REVIEW – Nostalgia (1983)

My Tarkovskyian odyssey continues… FilmJuice have my review of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia, the film he made in Italy prior to his self-imposed exile from the Soviet Union.

Nostalgia is a film that rather took me by surprise. Much less well known than the science fiction films Solaris and Stalker, and less-widely discussed than the historical epics Ivan’s Childhood and Andrei Rublev, the film can be viewed as an attempt to isolate and explore the same devout ambivalence towards the search for spiritual truth that exists in all of Tarkovsky’s films but without the genre scaffolding that accompanies his better-known works.

As with Mirror, Tarkovsky responds to the lack of genre boundaries by exploring experimental narrative structures: In Mirror, he used a non-linear structure inspired by the idea of images flashing before the eyes of a dying man. In Nostalgia, he uses a structure known as a mis-en-abime in which different layers of reality run together:

 

Nostalgia is a film that is fuelled by Tarkovsky’s unhappiness at the realisation that he would most likely never be able to return home to the Soviet Union. Tarkovsky explores these feelings through a complex narrative structure known as a mis-en-abime. The structure begins with the figure of Gorchakov, a respected Russian poet who visits Italy in preparation for writing the biography of a composer who left Russia a serf and returned a celebrated artist only to wind up ending his own life in a fit of despair. The fact that Gorchakov’s situation resembles that of Tarkovsky is evident from the details of the two men’s lives, from the fact that Gorchakov’s first name is Andrei, and from the fact that the film is littered with references to Tarkovsky’s real-world films and writings. The second level of the structure revolves around the subject of Gorchakov’s book, a man who left Russia a slave only to find success and later return home before killing himself in a fit of despair. The life of the composer thus serves as a warning to both Gorchakov and Tarkovsky. While Tarkovsky blurs the boundaries between himself and his protagonist, he also blurs the boundaries between his protagonist and the composer in a series of dreams that could just as easily feature the family of the poet as the family of the composer. The term mis-en-abime comes from the French and refers to the practice of painting blocked up windows to look like real windows through which one could see the world. Thus, the world is literally placed in an abyss, a truth refracted back up to the surface through layers of text and metaphor all pointing straight to the anguish that Tarkovsky was feeling about his looming exile.

What surprised me about Nostalgia was the fact that I think I now prefer it to Stalker.

Thematically, the two films are very similar in that they are both heavily symbolic works that deal with man’s search for meaning and conclude on images of profound spiritual ambiguity. They are also quite similar visually in so far as they both feature long takes comprising beautifully composed shots of architectural decline that mirror the protagonist’s mental state. What surprised me about Nostalgia was the way that it seemed to do pretty much everything Stalker tried to do but does so in a far more focused and purified manner, almost as though someone had taken Stalker and boiled it in a enormous cauldron until all that was left was a thick black paste of existential alienation. Where Stalker provokes, Nostalgia demands. Where Stalker eludes, Nostalgia disappears.

I did not expect Tarkovsky to make a better film than Stalker and yet Nostalgia is precisely that.

Another reason Nostalgia surprised me was that I have only just seen it for the first time and have encountered it at a time when my relationship with science fiction is in something of a state of flux.

Much of the coverage of contemporary science fiction revolves around the battle between people who want the genre to become more diverse in its representation and people who want to genre to remain wedded to the same old characters and story-patterns. Despite being both instinctively sympathetic to calls for more diversity and instinctively unsympathetic to the suggestion that science fiction should focus upon pandering to the deplorable tastes of right-wing Americans, I am struggling to find anything of interest in the output of genre imprints.

The problem is that the big genre imprints appear to be cutting back on the kind of experimental or difficult books that I have grown accustomed to reading. As margins are squeezed and companies become more risk-averse, the rational choice is to focus on the more profitable market sectors and my choice of novels has always been something of a minority interest. Given that I do not enjoy reading commercial genre fiction, the question of who is represented in those kinds of works can never be anything more than an irrelevant abstraction, at least as far as my choice of reading matter is concerned. It’s almost as though there were a debate raging about the diversity of professional rugby league teams: Instinctively, I am naturally inclined to defend the people calling for more diversity but even a suite of perfectly diverse and representative rugby league teams would fail to get me to go and watch a game of rugby. This is why my Future Interrupted column has tended to look at works that are published on the margins of the genre.

