White Supremacist Cinema: The Gentlemen (Guy Ritchie, UK/USA, 2019)

American cinema, Blogpost, British cinema, Uncategorized

Perhaps the biggest problem with racism in the UK is the UK’s belief that it does not have one.

The ‘it’ from the previous sentence should be defined as pertaining most specifically to the UK’s white population, perhaps especially those white citizens who identify solely as British nationals.

And yet, when we watch a film like The Gentlemen, it seems clear that racism is alive and well in the UK, including in British cinema (which is not to say that cinema as a whole might be a tool built upon racism).

Or, at least, The Gentlemen would wish to suggest that its white, male and Anglo-American values are ‘cinematic,’ while other, diverse forms of expression belong to smaller, ‘inferior’ screens.

We’ll get to the treatment of race in The Gentlemen shortly. First, however, we should get to grips with what I mean when I include the phrase ‘white supremacy’ in the title of this post.

For, in order to understand how white supremacy works, it is important to understand what it is, and because The Gentlemen is not especially subtle in its white supremacy, it functions as a good tool for us to think about how and why white supremacy is at work in the film.

So, as perhaps needs to be said every time one engages with the issue of race in the UK, white supremacy, as well as racism more generally, are not uniquely defined by hood-wearing white people lynching non-white people.

Rather, white supremacy is, simply enough, the belief that whites and whiteness are of greater value than non-whites and non-whiteness, perhaps especially blackness, but for certain in The Gentlemen, more valuable than yellowness.

The immediate defence mechanism that a white supremacist will put into play is the idea that I just betrayed my own racism by using ‘racist’ terms like black and yellow, as well as perhaps white.

To be clear, ‘yellow’ especially is a term that is loaded with a racist history, not least because it has historically been and continues to be a term applied by whites (and others) to various Asian peoples in precisely a derogatory fashion: the ‘yellow peril,’ for example, has long expressed the fear of whites that the Chinese (or others) will ‘take over’ the white world – a fear that is overtly at work in The Gentlemen.

All the same, while Asian people rarely and perhaps only ever with some sense of irony define themselves as ‘yellow’ (unlike Blacks, who do define themselves proactively as black, even though what ‘black’ really is or means has never been accurately or exactly defined – except perhaps by whites), I use the term(s) here to get us to think about how white supremacy works from the inside.

By this, what I mean to say is that white supremacy sees whites and whiteness as being superior to all other colours. In order to do this, it has to cast those other, non-white people into those other colour categories (black, yellow, brown) in order specifically to highlight that they are not white.

Having made this conceptual distinction, which allows the white to value himself above the non-white, the white takes the ‘supreme’ position from among the different colour categories. It is not that there are different colours, so much as a hierarchy of colours, with white at the top. Hence white supremacy.

Thereafter follow myriad ways in which whites and whiteness receive preferential treatment, get more opportunities and so on and so forth, all because they are white, while those non-whites (yellow, black, brown and so on) get inferior treatment, fewer opportunities and so on and so forth.

The point that I wish to make at the outset, then, is that you don’t need to be an overt racist to be a white supremacist or, at the very least, to benefit from a white supremacist system, or to thrive within a society that is white supremacist.

Nor, I might add, do you need to be white to thrive in a white supremacist society. You can be non-white and thrive; and you can be white and not thrive.

But if you are white, then the chances are significantly increased that you will thrive, or at least be more comfortable than if you were not white; and if you are non-white, then you will have significantly greater barriers before you to both comfort and, better yet, thriving.

And so if you benefit from such a system or thrive within such a society because of your whiteness, and if you do not do anything to change the advantages that you have, by, for example, refusing to share that advantegeous position, then, simply put, you are a white supremacist out of complicity, if not out of explicit action.

(That said, how we might separate explicit action from ‘mere’ complicity when we are considering the entire fabric of a life seems quite difficult to me; ‘doing nothing,’ or allowing disadvantages to continue for others simply because this gives you greater advantages, is an explicit action, just as not helping your neighbour is an explicit action… whether or not you run the risk of seeming like a chump to other advantaged people, who will think that you are betraying them because you see, understand and try to do something about the disadvantages presented to some – with the same advantaged people perhaps also thinking you stupid for not taking the same advantages as they do, even though you have those advantages before you. In short, the easy option – allowing things to stand as they are – negates the difference between complicity and explicit action; taking the harder option is always harder, and part of why it is harder is because others will make your life harder for taking that option – calling you names, making you feel bad about yourself and so on.)

Anyway, one of the next defence mechanisms that a typical white supremacist would throw out in order to deny racism, be that their own racism or that of the system from which they benefit, would be an appeal to history.

That is, and as per the notion described above of complicity/allowing things to stand as they are, a white supremacist (be they explicitly racist or simply happy quietly to benefit from white supremacy), would say that the UK is historically ‘white’ and that blacks and other non-whites of course are welcome here, but that they have to come and work their way ‘up the ladder’ and that of course this cannot happen overnight and so on and so forth.

However, while the appeal of such a view is perhaps inevitable to an unthinking white supremacist and to an overt racist alike, it is also false and an act of white supremacist thinking in and of itself.

Its falseness would probably take too long to deal with here in full. But put bluntly, the view is false because the idea that the UK is ‘historically’ white elides in this case race with nationalism – using race to define what is ‘British’ as that which is ‘white.’

But if ‘British’ and ‘white’ are now supposed to be synonymous, then we quickly get into hot water, as many comedians have pointed out – including perhaps most memorably Stewart Lee – since what ‘British’ is has no clear or exact meaning. We are a nation historically made of up Angles, French, Vikings, Norsemen, Celts, the Welsh, the Cornish, Germans, Greeks and more. (Many more!)

To suggest that Britishness and whiteness are historically synonymous is false, then, not because these other nations (Angles, French, Vikings, etc) are non-white (although more on this detail in a short moment), but because if ‘British’ is a single identity that in fact springs from a wide range of different identities, then there is no reason to suggest that ‘British’ is a single identity that has to have a specific skin colour.

What is more, the idea that the UK is historically white is also false and in and of itself white supremacist because if those non-white people who supposedly are ‘now’ British were indeed ‘British,’ then they would simply be British – and there would be no need to tell them that they were somehow ‘not British enough’ because of their skin colour.

That is, when history is used as an appeal to justify ongoing imbalances along racial lines within the UK, it places those non-white people in the category of ‘not quite British’ or ‘not British enough’ – as if having British nationality and/or permission to live and work in the UK were not the end of it.

To be treated as ‘not quite British’ means that history is being used as an excuse to preserve white Britishness in its supreme position, with that supremacy now based upon whiteness (i.e. it is white supremacy), since it is the non-whiteness of the other that renders them ‘not quite British.’

(Nationality can also be used instead of race to classify someone as ‘not quite British.’ For example, one might be Irish or Polish in origin, and this non-British origin is now used as a reason to define the other as ‘not quite British.’ In other words, white supremacy can also work alongside a sense of nationalist supremacy. It is not for no reason, though, that the Irish and the Polish have historically sometimes been referred to as the ‘blacks of Europe.’ That is, nationalist supremacy and white supremacy often go hand in hand, and even though the skin of many Irish people is ‘white,’ and indistinguishable from the skin of many British people, the Irish have not always been considered ‘fully white,’ just as they have not always been considered ‘fully British’ – whatever that means. As a result, ‘whiteness’ is a set of values not always wholly linked to skin colour alone.)

(Furthermore, the appeal to history also is inherently conservative in that it assumes that the past is more correct than the present and the future – a perspective that contradicts the notion of ‘progress,’ which can be equally problematic, and which claims that the present is more correct than the past – and that the future will be more correct yet than the present. In other words, such a view suggests that historical whiteness overrules present diversity and future non-whiteness. Given that history has favoured whites, such a conservative view of the world is thus to my mind itself a culturally ‘white supremacist’ view.)

‘But,’ our white supremacist might contend in their next line of defence, ‘if we don’t look out, then we’ll be overrun by foreigners’ – which is the ‘yellow peril’ line of argument at work in its clearest fashion (although the peril need not always be yellow; it can also be black and/or Polish and so on).

What this line of defence suggests again is that the now-British person is again not quite British enough, and that rather than Britain changing in its complexion in order to match its citizens, it is citizens who must change in their complexion in order to match the nationality.

Again, if we are all only really ‘now-British,’ in that everyone is non-British if you go back far enough, then it is both senseless and racist to say that the newer ‘now-British’ are ‘not quite British’ or ‘not really British’ because of their skin colour (or former nationality). That is, none of us is ‘really British’ when we look hard enough at it, with Britishness – as well as whiteness – simply being imaginary constructs.

The contention comes in again: how can you say race is an imaginary construct when I can see that a black person has a different colour of skin to a white person? I am not ‘imagining’ that difference at all…

In some senses, this white supremacist defence is not wrong; many people defined as black do indeed have darker skin pigmentation than many people defined as white.

However, it is how these differences are meaningful that is an act of the imagination.

For, if I am six foot tall, I am definitely taller than someone who is five foot six. And while some tall people do think that they are superior to shorter people, we nonetheless do not at present exclude people from a group (except perhaps for ‘those who can enjoy certain theme park rides’) as a result of their height. No, theme park rides aside, that would be completely arbitrary and meaningless.

And yet, while we do not (in principle) offer different opportunities to people who are taller than to people who are shorter, white supremacist societies, including the UK, do offer different opportunities to people because of their skin colour.

If we lived in a world where, say, people with size 8 shoes and below were discriminated against, while people with size 9 shoes and above enjoyed the majority of the opportunities and spoils, then we’d not look at skin colour but at shoe size in order to differentiate between people. In such a world, someone with darker skin would still have darker skin, and we would still be able to recognise as much, just as in our current world we can still tell if someone is short and/or has a smaller shoe size. But as we are cool with grouping up with people of different heights and/or shoe sizes in our world, so would we be cool in that other world of grouping up with people of different skin colours – just as long as they had the right shoe size or were the right height!

Since on the whole we are cool with grouping up with people of different shoe sizes, it seems weird that some people are not cool with grouping up with people of different skin colours.

With this example, then, I hope to have suggested that while there are indeed different skin colours (indeed, there are so many different skin colours that there are perhaps no two people with exactly the same skin colour, just as there are perhaps no two people with exactly the same shape and size of feet), what is an act of the imagination is how skin colour determines so much meaning and value in our world.

In the world where we discriminate by height and shoe size, skin colour would still be real, but it would determine so much less. In our world, height and shoe size are still real, but for some reason they determine relatively little (but definitely not nothing) in how much we esteem and value people, while skin colour determines a lot. That it is one and not the other is because of how we imagine people to be and how we imagine people to have or to accrue value.

That is, for some reason the contemporary world sets a lot of importance by skin colour, while it doesn’t supposedly set that much importance by height or shoe size – even though these differences are all real. Why it is skin colour that is so important a marker of difference is an act of imagination; we imagine that this one marker of difference is somehow so much more important than any other (although skin colour is by no means the only important marker of difference, with even height and shoe size sometimes being important enough a marker of difference to make that difference meaningful).

So…

This is a long and roundabout diatribe that has not yet dealt much with The Gentlemen, but which I write at the outset of what is potentially a new series of occasional blogs about how white supremacism creeps into and is at work in contemporary cinema because it is important to demonstrate how the films in question engage with and suggest how whiteness is indeed attributed greater value in the western world, if not globally, and especially in the UK as per Guy Ritchie’s film.

With this in mind, we can turn to various moments in the film that demonstrate its white supremacist values, before then suggesting why it is important to point out the film’s white supremacy, even as it risks spoiling the ‘fun’ of this piece of what would like otherwise to be ‘harmless entertainment.’

Relatively early on in the film a mixed group of youths enter into the otherwise all-white and traditional space of a chippy. The group, which is marked by having non-white members among their number, approach the counter and start putting in orders without paying attention to the other clients – and while speaking in the vernacular of British urban youths.

However, what the youths do not know is that at the counter also awaiting his chips is Coach (Colin Farrell), an Irish boxing/fight coach who just wants peacefully to get his chips without being insulted by these ‘obnoxious’ youths.

What follows is a scene in which Coach beats up a couple of the youths before they recognise who he is and defer to him. As he does this, he also delivers a basic lesson in manners, all the while meeting the nodding approval of the chippy staff, who thus suggest that they have had enough of these young people, too.

The scene plays out as a fantasy of violence enacted against young, mixed groups – whose threat to the otherwise white clientele and workers at the chippy is signalled by the mixed, that is, partially non-white, nature of this particular group.

In other words, The Gentlemen here encourages us as viewers to enjoy seeing violence enacted against these young, urban kids – especially because they are lower class and non-white/mixed.

That this takes place in a chippy is significant: what more of a ‘British’ location could you get then a chippy, given that we are internationally famous for our fish’n’chips? Furthermore, given that a chippy is a ‘working class’ establishment, we can now understand that the youths are not unwelcome there because of their class – because, the chippy owners and the other chippy clients are all ‘working class.’ No – the reason that they are not welcome is because some of them are not white.

That the youths defer to Coach as they get beaten up suggests not only the imposition of a white supremacy over the course of the scene (re-establishing that whites are in charge after their supremacy has been threatened), but also that the youths themselves endorse and support this white supremacy.

That is, The Gentlemen does not just stage whites beating non-whites; it also has the non-whites basically tell the whites that they were correct to do so, since their white ways are better than the non-white ways of the youths – an important lesson that the non-whites learn over the course of this otherwise innocuous-seeming scene.

Having established Coach in his position of white supremacy – a position so supreme that even non-whites recognise his authority – the film then involves a scene in which two boxers at Coach’s gym have an argument. Indeed, one boxer calls Ernie (Bugzy Malone) a ‘black cunt,’ to which Ernie objects by suggesting that this is racist.

Coach interrupts Ernie and explains that it is not racist because Ernie is both black and a cunt, and therefore calling Ernie a black cunt is by definition not racist. Ernie agrees with Coach and goes about his business.

In other words, in this scene we have Coach delegitimise Ernie’s feeling that the other boxer has been racist (which is not to mention misogynist in his use of the term ‘cunt’). But more than simply telling Ernie he is wrong, Coach also gets to give Ernie a lesson in how to call someone a ‘black cunt’ is not racist – with the implication being to call someone a ‘black cunt’ is right. Furthermore, not only does Coach tell Ernie he’s wrong, before ‘proving’ to him why he’s wrong, but the script to The Gentlemen also has Ernie accepting Coach’s argument and basically agreeing with him.

