SWEET COUNTRY: SOMEWHERE BETWEEN THE FLESH AND THE PITH

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First came the upward sweep of Samson & Delilah (2009) into the annals of Australian mythology, one of the few departures from the colonial trend of Australian storytelling. Following in those steps, Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country (2017) aspires of a similar folklore, but doesn’t reach the mark.

 

Sweet Country is the story of a hunted-man, Sam Kelly, on his flight from a false murder charge through the outback. The film attempts to carve into the cultural complexities of 1929 frontier Australia. Having dug out an important niche in the oft colonially-slanted perspectives of Australian storytelling, Thornton’s work dons an Indigenous Australian perspective on Country. This in mind, the breadth and ambition of Sweet Country fails to meet the task it sets for itself – to unpack the complex and long woven prejudices of culture between colonial and indigenous Australians. Taking on this challenge in any sense, and falling short of it, is, in itself, an important creative move. That said, these explorations in Sweet Country backslide into damaging representations that draw the barrel of scrutiny and criticism down to the very feet of the piece.

 

The mythological grandeur of Sam Kelly’s story – a pursuit through the bush, rife with romance, violence and fragile masculine egos – falls in the no mans land between mythos and between realism. Flat and inconsistent characters fail to carry through the prejudices of the context in a believable way, instead remaining half-cooked archetypes. These include the silent tracker man, Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris), soft-spoken and wise. The religious man, Fred Smith (Sam Neill), who scrutinizes and perceives all wronging, but fails to intercede. The Lawman, Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), whose prejudices are a matter of personal ego, making him all the more dangerous. And, most fractured and flat of them all, the silent woman, Lizzie, who does not speak of her abuse and does not show independence of any kind during the film. These characters – who sit in a fascinating backdrop of colonial Australia – fall blandly short of the nuance of their very context. In this complex landscape or clashing cultural tides, they are flat and unconvincing. There are moments in the film when we hope – beg – for characters to speak up, or show some level of motivation for self-preservation, but instead there is a stagnancy. Yet this stagnancy does not feel calculated, but instead a product of poor writing, and the silted direction of the actors’ performances.

 

That said, there is a stylistic flair that lends this film backbone in places where narrative momentum and structure are lacking. Without music, the soundscape emulates the emptiness and danger of landscapes unmastered, yet shows the relative peace afforded in those same spaces to those who are familiar with the country. The layered images of Lizzie, Sam & the Sergeant moving horizontally across an at once close-and-distant landscape provide a sense of theatricality and sentient landscape that ‘channels’ the characters on their journey. Eucalypts, Ooraminna Station’s dry grassland surrounds, and the red earthen bluffs of the Simpson Desert seem to glide in layers between which the characters roll, unaware of their predetermined paths. The slowness of scenes, intercut with the ‘flash-forward’ glimpses build a sense of inevitability, yet, when these destinies land true, they don’t serve by way of conclusion but as a blockade to imagining the futures beyond characters. We are stuck in the 2D, cardboard present. Whilst the stylistic delivery of Thornton made this film more cohesive and quite immersive, this attempted weave of mythology arrives only as a half-delivered tragedy, weakening the film at points when it needs to be hitting the hardest.

 

Sweet Country continues the long-woven tapestry of Australian into realms lesser explored – those perspectives of the people of the First Nations. Our colonial perspective represent the outback as a place of hungry terror – a space that eats colonials and holds mystery and the unknown, as in Wake In Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971), or Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975). However, as Sweet Country explores, the landscape is equivalently a space of retreat, stasis and safety for non-colonials (Samson & Delilah, Rabbit Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce, 2002)) and even sometimes outcast individuals as in Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015). The same stylistic notes as Samson & Delilah that lend insight into the remote reaches of landscape that are peripheral to our everyday existence, yet have been the structural tenants of modern Australian culture.

The style lends strength to a film that seeks to deliver an important and still resonant message of prejudice, and the self-feeding loop of illogical inequalities that continue to shape Australia’s society. I shy away from stating that ‘Sweet Country’ ‘flew too close to the sun’ of Australian political commentary, because of the importance of shifting the balance of perspectives we have on Country. Yet I left the cinema feeling dissatisfied with the story, which felt like tragedy endured to make a point, but instead delivering dry and reckless social criticism with no room for improvement. Fred Smith’s parting lines – ‘What hope does this country have?’ – leaves little wiggle room for development towards something better, and this film does not deliver a mythological lesson that is easily wielded. That said, the craft and steeped knowledge of the landscape in this film shows great promise for the future of new perspectives of Australian storytelling.

 

The Florida Project: No Pot of Gold at the end of the American Dream

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“I wish that leprechaun was nice.”

This line is delivered by six-year-old Jancey ( Valeria Cotto) who, alongside her best friend in a Florida carpark, stares whistfully at a rainbow, wishing for promised gold. So runs most of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project (2017), the director’s first fetaure since the acclaimed Tangerine (2015). The Florida Project continues Baker’s thread of realism by impressing upon us the realities of both sex work and the worldwide vein of poverty.

The film’s focus is The Magic Castle, a motel-turned home for many low-socioeconomic tenants run by Bobby (Willem Dafoe). Crucially, The Magic Castle is in the heart of Disneyland’s tourist ‘belt’ where the long shadows of wealthy tourists and their Disney™ demands are cast onto the cyclically poor tenants of the region. Focusing on six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), and her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), The Florida Project maps their downward spiral towards destitution over one summer. Both the internal choices made by Halley (and Moonee), and the vicious loop of social and financial pressures speed their downwards slide.

Sean Baker is establishing a reputation for a hyper-realist, immersive style, as created in Tangerine by shooting close-hand on iPhones, a realism he further develops in The Florida Project. The child actors perform in a natural, rambling style, shouting lines over one another. Equally, the adults are constantly fighting to make themselves heard, and the natural delivery of lines makes the near mockumentary film highly evocative. Painting in hyper-realist strokes the settlement The Magic Castle, Baker produces an oppressive sense of wealth and weight in the area. The endless drone of helicopters and highway traffic to and from the area — visitors to the fabled Disneyland — press upon the motel from all sides, the financial and legal pressures of life made manifest.

The performances and nebulous-narrative style of The Florida Project was reminiscent of Gareth Edward’s earliest feature, Monsters (2010). Both wielded real locations and improvisational performances to create an immersive realism in their works. This realism lends both films an emotional and socio-political credibility that makes the plight of these characters more resonant and relatable. Importantly, The Florida Project does not express back-story for any character. Even for Willem Dafoe’s hard-done-by-nice-guy Bobby, we are given only the tidbits that come up in strained conversation, tangents that Dafoe’s character immediately shut down. Equally, his tenants do not discuss the past. The overall emphasis is on the now, on the next paycheck, the next week’s rent, that the journey to get to this point, not the choices or circumstances that led the characters to the motel. On these spiraling slopes to destitution, there is a terrifying (but unacknowledged or unwanted) relate-ability to the small-scale fetishizations of commodities these characters undergo daily. Purchases of fast foods, plastic toys, clothes, alcohol and more extravagant and seemingly excessive purchases — such as an Ipad — merely reflect the same processes most of us go through with or own paychecks, whether or not we make exerted efforts to counteract the cycle of blind consumption. We each are sucked into the brief high of a well-rounded paycheck and the lows between.

