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 — 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 – Ida (2013)

FilmJuice have my review of Pawel Pawlikovski’s Ida, a starkly beautiful but terrifyingly under-written film about 1960s Poland.

The film is set in a starkly shot 1960s Poland where an young orphan woman prepares to take orders and become a nun. Worried that this young woman has never experienced life outside of a convent, her abbess orders her to visit with a woman who claims to be her lone surviving relative. Reluctant at first, the young woman travels across Poland to meet with a woman who turns out to be a hard-drinking socialist prosecutor with a fondness for younger men and a Jewish name. Confronted with the fact that she is actually Jewish, the young novice follows her aunt as they travel back to their family’s home town in order to confront the people who killed their family and forced them off their land.

When Ida was released back in 2013, it was received with as much warmth and submissive zeal as the second coming. Not only did it win the Grand Prize at the BFI London Film Festival but reviewers seemed to fall over themselves to declare it a masterpiece while blisteringly high Rotten Tomato and Metacritic scores made it something of a cross-over hit at the American box office. This depresses me a great deal as Ida is a desperately mediocre piece of cinema.

My review blames Pawlikovski’s script for failing to unpack either the emotions or the ideas touched on by the film:

A script with an interest in Polish religious history might have unpacked the implications for Anna’s late-blooming Judaism and explained why discovering that you are Jewish might want to make you think twice about becoming a nun. Similarly, a script with an interest in Polish political history might have noted that Jewish people were purged from the Communist party a few years after the events of the film and explored the way in which a rising tide of anti-Semitism would have forced a respected political prosecutor into near-exile for the crime of being Jewish. By choosing to gloss over the cultural, political and social context of Ida’s journey of discovery, Pawlikovsky ensures that the events of her life are forever lacking in emotional charge.

With hindsight, I now realise that the problem is far more basic.  Consider what I said about one of Pawlikowski’s earlier films The Woman in the Fifth:

There was a time when European art house film wanted to blow shit up. There was a time when values were confounded and new ground was broken both in terms of what could be said and how people could say it. European art house film used to shock the world… now it merely puts bums on seats by engaging with the same old themes in the same old ways. In the land of artistic sterility, competence is king and Pawel Pawlikowski’s The Woman In The Fifth is an eminently competent film.

Ida is another supremely competent piece of film making that looks a lot like a serious work of cinematic art despite being little more than a hollow vessel with nothing to say. Pawel Pawlikovsky is a miserable hack who makes cynical, unadventurous and boring films that degrade the language and sully the reputation of art house film. In a more enlightened age, critics would have called him out and exposed his cynicism but now they hail him as a genius. According to his wikipedia page, Pawlikovski teaches direction and screenwriting at the National Film School in the UK and this saddens me even more than this film’s undeserved success. Art house film should be about more than competence but that is ultimately all that Pawlikowski has to offer us.

 

 

 

 

REVIEW – If… (1968)

FilmJuice have my review of Lindsay Anderson’s story of public school rebellion If…

One of the things I most remember from my time attending press screenings is the extent to which a clever PR might ensure the good will of the critical community. At the lower end of the scale, a PR might turn up early and lay on the booze, thereby ensuring that critics went into the screening feeling appropriately jolly. Further up the scale, a PR with a bit of a budget might book a more upscale screening room and lay on proper food and drink. Once you get into the bigger budget films it is not unheard of for PRs to lay on entire meals and special events, particularly if they are trying to ensure that a film is well-reviewed by non-specialised but widely-read press such as women’s magazines. When the last James Bond film Skyfall was released to rapturous applause, I couldn’t help but imagine film critics being dosed up with vodka martinis and champagne. This type of shit shouldn’t impact on how well a film is received but it really, really does.

Another way of ensuring a warm reception by critics is to speak directly to the concerns and lived experience of the kind of people who tend to become critics. Why else would so many critically-praised novels involve middle-age intellectuals feeling a bit sad and having affairs with sexually generous young women? At its worst, this phenomenon can even lead to critics suggesting that the only books worth reading and films worth watching are the ones that speak directly to them; Isn’t it funny how inward looking films about middle-aged men tend to be seen as more serious and worthwhile than romantic comedies? Isn’t it funny that romantic comedies began to lose prestige and standing the instant they began to be marketed at women rather than men? Anderson’s If… is an undoubted beneficiary of this phenomenon as it is a film about intellectuals rebelling against their public school that was released at a time when practically every film critic in the country would have been a public school-educated intellectual.

