Saturday, January 24, 2015

Inherent Vice (2014)

There was a point in the midst of Inherent Vice, PaulThomas Anderson’s latest examination of recent American history, that I began to wonder if he’d made the film just for me. I loved every single second of it, but listening to various (considerably younger) fellow viewers’ comments as I left the screening, realised just how much baggage you need to carry to withstand the two and a half hours of screen time. Dripping with authenticism and almost hermetic in its depiction of a very particular moment in the USA’s road to post-‘60s cynicism, Inherent Vice demands that you know your stuff, counter-culture and politics-wise, not to mention musically.  

(I apologise wholeheartedly if that last paragraph sounded like some pompous way of saying I liked this film and therefore I know a lot of stuff and you will only like this film if you are clever like me. What I’m actually trying to say is that I liked this film so much that I want everyone to like it too, and I worry that it may be a little too niche for many peoples’ tastes.)

Thomas Pynchon’s typically character-rich, absurdist view of the West Coast in 1970 is both dreamily nostalgic (in a good way, says Anderson) for a lost era and the closest equivalent to Chandleresque as he ever got. The shaggy dog tale of Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello, a dope smoking P.I. in requisite khaki combat jacket, shades and sandals, simultaneously chasing a missing construction magnate, an ex-husband, a drug cartel and a lost love.

The oddest thing about Anderson’s film is that, for the first time that I can remember, it bears comparison with and references other films. Of course any circular tale filled with great cameos, stoner logic and an impenetrable mystery is going to make anyone think of The Big Leibowski, and the plot tangles give the whole piece a doper-grandson-of-Chandler dynamic. At about the halfway mark, pretty much as in The Big Sleep, you give up on any kind of grasp on who has done what to who. Apart from the other Altman/Chinatown/Long Goodbye etc. etc. allusions there’s a whole Hunter S. Thompson Gonzo section featuring Martin Short as the superbly deranged dentist, Dr. Rudy Batnoyd. And if that weren’t enough, here’s Benicio Del Toro… as a lawyer! This attorney is, however, an endearing marine law specialist with a taste in deep fried steak. Come to think of it, just about everyone in this film is in some way endearing. Even the villains are acceptably erudite.

Somewhere in between good and bad is, naturally, the policeman nemesis to Doc’s P.I.: Detective Christian ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen, played by Josh Brolin (above), channeling his inner Tommy Lee Jones again. The love/hate hippie/pig relationship is superb, especially as half of their exchanges are by telephone, showing the hilarious juxtaposition of the straight and far out lifestyles of our protaganists. Other turns by Reece Witherspoon as Doc’s Deputy D.A. sort-of main squeeze; Katherine Waterson as Shasta Fay, Doc’s ‘ex-old lady’ who leads him into the labyrinth, and even – wow- Eric Roberts(!) as the missing Mickey Wolfmann are all suitably on the money.

In tone (as you’ll undoubtedly expect if you’ve seen the trailer below) the film is Anderson’s lightest for years. It’s not the slapstick-fest you may be expecting from the trailer, but its central performance by Joaquin Phoenix as Doc contains a vast amount of physical comedy. Phoenix has always been a deeply physical actor, but here his facial mugging almost steals the show. An inveterate stoner’s habits mean that dialogue comes thick and…err, thick. More than one reviewer has pointed to one scene between Doc and Owen Wilson (as it turns out, the real point of the movie) as junky sax player and snitch, Coy Harlingen which is all but unintelligible. But when it comes to Inherent Vice, it’s appropriate that it’s the vibe which pervades the entirety which is the most wonderful thing. Not since Boogie Nights has the director been this jolly.

As mentioned above, the numerous Black Panther, Manson Family, Aryan Brotherhood, Vietnam, L.A. music scene, Nixon etc. references mean that maybe this is just a film set to entrance only the likes of me and my crazy ‘niche’ tastes. But I’d like to think not.

When it comes to the music, I can take or leave the Debussy-liteisms of Jonny Greenwood. It works just fine. But the other stuff is a whole heap of ‘60s and ‘70s goodness. Any film that opens with Can’s ‘Vitamin C’  and also features some Les Baxter already has me halfway there. But as Anderson has said in recent interviews: the real musical inspiration of Inherent Vice comes from Neil Young; in particular, his three post-Harvest era masterpieces. Two numbers (Harvest and Journey Through The Past) feature prominently in the soundtrack.

The yearning in Neil feels just right. If there was an NY album that Inherent Vice put me in mind of most, it was On The Beach. The mellow but wary-as-fuck, post-Manson killings vibe is all offset by endless sea and sunshine or twinkling beach front cafes and faux-medieval Topanga mansions filled with tanned ‘teeners’ as Shasta Fay describes them to Doc. But there’s already a sense that the good stuff happened long ago, there are too many memories, too many ex-old ladys, too much paranoia. The lost love does finally come home, but only to tell Doc that she’s not back. And the nemesis pops round to knock down his door, apologise and finally eat his stash. Bummer.

