November 29, 2010

Antonioni on Corbijn

“A man who renounces something is also a man who believes in something.”
“What I reject is this refusal to let silence have its place, this need to fill supposed voids.”
“A film you can explain in words is not a real film.”
“My contribution to the formation of a new cinematic language is a matter that concerns critics. And not even today’s critics, but rather those of tomorrow, if film endures as an art and if my films resist the ravages of time.”
“After you’ve learned two or three basic rules of cinema grammar, you can do what you like – including breaking those rules.”
“You know what I would like to do: make a film of actors standing in front of empty space so that the spectator would have to imagine the background of the characters … I want them to be so powerfully realised that we cannot imagine them apart from their physical and social context even when we see them in empty space.”
“I’m an admirer of technology … If we pull a man apart, he is revolting; do the same thing to a computer and it remains beautiful.”
“I think people talk too much; that’s the truth of the matter. I do. I don’t believe in words. People use too many words and usually wrongly.”
“A director is in some ways a man of action even if this action is intellectual.”
“Pretending to be objective, you annul yourself.”
“Perhaps changing one’s identity one commits an error, one succumbs to life, one dies, in essence.”
“If life were not ambiguous, if everything in life were unmysterious and fully explained, we would all be miserable to the point of wanting to die.”
“I find that Americans … take films too literally. They are forever trying to puzzle out ‘the story’ and to find hidden meanings where there are perhaps none. For them, a film must be entirely rational, without unexplained mysteries.”

The stills are from The American, directed by Anton Corbijn. The quotes are from interviews with Michelangelo Antonioni, between 1960 and 1978 (collected in Michelangelo Antonioni Interviews, edited by Bert Cardullo, University Press of Mississippi, 2008). The quotes have some relationship to what photographer-turned-director Corbijn is up to in The American and why some American audiences – primed for a George Clooney action movie – reportedly hated it. As a slow, minimalist and self-consciously mysterious Euro-thriller, the other comparison to make is with Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control (famously, “an action film with no action in it”), but that was funnier, more eccentric; The American is smoother, neater, almost a too-perfect simulation of the kind of movie it advertises itself as wanting to be (although a real 70s Euro-thriller would have more train scenes …) and as nothing about Corbijn’s other film, Control, suggested this one, you probably have to see as an exercise in adopted style rather than authorial personality. But his trick, which he accomplishes with real skill, is to never let us know how much his characters know – not even his star. You can see it in the scene in which Clooney is being followed through town by one of the Swedes – other films would signal that he knows he is being followed before he responds, but our hero just responds. Action as essence.

November 22, 2010

"We only smoke the Lamentations": notes on Hunger

Early Christian martyr stories routinely describe in grisly detail the torture and execution of the champions of Christianity, but the portrayals seem flawed by the superhuman endurance of the protagonists. In spite of dungeon, fire, and sword, martyrs rarely scream in their agony. On the contrary, they calmly lecture their torturers on the unity of God and who will be where in the afterlife.
Faced with much milder experiences of pain, the reader is tempted to write off this hagiographic homage. While it is true that exaggeration has a place in these stories, the narratives also provide insight into the body as a field of combat on which the torturers and their victims duel. It is my contention that the ascetic training offered by pre-Constantinian Christianity allowed the martyrs to reconfigure their bodies as battleground. By remapping the “normal” connections where physical pain brings psychic disintegration, the martyrs provided the torturers not with a well-known battleground but with an unfamiliar jungle.
-- Maureen A Tilley, "The Ascetic Body and the (Un)Making of the World as Martyr", Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Volume LIX, Issue 3, 1991.

