Inland Empire (2006)

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Intrusion
Are you looking to go in
Evil born from innocent boy going out
Butler celebrates
Glittering prizes irons speech
Hollywood whmacy Where stars make dreams and dreams make stars
JI traumatised by tea
Said to be cursed
Actions and consequences
Cheesy love chat Christmas music
Stories which grew out of imagination
AXXon. N
Lovers apparition
Silk skin projection mirror
Vs lost highway horror of familiar
Fucker been sowing some kinda heavy shit
Do the locomotion
Where is the paper towels
LA dern lap shot
Hypnotism pointers
Dern on tracks
Light bulb mouth
Street screwdriver approach truly unhinged
Look at me and tell me if you’ve known me before
I don’t know what happened first and it’s kind of lain a mindfuck on me
Mockumentary stars
Good with animals. Blonde wig
Jodorowsky meta film
Exorcism kiss

David Lynch’s most consistently terrifying film since Eraserhead (Blue Velvet really lifts the rock but it can only dare take disconnectedly transfixed glimpses). Pick a line taking in the (more successful) first half of Lost Highway – in which “nothing is safe, like in actual nightmares, where the link between threat and warning is broken” – through the warm cinematic familiarity but increasing narrative abandon of Mulholland Drive, to Inland Empire, which represents DL’s most explicit departure from uncanny familiarity since, again, Eraserhead. We are firmly in the realm of the alien – the interiors are plastic, radioactive; the extras (crazy) clownish; the dialogue sinisterly clipped and inaccessible. Thematically I’d situate this closer to Berberian Sound Studio, while arthouse and experimental do not feel like only partially applicable stylistic labels this final time round (the “Do the locomotion” interlude instantly brought “Think Pink” in The Garden back to me). I don’t think it’s too much to say that he has not only met the unapproachable challenge of following MD but even surpassed it by finding a new filmic approach altogether, yet successfully and recognisably bending it to his own tune.

What’s most obvious is the shift to digital, handheld. DL takes the opportunity to reconstruct his usually trademark visual style: closeups are nauseatingly close (see sweat, pores, fisheye perspective deconstructing any aestheticised presentation like noir’s acceptance of shadow) midrange movement is frenetic and unpredictable (sense perhaps not of improvisation but still of spontaneity, playing off of the trend through home-video compilation TV, handheld horror like Cloverfield, and mockumentaries like Exit Through The Gift Shop). The overwhelming sensation throughout IE is of intrusion – we are made to feel unwelcome in its environment, and when its characters invade other timelines or spaces we fully empathise with their unsettled insecurity.

Of all MD‘s Hollywood framing perhaps the most pertinent is the scene of Betty’s first audition: Jeremy Irons’ foppish Brit director provides much of the comedic introduction (see “JI traumatised by tea” above) but there’s also that mimetic blurring of life and stage, which helps us sink in. The late bleary-eyed emergence from the tinseltown nightlife spin-dryer onto a sidewalk alongside the homeless savants seems a rare surfacing for air (the thick but empirically wired feeling of a comedown is enhanced by the constant narcotised references to amnesia, as in the First Visitor’s acceptance of forgetfulness and the confessional LD’s admission that “I don’t know what happened first and it’s kind of lain a mindfuck on me”). This is like the unattended underbelly, the hangers-on after the dead decadence of LD’s palace (coupled with the new waste-noughties aesthetic I couldn’t help thinking of Elysia Crampton etc.). That this is just another stage is like a Twilight Zone / Black Mirror denial of the oxygen of satisfaction.

Pointers peek through the mist – like the cut from the random attacker on the street to the same woman, in flashback, confessing to a hypnotised compulsion to assault someone with a screwdriver. These feel like DL picking a route through his own fantasy (populated, as it is, by references to his earlier films and TV as well as lifted footage from his web-series Rabbits) which adds to the sense of spontaneity. Elsewhere it feels like he’s collapsed into a seat on our row in front of the irreducible weirdness (which is equal parts visual and dialogic [“where is the paper towels”]). The meta near-conclusion cemented a growing sense that Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain is my holistically closest touchstone.

Above all this is simply the best approximation of the illogic of nightmares that I can remember in any film. It’s something often talked about with DL but perhaps this is a definitive shadow to the Dreams of MulhollandThis is in no small part down to the handheld approach, but it also evinces the constructive maturity after graduation from the barmy clowntime of LH. Lynch’s final world is a Hollywood “where stars make dreams and dreams make stars”. He claims to have moved on from film now; IE proves that he found new possibilities in the medium right up until that decision. I want to call it the Kid A to MD‘s OKC. 

