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  • New Wave to Black Wave addendum to ‘Red White and Blue’

    New Wave to Black wave addendum to ‘Red White and Blue’

    Viewing the films made for the BBC by McQueen about black lives in the UK I got to thinking about the ‘British New Wave’ of the 1960’s. This movement marked a period in British Cinema when a fresh wave of film makers emerged who represented and described a neglected part of the social matrix: the lives of the British Working Class.   This ‘New Wave’ located their films within industrial and inner city locations, more importantly the intention of the scripts was to depict the lives of the people who lived and worked in these places. And these depictions were contextualised and more rounded, more gender balanced than the formulaic presentaton of working class people that characterised the scenarios of most British film productions in the post-war period. For example working class women were often key figures in these ‘New Wave’ films: sometimes as abused parties; sometimes as the lynchpins of family and community; sometimes as emotional amplifiers of the everyday. And these representations flew in the face of dominant cultural filmic norms that kept a tight rein on emotional expression.

    Prior to the films of Clayton, Richardson, Reisz, Schlesinger, Anderson, Forbes and slightly later Loach, my impression is that in British movies the working classes were subject to a more or less consistent character stereotyping. They were shown as funny loveable cockneys, criminals, respectable working people (including police officers) and of course often as servants, honest but poor.   ‘Ordinary’ working people were shown in this manner via Ealing Comedies, costume dramas, other ranks in War movies and as the criminogenic elements in Scotland Yard themed police thrillers. Parallel to the British theatre, the film industry in its scripting of working class people had barely moved away from the familiar Dickensian tropes.  But in the work of the above directors working class lives were centre stage, with camera and scripts focused on them. The political and artistic drive was for authenticity.

    Taking cue from writers such as Osborne and Sillitoe there was often a mood of anger underlying the ‘New Wave’ films. The anger was characterised by a feeling of working class betrayal, the experience of being cheated by a class system which exploited ignorance and vulnerability and left its victims with broken bodies and broken lives. There was also the observation made by Sillitoe about working class ‘pride’.   Working people had their own codes, their own sense of justice. They resisted being patronised but the ethos of the new consumeriusm weakened them, made them easy targets for manipulation.   As their lives were undermined by shifts in the socio-economic system, ie employment, some workers were absorbed into the new prosperity whilst others were simply abandoned, becoming long term dependents of the Welfare State, signing up to a future of drugs alcohol and mental illness. Cue some thirty years later, Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting’.

    Many of the New Wave films read like reports back from another country. ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ and ‘A Kind of Loving’ were commercially successful, but the films taken as a whole were dynamic vectors of information, a kind of trans-social communication path to middle class sensibility about how life was lived on the other side of the economic divide. On re-view these films resonate as socio-cultural historical relics.

    I think there are significant differences and some similarities between today’s emergent black film makers and the British directors of the ‘60’s.  There are two pertinent similarities, which are related. Firstly, there is the use of the social tensions employed by both generations of film makers. Here I am refering not to the actual intra-dramatic tensions that are explored both within the scripts and the filming processes probing class and race interaction. The tensions I am thinking about are those that are excited between the screen and the audience. Both New Wave and this generation of Black Wave film makers intended that their films shock the audience  The films’ tensions cross the line and confront the audience with home truths about the nature of their own society. The audience have to watch the constant battle to find the money to live, they have to watch as two policeman savagely beat up Leroy’s dad, letting him know he’s just a black bastard. The audience have to carry these messages home in themselves and come to terms with the emotions released by exposure to the viewing experience.  

    The second similarity is closely related to the first and relates to the manner in which Black film makers, like their British New Wave forbears, have projected onto our screens an ‘other’ neglected area of life in British society. However well meaning thay may be, most white directors charged with realising scripts involving black experience have tended towards stereotyping or locating the lives of Black people in ways with which white people were familiar. Onwubolu, McQueen and Coel in very different ways fold their subjects within the ‘black experience’, as something with which they are familiar. They are able to present their characters and their relations with both the ‘black’ and the ‘white’ world as complex. As with the ‘New Wave’ directors their grasp of authenticity serves the intention of black film makers to push out through the screen and communicate to the viewing audience its own involvment, even collusion, in racism.  

    Onwubolu’s ‘Blue Story’ is reminiscent of British ‘New Wave’s’ way of seeing things. It is about entrapment, entrapment in a socio-cultural matrix. ‘Blue Story’ is a chronicle of young blacks living in a economic system that has little to offer them. Even their families are unable to provide a protective carapace.   Protection and succour are now found in the gang and gang culture which is all male. In relation to self empowerment, it is black male identity that is under threat. The re-acton to this threat is the adoption by young black males of an alternative ‘home’, the gang, with its own validating system, built about values that in many respects run counter to mainstream rules of the game.   There is some echoing here of the tensions found in ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’ and ‘Saturday Night Sunday Morning’. ‘Blue Story’ seems to me to lack the direct anger expressed in these two films. But like them, ‘Blue Story’ is a report from a strand of social life that sits in our midst, which we don’t see, but has its own destructive dynamic.

    Looking at the output of Steve McQueen and to some extent of Michaela Coel (their recent work all on shown on TV) there is a break with the themes of the British New Wave directors.   The characteristic theme of McQueen and in a different way also of Coel’s, is: ‘overcoming’. ‘A Kind of Loving’ does play out the idea of social mobility, of self betterment, but even so Schlessinger hints at the price paid for this mobility. But the feel of most of these New Wave films is envelopment. The subjects are immersed in a reality where class and class differences in life chances are endemic; those who see the possibility of change and who confront the system, usually experience heroic failure, viz ‘This Sporting Life’.  

    Of course being black in UK society is different type of experience to being working class in the 1960’s, though there are some similarities in the economic coupling. Race to some extent overlays class but with the additional discriminatory factor of racism from all sections of society. Working Class culture always placed its hope of improving life and life chances through the political social mechanisms it forged for itself: Trades Unions, the Labour Party, NHS, Education. There was certainly improvement in Working Class life chances as a consequence of Working Class organisation.  But Black experience was different. Although Black immigrants had their own cultural legacy to draw on, there was no easy way to develop out of this the political and social mechanisms to improve life and to fight endemic racism. Working Class institutional resistance evolved over some 150 years. Black people did not have that sort of time. The solution, for many blacks was to use the system itself and the leverage available within it to improve life for themselves as individuals, to succeed in achieving some social mobility and hope that individual success would open the door to wider community betterment. The idea of individuals committed to an ethos of individual overcoming, is an optimistic perspective that has the ring of an imported value. It’s an outlook alien to the ‘New Wave’ directors of the ‘60’s but one that since Thatcher’s ideological war has become familiar.   The primacy of an individualistic ethos not only had political endorsement from the 1970’s onwards but it’s an idea that underlies much of the output of Hollywood feature films and imported US TV series.  It’s a theme taken up by both McQueen and Coel in relation to black experience and which they exemplify in very different ways.

