Friday, 21 February 2020

The Year in Film 2019 - Part Three

El patrullero (Highway Patrolman) [Alex Cox, 1991]:

Watched: Mar 17, 2019

If one filmmaker dominated 2019 for me, it was Alex Cox. Earlier in the year I read his 2008 memoir, "X-Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker", and greatly enjoyed its informative and always self-deprecating approach. I purchased two more of Cox's excursions into the literary world, his 2017 book "I am (Not) a Number: Decoding the Prisoner" and 2009's "10,000 Ways to Die: A Director's Take on the Spaghetti Western", and found both to be of a similar value. Inspired by the books I was also watching and re-watching Cox's films. Of those that were new to me, his films The Winner (1996), Revengers Tragedy (2002), Searchers 2.0 (2007) and Bill the Galactic Hero (2014) are either excellent or better than their reputations suggest, however one film stood out as a definite highlight. Filmed in Mexico following Cox's departure from Hollywood, El patrullero – or Highway Patrolman as it's commonly known – ties with Walker (1987) as the absolute pinnacle of the filmmaker's career. Scripted by Lorenzo O'Brien, El patrullero takes the mythos of the American western – where the lone lawman attempts to remain moral and just as he fights corruption and criminality in a lawless border town – and contrasts it against the conventions of the road movie. The tone is anarchic, carefully mixing between scenes of broad comedy, character development and gritty violence, while the filmmaking is ambitious and creative. This was the period when Cox was shooting his films "plano secuencia", meaning every scene is filmed in a single, carefully choreographed take. The result is a complete masterpiece of narrative, theme and aesthetics, and one of the absolute great films of the 1990s.

Phantom Lady [Robert Siodmak, 1944]:

Watched: Mar 24, 2019

The title hints at something supernatural, putting us in mind of certain analogous Val Lewton produced horror films, such as The Leopard Man, or The Seventh Victim (both 1943), but this isn't the case. Instead, Phantom Lady could be described as a "proto-giallo"; a film noir that predicts many of the conventions and practicalities that would go on to define that particular sub-genre of Italian murder mysteries so popular during the 1960s and 1970s. While it doesn't have the black-gloved serial killer or the stylised death scenes, there is nonetheless something about this story of a bystander taking on the role of amateur-sleuth to investigate a grisly murder, as well as the subsequent confession of the killer, whose grip on sanity has unraveled into tortured exposition, that recalls the practicalities of later films by directors like Mario Bava, Dario Argento and others. Films like The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) and Deep Red (1975) specifically, which capture something of a similar atmosphere, as well as 'cat and mouse' scenes of the "hunter" becoming the hunted. While not as powerful in its emotional drama or as inventive in its storytelling as his later film, The Killers (1946), the imagery of director Robert Siodmak is at its peak here, as the film blends the mystery and procedural elements with a thrilling descent into a third-act psychodrama.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest [Gore Verbinski, 2006]:

Watched: Mar 26, 2019

Dispensing with plot to an even greater degree than the original film, the likable but otherwise thinly-sketched Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), director Gore Verbinski's first sequel to the long-running franchise builds on its greatest strength (i.e. Johnny Depp as the irrepressible Captain Jack Sparrow) and runs with it, creating a narrative that exists for no other reason than to place its central characters into situations that allow for much comic misunderstanding, stunts and orchestrated suspense. The result, a non-stop cavalcade of action and comedy, feels less like a Hollywood blockbuster than something possessed by the cinematic spirits of Jackie Chan, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. It's a film that places the emphasis on spectacle; upping the ante on what the first film was able to achieve and creating a series of visuals and set-pieces that are thrilling, original and brimming with imagination. For me, "Dead Man's Chest" is the absolute pinnacle of the first three "Pirates" films, and is a work that marks the beginning of Verbinski's run as a genuine "termite artist"; a filmmaker working within the mainstream that is nonetheless able to invest his films with ideas, images and scenarios that are subversive, eccentric, or defiantly anti-mainstream. In its scope, ambition and pure force of vision, it's a definite precursor to Verbinski's subsequent fantastic oddities, The Lone Ranger (2013) and A Cure for Wellness (2016).

