Movie Review: Samuel Maoz’s Foxtrot

Israeli director Samuel Maoz’s films have a record of adhering to his guiding philosophy that “the basic necessary condition for improvement is to accept self-criticism”. His 2009 film Lebanon, which received the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival and a twenty-minute standing ovation, explored the trauma of being a tank gunner during the Israeli–Lebanese conflict. Now, with his Silver Lion winning Foxtrot, Maoz casts an unflinching eye on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Foxtrot speaks the language of a tragedy following a similar three-act structure, which each create very distinct worlds of emotion. First we enter the lives of Michael and Dafna Feldman, who receive a knock at the door by Israeli Defence soldiers delivering news that leaves the couple reeling – they are informed their son has fallen. The wealthy well-to-do apartment is transformed into a dark and dizzying world. Whilst Dafna (Sarah Adler) is swiftly drugged and taken off scene, the camera zooms in on the vortex-like piece of abstract art that hangs in their hallway. A simple corridor becomes maze-like, and Michael, played by the renowned and supremely talented Lior Ashkenazi, expresses his shock with quiet horror. Birdseye-view shots twist and turn above the characters mimicking their lack of control over the shock-driven state of affairs.

Michael, a proud and stoic man, releases his anger in insidious ways. In one prominent scene, Michael’s dog senses he is upset, walks over to him, ready to provide comfort with those big brown eyes and soft muzzle, to which Michael responds with a sharp kick in the gut. The dog runs away whimpering. Michael and his wife also self-harm in the process of grief. Washing his hands, Michael keeps the hot tap running while it rises in temperature, keeping his hand steady under the flow as it sears his skin in the process. Dafna similarly scrubs her fingers to the point that they are bleeding and raw – her hands shake as she places pomegranate seeds in the shape of 20 on a birthday cake for her fallen son; she begins to wash the mixing bowl and instinctively moves the wiry side of the sponge onto her fingers, scrubbing them hard until they bleed whilst the camera remains on them unflinching. And yet Maoz expertly offsets the tragedy with moments of comedy. Michael’s regular phone alarms reminding him to drink water are blind to moments of intense feeling and emotion which help create a brilliantly subtle dark comedy.

Surrealism and absurdity reign in the second part of the film. The location shifts to the middle of the desert, where their son Jonathon is stationed at a checkpoint with a small group of young male soldiers. The backdrop of the mountains look much like a matte painting to reinforce the symbolic nature of this section. The soldiers open up the checkpoint’s barrier to allow the surreal but nonchalant passage of a camel through their set… Sleeping at night in a sinking shipping container that could be taken from an apocalyptic film set as viscous fluids drip from the walls. During the day, the boys are left playing a waiting game for cars to pass through the arbitrary border. When they do, the IDs of passers-by are scanned by an other-worldly science fictionesque machine that passengers hope beeps CLEAR. Moving from surrealism to a defining moment of electrifying intensity, the mundanity of the soldiers’ lives is shattered by an event that leaves Jonathon traumatised.

Like many films of New Israeli Cinema, Maoz’s Foxtrot is here to probe and reflect on the complications and nuances of Israeli society. Far from a black-and-white criticism of the Israeli Defence Force, it is more interested in a commentary on the grievous effects war has on civilians, families, and on the young male soldiers. It says anyone can commit an atrocity in the microcosm of war. Triggers are pulled, disasters happen – it could be any one of us. However, Maoz’s self-criticism has earned him backlash from the Israeli state. Culture minister, Miri Regev tried to ban the film from being screened at the Festival of Israeli Cinema in Paris when she heard about how the film depicted a cover-up of Palestinian deaths by the Israeli Defence Forces.

Maoz speaks from experience, and it took him years to be able to make the very personal film Lebanon. Foxtrot is once again a kind of therapy, giving form to the trauma of being an executioner, whether that be of a father who is wracked with guilt after discovering his son has died whilst serving, or the soldier who fires at a person who may or may not be innocent. And beyond personal experience, Maoz opens up his films to collective trauma: “I realised that this was no longer about me and my needs, my problems, my memories, my pain. Our boys were dealing with the same thing all over again” – two steps forward and two steps back; so the dance of history goes.




Interview with Lior Elefant, director of the Israeli film festival, Lethal Lesbian

An interview with Lior Elefant, head of the Israeli Women in Film and Television Forum, and Program Director of the Israeli film festival, Lethal Lesbian.

Last month, a film festival celebrating the pioneering and often politically probing films that make up New Israeli Cinema was screened at the Curzon cinema in Soho. Five of the eight films are directed by women, including the likes of Palestinian director Maha Haj, whose film Personal Affairs was nominated in the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes in 2016; feminist filmmaker Michal Aviad, whose most recent film Working Woman had its world premiere at TIFF and will have its UK premiere at the Jewish Film Festival; and the world’s first ultra-orthodox female director, Rama Burshtein, whose films give an authentic look into orthodox communities in Israel. But is this programming choice representative of the bigger picture in the Israeli film industry? Over 30% of films in Israel are directed by women, compared to only 5% in Hollywood, a statistic that invites celebration, but feminist director Michal Aviad is more cautious: “In general, I disagree that Israel allows women to be more visible … our struggles are as difficult as in the US or the UK.”

I raised this debate with Lior Elefant, head of the Israeli Women in Film and Television Forum, and program director of Lethal Lesbian, the annual film festival in Tel Aviv. Elefant agreed with Aviad, but also turned my attention to the progress made, to the increase in numbers of female directors in Israel in the past ten years. “From only one film a year, we were close to a third of the films in 2015. There is a rise but the situation is still not good.” In a fitting promo sequence for Lethal Lesbian directed by Hadas Ayalon and posted on the film festival’s Facebook page last year, a young Israeli girl gives her family two updates at the dinner table. For the first announcement, she nervously reveals to her family that she is a lesbian. Her family erupt in laughter: “What do you think, that we live in the Stone Ages?” They could not care less about her sexual orientation, which pleases the young girl. She then announces she has enrolled at university to study film, and she is met with horror as her mother screeches in disbelief at the idea. Whilst the scene is played for comedy, I asked Elefant whether this conservative response to studying film was common in Israel, despite having some of the most prestigious film schools. “First of all, this was my personal story and from the comments we received on the video, I can tell you that I was not alone. Because film, in general, is not regarded as a profession.” Elefant explained that this wasn’t particularly gender specific: “In film school, the gender gap is not so big. We are almost at fifty-fifty male to female in classes. But when students finish, it’s a different story. To continue; to make films, to be a producer or a cinematographer, the pyramid gets smaller when we climb.”

Elefant, 37, worked as an editor for ten years and now considers herself a film activist. As the head of the Israeli Women in Film and Television forum, Elefant’s role is to focus on promoting, encouraging and supporting women in the film business. “Most of our activity is raising consciousness. We make the discourse more visible. Before we started the forum, almost nobody talked about this issue in Israel, but for the last six or seven years, people are actually starting to talk about the gender inequality, and it’s because of the forum. I think it’s actually really similar to Second Wave Feminism which was about raising consciousness through small support groups. I think that we really made a change. I agree with Michal Aviad that we cannot celebrate the rise in the percentage of female filmmakers, but I think it is a success nonetheless, that the subject of female directors is getting public attention.”

We turned to the success of Palestinian director Maha Haj’s subtle masterpiece, Personal Affairs (2016) which was screened at the festival 70 Years of Israeli Cinema, and Israeli Palestinian director Maysaloun Hamoud’s In Between (2016). “Maha Haj is not only a woman, but she is a Palestinian, and so it is a completely different subject. We can say there is a rise in the percentage of films being made by Jewish Israeli women, but when you’re a Palestinian woman it’s completely different. And the fact that there were two films, one by Maysaloun Hamoud and Maha Haj which premiered in the same year, this was an exception to the rule. We are struggling as Jewish Israeli women, and Palestinian women, they do not even get close because it is a public-funded industry. Israel is occupying Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza so the fact that they need to raise the money from the Israeli film funds, it’s difficult for them.” However, it can be said that New Israeli Cinema consciously focuses on wider representation. Postgraduate student of film, Yinon Beeri explains, “The funds that the Cinema Law provided, facilitated the emergence of new voices and new themes: a New Israeli Women’s cinema, LGBTQ+ themed films, a new visibility of orthodox, immigrants, Palestinians and other communities and social classes.”

Lior Elefant’s lesbian film festival is another way Israeli culture is working to diversify representation and help the cause of women and film. “We have been doing the film festival for the past eleven years, and we screen Israeli lesbian films. It’s really amazing because it started as a small community festival, with films that our friends made and then it grew to this monster! I’ll be frank, we call it Lethal Lesbian film festival but it’s a one-night only event. We have three or four shorts and one feature film, so it’s small, but it is now the biggest cultural event for lesbians in Israel in general, not only in film.” Whilst the struggle for the visibility of women in film is clearly not over in Israel, activists like Lior Elefant, directors like Michal Aviad, Maha Haj and Maysaloun Hamoud are flipping the pyramid on its head.




Preview: Disability-led musical My Left/Right Foot at the Edinburgh Fringe

To succeed in amateur dramatics, risks have to be taken. When training their eyes on the looming Scottish Amateur Dramatic Society competition, a small group of players learn points are awarded for diversity and decide to do the logical thing: mount an adaptation of My Left Foot. The 1989 film about the life of the artist Christy Brown, a man who used the toes of one foot to write and draw due to cerebral palsy, is clearly ripe for an am-dram adaptation. They cast an actor without cerebral palsy to play Brown, of course, in the spirit of Daniel Day-Lewis. And why not make it a musical while they’re at it?

It’s this piling up of absurdities that makes My Left/Right Foot, the new musical written and directed by Robert Softley Gale (Wendy Hoos, Girl X, If These Spasms Could Speak), a sly and remarkable beast. A co-production with National Theatre of Scotland which is currently playing at the Edinburgh Fringe, this marks the 25th anniversary of his disability-led company Birds of Paradise, formally established as Scotland’s first touring theatre company to employ both disabled and non-disabled actors.

Softley Gale is upfront about the edge humour lends to any point they wish the production to make. “Comedy is our essential element, it’s always the best way of disarming people,” he says. From there, he points out, the conversation can be continued. My Left/Right Foot leans heavily into this disarming feeling, using it to unbalance everything. In casting Christy Brown, the Kirktoon Players pass over Chris (Matthew Duckett), their stagehand who actually does have cerebral palsy, and his sharp evaluation of their choice adds to the general chaos of the production.

Softley Gale, an actor, writer and director with cerebral palsy himself, had a similar experience to Chris when he used to take part in an amateur dramatic group with his family in Kirkintilloch, near Glasgow. Though he was involved backstage, “it was never seen as a possibility that I’d be onstage,” he remembers. In his new show he is eager to refocus attention back onto Brown, away from Day-Lewis’s portrayal and onto the fact of his casting in this role. And if some fun can be poked at non-disabled creatives continuing to make the same mistakes, all the better.

“This is still happening, of course,” he notes. “Accessibility is about listening and responding to people, and in terms of casting, that means casting for the show you’re making first, and putting disabled people in an integral position, not just a tokenistic one. For that reason, we wanted to do something that might make a big impact – that could both speak to issues we know are important and attract attention.”

Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

My Left/Right Foot boasts original music from the award-winning partnership Noisemaker (Forest Boy, Freakshow, Atlantic: A Scottish Story), which consists of Claire McKenzie and Scott Gilmour. It’s their first collaboration with Robert, and there are also two songs by Richard Thomas of Jerry Springer: The Opera in the show. “I’ve written lyrics and songs before,” Softley Gale says, “but nothing on this level, and I wanted to work with the best.”

McKenzie and Gilmour have worked together for six years now since meeting at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, but this is the first straight comedy they’ve worked on. McKenzie echoes Softley Gale on the genre – “It’s been a useful tool in accessing certain subjects.”

Making the show a musical, Gilmour and McKenzie argue, will also make audiences receptive to its political message. “We have to be questioning ‘Why music? What’s it bringing to the table here?’” Gilmour says. “If that’s in place, it brings this lightness and accessibility to the subject matter.” McKenzie agrees: “The style and feel of things are more familiar to the audience, but the subject matter of the songs is what’s different. It’s often quite pop, quite contemporary, but then shifts into homages to other styles with very big, bold colours.”

Perhaps the most unusual feature of My Left/Right Foot – and particularly striking for a musical – is the inclusion of Natalie MacDonald as both actor and integrated British Sign Language interpreter. Softley Gale and I compare notes on similar efforts on the part of various productions, most commonly extending to just one BSL-integrated performance in a run which easily missed by hard of hearing audience members and quickly done away with if demand isn’t deemed high enough. Both McKenzie and Gilmour are quick to note what a learning experience MacDonald’s participation  – their favourite element of the production – has been for them.

“When the interpreter is brought in earlier, there’s a better job done generally,” Claire explains. “[MacDonald plays] a character within the show, as close to the action as possible and active within the scenes. You don’t have to be distracted by or choose to ignore signs that are to the side of everything going on. She’s a part of the story, adding another layer to the process of writing the lyrics and songs, affecting the pace of the musical direction.” MacDonald’s signing has been used in the development of the musical’s choreography, another stream of information available for the audience to read alongside the body language of the actors, their speech, and the lyrics and music of the songs.

Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

The pair are clear that they don’t want this level of engagement with the issue of accessibility to end here in their work. “Just a year ago, perhaps,” Gilmour says, “this wouldn’t have been possible for us. We weren’t ready. But we’re at this point as artists where we want to keep thinking about this: not just doing a one-off performance for the visually impaired, or one BSL performance, but opening it up so people can come whenever they want.

For his part, Softley Gale is unequivocal that he’s witnessed change slowly taking place for disabled people in the arts. “I was thirteen when I started out, and there was no representation. It really was Daniel Day-Lewis, he was what there was, the most recognisable.”

He’s ever-practical, however, with regards to the progress yet to be made, and cautiously open to the musical, which has received excellent reviews, developing further – “We’ll wait until Edinburgh is finished with.” The distance won’t be made up by one production, but with its all too rare emphasis on accessibility and firm denouncement of the notion that disabilities are something to be overcome, UK theatre is in sore need of the likes of My Left/Right Foot.

My Left/Right Foot will play at Assembly Roxy at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival until 27 August.




Litro #162: Literary Highlife | Interview: Jenn Nkiru

Director Jenn Nkiru’s En Vogue, an experimental, high-concept, bold short film documenting the potent vitality of New York’s voguing and ballroom subculture, marked the arrival of an exciting new voice. Possessing a visually striking, poetic style, Nkiru’s work captures stories of the socially marginalised through the lenses of race, gender and music. Of Nigerian heritage but British and a Howard University alumnus, she’s part of a diasporic group of artists who navigate their multiple identities with ease. Having collaborated with Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bradford Young, amongst others, the future looks promising. I sat down with her to discuss her process and forging a path for herself in the current climate.

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Litro: You’ve just launched your first ever series, HASHTAG$, on music and subculture, which you wrote, produced and most importantly directed for Red Bull Music, exec produced by Pulse Films, the same execs behind Beyoncé’s Lemonade music video film. Tell us about it.

Jenn: Yes! This is my first ever series and I’m really proud of it as it took a lot of work to get it out. My series of HASHTAG$ is actually series two of the franchise. There was an initial series which ended up being really successful for Red Bull and resulted in being their most watched. Because of this, Red Bull were really eager to do a second series and approached Pulse Films to do so. At the time I’d been writing music video ideas with Pulse for everyone from Pharrell to Major Laser through to J Cole and Imagine Dragons. This project came in the middle of that and we both agreed it would be perfect for me so we started developing ideas for it. It took off from there. This was a big project – we shot internationally from here in the continent (South Africa) through to Europe and LA and New York. I interviewed over sixty musicians, journalists and tastemakers throughout the project. We shot five episodes and four were released.

Litro: How do you think being Nigerian living in the UK and US has influenced you as a filmmaker?

Jenn: The British-Nigerian identity is a cultural identity in and of itself at this point. Moving to America at twenty-one to go to film school, and at a historically Black university at that, just added another layer to my consciousness and identity as a filmmaker. The biggest influence being the clearest sense of self: learning about my history, who I am, where I’m from, roots and culture. This level of awareness has been the most important influence in my life, making film and the content of my films itself.

Litro: Your first film, En Vogue, was shot by Bradford Young (Selma, Mother of George, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, amongst others). His work is exquisite. Bradford also became the first Black cinematographer to be nominated for Best Cinematography at the 2017 Oscars for his work in Arrival. What was your experience of collaborating with him and collaborating in the US in comparison to the UK?

Jenn: Brad is magic and his work is magic. I see him as a big brother and we come from the same filmmaking roots (Howard University under the tutelage of Haile Gerima) so that’s family. We’re all so incredibly proud of the strides he’s taken in the industry, yet not surprised. It’s more so at this point, the industry catching up to him rather than vice versa. Brad along with Arthur Jafa shot En Vogue, which also ended up being my graduate thesis film as I was still a student at Howard when I directed it. Working with both of them is like working with master artists. It was an incredibly supportive environment where I got to play and push which they embraced so it was a magical time and a treat of a first professional experience for me.

Litro: You previously worked alongside directors such as Diane Martel on projects with Beyoncé and Levi. As well as being bread and butter, how has that sort of work honed your skills as a filmmaker?

Jenn: Yes, before working as a director I assisted directors and worked across almost every department in the filmmaking process. I purposely did this and it truly served me well because I wanted to have an understanding, even if basic, across the whole production process. It also allowed me to know what my possibilities are as well as what everyone’s role is, which has allowed me to get the best from my teams. Beyond this, assisting, watching and studying directors work on set was really important to me very early on. Directing is as much craft as it is art, that muscle that needs constant honing and exercise to keep it strong. That constant on-set experience working with both commercial directors and huge talents as well as smaller indie directors and talent early on really served me well. It’s allowed me to anticipate things I never would have without it on my sets.

Litro: Can you tell us about being a Black woman filmmaker at this time and what sort of stories you’re interested in telling?

Jenn: I think more than ever we’re at a time where audiences are tired of seeing the same old thing – white male stories – and are interested in a new worldview. This is coupled and most likely in conversation with the fact that we are at an interesting social crossroads where all previous structures are being challenged and the general awareness of us all is growing. People are now awake – woke even. Entering into the conversation at this point as a woman and a black woman and an artist has meant I, and other filmmakers like myself dedicated to pushing culture forward, have been tasked with reflecting this through our work. This is a responsibility which I embrace and take very seriously. I’m looking forward to telling stories about the Black experience and putting us on screen in ways we have never seen us before. We are such a dynamic, multi-layered people who have so many stories to tell so I’m looking forward to telling our stories and reflecting us in ways that are close to who we actually are on screen.

Litro: You set up your own production company Nkiru + Nkiru which is great. What was your thinking and intention behind that?

Jenn: Independence and ownership, period. That’s my biggest aim and goal. It’s really important as far as possible for us to own our work and dictate how that work is formed, managed and exhibited – the individual that controls these aspects is the one that controls the image. If we want to see a change or improvement in how we are viewed we need to control the image. I urge all artists to exercise agency in their work as far as they can manage it. By virtue, my independent work created under NKIRU + NKIRU is my best work as it’s where I feel freest and so does my work.

Litro: You’re credited with having a strong visual style / aesthetic and an interest in sound design. What are some of the ideas behind both?

