The various dimensions of the relatively not so bad “Interstellar”

December 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

If the Nolan brothers are right, that is to say, if they have correctly understood and applied that which theoretical physicist Kip Thorne brought to the “Interstellar” project as one of the key originators of the story concept and one of the production’s major scientific consultants, and if Jonathan Nolan learned anything whilst he was hitting the physics books in an effort to lend a degree of  credibility and rigor to the script that he was to pen for Steven Spielberg back in the mid-late 2000s (who was then attached to direct the project for Paramount), then they may very well have solved one of the central mysteries of Stanley Kubrick’s game-changing “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a film whose cultural gravity “Interstellar” will find frankly inescapable. The eerily intimidating monoliths which seem to function as intellectual wormholes in that 1968 masterwork, appearing out of the blue and somehow propelling humanoid apes from Bone Age to Space Age (via moments of bravura editing and during menacingly scored sequences), have long been considered the handiwork of some benevolent Higher Intelligence whether alien or deity, if these two are even mutually exclusive; one that is for some reason invested (presumably) in the development of humankind so much so that it strategically places these knowledge-radiating/thought-stimulating objects in their midst in order that they may take much needed evolutionary steps forward. Either this, or the gleaming pillars are somehow symbolic of freakish and largely unexplained aberrations in human intellectual capacity and output of the kind that enable for quantum leaps in mankind’s status as a thinking species i.e. raw genius, eureka moments, and the like. The alternative that director Christopher Nolan and his brother and long-time writing partner Jonathan posit with “Interstellar” is probably not in the least bit novel and has almost certainly been someone somewhere’s explanation for the uncanny omnipresence and effect of Kubrick’s monoliths: the explanation being that humanity itself is somehow responsible for their existence and timely appearances; that the ancestors are in fact being guided by the descendants.  But unlike gods and extra-terrestrials, there are branches of physics which actively seek out and continue to find means by which the law-bending feats of survivalist exploration and trans-dimensional communication that take place in “Interstellar” can be explained. It’s a classic case of fiction being inspired to dream big and dream bold by the most radical and/or pioneering schools of scientific thought, and in this way it is very much of a kind with “2001: A Space Odyssey” which seemed to pre-empt the 1969 moon landing on the precedent of everything that had led up to Yuri Gargarin’s milestone 1961 trip aboard Vostok 1 and the trajectory of the Space Race thereafter. Perhaps it won’t be a mere year before humans begin sliding through space-time like mole rats and sending back messages from the future, but the latent hope present in science/speculative fiction is that it will somehow foreshadow actuality, however great the timespan between the two may be.

Following up his woeful “The Dark Knight Rises” with another “Inception”-like special effects extravaganza that indulges his obsession with malleable realities and flexible time, Christopher Nolan offers up a tale set in a frighteningly not-too-distant and very topical future where food shortage is a far greater scourge than war, presumably because Gaia is taking her last breaths after millennia of abuse at the hands of mankind. A still wiry Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, an ex-NASA pilot/engineer turned farmer who – with his bright spark of a ten-year old daughter, Murphy – discovers a secret project spearheaded by his former employers, one aimed at seeking out a new home for earthlings. Intent on honouring his species’ age-old exploratory drive as well as securing a viable future for the human race, Cooper joins three other astronauts on a journey outside our solar system. Anne Hathaway, sporting what must be a post-“Les Miserable” head of short hair, returns to work with the British director after her memorable turn as Catwoman in “The Dark Knight Rises.” Here she lends her body and her voice to the character of Dr Amelia Brand, one of Cooper’s fellow astronauts and the daughter of Professor John Brand, the chief scientist heading the “Lazarus missions” and the film’s Janus of sorts, wearing both the hat of ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ at various points. As old man Brand, Michael Caine turns in the same kind of performance that Nolan draws from him in the Batman pictures: that of a painfully sympathetic idealist who sounds like he is perpetually choked-up with emotion. On a similar note, Hathaway, unlike her critic-silencing brilliance in the third Dark Knight film, seems – like most of the cast, to be perfectly honest – somewhat stunted by the didactic plottiness and afterthought characterisations of Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s screenplay. The thing about Nolan pictures is that the individual performances within them which end up dazzling viewers – Heath Ledger’s The Joker and Hathaway’s aforementioned Catwoman to name but two – tend to do so in spite of a yoke-like plot threatening to strangle out much of their spontaneity. Ledger’s turn is so striking precisely because, as an actor, his ability to break free and create a character that seems to breathe in a seemingly airtight cinematic vehicle is totally and utterly simpatico with the philosophy of the character he is portraying, in that The Joker’s chaos injects something organic and accordingly exciting into the film. Sadly, the various burdens of “Interstellar” prove to be a force strong enough to stifle its largely promising cast filled with some ever dependable presences. In fact, the most interesting performance might belong, by the slightest margin, to the young actor Mackenzie Foy who plays the young version of Cooper’s daughter, Murphy, if only for the fact that her youth is something of a welcome counterpoint to the very ‘adult’ mode of weariness and tight-faced brooding that tends to suffuse this particular director’s films.

y = height = spectacle

“Interstellar” is to 2014 what “Gravity” was to 2013; no, not the space movie of the year, but the Hollywood-brand cinematic event that demands to be viewed seated in front of the largest possible screen and wrapped in the richest Dolby cocoon.  Accordingly, Christopher Nolan, being militantly pro-film (that is to say, shooting on film stock as opposed to hard drives), has commanded his flock of fans and rabid defenders – as well as the general public – to see his latest offering projected in 70mm and/or on IMAX. Living a mere hour from the world’s (apparently) largest IMAX screen, in Sydney’s Darling Harbour, there are few excuses not to choose this viewing option. Sadly, though, apart from the intimidating size of the visuals during the colossal-wave-on-a-distant-planet sequence which, combined with the physical vibrations that growled through the auditorium seats in these very moments, most likely startled hundreds of pairs of eyes and butt cheeks, “Interstellar” did not seem to benefit whatsoever from the IMAX treatment. In fact, the picture might very well be considered to have been betrayed by its own native format. How else is one supposed to interpret the feeling of walking out of an IMAX theatre wishing that they had seen the movie on an average digitally-projected screen one-third the size?

Now, it may very well have been that the projection on this particular day was for some reason lacking, but it seemed as though the visuals were almost ill-suited to the format: dark, distractingly average in resolution and often poorly focused, none of which make a lick of sense because (a) under-exposure is a complaint more frequently directed at films projected in 3D, (b) IMAX film, being 70mm and capturing images at a whopping 18K, should be the pinnacle of motion picture resolution, and (c) Christopher Nolan, while inconsistent on certain fronts, is always technically impeccable and would not overlook focal flaws.  Hyperbolic as it may sound, watching this film was at times akin to watching a pirated version projected onto a goliath of a screen. In addition, unless one is in the rearmost row, there is often an urge to scan the screen, even when seated right in the mid-axis. Were the movie more in awe of outer space, providing single long-held, panoramic shots of cosmic vistas, the act of physically panning one’s own field of vision up and down and left to right might have been warranted, even contributing to the sense that one is in fact staring out a spaceship window, glancing around wide-eyed. However, Nolan is not the kind of filmmaker to place the focus of interest on the peripheries of the frame, the result being that the eyes remain glued to the centre of the screen, creating a kind of blind-spot pan-and-scan. Most disappointing, though, is the fact that “Interstellar” is nowhere near the visual feast that it is touted as being. “The Tree of Life” would have been far more spectacular on IMAX, and not simply the ‘origins of the universe’ sequence but every spiritedly shot, swooping, crystalline image. As strange as it might sound, “Interstellar” is almost conservative (not necessarily reserved) in its depictions of space and space travel when compared to even recent films from the same corner of the sci-fi canon i.e. the aforementioned “Gravity” and Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine.” The question then becomes: does “Interstellar” have any actual fuel of its own – as a cinematic event – or is it coasting on the pedigree of its cast and crew and on the expectations that the name Nolan inspires? Because it is simply not as striking – in any sense – as Alfonso Cuaron’s 2013 foray into space. The fact is, the financial success of “Interstellar” is a great deal more presaged and expected than was that of “Gravity” which did decent business almost in spite of its being something of a chamber film whose technical virtuosity was oftentimes more in service of the illusion of verisimilitude (as pertains to space-travel) and fluidity of visual narrative than it was of explosive set pieces, not that the film has a paucity of action or energy. In this sense, Nolan is either more commercial or more conventional than Cuaron, or both; because the way in which the experience of space travel – of weightlessness, claustrophobic vastness, infinite silence, loneliness – is imagined in “Gravity” seems to have been a major part of its Mexican director’s agenda, as is true of Kubrick’s approach with “2001,” subjecting the viewer to lengthy stretches of silence and isolation that simultaneously astonish and exasperate. On the other hand, for a film whose ambition and grandeur has been made much of in the lead-up to and surrounding its release, it would be inaccurate – and disappointingly so – to consider “Interstellar” particularly audacious in its depictions of space exploration. Everything from the hibernation pods to the videophone to the lone man hurtling through mangled space-time…all these have found their way onto the screen in the last century.

