To see as Marty sees AKA does style mean a darn thing?

April 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

I don’t care what you have to say and how well you intend on saying it: if I don’t speak your language – literally can’t understand you because you speak German or Japanese while I’m just a monolingual Anglophone philistine – then all your rhetorical magic will be lost on me. When it comes to film, style is as key to meaningful communication as is having a common tongue in the sphere of verbal or literary discourse. Sure, filmic style is nowhere near as intellectually regimented and complex as verbal language, but an inability to adopt the style of a film would render the viewing of it as fraught with incomprehension and frustration as would be a reading of ‘The Canterbury Tales’ by a kid like myself, raised in the nineties and unlearned in the ways of Middle English.

In fact, literary style plays the exact same part in the process of communication that filmic style does. Anyone who reads enough – particularly fiction – can appreciate the phenomenon wherein one style of writing is devoured more swiftly and with much more ease than another. Moreover, it’s not as though one style of writing is easier to digest, unless of course the prose is bland, devoid of personality and for all intents and purposes style-less: case in point, every James Patterson or Sue Grafton novel that clogs endless aisles in endless book stores. Some readers fly through the densely mannered pages of many a Victorian author’s novels while finding themselves stuck in the terse, clipped quagmires penned by post-Beats generation American writers. The inverse is also true, particularly for this writer. I suspect this has very much to do with a certain compatibility – nay, congruence – that exists between a reader’s pattern of thinking and a writer’s pattern of — writing, almost as though both parties think a similar thought language, or share a similar mental dialect. And it’s not simply about the speed with which the pages turn, but the depth with which words on those pages register in the mind of the reader. I find that, in order to be a more receptive reader of literary works written in a style that may not reflect my own innate mental rhythms, it is necessary for me to adopt the rhythms of the writer. Sure, I can resist, but not only will it takes an unduly long period of time to finish a book, but I can almost guarantee that once the book is finally laid to rest back on the bookshelf, I will find that my reading experience was not only a drag but that I hardly remember what was read and/or that very little of it seemed to resonate or even register with me. The solution in my experience is to quickly appreciate the fact that style, especially in the instance of a good writer (of fiction, in particular), is very much the key to understanding the mindset and world-view of the individual whose words I am reading. Whether it be the brooding intensity of Dostoevsky, the blunt simplicity of Hemingway or the obsessive circularity of Foster-Wallace, style is almost definitely a reflection of the author’s mind state and thus the portal through which the experience of another human being can be absorbed and contemplated.

As many will attest, it takes a gifted and insightful artist to find a way to express their own personal experience in an aesthetically compelling and unique way, unique to them. It is then only fair that as a patron, the reader/spectator endeavour to indulge this artistic achievement as best they can in order to better receive that which the artist is attempting to channel, for what is the purpose of art – other than aesthetic pleasure/entertainment – if not to translate one’s ideas and philosophies and experience and stories to another human being?

It makes sense. Those books whose main purpose for existence is to impart ideas and/or knowledge (textbooks being the most obvious example) tend to possess less obvious style than those for whom expression of personal experience is a prime concern. Note, I haven’t said that there is any written work completely devoid of style, but just as many people hide their eccentricities and quirks so as to conform to social norms for reasons of being included and for general peace of mind (a legitimate life choice though lacking something in courage), many writers, in failing to create a style unique to themselves while attractive to others, opt for a plainer perhaps more populist approach and in so doing often gain a wider audience.

All that I have said about literary style likely applies to film style, the only difference being that film as a medium does not provide the intellectual blueprint/roadmap for accessing the creator’s mental space that the written word does. If literature accesses the psychological and emotional spheres via the intellectual act of reading and comprehending words, it can be said that those very words function as the roadmap which guides a reader towards the psyche of a writer. If music, for most people, accesses the emotional by first tapping into the sensual, then film is much closer to music than it is to literature. It functions through the sensual experience of image and sound embroidered together by time and expressed as motion, visual and sonic motion. It’s no wonder many cinephiles, critics and film purists champion silent cinema as the purest form of motion picture, as the visual equivalent of music. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that film style is a little different from literary style, and that this difference may be the key to understanding how filmic style is perceived by the cinematic spectatorship and how film style will either help or hinder film’s tenacity as a socially powerful art form.

