Monthly Archives: July 2014

  • La Grande Illusion Jean Renoir (Fr 1937)t

    La Grande Illusion
    Jean Renoir (Fr 1937) Jean Gabin, Erich von Stroheim

    Viewed Star and Shadow Cinema 13 July 2014; Ticket £5

    Here comes a candle to light you to bed…

    The most telling psychic feature of Renoir’s movie is that it leaves the viewer with a feeling of hope. And hope is a state of mind in relatively short supply in ‘war’ movies. We leave the cinema after many of these types of films with images of shattered cities, broken bodies and smashed minds. And not much else. La Grande Illusion is of course a film from another era, but it is set in a Europe experiencing death and destruction on an industrial scale and made at a time, 1937, when Europe was again marching towards a blind date with self destruction. The basis of the film’s hope lies in the affirmation by Renoir of the human spirit as a source of strength.

    A Wikipedia entry informs that the title of the film was suggested to Renoir by a book of the same title, which proposed that WAR was itself was the great illusion as it changes nothing. But on seeing the film I felt that in relation to the content of La Grande Illusion, this is ultimately too abstract an explanation to justify its content. It seems to me that this title points to some vital element in men’s nature that enables them to survive the most extreme experiences.

    In La Grande Illusion, in spite of the desperate conditions in which the characters find themselves, it is their illusions that define them as human and that are a key resource helping them to survive. Those elaborate and sometimes deliberate mental devices intentionally erected to separate and protect ourselves from the raw brutality of existence. Illusions can impede and even destroy us; but they can also give us strength in our relations with actual life. Renoir looks at both sides of the scales.

    References to illusions occur a number of times in the film, most notably in a throw away remark by an unaccredited soldier, that the war will end soon. In this soldier’s line, the relationship of the propaganda of ‘coming peace’ to the actuality of present war, is seen by the speaker as such an illusion that it’s a joke. But this need to joke is also an imperative. An impulse to affirm that in fact it is still possible to imagine something else other than a ‘continual’ state of war. The Orwellian state of ‘perpetual war’ envisaged in 1984 between Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia brooks no possibility of peace even as a joke. Perpetual War is beyond a joke, but it is a state which has found itself echoed in the Bush/Blair doctrine of the War on Terror. Perpetual War is the situation that haunts 21st century life, to the extent that today we can barely even joke about the illusion of peace.

    Illusions as collective indulgences run through La Grande Illusion. They are voluntarily contracted and dissolved as soon as their purpose is served. The prisoners imagine in great detail, eating a multicourse meal in a grand restaurant . The descriptions of each individual course sustains momentarily the illusion of actual food. Likewise the arrival of a basket women’s garments for dressing up unleashes a collective object fetishism in which the items can replace the actual absence of women. Renoir sketches out the scene sufficiently for it to be clear that sex can be an ambiguous assignment, and that clothes, as outer makers of the gender boundary can in themselves sustain the illusion of the feminine. Illusion creates the a brief triumph of imagination over reality.

    Illusion is quite different from lies. The German farmer doesn’t accept the lie, the attempt by the German military to foist on the people the illusion that the battle of Verdun which cost the lives of all her menfolk, was a glorious victory. Lies simply weaken the spirit. But the illusions, fostered as a temporary collective belief strengthen spirit.

    Our illusions define us. Renoir also suggests that songs and ritual also contribute to a significant degree to the nature of our being in the world.

    Songs run through La Grande Illusion like invisible thread holding both men and the film together. The people sing for the sense of vitality that it lends to being. It is perhaps illusionary but it brings dimensions of power and control into life. The power of the voice to affirm something. In La Grande Illusion song expresses different feelings. When the French POW’s break into the La Marseillaise on the news of the French recapture of a small fort in Flanders, they affirm their Frenchness as a type of challenge. As the German soldiers pile out of the hall to escape the song, that moment releases the men from the oppression of their imprisonment. The singing is a ‘freeing from’ the actual and it is this quality of song, that Renoir characterises as most life endorsing. Again by way of contrast in ‘1984′ there are no songs. Big Brother’s regime has colonised the collective conscience. Big Brother recognising the potency of voice to inspire collective resistance, has banished songs as ‘thoughtcrime’. Songs have been driven to the outer reaches of the psyche where George and Julia struggle as amnesiacs to reassemble the words of the nursery rhythm ‘Oranges and Lemons’. Today it seems song has lost its power to call up collective intentionality. Now in Britain we have no visions sustainable through the voice and our music is reduced to a subjectivity. We are the poorer for it. Big Brother would approve.

