Monthly Archives: July 2006

  • Notti di Caberia – Fellini – 1957 – Giullietta Massina

    Notti di Caberia – Fellini – 1957 – Giullietta Massina

    Side Cinema – 28 11 04 – ticket £3-00
    Notti di Caberia – Fellini – 1957 – Giullietta Massina
    Side Cinema – 28 11 04 – ticket £3-00
     I don’t see a film that uses clown motif for ages then two come along at once.  After Themroc the Side programmed Notti di Caberia a film I’d not viewed. Fellini’s film(co-scripted by Passolini) is like a precursor to Lou Reid’s song Walk on the Wild Side,  dark at times but more innocent, an echo of other street carnivals from another era.  Instead of the deterritorialised male transexual at the centre of the song/picture we have whore transposed into a clown(the extraordinary Giullieta Massina)  Notti di Caberia is a lyrical film that reaches us like a piece of music with its central poetic and filmic motif of life as flow.
    In Notti, Guillietta as the eponymous Caberia, plucks her eyebrows and draws two proscenium arched black lines in their place so that her face turns into a mobile mask signing innocent astonishment with the world, an innocence underscored by her legs and  feet which support her through the world. encased in white socks and flat heeled shoes.  Caberia does not look like a prostitute, Caberia is clown; clown in Fellini and Passolini’s eternal carnival of life and death. Carnival (place of flesh consumed) is life experienced as a continuous flow of events into which individual personality is subsumed but in which there is still place for architype.  The carnival dance moves through the vistas of Roman life – street, theatre, nightclub church.  Here  Caberia as clown lives in the immediate the flow of events responding directly to spectacle before her.  As clown she has charmed life and moves effortlessly through the multiple scripted meanderings of the character.
    What is remarkable is the strange role within role that constitutes the character of Caberia.  Caberia is a clown whore; a whore who keys her performance in the role of the clown – a clown who plays at and with the part of being a whore.  As clown Caberia pulls off the doubled-up role-act of being a whore/clown by entering each of the different carnival worlds as  clown and allowing the situations to define her a whore but never defining herself as whore. 
    Caberia is prostitute completely desexualised.  Clown and prostitute cannot mix as categories on equal terms. Clown can only play at being prostitute in the same way as clown can only play at being doctor or being interior decorator: obviously nothing will go right.  Caberia is perhaps the only prostitute in the history of the cinema without the usual paraphernalia of erotic signage that label her as sex pot.  So what’s going on?   The men the dark men do not want her sex or her pussy: they want her money.  The men of darkness are ready that she should die in order to get her money(were Fellini or Pasolini ever tempted to end the film by having her murdered by the last suitor for her money; and did they refrain because this would have made of the film a banal narrative;  whereas they knew that they wanted film of associative flow):  but money ultimately does not seem to comprise Caberia’s power as it does with most prostitutes.  The money seems external to her essence her core power which is clown being.   And the audience understand this right from the first sequence of the film in which a long tracking shot covering what appears to be a playful game with a man, turns nasty as she is pushed in to the river.  Saved from drowning her reactions are those of the circus clown run over buy the circus taxi. Anger followed by an immediate appetite to rejoin the carnival.  Audience understand that she is only clown playing at whore – dressed in white socks, low heel shoes fluffy jacket and eyebrows.  So audience does not seriously ask what happens when Caberia climbs into the cab of the trucker’s lorry.  That we should concern ourselves with the sexual nature of the encounter is out of sorts with the script.  The complete incongruity of the situation( also captured during her night with the rich and famous film star) makes us easily glide over what is according to the logic of the film, inherently meaningless. Lack of concern works because it is not Hollywood hypocrisy about the distasteful and sometimes dirty business of paid sex.  It works because it is a necessary consequence of the clown logic set in motion by Fellini.  Desexualised sex is at one with flow, as it is in song and ballad.
    Adrin Neatrour 30 11 04

  • Peeping Tom – Michael Powell – UK 1960 – Karl Bohm – Anna Massey – Moira Shearer

    Peeping Tom – Michael Powell – UK 1960 – Karl Bohm – Anna Massey – Moira Shearer

    Viewed: Curzon Soho – 6 12 04 – Ticket price £6 double bill with Blow Up.Peeping Tom – Michael Powell – UK 1960 – Karl Bohm – Anna Massey – Moira Shearer
    Viewed: Curzon Soho – 6 12 04 – Ticket price £6 double bill with Blow Up.
    Contemporary reviewers saw Peeping Tom as a sordid very unpleasant film.  A nasty story about a killer (Mark) with a penchant for skewering prostitutes.  Even the fact that the part of Mark was played by Karl Bohm, a German, thereby lending the protagonist the persona of a stereotypical proto-Nazi, did nothing to redeem the film for the critics. (Interesting to conjecture if the reason for casting Karl Bohm, who is very good, was prompted by anticipation of criticism of the film on moral grounds, and the casting was an attempt to partially deflect this by not having a Brit play the part of a driven upper middle class killer.  Or was there some other reason such as none of the eligible Brit actors of the day wanted the part.  If the latter it is a good example of perceived moral contagion, the way in which an actor avoids playing a role because of fear that attributes of that role might be assigned either to his real life or his acting career in general).
    In fact, seen now, the story line is a flimsy vehicle, extreme in form but lacking in any substance simply a pretext for a film project.  The project is a spatial exercise looking at the limits of what we can understand from what we apprehend, a red and sometimes wry satirical meditation the meaning and nature of truth.
    Claims are made sometimes by film makers (and others) that the object of the process of filming/recording is get to, to apprehend the truth of the subject, to penetrate a subject so deeply that the nature of its truth is revealed: that camera and recording technologies in accessing the spontaneous can split people open so that their inner psychic functioning can be seen.  That we somehow have access to others’ states of mind.   Similar such claims were made by the Inquisition – that their techniques of interrogation and torture opened up the very mysteries of the errant soul so that the-truth-for-the-heretic could be clearly exposed by the Inquisitors.  Delusion. All delusion avers Powell here.
    Mark, using a killing apparatus, the sharpened spiked leg of a tripod with 16mm running camera attached, impales his female victims through the jugular in order to understand the exact nature of  fear which he records and will be able read in the expression on their faces at the instant of their cognizance of their own death.  Mark is never satisfied with the results of his filming as each time  ‘the moment of truth’ always seems to elude him and evade his apprehension (unlike for example the officer in charge of the killing apparatus in the Penal Colony who feels the elation of his subjects) .  At the core of Peeping Tom is the idea of using technologies of reproduction – film and tape – as intensifiers of experiential situations, as intensifiers of moments of truth.  What Powell shows in Peeping Tom (which is ultimately a metaphysical parody) is that these various technologies alienate us from direct connection with our own experiences; that technologies of mechanical reproduction do not lead into zones where truth is immanent.   In relation to ‘an other’ these technologies in reaffirming victim-nature,  the other’s victimness is multiplied as they become objects of desire whose destiny is to be the mechanically re-lived retrieved projected fantasy of the perpetrator. Mechanical systems of image reproduction whether of picture or sound take us further into our own projections and distance us from others.   Here, there is no ‘truth’ in or of, sex, fear, death, loneliness etc. except the truth of our own desires. This is Peeping Tom, the retinal image, the eye, the big close up of the eye the opening shot of the film.  The only character in the film (Helen’s mother) who can ‘see’ things that can be known is blind and has no retinal images to project.    
    Peeping Tom ravishes the eye, abuses the retina of the viewer to the point where the film’s narrative form is submerged underneath a sea of highly visual detail.  It is a submarinal liquid experience, a film of undulating surface, of dense closely patterned planes, of red that wash through the film in the detail of its sets, costumes and lighting.  The red lights of the dark room, the red lights and costumes of the prostitutes, the deep red decor of Marks flat and the red hair of the principle actresses.  The film has a fluid restless deadly quality which dissolves both the story line and the cod psychology of the back story into a vacuous irrelevant gaseous matter. 
    Peeping Tom also describes the full arc of the worlds invested by Powell, perhaps it represents the last world he discovered.  Many of Powell’s films were about worlds – superficially both real and make believe worlds.  Real world in The Edge of the World – his first film as director about the abandonment of St Kilda – about the end of a world, the vibrant sociable world of a remote island; Matter of Life and Death and Black Narcissus  are about displaced worlds that are real (in some sense) but fantastical.  Red Shoes creates the meeting point of a real world and an unreal domain, artificial in the sense that it is construed by the demands of performance.  In Red Shoes the two worlds, both narrow and self contained in their concerns, coexist driven by compulsion.  Each though only exists for the other and there are no outside frames of reference, two worlds mutually inclusive are locked together in a contrapuntal tension, like the dancer and her shoes.
    In Peeping Tom it seems that Michael Powell had come at last a place where the world has finally closed down behind the eye.  In Peeping Tom, except for the vision of the blind woman there is no other world other than Mark’s movie of fear.  Everything is subsumed into this – which is why the mis en scene works as it does – like a watery grave – everything is part of Marks’s movie which is made in isolation from the rest of the world.  Mark is alone with his projections which are leading him straight down the road of his own death with no escape possible (not even Anna Massey dressed in colour coded blue outfits) In Peeping Tom,  Powell seems to have come to the end of a certain logic inherent in film making in which it is necessary to understand that all images threaten to slide towards or degrade into acts of solipsism.
    Adrin Neatrour  7 12 04

