• Orlando Sally Potter (UK 1992)

    Orlando Sally Potter (UK 1992) Tilda Swinton

    Viewed Star and Shadow Cinema
    Newcastle; ticket: open free screening

    erectile dysfunction

    Sally Potter’s movie is an admix of sumptuous visuals allied to content that becomes increasingly weak and uncertain of itself. Not unlike some late career David Lean film such as Zhivago or Ryan’s Daughter: spectacular exterior shell, flabby interior. But whilst Lean was a hand on heart patriot increasingly distanced from the political lean of the times, Potter is a feminist with an agenda to sow the seeds of her perspective. Orlando in this respect seems a movie caught between divergent necessities: to be faithful to the original satire of Virginia Woolf’s novel; to be true to her own muse. In film, as many other directors have shown, whatever the production values, compromised intentions lead to dull film experience.

    Virginia Woolf’s writing comprising a delicate tracery of words, folds into the epochs through which Orlando passes, gender nuanced observations and feelings. What in writing is playful and vibrant is most successfully carried off by Potter in her visuals. The opening Elizabethan androgynous epoch where youthful Orlando is chosen to serve Quentin Crisp’s wonderfully realised velvet Queen Elizabeth l. The festivities enjoyed on the frozen vista of 17th century London, and the the wondrous costuming of Swinton in her 18th century hooped dress, that simultaneously suggest encumberment and domination, subservience and power, as Orlando sweeps though drawing room, salon and the garden maze. The manipulation of this one costume expresses with a precise elegance the feminine psyche located within the masculine world.

    The scenes which are dialogue led and defined, which structure Potter’s script, lack the energy of her visual realisation. It is a script without tension. The meandering form of Orlando through the novel, in film translates as inconsequential drift through time. Orlando’s unchanging youth lacks any substantiation as a device, as does the mysterious gender migration Orlando undergoes during his/her arabic posting. Of course Woolf is playing with the ideas of transposition and androgyny. Woolf’s skilful play with words carries off the conceit of Orlando’s unchanging physical form. But when the words are made flesh, Swinton’s performance doesn’t reach out beyond gesture, and makes little of the male form taken by Orlando. Her male Orlando is never more than a mannequin posing as a man blessed with erectile dysfunction. Which may be Woolf’s point but in film terms it means that as there is no residual tension in Orlando’s male to female transformation. So if the film’s script is to be energised by dramatic tensions, they have to come from the realm of ideas, both political and ideological. But the script does not deliver in this respect. And without these tensions there is flatness in the film’s scenario that causes the film to drift into deadness.

    Instead of boldly co-opting a more pointed feminist discourse, the dialogue is often flat, even when attempting self parody. Actor’s breaking frame by speaking directly to audience through the screen can be an powerful scripting device. Sally Potter makes use of this idea to put another arrow into Orlando’s quiver. Swinton’s direct remarks and observations don’t hit any target, fail to offset add undermine or have significance other than the hit of initial surprise of the interpolations. As if Potter had not really come to terms with what she wanted these frame breaks to achieve.

    The cumulative feeling of the script and dialogue is that we are enclosed in a slow drift through the ages of inconsequentiality. Time comes and goes, a poem is written, some of the subjectivities of being a woman, are expressed. But nothing really interrupts the balance of self possession and self control, the politics of appearances that are the defining contours of ‘Orlando’.

    Sometimes beautiful and expressive but Potter’s film seems defined by a lacking of moments of boldness of direct incision into the idea and form of her material. Instead her film reads like a series of decisions to play safe. Adrin Neatrour

  • Beast Michael Pearce (UK 2018)

    Beast Michael Pearce
    (UK 2018) Jessie Buckley, Johnny Flynn

    viewed Tyneside Cinema 1st May 2018; ticket £9.75

    just like a muppet

    In the first scene proper of Michael Pearce’s Beast, Moll, set up in a a pre-title establishment shot us sweet choir girl, drops a glass and picking up a fragment from the floor, crushes the shard into her hand, clenching her fist as the blood oozes out of the wound. At this point we know we are into a land of familiar tropes and clichés.

    And so indeed it comes to pass that Pearce takes us through many of the tricks of the domestic horror book of tropes, a veritable tick list of affects and effects piped through the scenario with predictable regularity. A scenario fed by a script that is so thin, it has to be bulked out with paranoid dream/fantasy sequences imagined by Moll – masked nasty men on the prowl; so thin it is padded out with a little Scandi noir police stuff. When we come to final sequence, the aftermath of the road crash, we have the crawling bit. Homage to Lars von Trier, where the two protagonists crawl along the road, Moll after Pascal whom she finally overtakes and to whom she delivers the coup de grace. A particularly silly scene, carried through with little conviction.

    Moll is set up not only by the glass stunt but also by her voice over ( the only one she is permitted) during the opening scene of her birthday party barbeque. Here she tells about the way killer whales behave when their communication is disrupted in the confines of captivity: they go mad; self destructively mad. In this we learn something about Moll’s state of mind. She feels imprisoned, a captive in the house where she lives with her family. The problem with the film is that the script, after this one insight into how Moll sees/feels things, proceeds to relinquish her as an internalised state of mind. Beast (a titular nod to the Scandi noir recourse of the movie) abandons her to the mechanics of Pearce’s script and scenario.

