Monthly Archives: January 2014

  • 12 Years A Slave Steve McQueen (2013 Usa)

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    12 Years a Slave Steve McQueen (2013
    USA) Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt

    Viewed: 14 Jan 2014, Empire Cinema
    Newcastle; Ticket £3.95

    As presented film, Steve McQueen’s 12
    Years a Slave is little more than a soap opera tricked out with
    predictable contemporary graphic violence. The big stars Brad and
    Michael do their movie gestural facial acting without ever breaking
    sweat. Ejiofor is a competent lead figurehead, but without a voice, who
    takes us down the overlong narrative from its beginning until it gets
    to its end. ‘!2 Years’ is a typical product of that Hollywood
    production line that turns out noble but anodyne films.

    But it is something more: it is also a
    betrayal of its source material.

    Camera replaces voice.

    Steve McQueen’s movie ’12 years a
    slave’ is based on the book of the same title written by free black
    Northerner, Solomon Northup, about his experience as a slave. It is
    remarkable work, both as literature and as document.

    Published in 1854 and written in the
    first person, it is a harrowing terrible account in which the author
    explains how he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. An
    ordeal of brutal beatings and humiliation, a vicious existence as a
    non-being that lasted 12 years before somewhat fortuitously Salomon
    contrived his own rescue.

    This classic work of American
    literature might have seemed a natural fit for black UK director
    McQueen. An opportunity to make a filmic statement out of a strong
    clear black voice harking from the shadows of the nineteenth century.

    Significantly though McQueen chooses
    not to use Northup’s voice as the dynamic form holding the story
    together. McQueen’s camera replaces Northup’s voice. Image
    replaces insight. The clarity and understanding of Northup is
    replaced by a mish-mash of camera angles that represent only
    McQueen’s technical decisions. The camera replaces voice promoting
    uncertainty of origination; and McQueen’s semi flashback structure
    which looks cobbled together in the edit, replaces Northup’s straight
    time line.
    McQueen renders the material from
    Northup’s book in the same way cheap hamburger producers render meat.
    His film ends up like a pattie of cliche’d images palatable to the
    taste of the consumer. ’12 Years’ is not so much a film more a soap
    opera or TV mini series, whose scenario was designed to manipulate
    Northup’s observations to pander to the prejudices of contemporary
    audiences and Oscar juries. For the director who made Hunger, ’12
    years’ looks like a sell out to the usual suspects. ’12 Years’ is
    refusal to take on the contextualised material on its own terms.

    ’12 Years’ is the voice of a man:
    Solomon Northup. A man of his time with perspectives informed and
    fashioned by his age. As a voice of a man, if you do not respect it
    but instead manipulate it for your own ends, then you are little more
    than a mountebank. A thief laying claim to a false legitimacy of
    ownership. Instead of writing his own script and filling it out with
    his own retrojected contemporary conceits McQueen goes through the
    process of dishonestly representing Northup’s work as something that
    it is not.
    Opportunistic fabrication characterises
    McQueen’s film.

    This is the voice of man. Solomon
    Northrup’s account of his experiences in ’12 years’ retains its power
    and more because read today it surprises us at every level. The
    first thing you hear in this voice is a sensitised intelligence
    grounded in character and experience. Intelligence as a resource
    that is refined throughout Northup’s suffering. The second thing
    that strikes the reader is that Solomon’s ‘intelligence’ informs not
    only his intellect but also his emotions. This sort of intelligence
    is difficult to understand. The pain inflicted on him by the white
    race produced in Northup neither anger nor hate but compassionate
    insight in the hollowness of the white psyche; an understanding that
    a corrupt social system produces corrupted vicious individuals to
    represent it. Like both Primo Levy and Nelson Mandala he rises
    above the cesspit system of racially structured degradation and
    annihilation arriving at a state of mind in which he sees clearly the
    nature of evil. Finally Solomon Northup[ is sustained during his
    torture by his faith in the Lord. It is faith that carries him
    through. His ability to call on an externalised power (whether
    projected or real) endows him with the psychic stamina to sustain
    hope and finally take his chance. His faith in the Lord and the New
    Testament is strengthened even by the slave owners selective use of
    readings form the New Testament to their slaves. Northup sees at
    once that it is an abusive attempt to justify what is indefensible
    in Christian terms. These readings, judged by Solomon Northup to be
    a distorted self evident insult to intelligence, are by McQueen’s
    script exploited as an opportunity for cheap theatrical parody.

