La Léon (2007)

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Santiago ‘you should see the’ Otheguy. Made 3 notes for this one; it sort of slips by quietly and mysteriously, with a cold but intense sensuality. I kept thinking of the (now quite referential) flashback sequences in A Single Man, chiefly because of the way the black and white combine with the widescreen framing – as here – to create a kind of sun-baked heat, itchy mid-afternoon tension. Figures are often framed here with swathes of forest or river or reeds on either side, embedded in their environment as they work or walk or play football. It’s a different route to realism; certainly not naturalistic, but with plenty of the weight of Lav Diaz (though the pacing is more Antonioni, or Antonioni-via-Ceylan). Embrace of the Serpent comes to mind, too, because of the setting’s glittering forms and the stability of the perspective.

All very alluring. The story is suitably languid: a reedcutter on a North Argentinian island settles into reclusion to avoid attracting attention to his bookish interests and homosexuality, but is unable to shake off the conflicted attentions of a bullying ferryman who channels his frustrations into nativist agitation against quietly invading “misioneros,” to perilous effect. The story slips along like the silent river cutting across the island, edited evenly with only a few alerts: the cut to the first sex scene is judged perfectly; there’s a fantastically tense foreshadowing of revenge on the ferry; the final confrontation tightens to a breathless high pitch. A smart 80-odd minutes, in total.

Cumulative, not explosive. A great little story entwined around an engrossing social relief, beautifully shot.

8

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Stockholm My Love (2016)

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Mark Cousins’ feature debut, I believe.

To reduce it to what I know: an awful lot of stuff in here about exile and witnessing. NC’s initial attitude is almost one childishness – she is “bunking off school” by neglecting to give a lecture on architecture, a confession she addresses to her father in these early scenes. She hides in the mist (and, childishly, behind her hair in some of the closeups) but I think the film attempts to convey not avoidance but self-scrutiny. The beginning of her story has its roots in her father’s experience as an immigrant and her own history growing up in a borrowed environment: “it’s as if I’m not allowed to be here.” The central trauma itself – the death of an old Swedish man on the bumper of her car exactly one year ago – is a living wound, “more here than here” – a paradox which simultaneously evokes preoccupation and relegates actual, contemporary lived experience, which elsewhere seems “distant” in all directions. Later, at the passage that perhaps forms the crux point about which her journey of self-absolution/acceptance pivots – a trip to an occluded woodland church – she relates the Bible’s story of real-life cities built to house accidental killers, residual like “refugees” in muted worlds.

Some interesting play with perspective. A full range from grainy, Inland Empire handycam to crystal slow-mos. I thought I’d nailed it when my general early impression of skateboard videos appeared to be validated by a visit to a park, but in retrospect this range puts me more in mind of upmarket vlogs, particularly Casey Neistadt’s. This makes sense given the blend of diaristic (essayistic) confessional and aleatoric hymn to the city, and it’s an approach that puts MC and his film right in the present, which keeps the experimentation feeling fresh. What is less fresh is the interplay between the narration and NC’s onscreen presence; her acting is extremely impassive (to some extent called for by her character’s emotional state) which makes it hard to connect her even to such an impassive script. There are a few moments where she briefly breaks into actual speech, which feel incongruous to a telling extent.

I did enjoy spending time with the city (which is listed as cast in the opening credits). There’s a good breadth between ambience (sometimes timelapse, at points interestingly [as above] aleatoric, where observed extras appear to be unwitting) and textural particularity. And a soothing, if not exactly unforeseeable, jog through the city’s history and the national character which is expressed in its persistent lines and regularity, its quiet social optimism and atmosphere of responsible freedom. It made me want to live there.

Distinctive but wobbly.

