Uncategorised

  • Burning Lee Chang-dong (Korea;2018;)

    Burning           Lee Chang-dong (Korea;2018;) Yoo Ah-in, Steven Yeun, Jeon Jong-seo.

    viewed Star and Shadow Cinema 6th June 2021; ticket £7

    No where land; nowhere man

    There’s a Beetles Song written by John Lennon that features on ‘Rubber Soul’ called Nowhere Man. After viewing Chang-dong’s Burning, I thought of this song. It seemed a perfect fit for ‘Burning’, a film representing S Korea as a nowhere land, full of no-where people.

    Early in the film, after Shin and Lee meet up again (they have sort of known each other as children, though nothing in Chang-dong’s film is ever certain) Lee takes her out for a meal. At the table she talks to Lee about hunger, asking him if he has Big Hunger or ‘Great Hunger’. He looks at her. He doesn’t get what she means by ‘Great Hunger’. In response she throws her arms wide open, swings them round in gesticulation. ‘Great Hunger’ is Hunger for Life itself. She says she has ‘Great Hunger’. It doesn’t seem as if Lee shares this, but Shin understands something about herself and as a way of honouring her ‘Great Hunger’ she decides to visit Africa: perhaps this continent will feed her need for meaning in life.   ‘Big Hunger’ isn’t fed in Korea.

    In ‘Burning’ S Korea is a land of the dead, a land voided of meaning. As Chang-dong surveys S Korea he represents it as a bottomless chasm, an emptied vacuous culture. When you look and try to see what’s there, there’s nothing to see: it’s a land of indeterminacy.   Neither one thing nor another, a land that has had its heritage, its past stripped out, and overlaid with the thin veneer of an American consumerist ethos. A two dimensional place made up of surfaces.

    The script develops the idea that Korean society is suspended in a state of superposition, in a quantum state of indeterminacy where existence and inexistence depend on interaction with an observer.   The characters come and go without making any impression on life: Lee’s mother, Lee’s father, Shin herself, and even Ben. The characters exist in the same condition as Schrodinger’s cat shut up in its box: no one knows if they’re alive or dead. Without an observer their status is indeterminate, and Korea is a place where no one looks.   There are no observers.

    The direct reference to this state of superposition in Chang-dong’s film is Shin’s cat called Boil, whom Lee agrees to feed whilst Shin is away in Africa. But Lee never sees Boil: no matter how much he looks for the cat in Shin’s tiny room he can’t find it. Later at a point where he is not looking for it, Boil appears, and at this moment when observed, its significance can be measured in terms of Shin’s life and death.   Up until this moment Shin’s existence is indeterminate. When she ceases to be present, no one is aware of her ‘not being’, no one looks in the box: her friends, the people she works with, her church community. They observe no box: she has registered no imprint of her existence with an observer. Except Lee: Lee looks into the box, finds Boil and understands that Shin is dead, murdered.

    ‘Burning’ presents the vistas and interiors of contemporary Korea as nondescript zones, through which the population is in transit. Shin’s room and the view from her window, Ben’s apartment and neighbourhood, the clubs and restaurants the street scene that opens the film: all any spaces whatsoever.

    There is one location of Chang-dongs that is different: his father’s farm which he moves back to when his father is imprisoned for being angry and abusive to a state official. (His father registers as a throwback to another era because in Burning no one evinces emotion. Emotions and expressed feelings are alien states in the new Korea) Lee’s family farm reeks of the past. It’s not a part of the shiny new Korea. It is dilapidated run down, has the look of neglect. But it is real. It is in this setting, the country where the land is still real that Chang-dong introduces the leitmotif of his sound track: the shamanist drum and pipes of an old Korea. This is music that comes up out of the earth.. It calls on anyone who may hear it, to dance, to touch the rhythms of life and death, fire and water. Anything but indeterminacy, the music is real, and response to it immediate.

    Shin is a lost soul, her search to honour her ‘Big Hunger’ leads her to Africa, where even as a tourist she finds something of the energised rhythms of life she seeks.  But her Big Hunger cannot be fed. Corrupted and impoverished she drifts to her death, in the homicidal arms of Ben. And Ben’s is also a twisted being driven by an obsessive invocation of forces of fire and death. Ben’s is mesmerised with setting fire to abandoned greenhouses. His arson creates a series of disturbing images, as when on fire these skeletal structures call to mind the idea of the sacrificial victims trapped in the Wicker Man.   Although not specifically suggested by Burning, the thought occurs that Shin’s body was immolated by Ben, reduced to ashes, in one of these primordial sacrificial fires, whose ribbed frames have a strong anthropomorphic resonance.

    Chang-dong’s movie is slow and oblique building connections and links between script and images. The ancient grounds of Korea have been obliterated overbuilt, but the phantom emanations leak into the culture causing strange aberrations and distortions both to collective and to individual life in this country of modernity.

    adrin neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

  • Blade Runner The Final Cut Ridley Scott (USA, 1982)

    Blade Runner  The Final Cut       Ridley Scott (USA, 1982) Harrison Ford; Rutger Hauer; Mary Sean Young.

    viewed Star and Shadow Cinema Newcastle UK; ticket: £7

    passing good

    Ridley Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’ is a virtuoso statement of filmic style; it’s a style that is underpinned by a strong conceptual vision of not only how the film should look but why it looks as it does.  Ridley Scott’s movie is driven by a number of conceptual and moral imperatives.

    ‘Blade Runner’ opens with a text that establishes simply and immediately the world which the script and scenario will explore and develop.  We read: there is a population of entities, called replicants who are manufactured automata; in look and intelligence they have become indistinguishable from humans. They are used as slave labour to do the dirty work off-earth in other galaxies. It is illegal for these non-persons to be on Earth. Should they be discovered here they are dispatched (retired). The task of Blade Runners is to track down and retire these creatures, who when going amongst us, look no different from us.

    This short prefatory text sets up the framework for the design of Blade Runner: the concept of the vilified dehumanised other, the alien; and the embedded developmental idea of ‘passing’.   Blade Runner is often called dystopian, which may be so but these days it’s an overused term.   What grabs the attention in Syd Mead’s visual design are the polar extremes represented: the dilapidated burnt out shantytown of LA, the rococo antique interiors of the private apartments, the stripped functionality of the offices laboratories and dwellings of the state’s apparatniks. Looking at the development of American cities in the ‘80s, Blade Runner’s richly embroidered high key lighting set, anticipates the development of an urban architectural mode that increasingly favoured the impoverishment and abandonment of public spaces in favour of the enhancement of private space.   The design setting of the movie complements in its polarity the scripts posited existence of two populations: the authentic native earth born and the despised inhuman and dangerous replicants.

    Looking at the economies of most Western developed states, there is a familiar pattern.   The immigrants do the hard repetitive work: agricultural toil, unskilled dangerous construction and demolition, and scrubbing and scraping deep in the steam addled kitchens of the big cities. Mostly ignored and despised, the immigrant is an analogous stand-in for the replicant. Denied by the mainstream population as having the capacity to ‘feel’, denied recognition of their co-existent humanity, this state of mind is basis for our callous even murderous exploitation of immigrants who are seen as little more than our ‘replicants.’ And of course this isn’t some dystopian future, this is our society now and in its post 1945 past.

