Star & Shadow

  • 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









  • 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








  • 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 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


  • 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





  • 3 Faces     Jafar Panahi (2018; Iran)

    3 Faces     Jafar Panahi (2018; Iran) Behnaz Jafari

    viewed Tyneside Cinema 2nd April 2019; ticket £10.75

    Just like a trip to Brexit – land

    Panahi’s ‘3 Faces’ despite being scripted and filmed with an automobile as the key setting, is not a road movie in the Hollywood sense of the term. It is not about arriving or departing, or travel across the impersonal vastness of a continent, but rather a film about a certain type of intimacy.

    There is something about the nature of the automobile that captivates Iranian film makers. Both Panahi and Kairostami use cars in a way that is not so much instrumental but rather existential. Their films are about automobiles as ‘states of being’.   Thinking about the way in which cars are filmed in their films, external shots of the featured vehicles are rare, and external wide shots rarer still. Most of the shots in Panahi and Kairostami’s ‘car’ films are internal, the filming takes place inside the vehicles.

    This contrasts with Hollywood’s ideas about use of the the automobile where external shots in particular wide shots of featured automobiles are a core part of Hollywood cinematic language. I recently saw Zahlers ‘Dragged Across Concrete’ which is a typical formulaic noir tec drama in which the cars function as protective steel carapaces barely able to contain the psychopathic forces compressed within them; vehicles replicating the repressed armoured psyches of the American male. If not acting as containing outer shells, Hollywood’s automobiles function as pure image, outer signs that extend identity into the realm of objects. Identity as understood by Hollywood is defined through externalities not internalities: what you wear, how you look, how you live. what you drive. So the automobile is exploited for its associative connection both with the characters and their place in the world. The vehicles in Hollywood films lend an consumerist aura to the scenario, highlighting the notion of the automobile as an accessory that serves to offset the action and frame the lifestyle of the protagonists. In as much as automobiles are part of the script, they are either carapaces, weapons, toys, life style accessories or suburban props.

    The role played by automobiles when Panahi and Kairostami film them is very different. They are often located at the heart of the scenario.  But the car is no longer shot as a hard exterior masculine shell. In their manner of shooting there is a feminine sensibility, a womb like nurturing quality that brings a humanistic dimension comes into play. Vehicles become mediators of both internal and external actuality. The automobiles are subsumed not just into narrative but into the main characters becoming an extension of their being in the world. The automobiles have a strong relational dimension. The enclosed space is exploited for the possibility of psychic intercourse, an intimate setting that facilitates and nurtures the development and expression of interactions between people. The automobile becomes a device that enables not so much movement but rather exploration. Travelling is not about moving across the spacial externalities of a vast country, but rather about locating interiorities. In the scripts of both Panahi and Kairostami the travel is not about moving through space and time but rather through openings mediated by consciousness.

    In ‘3 Faces’ Panahi who is himself the driver of the car. A scripting device sets both him and a female soap opera actress off through the night into the darkness of Iran, on a quest to find a woman. It is ironic (perhaps) that as women and their social position in Iran (Offside, the Circle), have been the subject of much of his work and caused him to be imprisoned and banned from making films, that the films he has made whilst under ban, stand out as the most feminine in form of any male director (and most female directors who for the most part want to be male directors) of whom I am aware. As if Panahi were using the statement of filmic form rather than content to continue his opposition to the regime. How extraordinary.

    As Panahi penetrates in his car into the depths of the country it becomes clear that this is a journey in which he is seeking out to explore the forces that have wanted to crush him. His reaching out to the conservative country people is with compassion and without enmity. He sees what they are and knows that in their situation they cannot change: they are unchanging. There is no malice in the way in which these people see the world but their judgement is strict and guided by the only authorities they recognise: their tradition and their religion. And Panahi sees without judgement, because what point is there to judge. He sees a society in which in the public social arena all forces revolve around the man. Panahi pokes fun at this in the script with the sequence revolving about a foreskin, but it is gentle fun, half in earnest.

