The ups and downs of modern Africanity: a video essay

November 16, 2015 § Leave a comment

Is the persisting relevance of a forty-year-old satirical film a testament to the satirist’s socio-political foresight, a vindication of his jokey pessimism, or an indictment of a nation at large? It turns out that viewing Senegalese auteur Ousmane Sembene’s Xala (1975) in a contemporary context provides ample evidence in favour of all three.

At the risk of being overly speculative, it is not unreasonable to posit that Sembene busied himself crafting politically-charged art in the hopes of encouraging the kind of cultural and national self-awareness necessary for social integrity and progressiveness, particularly in the wake of newly won freedom from colonial rule (1960 onwards in the case of Sembene’s native Senegal). Whether or not he intended for his work to be representative of extra-Senegalese Africa is beyond my knowledge, though its influence on sub-Saharan cinema in general is quite simply undeniable.

Suppose then that Sembene, in 2006, happened to sit down and watch Abderrahmane Sissako’s impassioned Bamako, an allegorical portrait of a Malian town whose residents are caught between continued colonial exploitation and post-colonial mismanagement.  It’s hard to imagine him taking even perverse pleasure in the realisation that his decades-old films, Xala in particular, have proven to be somewhat prophetic, almost to the point of seeming like a curse. As I mentioned in my piece on Bamako, Sissako simultaneously celebrates and bemoans the paradoxical mess that is contemporary Africa, suggesting that somewhere in this muck lies the source and solution of the continent’s woes, fiscal and otherwise. Strangely enough, ‘contemporary’ in this context spans a good thirty years, all the way back to Xala, if not further.

 

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The pleasure (and pain) of expression: an interview with Benny Safdie

October 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

Having been tasked with writing a feature article for Melbourne International Film Festival – as part of my previously mentioned involvement in the 2015 edition of Critics Campus – I initiated the process by dutifully poring over my personalised viewing schedule in the hope that random groupings of films would serendipitously reveal a common theme worthy of investigation or mansplanation. Well, a theme did not present itself so much as the sobering realisation that, of all the screenings I had booked on my festival pass, approximately zero were documentaries.

This bias in favour of fiction – on screen and on the page – seemed tailor-made for a confessional self-interrogation in which I challenged my own supposed aversion to non-fiction filmmaking. Yet, on further reflection it became obvious that this aversion was not directed at documentary (as a branch of cinema per se) as much as it was at a seeming majority of documentary films that are convinced of their own factuality, to the point of formal malaise; or rather, films that fail to appreciate the inherent subjectivity of the cinematic medium.

While this stance did not (and does not) in any way justify the inanity of depriving oneself of outstanding work in protest of the presumptuous and formulaic (equally true of fiction films), it possessed sufficient ideological fuel behind it to warrant further inquiry, not least because the Safdie brothers were guests of MIFF 2015 on account of their newest film Heaven Knows What being in the official selection as part of a retrospective of their work to date.

Why the Safdie brothers? Well, Josh and Benny Safdie are two New York filmmakers whose work drifts incessantly between the realms of the actual and the imaginary. Heaven Knows What is a fictionalised recounting of an actual individual’s experiences, with said individual (Arielle Holmes) playing a fictionalised version of herself. However overstated the novelty of this may be in the press and publicity spheres, especially as the film travels the festival circuit and rolls out globally, it is an undeniably uncommon approach which knowingly draws attention to the emotional and expressive purpose of storytelling and of cinema, for both the performer and the audience. Interestingly, the film’s screenplay is adapted from Holmes’ self-authored memoir which begs the question: where did the fictionalising actually begin? Either way, John and Benny Safdie have been melding fiction and fact long before Heaven Knows What. Their previous ‘fiction’ feature Daddy Longlegs aka Go Get Some Rosemary similarly draws on the experiences of individuals who in fact existed (and still do exist), while their feature debut The Pleasure of Being Robbed utilises the streets of New York City (and possibly Boston) in a way that is utterly non-staged and which – as a result – frankly borders on what one might call documentary. Oddly enough, the blending of the fictional and the real somehow enhances the drama of the former while feeding into the curious thrill of seeing factual ‘reality’ projected onscreen.  And of course, one can’t forget the Safdies’ documentary feature Lenny Cooke which actively challenges the idea that the documentary form is or should be subject to certain expressive limitations. In short, these filmmakers were the perfect guys with whom to discuss fact, fiction, and filmmaking, and where these three intersect.

Needless to say, I was lucky enough to speak with Benny Safdie on August 1st. My feature article for MIFF Critics Campus was fashioned around a heavily edited and truncated version of this interview, but what follows is the full transcript, excluding my personal introduction to Benny which was essentially a compressed version of this very preamble. Enjoy.

