July 30, 2014

15 years


“La Douleur” (Pain) by Emile Friant, 1898, featured in I’ve Loved You So Long (Philippe Claudel, 2008).

July 27, 2014

The Two Jakes


Enemy (Denis Villeneuve, 2014). Enemy is Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of The Double by Jose Saramago, presumably retitled to allow for Richard Ayoade’s film of Dostoevsky’s The Double (yes, two films about doubles). Jake Gyllenhaal is the history teacher who discovers that a replica of himself is working as a bit part actor in the same city – a very Cronenbergian Toronto in Villeneuve’s account. The mood is clinical, oppressive and dour and the scenario is gripping, with the action unfolding that much faster in the film than the book, largely because the book was set in a pre-internet world where it was harder to track down your double. But do Saramago’s books make good films, though? Yes and no. The situations both here and in Blindness (filmed by Fernando Meirelles) would seem immediately high concept in a 25-words-or-less pitch meeting but the weirdly realistic fact of the impossible scenario – influences on Saramago from Borges, Beckett and Kafka, probably ­­– is harder to put across in film than you might suspect, at least for Villeneuve. It is a kind of total pessimism. You also lose the intense self-consciousness of Saramago’s style, those long, obsessive sentences. The (spider-less) ending is better in the book as well. But Gyllenhaal was perfect casting: as in Prisoners and Zodiac, his version of bland and decent vulnerability is ideal.

July 15, 2014

Utopia


Utopia (John Pilger and Alan Lowery, 2013). John Pilger’s powerfully angry and bitter documentary about Australia’s appalling treatment of its first people has a strong personal dimension: at its heart, there is Pilger’s dismay at the persistence of white Australian racism. We flash back to earlier stories, with Pilger stumbling on the “secret Australia” in the 1960s as a young expat reporting for a British newspaper, and returning again in the 1980s and campaigning with Arthur and Leila Murray, whose son Eddie died in police custody in 1981. Nothing has really changed since then other than the (mostly) more guarded political delivery of the same white Australian sentiment – Pilger sees the controversial 2007 “interventions” in Northern Territory communities as almost indistinguishable from earlier policies that created the stolen generations, only now the attitude is dressed up in early 21st century bureaucratic-concern-language of rescuing children from (probably fictional) abuse. Anger boils over when Pilger goes to Canberra and interrogates politicians Mal Brough, Warren Snowdon and Kevin Rudd. Utopia’s most distressing sequences are filmed in remote camps where Australians still live in third world conditions, but Pilger hasn’t lost a sharp sense of humour: he contrasts luxury resorts in coastal New South Wales, at Uluru and, most incredible of all, the former penal colony of Rottnest Island with the lives of the people who lived there before. 

July 13, 2014

A different world than the one you and I came into



Dream double bill: Film Socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard, 2010); Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass, 2013). 

“But there are now more serious discrepancies in income levels, even among people with comparable educational qualifications. There is little incentive for people to go into professions that are not lucrative. Consumption, among those who can afford it, is conspicuous.” Teju Cole, Every Day is for the Thief

July 5, 2014

Hope and Wire


No way. Not skinheads. Surely not. I would estimate that Gaylene Preston lost approximately 50 per cent of her Christchurch audience’s goodwill early in the first episode of her quake series Hope and Wire. The exact moment came when a gang of skinheads terrorised passers-by on Colombo St on the evening of September 3, 2010. Now and forever, Christchurch gets to be the city of skinheads, boy racers and uptight Merivale matrons wearing pearls. The quakes destroyed a lot of things but it looks like some bad reputations and regional stereotypes remained intact.

Eight years ago, I interviewed the American poet Robert Hass when he was in Wellington for writers’ week at the NZ Festival. I told him that I had seen him in the Embassy during one of Robert Fisk’s sold-out sessions. Fisk had read what I thought was a powerful excerpt from The Great War for Civilisation. From memory, it involved Fisk getting emotional as he mused over a dead Iraqi soldier during the Iraq-Iran war, wondering about the young man’s home life and family, imagining a bereft wife and kids. Hass was a little more sceptical about Fisk’s fiction: “Dostoevsky might at least have entertained the possibility that the soldier was not a good person.”

