Thursday 29 November 2012

The State of Cinema Essay 2012

Cinema used to connote a place and film a material. Now what makes a film is a philosophical or contextual issue, one of form and favour. The 'cinematic', due in part to the digital revolution which overthrew film's textures, is apparently concluding its metamorphosis into the televisual, raging with inadequate weapons, 3D and IMAX, against its invisibility.

Cinema, or films, are exposed as never before. Technology has opened them up and made them available for all. It is easier than it ever has been to watch films and cheaper than ever to make them (Bellflower $17,000; Quiet City $2,000). All countries will produce all genres. This is an age of rumours, spoilers, YouTube, Netflix, torrents, cable pay-per-view, fan cuts, deleted scenes, directors' commentaries, internet forums, the crowd-sourced Life in A Day, Star Wars : Uncut and Paul Verhoeven's imminent Trick'd, an age in which we lurk behind the curtain, an age in which the studio-anointed artist's pedestal is being kicked from under him.

 Quiet City (Aaron Katz, 2007) and 
Troll Hunter (Andre Ovredal, 2010)

Almost anyone can achieve a professional look, in part because the mainstream multiplex aesthetic is meeting low budget output halfway (shaky camera, unvarnished images, unstudied acting), challenging viewers to learn new definitions for amateurishness, or for good and bad.

Found footage, or character-filmed movies, are eulogies to the average guy not only as star but as artist, wherein the director apes the unschooled observer and draws attention to the lens as never before.

The expert's trump card is skills not tools. He is a critic on his own shoulder, a sculptor chipping away at six hours of footage to achieve a gratifying two-hour hourglass shape. The difference between the best and the rest will increasingly be in the editing.

Ambiguous motivations, events and outcomes are proliferating out of a cycle of audience demand for co-authorship and artistic cowardice. As vision and personal craft retreat there is more space being left for us to step into. Writers and directors are less likely to serve a meal as provide the ingredients with their open-ended conclusions and loose threads implying that moments when we can be active participants have to be contrived and then prescribed : "now you can think...".

The audience, following a work from conception to delivery, are made aware of, and can criticise, every decision taken almost as it is taken and the temptation comes to see oneself as a better curator than the creator. The hands-on, pseudo-interactive, consumer is given everything he or she needs to ruin his own experience of a film, already aware of what is going to happen thanks to leaked scripts and synoptic trailers.

The rituals and spells of film-watching - the tickets, the popcorn and the darkened room or the magical family gathering around the flickering fire of the television set - are wearing off.

Fiction is beginning to fail. The apostles of Big Story, M Night Shyamalan (Lady in the Water, The Happening) or Richard Kelly (Southland Tales, The Box) for example, suffer disproportionate ridicule (for being 'ridiculous'). People do not "get into" film (and art across the spectrum) as they used to. They cannot treat it as if it were real, their disbelief almost too obese to suspend. This phenomena is seen most acutely in an arena where people would dance happily along the fourth wall, no matter how narrow it was - professional wrestling. Now a growing number of fans can think only of the mechanics and believe themselves intelligent when they shout at the uninitiated, in a shower of binary or a spray of pixels : "It's not real!"

We are increasingly inculcated in an idea that all film is a representation of and response to our exact reality. No work is allowed to record reality without having an artistic approach and little can be artistic/fantastical without having a metaphorical, allegorical or political stance (is The Dark Knight Rises conservative or liberal?). Characters lose agency and stories are uprooted. These perspectives hamstring fantasy and pour the poison of supposed agenda (something to be feared) into our ears.

It is for all these reasons and many more that remain hidden that the 'Golden Age' of Cinema (especially of pure barrelling narrative and entertainment) isn't a place in time (i.e. the thirties) but a time in each person's life - childhood. When we are young we believe unconditionally and questions of how and why something is made are a still distant test of faith.


Over the last years 'slow films', with longer static takes, fewer plot points and less physical action became more mainstream, the preserve of continental Europe no longer. As with ambiguous stories, this type of film purports to provide worlds less full of their own content, so to speak.

Such films tend to come with the cachet of being more contemplative or intellectual and, with this in mind, many directors appeared ready to brand their works with the conventional marks of art cinema (if there's less happening there must be more to think about) hoping a credulous and equally pretentious viewer would take the bait.

Slow films, and so-called art films in general, are, by and large, easier to follow and understand than faster populist films. They can be appreciated by anyone.

The finest examples of the past few years have been Oxhide I and Oxhide II (directed by Liu Jiayin and starring herself and her parents) and the Paranormal Activity series, which uses a pared down patient style (perfectly suited to horror) that, had it been used for a different type of film, may have been dismissed by the public.

A precious few know how and why to use these styles and in so doing earn distinct labels of established, thought-through genre characteristics (if not principles) : Structuralism or Minimalism.

Podworka (Sharon Lockhart, 2009) and 
Somewhere (Sofia Coppola, 2010)

The best exponents happen to be women: Julia Leigh (Sleeping Beauty), Sofia Coppola (Somewhere), Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, Meek's Cutoff), Sharon Lockhart (Podworka) and Chantal Akerman (La-Bas) to name but few. Special mention should be made of Benedikt Fliegauf (Milky Way), Hou Hsiao Hsien (Cafe Lumiere) and individual films in the Romanian New Wave (Tuesday, After Christmas; Aurora) They mollify the more inherently distant (often literally, in longer shots than the norm) feel of this naturally self-disciplined and rigorous mode of expression with intense scrutiny and slender elegance.

