Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Let the Devil Tempt Us

Jean-Claude Brisseau
In Memoriam

According to reports from the French mainstream media, filmmaker Jean-Claude Brisseau has passed away. A controversial figure in contemporary cinema, Brisseau had a style and sensibility that was singular, provocative and often charged with the supernatural. As an early disciple of Éric Rohmer, Brisseau shared his mentor's affinity for scenes of leisurely conversation, where set-pieces would often consist of two characters sitting down in a park or public space to discuss their relationships, the world and the mysteries of the universe. Unlike Rohmer's films however, such scenes were often punctuated by moments of brutal violence, a reverence to genre and explicit sexuality.

My introduction to Brisseau's cinema came in 2014 when I saw his penultimate feature, The Girl from Nowhere (2012). I can't remember what it was that brought the film to my attention but I do remember reading a plot synopsis and finding similarities to two of my favourite films from the same period: Lady in the Water (2006) by M. Night Shyamalan and Ondine (2009) by Neil Jordan. I've always had a personal interest in films about mysterious characters coming into contact with protagonists that have given up on life, and in doing so, bestow upon them a renewed sense of purpose. Added to this a particular fondness for films that deal with myths and miracles from a semi-plausible perspective and The Girl from Nowhere seemed a sure thing.

The Girl from Nowhere [Jean-Claude Brisseau, 2012]:

With its phantoms and its haunted memories, its strange encounters and premonitions, its relaxed conversations and discussions on art, the cinema, loneliness and grief, to say nothing of its thread of self-reflexivity, in which the protagonist's attempt to commit his memories to the page creates a subtle mirroring between the content of the character's text and the fantastical story unfolding on-screen, The Girl from Nowhere remains a fascinating and distinctive work. With its micro-budget aesthetic, its use of the director's own apartment as the principle location and its homemade special-effects, it also provided a template for my own work and the kind of films I wanted to make but never did. To this day, an image  from The Girl from Nowhere sits at the top of this very blog and provides a kind of shorthand for the type of cinema I find most bewitching.

Brisseau made other films that I love just as much as The Girl From Nowhere. Sound and Fury (1988) - which takes its title from a quotation from Shakespeare's Macbeth and has a similar juxtaposition between power structures, violence as a means to an end and the supernatural - finds the filmmaker following a line of influence from The 400 Blows (1959) to L'Enfance Nue (1968) with another film about a childhood on the fringes unravelling into brutality. In this film, Brisseau makes his first great leap in the aesthetic union between social-realism and poetic-realism, setting a template for the concerns and images that would come to haunt his later, more controversial features, such as Céline (1992), The Black Angel (1994), Secret Things (2002), The Exterminating Angels (2006) and À L'Aventure (2008).

Each of these films could be described as mysterious, hypnotic, classical and provoking, and would be more than worthy of a full, essay-length analysis of their respective strengths and weaknesses, and how well they deepen and enrich the political, aesthetic and metaphysical dialogues that run throughout Brisseau's work. In lieu of this kind of tribute please accept this small gallery of images taken from my favourite of Brisseau's films.

A Brutal Game [Jean-Claude Brisseau, 1983]:

Sound and Fury [Jean-Claude Brisseau, 1988]:

Céline [Jean-Claude Brisseau, 1992]:

Workers for the Good Lord [Jean-Claude Brisseau, 2000]:

The Exterminating Angels [Jean-Claude Brisseau, 2006]:

À L'Aventure [Jean-Claude Brisseau, 2008]:

The Girl from Nowhere [Jean-Claude Brisseau, 2012]:

Let the Devil Tempt Us [Jean-Claude Brisseau, 2018]:

Brisseau's final feature-length film, Let the Devil Tempt Us, was released last year (re-titled for English speaking audiences as the less compelling "Tempting Devils"). Understandably, sexual harassment allegations brought against Brisseau following the release of his scandalous but hugely successful late-feature, the aforementioned Secret Things, effectively ended his reputation as a respectable filmmaker of merit. Outside of France his work has drifted into obscurity. Very few (if any) English-speaking media outlets have mourned his passing, or used the occasion to open up avenues of discussion surrounding his work. While one must treat allegations of sexual misconduct with the upmost seriousness and concern, the attempts to suppress the films of Brisseau - or those by Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Šarūnas Bartas, etc, etc. - seem reactionary, if not totalitarian, and do a great disservice to the many actors, technicians and collaborators who contributed to these works, and especially to the films produced prior to such allegations being made.

