Monday, June 30, 2008
"But this last Kafka is as difficult to keep in mind as the Pynchon who grocery-shops and attends baseball games, the Salinger who grew old and raised a family in Cornish, New Hampshire. Readers are incurable fabulists. Kafka's case, though, extends beyond literary mystique. He is more than a man of mystery—he's metaphysical. Readers who are particularly attached to this supra-Kafka find the introduction of a quotidian Kafka hard to swallow."
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
The Ian Curtis biopic Control begins in the bedroom and ends in the kitchen. It’s a rock film that locates its drama in dull domestic spaces, or sometimes dull communal spaces (the dole office, the pub, the hospital). In something like Velvet Goldmine – which also featured an outsider teen who worshipped at the altar of Bowie, as so many did in Britain in the early ‘70s – the bedroom was the place to escape from, and you don’t look back. You want to get to airports, stadiums, arenas of the gods – all those rock-glory sites in such predictable representations as Almost Famous and Rock Star. There are no airports or stadiums in Control. This isn’t to say that the Joy Division story didn’t have its moments of conventional success, even during Curtis’ lifetime – they made magazine covers, drew bigger and bigger crowds, toured the continent – it’s more that this isn’t the story that photographer and promo-clip-maker turned director, Anton Corbijn, is giving us. This is the quotidian rock movie, shot in the style of a ‘50s kitchen sink drama – deliberate low-expectations realism.
For realism mimicked as carefully as this is an aesthetic choice. On the director’s commentary on the recently-released Control DVD, Corbijn says that he remembers Joy Division in black and white. They were shot that way of course – and Corbijn was among those who shot them – but also, for him, coming from Holland to England at the end of the '70s, the starving, miserable country itself was black and white. But the Manchester of this film doesn’t feel like the Manchester described as a dark, industrial, ruined environment by the likes of Jon Savage – and it’s widely assumed that the environment shaped their sound, seeped into it, rattled around in it. Even Natalie Curtis, the daughter of the dead singer, agrees that Corbijn has failed to get the real Manchester – the one, for instance, that WG Sebald described in The Emigrants: soot-coloured urban valleys, derelict buildings and blasted quarters, silent and empty streets, dark in the afternoon.
The reason for this is pretty simple: he shot a lot of it in Nottingham as Manchester has changed so much. But the weather is all wrong too – it’s sunny throughout. Where’s Manchester’s infamous dampness? The British summer of 2006, when this was shot, was apparently one of the hottest and brightest on record. Bad luck – they got good weather. And as for the quotidian quality, Corbijn has a manifesto, again related on the DVD commentary: “People’s lives are not a collection of highlights. I focus on the normal things.”
But the smartest moments of Control are when he chooses not to. In the opening scene, Sam Riley as Curtis (he’s good, but too pretty: cast him in the Pete Doherty story) recites some “Heart and Soul” lyrics. “Existence, well, what does it matter?” is the line we’re supposed to ponder, but the one that really matters comes a few seconds later: “The past is now part of my future.” This might be a reference to the Ian Curtis mythology that was to start growing within days of this scene, as soon as the suicide became news: his future is to always be this Ian Curtis, the man who exists only inside the sound of those amazing records, endlessly replaying his steps towards his own death. This doesn't mean that Curtis planned his entire career, including his death, as a kind of romantic, sub-Jim Morrison rock stunt – but there are often strange ways in which the details and impressions of what happened are caught by him in advance. There is a supernatural edge to the Joy Division records; there is very little that’s normal about them.
At other times, Corbijn departs from the historical record to show the myth gaining life. A rehearsal of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is set up as though the band were shooting the video (in other words, to give us their normal life, he mimics their most famous performance). At the end, as the inevitable “Atmosphere” plays over a long shot of a crematorium, black smoke pours from the chimney as though this were a Papal election – his death is that momentous.
So what is normal life? He marries his girlfriend when they’re both teens. Corbijn might not know it, but there was nothing unusual about that in a working-class city in the 1970s. They have a baby, he has a job, but he also harbours ambitions to be in a band. The band does well. He develops epilepsy. He meets another woman. Depressed by the epilepsy drugs, his situation, the demands on him, he hangs himself.