This alienation from the field has also had the knock-on effect of prompting me to consider the purpose of genre storytelling. The conventional defence of science fiction is that it allows writers to explore ideas and areas that are difficult to approach from a mainstream perspective. Works like Nostalgia suggest that this is completely and utterly false: Nostalgia does everything Stalker and Solaris try to do and yet does so without a single genre trope.

So, given that films like Nostalgia do science fiction better than science fiction and much of the interesting works of literary science fiction are being published by non-genre imprints, is it time for me to abandon science fiction to the people who want nothing more than character-based escapism?

REVIEW – Stalker (1979)

Frequent visitors to this site will know that I value Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker above all other films. The reasons for this are really two-fold:

Firstly, I think that Tarkovsky’s films set the bar for a cinematic golden age known as the European art house movement. Tarkovsky was one of the first Soviet filmmakers to reach maturity having seen early works of European art house film and I think his films took those methods, combined them with approaches developed by Soviet filmmakers, and produced a series of works that have — in retrospect — come to define that particular sensibility. Stalker is special as it is not only devastatingly beautiful and enormously rich, it is also one of those rare films where everything seems to work both individually and collectively.

Secondly, Stalker is one of my critical compass points. It is not just that I tend to judge other films in terms of how well or poorly they compare to Stalker, it’s that my critical methods have been (consciously or unconsciously) been shaped by how well adapted they are to the task of writing about films like Stalker. Our culture teach us how to respond to the culture we consume and I have definitely found myself drifting closer and closer towards the task of writing about these kinds of beautiful but complex films.

I have actually written about the film before a couple of times before but I think I am most satisfied with this latest nihilistic take. FilmJuice have my review of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which has just been re-released on Blu-ray:

Tarkovsky may have been a genius but he was also the product of a very specific cultural moment. His films are littered with religious symbolism and articulate a profound yearning after spiritual truth but his stories inevitably seem to deposit their characters in states of complete existential crisis. The tension between the content of Tarkovsky’s stories and the style in which he chose to tell them speaks not only to the absence of religion in Soviet lives but also to the brutal materialism implied by Soviet Montage Theory. Indeed, if people can extract meaning from the juxtaposition of two completely unrelated images, how can we imbue this meaning with any form of value? If ‘meaning’ is just a product of the way human brains process information, what are we to make of our desire to find meaning in the chaos of our lives.

Tarkovsky’s Stalker is about man’s search for meaning and how all searches for meaning are doomed to failure. The world is a beautiful place, filled with bliss and horror but the meaning we place on these experiences are ours and ours alone.

REVIEW — Solaris (1972)

The fashion these days is to treat creative collaboration in the way that medieval dynasties treated royal marriage: Take one thing you like, add another thing you like, and what you are supposed to get is something doubly-awesome. However, the truth is that some creative marriages result in nothing more than the artistic equivalent of Prince Charles: Grotesquely ugly and malformed creatures that have nothing to offer but the weight of their genetic pedigrees.

Though by no means as hideous as Charles Windsor, I have never been entirely convinced by Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptation of a novel by the great Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem. FilmJuice have my review of Solaris, which was released this week on Blu-ray.

Historically, my problem with the film has always been that while Tarkovsky seemed quite happy to strip out the novel’s engagement with the idea that it might be impossible to achieve meaningful communication with alien species, he struggled to find anything to replace it beyond some rather hand-wavy comments about guilt, memory and the power of obsession. This viewing of the film allowed me to move beyond that assessment and appreciate a lot of the things the film does right (it’s quite a lengthy review) but I think Solaris’ relative lack of success actually tells us quite a bit about Tarkovsky’s methods and what type of material works best with those methods:

Tarkovsky himself described the film as an artistic failure because it failed to escape the limits of genre in the same way as Tarkovsky’s later Stalker developed beyond the limits of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic. While Stalker remains a beautiful and thoughtful work of science fiction, it is hard to disagree with Tarkovsky’s assessment.

