Passengers (2016)

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Dir: Morten Tyldum

Starr: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen

Viewed: Cineworld Renfrew St, Glasgow (Screen 10)

NOTE: This review goes into some detail about the film’s plot. I wold strongly advise going to see the film first, even if the main point of my review is to state just how much of a failure Passengers is.

“These are not robot questions.”

(Arthur draws attention to precisely what kind of questions Jim is asking)

 

“Do you trust me?”

(Jim asks Aurora before there first space jump, to which she should answer, no, no, and NO again)

 

For the few people out there that have always thought a modern day remake of the indentured servitude melodrama Rachel and the Stranger (1948) would work particularly well in space, then Jon Spaihts’ is about to disappoint you too. Passengers is a miserable mess of a film that manages to somehow sabotage a potentially interesting idea, not once, but twice. What is in effect a three-hander with plenty of scope for creepy psychological thrills and claustrophobic intensity, has all its dangerous edges smoothed away at the point of casting Chris Pratt as Jim Preston. Pratt’s amiable, affectless modern masculinity is predicated upon his near complete lack of sexual threat. He’s big, but he’s goofy; good looking and wise-cracking, but with a constant undercurrent of niceness. Inexplicably screenwriter Jon Spaihts gives the audience a fantastic location (the self-sufficient spaceship Avalon) and a disturbing central premise (what would you get up to if you knew you were the only conscious person among 5,000 unconscious interplanetary colonists?), but then chooses to focus upon an absurdly-realised romance and an utterly fudged action ending. For the record, Preston’s unravelling loneliness does not excuse his ‘act of killing’, and the obsessive way in which he controls and manipulates Jennifer Lawrence’s Aurora, is anything but ‘romantic’, unless your idea of ‘romance’ has a 15th century flavour about it. Lawrence is, by a long way, the best thing about this film, but I wonder just what kind of film she thought she was signing up for?

 

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Love is in the air? Or is that a psychopathic stare of intent? For large parts of the film Jim (Chris Pratt) is watching Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence. This voyeuristic tendency creeps into other areas of the film when the director frames Lawrence, so that her body is little more than an object to be gazed upon.

 

Spaihts’ script would have done well to heed the promotional tagline of the first entry in a franchise that he wrote the last instalment of, namely Alien (1978) and “In space no one can hear you scream”.  Prometheus’s (2012) woeful plotting was partly the fault of Spaihts (who co-wrote it with Damon Lindelof). Horror film critic Kim Newman has written about the overlaps, in terms of technology, between the universe of Passengers and Prometheus, hinting at a possible franchise linkage, which may go some of the way to explaining the incongruous nature of Andy Garcia’s brief appearance. But what do I mean by that tagline? In Alien there was a crew, progressively picked off one by one by the titular alien, until only Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley was left to defeat the creature. This was a monster movie in space, that toyed with the emerging aesthetics of the slasher genre, and made much from the dark industrial nature of the spacecraft Nostromo. Passengers, by comparison, takes place on the brightly lit and hyper-consumerist Avalon, featuring a bar straight out of The Shining (1980), manned by an android, or is he a robot as even it seems confused about this issue of identity. This android/robot, named Arthur and played by Michael Sheen, is Jim’s only company, when he is woken from his 120-year hibernation by a freak asteroid strike. Jim was supposed to have emerged from his cryo-stasis, along with the other colonists, 4 months before landing on the far away colony of Homestead II. Instead, he finds himself awake 90 years ahead of schedule, with no means of getting himself back into cryo-stasis. The rapid deterioration of Jim’s mental wellbeing brings out a monstrous id, that should have formed the central component of a perversely disturbing psychological thriller in space, but Spaihts script chooses to evaporate this sense of dread and obsessive threat, by instead focusing on Preston’s recovery once he has woken/murdered Aurora’s potential Manic Pixie Dream Girl. As Aurora discovers that tagline to Alien is all too true.

Frustratingly, the script puts enough meat on Lawrence’s role as Aurora to further emphasise just what could have been achieved if the writer, and most likely the studio behind this film, had opted to focus on the horror and thriller elements of the plot, rather than the romance and action elements. There is a revenge film in there somewhere, with Lawrence’s Aurora as the central protagonist and heroine. Aurora may start out like a MPDG, helping Jim rediscover his mojo and get rid of his Robinson Crusoe beard, but Lawrence is too smart an actress to be hemmed in by a reductive modern female archetype. Long before Arthur has spilled the beans about the precise reasons as to why Aurora finds herself stranded in space and time with Jim, we can see that the character is self-possessed in a way that never occurs in the purely reactive natures of MPDGs. It is a further failure of Spaihts’ script that once Aurora is fully apprised of what Jim has done to her and reacted with the kind of vengeful rage that is always interesting in film, it simply lets this wrathful fury dissipate into forgiveness, just in time for the plot to intervene and force the couple to co-operate with one another. It is all shockingly wasteful, as the queasy nature of their relationship, and the perversity of Jim’s initial fixation are buried under a welter of chauvinistic alpha male action posturing and cod Christian symbolism.

 

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After the revelation of why Aurora is actually with Jim, Lawrence really comes into her own, whilst Pratt is left floundering in a role that would have been better suited to someone like Michael Shannon.

 

A quick test of just how conservative and patriarchal the gender politics and ‘romantic’ notions of the film are can be carried out by examining more closely the two male relationships in the film. Firstly, you have Jim’s relationship with Arthur the android/robot (this confusion of identity augurs in other vagaries). Jim never goes beyond the formal with Arthur, refusing to enter in to a strong sense of camaraderie, or its modern equivalent ‘bro-ness’, partly because Arthur is unabashedly British and ‘proper’ in his speech, but also, perhaps, because Arthur isn’t in fact a man and his eunuch physicality underscores this emasculation. By comparison, when Laurence Fishburne’s Gus Mancuso (one of the managerial elite of the Avalon) is woken up from his cryo-stasis, we see Jim immediately enter in to an easy manly bond with him. Unlike Arthur, Gus also has eyes for Aurora, and Jim can relate to this. Gus’ companionship acts as a restorative of Jim’s machismo by enabling Jim to re-enter the casual chauvinisms of normalised masculinity. Mancuso also serves as just another means by which the script frustratingly converts the intensely voyeuristic and obsessive fixation that Jim has with Aurora into behaviour that is inherently masculine, rather than disturbing and ‘weird’. Even in normalising Jim’s behaviour as something central to a sense of male ego, there could have still been potential to demonstrate how this is perniciously predicated upon ideas of dominance, invasiveness and objectification. However, the little inserts of Aurora’s home video footage from a leaving party prior to her boarding the Avalon, show her female friends affirming a central romantic tenet of the film, that true happiness can only be found in a heterosexual relationship with a good, strong man. Does a man who holds you captive until you submit to his idea of romance count as a good, strong man I wonder? Once again, the echoes of Rachel and the Stranger sound out through galactic wagon train of the Avalon.       

Director Morten Tyldum (Headunters, The Imitation Game) was very clearly a hack for hire, going through the motions of Spaihts’ torturous script. That said there are elements of the film that are well handled. The production design on the film is immaculate, with the Avalon being a supra-plastic consumerist space patterned on shopping mall complexes like Westfield’s in Stratford, London. It is telling that the operations quarters of the Avalon are out-of-bounds to our passengers, with only the consumer-driven sections of the ship at their disposal. Like good modern citizens Jim and Aurora should simply occupy themselves with consumerist activity, and not waste time thinking about who, or what, is in charge of providing this life they lead. Columbia, the studio behind the film, are owned by Sony, which might explain a blatant bit of product placement in situ, when Jim has a little PlayStation inspired dance-off. One moment of brilliantly original effects work occurs when Aurora takes a swim in the starlit swimming pool, just as the gravity drive kicks out. This unique action sequence proves so effective because it again incorporates the dread aspects of those smoothly consumerist spacecraft veneers. Life is very much under the regulation of computer operating systems, squirreled away behind the panelling. By far the weakest element of the entire film is Thomas Newman’s ponderous and plodding soundtrack that could be Muzak, if it weren’t so tiresomely omnipresent. In a film built of fleeting moments of intrigue salvaged from a morass of poorly executed ideas, I still think that the one point where another, better film becomes visible is that moment when Aurora bursts into Jim’s bedroom and beats him senseless, before threatening to bludgeon him. The fact that this happens exactly halfway through the film, and serves as the last point at which the film shows any interest in the darker aspects of its central relationship, should give you a sense of just how far Tyldum and Spaihts let the whole thing drift.

 

Rating: 3.5/10

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La La Land (2016)

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Dir: Damien Chazelle

Starr: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Rosemarie DeWitt, John Legend

Viewed: Cameo, Edinburgh (Screen 1)

La La Land (2016) is a suitably self-absorbed love-letter to the grand artifice of the Hollywood ‘dream factory’ and the sprawling cityscape that houses it. That city, Los Angeles, has become so intertwined with one of its most successful industries that for the dreamers and fantasists seeking fame and fortune in film, its projections of Hollywood ‘unreality’ can make an experience of its urban ‘reality’ dispiriting at best. For a geographic location that has produced so much filmed entertainment, it has only a very slender film presence of its own. We know an L.A. beyond the film sets and studio backlots exists, but how little interest that L.A. seems to hold for Hollywood. In Damien Chazelle’s first directorial feature since his breakthrough movie Whiplash (2014) the dream of Hollywood glitz and glamour, and the undimmed belief in its artifice, is allowed to dance lightly across the city’s cinematic landmarks, never once taking the trouble to look behind the scenery and set decoration. It is purest fantasy, exuberant escapism and pleasant romance, all rolled up into one neatly formal musical package. Yet how much of the impact of Chazelle’s film is to do with the choice of detailing on its wrapping paper?

