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 – Winter of Discontent (2012)

Winter of DiscontentFilmJuice have my review of Ibrahim El Batout’s film about the Egyptian revolution Winter of Discontent.

Made in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 overthrow of Mubarak regime, Winter of Discontent follows a group of Egyptians as revolution changes their relationship with their government. Thus, one of the strands follows a TV presenter on a government network who is effectively forced out of her job for daring to ask awkward questions of politicians. Initially, this makes her incredibly fearful for her life but as events in Tahrir square unfold, we see her becoming increasingly bold and defiant before eventually switching sides and using Youtube to denounce the corrupt government. This story is beautifully juxtaposed with that of a secret policeman who moves from a position of absolute certainty in which he feels free to threaten and torture respectable citizens to a position where he owes his family’s safety to the forgiving nature of brutes with sticks.

Let me be clear, despite its shortcomings, I very much enjoyed Winter of Discontent and part of what made the film enjoyable was the fact that it was an incredibly middle-class film made by middle-class Egyptians about their experience of political upheaval. According to the filmmakers, this was a decidedly quiet revolution and that is something of a cinematic rarity:

Sergei Eisenstein’s immortal Battleship Potemkin begins with sailors eating maggoty food and ends with many of those exact same sailors cheering the revolution as their fellows decide to join them in open revolt against the Tsarist regime. Ken Loach’s magnificent ode to the Spanish Civil War Land and Freedom contains oodles of dead fascists and Spanish peasants finally getting a say in how to work their own fields but it ends with the granddaughter of a dead veteran giving a sad but defiant raised fist salute. These cinematic accounts of real-world revolutions may be brilliant, maudlin, triumphalist and manipulative but one thing they are not is quiet. By this measure alone, Ibrahim El Batout’s Winter of Discontent is something entirely unique: a quiet film about revolution.

Watching this film made me reflect on Western attitudes to revolution as I feel most people’s aversion to the idea of overthrowing their government stems from the fact that they are afraid of what might happen to them. This fear is perfectly captured in Marjane Sattrapi and Vincent’s Paronnaud’s Persepolis where a liberal middle-class family wind up being judged and mistreated by uneducated working class people who have been placed in positions of authority by the new regime. One of the fascinating things about Winter of Discontent is that it is entirely free from this sort of class-bound paranoia… the characters sense that something is wrong and face down brutal oppression in order to speak out but while one of the characters is a bit mistrustful of his uneducated upstairs neighbours, his feelings of solidarity quickly overwhelm any misgivings he might have had about the great unwashed. A more romantic and — dare I say it? — politically engaged director might have made a good deal more of that moment of solidarity but El Batout handles it with a quiet restraint that is actually quite refreshing.

REVIEW – Diaz: Don’t Clean Up This Blood (2012)

diaz-2012FilmJuice have my review of Daniele Vicari’s topical ensemble drama Diaz: Don’t Clean Up This Blood.

Set during the 2001 G8 protests in the Italian city of Genoa, the film tells the real-life story of one of the most outrageous abuses of police power in European history. The action focuses upon a pair of buildings that served as both a media center and a dormitory for people who happened to be in Genoa during the protests. Believing the buildings to be full of black bloc anarchists, the Italian police stormed in, beat everyone to a pulp and then dragged a number of people away to jail where they were humiliated, assaulted and tortured by not just police but also police doctors.

The structure of this film is faintly reminiscent of such ensemble dramas as Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion and Fernando Meirelles’ 360 (Which I recently reviewed for Videovista). However, while these Hollywood productions are very similar to anthology pictures in so far as they are collections of more-or-less self-contained narratives, Diaz: Don’t Clean Up This Blood departs from this model by using the different strands of the the narrative to explore the same event from different perspectives. Rather than resorting to anything as clunking as a time-stamp, Vicari allows history to unfold up to a single moment — someone throwing a bottle — and signals our return to the past by having the bottle re-assemble itself and return to the hand of the person who threw it. Aside from being incredibly elegant, this narrative technique works brilliantly in context as it allows Vicari to explore the extent to which the shared spaces of the protest mean different things to different people: For an elderly man trapped in Genoa overnight, the buildings are a safe place to sleep. For the journalists covering the protests, they are somewhere to file copy and conduct interviews. For the Black Bloc, they are a place to hide and draw up plans. This plurality of experience and perception is both brilliantly handled and intensely refreshing in a medium that all too often either avoids ambiguity like the plague or confuses it with evasiveness. Diaz Don’t Clean Up This Blood is a wonderfully ambiguous film because it presents you with several incompatible and yet entirely consistent viewpoints on the same series of events. Then the ambiguity goes away:

