Monthly Archives: July 2011

  • The Tree of Life Terrence Malick (USA 2011)

    The Tree of Life Terrence Malick (USA 2011) Brad Pitt, Sean Penn; Jessica Chastain

    Viewed Empire Cinema Newcastle upon Tyne: 26 Jul7 2011; Ticket price: £3.50

    Love as a sort of corporate blancmange (Opaque jelly of corn flour and milk, usually sweetened and flavoured)

    At the start and end of Terrence Malick’s (TM) the Tree of Life (ToL) there is an image of shimmering moving filament, brightly llt against a dark background. It reminded me of Tinkerbell in Peter Pan, JM Barry’s fable written for children in which his child characters are asked to close their eyes and say: “I believe in fairies!” Mallick’s ‘Tinkerbell’ moments upgrade this banality and pitch a similar message at adults, infantilised adults. ToL tries to persuade through the ponderous manipulation of motion picture imagery, that if we say (breathlessly like they do in the movie): “..the only way to live is love….” all will be well in Tinkerbell-land. aka USA.

    I think that TM in many ways has taken on the mantel of Frank Capra. In Capra’s films it is the core American values of decency democracy and civic duty that underpin the actions and belief system of small town man, TM judges that these virtues have failed to sustain the suburbanite in corporate America. What the little man now requires in order to endure is cosmic consciousness. A complete melding with the one that is the universe: love.

    The movie, filmed in Smithtown Texas, dramatises the upbringing of two brothers, and plays out the thesis that the male dominated ordering of life in this culture, is a failed project. The culture needs something more feminine more transcendent to balance out and to resolve its tensions and contradictions. The result is that ToL is not a movie rather an advert for the wild and wacky touchy feely new age belief system. An advert based on the old school Madison ploy of the before/ after script set-up. Before the O’Brien family is touched by new age consciousness they are trapped in old Hollywood stereotypes, trapped in linear time; consequently they are not very happy people. Once touched by this New Age stuff they are released into a new Hollywood script where they are free from the bonds and ties of tyrannical linear time, released into an ecstatic non linear everlasting present, where they can smile touch and kiss each other whenever they feel like it. That’s the message: get into new age or be sad and grumpy old men.

    Some folk of left field persuasions will object to the naïve simplifications endemic in this message. I found objectionable the banality of the shots used by TM in his advert to demonstrate or suggest the intermeshing of cosmos and spirit. It felt to me like a master thief at work as I watched a series of familiar images drawn from the realms of geophysics ( mantles and volcanoes) biomorphics cosmologies etc, stuff we’ve seen on TV many many times, indiscriminately assembled into montages and juxtaposed with his suburban soap opera material. These pictures of natural processes are accompanied by highly emotive manipulative music (much of it religious and featuring large angelic choirs); and the even more manipulative dramatically whispered voice overs (usually female voice) making sure we associate the image with the product (just in case the music doesn’t make it clear enough). As when Mrs O’Brien whispers of the dead son she has been mourning: “I give him to you ; I give you my son” and we see images of a sand-scape with people dancing in ecstasy.

    There is a commonplace observation about film music that whatever music track you lay behind a sequence, it looks OK. TM seems to subscribe to a similar view of film editing: that whatever images and sequences are juxtaposed it will work. On the basis of what I saw in ToL I don’t subscribe to this idea. Most of the radical edits that move the viewer from the drama to the cosmos are crude and despite trying very hard TM comes nowhere near to the making the sort of connection that Kubrick fashioned in his movie 2001 where one brief image montage links all the tools that mankind ever has or ever will use. BY comparison TM’s attempts to create links between different worlds are dull plodding and lack inspiration. A number of people walked out of the movie about an hour in perhaps unimpressed with TM’s attempts to link the everyday with the cosmos.