Jenn: As an artist and filmmaker, I’m constantly interested in seeing things in ways as human beings that we have not before. That is at the centre of what drives my work. I love seeing worlds which typically wouldn’t come together. I’m especially interested in getting out stories from and of people not often typically celebrated on screen; Black people and other marginalised groups. By virtue of being so focused on showing experiences in ways we’ve never seen before by default, it means the visuals will also bring something fresh. Music and sound are my first loves. I also DJ so that naturally finds a special place in my work. Visuals and sounds/music tend symbiotically to come together to create something unique in my work.

Litro: What work excites you?

Jenn: I mention him a lot both personally and publicly: Khalil Joseph. His work is magic and as a contemporary Black filmmaker working in the industry, it’s so affirming to see someone at the top of their craft who comes from a similar thought space be so embraced by the industry and audiences. What strikes me most about his work is he showcases black people, black experiences and spirituality in such a visceral way. Something I am committed to also and that’s what truly excites me about his work.

Litro: Ava Duvernay’s success has been wonderful to watch. Her tremendous documentary 13th was nominated for an Oscar and won a Bafta. Do you draw any inspiration for how she’s carved a path for herself and if so what?

Jenn: Ava is a force and incredibly inspiring. I’m so glad we have her. Whilst I was a student at Howard University. Ava was readying her first narrative feature film, I Will Follow, for release. She called upon us, students and faculty at Howard University to play key roles in distributing her film in the DMV (DC, Maryland and Virginia) where our film school is based. We were tasked with selling out every single screening of her film, which we successfully did. That was the first time I noticed her magic and ability beyond being a great filmmaker to be a great leader. That’s particularly what inspires me, her ability to lead and most of all that she does so independently thus making her model sustainable. That is incredibly inspiring to me.

Litro: How often do you visit Nigeria? How does your connection with it reflect in your work?

Jenn: I don’t visit Nigeria as much as I used to or would like to so I’m eager to change that soon and connect with other Nigerian filmmakers committed to enhancing, pushing and progressing us as a culture and a people. Growing up I had parents that made my sister and I culturally very aware of where we’re from geographically and traditionally, so naturally, whether overtly or more abstractly, there is always that connection in my work, whether it be in the pacing, story, music or general approach. I’m incredibly proud of my culture and it’s intrinsic to me as an individual and to my style as a filmmaker. I truly wouldn’t be the filmmaker I am without it. For that, I’m both grateful and proud.

Litro: You’re highly involved in the discussions about Black cinema and film. Where are we when it comes to that? What has to be done?

Jenn: We still have a long way to go but we’re getting there slowly. Small changes are being made. We all cumulatively regardless of race need to keep challenging the status quo but as Black people need to lead that charge. I think for the longest time, the belief was that audiences felt only certain stories were relatable, worthy of cinema and would sell. In the last couple of years especially, that belief is slowly being dismantled as audiences are showing they want something different, they want stories and perspectives, the kind till recently that haven’t been celebrated on screen. Moonlight the movie is the most recent and direct example of this. For the longest time, there’s been a cloud of erasure both socially and historically when it comes to stories of people of colour. In order for things to continue changing we need to widen the scope of who is greenlighting / commissioning projects. The more range of individuals from broader backgrounds, colours, genders, socioeconomic backgrounds we have in power positions, the more likely we are to see a wider range of stories. We need to see ourselves to know we exist. We all want to see stories that reflect our humanity and our society and to do that those stories have to be colourful. There’s so much more that unites us than separates us and life is just so much more interesting that way.




Fences: How Do You Adapt A Play By August Wilson?

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in Fences, Washington's faithful screen adaptation of the play by August Wilson. Photo courtesy of David Lee/Paramount Pictures.
Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in Fences, Washington’s faithful screen adaptation of the play by August Wilson. Photo courtesy of David Lee/Paramount Pictures.

How do you write a play like August Wilson, that great chronicler of the African American experience in the twentieth century, that Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist and poet, that ‘giant figure in American theater’, according to playwright Tony Kushner? You start, it seems, with a line of dialogue. This is Wilson’s own advice, put forward in a talk – appropriately titled ‘How to Write a Play like August Wilson’ – that he gave in 1991. ‘I’ll start with the line, and the more dialogue I write, the better I get to know the characters,’ he explains in the talk. He likens the incremental process of writing a play – listening to the characters, responding to the demands of their dialogue – to the creation of a work of art. Specifically, the work of artist Romare Bearden, whose paintings and collages Wilson long admired. ‘He’s a collagist,’ Wilson said. ‘He pieces things together – I discovered that that’s part of my process, what I do. I piece it all together, and, hopefully, have it make sense, the way a collage would.’

Bearden’s iconic collages created vivid portraits of the lives of mid-century African Americans, through a meeting of bold colours and pieced-together images torn from magazines. Taking notes from the cubism of his friend Picasso, Bearden established a new visual imagery, one which excited Wilson: ‘What I saw was Black life presented on its own terms, on a grand and epic scale’, he wrote of Bearden’s work. The two men never met, although they came close on more than one occasion; once, Wilson admits, ‘he stood outside [Bearden’s home at] 357 Canal Street in silent homage, daring myself to knock on his door.’

Wilson’s plays are a patchwork of multimedia echoes. Collage-like, he assembled influences from art, music and story-telling, explaining to The Paris Review that

[m]y influences have been what I call my four Bs—the primary one being the blues, then Borges, Baraka, and Bearden. From Borges, those wonderful gaucho stories from which I learned that you can be specific as to a time and place and culture and still have the work resonate with the universal themes of love, honor, duty, betrayal, etcetera. From Amiri Baraka I learned that all art is political, though I don’t write political plays. That’s not what I’m about. From Romare Bearden I learned that the fullness and richness of everyday ritual life can be rendered without compromise or sentimentality.

With this broad range of influences, Wilson wove a rich tapestry, documenting the experiences of African American men and women through every decade of the twentieth century in his critically acclaimed ‘Pittsburgh cycle’. Each one in this series of ten plays is set in a different decade, although the characters all largely inhabit the same territory – the city of Pittsburgh, in which Wilson lived and worked for most of his life.

Fences, written in 1983, takes place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1957. It centres on the home of Troy Maxson, a garbage collector, who, through a series of dense, lyrical monologues, tells his colleague Mr Bono, his son Lyons and his wife Rose the circumstances of his life. A fight with his father at the age of fourteen leads Troy to leave his home in the South, walking two hundred miles to reach Mobile in Alabama before travelling north to Pittsburgh. Circumstances prove difficult and Troy finds himself stealing food to feed his new wife and young son. ‘I’ll tell you the truth,’ he goes on. ‘I’m ashamed of it today. But it’s the truth. Went to rob this fellow… pulled out my knife… and he pulled out a gun.’ Later, ‘[t]hey told me I killed him and they put me in the penitentiary and locked me up for fifteen years.’ He describes – in a mesmerising speaking style, tetchy yet poetic – how he went on to meet Rose and had another child with her, a son called Cory.

The central image of the play is that of the fence, which Troy promises he will build around the backyard. In doing so he enlists the help of Cory, who is fearful of his father, and disgusted by him, while yearning for his approval. The fence, which takes month to erect, comes to symbolise the deep and growing rifts that emerge between Troy and the rest of his family, as well as the wider gender and race divisions of the 1950s. As Troy’s infidelities are exposed, the image of the fence takes on a poignant edge. ‘Some people build fences to keep people out,’ Mr Bono remarks, ‘and other people build fences to keep people in.’

Wilson repeatedly referred to Fences as ‘the odd man out’ among his plays; unlike the ensemble pieces that came before it, it is ‘about one individual and everything focuses around him’, he explained in an interview with Bonnie Lyons in 1997. Despite Wilson’s misgivings (Fences was his ‘least favourite’ play, he later said), the character of Troy is a remarkable creation, loving and bitter, a master of the mundane. In the mouth of Troy Maxson, the language of ‘50s Pittsburgh is steeped in figurative imagery, shifting the play from straightforward realism to a striking kind of allegory. ‘All right… Mr. Death,’ he says in one of the play’s most powerful moments. ‘I’m gonna take and build me a fence around this yard. See? I’m gonna build me a fence around what belongs to me. And then I want you to stay on the other side. See? You stay over there until you’re ready for me.’

But how successfully does this claustrophobic domestic drama translate to the screen? Directed by Denzel Washington, with a screenplay by Wilson that ‘got some massaging by Tony Kushner’ (Vanity Fair’s description, not mine), Fences the film takes the 2010 production on Broadway – starring Washington as Troy and Viola Davis as Rose – and relocates it to a small house in Pittsburgh, in and around which most of the action is shot. Washington and Davis are breathtaking in their roles; Davis especially so. Of Rose Maxson, Davis has said in an interview with NPR that ‘you see her at first and she seems to be in the background. She’s making her marriage work — it is working, as far as she’s concerned. And then it gets turned on its head and you see her pain.’ For Davis, Rose represents the ‘complete journey of womanhood.’

I just really wanted to create a portrait of a woman. … You see age has affected her, but you still see the smile; you see a little bit of the lipstick; you see a woman who is not downtrodden. It was very important for me to create an entire and specific portrait of a woman, so by the time everything is taken away, it really is taken away. You really feel the trauma.

There are moments in the film when it feels as though the medium’s potential isn’t being fulfilled, curbed by the limitations of a theatre set. But the energy that Washington, Davis and a talented supporting ensemble bring to the screen is astonishing; viewers will find themselves deeply moved by the pathos of a life lined with fences. Although the ‘odd man out’, Fences stays true to the example Wilson cherished in the work of Bearden: this remarkable play is founded on the ‘fullness and richness of everyday ritual life […] rendered without compromise or sentimentality’.

Fences is in cinemas now. 




Kubo and the Two Strings: An Ode to Storytelling

kubo-and-the-two-strings-featured-imageSometimes I’d tell my mother stories about little things, like skimming rocks across the river or catching fireflies in the mulberry fields and when I told those stories I could see her eyes were mostly clear. I could tell she saw me. Really saw me. I could see her too. Her real self. Her spirit. Trying to find its way out. It was beautiful.”

 

This is Kubo, a one-eyed young storyteller, talking with Monkey and Beetle on a boat of leaves, having gone on a quest to find his father’s armour and defeat his twisted aunts. Kubo and the Two Strings is partly a story of family (quite a dysfunctional family) as Kubo’s journey is to understand who his parents were and are, whilst fighting the great threat his grandfather and aunt’s pose against him. Kubo is young, resourceful, resilient and strong.

 

This strength, I would argue, comes from Kubo’s gift of storytelling. Kubo plays the shamisen and with it the small origami papers in his backpack come to life, as birds, insects, monkeys and knights. Kubo smiles and laughs as he strums the strings and tells one of many stories. He is most himself when he is creating and telling them. He’s essentially a beat poet with a banjo. But what Kubo represents is the power of telling stories.

 

There are two dynamics to Kubo’s use of song and words, the first is that he is keeping his father and mother’s memories alive, having lost them (he never knew his father and his mother was killed by his aunts), the other is fictional, Kubo tells stories about “mighty warriors seeking revenge with battles and monsters and magic” as a means of escaping through his imagination. The film becomes an ode to storytelling with Kubo’s free-spirit, with the ability to transform darkness into art and beauty. Yet Kubo’s journey sends him to darker waters and it becomes a journey of family discovery. His mother has been reincarnated as the very monkey he woke up to, his father is the amnesia samurai who is forced to live as a beetle.  And his aunts and grandfather want to take his other eye. When Kubo’s parents die in their reincarnated form, Kubo is able to defeat his grandfather with the memories of his parents – for memories are the strongest kind of magic.

 

By knowing his parents – by seeing their real selves, their spirits – Kubo is able to be with his parents again through his memory. Memories are stories and storytelling is freedom. Before Kubo defeats his grandfather, he announces a proclamation of sorts: “These are the memories of those we’ve have loved and lost. And if we hold their stories, deep in our hearts…then you will never be taken them away from us.”

 

Kubo ends tragically and honestly. Kubo has lost his parents twice and he goes to the lake to light two lanterns. I had a glimmer of hope at the end that Kubo’s parents would fully come back to life through the illuminated lamps. Instead, Kubo stared at me, standing beside the memory forms of his parents, for that is the truth and honesty that makes this film important and unique – that when people die the only way to keep them alive is by sharing the memories and telling the stories.




London Film Festival: Nocturnal Animals and the Novel Behind It

Amy Adams in Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals, an adaptation of Tony and Susan.
Amy Adams in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, an adaptation of Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony & Susan.

Austin Wright’s Tony & Susan didn’t make much of a splash when it was first published in the US in 1993. The novel focuses on the circumstances of an estranged couple, Susan and Edward, and the unpublished manuscript Edward sends Susan years after their divorce. The manuscript – which we read over Susan’s shoulder – is startlingly violent. It is the story of a family broken up by force, and the lengths to which a father will go to seek justice for what has been done to his wife and daughter. The central themes of betrayal and revenge were a touch too pulpy, reviewers thought. But there was a cleverness in this story-within-a-story, a comment on the relationship between reader and writer, which people began to react to. Saul Bellow deemed it “marvelously written”, and its publication in the UK in 2010 was met with enthusiasm.

And now it has been adapted for the screen by Tom Ford, taking the name of Edward’s manuscript – “Nocturnal Animals” – as its title. Nocturnal Animals is largely faithful to Tony & Susan, reviving its many-stranded structure, but gives the story a sheen the original lacks. The Fordian trademarks we first saw in A Single Man are here again. The impressionistic shots which punctuate the narrative. The starry cast who toe the line – as Colin Firth did so memorably in A Single Man – between elegance and anguish. The plaintive strings.

Yet the film’s stylisation doesn’t detract from its emotional impact. There’s loneliness in the way Susan (played with poignancy by Amy Adams) navigates her ultra-modern house and the circus of the art world in which she works. There’s warmth in her first exchanges with Edward (both Edward and the manuscript’s main character, Tony, are played by Jake Gyllenhaal), conveyed through a series of flashbacks. And there’s horror in the scene in which Edward’s fictional family are shoved off the road and antagonised by a car full of young men, an interchange both unexpected and extremely disturbing. This episode leans heavily on the example of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games in its teasing sadism. Like Funny Games, Nocturnal Animals toys with its viewers, allowing snuffed-out moments of hope (a passing police car; a fixed flat tire). As observers, we uneasily surrender our control: not only do we find our expectations continually thwarted, but our reactions to the events we witness are further influenced by the example of Susan, who is reading and reacting alongside us.

This tussle for authorial control is the film’s most distinguishing feature. It occurs from the opening credits, in which we see a slow-motion montage of overweight women dancing, the abundance of flesh a jarring contrast to the lean bodies which inhabit the rest of the movie. The camera’s unflinching relish in the women’s size is disquieting. But as the narrative unfolds, and this footage is located in a contemporary art gallery in LA, we – as spectators – take a step back. It’s not Ford who is making a spectacle of these women, but the sharply dressed art enthusiasts in his film; our judgement, we are forced to believe, was misdirected. Throughout the film, our viewing experience is repeatedly manipulated. We are never sure what to expect.

This is Austin Wright’s great, and largely unrecognised, skill, and it is one which informed his academic writing too. In 1990, he wrote Recalcitrance, Faulkner and the Professors, a piece of so-called “critical fiction” which explores the language and attitudes of literary criticism through a satirical lens. The book is set at an imaginary university, its characters voicing conflicting opinions on Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying in discussions “documented” by Wright, and it has been praised as an example of both experimental fiction and innovative critical discourse. There are a number of interesting things about this confluence of academic writing and metafictionality, but the most interesting, to my mind, is the idea of control.  By feeding arguments and counter-arguments into the mouths of his characters, Wright creates for himself a position of authorial power, anticipating and addressing the criticism of his readers before the criticism can be made.

Nocturnal Animals revives Wright’s interest in control. A struggle for power is evident in the exchanges between present-day Edward and Susan and the Edward and Susan of yesteryear. It is realised distressingly vividly in the assertion of the men’s power over Tony’s wife and daughter, and Tony’s attempt to reclaim that power in his bid for revenge. And we feel it in our lack of control as viewers, as we draw conclusions which are repeatedly proved wrong. The film’s subject matter and style complement each other in this respect, and for this reason Nocturnal Animals is a more successful movie than Ford’s A Single Man. The overwroughtness of A Single Man jarred with many of its critics when it was released; The Telegraph called it “a preening perfume commercial”, while The Guardian deemed it “absolutely just so”. Ford’s precision eclipsed the narrative itself, reviewers felt. But the framework he inherits from Wright is the perfect match for his directorial style, its story-within-a-story requiring the kind of close supervision at which he excels.




London Film Festival: The Handmaiden, Lady Macbeth and the Possibilities of Adaptation

Florence Pugh in William Oldroyd's Lady Macbeth, an adaptation of Nikolai Leskov's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.
Florence Pugh in William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth, an adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

It’s an old adage in the world of book lovers: the book is always better than the film. To suggest otherwise (as in the case of, for instance, Starship Troopers, the film of which is much more economically paced than the book) is to court controversy and possibly even denouncement as a heresiarch. But what about films that are only barely adaptations of books, films that become a quite separate piece of art in their own right? Is it even worth comparing them to their source material? How can we do that in a way that helps us to appreciate them for what they are, instead of condemning them for what they aren’t?

Lady Macbeth and The Handmaiden, two of the films shown at the London Film Festival this year, both fall into this category. Lady Macbeth, despite its title, has nothing (at least, nothing concrete) to do with the Shakespeare play; it’s an adaptation of the Russian novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Nikolai Leskov, which was also made into an opera by Shostakovich. The Handmaiden, meanwhile, is a Korean reimagining of Sarah Waters’s novel Fingersmith, a sort of Victorian heist thriller with a tender same-sex romance at its core and one of the top five best plot twists I’ve ever read.

Lady Macbeth is especially interesting because it has allusions to two separate works of literature folded into its core. As a film version of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, it sticks fairly closely to its source material, with the exception of some of the names: here, the horrible father-in-law is still named Boris, but characters such as Vinovy and Sergei become Alexander and Sebastian. Wherever we are—and the film is always coy on its precise geography—we’re not in Russia. Where the film does take a leap into new territory, though, is in its quiet acknowledgment of interracial history: Sebastian, the servant for whom our protagonist Katherine commits adultery and murder, is black, as is Katherine’s personal maid, Anna. There’s no mention of this in the film script; it’s just there, ever-present, unavoidably affecting the way a viewer interprets Katherine’s actions. Her struggle to find a way out of imprisonment, lovelessness and oppression engages our sympathies, but her exit strategy involves ruthlessly using the people of colour who surround her. The accusations commonly levelled at what’s referred to as “white feminism”—that it excludes and oppresses women of colour, poorer women, anyone who doesn’t fit a narrow band of criteria—draw their strength from the historical reality of behaviour like Katherine’s.

The second work to which Lady Macbeth refers is, of course, the notorious Scottish Play. It’s an oblique reference; Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is seemingly so called only because it involves a woman who plots murder. At first glance, this looks like a bit of a stretch. The original Lady M. kills in pursuit of power, and not even direct power, but the indirect thrill of being intimately connected to (and perhaps able to manipulate) a powerful man. Katherine’s motive looks very different: she kills more emotionally, to free herself from a loveless marriage. What Lady Macbeth does as a film is allow us to ask ourselves whether these motives are more similar than they appear: to liberate oneself into the life one wants is a power not to be underestimated.

