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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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

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

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

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

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

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