As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000)

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Second time with Jonas Mekas after Lost, Lost, Lost. I have learned, by comparison of the two, that there is a limit to the watchability of only loosely thematised tranche-de-vie home movie footage, and also that it is possible for me to review a film after only 60% of its runtime in good conscience.

Again organised into chapters, though Mekas confesses at the beginning that he tried and abandoned a project to order the streams of amateur recordings chronologically, opting eventually for a random distribution, ‘as he found them on the shelf’. Mekas’ explanatory narration actually pops up at the beginning of each chapter, constructing a kind of periodic apologia for the piece. ‘This is a political film’ and ‘Nothing happens in this film’, we are told by recurrent intertitles, while Mekas reinforces this defensive stance with commentary on the film’s lack of content, his compulsion to film any and everything, his status as a ‘filmer’ rather than a legitimate filmmaker, his general and total lack of knowledge about life and his place in it.

Except it’s either disingenuous or tactical to describe the content of the film as ‘nothing’. Mekas’ subjects over the decades here (largely between the 60s and 80s, largely in New York City) show a considerable degree of consistency. He balances the urban (architecture, pedestrians, weather) with the natural, favouring flowers, trees, birds, cats, moving water, and wild landscapes in particular locations. Family is a central and predominant presence, broad enough to include close friends but focusing especially on children (playing, reciting, rehearsing, eating) and babies (usually just looking at the camera). Most notably, I think, there are plenty of moments of actually considerable significance: holidays, reunions, births, baptisms, weddings, anniversaries.

The dominant theme is leisure. Mekas is a true amateur and his filming is hobbyistic: a regular enough part of his life not to disrupt his subjects, but leaving space for him to live around it and actually participate in the scenes he captures. But labour is conspicuously absent, save in idle peoplewatching. Anger, distress, and even ennui are also suppressed. The subject of the film is therefore – perhaps unsurprisingly – moments of beauty, unthinking and unencumbered living around life’s obligations (other plans), where the only reflective awareness usually comes through Mekas’ camera. It’s a fine topic for a film but it isn’t ‘nothing’, and it’s therefore freighted with sentimentalism (Mekas admits he is a romantic living within his own imagined world, as each of us live in our own).

In one of his verbal prologues (delivered haltingly, returning to resonant phrases for emphasis) Mekas advertises the film’s lack of tension. I’m sad to say I think calling attention to this isn’t sufficient to deflect the problem (I watched Von Trier’s The Idiots yesterday). What we see is a beautiful parade of scenes which cover times and places but still exhibit fundamental similarity. Again, that’s fine, but it invites questions about the runtime of almost five hours (which incidentally would have made it the fourth* longest film I’ve seen to date).

Hence my lack of qualms about calling it a day after three. Mekas’ projects are interesting** and exude a devotion to film, people and good living which is humbling. But the pitch of this one is too consistent and perhaps too sentimental to keep me hooked (I found it a lot easier to sink my teeth into Lost, Lost, Lost until the tedious experimental coda). I would have preferred to watch it loud and projected; perhaps that would have helped me immerse myself in it.

6

 

*At number three is Homeland, another honestly observational documentary about family environments, but one which locks you into emotional grooves rather than washing past you like a weightless stream of light. Other stuff As I Was Moving reminded me of were Varda’s Daguerrotypes and Gavin Bryars’ ‘The Sinking Of The Titanic’.

**To what extent are these snippets accurate depictions of memory (leaving aside whether or not that’s what they’re intended to be, for a second)? I like the way he plays with the speed of the footage, lingering on details and accelerating interstitial action (reminds me of Barthes’ codes). The use of visual overlays is also affective as well as endearingly analogue. But I think the development of these episodes is too linear (chronological, non-repetitive, self-contained) to accurately emulate recollection.

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The Age of Innocence (1993)

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Loved the editing (Bressonian yet sensual tactility, lavish sets discarded after a single shot, conversations tracked revealingly at the pace of thought). The voiceover was indulgently eloquent and conspiratorial. The story is super depressing. Probably a better film than L’Innocente but I think I’d take the latter instead. Feel like a tourist in these  films though.

7

Carol (2015)

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Watch this instead of My Twentieth CenturyYes it’s chocolate-boxy, but I like the way it reaches back into that rosy past and remoulds it in the shape of a story which is fresh but believable. The opening shots of Manhattan streets could belong to any 50s crime drama throwback but we’re obviously given something very different, though something which feels like it’s happening in parallel with all that stuff (the incidental flickers of Montgomery and Eisenhower on radios and TVs keep this dominant, violently masculine context or historical narrative in mind. The motel ambush is a treat thus recontextualised).