    The whole movie might have turned out better if Moll, directed by her own inner voice, and Pascale her psychopathic chum had thrown caution to the wind and like Lizzy Borden, massacred Moll’s unpleasant family. At least the Pearce’s film would have made some macabre dysfunctional sense and consistency of line. The problem with Beast is that it is all over the place, moving from genre to type, chopping and changing style, seemingly at the whim of Pearce.

    Pearce gives us a little bit of this and a little bit of that: a little bit of class tension, with Moll’s unpleasant high-falutin family with their incomers snobbish regard for ‘locals’. Tension. There is the usual serial killer out to enjoy himself. The murder enquiry is whisked in with a little scandi-noir; the arm STICKING OUT by the potato field; Moll’s police interview by a haircut with serious attitude. Pearce stitches the farrago together with a swath of landscape stuff that will please the Jersey Tourist Board.

    Pearce is unable to make his meanderings cohere around character or insight. Like the Muppet that she is Moll simply conforms to the mechanics of a script that leads her by the nose from one situation to another. First trapped in her family, then liberated by Pascal, pursued by the dark forces, finally allowed redemption.

    Redemption is of course these days the conventional career destination for any female movie character. It is the ideological barometer of the times. The expectation. And Beast is very much a film that reflects all the social and political shibboleths of the age. Times will change; they always do. But for the moment it’s a fixture of scripting, that the woman, like the proletarian type before her in soviet films, will monopolise survival rites, often as the hero. It makes life easier for the angle-saxon male filmmaker, and reassures the audience. adrin neatrour

  • Custody (Jusqu’a la Garde) Xavier Legrande (Fr 2016)

    Custody (Jusqu’a la Garde)
    Xavier Legrande (Fr 2016) Miriam
    Besson, Denis Menochet

    viewed Tyneside Cinema 19 April 2018; ticket: £9.75

    another advert

    After sitting through the assault course of images designed to sell BMW’s and other junk, the audience might have thought that when the adverts and trailer were finished the selling shift was over and at last they could engage with a film. But all Xavier Legrande’s movie has to offer is another sales pitch. The product is different, perhaps ideological, but the idea is the same: to align the presented imagery with product. In the case of BMW it is an object that is the product of the selected imagery; in the case of Custody it is an objectified thought, produced through selected images.

    I was reminded as I watched the desperate playing out of object images in Custody of a film I had viewed earlier in the year: The Touch by Ingmar Bergman.

    The Touch with Bibi Anderson and Eliot Gould (Karin and David) is not a convincing film, one of Bergman’s least satisfactory. The dialogue is leaden, there is a core of uncertainty attaching to the direction as if Bergman lost confidence in his material, and the characterisation is sometimes crass (Did David’s mental state need to be explained by having relatives murdered in Nazi Death Camps? What did Bergman think he was doing introjecting this type of determinant into his movie script?). But whatever its weaknesses, the Touch remains true to Bergman’s respect for the intelligence of the audience. Bergman is not selling anything. Bergman does not make ads, he asks the audience to think for themselves. In contrast Legrande has little regard for the intelligence of his audience. In fact he doesn’t want the audience to think. He, Legrande, does all their thinking for them; the audience just have to tag along on the all too predictable scripted ride from A-B. Legrande’s BMW movie will drive them home .

    Both The Touch and Custody, admittedly in different respects, have abusive behaviour at their core, but the directors’ ways of looking at abuse are quite different. The Touch asks questions about abuse. It asks questions that touch (sic) on questions of identity and being. Bergman’s outwardly happily married woman, Karin, who suddenly latches onto to a relationship with a demanding violent stranger. The Touch pitches questions about the images that people present to the world; how appearance image can belie being and how what is seen may be overwhelmed by what is not seen. The questions posed in The Touch, however clumsily they may be represented are actual. They comport with how we experience life and people; events even when we have experienced them may baffle us; even those we think we know well may ultimately elude us.

    Bergman, in The Touch for all its weaknesses, is on the side of life.

    Legrande’s Custody is on the side of death and dearth.

    The death and dearth, of dialogue? Perhaps Bergman was communicating in an era when it was possible to conceive of people able: to consider propositions that weren’t endorsed and reinforced by ideologically closed networks; to engage in discourses that did not have the imprimatur of someone’s idea of political correctness. Xavier Legrande does live in this era of boxed in communication and his movie perhaps simply reflects the signs of the times.

    Nevertheless the story of Miriam and Antoine and their families, is wretched predictable fare. The old white hat / black hat story. Though in comparison even those old fashioned Westerns with men in hats were more variegated than Legrande’s scripted inventions. Sometimes the black hats did something nice and human, and they often had a sense of humour even if their humour leaned towards the sadistic.

    Custody’s black hat male, Antoine, is a straight down the line ‘wrong’un’, constructed out of the assembly kit of feminist approved bad male components. No redeeming features. From first to last he is bad egg. And Miriam, she of the continually tortured mien, Antoine’s ex- is a good egg. So the script is a mono track development. From the moment we see Antoine in tag with his brief at the custody tribunal, Legrande presents him as an image of a man who cannot be trusted. The way his faciality of expression is edited into the sequence and the way he dresses, Antoine might as well have a placard hung about his neck: I am a manipulative bastard. Au contraire, Miriam with her carefully lens sculpted haggard look, might as well have a placard hung about her neck reading: victim.