The problem is that though Tarkovsky was undoubtedly a cinematic genius, his genius lay not in directly approaching specific ideas but in orbiting those ideas and inviting audiences to draw their own conclusions through the careful placement of imagery and references. On a purely practical level, ideas that audiences winkle out for themselves tend to have a lot more impact than ideas that are dumped in their laps. On a more theoretical level, requiring audiences to do some work for themselves means that every vision of Tarkovsky’s films is different and exquisitely personal to the person who first beheld it.

Despite being the only Tarkovsky film to win a Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Solaris feels like a minor Tarkovsky as the juxtaposition of ideas and images is forced to play second fiddle to the kind of dialogue-based exposition that is common in both written and filmed science fiction. The Tarkovsky films we create in our own heads will always be more satisfying than the Tarkovsky films that exist on the screen and Solaris is a less satisfying and engaging film because Tarkovsky gives his audience less space in which to construct their own interpretations.

 

 

 

 

REVIEW — Couple in a Hole (2015)

*taps mic* Is this thing still on? Good.

FilmJuice have my review of Tom Geens’ excellent Couple in a Hole, a Anglo-French drama that set amidst the mountains and forests of South-Western France. While my critical career has not exactly been on the ascendant in recent years, I have really enjoyed the opportunity to write about films that hype forgot. In fairness, many of these films have been mediocre but every now and then, a film comes along that reminds me of why I love the medium of film and the dysfunctional artistic traditions that have grown up around it. Couple in a Hole is one of those films.

As political and economic crises make it harder and harder for young people to pursue their dreams, Western civilisation grows ever more obsessed with its own inevitable demise. Most manifest in young adult blockbusters like the Hunger Games and Divergent series, our apocalyptic fascination keeps drawing us back to stories in which the science and politics of catastrophe have been replaced with levels of emotional abstraction that speak to a yearning for absolute psychological simplicity. We don’t care whether the bombs rain down or the zombies rise up, we just want immerse ourselves in worlds where the stultifying complexity of late capitalism have been replaced with spaces where people can breathe and be themselves.

Just as TV’s The Walking Dead has spent the best part of a decade exploring the rise and fall of simple human societies and Mad Max: Fury Road imagined a radical break with patriarchal structures, films like 2015’s The Survivalist used the end of the world as an excuse to explore one man’s movement from solitude to community along with the interwoven bonds of love and trust required to make such a journey. These films are only about the end of the world in so far as they create fictional spaces where the nuances of capitalist emotional economics have been replaced with something that seems both more real and less realistic. Even outside of genre filmmaking, the end of the world has proved an enduring source of metaphorical imagery as in the case of Thomas Cailley’s brilliant debut Les Combattants where a couple need to immerse themselves in an apocalyptic landscape before they can move beyond embarrassment and confront the true nature of the feelings. Built along similar lines, Tom Geens’ second film Couple in a Hole also benefits from the lightest possible touch of the genre brush. Set in the forests of South-West France, this brilliantly acted and beautifully shot film uses apocalyptic imagery to explore the collapse of one life and the slow emergence of another.

You can read the rest of my review right HERE.

Couple in a Hole is a non-genre film that uses genre imagery and themes to explore characters and express emotional truths. In my review I pointed to Cailley’s excellent Les Combattants but another example of the form is Jeff Nichols’ superb Take Shelter starring Michael Shannon.

The combination of genre and non-genre elements rather reminds me of those genre short stories that use genre elements as a way of turning emotional states into metaphors and then making those metaphors concrete, the supreme example of the form being Sofia Samatar’s “Selkie Stories are for Losers” from back in 2013. For John and Karen, the death of their son felt like the end of the world and so their attempts to live with their grief take on a post-apocalyptic character.

The film is out on DVD in the UK this week and, by the looks of it, is also receiving a few screenings in indie cinemas. Seek it out, it is one of the best films I’ve seen in ages.

 

 

Anno Dominus

October 1995 saw the appearance of what may yet turn out to be the defining work of 21st Century science fiction.