It is important that this ‘lesson’ follows Coach having schooled the youths in the chippy. For now that his authority has been established in the former scene, it is in this second scene simply reaffirmed and not questioned. And this allows for the filmmakers to achieve a deeply problematic triple whammy: to sneak overt racism into this scene, to have that racism explained as non-racism, and for that racism then to be accepted as non-racism by the person to whom this racist slur was directed.

For those unwilling to accept this triple whammy, and who might rather posit that Ernie is indeed black, so it is not wrong to call him black, I should reply: Ernie is not called black, but specifically a black cunt. That is, blackness is here elided with cuntness in such a way that it is made to apply to an entire race, thereby making the discourse racist.

Furthermore, while the c-word does get bandied about in The Gentlemen with some frequency, it is never used in association with, say, white or whiteness. While Fletcher (Hugh Grant) and Ray (Charlie Hunnam) might call each other cunts, neither calls the other a ‘white cunt,’ for example.

Perhaps they don’t have to call each other a ‘white cunt’ because each of them is white; for Ray to call Fletcher a ‘white cunt’ (or vice versa) would be redundant and so it is simpler for them just to call each other a cunt.

However, Ernie must be specified as a black cunt. According to the logic of The Gentlemen, then, race apparently has nothing to do with cuntitude except when you are black, at which point in time it is always worth reminding the cunt in question that they are specifically a black cunt.

The upshot of this is that whiteness becomes invisible (whiteness is not even worth mentioning or specifying), while blackness must always be marked – because blackness is a mark – whether or not cuntness, deeply misogynistic as it is, is also a mark.

That blackness is a mark suggests that all deviations from whiteness are abnormal and need to be defined, most often negatively (Ernie is not a cunt, but a black cunt). The need to mark deviations from whiteness is part and parcel of white supremacy – with the filmmakers here going so far as to mark this marking also as correct, and not just by the white characters, but by the affected black character himself.

That Coach is Irish could conceivably mean that we have a ‘metaphorical black’ talking to a ‘genuine’ Black (the Irish as the ‘blacks of Europe’) about race; that is, these are ‘brothers’ talking. But really The Gentlemen seems here as in the chippy scene to want to use Coach’s Irishness to cover over what is otherwise overt white supremacy.

As is typical of much white supremacist cinema, The Gentlemen does not give much screen time to non-white characters. If you look at the poster for the film, you will see that the main cast is white with the exception of Henry Golding (who plays Dry Eye); while there are non-white characters, then, these generally are cast in subservient and secondary roles.

Furthermore, the only non-white character who does have a leading part and who appears on the poster, namely Dry Eye, is of course the film’s antagonist, or villain – an uppity young Asian man who threatens to take over the business of the whites who otherwise monopolise the marijuana business within the UK.

Now, Dry Eye is not just uppity towards the white overlords. No, The Gentlemen takes care to make sure that Dry Eye is also irreverent towards his Asian boss, Lord George (Tom Wu).

However, while this might with some gerrymandering mean that Dry Eye is just a ‘bad egg,’ and that actually there are some ‘good’ Asians, like Lord George, in the film… in fact the film also makes sure to show that Lord George is also a bad egg.

This in particular takes place through a scene in which weed kingpin Mickey Pierson (Matthew McConnaughey) goes to Lord George’s base and poisons him. Not only does he poison Lord George’s tea such that the latter vomits and soils himself – a humiliation in which Mickey seems to take some pleasure – but he also offers Lord George a lecture on vices.

For, at the start of the scene, Lord George explains that gambling on horses is his only vice. Cue Mickey explaining that Lord George, as someone who deals in cocaine and heroin, has many vices, even if he does not take those drugs himself (and this is not to mention the other rackets with which he is involved). This vileness Mickey compares to his own weed dealing, which in his own eyes is simply an innocent and not life-destroying drug, even as Mickey has knowingly slaughtered his rivals (notably black!) in order to be the biggest weed dealer in the UK and perhaps further afield.

This attribution to the Asian other of evil – which applies to Dry Eye, but especially here to Lord George – is not only another scene of the white telling the non-white about their place within the white world order, but it also involves a curious erasure of history. For, as has regularly been noted, it is the UK who supplied and got countless Asians, specifically Chinese people, addicted to opium during the so-called Opium Wars – and all in the name of Empire. And yet, here it is the ‘evil’ Chinaman (with his pompous faux British name!) who is guilty of doing the same…

Again, then, whiteness reigns supreme in the world of The Gentlemen.

The Gentlemen involves a sequence in which Ray goes with his colleagues, including Bunny (Chidi Ajufo), on to a housing estate in order to extract the daughter of a lord, Laura (Eliot Pauline Sumner). This they do, but not without mistakenly throwing a Russian heir out of a window and to his death.

The body is then filmed by a further group of youths, from whom Ray and his colleagues must take their phones in order to ensure that the mission is not recorded and placed on social media.

This then prompts a sequence just like the one in the chippy: white Ray confronts the mixed/non-white youths and then out-toughs them with a machine gun. While Bunny is indeed on Ray’s ‘side’ during this confrontation, as per the sequence in the chippy, the council estate sequence situates the viewer in such a way as to take pleasure in seeing these youths as humiliated, first by marking them as a threat (especially by keeping Ray’s machine gun hidden not just from the youths, but also from us as viewers), then by marking them as defeated.

Again, then, white supremacy creeps in.

And yet, just as Bunny works for Ray, so does urban youth culture work for the film, since the inclusion of celebrity performers like Bugzy Malone is surely done in a bid to boost the appeal of The Gentlemen beyond a white audience.

And what this means is that black/urban music features on the soundtrack to the film also in a bid to sell it – and in order to increase its coolness.

Toni Morrison has written about how white media regularly use encounters with blacks, especially black music, in order to signal a transition (a character suddenly is galvanised to do something tough by listening to hip hop, for example) – and it is clear in the history of cinema more generally that black music is regularly used to signify ‘action’ and ‘excitement’ in films that otherwise have unmarked white characters taking up the vast majority of the screen time.

This exploitation is also at work here in The Gentlemen, then, where all that is non-white is derided and yet used profitably by whiteness, including the humiliation of non-whites for the pleasure of white audiences. (There is even a series of jokes at the expense of a character called Phuc, played by Jason Wong.)

And yet, for all of its use of blackness to increase its caché and chances of making a profit, The Gentlemen also has the temerity to deride black culture.

This it does relatively subtly towards the beginning of the film. For, Fletcher explains to Ray that he has written a film script about the whole plot in which he finds himself involved – for Fletcher is an investigative journalist who has been following the exploits of Mickey Pierson now for some time… and he is with Ray, as Mickey’s sidekick, to extort some money from him so as not to have Mickey’s business exposed in the tabloid press (represented here by Eddie Marsan playing newspaper editor Big Dave).

As Fletcher explains to Ray, his script is cinematic, and he outlines what ‘cinematic’ is and means by comparing it to television or even something that one might watch on a small screen on the internet. As if to confirm Fletcher’s argument that cinema is ‘superior’ to these other media, the makers of The Gentlemen consciously change the dimensions of the screen in order to convey how the bigger/more ‘cinematic’ an image is, the more powerful it is.

That is, cinema is upheld in The Gentlemen as the supreme audiovisual format.

But more than this, cinema is also upheld as white when it transpires that Coach’s non-white protégés, including Ernie and others, have not only stolen some of Mickey’s weed from one of his plantations (a problematic term that I use provocatively by choice), but that they have also recorded their exploits and uploaded them to social media.

In other words, non-whiteness is here implicitly associated with the small screen, which in turn is defined as an inferior medium not just by Fletcher, but also by the film itself, since the film consciously changes the dimensions of the screen in order to demonstrate Fletcher’s point, i.e. to demonstrate that Fletcher is correct.

It is for this reason, then, that the makers of The Gentlemen elide whiteness with cinema as a whole, with whiteness being supreme, especially in this ‘supreme’ medium. Non-whites are associated with inferior media, which in turn confirms their ‘inferior’ societal status.

And yet, for all of their supposed aesthetic ‘inferiority,’ The Gentlemen is very happy to replicate the aesthetics of social media for the purposes of telling its story, including by showing in full one of the music videos created by Ernie/Bugzy Malone in the closing credits.

White supremacy, then, relies on the non-white for its own power, and yet denies this reliance even as it overtly uses non-whiteness to its own advantage.

Of course, a white supremacist might just finally contend two things. Firstly, that someone has to be the bad guy, and so why not the Asian other/Dry Eye? To which one might respond that no one has to be the bad guy at all, especially if we understand that anyone who does ‘bad’ things generally does them for reasons beyond simply being ‘evil’ – even if The Gentlemen cannot be bothered to take the time to show the reasons behind, say, Dry Eye’s greed (meaning that he is simply allowed to be or to become a ‘bad’ Asian).

(I might suggest that cinema as a whole does not generally bother to spend time investigating or exploring complexities of character, a wider issue that is related both to conventions of storytelling, and to the kinds of films we watch, how long they run, where they play and so on. That is, films generally cannot be bothered to explore complexity because it would require slower, less ‘interesting’ and more thoughtful films. This would in turn mean that cinema would run the risk of not making as much money; and so, capitalism as a whole is in part responsible for the lack of thoughtful movies, meaning that cinema is a race to the bottom in terms of indulging unthoughtfulness. How and why thought and thinking are so unappealing in our attention-driven and capitalist society is an issue that will have to await another discussion.)

Secondly, a white supremacist might contend that The Gentlemen need not be bothered to show such complexities because it is, after all, ‘just a movie,’ just ‘a bit of fun,’ or just entertainment – as the film consciously suggests by choosing The Jam’s ‘That’s Entertainment’ as the song that plays over the start of the final credits.

But, as Richard Dyer has also suggested, that which is put forward as ‘only entertainment’ is often far from being such.

Or, put differently, we don’t have many pro-KKK films (although we should worry about their existence and the popularity that any such films enjoy). And yet, we do have issues of white supremacy and racism in our society. And white supremacy persists in our societies not only because of overt racism, but also because of white supremacy is fed to us in ‘mere entertainments’ such as The Gentlemen.

I might push further and suggest that not only is there white supremacy in our society, but that we live in a white supremacist society as a whole; that is, our society is built upon white supremacy, among other things (including classism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and other issues – and all of which are present in The Gentlemen, too). Since our society is built upon white supremacy, we cannot change white supremacy without changing society.

I might also suggest that cinema as a whole is white supremacist and that we cannot change white supremacy in cinema without fundamentally changing cinema.

The reason to write a blog (series) such as this, then, is to suggest that we should indeed be looking to change cinema – by encouraging producers, editors, writers, directors, cinematographers, actors, all crew and cast, and even all cinema goers, as well as critics and so on – to be attuned to how white supremacy is at work in the medium, and especially in films like this one.

If we don’t put in such work – if we don’t kill some of the ‘joy’ that people take in white supremacy – then white supremacy will continue. And it is time to put an end to such white supremacy – not necessarily by making only films about paraplegic black lesbians or whatever other sarcastic response a white supremacist might put defensively in place (although why not have many more such films?), but by being and/or becoming more responsible for how we think, how we express our thoughts, and how we live with each other today.

That is, if we can spread a wider understanding of how white supremacy works, then perhaps the fabric of films like The Gentlemen might change. Producers, actors, writers, editors and so on would not want to make such films, and so such films would change. This in turn might change cinema. And by changing cinema we might in turn change society.

Such changes need to be made…

* Another white supremacist contention might be aimed at the writer of this blog as a white (cisgendered) male, etc: am I not also implicated in white supremacy, the recipient of many of its benefits and so on? That is, am I not just a virtue-signalling hypocrite in writing anti-white supremacy blogs? I am indeed complicit in white supremacy, and this has emerged in different ways at different points in my life – and it likely will never not be the case. However, as I grow increasingly to understand the workings of white supremacy myself, I feel it important not only to seek to change my own behaviours and complicity with that system, but also to share what it is that I am learning in a bid to bring about wider change. The process of learning has not ended and likely never will end. To bring it to an end, though, is what we might call a project: a part of one’s life work, something that goes on until death, but which may well give meaning to such a life, rather than persisting in meaningless complicity.

Blue Story (Rapman, UK, 2019)

Blogpost, British cinema, Uncategorized

I came to Blue Story with a pre-formed mix of admiration and expectation.

The admiration arises from Rapman’s meteoric rise as a rapper from ends being signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation – much on the back of Rapman’s music videos/online series, Shiro’s Story (UK, 2018).

Shiro’s Story involves some solid storytelling – with Rapman himself functioning as a kind of chorus over events as they unfold, involving love, betrayal, struggle and so on. I shall return to Shiro’s Story as a point of comparison to Blue Story later on.

The expectation that I had for Blue Story arises not only from the existence of Shiro’s Story as a decent piece of online media, but also from recent news stories that, for better or for worse, have helped to give the film a great amount of exposure in recent days, in particular a reported gang brawl involving c100 people at a Birmingham multiplex on 24 November 2019.

Not that the brawling has anything per se to do with Blue Story, but it nonetheless increases expectations about the timeliness and importance of the film. Indeed, the screen at which I saw the film (at the Odeon Covent Garden in London) was near-full (c160 tickets sold).

Furthermore, the vast majority of the audience were young and non-white – on a scale that I have rarely if ever seen at a central London theatre, suggesting that the film is connecting with an audience that otherwise does not often make the trip into such spaces. Clearly, London and the UK in general need more films like Blue Story in order to bring people together – especially to see demographics represented onscreen that all too often are overlooked, tokenised and so on.

Indeed, as has been reported, the decision by VUE to pull Blue Story from its screens (with Showcase having reinstated it shortly after removing it following the Birmingham brawl) is considered to have an element of structural racism associated with it: cinemas are white spaces where black and other non-white British (and other) people appear neither in person nor on screen.

And yet, if we are to have the wherewithal to recognise the importance of structures in the exhibition policies of British cinema chains, as well as perhaps in British cinema as an institution, then it is the absence of structures in Blue Story that constitute its most serious failings.

The film is not without many things to commend it: the performances are across the board intense, with leads Stephen Odubola and Micheal Ward clearly standing out; there are some moments that beautifully capture the awkwardness of youth (with audience members responding audibly about the familiarity of party and clinch situations during the screening I saw); and Rapman’s own appearances, rapping as if a Greek chorus in between acts. These latter in particular take the film into the territory of the musical that is fresh and engaging.

