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.

 

 

Grey Gardens (1975) – Hell is a Collection of Dead Raccoons

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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California Trilogy (2011) – Being Forever on Alert

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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REVIEW — Tangerine (2015)

FilmJuice have my review of Sean S. Baker’s endlessly superb Tangerine.

Released at last year’s Sundance film festival, Tangerine is an intensely human and intensely beautiful drama about an African American trans woman sex worker who gets out of jail only to discover that her long-term pimp-slash-boyfriend has been hooking up with another woman. Shocked, saddened, and enraged by the fact that her boyfriend’s new squeeze is rumoured to be cisgender, the film’s protagonist rampages around North Hollywood in search of answers and vengeance.

As I explain in my review, Tangerine is a technical triumph in so far as it was made entirely with tools that are within the reach of amateur filmmakers. This means no expensive post-production processes, no experimental HD digital cameras, just a couple of old mobile phones and a lot of vision. However, aside from being a technical triumph, Tangerine is also a film about the emotional lives of trans women and so speaks to the humanity of a group that are frequently misunderstood, slandered, and oppressed even by people who would normally consider themselves progressive.

 

Aside from being a moving and insightful character study of both Sin-Dee and Alexandra, Tangerine also goes out of its way to comment on broader issues of gender and sexuality. For example, there’s a lovely scene quite early on when an elderly Native American complains to a taxi driver about his mother’s decision to name him Mia as while the name means ‘red bird’ in Cherokee, it just sounds like a woman’s name to Anglo-Saxon ears. The old man then goes on to joke that his mother might as well have looked out the window and named him after some animal droppings, such is the hardship of growing up with a name that does not fit your chosen gender. Now, imagine if your problems regarding gender extended beyond your name to your entire body. Imagine if your every effort to make your physical body and personality a better fit with your gender provoked more pain and more abuse. Imagine both of those things and you may be part of the way towards understanding what it means to be either Sin-Dee or Alexandra.

 

At time of writing the state of North Carolina has just passed a new law making it a lot easier to discriminate against LGBT people and the thin end of the wedge was the idea that protecting a trans person’s right to use the toilet of their preferred gender would somehow make it easier for rapists to gain access to women’s toilets and locker rooms.

Aside from being little more than a right-wing myth with no basis whatsoever in reality, the mere framing of this argument shows the extent to which supposedly enlightened lawmakers are willing to speak of the transgender community in the same breath as they speak of criminals and deviants.

Thankfully, the constitutional basis for these new laws is already being called into question and hopefully they will not be in place for long. However, the fact that people in this day and age could support such laws and present such arguments speaks to both the importance and the timeliness of Tangerine. This is a beautiful film and it is more than deserving of your attention.

Ghost Story (1981) – I Spit on Your Town

It is easy to see why people might hate this film. After all, it is not and could never be a book by Peter Straub.

The origin story behind Straub’s novel has been extensively documented: Straub has repeatedly stated that Ghost Story was inspired by Stephen King’s early vampire novel Salem’s Lot, a tip of the hat that was later acknowledged by King in his non-fiction collection Danse Macabre where Ghost Story was written up as one of the most influential and structurally effective novels in 20th Century horror. This much we know.

For my part, Straub’s acknowledgement came as something of a surprise as Straub’s approach to fiction has always struck me as quite different to the plodding accessibility of King’s Victorian realism in which the world is just as real and fixed as the characters uncovering it. In Straub’s books, the boundary between world and character is far more mutable, its nuances coaxed into existence by structural complexities and stylistic flourishes designed to keep readers off-balance until a trap is sprung and a particular impression is lodged deep inside the reader’s vulnerable skull. Cocteau famously said that style was a way of saying very complicated things in a very simple manner and Straub is an author who is mostly in the business of using style to coax his readers into receiving certain — often wordless — impressions.

Had Ghost Story been written by Stephen King then one might have described it as the story of a group of old men who are being haunted. As the story unfolds, the men are revealed as having shared a disastrous encounter with a single woman. This encounter not only fills them with guilt, it also seems to account for a litany of emotional crises that have defined their adult lives. Assuming that both world and characters are fixed and real entities, Ghost Story is all about a haunting the grows with the passage of time, consuming not only the lives of the guilty but also the town in which they live. This is the story that John Irvin tried and failed to adapt but the result was a cinematic Ghost Story that is a lot closer to that of Peter Straub than that of Stephen King.

 

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