    And in choosing the option of
    theatrical effect and the spectacle over voice, McQueen’s film is
    not true to the spirit of the book. The lie replaces the true.
    But the betrayal of Northup’s spirit
    extends into fabrications of the actual text that McQueen finds it
    necessary to introduce. When Solomon regaining his freedom, returns
    home after his 12 years, the film represents that his wife Anne has
    remarried and her new husband is with her when she greets Solomon.
    This is not in the book. In the book Northup writes that when she
    heard he had returned, his wife Anne ran home from work into his

    There are many ways of honouring truth:
    literalism is but one. It can be honoured in the word in the spirit
    in the practice in the structure. McQueen chooses none of these. He
    seems to have taken a road in the development of his scenario in
    which piece by piece what is true in Northup’s book has been
    gradually discarded. All that remains is pastiche soap opera. In
    which case why lay claim to Northup’s work? Instead like Tarantino,
    fashion your own Slave story script and do what you want with it !
    Make it film that panders to whatever values of history, history of
    film and entertainment and indulge whatever anachronisms you want:
    have your escaped slave call home on a mobile.

    In this scenario of ’12 Years’: the lie
    replaces the truth.

    Adrin Neatrour

  • The Innocents Jack Clayton (Uk 1961)

    The Innocents
    Jack Clayton (UK 1961) Deborah
    Kerr; Michael Redgrave

    writing credits: John Mortimer, William Archibold, Truman Capote

    viewed Tyneside Cinema 5 Jan 2014; ticket: £6:95

    There is a moment at the height of Miss Giddens’ epic contest with Miles where she is seen in full ‘battle regalia’ her luxuriant hair let down like a warrior. Until this point her hair, neatly pinned up has been a symbolic token of her reason and self control. As her rolling locks cascade over her shoulders we see for the first something of her primal energy. In the movies, hair cuts tell their own stories about the characters, suggesting in the lines and contours of the hair something about the landscape of personality underneath. In this letting go moment it felt like Miss Giddens had arrived at an epithany, a point where she recognised that to ‘win’ she would have to call up from within herself unfamiliar latent forces. A ‘hair-down’ shot in which Clayton would start to release something of his own invention into the scenario. A moment of truth which would transform the staid dull neuroticism of Deborah Kerr’s playing into something energised. The Innocents would be transformed into a film inspired by not inhibited by, Henry James’ magnificent short story: The Turn of the Screw.

    But this moment remains simply that, a brief ‘hair encounter’. After which the movie returns to the mechanics of its laboured plodding Gothic plot. A telling of the plot that significantly diverges from the original telling of the story in as much as where James teases and finally opts for a phenomenological ambiguity, Clayton plays out a literalistic interpretation. Of course every film finds its own path through its material to its own form. Clayton in opting for development of specific plot mechanics over character development, leaves his film with an empty centre.