Martin Scorsese, during an interview whose details I’m still racking my brain to recall, stated that the style of his films – the visual dynamism, the medleys of 20th century pop and rock that are his films’ soundtracks, the violence, the heavily Catholic moral burden, the operatic scope of the storytelling – is a direct reflection of his own personal experience of the world around him, a reflection of the way that he literally perceives things. While this has been evident to me intuitively, hearing him speak these words lit a major 1000 watt light bulb in my mind. The man had found a way to channel his psyche through the medium of cinema, one that was not only artistically and aesthetically exciting and unique, but one which in many ways advanced the medium itself both in terms of form and content. Since his advent as a filmmaker of influence, Scorsese’s style has pervaded world cinema so thoroughly that his current films suffer from the phenomenon of a groundbreaking artist being influenced by the work of artists who were heavily (perhaps derivatively so) influenced by his own art. Scorsese, being an avid film viewer of not only classic but contemporary cinema, professes to being intrigued by modern movements in cinema, for example modern Hong Kong and Asian cinema, a lot of which has deeply appropriated elements of his earliest films into its own aesthetic. One cannot overlook the irony of ‘The Departed’ being a remake of ‘Infernal Affairs’, a Hong Kong film that bears indelible hints of elements from Scorsese’s trademark crime and gangster flicks. In fact, it’s hard to argue that Hong Kong action cinema has not – for decades – carried a significant portion of Scorsese’s style in its genes.

So why is it that Scorsese’s recent films do not quite pop (for me at least) in the way that his – in my opinion – landmark films do? And why do films that ape the exciting and seductive style that Scorsese developed ultimately lack the power of the master’s best? I suspect there are several reasons for this.

Martin Scorsese is – in his early seventies now – a bone fide cinematic legend, having proven himself against all odds, a darling of the film world and a pioneer and proponent of film preservation. One could argue that there has very likely been a slight mellowing of the melancholic personality responsible for those furious films of the seventies and eighties or at least a personal peace-making or Zen-reaching of sorts. Sure, some of his more recent pictures retain his trademark muscularity, but none feel as scorching as ‘Raging Bull’ or authentically vinegary as ‘The King of Comedy’ or even ‘After Hours.’ The Scorsese torn between cinema and Catholicism, forced to carve a niche for himself in order to survive the hard-scrabble, mob-ridden streets of New York’s Little Italy, the asthmatic neurotic who was said to swing between mania and depression while filming, who was nearly undone by a cocaine addiction and a painfully contained violence that needed to be expressed vicariously…that Scorsese is most likely a little different to the one who lives and breathes today, as would be the case with most people. He said it himself. ‘Taxi Driver’ was created by a trio of Travis Bickles with enough insight not to remain that way. Scorsese’s first three decades as a studio filmmaker appear to have been a cinematic intervention, psychoanalysis, confession and exorcism all in one, and I daresay argue that this process in some way allowed not just himself, but the American psyche to work through some deep issues and emerge a little less troubled or at least a little more at peace with themselves. Scorsese is no longer Travis Bickle, no longer Jake LaMotta, no longer Charlie; at least not as close an approximation of those characters as he might have been when he first felt compelled to artistically air them out. Even compare and contrast his earliest interviews with his most recent to gain a slight appreciation of how the moody artist with the brooding eyebrows has become the laugh-a-minute professorial figure with the grandfatherly eyebrows and endearingly earnest aura. This is not to say that Scorsese’s troubled psyche has died and gone to heaven and that he is free of all psychic scars and wounds, but there has been some sort of a change. Of course, this is not to suggest that young Scorsese was an utter fuck-up and a freak and a screwhead.

If Scorsese’s initial style was a product of his world-view at the time, his psychological state, his pain, does it then not compute that a fundamental evolution in Scorsese the person would render the current iteration of Martin Scorsese unable to recreate ‘Mean Streets’ or ‘Taxi Driver’ in 2014, if not only on a surface level? I think it does compute. Sadly, and somewhat funnily, this does not conversely mean that a personal transition will translate into a successfully stylistic transition. Simply because angry Scorsese could make great films of great fury does not mean that less angry Scorsese will make similarly great films of much less fury. Unfortunately, my feeling is that the recent films of Scorsese that bear closest similarity to his explosive masterworks (Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed) and those that seem to be channelling Scorsese’s fondness for classical Technicolour expressionism a la Michael Powell (Shutter Island and Hugo) suggest that Scorsese has not quite found a style that expresses the current artist that he is quite as prodigiously as he did during his “heyday”, if one believes he had such a period. But how do I know that he is not successfully expressing the current iteration of his inner perceptive life? I don’t for a fact know, but I feel less earnestness, less vulnerability in his recent work. It’s like the difference between sitting in front of an authentic wood-fire in a fireplace and sitting before a similar wood-fire that’s positioned behind a pane of glass. The heat is less, the sheer power if oddly muted; the experience is simply not the same. And what about those filmmakers who channel a little to a lot of Scorsese in their films, either unwittingly, by way of misguided reverence and homage, or simply due to artistic laziness? Well, I think it would be unnecessarily repetitive to state why it is that an individual who is not the short, asthmatic neurotic son of first Generation Italian-Americans growing up in post-War New York and equally seduced by the opera of the Catholic Church and the rock-and-roll of the rough streets would most likely be unable to produce a film like ‘Mean Streets’, or more specifically, would simply not be able to produce ‘Mean Streets’, period.