Funnily enough, these images conjure in us the general emotion that perhaps, given access, we might make ‘a better job’ of things. Watching Scooty (Christopher Rivera), Moonee (Prince) and Jancey (Cotto) running about the swampy highways of Florida, we see them eat endless begged-for ice cream, waffles drenched in syrup, soda cans and cheese pizza. All the while, they are lighting things on fire, smashing windows and screaming abuse at passers-by. These kids are little terrors, incredibly disrespectful and inconsiderate of their fellows, behavior we blame upon poor parenting. My fellow filmgoers were equally anxious about — of all things — the lack of vegetables that the kids were given access to, yet we could not deny the near inevitable slide of Halley into reliance on full-service sex work for money. Meanwhile, the children’s independence and resourcefulness in their post-apocalyptic (it seems) surrounds is to be admired. Halley’s hands-off approach to parenting is often wince-inducing, yet somehow Moonee still evokes sympathy and admiration for her fierce loyalty to her loved ones and her ‘screw the man’ attitude, a full circle of emotional alliance that Baker has strategically built into the film’s otherwise structurally lacking narrative.

Without stepping expressly into the ring to battle it out with (capital C) Capitalism, a debate too large and complex for me to begin here, I would argue that The Florida Project instead of mapping the future doom of USA citizens, instead sheds light on the already ongoing apocalypse of capitalism worldwide. These limbo spaces, such as The Magic Castle, Las Vegas’ underground homeless network or Kowloon Walled City, exist in pockets of every society, dells so deep that the likelihood of escape from them seems very low. These films most importantly do not focus on condemning characters for their choices, but with equal strokes of the palette, illustrate the battle between individual and system in trying to carve a life using a paddle pop stick.

Blades, Stakes, And Losing Numbness.

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Dennis Villeneuve (Sicario [2015], Arrival [2016] and many other features) has taken up the Ridley Scott torch with confidence and precise attention to detail. Blade Runner 2049 (2017) interrogates the central question of the original Blade Runner (1982), but insistently presses the questions of human versus technology-based life, responsibility for creations, consumption and resource-stripping. Simultaneously it honours the original film without stomping all over the territory the 1982 classic marked out.

Examining Blade Runner 2049 brings to the fore of discussion the divergence of sequels, a bivalve opening in cinema of late. Sequels tend to go either by way of Marvel-mode franchises (branching from root stock films such as Thor [Kenneth Branagh, 2011], The Avengers [Joss Whedon, 2012]). The second branch is mad eup of those that expand the peripheries of their predecessors into new territories — arguably exemplified by films such as 28 Weeks Later (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, 2007), the series Fargo (FX, 2014) spin off of the Coen brothers’ 1996 film of the same name, Mad Mad II: The Road Warrior(George Miller, 1981), Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015) and now Blade Runner 2049. It’s difficult to honor an artwork by recreating it in near replica in the Marvel-mode of sequels, though it is arguable financially ‘safe’. Instead, to produce divergent sequels, concessions must be made around screen-time and centrality of the previous protagonists (e.g. Harrison Ford’s character, Rachel, and minor characters beyond) must be shifted aside to peripheral, retrospective weight-bearers rather than the same characters found ~yet again~ in the pickle they were last time. Motivation-less overlords threaten the future of humanity, again.

Blade Runner 2049 has a twofold strength as both a sequel and a dystopian film that undercuts the mucky coating that gets left in your mouth after most recent blockbusters, these being a) attention to detail and b) writing strength.

A) Never underestimate the importance of a few dents, some dust and some reality in your scenes. Living in the years predicted by Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner now –where we can call someone on the other side of the planet — is by no means a slick clean one, but is instead filthy, gutter-garbage-clogged, rude, prejudice riddled and inhabited by an incoherent garble of cultural clashes. So, too, should the world of the near future be. Goddamned production value is high in this film (meaning, namely, the effects are nuanced, realistic, gritty-real and not overrun with digital fingerprints. Let me sniff the stink, not feel the slick cold press of CGI.) No film is limited by the era in which it is made, only by the methods of production it uses. To illustrate, the practical effects of Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) stand the tests of time well, and remains true to the context of the film’s time without being rendered unbelievable by Gameboy-sized, pixelated raptors. In contrast, Avatar (James Cameron, 2009) is so densely saturated by the CGI that was limited by its time of production aged so rapidly that romantic dramas have employed similar quality computer generated images.

B) The writing worked with believable — expectable stakes. This is not a direct world ender in the form of a laser-beam wielded by a cackling super-villain. The notion of ‘Super’ (which has been rendered bland and definition-less in a backdrop of films where, as Dash of The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004) says miserably, ‘if everyone’s special, then nobody is.’ The endless drive for distinct and fear-awe-love-inducing characters (an endless battle which is a central tenet of cinema — creating relate-ability and inspiration, escapism in one) has recently created the flux of large-budget, CGI, tech and star-studded films. These films I refer to include Marvel’s The Avengers and other branches of superhero films, but ‘super’ as a high-concept character trait has crept into other non-superhero media, including John Wick (Chad Stahelski and Davud Leitch, 2014), BBC’s Sherlock (2010), Lucy (2014), throwing off the baseline’s for accessible protagonists. We can never match them on the ‘super’ level. Somehow our characters are only worthy of admiration or able to rise above the tide of supervlllains by their own non-normative traits, be it photographic memory, physical strength or fighting prowess.

In Blade Runner 2049, K is pressed upon by a complex political situation of which he is a pawn. The stakes are felt viscerally precisely because he is largely helpless within the ‘race’ system that dominates the Earth of 2049. Instead of being above and untouched by the rising political complexities (as say Tony Stark would remain exempt, as would Thor and others), K is tossed in the tide of prejudice directly. He is hit and bleeds, feels pain. Paradoxically, the ‘skin walker’ robot of the Blade Runner dystopia triggered more empathetic pain in me than the ‘human’ protagonists of many films of late.

I hope that Blade Runner 2049 can set a precedent for the allocation of film budgets to tell stories that interrogate our representation of women, our use of technology, and our consumption practices (food and resources and commodities all). The fetishized world of Marvel and other franchises obscure any potential the films have for productive storytelling. Instead they remain hollow vessels for the parasitic side-products of the franchise to travel onwards. Film as host, consumption as parasite.

MACHINES: VOYEURS & VILLAINS

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Rahul Jain’s debut, Machines (2017), investigates the inner workings of a textile factory in India. The film explores the factory floor, the managerial staff, and the selling floor where the value of goods is decided. Reminiscent of Farida Patcha’s My Name Is Salt (2013), Jain’s film reflects the obscured and distanced sources of the objects we consume, using rhythm, time and stagnancy to throw us into a hellish landscape worthy of Hieronymus Bosch.

 
http://www.rebelcircus.com/blog/the-garden-of-earthly-delights-from-heaven-to-hell/

Machines takes us into a labyrinthine silk factory in Sachin, India. Windowless floors and basements show the many laborious processes that produce screen-printed silks. The factory could have been borne of Ridley Scott’s imagination (somewhere between the spaceship tunnels of Alien[1979] and street levels of Blade Runner [1982]). Composed of interviews, interspersed with long, unbroken takes of workers performing repetitive physical labor, Machines deftly cuts a portal through the machine of international consumption. It lends us sight into what is otherwise a process hidden and distant from the everyday lives of the middle to upper class westerners who may encounter the film.

https://dogwoof.com/machines/

Perhaps the most troubling and important element of the documentary is our position as viewers. The finger of blame is pointed somewhat at us, the larger consumers of the products being made in the factory, and the whole documentary is steeped in the frustration of the worker underneath the systemic layers of profit above him. Yet the film manages to avoid spiraling into a flat-out critique of capitalism, which may be a strategic choice to retain the allegiance of the broader swathe of viewers. In an interview Jain states the confusion of the workers he was filming. “They’re coming up to me and saying, “Who’s the hero in this movie? Who’s the villain in this movie?” I say, “You’re the heroes. I’m the villain.” Crucially Jain’s choice to position himself as the villain — one who would uninterruptedly watch a young boy fall asleep at his work post, in an uncomfortable, unflinching take — reflects our own position too. We are given the comfortable view of the factory. We are voyeurs, left undamaged by the processes we see. We watch from a distance but are not necessarily provoked to action, something addressed by the gathering of workers towards the conclusion of Machines, who question what Jain is doing to help them. And the bad taste that lingers afterwards: what does this documentary do for the workers?