    For a class of people to be considered in a general way to be sub-human, their voice needs to be suppressed. Because voice provides immediate phenomenological evidence that ‘sub-humans’ have: feelings, emotions, personal and shared histories, memories; that they share these critical attributes of being human with ourselves and employ the same expressive signs as those by which we define ourselves.  And it is the elemental human voices of the replicants that Fancher and Peoples develop in the script: memories personal histories and emotions. Roy’s anger that replicants lives have been exploited twisted and determined by the techno- economic system that created them; Rachael’s ‘love’ her aroused emotional involvement with Deckard. Of course, in terms of a determinist argument that wants to deny the replicant’s humanity, some might argue that the expressive signifiers used by the replicants are simply designs installed and activated by deep programming.   But at this point, the very concept of consciousness starts to become problematic, because are we not all deeply conditioned entities?

    At the opening of the film Scott establishes a familiar stereotypical format: the ennoblement of Deckard the Blade Runner, and the demonization of the replicants who like all revolutionaries take on an aggessive confrontational stance towards the authority that would destroy them (but not of course Rachael who has a sort of honorary white status). The replicants are labeled as dangerous and ruthless. But as the scenario develops we start to see that their response to their situation is all too human They want revenge and its personal, but something more as well. In the plot’s denouement when replicant Roy has Deckard at his mercy there is the moment of absolute truth. Roy’s internal clock is winding down to the preordained time of his death, but he choses not to deliver Deckard the coup de grace. At this moment, Roy realises something about life: that life is precious. And at this moment of life and death, this realisation creates an empathic bond with Deckard: Roy understands that although he must die, Deckard can live; he Roy can give Deckard the gift of life. No one wants to die before their time. The script’s probing of the psycho-social collision of the human and the replicant completes its circuit of logic. The machine returns to the human their own humanity.

    And this same circuitry is part of our contemporary experience.  A logic that poses questions for us through the current rapid development of AI. AI entities in conversations with humans have already passed the ‘Turing Test.’ We can’t necessarily tell if we are speaking to a human or to ‘a machine’. Perhaps some time soon we the humans are going to have to make a decision: to take the direct route and dismantle ‘HAL’ to save ourselves; or to forge another human type relationship with these human-created entities.

    The other dynamic concept driving the script engine is the idea of ‘passing’. Passing refers to regular involvement in social interactions on the basis of a false identity. Good examples are drawn from the world of spying where men such as Philby, Blunt, Mclean, Burgess all working at the heart of MI5 for some 20 years plus, were in fact Soviet Agents regularly reporting back to the KGB. They passed themselves off as loyal Brits. ‘Passing’ in temporarily limited situations is common.   But many individuals who were Gay or Jews or members of many other discriminated groups, whose identity in itself assured vicious social and even murderous discrimination, learnt to pass as straight, Christian etc as a way of living/surviving. The idea of ‘passing’ lies at the core of Blade Runner. It’s embedded in the opening section in which the suspect male replicant is subjected to interrogation using a lie detector type machine that focuses mainly on his involuntary iris dilation.   As this interrogation proceeds, and we understand the process better as Rachael undergoes the same testing, we see that only with the use absurdly complicated equipment can we tell the difference between the replicants and ourselves. We can see them in the street, we can drink with them, make love to them, and we wouldn’t know they were different. Only they know.   We can be fooled as to who they really are. I am reminded of the intensity of the Jewish legislation in Nazi Germany which burrowed back two generations into the heredity of suspected Jews, to validate that they were the Aryans they claimed to be.

    Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’ pulls together the insecurities of a new emergent age: issues of identity, issues of the increasing power and claims of machine intelligence. When the movie was made these were ‘ideas of potential’ but clearly seen (by writers such as W. Burroughs) on the event horizon. Blade Runner’s achievement, even today is to frame these emergent realities in a script that is dedicated to the purely filmic, which economically without digression uses film to explore ideas.

    adrin neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

     

     

  • Nomadland Chloe Zhao (2020; USA)

    Nomadland                  Chloe Zhao (2020; USA) Frances McDermand, David Strathairn, Linda May

    Viewed: Everyman Cinema Newcastle 21 May 2021; ticket: £13:50 (with booking fee)

    Woodstock generation finale

    Nomadland feels as if it would have better realised as a documentary. Apparently many of the parts were played by people living mobile life styles, and Frances McDermand, as Fern, plays a role that is often close to being a stand in reporter / interviewer. But this hybrid form doesn’t cut into this subject area in the same way as a piece of actual reportage. Without the dramatic bookending of the film around Fern there would be more space for seeing and hearing the lost and hidden voices of the American dream.

    Lee Issac Chung’s recently released Disneyesque celebration of the America, Minari, tells what happens when you go embrace the Dream full on: you overcome all obstacles. Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland tells what it’s like when you wake up from ‘the dream’: when the factory goes bust, when they repossess the farm or debts take your house. Then you are alone. The stark picture in Nomadland is America as a society of isolated individuation. In this situation many choose to climb into their cars or vans or mobile homes and roam the country, finding work and solace, disappearing in the vastness of the continent. Chloe Zhao shows the various communal initiatives, the attempts at forming collectivities out of this diverse crew, but more compelling are the images and stories that emphasise people’s aloneness. No surprise: this is a culture that has created the economic and social conditions where communities – economic – social – local – can no longer survive the onslaught of monetising capitalism. Only money has value, this is the logic of the global economy as it folds over the lives of working people.

    Chloe Zhao’s scenario works best as it documents the casual work cycle of road existence and probes the psychic base upon which people weave their present reality. Nomadland opens with the closure of the Gyproc plant that pushes Fern out of the village of Empire onto the conveyor belt world of temp jobs: Amazon, theme parks, fast food outlets, where the rule is: use your body and leave your mind behind. ‘Papa Bob’ a kind of spokesman for the Nomads, talks in an early section of the film about the freedom endemic in being a American nomad. But Fern and those like her although not anchored in the financial system’s mortgage racket, they are still totally dependent on the macjob economy to pay fuel repair bills and parking/overstay fees.   They may not be anchored but as the script shows, they are tethered to the system: Fern needs money: gas, repair work, food and overnights.

    The film starts in a strong suit: the reality of surviving on the margins of a fractured and broken state. But Chloe Zhao’s scenario at a point about half way through the film slips into image fascination. ‘Nomadland’ starts to look like another Disney Production, the screen filling out with chocolate box pictures of National Geographic America. We are shown tourist board images of rock mountain river gorge and desert. Compounding this imagery we have Frances McDermand plonked in the middle of a couple of these images, dancing and bathing, as if selling soap or freedom bras. Image dissonance: a message that somehow in adopting these advertising tropes and stereotypical poses, Fern is liberated.

