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.

August 12, 2009

Butlins was a gas


My experience of watching Jonathan Caouette's All Tomorrow's Parties concert film wasn't too different from that of Brannavan Gnanalingam here at Lumiere: not enough bands, too many fans, and too much cheerful-ironic Hi De Hi-era footage (it helps to know that the ATP festivals take over British holiday camps during the off season). It seemed like the attention-deficit editing of found and messed-up film that worked so nicely for Caouette in the mind-bending Tarnation was just getting in the way here. I agree that only showing us a few seconds of a Slint comeback set seemed criminal, and there wasn't much more of Shellac and Mogwai, and those acts that did get to run longer showed us the film that could have been: Grinderman, Portishead, the Gossip, Battles, Belle and Sebastian. But as Caouette's aim surely wasn't to disappoint, maybe there's something else going on here. The camera captures Thurston Moore in a rant about decorporatising music, deprivileging the record companies, returning the power to fans, dismantling those barriers. Your basic punk rock ideology, in other words. Caouette drops the audio of the rant into the film at least one more time. He also gets a few historic grabs of Patti Smith and Iggy Pop saying the same kinds of thing -- rock, the kids, the record companies -- as disembodied visionaries speaking within the ATP festival's in-room TV loop. Both appear 30 years later on the ATP stage, but their old ideas are way ahead of them. Caouette's vision of a festival, built out of the mountains of footage handed to him, is a kind of punk-inspired utopia: the fans matter as much as the bands and music can break out spontaneously anywhere; it doesn't have to be managed, distributed or packaged. Micah P Hanson could play on the lawn, or Daniel Johnson. In that sense, the key ATP performance in the film is probably the blistering one by Lightning Bolt, playing outside during the day, surrounded by a small group of fans with one mad, sweaty guy getting right up in their faces.

August 11, 2009

What films do


It was in Tarkovsky’s Stalker that I saw an image from a dream that has visited me all my life, made real. Does a thing have to be shared to be made real? A bird, flying towards the camera, dips its wing into the sand that fills a room. Did I imagine this? I haven’t seen the film for years. Can somebody tell me? Was I dreaming even then, in the Cambridge Art Cinema in 1981? Or might there be the possibility of a shared dream, a shared unconscious after all? This was before I had ever made a film, ever met a filmmaker, ever half-willingly stood in front of a camera. --
Tilda Swinton, from her second State of Cinema address, 2006.
Tilda Swinton also uses that story of the bird dipping its wings into sand during her brief but very memorable appearance in Jim Jarmusch's new, mesmerising The Limits of Control although without any connection to Stalker. The dialogue in her cameo is about what films do; her character is billed as the Blonde and it's a film situation, meeting a contact at a cafe, swapping some information and some abrupt dialogue and then disappearing. So she talks about Hitchcock's Suspicion and then neither says anything and then she says, "Sometimes I like it in films when people just sit there not saying anything".

The Limits of Control is a film about what films do, pitched like a shared dream. "Part of me wanted to make an action film with no action in it, whatever the hell that means," Jarmusch says in this essential interview in Film Comment. It's an enigmatic thriller where nothing really feels at stake and everyone is reduced to their archetypal essence: the Lone Man, the Blonde, the American, the Driver, and so on. No other names. It has a calm sense of drift, contemplation; it's as metaphysical as Dead Man but without the abiding sense of doom. The Lone Man is on a mission in Spain, first Madrid, then Seville, then somewhere more remote. He has to bust into an apparently impenetrable building. In the next scene, he is seen inside a locked room. "I used my imagination."

A dry, self-reflexive joke again. Jarmusch also used his imagination to get out of a tight spot, working up a slight screenplay based mostly around repeated phrases and brief encounters, punctuated by beautiful shots of urban Madrid and rural Spain and set to a psychedelic guitar soundtrack by Boris that is sure to remind Jarmusch fans of Neil Young's great soundtrack to Dead Man, this film's closest relative in the Jarmusch back-list (especially when the soundtrack flicks from Boris to a track by labelmates Earth from Hex, an album inspired by the Dead Man soundtrack -- a detail Jarmusch must be aware of). The cool humour of Jarmusch films is often about that link to other films in the Jarmusch universe, which is getting more refined and minimalist with each decade, as well as the cultural reference points that cluster outside it. Surely the two espressos that the Lone Man orders have something to do with the doubling that Jonathan Rosenbaum saw in Coffee and Cigarettes? The views of Spain from the windows of cars and trains can run like the opening sequence of Dead Man, that trip from civilisation to the wilderness. It seems apt that just as the gloomy Broken Flowers was dedicated to Jean Eustache, this honours Point Blank (via the name of Jarmusch's one-off production company). We know that the "very fine Finnish film" that John Hurt's character refers to in his short rant about bohemians is La Vie de Boheme by Aki Kaurismaki, who Jarmusch paid tribute to in the Finnish segment of Night on Earth. And there is a world of speculation in that title, The Limits of Control. Jarmusch took it from Burroughs and it gave him the "nothing is true, everything is possible" ideas that are part of the strange briefing the Lone Man gets at the start of his mission and sets the wider philosophical mood. But it might also be about Bill Murray's American, a character said to be modelled on Dick Cheney. Or it could be about Jarmusch's method, working in a way that is less prepared and less conscious. From that Film Comment interview:
I was just thinking the other night that in a way, for me, the poet Neruda is a huge inspiration. All those beautiful odes to mundane objects. I kind of wanted to just build that kind of sense of perception of things through this character and how he sees the world. But he’s on a mission, and that’s another element—I’ve always liked this kind of game structure in things. The title comes from an essay by William Burroughs. And Burroughs, his use of cut-ups, and re-arranging found things, was very interesting to me in the same way that Burroughs was very interested in the I-Ching as a motivator. Or Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategy cards. Or the French poets… Queneau made this book, Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, that has little strips you can move around. All of these things were inspiring, I didn’t realize until we were editing the film that I was using Oblique Strategies all along the way. I was weaving things, in a way.
... I’m always very open while filming, for example I haven’t used a shot list in my last six films, and I’ve always been very open to things I can’t control, like, Oh, it’s raining but this scene’s not in the rain; well maybe this scene’s better in the rain! So I’ve used those things throughout my work. In recognizing what you can’t control you have to decide, is the thing going to make the film better, even though you didn’t expect it? So I try to incorporate that.

August 5, 2009

It takes a lot to laugh ...

More from the dream double bills/parallel-world sequels: Rouge's Foam on whether The Dark Knight was a sequel to I'm Not There. (Hat tip: Zone Styx Travelcard)