    So the movie has only one place to go: the big shitty male become more shitty and the victim and her kids become more victim. Of course as the whole thing winds itself up in an apoplexy of abuse, the project runs out of road. It has to abandon its quasi legalistic carapace take because it doesn’t provide enough bang for the buck. So Custody segues into Grande Guignole operatic genre with Antoine adopting the role of the great mad man avenger hunting his imagined victims with his rifle.

    By the time Custody shifts genre, it has simply become parody. The audience reduced cannon fodder to be manipulated by a script that is a puppet show where the director keeps hold of all the strings. Similar to but different from the BMW advert that preceded it. adrin neatrour

  • The Square Ruben Ostland (2017 Swe)

    The Square Ruben Ostland (2017 Swe) Claes Bang

    viewed Tyneside Cinema 22 March 2018; ticket £9.75

    So like a selfie

    Ruben Ostland’s movie the Square is a perfectly calculated vehicle for the age of narcissism, our absorption with self image. This is the age of the image, billions and billions of them, and of this hyper plenitude of images the most significant are those we make for and of – ourselves. An earlier generation of movie makers most obviously Bresson, Bergman, might have employed film to probe something of the unseen in man; today’s directors can procede on the basis that as the unseen gives up no image, so, it can be taken as a given that it is non existent. Image is all.

    Ostland’s protagonist, Christian, is the director of a leading edge art gallery in Stockholm, XRoyal. He lives by the image and will die by the image. Ostland’s script is crafted about a number of comic situational set pieces that allow Christian to show that if love is blind, then self love is locked-in syndrome. A series of interviews presentations interpolations and a one night stand establish, economically humorously – perceptively – that ‘me’ and ‘me too’ is the subject at the heart of the post modernist expression of art.

    Christian’s gallerial world envelopes him excluding the beggars and refugees that proliferate and multiply outside on the streets of Stockholm, part of the circuitry of small change from which Christian’s electronic payments have freed him. They are also tangentially related to the world of trust and caring, defined by idea of the Square, that he has decided to import as a artist’s concept into the bounded world of the gallery. The Square as concept accords with the key strictures of ‘Art’ marketing. It has the specious conceptual quality of seeming to be mean something, when it means nothing; it is about generating image, an outer symbolic pointing to something that is not there but can be seen; it is emptied of everything except self image but as concept as image, draws attention to itself as a gestural performance.

    The development of the Square concept as a trust experiment and its marketing, is beautifully offset by the scene in the bedroom during Christian’s one night stand. Having fucked the admiring lady he removes his condom and, distrusting the woman’s motives refuses to hand it over to her for disposal, thinking she might try a little self fertilisation on the side with his prize A Grade semen.

    Though you might think Christian would want, as his gesture, to put the condom in the Square or at least use a condom lined with an effective spermicide.

    The trouble with the Ostland’s movie is that it reaches its natural climax with the explosive YouTube marketing film. Watching the fall out from this debacle seems to wrap up all the film has to say. But instead, Ostland, perhaps driven by extra filmic forces, subjects the audience to another hour of inconsequential footage. Perhaps the idea of the ordeal by embarrassment caused by framing issues arising from the ape-man’s presence and antics amongst the dinner guests from the upper tier of Stockholm society, felt too good to drop. But this sort of context framing difficulty is well covered in film, and in its inconsequentiality added nothing to ‘The Square’.

    But Ostland’s cinematic use of camera frame was an outstanding feature of both the film’s comic vision and of its filmic concern. Ostland has a sensitised feel for the potential of comedic situations and how to exploit them effectively. He understands that the projections of what is suggested out of frame, used economically and succinctly, is more effective than what might be shown. But also the idea of using out of frame events means that Christian himself is held centre frame. The events from which we are occluded are never as important as Christian and his reaction. Ostland structures his camera work to accord with the key motif of his movie.

    In ‘The Square’ there is one undisputed moment of sublime performance artistry. It is joke which to some extent drives the script. Christian has his pocket expertly and exquisitely picked by a true delving artist. He is left as naked – bereft of his mobile and his wallet. Of course he doesn’t see the art nor get the joke. The problem with the film is that the joke becomes a shaggy dog story that outlives its battery life. Adrin Neatrour

  • The Swimmer Frank Perry (USA 1968; script Eleanor Perry)

    The Swimmer Frank Perry (USA 1968; script Eleanor Perry) Burt Lancaster, Janice

    viewed dvd 2 March 2018

    Penelope and Odysseus

    The male body as an actual physical presence –not an object – has been (as far as I am aware) very limited as a form of mainstream cultural expression. All that comes to mind is the idealisation of the male form in Ancient Greece, and their corrupted imitators of Rome and Nazi Germany. There is nineteenth century painting and of course photography of the male body, but in these expressions of men, the bodies seem to be more objects of gaze. I am not overwhelmed by them in the same sense that I am in the physical presence of the marble Greek sculptures.

    But then out of the blue we have The Swimmer, a movie starring Burt Lancaster as the protagonist, Ned. Lancaster stripped down to the buff, an actual male body, a presence not an object, moving across the manicured lawns of American suburbia. Lancaster, a presence that is vulnerable but always carries a menace in its capacity define the world and its relations on the terms of physicality.

