American Honey (2016)

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Andrea Arnold gave us Fish Tank in 2009, but seven years later she stepped up to the plate again and connected so sweetly you’ll have tears in your eyes as it disappears behind the sun. AH is perhaps the best new film I’ve seen since A Separation.

Star starts in a dumpster, dropping nauseating discarded food into the clutching hands of a young boy below. She’s responsible for two children, though it becomes clear that they aren’t hers – she looks after them while their father is out all day. He refers to himself as “Daddy” while he gropes Star in the evenings, the dinner she has made for him going cold, the old family photos over his shoulder bringing tears of desperation to her eyes. She needs an opportunity to flee and the arrival in town of a vanload of raucous teenagers, following Shia Labeouf’s suggestive tune, is good enough for her. They travel the country as a crew selling magazines to any and every community (AA compares them to Big Issue sellers in the UK, however: they’re selling actually themselves) and partying in the evenings.

Like a miraculous collaboration between Harmony Korine and Ken Loach. The documentary approach is compressed into the closeup empiricism of Moonlight, putting us inside Star’s head as she fights to balance her own identity with communal conformity. The gang variously appears adversarially chaotic and unconditionally welcoming, a cohesive unit and a fractious coexistence of individuals – kind of like any group of teenage friends. Korine’s acidic sensibility is, importantly, traded in for a kind of ecstatic realism which kept reminding me of Elysia Crampton. The gang’s music is hypermodern, infectious both emotionally and lyrically, like the blasts of Lil John that drill through the geological sandwiching of EC’s pieces. In AH the critical acceptance and celebration is specifically of youth culture – I think it’s important that these guys are a mess but ultimately appear rather harmless.

The storytelling is abstract but excellently paced and, for the most part, very tense. This is because Star constantly puts herself in situations of peril; we telegraph them but it is often unclear whether she has, such is her combination of innocence and experience. Scenes like her tantrum in the upper-class detached house, her manipulation of the wealthy southern men with the mescal, and her rendezvous with the grimy and sinister oil worker have you holding your breath and remind you of the unease throughout Fish Tank. The problems with the societies beyond the group, within which the group appear comparatively wholesome, are essential to the dynamics of sympathy. I loved the incongruous final transaction, with the young children politely accommodating Star with their meth-addict mother oblivious in the next room, Star returning with groceries.

Another chapter in the story started by the neo-realists: ordinary people in films about ordinary people. I watched the press conference at Cannes for AH this morning and was fascinated but not surprised to hear that most of the kids involved not only had past lives in this business, but were actually carrying it out while shooting was taking place. There’s a scene where the gang interact naturally with a mirror group of African Americans; AA mentions that this group were the real thing, simply wandered over and started talking. Labeouf – who is volatile but idealistic, a latterday Steinbeck character, and makes excellent use of his age difference from Star – spent time with a gang like this before filming started.

A Trump era classic for sure.

9

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Homeland: Iraq Year Zero (2015)

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First time with Abbas Fahdel.

Sombrely comprehensive at over 330 minutes. It’s not just the runtime (and implicit decisions about respect of scale) that put me in mind of Shoah (nor the necessity for the odd snack break). AF achieves his perfectly disarming – though not entirely non-participatory – interviewing approach largely through two means: relation to the extended family at the centre of the film, and advertisement of cinematic documentation to the wider population of Baghdad and its environs. Throughout, for example, kids are consistently the most willing and forthcoming subjects, whether because they (particularly his nephew Haidar) are keen to reintroduce their Iraqi lives to their expat uncle, or because they’re jostling wide-eyed before the camera lens’ black mirror.

It’s disarmingly (possibly disconcertingly, for some) abstract and stripped-back: there is almost no narrative through-line, either overall or from scene to scene. We are rather given a silent tour of AF’s (past) world, with new characters and settings signposted with cursory captions only. The style is home-movie handicam footage, though its carefully directed and at no point does it feel Cloverfield. The obscured narratives (which feel more spontaneously realtime than post-production) give way in the second half, immediately, to impotence and external direction: the first few sequences after the interlude are of American soldiers directing the family’s car away from unnamed sequestered military zones (this is “The New Iraq”; see next para). The broad arc of city to country and back (“You’re lucky to live in nature” says Haidar to a friend in Babylon; in Baghdad there are only museums), or the familial trickle spilling into the eddies and currents of the urban markets, are replaced by shellshocked wandering among desperate and attention-hungry plaintiffs, fragmented scenes of childbirth, piecemeal poring over ruins.

