Brooklyn (2015) – Welcome Home

Back in the studio era, Hollywood film production never really stopped. Studios invested money in sets and paid technicians, writers, directors, and actors a salary meaning that they were expected to be productive in order to recoup costs and turn a profit for studio bosses. While it may be tempting to look upon this era as an age in which films were mass-produced to a series of proscriptive genre templates, studios actually provided creatives with a surprising amount of creative leeway. In fact, one of the great joys of Golden Age Hollywood is spotting quite how many subversive ideas were smuggled out under the auspices of disposable star-vehicles.

One area where amazing work was done right under the noses of studio bosses was in films aimed primarily at a female audience. Commonly viewed as low-status and often treated as little more than a training ground for up-and-coming starlets, women’s films habitually raised vital questions about the nature of American society and the challenges facing ordinary women. Despite the Women’s Film genre being associated with the work of such luminaries as Douglas Sirk, Max Ophuls, and Josef von Sternberg, its output was frequently dismissed as either insubstantial fluff or disposable melodrama. Sadly, little has changed in this regard.

Last summer, Lionsgate films released a trailer for John Crowley’s Brooklyn, a film written by Nick Hornby and based upon a novel by Colm Toibin. Despite boasting some very significant talent, the film’s trailer made it look like an ugly heap of melodramatic clichés involving warm-hearted Irish people, home-sickness and true love. I remember seeing the trailer at a rural cinema and its saccharine tone prompting groans of disgust from the assembled audience. This, it transpires, was an absolutely stupid response on my part as while Brooklyn is undeniably a film about love, feelings, and a woman’s place in society, it approaches these topics with levels of grace, intelligence, and social awareness that are entirely consistent with some of the very best works in the Women’s Film genre. Brooklyn may be a film with tears in its eyes but its soul is molten steel.

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The Lobster (2015) – The Loneliness Games

As someone who loves and hates science fiction almost as much as he loves and hates art house film, I am uncharacteristically excited by the work of Yorgos Lanthimos. In fact, the only director who work intrigues me as much as that of Lanthimos is that of Athina Rachel Tsangari and she produced Lanthimos’ early works in return for his producing hers. Together, these Greek directors are in the process of creating something entirely new in European film and all I can really say is that it’s about damn time.

Lanthimos spent the 1990s directing adverts and music videos as well as working with experimental theatre troupes. Part of the team responsible for the Opening and Closing ceremonies of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, Lanthimos stepped up to directing features with a mainstream sex comedy that was never really seen outside of Greece. The change came in 2005 when Lanthimos directed an experimental film entitled Kinetta, which was nominated for an award at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival. Kinetta is not a great film and arguably not the best place to start when trying to get to grips with Lanthimos’ body of work but it does feature the same troubled relationship with reality as Lanthimos’ later films.

Set amidst the concrete tower blocks and sun-drenched parking lots of a holiday resort, the film revolves around a group of eccentrics who search for meaning by re-staging and filming the crimes of a local serial killer. Shot with a hand-held camera in a way that serves only to draw the audience’s attention to the artificiality of the film’s viewpoint, Kinetta creates a few memorable images only to lose them in a sea of puzzling characters, truncated narratives and a thematic package that never quite manages to find its own shape. Neither surreal enough to be allegorical nor sufficiently grounded to shed much light on questions of identity, the film seems to sit between a number of different and incompatible ontological registers.

It is easy to see why Dogtooth is the film that brought Lanthimos to a the attention of a global audience. Released at a time when the collapse of the Greek economy was just beginning, the film uses surrealistic imagery and science fictional themes to explore inter-generational conflict and the idea of Greece as a country where the young are held captive by the dreams and nightmares of their parents. Built around the conceit of a world-within-a-world that takes the power dynamics of childhood and projects them out onto a world whose political settlement had been revealed as a complete fantasy, Dogtooth solves Kinetta’s troubled relationship between fiction and reality by framing fantasy as something that can be both imposed and escaped.