    The Swimmer is surely an act of homage that Lancaster chose to pay to his own body. The part of Ned was one that Lancaster was desperate to play, so much so that as the Swimmer ran out of money at the end of production, Lancaster contributed to paying for the final days of the shoot.

    John Cheever wrote his original short story ‘The Swimmer’ for the New Yorker magazine. A wry commentator on life in the commuter hinterlands of New York City, Cheever’s eye was sensitised to the faintest of ripples disturbing the surface of the immaculately kept suburban swimming pools.

    Cheever’s short story is an account of an all American suburbanite, Ned, who decides one fine day late in the summer, to swim the County. That is to say to leap frog his way home from an early morning drinks party using the many swimming pools of friends and neighbours to create an aquatic pathway back to his house. Under Cheever’s pen, Ned’s body is almost an abstraction. Under the eye of Frank Perry’s camera lens Ned’s Body is a dominating vibrant physical phenomenon.

    Cheever’s story feels like a draft rather than the finished article. Ideas and possibilities are suggested not developed. It is Eleanor Perry’s interpretation of the Swimmer’s potential that transforms Cheever’s writing into a compelling film fable, a moral lesson, grounded in myth, that comprises an astute feminist critique. She maintains the story’s natatorial structure but recalibrates its content.

    The subject of the Swimmer is the stripped male body. Both its vulnerability in general and in particular its power in relation to the female. Eleanor Perry’s scenario, realised with her husband’s direction subjects the male form to a scrutiny totally foreign to the symbolic posing that is Hollywood’s (and most of cinema’s) habitual default setting. From the film’s first line (taken directly from Cheever), “ I drank too much last night!”, Ned, naked except trunks (no shoes), barrels his way across the gardens lawns terraces patios and tiled arbours of his wealthy friends and neighbours. As he moves from one pool side setting to another we see that Ned’s body in this setting is out of place, out of time. The bared body, in particular the bared male body feels like an anachronism, belonging to a despised ridiculed primitive past. Ned is primal man long overtaken by the forces of natural selection. The body of today is marked by outer dress denoting power status fashion and wealth. Lancaster’s nakedness stands in stark opposition to the smartly dressed people disporting themselves or partying in the arborial settings.

    The people attired in fashionable and expensive clothes display that disguised superiority that defines the interaction between those whose conceit is that they are civilised and those whom they count savage. But there is an underlying particularly male contradiction implicit, that the impulse to belittle or banish the presence of the body is counterbalanced by fear that it possesses an originary prerogative that negates and renders void all the vainglory and signifying images of the clothed man.

    The power that the male body presents is the potential it implies and the desires it emanates and attracts. Lancaster’s body dominates the film as pure physique both as primal statement and sexual imperative. And it is the sexual imperative of the male body, its weight its press and presence in relation to the female, to which Perry’s script gives fullest attention. Lancaster/Ned’s visit to his old flame Shirley, finds her lounging in the sun. As Lancaster moves in close to her body, as he stalks her by the pool side, and closes in on her in the waters of the pool, you feel the animal magnetism of the male body as it draws and drains the power of her resistance. Shirley, at the point where she seems overwhelmed by the physical forces both within herself within the man, forces greater than her resolve not to give in, finds the inner means to break the force of attraction. She chokes off her yielding cuts off his power, and takes control of herself. She frees herself from the past, from physical memory, frees herself from the press of the male body.

    The Swimmer is a film of mythic negative resonance. It is like phantom contemporary retelling of the Odyssey. Odysseus too has to find his way home across water, but in The Swimmer the story is so refashioned it’s as if when Odysseus after all his tribulations, finally gets to Ithaca and stands naked before Penelope demanding to possess her, she breaks off ; denies him and leaves. A modern myth. adrin neatrour

  • In the Heat of the Night Norman Jewison (USA 1967)

    In the Heat of the Night
    Norman Jewison (USA 1967) Sidney
    Poitier, Rod Steiger

    Viewed: dvd 12 March 2018

    you must remember this

    a kiss is still a kiss

    on that you can rely…

    According to Walter Mirish the film’s producer, Sidney Poitier agreed to play Virgil Tibbs on one condition: that the film be not shot in the South. Poitier’s perspective was that as a black movie star he would be a sitting duck in any of the southern states, and that he had no inclination to be a target for any racist good ol’ boy pitching for glory.

    Mirish agreed and the movie was shot in Sparta Illinois. The setting of Sparta Mississippi for the original novel being surely an ironic reference to the eponymous Hellenic slave state.

    Poitier’s resolve accords with James Baldwin’s critique of In the Heat of the Night (‘Heat’). Although some black academics in film studies are positive about the film’s role in advancing the status of blacks, Baldwin digs a little deeper, gets under the skin of the movie.

    ‘Heat’ is not a police crime/mystery drama. It is a drama about race that uses a police procedural setting as a heightening intensifier of the issues. ‘Heat’ is located in the hard ass violent world of Mississippi white supremacy. And the purpose of ‘Heat’s’ dramatic playing out, as understood through the role of the Sherriff, is to make white people feel good about themselves; to reconcile them to their history by use of and manipulation of comforting words gestures signs that tell that inform our white thoughts that times are changing, that we can now accept and respect the black, that he is no different from us, perhaps even equal.

