Star & Shadow

  • Bait Mark Jenkin (2018;uk

    Bait     Mark Jenkin (UK 2018) Edward Rowe, Mary Woodvine, Sam Shepherd.

    Viewed: Tyneside Cinema Newcastle 9th Sept 2019; Ticket: £10.75

     

    Language Lesson

    Using digital RAW formats to shoot movies often delivers a film look that has the invariant quality of a chocolate box. These sort of films tend to look the same, drawn out of the same stylistic gloss as the adverts that precede them in the programme. In a sense whatever the content of the story we gaze on a world that is captured in the visual halo of perfection: RAW 20:20 vision. Film stock seems to be a better medium for reproducing images on screen, images that are able to suggest worlds with other qualities, worlds that induce us into realms of emotional imbalances, psychic bias, imperfection and obscured sight.

    16mm film makers in particular have long been aware of the psychic charge of this medium with its very particular qualities of replication. But very often people working with this format have been happy to flatter themselves with demonstrations of its capacities but have failed to exploit its potential as a means by which content might be grounded. To exploit 16mm as an artistic vanity rather than as an affect of context.  As if grain and the mechanico-accidental features of flare scratch hair abrasion shutter waver and development inconsistences were in themselves enough to justify cranking film through the gate and in themselves were evidence of a creative competence.

    Mark Jenkins ‘Bait’ is remarkable because it incorporates the technical qualities and characteristics of 16mm film into a context in which the medium itself becomes a key element in the narrative. In Jenkin’s film the use of the 16mm stock is utilised both as a primary expressive device and as a kind of coded language.

    Every story is told in a particular language. Most film theorists, including Pasolini and Eisenstein have understood film language as being connected to the manner and style in which a film is shot and edited: they point to the expressive interpretative potential of: montage, the framing of shots, the duration of shots and positioning of the camera, point of view. Most theorists seem to have ignored the potential of the film stock in itself to ‘speak’ and to be part of the language of cinema. ‘Bait’ works because Jenkin tells its story in the language of ‘The Occupied’. Through the utilisation of 16mm film Jenkin represents the world as lived through the experience of the occupied, not through the eyes of the occupiers. The narrative posits a situation of opposition. The native people, the occupied, with their way of life and way of seeing the world; and the new colonialists, the incomers, the occupiers with their way of seeing the world, and their agenda to transform the substance of their conquest whilst paying a superficial homage to the surface of appearances in order to reference what has gone before but is now vanished.

    16mm format is Jenkin’s chosen medium to realise in filmic code the language of the occupied. Filmed in RAW digital system, the world of the small Cornish village would look perhaps picturesque colourful charming. The world the occupiers want to see. Filmed through Jenkin’s camera we see a world of scratch, flair, unevenness, imperfection, obscurity, yet visually arresting and drawing the viewer into another reality. To see in this way is to see through the façade of life the occupying forces have created, and to experience the feeling of being invaded. It is a language of resistance.

    Most important in Jenkin’s use of 16mm is that this format reveals itself for what it is. As you watch you are conscious all the time that you are watching artifice: the grain the scratching the flare etc. communicate. It is not a hidden language. With its imperfections, it constantly announces and reminds that it is in business of replication. ‘Bait’ pushes into our faces that it is a film.   We cannot see it otherwise. It is not pretending to be something that it is not. This obvously has philisophical implications in relation to what Jenkin wants to do. Most films that we view want to be seen as something that they are not; most movies want the viewers to take the images they present as something real. As in the adverts most Hollywood films are in the business of selling images. Like Godard and some other filmmakers, Jenkin calls attention through the medium of the film to the nature of what we are watching.   ‘Bait’ is not trying to pass itself as real image: symbolic perhaps, but not real. This also complements the character of Martin. Martin is who he is. He makes no attempt to conceal his identity. This of course, is in opposition to the occupiers whose concern is to conceal who they are, what what are doing and their purposes.

    The use of 16mm allows Jenkin’s film to be about texture not surface. The incomers present surface, but through the film we see texture of things and beings. Martin the displaced fisher, occupies a world of texture. His beard, like an Assyrian King’s relief on the walls of Nineveh, the fish he nets, the net itself and creel, the money he gets are all what they are. Martin and his relations are real not plastic, he protrudes into the world, does not lie on its surface.

    16mm film is grainy, and by using it the clarity of the formulaic digital film systems are replaced witha a tactile obtrusion. The fake clarity of the real estate sales pitch or the property bond prospectus is replaced by a world delivered in grain; a world of fuzzy objects where uncertainties are certain. This idea is played up by Jenkin in sequences where he intercuts between his antagonists. This opposition climaxes in the dinner sequence where Sandra, wife of the developer eats a lobster with her husband. As she eats she becomes increasingly overpowered and terrified of the actuality of this creature; it is not an image. She is overwhelmed, defeated by the lobster’s presence, its tactility in her hand: its reality. She crumples.

    In most movies there is an important decision made in the scenario between what is to be seen by the viewer and what is not to be seen.  What is to be seen is ‘lit’. What is not to be seen, is ‘unlit’. To some extent you might say: this is what film is: ‘the lighting’. But life as a template also offers other stimulae to our senses: the obscured, the glimpsed, the hardly seen, and Jenkin uses the characteristic quality of his medium, its graininess to create images that exist in a state of being true to themselves: images that have some of the characteristics of rubbings or impressions.  These grainy images are the phenomenological representations of things that Martin knows in his work and life; the immediate things that connect him to who he is, what he touches and what he does; tools nets wood door handles wood fish other people’s faces, hands. They are physical rather than clear optical pictures. What they look like is of a lesser quality than how they are known.