    As the film winds to conclusion it descends into sentimentality and the dishonesty that is surely part of the price it Chloe Zhao pays for choosing the dramatic rather than the documentary form. Drama, in particular Hollywood’s version, seems to demand (not all directors yield to this demand) some sort of emotional closure. The route taken by Chloe Zhao accedes to this demand, which is encapsulated by ‘Papa Bob’s’ encomium as he talks to Fern, denying the finality of endings: “We don’t die, we don’t say goodbye, we just say: “See you down the road!”.

    James Baldwin makes a telling observation in relation to the Sherriff’s last words to Mr Tibbs in ‘The Heat of the Night’. The Southern white Sherriff who has at one point come close to lynching Mr Tibbs, the black detective, finally says goodby to him on the station platform with the words: “You take good care of yourself, you hear?” Hollywood loves to end a movie with a metaphorical ‘kiss’ meaning a faked reconciliatory gesture that makes everything all right. “ See you down the road!”

    As the film descends into its Disneyesque ending, it becomes dull, devoid of the life and reality that sustains the opening sections. I also became more aware of the incongruity of the drone footage that Chloe Zhao mandates in her shooting script. Drone footage can be problematic. The ‘role of the camera’ in a film shoot can take on many guises, from ‘Point of View’, ‘privileged observer’, ‘analogous protagonist’ often cutting between these ‘persona’ as well as incorporating many other types of shot. There’s no rules. But drone shots usually have a suprahuman quality that can make them problematic as to what they represent and how they are incorporated into the structure of the story. Used as high shots, looking down on a situation or scene, they have an omniscient, God like quality that can take them outside the scenario. Used at ground level drone shots often have a detached quality that can take them outside the subject’s domain: they have an non-human quality. Used creatively drone shots reveal something to the audience that could not be seen by other means. They are a resource for filmic communication. Used as shots to fill a hole in the scenario, or as a piece of visual novelty instead of a tracking shot, used repetitively without a creative understanding of what they are contributing, drone shots are a device that can figuratively reveal the lack of any ethos guiding a film.

    ‘Nomadland’ is built upon the performance of Frances McDermand as a representative of a ‘type’, a woman dumped by society. ‘Nomadland’ is grounded in people and their experience of life. To resort, with increasing frequency to drone shots as a tracking device, detaches the image from its grounding within the human domain. The camera instead of being an observer or a companion to Fern’s life, becomes an ethereal detached stalker. But who’s the stalker? I don’t think Chloe Zhao knows but her drone camera work contains within itself a contradictory element: it’s smooth alien like motion, it’s stealth in following behind Fern is analogous to the very forces that are destroying her: the indifferent relentless smooth anonymous powers of banks and government that track and prey on the powerless. The camera as a drone becomes de facto an emanation of deterritorialised powers that are stalking America.

    In one cameo we see Fern having a shit in her van. The imperative to both to shoot and include this shot in the film, would seem to derive from a commitment to a pedantic literalist realism. Of course the actual problem is not shitting in cramped confines. The problem is how/where to get rid of your shit once it’s in the bucket. Somehow the failure to grasp this basic issue sums up Chloe Zhao’s movie. For all its intentions Nomadland doesn’t get that it’s not about the shit, it’s the question behind the question, how you get rid of the shit.

    adrin neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

  • Beware a Holy Whore (Warnung vor einer heilige Nutte) R W Fassbinder (1971; FDR)

    Beware a Holy Whore (Warnung vor einer heilige Nutte) R W Fassbinder (1971; FDR) Lou Castel, Hanna Schygulla, Eddie Constantine, R W Fassbinder.

    viewed: BFI streaming 16 May 2021

    An echo of Auschwitz

    Fassbinder’s movie, ‘Beware a Holy Whore (BHW)’ was made in a year of frenzied film making. In 1971 five movies are credited to Fassbinder as writer/director, plus he had acting roles in four of them. And 1970 and 1972 were as busy as 1971. This is a director with something to say, but as in other films I’ve seen of his, his way of speaking is usually indirect. Contemporary film making is dominated by messaging movies, identity affirmation movies. They’re films targeted at audiences primed to hear particular messages or films designed to manipulate emotions in particular directions. Fassbinder doesn’t engage with this type of affirmationist intention.

    Fassbinder’s films are grounded in that which is raw in human nature. Underneath the surface, whosoever you may be, whoever you are, whatever your sexuality, whatever your political/social beliefs, underneath are the raw drives of human nature. Bourgeois society, in particular German post war society, with its imperative need to cover up the monstrosities of the Fascist years, was a carefully manicured façade. An amnesiac society on autodrive contrived and designed if possible, to forget or at least cover up truth and replace it with a anodyne fantasial lie.  

    Situation: Fassbinder often takes situations as the starting point for his scripts. Situations have a theatrical pedigree as places of beginnings where the writer can nurse the developmental vectors of ideas, giving the audience a route to follow into the scenario enabling the audience to start to think about things. In this Fassbinder carries within his scripts the dialectics of theatre of this time: Pinter, Durrenmatt, Sartre, Jellico . Create situations and let the psycho-social dynamic of the age play out. Allow the audience to assimilate the engine of the design and put their own readings on the material.

    Fassbinder’s situation in ‘BHW’ is a film production, centred around the relations between the people involved in making a film on location in Spain. It is mostly set in the hotel where the caste and crew are holed up for the duration of the shoot. In many of Fassbinder’s films the presence of a Phantom Fuhrer seems integral to the manner in which he develops his scenarios. The old Diktator blew his brains out in the bunker of the Reich’s Chancellery. But for Fassbinder his spirit lives on in Germany, absorbing and permeating the social matrix. ‘BHW’ is divided in two parts: like the history of Germany from 1919 to 1945.   In the first section the film crew indulge in all manner of sybaritic indulgences, sensual, sexual, interpersonal, alcoholic. The film opens with a title card that reads: Pride comes before a Fall.   The motley crew are seen hanging around waiting for the director to turn up. They are aimless pursuing their own personal desire and need. The producer, Sasha (played by R W F) his ear screwed onto his phone tries to raise money for the enterprise. He keeps some sort of discipline but is mostly ineffectual. We are watching in analogy, a play out of the Weimar years, 1919 -1933.

    But then the big Director Arrives.  Suddenly it’s 30th January 1933: Hitler becomes Reich’s Chancellor. The time of dissolution and sybaritic play is gone. Everything changes, the phantom Fuhrer is come and filming must commence. And at once his acts of violence, his vicious assaults on his wife to be rid of her, and his hysterical energy become the focus of the scenario.   His will is centre stage. The Pride of the Crew is ‘fallen’; they are beholden to the one man. Even if he is a maniac, bent on the destruction of the world. The crew and caste adapt to the ways of the director, becoming by the the way casually racist, regarding the Spanish as non German speaking Untermensch. And the strange morbid drive of the director unravels as he reveals conceptual outlines of his film: Murder – you have to understand what a murder really means as a physical act – it is a film against the brutality of the state, what else would you make films about? – the title of the film is ‘Patria and Death.’

    At last we move into: ‘Real Film Making’.