The one singularly unique touch that Nolan and his collaborators bring to the canon of ‘space cinema’ is the moderate scientific rigor with which cosmic entities and principles such as blackholes, wormholes and temporal relativity are dramatized visually and utilised narratively. When it comes to spectacle, Nolan seems less interested in awe than he is in exhilaration, and in this way he proves to be very much a filmmaker of his time, of this particular time. He has little patience for the visual grace of weightlessness or the endless black of outer space and doesn’t bother to dwell on these, with which there is nothing intrinsically problematic. But it is surprising that a film of such considerable length, set primarily in the vast unknown and cobbled together by a crew of artisans with access to the very best in SFX, is far too preoccupied with plot and action to at least take a moment to consider the wondrous fabric of the universe. What seems to fascinate Nolan more is the violence and raw power that might exist in worlds other than ours, whether it’s the aforementioned tidal wave, the undulating and muscular tundra landscape of another, or the unforgiving enormity of a blackhole. There is this, and there is the physical impact of interstellar travel on the human body. If memory is to be trusted, many a frame is focused on the faces of Cooper and his crewmates as they are assaulted by temperamental physical forces, whether breaking through earth’s gravitational hold or being swallowed by various space holes. The helmeted close-up shot of Keir Dullea’s character Bowman as he is transported through some kind of celestial kaleidoscope to his next stage of existence in “2001” seems to be a template for Christopher Nolan, who focuses as much on the fear, the thrill and the physical strain experienced and expressed by his spacefarers as he does on visualising the actual mechanics of interstellar travel or the wonders of nature.

z =depth = heart, mind and soul

Could it be that, with “Interstellar,” Christopher Nolan is making a bid to rehabilitate his image as an emotionally disengaged director? From operatically earnest moments between a father and his young daughter to dusty deathbed scenes and unexpected kisses of joy and excitement replete with paper-throwing eureka-moments, this space epic seems intent on rebutting those who scoff at its director’s reputed lack of heart and sentiment, not that “Inception” or the Batman films were themselves resolutely ascetic.

It is a fairly commonly held view that Christopher Nolan is an unemotional filmmaker, a cold filmmaker, a distanced filmmaker…what have you. Perhaps it has to do with the sense of his films having a certain degree of technical exactitude what with the finicky parallel editing he frequently employs, or the plotlines he tends to dream up, akin to elephants riding trikes along highwires. Maybe it’s a result of his exposition-heavy storytelling, or the cool, crisp slickness of his images, or the fact that he is always in a suit, pouting like a prodigious ten-year-old. And while it may be accurate that, as a crafter of narratives, he seems to be driven more by a fascination with ideas, mechanics and metaphysics (at the risk of painting him in a particularly hifalutin light) than he is by an enduring commitment to exploring and documenting the emotional dimensions of the human makeup, he is not as rigorously intellectual as – say – late Godard, and shows no evidence of being in the least bit shy of staging big emotions and big moments between characters. So conflating some perceived what-ever-it-may-be with being cerebral is a bit of a misconception, because, despite the fact that Nolan’s films are frequently considered to be ‘mind-bending,’ intellectually slippery cinematic puzzles, his work has always had a foot planted firmly in the realm of psychology and emotion. From “Following” to “Interstellar,” the foundation of Nolan’s stories have been, almost unwaveringly, damaged men seeking to rectify something in hope that it might somehow rectify them. While they might adorn an outer shell of composed, dour professionalism, the force of their inner pain and their private obsessions eventually pierces through to the surface in scenes and moments that are oftentimes unwieldy. Perhaps the issue is not so much that Christopher Nolan eschews emotion, but that his films are so beholden to plot and theme that emotion and psychology simply become tools for the progression of plot and theme. Either this is the case, or he truly has zero interest in the emotional lives of his characters and awkwardly throws in obligatory moments of ‘feeling’ in order that they might seem three-dimensionally ‘human.’ Yet, anyone who views his films even glancingly cannot deny the importance of his characters’ inners states as a motivator of behaviour and a driver of plot. The reverse narrative of “Memento” would cease to exist if Leonard was not driven by apparent devotion to his dead wife, nor would Dom Cobb’s spiralling journey into the depths of consciousness in “Inception.” Even the gritty ‘realism’ for which the Dark Knight series is notable is more than partly dependent on the relative psychological richness of its cast of characters.

McConaughey’s Cooper proudly follows in the lineage of Nolan family men beaten down by loss (usually of a wife), and he is certainly up to the task from a performance point of view, though he is more serviceable than he is outstanding. Cooper’s two obsessions, indulging the inquisitive and pioneering human spirit and ensuring a secure future for his children, are what drive him to the peripheries of aberrant space-time. Yet, as with most Nolan protagonists, there is a strange disconnect, an odd disjuncture between Cooper’s devotion to his children and his devotion to exploring the great unknown in that the former does not necessarily explain or even justify the latter. In many ways, young Murphy is shrewd in refusing to give her old man the farewell that he is perhaps hoping for: tearful but agreeable. She most likely realises that his desire to spend several years wandering the cosmos is as much to satisfy his own radical instincts (if not more) as it is to find a new, safer haven for her and the rest of their species. As is the case with most of Nolan’s films, the broody, psychologically bared nature of this his most recent protagonist comes across as a somewhat convenient launching pad for a storyline that becomes increasingly more interested in tossing around the idea that reality is made of malleable fabric and in indulging whatever visual and narrative trickery this might allow. Perhaps this is the reason for Nolan coming across as ‘unemotional:’ his desire to create formalist spectacles outweighs his desire to ‘connect.’ This doesn’t necessarily negate him as a feeling being but rather speaks to his interest in cinema as an assaultive medium, hence his fondness for Hans Zimmer amongst other things.

There is a moment in “Interstellar” which perfectly illustrates the unfortunate offhanded convenience with which emotional ‘beats’ are employed in Nolan’s oeuvre. As Cooper and his remaining crewmates debate which previously scouted planet to spend their time – and more crucially, whole earth decades – exploring, it is abruptly made known, by Cooper, that Amelia Brand happens to be in love with one of their predecessors who never returned from his voyage and who still remains lost in space but is perhaps alive and stranded on some strange world, desperately trying to make contact; and boy is the moment clunky. Regardless of how sincere Amelia’s emotions may in fact be within the universe of the film, the sudden mention of this fact comes across as unashamedly expository and a very opportune way to introduce conflict and to reinforce the fact that these characters are motivated as much by selfishness as they are by selflessness and that the two can be blurred beyond distinction, at least in the minds of those in question. The surprise celebrity cameo, which had people whispering the actor’s name in the darkened theatres and whose entrance unwittingly recalls said actor’s recent comic trope, is another graceless attempt at moral complexity and ambiguity which ironically almost ends up creating the movie’s only true villain, if one had to be named; not that his thoughts and sentiments are villainous, only his methods. In ways that aren’t quite as manifestly transparent and ‘scripted,’ “Interstellar” and the cutting edge scientific precepts upon which the story is based continue to be undercut by misguided attempts at having a credible psycho-emotional core, something that Nolan would most certainly want any of his films to have. But maybe – in a move that would seem deeply counterintuitive for a filmmaker who may be battling the image that he is ‘cold’ and lacking a ‘human touch’ – Christopher Nolan would benefit from liberating himself from the burden of sentiment, emerging as a steadfastly conceptual writer-director. Not only would his films be even more efficient, they might become more thematically sound as its creators focus on the expression of ideas rather than on the consideration and replication of human emotion. However, as things currently stand, “Interstellar” is and will remain a slightly bloated oil-and-water mixture of ideas made stagnant, if not weakened, by an insistence on their being intertwined with a human story.

x = breadth = thematic and ideological scope

‘Stay.’

