I’m quite happy trying to keep it there… at least for a while.

 

Secondly, I’ve rediscovered the joys of writing more than one piece about the same body of work. One of the first things I did with this blog was work my way through a load of Roman Polanski and Claude Chabrol films one after the other. While I found those series incredibly rewarding to write, I drifted away from them after I moved out of London and only returned to that style of writing for my FilmJuice pieces about Billy Wilder, The Archers, Walerian Borowczyk and the later works of Kenji Mizoguchi. The reason I’ve been willing to write that type of piece for other people but not for myself is that writing multiple pieces about the same body of work requires a level of commitment that has long been absent from my blogging.

What changed is that I moved out of London to a place where my wife and I were sharing a single TV/sitting room. While I could always justify taking over the shared space in order to write pieces for other people, I was often very reluctant to dominate the space for the sake of a few blog posts. What has changed is that I now have my own TV and so I can watch long depressing art house films without fear of being in anyone else’s way! While the Last Night and Longinotto series were all about me stretching my critical wings, they were also experiments in attention-management as I wanted to see whether I could maintain the commitment required to write a series of posts about a single body of work. The numbers may have been tepid (when aren’t they?) but I really enjoyed the experience of discovering and forging opinions about a particular body of work, so you can definitely expect me to return to this format in the near future.

 

Thirdly, I am still committed to producing a bi-monthly SF column for Interzone magazine and occasional reviews for FilmJuice. Those relationships are still in place and I am really enjoying both the discipline of producing a column to deadline and the freshness of discovering something new with each review. I could probably write more stuff for other people than I currently am but I shall see how that goes… still reluctant to pitch, still shy about the self-promotional activities required of contemporary critics.

 

Fourthly, I have signed up for a new Twitter account. I’ve had it for a couple of weeks and have been silently using it as a means of keeping up with stuff produced by bigger sites. I love RSS and I love my RSS reader but what is to be done when websites produce 30 posts a day of which only 3 are relevant to my interests? Anyway… I am now @ApeinWinter so please say hello!

Stranger By The Lake (2013) — Places Made of People

August 31, 2015
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It is now quite common to speak of a need for greater diversity in the media that we produce and consume, but where does this ‘diversity’ reside? Are we calling for a more representative creative class or media that speaks to the desires and interests of a more diverse population? Clearly, taking a monolithically straight, white and American cultural form such as the contemporary Superhero film and adding a few token non-whites and non-straights would do little to improve the situation. One diversity-container that frequently gets overlooked is the idea of ‘spaces’ and how those spaces help to shape experiences and build cultures. This is something of a pity as LGBT cinema does spaces better than almost any other form.

The unrivalled king of gay spaces is the French director Jacques Nolot. One-time lover of Roland Barthes and protégé of Andre Techine, Nolot has devoted his cinematic career to the marginal spaces around gay culture. His second film Glowing Eyes is set in a porn cinema and explores not only the fluid nature of the identities and relationships created by the space, but also the importance of such spaces as venues for experimentation and self-expression. While Glowing Eyes is all about a space that allows entrance to different forms of sexuality, his third film Before I Forget examines the end game and the almost post-apocalyptic spaces opened up by disease, death and the end of gay men’s lives. These is a lovely scene in Before I Forget where Nolot’s character lets himself into an old boyfriend’s house in order to secure something of value for all those years of companionship. What he finds is that the dead man’s family have swooped in to pick the place clean forming an unspoken case for gay marriage at least as powerful as the one buried in the subtext of Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra. Structured like a thriller, Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the lake is perhaps not quite as brave as Nolot’s thunderously un-commercial works but his desire to recreate and explore a gay space is no less fascinating.

 

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The Day I Will Never Forget (2002) — The Battle for Woman

August 28, 2015
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Kim Longinotto is a documentarian whose time has finally come. Since the mid-1970s, Longinotto has been taking her cameras to corners of the world where women battle to survive cultures that are fundamentally hostile to their interests. Intersectional long before the term had been coined let alone entered the cultural mainstream; Kim Longinotto’s films explore the plight of women with a sensitivity to sexuality, race, class and culture that is never anything less thought-provoking. Though unabashedly moral, Longinotto’s films are never moralising… they forego easy villains and reductive narratives, focusing instead upon trying to understand the views of local women and placing those views within a broader cultural context. For example, Longinotto’s Divorce Iranian Style and Runaway depict Iran as a country where every deck is stacked against women but the women who feature in the films all seem to be aware of the hands they have been dealt and play them as well as they possibly can whilst continuing to obey the rules. Conversely, Longinotto’s Shinjuku Boys and Gaea Girls depict the men of Japan as absentee landlords and women as bold experimentalists who relentlessly push at the limits of conventional gender roles in order to find a place they can be themselves. More confrontational and optimistic than either set of films, Sisters in Law travels to Cameroon where a small group of female judicial activists use commonly un-enforced laws to put pressure on traditional practices and raise awareness about the treatment of women and children. Focused on the Somali community living in Kenya, The Day I Will Never Forget takes a long, hard look at the practice of female circumcision and asks it works, what it means, why it continues to be practiced, and why that practice might eventually come to an end.