    The texture of the representation and the indistinct nature of objects filmed allows Jenkin to build up a series of symbolic allusions throughout Bait, but without the symbols becoming over dramatised heavy handed devices. The mystery endemic in the indistinct allows them to reference thoughts ideas allusions so that they suggest immanence rather than crudely pointing. Jenkin’s objects often seem to find themselves in a half way house between the symbol and the actual, suggesting an experience of when man and nature are more closely bound together; an originatory world where the symbolic and actual are in interchangeable relationships.  Again a world of depth not surface.

    Some might comment that the use of 16mm footage traps the lives of those depicted in the past, in a vanished world of faded old black and white film.   I don’t think this idea has any validity. As argued above Jenkin exploits his chosen film film format to create a language for showing a particular world of oppositions and to suggest different sorts of relations. ‘Bait’ replicates the world where work activity, where the body is the mediating agent between people and life. A world that is not characterised by long durational shots short sharp cuts; a world where prolonged eye contact is alien, a world approximated in the editing by: the glance and the glimpse; the flick of the eye not the turn of the head.

    In this replication Jenkin’s use of sound and slightly off kilter dialogue reinforce the implication in the film that there are things to think about here in Brexitland and also in the wider global picture.

    So who/what is ‘BAIT’?   Us the viewers? Or do we ‘take’it?

    adrin neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

  • Once upon a time in Hollywood Quentin Tarantino (USA; 2019)

    Once upon a time in Hollywood   Quentin Tarantino (USA 2019) Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt

    viewed Tyneside Cinema 16 August 2019; ticket: £10.75

     

    Life’s a beach

     

    As I watched Once upon a time in Hollywood I was getting that feeling known as Déjà vu. I felt I’d seen it all somewhere before.

     

    This is the first film of Tarantino I’ve viewed that I felt awareness of dirivitive influences shaping his writing/direction. Of course Tarentino is known as an obsessive consumer of movies and TV, and pulls into his films references ideas images etc from the whole rattlebag of the Hollywood skeleton. Generally the bombastics of his stylised scenarios serve as disconnects to most of his referents. But ‘Once upon a time’ pointed me towards specific influential sources: Robert Altman’s movies, in particular the Long Goodbye; and, Hill’s Butch Cassady and the Sundance Kid.

     

    If not dopple gangers for Redford and Newman, DiCaprio and Pitt come across as transposed feel-good simulacra. DiCaprio and Pitt in their relationship project an   idealised American male buddy relationship, striking that same note of relaxed intimacy that Hill drew from his actors: a relationship that is of course another Hollywood stereotype.

     

    Altman’s movie ‘The Long Good-bye’ is among his very best, and like ‘Once upon a time…’ centres about LA with its myriad interconnected themes of movies desire and crime. The Long Goodbye like some of his other films, most obviously Nashville, utilises a shooting style that exploits the idea of layering rather than narrative. The shifting constantly travelling scenario revolves around theme, stalks idea rather than confronting idea. The Long Goodbye incorporates through a diverse series of characters, vignettes and strips of dialogue, the situations and events that combine and build upon each other to create the impression of a world. It is in the context of this world that we can come to see the movie.

     

    Employing a similar stylistic approach, Tarentino’s movie, like Altman’s creates a world. For Altman LA is a lost world, a world corrupted, a fallen world. The Long Goodbye fills out the things that Altman perceives. Tarentino’s movie is about Hollywood, but Tarentino doesn’t work from perception. Tarentino is about extension. The gross extension of his own immersed movie experience projected out into the world. ‘Once upon a time..’ works as a movie (it is very well shot) because his projection of Hollywood is part of a collective experience extending out into the viewers’ expectations and anticipations, confirming their enjoyment as a legitmate experience.

     

    The layering of Tarentino’s movie sets up the interplay of life and movies in Hollywood: it is difficult to distinguish where one begins and the other ends. In Hollywood, such is the omnipresence of the movies they penetrate consciousness eliding the objective and the subjective. Such is the allure of Tinseltown, the power it wields over the imagination of America in its state of psychic confusion, Tarentino’s state of mind becomes a shared experience in which we all participate.

     

    ‘Once upon a Time…’ folds togather the lives of Rick and Cliff.   Rick the fading cowboy star and Cliff his stunt double. Rick’s career and income slump as times in Hollywood change. The taste for old fashioned cowboy heroes wanes and is replaced by a hipster generation of male leads.   Built into this layered fable of decline are a series of tangential intrusions.   Barely remarked these minor interactions, no more than small incidents are witness to another world intruding into the Hollywood machine. The world of Manson, which is exploited by Tarentino to justify his finale as a true ‘Hollywood’ apocalypse.  

     

    A film that is an extension of Tarentino’s immersion can only end in an orgy of explosive violence. And Tarentino decides to hammer out the Sharon Tate story on the anvil of his imagination; but transposes the homicidal mission of the Manson family away from Tate’s household onto Rick’s. ‘Once upon a time…’,   climaxes with a sequence all movie goers love: a Zombie style final battle in which the good guys whip the Zombies, thereby retrofitting an unhappy actual story with a happy virtual outcome.

     

    Sharon Tate’s heavily pregnant stabbed dead body and murdered foetus are replaced with another kind of ending: drinks for all by the pool.   Sharen Tate’s murder (and that of her child and the rest of the people in her house) is just another movie in a world given over to movies in which the manufacture of death is usually the end product.   In LaLa Land death is everywhere. Like the sign – part of the landscape.