Dumbo [Tim Burton, 2019]:

Watched: Apr 08, 2019

The experience of the film for me was like the world in miniature; the big-top reverie of the American experience distilled to its key essentials. The real pleasure of the film was not limited to the story and its presentation, but more redolent in what the film was able to suggest between the lines of blockbuster expectation. In its tone and intentions, Dumbo is capitalism and candy floss. It's the triumph of the broken, the different, the "other", struggling against uncertain odds. It's maudlin sentimentality. It's love, both between the child and its mother, but also at first sight. It's the struggle of the independent cinema against the unstoppable Disney machine. It's escapism. It's a circus train moving across the landscape in-time to the clamour of musical instruments. It's prejudice and persecution, pre-packaged in such a way that its message will be understood by young children, but not lost on the parents and adults also in attendance. It's a film about understanding. So many of the current crop of "live-action" Disney remakes are films made without style or personal aesthetic. They exist first and foremost as product; the imagery is there to illustrate the story and little else. Dumbo is not only defiantly beautiful as a piece of cinema, its alive with themes and ideas. While the anti-corporate, anti-big business subtext might seem disingenuous given that the film is a product of the Disney™ brand, it's another example of Burton as the "termite artist", biting the hand that feeds him. The small circus becomes a metaphor not just for the family (extended, as in the 'community') but the independent cinema. "Dreamland" as an obvious Disneyland surrogate, represents the mainstream, with its profit driven incentives, callous treatment of artists and emphasis on merchandising. The film even ends with an image of the cinema as a symbol of the great spectacles to come.

Cloud Atlas [Lilly Wachowski, Lana Wachowski & Tom Tykwer, 2012]:

Watched: Apr 14, 2019

The earnest nature of its message and the eccentricity of its delivery invite ridicule. After all, this is a film that casts recognisable superstars and has them speak in a variety of contrived, even fictional dialects, buries them under heavy prosthetic effects, and even at times indulges in the more controversial practices of gender and race-bending. To see Halle Berry portraying a white character, Hugo Weaving imitating a woman and Jim Sturgess playing Chinese isn't perfect, but it's practical, and plays into one of the more important components of the film; specifically the idea of a small group of "souls" inhabiting different variations of the same characters throughout history. Covering six different timelines and a variety of locations, from the Chatham Islands in 1849 to a post-apocalyptic future world in the year 2321, Cloud Atlas is by far the most ambitious Hollywood film of the past decade. Here, its three directors' cross countries and continents, cross boundaries of style and genre, and even cross the lines of convention and common-sense, delivering a film that for all its fantasy and imagination is focused on a human story of love and perseverance. Like Sense8 (2015-2018), the mostly brilliant TV series that Tkwer and Wachowskis would go on to helm a few years later, Cloud Atlas is a story about connections. Individual narratives find parallel lines that tangle and enfold, while music, words, images and characters echo across time and space. At close to three hours in duration there are many that would argue the film is too slight and simplistic in its message to justify the level of indulgence, but I found it genuinely moving. That the message can be regarded as "prejudice is bad and we should live as better people" was not a flaw for me. I found it beautiful, moving and admirably humanist in intentions.

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Blue Black Permanent

Thoughts on a film by Margaret Tait

"I see nothing. We may sink and settle on the waves. The sea will drum in my ears. The white petals will be darkened with sea water. They will float for a moment and then sink. Rolling over the waves will shoulder me under. Everything falls in a tremendous shower, dissolving me."

- The Waves (1931) by Virginia Woolf

At one point in the film, a character talks about a flower that can only grow in one specific location, a heath on the Orkney archipelago. Any attempt to remove the flower and replant it somewhere else results in the flower's slow demise; its sense of being so firmly rooted to that one singular place that it's unable to flourish anywhere else. It becomes an obvious metaphor for the central character, the 1950s poet, mother and housewife Greta Thorburn, whose early death and the mystery surrounding it still haunts the life of her adult daughter, and provides for the audience the emotional center to this strange and personal film.

The only feature-length work directed by the Scottish poet and filmmaker Margaret Tait, Blue Black Permanent (1992) unfortunately wasn't the hidden masterwork I was hoping it would be. There's a certain inertness to much of the film, an odd disparity between the various timelines, which are necessary to the conception of Tait's story and her reflection on three generations of women, but it often feels like separate films competing for attention. Perhaps this is the point?

Blue Black Permanent [Margaret Tait, 1992]:

The present-day sequences, which act as a kind of framing device, casting Celia Imrie as Greta's grown-up daughter Barbara, a photographer, with Jack Shepherd as her understanding partner Philip, don't really work, and weigh down the better, more affecting sequences of Gerda Stevenson as the sensitive poet, struggling to find a sense of place. Imrie and Shepard do well in their respective roles, but their sequences are stilted and expositional. They feel more like scenes of actors rehearsing for a play than moments that fit comfortably alongside the more visual and purely cinematic sequences set in the 1950s and earlier.