In this last and lofty station, [he] resisted the heat of 30 summers, and the cold of as many winters. Habit and exercise instructed him to maintain his dangerous situation without fear or giddiness, and successively to assume the different postures of devotion. He sometimes prayed in an erect attitude, with his outstretched arms in the figure of a cross, but his most familiar practice was that of bending his meagre skeleton from the forehead to the feet; and a curious spectator, after numbering 1244 repetitions, at length desisted from the endless account. The progress of an ulcer in his thigh might shorten, but it could not disturb, this celestial life; and the patient Hermit expired, without descending from his column.
-- Edward Gibbon on Simeon Stylites the Elder, from The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

The longest period of fasting was fixed by his impresario at 40 days, beyond that term he was not allowed to go, not even in great cities, and there was good reason for it, too. Experience had proven that for about 40 days the interest of the public could be stimulated by a steadily increasing pressure of advertisement, but after that the town began to lose interest, sympathetic support began notably to fall off; there were of course local variations as between one town and another or one country and another, but as a general rule 40 days marked the limit. So on the 40th day the flower-bedecked cage was opened, enthusiastic spectators filled the hall, a military band played, two doctors entered the cage to measure the results of the fast, which were announced through a megaphone, and finally two young ladies appeared, blissful at having been selected for the honour, to help the hunger artist down the few steps leading to a small table on which was spread a carefully chosen invalid repast. And at this very moment the artist always turned stubborn. True, he would entrust his bony arms to the outstretched helping hands of the ladies bending over him, but stand up he would not. Why stop fasting at this particular moment, after 40 days of it? He had held out for a long time, an illimitably long time, why stop now, when he was in his best fasting form, or rather, not yet quite in his best fasting form? Why should he be cheated of the fame he would get for fasting longer, for being not only the record hunger artist of all time, which presumably he was already, but for beating his own record by a performance beyond human imagination, since he felt that there were no limits to his capacity for fasting?
-- Franz Kafka, from "A Hunger Artist".

We only smoke the Lamentations. A right miserable cigarette.
-- IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) in Hunger (2008), screenplay by Steve McQueen and Enda Walsh.

There is nothing Christlike about this body, nothing to set it apart. It is anyone's corpse.
Jonathan Jones reviews Hans Holbein's The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521), the Guardian, June 17, 2009.

Not long after I began researching this subject, I had a dream in which the body of Philip Clairmont appeared laid out on a slab in the vaporous catacombs of some placeless place, looking like Holbein's Christ in the version painted by Tony Fomison. Below the slab echoing vaults plunged away deeper than thought, and at the very edge of this fathomless abyss the corpse lay. In the dream I knew that it was no longer on ice and that if someone did not take care of it, decay would set in and all would be lost.
-- Martin Edmond, from The Resurrection of Philip Clairmont, Auckland University Press, 1999.

So ended the Norfolk Island mutiny of 1834. It had been the only mass convict uprising in the history of transportation to Australia since Castle Hill in 1804. It was ill-planned, badlly coordinated, and a failure. It was over in seven hours, but the vengeance of the prison authorities lasted for months. When Captain Fyans, a sweaty, dishevelled figure with his double-barrelled gun on one shoulder and an old rusty dragoon sabre in his hand, reported to Colonel Morisset (who was still in bed from his migraine attack), Morisset gave him carte blanche, saying -- as Fyans remembered it -- "Glad I am that I am not responsible. Do as you like."
In a prolonged sadistic fury, Fyans and the soldiers of the 4th set out to make the mutineers wish they had never been born. It took the blacksmiths nine days to make new irons for the prisoners: they were double or triple weight, with the insides jagged to lacerate the flesh. Rebels locked in the jail awaiting trial were kept naked in a yard so crowded that not a third of them could sit at a time. For the next five months, while the reports went back to Sydney and arrangements were being made to send a judge to Norfolk Island, the rebels were kept locked to a chain cable and "disciplined in a state of nudity for four hours each day, with their arms up and fingers extended, and such of them as betrayed the slightest emotion of pain, were either stabbed by the Military or flogged on the spot." One of the soldiers' amusements, encouraged by Fyans, was to choose a prisoner at random and get one of the floggers, for a plug of tobacco, to thrust a stick into the cord that bound his arms, twisting it round and round until blood burst from his fingertips.
-- Robert Hughes, from The Fatal Shore, Random House, 1986.

IMAGES, from the top: hunger strikers resemble disciples in Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008); Claudio Brook atop a column in Simon of the Desert (Luis Bunuel, 1965); more Hunger artists; a detail from Holbein's The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521); Ron Mueck's Dead Dad (1996-97); Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands in Hunger.