     

    So Tarentino’s movie makes its claim to be present on our screen in that it is part of the collective consciousness of America. It doesn’t have to explain or to justify itself. It is what it is.   Life’s a beach. But where are the Beach Boys. Not on this soundtrack. They are real.

    adrin neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

  • Midsommar Ari Aster (USA, 2019)

    Midsommar   Ari Aster (USA, 2019)     Florence Pugh, Jack Raynor

    viewed Tyneside Cinema 25 July 2019; ticket: £10.75

    Droning on

    Aster’s ‘Midsommar’ is no more than a goof-ball college comedy transposed to the psychic depths of contemporary pagan Sweden. A sort of Wicker Man without the Wicker. Aster’s po faced intoning from be-alb-ed matriarchs replaces the manic glee generated by director Hardy’s joyous ‘Wicker’ actors as they set to and enjoy a good old fashioned human sacrifice.

    After a little opening pre-title foreplay, the Midsommar script dumps our four sophomores, together with two barely explained extras from England, into a sort of vaguely menacing pastoral setting. Even if we overlook the superannuated bad acting complete with crass laboured dialogue, we are left with plot that inches its way into inconsequentiality slowly laboriously dragging itself towards an inevitable fiery finale. On the way it drops a lot of baggage, non sequiturs and dead ends, epitomised in Aster’s disinterest in the fate of half of the characters, who fall off the edge of the script rather than anything more meaningful, disappearing without trace.   Such is the lacklustre nature of the ‘Sommar’ scenario their absence is barely noticed except as a clumsy device to pare down the action in readiness for the finale.

    Skulls get clonked and suspicious dodgy liquids drunk but finally it’s down to the final scene, the stitch-up with Christian the male protagonist sewn into a bear skin to meet his end whilst Dani the heroine is crowned Queen of the May. Dani’s face in her incarnation as cult queen with all its efflorescence, provides the final shot of the movie. This is of course the default politically correct shot of a self satisfied mien locked in little smile as she watches the sacred pyramid burn, with all her chums inside.

    After a long half hour setting up a psycho drama in relation to Dani and the suicide of her sister the film finally lurches out into the sticks and Aster gets shooting. From the point the film moves into exteriors Aster resorts to increasing use of drone fly-by shots. Drones tracking, drones lifting, drones overhead and drones droning.  Midsommar seems to be a textbook exercise of how not to use drone shots. What is interesting in the film is the laziness of the shooting of many of the scenes and the implications of this labile shot creation for the disconnectedness and lack of tension generated by the scenario.   The use of drone shots in Midsommar distances and disconnects the viewer from the already flaccid action.

    A decision to use a closer camera and using closeness to push the bounds of the relations between the kids and the cult people might have forced Aster to work harder on scripting. It would not have rescued his movie but it might have stopped his film moving into total disconnect drive. As we watch the drone shots – the overheads of the feasting – the tracking into the sacred pyramid – what the footage communicates is the simple message: you are watching a movie and the director has decided to use a drone shot at this point. The drone turns the audience away from the action alerting them directly to the mechanics of the camera. The drone shot used repeatedly as in Midsommar becomes about the technical process, a cue for distraction and detachment alienating the audience from participation.

    A drone shot can rarely be disguised.  Used to affect the drone in pointing out that a shot in a movie refers to itself as a particular type of seeing,  can be valuable tool in the director’s armoury of effects. Overused, as it is by Aster in Midsommar,  drone shots simply becomes a banality, a sign of lack of imagination and ability to understand and use film language.

    Adrin Neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

     

  • In Fabric

    In Fabric Peter Strickland (UK 2018) Gwendoline Christie, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Hayley Squires

    viewed Tyneside Cinema Newcastle 2 July 2019; ticket: £10.75

    In fabric in cubus

    Strickland’s ‘In Fabric’ is grounded in the idea of possession. Pulling on the incubus theme Strickland’s possession comes in the form of a red dress whose unlucky wearers end up badly, i.e. dead. In horror movies it’s a familiar idea to structure a film as a series of short stories that follow a connecting strand.   Strickland’s script, whilst having something of this structure breaks up the idea strands to such an extent that the film shatters into a myriad shards made up of gothic horror, voodoo ritual, social satire and consumer parody. ‘In Fabric’ travels everywhere and gets nowhere.

    The scenario exploits the motif of the possessed dress that spins off into a series of comic strips that parody in the setting of a re-imagined world of 1960’s, both the developing management speak and the desire industry.  Strickland might claim that his red dress is a symbolic lure, ‘In Fabric’s ‘ subject is actually the burgeoning consumerism of that era in order to satirize a force that today has come the full cycle of expression.  The movie plays out those underlying elements of ‘60s management and sales techniques that have developed into the all embracing persuasive industries that possess us today.

    But in pulling together his material, the dress and its associated possession themes Strickland has lost himself in a labyrinth of ideas and produced a film which haphazardly fires off in all directions, thereby losing control of any substantive content. The scenario becomes a series of walk through strips of action, characterised by scripted stings and one liners. The characters are shrunk back, reduced in stature to being mere exemplars of ideas. Sheila Babs and Reg are no more than the characters in an advert, human coat hangers whose existence is defined by the sales/morale pitch. Sheila’s role is the more nuanced but for all the greater scope of action accorded her by Strickland’s script, the leaden dialogue and the mechanics of the action reduce her to the status of cipher and she too fails to come off the hanger, a role not a character.

    The structure of the scenario moving back and forth from home settings to work settings, cutting between the human situation and the becoming ideologies of management and sales turns ‘In Fabric’ into a sort of ‘Weird’ genre movie.