What is more, Blue Story clearly fits into a genealogy of black British and other filmmaking, with Noel Clarke looming as a key influence, even if Rapman himself first made a version of Blue Story for YouTube in 2014 – i.e. before Clarke had even finished his -hood trilogy, which culminated in Brotherhood (UK, 2016).

What is more, Rapman’s music clearly bears traces of what might seem an unlikely point of reference, namely Bruce Hornsby – he of ‘The Way It Is’ fame.

Except that Hornsby’s influence is not as unlikely as all that when we consider that ‘The Way It Is’ is a song about the American Civil Rights movement, with the song making reference to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as racial segregation in the form of the ‘color bar’ (‘When all it sees at the hiring time / Is the line on the color bar, no / That’s just the way it is / Some things will never change’).

What is more, Hornsby has been a regular collaborator with Spike Lee, writing music for nine of Lee’s films, including Clockers (USA, 1995), Bamboozled (USA, 2001), Chi-Raq (USA, 2015) and BlackKklansman (USA, 2018), as well as his Netflix production of She’s Gotta Have It (USA, 2017-2019).

In other words, Lee’s legacy is felt at least indirectly in Blue Story, suggesting that the latter wishes on some level to situate itself within a history of politicised and political filmmaking – and music.

But as Blue Story struggles to recognise structures, so does it struggle to render its story political.

Here I encounter some ambivalence. As a white male film scholar, I am wary that I should be moved to write a blog about a black British film, especially when I am going to be critical of it.

For, why should I critique a black British film when I let so many white British films go for being mediocre, troublesome or problematic (I simply don’t have time to write about all of the films I see)?

It is not that I consider Rapman to be under pressure to represent the totality of the black British experience. But while I want to be supportive of Blue Story (and I hope that in writing this blog at all, I am demonstrating that in many ways I am), I also cannot let the film go for deficiencies that would for me be problematic in any film (all the while acknowledging that I am perhaps ‘no one’ to be able to comment on a film at all).

A read of bell hooks’ wonderful Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992) would quickly highlight various of the film’s problems. As hooks takes none other than Spike Lee to task for the phallocentric nature of his cinematic universe, so, too, is Rapman’s cinematic universe one dominated by men, especially as mothers and girlfriends disappear over the course of the first half of the film.

Conceivably Rapman is commenting on precisely the issue of sexism and the toxic nature of masculinity. Nonetheless, his female characters become background over the course of the film (while also being referred to repeatedly – and with intended humour – as ‘tings’ by the male characters who basically stare at them at parties). As a result, women function here as excuses for the men to puff their chests at each other – with barely a nod to the queerness of such behaviour being allowed in such a film.

However, I remain unconvinced that Rapman is commenting and inviting us critically to reflect upon black British masculinity, since the writer-director does so little to engage with where it comes from, how it is constructed and so on. That is, Rapman does not engage with the structures that bring about the aggressive black masculinities on display here – and in this sense his film plays more for entertainment than it does for politics.

This is a pity. Because in Shiro’s Story, for example, we get to see Shiro (Joivan Wade) working in a warehouse before he is then offered a break as a drug dealer. While there is some mention in Blue Story about how Timmy (Odubola) is sold out by a bribe from a rival gang, the world of film is not situated in any economic reality at all.

Furthermore, while there is the odd mention that the threatened and real violence that we see in the film is pointless given that the gang members do not ‘own’ their postcode, there is no sense of history here: how is it that London has come to have ‘ghettos’ and how is it that many young black men (in particular) come to feel hopeless and/or disaffected in such a way that they join gangs.

Rapman is clearly astute to how violence can breed violence, but he barely does more than namedrop the bigger issues that bring about the violence that seems endemic in black British urban society.

Indeed, from Shiro’s Story we know that Rapman can contextualise his stories; and so that he does not here is not because he is a first-time writer-director and thus inexperienced. That is, I shan’t let him hide behind that excuse, especially as he is not as young as all that (in his 30s, apparently), and even if his film does have some dodgy plotting (would a van door really be so hot that one could not touch it even for a quarter of a second in order to open it, especially using, say, a sleeve over one’s hand?).

Rather, the lack of explanation as to why these men are engaging in this behaviour is a choice made by or imposed upon Rapman. That is, he chooses not to show us, for example, the mother of Marco (Ward) and Switcher (Eric Kofi-Abrefa) working two jobs, preferring instead to show us her two sons, who seemingly come only to care to seek ‘beef’ with the paigons (pagans) from another postcode.

I say ‘imposed upon,’ because Rapman possibly delivered a film that pleases not so much the audience of his film as a ‘white’ financing institution like the BBC. That is, a kind of structural racism might have been at play in bringing about the end result that is Blue Story in its current form – and one that Rapman has either not been able to criticise, or with which he is happily complicit.

However, the result is the same: without going into the underlying issues that bring about violence, Blue Story becomes little more than a showcase of black men arguing and trying to out-macho each other.

In making little to no attempt to tell us why what we are seeing is taking place, these black men become simply spectacles of violence – and the film reaffirms (I assume without wanting to) the (racist) message that ‘black men are simply like this.’ Or: that’s just the way it is.

However, when Hornsby sings how ‘that’s just the way it is,’ he is of course employing irony because history has shown us that segregation could not continue in the USA, even as racial inequality continues via what Angela Y. Davis has repeatedly identified as the prison industrial complex (including most recently here).

Rapman, meanwhile, provides no history (with the lack of history wrapped up here in the trope/cliché of the absent father, which is repeated across both Timmy and Marco’s families) and in some senses no irony – even if there is ‘dramatic irony’ in that good friends become worst enemies.

To be clear, I am not saying that Rapman needs to offer us a happy ending in which people overcome rivalries and enmity. Indeed, there is a strong tradition of pessimism in movies about race, including in now-classics like John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood (USA, 1991).

This in turns means that it is not quite fair to ask us to think about how Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet (USA, 2019) is playing on UK screens with very little fanfare when compared with Blue Story – since in its hopeful tale of historical female heroism it perhaps does not grasp a sense of despair that black and other non-white British audiences potentially connect with, rather than the white bourgeois sense of hope that a film like Harriet perhaps evokes.

But at least in Singleton’s film, the audience is constantly being reminded of a world beyond its Crenshaw setting, as well as the possibility of another world; there is always a choice, and there are economic, social and other structural pressures at work that make the personal lives depicted also political (even as Boyz n the Hood is formally quite conservative).

Notably, when Rapman’s film refers to anything beyond SE13 and SE15, it is generally to Rapman’s own music and/or the LinkUp TV channel that published his early work.

That is, Rapman foregoes political engagement for self-promotion. Again, this is Rapman’s choice; but as he prefers to promote himself over any genuine attempt to engage politically with the structural aspects of race and gang crime in the UK, so does he – in the language of the Dead Prez – choose a Lexus over justice.

Furthermore, as the film becomes repetitive in its succession of scenes in which black men argue, it conceivably ties into a history of what James A. Snead describes in his glorious essay as ‘repetition in black culture.’

But again, there is no motivation for this – meaning that gangs simply exist, without being concerned with territorial business interests connected to the grey or black markets, alternative economies, or social conditions. Apparently simply being born in Peckham will induce in black men a hatred for black men from Deptford – and vice versa, and that’s just the way it is.

Given the coverage that it has enjoyed, it seems a shame that Blue Story wastes a rare opportunity to offer up a scathing critique of structural racism in the UK.

In this sense, the coverage of the Birmingham brawl in fact becomes emblematic of the film as a whole: rather than making a film that incites audience members to take militantly to the streets in demand of social change, Blue Story instead becomes an excuse for young ethnic British people to fight each other.

Sure, this spectacle of self-destruction takes place in an otherwise white, consumerist enclave, and thus it does in some senses unsettle readers of national newspapers. But it also simply reaffirms and reinforces a white fear of a black Britain – reducing minority youths to hoodlums in hoodies who simply are violent, with no need for the rest of society to reflect on their own implication in this mess.

That is, blackness becomes a spectacle for white consumption.

The nihilism involved both in the brawl and in Blue Story is troubling – and in this sense there really is something to get behind here. What is more, there clearly is a British sensibility of nihilism, as we have seen in countless movies related to class (and now race): there is no way out of the British class system (meaning that the UK is truly corrupt since it sees change as impossible; history ended in the UK first, with numerous black and other non-white bodies being excluded from mainstream society).

Maybe it is my white sensibility that is at play when I say that I would hope for more, and maybe it is unfair to ask Rapman to be anything other than human, i.e. flawed and imperfect. But if we believe there is something wrong – as Blue Story would seemingly purport – then it is our duty (so say I) to understand why, so that we then might understand how to change it.

Without understanding why, and without any sense of history (because there is no history?), then it will simply perpetuate – as a spectacle as well as in the form of a reality that affects the lives of real people. The lack of critical engagement here is telling, but also self-defeating.

As Shiro’s Story demonstrates, Rapman can do better. Let us hope, therefore, that next time he will engage with a bigger picture and that he realises not just his commercial potential, but also the political and ethical potential of his considerable artistic talents.

Don’t Look Now: A Film Beyond Measure

Blogpost, British cinema, Film reviews, Uncategorized

I was recently invited to write an essay on “Don’t Look Now” for a catalog to accompany a recent exhibition of work by Martin Erik Andersen at Holstebro Art Museum in Denmark.

Always one to be persuaded by flattery, I naturally accepted, and subsequently spent a fair amount of time conducting research, watching and thinking about the film, and then writing this essay.

Alas, however, the below essay was not what they said that they were looking for – in that does not provide a ‘mathematical’ analysis of the film. Rather than waste the c30 hours of work that went into this, though, I figured I would post it here.

Don’t Look Now: A Film Beyond Measure

Spoilers.

“Don’t Look Now” seems to have it in for wizened old dwarf women, since the one who features in Nicolas Roeg’s film turns out to be a murderer who ultimately slays John Baxter, played by Donald Sutherland, and who is the central protagonist of the movie.

We have to start with a spoiler, though, because it is only by getting to the end of the film that we can begin in certain respects to make sense of it. For, as we shall see, “Don’t Look Now” offers up a conception of space and time that suggests that in many respects we are always already dead – and that it is simply an anthropocentric conceit to organise, or indeed to contain, space and time into measurable units, or indeed to measure space and time at all.

I should refine my last sentence and say that it is not simply an anthropocentric conceit to measure space and time (to divide space and time into measurements). Rather, it is quite specifically a tendency or a trope of what we might term capitalist man to do this (with the gender implications of the term ‘man’ being allowed to remain, with whiteness and western-ness also being qualities that remain consistent with such hegemonic practices, or practices of domination). In short, capitalist white man (who could almost certainly be specified via further adjectives) seeks to dominate nature by subjugating nature to measurement. By making our world finite and ordered. To bring order to chaos.

Why does man seek to do this? Because he wishes to halt time, not to die, to live forever, and to escape from the perceived cruelty of nature, which cruelty amounts basically to taking it as an insult that he does not live forever in the first place. That is, man seeks to do this out of narcissism. To prove that he is above the animals and ‘better’ than nature.

But what does this have to do with “Don’t Look Now”?

It has everything to do with “Don’t Look Now”, because (capitalist western white) man’s wrangles with the chaotic universe become the very fabric of Roeg’s movie, both as a documentary and as a self-consciously composed (fiction) film

What on earth do I mean when I describe the film as a documentary?

Well, what in particular I mean is that humans don’t have to go very far with a camera in order to find signs of humanity’s attempts to dominate nature/the world/chaos via what I am terming measurement. As it turns out, Venice is an excellent venue for this because it is a space where the straight lines and measurements that humanity imposes on the world (including the delimitation and naming of space that is calling this particular place ‘Venice’) come in direct contact with—and are reflected in—the chaotic waters on top of which that city is built (and into which it is slowly sinking, about which, more imminently).

But even if Venice provides an excellent visualisation of how a certain kind of humanity (patriarchal white society, with the Christianity business at its core) tries specifically to build itself upon water in order to subjugate that water, you could basically point a camera anywhere these days and what you would film would include the straight lines and geometric patterns applied to and/or covering over nature by humans, as well as signs of that nature itself in the form of tendrils, vines, blades of grass, trees, rain, clouds, and anything else that is not manmade. In this sense, pretty much all films document the ways in which humans try to, but in many ways cannot, pave over nature and create a measured and measurable world of order, and of which we can make easy sense. We simplify nature, making order of chaos, and in so doing we mark our separation from chaos, giving to ourselves a sense of our own specialness within the universe.

Except, of course, that this endeavour is all vanity—and Venice will indeed sink into the quagmire as churches will fall into disrepair, humans will die, and so on. At least, this will happen until humans do discover the elixir of eternal life (and preferably eternal youth rather than ageing forever but not dying). That is, humans will do this until they do finally become gods—a pursuit that even today many believe possible thanks to the powers of ‘science,’ i.e. thanks to the powers of measurement itself. We seek the bottles or other containers that will bring about eternal life, be those augmented bodies, computer avatars, elixirs that we can drink, space ships to take us to the stars and many more ideas, as often faddish as foolish.

Cinema and photography, as technologies that can in some senses preserve human life, including beyond what we typically refer to as death, are part and parcel of this endeavour. And yet, cinema can also, like many humans, be at war with this embalming impulse and it can also open itself up to and find regeneration in chaos. Rather than being a tool for eternal life, cinema can also let chaos and death into its system.

And so if “Don’t Look Now” documents man’s vanity as he attempts to cheat death (just look at Venice; such vanity is the very architecture of the place), it also consciously explores this contradiction, and thus it emerges as a work of art that actively works with chaos rather than trying to pour concrete over it.

Indeed, the opening shots announce as much: rain and the shuddering water of a pond—accompanied by a zoom that creates a pattern of almost televisual static. We dissolve to patterns of light on a black background, as light filters through cracks in a blind. The blind may keep out the light, but as the film will tell us, the blind can also see, and in seeing, show us aspects of our world that we otherwise miss.

After these opening seconds, we will repeatedly have flowers, vines and tendrils creeping into the frame. Indeed, in cutaway after cutaway, Roeg deliberately speaks the iconographic language of the still life, where the straight lines of the human world are juxtaposed with the sinewy mess of nature. Furthermore, pigeons will repeatedly emerge into frame to disrupt the geometry of the city, while cats meow from behind metal grates (which is not to mention dogs barking and children crying offscreen throughout the film).