    The structure of La Grande Illusion is shaped by the ritual. Each phase of the film is defined through ritual: the rituals of escape, of caste, of performance, of Christmas and Birthday. Of course the organisation of attempts to escape by POW’s have a ritualistic nature and to some extent an illusionary quality as there is no escape from the war. But escape also has a symbolic quality and is motivated by a complex of inner drives.

    Central to La Grande Illusion are the rituals of class and caste as exemplified by the German Officer von Raufenstein. The ceremonial aspect of the military comprises von Raufenstein’s world, and to a lesser extent that of Boeldieu. The ritualised nature of their exchanges marks them as beings from another era, engaging in a stylised form of communication that is alien to the world in which they live and fight. Von Rauffenstein in particular is so implicitly grounded in vanishing conventions of the Junkers, that he is unable even see the actual situation that confronts him in the castle. Boeldieu in contrast connects with the actual, ultimately by dyeing. But although the illusions supported by ritual exert negative control over Von Rauffenstein and and to a lesser extent Boeldieu, other rituals presented by Renoir are much more positive. They temporarily fold over individuals protecting and invigorating them, making them stronger. The rituals of the shows mounted by the prisoners, the sharing of food, the ritual of Christmas, all are marked by Renoir as key moments of development. In time of hardship deprivation and duress ritual protects what is best in human kind.

    Renoir is a director in the classical mould. He brings to film an absolute clarity in the perspective and quality of his shots and an unsurpassed understanding of way in which he wants to construct his movie out of shots.

    The camera sustains its privileged perspective, it doesn’t hop around different points of view. The viewer always knows what they ar seeing, as Renoir brings into central frame the object of interest and holds it until its natural tension can be no longer contained and the shot ends. Each shot builds up its own momentum driving the film, as a series of mechanised springs towards its resolution in the snow of Switzerland. As a director understanding the inner logic of shot vectors and tension, Renoir has few rivals in Classical Cinema. Adrin Neatrour

  • Chef Jon Favreau (Usa 2014)

    Chef Jon Favreau (USA
    2014) Jon Favreau; Robert Downey; Scarlett Johansson

    Viewed: Empire
    Cinema Newcastle 9 July 2014; ticket

    Listen to the

    usually expect these types of Hollywood productions to be a sales medium. Either selling some abstract American value:
    desire, overcoming, cheap redemption, folksy wiseacring (sometimes called
    philosophy) etc.; or to peddle a nice line in product placement. Chef plays true to type. But not only is Chef is an ‘overcoming’
    American morality fable presented with tasty side dishes of product placement
    (Mercedes and Apple), it is also a promotional feast. It
    goes the whole hog and sells the script the screen-space and verbal plugs, lock
    stock and pork barrel to one product.

    I think Chef is simply a two hour promo for Twitter Inc.

    This is perhaps the brave new age of film production.

    As we watch Chef we witness the realisation of E Doc Smith’s futuristic vision: the nightmare of the psychic penetration of commercial interests into the very grain of life. The corrupting or simply changing if you prefer, of the nature of our perceiving.

    My feeling is that Chef is an act of deception. Chef dupes the viewer into believing they are watching a movie whose sole and overt purpose is to entertain and engross. Whereas the audience are in fact lured into watching a premeditated commercially motivated film whose covert purpose is the promotion of a social networking platform. As the film progresses Twitter becomes the plot driver, not only plugged verbally, but taking up ever more of the picture screen with its own separate window.