November 21, 2010

Meet you on the corner of Nothing and Nowhere

A prison double bill: A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, 2009), above, and Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008), below. Each will make you feel like you’ve never seen a better prison movie. Audiard’s has the criminal education of the otherwise unknowable Malik (Tahar Rahim) set over a six-year sentence within Byzantine prison politics that include a Corsican gang, Italians and Muslims, plus criminal errands on the outside; it is almost baroque, maximalist, lurid but never gratuitous in its violence, oppressive and detailed in its view of prison as a total world, with glimpses of the world beyond either narrowed or as contaminated as prison by crime networks; McQueen’s film is spare, an hour shorter, silent for long stretches, quasi-religious, almost the biography of a saint (its Bobby Sands, played by Michael Fassbender, leads a version of communion, suffers indignities in silence, has a summit with a priest about how far he should go that might remind you of Passion dialogues, is as skeletal as Holbein’s dead Christ by the end of it, and his IRA brothers live and look like disciples or monks), but then, Audiard has his provocative religious elements too – that title alone, plus Malik’s move towards Muslim solidarity and identification.

November 19, 2010

Book news

Regular readers won't be massively surprised that I think this is good news. I reviewed this one for print (not online) back in May. Excerpt:
Early on, [Patti] Smith recounts a childhood memory of learning to say the word "swan" in a Chicago park. "The swan became one with the sky," she writes, not so much remembering as poetically embellishing. But she leaves the obvious symbolism untouched: the swan as transformation. Not just her own transformation, but that of [Robert] Mapplethorpe.
Both were Catholic kids from poor families who gravitated to New York. Both wanted to be artists, and they met through a seemingly fated series of coincidences. Both had intense self-belief, even if he was more ambitious. "Nobody sees as we do, Patti," he tells her. They would have been insufferable if they hadn't turned out to be right.
This is also a fascinating picture of the bohemian New York of the 60s and 70s. Smith gives us walk-ons from William Burroughs, Sam Shepard, Allen Ginsberg and Harry Smith. The Chelsea Hotel is "a doll's house in the twilight zone". Jimi Hendrix is shy and nervous. Salvador Dali tells Smith she looks like "a gothic crow".  
Our photo is Smith's polaroid of the tomb of Walt Whitman, Camden, New Jersey, pinched from here. The photographer as death tourist.

November 18, 2010

The Killer Inside Me

Muddled in its storytelling, too serious in its tone. Pulp ridiculousness like Jim Thompson's -- see The Grifters for a better treatment -- needs more of a sense of the ridiculous than this. A lesson that should be (blood) simple.

November 16, 2010

Being inhuman

Berlingske Tidende on 19 October 1935 reported on a young man from Fjerritslev who became mentally disturbed after watching Vampire, "A few years ago the young man, who is around 25 years old, went to the movies and saw a much-discussed film at the time, 'Vampire.' The eerie film made such a strong impression on him that he has not spoken a word since. He claims he is under a curse and if he opens his mouth he will be possessed by a vampire. In some respects, he is sensible enough. Only, when someone asks him to speak, he shakes his head and makes the sign of the cross." Perhaps, he should have followed the critic’s warning in Aarhus Amtstidende on 25 April 1933, "People with weak nerves are advised not to see 'Vampire.'"

Stills from Vampyr (1932) by Carl Theodor Dreyer -- "which Alfred Hitchcock said was the only film worth seeing twice". Text from the incredibly thorough Carl Th Dreyer site, produced by the Danish Film Institute -- a model of online archiving.

November 12, 2010

Dino De Laurentiis 1919-2010

Blue Velvet was David Lynch's intended follow-up to Eraserhead, and I assume that, on some level, Dino De Laurentiis backed the film as Lynch's payoff for the thankless task of directing Dune. De Laurentiis is better known these days for epic schlock (Death Wish, King Kong) than commercial neorealism (Bitter Rice, La Strada), but considering Dune's failure to set the world on fire, a lesser producer would scarcely have thought twice about giving Lynch the shaft. It's a strange world, all right: De Laurentiis is not just a man of his word, he's also a patron of the arts.
-- J Hoberman, Village Voice, September 22, 1986. The Blue Velvet review, "Return to Normalcy", is collected in Hoberman's excellent Vulgar Modernism (Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1991).

