Midnight Special (2016)

Midnight Special (2016) Poster.jpg

Dir: Jeff Nicholls

Starr: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Jaeden Lieberher

Viewed: Cineworld Fountainpark, Edinburgh (Screen 13)

NOTE: This review contains unavoidable spoiler material. I wold strongly advise going to see the film first. As much as I was left a little disappointed by Nicholls’ work here, it is still a film worthy of a visit to the cinema.

Jeff Nicholls’ latest film Midnight Special is an atmospherically rendered piece of cinematic hokum. It’s great strength and fatal weakness are one and the same thing. This is a film about belief that veils itself in mystery as a means of assuming the form of religious processes of faith. Nicholls’ thrusts the viewer straight into a disorienting quest for meaning which maintains a keen tension in the film long after Jaeden Lieberher’s Alton has revealed himself possessed of a bizarre array of ‘gifts’. However, this tension comes at the detriment of any meaningful engagement with significant parts of the film’s narrative. So much of Midnight Special remains vague, sketched out rather than thoroughly detailed. This viewer was left frequently wanting to know more about parts of the narrative that drift off into obscurity almost as soon as they have been introduced. Sam Shepard’s Calvin Meyer, a seemingly charismatic religious sect leader, of the type that Texas produces more than its fair share of, is a genuinely fascinating figure. Yet after his religious compound, entitled ‘The Ranch’, is busted by the FBI, Meyer is forgotten by this film. Likewise, Joel Edgerton’s Lucas, seems to have no real sense of back story aside from the fact of his being a former State Trooper. I found myself constantly wanting to know more about this character’s motivations, and the extent of his history with Shannon’s Roy. The character of Roy, Alton’s real father, is also hazily fleshed out. We get to know he was taken as a teenager to ‘The Ranch’. His relationship with Kirsten Dunst’s Sarah appears to have been a loving one. But what has suddenly woken Roy to the need for his son to be taken out of the clutches of Meyer and his quasi-religon? Nicholls’ seems to be suggesting it is merely an approaching date with destiny and the innate belief that his son will reveal something remarkable upon this date. Even Adam Driver’s nerdish NSA analyst feels less like a plausible human being than a convenient accelerator to a narrative that looks set to stall at any given moment. What do we genuinely learn about any of these characters, and why did Alton have to ascend to this other temporal dimension at the film’s close? No knowledge is forthcoming and few, if any, answers are given. As viewers we observe the faith that Roy, Lucas and Sarah have in Alton, and we bear witness to their belief that Alton is indicative of something beyond the human. The film’s narrative mechanisms are geared toward making us believe in something that we have no clear idea of. In this way it is very much a formal exercise in faith creation, which seems like a particularly American concern.

The propulsive quality of the film’s opening drive into darkness is Nicholl’s trump card. As Roy and Lucas set off with Alton in their muscle car – straight out of Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) – the audience are drawn into the darkness. The wonderful aerial and tracking shots that establish the narrowly defined illumination of a torch or a car’s headlights within an otherwise black void, then give way to a moment in which Lucas dons his night vision googles and everything plunges into the indefinable. Throughout the film Nicholls’ balances darkness against light, the darkness being at first all-consuming and obscuring, penetrated only by pockets of light. Things happen in the darkness, but those things are all the more questionable as we cannot fully apprehend what they are. As the film progresses, Alton’s seeming photo-sensitivity gives way; the light is in fact a restorative energy for the child. The final sections of the film actually play out in dazzling, sun-kissed daylight, with the world upon our world that Alton has posited, coming to be revealed as a fleeting actuality, a reality overarching our own and operating in the interstices between what is an what is not.

Midnight Special - They are Coming
Jaeden Liberher was unnervingly otherworldly as the goggle-wearing Alton

 

There have been concerted efforts by critics to draw up a generation of new filmmakers that are primarily influenced by the wonder, terror and sentimentality of Spielberg. Much has been made of Nicholls’ admiration for Hollywood’s most successful movie brat, and it has been easy to draw parallels between Midnight Special and Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). However, although both films appear predicated upon an unwavering faith in a higher existence beyond that of the terrestrial, Midnight Special possesses none of the wild mania of Spielberg’s film. Nicholl’s film is not one that is assailed by the creeping fear of doubt. What makes Close Encounters of the Third Kind such an incredible work is the fact that Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is allowed to appear almost entirely alone with his beliefs. Within his family and his immediate community, Roy’s pursuit of a belief in extra-terrestrial life is seen as nothing more than mania, brought on by some form of nervous breakdown. Roy’s belief actually does waver, because he is constantly pulled out of himself to view the emotional carnage that his mania exacts upon his friends and family. In effect Roy chooses to subordinate everything to his belief, his faith, but that is something that takes place against the almighty struggle with a world that does not believe Roy. In Midnight Special the fact that Nicholls’ chooses to make his film one that operates from within the wellspring of belief gives less room for doubt. There are no real dissenting voices to the central notion of belief in Alton as an exemplar of ‘otherness’. The director has positioned us with the faithful rather than with the sceptics. As a result there seems to be a surprising lack of conflict within a film that features a fair amount of gun violence and chase sequences. In fact, as the film progressed I found myself considering just how much of what was happening actually occurred because Alton had willed it thus. A test of this is the media coverage of Alton’s abduction that we know hasn’t been planted by his father, but we also observe Meyer denying involvement in calling the story in. Meyer actually says when questioned on this matter by one of his congregation that it wasn’t ‘The Ranch’ that took the story to the media, but rather “that’s something else”.