    The unfolding of the quest revolves about women, and Panahi’s film captures the 3 faces of women as seen from high up in the Iranian countryside: the scarlet, the mythic and the actual. And as Panahi’s script notes, the actual is developing a line of escape.

    adrin neatrour

  • Us   Jordan Peele (USA: 2019)

    Us   Jordan Peele (USA: 2019) Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke

    Viewed Tyneside Cinema 24 March 2019; ticket: £10.75

    Like eating yoghurt

    The incorporation of diversity as an ethical value into the coda of Hollywood has been a long time coming and marks the beginning of the end of a long era of white monopoly of the movie industry. Diversity has some way to go into effecting significant change in Hollywood’s power structure, but its effect on scripting from the evidence of Us is predictably bleak.

    As a scenario Peele’s ‘Us’ is a lazy formulaic piece of film making. Us, borrows ideas from Lynch, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Zombie motifs, then in horror schmuck tradition overlays the material with a layer of glossy cool detached humour.       The combo is stitched together through a rambling narrative line defined by inconsistency and incoherence.

    The protagonists are a black middle class family. Once upon a Hollywood they would have been a white middle class family. In Us’ script Peele substitutes a black middle class family, as if is as if all the that has to be done, . So in his story, ironically about replicants, it is Peele himself who engages in a little script replication: replacing the white middle class family with a black middle class family; replacing in the resolving action a white male lead figure with a black female lead. Diversity in this creative mix, has no other meaning than a vacuous symbolic replacement of one set of its parts by another. Like the production of multi-flavoured yoghurts, the script manufacturers can now exploit the diversity ethic to churn out multiple copies of the same basic scripts, which in the case of Us turns out to be a mish-mash variant of the Undead plot line.

    If the Us script idea of the replicants rising up out of the subterranean darkness to claim their rightful place in the light is supposed to be a metaphorical design referencing the black experience of exclusion, then it is obtusely suggested. Although Peele’s main characters are black, and it is a black child who sets events in motion, the white characters are also attacked by their doppelgangers. As if Peele were saying that metaphorical allusion to condition was a possibility, but he was uncertain about it or even what it meant, so he decided to cover his back.

    The black couple are of course completely decontextualised. They are no more than ciphers in a plot, like their white counterparts pumping the rictus moments. Where they come from, what they do, is glossed over. We are presented with a completely assimilated couple whose outer signage in mores expectations food culture locates them as a family in the affluent bosom of middle class America.   This is Walt Disney core value land, disconnected from everything except leisure and fun. The black experience in America, the insecurity of the black situation, are airbrushed out of what in the end holds up as little more than a horror/zombie romp half played for laughs, the which decompresses Peele’s scattergun attempts to suggest any deeper significance.

    And why do ‘Zombies’ ‘replicants’ need deeper meaning? The ‘Zombie’ type motif simply projects onto an outward form, all the unnameable fears and insecurities that hollow out our lives.

    Peele brings all the usual tropes into play: the rabbits (difficult to disassociate from Lynch), the attack on the house by other-under-worldly replicants (this picks up a familiar H P Lovecraft ideation), and the absorption of identity by otherlings (Siegel). Possibly in a time of accentuated individualised narcissism there is horror in the idea that we may be comprised or threatened by schizophrenic replicants. But Peele doesn’t take this psycho road, he seems to hover on brink of a schizo abyss, the idea of a full on psychosis, then draws back and opts for the mechanics of zombie nation.

    The replicants/zombies/metaphoriks with their big scissor gimmick (cutting the umbilical, cutting the ties of life) are amusing in the way that their full on repetitive violent action becomes funny, obeying the law of diminishing returns and the basic law of film comedy ( show them what is going to happen – show it happen – show it after it has happened). Otherwise the scripted comedy is plumb out of sophomore film school as when Gabe wonders if the long line of replicants in brownish suits might be: “ …some sort of performance art shit?” All the humour is rather laboured and the more so in as much that in its cool iterations the humour leaves Us in a sort of detached limboid space. Neither one thing nor the other. The script is a missive of the lost to the lost.