    This idea of a ‘Weird’ genre seems a default setting for film makers whose films revolve about affect not effect. The development of ‘the Weird’, as a kind of sub genre, stems from writers such as Sherwood Anderson, painters such as Grant Wood and American comics such as the now defunct “MADD”. American Gothic in filmic terms was developed with initial inspiration by David Lynch, who used ‘The Weird’ as a dramatic atmospheric medium into which to insinuate both the fears and the reactive underlying psychic and physical violence of America. But ‘The Weird’ as genre easily degenerates into an ornamental comedic device used for its own sake as a spectacle. ‘The Weird’ gets laughs through the concatenation of the outré strangeness of characters and their milieu set against the audience’s internalised expectations of normalcy.

    And this is the zone into which ‘In Fabric’ falls: as it progresses Strickland’s film becomes ‘Weird ‘ just for the sake of spectacle.   The shop and the offices, and the characters in these settings are simply played out as ‘Weird’. The department store with its high priestess sales woman, becomes a repository of voodoo death rites, demonic visitations, Pythian oracular cults and kitsch dance numbers. In short it is a mess, an entanglement of ideas wrapped in an opaque suggestive wrap that in the end means nothing and leads nowhere. The scenes as they stack up come to resemble a manic pop video, an impression reinforced by Strickland’s promiscuous use of SFX. Effect is layered over effect, in a tumult of images that starts to distance the audience from the film. Strickland evidences little idea that he knows what he’s doing with his FX, but perhaps supposes that piling it on will make his picture OK.

    In the office scenes as in the department store scenes the problem is Strickland locks himself into circuits of amplification whereby each cameo appearance of the characters has to top in weirdness the effect of their last appearance. But point is reached in the cycle where the scenario loses itself in an orgy of its own self indulgence.

    In writing the script Strickland seems to have indulged his penchant for the ineluctable. There can be great pleasure in watching bespoke devices and designs play out to their inevitable ends. Ferreri’s ‘ La Grande Bouffe’ comes to mind. But in ‘Grande Bouffe’ everything is contained and simple and the intensifications are carefully gradated. Strickland’s uneven ragged gestures to weirdness, along with his inability to build psychic tensions into his material, produce a dull film where the characters and the underling ideas get lost in a morass of visual effects, terrible speechifying, and leaden dialogue.

    adrin neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

     

     

  • Kaili Blues   Bi Gan (China 2016)

    Kaili Blues   Bi Gan (China 2016)    Yongzhong Chen, Yue Guo, Linyan Liu

    Viewed Star and Shadow film retreat Burnlaw, 16 June 2019

     

    Ending where you start

    Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues in its title seems to echo Neil Simon’s play/film, Biloxi Blues     ( Mike Nichols) which I haven’t seen but which has an important autobiographical element. Perhaps there are autobiographical references in Gan’s film. Gan was born in the eponymous town of Kaili and his movie is shot there, but for all that his title may self reference, the driving concern of the film seems to be its subtextual political caste. Kaili Blues is a statement of subtle opposition to the Chinese state and its reduction of the human spirit to industrial ideological mantras.

    Gan’s film begins (in the first section) with a quote from the Diamond Sutra (also the title of his first film). At the core of this ancient and oldest of Buddhist poetic tracts is the Buddha’s revelation of life as an illusion: what is seen is a series of passing moments, that can never be recaptured – only represented as fabrications.   At the heart of Gan’s movie he inserts a religious realisation that radically contradicts the nineteenth century belief in objectivity that is the current Chinese credo. An objectivity that is as metaphysical as the divine right of kings, and is likewise vulnerable to being discredited.

    The Chinese Communist Party legitimises itself through a number of progressive ideological belief that takes in all aspects of life, but most fundamentally defines the nature of time and also pervasively indicates the nature of the correct behaviour that should adorn the surface of life.

    Grafted from the writings of Marx and embedded in the construct of formal political communism is a particular concept of time. Time is defined as a unitary linear dimension that is unfolding according to a particular historical law. There is an objective inevitability to this movement, in which subjective elements play no part. But Gan’s characters are energised by the atemporal imperatives of dream memory and instinct and his use of the camera, the nature of the shots and style of shooting, are an intrinsic formal part of the film’s perception of a different order of relationship between mankind and time.

    Dreams with their mythic reverberations ineluctable messages and psychic disturbance shape and direct the movement of Gan’s characters who live outside of the accords of the passage of strict spacio-temporal dimensions. Past and future co-exist and blend in a mosaic of scattered impressions. Time and space inter-connect in Kaili Blues, a co-relationship that Gan captures and underlines with his long durational camera shots, that are constructed to collapse these two dimensions into each other, not to separate them. The journeys undertaken by the protagonist are not linear but circuitous. Every step taken leads back to the starting point, there is no progress, just a winding path that subverts expectation and is without judgement.

    There is an early sequence, disassociated and dislocated in time, in which we see a huge mechanical excavator with a long shovel arm extricate itself, insect like, from the back of a low loader. Its movements are ridiculous and its choreography complex, but finally triumphant. In all its mechanicality the huge machine manoeuvres itself off the vehicle, witness in its own way, to a triumph of the spirit rather than the laws of movement. Another contradiction embedded in the scenario.

    The physical surfaces against which the film is shot, the background shots, are mostly broken, mottled, discontinuous, non reflective. They are surfaces that do not appear as backdrops to the official portraits of China. The received image of China projects only onto confident modernistic surfaces. These are smooth reflective seamless unified integuments. They are surfaces in front of which and upon the which today’s China can be projected. They are perfect for the sustaining the illusion that is modern China. The backgrounds in Kaili Blues are real. In themselves they echo the nature of life itself as lived: a crazed experience.