When groups talk of inclusivity, they often refer to social justice issues regarding representation. More female voices, more transgender voices, more voices from a non-white, non-western background. Such ideals are laudable and worth fighting for. But true inclusivity is also acknowledging that great art can be produced by anyone. From the most virtuous saint to the lowliest sinner, each of us has a story to tell, and a way of looking at the world that is unique, distinctive and possessing of our own inherent truth. Art is a way of looking at the world through different perspectives. Whether the artist comes from a place of vice or virtue, we can still learn something from seeing the world from their particular point of view.

Monday, 20 May 2019

The Lost Art

A Question of Aesthetics?

Below, several images from Sergei Bondarchuk's noted adaptation of Tolstoy's "War and Peace", released in four feature-length instalments between 1965 and 1967, and included here as a reminder that "epic cinema" - even at its most conventional and mainstream - was once purely visual and spectacular in a way that the modern "event" cinema scarcely is.

Stumbling across an image from Bondarchuk's film on social media I was immediately struck by its iconography, its scale, its bold shot composition and its tremendous use of light and colour. Looking at this initial frame was like looking at a painting; it brought to mind the work of the great masters, Velázquez, Turner, Friedrich, etc. Following the link from the initial image brought me to the indispensable Blu-ray review site DVDBeaver where my mouth fell open at the sheer scale and spectacle of its captured images.

War and Peace [Sergei Bondarchuk, 1965 - 1967]:

Images taken from DVD Beaver:

Images like the ones presented above are thrilling because they point to a time when the cinema really mattered. A time when film was the dominant form of visual storytelling and when movies were statements, ambitious in their attempts to create not just stories but images that endured. Such images are a reminder that films were once recordings of events enacted for the benefit of a camera; that when an audience saw an image of a battle sequence involving literally thousands of extras, they believed the reality of it, because the image contained an element of truth. The viewer was able to appreciate how much planning and organisation went into creating such moments; orchestrating the actors and the movement within the frame, waiting until the wind was blowing the clouds in the right direction, or until the sun was at a specific point in the sky.

This is the lost art of the cinema, which has been diminished through the advancements of computer generated imagery. At a time when every aspect of an image or scene, from the location, to the lighting, to the positions of the actors and even the aspect ratio, can now be created and manipulated in post-production, shots no longer function as recordings of actual events. And while the effect of a film like Avatar (2009) - which was closer to animation than live action - was thrilling in its novel use of new technology to build and sustain a world and to present images that the eye had never before seen, it still can't compare to the sense of awe that is felt when we see the interaction between an actor and a landscape, or the scale of an image where every element of the frame is carefully designed, structured and controlled before the lens.

Compare the images from War and Peace to a recent blockbuster, such as Aquaman (2018), and the heart sinks. The imagery from Bondarchuk's film is immediately arresting. It's complex; loaded with ideas, emotions and connotations. There's an element of artifice, which is unavoidable - the imagery wouldn't be possible without conventional movie lighting, special effects and smoke machines, to say nothing of the photochemical processes used to develop the image itself - but the artifice is more tangible, almost invisible. By contrast, the imagery from Aquaman is like something from a video game. It's artifice is obvious and unconvincing. The imagery is garish, cartoon-like. The shots convey no emotion or ideas; they're simply presentational.

Despite the months and months of pre-planning and pre-visualisation that must have gone into making these shots a reality, they're designed and directed without any sense of prevailing artistry. The shots from War and Peace are framed with an artist's eye. They have an authenticity and an ambition behind them. The shots from Aquaman exist because they're necessary to the story. There's no spectacle or tension to any of these images; no sense of awe or wonder. There's nothing at stake.

Aquaman [James Wan, 2018]:

With a combined length of over seven-hours, War and Peace is a precursor to the kind of modern event serials that audiences now obsess over, and that the critics say have surpassed the cinema in terms of their available talent and storytelling capabilities. I'd always found this claim to be spurious for a variety of reasons and looking at the images from Bondarchuk's film certainly illustrates the absolute void of quality between this and the current entertainments du jour, such as Game of Thrones (2011-2019) or the Marvel™ 'cinematic universe.'

Most imagery we see today, either in films or serials (TV or otherwise), is illustrated text. Naturally there are still a number of films made by artistically minded filmmakers who think in terms of images and the context and sub-text that they might express, but the vast majority of consumer content consists of presentational coverage (mostly close-ups), bland colour schemes and cutting to provide pace. A large amount of imagery that we now consume is designed without intelligence or creativity.