Essentially La La Land is a boy meets girl story. The boy in question is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) a struggling jazz pianist, who dreams of owning his own jazz club, but has to make do with playing Christmas fare to the grazing hoards at a ridiculous tapas bar, managed by Bill (a brief cameo from J.K. Simmons, who was taken to an Oscar win by Chazelle in Whiplash). The girl is the budding starlet Mia (Emma Stone), who routinely suffers the tortures and indignities of the Hollywood auditioning and casting processes, but imagines herself one day in the august company of Hepburn or Bergman. Dreams of creativity are what unite these two characters, who have come to the city to try and realise those dreams, but are beginning to believe they will have to settle and compromise. Chazelle’s film is another entry in Hollywood’s long line of features that extol the virtue of never giving up on your dream. But what if your dreams of creativity stand opposed to your happiness as a couple?

 

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Among the various subtly encoded moments of nostalgia, both for film and music, within La La Land the use of the famous Rialto Theatre as a site for Mia and Sebastian to go see Rebel Without a Cause, works as a particularly elegiac take on cinemagoing in the 21st century, as this venerable L.A. institution closed its doors for good in 2007.

 

Much has been made of Chazelle’s wide-ranging cine-literacy, as well as his own background as a jazz drummer. Mark Cousins, particularly, waxed lyrical in his February 2017 Sight and Sound column, entitled ’17 for ‘17’, about Chazelle’s acknowledgement of Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932), Djibril Diop Mambety’s Touki Bouki (1973) and Claire Denis’s Beau Travail (1999) as among the filmmaker’s favourite musicals (“I could have kissed his feet. If people making big films are watching movies like those, and thinking about cinema like that, then the cinephile religion is safe.”). La La Land is undoubtedly the work of a student of film, a cinephile with meticulously maintained crib sheets and lists: a little Casablanca (1942) here, some Hair (1979) there, a dash of the panache of An American in Paris (1951) wed to the dilution of relationship dissolution in New York, New York (1977) – more of which later. Chazelle even explicitly foregrounds this defining magpie trope by making the Griffiths Observatory, as seen in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), a key returning location within his own film.

In its studied awareness of genre the film also justifies a self-reflexive approach to the musical, whilst simultaneously attempting to unsuccessfully head off accusations of a nostalgic harking back to a ‘golden age’. The film makes ideas of creative traditions vs creative innovations a bone of contention between Sebastian and his more successful musician friend Keith (played by actual musician John Legend, whose executive producer credit may explain the rather cynical placement of his musical output as a key element of the narrative). Sebastian’s embrace of ‘pure’ jazz is primarily a result of that musical form’s prizing of variation and improvisation. Thus, the jazz traditionalist is contradictorily a rebel, aware of their musical lineage, but never looking to play a song the same way twice. This could, and does, serve as an extended metaphor for what Chazelle is doing with the musical.

 

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Chazelle’s major set-pieces are more concerned with the careful choreography of camera movement, than interestingly choreographed dance routines, which leaves many shots in the film looking more than a little flat.

 

Visually the film is playing an extended riff on the title’s ideas of fantasy, delusion and self-absorption. This leads Chazelle and his DOP, Linus Sandgren, to pursue an approach to shot design that utterly privileges the lead performances of Gosling and Stone. Opening the film with a freeway-situated show-stopper seems like a bold formal innovation, but it is most noteworthy for the flatness with which it deploys Sandgren’s free-roaming camerawork. The dynamism of this sequence is more to do with the choreography of the camera’s movements, snapping on to action as it cuts into and across its visual field, rather than the choreography of the dance routines. Despite a mass array of performers, the equal of a Busby Berkley film, Chazelle doesn’t really locate any narratorial points of interest within the routines, until introducing his leads at the very end of the opening sequence. In this regard the opening routine has more in common with a music video or advert than it does with other musicals, it is unintegrated spectacle. That said it does manage to efficiently evoke the transition from film dramatic space to film fantastical space, the frustrating mundanity of a grid-locked freeway suddenly gives way to the joyous zeal of song and dance. Throughout the rest of the film this undefined fantastical space of the opening routine becomes the very tightly defined dream space of Mia and Sebastian, and their blossoming relationship.

When it comes to the central couple there is undoubtedly some chemistry between Stone and Gosling, which plays out particularly effectively in moments of visual comedy, such as the Chaplinesque intro to their first dance, or the way in which the couple initially, quite literally, bump into one another. Chazelle has taken the unusual approach of showcasing the dance steps and songbird skills of two actors whose range is fairly limited in both regards. I felt it actually gave the film a slightly endearing quality to see the two central performers work their way, very consciously, through a limited repertoire and range. Each star has their spotlight moment where they alone sing their hearts out, and as long as things remain at a surface level, in keeping with the Hollywood fantasia that Chazelle has crafted for them, then this love affair is quite adorable. However, deficiencies emerge when Chazelle’s ‘Fall’ section rolls upon us – the film is structured around the four seasons. There is a very deliberate swerve into heavier dramatic terrain within this section. The relationship is on the ropes, as both characters begin to pursue their creative dreams and ambitions with that little bit more vigour.

 

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The film shrinks out of the  bright sunlit L.A. days and moonlit L.A. nights in its ‘Fall’ section, where dimly lit interiors and moody colours predominate. Emma Stone carries this section, as Gosling fails to dig beneath the surface charm. 

 

An impromptu romantic dinner reveals the first cracks in the relationship, and also demonstrates Chazelle’s heavy debt to Scorsese’s high-intensity musical New York, New York. Although never anywhere near the seething, hateful, horrendously aggrieved mess of that film’s deteriorating central relationship, the emergence of a dramatic underscore in this film’s hitherto light and frothy confections, feels awkwardly conceived of, at best. A substantial part of the blame must be shouldered by Gosling in this regard. Despite having learned jazz piano to lend authenticity to his music renditions – thus freeing up Chazelle to pursue much longer takes – Gosling’s performance is too monotone. Whereas Stone is an able comic performer who really brings aching depths to her dawning realisation that the couple can only really have their relationship or creative fulfilment, Gosling is all surface charm and pained superficiality, not a lot else. The disparity between performances is most pronounced in those rare domestic drama scenes in the Fall section. Stone gives a nuanced rendering of hurt, betrayal and disappointment, as ‘reality’ puts a pin prick in La La Land, but Gosling cannot or will not match her, looking somewhere between bored and constipated, with occasional voluble outbursts of frantic activity. Gosling’s character is never really seen to elude the fantastical delusions of La La Land, which may well be Chazelle’s point, but all that this does is make the film seem queasily unbalanced at its weightiest moments. A part of me sees this as a directorial decision, particularly as the sudden flip into more affected handheld camerawork occurs at precisely this point. But if this is the case, I also find myself asking why?

The instantly forgettable nature of the song lyrics is another harder cross to bear for a musical. With perhaps the sole exception of ‘City Stars’, sung by Gosling during the couple’s first dance dalliance, so many of the songs in La La Land have highly hummable tunes, but little memorable in the words department. When thinking about some of the most entertaining musicals from years gone by, the frantic wordplay of ‘Moses Supposes’ and the title song from ‘Guys and Dolls’ would be examples of just how rich and inventive the lyric sheet was in films like Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and Guys and Dolls (1955). La La Land does not fare well by comparison, robbing the film of a crucial component of storytelling within the genre. It attempts to make up for this through a fond sense of familiarity with such films. But how to pay homage to classic Hollywood musicals when your choreography is a little pedestrian and your songs predominately unaffecting?

 

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The review cannot end without some mention of the always fantastic Rosemarie DeWitt, who plays Sebastian’s older sister Laura. Much like Laura Linney in Nocturnal Animals (2016), DeWitt’s brief five minute cameo is close to a film stealer.

 

The climax to La La Land is one way, perhaps. A fantastic narrative loop is pursued in the final scene which works up, rather expertly, an emotional crescendo to a film that otherwise didn’t seem to have such a high point in it. Reprising the opening number of the film as a means of taking the narrative all the way back to Mia and Sebastian’s first brief encounter upon the freeway, Chazelle accelerates through a ‘what might have been’ dream within a dream, that is not only the most arresting piece of extended mobile camerawork in the entire film, but also manages to draw attention to an innovative aspect of the film itself. The scenes that have comprised the bulk of the film’s running time are shown to chronicle the overwhelming absences within the relationship. In the five minute reworking those absences are reversed and thus become staging posts on the way to Mia and Sebastian realising both their creative aspirations and the dream of a perfect future together. The fantastical film we have thus far sat through, is thus revised as a dream laid upon a fantasy, which manages to make the latter seem somehow less escapist and inconsequential. It is a bravura sleight of hand from Chazelle, and one that will undoubtedly tick all the preferred boxes on those Oscar ballot sheets, even if it left these musical-loving eyes and ears somewhat underwhelmed.

 

Rating: 7/10

Light Between Oceans, The (2016)

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Dir: Derek Cianfrance

Starr: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Bryan Brown

Viewed: Filmhouse, Edinburgh (Screen 2)

NOTE: This review goes into some detail about the film’s construction which unavoidably discusses key plot points. I wold strongly advise going to see the film first. It is worth a visit to the cinema purely to experience Cianfrance’s gorgeous use of widescreen.

“And Lucy needs her mother, you must see that.”

(A fateful remark from Isabelle’s father to his son-in-law Tom Sherbourne)

 

“He didn’t have an accent when we came across him. He was dead.”