Small changes in constants are fundamental dynamics of minimalism. Two, three, four hour long shots of streets or ocean waves (uploaded to YouTube) sit us down in places where we wouldn't normally spend so much time and, by putting a lens in between and a frame around, allow us to watch the world. This isn't minimalism or extreme minimalism; it's just filming and a (heartening) type of filming removed from the way art evolves its own real, stuck in cycles of fresh, mannered, cliched, then fresh again.

The whole point of filming is to record another place and to take people to it. The first thing cinema did was document when Lumiere filmed his own workers leaving the factory (beating Scream (still going strong with Scream 4) in the meta-stakes by over a hundred years). Presentation and beauty would quickly and inevitably follow (Danse Sepertine) accompanied by all the entanglements of meanings, intentions and maker / art / reality / viewer.

Lav Diaz's Death in the Land of Encantos (2007) and Sion Sono's Himizu (2011) staged dramas in areas affected by real-life natural disasters (landslides in the Philippines and the tsunami in Japan), constructing raw but tempered polemic ground up through their characters and bearing great witness to the plight of peoples and nations. They are illustrated documents where fantasy is a ghost stalking the plains of the real. The opening and closing tracking shots in Himizu are showing the same devastation as in Ten Days After.

Death in the Land of Encantos (Lav Diaz, 2007)

Indeed trauma was the predominant colour of recent cinema. Structures of psychosis, delusion, loss of self and loss of reality hid its shades in kaleidoscopic puzzle narratives that would eventually shatter under the weight of the same truth : something terrible has happened. Have terrorist attacks, have nationwide catastrophes, have economic meltdowns, as the storms approaching the shore in Take Shelter, come home, in the cinema, to roost?

The search for meaning (Knowing, Prometheus, Melancholia, 4:44 Last Day on Earth) may come amid apocalypse or may be answered by the apocalypse : there is nothing.

Through the same prism, the increasingly popular mortification of Torture Porn (too many examples to mention) could be seen as catharsis via self-flagellation.

The psychological and physical torment (where the sexual and the violent are melded and confused) of one individual, in viscerally thrilling and deadening games (the villain will often frame his actions the self-same way we frame our film-watching - as a bet in which morality has no stake), is trickling, as our systems demand stronger drugs, down the certificates and quite possibly onto the streets outside the theatre.

Saw VI (Kevin Greutert, 2009) and
God Bless America (Bobcat Goldthwait, 2011)

Torture Porn goes together with the revival of extreme game shows (Gamer, Death Race, The Hunger Games, Live!) and the warping of (we are told) sensible people (horrified at the insensible world around them) into murderers (Rampage, God Bless America etc.).

These fantasies, which can offer a breathtaking buzz, rest on the sensitive tissue where criticism, truthful representation (horrible things should be shown horribly) and collaboration of and with reality meet, like blood vessels in a bruise. The issue of what we bring in to a film and what we take out, although its complexities can be overstated, has never been more knotted.

Frankly what it comes down to is what we are instinctively comfortable watching.


What of films for children, for whom our best must be reserved?

There have been plenty of good children's films. They have entertained (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Muppets) and inspired (Arrietty). They have empathised with young people (the films of the Dardennes and Dorota Kedzierzawska, which do for children what the films of Mizoguchi and Naruse did for women) and encouraged them (The Hole, From Up On Poppy Hill). They have even ended war with awe, as in The Last Airbender. Films meant for older audiences have foregrounded selflessness and sacrifice : The Matrix films, Prometheus and Sucker Punch.

From Up on Poppy Hill (Goro Miyazaki, 2011) 
and Tomorrow Will Be Better (Dorota Kedzierzawska, 2011)

These tales show us that there are causes to fight for and things to achieve, a world we can sign our name to, and on. We are more and not less. In this regard Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life was a game-changer. It raised the bar for film as a visual form and as an exaltation of the human in stark contrast to the likes of Martyrs or Final Destination, which appeal (albeit effectively) to the reflexes and the flesh alone. A feast needs many tastes.

The feeling persists, however, that children are being let down. The infantile has the upper hand with its array of sop and fart jokes. Too many children's films are schizophrenic, packed with adult references (like most films they are more 'self-aware' than they used to be) that appeal to the fathers and mothers who are accompanying them and that leave each watching a separate film rather than sharing in one.

Fables and fairytales would always give children 'what they want' as well as something to learn, something adults (who are, after all,the makers and writers) thought that they needed. There was always risk and danger, edge and a taste of the grown-up world that awaits. Films for children shouldn't be childish.

In a way film in the olden days, with its (self)censorship, wanted to show our best face. Now there is less shame. We are treading roughshod through the groves of childhood with muddy boots. We are churning out boring, unimaginative pacifiers with less meaning and less meaningfulness. The sprinkling of "F**k"s (because that's what they were) all over Wes Anderson's The Fantastic Mr Fox is depressingly symptomatic.

