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 Connection (2014)

FilmJuice have my review of Cedric Jimenez’s The Connection (a.k.a. La French), a stylish crime thriller that could be described as the French side of The French Connection.

Setting aside the fact that this is a really well-made cat-and-mouse thriller set in an impeccably realised and beautifully shot vision of 1970s Marseilles, there are two really interesting things going on in this film that elevate it above your standard crime drama and into the intellectual stratosphere occupied by the likes of David Simon’s The Wire and Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet.

 

First, the film is grounded in the character study of a local magistrate who is lured into an ineffectual War on Drugs by a combination of excitement and fame. Cleverly, the film portrays the magistrate’s early ‘successes’ as fantastic nights out in which everyone drinks champagne and gets laid. This is then related back to the fact that the magistrate in question (Jean Dujardin’s Pierre Michel) has a gambling problem, thereby raising the possibility that his commitment to the job might have less to do with results and more to do with addiction:

The film suggests that Michel’s pursuit of Zampa and the insane risks he takes as part of that pursuit are just an expression of his addictive personality: Where once Michel risked everything on a turn of the card, now he risks everything by playing hunches and violating civil rights. What is the War on Drugs if not an institutionalised addiction to headlines and excitement? Maybe the reason we continue to treat addicts like criminals is that you don’t build careers in law enforcement and politics by tending to the sick.

What I really liked about this film is that while it may start off as yet another right-wing law-enforcement fantasy about a rogue magistrate trying to take down a gang by cracking balls and bending laws, the film gradually segues into a brutal critique of the assumptions underpinning this very myth. Do car-chases and fist-fights actually keep the streets clean or do they merely serve as a distraction from the intractability of major social problems and the combination of corruption and neglect that feeds them?

Second, while the film is a fictionalised account of the real-world French Connection that supplied the American drugs trade with most of its illegal heroin throughout the 1960s and ’70s, the writer and director use these fictional elements as a springboard for naming names and pointing fingers at a French establishment that allowed organised crime to flourish in the hope that it would keep French ports free from communist elements:

Jimenez’s desire to confront France’s recent political past is reminiscent of Matthieu Kassovitz’s thoroughly excellent Rebellion, a film about how Jacques Chirac allowed police to massacre protesters in an effort to win over hard-right voters in a tightly-run election. Both films are powerful, necessary and a reminder that no comparable tradition exists in British film.

When British films critique British governments, it’s usually as part of a broader social realist tradition that shows the consequences of government action rather than the combination of incompetence and indifference that informed those decisions in the first place. I also wonder whether British film’s reluctance to go after the British establishment might not be a function of the fact that many British films are made with American audiences in mind using money handed out by British institutions.

I also wonder whether British directors might not see these types of stories as more televisual than cinematic based upon the fact that Britain used to have a tradition of producing one-off dramas and plays that criticised both British society and its government.The problem is that while British TV used to have a tradition of producing politicised plays and one-off dramas, the amount of drama on British TV has now declined to the point where there’s really not much room for unpopular opinions. Of course, the excellent Red Riding trilogy was produced for TV but that came out in 2009 and I struggle to think of anything even remotely like it that has appeared since.

Jimmy’s Hall (2014) — Don’t Call Me ‘Fascist’… Yeh little Bollocks!

Just as a certain kind of middle-class Israeli filmmaker is prone to using Palestinians as set-dressing in stories about their own sense of guilt, a certain kind of middle-class British filmmaker is prone to using Irish history as a means of talking about socialism without having to deal with the fact that the British working-classes have spent the last few decades moving further and further to the right. I suppose the allure is born of envy: When the Irish people won their independence they beat many of the interests and institutions that continue to hold sway over British political life. Much like Scotland voting-in a left-wing party and looking to free itself from the festering right-wing cesspit that is the palace of Westminster, it’s difficult not to be envious of the Irish War of independence and ask ‘Can we come too?’