 

Tope Ogundare: You mentioned hybrid films in an interview with The Dissolve (the sadly now defunct online publication). Does that mean you make a distinction between documentaries and fiction films?

Benny Safdie: Well, it’s difficult because the thing is…Heaven Knows What, I guess, would be kind of the ultimate hybrid film. We’re taking a real person and having her re-enact parts of her past. In this case, it’s not a hundred percent fact, but it rings emotionally true, you know? I think that’s the most important thing. Did you see our documentary Lenny Cooke?

Actually, I have seen it. It’s great.

That’s another instance where there are a lot of things that are constructed and changed to get at the overall truth. [Werner] Herzog called it the ‘ecstatic truth.’ Josh [Safdie] says ‘you always have to lie to tell the truth.’ That’s true, you know? Sometimes real life isn’t as interesting as it seems when you experience it, so, if something happened to me and I tell you exactly what happened to me, you might think, ‘oh, that’s boring.’ But if I change it and I make it more exciting at certain parts and I lie, you will feel exactly what I felt when I went through it. That’s kind of blurring the lines of reality and truth, but at the same time it’s making you feel what I felt, and that to me is real. I think the main issue with documentary films is…there’s this kind of – um – false sense of…

Objectivity?

Well, yeah. Objectivity’s such an important topic to breach. The only thing that’s objective by nature is a security camera. If I see a security camera that’s subjective, it makes me think that something bad’s going to happen. I think that maybe the documentaries that come closest to objectivity are those on The History Channel, or some random thing about the government playing on the television. Or if there’s no feeling and no emotion and it’s just a straight document of a certain topic. That’s what most people think of when they think ‘documentary’. But – like – some of the best documentaries by Frederick Wiseman or the Maysles brothers, or D.A. Pennebaker…there’s a lot of work going into those to make them seem effortless. But that work is filmmaking, and I think when you see something….when you make a documentary that transcends recording, it just becomes a movie, and a movie is a movie…is a movie. So, I don’t like the distinction between documentaries and fiction films because it kind of diminishes what some documentaries have the ability to do. There are some documentaries where you’re just watching them to get information and audiences go in with the mindset of ‘I’m going to learn something about this.’ But then you see Senna, and it’s a completely cinematic experience. It’s this beautiful use of archival footage and there’s manipulation going on, but at the same time it’s telling you a story, and it’s telling you a story in the best way that it can. That’s what a movie is.

You mentioned that the documentary community didn’t really embrace Lenny Cooke.

(Benny Safdie chuckles)

…that they thought you were doing something wrong. What exactly could you have done to make Lenny Cooke more respectable or appreciated?

It felt like there was some sort of documentary mafia. Granted, making that film was a lot of learning for us. We worked with one editor but it didn’t work out and I had to take over and edit the film, because I knew where it needed to go, but the main issue was that there was a lot of manipulation with the footage, and there was a lot of manipulating of the timeline. And these are all things that you just don’t do in documentaries. You do that in fiction film because you can, and it gave me nightmares personally when I was going in and changing these things. But it wasn’t affecting how you looked at Lenny in any way. It was more about getting you to feel from his point of view. But the elements I was manipulating are considered the law in the documentary world, and if you’re treating them in this way, they say it’s a slippery slope. But it’s this kind of combination of journalism and documentary that kind of makes it difficult.

Lenny Cooke didn’t get into any documentary festivals. It didn’t get any respect as a documentary, and it was strange to me because we felt we really did justice to Lenny and his story, which had rarely been told. It’s reflected in how people respond to it, but it had to get out there in a different way, and it had to do it outside of the documentary community. There is this tendency to say ‘okay, you need to do things in a documentary responsibly.’ This kind of leads to a different branch of movies. I think that the perfect example is Citizenfour. I went into that movie saying ‘okay, this is going to be a standard documentary about what [Edward Snowden] did. But watching it and realising that it’s the direct experience of this guy who’s doing something that he’s frightened to do, and that the film is a once in a lifetime chance to see this kind of thing first-hand…and watching the way [director Laura Poitras] treated the subject, and the way she edited the film and worked the material…it was a movie. We’re caught up in what he was doing, but at the same time it gives you an insight into what was happening in the real world. Plus, the movie had an effect on actual policy. But that was because it wasn’t something you could just write it off as ‘just some left wing propaganda.’

She apparently hired an editor (Mathilde Bonnefoy) who had previously worked on thrillers (i.e. Run, Lola, Run and The International). She was clearly trying to utilise that sort of approach even though she was telling a factual story.

Of course. The fact is we were fiction filmmakers [when beginning work on Lenny Cooke]. We didn’t expect to ever make a documentary, and when Adam Shopkorn the producer approached us, we thought: ‘well, is there something in this with which we can express ourselves, or at least really express some ideas?’ And there was. It was interesting because we had to figure out how we were going to take this all camera footage that he had captured over three weeks and turn it into a collection of scenes, and create a cinematic experience with it. But once we realised we could do that, it led to a lot of interesting choices, for example, with the [time travel] special effect where he talks to himself at the end.