    When yoghurts began their path to infinite replication of sets, plain being supplemented first by strawberry, then raspberry then cherry and so on I thought it was wonderful. Burt in the end I understood it was all the same thing and at core just a device to encourage people to eat more ans more sugar with their yoghurt.

    adrin neatrour





  • Branded to Kill – Seijun Suzuki – Japan 1966; Nanbura Koji, Jo Shishido

    Branded to Kill – Seijun Suzuki – Japan 1966; Nanbura Koji, Jo Shishido

    Re-viewed 23 March 2019; Star and Shadow Cinema Newcastle; ticket £7

    How to cook the rice 

    What to make of this film: except to say that it is the product of a totally schizoid society, a society ripped open by a cultural hurricane called the USA; and it’s scenario and imagery mediated by a nouvelle vague film making sensibility.

    Played out to a very cool jazz score by Naozumi Yamamoto, Suzuki’s episodic story line, links a series of increasingly violent confrontations set in the world of the Yakuza.   Branded to Kill reflects Japan as a broken society seen through the multiplexed reflections of smashed shards of a zen mirror. The here and now as a nightmare. A document produced by a defeated society, but made with the extraordinary lucidity about this state of affairs: a twisted Samurai gangster culture shaped by an ethos of sadism played out in deterritorialised spaces with guns and American cars.

    At the centre of the film is the image of the pot of rice. Rice, the constant symbol of the real Japan and of its national religion, Shintoism. This image of a pot full of cooked rice is returned to regularly. The pot belonging to the protagonist exists as if in fairytale. The pot is always a full and nourishes Goro Hanada the number 3 killer less physically but more psychically: a super food that is the source of his self belief.   Rice is his favorite food, the food he craves. Yet the pot is not a traditional pot: it is an electric rice cooker. The white rice fluffs up perfectly when cooked in this gadget. The rice cooker is an automatic device that is a double sign: a sign of the quintessential world of the American can-do – slick electric efficient non traditional and – also the food that is the core of Japanese culture, symbolizing genesis and purity. The rice pot, at the centre of the Branded to Kill is a cursive elegant statement about Japan in the 1960’s: a traditional culture cooked up in the encompassing embrace of a alien society.

    For the most part, Suzuki uses the film as a full blown suicidal assault on traditional Japanese values and sensibilities.   Using a language form similar to New Wave, Suzuki plays with cinematic possibility rather than the formulaic Hollywood production narratives. Under Suzuki’s direction the actors play their roles in a cool mode disengaged from emotional embrace. The action digresses, stops, rewinds as violence and sex intertwine and twist in a pastiche of American iconic imagery: the moll, the gun, the gangster are taken to extremes in sequences that are exercises in a parody of controlled ironic Japanese detachment. In Branded to Kill the various sequences comprising: chase fight torture or sex are defined by stylistic detachment and frequently use the sound track as a deintensifier of the extreme action. For example when the sexy gangster’s moll is being tortured with a blow torch, her face retains an amused insouciant playful demeanor as she hums to herself. An attitude of amused exteriority audio and visual effectively deintensifies the horror of the blow torch sequence transforming it into something like an amusing game, a childish conceit.

    In Branded to Kill, Suzuki has treated his script in such a way that the acting and the fractured plot make the movie an assemblage of the world of the child. Perhaps this is endemic in the gangster movie genre: because certainly both Edward G Robinson and James Cagney both had baby faces, and there is in the violence of the gangster something of the fury of the wronged and angered child; or of the defeated nation.

    Kurosawa’s series of Samurai themed movies look like a conscious project to restore to Japan the memory of the noble tradition of the warrior within Japanese society. Suzuki with his Yakuza movies is pointing to the Japan as he saw it. Japan as a traumatized society overwhelmed by the experience of defeat and the invasion of American commercial culture. A Japan that was struggling to iconically re-define itself. A society that yearned for rice, but was having to come to terms with coca-cola and hamburgers.