    It is remarkable, that aside from Virgil Tibbs, ‘Heat’ is almost completely devoid of black people. There is a brief scene in which Virgil is introduced to a black guy, living out of town, who will put him up, but this guy plays no further part in the script; the abortionist is of course a black woman, which has a double edged irony; in one of the general wide town scenes I noticed one black man. The butler is black and the cotton pickers in the field are remote black figures. But it is an exclusively white world that Virgil enters. Like a knight in shining armour. As a moral exemplar in a land of beasts he does battle alone.

    Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs is a shining example, a black virgin warrior. There’s no hanky panky on his part, he is pure and lives within himself without overt threat to white womanhood. Poitier is immaculately dressed in suit and tie, carries no gun. He is a figure of stature most of whose performance as Virgil is characterised by an affect image. Poitier’s face registers little reaction to the series of humiliations indignities grudging praise and hollow victories which Silliphant’s script doles out. Except for the moment when he is slapped in the face by the white land owner, whom he immediately pays back in kind, Poitier is an image that allows us the white audience to project onto him our hopes fears and illusions about race. Tibbs becomes a proxy mediating agent, assuaging white unease and discomfort even guilt about the history of race in the USA.

    The film’s key white presence is Steiger’s sheriff, who plays a role which essentially takes the path of the convert, converting from historical bigotry to a more enlightened toleration. Virgil’s task is to support the emotionally choked and baffled sheriff as he gropes his way towards the final scene at the railway station. The sheriff carrying Virgil’s suitcase, waves him off with the croaked emotionally charged final line: “You take care of yourself, you hear!”

    As Baldwin comments one traditional closure in the Hollywood product is the fade-out kiss. The kiss, which need not be a kiss, does not speak of ‘love’. It speaks of reconciliation; of all things now becoming possible. Baldwin’s comment is that in the sheriff’s last lines to Virgil, nothing is actually reconciled. No matter how much such a reconciliation may be hoped for, we are looking at people trapped in their own history. And what we see is that white americans have been encouraged to dream that the white world can simply wake up to a world that has been expanded to include a state of grace that comprises brotherhood with blacks. This promise of transformation is what the advertising industry sells, and it is ultimately what ‘Heat’ is selling. Blacks understand that they have to wake up from this dream.

    Baldwin’s initial remark concerning ‘Heat’ were that ‘Heat’s’ initial proposition, that a black cop would chose to change trains in the middle of the night in a small Southern backwater, is preposterous “…defies belief.” In making this statement, which sort of echoes Poitier’s own fears, Baldwin is of course stating that he is seeing the film through the perspective of being black. Being black at that particular moment in time, how else could he see it? Being Black is the ground upon the which he understands this movie. That is to say that to see ‘Heat’ is a particular type of experience that invokes colour and history of colour.

    For all that the film is, in its premise evasive of truth (as Baldwin notes when Virgil Tibbs leaves town, the sheriff will go back to his proper work which is to keep the blacks in their place.) in that it can be seen that, from the black perspective that it is time to wake up, the film delivers a positive that provides some sort of counterweight to its manipulation of the white psyche. adrin neatrour

  • Loveless Andrei Zvyagintsev (Russia 2017)

    Loveless Andrei Zvyagintsev (Russia 2017) Maryana Spivak, Alexsey Rozin

    Tyneside Cinema 13 Feb 2018; ticket £9.75

    Mechanical film

    Like Three Billboards, Loveless has a pretext at the core of its script: the disappearance of Boris and Zhenya’s son Alyosha.

    This pretext is in itself rather ridiculous and barely stands up to even superficial scrutiny as it supposes that the son of this blighted couple was enough of a clueless sap not to realise that he is totally unloved. Given even the glimpses we get of the parents’ relationship with Alyosha before his disappearance event, it is not believable that his overhearing of their attempts to divest themselves of responsibility for him can have done anything other than confirm what he already knew.

    Zvyagintsev’s real intent in Loveless is to make some sort of critique of the relations characterising Russian society by stripping bare the nature of his characters self centred existence, existences detached from any sense of the shared life.

    But it is typical of Zvyagintsev’s conceit that he imagines the audience will accept Loveless as any sort of real critique. It’s a movie that using the resources of script, camera work and face is packed out as a realist fable but is simply an exercise in manipulation.

    Manipulation is all that Zvyagintsev has to offer. As if Zvyagintsev was the first to observe that the continual obsession with mobile phone impoverishes being, indicates lives cut off from the world and their own feelings; as if Zvyagintsev’s camera with its continual slow tracking into the object of the lens: the couples fucking, the people sleeping, means anything other than manipulative dramatic heightening of the image; as if the exaggerated hard faciality of Zhenya was anything other than a director’s trick to pander to the audience.

    With its slow tracks, its hard rictus, its closed off script with its soap opera retorts and gestures, feelings of hopelessness are scored into the grain of movie. The audience are in effect excluded from Loveless, as Zvyagintsev doles out his banal insights with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. There is nothing to see in the film other than Zvyagintsev’s diktat. In a film about relations there are no other meanings than what the literalism of the director construes.