While I don't mean any great disrespect by this, I find a programme like Game of Thrones to be devoid of any aesthetic value. Visually it strives to ape the style of Peter Jackson's Tolkien adaptations - specifically the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy - but ultimately has production values closer to Xena: Warrior Princes (1995-2001). Its storytelling isn't much better. For all the acclaim and column inches that have been devoted to its recent seasons, Game of Thrones is just a modern-day variation of a soap opera. It's Dallas (1978-1991) for audiences raised on "Harry Potter"; or Dynasty (1981-1989) with dragons and scenes of sexual assault.

Game of Thrones [Various, 2011-2019]:

Images taken from:

Game of Thrones might be spectacular, like a video game, or like a piece of fantasy wall-art, but it isn't aesthetically thrilling in the way that Bondarchuk's film is. Every shot from War and Peace is a marvel of colour and composition. Its special effects are complex and nearly invisible. Its lighting is stylised but naturalistic. Each frame is its own story, expressing various themes and ideas. By contrast the imagery from Game of Thrones is just there. It's essentially coverage, stylised slightly in a way that might be termed "blandly cinematic", but there because the narrative dictates. The special effects are obvious and artificial. The compositions are dull and lifeless. The lighting is either too bright and flat - donating that the shot was created by having an actor stand in front of a studio green screen - or too dark with a permanent blue tint.

Aesthetically, Game of Thrones, like Aquaman, is third-rate filmmaking. Their stories and characters might be compelling and entertaining, but their spectacle is generic. Rather than beguile or inspire an audience through genuinely creativity or originality, they simply numb the viewer into submission through a combination of noisy bombast and grim sensationalism.

That audiences and critics have elevated these works to an absolute pinnacle of modern culture on the basis that they provide escapism alone shows how far the standards have fallen. This isn't to say that such works are terrible or without merit; I'm not saying that these specific examples are among the very worst that modern entertainment has to offer; but it still seems as if mediocrity has now been accepted as the gold standard.

When I saw the images from War and Peace it was a reminder that the term "cinematic" used to mean something; that shots were once composed with such a level of artistry, sophistication and care that they immediately captured the imagination and were transformative in the way that great paintings can be; that the actual tangible spectacle of cinema - its combination of content and form, the power of its performances and the authentic recreation of a specific time and place - could be a special-effect in its own right. I'm not sure if that's the standard that exists today, or if it ever was to begin with? To be continued.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

Glen or Glenda

"Beware of the big green dragon that sits on your doorstep."

Some might argue that there's a fine line between genius, as a concept, and insanity, as an actual condition, but Glen or Glenda (1953) is a film that goes some lengths towards establishing this particular line of thought as a genuine rule. As a filmmaker, the legendary Edward D. Wood Jr. was famously considered to be "the worst director in the world"; an unnecessarily cruel legacy initially established by the Medved Brothers before subsequently being carried along by the bozos behind the Golden Raspberry "Awards" and later the makers of the boring Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (1989 - present). Certainly there are moments in Glen or Glenda that might suggest such a title is justified, if not a factual truth; however, if we break away from the accepted narrative for just a second and look at the film from a different perspective, there are treasures to be found here.

In 1957, François Truffaut wrote the following: "The films of the future will be more personal than autobiography, like a confession or a diary. Young filmmakers will speak in the first person in order to tell what happened to them: their first love, a political awakening, a trip, an illness, and so on. Tomorrow's film will be an act of love." In 1953, Edward D. Wood Jr. was already an embodiment of the same philosophy. Glen or Glenda is pure chaotic cinema. It's clunky, poorly acted, choppily edited and makes no dramatic sense whatsoever; but it's also transgressive, forward-thinking and deeply personal to the point of biography.

Glen or Glenda [Edward D. Wood Jr., 1953]:

Throughout Glen or Glenda Wood wrestles with ideas of sexuality and gender identity decades before mainstream filmmakers would ever dare to broach such complex themes. His experiences in World War II, his suburban upbringing, his passion for old monster movies and his deeply complicated relationships with women are each woven in and around the film as if it were a kind of dream or nightmare being conjured up by its wily narrator. The film blurs elements of genre movie, melodrama and documentary (the use of found-footage specifically could be seen as a precursor to Jean-Luc Godard's similar appropriation of second-hand footage in Histoire(s) du cinema [1988-1998], or even Orson Welles's use of stock-footage in his masterpiece F for Fake [1973]), while at the same time seesawing wildly between the "grindhouse" or exploitation traditions and something more avant-garde.