The same multiplexes that across the globe are filled with the froth of  fun but forgettable films (the same ones where you couldn't see The Tree of Life or Godard's Film Socialisme) upgrade to 3D whilst AD (Audio Description) and subtitles are still not available for all films (which a girl called Immy brought to the nation's attention on BBC's Newsround). Why spend time, money and energies on the fripperies and leave a significant portion of the (potential) audience out in the cold altogether? Film isn't meant as a charity or a public service but it does have opportunities to make itself as good as it can as well as, quite rightly, as rich as it can.

It is as if the development of children is being arrested in preparation for the silly sleaziness of modern (inverted commas) romantic (inverted commas) comedies and their so-called adult relationships. The most believable and interesting love stories aimed at teenagers are almost incidental to main plots (Peter and Gwen in The Amazing Spider-Man, Spock and Uhura in Star Trek).

Role models (accepting that these characters don't exist) in blockbuster films have all but disappeared from the screen. The strong leading men and women of old have been routinely replaced by blank-eyed waxworks with attitude, of which the focal switch from Tron's smart/cool/manly Kevin Flynn to Tron Legacy's smart-ass kidult Sam is characteristic. Before we would aspire to be like those on screen. Now, sadly, we simply aspire to be in their position – rich, devil-may-care, surrounded by busty babes. 

Nostalgia talks : films used to have more bite, more verve, more maturity, didn't they? It is frankly useless pining for a bygone age (even if it was better) as it would only come back skew-whiff; silent film came back as The Artist, a zombie feasting directly on silent film flesh rather than what fuelled the classics of old : passion.

Passion. A story to tell. Make with your hands, tell with your heart. Not drag with a mouse. Not cut and paste templates. Not (just) insubstantial CGI but honest-to-goodness TLC. Who will replace Jean-Luc Godard, Bela Tarr and Jacques Rivette when they hang up their scissors? Whose idiosyncrasies will grace the landscape like Eric Rohmer's and Tony Scott's. The talent is out there; the problem as ever is promoting it to its rightful place...

Alexandr Sokurov (Faust), the invigorating Sion Sono(Land of Hope), the genre-hopper Ang Lee (Life of Pi), Zack Snyder (Man of Steel), Lars Von Trier (Nymphomaniac), Aki Kaurismaki (Le Havre), Abbas Kiarostami (Like Someone In Love), Leos Carax (Holy Motors), David Lynch, Francis Ford Coppola (Twixt) Michael Mann and Ti West (The Innkeepers).

The most exciting prospect of the next few years will be how new directors and new writers take on the great inheritance, and playpen, Star Wars. It is a litmus test of a 21st Century industry. How personal, how different will they (be allowed to) be? Everyone has a unique style and a point of view and yet vast swathes of films appear as if imagined by the same mind.

Key developments of the last five years (from top):
George Lucas sells Lucasfilm to Disney; Liu Jiayin films
Oxhide II; Paranormal Activity 3; The Tree of Life

Sunday 18 November 2012

Images Inspired by Paintings

The art of painting has clearly inspired many a film-maker. Single shots have drawn on subjects common to painting for atmosphere or symbolism. Works have been recreated (Godard's Passion, Derek Jarman's Caravaggio, Raul Ruiz's Klimt etc.) or manipulated for humour or political capital. The lighting of scenes, their texture, the balance of the people and objects within the frame owe something, consciously or unconsciously, to the brushstrokes of artists who established a language of encoding and decoding emotion and abstract ideas.

But of course maybe they are merely inspired by the same thing that inspire great paintings : to be pleasing to the eye. In other words, beauty.

From Top :

Lullaby (Nana Janelidze)
Faust (Aleksandr Sokurov)
Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky)
Forever Mozart (Jean-Luc Godard)
Viridiana (Luis Bunuel)
War and Peace (Sergei Bondarchuk)
El Sol del Membrillo (Victor Erice)
Legend of Suram Fortress (Sergei Parajanov)
Survival of the Dead (George Romero)

Friday 26 October 2012

Miniature Worlds

Sacrifice - "Which of you has done this?" Abnormal, miraculous, beautiful and disturbing. His house is recreated small and he is therefore made big - a simple man who has made a pact with God to save the world through sacrifice. Which of you (Gods) has made it all?

L'Eclisse -  She is bored, directionless and trapped. Sometimes the world feels too much for you and sometimes it is not enough; your head in the clouds with the skyscrapers.

Citizen Kane - The city over which your hulking loomed is now just a city of boxes and crates in which your possessions reside. What profiteth man...

Superman Returns - The world is your plaything. "I Don't Want To Be A God I Just Wanna Bring Fire To The People". Lex is the new law.

Enter the Void - A glow-in-the-dark mini Tokyo. The miniature looks like the real thing and then the 'real' Tokyo is represented by the miniature remembered. Is he dead or is he exploring his own brain? He floats above and through the world but he is never really part of it.

Robocop - The delta city model of a model city; white. glorious. perfect. The virginal corporate vision is crushed by an innocent body in a hail of blood-drenched gunfire.