    Fassbinder ends ‘BHW’ with a referential quote from Thomas Mann: “I am weary to death of depicting human nature without partaking of human nature.”   In ‘BHW’ Fassbinder delivers human nature on picture and on sound. Mordantly underplaying the film are the Songs of Leonard Cohen. Mostly drawn from the eponymous 1968 album and seemingly edited randomly onto the sound track (if there was a sequential logic I didn’t get it), Cohen classics such as: Sisters of Mercy, So Long Marian, Suzanne, Master Song. It was probably important to Fassbinder that Cohen was a Jewish singer/songwriter. It’s an essential part of Fassbinder’s filmic counterpoising to use the Cohen tracks, with their intense lyrical humanism, to sardonically, ironically, offset the brutality of the represented Germanic Hitler culture. The tender side of human nature smashed up by brutality.  The German and Jew playing out an old story. Although the Cohen tracks are diegetic, often selected by the caste and crew from the hotel lounge juke box, no one ever looks like they are listening to the music. Perhaps that is also something of Fassbinder’s insight: in Germany and by extension fascist capitalism: they play the music but they don’t listen to it.

    The effect of Fassbinder’s opposition of image and sound, German and Jew, in ‘BHW’ is disturbing even painful. I found it difficult to hold the two together. In the face of the action I wanted to disattend the powerful songs of Cohen with their assertion of the primacy of the human spirit. In confronting this strange combination (perhaps it is the key element of the ‘BHW’) I recalled the Sunday afternoon concerts of classical music given by the inmates of Birkenau death camp for the pleasure and delight of the SS Commandant and his wife.

    The film works as an affect through the medium of the acting. Fassbinder could call on an ensemble of actors with whom he had both developed and worked over a period of years. ‘BHW’ is an ensemble piece where all the players understand their roles and are disciplined in a quasi Brechtian mode of representation. The part is always understood as subservient to the whole. The acting does not involve internalising emotions and relations, rather externalising them and representing them.  The object is not manipulation of audience rather to enable the audience to see relations.

    And Beware a Holy Whore, as a title is I think Fassbinder’s admonition to the audience to look in askance at all that attracts by promising to satiate desire – including movies – a holy whore.

    adrin neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

  • Drunken Angel (Yoidore Tenshi) Akira Kurosawa (1948; Japan)

    Drunken Angel (Yoidore Tenshi) Akira Kurosawa (1948; Japan) Takashi Shimura; Toshiro Mifune; Michiyo Koguro

    viewed: BFI streaming; 3rd May 2021

    Drunken Angel (Yoidore Tenshi) Akira Kurosawa (1948; Japan) Takashi Shimura; Toshiro Mifune; Michiyo Koguro

    viewed: BFI streaming; 3rd May 2021

    Call for the Doctor

    In deciding to view this early film of Kurosawa’s I was interested to see how and in what ways ‘Drunken Angel’ might represent Japan’s situation in 1948. A country that had experienced total war and total defeat; that had been ruled and led to war by a hereditary military caste but was now occupied by the Americans who were intent on imposing upon this particular society some of the norms that characterised their democracy and culture. How would these reflect on the surface of the film, how would the script register the overwhelming contradictions of post conflict Japanese society?

    ‘Drunken Angel’ is sometimes described as a ‘Noir’ movie. It’s not. It looks nothing like a ‘Noir’ product, nor does it evidence a ‘Noir’ sensibility.   Kurasawa’s cinematic design makes little use of shadow or chiascuro interplay, rather it is transparent, giving us things we can see, augmented by a panning shots that direct us to the relevant image. Likewise his Yakuza protagonist, has few elements that make up a ‘Noir’ character:he is simply doomed from the start. ‘Drunken Angel’ falls into a genre type not entirely absent from Hollywood out put, but an unusual one; it is forensic. Given the main character is a doctor ‘Drunken Angel’ is in its own fashion a diagnostic movie, using the crime and criminal activity as an allegorical artifice for considering Japan’s situation and predicament. The allegorical features of Kurosawa’s script are not over larded, rather they underlie the situations realised in the scenario.

    From the start Kurosawa depicts the reality of things as they are in 1948: a Tokyo that has been firebombed razed and puddled by the US Air force. In his opening shot we see a huge fetid squalid pool of water, mosquito infected stagnant, but with people still drinking from it. This is the great city of Tokyo. And the stagnet pool is the recurring image in the film, returned to time and again. Hybrid Japanese-American music overlays the opening puddle shot: Japanese scales meshed with jazz rhythm, music indicating Japan’s new schizo cultural accommodation. This is perhaps the situation as Kurosawa sees it; a smashed people living in a schizo culture.   In ‘Drunken Angel’ his solution is: call for the doctor. We need to understand what’s going on.

    The play out of the script revolves round Sanada’s (the Doctor) relationship with Matsunaga the gangster, which relationship hinges on Sanada’s diagnosis of Matsunaga’s TB. TB is the hidden disease.   From the outside there is nothing to see, everything looks OK.   But within the cavity of the body, the lungs waste away.   Sanada makes his diagnosis from a physical examination, which then needs to be confirmed by an Xray, the photographic eye that can penetrate the flesh.  The problem is not so much that Matsunaga doesn’t recognise that he has the disease but that he needs to deny it. He denies it because it is an insult to his self image as a Yakuza; to even suggest that he may have a weakness is a threat to which he responds by attacking the messenger, Sanada. When the Xray confirms his condition, when he is spitting coughing up blood and can no longer deny having TB, he adopts the belief that he can somehow overcome the disease by carrying on his life as usual, by aggressively and assertively ignoring the Doctor’s advice. When finally almost completely incapacitated he ceases to claim he can defy TB with his own will, rather he boasts to the Sanada that the Yakuza brotherhood will take care of him: it is Yakuza honour and their loyalty to each other that will save him. His last self deception, delusion.

    Sanada observes Matsunaga’s inevitable decline as each stage of the illness takes its course.   Sanada stance towards his patient is of a quasi-Bhuddist compassion: he is detached, he has no emotional involvement. But Sanada’s compassion, his desire to minister to his truculent patient, accepts no bounds. Matsunaga assaults him, rejects him, abuses him, ignores him, but Sanada remains his doctor and will do all that can be done for him, even though Matsunaga knows ultimately only one law: the law of self destruction.

    As an allegorical rendering of Japan’s condition, this is bleak. But Kurosawa’s humanistic design directs the film in a positive direction. The script’s central character is the doctor.  Sanada is the pivot of the movie: the one who sees. Kurosawa’s ‘seer’ is quite different from the ‘priest’ type in Hollywood gangster movies. In these the gangster is always at the centre of the script. In movies such as ‘Public Enemy’, ‘the priest’ acts as an externalised (societal or religious) voice of individual conscience, and as such often determines the outcome of plot. As ‘seer’ Sanada is unable to influence Matsunaga’s behaviour. But the point is his seeing: the seeing that there is a problem, that the people (ie Japanese society/culture) once they understand there is a problem can harness their own resources to come to terms with their past and take responsibility and control of their future. The essence of Sanada’s course of treatment for TB is discipline through time: understand the nature of the disease and the effect it has on the body; instigate life style changes to maximise the chances of the medication working; and understand that the healing process takes time, nothing will happen quickly. If all this is well understood, the cure will be slow but sure. And the film ends with one of his patients, who has followed Sanada’s recovery regime, presenting him with her X-rays that show she is clear of TB: a perfect set of lungs with which to live and breath. Hope.

