Auto Focus (2002) – Made Free, Yet Everywhere in Chains

Paul Schrader is better known as a writer than a director. Having co-written most of Martin Scorsese’s better-known films, his own directorial efforts have often left him stranded between two cinematic cultures; his themes are often two weird and downbeat for Hollywood and yet his style is too conventional for the aesthetes of Cannes. As a writer/director, the creative high point of his career remains the beautifully demented and heavily-stylised Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.

Well-received at the time and since largely forgotten, Auto Focus is very much a companion piece to Schrader’s best-known film: Like Mishima, Auto Focus is a biopic chronicling the rise and fall of a relatively obscure cultural figure. Like Mishima, Auto Focus uses cinematic style rather than narrative or dialogue to deliver its intellectual substance. Like Mishima, Auto Focus is about a man who is hollowed out and destroyed by his commitment to an unsustainable model of masculinity.

 

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REVIEW — A Quiet Passion (2016)

After a period of considerable silence on my part, FilmJuice have my review of Terence Davies’ wonderful biopic of the American poet Emily Dickinson entitled A Quiet Passion.

It was interesting to find myself writing about Davies for the second time in five months after having spent a number of years bouncing off his films…

Whenever you acquire a passion for a particular cultural form, there is always a period in which you wind up feeling obliged to be a good citizen and, at the very least, experience the great canonical presences of the field. This gravitational pull can arise from social gatekeeping but even if you never experience a dude in a stained T-shirt snorting dismissively at your faves, you can still wind up being drawn into a cultural gravity well.

For example, once you acquire a passion for a particular cultural form, it is only natural to seek out respected commentators on that form and when those commentators all point towards the same cultural artefacts then it is quite hard to avoid engaging with those tastes and values. This is particularly obvious in the world of film criticism where an already limited range of canonical critics all tend to wind up writing about a limited range of canonical directors.

Davies is a director who sits at the bottom of quite a deep critical gravity well, which is to say that his work is respected by a lot of very respectable people and the amount of gravitational force he exerts on the culture around him means that there will always be some pressure to give his work another try, if only to try and work out what other people see in him.

I wrote about Davies’ long-awaited Sunset Song back in April and found it sorely wanting. A Quiet Passion is very similar to Sunset Song in that it is also quite dark, emotionally controlled, and oppressively internal. However, while the aesthetics of Sunset Song seemed a questionable fit for the source material, those same aesthetics turned out to be a perfect fit for the life of Emily Dickinson:

 

A Quiet Passion reads a lot like a critique of contemporary liberalism: It begins as a light and fluffy comedy of manners in which brilliant young women drop truth bombs on stuffy 19th Century caricatures but the comedy of manners collapses into tragedy when it turns out that material reality is immune to your zesty one-liners and epic owns. What follows is an absolutely uncompromising vision of genius and depression rooted in the realities of 19th Century life. Indeed, while many of Dickinson’s friends and family affect a form of world-weary cynicism, Dickinson expands those insights beyond the punchline and towards their logical conclusion in the realisation that society is built upon a series of monstrously unjust lies.

 

I went into the review-writing process rather unsure of my feelings on Davies and so I talk a bit about how I view Davies’ career and I begin to elaborate a narrative about the aesthetics of British art house film that I may wind up returning to at some later point:

 

The root of the problem is that Davies is a director in the great tradition of British art house film. Indeed, while many of the art films to come out of continental Europe tend towards the abstract and novelistic, British art films tend to be theatrical and rooted in social realism. To put it another way, European art film is a house built by Andrei Tarkovsky and Jean-Luc Godard whereas British art house film owes considerably more to left-leaning social realists such as Alan Clark and Mike Leigh. Unfortunately for Davies and many directors like him, the 1990s saw the economic heartlands of prestige cinema shift a lot closer to the American middle-class and while the abstract tendencies of European art film survived the transition, the British art house tradition did not.

 

 

REVIEW — Paterson (2016)

This week sees the home release of Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, his first film since 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive (which I adored). Unlike most of Jarmusch’s recent films, Paterson comes without the sugar-frosting of genre tropes. No vampires, no spies, no cowboys, and no assassins.  Just a dude who writes poetry and drives a city bus.  My FilmJuice review can be found over here.

