December 24, 2009

Them Bones: The Voice list

The Village Voice film poll for 2009 is out and it's not good news for Peter Jackson: The Lovely Bones is the third-worst film of the year, according to the 94 critics questioned, with four of them -- Karina Longworth, Wesley Morris, Adam Nayman and Andrew Schenker -- calling it their very worst. No one put it in their top ten.
Film of the year? Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker. Of the decade? Mulholland Drive, which was the second choice of this website.

December 22, 2009

The best of 2009

1. Che – Part One: The Argentine and Part Two: Guerrilla (Steven Soderbergh)
The Hollywood biopic has become a set of tired conventions: the cautious adherence to the three-act structure and the story arc of promise, struggle and redemption, the oversized and sometimes too thoroughly researched impersonation in the lead (Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash, Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, and so on and on), the psychoanalytic approach to character and behaviour, the insistence on helping us understand the great man or woman at the centre. If Gus Van Sant’s Milk was a disappointment for following all these conventions so closely, especially after four extraordinary experimental features from Van Sant that played games with mainstream cinema's received ideas about time, story and character, then Soderbergh’s Che Guevara diptych was something like the stringent, wilfully uncommercial antidote. Best seen as one four and a half hour movie with an intermission rather than a two-part miniseries, Che isn’t the most "entertaining" film on this list – it could even be the least – and it risks boredom by telling stories in two hours (the slow success of the military campaign during the Cuban Revolution; Guevara’s dismal failure to do a similar thing in Bolivia a decade later) that most biopics would chew through in 20 minutes. As Guevara, Benicio Del Toro (pictured) is working with mega-charisma but at a minimalist level – it doesn’t feel like American movie acting and is a long, long way from a show-off impersonation. But you could also argue that Walter Salles did the conventional biopic work in The Motorcycle Diaries -- the story of how one young man from Argentina was politicised -- which gave Soderbergh and Del Toro the freedom to go this way.
2. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson)
For the swimming pool massacre scene. For all of it, really, but especially for the swimming pool massacre scene.
3. Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton)
Stark and unsentimental observations of Aboriginal life and everyday racism in and around Alice Springs. And by no means as offputtingly earnest as that sounds.
4. District 9 (Neill Blomkamp)
See here.
5. Synecdoche New York (Charlie Kaufman)
See here.
6. The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch)
Jarmusch: "Part of me wanted to make an action film with no action in it, whatever the hell that means." More here.
7. Avatar (James Cameron)
Both Hollywood-archetypal and deeply, personally weird, James Cameron’s Gaia-loving space opera manages to be an allegory for everything, maybe all of human history, but especially: the loss of Native American lands and cultures, war in Iraq, war in Vietnam, “the environment” and our relationship to it, rainforest clearances, Cameron’s own purported journey from gun-loving machinery-nerd to feminine-side ecologist. I think of it as Malick’s Pocahontas story The New World with Apocalypse Now battle scenes (indeed, as a years-in-the-making war film with deeper meanings, this probably is Cameron's Apocalypse Now) and it is also surely a need-to-see-it-in-cinemas overhaul of viewer expectations and technology just as The Matrix was in 1999 and Jurassic Park was in 1993. So, after all that, why do I feel like I don’t love it as I should? Maybe because the storytelling is perfunctory, even juvenile – which you could never say about Cameron’s two Terminators (it's this perfunctory: people named Miles and Grace define the militaristic and peaceful poles of its human experience). Maybe because it can feel like watching someone else play a computer game. Maybe because two hours and 40 minutes is a long time to be looking at that artificial scenery and those artificial people. But, yes, the phosphorescent jungle at night was very, very trippy in 3D.
8. Public Enemies (Michael Mann)
Michael Mann’s digital video art-movie about the Prohibition gangster era is as personal and wayward a directorial project as Avatar. More here.
9 and 10. Capitalism: A Love Story (Michael Moore) and Of Time and the City (Terence Davies)
Both include eulogies for vanished working-class (and Catholic) communities and histories in industrial cities – for Moore, the city is Flint, Michigan; for Davies, Liverpool. Moore's 1950s childhood was an era of super-abundance when one auto worker's income could easily provide for an entire family (the title of his film may not be ironic, just nostalgic). Now, Flint and Detroit are ghost towns of abandoned factories and houses -- in a characteristically effective example of Moore tearjerking, we see the factory his father worked in as a pile of bricks. Davies grew up amongst the sooty terrace houses we know from a million northern stories -- a place and a past now completely lost to 80s and 90s era urban renewal and with it, Davies' sense of community and belonging.

December 15, 2009

Sad song

From the comments section of – don’t ask how I ended up there – Moby’s blog in July 09, comes this small, sad story. The context is that Moby has just told his readers that he’s playing a festival in Novi Sad, Serbia, with Patti Smith and Kraftwerk. In the comments, someone called "Mystery World" writes:
Did you get to hang out with Patti Smith?
Some of her music is really special to me. A friend of mine made a film called In My Father's Den and it featured songs off Patti Smith's album Horses. It was his first feature film and it got into film festivals around the world then he died of cancer.
"Free Money" played at his funeral, right at the end, when they were carrying out the coffin and all of the people were slowly leaving the cathedral.
So if you see Patti Smith, tell her that Brad McGann had "Free Money" playing at his funeral. He really loved that album Horses. I did too. When I first met Brad back in 1985 I had him over to my house and I put on Horses and we played it over and over and over.
I'd love to know if Patti Smith watched his film and what she thought of it.
It's an amazing film. If you haven't ever seen it Moby, I thoroughly recommend that you watch it.

No idea who "Mystery World" is, or if she -- why do I guess "she"? Maybe I'm thinking of Jodie Rimmer's character in the movie and the way she listens to Horses -- is a New Zealander. Although that's likely. Anyway, it doesn't look like Moby answered.
My review of the superb In My Father's Den -- a film that starts with a funeral and contains that innovative use of Patti Smith -- is here.

December 11, 2009

Two hours in Buddhist hell: the hijacking of The Vintner's Luck

There are two words that don't appear in the one hour, 50 minute-long podcast of a recent Vintner's Luck discussion -- Unity and Duality: When Angel and Demon Are One (a title that is actually meaningless in relation to the book) -- at the Rialto cinema, Auckland. Those two words are Elizabeth Knox. Who's she? Just the author. Imagine a nearly two hour discussion of Atonement that didn't mention Ian McEwan or two hours on Where the Wild Things Are that forgot about Maurice Sendak and you have some idea of how this story has been hijacked. The Knox story of a man and an angel in 19th century France is really, we now learn, a Buddhist parable in which the angel is merely "spirit". There are three speakers: director Niki Caro, co-writer Joan Scheckel (who dominates the session) and special guest, Buddhist monk ZaChoeje Rinpoche. The event was timed around the Dalai Lama's appearance in Auckland.

I have nothing against Buddhists or Buddhism but there was little in this nearly two hours of well-meaning waffle about happiness, truth and duality that struck me as remotely profound, especially in relation to this problematic film. But I was struck by the arrogance and self-absorption of Joan Scheckel. "These are early days for spiritual content in films," she says. "Not many film-makers attempt it." Really? Go tell it to Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson, Andrei Tarkovsky, Yasujiro Ozu, Carlos Reygadas, Michelangelo Antonioni, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Bela Tarr (and Gus Van Sant), Terence Malick and any number of other film-makers who you might loosely identify with a style that Paul Schrader famously defined back in the early 70s as "transcendental".

Somewhat patronisingly, the American Scheckel tells her New Zealand audience that only in Maori culture could she freely bring up the subject of spirit. She goes on: "Everything we're talking about tonight is very new terrain in cinema." Again, no names from the above list are cited, not even in relation to an audience question about how to put "everydayness" on screen. In fact, Scheckel names just one other film-maker and film within the entire talk: "Scorsese made an incredible film of Kundun but then retreated to violence." Right, now we get it -- it's only "spiritual" if it's overtly Buddhist.

My review of The Vintner's Luck is here.

December 7, 2009

Decades: the best films, music

“This future – the year is 2027 – is a plausible extension of right now. The same red double-decker buses wind through the same wet London streets, although they are now joined – in a brilliant touch – by rickshaws. The same sullen crowds, the same Tube stops, the same terrorist bombs in the city. The same burning cows in fields, the same black, sooty air … Contemporary Britain’s phobia about asylum seekers has been magnified: now they’re in cages on the side of the road, pleading in all the world’s languages, threatened by Abu Ghraib-like border guards and barking dogs. Entire towns are heavily policed refugee camps."

The above is from my review of Children of Men back in November, 2006. This is the film that felt the most like this decade.

