It is easy to see why people might hate this film. After all, it is not and could never be a book by Peter Straub.
The origin story behind Straub’s novel has been extensively documented: Straub has repeatedly stated that Ghost Story was inspired by Stephen King’s early vampire novel Salem’s Lot, a tip of the hat that was later acknowledged by King in his non-fiction collection Danse Macabre where Ghost Story was written up as one of the most influential and structurally effective novels in 20th Century horror. This much we know.
For my part, Straub’s acknowledgement came as something of a surprise as Straub’s approach to fiction has always struck me as quite different to the plodding accessibility of King’s Victorian realism in which the world is just as real and fixed as the characters uncovering it. In Straub’s books, the boundary between world and character is far more mutable, its nuances coaxed into existence by structural complexities and stylistic flourishes designed to keep readers off-balance until a trap is sprung and a particular impression is lodged deep inside the reader’s vulnerable skull. Cocteau famously said that style was a way of saying very complicated things in a very simple manner and Straub is an author who is mostly in the business of using style to coax his readers into receiving certain — often wordless — impressions.
Had Ghost Story been written by Stephen King then one might have described it as the story of a group of old men who are being haunted. As the story unfolds, the men are revealed as having shared a disastrous encounter with a single woman. This encounter not only fills them with guilt, it also seems to account for a litany of emotional crises that have defined their adult lives. Assuming that both world and characters are fixed and real entities, Ghost Story is all about a haunting the grows with the passage of time, consuming not only the lives of the guilty but also the town in which they live. This is the story that John Irvin tried and failed to adapt but the result was a cinematic Ghost Story that is a lot closer to that of Peter Straub than that of Stephen King.
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Despite a small budget and funding secured from about half a dozen Scandinavian film funds, The Hunt premiered at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival where it was the first Danish film to make it into the competition for about 14 years. Well-received by judges and critics alike, the film landed a prize for its leading man and then went on to secure Best Foreign Language Film nominations at both the Oscars and Golden Globes. The reason for this warm reception is that the man responsible for directing it has pointedly refused to claim responsibility for his best-known film. The man in question is Thomas Vinterberg and the film in question is Festen, the first film created under the strictures of the radical Dogme 95 filmmaking manifesto that also launched the career of Lars von Trier.
Shot entirely on location with hand-held cameras and without props, sets or lighting, Festen told of a disastrous birthday celebration at which a family patriarch is accused of having molested two of his own children. Far from shutting the matter down, the family’s inevitable denial of the patriarch’s guilt only serves to fan the flames of anger and resentment until years of distrust explode in a fireball of violence and madness that consumes what is left of the family’s loyalty and trust. I mention Festen not only because it is easily Vinterberg’s best-known film, but also because it shares a good number of themes and ideas with The Hunt. However, while Festen is an unashamedly youthful film that draws on feelings of betrayal and confusion and hurls them into the face of a complacent older generation, The Hunt draws on a decidedly more traditional emotional palette including smug moral certitude and emotional restraint. The difference between to the two films is so stark that it is tempting to view The Hunt as the result of an aging Vinterberg having chosen to shift his sympathies from angry accuser to vilified accused but a more straightforward reading of this film would be to view The Hunt as a celebration of patriarchal values and women who know when to keep their cunt mouths shut.
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Videovista have my review of Antti Jokinen’s Purge or Pudhistus in its native Finnish.
Based on a hugely successful novel by the Finnish-Estonian writer Sofi Oksanen, Purge uses two different time frames to explore the links between the rape and brutalisation of women during the Soviet annexation of Estonia and the rape and brutalisation of women at the hands of the contemporary sex trade. Clearly, this is not only a worthy subject for a film but also a potentially fascinating one. Are contemporary sex traffickers just the latest manifestation of a systemic hatred of women? Have different generations of women responded differently to this treatment? Given that this type of thing has been going on all over the world since time immemorial, what is it that is unique to the experience of Estonian women? These are just some of the fascinating questions that Purge could have taken on but rather than raising awareness and probing the darker side of human nature, director Antti Jokinen prefers to sexualise rape and suggest that it’s something you could probably get used to eventually anyway.