I watched MD twice in two days and I would happily do the same here.

10

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The Salesman (2016)

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Third time with Asghar Farhadi after A Separation and The Past. I know nothing about Death of a Salesman.

This time the context for those two becomes a dynamic setting, the pretext and, in a way, the subject of the film – domestic space. Homeownership is a fragile and constantly negotiable condition; from the kinetic desperation of the crumbling apartment block in the opening scenes to the moment mirrors and mattresses are confusedly hauled up the Escher staircase at their new home, a constant, partial deracination afflicts the central couple. It’s a condition off of which the central trauma plays, but it’s also almost an always-already existent one, as suggested by the broken chain of exchange symbolised in the immoveable luggage of the previous tenant. Attempts to kindle a sense of home are heartbreakingly abortive: the briefly adopted child lightens a conciliatory dinner until the food turns to ashes in their mouths after its connection to the perpetrator is stumbled upon.

AF generally back on song as far as social politics goes, after the surprisingly questionable dynamics of TP (in brief: stoic and morally spotless grandfather-figure arrives on scene to talk some sense into a procession of hysterical and variously culpable women). Here the downscaling to a crumbling inner-city apartment is diversionary (except for some flashes of observation on dynamics of community); class is not the focus here, unlike AS perhaps, but gender. Emad’s masculine pragmatism chafes against Rana’s traumatised, aporetic indecision, boiling into inconsideration and vengefulness. This deftly turns the tables from E’s early empathetic reaction to a woman’s paranoid misandry in a taxi: he becomes blind to the extent to which R sees violence behind the eyes of any man, even after she hauntingly confides to him her Hamletian vision of hostility in the play’s audience (one of the most important differences from AS and TP, in terms of plot, is the open-endedness of the mystery). Nor can he compute R’s attempts to blame herself for her victimhood (why did she let him in? etc.)

R’s unwillingness to go to the police, to air her grievances in front of an audience, is an aspect of her isolation which introduces the most sustained social-observational angle in TS (the kind of incisive but accessible documentary content which lit up AS). The film constantly dramatises tension between public and private worlds, reputation and conscience, open justice and quiet compromise. The world of the play steps in here, creating a forum at which grievances are unconsciously channeled and vented (the actors in DoaS are all actors in AF’s story). Another highlight is the film lesson at school, E’s positive relationship with his students soured after an unfortunate, transgressively public disciplining. The dualistic tension builds towards the final confrontation, which mirrors AS but is injected with its own urgency because of this problem of decorum and sympathy.

The ethics of the ending are again contentious. The guy’s trouble suggests something of the ordinary human behind the momentary or unselfconscious act of inhumanity, which serves to represent E’s own decline to himself (the human gradually becoming a cow in the opening classroom example; E’s own rash act is itself a domestic assault). There is a central pulse-raising moment when E calls him into a stripped bedroom and lashes out in frustration at his moral incapacity to inflict humiliation in public. As the climax draws out, though, we are left standing in the stairwell wondering if we are simply being asked to feel pity for a (recently introduced) man guilty of sexual assault. Some more scrupulous editing needed here probably; the eventual cut to makeup at the theatre, E and R as separate and broken as the pacing couple at the end of AS, is an effective conclusion.

Definitely a return to form. Manages to reclaim the template of AS with structural novelty. Gripping stuff.

8

Summer With Monika (1953)

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Like Persona, SWM is a film concerned with image and film itself: there’s a sooty, neorealist opening in which Stockholm looms crookedly like Dickensian London, before the central theme of a blooming youth generation – a “touch of spring” – pushes through the soil in a sleepy cafe, old men grumbling in Ozu generational balance. Monika is far more taken-in than Harry by the cinema (as we see in an amusing juxtaposition of their reaction to silverscreen melodrama). Bergman foreshadows her lack of commitment through teenage vanity: she breaks off their first kiss to inspect her image in a portable mirror, and settles definitively on H the day after with the line “You’re just like someone in a film!”

H’s motivation seems (especially by the end) more wholesome and admirable, but we’re encouraged to remember the kitchen-sink circus-clatter of M’s chaotic bedsit, especially when H ultimately unwittingly repeats the domestic violence by which her father had forced her into his arms (H has actually escaped quite a cushy home life). Moving from this economic observation at escape velocity with babbling laughter to a shimmering coastline put me in mind of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, and sometimes also of La Haine (it’s tempting to read the cinematic self-consciousness into some of the slightly hammy domestic strife scenes at the end of SWM, as if they’re both blowing up in the way they imagine adults might – M’s adultery is ironically foretold by one of H’s co-workers on the sleeper train back into S)

S looks amazing in this; it has a great sprawl, which we aimlessly but restlessly track across under the cloudy spring skies. H and M find their own route (love the boat leaving under the bridge carrying cars), escaping the high walls of the venetian waterways into the port in some satisfyingly unadorned and patiently edited shots.