    Favreau may argue that films must incorporate social media if they are to reflect today’s relations and social action. My response is that if the products of large corporations are to be central drivers of a script then unless that script has an axis that is quite distinct from that product, then we are watching a corrupted piece of work. An extended ad. If the script has an axis that is a discrete phenomenon, unconnected to the product, then the product or platform ( Twitter, Amazon Facebook -whatever) is then but another variable, for good or bad, in the playing out of film’s scenario.

    There was nothing I saw in the Chef credits linking Twitter Inc. to the movie. So it is not possible to ascertain whether or not Chef was sponsored by Twitter Inc. And Twitter Inc. had they been involved as a sponsor of Chef would certainly not have wanted a credit. They would presumably prefer to keep their involvement in the deep background, maintaining the cover would obviously further, both Twitter Inc. and the film production company’s goal of promoting the idea that Chef was a commercially neutral production, an entertainment not a promotional vehicle. Which indeed it may be. But without a disclaimer to the contrary, which I have not seen or heard, doubts will remain for me as to the actual nature of this movie.

    As eidetic symbols products such Coke Nike MacDonald’s already have a collective psychic assimilated actuality. But Google Facebook Twitter are not just products they are processes: not just means of connecting and relating to each other, but ways of thinking. In Chef we see the realisation and rationalisation of the particular process of internalising a message service as a state of mind.

    Twitter brings families together Chef is a typical flabby piece of Hollywood scripting and film production. Favreau brings nothing to film. He locks onto the shot reaction shot format without originality or flair. He uses a Hispanic funk soul soundtrack to alleviate the tedium of a film that is without tension and whose whole plot line revolves about delivering the Twitter Inc. message. Chef’s narrative line links the consequences of a Tweeted bitching exchange, between chef and his critic, to a classic textbook demonstration of how to use Twitter for promotional purposes. The gimmick is the old Hollywood tried and trusted cute scripting stand-by of the child leading the man towards enlightenment. Twitter brings families together. In this case 10 year old Percy introduces and teaches his 40 something dad all about Twitter.

    Two other features of Chef caught my attention. For all that Chef starts out being about high end cooking, sort of nouvelle cuisine, the food ends up as the film ends up: Junk Americana. The sort of food cooked up and successfully sold and tweeted by the eponymous great Chef ends up being the old American standby of: greasy meat under greasy cheese with tasty sauce on top, stuck between two pieces of toasted white bread. This at least does the movie justice.

    The values system expressed and endorsed in Chef seemed like an updating or slight recalibrating of the underlying values of the Rocky series of films which Stallone, like Favreau, wrote acted and mainly directed. In its visual look crude filming and cardboard characters, Chef also reminded me of these Stallone movies.

    One thing present in Chef that I certainly don’t remember from Rocky, is its sexualisation of its ten year old child character, Percy. Perhaps I am prude but I found it distasteful that when Percy with his dad and sous chef are driving across USA, the sous chef tells the child that his balls are hot! The solution is smear them with corn syrup (or something) The sous chef, who is driving the truck, sticks his hand into a pot of the stuff and then rams it down his pants, Percy’s dad does the same and recommends it to his son. Later in the trip as Chef drives he sings along to both verses of Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing (performed by Hot 8 Brass) whilst the viewer has to watch the inane grin on Percy’s face as he listens to his dad. I think the point is that these sexualised events in Chef are gratuitous. There is nothing in the plot or situation that calls them in. They seem motivated by Favreau’s insecurity in his material, that even with a 10 year old boy, a proper Dad, a Rocky Dad, should be confident enough to flaunt his sexuality, even at the expense of the sexualisation of his ten year old son.