The final third of the film is spent exploring the mistreatment and torture meted out to the victims of the raid by police and police doctors and it is here that the film ultimately stumbles. The problem is that, while the bulk of the film is intensely humanistic and diverse in its exploration of different perspectives on the same events, Vicari’s coverage of the aftermath of the raid abandons nuance in favour of stark moralism: These are not the over-emotional and ill-informed police officers of the opening scene, these are cold and calculating psychopaths who humiliate and torture people because they know that they can do so with complete impunity. While there is no reason to doubt the brutality of the Italian police or the veracity of their victims’ claims, it is jarring when a film about understanding suddenly transforms into a film about condemnation.

One of the interesting things about Diaz that I did not have space to touch on in my review is the fact that while Vicari feels quite comfortable portraying the police as psychopathic Nazis, he is almost flawlessly even-handed when it comes to portraying the actions of the Black Bloc. In Diaz, the Black Bloc are a bunch of kids from all over Europe who descend on protest areas, stir shit up and then promptly retreat before the inevitable government response. Indeed, while the Black Bloc did indeed use the buildings that the police raid, Vicari goes out of his way to show them hiding in a nearby cafe while innocent by-standers get beaten to a pulp.

Why are we allowed to sympathise with the Black Bloc’s cowardice but not with the anger of the police?

One to this question is that while the Black Bloc’s actions contain enough moral ambiguity for there to be differences of opinion about them, nobody in their right mind would consider it acceptable for a police doctor to sexually assault a left-wing activist while the police singing fascist battle anthems. Indeed, one of the problems with liberalism and tolerance is that it’s very difficult to make any kind of moral judgement once you allow for the fact that all humans are fallible products of their environment and most people do what they do because they think it’s the right thing at the time. Diaz is an intensely humane and liberal film and yet its problematic final act shows that there must be limits to even the most pluralistic and tolerant of personal philosophies. I’m not convinced that Vicari handles the movement between ambiguity and certainty all that well but it is nice to see a film that attempts to address those types of moral problems.

Like Worms in the Belly of Some Great Beast: Family Values and Crusader Kings II

0.  Video Games as Purveyors of Moral Outrage

There are two main ways in which a work can provoke a moral reaction:

The first is by using the power of narrative to encourage feelings of sympathy for a particular moral view. This didactic form of narrative usually signals its presence through a system of winks and nods designed to make a particular worldview seem far more comfortable and welcoming. For example. Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is filled with nostalgic yearning for nobility in an age of encroaching egalitarianism. Waugh’s approval of the past and rejection of the present is evident in the fact that everyone in the past seems to eat, drink, dress and speak far better than anyone in the present.

The second is to embody a set of values so profoundly ugly that audiences feel compelled to react not only against the morality of the work itself but also against real world manifestations of that same more system. For example, Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel features a group of upper class people who attend a dinner party but find it impossible to leave. As the days go by and people begin to starve and die out of what is effectively politeness and fear of being the first person to leave a party, the audience cannot help but react against not only the absurd characters but also the bourgeois morality they so closely cling to.

Video games tend not to be particularly good at presenting arguments or advancing moral perspectives but they are very good indeed at prompting a moral reaction. Indeed, because virtual worlds must be created entirely from scratch, the beliefs and assumptions of the people who develop those worlds are frequently all too obvious. This phenomenon is being extensively catalogued in a thoroughly excellent on-going series of videos by Anita Sakeesian:

Though often entirely unintentional, the moral reactions provoked by these sorts of games are often incredibly enlightening. Indeed, many of America’s racist and warmongering attitudes towards China, Russia and the Middle East seemed half rational until a series of First-Person Shooters attempted to mine that particular set of popular fears and produced what was effectively a series of interactive neoconservative rants. Similarly, few head-on critiques of the culture surrounding rap music are as effective as the Saints Row series’ decision to slowly transform its gangland protagonists from a group of scrappy up-and-coming underworld entrepreneurs to the soda-shilling heads of a vast merchandising empire.

A couple of years ago, I experienced a similar moral reaction after deciding to play Civilization V and Europa Universalis III back-to-back. What I realised was that the reason liberal people behave like psychopaths when playing 4X strategy games is that those games emulate what it is like to see the world through the eyes of the state. Another moral reaction occurred while playing Paradox Interactive’s latest strategy game Crusader Kings II.