How much of this feeling is from Pynchon I have yet to discover. I feel the need to read it. Any regular readers will know that I raved about Anderson’s last work: The Master. And while Inherent Vice immediately resides inside me in a place that’s closer to my heart, that’s weighed against the fact that The Master had life-defining performances by Phoenix and the late Philip Seymour Hoffmann. Time will tell no doubt tell which film wins, but in the meantime, if you want to see one more film about the death of the hippie ideal, make it this one. It’s brilliant.

Inherent Vice is released in the UK on 30 January.

The Duke Of Burgundy (2014)

One of the natural by-products of a post-feminist world for old codgers like myself who did most of their ‘growing up’ in the ‘70s and ‘80s is that you often end up watching a film and not being sure if you’re even allowed to enjoy it. Remember that lesbian love scene in Mulholland Drive? I’m still not entirely certain that David Lynch should have got away with it. And there’s a moment about 15 minutes into Peter Strickland’s latest film, The Duke Of Burgundy, where you begin to question your own motives in watching the film as well as the (male) director’s for making it. But rather than leaving you about to vacate your seat Strickland pulls an almost genius trick which completely reverses your preconceptions of what, until that point, seemed dangerously close to exploitative. 

Rather childishly referred to as either ‘mucky’ in the Guardian’s review or 'kinky' in the Telegraph'sThe Duke Of Burgundy actually examines a rather touching lesbian S&M relationship between Cynthia and Evelyn. The most notable immediate fact about their mannered, repressed, corseted world full of display cabinets filled with butterflies and moths is the fact that there are no men in it, whatsoever. The two women inhabit a huge villa in some academic town in some unknown country (actually Hungary), and appear to be spending the summer/autumn months pursuing a shared interest in entomology, studying in a dusty old library and attending lectures along with a whole crowd of what can only described as similarly attired MILFs. Strickland uses these lectures to up the weirdness factor (for some unknown reason, one of the attendees is a lifeless mannequin – presumably to highlight the film’s dressing-up subplot). One of them involves the entire audience of women listening to a field recording of an insect’s stridulations (I never thought I’d ever use that word): all them staring vacantly ahead, like some insect-worshipping cult.

Together the pair explores the notions of power, control, fetishism and role-playing within a love affair. Their games initially entail aspects of humiliation that quickly reach levels that, as mentioned above, will undoubtedly test the endurance of the un-kinkier members of the film’s audience.

Yet, suddenly the surface is stripped away to reveal the mechanics of exactly how such a sado-masochistic relationship can function. At its heart the film pokes away at the glossy surface of lingerie and bondage to ask questions as to how you maintain such a peak of erotic play while keeping both partners satisfied. It’s basically an extremist examination of the old cliché of ‘how to keep your relationship fresh.’

There’s an imbalance born of age difference that inevitably sees the ‘games’ become increasingly strained in their artifice. But the film’s masterstroke is in not doing what last year’s Blue Is The Warmest Colour did with its supposedly ground-breaking depiction of gay love, and resorting to an inevitable decline and break up. Just as you think you have figured out the imbalance of power in the relationship (the film’s focus of power is always ambiguous despite the pair’s well-defined ‘roles’ in their games) it takes a new turn and we’re returned to the possibility that just maybe these two women can make their very special form of foreplay work, despite the effort and commitment required. On top of this it’s a heartening depiction of an older woman as sexual and real.

This isn’t to say that that the film’s narrative, like Strickland’s last offering, the excellent Berberian Sound Studio, ever strays too far from the psychedelic/experimental (contrasting ‘70s film effect tropes with digital technology). In fact Strickland’s modus operandi, on the surface can often seem to be a homage/resurrection of ‘70s film genres (not unlike producer Ben Wheatley, whose own next project in retro fetishism after A Field In England is a promising adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s High-Rise). Here in The Duke Of Burgundy, the source visual material is a disconcerting blend of the same Hammer/Giallo horror that drove his last film, along with distinct nods to perhaps the last taboo from my formative years: arthouse soft-porn. The opening credits ape the style of early ‘70s adult flicks, meanwhile the spirit of Ingrid Pitt constantly lurks, especially during Evelyn’s nightie-clad, candelabra wielding, night time walks.

Post-production dubbed dialogue and use of prismatic filters all add to the Emmanuelle-reborn ambience, but The Duke of Burgundy’s often cold, formal tone and mannered performances - not unlike Peter Greenaway’s best work - is also offset by humour: for example, in its opening credits for a perfume manufacturer. It’s also possibly the only film you’ll see this year that has closing credits that include the species of insects in order of appearance (trivia fans note: the film’s title is a species of butterfly) as well as notations of the exact locations and equipment used for sourced field recordings. Chris Watson would be proud. It’s also a nod to Berberian Sound Studio’s Gilderoy and his recording equipment fetish. Whether this highlights Strickland’s own, more masculine fetishes to offset the feminine plotline remains unclear.

But in fact the film seems to act as a rejoinder for all the women who are so murderously exploited off-screen in Berberian Sound Studio, with the film’s main female protagonist, Fatma Mohamed reappearing here as ‘The Carpenter’, a woman who wields a tape measure like an instrument of pleasure and supplies not only bespoke fetishist’s furniture but also the film’s funniest line (about a 'human toilet' - don't ask...).