  • A State of Mind – Daniel Gordon – UK 2004 – 94 mins

    A State of Mind – Daniel Gordon – UK 2004 – 94 mins

    Viewed : International Documentary Film Festival – Amsterdam – November 2004

    BBC/ARTE/WNET commission. Coming to a BBC channel – probably 4 – soon.A State of Mind  – Daniel Gordon – UK 2004 – 94 mins
    Viewed : International Documentary Film Festival – Amsterdam – November 2004
    BBC/ARTE/WNET commission. Coming to a BBC channel – probably 4 – soon.
    Ends justifying means – an old story.  As far as I know this doc has only had limited screenings at film festivals.  As a BBC commission it’ll be showing on TV soon and  I hope anyone reading this crit will watch A State of Mind  check it out and let me know what they think.
    In the course of A State of Mind, the director who’s also the voice over commentator tells us not once, but twice, that the filmmakers negotiated with the North Korean authorities privileged access to film in North Korea without controls or censorship over what they might shoot.  To say it twice was certainly not accidental. What was it he was wanting to tell us?  Whatever it was my attention was drawn not to the implied ‘freedom’ of the film makers but to the restrictions and limitations endemic in shooting in a totalitarian state and how the film production company might respond to these restrictions and limitations. 
    In a totalitarian situation – whether it be a state like N Korea or a large multinational corporation – the  very notion of ‘privileged access’ is problematic.  Why can’t you have access without privilege?  Privilege is the concomitant of one party’s control and the power to dispense favour.  By definition unprivileged access is not permitted.  Of  what  are the mighty ones who grant the privilege, frightened?   Something that you might see; something you might hear?  And suppose that there are things which  ‘they’ are determined to conceal and that they don’t want you to see?   How can you as filmmaker with privileged access know whether what you see and film is ‘real’ or in some way staged for your benefit?  The resources and control of a totalitarian state are certainly capable of complex stagings. 
    Further if you film under conditions of privileged access, the implication is that this access has been traded for a relationship of trust with the party ceding this privilege.  This very relationship of trust between the parties implies a certain kind of contract, often in the form of unspoken understandings about limits.   In return for privilege the filming party often tacitly agrees not only to a degree of self censorship but also to refrain from asking certain types of awkward questions.  In this case where the production company, VeryMuchSo Productions boasts a long term relationship with the regime and has plans to make a further documentary in North Korea I feel it of relevance to examine carefully the way A State of Mind has been made and to ask whether the film is characterised by an ingenuous collusion  as a state of mind rather than the spirit of free enquiry.
    The film is based on the instrumental premise that in following the progress of two young girl gymnasts through their training and selection programme leading up to the North Korean gymnastic mass games(the high point of the totalitarian leader worship bullshit), our understanding of this closed society demonised by the West, may be extended or even deepened.  Further by experiencing through the mediation of film ordinary North Koreans living their ordinary lives we will also perceive something about the truth of human nature and universal values.  Daniel Gordon seems to say: you see North Koreans are no different from us! They may say be prone to mouthing off  propaganda and stuff about America but in fact human nature is the same everywhere and everywhere lots of young girls love gymnastics and dedicate themselves to its practice with the support of their families.   These are folk living under a rather peculiar organised system of indoctrination – but just folks!
    This is the message I received.  But I need neither Walt Disney nor Gordon to inform me about human nature.   In fact the issues in relation to people in North Korea or in Stalin’s USSR or Hitler’s Reich have nothing to do with the universal characteristics of human nature but with what is going on in this society that controls and contains people who  look and act as if everything were normal?  What is the nature and construct of these normal appearances?  And what’s going on under the surface?  What’s the crack – do people tell Great Perpetual Leader jokes?  Do people know its all bullshit?   Under what strains do North Korean people live out their lives?   In the situation in which A State of Mind was produced, universal truths are no more than decontextualised platitudes, the resort to which is a ploy to disguise the fact that a film made under ‘privileged access’ in  these conditions can only be either dishonest or banal or both.  Either which way A State of Mind is a film that whilst pandering to the North Korean State by refusing to pose any questions about society,  risks betraying its people.  .  
    The choice of  two young girls as drivers of the film narrative conforms with the compromised ambitions of this production.  The idea is that in following the lithe flowing tumbling innocent  bodies of these girl child gymnasts, a crack will open up in the monolithic wall of North Korean society which will allow us to peek in to see and meet the people.  We are used to seeing young dedicated girl/woman child gymnasts.  They are part of the TV furniture,  moral tales of success through dedication.  We have seen Olgas and Nadias,  Dianes and Debbies going through their asexualised prenuptial Olympic routines on floor asymmetric bars vault and beam.  We know them and we are also aware, because we have been told, of the abusive forces that sometimes lurk behind these bodies in flux.  The spectre of mummydaddycoach in the various guises; twisted authority figures colonising young feminine bodies and minds in order to develop the necessary athletical synthesised  bodies.   It seems strange that Gordon should chose a practice involving a fascism of the body to lead us through the concentric circles of state totalitarianism.  
    A State of Mind would not be the first film to exploit young athletic bodies as a front for a totalitarian regime.  It was the stock in trade device of German and Soviet documentary makers in the ‘30s.  Leni Riefenstahl’s Olypische Spiele is the key example.  I am not suggesting either that Gordon has her caliber as a director or shares any of her propagandist intentions – probably he simply wants to sell TV programmes.  But whilst aware of these differences in motivation between the two, nevertheless some overlap in form and structure suggests itself.  There is something about the flow of young bodies in agonistic display, in the fluidity of athletic intention and achievement that overwhelms and inundates context.  That these perfectly balanced muscular yet frail  frames filmed from tracks angles and unlikely rigs, images edited (with music often) to heighten aesthetic effect and deepen emotional affect, sweep away context and setting.  In a way there is no time in these films only space that extends through an all encompassing present.  Berlin 1936 is simply the collective spacial experience of bodies – most of whom happen to be German.  The context of what the German state has become is rendered irrelevant by the imagery which seamlessly excludes the black star of the games Jesse Owen because of his blackness.  This sort of effect works through A State of Mind – it is all place and no time.    This is particularly evident in A State of Mind’s opening sequence which establishes the visual style of the film which is to look ‘good’  and beautifully shot.  This opening sequence sets out its stall as having 35mm Hollywood production values with all that that connotes.  In the opening sequence the picture fades up to a high key spot in a totally dark space to reveal in the cross fading spots the two young gymnasts dressed in leotards,  as individually and then together they appear and disappear performing items of their routine. The edited cross fades between the two performers continue as they move nearer the camera.  From the start A State of Mind is invested with the pure aesthetics of space.   
    Time and its ponderable considerations are as absent here as they are in the average travelogue.  
    If in some way Gordon thinks that he is parodying Riefenstahl, then I think the problem is that you can’t parody Riefenstahl.  In Riefenstahl’s films where the fake distorted and dishonest is raised up to high heroic kitsch status, she is already a parody of herself.    
    A State of Mind presents as a glossy travelogue of a forbidden country fronted by cute gymnasts, perfect euro-fodder.  But still there are things that bother me, and it’s all the in between bits(and there are quite a lot of them) where we see the home life of the two girl gymnasts.  How to evaluate these sequences in the context that they are shot behind the closed walls of North Korea?
    In the West the limits of fabrication(leaving out the often dubious nature of re-constructed events – with dialogue!) are in some ways defined ( as some producers for C4 have found out)by the openness of Western society and the fact that participants involved in filming any fabrication or faked sequences may spill the beans, revealing for example, that what purported to be a gang bang or fight, was an event staged for camera.  At this point the disclosure that something framed as ‘real’ has been staged, castes any documentary as morally suspect and discredited. No such openness exists in North Korea.
    Aside from these exterior discreditings, audiences can generally, but not always,  within the flow of imagery  purporting to be a documentary film( and at IDFA about 50% of the films purporting to be docs were composed primarily of reconstructed material – but that is another story) perceive or identify some traits events or items through which they can authenticate different aspects of a strip of action.  Audiences by continuous reading of audio and visual cues can gauge respondents behavior and evaluate their replies to questioning.
    In A State of Mind in order to know what is going on and whether to trust what we are shown, we are very much in the hands of the director and the translators.    We don’t speak the language: we can’t read  North Korean culture so we don’t have a language of gestures for looks glances stutters verbal glitches uncomfortable pauses and  body.  The problem is how do we evaluate what we are shown; even at the level of basic structural narrative components, how can we know that the things we view are true?  Can we trust the judgment of the film makers that what they filmed were real strips of life?  But  perhaps all those family sequences are faked, perhaps the individuals purporting to be mummies daddies and grannies are actors…….suppose it’s all staged?  Certainly many visitors to Stalin’s Russia came away with the impression that what they had seen was a real when they were witness to carefully staged pieces of theatre.  The resources of the totalitarian state which has the ability to bring large numbers of discontinuous effects into play mean that the staged events can often be convincingly presented as real.
    There is an interesting parallel here with people who want to investigate paranormal phenomena.  Scientists, like film makers, look at what they see.  Perhaps for this reason they have often shown themselves to be easy to fool into believing in performed paranormal effects. Magicians when looking at the same phenomena are not  so much interested in what they see; rather they are interested in what they don’t see – underlying structures utilized for the practice of deceit.   Film makers can be easy to fool because they often want to see what they are looking at: looking and seeing are conflated.  In the film the girls are real gymnasts, but we have no way of knowing who they are – perhaps those claiming to be their families are in fact acting out these roles so that the state is controlling the staging of all events. (acting normal, appearing to be normal when acting familiar roles is simple and something most people are capable of doing)
    My suspicions about how to frame what I was looking at started when I watched the sequences of the families eating: I wondered about the good food that was going into their mouths. We know North Korea has had severe food shortages(this is admitted in the film) but was the food the people were eating provided as imagery for the Western camera, special food provided as part of the staging of normal appearances?  And the apartments where the families lived with their carpets and wood wall panels?  Were these normal every day appurtenances or part of a set for the camera to film?  
    The fact that the families in their homes looked so real on film draws attention to the latent problems in looking for signs of authentication.  Those features of a situation which we may judge most difficult to fake are precisely the ones which those seeking to deceive will take the greatest pains to faithfully replicate. Although many may think the above points are far fetched, a totalitarian system such as North Korea has the means and the perhaps the motivation to carry through such devices.  And film makers should be aware that in closed systems either capitalist or communist nothing is necessarily what it seems. 
    I was left unconvinced by A State of Mind that from the point of view of veracity, that it is a worthwhile project to shoot in North Korea in the way exemplified by this film.  Privileged access is really just a smoke screen through which you peer into the mirrors of distorted reality with no way of knowing what is going on. 
    Adrin Neatrour    8th Jan 05