While it's easy to balk at the following suggestion, I've often felt that the line between Glen or Glenda and the later films by David Lynch is incredibly faint. This isn't in any way meant to imply that Wood is as great a filmmaker as Lynch, or that Lynch is as deficient a filmmaker as Wood (depending on where your personal preferences lie), but that there is something in the presentation of Wood's film that finds an affinity in Lynch's own aesthetic; something that comes from the same collision between nostalgic cornball Americana and the filmmaker's own subconscious, with its darkness and perversions. The kinship for moments of stilted performance, with wooden line delivery and dialog that reads as unnatural, affected and loaded with metaphor, or that Wood's film plays like a deconstruction of a conventional 1950s Hollywood melodrama, with its rosy cheeked, clean-cut, "aww shucks!" innocence subverted as the darker underbelly of the human condition reveals itself, can't help but feel like precursors to Lynch's later masterworks, such as Blue Velvet (1986), or the original series of Twin Peaks (1989-1991).

In particular, the nightmare sequence from Wood's film - with its low-frequency soundtrack, its cross dissolves, its use of doubles and doppelgangers, its sexual violence, its continued motif of characters emerging from shadows and fog, and its ghostly devil figure (that could be the Woodsman from Twin Peaks: The Return [2017]) - is absolutely redolent of the Lynchian aesthetic. That such sequences were by all accounts included at the behest of the film's producer, George Weiss, doesn't lessen the unique nature of the film or the sense of it being a personal expression for its director, but rather illustrate the collaborative nature of filmmaking and the malleability of "auteurism" as a genuine theory.

Glen or Glenda [Edward D. Wood Jr., 1953]:

Twin Peaks: The Return - Part 8 [David Lynch, 2017]:

Wood's subsequent films, such as Bride of the Monster (1955) and the infamous Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), do more to highlight the deficiencies in the filmmaker's abilities. Robbed of the personal or eccentric touches of the film in question, these later works show Wood as a director attempting to cash-in on the popular trends (plainly speaking, atomic-age science fiction) and finding himself undone by his own comparative limitations. The films lose sight of the individuality explicit in a work like Glen or Glenda, reverting instead to the standard genre tropes and clichés already used (and used well) by better filmmakers. While Glen or Glenda is frequently thrown in with the rest of Wood's work as being incompetent, its lack of technical ability, its low-budget nature and the occasional toadying to exploitation shouldn't be seen as barriers to appreciating the film for its strange imagery, bizarre tone and earnest personal commentary.

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

X Films - True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker

Thoughts on the book by Alex Cox

Roger Ebert, a one-time sports writer who looked as if he'd never picked up a bat or ball or run a marathon in his entire life, turned to movie criticism as a potential career opportunity and became one of the most influential American film reviewers of the late-twentieth century. Ebert's approach was to adopt the perspective of the potential consumer. He had enough of the history behind him to make his opinions more valid than the average Joe's, but he presented himself, absolutely, as the 'voice' of the mainstream moviegoer; he spoke to the people, but he spoke for them as well.

If Ebert loved a movie he would rhapsodise about it the way a fanatic might. If he hated it, then his rage and disappointment would take the form of a condescending rant that framed the film as a joke and encouraged the audience to join him in mocking its perceived failures. He reduced the cinema to a tale of winners and losers, which cheapened the art, but in turn inspired countless generations of film critics - professional or otherwise - who assumed the same voice, the same attitude.

The Simpsons: Season 2, Episode 12: "The Way We Was" [David Silverman, 1991]:

Ebert's mainstream profile and claim to authority was due in part to the success of his television partnership with fellow critic Gene Siskel. So ubiquitous was the pair's particular brand of populist criticism that it even became recognisable enough to be lampooned by mainstream programmes, such as The Simpsons, above.

One of the filmmakers that Ebert initially championed was the British writer and director Alex Cox. When Cox released his first feature-length work, the enduring cult-classic Repo Man (1984), Ebert praised it, writing: "This is the kind of movie that baffles Hollywood, because it isn't made from any known formula and doesn't follow the rules." In discussing Cox's next film, the punk biographical drama Sid and Nancy (1986), Ebert said that it announced Cox as a "great director" who "pull(s) off the neat trick of creating a movie full of noise and fury, and telling a meticulous story right in the middle of it." The tide would turn however with the release of the director's next film, the gonzo 'Spaghetti Western' pastiche Straight to Hell (1987). In his one-star review, Ebert gives Cox the benefit of the doubt, describing the filmmaker as follows: "I believed that he could scarcely do wrong, and that there was a streak of obsession in his genius that might well carry him into the pantheon." However, when Cox released his fourth feature, his masterpiece, Walker (1987), the gloves were well and truly off.