It's a shame, as these "period" sequences are often incredible and reach for the kind of filmed poetry that Tait achieved in her short films, such as A Portrait of Ga (1952), The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo (1955) and Aerial (1974). Like Blue Black Permanent, these were films preoccupied with the same themes of womanhood, home, nature and the elements. However, they were unburdened by the more conventional necessity for a narrative with a clear beginning, middle and end, and as such were free to engage in the kind of extraordinary image-making that Blue Black Permanent achieves only in moments.

Blue Black Permanent [Margaret Tait, 1992]:

Tait apparently took the title, Blue Black Permanent, from a type of ink. This makes sense given the personal connection between Greta, as protagonist, and Tait herself as the filmmaker, as both are writers and poets, and their work is central to what is being expressed. However, I think there are further connotations to the title, which might be obvious but are worth repeating.

Firstly, it could be taken as a reference to the sea; to the inky blue and black textures that define it, or at least the perception of it as it moves against the landscape. It could even be taken as an acknowledgement of the dividing line of the horizon, where the night sky as it appears in one particular sequence, reaches out to meet the ocean, itself a kind of black mirror. It also has a psychological connotation; blue like sadness, black like depression; reflecting the heightened emotional state of Greta during the run-up to her final moments.

Joni Mitchell's landmark 1971 album "Blue" features a similar exploration of the colour. The "blues" as at once an expression, the musical sub-genre and as a state of emotion, and of the elemental themes that are woven into a song like 'The River', itself a personal reflection on womanhood and the image of a corporeal escape or transcendence through a body of water. What Mitchell hints at, Tait's film makes clear.

Blue [Joni Mitchell, 1971]:

Cover photography Tim Considine, art-direction by Gary Burden

Blue Black Permanent [Margaret Tait, 1992]:

That Blue Black Permanent doesn't quite work as a complete film shouldn't necessarily detract from its positive attributes, of which there are many. In certain sequences, particularly those focusing on Greta, both the brief scenes of her childhood and in the more fully realized scenes of her later adult life, the film achieves something extraordinary. The impressionist moments that contrast and connect the existential dilemmas of characters to the elemental mysteries of the natural world overwhelm the more conventional or generic notions of character and plot and become an expression. Not something that is understood or needs to be understood, but something that is felt.

"Felt" in the sense of the emotions, the sadness, the longing, the regret, the failure to understand and the acceptance that life is finite and forever running out, but also felt in the way memories are felt as they're triggered by the various senses, the sound of the ocean, the smell of the fields, the cold air against exposed skin or the ground beneath our feet. This aspect of the film is less tangible, but it's the feeling that the film imparts upon the viewer, the emotions of its characters, rather than appeals to storytelling or narrative engagement.

There are even moments in the "present day" segments, flawed as they apparently are, which give a greater potency to those scenes that depict the inner life of Greta and her inability to share her feelings with her husband, friends and children. The hard cut from disco lights throwing blocks of electric colour across the bopping patrons of an Edinburgh nightclub circa the early 1990s, to a window scene reflection looking out across a beach in Orknay in the 1950s, illustrates the emotional connection between Greta and Barbara; mother and daughter each struggling to make sense of their place in the world. In a single moment, as remarkable as the cut from a row of suburban houses to lines of gravestones in a cemetery seen in Tait's aforementioned The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo, this moment connects the film's themes of disconnection, absence, womanhood, family, home and death, in a way that is both modest and hugely intelligent.

Blue Black Permanent [Margaret Tait, 1992]:

The scenes shot around Kirkwall in the Orkney islands, where Tait was raised, have a real affection for the rural lifestyle and for the practical, unpretentious socializing of the villagers that descent upon the house of Greta's father. These moments seem to belong to a different film, but nonetheless provide an incredible and deliberate contrast to the more bourgeois, middle-class affections presented by characters elsewhere in the film. Here, we get a sense of Tait's real love for the region and its people as she lets conversations play out, savoring every word delivered in that remarkable accent, enjoying the jokes and the banter as a respite from the interior voices that express something altogether more alienated.

While it's a film where the imperfections stand out, where the misjudged moments, the wooden dialog, the kitsch dream sequences, threaten to break the spell of the more enchanting passages, the experience of Blue Black Permanent is no less affecting. Despite its flaws, it remains a still relevant film about depression and the effect that mental health related issues and suicide can have on generations of the same family. It's also a film about relationships between mothers and daughters, the connection that women have to nature and the elements, the need for freedom, for independence. Rich themes that are brilliantly evoked and explored by the filmmaker throughout.