Was that one of the big issues? Is that one of the things that people didn’t like? Because it’s one of the best parts of the movie.

A lot of people said, ‘well, that’s not okay.’ A lot of people were saying, ‘we already knew that; you don’t need to do something like that to make the point.’ But you do, you know?! He needed it for himself, and we needed it for the film, to take it to the next level; to really bring it to this new place. And it was important. But it was something that people thought wasn’t okay. That it was something you don’t do in a documentary. We were just operating under the principle of ‘how do we best tell this story?’

The BFI (British Film Institute) came out with this list of 50 documentaries that a lot of documentarians and film writers/thinkers chose as pinnacles of the form and, looking through the list, so many of them are actually very interested in playing with form. They weren’t simply intimations of objective fact. You’ve got Man with a Movie Camera at number one…and that is really an essay movie. You’ve got Shoah, you’ve got Night and Fog and The Thin Blue Line. It’s interesting that a lot of filmmakers and critics do appreciate the fact that the best documentaries are not that different from fiction in the way that their made. They’re just cinema, as you’ve said. So why is there still a sense that documentaries are meant or expected to be an objective record of reality, which is not even possible with cinema?

It’s weird, because some of the best documentaries, all the way back the 60s – those by Pennebaker, the Maysles, Wiseman – what they’re doing is manipulating reality. They’re making things up with the editing and yes they are celebrated as the greatest documentarians. But I don’t know why there is a double standard. There are some people who are doing it now, like Josh Oppenheimer with The Act of Killing. He’s kind of playing with the form in a way that is very interesting, and doing things that are definitely not okay in a documentary in the normal sense: the aggressive nature of [Oppenheimer’s process] on this guy, of getting him to repent. It’s insane what [Oppenheimer’s] doing…the re-enactments. I think that Errol Morris does it too, and I think it’s interesting. I can’t really speak for other people; I can only speak for what I am seeing coming out, but maybe there’s this ability to appreciate that these daring documentaries are great and that the filmmakers involved took risks. But there is this fear. It doesn’t matter if you change things or make things up in a fiction film. But if you do that in a documentary, some people are going to point this out and say you’re being irresponsible; that you’re not being responsible to the subject. But…I don’t know. I don’t know why there aren’t more movies made like that.

At the same time, each movie should be its own thing. A filmmaker could take cues from those and learn from them, not that they should copy anything…but it is funny that there’s a list like [the aforementioned BFI list] and it isn’t being reflected in what’s being put out. I think it might just be that there is this kind of police force out there that’s always out to get you, and if you’re making a documentary film you’re not as protected by fiction. In defence of the people making these documentaries, they have to abide by certain rules and they kind of have to play with or bend the lines a little bit but not too far so their work is not completely disregarded by this community that needs to be there to support that film. So…in that sense, I can understand it. But it’s definitely much easier for fiction filmmaker to do whatever the hell they want: make shit up, change things, and think: ‘I’m getting at something great here and it’s emotionally true, but I don’t have to be entirely true to the facts.’ I guess in a documentary you have to be true to the facts to a certain extent.

It all depends on the function though. If the function of the documentary is to get at the ‘ecstatic truth’ as opposed to the unadulterated fact, then does it matter if you twist things?

I completely agree with you. [Werner] Herzog was 100% right. His documentaries are so weird and so strange; what he’s doing with the characters, pushing them and interviewing them and asking them piercing questions. He’s definitely doing things that may not be okay. But again, I think there are movies now being made by Laura Poitras and Josh Oppenheimer and [Asif Kapadia’s] Senna documentary – you know – that completely throw out the formula of having to show talking heads or that only use archival footage.

And then there’s the Marlon Brando doc (Listen to Me Marlon) and the Kurt Cobain one (Montage of Heck) which use those two guys’ own personal material.

Yeah. And there was one about Phil Spector, The Agony and The Ecstasy of Phil Spector. There’s now a kind of movement growing where filmmakers say, ‘okay, we can relax these guidelines a little bit;’ guidelines that are more front and centre when you’re doing something involving politics, which you kind of have to respect. Which is why I was so surprised by Citizenfour. But even with that, you have to respect a certain code of journalistic integrity because you’re not that different from the news, in that sense. Either that or you’re telling the story of an athlete…or the story of a scientist, like Herzog did with The White Diamond. You have a little more manoeuvrability and the some freedom to try and tell a story without people jumping on your back, saying, ‘oh, you made that up, or you changed that!’ What I’m saying is: if Laura Poitras had changed the way that the Snowden saga occurred in a way that was egregious, people would have pushed against it by saying that it’s liberal propaganda. So it’s a very slippery slope and I don’t quite understand it. But I will say that my experience with Lenny Cooke, being a fiction filmmaker diving into documentary, was that the film wasn’t accepted partly because we were coming at it from a fiction standpoint. It was – like –, ‘hey, get back in line!’ It was weird.

