Videovista have my review of Nicolas Winding Refn’s critically acclaimed California Noir action movie Drive.
As someone whose first instinct is invariably to distrust received opinions and critical consensuses, I was somewhat disappointed to find myself in the position of absolutely adoring Drive. I adore the way it looks, I adore the way it is paced, I adore the characters and I adore the film’s wider themes. While there are a number of different ways of approaching the film, I see it as effectively a retelling of Pinocchio… the story of how a puppet became a real boy:
The reason the driver operates by a very simple set of rules is because he is effectively a simpleton who possesses no desires or dreams of his own. As the driver’s shambling employer and best friend Shannon explains, he suddenly appeared out of nowhere and does whatever is asked of him without complaining or asking questions. The driver’s lack of interior life is also reflected in his general demeanour as most questions asked of him result in little response beyond an impassive smile and an evasive answer. As blissful as it may seem, this state of perfect psychological simplicity is interrupted when the driver offers to help his next-door neighbour with her shopping.
Another question I explore in my review is the issue of narratives that effectively use female characters as catalysts for the emotional transformation of their male protagonists. Indeed, one of the strangest things about Drive is our willingness to accept on faith that a character such as the Driver might exist. The reason we accept the idea of an emotionally stunted driving-machine is because we are already familiar with the idea that all men are stunted children who only ever grow up (i.e. stop chronically masturbating, doing bong hits and getting into fights at sporting events) once the calming hand of a female presence is laid on their arm. In the second half of my review I explore the issue of whether this view is actually sexist:
Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness tells the story of a white man who goes mad in the jungle while the Africans quietly get on with their lives. In other words, it is the supposedly superior white man who loses his mind in the jungle and not the supposedly inferior Africans. Similarly, while it seems fair to observe that Irene is a simplistic character, her two character traits easily outdistance the subhuman imbecility of the white man at the centre of the film. Drive is the story of a character becoming human while the woman who prompts this transition remains noble, human and complete throughout. In fact, Drive could almost be read as the story of an innocent woman who becomes embroiled in a tug-of-love between the criminal she married and the handsome weirdo who lives next door.
Regardless of how you interpret it, I consider Drive to be one of the best films of 2011 and one of my ten favourite films of all time.
VideoVista have my review of Jonathan auf der Heide’s Van Diemen’s Land.
The film is all about Alexander Pearce, a man who escaped from a British penal colony only to wind up killing and eating the people he escaped with. The film itself is almost a remake of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising (2009), a film I reviewed and ranted about at some length for its generic style. Much like Valhalla Rising, Van Diemen’s Land fails to say anything of substance about the issues it raises. This is largely due to a failure on behalf of both directors to understand their literary source material : Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
On the plus side, watching this film did prompt me to seek out James Rowland’s The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce (2008), which is a much better and more thought-provoking film that really gets to grips with what it is that might transform a man from a petty thief into a monster.
Georges Gerfaut is a man very much like you or I : He works a mid-level office job that involves plenty of meetings and no manual labour. He has a wife and kids who put up with his little foibles. He loves West Coast Jazz. He drinks a little bit too much. Georges Gerfaut is a man very much like you or I. In fact, he could very well be you or I. Georges Gerfaut will soon kill three men.
One night, Gerfaut is driving home when he witnesses an accident. Gerfaut is concerned enough to take one of the survivors to hospital but not so concerned that he bothers to leave his name. Did he do the right thing? His wife is unsure, Gerfaut is not. Either way, two men approach Gerfaut while he is on holiday and attempt to strangle him. Then shoot him. Then blow him up. Without a second thought, Gerfaut takes flight. Leaving his wife and kids completely alone. He must kill the men who tried to murder him.
Originally published in French under the title Le Petit Bleu De La Cote Ouest, Three to Kill is Jean-Patrick Manchette’s seventh novel. Shamefully, it is also one of only two works by Manchette currently available in English. At a little over 130 pages, Three To Kill is a lean and minimalist work of behaviourist hard-boiled crime fiction. However, despite its relative brevity, Manchette’s novel is a work of considerable grace and challenging profundity as it seeks to answer the question of what Kurtz would have done with his life had Marlowe managed to bring him back to civilisation alive?