“Thank god the hard times belong to history.” Rather like Waltz With Bashir, the other excellent war documentary in my recent viewing history, the theme that sticks most here is repetition of the past and the way that this effects and registers with different types of people. Not all the adults in the film share the uncanny optimism of this particular quotation; most are worriedly drawn back to the perils and privations of the previous Gulf War (see the bitter irony appreciated in connecting the two Bushes). The kids are the most fascinating and disquieting subjects here, though: they have inherited a history of conflict and live surrounded by scars but war, for them, is diffuse and abstracted. They describe war as “looking like a game”, wagging the dog both with implied toy guns and wireless controllers. Later the same children play among sandbags and trenches on the roadside (abandoned after old battles? prepared hastily for new ones?). Later still they wave blasted shells and bullet cases like dinosaur teeth in our faces with macabre amusement. Some of the realisations the people in this film come to on camera are almost alien in their level of poignancy; the graduate student daughter wanders around a memorialised shelter, bombed by the Americans in the 90s, urging her family that “we need to reconnect with our heritage before dying. Even this museum might be bombed”.

Dichotomies, like the women’s familial integration vs concerned domestic isolation before and after the invasion, accrete. The portrayals of the urban communities seem both rich and fair. There are cautious but quite revelatory investigations into Jewish assimilation into Muslim Iraqi society in the 80s which contrast, perhaps, with the cultural clashing between the Americans (on TV and in tanks) and the locals, whether in childish wonder or adult bitterness (“Some Americans are good, some are wicked,” says Haidar).

The film also makes effective use of spare and cold captioning. We are given painful insights into the fates or histories of particular characters (an old mother of long-lost sons has a few weeks to live, a visibly distressed young man is introduced as having recently lost his father to senseless military-on-civilian violence). Most poignantly, we are told quite early on (judging by the order of my notes, retrospectively) that Haidar “will be killed after the US invasion”. Of course we never forget this revelation, particularly as the boy leads us deictically around the shelter memorial, but this doesn’t stop the ending of Homeland feeling like a cold knife. I watched Takeshi Miike’s quite tiresome Dead or Alive with S recently; it’s a hard-boiled gangster piece that ends with the surprise fantastical destruction of Japan and the entire world. That conclusion will not stick with me as long as this one (I would rather compare this, tonally, with La Verité). It feels like a single calculated intrusion of artifice, like a prepared surgical incision. It pierces the preceding, almost geologically layered five hours of footage (the second half of which, to the film’s minor detriment, feels a little homogenous, comparatively) with an urgent and humanistic appeal.

A good example of why Documentary needs to be judged by adjusted criteria. Certainly a definitive Iraq War work and probably a definitive work on civilian experience of wartime.

9

The Dance of Reality (2013)

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The start is pointedly emulative of I Clowns, one of Fellini’s most underrated films (I see Fellini elsewhere in the hallucinatory beach scenes like Juliet of the Spirits, and maybe Pasolini’s Teorema in the desert wanderers). Here the young AJ’s father is whipped into an adrenal frenzy by theatrical characters apparently from his past, resembling fruits and vegetables. The boy’s dramatic reaction is crushed by his father, who proceeds to wrestle with his own dictator complexes both politically and when dealing with his family, the boy and an operatic, spiritualistic mother. Bit of a Tree of Life tug of war between them, but the manichaean tussling does have a climactic resolution but the cosmic ballet – the “web of suffering and pleasure” as he puts it in his narration – goes on. It’s all show, like I Clowns, though this is just as political as Holy Mountain.

AJ is reaching through his own work, too: the cards burning at the secret communist meeting recalls the immolated cash in HM, the hundred sanded chairs retreat uncannily, while the father’s get-up as the dictator’s stable groom has a lot of the El Topo silhouette in it. Sense that he’s reeling these memories in – he often interjects, appearing physically, to remind us of the journey the young boy is on; he pulls him back from a ledge to exhort survival, “something is dreaming us”. You feel he has the liberty to (re)create his own backstory – whether imaginative simply in the way all self-narration is or by capturing subjective impression or by embellishing at a visual or narrative level – because he is self-made, a total curiosity.