    Kurosawa’s movie is centred in the compassion of Sanada, but as a figure this doctor is no insufferable perfect being, a guy on a pedestal. No! Sanada is deeply flawed, an alcoholic bum, prisoner to his own resentments and insecurities which only the bottle can deaden. Mired in his own course of self destructive behaviour, his compassion is of a particularly human order. It flows into the world out of the realisation of his own problems. We are not listening to or trying to understand a saint, but an imperfect human being.

    The feeling from Drunken Angel is not that it is anti-American. The gangster world has adopted Americanisation of life with its jazz, clothes and stylistic statements. But Kurasawa depicts these for what they are: diversions that people take up because they are enjoyable. But the Americanisation of life is a distraction, not even a quick fix. The rebuilding of Japan as a psychic entity will need a deeper more substantive shift, perhaps through a generation. But first the problems of Japan need to be seen and understood. And ‘Drunken Angel’ is Kurasawa’s means of stepping forward into the ruins and thinking about how new foundations might be built. Later his Sumurai movies would affirm again his belief that Japan contains within her own culture, the resources to develop its own form of modernism that had moved beyond its past.

    adrin neatrour   adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

    Call for the Doctor

    In deciding to view this early film of Kurosawa’s I was interested to see how and in what ways ‘Drunken Angel’ might represent Japan’s situation in 1948. A country that had experienced total war and total defeat; that had been ruled and led to war by a hereditary military caste but was now occupied by the Americans who were intent on imposing upon this particular society some of the norms that characterised their democracy and culture. How would these reflect on the surface of the film, how would the script register the overwhelming contradictions of post conflict Japanese society?

    ‘Drunken Angel’ is sometimes described as a ‘Noir’ movie. It’s not. It looks nothing like a ‘Noir’ product, nor does it evidence a ‘Noir’ sensibility.   Kurasawa’s cinematic design makes little use of shadow or chiascuro interplay, rather it is transparent, giving us things we can see, augmented by a panning shots that direct us to the relevant image. Likewise his Yakuza protagonist, has few elements that make up a ‘Noir’ character:he is simply doomed from the start. ‘Drunken Angel’ falls into a genre type not entirely absent from Hollywood out put, but an unusual one; it is forensic. Given the main character is a doctor ‘Drunken Angel’ is in its own fashion a diagnostic movie, using the crime and criminal activity as an allegorical artifice for considering Japan’s situation and predicament. The allegorical features of Kurosawa’s script are not over larded, rather they underlie the situations realised in the scenario.

    From the start Kurosawa depicts the reality of things as they are in 1948: a Tokyo that has been firebombed razed and puddled by the US Air force. In his opening shot we see a huge fetid squalid pool of water, mosquito infected stagnant, but with people still drinking from it. This is the great city of Tokyo. Hybrid Japanese-American music overlays the puddle shot: Japanese scales meshed with jazz rhythm, music indicating Japan’s new schizo cultural accommodation. This is perhaps the situation as Kurosawa sees it; a smashed people living in a schizo culture.   In ‘Drunken Angel’ his solution is: call for the doctor. We need to understand what’s going on.

    The play out of the script revolves round Sanada’s (the Doctor) relationship with Matsunaga the gangster, which relationship hinges on Sanada’s diagnosis of Matsunaga’s TB. TB is the hidden disease.   From the outside there is nothing to see, everything looks OK.   But within the cavity of the body, the lungs waste away.   Sanada makes his diagnosis from a physical examination, which then needs to be confirmed by an Xray, the photographic eye that can penetrate the flesh.  The problem is not so much that Matsunaga doesn’t recognise that he has the disease but that he needs to deny it. He denies it because it is an insult to his self image as a Yakuza; to even suggest that he may have a weakness is a threat to which he responds by attacking the messenger, Sanada. When the Xray confirms his condition, when he is spitting coughing up blood and can no longer deny having TB, he adopts the belief that he can somehow overcome the disease by carrying on his life as usual, by aggressively and assertively ignoring the Doctor’s advice. When finally almost completely incapacitated he ceases to claim he can defy TB with his own will, rather he boasts to the Sanada that the Yakuza brotherhood will take care of him: it is Yakuza honour and their loyalty to each other that will save him. His last self deception, delusion.

    Sanada observes Matsunaga’s inevitable decline as each stage of the illness takes its course.   Sanada stance towards his patient is of a quasi-Bhuddist compassion: he is detached, he has no emotional involvement. But Sanada’s compassion, his desire to minister to his truculent patient, accepts no bounds. Matsunaga assaults him, rejects him, abuses him, ignores him, but Sanada remains his doctor and will do all that can be done for him, even though Matsunaga knows ultimately only one law: the law of self destruction.

    As an allegorical rendering of Japan’s condition, this is bleak. But Kurosawa’s humanistic design directs the film in a positive direction. The script’s central character is the doctor.  Sanada is the pivot of the movie: the one who sees. Kurosawa’s ‘seer’ is quite different from the ‘priest’ type in Hollywood gangster movies. In these the gangster is always at the centre of the script. In movies such as ‘Public Enemy’, ‘the priest’ acts as an externalised (societal or religious) voice of individual conscience, and as such often determines the outcome of plot. As ‘seer’ Sanada is unable to influence Matsunaga’s behaviour. But the point is his seeing: the seeing that there is a problem, that the people (ie Japanese society/culture) once they understand there is a problem can harness their own resources to come to terms with their past and take responsibility and control of their future. The essence of Sanada’s course of treatment for TB is discipline through time: understand the nature of the disease and the effect it has on the body; instigate life style changes to maximise the chances of the medication working; and understand that the healing process takes time, nothing will happen quickly. If all this is well understood, the cure will be slow but sure. And the film ends with one of his patients, who has followed Sanada’s recovery regime, presenting him with her X-rays that show she is clear of TB: a perfect set of lungs with which to live and breath. Hope.

    Kurosawa’s movie is centred in the compassion of Sanada, but as a figure this doctor is no insufferable perfect being, a guy on a pedestal. No! Sanada is deeply flawed, an alcoholic bum, prisoner to his own resentments and insecurities which only the bottle can deaden. Mired in his own course of self destructive behaviour, his compassion is of a particularly human order. It flows into the world out of the realisation of his own problems. We are not listening to or trying to understand a saint, but an imperfect human being.

