Monthly Archives: February 2021

  • Bloodlands (episode 1) Pete Travis (BBC Prod,2021 )

    Bloodlands (episode 1)     Pete Travis (BBC Prod,2021 ) James Nesbitt, Charleen McKenna

    viewed as broadcast, 21 Feb 2021

    mechanical dulls

    ‘Bloodlands’ is the most recent example of that kind of ‘Who done it’ ( and why?) series that comprises a drama told over many episodes, wrapped round some kind of ‘police’ investigation. In the guise of ‘Bloodlands’ the genre starts to look more tired than ever. The appearance of this genre on TV screens, first announced itself some years back with the ‘Scandi Noir’ TV series re-purposing and transposing Agatha Christie type designs and devices into the mood of the current zeitgeist. These types of TV series may be well or badly made, served by lesser or better scripts and casts, but they all draw on the same implanted script mechanics.   They all comprise the same ingredients that can be shaken and stirred in infinite variation: the motivation puzzle, the false trails and red herrings, the usual suspect, the skeleton in the cupboard, the stooge, the patsy etc. But as readers of Agatha Christie discover in the end these plot designs tend to become outworn, the gears ground down through overuse.

    ‘Bloodlands’ judging from its first episode, looks like it’s come to the very end of the line: it’s hit the buffers. Even the title, ‘Bloodlands’ points up a level of desperation in marketing.   Its direct titular somatic reference looks to attract an immediate prurient interest. This is a gimmick more confident series haven’t needed: The Bridge, Line of Duty etc. The problem with this type of title is that is quickly leads to a sort of semantic inflation, producers feeling the title of their series has to ‘top’ that of any rival in attracting sales interest.

    The salient feature of all these types of cop/tec dramas is that their scripts define their form. They are a mechanical apparatus. The scenatios are built on a design that shares analogous properties to the maze: dead ends, circuitous paths that double back on themselves, false leads, the illusion of progress and the engendering of false hope of success. The popular appeal, as per Agatha Christie, is the posing of a certain type of problem whose solution is in theory possible through the application of logical reasoning and a ‘common sense’ understanding of psychology and motivation. Shake into the mix the fiery condiments of murder, corpses and kinked sex and you have the perfect distraction machine.

    These shows are Heath Robinson type artificial contraptions, but some certainly have successfully plumbed into other other areas of psychic resonance. ‘The Bridge’ characterised by its dark tenebrous setting, felt it was set in the Viking underworld of the dead, with the eponymous bridge as a sort of symbolic lifeline out of Hel. This may not have had much to do with the convolutions of the script but it provided quasi-mythical undertow to the drama.

    Nothing as interesting as this was evident in ‘Bloodlands’. Everything about ‘Bloodlands’ came across as a collection of tired clichés and repetitive tropes. The opening sequence was a series of night shots of Tom Brannick driving through Belfast. They were all very familiar types of images: the confusion of lights, the confection of refraction and reflection through the car windows, all intercut with Tom’s face and eyes, a montage assembled to express the man confronting the anarchic dangerous energy and dynamic impersonality of the big city.  But the opening section delivered nothing more than a visual cliché. The which opening was followed up with familiar story tropes: Tom, the tec with the murdered wife, the in-house police dysfunctional tensions, the suspicion of the local community, an act of sudden unexpected violence in the petrol bombing of a police car. Each card was played out by the script writers was a familiar contrivance, underscored by a dull script and workaday cinematography that occasionally resorted to drone shots to leaven the visual monotony.