Filmmakers that more closely fit that profile would have enough trouble creating that piece of cinema let alone a seventh generation Anglo-Australian that was raised atheist in the gentrified suburbs of Sydney’s inner west, in a society that is very conscious about building the self-esteem and self-confidence of its youth, often at the expense of self-criticism and unforgiving insight into one’s own flaws (not to say that this is ultimately negative.) There is simply no way the above individual could truly imbue a gangster film with the same psychological and emotional elements of guilt, sexual turmoil and coiled rage that young Scorsese does, unless this theoretical individual was exposed to experiences outside of those common to their peers from their native social milieu of 21st century urban Australia. It’s no surprise then that so many films made by filmmakers raised on Scorsese come across as mere exercises in style; because, while these artists might adopt this style because it resonated with them and seemed of a piece with their own perceptive rhythms, the truth is that – despite how honest they believe their artistic driving force to be – unless they see as Scorsese saw the world, feel emotion as Scorsese felt it (at that time in his life) and think as Scorsese thought, their well-meaning intentions will translate as hollow and devoid of substance. This common accusation of style-over-substance is made all the more common and all the more likely because of how darn exciting and seductively propulsive many of Scorsese’s films are; the general perception is simply that this style of filmmaking is adopted simply because it is “cool” and will therefore grab spectators.

On the opposite spectrum are those films that litter the festival circuit: slow, pensive, almost confrontationally static films that hold the same shots for minutes on end. Filmmakers who pursue this approach to cinema are labelled “pretentious” and a lot of the recipients of this accusation are probably not too far from it. To be frank, and possibly presumptuous, it seems highly unlikely that such films would be an honest expression of the psyche of many young filmmakers raised in an increasingly fleet-minded society…unless one actively seeks to avoid participating in a culture so thoroughly inundated with ‘data’ that the only way public attention can be arrested is by finding ever more nifty and devious ways to impart ideas, opinions and information with maximum brevity and maximum memorability. If media is a reflection of society which is a reflection of media which is a reflection of society which is a reflection of so on and so forth, it has become – to me – impossible to tell whether it is the media of the people that demand smaller and smaller quanta more and more frequently. It is probably a bit of both, the point being that the idea of an individual with a natural tendency to quietly sit and absorb the world around there seems less and less probable.

Imagine you have two still cameras. One camera has a shutter speed of 1/6000 while the other has a shutter speed of 1/8. Both cameras are mounted on a speeding platform and exposed for one minute. Compare, now, the quality of images acquired by the high-shutter-speed camera versus that of the single image acquired by the time-lapsed camera. One is a series of precisely captured images of possibly varying clarity and focus while the other is one unholy blur of light that looks like one big stare into the sun. How does one perceive – with nuance – the stillness of life with a racing mind; the subtleties of time in a world where one second is almost too large a unit of it?

There was a day when this time-lapsed approach to filmmaking seemed to resonate with both filmmakers and audiences, or rather, a larger proportion of filmmakers and the film-going public. Proponents of this style of meditative cinema that was as interested with the passage of time within an image as it was the passage of images through time found a sizeable audience during a period when the news was updated daily not minutely, when letters took days not seconds to arrive in the recipient’s mailbox, when fast cutting in films and colloquial terseness in novels were somewhat avant garde. And when directors like Tarkovsky or Antonioni were interviewed, either in writing or on audio or film, there is a clear sense that they were genuinely captivated by that which most might have found boring or irrelevant, perhaps for intellectual reasons, but probably because that was simply how they saw the world. One current filmmaker whose slow, gentle style seems congruent with his personality – as evidence through the few but moderately lengthy interviews that circulate on the internet – is Nuri Bilge Ceylan, himself an ardent fan of both Antonioni and Tarkovsky, the only other filmmaker he equally treasures being Yasujiro Ozu (surprise!) Ceylan is softly spoken and unhurried in his manner, clearly a man whose contemplative nature is authentic and which is reflected to great artistic effect in his films. Just as Scorsese saw life as a fast-moving sensual assault, Antonioni it seems (like his pseudo-protege Ceylan) was drawn to the passivity that resulted from the same emotional turmoil that drove Scorsese’s characters to recklessness and violence. Beginning in the sixties particularly, Antonioni’s films explored the inertia that plagued a certain section of affluent western society, an inertia borne of a desire for modernism and a concurrent entrapment by traditionalism. Antonioni’s people of privilege, pleasure and time enough to contemplate the metaphysics of their own existences found that their modern ideals of sexual freedom were stifled by the strong scent of Catholicism that seeped in from a still pervasively religious middle class, and from within themselves. Accordingly these characters found that they were arrested emotionally, tortured sexually and in existential crisis. Inertia is a major symbol in absurdist and existential art and if Antonioni was to capture this type of purgatorial state of being, it was necessary for him to slow things down. Why move the camera or race between numerous shots when the only thing moving is time, and not very quickly? As fate would have it – or some cosmic force – Antonioni the man and the artist were uncannily suited to capture this state of mind, this psyche, whether or not Antonioni himself was in the throes of similar existential distress or not.