They pitch up on a glittering shore with the confident abandon of Sheen and Spacek in Badlands (the moment H realises “I haven’t overslept!” is perfect). The slow peaking and sinking of summer in this middle section is idyllic and very free (particularly the dialogue, which is devoid of the sometimes overly dry and stilted rumination that peaks in Through A Glass Darkly), spliced with dreamlike natural shots that made me think of the river pursuit in Night of the Hunter and Ivan’s first dream in Ivan’s Childhood (particularly M’s escape after being held hostage at a fancy home). Amid this blissful lolling they hatch a strangely traditional, nuclear dream – “You and I will make something of life,” breadwinner and homemaker, peace privacy and happy children. It’s a strange conservatism but also a view still soaked in summer’s naïve glow, as if social ideals are themselves born from this imagined utopia.

Very heaven, but the comedown is urban and cold (“we can’t afford to see a film”), clouds returning (this is Bergman) – H plugging away at a mechanics like the almost-unredeemed nadir of Fear Eats the Soul (the straightjacket of legal proceedings in suits also recalled Fox And His Friends). Importance of perspective resurgent (H having realised that the summer was a dream): H peering through a window onto his ominous newborn future; a spectacular shot of a shared cigarette but M slowly turning to the camera with a darkening background as if realising that she’s trapped. This is emulated when H finally catches a glimpse of himself and his swaddled daughter in a mirror outside his new employment, flashing back to the summer on the shining waters. Unlike the recalled peace which closes Cries and Whispers or the confusingly reclaimed image that ends Wild Strawberries, this dream seems to have died, swallowed into a town patrolled by street-hawkers scavenging spare furniture and childhood toys.

Pretty hilarious that this was the angle pushed by US promoters in a stateside edit:

Monikamovie

It’s Bergman’s second-most glowingly beautiful film behind Persona.

Why do some people have good luck while others never do?
We have each other don’t we?

9

The God Of Small Things (1997)

the-god-of-small-things

Picked this up amid the buzz around Arundhati Roy’s new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

Title refers to the subsumption of personal grievance into the “Worse Things” that happen on a national level. The impossibility of stacking our own needs and pleas against a mass of traditional and political movements.

So Small God laughed a hollow laugh, and skipped away cheerfully. … He whistled, kicked stones. The source of his brittle elation was the relative smallness of his misfortune. He climbed into people’s eyes and became an exasperating expression. (19)

Here framed as Larry’s inability to comprehend an expression on the face of his wife Rahel, central character. Thus this disparity helps introduce friction from cultural clashes both domestic (most notably caste, religion) and international (Anglo-Indian). Successful love (even if temporary) is framed, in TGoST, as a focus on Small Things, even if (especially if) temporarily so.

The Big Things ever lurked inside. they knew that there was nowhere for them to go. They had nothing. No future. So they stuck to the small things. (338)

This also helps decode Roy’s distinctively empirical style. Nearly every chapter is introduced with Conradian scenery (HoD is an explicit touchstone, but I thought also of the peripheral isolation and partial porosity of Almayer’s Folly‘s outpost), as if the scenery imposes itself upon its inhabitants. Minor observational details stick, become extended metaphors that build into a kaleidoscopic symbolic vocabulary for complicated personal histories. Perhaps excluding the climactic final third, this modal cascading makes Roy’s novel a kind of minimalist tone poem. This irreducible, rhythmic quality sometimes threatens to rise and overwhelm the narrative (compare, as I had to, Midnight’s Children, with its narratively micromanaged tapestry of foreshadowing and callbacks. AR does do well to confound expectations, though, playing with character perspectives to reveal initially unseen truths: Balliol alum Uncle Chacko is presented as a liberal intervention into ignorant patriarchal violence (48) before being shown to hypocritically manipulate laws of property to cement his own masculine ascendency (57).). However, the tonality ties in to the running theme of childish perspective and interpretation of relationships and events, which is dominated by (sometimes inaccurately) rote-learned, capitalised concepts and phrases – Small Things take on supreme, constitutional importance.

Baby Kochamma, principle villain, serves to distort Big Things through her own personal worries as avarice and spite. She has become isolated, imposed upon by grander forces (“She viewed ethnic cleansing, famine and genocide as direct threats to her furniture” 28) but not above manipulating them to maintain her status quo. She is an agent for the conservative forces which heartbreakingly pin Estha and Rahel in their places, as when they are unable to constitute themselves as victims rather than perpetrators.