Nothing in that sypnosis tells you why you want to see this movie. Why did I want to see it? Because I’ve been listening to Joy Division on and off for more than 20 years. Because I thought that a biopic of Ian Curtis was a good idea. Because it seemed interesting that something so private – Joy Division was never party music, you didn’t listen to it in groups – was about to become so public. When I first saw it, last July at the Auckland International Film Festival, only weeks after it had played Cannes, I thoroughly enjoyed it, largely for the band scenes, as the group play “Leaders of Men”, “Transmission”, “Dead Souls” and so on. It seemed like a serious, sombre, quiet, artful response to 24 Hour Party People, which contained a truncated version of the same story, but done with more rowdiness and sarcasm.
In the band scenes, Riley seems to get the switch that Curtis made if you watch those old live TV clips of “Shadowplay”, “Transmission” and “She’s Lost Control” – that moment when the look in his eye changed, when something gripped him or possessed him, that look of … what is it? Desperation, fear, awe, terror, rapture? A look into some kind of beyond. There’s a lovely moment when Debbie Curtis (well played by Samantha Morton) is watching the band on TV and she has a look of obvious concern on her face, as though she is seeing what is happening and going to happen. It’s her concern about the sudden and frightening transformations that grip him and drain him.
The story of Control is based on Debbie Curtis’ book, Touching from a Distance. That memoir was part of the posthumous Joy Division industry – it was the first official publication of the lyrics and it coincided with a new compilation – but the story that she creates is about exclusion. As usual, the girls were barred from the rock club. So in Control, the excluded wife gets the last word and gets to dictate the terms of his memory, but both she and Annik (the singer’s girlfriend) still get a raw deal. Annik is presented as some kind of mega-groupie, although Corbijn says on the commentary track that she and Curtis never actually slept together (and if that’s true, why wasn’t it in the script?).
That use of “Heart and Soul” above might have been a smart move but at other times, there is a thudding obviousness to the way that the songs are presented – they’re journal entries set to music, descriptions of the trials and tribulations of Ian Curtis. Actually, in a curious way, there was something dehumanised, impersonal, incorporeal about Joy Division – partly because there were no pictures of people on the covers and so little information available, but mostly because Curtis had, for the majority of us, always been dead. I started listening to Joy Division in about 1986 – six years after his death, but it could have been 96 years for all the difference it made to how you approached him. Watching Control the second time, it struck me: in more than 20 years, I had never once thought about the suicide of Ian Curtis. It had never seemed like an event that had happened in historical time to a real person. So who was that on the record? Whose voice was that? The voice sounded ancient. “Yeah, we wasted our time, didn’t really have time/But I remember when we were young.” When we were young? He was 21 when he wrote that, but he sounded like a dead man already, reflecting on the life he has left. “I never realised the lengths I had to go …” – all these events in past tense. Deborah Curtis used to say that he sounded old; Barney Hoskyns wrote, in 1985, that the voice was “so old and grave and shadowy”.
I’m not getting that sense from Control, that strange sense that Joy Division gave me – not a chronicle of a death foretold, but a description of death, the anticipation of it and the mythology that grew around it, all simultaneously. And, again and again, that sense of someone talking to you from beyond: “If you could just see the beauty/These things I could never describe.” Where is he when he says that? And, again and again, the sense that he was cursed with some greater vision: “Someone take these dreams away.” So it’s reductive to think that the songs reflect everyday life, are written in response to it, as comments on it. Yes, the “you” in a line like “I tried to get to you, you treat me like this…” might well have been Debbie, as Corbijn implies, but it cannot be the same “you” in “People like you find it easy”. In fact, I’ve long felt that the last one, from the brilliant and stately “Atmosphere”, was the dead man pleading with us, his listeners (“Don’t walk away”), which makes it a perfectly bittersweet closing song, as we get up from our seats and turn our backs on the screen.
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
"As above, so below"
There are thrones underground and monarchs upon them: Guillermo del Toro’s dark, brilliant, imaginative film Pan’s Labyrinth takes place in two realms at once – a demonic underworld accessible through ancient sites, a ruined maze, secret doors and a magic book, and our own world above ground. Of course, our world is much more terrifying.
