REVIEW — 3 Women (1977)

FilmJuice have my review of Robert Altman’s arthouse drama 3 Women. Set in a small desert town, the film tells of a teenage girl who arrives in town and attaches herself to a slightly older woman with a similar background. Initially, the teenage girl behave likes little more than an enraptured child, hanging on the older woman’s every word as she spins lies and revels in her narrow consumerist ideas about the good life. This relationship lasts until the young woman’s naivete and the older woman’s dishonesty run afoul each other resulting in one of them being hospitalise, at which point the film gets weird:

3 Women is divided into three increasingly-short sections that are topped and tailed by these beautifully composed surrealist interludes that linger in the mind and imbue the film with a distinctly dreamlike quality. When Milly and Pinky’s first relationship falls to pieces, a dream sequence triggers a re-ordering of their friendship and a transfer of personality traits: Once childlike and naïve, Pinky now emerges as manipulative and sexually confident while the deluded and selfish Milly is replaced by a more nurturing and principled figure who tries to look after Pinky only to wind up apologising for her failings until their unhealthy relationship intersects with another woman.

The elevator pitch for this film could easily be: A Feminist Lost Highway as the exchange of personality traits and the radical reworkings of reality are very similar to those deployed by Lynch. The film was evidently quite poorly reviewed at the time and Altman himself admitted that he wasn’t entirely clear what message he was trying to get across but I was reminded quite a lot of the work of Joanna Russ in so far as the film builds towards a future without men and many of the weirder shifts are triggered by a need to find a new way to co-exist with men who are either distracted and indifferent or crude stereotypical representations of a masculinity so toxic that it borders on the absurd.

I remembered Robert Altman chiefly from the grown-up satires he produced towards the end of his career, but while The Player, Short Cuts and Pret-a-Porter always struck me as very similar to Altman’s breakthrough film MASH, they did absolutely nothing to endear him to me. 3 Women has completely changed my opinion of Robert Altman and while I suspect that it’s probably not worth my while investigating the rest of his back catalogue in search of films like 3 Women, I do now wonder to what extent I was simply not ready for his sensibility.


REVIEW — The Turning (2013)

FilmJuice have my review of the Australian short film collection The Turning, based on Tim Winton’s short fiction collection of the same name.

Short films as undeniably a good thing: Their reduced run time means that they are not only cheaper to make, they’re also less thematically demanding in that it is easier to come up with an interesting idea that will sustain a ten minute short film than it is to come up with an idea that will support a 90-minute feature film. The fact that short films are considerably shorter than feature films also means that they are a lot cheaper to make and so ambitious filmmakers can experiment with short films in a way that they simply cannot do at feature lengths. The problem with short films is that they are incredibly difficult to sell… indeed, no stable market for short films exists outside of a Horror genre that has somehow managed to maintain its fondness for anthology formats. The Turning is an attempt to rekindle the market for art house short film by getting 18 different directors to make short films based on stories taken from an award-winning short fiction collection in which some of the stories share characters, themes and recurring motifs. As I point out in my review, the idea of using the motifs in a short fiction collection to bind together a set of short film does not really work as:

while Winton’s short stories connect using recurring characters, themes, and motifs, the production’s failure to create a sense of visual continuity means that almost none of the recurring motifs or re-used characters survive the transition from book to film. What this leaves is a series of short films that only inter-connect in so far as they often share a fascination with regret or alcoholism, and frankly those types of themes pop up so often in art house film that they seem accidental.

In fairness, I can see why the producers chose the path they did as making the connections in Winton’s fiction work on film would have required not only the imposition of particular actors for particular parts but also a shared visual palette that would have seriously hampered the vision of the individual directors. This reminded me quite a bit of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as creating a sense of visual continuity between the films has robbed individual directors not only of the power to cast for themselves but also to shape the look of their own films. In the case of the MCU, the need for visual continuity has resulted in films that look depressingly similar but, in the case of The Turning, the lack of visual continuity means that a curated collection of short films comes across as almost completely unconnected. Swings and roundabouts I guess…

Another thing that really struck home when watching The Turning was quite how male-gazey the films directed by men turned out to be compared to those directed by women. One of the recurring saws of this blog is that art house film has ossified around a set of visual shortcuts that contain sexist assumptions but seeing similar characters and themes tackled by both men and women really drives home the extent to which female directors are more willing to question those shortcuts than their male counterparts. Having said that, the single most objectifying film in the entire collection is directed by a woman so it’s evidently not just men who fail to unpack their own cinematic vocabularies.


REVIEW — The Grandmaster (2013)

FilmJuice have my review of Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster, an art house kung fu film based on the life of Bruce Lee’s trainer Ip Man.

