Monthly Archives: March 2015

  • The Crowd King Vidor (USA 1928)

    The Crowd King Vidor
    (USA 1928) Eleanor Boardman James Murray

    Viewed: Star and Shadow Cinema 22 march 2015; Ticket £6

    Retro-crit: We see what he does not see…

    Almost right from the start of the Crowd, Crowd King Vidor puts his audience on notice that they are viewing a film that is a critique of American ideology. And the manner in which this critique will be effected is through the interplay of a routine but brilliantly executed melodrama which Vidor juxtaposes with images that undercut and undermine the belief systems endemic to the plot. These images reveal the macrocosm the real context against which the family, the microcosm has to play out its hopes. The lay bare the reality that for most people the idea of success, of being able to emerge out the crowd, is an illusion. Vidor may have been influenced by Metropolis, Lang’s futurist parable where the world is divided between worker slaves and masters, with no social mobility.

    The early shot in the film that caught my attention came in the second sequence of the movie. In the first we see John Sims our protagonist being born and his father declaring, in the ripe cliché of the ‘American Dream’ a great future for the boy. We cut to John Sims about 10 years later, finding him on a bench with his gang of kids, who are talking talking about what they want to be when they grow up.

    As the camera pans across the bench we see the kid at the end is black. This is surprising in a feature film of this era. In the clothes he wears the black boy is in no way differentiated from the other kids, he just seems part of the gang. But he takes no part in this talk. His future is written in the colour of his skin. The camera pans back along the line to John and the intertitle card reads that John is telling the gang that his dad has said he is going become ‘somebody’ in the world, perhaps President. The formulaic belief has passed down the generation. For the black boy there is nothing to discuss, no illusion, only the reality of race. But will John Sims realise the dream?

    Cut to New York City, the crucible of individualistic hope. Vidor follows John through work and home, marriage and children, using the building blocks of melodramatic form to create a characteristic life for him and his wife. We see the emotional relationship between them which is brilliantly executed and the cramped homes where they live with their children. The consistent vein of belief that sustains the family is the idea that the American way will ultimately reward John with success for his hard work and ability.

    Vidor’s use of moral imagery transposes the viewer outside of the binding clinch of melodrama. It enables the audience to see what John himself cannot see: that his hopes are vain and illusionary. He is the subject of a con game. He hasn’t really got a chance, only crooks and the amoral get out of the ‘crowd’. Everyday decency has no future, except as a wage slave.

    Actuality shots of New York City brilliantly evoke it as a thronged city, compressed masses of workers scrambling to earn a buck. Vidor returns to actuality sbots periodically through the film: Coney Island, hundreds of men in line trying for work. But the film is mostly memorable for the three amazing sequences employing huge expressionist sets to depict the reality of John Sim’s situation. It is a moot point that the viewer sees what the sets represent, John does not, he is simply in the movie, where King Vidor has placed him.

    The sets represent the world of work, the hospital and the entertainment industry. John’s Office, a vast space filled with serried lines of clerks, stretches back almost to infinity creating the sense that the individuals there are lost and helpless. There is no way out of this world. The second set that takes the breath away is the maternity ward where John visits Mary. The door to the ward opens up to John revealing a huge space filled with beds of new mothers. The space is a huge incubating factory for workers. How you are born is how you will live. John’s walk into the maternity ward is filmed as an extraordinary track in which the space seems to expand out before him. These scenes certainly evoke Metropolis, but are stunningly executed and contrived to respond to Vidor’s specific purpose: to express the America of his day.

    The third set that dominates the film doesn’t use a specially built structure, but utilises an existing building, the huge auditorium of a theatre,. Vidor treats the theatre as a set in the same way as the hospital ward and the work place. It is the final shot of the Crowd. May John and their son are in the auditorium of the theatre. John’s future is uncertain, no job no prospects of realising the Dream, and at risk of losing his wife. We see the little family watching the clowns on stage. They are framed as a tight compact group laughing enjoying themselves. The camera moves up away from them tracking back away from them towards the stage, revealing the whole auditorium packed with people watching the stage, all happy all enjoying themselves. The movement of the camera over and revealing this huge crowd seems to continue an impossibly long time, revealing more and more people, until eventually the picture fades and credits roll.