The thing that keeps drawing me back to the work of Ken Loach is his willingness to accept that left-wing politics is a difficult path. Too many so-called left-wing filmmakers are content to either limit themselves to critiques of right-wing thought or turn the revolution into some sort of aspirational fantasy like Aragorn taking over Gondor at the end of Lord of the Rings. However, this is not to say that Loach is some sort of miserabilist, it’s just that many of his films recognise both the potential of left-wing politics to change lives for the better and the potential of right-wing politics to shut that potential down the second it becomes a nuisance. Loach’s intense ambivalence about the realities of revolution are beautifully expressed in both Land and Freedom and The Wind that Shakes the Barley, both films about revolutions that ended badly only to live on in the minds of younger people. Mooted as Loach’s last ever film, Jimmy’s Hall revisits these themes in a far more mundane and seemingly a-political setting.

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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 – Boomerang! (1947)

FilmJuice have my review of Elia Kazan’s impressively crunchy but politically ambivalent legal drama Boomerang!

Set in what the film goes out of its way to refer to as a typical town from the American mid-west, Boomerang! begins exploring the political landscape of a small town on the move. We are introduced to the well-meaning reformers who kicked out the ‘machine politicians’ in order to make their home town a better place and how these patrician figures relate to the wider community through institutions such as the local church. There’s even a nice scene where a planning committee is shown and despite the committee having a woman for a chairperson, it’s pretty clear that the real person in charge is the local priest. Given the extent to which the various power-groups rely on each other to stay in power, it is hardly surprising that when the local priest is inexplicably gunned down, the political scene undergoes a crisis with politicians demanding results while newspapers and rival political parties sharpen their knives. The pressure is so great that the police wind up taking shortcuts, arresting everyone in sight and effectively torturing someone into signing a confession.All of this social realism is beautifully realised but unlike similar endeavours such as David Simon’s The Wire, the film does not end with a call for revolution or the liberal conclusion that everything is fucked. Instead, the film seems to conclude that the system is okay because a single corrupt politicians wound up doing the right thing whilst angling to be made governor. This makes for a denouement that is as dramatically unsatisfying as it is confounding of genre expectations:

There is a tendency in American popular culture to treat the legal process as a moral crucible. Well-meaning bourgeois films like My Cousin Vinny and 12 Angry Men suggest that all of humanity’s moral impurities can be boiled away by the system while more politically radical films such as JFK and Amistad draw attention to the failings of the legal system as a way of demonstrating an urgent need for reform.

Having thought about it a bit more, I am struck by the suspicion that treating courtrooms as moral crucibles is a singularly American affectation. America is a country founded by lawyers as well as run by a political class mostly comprising lawyers and so it is hardly surprising that American popular culture has come to believe that court is the place where justice and truth are imposed upon the world. Even comparatively cynical legal dramas such as The Good Wife and Damages present corruption and inequality as incidental rather than systemic problems meaning that they can be defeated by a lawyer who is both talented and righteous. Compare this to a drama such as the French series Engrenages where the French legal system is presented as universally corrupt or the venerable Rumpole of the Bailey, which depicted the British legal system as little more than a playground for ambitious scions of the establishment.

Another interesting question is the extent to which these legal programmes have shaped the minds of the people who viewed them. Children subjected to endless police dramas might be likely to see justice as something meted out by the police just as children trained to see the world through the eyes of the Good Wife would doubtless come to see lawyers as being in the business of keeping the system in line and ensuring that it continues to deliver justice. One of the reasons why a flawed and frankly preposterous programme like The West Wing is well remembered is that it suggested that it was the job of the state to impose justice on the world, which is rather unfashionable in an age where most politicians see their jobs as being all about waging war, locking up prisoners and outsourcing everything to the private sector. An interesting tangent to this issue is the way that American superhero comics explain their protagonists’ capacity to do good.

It used to be that superheroes were frequently patrician figures who used their personal fortunes to fund both their crime-fighting activities and a variety of different charitable works. Thus, Bruce Wayne funded Batman as well as the Wayne Foundation just as Professor Charles Xavier funded both the X-Men and Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. While these characters endure, the nature of their financial backing has significantly changed. For example, there was no talk in the 1960s Batman TV series of Bruce Wayne being an industrialist but now it is impossible to think of Batman without thinking of Wayne Enterprises and the incorporation of Batman that took place during Grant Morrison’s extended run on the comic. That’s a pretty substantial message to send to kids: Not only will justice come at the hands of a masked vigilante but that vigilante will be a franchised brand that is owned by a multinational corporation. This idea that only corporations can deliver justice has also leached into the X-Men as more recent X-Men comics cast Charles Xavier as founder of the X-Corporation which funds the X-Men in much the same way as Tony Stark’s Stark Industries funds the Avengers and many of the lower-level supers that inhabit the Marvel Universe.