Maybe there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the medium, because the medium is the same. Cinema is what you use for both fiction and documentary, and cinema’s inherently subjective. Even Wiseman: when he places a camera, he could place it in about a zillion different angles, but he chooses one or a couple. Why that one? Why those ones?

If you look at [Frederick Wiseman’s] High School, there’s that footage of the old principal walking through the halls. And then he looks into a window and the movie cuts to the audio of some kids singing ‘Simple Simon,’ and it implies that maybe he’s a pervert and he’s going and looking at these girls, looking at them work out. But he’s clearly not that kind of guy. But it’s an amazing moment in the film.

Do you think it’s irresponsible? This moment?

Well, it’s completely irresponsible, but it’s fine. It’s fine, you know. That guy isn’t doing that…what he’s looking at primarily isn’t those girls, but it works for the moment. I think at some point you have to step back and say, ‘I’m also making a movie here’. But it’s not all documentaries that take such liberties; it’s some documentaries.

Maybe this principal is not a pervert, but the movie’s called High School and it’s not necessarily about one particular high school. It’s about all high schools. This kind of behaviour could be true in some places. The scene is encapsulating everything in one moment.

There was actually a documentary about a Canadian high school called Guidelines.

I’ve never heard of it.

It’s a great movie in the sense that it’s at one school and understands what the kids are going through. It stays with some of them as they’re getting in trouble in principal’s office. You don’t ever see the teacher. You’re just seeing these kids coming up with these lies. At one point the girls have to explain themselves. The teacher says ‘okay, so you didn’t follow her up the stairs and you didn’t go into the bathroom and attack her,’ and one of the girls is like, ‘no.’

‘Then why did you go upstairs?’

‘Well, I wanted to go and see if she was there.’

‘That’s not following?’

She says, ‘no, I was looking for her.’

‘And when you found out she was there…?’

‘I went and smacked her.’ Which is a really weird bending of the truth. But seeing a kid come up with that, and allowing us to see what happens is incredible. Look, I think documentary is going in a direction where, maybe one day, things will be more relaxed. Our experience with Lenny Cooke was that we were these fiction guys coming along and treading on the documentarians’ territory and it backfired a little bit, in the sense that it didn’t get into any film festivals. I don’t think it got into one.

It didn’t even get into True/False [Film Festival]?

No it did not. But Heaven Knows What got into True/False, which is incredible. But then again, maybe because it can be said that it’s very clearly a fiction film. The biggest testament [to Lenny Cooke] is that Lenny sat down and watched the documentary. And then he gave us the biggest hug and was like, ‘that’s it. That’s it!” He’d never seen something that expressed his feelings and his emotions, and he felt the movie did that, you know?

Well then I guess the movie’s a success.

That tells me that we did our job. And people to this day watch it because they want to avoid the steps that he took. And whenever I’m on Twitter, some person will say ‘it’s Monday, gotta watch Lenny Cooke.’ It’s like they’re watching it to prepare themselves for the week. They’ve watched it 30 times; I can’t believe it.

I really have to ask about Heaven Knows What. Did you ever think about making it as a ‘straight up documentary’?

No. The reason we didn’t was because her stories and her life was interesting – the way she wrote them, she had a very unique perspective –, but, like I said earlier, there were certain parts of it that just wouldn’t translate to film. I think a perfect example is when she wrote: ‘Ilya came over, took my phone, saw it was Mike and broke it into a million pieces.’ When you throw a cell-phone on the street – and we shot it that way – it breaks, but it doesn’t break into a million pieces. But she thought it broke into a million pieces. [Co-writer/co-editor] Ronny Bronstein was like, ‘look, the cell-phone should fucking explode – like – into a firework. We shoot a firework and that’ll be the cell-phone.’ And the end result is so unrealistic and so ridiculous, but it fits in that moment. Initially, we threw the phone on the ground and it just wasn’t working. Plus, I think that, from the beginning, we knew we wanted to make a fiction film with her story as the basis. We didn’t want go and just set the camera down and observe these people, you know? We wanted to work with them to express something, and I think that can only happen, in this case, with a fiction film. It wouldn’t have been as powerful as a documentary. We wouldn’t have gotten to the heights that we did.

That’s an interesting point. Because, if you want to present the facts of her life, then you would be obliged to show the phone being thrown to the ground and that would be the truth of the matter. But you were chasing the emotionality of the moment; you were chasing the subjective aspect of it, which actually makes more sense. So, I guess the other question would be: did Arielle in any way mention having gained any new insights into her own experience by way of playing a fictionalised version of herself?