  • The Fog of War – Errol Morris 2003 USA

    The Fog of War – Errol Morris 2003 USA

    Seen Tyneside Cinema Newcastle UKThe Fog of War – Errol Morris 2003 USA
    Seen Tyneside Cinema Newcastle UK
    I think that the Fog of Film is a good alternative title for this movie.  Film technically becomes fogged if exposed to light before going through the gate of the camera; artistically film gets fogged when the marketing intentions of the film makers delimits or distorts the light they can throw on the subject. 
    At the core of this film there is a deeply ingrained dishonesty, in which the film’s structure and presentation confer a protective halo over the person of  Robert McNamara (US secretary of Defense 1961-67).   Whatever ‘mistakes’  McNamara admits to on camera such as the US declaration of war on North Vietnam and the subsequent carpet bombing of Vietnamese civilian populations, the film as vehicle transposes and elides these acts and omissions into mistakes, understandable mistakes rather than the consequence of deeper malaise in an empire out of control.  The interview of McNamara’s with its artsy framing, tasteful background, continuous jump cuts, slick computer graphics and archive footage represents the triumph of style over substance.
    The USA as a deeply conservative and conformist consumer society has developed a culture that validates and evaluates reality through appraisal of image.  The concerns of the makers of visual products  are often to control and validate outer expressive gestures tokens and  signs at the cost of disregarding inner meaning.  This predominant concern with image and style at the expense of a concern to seek out the truth is particularly disturbing in documentary film about such a key figure in the development of US foreign policy.  But it is perhaps an inevitable concomitant of the featurisation of documentary films which now  pitch in the market of the large corporations to attract investment, either at the production or distribution end of the process.   The fog of film.
    In Errol Morris’ film some of McNamara’s insights about what was happening in Vietnam have salience for the American Empire’s contemporary foreign policy, but he doesn’t talk about the internal driving mechanism of policy – long term industry and military perspective.  He doesn’t want to, and he’s a man who only talks about what he wants to, on his terms.  Like a written or unwritten contract.  But the result is that the overwhelming impression left of McNamara, is of McNamara as image.   The old senator, the Avatar who has achieved wisdom, the survivor who has a message for us from the past.   This image however is communicated not just through the form of the film  – the intercut interview – the settings – the cutting – but through its structure. The Fog of War is structured as “Ten Lessons and an Epilogue”  which leads the viewer of the film towards a quasi pedagogique reading with strong religious overtones.  This structure gives to McNamara an aura of the wise one and induces an inclination towards reverence, an inclination reinforced by the soundtrack.   
    It was the Philip Glass score that alerted me to the nature of this film as a marketing device selling Robert McNamara rather than an instrument trying to seek truth.  Glass’ piece is a very classy  contemporary score, restrained almost to a fault, mixing interesting percussive effects with moody modal sequenciations.  Like the music accompanying certain kinds of adverts it is designed to make the selling proposition easy to swallow. The music evens out the film providing a consistent emotional tonality to  the  roller coaster ride of events punctuated by assassination wars deaths and bombings.   The music works to unify the film in the same way that McNamara’s life is unified by his implicit claim to have attained wisdom as a reward for surviving.   The selling proposition in Fog of War is that this is a classy piece of film making about a classy subject matter, Robert McNamara one of the erstwhile rulers of the planet.  Meet the Avatar.  Once he was a cold murderous Secretary of State for defense in love with mass bombing as a solution as long as was efficient; the bombs sent by his hand were responsible for mass destruction and killing mainly of Vietnamese but others as well.  Now he is still cold but old and wise.  Old and wise.
    The pedagogique structure of the film, with its use of  twee title cards informs us that he has attained the wisdom of age and has ten lessons and (of course) an epilogue to impart.  Most of this wisdom amounts to no more than the specious knowledge contained in self help books sold at supermarkets checkouts – ten steps to enlightenment.  McNamara’s wisdom amounts to turkey truisms dressed up in the fancy dress of the statesman:  Truisms such as: never say never; you can’t believe all you see…etc.  Morris might well reply that his objective was to reveal the vacuity and empty nature of McNamara’s wisdom by allowing the viewer to see and judge.  But the structure of the film,. its score, its lesson structure, its artsy framing of McNamara with classy light paneled background,  all these conspire to frame McNamara as a glossy image for reassuring consumption.  Like a reassuring public service announcement for the benefits of growing old.
    In relation to this last point and the idea that perhaps Errol Morris was really giving us the viewers the material we needed to make up our minds,  I began to worry about all those little jump cuts in the master interviews.  They are the sort of cuts, the ones we take for granted these days where continuity is no longer an induced state of mind but an illusion.  In TV documentaries the  situation is that if the guy under interview hums haws stops or digresses whatever, they cut out whatever they don’t like to keep the pace up, to rock and roll with the meat of the story.  To cover obvious jumps in continuity, filmed interviews used to employ a device called the ‘cut away’ in order to literally cut away from the subject to another image, such as the interviewer nodding, and then cut back to the subject.  This presents the illusion of a continuous stream of sense.   Few film makers now bother with this laborious device, they just jump the cut; what we see is a funny little dissolve or a blip in the picture.  Given that this convention is accepted, the effect is the same: to make the subject(in this case McNamara) appear fluid and controlled in intelligence: more fluent and focused than people in general are able to speak… erm…ummmm….long silence(prompt).  All the little hesitations, all those signs of the fallibility of age, lapses of memory, all losing of the thread of thought, the meaningless digressions, are in effect censored.   The point is that there were a lot of these jump cuts. I don’t know what or how much lies on the cutting room floor; I can only hazard a guess based on the observation that at times in the interview there were scarce 10 seconds passed without the characteristic little blip of the jump cut.  The end result of this approach is McNamara is rendered by the Fog of War as an image:  cut out all the crap and you’re left with the image of McNamara as a fallible but articulate old man who has attained wisdom in his old age.   The trouble with such a filmic approach is that it starts to say less and less about the subject – McNamara in this case – than it does about the conceit of the film maker.
    Robert McNamara tells how before accepting the post of Secretary for Defense he insisted to Robert Kennedy that he write his own contract.  I can’t imagine that he insisted on a similar contract arrangement with Errol Morris.  But perhaps he didn’t need to; because it was evident that Morris was going to make a high gloss film based on marketing led production values.  Given the evident nature of the intended film, whatever the form of final product Robert McNamara knew that Robert McNamara’s image could only be enhanced as the subject of such a product.   Adrin Neatrour 8 July 04