An interesting counter-point to this drive to incorporation is the group known as Stormwatch. Created as part of the Wildstorm universe, Stormwatch were funded and controlled by the United Nations. However, as time progressed (as Wildstorm comics were purchased by DC) these links to publicly-minded NGOs were put under dramatic pressure as writer after writer chose to depict the UN as a bureaucracy that was as incompetent as it was corrupt. One of the first things to happen in The Authority is that the heroes severed all ties with Stormwatch and took it upon themselves to impose their own ideas of justice on a series of corrupt and incompetent human governments. Somewhat tellingly, the cinematic Avengers began life under the control of the government agency known as SHIELD but Captain America: Winter Soldier revealed SHIELD to be corrupt, thereby setting the stage for Stark Enterprises to step in and provide the group with funding.

On the one hand, this is clearly nothing more than aggressive right-wing propaganda as corporations are effectively using corporate-owned intellectual property to train children to believe that all governments are corrupt and only Capital can save them. However, on the other hand, this is an excellent example of the narrowing of the imagination associated with late capitalism: We are so wedded to the capitalist system that even escapist fluff struggles to portray a world in which only people with corporate backing can hope to make a difference.

REVIEW – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

hungame2A little while ago, the editor of Videovista approached me to review the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ second Hunger Games novel Catching Fire. I had read the first two books in the Hunger Games series and reviewed the first one in a mood of profound ambivalence that carried me through into the first film. In short, I liked the way the book captured Katniss’s reactions to the world but I found both the world itself and everything that happened in said world to be somewhat tedious… hence my decision to interpret the books as a sort of psychological fantasia in which the emotional touchstones of teenaged life are recreated using the language of dystopian science fiction. The problem with this interpretation is that it doesn’t really survive the decision to adapt the books but drop the internal monologues. However, rather than simply being honest and describing Francis Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire as a typically dull and expensive-looking Hollywood epic, I decided to work through some of my feelings about The Hunger Games, Young Adult Fiction and Hollywood Blockbusters in an essay that runs to over 4,000 words.

On psychological fantasias:

This is why President Snow is little more than a vaguely threatening beard: Collins is drawing on a particular set of cultural images to create an image of patriarchal authority that will be comprehensible to her intended audience. Though not a particularly common approach to writing, this transition from psychological realism to metaphorical fantasy is fairly common in psychological thrillers as well as T.H. White’s children’s novel The Sword And The Stone (1938), where Arthurian knights sit around drinking port and discussing Eton because even though neither of those things actually exist in the world of the novel, the words ‘port’ and ‘Eton’ serve as placeholders for a drink, and a training establishment, with a comparable set of emotional and cultural resonances.

On the incompetence of the film’s direction:

As with the opening act, a savvy director might have played up the paranoia underpinning these scenes and turned them into simmering pots of tension that occasionally explode into violence, but Lawrence follows Ross in choosing to focus on the melodrama thereby depriving the film of any sense of lingering danger or tension so that, when the angry baboons and poisonous clouds do turn up, they appear more comical than harrowing. There is one particularly wonderful scene where Katniss’ group meets up with some other tributes and decides to make peace. Noting that they appear to be covered in sticky brown liquid, Katniss asks what happened and one of the female tribute rolls her eyes and talks about blood falling from the sky in the same tone of voice that one might talk about a ruined wedding reception or barbecue; a damp squib indeed.

On adults reading books aimed at children:

The reason that people respond to works like The Hunger Games is the same reason they cower in the shadow of their parents and feel empowered by mass-market therapy sessions written for a teen demographic: we are subject to a culture that encourages us to view ourselves as creatures that are as passive and as powerless as children. Works like The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and Twilight benefit from this cultural mood as much as they contribute to it.