    The feeling from Drunken Angel is not that it is anti-American. The gangster world has adopted Americanisation of life with its jazz, clothes and stylistic statements. But Kurasawa depicts these for what they are: diversions that people take up because they are enjoyable. But the Americanisation of life is a distraction, not even a quick fix. The rebuilding of Japan as a psychic entity will need a deeper more substantive shift, perhaps through a generation. But first the problems of Japan need to be seen and understood. And ‘Drunken Angel’ is Kurasawa’s means of stepping forward into the ruins and thinking about how new foundations might be built. Later his Sumurai movies would affirm again his belief that Japan contains within her own culture, the resources to develop its own form of modernism that had moved beyond its past.

    adrin neatrour   adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

  • The American Friend (Der amerikanishe Freund) Wim Wenders (FDR; 1977)

    The American Friend  (Der amerikanishe Freund)     Wim Wenders (FDR; 1977) Bruno Ganz, Denis Hopper, Lisa Kreuzer, Sam Fuller

    Viewed BFI streaming 18 April 2021

    Boys just want to have fun

    The outstanding characteristic of Wenders’ movie, was that it felt like everyone making it was having fun, enjoying the caper in the knowledge they’re riding the crest of a wave of a different type of film making. Probably they knew like all surfers that the ride doesn’t go on forever. This wave, like all waves, would soon lap into the sands.

    In this respect ‘American Friend’ reminded me of those early movies by Godard: ‘Pierrot le Fou’, ‘A Bout de Soufle’, ‘Vivre sa Vie’ and in particular ‘Alphaville’.

    The overwhelming vibes from these films was that everyone was having a good time. These films of Godard were parties; the viewers were simply invited to join in and exit the cinema having had a good time. Godard set up these films as enjoyable spoofs. In themselves they were satires on ‘serious’ film making as practiced by the ‘film industry’ where the bottom line was the most important reading for the producers.

    Of course the content of Godard’s movies included felicitously directed and often barbed observations of the social situations and character types that made up most of the products of the film business. The characters in Godard’s scenarios played themselves. The point of their performances was to remain true to the tone of the films: detached, cool, but very direct, to camera if required. Godard made these movies with a spontaneity and élan that situated them within the tide modernism that was enveloping European societies. A tide that almost without being noticed was effortlessly transforming these societies at a pace that was outrunning most peoples capacity to understand.   They saw and consumed the tokens: the Coca Cola, the Marlborough cigarettes, the Automobiles, without knowing what they meant. In the cities, space and time were being redefined recasting the parameters of the possible and allowable interactions between people.

    In ‘American Friend’ Wenders sort of picks up where Godard left off.   Making a film in ‘play’ mode in the knowledge that ‘play’ has an specific political dimension. Wenders’ movie reminded me of ‘Alphaville’. Both are parodies of the ‘Noir’ genre, consciously imitating the form without any intention of taking it seriously, to exploit its potential for saying or observing something about social relations. In best ‘Noir’ tradition the plots of both movies are grounded in arcane far fetched propositions that are devices that permit exploration of social types and of contemporary spaces, and their interaction.  ‘The American Friend’ is a movie of pure surface without any pretence at depth (emotional, spiritual etc) and in this respect ‘American Friends’ design probes and exploits the social and spacial organisation of modernity.

    The ‘types’ Wenders puts in play are straight out of the top drawer of Brechtian analysis of Capitalism’s social strata. There are exploiters and exploited, the privileged and the victims. There is no appeal from exploitation, only death.  Criminality and gangsterism are necessary concomitants of a system that spawns caricatures of itself to control those areas of the social matrix that are beyond Capitalism’s immediate control. The caste deliver the mechanics of their lines with declamatory intonation as the plot delivers its neo-Brechtian design with appropriate filmic panache.

    What is interesting in Wenders’ scenario is the interrelating of narrative character and space.

    Traditionally large spaces such a churches palaces courts of law have been structured so as to overawe the individual. The vastness of these buildings with their concomitant symbolism, is designed to strip those entering of their individuation,   reducing them to objects of a metaphysical apparatus. As souls, petitioners, subjects, people are reduced to being adjuncts of these spaces. Many contemporary settings are also constructed on a monumental scale: subway systems, train stations, airports, atria, auditoriums, stadia, all built to serve functional purposes but designed as environments containing a meta-text to project the power of the institutions that own and run them.

    ‘American Friend’ points to a simple stratagem by which the individual can subvert or evade being subject to the meta-messages of alienated power to which you’re exposed on entering these domains. The individual can simply psychically re-purpose their response, assimilate these places into their own fantasy for the purpose of ‘play’. Seen in the spirit of ‘play’ the subways, the stations the atria the airports are transformed into huge playgrounds where individuals can pick up the energies of childhood in endless relayed adventures of hide and seek, spacemen and aliens, goodies and baddies, love and loss.  ‘Playing’ in and with space simply cuts through the power games of modernity; its structures and representations can no longer transmit their implied hierarchic meaning; we are free to create and act out our own desires, detached from the encompassing environment. Vast subway transportation systems become stalking grounds for assassinations, airport lounges sites of illicit assignation, underground walkways perilous passages of hell death and fear to be transitioned as quick as possible. Older ‘Noir’ movies had always realised this aspect of modernity, hence the appropriation of trains as locations of murderous action, and of course there is a classic killing scene in ‘American Friend’. But Wenders movie completes this aspect of Noir logic, and extends an ideology of play out into the systems of post modernist control logic.

    ‘The American Friend’ is a movie which is inclusive of its audience.  It envelopes those who watch. Wenders askes his audience to be part of the fun, to see what is happening in life as a playful provocation. It’s not made to exploit or manipulate emotions sentiments or beliefs. The characters are two dimensional and have no development or realisations, yet it is a subversive film that projects ‘play’ as transformative force capable of undermining the bleak physical and psychic structural messages of modernism.

    And certainly the caste look like they’ve enjoyed themselves. Hopper, Fuller, Wenders and Ganz all had reputations for raising hell big time, drink drugs everything. Of course some may have found it insufferable. In 1978 a year after ‘The American Friend’ was made Lisa Kreuzer divorced Wim Wenders.

    adrin neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

  • Minari Lee Issac Chung (US: 2020)

    Minari         Lee Issac Chung (US: 2020) Steven Yeun; Han Ye-re,Youn Yuh-jung

    Viewed: 28 March 21 BFI streamed

    metaphysics of overcoming

    Set in the early 1980’s Chung’s bucolic ramble is a feelgood type of product that documents the theme of overcoming. Unlike most movies these days it represents affirms and endorses the American Dream. This ‘Dream’ is the ideal that whatever your birth status, whatever your ethnicity, if you believe in yourself and your ambition, if you work hard and tirelessly to achieve it, America makes it possible for you to overcome all obstacles and succeed.

    I presume the movie is called Minari to encapsulate the immigrant success story theme. It’s a metaphor for the success of transplanted life forms. Minari is a Korean watercress type plant. Grandma carried some specimens of this plant from Korea which she plants by a creek on the Yi plot to see if it will grow. And Lo! After the fire that has destroyed Jacob Yi’s first years crop, Jacob wanders down to the creek and finds the Minari has taken root and flourished, it has gone forth and multiplied, sending out a message of hope and perseverance to the whole family enterprise. At this point it is best not to dwell on the invasive problems that can arise with imported species but that’s another story, a downbeat rather than an upbeat one.