In certain moments, certain images, the film succeeds in expressing these different themes and emotions that must have compelled it into being. The poetic sequences – the way the camera lingers on the surface of the sea, transformed by the iridescent sun; its rays of light refracted off the dappled surface into a kind of mirror ball; a cosmic interplay of light and shadow reminiscent of stars in the blue night sky – are beautiful and transportive. Ultimately the experience of Greta and the character of the film itself, recalls the final words of a poem by Stevie Smith: "I was much too far out all my life, and not waving, but drowning."

Thursday, 13 February 2020

The Word for World is Forest

Thoughts on the book by Ursula K. Le Guin
With additional notes on Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi

"If the yumens are men, they are unfit or untaught to dream or act as men. Therefore, they go about in torment killing and destroying, driven by the Gods within, whom they will not set free, but try to uproot and deny. If they are men, they are evil men, having denied their own Gods, afraid to see their own faces in the dark..."

- The Word for World is Forest (1974) by Ursula K. Le Guin

I've read three books already this year and I'm currently mid-way through a fourth. To say that "The Word for World is Forest" by Ursula K. Le Guin is the very best of them would be an understatement. It's one of the very best books I've ever read! What I loved about the book, first and foremost, was its humanism. This might sound incongruous given how the focus of the story is partially centred on a race of forest-dwelling alien creatures, but the subtext, and the way the aliens become a kind of stand-in for any indigenous race that has faced prejudice, hostility and extermination, allows Le Guin to explore ever-pertinent themes of racism, war, slavery, deforestation, the destruction of the eco-system, capitalism and friendship.

Apparently written in response to America's involvement in the Vietnam war, "The Word for World is Forest" focuses on the efforts made by Earth colonists to run a logging company on the distant planet of Athshe. The Athsheans are a peaceful race and take a passive view of the humans (or "yumens", as they're known in the book), despite the loggers causing irreparable damage to their environment. It's only after a military presence brought in to safeguard the company's interests begins enslaving, imprisoning and eventually abusing the planet's indigenous population, that tensions boil over into an all-out war.

The book is written from several different perspectives and does well to capture the individual voices of those on either side of the discussion. Le Guin balances the perspectives, moving between characters that are enlightened and sympathetic, to characters that are consumed by prejudice and hate. It's complex and never one-sided, but always clear in its sympathy and support for the Athsheans, and in its lamentation for the violence and destruction caused by humanity in the pursuit of profit and power. A short book, "The Word for World is Forest" could probably be described as a novella, however, it nonetheless succeeds in communicating its themes, politics and positions in a clear and concise approach that would make it suitable for young adults, who might still be susceptible to its lack of cynicism, and its image of a world both defined by and in tune with the hymns of nature.

The Word for World is Forest [Ursula K. Le Guin, 1974]:

Many have seen the book as an early forerunner to director James Cameron's blockbuster adventure film, Avatar (2009). Some online commentators have even accused Cameron of actual plagiarism. While there are obvious similarities between the two works, including both narrative and thematical preoccupations, including a concern with anti-war and pro-environmentalist messages, as well as an obvious attempt to connect the presentation of the alien creatures to the supposedly primitive and mystical tribalism of actual Native cultures, I'd still argue that Cameron's film is leaning more towards the story of Pocahontas than it is to the more recent influences of Le Guin and her work.

That said, there is at least one cinematic descendent of Le Guin's book that immediately stands out. In "The Word for World is Forest", the Athsheans (known as "Creechies" by the human characters) are depicted as pacifist, forest-dwelling creatures, forced into a war with an invading military presence that has turned their home planet into an occupied territory. They're described as being like tiny bear or monkey-like beings covered in a thick green and black fur, wearing only hoods and belts.

The image of these characters and the way Le Guin describes their later war with the "yumens" put me in mind of an earlier but no less lucrative science-fiction fantasy, Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983), and more specifically the presentation of the Ewoks. There's even a city in Le Guin's book called "Endtor", which is remarkably similar to "Endor", the Ewok home world. So far, I haven't been able to find any genuine confirmation that the filmmakers involved in "Return of the Jedi" had read Le Guin's book or taken influence from it, so I suppose we chalk this one up to coincidence or "inspiration"?

Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi [Richard Marquand & George Lucas, 1983]:

Co-written, produced and by all accounts co-directed by George Lucas (albeit, uncredited for the latter), "Return of the Jedi" remains one of the weakest of the Star Wars sequels. Re-watching the film for the first time since childhood, there were several obvious sequences and images that I remembered, most of them relating to the scenes with slug-like gangster Jabba the Hutt. However, it was surprising how inconsequential and unfocused the rest of the film felt, especially considering that its predecessor, Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980), is such a masterpiece, and arguably the film that broadened and strengthened the saga to such an extent that filmmakers are still able to build on its influence even today.

While "Return of the Jedi" succeeds in bringing to a close the themes of fathers and family that run throughout the saga (prequel trilogy included), it's still a film that feels as if the screenplay was being written around specific set-pieces and character designs created for no other reason than to sell toys.

However, there's one aspect of the film, apocryphal as it may be, that makes the experience of it, at least from my own perspective, all the more necessary. Attempting to find a link between "Return of the Jedi" and the book in question, I came across a piece of trivia that suggested scenes depicting the battles between the Ewoks and Storm Troopers were modelled on unused ideas and visual set-pieces that Lucas had devised for his version of Apocalypse Now (1979) when he'd been attached to direct the film prior to the success of Star Wars (1977). Hypothetical or not, it was an earth-shattering bit of trivia, and something that made me want to go back and look at the film again.

Apocalypse Now [Francis Ford Coppola, 1979]:

Apocalypse Now has been one of my favourite films since as far back as I can remember. It was a key text in broadening my understanding of what cinema could achieve as an audio-visual medium, and how a talented and ambitious filmmaker could take a text that was almost a century old – Joseph Conrad's colonialist novella Heart of Darkness (1899) – and transpose it onto recent history, elevating it at the same time through a restless experimentation with the cinematic form.

Today it's impossible to think of the film without recalling the surreal, drugged-out, psychedelic insanity of director Francis Ford Coppola's incredible stylizations, from the vivid opening montage of images –  which connect the forest as an almost supernatural entity to the central character, drifting in clouds of war and insanity; transposing the outer-landscapes of south-east Asia to the inner-landscapes of American rock music, drugs and turmoil – to the final sequence, with its scenes of ritual sacrifice, thunder and lightening, and half-glimpsed explosions of primal violence against expressions of genuine poetry. However, there's another version of Apocalypse Now that we never got to see. The one that George Lucas had been attached to direct since the early 1970s.

Working from a screenplay by the American writer and conservative John Milius, Lucas's vision for Apocalypse Now was to shoot the film in a rough, docudrama approach, in black and white 16mm and with non-professional actors. It would've been a marked contrast to the baroque, hallucinogenic approach eventually favoured by Coppola, and would've drawn on the influence of other political films, like The Battle of Algiers (1966) by Gillo Pontecorvo and Culloden (1964) by Peter Watkins.

Culloden [Peter Watkins, 1964]:

The Battle of Algiers [Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966]:

Obviously, the style of these more radical films from the 1960s doesn't necessarily mesh with the images from "Return of the Jedi" as it exists in its current form, but that's not to say we can't still infer some of Lucas's intent for how the battles of his Apocalypse Now might've played out.

Like "The Word for World is Forest", the scenes set on the planet Endor are quite clearly meant to recall something of the realities of the war in Vietnam. What these scenes depict is a rural, apparently primitive or, at the very least, unprepared society, forced into combat with an occupying power that is attacking them with military hardware and weaponry far more advanced and destructive than their own. By using their knowledge of the forest to their advantage, the indigenous, supposedly primitive society, is able to repel the advanced military forces, scoring a victory that is seen as unprecedented.

The fact that Lucas recasts these scenes of battle and bloodshed, earmarked for a more serious or realistic project, with little teddy bear creatures and cloned super-soldiers, shouldn't detract from the political subtext of these sequences, any more than the fantasy elements of Le Guin's book should detract from hers. At the very least, the Ewok sequences from the film of Lucas and Marquand suggest something of what a film adaptation of "The Word for World is Forest" might look like, depicting the same proto-terrorist guerilla warfare that Le Guin describes in her book, but in a vivid, full-colour style.

Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi [Richard Marquand & George Lucas, 1983]:

Seeing "Return of the Jedi" again in the context of Le Guin's book helped to enrich the experience of both. However, it was seeing the film in relation to Lucas's potential vision for Apocalypse Now that was the real revelation. While I may have misgivings about the film, I nonetheless remain a staunched defender of Lucas's filmmaking and rank at least three of the six films he's directed as genuinely brilliant: THX 1138 (1971), American Graffiti (1974) and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005). Larger essay-length considerations of each of these three films should be posted on Lights in the Dusk later in the year.