This word is pivotal to the story, coded into the paranormal Morse-code message that leads Cooper and Murphy to the secret NASA site. Due, however, to an absence of hindsight and a general disregard for the fact that this simple declaration may in fact be an earnest warning from someone somewhere beyond, Cooper does the very opposite and leaves, much to Murphy’s adolescent chagrin. But with this statement, is Cooper suggesting that his past self remain with his family instead of embarking on a fool-hardy expedition, or is he pleading with humanity as a whole to forget the ‘extra-‘ and focus on the terrestrial? Like Professor Brand and the pseudo-villainous pioneering astronaut Mann (Matt Damon doing his now famous comedic stuttering cry in the previously mentioned cameo, one whose casting is simultaneously silly and somewhat shrewd), is Cooper deciding to single-handedly damn humanity to a slow, hungry death on earth simply because of his guilt over choosing the stars over his children? Whatever the answer, it is thrown into the wastebasket when the older version of Murphy, rather than heeding her father’s warnings, proves to be her father’s daughter and somehow ignores it, propelling interstellar travel to the point that it becomes mankind’s salvation, however temporarily. Thus this word ‘stay’ becomes another example of the Nolan brothers’ tendency to craft untenable emotional underpinnings which are quickly shouldered aside by plot. Unless it is a very low-key critique of humanity’s propensity to ignore the obvious or semi-obvious at the risk of its own undoing.

But, for a movie that was expected – however unfairly – to be “Avatar”-like in its revolutionary use of cinema technology, or to at least be on par with “Inception” as the ultimate thinking jock’s blockbuster, the legacy of “Interstellar” will almost certainly hinge on its attempts at scientific accuracy, with both negative and positive implications. On the positive front, Nolan and his team of wizards have single-handedly supplanted all pre-existing visuals depictions of black holes as vortexes and gaping holes in an already abysmal blackness, surprising audiences with a brilliantly haloed sphere, one which is supported by current cosmological understanding. The same applies to the film’s depictions of wormholes as being spherical rather than circular. But is this scientific verisimilitude sufficient enough, though, to outweigh the negatives that pepper “Interstellar”? Especially considering that the filmmakers seem to be conflating fact with pure speculation, following-up the accuracy of a spherical black hole with a purely fantastical depiction of what might exist within said blackhole. Of course, a great degree of artistic license must be assumed by Nolan and his people in the making of such a picture, but might it not be still a touch disingenuous for “Interstellar” to present itself as scientifically correct while being wildly speculative within the same breath? By the same token, can it be reasonably expected that a film present clear, easily comprehensible 2D or 3D visual representations of concepts that involve far more than three dimensions, ones that still boggle some of our most powerful minds;  ideas which up till now most likely only existed as densely jargoned paragraphs and unwieldy equations? Perhaps – as is the case with any artist that takes an interest in exploring and depicting those things that lie at the fringes of intellectual pursuit – misrepresentation, misunderstanding and general unwieldiness must be accepted as occupational hazards. So what with this particular depiction of the ultimate unknown? When Cooper is swallowed by the blackhole – (is he, though? Isn’t AI assistant TARS the one tasked with taking one for the team and propelling himself into the void?) – he finds himself floating around what looks like his old bookshelf on planet earth, only now repeating and folding in on itself in Escherian fashion, cascading into infinity. It’s curious that this particular space in which Cooper finds himself is based on something from his own memory: the bookshelf, the one thing which most likely remains for Murphy a souvenir of her father and his paternal legacy. In some ways this imagining of the inside of a blackhole could be considered lacking in imagination and almost obvious in its conception; obviously warped, disorienting and structurally ‘impossible’ in the way that most people would expect the bowels of this most enigmatic cosmological entity to look like, or at least as per Christopher Nolan’s mind.  Most curious, though, is the way in which Cooper is able to interact with space-time fabric, represented here as bands of light and who knows what else, able to be ‘plucked’ like strings on a double bass. Is this intended to be a visual representation of String Theory? Because if it is, it is rather cute (not to be condescending) and may be the most effective distillation of unfathomably complicated theoretical physics pulled off by this team of filmmakers. This being said, it probably does relative detriment to the narrative of “Interstellar” to pick apart the manner in which science is folded into film dough. As previously said, is it reasonable to expect that a mainstream Hollywood (expected) blockbuster depict still unresolved scientific theories in a way that is both accurate and widely comprehensible to lay audiences? Most certainly not, and on this front, “Interstellar” likely does infinitesimally little to advance  the efforts by throbbing brains around the globe to develop a theory which will hopefully unify the ever-growing number of often contradictory theories about the universe, its origins, its nature and it fate. On this note, “Interstellar” can rest easy on the fact that it contains the most accurate cinematic blackhole to date, which is something.

Even more complicated is the way in which the film deals with human self-preservation, wrestling – seemingly – with the tense relationship between individualism and communalism, selfishness and selflessness, and how these determine the Homo Sapien survivalist drive. Is Cooper’s decision to venture into deep space based primarily on a concern for the survival of mankind or is it simply spurred on by the love he has for his progeny (which is as much selfish as it is selfless considering that his genes will persist if his children do)? The murky morals of this are by far the most interesting intellectual aspect of “Interstellar,” far more than the half-baked physics. Interesting why? Well, consider the inciting incident of “Interstellar”: plague-like global famine, perhaps due to inhospitable soil and/or climates. It could be argued strongly that humanity’s overwhelming desire to survive paired with its ability to master (to some extent) its natural environment to the point of exploitation and eventual devastation is the very reason that planet earth becomes an increasingly hostile environment in which fewer and fewer crops are able to thrive. Just as a great deal of wonderful technology developed over the millennia have been tied directly to mankind’s desire to kill and dominate with efficiently i.e. military endeavours and such,  the tragedy of this species might very well be that it’s ingenuity is its undoing. The tragedy thus extends into the narrative of ”Interstellar” in the sense that humanity, wherever it finds itself next in the universe, might be doomed by the very fact that it chooses to leave the mess it has created rather than learning to clean it up. In this way, the film could be viewed as an astute political comment, a clandestine criticism of those who deny humanity’s role in raping its own home. In fact, by taking place in a future when war is an abandoned human pursuit the film somehow posits that a dying planet (one being steadily killed by humanity) is a greater threat to the survival of our species than our own violent and hateful urges towards one another.

To regress directly back to the core theme at hand: what is the morality of survival, and does “Interstellar” have much if anything to say about it? Somewhere in the middle of the film, it is uncovered that Professor Brand’s true mission is to transport human embryos across the cosmos until a habitable world is found wherein they can be fertilised to kickstart a brand new human population. His villainy is not so much that he decides to abandon the present in hope for the future but that he sends Cooper and countless other astronauts into deep space on the premise that they will be saving the present throng of people. This is true; but in many ways, Prof. Brand’s actions display a degree of insight, however cynical, into the inherent selfishness of his own species, understanding that very few would willingly support a money guzzling project in the hope of maybe finding a new home for a bunch of eggs. So, putting Brand’s deceit aside, is it possible that he – and Damon’s character Mann – are the most selfless characters in the film, ultimately sacrificing themselves (along with everyone else) for the survival of mankind, or are they just coldly utilitarian, pursuing the most practical and achievable goal? Are they extreme examples of the domineering human spirit, more interested in intellectual pursuit, scientific achievement and personal legacy than they are in the species for whose benefit these endeavours should be undertaken. It’s murky territory indeed and it must be said that “Interstellar” doesn’t really seem intent on dipping its feet in this mire, but at least these issues are raised for those who are inclined to mull over them.