Walker, an intentionally anachronistic and anarchic biographical film about William Walker, the American filibuster who invaded Nicaragua and appointed himself president of the country, was made in solidarity with members of the Sandinista National Liberation Front. Rather than provide a conventional historical narrative, Cox's film, scripted by Rudy Wurlitzer, was intended to draw a line between the actual Walker's misguided 1855 political campaign across a divided Central America and the insidiousness of contemporary American foreign policy during the Reagan administration and the period surrounding the Iran–Contra affair.

Walker [Alex Cox, 1987]:

Walker remains one of the visionary films of the 1980s; a wild, chaotic mix of Sam Peckinpah inspired violence and furious politics, all anchored by an eclectic supporting cast led by a rarely better Ed Harris. In his review, Ebert rewarded the film no stars and apparently drove the final nail into the coffin of Cox's career as a mainstream filmmaker, describing the work as "a pointless and increasingly obnoxious exercise in satire by Cox, the director, who doesn't seem to have a clue about what he wants to do or even what he has done. Although the ads for 'Walker' don't even hint it, this movie is apparently intended as a comedy or a satire. I write "apparently" because, if it is a comedy, it has no laughs, and if a satire, no target." While Ebert had praised the earlier Repo Man as a film that baffled Hollywood, that didn't follow formulas or rules, he was apparently not so generous to celebrate the similarly rebellious spirit found in Walker.

Throughout this early writing, Ebert's attitude towards Cox reads as petty and personal. It's as if by following his own path and refusing to become a maker of prestige Hollywood product Cox had someone failed Ebert and made him look foolish for putting so much faith into those first two films. Look at the way Ebert prefaces his review of Straight to Hell by including a personal anecdote about being asked by a magazine: "which young directors showed the most promise of being the grandmasters of the 21st century?" Ebert feels his response is necessary in this context: "Alex Cox was right there at the top of my list."

Straight to Hell (Director's Cut) [Alex Cox, 1987]:

Straight to Hell isn't a great film - it's loud and formless, languorous and often obnoxious - but it also isn't t a failure. Its post-modern melange of American film-noir, Italian western and British post-punk anarchy predates the recent cinema of Quentin Tarantino by over a decade, while its subtext, of a war between rival gangs manipulated by a shadowy businessman as a means of gaining control of a region so that it can be mined for lucrative resources, predicts the illegal war in Iraq.

By beginning his review in such a way - with a personal shaming that has literally nothing to do with the film, its merits, or the merits of Cox as filmmaker - Ebert was placing his own disappointment at the centre of the discussion. It was less the work of a film critic excavating the text for meaning or emotion than something equivalent to a parent or teacher scolding a child that had failed to live up to the potential said grownup had attributed to them. As an attitude, these observations by Ebert were emblematic of the critic's formative years as a sports writer; the idea of the filmmaker being given a shot at the 'big time' and fumbling it. It also plays into the accepted journey of the director, as most cultural commentators seem to see it, where the success of the individual is measured by the rise through the ranks; that progression from the small-scale independent movie, to bigger, more ambitious, more expensive ones.

The narrative that Ebert helped to assign to Cox's career over the course of those first four films has been reflected in the general perception of the filmmaker's career since. Recent praise for Repo Man from fellow cult-cinema auteurs Paul Thomas Anderson and Nicholas Winding Refn both seem to be framed around the notion that Cox is now lost to the wilderness; that he had his chance and blew it; that the films he made after Walker have been attempts to get by on whatever scraps were available; that what he really needs is for Hollywood to come a-knocking with the perfect script. Having recently finished Cox's excellent 2008 book on his filmmaking career, "X Films - True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker", I'm not sure that's the case.

X Films - True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker [Alex Cox, 2008]:

You might be wondering why this preamble about Roger Ebert is necessary to the discussion of "X Films" and of Cox's career as a whole? Cox never mentions Ebert during the course of his book and similarly doesn't seem to give much credence to the critical through-line of his career among anyone else; let alone privileged move-brats like Anderson and Refn who succeeded (in-part) through the professional connections of their respective parents. However, Ebert's dismissal of Cox's career, post-Sid and Nancy, and the acceptance of this narrative by talented pretenders like Anderson and Refn, is irresponsible, and part of a general attitude towards non-mainstream culture that is designed to keep marginalised content hidden or delegitimized by measuring their perceived lack of success against the greater successes of corporate Hollywood (including the corporate Hollywood films produced by independent or 'boutique' studios). It's also indicative of the hypocrisy of many modern critics who claim to want films that are challenging, that don't follow formulas or rules, but then expect the same filmmakers to be safe, career-driven professions that aspire to be part of the "pantheon." The best filmmakers - the true originals - are the ones that aspire to burn it down.