Sure, this phenomenon of one mode of thought being so limited by a preceding mode of thought such that the thinker is stuck in a state of motionless still persists. The difference now seems to be that the inability to move has morphed into an inability to sit still. This existential crisis faced by a modern mankind desperate to detach itself from the placenta of tradition came to express itself in a restlessness that characterised the late sixties and has only contrived into the present day. While there might be spiritual, there is physical and mental hyperactivity. It’s curious to witness the fidgety transience of thought common to mainly western youth, always bored, ever in need of stimulation, rarely still and when so, apparently deeply uneasy with it. It may seem counter-intuitive for me to say this, but perhaps prolonged static cameras are as effective today in expressing spiritual stagnation as they were in the sixties, the only difference being that nowadays a static shot of an unmoving individual may highlight the internal psychic tension and unease that propels members of today’s westernised society to seek motion and action and stimulation as a means of escaping the sensation that eats away at their souls.

So where in all this does the spectator find themselves? Well, it should be clear and it should be simple enough. Just as it would only benefit a reader to acclimatise themselves to the rhythms of the prose that they are reading, it would similarly benefit film viewers to appreciate the fact that, for some filmmakers – particularly those whose approach may appear a little left field and esoteric – style is often a direct entry point into the state of mind that would allow for optimal communication of the ideas contained within the film, provided that the style is an honest expression of the filmmaker’s perception of the world. I think what separates a good critic from a casual filmgoer (and a bad critic) is an ability to adopt – briefly – the styles of myriad films, paired with the ability to intuit the honesty with which the various styles represents the filmmakers’ respective perspectives and thus how valid an artwork the films ultimately are.

Style is not just about aesthetics, I’ve come to realise. It is a key, key aspect of both artistic creation and artistic patronage. Style is that which a new resident of a city with a strong personality must first appreciate and then drink in in order to fully experience what that culture is really truly about, as opposed to the abridged version with which most 10-day tourists must make do. What is that saying turned cliché? “When in Rome, do as the Romans.” Note it doesn’t say become a Roman.

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‘Melancholia’ or: how I try to give a shit in spite of my nihilism

April 25, 2014 § 3 Comments

How frustrating it was to read and listen to the largely unvaried readings of Lars von Trier’s 2011 film ‘Melancholia’. It was either a symbolic expression of the filmmaker’s own experiences with clinical depression or simply another somewhat bonkers melodrama with otherworldly undertones from the Danish enfant terrible. This is not to say that either of those approaches is invalid, certainly not, but the majority of the discussion didn’t seem to deviate much further than depression or general arthouse mayhem. Maybe the conversation was usurped by the hoopla surrounding von Trier’s admittedly clumsy statements about Hitler and Nazism which too fell victim to surface level responses i.e. condemnation and knee-jerk shock rather than being utilised as an entry point to a potentially insightful discussion about the extents to which one can empathise with those who are apparently undeserving of it. But that is an essay for another day.

So. ‘Melancholia’.

A bride in a peri-matrimonial depressive relapse stays with her sister, her sister’s wealthy rationalist husband and their young son after a disastrous wedding reception whose failure is largely to blame on her – the bride’s – poor mental state. Justine, the depressive in question, is deep in it and her sister Claire is trying her very best to be supportive while her husband John’s polite impatience is clear from the get-go. Midway through the film it is made known that a planet once thought to be bypassing earth is in fact on an unstoppable collision course for it. This rapidly approaching doom lays waste to the mental and emotional states of at least two of the film’s four lead characters, Claire and John. The effect of this news on young Leo is somewhat muted if memory serves me well, which – in my mind – seemed in keeping with someone his age.

Now, people have stated that the planet ‘Melancholia’ is a metaphor for the destructive effects of depression on the lives of people struggling with the condition and those within their social orbit. It’s a cute but obvious reading, which is not to say that it isn’t an actual and valid subtext within the film. Another school of thought is that the film explores the psychology of depression and the idea that individuals riding the black steed may be susceptible to extreme pessimism to the point of anticipating a doom that they cannot quite explain or qualify. Apparently, this particular concept was the seed from which the narrative grew in von Trier’s head. So, as per the above, Justine’s utter pessimism – nay – nihilism, epitomised by such acts as her having sex (in dove-white gown and on a golf course green) with a waiter on the night of her wedding reception, ensured that in the face of imminent demise she was by far the most resigned (having always expected the worst) and thus much calmer than most. She could of course simply be depressed, too depressed to care or register much of a response, as opposed to her having “rationalised” and come to terms with her own death and the destruction of all that she has ever known long before said death and destruction actually come to pass. It should be noted that Justine’s brother-in-law John, the rationalist, commits suicide towards the end of the film while his wife Claire takes on the nature of someone in a profound depressive rut, a reverse of the sisters’ roles in the latter half of the picture.