Even when we do find ourselves in relatively geometric spaces, the human itself emerges as a force of chaos rather than one of control. We can picture John and Laura, framed by drawing tubes and hotel room furniture, and yet they themselves both have curly, barely controlled hair, spiralling out of their heads (and out of John’s lip)—a sort of cinematic Kandinsky consisting of monochromatic straight lines coming up against inconsistent spheres.

John is at the centre of this tension between order and chaos. If the blind seer Heather can tell that John also has visions, John tries as best he can to deny them. Even as he knows that he is restoring a fake church, something that he admits to Laura over dinner, he still is invested in the project of halting time and bringing about the restoration and eternal youth of this floating city.

Indeed, the tension that John feels is clearly reflected in his consideration of space. For, John has written a book called Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space, which we see next to Laura on the sofa of their English home at the film’s start. We are not given access to the book’s contents, but from its title we might surmise that John can indeed see beyond space as geometric, that is, beyond space as being made of fixed and measured/measurable coordinates.

Let us dwell a while on this idea. For, the Greek term for measurement is metron, which for Reza Negarestani is

found etymologically encrypted in English words such as Dimension (from dimetiri: measure out), meter, etc. Keeping well in mind the famous doctrine of Pythagoras, ‘Man is the metron of everything’ (pantōn chrēmatōn metron anthrōpos), metron can be translated as scale, measure, standard, and value. According to Sextus Empiricus, metron expresses criterion (scale, measure) but Heraclitus and Sophocles saw it as certifying dominance, a domination over something. Therefore, metron indicates that both measures and dimensions inter-connect with power, judgement and reasoning. The critique of metron explains how dimensions (namely metron) bring power into effect, mobilizing and propagating it. (Negarestani 2008: 233)

In other words, metron is humanity’s attempt to control an otherwise dimension-defying reality and to become a god by measuring it out, by applying to it a fixed number of dimensions, and thus by dominating/subjugating/simplifying it. No wonder it is that we see a bust of Socrates’ note-taker, Plato, as John inspects a slide also at the film’s start. For, via his engagement with ancient Greek thought, John understands that measurement is nothing more than man’s attempt to control nature, and that it must therefore be fragile. What, however, lies ‘beyond’ this fragile geometry of space…?

Beyond the fragile dimensions that humans construct via walls, pavements and other straight, hard surfaces, which all eventually will crumble into the sea, man is lost—as John and Laura experience even within Venice as they wander its alleyways at night. Without illumination and thus without the visible markers or measures of space that man has created in order to navigate it, space is simply a labyrinth, and space simply swallows up man and demonstrates that his meaning and order, his straight lines and his religious myths, are mere consolations against the impermanence and complexity of the world. Even a frozen lake is not flat/straight, as Laura explains. And so the human world tries to be permanent and thus is carved in solid materials like stone, but even these become covered by moss and broken down, and even these give way to mud and water, which in turn drown humans and bring them back to the ever-shifting earth.

If “Don’t Look Now” pits an ordered solidity against chaotic liquid, then clearly humans contain within them the tension between these two states. For, humans are of course themselves mostly liquid, as is made most clear when blood flows forth from humans in injury and death—and monthly in the female human for as long as she might biologically generate new life. Humans thus create bottles for liquids in order to contain their chaotic power, much as humans bottle themselves up in order to keep the same chaos at bay (unsurprisingly, then, John is aghast when he vomits, which he claims not to have done in 10 years, since he prides himself on keeping everything inside).

And yet, if humans create and become bottles, glass nonetheless smashes on several occasions in the film: Laura and John’s son, Johnny, cycles over glass just before Christine drowns in the pond, while glass smashes as Laura faints in the restaurant, and John is covered in broken glass as he nearly falls from inspecting the mural in the Church of St Niccolò dei Mendicoli. Meanwhile, blood spills from John and Johnny at the moment of Christine’s death—and the water beneath Venice is always there to remind us that chaos can only be bottled briefly, if at all.

But still (western) humans persist in shutting themselves off from the outside and in seeking eternal, bottled and contained life. Indeed, “Don’t Look Now” anticipates, or at the very least positions itself as being part of a cultural logic of computation when little Johnny’s headmaster at Porton School is revealed as being called Babbage. Clearly an allusion to Charles Babbage, the progenitor of digital culture, his role as an educator clearly suggests that the logic of mankind as exempt from nature (with digital technology having since the film become the talismanic technology that will make this aspiration come true) is one that is inculcated in western humans from an early age, such that they go on to internalise this logic of separation-from-reality, and assume it to be real.

What is more, humans resist the outside world not just by building walls (even as doors fly open by themselves/at the power of the wind), but also by covering themselves with clothes—with “Don’t Look Now”being especially a treatise on gloves. It is as if humans want to avoid direct contact with as much of the world as possible, including with each other. In addition, humans cross their legs (John) in order not to let out the yonic energies that emanate from their genitals, and humans try to maintain sure and still postures. (Notably, Laura is told to uncross her legs when Heather tries to get in touch with Christine from beyond the grave.)

The awkwardness of Donald Sutherland running towards the pond where Christine drowns is one of the most important images in “Don’t Look Now”, since it conveys the imperfection of human movement—while at the same time working within the film to suggest that humans try otherwise to move as little as possible, to turn themselves into perfect statues and thus to live forever (in photographs?). This stillness involves a suppression of desire that is at odds with the openness to other dimensions that Heather experiences, shuddering and juddering as she communes orgasmically with the beyond… and which orgasmic shudder has clear echoes with the film’s ‘controversial’ (or at least for many people memorable) sex scene, in which John and Heather remain (alas, all too tastefully?) nude for what seems like a prolonged period.

To shudder and to quake is to be in touch with the infinite and to generate new life, much as the mud and the water generate new life and the continued evolution and change of life on earth. John Izod sees the brooch worn by Heather’s sister Wendy as a symbol of fertility (Izod 1992: 108), and in some senses he is not wrong; but when we get a close up view of it as Laura inspects the brooch while visiting the sisters in their hotel room, we see more clearly that it depicts a mermaid—as if these women were indeed from a chaotic water element, and thus also outside of the geometric world of masculinist stone.

In identifying the film as western, as well as by quoting an Islamic scholar in relation to measurement above, we perhaps have wandered far from the film’s intended/suitable critical framework. And yet, the film also contains seeds of such a ‘dewesternising’ critique. ‘The deeper we get, the more Byzantine it gets,’ says John to Laura just before he confesses to restoring not a real church but a fake. Not only is the western world in some senses fake as a whole because of its fundamental and wilfully illusory separation from nature/reality, but it also is one built upon a history of theft and a subsequent denial of that theft (with western man seeking no depth whatsoever, since to enter the murky depths, to enter murkiness as depth, is indeed the remit of the Byzantine/other; no wonder western man tries to surround himself with mirrors, which surfaces “Don’t Look Now” also consults repeatedly).

At one point, John comes face to face with a grotesque bust on the side of the church that he is restoring. Not only does this suggest that John himself is grotesque, but it also brings to mind the way in which the grotesque is itself a marginal form that is perhaps marginal precisely because it regularly blurs the boundary between the human and other species/the rest of the world, with grotesques (and its explicitly non-western cousin, the arabesque) regularly seeing the figure merge with the textual in the form of a flourishing vine. In other words, the grotesque reminds us not of the separation of man from world, but precisely of the interconnection between man, animal, plant and the rest of the material world (see also Marks 2010: 96-98). In the Islamic pictorial tradition, the grotesque and the arabesque both also bring to mind the autonomous life of the line; that is, as the line is freed from the burden of representation but instead becomes its own expressive force (flowing as it wishes and not because it must outline, say, a face), so does it move beyond the realm of the visual (this is a picture of a face) and into the realm of the haptic (you can feel the force of the line). It is not through vision that we can understand the world, but through touch, even as western humans put on gloves to avoid it.

But as the line comes alive in the grotesque and the arabesque, so might we also understand how colour, in particular through a Venetian history of art, also connotes hapticity. Laura U Marks can help to illuminate once again why Venice is such an apt venue for “Don’t Look Now”:

of course line and color are interdependent, as in the labile quality of the contour and the mercurial technique of chiaroscuro. It is notable that the Venetians, and their coloristic heir in the nineteenth century, Delacroix, were influenced by Oriental contact. Haptic space began to push to the surface of their paintings, while the linearists were still keeping the abstract line in check… Artisans began to emphasize flow over form. The tendril decoration inherited from Greek and Roman art quickly lost its naturalism and became what we call the arabesque. (Marks 2010: 54)

And so with its emphasis on red, “Don’t Look Now” similarly enacts an attempt to divorce colour from form, to give to colour a life of its own, as is made especially clear by the blood that floods the image during the climax of the opening death sequence. This haptic aspect of the film thus helps viewers to get beyond simply what is represented (here is a person in a red coat) and to access other dimensions hidden within these normal/normative ways of seeing (but of course the bearer of the red coat turns out to be a grotesque, old, murderous woman, since the grotesque, the old and the female are all antithetical to the myth of eternal youth that patriarchy seeks, promises, and narcissistically fools itself into believing it can realise; the woman does not bottle up life, keeping it for herself, but instead she bleeds and gives life).

If “Don’t Look Now” in some senses consciously places itself within artistic, pictorial and/or painterly traditions, then it is also knowingly a film. If for Mary Shelley the Promethean endeavour to establish eternal life led to the creation of Frankenstein’s monster, then Christine’s death clearly evokes the moment in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) when the monster throws a little girl, Maria, into a pond, causing her also to drown. Indeed, perhaps this allusion makes clear how John himself is a creating a monster in trying to resurrect a fake. Or rather, in trying to be Prometheus, John already is Frankenstein’s monster himself.

Meanwhile, “Don’t Look Now” of course follows hot on the heels of Luchino Visconti’s Thomas Mann adaptation, Death in Venice (1971), which itself tells the tale of how human desire cannot be kept straight, and how man will indeed only ever fail in his attempts to prolong his life. Finally, the moment when a dead body is fished from the water recalls a similar moment in Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1962), in which a car is similarly fished out from the Tiber—as if that tale of human alienation were in some senses continued here. A poster of Charlie Chaplin further clarifies the film’s lineage: the tramp equally is alienated from the machinic world of capital.

But much as “Don’t Look Now” revels in its status as a film, it is and must also be in rebellion against that very same status. For if cinema is anything, it is perhaps, as mentioned, a technology for preserving human life beyond death. In this way, it is part of the Promethean project, while the very and inevitable existence of the frame means that cinema only ever ‘bottles’ or ‘boxes’ space, offering us the Euclidean coordinates of a framed reality. Cinema is like Venice in that if the latter is, as Heather suggests, a ‘city in aspic,’ then cinema likewise puts the human body in aspic, preserving us in polyester.

If this is so, then it is against the frame of cinema itself that Roeg will consistently reframe, zoom and blur the images that we see. As with the performances, in which lines are mumbled, and the sound recording, in which sometimes the dialogue is hard to follow, Roeg thus deliberately makes a technically ‘dirty’ film, reminding us regularly that we are watching a film, a fake, a story that is not necessarily to be believed. Indeed, the use of quotation marks in the very title of the film (“Don’t Look Now”) suggest a second-hand rather than an original story.* And it is a story that at times we literally cannot see very clearly; one that on occasion leaves us baffled as to what exactly is happening.

What is more, Roeg’s radical editing, in which we can jump from different times to different spaces and back again within what we would traditionally refer to as a ‘scene’ ties in with the film’s use of cinema not to affix time but to demonstrate its interconnected nature. That is, as the dimensions of space are attributes that we affix to ‘raw’ space so as to conquer it (and so as not to get lost), so do we do the same with time.

Clocks and watches abound within “Don’t Look Now”, with these technologies themselves being ways for humans to regulate and thus in some senses to control time. And yet time itself is not linear, as the love-making scene itself exemplifies; we jump back and forth between John and Laura engaging in coitus and the two of them getting dressed/covering themselves back up for dinner. What was formless and naked becomes formal once again—but the edit mixes the chronology up suggesting that the past, the present and the future all co-exist simultaneously. This is why John can see his own funeral, why Heather can foresee the future and why John is in some respects (always) already dead: as space is deeply, or fundamentally, dimensionless, so, too, is time.

(To “look now” is thus perhaps not to see; one cannot look now, or at least the film encourages not only to look at the now, but to see how the now/the present is intertwined with the past and the future. If we truly could see the “now” we would not see it isolated from other moments in time, but entangled with them.**)

If it is the destiny of all humans to fall, as John imagines at one point that he does in the church amidst a shower of broken glass, then gravity will bring all humans to the grave. And in that muddly hole, worms will devour us and vines will emerge from that mud in a new sprouting of life. In the mud, space is dimensionless, but, so, too, is time, with Roeg’s cinema travelling through edit ‘wormholes’ to connect up what would be different spaces and times as if they were all connected. Not extended geometrically into a manageable pattern—but all together all at once. The vanity of man is to live forever; the reality of the universe is that we do live forever, but we also die forever, too. The vain and Promethean endeavour of man is to separate life definitively from death; the destiny of the human is to realise that life is inseparable from death—even as this leads to life defying gravity and emerging from the grave. It is at La Fenice where the sisters are staying by the film’s end; they are thus like phoenixes, transcending the distinction between life and death via their embrace of immanence and rebirth, as John canters (awkwardly again) towards his own death in Venice (Fenice?) because he will not accept a world without measure.

When the corpse, which bears a remarkable similarity to Heather, is retrieved from the Venetian canal, we see the open-eyed actor playing that part suddenly blink. No doubt an ‘error,’ the moment nonetheless demonstrates that the world of life without death is a world of impossible unblinkingness, one of permanent light in which paradoxically we cannot see. It is only when we blink, or when, like Wendy, we have something in our eyes (including mud, which perhaps explains why John begins to drink—here’s mud in your eye!) that we actually do see. True reality is marked by invisible dimensions that perhaps we can feel through senses other than vision; to be limited only to unblinking vision is to close oneself off to those alternative dimensions, spaces and times that we might dismiss as fantasies, dreams or hallucinations, but which in fact are real.

But what is it that we actually are not seeing? Perhaps of particular note is that “Don’t Look Now” features a second book in addition to Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space, and that is Rolf Hochhuth’s stage play, Der Stellvertreter (1963), which regularly is translated as The Deputy. Der Stellvertreter explores the way in which Pope Pius XII failed to speak out or take action against the Holocaust. What remains invisible, then, is the way in which National Socialism and the Catholic church both—in their attempts to control the world—lead to genocide, both within Europe and further afield. This blood, more than the Venetian lagoon, is the true chaotic liquid that has been spilt for the purposes of creating the western and patriarchal world of walls. And it is a blood that cannot be shown, but only alluded to, much as a black hole cannot directly be seen, but which can only be felt as a result of its gravitational and grave effects (everything falls towards it).