(A moment of blunt poetry in the police interrogation of Tom Sherbourne)

 

Derek Cianfrance, regardless of what I think of his filmmaking abilities, is a unique film director. In Blue Valentine (2010), The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) and now this adaptation of the best-selling M.L. Stedman novel of the same name, Cianfrance has revealed himself to be a filmmaker devoted to a form of classical tragedy that has been rarely seen on cinema screens since the death of the Hollywood Studio system. In fact, I can think of only one other young contemporary filmmaker with a similar faith in classical tragedy, and that is the Polish actor-director Krzysztof Skonieczny, whose debut directorial feature Hardkor Disko (2014) is infused with a violent Euripidean sensibility. Cianfrance is a far more conservative filmmaker than Skonieczny, but that does not make his work any less interesting. My criticism of both his previous films was mainly to do with his propensity toward too controlling a narrative structure, and there are similar weaknesses in The Light Between Oceans, however, he never really allows these moments of over-plotting to mean a great deal to the tragic climax of his films. What makes his classically tragic sentiments all the more exceptional, is the fact that he routinely reaches for catharsis through the deployment of a peculiarly hopeful denouement. At the end of each of his features, thus far, there is a sense that the past’s refusal to let go of the central characters, doesn’t necessarily mean that it will cling on to future generations in a fateful stalking fashion. Cianfrance always offers the hope that the next generation will elude the fate of their forebears.

Cianfrance’s adaptation has remained relatively faithful to the M.L. Stedman novel about Tom Sherbourne an Australian veteran of WWI who returns to Australia to tend a lighthouse off the western coast of the continent. Tom meets a local girl called Isabelle Graysmark on his infrequent trips to the mainland, and after a brief courtship takes her as his wife. The couple live out on the Janus Rock, where Tom tends to the working of the lighthouse for the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service. Attempts to start a family meet with the tragedy of miscarriage, leaving Isabelle depressed and emotionally vulnerable. It is after a second miscarriage that the couple rescue a baby from a boat that has washed up on the shores of the island. Alongside the baby is a dead man. Tom immediately wants to report this event to the mainland, but Isabelle argues that the baby will be raised in an orphanage, whereas they could pretend it is her baby and raise it as their own. It is this fateful decision that sets in motion a series of events that have repercussions for decades to come.

Where Cianfrance is undoubtedly a gifted craftsman is the way in which he manages to elicit strong emotional performances from the actors he works with. Despite the fact that Alicia Vikander’s very modern body seems to suggest miscasting in the role of Isabelle, she nonetheless delivers another finely nuanced performance to place alongside excellent work in other period dramas, such as Testament of Youth (2014) and The Danish Girl (2015). The vivacious joyousness she embodies in the initial courtship with Tom, makes the shock of her grief even more powerful. Little detailings, such as the self-possessed stride that takes over her moments of tragic torpor, give the role a texture and practicality at odds with the martyred female she initially appears to be. Cianfrance is also smart enough to give Fassbender the space to channel some of his more sinister energies in the service of his role as the traumatised war veteran. Fassbender has an innate cruelty and violence that too often director’s try to downplay to accentuate a period romanticism. His best performances are underpinned by his barely suppressed, and disconcertingly erotic, potential for the sadistic. Early in the courtship Fassbender teases out the dangers of what his character has been asked to do during the war. Never does his character explain things, but Cianfrance allows Fassbender to insinuate a violent undercurrent into his inability to articulate feelings and emotions. This is partly down to the director’s decision to use a number of intense close-ups upon the highly expressive faces of each of his principle players, but more of this later.

 

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Rachel Weisz’s cautiously pained performance is all in the eyes, and the way she looks at and upon things.

 

Perhaps, the stand out performance of the entire film comes in the second half, when Rachel Weisz’s grieving mother is brought in to the idyllic and self-contained world of the Sherbourne’s. Weisz steals the film from its leads through a cautiously pained performance that brings so many of the film’s subtextual elements together. She has a face that is made for Cianfrance’s close scrutiny, with so much of her performance being located in the way she looks at people, or things. Guarded trepidation mingles with accusatory rage and the guilt of somehow failing as a mother. Her sequences with her returned daughter Lucy-Grace are heartbreaking as she subtly demonstrates how difficult it is to feel your way back into your child’s life, when the child doesn’t see you as their mother. Physical contact, the most direct way that a parent expresses affection for their child, is presented as a stunted and incomplete action, something painful in its lack of reciprocation. Weisz does a great deal of fine work with the most difficult role of the film, which only makes me wonder why this gifted actress seems to have been most recently side-lined in minor roles in other films.

Cianfrance and his DOP Adam Arkapaw have mapped out a landscape of tragedy by using an intensity of close-up to capture the human element, but projecting this against the truly awe-inducing widescreen location photography of the natural landscape and its wild, tempestuous cruelty. Similarly, in The Place Beyond the Pines the director used unrelenting tracking shots and wide-framed, high-angled location photography to emphasise the way in which the natural environment claustrophobically closed in around the protagonists, as if forcing them down pre-ordained routes. Humanity is powerless in the light of those more primal and elemental forces at work in the natural environments they inhabit. Nature then is the source of all human tragedy, as it is to nature that we turn when searching out our fates.

 

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The human is in the intense close-up, whilst, even in happier times, the tragic is depicted through awesome landscape.

 

Cianfrance reinforces this visual patterning of narrative form through his pathways in and out of the film. The film opens with a scene in which the only person we clearly see is Tom Sherbourne, as he is being interviewed for the position of temporary lighthouse keeper. The cameras intent focus upon Tom draws explicit attention to his isolation, his aloneness. From the opening moments of the film the audience are being primed to consider Tom as a man alone, with a destiny to remain alone. The film’s closing image seals Tom’s fate and confirms that prediction of destiny, even if he spent a significant portion of his life in a loving marriage. Remember, in tragedy one cannot escape their fate once it has been decided.

 

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Cianfrance is in love with the human possibilities and intimacy of the close-up, especially the way it captures the expressive qualities of his actors’ faces.

 

A final element of Cianfrance’s film that underlines the strong narrative pull of tragic destiny can be found in the expert use of sound design to connect disparate people and locations within the narrative. Immediately before the miraculous arrival of Lucy-Grace upon Janus Rock, Isabelle is shown crouched down in the grass of a hillside, her fingers teasing out some hidden meaning in the long green blades. A sound, as if the earth is speaking to her, heralds the arrival of the boat carrying the baby. This sequence is directly echoed much later in the film when Hannah (Rachel Weisz) is shown lying with her ear to the lawn of her back garden, just as Lucy-Grace approaches with her grandfather (Bryan Brown). This is the moment when the estranged daughter finally acknowledges some form of filial bond to Hannah. Fate is delivered in sounds without clear source. Tom is initially pulled toward the discovery of the truth about his daughter’s provenance by hearing a siren-like song in the churchyard as he waits for the vicar to christen Lucy-Grace. Stumbling upon a gravestone for a lost husband and child, Tom walks headlong into a grief created in the vacuum that his own family’s happiness has left behind.

As with all of Cinafrance’s films, thus far, I have problems with the way that he frequently forces the fatefulness of his tragic designs into rather overblown plot twists. Towards the end of The Light Between the Oceans there is a torturously contrived moment where Isabelle’s mother tries to persuade her daughter to support her husband in his hour of need, immediately after which Hannah arrives at the Graysmark family home to tell Isabelle that she will give Lucy-Grace back to her if she will only ensure that Tom pays for what he has done. In the end, as was stated before, these contrivances tend not to matter to Cianfrance’s endgame, which has repeatedly played out as a projected coda of reconciliation, or renouncement. The necessity for tragic catharsis is subtly undermined by a post-cathartic diminishing of the scope of each film’s tragedy.

As I said at the beginning of this review, Derek Cianfrance is a unique director.

 

Rating: 6.5/10

Ten of the Year 2016: Baden Baden

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Baden Baden (2016)

Dir: Rachel Lang

Starr: Salomé Richard (Ana), Claude Gensac (La grand-mère), Lazare Gousseau, (Grégoire), Swann Arlaud (Simon)

Belgium / France, 96mins

Mubi have already received plaudits from me in this Ten of the Year rundown regarding their promotion of the excellent Irish pseudo-documentary Further Beyond (2016). Another production that they championed was Rachel Lang’s feature debut, the brilliantly observed comic drama Baden Baden. Not only did the film streaming service give us this accomplished work, but they also gave us the background shading and texture of two earlier short films that featured the same central protagonist Ana, played with such guileless and self-possessed charm by the mildly androgynous Salomé Richard.

Back in 2010 Pour toi je ferai bataille depicted the young Alsacian Ana opting to join the military to give her life some purpose and meaning. This was a film obsessed with procedure, order and hierarchy, as well as issues of gender within a closed community such as the military. It featured a scene of exceptional comic and dramatic quality (the communal shower scene toward the film’s end), that proved an early indicator of Lang’s core strength as a filmmaker, namely her ability to seamlessly wed together humour and dramatic tension, often to poignant and affecting ends. One year after this film debut Lang returned to her heroine in the fantastically monikered Les navets blanc empêchent de dormer (2011). This film began with Ana now out of the army and tentatively pursuing a career as a sculptor under the tutelage of her uncle (played by Patrick Lang, the director’s father). Ana is also in a rather toxic relationship with an egocentric young artist called Boris (Julien Sigalas). It is the unravelling of that relationship that sees her having to take stock of her life decisions once again, setting us up for her initial circumstances in Baden Baden.

 

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Framing is everything in Lang’s work and it is precisely what is captured within the frame that finds itself desperately trying to avoid being the butt of a joke. Ana and driving do not get along.

