Everywhere at the End of Time – Stage 3 (2017)

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: A First Reaction (I am not minded to spend my evenings typing as well, ok?)

With a drastic left turn, this is the first time the album artwork in this series has created a properly constructive link with the music. The form behind the shapes and mess has become almost indecipherable; your mind is drawn away from the base towards the gorgon coils and the daubed darkness. It’s teasing at the fringes of appreciation: the first track is a good example of this idea, with its briskly spinning but still tuneful strings swaying behind the sped-up blurting horns. The experience of believing that your reaction and enjoyment is as usual, struggling against too-tangible reminders of depreciation. Agree with the slightly snotty Norman review’s point about LK riffing on the almost cheeky continuity or similarity of Caretaker projects here – like a desperate clawing at the most solid memories (standards from An Empty Bliss bustle against riffs on previous EATEOT cuts until they become confusedly inseparable; titles like “Libet Delay” and “Aching cavern without lucidity”). There’s even some sickly self-similarity over onto the second side, including the final track, which goes down like a sinking titanic.

The A-side, at least, departs from the more lucid explorations of departure on Stage 2 (the excursions into nocturnal trepidation in particular). This is more cerebral, locked-in. There is a greater emphasis on noise and fuzz, particularly the illbient gramophone echoes towards the end of the first half: self-interrupting blass bluster like Ahnnu tones slipping out of their groove. Penultimate track on this side is a willy wonka hallucination of dangling bells, like B1 which shivers with unease beneath a dusty surface. Illbient is a particularly interesting and novel comparison here which brings up the sensation of the Caretaker as a sort of residually parallel hip-hop instrumental project (pulling chopped samples from the darker ages of jazz). Does create the sensation of intoxication rather than memory degradation at points.

Tracks like the last one on the first side and even B1 and B2 are quite straight-laced, departing from the narrative (but for B1’s hypnopompic abortive conclusion). Feel like I’m being outflanked, looking for consonance with the past where there perhaps isn’t any. B2 does revive the haunted ballroom with its piped, miasmic piano jaunts. The percussive skipping at the end was a real shock that segues perfectly into the wailing Gorey absences of B3 (a silent tap on the shoulder; the still-terrifying dream in Amour).

B6 is “An empty bliss beyond this World” which projects that project’s lullaby melodies through that thick, haunted-ballroom fog. Quietly ties in the cautionary luminescence from the beginning of the B-side, too; with some tumbling tones that sound like they’re from a xylophone or the mall at the end of Eyes Wide Shut after everyone’s left. The night-feverish “Libet Delay” constitutes the first real hit of poignance at the impending demise of the Caretaker project (making me realise that this had been lacking in the series’ actual music until now). This one’s emblematic, at least of the album that I expected.

Lacks the arc and structural conspicuousness of which made that instalment one of my highlights of this year. Despite a clear constructive strategy, it’s harder to see this as a standalone piece because of its context within the series (and the fact that it follows what I think are two more satisfyingly distinctive projects), but this is probably his most overtly personal release, and it features some of the standout textural explorations of this series in its forced intermixture of source and slippage. Typing is helping in my abandoned house on a Friday night.

Etched information in the central space after the grooves is almost illegibly small this time, like he’s goading us to play the B side first (an experiment for another day). You just have to remember that the later side is the one whose label’s grey shades can only be distinguished while they spin.

Probably the My Struggle: Book 4 of EATEOT.

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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 Levelling (2017)

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Being touted as Hope Dickson Leach’s feature directorial debut, but she’s already got a few short films under her belt.

Begins with a confused, unsettling melee; torchlit party but with a Kill List-esque folk-horror excess. This threatening provincial gothic atmosphere becomes diffused across the whole film, which takes the shocking death of the brother of our central character, Clover, as the traumatic rupture at the film’s centre. Poster above is very apt: sense of bifurcation, splitting – regret that it was her brother not her father; return to a past world; a parent and daughter who’ve grown apart. Central death like a ridge, scar-tissue which must now be traced and examined; Clover feels her way up her brother’s cold arm under a sheet, navigating the terrain of this new situation. All this in a world after the 2014 flooding on the Somerset Levels; distinctly apocalyptic unreality to the ossified homestead, unsettlingly mathematical and arbitrary floodline cutting the world horizontally in two.

