It is impossible to overstate the enduring influence of existentialism on art house film. Since disentangling themselves from the mainstream of popular cinema back in the 1960s, art house filmmakers have worked hard to create a set of narrative techniques that perfectly capture what it’s like to feel lost and a little bit sad in a world rippling with beauty and potential. This tension between the world’s extraordinary potential and our own failure to make the most of it is what lies at the heart of all existential thought and most art house film. Indeed, these techniques and the moods associated with them are now so common in European and World cinema that their deployment has started to feel more like a professional rite-of-passage than an expression of manifest truth.
Winner of the Best International Film award at the 2012 Edinburgh International Film Festival, Chinese director Mao Mao’s first film Here, Then (Ci Chu Yu Bi Chu) is an excellent example of how to launch a directorial career: As technically brilliant and thematically rich as any conventional art house film produced in the last five years, Mao Mao’s debut proves that he can use conventional art house techniques to tell a conventional art house story about alienation, isolation and the yawning chasm at the heart of middle-class life.
As DVD box sets and online streaming slowly replace broadcast TV as primary delivery systems for televised drama, industry people have begun to cast about for the next great thing to fill middle-class evenings. After the Golden Age of American TV came the discovery of gritty French crime dramas such as the magnificent Spiral, the abortive popularisation of Italian dramas such as Inspector Montalban and the increasingly potent and influential Nordic gold rush including The Killing, The Bridge and Those Who Kill. Less showy but more substantial than many of these post-Wire police procedurals is Adam Price’s Borgen, a political drama about the first female Danish Prime Minister that eschews the infantile patriotic sentimentality of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing in favour of real political engagement with Denmark’s many social and political problems. Given the success of Borgen and ‘Nordic Noir’, it is hardly surprising that the Danish film industry should attempt to use the visibility of Danish TV to help promote their national cinema. Aside from being written and directed by one of Borgen’s writers, Tobias Lindholm’s A Hijacking (Kapringen) is so filled with Borgen cast members that I suspect Lindholm may have driven up to the set in a large van and kidnapped them using promises of gravlax and crispbread.
FilmJuice have my review of Sophie Fiennes and Slavoj Žižek’s lecture/documentary film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology.
This film was a real disappointment for me. I remember discovering The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema when it screened on BBC4 and buying the DVD directly from the production company as it hadn’t quite managed to land a mainstream distribution deal. I love the visual style, I loved the choice of films it discussed and I loved the way in which Žižek took incredibly complex readings and compressed them down into diamonds of insight. I didn’t necessarily buy all of Žižek’s interpretations but criticism is a creative endeavour in which being boring is a far greater crime than being wrong. In that series, Žižek was never boring and so the series remains a fantastic piece of TV. Unfortunately The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology is a far less attractive prospect for a number of reasons.
The first major problem with this film is that Fiennes has failed to reign in Žižek. Pervert’s Guide to Cinema worked by providing its resident critic with a very clear framework: He could talk about whatever the fuck it was that sprang to mind but each of his flights of fancy had to begin and end with the text of a particular film. This not only forced Žižek to be concise in his opinions, it also meant that if the audience ever fell of the train of thought, they could re-orient themselves by using their knowledge of a particular cinematic text. Sadly, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology suffers from the same problem that many of Žižek’s lectures (and now books) suffer from: a complete lack of intellectual discipline and a woeful tendency towards self-indulgence. As I explain in my review:
it is never entirely clear how Žižek’s opinions about the 2011 London riots relate to his opinions about Stalin’s efforts to position himself at the centre of not just Russian politics but Russian private lives as well. The more Fiennes indulges Žižek’s wandering attention span, the more insubstantial and hollow his ideas come to seem, something that is particularly evident in the slightly embarrassing attempt to conclude the film with something resembling a plan of action or a unified worldview.
In other words, this film is full of entertaining ideas… but none of those ideas ever amount to anything like a sustained intellectual critique. By failing to impose any limits on what Žižek couldn’t say, Fiennes has insured that he says nothing at all. In addition to these structural problems, the film also suffers from the decision to chase a cinematic release rather than the much longer TV-friendly running time enjoyed by the original series. The result is a lecture that tackles a much larger topic in much less time and with much less intellectual coherence. To paraphase Woody Allen: So much intellectual incoherence… and in such a small portion too!