 

At the start of the feature Ana is captured in a tightly-framed, shoulder-height tracking shot as she drives a film star to a Belgian film set. They are running late and on arrival at the set Ana is chewed out by the production manager. At the end of the film shoot Ana is supposed to drop the hire car back at the dealership, but instead she decides to drive back to her grandmother’s flat in Strasbourg. From just this opening ten minutes we are now keenly aware of the restless nature of Ana’s mid-twenties. It is apparent that she has put her sculptural pursuits on hold and has tested out film production work. Boris (now played by Olivier Chantreau) is still a presence within her life, simply through proximity, but there is a sense that she has tried to move beyond him. Having chosen not to take on motherhood, and being no longer part of the military, Ana’s brief homecoming turns into a summer-long re-evaluation of her existence. She is given some common-sense guidance by her ailing grandmother (played by de Funès veteran Claude Gensac), and strikes up a curious working relationship with a hitherto peripheral presence in the trilogy Grégoire (a perfectly dead-pan comic foil in Lazare Gousseau). The work that she takes on during the summer is the remodelling of her grandmother’s shower unit while the old woman is in hospital with a hip injury. This remodelling, however, is as much to do with Ana working upon her own sense of aimless drift than it is to do with any real benefit for her grandmother.

Lang is, even if in microcosm, following in the footsteps of filmmakers like Truffaut and Richard Linklater, by choosing to return to the same character, played by the same actor, over a considerable length of real time. Baden Baden works as a standalone feature, but it is greatly enhanced by being viewed within the wider chronological context of the trilogy. Each of the films demonstrates how the often infuriatingly passive Ana decisively comes to the plate when forced to reconsider her life’s course. Lang repeatedly throws us in to Ana’s life at a moment of running away. She runs away from Strasbourg and its suffocating insularity in 2010, only to immerse herself within an even more insular sense of community. By 2011 she has run away from this community to return to Strasbourg and the creative circles that she had struggled to integrate herself into before. Despite the repetitive narrative openings, Ana is not simply going around in circles, but is in fact evolving. Her time within the military has given her valuable life experience that we see informing her work as a sculptor, as well as her self-confidence as a strong-willed woman among badly behaved and boyish men (I am thinking of the train scene from Les navets… ). It is Ana’s gradual awareness of her evolution that marks Lang’s work out as a particularly observant character study.

 

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What looks like an excruciating comedy of discomfort in the Ricky Gervais vein, actually is something far funnier for avoiding that self-aware dislocation.

 

Having branched out from Strasbourg at the beginning of Baden Baden, the summer of retrenching that ensues is one in which Ana finally extirpates the bedevilling Boris from her life. In so doing she also exercises some of his romantic cruelty in the cold way in which she extinguishes Grégoire’s flickering flame. Strasbourg’s insular nature plays out as a series of returns to past experiences, as if Ana is measuring her present self in relation what little regard she now gives to difficult aspects of her past. It has been a long time since I have seen a hometown laid so forensically bare within a film; a thought made all the more remarkable when considering the generally static nature of Lang’s framing throughout the film. Interior and exterior alike are treated in the exact same manner, both being brightly lit by DOP Fiona Braillon, who accentuates garish colours, such as turquoise, and luminous yellows and pinks. Strasbourg is itself an unusual ‘nowhere’ space in cinematic terms, rarely used as a location within film. As a result there is a fresh revelatory quality to Lang’s filming of the city, that shies away from the obviously touristic, and instead thrusts us into those spaces that resonate most with Ana. These are locations of her own history and development, all the events that precede the first short film of the trilogy. Lang also makes much of the European nexus point that Strasbourg represents, being part of a peripheral area of France (Alsace), that has been historically contested. The city is close to multiple borders: Belgian, German, Luxembourg and Swiss. Lang’s feature moves fluidly between these spaces, starting in Belgium and briefly sojourning in Germany, where things are more efficiently constructed, as one sly joke in the film goes.

The most comical moments of the film revolve around this use of fixed framing, to create a sense of what lies outside of the frame bearing down upon the events taking place within the frame. Lang and her editor, Sophie Vercrussye, are genuinely innovative in the way that they piece together sequenced vignettes over larger durations of screen time. At times, it is as if the film is in fact an intricately layered symphony of comic sketches, in which the punchline or visual gag is deferred till such a point as it seems to belong to another routine altogether. Lang is fortunate to have discovered a lead actress with such consummate comic timing, and the relationships that Ana has with both her grandmother and Grégoire are fundamental to the way in which the film undercuts perfect miniatures of dramatic tension with a sharp verbal or visual gag (Ana’s mother visiting grandma’s flat, Grégoire and Ana cluelessly working on the shower, or Ana’s encroachment upon the character of Amar as he works upon a building site). Ultimately, it is the control of these comic aspects of the film that give a greater honesty to Ana’s various filial and social relationships. What is, perhaps, most impressive with Lang’s feature is that it manages to capture an ineffable moment of finding oneself, by finding a concrete image of expansiveness on to which Ana can project an intimate sense of belonging. The closing image of Ana and Amar beholding Le Corbusier’s uniquely fluid architectural design of the Notre Dame du Haut chapel in Ronchamp gives visual expression to the growing sense of fluidity and ease that Ana is discovering within herself, and particularly in relation to her perception of relationships. It is the perfect punctuation point for a feature film, and film trilogy, that Lang has gone on record as stating she will not return to. Having just been introduced to Ana, I, for one, am sorry that this is the end… but what an end.

 

 

Endless Poetry (2016)

endless-poetry-poster

Dir: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Starr: Adan Jodorowsky, Brontis Jodorowsky, Leandro Taub, Pamela Flores

Viewed: Filmhouse, Edinburgh (Screen 3)

 

“Another dead man among the dead. I will grow old… and rot.”

(Alejandro speaking to the younger Alejandro, as if a prophetic voice inside his own head)

 

“Old age is not a humiliation, you detach yourself from everything.”

(Alejandro addressing Alejandro, and the audience, a form of pervasive solipsism in need of attention to justify it)

 

A strong part of me wishes that this octogenarian burst of creative activity from Jodorowsky had simply never occurred. It would make any chronicling of his career that much easier, as The Rainbow Thief (1990) would then stand as the tired epitaph to an exhausted imagination. Alas, Jodorowsky wants to take a proper account of his career before he slopes off into the sunset. That accounting demands that the director’s overbearing ego act as arbiter in a re-evaluation of Jodorowsky’s formative years in Chile as the emergence of a poetic consciousness which places him at the centre of a 20th century surrealist lineage (preferably Artaud and Breton). Yup, Jod really is that pompous, but he’s also a clown, and an angel, so we will forgive him his extravagances, even though he clearly does not forgive us. In 2013’s The Dance of Reality, Jodorowsky sought to make a demon of his ideologically Stalinist father, whilst simultaneously seeking to build a bridge of understanding between them. In his peculiarly perverse way, which is neither truly insightful or shocking, Jodorowsky chose to cast his eldest son Brontis, in the role of his own father Jaime. Endless Poetry makes things a truly family affair, by casting Alejandro’s younger son Adan as a twentysomething incarnation of his father in early 1950s Chile, on the eve of Carlos Ibáñez del Campo’s re-election as Chilean President.

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A key scene in the film was clearly meant to be this one in which Alejandro and his poet friend Enrique Lihn decide to walk across Santiago in a straight line, regardless of obstacle. It ended up feeling like a good idea that hadn’t been thought through on film.

 

The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry are, in effect, Jodorowsky’s cinematic version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), replete with escape into cosmopolitan exile at the close. The first film trod a fine line between Alejandro’s youthful and passionate desire for rebellion and the aggressively enforced, and wholly reductive, ideological worldview of his father. It was a film about giving shape to the conflict that gave birth to the artist, and made that conflict a crudely oedipal sex game between father and son for the attention of Pamela Flores’ Sara, Alejandro’s mother. With Endless Poetry, Alejandro has now struck out on his own, moving away from the family home, and entering the bohemian milieu of Santiago’s poets, painters, musicians and philosophers. The conflict between father and son is now writ large as a conflict between Alejandro’s creative individualism and Chilean society’s embrace of warring political ideologies. The egocentrism of the artist refuses to concede any ground to the potential politics of the creative act, making the film a laboured attempt to paint the creative life as removed from any sense of societal politics. Alejandro is already seeing himself as belonging beyond Chile, as part of the international poetic landscape of Breton, rather than the provincial nationalism of Neruda.

Working with the exceptionally gifted Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle, rather than Patrice Leconte’s regular DOP Jean-Marie Dreujou (who lensed the first instalment), it should be expected that Jodorowsky’s much heralded ‘visionary’ aesthetic would come to the fore in a way that it never quite did in The Dance of the Reality. Yet aside from an initially engaging opening section in which, in a piece of genuinely Brechtian theatre, Jodorowsky reveals the poetic artifice of this autobiography, by pulling up a series of black and white theatrical flats to take us back to an older Santiago (or is it still Iquique?), there is little beyond the trite, mundane and sentimentally excessive. The latter was an increasing problem in Jodorowsky’s work up until 1990, often drowning out and undermining the more radical elements of his films. Whereas genre grounded much of Jodorowsky’s early film excesses, in Endless Poetry the director seems to be most fascinated with the ridiculous bathos effect created by his deployment of a TV soap aesthetic, particularly in those moments of dramatic exposition that punctuate his surrealist whimsy. The banality of this image making is undoubtedly supposed to make the surrealist flights of fancy more evocative and seductive, but to these eyes it merely creates an unceasing flow of garishly coloured tableaux that amount to a depressing evocation of Alejandro’s expanding consciousness as a creative artist. Frequently the director gives us a dully realised visual metaphor and then further diminishes any power that it may have had by drawing attention to the construction of the visual metaphor (witness the family dinner party in which Alejandro seeks to chop down the family tree, yawn).

 

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The incredible Pamela Flores as Stella Diaz Varin. I sincerely hope this is not the last time I get to see this actress on screen.