The pressure and heat warps family relations, introducing the theme of forbidden love which reacts with frailty against convention, at least until the empowering final chapter (it is the twins’ mother Ammu’s romantic rebellions that primarily compel BK to light the fuse). Untouchable carpenter Velutha is central here; his crime is one of attitude:

It was not what he said, but the way he said it. Not what he did, but the way he did it. (76)

Interesting to consider alongside The End of Eddy, in which EL’s crimes are not of action but of appearance and description. V’s horrifying punishment – the consummation of a thread of tragedy that extends from the death of Ammu (161) which ranks with Nabokov’s Luzhin’s father for cold pathos – is horrifyingly matter of fact, a weighing-in of history upon individual life, a reassertion of order through authority. It is amid these later incomprehensible terrors that the childish perspective blooms as an effective device evoking regressive traumatised responses: their families are rendered as the grieving parents of Hamelin in their plans to abscond through terrified reaction against Ammu’s condemnation (292), but they come home to roost in the History House like “Hansel and Gretel in a ghastly fairy tale in which their dreams will be captured and redreamed.” (293) Throughout, however, imagination is preserved as a precious defence-system, a flickering vestal flame:

The twins climbed into the vallom and rowed across vast, choppy waters.
With a Thaiy thaiy thaka thaiy thaiy thome. And a jewelled Jesus watching.
He walked on water. Perhaps. But could He have swum on land?
In matching knickers and dark glasses? With his Fountain in a Love-in-Tokyo? In pointy shoes and a puff? Would He have had the imagination? (211)

Roy’s style is very distinctive but sometimes distracting, as mentioned, and occasionally the fey misunderstandings feel uncomfortably persistent (childish, even). The story can verge on mawkish, if shocking, melodrama. But the telescopic scoping is handled seamlessly, with the interrelation of Big and Small events integral both to the worldview and the plot. Definitely a keen eye for detail, synesthetic description of a beautiful and broken world. The sort of book that rewards more the more you invest in it.

7

A Man Escaped (1956)

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First time with Bresson.

From the first moments (post-credits) we are made to feel like conspirators – with all the exciting potency and uneasy sense of risk that entails. In the car the camera’s glance darts back and forth as if we are being trusted to give the signal (spare pairs of eyes will later become integral to Fontaine’s escape plan). After failure and a beating he plays dead, “…sure I was being watched”; no broken bones but “I can’t have been a pretty sight.” Throughout AME ines of sight, perspective and panoptic paranoia create a spatial field which RB distends through long takes into scenes of uncompromising tautness (unsurprisingly this two-dimensional principle is exactly how games like Splinter Cell work).

Little room for artifice; reminded of Beckett’s attempts to write without style. Light and shadow is peacefully uncomplicated, planar, like Dreyer stills. A guard drags his keys along iron bannisters to create broken tones, a musicality alien in the colourless prison. Winter Light, monastic focus and interiority.

Your man’s got a bit of Ian Curtis about him, but also the languid and intelligent grace of Edward Fox in The Day of The Jackal (as it exists in my memory).

The focus is intensely manual, material. Processes are given proper attention and become ritualistic, freighted with history like artisan handiwork. Repetition of close shots (lean from bed, keyhole circle) gives texture to the distension which creates an unsettling timelessness to the incarceration (there is only a threatened terminus – these abstractions play into the catholic subtext, works and salvation amid abstract waiting). The exposition is again conspiratorial but also mirrors the dry but allusive concision of the visuals – “that night I fell asleep less unhappy.”

Besides all that it’s a great true story (as declared), a Colditz feat deftly and patiently handled and infused with a spiritual urgency. Sweaty palms.

8

The Martian (2015)

the-martian-bring-him-home

Two halves: a “Science” half and a disaster half. One of its successes (or, at least, the successes of the tv edit that I saw) was a gradual transition between the two (around the point at which David Bowie comes in / bilateral preparation for the rescue mission begins).

After an encouragingly brisk start, the first half is a very inefficient film about spartan, survivalist efficiency. I count only ten somewhat-to-majorly important characters but at least twice as many are introduced with terminal txt captions (which also list job titles) – shoots for documentary of key players, instead contributes to the uneasy sense that we apparently need a walking tour of the plot. This sense is continually pushed by running exposition, mostly Damon’s but also from NASA quarterbacks (was reminded again of the Kurosawa Every Frame A Painting, on visual storytelling c/ Avengers) (the exposition also describes what’s going on right now; cf Inception with its delayed-gratification rewards for paying attention). This is where the Science comes in; I like TM‘s attempt to dramatically deploy the physical curiosities of our universe as directly as possible, though this needn’t have meant getting MD to say “I’m gonna science the shit out of it!” (any doubt that this is for the Nerds disappears with the joke about Boromir. The sci-fi/fantasy CatDog declares a brief truce.)