    Gan’s protagonist Chen Shen lives such a crazed life, living outside the public code of behaviour but in accord with his daemon. The lives played out in front of Keili’s scabby surface backdrops are not those as portrayed in the CCP handbook of approved attitudes and correct behaviour. Gan’s China is a transgressive zone defined by folk law, gangsters, disaffected and unproductive youth and ruthless self interest. A movie world where algorhythms, smart phones and high tech are not its defining elements; where the people live in the folds of an enduring landscape and the inconstancies of dreams.

    The overall feeling emanating from Keili Blues is that of an assertion of life. A feeling for life that is stronger than the political forces that will seek to destroy and control it.

    adrin neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

  • In the Last Days of the City   Tamer El Said (Egypt 2016)

    In the Last Days of the City   Tamer El Said (Egypt 2016) Khalid Abdallah

    Viewed: 25 May 2019   Star and Shadow Cinema Newcastle; ticket £7

    film as state of mind

    What a mix of impressions has gone into this film. Afterwards it seemed like the triumph of idea over content. El Said’s movie is a fictionalised documentary that replaces his own persona with that of an actor, and comprises a number of elements that run through the syntaxical elements of modernistic film expression. In asequential composition he conjoins the personal the impersonal and the expressive to create an assemblage of images and impressions. But to what end, with what purpose, surely in a film of this kind there must be intention, even if it does not immediately reveal itself?

    El Said films a wide gamut of locations presenting us with scenes from the cutting room, fictionalised scenes from his alter ego’s mother’s death bed, fictionalised scenes from a difficult relationship, scenes drawn from recalled memory of the city of Alexandria, strips of action from Tahrir Square and the Egyptian 2010 Africa Cup matches, and scenes from other Arab cities, Damascus and Beirut. These scenes are presented as discrete strips of action intercut with particular shots of Cairo, mostly filmed as tracks conveying the everyday sights in the city: its chaos, its poverty, its impenetrability.

    The film has been shot through a sepia caul that renders what we see as something immanent but out of reach. El Said’s sepia colourant device lends an existential mist to the material, a sulphurous layering that in itself brings into focus the relationship of the seer to what is seen. State of mind. ‘Last Days’ calls to mind literary forebears of existential doubt such as Sartre’s Road to Freedom trilogy in which the question posed is whether intellectual cognizance and awareness induce a paralyzed self consciousness that creates a barrier to feeling participation and action.   In Last Days, Khalid like one of Sartre’s protagonists is caste as a permanent outsider trapped in self alienation.

    El Said’s presents images that are strained through the seeing of the outsider, Khalid. We are shown what he sees. Looking at El Said’s film in in this light provides a clue to understanding the nature of the way he uses his interlinking general shots of Cairo.  I found these shots difficult. Whilst arresting, in fact they said nothing only filling out the film with images of the exotic or bizarre. Some the shots, for instance the mannequins seen in the shop window, were familiar filmic tropes, formulaic with no necessary connection to the city.

    Some film makers insert such ‘ ’scape’ shots into their films as token affirmations that they are invoking deeper layers of symbolism in their film; a nod to the cosmic order. Usually, used in this way landscape or whatever scape, are no more that pretentious interludes. I believe, in that he is making a movie invoking state of mind, that El Said’s images of Cairo are not problematic in this way. That in ‘Last Days’ these images of Cairo are intended to point precisely to the problematic nature of his seeing, of seeing in general. The shots are the gaze of El Said. As such they say something about him in relation to his city. That he is trapped in his gaze and unable to move off and away from the surface of the image.

    Trapped in the image El Said is the archetypal exemplar of the media class as a social group.   But the problem with continuous insertion of the Cairo street material throughout the Last Days, is that of repetition. State of mind is the medium through which “Last Days’ is filmed. Half way through the film you understand that what is being represented is gaze. But there is no development. Like looking at a friend’s picture album: the shots all start to seem the same. Perhaps this in the point, but the film lacks a dynamic and catalyst to provoke even one moment of awareness: Godard style graphics or a voiced element, cutting into the material and offsetting image.

    Khalid’s friends and fellow film makers from Baghdad and Beirut are more anchored in the realities of their cities. They experience the pain and hardship of living in a place where so much is smashed – bodies buildings lives hope. But Khalid lives in the enervated sepia world of Cairo, overwhelmed by the city overwhelmed by the weight of the image. He looks on at the momentous events stirred by revolution in Tahrir Square and finds only, that as image they are no different from the inconsequential hysteria of the Africa Cup of Nations. The crowds in the square the crowds celebrating Egyptian football are juxtaposed and interchangeable.   Something to gaze on.

    This same feeling infects the personal, relations experienced as an existential distance. His mother and his girlfriend, both in different ways take their leave of him, one through the grave, the other by an airplane. Both intimate farewells experienced as distant events long foreseen and submitted to in their inevitability.

    The problem with ‘Last Days of the City’ is that, locked into existential state of mind as its defining mode, an invariance governs the material.   A similar point can be made about Sartre’s novels, that once the characterisation falters they become dull; the lead characters simply ciphers for an idea. Restricting himself to a limited palette of filmic representation, holding the line of representing the gaze, the film teeters on falling into inconsequentiality, mimicking the film’s running joke about Khalid’s search for an apartment. This may be El Said’s intention. It may be the film is a testament to the perception that to make films at this time in this place is a misconstrued enterprise. There are other and better ways to communicate, forge understanding action and relationships.