    You might say that these crime series have good actors. But only if in saying that you mean that these actors are good at doing what they are told to do.  Because that looks like what they’re doing. Most of the directors of these pieces are instructed to keep a high level of control over the productions which are made with a view to being sold across the world. With this is mind the actor’s face must be rigorously disciplined to exude only appropriate expression: in practice this requires the actor hold back on the emoting. Their expressive palate is usually restricted to small number of face masks: the po face – hard eye/mouth muscles non reactive; the doe face – soft eye/mouth musculature, reactive; the gloat of trimph/self satisfaction, reactive. There are others, but not so many. The permitted expressions dominate because they are safe and easy to constrict within the undulating frantic plot and sub-plot lines. In relation to this ‘Bloodlands’ in its corralling of the expressive faces of its actors, in particular of course, Nesbitt and McKenna, goes to extremes, an indication perhaps of the world wide sales ambitions of its producers. By the end of episode 1, all we had seen of James was an invariant po face, sometimes hard eyes and sometimes harder eyes, there were some doe eyes from his daughter and some gloat face from McKenna as she made a cock joke. That was it. A kind of Europudding one dimensional playing that could either turn Europe on or turn the audience off, depending on who can be bothered to watch the expressive monotony of the next episodes.

    The scripting of ‘Bloodlands’ comes across as compromised. In particular in relation to its setting in contemporary Belfast with ‘The Troubles’ as backstory.   The main use of the setting and back story in this first episode was the justificatory phrase that was repeated again and again was: that at the time of the Good Friday peace accord nothing could be done about these suspicions as any action might have put it in jeopardy. This was repeated so often that I started to feel I might join in.  

    ‘Bloodlands’ looks like a cynical attempt to exploit its Belfast setting but it offers little else to its chosen format or genre. Dull acting, plodding dialogue, unconvincing script, predictible camera work.  The emphasis is to play safe. The Northern Ireland situation is not taken on, as represented it is nothing more than an interesting backcloth against which to play out the standard tec fare. Ironic at a time of course when post Brexit, that Irish question again looms large on the geo-political horizon. Across the water from the BBC’s England events are moving that might make ‘Bloodlands’ look more like history than it already is.

    adrin neatrour


  • The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne de l’Arc) C T Dreyer (Fr. 1928; 1:34)

    The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne de l’Arc) C T Dreyer (Fr. 1928; 1:34) Renee Jeanne Falconetti.

    viewed: MUBI 4th Feb 2021

    Machinery of the Law

    When I saw ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ (‘The Passion’) for the first time some years ago. I watched it in a cinema on a big screen; seeing it again at home, Dreyer’s film again took my breath away.   The first shot proper in the film, after the archive montage (which tells us where we are and what is happening) is a track of the Great Hall in which the ecclesiastical Court has been convened.   It’s a long tracking shot that travels quite slowly, moving behind the assembled clerics filming them from the rear or in profile as they sit and wait: some craning for a view, some rub their face, some look bored, some exchange gossip remarks and meaningful looks.

    These men are gathered for a purpose. As one by one we pass them they all present as domed forms: all of them have pronounced domed heads either tonsured or capped, introducing these men (and they are all men) as representatives of religion and also allowing us a premonition of their religious idea of mercy: severe. They look like men of severity. The shot is animated and given depth and vitality in that there are three separate planes of action recorded by the camera as it tracks: in front of the row of monks and prelates there is a line of soldiers, setting up laughing joking relaxing but in their uniforms, threatening. Interspersed is a third plane occupied by yet more priests some still and some walking, engrossed in meditation or prayer, looking absented from this gathering. This is Dreyer’s set up in the moments before before Joan’s entrance.

    This shot is remarkable in the associations it establishes between the images it brings together. Condensed in this one shot, the dome headed priests, the soldiers and the praying monks, is the presentation of huge judgement machine that has come togather togather to crush its victim.

    In next shot we see the intended victim of this huge machine: Joan.   She is small, hair cropped, dressed in a simple jerkin. She looks like a boy.  Her ankles are shackled in chains as she enters the hall. Her interrogation begins: after some hesitancy she tells the court she is 19 years old.   This is a shock! This mighty judicial show has gathered itself in this huge hall to crush a creature who is little more than a child? Joan shows no fear. She is not afraid in this place. She is herself. Before this Court, with its unbearable contempt and malice towards her as an insignificant unclean woman who sins by dressing as a man, who has mistaken ideas about her station sex and status, Joan is only herself.   And this is ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ and this is her trial before the Pharisees.

