REVIEW – Amour (2012)

amour-2FilmJuice have my review of Michael Haneke’s Palme D’Or and Oscar-winning drama Amour.

Set almost entirely within the walls of a well-appointed Parisian apartment, Amour tells the story of a retired couple named Anne and Georges who are forced to adapt to entirely new ways of being and relating when one of the couple suffers a massive stroke. Unlike many of Haneke’s films, which present themselves as being of a certain genre only to then deconstruct the genre and mock audiences for wanting generic plot resolutions, Amour is a film that is almost entirely free of postmodern cleverness. In fact, the only thing distinguishing Amour from an old-fashioned weepy is its thematic content. This thematic content sat very close to my personal metal as I spent a number of years as my mother’s primary carer and so immediately identified with the changes taking place in Georges’ character:

Much of the film’s drama and tension comes from Georges’ troubled attempts to reinvent himself and his relationships in a way that protects both Anne’s dignity and his own humanity. Sometimes the negative emotions prompt Georges to over-react to relatively minor problems because it is much easier to fire and humiliate a nurse than it is to deal with the feeling that your life is now nothing more than medication, nappy changes and the grim inevitability of death. As Anne’s condition continues to deteriorate, we see Georges attempting to cling to any island of psychological stability he can find. For example, when the couple’s children turn up and express concern over Anne’s condition, Georges seems cold and inflexible to the point of outright insanity but in truth this attitude is entirely self-protective. As Georges points out, the tears and concerns of his children are of no practical use to him because, at the end of the say, he is the one who will be left alone to care for Anne. Better that the children keep their mouths shut than for them to offer the type of false hope that would make it so much harder for Georges to go back to his life as a solitary carer. It is in Georges’ interactions with these islands of stability that we see Haneke’s vision imposing itself upon what would otherwise be quite a traditional weepy.

Usually, one finds oneself praising Haneke for his savagery and visual brilliance but Amour is a surprisingly humane and visually simplistic film. At times, the only difference between this and a TV movie is the lack of melodramatic scoring and even this is present if you allow for the fact that the film continues Haneke’s obsession with the emotional lives of neurotic pianists. Rather than praising Haneke for his ability to be Haneke, I find myself praising him for his compassion and attention to detail as many of the details of this film could have been lifted directly from my own life.

BG45 – Demon’s Souls and the Meaning and Import of Virtual Death

Futurismic have my forty-fifth Blasphemous Geometries column about From Software’s Demon’s Souls and its place in the history of video game attitudes towards death.

Following on from some of my thoughts on Deus Ex: Human Revolutions, the column argues that rather than trying to downplay virtual death by re-packaging it as with Assassin’s Creed and Prince of Persia‘s talk of death-as-flawed-memory, video game designers ought to follow From Software in embracing the cataclysmic number of deaths that feature in their games. Indeed, what makes Demon’s Souls such a fascinating game is its relentless downbeat tone and its recognition of the fact that characters will die and players will give up in disgust. Clearly, if Demon’s Souls had been a film, it would have been directed by Ingmar Bergman. The column also draws the reader’s attention to Algis Budrys’ Rogue Moon, a book all about the psychological impact of experiencing a futile death over and over again…

Nowhere is the need for unpleasantness greater than in video gaming’s attitude to death.  What was once a means of rationing the time people spent hogging a particular arcade machine has now ossified into a set of linguistic tics that are now completely disconnected from both their real-world and in-game significances. Video games ask us to die over and over again but rather than acknowledging this fact, many game designers seek to minimise the impact of these sacrifices by explaining them away as lapses in memory. By trivialising death, game designers have not only cheapened the lives of our characters, they have also deprived themselves of one of the most powerful thematic motifs in all of art and literature.

Games like Demon’s Souls recognise that they are dealing in death and this recognition is genuinely disconcerting. Like death itself, Demon’s Souls is utterly indifferent to both our presence in the game and our attempts at engaging with it. Demon’s Souls is a game of misery tempered by frustration, and its unapologetic recognition of this fact is what makes it both different and great. While I appreciate Walker’s point, I cannot help but feel that he is looking at the problem in entirely the wrong way: Let us not repackage death, but rather celebrate it as the core of the video game experience.

