Mag Culture reviews Shelf Heroes issue A

One of the film blogs out there I have a particular soft spot for is Ben Smith’s Shelf Heroes. There are a lot of things going for it, from the great design to the all-encompassing curation that takes in the artiest of art house films to the basest of nonsense. The reviews are always considered and if that’s not enough for you you can win films there as well.

For some reason Ben has been foolish enough to risk publishing some of my thoughts there, on Boyhood and Cronenberg’s early film Shivers. So when he told me he was planning a series of film magazines running from A-Z? Well naturally I jumped at the chance to be part of it.

Issue A came out looking pretty sweet, as you can see. Mag Culture picked up on it as well, and gave it a glowing write up. That essay on Aguirre nodded to at the end? Yep.

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Amour is the latest film from Michael Haneke. It is a frank and hugely affecting study of how strokes destroy people. If, somehow, you managed to miss all mention of it at the start of the year then clearly you weren’t paying attention to the Oscars. It won the Best Foreign Language and also received nominations for Best Actress for Emmanuelle Riva, Best Original Screenplay and Best Director. Or to put it another way, how was the rock? Cosy under there, is it?

Haneke only has a few films to his name but, of the ones I have seen, they are powerful pieces. His tendency of favouring a realist presentation of matters is typically undermined by aspects, sometimes just brief moments, of external influences. If you’ve seen either version of Funny Games (and they are shot-for-shot clones of each other) you will recognise the very real brutality and terror throughout is greatly amplified by the moment of deus ex machina at the end. Haneke, in 30 seconds of film, makes you complicit. That glorious detachment that makes horror, slasher, suspense and other genres based on human suffering palatable is whipped away. The White Ribbon doesn’t even allow you the comfort of understanding and is instead pervaded by malice, omnipresent and anonymous (Joon-ho Bong‘s Memories of Murder touches on similar themes, incidentally).

At first these musings on violence may seem hard to reconcile with a Amour, which documents the power of love in the face of mortality. Georges and Anne love each other, have spent their lives together, are interdependent, one and the same. Considering people breaking in with golf clubs and no empathy, or violent deeds with no perpetrator, seems to have no place here. Haneke’s unflinching document concerns how strokes debilitate the strongest of wills, and smother them with uniform aspects of suffering. Anne has a fearsome wit, but with each passing affliction she becomes more anonymous, steps further away from her personality and closer to a commonly-recognised, and feared, possible end for us all.

This, then, is where the violence is. With one exception, Anne’s attacks happen off-screen, but they are no less terrible for it. There are no warnings, she simply deteriorates between scenes, silently and instantly. Georges shows Herculean strength coping with it, but strength is no use. Fighting won’t save Anne. The fact that all of the struggling is against the simplest of tasks such as showering and going to the loo reinforces the savagery. There is a brief glimpse of a normal life but from then on everything corrodes and crumples just as Anne does.

Riva’s performance is simply staggering. Aside from the painfully astute observations of the muscular afflictions, the slipping from nonsense to acutely self-aware clarity is brutal to watch. That’s not to discredit any of the cast, particularly Jean-Louis Trintignant as Georges and Isabelle Huppert as their daughter Eva, because they are excellent too. The distinction is that they are showing us how people react, the best and worst of our hopes if we were to be faced with the same. We can relate to them. Riva becomes a shadow of a person, only briefly allowed glimpses of her former life. One can only imagine how she must have felt during filming.

All of this is not to say the film is without hope. Georges is filled with respect and devotion for Anne, and he is fiercely protective of her. No doddering fools or confused elderly tropes here. His compassion is tested but he is a loving character. The brief touches on his unspoken world in his sleep and in the closing 15 minutes are unambiguous on that, however nebulous they might be in other respects.

If I have one criticism to make it is that the film isn’t long enough, not that I wanted anything other than a peaceful ending for both Georges’ and Anne’s suffering. Everything presented is truthfully told, with great compassion, but the reality is much more mundane and lasting. There are endless baths, movements from bed to wheelchair to chair in a day, god knows how many trips to the toilet. I don’t blame Haneke for this, what I refer to here is life. Perhaps it is best so much was left out – knowing what could come brings little comfort.