    Like the New Testament Jesus, Joan stands alone in front of her accusers. Dreyer’s ‘Joan’ is a Christ transposed as a woman, a Christ become woman. These high and mighty prelates are Pharisees, stooges of a secular arm whose only one use for her is as a dead heretic. In her ordeal her ‘Passion’ like Christ’s will show her voluntary renunciation of life itself, her self sacrifice in the name of the one who is ‘truth’ the one who is ‘higher’: God.  Joan will assume her ‘Passion’.

    Like Christ in front of Pilate, Joan’s simplicity and extraordinary vision of God shine through during her interrogation. She cannot be trapped into self incrimination because she is at one with with her own truth.   Like Christ, duplicity cunning evasion are unknown to her as she responds to those who would try to trick or trap her into a heretical reply to their questions. Her spirit takes on her accusers and reveals them for the vile bodies that they are.

    Against the background of Dreyer’s extraordinary set, it is the close-ups that dominate and concentrate the scenario. Much of the scripted exchanges between Joan and her accusers guards and wardens is shot using big close ups in classic montage style: shot – reaction –shot, cutting between the faces of Joan and her adversaries. Dreyer’s set is a white plastered simulacrum of Rouen Castle. In its abstraction it mimics Mediaeval form and critically it allows an even pale luminescence to fall across Joan’s face which heightens her screen presence. The pauses, the silences between question and response engender the cross questioning as a series of intensities as we look into Joan’s face trying to read her emotions. As the trial progresses, the huge male ancient harrowed faces of her judges, mocking and contemptuous, bear down on Joan. They are the same religious judicial machine that destroyed Christ and they will destroy her.  As Dreyer films her very close in long loving shots we see that Joan is psychically indestructible. She is an immovable object. Through Dreyer’s mode of presentation of Joan, he makes the demand that we look at her without flinching and as she fills the screen understand who she is. She is a Christ figure, a re-incarnation of the Word.    

    Dreyer’s script moves through the major episodes of a ‘Passion’. In her cell she is tormented reviled threatened with rape by her captors who mock her by giving her a crude Crown of interwoven willow that can only suggest the crown of thorns worn by Christ. Joan is led to the torture chamber (though she is not actually put to the Question) and beguiled by trickery before finally in full acceptance of her fate she is led out, tied to the stake and in public executed by being put to the fire.

    Although Dreyer’s film most strongly suggests a female iconographic recasting of Joan, Dreyer’s film also points up another sensibility: that of the coming era of the Show Trial. Dreyer will have been well aware of the Allies policy during the First World War of shooting both ‘deserters’ and ‘cowards’ after going through the motions of trial by military tribunal. These military trials with their brutal summary executions look as if they have fed into his scenario; they are present in Dreyer’s images of the British Soldiery, the Tommies, menacing and omnipresent, ready to see that the will of the Armed Forces be done. Dreyer’s ‘Passion’ also seems a presentment of the terrifying aspect of judgement machines that were yet to come, the judicial squalor of Stalin and Hitler as they liquidated their enemies by due process.

    My feeling is the size of screen surely plays a part in estimation of ‘The Passion’. Some criticism of the film points to the lengthy duration of Dreyer’s close-ups, in particular those of Joan. But is this criticism an affect of scale? When a still image is scaled down to fit on a small screen, the information stream is impoversihed, less data to hold the gaze and invite the eye to explore. The smaller image quickly exhausts the visual potential of a picture leaving the mind impatient for the next image to replace it.   Hence modern directors dictum to keep the image moving, keep the picture moving: that’s the way to tell the story: movement.  