    What is characteristic of McQueen’s films and makes them quite different from the ‘60s new wave is that they are stories built about precisely this idea of ‘overcoming’.   The main example is ‘Red White and Blue’ which tells an the story of Leroy who joins the Force with the explicit intention of ‘overcoming’ the systemic racism of the police in order to improve the life of the black community. It’s a true story, or shall we say based on a true story (I haven’t read the original auto-biography) but one that is directly out of mainstream Hollywood tradition (The reforming cop, the reforming politician: ‘Mr Smith goes to Washington’) Likewise, in ‘Education’ Agnes Smith takes the decision to fight for the right of her son to be educated in a mainstream school, to get him out of the backwater system of Special Needs where he has been dumped. Agnes’ action is about ‘overcoming’, both the discrimination of race and exploitation of class ignorance.   And Frank in ‘Mangrove’, finally takes up the challenge of his indictment and trial on charges of riot.   Frank fights and wins the case in an almost classic replication of US Court Drama movies (‘Inherit the Wind’, ‘The Chicago Seven’. Classic in the sense that in such dramas the individual takes on the might of a powerful institution, usually the state – and wins).

    McQueen’s precursors are American rather than British, and as argued there are particular reasons for this. To be clear there is no judgement here, implied or otherwise, of this ‘overcoming’ theme. It reflects the reality that in the British context this re-invention and re-casting of an American ideal, was perhaps the only way to oppose the cultural and institutional forces of discrimination in our society.

    I only watched some episodes of “I may destroy you’. Coel sets her drama in a milieu that is similar to American preppy sit coms. The drama centres on a clique of young hopeful successful multi-ethic Londoners whose lives revolve round bars and media, with relationships which are both straight and gay. But although the settings and locations are familiar, as a black film maker Coel has moved her story into new territory.   Coel’s self played hero, Arabella (beautiful arab), conforms to none of the stereotypes of race class or gender. She has made it, she’s successful and it is her look in itself that communicates this, that captures the viewers’ attention. Image rather than script dominates the screen.  Her outfits are visually arresting, but it is her hair, with its different and contrasting styles and locks, that is the medium that is the message. Arabella’s hair changes from shock peroxide to black entanglement, coding her identity in a series of contradictory symbols and claims that assert her right not to be defined by race or gender. Coel has moved beyond the messaging of McQueen to dis-locate blackness from its anchoring in both physicality and place. It is an ‘overcoming’ of any preconceptions about race, preconceptions which are integrated into the scenario where she is eloquently assertive and self confident in her pursuit of the malfactor who drug raped her.

    It is interesting how Coel’s and Onwubolu’s work come from radically different ends of the Black experience, the generative and the de-generative. Onwubolu’s gang members possessing few advantages are using a collective solution to the problems of identity, a solution that involves them creating their own distinctive subculture.  Coel’s characters with marketable abilities and life skills are progressing as individualistic success stories, but like their working class predecessors, they might also find that leaving behind their roots is the road to cultural assimilation.

    adrin neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk .

     

     

     

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  • Red White and Blue Steve McQueen

    Red White and Blue   Steve McQueen (BBC, UK, 2020) John Boyega

    Viewed terrestrial TV, 29 Nov 2020

    Just so…story                       

    Steve McQueen’s film, Red White and Blue (RWB), is one of five dramas he’s made for the BBC about the Black UK experience. RWB tells the story of Leroy Logan, the black police officer who rose to the rank of Superintendent in the Met before retiring from the force after some 30 years service.

    McQueen’s film follows the early days of his career and is a succinct portrayal and accounting of what it was to be a black man in an alien antagonistic environment like the Metropolitan Police in the mid 1980s.

    The early part of McQueen’s drama covers Logan’s extraordinary decision to join the Met. A decision he’d made, but hadn’t acted on, before the racist beating given to his father by two constables. Anyone who knows anything of the black community at this period will know that such treatment was routinely meted out to black men by police officers. It was a quasi – fascist technique used to remind blacks of their place in society. (Before the black community became whipping boys for the police, the Irish immigrants suffered similar attentions). Despite the severe injuries done to his father by the Force, Logan continued with his decision to join the police, seeing the decision as an attempt by himself to bring change to this homogenous close-ranked institution.

    McQueen’s film is a regulation drama structured about the idea of a situation, and it’s a situation that plays out, rather than a narrative.   It’s filmed in the conventional manner, with the camera operating like an unseen privileged witness or observer. RWB is well shot well acted and well scripted.  McQueen’s script works because unlike some polemic dramas it never becomes a formulaic polemic, it focuses on being in the moment, not a retrograde hindsight. It has classic fimic narrative virtues which both constrain it to some extent and but tellingly also enable it to portray the experience of Logan’s situation.

    McQueen’s account of Logan’s life is told not as a subjectivity, using techniques such as voice over, point of view shots etc. Rather it is shot as an ‘objectivity’ with the camera observing what happens when Black people encounter Police culture. RWB’s telling contribution to the cannon of TV is that it tells the story Black people from their perspective. It’s a rendering of the consequences of being black in this society at that time and what that meant. By extrapolation from the evidence today, the indication is that many of these features of police/black community relations, have not changed.    

    The Police as an institution were founded in the 19th century as a civic paramilitary force. From the beginning they were tasked with a political purpose: to suppress any overt unrest among the lower orders. They were established as a unit that patrolled and intimidated (Police officers has to present as physically dominant: vix – the helmet and until recently the minimum height requirement was 5ft 10 inches). Officers were recruited from either retired armed services personel or from the educated working class: a usually conservative gene pool. Like regiments in the armed forces the Police have significant tribal characteristics. The nature of the work promoting a mechanical solidarity relating to core identity (how they define who they are and what they are doing), a core ideology and justificatory system and a sense of being one. That the police should see themselves as White British, carriers of White British culture and values (or at least particular ‘police’ take on British life style – food – mores –religion), and closed off against outsiders, is not surprising. But a new situation arises when the official encompassing system of values and ethics, set by the political and managerial hierarchy, has to change to reflect major shifts in societal composition; but the mechanical value system the permeates the active organisation on the ground, simply continues, unchanged.  

    What happens is that there is a critical divergence between the official code of conduct and the actual operational code, between surface and substrate.  In the organisation those opposed to or with no interest in change (and from the top of the pyramid there may not be any real encouragement or insistence on actual change, the preference being to concentrate on image and how things look {they mustn’t look bad}) simply play lip service to the new code, and mostly continue as before. And of course this is the police service that Logan joins.   A milieu that McQueen objectifies in the person of Logan with its: hypocrisy, its coded language, its barbed interactions, its polite dismissals, its subtle implications of black inferiority, the smirking sardonic comments, the smiles on the faces of fellow officers following Logan’s complaints. These all leading up to the incident in which Logan when chasing a suspect finds that the mechanical forces governing the behaviour of his so-called colleagues close down on him: they refuse to back him up, to go support help him when he is in danger. Except for the circumstance that he is black, this would be an egregious violation of the tribal code: help, look after your mate. Because Logan is black, he is abandoned to his fate by his fellow white officers.