Such an audacious attempt to map the perverse means that The Duke of Burgundy is a film which tries, almost too desperately sometimes, to defy description or pigeonholing, as if Strickland wants his audiences to go back to friends and family to gasp, ‘that was bonkers!’. Well, it IS bonkers but as a protracted exercise in weirdness it falls slightly short of the mark, mainly because the trick of maintaining an hallucinatory quality alongside an almost scientific examination of the strains attendant to such a depicted relationship is an almost impossible one to pull off. Strickland still remains one of our most promising directors, despite all of this.

Perhaps most importantly, as a depiction of the possibilities of mutually agreed levels of punishment and ritual as sexual it’s undoubtedly streets ahead of this year’s most eagerly awaited piece of populist schlock erotica, 50 Shades of Grey. In fact I’d challenge any independent cinema owners out there to show the two in a double bill. While I’ve no idea (or interest, even) in how the latter will play on the big screen, I’m 99.9% certain that it won’t approach The Duke of Burgundy’s level of intelligence, daring or transgression. 
The Duke Of Burgundy is released in the UK on 20th February

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Irgendjemand liebt dich immer

Earlier in 2014 I was honoured to be invited to give an opening speech at an exhibition in North Germany by two very splendid artists: Vera Brueggemann (N Germany) and Bruce LaMongo (Vienna, Austria). The exhibition - at Bielefeld's Artists Unlimited Gallery - was entitled Irgendjemand liebt dich immer (trans: There's Always Someone Who Loves You) and featured two rooms containing the individual works of either artist as well as one large room that exhibited the results of a collaborative project that the pair have been working on for the last two years.

These last works consisted of texts sent to each other and then interpreted into graphic form according to each's own whims. The object was seemingly to enjoy not only each other's visions of phrases, cliches and popular sayings selected by the other, but to also revel in the misunderstanding and mis-communication that can result from the clash between two entirely separate cultures and intellects. The results were darkly humorous and wildly creative. Both artists dwell in the realm of the linear but their approaches are fabulously disparate, with LaMongo's perverse pop/trash culture references contrasting with Brueggemann's  more precise meditations on disappointment, desire and death.

The final results of the duo taking their lines for a walk have now been collected in a single volume and I'm utterly proud to have been asked to write the commentary for the book (*below). My own text - in the true spirit of misunderstanding which drove the original concept - was written in English and translated (badly) via online translation engines. The book was beautifully designed by another Bielefeld artist, Jana Topel.

The limited print run of Irgendjemand liebt dich immer is available to buy via the new Edition Guillotine website (which, incidentally, will be publishing more volumes by both these and other primarily German and Austrian artists in the coming year), for the ridiculously small price of €25 (plus p&p).

Get it while it's hot!

Edition Guillotine website:
Edition Guillotine on FaceBook:

Text for the book: They say opposites attract. What they (whoever they are) don’t tell you is that opposites often create a considerable amount of friction: friction that can cause the white heat of creativity, or just the dark, dense, deadening force of confusion. You hold in your hands the evidence for this: Brueggemann and La Mongo: together they fight not crime, but mediocrity. This is no match made in heaven, but a fighting  partnership bursting with demonic force, erotic displacement and tasteless truth-telling. And it’s great.

Like Chinese whispers, the pair’s dialogue - initially conducted long distance via the internet - is rife with misunderstanding and often (unintended) hilarious wrong-turns. Spurred on by the other’s phrases, they often seem to wilfully disregard any obvious interpretation. Instead we see the alchemy of misrepresentation and the occult science of nonsense, raised to the level of the profound. 

Let’s face it: they got lucky.

This doesn’t mean to say that under their own steam these artists wouldn’t deliver the goods. Brueggemann casts a sly linear glance over the world: her wonderful drawings managing the balancing act of being both humorous and sinister. Sexual deviance; death and nature’s indifference all mingle in her worryingly artful pencil and ink work. Meanwhile, La Mongo stuffs his obsessively detailed work with layer upon layer of pop/trash culture references, making psychedelic vortices from the deepest recesses of his mind. It’s all brought to glorious life in felt-tips and forbidden imagery. 

But, when put together, what do we get? A hilarious, weird juxtaposition of the precise with the messy; the childish with the ancient; the good, the bad and the ugly. Don’t say you weren’t warned…

At the planning stage this meeting of minds and temperaments would look disastrous, but, ironically, on paper it works perfectly. This book is the wreckage following the car crash between Westfalia and Vienna. An autopsy of how not to get along. La Mongo and Brueggemann: they may fight mediocrity, but they’re no longer speaking to each other…

Happy New Year!

And we're back...

2014 is DEAD - long live 2015!!!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Lousy Song, Great Solo #4

By 1977 English art-pop perfectionists, 10cc, were in crisis. Actually, they weren’t just in a crisis, they were fucked. The only thing was: they didn’t know it. 