Despite having purchased a collection of the first four "Earthsea" books a couple of years ago, "The Word for World is Forest" marks my first proper experience reading Le Guin's work. Given how moved and transported I was by the storytelling, its themes and its incredibly visual way of describing scenes and events, I think I owe it to myself to finally delve into these "Earthsea" stories, which include "A Wizard of Earthsea" (1968), "The Tombs of Atuan" (1971), "The Farthest Shore" (1972) and "Tehanu" (1990).

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Parasitic - #OscarsSoShite

"Up to now - since shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution - most movie makers have been assuming they know how to make movies. Just like a bad writer doesn't ask himself if he's capable of writing a novel - he thinks he knows. If movie makers were building airplanes, there would be an accident every time one took off. But in the movies, these accidents are called Oscars."

- Quote attributed to Jean-Luc Godard, filmmaker

Soigne ta droite: Une place sur la terre (Keep Your Right Up) [Jean-Luc Godard, 1987]:

Me, when somebody asks if I watched the Academy Awards.

I've always considered the Oscars to be entirely worthless. Even as a youngster, discovering film as a serious passion at the age of around twelve or thirteen, I found the ceremony completely boring. Worse than boring, it was vulgar, tasteless and divorced from anything meaningful or inspiring that one might get from the experience of watching a film.

It might be lyrical to at least suggest that if movies are life, then the Oscars, or any other televised award ceremony, from the BAFTAs to the Golden Globes, are the post-mortem, but it's not true. These shows are more like the vultures and insects that pick apart and fester upon the rotten corpse of the art when it's been left to rot too long on the side of the road. There's nothing respectful about the process or methodology of these supposed institutions; how they pit films and filmmakers against one another in a tedious competition, reducing personal expression and creativity to something as crass as a junkyard dog fight; mistaking fawning adoration, platitudes and soundbites for actual appreciation, and indulging in and enabling all manner of corruption, manipulation, self-congratulation and empty virtue-signaling.

The Oscars is not a celebration of films or filmmakers, it's a celebration of the self; of the Hollywood machine and its corporations, its committees, its agents and its drug dealers, its liars, its charlatans and its procurers of unsuspecting victims. It's an organization tainted by the worst of Hollywood scandals, and yet year after year they convince us that the gold shines a little brighter. You only have to look at the response to this year's ceremony on social media to see how easily distracted we all are by the glitz and the glamour, by the $100,000 dresses and tuxedoes, by the capped teeth and cleavages, by the well-rehearsed humanism and the speeches about saving the planet.

That the Oscars repeat the same disingenuous shit-show on a yearly basis, recycling and regurgitating the same tired formula, rewarding and celebrating films that no one cares about or remembers five or even two months after the fact, it remains perpetually staggering to me that audiences have any investment in the whole meaningless charade.

The 92nd Academy Awards [ABC, 2020]:

Looking at any crowd shot from The Academy Awards always reminds me of the title of the second album by The Housemartins...

The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death [The Housemartins, 1987]:

...although it was meant in reference to the British Royal Family, themselves parasitic, the association still stands.

It's worth remembering that the Oscars aren't real. Like the profession they're designed to celebrate, it's all just make believe; an expensive fantasy that adds up to little more than an elaborate game of playing pretend. The entire concept of the "Academy Awards" was invented by Hollywood to celebrate itself. They have no artistic or even cultural value whatsoever. They have no legitimacy. You could literally make up your own award show and it would be no more or less valid than the Oscars. Tradition dictates that it's become a cultural institution, or the end goal for what all cinema is striving for or aspiring to, but this isn't the case.

The Oscars have been awarded to some of the absolute worst films in history, and to some of the absolute worst people in the motion picture industry. The stink of Harvey Weinstein still clings to the podium. And the same people that gave a standing ovation for a convicted rapist like Roman Polanski, and then signed petitions for his exoneration, are the ones now calling for greater diversity, the inclusion of female filmmakers, or shaking their gold chains in approval of the millionaire Bong Joon-ho's upper-class baiting satire/thriller, Parasite (2019).

Parasite [Bong Joon-ho, 2019]:

I haven't seen Parasite, but I would very much like to. This rant isn't against Bong's film, although I do think there's something disingenuous about it being both produced and acclaimed by the same people it apparently attacks.

For every great film to be graced by the acclaim of "the Academy", there are a thousand more that are just as great, if not better, that will never be hoisted into the same golden orbit. Why? Because those films and their makers couldn't afford to pay millions on an Awards campaign? Because they weren't in bed with the right studios, producers or press agents? Because they were appalled by the unending abuses of Hollywood and the sad legacy of victims chewed up and spat out by the whole insidious system? Because they wanted no part in the further perpetuation of the belief that art is a competitive sport? It isn't.