Friday 12 October 2012

Holy Motors

(the) film is strange

Oscar, dressed in a motion capture suit and toting a machine gun, steps onto a treadmill in front of a large screen projecting shape and colour of green, black, red and white. The treadmill rolls faster and faster as we move in closer and closer. He screams and fires his gun, running manically against an increasingly white background, resembling a jerky figure in a zoetrope viewed through a slit; the sight of one object, the illusion of one smooth movement, created from many images.

He falls off the treadmill. The journey from the future of cinema back to its embryonic stages has exhausted him, as the hands of Metropolis' clock did Freder, flesh tortured by mechanics, the soul stretched like pizza dough over levers, racks and cogs.

Chauffeured around Paris, Oscar invests himself in various guises. He steps out of the door as an old lady beggar, a mischievous tramp, a hitman or a disgruntled father. Thus the zoetrope is metaphorical for Oscar's existence – many roles and many images in one - and, as with the zoetrope, his oneness is a trick or a mirage. He doesn't fully exist; except off-stage, possibly, in the back of that limousine.

He is weary, lost perhaps, mourning maybe. There is something in him of the man in the old footage (by Etienne Jules Marey) that opens the film – naked, running to and fro like a rat in a maze.               

”I who have been many men in vain want to be one and myself”

“Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one 

[Everything and Nothing, Jorge Luis Borges] -  Introductory quote to Holy Motors press kit


We know by the folders of assignments waiting for him on the back seat and the man who comes to monitor his progress, that his role-playing constitutes a job. He is an actor. We know that he takes pride in it, in the importance and form of his acts (“la beaute du geste”) and we observe how he takes great care over his transformations. Oscar considers it to be a vocation, a higher duty. But is the geste only a gesture (now). Is it just momentum, the fading echo of a defunct lifestyle?


Oscar never faces the world as himself. He never faces it without a costume or without makeup, or without an adopted name. It is as if he doesn't want to be himself.


It isn't possible to develop a theory of everything for a film as full of nuance and diverse trains of thought as Holy Motors, but you can approach it as M. Merde approaches the model Kay M, with esurient awe, and let its presence and perfume move around you.


It is a lament. Has there been a tragedy? Has it driven him to an awful fate of ceaseless reincarnation? Has he thrown himself into a futureless role because, without a future, the past's grief cannot flourish, a history cannot be established and human bonds cannot be forged.

Oscar as Le Mourant : “Nothing makes you feel more alive than to see others die”


Oscar meets an old acquaintance, a similarly mysterious actor named Jean. She sings a song in which she wails : “we had a child”. Has a child of his really died? Is that child something else : cinema, happiness, one's own fragile life?

The one role he plays whose emotions overflow back into the limousine, and the only one for which he drives a car (exerting a modicum of what you could call control) as opposed to being driven, is that of a father to a young teenage girl called Angèle. She lies to him about a party and, returning to the limousine, he hurls his wig away in anger. He told her that her punishment was to be her. Oscar's is the same.


He waits for her outside a party from which the lines “I can't get you out of my head”, “you're more than I dare to think about” and “won't you stay...forever and ever....and ever” (Kylie Minogue's Can't Get You Out Of My Head) loudly pulse. Having dropped her off, he watches her recede in the wing mirror. Was it a daughter that he lost?


There is always real within fiction. A photo taken by a character remains on that camera, a document of that person at that time. The river water which drenched Reverend Harry Powell must dry from Robert Mitchum's suit. And yet because there is real in unreal and unreal in real, this escape to art can never be an escape.


Roles leave marks on you. You carry them with you. Edith Scob, who plays Oscar's chauffeuse Celine, dons, at the end of her shift, the mask she wore as Christiane in Georges Franju's Eyes Without A Face over forty years before. The ghosts of French cinema are out there.


Is this a mere throwaway throwback (and not everything in a film must carry the same significance), an illustration of an idea, or something more personal to Celine? Is Celine's face/identity not restored (or under construction)? What is her story?


The plaintive song which plays the last time we see Oscar, “Revivre” (Gérard Manset), cries out of things unfinished, of points of no return, of diving into the cold liquid of groundhog days (“plonger dans le froid liquide des jours toujours les mêmes”), of finishing dreams and of feeling the sap rising within you (“sentir monter la sève”).


A lament about the death of cinema and the death of faith: People “don't believe what they are seeing” anymore, now that technology has made cameras invisible.

People are becoming mere tools and materials from which other (inhuman) images are extrapolated. The motion capture session, essentially full body puppetry, is for the purpose of a (porno)graphic of devilish creatures cavorting. Which image is controlling the other?


He meets Elise, another professional 'al fresco' actor. If all the world's a stage, could everyone be a player?


Holy Motors could be autobiographical :  it is dedicated, in its last moments, to Katia Golubeva, Mr. Carax's partner, who died the year before the film was released. Their daughter features in the film, probably as a little girl we see trapped, as if abandoned, behind a window. Oscar may be Monsieur Carax, a man throwing himself into the process of making art, to escape, to honour and to remember:


Mrs Golubeva is buried in Pere Lachaise cemetery, which appears in the film on three occasions.


