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

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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

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

A Separation (2011)

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Returned to this after eight months and having watched The Past and The Salesman in the interim. Particularly after the latter, interesting to see how little legwork Asghar Farhadi’s camera is doing: in place of clever metatheatrical framing and disorientating tumbling through domestic spaces we have, here, relatively unostentatious wobblycam observation. Perhaps most notable is the confused geometry of the house’s open-plan interior, with panes of glass and doors set ajar frequently interposing communicative barriers between family members. These shots frequently entrap Termeh as she is called from room to room by her bickering parents. There are some analogous shots of the maid’s daughter through crowds at the courthouse, though T views their family as desirably nuclear despite their poverty; tempting to speculate, too, that T might favour their religiosity, with her conscientious probing and conservative dress (uniform, often). Overall perhaps this is the high-watermark for wobblycam realism: though we feel fully involved, there is no sense of ‘artistic’ intrusion; definitely a bald, unpretentious clarity in contrast to the more ruminative elegance of that other unshakeable, generational, domestic, Academy-beloved foreign-language drama from a year later, Amour.

Less the weaving of sympathies across the aisle through revelations and confessions, what actually emerges on second viewing of AS is the growing centrality of T. Much more conscious of the bogus ethical agency thrusted upon her by her father, who frequently issues her with such ultimatums as promising to confess or reconcile with his wife only if she finds him guilty. This really undercuts his apparently liberal toleration of their wishes, therefore counterbalancing his apparent vindication and the high ground above his wife which it affords him. The ending is perhaps doubly desolate, pitch-perfect: it really is unfair to make T choose.

The writing here is so much tighter than TP, and more distributively balanced too, which gives it a considerable observational edge over the excellent TS. Possibly the best film from this decade so far.

10

Scarred Hearts (2016)

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First time with Radu Jude. Apparently blends the director’s own biography with the titular semi-autobiographical work by Max Blecher, a Romanian writer who associated with the surrealists while writing from an extended and terminal stay at a sanatorium.

Most obvious strength is the use of fragments from MB’s writings (idk whether from Scarred Hearts itself or from other texts) as intertitles illustrating or undercutting the film. The way they provide commentary on scenes and snapshots is vaguely comparable to Notes on Blindness in the uncertainty of whether text illuminates visual or vice versa. In general, Emmanuel (as he is named here and in SB the book, I believe) does follow a vaguely Magic Mountain trajectory of immersion in the sanatorium’s rhythmic society, while his notes detail the psychosomatic trajectory of his deterioration. This play between the often bleak and psychologically harrowing texts and E’s more colourful and fulfilled physical life often surfaces in eddies and incongruities in the film: a prophetic fragment from Shelley on sinking and expiring, traced reverently in MB’s real notebook (we presume) over the credits, is later echoed warmly by a drunken song shared between patients, then later still in MB’s notes when he imagines the entire sanatorium drifting away into the sea and sinking like Atlantis.

The striking 4:3 framing with rounded edges comes over rather twee initially, especially since it’s mismatched with true-colour HD visuals, rendering the impression of old-time photographs (there’s a montage pre-credits) incomplete. However, the meditative camerawork and editing does suggest the fixity both of long-exposure flashbulb photography and of E’s straightjacketed immobility in his cast: he is often framed centrally and at mid-depth, while more mobile patients or orderlies bustle at the fringes or in the background. Coupled with notably repetitious adoption of fixed vantage points throughout the sanatorium, this visual stasis does lend to the sense of hauntological anachronism which is maintained by the often Caretaker-like literary fragments: “the impression that nothing is real” “the feeling of immense abandonment“. Evoking Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward or Haneke’s Amour, E’s (MB’s) sense of human physical fragility grounds the film in a patient (geddit) study of illness and failed convalescence: “he felt very glued together” is a succinct evocation of his delicacy and the importance of the doctors who seem to have assembled him. When syringes extract shocking quantities of pus from an abscess, E screaming, “a claw sank in” as if he were Prometheus undergoing daily torture. Not all the reflections are so traumatic; again, they often communicate the erosive tedium of hospital life: “The washed out day goes on, boiling with illnesses, trifles and discouragement.” Think I prefer E’s perspective to Hans Castorp’s: “There’s nothing more stupid than the pride of suffering.”