  • The Return – Andrei Zvyagintsev Russia 2003

    The Return – Andrei Zvyagintsev Russia 2003

    Tyneside Cinema – 10th July 2004The Return – Andrei Zvyagintsev  Russia 2003
    Tyneside Cinema – 10th July 2004
    The Return starts as an apparent vehicle for a mythic narrative – perhaps something like the story of Abraham and Isaac – but hesitates before settling on a narrative style that draws its inspiration from the Hollywood genre relating to dysfunctional one parent families. Russian mythic cinema pales into the American suburban vision.  But whilst it is Hollywood that seems to determine the style and look of the film,  mythic thematic undertow still pulls at the historical sinews the Return pointing up  Zvyagintsev’s entrapment in an irreconcilable opposition  between the film ethos of Russia and made in the USA.  The director ultimately abandons his film as an impossibility and resorts to completing it in the form of a  travelogue with a soap opera story bolted on.   Finally the Return is consumed in the banalities released by its own contradiction: there is nothing in the film to think about and nothing in the film to look at.  You wait for it to pass in your time.
    The film is witness to a sell out by Russian cinema to the stylistic cannons of Hollywood.  It’s a sell out that doesn’t go to plan as the film ends up feeling like a British lottery funded movie.  A feature of the typical Hollywood product is the characters in the scenario are without significant contextual grounding(and in this Hollywood is true to the American context of immigration – the idea of starting a new life).   Instead of context we have ‘situation’. Situation replaces context: this works for Hollywood’s American consumer society where the characters in any given situation come linked to assemblies and circuits of signifiers(often commercial products; language forms; typecast blue and white collar types {the detective, the single high powered business woman} and discourses{age, gender, back story}) This interplay of signifiers culled from visual retinal and audio cues enables the audience to place the characters  in any given Hollywood film in a relevant psychic setting.  The signifiers feed readability into the situation.
    In the Return there is a single mum who has two boys and who looks after them with the help of her mother.  They live something like a middle class lifestyle – not comfortable by American standards  –  but the kids do possess things like fishing rods and reels.  In a Hollywood film we could read this(perhaps as an essentially good battling suburban mum).  But the Return’s setting, somewhere in Russia( opening Armenian music).  In modeling himself on an opening  typical of Hollywood genres Zvyagintsev feeds us a situation without context but also without the sort of signifiers Hollywood uses to ground the action.  The audience struggle to place or locate any of his characters who thereby are doomed, not in any mythic manner, but artistically never to engage us at any but the most superficial level – the machination of plot.
    If the film is supposed to be set in the domain of myth then I think it fails lamentably though there are the ingredients set in place to make me believe that this might have been the intention of the original scenario.  The film opens with water.  The idea of water.  It moves then to a tower that rises high over the sea with the gang of boys hurling themselves from its height, calling up a sacrificial image, Inca step pyramids etc.  The film moves quickly to its liminal event, sudden almost like Pasolini,  the return of the father.  An entrance that  has a mythic resonance as the father demands that his two sons come away with him.  The breath of Abraham or even Laius.  But it is not to be.  The mythic subtext does not sustain itself.  It switches and focuses on becoming a cutesy contemporary children’s film, with the rebellion of one of the sons occupying the central holding space of the scenario.  The film switches from myth to faciality with the rebellious son’s face taking the camera’s prime attention:  His grimaces, his sulks, his defiance.  Caught up in the demands of a scenario centering on the children’s demands The Return has no where to go and lapses into a travelogue with soap opera plot and dialogue, to the accompaniment of mega doses of rain which is nothing more than rain. By the time we arrive at the climax of the film which centres on another huge tower built in the middle of a small island somewhere in Russia, any resonance of its early mythic symbolism is totally absent.
    Part of what diminishes the film is its camera work which follows the Hollywood pattern of being agitated and dedicated to movement for its own sake for fear that unless the camera moves the audience will suffer restlessness.  There are examples of long sequences where the focus is pulled during shots to resolve the one who is speaking.  The focus pulling in the film serves no purpose other than the literal function of focusing on he who speaks.  A kind of passe literalism.   The camera tracks to no clear purpose other than to show it can go round corners.  The purpose of the camera work other than to demonstrate that the film maker can set up a track is never clear.  Early in the film the two brothers race each other back from the sea tower to their house – in fact its a chase that turns into a race back to mother.  Now obviously great planning went into this long sequence which contains a lot of fast moving tracks. But the sequence doesn’t work to move the audience any deeper into the film.  It just seems like a Hollywood set piece.  The race in and for itself its own justification – a situation within a situation, a piece of film slipping into another piece of film.  It probably inhibits any chance of the film developing mythically: the overactive camera work works against the establishment of mythic development, at least in the way Zvyganitsev shoots it.  But perhaps this wasn’t his intention.
    Perhaps his intention was to make a Hollywood calling card with a recognisable American theme of the estranged and vanished pop returning back to take his sons on a camping trip and to show them the things they will never have been able to learn off their mother and her mother.  In this case the focus pulls, the twitching tracking camera that can’t stay still are all his way of showing Hollywood that he speaks their language.  He also knows that the film must look good so that for the most part exteriors should be shot as if the film were a travelogue, and there should be plenty of rain.  Not for metaphysical reasons but for plot development, to keep the picture moving and to show that you can handle rain machines even Russian ones. As we are talking Hollywood not myth its the plot which will have to have a twist. Not character.  And where there are children and adults together, it’s Hollywood’s  rule(occasionally flaunted) that the kids win no matter what.  The kids should be cute and perspicacious seeing through the world of the adult – in particular if he is a man.  The man on the other hand should have no realistic understanding of kids, be mostly concerned with getting the kids to see or do things his way, and when all else fails in communication  resort to violence threreby revealing his character.  And so on and so forth.
    The dialogue in The Return follows the Hollywood approved pattern of grumpy dad, smart kids.  So perhaps  Zvyagintsev is marking his card.  The trouble is that the Russian actors who all look OK, in particular Mum of whom we see little but who has a Jocasta quality, don’t seem comfortable with their words.   The way pop and his younger son deliver their lines it felt to me that there was a gap between the delivery of the lines and the accompanying expressive faciality.  Even though I don’t understand Russian there was an alternating current driving the acting that swung from a stilted quality which then overcompensated by swinging through the pendulum to an overblown melodramatic delivery.  Certainly not the stuff dreams are made of.
    A last note.  The cast was overpopulated.  There was no reason for having two sons in the script; it crowded the stage and added nothing to the dimensionality of the father son relationship.  The two sons simply functioned as one but in a manner that was much less interesting than if there had been just one juvenile psyche to answer the alternating push and pull of compliance and rebellion.  Splitting the roles instead of unifying them deprived the film of its dynamic.  The energy was dissipated and ultimately the film was unable to sustain interest in a three sided relationship that never had any possibility of resolution between its discrete parts.