Oscar is filling holes in others' lives. He is meeting needs. The daughter in the car accepts this supposed imposter as her father. Does Oscar play the role regularly? Is her father only a character? If her father exists, Oscar is filling his absence. How sad...and how kind...

Does Oscar play the role of M.Merde enough times to create the pile of money and jewels in his cave, or is he just standing in for him? For whose benefit does the outfit / disguise have to be so perfected?


He is a sort of angel, then, in these 'holy', cars. Celine calls another holy motorist : "Ectoplasm on wheels". Are the drivers ghosts?


Oscar kills the first role we see him play (the banker), and then the gangster Theo (another doppelganger), a role he may have played previously. This is a sort of suicide, self-defeating.

If they are not real people that he is mimicking, does he leave avatars in the world where they become independent flesh and blood?

Do characters take on a life of their own?

Method, madness.


The roles Oscar inhabits are raw, intensely transformative, quietly introspective and fearlessly demonstrative – they are Oscar-bait roles.


M.Merde is an uninhibited taboo-breaker. He runs over graves, chomps on bouquets of flowers, kicks a blind man's cane from under him, licks a woman's armpit, kidnaps her, dresses her up in a burka (illegal to wear in public in France) and then lies naked in her lap, creating a pietà, which plays into the motif of a dead child – here Mary mourning Jesus.

The scene featuring Merde and Kay is the only one that doesn't end with a return to the limousine. As she sings the man a lullaby it merely fades to black, proposing an especial significance to that pietà.

Tellingly, M.Merde emerges into the light from beneath the cemetery (à propos of Katia Golubeva), a glomerulus of instincts. He is out of control. What does grief look like?


With all this pain, and with such bafflement, the exuberant accordion interval is a palate cleanser, an energising balm.


Jean plays an air hostess called Eva Grace. When she takes off her hair and her coat, Eva is revealed. Her persona is underneath while Oscar's are ostensibly worn on top. Who is the character and who isn't? Can they be cleaved? Do the traces become indelible?

“Is it you?”, she asks. “I think so?” he says.

“Are those your eyes?”


Jean sings, in gutted department store Samaritaine, with the body parts of mannequins sprinkled about the shop floor: “Who were we when we were who we were back then?” Simply transposing this into the present tense  communicates their existential rootlessness : “Who are we when we are who we are...?” Did they meet as themselves long ago or as dual role players in each other's stories, much as Oscar and role-player Elise had enacted his deathbed scene as uncle and niece.


Because Oscar reveals so little of himself (if there is a himself) to us, we can take Jean as a mirror to Oscar. When they meet, he talks to her through a half-open car window (on stage to off), his face reflected in its surface. One could make a case for all the people he meets and all the people he inhabits being aspects of himself - a negative space that outlines his enigmatic shape.


Eva / Jean whispers “come...come closer” to an unseen or non-existent companion and then throws herself of the roof. Who dies? Are we the companion? Is the art alive without a watcher?


Their limousines are magical. If Oscar can make it to the car alive, whether perforated by bullet holes or stab wounds, he will be miraculously healed to full (physical) health. Is he already dead?


At day's end, when they are no longer monitored, the limousines worry about their imminent obsolescence. If they do cease to exist, that means there will be no role-players. Would there then be no difference between true and untrue? Would cinema, in a place of invisible cameras, have returned to the world?


They and their cargo are quite possibly spiritually linked. One of the posters for Holy Motors features the silhouette of a man whose eyes are represented by the headlamps of a limousine.


Is the man with a birthmark more than a director to Oscar's actor. Is he the director? The birthmark deflects (or merely delays) suspicions, given that he must be born of woman, that he is God.


Oscar's last appointment of the day involves being the father to a family of apes, which is another return to the past and to nature. The disco lights from Angèle's party are now echoed on the bedroom walls of his ape child.


Indignity haunts Oscar. He has no repose. Only the desert.


Despite the eternal repetition of Oscar's life, time is always at his back. He must be punctual. He tells Celine that they must laugh before midnight.

A midnight deadline à la Cinderella, a girl who was magically allowed to play a role she'd always dreamt of. Twice we see a woman take off her shoes. First, the motion capture lady (with whom Oscar simulates sex) flicks off an invisible pair, and then Jean/Eva removes hers before her suicide. We are also shown an extended close up of M. Merde's dirty bare feet.


There are fairytales fluttering at the lights. Oscar walks around a corner and vanishes.


Art is a form of philosophy. Holy Motors is a film of thoughts and of questions.

There are many ways of approaching Holy Motors and many keys you can try. The room you finally enter into may not be more beautiful than the one you have left behind. Explanation can mitigate awe. It will never fully satisfy, but the process will.

The film is fascinating. The seemingly incongruent episodes work together, as if the film's soul is a 2 hour long note thrummed on a tuning fork and each job is another struck in the same key, distinct but complementary. Holy Motors, not for its hard content but for its explorable emotional and intellectual space, is a film that will last.

* * * * *

Friday 28 September 2012

Burning Bright (2010)

Your mother has committed suicide. Your brother has autism. Your stepfather has robbed you of your inheritance, your future, your dreams of independence and set up a safari ranch in your back yard.