t = time = narrative and motion

“Interstellar” is nowhere near as temporally fiddly as “Inception,” which is clearly the benchmark by which the narrative audacity in Nolan’s most recent picture will be and is being judged. Even while that 2010 billion-dollar box-office smash is somewhat creatively bankrupt in the way that Nolan and friends choose to depict dream consciousness – that is, physically law-defying but nowhere near psychologically bizarre – the skilful agitation with which the various ‘dreams within dreams’ are arranged and narrated in parallel fashion demands to be noticed if not applauded. In comparison to “Inception” – in fact, in comparison to most movies – the parallel editing in “Interstellar” is frankly unremarkable, and even as it peaks towards the end of the film, little brain power at all is required to orient oneself to time and place. Unless a crucial oversight is being made here, there are only ever two (or maybe three) frames of reference running simultaneously alongside one another: earth time and McConaughey time (and perhaps spaceship time); this versus the five or six timelines that are juggled in “Inception.” In addition, the fact that many of the characters in that film exist within several of these timelines without much physical distinction makes for an increasingly complicated viewing experience, especially if one if the type of viewer who must be up to speed with the narrative as the film is unfolding. It truly is surprising to hear “Interstellar” being described as mind-bending, complicated or even difficult. Sure, the physics behind much of the story is fairly novel, if not radical, and well beyond the substantial comprehension of most who are not intimately versed in relativity and quantum theory. But the Nolan brothers are populists and so too their general approach to visualising the phenomenon of time relativity. The most that is done to create the sense that time crawls for one person while hurtling for another is for a subtle bit of makeup to be applied to actor David Gyasi who plays the physicist Romilly, one of Cooper’s astronaut buddies who ends up waiting twenty plus years in the spaceship ‘Endurance’ while Cooper and Brand screw around (not sexually) on the wave planet. In truth, there is probably little more that could imaginably be done to achieve this effect; unless perhaps a split screen technique is adopted in which one half depicts Cooper and company in real-time while the other shows earth in hyper fast-forward.

Only once Nolan’s filmography is considered as a whole does it become somewhat obvious how linear and modestly paced “Interstellar” actually is. This is not an unqualified criticism either. There are passages of runtime in this film which display the pinches of restraint and patience of which Nolan is capable, qualities which have subtly set him apart from most other purveyors of silver screen hubris and excess.  Even as most of his movies move at a fairly urgent pace, replete with quick cuts, breathless exposition and scores that absolutely clobber the ears, part of the punch that a Nolan picture delivers lies is the realisation that someone has been pulling strings backstage, quietly, knowingly, in control. In the moment, his films can be almost sloppily frenetic; but underlying them is a degree of narrative fortitude and foresight, and a good grasp of how tension is built and released. Well, that patience has, to some extent, bled through into the editing and the rhythm of certain scenes in “Interstellar” and as a result the film breathes a great deal more than one might expect from something made by this director in this current phase of his career. “Inception” and “The Dark Knight Rises” must have been hopped up on some kind of low-grade stimulant that “Interstellar” thankfully refused (most of the time) or could not afford (as if). The only problem that arises is that a rushed pace can go some ways towards smoothing out or breezing over deficiencies in other departments which, when given time to be pored over, can be ruinous. But a picture that breathes, even just a little, will open itself – its plot, its performances, every tiny goof or inconsistency –  to a heap of scrutiny, while it is being viewed, not just on further consideration. So while Nolan doesn’t seem intent on molesting as many senses as possible, the awkwardness of being an actor in one of his films becomes clear in that there seems to be a distinct paucity of spontaneity (as mentioned earlier), or even the illusion of it, in “Interstellar” amongst others. Characters are utilised as advancers of plot and any attempt at imbuing them with strokes of ‘nuance’ feels like an aside aimed at appeasing those who demand that their fictional people be ‘three dimensional’, whatever this term actually means with regards to psychological complexity. There are these, and then there are the numerous possible plot holes and inconsistencies that surface as the near three-hour runtime ticks along, including (a) why it is that astro-Cooper would send the word ‘stay’ along with the coordinates to the secret NASA site to his past self and young Murphy (unless he hopes that they would find and then somehow sabotage the place, and doesn’t count on the fact that earth-Cooper would be seduced and enticed by the idea of interstellar exploration); (b) why it is that Mann decides to prevent Cooper from returning back to earth to be with his daughter (unless his fear is that Cooper will expose Professor Brand’s true intentions and bring the wrath of the world’s population on the project); (c) why it is that a future society struggling to feed itself in an increasingly hostile physical factors opts for some sort of reflex reversion to hand-in-dirt , weather-dependent agricultural practice rather than succumbing to ‘evils’ like genetic modification and applying some space-age ambition and military gusto to large-scale crop production; (d) why it is that a director known for bringing grit and some semblance of ‘realism’ to a comic book universe finds it difficult to adhere to the simple scientific principle that a vacuum  does not support loud explosions; (e) any number of other potential nit-picks that will most certainly ensure that “Interstellar” is not forgotten all too quickly.

love = the theory of everything human (?)

One of the final shots of “Interstellar” is of a teary-eyed Amelia Brand, standing on the planet which turns out to be the final resting place for the man she loved. At the recommendation of his daughter Murphy (who is old enough to be his grandmother and old enough to be played by the legendary Ellen Burstyn by the end of the film), Cooper jets off to find Amelia, as though she is and always was his destiny. This conclusion, it must be said, is poor in conception, execution aside. Having failed to provide any indication whatsoever that Cooper and Brand see each other as anything more than space colleagues, the movie seems to expect – out of the blue – that Cooper and Brand are meant for each other, for some reason unknown or unexplored other than that which relates to their both being young, fit and attractive astronauts. Call it nit-picking, but there is something unpalatably transactional about old Murphy’s romantic suggestion, almost as though Brand is being – for want of a better word – pimped out to Cooper, perhaps because she is the only woman who is compatible with him on some grand temporal scale,.

Moving on from the above, Amelia gives her now (in)famous brief impassioned speech somewhere near the middle of “Interstellar” during which she raises, somewhat cornily, the idea that love might be, like gravity, a force that is able to transcend dimensions whether there are three as per Euclides, or eleven as in M Theory. According to her, the main drive behind all of humanity’s grandest achievements is not so much survival per se, but love; love for one’s family, friends, peers, society and – if one chooses to be cynical – oneself. Assuming that the only thing particularly problematic about Brand’s sentiment is the sentimental manner in which she expresses it (and the fact that she indulges in this moment of oratory out of sudden lovesickness), it must be said that she might be absolutely spot on; not necessarily with regards to love being some physical entity that can be factored into all manner of calculations and models, but in the sense of it being a powerful phenomenon whose true durability is frankly quite humbling. In a move that is somewhat unprecedented for a filmmaker as ‘cold’ as Christopher Nolan, “Interstellar” is most consistently a film about – cheesy as it may sound – the notion that for all the intellectual potential and capacity that humans possess collectively, the most significant, most powerful driving force behind most of our endeavours is devotion to something whatever that something is, whether an individual or an idea. The film’s insistence on the affection and devotion that can exist and thrive between father and daughter or man and humanity or man and idea prevents it from being the cerebral spectacle that people seemed to expect it to be. For all its giant screen bombast, being rooted in the one emotion/state of mind that has preoccupied earthlings since time immemorial gives it a modesty that belies its form, thus making it weirdly unique in the Nolan canon. But there is a somewhat darker reading of Brand’s earnest words, one which extracts love from its place of positivity and warmth and positions it as being potentially constructive and destructive concurrently. If there is one truth which millennia of human civilisation have taught us, it’s that love is no simple matter. To be conveniently reductive, the love for oneself, one’s kin, one’s nation…all these can and have arguably been fuel for hate. And while it’s debatable whether love for one thing can in fact beget hate for another, the ambiguity inherent in this four letter word is interesting indeed. So while Amelia might wax elegiacally about the power of love, she might want to consider how much this crazy little thing has contributed to humankind’s feats versus its innumerable foibles. Perhaps the further reaches of the universe would be better off without mankind and its dangerous penchant for what it believes to be love.