Furthermore, the narrative of Cox being excommunicated from the mainstream is patently untrue. After Walker, Cox would begin production on the true-life crime drama Let Him Have It (1991). He was eventually replaced by director Peter Medak only when his choice to shoot the film in black and white was rejected by the producers. He was also offered the opportunity to direct Three Amigos! (1986), The Running Man (1987) and RocoCop 2 (1990) respectively; films that he turned down for political or moral reasons. He was also responsible for bringing both Mars Attacks (1996) and Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) to the attention of major studios. That Cox didn't pursue these projects has little to do with his industry status as "persona non-grata" and a lot to do with his attempts to create films in the right environment, with the right people, and expressive of the right politics, aesthetics and ideas.

If Cox is now making films like Tombstone Rashomon (2017) on a micro-budget, as opposed to getting into bed with a Hollywood studio to produce compromised cult cinema-by-numbers, then one has to assume the choice is deliberate. Not every filmmaker measures success by the standards of the worldwide box-office, or by the self-celebration of the Academy Awards®. "X Films" paints a picture of a morally upstanding filmmaker on a restless search for independence.

Tombstone Rashomon [Alex Cox, 2017]:

The book effectively details the making of ten of Cox's films (hence "X Films" - X being the Roman numeral) beginning with Edge City (1980), the author's UCLA graduation project, and concluding with Searchers 2.0 (2007), the first of his 'micro-budget' features. It skips over The Winner (1996), a heavily re-edited "for hire" assignment that Cox directed only as a means of raising the necessary funding to complete post-production on his excellent Borges adaptation Death and the Compass (1995), as well as his two cinema based documentary projects, Kurosawa: The Last Emperor (1999) and Emmanuelle: A Hard Look (2000).

Through each chapter, Cox gives an engaging if self-deprecating insight into how each of the films came together; discussing the main inspiration behind the subject-matter, the political and/or geographical context that existed at the time of the production and the general critical and commercial reception that followed their eventual release. However, he also details the various struggles and difficulties faced in getting the films made. These difficulties include uncooperative actors, meddlesome producers, lawyers with the authority to shut down a production over a single line of the script, distributors who buy and bury films for nefarious reasons, and the slow and cumbersome nature of mainstream filmmaking, with its army of trucks, large crews, intimidating police presence and heavy equipment.

As someone who fell in love with the fantasy of cinema, as defined by the films themselves, Cox's chronicle of the mundane "business" of show is hugely dispiriting; reminding us that the reality of filmmaking is not the magic of Ed Wood (1994), or even the romanticised actuality of Day for Night (1973), but closer perhaps to the autocratic nightmares of Terry Gilliam's dystopian satire Brazil (1985). For this reason alone the book should be seen as required reading for all would-be filmmakers, film-critics and film-enthusiasts of all backgrounds and persuasions. It demystifies the process of independent filmmaking in the shadow of modern Hollywood and its insights into this world are both practical and invaluable.

Moviedrome [BBC, 1988-2000]:

Cox of course has prior form when it comes to discussing films in an engaging and self-deprecating manner. As the original host of the BBC's Moviedrome series, Cox played Roger Ebert at his own game, introducing countless cult film titles to mainstream television audiences from 1988 to 1994. In 1997, the esteemed Mark Cousins would take over hosting duties until the series ended.

For me "X Films" is one of the great books about filmmaking. It's funny, informal and always informative. It's packed with anecdotes and choice namedropping, and paints Cox as a genuinely humanist figure who cares very deeply about his collaborators, and isn't too precious to acknowledge their influence in shaping many of the best scenes and images from his work. As much as Cox's career has been framed around the cult-success of both Repo Man and Sid and Nancy, or even the perceived "failures" of Walker and Straight to Hell, he's nonetheless continued to make films that possess the same spirit of post-modern experimentation, non-conformism, personal integrity and imagination. To quote the recently deceased Scott Walker from the lyrics of his song Patriot (A Single): he "never sold out."