    So we witness what Logan lives through after ‘joining up’. Probably the key element of RWB is the manner in which the Met as an institution is inculpated as a black man takes steps to become ‘One of Them.’ Through McQueen’s rendering of Logan’s account the viewer gets some experience of what systemic racism is in British society through an institution like the police.  The viewer also understands that institutions such as the police where the formal and informal interactions merge in the behaviour of individual officers, are highly resistant to change. They are Red White and Blue, not Black.

    McQueen highlights the heroic stoicism of Leroy Logan but he also raises questions about the extent to which individual gestures such as Logan made with his life, can qualitatively effect change in institutions such as the police, a sort of white man’s tribe. As Logan progresses from situation to situation in the drama, the reaction is: how and why is this man persevering with this? To which the response is: his ideational intention to show the bastards what a black man is – he’s their equal if not better. McQueen’s script works because unlike some polemic dramas it never becomes a mechanical polemic, it focuses on being in the moment, not a retrograde hindsight.

    Looking at the faces of the Hong Kong Police, the actions of the CRS in Paris, the faces of the the Police in Belarus all seem to highlight the contradictions inherent in reforming the police, organisations that operate on the principle of assimilation and absorption not diversification.

    adrin neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.uk

     

     

      

     

  • The Colour of Pomegranates   Sergei Parajanov (USSR- Armenia; 1969) Sofiko Chiaureli; Medea Japaridze

    The Colour of Pomegranates   Sergei Parajanov (USSR- Armenia; 1969) Sofiko Chiaureli; Medea Japaridze

    Viewed on dvd at home, 23 November 2020

    size is important

    Some years ago I programmed Chantal Akerman’s ‘Je Tu Il Elle’ as the first film of a season of her movies.   I hadn’t previously seen it and because I wanted to introduce this season of Akerman’s films to the audience I decided first to view the dvd at home. I found watching it on a small screen was hard work.   In particular the opening sections which comprised long takes of an abstract nature. As the camera panned very slowly (in close up) across the white washed walls of Akerman’s bedroom, I looked at my watch and felt a sense of tedium. Watching on to the end of the movie I was thinking I was going to have to sit through all this again the next day. However the next day as I watched ‘Je Tu Il Elle’ on a large screen, Akerman’s images filling out the field of vision, the experience was completely different. Small scale the shots lacked detail and significance; on the large screen Akerman’s slow spacial pans opened up vistas into which I could enter and connect with her perception.

    On viewing ‘Pomegranates’ my re-action was somewhat similar, some tedium and bemusement about what I was watching. Parajanov’s film declares itself to be a symbolic rendering of the life and work of Armenian poet and troubadour Sayat-Nova. I viewed the series of static but extraordinary framed compositions – comprising carefully assembled imagery – that fed into each other and linked by intertitle texts taken from the writings of Sayat-Nova, mostly of a religious or quasi religious nature. Parajanov’s film was interpolated and invigorated by the sort of music associated with Sayat-Nova; in particular the visceral penetrating sounds of the lyre and the tambour and religious chanting. What was it about? And was this even the question? What is the Colour of Pomegranates – blood? Sayat-Nova’s blood? Probably.

    On the small screen I had watched as a series of tableaux vivants were presented and tried to understand something of what I was viewing beyond a literal itemisation of the images; how events in frame that were connected to the life of Sayat-Nova. Dissatisfied at the end of the film by not being able to engage with it, my thoughts were that this was a film that was made for projection on a large screen. To be seen as intended, Parajanov’s flow of images needed a screen that expanded out into the world and enabled a ‘seeing into’ state of mind. ‘Pomegranates’ isn’t a story; there’s no narrative pillar holding the scenario together. It’s a composition, perhaps with some resemblance to classical music, Eastern or Western, a relationship between form and cognition, form and emotion. After my viewing I could see something of how Parajanov had structured ‘Pomegranates’; but I hadn’t been able to get inside it to open myself to exposure of the contents.   Was it simply a question of system of viewing, that not being able to see ‘Pomegranates’ projected as he intended, was a betrayal of Parajanov? Or was the film in some sort of final reckoning a magnificent visual specacle but flawed or made problematic because it is simply a massive exercise in self indulgence, a film that ultimately Parajanov made for himself?

      My feeling after first viewing was that Pomegranates was a piece of visionary film making. It was like an abtruse poem; and I didn’t get it. But in that first meeting there was something glimpsed just beyond my grasp to which I needed to return to see if it was real or illusionary.

    Not being able to view ‘Pomegranates’ on a proper screen, all I could do was to revisit the film, look at it a second time. This re-viewing would be pre-informed by my first screening. Second time around ‘Pomegranates’ ’ structure would not be a surprise. I had the feeling that it was a film to which you either surrendered or resisted. On a big screen, surrender would be facilitated by scale. I hoped that my second viewing would also make some form of surrender a possible response.  

    Watching ‘Pomegranates’ a second time with a vague commitment to allow the film to absorb me, did release another level of appreciation of Parajanov’s vision. I saw many of the same things that I had seen before in his compositions: the presence of the animal kingdom, the dancing movements and moments of hands and feet, the monumental solidity of stone, the fluidity of water, the soft concealing nature of fabric, the statuesque immobility of the face, all images repeated and brought together in different combinations in the progression of the tableaux. But this second time I was able to link the elements. The movement through the film was not concerned with formal or logical progressions but moved through states of consciousness, each image calling up different states of psychic arousal, sensitising mind to respond. Parajanov’s work is a quasi-liturgical expression of the life of the poet-troubadour, presenting the audience with a series of compositional statements in relation to: birth life death the hidden the known union faith love loss.   ‘Pomegranates’ is about a particular life, that of Sayat-Nova, but it has a universal resonance. A life as liturgy. The constituent elements of the tableaux are simple: the animals, the body parts, water, the stone structures, the icons, the faces. And the faces! The very directness with which they are filmed: mostly still, without movement, without tricks. Parajanov never films the face as a means of exploiting the types of emotional manipulations inherent in the possibilities of Cinema.   The audience are simply given the face.    The faces are as icons; they look out from the film as pictorial affects which draw the audience to themselves and ask the viewer to confront complete and make their own association.

    Second viewing deepened my appreciation of ‘Pomegranates’, not just in relation to the way Parajanov assembled his symbolic exegesis of Sayat-Nova, but also for his ‘moral’ presentation of the material.  Like an Indian Raga or Chinese classical music Parajanov’s ‘Pomegranates’ there is both a cerebral engagement and possible emotional connection. As film composed of images and moods, is an extreme and magnificent act of directorial self indugence, but one in which the humanity of Parajanov, his connection to life makes possible multiple readings and multiple ways for the audience to connect with its extraordinary content. It is not a film that meets everyone’s idea of what a movie should be, but it is a film that can engage an audience prepared allow the space and time to see into what Parajanov has put onto the screen.  After my second take on Pomogranates I felt in the main pulled into its mental and cognitive associations, but only during a couple of the compositions did I feel any emotional affect from the material. One tableau featuring a series of carpets stretched out on a series of lines from beind which figures emerged and engaged in short hypnotic dances, mainly with their hands: for some reason this pulled on me.