    The Innocents pivots on the performance of the role of Governess Miss Giddens. She is the soul of the work and Henry James wrote his novella in the form of a letter written by her. This letter structures the work as a point of view: a seeing and recounting of the events. This is one of things James explored: how seeing informs understanding. However in the Innocents film version, we don’t see things from her point of view. Sometimes we do but mostly we get a camera taking up different narrative roles dominated by overdetermined affect images that Clayton asks Deboral Kerr as governess to give. The role of governess is defined by stereotypical faciality of the melodramatic horror genre characterised by the lowering of the jaw, the stretching of the skin over cheek bones, the widening of eyes. Locked into her rigid characterisation Kerr, directed by Clayton is unable to suggest the chaotic mental states that characterise perception and judgement in unstable psychic relationships. And so, like a fire, without sufficient psychic energy to consume, the film slowly dies down and goes out. There are a couple of moments with both Miles and Flora that kindle, but in the end instead of a focus of intent, there are just images edited and manipulated to impose the occasional shock on the audience.

    The other weakness of the Innocents is the failure of Jack Clayton to create a world within which to locate his action. The action mostly takes place in a large country house called Bly. For the film to work the location should take on some numinous identity of its own. The setting should emanate a sense of presence and immanence in relation to the events that it secretes. But Clayton doesn’t develop the house as anything more than a backdrop to the action. Looking at the garden and the house, the props suggest a polymorphous raiding of the studio’s prop cupboard. None of the items, the statues the pictures the drapes have any resonance. The best shots are the over the shoulder tracking shots down the corridor (which might have influenced Kubrick’s Shining) and the use of the windows as mirror reflectors of faces. But neither of these more effective shots are intrinsic to the fabric of the setting, they could be part of any large house.

    David Lean, in films such as Great Expectations and Brief Encounter, anchored his films within the numinous possibilities inherent in created and imagined worlds. His characters and plots were embedded in in the very fabric of his settings. In this film adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, Jack Clayton needed to better understand that the content and features of his setting were central to his artistic vision. adrin neatrour

  • Double Indemnity Billy Wilder (Usa 1944)

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    Double Indemnity Billy Wilder (USA
    1944) Barabara Stanwyck, Fred McMurray, Edward G Robinson

    Viewed DVD Boxing Day 2013

    Mythic Surprise Party
    One thing that struck me about Double
    indemnity was that it was on the whole in terms of its images highly
    abstract. Its actual concerns were located in the realm of ideas and
    myth and the film was the more the powerful
    for this bias.
    Most commentators or at least the ones
    I have read, pick out Wilder’s Double Indemnity as a prime exemplar
    of the film noir genre. Reviewers agree that all the film’s
    constituent elements were superbly crafted and delivered to produce a
    very fine movie.

    Let’s start with the structure of the
    film. Double indemnity is structured as a back story told in the
    course of Frank’s confession into Keyes’ dictaphone. This appliance
    is a sort of confession machine; a mythical hole in the rock into
    which you whisper your sins. It’s an automated depersonalised
    confessional that intensifies and triggers the truth telling reflex
    in an immoral irreligious age that responds to technology but not to
    authority. In Wilder’s hands it’s a device which is never strained
    or stretched and in the final scene the machine is cleverly but not
    artificially, integrated into the film’s climax.

    The script from a James Cain story has
    a relentless narrative drive boned and honed by Raymond Chandler and
    Wilder, spiced with sour dark dialogue for Phylis and Frank, and
    variant wiseacring from Keyes.

    The acting; high energy performances
    from Stanwyck (the allure of the fake and brittle, in a wig) McMurray and

    The cinematography: John Seitz’s
    high key noir mood lighting rigs reflect the protagonists states of
    mind. And the camera movement: Wilder’s direction makes use of
    tracking shots to shift perspective and heighten psychological
    affect. We see a scene that starts with a CLOSE SHOT of the
    conspiring couple about to make love on the sofa in Frank’s
    apartment. The camera suddenly tracks back pulling Phylis and Frank
    into a WIDE PERSPECTIVE. The effect of the movement is to strip back
    the naked raw desire driving their intention; but at the same time
    also reveals them as vulnerable and alone together, pre-doomed by
    the crime that lies before them.