The film opens with what could almost be called a best-case scenario. A young Somali woman prepares for her marriage as the local Somali community bustle around her; we see the wedding dress being fitted, we see the application of henna to her skin, we see her hair being made up. Then we are transported to the Somali equivalent of a hen night where the young woman’s friends and female relatives dance and sing in front of a groom who is manifestly trying his best not to be intimidated. One woman sings that Somali woman are always mistreated by their men and the point of the exercise becomes clear: Mess with one of us, and you will regret it. The Day I Will Never Forget is about that bond of community… for good and ill.

 

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Last Night by James Salter: “Arlington”

August 26, 2015
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I am aware that my pieces about the stories in this collection have been growing increasingly ill-tempered. At first, Salter’s elliptical methods and saw-tooth stylings enchanted me but the novelty has worn off and left me frustrated by his decision to keep re-visiting the same themes and characters over and over and over again. Especially seeing as those themes and characters are actually quite generic once you move beyond the wonderful crunchiness of Salter’s technical panache.

My piece about “Bangkok” – the previous story in this collection – contains an embryonic account of Salter’s affective economics but while “Arlington” does inspire me to modify this theory, it is a story that falls well within the narrow thematic parameters of what is ultimately a very disciplined collection.

In my previous piece, I suggested that most of the stories in Last Night are about the individual’s relationship with the Good Life, as determined by Salter. A more accurate account of the collection is that it revolves around three broad character types:

  • People who have completely devoted themselves to a life of hedonistic passion. Salter portrays these people as awe-inspiring in that their absolute commitment to the Id has rendered them both glorious and more than a little terrifying. Think of the actress in “Eyes of the Stars”, the mistress in “Platinum”, the poet in “My Lord You” and the female character in “Bangkok”.
  • People who have actively chosen to turn their backs on the Good Life. Salter portrays these people as weak and contemptuous cowards whose commitment to bourgeois institutions such as work and family serve only to mask a deep and all-consuming bitterness about their own failure to pursue the Good Life. Think of Arthur in “Palm Grove”, Hollis in “Bangkok”, the wife in “Comet” and Jane in “Such Fun”.
  • People who have tasted the fruit of the Good Life and have endeavoured to pursue it only to find themselves tragically and unwillingly hamstrung by either personality or circumstance. These people are also destined to live lives of quiet regret but their momentary closeness to the Good Life makes them noble. Think of the husbands in “Platinum” and “Comet” or the TV Producer in “Eyes of the Stars”.

The first two character types form polar extremes and while Salter litters his stories with examples of both types, he isn’t really interested in the psychology of the people at either pole: Those living the Good Life are awesome demigods and those uninterested in the Good Life are nothing more than empty husks. The people who really interest Salter are those who are still in the process of determining where they stand relative to the two extremes. Salter’s sympathy for his own characters depends largely upon how much effort they put into their failed attempt at the Good Life: Those who take risks, make sacrifices and still fail are deemed noble and tragic while those who shrug their shoulders and walk away are destined to be hollowed-out by regret. In my previous piece, I compared Salter’s affective economics to the sexual economics explored in Michel Houellebecq’s Whatever but Salter brings to Houellebecq a vision of the Protestant work ethic under which we are all duty-bound to seek out anal sex and threesomes lest we be found morally wanting.

“Arlington” is a story that features all three Salterian character types and the moral dynamics that unite them.

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REVIEW — Colors (1988)

August 24, 2015
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FilmJuice have my review of Dennis Hopper’s decidedly uneven crime drama Colors, starring Sean Penn and Robert Duvall.