The Pub by Joseph Pierce

I love Twitter. Aside from the process for disconnecting from vacillating twerps being ‘Unfollow’ it also gives me so many amazing things that otherwise I would have missed. One of those is Joseph Pierce.

The below short is a fine example of rotoscoping. For those unfamiliar with the technique the simple summary is ‘Film stuff, draw over film, fiddle about with reality to make new quasi-real animation’. It’s been responsible for A Scanner Darkly, the only filmic example of a Philip K. Dick story that manages to recreate some of what’s so bloody terrifying about his work. And yes, I am including Blade Runner here. Quit grumbling, it’s sloooooooow.

Anyway, The Pub. It’s a simple premise – a migrant worker faces up to mortality and the everyday alienation and unpleasantness of life and people. My god, people… This is a strange, threatening and far too familiar vision of the world. Watch this, and if you can face it then watch A Family Portrait and Stand Up. I won’t blame you if you take a break between them though.

Also, I know someone who works in the film industry and he told me that Mr Pierce is a nice guy as well. That makes it even better.

The Pub from Joseph Pierce on Vimeo.

Holy Motors: Violence, alienation and experience

It’s been a while since I saw a film as affecting as Holy Motors. There’s a reason for that, one that is worth exploring and indeed experiencing yourself. For those who don’t know, Holy Motors is the 2012 film directed by Leos Carax starring Denis Lavant and Édith Scob. It might be more familiar if I add it features cameos from Eva Mendes and Kylie Minogue.

Before I go any further, I am going to try and avoid giving away too much of the detail here, because I think to do so would diminish the impact for anyone who does want to see it. With no expectation comes sincere reaction. So if that’s you and you want to have no preconceptions then stop reading……… here.

That said, the film largely follows the exploits of Lavant as Mr Oscar who is driven through Paris in a white limousine by his assistant Céline (Édith Scob). Oscar is withdrawn, depressed and exhausted and also happens to have the utterly bizarre job of dressing up like a range of people and then acting out a series of really rather odd scenes. Of course, this smacks realism in the chops for two hours, but that’s fine because in the opening scene you see Le Dormeur (played by the director, Carax) wake up in a sealed room, unlock a door with his key-finger and walk through to a cinema within the cinema. Those detecting a Lynch vibe you are correct, there are elements of it; but it’s also a much more cogent and focused film than, say, Inland Empire or the interminable Eraserhead.

The film plays out as a series of individual scenes linked together by Mr Oscar and Célines’ journeys between appointments. This means that as an audience you are presented with only two people to really identify with and come to know as characters and that all of the performances you see, however sincere and familiar they are, are just performances. This dichotomy is one of the central pillars of the film for me – in a world awash with realist cinema this film wears all the trappings of realism but refuses to behave properly. We have to believe in Mr Oscar and his work, except we don’t know who he is, why he does it, whether or not he’s divinely instructed even. In fact, we’re not even sure Mr Oscar knows the answer to any of those questions.

Carax makes an incredibly complex set of concepts at once easy to feel but impossible to codify. It is no accident that of the various scenes the most disturbing are those which start Mr Oscar’s day. To try and rationalise the experience is to miss it. Instead you should witness the tragedy, brutality, eroticism, violence, submission and everything first hand, just as Mr Oscar does. There’s a fascinating revulsion to these performances, at one point objectified by a entirely vulgar photographer, so that you can’t look away no matter how corrupted the Beauty and the Beast parable becomes. You can’t help but get more and more uncomfortable at the representation of sex (itself then reduced to a representation of itself). When Mr Oscar gets back in the car, chain smoking his way through another costume change (the costume changes provide a fascinating glimpse beneath the hem of cinema make-up by the way), you can’t help but understand his exhaustion and sense of being lost, without purpose. Is it really his life to live the worst of other people’s lives?

Of course, if that were it then you would have an abstract film which uses an excellent device to subvert it’s medium. However, Carax is clearly a shinier button than that because it’s just the start. These difficult scenes serve to alienate you from everything that makes you comfortable and has you looking in and out, both at narrative and medium, and that’s when you are given things you can more directly relate to. Hell, there’s even a song or two thrown in there. But it’s only once you have been taken outside of the film, shown how arbitrary it is, had the scaffolding pointed out to you, that you’re allowed back in to get your catharsis. And as for Mr Oscar? I’ll just say that the most significant moment for him as a character, the moment that helps you understand his great sadness, is one of the songs. He has to perform it, experience it through a lens, instead of living it directly. No wonder he’s depressed.