 

The one light amidst the monotony is the voluptuous excessiveness of Pamela Flores, who plays both Alejandro’s mother and later his first lover, the Chilean poet Stella Diaz Varin (he just cannot resist tired provocations like this). If there was any reason to justify Jodorowsky’s return to filmmaking the gift of Flores is surely it. The Dance of Reality showed her to be a bold performer and I am still haunted by that film’s night-time sequence (a moment of old Jodorowsky) in which she chases her son around the house, whilst naked and coated in black paint. Donning a scarlet wig and rainbow paints, Flores plays Diaz Varin as a force of nature dominatrix, brawling, beer-swilling and waspishly belittling anyone who has the temerity to bore her. Compared with the sentimental rendering of Enrique Lihn, as played by the irritatingly impish first-time performer Leandro Taub, Flores breathes something approaching an independent life into Jod’s caricature of his contemporary.

The repetitious return to sites from the first film point to more than just the budgetary constraints of a crowdsourced film production (lest we forget Michel Seydoux’s key role in developing both films). These are the markers of a moviemaking imagination whose poetic vocabulary has long ago been exhausted. Dancers, dwarves, body artists, faceless masses, broken piers, circus rings, political demonstrations, cafes, these are all elements that echo through both films, but not in any way that suggests even an associative control of their iconography. I am very much with J. Hoberman’s assessment of Jodorowsky, in his seminal film text Midnight Movies (1983), as closely resembling Dali in his “literal-minded, self-parodic and commercial” image-making. There is always a sense with Jodorowsky that behind the symbol there is nothing more than a caption description of that symbol. The true laziness of this late-period work is in the way it coolly rehashes earlier works, looking to make a grand gesture toward art as life, life as art, and sounding as hollow and empty as that suggests. Long before this Endless Poetry had reached an end, I was longing for less.         

 

Rating: 5.5/10

 

Birth of a Nation, The (2016)

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Dir: Nate Parker

Starr: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Colman Domingo, Penelope Ann Miller, Aja Naomi King, Mark Boone, Jr.

Viewed: Filmhouse, Edinburgh (Screen 1)

Until a long shadow was cast over this film by the disinterring of a 1999 rape case brought against its director, star and producer Nate Parker, it seemed certain that this latest trawl through America’s cruel history of black slavery would be festooned with nominations come award season. The controversy that has, to some degree, decisively altered the film’s reception may well have done Parker an undeserved favour. This The Birth of a Nation, by removing itself to the 19th century and narrating the radicalisation of Nat Turner, leader of a black slave rebellion, wants to reach back to dislodge and disrupt Griffiths’ unfortunately canonical Klan paean, but despite its director’s grandiosity of design the film’s delivery is pure exploitation, and all the better for that. Without wishing to seem contrarily reductive I believe that Parker is intentionally playing with the same fire that lit up Mandingo (1975), only with the camera’s appraising eye being aligned with the faith, integrity and righteousness of the black souls brutalised by a corrupt and corrupting system of capital and exploitation. Although the film frequently strays into a visual poetry verging on the ridiculous (bleeding corn cobs), Parker still manages to deliver a film of implacable fury, driven forward with a wrathful vengeance and a wonderfully concrete sense of slavery as an all-encompassing cancer at the heart of Southern US society.

The film opens with a scene that immediately establishes both the subliminal structuring of exploitation horror, as well as the vital importance of faith in destiny. Amidst a swirl of ghoulish female apparitions the young Nat is conferred the status of ‘a chosen one’ by a seer and slave elder. The presence of three raised nubs upon the centre of his breastbone, is read as a sign of his selection by a higher power. Throughout the film there is an egocentricity at work, which could just be part and parcel of the biopic element of the film, but that, nonetheless makes so many of Turner’s fellow slaves enablers of his self-realisation as a strong, charismatic leader. When Nat’s wife Cherry is gang-raped by a group of slave hunters, led by the same man who was wounded by Nat’s father and who will go on to become a nemesis in the march on Jerusalem at the film’s end, vengeance is a male prerogative and source of Turner’s empowerment

 

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A reworking of the opening spiritual ritual is found toward the film’s end.

 

The historic Nat Turner was born into slavery on a cotton plantation in Southampton County, Virginia and lived almost his entire life enslaved to the Turner family in this area. In Parker’s film the young Nat is frequently seen to be encouraged to believe he is ‘special’, even having a different status foist upon him by Penelope Ann Miller’s Elizabeth Turner, the lady of the house, who marvels at the young boy’s autodidactic abilities. Later a Reverend Zalthall, played as a wonderfully unctuous and uncouth grotesque by Mark Boone, Jr, sees a money-making opportunity in getting Nat, who now preaches the Bible to his fellow slaves on the plantation, to deliver sermons in support of the slave-owner’s prerogative. It is in delivering these sermons to plantations where the slaves are held in abject conditions, far more degrading than that which Nat has hitherto experienced on the Turner farm, that accelerates Turner’s radicalisation. What good is it to be ‘special’ and ‘chosen’ within a debased and godless world?

Another key element of the film’s early construction is the way in which Parker makes Nat the witness to brutal acts of violence that frequently go unacknowledged as such by white society. The young Nat is shown to bear witness to his father’s possible execution, and the fact that his father eludes this fate at the whim of a bunch of white slave hunters by killing and wounding them, seems to be Parker’s way of planting the first seed of violent reaction – violence as a means of self-defence, countering the unjust violence of an oppressor. Later, the older Nat gazes upon the hollowed-out skull of a dead slave lying by the roadside, whilst his master Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) dozes on the carriage beside him, oblivious to this atrocity they are passing.

 

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It is on his wanderings as a preacher that Nat Turner first comes across the sheer abjection of a slave’s life. This sequence is played out like the queasiest of horror scenes.

 

The true horror of Parker’s depiction of slavery can be found in his blunt use of extremities. It is unsurprising that Parker thanks Mel Gibson in the end credits of the film, as this use of extremities is reminiscent of both Braveheart (1995) and The Passion of the Christ (2004). The Turner family, under Elizabeth’s watchful eye, take Nat into the house, educate him, ‘civilise’ him, even. The Turner homestead is a brightly lit, airy and spacious place of order and cleanliness. By comparison the slave holdings on the plantation are shot in shades of deadening grey. They are dark, dank and dusty spaces, cramped and contingent. Nat observes this dichotomy, but as a child he does not feel its injustice, or how the former is built upon the degradation housed in the latter. This is because the Turner’s continue to fuel his ‘special’ status, but in a way that divorces him from his family and community. On the death of Elizabeth’s husband Benjamin, Nat is thrown back into the exploitative world of the cotton field, whereupon he grows into the favoured slave of the new plantation owner Samuel Turner, his once playmate. The insulation that the Turner’s are seen to offer Nat and his fellow slaves is in the way they do not behave with the brute odiousness of so many of the other slave-owners presented in the film. Yet their adherence to, and support of, a societal structure predicated upon systemic exploitation of human labour, policed through pure racial prejudice, makes the limited protections they offer their slaves all the more galling.

Parker exposes the rotten nature of the whole system by detailing the corruption and dissolution of the Turner family as a direct parallel of Nat Turner’s growing consciousness and radicalisation. In this regard, I had absolutely no problem with the venal portrait of white Southerners throughout the film. They are meant to be horrific, as the economic system they have concocted is corrupting and monstrous. As the film progresses the ‘benevolence’ of the Turners is shown to be predicated upon the accumulation of capital, and the position of power and authority that gives them. As Samuel sinks into inebriate dissolution, so the Turner plantation must adhere more strictly to the prevailing societal norms. Benevolence is a charitable return on profits accrued.

 

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The expressive use of Penelope Ann Miller’s face as a site of extreme discomfort, verging on horror, is one of the ways in which Parker interrogates the systemic corruption of the slave society.

 

In this regard, why should Parker bother with the cosy supposed nuances of 12 Years a Slave (2013), whose white racial violence is depicted as belonging to a rotten subsection of society and is ultimately combatted through the white consciousness raising of black suffering, as embodied by the deferential martyr Solomon Northup. This soft cinematic rhetoric, that locates morality in the sadism of a tastefully framed whip crack, is of no interest to Parker. White racial violence isn’t a subsection of Southern society, but an integral part of it, and the only source of all possible moralities. When Parker chooses to insert a written passage of the bible in to the centre of his Turner’s radicalisation process, the words stretch in relation to his wider understanding and interpretation of them. Words have helped Turner to expand his consciousness, and through an understanding of violence those words can attempt to help him allude the servitude of his slave readings. It is a neat nod to one of the most memorable sequences from Spike Lee’s masterpiece Malcom X (1992)

Like Gibson and Griffiths before him the factual and historic inaccuracies of Parker’s plot are to some degree permissible when considering what the overall narrative effect is meant to be. I find quite a bit of bite in Parker’s closing shot, particularly considering the presence of Ed Zwick among the executive producers on the project. Zwick is the epitome of the well-meaning, thoughtful, liberal Hollywood rendering of contentious political histories. His Glory (1989) was a textbook example of how Hollywood superficially covers a significant incident in American history, that highlights the struggle of African-Americans, but ensure that struggle is only really rendered visible through the intervention of ‘progressive’ well-meaning white men. In the final CGI-morphed moment of A Birth of a Nation, Parker presents us with a young boy who bore witness to Nat Turner’s hanging, now brandishing a rifle in the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, and charging toward the camera. It is a bold and powerful closing gambit, that seems to quietly mock Zwick’s rootless examination of black Northern soldiers from the same regiment. Here is Nat Turner’s provocative legacy, alive and well in 2016.