I think I like the idea of kung fu films a lot more than I like actual kung fu films… In my early teens, I worked my way through much of Jackie Chan’s back catalogue but I have always struggled with films that did not recreate that particular style. Well… I say ‘style’ when what I actually mean is ‘competence level’ as being able to direct extended scenes of hand-to-hand combat requires a constellation of skills that surprisingly few directors manage to acquire. Every Frame A Painting has a truly excellent video about Chan’s directorial style but what has always drawn me to Chan’s direction are his clarity and his spatial awareness. Chan is first and foremost a performer and he directs in a way that emphasises the grace and skill of the performer rather than trying to compensate for it in post production as has become the norm in Hollywood where it is always much easier to add a bit of CGI or do a bit of extra editing than it is to keep re-shooting the scene in the hope of getting it just right. While action films are generally considered a lot less ‘worthy’ than the films I tend to write about on this blog, a good action director will have just as much skill, vision and sensitivity as the most celebrated Cannes winners. Hollywood may have created a generation of action directors whose logistical expertise outweighs their technical competence but that is a failing of the contemporary Hollywood machine… not the action genre.

I was intrigued to see The Grandmaster as Wong Kar-wai is undoubtedly one of the most highly skilled visual directors in world cinema. David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film dismisses Wong’s films as cold but this is the result of focusing on the actors rather than everything that Wong chooses to put on the screen. When I think of Wong Kar-wai’s films I think of characters whose muted emotional tones are radically and deliberately at odds with the colourful complexity of the worlds they inhabit. Wong’s foregrounds are always cold, still and immaculately controlled but his backgrounds are rich and almost overwhelmingly evocative. Somewhat unsurprisingly, this means that Wong is an absolute natural when it comes to shooting kung fu as his characters are the cold, controlled centre to a world that is filled with beauty and movement:

Like many of Wong Kar-Wai’s films, The Grandmaster sets up a tension between the stillness of the characters and the churning chaos of the world that surrounds them. Unable or unwilling to acknowledge their own feelings, Wong’s characters feel deliberately out of place as every set and every shot hints at the passions they keep chained up inside them. While the tension between Ip’s physical mastery and emotional backwardness is beautifully realised thanks to a cast and crew at the absolute peak of their respective games, you cannot help but feel a bit frustrated by the shallowness of Wong’s character study. Ip was a fascinating man who lived at a fascinating time and while action directors like Winston Yip and Herman Yau have been content to present the man as little more than a generic action hero, Wong breaks with this tradition only to strip his subject back to the equally simplistic lines of a generic romantic lead who struggles with feelings that would not overly bother a teenager.

In hindsight, this is almost certainly unfair to the romance genre as I suspect most characters in romance novels have a good deal more emotional complexity than Wong’s Ip and Gong. As I point out in the review, this cut of the film is significantly shorter than the version that was released in China and I suspect that much of the film’s connective tissue was left on the cutting room floor by Western distributors with one eye on the action market. This perhaps is the problematic legacy of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as you can also see it in the Western release of John Woo’s Red Cliff: The Chinese action genre is desperate to grow up and to use bigger budgets and action sequences to draw big audiences to weighty themes but the West has little time or interest in 3 hour action epics that contain 2 hours of mood-setting and characterisation. Not for the first time, our debased palette seems to have prevented us from sampling the dishes served by cultures that have not followed the same reductive cinematic path.

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.

REVIEW – The Portuguese Nun (2009)

FilmJuice have my review of Eugene Green’s art house drama The Portuguese Nun.

Set in the backstreets of Lisbon, The Portuguese Nun tells the story of a French actress who plays the part of a Portuguese nun in a historical drama. Left mostly to her own devices by a director who prefers shooting architecture to working with his actors, she aimlessly wanders the streets of Lisbon encountering a series of male archetypes who compel her to examine the person she has become. Hounded by self-doubt and self-loathing, the actress eventually finds redemption at the hands of a local nun who helps her to realise the similarities between her life and that of the character she plays in the film.

Beautifully shot and partly redeemed by a final confrontation that positively reeks of human desperation and beauty, The Portuguese Nun is a profoundly problematic film. The main problem is that while the film does contain some ideas and some elegant photography, these moments of beauty struggle to redeem a film that is ultimately nothing more than a boring homage to art films passed:

The first thing that strikes you about The Portuguese Nun is the eye-catching beauty of its cinematography and the purity of its visual composition. As with Jose Luis Guerin’s In The City of Sylvia and Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control, we spend so much time simply experiencing the city that its moods and textures come to form an integral part of the film itself. Indeed, The Portuguese Nun is probably best understood as an homage to the Portuguese director Pedro Costa whose films In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth attempt to capture the patina of life in a Portuguese city and reduce it down to some purified artistic essence. However, unlike Jarmusch and Guerin who use the interaction between their cities and their characters to tell a story and advance an idea, Costa and Green are quite content to treat their cities as ends in themselves resulting in excruciatingly boring but undeniably decorative cinematic experiences.