Most directly it informs of us of the distant and obscured origins of things, perhaps promoting us to make different choices about how we consume. But does the diversion of funding to a workplace like this address any of the problems experienced by the worker? The issues surrounding wage and labor disparities globally are complex beyond individual comprehension. Perhaps the only minute level of control we can excise as consumers is to recognize the use value of objects we own, maintain them rather than replace them, and to stay aware of our own position in the many-fold hierarchies of production. We should remain aware that costs of purchase go beyond the financial. But still, it is hard to shake a feeling of helplessness after watching the unflinching Machines. The face of reality is not reconcilable with what we had conjured up.

MY HAPPY FAMILY: NOT MANANA, BUT TODAY

My Happy Family

The second feature from directors Nana Ekvitimishvili and Simon Groβ (self titled duo ‘Nana & Simon’), My Happy Family (2017), follows matriarch Manana (Ia Shugliashvili), who decides to leave her family home, much to the outrage of the multigenerational occupants who live by her cooking, cleaning and care. My Happy Family tracks her attempt at finding freedom from the suffocating closeness of convention.

I have recently learned that this feature (alongside others including Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days [2007] and more recently Child’s Pose [Călin Peter Netzer, 2013]), is considered part of the post-communist Romanian Cinema wave. Watch these ears prick! A niche characterized by this…

“Set of factors: the determined unpicking of recent Romanian history and the Communist ideology whose legacy still continues to frame discourse; an unabashed irony and black humour; and the lo-fi visual aesthetic that was most often the direct result of a total lack of state funding.”

As a part of this movement, the political implications of citizens’ stories are not displayed with prominence, but are instead subtly interwoven into the domestic and (exotic to these Melbournian eyes) banal motions. Nana & Simon’s developing style is characterized by lingering takes and moments of quiet solitude for characters, allowing emotions to fully play out on actor’s faces. It was established in their first feature, In Bloom (2013), which explored similar themes of gender and generation in 1992, post-Soviet Union Georgia — particularly the simultaneously oppressed and structural role women play in Georgian society. My Happy Family is similarly nostalgic — Tbilisi seems to steeped in tea itself, houses are lived-in, occupied fully, until the cracks form, and these are left run rampant, yet poverty or malaise do not overrun tradition, food, music. The film’s context is real enough- and already suffused with tradition (even, it seems, into the structural bones of the cracking apartments families pack into), so that Nana & Simons moments of creative, decisive clarity ring out without interrupting the realism of the narrative and world.

The lack of additional soundtrack in My Happy Family makes the passing moments of music impactful — Manana’s resistance against performing at her school reunion makes her song all the more enrapturing, the men’s multifarious harmonies in traditional songs lend a depth and intensity to the dinner scenes that seem so often to sent Manana running the other direction. The houses are labyrinthine and the women resistant, strong, the men (though hard fought) are actively contracted to be water brushed off the backs of women who have been told (and still are told) that family and marriage and submissions are their sole passage of self-worth and means. Some reviewers have criticized the film’s “slice-of-life” pace, particularly at the film’s conclusion, which cuts us away from moments of climactic tension, excluding us from, what will be, perhaps, the result of Manana’s long battle for freedom. However, the cutting of us as viewers from these moments shows with a deliberate awareness, Nana & Simon’s foci for the film — not the bubbling points of familial tension and personal wrongdoing, but in Manana’s slow, second-stage metamorphoses into her own self, who can sing you to tears on a Russian guitar and eats halva for dinner whenever she damn pleases. Shugliashvili’s portrayal of Manana is deft enough that she doesn’t need to battle her Husband for our voyeuristic satisfaction, but easily sways us to emotional vulnerability with her skillful performance. I would readily argue against this film being ‘quiet’ — in fact, it is steeped in Manana’s depression, and a broiling need to release, to scream, to flail for room. Only Manana is to strategic and wise of a protagonist for that to occur.

Again, the duo’s feature seems to adeptly use family as a lens to explore the social niche, the mihrab of post-independence Georgia. The film is slow to unspool from the distaff, but it remains clear Manana’s turmoil is that of many women the world over, and her stalwart persistence in chasing freedom.

DOUBLE FEATURE… Watch with In Bloom to get a sense of Nana & Simon’s themes. Would parallel well with Mustang (Deniz Gamze Erg üven, 2015) or perhaps, to venture to the land of extremes within the same thematic terrain, Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991)

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, NARCISSUS

Call Me By Your Name

Call Me By Your Name is Luca Guadagnino’s fifth feature. A nostalgic and lust-riddled Bildingsroman, the film was adapted from Andre Aciman’s novel of the same name. It catalogues a romance between a seventeen year old Italian-American boy, Elio (Timothée Chalamet), and a visiting American scholar, Oliver (Armie Hammer) in 1980s summer, “somewhere in northern Italy”.

As with Luca Guadagnino’s prior feature, A Bigger Splash (2015), the director creates absorbing and immersive quality in attention to ‘trivialities’, the moments of cultural and contextual detail that colour the on-screen character’s experiences as much as our own. Just as in A Bigger Splash, Marianne and Harry watch the making of fresh ricotta in Pantelleria, Elio and Oliver linger over commemorative WWII statues, and find secret water-holes to lie beside in the sun, and antidote to the time-hungry and overwhelming motion of modern cinema. Characters are afforded the space to contemplate, and appreciate, affording us the same room as viewers.

Equal to the rhythm of the narrative, the blocking of Call Me By Your Name is immaculate — allowing us access to the expressions of characters that on-screen fellows are not privy to. There is a symmetry between blocking and symbolism as we watch Elio and Oliver circumnavigate the statue in the town circle, so their paths may intersect — albeit fleetingly, at the far side. Something close to comedy arises from the blatant imagery which could have been (non-tastefully) under played, but is instead conspicuously exploited, to the point of cringingly intimate use, re-sharpening the role of symbol in film — and reminding us of filmic intent, that props do not roll into the mise-en-scène unintentionally, but are placed there by design.

The soundtrack features some original songs by Sufjan Stevens, and some existing. The scored piano soundtrack   (I was unable to hunt down the composer, as she/he/they have been obscured by the flurry of activity over Stevens’ songs, unless it was also Stevens himself who was composing) was complimentary to the simple, pragmatic beauty of the Italian summer. That said, the use of Sufjan Stevens angst-riddled and lyric-heavy songs was simultaneously too bold and directly linked with narrative events, yet equally appropriately teen-like and harmonious with ‘real-time’ events for Elio and Oliver. In an equivalent alchemy, the film is rife with symbols. The fetishizing of male bodies and of artistic form give this film a high-brow ‘self-awareness’ and breadth of imagery, yet remains accessible, reflecting on the ways music and image are conduits for our in-the-moment experiences.