    Adrin Neatrour


  • Hale County This Morning, This Evening       RaMell Ross (USA: 2018;)

    Hale County This Morning, This Evening       RaMell Ross (USA: 2018;) Doc

    Viewed: Metrograph NYC,  3rd March 2019; ticket $15

    I woke up this morning…

    The material of RaMell Ross’s film takes as its content the lives of the black community in Hale County, Alabama. As a documentary film maker he’s not an outsider to Hale County but lives and works there as a college teacher, giving courses on photography and training young Basketball players.

    The title of Ross’s film, linking his location Hale County, with the phrase, ‘This Morning’ seems to point to the intention behind his decision to make this film.   ‘This Morning’ is a phrase which reverberates with the mordant irony of ‘the Blues’ and the capacity of Blues music to locate the black American experience. “I woke up this morning, feeling round for my shoes…’ A music that locates the condition of black life in instability and insecurity. The blues are a psycho-somatic wail of defiance at the nature of black experience. A physical and an emotional expression of the unsayable as the voices and guitars of all blues performers insist on telling it how it is in the here and now, in music that transcends the here and now.

    Time was when black people sang the blues. Not so much these days. Now, in terms of music, black expression is voiced by the attitude of Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop and its various developed modes, incessant urban beat overscored by lyrics of assertion and self proclamation, declaring opposition in the face to the face of the white man. But perhaps there are limits to the extent that identity can be based on opposition, however necessary opposition may be. But the blues were always a sentient state, not self pitying, which expressed an actual black dilemma of being. The place that you were in. Where you were at.  I woke up this morning…

    Ross appears to be saying that he’s making his film in Hale County in the Evening of the black people in America. Perhaps for some there is opposition, but the blacks in Hale County Alabama come across more as a disoriented people. A people increasingly not just cut off from any hope of renewal but increasingly cut off from themselves, both in body and in mind. In this evening of the ‘blues’ they have mutated into a life style that alienates them from themselves. A people destroyed by the twisted commercialised individualistic social culture onto which they have been grafted.

    The form Ross chooses for his film is intercut strips of action. Strips of action comprising, mostly single long durational shots, both discrete and sequenced chronologically, descriptive openings into the lives of the Hale people. The clips stand for themselves, without commentary, accompanied only by their own discrete sound.

    The diachronic filming documents episodes in the lives of Ross’ subjects which include a young married couple having twins, and a young guy at college on a basket ball scholarship. Both these subjects have an intermittent narrative, but it is not story that impresses but the scenes, the moments which the dynamic of Ross’ camera work folds into his sequences. The scenes Ross captures point in different ways to the idea of the dislocation of his subjects.

    Item one: captured in one clip, in which we see the young black woman giving birth to her twins. As the shot opens we see that a capacious tent like structure has been erected over the woman’s loins as she gives birth. As the hospital technicians aid the birth, they are shielded off from presence of the woman by this tent like structure. From the point of view of the birth technicians, she is absent from the birth. Perhaps this is normal American practice. Immediately after the delivery of the first of her twins, Ross’ camera pans to the other side of the tent, to film the mother. At this point we see that not only is the woman heavily sedated, but that where her neck meets her chest, another huge screen has been hung, so she is completely disconnected, in body in mind, from the act of giving birth. This mother has been totally disembodied, delivered into a state of disengagement with life.

    Item two: the young basket ball player with the college basketball scholarship. We hear him talk about his hopes for the future, his yearning for success. We see the psychic fixation that drives his endless practice, the unending repetitions of the same moves. And through these strips of action Ross conveys the idea of a youth who has given his body over, sold his body to a sports dream. It feels like containment; the whole of the youth’s life queezed into a little box called sport (basketball). An impoverishment of a being who for want of anything else has embraced the chimera of athletic success. And when this chimera reveals itself for what it is, there will be nothing to take its place. No social matrix, not community, only a vacuum of being, a disenfranchised soul, ever more detached from life.