Lots of Hopper – lovingly so. My dvd copy came with a few postcard screenshots that could have been grabbed from any scene. People talk about Hopper’s spirituality and I don’t know enough about him to relate to that, but the movement and framing here goes beyond nostalgia towards a kind of knowing self-indulgence, as if the secondary characters are consciously acting out the world that they know we will look back upon and imagine. It’s not NY Confidential though; there is a kind of all-American honesty to the stuffy superstore clerks, the dozy motel receptionists, the chattering NYT photo-editors. This harmonic glow rescues the festive yankee cheer, Leica photography, and heartwarmingly binary social dynamics from registering simply as hipster catnip in 2015/2017.

At the centre of this world is a concisely bittersweet affair. The title is an interesting one (given that it’s not The Price of Salt, the title of Patricia Highsmith’s novel): Blanchett’s Carol is largely foregrounded in the weightier second half of the film, which leans on her fractious family situation. I could have handled a little more emphasis on the progress of Therèse – perhaps that’s partly why Call Me By Your Name feels a shade ahead as far as pieces like this in my recent viewing history go. S and J talked CB up (and she swings so easily from liquid grace to trembling force) but I think Mara steals the show, especially at her most distressed. I needed that ending, though (glad it didn’t turn into Heartbeats).

Would consider taking my dvd home for Christmas.

8

Good Time (2017)

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Does raise an interesting question about how you mark a film. I tend to want every film I watch to be the best film I’ve ever seen, an attitude which lends itself to negative marking. Negative marking would suggest that a perfect film is one about which you have no complaints. I have no complaints about Good Time. It’s seriously tense, psychological in the manner which I saw and loved in American Honey (close and somehow impartial but so involved). It’s a total trip – that fairground is a cackling neon nightmare, a setting which comes closest to emulating the aural experience of the pounding score from OPN (which compliments the film’s atmosphere ideally throughout and in other more co-constructive ways). It’s a New York film as much as Taxi Driver or King of New York, but the Queens streets present a desperate and collapsing side we haven’t seen so often. Pattinson and B Safdie are great; their fraternity is manipulatively oriented to the perfect extent to keep Connie in the moral gutter, but frantically sympathetic enough to keep us involved and hanging on as the film lurches round corners and down rabbit runs, always in the subjunctive mood (nothing goes to plan, everything is conditional and circumstantial, constantly diverting away from expectation).

I can’t say that it’s a perfect film because it doesn’t have the next-level epiphanic potentiality of an Inland Empire or a Sleep Furiously or, even, an American Honey. It’s probably a great case for marking films positively: what really matters is that you saw it and you had a very

9

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2018)

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Just saw an advanced screening of this at Odeon as part of their Screen Unseen thing.

Tonally hyperactive. As black as they come and it’s certainly a comedy, though it’s also a proper contemporary western. Frances McDormand and (especially) Sam Rockwell send it bumping along at a swashbuckling pace, the former a vengeful bereaved mother and the latter a repentant thug in blue. There’s a dance of sympathies and secondary characters around the central trauma – the rape and murder of her young daughter – and its aftermath in a small southern town. Her actions, especially the ingeniously inverted Scarlet Letterish scheme of hiring the billboards to advertise the police’s failure to apprehend the perpetrator, inflame the townsfolk like a thorn in the side and tease apart their allegiances to the fetid, authoritarian status quo.

The idea lingers in the first half as a really intriguing context for a somewhat thrashy and inconsistent drama. By the time the second half starts, when the two main character arcs have pivoted and are heading back towards each other, the Christian themes begin to assert themselves at the expense of the political righteousness. Like the uncomfortable feeling of being led by the nose at the end of The Salesman but for over an hour. The jokes fall flat a little too often (despite some great delivery) and a little too often this is because the gap between the satirised attitudes and the object of these attitudes flickers and seems to close. Plenty of midget jokes (the race war scene in In Bruges becomes increasingly telling); a whole ton of jokes at the expense of stupid white trash southerners; too much sympathy expended on racist cops. As far as I could tell, the ending puts our protagonists on a level pegging and no-one is the better for it. The net result of this wending and wayward marauding is that you’re never really allowed to settle in to a story which should really hit you directly in the chest.

Points, though, for those leads, especially SR whose show-stopping turn hinges on a brutal and beautifully choreographed long take.

Martin McDonagh continues to cement his status as the second best McDonagh.

6

American Honey (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

A Trump era classic for sure.

9

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.