Before they are made flesh and born into this world, works of art exist as clouds of pure possibility. Every work is born of ideas and the creative process requires artists to make those ideas material through a combination of different elements including plot, character, style, and theme. While certain ideas bond more naturally with certain elements and certain combinations of elements prove more or less popular at certain times, it is the artist who sits at the creative mixing desk and shapes how their idea will move from possibility to actuality.
Humans may be flawed and finite creatures but commerce assumes us to be more broken than we are. One side effect of this great conspiracy of under-estimation is that the marketplace tends to interpret our natural desire for different stories as a desire for different sets of mixes. Thus, mainstream realist literature encourages us to yearn for stories that can only be told with the character slider all the way up while Hollywood encourages us to watch films that require a focus on plot and a narrow explosive-laden visual style. Even art house film falls into this trap by emphasising a certain set of stylistic tics and then giving us more or less character and theme. There may be sound economic and historical reasons for this elemental fetishism but it does tend to encourage the assumption that trade-offs between the different elements represent some sort of zero-sum game. Why else remain wedded to such absurd superstitions as the belief that style can be severed from content or that thematically complex works cannot be stylish, exciting and full of humanity?
The truth is that the basic elements of artistic composition relate to each other in ways that are almost completely unpredictable. Some films – like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker – feature no characters, follow no plot, manifest no interest in the world and yet somehow manage to work on every conceivable level. Other works – like The Force Awakens –feature lots of plot, lots of character, a limitless budget for the provision of visual spectacle, a real desire to use mythological tropes to say something profound about human relationships, and yet somehow manage to be boring, empty, and utterly disposable. One film that demonstrates how emphasising certain elements can have unexpected consequences is the (recently re-mastered and re-issued) cult documentary Grey Gardens.
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I like to think of criticism as the art of reaction. The most common form of criticism is the review, a format that limits the critic’s powers to remaining in synch with their audience and explaining whether or not a film or book is likely to prove pleasing to said audience. Another common format is the academic article in which the critic’s powers are limited to discussing a particular work of art in terms of a finite body of theoretical literature.
While these may be the most recognised forms of criticism, critics can articulate their reactions in terms broader than either audience expectation or academic dialogue. At the root, criticism is all about voicing one’s reaction to a particular work of art and explaining the connections that were forged between the work you saw and the memories you have. Little wonder that popular criticism is starting to feature more autobiographical elements: What connection could possibly be more primal than the moment in which a work of art tells you something about yourself?
As someone who has produced a lot of criticism over the years, I find myself drawn to works of art that give me more room to elaborate my own reactions. Some works are well-curated and well-structured articulations of particular ideas that will speak directly to my favoured concerns but others are more elusive and so demand considerably more of me as a critic: The less obvious the connection, the more satisfying its articulation.
James Benning is a filmmaker I had not been aware of until Ian Sales recommended him to me. Born in 1942 and originally trained as a mathematician, Benning returned to university in his 30s before landing a job teaching film. While Benning’s work has been turning heads since at least the 1970s, he appears to have supported himself primarily through teaching and so has been quite adamant in his refusal to chase funding by doing what the film industry expects of its professional filmmakers. Until recently, Benning’s refusal to compromise even extended as far as a flat refusal to allow his films to be seen outside of proper cinemas. In fact, the only reason he stopped working with 16mm film is that the film stock was no longer being manufactured. In a 2012 essay explaining the decision to allow his films to appear on DVD, Benning said:
I’m getting older. It’s easier to give in.
In other words, Benning is a director who is extremely (some might say excessively) reluctant to accommodate his audience. This much was evident from the formal characteristics of the films themselves.
California Trilogy comprises three films about the state of California. The films are all just under ninety minutes long and are all made up of thirty five shots that are all two and a half minutes long. The camera never moves and – according to Benning – none of the shots were staged… Benning simply set up his camera, recorded chunks of Californian space-time, and stitched them together to produce three beautiful and enigmatic works of cinematic art.