There are many paths into an evocative film like Paterson but the one that caught my attention was the relationship between the poet who exists in an oppressively repetitive world where he is just happy to be a normal guy and the wife who spends her days trying to perform the identity of an artist only to have her true calling almost creep up on her. It would have been easy for Jarmusch to unpack this tension in moral terms and so take a swipe at the culture of public performance created by social media but the view he adopts is actually far more nuanced in that it supports the poet who keeps beauty locked up inside his own head as well as the people who feel the need to ‘fake it till they make it’ creatively.

Like many of Jarmusch’s more memorable films, Paterson is episodic, urban and filled with a wry melancholy over the isolation and strangeness of normal lives but Paterson uses those themes to explore the creative process as it plays out in the lives of normal people.

 

Paterson is a beautifully conceived, beautifully shot, and beautifully acted film that serves as a reminder of how sensitive and humane Jarmusch can be when he isn’t forcing the round peg of his vision into the square holes of popular culture. It is also an interesting piece of cinematic business as while the age of austerity is forever turning the screws and forcing works of art further and further outside of the cultural mainstream, Jim Jarmusch managed to convince Amazon.com to help distribute a $5 Million film about a bus driver who writes poetry.

 

 

REVIEW – Chevalier (2015)

FilmJuice have my review of Athina Rachel Tsangari’s excellent third film Chevalier.

Tsangari is a director who sits in the shadow of Yorgos Lanthimos. Lanthimos began to turn heads back in 2009 when the excellent Dogtooth used surreal imagery to paint a picture of a young generation that was being slowly crushed by the deluded ideas of their parents. Tsangari may have produced Dogtooth and given Lanthimos his big break but the fact that Dogtooth hit big while Tsangari’s first film did not means that it was easy for some critics to view Tsangari as the junior in that particular creative partnership. This is rather unfortunate as Tsangari’s breakthrough film Attenberg showed her to be by far the superior talent. Indeed, I consider Tsangari (along with Celine Sciamma) to be one of only a handful of really interesting film directors working in European cinema today.

Much like Attenberg, Tsangari’s Chevalier is funny, weird and politically astute in a way that will only become more obvious with the passage of time.

The film is set onboard a luxury yacht where a group of wealthy middle-aged men are enjoying an off-season holiday. Right from the start, the energies at work within the group are noticeably weird but things start to get really strange when one of the men suggests a competition that involves everyone awarding each other points in order to determine something resembling an objective pecking order within the group:

Unsurprisingly, the boundary-less nature of this competition serves only to accelerate and amplify tensions present within the group. This means that an already bizarre holiday gets progressively weirder and more unpleasant the longer it is allowed to last: Time and again, failure to succeed at challenges set by the group leads to loss of face and emotional breakdowns that somehow never quite blossom into either outright violence or the kind of transgressive sexual activity suggested by that image of the bloke showing his feet to someone over the internet. This is a holiday on which older men obsess about their sexual potency while younger men smoulder with resentment at the amount of control exerted over them by more senior and wealthier members of the group. Friendships rise and fall, alliances are made and broken, lies are spun and abandoned, but none of it ever seems to matter.

What makes this film so interesting and timely is the fact that it is — quite obviously — about male sexual desire and how those thwarted desires can result in the birth of political abominations.

There was an interesting piece in this week’s Guardian about the Alt-right and how Donald Trump’s head political strategist has nurtured a connection between right-wing politics and what is often referred to as the ‘manosphere’:

An online subculture centred around hatred, anger and resentment of feminism specifically, and women more broadly.

I have a lot of respect for Abi Wilkinson as a political commentator but I actually think that she has this precisely backwards… The Manosphere is not built around hating either women in general or feminism in particular, it’s a space devoted to indulging male sexual fantasies to the point where they are completely unconnected to reality. It is that disconnection from reality that fuels the resentment and anger.

The Manosphere is in some ways quite similar to the world of fan-fiction where a predominantly female crowd write stories that take characters from popular culture and imagine them not only in non-canonical emotional relationships but also in sexual relationships that are as explicit as they are transgressive. The difference between the worlds of fan-fiction and the Manosphere is that while the literary and derivative nature of fan-fiction allows women to indulge their various kinks whilst keeping a clear boundary between their kinks and their ‘real’ sexualities, the Manosphere not only encourages men to fantasise but to do so in a way that stresses the connection between the stuff they have and the stuff they secretly want.