Park Chan-Wook's The Handmaiden, adapted from Sarah Waters' Fingersmith</em?.
Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, adapted from Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith.

There are political undertones, too, in The Handmaiden. Park Chan-wook relocates the action from Victorian Britain to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s. His “handmaiden”—the woman recruited to pose as a maid to a wealthy lady, while actually helping a con man to seduce her, steal her fortune, and have her committed—is Korean; the lady, and her rich uncle, are Japanese. But this kind of resistance and rebellion isn’t Park’s main focus. Instead, with great respect for the emotional and erotic intensity of his source material in Fingersmith, he gives us a story about two young women whose feelings for each other allow them to explore a world where the men who surround and menace them become irrelevant. The Guardian review of this film notes that it paints male physicality and sexuality as faintly distasteful: “Men are pathetic, unwanted voyeurs.” It’s a smart way of side-stepping the problem of a man making a movie about lesbian romance: render the male gaze silly, not worth noticing. The context of a piece of art—the question of who is making it, and what perspective they might be approaching the subject from—can change its meaning. Park ensures that his film doesn’t suffer from the fact that he is neither a woman nor gay, by privileging his characters’ experience instead of imposing his own ego onto the project.

Both Lady Macbeth and The Handmaiden are well worth seeing if you enjoyed their source material, but are equally accessible if you’re coming to these stories fresh. (I’ve never read Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; it didn’t matter.) The London Film Festival, once again, proves what an incredible resource it is for connoisseurs and novices alike to experience beautiful, thought-provoking works of cinematic art.




London Film Festival: The Glorious Uncertainty of Certain Women

Michelle Williams as Gina Lewis in Kelly Reichardt's stunning Certain Women.
Michelle Williams as Gina Lewis in Kelly Reichardt’s stunning Certain Women.

On Saturday, Kelly Reichardt’s latest film, Certain Women, won the top prize at the London Film Festival awards ceremony – an accolade it entirely deserves. Its title is a play on words: the women in question are all searching in their own way for certainty and self-definition, while never quite managing to find it. “Certain” can mean specific, or it can mean some, but not all. These paradoxical layers of meaning reveal themselves quietly as the film unfolds. How much, the film asks, can we be sure of our lives, our loves, our jobs, our very selves. Certain Women is a film of open questions whose answers prove elusive.

Based on three short stories (“Tome”, “Native Sandstone” and “Travis, B”) by the Montana-born writer Maile Meloy, Certain Women, like Meloy’s writing, is spare and tender. Reichardt weaves scenes from the lives of four characters from these stories (changing gender in one case and throwing in a teenage daughter in another) into a loosely-knit structure. The classic beginning, middle and end would be too tight a corset for these women. Instead, Reichardt has created a film whose strands radiate outwards from a core made up of the combined desires and needs of her characters. This is not the messy, madcap Robert Altman approach of Short Cuts, and Meloy, although she shares his acuity and depth, is a different sort of writer from Raymond Carver. Place—in this case Montana with its sweeping landscapes, harsh winters and isolation—features largely in Meloy’s writing, providing Reichardt with another character to work with. The feel of Certain Women differs from Reichardt’s four previous films, Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff and Night Moves, whose characters seemed impelled by the thrust of moving West, towards the Pacific. This film, on the other hand, takes place in a landlocked space where characters’ lives are hemmed in by mountains. These stories could only happen where Meloy has made them happen: in this case Livingston, Montana and a ranch near Glendive, in eastern Montana. Meloy’s ability to get inside the lives of her women is reminiscent of Alice Munro’s fascination with the inner workings of quiet women trying to live good lives and she works it to equally devastating effects.

Kelly Reichardt once wrote about how she preferred to work from short stories rather than novels because she likes to “expand, not condense”. Her sense of expansion is what gives her films their breadth and depth, their meditative quality and their trance-like pull, which takes us into deceptively small stories that explode upon impact. This is partly down to Reichardt’s ability to coax wonderfully underplayed performances from her actors, and in this Certain Women is no exception. The opening line of dialogue is spoken as we see a man and a woman getting dressed after what we can assume is a quick lunchtime tryst. “You better get to work,” the man says. And this is exactly what the woman does. She rushes to her office, flustered, blouse half hanging out. There is something so innocuous about this comment and yet it comes over as controlling, almost chilling.

The lives Reichardt focuses on in Certain Women are disparate but connected. Laura (Laura Dern) is the put-upon lawyer of the lunch-time tryst who is being mildly harassed by a disgruntled client, Bill Fuller (Jared Harris). Fuller is unable to accept that he is not eligible for any more settlement money from an accident he sustained at work. At the end of her tether, Laura gets a male lawyer to explain Fuller’s case to him. The penny drops as soon as Fuller hears it from a man’s mouth. “I have been telling the guy he had no case, but he had to hear it from a man,” Laura sighs. Was it just me, or was there a communal outtake of breath in the mostly female audience at this corollary to mansplaining?

Events take on an unexpected trajectory and Laura finds herself strapped into a Kevlar vest and sent headfirst into a slightly comical hostage-taking while a gang of male police officers wait for her to do their job for them. Her client and the cops can only see Laura as hostage bait, as a woman, a shoulder to cry on. Laura’s vulnerability and exasperation (perfectly conveyed by Dern) are the result of her desire to be so much more than the earpiece to her client’s problems, if only she could be seen here for what she really is: a lawyer and a woman.

Without giving anything away, this story overlaps with that of Ryan and Gina Lewis (James LeGros and Michelle Williams) and their monosyllabic teenage daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier). Guthrie is a Reichardt addition and what better way to drive a wedge between a couple than to throw in a teenage daughter. Her name, which we can assume comes from Woody Guthrie, is the perfect shorthand for this couple and their hipster chic lives. We know the type well. Where Laura’s life is pieced together by surreal moments fuelled by a naïve sincerity, Ryan and Gina are a couple just barely hanging onto their marriage—and they know it. Prickly and sharp with each other, their discomfort with the world and themselves oozes from them. At one point, Gina sarcastically says to her daughter, “Thanks for helping out.” To which Guthrie replies, “No one asked me to.” Gina shoots back, “No one asked me to either, I just figured it out all by myself.” Another put upon woman, this time locked in a dynamic of resentment and bitterness as she volleys between being a mother and a wife. Even when Ryan tries to make it better by telling Guthrie, out of earshot of Gina, “Let’s be nice to your mom today.” Guthrie asks, “Why? Is she sick?” Kindness is something that has a value and these characters simply can’t seem to afford it.

Gina’s major desire—and perhaps the one thing that gives her life meaning—is to build a house using “native stone and railroad ties”. Or as Meloy puts it, “things that fit in”. This is important, because Gina and Ryan are “out-of-staters”. Unlike the other characters in the film, they don’t belong in Montana. They visit the elderly Albert who has a pile of native sandstone on his land, which Gina has earmarked for her dream home. She tries to get a price from him, but how can Albert translate the stone into money? For him these are not just hunks of rock, they are part of the earth and bear the marks of the pioneers who carved them from the land—they are his history. “If you want to sell,” Gina tells him, “think of a price. I don’t know how much a rock costs.” And there it is: the gap between the Alberts and the Ginas of this world. You cannot put a price on land and what it means to people—especially in a place like Montana, the “Treasure State” where the ground, and what lies below it, are so indelibly tied to its inhabitants. Ryan tries to cover for his wife by explaining to the somewhat baffled Albert that “Gina just wants this new house to be authentic”. (The italics are in the original story.) At which point the audience is squirming.

The clashing of values and backgrounds also surfaces in the third narrative in which a frazzled young lawyer, Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart), has taken a teaching job nine hours from where she lives. Combining the impossibly long return drive with a full-time junior lawyer job is wearing her out. But she wants to make it work as a way of avoiding what her family sees as the pinnacle of success for a woman: selling shoes. One night a nameless ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) wanders into her adult education class. We don’t know why she’s there, but there is a sense that she is restless and seeking something by driving around in her heated truck on a cold night. She awkwardly walks in to the classroom and sits at the back taking everything in with a look of confused wonder.

Beth and the ranch hand soon make a habit of going to a diner after class, where they don’t so much as get to know each other as tentatively find things out. Over the course of their meetings, the ranch hand develops an attachment to Beth. Where there is attachment in a Reichardt film, there is the potential for abandonment and heartache. Gladstone manages to wordlessly turn her disappointment into tragedy. Like all the performances in Certain Women, Gladstone’s is pure alchemy. In Meloy’s story, the ranch hand is a guy called Chet Moran who walks with a limp from a childhood blighted by Polio. By allowing this chaste infatuation to spring up between women, we are encouraged to consider the difficulty, the lack of a straightforward vocabulary, around same sex crushes in small towns, and the universality of love that goes unreturned.

Beautifully shot on 16mm by Christopher Blauvelt, who also filmed Reichardt’s Night Moves and Meek’s Cutoff, the film’s grain and texture reflect the distance between people physically and emotionally, as if there were visual static in the air. Reichardt was thinking of shooting it digitally but when she looked at some test scenes, she realized that “the layers of snow on the ground looked like a white wall – there was just no detail”. So she turned to film. The soundscape of Certain Women, designed by Kent Sparling, veers between the manmade and the natural. The small town of Livingston, Montana, where most of the action takes place, is signposted by the incessant whistle of a train. When we leave town, the characters are roused or stunned into silence by the rush of wind and water. The man-made and the natural come together in a striking way in the third strand of the film. Every morning, there is the rumble of the stable doors as the ranch hand opens them to reveal the snowy landscape, the horses, the mountains, and the near silence stretching out into the distance. In the barn, the radio drones. The ranch hand is not quite out of contact of the world, but very nearly. It is this note that Reichardt ends on. A sort of temporal and spatial netherworld between places and states of being. The narratives are not tied up neatly; they are too real for that. Instead they jostle and shift, like melting ice moving down a river. They lift and sink in turns—each small movement affecting the whole. This is what Certain Women is like: a half frozen river summoning us to jump in and yet we know if we do we will emerge not quite the same as before.




London Film Festival: The Secret Scripture

Rooney Mara and Jack Reynor in Jim Sheridan's The Secret Scripture,
Rooney Mara and Jack Reynor in Jim Sheridan’s The Secret Scripture,
Does the exploration of Roseanne McNulty’s sexual identity in The Secret Scripture shed any new light on the complicated history of women’s rights in Ireland?

According to The Secret Scripture, a reputation for being pure is the highest card you can play as a woman in wartime Ireland. Mutterings of dalliances with members of the opposite sex outside of wedlock is enough to ruin a life entirely. A fascinating and involving topic that has the potential, if handled delicately, to expose and explore earthquake-scale prejudices against the female sex that we may still be feeling the quivers of today. However, whilst multifaceted, the presentation of female sexual identity in Jim Sheridan’s latest work is soiled by heavy-handed direction and schmaltzy plot reveals that act as a barrier to discovering any greater meaning.

Jim Sheridan’s filmography makes up a fairly confused patchwork. Some of his films are highly regarded by wide audiences, particularly those that feature his common companion fellow Irishman Daniel Day-Lewis. However, the majourity of his more recent projects have been met with indifference. Get Rich or Die Trying and Dream House were largely dismissed by critics and did little to solidify Sheridan’s place as a director of note away from his Irish roots. His filmography is massively varied and it appears difficult to pigeonhole him as being a certain type of director. His latest, The Secret Scripture, only works to further the inconsistency in his career.  With an elusive director at the helm, perhaps it can be no surprise that the film suffers from being unfocused and unsure of its intentions.

The source material, written by Sebastian Barry, was well received by critics and promises rich ground for adaptation for the screen. However, the film version, which hosts an impressive cast, is bogged down with over sentimentality and clunky directorial choices. In the initial sequence at a mental institution where we meet Roseanna McNulty (Vanessa Redgrave), a pounding piano sonata dominates and hints at the lack of subtlety which parades throughout the rest of the picture. The lack of nuance is distracting and it infects the each pore of the film, rending it near impossible to take its presentation of sensitive subjects seriously.

The story focuses on Rose, played by both Vanessa Redgrave and Rooney Mara, and is told both in the now and 1940s rural Ireland. In the present, Rose’s residence at a mental institution is nearing an end as the building is set to be transformed into a luxury hotel.  Unsure whether her mental capacity is now balanced enough for her to reside outside of an institution, Psychiatrist Dr Grene (Eric Bana) is called to assess her. Alongside her nurse (Susan Lynch), they find a diary in which she has been detailing her life. She grants them access to her deepest memories and here, we are transported back to the 1940s to Rooney Mara’s Rose. The actor looks little like Redgrave, yet they do possess the same ability to instil a look with a painful level of riddled emotion that becomes characteristic of Rose. The film straddles life in two time zones and illuminates numerous occasions where Rose and wider members of her sex are mistreated because of their gender.

The film concerns itself with the rigidity of dating practises in rural 1940s Ireland, and alarmingly audiences may be able to recognise some parallels to life in 2016. The attention that local men pay to Rose ensures complications to her otherwise simplistic life there. After being told by Father Gaunt (Theo James) that women don’t normally look men in the eye who aren’t their husbands, the audience is aware that Rose is understood to be in someway abnormal. In a society with such strict regulations on how women are meant to behave, it’s difficult to ascertain what exactly it is that Rose does “wrong”. Predominately, it seems to be that her strikingly alluring appearance is the main factor, as she vocalises no beckoning to any men. Her demeanour is shy and proper enough to appease her aunt until the attention from males starts to build. After allegedly causing a scene of testosterone infused violence among her would-be suitors, Rose is isolated to a small run down shed on the outskirts of the village. From there, she enjoys a whirlwind romance with Michael McNulty and swiftly weds him. Angering the morally questionable Father Gaunt, he labels her a nymphomaniac in a letter and she is quickly carted off to an institution.

Distressed and mistreated, Rose finds herself at the mercy of a society that cares little for its women. From one dramatic peak to another, the progressions of the story is like a sugary meringue: the sugary hit is fine in the moment but an awareness that nothing more significant is difficult to ignore. You may be left wanting for something more substantial. If you are nourished on beauty alone, as some men in Rose’s village seem to be, then the sweeping, grand shots of the rugged Irish landscape may be enough to sustain you. The film excels as a love song to the Irish landscape with its crystal wide waters, lemon yellow plains and rugged mountain scenery.

Having recently consummated her marriage to Michael McNulty, it’s no surprise that Rose finds herself pregnant.  Two varying accounts about what happens to the baby occur. We must decide which version to believe. Rose is convinced throughout the film that her child is alive. Others say that she bashed her newborn’s skull in with a rock. After all the violence inflicted upon this woman, now she must bear the mask of monster is society’s eyes.  We are partnered with Dr Grene who takes it upon himself to solve the troubling mystery. The film is sympathetic toward Rose, and though the audience is encouraged to be suspicious about the details of her child, we are in no doubt of the pureness of her character despite the countless arguments against it.

The film is a sweeping, grand exploration of one women wrestling with her identity in an environment with strict decorum.  Seemingly it wants to criticise the tendency to define women as hysterical, but it does so be presenting a hyperbolic soap-esque drama. The Secret Scripture is soggy with over sentimental scenes and heightened dramatic recounts that take us away from a place of understanding and instead plonk the audience in once dramatic scene after another. The plot becomes convoluted and piecing together the narrative and relevance of each character is tricky.  The countless moments of abuse towards Rose and other women in her life are easily forgotten thanks to the myriad of distractions that dominate the film.




Fear, Anxiety and Wiener-Dogs: Chasing the Bluebird of Happiness in the Films of Todd Solondz

Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) in Todd Solondz's Wiener-Dog.
Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) in Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog.

If happy little bluebirds fly
Beyond the rainbow,
Why, oh, why can’t I?

-‘Over the Rainbow’, as sung by Judy Garland (married five times, drinking problem, electroshock therapy for depression, dead from a drug overdose at 47)

Joyless suburban families. Mercilessly bullied schoolgirls. Strict Jewish parents. A panoply of paedophiles. Welcome to the Land of Todd. Unrequited gay crushes, cynical authority figures, unappreciated house servants, spoilt middle-class brats, college-obsessed nerds, bullying battleaxe teachers, unattainable ice queens, moody teenagers who tell their parents to “shut the fuck up”, desperate divorcees too old to marry again, suicide victims, phone perverts, crystal meth addicts, unappreciated children, failed writers, failed musicians, failed careers, failed lovers, failed marriages, failed families, failed everyone  the films of writer and director Todd Solondz are populated by the bowel-movements of our emotional lives, all the daily habits and reactions that we brush away and hide from public view, the rawness of the way people behave to each other when there’s no-one else watching. It is a world seldom seen in the sanitised, idealistic mainstream film-diet of effortless heroes, oh-so-popular protagonists, flawless beauty and always-reciprocated love.

For the best part of over twenty years now, Solondz has forged an uncompromising niche in American cinema with his refreshingly unflinching and unrelenting satire of modern middle America. Along the way he has almost nonchalantly explored some of the darker seams of human emotional behaviour, his films traipsing merrily into the “no-go areas” of social acceptability and flashing their genitals at the supposedly moral mores of affluent first-world life. And yet they often also provide us with intense flashes of human drama, genuinely affecting moments of poignancy, emotionally-resonating characters and some of the most delicious black humour since Kubrick.

Solondz’s scripts are linked to each other as much by their themes as by their recurring characters and situations: they are all explorations of despair and taboo, searches for meaning and reason, and above all, quests for the elusive state of “Happiness”. They centre around people who have been immersed in shallowness and insincerity for so long they are no longer sure of anything or anyone. And they occur in Suburbia, the mythical Land of Plenty foretold by the prophecies of modern commercial America, where Happiness is the hardest of all the feelings to find.

“In my family there are only winners and losers.”

If the disease of the past was hardship, poverty and sin, then the malaise of the present is ennui, emptiness and emotional unfulfilment. Solondz’s films pull the curtains away from Suburbia’s superficial comfort, mocking the façade of anodyne materialistic bliss that diverts attention from the flawed and emotionally ailing creatures that inhabit it. “Abe, I know life has been unfair to you because it has given you every possible advantage so your feelings of inadequacy are endless and unrelenting,” the drifting man-child protagonist of Dark Horse (2011) is told, as he restlessly upsets the comfortable, predictable and isolated life his parents have created for him. Without the immediate pressures of poverty to drown them out, the sounds of people’s emotional lives become deafening; they then obsess over the minutiae of each other’s behaviour as there is nothing else to fixate one.

When the absence of Happiness can no longer be blamed on economic pressures the characters are forced to confront the fact that it is they themselves who deny each other joy and fulfilment. If Happiness is hard to find it is because everybody is forced to chase other people’s definitions of what should make them whole: the jobs they’re supposed to do, the people they’re supposed to have relationships with, the way they should behave, the direction their lives should take. In the middle-class hell of Storytelling (2001), teenage dreamer Scooby is definitely doing his exams and definitely going to college whether he likes it or not: “Don’t screw around with me, you know what I’m talking about. You’re taking those SATs. You’re taking those SATs or your CD collection’s history. You’re taking those SATs and you’re going to college. You’re taking those SATs if I have to strap your ass to a chair, but buddy, you’re taking them!” his irate father yells at him, inches away from his face.