Yes! The thing is, at times she said to us, ‘this isn’t how it happened. I didn’t do it this way.’ And we’d said, ‘no. But if you want people to feel how you felt, we need to shoot it this way. You need to change it.’ And that gave her insight into the process. We weren’t making a documentary about the present. We had to recreate, because these were things that had already happened to her. Right off the bat, we knew we couldn’t do a documentary. I mean, sure, you can have recreations and voiceover, which is fine; but I think in this case this was how the movie had to be made. You could argue that every movie is a documentary, because it’s documenting something, you know. Making Jurassic Park is a documentary of how everybody felt in that moment.

We value acting as being this approximation of the real. So if you’re approximating or reaching the real in acting, and in performance, and in everything else, then what are you shooting? Are you shooting fiction or the real thing?

I think that the distinction really has to do with whether you’re making a movie or a documentary, and I think improperly so. It’s like, ‘oh, what did you see?’

‘Oh, I just saw a documentary.’

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that. It’s a shame. It’s depressing. Because a documentary could be just as powerful. It’s like there are two different things. Either you’re using real to make a movie, or you’re using fake to make a movie. That’s the difference. And, in Heaven Knows What, we were using fake based on real and it blurs the line. Arielle’s not playing herself. She’s playing a fictionalised version of herself, re-enacting moments of her life. That makes it a little more unclear. There are a lot of movies that have done this. Shirley Clarke: she made a lot of strange hybrid films that are beautiful. The Iranians were making a lot of films in the 1990s that were blending reality and fiction.

Like Close-Up.

Exactly. We’ve seen that movie many times, and we’ve been – like – ‘holy shit!’ You’re taking this guy who did something and having him play this part. It’s so funny: we had it in our heads while making Heaven Knows What. It’s funny how such films are out there, and that there’s a desire to make them. But it’s essentially about how human beings express themselves. It’s an interesting topic. We took a class in college with this guy Ted Barron who coined the term ‘pseudo-documentary.’

Would this term apply to that movie starring Rip Torn as a psychiatrist?

Oh, Coming Apart by Milton Moses Ginsburg. That was one of the movies we watched in [Ted Barron’s] class. Because Rip Torn’s character is filming from a hidden camera perspective, you can’t help but wonder: who’s real and who’s not? It’s blending the line. It’s a fiction film that has elements of documentary. It’s not a mockumentary, [parodying documentaries in a transparent fashion]. They’re fake documentaries; pseudo-documentaries. They’re real movies that are made to look like documentaries and what that’s saying is, ‘hey, if we can fake this and make you think it is real, then what’s the difference between the two things?’ Look at a movie like David Holzman’s Diary. When it premiered, people were like, ‘oh my God, this is incredible. What a great documentary about this guy!’ And then then it turns out to be directed by Jim McBride and they’re all upset. They’re booing and throwing popcorn at the screen. They felt betrayed: ‘you took advantage of me, thinking I was watching a documentary!’

What do they expect to feel in a documentary versus a fiction film?

I don’t know. The thing is, I think that there is more forgiveness when people go into a documentary. I’ll give Lenny Cooke as an example. People go in expecting to learn something, but when they come out and they felt exactly what Lenny had gone through, it’s emotionally very powerful. They leave the theatre completely shocked and it’s the saddest thing they’ve ever seen, and it’s because they’re feeling what Lenny felt. They’re feeling that lost potential at a gut level, and they don’t always get to experience that in a documentary because they’re simply meant to be observing when watching a documentary. You’re not meant to be feeling things in that primal sense. But when you’re feeling at that level, it’s unnerving, and I think it’s very powerful. We could talk about this forever; it’s such an interesting topic. Hopefully the goal is that the distinction will disappear, and some things will just be based on the real and some things will just be based on the fake, and the fake comes from fiction or the fake comes from the real. Everything comes from the same place, so there shouldn’t be a distinction. And I think that the best documentaries being made today are the result of people just making movies, expressing themselves and expressing the views of the subjects, and that’s the best you can hope for. There are people that are fighting that fight, and I think it’s great.

Including you and Josh. So please keep doing it.

Welcome to the moral unknown: a video essay

September 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

“I am not a moralist, and my film is neither a denunciation nor a sermon.” So said Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni at the Cannes press conference for his seminal 1960 work L’avventura.

In this statement, which also contains his famous  ”Eros is sick” remark, Antonioni expresses a clear exasperation with what he deems to be a schism between western society’s relative intellectual progressiveness and its archaic moral hang-ups (presumably the abiding influence of Catholicism in the case of post-war Italy). In Antonioni’s eyes, this fundamental and unhealthy inconsistency in the societal fabric insidiously finds a mode of expression in the realm of sexuality, in the broader context of emotional expression of course.