It is quite typical of 1970s art house movies to offer up many different signs, and yet which on the whole remain hard to decipher. “Don’t Look Now” is no exception, and there remain numerous details that I have not been able to mention, including the role of the police (‘The skill of the police artist is to make the living appear dead’); the way in which the camera always lingers on Signor Alexander, the owner of the hotel at which the Baxters are staying, after the other characters have finished talking to him; the way in which Laura is referred to as Mrs Baster at the airport, as if the family might be bastards; a poster about Boris Godunov; the prominence of a pair of neon glasses and a sign for an ottica, or optician’s, as John and Laura emerge from the darkness and back into familiar and lit alleyways in the Venetian night.

But of course if “Don’t Look Now” made total, coherent sense, then it would too much have subjugated its details to meaning; it would too much have made order out of chaos. In part, “Don’t Look Now” must remain chaotic on purpose, full of details that elude interpretation, and thus coming alive like the line and colour of the arabesque and/or the grotesque. In this way, it suggests an infinity beyond the finite world of walls and stone. An invisible world of blood unleashed. But also a world of life beyond death, of life in death, of dimensions beyond the measure of western capitalist man. Maybe the measure of a man, and the measure of this film, is that it seeks to go beyond measure, and to put is in touch with that infinite. Such an infinite reality can never be spoiled—except by the greed of men who seek to live forever.

* I overheard British Film Institute librarian Sarah Currant making this point during an induction session for students in the BFI Library. My thanks to her and my apologies for purloining the observation.

** This point was suggested to me by Mila Zuo. My thanks also to her for her help with this.

References

Izod, John (1992) The Films of Nicolas Roeg: Myth and Mind, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Marks, Laura U. (2010) Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Negarestani, Reza (2008) Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, Melbourne: re.press.

Yesterday (Danny Boyle, UK/Russia/China, 2019)

Blogpost, British cinema, Chinese cinema, Film reviews, Uncategorized

Imagine there’s no smoking. It’s easy if you try.

Obviously I could have started this blog with ‘imagine there’s no Beatles,’ as a number of journalists have done in their write-ups about Danny Boyle’s Richard Curtis-scripted Yesterday.

However, I want to start with the smoking because at one point in the film, lead character Jack (Himesh Patel) says that he’s dying for a cigarette only for his best friend Rocky (Joel Fry) to ask what cigarettes are – with Google (which along with Apple of course does exist) then confirming that in the alternative world where Jack has woken up, cigarettes do not indeed exist, alongside the Beatles, Oasis (the band), Coca Cola (the drink) and Harry Potter.

There are several things to pick apart here – beyond the obvious fact that bands like Coldplay (namechecked) would also not exist had the Beatles not existed.

For more specifically, without the tobacco industry, firstly the USA would quite possibly not have enjoyed the global economic dominance that it enjoyed in the twentieth century (and periods around it).

Secondly, slavery was a key component of the American tobacco industry, and so to imagine a world without smoking is, for better or for worse, to imagine an America without slavery.

Furthermore, the Indian tobacco industry is one of the world’s largest, and it historically commenced with the introduction of tobacco to Goa by the Portuguese, before the British then created a tobacco industry during their colonial rule of the country.

I wish simply to suggest, then, that to imagine a world without tobacco is in some senses to imagine a world without slavery and a world without colonialism.

Oh to imagine such a world.

And yet, to imagine such a world is in some senses to deny such a world.

That is, Yesterday asks us in part to imagine that slavery and colonialism never took place – even though Jack Malik’s British-Asian family has found its way to Lowestoft in order to live there, and even though there has, even without the Beatles, still been a history of music that includes many African-American sounds (Stevie Wonder is namechecked, among other indicators, including Ed Sheeran’s rapping).

Indeed, in Boyle’s film it is early confirmed that the Rolling Stones continue to exist, meaning that these arch-appropriators of African-American sounds have indeed continued to be successful, even though the grounds for their success – the African-American music from which they ‘borrowed’ so many licks and beats – ought not to have existed since there was no tobacco trade and thus not slavery in the same fashion.

Jack, bless him, feels bad for appropriating the Beatles’ music, even though John Lennon (Robert Carlyle) appears in the film to confirm that basically he has not written his songs (he is not a frustrated musician, but a happy widower living on a beach, seemingly only a taxi ride from Lowestoft, blissfully unaware of pop music and the media).

And yet, if in effect appropriation has gone on (the Stones are still around), and if in effect the supposed non-existence of a history of slavery and colonialism has still resulted in more or less the same world as we have now – except without the Beatles and without Coke – then the principle of the film is that theft and the occultation of theft through the rewriting of history is absolutely fine.

Let us imagine basically the same world as we have now – except that there was no slavery and no colonialism.

So basically the film is a denial of at least two of the most pernicious moments in western history, including the gigantic theft that led to the very creation and dominance of the west that the film affirms.

More fool Jack, then, for confessing – even if it allows him to get the girl (Lily James). For, in doing so he basically demonstrates that he is a dupe for a set of values (upheld in typical Curtis fashion as implicitly ‘English’) that he has been fed and yet which no one else believes in.

Indeed, Jack’s gesture might have a touch of the Mr Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, USA, 1939) about it, but I am not sure what the panic from record producer Debra Hammer, played by Kate McKinnon, is about.

For while Rocky uploads all of the Beatles songs at the end of the film to the internet for people to download for free, the production and recording rights would still belong to her record company, and so Rocky/Jack will spend their whole life in penury, if not in prison, as a result of their unprovable story and their breach of contract (how to prove the existence of a band that never existed?) – all the while the record company owns rights to the songs, regardless of whether people have downloaded them for free.

Indeed, pretty much every song in the world is already easily available online on a host of websites, and it has not led to the collapse of the music industry – even if bands like Radiohead (whose poster for In Rainbows adorns Jack’s door) have attempted to give away their music.

(Besides, the record label would just get a better set of musicians and singers to sell better versions of the songs to the world, thereby making more money.)

So, Jack/Rocky’s ‘revolutionary’ gesture is in other words just business as usual in the contemporary record industry.

What is perhaps of greater import, though, is that the denial of history is also business as usual in the contemporary world.

Perhaps it is not by accident that Jack first ‘breaks through’ internationally while playing a gig in Moscow as Ed Sheeran’s warm-up – with the sequence of course involving a cover of ‘Back in the USSR.’

For if there is a country that knows about how to manipulate history, then it is surely Russia. And the manipulation does not stop at history; it also includes the present, as the victory of Vladimir Putin in the 2016 American Presidential elections makes clear.

What is more, it is notable that Jack also relies solely on Google for his verification or otherwise of the existence of the Beatles.

Not only does Yesterday thus affirm that it is only by existing on the internet that one can be validated as real, but it also implies – in a celebratory, product-placement fashion – that companies like Google shape our reality, determining what is real or not.

In other words, Yesterday plays out as comedy what is perhaps one of the most tragic aspects of the digital, ‘post-truth’ age: that what we consider to be real is highly manipulable, is indeed manipulated, but here is something to be celebrated as we deny slavery and deny colonialism as we live in a world without history and smoking.

Facetiously one might suggest that Yesterday could just as easily be called ‘Cambridge Analytica Saves The World.’

And yet in this facetious comment lies a sense in which Yesterday plays fast and loose with history as it offers up an extended Google advert, even as Google surely does shape our perceptions of reality thanks to its manipulable algorithms, data mining, listings of people and events, and so on.

If ‘Imagine’ were indeed a song about imagining ‘no countries,’ ‘peace,’ and more, it perhaps is a song about a world that beats to the unified drum of a single military-industrial-entertainment complex. That is, ‘Imagine’ is as much a bitter indictment of world history as it is an attempt to dream that humanity’s bloody, planet-destroying history did not take place.

A denial of a reality in which borders are being continuously reaffirmed on both sides of the Pond. A denial of a reality in which exploitation has created this world of huge injustice… Yesterday is in some senses, then, simply a reimagined version of today: the world is falling apart but no one wants to believe it and everyone just denies it. And so the entropy of the world will just go on happening…

In the face of trying to build of a new tomorrow, Boyle and Curtis instead waste their time dreaming of an alternative yesterday. Where that will get us… no one knows.

Philosophical Screens: A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA, 1971)

American cinema, Blogpost, British cinema, Film reviews, Philosophical Screens, Uncategorized

This post is a written version of the thoughts that I gave about A Clockwork Orange at the British Film Institute on Tuesday 16 April 2019. The talk was the latest in the Philosophical Screens series.

On this occasion my fellow speakers were Lucy Bolton of Queen Mary, University of London, and John Ó Maoilearca of Kingston University. Where my thoughts as written here were shaped by the thoughts offered by my co-speakers at the BFI, I shall try to offer up credit.

In short, I suggested that A Clockwork Orange is a film about control, and as such it remains relevant to our world today.

For, at the centre of Kubrick’s film is the so-called Ludovico technique that chief protagonist Alex (Malcolm McDowell) undergoes after being arrested for murder. The Ludovico technique consists of Alex’s eyes being forced open and then kept moist by the administration of eye-drops as he is shown a prolonged series of films featuring what Alex would refer to as ultraviolence, including what in the film are supposed to be documentary images of groups of ‘droogs’ committing rape and murder, as well as genuine documentary images – both of Nazi gatherings during World War 2 (which we see – including footage from Triumph des Willens/Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl, Germany, 1935), and of concentration camp atrocities (which we do not see, but which Alex describes).

I shall return to the role played by these documentary images in what is otherwise a fiction film at a later point in time. But for the time being, the important thing to explain is that these images are so horrific to Alex that they, in conjunction with a drug that is injected into him, induce a disgust response, such that he begins to gag whenever he sees or even thinks about doing some of the violent and/or sexual acts that otherwise give him so much pleasure.

It is not that we are forced to watch horrific deeds on cinema screens in the contemporary age. Nonetheless, the idea that we cannot but watch moving images is relevant when we begin to consider the proliferation of screens in the contemporary world, and from which moving images and sounds emanate – perhaps especially ones that are advertisements specifically or advertisarial more generally.

(What I mean by ‘advertisarial’ is that these images may not sell specific products to us, but they sell to us lifestyles, as well as being designed for us to stare at them, i.e. they sell themselves.)

This advertisarial logic of contemporary screen culture is of course capitalist in nature, while its would-be permanence also relates to the development of what has been termed 24:7 culture, or the ends of sleep. That is, permanent illumination and screen culture lead to us always being awake, always being online, always being connected… such that metaphorically our eyes are always open as buzzes and flashes wake us up in the night and stop us from sleeping, our eyes always forced open by the machines of cinema.

We might think that there is a key difference between the world that I am describing (24:7 connection and the ends of sleep) and that of A Clockwork Orange. For, in the latter, Alex watches these images in order not to commit violent acts, while in our world, we are encouraged always to look at these images – in order to undergo our own Ludovico technique.

Except that as the Ludovico technique is introduced in order to control the behaviour of an otherwise unruly Alex, so is 24:7 culture and the ends of sleep designed to control the behaviour of citizens in today’s world. For, it interpellates them permanently into capitalist culture.

More than this, while Alex watches images of violence, what the contemporary ‘Ludovico technique’ of permanent screen culture involves is violence done to us, those who experience it.

Furthermore, what we ultimately learn is not that Alex is violent in spite of the world of control that the Ludovico technique reveals, but that his violence is the logical extension of that world. And that violence is the logic of our world of permanent illumination – violence to the world, violence to us, violence to each other. The cinematic ethos of our times reveals not just violence in cinema (torture porn, etc, to which we shall return later). But violence as cinema/cinema as violence.

If this notion of control in A Clockwork Orange needed further evidence, then the film’s very title offers us a clue. For, Anthony Burgess, upon whose novel the film is based, gave his book the title A Clockwork Orange for a couple of interlinked reasons. The first is his interest in the phrase ‘queer as a clockwork orange,’ which suggests the way in which humans often do not fit into the roles that society tries to impose upon them. And the second is his sense of intrigue at how orang in Malaya (where Burgess was based for a time) means ‘human’ (as per orang-utan, which means ‘human of the forest’).

In other words, ‘a clockwork orang’ is a clockwork human – a human rendered predictable and controlled, as their eyes are glued wide shut by the permanent onslaught of lights, images and sounds that prevent them from seeing their own subjugation to systems of control.

In the term ‘clockwork’ we also have an initial sense of how violence is the logical consequence of, rather than the exception to, a society of control. For by reducing the human to set actions and reactions, time is rendered not a measure of change and becoming, but a measure of repetition, with repetition being a measure of controlled bodies doing repetitive actions (‘work’) for the purposes of capital. Clock-work humans are humans that work; humans that are subject to the time of capital rather than their own time.

Let us further this argument about violence taking place not in spite of the control society, but rather as its logical extension.

‘I would not be controlled,’ sing Alex and various other inmates in a chapel service at HMP Wandsworth before the former undergoes the Ludovico – suggesting that prison and religion both are ways of bringing ‘sheep back into the fold.’

But more specifically, once he does undergo the Ludovico, Alex complains about how he ‘began to feel really sick. But I could not shut my glazzies,’ he continues, ‘and even if I tried to move my glazballs about I still could not get out of the line of fire of this picture.’

In using the Russian term glaz to refer to his eyes, Alex also brings to mind how Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov referred to his cinematic project as a kino-glaz, or a cine-eye, in which cinema would create a new media-determined perception of reality.

That is, cinema is part of (a tool for) a system of discipline and indoctrination, or what I am here terming (in reference to French philosopher Gilles Deleuze) a society of control.

But cinema is already controlling Alex even before he undergoes the Ludovico technique. As much is made clear when we understand that ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ is Alex’s own ultraviolence theme tune (with that song also taking place in the 1952 American film of the same name at a moment when Don Lockwood, played by Gene Kelly, is a bit unruly towards a police officer).

In addition, we are offered flashes into Alex’s fantasies as he dreams of ultraviolence at home – and during these moments Alex sees himself as a cinematic Nosferatu figure.

In other words, cinema has inspired Alex’s violent fantasies. Cinema will not cure him of violence. Violence is the logic of cinema.

What is key, however, is that Stanley Kubrick seems to be aware of this – as is made clear by various of the formal choices that he makes in the film.