    In indication of Zvyagintsev’s literalist method is to be found in the scene where Boris and Zhanya visit the morgue to see if they identify a body as that of their son. With the camera on the parents there is the moment of theatre as the drape over the body is pulled over to reveal the corpse. There is the reaction of shock as the parents (Zhenya in particular) reacts to the horror to the sight of the dead boy. Eventually both parents stammer out that the body is not their son. That is enough. The scene is complete. We need to know, to see no more. For a second I was a little surprised thinking: Wow! Zvyagintsev has resisted his compulsive literalism for once has not shown us the body we do not need to see. But at the very instant of the thought Zvyagintsev cuts away from the faces of the parents to the body that we don’t need to see. This body we have already appraised. You can’t keep a good man down. Zvyagintsev’s compulsive literalism and his need to show it all, win out.

    This scene is characteristic of the movie. The script is heavy handed, soap opera stuff with every biting insulting line delivered by the divorcing couple underlined – so that we get it. The acting the fucking deliberately orchestrated by the banality of the camera work, construed so that we get it.

    Zvyagintsev has nothing in common with Tarkovsky. He is a sort of obverse social realist tripping out an individualised moralism. Looked at form one point of view his direction shares many of the traits of his protagonists. In Loveless, there is no perception of what is happening only mechanics (including the mechanics of the organised search for Alyosha which rakes up a lot of time) , no state of mind, no point of view. Just Hollywood back stories and strips of action from the location of work.

    Opening his film with a series of black and white shots of the nature, the forest the lakes the birds, and finishing the film on the strand of construction tape lodged in the tree where Alyosha had thrown it in an earlier sequence, doesn’t not make Zvyagintsev a Tarkovsky style film maker. He has simply learned from the surface of Tarkovsky’s ideas and missed the substance.

    And Alyosha stays disappeared. He doesn’t show up in the final reel. But there again Zvyagintsev might not have known what to do with him. adrin neatrour

  • Downsizing Alexander Payne (USA 2017)

    Alexander Payne (USA 2017) Matt

    viewed Tyneside Cinema 30 Jan 2018; ticket £9.75

    downsizing the movie industry

    Looking at the mid week audience of about 20 people scattered throughout the sizeable 300 plus auditorium I was thinking that if this was a representative mainstream movie, then the feature film exhibition industry was itself about to be downsized.

    Alexander Payne’s film opens with a promising proposition, an allegorical proposition concerning the discovery of a scientific procedure to miniaturise humans. The altruistic purpose behind the development of downsizing by a Norwegian research group was to benefit the environment of planet earth, that downsizing would mediate the catastrophic human effect on the environment by enabling our footprint on earth to be reduced to a sustainable smaller level.

    Thus far so good. A classic scifi proposition with a rich allegorical vein to explore. There are ideas that as starting points, could set up any number of lines of development. But all Alexander Payne can do is drive his film into an allegorical and conceptual dead end. His script suffers from the current Hollywood malaise of not only being unfocused and unable spin a clear narrative; but also of seeming to want to placate and keep onside the myriad phantoms of political correctness that now flit through the inner psychic calculations of American directors like swarms of censorious bats.

    Downsizing is a confusion. Payne’s script tries on all sorts of allegorical clothing. Abandonment, as Audrey Paul’s wife ducks out of downsizing without telling him, appears for a moment as a core theme. Downsizing trips out as: cryogenic style hard sell where the big cynical corporations cash in on the desires of the gullible; downsizing is pitched as a quasi religious conversion experience; as a noble ecological experiment. It is also looked at as an individually tailored solution to the suburban cash flow problem. When downsized the cost of living is reduced so that the American dream (which is basically doing nothing except sitting in the sun and consuming stuff) is attainable by everyone. All you have to do is trust the banks to handle your money wisely.

    But each of these ideas, and their inherent contradictions, is picked up and put down like a tourist bauble in a bazaar. Any one or combination of these ideas carries the internalised satiric drive that could energise the core of a script. Further, Payne only skirts the dark side of downsizing: it’s potential use as a control mechanism; downsizing as a punishment; the vulnerability of being as small of being prey to the rapacity of birds vermin and insects. And of course the potential for the vicious malice of the world to intercede in the little world to make its power and presence itself felt. The possibility of the normal sized people capturing the little people and keeping them for entertainment and torture.

    In the first sections of the movie the defining shots worked to suggest the oppressive collective consensual uniformity of the suburban culture in which Paul is located: tracking shots of the meat processing plant, with its myriad ranks of sterilised butchers gutting and stripping flesh; the series of shots detailing the mass downsizing chambers with their attendant technicians; and Paul’s emergence bereft of his wife, into the downsized world opens up a filmic vista reminiscent of the Truman Show.

    But at this point Payne’s movie starts to simply unravel, drifts off into forgetfulness.

    Failing to fit out Downsizing with any sort of envelopment, Payne eventually opts for the hippy trip as the solution to his scripting direction. About half way through the film Paul is invited to his neighbour’s party, an event that is filmed to look like something Russ Meyer might have shot in the 60’s or 70’s ( Beyond the Valley of the Dolls), a typical Hollywood rendition of the Hippy Happy all night Party with drugs sex and soundtracked with anodyne generic feel good american rock music.

    The Russ Meyer party scene becomes defining moment in Downsizing. From this point on, Payne loses all interest in his miniaturisation concept. The proposition is just dropped. The film instead transforms into a rather dull ‘quest’ movie. Downsizing simply fills out its duration with characters and settings: Paul’s spunky Vietnamese girl friend, two Russ Meyer escapees and an old hippy colony on Norwegian Fjord. Again the Hippy Cult with its echoes of Manson, Jones and Koresh might have provided a rich vein of black satirical probing. But Payne plays it sort of straight. The Hippy colony disappears down into a hole in the ground to find salvation, with Paul at the last moment changing his mind and escaping back to his chums.