Nicholls’ is genuinely incapable of making a dull film, but Midnight Special’s singular form makes it, obversely, one of his most unengaging. When Lucas, Roy and Sarah finally bring Alton out into the light it becomes apparent just how ingeniously the darkness made it difficult to discern the degree to which our own faith has been misplaced. There is a cool, machine-calibrated relentlessness of purpose to the film’s darker half, that reminded me of Windig Refn’s exercise in style Drive  (2011). Yet this is really all just mechanism and when it comes to trying to ground belief in something more human the film runs aground upon the exhausted vacuousness of Kirsten Dunst’s under explored mother. Dunst is still in post-traumatic melancholia it would seem, her assumption being that by simply being, and being sad, we might connect with her at the film’s close. The fact that we are as detached from Sarah as we are from any of the other nebulous cipher figures that Nicholl’s has ended up giving us, is really a direct comment upon the problem of making your film’s form that of a faithbound belief. What had been so unnerving for so long, ultimately ends up exposing itself as a sham, nothing more than a trick of the light, and in actual fact a whole lot less.

Rating: 6/10

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La Belle at the Movies: The Lost Cinemas of Kinshasa (2015)

La Belle at the Movies Poster

Dir: Cecilia Zoppelletto

Cecilia Zoppolletto’s fascinating documentary film upon the growth and decline of cinema-going and film culture within the DRC is one worthy of wider attention. It is simultaneously a general introduction to the DRC motion picture industry and a psycho-geographical study of the impact of film culture upon Kinshasa and its population. Predominately consisting of talking head interviews, interspersed with superb use of archive footage, Zoppolletto’s film has put together a diverse cross-section of representative voices in spite of the possible obstacles that could come with the endorsement of the DRC’s Ministry of Culture. The film’s strength is located in this intricate blending of voices that range from the incumbent Minister of Culture and the Arts, His Excellency Banza Mokalay Nsungu, right down to Charles Wamba, the owner of the CVP Rental Shop, a local Kinshasa business that helps to continue the street culture of outdoor ‘district’ projections.

Another element of the film’s engagement with the DRC’s fledgling film industry is to be found in its interrogation of colonial, neo-colonial and contemporary experiences of cinema and film culture. This is a film that gives voice to African Congolese filmmakers on the right and left of the political divide, as well as Francophone European filmmakers, such as Robert Bodson, who were central to colonial representations of the DRC. What emerges is a complex snapshot of the shifts in DRC politics in the post-WWII period. The likes of Bodson are shown to be doing something more than merely creating stereotyped images of ‘natives’ or ‘noble savages’. In fact, Bodson appears to be arguing that his film Congolese Realities paints a progressive picture of the Congolese population that serves as a corrective to international notions of educational backwardness among the African population of the country, that were dominant during the 1950s. Likewise, Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda, criticises the inadequacy of colonial and international representations of the DRC, claiming that the dearth in domestic film output from African Congolese filmmakers deprives the world of a truly critical perspective on the DRC. Bakupa-Kanyinda’s belief that film is “the art of telling the world about yourself” demonstrates the ambitions of the DRC’s contemporary filmmakers, but is itself undermined by the propagandist undertones of this filmmaker’s relationship to the Ministry of Culture and the Arts (he works as an adviser to this governmental body). Things are further complicated by the central propagandising role that ‘Mobutuism’ gave film culture, with one of the most important growth periods in DRC cinema being contemporaneous with the dictator’s interest in the political potential of film. Mobutu’s turn away from film as a tool of mass communication is also shown as being directly linked to the decline in DRC cinematic output and the gradual closure of exhibition spaces through the late-1970s and early-1980s. It is also the contemporary taint of Mobutu and his bloody legacy that has seen one of the most important film archives in the DRC fall into general decay, something that Zoppelletto beautifully captures in lingering shots of mouldering manuscripts and unravelling reels of poorly housed film stock.

La Belle At The Movies - CVP clip.jpg
Charles Wamba, the proprietor of the CVP Rental shop in Kinshasa, shows some of the local artwork put together for the release of another popular Italian western import. 

