Monthly Archives: December 2015

  • The Lady in the Van Nicolas Hytner (2015, UK)

    The Lady in the Van
    Nicolas Hytner (2015, UK) Maggie
    Smith, Alex Jennings

    Man about the house

    A film in the British tradition of a literary conceit with writer Alan Bennett playing out a double act with himself as both a writer and as house owner in fashionable Camden who in his front drive, hosts the eponymous Lady in the Van.

    Hytner’s movie, although ‘decent’ and amusing, never feels like it squares off with its theatric provenance. It’s a play transposed onto screen that never exploits the properties and possibilities of the film medium to move the material beyond the confines of a desultory comedy of manners.

    The dramatic structure is potentially complex from the point of view of opposing forces set in motion. A potential that is not actualised as Hitter’s structure never develops its structural promise and eventually delivers little beyond the polish of its dialogue, the bravura performance of Maggie Smith, and the inputs of various stock supporting players.

    The key structural device set up in the movie is the schizo split in perspective between Alan Bennett writer in residence, and his Muse, Alan the householder. Depicted as separate entities, it is suggested at the start of the film that they have different perspectives priorities and intentions in relation to experiencing Miss Shepherd. But as the film progresses, in their banter and in their exchanges, there is no development of inner tensions in the relationship. There is no dialogue between them, no opening of internalities, no probing of outer and inner form of motivation and purpose. They are just a couple of old familiars, skirting round and about the same familiar territory. Theatre rather than honesty.

    Man about the house Alan initially tells scribbler Alan that Miss Shepherd will not be the subject of any writing. By the end of the film there is no evidence in the script that this line was written for any reason other than dramatic effect. The ‘Alan’ relationship exists to fill out the scenario with knowing nods and winks. This is fair enough except that if you are not going to actually exploit an inherent schizo dynamic in the material, then there is little point to using the relationship as one of the pillars of the film’s structure. Why bother? Except that it grounds the movie in its theatrical provenance of whimsical well written banter.

    The second relationship around which the film revolves is the relationship of the Alan Bennett to the two elderly women in his life: his mother and Miss Shepherd, both of whom he has to spend increasing amounts of his time caring for. At this point the lack of any internalised dialogue between Alan one and Alan two reduces the film’s substance. Lady in the Van declines into sequences of short intercut cameos, as the two women move towards death. Hytner and Bennett’s film becomes episodic and and cut loose from any temporal anchorage. Lacking a core dialogue built on honesty, the scenario is uncertain how to deal with the situations that it had called into filmic life, other than by flitting from scene to scene. As the script develops it seems anxious to accelerate away from the material to get to the end of film and the last shots.

    The last section of the film takes place in the graveyard and reveals the bankruptcy of the ideas implicit in the film and the degeneration of the material into sentimentality. Although implicitly sentimental by dint of its subject matter, the script is not complicit in sentimentalising Miss Shepherd. Until the last section that is where he film’s conclusion reveals the bankruptcy of the conceptual framework organising the material.

    A film organised about a truth content would in one way or another stay with that content. But Lady in the Van is mainly a disguised homage to Alan Bennett and his writing in relation to Miss Shepherd. Lady in the Van tries to pass itself off as being about Miss Shepherd, but it is actually about the man about the house. This would be fine if the film finally revealed its own truth content. But it seems reluctant to do so and if Lady in the van admitted it was actually about Man about the house, the final scenes would have referenced and reflected this.

    Without referencing back to the writing up of the material, Lady in the van has nowhere to go, except to keep on running with Miss Shepherd. And in so doing Hytner and Bennett betray their material by staying with her image, and indulging sugary sentimentality and sn SFX finale, as we see van lady reunited with the unfortunate young motorcyclist and like the virgin Mary, she is assumed up into the heaven. A piece of knowing Hollywood kitsch, a wink and a nod to Capra, but at the cost of the film finally losing all of its moralbearings.

    Adrin Neatrour

  • Now Chantal Ackerman – video installations AmbikaP3

    Now Chantal Ackerman
    – video installations AmbikaP3 (University of Westminster)

    truth and interpretation

    The setting for Chantal Akerman’s installations is the uncompromising space of a subterranean concrete bunker, basement zone of the 60’s brutalist architecture of the Marylebone campus site. This building is testament to the force of gravity, an anchored intention expressed in poured concrete. The underground gallery might once have been a car park or a service and testing area. It is cavernous, swallowing up the visitor as they descend into the dark.

