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]:

...to 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.

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Things We Lost in the Fire

Notre-Dame de Paris / A Song of Stone

Having just watched Pompeii (2014) - an absolute failure of a film that renders the destruction and devastation of the ancient Roman city as if it were a kind of grotesque spectacle there to provide entertainment through set-pieces of sensationalist shock and awe - I make my way to the internet and find myself accosted by the news that Notre-Dame cathedral is on fire.

The coincidence is too specific to bear. While the daily news is forever full of terrible stories about death and bloodshed, suffering and exploitation, one can't help but feel something of a loss at the news of this sad destruction (partial or otherwise) of a work of art that has somehow survived the centuries. A structure of stone and brick that stood resolute through the chaos of the French revolution, the carnage of two-World Wars, the destruction of various terror attacks and the hostilities of countless protests. As a piece of architecture it has dominated the Parisian skyline for over eight centuries; becoming a symbol, an icon, a statement. Books, paintings, films and plays have been created to celebrate its once-eternal glory. And in a moment, it's gone, possibly forever.

The Fire of Notre-Dame [Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images, 2019]:

Seeing images like the one above not only hurts, on a personal level, but manages to sting even more so when I think about the experience of Pompeii and the horror of its conception. The crass, cynical commandeering of an actual historical tragedy to create moments of action and adventure suddenly seems even more insensitive; reminding us that the reality of the event in which people died, buildings fell and a vast moment of history became lost to the ashes of time, has little to do with the clichéd romantic soap-opera that the filmmakers have attached to it. To think about the destruction of Pompeii in light of the current damage of Notre-Dame only works to remind us that the overall feeling associated with the city's destruction by the erupting Mount Vesuvius is sadness. A sadness for the loss of life, the loss of history and the loss of place. This sense of loss is something the film in question fails to communicate, relying instead on a generic imitation of the Ridley Scott directed film Gladiator (2000), crossed with the dull romance of James Cameron's similarly egregious Titanic (1997).

Reading about the fire at Notre-Dame couldn't help put me in mind of a scene from a greater film; Orson Welles's rumination on the cathedral of Chartres in his masterpiece F for Fake (1973). The words come back to me as I scroll through social media images of Notre-Dame and the damage inflicted by the smoke and flames, and it helps me to rationalise why the potential loss of such a monument to history made me so genuinely upset; more so than I thought reasonable.

"Now this has been standing here for centuries. The premier work of man perhaps in the whole western world. And it is without signature. Chartres. A celebration to God's glory and to the dignity of man. All that's left, most artists seem to feel these days, is man. There aren't any celebrations. Ours, the scientists keep telling us, is a universe which is disposable. You know, it might be just this one anonymous glory, of all things, this rich stone forest, this epic chant, this gaiety, this grand choiring shout of affirmation, which we choose when all our cities are dust, to stand intact, to mark where we have been. To testify to what we had within us, to accomplish. Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them, for a few decades, or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in awe, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash. The triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life: we're going to die! "Be of good heart", cry the dead artists out of the living past. Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing. Maybe a man's name doesn't matter all that much."

F for Fake [Orson Welles, 1973]:

As an addendum of sorts, I'd like to acknowledge that one moment from Pompeii does redeem the experience of the film, and quite significantly. It's in the final scene, which, while still working to fulfil the narrative arc of its boring, unearned love-story, manages to express the sense of life eroded, or of a moment frozen, historically, in time. An image of life itself made history by a tragic event. It occurs between the contrast of two different shots, each powerful in their own way, but more powerful when placed together in unison. In the first shot, a couple kiss and are then claimed by the erupting wall of molten ash and smoke that moves across the landscape, destroying it. In the second, the same kiss shared by the now long-dead lovers is preserved forever, in stone.

Pompeii [Paul W.S. Anderson, 2014]:

I'm reminded of this final image when I look at the sad stone face on the monument of Chartres, as documented by Welles, and when I think of the ruined stone and slate destroyed by the fire at Notre-Dame. As a film Pompeii is still very much a failure for all involved, though especially for its director, Paul W.S. Anderson, whose previous run of films, from Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010), through to The Three Musketeers (2011) and his best film, Resident Evil: Retribution (2012), had seen him arrive at a style of filmmaking that was bold, technically adventurous and arresting in its use of form. With Pompeii, Anderson has returned to the safety of coverage and illustrated text, creating a film that is as visually bland and morally tasteless as its generic storytelling.