Colors is one of those films that I never got round to seeing, despite remembering its release and the fact that it was a really big deal at the time. You can sort of see why the film was such a big deal back in the 1980s… Dennis Hopper had left his compound, sobered up and returned to the director’s chair a new man. His first film back in charge was a hard-hitting crime drama starring a Hollywood veteran in the form of Duvall and an up-and-comer in the form of Penn. Colors was taken seriously at the time of its release as it was one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to engage with gang-culture in a somewhat nuanced fashion. Since then, the film has dipped from view because a) it’s not actually very good and b) the early 1990s saw a number of African American directors (including John Singleton and Mario Van Peebles) rising to prominence and making much better and more ‘authentic’ films about the exact same themes and subject matter.

The frustrating thing about Colors is that it clearly contains some very interesting ideas. For example, rather than having the two cops face off against a whole gang and bring them to justice, the film does recognise that two white cops aren’t going to make much of a difference and so it has the police nibble ineffectually at what is quite obviously a much larger social problem. Indeed, while the film does follow a particular Crip set, you never get the impression that killing any member of the set or bringing the set to justice would make a blind bit of difference. The leader of the set is played by a very young Don Cheadle who rarely says a word and so gives the impression that he’s simply a vehicle for much larger social forces. Kill him and another guy would rise up to lead the set. Bring down the set and another would rise up to take its place. The problem is that while Colors does this type of stuff really well, it also wants to hit the beats of a traditional Hollywood genre film and so you need goodies, baddies, pathos and action scenes. A braver director would have seen these elements in the script and downplayed them but this was Hopper’s first mainstream directorial gig in a long time and he was clearly desperate not to deliver a sprawling art movie:

This is why we have a film with a non-linear plot structure that feeds unconvincingly into a moment of pathos that would have been better served by a traditional three act structure, a film about the horrors of gang violence that includes a number of ridiculously over-the-top action sequences, and a socially conscious message film that side-lines its own message in order to focus on the poorly developed man-pain of two White cops. The Dennis Hopper of Easy Rider might have been able to turn this sprawling mess into something coherent but the Hopper of the late 1980s was simply not up to the task and the films that followed in the wake of Colors were similarly uninspired and unimpressive.

Colors is being re-released on Blu-ray alongside State of Grace as part of an informal Sean Penn double-bill. Neither film is really that good but they do serve as a reminder of the types of films that used to be Hollywood’s mainstay before the beginning of the perpetual summer in which we all currently roast.

REVIEW — State of Grace (1990)

August 20, 2015
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FilmJuice have my review of Phil Joanou’s State of Grace, which is due to be re-released as part of a weird actor-focused box set alongside Colors. The film’s wikipedia entry describes it as a “neo-noir crime film” but I find it more helpful to think of the film as a bloated rock opera set amidst the gangs of New York. I use that phrase deliberately as State of Grace is a film about the last surviving remnants of the criminal underworld described by Scorsese in the film Gangs of New York. State of Grace is about a gang of working-class Irish-Americans who are struggling to hold onto territory that is in the process of being gentrified. Trapped between the legal connections of developers and the muscle of the Italian families, the once-plentiful Irish-American criminal fraternity has shrunk down to a single gang of drunks, cowards and nostalgic fuck-ups. As a snapshot of a particular point in the history of NYC, the film is really fascinating as many of the empty buildings the gang hang-out in are now home to high-end designer boutiques and luxury apartments. Basically… if you want to know what Hell’s Kitchen looked like before a wave of gentrification turned it into ‘Midtown West’ then this is the film for you.  Just don’t watch it for the story… or the acting.

The film’s plot is sort of similar to that of Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco in that it involves a cop infiltrating a criminal gang only to wind up identifying with the gang so much that he struggles to do his job. Only, the cop’s job is a lot harder here as the gang he is ordered to infiltrate is mostly composed of his childhood friends. The names attached to this project were always first class: Sean Penn, Gary Oldman, Ed Harris and Robin Wright. The problem is that the director seems to have provided his actors almost no direction resulting in a film that is completely overwhelmed and unbalanced by one of the worst performances of Gary Oldman’s career:

The film’s primary problem is that Gary Oldman starts off shouting and flailing only to become increasingly hysterical as the film progresses. Come the final act, he is literally stamping his feet and rolling around on the ground like an over-tired toddler. Oldman’s performance is so ludicrously over the top that it completely destabilises the rest of the film: Ed Harris’ muted and conflicted performance as the gang-leader comes across as flat while Robin Wright undermines an otherwise delicate job with one scene in which she suddenly abandons all of her character’s emotional toughness in order to rend her clothes and tear at her hair. Penn is arguably the best thing in this film as his double-dealing character gives him an excuse to ‘act crazy’ around Jackie and assume a more muted demeanour when dealing with Frankie, Kathleen or his police handler. Had Joanou decided to have a quiet word with Oldman then the film might easily have been salvaged but rather than reining his actors in, the director lavishes attention on them allowing even minor scenes to balloon into absurd melodramatic arias that rapidly overstay their welcome.