Suburbanite satires like Dark Horse, Storytelling, and Solondz’s breakout film Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) attempt to reconcile the cold logical requirements of the modern first world with the emotional vulnerabilities of the people stuck inside it. Solondz’s characters are aliens in an unforgivingly secular and rational world, all thrown about at the whim of uncontrollable forces all around them and yet all seeking the same thing spiritual solace, a meaning above the material, a purpose beyond the cruel programme of school, college, career, popularity, prosperity and death, and most of all the ever-elusive state of Happiness. This produces the greatest absurdity at the heart of Suburbia: that a society of people seeking the same thing can form a society of people that denies them exactly that.

The smallness of these worlds, and the ripples their conflicts create is a recurring feature of Solondz’s films; hardly an encounter happens that doesn’t have subsidiary effects on almost all the other characters in the film. This leads to another conundrum: to be alone is to be unhappy, but to be ensconced in a life full of people is to have your own pursuit of Happiness dashed by the reverberations of everyone else’s flaws. “People should just face their problems head on,” says Abe in Dark Horse. “Face the truth: We’re all horrible people… humanity’s a fucking cesspool…. And if there‘s any kindness or generosity, it only comes after being well fed  or having ‘good sex’ or knowing that you weren’t wiped out like all the other suckers on Wall Street.”

The most powerful realisation of this send-up of Suburbia is the bleak prospect that, in our society, this is as good as it gets. This is supposed to be the dream: affluent neighbourhoods, stable incomes, luxurious homes richly filled with the war-trophies of materialism, predictably married with children, college looming for the older ones, hired help around the house and the freedom to devote oneself to obsessing over the little things. That the Nirvana at the end of the capitalist dream simply turns out to be well-furnished misery leads one to the bleak conclusion that you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t Happiness is no more present here in the sanitised limbo of middle-class life than in the wretched lives of the people who have yet to attain it, and who suffer to keep Suburbia saintly, as seen in the conversation between 11-year-old Mikey and his family‘s overworked maid in Storytelling:

“But, Consuelo, even though your poor, don’t you have any hobbies or interests or anything?”

“No, Mikey.”

“But like, what do you like to do when you’re not working?”

“I’m always working.”

“But when you’re not. Like now. What do you like to do?”

“This is work.”

“But it’s not like real work. This is just babysitting.”

(Consuelo stares hard at him in silence)

“You know, your job’s really not so bad, if you think about it. You should smile more often.”

“Dad… What does ‘cum’ mean?”

In the obviously ironically-titled Happiness (1998), an ensemble of faulty people cluelessly attempt to navigate the bleak ocean of existence in search of the film’s title, in equal measure hurting and being hurt by others, simultaneously being as offensive as they are vulnerable. Office loser Allen longs for the sexual affections of his indifferent and unattainable neighbour, while himself being dead to the tender advances of his less attractive neighbour Katrina; he consoles himself by making perverted phone calls to unsuspecting women instead. Mild-mannered Dr Maplewood lives in stable but sterile suburban bliss, but secretly fantasizes about shooting sprees and masturbates to pre-teen magazines. Joy naively hopes the smooth-talking but womanising Russian immigrant she teaches English to will bring her the comfort she seeks after her last suitor committed suicide. All manner of taboos are broached along the way, but are made presentable thanks to the accuracy of the satire and the irresistibility of the pitch-dark humour.

It’s worth setting out from the beginning that Solondz isn’t simply out to gratuitously shock his audience: instead he is a filmmaker who merely operates without the usual commercial taste-filter that screens out the ugly, the unusual, the unpopular, the unmentionable and the embarrassing from the films that make it to the outside world. Like a kind of inverse censor he restores the indecency endemic to human life, making his films strangely realer than most of what you see in the cinema.

Solondz’s method of challenging taboo is simply to present it, unashamedly and openly, and allow the reasoning of the audience to impart their own sense of absurdity to it. Taboos are recognised to be ridiculous if everyone has knowledge of them (in many cases, first-hand); they cease to be scandalous unmentionables and simply become open secrets that everyone knows about but pretends not to.

Like lowering yourself into a hot bath we become acclimatised to the taboo surprisingly quickly once we are immersed in it; from then on we recognise the absurdity of concealing these issues in everyday life. We read of cases of grooming and paedophilia everyday, but do we understand what a paedophile is? Why is discussing abortion a taboo even when we live in a country where it is legalised? Should a character’s crystal meth habit be hidden, even when there’s a growing addiction problem in America? Should we be uncomfortable with depictions of suicide, sexual perversion, drug taking, gay blowjobs and old people having sex, when they all occur every day?

The use of dark humour and pathos allow this exploration of taboo to not overwhelm the viewer. Solondz of course isn’t the only director to use humour to explore edgy subjects, but the black, unfortunate comedy lends his underdog characters a particular pathos that is hard to come by in more serious films. “How many more times can I be born again?!” wails Al in Palindromes (2004), who is in a sexual relationship with a 12-year-old girl who wants to have a baby while on his way to murder an abortionist at the behest of his fanatically Christian friends. Despite his being guilty of one of our society’s most despicable crimes, Al’s portrayal as a lost, nervous and bewildered soul invites our empathy and invites reanalysis. Like all Solondz’s monsters he is not portrayed as sinister, but just as an imperfect, malfunctioning human.

These characters are of course utterly wrong, destructive, anti-social and immoral, but not without stories of their own. Solondz assures us that understanding someone is not the same as letting them off the hook: “People can’t help it if they’re monsters,” says the convicted paedophile, freshly released from prison, in Life During Wartime (2009). “They can’t be forgiven either,” replies the woman blamed by her children for the suicide of their father.

If we are shocked at Solondz’s dirty creatures, it is because we realise that we all know of these taboos but have never seen them dissected on screen before. In the rush for ticket sales and marketing, and with a reliance on the ever-prurient minds of the lucrative young male market, decades of mainstream films have simply dwelled on the core Christian taboos in their most basic, robotic forms mainly sex (in all its forms) and nudity (mostly female), maybe with some violence thrown in  in an effort to cheaply shock and shallowly titillate, and without any deeper exploration.

But today’s society can no longer be stirred or shaken by the sight of an uncovered vagina. The token sex scenes and HD nudity used to stir up repeat viewings on today’s screens are at best trite attempts at artistic profundity, at worst cheap notoriety; all are boring non-statements in the age of streamable hardcore porn. But the scene in Happiness where a father sits down and attempts to explain his paedophiliac urges to his young son drops our jaws to the floor, and all without full-frontal. Emotional taboo is still risqué.   

Then there are the taboo people. The obese, the disabled, people with Down syndrome, people with speech impediments, cerebral palsy sufferers, albinos, child cancer patients, Hepatitis cases all present and correct, and in the foreground of Solondz films. Of course, mainstream art’s response to these very real people is to omit them entirely, maintaining radio silence on the people deemed too embarrassing or too pathetic to view (after all, in the first world, empathy is such an awfully exhausting endeavour). Yet for all the black humour these aren’t Tod Browning’s Freaks but Todd Solondz’s angels, allowed to collect an emotional depth of their own, instead of the polite pity they are usually fobbed off with. The married couple with Down syndrome in his latest film Wiener-Dog (2016) might cop a couple of jokes along the way, but the fact that such a couple can be portrayed in a film at all, let alone actually as functioning, autonomous people with their own emotional understanding, blows away any guilt you might have over chuckling at the moment when the DS wife, on being told she may keep the wiener-dog she’s enjoyed playing with, exclaims “I always wanted… a leash!”.

Solondz earns himself R-rated certificates not from the odd swearword or the briefest glimpse of nipple, but from examining a whole host of topics which are inexplicably deemed taboo despite their prevalence in the modern consciousness. Add to this Hollywood’s Pavlovian aversion to any storyline that doesn’t involve gimmicks, predictability or beautiful people and you have a host of characters who are bizarre and grotesque, but also familiar and, ironically, quite normal.

“Yeah well, Mikey? Listen up ‘cos here’s a lesson: Life’s… Not… Fair.”

“Why do people have to be so ugly? You write about such ugly characters, it’s perverted. I know you all think I’m being prissy but I don’t care, I was brought up in a certain way and this is mean-spirited,” says a member of Vi’s literary class in Storytelling, in a tongue-in-cheek reference to Solondz’s own work and the moral outrage and stuffy criticism that often accompanies it. Ugly his characters are, but therein lies their resonance with the clearly ugly and unfair world of seemingly happy couples getting divorced, sexual infatuation not being reciprocated, paedophiles being arrested, naïve women being taken advantage of, fat people being rejected, depressed  people killing themselves, rape victims not being believed.

Satire can’t be too happy, or else it loses its power. Satire operates out of a feeling of empathy at some level, an outrage at the unjust, a moral concern that is negated if all the characters skip off into the sunset whistling. Solondz’s characters are emotionally pummelled without respite, stuck in the eternal torment of false middle-America, a Bosch-landscape of emotionally atrophied families, yoga classes, chronic loneliness, ballet lessons, neurotic angst and four-wheel drive SUVs, a kind of Hell With Bespoke Furniture. That we can laugh at them is not because we are callous, but because we realise the ridiculousness of this shallow and insincere society that we have made for ourselves.

But what of Happiness? With lives of constant torment, the rare moments of solace Solondz’s characters find shine on in the memory: the bullied schoolgirl Dawn finding her first kiss with her former tormentor Brandon in Dollhouse, Dark Horse’s life-wasting under-achiever Abe getting a call back from a girl he is interested in, runaway Aviva finding friendship among the other spurned children at Mama Sunshines’s in Palindromes, the emotionally isolated little boy Remi playing with blissful abandon with his new pet in Wiener-Dog (the titular animal being surely the very embodiment of such moments of solace).

These rare breathers are glimpses of the scarce Happiness that Solondz’s characters yearn for. But, mercilessly true to life, these moments are few and fleeting; the verisimilitude of Solondz’s films stems from their acknowledgement of fate’s inexhaustible capacity to obliterate Happiness, to consistently disappoint, destroy, disillusion and generally ruin the fun.

The conclusion is that Happiness is ultimately unattainable, and that any successful discovery of it will be quickly punished with the worst fate, like a kind of karmic snakes-and-ladders game. It is a futile endeavour, but one we all feel compelled to chase; we do not know exactly what Happiness is or what it looks like, but we know what it isn’t the empty materialism of the suburbs, sad orgasms, the wasteland of insincerity that make up human interactions in the first world, short-lived and anti-climactic desires, the infinite supply of failures and disappointments that characterise a modern life where you are constantly tested and graded for acceptability.

Whether this depiction of the world, expounded over the director’s entire oeuvre, is wholly accurate is up for debate. Treading the same path so determinedly, the director runs the risk of falling into the same trap that soap operas do that is, presenting a world so reliably unfair, with the characters always being doomed every which way, that the audience senses the fantasy and becomes detached. It would be a great shame if Solondz’s films were simply to become Melrose Place with paedo jokes.

With the same themes and settings, indeed many of the same characters appearing in each of his films there is perhaps also a little merit in the criticism of sameness in Solondz’s work; it calls to mind Nabokov’s famous put-down of Dostoevsky and “his monotonous dealings with people suffering with pre-Freudian complexes, the way he has of wallowing in the tragic adventures of human indignity”. Ironically, this is also the director’s strength, and the source of our fascination with his work. The best rebuttal therefore, is probably to recognise his films as a necessary part of the cinematic ecosystem processing the untouchable waste, and turning mulch into nutrients again so that the environment as a whole can remain healthy and sane.




Café Society: The Comfortable Pathos of Late Woody Allen

Woody Allen directs Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart on the set of Café Society.
Woody Allen directs Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart on the set of Café Society.
Many do, and I do too. I really like Woody Allen. I like Woody to the point that, as my male pattern baldness enters endgame, I look forward to having his hairstyle. Even through all the iffy films, my gushing, balding that I would’ve hated reviewing, I like Woody. It’s fortunate then that his new film Café Society is his best for some time.

“Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer.”

Here’s what Café Society tells us about Allen. He would like to travel back in time. I should’ve got that with Midnight in Paris (2011), in which the Woody protagonist actually does travel to the Jazz Age. The clue was in how much better that film was than the films since, right up until Café Society, which is set in Hollywood in the thirties, where beige suits and Count Basie reign supreme, and where Hollywood bigwigs hold court, see.

This is where our plot begins, as Allen’s narration sets the scene, poolside, with Hollywood producer Phil (a portly Steve Carrell) midway through a self-aggrandising anecdote. Allen’s read-from-a script delivery is a tad clumsy, and its not helped by sounding like it was recorded on an Amiga 600, but does a decent job of setting the scene nonetheless. Phil takes a call – he’s always taking calls – he’s glad; he’s expecting a call from Ginger Rogers after all. But it’s not Ms Rogers, nor is it any voice he wants to hear; it’s his sister from back in the real world, the Bronx. He’s informed that his nephew Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), whose existence itself Phil can barely recall, is on his way down to Hollywood to make it big. In lieu of Uncle Phil, who is far too busy to show his own nephew around town, Bobby has his socks knocked off by the smart and droll Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), if not Hollywood itself, reporting to his brother: “I’m kind of half bored, half fascinated.” The fish out of water pair would be a perfect match if it were not for, yeah, Uncle Phil. A love triangle ensues in a plot as predictable as our hero’s downfall and as old as the screenplay’s setting.

Bobby is the Woody of the film, an easy fit for Eisenberg who has been delivering comic, angsty performances in the lead since the excellent The Squid and The Whale (2005). Kristen Stewart too does well in a role infused with hints of Woody. Her character is slick, smart and struggling between two loves. The passages involving Stewart in which Woody takes on the subject of simultaneous love is where Cafe Society is at its most interesting. There are genuinely interesting arguments regarding being in love with two different people at the same time within the dialogue, and Stewart is convincing in her rationale. Carrell too is in good form, not missing a beat with the japes, and coming across amiably as “the other man” – no mean feat. In fact, the film’s greatest triumph is this trio of actors, who turn a good, funny script into an excellent and rewarding one. This point was really driven home for me in the closing scene, which could have stunk if it were not for the understated facial work of both Eisenberg and Stewart, tying the story’s lasting message together nicely.

There’s all the usual Allen stuff, of course. Even the interludes Allen likes to take from the plot, which are either worth it or very not worth it. I think most of his films over the last twenty-five years have been true to that. One such occasion in which the meandering is more than worthy of its place is an early set-piece in which a skittish first-time prostitute comes up against our own nervous protagonist, who is “not in the mood” because she’s late. The neurotic counterparts have met their match. The scene was so funny (Prostitute: Don’t you want to try me? Bobby: Listen, I’m so lonely I would have been happy just to talk, but now I’m even too tired for that.) and the pair so enjoyable together, it’s a shame that the match-up isn’t revisited later on. Instead, the only other breakaway set-piece interrupts what is at that point a narrative well into its flow, and fails to deliver to the same standard. Thankfully, Café Society isn’t short on laughs in general, especially in the movie’s opening gambit, which is the best thirty minutes of an Allen picture this century. I won’t ruin the vintage one-liners by repeating them here, but rest assured they’re there. After that, Woody’s voiceover becomes a clumsy hindrance, and along the way there’s some silly and even cringeworthy references – a shame, because the earlier Barbara Stanwyck cameos are purposeful.

Late period Allen is suited to films set around about the time of Hollywood’s Golden Age. He knows it well. At times the film isn’t just charming, but full of grace, kindness, and, outside of the whimsy of the story, even occasionally poignant. The naive glamour of Bel Air, doe-eyed movie stars, and New York nightclubs provides a natural milieu for Woody’s false pathos: “Socrates said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ But the examined one is no bargain.” Someone at a nightclub tells us. Make no mistake; this is Allen well and truly inside his comfort zone. It’s about as far away from Stardust Memories (1980) as you’ll get, but if recent less-controlled offerings are to go by, I’ll take this version of late-period Woody over last year’s mess in Irrational Man (2015). Woody Allen is not 40. He’s not aching with heartbreak and he’s not under Fellini’s spell. He either thinks he knows who he is, or doesn’t care if he ever finds out anymore. He’s 80. He’s inspired by slow mornings with coffee, and jazz, and stories of classic Hollywood, and cute details of that period, and I’m thankful for that because Café Society is as pleasurable for it as it is doleful.

Don’t get me wrong, to enjoy this film quite as much as I did, you need to be one of two things: a Jazz Age aficionado or a Woody Allen fan, and preferably both. But it’s a tight film, much tighter than I’ve come to expect of recent Woody Allen films, and in that way, you don’t need to be a gushing, balding, nostalgia victim to enjoy it. A warming, satisfying picture.




The 250 Top IMDB Films Challenge: Part I

We set Thomas Stewart a challenge to watch 25 films off the 250 Best IMDB list – from Jaws to Casablanca, Interstellar to Monster’s Inc.

Alien (& the Beginning of the Challenge)

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Ridley Scott, 1979, Number 53 on the list

The Nostromo. Captain Dallas, Officer Ripley, Lambert, Brett, Kane, Ash and Parker – this is the Nostromo’s crew, drifting in space, stopping on another planet and coming across something they wish they hadn’t. Everything about Alien is iconic. From Kane’s chest being torn open to the alien advancing toward Lambert, killing both her and Parker. The fact it is iconic does not just make it an original film, it was what made me appreciate what I was watching – a piece of history, a smart horror film, tapping into something that is as old as the day of time (our fear of the unknown, of the outsiders, of space itself) and transforming that through Ripley who is stuck, who is trapped with a dangerous, murderous, fully grown alien on the loose.

The film’s fourth act, in which Ripley is about to blow up the Nostomo and fly off in a small ship, is irritating. Why the hell didn’t she give herself more time? Why did she waste time trying to deactivate an alarm she knew she couldn’t deactivate? Why the fuck did she not look around that ship before she jetted off, blowing up her friend’s mangled corpses, her belongings, her work, and then realised the alien was aboard the current ship anyway? Then Ripley – rightly so – freaks out. The alien is there, resting, and she has no idea what the fuck to do now. So she climbs into a spacesuit and gasses the bastard until it lashes out. The gas, the suit, Ripley’s screaming and turning away from the alien, unable to look at it anymore, terrified, exhausted, wrecked, was beautiful cinema. The yellow and black, the close-up of Ripley’s face. I wanted it to end there. Somewhat of a cliff-hanger but a hammered home message of in space, no-one can hear you scream. No-one can hear Ripley scream but she will survive. I know that’s what the fourth act is – another shock, another way of showing Ripley’s survival and if the sequel had been better maybe my desired cliff-hanger ending would have worked.

 

Aliens (& Bad Sequels)

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James Cameron, 1986, Number 64 on the list

Aliens is one of those sequels people talk about. They say it is just as good, if not better, than the original. It’s like The Godfather II, different and great. In the case of Aliens it’s the first of a series of bad attempts to be anywhere near as good as its original. Alien is art, Aliens is trash. It’s a different kind of film. It’s James Cameron pre-Avatar, on the side of the humans who blow up the aliens. What Aliens does, in flipping its genre, in making things bigger, grander, more explosive, is undo what Alien built itself on: this claustrophobic battle with something almost unbeatable. One of the scariest lines of the original is from Ash’s decapitated head when asked by Ripley how they kill it he replies, “you can’t.” No amount of bullets or knives will kill this alien. In Cameron’s more amped-up, man-will-always-win, guns-are-great world, you simply shoot the aliens. You blast them away with big ass guns and everyone is fine in the end. The only moment that showed me a glimmer of hope was when Ripley finds herself trapped in a room with Newt and two facehuggers. The ugliness of the Company’s force was always a lingering presence in the original film, its invisibility all the more scary, it was simply a robot – unemotional, unattached, surrendering the explorers to their fate. But we’re in James Cameron’s world now and any problem can be fixed by blowing it away.