However, this one cut between shots, this attempt to express the tenderness of the human spirit, in protest against the fire and brimstone reprisals of the natural world, is beautiful and inherently cinematic. In this context, and in the context of the various thoughts about history, and the inevitable loss of history, art, culture, life, etc, which now form before me, these shots evoke something about survival and perseverance; that we remain. Even in the face of disaster, somehow a gesture, a spirit or the traces of something else, survives. It struck me as incredibly hopeful, almost yearningly so.

Saturday, 13 April 2019


Thoughts on the book by J.G. Ballard

Going into "Crash" for the first time, I already had a distant familiarity with director David Cronenberg's 1996 film adaptation, which, even without the benefit of having read the book for myself, had always struck me as a truncated if still suitably provocative palimpsest of Ballard's text. Having now finished the book I'm perhaps better able to contrast and compare the experience of the two versions, with Cronenberg's film now appearing weaker, more inert and vastly more limited in its scope, imagery and psychology. This isn't to say that the Cronenberg film doesn't stand on its own merits, but rather, to do justice to the book, as an actual experience, the resulting film adaptation would have to be genuinely pornographic in order to fully capture how visceral, prescient and transformative the psychological study at the centre of Ballard's story actually is.

So much of the book's ability to confound, provoke and even disgust its audience, comes from the central conception of its characters finding sexual gratification through road accidents. While Cronenberg's film was controversial at the time of its initial release - actually generating the kind of ultra-conservative "ban this sick filth" tabloid outrage campaigns that are now the rhetoric of middle-class liberals afraid of being challenged or upset - it was too restrained, too polished even to put into images what the words of the book so daringly suggest.

Crash [J.G. Ballard, 1973]:

Throughout the book Ballard describes vehicular atrocity as if transcribing sex scenes from a hardcore porn film; finding something in the crumpled ruins of chrome and steel that's evocative of a genuine orgy of flesh and physicality. The fetishistic treatment of the automobile - in which the author goes to extraordinary lengths to describe each curve and contour of a car's bodywork (or the flashing lights and dials of the instrument binnacle) as if describing the corporeal form a current companion - is contrasted by the graphic physical descriptions of the human body locked in copulation. The association that Ballard creates between the two - which forms the central crux of the text - is intentionally graphic so as to humanise the automobile and to imbue it with an inherent physicality, while at the same time dehumanising the actual characters; reducing them to physical objects defining space.

For the protagonists of the book, who each seem to get drawn into the same strange auto-erotic delusion of self-discovery, it isn't just sex and death, or sex and injury detail that becomes the main preoccupation, but an actual union between the car and the human body. More specifically, the physical and psychological symbiosis between the car, and the destruction of it, and the human body and its own self-destruction.

What Cronenberg's film wasn't able to depict was the obvious associations between the visceral contrast of engine fluids and bodily fluids spurting out across vinyl interiors, or across the wet tarmac of an accident site. The contrast of the car, not just as a legitimate sex object, or icon of fetishisation, but the crash itself as a genuine act of intercourse. Ballad's book sees no distinction between the car crash and the act of coitous; they're both, in a way, presented as perverse encounters, of flesh against flesh, or metal against metal. The physical coming together of the two forms of the mechanical and the human, the organic and the synthetic. Penetrations across different forms.

Crash [David Cronenberg, 1996]:

One area where Cronenberg's film does arguably improve upon Ballad's source material is in its ending, which manages to convey the sense of hopelessness implicit in the book's image of civilisation; that existential, almost pre-apocalyptic feeling of dread and dissolution, of societal collapse. As the world and highways of the film become less and less populated, more empty and deserted, it's almost as if the disintegration of these characters' lives and their acts of transgression and self-destruction are a part of a wider cultural shift that's effecting the entire world. It captures the very 'Ballardian' notion of technology as a kind of virus or contagion; something that infects people, and drives them towards madness or acts of irrational violence. The ending of Cronenberg's film is fittingly absurd but grounded in an emotional plausibility. It has something tragic about it, suggesting the physical reunification between man and woman, husband and wife. It's much better and more affecting even than the book's ending, which I won't spoil, but which seems weakly symbolic by comparison.