Written and directed by Hideaki Anno 新世紀エヴァンゲリオ is an animated TV series that ran for 26 episodes and birthed one of the most enduring and successful franchises in the history of anime. Released in the west under the nebulously evocative title of Neon Genesis Evangelion, the series’ original title can be literally translated as “Gospel of a New Century”.

Gospels are useful things to bear in mind when approaching the Evangelion franchise as Eva is not just a TV series but a series of more-or-less consistent works that more-or-less rework the events and themes contained within the original TV series. Given that Eva is a hugely commercially and massively commoditised trans-media franchise, it is tempting to view these later films in the same way as we might view the similar properties that have emerged from Hollywood over the last ten years. Concepts like ‘remake’, ‘reboot’ and ‘reimagining’ might be useful in trying to understand the relationship between different Batman  and Star Trek films but the Eva properties are far more personal and so the relationship between them is a lot closer to that between the various Christian gospels.

While the gospels may share a setting, a cast of characters, and a message to convey, they do not necessarily line up in terms of narrative and character detail. For example, the book of Matthew claims that the Resurrection was reported by women while the book of Mark suggests that they kept the fact to themselves. More substantially, the book of Mark presents Jesus as a conduit for information about the world to come while the book of John treats Jesus as a spiritual teacher whose example we are expected to follow. Theologians may well argue that the various gospels are consistent as long as you squint a bit and deliberately misinterpret things but another way of accounting for the inconsistencies is to view the different gospels as different and more-or-less successful attempts to articulate a single divinely-inspired vision. Anno’s desire to articulate his vision has taken over twenty years and resulted in four broadly different iterations of the same basic story.

It is tempting to explore the differences between the various iterations of the Evangelion story but that would require me to write a much longer article. Suffice it to say that people who are interested in getting to grips with Eva are advised to start with the most recent run of films. The original TV series and Evangelion: Death and Rebirth are also worth checking out but they are considerably harder to find and End of Evangelion is really just an expanded and reworked version of the events described in Rebirth meaning that it will make little sense to anyone not already familiar with the themes and characters.

I’ve not written anything about Eva before but the recent UK release of Evangelion: 3.33 struck me as an interesting place to start as the current iteration of the story — the so-called Rebuild of Evangelion tetralogy — is now several years behind schedule and growing ever-more opaque with each additional volume. In fact, the development problems are so severe that Western home releases of the film were delayed by two whole years amidst rumours of demanded re-translations and re-dubbings. At time of writing, it is not clear to me that Rebuild of Evangelion will be any more successful or definitive than previous articulations of Anno’s vision but the incomplete vision we have is already more arresting and mind-blowing than any Western science fiction film in recent memory.

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The Lobster (2015) – The Loneliness Games

As someone who loves and hates science fiction almost as much as he loves and hates art house film, I am uncharacteristically excited by the work of Yorgos Lanthimos. In fact, the only director who work intrigues me as much as that of Lanthimos is that of Athina Rachel Tsangari and she produced Lanthimos’ early works in return for his producing hers. Together, these Greek directors are in the process of creating something entirely new in European film and all I can really say is that it’s about damn time.

Lanthimos spent the 1990s directing adverts and music videos as well as working with experimental theatre troupes. Part of the team responsible for the Opening and Closing ceremonies of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, Lanthimos stepped up to directing features with a mainstream sex comedy that was never really seen outside of Greece. The change came in 2005 when Lanthimos directed an experimental film entitled Kinetta, which was nominated for an award at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival. Kinetta is not a great film and arguably not the best place to start when trying to get to grips with Lanthimos’ body of work but it does feature the same troubled relationship with reality as Lanthimos’ later films.

Set amidst the concrete tower blocks and sun-drenched parking lots of a holiday resort, the film revolves around a group of eccentrics who search for meaning by re-staging and filming the crimes of a local serial killer. Shot with a hand-held camera in a way that serves only to draw the audience’s attention to the artificiality of the film’s viewpoint, Kinetta creates a few memorable images only to lose them in a sea of puzzling characters, truncated narratives and a thematic package that never quite manages to find its own shape. Neither surreal enough to be allegorical nor sufficiently grounded to shed much light on questions of identity, the film seems to sit between a number of different and incompatible ontological registers.