Warning – The following passage is triggery for rape as is the rest of the review but it’s not nearly as triggery as the film itself:
While the male gaze may be distracting and insulting in the context of a film like Transformers 2, detecting it in a film about the systematic brutalisation of women is an absolute disgrace: every time Zara is stripped naked by her pimp, Jokinen’s camera lingers on her undergarments. Every time Zara and Aliide are raped and beaten, the camera pans down so as to ensure that the audience gets a good long look at their firm young breasts. In one scene, Zara’s pimp has her get down on all fours to masturbate while he takes photos, and Jokinen places his camera in the same position as the pimp’s, thereby ensuring that the audience is forced to see Zara through the eyes of a murderous rapist. Aside from being exploitative and downright creepy, Jokinen’s systematic sexualisation of rape serves to put his audience in a position of tacit complicity with rapists and torturers, which is precisely the opposite of what this film is supposed to be about!
Purge is a fantastic example of Jean Cocteau’s observation that “style is a simple way of saying complicated things”. The script and subject matter of Purge point to a film that decries the historical mistreatment of women by encouraging the audience to empathise with the victims of historical abuse. A competent director would have read the script and used cinematic technique to place the audience in the position of the abused women thereby encouraging them to not only understand what it would be like to be in that situation but also to get angry about the fact that those situations existed in the first place. Unfortunately, rather than encouraging us to sympathise with the victims of rape, Jokinen uses cinematic technique to place us in the position of the abusers who leer at vulnerable women and enjoy their bodies as they writhe in pain and humiliation. Simple stated, Purge is the most unpleasantly misogynistic film I have ever seen. Even worse, Antti Jokinen has directed two feature films thus far in his career and both of them have been about rape. I would never go so far as to suggest that this forms some sort of ideological pattern but I would urge Jokinen to take a long, hard look at his artistic output and consider how he really feels about women.
FilmJuice have my review of Mathew Chapman’s jaw-droppingly awful The Ledge.
The fact that The Ledge got made at all offers an interesting insight into the difference between British and American attitudes towards religion. For example, despite having an official state church and being an ostensibly Christian nation, British society is now so profoundly secularised that atheism is now our cultural default. In other words, when you meet someone new you do not automatically assume that they are a Christian. Instead, you assume that they are either an atheist, an agnostic or sufficiently non-religious that you do not need to worry about offending Christian sensibilities in casual conversation. In fact, British society is now so profoundly secularised that many intelligent atheists are becoming annoyed at the shrill combativeness of the so-called ‘New Atheists’, thereby creating a market for books that embrace a less confrontational form of atheistic thought. America, on the other hand, is still a de facto Christian nation. This is evident from the fact that politicians tend to speak in explicitly Christian terms while even the more outlandish Christian beliefs are seen as serious moral positions. Simply stated, no British person would think to make a film like The Ledge because British public discourse has effectively banished the more outlandish Christian beliefs meaning that the confrontational attitude of the New Atheists comes across as bullying and uncouth.
Even more problematic is the fact that The Ledge is not the film it purports to be:
Despite ostensibly resembling a thriller, The Ledge is actually quite a talky and slow-paced film constructed around a series of set pieces in which characters deliver extended speeches for and against a belief in God. Given that Chapman places so much emphasis on these speeches it seems safe to assume that The Ledge is intended to be a film about ideas. Unfortunately, Chapman’s attempt to make a film about the clash between atheism and religion fails on two levels: Firstly, none of the ideas contained in The Ledge are particularly new or profound. In fact, the characters of Gavin and Joe are so unsympathetic and intellectually stilted that it rapidly becomes clear that Chapman has just as little insight into atheism as he does into religious fundamentalism. Instead of providing us with well-rounded characters and thought-provoking ideas, Chapman delivers banal caricatures filled with nothing more than hot air. Secondly, despite bloating the film’s running time and draining the thriller elements of all urgency and tension, the polemical aspects of the film are so poorly integrated into the plot that they seem more like a distraction than a primary focus. Look beyond the PR guff about ideas and The Ledge reveals itself to be little more than a squalid melodrama about a traditional love triangle.