Cox's best films work to combine genres and influences. In this sense he was ahead of his time. Looking back at the independent American cinema of the 1990s, defined as it was by the post-modern genre play of filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and the Coen Brothers (to name a few), it's impossible not to see films like Repo Man, Straight to Hell, Walker, etc. as the early forerunners of this particular cinematic zeitgeist. That Cox was denied acclaim for the kind of filmmaking that would become, post-Tarantino, the standard among the populist auteurs, must have hurt. And yet there's no bitterness to "X Films"; perhaps because Cox knows that his best work - which also includes the later efforts El Patrullero (1991), Death and the Compass, Three Businessmen (1998) and Revengers Tragedy (2002) - exist on their own terms and no one else's.

Saturday, 20 April 2019

The Crimes of Grindelwald

Notes on the pressing politics of the film:
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)

Undoubtedly, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018) is a flawed film. Flawed in the sense that even now, thinking about the conclusion several months after the initial viewing, I'm still reminded of the unanswered questions, the character inconsistencies and the bizarre narrative loose-ends that defined the overall experience. Some (but not all) of these issues will be cited towards the end of the text, but for now I wanted to focus exclusively on a facet of the film that was successful; specifically the film's pointed political subtext, which feels necessary, and perfectly tailored to its intended audience.

The film's predecessor, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016), had been something of a revelation for me. Seeing the film for the first time early last year (and with no prior relationship or emotional investment with the "Harry Potter" mythology) I'd expected something that was at best mildly entertaining, if not thematically disposable. Surprisingly however, the first "Fantastic Beasts" film wasn't just entertaining as a work of fiction, it was also interesting and genuinely progressive; elevating the standard CGI fantasy tropes and second-hand Potter references with its relevant themes, unconventional characters and astonishingly powerful subtext.

What I loved most about "Fantastic Beasts" was that it seemed to go against the conventions of the average Hollywood blockbuster; creating a central character in Newt Scamander that was shy, socially-awkward, pacifistic, non-confrontational, passionate about nature, intellectual without being smug and sensitive to the suffering of others. I also loved how the film was largely about the dangers of prejudice; how the relationship between the 'wizarding' and 'non-wizarding' worlds was used as a metaphor for historical segregation, and how the third act of the film carried an incredibly moving commentary on the realities of abuse trauma; how the pain of abuse can manifest within the victim as a figurative darkness that destroys everything.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them [David Yates, 2016]:

 Prejudice preys on the weak. Percival Graves, avatar for Grindelwald, fills Credence with hate and bitterness.

This second instalment takes the same sub-textual, socio-political ideas a step further. From the moment Johnny Depp's black-clad, leather-booted Grindelwald steps out onto the cobbled-streets of 1920s Paris, it's clear the filmmakers are evoking the Nazi occupation. In both his ideology and general appearance, Grindelwald from the start is a fascistic archetype; his pale skin and shock of white hair evoking the image of the Aryan Übermensch. Similarly, the way Grindelwald encourages his fellow wizards to join the cause by playing on the second-class nature of humans and our capacity for war and prejudice, carries with it some very ominous similarities to the "know-your-enemy" fear-mongering used during the rise of National Socialism (to say nothing of the similarly divisive language of certain far-right commentators currently gaining momentum across Europe and the U.S.)

To make the association obvious, the film's standout sequence has Grindelwald delivering a speech to a vast public assembly within the grounds of what appears to be a grand Albert Speer-like amphitheatre. As he outlines his 'anti-human' ideology, the title-character conjures up a CGI nightmare of mid-20th century atrocity; one that will no doubt appear astonishing to a child-audience unfamiliar with the horrors of Auschwitz or the bombing of Hiroshima, but one that also carries a tremendous sense of weight and emotional catharsis for the adult-audience as well. For me it was by far the most radical scene in the entire film and one of the great cinematic sequences from any film of 2018.

In terms of its stylisation the scene is shot and organised like a Leni Riefenstahl film. It frames Grindelwald against the seething masses of his gathered followers there to hear him speak. It cross-cuts his impassioned call for revolution with close-ups of his stoical audience gazing in contemplation. As an example of the filmmakers using blockbuster techniques to engage in something that feels pointedly political and essential to the current cultural conversation, the entire sequence seems astounding; creating an obvious metaphorical counterpoint on the lure of prejudice that is far more intelligent and nuanced than anything in Guillermo del Toro's widely acclaimed but simple-minded "love conquers all" fable, The Shape of Water (2017), and far more applicable to its target audience as well.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald [David Yates, 2018]:

Grindelwald's informal address to the assembly becomes a genuine political rally. One in which the rogue wizard attempts to turn the tide of popular opinion against the non-wizarding world. The look, the design, the rhetoric spouted by the title character and the general iconography are each indicative of a deliberate effort to connect the past...