Lanthimos’ follow-up film Alps took a different and considerably less successful approach to the tension between fiction and reality. Set in the real world, the film revolves around a group of misfits who rent themselves out to grieving families as a way of giving them a few extra days or weeks with the deceased. As in Kinetta, Lanthimos draws our attention to the arbitrariness of everyday life through the medium of bad acting. The group may be hired to play the deceased but their inability to either imitate the dead or deliver a line of dialogue with real sentiment drives home the idea that human lives are little more than collections of empty rituals. In fact, when one of the group begins adding to her role by fostering real relationships and making important decisions, her employers are outraged: This is not the daughter we were expecting! The reason that Alps does not work as well as Dogtooth is that rather than associating the film’s surreal imagery with a world-within-a-world, Lanthimos associates it with grief and the social transgressions born of heightened emotional states. The problem here is that while audiences can relate to the idea of childhood as a place where parents impose ridiculous ideas upon their children, the idea of people doing ridiculous and surreal things because they are upset seems somewhat unrealistic and lacking in satirical focus. Alps did not work because Lanthimos tried to resolve the tension between reality and fiction in purely psychological terms and, as in Kinetta, his surrealist methods tend to become less effective the closer his films get to conventional realism.

Lanthimos’ latest film The Lobster takes an entirely different approach to the troubled relationship between reality and fiction. Where Kinetta, Alps, and Dogtooth seemed to scurry back and forth along a spectrum that reaches from the realistic to the psychologically expressionistic, The Lobster does away with the real world in favour of a science-fictional conceit that might best be described as The Hunger Games for sexually-repressed single people.

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REVIEW – Silence (2012)

SilenceFilmJuice have my review of Pat Collins’ art house travelogue Silence. The plot (such as it is) revolves around a sound-recordist who is dumped by his German partner. Depressed and more than a little lost, the sound-recordist reacts to his personal tragedy by returning to the Donegal coast in Ireland in order to make recordings of places completely devoid of human presence. However, whilst engaging in this anti-social dalliance, the sound-recordist realises that the sound of silence might yield something more than an absence of arsehole humans… something deeper and more spiritual. As I explain in my review, Silence is essentially a cinematic reconstruction of the experience of watching an art house film. In an art house film, the director presents you with a collection of beautiful images and invites you to reflect upon the thoughts, feelings and memories these images bring forth. In the case of the sound-recordist, the sound of silence summons memories of a childhood spent in an isolated fishing village on a tiny island off the Irish coast. A little while ago, I wrote something about Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (apologies for the fucked-up formatting) in which I argued that the film was an attempt to use cinematic techniques to induce a sort of spiritual experience in the audience:

While there are many films that use evocative imagery to explore the belief that there is something out there that is bigger than ourselves, Stalker moves beyond the purely representative in order to fundamentally alter the relationship between film and audience. Yes… the hidden systems of the Zone neatly mirror the type of magical thinking that underpins most religions, and yes… the perversely benign Room serves as an elegant symbol for any spiritual end-point you care to name, but the film does not simply represent a spiritual experience, it actually compels the audience to have one by encouraging them to seek meaning in the film in much the same way as the Stalker seeks meaning in the Zone and the spiritual seek meaning in the world. This state of forced sympathy with a man who is either deeply disturbed or deeply religious pays off in an absolutely mesmerising final scene in which the Stalker’s daughter appears to move a glass with her mind as a train roars past in the background: Did the Zone actually exist or was it all a fantasy? Did the daughter move the glass or was it the train? Was the daughter gaining magical powers the Stalker’s reward for reaching the Room in the correct state of mind? Did the Stalker’s visits to the Zone alter the DNA he passed on to his daughter? Tarkovsky’s film is so rich and complex that these questions can be answered in any number of ways but which interpretation you happen to choose invariably comes down to a leap of faith no different to that of the Stalker or that of the spiritually minded.

Silence is clearly an attempt to reproduce this same trick by inviting the audience to identify with the sound-recordist and open themselves up to the possibility of a deeper silence. Unfortunately, Silence is let down by Collins’ failure to follow through and show us what this process of reflection and silent-listening might produce. In Stalker, we have the appearance of a dog and the possibility of the stalker’s daughter Monkey acquiring supernatural powers. In Silence we simply have the possibility that the entire thing might well have been a waste of time:

While Tarkovsky perfectly captures the combination of profound understanding and acute alienation that accompanies life-changing experiences, Collins is rather unclear on what it is that his protagonist actually finds at the end of his journey: Is it a sense of community? Is it the understanding that he should never have left his home? All we see is a wind-swept derelict.

It may seem a little unfair to unfavorably compare Silence to one of the greatest films of all time but I see the comparison as a compliment. Many directors reach for the art house tool kit and produce nothing more than a series of pretty images that signify nothing more than the compositional skill of the cinematographer. Silence is not an entirely successful film but it is an attempt to reconnect with an approach to filmmaking that has lain dormant for far too long. Great cinema should not merely entertain or move, it should transform and films like Stalker and Silence should be celebrated for pursuing that transformative potential, even if it is ultimately unsuccessful.