    The ending has forgotten its beginning. No one cares.

    Of course by leaving his ending open, with Paul and his girlfriend free agents above ground, Payne leaves open the possibility of a Downsizing 2, to drive even more people out of the downsized cinema.

    adrin neatrour

  • Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri Martin McDonagh (UK USA 2017)

    Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri Martin
    McDonagh (UK USA 2017) Francis
    McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell

    Viewed Tyneside Cinema 16 Jan 2018; ticket £9.75

    MacGuffin land

    Hitchcock used to call the device he built into the beginning of his movies MacGuffins. The MacGuffin in the movie was a plot device that initially appeared important in the film, but in fact quickly worked itself out and was only a lure designed to lead the audience into the movie. It’s a measure of the psychic inflation attached to drama scripting that only an extreme value stimulus such a rape and murder can do the work of the MacGuffin.

    As scripted in McDonagh’s Three Billboards, the rape and murder of Angela Hayes is little more than a pretext for the actual concern of his film, which is assertion: self assertion. The core of the McDonagh’s film is the ascendant culture of self assertion specifically in America ( but world wide wherever the tentacles of Western imagery has penetrated). It is the ‘me too’ society where weaponised vulnerability has become the war cry of both the aggrieved and the those who wish to be aggrieved. Mildred Hayes is consumed by the logic of her own action, and Three Billboards gathers pace, the death of her daughter becomes a remote back story.

    The destruction or disintegration of community has left people bereft of the means either to vent or assuage their feelings. Hollywood movies legitimising the cult of individual violence have provided instructive models for those feeling disempowered, which is where Mcdonagh’s script picks up the cue as he joins the Coen Bros folk circus. Filmed in one of those small town rural settings, America profonde (so to speak), McDonagh scripts Mildred’s billboard interpolation as a mythic goad that unleashes a plot of spiralling reactive violence, absorbing the pathological imperative of the movie business that violence as an individual response is always justified. The more so if the protagonist is a woman, because women have an equal right to men to incorporate the mythologies of death slaughter and destruction.

    But of course the assimilation of violent mythic forms by individuals have their own circuits of amplification. And it is these circuits and their remorseless logic that trap individuals in the psychic matrices of particular aspects of Western culture that have driven moral film makers like Bunuel and von Trier. The spectacle of those consumed by their own desire.

    Hopwever McDonagh’s Three Billboards delivers nothing moral. Three Billboards is a farrago, a hotch potch of cross purposes delivering a movie that in the current mode wants to be all things to all women. McDonagh is unable to hold his film/script to its original course. He jump starts its protagonist Mildred with her provocation of employing three accusatory bill boards as a means to vent her frustration at the incompetance of the police. The bill boards serve their inflamatory function, triggering a series of violent shock waves both in the police and in herself as the situation escalates out of control. (interestingly though the police may be for one reason or another not competent, the rest of the community also seems relatively indifferent – even her husband – again highlighting the emotional isolation of individuals)

    But McDonagh having unleashed the demons of reaction, starts to tame them. Instead of holding to a probing of the dimension he opens up, he makes a film that cuts every which way; introducing a justifying discourse which degrades the film into soap opera attenuating the vision of violence and reaction pure that drive the scenario. Three Billboards becomes politically correct. Very British. Mildred has to be individually justified; fitted out with a politically correct back story: the abusive violent husband; her own complicit guilt in Angela’s death, her relationship with her son. Three Billboards bulks out its duration with material relating to Mildred’s relationships balanced but not opposed by Willoughby’s relationship with his family. These mitigations coupled with a script that picks up cheap laughs whenever it can as if McDonagh were an aspirant stand up artist, point to McDonagh wanting to make his film Janus–like: to point in two directions: the socio humanist face / the sociopathic face. But of course it dumps Three Billboards in the middle of no where: neither one thing nor another.

    Perhaps the fault lies in the way McDonagh has scripted the film. Three Billboards does not look it has been thematically inspired, a vision conceived. It feels like it has been reactively conceived, starting with the idea of the Ebbing billboards and working through each section bolting on the bits and pieces that comprise development and character: Mildred’s complicity in Angela’s death, her abusive husband, the scene in the hospital between Jason and his victim Jerome. It feels like a script held together by bits and pieces of politically correct and psychically appropriate material. This seems specifically true of the introduction of the racial angle / theme when the new man appointed to to take over Willoughby’s office, is black. McDonagh except for the scripted provocation seems totally at a loss about how to develop the black police chief and his place in the implicitely racist culture. Tarentino would have made something of this opportunity. McDonagh seems content to have made a gesture. One more gesture in a movie of gestures.

    The film’s integrity is undermined by cloying sentimentality of Willoughby’s last day, which is heavily scripted with good ol’ boy shit. Martin McDonagh might claim this to be black humour or parody, but it is so out of kilter with tone of the movie that this would be a feeble unconvincing defensive response. Likewise the three letters Willoughby writes to be delivered and read after he is dead. This three letter device (used in a different manner but very effectively by Mankievicz in Letters to Three Wives) is exploited by McDonagh as an indulgent opportunity for Woody Harrelson’s voice to purr and broadcast his folksy insights into life character and the importance of love!