However the film misses much of what makes the book relevant beyond its obvious sensationalism; the literal "car-crash" nature of its imagery and plot. For instance it never really feels like a character study. Because it loses the first person narrative of the book, its unable to place us in the thought-process of its central character. In the book, so much of the story can be read as kind of personal chronicle of obsession and mental collapse. There's an irony and self-awareness to the voice of this narrator, which is lacking in the film. There's an element of unreliability, which forces the reader to question how much of the book is a fantasy on the part of the protagonist, or if it's an actual attempt to make sense of something as destructive and irrational as an automobile accident (one that in this instance has resulted in the death of a fellow driver). In the book there is a strong implication that the character is dealing with unchecked issues of guilt, as well as obvious post-traumatic stress disorder, which are each leading him on a journey of self-destruction. Cronenberg's film lacks this important aspect while also neutralising the homosexual fantasies of the character, which he projects onto the scarred, similarly damaged figure of the obsessive Vaughn; the book's (sort-of) antagonist.

"Crash" isn't a book that I love as much as Ballard's subsequent works, such as "Concrete Island" (1974) or "High Rise" (1975), however it does explore much of the same interest in the collapse of western civilization. It's engagingly written, grotesque, sometimes funny, but always thought provoking. Its hints of depression narrative and suggestion of PTSD following an encounter with violence, disfigurement and death point the way forward to the author's later hypothetical studies on the fallout from acts of irrational violence found in the books "Running Wild" (1988), "Super Cannes" (2000) and "Kingdom Come" (2006).

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Agnès Varda

In Memoriam

I don't have the right words to pay tribute to Agnès Varda; that endlessly inspirational filmmaker who predicted the new wave of French cinema with her extraordinary debut feature, La Pointe Courte (1955). In that film, Varda took two professional actors - Philippe Noiret and Silvia Monfort - and placed their scripted melodrama against the backdrop of an actual fishing village; allowing the two strands of a story - one fiction, the other documentary - to contrast and collide. It was a film that advanced on the early concerns of the Italian neo-realists, allowing the actuality of the location and its inhabitants to become not just a counter-point to the conventional drama, but a genuine focus.

La Pointe Courte remains a quiet masterpiece; the debut of a film director who was coming to the cinema not out of devotion to the medium itself, but out of a deep and inquisitive interest in the world, and those that inhabit it.

The Gleaners and I [Agnès Varda, 2000]:

The making of La Pointe Courte [circa 1954-55, photographer not known]:

Unlike her contemporaries of the nouvelle vague, Varda wasn't looking at life through the cinema screen, the theatrical frame or the written word, but through the lens of her own camera. If Rohmer was wrapped up in books and Rivette lost to the stage, and if Godard and Truffaut thought life could only be understood when reflected on-screen, then Varda, more than any other filmmaker associated with that revolutionary period of French cinema, was preoccupied with people.

From La Pointe Courte she would go on to produce a similarly groundbreaking and enduring work in each subsequent decade of her career. Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), One Sings, the Other Doesn't (1977), Vagabond (1985), Jacquot de Nantes (1991), The Gleaners and I (2000) and more recently Faces Places (2017), each show the evolution of Varda's aesthetic, from black and white 35mm, to 16mm colour, to handheld consumer-quality video and finally digital. If the equipment was always changing, becoming less cumbersome, less distancing, more free and inclusive, then the technique, the focus and the sensitivity remained the same.

Throughout her career Varda would maintain a photographer's closeness and intimacy with her subject matter, telling personal stories, both from her own life and experiences, as well as the lives and experiences of those existing within the same vicinity. There were other interesting features made along the way, such as Le Bonheur (1965), Daguerreotypes (1976), Jane B. by Agnes V. (1988) and The Beaches of Agnès (2008), as well as short films, installations and photographic exhibitions. Varda's creative energy was inspiring, and her work remains thought-provoking, visually distinctive and essential.