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Back in 2013, the Danish-based filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer stunned the world with The Act of Killing, a documentary about Indonesia’s blood-soaked past and how political institutions had conspired to turn murderous gangsters into national heroes.
Whereas most serious-minded documentarians approach difficult subject matter through the performance of journalistic objectivity, Oppenheimer’s film about mass-murder took its stylistic cues from the people who did the killings. Secure in the knowledge that they continued to enjoy the support and gratitude of Indonesian political elites, the killers chose to celebrate their past using a combination of surreal dream-sequences and colourful dance routines resulting in a documentary that looked and felt like a beautiful fever dream.
According to Oppenheimer, his intention was always to make two films about the anti-communist purges and how contemporary Indonesia manages to function with a million deaths on its collective conscience. The Act of Killing is a film about the transformation of gangsters into heroes, its brash visual style a reflection of its subjects’ surreal arrogance. The Look of Silence, on the other hand, is a devastatingly quiet film filled with awkward silences, which is precisely what you would expect from a film inspired by people who have spent decades trying to keep their feelings under control.
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I grew up within gobbing distance of the Kings Road and can still remember teenaged punks charging tourists for photos and shitting in doorways opposite what is now an enormous McDonalds. I remember when postcards of London still featured punks and I remember when rising property prices finally rid Chelsea of its art school pretensions and replaced them with the cosmopolitan brutality of a first class airport lounge. I remember the aftermath of the British punk scene but I was too young to appreciate it… all I have to go on is what history has taught me.
Anyone who grew up in Britain during the 1990s will be familiar with the broad narrative beats of British punk history as laid down by the Sex Pistol–Media–Industrial-Complex: From the poorly attended gig at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall to their expletive-laden appearance on the Bill Grundy Show and on to mocking the Queen’s silver jubilee from the top of a chartered boat. We are familiar with these narratives because they are the origin stories of people who would later become very popular and very successful. The truth about the British punk scene might have endured the deliberate revisionism of Julien Temple’s The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle but it was never going to survive Alan fucking Partridge:
Narratives are easy to steal, history is easy to re-write and the truth will always be closer to the unformed opinions of people who were there than the polished anecdotes of those exact same people twenty years down the line. The truth about British punk may lie buried in interviews and half-forgotten fanzines but part of the truth about one corner of the LA music scene recently returned to DVD in the form of a swanky box set.
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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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Kim Longinotto and Florence Ayisi’s documentary Sisters in Law is best understood in terms of its relationship with Longinotto’s earlier films Divorce Iranian Style and Runaway. Divorce Iranian Style put Longinotto’s camera into an Iranian family court where Women tried to use their country’s sexist legal infrastructure to protect them from their abusive and manipulative husbands. Eye-opening in its depiction of Iranian female agency and moving in its uncompromising commitment to women’s stories, Divorce Italian Style is a powerful film made even more powerful by Runaway, a film about what happens when the system fails and women are forced to flee their family homes. Formally very similar to Divorce Iranian Style, Sisters in Law finds the British documentarian Kim Longinotto filming various legal proceedings in the Cameroonian town of Kumba where it has been seventeen long years since the last conviction for spousal abuse.
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Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini’s documentary Runaway is best viewed as a companion piece to their 1998 collaboration Divorce Iranian Style. Fusing the intense humanism of cinéma vérité with the analytical powers of feminist anthropology, Divorce Iranian Style is a fundamentally optimistic film about a group of women who use the unfair and oppressive structures of Iranian divorce law to improve their lives. I call Runaway a ‘companion piece’ to Divorce Iranian Style as while the earlier film is all about working inside the system to improve your lot, Runaway is all about what happens when the system fails and women are forced to flee for the sake of their own security.
Like all of Kim Longinotto’s work, Runaway provides a fascinating and genuinely moving portrait of a group of women who are trying to protect themselves from the failings of their society. In this case, the failing that women are forced to contend with is a vision of gendered sexuality that is as old as the hills and twice as tricky to erode.
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