    One observation I make about this symbolic rendering of Sayat-Nova’s life and work relates to the religious psychology expressed throughout the film, mainly through the text.   I have no knowledge of Sayat-Nova, but the film – and I only saw the shortened version – has a mono-emotio-religious text, centred about suffering. There is humour, in the strange juxtapositions and off-beat imagery but the psychic line drawn through the film is that life is suffering, a Buddhist – like Christian affirmation of life as sorrow. I had always thought that poets if they spoke of suffering would also have things to say about joy about ecstacy about passion. This one note spiritual emotional message is off-set by the extrordinary music which cuts into another dimension: perhaps that was Parajanov’s answer. 

    The original edited version of the film was over four hours and the version I saw was about 90 minutes. I would not view the long version of the film on anything other than the large screen.

    adrin neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

     

     

     

     

     

     

  • Billie                James Erskine (USA; 2019; Doc)

    Billie                James Erskine (USA; 2019; Doc) Based on research of Linda Kuehl

    viewed: Everyman Cinema Newcastle, 3rd Nov 2020; ticket £12.50

    white lives matter

    I found it disconcerting that James Erskine the white director of this biographical documentary about Billy Holiday should chose to embed within ‘Billie’ the story of the white journalist who provided much of the material that comprised his film. Whilst Billie Holiday’s story is painfully and uncompromisingly black Erskine’s movie feels skewed towards a white audience, empathically loaded as it is by the framing presence of its white female researcher.  

    Linda Kuehl a New York writer and journalist spent the last 5 years of her life interviewing and gathering material for a biography of Holiday. She died 1978 in Washington DC. She fell from the window of her hotel in circumstances that were never cleared up to the satisfaction of her family, who inherited her trove of research.

    My feeling about biographers is that, as for the most part their writing pitches their subjects into the foreground of public awareness, that they should choose to take their place in the background. They shouldn’t really compete with what they are writing about. There are good ethical reasons for this in relation to this type of authorship which to a greater or lesser extent comprises a calculated exploitation of another’s life and life facts.   If the subject is the motivating energising influence for the writing, then a level of humility in relation to them is appropriate. Linda Kuehl as far as we are informed by Erskine always stressed the primacy of Billie’s life in relation to her work. The importance she attached to the documenting of Billie’s life was to try and understand her as a being and in relation to the social-cultural milieu in which she lived and worked.   Linda attached importance not to herself, but to Billie. Whether Linda was or would have been able to grasp the actuality of her subject’s life as black and female is unclear from Erskine’s script.

    Erskine’s movie frames Billie’s life and death around Linda’s life and death. The film opens and closes with Linda and a parellel editing structure is used as Erskine cuts between the lives of the two women. Billie to be sure gets the most screen time, but the way that Erskine manipulates his editing schema results in the two women vieing for the interest and attention of the audience.  The intercutting is given pretext and substance by a number of observations voiced in the film that Linda’s life and circumstances might lay claim some sort of equivalence with that of Billie. Her status as a Jewish woman is cited as an example that Linda like Billie ‘experienced’ discrimination. As if, being a Jewish woman in Brooklyn or New York in the 1960’s and 70’s was a comparable discrimination to the experience of being a Black female performer on the road in the USA. Linda’s problems with men was cited, it was said that like Billie she had consistently chosen the ‘wrong’ type of guy. Fellah trouble! As if Billie’s life, a child prostitute in Atlanta and New York from the age of ten, a damaged soul, victim of vicious segregation and ripped apart by need for black male torment and heroism, can really in any way be compared with Linda’s relationship problems. This is not to belittle Linda’s unhappy experiences with men, only to say they are on a different page to that of her subject. The two women lived different psychic realities, which Linda readily understood, and I think she may have been upset by the way in which her life has been exploited in this movie.

    I have these questions in relation to ‘Billie’: did Linda Kuehl’s family or whoever it is now that holds the license for her estate, insist, as part of the license deal that Linda Kuehl’s story should feature prominently in the script?   The family, and it is mainly her sister who is appears, provided plenty of 8mm home movie footage of her (used rather repetitiously) to bulk out the film, so they obviously at least to some extent approved its form and structure.   If not the family, was it Erskine who wanted to structure the film around Kuehl’s story, feeling the story within a story was a neat formulaic solution to the film’s shape, even at a cost to the films integrity?

    Just questions but as I viewed the film I would have liked to know the answers because ‘Billie’ is a terrible film. In this documentary Erskine is completely unable to give Billie Holiday’s performances the respect she deserves. There is not one number featured in the film (they are all drawn from the archives of her performing) that she is allowed to complete in picture. I think the point about Holiday is that she expressed herself her race her femininity when she sang. The singing is quintessential to her being. Yet right in the middle of ‘Strange Fruit’, which Billie depicts as much as sings, so that in her performance everything is seen, Erskine cuts away from the power of her presence to throw us some litteralistic visual giblets: graphics of lynching’s, faces whatever. To cut away from the visceral power of Billie’s ‘Strange Fruit’ is an act of dereliction, an abandonment of Erskine’s subject. And Erskine does it not just once but each time Holiday performs. Abandonment of Billie Holiday, is that Kuehl?

    The cutting pace of ‘Billie’ resembles a manic pop video with any shot longer than 5 seconds regarded as slowing down the pace. Erskine’s relentless splicing diminishes Holiday’s monumental presence which demands a subdued pace to assimilate. In putting his film together Erskine has abandoned imagination and opted for mechanical simplistic solutions to the problems posed by his material. The film has a lot of audio material from Kuehl’s archive. But to cover the hole in the picture Erskine has resort the repeated use of the same visual cliché: the tape recorder, either reel to reel or cassette. Erskine has nothing more to offer than clunk of the switch and the whirl of the spools, then lay the voice over. It feels like he can’t be bothered to try and develop any other idea of how to handle the voices: no pic cut to machine. He’s unable to work his way out of this tired repetitive trope. This is dead end stuff that stands in representation of an artist who was truly alive.

    Nearly all documentaries carry within themselves seeds of relevance to their subjects. Even when poorly conceived and made, they can retain at least a modicum of interest for the viewer. And this is still the case with ‘Billie’, even though the film leaves something of a bitter taste that even so long after Holiday’s death, it is still Whites who are framing her story.

    adrin neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

     

  • The Death of Louis XlV     Albert Serra (Fr 2016)

    The Death of Louis XlV     Albert Serra (Fr 2016) Jean–Pierre Leaud

    viewed via obscure streaming ap 20 Oct 2020; free

     

    two for one

    Serra’s movie comes across as a reflection upon death, both in the actual and in the cinematic/political sense.   Unlike the monarch he depicts J-P Leaud is of course not dying but the cinema he personified in his earlier career, the French New Wave of Godard,Varda, Truffaut Rivette et al, is all but played out. Like Louis XlV ‘La Nouvelle Vague’ was product of its age. And as Godard himself has said: “Cinema est mort.”