You sit, stewing, angry, depressed, lost to a future as a handmaid to your brother's outbursts that to you, sad and exhausted, sucked of all vitality and hope, appear as the whims of a spoilt brat.

As caged animals gather outside, a hurricane approaches. The windows are being boarded up. You don't know that a horror film set is being...

...built around you.

Night falls and Kelly dreams of slipping out of bed with a pillow and smothering her brother. She awakes in a cold sweat on the roar of a wild animal, the manifestation of all her worries, her invisible adversaries, come together.

Up and about, dazed by guilt and slumber, she spots something at the bottom of the steps that halts her own. The nightmare. Hers isn't a run-of-the-mill disaster movie for a common-or-garden moral storm; no, for a fate as pathetic as hers, the fallacy must be loftier and more elegant. Stalking the empty rooms and halls is her stepfather's prize attraction, now prize ally in opposing and ending his own sea of troubles: a tiger.

She discovers that even the door has been boarded up. There are no chinks of light, no bright lit exit sign. She drags Tom into a bare room, undecorated but for two standing lights, like those you might find on a TV or movie production. It is like she is off-set and the panic oscillates between the two implications of a space like this: "you're safe here" and "no script can help you".

From room to room they go, stalking safety. From a purely dramatic standpoint the siblings make a brilliant pair. She is tense, terrified, always thinking. He is emotionless and blank (his autism isn't played for sympathy) even in the face of a jungle predator roaming the downstairs loo.

It is exceedingly claustrophobic - the house is dark and the low hum of the hurricane buffeting against the boards is another layer of oppression.

Kelly seems ready to burst, eat up from the inside and always a step away from being eaten up from the outside. Room to manoeuvre narrows and the close shaves accumulate. They hide in a laundry chute (cleaning of stains, sins?), in a freezer (long-term preservation?), in a closet (secrets?), under a bed (over-reading?) but the tiger can jump, can burst through walls, can reach its claws into the tightest spaces.

All the while point of view shots are well used, the glass of the screen becoming the lens of our eye, ever close to being scratched and gouged.

The tiger isn't vindictive or sadistic or playful. It's a tiger. It does however have a piercing stare and a desire (it licks Kelly's sweat off the kitchen floor) for flesh. The situation is (obviously) contrived, the story off-the-wall, but the actions of the animal and the people are not. Kelly doesn't make silly decisions. This is a compelling story that has been well constructed.

Eventually Kelly manages to escape but realises she cannot abandon her brother and that she must be the selfless mother he needs.

As morning breaks the stepfather John arrives back with a sniper rifle, unscrews the boards and scopes for the tiger. The end is poetic justice and dinner is belatedly served.

Horror as salvation : It is a way through for Kelly and Tom. They escape John. They escape the tiger too but, at the end of the film, it is still alive - problems persist but are ready to be faced, lived with and overcome. They are better off after than they were before.

Both of them look out from the front steps of their home at the now-calm world. Tom looks for Kelly's hand with his and she happily takes it.

The idea behind Burning Bright is simple and exciting, the concept outlandish and believable, the symbolism sharp, the emotional grip strong.

Sunday 9 September 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

contains spoilers


Gothic, the romantic horrific, the dark powerful majestic. Today's Batman and his Gotham aren't Gothic but Goth: listless, cynical and unimaginative.

Gotham used to be different, a black world of fear. Now Gotham looks like our world : we are black.

Batman the superhero used to give you a frisson of fear-tinged excitement. Bruce the man used to be an enigma, he used to be impressive.


The Dark Knight Rises, sometimes badly edited and wrongly accented, makes you realise how hard it is to make a film, especially one of such scope.


The film feels like a perfunctory ticking off of scenes, as if the film already exists in Christopher Nolan's mind and the filming process is book-keeping, information-sharing and joining the dots.


Bruce climbs out of imprisonment (a dark passage with a brilliant light at the exit) after abandoning the rope which is the umbilical cord still linking him to his mother and father and their deaths. It is also a rebirth out of himself.


Selina Kyle, curious and opinionated, a woman in an improvised dance with morality, is the most insightful (and interesting) of all. She sees Batman for what he is, sees people for what they are good or ill and, despite being a cat burglar and despite her disdain for the fat cat capitalists who "live so large" learns to see  Communism for what it is :

Selina: "This used to be someone's house"
 Jen: "It's everyone's house now".

She has a strong mind and she is not afraid to change it.


Bane plays with the populace and buys their passivity by namechecking the latest fashionable grievances - rich people, corrupt institutions, hierarchies built on lies. He has no (at least easily ascribed) political position. He is power-hungry and murderous. He is a showman with a scary/playful voice. It's unsurprising that to defeat Bane the inspirational rabble-rouser you have to punch him in the mouth.

What marks Bane, Batman and Selina out is attitude. It is will. Batman and Bane's final fight on the steps of the city hall is devoid of trickery, theatricality, martial artistry. It is a brawl of pure rage and willpower.


Where are the normal people who would fall victim to Bane and Talia? The neutron bomb is the perfect refuge for the uncreative scriptwriter and film-maker because it is as impersonal as it gets.

The most heinous act of killing is the one that will move us the least.


A story of the poor and criminal underclass vs the rich and powerful may have worked better without Bane.