Famously 10cc were born from the ashes of nascent careers writing hits for the Hollies and Yardbirds (Graham Gouldman), paying dues with Wayne Fontana (Eric Stewart had actually sang lead on The Mindbenders' biggest hit, 'Groovy Kind Of Love') or just being jobbing session players and studio rats (Kevin Godley and Lol Creme). Following a reasonably lucrative period running Strawberry Studios in Stockport and masterminding other faux-bands' singles, as well as a minor hit as Hotlegs (with 'Neanderthal Man'), the band were signed to Jonathan King's UK label, given a questionable new name and they were off. 

The next four years had seen them put into effect what was almost a masterplan of pop strategy, moving them from cheeky chart contenders to album conceptualists. Their self-titled debut album's parodies laid their stall out with aplomb. It was full of 50's pastiches such as 'Johnny Don't Do It' or 'Donna' and the censor-baiting rockers such as 'Rubber Bullets' while displaying a fearsome grasp of studio trickery. Here was a band that not only had the ironic detachment of, say, Steely Dan (a band with whom 10cc are most often compared, both bands having learned their trade via the '60s equivalent of Tin Pan Alley on either side of the Atlantic) but also the smarts to make top 40 gold out of what was far more grown-up fare than that of contemporaries such as say, Slade or Gary Glitter. The following year's album, Sheet Music, saw the pastiches jettisoned and the band truly find their own sound. What was effectively a pair of duos combined Godley and Creme's cerebral love of art rock and musicals with Gouldman and Stewart's ear for an irresistible tune. sardonic, knowing hits 'Wall Street Shuffle' and 'Silly Love' rubbed shoulders with hilarious deconstructions of the ridiculous trade in which they worked such as 'The Worst Band In The Word' ('Never seen the van, leave it to the roadies, never seen the roadies, leave 'em in the van') or 'Old Wild Men' (possibly the first song to conceive of rock stars ageing), while third world politics and terrorism, were also fair game to these clever boys. 

Of course the following year's Original Soundtrack contained THAT SONG and the world now seemed theirs for the taking. However the cracks were beginning to show. The differing approaches of the two pairs was becoming more obvious with Godley and Creme's post-modernism ('The Film Of My Love' or the overlong tri-part 'Une Nuit A Paris') sounding at odds with Gouldman and Stewart's more straightforward rock and pop craftsmanship. It was still a fantastic album, however, and by 1976's How Dare You! these cracks seemed less apparent, to the point that the album could stand as their masterpiece, containing suites in miniature like 'I'm Mandy Fly Me', 'Art For Art's Sake' or 'Don't Hang Up'. But in the studio the four had reached breaking point and Godley and Creme headed for the hills (and a future in video pioneering) holding their art school credentials high and leaving the remaining duo to wonder whether to carry on as 5cc.

The unfortunate decision was to draft tour drummer, Paul Burgess as a full-time member, recruit some other fine session players and soldier on. The sense that Gouldman and Stewart did this just to show the quitters just how much they didn't need them is borne out by later interviews. Both parties now admit culpability with Godley and Creme admitting that maybe they could have gone off to make the overblown Consequences album (ostensibly a triple album vehicle to advertise their patented Gizmotron guitar tool which was hamstrung by a little too much self-indulgence and weed) and simply brought the resulting lessons learned back to be used by 10cc, Gouldman and Stewart meanwhile found it impossible to sanction any hiatus by the others while they were at the peak of their earning powers. Ah, foolish youth…

But be quiet, big boys don't cry; this lengthy back story serves as a scene setting for what came next: the truly awful Deceptive Bends album. Although by no means a total disaster (especially when compared to the following studio album, Bloody Tourists which contains 'Dreadlock Holiday'. The world's most racist hit? You tell me…). Obviously Graham and Eric weren't dunces, and their ear for a hit hadn't deserted them, but somehow without the worldly cynicism of Kevin and Lol they had to rely on their own more forced sense of humour. Deceptive Bends contains ten of the cleverest, most slickly produced cuts, but somehow it's a joyless affair. Just compare 'I'm Not In Love' from two years previously with 'The Things You Do For Love'. or 'People In Love'. The sly irony has vanished and instead it's replaced by something utterly impressive and yet lifeless.

But worst of all was the lead track which when released in 1977 made it to number 5 in the UK charts: 'Good Morning Judge'.

For starters, there are the lyrics, concerning what Allmusic describes as 'a career criminal'.  Let's have a look at the first verse: 
Well good morning Judge, how are you today?
I'm in trouble, please put me away
A pretty thing took a shine to me
I couldn't stop her, so I let it be (repeat three times) etc.

So in the very first verse our 'hero' is admitting to what exactly? It sounds suspiciously like an 'ironic' reference to either sexual assault or under age sex to me (good grief, what was I saying about Gary Glitter?), especially when you examine the following verse's reference to a car theft ('I found a car but I couldn't pay. I fell in love so I drove it away').


Riding on a jaunty beat that  drives home the repeated refrain at the end of each verse, it also contains what by now had become the band's stock in trade, the doubling of lead vocal with a bass voice an octave underneath. In other words, with this, the first song of a post-split 10cc, the band have begun to parody themselves. If this isn't warning enough, the stand-in for a chorus ('I didn't do it, i wasn't there' etc…) sounds like the pair are making excuses for their own musical crimes.