    At the top of the stairs, before the dark, on steel decking is the first of Akerman’s pieces: ‘In the Mirror’. A young woman naked except her panties, examines her body in the door mirror of a heavy old fashioned wardrobe. She turns, twists, cranes her neck, extends her backbone. It is a loop of investigation without beginning or end in any meaningful sense, an eternity of looking at self image. Made in 1971 on 16mm it is a recycled section of an early film and in itself presages not only the interest in content and form that were to characterise Akerman’s films, but also her psychological approach: obsession and observation.

    After ‘In the Mirror’ my descent into the dark discovers 6 more installations. My feeling is that the pieces of work in the basement didn’t match up to either her films or the first 16mm entrance work, which like two other pieces downstairs, comprise of material excavated from film material. But ‘In the Mirror’ works without historical or textual reference. You don’t have to be told what to think (despite the explanation given in the didactic hand out). This work is approached on its own terms; and yours. You read what you see. ‘In the Mirror’ is simple. It is powerful and the more so for its undramatic understated everyday quality.

    The psychic element of unabashed obsession permeates Akerman’s films. Initially her obsession was expressed as an internality, a driving inwards a hollowing into being. Jeanne Dielman and the earlier films have this quality. Akerman’s ability as director allowed her to use the energy flowing through internalities to express outward facing thematic concerns of identity: sexuality, gender, social relations. Later in career (and as yet I haven’t seen No Home Movie) her attention turns outwards to the world but retains something of the same formal obsessive quality. In D’est and Sud the composition of her shots, the moving images, retain the dynamic qualities of obsession and observation that are part her perception. Her quality of attentive seeing is reinforced in these films by shot iteration and reiteration. An idea that understanding and seeing are focused and expanded by looking not just once but multiple times; that the patterns of repetition engrained in observation of life which defined Jeanne Dielman, could also be employed in the shot formations of D’est and Sud. Shot formations which would constitute a prime element in the defining of the content of the films. A fusion of means and content.

    Akerman’s films engage with truth. Akerman’s installations engage with interpretation.

    The difference between a poem and an academic thesis.

    Film is a medium that opens up Akerman’s creativity. The sculptural element of Installation seems to close her down, to enfold her into the lacklustre of academicism. The dead hand of interpretive meaning lies over these streaming screens. My feelings on looking at these works mostly comprising multiple screens (except Nightfall and Voice in the Desert) showing multiple images was that Akerman’s obsession turns inward into the shell of the self. As if mesmerised by multiplicities, she searches out a world of private meaning, an inner world of self affirmation, another kind of mirror.

    Walking through the works I had the feeling that they were not created in the heat of the critical decisions that are made in the course of a making film. The installation works were the product of multiple choices made in the dark chasm of the editing suite, either by herself or by Claire Atherton. The obsession with multiple choice, days spent in front of the computer screen, the transposition of perception into manipulation. In D’est (and to a lesser extent A Voice in the Desert), this obsessive manipulation served the recycling of her film material, material that exploited in this manner has lost its vibrancy, but gained very little in the capacity of the material to engender reflection on the forces set in play.

    Maniac Summer and Maniac Shadows are both personal statements that seem to have left behind the beauty of directness and traded truth for things seen obscurely through the dark glass of formalism. The printed guide helpfully suggests that they reflect Akerman’s practice of structuring space and time. Whatever that means. Perhaps it is no more than a justification for the multiple screen set ups which admix her personal space ( shots of her in her apartment, the views from the apartment, images form the tv) from a variety of perspectives. These pieces are dry configurations, which obscure Akerman rather than open up her vistas of awareness.

    NOW (2015), is the last piece chronologically in this set of work. It is the weakest. Seven screens show moving images of a ‘racing through the desert’ accompanied by a sound track denoting the sounds of war: explosions, deep thuds etc. A gesture perhaps to the Israeli –Palistinian conflict. The hand out notes state, on what authority I don’t know, that she was ‘ …aiming to present the current condition of violence and conflict as a lived experience.’ Perhaps in contrast to what we see on YouTube and tv? This artistic attempt to transcribe war into images and sound track in an installation setting does not work. In fact it is a banality, seemingly happy stay at the level of broad truism and generalisation, rather than grasp the actuality of specificity. It lacks the very feeling of immediate experience; the experience of the screens and soundtrack are not rich enough in associative connections to allow for reflection. NOW seems misplaced as a project: we don’t have to go to galleries today to experience war, it’s living at home with us, available 24/7. Alternatively when thinking about the Israel Palastine war we have our imaginations fed by countless images over endless years of blood, mostly Palestinian blood.