With two films in the top 20, Alfonso Cuaron had a good decade. As did David Cronenberg, Gus Van Sant -- especially when you think about how things looked for him in 1999, between his Psycho remake and Finding Forrester -- and Michael Winterbottom. Were the list a little longer, Richard Linklater could have easily added a few more (I was never a fan of Before Sunset, preferring to imagine my own sequel to Before Sunrise, but Tape, A Scanner Darkly, The School of Rock ...). A real shame that Lynne Ramsay hasn't made anything since Morvern Callar. Kind of a shame that David Lynch made the fitfully brilliant but largely muddily self-indulgent Inland Empire. Perhaps a shame that Scorsese is here for a doco not a drama.

The top 50, 2000-2009:
1 Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)
2 Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
3 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
4 Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003)
5 The New World (Terence Malick, 2005)
6 Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas, 2007)
7 Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, 2002)
8 Waking Life (Richard Linklater, 2001)
9 Spider (David Cronenberg, 2002)
10 Last Days (Gus Van Sant, 2005)
11 Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001)
12 Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)
13 Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr, 2000)
14 There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
15 In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar Wai, 2000)
16 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)
17 Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002)
18 Y Tu Mama Tambien (Alfonso Cuaron, 2001)
19 Let the Right One in (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
20 Keane (Lodge Kerrigan, 2004)
21 In My Father’s Den (Brad McGann, 2004)
22 Irreversible (Gaspar Noe, 2002)
23 Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
24 The Child (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, 2005)
25 The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)
26 The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005)
27 The Saddest Music in the World (Guy Maddin, 2003)
28 Paradise Now (Hany Abu-Assad, 2005)
29 The Others (Alejandro Amenabar, 2001)
30 Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant, 2007)
31 Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, 2000)
32 Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles, 2006)
33 Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008)
34 24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002)
35 A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005)
36 The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008)
37 Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer, 2000)
38 Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006)
39 The Return (Andrei Zvyagintsev, 2003)
40 For My Sister (Catherine Breillat, 2001)
41 City of God (Fernando Meirelles, 2002)
42 American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, 2003)
43 Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, 2008)
44 Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)
45 The Man Without a Past (Aki Kaurismaki, 2002)
46 Collateral (Michael Mann, 2004)
47 Talk to Her (Pedro Almodovar, 2002)
48 Little Fish (Rowan Woods, 2005)
49 Red Road (Andrea Arnold, 2006)
50 Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002)

The ten best New Zealand films
1 In My Father’s Den (Brad McGann, 2004)
2 Out of the Blue (Robert Sarkies, 2006)
3 Rain (Christine Jeffs, 2001)
4 Rubbings from a Live Man (Florian Habicht, 2008)
5 Whale Rider (Niki Caro, 2002)
6 Eagle vs Shark (Taika Waititi, 2007)
7 The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001)
8 Rain of the Children (Vincent Ward, 2008)
9 Woodenhead (Florian Habicht, 2003)
10 The Devil Dared Me To (Chris Stapp, 2007)

The ten best films about music
1 24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002)
2 No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (Martin Scorsese, 2005)
3 Last Days (Gus Van Sant, 2005)
4 DiG! (Ondi Timoner, 2004)
5 End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones (Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia, 2003)
6 Joy Division (Grant Gee, 2007) – with Control (Anton Corbijn, 2007)
7 Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 2004)
8 The Devil and Daniel Johnston (Jeff Feuerzeig, 2005)
9 9 Songs (Michael Winterbottom, 2004)
10 High Fidelity (Stephen Frears, 2004)

Musick to Play in the Dark Vol 2, Live One and Constant Shallowness Leads to Evil – Coil; Kid A and Amnesiac – Radiohead; Person Pitch – Panda Bear; Burial and Untrue – Burial; Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea and White Chalk – PJ Harvey; Earth and Om; I Believe You Are a Star – Dimmer; The Visitors – Cyclobe; the Fall; the Dead C; Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven and Yanqui UXO – Godspeed You Black Emperor!; The Woods – Sleater-Kinney; NYC Ghosts & Flowers – Sonic Youth; Kesto – Pan Sonic; The Disintegration Loops and The River – William Basinki; Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice; Stars of the Lid; Exterminator – Primal Scream; Passover – the Black Angels; In the Future – Black Mountain; Grinderman; Third – Portishead; The Hawk is Howling – Mogwai; Sleep Has His House – Current 93; the White Stripes; Six Organs of Admittance; The Eraser – Thom Yorke; American IV: The Man Comes Around – Johnny Cash.

November 30, 2009

Wrestling with the angel: Niki Caro and The Vintner’s Luck

1. The great disappointment
"The film is an absolute bloody mess. There is simply no way to get around this. This is a bad film. Something has gone catastrophically wrong. The wheels and the wings have fallen off somewhere in production and there is no excusing it." – Graeme Tuckett, Nine to Noon film reviewer, Radio New Zealand, November 12, 2009.
I make a habit of listening to Graeme Tuckett on RNZ and was impressed -- who wouldn’t be? -- by the unequivocal boldness of these and other comments about Niki Caro’s film The Vintner’s Luck. Said more in sorrow than in anger, but mostly in disappointment. That seems to be the spirit of the bulk of the reactions: there will have been worse films released in cinemas in 2009 but there will be no film more disappointing, in New Zealand at least. Elsewhere, they’ll probably just be confused.
A couple of months earlier, negative reviews started to filter back to New Zealand from the film’s debut at the Toronto Film Festival, but the Variety and Hollywood Reporter reviewers didn’t have the investment in Elizabeth Knox’s book as a much-loved cultural property that local reviewers like Tuckett – and, in the Listener, Knox fan David Larsen – did. If you can imagine a parallel world in which Jane Campion had made a dreary – and, worse, pointlessly unfaithful -- adaptation of An Angel at My Table, you would be close to grasping the scale of this disappointment. Make no mistake: Caro has taken Knox’s original, imaginative and impressively unusual novel and made a boring, incoherent and obscure – or maybe I mean inscrutable – film of it. But the book will survive this; good books tend to survive bad films. People will still be reading The Vintner’s Luck in five or 50 years but no one will be watching this film – and that’s partly because there is no way to follow this film, with its weird narrative elisions and mind-boggling lack of pace, unless you come to it with the book already in your head. To its readers it’s a disappointment that is best forgotten and not to be revisited. To non-readers it can only be a puzzle that doesn’t seem worth solving.

2. Angelic upstarts
"The book was a strange book, a book that took risks and was peculiar." – Elizabeth Knox, Radio New Zealand, November 19.
The Vintner’s Luck is a transgressive text in terms of its form, and in terms of its subject matter. Its underlying narrative context is the story of the creation of the world, the rebellion in heaven, the creation of humankind, and the expulsion from Paradise of Adam and Eve. The Vintner’s Luck makes use of diverse sources: the bible, the traditions of the medieval church, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Yet despite this, it is a post-Christian text rather than a Christian one. – Jane Stafford, from “Antipodean Theologies: Elizabeth Knox’s The Vintner’s Luck”, in Floating Worlds: Essays on Contemporary New Zealand Fiction, edited by Jane Stafford and Anna Jackson, Victoria University Press, 2009.
The story is well-known, maybe even legendary. In 1995, writer Elizabeth Knox had a fever and was, for days, neither fully asleep nor fully awake, but in a kind of hallucinatory in-between state. In a dream, she saw and heard an angel on an island off the coast of California recount the story of his one great love affair; this was more or less the first 100 pages of the book, a lucid fever-dream dictation. Initially, the love story was to be set in Italy. After some research into viticulture, Knox shifted the setting to France (in her essay “My History with Wings” in her book The Love School, she suspects that the Californian Spanish Mission opening came from watching Hitchcock’s Vertigo – itself dream-like and endlessly inspirational).
In her story the angel, Xas, is a fallen angel – a twist that tends to hit readers with a jolt – and the background, as Jane Stafford says, is the rebellion in heaven familiar from Paradise Lost and reminiscent of Gnostic re-imaginings of celestial organisation and the roles of angels, God and Lucifer/Satan. Xas followed Lucifer from heaven to hell and there are some remarkable passages in which Knox describes the hell that Xas made his home in. I couldn't wait to see how Caro would do these scenes – scenes that, unless you have the imaginative flair of a Guy Maddin or Derek Jarman, probably required the scope and budget of a Peter Jackson production, not something as low-budget and limited as Caro’s film. Meaning that she hasn’t tried to do them.
In Burgundy in 1808, Xas encounters the peasant wine-maker Sobran Jodeau. They aim to meet annually on the same night in midsummer. Sobran marries a peasant woman, Celeste, and they have children. He prospers as a wine-maker. There are murders in the local community. He develops a close relationship with Baroness Aurora, owner of the nearby chateau and vineyard. But the key relationship is between Sobran and Xas, man and angel. The relationship is sexual for a time but not just that – there is a well-drawn intimacy and tenderness, a sense of equals learning from each other (something the film also seems to lose). It becomes, we understand, the great relationship of Sobran’s life.
The story is told in short chapters, one per year from 1808 to Sobran’s death in 1863, with an epilogue set in 1997. Some of these chapters are less than a page; the longest seem to be around the years 1833, 1834 and 1835, when a series of important things happen: Aurora has a breast removed when she develops cancer; Xas and Sobran have sex; and Xas is wounded in the side by an archangel and must have his wings removed. It is Lucifer who does this emergency surgery and this is one of the vivid scenes that many readers talk about first. This whole section – Xas bleeding but not dying, as the plants, insects and animals around him expire instead (“He isn’t dead, he’s deadly,” Aurora points out), Lucifer methodically slicing off the angel’s wings with the skill and speed of a butcher – should have made a very strong sequence in Caro’s film. Of course we get none of that.
And that’s only one of many omissions. Caro has cut back the angel’s role so much that he no longer seems to be part of the same story (indeed, he even goes unnamed). She focuses instead on the love triangle between Sobran, Celeste and Aurora and on Sobran’s ambitions as a wine-maker. Gaylene Preston's defence of Caro has been to suggest that the bad reviews point to a local impatience with magical realism or the supernatural, as though New Zealanders are still hung up on their traditions of local realism. Whether or not that's true in general, it doesn’t apply in this case -- not least because the most disappointed critics (Larsen especially) seem very keen on the supernatural dimension.
In fact, Caro has opted for heavily localised realism herself and made a story so deliberately earth-bound – pagan in spirit more than Christian and certainly not post-Christian – that the angel can’t find any space in it. And when the angel has his wings removed in Caro’s version – which he asks Sobran to do, not Lucifer (who neither appears nor is referred to) – we have had none of the backstory about Xas’ transgression of heaven’s code that led to his injury and so we take it as a version of the angel’s wish to be mortal or human, familiar from stories like Wings of Desire. In other words, The Vintner’s Luck is a film by a writer/director with no obvious interest in the book’s theological dimension. You really have to wonder why she wanted to make it.