    But when an image fills out the line of sight, the fact of little or no movement is not necessarily a problem; on the contrary it is potential. Stillness is an opportunity for the eye to engage with what is before it, to read into an image. The slowed or stilled image, in particular when it’s a face (and this is mostly the case in ‘The Passion’) becomes an affect image an invitation for the viewer to project meaning onto the the flow of events. As the eye has time to range across the screen, we may look, examine without flinching, at Joan and her tormentors. I think this was Dreyer’s intention: to make us look at Joan and see her. The design implicit in ‘The Passion’ is Dreyer’s refusal to compromise on this point. We are not allowed to forget Joan, whether she is before the Court, in her cell, in the torture chamber or tied to the stake where she will be burnt alive. She is herself, she is a simple human being, a women who has more spirit and soul than any of her judges guards torturers or executioners and is killed because she is a threat to them to the male world of judgementation.

    Dreyer’s film comes to end in spectacle. All public execution is by definition spectacle, whether it be crucifixion or burning at the stake. And of course this is always the final episode of the Passion, the public destruction of the body, the final most painful test of the spirit: “My God my God why hast thou forsaken me?’

    adrin neatrour




  • L’Avventura   (The Adventure) Michaelangelo Antonioni (It. 1959, 2hrs 23min)

    L’Avventura   (The Adventure) Michaelangelo Antonioni (It. 1959, 2hrs 23min) Monica Vitti, Gabrielle Ferzetti; Lea Massari

    viewed Mubi 26 Jan 2021

    I love you

    I was thinking about Antonioni’s title for his film ‘L’Avventura’. What does the idea of ‘The Adventure’ point to? The final sequence of his movie suggests one answer. In this final section, after a number of close shots, the last image in the film, is a long shot of Claudia standing behind Sandro. He is sitting slumped on a bench overlooking an ocean vista with a mountainous island away in the distance. Claudia’s hand mechanically combs through his hair. They are not young people any more. They look like an elderly defeated married couple who are incapable of movement.  Antonioni’s title is perhaps mordant sardonic.   In a narrow sense ‘The Adventure’ that Antonioni points to, is that of women escaping ‘marriage’; the wider sense ‘The Adventure’ is that of women escaping men and the consequences of them not being able to do so.  

    In ‘L’Avventure’s’ scenario Anna gets away from men, escapes both her father her boyfriend, escapes from them radically permanently mysteriously. But Claudia for all her hesitation her doubts and uncertainty in that last shot denotes that she cannot escape, perhaps cannot even quite see there is a problem, she has become a adjunct of the male.  

    ‘L’Avventura’ is a woman’s film. Antonioni’s script concerns itself with and focuses on women.   To do this he uses ‘situation’. His female characters are trapped in the world of men, their souls snuffed out. This is not addressed directly by the female protagonists. The women simply don’t have the voice to confront what is happening to them, which is of course Antonioni’s point. Their entrapment is something he shows us, that we see directly on the screen. Through Anna and Claudia’s situation we see that something is terribly wrong in their world.

    The opening title sequence is underscored by a piece of contemporary jazz (repeated over the final shot and end credit). The music is driven by rhythmic guitar, it’s a dissonant nerve jangling track that might have been composed for a mystery murder movie. The music sets up the psychic state of the female protagonists (who are in effect being murdered). The music has edge; the women are edgy. They are suffocated. They are aware that they have no air but still they must breath. And it is this disturbance in the women’s psyche between the in-breath and the out-breath that interpenetrates ‘L’ Avventura’. As the camera focises on the faces of Anna and Claudia, the affect image we read in their expression is that of derangement. Their clothes are perfectly arranged but beneath the outer garments, under the skin, a derangement of body and mind.  

    Anna the fiancé, caught between Papa and Sandro, dives off the yacht and swimming out in the Mediterranean cries out: “Shark!” …there’s a shark in the water.   However she’s crying ‘wolf’ though no one realises it; this time she is playing a game, her next scream will be silent, next time she will not be heard because she has no voice with which to scream out: ‘Me!”. Another later scene: Claudia and Sandro are together in the country locked in a charade of intimacy. He looks across the landscape, remarks: “Look there’s the town!” Claudia replies: “That’s not a town, it’s a cemetery.” Sandro mistakes life for death, As he forcefully takes possession of Claudia, she has no defence against him, her face increasingly assumes an expression internal panic; the look of a wild bird in the hunter’s hand. Until that final shot when she appears to have resigned herself to entrapment in Sandro’s cage.