 

The Wizard of Oz (& Identities)

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Victor Fleming, 1939, Number 212 on the list

Adaptation of Frank L Braum’s novel of the same name.

The Wizard of Oz is so high on my list of favourite films due to the fact of sentimentality – that my grandfather introduced me to the film and influenced my obsession with magic, witches and other worlds. But as I’ve grown, the story of Dorothy and her friends has become more than just a rich, beautifully shot film with a history of its own. It’s a story of dual identities. From Dr Marvel/The Wizard/The Fraud to Myra Gulch/The Wicked Witch of the East/West this is not just a switch-around of actors (or a way of saving the production’s cost) it’s another layer to the world within a world, a passage-way walked down to something far more magical than our world but just as corrupt. Dorothy is set a challenge – to kill the Wicked Witch of the West – and in setting upon her challenge, in taking back Oz for the Munchkins, in tracking down the Wizard to find answers and a way home, she is becoming someone else. Yet Dorothy doesn’t change. She remains the oblivious damsel. She gives her ‘where’s Toto?’ cries, she falls in the rophyphol-layered fields, she moans about wanting to go home, Dorothy is unchangeable. As a character, after going on this adventure and taking a witch’s life (yes, one day I will write a Dorothy the witch killer story), after meeting the Tin Man, The Lion, The Scarecrow, she is simply happy to be home. She is the same Dorothy as she always was. Yet the identities of all those around her change – the cowardly lion is given bravery, the scarecrow a brain, the tin man a heart. I, too, found my identity when watching this film, over and over again as a kid in my grandfather’s house. The Wizard of Oz became my film, Dorothy became my unavoidable, unchangeable heroine. The songs, from black and white to colour, the folk dancing down the Yellow Brick road were all mine.

 

The Shining (& Other Mania)

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Stanley Kubrick, 1980, Number 58 on the list

The Shining as a film is a beautiful piece of cinema, a clever claustrophobic horror story that stuns with its set pieces, music and creepy twins. As a representation of Stephen King’s novel, however, it fails miserably. This is not an uncommon opinion, King himself had the same issues. When watching the film for this challenge – my fourth time – I saw the glaring problems. Jack Torrence (aka Jack Nicholson) is nuts from the minute he walks into Ullman’s office. The hotel and ghosts don’t drive him mad, his isolation and cabin fever lets him go completely mad and turn on his wife and son. There isn’t a lot of substance to the Torrence family of Kubrick’s creation – Jack is an angry, unlikeable guy who wants to murder his family, Wendy is a screaming, needy annoyance, the only absolution comes from Danny who is young, confused, intelligent, inquisitive, magical boy and, therefore, in more danger.

King’s book nods not only to his own life, alcoholism an fear of turning on his family but gives us a different kind of Torrence family, one suffering and stuck and by going to the Overlook Hotel they are starting a new, running away, focusing on themselves. The isolation causes a reality in Jack – who he has become, who he can become and the danger of that. There are ghosts but it is questionable whether they are Jack’s mind or actually the haunted, violent hotel. Jack is a ticking time bomb. He is angry but not completely unlikeable. Not that all characters have to be likeable but there has to be something to cling to – King’s Jack Torrence is clinging to a vague hope, is trying hard to be a good man and father but fails. He blows, literally and metaphorically. The hotel blows too, up in smoke and timber. Danny and Wendy survive. In Kubrick’s world there is a maze, snow, the freezing blizzard. Jack is dead with a twist of who he actually was in the first place. It’s an interesting film, a Sunday winter horror watch, but it will never show the Torrence family that would make it a more interesting film.

 

Amelie (& Fear of Quirk)

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Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001, Number 76 on the list

The phenomenon of Amelie was what scared me from watching it for years. There seemed to exist this secret, silent truce between all the people I knew – and the people they knew and many of the film critics and award ceremonies – that everyone had watched and loved Amelie. So when I sat down in Edinburgh, at night, with the wooden shades drawn, I was apprehensive about watching the film. But I found, almost instantly, it is hard to not love Amelie. It reminded me of watching Spike Jonze’s Her, a truly original, different, weird kind of world and characters. From the lost book of discarded photographs to Amelie’s attempts at arranging love within the café she works, the film was delightful, bizarre and touching. When the film was over, my friend, Elly, turned to me and said, “so, what did you think?” I replied, “I now know what all the fuss is about.”

 

Gladiator (& Old Memories)

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Ridley Scott, 2000, Number 46 on the list

“Are you not entertained?” was the phrase that would boom through my house after the lights went out upstairs. My father would stay up late, usually re-watching films he enjoyed, one of those was Gladiator. I remember hearing Maximus screaming that line, enraged at the cheering crowds, at Commodus, at everyone. Gladiator is one of those films I have no qualm with. I imagine there are flaws to other viewers but to me it is a film both exciting and challenging, beautiful (with Scott’s direction and Zimmer’s music) and full of sentimentality.

 

Rebecca (& Versions)

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Alfred Hitchcock, 1940, Number 155 on the list

Adaptation of Daphne de Maurier’s novel of the same name.

Mrs Danvers is a weird woman. Her eyes are dark and cold, her face says nothing, her voice doesn’t move, she is a woman of secrecy and torment, deep down a broken-spirited, angry person. Her devotion and love for the first Mrs de Winter is more than a maid’s love for her mistress, she loves Mrs de Winter almost as a lover but I’m not quite sure. When the second Mrs de Winter comes in (the second with no previous name of her own, the book and film is full of mis-identity, of who/what defines her) Danvers isn’t best pleased, to put it mildly. Her voice changes only once, it takes an even more twisted, weird turn when she’s persuading the second Mrs de Winter to jump out of the window. “Just do it, it would be so easy,” she lulls, her Luciferian presence, her wrought jealously in that voice that haunts Hitchcock’s screen. Danvers is a cruel, calculating woman. She manipulates the second Mrs de Winter into wearing a costume she knows will remind Mr de Winter of his late wife and also annoy him. She plays with the second Mrs de Winter, using her trust, she tries to break her. Although I was drawn to Danvers’ mystery of motive, her true intentions, I became fond of the second Mrs de Winter who plays back, who wins, who watches as Mrs Danvers disappears in the flames, holding Mr de Winter’s hand, someone else now.

 

Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (& Politica)

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Stanley Kubrick, 1964, Number 51 on the list

Kubrick is an auteur, that we don’t need to question. His stories aren’t always strong. His characters aren’t always obtainable. I was nervous about Dr Strangelove. I watched it with my friend, Rhidian, who described it as “un-Kubrick, a comedy.” It was indeed a comedy and I laughed. I laughed, mainly, at the politeness of the whole thing, at President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers .1) in the War Room trying his best not to insult Dimitri Kissov on the hot line. I laughed at the silliness yet seriousness of the whole thing – the underlying message of atomic bombs and nuclear power. It was quite un-Kubrick but I saw a lot of him in there, a lot to admire, a lot to appreciate.

 

Psycho (& Notes)

psycho2

Alfred Hitchcock, 1960, Number 34 on the list

Adaptation of Robert Bloch’s novel of the same name.

I watched Psycho for the first time in the early hours of the morning, in bed, as part of this challenge. When watching it I thought I should take the challenge more seriously – I should be armed with a pen and my notebook to scribble notebooks, especially as the list contains so much Hitchcock. I didn’t have a notebook but I’m sure the only thing I would’ve been able to write was ‘fuck me, this is a great film’. I wasn’t able to write notes because I was completely enthralled by the film. I knew the story. Psycho is another heavily referenced film in modern culture that from Mrs Doubtfire’s in a dress with a wig shouting, “Ah, Normal Bates!” to Scream’s Danny Loomis quoting, “we all go a little mad sometimes” is hard to not be bogged down with information. But watching the film was its own experience – it removed me from my ability to write and be part of the outside world. It reminded me of what good cinema is, what the fundamental core of cinema is – escapism. Hitchcock is clever and patient, Perkins is ice cold and adorable at the same time, the story is tangled around MaGuffins and horror tropes, underlying a psychological situation. In short, the film is incredible, it retains its right to be as loved as much as it is. It is my favourite Hitchcock film to date.

 

Monster’s Inc (& Fondness)

maxresdefault

Peter Doctor, 2001, Number 216 on the list

Pixar and Disney amalgamate into one sprawling piece of history – classics have been made, characters we will always hold dear and long to meet for the first time, again. They are substantially different – where Disney seems to me a broad, overlapping string of classics, sequels, revisits and big Blockbusters, Pixar seems concentrated, cautious and daring. I’ve watched Monster’s Inc dozens of times and each time I watch it I am soothed, I am comforted, I am heartened. It is a touching film. It is a story of monsters and what it means to be a monster, what it means to cause fear and what it means to be good. Pixar makes me care about its characters and Monster’s Inc made me care about Sully, Wazowski, Boo, even Randall. Especially Randall. I’ve always had a fondness for villains.




Thus Bad Begins: The Intimate World of Javier Marías

Javier Marias
Left: Javier Marías, Spain’s most eminent novelist and perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Right: his latest novel, Thus Bad Begins, published in the UK by Penguin and translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

A reader today has access to more stories than ever – and the more there are, the easier they are forgotten. When we read fiction, we do it in the hope that one of these stories will stick: that it will stay with us and widen our existence; that it will happen to us, even though it didn’t really take place; that we can incorporate it into ourselves. A story with a profound, long-lasting impact, rather than a piece of soon-to-be detritus buried in the stream of stories to come.

Javier Marías is an exceptional storyteller. His skilfully plotted novels go well above telling an absorbing and beautifully written story; he somehow produces the plot that will not simply be replaced by the next book you read. An extraordinarily gifted writer, he published his first novel at the age of 19 and has, since, been creating and fine-tuning a universe of his own, a fictional world which is now extremely polished. Glossy in its surface and dense in its essence, his novels are filled with curious, well-read characters and attractive narrators whose erratic minds trap them in their own observations. As readers, we have a privileged access to their perceptive and obsessive thoughts, which portray them as mischievous and hard-to-read individuals. They are insightful and witty, and can be very funny too. As with intriguing people, we feel lucky to know them, but we also feel we ought to be cautious and a little vigilant for there is a sense that they are not trustworthy and that, under the right circumstances, they could also be dangerous. They are generally convinced that everyone can be, in fact. The impossibility of ever knowing yourself or others is a preoccupation of them. ‘So one day you, too, will do something bad’ (315) is what filmmaker Eduardo Muriel tells his young personal assistant, Juan de Vere, the narrator of Marías’s latest novel.

Known for his meditative and lyrical prose, Marías’s world is filled with insightful and playful intertexts and references both to highbrow and lowbrow culture; the attention to language remarks and what they reveal about the text give way to some hilarious passages. When reading Thus Bad Begins, expect to laugh, even when you are inclined to condemn someone’s behaviour. The conversations of the narrator and his milieu are dominated by a latent humour that is often brought to the surface. Language serves de Vere to reflect upon issues that both concern and amuse him. Isn’t it curious, he wonders, that as well as marriage, it is only debts or illnesses that one can use the verb ‘to contract’ for? (The protagonist of A Heart So White already reflected about the semantics of the term ‘status’ and the connotation of ‘to change one’s status’ when getting married.) And yet, despite the humorous tone, there is a disquieting tension in his prose, a pulsing threat that places readers in a somewhat uncomfortable situation. It is the tension implicit in weighing out the importance of one’s acts. ‘What to me was a grave and important fact – perhaps some vile deed I committed – becomes instead merely another story, nebulous and interchangeable, an original tale intended to amuse’ (323). The fact that reality turns into fiction (into ‘a tale to amuse’) once it is rendered into words is certainly a significant preoccupation for Marías. His characters struggle in weighing the significance of their actions and those around them, upon which they reflect incessantly.

In fact, Marías confers his narrators with what he has termed ‘literary thought’, which responds precisely to this meditative reflections and intensive (often erratic) form of thinking. They often ponder on the fallibility of memory; de Vere isn’t the first of Marías’s narrators to say: ‘Or perhaps that isn’t what I thought, but only how I remember it now’ (22). The dangers involved in speaking and revealing something without offering a clear-cut alternative (silence not always being the solution) is another issue upon which they reflect insistently: even though Muriel warns de Vere to be careful with what he reveals (‘don’t let your tongue run away’, 442), it is the tongue which both ‘condemns and saves us’ (492). Through this form of thinking, Marías’s novels often seem to propose one thing and then its opposite; our principles shaken, our opinions shattered. We both warm to and despise some of the characters; and through them, like in a distorted mirror, we see ourselves. And looking inwards has never been more disturbing. His stories are, thus, far from being yet another narration that will be replaced by the next.

The characters’ literary thought and the underlying tension will draw you in and even when you have finished the last page, you will be aware of certain looks and silences; you will not miss someone’s touch again. You will notice not only what is patent, but also everything that is latent in life, and the moon, who watches over with a permanent vigilance, ‘the moon’s somnolent, half-open eye’ (80), becoming aware that ‘right from the very moment we come into the world, things begin to happen to you […], even if you hide away or stay very still and quiet and take no initiative or do anything’ and, as the narrator states himself, he ‘wasn’t totally passive nor did I pretend to be a mirage, to make myself invisible’ (4). At this point you will dive into his world to discover how he was not passive and how, despite his alleged invisibility in Muriel’s household, he shaped his own life by his being there.

The story recounts the family events in which Juan de Vere saw himself involved as a result of taking a job as an assistant of filmmaker Eduardo Muriel and practically moving into his family home. There, he witnesses the unusual and unhappy relationship he has with his wife, Beatriz Noguera, whom de Vere starts following during her outings in Madrid. Divorce is not legal in Spain yet but the post-Franco permissiveness and liberalization have already been set in motion during the time in which this novel is set, the so-called movida madrileña of the early 80s. De Vere joins the party and, like many, favours Chicote and other Madrid venues over sleep. He also takes part in suppers and gatherings with his boss’s circle of friends and acquaintances, which include the eminent professor Francisco Rico, Dr Van Vechten, Roy and occasionally the Hispanist Peter Wheeler, as well as bullfighters and film folk (the producer Harry Alan Towers, Herbert Lom and Marías’s uncle Jess Franco – and even the occasional Bond girl – all play their part in this most original and intriguing novel). During the time he spends in their company, de Vere sees his life irrevocably shaped – often, it seems, despite himself – as a result of what he witnesses. His life becomes tangled with theirs and with the secret that Muriel first does and then does not want him to find out for him. And yet, de Vere asserts ‘How little it takes for what exists not to have existed’ (500), one of the many interesting remarks which envelopes this story in an aura of uncertainty by questioning the irreversibility of it all. Within the intrigues of the novel, the issue of desire arises as an essential part of marriage and youth. Like everything else, it becomes distorted by the passage of time and memory but it emerges as a powerful force. ‘Sensations are unstable things, they become transformed in memory, they shift and dance, they can prevail over what was said or heard, over rejection or acceptance. Sometimes, sensations can make us give up and, at others, encourage us to try again’ (91). Even though Muriel talks only about himself when he mentions falling into a kind of ‘hubris’ (459) at one stage of his life, the term could be adequate to describe the impulsive (sometimes excessive) behaviour of various characters in the novel, whose leitmotif is certainly not the measured or reasonable concept of its opposed notion, sophrosyne.

‘Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.’ That is the Shakespeare quotation Muriel was alluding to when he spoke of the benefits or advisability of – the comparatively minor harm involved in– giving up trying to know what we cannot know, of removing ourselves from the hubbub of what others tell us throughout our life, so much so that even what we ourselves experience and witness sometimes seems more like a story told to us, as it moves further off and becomes besmirched by time, or grows faded by the tick-tock of the passing days or grows dim beneath the breath of all those moons and the dust of all those years, and it’s not so much that we then begin to doubt its existence (although occasionally we do), it’s more that ‘it loses its colour and its importance wanes’ (366). Indeed, the conundrum of whether it is possible and/or desirable to know the truth lies at the core of this narration. There is, as you might have guessed from previous novels, no easy answer. ‘It’s illusory to go in pursuit of the truth, a waste of time and a source of conflict, sheer folly. And yet we can’t not do it’ (25); a failed enterprise that we cannot stay away from, then. Timing is an issue that always plays a part when the irreversible revelation of a truth is at stake. ‘The truth is a category that remains in suspension while we’re alive’ (24), says Muriel, abandoning any hope to attain it, whilst also acknowledging its inevitable pursuit. The outcome of its being unattainable is perhaps even more disturbing because, as de Vere asserts, ‘In the face of ignorance, one is always free to invent’ (106). But we shall not forget that, as Marías has said before, the etymological root of ‘to invent’ is the Latin invenire, which is ‘to discover’ because the discovery of something is not as far removed from its being invented as one might initially think.

Not only is the concept of an absolute truth challenged, time will also render truths and untruths void since the importance and colour of the actions which embodied us and seemed all-encompassing at once do eventually wane. Muriel alerts de Vere to the expression ‘take place’, which is used as a synonym of ‘happen’ or ‘occur’ and which, he asserts, ‘it’s curiously appropriate and exact, because that is precisely what happens with the truth, it has a place and there it stays; and it has a time and it stays there too. It remains locked up inside that time and place and there’s no way we can undo that lock, we can’t travel back to either time or place in order to get a glimpse of their contents’ (25-6). The issue of timing, therefore, emerges as key in the impossibility to attain the truth and it is by accepting this when, even if bad begins, worse, says Shakespeare, says Muriel, remains behind.

As with some of Marías’s best-known novels, the title is taken from Shakespeare (Hamlet, Act III, Scene 4); the phrase is a central motif which is repeated throughout and it refers to various elements of the plotline. Here, one can take it to also refer to the period of the Spanish Transition, if we think of the historical context of the novel. This historical context is only present as a background through a thin veil; the novel takes place largely within the four walls of Muriel’s apartment, a confined enclave that contributes towards the claustrophobic air which tinges the pace of the novel. One of the elements that contributes towards this claustrophobia is the metronome. A symbol of the passage of time (which in Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ film adaptation (1960) spooks the narrator– he believes it is his victim’s beating heart), the metronome makes an appearance in Thus Bad Begins as a new motif in Marías’s universe. ‘The metronome, which ticked away for long periods without a single note or chord being played, as if it were a perpetual threat or a representation of the tempo of her thoughts or the insistent beat of her sufferings’ (128). The ominous beating of the metronome reminds readers of the other rhythmic sound in the flat, namely, the drumming of Muriel’s fingers on his eye patch – cric, cric, cric – (184), ‘ominous and unhinging’ (280), which mesmerises the narrator; seemingly unimportant onomatopoeias that contribute towards the incessant nature of Marías’s obsessive narrators (the protagonist of All Souls noticed Toby Rylands’s laughter – ta, ta, ta – as well as the dog’s walking pace – tis, tis, tis – when, thirteen years later, someone was following him on a rainy night in Your Face Tomorrow).