And yet, at the end of each verse there's something strange happening. Eric's ultra-nimble slide guitar which had appeared in the middle section of the previous year's 'I'm Mandy, Fly Me' reappears to make a startling little interjection before droning up the fretboard and away. Clearly the chops hadn't deserted them. And, as if that wasn't frustrating enough, at the 1'31'' mark the slide returns to usher in perhaps Eric's finest moment: a solo that manages to combine Bakersfield with a call-and-response chickenwalk and blows your head away, all before the 1'58'' mark when it gives way to a bottom end riff (again, merely reiterating the band's superior earlier work) that signals a return to the laugh-free irony fest.   

It's doubly annoying here because not only is it a blinding solo - perhaps one of my top five of all time despite its brevity (or maybe because of it) - but also because it resides in a completely shit song that objectifies women, trivialises crime (Rubber Bullets at least knew it was springing from a tradition that included 'Cell Block Number Nine' or 'Jailhouse Rock') and, worst of all, was catchy as hell.

To be fair, at the age of 16/17 I thought it was very clever and loved it to death. But age, wisdom and a heavy heart now lead me to cringe every time I hear it. All except for those scant 25-odd seconds of six-string heaven in the middle...

Of monsters and men: Nightcrawler ( 2014), The Babadook (2014), Mr Turner (2014)

I recently mentioned on this blog that the year 2014 didn't really seem to have offered up too many film highlights, yet looking back I've realised that I was being my usual half-empty self, and that maybe I've been a bit hasty. For instance: 2014 did at least give us one of THE best science fiction movies of the last thirty years (Under The Skin); Lars Von Trier's Nymph()maniac was just great and, having viewed it again, I'd still maintain that Edge of Tomorrow is as good a slice of rip-roaring entertainment as you're likely to get in any year. Add to that the major diversion of Summer blockbuster, Guardians of the Galaxy (again, it bears multiple views plus who can resist Bradley Cooper as a talking Racoon and Vin Diesel as a monosyllabic tree?); Wes Anderson's charming Grand Budapest Hotel and the impending release of Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice as well as what will (hopefully) be a good third outing for Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen… even the final Hobbit movie (if it's as good as the last) looks like fun and, well… maybe I was being a tad harsh. Maybe it's just that inevitable save-it-all-until-it's-autumn/Oscar nomination time wasteland that we now have to endure all Summer which made me feel so bleak three months ago.

So, putting behind us the (inevitable) disappointment of Nolan in Space, it may not be that unusual to note that in the last week alone I've seen three great films all of which I could write reams about. Nightcrawler (dir: Dan Gilroy) stars a gaunt, sociopathic Jake Gyllenhall as the titular ambulance-chaser-with-a-flipcam creep, Lou Bloom, who embodies the lengths post-recessional capitalist zombies in West Coast America will go to to make their fortunes. It's not dark. It's black as pitch and offers no succour to those who believe in humanity's best instincts. The film's co-star, Rene Russo, as the news station chief editor who'll sell her (questionable) soul for ratings, no matter what she has to pass off as 'news' is equally impressive. Imagine Network crossed with Blow-Up with the cynicism turned up to 11. It's shocking and impressive…

Next up was The Babadook. Directed by  former actress, Jennifer Kent, and based on her previous short, Monster, this Australian horror movie takes a very northern european trope (a creepy children's book character which looks like a cross between an Edward Gorey drawing and Struewelpeter that invades the home. Eek!) and comes up with an inventive twist on the 'monster in the cupboard' model of horror. Essie Davis is just incredible as the single mother dealing with her son who is displaying some worryingly disturbing behaviour in the wake of a fatherless upbringing. I won't say much more other than it's superbly stylised look at grief, dysfunction and the way in which both adults and children deal with loss and fear. It also had me experiencing something I haven't had from a horror movie in years: genuine chills up the spine. Don't go on your own (like I did).

But best of all was Mr Turner. Being told by critics who have the luxury to be jetted out to film festivals months in advance that a film is close to being a masterpiece is usually a real passion killer for me. So it was with Mike Leigh's latest. even if it was about my favourite painter and starred Timothy Spall who can pretty much do no wrong (even those Wickes advert voiceovers are somehow reassuring and he was the real cherry on the cake in another fabulous biopic: The Damned United). After being told for nigh on six months that this would be the film of the year it became the last thing that I really wanted to see. (yes, as my friend Simon would say: I'm a contrarian).

Thank god, I didn't listen too hard to that inner voice. I've said it before, but Mr Turner confirms it: I'm a sucker for the biopic, especially the old-fashioned Hollywood episodic type that leaves you rushing for Wikipedia 'facts' by the end. I may get round to expanding on this, but friends know that one of my all-time favourite movies is Martin Scorcese's criminally underrated The Aviator, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes. Not only is it the film where I realised that Leo is a great actor, but for some reason everything about it makes me happy, from Cate Blanchett's pitch-perfect Katherine Hepburn to the cinematography of Robert Richardson. But really, from Fritz Lang's almost entirely fictitious The Return of Frank James (1940) via a visibly crumbing Montgomery Clift as Freud (1962) to Ron Howard's high-octane study of James Hunt and Niki Lauda in Rush - there's something about a 'real-life' story that always gets me hooked. Even though there's nothing remotely real about any of it.