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Brief impression: “L’avventura”

December 22, 2014 § 1 Comment

It’s interesting to revisit a film whose first and only viewing was so seminal a moment in the viewer’s life that it was and has been considered an unwavering favourite in the viewer’s mind for years. Interesting in that those elements which initially seduced and bewitched on an almost purely sensual and intuitive level are now approached with an invariably analytical eye. Now that the packaging has been duly admired and fawned over, it’s time to see what’s inside, which in truth would be an erroneous assumption seeing as, with this and many of Antonioni’s subsequent films, form is function. On seeing “L’avventura” for the second time, the images are appreciated for more than just their crystalline beauty but for their role in externalising the interior, in being the visual analogue of the kind of spare modernist prose that can in a few choice words paint a terse yet lucid and eerily precise impression of a character’s essence, intellectual, spiritual and otherwise. Sure, the descriptive density may be low, but the accuracy of the few afforded descriptors is high, and higher still, their suggestive and implicative capacity. Similarly, the physical expanses and edifices, photographed with a challenging degree of patience, double as both the external world in which the characters materially exist and the mindscape in which so many find themselves so hopelessly lost. It’s not enough to view the physical world in “L’avventura” as being symbolic or expressive of the psychological; it is the mind of the characters that inhabit it.

The languid pacing, while often testing, is a deeply ingenious way to induce not only a meditative disposition in the viewer, but a state of mind which mirrors that of the characters in the film, characters cursed with an excess of leisure time so great that they are wont to spiral ever deeper into a vortex of their own inner conflict and despair. Rather than providing the viewer a comfortable boxed seat high up in the stadium from which to view Claudia and Sandro struggle with their dual allegiances to tradition and (at the time) counter-conventional modernity: the concurrent desire for externally prescribed fulfilment and that which is self –determined, Antonioni the director thrusts the viewer onto the lonely emotional playing field alongside the characters he has created and demands that they, that we, play as much a role in this game of the soul as does he, as do his creations. There are probably only two ways to view this film: complete engagement or complete disengagement. As a piece of cinema, this does not suffer the passive patron. It does not give unless given to, which is to say, offered one’s patience and capacity to empathise, or at the very least analyse. What also becomes clear is the artistic shrewdness inherent in the decision of screenwriters Antonioni, Bartolini and Guerra to shoot existential turmoil through the lens of sex and romance, or at least the quest for it. There is perhaps no aspect of the human existence that highlights our perennial state of fickleness, insecurity and confusion quite as unforgivingly as that which relates to the figurative heart and the literal genitals. Contained within and symbolised by the shifting romantic fidelities and sexual scruples of “L’avventura’s” central couple, the decisions and indecision and seesawing between neediness and stubborn yet fragile independence (particularly on the part of Claudia) is – to paraphrase the title of critic Pauline Kael’s disparaging assessment of Antonioni’s follow up to “L’avventura”, “La notte” – ‘the sick soul of Europe.’ The most surprising realisation reached on second viewing, however, might simply be that this film, for all its visual and thematic intensity and brooding, has scattered throughout it instances of dry humour of the kind used by deeply sad people to throw others off their depressive scent. These moments, while able to evoke a smile, a chortle or even just a transitory levity, only serve to highlight the pain belying the pleasure.

But of all the things which stand out on repeat viewing, the film’s final gesture, that of Claudia placing a hand on the head of a seated, weeping Sandro (whom she has just discovered being unfaithful to her on a sofa with a young married starlet), is suddenly a great deal richer than it initially seemed. On first viewing this action bore the scent of forgiveness. This is not to say that she doesn’t forgive him for his infidelity, granted their relationship is itself built on infidelity and the flimsiest foundations; the hand on the head could and probably does encompass a wide range of implications, and Claudia may very well be doing it for various reasons, some perhaps unbeknownst to her. But of all the possibilities, it’s tantalising to imagine that Claudia is perhaps welcoming Sandro, welcoming him to the realm of insight that she and Anna before her have been wandering through, or at the very least the realm of acceptance of the fact that something is not quite and has never been quite right with the state of humankind and with themselves. It should not be forgotten that Claudia is herself in tears when Sandro appears on that rooftop. Her distress may be related to simple betrayal, or regret for her belief, however fleeting, that something durable may have existed between Sandro and herself. Yet when she sees that Sandro, who has hitherto displayed only the slightest bit of self-reflection, is not only contrite but is clearly in the throes of an abrupt realisation that his soul is a void which will not simply be filled by sexual approval and conquest, she is relieved for his sake, though mutedly so. If the film’s central triumvirate of Anna, Claudia and Sandro are at different points along the road to modern self-actualisation, Anna is furthest along, her deep sense of crisis at the film’s outset and her eventual demise or rebirth (whichever the viewer chooses to believe she has suffered/undergone) being the catalyst for Claudia’s own existential awakening, and Sandro’s moment of painful clarity.

So is that the crux of Antonioni’s film: to beautifully, elegantly dwell on the misery of a subset of a subset of a species, one in helpless ontological crisis? Maybe. Perhaps it is a comfort to the average viewer to see that to be simultaneously beautiful, wealthy and well-sexed does not preclude one from suffering pain of a type unique to a beautiful, wealthy and well-sexed existence, which is probably not true. The pain most likely traverses all borders: racial, social, gender, class, aesthetic. “L’avventura” clearly has no answers, no truths or revelations that will guide a person down the path of true happiness and self-fulfilment, nor does it seem in the least bit interested in providing such unequivocal nuggets of self-help gold. If there are to be found in the film, this viewer certainly missed them. But one thing seems apparent; Sandro’s tears are as much a sign of discovery and personal growth as they are of anguish. Perhaps in this moment Anna has finally been found, somehow.

 

Dredged up: “Ritual, rhythm, resentment” (a piece written circa 2011)

December 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

Like a tide lapping the sand and then retreating, Claire Denis’ 1999 dusty gem of a movie “Beau Travail” – translated as “Good Work” – dips in and out of a man named Galoup’s memories of his final days as a Sergeant in the French Foreign Legion, in command of a young outfit of legionnaires stationed in Djibouti, a tiny nation wedged between Eritrea and Ethiopia and Somalia. It also documents his brewing hostility and hate for a young new cadet called Sentain of whom he is envious, which he shamelessly confides to us, the viewership.

You see, Galoup’s narration punctuates the entire picture, part reminiscence, part journal entry, part amateur poetry. Early on, the palpable bitterness he exudes is striking, not only in his words, but in his voice and later, in his actions. You hardly hear the man speak directly to any of the other characters for the film’s 90 minute duration, but it’s telling that the few times he does seem to come from a place of deep resentment and inner imprisonment. In fact, twenty minutes will pass before dialogue of any consequence or narrative importance is uttered, and one would estimate that all in all there are roughly ten/fifteen minutes of dialogue, if that. But Claire Denis has no qualms inserting shots, snippets and scenes of civilian life, seemingly unrelated to the film’s central focus if only for the sake of contrast. Denis grew up on the continent, and her camera (helmed by a masterful Angés Godard) shows a certain fondness for its people. Some local women are talking shop over some rugs and mats while another group of local women have fun watching a lanky technician hug a telephone pole, mock fantasising, it seems, about the other pole between his legs. In the background, Galoup ruminates with a mixture of disdain and devotion on the nature of routine, his, theirs, the general ubiquity of it. A local nightclub is the one place where routines unite, becoming something of a ground for mating rituals. The girls dance, the legionnaires stalk, Galoup lands himself a cute young local booty-call whom we see every so often. It’s doubtful whether he has much interest in her, but at night there he is, standing and smoking, watching her do her thing, her ritual.

Having never read Herman Melville, it’s nonetheless interesting to discover that his unfinished Billy Budd, a novella about the antagonism between a charismatic, orphaned seaman and an officer, is the basis for this movie. A handful of scenes depicting the young legionnaires engaged in what can only be described as French military Tai Chi are lent a sense of gravitas, perhaps even a camp majesty, as they play to extracts from composer Benjamin Britten’s mid-century opera titled…“Billy Budd”.  The choral incantations are effective in evoking something; whatever it might be, one can’t be entirely certain. Somehow, it’s likely that this flourish forces a viewer to see things through Galoup’s eyes. As much as his service might exhaust him, it’s all that he has. He very early on declares himself to be – quote – ‘unfit for civilian life’. So to him, what might be a dusty, sweaty exercise becomes – must become – a kind of ballet, some breed of modern dance; transcendent. You can see that in these moments Galoup is where he is supposed to be, in the midst of his boys, topless, in the Djibouti sun. He has purpose. On the topic of music, there are some very – one hesitates to say “cool” – soundtrack choices in this film. Not many of them, but each quite memorable. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Oliver N’Goma, Corona – disparate styles, all underscoring their respective scenes to a perfect tee. And lest it ends up forgotten, the brooding, subterranean score by Eran Tzur adds a menacing surrealism that is difficult to shake. At first, you’d be forgiven for thinking that perhaps the wind in Djibouti smokes Marlboros and slams down whisky.