    The version of the 50’s that TM creates in ToL is peculiarly sanitised. There is no TV, no music. No one drinks alcohol; no one smokes. In other respects the era (sets and cozzies) is replicated with the minutest attention to detail. So where is this place? Where has TM set his movie? It’s just a set, like the Truman show, which exists without real context, ( OK Mr O’Brien is located as a power plant manager but this is a gesture) where there is a lack of reality behind what seems real. Where are we? Inside TM’s head? Yes! inside his detached director’s bubble.! And what does he see from within the bubble? The answer beside the TV pictures, is affect images. This is a film of affect, located in the personal- to-the-director which TM externalises as his characters, filmed in a relentless gliding press of close ups that register only their reactive emotive and psychic states. The solutions to these states comes not from a working out from within of their destinies. Rather it comes from without, from the adverts which like soft drinks or beauty products make their promises of redemption. TM’s characters are deterritorialised individuals whom TM wishes to claim for his own blinkered cosmic vision. No drugs allowed just blancmange.

    adrin neatrour

  • A Separation (Jodaeye Nader az Simir) Ashgar Farhadi (Iran 2011)

    A Separation (Jodaeye Nader az Simir) Ashgar Farhadi (Iran 2011)

    Peyman Moaadi; Leila Hatami; Saret Bayat

    Viewed Tyneside Cinema 5 July 2011; ticket £7.95

    Filmed from within the machine

    Opening shots in a film can work in many different ways: to establish a geography, to set a mood and sometimes as is the case with a Separation (aS) to anticipate something about the substantive theme of the movie. A pre-emptive distillation of the thought processes that have moulded the expressive devices set in play.

    Ashgar Faradis (AF), writer director of aS opens his film with a shot from the interior glass surface of a photocopier. Identity documents are being copied prior to the divorce hearing of Nader and Simir. We watch from within the closed lid of the machine and see their ID papers brilliantly illuminated for a moment before being caste into darkness and the top opened and another document inserted to replace the one that has been copied. We are in close contact with the process of replication: an imperfect business. AF in choosing to open with this shot, indicates this interior type of space is where his film will work: very personal intimate, close, constrained and focused on process. aS is a film concerned with processes particularly those used by the social machine to replicate itself and how replication both breaks up and breaks down. aS is a film from within the machine. It is a film not about image but about being, not about facts but about states of mind.

    The situation – the thesis or proposition – created by AF is that the couple Nader and Simir want to divorce. She has an opportunity to leave Iran (the movie is interestingly vague about this) and wants to take her daughter with her. Nader her husband doesn’t want to go abroad as he says he has to stay to look after his elderly father who has Alzheimer’s. He prefers his daughter to stay with him. Simir and Nader have no wish to divorce other than their incompatible view of the future. Played and grounded in the present the actual, the film is directed towards the future. It is a discourse about what might be: the possible and the putative.

    The film’s story develops round a hired woman helper who is paid to look after Nader’s father whilst he is at work. The story, strong as it is, is simply the basis for allegorical laminations that AF lays over the surface of his material. The presenting domestic situation is richly layered with embedded readings that give the situation significance beyond the mechanics of the script. The layers of meaning suggested by AF develop into a satiric moral critique of the Iranian social system in the Islamic republic. The power of AF’s satiric critique lies in the fact that it is not simplistic. The story’s matrix with its religious, social moral, gender and class elements allows AF to portray the complexity of Iranian society and all its uncertainties. But centred on Nader’s old father with Alzheimer’s, the allegorical core of the movie remains solid. The Alzheimer sufferer is reduced to being a body without a brain. As we watch the film and see the mechanisms of power in this society, the thought occurs that this society is also a body without a brain, or a brain that has long ceased to function. As we watch the father in his terrible condition, it is he around whom life, both real and psychic, revolves. He is the centre of the family. There is an interchange between wife and husband:

    “He doesn’t know you’re his son.”

    “I know he is my father!”