  • Themroc -Claude Faraldo – Michel Piccoli, Beatrice Romand – France 1972

    Themroc -Claude Faraldo – Michel Piccoli, Beatrice Romand – France 1972

    Viewed: 16mm print; Side Cinema Newcastle, 14 November 2004

    Ticket £3-00Themroc -Claude Faraldo – Michel Piccoli, Beatrice Romand – France 1972
    Viewed: 16mm print; Side Cinema Newcastle, 14 November 2004
    Ticket £3-00
    Send on the Clowns
    Its like Claude Faraldo has taken one horrified look at what’s going on in the world about him, and in time honoured tradition stuck two fingers in his mouth and sent out a shrill piercing sliding whistle summoning  Michel Piccoli wearing full clown costume into the arena to save the day for the audience.
    When in the course of a show in the big top disaster strikes the sexy trapeze artist off her bar, if the lions maul their virile tamer, if the big top catches fire or the four horsemen deal out death across the skies, the circus tradition is to send on the clowns.  It’s an old ploy.  Not just a divertissement but the realisation that the clown has something to give to the audience – clown -ness – that might guide them through a dire state of affairs.  Clown-mode a state of mind where reality does not comprise of events to which you re-act.  Rather reality is perceived as a flow of events with which you interact for the purpose of play.  Clown-mode shows that with some situations playing with the energy is best means of the survival with awareness.  At Armageddon in clown mode you will stay alert: in clown mode there is no blame, no personal responsibility for what is, no imperative to understand only the recourse to play.  To play now.  To play with and by pointing up all the forces in play by giving total attention to being.  Play which involves the total exploration by all the senses of each passing moment attracted by clown consciousness.  There is no intentionality in clown mode only existing at and for the moment.        
    From the opening sequence with its tacky title cards during which the only recognisable word in the whole film is pronounced – we hear the guttural emuncative enunciation “Themroc” (where does this word come from, does anyone know.  It feels like the name of some cartoon character) we are at the circus where Piccoli clown takes over the show indifferently hostile to the increasingly exasperated and frustrated machinations of the ringmaster, the force of order, to control his behaviour.  Picolli clown’s behavour can’t be controlled because this is the last show.  This is all that remains to do.   In the last act of the last house when everyone has turned into robots that pretend nothing is happening, who are unaware that we are sitting on the self destruct button,  Piccoli clown puts on his red nose paints his face white and gets on with the business of  clown.  The naughty id- child in the man’s body with instinctive responses to the stimuli of the dying world – in particular those responses that are erectile. 
    Themroc is from camera to performance, becoming clown. In Themroc, Faraldo explores a line of retreat from the horror of the broken machine world and the self important gibberish of machine speak (Themroc should be required viewing for Radio 4 presenters).  It is an actual film of exploration in itself.  Everything in Themroc is on the screen: there is nothing hidden either content structure or form.
    To see in Themroc anything other than what is on the screen is to miss the point.   What Themroc is not, is,  it is not a metaphor.  Not a metaphor for anarchy or any political system state or philosophy.  It is clown simple.  It has no metaphoric content or meaning whatsoever, noting symbolic nothing allegorical.   The becoming clown in Themroc is actual process of following a line of escape – visceral sensual indulging cruel and always extreme.  This is clown.  Putting on the red nose is real (try it) response to the world.  Being clown is creating a new world of immanent desires immediately gratified.  Piccoli clown is an escape but an escape that in itself leads nowhere.   All Piccoli clown can do is to indicate to other people that there is a way out of experiencing the world as an automaton.  It is a way out that doesn’t lead anywhere but is alert.  Sometimes that’s all there is.
    The rule of the clown is that like the animal he does not speak.  Like the animal the clown points directly and acts immediately on (not reacts) stimulus.  Piccoli clown completes the implied logic of Harpo clown.  Where Harpo clown chases the sexy women Piccoli clown dives straight into their crotches and makes them laugh with  his tongue; where Harpo clown closes his jaw round someone’s limb to bite then, Piccoli clown goes the whole hog into cannibalism eating the pompous self conceited bullying representatives of authority the policeman.  Where Harpo reformulates and recastes the world by use of outrageous objects produced by delving into the voluminous wrap of his coat which envelopes him like a tent, Piccoli redefines the world according to clown rules by engaging in a primal act of architecture and remodeling his bolt hole.  In an infectious orgy of destruction he smashes out the exterior walls of the apartment,  rips out fittings and hurls away the furniture making a cave like platform from which Picolli clown can survey the world and wave to it. 
    And the camera loves Piccoli clown. The camera is his friend.  It loves his face because the face of clown says everything there is to be said about clown.  Beautifully mute poison words don’t fall form the lips of the clown .  Clown doesn’t use his face to lie  to deceive or mislead like those cheap actors. Clown is impeccable. You love the face of the clown for exactly what it is: truth without dissemblance;  state of mind without ulterior motive.   The face of the clown moves with him and sees and hears the world as he does.  And the camera follows the face of the clown seeing and hearing the world as he does – experiencing world as clown consciousness. 
    Piccoli’s face and Faraldo’s camera move together turning the world upside down, exhilarated by acts of petty destruction and  happy together in the rubble dust and smoke.  I don’t think you could make such a film today, with camera and actor so complicity at the edge of vertical surfaces.  Yet it is the complicit relationship of this bond that takes the film in clown mode experience, something rare in cinema.  
    Themroc is the last movie made in clown- mode.  After 30 years it feels time for another film to put on the red nose and white make and explore the line of escape of the clown.
    Adrin Neatrour 15 11 04

  • A History of Violence, dir. David Cronenberg

    What A Man’s Gotta Do by Tom Jennings

    [published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 21, October 2005]