3. Bugs, buds, wine bores

Before we get to that, some more on the film. Caro is famous as a director of actors – she got good work out of the previously unknown Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider and a strong performance from Charlize Theron in North Country – and there are two fine performances in her Vintner’s Luck: Jeremie Renier (familiar to us from Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s The Child) as Sobran and American actress Vera Farmiga as Aurora. This partly platonic relationship between the ambitious young man and the wealthy, proto-feminist woman is clearly the only one of the book’s many relationships that Caro responded to -- I sensed it had some similarities with the relationship between Theron’s Josey Aimes and Woody Harrelson’s Bill White in North Country. Also, if you were scanning this French-set and largely French-crewed film for traces of that mysterious quality called New Zealandness, it might be this: an endorsement of Sobran’s ambition, that urge to remake himself and break out of the class he was born into. With the angel sidelined, that is what passes for a narrative arc.
But that grounded dullness is the opposite of Knox’s achievement in The Vintner’s Luck. In her essay “Antipodean Theologies: Elizabeth Knox’s The Vintner’s Luck”, Jane Stafford talks about Knox’s “unexpected leap of imagination and literary nerve”. It wasn’t just a leap for Knox’s own writing but for New Zealand fiction in general and it’s telling that Knox often seems to talk about the book as something that happened to her, that came into her life from out of the blue and changed it dramatically. It really did seem to be an event. It also became a key text in an argument that a new kind of writing was developing in New Zealand -- especially in Wellington, among writers connected to Victoria University -- one free of old constraints around subject matter, location and approach. Stafford’s essay appears in a recent book called Floating Worlds, which celebrates thistendency – its other famous exponent might be Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip, also an antipodean re-imagining of old-world culture, but in a more straight-forward way.
Much has been made – and little of it positive – of the film’s shooting style, which favours hand-held cameras and abrupt edits as though the makers of The Bourne Ultimatum had somehow got their hands on this footage. If you were generous, you might take it as reflecting a 21st century sensibility, comparable to Knox's post-Christianity. Well, perhaps. But it’s an aesthetic choice that fails the material, although the close-ups of bugs and leaves and buds – very sub-Malick circa The Thin Red Line – gives a sense of the teeming natural world as I think Knox has described it.
Caro’s visual approach affects the pace of the film in a negative way, especially its sense of time. That Malick style gives you a kind of timelessness, which connects to Malick's ideas about “paradise” and the pre-modern world in both The Thin Red Line and The New World, but he also knows how to incorporate a narrative that moves forward. The only sense that time is passing in The Vintner’s Luck is the sporadically convincing age make-up on Renier’s Sobran. Oddly, Castle-Hughes doesn’t get to age, meaning Celeste looks younger than her adult daughter by the end of the film. As an immortal being, Xas doesn’t age either – but I don’t think Caro is implying that Xas and Celeste are somehow interchangeable on a symbolic level.
Anyway, Castle-Hughes as Celeste is an incredibly poor choice. You can only assume that Caro cast her out of a sense of loyalty. She is expressionless throughout and her mad scene – playing with dolls on her dead child’s grave – is just laughable. Which only alerts you to the fact that another big plot point -- the death of Sobran and Celeste’s daughter Nicolette – is hopelessly fumbled. The murders disappear too along with the character of Leon, Sobran’s brother. We also lose the geographic scope that the angel brings to the story – in the book he is forever coming back from a world over that horizon. Not just heaven and hell, but Damascus, Palestine, South America, China, Australia and other places. It’s as though a new global sensibility is starting to break through into the world of a peasant who might once have never gone further than his valley – the rebel-angel as modernity (I've wondered why Knox has a quote from Lautreamont as the epigraph). But the most crucial and, for me, most disappointing change from book to film is the sense that this is no longer the angel’s story. Now he is just a winged being who – perplexingly – pops in for a chat about wine once a year. So there are endless straight-faced wine-bore lines about how this vintage tastes of sweat, cinnamon and cherries or charcoal, raspberry and desperation or chalk, gunpowder and anxiety. I made those examples up but the lines in the film are nearly as stupid.

4. Thomas Martin in the fields

A quick word on historical context. The 19th century background is the tension between superstition and secularism, apocalyptic irrationality against scientific rationalism:
Most textbooks agree that the 19th century was a heyday of secularism: science, technology, reform and education banished, or at least marginalised, superstition. But secularisation had its limits. What one calls superstition, another calls belief, and the marvels of modernity often served to spread and publicise marvels familiar from pre-modern days ... Like the Florentine revolution of the 15th century, the French Revolution of the 18th century had been an apocalyptic event. And Napoleon, an Antichrist to some, was a messiah figures for others. In this perspective, Waterloo looks like a hiccup in an ocean of expectations, some religious, some adapting the idiom of religion to more secular millenarianisms. Politics and faith interlaced, as the claims to the French throne of spurious but persistent claimants were asserted by a variety of prophets. In 1816, at Gallardon not far from Chartres, a peasant called Thomas Martin was visited in his field by a gentleman who turned out to be the archangel Raphael. Martin was to tell first Louis XVIII, then Charles X, that their brother's son still lived and, under the name of Naundorff, was the legitimate King of France. In the fraught early 1830s, when cholera and rebellion vied for the attention of troubled Frenchmen, Martin's obscure but apocalyptic prophecies were resurrected or invented to predict more plagues and calamities: "the time draws near ... gloom, evils ... day of execution ... scourges about to strike, the massacre will be general throughout France." -- Eugen Weber, from Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults and Millennial Beliefs Through the Ages, Pimlico, 1999.
5. Excuses
"Elizabeth gets away with so much that I can’t get away with because she’s a genius writer … Film-making is a more populist medium and I wanted to make the film a little more accessible. For me, it takes the strongest part of Elizabeth’s book, which was those characters, and it puts them in an environment that is easier for a film audience to enjoy …
I mean, I’m not a gay man so it wouldn’t be easy for me to direct the film in purely a homoerotic way, or appropriate … As far as the God thing goes, I can only direct films from what I know and I don’t subscribe to orthodox religion. So it was about [Sobran’s] spirit and his humanness. That’s expressed through his winemaking." – Niki Caro, interviewed in the Listener, September 19, 2009.
The hardest thing for fans of the book to understand about this film is the apparent cowardice of Niki Caro. Another part of the legend is that Caro loved the book so much she turned up on Knox’s doorstep with flowers and told her: I have to make this film. A touching scene, but what book did she love? Not The Vintner’s Luck everyone else read. It makes no sense that someone uninterested in “orthodox religion” and unable to direct films in “a homoerotic way” can have wanted to adapt a book in which both things are important?
As it become clear that bad reviews and word of mouth were going to sink the film, Knox did something unusual: she broke with the convention that says writers don’t criticise adaptations and told a newspaper reporter that she cried for three days after she saw The Vintner’s Luck. Everyone seemed to understand. She elaborated on radio, saying she was still puzzled and still waiting for an explanation from Caro. Why did the book she write change so significantly? Why was the key relationship missing?
It’s easy to develop a conspiracy theory. A film with gay themes is seen as not “accessible” (Caro’s word) to audiences, never mind Brokeback Mountain’s big success. Is it comparable to the way New Line watered down the more theologically abrasive parts of Philip Pullman’s Paradise Lost-inspired Golden Compass/Northern Lights? Is there a fear that gay angels won’t play in Peoria? Was there a funding body or producer urging Caro to drop some of this stuff? In the radio interview, Knox said she remembers seeing an earlier shooting script with more Xas in it. And what is the role of Joan Scheckel, an American script doctor who gets her first co-writing credit with The Vintner’s Luck?
Caro is not “a gay man” and can’t direct such scenes? Well, Knox is not a gay man either and she wrote them. Caro’s first two features were adaptations of stories by gay men: Peter Wells’ Of Memory and Desire and Witi Ihimaera’s The Whale Rider. Neither were gay-themed stories as such but both films spoke of Caro’s ability and willingness to step into another’s perspective: a Japanese widow in New Zealand and a Maori girl on the East Coast. When Whale Rider was released, Caro spoke about being granted permission to tell a story that was not hers, which makes it tough to buy the "I can only direct films from what I know" argument. Prior to those films, Caro displayed an obvious sensitivity towards marginalised figures in TV dramas and short films like The Summer the Queen Came, Plain Tastes and Sure to Rise, which is where many of us first encountered her. Her "gay man" lines must be an excuse to mask a more callous decision -- either a new-found cynicism about audiences and the industry or pressure from the people who write the cheques.
Update: A reader has alerted me to a RNZ item on The Vintner's Luck which ran on Arts on Sunday. Simon Morris' interview with Caro was recorded before Elizabeth Knox broke her silence; of relevance to the above is Caro's reiteration of "working within the Maori world" when she made Whale Rider. Of greater interest is an interview with Joan Scheckel recorded more recently. Questioned about the downplaying of the gay element, Scheckel says: "There are other sides that are attacking it for being gay porn" (if anyone sees reviews of that kind, let me know -- but I'd be surprised). Asked about whether there are limits to the changes a screenplay writer can or should make, she says: "I don't think anything is too much. I don't think we should put limits on ourselves when it comes to thought and creativity." But the real questions are whether the original material is well-served, in a thematic sense, by the film-maker's interpretations and whether the new story is at least as interesting as the old one. Whale Rider passed the test. Cronenberg's radical rewrites of Naked Lunch and Crash, ditto. But The Vintner's Luck fails on both counts. However, I still don't believe -- as Simon Morris implies -- that the book was unfilmable.
The RNZ feature should be
online for ten weeks from the original broadcast date, which was November 22.