    Adrin Neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

     

     

     

     

  • High Life      Claire Denis (2018; Fr UK)

    High Life      Claire Denis (2018; Fr UK) Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche

    viewed: Tyneside Cinema Newcastle 14 May 2019. Ticket £10.75

    time for the deck chair

    Claire Denis is reported as saying that she made this sci-fi romp as an English language film: “…because people speak English – or Russian or Chinese – in space but definitely not French.” I think this statement is as crass as the movie she has directed. People now speak Hindi and Hebrew in space. Of course French would be a perfect language for outer space where one day the astro-muppets are going to have to learn to cook proper meals.

    Denis’ film is about a group of criminals deported into space to try and run through a black hole and see what happens to them. The narrative device is just a pretext as used by many sci-fi films as a set up for exploring particular issues outside the trammels of present time. Notable themes that have been examined in the sci-fi canon include: A1, the particular nature of history and and time, fear of the unknown. In Denis’ scenario fertility, fertility anxiety seem to be the cause of her concern. Given the reproductive trends we are witnessing in technologically advanced societies, in particular Japan, there is certainly something to probe; the confines of a space ship hurtling through deep space on an uncertain mission, would seem to be a promising setting.

    But if her film is about fertility rather than going shopping in a black hole, the trouble is that Denis doesn’t seem to have anything coherent to say about fertility. Or, if she does then doesn’t know how to say it.  We see the idea of fertility expressed in the watery mist soaked on-board garden, a short montage of which provides the opening shots for High Life. The greenery looks fertile enough, although except for Monte and his baby eating a strawberry, we don’t see much brassica put on the table.

    The thrust of the script concerns coupling or rather non-coupling and decoupling. Aboard spaceship there are men and women in more or less equal numbers. But there is some sort of barrier between the sexes that inhibits or diminishes libido and creates anxiety. Perhaps this anx is caused by the radiation storm.   Perhaps Dr Death (Dibs) has been paid to put something in the water. Perhaps mission control anticipated or manipulated the mass on- board sexual turn-off. For pleasure, not for fertility, they have provided for the crew a nice sex box. This a cubicle reminiscent of the pleasure/death machine that Barberella vanquishes in the eponymous movie. Dr Death expertly demonstrates that she knows how to use its pop-up steel dildo and pronounces to Monte that it is surprisingly effective. Dr Death herself is obsessed with collecting semen and using it for in vitro fertilisation which never works because of the radiation. Something always goes wrong in space. She then has a light bulb moment and screws Monte in his sleep, collecting the semen dropping out of her fanny and slapping it onto one of the sleeping women. This relatively crude stratagem works: for ‘Lo!’ A girl child is born. Halleluja! Houston we have fertility. But the only insight provided is a sort of old wives tale maxim that: “The old ways works best!” Get rid of them petrie dishes.

    In a sequence positioned early in High Life, which is structured non-sequentially, Monte murders all th esurviving crew (I suppose he does have form) as they lie in their cryogenic pods. This is done dispassionately, gently, by Monte and is remeniscent of a similar sequence in 2001 in which Hal murders the spaceship crew. But whereas we understand the logic of Hal’s action, Monte’s motivation is obscure. Perhaps its to spend the rest of his life alone with his baby, to have her all to himself so he can watch her grow up and teach her about life. However seen togather they seem a bit of an odd couple. In the last section of the film (which is in sequence and is the last sequence and not the first) he and the girl child (now called Willow who is insufferably precocious and all knowing) are left in the square ship about to penetrate the black yellow hole, thereby setting up the terrible prospect of a sequel.

    Denis has a script which with its lacuna and its vaulting temporal logic adds up to nothing. In the mish-mash of ideas churned through by the scenario, nothing comes out in the wash except the naturally conceived Willow who despite being brought up for 16 years alone on a spaceship with her taciturn dad, only represents smugness.

    This is a dead film. It is monopaced and without tension. Unless you count the tension caused by baby-Willow’s incessant screaming at the start of the movie. This screaming is a heavy handed statement by Denis of the obvious, as if we did not know baby’s are screamers. Denis’ dialogue sounds like it has been written by an AI-script-writing-botnik trained on early episodes of 1930’s Flash Gordon serials. And the cinematography is leaden and unimaginative.

    Judging by their recent work, some director’s like Lars von Trier and now Claire Denis feel like they are tired people. They are still making films because they are self conditioned to going through the motions of making films that are about nothing.. Perhaps they have the need to persuade themselves that they are not dead. Time perhaps to fold up that chair and go home.

    adrin neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

  • Welcome ll the Terrordrome   Ngozi Onwurah (UK 1995)

    Welcome ll the Terrordrome   Ngozi Onwurah (UK 1995) Suzette Llewellyn, Saffron Burrows, Felix Joseph

    Viewed: Star and Shadow Cinema Newcastle UK, 9th May 2019; Ticket: £7

    style is king

    Ngozi Onwurah’s ‘Terrordrome’ is a production defined completely within style. As a filmic statement it attests to the triumph of the outer over the inner, surface over depth, darkness over light.

    To carry through this project Onwurah had to understand how she could push the capacities of a minority film project to express the experience of black culture in a white society. Most contemporary films when set in ethnic groups highlight the content and the primacy of character. Typically narrative structures drive the characters towards some outcome and the characters are normally defined through their association with conventional feelings experiences and attachments. These are relations such those with mother or with children which are of course reassuringly indistinguishable from those kinds of relations in the majority culture. Everyone is kind of the same – if you prick me do I not bleed?

    Onwurah has taken a radical step of relegating plot and characterisation from being the core defining qualities of her film. They are still present but not the primary characteristic. She has seen that most Hollywood movies, with the exception of Spike Lee’s films, when taking the black community as subject matter use scripting to normalise the black experience. Blacks were explained as being just like the white people: same types of relationships, same types of problems. No different. But of course this singular emphasis on the extent to which black and whites were similar in outlook experience and expectations denies what is crassly obvious: being in a black minority there are huge differences in life, huge differences in experience. And these differences are structured into their understanding of life .