The statue of Batman erected in Wayne Manor makes no distinction between Bruce and the costume, between man and symbol. They are of the same bronze. Is Wayne subsumed by Batman for all eternity? Has the costume become Bruce's skin?


Batman and Catwoman are outcasts who humanise one another by cancelling out their animal halves. The cat elopes with the bat and Selina hightails it with Bruce.

In the end the bomb isn't a clean slate for Gotham but for Bruce and Selina.

The climactic shot of Selina and Bruce in Florence recalls a paparazzi shot, catching them having abandoned character, out of the world in which they made their name. They look completely and utterly relaxed. Selina is unaware that she is being looked at. The feeling of freedom and contentment is lovely.

Thursday 23 August 2012

Sport is the Perfect Fiction

Sport is the perfect fiction. We build the sets, we set the rules. We ensure that each play has a beginning a middle and an end. We guarantee that each story has triumph and tragedy.

And then it writes itself.

Sport toes the line between fact and fiction, self-contained and endlessly renewing.

The racers are voracious readers wanting to get to the end as quickly as possible, impatient characters wanting to learn their fate.

Wednesday 8 August 2012

Warhol / Matisse

Face of a Woman (1948) - Poor Little Rich Girl (1965)

Portrait of L.N. Delekorskaya (1947) - Chelsea Girls (1966)

Wednesday 18 July 2012

Film Olympics : Archery to Judo

The Olympics, the thirtieth modern Games, start in less than a fortnight. The Olympics themselves have long been filmed as well as cinematically reenacted. What of those films in which Olympic feats and endeavours are achieved? Who are those characters who have tried out these sports, perhaps out of competition and outside of any rules, and succeeded to extraordinary effect?

I am especially interested in characters performing / practising the sport's activity without participating in the actual sport itself.

In 21st Century cinema the ancient art of Archery may have been overwhelmed by louder and more devastating machinery, abandoning Artemis/Diana, William Tell and Robin Hood to another, quainter time.

And yet, out of the woods of old myth came first the bow-wielding elf Legolas in Peter Jackson's adaptations of the Lord of the Rings books, then the equally adept Paris in Troy (both played by Orlando Bloom).

In 2012, archery is relevant in new versions of old worlds or a future made old by apocalypse, as in The Hunger Games. Archery is cool in its own context, one could say, in the hands of Princess Merida, for example, in Brave's Scottish highlands, or in fables such as Snow White and the Huntsman. The 10th Century, that's where it belongs. However, Marvel comic book character Hawkeye in The Avengers, a film very much set now, amongst the most explosive of powers and weaponry, has demonstrated that the archer is verily back in vogue.

Much like the lightsaber was more civilised than the blaster to Obi-Wan Kenobi, so the bow and arrow maintains an aura of honour. It is a tool of exquisite precision which seems to concentrate all the character's personality and energy into its form.

The disciplines of Athletics are the foundation of any action film: Captain John Carter doing the high (high) jump; Ethan Hunt long jumping over a hole in a bridge in Mission Impossible 3; pole vaulting over prison walls in Naked Gun 33 1/3 or across deadly ground in Tremors; Mayans hurling javelins/spears at escapees in Apocalypto; the Man of Steel hammer-throwing a Kryptonian into the sky by his feet in Superman II; James Bond hurtling down the streets of London in Skyfall. Put in the effort, push yourself, run against fear and for desire, race against time and against fate.

I cannot say that Badminton, or anything like it, makes an appearance in too many films. King, an Indonesian film from 2009 about a boy who fulfills his dreams through badminton, is supposedly the only fiction film that revolves around the sport. Certainly there have been brief scenes of people (children especially) playing badminton or of improvised bats and shuttlecocks but none stick in the mind. 

Basketball is ubiquitous in depictions of American life. This year high school student Peter Parker showed his (arachnid) powers/prowess on the court in The Amazing Spider-Man. The court is often the battleground for self-esteem and the weighing of social worth, issues of power flux that film is and always will be concerned with. The documentary Hoop Dreams gave us a glimpse of how basketball can be important in the same way in real life.

Have dreams been so finely balanced as in the moment when the clock has stopped and the ball is flying in slow motion towards the net?

If basketball has always been a part of Americana (cinematica), BMX bikes, or Mountain Biking, became something of a phenomenon in the 1980s. Every kid wanted one and every cool kid on the silver screen had one: The Goonies, E.T... There was even, in 1983, an Australian film about BMX Bandits. Super 8, an homage to the films of the Eighties, made sure to put its kids on bikes, cruising through small town suburban streets as they always did, criss-crossing from schools, to diners, to secret hideouts.

More recently mountain bikes are taken up the slopes where riders get lost or are slain by monsters.

To these characters, pushing for the first time at adulthood, the bikes represent freedom and escape. The same goes for Cycling in general, as seen in the Dardenne brothers' Le Gamin Au Velo, about a kid who is constantly on the move, running from disappointment towards a love and security always just over the horizon. The motorcycle offers a more dynamic, steroidal version of this feeling of unanchored power (The Wild Ones...).