Considering the explosive blossoming of frank sexuality in western media during the late fifties and early sixties which, fifty years on, has yet to hit a nadir, it’s not surprising that Antonioni sensed something other than a society letting loose after an eternity of repression; that there was (and is) something slightly pathological about the near obsessive omnipresence of sexuality, representing – perhaps – an itching desire for connection, validation, escape, and who knows what else.

Yet, it’s this very wariness that threatens to paint Antonioni, his views and – by extension – his films post-L’avventura, in a decidedly conservative light. Impassioned and eloquent as his words are (so much so that I marvel at the very idea of him uttering them unrehearsed and off the cuff), there is something simplistic and needlessly binary about Antonioni’s comparison of ‘scientific man’ and ‘moral man.’ Moreover, his assertion that he is not a moralist is almost at odds with the supreme self-awareness of his cinematic approach.

So is L’avventura at heart a conservative, moralist work? Watching the film, Antonioni’s somewhat aloof visual and narrative style is anything but polemical or brow-beating, though there is a simmering undercurrent of despair and disaffectedness which renders much of the hanky panky devoid of joy or pleasure. This ends up being, in itself, an unfavourable comment on the sexuality of the characters. Perhaps it is a moralist film in amoral clothing.

On a more gossipy note, Antonioni and the film’s lead actress, Monica Vitti, were in a relationship out of wedlock; lovers. And while this might not mean much, it does suggest that at least two of the film’s key creators weren’t necessarily stalwarts of traditional Catholic/Christian values.

Having previously written about this film, which has become – over the years – less of a personal favourite while remaining a game-changing revelation, I find myself returning once more to L’avventura‘s final scene, in which Claudia’s apparent gesture of forgiveness and comfort towards Sandro the lecher could be perceived otherwise, specifically, as acknowledgement of the fact that he has finally become self aware. Following on from the idea that the film is about several characters happening upon a painful realisation at various stages in the narrative,  and using Antonini’s Cannes statement as a guide, this is a brief examination of L’avventura as a film preoccupied with morality if not overtly moralist in itself.

 

The route to Copacabana: a video essay

September 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

The most widely heralded sequence/shot from Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas is the kind whose pantheon status and ubiquitous acclaim may compel some to question the source of its appeal. As hoodlum Henry Hill leads his future wife Karen through the backstage entrails of New York nightclub Copacabana, rapidly convincing her of his importance in some societal sphere and of her guarded attraction to him, it’s fairly easy to understand why the swooning ‘Then He Kissed Me‘ by The Crystals was considered a fitting sonic pairing. But is the overall potency of this cinematic moment a result of it being an unbroken take lasting almost 3 minutes? Or does the power reside in the way the camera glides behind the pair, almost approximating the sensation of being swept off one’s feet, of being whisked somewhere? The question is somewhat moot considering the inherent interdependence of extended shot duration and tracking. Yet, there’s just something about tracking shots that aggressively capitalises on the very notion of motion picture, however masturbatory this may at times seem. And in the hands of a thoughtful practitioner (pardon the rolling innuendo) tracking shots can be far more than a camera’s simple pursuit/trailing of a subject on the move. Prior to his orchestration of the aforementioned sequence, Martin Scorsese more than dabbled in this technique with a degree of experimentation and versatility that perhaps shouldn’t be overlooked in the wake of Copacabana.

Note: as the per the disclaimer at the start of the video essay, there is a notable but relatively negligible chronological error. Mean Streets (1973) was released prior to Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974). Enjoy.

 

 

Saw it at SFF*, June 8, 18:30, State Theatre: “Taxi” aka “Tehran Taxi”