    The woman, the boy, both seem trapped in a psycho-social machine that drains them of life and vitality, leaves them few resources to cope with the demands of survival in a society in which they are the underclass.

    This detachment is what Moss films. Detachment from the being, the detachment of children from parents. Some of Moss’ most disturbing strips are shots of manically disoriented children desperately seeking attention from parents who are not there for them. In the evening of their enslavement, they are an abandoned and abandoning people.

    It might be said that Ross depicts a distorted picture of the black community in Hale County. But he is not an outsider, just the opposite. As a teacher and basketball coach to young black kids, he is up close to what he has filmed and in a position to witness and come to a judgement about what he witnesses. I think we have to allow that Moss has seen something in the world about him and has made a report about what he has seen.   What he has seen is that there are no blues now for Mr Charlie, no blues, no waking up in the morning, only slow descent into the twilight of being.

    adrin neatrour


  • 3 Women      Robert Altman (1977; USA)

    3 Women      Robert Altman (1977; USA)   Shelley Duvalle; Sissy Spacek; Janice Rule

    Viewed on dvd 2nd March 2019

    Malice in Wonderland

    In Robert Altman’s opening shot we see in big close up the wrinkled skin of the thigh of an elderly women pass slowly down through frame. The camera tracks back to reveal that the woman, in a bathing suit, is descending into a remedial exercise pool in which other elderly clients are being helped to move slowly through the knee high water by young female assistants.   This bizarre setting immediately locates Altman’s focus on the existence of parallel worlds that operate at least one remove from the humdrum logic of everyday life. The camera pans from the pool to an overlooking observation booth where Pinkie sits staring out in blank incomprehension at the aqueous therapy taking place in front of her. Both she and the pool alien modes of existence.

    With her long blond hair and girlish innocent looks Sissy Spacek is a shoe-in for Alice of Wonderland fame. Her performance as Pinkie has much of Alice’s wide eyed engagement with the successive situations after the pool, in which she finds herself: the Dodge City Bar and Millie’s Spanish style courtyard apartment built round a swimming pool. This in not to say that Pinkie represents in any way re-telling of the Wonderland story, but only that there are critical elements in the movie suggesting that within its scripting there are transposed elements of Carroll’s perception about disparate logics abroad in the world.

    Like Alice, Pinkie finds herself in a series of worlds whose logical constructs confound her. She struggles to make sense of what is happening around her, most of the time responding reactively rather than actively. Whereas Alice’s momentary discomfiture is assuaged by her being able to reference the comforting dictum’s of a stolid middle class upbringing, Pinkie has none such to fall back on. She is a sort of repository of emptiness, a product of an impoverished social environment, the desolation of America, where life is drowned out in the jingle of a commercialised culture. Unlike Alice, Spacek can’t oppose her situation with the resources of a culture. She has to survive and to survive she has to make full use of attributes she possesses: a certain native cunning and an amoral compass of desires. And Pinkie’s desire latches onto Millie as an object of emulation.

    In relation to the second Alice book ‘Through the Looking Glass’, Carroll’s characters were almost all playing cards, that is to say beings comprised wholly of ‘surfaces’. And Duvalle’s Millie is all surface. As if on a roll of wallpaper all the slogans shibboleths and beliefs of vacuous Americana have been pasted over her being.   As much in persona, appearance look and dress as in her speech Millie presents herself as a sort of replicant, a product of a society based on mass production. She is an assemblage of the American Beauty Production line compleat with belief system that has stamped upon the female form the attributes of charm poise and decorum. With the which accomplishments Millie broadcasts an incessant daisy chain monologue directed at some one and no one but which signals both her self armour and her vulnerability. Like one of Carroll’s playing cards Duvalle looks out at a world which she sees only in terms of one dimension into which she wants to fit almost sequentially as part of the pack.   She fails to see that nobody is playing cards any longer.

