Call Me By Your Name (2017)

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Saw this at the UPP with J and S after work last Tuesday. Was a fine surprise. Took me about half an hour to get into it, I think largely because of the pacing, which is slow throughout but initially lends itself to plot-based impatience. In the early scenes, the lounging and philosophising and pontificating is at its least appealing, too. But the whole film is best seen (and telegraphs itself as) a holiday: it’s sad because it’s temporary; otherwise, its blissful. The more I thought about it the happier it made me. The visual beauty is intoxicating but there’s plenty of restraint, which puts the theme of emotional development at the heart of the story, which is great. The use of jewish identities is interesting: prudent privacy is hinted at, a Mussolini painting is gestured at fleetingly, but the film takes place almost within a family community which is eminently welcoming (I think LG may actually have even dedicated CMBYN to fathers in general, and Michael Stuhlbarg is a heroic if lovably preposterous one here). The beauty in honesty and smallness. Also worth mentioning that it’s hilarious when it needs to be, and not hilarious at exactly the right times: the scene with the peach is sequenced precisely to be morbidly fascinating, hilarious, toe-curling, and achingly sad, all at the level of out-loud guffawing and gasping.

Like a paperback you’d retrieve from your back pocket in a piazza or hold up against the sun while lying on a blanket in a meadow. Intense but slips down like a glass of homemade apricot juice.

8

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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