Quickly turns into a wonderfully haunting investigation of spatial memory and trauma. Preserved spaces like Clover’s room (with its petrified mementos of childhood) and Harry’s room, concealed spaces like the neglected dog Milo, the scene of the suicide, the ominous kitchen. Part of the farm as a breathing entity, father Aubrey as a kind of sodden Fisher King letting presiding over stock and space. Ambient landscapes interposed, psychogeographical influence of Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant, evidence of the natural disaster in innocuous rivers and sunken flatlands. First refreshing approach is the appropriately catastrophic metaphor for real historical events effecting under-examined provincial populations and territories (all the while giving the personal drama a proper, respectful weight and autonomy).

Most important spatial dimension, though, is old idea of the traumatic return, return to trauma. This resumption of old duties takes C by surprise – “I didn’t bring any wellies” becomes symbolic in a feature-length exposition of the same metaphorical physicalisation of trauma represented by Cillian Murphy’s shellshocked soldier in Dunkirk. A’s aggressive self-defence frequently blocks C’s inquiries by invoking her past absences – “you weren’t here” for H’s death; I didn’t give you the farm because “you left” (a particularly chilling strategy given that his miscommunications enforced another of C’s absences during her mother’s death, which serves as the traumatic precedent for H’s death). His oppugnant attitude is bolstered by an apparently un-selfcritical insistence on efficiency: “You have to get up get out of bed and milk the bloody cows.” His strategy eventually gets to C, as she attacks a sympathetically probing pastor: “I’m not feeling guilt – I wasn’t even here.” What’s perhaps more insidious is the subsequent switch in A’s defences wherein he uses the past life, with which C is trying to reconnect, as a new weapon against her, evoking that brute efficiency in enjoining C to kill an unneeded calf (having jokingly encouraged her to eat shepherd’s pie earlier).

Second refreshing approach is portrait of creepily feudal or monarchic yet cooperative limbo-world of traditional British farming. Lots of talk of authority, succession. Buried Hamlet vibe was brought home to me at the point where C jumps into a ditch to rescue Milo from drowning. Frustration at resumed efficiency mirrors Hamlet’s disgust at weddings immediately following funerals. Most notably the digging connection, with H‘s first utilisations of “harrowing” in a metaphorical sense, images of buried accusing bodies (shot badgers). The rotation of familial personnel from lends weight to C’s gendered isolation and desire to forge her own career off the farm, reflecting more broadly on relationship dynamics in that novel agricultural context.

To go with the cinematography and use of ominous metaphorical shots of submerged rabbits and cattle there’s some excellent sound design: Kermode talked about the use of ambient noise in the negative space between failed communications; sparing use of interpolated music too, particularly A Silver Mt. Zion’s He Has Left Us Alone but Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms… (particularly ’13 Angels’).

Ultimately C sees the fragility behind her father’s capricious attitude; her decision to stay at the farm is rescued from an unsatisfying act of forgiveness by an acknowledgement of nuanced psychological effects of grief (she herself lashes out at a friend in her very first appearance). The fact that this reconciliation is staged as quite a sensationalist climax does ultimately solidify a slight sense of the post-Scandi noir BBC drama, a context which emerges occasionally in the ambient landscape shots and the highly-strung script (elsewhere, the screaming peaks of terror and grief are seriously gripping). However, there’s no lasting impression of genre, because this is an intelligent, beautifully economical and expertly paced drama. Keep an eye out for the name.

9

Get Out (2017)

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It’s smart. The dynamics of racial tension operate on a few levels in Jordan Peele’s script, who has a great ear for squirm-inducingly misjudged chat, hilarious and horrible. This is clearly the focus and it’s a great topic – it makes the construction of a robotic and uncanny community inevitable – but there are a few less amusing undercurrents. Tied into the themes of underexposure and cohabitation are issues of employment inequality, even modern-day slavery – uncomfortably present notions in the mind of Chris’ Dick-Halloran accomplice, Rod, masked though they are by his conspiratorial imagination. Rod’s trouble getting institutional help, which becomes increasingly significant towards the end, also touches on the problem of high rates of AWOLity among African Americans. People have talked about these immediate issues being suppressed by the more comic observations, but I think GO shows the way awkwardly superficial relations hold a more profoundly imbalanced framework in place. For Chris, “It’s all good” (and variants) becomes a quietistic and isolating mantra for diffusing tension, especially in the more subtle interactions with the seemingly sympathetic Rose, a kind of ally-squared in this horrible context (C is really alone before he even arrives). Observant horror in the year of Romero’s death.