    Pinkie follows Millie through the worlds Altman portrays: the geriatric remedial centre, the Dodge City complex of bar, shooting range and dirt track and her residential gated community.   As Millie navigates through these portals, Pinkie understands that to survive in settings where no one talks and no one listens, she herself has to become like Millie, a replicant. Becoming a replicant is perhaps the only answer to her question, who am I? In the land that invented mass replication in infinite sets, Ford motor cars, coke bottles and baby doll faces, this is the natural course of reaction for Pinkie.   But whereas it seems that Millie has absorbed the ethos of replication through magazines, through movies, through adverts etc., Pinkie’s survival plan to replicate Millie, is a conscious decision, and undertaken as a stratagem. In the USA replication is to survival what the dream is to success: the means to conform to life’s expectations.   Unashamedly with cunning and within her own limitations she tries to become Millie, a replication attempt that is foredoomed even before Pinkie starts to understand that Millie’s life is based on self delusion.

    Underlying Altman’s psychic probing of the surfaces of the feminine anima in 3 Women, is the presence of the third woman (Janice Rule). The 3rd woman is the artist. The woman who responds to the primal urges of pregnancy not by replication of form, but by instinct. The 3rd woman paints surfaces, covering the swimming pool walls with paintings of figurative monsters that leer out threaten and disturb the waters of the conscious mind. She transforms surfaces so that they suggest a sort of depth psychology. Surfaces that unconsciously depict motifs of archaic memories, repressed desire and carnal fears. As Altman’s camera glides over the painted images it calls up a symbolic matrix of experience before the time of replication. It is Altman’s counterbalancing force, set in play to oppose the worlds where the young lead the old through the water of life, where the men dress as cowboys, and time is idled away in display mode sitting round condo pool drinking.

    With a script that has all the marks of improvisation (Shelley Duvall fills out her character with consummate knowledge and skill) 3 Women stumbles into obfuscation as it moves towards its finale. Nevertheless the ending of the movie is comparatively insignificant when considered in relation to the what Altman and his actors carry through in the body of the film. As in Nashville, so in 3 Women Altman opens up America in the manner of few other directors. A culture of isolated souls abroad in worlds where there is little depth but plenty of surface. America as a series of disconnections. America as a land of defined by mass production of experience. What Duvalle and Spacek do is to locate these traits in their performances as women. As women their beings are warped and twisted by cultural imperative that turns them into commodities. But their responses are located in the female key. Unlike most of today’s movies they do not switch to the masculine key in order to come to some sort of reckoning.

    adrin neatrour






  • Green Book Peter Farelly (USA:2018)

    Green Book     Peter Farelly (USA:2018)  Vigo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali

    Viewed 13 Feb 2019 Tyneside Cinema; ticket: £10.75


    a kiss is just a kiss


    Viewing Norman Jewison’s ‘In the heat of the Night’ James Baldwin wrote that the point of the film was to make white people feel good about themselves.  The role of Rod Steiger’s police chief was a device through which whites could preen themselves on their acceptance of blacks. Baldwin notes the final scene in the film ends with Steiger seeing off Sidney Poitier (Virgil Tibbs) at the station, calling out out to him  in folksy emotionally charged voice: ‘You take care of yourself, y’hear!’ For Baldwin this fond farewell is a typical Hollywood closure device; like a kiss, but not necessarily a kiss, that betokens reconciliation: that all will be well.


    Viewing Peter Farelly’s Green Book, it seems to me that all is not well. Hollywood movies still occupy the same psychic space a propos white attitude towards blacks. In the relations between whites and blacks, as played out by Hollywood, the object of the movies is to enhance and protect white self image.  But by 2018, Steiger’s 1967 sign off verbal reconciliation, has, in this touchy-feely era become a ‘hug’. In Green Book Dolores, Nick’s wife, embraces Don Shirley in the contemporary preferred feelgood gesture, as she welcomes him into the bosom of her somewhat uncertain white working class tribal Christmas gathering.  The point of course that this hug, this act of physicality, is a phantom gesture of reconciliation to blacks, an empty promise of that which is not possible.