What sets Call Me By Your Name apart from other coming-of-age-romances, particularly those with a focus on queer sexuality, is that it does not shy away from intimacy, or force is into a repression that manifests in other ways — the chewing of pencils or obsessions with teachers. Such repressions and ‘cutting away’ might have otherwise led us to believe that Oliver and Elio’s relationship as one of exploitation rather than mutual pleasure. Instead, there is no ‘light bulb’ moment for Elio. He is self-aware yet does not label himself, but instead (realistically to his precocious character) acts upon his desires, which makes his narrative of self-actualization one that lingers upon the positives of his relationships, rather than the limitations of them.

Whilst I appreciated the ‘ambiguity’ of sexuality portrayed in the film, with both Elio and Oliver’s sexual preferences remaining undefined and individualized, the women of the film are overlooked. Marzia (Esther Garrel), Elio’s brief summer fling, gives an admirable — and largely unacknowledged — show of strength in forgiving Elio for his treatment of her, yet her role in his actualization is diffuse and peripheral. The mother, is a complex and wise character, Annella (Amira Cesar) but is left unexplored and undermined in the final bonding moments between Elio and his father. She is cast as an ignorant accessory to the family, rather than scholar, wit and structural support she is. In addition, the religious significance of Oliver and Elio’s relationship remains largely unexplored. Given the weight placed upon the Jewish-Italian-American heritage of the family, this seems like a point of conflict much broader and internal than what is portrayed within this film’s particular window.

This film is too immersive and captivating to conclude without dragging us with Elio’s heartbreak. Elio’s sorrow entombs us as the season shifts and snow falls — a near-sardonic show of pathetic fallacy, but a forgivable one, because the film did manage to leave a sad tang in my mouth, for all its bright positivity. Guadagnino got the salt and rubbed it in the wound, and our shared heartbreak with Elio is a testament to this film’s excellence.

WATCH…on the big screen. This film is beautifully shot, and worthy of the ticket price.

DOUBLE FEATURE WITH…For Guadagnino’s traits, watch A Bigger Splash for a bill that’ll give a dose of summer proper. For contrast, watch back to back with Blue Is The Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013), though be warned of the scandalous history to the filming.

BABY DRIVER: INTO THE GROUND

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Highly anticipated, severely overcooked, Edgar Wright’s latest feature, Baby Driver (2017) is an action, music and cringe-packed Hot Mess. Yes, it stands to be repeated, capitalized. Hot Mess. Where the film’s premise was cute in concept, it manifested as a teen-dream, driving-and-lady-porn catalogue, strung meekly together on the most tenuous of narrative threads. Edgar Wright went wrong, big time.

Baby Driver follows Baby, yes, B-A-B-Y Baby, (Ansel Elgort) a young getaway driver for criminals (bank robbers and the like). Due to childhood trauma he is a) near-mute, and therefore extremely ~cool~, and b) an excellent driver. Eventually his criminal attachments creep into his personal life and B-A-B-Y must face his gearbox demons head-on in a film climax shamefully overwritten and underperformed — enough to wonder how the film has maintained a 95% ‘fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Edgar Wright started two steps ahead on a path to success with Baby Driver. With his largely successful satirical comedies Hot Fuzz (2007) and Shaun of the Dead (2004), Wright has established a strong enough following to guarantee him at least some measure of viewership for Baby Driver. With a budget of $34 million USD, Baby Driver way outstrips the resources of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz combined. However, money has not equated engagement in this action piece. It watches like a bad 70s action-heist, complete with poor gender, ability and race representation.

The trio of women in the film are painfully loyal to the old-school trifecta of Virgin, Whore and Mother. First we have Deborah, (Lily James), the toothache-inducing love interest, who awaits Baby in her dead-end diner all day (and night), without ambitions beyond “hitting the road” (with Baby, in Baby’s car, of course). Then we have Darling (Eliza Gonzalez), whose body is so thoroughly segmented by the camera, it is a wonder we can recognize her a whole, able-bodied woman. She is the fetishized ‘bad-gal’ criminal who pops gum and looks pretty whilst wielding some heavy weaponry in the bank-robbing gang. (Don’t worry, she gets fridged at just the right time, so we don’t need to worry about her in the climax, and the antagonist has something to be vengeful over). Finally, we have the enigmatic mother-figure, Baby’s departed Mama, played fleetingly by Sky Ferreira.

These women are props for the real characters of the piece — the men — to play off and to find motivation by. Equally to using the women rather than engaging them, Baby finds martyrdom by rescuing (dumping) his wheelchair-bound mentor, Joseph (C.J. Jones), who is literally denied a voice or independence, digging Wright deeper into his trench of social insults. The plot shifts away from believability into convenience by such rapid bounds that the upbeat and music-riddled plot becomes sour and over-developed, a thin veil of detail that fails to disguise the shallow writing of a film that makes very little sense on paper. Much of Baby’s character choices are caught up in moments of confusing pride rather than self preservation, a complexity that could have been a point of interest but instead become one of confusion. His other mentor — a slightly undercooked rendition of House of Cards’ Frank Underwood (they didn’t even bother subbing out Kevin Spacey to disguise it) — completely shifts character motivation in a leap that feels like it is trying to be ingenious but instead is unfeasible. The climax rolls into a fiery car park chicken game where masculinities clash and femininities get in the way, and the ‘gray’ morals of the protagonists are left unnervingly under-addressed when, at the film’s conclusion, passers-by vouch for his ‘niceness’ and general good-Person-ish-vibes in court.

Edgar Wright may have established a precedent for good comedy but Baby Driver seems more like an under-thought film that would have been written by a white, teenage boy who had too much money on his hands (“there’ll be cars, I say, Tim!” “Put your legs up on the table, dahl, the people’ll love it!”). Steer clear of this one to retain your faith in Wright.

SMALL OR BIG SCREEN: Don’t bother with the cinema for this one folks, unless you want to emerge tinnitus-riddled and obnoxious, just like Baby.

INCLUSIVITY: Just the freaking worst. Jamie Foxx’s character, though prominent, is shallow, angry and damaging. Women are bodies to be cut by our gazes, and only white, able-bodied men are worthy of narrative focus.

THIS OR… Mate. Just go watch Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015). Also Baby Driver seems to drag itself towards Nicholas Winding Reyn’s Drive (2011), mute protagonist and all, yet the equally disturbing gender politics of that neo-noir make it difficult to recommend.)

LAURENCE ANYWAYS: Brutal Love, Brutal Metamorphoses

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Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways (2012) is a true romance. There is so much meaty heart to this story that you rollick in the grip of it — the emotional stress of the characters, their faults and virtues.

Perhaps antithetically, the defining feature that sets the browser’s sights on Laurence Anyways is the journey of Laurence, into her own identity (Namely, coming to realize she is a woman, and changing her body and life to match that.) Gender transitions are a topic that is rarely delivered justice, but Dolan tackles this in the most intelligent way possible. This is not a story about Laurence, so much. Instead of making the spine of the narrative Laurence’s transition, instead, the lifeblood and pulse and motion of the film is Laurence’s relationship with long-term partner, Frederick. In watching it, the film is revealed to be equally about her journey. So, those that have selected the film for a sweeping exploration of the inner turmoil of Laurence are in for a double-whammy, delivered in full glitter-and-pop Dolan style.

Whereas another film may have chosen to summit the narrative when Laurence admits to her predilection, and focus on Frederick’s eventual climb towards acceptance, Dolan clears these waters immediately. No question, the meeting of ‘souls’ between Fred and Laurence overcomes the physical and social walls built by Laurence’s transition — they will try to stay together. We do not explore Laurence’s inner state (that, already, is decided. She knows who she is.) Instead we are carried on the tide of Frederick’s and Laurence’s overriding love, and the eventual social, emotional and physical pressures that weigh down upon them. Suzanne Clément’s performance is what makes (for this reviewer) this film so captivatingly about her — Fred as a reflection of society, and on the complexity (and construction of) gender.