It is easy to see why Dogtooth is the film that brought Lanthimos to a the attention of a global audience. Released at a time when the collapse of the Greek economy was just beginning, the film uses surrealistic imagery and science fictional themes to explore inter-generational conflict and the idea of Greece as a country where the young are held captive by the dreams and nightmares of their parents. Built around the conceit of a world-within-a-world that takes the power dynamics of childhood and projects them out onto a world whose political settlement had been revealed as a complete fantasy, Dogtooth solves Kinetta’s troubled relationship between fiction and reality by framing fantasy as something that can be both imposed and escaped.

Lanthimos’ follow-up film Alps took a different and considerably less successful approach to the tension between fiction and reality. Set in the real world, the film revolves around a group of misfits who rent themselves out to grieving families as a way of giving them a few extra days or weeks with the deceased. As in Kinetta, Lanthimos draws our attention to the arbitrariness of everyday life through the medium of bad acting. The group may be hired to play the deceased but their inability to either imitate the dead or deliver a line of dialogue with real sentiment drives home the idea that human lives are little more than collections of empty rituals. In fact, when one of the group begins adding to her role by fostering real relationships and making important decisions, her employers are outraged: This is not the daughter we were expecting! The reason that Alps does not work as well as Dogtooth is that rather than associating the film’s surreal imagery with a world-within-a-world, Lanthimos associates it with grief and the social transgressions born of heightened emotional states. The problem here is that while audiences can relate to the idea of childhood as a place where parents impose ridiculous ideas upon their children, the idea of people doing ridiculous and surreal things because they are upset seems somewhat unrealistic and lacking in satirical focus. Alps did not work because Lanthimos tried to resolve the tension between reality and fiction in purely psychological terms and, as in Kinetta, his surrealist methods tend to become less effective the closer his films get to conventional realism.

Lanthimos’ latest film The Lobster takes an entirely different approach to the troubled relationship between reality and fiction. Where Kinetta, Alps, and Dogtooth seemed to scurry back and forth along a spectrum that reaches from the realistic to the psychologically expressionistic, The Lobster does away with the real world in favour of a science-fictional conceit that might best be described as The Hunger Games for sexually-repressed single people.

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REVIEW – Rollerball (1975)

FilmJuice have my review of Norman Jewison’s iconic 1970s science fiction film Rollerball, which has just been re-released on Blu-ray. When my editor at FilmJuice approached me to write about Rollerball I was initially a bit reluctant… I first saw Rollerball at the age of six because I was named for the film’s protagonist and my mother couldn’t be bothered to provide me with boundaries. In fact, I actually saw Rollerball a number of years before I first saw Star Wars and I remember being puzzled by the latter’s lack of blood. Where was the scene in which Luke wrenched off a Storm-trooper’s helmet and punched him in the back of the head with a spiked glove? I watched Rollerball so frequently as a child that I wound up committing huge sections of the film to memory at least a decade before acquiring the emotional and conceptual apparatus to understand what the film was actually about. I was reluctant to take this reviewing gig as I have never before written about Rollerball and was a bit concerned that the suck fairy might have gotten to it… Thankfully, while the film turns out to be something of a thematic mess, it more than stands up to critical scrutiny:

The 1970s was a time when science fiction was enjoying a moment of rare literary respectability. The collapse of the pulp magazines had forced the genre’s writers to shift closer to the literary mainstream and the institutions comprising that mainstream had rewarded this cultural obeisance with a market for short fiction that spilled from the pages of glossy magazines and out into the Hollywood hills. Perhaps sensing that science fiction was a genre on the up, [director Norman] Jewison secured the rights to a short story that had appeared in the pages of Esquire magazine and hired the author William Harrison to provide him with a screenplay. Despite Jewison having no experience directing action and Harrison having never before written for film, the pair managed to produce one of the most bewildering and influential works of 1970s science fiction.