The Manosphere encourages men to internalise their pornographic obsessions and urges them to act on those obsessions. It achieves this by forging links between the consumption of porn and the employment of sex workers on the one hand and learning how to trick desirable women into sex on the other.It’s no surprise that Reddit features so prominently in discussions of the Alt-Right as the structure of Reddit allows people to indulge their pornographic desires and their desire for political engagement without ever leaving the site. The problem with connecting the stuff you use to jerk off with the stuff you use to make decisions about your life is that almost nobody can afford endless escorts, expensive cars, exclusive gym memberships, and flash wardrobes that are positioned as solutions to the problem of involuntary celibacy.

In effect, the Alt-right is an epidemic of blue balls that has bootstrapped itself into a political movement as all of that sexual frustration has curdled into resentment at the women who refuse to play ball. That resentment has now been weaponised by political operatives in the same way 1970s Republicans weaponised the moral discontent of the Evangelical revival.

The plot of Chevalier does not explicitly mention the Alt-right but it does deal with a load of emotionally under-developed men who are incapable of controlling their sexual desires and so allow those desires to manifest themselves as a weird yearning for social domination. The film’s political edge comes from the fact that while the men battle for dominance, the real world is seen as nothing more than a set of empty buildings on a distant horizon. The sexual energies of the Alt-right are not just toxic but solipsistic in that it begins by drawing on male desire for things they cannot have and then tells them that they can have these things by brutalising women and minorities on their way to remaking the world.

REVIEW – Day for Night (1973)

FilmJuice have my review of Francois Truffaut’s thoroughly excellent Day for Night, also known as Nuit Americaine in reference to the practice of recreating night on-screen by shifting the white balance and deliberately under-exposing the shot.

Despite not having seen this film in about twenty years, Day for Night was absolutely central to my discovery of art house film. I first discovered a love of film while my parents were getting divorced as my mother would take me to the video store and allow me to rent as many films as I wanted, regardless of their age-appropriateness. I took my love of film to the next level as a teenager when my GCSE English teacher started showing us films in an effort to make us think critically about texts. I rather enjoyed the process and so started going out of my way to rent unusual films and one of the films I stumbled upon quite early on was Day for Night, a film whose true brilliance I really only understand now that I’m able to spot all the jokes and references…

Day for Night is a film about film-making or rather the process of film production and how films are assembled by a combination of authorial vision, individual incompetence, collective brilliance and blind fucking luck:

Throughout the film, characters frequently ask themselves why they have chosen to work in the film industry and whether cinema can ever be more than a job and a way of making money. Though never addressed directly either in the plot or dialogue, Day for Night must be viewed as an answer to both of those questions as the film can be read as a picture of what Marxists refer to as non-alienated labour, which is to say work that offers spiritual and psychological succour as well as financial remuneration. Imagine a job that does more than just fill the pockets of wealthier people. Imagine a job that defines you as an individual and provides you both with a sense of purpose and a tangible connection to the people that surround you. Imagine a job that you look forward to doing because it tells you who you are, where you came from, and where you are headed tomorrow. Imagine a job that makes both yourself and the world a better place and you will understand how François Truffaut felt about being a filmmaker.

The film is full of lovely moments and great performances but the really famous bit is a montage sequence when everything on a seemingly disastrous and doomed production suddenly slots into place and — as Truffaut famously put it — cinema reigns:

 

REVIEW – The Sacrifice (1986)

Over the past few weeks I have been working my way through the entirety of Andrei Tarkovsky’s back catalogue. While some of those films were new to me and others were old favourites, each new encounter gave me the opportunity to write at length about the work of a film-maker I had long adored but been reluctant to engage with in a critical fashion. I sometimes find it quite difficult to engage with work I genuinely love as I am always a bit worried that my attempt to ‘read’ a film will tie me to that reading in future and cause me to forget all of those little moments and gestures that do not fit within the confines of a single read. In this respect, my voyage through Tarkovsky has been nothing short of transformative as I have come to realise that great works like Stalker and Nostalgia cannot help but inspire fresh readings every time you watch them.