 

Rating: 6.5/10

Ten of the Year 2016: Paterson

paterson-poster

Paterson (2016)

Dir: Jim Jarmusch

Starr: Adam Driver (Paterson), Golshifteh Farahani (Laura), Nellie (Marvin), Barry Shabaka Henley (Doc), William Jackson Harper (Everett), Chasten Harmon (Marie)

US / France / Germany, 118mins

NOTE: This review goes into great detail about the film’s construction which unavoidably discusses key plot points. I wold strongly advise going to see the film first. And make sure you stay till the very end to observe the memorial to a performance almost the equal of Driver’s.

Paterson is a film about an unassuming bus driver and poet called Paterson living a satisfying routine in the town of Paterson, NJ. It was an oasis of calm in a year of cultural, political and social turbulence. In its adherence to tight close-ups, askew camera positioning and a world seen in reflection, it hints at the limitless potential for poetic resonance in all things, if only we are willing to look upon them contemplatively. One of the film’s key scenes takes place in a launderette in the neighbourhood in which Paterson lives and walks his dog. The rapper and actor Method Man is testing out some lyrics that reference Ohio poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872 – 1906), who wrote a great deal of his material in a dialect associated with African-Americans of the Southern States. As Paterson eavesdrops from the other end of his dog, Marvin’s, leash, Method Man reworks his poetic flow, reminding himself as he does so that there are ‘no ideas but in things’. This is an oft-quoted line from one of Paterson’s more famous former residents, the poet and physician, William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963). By this point in the film we know that Paterson is a fan of Williams’ work, and that Jarmusch’s film itself is patterned around some of the key principles of Williams’ poetic output. Location, lead actor (Adam Driver), poetic allusions and an embrace of equanimity combine to make this the film in which Jarmusch finally seems to perfect an aesthetic he has been working toward since Stranger than Paradise (1984), one which I would describe as a ‘Zen absurdism’.

 

paterson-marvin
That’s an English Bulldog, it’s worth money, yo.

 

As a filmmaker Jarmusch has committed himself to small, forgotten, outsider spaces, more often than not American, which are inhabited by characters, predominately male, who are drifters, outcasts, or people who don’t really seem to belong in the time and/or the space they inhabit. A brief survey of works like Down by Law (1986), Broken Flowers (2005), or the aforementioned Stranger than Paradise, show mobile shots of some duration that give a whistle-stop tour of a neighbourhood and its peculiarly insular character. With Paterson the director has literally found the perfect vehicle for these potted travelogues of ‘nowhere’ places, in the form of the bus that Paterson drives around town. The small New Jersey city of Paterson becomes, with its two-storey downtown and its preponderance of inactive industrial landmarks, a crucible within which the mundane is converted into the mythic. It is the curious interconnection of a disproportionate number of poetic stories within the history of the city, that encourages Jarmusch and his DOP Frederick Elmes to visually depict the city’s geography as a nexus of poetic resonances emanating from within the quotidian nature of the place, and apprehended by the observant bus driver. This makes for a highly affected and slender form of narrative, but one that follows a carefully mapped out route towards a profound sense of closure and renewal.

The film describes a week in the life of Paterson and his wife Laura, from one Monday morning to the next. Just as Paterson’s life finds a watchful serenity in the rhythm of routine, Laura’s life is defined by a peculiarly specific sensibility that penetrates into the many, seemingly spontaneous, pursuits she undertakes (from interior design to country music). Although never fully condescending, the manner with which Jarmusch hems Laura in to a domestic space, very much on the periphery of Paterson’s ‘working’ day is one area of weakness within the film. Laura has creative agency, but her narrative purpose is very much geared toward helping establish a sense of secure routine for the eponymous protagonist. Each day of the week has improvisations and variations, but there is a formal structure underpinning them, that of Paterson’s unswerving daily routine (wake up, eat breakfast, go to work, write some poetry, drive the bus, clock off, go home, spend time with Laura, walk Marvin, go to the bar called Shades). Pushing the musical analogy further, a maestro can make great music from just two notes played well.  The formal minimalism of Jarmusch’s narrative is exemplary of such an approach, drawing out a great deal of meaning from what seems to be frequently superficial and trite. I believe this is because what Jarmusch’s film is entirely devoted to is the restitution of a harmonious order; that of the protagonist’s calm, and fully accepting, contemplation of the ideas held within the minutiae, the smallest of things.

Similar to Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013), Paterson has the feel of a small film that contains the entire world – another reason why the role of Laura, and later of Marie, prove problematic. They are the only two women in the film that Elmes’ camera revisits, even then we get little sense of who they are, beyond a potential source of poetry for Paterson. That said, on a reviewing of the film, I found myself dwelling more upon the little acknowledgements between lovers – the way Paterson pulls the covers back over Laura’s body after he gets out of bed, the manner in which he always finds a small compliment to pay her, the little detailings in Paterson’s lunchbox that greet his moments of composition at Passaic Falls. Laura’s love of black and white is also a neat underscoring of the notion of doing so much with so little. Her every creative endeavour shown in the film involves finding new variations of black and white design, something that Paterson finds quietly enthralling when he notes that every circle within her design for the drapes is different (a remark entirely absent of irony, which is thanks to Driver’s remarkable sincerity in performance). Paterson cannot remember the last time he saw a film in black and white, after him and Laura treat themselves to a night at the movies. Yet for Laura the experience is something she loves and makes her think of how this feels like living in the 20th century. Shades and nuance belong to Paterson’s quiet being, whereas boldness and reinvention are part of Laura’s more immediately engaging presence.

 

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Reflections inform the parallel realities that Jarmusch’s film seeks to fully integrate, namely the quotidian and the poetic.

 

When mapping out how the film demonstrates a ‘Zen absurdist’ aesthetic that is uniquely Jarmusch’s own, attention must be paid to other uses of formal structure. Visual balance within shot compositions is particularly important and subtly reinforces the explicit use of twins as parallels within the film. Background structures often have repeated elements (two white picket fence posts, two large steel girders, two no parking signs). Significant, or dominant colours within each shot are also very often paired up (the pink door of Paterson’s house with the pink petals of the garden flowers, the red road sign with the red of a postbox handle). Then there is the use of paralleling within reflections upon mirrors and windows. This latter element is clearly used to focus attention upon the conversion of the commonplace into their poetic reinvention through Paterson’s associative imagination. This is illustrated by an early sequence in the film where first we see Paterson pull away from the bus depot, presented in a medium fixed frame shot. Then we have a mobile tracking shot, moving in motion with the bus, where the city passes by on one half of the screen, and is reflected in reverse on the windscreen of the bus on the other half of the screen. This is followed by a profile shot of Paterson driving the bus, with fainter reflections of the passing city in the windows around him. Finally, the camera positions itself as if from the driver’s seat of the bus, looking through the windscreen at the road ahead, and the city as it passes by; this is effectively a POV shot and that POV is Paterson’s. From that point onward in the film, Paterson’s looking becomes an active work of poetic transformation, most often presented in the form of tightly composed close-ups of inconsequential everday ‘things’ (a bus door handle, the underside of a curtain and lampshade, a pair of workmen’s boots).

Throughout the film Jarmusch uses the deliberately naïve poetry of award-winning New York poet Ron Padgett – a sly heading-off of the bland criticism quite a few complacently condescending film critics have made about the ‘typically awful’ quality of poetry in films. The way the lines are presented upon the screen, in an approximation of Paterson’s handwritten scrawl, as he intones them in his head, is evocative of a similar device Jarmusch used in his 1999 film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, when Forest Whitaker’s character recites passages from the Japanese spiritual text the Hagakure. Furthermore, the film begins and ends with prominent sections of soundtrack by Sqürl, Jarmusch and Carter Logan’s noise-rock band. These pieces of music are heavily comprised from found sounds (bird noises, wind, leaves rustling) and the meditative sounds of a Buddhist singing bowl. This neatly affirms the cyclical nature of the film’s structure, whilst presenting us with that idea of variation, a harmonic note sustained and transformed.

 

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Aha..

 

One of the true beauties of the film is its dwelling upon commonalities rather than conflict. Jarmusch never allows any particular scene to develop in a dramatic fashion. The closest that the film comes to something that fits that criteria is when Everett takes a toy gun and makes a pretence of killing Marie, or himself, as because without love life isn’t worth living. For a moment Paterson is thrust into an unwelcome action mode, evoking the early image of the military photo by his bedside. Disarming Everett in one cleanly aggressive move Paterson seems taken aback by a moment of impulse, of reaction. This moment comes at the end of an unsettling day, one in which Paterson woke up late, his colleague at the bus station didn’t talk with him, and his bus broke down. The serenity and the harmonious rhythms of his working week were disrupted. It is worth noting that throughout the film Driver plays Paterson as a reactive figure, polite and courteous, only speaking when spoken to, or when showing concern for someone’s wellbeing. Communication is led by others, more often than not Laura. This crucially changes in the films penultimate sequence.

The week that structures the film builds to a destructive crescendo that is a divestment of sorts for Paterson. The ‘secret book’ that he squirrels away the sole copy of his poems within is destroyed by Marvin – an anthropomorphic performance of jealousy made in the editing suite. Paterson doesn’t rage over this loss, if anything Laura is angrier and more vocal. Instead a stoical acceptance is sketched out over the course of an evening and a morning. That stoical acceptance becomes something beatific when Paterson comes across Masatoshi Nagase’s Japanese poet at Passaic Falls. Nagase’s concerted efforts to politely draw out information from Paterson about Paterson (both the man and the place) foreground the reactive nature of the bus driver’s interactions. Then, in the space between two leading questions, Paterson finally feels compelled to offer something more of himself to Nagase. He briefly talks about Frank O’Hara and his work. Nagase then delivers a blank notebook into Paterson’s empty hands, a close-up of the plastered index and little finger confirming that Nagase is in fact the same character that he played in Jarmusch’s Mystery Train (1989). After the poet’s departure, Paterson turns his attention back to the Passaic Falls. He is now staring directly into the camera. The shot tracks in on the eyes of the protagonist, an inner calm being offset by a renewed attentiveness to what is in front of him – the poetic vision renewed. Like Nagase’s poet, Paterson breathes poetry.