    In Iran, no matter how dysfunctional and inadequate the power system may be, no matter how unfit it may be for a technologically based society, the people are in thrall to a brain dead patriarchy that holds onto and controls the relations of power. It is incapable of relinquishing power or hearing seeing and understanding real change in social relations. Power, and its replicants repeat traditional catch phrases and shibboleths to justify and enforce its decisions and to maintain its hold on life. The men are obedience mechanisms in thrall to the belief systems of their fathers. What is significant in the AF’s film is that his moral critique is not one sidedly directed at the men. The women too are implicated in the sustenance of a failed ideology, they too are nervous of change in the public realms. Unable to change, to take responsibility for a different and non-submissive role for women they too become dead. Men and women are in this society together. A heavy dead hand lies over this land.

    Gender relations are at central to the film’s concerns, but by no means its only focus. Class plays a pivotal part in the narrative, and AF understands that there are two classes in Iran: the educated predominantly urban strata, and the uneducated rural and urban proletariat. The former committed to change, the latter resistant in part because they believe the current power relations protect them from the middle classes. The implication is that if the forces for change are to prevail they must also understand that they have take responsibility for just relations between the classes.

    Although it starts with a situation, a proposition, aS is a film about process. All through the film, in the person of the daughter, Termeh, there is the idea of potentiality. In her presence there is process. There is movement towards the idea the thought, the possibility, of a different relationship between men and women, a different relation between classes people and their society, other than that governed by the strictures of an authoritarian religious tradition. AF recognises the breadth of social relations and incorporates class religion and state institutions into the script, satirising them but also acknowledging that through the mediation of individuals that they can bring something unique and of value to Iranian society. AF’s does not use a one colour palette; he understands and honours complexity, even when working in an allegorical language. As the film develops and deepens in its allegorical play it becomes clear that the central protagonist is Termeh because it is she who will be called on by the future to make choices. In her is potential and through her aS becomes a statement of positive intent.

    aS is shot in an explicit stylised manner which gives filmic context to its allegorical form. The camera work creates another lamination laid over the story through which the allegorical heart of the film is transposed onto the visual look of the film. The shots, all hand held, are composed so that a world is created where there is no perspective, no depth of field no field of vision. It is a world of intersecting focused and of out of focus planes. A world which is like a thought experiment in which there are only near sighted people: no one has long vision. Through AF’s camera the world is realised as series of flattened surfaces. A world inhabited and occupied by figures moving at speed through intense domestic or institutional situations against the flattened plane of their existence. aS communicates optically a world of insistent endless agitation in which the business of living life or answering to life squeezes the energy out of people. The camera, the editing indicates that there is no time to stop or to be: there is only time to react to whatever it is a situation demands. The scenes at the family home, the corridors of power the hospital and the court are all filmed as a chaos of movement. In seeing this you understand that just to survive in this city (Tehran) is achievement.

    But in as much as the filmic quality creates this world of relentless demands, the structure also allows for the possibility of stopping. In the case of Simir it is clear that, bound up in the contradictions of the culture, that she has stopped and she wants to get out. But to get out is to abrogate responsibility The daughter, witness and observer of the madness of domestic situation also slows down and starts to ask the questions that relate to being not doing. As she questions her father about the madness of the events that have overwhelmed him, you know that something has happened to her. She has stopped and begun to think. She has moved outside the agitation machine become a completely different type of possibility. And the last scene where we wait with her parents for her decision, the film becomes a complete opening up of her potential. For otherwise what would be the point?

    Central to aS as an allegorically contextualised satire is the nature and quality of the acting. The acting takes its cue from the situation (s) not from the emotionally charged imputed feelings of individuals in their situations. In aS the actors’ first duty is to their situation in the Brechtian understanding of the demands of drama. The work of the actor is not to indulge emotive charges but to work through process. The intensity of the processes set in play by AF requires a disciplined approach to the material by the actors for the issues in the film to retain their clarity and dignity. Within this paradigm the performances are finely tuned to this end, filled out with situational intensity but not bloated and distorted by emotive overloading of affect.

    AF is I think a film maker who in the form and concerns of his work carries forward the particular powerful voice of Iranian film.

    adrin neatrour