The real award you get for making a film is the film itself. The reward is that you were privileged and fortunate enough to be able to tell your story, express your feelings and ideas, and collaborate with countless talented and creative individuals to create the work that will endure beyond your own lifetime. For an industry as parasitic and narcissistic as Hollywood, this reward, and the millions of dollars they generate from such a gift, is not enough. They needed to invent fake awards, formed in the style of tacky little gold men, to make them feel special; to elevate filmmaking away from its industrial, working-class, artisan practicality, and further define it as an elitist, expensive pursuit reserved only for the beautiful and the wealthy. I hate all festivals and award shows for the same reason.

Last year Green Book (2018) took home the "prize" for Best Picture. Directed by the serious auteur behind films such as Shallow Hal (2001), Hall Pass (2011) and Dumb and Dumber To (2014), its win was seen as devastating to the integrity of the whole event. This year, with the aforementioned Parasite winning the same award, the Oscars have been apparently redeemed in the eyes of its sycophantic audience. That it's taken the Academy almost a hundred years to get it right seems irrelevant. This is totally the Oscars turning a new page and beginning a new chapter. It couldn't possibly be another in a long line of progressive one-offs which soon give way to the usual middlebrow films about how racism is bad, how war and the holocaust are tragic, how individuals in real life struggled against adversity to achieve incredible odds. Meanwhile, millionaires in tuxedoes and ball gowns get to pat themselves on the back for their enlightenment, while the rest of the world that exists outside their elitist sphere, struggles with poverty, inequality and exploitation.

To close, here are ten films picked at random that are as good as if not greater than any of the year's "best picture" nominees. I could pick another ten that are just as great, important and entertaining, and even another ten after that.


None of these films garnered much attention from "The Academy", and that's fine. They don't need a chocolate Oscar to demonstrate their greatness; it's inherent in the work and our ability to experience it, personally and subjectively.

Sunday, 9 February 2020

The Year in Film 2019 - Part Two

The Fifth Cord [Luigi Bazzoni, 1971]:

Watched: Feb 12, 2019

The Fifth Cord is best described as a 'giallo' in blue. Its colour scheme frequently coming back to the shade in question, which saturates the image, giving it a melancholy feeling. A kind of day-for-night emptiness that seems quintessentially matched to its procedural elements of urban alienation and police investigation; creating an impression of sadness and isolation that stands in contrast to the sun-kissed exoticism of other films from the same sub-genre, such as Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), Don't Torture a Duckling (1972), The House with Laughing Windows (1976) or the later Tenebrae (1982). As a work of pure formalism, The Fifth Cord is a film concerned as much with the visual representation of lines and shapes, or blocks of colour and light streaming through vertical and horizontal blinds, as it is in the machinations of the murder mystery. Every location is interesting and commands the frame. Photographed by the legendary Vittorio Storaro, who brings to the film something of the same stylisation that he brought previously to Bernardo Bertolucci's great masterpiece The Conformist (1970), The Fifth Cord remains one of the most distinct and visually intelligent films in the sub-genre's history. Luigi Bazzoni is one of the real enigmas of Italian genre cinema. At his peak he directed only five feature-length films, three mysteries and two westerns, and then, following a break of almost twenty years, returned to make a series of documentaries. I saw his later film, Footprints on the Moon (1975), around the same time I started this blog and it was one of the films I most wanted to write about. Like the film in question it's a bizarre mystery, elevated by incredibly ornate art nouveau interiors and Storaro's photography, which, as a subversion of its genre, feels closer to Last Year at Marienbad (1961) than A Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971).

Woman on the Run [Norman Foster, 1950]:

Watched: Feb 17, 2019

The actuality of late-1940s San Francisco turns this already compelling noir into a time capsule of real locations, brimming with energy and atmosphere. As a protégé of Orson Welles, director Norman Foster builds on the standard thriller template and elevates it through "Wellsian" affectations and idiosyncrasies, including formalist stylisations, canted angles and the kind of shot compositions that recall The Lady from Shanghai (1947). However, the filmmaker isn't just paying homage here; the characters are compelling, while the storytelling is relaxed but suspenseful. In the lead role, Ann Sheridan is one of the great protagonists in the history of the noir subgenre. She's resilient, driven and remains sympathetic without having to play aggressively on the standard weak-willed characteristics of "the damsel" as often presented by the non-femme fatale characters in these kinds of films. Even when the narrative requires her to be placed in moments of peril, she still maintains an air of strength and commitment. The final act, set both above and below the boardwalk and between the rides and attractions of an end of pier funfair, demonstrates levels of suspense and storytelling engagement that place the film quite comfortably alongside the analogous thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock, such as Notorious (1946) and Strangers on a Train (1951).