    Tom Jennings applauds the success of David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence in linking the attractions of action cinema to ideologies of control and conquest by force.What A Man’s Gotta Do by Tom Jennings
    [published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 21, October 2005]
    Tom Jennings applauds the success of David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence in linking the attractions of action cinema to ideologies of control and conquest by force.
    Two sleazy mobsters wipe out a motel clerk and maid and their little girl; Edie (Maria Bello) and Tom Stall (Viggo Mortenson) comfort their daughter after her dream of monsters. Ostensibly content community pillars in the Midwest boondocks, the Stalls are quietly  stagnating – until the murderers hold up the diner he runs, whereupon Tom promptly despatches them with considerable élan. After the ensuing media spotlight, goons arrive led by Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) who insists to protestations of mistaken identity that Tom is actually notorious Philly hitman Joey Cusack. Meanwhile Jack Stall (Ashton Holmes) has trouble with highschool hardnuts, but inspired by his dad’s antics discovers his own vicious streak and beats up the bullies. The town sheriff is suspicious about Tom, but Edie (a bigshot lawyer) pulls rank and covers for him. Fogarty becomes increasingly threatening until Tom kills the made-men in a blur of kung-fu gunplay, also involving Jack. After bruisingly passionate sex with Edie, Tom journeys east into his past, and kills big boss Richie Cusack (William Hurt). He returns to the family, but things will never be the same …
    Cronenberg compulsively blurs boundaries of fantasy and reality in his surreal science fiction and shocking tales of horror, gore and mutant depravity, often mobilising machines as metaphors for aspects of experience we prefer to overlook. This time the technology of cinematic representation itself – Hollywood storytelling strategies and the ways these smuggle ideology into audiences – takes centre stage. A History of Violence blends visions of small-town utopia with the more overtly masculinist fantasies of security in a hostile world of the Western and crime and action thrillers. Corny comic characters and stock dialogue from these genres stretch the ironic limits of pastiche – but the quality of acting and careful construction of this exemplary postmodern film carry it off. The director juggles multiple levels of interpretation and significance in calculating, equating and integrating symbolic and physical violence – unflinchingly laying bare the weighty aftermaths for the characters, the fascination for viewers, and the implications for personal biography and redemption all the way to historical allegory and the general body politic.
    Systematically deconstructing the cinematic language of ordinary maleness and respectable gender relations and roles, all that survives of the classic nuclear ‘family romance’ is superficial collusion in hiding dark secrets. The ‘feminisation’ of men in post-industrial service sectors, as women become more professionally dominant in the public sphere, is juxtaposed with growing female assertiveness in personal relations and the complexities of dominance and submissiveness in adult love. Once Tom begins to vent “Dirty Harry” tendencies, the spouses initiate and respond to both sexual and nonsexual aggression with ambivalent arousal and disgust that damages trust. Meanwhile the cosy reproduction of masculinity and femininity is disrupted as the children watch their parents meet external evils with their own suppressed demons – the girl seeing through the fairy tale that “there are no such things as monsters”; and the wisecracking adolescent nerd pragmatically kickstarting manhood, first against the bullies then by saving his dad.
    What A Man’s Gotta Do 
    The storyline works simultaneously as conventional narrative and macho fantasy, destabilising and questioning happy endings and neat resolutions. Everyone and everything changes due to the ‘return of the repressed’ – whether violent action or imagination, desire, ‘manly’ strength and ‘womanly’ weakness, or other brutal truths of past and present. In the conventional narrative, traditional complacencies are thoroughly trashed – of the main character, his happy family and the idealised small town community as well as the integrity of ‘external’ forces such as official hierarchies and the outsider drama of organised crime. Likewise, as dream or fantasy, the attempted wish-fulfilments of pleasure and certainty at the individual level inevitably self-destruct, since the inconvenient realities of impulse and excess, bodily intransigence and social conflict refuse to be denied – not least from their uncomfortable proximity to what makes life worth living compared to the cloying, static boredom of perfection.
    Furthermore, the spiritual overtones hint at wider historical and philosophical dreams and fantasies. The audience’s relationship to violence in the media (and especially American cinema) as innocent entertainment is no longer straightforward – and, extending further, the political roles of national, societal and religious mythologies in solving conflict and legitimising authority are exposed as inadequate and dishonest. Cronenberg’s key theme comes across more strongly than ever, despite A History of Violence’s mainstream appeal and big-budget glossiness. This is that extraordinary reserves of psychological work must be devoted over a lifetime (thus being diverted from more constructive pursuits) to maintaining a classically ‘scientific’ European type of self-image – a coherent, conscious, voluntarily controlled and consistent rationality – in the face of the absurdities of the unconscious, the incorrigible sensuality and/or abjection of flesh and the general horrors of human ‘civilisation’.
    Once the delusions they’ve built their identities around dissolve, the pathos of the family’s disorientation shows that isolated heroes solve nothing. The American Dream leaves its banal representatives stalled in no-man’s land, where banishing monsters to nightmares leaves them unable to face real ones except by creating their own. The film weaves together umpteen of the ramifications without wishing away their intransigence, yet still captivates viewers. Independent cinema’s usual depressive alienation, pretentious middle class angst or fashionable nihilism are avoided, and no magnificently sentimental denouement or fatal gesture lets us (or the status quo) off the hook. Sadly, Cronenberg’s existentialist detachment preempts solutions by individualising the problem and concealing its crucially social origins in the mists of time. Nevertheless the conclusion is inescapable that only genuinely mutual and honestly  collective effort will allow the family (or society) to survive and grow together, rather than violently splitting apart.

  • Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, dir. Robert Stone

    Barmy Liberation Army by Tom Jennings

    [published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 20, October 2005]

    Guerilla: the Taking of Patty Hearst (dir. Robert Stone)Barmy Liberation Army by Tom Jennings 
    [published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 20, October 2005]
     Guerilla: the Taking of Patty Hearst (dir. Robert Stone) 
    Screening on BBC2 on September 12th, Guerilla: the Taking of Patty Hearst is a feature from veteran liberal documentarist Robert Stone tracing the career of the Symbionese Liberation Army – a mainly middle class white student militia engaged in armed struggle in early 1970s California ‘on behalf of’ Black and working class Americans. Clandestine interviews with surviving SLA founders Russ Little and Mike Bortin, along with the views of prominent journalists covering the story, an FBI case officer and hostage negotiator, are expertly woven together with found footage of the most dramatic events and other material in a vivid, snappy narrative that captures the imagination while emphasising the wider context and drawing interesting parallels with the present.
    The very first modern media circus followed the SLA kidnap of Patty Hearst – heir of the huge media conglomerate built by grandad William (‘Citizen Kane’) Randolph – and, in regularly ending her communiqués with: “Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the lives of the people”, her apparent ‘conversion’ to the anti-government cause. This was preceded and followed by generally botched SLA actions – assassinations, bank robberies, minor shoplifting – and when the initial ransom demanding exchange for imprisoned comrades also failed, the Hearst family agreed to distribute m dollars-worth of ‘food aid’ to the Bay Area poor. Even this ended in riots since the authorities were equally inept, and a vastly excessive SWAT shoot-out in South Central LA left most of the cadre dead.
    Barmy Liberation Army 
    Bortin stresses the frustration of educated youth after the optimism of the 1960s – what with poverty and racism at home, the arms race, and especially Vietnam: “We grew up being told we saved the world from Hitler … but we’re now being Hitler”. Little  concludes “The country was being run by criminals … I feel sad that I felt forced to extremes by Nixon and his thugs”. And while those from less sheltered backgrounds probably found the corruption of power less surprising, many others who turned to armed rebellion at that time managed without quite so much arrogance, pompousness and politically clueless sub-Maoist posturing as the SLA (not that the Black Panthers, MOVE organisation or Weather Underground, etc, ultimately fared much better). However, the SLA’s narcissistic fascination with media responses rather than organic links with struggle had more in common with later, equally futile, urban guerilla groups such as those in Europe – condemning them as grist to the Spectacular mill while also supplying their propaganda coup courtesy of the American princess.
    Nevertheless Guerilla’s subtitle is for marketing purposes only, and the tedious celebrity autopsy of whether Hearst (who endorses this film) really was the brainwashed Stockholm Syndrome stooge she claimed is rightly avoided. The motivations for making the film included the 9/1 experience, the government use of ‘terrorism’ to erode civil liberties and the central role of the media in setting and pursuing agendas in this morass – and the coverage of the SLA’s exploits coincided with major technological and political developments in that industry (plus retrospective prosecutions have jailed several members since the film was made –  including Bortin). As for the group itself, Stone thinks that their mistake was not taking “the moral high ground, like Gandhi”. But moral certainty and self-righteousness was precisely the fundamental flaw, as within all grandiose vanguards bolstering each other’s inflated self-importance. Whereas humility, integrity and ethical transparency measured collectively at, by and for the grass-roots can avoid both the delusions of bourgeois radicalism flirting with power and the fatal distraction with the vicissitudes of newsworthiness.