It’s cine-smart too. Being a horror-novice I get most of this second hand, but so will an audience of people my age; easy to enjoy alongside Edgar Wright’s TCC trilogy and Shutter Island. There’s a nice flow from the former to the latter, in a sense, with the toe-curling social negotiations gradually giving way to a mistrustful search for answers. Preceding all this is a nasty encounter with a deer which put me in mind of Von Trier’s Antichrist. Also thinking of Under The Skin during the trips to “the sunken place.” The psychotic brother definitely seemed to be going for DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie in Django, too; later, the bingo slave-auction is a horrifying set-piece. Performance-wise, Daniel Kaluuya nails the reticent discomfort as well as the gasping panic, while his mumbled incredulities after some of the more egregious social interactions are always amusing and empathetic.

But it’s also smart in terms of pace (yeah too many). JP has talked about comedy being training for writing horror; the importance of timing is evident here, with the jump-scares carefully measured (sometimes forgone altogether) to keep you guessing. As a whole, the film moves along economically too, its briskness correcting for both the simplicity of the central idea as well as its predictability. While it is somewhat predictable, the tone does shift, as mentioned, and the climax is a gutsy and well-earned blowout which is less inventive but just as entertaining withal. It’s harder to piece the narrative together in retrospect (if the abductions depend upon hypnosis, and hypnosis depends upon the subject’s comfort, why are the family so knowingly discomforting?) but questions don’t come up while you’re watching, and the way grotesque violence somehow emerges from superficial solidarity is a point in itself.

Read about the alternate endings on wiki, too. You can see the seams when the police car pulls up with the sinking reactions on C’s and R’s faces. Makes for a nice final twist when Rod gets out instead. Shame the reason JP felt the need to swap it is because stories about police brutality against young black men seemed especially close to the bone in the States at the time. Obviously dealing with different issues here but glad we can all enjoy a smash blockbuster written and directed by an (established) AA debutant which deals with the complex realities of American racism in 2017; especially in a film as fun and generous as GO.

8

Halogen Continues (2017)

Sigurbjörn Þorgrímsson died six years ago; Trip have put out this retrospective comp. Aims to cover the idiosyncratic sweep of these scattershot releases (apparently he recorded more under other aliases and in groups). RA points out in their review that the label itself is testament to SÞ’s incubation of a national dance music scene in Iceland, with Bjarki among others on its roster.

There are, broadly, three approaches on show here: skittering and acidic IDM excursions, evolving techno-tinged suites, and blissful ambient pieces. The immediately ear-catching standouts come in the second group: ‘Borealis’ is structured with the linear but weaving flow of a chase sequence or a cut from a Wipeout soundtrack, but the queasy synth tones and mechanic percussion kind of remind me of the synthetic nightmares on The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual. ‘160 Techno’ has the same vibe of pursuit but sounds more urban and nocturnal like that Studio OST album from a couple of years ago; obviously its a lot more in your face, with some big-beat synths and a few ankle-breaking rhythmic shifts which skid through hardcore and breakbeat territory. ‘303 Ambient’ is the third triplet with its low-key start which crashes into a massive techy beat and starry synths.

Of the more cerebral cuts, ‘Lag 24’ is pretty distinctive with the interplay between its Mika Vainio-esque fuzz blasts, bouncy reverbed synths and impatient polyrhythms. ‘Lag 9’ sways, running in circles as the percussion plays catchup with itself. ‘Lag 8’ is good evidence of the compositional juggling-act going on with these shorter cuts; synths are often more percussive than melodic. Almost feels like the guy’s hammering everything out on an MPC at times.

The ambient pieces are generally pretty gorgeous. ‘Autofloat’ follows ‘Borealis’ with an equally playful ease but pushed through ebbing and flowing synths; it’s got the wonder of a particularly well-lit view of the night sky. ‘Bliss’s stupefaction is more new-age, maybe Jarre via Lopatin; it’s crisp but kinda sleepy, less immersive. The more abstract closer ‘Halogen Continues’ is perhaps the grandest and most beautiful, ending things with quite a poignantly elegiac note given the comp’s provenance.