And Mr Turner, while probably (I've been resisting reading reviews until now) being lauded as something extraordinary (which it is) is, under the skin, another film in the great tradition of condensing uncomfortable reality into a two-hour entertainment spree. For this reason Leigh serves up not only a reasonably accurate depiction of the world of academic painting in early 19th century Britain, but also teases a moving love story out of the life of a truculent man who famously had few friends.

It manages to carefully shoehorn in every famous anecdote you've ever heard about Turner (including the fictitious one about him being tied to a ship's mast during a snowstorm) and every significant painting that marked the geniuses' move towards proto-abstraction; all without too much visible artifice or contrivance. Only twice did I feel a little too spoon-fed: Once, when someone suggests that the sight of HMS Temeraire being towed to its grave by a steamer might make a suitable subject for Turner's canvas, and secondly when, despite his drunken adage, he turns to Ruskin's new young bride, Effie, and tells her that she will eventually find love (putting him in the role of mystic or seer).

A little like Gilles Bourdos' lesser study of a painter moving towards death, Renoir (2012), the digital palette on offer today now means that directors can make their films about famous painters match the colour schemes of their masterpieces. Mr Turner constantly and inventively hints at Turner's use of colour in its mise-en-scene while (thankfully) keeping to a minimum any sunset profiles. 

From Petworth (above) and its deer park to the Academy and his famed rivalry with Constable and even up to his eventual fall from fashion via the machinations of ludicrously pompous fan-boy Ruskin and his PreRaphaelite disciples (as well as the later Victorian zeal for genre painting), this film never misses a trick. Yet it's far from dry history, despite its slavish attention to detail (witness Pa Turner shaving a pig's head near the beginning!).

At somewhere around the halfway mark, the film - which until this point seemed far less narrative-driven and more concerned with brief snapshots of Turner's later life (which seemed ironic, considering the role that nascent photography takes later in the film) - coalesces into a far more traditional tale of JMW's burgeoning relationship with his Margate landlady. This, along with the rather generic strings and saxophone soundtrack was about the only thing I could point to as being close to disappointments. Such is Leigh's masterful hand (and, of course, I'd forgotten that he was a master at this sort of period frolic, having given us Topsy-Turvy in 1999) and the sheer brilliance (forgive the hyperbole, but there's no other word for them) of the entire casts' performances.

Spall as JMW is as rough and graceless as contemporary accounts confirm, using dismissive grunts and porcine snorts to convey both disapproval and approbation while never failing to be less than erudite in the company of those more high-born than himself. It's a study of passion trapped inside a rotund, misshapen body but made eloquent both by the use of his hands and by a disarming grace with words. The language is a delight and even his faltering rendition of a Purcell song when duetting with a lost aristocratic love manages to convey a vast pathos, all the while sounding like a 19th century Tom Waits.

The (mis)treatment of women, represented by his abandoned mistress and progeny as well as the ill-used housekeeper, Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson (above): who really should get an Oscar for best supporting actress) contrasts with his discovery of domestic bliss in the arms of Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey) Yet Leigh never sugar-coats the contradictions and injustices, instead balancing them with the mores of the day and the painter's rejection of human injustice and fascination with the rapid progress of the scientific and industrial revolutions of the age. It's the work of a director who uses his own canvas to paint a portrait of a man for whom nature could never became dull and who, beneath a grim exterior, possessed a huge heart. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Host (2014)

A couple of weeks back I posted about the new improved (?) Bandcamp site that I now have with new artwork, links and such, and also promised I’d write when my latest project was ready for public consumption.

Host is a multimedia project created initially for Auflage #1: an artist’s book fair hosted over two weekends at Galerie GUM, in Bielefeld, N. Germany and curated by Gabriele Undine Meyer and Vera Brueggemann. The original idea was to publish a book of photographs which would come with a CD of new material, but time constraints (and the lack of a decent printer) meant that the concept changed. Host is now a limited edition of ten signed box sets containing ten hand-written postcards (complete with neat space-themed stamps!) and a CD of ten new tracks.

The five boxes taken to Germany amazingly all sold and the few remaining copies (three at time of writing) are now available to buy on the Bandcamp site for £70. If all copies sell I will be creating a second edition before the end of the year.

The idea was a particularly neat solution for the problem of what I could confidently bring to such a gathering of talented people, mainly because it plays to my three main areas of interest, music, writing and photography. Each card (the images can be found on my photography blog here) depicts a landscape that somehow conveys an otherworldly quality (hence the stamps). Each short message/story may or may not relate to the image featured: the same being true for each of the ten pieces of music. The listener/reader can choose exactly how much meaning they wish to imprint onto these sets.
The music is also available separately as a digital download from the Bandcamp site.

The project has been a considerable amount of work over the last month or so, but I have to say I’ve been thrilled at how it seems to have turned out exactly as I envisaged it.