    What characterises New Wave is that it epitomised the idea of Cinema as a way of thinking. The New Wave and the Cinemas of other cultures moving along similar lines in Germany Italy, Iran India and Africa, made films as a means of exploring exploiting extending moving images text music voice sound, to penetrate and open up situations to certain modes of analysis to certain kinds of ideational juxtapositions. The scripts (such as they were) and/or the mis en scenes were not in general built about the narrative form, but rather grounded in ideas propositions and politico/philosophical statements. The purpose of narrative for these film makers was to allow certain kinds of manipulation of the material, for it to function as a testing track for thoughts and ideas. Narrative per se was rarely the keystone of this cinema. And the acting was also distinctive, the characters in the films, tended to represent certain types rather than individualistic personas. The successful actors in these films were those who could simply transpose their own beings into the demands of the film scenario. There was not a requirement for ‘method’ acting or building up a character, back story etc; what was required was professional non-actors. And in playing Louis XlV, Leaud does not play a role or a character: he is not a king he is simply a type, a man who is dying.

    Like The Divine Right of Kings, the legitimising philosophy developed by Louis XlV, the idea of a cinema, that is in part a way of thinking or being in the world has receded as a idea. Production of actual films has been overwhelmed by the default to the Hollywood norm of narrative and the cinema of the Superspectacle. An ideology of form taking precedence over an ideology of content. ‘Apres moi le deluge’ is a saying attributed to Louis XlV, and could also sum up Godard’s final judgement on the future of cinema. Louis in the person Leaud sees the lights go out, not with a bang but with a whimper, killed by the manipulations of his doctors anxious to pin the blame for his death on a convenient scapegoat, an outsider, a migrant.

    Sarra’s movie does not take on a narrative form; rather it is an observation of a process whose outcome is never in doubt: the death of the monarch.   The filming is emblazoned in a rich chiaroscuro of dark colour, predominantly reds. Doctors come and go with their probings and examinations of the body of the king, intent not so much to cure, rather to go through the necessary motions that will protect their reputations. As Louis dies, issues of urgent state importance are brought to his attention and those ministering to his soul come and go. But none of these interpellations, can compete with Serra’s central positioning of a man taking leave of life and moving with a certain calmness into the realm of death.

    Serra’s movie works on its own terms as a study of dieing. A monarch dies like any other human, in the fold of dramas that in the last analysis are rendered irrelevant by death. But Leaud’s presence in his playing of Louis XlV adds an analogous track to the scenario. It’s a phantom track, a shadow that his recumbent body casts over the film, the demise of Cinema. Just as after Louis’ death the advance of social cultural and technical forces eventually closed over the monarchy and destroyed it.

    The French Revolution of 1789 can be understood as an acceleration of the world away from the static heliocentric vision of the Sun King and the Divine Right of Kings, as the worlds of science and philosophy overtook the domain of Louis XlV and left the certainties of his age behind in their wake. And some similar process affected the New Wave as the early1990s witnessed huge wave of technical and accompanying social accelerations. These accelerations closed over Cinema, whose dominance had already been challenged by TV, but which now was submerged under oncoming waves of vibrant new technologies controlling information and communication: video games, IT forms extending into social media, image streaming.

    This acceleration of particle information across different modes of discourse and its transmission created worlds of relevance and immanence that increasingly take the form of closed loops. Worlds where thinking is heretically sealed and characterised by reactivity not pro-activity, and in which situational dialogue the creative spark of life, dies the death.

    Dialogue was always at the centre of the New Wave filmic expression. And of course dialogue as a creative intensifier is the opposite of everything that Louis XlV as an absolute monarch, believed in. In a strange and ironic fashion you might say that today’s worlds of media driven closed loop reality are also absolutist, the consumer is King.   In the 21st century we have returned to a situation in which Louis XlV, as an individual, would have felt very comfortable. To be able to speak without fear of contradiction.   As a culture we have come the full circle, and probably done so many times.

    adrin neatour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

     

     

     

     

     

  • The Trial of the Chicago 7       Aaron Sorkin (USA; 2020)

    The Trial of the Chicago 7       Aaron Sorkin (USA; 2020) Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Rylance, Eddie Redmayne

    viewed Jamjar Cinema, 10 Oct 2020; ticket £7

    The panto never ends…

    Aaron Sorkin’s opening montage of archive footage establishes the era. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is set against 1968, the year of the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the year of President Johnson’s decision to once again massively increase US armed forces in Vietnam. ‘68 was the year of revolution right across Europe but it also witnessed the massive demonstrations that took place in Chicago to protest against the selection of Hubert Humphrey as Democratic Presidential candidate, a candidacy that had not committed itself to oppose the Vietnam war. And it was in relation to these Chicago events that charges of conspiracy and incitement were brought against seven key anti-establishment figures.

    Sorokin’s scenario from the start points directly to the fact that the decision to charge the Chicago Seven with conspiracy and incitement to riot was political. The opening sequence of the movie after the archive section, locks onto the political decision to punish and intimidate Hoffman Hayden Rubin Dellinger et al, and incriminate them for the Chicago riots, riots which the FBI had already established were caused by the Mayor Daley’s police. The decision to take use and manipulate the legal system for the purpose of punishing and crushing opposition to the war, was taken at the top of the political hierarchy by President Nixon. A decision taken in the knowledge that the full resources of the state, its employees and all those to whom it gave patronage could be harnessed against these individuals.

    It must have looked to Nixon like a sledge hammer cracking a nut. But the nut turned out to be of the steel variety and the sledge hammer made of rubber.

    Sorokin’s movie with its script based on the trial transcripts and given visual urgency with his searching probing steadicam, celebrates the ability of the defendants to turn the trial on its head and put to the sword of absurdity, the corrupt proceedings that took place in that Chicago Court room, exposing the lies and fabrications of both Daley’s and the Government’s witnesses, and the biased procedural decisions taken by Judge Julius Hoffman which were aimed at closing down defence lawyer William Kunstler’s ability to defend his clients.

    Sorokin’s film is a feel-good romp through the proceedings, enabling us to cheer on the brave and the good, and hiss at the twisted individuals and parties trying to send our heroes to gaol. At this level it has a pantomime quality, which is OK, and is of course certainly analogous to the purposes of Rubin and Hoffman. But I was less happy with the way in which Sorokin wraps up his movie. We are now more than 50 years on from these events and look on them in the light of our times. It seems incredulous as we watch but we see that some among the accused, Hoffman et al, were found guilty and sentenced to 5 years prison. Sorokin to round off the film using text rather than drama, tells the audience that on appeal, the guilty verdicts were all dismissed and the defendants vindicated and free.   But it’s as if Sorokin wanted his story, the pantomime to have a happy ending. Smiley. We can all go home and feel good that truth is vindicated. But this is a false feeling. Sending the audience out on a high is a manipulation. Because in the light of our times we know that this is not all the story or even the end of the story.

    The drama section of film ends on one of the defendants reading out the names of some 2000 US servicemen who had died in action during the course of the trial. But what was to happen after the trial was the intensification of the war from the air, with terrible toll of death on the Vietnamese people and the use of agent orange, sprayed on the Vietnamese countryside, which is still today causing birth defects where it was dropped. The names of Vietnamese ARE not read out. The continuing destruciton of Vietnam by the US war machine is not recognised by Sorokin’s texts.