Now, it’s not too much of a stretch to posit that John and Claire represent, respectively, those who place their confidence in the rational and the tangible (knowledge, wealth) and those who place theirs in the sentimental (relationships, love, devotion.) If we choose to accept this idea then the eventual unravelling of these two characters in the face of planet Melancholia suggests that that which many or most people consider meaningful and valuable in this mortal life cannot ultimately withstand the pure spitefulness (query indifference?) of a futile end, whether that end is due to a ravaging cancer or being vapourised by so mindless an event as a planetary collision.

So does that make ‘Melancholia’ a nihilist’s declaration? An “I told you so” fantasy in which all those human with their fickle values and ideals are forced to face the fury of a meaningless, godless universe? That may very well be the take-away, if one chooses to forget the very final moments of the film during which Justine transcends her own severe state of detachment in order to provide a brief moment of solace for her hysterical sister and shell-shocked nephew. As Melancholia’s effect on earth approaches the cataclysmic and everything seems to melt away around them, Justine leads Claire and Leo out into a field. She sits them down and tearfully takes their hands in hers as if suggesting that they spend their last moments cherishing and appreciating that which means most to them, rather than mourning its impending loss. For someone who has spent the previous two hours totally indifferent to everything and all things, this act strikes me as one requiring great strength and selflessness. Sure, the very last seconds could be read in many ways. They could be bracing themselves for unimaginable physical torment. They could be comforting each other and reassuring their loved ones that they are loved for whatever that’s worth. But my impression while viewing the film was that the final seconds were spent in silent, terrified appreciation for the simple fact that they are currently still living and in the presence of those that they love. The key point is that Justine instigates this approach. She slaps some perspective into Claire when all signs seem to suggest that she should be sitting back, laughing cynically to herself while thinking “I told you. Didn’t I tell you?”

So what exactly is my point? What do I think ‘Melancholia’ is about? I’m not at all suggesting that Lars von Trier made the film in order to explore that which I am about to discuss, but these are ideas which the film kick-started my brain into entertaining. The depression analogies, while valid and very likely applicable, were not interesting enough for a film that struck me as having a great deal more on its mind than might appear at face value. Let me continue by asking this: what if you found out that – for a fact – the universe was utterly meaningless and that, while order still coexisted alongside chaos, nothing was of any more significance than that which you personal bestowed on it? What if life was – for a fact – only sacred because humans considered it to be, when necessary? What if the only entity who bore witness to your deeds were people in whose memories you would live on long after they and their memories had…ceased to exist; in whose non-existent memories your refusal or inability to choose right from wrong and love over hate would forever persist? What if you were a nihilist and couldn’t see why anything should matter in and to a universe that seemed indifferent?

It seems that nihilists can express their nihilism in several ways. There are those who wish to take advantage of the fact that this earthly life is like Vegas: what goes on here stays here. There is no external judgement and whatever forms of it one may be subjected to in this life is but a terrier’s bark in the scope of things. The logical approach then is to enjoy life, to exhaust all the sensory pleasures it has to offer. You could chose to take the hedonistic route wherein your quest for pleasure theoretically need not impact anybody but yourself though, seeing as nobody exists in a social vacuum, this would be mildly impossible. One could also take the satanic approach and consider carnal humanity as the true natural state of being with its elements of what might be termed ‘selfishness’, ‘aggression’ and a healthy dose of hedonism, that is to say, unbridled, unsanctified human nature with all its ‘flaws’ (if Satanists would even call them flaws.) One could also consider themselves at the service of cosmic chaos and actively partake in it: where values and ideas are unnecessarily applied, such individuals function as a reminder that nothing is sacred, nothing is hallowed, nothing deserves to be upheld and nothing deserves to be repressed, everything is the same and equally insignificant if the indifference of eternity has anything to say about it. Here we have the true punks of each age, existing until they cease to exist, defiling that which is considered holy; butchering sacred cows and holding aloft the offal. In many ways this approach may be adopted by those in existential despair, acting out against a universe that doesn’t have enough cognizance to give a shit.

But I think there is another philosophy that sits somewhere within the nihilistic spectrum but somewhere on the fringes of it. It is nihilism in that nothing objectively matters, but it isn’t in that ultimate futility need not lead to total disregard for those things which seem to matter to most people. Just as Justine, in those final moments, chooses to indulge those human needs that she has over time allow to deaden within her, so the individual who I’ll call…let’s say…a neo-Sisyphean chooses to live a life based on values and ideals despite their inherent (and ultimately depressing) belief that none of it may mean a thing to anyone or anything one hundred billion years down the track, or even now at this very moment. This, I think, is a tough stance, but a somewhat admirable one. This is what ‘Melancholia’ compelled me to consider.

Intimate knowledge of fake people

April 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

However overwrought the climactic sexcapade, however embarrassingly trite the scene in which Brandon howls – on his knees – into the rain, the key to the abiding value of Shame (2011) lies in its potential to be a cultural bonfire around which viewers and beholders can gather and discuss and speculate; in other words, its relative reticence regarding character backstory and psycho-summarising. It just happens that this very quality is the focus of a great deal of the criticisms levelled at director Steve McQueen’s sophomore feature, even coming – at one point – from this very mouth.