Even more problematic is that, once you strip away all the God-talk, The Ledge is revealed to be a deeply misogynistic piece of filmmaking. At the heart of the film is a confrontation between two individuals who are so convinced of their moral and psychological superiority that they feel utterly entitled to the love of a beautiful woman. Indeed, while Joe dominates Shana by dragging her to a series of increasingly repressive churches, Gavin dominates her using mind games designed to make her fall in love with him. The Ledge is a profoundly misogynistic film because both forms of domination not only succeed but also go completely unchallenged by a director who refuses us all access to Shana’s thoughts and feelings. Denied both agency and meaningful self-expression, the character of Shana is nothing more than an empty vessel for the desires of selfish and hateful men. Time and again, Shana is given the opportunity to speak up for herself but instead Tyler simply stares impassively into the camera like a beautiful doll whose sole purpose in life is to be owned by an alpha male.
The Ledge is easily one of the worst films I have seen this year. Now that the scars have begun to heal on the viewing experience, I am almost tempted to say that the film is ‘so bad it’s good’ but then I think about the scene in which the atheist crows about getting Liv Tyler’s character to masturbate while thinking about him and I’m reminded that this is nothing more than a dull and misogynistic piece of pseudo-intellectual garbage.
There are words that yield far more easily to the lips than they do to the mind. Every day, we reach for a set of shared values and concepts which, laid down in another place and another time, no longer seem as well defined as they used to be. Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy springs from a desire for clarification, to return to the revolutionary French values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity and ask: What do they mean for us today?
Three Colours: White is the second film in the trilogy and its conceptual slipperiness reflects the fact that equality is one of our least understood values. We all want to live in an equal society but do we really understand what equality entails and where in our society should the value of equality assert itself? Does a commitment to equality entail a commitment to equality of outcomes or of opportunities? Or are we talking instead about the creation of a society in which everyone is equally happy and/or equally miserable? Three Colours: White explores the dubious morality of a pursuit of emotional parity.
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Videovista have my review of Van Hees’ wonderfully unpleasant Horror film Left Bank.
Left Bank is reminiscent of films like Irreversible and Cruising in so far as it manages to engage with a set of unpalatable attitudes in a critical way despite embodying those attitudes in the cinematography of the film. In Cruising, the attitude in question was homophobia, in Left Bank it is misogyny.
In “Big Red Son”, his essay on the porn equivalent of the Oscars, David Foster Wallace writes about a morally up-standing police detective who is drawn to pornography’s capacity for capturing moments of pure humanity. This is an intriguing idea and it is certainly one that I agree with. Most performances are based upon a degree of artifice : Someone pretending to be someone they or not or behaving in a way that they would not normally behave. The people who appear in adult films usually buy into this notion of performance. The men adopt a worldly misogyny while the women appear to revel in their transgressions of good taste and traditional gender roles. What Foster Wallace refers to as the “Fuck me, I’m a nasty girl” persona. However, because pornography is quite cheaply made and ultimately reliant upon the inviolability of certain basic biological rhythms, the performers sometimes forget the persona they are supposed to be inhabiting. Sometimes these slippages reveal genuine attraction and sexual excitement, but other times there are flashes of irritation, disgust, boredom, amusement or fear. These outpourings of human emotion are made al the more real by the grotesque theatricality of pornography and all the more pleasurable because of their illicit nature. They are supposed to be having passionate sex, we are supposed to be getting off on watching them, and yet we see the actress’s irritation at her male colleague. Score.
I remember when, after a number of years of failing eye-sight, I first got glasses and a world of detailed facial expression suddenly opened up to me. I remember standing in Liverpool Street station and marvelling at the way in which emotions played across people’s faces. How a friendly smile would die on someone’s lips the second the other person looked away or how a momentary flash of irritation would prompt a hard glare at a fried, a glare that would instantly disappear the second the friend turned to ask a question or make a remark. Humans are creatures with rich emotional lives. Lives they try to keep hidden from those around them, and yet those lives are betrayed broadcast to al who care to look by the infinite expressiveness of the human face.
José Luis Guerín’s In The City of Sylvia (2007) is a film that is all about those fleeting moments of humanity. It even invites us to place these little moments in a wider context, but by doing so it raises the difficulties inherent in trying to work out what other people are thinking.
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