6

A Ghost Story (2017)

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Hipster bullshit. Saw this at UPP with Steve. Establishes a post-Tree of Life environment of suburban peace through patient pacing and misty ambience. A couple wrangle with mysterious melancholy (some Wong Kar-Wai in these highly-strung exchanges) before Casey Affleck, the husband, perishes in a car crash. He is whimsically clad in the pictured archetypal ghostly costume; all focus on his personal experience after death is borrowed and intentionally childish, extending to a take on the Taylor Swift meme of figures communicating wordlessly between isolated houses. Hammy and unsatisfying reflections on loss and (im)permanence ([be]longing) swirl around this central, simpering irony. At the beginning, though, there are some interesting prospects for examination of the intransigence of grief, extending to (and pushed through) a pointedly interminable scene depicting Rooney Mara’s indulgence in kummerspeck with CA’s besheeted presence hovering out of focus. This isn’t followed through, however, as RM leaves the set, giving way to CA’s dissatisfying ponderings on regeneration and residual presence. There’s a cameo from Will Oldham which comprises a garbled diatribe on humanity as a ‘brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness’, hanging on with a whiff of watery hauntology. There are also some unintentionally guffaw-prompting missteps, as in CA’s successful attempt to diffuse an argument with RM by insisting upon his tuneless and flatulantly insubstantial musical endeavours. All the jump-scares (the extent of the film’s spookiness, besides a brief but effective poltergeist interlude) are equally unwarranted and unwelcome. Ultimately the message was entirely covered – and then some – by the yet-imperfect short film Plastic Bag by Ramin Bahrami, which at least had an appealing sense of humour. Usage of rounded 4:3 framing seems more Instagram than Scarred Hearts.

A film which is never more than you expect it to be.

3

The Golden Notebook (1962)

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First time with Doris Lessing.

For the most part reads like it was written at a thousand miles an hour. Ideas and abstractions pressed through a filter of lived experience (although a central theme is the 20th Century inheritance of Dickensian “telescopic philanthropy;” Nikhil’s aversion to Levinas on the grounds that the most crucial modern ethical exchanges are conducted over massive geographical and experiential distances). Another theme is the dissolution of meaning within words, its porous packaging; this dealt with equally urgently through the wrangling with party communism and the conversational mannerisms detected with a hypersensitive diagnostic ear (occasionally cross-examined, as on RN 153 “the roles we play, the way we play parts”).

Despite the escalating and intoxicating focus on mental processes there’s a consistent eye for empirical beauty. Anna pictures her memories of “the smell of dust and the moonlight” above a friendly gesture and an “overgrateful response” as moments from a “slow-motion film.” (115) Foreshadows her later feverish dissociation and troubling capacity for schizoid self-observation, coming in the form of a projectionist replaying memories in a dream. Before this, on the downward slope – a pervert hovering nearby in the underground and by fruit stalls – she sinks into “the tart clean smell … [the] faintly hairy skins,” becomes “immune” to his gaze. (345) Experience as refuge. TGN‘s relationship to the everyday is dizzying and shocking: it’s narcotic but also a prison house. It is the everyday gothic, particularly and most acutely as a portrait of the single mother – the figure who, Saul insists, is hidden behind every locked English door – that needs to be dwelt on: it is dizzying and shocking (see 298, “the disease of women in our time”) It is a way of seeing and I want it to sink in.

A is devout in shirking self-dramatisation (135), continually checking herself (sometimes redacting herself) in a way which runs entirely counter to Knausgaard’s attempts to respect the weight of experience as it is experienced, while constantly lapsing into free writing. Two pages later she looks back on time “like beads on a string,” a “lazy memory”. Barthes’ codes; again this is undercut by the later examination of self-writing, the projectionist replaying select details to show her what she has missed. The first BN entry concludes:

I read this over today, for the first time since I wrote it. It’s full of nostalgia, every word loaded with it, although at the time I wrote it I thought I was being ‘objective’. Nostalgia for what? I don’t know. Because I’d rather die than have to live through any of that again. And the ‘Anna’ of that time is like an enemy, or like an old friend one has known too well and doesn’t want to see. (150)

TGN is not a book with crescendos (despite the protracted one at the end, I think), but one clear highlight is the end of the second section of the BN, with its heartbreaking revision of her experience (326). “I must pull myself together”.