July 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

The Iranian ‘bad boy’ concludes his latest attempt at fuck-you guerrilla cinema with a final shot that is heart-warming, unassuming, alarming, somewhat embarrassing and ultimately sobering, in that order. Having spent seventy-something minutes ‘playing’ himself – that is, world renowned filmmaker Jafar Panahi – ‘playing’ a taxi driver, cruising around Tehran in what is presumably an actual cab (or at least a vehicle dressed up as one) and engaging in a headlong series of entertaining, often humorous and conveniently dramatic interactions that collectively snap a shot of contemporary urban Iran (or maybe just Tehran), Panahi decides to end proceedings by delivering a gentle smack to not just his face but the face of an adoring international film community that may be taking his beleaguered output for granted somewhat. It’s as if Panahi recognises that the oftentimes purposefully short human memory has come into play with regards to his movies, which technically should not exist but which nonetheless keep coming, every two years at this rate, breaching the Iranian border in cake-encased USBs (and who knows what else) and screening at international film festivals where they are heralded as great art and sometimes go on to win awards such as the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale. In truth, it’s a touch mysterious and a little bit eerie, the fact that three works conceived and executed by this puckishly civic-minded artist have managed to reach the global consciousness despite the Iranian government’s clear opposition, and it’s a touch embarrassing to think that these works are no less commodified than those of filmmakers whose prodigiousness is relatively unencumbered; that their presence on the cinematic landscape doesn’t appear to garner quite as much shocked surprise as might be deserved given the circumstances surrounding their creation. Perhaps Panahi is subtly chiding himself for being so gung-ho in his rebelliousness, reminding himself that the powers that be may not be as blind and/or ineffectual as their relative  inaction might suggest and that danger and violence may very well strike when the enemy’s apparent impotence couldn’t be more certain. Panahi even seems intent on emphasising the fact that matters have not necessarily progressed since his first act of cinematic dissent, This is Not a Film, seeing as he casts as a one of his passengers a lady who may very well be the lawyer with whom he spoke on his mobile phone in that very film, now disbarred/delicensed, presumably as a consequence of her involvement with him. Learning of her career trajectory over the last half-decade is indeed sobering.

So…roughly 5 years after scoring himself a 20-year filmmaking ban courtesy of the Iranian government, one-man-studio Panahi has released his third (yes, three!) provocation, Taxi, clumsily retitled Tehran Taxi in some  global territories (including Australia)  presumably to distinguish it from the Queen Latifah/Jimmy Fallon romp. Not unlike his previous two films, This is Not a Film and Closed Curtain, this logistically barebones picture may appear to be a continuation of Panahi’s ostensible investigation of the role that intellectual censorship and social oppression can/may play in breeding great art (or just art), which in fact extends farther back than the aforementioned pair to – say – his feminist soccer drama Offside (2006), a film whose actual production toed the very line of illegality that his last three blatantly cross. But rather than adopting Hayes Code-era innuendo and conceding (superficially) to the confines set out by the State, Panahi – being Panahi, and being an Iranian filmmaker in the era of Kiarostami – opts for a more reflexive and knowing approach. In fact, one of Taxi’s most politically poignant sequences features Panahi and his somewhat prodigious preteen niece discussing and eviscerating the scarily absurd film decency code that the Iranian government works hard to impose, a code which dares to dictate what kind of movie character (hero versus villain) can wear a tie and one which forbids the inclusion of any manner of ‘morbid realism’, presumably for fear that it may incite or further galvanise the civic dissatisfaction of the film-going masses. Either way, Taxi – notwithstanding the simple fact that it even exists – wryly drifts in and out of subversion and political antagonism as it moves from scene to scene, exposing the ‘morbid realities’ of being a (soon-to-be) widowed woman in Iran and the curious ethical quagmires that are borne of class injustice, as well as tackling (and quite amorally so) issues of intellectual theft, almost suggesting that pirating movies is not an unmitigated evil if it is a means by which cultural quarantine can be circumvented. In short, by highlighting and utilising the absence of that which is not permitted as much as he does that which is, Panahi manages to transform restriction into some weird breed of backhanded freedom; an almost ascetic, martyred iteration of it. Or perhaps he doesn’t quite create bounty out of scarcity, though he does capitalise on the fact that raw passion and the ideas that stir them can in themselves be as exhilarating to behold and as culturally constructive as that which eventually, tangibly results from these very ideas.

After Park Chan-wook seduced audiences (and the Berlinale Short Film jury) with his shaggily dreamy  iPhone-shot Nightfishing a couple of years ago, and in the wake of rising indie star Sean Baker’s transgender LA odyssey Tangerine generating a great deal of chinwag for its being photographed entirely on two rigged-up iPhone 5s, Jafar Panahi’s recent inventive (however-much by necessity) use of mobile phones, dashboard cams and point-and-shoot digital cameras contributes greatly to the legitimisation of all manner of photographic apparatus as pertains to the creation of world-class cinema. As young filmmakers bleed their pockets dry so as to acquire actual cine-lenses with which they may be able to compensate for their mid-level DSLR imagery, here is a filmmaker as established as any of his contemporaries levelling the technological hierarchy, demonstrating that capturing beauty is as dependent on boundless receptivity and crystal-eyed honesty as it is on technical mastery of the medium and its mechanics. Of course, knowing the political situation in which Panahi currently finds himself most definitely influences expectations and fosters a degree of critical generosity however scrappy his films might look, as does his already robust reputation as a powerful filmmaker at the best of times (relatively speaking). Even so, it would be perfectly legitimate to take aim at Panahi’s very knowing and somewhat impish insistence on utilising as many video-capable instruments as possible to weave his narrative, an approach which almost seems to suggest a democratisation or even sharing of the role of director, in a way shedding Panahi of the full weight of artistic responsibility. Taxi is not and should not be beyond reproach due to its sociopolitical importance and its status as a statement against censorship and in favour of expression, but the plain and simple truth is that the verve and incisive brevity with which Panahi and his players sketch their city and their nation (at least from their point of view) feels sufficient enough to justify whatever means they choose to present the finished picture, photo-realistic or not.