November 26, 2009


And the best film of the decade is ... Mulholland Drive? Actually, they're probably right. Time Out New York assembled its 14 regular film critics and drew up a master list of the decade's 50 best films. I'd been planning a year-end best but a decade list? Hadn't occurred to me until now. But I'm pretty sure that all of Time Out New York's top five -- Mulholland Drive, There Will Be Blood, The New World, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and In the Mood for Love -- would make my top ten in some order or another. Also -- I'm impressed that Keith Unlich has made a case for two of the decade's most critically undervalued films: Michael Mann's Miami Vice and Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale (even if I'd put Mann's Collateral higher than Miami Vice). The parochialist in me notes (but doesn't mind) that there isn't a NZ film in it, not even a Lord of the Rings. Always had a feeling that their reputation -- and King Kong's -- would fade over time and that Heavenly Creatures will be the Jackson film we value.

November 20, 2009

This New Zealand custom

A typically superb post by Reading the Maps on Kiwi Gothic and "the Silent Land". The South Island is indeed another country; I used to be critical of Sam Neill's Cinema of Unease theory until I moved here and understood that it was a South Island idea that couldn't necessarily translate to the north. Films that have fit the canon since have been South Island-set: Brad McGann's adaptation of In My Father's Den, which relocated the action from Maurice Gee's West Auckland to Otago presumably because West Auckland is no longer rural, remote or spooky enough; Glenn Standring's Perfect Creature, vampire steampunk shot in the heritage districts of Dunedin and Oamaru; the careful adaptation of the Aramoana killings in Out of the Blue (pictured). But it would seem that the Waikato has some of this dark quality too, caught in Greg Page's The Locals, with its ghosts of colonialism.
I'm not sure I understood what Laurence Aberhart photos were about until I got here either: something to do with the persistence of the past into the present, the preservation of it, the inescapability of the early, founding histories of these town and cities. Anyway, a few months into my time here, I had a go at pinning this South Island Gothic down. To talk about the ways in which it become has a cliche and the ways in which the cliche might be useful. This is the bit about Cinema of Unease. The opening line about the killer's crib refers to the way that the endings of both Bad Blood and Out of the Blue -- the filmed stories of Stanley Graham and David Gray -- end with the killer's dwelling destroyed by fire (Lynley Hood: "I remember someone from overseas being horrified at this New Zealand custom. It's certainly got all sorts of mythological overtones. It implies the existence of evil in the place and a purification by fire.") Of course it had an update in Christchurch recently when someone tried to torch the so-called "House of Horrors" in Aranui.
The killer's crib burning into the night? That's South Island Gothic, an idea that was most famously taken for a spin in the Sam Neill and Judy Rymer documentary Cinema of Unease. That title has become a kind of shorthand now -- it says, all our films are dark and, therefore, so are we. It's not quite as simple as that. The reality is that cinema of unease is a South Island idea. The film was subtitled "A personal journey through New Zealand film" and the emphasis was on the word personal -- a lot of it had to do with Neill's complicated feelings about emigrating to Christchurch as a boy. The Neills sailed from Britain to this unknown spot on the map where they discovered that someone had built a simulation of an English provincial city on the Canterbury Plains.
But there was something not quite right about it. Something uneasy. So we have Neill interpreting Christchurch's Gothic revival architecture as "the buildings of exile". We have Neill feeling carsick on the Port Hills, intercut with scenes from Heavenly Creatures of the murderers Parker and Hulme swimming at Port Levy. We have Neill risking psychic contagion as he cycles past Sunnyside Hospital. We have Neill wondering if blood stays in the soil of Aramoana.
That was in 1995. About a decade later, Christchurch Art Gallery curator Felicity Milburn developed the idea and built an art show around it, named for Owen Marshall's short story Coming Home in the Dark. The opening lines of the associated text could have come from Neill's tele-prompter: "Lurking behind the South Island's legendary picture-postcard views and the stoic jaw of the Southern Man is a dark side -- a Gothic underbelly of paranoia, alienation and unease."

November 16, 2009

I'm Walken here

As Frank White in King of New York, Walken commits ultra-violent acts with incredible panache and style (as he does in all of his collaborations with director Abel Ferrara), such as when inviting the guys back to his hotel while shooting bullets into a corpse.
Andrew Paul Wood pays tribute to the greatness of Christopher Walken ("I can’t help it, I love Christopher Walken").

One thing to add. Years ago, there was a Walken profile in, I think, The Face. A source was talking about Walken's guest appearance on Saturday Night Live. As I remember the anecdote, Walken spent all day sitting with the writers, but not saying a thing, not laughing at their jokes. At the end of the day, he says: "You know what's funny? Bear suits are funny."

November 13, 2009

Influence is by no means simple/use your allusion

Literature has been in a plundered, fragmentary state for a long time. When I was thirteen I purchased an anthology of Beat writing. Immediately, and to my very great excitement, I discovered one William S Burroughs, author of something called Naked Lunch, excerpted there in all its coruscating brilliance. Burroughs was then as radical a literary man as the world had to offer. Nothing, in all my experience of literature since, has ever had as strong an effect on my sense of the sheer possibilities of writing. Later, attempting to understand this impact, I discovered that Burroughs had incorporated snippets of other writers' texts into his work, an action I knew my teachers would have called plagiarism. Some of these borrowings had been lifted from American science fiction of the Forties and Fifties, adding a secondary shock of recognition for me. By then I knew that this “cut-up method,” as Burroughs called it, was central to whatever he thought he was doing, and that he quite literally believed it to be akin to magic. When he wrote about his process, the hairs on my neck stood up, so palpable was the excitement. Burroughs was interrogating the universe with scissors and a paste pot, and the least imitative of authors was no plagiarist at all.
-- Jonathan Lethem, from "The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism"

This thing about Witi Ihimaera ripping people off is pretty funny. Apparently, he took some things other people had done, tweaked them a little, and placed them, unattributed, in his own work.
In art, we do this all the time. It's called appropriation. Some people think it's a postmodernist thing, but it's not. It has a long and illustrious history. I reckon the cave painters busily ripped each other off. However, the examples I'm going to use are a bit more recent than that – from the fifteenth century.
In fifteenth century Italy, it was not uncommon (to say the least) for different painters to paint the same subject. Nor was it uncommon for a painter to take some figures or a compositional device another painter had used when treating the same subject, tweak it, and use it in their own work. 
-- David Cauchi, from his blog.