Unless you like Neil deGrasse Tyson the exposition will get on your nerves. Worth a look from a literary-historical perspective, though (I see you, Ridley). Given that The Martian is Robinson Crusoe (as indeed are lots of stories) the ship’s log is consistent with Robinson’s own autobiographical scribblings (likewise just about the first task he undertakes upon waking up stranded, surrounded by raw material but with no companionship and no long-term hope). Defoe wrote in the tradition of protestant autobiography, which drips with the anxiety to critically self-analyse in order to construe one’s own tribulations as a dark night of the soul before inevitable and exemplary redemption. MD’s tone, in contrast, is immediately victorious (see: “I’m gonna science the shit out of it!”) which puts The Martian in the lineage of recent post-Musk sci-fi, one place along from Interstellar (if Brian Chippendale’s review is anything to go by, which it might not be) (See, in contrast, 2001 on the abortive impossibility of technological transcendence, and Gravity writing back to that with humility in the face of space’s inhuman physical hostility). This confidence is The Martian‘s distinct angle – one which, again, charges the scientific push – but it also short-circuits any existentialist introspection from Damon in his log entries (of which there is little, unlike Moon or the big beast, T’s Solaris. [M‘s Gerty is an ingenuous rerouting of the exposition problem, though the film admittedly (probably) requires less in the first place]). C/ Robinson Crusoe, whose autobiography enables him to set his own house in order in a more philosophical sense than that of resolving to tape over a hole made by accidentally exploding a depressurisation chamber. I’ll take fear and trembling over the Martian Dream (checkmate athetits).

The second half – the disaster half – is more successful (telling that the tv-edit appeared to have cut down on later exposition as if impatiently hurrying up the transition). Ejiofor is a little Mega Shark at times but Sean Bean was surprisingly effective as a moralistic counterweight to Jeff Daniels’ micro-managing Machiavel. Donald Glover does the Q thing well too. The rescue trajectory is much less innovative than the I-Fucking-Love-Science-cosmic-humanism of the first hour (it’s classic Ridley Scott, or Independence Day or anything else like that). Some of that asphyxiating 2001 frailty creeps back in through the technological peril – see the tense and understated supply-shuttle docking scene and even the sub-Gravity space-tagliatelle finale.

Consistent throughout is Scott’s showcased world-building (concede all quibbles before the post-podracing space suits and the humming martian desert-scapes) and a likeable if unremarkable turn from Damon (remember True Grit?). Fine overall; a good alternative to boyish Abrams over-saturation and a temporarily passable one to Duncan Jones’ smarter, more dextrous imaginative flights.

Don’t watch: Prometheus, any other Scott film since American Gangster. Do watch: MoonGravity, 2001, even Contact. Unless you want to be a space scientist.

6

Wild Strawberries (1957)

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After first seeing this a few years ago (perhaps second Bergman after 7S) I’d largely forgotten the tone, thinking it was a nostalgia trip. Truth is its more all over the place than most people seem to think. So many loose ends (mostly concerning Isak’s parents – remembering them helps him rehabilitate his own parental instincts but his mother is left hung out to dry, and his father is almost completely absent) and his late wife. Religion makes a blurting appearance through the rather ridiculous teens but is dismissed with a wistfully ambiguous poem. The role of the unhappy couple is unclear, especially because they trouble the relationship between intimacy and companionship as elements of a successful marriage. Inclusion of I’s divination of narrative continuity to events is accordingly somewhat frustrating.

What saves it is the narrative flow and the dream sequences, especially the haunting opening and the Rashomon assault on I’s wife. M and I ultimately agreed that WS is unusual for IB because it is best enjoyed as a character study (a short story) and a personal illustration, rather than a thematic meditation (running similarities for me with T’s Mirror, another canonical disappointment). Settling for this reveals a beautiful and drily amusing tale with philosophical clothing rather than entrails. Still, uncomfortably between the direct questioning of Winter Light and the investigative experimentation of Persona. Better than the dour but equally weird Through A Glass Darkly but doesn’t hold a candle to P, WL, 7S or Cries and Whispers (29 June: or Summer With Monika) (29 July: or Fanny and Alexander).

7