    Ultimately Three Billboards is heavily compromised by McDonagh’s script that prefers cheap laughs to satire but loses track of its direction. This is characterised by the final script machination. It is a sort of anti climax where we see Jason and Mildred drive off on their revenge mission, but finally undecided whether or not to go through with their plan. Indecision that characterises McDonagh confusion about what type of movie he is making, except perhaps to make a film that has enough politically correct conceit to win an Oscar. adrin neatrour

  • Hostiles Scott Cooper (USA 2017)

    Hostiles Scott
    Cooper (USA 2017) Christian Bale;
    Rosamund Pike

    Viewed Cineworld Newcastle 9th Jan 2018; ticket

    Wedding rites or How the West was Won!

    Scott Cooper’s movie opens with a quote from D H Lawrence: “The American soul is hard isolate stoic and a killer. It has never yet melted.” His film then proceeds to show that Lawrences’s thesis is too severe in its judgement. Given the right conditions and the right script a good woman and the wisdom of the native Americans, the white man’s soul can indeed melt.

    The Western is the most malleable of genres. Its naturalistic settings with their tendancy to isolate issues, create an abstract canvass that allow it to take on many forms and develop multiplicities of themes that can reflect developing social and psychic concerns as they arise in the social matrix.

    Scott Cooper, with a bent for dialogue that appropriately for Hollywood, imitates the clichés of Terrence Malick rather than the earthiness of Lawrence, has made a film heavily larded with tropes of new age sensibilities.

    ‘Hostiles’ set in 1892, and opening with images of a brutal Comanche raid and massacre of an isolated homestead, is a movie of seduction. Scott’s script chronicles how ‘Hostiles’ become ‘Friends’, as familiarity with the escorted native Americans softens grief stricken massacre survivor Rosalie, who develops love and solicitude for her co-travellers. Rosalie’s softening is accelerated by some female bonding when all the women are captured by a band of white trappers. Her seduction is shown in the film as she, like a Woodstock hippy, gradually turns native and adopts the dress look and coiffure of her new ‘friends’. Then, protagonist hard ass Joe, the ‘Injun hater’, as the odyssey of the trek across the West progresses, picks up on Rosalie’s example, and learns first to trust, then respect and finally to care about the natives with whose safe passage, against his will, he has been entrusted.

    As well as the personal journeys of Joe and Rosalie, Cooper’s script creates a contemporary pattern of social support for the increasingly dire and disastrous situation of America’s defeated and demonised tribes. Scott’s script draws a picture of a wave of liberal sentiment sweeping though both the corridors of power and on the frontier demanding greater humanity in the treatment of native americans. Whilst it is true that President Cleveland had some sympathy with the native’s plight, he was not President in 1892 when the film is set, and it seems unlikely that his successor Harrison would have made the intervention required by the script. Perhaps this is beside the point, but the utterances by people on the frontier of neo-liberal opinion about tribal people, looks like a scripted retro-airbrushing, assimilated into the movie to assuage our contemporary guilt about the acts of brutal ethnic cleansing that underlay the establishment of continental USA.

    Speaking of guilt, this is the mental state favoured by Scott to underpin the psychic drive of his Western. Westerns are characterised by psychic states relating to the action: righteousness, justice, doubt, self belief. But in tune with the times, and Hostiles is a movie designed as produced to be in tune with the times, and this is the age of guilt. Inn particular, but not exclusively, male guilt, as exemplified by Cooper’script when one of the hard bastards on the detail, comments: “We’re all guilty!” Thereby appropriating for the Western, in the form of ‘Hostiles’ the contemporary ‘howl’ of Western man.

    Interestingly bound up in ‘Hostiles’ interminable slow journey across the frontierscape of America, there is also an allegory of sorts. The film can be read as a allegorical description of contemporary suburban American mating ritual understood as a trial by ordeal. Scott’s script documents the slow courting by Joe of Rosalie. We see his slow understanding that the old school tough male is no longer sufficient to woo the lady. He must be tough but he must also develop his ‘caring’ feminine side. In relation to her he must understand, that although he may rescue her, she is not in debt to him, but she is his equal. She stands beside him, not behind him; and she has the right to the space to develop her power and her wisdom. She decides the moment when they may touch. Through Rosalie, Joe learns the wisdom of the native people, and is brought to atonement, and an end to his opposition. He comes through the courting ordeal and at the end, instead of riding off into the metaphorical sunset, Joe jumps on the train to pursue union with Rosalie.

    Cinematically Hostiles is a mess. The routine cutting, shot reverse shot, is uninspired and uninteresting. And Cooper’s camera seems to run out of ideas in this slo-mo paced movie in which we are inflicted with shot after shot depicting the line of horses and riders moving across the land. There seems to be a lack of imagination here on Cooper’s part working filmically on the meaning of the movement, and ways of treating this huge trek across the West, in a manner that would impart something of its function scale and grandeur. But there is nothing. Just long shots, fashionably slow, in which even the horses don’t come alive on the screen. They are ridden as if they were no more than automobiles out for spin on the highway.

    Hostiles is rather a conceptual than a visceral Western. Even the much touted violence (actually rather stylised and not excessive) can save us from wanting some horse flesh, if not horse sense. adrin neatrour

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