Throughout a sense of wunderkind and almost amateuristic virtuosity, like the music is happening while you’re listening to it. Distinctive throughout despite ranging from crowd-pleasers to more leftfield tinkering. Perfect album art too given the otherworldly wonderment behind much of the ambience that sometimes serves as a floor for the beats and sometimes envelopes everything. HC is a nice testament to the variety in the talent the guy clearly had; feels like an anthology. Good for a boring train journey too.

8

Dunkirk (2017)

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Christopher Nolan is getting better at writing beginnings. The hijacked aeroplane sequence is probably the best part of TDKR, while about 40 minutes in here I was expecting D to be his best film. Fionn Whitehead’s character provides a focal point for the tension between individual and mass, emerging out onto the beach which should represent a salvation but which actually proves to be a purgatorial nightmare (a French soldier had drily wished him luck on his way). There’s a chilling wordlessness to his character matched by the eerie perpendicular queues snaking towards the waves like a Gormley piece or like groynes permanently embedded to stop the sand drifting away down the coast. The first of the set-pieces – a mad rush to get a wounded soldier onboard a departing steamer – is a nail-biting high which also works some moral complexity into the predicament of the two central infantrymen (the ethics of saving another vs saving yourself).

This opening stretch is also the strongest on a new side of CN: mass movement. Really some Kurosawa-level observation, particularly with shifts in attention among the huddled soldiers on the mole, noticing the enemy fighter overhead in ones twos then all at once. I’d say, though, that the standout here is a moment of statuesque silence: a drifting destroyer with ranks of soldiers like plastic toys, crammed and staring faceless towards us from a distance. Adding to that sense of purgatory, there is something very deathly about these apparently salvaged men.

Thought about Priestley, reassuring himself that the pastoral Britain of the past was “the real truth” that would survive the temporary nightmare of the war. He also covered Dunkirk (from Paper 6):

On 5th June 1940 he told BBC radio audiences that the most “characteristically English” aspect of the rescue journey across the Channel was the role played, not by the navy’s standard machinery, but by “the little pleasure-steamers,” at which we’ve laughed “all our lives,” and onboard which we have seen “the ladies eating pork pies, the children sticky with peppermint rock.” The literal nostos [OED “a homecoming or homeward journey as a literary subject or topos”], the returning home of Epic heroes, is figured as a scene from childhood, an example of the strangely permanent banality of British holiday tradition overcoming the temporary chaos of the war.

Dunkirk is very obviously a “homecoming” for the stranded soldiers, from a British perspective, but Priestley figures it as achieved through a resurrection (a reapplication) of the “past” Britain which thereby conquers the nightmare. In D, the nightmare of Dunkirk – for at least the middle 50% of the film – is that it wasn’t a simple evacuation, rather an abortive and constant returning to the beach: FW’s infantryman is spewed back onshore after being capsized (he watches individual soldiers try and fail to escape on dinghies) while Cillian Murphy is taken back against his will after being rescued by Mark Rylance on a civilian mission, a physical analogy to his traumatised, shellshocked psychological condition. Of course D ends with Churchill’s famous reinvigorating speech, which stresses the reality that war is not linear but cyclical with the need for mass military redeployment. The sense of returning, of failure to escape, is particularly strong here though (it being an underlying theme that CN excavates and examines quite comprehensively) for the fear of failure: the Dunkirk story is so miraculous – in a way captured by CN’s film – that we still can’t quite believe it.

It’s interesting, therefore, that CN decided to neglect personal histories and instead embellish his own imagined scenarios: terrified young soldiers waiting for the incoming tide in a beached hull; a bomber pilot (the profligate and touchy son from the BBC’s War and Peace) trapped in a stuck and sinking cockpit; a lone Spitfire struggling to land in time on a French beach. As mentioned with CM’s physical shell-shock analogy, these predicaments are usually illustrative of broader experiences, as well as being paced and interwoven dextrously enough to contribute to the ever-mounting tension. Hans Zimmer does a lot of this leg-work, too, with one of his best scores: taut and swooping, held together by a near-constant ticking.