    Also what remains unsaid by Sorokin, either in text or otherwise, is that those who were guilty simply got away with their actions. Life went on as normal. The judge, the whole of the political line of accountability got off scot free. From Nixon down through his whole administration and the Chicago political apparatus from Mayor Daley down, the people who had criminally manipulated and corrupted the criminal justice system to serve the end of punishing those who opposed them just continued as if nothing had happened. The American state, conducting the war continued to get away with it. This is not a feel good ending. The beasts got away with it.

    And of course the beasts would continue to get away with it. What the Chicago trial revealed is that in Western democracies are undermined by their inability to hold to account the actions of the executive. Nixon it is true was brought down by criminal investigation, but Bush and Blair both conducted illegal wars, causing millions of deaths in those far away places for which they were not accountable. And Trump encourages home based terror of white militias and attempts to manipulate the judiciary. Since the trial of the Chicago 7, to date, we have lived in a political systems in the West, driven by profit and self serving policy that have unleashed terror and destruction upon the world without restraint.

    This is the message of the the Trial. This is the lesson. Not that one would expect Sorokin to have spelt out all of this. But in his final texts to the audience at the end of the film, he might have pointed to the fact that the perpetrators of the pantomime trial we had witnessed were never held to account and they continued unopposed to conduct their terrible futile war.

    Adrin Neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk  

     

     

     

     

  • Tenet Christopher Nolan (USA; 2020)

    Tenet               Christopher Nolan (USA; 2020)  John David Washington, Elizabeth Debicki; Robert Patterson

    viewed:  17 Sept 2020  Cineworld Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne; Ticket: £12.75

    The Twilight zone of Junk food and Junk ideas

    Christopher Nolan is making something of a speciality writing scenarios based on junk ideas.  Inception dealt rather lamely with the ideas spectrum that it was possible to steal and enter people’s dreams, to use cog’ tech to gain friends and influence people.  Tenet does a mash up script job with ‘the big one’: the Time thing. 

    You need a dramatist to do justice to these ideas but this is movieland, so it’s digits and particles and Nolan is a proven SFX guy employing thousands of squaddie compositors to fill out the action scenario with all that big bang effects stuff.   It is what it is, it’s what the customers want, and it goes well with the popcorn.   Viewing Inception after the release hype had abated I found the development of its ‘ideas core’, about which the action was scripted, like a Christmas tree decoratively arrayed with lights and baubles.  There was little substance to the neurological, the script simply followed its own logic, with the add on science mainly contributing to the ‘one liners’ dimension that made up most of the dialogue.  

    Tenet (Latin for it holds, it holds, it persists) takes on much the same relationship to its base idea as Inception.  As in Inception the grounding proposition of ‘Tenet’ is a big scientific idea, with time- flow and time inversion replacing dream tech, and both productions thereby licensed to use digital effects sequences to bulk up.  In Tenet with a knowing nod to cinematic provenance, Nolan simply calls his protagonist, played by John David Washington, the Protagonist. We are in post-modernist land  where any mix and match cocktail of originary and legacy material goes; and the generic nomenclature helps to cue sequels.   A movie  headed up by somebody called the Protagonist, can be played by anyone: male female tranie,  black white Hispanic Asian etc.  With scripting based on time and the movie within a movie working a  multidimensional trope we are in Fanchiseland. 

    In form and structure ‘Tenet’ is James Bond territory, re-dimensioned but recognisable in form.  At the centre the cool male presence, capable of emerging from some serious fisticuffs with three goons with little more than the casual gesture of adjusting his immaculately knotted tie.  The structure is familiar: the Bond girl, now capable of more or less attending her own business and the villain, a sadist with a Russian accent.  The structure is more or less classic Quest: the high octave opening sequence; the what’s going on puzzler; the training; trips round the world, exotic unusual locations;  the Protagonist’s capture and escape.  Then the car chase and the set piece destruction (or partial destruction of ) a actual Boeing Jumbo.  There is of course the Last Battle and finally the end of the Quest: the Protagonist gets his hands on the Holy Grail, the cosmic ‘the Algorithm’.  Curiously this looks like a section of an ornate Victorian drain pipe (I expected something more abstract, but they went for chunky). 

    As in Inception, the ground rules in Tenet  allow for much po-faced delivery of gnomic one liners between the characters,  ‘We live in a twilight world…’ followed by ‘the knowing look with the eyes’ . The look is very important in this type of film, asserting a superior insight on the part of the interlocutor as to what is going on.  Which in ‘Tenet’ is some claim. 

    To wit as we watch one thing happen after another, with Nolan playing the part of a megalomaniac ring master, the interesting point about the film is its incoherence.  As temporal indicators, inversion, reversion and subversion arbitrarily contort the script, leading the players on a sort of filmic St Vitus’ dance.

    ‘Tenet’ has the feel of being an analogous take on our contemporary situation.  That the flaky logic of Tenet escapes us is of no concern,  most of us don’t even try to understand the systems that mediate how we live. We accept that the way our tech works is opaque, there are no direct connections only the finger to key commands.  We don’t expect to understand anything we just want it to work.  As for time, time, it’s accelerated out of our control.  We are a society addicted to the amphetamine rush of our digital systems where we are overwhelmed by information, the particles of digital tech that have multiplied beyond our emotional and intellectual capabilities. 

    We are now victims of time, powerless in the face of the temporal vortices we have unleashed but don’t understand.    As we view ‘Tenet’  we see the glimmer of ourselves reflected back to us from the screen.   In a dumb sort of way we see everything and know nothing and in our know nothing we can take comfort and distracted for a moment check the mirror and see what’s happening on our phone.

    Nolan warns we are in the Twilight zone. But its not the inverted ordinance of the battle scene that will kill us (inverted ordinance does seem a strange ineffectual sort of weapon), rather ignorance.  And in giving us comfort in our ignorance, ‘Tenet’ , in its own small and modest way, is a product of the times.

    Adrin Neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

  • The Fountainhead   King Vidor; script: Ayn Rand (USA: 1949)

    The Fountainhead   King Vidor; script: Ayn Rand (USA: 1949) Gary Cooper; Patricia Neil

    viewed dvd Sept 2020

    King Vidor’s 1949 movie ‘The Fountainhead’ was scripted by Ayn Rand from her novel of the same name.   Ayn Rand was perhaps the most influential of a group of American writers who in the early 1940’s set about developing the basic tenets and building blocks of a right wing ideology that could compete intellectually with the ideas of socialism.  Much of her thinking is now incorporated into the generic beliefs of today’s alt-right ideologists. Marxism in particular was viewed by Rand and her allies as monopolising the intellectual discourse in universities. Her intention was to provide combative philosophical economic and moral succour to right wing conservative thinkers and lend their world views a carapace of academic respectability. Rand was also deeply involved in bringing Hollywood movies and Hollywood film makers to the attention of the House Committee for Un-American activities. She was of the most active of those engaged in suppressing and arresting any expression of socialist ideas in movies made in Hollywood and the making of the Fountainhead from her own novel of the same name, was intended as a new ideological way foreword for popular movies.