    The end shot suggests that the future for the crowd is to be entertained. Distraction is their fate. The Crowd draws on Metropolis and anticipates Chaplin’s Modern Times. And with its vision of America Vidor presages the Great Depression. It is a remarkable film. The melodramatic scripting and the playing of Eleanor Boardman and James Murray, are both superbly handled. Boardman’s resilience and naturalness ground the film in the everyday. James Murray gives a performance which calls up the idea of the Clown. Without ever using exaggerated gesture, Murray in mien and movement at moments suggests both Chaplin and Buster Keaton: the both archetypal victims of fate. Adrin Neatrour

  • The Duke of Burgundy Peter Strickland (UK 2015)

    The Duke of Burgundy
    Peter Strickland (UK 2015) Sidse
    Babett Knudson; Monica Swinn

    Viewed: Tyneside Cinema 6 Mar 2015; Ticket: £9.00

    Insecticide…the bugs have the excuse of being dead

    My feeling after viewing the Duke of Burgundy was that I had viewed a sub-standard piece of formulaic erotica directed by a director so seduced by his own imagery, that he is unable to make films any more. The film dominated by Strickland’s input as writer director feels like a love note to himself, a contemporary exercise in narcissism .

    The Duke of Burgundy is an indulgent graceless movie that lacking tensions and ideas reveals Strickland as a film monger, who in this movie exploits form and structure without content to engender the illusion that his films have some sort of substance.

    In Katalin Varga Strickland made extensive use of landscape to extend out the emotional mood of his revenge narrative; in Berberian Sound Studio he made similar use of Sound Track to feed and extend the layered narrative threads. In both these movies the form and structure of the material fed directly into the film’s themes and subject matter: revenge in the case of Katalin and in Berberian, a notion of evil.

    Visual parallels and sound fx, as types of bolted on imagery can be a director’s cheap trick or a sign pointing to something about the nature of the film. In the sense that they don’t cost much and there is little risk involved in the exploitation of this type of material there needs to be some sort of signage. The cut away landscape shot in a drama demands the audience to make links implicit in the juxtaposition of the two different sources of imagery. The use of suggestive and emotive sound as an intensifier, is a stimulus that imposes itself on the audience’s anticipation of and grasp of what is happening on screen. It is almost impossible for an audience to either disattend it or disassociate strong suggestive sound effects from accompanying visual material.

    These devices used profligately are cheap tricks. Cheap tinny tricks can of course be turned to cinema gold if the director understands something about the purpose of the film. If there is a understanding of the worth, the truth content of the film that corresponds to the extrinsic devices. Sometimes the signage comprises a moral (or historical) step outside of the parameters of the film, an induced reference that connects all the material. This idea of reference which underlies films by Godard, von Trier, Haneka, is lacking in Strickland’s film.

    Katalin Varga perhaps justifies its vegetative references, Berberian Sound Studio collapses in on itself unable to bear the weight of its soundscaped and infested netherworlds. The Duke of Burgundy simply retreads Strickland’s previously used tricks into the vacuous premise of a soft porn scenario delivered with high end stylistic politically correct gloss. The action shots of the film, similar to other high end soft porn vehicles (L’Histoire d’O) are characterised by long meaningful looks between the players (meaningful only if the audience decides to impute meaning to them, seeing in them something beyond director’s instructions). These looks are always characterised by a lack of blinking, blinking being an action of the eye, an event, which interrupts the durational flow of the look and hence changes the shot and the director’s imputed meaning of the shot. The mannered non blinking looks are complemented by a equally mannered delivery the the lines of the dialogue. The dialogue is delivered in the sort of dead pan abstracted manner that might belie the production of a Monte Python SM spoof.

    So the Duke of Burgundy all gets a bit silly. For all the paraphernalia of seamed stockings, high heeled boots, bodices, bondage and SM persiflage that defines the politically correct relationship between the female leads in their big house, with their big bed, this movie runs on empty.