A common complaint is that Brandon, embodied to a tee by Michael Fassbender, remains a cypher even at the film’s “unsatisfying” completion; that too many questions go unanswered, questions like ‘why is Brandon addicted to getting his rocks off? What past traumas have driven him to such an existence? To what (or where) does Brandon’s sister Sissy refer when she says “we just come from a bad place”? What happened to them and why? Goddamn it, who is Brandon?

Unfortunately, Brandon doesn’t exist. While he may be a composite of New York sex addicts whom co-writers Abi Morgan and McQueen interviewed, he is at day’s end a fiction, invented by the aforementioned pair and embodied by a fine performer for purposes of expression and/or inquiry. Nor does it help that Brandon is a man running from himself, craving some escape from whatever backstory there is.

What indeed is the moral value of layering a fictional entity with painstaking detail when thousands upon millions of flesh and blood will be no more than a statistic to you and me? Of what consequence is it – and of what consequence should it be – that Brandon was this or that, or that this happened to him, or that? Why does it matter, and to whom?

It could be argued that Brandon’s opacity as a character is an intentional attempt by his creators to deflect attention from whatever specific events may have led him to a life of sex dependency in preference of enticing, in the viewer, a desire to ponder the universality of Brandon’s affliction, his plight.

Suppose Morgan and McQueen opted to pepper the narrative with elucidatory biographical nuggets: intimations of childhood abuse or something equally unspeakable? Money could be bet and won on the assertion that, at the end of myriad screenings, hushed murmurs of sympathy would go out to Brandon, a response in itself only natural and right. Sadly, the conversation often does fail to advance past a consensus regarding the unquestionable ramifications of any number of social evils, a regrettably impotent outcome for a film with a clear desire to kick-start a broader sophisticated discourse in spite of its more didactic trappings and ham-fisted narrative turns. It’s a pity then, considering the efforts taken to keep things open-ended, that this open-endedness is bemoaned and deemed a marker of subpar writing.

Subpar or not, poverty does not equal austerity. Clumsy expression of an idea is one thing; refusal to dole out distracting backstory is another. For an art form largely beholden to precepts of story and character, a degree of respect – if not admiration – ought to be afforded those artists who choose to favour culturally relevant ideas and the ensuing dialogue over the fabricated intricacies of fabricated people, however charismatic or sympathetic they may be.

So as to appease those hitherto incensed by this apparent assassination of character and story, this is no such assassination. There are scores of masterworks like Raging Bull and Ikiru whose creators are wholly and justly invested in rootling to the very core of their protagonists, whether real in Jake LaMotta’s case or invented in the case of Kenji Watanabe. But even these artistic attempts at intimately understanding one human being’s life and times can be poorly served by an obsessive focus on gossipy minutiae which can ultimately overshadow that which truly informs a person’s psychology and behaviour. To reiterate, knowing that Jake LaMotta’s father exploited the crap out of him on a regular basis may shed light on a life of violence in and out of the ring, but does it really get to the essence of why Jake was as punishing to himself as he was to his opponents, and why he was fated to repeat his own mistakes ad infinitum?

But if, at the end of the day, one takes ultimate joy in knowing the census details of individuals, let them practise this urge on their friends, their neighbours, their workmates, random acquaintances they run into on the street and in lifts, not on fake people, and especially not on those created as embodiments of ideas and themes and primed as catalysts for a greater conversation, if not as a primary means to entertain.

Vengeance of the duelling swords

April 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

There is a scene in Lars von Trier’s newest work, a scene that to my dismay is much maligned; one which I find myself increasingly compelled to defend, and not even for the satisfaction of some contrarian streak. It’s the kind of scene I expected would set on edge those burdened with white guilt and those fuelled by reflexive non-white indignation, souring every mouth in the theatre and lingering long afterwards like a recent and pungent fart, but not one I expected would be read so superficially, perhaps for fear of appearing to entertain/humour von Trier’s most impish provocation tendencies.