  • A Dirty Shame, dir. John Waters

    Bad Taste and Good Sense by Tom Jennings

    [published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 19, October 2005]

    Of several summer film releases tackling themes of sexual expression and repression, Tom Jennings judges John Waters’ A Dirty Shame the daftest as well as the most radical.Bad Taste and Good Sense by Tom Jennings 
    [published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 19, October 2005]
    Of several summer film releases tackling themes of sexual expression and repression, Tom Jennings judges John Waters’ A Dirty Shame the daftest as well as the most radical.
    For nearly forty years John Waters has exposed the damaging hypocrisy of respectable sexual morality, using aesthetic and narrative shock tactics to provoke disgust, fascination and outrage – in the process demonstrating how close psychologically these responses are. Long before radio jock Howard Stern, Jerry Springer and sundry other media gross-out specialists paved the way for ‘reality’ TV, Waters (the ‘Pope of Trash’) tested the limits of acceptability with a series of extravagantly awful undergound cult classics.1 Hairspray (1988) then initiated a cycle of films which increasingly subsumed rampant sexual excess under more explicitly critical and progressive aims2 – in effect, ironically echoing the social suppression of dangerous libido he made his reputation attacking, while travestying his own biography in the process. And although mainstream success and talk-show celebrity status certainly coincided with a blunting of the early edginess and impact, A Dirty Shame rediscovers some of Waters’ original Queer aesthetics and trademark  tastelessness. Mixing in deeper social, cultural and political insights, it is both profoundly silly and genuinely innovative.
    Prudish shop assistant Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman) refuses husband Vaughn (Chris Isaak) sex – bemoaning the moral degeneration of their working class Baltimore neighbourhood (a location Waters always returns to), and locking erotomaniac daughter Caprice (Selma Blair with enormous prosthetic breasts) in her room to stop her stripping as ‘Ursula Udders’ in local bars. However, Sylvia becomes uncontrollably randy after a tail-ending en route to work when awoken from concussion by breakdown mechanic and sexual evangelist Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville). He proclaims that her liberated libido will usher in the ‘resurrsextion’ and ‘day of carnal rapture’ to win the war of the freedom-loving perverts against the sex-hating fascistic neuters. Her frenzied and public search for pleasure antagonises her mother Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd) into leading a burgeoning campaign for the ‘end of tolerance’. Sylvia encounters other locals emerging from their closets after also hitting their heads, revealing a cornucopia of unlikely and obscure fetishisms that inexorably cross-fertilise and proliferate, overwhelming the decency brigade and climaxing in communal headbanging orgiastic bliss.
    A riotous rollercoaster of affectionate naffness, slapstick, pastiche and kitsch complete with pathetic dialogue, ham acting, dodgy plotting, goofy design and editing, and even-handed comic stupidity, A Dirty Shame is often hilarious (if you can recapture your scatological adolescence). It also insidiously introduces several arguments subverting conventional wisdom about sex, society and politics (which most critics predictably missed). So, while clearly favouring sexual indulgence over oppressive restriction,3 Waters locates moral degeneracy in both extremes as childish self-absorption precluding negotiation and coexistence – but where each depends on the other for its coherence. Smug liberal clichés are thus avoided – exemplified in the city slicker yuppies who advocate cultural diversity in theory but leave town unable to handle the messy ramifications in practice.4 And when older neuters make comments like “I’m viagravated and I’m not gonna take it any more!” and “It wasn’t this bad in the 60s!” the film’s surreally retro Baltimore comes into focus as a contemporary USA where the puritans are presently winning politically and in the culture wars.
    Bad Taste and Good Sense  
    But this is no ordinary blue-collar America. There is no portrayal of sex-related work, abuse, exploitation, media or policing – neither prostitution nor patriarchy nor pornography, and precious little in the way of actual physical sexual relations either. It is actually rather chaste and almost childlike in its innocence. There is plenty of rhetorical posturing, though, and what makes A Dirty Shame scandalous is what it says, how, where and by whom this talk is conducted, and the use made of it by various vested interests. Paradoxically, in retreating from recognisable realism, the film scores by flirting with the dominant modern discourses rendering sex so problematic – revelations of original sin and ecstasy; the obsession with sexual identity as the core of human personality and society; and the consequent institutionalisation, control and commodification of sexual expression. In the realm of individual privatised consumption, sexual energy thus provides the means to divide, discipline and profit, whereas in uncontrollable vulgar public display it exposes and threatens power and prompts moral panic.
    Waters’ finely-tuned cultural class-consciousness replaces the fashionable intellectual niceties of twentieth century sexology with contemporary working class lives dominated by drudgery, misery and no expectation of fulfilment. Sexual desire is here embodied in conjunction with exhaustion, frustration and resentment, so that carving out space for pleasure is a serious and difficult matter. Its achievement is often thus wild, reckless and even destructive – but far from the relaxed decadence of upmarket erotic gourmets. Further, given that the strategic security-blanket of respectability is heavily reinforced by religion and the state, sexual license is highly inconvenient to all sides of the status quo, and thus always under threat. But the perverts simply present a mirror image to those who deny their own dirtiness. Both attempt to impose religious regimentation on unruly diversity – recalling Michel Foucault’s insight that injunctions to rationalise and classify sex extend biopolitical government of the body by imposing shame and neurosis on physical intimacy, and thus wrecking autonomous ethical practice.5
    Fortunately A Dirty Shame offers escape from this intransigent dilemma. Generally mistaken as merely the crowning glory of its freak show, the ‘headbanging’ hypothesis simultaneously evokes the parent’s impatience with squabbling children and skilfully answers both apologists for censorship and apostles of sexual liberation. If the biographical origins of sexual preference lie in the rich texture of personal responses to random events, then conflictual diversity is simply inevitable. Attempts to analyse, normalise, legislate for and reform personality as rigid individual certainty necessarily fail to do justice to this differentiation while violating its subjects (‘fixation’, indeed). Meanwhile the inherent inseparability of physical, emotional and psychological sensation in the complexity of felt experience weaves together fantasies and relationships with intensities of pleasure and pain. Subsequent patterns of arousal and behaviour yield ongoing social performances of self that sediment the most salient recurring tendencies into the structure of identity while always remaining subject to change. Of course, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that shape and change one’s course are more or less traumatic and susceptible to conscious understanding, and may or may not be associated with the sinister motives, misplaced love or carelessness of others. That’s life. The trick is dealing with it without wishing away the unwanted complications – and  this neither neuters nor perverts will be inclined to be capable of.
    1. such as Mondo Trash (1969), Multiple Maniacs (1970) and the breakthrough Pink Flamingos (1972) – all featuring 20-stone gender-bender Divine (in the latter film eating a real dog turd on screen).
    2. In Hairspray Ricky Lake’s white-trash teenage dance enthusiast urges grass-roots racial integration; in Cry Baby (1990) Johnny Depp plays havoc with stereotypical masculinity; Serial Mom (1992) has Kathleen Turner detonating the nuclear family; Pecker (1998) recuperates Edward Furlong’s naïve photographer into artworld pretension; and Cecil B Demented (2000) both applauds and ridicules avant-garde attacks on popular cinema.
    3. arguing against the film’s US NC-17 rating, he asked: “Is it that bad if dirty dancing broke out in an old folks’ home?” – referring to a scene where Ullman flexes to pick up a bottle without using her hands.
    4. see also J. Hoberman’s interesting comparison of A Dirty Shame with the “earnestly middlebrow” biopic Kinsey (dir. Bill Condon) in ‘Back At The Raunch’ (Sight & Sound, December 2004, pp.24-27). The documentary Inside Deep Throat (dirs. Fenton Bailey & Randy Barbato) also fails to transcend the corruption/liberation dead-end dialectic left over from sixties counterculture, feminism and  ‘porno chic’ (see Linda Ruth Williams, ‘Anatomy of a Skin Flick’, Sight & Sound, June 2005, pp24-26.
    5. as explored in The History of Sexuality, Volumes 1-3 (Penguin, 1979, 1987, 1988).