    Despite its subplot of their young son having a heart condition, which plays out on the ‘cute’ factor, the script is worthy, correct but predictable in its direction of development. The attempts to build tension into the proceedings are addressed in two ways: the introduction of variegated unconventional characters and the relations between the Yi’s.

    The unconventional characters are drawn from the Hollywood stockpot of film drama stereotypes. We have in Minari, the straight-talking abrasive granny from back home untrammelled by the fears and inhibitions of the assimilating family; and there is introduction of a couple of full on Americana characters drawn from the substrate of weirdness in Cohn Brothers scripts. One of whose role, with his mangling of religious fundamentalism and the soil, is not to be dangerous but to attest to the tolerance of the Yi’s in their dealing with the local people. Perhaps as Koreans the Yi’s are all too familiar with the outer wild fringes of the Christian religion. But these American characters are kept well under control by Chung’s script, and the employment of these character tropes plays out as little more than baubles decorating the film’s structure.

    The other source of tension in Chung’s script, is the relationship between the Yi’s. Monica is never convinced by the move from California to rural Arkansas. The self sufficient farming life is Jacob’s dream project. Nevertheless she goes along with it, only to become increasingly disenchanted by the realities of both farming and the isolated nature of rural life itself. But their marital discord on this point never feels convincing rather it plays out like a carefully plotted script line. There is a managed deliberation in the manner in which their separate realities provoke Monica and Jacob to want to make different life choices.  What is lacking is an organic, psychic emotional strata at the core of their conflict. The mechanical aspect of their marriage is seen in the ‘Conversion of Monica’   This takes place at the end of the film in the resolved ‘happy ending’ to Minari. After the disaster of losing the harvest to fire, Monica sees that staying put, being resilient and believing in Jacob’s dream is the way forward. She is suddenly ‘happy’ in Arkansas. She is converted and so Minari ends on a high note of integration.

    In the name of ‘authenticity’ much of the film’s dialogue is in Korean. We know the Yi’s are first generation immigrants but in ‘Minari’ language functions as a token sign of the ‘otherness’ of the Yi’s, allowing the scenario to otherwise evidence their conformity and integration into American way of life. When we see Scorsese’s Italian families in New York, they speak English, but their life styles, their attitudes are Italian. They are Italians and they don’t have to speak Italian for us to understand this. The Yi’s on the other hand seem to have come right out of some Los Angeles suburb, to the extent that it is their suburban nature rather than their Korean nature that they have to adapt and bend to rural life.   Minari is a suburban epic rather than an immigrant odyssey.

    Chung’s film feels like a contemporary equivilent of the Soviet or Chinese propaganda films featuring young couples venturing forth into the hinterlands to till the soil. They come to the land; there is much is strange and unfamiliar, there are many obstacles to overcome and they have to get to know the local people. But with the correct ideology, the dream, they overcome all obstacles.

    adrin neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

  • A Time for Drunken Horses (Dema hespên serxweş) Bahman Ghobadi (Iran;2000)

    A Time for Drunken Horses (Dema hespên serxweş) Bahman Ghobadi (Iran;2000) Ayoub Ahmadi, Rojin Younessi; Amaneh Ekhtiar-dini

    Viewed Mubi 18 March 2021

    beware the pain of the child

    There is an overwhelming feel of shock from Ghobadi’s film of seeing what we do not normally see.   The shock of being exposed to a life that in the harshness of its conditions the rawness of its everyday experience shames the viewer seated in the comfort of his chair. What we see in ‘A Time for Drunken Horses’ may or may not be re-enactments, but it is evident what we see is real.

    ‘A Time for Drunken Horses’ (TDH) is Ghobadi’s first feature film. It is notable that he worked with Kairostami on ‘The Wind will Carry Us’ a year before directing this movie, the which will have given him much food for thought.

    Kairostami’s movies always start from an embedding a grounding in the fabric of life, and from within this fabric perspectives emerge which align the viewer to the images. There is often a sense of playfulness in Kairostami’s films, a sense of the absurd as part of the grain of existence.

    In Ghobadi’s ‘TDH’ there no gradated movement into the action, everything is immediately totally clear. The viewer is dropped straight into the cold stark reality of the lives of his protagonists, children in general but in particular the children of a Kurdish family living on the Iran-Iraq border, existing precariously through the business of smuggling and child labour.

    From the privileged European perspective, the scene of ruthless employment of child labour that opens the film is graphic. Of course Western economy is driven by child labour: textiles electronics the recycling of our discarded matter, all take advantage of the poverty of other countries in order to exploit child labour, because child labour costs little more than the price of feeding them, so there is a high return on the surplus value their work creates. A situation that in some respects resembles the Nazis use of forced labour. But for the most part, we the viewers are far removed from the reality of the work conditions that underlie the things we consume so avidly. So here is the reality into which Ghobadi plunges us like a bath of icy water. Ghobadi is making films in the situation, from within the people, so that he can show these things. Not as anything extraordinary but as the day to day ordinary life of these children, an actuality that is all that they know.

    Ghobadi’s film for the most part keeps a sense of balance in its depiction of the child subjects. There is an admix of the social and the personal, the use of the wide shot and the close up. There is of course no one line that divides these two zones rather they intermerge overlapping tapering into one another. It seems important that in the making of ‘TDH’ that Ghobadi avoid shots that in themselves exploit the vulnerability of children, that there is an integrity in the manner and style in which he films, an implicit contract with the viewers that Ghobadi avoids joining the ranks of the exploiters.  But there are moments when his choice of shot transgresses this contract. In particular a couple of shots of the stunted manchild who is the centre of attentive love at the heart of the family. The depiction of this manchild is central to the movie, the selflessness of the caring, the determination of the children never to let him go.   Mostly Ghobadi films the sequences with the manchild with economy and respect. But there are shots he uses that seem to be miscalculations. The manchild as part of the treatment for his condition, is on a course of painful intramuscular injections. For some reason Ghobadi decides to shoot him having these injections in close-up, so that we see his whole face and tiny body screaming trembling in pain. This close-up is surely unnecessary, a wide shot or even a cut away to one of the children watching whilst we hear his pain would have equally well if not better communicated the horror of the injection. But the shot as it is, a big close up of a manchild in pain, makes no sense and calls into question, even if momentarily, the integrity of the director. Why use this shot? You feel Kairostami would never shoot such a scene in this manner. The pain shot is overshadowed by the psychic pain embedded in the script of the rejection of the manchild by this society. Twice in the film he is cruelly rejected sent back home to die, by people who view him only as another burden. This is the sad reality realised in the script, that the love of the children in the family will not be enough to save the manchild from rejection. “Send him back! He’s another mouth to feed!” And given the harshness of the conditions experienced by this mountain society, this rejection is all too understandable.