Prologue stresses a) the central conceptual importance of splitting or disintegration, b) the formal importance of the intertwining diaries, the metafiction.

I see Ella, walking slowly about a big empty room, thinking, waiting. I, Anna, see Ella. Who is of course, Anna. But that is the point, for she is not. The moment I, Anna, write: Ella rings up Julia to announce, etc., then Ella floats away form me and becomes someone else. … (404)

I thought of Kathy Acker’s Devoured By Myths: “I wanted to explore the use of the word I, that’s the only thing I wanted to do. So I placed very direct autobiographical, just diary material, right next to fake diary material. I tried to figure out who I wasn’t.” See the nightmare on 229-30, the nightmare of identifying with the fiction.

Splitting, then: DL’s vision of the novel as “a function of the fragmented society” is ever more relevant. (75) Reportage and connection (this probably the most powerful literary statement – though it is central to the politics, as on 155). Self-division is seen as bleakly valuable in the context of constant disappointment, of “the great sin”:

It’s not a terrible thing … to do without something one wants. It’s not bad to say: My work is not what I really want, I’m capable of doing something bigger. Or I’m a person who needs love, and I’m doing without it. What’s terrible is to pretend that the second-rate is first-rate. To pretend that you don’t need love when you do; or you like your work when you know quite well you’re capable of better. (242)

I read that one a few times. Of course the central accusation, Tommy’s suicide attempt – the reported trauma to rival the unspeakable one of Michael’s abandoning her – frames splitting as an accusation. (247)

Shelley’s Queen Mab in the hallucinatory flights.

I want to return; I want to psych myself up and read it all in two days.

9

Love Is The Devil (1998)

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First time with John Maybury. A study for a portrait as much of George Dyer as it is of Francis Bacon – which is great, because Dyer’s is a fascinating story. The film this put me most in mind of was Fox and His Friends: the complex antagonism of the bonds that bind the couple, against the gaps which divide them, stretches their mental states in painful directions until one of them really snaps. Keeping GD relatively centre-stage is appealing because it bolsters the comment that FB really didn’t acquit himself well personally in this period: their sadomasochistic dynamic is cruelly inverted away from the bedroom, with FB and his cabal of cackling grotesques bullying GD into dependency and internal destitution. FB describes the liberating ecstasy of entirely abdicating one’s will in the service of another man, but the tragedy of the bigger picture is that people can’t stay irreducibly small forever.

The film’s other strength is its refraction of GD’s mental decline through improvised Baconian imagery (the artist’s estate wouldn’t permit JM the use of any of his actual work). It suggests that Bacon was a feeder, witnessing his visions vicariously. GD’s haunting premonitions of abstracted destruction – a man hunched and bloodied all over with a handkerchief hat, slipping off a beam into darkness – evokes William Blake’s sketch of soul of a flea. Other ice-bath moments of second sight include a narcotically shot nightmare (awakening No!) and a shrinking into darkness which reminded me of Glazer’s effects in Under The Skin. I could have handled more of the feverish effects, either as A Field In England-style psychedelics or Jarman’s absurd vignettes.

Jacobi is uncanny, visually, as Bacon, and revels in a revolting Capote-esque haughtiness hammed up with affectations towards tragedy. Next to Craig’s gurning fits of convulsions his painterly reveries come off a bit Simon from Spaced at times. The highlight is a patiently shot morning routine, with toothpaste giving way to polish for hair and extensive make up, figuring Bacon’s self-fashioning as congruent with his art. His shakespearian interior monologues form intriguingly illustrative if sometimes opaque interludes.

Like Jarman it’s very visual, and the script is at times a little stiff. Not sure I was entirely happy with the accents on show either.

Great score from Ryuichi Sakamoto.