Having spent a good deal of time playing carefully-packaged AAA-rated titles for this column, one of the continuing joys of Demon’s Souls remains its complete indifference to my presence.  Forty hours in and I’m still not completely clear on how many basic aspects of the game actually work. One of the game’s major mechanics involves shifting between different forms and you begin to pick up magical items helping with that transition a long time before you actually realise what it means. Similarly, it took me about 20 hours to realise that the game had a magic system. In a video game culture full of shallow joys and craven player-pandering, there is something truly wonderful in From Software’s complete indifference to whether or not we ever get the hang of the game.

Final Destination 5 (2011) – The Last Laugh is On Us

The literary critic Paul Bleton argues that the difference between genre and non-genre pieces is that genre pieces have a structure resembling that of a string of pearls.  What Bleton means is that genre (whether erotic, sensational or criminal) is all about big dramatic set pieces.  These dazzling moments of spectacle attract the eyes, stimulate the brain and distract you from the fact that the plots and characters they involve frequently serve no purpose other than to tie the set-pieces together into something broadly resembling a story.

Interesting though it may be, Bleton’s conception of genre is now seriously out of date.  Firstly, a generation of writers and directors with interests in character and subtext have worked at reclaiming genre devices so as to blur the distinction between pearl and string.  Secondly, a generation of directors including Michael Bay (Transformers), Gore Verbinsky (Pirates of the Caribbean), and Mark Neveldene and Brian Taylor (Crank) have stripped away the fig leaf of plot and character to produce films that are nothing more than series of set-pieces held together by implication and the fact that they are packaged and sold as a single artistic unit.

With the difference between genre and non-genre under continuous assault on multiple sides, there is something pure and elegant in a film that is unapologetic in its string of pearls-like structure.  The Final Destination series has never been anything other than a series of lavish set-pieces held together by weak plots and terrible characters but in that terrible predictability lies real profundity.

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Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit… Stripp’d

Gestalt Mash have my column on Matoro Mase’s manga serial Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit.

My column draws on the first six volumes of what will be an eight volume run if Viz Media do actually translate the entire series.  Set in an alternate version of contemporary Japan, the series is about a society that has decided to force its population to make the most of life by killing one citizen in every thousand at random.  The series examines this ideas from two different perspectives; on the one hand, it examines the psychological impact of the death sentences on the victims and their families while, on the other hand, exploring what the effects of this policy are on the Japanese body politic.  The result is a series of graphic novels that paint exquisitely detailed pictures of human grief and suffering whilst also slowly creating the impression that such a society is monstrous and must be overthrown:

Death has the power not just to end lives, but also to change them. It can change them for the better by prompting people to make changes, and it can change things for the worse by fostering a crippling sense of futility and loss. Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit is an exploration of the tension between these two reactions to the revelation that we too shall someday be no more.

The series has also spawned a film adaptation, which I also wrote about a little while ago for Videovista.

La Gueule Ouverte (1974) – Part of the Furniture

One of the things that is most fascinating about Pialat as a director is that though completely devoid of sentimentality, his work also shows a perpetual awareness of the temptations that it offers.  This lack of sentimentality applies abstractly to broad topics such as childhood but also, more concretely, to his own life.  It is said that The Mouth Agape is one of Pialat’s most ‘autobiographical’ works but this is not a particularly useful distinction to make with regards to Pialat’s work as so many of his films – including Nous Ne Vieillirons Pas Ensemble (1972) and Loulou (1980) – are effectively just dramatisations of real events from his own life.  A better way of thinking about La Gueule Ouverte is that it is one of his more intrusive works.  It shines a light into places where we would rather not look.  An unflattering and unsentimental light right onto the death of Pialat’s mother and the lives of both himself and his womanising father.  It is a film about death without being about loss and a film about grief without being about sadness.  It is, in a word, pitiless.

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Blood Of The Beasts (1949) – Humanity’s Capacity to Dream

Georges Franju’s background was in theatrical set design.  As a set designer, he would have learned to create atmosphere through the use of subtle visual queues but he would also have learned that every scene and every shot are a world of their own.  Properly conceived, a single shot can convey as much information as an entire page of dialogue.  Where the camera focuses, when people enter, where objects stand and how they are lit are not merely aesthetic variables, they are to cinema what words are to poetry and literature.  As such, it is perhaps fitting that Ruthless Culture’s first look at a work of Franju should be a short film that is practically silent; His 1949 short film about Parisian slaughterhouses Blood of the Beasts.

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