Thanks to everyone who encouraged me or bought the box, and especial thanks to Vera and Gabriele for being so generous with their time and their opinions.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Interstellar (2014)

The inevitability of me writing about Interstellar is as great as the fact that no matter what Christopher Nolan did, it would be bound to be a disappointment.  This doesn’t mean that Interstellar (Nolan’s fourth film to date beginning with the letter ‘I’) is a complete failure, far from it: it’s a never less than thrilling hunk of eye candy supported by a suitably cosmic plotline filled with enough twists and turns to keep any audience engaged. And while ubiquitous Matthew McConaughey may just be on the cusp of wearing out his welcome on our screens with his stock in trade breathless fatalism, as with his recent searing performance as Rust Kohl in True Detective, he projects stoic capability and glowering, world-weary passion unlike any other screen actor I can think of at the moment.

But this is Christopher Nolan (along with, as usual, his brother Jonathan) doing serious science fiction. And on a week when Kubrick’s 2001 is re-released for the umpteenth time in cinemas, Interstellar has to be (deservedly) judged by a higher set of values than just another blockbuster. Nolan obviously expects it, so logic dictates that it should be criticised on the same terms. And for that reason alone, Interstellar fails.

I’ve been all worked up over this film for well over a year now (when they started showing trailers in cinemas). The anticipation I felt for Nolan’s epic was born of the fact that this was, reportedly, a comfortably old-fashioned look at space travel and was flagged as a true return to the glories of Kubrick and Clarke’s science-based vision of the human race’s inevitable journey to other galaxies. I was thrilled about the possibility of a film that could once more get to grips with the realistic conception of interstellar travel, how it could work and the mysteries any adventurer would encounter: a return to the glorious scientific optimism of my generation’s childhood.

So what does Interstellar bode for our notions of science fiction? Ostensibly it’s a ‘hard’ sci-fi film but is weighed down by its inability to stop pointing out how clever it is while dragging along a parallel plot regarding wispy notions about of the power of love (which, if I take Nolan’s point correctly is comparable to gravity in its ability to transcend space and time... or something). And indeed, Nolan is here cheerleading for culture’s latest hot date: sexy old science. In a future where mankind has found itself facing imminent destruction from crop failure, corn is the only remaining plentiful food source. I imagine that this would be a world where if someone offered you cornflakes for breakfast you’d probably punch them in the throat (and I also admit to wondering what such a reduced diet would do to the human digestive system). But Nolan has no time for lily-livered eco warriors intent on being a ’caretaker generation’ (even to the somewhat unbelievable point of being moon landing-deniers, for fear of inflaming a human race for whom such money wasting on space travel may seem idiotic when all energy needs to be focussed on providing food). It’s a strangely Boys' Own notion where Matthew McConaughey, as Cooper (or ‘Coop’), is an ex-NASA test pilot who rails against his lost chances for glory and lives vicariously through his troubled prodigy of a daughter, Murph. In a nicely feminist touch her older brother is a pleasant knucklehead who actually likes farming. What a rube…

No, only the truly brave and reckless will win this grim day for mankind, so despite his attachment to his family (that significantly lacks a mother figure) Coop’s heading for outer space to seek out new worlds etc. after some suitably cosmic coincidences that bring him together with Michael Caine (doing his Nolanesque weepy old man thing again) and his scientist daughter, Anne Hathaway.

The film’s second half is filled with the typical post-Gravity nuts and bolts derring-do-in-a-vacuum stuff that no epic sci-fi movie can be without (as usual involving air locks, docking and terror in stomach-churning spinning spaceship fashion) but it’s also here that Nolan veers a little too close to Kubrick’s hallowed ground. A final encounter with the ‘hard’ maths of an event horizon/singularity makes deliberate nods to 2001’s finale – cue Coop’s helmet glinting with the retro-styling of the spaceship’s computer consoles etc.  as he hurtles towards his encounter with higher powers - and maybe this is why Interstellar resists any genuine sense of awe, because Nolan’s initial vision of  Humanity having lost its ability to crave adventure and take chances (‘Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt,’ Coop says early on, while sipping a manly beer on his porch with grumpy father-in-law, John Lithgow) also relies on the kind of Dawkinsian triumph of science and rationalism which will somehow explain away the ‘ghost’ from daughter Murph’s childhood. Planets in Interstellar are inert balls of rock for us to plunder, or play out our very human dramas; the abandonment of our world is just an inevitable fact as we follow the unfashionable notion of progress into the future. Just get over it, hippies…

The trouble is that Interstellar wants its huge galactic cake and it also wants to eat it at the box office. Nolan’s for all his high-mindedness is in thrall to money-making machinery that will always preclude making a truly hard sci-fi movie in the modern age. Time and again the film’s insistence on drawing attention to its science credibility rubs uncomfortably against a need to inject emotion and drama thrilling enough to keep less attentive viewers watching. These devices, when cast against just about the biggest background you can have, can come across as hackneyed (for instance: the race against time device in the film’s last third is both contrived and unnecessary as it’s obvious how it will play out) and at times even cynical. The concentration of the camera on the defrosting of one of the advance team of scientists who preceded Coop’s mission is only there to make you supposedly gasp at the revelation of another major star late in proceedings. Meanwhile one ten-minute section uses the incomprehensibility of the spoken lines to put the audience on tenterhooks before the whole thing is again explained to them. Meanwhile Coop’s inexplicably rapid promotion to mission pilot (from farmer) seems only there so he can ask all the dumb questions that the audience may have.  I would have far preferred the steely pragmatism of 2001’s crew as they attempt to repair their craft, instead of a ship where everyone’s worried about their own personal agendas. Surely there would be some kind of psychological evaluation before you’d send people on such mind-bending voyages?