    Interlaid (no pun intended) with this gash formulaic footage are an multiple cutaways to two kinds of visuals: landscapes (mostly trees) as in Varga, and specimen bugs pinned to display boards ( I device I first saw used in the 1965 movie the Collector). The scapes are mostly fixed point shots, the bugs are mostly tracked. The bugs belong to Evelyn who enjoys entomological studies. The multiple intercutting of the bugs and trees seems an act of despair by Strickland. The Duke of Burgundy script, lacking in tensions or externalities has no where to go and ends up going nowhere. Void of meaning Strickland appeals to the conceit of the audience, asking them to find meaning (or perhaps escape) where there is none. To the long looks between Evelyn and Cynthia Strickland adds the trees and the bugs asking the viewer to buy into spliced in manipulation rather than significance. The use of sound effects in the film, likewise replays Berberian, trying to overwhelm the viewer with the suggestion that something is happening, when there is nothing except the presentation of turgid stylisation of SM.

    Filled out sound effects and tracks, incessant cutaways to eternalities without referents, endless looks between puppet actresses, are symptomatic of a lazy director, whose film empty of content has only saggy stylised form, characterised by baggy shots, leaden pace and no tension. Adrin neatrour

  • Timbuktu Abderrahmane Sissako (Mauritania / Fr 2014 )

    Timbuktu Abderrahmane Sissako (Mauritania / Fr 2014 ) Ibrahim Ahmed Viewed: Quad Cinema NYC USA; 2nd March 2015; Ticket:

    Where to run….? Only to death.. ? ….and Allah?

    Sissako’s ‘Timbuktu’ opens and closes with running shots. The film opens with a mute tracking shot of a gazelle fleeing through desert scrub from the Ansar Dine (Islamist fundamentalists) fighters who have taken control of the Timbuktu area. In the final shot Toya, the herders’ daughter who we have just seen orphaned by the Ansar Dine, runs gasping with despair towards the camera.

    Neither the gazelle nor Toya have any future, both are quarry. The gazelle’s future we know: it will be run down until exhausted and then have its throat slit. Toya’s future is also certain. With no one to protect her she will be captured and either killed or forcibly married to a fighter, one of whom has been circling her mother even when her mother was protected by her father Kadir. When Kadir is killed by Ansar Dine, Toya’s life has ended,: it is difficult to see any future for her.

    I think it is this notion of the future that constitutes the question that inspires Sissako’s film.

    And it is a question that is put into relief by one extraordinary shot in the middle of the film. Viewed from a promontory we see a big wide view of the river. Kasim has just had a fight in the river with the fisherman and accidently shot him. The river is shallow and slow moving, not more than a meter deep. On the right hand side of frame we see the prone body of the fisherman. Whilst to his left, Kadim exhausted wades across to the left hand side river bank away from the dying man, who staggers up for a few paces before his final collapse. The river flows through the increasing gap between the two men, the alive and the dead. The river flows through the shot opening up space for us to think about the nature of the forces that we have seen unleashed in the early part of the film, and wondering how these forces will be respond to this event: a killing.

    I think this river shot is the key shot in the Timbuktu scenario. I think Sissako inserted as a key shot: the conjuction of the eternal and the flowing, the sometime terrifying vicissitudes of the everyday within which we have to live.

    In ‘Timbuktu’ (the film) the people experience change in the very grain of their lives. But strangely enough not to the rhythm of life. The people are exemplified by the small family of herders, Kadim, Satima and Toya, about whom a significant section of the film revolves. They live under canvas with their small herd of cattle. Enriched with music that has become illicit their life, is rhythmic and honest. Sissako lets us see through them the intense beauty of beings integrated both with themselves and their environment. And almost from the first time we see them we know that they are doomed. Foredoomed by the merciless forces that have now entered their lives and will inevitably destroy them.

    The people we see in ‘Timbuktu’ are only a small group but representative of the millions of people whose lives have been destroyed and smashed up by the emergence of a strain of ruthless intolerant fundamentalist Islam that has developed and advanced as a moral religious political and social force across huge swathes of the Middle East, Africa and Asia. ‘Timbuktu’ is an intimate portrayal of the forces at work in the particular context of Mali society and the dessert landscape which has formed and shaped human relations through many ages. But here as everywhere the question raised is what happens next? How will the living adopt and come to terms with life under a new and uncertain order. What resources are needed to go on living?