    The mainspring of Rand’s thinking was the superiority of the individual will over the collective will.   Her thinking is this respect quickly started to resemble the vision of the world as described in ancient Celtic and Nordic texts, a world divided into the forces of light and dark. A world in which these opposed cosmic entities were locked in deadly conflict. Rand like others before her swaps dialogue and debate for metaphysics. The Fountainhead sees the visionary individual architect Howard Roark reject the ethos of the crowd, refusing to be drawn down into the mire of its collective mediocrity. He’s a man living by his own lights, a man knowing he is right and will be vindicated, unafraid to stand alone.

    Excepting Ruark’s overweening arrogance, the position he takes is fair enough on its own terms. Roark is a literary exemplar of those who as individuals are prepared to stand up for what they believe in. But Roark’s function in the Fountainhead is to justify individualist capitalist right wing ideology.

    It’s 1949 the USA and USSR are contesting hegemony over the planet, their ongoing conflict focused on the city of Berlin which has been blockaded by the Soviet Union. For Rand the right wing thinker the conflict is a mythic contest between the light and the dark: between the forces of good in the form of the USA and its socio-economic system, and the forces of evil manifested by the communist USSR. She sees it as a zero sum game: one or the other must win. But what would be the consequences should evil prevail? For Rand this is unthinkable. Her position is that it cannot be allowed to take place, and were it ever on the point of happening then the forces of light would be justified in destroying the entire world to prevent the victory of darkness and evil. A eschatological outcome made possible by the invention of atomic weapons. The Fountainhead provides the ultimate underlying specious logic for the destruction and annihilation of life:

    Better dead than Red.

    The key dramatic moment in the film is when Roark learns that the plans he drew up for the development of a huge city housing project have been altered as the site was built and developed. The final structures bear no resemblance to his vision. Roark enraged and betrayed sets the building on fire, watches in ecstasy as the flames raze it to the ground. He lurks triumphant amidst smouldering ruins that were to have been people’s homes but which for him symbolise the forces of collective mediocrity he has fought throughout his life.        

    Roark’s setting fire to the public housing project, is Rand’s message both to American politicians and to her supporters on the Right not to shirk from the prospect of annihilation; not to pull back from using atomic weapons against the USSR. If necessary the forces of economic righteousness and individual freedom must be prepared to destroy the world to prevent the triumph of darkness.  

         Better dead than Red.  The slogan that characterises American foreign policy from 1945 to date leaving its imprint across the whole of Central America, Chile, Argentina, Korea, Vietnam, Laos and now in variant form through most of the Middle East.

    Rand’s underlying theme suggests that whole scale destruction of civilisation might be necessary as a sort of sacrificial cleansing, a way of once and for all banishing darkness. The use of atomic weaponry is not only justified but a necessary act of expiation. And Rand’s belief is that from the ashes of destruction the strong individual will arise and recreate the world in their own pure image. The resurrection of capitalism.

    In court, charged with arson Roark defends his action as the legitimate response of the individual to protect the purity of their vision. He is cleared of all charges. He is justified and assumes the status of ‘The Heroic Seer’. In the last sequence the camera shadowing his new wife, cranes up to the height of the new building he has just visioned and built (inevitably some Albert Speer neoclassical confection). She finds him like a God wind wrapped and triumphantly gesturing out over the city proclaiming his genius and asserting his right to intellectual conquest.

    Interesting that Rand’s position re destruction and civilisation has some analogies to the way in which Hitler and the Nazis construed the cosmos. They understood themselves as mythic beings with a global destiny as racial crusaders to save the world from degeneracy and evil in the form of Jews and Communists.   Nazism was ultimately a do or die endeavour. As Germany slid into total defeat, Hitler rather than surrender to the forces of the allies chose obliteration of Germany and her people, embracing an end of the world scenario as represented in the Wagnerian Ragnarok of German mythology.  To destroy the world was better than to suffer defeat; Hitler and his general would certainly have used Atomic weapons had they possessed them.  

    So in relation to the USSR there’s interesting continuity between the Hitler view and Rand’s. Whereas Hitler saw the Western allies (America Britain France) as degenerate entities with little understanding of what they were doing, the USSR was seen as evil: communist and jew ridden. The fake but mythically construed role of Aryan Deutschland was to destroy the USSR and all it represented. It was the Light against the Dark. When Hitler understood he was facing obliteration, the last months of his chancellorship were spent in part trying to convert the Western Allies to this vision. He was unsuccessful – up to a point. But when the European war ended, Rand and her supporters picked up this metaphysic and charted their own cosmological map: American was now on the side of the angels, standing in opposition to to Stalin’s Satanic masses. Rand and her cohort proceded to recast Hitler’s racial myth as an ideological divide.

    Rand’s legacy is preserved in the proliferation of a large number of right wing think tanks which actively promote the advancement of private interests over public good. To some great extent their influence has shaped the recent development of the economies of not only the USA and the UK, but many other countries world wide. Ironic to note that with the break up of the USSR the ideological war has receded, but Ayn Rand’s mythical ideological opposition of dark and light as expressed in the Fountainhead has transposed back to its original Fascist form: race. Populist politicians in the USA in the UK and in Europe have reverted to a racist mythologies, represenitng their white populations as the entitled forces of light opposed to the masses of deprived dark skinned people, represented as forces of darkness, demanding their share of the world’s resources.

    adrin neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

     

     

     

      

     

  • Touki Bouki (The Journey of the Hyena)   Djibril Diop Membety (Senegal 1973)

    Touki Bouki (The Journey of the Hyena)   Djibril Diop Membety (Senegal 1973) Magaye Niang, Mareme Niang, Aminita Fall

    viewed at home 21 August 2020 from an obscure streaming platform.

    Black claque for white clique

    Membety’s opening comprises of a herd of white humped cattle with long extended horns advancing slowly but surely across the savannah. They move towards the camera led by a herdsboy sitting astride a dun coloured beast with an accompanying bucolic sounding flute on the soundtrack.

    The timeless beauty of this sequence captures the imagination. The steers are noble beautiful animals that caress the senses; the herdsboy an archetypal image of the pastoral given resonance by the flute.

    As an African rhapsody, the images fill out the screen. Then Membety acts. He dashes the image from our eyes as the idealised opening shots cut to the abattoir. In this sequence shot on the blood lit killing floor, we see these beautiful creatures have been led to the slaughter. As they are crudely killed they writhe and shriek out in their death spasm. Cut butchered and flayed they become meat. But whose meat?

    It is to the answering of this implied question that Membety employs both the form and the structure of his movie. To document his theme of a betrayed land and people Membety could have had recourse to a straight forward story line. But Membety avoids a simple narrative structure and deploys the resources of film to create a tightly compressed psycho-history of the disaster of neo-colonialism. Membety’s theme is the exploitation and humiliation of Africa, the apparent rather than real transfer of power, with the substitution of a black claque for the white political economic clique which of course runs the show.