Though I absolutely adored both The Limits of Control and In The City of Sylvia, I genuinely struggle to see the point of the kind of films that are produced by the likes of Green and Costa. Beautiful photography and a steadfast refusal to indulge anything as proletarian as plot or characters are all very well but art house directors have been making variations on this particular theme for fifty fucking years! Frankly, there is only so many times that you can march your audience round a picturesque medieval city before people start questioning the artistic point of the excursion. When I reviewed Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth I argued that these types of films are a kind of shibboleth for cinephiles in that they are so profoundly and perversely uncommercial that they seem like nature’s remedy to the Transformers and Avatars of this world.  Unfortunately, beauty and truth do not triangulate and while the likes of Transformers are undeniably dumb as posts, it does not follow that truth and beauty will emerge simply by making the opposite decision to every choice made by Michael Bay. In order to justify lengthy run times in which nothing happens, directors must have a point to make or an argument to advance and it is increasingly clear to me that the likes of Green and Costa propose neither. Self-indulgent, pompous and not particularly intellectually engaging, these films are a toxic perversion of the techniques that go into true art house filmmaking. Frankly, I worry for a critical fraternity that struggles to see the very clear differences between smart films like In The City of Sylvia and ploddingly pretentious disasters like The Portuguese Nun.

La Moustache (2005) – L’Avventura Begins Again

When Michelangelo Antonioni premiered his film L’Avventura at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, it was met by a chorus of boos and cat-calls.  It is easy to see why – L’Avventura is nearly two and a half hours long and despite its backside-destroying length, it contains very little actual plot.  Instead of a narrative, Antonioni presents us with a series of frayed edges that he picks at in a rather half-hearted manner : A girl is in conflict with her father.  A girl disappears while exploring an island.  People attempt to organise search parties.  Couples bicker. Dramatic arcs are initiated but never resolved.  The film radiates a sense of lethargy and detachment echoed by that of its characters – Everything about it is seemingly laid-back, directionless, self-indulgent and spoiled.  Watching L’Avventura it is possible to picture Antonioni sitting in his director’s chair and sighing heavily before wearily dragging himself to his feet and issuing a few half-hearted and half-arsed instructions.  “I suppose we should get back to work” he says distractedly.  Of course, the exquisite shot composition, careful location selection, control of tone and fiercely intellectual engagement with the language of cinema itself make it abundantly clear that there is absolutely nothing half-arsed about L’Avventura.  Its refusal to be anything approaching dramatic is quite deliberate.  Its slow pace is quite intentional.  Its emphasis of tone and atmosphere over plot and characterisation quite carefully planned.  L’Avventura, along with Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961), managed to set the thematic and stylistic agenda for the emerging tradition of art house cinema.  It started a conversation that continues to this day.

In his editorial to the April 2010 issue of Sight & Sound Magazine, Nick James addresses this conversation by pointing out that it may have run out of steam.  Art House keeps returning to the same topics in the same manner and, as a result, the techniques pioneered by the likes of Resnais and Antonioni are starting to grate :

“Watching a film like the Berlin Golden Bear-winner Honey (”Bal” Semih Kaplanoglu, 2010) – a beautifully crafted work that, for me suffers from dwelling too much on the visual and aural qualities of its landscape and milieu – there are times, as you watch someone trudge up yet another woodland path, when you feel an implicit threat: admit you’re bored and you’re a philistine. Such films are passive-aggressive in that they demand great swathes of our precious time to achieve quite fleeting and slender aesthetic and political effects: sometimes it’s worth it, sometimes not. Slow Cinema has been the clear alternative to Hollywood for some time, but from now on, with Hollywood in trouble, I’ll be looking out for more active forms of rebellion.”

L’Avventura and Marienbad‘s rejection of the traditional language of film was not merely ground-breaking, it was culturally earth-shattering.  To this day, people think of art house cinema in terms of long takes and wordless shots of scenery designed to capture some fleeting emotional moment.  My girlfriend, for example, does not share my love of art house film, which she refers to as “Boring Films” as though they constituted some separate cinematic genre like a thriller or a horror film.  Which, of course, they absolutely do.

Another front of the battle waged against Hollywood by art house cinema is that fought by Michael Haneke.  As I pointed out in my review of The White Ribbon (2009) – Haneke’s career has been dominated by a deep ambivalence towards genre.  Haneke keeps making films that are ostensibly works of genre but every time he makes a genre film, he makes sure to deny us the kind of emotional closure that comes from conforming to familiar methods of genre story-telling.  He rewinds the tape when someone escapes in Funny Games and he never allows the mystery to even resemble anything that might make sense in Hidden.  If L’Avventura rejects many of the forms and methods of traditional cinematic story-telling, then Haneke’s films satirise and attack those very same forms.

However, as James’ editorial suggests, it is 50 years since art house cinema began to wage its war against the norms of Hollywood.  Hundreds and hundreds of films have been made in the mould cast by Antonioni.  Is the language of  art house cinema still dangerous or is it just another ossified set of genre conventions in desperate need of deconstruction?  The fact that films as empty as Carlos Raygadas’ Silent Light (2007) can compete at Cannes suggest that rebellion must take a different form and find a new angle of attack.  As my reviews of the films of the Cannes-winning Apichatpong Weerasethakul have suggested, I think that his recombination of genre tropes, art house techniques, mystical sensibilities and visual art aesthetics may prove fruitful going forward… but the battle needs a similar kind of second front as that provided by Haneke.  Enter the cruelly overlooked French drama La Moustache by Emmanuel Carrere, based on his novel of the same name.  It is a film that takes aim at many of the conventions of art house cinema and the crudely psychological register that so many of those films operate in.

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