People fond of European and World cinema often accuse Hollywood of churning out safe, derivative crap whilst turning a blind eye to the fact that the vocabulary of art house film has remained largely unchanged since the 1960s. Indeed, if you have seen Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura and Alain Renais’s Last Year at Marienbad then you are unlikely to be surprised by anything that appears in your local art house cinema. The truth of the matter is that cinema is an expensive medium and the conservative forces that compel American filmmakers to produce violently misogynistic popcorn movies are the same as the ones compelling ambitious non-American directors to produce beautifully shot stories of middle-class alienation filled with extended silences and psychological ambiguities. Given how many promising talents are crushed by the gears of these mature economic systems, it is always something of a delight when a director manages to follow their own path and find their own means of expression. Harmony Korine is just that kind of director.
Korine’s latest and most widely marketed work opens with a montage that is both completely out of character and utterly in keeping with the director’s favoured themes. The scene is one of oppressive revelry as American students drink, dance and grind up against each other in the Florida sunshine. Shot through a slightly greenish filter, the scene is gorgeously bright and yet oddly murky, as though someone had decided to open the Arc of the Covenant at the bottom of a garden pond. Korine is best known for such quirky portraits of impoverished dysfunction as Gummo and Trash Humpers but he was also the writer behind Larry Clark’s Kids and Ken Park. The sensibility that unites all of these films is that contentment (and even transcendence) is most likely not going to be found in all the usual places; churches, stable relationships, middle-aged men walking through fields of grass whilst talking in voices filled with hushed awe. Happiness is where you find it and chances are that the place you eventually find it is going to seem incredibly ugly and bleak to anyone who isn’t you. We see this in the squalid threesome at the end of Ken Park, we see this in the psychotic performance art of the Trash Humpers and we see it in the dub-step, boobies and beer bongs of Spring Breakers’ opening montage, which is best described as Ibiza Uncovered with better dentistry.
FilmJuice have my review of a recently released collection of films starring the late great Trevor Howard.
The collection includes David Lean’s Brief Encounter, Herbert Wilcox’s Odette, George More O’Ferrall’s Heart of the Matter and a Carol Reed double-bill comprising The Third Man and Outcast of the Islands. While it is somewhat unfortunate that the collection doesn’t include Sons and Lovers (the film that netted Howard his only Oscar nomination), I feel that the films included here do an excellent job of showcasing precisely why it was that the odd-looking Howard rose to prominence as a leading man in post-War British cinema. The answer, in a word, is fallibility:
Instantly recognisable to anyone who grew up in the days when terrestrial TV channels still padded out their schedule with classic black and white films, Trevor Howard is one of the great screen presences of British post-War cinema. No matinee idol, Howard’s awkward looks and brittle manner made him the perfect choice for directors seeking a wounded British patriarch; a man of action who is forever tired, a romantic figure with just a hint of threat, a spy who gives away all his secrets and listens to no one. In fact, Howard was so effective in these sorts of roles that the end of his career saw him typecast as an impotent and dysfunctional authority figure: a symbol of broken imperial hubris to be mocked in Superman and denounced in Gandhi.
Howard is, in many ways, the antithesis to the unflappable patriarch played by Noel Coward in In Which We Serve, a fragile and selfish man who tries to assume the role expected of him by his society only to fail and fail again. Interestingly, Howard’s film career was boosted by his reputation for being something of a war hero who did ‘good work’ in the royal corps of signals during the Second World War. However, as Terence Pettigrew revealed Trevor Howard: A Personal Biography, Howard was actually kicked out of the army for having a “psychopathic personality”. I can think of no more fitting a life story for a man who would spend his career playing flawed patriarchs.
In terms of the films included in the collection, Brief Encounter, Odette and The Third Man are unimpeachable classics of post-War British cinema which more than justify picking up the collection. However, the other two films are somewhat less than brilliant. I bounced quite hard off the hysterical racism of Outcast of the Islands but warmed to the odd narrative structures and atmospheric cinematography of O’Ferrall’s Heart of the Matter. However, I can completely understand people having the opposite reaction as in the case of Viv Wilby’s excellent write-up of the collection over at Mostly Film:
In his New Biographical Dictionary of Film, the critic David Thomson blames Trevor Howard’s second-league career on bad role choices and a reluctance to move to Hollywood. Maybe. Or maybe he was hidebound by a British film industry that struggled to see him in anything other than upper-middle class officer roles. Or perhaps he was just born too early. Were he in his prime in the 60s rather than the early 50s perhaps he would have had more interesting choices to make. One of his favourite roles was apparently the eccentric aristocrat in Vivian Stanshall’s 1980 film Sir Henry at Rawlinson End. That would have been a more interesting addition to a Trevor Howard boxset than, say. Odette. But even in this rather narrow selection of movies, Howard shows himself to be an actor of great versatility and sensitivity and there’s much to admire and enjoy.