    Antonioni doesn’t confine himself to the private sphere of his female protagonists interpersonal relations. L’Avventura’s script extends out into the vulnerability of women in the public arena. This is the domain men have claimed for themselves, in which unaccompanied females are the subject not only to the male gaze but surrender their right to body space. They are prey to be hunted. In the scenes in Palermo and the small Sicilian town, Antonioni’s scenario unleashes scenes of the savage depraved nature of male desire unleashed by the appearance of the lone woman target. The scenes are a reminder of the reason for the disturbance underscoring Claudia’s derangement, that detached and out by herself on her own she is subjected to the hostility of men and their implied punishment of gang rape.   Without a voice she is defenceless.    

    ‘L’Avventura’ is set in the wealthy high bourgeois strata of Italian society. This a world of privilege where the men are judged by the degree of ownership and control they exert on others through their possessions: their cars their yachts and their women. It is a world where the women are trophies.   Their looks their couture and culture simply reflect back onto the glory of their consorts. The women have little actual significance, they are appendages, ultimately replicants, spare parts. If one goes wrong, vanishes or gets old, they can be replaced. Hollowed out and colonised by the male all that is left to them is an assemblage of deranged psychic responses. As Sandro moves with intent to replace vanished Anna with present Claudia, the interlinking theme of ‘L’Avventura’ is woman as a disposable entity; the one is as good as another. And of course the deal cuts both ways, as in one scene Claudia blurts out to Sandro: “You look like some one else.”   In times when we are increasingly defined by our consumption and leisure, people can start to look like some one else.

    The island setting used by Antonioni for his scripted ‘coup’ of Anna’s anti-climatic disappearance, is reminiscent of Rossellini’s film ‘Stomboli’ which is set on the eponymous Aeolian island.   Rossellini’s protagonist Karen is ravaged by malignant hostile social forces but in the final sequence the volcanic physicality of the island in itself overwhelms her being. She submits to the force of nature. It is certain Antonioni saw this film and that it’s powerful climax fed into his script for ‘L’Avventura.’  The raw power of the natural environment frees Anna from the chains of a world conformed to men’s authority. The island sets her free. Perhaps as with Karen, it becomes clear to Anna that she must answer to the logic of the island not men.

    Outside of the island section of ‘L’Avventura’, built structures dominate the locations. These buildings feed both Antonioni’s aesthetic and also the film’s subtext about the expression of power. The modernist construction of Sandro’s apartment, the new buildings in Sicily are the backdrops against which a new and more defined visible sort of power can be expressed: the coming of man the consumer giving clear and unambiguous unornamented expression to the world. The older buildings with their rococo interiors and exteriors signify a world where power is more concealed less brutally announced, more hidden, but nevertheless real.

    Seen today after 70 years after ‘L”Avventura’ was made, Antonioni’s film shocks as a reminder of the debasement of women’s role in this era.  There have certainly been critical changes since 1960 in the status of women. Feminist sensibility has primed both women and men to challenge the whole range of their social and economic relations. But Antonioni through his film still has something to say; something to show us. It has to do with being possessed or dominated by an externality, something that that you are not able to oppose with a voice. The consequence of this is aderangement, self obliteration. Also Antonioni shows himself to be a film maker, a director who uses film to that we may see. He doesn’t use polemic, he doesn’t preach through his characters, he simply shows us things, perhaps obliquely, giving us the space to think through what we have seen for ourselves. One piece of dialogue stays in my mind:

    “I feel like I don’t know you.’

    “I want what you want.”

    adrin neatrour