It is interesting that, in an age of generally inert remakes and imitations, there is still such insistence on the Romantic concept of originality. In terms of the Hollywood cinema and its critical reception, the term has become thoroughly debased ... when De Palma works his variations of Psycho, this is imitation or plagiarism, whereas when Bob Fosse or Woody Allen imitates Fellini or Bergman, this is somehow, mysteriously, evidence of his originality. Debased or not, the cult of originality is of comparatively recent date.
-- Robin Wood, from Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan.

Other homages are mere illustrations of Paul Schrader's script. Hence, the references to Robert Bresson's work. Travis eats bread soaked in peach brandy, which is a perversion of Bresson's saintly priest in Le Journal d'un Curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, 1951) subsisting entirely on the Eucharist: bread soaked in wine. This is no doubt a comment on Travis who, Scorsese notes, sees himself as very spiritual, but is a “spirit on the wrong road”. Bresson's country priest ironically dies of stomach cancer and Bickle says in voice-over he suspects he has the disease. Schrader confirms that Travis' narration through voice-overs from his diary is borrowed from Pickpocket (Bresson, 1959), the title of which, like Taxi Driver, refers to a role and not a man. Also, Bresson's pickpocket, Michel (Martin La Salle), rehearses his crimes ritualistically. This is the direct inspiration for the deliberateness with which Travis prepares with his guns, in a sequence which was originally much longer. Finally, Schrader includes literary references to Thomas Wolfe's “God's Lonely Man” and Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, the titles of which are quoted by Bickle in his voice-over.
-- John Thurman, from "Citizen Bickle, or the Allusive Taxi Driver: Uses of Intertextuality".

October 23, 2009

Where rich people have chandeliers

Soap operas are a world where rich people always have chandeliers and hip people have striped hair and the language that they use doesn’t have any flexibility anymore.
Bronson Pinchot, interviewed in The Onion. In the same interview, this exchange:
Did you have a sense that even though Tom Cruise was boring and unpleasant, he would be exciting onscreen?
Oh, no. I thought the movie [Risky Business] would disappear. It just goes to show you, I obviously don’t have the antennae for that. I didn’t see it at all, but neither did any of the actors. All of the actors who talked about him were like, “What is this guy all about?” And you know, honestly, I never got it, and I don’t get it to this day. But it was his breakout film. He always talked about himself like he was a mega-superstar; that was weird, too.
In other Tom Cruise news, Christian Bale based his Patrick Bateman on the Cruise he saw interviewed on TV, according to American Psycho director Mary Harron. From Black Book:
We talked about how Martian-like Patrick Bateman was, how he was looking at the world like somebody from another planet, watching what people did and trying to work out the right way to behave. And then one day he called me and he had been watching Tom Cruise on David Letterman, and he just had this very intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes, and he was really taken with this energy.

October 12, 2009

Four from October, and 25 films you will never be able to enjoy again


Up (Pete Docter, 2009): The married-life montage is extraordinary -- and moving. Everything else in Pixar's Americanised Miyazaki outing is just -- no contradiction -- predictably spectacular.
Summer of Sam (Spike Lee, 1999): The Scorsese film Scorsese never made. Or Saturday Night Fever meets Seven in the imagination of Travis Bickle. But no amount of art-directed 70s sleaze and urban dread can ever be as pungent as the real thing.
Strayed (Andre Techine, 2003): Making the nature scene. A French idyll on the edge of WWII. Emmanuelle Beart you know about. Gaspard Ulliel? He looks like he walked out of a Pierre et Giles shoot. How apt that he's soon the gay angel in The Vintner's Luck (but just how gay and how much space he and his theology will get is a discussion that apprehensive Vintner's fans are having somewhere else).
Proof (John Madden, 2005): David Auburn's maths play about that slippery border between genius and insanity gets skilfully adapted by the author for John Madden -- but then, I've never read or seen the actual play, so who knows? Anyway, why do I feel like I've never seen a Gwyneth Paltrow performance as good as this before? And less is thankfully more for mad dad Anthony Hopkins. But can you buy Jake Gyllenhaal as a maths prodigy and rock drummer? Darko excepted, have you ever bought him as anything?

This is oldish -- from February 2009 -- but I only just came across it. The arch-conservative National Review has its list of 25 best conservative movies. You expected Red Dawn, Forrest Gump, maybe even Whit Stillman's Metropolitan ("He brings us to see what is admirable and necessary in the customs and conventions of America’s upper class"), the Christian allegories of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the enduring fantasy that Lord of the Rings is somehow prophetic of and applicable to America's mood post-9/11. You also expected that they would read The Dark Knight as an analogy of illegal tactics in the war on terror (but not as a critique of said tactics) and love every minute of United 93. Surprise entry: Team America: World Police, as "the film’s utter disgust with air-headed, left-wing celebrity activism remains unmatched in popular culture". Actually, no surprise -- this is the anti-Sean Penn and Tim Robbins list. I can put up with all that. But this is my question: now I know that it's about how "the fads of modernity are no substitute for the permanent things", will I ever be able to enjoy Groundhog Day again?
Actually, wrong philosophy. A couple of years back, I reviewed Groundhog Day like this:
An existential classic. In the late 19th century, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche proposed the doctrine of “eternal recurrence”: “The question in each and every thing, ‘Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?’ would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight.” In the late 20th century, that Nietzschean dilemma was illustrated with wit, panache and brilliance by the team of Bill Murray (star) and Harold Ramis (writer/director).

October 9, 2009

Mr Orange and moral conflict

Rewatching Reservoir Dogs this week, the first time in more than a decade, I was caught by a line from critic Amy Taubin on the commentary: Reservoir Dogs unfolds in the time it takes undercover cop Mr Orange (Tim Roth) to bleed to death. Drop the prologue, she says, and that's how it works. After the title sequence, he is seen squealing and bloody in the back of the car driven by Mr White (Harvey Keitel), then he's on the floor of the warehouse the gang is using as a rendezvous in a pool of blood that gets deeper and darker as the film goes on. The first time I saw this -- probably 1993, a film festival -- I was reminded of something by Beckett or Sartre's No Exit. These doomed guys, this one dingy location, black humour and obvious fatalism. That warehouse had the feeling of a stage set (actually, it's a morgue with plastic sheeting draped over coffins and hearses -- apt for a story where almost no one gets out alive). I didn't single out any one character as mattering more than any other: Mr Pink (Steve Buscemi) and Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen) are clearly secondary players to Orange and White but Buscemi's comic relief is so well done and Madsen's notorious ear-slicing bit so memorable that they would hold an equal position in your memory of the film. Blonde, Orange and White all get back stories; Pink gets none -- yet he's the one who lives. But Taubin's line suggests that this was never a story about gangsters; it was always a story about an undercover cop. In this reading, the most important scenes in the film are the long flashback in which Orange is coached by another cop in how to tell a story about a criminal situation; he's like an actor learning a part, which is doubly clever when you consider that the British Roth was training himself in an American accent at the same time. These criminals take on identities just as actors do; Roth's character just takes on more layers of identity than most. Identity is conveyed through storytelling and when the criminal Orange, in his back story, encounters cops in a hotel bathroom, we see that they're listening to a long crime anecdote as well. The DVD's deleted scenes give us more of this, more of Orange's back story, more of his preparation, more of the world outside the repurposed morgue -- had these scenes gone into the original film the balance would have been tipped and there would be no question that this was always a film about the moral conflicts and difficulties of the undercover world and the brutality and unscrupulousness of the criminals you encounter in it (the White we warm to in the film is revealed as close to psychopathic in the deleted scene called "background check"). By leaving these scenes out, and making the film less Mr Orange's story and more the story of the cold-blooded White/Pink/Blonde, Tarantino's position in relation to criminality and violence became more ambiguous. Either that or he didn't really know how to get the moral conflict across.

September 23, 2009

The old Bill

News has been getting around about this new William Burroughs doco, A Man Within. The trailer's been online for a few weeks. I have dim memories of a pretty good 1983 doco Burroughs that ran in the first year of Ant Timpson's Incredibly Strange Film Festival at the Capitol, Auckland, in 1994. That one tracked the biography; this, the first posthumous one, looks like it might track the influence. Thus, talking heads like Iggy Pop, John Waters, Laurie Anderson and Genesis P Orridge. Good news: no sign of Bono.