Most of it is a parade of shocking scenery draped around the father’s story of transformative redemption (our sympathies are managed amazingly as this guy bends from tyrant to penitent). The attack on the donkeys at the watering is mesmeric and horrifying (flinching from all the animals especially because time can no longer claim to be on his side with this stuff), while the topless dancing with the horse is hilarious. There’s fighting amputees – of course – and accusatory humiliation of painted arms under a slum scaffold, nazis dying with baby voices and a woman pissing all over her husband’s face to rid him of plague. It’s all show. It’s great stuff, highly personal but still fascinating, a little saggy in the middle but well worth its two hours. I don’t have much more but I’m keen as ever for Endless Poetry.

8

The Childhood Of A Leader (2016)

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Was pretty disappointed with this for about 45 minutes. Patient to the point of being stolid, with a lot of boring diplomatic conversations and the obstacle that is Liam Cunningham’s wobbling false-moustache American accent. It establishes a pretty emulative Haneke atmosphere with a sprinkling of The Others or The Turn of The Screw and The Shining, as far as the young boy is presented.

The focus begins to shift towards Berenice Bejo’s mother (very Kidman at points), and takes a psychosexual turn that begins to cut through the historical furniture-arranging. The young boy’s magnetic quality becomes more sinister (like a Teorema‘s Terrence Stamp in the making) as his will becomes more erratic and uncontrollable. The Vermeer interiors (a couple of shades of Velazquez’s Las Meninas, too) are matched by impressionistic exteriors, which coldly light a rural world of almost ritualistic tradition and anachronistic poverty; perversion of this house in this setting.

Then the adrenaline really kicks in and it suddenly becomes taut, ice-cold. Fanny and Alexander, which is set up so clearly in the draped passages between baroque rooms, is inverted in a moment – which crystallises one of the three central “tantrums” – where the boy appears defiantly coquettish and undressed before his father at the ominous negotiations. His capricious rebellion is exercised through amplifying the gender misconceptions which torture him; he inflicts his pain on others as he appears like the ghost of Alexander’s father across rooms. Something about his wordless apparition, his stance and departure is momentarily terrifying. The film becomes full of moments like this, minor peaks which are somehow extremely threatening – another standout is the moment depicted above, where the boy wordlessly tries out an injured arm, silhouetted before a mirror. His pivoting, slow-motion blows somehow germinate the image of Hitler flailing at a podium; it’s not always clear with these moments exactly how they produce their effects, which marks them out as the work of a bizarrely accomplished debutant director. Everything gets tighter, particularly the mother’s relationship to the boy: there’s a beautiful moment where she practically begs him to be her friend, unhappily reaping what she sowed (this is the break which reflects back onto an earlier moment in which the boy races away from his mother’s discipline but inexplicably turns and runs back to her for comfort [this in turn reflects upon a sinister dream the boy has had in which the halls that he will someday fill appear blank and haunted without his mother’s presence]. I kept thinking about fort-da, for some reason).

A lot has been said about Scott Walker’s score – which is integral, and fits perfectly at all times. I would contribute that a lot of the early refrains, especially, sound like demented nursery sing-song melodies, repeating like a broken singing doll. In sum it’s is like a blend of Hermann and Greenwood; there’s a lot of consonance with There Will Be Blood, especially in the final section which threatens to turn into a parallel sequel to the film from the “bastard’s” point of view. The patience of the takes has become totally dread-inducing by this point; the forestalling of the inevitable final appearance is almost unbearable. The finale itself is initially somewhat baffling, a potential bum note, but it finds a home within a boldly framed impression of the chaos still to come.

Ends up sidestepping all assumptions. There are clues and illustrations left satisfyingly tangential (the possible exception being the dangling passing threat from the ejected maid Mona), which reflects positively back on the earlier examples which landed a little more flatly (the recurring black horse, Ada’s breast beneath the cloth).

Needs a second viewing; never seen such a turnaround (like In The Bedroom x a thousand).

7

4th December

Did give this a second viewing recently with R, who loved it. Much more consistent the whole way through, mostly to its advantage. The ending is a less cryptic choice but still powerful. Deserving it an 8 now as one of the more distinctively unsettling American films from recent years.