Compare this to Kubrick’s approach: he never really bothers to explain matters until the point at which the mission has very nearly failed and HAL’s dying act releases the briefing video that finally tells Dave what he’s about to encounter. And, even then, the viewer is left to themselves to contemplate the real meaning of the final psychedelic showdown. For Stanley the alien’s purpose should always remain shrouded in mystery, only hinting at wonders beyond our comprehension, but in Nolan’s universe the face of God is not only knowable, it’s revealed to be ourselves. Interstellar, much like a vast amount of Nolan’s other work, contains a monstrous hubris at its heart.

And like the fifth dimension where Coop finally sees the workings of his own familial drama laid bare Interstellar ultimately has feeling of being a film reverse engineered for cleverness. And in the same way that Inception started with an intriguing notion and then proceeded to explain the life out of it, Interstellar asks you to accept its deus ex machina fudging until it’s all neatly explained (as with all time travel paradox malarkey in movies) by a final reel replete with happy endings and cute end-tying. We’re expected to sit back and marvel, not just at the cosmos, but at the director’s big brain.

I know comparisons can be belittling, but let’s be honest, Nolan’s not really hiding his influences that well. Beyond the inevitable parallels with Kubrick, Hans Zimmer’s organ-heavy soundtrack injects enough of the planetary-scale gravitas of Philip Glass and Koyaanisqatsi, but other reviews have also pointed to the less flattering ghost of M Night Shamalyan that hangs over the film. It’s not helped by the setting of the first third on the dust-drenched cornfields of Cooper’s farm. What is it with science fiction and cornfields? From the laughably contrived Looper to Shamalyan’s not-that-bad-actually Signs and even in this year’s so-bad-it-was-nearly-genius Transformers Age of Extinction: the vast stretches of nascent popcorn seem to some kind of touch point which may be necessary to capture those vast mid-Western audiences. Or maybe it’s just because Ray Bradbury stories often took place on such archetypal farmsteads.  But in the end Interstellar - beyond its incredible imagery of other worlds and (with the consultancy of physicist Kip Thorne) in conveying what a real black hole may look like – contains nothing really original to the genre. And yet, this doesn’t make it a bad movie in any way: Nolan’s too seasoned a director (and rightly deserves to inhabit the same lofty realm as people such as Spielberg).

Mind you, it was also probably a bad idea to send a mission equipped with another sci-fi space yarn cliché - two sardonic robots. Never really given enough space (they get just about all of what counts for the film’s ‘humorous’ lines) – they nonetheless only draw attention to the fact that Anne Hathaway has zero screen personality. Far better is David Gyasi as the poor ‘pure’ scientist, Romilly, whose twitchy reaction to the tenuous nature of space travel leads to one of the film’s most effective (albeit brief) moments where the Lazarus spacecraft drifts around Saturn’s rings accompanied by the sounds of Earth’s wildlife. In another of the film’s finest moments Cooper and Brand (Hathaway) return from a short, disastrous trip to a planet’s surface to find that 23 years have elapsed due to the relativistic effects of the nearby black hole. Not only is McConaughey’s reaction to seeing his children become middle-aged adults via archived video diary messages deeply affecting, but Gyasi’s quiet edge of insanity brought about by the extreme loneliness he’s suffered is beautifully observed. Luckily Coop’s daughter has grown up to be Jessica Chastain (already a proven natural at playing steely–faced women with a serious job to do in the awful Zero Dark Thirty) who manages superbly to convey the contradictions in someone for whom the pain of abandonment is trumped by her own scientific curiosity (luckily for mankind).

Popcorn for dinner... again
Set against a truly cosmic background the petty squabbles and cheap Hollywood gewgaws designed to ramp up the excitement seem too cheap and extraneous. Even Steven Soderbergh’s re-tooling of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (a book which never reaches any conclusions about the mysteries we may ultimately encounter out there and was, thus, suitably spiritual ground for Tarvoksky to use as well), while focusing on love managed to remain in awe of the ineluctable grandeur of the universe and the unknowable face of God. Yet Interstellar is a pretty great film.  As with Edge Of Tomorrow, earlier this year, it’s no shame to make a film that contains not one ounce of originality and still blows you away. Interstellar’s fault is that it aims, both literally and figuratively, for the stars but forgets to leave in any sense of the mysterious. By explaining every detail of its intricate mechanism, it’s a film that’s ultimately earthbound. File under ‘brave attempt’.