In other words, it was an argument against stereotypes, or easy and obvious villains and heroes. Preston’s characters in Hope and Wire seem designed to represent points of view, with geography as destiny. It’s equivalent to a drama about Auckland taking one family from Outrageous Fortune, one family from Bro’Town and one family from Gloss. In Merivale, Maxine Redfern – er, Ginny (played by Luanne Gordon) – is learning that her perfect life is not as perfect as she thought. Her husband, Jonty (Stephen Lovatt) is a dodgy lawyer – in this moral universe, there may not be any other kind. Her teenagers are rebelling. You can expect a journey towards social awareness and self-reliance, through feminist storytelling familiar from Preston’s Bread and Roses, Perfect Strangers and Ruby and Rata. Maybe she will even get a grown-up name. 

Out east in a new subdivision, Ryan (Jarrod Rawiri) and Donna (Miriama McDowell) are illustrating the seriousness of liquefaction and land slump (filmed, naturally, on location). Honest battlers with a hefty mortgage, they also represent another post-quake trend, but Hope and Wire gets the timing slightly wrong. In the weeks after the big February 2011 quake, it was widely observed that men wanted to stay with the house, even if it was only partially liveable, while women were more likely to want to take the kids and go somewhere safe (for people we knew: Timaru, Dunedin, Nelson). In Hope and Wire, Donna takes off with the kids before the quake – in fact, she is on the road to Picton when it hits. She doesn’t feel it while driving but does catch news of the quake on the radio about 20 minutes later. It’s a surprisingly gentle and tangential way for Preston and writer Dave Armstrong to bring the big quake into the story, before they rewind and show us where Ginny, Ginny’s kids and another key female character, Joycie (the best actor in the show, Rachel House), were at 12.51pm.

The situation of Joycie and her husband Len (Bernard Hill) is based on the real-life story (link here) of Raewyn Iketau and Charlie Duthie, who set up a post-quake community around a central city house and could be seen as an example of the points that Rebecca Solnit made about post-disaster communities in A Paradise Built in Hell. Solnit’s argument is that the immediate aftermath of a disaster can promote altruism, even utopianism, which disappears once official or elected authority starts to manage the post-disaster recovery. We saw that in Christchurch in the weeks and months after February 2011 when all the certainties were upset and people got to know each other. It was like a holiday from regular life and despite the horror of the event, it was also a weirdly exciting time. At the end of the second of six hours of Hope and Wire, we are still at February 22. Len, whose pieces to camera bring a political perspective that may not be too far from Preston’s own, is missing in Lyttelton, or perhaps the red bus we saw him catching is under some rubble. But it looks like the community that he set up after the first quake – again, slightly inaccurate – will evolve into a version of Iketau and Duthie’s red zone camp.

That inaccuracy, and the earlier one about Donna leaving with the kids before the February 22 earthquake, point to a problem that faces anyone dramatising the Christchurch quakes, which is that there was a phony war between the first quake in September 2010 and the bad one in February 2011. If you are being strictly chronological, as Preston is, then you have to accept that the early parts of the story risk being a little, well, boring. Which means you could do it differently. Why not start in February? Or take some greater storytelling risks. When I was thinking about Hope and Wire before it screened, I was thinking that David Simon’s New Orleans series Treme might not be the big influence everyone expected. Maybe Broadchurch or Les Revenants (The Returned) were better models for how to do a Christchurch series. In one, a murder exposes the relationships and tensions in a small community. In the other, there is a kind of supernatural disaster that reveals aspects of a small French community’s history. One of the great innovations of Les Revenants, besides the rare beauty of a series filmed entirely at dusk, is that it based episodes on the “journey” (terrible word) of individual characters. After watching two out of six Hope and Wire episodes, I wonder if Preston should have done the same. Len’s story, Joycie’s story, Greggo’s story, Hayley’s story, Ginny’s story, Donna’s story. That might have eliminated a flaw in the series so far: that none of the characters have depth or are doing much more than illustrating a trend, tendency or news story. 