This is a good time to make mention of the chameleonic Lavant (channelling a similar dark source that he offered in Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely where he plays a Charlie Chaplin impersonator who dominates his wife, a Marilyn Monroe impersonator – another odd film) because he is integral to the film’s success. He flits between each role with a terrifying ease yet in the relative shelter of his limousine provides a nuanced and palpable face of a man who has had too much. Scob is a superb foil as well, concerned for her charge but also not letting him slip from the task at hand.

It’s made all the more unsettling by moments of anarchy. Whoever and whatever Mr Oscar is, and whoever he works for, you know there is at least a structure and purpose driving things, however obscure. Watching Mr Oscar change who he’s playing halfway through a scene undermines that. And when he suddenly sees something on his way to an appointment and barrrels out of the limo, a free agent acting alone? Well, it’s not entirely comforting is it. What’s to stop him doing it again? Why didn’t Céline, or his employer, stop him? Why didn’t I stop it?

The difficult thing to do here is to try and tie all of these thoughts together into some kind of conclusion, so here goes: Holy Motors exists on the line between reality and the abstract, performance and experience and a great number more such balances. It’s about what you expect as an audience, and what the performers and film crew expect. It’s a mix of the most fundamentally familiar experiences of life told in the strangest of ways. It’s about Mr Oscar and Céline and it’s about the people they bring us, why they do it and why we need it. It is a forceful and powerful piece of cinema which will continue to percolate through your layers of understanding long after you watch it; but like all the best puzzles, the answer is both glaringly obvious and so intricately woven you could be counting threads until life forgets you and calls Mr Oscar to stand in.

Finally, one last thing: Spare a thought for the motors.

A thought on Ted

So first off, let’s be clear. I enjoyed Ted, but it’s never going to change the world. It made me laugh, and I got a big kick out of seeing Sam Jones hamming up his cameo and due reverence given to the bi-stable qualitative flip-flop sensory overload that is Dino de Laurentis’ Flash Gordon. But it’s not quite got the timely bite and soul-searching verve of, say, Whitnail And I. Mind you, it does have the Thunder Song

That said, it deserves a special mention for one particular thing. That is the relationship between Ted and Johnny. The example that really stuck with me was (mild spoiler alert (but not really, because it was inevitably going to happen because that’s how Hollywood comedies are, but anyway, I digress…)) the scene in the aquarium where Johnny asks Ted to move out. I was waiting for histrionics, some pissy argument or the like. But no, instead they have a genuine conversation where Ted quickly realises, and says, ‘you’re right, it’s for the best’.

There were other moments like that too, points where I genuinely felt like these two were friends, instead of just a bickering odd couple flung together for comedic purposes. So well done, Ted. You may not change the world but you did make me believe they’d known each other their whole lives.

Chan-wook Park’s Stoker

I had the great pleasure of being at the BFI’s premiere of Chan-wook Park’s Stoker last night.

Having been shown the excellent Oldboy years ago I did the only sensible thing I could at the time and immediately tracked down the rest of the Vengeance trilogy, and later  the entirely charming, if pretty bizarre, romance, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK. So imagine the look of joy on my face when the February programme came through the letterbox. In fact, before you go any further if you haven’t seen the above films go and watch Oldboy, at the very least, now. Now. I mean it.

Done that? Excellent, we can begin then.

Starting with the obvious, hats off to Mia Wazikowska’s eerie India. She’s definitely channelling Wednesday Addams and Carrie, but India is a very different character; much more plausible, restrained and very much in control. Faced with her brittle mother (Nicole Kidman) India has to be in control in fact and it’s amply demonstrated when she’s at school, home and elsewhere. It’s a masterful and subtle performance in fact because she has this permanent sense of knowing exactly what she needs to where the audience doesn’t. She is both captivating and alien, graceful and petulant, wistful and utterly grounded in the here and now. The loss of innocence can be hard to track in cinema, because there is that tendency to show the ‘young’, the ‘old’, and the defining moment, all notably distinct. Wasikowska, Chan-wook et al remind us that it is a much more gradual process with steps both backwards and forwards.