7

Lolita (1962)

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Adapting this book from such a distinctively wordy author, a book with such a quotable opening, Kubrick holds off on the narration rather ostentatiously. The first half breezes through snippets and vignettes in a way which emphasises suggestion and unspoken thoughts. The Haze household – which surely ranks as the most bewitching set here, above the briefly glittering Kane-esque clutter of Clare Quilty’s mansion – has a distinct upstairs/downstairs dynamic which evokes the Overlook: Charlotte seems largely confined to the lower half, unable to rein in the secrets and impulses which simmer behind the locked doors and drawers in the bedrooms.

Launching the film in this environment, again, points to questions of repression and secrecy. The line which kept tugging at me throughout Lolita was race. Charlotte’s opening spiel – a pitch for Humbert’s tenancy – flaunts the “Dutch and English stock” of the New Hampshire neighbourhood. She is nevertheless reliant on Louise, the peripheral figure of the black maid who leans across one shot in service and isn’t seen again. She is one of a cast of bit-part African American characters, all of which act as help, each more damaging to Humbert’s cause than the last. The comic porter at the hotel is the most obvious, refusing to keep his voice down during the slapstick routine of erecting the makeshift campbed at Lolita’s feet in which H will inevitably have to sleep. Later, at the hospital, a black nurse physically restrains H as he writhes at the discovery of his stepdaughter’s kidnapping. Their position as manual workers emphasises the way their labour, their presence, underpins and reinforces the elaborate social structures above them. They’re the clockwork behind the frontispiece, to be heard but not seen. Guilty consciences.

Charlotte – symbolic of the religiously tormented, mortally devoted, repressed and industrious middle class – takes the weight of the film’s racial critique of America: her daughter’s ironic sieg heil sticks out in this context. Opposite her is the film’s European influence, embodied most extravagantly in Peter Sellers’ psychologist persona – basically a dry run for his Nazi Strangelove with his clipped but leering anatomical obsessions (“she has got ze curvatures…”). 20th Century European racialism, a fixation for the jewish Kubrick until Schindler’s List put paid to his frustrated plans for a holocaust picture, is sublimated into a clownish act, a mask which any fool should see through (H’s earnest and concessionary responses are integral to the comedy of the scene). Charlotte’s racism, on the other hand, is never less than coldly and understatedly sinister. It’s a striking binary which I think (having not read L) plays into the theme of H’s character: that real villainy is not the kind which comes with a warning label; it’s complicated and insidious and there’s a bit of it inside everyone (Quilty obsessively and ironically labelling H as “normal”).

Elsewhere: that domestic setting really is awesome; love the vertical panning every time someone uses the stairs. C trapped in a memory palace like an unsympathetic Juliet of the Spirits. Sellers is awesome, while Sue Lyon’s performance grows and twists with the changes of scenery and season. Made a load of notes but I can’t remember what any of the rest of them mean.

Second-tier? I assumed so but I’m not sure now.

8

La Verité (1960)

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Watched this one a little while back. First time with Henri-Georges Clouzot I believe. Got a bit of Roeg’s Bad Timing about it, especially with the sense that its a culture or a social bracket on trial here rather than an individual. HGC is super even-handed, though: the absolute highlight for me was Gilbert’s first, ecstatic go conducting the orchestra, feeding off Dominique’s unseen presence. Watching the bank of fiddles cut up and down in unison as the horns blare is unapologetically thrilling and a great way to divide our sympathies midway through. Bardot is pretty amazing in the smooth way she goes from defensively withholding emotion to screaming it out and back (she herself attempted suicide by the same method as her character in the year of LV‘s release). Despite a regenerative freshness attained by varying the length of the flashback cuts – inviting us to scrutinise the courtroom presentation of the past despite its apparently faithful presentation – the film tends to lose its flavour through over two-hours of often-unfortunate self-similarity, which itself can dampen each of the vignettes. Ending therefore came as a real shock: devastating last words and a seriously cruel coda with the advocates so apathetic after such impassioned performances.

7