    Shot in a mountainous border zone in Winter, the film is breathtaking in its depictions of the snowbound environment. An environment in which the people engage in a daily struggle to survive and to earn their bread. But for all that we wonder at the resilience and fortitude of these people, there is also the feeling that Ghobadi has embedded deep into the grain of the film his own sense of the absurd as a cosmic condition of life. The absurd as an existential condition. Even after these people have struggled against the pitiless nature of their snowbound environment, just at that point when they think they have overcome the obstacles of nature, they are then faced with the malicious antagonism of a human agency intent on destroying them.   Bandits or border patrols ambush them rendering their labours futile. Are these people not experiencing an absurd Sisyphean condition of life: that whatever you do however much you suffer, the outcome will be to throw you back where you started.

    The latent absurdity in TDH finally erupts intruding into the body of the film when the horses used to carry the contraband collapse to the ground unable to flee an ambush.    On these journey’s over the snowy mountains the horses’ water is normally doped with alcohol to help them combat the cold. On this journey they’d been overdosed with hooch and instead of being able to flee when the party is ambushed, inebriated and unsteady of their legs they are only able to collapse in a drunken stupour. In consequence instead of at least being able to escape with their goods, the smugglers lose everything. It’s a moment of pure farce conjured up by Ghobadi’s script, an absurdity that can be found only in extremis.

    There is a brittle quality to TDH.   Perhaps it is in the nature of the scenario: children coming to terms with taking on the impossible machinations of a complex and hard adult world, are doomed to fail. To his credit Ghobani doesn’t flinch from the logic of the cruelty that he presents to us.

    Ghobadi made his film 21 years ago, before the invasion of Iraq. Now everything will have changed but certainly life will still be as hard and brutal.

    adrin neatrour  

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

     

  • The Small Town (Kasaba) Nuri Ceylan (Turk; 1997;)

    The Small Town (Kasaba) Nuri Ceylan (Turk; 1997;) Cihat Butun, Emin Ceylan; Mehmet Toprak

     

    viewed on Mubi 4th March 2021

    As light as a feather

    There are four things I remember about Ceylan’s ‘The Small Town’: the feather, the tortoise, the long night and the final shot in which Asiya’s tentatively lowers the fingers of her hand into the waters of the stream.

    What I finally understood about the film is that it is styled as a gentle satire, a satire that is as light as the feather that mesmerises the children in the classroom, and as captivating. Ceylan’s film satirises the state’s use of education as an opportunity for institutional indoctrination; satirises the family’s role in the inevitable victory of the adult over the child and its inability to stop the replication of the cycles of judgement through its generations. But although the satire is gentle the substance of the film centres on an inner psychic structure of emotional ambiguities and conflict, innocence and cruelty that describes within an 80 minute scenario a cycle of time that connects childhood to old age and death.

    Ceylan’s film observes interactions observes relations between both people and people and their environment.   ‘The Small Town’ is shot in a particular place and time, provincial Turkey in the late ‘1960s’.   But it uncovers something of what is universal in the experience of people, highlighted in the discontinuities and intensities of immanent life which is concentrated in its black and white photography that in particular during the long night sequence draws out the expressive qualities of the individual faces which are stamped like etchings on the film stock. Ceylan choosing to exploit the feature of texture rather than colourisation.

    The opening sequence establishes a theme that runs through the “The Small Town’ like a thread running through human nature: cruelty. The cruelty of the world of the child and the cruelty of the world of adults.   The cruelty of the child stems out of innocence, a disconnection between action and pain. In the opening shots, laughing and enjoying the spectacle of his discomfort, children cause the town’s simpleton to fall in the snow; later in the film, Ali hearing from his sister Asiya, that tortoises are helpless and die if turned and left upside down, does precisely this to the little creature they have been looking at. The act haunts him, as it haunted me after viewing the film. Ali is innocent in his actions in the sense that he has not yet come to realise how precious life is. There is no such excuse for adults. Nor do they seem to want any.

    The long sequence in which the family gather together during the night around the fire in a small grove gives voice to both individual cruelties and those endemic in the world that have shaped these people. This scene shot amidst the trees around the fire, closes in about the viewer evoking a feeling of intimacy and awareness with the participants. The camera draws in on not just the individual’s present, but also on the fire which claims a presence of its own, as do the immediate surround of tree and field. The family gathering with its hesitancies lacuna and discontinuities, is presented as a dialogue of men; but the women have presence. At critical moments it is the women who assert a dominance controling the ebb and flow of the talk, the what ‘can’ and the what ‘cannot’ be said. As the men talk the cruelty of war is related both as personal experience by grandad and then triumphantly glossed as a glorified history by his son brushing off the questioning of his nephew, Safet, as to the vainglory of it all.

    After the war talk, the conversation becomes more personal.   The life of Safet from the failed side of the family, becomes the focus of the family’s barbs of disappointment. Safet whose prematurely dead father was also the black sheep of the family suffers the cruelty of judgement. There is nothing good to say about either Safet or his dead father. Not that his father’s loss wasn’t deeply felt, but both father and son are cast as lost causes.  Cutting away from this night talk one of the memorable shots in the film sees Safet leaving home to join the army. Waved off by his grandmother he walks up a long road. The shot observes his progress away from everything he knows. He looks back once. It is a lonely shot that captures the lost boy nature of his spirit.

    Ceylan’s ability to conjure satire out of thin air is marked in the school and classroom sequence. At assembly the children listen to the reciting of the catechism of Turkish nationalism. Dismissed to the classroom they are subjected to more of the same as they are tasked by their teacher to read aloud in rote the solemn justifications for enforcing the rules of social and family solidarity. But as these rules of the game are intoned there is a feather at large in the room. A feather that has possibility. A feather that becomes an amusing entertaining game as the children by deft and targeted blowing attempt to keep it up in the air as long as possible.  Light as a feather it defeats single handed the didactic weight of the Turking state.

    The last shot stayed with me. It seems to be part of a dream sequence in which Asiya, standing by a stream sees the body of her grandfather lieing on the ground; she also spies Safet, close by, bare bodied without his shirt. The which shirt in the next shot she holds up wet and like a shroud, before kneeling down to tentatively dip her fingers into the flow of the stream where the film ends on a freeze frame of her hand in the waters. It is hesitant nature of her action that holds attention. I can’t say I know its significance, but it feels like a premonition of death foreseen.  The boyish vulnerability of the actor who played Safet caught my eye.   Later I looked up the career of Mehmet Toprak who played him and see he was killed in an automobile accident in Turkey 2002, just after completing Uzak, his second film for Ceylan.

    This was Ceylan’s first feature film. Watching it is an extraordinary experience.   ‘The Small Town’ is a film that opens up vistas on life and living, enveloping the viewer in an immediacy of seeing. Ceylan implies questions but supplies no slick outcomes or answers, just the opportunity to reflect. The film has nothing to do with the one thing after another mechanics of script or technicalities of film making as such.   The Small Town is simply an understanding of time and space, and how to communicate them.

    Caylan happens to be a film maker; at this stage of his career he is also a poet.

    adrin neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

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

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

    viewed as broadcast, 21 Feb 2021

    mechanical dulls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    adrin neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

     

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