    Onwurah starts with the perception that the defining aspect of black experience is the ghetto – here realised as the Terrordrome. An experience that is both oppositional to the majority power structure that contains them, and creative in using its own resources to to be seen and heard. The particular response of the blacks living in the Terrordrome is to take its defining situational aspects and assume them into expressive modes of the body. The collective experience is transformed into a stylistic statement, a collective part of individual subjectivity.   A culture of unashamed minority assertion, a feature of black identity alien to majority culture.

    Style then is the pure product of the Terrrordrome which Onwurah realises within a particular setting. Grounded in minority oppositional style, normalised settings such as apartments houses hotel rooms kitchens bathrooms would have lent a discordant visual signing to the film. Onwurah’s Terrordrame space in alligment with the film’s stylistic sympathies: the disassociated spaces of the shanty town, clapboard dwellings, subterranean service areas, abandoned basements. In the spacial configuration there are no markers dividing off kitchen area, bathroom, bedroom, lounge, dining room. No bourgeois division of zoanal function. This is the Terrordrome territory. A ghetto that’s like an excavated space, hollowed out of emergency need and press of population.

    Within in the immediacy of the settings and the presence of the bodies, hip hop lips tell the voice the people their story and their life in the shadow of the white world.   The drama that unfolds in Terrordrome is moulded and given direction by Onwurah’s creation of a filmic world defined as pure stylistic construct. The narrative develops as a black – white revenge saga. It is fuelled by white male sexual jealousy and spun out on the wheel of stylistic opposition that completes the full tragic cycle of death destruction and miscarriage.

    Terrordrome points to the primacy of style in minority culture, a primacy that not only is an identity resource but also shapes and predetermines responses. This stylistic determinism is seen not just in the opposition of gang culture to the majority, in particular the police and authority, but also in internecine warfare. This conflict is experienced in London 2018-19, where there’s been a large number of fatal stabbings. The hoodie ghetto territorialised style admixed with ‘Drill’, a bass driven form of hip-hop, creates a series of reactive responses that quickly escalate to the extreme act of knifing and killing.

    As the violence in Terrordrome escalates, both in the rage of the minority and in the calculated reaction of the majority, Onwurah ‘s depiction of the situation renders a clear understanding of the forces in play in our world.

    adrin neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

  • Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai)   Hirokazu Kore-eda (2004; Japan) 

    Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai)   Hirokazu Kore-eda (2004; Japan)   Yuya Yagira, Ayu Kitora

    viewed Tyneside Cinema 5 May 2019; ticket: £10.75

    haircuts

    Haircuts just about sums up ‘Nobody Knows’ in which Hirukazu Kore-eda as both writer and director, shows that at this point in his career he knows how to set up the superficial externalities of a scenario.   ‘Nobody Knows’ is light-weight TV style drama, that takes as its theme the notion of abandonment but what is missing is any idea of how to kindle the relations endemic in the situation so that Kore-eda can develop his film beyond the manipulation of his child actors.

    Hirokazu Kore-eda has recently gained acclaim for his 2018 movie ‘Shoplifters’. It seemed appropriate to have a look at his earlier movies amongst which is ‘Nobody Knows’.   ‘Shoplifters’ shares many situational aspects with ‘Nobody Knows’. ‘Shoplifters’ is located in an ‘any space whatever’, an interstitial urban zone and set on the margins of society. This situation is developed through the scripted tensions expressed between the way of life of the ‘enclosed’ shoplifting family and wider society. Also as ‘Shoplifters’ details the family’s ‘absorption’ into its bosom of waifs, wandering children, without bothering with legal niceties there is a creative dynamic between the world of the children and the worlds of the adults.   The possibilities within the situation were exploited, in quasi narrative form, so that relations set up in the script changed and intensified, intertwining and feeding back as the film progressed.

     

    By way of contrast in ‘Nobody Knows’ the situation of the abandoned child remains a comparitively undeveloped idea.  As in ‘Shoplifters’ the locational parameters of Tokyo’s ‘any space whatever’ (in this case nondescript low rise low rent apartment blocks) are established, as is the notion of a family milieu. But, unlike ‘Shoplifters’ after establishing these elements, Kore-eda by-passes the relational and psychic aspects attendent on abandonment.

     

    Kore-eda’s script observes. We see Akida befriend schoolboys of his own age, we see him contact his mother’s ex’s and join in a school baseball game. But these scenes are played out as inconsequentialities, even the death of the little girl leaves only a faint mark on the film’s bland exterior. Instead of a script that probes the possibilities in the situation: the relations between the children, the relations between the family and the outside world, the relations between adults and children, Kore-eda’s movie meanders through time and across space following the main child protagonist Akira as he copes with coping. What we understand is that although the living conditions deteriorate, psychically everything is fine. All the children get on with each other, even when dead.

     

    Nothing happens in any relational sense tying the children to other forces outside themselves. We see in ‘Nobody Knows’ that the state of the apartment slowly goes down hill as utilities are cut off for unpaid bills, and the children in particular Akira try to handle the mess. Kore-eda might reply this is what really happened (Nobody knows is ‘inspired’ by a true story – whatever that means). But this mechanical rendering of the situation leaves a void at the heart of the film, the lack of any probing into the dynamics of children’s relations to each other. This abrogation of the children’s psychic and emotional zones leaves a void, a hole at the centre of Kore-eda’s script. Kore-eda might say he observes but for the most part what he observes is that children are rather cute.