Far from sensationalising the Christchurch story, or making a fiction that is fundamentally inaccurate, Preston has actually done the opposite. Apart from a few timeline glitches, she has made the story almost too accurate. Much of the drama plays like pallid re-enactments of moments that would have more power and truth as documentary. This is obvious in the February 22 scenes towards the end of the second episode, when news footage from central Christchurch is edited into the staged disaster scenes. The real footage is still horrifying, even now, while the staged scenes have less impact and it is almost grotesque to see actors caked in fake dust and dirt staggering through recreated disaster zones alongside actual footage of actual places where actual people died. Episodes one and two are mostly tasteful but these scenes are borderline, to say the least.

At this point you might ask what drama can do that documentary cannot do, and the answer is nothing, if your answer is based only on Hope and Wire. Drama can provide you with subjectivity and an imaginative experience, but imagination has been largely sacrificed in favour of cautious adherence to reality. You can understand the impulse but it means that so far Hope and Wire has told us nothing we did not already learn from Gerard Smyth’s When a City Falls, a documentary made in Christchurch that evolved as the story changed. There is probably a whole other discussion to be had about the value – and ethics – of recreating real-life trauma as fiction, and it would probably extend from Claude Lanzmann’s famous refusal to include even historical footage in his monumental Holocaust documentary, Shoah. A Lanzmann-style earthquake and recovery documentary composed entirely of long interviews and shots of the ruins and empty spaces three and a half years on? The viewer would have to imagine what was being described.

There has been a lot of talk about documentary styles in Hope and Wire and Preston’s expertise in the area. Her Te Papa doco Getting to Our Place was a good one, no question. And she talked up her doco credentials in this Press interview, which included her incredible claim that she is “one of the very few film-makers in the world with experience in both dramatic feature film and documentary”. (Really? Tell that to Ken Loach, Michael Apted, Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese, Wim Wenders, Steven Soderbergh, Jim Jarmusch, Michael Winterbottom, Alain Resnais, Terry Zwigoff, Spike Lee, James Marsh, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Clio Barnard, Ken Russell, Agnes Varda, Vincent Ward, Kevin Macdonald, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Jonathan Demme, Alison Maclean, Florian Habicht …) But it turns out that there is nothing documentary-like about Hope and Wire so far. The breaking of the fourth wall via monologues to camera delivered by actors in character is a convention more reminiscent of sitcoms and reality television – a tool used by Modern Family and MasterChef.

Overall, despite being made for TV3, Hope and Wire seems to fit with TVNZ’s recent series of news-based topical dramas, like the one about Jan Molenaar, which some involved in the real story thought was being made and seen too soon. Is it too soon for a quake drama? There is probably no right answer to that question. The harder question is whether it was really worth doing. I’ve heard the word “opportunistic” a few times. I’m not sure about that but nothing in the first two hours of Hope and Wire convinced me that Preston had something she really needed to say that hasn’t otherwise been said. I suspect – in fact, I know – that Preston isn’t the only director from outside Christchurch who looked at the ruined city and thought there’s drama to be made from this, especially if they had gorged on Treme and other box sets from TV’s new golden age. They had a fantastic location. Now all they needed were stories.

June 22, 2014

1929


Blancanieves (Pablo Berger, 2013). Like The Artist, this is set at a key moment in cinema history, although with a much greater sense of film literacy (if the still above doesn’t suggest Sunrise …). Yet Pablo Berger’s approach is romantic and never academic. Snow White is now a female bull fighter – believe me, it works. 

June 21, 2014

Contained

Philomena (Stephen Frears, 2013). Despite the journalism clichés, this is actually a story about the triumph of journalism. With Frears in charge, all potential for satire is contained and any outrage is barely perceptible. I could have done with a little of the latter. Incredible story, either way: you wouldn’t believe a word of it if it wasn’t true.

June 7, 2014

24 hours


Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler, 2013). Arguably, this is new black cinema that is historically conscious of other new black cinemas, meaning that it has the focused anger and tragic sense of Do the Right Thing and Boyz N the Hood a generation ago and the social realism of Killer of Sheep a generation before that. I don’t even mind the narrative inventions or persuasions. Under the circumstances, how can you?

June 6, 2014

Morning


Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002). 