Make no mistake, a substantial chunk of this movie quietly watches Galoup and his company engage in training exercises, and believe it or not, it’s riveting stuff. Throw in the sparse coastal setting, gorgeous in its arid simplicity; add the camera, like a little girl let loose amongst men, at times coming in for curious close-ups, other times gazing from a distance during moments of lapsed attention or whimsy. Shades of azure and tan fill the screen. Rows of round shaved heads back a blue sky. And boy do the scenes have rhythm, not just the ballet grills but everything. Denis is renowned for the ebb and flow of her films, the unique pacing. “Beau Travail” is in no hurry to get anywhere, but it certainly knows where it’s going. It might take its time, but calling it slow is like calling a circling condor confused. If you allow yourself to admire its grace, you soon become transfixed by it, hypnotised. Hell, this writer’s breathing patterns fell under the spell. It’s that kind of a film. One might hesitate to call it Malickian, but anyone familiar with the works of Terrence Malick will begin drawing parallels within the first five minutes.

Sentain is the titular Billy Budd. Quiet, handsome, heroic and well-liked by his peers, he arouses Galoup’s loathing. Some would say he arouses a little more than that, hence the loathing. Much is said about the homoeroticism that simmers within and beneath “Beau Travail” and it’s hard to dispute its presence despite very little being stated or presented overtly. But, frankly, is it anything more than the homoeroticism implicit in almost every war picture? Perhaps, in the absence of actual warfare and a good deal of clothing, this aspect of military life is given license to come to the fore. And for those who depend on a tangible plotline, the ‘relationship’ between Sentain and Galoup is the closest you’ll get, but towards the end some pretty interesting shit goes down. The only other ‘main character’, Commander Bruno Forestier, is a curious one. Galoup seems to harbour a measure of fondness and respect for him, but it seems the Commander couldn’t care less. He is content to just laze about watching nothing unfold, giving the impression that his benevolence is really just resigned passivity.

“Beau Travail” is exactly the kind of movie that grows on you like an oddly pleasant after-taste. It should be experienced as opposed to simply seen. Really, it’s the work of a poet whose pen and paper are in fact a camera, a handful of actors and some choice tunes. Being this writer’s first Denis film, one who’s been dying to get into her work sooner or later, “Beau Travail” is an entrancing initiation ceremony, as entrancing as the random dancing that peppers the picture.

At the behest of noobs

December 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

Nia: Babe, I’m at work.

Jez: When do you finish?

Nia: Eleven thirty.

Jez: Fuckin’ shit.

Nia: You poor thing, I’m so sorry; that suuucks.

Jez: (emphatic sigh through the nose)

Nia: How much did you put in?

Jez: Forty bucks. And I opened a Coke.

Nia: Can you at least pay for the Coke?

Jez: What’s the point of that? That doesn’t fucking help me.

Nia: Isn’t there anyone else you could call?

The line briefly goes dead, or just dead quiet.

Jez: I’m sorry the first person I thought of calling was you.

Nia: Don’t be like that; I’m just saying…maybe someone’s free like right now.

Jez: Fuck it. I’ll just bounce –

Nia: No, don’t! Don’t, Jez. Um…give me like fifteen minutes.

Jez: Fifteen? Fifteen fucking –

“Nia. Why are you sitting?”

Nia: Um, just – text me the place bye!

“Always, she’s sitting,” says Devon to who knows who. “You come to work late, then you sit.”

Nia’s sprung to her feet and has just managed to get her phone out of sight. The staff tea room looks kind of cramped tonight, especially with Devon’s head poking in and taking up space.

“Yeah, I wasn’t sure if there were any deliveries ready or anything,” says Nia.

“How can you know by just sitting? See here, Matt has a bag bulging; go see what’s he got. Matt! You have some delivery for Nia?”

“Yep,” someone yelps from somewhere unseen, presumably Matt from presumably the kitchen.

“Okay, go, now you have something,” Devon says with a refractory gentleness and an encouraging hand on the shoulder that is calculated but generally sincere.

He watches Nia slink past him in the tea room doorway, all thin long arms, black hair and no tits. He knows that he should goddamn fire the girl, but it wouldn’t be a simple ‘pack your things and leave, you pain in the ass’ deal. She’s not insolent or a brat, or combative; she’s not wilfully unprofessional or maliciously untrustworthy. He wonders if moping is a fireable offence because this she does do a great deal, the whole moping thing.

Matt says “hey” as he swings two taut, large paper bags pregnant with food-filled disposable tubs onto the counter, an invoice stuck to the stapled-up mouth of one of them.

The violence and heat of the kitchen has always put Nia off, has always made her feel kind of unwell. She sneaks a peek at her phone in case Jez has texted his whereabouts, which he hasn’t.

“Your old mate,” Matt says patting one of the bags, looking in the mood for a chat.

“My old mate? What, who?”

“Mr Good-looking Nice Smile Can’t Cook. Remember him?”

Nia’s smirk is tired. “Oh. Him. I thought he forgot about us.”

“Probably learned to cook.”

“He just happened to forget how to turn on the stove tonight?”

“Maybe he discovered that he can’t actually cook for shit, but needed six months just to be sure.”

Whilst chuckling away what little energy she has, Nia catches Devon pulling a long face in the hallway, so she kills the laughter, tells Matt that she’ll ‘catch him’ and exits out the back way. Her little 1998 Nissan is angled parked such that the windshield stares directly into The Chef and I where Devon’s patrons enjoy the redone décor and the upmarket, new, apparently revisionist Thai menu.

Before placing the bags at the foot of the front passenger seat, Nia scans the invoice to kill her curiosity:

Curry puffs x2                                 10.00

Kanom buang                                  18.90

Tung tong                                         9.50

Green papaya salad                      14.50

Pla sam roas                                     36.90

Steamed jasmine rice x3            10.50

100.30 (incl. GST)

Ordered 18:23

Pretty standard stuff. Must be stocking up for the next few days, she thinks, or some brief apocalypse he alone is aware of. Probably wouldn’t matter if the goods arrived a little cold then, which is convenient seeing as she’s a little behind on the delivery, time-wise. According to Devon’s rule, an order should be in a customer’s mouth, bathed in saliva, no more than forty-five minutes from the time of its being placed.

The phone shivers in Nia’s pocket and she draws it like an ace gunfighter from the old west.

Jez: Nia, are you coming or should I just bounce and deal with the consequences?

Nia: Just – hold on, Jez. Fuck, just wait.

With one hand on the wheel, she floors the old wagon into a rapid reversing arc and motors off, barely slowing at the stop sign standing not twenty feet from where she was parked. Doing something that normally makes her hurl silent curses at fellow motorists, Nia alternates between looking ahead at the road and at her iPhone’s cracked screen and soon hears herself cussing Jez for not even bothering to help her help him by letting her know, at the very least, where exactly it is that her help is needed.

Babe, I’m at work. Babe, I’m at work. She actually said this to him.

Babe: a remnant of a time when she might have been a little smitten, now an instinctual overcompensation for the fact that she no longer feels all-consuming affection or has even a whiff of animal attraction but is instead subject to something more akin to the self-punishing sense of responsibility one often bears after having purchased a faulty used car they failed to properly evaluate or made a bad bet at the races. But what does it matter? Whether for love or duty, being at the behest of a noob is a downright waste of whatever potential she might currently possess or might have once had.

At this rate she may as well just place herself enroute to 87 Deluca Close where the customer whose name she knows to be Ray (aka Good Looking Nice Smile Can’t Cook), who once made her navel flutter every time she approached his door with a bag of Pad Thai and Tom Yum and who she swears made sex eyes at a then very barely legal her, is probably growing impatient by the minute in his boxer shorts.

Then it comes: caltex moretoun st; on a lit up screen and accompanied by a quick burst of vibration muted by the scuffed-up seat upholstery.