    So is Chef the start of a new trend. Is it viral? We we next be tripping down to the Multiplex to see: ‘Don’t Like’. An everyday story of a Facebook group who use their pages to raise awareness and organise a raid into deepest Mali to bring orphans back to the USA? We shall see. Adrin Neatrour

  • Of Horses and Men (Hross I Oss) Benedikt Erlingsson (Iceland 2013)

    Of Horses and Men (Hross i Oss) Benedikt Erlingsson (Iceland 2013) Ingyar Eggert Sigurtson; Charlotte Boving

    Viewed Tyneside Cinema 29 June 2014; ticket £7.80

    Horses in a landscape…in vacuo…

    It used to be the big studios that were accused of being demonic forces undermining the integrity of the director, but now it is the national tourist boards that have taken on the mantel of the corruptive element.

    Erlingsson’s film is another movie from the island fringes of Europe, another landscape fest for the week-end away break zombies. Another backdrop.

    Some of these island fringe films overcome their landscape manicure. Calgary for instance which if you disregard the Irish Tourist Board Crap as necessary Danegeld, has a provocation that drives its filmic logic.

    This cannot be said of Men and Horses which as a film offers nothing either to film in itself or the Icelandic social and cultural matrices from which it is presented as springing.

    A film by the dead for the dead.

    Erlingsson seems to believe that you can replace thought with image and that you can replace thinking with a bit of nifty editing and manipulation. Not an uncommon illusion in a era which is heavy on technik can-do and light on meaning.

    For instance Horses and Men opens with a montage sequence comprising a number of big close-ups shots of a horse: mainly of its coat, but finally arriving at its eyes in which we see the image of the owner appear Except for a banal literality that this is a film that features horses, the montage is oddly detached from the flow of the film. The big close ups seem to be a recourse on the part of Erlingsson as a safe way to start his film. Likewise the use of digitied imagery seen in the eyes of the horses seem like a gimmick, a means of laying claim to continuities rather than actually establishing them These types of technical expressions are repeated by Erlingsson who evidently wants to believe these types of shots mean something particular . But just shooting big close-ups just producing digital FX and then inserting them in the film doesn’t actually mean anything unless they are grounded in structure or content. Otherwise such shots are just close ups for the sake of close ups, effects for the sake of effects; little more than postcards, something for the gaze. Most of Erlingsson’s camera work is characterised by the sense of vacuity: image for the sake of image – no meaning – empty shot. The landscape shots have same nondescript value.

    The film is set in a valley in Iceland and takes the form a series of fragments, stories relating the people who live in the valley with the horses that roam wild there and about which animals part of the social round revolves.

    The poverty of the narrative fragments is highlighted by the soap opera desperation that characterises them. All the fragments, and I think there were five, end in one extreme event or another: deaths – two men and two horses, castration of a horse and a fuck on the horse round up. The fragments are weak because with one exception they are simply enlarged events, they don’t centre on people. The fuck the deaths the castration the disembowelling. The characters appear as automatons driven by the the directors need to arrive at the event. The event is important, not the getting there. The events in themselves are designed to deliver an image, a magazine centre spread that is supposed to justify it. Images: the horse shot by his owner, the castrated stallion, the stallion covering the mare whose owner is riding her (This is the image on that adorns the posters for the movie), the horse disembowelled by the man seeking to shelter from the cold within its hollowed body. Images without human relations the real complexities of movement. Images like gratuitous acts of violence that are ultimately empty because they are detached from the bund of a social or human context..

    The fragments except perhaps for the first story never engage with relations, either between people or between people and their animals. In the first story we see the man shoot his horse because it has debased his dignity, so the animal is in a critical way an extension of his self conceit. But otherwise the relations between the people and their horses revolve not around relations but doing things to them, and the relations between the people of the valley themselves is restricted to the running joke that they all spy on each other with binoculars, as if in such tight communities such methods were needed to know all about your neighbour.

    The acting is unconvincing to the extent that in Horses and Men, it feels like the real people who live in the valley have been temporarily decanted form their houses and a set of stooges sent in to replace them. And the poor blighted audience, denied real people is forced to watch unconvincing fakes, and yearn for the return of the real folk

    Horses are wondrously energised creatures, but close up images of them do not a movie even begin to make. Adrin Neatrour