While I can see the case for excluding Odette, I think it would be foolish to do so. Odette casts Howard as a deluded and privileged foil to Anna Neagle’s quietly heroic female spy who undergoes terrible hardship without breaking whilst Howard’s character enjoys a much softer treatment by virtue of his family connections to Churchill. Aside from being the originator of the immortal “we have ways of making you talk” line and the inspiration for the way that Allo Allo handled British people speaking in different languages by varying their accents, Odette can actually be classed as a feminist film. At a time when most big releases struggle to pass the Bechdel test, it is hard to imagine a lavishly produced studio picture about the quiet heroism of a middle-aged woman.
FilmJuice have my review of Ciaran Foy’s debut horror movie Citadel.
Set on a council estate that might be in Ireland or possibly Scotland, Citadel revolves around a single father attempting to escape from a decaying council estate that is over-run with faceless hoodies. When the hoodies break into his council house in a bid to abduct his daughter, the young man turns to a psychotic Catholic priest who urges him to abandon all fear and compassion. Turns out the feral underclass are the inbred “dog children” of a pair of junkies and the only way to ‘save’ them is to murder them in an enormous gas explosion that will not only wipe the streets clear of impoverished scum but also allow the young man to become a real father.
The problem with Citadel is that, rather than seeking to examine middle class fears of a feral underclass, Foy treats these fears as entirely rational thanks to a backstory that deploys not only the language of class warfare as found in the pages of the Daily Mail but also fears of miscegenation, violence and unreasoning carnality that are common to pretty much every racial panic in recorded history. Much like Velt Harlan’s Jew Süss and D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, Ciaran Foy’s Citadel uses crude stereotypes to dehumanise and degrade whilst equating personal fulfilment and moral clarity with an act of grotesque violence against the dehumanised group. This makes Citadel not just ugly and reactionary, but downright fascistic in both its imagery and argument. To produce a film like this at a time when poor people are disproportionately subject to government funding cuts is nothing short of reprehensible.
As distasteful as it may be to make a film that dehumanises the poor at a time when they are being disproportionately targeted by government cuts, Citadel somehow manages to be even more offensive by virtue of receiving funding from government bodies such as the Irish Film Board and Creative Scotland. What this means is that while the Scottish and Irish governments may well have cut back on the amount of money they use to help poor people, they still found money to help produce a film that demonises the poor and advocates killing them all in an enormous gas explosion. How’s that for a slice of class warfare?
A little while ago, I was planning on writing a book about psychological thrillers. I thought it might have been a good idea because I wanted to read a book about psychological thrillers but nobody appeared to have written one. While the project was eventually dissolved by the dawning realisation that nobody would publish a book about psychological thrillers written by me, my attempt to pull together a list of great psychological thrillers brought me into contact with Rene Clement’s Plein Soleil. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s classic existential novel The Talented Mr Ripley, Plein Soleil struck me as a fascinating misprision… a failure to comprehend the original intent of a work that nonetheless produced something of considerable beauty. FilmJuice have my review of Plein Soleil, which is now available in the UK for the first time in altogether too long.
Set in the strange demimonde created by wealthy American socialites slumming it in Italian hotels, Plein Soleil tells of a penniless young man who attaches himself to a much wealthier man with a far more forceful personality. In Highsmith’s original text, the relationship between Ripley and his prey is a sort of existential magnetism, a void that attempts to fill itself by consuming a much more substantial person. Intriguingly, Clement and Delon present Ripley not as an existential void but as a sort of unquenchable hunger… a man with nothing who wants everything and who will stop at nothing in order to get it. Indeed, even Anthony Minghella’s stylistically dull adaptation of the book presented Ripley as a sexless figure whereas Delon’s Ripley is all about Marie Laforet’s fragrant Marge:
Delon’s Ripley is an absolute masterpiece, a creature of malign and yet unfettered grace, the male libido chiselled into marble and made socially acceptable by the strategic use of smart haircuts and tailor-made suits. Think Bond unhitched from Queen and Country.
Another thing that struck me since filing the review is that Plein Soleil has a very similar setting and cast of characters to Antonioni’s now burdensomely-canonical L’Avventura; both are about beautiful people in a beautiful place and both films use that beauty to highlight the beautiful people’s complete lack of interiority. In L’Avventura, the mediterranean is a dull grey slate dotted with jet black protuberances while that of Clement is a washed-out nightmare where only the most brutal and beautiful fear to tread.
Re-visiting Plein Soleil was a real treat that only continues to confirm my feeling that Anthony Minghella’s Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning Talented Mr Ripley is actually the weakest of all the Ripley films while Clement’s adaptation and Liliana Cavani’s take on Ripley’s Game remain sadly under-rated.