    But Double Indemnity is more than the
    sum of all its qualities because it’s caste in a mythic form, which
    gives the film a psychic authenticity that connects its action to a
    grounded meaning. I don’t think that any one myth underlies Double
    Indemnity, rather that the script suggests a number of mythic
    sources, some Biblical and some Classical.

    The core of the film’s mythic grounding
    lies in the relationship between the two male protagonists. At the
    end of the film Frank lies bleeding to death on the floor at the
    door of the Company with Keyes beside him. He tells Keyes that Keyes
    was too close to him to see what he was doing. Keyes replies: “Closer
    than that…” Frank looks up at him and says: “Love you too.”
    Extraordinary final dialogue! At once we understand that the theme
    of the film is betrayal. This dialogue might construe a homoerotic
    relationship between the men, the love that dare not speak its name.
    More plausibly in relation to what we have seen, it might indicate
    the love that develops in the relationship between master and
    apprentice, master and disciple. A love characterised by an immense
    fondness: The love of Moses for Aaron, of Jesus for Judas, the love
    of Laius for Oedipus. The mythic theme underlying Double Indemnity
    is the epic of betrayal, the leaving of the true and righteous path
    of virtue for the gratification of desire. The forsaking of the love
    of the master and his teachings for the blandishments of the flesh

    The Pacific Insurance Company (shot as
    a modern Temple of Commerce) is represented as a good and decent
    place. It is the repository of a belief system that serves the
    decency of the American way of life. Keyes is a high priest and
    Frank his acolyte and successor. Both men symbolise in their roles
    the forces of truth which have to stand firm against the
    destabilising forces of putrescence and deception that seek to
    undermine the Temple. Seduced by the flesh Frank betrays his love
    for the Master, leaves the Temple and takes up residence in the
    Brothel. In so doing, like Judas, he also determines the course of
    his own destruction. Psychically castrated Frank cannot survive
    without the sustaining love of his master.

    Interestingly it is perhaps this very
    love between the two men that overburdons Frank. As if Frank is
    overwhelmed by the expectation of Keyes’ too great a love, and can
    only respond to the inner tensions that it causes by betrayal, a
    course of action that will destroy himself and perhaps Keyes. A true love story.
    There is a wonderfully scripted
    leitmotif that defines the relationship between the two male
    protagonists: the Promethian spark. Throughout the movie Keyes asks
    Frank for a light for his cigar. Frank always obliges. He takes a
    match and flicking the nail of his thumb against its head, ignites
    it. It’s a cheap trick, but as an image it effectively suggests the
    idea of an energised cathartic relationship bonding the two men. The
    spark that passes from the the younger man to the older: sexual
    energy, the spark of knowledge, the fire of life. A metaphor for a
    Promethean pact, a pact that is expertly reversed in the final scene
    when Keyes demonstrates that he too is a consummate fire master and
    lights Frank\s final cigarette with a match lit by a flick of his own

    The film works and retains its power
    because working through a mythological casting of images, fire,
    sacrifice, betrayal castration love it links the audience to a series
    of primal archetypal elements that engage and link psychic states of
    mind to action.

    One final thought. Wilder when he made
    Double Indemnity still seems to retain a belief in the moral solidity
    of American capitalism. There is a certain collective commitment
    that morally sustained the system. Wilder (and Chandler presumably)
    saw that it was under threat from the new and increasingly
    intensified forces of individuated desire. But in this movie, the
    moral collective, the Temple holds its ground; it sees off the
    brothel and the raging forces and the chaos of the id. Decency
    represented by high priest Keyes wins, even if it is sorely wounded
    as there are still enough good men left standing. By the time Wilder
    makes Ace in the Hole in 1951, he has lost belief in the ability of
    the American system to be decent. He sees the organisation of big
    business irremediably corrupted by individual desire. The good no
    longer can withstand the bad. On the outside the Temple might still
    look like it is standing but inside it has turned into a brothel.
    The era of an unashamed and unrestrained individualism is beginning.

    adrin neatrour