 

Perhaps the most poignant parts of the film are those that incorporate the ghosts and the memories of the cinema spaces themselves. Zoppelletto has structured the documentary around investigations of these exhibition spaces, and the film’s capturing of what remains of them is where the work aesthetically soars. Each of these exhibition spaces comes accompanied by the insights of an owner, a researcher, or a cinema-goer. Among the most memorable is the cinema that was located upon the Avenue du Commerce (or Avenue Charles de Gaulle, as it would have been known during the colonial period). This main street in Kinshasa marked the division between the European and the African parts of the city. Evening curfews drove the African population over the Avenue du Commerce to the outlying suburbs. Yet the cinema that is discussed in the film straddled the avenue and thus was one of the few places where African and European populations would mingle of an evening. Momo Sunguza’s account of the travails of the iconic CineMax filmhouse, that was finally demolished in 2010, shows the great difficulties in trying to keep a cultural centre for film flourishing without government support or anti-piracy legislation. This premiere venue for film in the very centre of Kinshasa was the victim of dwindling audience figures, which Sunguza suggests was in part down to the unlicensed broadcasting of cinematic releases upon national television. The globalised nature of the industry is also constantly hinted at by reference to the competing national cinemas that are imported to DRC (among the most popular being Italian and Chinese). The story of the Drive-In Bellevue cinema is intriguing for precisely these reasons, as it shows how Pakistani influences managed to carve out a niche cinema experience in the suburbs of Kinshasa, replete with freshly baked Samosas. The revelation that many of the cinema houses were actually owned by Greek and Portuguese businessmen also demonstrates the degree to which the DRC’s film industry had a distinctly international profile.

The film’s explorations are rounded out with touches of anecdotal colour. The incomprehensible embrace of the ‘cowboy’ over the oppressed ‘indian’ in the hugely popular Westerns of the 1960s, suggests that much of film’s power is in the stylish image. Honoré Isango Kitoka and Pierre Dikelo were part of the ‘Indubil’ culture that identified strongly with the image of the cowboy. This youth movement was predicated upon adopting the elaborate costume of Western characters, such as the Sheriff or the Outlaw. You also have the central importance of a musical-comedy like La Vie est Belle (1987), which starred the now globally renowned singer Papa Wemba. This film is described within the documentary as a semi-fiction upon Kinshasan life that the local populations took to their hearts. The film then is seen as a cultural artefact that so successfully redefines the city for its population that the distinctions between film and reality begin to dissolve away in the imaginations of the audience. In her own way Zoppelletto has managed to achieve a similar feat, condensing the DRC’s recent history, its film culture and a social history of what film exhibition spaces within Kinshasa meant to the population, into an hour-long documentary-cum-archive that serves as the perfect springboard into the country’s cinematic heritage.

Rating: 8/10

Roaring Abyss (2015)

Roaring Abyss Poster

Dir: Quino Pinero

Forming a compendium of the diverse musical cultures and traditions of Ethiopia this beguiling and rhythmically edited music film wisely foregrounds the music and avoids the complexities of the country’s cultural mix. Director Pinẽro is a sound engineer and record label chief, who has been involved in the African music scene since the early 2000s. His label SolySombra Recordings has showcased many musicians from the continent. From 2012 onwards he has based himself in Ethiopia, rather than his native Spain, associating with legendary musicians such as Mulatu Astatke (who featured prominently on the soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers). Much like Junun (2015), the Indian-set music project featuring traditional musicians alongside Jonny Greenwood and the Israeli composer Shye Ben-Tzur, this is a film that frames indigenous musical traditions as powerfully rendered live encounters with skilled performers. What makes Pinẽro’s film more effective and satisfying is the fact that the work is not restricted by a sole location and succinctly captures fleeting aspects of the cultures and societies that inform the traditions filmed.

Early in the film an interviewee proclaims: “A song is not only for dancing, it reminds you of your dear ones, it brings back memories of far relatives, it reminds you of those who passed away, it reminds you of the love you experienced in your life”. This idea of music as embedded within a shared sense of culture and history plays into the idea that different notions of time are evoked in the performance. There is the instant, intoxicating moment of the performance, but that also evokes a sense of the past (both in terms of personal history and cultural heritage), whilst simultaneously connecting the performer with those that have performed before them, like the passing of a torch. When Pinẽro comes to the younger musicians that are learning music at the Tigray Art College it is revealing to note that their teacher bemoans the gradual adoption of modern European, or Western instrumentation, and the slow death of traditional Ethiopian instruments like the Masinko and the Krar. The former instrument is the pride and joy of one performer, who has tried to engage his young sons in following in their father’s footsteps, yet tellingly the kids don’t seem so interested. The film argues that skills required to construct these surprisingly intricate instruments are being lost by a generation of young Ethiopian musicians raised on bass guitars and synthesisers.

Clip Roaring Abyss
A typical set-up for live performance within Pinero’s beguiling music film.

 

Traditional musical forms seem to be most prominently supported and fostered within agricultural communities. There is also a sense that poverty plays some part in preserving traditions. In one sequence involving a predominately brass band from Harar, the musicians have been unable to pass on their skills to a younger generation as there is no money to replace the instruments that were bought for the band some fifty years prior. The agricultural origins of much of the music is wonderfully suggested through briskly edited sequences in which the rhythms of labour are shown to be inextricably fused to the distinct sounds of a particular community’s songs. Despite the occasionally frustrating lack of titling within the film, so that some performances seem to blur into one another, Pinẽro, within the narrow focus that he has set himself, explores a vibrant musical heritage in all of its plangent polyphony.

Rating: 7/10