November 8, 2010

Four Lions, Despicable Me, The Prestige, Scoop, Gentlemen Broncos

Four Lions (Chris Morris, 2010): We were never lucky enough to see Chris Morris’ TV work in New Zealand, only the local shows that the likes of Brass Eye and The Day Today heavily influenced (Eating Media Lunch most obviously) and that earlier scarcity may be one of the reasons local critics – and American critics – have generally been more enthusiastic and less jaded about Morris’ feature film debut, the Jihadist comedy Four Lions, than British ones. Ben Walters at Sight and Sound liked it but much of the British press response has been surprisingly tepid (it could also have something to do with relative distance from the events it sends up). In any case, from way over here, the film is brave, funny and insightful. Morris’ comic-subversive view, expressed in a statement in the June 2010 Sight and Sound, is that “terrorist cells have the same group dynamics as stag parties and five-a-side football teams” -- or, he could have said, the core casts of sitcoms (the leader, the zealot, the doofus, and so on). Four Lions is more or less a sitcom rendering of a terror attack not dissimilar to the 2005 London bombings – with four men travelling to London from a northern city, just as the July 7 bombers did. The inevitable this-is-like-that description is that just as This is Spinal Tap is to, say, The Song Remains the Same, so Four Lions is to Paradise Now or The Road to Guantanamo. And that’s not glib: in Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now there was a lot of business about the bombers needing to get their martyrdom videos just right, an acknowledgement that the media strategy is inseparable from the bombing strategy. Thus, Four Lions opens with botched takes and re-takes of martyrdom videos, then a cut to one of the terrorists – Omar, the smartest – explaining to his wife that this is the blooper reel (the irony of modernity-hating terrorists frequently seeing themselves as stars of their own movies, video games and even Disney stories is a recurring satiric target). Three years of post-July 7 research apparently convinced Morris that “terrorism is about ideology, but it’s also about berks” – note that you would get much the same ideology/berk ratio if you made a film of, say, Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist – and while it’s refreshing to see terrorists treated less as criminal masterminds, rebels with a cause or the “horrorists” that Martin Amis has nightmares about (Morris, of course, was famous for this hilarious takedown of Amis’ terror obsessions, where the relatively serious point made was that even Jihadists can be satirised), you also suspect that, three years of research or not, the end result could never have been much different. Send-ups are what Morris does.

Despicable Me (Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud, 2010): The CGI 3D Despicable Me takes the villain’s perspective – Gru is voiced by Steve Carell as though he were auditioning for a Bela Lugosi biopic – and while the debt to Up, Monsters Inc, The Incredibles and probably a dozen other profitable kids’ movies from the past decade is apparent, there is some genuine strangeness and even personality here too. If post-Shrek kids’ films are the Hollywood machine at its most cynical and generic, all I can say is: I’ve seen worse.