An interesting corollary to some of the ideas I explore in the essay is something written by Adam “Great Sage, Equal of Heaven” Roberts who ponders the question of why Young Adult fiction has become obsessed with Victorian imagery. I think that Adam reaches some of the same conclusions that I do but expresses them in a manner that is both more erudite and sympathetic to the materials in question. Another interesting corollary is Julianne Ross’s piece in the Atlantic which asks “Must Every YA Action Heroine Be Petite?” in which she ambles down objectivisation avenue and stumbles across a far more interesting truth:

But this is the same double standard that we’ve been subjected to again and again; just as women are expected to be sexual but not slutty, pure but not prudish, heroines should be strong but not buff. Powerful, yet still delicate enough to be cradled by their male love interests. Mature enough to lead those around them, yet so small that people confuse them with innocent little girls.

I don’t think this aesthetic has as much to do with sexual objectification as it does with the fact that Young Adult fiction is partly about allowing grown-up readers to escape into worlds dominated by melodramatic treatments of banal coming-of-age stories. Indeed, as I explain in the review, The Hunger Games is all about Katniss gaining access to the rooms in which grown-ups have grown-up conversations. Her rebellion against President Snow has less to do with real-world politics than it does with standing up to Daddy. I am not a fan of escapist fiction but I have a particular contempt for escapist fiction that presents banal teenage rebellion as something worthy of book, film and song. Stories like The Hunger Games shrink the horizons of our minds to the point where the banal seems heroic and the heroic seems impossible. Give it another ten years and adults will be reading books that make them feel empowered about the fact that they are potty trained.

 

REVIEW – Winter of Discontent (2012)

Winter of DiscontentFilmJuice have my review of Ibrahim El Batout’s film about the Egyptian revolution Winter of Discontent.

Made in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 overthrow of Mubarak regime, Winter of Discontent follows a group of Egyptians as revolution changes their relationship with their government. Thus, one of the strands follows a TV presenter on a government network who is effectively forced out of her job for daring to ask awkward questions of politicians. Initially, this makes her incredibly fearful for her life but as events in Tahrir square unfold, we see her becoming increasingly bold and defiant before eventually switching sides and using Youtube to denounce the corrupt government. This story is beautifully juxtaposed with that of a secret policeman who moves from a position of absolute certainty in which he feels free to threaten and torture respectable citizens to a position where he owes his family’s safety to the forgiving nature of brutes with sticks.

Let me be clear, despite its shortcomings, I very much enjoyed Winter of Discontent and part of what made the film enjoyable was the fact that it was an incredibly middle-class film made by middle-class Egyptians about their experience of political upheaval. According to the filmmakers, this was a decidedly quiet revolution and that is something of a cinematic rarity:

Sergei Eisenstein’s immortal Battleship Potemkin begins with sailors eating maggoty food and ends with many of those exact same sailors cheering the revolution as their fellows decide to join them in open revolt against the Tsarist regime. Ken Loach’s magnificent ode to the Spanish Civil War Land and Freedom contains oodles of dead fascists and Spanish peasants finally getting a say in how to work their own fields but it ends with the granddaughter of a dead veteran giving a sad but defiant raised fist salute. These cinematic accounts of real-world revolutions may be brilliant, maudlin, triumphalist and manipulative but one thing they are not is quiet. By this measure alone, Ibrahim El Batout’s Winter of Discontent is something entirely unique: a quiet film about revolution.

Watching this film made me reflect on Western attitudes to revolution as I feel most people’s aversion to the idea of overthrowing their government stems from the fact that they are afraid of what might happen to them. This fear is perfectly captured in Marjane Sattrapi and Vincent’s Paronnaud’s Persepolis where a liberal middle-class family wind up being judged and mistreated by uneducated working class people who have been placed in positions of authority by the new regime. One of the fascinating things about Winter of Discontent is that it is entirely free from this sort of class-bound paranoia… the characters sense that something is wrong and face down brutal oppression in order to speak out but while one of the characters is a bit mistrustful of his uneducated upstairs neighbours, his feelings of solidarity quickly overwhelm any misgivings he might have had about the great unwashed. A more romantic and — dare I say it? — politically engaged director might have made a good deal more of that moment of solidarity but El Batout handles it with a quiet restraint that is actually quite refreshing.