The year is 1944. In the hills of northern Spain, Ofelia’s fascist stepfather tracks the last Civil War rebels. In this story of magic and symbolic monsters, the stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi López), is the worst monster of all, running a private army from a mansion hidden in the forest, dishing out torture, treating Ofelia’s mother as a breeder for an heir. At dinners, a feeble priest sits at the captain’s side, approving of all he does – in one shot, del Toro has nailed the church as Franco’s collaborators.
In some ways, Pan’s Labyrinth follows on from the Mexican del Toro’s 2001 film The Devil’s Backbone, which set a powerful and sad ghost story within a boys’ orphanage during the Spanish Civil War. That film’s sensibility – dreamlike terror, real tragedy, an ease with the supernatural – had me wishing that someone would offer del Toro, whose American work includes the populist horror films Hellboy, Mimic and Blade II, a Harry Potter sequel to play with. Actually, they did, as well as the first Narnia film – and he turned both down. In the case of the latter, he told Sight & Sound that he “wasn’t interested in the lion resurrecting”.
The other film that stands behind Pan’s Labyrinth is a Spanish classic: Victor Erice’s 1973 film The Spirit of the Beehive, a subtle Civil War allegory that appeared in the last days of Franco (hence the need for subtlety). In that movie, an imaginative girl encountered a fugitive whom she conflated with the lonesome creature from James Whale’s Frankenstein. Like Erice, del Toro understands why children, nervous and distrustful about the adult world, might identify with such creatures. Here, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is led towards a labyrinth by a bug that she takes – as we do – to be a fairy. In that labyrinth, she meets a faun who, despite the English-language title, is never identified as the nature god Pan (in Spanish, the title is El Labertino del Fauno; and Del Toro has said, on the DVD, that “Pan would be too dangerous.”). In a prologue, Ofelia imagined herself to be a princess alienated from an underground kingdom. The gigantic faun, who more closely resembles the Christian Devil than Narnia’s harmless Mr Tumnus, helpfully or maybe alarmingly offers her magic instructions to find her way back down.
What unfolds is a mix of private and public mythology. There are probably resonances for Spanish audiences that we might miss: in Spain, the word “labyrinth” has been taken as synonymous with the Civil War; the 1940s were a period of starvation (“years of hunger”), which is surely why food comes to matter so much in this story, both above and below ground. But otherwise, anyone with access to a collective unconscious should get it –images and ideas from classic fairytales and mythology recur, sometimes tweaked (an evil stepfather, not the usual stepmother) but often played straight. A giant and carnivorous toad squatting under a tree, a blind and ancient “pale man” at the head of an enchanted feast who devours wriggling, living creatures much like Goya's Saturn (a natural reference, given the circumstances), a mandrake root fed on milk and blood, tiny doorways into secret chambers and endless tunnels – images like these feel fresh and familiar at once.
Never cute and always serious, Pan’s Labyrinth is no film for children – it’s a parable that comes with real emotional weight, pitched at an almost operatic level. As in The Devil’s Backbone, the production values are superb: it’s a film of beautiful surfaces, earthy browns and damp greys, shining blacks and seas of velvety blood. It sounds good, too: the mechanical whirr of the fairy’s wings, the night-time creaks in the captain’s old, dark house and the tectonic, threatening rumble of the faun’s voice, roaring like a storm.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE NZ LISTENER, APRIL 14 2007
That individual is Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones). That almost-Lynch-like name tells us we’re in Red State America – Tennessee. Hank is a Vietnam vet, now a retired military cop. He and Joan Deerfield (Susan Sarandon in a tiny but memorable cameo) have lost one son during active duty; their second, Mike, who recently returned from a tour in Iraq, has gone awol. This is no country for middle-aged women: Hank makes the drive to the army base in New Mexico alone, but when he gets there, he persuades a young female cop (Charlize Theron in lugubrious North Country mode) to help out.