 

* SFF – Sydney Film Festival

Glancing over my cinematic shoulder

February 15, 2015 § Leave a comment

After trying so valiantly (and sillily) to cultivate an air of scholarliness by avoiding the first-person (at least as of late), it now seems only fitting that my being a person with a name and a face and a personality, one who is a prisoner of his own subjectivity and peculiarities, manifest itself once again in prose, that is to say in a manner that is explicit as opposed to implicit. [It is at least my hope that my words thus far have not been taken as any more than an ocean of subjectivity within which random buoys of theory bob]. So henceforth I shall periodically refer to myself not as ‘yours truly’ or ‘this writer’ or ‘one’, but as ‘I’ and ‘me.’ Why though?

The fact is this: there comes a defining moment when one’s interest in something is so well publicised within their social network, however tiny or sprawling this network is, that they become the inadvertent go-to person and default expert in said something. Flattering as this promotion might be, however, unless one (there it is again) is prodigiously knowledgeable about their field of interest or occupies a professional role which formally renders them an expert, the feeling of being a touch fraudulent is not one which retreats easily. While it is probably true that I see a wider range of films than most people I know (‘wider’ by which I mean year of release and countries of production), I do not see a great many, numerically speaking; I certainly did not see the hundreds of new releases that many professional film critics managed to sit through in 2014 alone, nor am I able to find the time and the energy to view two films a day in the way that Martin Scorsese is reputed to do. At the same time, certain beloved family members nonetheless insist that I have seen everything that is worth seeing, a statement which I must sadly decry as false.

Whether or not it is true that I am being held to an inaccurately high standard by others, or whether the actual truth is that my semi-regular perusals of the ‘Recommended Viewing’ lists compiled by the good people who manage the cinephile website They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? makes it painfully obvious that I have seen barely any films at all; painful and startling. This pang of self-disappointment has precious little to do with tally-keeping – (I’m looking at you, all those who take great pride in having seen a particular movie fifty times) – and more with the sense that one’s grasp, my grasp, of cinema is far weaker than I would have it. Obviously, as I attempted over the years to broaden my scope, as I familiarised myself with the works of certain filmmakers or particular eras or movements or national cinemas, others fell further and further into what I shall call my cinematic blindspot. Certain aspects of this magical medium that for various reasons strike me me as being worthy of exploration, for reasons even less clear, go ignored and unexplored as the years trudge on.

…hence the Blindspot Series, a personal project during which I will dedicate eight months of the good year of 2015 to viewing and pondering and reviewing films by the likes of Chantal Akerman, who made a bona fide, uncompromising sociological masterpiece at age 24 and is increasingly being acknowledged as a patron saint of the modern European art film, in addition to her place as a defining force in feminist and queer cinema; Hirokazu Koreeda, the seemingly lower key peer of contemporary Japanese auteurs like Takeshi Kitano, Takashi Miike, Sion Sono etcetera, but one who – on the basis of his humanist bent – already seems to evoke amongst cinephiles a certain reverence reserved for the likes of Ozu; Charlie Chaplin, an artist whose work I have admittedly shied away from on the basis of an unfounded belief that he is somehow overrated, twee or comfortable, all three being unfair and hopefully/most likely untrue; Kenneth Anger, experimental maverick and queer cinema pioneer who dared to acknowledge the repressed and explore the transgressive and in doing so inspired the American New Wave generation and their affinity for the subconscious; works of Taiwanese Masters from the Second Wave of that national cinema, namely the legendary Hou Hsou-Hsien and Edward Yang, and enfant terrible Tsai Ming-Liang who is apparently hanging his hat after releasing his final works in 2014…plus an Ang Lee picture, made before he became one of Hollywood’s better directors; Silent Cinema, from the era when film was almost entirely about images, when – some would say – film was at its purest. The farther removed one is from this period, the more instructive these works must surely be; the Czech New Wave, the other heralded but somewhat less sexy sixties-era European cinematic free-for-all that saw a young cohort of filmmakers tossing rulebooks to the breeze and embracing cinema as a medium of unfettered expression and political incisiveness; and the handful of African films which managed to find their way onto the world stage and continue to do so despite the continent’s reputation for nothing but poverty and suffering, an illusory feat achieved by the likes of Ousmane Sembène, Henry Barakat, Souleymane Cissé and Djibril Diop Mambéty, amongst many others.

First stop: Tsai Ming-Liang’s “Dong”.

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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