I have a good deal of affection for If… and I can totally see why it proved so influential but, as someone who didn’t go to public school, I must say that this film simply does not speak to me. In fact, I think this is less a film about revolution than it is about the upper class finally getting fed up of pretending not to be selfish pricks:

It is easy to imagine Travis growing up to be a Richard Branson-type figure, a ruthless businessman who considers himself a rebel and an individualist because he wears his hair long and doesn’t even pretend to take an interest in the welfare of the poor. Far from being a politically progressive film, If… is a reminder that Capital has always been far more revolutionary than the left-wingers and trade unionists who sought to oppose it.

Maybe if Travis had shown some self-awareness about his position and privilege… Maybe if his rejection of the system had been on moral grounds… Maybe if Travis had wanted something more out of life than the ability to get drunk, wear his hair long and seduce women. Maybe then I might have been sympathetic to his rebellion. Maybe then I might have seen him as a revolutionary rather than a spoiled brat.

 

REVIEW – Fire in the Blood (2013)

FitBFilmJuice have my review of Dylan Mohan Gray’s documentary about the pharmaceuticals industry Fire in the Blood.

Since Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine demonstrated the existence of a large potential audience for documentary film, many have tried to use film as a means of raising awareness about particular injustices and so bringing pressure to bear on people with the power to make a difference. The problem with this approach to documentary filmmaking is that if the film becomes merely a means to an end then there is little incentive to put anything in the film other than what is strictly necessary to change minds and win support. As a result, films like Louie Psihoyos’s The Cove and Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me are often little more than rhetorical exercises that manipulate audiences into agreeing with their point of view rather than seeking to educate them about the nature of the world at large.

One of the challenges of documentary filmmaking lies in striking a balance between moral simplicity and emotional accessibility on the one hand and accuracy and educational potential on the other. Often, learning more about the world means losing touch with simple moral principles and realising that even the most hideous atrocities happen as a result of people acting in good faith. In the real world, people do not wear black hats and even if they did, it would probably mean that they were goths.

Dylan Mohan Gray’s documentary opens with a very simple moral equation: Millions of people in the developing world are dying of AIDS but while humanity has the technology to prevent those deaths by using retro-viral drugs to prevent HIV from turning into AIDS, these drugs are under the control of multinational corporations who would rather allow millions to die of preventable diseases than see their profit margins slip. Obviously this is a morally intolerable situation but humanity lacks the political will to nationalise the corporations and bring their resources under the control of institutions with the desire to resolve morally intolerable situations. As a result, the film follows a group of activists as they work to broker a compromise that will allow the morally intolerable situation to be resolved without embracing #fullcommunism. The great thing about this film is that, in seeking to explain why this situation came about, the filmmakers manage to educate their audience while never losing sight of principle. It turns out that the real problem with AIDS in the developing world is not patent law but the obvious corruption and cowardice of Western governments.

Turns out some complex truths are morally simple after all…

REVIEW – Lisa and the Devil (1974)

LisaandDevilFilmJuice have my review of Arrow Films’ recent re-release of Mario Bava’s post-gothic fantasia Lisa and the Devil (a.k.a. House of Exorcism).

This review probably makes most sense when read in concert with my review of Bava’s earlier film Black Sunday. As I pointed out in my review, Black Sunday‘s Gothic imagery works solely because the film is shot in black and white. Lisa and the Devil deploys a similar set of Gothic tropes (skeletons, ghosts, sinister mansions) but because the film is shot on Eastmancolor (the successor to Technicolor), the film lacks any real atmosphere meaning that the Gothic imagery feels forced and slightly silly. One explanation for Bava’s decision to revisit Gothic tropes on colour film is that the sense of artificiality is intentional and used as a means of drawing our attention to the fantastical and unreal nature of the world the character has inadvertently entered. Indeed, while the film is ostensibly about a young woman who is lured to a sinister mansion by the Devil, one could also read the film as a meditation upon Bava’s career as a director. After all… how many women did the great horror director lure into Gothic mansions as a part of his job?

This feeling of artificiality is fiercely reminiscent of Shakespeare’s final play The Tempest and both works feel like products of an aging creator reflecting upon the theatricality of their own lives. However, while Shakespeare clearly identified with the aging wizard Prospero, Bava appears to identify with Savalas’ satanic butler, a character forever fussing with cheap special effects and grease paint in an effort to control what people see and how they feel. The melancholic nature of this identification is even more evident when Lisa snaps out of her reverie amidst wax dummies and ruined buildings: when the film ends, the audience picks up their stuff and leaves while the reality of the film decays in their minds and nothing is left but ghosts.