Marías’s unreliable narrators who, like everyone else are only aware of one part of the story, are perhaps epitomised here in Muriel (not the narrator in this novel, but one of the main characters), whose eyesight is literally partial as he only has one eye and wears an eyepatch on the place of the missing eye. His arbitrary decisions relating to forgiveness and the randomness of his actions seem to be symbolised by this partially sighted nature. And on some of those nights, while he executes his decisions and actions ‘take place’ in his U-shaped flat on Calle Velázquez, ‘our cold, sentinel moon must have blinked its one somnolent eye in disbelief’ (234): only one eye, like Muriel. As is the case in Marías’s fiction, the effects of having or lacking witnesses to our actions plays a significant part in the plot. Marías’s narrators often act as witnesses to their own lives, which has an obvious effect on the reliability of the narration: ‘I couldn’t help looking at us for a moment with the eyes of a spectator or a collector, with the eyes of the imagination, which are the eyes that best remember a scene and best recall it later’ (221), says de Vere. Here, much as when it was stated that imagination can easily replace the truth or the fact that what has happened could have just as easily not have happened, it is clear that there is a carefully and meticulously planned-for narrative ambiguity, a trademark of Marías’s fiction which turns his stories into haunting tales.

Marías’s fictional world is indeed unique and recognisable. It is populated by an array of characters who move across his novels. These recurring characters – generally friends or acquaintances of the narrator or of one of the protagonists – are a mixture of fictionalised real and fictionalised people and are never less than captivating. Marías’s construction of them and of their circumstances ensures that, while a reader familiar with Marías’s world will surely feel like bumping into an old friend, a new reader will not feel left out either.

It is not just Marías’ recurrent characters that parade in and out of his novels, however: there are many motifs that have been making their way into the author’s world for a number of years. With every novel Marías continues the persistent weaving of his world in which a set of novelistic concerns, as well as his unmistakable style and the literary thought that he confers upon his narrators, make up for stories that will be hard to replace. For example, one of the characters states: ‘It’s a very ancient fault in all of us, to see the present as final and forget that it’s inevitably and infuriatingly transitory’ (175). This remark, far from casual, is a preoccupation of the author, which he elaborated in 1978 in the as-yet-untranslated-into-English El monarca del tiempo (Reino de Redonda, 1978). Similarly, Marías’s readers will recognise a number of images in Thus Bad Begins: the snow which falls but does not settle; the attention that narrators pay to women’s legs (they cross and uncross, their thighs visible if the glance is quick, tights laddering easily); the index finger raised to someone’s lips indicating silence; the hand on someone’s shoulder (to keep someone at a distance, also to back them or to threaten); the act of looking up at a window and what lies beneath it or the figure of the eavesdropper who spies on private conversations. These evocative, sensual or unsettling images form Marías’s world, which is also typically filled with comparisons to films that add ‘an element of unreality about it all’ (489), an unreality which, much as in Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me (The Harvill Press, 1996), is bolstered by these extra layers of fiction within the fictional domain as this narrator behaves ‘imitating Hitchcock’s creations’ (178).

The English version of this novel has a couple of editorial oversights. Whether they are oversights of the skilled Margaret Jull Costa or the Hamish Hamilton editors, I do not know. On page 343, the English translation refers to ‘us’ as the third-person plural, when in fact ‘us’ is first-person plural; third would have been ‘them’. On page 377, the first mention of The World of the Small Man should read The Man of the Small World, which is Vidal’s mistake and what the original reads. This error is the reason why Professor Rico corrects him by saying: ‘You mean The World of the Small Man’, but the dialogue does not make sense if Vidal has used the correct title the first time and the title is then repeated by Professor Rico (as is the case in the English version). These two minor errors, it should be noted, do not affect the flow of the narration at all.

As is widely recognized, Margaret Jull Costa is a meticulous translator whose prose conveys Marías’s style exceptionally and whose idiomatic solutions for Spanish structures are nothing short of brilliant: ‘in a right pickle’ (168) is an excellent old-fashioned translation for Rico’s ‘estaríamos medrados’, as is ‘wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am’ (166) for ‘polvo echado, visita terminada’. She confidently uses English idioms where Marías does not, which is an efficient way of transferring some of the sarcasm in the characters’ speech: ‘best to call a spade a spade’ (177) is used to translate ‘mejor entendernos’, while she uses ‘pleased as punch’ (401) for ‘encantados’ and translates ‘gente que siempre ha sabido favorecerse’ as ‘people who have always known which side their bread was buttered on’ (396). Like I said, nothing short of brilliant. As is the case with some translations, humour is often one of the most problematic elements to render into the target text. She does a marvelous job in this regard too, especially when a gulf opens between two cultures and she rises to the challenge of breaching it with her translation. The scene of Juan’s encounter with the nun is an interesting example; Spanish readers are likely to find Juan’s accusatory remark: ‘Haga el favor de no llamarme “hijo”, madre’ more funny than its English equivalent, ‘Be so kind as to not address me as “my child”, Mother’ (167). The connotations implied in ‘Haga el favor’ are very powerful and almost impossible to render into English: the use of ‘usted’ with the imperative of the verb ‘hacer’ is relatively old-fashioned and common amongst part of the Spanish population; somehow it conveys perfectly the image of an old Spanish nun, the kind that most Spaniards will have encountered in rural areas. The final address to the young male as ‘hijo’ completes this picture flawlessly. Similarly, all the connotations of ‘haberse dado una buena toña’ are perhaps not present in ‘taking a tumble’ (168). This is not to say that it is not the best option: it is just that in Spanish, as the narrator identifies, ‘darse una toña’ leads him to think of a specific kind of woman from a small Spanish village. The image painted on the Spanish reader with those two utterances is that of a typically Spanish character (both real and fictional), which makes the interaction funnier. And yet the issue here is not the translation but how evocative it is for a Spaniard to put those phrases in the mouth of a recognizably Spanish figure; specific language associated to a specific image. Even if some connotations are impossible to maintain, the way Margaret Jull Costa transports the image into English is genius, particularly when the cultural differences are this significant.

De Vere’s words are, both in Spanish and English, not just witty: with their obsessive dimension, they can be penetrating and unshakeable. To paraphrase Muriel, who warns de Vere that ‘flirting with insanity is never risk-free’ (178), reading Marías is ‘never risk-free’. His voice is likely to echo unexpectedly – and when it does, you can jump right back into his world, a world which may at once enrich and complicate yours, as you wish ‘to remain indefinitely in that world and with those invented people’ (187).

Thus Bad Begins is published by Penguin Books.




Thus Bad Begins: The Intimate World of Javier Marías

Javier Marias
Left: Javier Marías, Spain’s most eminent novelist and perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Right: his latest novel, Thus Bad Begins, published in the UK by Penguin and translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

A reader today has access to more stories than ever – and the more there are, the easier they are forgotten. When we read fiction, we do it in the hope that one of these stories will stick: that it will stay with us and widen our existence; that it will happen to us, even though it didn’t really take place; that we can incorporate it into ourselves. A story with a profound, long-lasting impact, rather than a piece of soon-to-be detritus buried in the stream of stories to come.

Javier Marías is an exceptional storyteller. His skilfully plotted novels go well above telling an absorbing and beautifully written story; he somehow produces the plot that will not simply be replaced by the next book you read. An extraordinarily gifted writer, he published his first novel at the age of 19 and has, since, been creating and fine-tuning a universe of his own, a fictional world which is now extremely polished. Glossy in its surface and dense in its essence, his novels are filled with curious, well-read characters and attractive narrators whose erratic minds trap them in their own observations. As readers, we have a privileged access to their perceptive and obsessive thoughts, which portray them as mischievous and hard-to-read individuals. They are insightful and witty, and can be very funny too. As with intriguing people, we feel lucky to know them, but we also feel we ought to be cautious and a little vigilant for there is a sense that they are not trustworthy and that, under the right circumstances, they could also be dangerous. They are generally convinced that everyone can be, in fact. The impossibility of ever knowing yourself or others is a preoccupation of them. ‘So one day you, too, will do something bad’ (315) is what filmmaker Eduardo Muriel tells his young personal assistant, Juan de Vere, the narrator of Marías’s latest novel.

Known for his meditative and lyrical prose, Marías’s world is filled with insightful and playful intertexts and references both to highbrow and lowbrow culture; the attention to language remarks and what they reveal about the text give way to some hilarious passages. When reading Thus Bad Begins, expect to laugh, even when you are inclined to condemn someone’s behaviour. The conversations of the narrator and his milieu are dominated by a latent humour that is often brought to the surface. Language serves de Vere to reflect upon issues that both concern and amuse him. Isn’t it curious, he wonders, that as well as marriage, it is only debts or illnesses that one can use the verb ‘to contract’ for? (The protagonist of A Heart So White already reflected about the semantics of the term ‘status’ and the connotation of ‘to change one’s status’ when getting married.) And yet, despite the humorous tone, there is a disquieting tension in his prose, a pulsing threat that places readers in a somewhat uncomfortable situation. It is the tension implicit in weighing out the importance of one’s acts. ‘What to me was a grave and important fact – perhaps some vile deed I committed – becomes instead merely another story, nebulous and interchangeable, an original tale intended to amuse’ (323). The fact that reality turns into fiction (into ‘a tale to amuse’) once it is rendered into words is certainly a significant preoccupation for Marías. His characters struggle in weighing the significance of their actions and those around them, upon which they reflect incessantly.

In fact, Marías confers his narrators with what he has termed ‘literary thought’, which responds precisely to this meditative reflections and intensive (often erratic) form of thinking. They often ponder on the fallibility of memory; de Vere isn’t the first of Marías’s narrators to say: ‘Or perhaps that isn’t what I thought, but only how I remember it now’ (22). The dangers involved in speaking and revealing something without offering a clear-cut alternative (silence not always being the solution) is another issue upon which they reflect insistently: even though Muriel warns de Vere to be careful with what he reveals (‘don’t let your tongue run away’, 442), it is the tongue which both ‘condemns and saves us’ (492). Through this form of thinking, Marías’s novels often seem to propose one thing and then its opposite; our principles shaken, our opinions shattered. We both warm to and despise some of the characters; and through them, like in a distorted mirror, we see ourselves. And looking inwards has never been more disturbing. His stories are, thus, far from being yet another narration that will be replaced by the next.

The characters’ literary thought and the underlying tension will draw you in and even when you have finished the last page, you will be aware of certain looks and silences; you will not miss someone’s touch again. You will notice not only what is patent, but also everything that is latent in life, and the moon, who watches over with a permanent vigilance, ‘the moon’s somnolent, half-open eye’ (80), becoming aware that ‘right from the very moment we come into the world, things begin to happen to you […], even if you hide away or stay very still and quiet and take no initiative or do anything’ and, as the narrator states himself, he ‘wasn’t totally passive nor did I pretend to be a mirage, to make myself invisible’ (4). At this point you will dive into his world to discover how he was not passive and how, despite his alleged invisibility in Muriel’s household, he shaped his own life by his being there.

The story recounts the family events in which Juan de Vere saw himself involved as a result of taking a job as an assistant of filmmaker Eduardo Muriel and practically moving into his family home. There, he witnesses the unusual and unhappy relationship he has with his wife, Beatriz Noguera, whom de Vere starts following during her outings in Madrid. Divorce is not legal in Spain yet but the post-Franco permissiveness and liberalization have already been set in motion during the time in which this novel is set, the so-called movida madrileña of the early 80s. De Vere joins the party and, like many, favours Chicote and other Madrid venues over sleep. He also takes part in suppers and gatherings with his boss’s circle of friends and acquaintances, which include the eminent professor Francisco Rico, Dr Van Vechten, Roy and occasionally the Hispanist Peter Wheeler, as well as bullfighters and film folk (the producer Harry Alan Towers, Herbert Lom and Marías’s uncle Jess Franco – and even the occasional Bond girl – all play their part in this most original and intriguing novel). During the time he spends in their company, de Vere sees his life irrevocably shaped – often, it seems, despite himself – as a result of what he witnesses. His life becomes tangled with theirs and with the secret that Muriel first does and then does not want him to find out for him. And yet, de Vere asserts ‘How little it takes for what exists not to have existed’ (500), one of the many interesting remarks which envelopes this story in an aura of uncertainty by questioning the irreversibility of it all. Within the intrigues of the novel, the issue of desire arises as an essential part of marriage and youth. Like everything else, it becomes distorted by the passage of time and memory but it emerges as a powerful force. ‘Sensations are unstable things, they become transformed in memory, they shift and dance, they can prevail over what was said or heard, over rejection or acceptance. Sometimes, sensations can make us give up and, at others, encourage us to try again’ (91). Even though Muriel talks only about himself when he mentions falling into a kind of ‘hubris’ (459) at one stage of his life, the term could be adequate to describe the impulsive (sometimes excessive) behaviour of various characters in the novel, whose leitmotif is certainly not the measured or reasonable concept of its opposed notion, sophrosyne.

‘Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.’ That is the Shakespeare quotation Muriel was alluding to when he spoke of the benefits or advisability of – the comparatively minor harm involved in– giving up trying to know what we cannot know, of removing ourselves from the hubbub of what others tell us throughout our life, so much so that even what we ourselves experience and witness sometimes seems more like a story told to us, as it moves further off and becomes besmirched by time, or grows faded by the tick-tock of the passing days or grows dim beneath the breath of all those moons and the dust of all those years, and it’s not so much that we then begin to doubt its existence (although occasionally we do), it’s more that ‘it loses its colour and its importance wanes’ (366). Indeed, the conundrum of whether it is possible and/or desirable to know the truth lies at the core of this narration. There is, as you might have guessed from previous novels, no easy answer. ‘It’s illusory to go in pursuit of the truth, a waste of time and a source of conflict, sheer folly. And yet we can’t not do it’ (25); a failed enterprise that we cannot stay away from, then. Timing is an issue that always plays a part when the irreversible revelation of a truth is at stake. ‘The truth is a category that remains in suspension while we’re alive’ (24), says Muriel, abandoning any hope to attain it, whilst also acknowledging its inevitable pursuit. The outcome of its being unattainable is perhaps even more disturbing because, as de Vere asserts, ‘In the face of ignorance, one is always free to invent’ (106). But we shall not forget that, as Marías has said before, the etymological root of ‘to invent’ is the Latin invenire, which is ‘to discover’ because the discovery of something is not as far removed from its being invented as one might initially think.

Not only is the concept of an absolute truth challenged, time will also render truths and untruths void since the importance and colour of the actions which embodied us and seemed all-encompassing at once do eventually wane. Muriel alerts de Vere to the expression ‘take place’, which is used as a synonym of ‘happen’ or ‘occur’ and which, he asserts, ‘it’s curiously appropriate and exact, because that is precisely what happens with the truth, it has a place and there it stays; and it has a time and it stays there too. It remains locked up inside that time and place and there’s no way we can undo that lock, we can’t travel back to either time or place in order to get a glimpse of their contents’ (25-6). The issue of timing, therefore, emerges as key in the impossibility to attain the truth and it is by accepting this when, even if bad begins, worse, says Shakespeare, says Muriel, remains behind.

As with some of Marías’s best-known novels, the title is taken from Shakespeare (Hamlet, Act III, Scene 4); the phrase is a central motif which is repeated throughout and it refers to various elements of the plotline. Here, one can take it to also refer to the period of the Spanish Transition, if we think of the historical context of the novel. This historical context is only present as a background through a thin veil; the novel takes place largely within the four walls of Muriel’s apartment, a confined enclave that contributes towards the claustrophobic air which tinges the pace of the novel. One of the elements that contributes towards this claustrophobia is the metronome. A symbol of the passage of time (which in Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ film adaptation (1960) spooks the narrator– he believes it is his victim’s beating heart), the metronome makes an appearance in Thus Bad Begins as a new motif in Marías’s universe. ‘The metronome, which ticked away for long periods without a single note or chord being played, as if it were a perpetual threat or a representation of the tempo of her thoughts or the insistent beat of her sufferings’ (128). The ominous beating of the metronome reminds readers of the other rhythmic sound in the flat, namely, the drumming of Muriel’s fingers on his eye patch – cric, cric, cric – (184), ‘ominous and unhinging’ (280), which mesmerises the narrator; seemingly unimportant onomatopoeias that contribute towards the incessant nature of Marías’s obsessive narrators (the protagonist of All Souls noticed Toby Rylands’s laughter – ta, ta, ta – as well as the dog’s walking pace – tis, tis, tis – when, thirteen years later, someone was following him on a rainy night in Your Face Tomorrow).

Marías’s unreliable narrators who, like everyone else are only aware of one part of the story, are perhaps epitomised here in Muriel (not the narrator in this novel, but one of the main characters), whose eyesight is literally partial as he only has one eye and wears an eyepatch on the place of the missing eye. His arbitrary decisions relating to forgiveness and the randomness of his actions seem to be symbolised by this partially sighted nature. And on some of those nights, while he executes his decisions and actions ‘take place’ in his U-shaped flat on Calle Velázquez, ‘our cold, sentinel moon must have blinked its one somnolent eye in disbelief’ (234): only one eye, like Muriel. As is the case in Marías’s fiction, the effects of having or lacking witnesses to our actions plays a significant part in the plot. Marías’s narrators often act as witnesses to their own lives, which has an obvious effect on the reliability of the narration: ‘I couldn’t help looking at us for a moment with the eyes of a spectator or a collector, with the eyes of the imagination, which are the eyes that best remember a scene and best recall it later’ (221), says de Vere. Here, much as when it was stated that imagination can easily replace the truth or the fact that what has happened could have just as easily not have happened, it is clear that there is a carefully and meticulously planned-for narrative ambiguity, a trademark of Marías’s fiction which turns his stories into haunting tales.

Marías’s fictional world is indeed unique and recognisable. It is populated by an array of characters who move across his novels. These recurring characters – generally friends or acquaintances of the narrator or of one of the protagonists – are a mixture of fictionalised real and fictionalised people and are never less than captivating. Marías’s construction of them and of their circumstances ensures that, while a reader familiar with Marías’s world will surely feel like bumping into an old friend, a new reader will not feel left out either.

It is not just Marías’ recurrent characters that parade in and out of his novels, however: there are many motifs that have been making their way into the author’s world for a number of years. With every novel Marías continues the persistent weaving of his world in which a set of novelistic concerns, as well as his unmistakable style and the literary thought that he confers upon his narrators, make up for stories that will be hard to replace. For example, one of the characters states: ‘It’s a very ancient fault in all of us, to see the present as final and forget that it’s inevitably and infuriatingly transitory’ (175). This remark, far from casual, is a preoccupation of the author, which he elaborated in 1978 in the as-yet-untranslated-into-English El monarca del tiempo (Reino de Redonda, 1978). Similarly, Marías’s readers will recognise a number of images in Thus Bad Begins: the snow which falls but does not settle; the attention that narrators pay to women’s legs (they cross and uncross, their thighs visible if the glance is quick, tights laddering easily); the index finger raised to someone’s lips indicating silence; the hand on someone’s shoulder (to keep someone at a distance, also to back them or to threaten); the act of looking up at a window and what lies beneath it or the figure of the eavesdropper who spies on private conversations. These evocative, sensual or unsettling images form Marías’s world, which is also typically filled with comparisons to films that add ‘an element of unreality about it all’ (489), an unreality which, much as in Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me (The Harvill Press, 1996), is bolstered by these extra layers of fiction within the fictional domain as this narrator behaves ‘imitating Hitchcock’s creations’ (178).