Three things occurred to me after writing this review:

Firstly, the only thing I really knew about Hell’s Kitchen before watching this film is that it’s home to the Marvel comics character Daredevil. Given that Hell’s Kitchen has now been gentrified and filled with up-scale apartments, does Daredevil still protect that neighbourhood and if so, doesn’t that change the dynamic of the comic? The masked protector of a shit-hole might have a bit of nobility but a lawyer who spends his evenings beating up door-to-door duster salesmen? Sounds even worse than Batman!

Secondly, it occurs to me that Gary Oldman’s Jackie may well have been the inspiration for the character of Ziggy Sabotka as played by James Ransone in season two of The Wire: They’re both remnants of a working-class culture that is about to disappear, they’re both temperamentally unsuited to their chosen life of crime and they’re both annoying histrionic tits who stick out like sore thumbs in an otherwise realistic and well-drawn setting.

Thirdly, Hollywood doesn’t really make these sort of mid-budget dramas any more and it occurred to me to look into how much money the film actually made upon first release.  Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t much and Roger Ebert (who thought more of the film and Oldman’s performance than I did) explains why:

There’s another problem. This movie, intended as a gritty slice-of-life about gangsters in New York City, is being released at about the same time as Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas,” which deals with the same subject and is a film so strong and graceful that few others can stand comparison to it.

Yeah… tough luck that.

 

Last Night by James Salter: “Bangkok”

August 18, 2015
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One of the most interesting things about working my way through a collection of literary short stories has been the obviousness of the author’s ideological assumptions. Most of the short fiction I have read between now and the end of my schooling has been science fictional and genre writers have grown quite adept at cloaking any personal beliefs in a combination of irony, abstraction and re-iteration. The majority of genre authors may be left-wing but most of the genre’s tropes are right-wing and so you often have to pay attention to the background or the words of secondary characters in order to gain a glimpse of what the author actually believes. This type of deep-reading and second-guessing is not necessary in Salter’s fiction: His assumptions about the nature of the good life are right there in the foreground of everything he writes.

Like most people, Salter is clearly no monolith. His ideas about the benefits of passion vs. the benefits of emotional control wax and wane with every story and so a story like “Comet” can unambiguously champion the idea of a life devoted to hedonistic passion while “Eyes of the Stars”, “My Lord You” and “Give” can strike notes of caution. All of the stories in this collection are about the wealthy and middle-aged and most of these people are being quietly devoured by regret and yearning for that one moment where they might have given themselves over entirely to pleasure. Though occasionally dismissive and judgemental of the people who live under a cloud of permanent regret, Salter does try to sympathise with the people who simply aren’t capable of living that type of lifestyle. In fact, “Platinum” and “Palm Court” are both quite explicitly about the quasi-Darwinian forces that exclude the weak and un-committed from Salter’s idea of the good life.

I use terms like “weak” and “un-committed” advisedly as while Salter does recognise that not everyone is going to pursue his idea of the good life, he struggles to understand why anyone would turn their back on it except as a result of trauma or timidity. In fact, I am almost tempted to say that Last Night is Salter’s failed attempt to write his way into an understanding of people who value emotional stability over passion, hence the number of stories that turn out to be about regret.

In the comments to my piece about “Palm Court”, Brendan C. Byrne says:

I think it might be better considered as a pair with the following entry, “Bangkok”, another two-hander with the same themes, though more bare and bitter. Together they ruminate on the “lost” love which animates the man’s history but which seems far more slight to the woman, and what the return of the fetishized figure of the past creates (mostly just an unsuccessful challenge to the pathological).

I mostly agree with this reading but I think that it’s the bareness and bitterness of “Bangkok” that makes it the more interesting story of the two: “Bangkok” and “Palm Court” are both about a woman trying to rekindle a relationship that she once sabotaged and a man who refusing to commit to the demands of a passionate life and hating himself for it too. The difference between the two stories is that “Bangkok” strips away the narratives that the characters tell about themselves. This story is Last Night boiled down to a thick black paste, you take your shot at a life defined by amazing sex or you sit on the side-lines resenting your decision forever.

 

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