As successively we hear Gioachino Rossini’s ‘La gazza ladra/Thieving Magpie’ and the overture from William Tell during scenes of violence, A Clockwork Orange takes on dimensions of not being about realism but rather being about choreography. The film becomes balletic as bodies fly through the air, as bodies move in slow motion, or as bodies (during a ménage-à-trois that Alex has with two women he picks up at a record store) move in fast motion.

Furthermore, the colour scheme of A Clockwork Orange also shifts the film away from realism and into a highly stylised realm that equally suggests self-consciousness/falsity. Indeed, the film opens with a red and then a blue colour card, while upon being beaten in police custody, Alex seems not to bleed blood so much as red.

Indeed, the very whiteness of A Clockwork Orange (various interiors, walls, props, milk, characters) would seem to fit its vision of a society of control. For, in presenting a primarily white world, the film would suggest a world without diversity and difference, but one of homogeneity/sameness.

(There are five black bodies in A Clockwork Orange; one in the Korova Moloko bar that Alex and his ‘droog’ friends attend, and four in Wandsworth prison. It is a white world that we see; violence is necessary to remove colour from the world and to make it and its values primarily white.)

Finally, when we see Alex and his droogs driving at speed down a country lane after stealing a Durango-95, A Clockwork Orange so clearly involves rear projection that again the film wants to highlight its own falsity.

This is not to mention the regularly stylised performances, which take on comic book dimensions through their grotesqueness and exaggerated nature.

So the question becomes: why does Kubrick adopt such a ‘comic book’ aesthetic – especially when he is dealing with such difficult topics as violence and sexual violence?

My suggestion would be that Kubrick adopts a deliberately false aesthetic in order to implicate his viewer into the film, to create a sense of self-consciousness about our act of film viewing (rather than the film viewer hiding unobserved in a darkened room). This implication is deliberately revealed to us on numerous occasions.

When Alex is being held in custody prior to his conviction, his parole officer Deltoid (Aubrey Morris) leans forward to speak to Alex, who is on the floor after taking a beating: ‘You are now a murderer, little Alex. A murderer, yes.’

These words are accompanied by a point of view shot, whereby Deltoid talks directly to us, just as Alex regularly addresses the audience, referring to them (in deliberately gendered terms?) as his ‘brothers.’

What is more, Kubrick regularly uses a 9.8mm lens on his camera, which creates a kind of fish-eye perspective that in turn seems stylised/false. This was a technique developed in conjunction with cinematographer John Alcott – and notably when Alex is first checked into hospital where he will undergo the Ludovico treatment, he is greeted by a Dr Alcott (Barrie Cookson).

In other words, it is as if Kubrick and Alcott were consciously suggesting that their film is a kind of Ludovico treatment.

However, theirs is not a Ludovico treatment achieved through the realism of the images, as per what Alex experiences within the film. Theirs is, rather, an anti-Ludovico treatment that is achieved through revealing the falsity of its images.

‘It’s funny how the colours of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on a screen,’ says Alex in voiceover when undergoing the Ludovico. And because this is the case, so Kubrick does not show us ‘the colours of the real world’ – so that we do not mistake what we see as reality.

And yet, this creates another seeming contradiction. For if in the film it is documentary images that stop Alex from becoming violent, it seems to be Kubrick’s hope that fiction images will have that effect – that his self-consciously false images might highlight to us the violence of our world. In other words, unlike Alex’s view of the documentary images, Kubrick’s images are not supposed to be taken as real at all.

Here we can return to the use of documentary footage that I mentioned earlier. For, where Alex initially enjoys what he sees, it is the documentary footage of Nazi Germany that begins to change his mind about violence.

And yet, in our real world (as opposed to in the fictional world of A Clockwork Orange), it is the work of people like Riefenstahl, i.e. it is documentary images, together with fiction films that try to pass themselves off as realistic, that help to mobilise nations into committing atrocities as per the Holocaust.

Oddly, when we do see the documentary images interpolated into A Clockwork Orange, their status as images of the real world (as opposed to images of the diegetic fictional world) does help them to bring home (at least for me) the true horror of the Second World War.

Furthermore, Kubrick does not show us the concentration camp footage that Alex describes – not least because it would be unethical to do so (using the suffering of others for political purposes, which is exactly what Nazi propaganda was doing itself).

But what is important here is that it is in its very invisibility – the fact that it cannot be seen – that the Holocaust becomes unbearably real.

That is, it is in not seeing the footage of it that we are sickened by the violence of history.

We might say that Kubrick does not believe in the Ludovico technique, therefore, or else he might show us that footage in order to prevent humans from ever committing such atrocities again.

However, Kubrick specifically uses fake images in order, I shall suggest, to disgust his viewers, rather than using images of the real world. Kubrick uses the comic book style that I have described not in order to show us the real world, but to show us a nightmare version of it.

Put differently, if the Ludovico technique, and cinema more generally, breeds violence, then Kubrick must try to expose this process. He does not use the Ludovico technique so much as try to suggest that it is at work on all of us.

But how can one expose this process without repeating this process?

Just as Alex was really already just carrying out the violent deeds inspired by cinema, so is he co-opted by the film’s end into the seemingly totalitatarian state that is being created in the film’s dystopian UK. Furthermore, Alex’s two droogs, Dim (Warren Clarke) and Georgie (James Marcus), end up being cops. Violence is not only encouraged but also useful for the state in order to control its population.

As Ludovico inventor Dr Brodsky (Carl Duering) explains:

the drug will cause the subject to experience a death-like paralysis together with deep feelings of terror and helplessness. One of our earlier test subjects described it as being like death, a sense of stifling and drowning, and it is during this period we have found the subject will make his most rewarding associations between his catastrophic experience and environment and the violence he sees.

Perhaps the drug is cinema itself. And Kubrick wants to wake us from our deathly eyes-open slumber (including by making reference to his own films as Alex passes a copy of the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey, UK/USA, 1968, in the afore-mentioned record store) rather than have us continue somnambulating through the world .

And yet, while Kubrick seems deliberately to adopt comic book techniques in order to shake us out of our deathly slumber, Clockwork Orange arguably fails in this attempt.

For, perhaps A Clockwork Orange historically achieved (and continues to achieve?) the opposite – namely the creation of a new generation of state-endorsed violence.

Burgess’ story was inspired by the rape of his wife by four American deserters in 1944. Meanwhile, Kubrick famously withdrew his film from cinemas after real-world crimes were reported as being influenced by the film.

In this way, the film did the opposite of what it seemed to set out to achieve.

Furthermore, Kubrick perhaps was already aware of this possibility, even before he had it withdrawn from British cinemas in 1973 – as also signalled at various points in the film.

For example, when Alex and his droogs attack writer Frank Alexander (Patrick Magee) and his wife (Adrienne Corri), Alex at first cuts holes in the latter’s costume such that her breasts are exposed.

In 1964, performance artist Yoko Ono created Cut Piece, in which visitors to her exhibition were invited to interact with her as she sat on stage dressed in a suit and with a pair of scissors before her. Some visitors eventually removed her clothes in a fashion similar to Alex here.

The moment in A Clockwork Orange is not just a reference to Cut Piece, which functions as an attempt, perhaps, to critique men’s treatment of women in the patriarchal system of discipline and control.

Rather, it is a comment on how work that is designed to be critical of the values of white, patriarchal society becomes co-opted perversely by the very society that it critiques: Alex re-enacts Cut Piece precisely to rape Mrs Alexander, just as Ono tried to get visitors to reflect upon their own propensity for (sexual and gendered) violence.

This process of critique going wrong is even made clear within the film when in the house of a fitness instructor referred to as the Catlady (Miriam Karlin), we see on her wall a painting of a woman with her own breast revealed by a hole in her dress: the painting echoes Alex’s crime but suggests that art becomes violence when in the hands of someone like him.

Indeed, Alex murders the Catlady with a white ceramic penis sculpture – literally turning art into tools for white, male violence.

And perhaps most tellingly, Burgess wrote his novel using ‘Nadsat,’ the language that Alex uses and which basically involves a liberal sprinkling of Russian words (like the afore-mentioned ‘glazzies’) into the English that people otherwise speak here.

In other words, Burgess was perhaps aware about how the language of revolution and the creation of a new world that would live outside of the strictures of capital (the USSR) inevitably becomes co-opted itself into yet more, and more strict, systems of control.

Not only do we see this logic of co-option going on within the film, but perhaps it has also taken place through and around the film.

Not only do we live in a world where Nadsat sounds uncannily like the faux Dickensian patter of someone like celebrity shagger Russell Brand, but we also live in a world of the afore-mentioned torture porn and cruel violence appearing regularly on our screens, which is not to mention the circulation of atrocity videos online (even if taken down soon after being put up).

Notably, in the lobby of Alex’s run-down apartment block, the phrase ‘suck it and see’ has also been graffitied on to a faux classical mural, on to which numerous cocks have also been drawn. Of course, and to evoke the title of another film currently in theatres, ‘suck ’em and see’ was soon co-opted into the language of advertising for Fishermen’s Friends (as John Ó Maoilearca reminded us during the BFI event), as well as being the title of an album by the Arctic Monkeys. Capital takes all oppositional protests and turns then into new markets.

At the BFI event, Lucy Bolton contended that A Clockwork Orange is still shocking, in particular in terms of the treatment that women receive in the film. I agree with her, and think that Kubrick also struggles with replicating violence towards women rather than offering a comment on or critique of it in this film.

But if I also suggested during our discussion of the film that shocking images have become normal within the context of our contemporary sleepless society, it is not that they do not shock us anymore – but that shock itself becomes normal, as we experience shock after shock after shock, such that shock becomes the norm and we accept right-wing politics because we have no energy left to fight against it.

Is cinema not also part, therefore, of the ‘shock doctrine‘? (This reminds me of a very old blog post I once wrote.) In this way, cinema plays its role in establishing the logic of violence in contemporary society.

We are never entirely certain as to why the Ludovico technique fails and Alex retrieves his excitement in relation to sex and violence.

In part this may be a result of the shock experienced after a failed suicide attempt (he jumps from the window of Frank Alexander’s house after a second chance encounter with him).

But it may also be because of Ludwig Van Beethoven. For, during his Ludovico sessions, Alex complains bitterly that Beethoven is used as the score for the films that he sees. (‘He did no harm to anyone. Beethoven just wrote music.’)

Brodsky speculates that this might help with the treatment, but it also reveals that a certain amount of contingency is at work here; Alex is not controlled by the Ludovico technique, which wears off – and perhaps it does so because of Beethoven, whose music ultimately prevents it from working rather than helping it, thanks to its previous pleasurable association with ultraviolence.

Sound is thus key to A Clockwork Orange, which features some amazing use of Foleyed footsteps and the violent sound in Alexander’s house of a glass bottle clanking on a glass table.

But one sound that features regularly in the film and which I should like to highlight is the sound of belching. It is with an analysis of belching that I should like to draw this blog post to a close.

Eugenie Brinkema has written about eructions in philosophy and cinema, charting in particular how the hiccups and belches of Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium perhaps chart how the body always rebels against attempts to control it, and that such gurgles and belches are meaningless in the face of philosophy’s attempts to chart and/or to create meaning.

More than this, the belch also functions as a challenge to the perceived hierarchy that knowledge is primarily a visual phenemenon (Brinkema establishes this hierarchy through an analysis of the work of Sigmund Freud). There are other, ‘lower’ ways of engaging with the world – and cinema uses them, even though we tend to think of it as a visual medium.

Not only does A Clockwork Orange sound, then, but perhaps it also tastes and smells, and what it tastes and smells might be a bit disgusting (dis-gust = ‘bad taste’) – and deliberately so, as made clear by the emphasis on belching, eating, open mouths and porous bodies that seep, and Alex who revels in ooze.

Indeed, when Alex is beaten while in custody, he positively smiles when spat upon by Detective Constable Tom (Steven Berkoff), while it is also here that he burps in the latter’s face.

In addition to this belch, the inmates also burp and fart during the afore-mentioned service in the prison.

Finally, Alex also belches and retches when exposed to the desire to commit acts of violence, including sex, after the Ludovico treatment.

Where belching was oppositional to power (belching at Tom, belching at the prison chaplain, played by Godfrey Quigley), now it has become an expression of subjugation to power. This in turn suggests again that perhaps the belch always was part of the society of consumerism and consumption. That it, like violence, is the logical expression of the contemporary world, and not really oppositional at all.

Nonetheless, Kubrick does, as mentioned, seem once again to be determined to show us this world in all of its disgustingness – even as his film is highly stylised and comic-like.

‘Shut your filthy hole, you scum!’ screams the Chief Guard (Michael Bates) while Alex is in Wandsworth.

And yet, this is precisely what Alex does not do, with his mouth remaining agape at the film’s end as he is fed hospital food by a government minister (Anthony Sharp).

Note that Alex gets fed a lot during the film, while his anger is most carefully aroused – and conveyed – after returning home from prison, by the sound of toast munching by Joe, played by Clive Francis, who has moved into his room.

In that same scene, Alex’s father (Philip Stone) gawps at Alex with his mouth almost permanently open, while the Chief Guard’s own ‘filthy hole’ also often remains wide open, especially when staring at a woman (Virginia Wetherell) trying to tempt Alex into arousal during a demonstration of the success of the Ludovico technique.

That is, humans belch, drop their jaws, and generally are imperfect. We eat and consume, including consuming cinema (we ‘binge’ on movies, with edit also being the third person singular for eating in Latin)… perhaps to the point of being sated, or beyond such a point, to the extent that we feel nauseous and vomit. Perhaps that is the point of satire: over-consumption to the point of gaseous and/or liquid eruction.

In Twelfth Night, Sir Toby Belch is defined as a character who celebrates ‘contagious breath,’ while also being interested in food and wine (‘With drinking healths to my niece: I’ll drink to / her as long as there is a passage in my throat’).

A bawd, then, Belch is the opposite of the relatively effete Orsino, who famously pines that ‘if music be the food of love, play on.’

Rather than being the food of romantic love, though, music in A Clockwork Orange is for Alex – and for us viewers – the food of violence. Furthermore, food provokes belching, and so belching is almost certainly the music of food, and perhaps even the true music of love (a love that is, like an open mouth, agape?).

If belching be the music of ultraviolence and the ‘old in out,’ then Alex will play on. And the ‘in out’ extends beyond sex and sexual violence, and into the language of the institutions that the film portrays: ‘What’s it going to be then? Is it going to be in and out of institutions like this?’ asks the prison chaplain (emphasis added).