Whether it’s the army or whether it’s the cops, these worlds of male codes and male rites are both laughably inept and sworn to secrecy. So the film’s a murder investigation with military frills, and almost everything that’s good about this glum and unsatisfying movie is in the person of Tommy Lee Jones, who might have recently knocked Forest Whitaker from his long reign as the world’s saddest-looking actor. That face hangs lower every time you see him; the lines under his eyes get deeper; the eyes themselves get wetter. His embodiment of the hopelessly moral man in a fallen world calls up the template for this kind of story: The Searchers, with John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards looking for the girl taken by savages – itself a big influence on Paul Schrader’s Hardcore, which crossed my mind when our heroic and upright Hank looks for Mike in the hellish depths of an off-base strip club.
One more tough journey through the moral badlands – you could flatter this film by calling it the concluding part in Jones’s death trilogy. The first of the three films was probably the best, certainly the most original – in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, which Jones also directed, the actor is a Texan cop who keeps a promise to take a dead Mexican friend back to his village. It’s a film about borderlands – not just between Mexico and America (and it clearly favours Mexico), but between law and the lawless. The second of the three is the most famous – No Country for Old Men. So neatly do these three films form an unofficial trilogy that it may be shocking to learn that Haggis devised this with Clint Eastwood in mind (Haggis wrote Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby), but Eastwood’s version of tarnished heroism would have been too predictable. You get more melancholy per mile with Jones.
The story is contrived in the wider sense – the flag business, the clumsy David-and-Goliath references that supply the title – but plainly told. It's as plain and serious as the brunette hairstyle on Charlize Theron. As an anti-war movie, it loses its nerve before the end, with Haggis feeling that he must walk us through it – he assumes that his audience needs an education in the bad news about Iraq as much as Red-State Hank does. But Hank isn't much more than a symbol of decent values, with no memory or sense of history. How did he manage to get this far without questioning his tour in Vietnam? And once again this is America’s soul-searching anguish – the Iraqi experience is not in the picture. America might be in distress, but how about Iraq?
Mike is dead, of course. Dismembered and burnt in a field in New Mexico. Forget the flag business, this is the real anti-war focus – that burnt and hacked body is America’s war record coming home in a very real and terrible way. We learn that Mike earned the nickname "Doc" because he had a fun habit of aggravating the wounds of Iraqi prisoners. Hence, perhaps, the strangely ghoulish and vivid interest in corpses: we get close-ups of the burnt remains of Mike, plus two others, including a hanging. When you consider the notorious refusal of American media and military to broadcast images of their own war dead, these horror shots seem like some attempt to respond, to even up the score.
In the Valley of Elah doesn’t go anywhere near as far as it should – reality eclipses it ten times over – but for a second or two, there are possibilities. One of Mike’s army pals is interrogated by Theron’s cop. The interrogated killer reveals that a murder was done, a credit card was stolen from the body and the killers then went out for fried chicken. "You were hungry?" Theron asks, disbelieving, as the grinning, cruel, banal jock-mind of the American grunt comes fully into view.
Friday, June 6, 2008
"I barely recognise this country anymore; the government has us seeing communists in our soup."
-- Dean Charles Stanforth (Jim Broadbent) in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
The post-AI films have been: Catch Me If You Can, Minority Report, The Terminal, War of the Worlds, Munich and this new Indiana Jones episode. The feeling that you get from these films -- especially Minority Report, War of the Worlds and Munich -- is shades of grey, and not just in the moral sense (these are post-9/11 films -- explicitly in the case of Munich and War of the Worlds). In these films, Kaminksi prefers a softening of the image to a harsh, strict realism and within that soft, even murky image, he sets unnaturally bright beams of light -- this white light is now close to a Kaminski trademark. Part of the rationale behind the softer image might be -- in the case of Crystal Skull, Minority Report and War of the Worlds at least -- to disguise the use of CGI, which looks softer and more blurred than real filmed images. Most directors put up with the slight difference; Spielberg softens everything else and creates a signature new aesthetic in the process.