In this scene from ‘Nymphomaniac’, Joe, the film’s titular sex-fiend as embodied by von Trier muse Charlotte Gainsbourg, recounts an encounter that was borne of her desire to fuck a man with whom verbal communication was not possible. From her window way up in an apartment block in an indeterminate European – possibly British – locale, she spots a group of black men who frequent a certain street corner and who turn out to be African migrants with whose language she is not at all familiar. One particularly burly member of this group appeals to her and, in a conveniently elliptical turn, Joe acquires the services of a man who can translate her very plain sexual request into this fellow’s mother tongue. The man predictably accepts and instructs her via a scribbled note to meet in a hotel room for which Joe, a sexual risk-taker for decades, is totally game. What follows is an odd, farcical couple of minutes which initially threatened to test my knee reflex but which, on further thought, I feel is a wonderful reversal of that which people accuse the scene of endorsing or at the very least perpetuating. As Joe sits on the bed and waits with a nervousness that struck me as being out of sorts for her, the burly African, whose name I do not remember catching if indeed it was mentioned, walks in with a friend in tail, another African whom Joe equally does not understand and did not at all expect. They, the two men, then proceed to…assess Joe…stripping her clothes off and subjecting her lean and small-featured alabaster body to their foreign gazes. They themselves strip nude and, lo and behold, it turns out that they obey the ethnographic laws of penile endowment. Joe is frankly skewered by double entry and shows no discernible signs of pleasure if my memory serves well. At some point during the very unsexy proceedings, the two men both withdraw and get into a bit of a non-translated tiff about who knows what exactly, though it can be deduced that it has something to do with position and who gets the best piece of ass and for how long. In a move that strikes me as very apt but which I suspect strikes many as being very degrading and fetishist, von Trier’s frame centres Joe on the bed, naked, confused and looking utterly vulnerable while in the foreground two occasionally pulsating big black penises confront each other like duelling swords, the heads and torsos of the men to whom they are attached being somewhere off screen.

It’s understandable why the sight of two black males ‘exploiting’ one white female may come across as racially inflammatory, reviving or sustaining the somewhat pervasive idea that one is a perpetual threat to the other, and yes to some extent a degree of exploitation may in fact be taking place with Joe as the victim. Yet in this scene, Joe, being the individual who initially singled out another to satisfy her possibly fetishist if not exoticist fantasies, finds herself confronted with not just one but two versions of that which she may have fantasised about. The big black phallus she possibly swooned over in her daydreams is now made doubly manifest and it is actually threatening, and the men from whom the dicks sprout speak a language she doesn’t understand, and they will, these men – as far as she can tell – skewer her again. While the scene may say nothing to erase or rehabilitate commonly held racial misrepresentations, to say that it does not – at the very least – poke fun at or satirise sexual tourism and jungle fever is to be unfairly critical. At its worst this scene admittedly bears the stench of clumsily executed farce (which may in fact signify a clumsily executed depiction of miscommunication and ‘otherness’), but at its best it is grandly subversive, so much so that it seems to have been drowned out by gallons of aforementioned white guilt and reflexive non-white indignation.

I guess the trouble is further concentrated when Joe, too unsettled by being the subject of marketplace bickering, grabs her gear and slinks out of the hotel room to leave a frame dominated by two occasionally throbbing big black penises. One could argue that this simply represents von Trier’s gleeful indulgence in his own personal racial biases, sure. But it could also be said that this shot simply forces viewers to confront the very stereotypes that are – and I can personally attest to this – surprisingly and bafflingly still quite pervasive. As for the conversation that follows in which Joe implies that calling a black man a ‘negro’ is to simply call a spade a spade, it does not strike me as particularly offensive, one being that art has the right to portray all manner of individuals, racist or not; the second being that the use of the term ‘negro’, while laden with historical baggage that I personally do not understand, ought not negate the commentarial power of the preceding scene. One thing I have learnt about von Trier is that he and his films are often a rambling potluck of ideas and that the tastelessness or unpleasantness of one need not, no, should not detract from the utter succulence of another.

How much of a selection can a selection be?

April 20, 2014 § 1 Comment

What an odd feeling it is, being disappointed by the very thing you are excited about. This phenomenon occurred to me when I scanned this week’s press release which revealed the films officially selected for Cannes 2014.

More so than any in recent memory, this year’s selection – particularly the films In Competition – seems overwhelmingly dominated by those directed by ‘name auteurs’, the kind whose auteur status may have in fact been nurtured or at least solidified by festivals such as Cannes; the irony of this being that, while I may appear skeptical of this year’s selection by the tone of my words, I don’t know that I have salivated this freely in response to a list of festival films (at least one released by Cannes), nor have I been familiar with as many directors in main competition as I am this year. Aside from 3 or 4 names that barely ring a bell, most of these individuals I can say with certainty are capital E established directors, the type fledgling filmmakers in every nook and crevice hope to one day be. Even newcomers to the Cannes main competition line-up like Xavier Dolan and Bennett Miller are either highly-regarded mainstream artists with critical heft or protégés of the festival itself, Dolan having cut his teeth at least twice in Un Certain Regard. As for the rest…the mere inclusion of Nuri Bilge Ceylan and a seemingly MIA-until-now Mike Leigh is enough to flood my mouth with anticipatory secretions. Add to this the newest works from The Dardennes, Olivier Assayas, Bertrand Bonello whose last Cannes entry ‘The House of Tolerance’ I found to be nothing short of magnificent, David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, Naomi Kawase, Ken Loach, Andrey Zvyagintsev, Abderrahmane Sissako (one of the few African filmmakers of international renown and himself not a newcomer to Cannes)… even Tommy Lee Jones who won big at Cannes a few years back with ‘The Three Burials of Melquaides Estrada’…add these and you have a murderer’s row that will pique the interest of any serious cinephile with an internet connection. Lest I fail to mention it, a crown prince of French and indeed world cinema, Jean Luc Godard, will present his newest film in competition as well. Which is where the trouble begins.