Another reason for picking up this dual format release is that Arrow Films have consulted a collection of critics who really engage with the fact that this film was released in a number of different places and a number of different forms.

One of the most prominent vestiges of auteur theory is the idea that a director’s final cut of a film is somehow more authoritative than alternate versions. Though rooted in the cult of the director-as-auteur, this vision of the creative process owes much of its popularity to Ridley Scott’s very public dissatisfaction with the original cut of Bladerunner. When the director’s cut of Bladerunner was finally released, people noted the improvement and internalised the idea that a ‘director’s cut’ is somehow better than a standard cut. Though certainly romantic, this idea actually has very little basis in reality.

Firstly, many films (including Lisa and the Devil) were cut and re-cut for multiple markets in a bid to extract as much profit as possible from the production process. Rather than shooting a film and putting all of their eggs in a single aesthetic basket, many exploitation film directors would shoot extra scenes that allowed them to produce alternate cuts tailored for particular markets. Thus, while the soft-focus and lack of real violence and sex suggest that this cut of Lisa and the Devil was made for TV, House of Exorcism contains a lot more sex, a lot more violence and an exorcism framing device that allowed producers to target the mid-70s American marketplace. In other words, there is no ‘correct’ version of Lisa and the Devil, there are only variations on a theme.

Secondly, directors have been known to revisit films at different points in their career. Indeed, while the director’s cut of Bladerunner may be closer to Scott’s original vision than the theatrical cut, it seems unlikely that each of the subsequent re-editions of the film are somehow more authentic than the last.Similarly, while Apocalypse Now Redux contains more material than the original theatrical cut, it seems ridiculous to suggest that Apocalypse Now Redux is somehow more authentically ‘Apocalypse Now-y’ than Apocalypse Now. A further example of this type of thing is Ruggero Deodata’s decision to provide an alternate edition of Cannibal Holocaust with all of the animal cruelty taken out of it. On one hand, this is clearly a more authentic rendering of the director’s feelings about his own film but it seems strange to suggest that this new cut is anything more than a publicity-generating afterthought.

Thirdly, more and more films are being produced with home release editions in mind. The most obvious example of this type of thing are the extended versions of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies but one could also talk about the more sexually explicit home release editions of American Pie and films like Get him to the Greek which included additional scenes and different takes of scenes that appeared in the theatrical version.

The extras on this dual-format release go into considerable detail about the production history and how entirely different films were extracted from a single shooting schedule. Aside from providing a fascinating insight into how European exploitation films were made, these extras also confront head-on the idea that there might be a single, correct version of any particular film. There are no ‘more authentic’ cuts… only better ones.

REVIEW – The Doom Generation (1995)

FilmJuice have my review of Gregg Araki’s fifth film, the surreal and nihilistic teenage road movie The Doom Generation.

Revisiting this film was an interesting experience for me as I can remember both seeing it and reacting to it as a part of the vogue for nihilistic films that gripped 1990s American cinema. The set up is as simple as it is classic: A pair of fucked-up teenagers take to the road after accidentally killing a convenience store clerk. Moving from town to town, they rub up against the weirder elements of the American condition and try to come to terms with their place in the grand scheme of things. Each character voices a different attitude towards the sense of disillusionment and alienation that all generations feel upon coming of age. Indeed, this is a film that is as much a response to films like Easy Rider and Badlands as it is to True Romance and Natural Born Killers:

According to postmodern nihilism, nothing matters other than the mundane details of our lives. As might be expected from a broad cultural pattern, American film engaged with the idea of postmodern nihilism in a number of different ways. For example, at one end of the spectrum Quentin Tarantino’s patented blend of operatic violence and trivial chitchat spawned films such as Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994) and Tony Scott’s True Romance (1993) in which nothing seemed to matter other than love. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, Larry Clark’s Kids (1995) reversed the polarity and argued that Generation X actively avoided answering the bigger questions by filling their heads with talk of relationships and old TV shows. Trapped between the romanticism of Tarantino and the outrage of Clark lies Greg Araki’s The Doom Generation a film about costs and benefits of cynical detachment.

All things considered, I think that The Doom Generation is perhaps a little bit too ‘meta’ to be anything more than an interesting rejoinder to a more worthwhile set of films, but then perhaps that was always the point of the exercise? What better way to lend voice to the angst of Generation X than to suggest that everything has been said and that all we can ever hope for is just enough sex and violence to pass the time?