The Last King of Scotland – Kevin MacDonald

The Last King of Scotland – Kevin MacDonald

Slide to porn
The contemporary Western action thriller is on a dead end trip with nowhere to go other than towards the pornography of violence and sex. It’s a clapped out genre trapped in a logical cul de sac of is own making. The genre has nothing to say; it has nothing to show other than a series of gestural posturing; it has nothing to reveal. All that is left to the genre at this stunted stage of its expressive cycle is the slide down the incline of images of sex and violence(in the end the two become culturally interchangeable and indistinguishable). These images obey the laws of decreasing returns. Consequently directors of productions of this type (like those of hardcore pornography) are locked into a struggle against the constant devaluation of shock value, and scriptwriters must work hard to devise and invent ever new variations and graphic representations of sex and pain. They say it’s what we want. The Last King of Scotland – Kevin MacDonald – USA/UK 2006: Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy
Viewed: Tyneside Cinema at Gateshead Town Hall; free Bafta Preview screening

Slide to porn
The contemporary Western action thriller is on a dead end trip with nowhere to go other than towards the pornography of violence and sex.  It’s a clapped out genre trapped in a logical cul de sac of is own making.  The genre has nothing to say; it has nothing to show other than a series of  gestural posturing; it has nothing to reveal.  All that is left to the genre at this stunted stage of its expressive cycle is the slide down the incline of images of sex and violence(in the end the two become culturally interchangeable and indistinguishable).  These images obey the laws of decreasing returns. Consequently directors of productions of this type (like those of hardcore pornography) are locked into a struggle against the constant devaluation of shock value, and scriptwriters must work hard to devise and invent ever new variations and graphic representations of sex and pain.  They say it’s what we want.   

LKS is a case in point. You can film against exotic locations, such as Uganda; you can set the action background against a period of historical notoriety such as Amin’s dictatorship; but ultimately LKS is on a journey whose only purpose is to initiate a slide down to the inevitable images intended to gratify a retinal lust for blood.  LKS from its first frame seems intent on drawing me towards  two images:  Kay Amin dead and naked on a slab legs spread wide so I can see the butchered meat that once was her  sex.  Idi Amin says to Nick: “ We found her clitoris halfway down her throat – you don’t expect that…” a piece of dialogue introduced just in case I don’t get it.  Second image – Nick (protagonist) – gets the meat hook treatment. In Big Close Up,  hooks are inserted into his flesh under his nipples(A Man Called Horse) and attached to rope so that he can be hoisted up and hung from a beam like a carcass.  LKS is revealed as film that is simply an exercise in the delivery of these sexual mutilations/titillations.  These are the points of the delivery, as banal and meaningless as they are central to the impoverished ethos of the film. With these two images Kevin MacDonald underscores the fact that his film has been nowhere and has nowhere to go.    

At the heart of LKS is the role of the camera and the performance of James McAvoy as Nick.  Forest Whitaker plays Idi Amin but this is acting as impersonation.  It is Nick whom the film asks us to watch through the camera instructions of the director, and this is the core of the film’s weakness.   All we do is that we watch Nick.  The camera watches and Nick reacts or doesn’t, depending on the situation.   James McAvoy is  simply an object seen through a lens.  The camera has no other vocabulary other than object fixation and as the film develops this poverty of camera is evidenced in shot repetition and decline in filmic tension as there are not sufficient camera and shooting vocabulary to build the type of meanings that create oppositions.  The film develops into a repetitive flatness of sound and image with none of the psychic foldings that give tension to life.  A film that has as potential theme the idea of an individual trapped through his own conceit in an increasingly terrifying amoral spiral of descent cannot work unless we see what Nick sees; we have to be able to see some events from his point of view in order to weigh his understanding of each act of moral equivilence .  We have to see the change that he sees in each step of his relationship with Amin.    The shooting style that comprises a series of action cuts in the end just delivers a sort of puppet show.

In response to this situation James McAvoy’s performance is in one sense clown like. Nick as a sort of clown in Idi’s circus – except the range of McAvoy’s clown is strictly limited.  McAvoy’s act is a sort of invariant gestural and facial response to all situations presented by the script.   It seems like another instance of actors being turned into simplistic foils of the director or the script using talent to bounce the action through.  When the actor is used as a reflective agent the usual demand on the actors is that they have a sort of default facial set.  Repressed menace, inscrutability and wide eyed innocence are common facial sets employed as monodimensional devices in film.  In LKS McAvoy adopts set features suggesting a sort of jocular Scottish innocence.  Although the ingenuous faciality undergoes a change in function as it moves from being an initial reaction to novelty of place to a frozen response to the gaze of Amin.  a means of controlling expressive leakage.    The limited range of McAvoy’s performance, the stunted vocabulary of the camera work deliver a film in which interest in any ideas quickly atrophies, tensions dies because there are no oppositions either structural or formal.  The audience are left with a film that slides to porn in the mechanistic working out of plot.

LKS is set in Africa but there is no feeling for Africa in the film either as a subjectivity or an objectivity.  Africa is simply a background for a circus, a comic book place filled out with the usual stereotyped characters and images.  There is no sense of otherness, just the presentation of an African dystopia more or less decontextualised from its colonial heritage.   The problem when a location is used simply a backdrop is that contrived situations and contrived characters reinforce negative perceptions and prejudices.  LKS joins a list of films that exploit their locations as a cheap means of both claiming a kind of contrived authenticity(LKS has the almost obligatory period news reel montage near the front of the film as a means of laying claim to political/ humanist concerns) and giving a real feel to the contrived action. However I think that film makers from the Western colonial countries that first exploited Africa for its raw materials and then carved it out into politically and ethnically convenient but disastrous sections of the map, should feel shame at returning there to continue another chapter of exploitation.      
adrin neatrour
adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

Author: Adrin Neatrour

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