As for Nicole Kidman’s Evelyn, well the story isn’t about her so her fronting and transparent desires are well understated. You’ll know what she wants and thinks throughout the film, you’ll also be pretty sure that she doesn’t realise how obvious she is being which makes some of her moments of revelation pretty harsh. In fact, a lot of it happens off-screen for her (a notable trait of this film) so you have to piece it together yourself. She’s at times horrible, but at times not. So much so that at times you start to wonder if maybe you were just mis-understanding her grief.

And of course, Matthew Goode as Charlie who is the fundamentally disturbing lynch-pin of the film. He doesn’t seem human (tell me if you see him eat or drink anything at any point), and spends a lot of the time acting more like the idealised vision of what Evelyn wants him to be. As with everything else in the film his performance is understated and leaves you guessing as to what he wants and why he wants it until he does it. There are so many moments a lesser film would have veered off into rampant melodrama that he smiles sweetly at and walks away from, and lord is it creepy.

A quick aside is needed here to highlight the music. Clint Mansell is bang on again but the shining moment is the impromptu piano duet that balances on a knife-edge. Aside from the music being beautiful (Philip Glass making a rare foray into a ‘tune’ there) so much hangs on it, and it’s incredibly tense. There are a few other moments that play on the same thing so let me ask you this, do you think you can tell things like suppressed fear or happiness apart every time? And what if they’re the same thing?

It’s spoiling nothing to tell you that India, has heightened senses. She tells you as the credits roll by in fact. What she doesn’t tell you is how much that observation, and Park-wook’s inimitable sense of sound, colour and texture pervade this film. Remember the way things in Oldboy leapt out of the screen at you? Wallpaper, fabrics against stone, even the pulsing flesh of a hydrostatic skeleton – all of it was bound into the telling of the story. Exactly the same thing happens here in Stoker. Cracking egg-shells, lace bed-spreads, curtains, leather, hair, stone and even a few scatterings of dirt – it all ties people and themes together so that the world they inhabit is more than an environment, it is very much of them as they are of it. If you don’t get what I mean, watch the dirt (even the tiniest amounts), who wears what fabrics or the deal with India’s shoes.

This is one of the things that makes Park-wook special for me – he has a handle on visual imagery, but more than that he weaves it into the story. Everything is thematic. It’s the reason you come away with that feeling of discomfort in fact, because your brain is automatically trying to file the information you’ve put in it but, lordy, there are a lot of cross-references… So yes, I could say it’s a Hitchcock-esque psychological thriller about a young woman, her widowed mother and her newly-discovered uncle, but that misses the point. It’s a film about innocence and the journey to adulthood, and it’s a story about outsiders. It’s a story of kindred spirits, romantic rivals, youth against age, self-discovery in a world which doesn’t seem to hold a place for you. It’s a sensory journey of a privileged few inhabiting their bubble, of sybarites pursuing their desires and of a beautiful world underneath it all.

I could go on, but that would be tedious. Suffice to say that whilst the film isn’t of the real world, innumerable threads of the real world are woven into it. All this ambiguity, moments on the edge that shift depending on how you look at them, those are real.

It’s excellent. Go see it.

The Thin Red Line

This great evil.
Where’s it come from?
How’d it steal into the world?
What seed, what root did it grow from?
Who’s doing this?
Who’s killing us?
Robbing us of life and light.
Mocking us with the sight of what we might have known.
Does our ruin benefit the Earth?
Does it help the grass to grow or the sun to shine?
Is this darkness in you, too?
Have you passed through this night?

It’s time for things to get better.
That’s what I want.
That’s what’s gonna happen.
I’m getting older now.
By no means old, but older.
Where is it that we were together?
Who were you that l lived with?
Walked with?
The brother.
The friend.
Darkness from light.
Strife from love.
Are they the workings of one mind?
The features of the same face?
Oh, my soul,
let me be in you now.
Look out through my eyes.
Look out at the things you made.
All things shining.

From the Terrence Malick screenplay based on the novel (which I haven’t read) by James Jones. Potent stuff.