Nia says, “bloody hell,” but quickly accepts that she will no longer be making a left turn at the next lights but will instead be continuing straight for another five kilometres.

The old tan Commodore Jez’s grandpa bequeathed him rests beside the fuel dispenser that’s in closest proximity to the mart which itself looks like one large rectangular lantern in the darkening night, it’s so brightly lit. Perched on his ass on the kerb edge just outside the sliding glass doors is Jez, smoking and drinking a can of Coke. Nia kills her car beside the giant freezer advertising ten kilogram bags of ice going for only three dollars a bag, bringing the total number of parked cars on the lot to five.

Jez holds out his smoking stub to which Nia responds by shaking her head.

“I’m working.”

“Didn’t realise I was smoking vodka.”

She exchanges gazes with the brown man standing behind the counter, inside the capitalist lantern. “It’s not a good look, turning up at someone’s doorstep smelling like a cigarette.”

“It’s not a good smell,” he says, overly proud of himself and smiling about it.

“I see you demolished the Coke.”

“Well,” he says, seeming almost ashamed (Nia notes with pleasure) “couldn’t exactly put it back in the fucking fridge.”

“Okay, time’s going; let’s pay.”

Jez mumbles something as he stands and follows Nia into the shop. He slows and stops as he passes the skin mags, leaving Nia to approach the counter alone.

“Hi. Number six please.”

“Number six…” says the attendant as Nia appraises the contents of her wallet and he rings up the damage on the till. “…Seventy two ninety one.”

“…no, number six; the brownish car just there.”

“Yes, seventy two ninety one.”

Nia looks at him as though she could have sworn he’d just called her mother a whore, until the obvious realisation dawns on her that Jez is far more likely to insult her mum than this man wearing a tucked-in polo shirt and a Caltex nametag that reads ‘Vinay.’

“Petrol, Coke, cigarettes…comes to seventy two ninety one –”

“Okay, okay, just wait,” she snaps at him as she snaps around in order to hurl eye daggers at Jez who appears to be eye fucking all the skin mag cover girls at once. “Jez, what the fuck?” She says in a whisper.

He just looks at her, his vacant face and hollow posture a marvellous substitute for the most apathetic shrug you ever saw. The futility of reprimanding or attempting to draw reason from such a human being is not at all lost on Nia and she wisely returns her attention to Vinay who is taking no shame in lapping up this latent spectacle that’s dropped by to disrupt an otherwise dull as shit shift.

Nia breathes out hard and long, fingers her wallet, pulls out a card and says “just on credit. Thanks.”

*

Mad for not being madder at Jez, Nia nothing short of careens into Deluca Close and nabs the first kerbside vacancy that presents itself, knowing full well that she needn’t walk the hundred metres from here to her destination when she could just as easily get away with double parking right outside Ray’s door for the whole of half a minute. But it seems she needs the walk, or perhaps wishes to punish herself with it, the sheer torture that it is.

Nia yanks the order from the front passenger floor and basically assaults the car with its own driver-side door when she throws it shut.

Apart from skinny black-clad Nia stomping down the poorly-lit street, there is someone else further along, a lady stepping out of a car and then burying her torso back inside, probably fumbling with something. Nia marches past and startles the poor woman who is understandably alarmed by the sound of aggressive walking emanating from so close and on this dim street and while she has her back turned. By the time lady has locked the door and begun her high-heeled horse trot towards the curve of the cul-de-sac, Nia has arrived at the door numbered 87 and knocked on it. The door opens and, sure enough, it’s Ray looking like he always has, only now freshly-shaven and reeking of several colognes, decked out in a crisply ironed business shirt and yet, despite all this, coming across as weirdly dishevelled or at the very least a little shambolic.

“Hi, I have an order –”

“– that I made like five fucking hours ago,” he spits through tight, hushed lips.

While he is eyeing the paper bags in Nia’s hand as though debating whether or not to accept it, Ray’s attention shifts abruptly upwards and beyond her. His face falls and turns sallow at a sudden and he pushes past her and jogs out into the dark yelling, “Alexia!”

The lady who had been trailing Nia is now walking back to her car, Ray pursuing her barefooted and repeating her name. He catches up to her and seems to be battling and failing to win himself an audience with her. It’s like a pantomime, all gesticulations and no sound apart from half murmurs and mumbles carried on a barely-there breeze; all that Nia can deduce is that this Alexia isn’t too happy about Ray having Thai delivered to his place; either that or his baby smooth face and collared shirt are somewhat offensive to her, or maybe she thinks that she is being cuckolded by a titless, teenage delivery girl.

It’s over quicker than Nia expects and with a slightly disappointing lack of histrionics. Ray watches Alexia enter her car and drive off. It’s only on his walk back to 87 that Nia realises that he is wearing dress shorts and that this may very well be the straw that broke Alexia’s back.

Ray murders Nia with his eyes as he approaches and she smartly stands aside to let him enter his home.

“…how did you want to pay for this?” Nia squeaks from behind Ray, who turns around and looms over her like a gargoyle’s shadow.

“What was that?”

“I was just wondering how you wanted to pay for the food –”

“I’m not paying for any fucking food. What fucking food? You mean the food that turned up late and ruined my fucking evening? You can take the food and go fuck yourself with it; fuck off.”

Ignoring the avalanche of fucks, Nia stands her ground, not so much from resolve as from being a bit stunned.

“Sir…I can’t leave without payment. Is the thing.”

“Then sleep here.” He hurls the door in her face and assaults something inside, something likely – hopefully – inanimate.

Against her better judgement Nia persists with a series of knocks, none of them thankfully answered.

For some minutes she proceeds to wander back and forth across the two big windows at the front of the unit like some caged beast, the light inside Ray’s place stabbing its way out between the folded blinds. Nia is all of a sudden alarmed by the current paucity of thought that has overtaken her. As her hand is being lightly steamed by the contents of the paper bags, her mind is doing absolutely goddam nothing.

*

“Nia, so long you’ve been gone,” is how Devon greets Nia as she walks into The Chef and I through the back door, carrying Ray’s unpaid-for food.

Nia stares at him without response, nervous in a way that is unusual for her in his presence.

“He didn’t pay,” she says simply.

“Sorry?”

“He wouldn’t pay for it, the food.”

“Why?” He takes a step forward and eyes the bags. “Did you take the wrong thing?”

Devon non-maliciously snatches the bag with the receipt stapled to its mouth and peers at it, mouthing ‘curry puffs’ and ‘kanom buang’ before he walks off towards the counter, leaving Nia feeling sick and on her own, with one bag in her hand. She can hear him quizzing Janice and Matt about the order in his usual fussy manner.

Nia cracks open the staff room fridge and finds a largely undrunk bottle of water which she pours into herself, making her innards feel only sicker. Devon walks into the room without anything in his hands.

“You were gone half an hour, Nia,” Devon begins. “It doesn’t take half an hour to drive to Deluca, Deluca is just around the corner; how does it take you half an hour?” he says in a stutter of exasperation.

“It didn’t feel like half an hour.”

“But it was a long time. I remember thinking, where is that girl?”

Nia is looking at different regions of the staff room floor.

“Are you well, Nia? If this job, you’re tired of it, you can always –”

“It wasn’t half an hour.”

Devon looks at her as though his mere gaze could crack her like an eggshell.

“The order, there was no problem with it, so what…he decide he doesn’t want to eat anymore or what? You don’t want to eat, you take the food, you pay the money, you put it in the fridge…but he refuse totally. Why?”

Nia may or may not notice that her right leg has now begun to bounce. Devon certainly does; he’s eyeing that right knee.

“Can’t we just store it?” Nia suggests.

“No. We don’t do that anymore here. The customer, either he pays or…you can take the food home like a…like a…” Devon has something on the tip of his tongue. “…like a…souvenir.”

“What?”

Devon simply looks at her and she suddenly knows where he’s going; where he’s just gone.

“I don’t want Thai food as a severance package, I want to keep working. Please. I’ll pay for the food.”

“Is not the point.”

“Okay, then I’ll get him to take his food and I’ll get the money. Okay?”

“But why he didn’t take it; what did you do? You were gone such a long time.”

I don’t know, but I’ll try again. Can I just try again, please?”