Compare Last Crusade with Crystal Skull and there are obvious differences. It's not just that the ease of the storytelling in the early film has gone (but then few films are easier to watch than Last Crusade -- it skates along), it's also that a realistic look, and extensive outdoor locations, have been swapped for an artificiality, and a lot of CGI backdrops and soundstages. This new level of artificiality seems to change the basic intent of the film: it's no longer a real adventure through real places in search of real objects (in some form or other, the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant do exist or have existed); it's now some kind of allegorical adventure through fictionalised places (much has been made of the fact that Crystal Skull's action is set in South America but the Mayans belong in Mexico) in search of objects that don't exist and have no historical backstory (Bibilical archaelogy is out; the widely ridiculed God-was-a-spaceman sci-fi theology of Erich Von Daniken is in). You can see why it's been criticised as implausible.
Gone, then, is the supernatural dimension of the first three films. Just as the destructive power is man's, the sought-after artefacts are no longer holy objects but alien relics or body parts. It's not just the post-nuclear Indiana Jones film, it's the death-of-God Indiana Jones film. That might sound like over-reaching, but Indiana does give a quick lesson in the relativity of belief systems to his young sidekick, Mutt (Shia LeBeouf), when he says, "It depends who your God is." This Indiana Jones is truly a man of the mid-century.
But, in a way, hasn't he always been? Part of the appeal of the Indiana Jones films was in the contemporary attitudes of the hero -- Ford brought a late 20th century cynicism, one that was partly updated from Humphrey Bogart, the obvious model for the character, but was mostly derived from Ford himself. Indiana was always a sceptic, a critic, a non-joiner -- which is why I find it hard to buy Crystal Skull's backstory about Indiana as a patriotic war hero -- and that individualism that borders on nihilism, or at least extreme self-interest, was one of the qualities that marked the original series out as a pastiche, a loose fit between then and now.
There are other ways in which this is a '50s film -- that basic distrust of American military power and secrecy that was vital to ET comes out of '50s sci-fi, the cover-ups and plots that were central to films like Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (hence, Irina's talk about a hive mind). There's the hot-rodding that reminds us of George Lucas's American Graffiti, the film that introduced Harrison Ford to the world. And there's the figure of Mutt -- given the source of the "Indiana" nickname, that dog-name is one of many in-jokes -- who first appears as an impersonator of Marlon Brando in The Wild One. There are a couple of other quick nods to older films too, films that were crucial to Spielberg and Lucas's generation: when Mutt encounters scorpions in a cave, a quick shot of his torso (leather jacket, white T-shirt, blue jeans) calls up a well-known frame from Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising; later, when Irina grapples with a jeep full of monkeys, Werner Herzog fans will think about the last scene in Aguirre, the Wrath of God -- the same scene that was considered by Francis Ford Coppola as an alternative ending to Apocalypse Now. Given his love of codes and clues, these nods feel more like a Lucas decision than a Spielberg one -- think of The Seachers references in the Star Wars films. (Interestingly, Lucas' reputation is now so low that few dare to even mention his name in connection with Indiana Jones -- check this review, where it seems to have been forgotten that Lucas was instrumental to the first three "beloved" films.)
Just as almost everyone now agrees en masse that the first three films were masterpieces, only a few reviewers have stood against the prevailing critical tide that says that the new one is a disappointment. So it is with comebacks -- there's too much expectation and too much talking up of the original achievement. But I enjoyed Crystal Skull, and I haven't enjoyed a Harrison Ford film in years -- at some point around his Sabrina remake that cynicism started to feel too much like crankiness -- and part of what I enjoyed was the strangeness of some of Spielberg's decisions. This post-AI age is giving us films that are riskier, less predictable, less safe than before (if Munich was brilliant it was partly because there were some glaringly weird scenes that you wouldn't expect from a director with a reputation as a successful "mainstream" film-maker and power-broker -- the Spielberg of ET or The Color Purple, or even Schindler's List, wouldn't have made such choices). And while the story ultimately negates Stanforth's important line about losing more than you get -- on balance, Indiana loses a father and a friend but gains a wife and a son, so he's about even -- it does deliver on part of its promise to give us an older and wiser hero. In this episode, Indiana is turning into his father, so his performance -- less robust, slightly fussier -- is well-played, suggesting a transition to Sean Connery in Last Crusade. His speeches about staying in school and regarding knowledge as treasure could have come straight from the senior Henry. Which means that, while the first three films were pursuits of supernatural power, this one, ultimately, is the pursuit of knowledge.