Not only are institutions thus ways to discipline the body to be violent, and to desire violence especially towards women, but so might cinema – as Kubrick, with Alcott, tries potentially to establish by having his camera so regularly itself zoom and/or track in and out (the three opening scenes all start with an outward zoom, with the camera thus performing the ‘in and out,’ as if the film, too, were in some senses violating us).

‘Violence is a very horrible thing. That’s what you’re learning now. Your body is learning it,’ declares Brodsky’s colleague, Dr Branom (Madge Ryan).

Perhaps Kubrick wants us to feel in our bodies a sense of disgust, a bad taste, as we are reminded that the control of our bodies is perhaps a denial of our bodies, and that we must celebrate our body’s unruliness, we must feel our bodies rebel against us and feel unpleasant, rather than be programmed via taking pleasure in cinematic violence into the ways of violent society.

If A Clockwork Orange tries to show the mechanisms at work in the establishment of a white, patriarchal and violent society, then perhaps the film’s black humour, twinned quite deliberately with disgusting violence, can be or become a belch, making it a belch of a film that through its own imperfections reminds us of our own imperfections, suggesting directly that we are Alex’s brothers and that we are the murderers as we are interpellated into its male-dominated society.

Conceivably this message is lost, not least as audiences often recall only the first half of the film with its ultraviolence – as one audience member also pointed out at the BFI. Or perhaps we simply now live in an era of shamelessness as opposed to being ashamed at sensing our own propensity for violence.

But I think that there is evidence that Kubrick is trying (and perhaps inevitably failing) to do something more critical than replicating a society of ultraviolence – perhaps even implicating Burgess himself in this failure as the director changes Alex’s name from Alexander DeLarge (which he announces upon arrival in prison) to Alexander Burgess (as the press call him when he becomes a political pawn as a result of the suffering he has undergone during the Ludovico treatment).

If not a glorious, maybe A Clockwork Orange is nonetheless an ignominious failure. But in failing, it reminds us all too much that humans burp, and that the orang perhaps cannot be clockwork.

Maybe the film’s shocks are dated and outmoded since they have become doctrine.

But Kubrick tries to get us to think about this world – to get us not just to gawp unthinkingly at violence ourselves, but to consume it to the point of belching, choking, perhaps even vomiting.

As a testament to this positive spin on the film, I wagered at the BFI event that c100 people attended the Philosophical Screens discussion in the BFI’s Green Room, which sits directly under Waterloo Bridge. Such strong attendance would suggest that plenty of cinema goers want not just unthinkingly to consume cinema, but also to turn it into a philosophical experience – and one that includes not just abstracted thought, but thinking through the body.

And where the Green Room normally hums with the vibrations of traffic passing overhead, on 16 April 2019 it was virtually silent as traffic was suspended thanks to the Extinction Rebellion protests and protestors not 10 feet above us.

In a world of shocks and violence, peaceful and thoughtful protest, much like thoughtfulness itself (a love of knowledge and a knowledge of love), might yet prove to be transformative forces.

Happy New Year, Colin Burstead (Ben Wheatley, UK, 2018)

Blogpost, British cinema, Film reviews, Uncategorized

In 2018, I published an essay called ‘From Down Terrace to High-Rise: The “Unreal Estate” Cinema of Ben Wheatley’ in James Harvey’s edited collection, Nationalism in Contemporary Western European Cinema.

What is more, I am due to give a talk about this essay at the British Film Institute on Monday 14 January (if you are reading this ahead of the event, then tickets are available here!).

However, given that Ben Wheatley’s new film is currently available on the BBC iPlayer (and until 28 January 2019), I wonder that I might talk about that film – not least because it chimes with much of what I have to say about Wheatley’s cinema.

And so this blog can in some senses function as a written version of that talk, in which I shall suggest (or will have suggested) that Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is not so much a step backwards for Wheatley (who ‘returns’ to the UK after Free Fire, UK, 2016, which although British-backed was set in Boston and featured a host of international stars, including Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Brie Larsen and Cillian Murphy), but rather something of a summation of his work to date.

For, as I suggest in my essay, Wheatley’s films return relatively obsessively to the concept of real estate and the home – as things that in principle should be markers of a stable territory, and thus points of certitude, but which in Wheatley’s anarchic cinema are often revealed to be unstable and thus in some senses unreal.

More than this, Wheatley is basically sensitive to how claims to own land are claims to shape reality; that is, the ‘real’ of real estate is a term used to convince people that the ownership of land and property is legitimate – even if historically the ownership of all land is based on exploitation and theft.

For, no one actually owns any land at all – unless you can convince people that this otherwise free Earth that we can cross in any direction we please is in fact divided up into territories that you may or may not be able to enter, depending on whether you have the right kind of pass or credentials.

If you do believe that these bounded territories are real, then ‘real estate’ has done its ideological trick, since it has not only made you believe, but it also has made you modify your behaviour and actions based upon this belief. That is, estates are made real because you have swallowed and embodied the notion of ownership.

This is not necessarily for the bad. For, in believing in the ownership of space, you may then also make a home – and believe that this space is yours and yours alone (every Englishman’s home is his castle)… and be happy with that space, even as others grab vast terrains of land and claim it as their own, and only lease to you your land for 99 years.

However, given that Wheatley’s cinema repeatedly sees people violate private spaces and begin to see that estate is in fact unreal, this also means beginning to see that the world is carved up by powerful agents who need you to believe in their legitimacy – otherwise they will no longer have any claim to exploit that land, together with your brain and body as you allow them to do so because you accept that the estate is real and walk around it or do not enter it because it is theirs and not yours, even though the land belongs to no one, as mentioned.

Working through Down Terrace (UK, 2009), Kill List (UK, 2011), Sightseers (UK, 2012), A Field in England (UK, 2013) and High-Rise (UK/Belgium/Ireland, 2015), I suggest that Wheatley’s cinema is somehow meaningful in the era of Brexit and Grenfell Tower, given that Brexit has for many British people a core sense of reclaiming land for themselves from Europe, with the Grenfell disaster seeing many people homeless even though numerous apartments and houses lie empty in the very same area of London (North Kensington) – owned, but not occupied, and not occupy-able because owned.

In other words, Wheatley’s cinema has something to teach us at a time when we seemingly continue to believe and thus to accept as real claims to national territory and private property. As per the title of James Harvey’s edited collection, this then means that Wheatley does chart the ongoing notion of nationalism within the contemporary UK.

Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is about property and homes – especially as they relate to family. The very first image that we see is of a house, out of which Colin (Neil Maskell) then appears with a cup of tea and a Vape (we see him exhale smoke in slow motion).

Colin has arranged a New Year’s Eve party for his family at Penn Castle on the Isle of Portland in Dorset, the choice of which location I shall explore more in detail below.

Travelling mainly down from Brighton or thereabouts, Colin is joined by his wife, Val (Sura Dohnke), and their daughter Fran (Nicole Nettleingham), as well as his parents, Sandy (Doon  Mackichan) and Gordon (Bill Paterson), and his sister Gini (Hayley Squires) and her partner Warren (Mark Monero).

Also present are Sandy’s friends, Maya (Sudha Bhuchar) and Nikhil (Vincent Ebrahim), together with their ne’er-do-well son, Sham (Asim Chaudhry), Jimmy (Peter Ferdinando) and Ed (Joe Cole), who seem to be cousins of some sort, and cross-dressing Uncle Bertie (Charles Dance).

Finally, the group is rounded off by Paula (Sarah Baxendale), who is the ex-wife of David (Sam Riley), Colin’s estranged brother and the black sheep of the family, who turns up at Gini’s request with his German girlfriend Hannah (Alexandra Maria Lara).

What is more, the castle is run by Lord Richard (Richard Glover) and one of Colin’s exes, Lainey (Sinead Matthews), who also has had a relationship with Sham, who basically crashes the party in a bid to get back together with her.

***Spoilers***

As hopefully is clear, then, the scene is set for a total clusterfuck of a party as Gordon tries unsuccessfully to tap Colin for some money to save him from losing his house, and as Val finds out about Colin’s past with Lainey.

What is more, Bertie is dying, Sham has lost his job, Gini and Warren bicker about the latter’s inability to do anything, and David has slept with at least three people at the party, including Paula (with whom he has a child), Hannah, and, a late revelation to the audience, Val.

Colin has, nonetheless, managed to steady and maintain his relationship with Val, with whom he has had a second child, Baby Jamie (Marvin Maskell). But this does not stop him from eventually having to walk away from his family.

Indeed, as David comes through at the last to help Gordon, it would seem that he (at the behest of Hannah, perhaps) has a stronger sense of family than Colin, whose final words he shouts to the sea: fuck them!

In other words, while David clearly does not necessarily respect boundaries when it comes to women, he nonetheless does after five years want to re-become and to remain part of his family, especially as his mother Sandy also seems to have had a tough year, perhaps struggling with illness.

That said, there does remain some interesting ambiguity around Colin’s relationship with Lainey, for example, through whom he hires the castle and who acts as caterer for the party… apparently he has done this to help her out, but perhaps there is more to that relationship than meets the eye… meaning that Colin may not only stray himself, but also that he, too, does not believe in the fixity of family.

Indeed, while our sympathies waver in terms of how we feel about all of the characters, ultimately the film opens up the possibility that, as per Down Terrace, a loving relationship can in fact supersede a sense of family. In other words, there are no rules and nothing is fixed or guaranteed – not the love of a family and certainly not the reality of home.

And so it is to the film’s take on property that I should like to turn. For, Penn Castle is clearly impressive and a much bigger home than those typically inhabited by all of the characters in the film, including, as we subsequently discover, Lord Richard.

First sight of the castle prompts comments from various characters, with Sandy managing somehow to trip up on the small step that leads up to its doorway, meaning that she subsequently spends a portion of the film in a wheelchair found in a shed.

Indeed, this ‘accident’ (which Colin amusingly finds tiresome and all-too-predictable) would suggest that Sandy does not feel at home in this space, instead somehow intimidated by it – in thrall to the way in which architecture is often designed in order to elicit precisely such a response. For, if one is made to feel uncomfortable (or even comfortable) in lavish spaces, then one is halfway towards believing that estates are real.

The castle similarly evokes an aggressive response from Jimmy, who later tries to intimidate Lord Richard by claiming that he has been to the castle before – for a rave, at which he bought a dud pill, supposedly from Richard.

What is more, this use of space to intimidate people is felt by Gini, who believes that Colin has given her and Warren the smallest bedroom precisely to put her in her place.

In other words, there is tension in the film between how the organisation of space is trying and in some ways succeeding in making us feel (that estates are real, that the social order is timeless and unchangeable), and how people want to feel (that they can be and do anything and go anywhere).

Indeed, a rave is precisely an event that reappropriates private property and uses it for a semi-public purpose (even though many raves are ticketed and guarded, which in some senses and paradoxically defeats what I would take to be one of their primary purposes: to disrespect property rules and the notion of private space).

Not even Richard, however, is lord of this manor. He is, as he confesses at one point to Lainey, a ‘piss poor’ (but genuine) Lord who lives in significantly smaller digs abutting the castle, and who has started to host events like this as a means to stay afloat.

In other words, Lords are no longer the rulers that they used to be – but this is not as a result of the abolition of systems of ownership and power. Rather, Richard has simply been superseded by the company/corporation that now runs the castle, selling to families like the Bursteads the carnivalesque illusion that they, too, can be lords – even if only for a day.

It seems only to be David who feels no intimidation, with Hannah describing him at one points as being like a puppy shitting on the carpet – since he knows no boundaries and observes no rules, except at the last the rule of filiality, as he comes through for his father.

David is also associated with a space that is the opposite of a private house, namely the public house that he goes to for a drink after his first confrontation with Colin. Indeed, as he later invites all of the pub-goers, including a local band, to come back to the party at the castle, we get a sense that David endorses a kind of spatial free-for-all – a rave, if you will, that perhaps also extends to his thinking about money. That is, perhaps David supports his father not so much out of a sense of filial duty, but also because money is meaningless rather than a necessary possession to him (although this latter point might be a bit of an overstatement based on the evidence that Wheatley presents to us).

Richard at one point makes the obvious joke that Burstead sounds a bit like bastard, calling the Bursteads a bunch of bastards as he shows Lainey his modest living quarters.

But beyond a joke, the pun is also telling in that a bastard is of course an illegitimate child who challenges the notion of family, suggesting a far more complex and real world, in which there are no real rules, even if we all act as if there were. The Bursteads may well be bastards, then, in the sense that they do feel in some senses outsiders and alone in the world, perhaps with only each other for support (and Colin perhaps with less than that come the film’s end).

This profound sense of loneliness (we are all ultimately on our own and have no one to help us) chimes with what I would call Wheatley’s ‘atheism,’ by which I mean to say that his cinema does not respect the gods who claim that estates are real, and who in some senses – as an autodidactic filmmaker – does not respect the gods of cinema.

Perhaps the film’s form can therefore be understood as reinforcing this lack of rules. There clearly seems to have been a lot of improvisation in the film – with the actors being credited at the end for having provided additional material on top of Wheatley’s own script.

Not only does improv suggest a refusal to stick to the script, which gives to cinema a life that is ruleless (anything could happen), but this also means that Wheatley almost by definition has to edit the film rapidly (in a fashion that for some might be ‘excessively choppy’), and that cinematographer Laurie Rose also has almost by definition to film handheld so that he can respond to and find the details in the performances that are taking place.

Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is clearly redolent of Thomas Vinterberg’s dogme ’95 classic, Festen/The Celebration (Denmark/Sweden, 1998), not only in its tale of family disharmony at a special gathering, but also in its use of handheld cameras and naturalistic performances. Although Wheatley is not a ‘dogmatic’ filmmaker, Happy New Year… does in some senses share with Vinterberg and the other founders of the famous Danish film movement an irreverence towards the cinematic establishment, with the film moving so fast at times that it becomes hard to follow (for example, I am still not sure why Jimmy and Ed are at the party, nor really why Maya and Nikhil got invited, even though my family also has ‘members’ who are not related by blood at all and yet who come along to every gathering that we have – and they are thus family members).

Indeed, if Happy New Year, Colin Burstead recalls a Danish film, it clearly also is exploring a relationship between the UK and Europe, as is made clear by David’s relationship with Hannah, as well, in a more muted fashion, Colin’s relationship with Val, in that Sura Dohnke is Belgian, which creates a strange resonance with Kill List, in which Neil Maskell’s wife is played by Swedish actress, MyAnna Buring, in an equally understated fashion.