    Sissako’s film is set in Timbuktu (but not shot in the town itself) and its surrounding countryside. The country landscape with its quality of the eternal, the townscape with its quality of an ancient and unchanging focus of life, are both subjected to brutal usurpation by alien forces. The town occupied, the countryside penetrated. The town people subject to an regime of intolerance imposed with religiously legitimised certainty and defined by extreme punishment. The country people where once they watched their animals the wind and the stars now watch out for the arrival of the new Masters the enforcers of the new order.

    Sissako’s scenario captures the adaptations made by the people to the sudden imposition of series of absolute laws. In a series of surreal cameos we see people clinging to the outward form of previous enjoyments whilst having to forego their essence: ‘air’ music without music, football played without the ball. The odd illusion of the rhythm of life unchanged but everyting changed. The new order, proclaimed in the streets, is particularly aimed at the repression of women’s presence in the public domain, neither women’s hands nor their feet may be seen, socks and gloves have to be worn at all times. But the women represented by Sissako when threatened are not cowed. They return the gaze of the men as equals.

    And it at this point that Sissako’s film seems to illuminate something about the way in which violent extremist groups interact and operate with captured populations. Their occupation centres on an ‘Allah’ discourse, and their claim to legitimate power by representing the will of ‘Allah’. Timbuktu is an ongoing and substantive discourse relating to the nature of Allah and Islam and the claim by groups like Ansar Dine to legitimise their power in relation to: people’s activities, the status of women and the practice of Sharia Law.

    One of the opening scenes is a debate between an Imam of Timbuktu and a religious spokesmen for the new order. The Mullah simply cannot accept the extremist interpretation and practice of Islam: he does not recognise it for it is in essence without mercy. But the extremist position is that justice is literally for Allah, they simply carry out his will. The jihadist sentiment similar in portent to the words of the blood thirsty Christian Bishop, justifying massacre at the siege of Beziers: “God will recognise his own.”

    So it is a Law without mercy that is practiced upon the people, a practice that is reminiscent of the early days of young zealot commissars touring the USSR bringing soviet ‘justice’ to the furthest reaches of the Empire. The new order the Ansar Dine do not shout bully or enforce in an individually expressive statement of power. Their justice is a quiet insistance. The extreme discourse mediates itself through practice of the ‘law’. The occupying militants are channels of the will of Allah. The brutality, the stoning the whipping the executions are carried through with silent resolve: legitimate sentences of Islamic law.

    In ‘Timbuktu’ Sissako carefully exposes the claims of the Islamists to represent the pure practice of Islam. The extremists cannot answer the opposing point of view of the local Imam except by force. As the occupation proceeds to impose itself, cultural and racial splits are exposed. The occupiers whatever legitimacy they claim, can only impose their will through the application of legalised terror. The primacy of the sexual desires exposed among the young hoodlums as they forcibly take wives for themselves by right of conquest not consent. And in the central theme of the film, the Sharia law through which they claim legitimacy is itself shown to be a façade, a cover for hypocritical carnality.

    The herds people, representitive of harmony and beauty are destroyed. The head of the small family, Kadir is sentanced to death for killing a man in a fight, perhaps accidently in self defence. At his ‘trial’ under Sharia, the commutation of the death sentence was set impossibly high by the demand (for thirty cattle when he only has seven) for blood money compensation he does not posess. As he cannot not meet the bloodmoney he must die. The impossible demand almost certainly stems from the extremist’s second in command’s desire to possess Kadir’s wife Satima. A desire not possible to fulfil as long as Satima is married to Kadir. Once Kadir is dead, then she and their daughter Toya can be taken.

    Realising this and knowing that she has been betrayed by Ansar Dine exploitation of Sharia to get rid of her husband so that one of their commanders can take her, Satima joins her husband at his execution, immediately dieing with him in the hail of bullets that greet her arrival.

    Sissako’s film has been accused of not being critical enough of the Islamist extremists. But Sissako is not making a Hollywood action movie. He also knows that depictions that misrepresent what happens are counterproductive. The militants are as they are, by their own lights lawful. Sissako has made a film that is in accordance with what is experienced: that extremist fundamentalism is partly a legitimacy issue, and that the ‘Allah’ discourse, and the corruption innate in claiming monopoly of truth and mercy, is where the extremists can be defeated.

    Adrin Neatrour