Ten of the Year 2016: A Quiet Passion

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A Quiet Passion

Dir: Terence Davies

Starr: Cynthia Nixon (Emily Dickinson), Jennifer Ehle (Vinnie Dickinson), Catherine Bailey (Vryling Buffam), Keith Carradine (Edward Dickinson), Duncan Duff (Austin Dickinson)

UK / Belgium, 125mins

A few years ago I had the good fortune to interview Terence Davies in London whilst he was working on the post-production elements of his Sunset Song (2015) adaptation. That film was his second feature in the space of four years, which hinted at a return to the productivity of the 1990s, before the funding problems of the new millennium. During the interview Davies claimed that he still had three more projects that he wished to realise, time and money allowing. One of them was a biopic of the great American poet Emily Dickinson, a literary figure that academic studies, led by the likes of Harold Bloom, have somehow converted into a romanticised and idealised secular saint of suffering and repression. Less than a year after Sunset Song Davies has realised that project, and Davies being Davies he cannot resist giving Dickinson’s life a tragic arc, yet her final pain-wracked years of insularity are not his main concern. In A Quiet Passion he appears to have set himself the task of locating all the vibrancy and vital spark in a woman carving out a niche for herself in the forbiddingly patriarchal spaces of a puritanically-minded and rapidly industrialising late-19th century United States. This is not the remote, detached and seemingly apolitical figure of literary legend, but rather a determined and self-determining passion artist.

 

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Of central importance to the film is the sororal relationship between Emily and Vinnie.

 

The film does not stray far beyond Davies’ preference for interior space, being almost entirely shot in studio spaces at AED studios in Belgium, with key sequences and external shots utilising Dickinson’s actual home at Amherst. Yet where it differs from Davies’ previous work is in the sheer radiance with which Dickinson’s home is lit. This is generally a bright and airy domestic space, that makes the disarmingly erotic night time interludes seem even more effective in their suffocating combination of curiosity and dread. One of the few scenes that does occur outside the confines of the Dickinson home and grounds is the one with which the film opens. This is a brilliantly compressed and compacted condemnation of organised religion’s desire for dominance – again the kind of thing that Davies’ has frequently excelled at in the past. As a stern headmistress of a convent school attempts to break the young Emily’s (played by Emma Bell) wilfulness by isolating her from her more pliant and conforming peers, we clearly see the tyranny of a society structured around personal repression and the expectation of female servitude. It is as pugnacious a political statement as Werner Herzog’s brutally straight-forward boot heel opening to his adaptation of Woyzeck (1979), and reminds the audience that Davies initially made his mark with the searing sledgehammer imagery of his early Trilogy (1976-1983).

 

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The opening sequence is a masterfully compressed piece of pugnacious politicking, reminiscent of Davies’ work in his Trilogy.

 

This is Davies’ third film that takes the US as its location after the literary adaptations of The Neon Bible (1995) and The House of Mirth (2000). Whereas, both of those films were shaped, to a large degree, upon their literary source texts, this is Davies’ first venture Stateside with a script entirely of his own devising. This appears to liberate the director as A Quiet Passion works as a biopic through the certainty with which it goes about imagining a living, breathing and impassioned Dickinson, quite rightly paying scant attention to her documented life.

Cynthia Nixon unexpectedly dazzles as the adult Emily, at once waspish, principled, venomous and ethereal. Nixon’s comic abilities have never really been in doubt, and the caustic and witty repartee she shares with Catherine Bailey’s Vryling Buffam, are some of the funniest exchanges of any film this year. Yet the way in which Nixon subtly inhabits the physical pain of Dickinson’s later years, and the complexity that she brings to Dickinson’s relationships with her father (another well-rounded patriarchal turn from Keith Carradine) and sister Vinnie (a piquant performance from the wonderful Jennifer Ehle), makes one wonder why she has never really been entrusted with a dramatic lead role before. The latter sororal relationship is central to Davies’ humanising of Dickinson. Vinnie is both confidante and grounding force in Emily’s life, and Davies frequently frames the sisters in neatly composed two-shots that convey a sly personal language of knowing looks and secret gestures.

Sparing use of Dickinson’s poetry exemplifies Davies’ absolute control of his material. Where other directors would have found it difficult to resist the temptation of letting the poetry blandly narrate, Davies’ always finds a way to relate these poetic inserts to dramatic action, so that they become outpourings of Dickinson’s passion, an interior within an interior. This is never more effective than in the film’s most overt moments of eroticism. There are two sequences within the film in which Dickinson imagines her domestic sphere invaded by a shadowy male figure, who opens a door within the house that illuminates the darkness, and appears to create a doubling of perspective, as the camera apprehends the male figure in motion, before seeming to assume this male figures’ perspective, which ultimately reveals itself as Dickinson’s gaze. This is comparable to Jim Jarmusch’ use of reflective surfaces within another poet film from 2016, Paterson. It encapsulates the poetic process as one which involves the conversion of ‘reality’ into ‘poetry’ through the experience and poetic imagination of the poet/perceiver.

 

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Davies and his DOP Florian Hoffmeister make much of the extremities of light and dark throughout the film.

 

After the profound disappointment that I experienced with Sunset Song, an adaptation that I had, perhaps, far too much invested in, A Quiet Passion came as a welcome return to form from a filmmaker I have a great deal of affection for. Strikingly Davies’ worked once more with his DOP from The Deep Blue Sea (2011), Florian Hoffmeister, but to very different effect. The muted and musty imagery of that post-WWII melodrama, gives way to an intense concern with the extremities of light and dark, day and night in A Quiet Passion. The sharp clarity of sun-drenched drawing rooms, are matched by the obscuring shadows of night’s blackness. There is an interesting ancillary dichotomy at work in this visual patterning, with the revealing light of day proving all too chastening to Dickinson, bringing with it an initial sense of domestic propriety that the poet feels oppressively. The deep, enfolding darkness of night, punctuated by the occasional flare – or glowing orb – of lamp and candlelight, is a private, and by poetic extension, liberating space in which Dickinson can locate those things that elude her daytime existence. This Emily is both imaginatively revealed and deliberately obscured in Davies’ lithe comic drama, that casts darkness into light and then asks its audience ‘what do you see’?

Monster Calls, A (2016)

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Dir: J. A. Bayona

Starr: Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Liam Neeson, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell

Viewed: Cineworld Fountainpark, Edinburgh (Screen 7)

NOTE: This review contains potential spoiler material. I wold strongly advise going to see the film first. Preferably on as big a screen as possible, as it is visually sumptuous.

J. A. Bayona’s impressive visual rendering of a grief-stricken adolescence does justice to Patrick Ness’ best-selling children’s novel, however, I worry whether it will struggle to find an audience if marketed as a kid’s festive flick.

The Catalan director has never really failed to impress me and yet it is only with this latest release that I have come to acknowledge that fact. The Orphanage (2007) seemed on first viewing to be a rather slender ghost story, but repeat viewings since then have deepened my appreciation of its painstaking approach to the intense trauma of loss. The Impossible (2012) was an unjustly ignored disaster movie that really got inside the psychology of survival. With A Monster Calls Bayona has created an oddly bruising kitchen sink fairytale about how an adolescent might distil the pain and trauma of a loved one’s impending death. It is an adaptation that knows its cinematic lineage very well.

Conor is a young boy, on the cusp of his troubling teens, who is having to come to terms with the potentially terminal illness of his mother. As well as the suppressed grief and guilt that Conor is having to deal with, as a result of this terrible predicament, he is also having to cope with the daily bullying of his sadistic peers at school, and a move from his family home to that of his maternal grandmother. Partly as a coping mechanism, but partly out of an innately creative imagination, Conor summons up a terrifying arboreal monster.  In its technically assured rendering of the isolation, solipsism and monstrous egocentricity of the pre-teen, Bayona’s film creates a means of seamlessly navigating the film’s dreary and mundane reality and Conor’s fantastical nightmares and dreamscapes. Part of this is to do with the frequent deployment of a shallow focus that isolates Conor as the only clear point within a shot. Everything surrounding the boy is adult, and only partially discernible. This is particularly effective when used alongside the hushed and muted quality of the adult conversations, where only certain key words leap forth out of the mumble of sounds. Another visual trope that Bayona uses effectively throughout, can be found in his wide-lensing of the interior spaces of the grandmother’s house. This subtly emphasises the troubling childishness of adolescence, with Conor at sea in a domestic space that is unfamiliar and strange to him. For a large part of the film he is the only person inhabiting this particular domestic interior, with his grandmother being pulled away to care for her sickly daughter. Most unnerving of all is Bayona’s construction of shot-reverse shot sequences between Conor and the kids at his school (more often than not his bullying tormentor). These sequences almost always frame each respective child slightly off-centre and often feature ultraslow tracking that creeps toward them. The lack of any dialogue in these sequences also draws attention to that which is unspoken being something that is fundamentally weirding Conor, making him an outcast in the eyes of his peer group.

 

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The monster work within the film is simply incredible CGI, especially when giving a sense of scale.