Twisting towards a bittersweet conclusion, Dolan frames Fred and Laurence’s impermanent relationship. Their journey is steeped with adversity, tension, but also with a richness in beginning, middle and end, a head-on portrayal of characters being open, communicating, and still not being able to overcome their difficulties. If only all romance films could be so honestly, blatantly wholesome? Realism is not the superficial quality of Dolan’s films (his youth and vibrancy make his films feel like a HD 80s music video, jackets and all — perhaps excepting Tom at the Farm [2013]). However, Dolan’s writing is foundationally built on dialogue and characters and choices that are reflective of a normal, pressured human existence. Dolan’s predilection for Dickensian, grotesque chorus characters juxtapose with Frederick and Laurence’s nuance, throwing them into sharper relief, closer to the viewer. We are carried alongside them, and cannot condemn the priorities they each must weigh in deciding what integrities to maintain in their lives, and what to give up.

This film has so much warmth, and the circuitous conclusion reminds of the beautiful whole of the film — a story not solely about hardships, and the faults of our humanity, but instead a celebration of the ever-changing and transience of L-O-V-E, the Big Kahuna, the wave that surges, then fades.

GET OUT: Eyes Without a Race

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Jordan Peel’s horror debut, Get Out (2016), is a sly fox of a film. Through a tightly wound, narrow-focus narrative, the film twists genre, humor and trope to explore the central thread of race identity in modern America.

Retrospective-minded films, (e.g. 12 Years A Slave [Steve McQueen, 2013], Hidden Figures [Theodore Melfi, 2016]) perform the crucial retelling of histories previously lost, or shunted aside. However, Get Out has done something equally important. The film is inextricably steeped in old-world western prejudice, typified by H.P. Lovecraft and the backwater-histories of the U.S.A., the source of the more grotesque, Weird horror in the film. That being said, the glowing seed at the center of these Old World horrors are the modern, white characters that occupy those spaces, and, crucially, continue to utilize them.

Peel does not beat around the bush — we know how this story ends, regardless of whether or not protagonist Chris will survive the elements, because we already know the true vein of the antagonists. It was strategic call by Peele (or his advertisers) in showing the twist of the film in the trailer. We are not a blind audience, waiting to for the hidden twist (“I guess they actually are racist…”). Especially this new iteration — all too close to home — of racism that compensates to extremes, furthering oppression and insult. Instead we know the nature of this story — we are in it for the cathartic pleasure of the win. Which we hope Chris will achieve, in the end. Get Out is therefore the kind of horror that we ride along with willingly — we enjoy the scares.

Christos Tsiolkas’ Saturday Paper review expressed dissatisfaction with Get Out, partially because he felt the film failed at being a “horror” film. But when examined structurally, Get Out hits the beats of horror genre with a precise, decisive accuracy and rhythm. Violence and tension build with clockwork progress, and, thus, the film rollicks along its tracks towards an inevitable conclusion. Instead, perhaps, the dissatisfaction of the old-school horror fan arises from the playful tone of the film — there is a argumentative, challenging skew to the storytelling and characters that tugs us back out of the immediate threats, and provokes contemplation. This is the unique quality of Get Out. This film does not bite off too much — it doesn’t try to explore every sordid cranny of race politics in America — but instead employs a small-scale story to playfully (and weightily) twist a accusatory finger at the still-present and evolving racism of the modern West.

Now Peele has set his sights on making a series-adaptation of Matt Ruff’s book, Lovecraft Country (2016). Ruff’s Weird fiction narrative tries to compensate for years of overlooked racism in the speculative fiction works of the past. However, the story is fragmented and therefore falls short of expressing the complex body politics of race in old-world (and new world) horror. There also the added complication of the author’s own perspective/projections of experience, as a white author seeking to express a perspective very distant from his own experience. However, it is hard to scrub out a grain of hope for up and comer Peele’s adaptation. Hopefully genre will continue to serve as a structural window through which we can explore new territories.

Get Out’s obsequious antagonists hint that prejudice is not fading, but is instead insidiously creeping into new modes of survival. Here, the racial bias expressed in old-world, ‘monstrous’ horror (so often about the unknown “Other”, dark-fleshed and therefore ‘less-human’) is folded back on itself. The not-so-subtle racial sentiments of the Lovecraftian era are thrown into the spotlight, and they make you want to wince away. There is a bittersweet mix of embarrassment, humor and fear in the film — it forces an uncomfortable but important series of self-examinations. As a result, Get Out performs the crucial work of retelling history, but equally, illuminating the current, more insidious race-climate of the West, and reminds us that prejudice does not slip away, but evolve.

BURIAL RITES, HANNAH KENT: BLEAK, VERGING ON BLANK

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Burial Rites (2013) is the debut novel by Australian author Hannah Kent (film rumoured). The novel seeks to retell the ‘true’ story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir who was accused of acting in the murder of two men, Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson. A story that seeks to reflect bleak narrative in bleak setting, the retelling Kent chooses to built for Agnes is void of much hope, instead serving as a window-in-time to show the unique paltry of Icelandic life, and to reveal Kent’s depth of research, living in Iceland.

Judging from Goodreads reviews, (by majority, glowing 4 and 5 stars), found the ‘stark’ nature of this book (desolate scenes, hopelessness and hate) beautiful or alluring, immersive even, yet there was an equal bleakness manifest in the characters. In Burial Rites, events roil within the realms of human control, yet nobody seeks to impact their progress. People never attempt change their stations in life. The Reverend fails to fulfill his role, unable to theologically save or comfort Agnes. The family at Kornsa fail to take any action to defend Agnes’ innocence, though they make it clear her looming execution is unjust. Nathan (and Agnes) know Fridrik Sigurdsson is violent and scheming, yet nobody takes defensive measures against him. These characters are victims of the game, rather than players — perhaps a technique intended to reflect the ‘truth’ of Agnes’ story, but makes for frustrating reading. Won’t the characters just do something?

Most overridingly, Agnes’ retelling paints her as a passive character who is hopelessly overrun by romance, beyond reason or self-preservation. Her love for Natan cripples her sensibility, though her character is supposedly pragmatic and independent. This is a portrayal that can be only partially understood in the chosen context (1829, Iceland), where women’s lives were likely oppressive and harsh beyond comprehension, and choices were limited. However, Agnes’ portrayal feeds back damagingly into the ‘women’s fiction’ genre, into which this book tends to fall, whether justifiably or not. One cannot accept protagonists who are shaped and built only by their relationships to men without a constructive premise linked to this fallacy. Equally frustrating, this is a portrayal of Agnes that Kent has actively constructed. In the book’s acknowledgements, Kent clarifies that Agnes has had many different ‘versions’ or characteristics, (a witch, a wench, an exploited worker etc.), a palimpsest of folk and historical retellings (and superstitions). To choose this passive, ‘victimly’ portrayal from that plethora of ‘Agnesses’ seems an odd choice. It would have been preferable to read of a woman who has independent thoughts, goals, and interests, but perhaps that is romantic of me, and goes against the grain of reality for a poverty-stricken woman in 1800s Iceland. Agnes’ thoughts and reputation seem at odds with her quiet, subservient mask in the Kornsa household. The Icelandic superstitions that are tangled up in gender and cultural roles (especially those of women) seemed to be overlooked for the sake of keeping the book ‘sparse’. It seems the meat of interest in the narrative would be the rich practical lives of rural Icelanders of the time, and the accompanying, crippling social mores that hem these Icelanders in. These social conventions should be the thing to make Agnes’ unjust execution into an unstoppable steam train of progress, rather than a slow-burning fall into apathetic, apologetic, anemic characters, who do nothing to right the course of action in the narrative.