Based on this Chicago Reader feature, you could even consider this the revenge of James Grauerholz, Burroughs' literary executor, curator of the legend and the business manager who helped get Burroughs out of semi-obscurity in the 80s:
Grauerholz had been unhappy with a previous Burroughs documentary, Howard Brookner's 1983 Burroughs, in which he'd also played an active role. "I was surprised to see how my role in William's life had been handled in the final editing process," he says. "Basically, the BBC editors took a dislike to me. They . . . couldn't resist a 'controversial' angle on the Grauerholz guy. So they chopped together dozens of different speeches by me into a phony voice-over 'monologue' accompanying a montage of scenes of me and William working together, etc. If you listen on headphones you'll hear many, many audio splices. They made me look like a usurper and a smug, self-satisfied wise guy."
Grauerholz got [new doco director Yony] Leyser access to VHS footage of the Reunion and many of the local participants. The circle began to widen, encompassing Burroughs's friends and admirers on the coasts, and the scope of the film expanded as well ...

September 18, 2009

"When all my friends were alive"

1. In Melbourne last October it was Patti Smith week. Or maybe Patti Smith month. She was the big event at the Melbourne International Arts Festival, the keynote guest. She was everywhere, both rumoured and real. She was in the newspaper, making a sunglassed appearance like a cryptic Dylan, in a suburban bookshop. The Age headline: "Even without her guitar, she can still electrify." There were three photos with the story; she signed the armpit of someone's copy of Easter. She was appearing with Philip Glass in a tribute show to Allen Ginsberg and she was playing with her own band. A 16mm documentary about her screened, Dream of Life. Her photos were on show in a gallery; photos of her objects -- her boots, her guitar -- by someone else were on show somewhere else. Everything was about Patti Smith. I walked into a bookshop on Brunswick St and they were playing her covers album Twelve.
It was nearly a year ago but doesn't feel like that long. The hot, dry city. The festival crowds. My notes coming out of that art gallery: "Small, silvery pictures. Her bohemia claimed as Melburnian. Not rock 'n' roll lifestyle shots. Ruins, statues, goats." The place was packed with the curious. Pictures of Shelley's grave, and so on. The river Virginia Woolf drowned in (the picture above, The River Ouse). Old world, Burroughsian deserts and graves, sacred or charged objects. Relics. They played the Coral Sea album upstairs, from her book inspired by Robert Mapplethorpe with guitar-shredding supplied by Kevin Shields. A letter to the long-dead Mapplethorpe -- was this in a photo, was it separate text, a line on the album? Not sure now -- "I imagine you sleeping as I write. As you did when we were young."
The other story in the news all week was about a murdered Australian girl in Croatia. Cut into pieces and dumped in a lake. She was Britt Lapthorne, 21. Her mother on television: "We're just broken people."
On Saturday night, the concert. Five of us from New Zealand getting in for free. Great seats, no support act. My notes again: "Smith: We shall live again. George Harrison, Kurt Cobain, Hendrix. Refers to Tom Verlaine, Jerry Garcia. Living connection to bohemia. Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso. Older, adulatory crowd. A twenty-something waitress in the restaurant beforehand says Who is Patti Smith? Ask your dad. Patti Smith started beatific, turned easily fierce."
Can't remember now what the Jerry Garcia thing was, but Tom Verlaine -- she said she'd just been talking to him on the phone. We weren't sure whether to believe her.
The film screenings had sold out. We wouldn't be here long enough to see the show with Philip Glass. But we saw the concert, the centre of all this revolving Patti Smith activity. She turned up after a film screening, the Age said, at a Q and A session and played some songs then too. She seemed to be everywhere, unable to stop appearing in public.

2. Back home, in the travel section of the paper, I wrote it up like this:
"The singer from the '70s?" says a cab driver back in Christchurch. But at least he'd heard of her. The 20-something waitress at Cookie, a sensationally good Thai-inspired restaurant on Melbourne's Swanston Street, draws a blank. "Ask your dad," one of us ungallantly replies.
Anyway, Smith is more than just some singer from the '70s. She was the first person to successfully fuse poetry and rock music. These days, she's also an art photographer -- her small, silvery black-and-white photos of subjects as varied as the river that Virginia Woolf drowned in and slippers that once belonged to Robert Mapplethorpe were in a busy gallery on Flinders Lane. And she was the subject of Dream of Life, a documentary that ran at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image on Federation Square.
In Melbourne, she plays two nights with her band. We catch one and see that, even at 61, she can shift easily from beatific Buddhist poet to someone furiously punk-inspired. Then she does a night with American composer Philip Glass in a tribute to Allen Ginsberg, which is a reminder of why you want Smith at your festival: she's a bridge between an older literary world and broader popular culture. She can cover a song by Kurt Cobain and then explain why Rimbaud or Genet mattered. Which means that she's a perfect symbol for a city like Melbourne, which so clearly values its bohemian flavour and lively artistic community.
She's everywhere in Melbourne this particular week. You go out to Readings Books in Carlton and she's there with sunglasses and smirk, trading quips with a crowd. You go out to the Centre for Contemporary Photography in Fitzroy and there are large colour pictures of objects from Smith's past taken by the guy who made Dream of Life; photos of the urn that holds Mapplethorpe's ashes, of her boots, her guitar.
They look like nothing so much as the relics of a saint.
3. Nearly a year later, I finally watch this movie, Dream of Life. It's experimental, patient, disorganised. It took Steven Sebring 11 years to make it; he was filming as far back as the tour she did with Dylan in New Zealand and Australia, 1998. He doesn't call it a documentary but a visual portrait. So no rock critic talking heads saying why this album matters or that album, but we still get Bono (briefly) who seems unable to stop himself appearing in other people's documentaries.
Smith gets her biography out of the way first. Births and deaths, especially the deaths. Robert Mapplethorpe, Fred "Sonic" Smith, her brother Todd. We keep getting this: the survivor, the one who gets to remember, the official mourner. And a walking curator of bohemian history, sometimes not much more than the sum of who she reads and listens to, or maybe that's all she chooses to show you (meaning she learnt more from Dylan than how not to hail a taxicab). You start to think she is never going to give you anything without the mythology and then she takes you/Sebring to her parents' house and they have burgers. She's like a kid again; she's stayed a fan her whole life -- is that who she is? In the DVD extras her mother says her favourite Patti Smith song is "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger".
Ginsberg said to her, after her husband died: "Let go of the spirit of the departed/and continue your life's celebration." There's a lot of death in this and a lot of overcoming. Not always celebration. She cries on stage reading Ginsberg's Buddhist poem "On Cremation of Chogyam Trungpa, Vidyadhara" with Philip Glass, and the lessons taught to Ginsberg become lessons taught to Smith. You can get a sense that it's taken you a while to get to these unguarded moments, or taken Sebring a while. Even taken her a while. Periods of life, periods of extinction: the 1970s were "a time when all my friends were alive." Great line. Call her tough, vulnerable, enduring; the constant grave visitor, the book-carrier, the student.

4. This is Tony Triglio on that Ginsberg poem, from his book Allen Ginsberg's Buddhist Poetics: "Where the goal of a traditional western elegy is consolation through language that reaffirms metaphysical authority, consolation in this Buddhist elegy might be best expressed as a representation of the mind in an intensified condition of awareness, proof in the poem that the guru's lessons on meditation and perception have been put into practice after his/her death."

September 9, 2009

Alien nation

The continual presence of the ship forces one more question. Who is it who arrived, uninvited, in South Africa? Who is it who came one day in a ship, and stayed, and did not leave? In Johannesburg: who are the aliens?
An excellent piece from a South African writer on the year's other most discussed movie: District 9. While those who lived through Apartheid in South Africa will surely have picked up nuances in the film that escape those who did not, as du Toit suggests, New Zealand viewers are in an unusual position. The film's New Zealand executive producers -- Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh -- are both old enough to have been aware of, and surely sympathetic to, the anti-Apartheid movement of the 1970s and 80s, whose largest and most visible event was of course the nationwide protests against the 1981 Springbok tour. That was an identification with an international cause that hasn't been matched since in New Zealand politics (and probably has no precedent, either). I'd be very surprised if Walsh -- then active in post-punk groups like Naked Spots Dance and a Victoria University English Lit student -- wasn't one of those who marched in Wellington in 1981 or was close to those who did. And apparently it was Walsh who first suggested to South African film-maker Neill Blomkamp that he expand his short Alive in Joburg into a feature. New Zealanders helped put Apartheid on the international stage nearly 30 years ago; it's an impressive irony that we've just done it again.

September 7, 2009

Hunter, manhunter, hubris

1. Have you ever wondered about that song from Night of the Hunter, "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms"? Gordon Campbell's Werewolf has a good piece on it this month, written from inside the song's tent-revival world -- or, rather, from someone who knew that world and whose exposure to the use of this song in this movie was one step along the road towards leaving it. The idea: Mitchum's use of the song is a stance as provocative as Sid Vicious singing "My Way"; the story of the film is the dangers children face in a dark and threatening world -- now even the protection the song talked of has gone.