The reason I call the film bewildering is that while the action sequences remain viscerally potent and brilliantly conceived, the quiet stuff surrounding them turns out to be more than a little bit confused. The problem is that while the film is based on a short story, Harrison’s story is all about how the unexamined life is not worth living. In the story “Roller Ball Murder”, Jonathan E is an exquisite physical specimen who has been raised to the peak of physical fitness and celebrated for his athletic prowess. However, as time passes and the game becomes more violent, Jonathan begins to wonder whether there might not just be a little bit more to life than victory, accolades, drugs and sex. Doubting his vocation, the big lump tries to educate himself about history and philosophy only to realise that the government has destroyed all the books. Now… while the director of Fiddler on the Roof would have had his pick of new projects, it is unlikely that even 1970s Hollywood would have helped to fund a science fiction sports film about the lack of spiritual sustenance to be had from a hedonistic lifestyle. As a result, Harrison and Jewison ditched the story’s Platonic theme in favour of well… a number of different themes:

Inexperienced as a screen-writer and forced to come up with a new motivation for his character, Harrison threw everything but the kitchen sink at his script in an effort to provide Jonathan with a set of motives that were both primal enough to be relatable and high-minded enough to give the film thematic heft. This resulted in a protagonist whose act of rebellion feels so hopelessly over-determined as to be effectively meaningless: Apparently Jonathan E is angry with the people who broke up his marriage, and looking to avenge the death of his friend, and start a rebellion, and embody the kind of radical individualism that is supposed to pose an existential threat to corporate governance.

Rollerball is a hugely influential film that inspired not only Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games but also the flood of YA dystopias that followed in its wake. At first glance, this influence is rather shallow as both Rollerball and The Hunger Games are set in dystopian futures where governments use bloodsports to keep their oppressed populations in line. However, look beyond the surface tropes and you will notice that both Rollerball and The Hunger Games are in the business of presenting small acts of athletic disobedience as the birth of revolutionary subjectivities that pose an existential threat to their respective societies:

  • Jonathan E doesn’t want to retire, this forces his government to change the rules of the game and marks him as a threat.
  • Katniss Everdeen would rather not kill her fellow tribune, this forces her government to change the rules of the game and marks her as a threat.

In order to make this act of thematic inflation stick, both Rollerball and The Hunger Games blur the boundaries between the political and the personal to produce a weird thematic mess that is both a literal description of an athlete who becomes a political rebel and a weirdly metaphorical treatment of both individualism and the similarities between becoming an adult and acquiring political agency. The big difference between Rollerball and The Hunger Games is that while Rollerball ends with that moment of individualistic awakening, The Hunger Games goes on for several more books and films exploring the athlete’s political career.

Another way in which Rollerball influenced The Hunger Games is that while both films rush to adopt revolutionary postures, their critiques of despotism are both completely toothless.

Despite pre-empting the idea of corporate rule that featured so prominently in Sidney Lumet and Paddy Cayefsky’s Network, Rollerball really struggles to imagine what corporate rule might look like and how it might be undone. Consider the memorable speech from Network in which Ned Beatty proclaims that “the world is a business”:

It is easy to imagine Rollerball as a film set in the post-national future that Ned Beatty describes but rather than a vast homeostatic system in which unfettered capital flows from one side of the world to another, Rollerball has a set of neatly-ordered monopolies in which the corporations no longer even bother to compete. In fact, the film even goes so far as to suggest that money is no longer an issue as there is no poverty or talk of wages and Jonathan gets his luxuries with the help of something called a ‘privilege card’. Also deeply weird is the idea that the game of Rollerball was designed to highlight the futility of individual effort and that Jonathan E’s rugged individualism poses some sort of threat to corporate hegemony.

The truth is that while Rollerball may present itself as an anti-corporate film, the system it critiques is actually much closer to Communism with its planned economy, institutional monopolies and rule by elusive grey-faced men. Rugged individualism will always pose a threat to the vision of Communism that existed in American minds for much of the Cold War but as everything from the Premier League to the NBA will tell you; when the people love an athlete and the athlete breaks the law, corporations will always look the other way.

Revisiting Rollerball as a critic did not exactly undermine my childhood love of the film but it did suggest that I wasn’t really missing very much when I failed to connect with the quiet talky bits. Those action sequences are amazing and the film continues to look great but when it comes to political critique, the film is much closer to The Hunger Games than it is to Network or the paranoid Hollywood cinema of the 1970s.