I’ve seen complaints about CN’s characters; D is certainly his least character-driven film. He has discussed this as an intended approach:

The empathy for the characters has nothing to do with their story. I did not want to go through the dialogue, tell the story of my characters… The problem is not who they are, who they pretend to be or where they come from. The only question I was interested in was: Will they get out of it? (Wiki)

I personally found their relative, often near-silent anonymity to be appealingly general for a topic apparently impossible to cover across its breadth of individual stories. Nevertheless, Mark Rylance is the standout as a principled and pragmatic civilian volunteer; CN is right to compare FW to a young Tom Courtenay (his expressive blankness is quite Long Distance Runner); and Harry Styles actually puts in a commendable shift as a panicked francophobic infantryman.

There are a handful of moments when that cyclical frying-pan-to-fire structure creates visual similarity, with the threat of drowning recurring particularly often, but these tend to emphasise the difficulty of escape rather than create any stale repetition. The only major problem I had with D was the patchy script. It was apparently CN’s shortest screenplay by about half; what we do get is usually engaging and often poignant but occasionally overly-romanticised and sometimes quite flat. D really works better as physical spectacle. There’s no shortage of marmite patriotic energy, especially in the final stretch, but while I don’t really go for marmite I think CN appreciates the story at its civilian rather than national level. D therefore should sidestep any accusations of coldness, despite being dependably technically amazing (see the dogfights and capsizing ships in particular). Haven’t seen Interstellar yet but I’d still confidently put him up with Cuarón at the front of the pack for contemporary western blockbusters.

8

Toni Erdmann (2017)

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A pretty uncomplicated story: Planes Trains, here cast as a melancholy clown-type dad impersonating a life-coach in an attempt to reform / upstage / keep an eye on his daughter who is working in Bucharest on a boring consultancy project. There’s a Eurozone context which is undeveloped, except to feed into the critique of the emptiness of modern frequent-flier lifestyles. Pretentions to something bigger, as well as some interrogation of the merits of its own arguments, but still a kind of constant magnetised reversion to this simplistic binary.

Winfried, or Toni (when incognito) has a bit of Falstaff, a bit of Wallander, a bit of Boris Johnson, and a bit of Partridge in him. He’s the focus of the early scenes, where his jesting lands him in some warm water, and he suffers a few poignant setbacks like the distancing and deterioration of his mother and the death of his old dog. He decides to reconnect with his daughter Ines, who is presented initially as cold and uptight. However, the picture of her corporate world is a very grim one – with rampant casual sexism piled on top of the grey bureaucratic malaise – and her status as an antagonistic figure is complicated by real victimhood (“happiness is a strong word,” she says). Nevertheless she remains utterly unlikeable for almost the entire film, often enthusiastically fronting the kind of aggressive mentalities of which she is a victim, while her father remains amusing in a childish way but ultimately pathetic and inane, with his personal travails suffused into a patronising and soft humanitarian ease.

A lot of this is very uncomfortable, and not just in a Partridge / Gervais way. There is a particular discussion at a bar which is excruciating, with Ines’ efforts to ingratiate herself into a hierarchy rebuffed by snide male colleagues and superiors in favour of jocular engagement with the uninterested W. At one point during a desolate day at a mall, W asks her “are you even human”; later, a colleague backhandedly shuts down her rebellious business presentation and warily tells her “you’re an animal”. It doesn’t feel like she’s being given much of a choice.

Maren Ade has questioned attempts to label TE a comedy; the first half isn’t at all funny, once the interruption of false teeth into discussion about consultancy has become established as a repeated scene-structure. Once the jig is up, Toni has a few, more interesting naturalistic encounters with local Romanians, where his improvisations begin to appeal to Ines, but which still tend towards a very simplistic ‘don’t worry be happy’ moral (there is one pretty cheap laugh with a silly song, and one burst of insanity with a naked party) In the end this is painted as insufficient, with W a resolutely pathetic figure and Ines unconvinced (despite his message having induced her to quit her job). 160 minutes later we’re back to where we started.

A depressing trudge, with one flash of surreal beauty and a general faint dusting of improvised unease. Very happy The Salesman took the Academy Award over this one.

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