Ultimately, the story has points for readability and an ‘honestly’ in Kent’s style, but Burial Rites leaves too many threads undone, and too many opportunities missed, to feel the story was ever done justice.

OLD BOY: PERCEPTION IS TORTURE

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K-Pop lies. Where is the bubble-gum sweet, diamante riddled Korea SBS promised?

Park Chan-wook’s feature Old Boy (2003) gently nudges at your brain, gets you emotionally invested, then takes that investment, rips it out through your belly and stuffs them back down your throat, making you want to hurl. This is a film that sews you into your seat and then holds your eyes open à la Burgess, as if to tell the viewer — see? See what happens when you trust your perception?

Old Boy is a gritty romp that follows Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-sik), who is imprisoned in a hotel room for 15 years. His captor and purpose are unknown, until Dae-Su is finally released. The film charts his journey to vengeance.

In many ways, on paper Old Boy follows the tracks of old romp ’n’ stomp vengeance plotlines. That being said, Chan-wook manipulates the storytelling, boxing in the viewer, and making it into a tool for humiliation, disgust and re-visitations. The limited window he provides us on events (through the camera), crucially, limits our knowledge of events (what he lets us see), and forces us into a role so partisan, and generic, we remain blind to the coming events. He carefully exploits the South-Korean sensibilities of family, recall and obligation to exploit the emotional vulnerability of characters (and, by proxy us).

As the story unfurls, the grit and gore of the story, (reminiscent of Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer [2013] — it has a similar end-of-times ‘timbre’ to it’s imagery, a film on which Chan-wook was a co-producer) force us to take shelter in the small, genuine relationships of the plot. We find hope in the new life that Dae-Su will be able to forge once his vengeance has been enacted, and in the romance between he and the bright sushi chef, Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung). But we have been backed onto the emotional ropes unconsciously, and by Chan-wook’s pedantic design. Idiosyncrasies of character get us invested, even in the antagonist, a pacemaker that is a ticking time-bomb — dialogue and motivation are real — and they give us enough loft above the grit of the plot to carry us along on the journey. So when Chan-wook’s writing cracks the whip and, as is the aspect ratio widens, we then see the larger net of writing used to enrapture us.

(This film is worth watching without knowing too much. Forgive a reviewer for skating around the more significant turns of plot. Just watch the film.)

It is impressive to see the raw and gaudy violence of Dae-Su’s revenge interwoven with a voyeur’s torture that borders on the physical — we, as viewers, are condemned by the film’s events. We have unwittingly condoned them by watching. As an exemplary filmic form of good ol’ emotional manipulation, Old Boy refreshes our faith in film to rain blows of affect upon not only our emotion, but our bodies too. It is truly a deep-end foray into South Korean Cinema, if you are similarly uniformed as myself. Go for it.

SMALL OR BIG SCREEN: Big screen, if possible. Fellow audience member reacts are crucial.

INCLUSIVITY: Mi-do remains the only main female character in the story, and is readily shunted aside in the climactic moments of the film. This remains is a male-centric, status-riven, Asia-centric story. Not many points for inclusivity, yet it’s a tightly wound, close-knit story about family, so racial homogeneity is to be expected.

WATCH WITH: …Not your family.

UNA: HOW DO WE TELL THESE STORIES?

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Australian director Benedict Andrews’ debut feature, Una (2016), tackles no small issue. Based on David Harrower’s play, Blackbird (2005), the film follows Una (Rooney Mara) as she confronts her abuser, Ray (Ben Mendelsohn) fifteen years later. (He was 40, she was 13). Unfolding almost entirely in a work break room, this story falls short of unpacking a nuanced topic, and equally fails to highlight the objective damages of the story. As a result, it is a struggle to respect the bolder revelations of the film, which seem to fetishize and make spectacle out of something that should emphasize the tragedy and abuse of the characters’ history.

The film feels confined, like a theatrical production, set largely in the work break room, a space one can imagine being pinned within as an audience member, forced into observation and complicity with Una and Ray’s interactions. In Una, empathy lilts towards damage, as we find ourselves growing closer to our Humbertian antagonist, Ray. Una is largely portrayed as a cunning, vengeance-seeking woman (“you’re sick, you need help,” Ray says multiple times. This statement may be true, but it does not serve to pinpoint him as the source of these damages, of Una’s ‘sickness’). These portrayals twist us perpetually away from the truth of the situation.

The Guardian’s review of Una suggested the film portrayed the protagonist as “just another crazy woman,” an agreeable observation, to some extent — not because of Una’s portrayal, but because of the lack of clarity around Ray’s truth: he is a child sexual abuser, yet that seems to become clouded by the constructed ‘depth’ of he and Una’s relationship.

These faults addressed, it is hard to deny the emotional toil the film makes the viewer endure. From the moment Una nervously pukes in the garden bed outside Ray’s work, to the closing credits, one can feel a distant echo of her same nausea. The flashbacks and retellings of Una and Ray’s history emotionally ‘lilt’ us towards sympathy, empathy, and cloud the truth of their relationship, whilst we as viewers are forced constantly to push against this tide of emotion, and remain objective. On paper, there is no obscurity to Ray’s abuse of Una, yet the proximity and emotional ‘steepage’ to their interactions as adult muddy this clarity. The film chooses to explore a serious topic, and in doing so, has obligated itself to do it properly. Anything less is damaging. One is left asking (of many films on topics as challenging as this one): Does the import of this story justify the means of telling?

Ben Mendelssohn was interviewed after the screening, and on his character Ray, he said, no ambiguity about it, “he is full of shit.”

SMALL OR BIG SCREEN: Small screen. Nothing particularly creative about this storytelling. The dialogue and performances slip a little in the peripheral scenes, but Mara and Mendelssohn’s deliveries make the hefty weight of this story believable.

INCLUSIVITY: Two people and one severely underused side role (Riz Ahmed)…not so good.

THIS OR FESTEN (Thomas Vinterberg, 1998)? Ultimately, this film is stylistically and creatively uninteresting — the cameras, the set, the construction exists purely to carry the story. Go for Vinterberg, Festen or The Hunt (2012), which both address the central problems of doubt and ambiguity head on, something Una fails to do.

DONNA TARTT’S ‘THE LITTLE FRIEND’: OUROBOROS WITHOUT A SPINE

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Donna Tartt’s second novel, The Little Friend (2002), seems to float above itself. While the characters, world and turns of scene are finely — almost baroquely — wrought, the oomph, or the motivating forces behind characters seem to fade into obscurity, leaving the narrative to roll lazily to a halt, rather than finding finality.

The Little Friend follows Harriet, twelve years old (twelve birthdays beyond her own years, it seems), who plans to track down and punish her brother’s murderer. In the vein of Brick (Rian Johnson, 2005) and Enid Blyton’s old Fantastic Five stories, this is a school-holidays adventure, with a hefty dose of engine-oil and amphetamines. Here, the old-school ‘robbers’ are meth-addled, snake-handling preachers, and instead of a country farm, the characters dodge between sweaty suburbia and cicada-riddled forests. The stakes are higher, and the protagonists — though still reigned in by the naiveté of youth — have a bravery and perception beyond their years.