There seems to be a general expectation that the newest works by the most renowned directors must have their premieres at the most renowned film festivals. There are certain online publications that shall remain nameless due to my general appreciation of them, publications that nonetheless broadcast and enforce such expectations. When updating their readerships about upcoming releases for filmmakers of note, there is often a line of two speculating where and when these films might premiere. Speculation is one thing, but when phrases such as (and I paraphrase) “so and so film will receive a main competition slot at Cannes” are thrown around months before a festival lineup is even aired and before a frame of the film has even been made public, the air begins to smell a little foul. There is being speculative, and there is being just plain presumptuous. Following the announcement of the official selection, Thierry Fremaux fielded questions from the press and the first of these were silly enough to inquire about the absence of Malick and Kusturica in the lineup. It turns out, according to Fremaux at least, that these filmmakers did not feel their work was quite yet fit for presentation, but even if the final edits were ready to screen, why should anybody expect that a movie should find its way into competition simply by virtue of being a Malick picture? Perhaps individuals responsible for such presumptive statements have informants on their payroll, or maybe they simply believe that there are filmmakers so flawless, so creamy that they will float to the top in all circumstances. And while it would to some extent puzzle – perhaps even irk – the film community if a Cannes competition lineup featured no ‘big’ names, there is something worth questioning in the expectation that the newest film by Nuri Bilge Ceylan or the Dardennes must surely be good enough to make the cut; and I cite these filmmakers because, unless I am mistaken, neither party has in the last decade had a new feature not premiere at Cannes. Now my personal opinion is that Ceylan is hurtling towards arguable pantheon-level greatness with his modest filmography to date, but humour me this for a moment. If, by some stroke of cosmic madness Ceylan’s ‘Winter Sleep’ and all other new works by renowned filmmakers were utterly devoid of artistic merit, were utter goat turds, would they be left off in preference of films by lesser known, less sexy artists whose names would not draw nearly as much interest from film lovers and the film press? I suspect that in this fantastical situation I have created, a festival committee – for fear of losing the publicity a festival like Cannes or Venice banks on – would not only invite a host of A-list celebrities to grace their carpets, but that the selection committee would take chances on bad films by essentially good filmmakers, hoping they have a ‘Vertigo’ on their hands (a film essentially ahead of its time) or that, at the very least, the press will have a field day trashing a name director’s turd of a picture. Am I saying that a selection would throw filmmakers under the bus in order to maintain their festival’s profile? I’m saying I don’t know that they wouldn’t, and that – if they did – that it would be knowingly malicious.

Now – to be a stick in the mud of my own complaint – is there perhaps a reason why the same names keep appearing at festivals such as Cannes, hogging the artistic limelight? Is it because these filmmakers make buddy-buddy with Thierry Fremaux and Gilles Jacob and don’t forget to send Christmas cards? Is it because the film community – like any community – is ever so resistant to those on the fringes, only welcoming a few at a time into its core? Or are these artists well renowned because they truly are the best of the best of the best of the best? Considering thousands of films are submitted each year in the hopes of landing a slot somewhere in the official selection, I’d say that all three of the above are at work to one degree of another.

But on the other hand, Cannes is an institution with the sovereign right to elevate those films it deems worthy of elevation. There are those who question what right festivals have to select a handful of films and ignore a vast majority. To these folk I say, “What right don’t they have? This is what a selection is.” As much as I appreciate their frustration (and mine at times), the simple truth is that each festival, each panel of selectors, is ultimately taking part in the act of ranking art according to its own (the respective festival’s own, that is) value system however steeped in superficiality or artistic integrity, and unless they are tasked with ranking numbers 1 through 2000 in order of numerical value, it is hard to argue against the selection of a film versus the non-selection of another film. If anything, the fact that these festivals don’t seem to surreptitiously suggest that their choice is the capital C choice, unlike some academies that brand films ‘Best Picture’ without much of a relativity clause, sucks the wind from the sails of those who argue against the objective merit of the films that tend to be selected for festivals. The answer is that there is no pretence of objectivity, only the belief that the opinions of those selecting films are as much in service of cinema as the opinions of those who will be ultimately bestowing golden statuettes and ribbon-tied scrolls at said festival’s conclusion. At the very least, the best film at Locarno is the best film at Locarno, and simply that.

So, having argued for the right of festival committees to select whatever films that they so desire, can I then blame the film press for being aware of these committees’ predilections and patterns? If Festival A showcases all the big names while Festival C focuses on small scale films by cinematic underdogs, can one be blamed for knowing that SXSW will almost certainly not be screening Haneke’s next film and that, likewise, Alex Ross Perry isn’t that likely to bag a spot on the Croisette in place of Kore-eda? I suppose the game of presumption and expectation will continue as long as some festivals remain dedicated to bringing you the newest films from the best directors you have heard of.

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