This voyage concludes with my review of The Sacrifice, Andrei Tarkovsky’s final film. The film tells the story of Alexander, a famous theatre director who retired to rural Sweden in order to pursue a critical vocation. The film follows Alexander and his family as they try to make sense of what would appear to be a nuclear catastrophe happening right on their doorstep. While I did not enjoy The Sacrifice as much as I enjoyed either Stalker or Nostalgia, I was intrigued by the suggestion that Tarkovsky may have been on the verge of adopting an entirely new (and arguably more conventional) aesthetic:

 

One of the interesting things about The Sacrifice is that it seems to begin where most Tarkovsky films end. Indeed, films like Stalker, Solaris, and Nostalgia all devote the majority of their running times to the construction of these vast symbolic systems only for these systems to collapse and leave the film’s protagonist trapped alone in a world that has been stripped of all spiritual meaning. The Sacrifice begins at the point at which most Tarkovsky films end in that Alexander begins the film having realised that culture, religion, and philosophy are all a meaningless waste of time. In effect, the film’s night of nuclear terror can be seen as an attempt to expand one of those great Tarkovskyian concluding shots and explore the full psychological impact of finding yourself trapped in a world that is overflowing with evocative images but devoid of any and all spiritual truth.

 

Watching all of Tarkovsky’s films also put me in mind of an old In Our Time podcast about Christopher Marlowe. The discussion ranges back and forth across the usual Marlowe talking points before coming to rest on the question of how he compares to Shakespeare and whether our impression of Marlowe is inflated by the fact that he died both prematurely and at the peak of his powers. One of the academics argues that Marlowe was a lesser writer than Shakespeare because he never tried his hands at comedy but I must admit that to preferring Marlowe precisely because he never turned out anything as horrifyingly smug and unfunny as Much Ado About Nothing.

Tarkovsky is as close as art house film gets to a Shakespeare but he died like a Marlowe on the verge of becoming something different. The Sacrifice introduced a three act structure, characters, and substantial dialogue but without really adding very much to the ideas and aesthetics that Tarkovsky had already developed over the course of his six earlier films. Tarkovsky died prematurely at the age of 54 but The Sacrifice did leave me wondering whether he might — like Kit Marlowe — have died well for the purposes of posterity.

REVIEW – Kika (1993)

I’m pretty sure that Kika was the first Pedro Almodovar film I ever got round to seeing. I can remember trailers for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown but I also remember renting Kika based on the insane amount of buzz created by the film and the links it forged between art house cinema and the fashion industry.

If you look back at the comments on my What Have I Done to Deserve This? piece, you’ll find me discussing the importance of Tartan’s Asia Extreme imprint in developing a new generational audience for art house and world cinema. Much like my other area of cultural interest — literary science fiction — art house film reached the 1990s in a state of acute cultural decline. The flea pit cinemas that once dotted London’s West End had been closed by waves of 1980s gentrification and Channel 4 had stopped filling their schedules with cheap foreign films. To this day, whenever someone talks about what it was like to be a cinephile in the 1960s and 70s, it’s a bit like reading a fantasy novel when one of the characters talks about the fall of some great and benign magical kingdom. What-once-was, is now lost and What-shall-be, is yet to come.

Nowadays, when people talk about the popularisation of transgressive images in 1990s popular culture, they use terms like ‘edgelord’ and portray the whole thing as a rather silly and immature experiment in cultural machismo. As someone who was there at the time, I won’t deny that a lot of what drew me to transgressive works was an adolescent and post-adolescent desire for extreme imagery. That aesthetic and those values were fucking everywhere at the time. However, while that aesthetic did create grimdark and usher in a load of problematic tropes that are only now being exiled from common usage, it also served as a really good way of introducing people to culture that they would otherwise never have sought out by themselves. Tartan’s Asia Extreme label may have been constructed to make the most of the J-Horror boom that followed the breakthrough success of Ringu but it did get me used to seeking out and watching obscure and sometimes difficult films.

I remember seeking out Kika because the trailer and marketing materials stressed its transgressive credentials. I also remember thinking that it was all rather light-weight as Almodovar invariably presents his darker ideas and themes in quite a light-hearted manner. Returning to Kika nearly twenty five years later, I can see why I struggled and why I arguably should have struggled more. My FilmJuice review can be found over here.

“The problem with postmodernism is that when the moral purpose of the deconstructive process is overlooked or downplayed (as in films like Natural Born Killers), the techniques of postmodernism result in little more than the commercial process of updating old ideas in an effort to sell them to contemporary audiences. Almodóvar’s films have always been postmodern in so far as they subvert and distort elements of mainstream Spanish culture but while earlier films like Dark Habits and What Have I Done to Deserve This? use their transgressive images to articulate profound emotional truths; Kika seems content to transgress for the sake of transgression meaning that the film’s imagery winds up feeling not just insubstantial but actively exploitative. Turns out that even the most fabulous dresses struggle to conceal the emptiness inside.”