    Chantal Akerman’s films are full of her life. Her installations seem to be friezes, immobility’s, where formal concerns suggest an orientation to career. adrin neatrour

  • Tangerine Sean Baker (USA 2015)

    Tangerine Sean
    Baker (USA 2015) Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, James Ransone, Karren Karagulian

    Viewed: Tyneside Cinema,
    24 November 2015 Ticket: £8.75

    It’s Christmas Eve and time to eat and rejoice and to suck cock

    Sean Baker’s movie Tangerine is about desire. Specifically the streets of LA or any large city as portals of desire giving onto open spaces where desires are embodied and satisfied in forms outside the censorious morals of ‘normal’ society.

    Tangerine, so called presumably because of the fake tan colouring of the ladymen hustlers, comes up from the streets, with a sassy ‘know it’ voice. A movie with a voice that says I want. It wraps the audience up in the gladiatorial defiance of the transsexual street whores locating the action on the LA Boulevards that are the points of intersection between the transgender hustlers and their clients from the straight world. The structure of the film comprises a series of cameos from the two worlds that finally lead to the collision of the two cultures in the local doughnut store.

    Sean Baker’s Tangerine fronts up the street persona of its two leads hustlers. Sin-dee and Alexandra are the axies around which the film whirls as they strut across their Sunset Boulevard turf, a zone characterised by the fractured architecture of retail and commerce. Baker’s movie is driven by iPhone cameras that track and trace the enraged war dance of betrayed Sin-dee, playing out her theatrics of vengeance. The iPhone the chosen tool of the street workers: drugs gangs prostitutes and cabbies, brings immediacy to the volatility of mood and light that are part of the film. The iPhone as a tool of the selfie, everyone is playing out to themselves. That’s the scene.

    Mechanised sex, women paid and used as ‘come’ machines has always been a recourse for men either as pimps and exploiters or as clients for distraction entertainment or frustration. Hence the inherent vulnerability of women in the trade: they got to be both ends facing. The issues of the ladymen seem to me to be different. Sin-dee and Alex realise their desire to be ladymen makes them social pariahs. Being street whores, dangerous as it may be, has possibilities. It enables them not only to flaunt what they are but also gives them a certain type of discreet power. Their work is a vindication of a life.

    Sin-dee and Alex are comic book gothic characters. Like Superman Spiderman and the rest, Sin-dee and Alex are superheroes (‘superheroes have feelings too’ as Batman once said), with their own costumes and their own special powers. Powers of attraction and repulsion. As the iPhone follows Sin-dee with her power walk, her huge fake mop of flowing locks (like a WWF fighter), her scaly hose and tight hot pants, we get the message: this girl can fight.

    At the core of the expressive game of adopting the persona of the female but retaining the physiognomy of the male, is a claim on personal power. Immediate power. Power based on being different from appearances, being ambiguous, being knowing, being potentially dangerous. It’s a personal power generally confined to particular situations: entertainment, brothels, certain types of streets and perhaps the home. Spaces where the persona is protected from institutional hostility and assault. However vulnerable and inadequate the cross dressing whore may be there is something in the choice that involves integrity, and integrity is a source of inner belief. In Tangerine, the power of the ladymen is on the streets. At the other end of the spectrum lies the conforming power of the home. Conversely the power of the home is often weakened out on the streets where it is overwhelmed by a culturally engendered overflowing sexuality that can no longer be contained by conventional strictures.

    Baker’s script cleverly takes the two worlds of objective and subjective desire and sets them into momentary interpenetration. Baker selects for his ‘home’ subject an Armenian immigrant (Razmik), married and part of a large (and probably unwanted) extended family. Razmik is a cabby. Christmas Eve: Here are the streets; here is the home…I want cock…

    Baker chose not to depict an American. American’s these days in big cities never drive the cabs. Only immigrants drive cabs: long hours and usually treated like the nobody they are. So Razmic is a cabbie, an Armenian, part of a close knit newly arrived immigrant family. So it is a real traditional family and the script is set on Christmas Eve when all the values of the family, its love its consideration, are set to full display mode. But Razmik, after plying the cab trade all day, likes to take time out sucking cock of ladymen. The desire for ladycock overwhelms him when confronted on Christmas Eve by his family who want him be part of their embrace: the wife the mother in law the kid the cousins and aunts. But he is possessed by the image of Alex. Her image her power reaches out to him, overwhelms him . He makes his excuses (gotta work!) and abandons the family at their Christmas Eve party, to seek out Alex and suck her dick.

    And so it comes to pass that in the doughnut store where the film begins the stories reach their climax. The two worlds collide in a finale of ‘scandal’. It’s very funny, but the script doesn’t simply exploit the humour of the situation. It stays responsive to the human factors in play, and this is the defining feature of Baker’s scenario. Both in the doughnut store and in the final street and launderette scene, the characters affirm both their dignity and humanity. Both worlds, the street ladymen and the family world understand something: they have to look after each other’s vulnerability. adrin neatrour