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
"That which we seek to exclude returns to haunt us,” wrote Hanif Kureishi last year in a small book called The Word and the Bomb. His subject was the West and Islam and he was talking about autocratic Muslim regimes and the threats they will ultimately face from all that they suppress, but his supple line might easily be hijacked and put to use as a tagline for three of the last year’s most provocative films: David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, George Romero’s Land of the Dead and Michael Haneke’s Caché (or, appropriately, Hidden).
In Cronenberg’s meta-thriller, that line might point towards some psychic integration between our violent and peaceful halves, split as in a dream and living separate lives (that double-identity motif is a Cronenberg obsession, from Spider to The Fly, Dead Ringers to The Dead Zone). In Romero’s zombie series, the dead usually stand for underclasses that society represses or ignores – and I wasn’t the only critic to think that Land of the Dead, with its mostly African-American dead shuffling through a ruined city, seemed like a weird anticipation of footage from Hurricane Katrina’s disaster zone. In Hidden, the Austrian Haneke finds a typically cruel and ingenious way to talk about individual and collective guilt: he besieges the guilty party with creepily anonymous video-tapes that help to dislodge buried memories. Haunted by video – how very 21st century.
Georges (Daniel Auteuil) is our 21st-century schizoid man. Hidden’s first shot seems initially to be a still of some ordinary street in contemporary Paris. Soon we learn – when a person off screen hits fast-forward – that this is secret video of the home of Georges and Anne (Juliette Binoche), which has landed on their doorstep with no explanation. We’re seeing what they see. Haneke poses a thriller-like question: who is sending these tapes and why? Then Georges receives another tape, of the farmhouse where he grew up. In either a dream or a memory, Georges’s buried self now recounts some details: four decades earlier, he betrayed an Algerian boy whom his parents were thinking of adopting and the boy, Majid, was instead sent to an orphanage. Majid’s parents had been killed during the violent police suppression of an Algerian protest in Paris in 1961 – an event that has remained a taboo topic in France. So, Georges’s individual guilt over Majid mirrors France’s guilt over Algeria and the bourgeois Parisian couple stand for all of France, somehow oblivious of the blood on its hands.
You could guess that, being Austrian, Haneke has already done plenty of wondering about where individual and historical guilt starts and stops. You could also guess that it gets him off the hook when telling the French off about their feelings over this specific incident. Everyone else gets implicated, though. Much has been made of how Haneke’s tricky use of video – What is the surveillance footage? What is the “real” movie? What, in the end, is the difference? – implicates the audience. We’re sharing the experience of viewing with the paranoid Georges; Haneke expects that we will begin to share his new perception of Arabs and Africans as potential menaces. In the murky and shadowy atmosphere of the film, Georges and Anne’s book-lined apartment even comes to seem like a concrete bunker keeping the threatening world at bay.
Georges is a media figure, Anne works in publishing. They are exactly the kinds of privileged high-culture consumers who go to Haneke films, presumably. We are meant to identify with them, not poor Majid, who now lives in a scruffy apartment on the outskirts of Paris – the kind of suburb you only hear about when unemployed youths set cars alight in the streets. Georges needs a map to find it. That this is the fourth Haneke film to feature a couple called Georges and Anne shows that the director’s interest in humans is remote and largely symbolic. Maybe that’s why the eruption of Georges’s past into his present has neither the chilly horror of similar scenes in David Lynch’s Lost Highway nor the wild comedy of dinner-party invasions in Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie – there simply isn’t much feeling in the deliberate flatness of Haneke’s digital video; like Haneke’s punishingly sadistic melodrama The Piano Teacher, Hidden is brilliantly made but uninvolving. What’s in it for us? In the end, maybe it’s just an issue of taste: I get more from Cronenberg’s disruptions of cinematic "truth" and viewer expectations than Haneke’s.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE NZ LISTENER, APRIL 22, 2006.