Harriet’s quest leads us through a labyrinthine retelling of her family history. Little Robin, Harriet’s younger brother, was murdered, the killer left un-captured, the motivation unknown still. Harriet, crippled by her her family’s persistent patronization of her, longs to punish her brother’s killer, who she sees to be the progenitor of her familial misery. Robin’s death is the initial knot that gathers and tangles the Cleve family’s increasingly frayed and dysfunctional parts, and Tartt builds a rich image of Harriet’s life, and the Mississippi town she lives in.

“There was a tickle of mystery about it still, something sad a foreign, like rotted forests or woodsmoke in autumn; it was the old dark smell of plantation armoires, of Tribulation, of the very past.” (p. 123)

As in Tartt’s previous work, The Secret History (1992), the details of setting become engrossing, keep the reader turning pages. Tartt’s descritive reach seems to reach endlessly beyond the sightline of the more humble narrative path she follows. In The Little Friend, it is likely because these details are imbued (even if only distantly) with some of the broader sweeps of Southern Mythology that give this story the breadth of a Grecian tragedy, interwoven with the grottiness of drug-dealers and religious faith that lend the narrative a greater sense of depth than is perhaps actually present.

That said, these details arise from a plot that seems to roll forward without any motivating force. Harriet affixes her vengeful gaze on a suspect, but he is selected using little to no evidence. This could have been a more significant fallacy of Harriet’s journey, yet it remains unexplored, and therefore leaves her drive for revenge diffuse and purposeless. Many Goodreads reviews express frustration at Tartt’s choice not to reveal Robin’s murderer. Again, this choice — leaving us hanging, enfuriated — could have been a powerful device to make us examine the story, but instead we are left wondering why Harriet (or anyone) went on this journey at all, as we were left without even a hint at the possible motivation forRobin’s murder.

This book was engaging, and can be read it very quickly (even without taking into consideration the motivating factor of being cooped up on your parents’ boat with few other places to escape to…). That said, the unfinished Grecian Tragedy of Harriet’s journey — the spine from which these intricacies of character and place extend — leaves the reader feeling hollow.

WHERE TO READ: This (as with the Famous Five series and any other rollicking, back-waters-ish stories) is excellent when read well out of the city, in somewhere where you can walk near trees and find rusted car parts…

INCLUSIVITY: Addresses a nuanced (but deeply exploitative) relationship with a house worker, Ida Rhew. The relationship illustrates the evolving and ever-present slavery of African-Americans.

THIS OR “The Secret History”. Both. This woman writes characters to admire, with guts and intelligence. Brave (and inadvertently cool) to a fault. If you get tugged along by mysteries and by absorbing worlds, follow Tartt.

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LADY MACBETH: “And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty…”

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William Oldroyd’s period adaptation, Lady Macbeth (2016), has a narrative thread that slowly but surely spools onto the spindle of mishap. Shakespeare’s puppeteering woman, a ghostly archetype born in the 1600s, seems destined to forever arise in new contexts. Lady Macbeth, indeed, the spot does not go out.

Alice Birch adapted Lady Macbeth from Nikolai Leskov’s book Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1865) for Oldroyd’s piece. We follow Catherine, who enters a suffocating obligatory marriage in rural England. Her dumb-bodied (and minded) husband leaves her bored, and she begins an affair with stable hand Sebastian. As their relationship intensifies, Catherine’s dedication to Sebastian moves beyond convention to a realm of sweeping, violent romanticism.

In this rendition, Lady Macbeth is channeled by Florence Pugh with fervor and beauty. Oldroyd’s committment to theatrical texts (see his short film In Mid Wickedness [2013], based on Howard Barker’s lay The Forty (Few Words) [2006]) and ‘small’ settings could have rendered this piece two-dimensional, but instead, creates a hot-box atmosphere, where the small ‘stage’ of the narrative becomes extructiatingly entrapping. The narrative arc snakes from Catherine’s stifled, wifely existence to her eventual overthrow of the household, doing so by such slow increments, come the conclusion, it seems hard to find a way back to the sparse, cold spaces built in the fore. Most prominently (as with all stories featuring Lady Macbeth’s ghosts, stories about the hidden spark of indestructibility in women), are the women of the piece, Anna and Catherine. Though the pair occupy opposing social strata, the context of life for women here is cruel, rife with oppression and tilting axes of power. This is a space where the conventions of femininity to not merely pen women in, but fall with physical harm onto women’s bodies — the tugging of a hairbrush through tangled locks, the tightening of a corset… These conventions cause as much discomfort as any patriarchal, ‘disciplining blow’ across the cheek. Whilst superficially this is a tale of vengeance and liberation for Catherine, it seems equally a tale about the housemaid Anna, crushed so heavily by convention and cruelty that the closing of her already miniscule outlets for freedom are made manifest in the eventual loss of her voice. The journeys for these two women are on opposing trajectories, yet their point of intersect is explosive (and crippling) to behold.

The lack of scored soundtrack in a setting so bleak could have rendered the film sparse and daunting. Instead the rhythm supplied by the editing — beat to beat, knowing when to let an actor’s emotion roll out over a long shot, and when to shift to a new frame — and also the moments of surprising comic relief, and the shattering, lofty laugh that Catherine gives in dire moments…all give this film (that would otherwise be cold and unpalatable) lifeblood and motion. Scenes are played out in long takes — Catherine’s silky blue dress flitting from stable door to stable door — but are equally built to leave us hanging, tantalized- e.g. cutting away from Teddy’s vulnerable back above the waterfall (to push? Or not to push?). These measured cuts keep strapped to the destructive locomotion of Catherine’s influence, and the devolving threads of convention that held the household together.

To say ‘enjoy’ signifies a articular kind of engagement — instead, watching Lady Macbeth, more time is spent in distanced admiration of the structural ‘putting together’ and performances of the film, rather than an engagement with the story. That said, the film is beautifully rendered, and interrogates the bounds of love, commitment, and how far we can stretch vengeance, and well warrants a viewing.

SMALL OR BIG SCREEN: Big screen. The moments of humor are crucial in breaking this film up, and are therefore better shared with a crowd. (though, those inclined to punch popcorn-chewers in the mouth, be warned: this film is quiet.)

INCLUSIVITY: For a context not so diverse, the film includes black characters without needing to address their origin or trajectory in the plot — as all other characters are presented in the film, race or gender regardless.

DOUBLE FEATURE: Watch with Robert Eggers The VVitch (2015). Both films toy with social taboos, especially those invoked to damage women, and are visually beautiful. Both films have incredible leading actresses who demand attention, demand acknowledgement of injustices — and demand interrogation for their ethical ‘quandaries’.

The beauty of these films permeates the horror of their features events with a painterly significance, as if, these moments were lost to time but are now being refreshing, in concrete digital, to caution us again.

THE BEGUILED: LEGLESS, BUT NOT IN THE GOOD WAY

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Sofia Coppola’s latest feature, The Beguiled (2017), dances directly past the spine of its topic. The disregard for the social-historical context of the film, and the half-cooked characters causes the film to skim over the surface, moving too fast to pierce the many touched-upon membranes of gender, sexuality, race, violence and adulthood. Yet the film was carefully and exquisitely constructed, and was immersive to the last.

This film is to be admired and disdained of in equal parts, an alchemy of dissatisfactions and appreciations.

The Beguiled is a hot-box thriller about a group of women who reside in their overgrown boarding house in the South-east, whilst around them the Civil War rages. When a wounded soldier is found in the woods, they bring him into their home and nurse him back to health so he may be punished ‘adequately’ for his crimes. Adapted from Don Siegel’s The Beguiled (1971), Coppola’s choices have struck up several debates over the balance of gender and race representation on her latest, screen.