The English version of this novel has a couple of editorial oversights. Whether they are oversights of the skilled Margaret Jull Costa or the Hamish Hamilton editors, I do not know. On page 343, the English translation refers to ‘us’ as the third-person plural, when in fact ‘us’ is first-person plural; third would have been ‘them’. On page 377, the first mention of The World of the Small Man should read The Man of the Small World, which is Vidal’s mistake and what the original reads. This error is the reason why Professor Rico corrects him by saying: ‘You mean The World of the Small Man’, but the dialogue does not make sense if Vidal has used the correct title the first time and the title is then repeated by Professor Rico (as is the case in the English version). These two minor errors, it should be noted, do not affect the flow of the narration at all.

As is widely recognized, Margaret Jull Costa is a meticulous translator whose prose conveys Marías’s style exceptionally and whose idiomatic solutions for Spanish structures are nothing short of brilliant: ‘in a right pickle’ (168) is an excellent old-fashioned translation for Rico’s ‘estaríamos medrados’, as is ‘wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am’ (166) for ‘polvo echado, visita terminada’. She confidently uses English idioms where Marías does not, which is an efficient way of transferring some of the sarcasm in the characters’ speech: ‘best to call a spade a spade’ (177) is used to translate ‘mejor entendernos’, while she uses ‘pleased as punch’ (401) for ‘encantados’ and translates ‘gente que siempre ha sabido favorecerse’ as ‘people who have always known which side their bread was buttered on’ (396). Like I said, nothing short of brilliant. As is the case with some translations, humour is often one of the most problematic elements to render into the target text. She does a marvelous job in this regard too, especially when a gulf opens between two cultures and she rises to the challenge of breaching it with her translation. The scene of Juan’s encounter with the nun is an interesting example; Spanish readers are likely to find Juan’s accusatory remark: ‘Haga el favor de no llamarme “hijo”, madre’ more funny than its English equivalent, ‘Be so kind as to not address me as “my child”, Mother’ (167). The connotations implied in ‘Haga el favor’ are very powerful and almost impossible to render into English: the use of ‘usted’ with the imperative of the verb ‘hacer’ is relatively old-fashioned and common amongst part of the Spanish population; somehow it conveys perfectly the image of an old Spanish nun, the kind that most Spaniards will have encountered in rural areas. The final address to the young male as ‘hijo’ completes this picture flawlessly. Similarly, all the connotations of ‘haberse dado una buena toña’ are perhaps not present in ‘taking a tumble’ (168). This is not to say that it is not the best option: it is just that in Spanish, as the narrator identifies, ‘darse una toña’ leads him to think of a specific kind of woman from a small Spanish village. The image painted on the Spanish reader with those two utterances is that of a typically Spanish character (both real and fictional), which makes the interaction funnier. And yet the issue here is not the translation but how evocative it is for a Spaniard to put those phrases in the mouth of a recognizably Spanish figure; specific language associated to a specific image. Even if some connotations are impossible to maintain, the way Margaret Jull Costa transports the image into English is genius, particularly when the cultural differences are this significant.

De Vere’s words are, both in Spanish and English, not just witty: with their obsessive dimension, they can be penetrating and unshakeable. To paraphrase Muriel, who warns de Vere that ‘flirting with insanity is never risk-free’ (178), reading Marías is ‘never risk-free’. His voice is likely to echo unexpectedly – and when it does, you can jump right back into his world, a world which may at once enrich and complicate yours, as you wish ‘to remain indefinitely in that world and with those invented people’ (187).

Thus Bad Begins is published by Penguin Books.




The Symbiotic Relationship Between Literature and Film in Sci-Fi

I’m a big fan of symbiosis that exists between literature and film, as I’ve written a great deal about it in the past. I’m also a sci-fi fan because when technological background mixes with fantasy, it lets your imagination run wild. Often it presents us with a pretty grey image of the human race – where technology either destroys or takes over our lives. But these are the topics that make some of the best books and films in this genre. Without further ado, I present to you some of my favourites!

2001 (1)
Film: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), directed by Stanley Kubrick

Based on short story The Sentinel (1951) and novel 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) by Arthur C. Clarke
This qualifies as an interesting development in literary and film world… Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke have co-written the script for the movie, which was initially inspired by Clarke’s short story, The Sentinel. Clarke wrote the novel 2001 only after the movie came out. A true example of symbiosis! No doubt that the book by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s film found cult following and took their place and position among the stars.


Film: Young Frankenstein (1974), directed by Mel Brooks

Based on Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818) by Mary Shelley
“It’s pronounced Fronkensteen” says Gene Wilder in the role of a young doctor Frankenstein trying to forsake his heritage. One of the best works of the comic partners Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder, and among the best parodies ever which lovingly turned Shelley’s horror novel into comedy. The link to the book is obvious, but indirect because plot revolves around the next generation of Frankensteins.
The film itself is full of puns and various hilarious situations such as Peter Boyle’s monstrous creation dancing to the Puttin’ on the Ritz, the debate on how to pronounce Wilder’s assistant’s name Igor, or Gene Hackman as a blind man who gives the monster (not so) safe shelter.

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Film: Cloud Atlas (2012), directors Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowski

Based on Cloud Atlas (2004) by David Mitchell
The novel by David Mitchell borders on fantasy with a strong sci-fi futuristic element. It is really one of the more bizarre films on the list in regard to the world it creates, but still I prefer the book. It seems to me that the film failed to meet people’s expectations, with some actions throughout the story left unexplained, which is a common trap involving multiple plots.
What I did like, actually the best part of the film, are the same actors in all of the six time periods. To see their transformation, sometimes completely unrecognizable, truly is amazing and can be seen only on screen. The cast led by Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent and Hugo Weaving is accompanied by some of the highest rated names in the industry. And as the actor Ben Whishaw said in an interview, “something like this has never been attempted before.”

Children of Men
Film: Children of Men (2006), directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Based on The Children of Men (1992) by P. D. James SF thriller is based on the novel by an English writer P. D. James. Honestly I think this is one of the best dystopian films ever made. A winning combination makes a best-seller story being brought to life by one of the most accomplished directors of today (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Gravity).

There’s actually a pretty big visual advantage the film has over its literary counterpart – all the scenes were filmed in one take and it looks magnificent! The story works on several levels, from a single battle for humanity to restoring the will for life to a man who had long ago given up hope. Birth of a child in a sterile world takes on greater meaning and decides on the direction of humanity in the future. Of course there is also the battle against authority, as a true dystopian work wouldn’t be complete without it.

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Film: Contact (1997), directed by Robert Zemeckis

Based on Contact (1985) by Carl Sagan The boy asks Jodie Foster’s character, “are there other people out there in the universe?” To which she replies, “universe is a pretty big place … and if it’s just us, it seems like an awful waste of space.” Is there a truer statement about possible life in the universe? Carl Sagan wrote the script long before the film came to be but when the shooting got delayed time after time, he decided to publish the novel. The film was, of course, made but ten years later.

Briefly about the plot – Ellie Arroway is a scientist who finds strong evidence that extra-terrestrial life exists, and it is she who should make the first contact. I think that this movie is a mandatory watch for all SF fans, because in addition to this scientific side about the possibility of contact with new races, there is an always present debate between science and religion.

What do you think, book or screen? What are your SF favourites?




Beasts of No Nation and the Child Soldier On Film

Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation
Idris Elba plays a fearsome warlord in Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

While delivering her annual report to the United Nations General Assembly in October, Leila Zerrougui told the member states that there has been an “increasing disregard for international law” in many conflict situations around the world, leading to a worsening of the plight of children.

It seems that now, as ever, high-profile filmmakers who are blessed with a large audience have a responsibility to accurately represent their subjects with thought and precision, or else they risk potentially furthering the misrepresentation of crisis – causing a delay in positive action.

US film director Cary Fukunaga, who enjoyed recent success with the first season of the critically lauded True Detective, is now tackling new frontiers. Having contributed to the McConaissance, he’s now at the helm of a new kind of takeover: that from Netflix. The viewing platform gained the rights to Beasts of No Nation earlier this year and has used their global platform to reach an impressive number of viewers. It was reported that by the end of October, more than 3 million viewers had tuned in at their leisure to watch the gritty tale of a child soldier set in a fictional West African country, based on the 2005 novel of the same name from Uzodinma Iweala. Beasts of No Nation was also released in a handful of independent cinemas, to a much smaller impact, thought to solidify the creative and cast’s chances for award domination once the season is in swing. Netflix plans to continue this success with upcoming projects from Angelina Jolie and Adam Sandler also being released on the popular site.

Beasts of No Nation opens on main character, Agu (Abraham Attah) going about his life with his friends: “It is starting like this,” he says as the camera pans out from a television set, sans screen, that stands between Agu and his friend. There is a civil war looming nearby; school is now cancelled. In the absence of learning, Agu demonstrates entrepreneurship by taking the frame of his father’s television set and hawking it to random adults in his path. As he barks genres at his friends, they act out generic scenes that they have witnessed on their home televisions; Agu calls this “Imagination TV”. Part of the irony of Netflix’s domination of audiences is that, in many African villages, the broadband quality is simply not high enough to allow streaming; indeed, Netflix is unavailable in Ghana, where much of the film was shot. The children of these villages will not have access to one of the most watched movies that purports to be about their lives.

“Imagination TV” sees the children create their own dream world before this power is taken away from them. It is a pivotal moment in the film in two ways. First, a violent force erupts within their own world, destroying their ability to determine their own identity; second, outside of the fictional reality, the filmmaker’s representation yields further power, dislodging them from their public global identity.

Agu’s home village is overrun by a civil war that tears apart his family and home, seemingly reminiscent of events in Liberia, Nigeria or Sierra Leone. Where the film is set remains unknown. As Noah Tsika writes in his article Beasts of No Nation and the child soldier genre, the language in the novel is strongly influenced by various Nigerian dialects (Iweala, the author, is himself Nigerian); the film’s first act features characters speaking Twi, an Akan language widely used in Ghana. Tsika is critical of the filmmakers “gimmicky presentation of an ill-defined ‘Africa'”. Perhaps the intention was to underline the “no nation” aspect of the title; the blend of dialects and language could be seen as a tool that reinforces our ignorance of Africa, our willingness to understand the continent as a “no place” and to portray singular narratives as being wholly representative of the continent.

Far from what Sir Thomas More considered a “no place” when the term “utopia” came in to being, the reality of Beasts is a hellish encounter that sees children ripped apart from their families in barbaric violence, to then be groomed by damaged men who plot to keep their empire strong. Only a stone’s throw from the young pubs of yesterday, the children are repositioned instantaneously as fierce predators. Stolen and tainted by psychopathic leaders, child soldiers on screen are not unfamiliar. Africa is frequently presented as a site of suffering.

A particularly brutal aspect of the violence that Beasts depicts is that against women. Taking the sole forms of family figures or prostitutes, they are never the enforcers of violence. We see women brutalised and raped, always receiving the upper echelons of its wrath. In a 2013 Guardian article by the Global Development Network, the broad categorisation of females in war torn landscapes as “victims of sexual abuse obscures that they are often highly valued militarily”. Two years on, in a film watched by over 3 million people online, a simplistic representation of female in war torn land is ever present. The sexual violence inflicted upon women within war torn regions is horrific and there have been recent movements to address this. In 2014, a London-held summit calling for an end to sexual violence in conflict drew global attention when Foreign Secretary William Hague was joined by fellow co-chair Angelina Jolie.

The stark reality is that 40% of the child soldiers across the globe are women. By excluding them from the representation of child soldiers on screen, we are endangering their chances of aid. The rehabilitation of girl child soldiers is seen as particularly complex because of the multifaceted roles that they may take up within a group: “they serve as combatants, spies, domestics, porters and ‘bush wives'”. There are disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programmes that have become an integral part of post-conflict peace operations in the past 20 years, but the invisibility of girl child soldiers in such widely seen narratives as Beasts ensures that their access to assistance is made more troublesome as a simplified view of the role of girls and boys in war torn regions is reinforced.

A striking moment of cinematography occurs about an hour in to the film, where the colour filters are washed with a deep fuchsia pink and the atmosphere becomes surreal. The image is akin to Richard Mosse’s photographs that won the 2014 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize. Perhaps, to play devil’s advocate, this serves as a significant reminder that we are watching an artist’s representation of a subject that is rendered fascinating across the globe. As a filmmaker, we can accept that this is his representation and cannot be wholly representative for Africa, enforced further by the fact it is set on a fiction novel and is in no way a documentary. But, it is continual depictions like these that reinforce simplistic understandings of Africa.

In July this year, it was announced that Netflix struck a deal for Angelina Jolie to produce and direct First They Killed My Father, a memoir written by former child-soldier Loung Ung about her time during the Khmer Rouge period in Cambodia. Perhaps, upon the release of Jolie’s film, a more gender-balanced depiction of child soldiers will take rot and a more accurately complex narrative will prompt more comprehensive aid and rehabilitation for male and female soldiers.

Beasts of No Nation is currently available on Netflix.




How has the internet changed the landscape of the film industry?

Ten years ago I was still an impressionable teenager with creative aspirations beyond my means. I was raised on pulp Sci-Fi and creature features, hit puberty around the time of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and entered adolescence as I discovered the narrative genius of Tarantino. I wanted to do it all; I wanted a platform for my artistic angst and, like all sixteen year olds, I wanted it now. I could never have dreamt that the internet would one day make all of this possible the world over.

Broken Saints.Wind the clocks forward a couple of years and a friend drops in to my lap a DVD of an independent animated series called Broken Saints. I still thank him to this day, for here was something of an omen on the shape of things to come; how as an audience I could control the way I accessed film, and as a film maker, one disillusioned with the idea of big studios, I could make something good without compromising in the face of the hard buck. And more importantly, how the internet could be used as a creative tool to help all us big dreamers create our own opportunities. But this future is not one without questions; as the stage becomes larger, how does one define themselves in the face of an increasingly competitive market?

Brookes BurgessBroken Saints, for those of you not familiar with it, was written and directed by a Canadian called Brooke Burgess who wanted to pioneer a new medium of storytelling accessible to all. He aptly coins it an animated comic book epic; inspired by graphic novels such as Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, he transferred this medium to the screen to create an entirely immersive experience complete with speech bubbles, voice overs and a score that is as much a part of the series’ tone as is the writing. Following the paths of four protagonists from the distant corners of the globe, Broken Saints is a story that examines the spiritual and social vacuum of the world we live in through our heroes and their struggle against a faceless organization whose mission it is to initiate worldwide enlightenment through broadcasting pure, unfiltered fear. Ambitious in scope even by the standards of the animated genre, it resonated with me as writer and human being alike.

I was fortunate enough to have a Skype chat with Brooke Burgess about his trans-media model and how the internet has changed the landscape for both audiences and film makers. It was a pleasant two hours; Brooke, (finding time for me before jetting back out to Thailand the very next morning to begin work on his second book,) is enthusiastic to the point that it’s infectious; with the media savvy that he possesses and having built his success through his early recognition of the internet’s potential, there seemed no one more qualified to answer such a question.

But to properly understand this success, we have to first examine Saints’ origins, as a watered down (technically speaking) version of the idea created through Flash software and hosted on an entirely ad free site. That meant that the creators, all three of them, were paying for every single megabyte of data downloaded from their own pockets. When this started gathering momentum, they asked for donations to keep the series going and were receiving anything from up to $500 from people they hadn’t even met. Does this sound familiar to any of you? It should; this is crowd funding at its inception, a torch carried on by sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo. From here, the series sky rocketed and they eventually received the funding to start it from scratch with updated production values and the addition of a voice cast.
‘In the digital era,’ Brooke explains, ‘Saints, in a niche focussed way, was less about creating something that was broad and wide to a mass platform. The successful creative works go narrow and deep. As we were wondering whether there was an audience out there in this great wild west of the early Flash era that would appreciate this kind of work, we learned that it was a two way medium and we were getting audience feedback immediately. If people like what you do they will want to propagate it, get involved and have a sense of ownership over it. And because there was a one to two month lag between chapters of Broken Saints I knew that there was potential to constantly stay in touch with the audience and get a sense of what they were feeling and of their collective pulse and to make them feel like they did have a sense of emotional ownership over the work. The website and the forums built the paradigm of a community for us, a place (for the audience) to ask political and philosophical questions and I definitely think that Saints pioneered this in a way.

As we’re fully in to the crowd funding age, the TV, films and games you’re seeing being predominantly funded through Kickstarter are less from the immediate emotional standpoint and more from the projects that are nostalgia based, because there’s a real power in looking back at eras during which we felt an emotional resonance. Maybe Saints planted some seeds for this early on, for what I wanted to do was tap in to the emotional vein that people felt with mature graphic novels such as Watchmen, The Dark Knight, Sandman and Invisibles. Back then all you could do was discuss it in comic book shops and share it in your small community of friends and I wanted to do that but with immediacy through Saints.

In short, Saints is a template as to how you can become successful through the Internet as an honest, grass roots artist and its influence can be felt throughout the modern digitisation of the media. Getting one’s voice heard has never been easier; video sites such as YouTube have essentially replaced Public-Access Television, blog sites such as WordPress allow you to make more money, (consistently speaking) as an independent journalist working from home than those attempting to climb the fraught rungs of the newspaper/magazine industry. And music? iTunes, Amazon and others are a digital distributor for musicians of every level of popularity. All of this and more allows you to not only be heard, but more importantly, make money. It won’t be long before the old channels of creative fame and fortune are obsolete, but this presents its own problems which Brooke aptly addresses;
‘I was working in the Napster era, and what you were seeing then was this generational thought of “well, music should be free,” which has changed a little bit with the ‘Apple-isation’ of things, but this thought was a product of the late 1990s as the web was crawling out of the mire, and what we’ve seen since is a huge change to the technology and delivery methods of art. People can watch anything they want for free online or binge-watch through Netflix and as a consequence, the old publishing and distribution systems are becoming dinosaurs. A good example of this is music; now there’s no longer any monetary reward, bands like Radiohead give music away as other huge acts like Madonna, Foo Fighters, Maroon 5 and Coldplay are receiving piddly annual royalty cheques even after achieving millions of listens on digital aggregator services such as Spotify and thus have to make their money from touring – but how do you do that with film, TV and literature? What has happened to the creative economy in this blob of content on demand is that it’s much harder to keep people engaged; where before they couldn’t wait to get the next instalment of something, now it’s like “Oh, I can come back later to that and instead look at these others that have popped up in the last five minutes.” The question now is a) how do creators get their message out there amongst the competition, and b) what’s the perceived value and how do we change that?’

Yes, we have become an audience spoilt by choice and made glutinous from consumerist convenience. Whenever, wherever and however we want it. This is the downside to empowering all us would-be artists. A good example of this is the e-book market; with the growing popularity of the self-publishing route, it means that the Kindle market is flooded by un-established authors, some with genuinely good ideas which unfortunately get lost amidst the unfiltered dross that finds its way there also. Brooke is currently waging his own war in this arena with ‘The Cat’s Maw,’ his self-published debut novel of a proposed five book series titled ‘The Shadowland Saga.’ But Brooke was a pioneer of many of these online strategies. And with his profile, he has been able to find a niche, even within the notoriously difficult genre of ‘Young Adult’ simply by adopting his own trans-media approach;
‘The way you differentiate yourself is by telling your story through a trans-media strategy, building a narrative universe and asking how it can exist through different media. Cats Maw.Having now written ‘The Cat’s Maw,’ I’m asking myself how this can exist in an app environment or in an art driven environment. You need to cut the fat and find how you can express in different ways the reflective qualities of this world you’re building through all of the platforms available.’