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Videovista have my review of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising.
Valhalla Rising is a beautifully shot and darkly existentialist riff on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness which, in the grand tradition of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), moves the action from colonial Africa to the age of Vikings.
It is a densely symbolic and beautifully shot film and… it bored the shit out of me. My main problem with the film is similar to the problem exposed by Emmanuel Carrere’s La Moustache (2005) and demonstrated by Thomas Clay’s Soi Cowboy (2008).
I’ll expand my thoughts n the problem in the post linking to the review of Soi Cowboy but the three posts kind of interlink.
In 1975 the Nigerian author and critic Chinua Achebe gave a lecture that sent shock-waves through the literary community. In this lecture, he suggested that the depiction of Africans in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) was more than sufficient to label not only the text but also its author as racist. While Achebe would later soften his position by suggesting that his interpretation was only one of many and that his reading in no way invalidated all of the laudatory readings cooked up by admirers of the work, the damage was done. Over thirty years later the spectre of racism still hangs over Heart of Darkness, provoking the feeling that however glorious the novella might be, it may well be a reflection of a by-gone age with values not quite the same as ours but which we are willing to put up with for the sake of what is good in the work. In fact, introductions to contemporary editions of the work bend over backwards to stress Conrad’s anti-colonialist credentials.
However, Achebe’s “An Image of Africa : Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’” actually addresses this issue by discussing Conrad’s layered approach to narration. Conrad gives the story not one but two narrators; Marlow who recounts his curious experiences in the Congo and a shadowy figure who is telling us about Marlow telling the story. By insulating himself so carefully, Conrad seems to be insulating himself against the language and the opinions of the story. It is not Conrad who speaks of ‘buck niggers’ but Marlowe and his chronicler. However, Achebe’s critique stretches much deeper than merely cataloguing all the uses of racist language and stereotypical depictions of Black people. In fact, his piece is at its most powerful when it is talking in the abstract about the technique that Conrad uses to project fears onto an entire population. This is a technique that is still in use today and it is just as problematic as can be seen in films such as William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980) and Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (2002).
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I recently re-read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) for the first time since taking up criticism as an activity. I originally read the novella as a very straight-forward conceptual breakthrough story in which a Victorian comes to realise the literally horrifying nature of existence. However, upon further reflection it strikes me that, while sticking to this interpretation of the novella, there are three possible insights to take away from the book :
- Firstly, that existence outside of the confines of civilisation is horrific. Under this interpretation, the desiccated world of doilies, influential aunts and ancient men we see in the opening section of the novella are a price we have to pay in order to protect ourselves and escape from the Horror of the Hobbesian state of nature.
- Secondly, that existence is whatever humanity makes of it. Rather than building a new world or exporting the values of the European elites, colonialism has in fact opened the way for the rapaciously greedy to create a sort of hell on Earth. A hell in which a man’s capacity to kill elephants and enslave the local population makes him a great man. When Kurtz dies, he groans not for the horror in the world, but the horror he and his imitators have unleashed.
- Thirdly, that Kurtz’s groans are a moment of conceptual break-through. Under this view, humanity is trapped between the anguish and misery of being and the terrifying nothingness of non-being. Whether a Dutch merchant or a Congolese fisherman, the dilemma is the same even if we do not necessarily realise it. Kurtz, by venturing far outside the confines of his native culture, has realised the truth about existence. A truth that horrifies him even as he dies.
These three different interpretations represent different solutions to the question of why existence is so horrifying : Is existence tainted by our actions? Is it something that is present in the world but escaped from thanks to civilisation? Or is it something that permeates all of existence, but which we only catch a glimpse of from time to time when we are paying attention?
Critically panned at the time of its release, Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover (2002) is an attempt to provide an answer to this question by considering not only the ways in which humans treat each other but also the ways in which human civilisation deals with the savage nature of existence through its media and its institutions.
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