2. Michael Mann's Public Enemies. Johnny Depp is good and Christian Bale is even better. As in Mann's big-screen Miami Vice, American pulp becomes high art through the tricks of Mann's method -- restrained and sombre performances, unexpected close-ups and odd angles, the chaotic editing of sudden gun violence, some arrestingly beautiful images (a shoot-out in an apple orchard, a window in an apartment filled with a moving train, Dillinger alone in the Chicago police station) -- while the use of digital video gives us the illusion of clarity. But in fact these characters are always inscrutable.

3. Things they might wish they had never said: the Quentin Tarantino edition. Here is Tarantino ("Mr Blood Red"), in an interview by Ella Taylor, LA Weekly, 1992.
Tarantino brims over with ideas for future movies, including love stories and musicals. He has no doubt that he can continue to make the movies he wants within the studio system. “I’m not coming from the attitude that I want to run as far away from the studios as I can, or the attitude that I want to run up to the studios as much as I can, because there’s danger in both. You don’t watch out and next minute you’re Richard Donner. At the same time, if all you do is these little art films for 10 years for a million or two dollars, you’re going to climb up your own ass. When was the last time Nicolas Roeg did a good movie? I’m not ragging on other people, but after I saw Twin Peaks — Fire Walk With Me at Cannes, David Lynch has disappeared so far up his own ass that I have no desire to see another David Lynch movie until I hear something different. And you know, I loved him. I loved him. I think Gus Van Sant, after My Own Private Idaho, has become a parody of himself. A lot of these guys, they’ve become known for their quirky personality, and when they can do whatever they want, they showcase their quirky personality.”

September 4, 2009

Tarantino problems

Jonathan Rosenbaum, from his blog:
Since many people have been asking me to elaborate on why I think Inglourious Basterds is akin to Holocaust denial, I’ll try to explain what I mean as succinctly as possible, by paraphrasing Roland Barthes: anything that makes Fascism unreal is wrong. (He was speaking about Pasolini ’s Salo, but I think one can also say that anything that makes Nazism unreal is wrong.) For me, Inglourious Basterds makes the Holocaust harder, not easier to grasp as a historical reality. Insofar as it becomes a movie convention — by which I mean a reality derived only from other movies — it loses its historical reality.
Ed Holland in The Conversations: Quentin Tarantino (Part 2), at The House Next Door:
[Hans] Landa's tone is so reasonable, his point-to-point argumentation so strictly logical, that by the time he's come to his conclusion we actually understand why he considers the Jews to be vermin. It's disturbing, and Landa's offhand equation of Jews and rats earns the same nervous gasps that a Nazi major later gets by suggesting the unexpected resonances between African slaves and King Kong. But we get what he's saying, and we sense that the farmer perhaps grudgingly understands as well: as even he has to admit, he'd never greet a rat with a saucer of milk, and no amount of logic about the similarities between rats and the more respected squirrels will convince him otherwise ... It's a horrifying scene because it presents Landa as such a logical monster and, as Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) will later say about his protégé Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a "strangely persuasive monster."
Jason Bellamy in The Conversations: Quentin Tarantino (Part 2):
Tarantino's Nazis are something that Nazis are almost never allowed to be in American movies: intelligent. Landa is an opportunistic devil without a conscience, to be sure, but will we see a smarter character this year? I doubt it. Fucker is almost clairvoyant, and beyond that he's ballsy ... Then there's Major Dieter Hellstrom (August Diehl) who displays his intelligence three ways ... Also not to be overlooked is Fredrick Zoller, who isn't the mindless killing machine his war heroics have us conditioned to believe he must be.
Ed Holland in The Conversations: Quentin Tarantino (Part 2):
The Nazi officer who's killed in the film's second chapter says that he won a medal for bravery, while the Bear Jew asks him if he got it for "killing Jews," an attempt to simplify this guy before beating him to death ... This is even truer in the scene with Wilhelm (Alexander Fehling), the new father out celebrating his baby's birth. His showdown with Aldo over the tradeoff of the actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) is heartbreaking ... It's an odd scene, one where the Nazi suddenly becomes the sympathetic protagonist, the guy we're rooting for.
Funny -- I never thought the Nazis were sympathetic protagonists worth rooting for, that they had their exploits simplified unfairly (and what could "bravery" mean in this context?), or saw Landa's reasoning in that speech about rats to be "logical". For the record, then, both Bellamy and Holland liked Inglourious Basterds. Rosenbaum disliked it. I think the problem with Inglourious Basterds -- the moral problem, not its failure as entertainment (the film's excruciating third and fourth chapters, its Naked Gun-like trivialising of figures like Hitler and Goebbels, its glib use of WWII as material for self-infatuated meta-comment about cinema, to give three examples of that) -- is that Tarantino is unable to write villains who are not also fascinating, entertaining, cool. That wasn't a problem before. Every character in Reservoir Dogs was a villain -- or, in one case, an undercover cop posing as a villain -- but they were derived from movie villains and had a clear unreality. Ditto Travolta's, Jackson's and Rhames's characters in Pulp Fiction. In both films, a criminal world was humanised and made entertaining. I suspect he has always found the humanised and complex killer more interesting than the victim. But the problem is that the Nazis are a different order of movie villain.

This is Tarantino talking about Hans Landa in the September 2009 Sight and Sound:
He sets himself up as such a great detective that you don't want him to disappoint you. You want him to be as good as you think he is.
You heard that right. "You" -- we, the audience -- want to watch a Nazi who's so good at sniffing out Jews that he's earned the nickname "Jew hunter" succeed.

Rosenbaum also dug out this illuminating quote -- Tarantino on the relationship between historical trauma and cinematic spectacle, from a Rolling Stone interview:

Q: Has 9/11 or the war on terror had any impact on you personally or creatively?
A: 9/11 didn’t affect me, because there’s, like, a Hong Kong movie that came out called Purple Storm and it’s fantastic, a great action movie. And they work in a whole big thing in the plot that they blow up a giant skyscraper. It was done before 9/11, but the shot almost is a semiduplicate shot of 9/11. I actually enjoyed inviting people over to watch the movie and not telling them about it. I shocked the shit out of them … I was almost thrilled by that naughty aspect of it. It made it all the more exciting.

August 25, 2009

Five from August

The Baader Meinhof Complex (Uli Edel, 2008): The self-styled Red Army Faktion, or Baader Meinhof Gang, always make me think of that Godard line: "The children of Marx and Coca-Cola." Is that why Moritz Bleibtreu as Baader seems to be channelling Belmondo here and why Edel ramps up the daredevil sex appeal, with the West German terrorist group presented as the loutish Bonnie and Clydes of left-wing radicalism? The set pieces -- assassinations, protests, bombings -- are as boldly and excitingly staged by Edel as they were by the actual RAF/BMG itself but I suspect the film has bitten off more than it can chew. There's a lot to get through and a blow-by-blow, page-by-page rendering of journalist Stefan Aust's rigorous and clear-headed account might not have been the way to do it. A better movie might have given us the story of Gudrun Ensslin or Ulrike Meinhof as a through-line, or stuck to 1977's "German Autumn" which is a rushed climax here; as it stands, this version is so jammed that I'm not surprised it's struck some as incoherent. But the key problem is this: it lacks its own point of view. Meaning that Aust's journalistic balance and clarity -- good qualities on the page -- becomes a kind of remote, dispassionate fairness. Really, it made me want to see some of the German films that were made closer to the period and were struggling in a more heated way with the group's politics, morality and meaning: Fassbinder's The Third Generation (1979), the multi-director film Germany in Autumn (1978) and Margarethe von Trotta's Marianne and Juliane (1981), which fictionalises the Ensslin story.

Broken Embraces (Pedro Almodovar, 2009): Every single one of the approximately 12 billion discussions about Quentin Tarantino that have broken out since Inglourious Basterds opened hangs on this point: can a film-brat who makes films about films ever manage to incorporate emotion that feels real, that suggests a life spent on the same planet as the rest of us? But since 1997's Live Flesh -- at least -- Almodovar has been doing exactly that: mining and restaging the artificiality of film noir and melodrama, and stressing the falseness of film time (he's become the master of the long flashback), while also giving us genuinely affecting human stories. Broken Embraces isn't the boldest or most complex of his mature run -- see Talk to Her, All About My Mother or Bad Education -- but it could shine a light on the real problem with Tarantino since Jackie Brown. He might be writing interesting dialogue but he isn't creating interesting characters or working with strong enough actors. Where in Kill Bill, Basterds or Death Proof are performances to match those of Buscemi, Keitel, Travolta, Roth, Willis or Jackson in the first two Tarantino films? Or characters like Penelope Cruz's Lena, Luis Homar's Harry Caine or Jose Luis Gomez's Ernesto Martel here?

Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog, 2007): Herzog in Antarctica, musing on insanity in penguins and looking for eccentricity in humans. This is minor Herzog, running like a companion film to the more imaginative but less successful Wild Blue Yonder, not just in its use of under-the-ice footage -- which doesn't look quite as otherworldly as Herzog thinks it does -- but in its thoughts about what this planet will look like when we're gone. You can sometimes get the feeling that he might even be looking forward to it -- it's something he's rehearsed for since Fata Morgana and Lessons of Darkness.

District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009): The easy thing to say is: The Office meets Robocop meets Cronenberg's The Fly meets Starship Troopers. Just as Verhoeven in Robocop and Troopers filtered his satire through the glossy entertainment conventions of the 80s and 90s -- advertising soundbites, showbiz news shows -- South Africa's Neill Blomkamp blends reality television and corporate video with war-on-terror and surveillance footage while treading surprisingly lightly around the obvious "issues" his alien-camp storyline raises: racial segregation, refugee hopes and fears, the outsourcing of war and security. But to what degree was sponsor and patron Peter Jackson -- whose backing got this very enjoyable film the support and media attention it needed -- reminded of his own aliens-on-earth low-budget action-comedy Bad Taste? In both cases, alien landings don't happen where they "should" -- New York, Washington DC -- which could be taken as a metaphor for making movies in Wellington or Johannesburg rather than Los Angeles. I'm also tempted to say that this film might say more "about" post-Apartheid South Africa than Steve Jacobs' carefully faithful Coetzee adaptation Disgrace.

It Might Get Loud (Davis Guggenheim, 2009): The axemen cometh. Or, three guitarists get together for a gear-nerd and collector-geek convention. Best moment: a view of the once-privacy obsessed Jimmy Page's record room as a grinning Page plays air guitar to his 7" of Link Wray's "Rumble". The mood is convivial, respectful, gentlemanly, so Guggenheim didn't dare explore the idea that Page's blues riffage and long solos was exactly the kind of stuff that The Edge's minimalist style -- which owes a big debt (sadly unacknowledged here) to PiL's Keith Levene -- originally defined itself against. No one wanted to re-start the punk wars on a LA soundstage in 2008. Especially as Jack White was probably on Page's side.

August 20, 2009

Death posture: David Peace and Joy Division

Now three-fourths of the way through David Peace's Red Riding quartet, which means I've just done Nineteen Eighty. I came to this via various pieces of writing by K-punk, especially this one, and have been especially interested in the way that Peace translates the jittery-creepy-paranoid mood of post-punk groups like Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire -- eerie synths and muffled vocals -- into the wider, dark, rain-drenched and arguably evil atmosphere of West Yorkshire in the years of the Yorkshire Ripper. Or takes the music as expressive of what the times felt like, his boyhood memory of it (in a similar way, the frustratingly open-ended mystery of the serial killer in David Fincher's Zodiac surely reflects the helplessness Fincher felt as a kid living through those years in the Bay Area). Clues are scattered through Ninety Eighty, particularly in relation to TG: a section titled "Nothing short of a total war", a birthdate given as 6/6/60, the police-state slogan "Assume this phone is tapped", snatches of lyrics ("this is the world now", "blood on the floor") becoming incantatory phrases in Peace's prose. (Another song from the time -- "We Are All Prostitutes" by The Pop Group -- is used as a section title, apt in relation to the Ripper's crimes and Peace's radical and unusually sympathetic identification with the victims, and his sense of police corruption as so all-encompassing, so total, that everyone else in the story lives beneath or is trapped within the world it creates.) I was also struck by the way that Peace occasionally breaks the spell of this netherworld and reminds us of what official popular culture was really like in the late 70s, its ugly surfaces: Starsky and Hutch and Morecambe and Wise on television, Hot Chocolate and Wings in the pop charts, the assassination of John Lennon as a talking point. The strange boredom and brutality of the period, the sense of things coming to an end or not able to go on as they were. Of course, the suggestive mood of records like Heathen Earth and The Voice of America. So I was suitably briefed about some of those appropriations, but I was completely unprepared for and floored by this one: the Christmas Eve suicide of a woman named Libby Hall, the widow of a murdered, corrupt cop, borrows directly from the suicide of Ian Curtis, which would have happened about six months earlier. Her son discovers the body.
"I saw her out of the corner of my eye, through there in the kitchen. She was kneeling and I thought, 'Now what you up to?' I went over to her, about to say something. Her head was bowed, her hands on top of the washing machine. I just stared at her, she was so still. Then I saw the rope, I hadn't noticed it. The rope from the clothes rack was around her neck. I ran through into the hall and picked up the phone but then I went back into the kitchen because I wasn't sure."
That resigned glance up at the clothes rack that Anton Corbijn "immortalised" in Control. I think it was even in the trailer ...

August 18, 2009

Bowie, Jarman and Neutron

ONE: The fantastic version:
There’s another anecdote about the Star’s fear of other people magickally using things he touched, coming from a more serious source, and directly this time. In 1983 and 1984, the late Derek Jarman wanted to do a film called Neutron. Prospects looked good financially, as he had lined up an impressive cast-list and who else than David Bowie wanted to play the lead. The two had a meeting in Jarman’s apartment and everything seemed hunky-dory. But then Bowie suddenly started chain-smoking and Jarman noticed that his guest was getting more and more nervous and was shooting furtive glances at one of his bookshelves, plus some drawings on the wall. Then suddenly, in the middle of a conversation, Bowie stood up, made a lame excuse, and left. Twenty minutes later Bowie’s driver and bodyguard came back to the flat and said that the master had forgotten something and then proceeded to remove the cigarette stubs from the trash ... Needless to say, Bowie backed out of the project, which then collapsed. Jarman never did have the time to explain that his John Dee books and the Enochian squares on the wall were souvenirs from the time when he made Jubilee, a film in which Dr. John Dee (1527-1608), Elizabeth the First’s astrologer, had been one of the main characters. Dee’s “Enochian” system of magic, with its complex magical diagrams, was an important part of the Golden Dawn and also of Aleister Crowley’s teachings. Angels had communicated their knowledge to Dee in a strange language, Enochian, referring to Enoch of the Old Testament, who spoke with God. Here is one of Crowley’s “secret teachings”: “All bodily excrements, such as cut nails and hair, should be burnt; spittle should be destroyed or exposed to the Sun; the urine and faeces should be so disposed of so that it is unlikely that any other person should obtain possession of them.” Yet still, in March 1987, Bowie was insisting: “I never was in the occult”... but for years he sang about the “Jean Genie” who “keeps all your dead hair for making up underwear.”
-- From "The Laughing Gnostic: David Bowie and the Occult", by Peter-R. Koenig, Ultraculture Journal One, 2007.

TWO: The prosaic version:
Robert Phoenix: While we're on the subject of film, weren't you going to do a film with Derek Jarman called Neutron?
David Bowie: Neutron, yes, absolutely. I still have the script and Derek's drawings. It's so sad that things get left behind. I tend to want to do too much. I want to approach his family at some time to see if we could do something with it. I have his script and his drawings. I even know down to the music how he wanted to have things done. And it would be lovely posthumously to do his piece. It would be fabulous. A wonderful script -- very scary piece of work. How did you know that anyway? Very few people know that.
Phoenix: Well there's another part of the story I want to ask you about. The guy that I heard it from said that you had left a pack of Marlboros at Jarman's and that word had gotten back to you about your cigarettes being there and you stopped the project because you thought Jarman was practicing sympathetic magic on you.
Bowie: No, absolutely not!
Phoenix: Urban legend?
Bowie: God yeah. I would've given my arm to work with Jarman. My remembrance of the thing was that, as usual, he couldn't get the funds to actually make the movie. It had some quite spectacular scenes in it. It did require proper sets. There weren't existing properties around London. He went back to his set designing ideas for it and came up with these amazing Neo-Fascistic buildings for it. I don't think that anybody was willing to put up the bread for it.
-- Robert Phoenix interviews David Bowie, 1999, at Getting It.

THREE: Neutron:
In Kicking the Pricks, Jarman said that Neutron was based on Carl Jung's Aion, "researches into the phenomenology of the self, the self measured in the life of Christ". It has also been described as "a trailer for the end of the world", post-nuclear sci-fi allegory, a Blakean mirror film to the earlier Jubilee. One story had Malcolm McDowell attached but Bowie seemed more definite.
Jarman tried to get the film made in the early 80s (one website calls it "an unrealised project from 1981-83"), when apocalypticism seemed to be in the air, the constant and dominant subject. Pages from Revelation set the agenda: "You are the first and last, over and out." While unmade, much of its apocalyptic atmosphere is preserved in Jarman's 1987 allegorical masterpiece The Last of England.