I like the way weighty real-world conversations float through the narrative, snagging on E’s quite romantic and lyrical but still attractive perspective: heated discussions about nascent “hitlerism” and Emile Cioran, debate over the significance of the afterlife to piety, disturbing sketches of political turbulence in Romania whose evocations of civil unrest and rife antisemitism make the sanatorium seem an attractively amniotic haven. Amniotic except E will not be born, rather he is slowly fading; a visit from his parents who proudly boast to a nurse of his prodigious childhood writings is particularly poignant.

Not a film with great peaks or troughs; casts its spell over a full two hours with some restrained performances and an emphasis on rhythm and flow. Notable shots are often momentary: late on, when E’s life is diminishing fast, nurses tuck in him under a duvet which they accidentally cast up over his face like a shroud before hurriedly folding it back. The initial encouragement of his father, mocking his own impending infirmity in old age with an impression of delirium, hangs over these later scenes with increasing absurdity.

A distinctively poignant portrait of a writer and his time.

7

Heartbeats (2010)

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First time with Xavier Dolan. “Grade A-“!

No ugliness in XD’s world (just noticed: not great initials for 2017). Great in HD: colours so full you can taste them; urbane grace in the costuming honoured with appropriately ostentatious closeups and framing. Definitely Wong Kar-wai in this modern but stately elegance, the taut emotion, and the at-times distracting foregrounding of form. Too much structural rigidity here for me – the intermittent rounds of monologues seemed only to provide illustrative context on the tensions and conundrums of relationships in a millennial world (in a way that I think could have been done in the main plot), while the oscillating bedroom-scenes were sultry (lovely cellos) but with a predictable trajectory that left me increasingly with a sense of impatience. I do wonder, though: there’s a nice touch at the end where Dolan’s Francis (standout performances from both behind and in front of the camera) attempts to prop a Bauhaus catalogue against a window but is frustratingly unable to make it sit flush on the sill. A sense of life’s stubborn informality which isn’t born out so much elsewhere, unfortunately.

That said, it is beautifully assembled. Loved the echoing approach scenes, gladiatorial comfort in armour of assembly, Dalida’s Italian ‘Bang Bang’ cover with an almost Western melancholic inevitability (maybe the wilted but defiant beauty of a tired standard revitalised?) to the film’s romantic deterioration (Some nice soundtracking by The Knife, also). Was filled with some dread after the apparently needless zooming in and out during the opening monologues but was reassured by the neatly handled (very WKW) shot of F and Marie chopping veg at the party, backs turned with only the sound of knives clacking before HEARTBEATS. The breathless closeups of chance encounters, waiting, fights are all quite intoxicatingly elliptic and disorientating in a way that recalled Moonlight. There are some moments when Dolan’s direction is amusingly present: jousting over Nicolas’ mysterious affections the camera whizzes between F and Marie as if it were an eager spectator goading each of them on.

There is a loosely-handled theme of complexity, greys between black and white: one recurring monologist discusses the spectrum of sexuality, while the ambiguity of N’s orientation is toyed with allusively, as when he criticises the “Manichaean” simplicity of a play’s characters. This culminates in a couple of extremely savage rejections (after which the eventual reconciliation comes like a reprieve), but the wells had been poisoned long before the conclusion. As these two old friends spar over a mutual interruption – N as distressingly disruptive a force as Terrence Stamp in Pasonlini’s Teorema – there’s a sort of deep-seated ugliness that grows beneath the trimmed and flourished exteriors. There’s a moment at a party, comparing birthday gifts, when I felt a rush of sadness at the spiritual state of these two – not the sympathetic and romantic sadness that comes inevitably later (or the especially poignant reflections on F’s feelings of alienated futility), but a more general sadness at the film-world they seemed trapped in, where everyone seemed totally alone. In the end they drift over to Louis Garrell (from Christophe Honoré’s ridiculous and boring Ma Mère), who I knew was in this and actually thought had played N all along, so much does he resemble Niels Schneider. Again a depressing sense of circularity.

Looked great plus I admired the low-budget simplicity and the uncompromising commitment, so feeling upbeat about XD’s other stuff.

6