Cinema admissions are now at their lowest since 1994 with an estimate of 1.26 billion tickets being sold between January 1st and December 31st, 2014. And in just one year, cinema revenue dropped by 5% from 2013 to 2014 (Hollywood Reporter.) This twenty year low demonstrates most clearly the change in climate between audiences and studios. Yet ticket prices continue to rise. Is this a refusal to yield to the changing times by the cinema chains or a necessary step towards survival? Either way, we’re all making it loud and clear that since the recession, a movement towards cheaper, even free, sources of media are the preferred option. After all, why leave your house for an over-priced, sticky floored cinema to eat stale popcorn whilst watching a film over the head of the person in front of you when you can put on Netflix through your own 50-inch TV (complete with sound bar) with your mates at an insubstantial cost? Cinemas inevitably responded by flooding the box office with reboots, sequels and adaptations, each one coming with a guaranteed audience and a satisfactory return. Only established directors such as Tarantino, Scorsese and Nolan are taking risks by challenging blockbuster audiences with original, one off stories. We saw a resurgence towards the end of 2014 with films such as Boyhood and Nightcrawler, but these are a luxury few studios can afford. And unless we stop buying in to these franchises, so it shall remain.

So has this influenced film makers taking a chance on experimentation in their work?

‘It depends on the film maker’s goal,’ Brooke says. ‘I still ardently follow film and TV developments through surfing the zeitgeist to see what’s going on, what people are liking and why, and I mentioned the nostalgic trip before; it’s the age of the remake and the homage; how can we tap in to an old idea that’s worked? How can we play with something that’s safe and then build tent poles and franchises around that? What’s interesting is that you’re seeing a two pronged approach where some film or content makers rally against that and make something that’s unique and utterly compelling, usually a short film or trans-media experience, and if that gets any traction and some of the major sites or social media sites start to promote it, within a week you’re hearing about not only a studio optioning the idea and hiring that director to do some tent pole they already had planned around a remake, but also, the response of, “Wow, they did this for nothing. You can have some money, (not a lot,) now do a big screen version of the same thing and let’s see if you make a hit out of it.” There’s a little bit more in the sense, in the lower budget realm, of throwing stuff against a wall and seeing what sticks. But it’s all coming down to the fact that film makers and visual creators are doing something with their own money or even for free. So with that and how little is being offered to creators that’s where people turn to crowd funding.’

Crowd funding has served as a portal for creative aspirants in recent years to find a market for their product or project. Yes, there are hundreds of others trying to achieve the same thing, but you’re asking the public to take a chance with you. With every investor that pledges, artists from every walk of life are shown the value and widespread appeal of their idea. This can only usher in a new era, as Brooke puts it, of unique and utterly compelling storytelling. A shift towards a new industry of people not afraid to take a chance in creating and investing. This also completely destroys the established model of a financial elite controlling said industries, the film industry in particular. Power back to the people, a digital revolution.

And maybe it is this very gap between audiences and the creators they look up to that has led to the studios falling one step behind. Out of touch, even. Yet, the internet is the only place to amend this; I met Brooke Burgess for the first time through the realms of social networking, back in the days of Myspace. Even then, Brooke was more than happy to chat to passionate fans about the universe of Saints and even to those critics unhappy with the direction that he took. ‘You have to access social media to get the pulse of your audience,’ Brooke states, and with this quote in particular, I couldn’t agree more. Facebook is now an extension of the Broken Saints forum, a collective tribe of enthusiasts able to communicate with the chief himself. Brooke, in return, is able to keep these fans, far and wide, updated with upcoming projects and recently reached out to them with his own pleas of crowd funding for his debut novel. Not one to exploit his followers, this personal touch is something that worked regardless because a sense of connectivity had been established. Further evidence of this can be seen through the Twitter boom where the masses feel, on some level, in touch with the celebrities they idolize. A shallower avenue, to be sure, for it’s only ever one way traffic. But it has created a culture of transparency that in this world of vast class division, has been a necessary step forward, if only for the celebrities to continue doing what they’re doing.

The internet has even changed the way freelancers find their next job, through online crew databases such as Creative England and websites, such as Mandy.com, that list skill specific callouts from nationwide production companies of the professional, semi-professional and amateur markets. This same website also hosts casting calls for actors. For film makers of any level, it is a resource to bear in mind. Actors can now have a presence through websites like Spotlight, which serves as an online curriculum vitae and a place where essentials for actors like headshots and show reels can be submitted. Any actor I have ever worked with that has been worth their salt directed me, from their very first email, to their Spotlight profile, an extension of social networking and not dissimilar to LinkedIn. And crowd funding is not the only financial resource available to film makers; the internet has opened new and exciting channels in the way of grants, and online film competitions and festivals blaze a trail for the directors of tomorrow.

The answer to how the internet has changed the way we access film, for both audiences and film makers, is levelling the playing field. Brooke Burgess has taught me that for every negative this spells is a massive positive, a shift of power and a transference of control. But ultimately, how both parties are coming gradually together to break new ground and establish a new era of balance. Yes, we have some way to go. We’re like infants handling a new toy; it’s exciting but it has its hazards. We’re also on the verge of becoming apathetic. But I trust that a new horizon is on its way; as the old ideas begin to run out, there will be a yearning for something new.

Broken Saints started out as a dream with no business model and blossomed. Brooke said he often wonders what would have happened had he waited twelve years and released Saints in today’s market. With so many more resources within the virtual threshold, one can but wonder. But sometimes a good idea speaks for itself beyond the channels it chooses to take. And therein lies Saints true lesson for success, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the internet; have faith in your idea, maintain your creative integrity and, most importantly, see it through to the bitter end.




Old Hearts Crying: While We’re Young

While we're young car
Driven Adam Driver driving.

Authenticity. That’s what this is all about, this Noah Baumbach dramedy here, see? This earnest, sobbing, whimpering, celebration of a film – a new jewel in the re-emerging genre of mid-life crisis cinema – an honest, cynical and genuinely chucklesome comment on that in-betweening phase of youth and ageing that we’re hurtling towards (if not already there), with added elements of thriller thrown in too. And the familiarity of all this, for me, was damn eerie.

Mild-mannered documentarian Josh (Stiller) and producer wife Cornelia (Watts) are faced with a shifting reality. Their friends are having kids, having their lives remoulded by infants and it not only baffles them – it downright petrifies this suddenly fortysomething pair (and let’s face it, all of us a little bit). Josh and Cornelia want to stop time, halt their ageing – or ideally, turn the clocks back. Cue a cracking first hour of both nose-laughs and belly-laughs with cutely observed dialogue and some bizarre situations.

There’s a more theoretical counterpoint here as well. Josh is lecturing on film theory, standing small in the well of his auditorium – he’s talking about authenticity of process in documentary filmmaking. The problem is, he never actually finishes his films. He just shoots hours and hours of rambling interview footage, putting off intimacy with his wife and insulating himself against any kind of life-affirming spontaneity. He’s being bogged down by his work; he’s becoming pretentious (and sounds like I did at uni – his documentary pitch is practically my undergrad dissertation on the military-industrial complex).

Josh uses his documentary project as a shield against reality. Later, this Godard quote arises: “Fiction is about me; documentary is about you.” Can a filmmaker shoot a documentary and reveal himself to the viewer? (What about film reviews?*) Film theory may be a sidepot in the dramatic stakes here, but it’s a fruitful one that neatly frames While We’re Young; Josh tends to make everything in his life about himself and his struggles – except his work (at least explicitly).

while we're young driver stiller
“It’s really about America.”

 

But let’s get to it – in Josh’s auditorium audience is a young couple, the driven-but-manipulative Jamie (Driver) and sweet-natured Darby (Seyfried), see? Jamie is also a filmmaker, and his eagerness to wriggle into that seemingly inaccessible world through Josh, Cornelia and her world-renowned filmmaking father (Grodin) is where the film crosses from comedy to near-thriller. This young couple are like cat burglars climbing through the open window of Josh’s life, bringing with them all that guerilla glamour of youth and verve and DIY-arty sensibility. They may be breaking in, but Josh is at the door welcoming them. He wants to feel the rush of youth again and try new things, discover himself, shield against reality a little bit and yes, do drugs.

Driver’s slightly off-kilter mannerisms and behaviour are effective, and it helps that he’s already well-known to audiences through his role in Lena Dunham’s Girls. He’s just a little bit more a prick here. But his demeanour is alluring, if deceptive. He does weird things as he moves; he’ll spin on his heels, tilt his head, or twist his arm an odd way. Driver dominates the screen as much as his character Jamie dominates Josh. Whether Jamie wants to make documentaries in the manner of his newfound mentor, or whether he wants to make something different (and less ethical) becomes the pivot for some good ol’ psycho-thrilleresque back-stabbery later. And all the while that Godard quote hangs in the air.

The weirdest thing of all about Baumbach’s latest is the familiarity of these characters – and for me, almost too familiar.

Exhibit A: As part of his transformation, Josh buys a hat. Partly because Jamie wears one. I had a phase when I wore one too. Yeah, not proud of it. For a few months I wore this little checkered grey Fedora – I was given it by some guy at some weird, bright Saturday day-time party thing near Brick Lane. I don’t know if I was having a quarter-life crisis at the time, or something. I got rid of it after a while. At first I used to pull it down to cover my eyes, then it was more just plopped on the back of my head “for the look”. There was something nice about arriving somewhere and laying your hat down, though. But I wouldn’t say I miss it.

There’s a moment when Josh and Cornelia accidentally crash a friend’s party after a surprise visit – this is post-youthful transformation into hip-hop dancing, race-bike-riding, hat-wearing 25-year-old fortysomethings. Now at the party, they’re back where they started, surrounded by people their own age. And they look like they’ve been restyled by Gok Wan in a particularly uncomfortable episode of that show that Gok Wan does. They’re neither young nor old, needed nor wanted. They’ve become a bit like discarded Fedoras.

7G5A3393.CR2
Children among babies

 

Exhibit B: I drank ayahuasca once. In the Amazon rainforest. With a trainee shaman (you get those). He didn’t have a Vespa and he wasn’t a yuppie. I puked hard until it was bile. The experience was cleansing. Ayahuasca has the naturally occurring active ingredient dimethyltryptamine (or DMT, which are my initials). I didn’t get Egyptian imagery, though. What I did get was a lot of Incan symbols raining through my vision before all the chucking up. Then I was knockout on the floor under a hammock in the shaman’s back hut, staring up at a waxing moon with two other people either side of me. It was mostly flesh-eating animals that I then thought I saw innocently wandering about – but they didn’t mean any harm. I was relaxed. Random thoughts. A small child offered me a tarantula. I said no thanks. Then I went for a kip. They say after you wake up post-yage, you’ll never have felt more alive. That’d be hard to disagree with. But here they seemed even more depressed. The morning I found to be warm and tasty. I didn’t get any movie-style revelations though.

‘Trip out’ scenes (which have made a big comeback since the Apatow effect in US comedy) is starting to feel slightly obligatory – perhaps not gratuitous, because plot does develop and they’re generally pretty funny – but we’re getting a touch rote now. Prote-on-drugs moments can be fun and revealing – they (purportedly) show an audience how a character “really is”; what they think and feel and hide. (I don’t know how true that is really; it’s not quite the same as vino/veritas, I feel.) Substance-dabbling is also a fast-track route for a character to meet with revelation. That happens here. It always does. In the movies.

Exhibit C: This was the moment when this film hit its first triple-20. At one point, Jamie discourages Joshy from googling/IMDbing an answer to a lingering question they can’t remember the answer to. Jamie says we should try to remember things by ourselves or just accept that they’re forgotten. I used to spout things like this (mostly because I didn’t have a smartphone), and I still partly agree. I mean, at least trying – for 30 seconds, or a couple of minutes – usually brings it back; the name of that song, that film, that girl in that thing. It might be 24 hours or even a week ’til it strikes you, when you least expect it, when you’re least in need of it – but sometimes it does arrive.

There may be a lot familiar about Jamie for me, but there’s also a bit of Josh (so doubly painful). It’s taken me two weeks since seeing it to sit down and write about it. Even now I’ve got up to put the kettle on; I went hunting for a Fat Possum Records sticker to put on my keyboard case, then I changed my socks – it occurs to me it would be good to write this while I’m young. [Now two more days have passed since I started on it.]

WHILE WE'RE YOUNG
The cool kids like a dance.

 

Later, Josh and Cornelia meet up with the ‘other’ for dinner – their friends Marina (Dizzia) and Fletcher (Horovitz) who’ve recently become parents; the anchors to the piece. Their lives and their selves (and their view of themselves) are changing fast, but they go with it. Josh and Cornelia invite them out to a party straight after dinner. “Since when do you do more than one thing in a night?” (Personally, my favourite line.) They may have lost all the spontaneity and freedom they once had – it just makes Josh and Cornelia’s insecurity even more tragic. But for all of that, their insecurity is human and the goosebumps moments come when they rediscover themselves (particularly when Cornelia gets really into her dance classes.)

Yet Marina and Fletcher aren’t the trapped and unthinking automatons Josh and Cornelia make them out to be. There’s good and bad to both sides of freedom and family.Fletcher especially takes an almost objective, cynical view of their changed circumstances. He says barefaced: “Even with the baby here, I’m still the most important person in my life.” Josh and Cornelia are both as desperate as each other to be young and free again. And there’s a darker pain behind it, which may go some way in explaining it.

As much as I may on the surface see similarities with both, there are still huge differences, mainly because of background, particularly common to a Baumbach film. I’ve never lived in a trendy converted warehouse loft in New York, for example. Oh, and I can’t cycle no-hands. But those things are largely irrelevant (particularly the last one). We’re all looking for freedom and fun and truth in this thing. And this film has all that authenticity in spades. It’s all about you and me, see? It doesn’t matter what age we are.

While We're Young poster

(*But it was never doubted a film review reveals the reviewer.)




Myths & Legends: Heroes In Kind

The modern cinema scene is awash with the new breed of legendary heroes. Batman. Superman. Iron Man. Spiderman. (gosh, there really is a regrettably male skew here. Roll on 2017.) 

We know what makes a hero. Extraordinary abilities, a sense of goodness, and an appetite for overcoming adversity. But our perceptions of heroes and the ideals they embody are rooted in our social context. It can be a culture shock to look back at the legendary heroes of Greek myth—Achilles, Hektor, Odysseus, and their ilk—and see just how differently they behave.

How heroes are made

Classical heroes are figures of religion. Achilles is the son of the sea-nymph Thetis and the mortal Peleus. Paris, the one who started the whole Trojan–Greek kerfuffle, was favoured by Aphrodite. The family trees of Homer’s Iliad are lousy with divines. This tends to be the source of heroes’ extraordinary qualities—Achilles’ famous heel, Herakles’ powers, Paris’ divine protection.

On the cinema screen, we have abandoned the religious aspect. It seems far too outlandish to our rational modern sensibilities. We prefer our heroes to be grounded in science.

Like The Incredible Hulk, who was exposed to gamma radiation and now transforms into a giant green rage monster when he gets angry.

Or Iron Man, a genius billionaire (you know the rest) who flies and fights terrorism through the power of engineering.

Or Captain America, injected with SCIENCE to make him into a supersoldier, but with heart.

I’m zeroing in on the Marvel movie mythology there, but you take my point. There seems to be more appetite for these ‘heroes of science’ than for the pseudo-mystical trappings of even the established Superman. When there are mystical elements, there’s an effort to contextualise them through science—look at Dr Jane Foster and crew in Thor. When it comes to our legendary heroes, we like to think of ourselves as people of science, not religion, even if the science is total crap.

The 'science' of superheroes is...interesting. [Image: Marvel Entertainment]
The ‘science’ of superheroes is…interesting. [Image: Marvel Entertainment]
 

The heroic ideal

For us, heroism is interwoven with selflessness. A hero is willing to compromise their own life for some greater ideal of goodness—Spiderman juggling jobs and studying because he spends all his time fighting crime (see: Spiderman 2), Bruce Wayne giving up happiness with the girl he loves because ‘Gotham needs him’, Captain America crashing a Hydra megaplane into the ocean (and missing his date).

There are exceptions. The fact that Tony Stark defying his egomania is a notable plot point in The Avengers demonstrates what a subversion of our expectations his typical character represents. He is the exception that proves the rule.

Classical Greek heroes were all about themselves. They offered significant value within society—such as Achilles with his martial prowess—but only did so on the presumption of getting their dues, the trifecta: time (honour), kleos (reputation), and geras (booty). When they don’t get them, they pout, they cry, and they refuse to hero. Like here, when Achilles has his prize-bride Briseis taken by Agamemnon:

The son of Peleus again began railing at the son of Atreus…”Winebibber,” he cried, “with the face of a dog and the heart of a hind…now the sons of the Achaeans bear it as judges and guardians of the decrees of heaven—so surely and solemnly do I swear that hereafter they shall look fondly for Achilles and shall not find him.

Homer, Iliad 1.224-240

To the modern reader, Achilles paints Greek heroes as a bunch of indolent man-children.

Heroism itself: Achilles kills a Trojan prisoner. [Public Domain]
Heroism itself: Achilles kills a Trojan prisoner. [Public Domain]
 

A matter of murder

There’s also the killing. For us, killing is the mark of a villain or a bona-fide anti-hero. Raised as we are on Batman’s ‘one rule’, it’s a Big Deal for a hero to cross that line. Even Captain America doesn’t kill in The First Avenger, and he’s fighting in World War II, one of the times we readily accept our on-screen heroes killing people.

The Greeks had no such reservations. Their heroes are martial by definition—the idea of being a warrior was so fundamental to their heroic archetype that heroes were almost always soldiers, and when they weren’t, they were still really good at fighting. Paris is skilled with a bow, but is mocked for his lack of ‘front and centre’ fighting ability; ‘better a bastard than a bowman’ (a joke people still like to make about Hawkeye).

While we’ve become squeamish about our heroes using lethal force, we’ve maintained martial focus. Not many heroes are soldiers, but every mainstream superhero movie revolves around the hero’s capacity to literally fight some force of evil.

It reflects our morals around killing that even in dire circumstances, killing is the Thing that Heroes Do Not Do. Though it does leave us in the odd position of having to believe that no-one died during 120 minutes of the hero’s wanton destruction.

Batman is completely harmless. [Warner Bros.]
Batman is completely harmless. [Warner Bros.]
 

Stories require conflict. Heroes need a framework of adversity in which to fight and triumph—something against which to struggle; otherwise, they’re just people in outlandish costumes. Both ancient and modern superhero stories tend to ground this in physical conflict, but the Greek way feels more honest. We leave ourselves with the dissonance of saying ‘selflessness is good, killing is bad’, while depicting behaviour which says ‘might is right’.

Our myths reflect us. It’s not an astounding revelation that the stories we tell mirror our perceptions of our ideals. Our heroes are mighty and selfless, but they don’t kill. The Greek’s heroes were just as mighty, but fought for more codified rewards—honour and booty. We hold our heroes to a different standard, but the framework is the same. We like to think of ourselves as clean-handed people who prize selflessness, but are unwilling to give up a fascination with violence which is at odds with that. We still cling on to some fundamentals of classical heroism, juxtaposing them with modern ideals: We may hold our heroes to a different standard, but the legends of the classical heroes live on through our stories.