  • Bullet Boy, dir. Saul Dibb

    Hackney(ed) Crossroads by Tom Jennings

    [published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 10, May 2005]

    Hyped as a Brit Boyz N The Hood, Saul Dibb’s Bullet Boy hits more ambitious bullseyes, according to Tom Jennings.Hackney(ed) Crossroads by Tom Jennings[published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 10, May 2005]
    Hyped as a Brit Boyz N The Hood, Saul Dibb’s Bullet Boy hits more ambitious bullseyes, according to Tom Jennings.
    Curtis (12) meets adored brother Ricky (20) at the end of his stretch for aggravated assault, driven by best mate Wisdom (Leon Black). Ricky is determined to go straight and keeps the peace in a stand-off with their old gang enemy Godfrey (Clark Lawson). Curtis returns alone to mum Beverley’s welcoming party as Ricky hooks up at a ragga club with faithful girlfriend Shea (Sharea-Mounira Samuels). Later Wisdom kills Godfrey’s pitbull before gifting the pistol to Ricky. Agreeing with Shea to leave town, he again fails to placate Godfrey, who trashes Wisdom’s car. Curtis and friend Rio (Rio Tison) bunk school to smoke dope on Hackney marshes, and Ricky misses another family get-together – this time with Beverley’s close friend, lay preacher Neville (Sylvester Williams). Instead he stands point when Wisdom busts into Godfrey’s crib and shoots up the place. Armed police raid Beverley’s flat and arrest Ricky, while Rio and Curtis play with the gun he’s hidden – but Rio is accidentally shot in the arm. Trying to protect Curtis, Beverley throws Ricky out. Shea also breaks with him and then he discovers Wisdom dead. Having given Curtis a man-to-man pep-talk on his return from making up with Rio, Ricky is shot dead by Godfrey’s gang as he awaits the last train out. After the funeral Beverley falls into Neville’s sexual and pastoral arms. Curtis retrieves the gun and throws it in the canal.
    The film’s restrained picturing of northeast London’s towerblocks, terraces, playing fields and waterways showcases the troubled biographies, conflictual spaces and questionable futures of its characters. The uniformly assured performances are further testament to a first-time feature director of documentaries and a screenplay of accurately youthful Cockney vernacular. So as Ricky, Ashley Walters1 conveys a fully convincing self-fashioned code of adult integrity whose intelligence is fatally undermined by the ambivalent egoism of macho brotherhood that Wisdom can’t see beyond. As Ricky’s mother, Clare Perkins perfectly captures the contradictory nobility of working class single parents, whose strength in surviving thus far has demanded singlemindedness – but also an inflexibility which prevents her from helping Ricky with his very different difficulties. However, in beautifully distilling the nuances of pre-teen bewilderment and sagacity, Luke Fraser decisively makes this Curtis’ story.
    Bullet Boy’s generally heroic struggle partakes in – but is not imprisoned by – the hoary old generic conventions of the coming of age crime melodrama. Against the usual odds, Curtis seems to emerge with a chance of neither succumbing to anti-social criminality (in striving to thrive in unpromising environs) nor decisively severing ties with his background (in class aspiration elsewhere). This is an achievement that the recent US cycle of ghettocentric cinema has so far largely forsaken, despite the purportedly political intentions of its exponents.2 Nevertheless, the more modest traditions of UK social realism allow the fine-grained attention to relationships and their vicissitudes to not be drowned out by neo-blaxploitation thrills or the more vintage baggage of hysterically overblown liberal issues and spectacularly reactionary menaces to society.3
    Hackney(ed) Crossroads
    Saul Dibbs and Catherine R. Johnson’s subtle script shows dawning adolescent masculinity in a context where peer pressure reserves mutual respect and consideration for those in closest proximity to the public self. The wider (middle class) social ethics spouted in educational and other local institutions – when not ignored as irrelevant – may be despised as hypocritical duplicity; yet the realm of private kinship suffocates desire and constrains growth within the childish purview of the mother’s embrace and overwhelming needs. Curtis clearly appreciates her position but understands why his brother rejected its ministrations. Meanwhile, merely reproducing the arbitrary authority of patriarchs is recognised to deliver none of its promises beyond recuperation into one of the useless status quos –  including the upped ante of ‘gun crime’ at increasingly hazardous lower class UK street levels.4
    At this point it would be easy to ‘blame the parents’ – as in the currently fashionable reality TV treatment of ‘problem children’ or all the other class- and race-prejudiced nanny-state discourses. This is another mistake Bullet Boy avoids, along with its honourable disavowal of the nonsense that media glorification and youth culture ‘cause’ violence. So, destined for disappointment and pain, the mother’s lioness love for her seeds and her yearning for hope and meaning in life are eventually displaced into religious ecstasy – which offers communal experience, valuation of the self and an anticipated transcendence of suffering. This makes sense in the absence of neighbourhood cohesion or mutual solidarity or any dynamic or shared ideology (whether or not enforced with guns or father-figures), since the nuclear family womb can never fulfil the hopelessly excessive demands placed upon it as haven in a heartless world.
    Finally, important ingredients missing from Bullet Boy include, firstly, the lure of the cult of consumerism, where a pseudo-spiritual fervour to fend off insecurity by hoarding cash and trivial secular commodities meshes perfectly with both globalising gangsterism and government wars on crime.5 Secondly, in reifying isolated individuals as representative of entire societies or historical epochs, European cinematic naturalist realism unfortunately forecloses on portraying the larger-scale reverberations of personal stories in the potential collective synergy of social action. And while one film could hardly cover all these bases, is it really too much to imagine several levels of analysis at once – for example, a Bullet Boy who could Do The Right Thing in these Strange Days?
    Notes1. aka Asher D (of UK Garage supremos So Solid Crew) – himself recently released from jail for possession of a firearm.
    2. for example Spike Lee, John Singleton, or Ice Cube. Paradoxically, the absence of moral agendas seems to enable postmodern nihilists such as Albert & Allen Hughes (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents) or even blockbuster stylists like Kathryn Bigelow (Strange Days) to drop more hints of the possibility of collectively creative solutions.
    3. see also the French ‘cinema du banlieue’ inaugurated by La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995), which likewise references Hollywood without pandering to it.
    4. so, before ultimately ditching the weapon, Curtis tells Rio “I’d rather be a mummy’s boy than a crack-head”. And, despite her prior soulmate loyalty, Shea also refuses to accept Ricky’s repetition compulsion; thus Bullet Boy grounds optimism in both younger genders.
    5. rendering New Labour’s fascination with faith and fundamental morality more intelligible – as desperate rearguard defences against the damage to sociability done by the feeding frenzies of spending which, ironically, represent their only vision of economic ‘health’.

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