May 28, 2014

Phantom


Fellini’s Casanova (Federico Fellini, 1976). “It had happened to him sometimes, and he had learned to live with the phantom: each time he had to learn again as if it were the first time.” (Love in the Time of Cholera)

May 27, 2014

Still alive


Jesus’ Son (Alison Maclean, 1999). Dundun. When I first saw Alison Maclean’s film Jesus’ Son back in 2000, I didn’t know to watch for Michael Shannon (billed then as “Mike”) as Dundun, who makes only a brief but important appearance – important enough to have had a chapter named for him in the book by Denis Johnson. Dundun is an example of those who have been messed up or ruined by the times – the early 70s, the Midwest – and all the drugs; Johnson’s famous closing line about Dundun is that “certain important connections had been burned through”, and “if I opened up your head and ran a hot soldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into someone like that”. Shannon gives you all that in a look. There are drug casualties and overdoses scattered throughout the first two-thirds of both the book and the movie, before the turning point which Maclean, adapting a screenplay credited to Elizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia and Oren Moverman, grasps by picking out a handful of key lines and images from Johnson’s minimal and poetic stories and repeating the opening car crash, now as a rescue or an important human gesture. The cold light of the ruined downtowns of Midwestern cities starts to give way to the warmer light of Phoenix, Arizona, as a match to the fairly overt redemption narrative: no wonder it got an award from the Catholic church at Venice. Maclean’s film is almost entirely faithful to story and even to feeling – the sorrow, the semi-religious awe, the druggie comedy – but still it never quite gets to the deep, moving and strangely private effect of Johnson’s writing. Example: the film sets Michelle’s (Samantha Morton) suicidal overdose during her time with Fuckhead (Billy Crudup, suitably naïve, childlike, charming, inept) but Johnson has her dying after she had left him for a man named John Smith. Both ways of telling it have their advantages. In Maclean’s version, Fuckhead has more guilt to seek redemption from, the overdose drama is put onscreen, the death is another step in a volatile romantic story that Maclean emphasises and his failure to revive her contrasts with her successful rescue of him earlier, when he overdoses (changed again, slightly, from the ending of “Out on Bail”), but isn’t it sadder in the book, where all that time and loss is sketched in just a few words? “For many weeks after she died, John Smith confided to people that Michelle was calling to him from the other side of life. She wooed him. She made herself more real than any of the visible people around him, the people who were still breathing, who were supposed to be alive. When I heard, shortly after that, that John Smith was dead, I wasn’t surprised.” 

May 21, 2014

Movies and trains


Martin (George Romero, 1978). Trains are immediately cinematic, right? The confined space, the limited time before reaching the station, the possibility of being discovered by other passengers or conductors. All that suspense and also the journey’s duration as equivalent to story. This film’s best horror sequence is its first, on a train. Romero’s wider idea was original then and fairly routine now: a sympathetic and non-supernatural vampire satire but with real gore. The unexpected lasting value is in the nearly documentary-like views of a depressed American city. Pittsburgh, naturally. 

May 19, 2014

April 29, 2014

No lovers left alive


Nymphomaniac (Lars von Trier, 2013). Von Trier’s sex epic is at its best when it seems like an anguished sequel to Antichrist, with Charlotte Gainsbourg as the director’s most effective suffering surrogate or disordered woman and Stellan Skarsgard as his most patient listener, and at its worst when von Trier seems to be simply impersonating 70s Euro-smut pretensions with a straight face (largely in the first half, when the less expressive Stacy Martin is in the Gainsbourg part). A throwback to 70s daringness and 70s auteurism is the point, of course, and is part of why Nymphomaniac feels both dated and out of time. Is it even possible that Skarsgard’s namechecking of The Decameron, Canterbury Tales and 1001 Nights during the long overnight conversation that frames the film is von Trier’s way of handing the Pasolini baton to himself? (The literary storytelling devices are also highly Sadean.) Nymphomaniac concludes von Trier’s “depression” trilogy and it’s been fascinating to see how, since Antichrist, he has created a kind of non-specific von-Trier-land somewhere in Europe, where English is spoken in a range of soft accents by a regular company of actors, joined this time by Christian Slater and Uma Thurman, both doing their best work in years. This is sometimes ridiculous, sometimes brazen and always provocative: as ever in von Trier, black humour and philosophical heaviness live side by side or are even interchangeable, such as in the stunning blasphemous hallucination or non-religious ecstasy sequence early in the second half (during those moments, you can easily read this as the Satanic Breaking the Waves).