Much like Europa Universalis III, Crusader Kings II can be interpreted as a critique of a social institution in that it exposes not only the moral failings of that institution but also of the players who take control of the institution in the context of the game. However, while the Europa Universalis series demonstrates our willingness to surrender our principles for the sake of bureaucratic expediency, Crusader Kings II targets an institution that is much closer to home: The family.

In this essay I shall discuss not only what Crusader Kings II teaches us about what it means to be part of a family, I shall also consider why even the most wretched of families mean so much to us. In order to explore what the game tells us about family life, I must first discuss what it means to see the world through the eyes of an institution.

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REVIEW – Le Silence de la Mer (1949)

FilmJuice have my review of Jean-Pierre Melville’s first film Le Silence de la Mer.

Given that Melville is best known for such noir crime thrillers as Bob Le Flambeur (1955) and Le Samurai (1967), it is surprising to discover that his first film is neither a thriller nor an homage to the noir classics of Hollywood’s golden age. In fact, Le Silence de la Mer is an adaptation of a novel written by a member of the French resistance. Densely atmospheric and pointedly stripped of all extraneous dialogue, the film tells the story of the relationship between a pair of French people and the Nazi officer they are ordered to provide with lodgings. Every evening, the Nazi officer comes home and trots out a few pleasantries that the French people pointedly ignore. As the months go by, the officer’s love of France and desire to talk bubbles over into a series of impassioned speeches about his hope for the future of Franco-German relations. Aside from being beautifully composed and wonderfully still, Le Silence de la Mer is also wonderfully ‘of its time’ thematically speaking:

Aside from its technical brilliance, Le Silence de la Mer also offers a fascinating snapshot of a French intellectual class that was still trying to come to terms with the implications of widespread collaboration. Indeed, between the officer’s status as a ‘Good German’ and his lengthy speeches on the greatness of French culture, it is easy to read this film as an ode to the majesty of France (the film is based on a novel written by a member of the resistance) but look beyond the foreground and you find a morally ambiguous world full of silently complicity French people, bars closed to Jews and a Nazi delivering what was effectively the Petainist line that France would become greater through collaboration. While Le Silence de la Mer may lack the slow-burning outrage of Melville’s more famous indictment of French collaboration L’Armee des Ombres (1969) this is still a heroically ambiguous film from a time when France was desperate to escape all suggestion of moral ambiguity.

As someone who owns the Mieville DVD box set, I was somewhat taken aback by how different this film feels to many of his better-known works. Indeed, contained in this still and ambiguous early film are the blueprints for an entirely different cinematic career… what if Melville had not become a maker of thrillers but a more traditionally art house experimentalist? This is a film that captures the attractions of just such a possibility.

Why Hollywood Blames the HR Department for 9/11

1. Langley, we have a problem…

Last week I went to see Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Brad Bird’s well-received addition to the decidedly uneven Mission Impossible franchise. While my opinion of the film is that it is really nothing more than a competently made action film, the film’s central plot conceit is absolutely fascinating for what it says about how we perceive the workings of government.  Take a look at the trailer and you will see what I mean.

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It’s (Probably) Okay Not To Have Any Ambition

0.    Oh Shit

I recently wrote about the difficulties I have relating to groups. As a not particularly well-socialised human being who spends an inordinate amount of time in his head, I frequently see groups of humans as more trouble than they are worth. Yes, I could seek their approval and Yes, I could throw myself into one of their cultural institutions but my general feeling is that most attempts at collaboration are doomed to end in frustration and alienation. As I said, I do not relate well to groups.

One of the symptoms of my frustration with groups is an extreme sensitivity and antipathy to people who are obviously trying to “get on”. I rage at self-publicists and bristle at any attempt to win me over, coerce me or play me. This is one reason why I abhor the performative aspect of Internet life. I groan at the moral outrage of Twitter as I know that its hysteric nature has less to do with genuine expressions of anger and sorrow than it does with broadcasting the fact that you are the type of person who gets really annoyed about this type of thing. Similarly, people engaged in attempts at climbing the greasy poll immediately repulse me. I hate dishonest reviewers who swamp Google search results with jottings designed to secure them more review copies and more invitations to parties and I am horrified by the people who turn their coats and trade in careers as commentators for careers in the industry on which they are commenting. I hate all of these things because I am obsessed with the need to be authentic and I prize nothing above honesty with both oneself and the world around us. Of course, the problem with this attitude is that it is complete and utter bullshit.

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