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

My Struggle: Book 4 (2015)

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1,986 pages / 6.5 shelf-inches into the series now. Opened 4 the day before catching a train to Ox to start a first full-time job in a new town by myself; found Karl Ove Knausgaard catching a train to the north to start a first full-time job in a new town by himself. 4 lauded in the praise section as his most well-arced, which is true despite the same typically engrossing internal eddies and fizzling of vignettes and echoing events. However this sense of structure is surely derived also from the embedded reminiscence back to KOK’s final year at school, which occupies 4‘s middle third at least. Reading this on holiday in Mont was less circumstantially satisfying but still I found myself reading my own moments and memories in his level but mystified way.

If the defining image of 3 was “the interplay of two worlds, often one of light versus one of shadow” then here the two worlds are of inside and outside, and the fear comes not from experience but exposure and openness. The town of Håfjord is introduced immediately as having a silence which “was not oppressive … but open” (15), an atmosphere which seeps into its affably engaging but also disarmingly candid inhabitants. In an autobiographical series which epitomises “openness” (and in the volume which certainly most embodies its much-laud quality of lacerating self-exposure), KOK struggles to reconcile his sociable extroversions, guarded fledging literary efforts, and (painfully) personal experiences of humiliation with this cultural transparency.

Of particular importance in 4 are drunkenness and girls, KOK’s twin preoccupations in this period. Anticipating later graduation excesses and even-later indulgences in H, he recounts early experiments with hard drinking, “I had disappeared, I was empty, I was in the void of my soul … it felt as if I had been let loose in the town, I could have done anything…” (118). This exposure enacts a trip to the “ghost world” (120) in an explicit echo of the penumbral duality of 3. His carelessness is replaced by shame and terror in H:

The worst was probably the notion that others saw me, that I put on a show for them, and that the side of me I displayed then was reflected in the way they looked at me every day. (370)

Alcohol is a violent negotiation between individual freedom/confidence and sexual b/pathos. Women mock him by being “accessible to the eye but in no other way.” (123) He’s constantly tasting ashes in his dreams and imagination, especially as his desperation increases, leading towards the (13-y/o?) pupil Andrea who seems to haunt the school which he prowls out-of-hours:

I hardly knew I had these thoughts, they lived in a kind of no-man’s-land … Everything that came from the outside was dangerous. (438)

The nexus of joyful self-expression and sexualised frustration is KOK’s first literary efforts, which are exposed both to us and to critical friends and family. Apotheosis 463-4 when housemates prank him by adding a graphically parodic passage to a WIP:

It wasn’t just a text he had tampered wth, that wouldn’t have offended me in the slightest, it was something else, much more than that, there was a soul in it, my soul. And when he tampered with that, I could feel it. It  looked different from the outside than  from the inside, and it was perhaps that which lay at the heart of my despair. What I wrote was worthless. So that meant I was worthless too.

Especially poignant given metatextual references to other published works, and memories from 3 (29) (see also 364-5 for memory of tv surgery, Mannian human excavation). Criticism and writing-the-self; another more-direct angle on the Struggle.

Stress on detail again here, flattened coexistence of abstraction and particularity definitely anticipating ‘seasons’ series. Just as young KOK in 3 learned lessons of empathy here he is taught the significance of the differing weights assigned by people to events and elements of life; see particularly appeal of dad of fat kid 460.

What is different is that this is less empirical than 3, more introspective and passionate. Experience is more obviously already memory in a way that confirms praise of experience of being this age. Memories made of this:

Half an hour later we were walking up the hill from the flat. I was drunk in that pure joyful way you can be from white wine, when your thoughts collide with one another like bubbles and what emerges when they burst is pleasure.

We had been at my place, I thought, and this filled me with pleasure.

We were colleagues and on our way to becoming friends, I reflected.

And I had written a damn good short story.

Pleasure, pleasure, pleasure.

And then there was this light, dim down among humans and things human, attended by a kind of finely honed darkness which became diffused in the light though did not possess or control it, only muted or softened it, high up in the sky it was gleamingly clear and clean.

Pleasure.

And there was this silence. The murmur of the sea, our foot-steps on the gravel, the occasional noise coming from somewhere, a door being opened or a shout, all embraced by the silence, which seemed to rise from the ground, rise from objects and surround us in a way which I didn’t formulate as primordial, though I sensed it was, for I thought of the silence in Sørbøvåg on summer mornings when I was a child there, the silence above the fjord beneath the immense Lihesten Mountain, half hidden by the mist. The silence of the world. It was here, too, as I walked uphill, drunk with my new friends, and although neither it nor the light we walked in was the main event of the evening it played its part.