     

    In place of probing into about the state of children left in their own world (perhaps Kere-eda perceives nothing) Kore-eda has a series of cute exploitative images of children to offer the viewer: Chocolate box cinema. ‘Nobody Knows’ feels like an offering to the average septuagenarian Japanese viewer bereft of grandchildren due to an aversion to sexual relations in the Japanese child rearing population.

    Instead of development, Kore-eda uses gimmicks.   ‘Nobody Knows’ is continually intercut with shots of little feet. These shots inserted with ever greater predictability into the film encapsulate the film’s poverty of expression. These shots, perhaps intended to express a sense of the vulnerability of the child, in repetition simply pander to conventional advertising imagery and the audiences’ desire for children to rendered as a consumerist product. And the beautifully stylised haircuts of the children serve the same end, to make for easy viewing.

     

    Kore-eda also seems to have understood that location and setting are significant features of film. But at this stage of his career, in ‘Nobody Knows’ he has not understood that in themselves they are not enough to make a movie. So we have a film comprising settings and the locations: the steps, the canal, the street, the store, the interior and exterior of the apartment. Shots that are repeated throughout the film, as little more than backdrops with little relational significance.

    A coherent time frame is absent from ‘Nobody Knows’. The film avoids giving the audience any real sense of the time passing. It is not possible to know the length of time for which the children were abandoned.   However judging by the perfectly styled and sculpted and unchanging cut of Akira’s hair, Kore-eda is not interested in the passage of time, he is more interested in a frozen image, a non dynamic holding the film together. His time image is static, and his response to ‘time’ is not to fill it in, but to fill it out. Like the haircuts in Nobody Knows, Kore-eda doesn’t signify time, he defies it.   .

    adrin neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

     

  • Dragged across Concrete         S. Craig Zahler (USA 2019)

    Dragged across Concrete         S. Craig Zahler (USA 2019) Mel Gibson, Michael Jai White

    Viewed 22 April 2019 Tyneside Cinema; ticket: £10.75

     

    The death of tragedy

     

    Zahler’s Dragged across Concrete takes its cue from ‘50s noir classics such as Huston’s ‘Asphalt Jungle’ (1950) which Zahler obliquely references in his title as another form of the urban hard stuff.   Both movies feature recently released jailbirds who get involved in heists. Although both movies have some similarities in form and content, their respective styles caste them as products of distinctively different eras of cinema representing contrasting strata of psychic sensibility. Both ‘Dragged across Concrete’ and ‘Asphalt Jungle’ are stained with the respective darkness of their times; but ‘Asphalt Jungle’ works with archetypes and collective consciousness whereas Dragged Across Concrete is marked out with the contemporary cult of individuality.

    Zahler is making films in a post Tarentino vein. He models his script on the Tarentino formula, extreme violence, with a visceral edge (literally) offset by cool smart-ass dialogue wrapped up in a narrative cut that drives the characters from one thing to another. Whereas in Huston’s movie accident plays a significant role in the plot, in Zahler’s script, with the exception perhaps of the accidental shooting of Brett, the script line holds to the characters intentions.

     

    Today’s orthodox scripting is about empowerment. The metaphysics of empowerment insists on there being a winning ticket, in particular if the protagonist is female or ethnic minority, which Hollywood equates to being black. ‘Asphalt Jungle’ is a type of mythic tragedy. There are no winners, the architypical formula prescribes a design in which events must play out to a preordained conclusion where everyone who is marked for death, dies. There is no choice: the bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. This traditional play out of tragedy is more or less out of kilter with the times. It abuses the valuation that we place on the rights of individuals. In Zahler’s script, the main characters all have back stories that reveal the family situations of Brett Biscuit and Tony. They are defined in film terms as fully rounded people embedded in networks of relations outside the immediate business of the script. We are led to understand that they are good people. Even hostage Kelly (so as not be left out) is given a back story to overdetermine our reaction to her plight.

     

    Whether Zahler’s drawn out back stories work (they take up a lot of film time) is perhaps questionable. But they point to an obligatory feature of contemporary scenarios. They are the passports that enable the narrative to escape the clutches of tragedy and embrace a trophy finale in which the last player standing, like the patsy in a TV game show, takes home the big prize. In this case, Biscuit, the black ex-con with a disabled son and wife struggling to cope with his extended absences in gaol, is able to provide for his family out of his ill gotten gains, enabling them to live a hotel life style of luxury and consumer goods, as promised in the adverts. Biscuit takes the biscuit.

     

    The bad guys in ‘Dragged Across Concrete’ have no back stories (though as satirical offsetting there is certainly scope for scripting this type of guff). But in the opening sections of Zahler’s movie his villains occupy a place in the scripting that is almost completely detached from the dynamics of rest the scenario. The bad guys are presented as contemporary psychopaths intent only in pursuit of their own satisfaction. In these sections of the film they take on a life consummate slaughter. In their masks and tight fitting costumes they have a fetishishistic quality, endowing the gun with a charged sexual potency that ejaculates bullets not semen.   As creatures of anti-life formed out of the complexes of the NRA top drawer, they are the beings of today, the lone gunmen, following their own internalised lines of retreat, creating ballets of death as with guns singing they spray semiautomatic fire cutting down their innocent victims who have not been supplied with back stories.

     

    These sections of Zahler’s script may have little relevance to plot, but it is these sequences that remain in the mind. Impressed upon memory as they open up a space where death has replaced life in the twisted interplay of individual desire and the gun. Perhaps Zahler himself finding this vision disturbing prefers to leave us for his finale, in the banal grip of happy families.

    adrin neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

     

     

     

     

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