 

All this smart visual patterning is amplified through the film’s other themes of grief, loss, punishment and time. Time is foregrounded early in the film as a key visual motif, and eventually becomes a central part of the climax. The nightmares and dreamscapes do not operate with any coherent sense of time, and in one impressive sequence in the film a dream of the pleasure to be found in destruction falls away to reveal that hours have gone by and Conor has wrought merry chaos upon his grandmother’s living room. One of the objects that Conor tears apart during this rampage is a grandfather clock that his grandmother has told him has been in the family for generations. The literal destruction of time, and particularly family time, via the sundering of this timepiece feeds into Conor’s unspoken desire to deny death its moment. Aside from these explicit images of time, as measured in the preponderance of timepieces throughout the film, there is also a queasy sense of ‘timelessness’ in both Bayona’s choice of setting (Manchester’s industrial suburbs and the surrounding moors, or the dilapidated Blackpool pier) and the qualities of the animations that take over the screen when the eponymous monster of the title calls. These latter animations use state-of-the-art digital techniques alongside the kind of stop-motion and basic cell work that can be found as far back as 1926, in The Adventures of Prince Achmed.

The casting of Lewis MacDougall in the central role of Conor reveals a little of the cinematic heritage that Bayona is consciously building upon. MacDougall’s bruised and bony waifishness immediately draws to mind another sullen northern English adolescent, that of Billy Casper, as played by David Bradley in Ken Loach’s Kes (1968). Much like Loach, Bayona appears unafraid to let his young male lead come across as unlikable. Part of the integrity of both film’s is their adherence to a degree of honesty in the depiction of the traumatised adolescent’s lot. A school dining room scene in A Monster Calls effectively plays out Conor’s self-hatred as psychopathy, and the young actor is formidably truculent.

In the aftermath of this fearsome dining room scene Conor is shown in the headmistress’ office being taking to task for hospitalising his bully. The headmistress provides Geraldine Chaplin with a knowing cameo, that cinephilically links Bayona’s film to Carlos Saura’s Cria cuervos (1975) a morbidly moving masterpiece about a young girl convinced that she has caused the death of her mother. Similarly, Bayona’s own thanking of Guillermo del Toro in the end credits of the film draw an explicit link back to that director’s much revered Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), a film that also drifts between an aesthetic of gritty realism, timeless fairy tale and nightmarish dreamscape. I would also suggest that Bernard Rose’s fantastically bleak British horror Paperhouse (1988) has played a major role in shaping Bayona’s exceptionally evocative rendering of Conor’s overactive imagination. Both films take place within distorted interior spaces, overlooked by a deathly hillside and visited by a nightmarish projection of an adolescent’s troubled psyche.

 

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One of the film’s most poignant scenes is about Grandma (Sigourney Weaver) tentatively trying to build a relationship with Conor (Lewis MacDougall) en route to a date with death.

 

The adults are peripheral figures within Conor’s world, but again Bayona has ably cast. Felicity Jones continues to force me to positively reassess her merits in a convincingly pain-wracked performance as the suffering mother. Toby Kebbell is given some of the film’s best lines as an absent father with far more texture and complexity than such a role normally possesses. Liam Neeson is on voice duties as the monster, although it is a little too neat and troubling to see him also pop up in a photograph as Conor’s film-loving paternal grandfather. Whilst Sigourney Weaver has the film’s most heart-rending and honest scene, in which she tries to build bridges with her grandson at a rail crossing, en route to an inevitable date with Jones’ death. A genuinely poignant aspect of the film can be traced from this conversation, as what links grandmother and grandson is their experience of Jones’ character and the loss that is about to ensue. Likewise, the constellation of creativity that is lovingly captured in the attention that Bayona pays to Conor’s process of drawing and painting, is shown at the film’s close to be a pursuit intimately shared by mother and son, and that goes with Conor beyond the loss of his mother, as something he can hold on to.

 

Rating: 7.5 / 10

Ten of the Year 2016: Further Beyond

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Further Beyond (2016)

Dir: Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy

Starr: Denise Gough (Christine), Alan Howley (Joe), Jose Miguel Jimenez (Ambrosio O’Higgins)

Ireland, 89mins

Mubi have done a tremendous job this year of picking up festival films that genuinely deserve a wider audience and would have otherwise fallen through the myriad cracks in UK distribution (potentially the worst in Europe). Further Beyond is the latest film – a deconstructed documentary – from Irish filmmaking duo Lawlor & Molloy. It is one of the funniest,  most moving and stimulating films I have seen this year. I must confess that I hadn’t seen any of their previous work, but the excellence and ingenuity of their work here has certainly whetted my appetite for further exploration.

Exploration is in fact at the heart of Further Beyond, which sets itself up as a film about the failure to make a film. Lawlor and Molloy had become fascinated with the remarkable story of Irish tenant farmer Ambrose O’Higgins, who left County Sligo and hopped on a boat to Cádiz in his thirties. From Cadiz O’Higgins rechristens himself Ambrosio, adopts the noble identifier of the 1st Marquis of Osorno, learns Spanish and travels to the New World, where he becomes governor-general of Chile. The two filmmakers had initially wanted to make a feature film about the subject, however, they were not interested in what was already known about the O’Higgins story, but rather the circumstances of his departure for, and arrival in, Chile. This proved an unattractive proposition to potential film backers, so Lawlor and Molloy do a peculiarly thrawn thing, they go ahead and make a film about the failure to make the film they wanted to make.

Working with a paltry production budget Lawlor and Molloy have managed to put together a fascinating pseudo-documentary about memory, knowledge, land, history, heritage and the way in which we can become dislocated from all the things that define us and give our existences meaning. I do not think it too far of a stretch to compare Further Beyond to great works of Irish literature, such as Flann O’Brien’s infinitely digressive work At-Swim-Two-Birds (1939), Laurence Sterne’s masterwork of significant insignificance The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1767) or Francis Stuart’s unsettling and slippery part-memoir Black List Section H (1971). Like all these novels Further Beyond is primarily concerned with the construction of meaning, and begins with an ostensible goal of finding out what takes a poor tenant farmer from Sligo, to Cádiz, and then on to Chile. This goal is soon subsumed by digressions, divertissements and formal deconstructions, that cumulatively seek to undermine contentious ‘commonplace’ ideas of historical narrative. By its end this isn’t just a film about the failure to make a film about Ambrose O’Higgins, it has become a deftly developed exploration of how mutable meaning is, especially the more it is probed and interrogated.

 

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Throughout the opening sections of the film O’Higgins is presented to the audience in medium shots from behind, or long shots where he is just a small constituent part of the wider landscape.

 

The opening sequences of the film places O’Higgins (as played by Jose Miguel Jimenez) upon some high Andean peak. The shot framing favours the long shot, or a medium shot from behind the actor, thus strongly suggesting a distance between audience and subject. From off this lofty mountain peak the film will force O’Higgins to descend, until at ground level, in some Sligo field, we will be able to scrutinise his story far more carefully, with as little of the romantic affectation as possible. Yet the descent from legend to life proves fraught with the vertiginous unsettlings and displacements that belong to any complex articulation of history, Lawlor and Molloy are merely allowing us to see behind the screen, to look in to the construction and artifice of filmmaking, and by extension any attempt at storytelling.

Further Beyond was the second film of 2016 that demonstrated the power of foregrounding narration as a specific, and particular instance of performativity in film, and one that by its aural nature normally goes unseen. At this year’s Berlinale I was fortunate enough to see Ruth Beckermann’s hypnotic film Die Geträumten (2016) about the recording of a radio production of the erotic and romantic correspondence between poets Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan. What was most remarkable in this film was the way in which the performance of the narration and recitation associated with the radio production highlighted the manner in which the actors working upon the piece began to construct, as if unwittingly, a physical interpretation of the character’s they were playing. This then fed back into and inflected their equally constructed screen personae, lending a degree of genuine uncanniness to the carefully framed, and entirely fictional, proceedings of the film. Lawlor and Molloy perform a similar trick in utilising the voice actors Denise Gough and Alan Howley to inhabit self-reflexive screen versions of themselves.

 

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Denise Gough as a Voice Over Artist hired to play director Christine Molloy, a multi-layered approach to the performative aspects of film narration.

 

This decision to foreground the performative aspects of narration leads to one of the most powerful sequences in the film. Howley, as Lawlor, introduces a recording of his mother doing a rendition of Sylvia Sidney in City Streets (1931), the first film to utilise what we would now call voiceover narration. This rendition is preparation for part of an aborted television production of The Playboy of the Western World, that Lawlor had been working on.  As part of this performance he asks his mother to fire a gun at the camera, then catches her look of surprise when the gun actually goes off. Lawlor and Molloy, by this stage, have already successfully revealed to us the mechanics of image construction and manipulation, for narrative and emotional effect. Every element of what is shown in Further Beyond becomes something to be questioned. This, though, only makes the narrative reveal all the more affecting, when we are informed that this footage is from the mid-nineties, and Lawlor’s mother has since passed away. The way in which this footage is interrogated and recontextualised as a binary strand of the film’s concerns with exile makes for one of the most emotionally and intellectually satisfying cinematic moments of the year.

The sheer chutzpah of Lawlor and Molloy’s project of aborted projects that have gone before, expresses itself most effectively in the interstices between word and image. It is a film that constantly seeks its audience to reconcile itself to how little we can truly know of other people’s lives. Working from the grandiose tale of Ambrose O’Higgins through to the trans-Atlantic upbringing of Lawlor’s own mother, it discerns an exilic quality in all attempts at understanding. Just as people physically journey across borders and boundaries, simultaneously looking to discover and escape, so the film presents the audience with a series of visual conundrums, sites in which slippage of meaning is all that can truly be located. These sites of mutability and instability come together as a testament to L.P. Hartley’s notion of the past as a foreign country. They also serve to accentuate the remoteness of ‘the other’ – the camera, despite its very best efforts, can never allow the audience more than a fleeting sense of intimacy. Finally, this approach evokes James Joyce’s direct attack upon his homeland, which stands as one of the twentieth century’s strongest articulations of estrangement and exile: “No one who has any self-respect stays in Ireland, but flees afar as though from a country that has undergone the visitation of an angered Jove”.