Pleasure.

Eighteen years old and on my way to a party. (105-6)

Happy to read that line as a self-evaluation not just in the past but also, satisfied, from the present – think he’s caught an adolescent evolution of attention here. This bit goes on to -112 as an evocation of lonely sociability at a party, blending-in but not quite, slipping over the fault-lines of acceptance and isolation. Not surprised that this is the volume of MS in which KOK discovers hash (327).

More stuff on anticipation of self-writing through experience of memory:

One evening we went to the primary school I had once attended, not so far from the their house. I had been twelve when I left, now I was seventeen. The five years felt like an eternity there was almost nothing then connected me with the person I had been, and I remembered next to nothing of what I had done then.

But when I saw the school before us, hovering in the its and darkness, my memories exploded inside me. I let go of Cecilie’s hand, approached the building, and pressed my hand against the black timbers. The school really existed, it wasn’t merely a place in my imagination. My eyes were moist with emotion, it was as though the whole bounteous world that had been my childhood had returned for an instant. (282)

Chimes with discussion elsewhere about need to let personal memories take shape through (ie. pushing through) literary recollection.

What’s left to say is that KOK is a total dickhead in 4. After the estival departure from the end of 3 he has pupated into an ugly creature of teenagerhood; he thoroughly exorcises memories of exploitation, sexual humiliation, pettiness, egregious adolescent self-importance. In a way the grotesque ending is fascinating: its a culmination of My Struggle as perceived by a 19-y/o KOK, and therefore also a cathartically self-accusatory completion of the section of the grander task of MS that 4 represents: revisiting the unrevisitable (he repeatedly assures us from both the past and the present that he will never physically return to H).

On reflection 4 is a fascinating companion to 3 in terms of its stylistic shift as well as the chronologically continuous but qualitatively disjunctive development of KOK’s character; this despite being singular in the series for its grotesqueness and unflinching commitment to necessary structural redundancy and repetition.

8

David Lynch: The Art Life (2016)

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Documentary by Jon Nguyen piecing 20 intimate conversations with the director together into a portrait of his early years and experiments with painting up until the production of Eraserhead.

First time I’ve seen him talk at length about anything and he’s a fascinating storyteller. Amazing ability to inspire laughter and creep you out, which I think both come from imagination and timing. He feels every line – and it does sound like lines, as his memories return to him in fragments and he circles around images, people or places in a very poetic way (first best example is his description of his wonderfully permissive and encouraging mother, although the opening illustration of playing in mud as a small boy is hilarious as well as nicely tying in the theme of painting).

Watching him paint today in his open-plan studio, manipulating gooey and rough material or drilling holes and bending wires – tactility evoked in the recollections too. Each recollection is a warped and crafted piece like the interstitial and illustrative artworks which are distributed liberally here. His predominant painterly style is somewhere between Bacon and Stanley Donwood, faces framed or scrubbed out with charcoal darkness, screaming with arms leering, sinking towards scrawled trees or strangers. In their raw, expressionistic simplicity they reach back towards childhood and adolescence as he gives us verbal vignettes which are always very engrossing – an unrecountable childhood horror, his first artistic inspirations, his father striding off to work in a ten-gallon hat, his father’s hilarious reaction to his experiments with “dead birds” and “different stages of fruit” (“David, don’t have kids.”)

Reaching back into this underexplored period in his development dredges up the germs of images from his later work: a formative encounter with a bloodied and naked woman on a lawn which clearly informed BV; experience of dead bodies and imagining their stories in the same way that we imagine Laura Palmer’s when she’s wrapped in plastic; Bob Dylan hateful and miniscule like any number of shrunken grotesques in his films. Despite this connectivity – and the way we watch the Super 8 footage of suburban lawns and fences through his later representations – JN’s film develops a distinctive style and atmosphere (though partly by taking off from DL’s quite different painting work). Excellent score echoes bluesy heat of Lost Highway and Badalamenti’s ambient threat but also blends the industrial nightmare of Lynch’s Philadelphia with noisey clatter which evokes Mika Vainio.

8