Though the film freely explores female sexuality, the characters themselves felt underwritten. Whilst it is refreshing to watch a ninety-minute film instead of an ‘artistically’ drawn-out marathon, The Beguiled’s dialogue felt heavy, as if there was not enough room for the characters to develop their physicality and display their thoughts before they vocalized them. Instead, lines were delivered without any sense of nuance or subtlety (“He liked the mushrooms.”)

If the characters — (John McBurney included) — spoke half as much, perhaps they could have been allowed the screen time to make manifest their desires through movement, image, music, and the symbols which Coppola has long established her skill in wielding. Instead, the film beat a hammer of plot and action down upon the viewer, instead of winding in the conflicts tighter and tighter, so gradual to be nearly unnoticed at first, until coming to a viscous head…

The viewer is left pulled between appreciation for the display of ‘rampant’ female sexuality and desire and ambition, but equally dislike the ill-considered (shallow) catty games between the girls over a man. McBurney’s ambition and desire, reaching beyond the house — towards liberty and longevity, rather than mere sex — far outreach the women’s who seek to stomp upon one another for his affections. From an intelligent and self-aware director, one would hope that there might have been a different explorations of these women’s relationships — yes, catty-games perhaps are reflective of some truths of women’s lives, but there was space equally to appreciate the beauty, independence and resilience of the women’s existence, out on the edges of the wildlands of the South-east. For me, the perpetual saving grace was the wild garden, barely tended by the women — this overripe vision of feminine domesticity and sexuality gone untamed, (reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle [1962]). These women are survivors who have eked out their own space in a savage land, and will kill to defend it.

There is a mythology and cautionary tale near-woven here, yet it is left as a mere hint — the rag, tied by Amy to the front gate at the film’s conclusion, the women’s flag — “territory claimed” is this particular shade of blue…

Even Coppola’s films that occur in the modern era evoke atmospheres and immersion reflective of a period piece. She writes in her own self-made era, one that intersects time and space to vibrate between the French Revolutionto 2000’s Tokyo. That said, though the beauty of her films is consistent, an equal thread of consistency is the ‘safe’ aspects of her films — a disregard for inclusivity, and a failure to interrogate the lack of it.

In The Beguiled, the plot remains barely subcutaneous, toying on the black comedy of the situation. It never became what the trailer made the viewer long for — the tight-wound set piece, a cabin-fever thriller with both macro and micro socio-political themes, where the heat of the South-east and the dilemma are equally inescapable… Yet perhaps the established desires for this film were so antithetical to Coppola’s that, addressed, they would leave no space for the film she had originally written.

The biggest fallacy — the greatest missed opportunity that perhaps could have afforded this film the ‘brunt’ it needed, or the ‘truth’ (shying away from the word depth…perhaps nuance over complexity). Coppola (as with Marie Antoinette [2006]) has habitually ducked away from ‘politics’ in favor of a dreamy ‘lightness’ and to avoid insult or disservice. By doing so she has afforded critics the opportunity to box her in as a writer of ‘women’s indie films’, cinematic candy-hearts, which isn’t entirely true. There is a seed of potency in her portrayal of women, yet superfluities are not interrogated as indicators of confinement or social limitations of gender, but instead act as a sugar coat that cloaks the truths of situations…

Consternation rides on.

SMALL OR BIG SCREEN: Big screen, big time. This film is a visual banquet, biscuits, gravy, apple pie and all.

INCLUSIVITY: As discussed — not good, not good at all. “The slaves all left,” does not adequately interrogate the many lacks in this film.

THIS ALONGSIDE: Cate Shortland’s Lore (2013), or Deborah Kampmeier’s Hounddog (2008) — both perhaps reaching the level of grit one could have hoped would manifest in The Beguiled.

THE GOLDFINCH: LUSTRE IN PERPETUITY?

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Enigmatic to the last, Tartt, will we really have to wait till 2023 till your next novel? As with The Secret History (1992), and The Little Friend (2002), The Goldfinch (2013) is equally immersive, painstakingly formulated of intricate details and characters. Now, again, we must wait, like delicious weekdays spent in anticipation for Friday night, when the latest episode of Silent Witness would play, way back when. If it means that Tartt can follow in her own stead, and keep building the growing castle of her immortality, we should remain happily patient.

The Goldfinch, Tartt’s third novel, follows Theo Decker, who is left to his devices after his Mother — Nabokov-style (gallery, bomb attack) — passes away. From this tragedy unravels Theo’s life into adulthood, as he pursues (or is pursued by) the (idea of) the painting his Mother loved: Carel Fabritius’ The Goldfinch. The story is an epic Bildungsroman, with a coy girth to show it, following Theo through his years to adulthood and dilemma…

Tartt is celebrated for incorporating a baroque level of detail into her writing — she has an indulgent, ‘lingering’ aspect to her descriptions, in which the context of the narrative becomes a film set, to be filled with mis-en-scene, each piece painstakingly selected for its rightness. In The Goldfinch, Tartt seems to indulge this habit even more than in either The Secret History, and The Little Friend, an inclination that is complimentary to the Theo’s own art-riddled narrative arc. This becomes a means of rebelling against the raw, minimalist aesthetic that seems to dominate modern literary fiction. She is reminiscent of Nabokov as he wrote in Lolita (1955), overlooking details of significance as he does (“picnic, lightning strike”), and honing in on the peculiarities of color in an individual’s eyes, the scattered details of Hobie’s kitchen… It’s as if she turns away from Hemingway, and other gatekeepers for the sparser, raw styles of Cormac McCarthy’s (and others). There is something nourishing in her style, in reveling in idiosyncrasies, of image, and aesthetic beauty.

Therefore, we can forgive the length and self-indulgent, rambling plot, because this book is to be savored, not to be rushed through. The plot does not leap from action to action, but from window to window, and anxiety to anxiety.

Much of the criticism of The Goldfinch online stems from a) the ‘Y/A feel’ of the book (we love to pen things into the boxes of genre and ‘target audience’, don’t we?) and b) the ‘drag’ of the plot. That said, anyone who selects a 776 page novel to read, then whines about the length of it, or the ‘slow pace’ is being foolish: the proof was in the pudding when you picked up the hardcover. This was never going to be a book that rollicks from action to action. This is a book that savors detail, consternation, and beauty — a focus that is precluded by its very size.

We rain praise upon the detail-riddled classics, like Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot (1869), a book composed of the most threadbare sinews of plot and diluted, foolhardy characters. Yet we have determined that it is worthy of analysis, praise, and immortality, because it rises to the stage, again and again in modern works, including this, The Goldfinch. And therein lies Tartt’s meditation: the imperishable artwork.

“That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes, you.’ Fingertip gliding over the faded-out photo — the conservator’s touch, a touch-without-touching, a communion wafer’s space between the surface and his forefinger. ‘An individual heart-shock.” (p. 758)

Tartt’s book carries not only Fabritius’ painting, but a thousand other artworks: music, film, painting, architectures, ritual.

The Goldfinch is a vestibule for appreciating art inasmuch as it is artwork itself, a travelator-turned-Mobius strip of admiration and narrative. One doesn’t rush from painting to painting through a gallery.

INCLUSIVITY: Some, though the central cast is largely white and male — the women, Pippa and Kitsey, still revolve around the men, and the doormen to Theo’s childhood apartment building seem to be the main ‘tap’ for inclusivity…

THIS ALONGSIDE: People say Jonathan Saffran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) is comparable, due to the similarities of setting and plot, but for a similar appreciation for image, beauty, and symbol, one could be directed to Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov, 1955) or for the Bildungsroman epic, Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides, 2002).