The Last Movie [Dennis Hopper, 1971]:

Watched: Feb 19, 2019

Comparisons to Orson Welles's long gestating and only recently completed "final" feature, The Other Side of the Wind (2018), seem fair; Hopper's once obscure but newly resurfaced follow-up to Easy Rider (1968) is a similar relic to the counterculture, and to that brief period in American cinema, liberated by the influences of Europe and Japan, where anything seemed possible. As a complete work, The Last Movie is at points enthralling, disaffecting and completely disorienting, with moments of visual transcendence. The image of a native film crew re-enacting a shoot with wooden cameras is especially brilliant, as Hopper and his collaborators find a perfect figurative shorthand to the immaterial nature of cinema, its inaccessibility as a genuine folk art, and how the practicalities of making a film, when reduced to this kind of childlike game of performative playacting, are reclaimed and demystified. While the film can prove difficult and even distancing, it feels like an important work that's worth enduring in order to grapple with some of the themes and ideas that Hopper and his co-writer Stuart Stern are presenting. Step back from the film's chaotic mosaic of conflicting plotlines, alienation techniques and drug-induced lunacy, and The Last Movie reveals a sensitive and elegiac commentary on the end of American idealism, "the west" and the western, and the disintegration of the Hollywood machine. It's a frustrating and often languorous experience, but it nonetheless remains a singular and impassioned piece of work that is unlike anything produced today.

Climax [Gaspar Noé, 2018]:

Watched: Feb 23, 2019

The first hour of Climax hints at a genuine masterpiece: something powerful, visceral, original and shocking; "pure cinema" with an emphasis on form, movement and rhythm. To experience some of the film's strongest sequences is to experience one of the most confident and compelling uses of sound and image to convey an atmosphere of chemically enhanced boredom giving way to jubilation, abandon, and subsequently chaos. It falls apart somewhat in the final third, refusing to progress to a deeper level, never quite developing into a narrative that exists beyond the drug trip disorientation theme. That said, I still liked Climax more than any other work I've seen by Gaspar Noé; a filmmaker I usually despise. The film probably had more potential to do something extraordinary, something that reached beyond the experiments with form, or the attempts to shock or provoke, to find a genuine purpose or philosophy that becomes emotionally as well as psychologically transcendent, but it's still a film that contains moments of brilliance, and one that I'm keen to return to. Even if his sincerity and integrity as an artist can be called into question, Noé has always been a skilled technician, and Climax finds the filmmaker working at the peak of his abilities.

Beauty and the Beast [Jean Cocteau, 1946]:

Watched: Feb 24, 2019

It was the film critic Mark Cousins, and the 'tweet' in which he argued that the then-recently released Glass (2019) was to M. Night Shyamalan what The Testament of Orpheus (1960) was to Jean Cocteau, that reignited the spark of interest I had in the work of the artist in question. Having subsequently re-watched both Orphée (1950) and its abovementioned companion piece, I turned my attention to a film that I've read about and seen clips from since the very beginning of my developing interest in film but had otherwise never fully seen. Long since considered to be a classic of French cinema and a key work of fantasy cinema in general, Cocteau's adaptation of the 1757 story by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont is a marvel of atmosphere and imagination. Before the advent of computer-generated imagery, the early cinema, from Georges Méliès to Robert Wiene, was akin to a magic act, where special effects were created 'in-camera' using a variety of theatrical techniques. Cocteau maintains the traditions of those early pioneers by creating fantastical, otherworldly images through simple techniques, such a slow-motion, mirrored images, double-exposures, miniatures and forced-perspectives, and even reverse-motion, all creating the impression of a twilight world that seems to exist outside of our own. The thematic interpretations that have carried from Leprince de Beaumont's text through to other adaptations made since are still apparent, but it's arguable that Cocteau, who was a homosexual, was using the relationship in his film to comment on the marginalisation and debasement of homosexuals in post-war society, as men were ostracized and turned into "beasts" by the prejudices of others, simply because of their romantic desires. Either way, the film is defined by Cocteau's usual interest in acts of faith, poetic gestures, and the existence of doorways, windows and magic mirrors leading between worlds.