The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2006) and Scoop (Woody Allen, 2006): It’s been said that Christopher Nolan’s real interest is in complicated experiments in cinematic time and storytelling and that only by marrying those experiments to traditional Hollywood ideas about motivation (a heist in Inception, a murder mystery in Memento, a romantic triangle in The Prestige) can his experimentalism be funded. Perhaps. In The Prestige, adapted from a novel by Christopher Priest, and overall a more satisfying film than Inception, there are the same deepening layers of story – that sense of both going back in cinematic time and sinking into it, here through voice-over storytelling by one character (played by Nolan regular Michael Caine); then within that story, diary-based storytelling, and within that again, further diary-based storytelling (diaries read by another Nolan regular, Christian Bale, and a novice, Hugh Jackman). In its wilful complexity and visual richness – a field of lightbulbs and a field of top hats are beautiful and initially inscrutable images that are returned to repeatedly until they are explained (another Nolan trick), there are opulently recreated scenes in 19th century theatres – the Nolan film it most resembles is again Inception. The same hermetic gravity, the same fatalism, the same complete seriousness about both its loopy premise – magic, this time – and the rules the story creates and then must follow.
Bale and Jackman play magicians working in parallel, trying to outdo each other as they perfect the ultimate trick, which involves dematerialising and rematerialising on stage. Nolan refuses to take the supernatural at face value and, again like Inception, much of his story's complexity is in the “how” of these tricks and their psychic and/or physical cost. But it’s also metaphorical, surely – in both films, the entire story is really a complicated trick played on the audience by Nolan as magician or conman (same thing). The film’s era – the late 19th century, heading into the 20th – was also the birth of cinema and Bale and Jackman’s magicians are risking everything to fool audiences in ways that, within years, would be relatively easy and entirely painless for showmen like Nolan’s predecessors.
Scarlett Johansson plays the assistant that both magicians fight over. How to explain that in the same year, Woody Allen also made a London-set film about magic starring both Jackman and Johansson? In Scoop, Allen casts himself as the magician and reminds us of why he has (wisely) farmed most of his comic acting out lately. Allen is easily the worst thing about this flaccid, often ridiculous film, his second London movie after the unusually watchable philosophical thriller Match Point (in which Johansson appeared but not Allen; there was a charismatic performance from an unscrupulous Jonathan Rhys Meyers). The plot of Scoop depends on Johansson’s wannabe journalist finding herself at one of the creaky performances of Allen’s semi-senile illusionist (below: here's one he prepared (40 years) earlier). Pulled out of the audience and into a trick, she steps instead into a netherworld in which a recently deceased investigative journalist gives her a hot tip for a career-making story. And then things really get unlikely. But this is what you note: while The Prestige spends two or more hours straining to work out a balance between new frontiers of science – personified by the maverick Nikola Tesla (in a real coup, David Bowie) -- and the supernatural, Allen simply takes communication between the afterlife and this place here for granted. In every way, Scoop feels like The Prestige’s absurd comic double.

Gentlemen Broncos (Jared Hess, 2009): Single-minded auteurs? No-one could ever accuse Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite) of not pursuing his personal visions as far as they take him and never mind the consequences. Which is admirable even if you note that his set-ups are better than his storytelling and at less than 90 minutes, Gentlemen Broncos still drags. But the first 20 or so of those minutes roll out easily: Benjamin Purvis (Michael Angarano) is an awkward – what else? – teenager working through his absent-dad and weird-mom issues in an elaborate, homemade sci-fi series, The Yeast Lords, which is then plagiarised by a washed-up, pompous fantasy author desperate for a new idea (very nicely played by Jemaine Clement, below, said to be speaking in the voice of James Mason’s Captain Nemo). At the same time, two clueless local film-makers adapt Yeast Lords, so we get to see three versions of Purvis’ berserk, sub-Dune space opera running simultaneously. Too much? Maybe. Call it an affectionate but often uncomfortable treatment of the kitsch end of sci-fi fandom or the comedy of outsider embarrassment minus the hipsterism of Hess’ more feted contemporaries – people like Spike Jonze and Wes Anderson. Crucial difference: where Jonze gets Karen O to soundtrack his childhood-symbolism daydream (Where the Wild Things Are), Hess plunders the worst of meaningful FM rock: Zager and Evans, Kansas, Scorpions. Did you ever think you would hear “Wind of Change” by Scorpions as though someone actually meant it?

November 2, 2010

Gaylene Preston

"But I’ll tell you what—Home by Christmas was conceived as the middle story in a trilogy and the other two are—I could call them 81. One is a passivist stand that happened in 1881 during the Land wars, and the other is the stand that was made in 1981 during the Springbok Tour. I would like to work using oral histories, archival footage and dramatising for those two. So I’m just taking the long way round to make my War and Peace – Gaylene’s War and Peace. Don’t hold your breath, it will take a while."
-- Gaylene Preston, interviewed by Mary Wiles at Senses of Cinema.

It's a long, thorough interview. I'm sure someone told me once that Preston knew Syd Barrett when she lived in England. While that's not addressed here we do have her in Cambridge in the 1970s, working in a psychiatric hospital while also "forging a fusion of acid rock and Brecht" with an experimental theatre group in her spare time. So, no, it doesn't seem so implausible that their paths might have crossed.