Triumph of the Will [Leni Riefenstahl, 1934]: the present.

Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally in Dallas [Tom Pennington/Getty Images, 2016]:

In doing so, the filmmakers are not just drawing a parallel between the politics of 'then' and the politics of 'now'; they're attempting to use the  inherent distance created by the story's fantasy context to safely explore ideas of fascism, extremism and the way politics can be infected by populism (which can itself satiate a view of prejudice, disillusionment and fear).

The whole sequence remains incredibly significant to our understanding of the film's politics, and more specifically to its commentary on the politics of populism. It shows how a charismatic politician can play on the prejudices of individuals in order exploit their sense of disillusionment, and how well they can twist and exaggerate public fears in order to gain power and achieve their own political ends. In this sense Grindelwald is also a surrogate for the current President of the United States, Donald J. Trump. That the filmmakers present their 'Trumpian' avatar as someone seductive, charismatic, even convincing - and not as some evil two-dimensional monster that's as physically repulsive as they are morally so - suggests a great deal of nuance. Just as cigarettes, alcohol and unhealthy foods aren't historically sold in hideous packaging that show the reality of what the individual is consuming, neither is fascism.

For all the cheap targets one can fall back on in ridiculing Trump's position - the childish body-shaming, the jokes about "orange-skin", etc. - the bitter truth of the matter is that he spoke to the people; he spoke to their fears and concerns, told them things would get worse, positioned himself as the only man in America willing to do something about it. As much as one might find his stance deplorable, or his attitude childish or narcissistic, the fact remains, he spoke and the people listened.

In presenting a reflection of this in the context of the film, screenwriter JK Rowling succeeds in showing how previously rational, likeable and even sympathetic characters, such as Credence and Queenie, can have their heads turned by extremism. The way political parties can manipulate a particular perspective, arguing that left is right or down is up; convincing people that the changes that pose the greatest threat to the most vulnerable of society are changes for our greater good. It's a remarkable example – even more so given its appearance in a film aimed at young children – of how fascism throughout history has succeeded; not through violence and threat, but by exploiting innate human weaknesses.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald [David Yates, 2018]:

Grindelwald's premonition of the approaching human atrocity sees a projection of the bombing of Dresden, the death camps at Auschwitz and finally the bombing of Hiroshima. Keep in mind the film's 1920s setting, its backdrop of the financial crisis and the looming poverty and austerity of the Depression, and compare it to the modern world, its financial instability, its suspicion, its fear of the other, etc. All factors that make a populace easy to manipulate.

Twin Peaks: The Return - Part 8 [David Lynch, 2016]:

An adequate screenshot of the atomic bomb blast that closes Grindelwald's propagandist vision wasn't available at the time of writing, but let's contrast and compare it to this significant moment from the 8th episode of Twin Peaks: The Return. Here, David Lynch and co-writer Mark Frost present a kind of Twin Peaks origin story in which the detonation of the atomic bomb becomes a sort-of catalyst; a moment that seemingly gives birth to the darkness that eventually corrupts us all.

By the end of the film even the previously pacifist and non-confrontational Newt Scamander has been forced to 'choose a side.' This parallels the same journey of the titular boy wizard character in Rowling's other well-known property, "Harry Potter", who begins the series in a state of innocence and/or wonder, and ends it as a battle-scarred warrior framed against a landscape of violence and devastation. For Rowling the implication seems to be that some wars are justifiable; that even the pacifist or the innocent must eventually cast aside their anti-war ideals to fight the good fight.

On a personal level, I'm not sure I agree with this, but nonetheless, it's been the prevailing attitude throughout history and unfortunately unlikely to change. If the "Harry Potter" saga eventually became a kind of figurative mirroring to the millennial experience as shaped by a culture of terror attacks and war in the middle-east, then one could assume that with this film Rowling is drawing a line from the past to the present in order to create not just a reflection but a warning. A call to vigilance rather than action, both in the presentation of Grindelwald (and the real-life associations therein) as well as in the acknowledgement that the wars such people incite, have, historically, forced people into action; that with this in mind we should stamp-out fascism at the very root (the ideology; the belief) so that such wars need never happen again.

Which is why I think the message of the film is significant, especially in the lessons it provides to its young audience. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald may be a flawed work - a film that at no point ever feels like a complete narrative with a beginning, middle and end, but like a necessity, only existing in order to justify a third instalment in the franchise; a veritable mess of subplots and conflicting characters, half-written back-stories and unanswered questions - but it's a work that still communicates something to the betterment of society.