“Nia…”

Ignoring Devon’s tone, Nia grabs the paper bag at her feet and starts for the doorway, pushing past him. She finds the bag with the invoice stapled to it sitting on a workbench in the now empty, closed-for-the-day kitchen. Devon can still be heard calling her name from the hallway, and as Nia is opening the back door her boss rushes into the kitchen and says “Nia!” in a way that makes her finally come to a halt.

Devon cocks his head to one side and dresses his face with an expression of gentle reproach.

“I don’t like this,” he says. “This I don’t want. I want this to be a new restaurant. This –” he gestures at the food in her hands, “– is not new, is old. I’m tired of this, Nia. I like you, but I’m a businessman; I run a business.”

Nia’s gaze fixates strangely on his nose, dropping in and out of focus.

“You don’t worry about the food,” Devon tells her. “Enjoy it; is my treat.” He’s hoping to god and all of god’s alternatives that she’ll say something, which she doesn’t. “I’ll write you a very nice reference.”

He concludes with “go home, Nia. Rest.”

Devon walks out of the kitchen to presumably attend to his few remaining patrons.

*

It’s uncanny how mercifully free streets can be when one’s mind is anywhere but on the road ahead. Uncanny, that is, when one does not find oneself ploughing into something. From Nia’s point of view she might as well be ploughing into some void.

The phone kicks up a sudden stink in Nia’s pocket. She shocks herself by slowing down to take the call, decelerating to the upper fringes of the legal 70 kph so as to more safely captain the car with just the one hand.

It’s him.

Jez:  Whereabouts are you?

Pause

Nia: At work. Why?

Nia knows for a fact that he’s just shrugged. He’s the kind of person who would shrug in a discursive capacity while on the other end of a line.

Nia: Did you just shrug?

Almost immediately, Nia expires deeply through her nose, annoyed at her herself for coming out with a sentence playful and wanton enough for Jez to latch onto as evidence of her having forgiven him for doing whatever it is he thinks she thinks he has done wrong; as proof that everything is O.K. now.

Jez: Why?

Nia opts for an abrupt change in tone.

Nia: What is it Jez?

Jez: Why’s it got to be anything?

Nia: It doesn’t. But what is it? I’m driving.

Jez: Was just thinking about your tits.

Nia: Right. I hope they’re thinking about you too, but I need to drive.

Jez: Come over later.

Nia: Maybe.

Jez: Don’t be frigid.

Nia: Fuck you. I said maybe, that’s enough. And I’m driving.

Just before she kills the connection, Nia can hear Jez flapping his loosened cheeks rapidly back and forth, emulating some kind of propeller. This kind of inane shit would have normally teased a laugh or a smile from her, coming from him at least, but at the moment it’s quite possibly turned her scowl into a frown, the same frown that decorates her face as she beats Ray’s door with her fist.

She cruises his still-blinded windows behind which a dim light shines. While she’s at this, the front door whines open and Ray half steps out.

“Why are you harassing me?” he says.

“I just want the payment.” She holds up the bags. “I brought your food. Please take it. I can’t take it back.”

Ray looks at her hands, then at her face.

“What, you’ve been driving around with that for the last hour?” says Ray.

“There’s nothing wrong with it.”

As though she just realised her arms had dropped back down, Nia offers up the food bags once again.

Ray fixates on her face. “You really fucked up my evening.”

“I wasn’t that late. But I’m sorry.”

“You were late enough to fuck up my night; do you have a problem with accepting that fact?” he says with a sudden surge of hostility.

“I’m sorry I fucked up your night,” Nia says; diplomacy under duress.

During the exchange Ray has somehow edged his way from halfway in the doorway to being four feet from Nia in the tiny courtyard. Ray weirdly asks her if she’s had her dinner.

“I’m not too hungry.”

“After ruining my shit, the least you could do is help me not eat alone like some old spinster. My shout.”

*

Nia intermittently fears that this dinner table silence portends some latent sexual intent on Ray’s part, as though he is subtly expressing his dominance by way of inexpressiveness; by being comfortable in his own domain on top of being older, taller and more testicled. Alternatively, it might be some form of punishment by awkwardness, like being forced to have dinner with the school principal for detention.

Matthew and Clinton cooked the hell out of whatever this is she’s eating; the tung tong she guesses by means of elimination. Nia will freely admit to not being particularly enamoured of Thai fare. Perhaps that kitchen she so hates/hated killed whatever allure the cuisine might have once held for her.

Nia makes a note to thank Ray at least once, while scooping an unexpected second helping of papaya salad, for the meal he has so graciously provided (omitting the ‘graciously provided’ part, tactfully). He grunts “no worries” and refills his already half-full mouth.

As she is wont to do, Nia very suddenly releases her fork and nudges her plate away by half an inch to signal – more for herself than anyone – that she is done, turning her head to watch Ray who apparently doesn’t mind being watched as he eats.

“Was that your girlfriend?”

Ray waits till his mouth is slightly less packed. “Soon to be ex. Officially.”

“Because of – ?”

His not answering is precisely the answer. Nia looks away, guilty but only for the briefest instant.

“What, doesn’t she like Thai?”

Sudden laughter and a mouthful of jasmine rice is the kind of poor combination that lands Ray in a fit of coughing and scratchy nasopharyngeal clearing as he tries to dislodge a grain that’s presumably found a home somewhere in the back of his nose-throat. After a few minutes whose awkwardness is nullified by the unselfconscious flailing of a man with rice in the wrong part of his head, Ray downs a quarter bottle of beer and silently belches. He then explains that he had invited his now-ex to his place to try to dissuade her from quitting him, like Ennis Del Mar was so desperate to do with Jack Twist in “Brokeback Mountain”. As an illustration of his sincerity, and of his willingness to develop into a holistic male whose cooking was favourably comparable to his tyre-changing and beach cricketing prowess, Ray decided to treat her to a meal prepared by his own hands. Or rather, one he’d hoped to prepare.

“I didn’t plan it very well,” Ray says as he tries to figure out what he would next like to eat.

Nia drinks from her glass of water somewhat shyly, as though Ray has been politely insisting. She watches Ray eating for a moment.

“What if you’d gotten away with it?” Nia says.

Gotten away? You make it sound like a…heist,” Ray replies with a somewhat pinched smile.

“Well…you were gonna cook for her, but you didn’t and ordered Thai instead.”

“I started cooking,” he says, pointing in the direction of the kitchen sink from which some pot handles are sticking out like drowning hands waiting to be saved. “I wasn’t sucking my fucking thumb for eight hours before I called you guys.”

Nia is quiet for a moment.

“I just figure it’s the thought that matters, not the food. Like…even if you’d made shitty roast and veggies, wouldn’t that have been better than take out?”

“Well…the point is that we were supposed to have dinner and talk; me cooking was just to add a bit of texture, but at the end of the day it comes down to you being fucking late and, basically, that’s it.”

Nia stares at him sideways, debating whether to retort.

“I wonder if she would thank me.”

“Thank you? For what exactly?”

“For, like, exposing your lies,” Nia says, trying to conceal her dead seriousness with teenage jocularity.

Ray sits up and glowers at Nia. He wipes his mouth with a serviette and continues to eat. “What are you, the moral fucking police or the delivery girl? I ordered Thai, not bullshit feminist justice.”

“No, I’m the delivery girl,” says Nia with a mocking meekness that seems to be lost on Ray, thankfully. She pats her belly and downs the rest of the water in the glass. “I deliver gender-neutral justice.”

Ray stares at her from a hunched position and chews.

“I think I’m gonna head,” she says with a groan of satiety.

“Good plan.”

Like a gentleman, Ray pays for the food, standing in the doorway. Before Nia has even turned to leave, he closes the door on her. Nia carefully lines her wallet with the notes and bulks it up with the coins.

Walking to her car which she parked at the mouth of the cul-de-sac, Nia briefly glances through the four messages she had felt buzzing through into her pocket one after the other while she was sharing dinner with Ray. She can’t quite decide whether, by ignoring these as they came, she was being polite to Ray or rude to whom she believed to be the sender. Sure enough, all four are from Jez, appropriately inane and poorly spelt, telling her to speed things up and make an appearance in his bedroom; that her tiny tits are on his mind.

She replies that his tiny dick is unfortunately not on hers.

Where Am I?

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