    But Farelly’s nod at reconciliation does draw attention to the degree to which his film mimics some of the psychic workings of ‘In the Heat of the Night’. The job of Nick, Don Shirley’s driver/ minder, like Tibb’s  Sherriff before him, is to take the white audience through the process of his conversion. Nick changes from being a working class Italian with pronounced racist outlook, into a man who is able to accept a black person as an equal.  This education process carries the audience along with it as Nick’s prejudices, like the Sheriff’s before him, are exposed to ridicule and necessary correction. Both Nick and the Sheriff are crude exemplars of their type, but redeemed in the script by their innate decency and their capacity to change the way they think.  As if racism were simply a matter of thinking; rather than the engrained white response to the living history of the USA, and the place of the degradation of blacks in that history.

    It is interesting that Dream Works (which is a  Disney production company) has acquired Green Book and used it as a vehicle to locate a strain of endemic racism in a white working class population.  Whilst this may have been part of the allure of the Green Book story to Disney, it is also true that racism is as much a part of the make up of corporate America as it is of the white working class.  The critical differences are that in Middle America racism tends to be covert, something hidden, a hate that dare not speak its name. White racial attitudes are the more overt, but white and black working classes share some of the same structural conditions in relation to power and compete in opposition for some of the same resources.  But the middle class control the gateways to advancement and wealth. Middle class racism is not only unspoken and more hidden but the more pernicious for being a critical part of the apparatus of power. But movies about Middle Class relations with blacks are thin on the ground.

    There are striking resemblances in representation of blacks in Heat of the Night and Green  Book in particular as regards their lead protagonists. Both Poitier and Ali play their parts  as exercises in the consummate expression of being a ‘class act’, of being impeccable’. The respective scripts kit them out with a Medieval chivalrous code from which they never truly deviate.  Both these exemplars bring to their words and deeds, the rectification of moral supremacy. They are both noble beings. As shining examples lacking in human frailty, their behaviour is drawn not from the code of man, but the code of angels.  The trouble is that this very exceptionalism makes it possible to avoid seeing as blacks, as men of a particular ethnic group. Rather they present as otherworldly men, drawn from outside space and time. Don and Virgil might even be viewed as sort of ‘honoury whites’, welcomed into the tribe with the thought:  ‘…If only all blacks were like you, we wouldn’t be having these problems. ‘ And of course staying true to the the knightly code, neither Virgin nor Don mess with White women, so that particular avenue of courtly love doesn’t have to be roamed. It’s easy to play off perfection. Ordinary folk are as rule messier and often fallible in the conduct of life.


    But that said there is one confusing scene in Green Book that sticks out even though it is underplayed for value.  In this scene (which is used to demonstrate Nick’s skills at cop management) is called to a YMCA bath house where two local cops are in process of arresting  Don Shirley for being caught in the buff in a shower with a white boy. There is a homoerotic suggestion, the implication of a tryst. But after NIck has handed over the hush money, Farelly’s scripts leaps foreword with never a glance back, leaving the faint imprint of a muffled supressed event passed over in silence. Virgil Tibbs was never caught in a bath house, so perhaps Don’s YMCA adventure has some sort of compensatory recognition that Blacks can be gay.  However the way it is handled bespeaks more of ‘shame’ than ‘pride’.

    In a way Green Book is a lazy movie.  The cinematography is unexceptional and the script comes across as something that might have been produced by a final year student at Cooper Union.  It is predictable, replaying the same jokes time and again, and has all those little tricks they teach in script writing classes about dropping in salient little details early in the timeline in order that they can resurface pertinently later.  The trick is so flagged up that it feels like an exercise. But in this at least it is at one with the whole production which feels like an exercise in the Disneyification of race relations.

    Adrin Neatrour


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