As cycling often goes in tandem with the countryside, so Canoeing is the favoured mode of transport for characters in the back of beyond, slipping through the veins of the exotic, banked by forests and the sounds and calls therein; Deliverance, Pocahontas, The New World. Canoeing can be an adventure happening to you. It can also be an adventure that you have claimed, riding the rapids for recreation. You're a daredevil one inch away from having your pride bruised and your life taken. One minute you are laughing at nature's boasts, the next it is swallowing you whole.

It is very much the same story when it comes to Diving. You can dive in a pool decorated with babes just for the hell of it. You can dive to show off, or make a stand, like in Studio Ghibli's From Up on Poppy Hill. It's a show of courage. It's a last resort in Apocalypto, The Fugitive or Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and a key ingredient in many a chase. A choice : face the enemy or risk it all.

The Exhilaration of Panic and Love :  
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and From Up On Poppy Hill

A woman or a man standing on the edge of a bridge ready to jump is the start of many films - Dario Argento's Trauma and Patrice Leconte's Girl on the Bridge are just two. It is a turning point before we've even started our journey.

They want to end it all, like David in A.I., but in that act discover there is more to live for. A dive into the cool, deep waters when all seems lost leads to rebirth in The Bourne Ultimatum and Femme Fatale too.

Like archery, Equestrianism and Fencing take place in, or are evocative of, a time before. They are practices wrapped up in concepts of uncomplicated and uncynical heroism (be it generals or renegades). As you are perched above, the horse's back becomes a muscular marble or steaming mahogany throne.

The amount of men and women who have ridden into battle, high-tailed it into the forest leaping over fallen trees, or galloped into the sunset cannot be counted. Again, cinematically, horse-riding is freedom. Romantic interest is piqued by a feisty lady at one with the beast, hair blowing in the wind, or by a man who has tamed and harnessed nature. Both sights provoke slack-jawed awe.

The riderless horse, a picture of abandonment and loneliness as well as of liberty and play, is an intensely dramatic image.

There is something oddball and old-style queer about fencing, or sword fighting undertaken in the fencing style. It is for those who like matters decided cleanly and in a dignified manner, to touch the point upon your adversary's chest as if it were an accusing finger; The Princess Bride, Errol Flynn's The Adventures of Robin Hood 

In films It is likely the least dangerous of confrontations with a blade. In Die Another Day, the real danger comes when the foil, epee or sabre are swapped for a meaty sword that promises a pound of excised flesh.

Football is a fertile ground for storytelling, given its vast culture of professional, semi-professional, Sunday league and recreational play, of passion, of community and place, of the richest and the poorest, the West and the Orient united. It is like Basketball to Americans, only more so.

It lends itself to small tales of girl soccer teams, to tales of pluck (Mike Bassett, England Manager), of inspiration (Bend it Like Beckham) of those practically unhinged by its demands on the soul (The Damned United, The Goalkeeper's Fear of the Penalty, Fever Pitch, sundry depictions of hooliganism).

[Image from]

If you discount the documentary which followed a master through the course of the game (Zidane : A 21st Century Portrait), the professional game, it is fair to say, has never been satisfactorily depicted (see Goal!). It is impossible to replicate something that, to billions, is more dramatic than fiction could ever be. So something magical or historically momentous must be added - a fight for democracy and good itself against the Nazis in Escape to Victory or a literally super-powered battle in Shaolin Soccer.

But what of football in films that isn't football itself? What about Crank 2's hero Chelios booting a severed head into a swimming pool. Good technique.

Films which feature Gymnastics, prominently or at least in a meaningful way, are thin on the ground. In 1984 a TV movie was made about Romanian gymnastics legend Nadia Comaneci (entitled Nadia). In 2006 came Stick It! about a teenage gymnast who learns to positively channel her rebellious nature and White Palms (from the chalk gymnasts put on their hands for grip), a Hungarian film with a similar story arc, this time a troubled young man on the way to maturity.

The most haunting and beautiful moment of gymnastics outside the hall may very well appear at the beginning of Alexander Sokurov's biopic of Adolf Hitler, Moloch. In the Bavarian Alps, outside a vast holiday house / military complex shrouded in dense moonlit fog, a nude Eva Braun exercises on the precipice.

Chak de India (2007), about a women's team, seems to be the only major film about Hockey. Field hockey is a strictly female pursuit in the cinema, and certainly no-holds barred (St.Trinian's for both). Knee-shattering, ankle-scraping brutality seems to be hockey's calling card in films, and that's ignoring the damage an ice hockey stick can wreak in films like City of Violence and Running Scared. 

Away from the field this hard wood can be deadly (a shepherd's crook with which to batter lost sheep), a lifesaver for Lisa (Rachel McAdams) in Red Eye.

Sanshiro Sugata marked the directorial debut of Akira Kurosawa in 1943. As is often the case in fiction, the acquiring of skills and discipline in sport, here Judo, are a metaphor and catalyst for the taking on of the responsibilities and knowledge of adulthood. Therefore the development of a person is a matter of self-moulding, of achieving proficiencies and expertises.

Those proficiencies serve James Cagney (an actor famous for his portrayals of pugnacity and a black belt in Judo) well in a fight in Blood on the Sun (1945).

Sanshiro Sugata (Top), Blood on the Sun (Above)