    The male protagonist Mori combines the ‘new’ and the traditional, being herdsman and student. He displays this fusion by mounting onto the handlebars of his motorbike the emblematic skull and horns of one of the beasts he leads to their death. The reality is that machine and bone are only butt joined and will simply come apart, divided into two, like the city where he lives. Membety sets his film against the background of Dakar and Mori’s movement through this capital city.

    There are two cities in Dakar. They don’t meet. One is occupied by the Europeans and their Senegalese high caste claque. It is characterised by fine modernistic buildings, stores, big houses and the highways leading to the escape routes of the port and the airport. The other town where the blacks live, in what the French call ‘Bidonville’. Accessed by rickety wooden bridges built over the highway, the natives live in a vast unending shanty town mostly without electricity or water. A people trapped in poverty betrayed and robbed with no way out, but with their dignity intact.

    Neo-colonial cultural fusion is a conceit, designed to be apparent but not real. The prestige civic architecture is a fabricated cultural mirage designed to lead the populace into the desert of nowhere.

    Mori takes up with the androgynous Anta. They understand their education is also sham, the fig leaf covering the emptiness and bleakness of their prospects. Education gives them dreams whilst spitting them back into the cardboard slums. As there is no future for them in Dakar other than as blacks, they plan to escape to Europe to cross the ocean that hems them in on Senegal’s shoreline.

    And just as education in Africa is a charade so Mori and Anta see that also in some respects, is European power. It’s simply an outer guise, the ability to wear the clothing that marks you out as privileged; the adoption of an attitude of superiority that enables you to take anything to which you feel entitled. Taking up the manners apparel and attitude of whites they steal the clothes they need and with aplomb and without challenge they board the white ship that will lead them to France and away from black Africa.

    Membety moving outside the confines of narrative produces a richly layered ironic witty and lacerating scenario. His film is still fresh and leaves its mark. Touki Bouki with its theme of escape from the intolerable is as relevant today as when it was first produced.

    adrin neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

  • Landscape Suicide   James Benning (USA; 1986)

    Landscape Suicide   James Benning (USA; 1986) Rhonda Bell; Elion Sucher

    viewed: YouTube 6 August 2020

    find film here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ya9t5CUxnH4&mc_cid=b73ede1932&mc_eid=181c5a13e9 

    Alt. Americana

    The opening sequence of Benning’s ‘Landscape Suicide’ (LS) comprises a medium full body shot of a left handed tennis player practicing the tennis serve. The same shot is repeated multiple times but broken by brief interludes as the image fades to black, like the blink of an eye, before repeating. The object of Benning’s gaze is small town America: the sort of place that in the era of the ‘80’s was supposed to represent all that was best in the USA.

    Perhaps Benning, who grew up in this kind of environment, feels that the game of tennis, with its service ritual requiring hours of practice to perfect, epitomises the milieu where nothing much happens, life repeats, obsessively.

    I suppose that the ‘Nothing much happens around here’ descriptive trope set Benning to thinking on what actually did happen ‘around here’. And it wasn’t just tennis. Because these small rural townships were often the locations for homicide, the types of murder one might characterise as American gothic. The killings that happened in these places tended to differ from those of the big inner cities with their racial and economic strains and tensions, where gangs and desire left their mark in corpses and blood. No, these small town murders stemmed out of a particularly American psychic phenomenon; the playing out within the individual psyche of particular restless underlying disturbances, bringing to the surface in homicidal action those forbidden forces endemic in American life. Possession by the unnameable the unsayable. Assimilation by the Gothic. A weirding of life that is finely described by Sherwood Anderson in his 1930’s collection of short stories, “Winesberg’. Anderson’s stories describe a small town community in which people are trapped within themselves, goaded by a sense of restlessness and incompleteness. An American dilemma in which individuals were trapped, waiting for something to happen, waiting for the psychic trap to spring.

    Of course today the Americanisation of life has spread a certain kind of disturbance of the individual psyche throughout the world.  But the USA with its waves of mass killings, facilitated by the gun laws, still stands out as the archetypal marker of the lone killer carrying death within them, the agitation of death.

    Benning takes up Anderson’s theme and castes it onto post war America, an America in which Americans are now no longer just ‘ornery citizens, they are consumers, living in a society where they are entitled to buy into their dreams, to acquire whatever money can buy. A society where restlessness and identity are catered for by a carefully calibrated mass media. A society in which individuals, accustomed to getting what they want, are ever more prone to acting on their desires. The culture of dreams, frustrated unrealisable dreams that mutate into fantasy.

    Benning’s ‘LS’ uses the Court and/or interview transcripts of forensic questioning of two murderers, to act out the testimony given by the perpetrators of their states of mind and their consequent actions. The murderers featured are a young girl who had killed another young female classmate; and a older man who murdered and butchered at least two women (somewhat in the manner of the movie the Silence of the Lambs) externalising his internalised twisted sexual promptings. The murders were quite different in nature but both murderers were characterised by an apparent distancing from their actions. What comes across from their own words was that they seem to have been disconnected from their selves. That both the culture and their own dislocated beings necessitated them directing feeling and actions outwards as a means of relieving an internalised pressure.

    The restlessness and the insecurity of being described by Anderson have by the time Benning makes his movie become an epidemic in small town America. Something about this kind of milieu engenders isolation where individuals are easily detached from the community and retreat into themselves, desires and destructive imaginings pushing up beneath a surface of normality. And it is the surface also that attracts Benning’s intention.

    Framed about the accounts of murder, and always interposed with the blink of the eye, the rhythmic fade to black, we see in their multifarious forms the backgrounds against which his two main subjects lived their lives.   As recorded by Capra, Spielberg and other Hollywood interlocutors with small town America we see the normal: the hardware stores, the churches, the main streets, the diners, the wooden houses, the gas stations, the parking lots. Benning always shows these images in their context: next to the road. The road and the sound of the road is omnipresent in the film, an endless streaming of automobiles going from one place to another. And this is what Bennings captures: linking all these images of small town life is the agitation of the highway, this restless unending movement from one place to another that mirrors the inner life of his subjects. There is no stillness. What you see looks like stillness but it’s not, it is an unsettling vibrating constant.

    Benning’s title suggests a nation that is in the process of killing itself. In retrospect the film’s imagery, the film’s story is now from the perspective of the 2020’s something seen in the rear view mirror of time. The roads are of course the same, but the traffic, the passage of car and truck has intensified: Banning’s landscape has been left behind. We are now living in a world of particles, a virtual world where the constant agitation of endlessly forming and reforming of bits and pixels creates a new reality. America has moved into a world defined less by Gothic more by Sci-Fi, Star Wars fantasies where global suicide becomes possible where the individuals can fantasize and practice mass killings. A world where in King Vidor’s ‘the Fountainhead’ , scripted by Ayn Rand,   the protagonist, an Architect decides on moral grounds that it is better to destroy the World, than to have to exist within it in an ideological form he could not tolerate. Welcome to the USA.

    adrin neatrour

    adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

     

     

     

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