Indeed, perhaps the film would wish to suggest that who is British and who is European is indeed almost impossible at times to tell – with the Asian heritage of Maya, Nikhil and Sham also suggesting a Britain that has no pure or precise characteristics, with Mark Monero’s presence and Charles Dance’s turn as a transvestite also troubling any idea that Britain is a nation of straight white people.

In a truly touching and climactic moment, David sits at a piano and sings a song that he has written for Sandy – with shades of Sam Riley’s turn as Ian Curtis in Anton Corbijn’s Control (UK/USA/Australia/Japan/France, 2007) coming through. After he has finished, Hannah sings ‘Die Gedanken sind frei,’ a German traditional, the title of which translates as ‘thoughts are free.’

Hannah sings the first three verses:-

Die Gedanken sind frei, wer kann sie erraten,
sie fliegen vorbei wie nächtliche Schatten.
Kein Mensch kann sie wissen, kein Jäger sie schießen
mit Pulver und Blei: Die Gedanken sind frei!

Ich denke was ich will und was mich beglücket,
doch alles in der Still’, und wie es sich schicket.
Mein Wunsch und Begehren kann niemand verwehren,
es bleibet dabei: Die Gedanken sind frei!

Und sperrt man mich ein im finsteren Kerker,
das alles sind rein vergebliche Werke.
Denn meine Gedanken zerreißen die Schranken
und Mauern entzwei: Die Gedanken sind frei!

… which translate as follows…

Thoughts are free, who can guess them?
They fly by like nocturnal shadows.
No person can know them, no hunter can shoot them
with powder and lead: Thoughts are free!

I think what I want, and what delights me,
still always reticent, and as it is suitable.
My wish and desire, no one can deny me
and so it will always be: Thoughts are free!

And if I am thrown into the darkest dungeon,
all these are futile works,
because my thoughts tear all gates
and walls apart: Thoughts are free!

The last lines are in particular resonant for my argument here: Wheatley believes that thoughts can tear gates and walls apart, even as walls and gates are put up, kept and thus in some senses are real – as Bertie goes on to affirm immediately afterwards by saying how much he loves his family, which then leads into the New Year’s countdown, a rendition of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and the year ends as a new door opens (January being derived from the Latin ianua, meaning door).

There are several references to Brexit in the film, with Colin calling Gini a ‘remoaner’ and Fran suggesting a lack of interest in politics by saying ‘fuck Labour and fuck the Tories.’ What is more, while this political context does form the backdrop for the film, there are some very and specifically British touches/references in the film – for example, Colin’s invocation of 1970s stand-up comedian Norman Collier, whose ‘broken microphone’ routine he re-enacts to pretend that the phone line is not working clearly.

(Indeed, it is a relatively common trait throughout the film for Colin not to listen. He puts on earphones at the film’s start, before shutting Val in a larder once they reach the castle; he avoids David for as long as he can, enlisting Sham to help him… and so while I wish to come back positively to Colin, in some senses he perhaps does epitomise Brexit Britain, right down to the hypocrisy of having a Belgian partner.)

Happy New Year… also involves Wheatley’s trademark use of British folk music on the soundtrack (which also was composed by Clint Mansell), with the film ending with that staple title card from British sitcoms ‘You have been watching…’

In other words, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is as British as the BBC, which produced the film, and yet it also suggests something non- or post-British as it analyses how walls and gates delimit our thinking and create an island mentality, while at the same time pushing for more open, free and ‘European’ thinking.

I suggest in my essay on Wheatley that the use of folk music in A Field in England in particular takes us back to pre-monarchic times – which is apt for a film set during the English civil war. Perhaps here they do something similar, while the setting at Penn Castle and on Portland Bill does something similar, which I shall turn to now, as promised.

For, Penn Castle is the former home of John Penn, whose family founded and colonised Pennsylvania – before being turfed out following America’s own civil war. This in and of itself suggests a history of colonialism, land-grabbing as the foundation of the British Empire, and also revolution against such tactics.

But more than this, the island setting and the presence of the sea, at which Colin shouts at the film’s end, suggests a different world that is not defined by solid walls, but which instead is liquid, always shifting and, like thought, oceanic.

Dorset, meanwhile, takes its name from the county town of Dorchester, which not only is the name of a posh London hotel into which only moneyed elites can go, but it is also the modern version of Durnovaria, from the Romano-British duro-, meaning ‘walled town.’

That is, Dorset is a place of walls, while Portland Bill is a kind of exception to that. More than this, Dorset also recalls the idea of the dorsal, the backbone and thus of the vertebrate; perhaps’s humanity’s bone structure is itself part and parcel of how and why we think in terms of walls and fixity, property and privacy, turning and returning (our time is structured like our space: with barriers and divisions, rather than waves of time lapping and washing over us).

To think in an invertebrate fashion, away from the hard land and instead in the fathoms of the sea, is perhaps to think in a different, ‘improper’ way (to think improperly is perhaps necessary to think outwith and to outwit the concept of property), with Colin (whose name is also French for hake, even as it is a diminutive of Nicolas) rejecting the vertebrate notion of family and instead trying to rework his identity, even as this perhaps tragically leaves him isolated and alone.

He stands on Portland Bill’s Chesil Beach on England’s Jurassic Coast, shouting at the English channel. Where Ian McEwan’s novel and the subsequent film, On Chesil Beach (Dominic Cooke, UK, 2017), tell a story of a couple refusing to have sex, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead tells a story of bastards who are fucking irrespective of the law – in language and in deed.

Where McEwan/Cooke create a typical British heritage film that is white and virginal, clean and pretty, even as it includes McEwan’s weirdly prudish leaking of desire, Wheatley’s is a coarser but in many ways far more honest and embodied cinema that shows and acts upon desire, rather than dying tragically without having done anything about it. In this sense, Wheatley’s cinema is vibrant and alive, whilst Cooke’s cinéma de papa is tired and dying.

The Jurassic Beach also recalls a history much longer than simply the presence of humans on Earth (the so-called anthropocene), fitting Wheatley’s fictional world into a universe where there are no boundaries and not even the human race is permanent (and in this sense, Colin’s presence on the beach at the end might well help in getting us to see that there are no rules – not of space, not of time, not of family, not of species).

Working with regulars Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Neil Maskell, Mark Monero and Sam Riley, together with Laurie Rose on the camera as usual, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead does nonetheless involve some new directions for Wheatley, including writing the script without his partner Amy Jump (who produced) and with no part in the film for Michael Smiley.

(Small wonder that Wheatley is slated to direct a remake of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, another tale of real estate as Manderlay dominates the lives of the de Winters. Hopefully his version will be less heritage than most other literary adaptations!)

All the same, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead also functions as a summation in many ways of various of the anarchic and ‘atheistic’ ideas that circulate throughout his œuvre. Channeling other recent films like Archipelago (Joanna Hogg, UK, 2010) and The Party (Sally Potter, UK, 2017), as well as the ongoing work of Mike Leigh (whose influence was especially recognised with Sightseers), Wheatley remains one of the most interesting and innovative voices in British filmmaking (even if watching a film on iPlayer shows some irreverence towards what we used to call cinema).

Given the shit that we are about to face as we leave the European Union (the storming of the Houses of Parliament notwithstanding), Wheatley’s is perhaps the most important cinematic voice to be talking at the moment. Happy New Year. Let’s hope some walls come crumbling down and that some doors and gates get opened – otherwise 2019 might well be a year to forget. Die Gedanken sind frei!

Female Human Animal (Josh Appignanesi, Mexico/UK, 2018)

Blogpost, British cinema, Film reviews, Latin American cinema, Uncategorized

I’ve been meaning to write a few blogs recently, and am only now getting around to it. But I did want to write a couple of brief thoughts about Josh Appignanesi’s Female Human Animal, mainly in light of its treatment of plastic.

The film tells the story of Chloe (Chloe Aridjis), who is a writer and curator who is helping to organise a retrospective of the relatively forgotten surrealist painter Leonora Carrington at Tate Liverpool.

As the film progresses, however, we begin also to see develop Chloe’s relationship with a German/Austrian man (Marc Hosemann), who is kind of stalking her – although she may also be stalking him… and in such a way that we begin to be uncertain about what is real and what is not.

The film is rich in symbolism, especially through its use of animals, including a tarantula that at one point appears… while also being something of a contemplation of what it means to be single and/or not a mother at an age that many would consider to be suitable for bearing children (I do not share this view, but I express it as a view that a good number of people share, supposedly with biology to support them – and I say ‘supposedly’ not because I think that biology is wrong, but because each human’s biology is different and perhaps not even determined on a personal, let alone on a species, level).

Indeed, at one point, we see Chloe on a stage in a club where suddenly she has to perform on a microphone. Behind the stage the word moth is written in large letters. To make a pun of the sort that psychoanalysis loves, to be a mother is to be more than a moth… and so while not a biological mother, perhaps Chloe is herself the moth (moth, not moth-er)… on stage and under scrutiny like moths pinned to a board by an entomologist for study and display.

The surrealism of the film (what is real? what not?) is exacerbated by some interesting moments that push language to its limits. In games of the ilk played in his work by Eugene Ionesco, characters repeat words over an over again (‘perhaps,’ ‘so’), lending to Female Human Animal an oneiric/dream-like quality that makes a mockery of language and thus takes us into the realm of the inexpressible… perhaps taking us closer to what it is like to be Chloe, while also recalling the influence of Carrington.

But this evasion or twisting of language is also reflected in the fabric of the film itself. For Female Human Animal is also shot on videotape as opposed to on polyester or even digital memory cards. In this way, the film as a whole defies film, exploiting instead a supposedly ‘obsolescent’ material that is reworked to create something remarkable (much as Chloe herself is, as Kinneret Lahad might put it, ‘still single’ – and thus ‘obsolete,’ but also highly creative).

And this brings me to the insistent use of plastic in the film. For on numerous occasions we see sheets of transparent plastic filling sections or all of the screen, including when Chloe first meets the man, as well as in a sequence where Chloe herself wears a transparent plastic Mac.

Indeed, the film ends with images of plastic production at a factory – images that seem otherwise disconnected from the surrealist narrative that has preceded them.

What to make of such a motif?

Well, in part it reminds us of the plastic nature of the contemporary world: synthetic products are filling our lands and our seas, as well as surely creeping into our bodies and blood streams via micro plastics and other materials that may well end up choking us, as if plastic were itself some sort of alien intelligence slowly invading and overtaking our planet. The sort of idea that Reza Negarestani might have.

The plastic sheets on the screen literally distort our vision of what lies beyond them, thus bringing into question the validity of our vision. That is, plastic has changed the way that we see the world, with humans beginning to take plastic as natural when in fact it is not (with plastic thus proving that our world is in a certain sense plastic, in that its form and our perspective of it is not fixed, but rather malleable).

What is more, they also help us not to understand what is real or otherwise.

Plastic sheets and other cauls have also been used to distorting and disturbing effect in Francis Ford Coppola’s classic, The Conversation (USA, 1974), which tells the story of, er, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), who in short aspires to a position of omniscience regarding a murder mystery that befalls him, and who ends up going mad because he cannot achieve his desired position of total knowledge (frankly, who can?).

At one point in that film, we see blood across a white sheet on the screen – and the blood seems to signify how Harry is projecting the murder on to the white screen. This in turn makes us think about what cinema itself is, namely images projected on to a white screen, and which thus are not real, but which our imagination often confuses with reality (we find reality boring if it is not cinematic).

Now, the reason for mentioning The Conversation is because the use of the plastic sheet in Female Human Animal seems to be doing something similar – except that rather than depicting a white sheet that recalls the cinema screen, we see transparent plastic sheets that remind us that film itself (be that polyester or videotape) is a plastic.

Indeed, if you enter ‘film’ as a search term in Google Scholar, the first things listed are not studies of cinema but typically studies of plastics and surfaces. For, plastic is a film as film is plastic. And plastic is all surface. Whither depth in the era of plastic? Perhaps even whither plastic in the era of data?

In other words, Female Human Animal seems to be in part a sophisticated study of how human perception only allows us access to the surface of things, while also being a self-conscious exploration of cinema and video as plastic media that also can only ever explore surfaces. What lies beneath? And how to get beneath?

And yet, where Coppola uses a white sheet (and distorting windows) to suggest that cinema is perhaps like human perception a projection as much as it is a reception of information from the outside world, Appignanesi in his film oddly pushes further by insisting on the transparency of the plastic film.

In being able to see through it, with the distortions often only very subtle, Female Human Animal does a delicate and artful job rendering almost invisible the distinction between dream and reality – while also giving us pause to consider how media themselves might be films that get between us and reality, giving us a sense of separation and detachment from that reality, making it hard for us to know what is real, making us feel alienated, because these films are alien intelligences here perhaps to kill us, or at the very least to destroy the current logocentric and patriarchal order (as per the film’s exploration of a female psyche that is at odds with and which ultimately kills that phallic order, even if that phallic order is itself surrealistically weird – if it is real and more than an illusion at all).

In this way, Female Human Animal is a kind of anti-cinematic (or what I might term non-cinematic) piece that uses non-film to make a film that is very much about film and the filmic nature of the contemporary world.

Towards a natural language of cinema: Island (Steven Eastwood, UK, 2017)

Blogpost, British cinema, Documentary, Film reviews, Uncategorized

Steven Eastwood’s Island is a documentary about death and dying. It is set on the UK’s Isle of Wight, where we follow four main people, Alan, Jamie, Roy and Mary, as they suffer from terminal diseases.

The film is sensitive and beautiful, although surely it may not be for everyone given its subject matter and different people’s experiences of/with death and/or their attitudes towards it.

It is not that one can really give spoilers for a film that is about death and dying; the inevitable is bound to happen. And yet, I shall be discussing the last images of this film later on in this blog, so be warned that it does reveal in some respects how the film ends.

However, I would like to start with the opening image, which is of a ferry emerging from fog as it heads towards the Isle of Wight. For, what I wish to suggest in this blog is that cinema can offer us a natural language, not in the popular sense that everyone can more or less understand it, but in the sense that the world (nature) possesses a kind of language that is there for us to decipher if we so choose to. In this way, not only can cinema help paradoxically connect us to the natural world, but it can show us not just metaphors of the world, but a sense of its natural language. That is, cinema can be a system not just for symbols and meaning, but for a sort of folk or natural wisdom.

In order to take our first steps in this direction, let us consider the opening image. Fog is of course an indicator of mystery, and thus the arrival of the unknown, while the ferry signifies transition as one passes over the sea from one location to the next. Meanwhile, the sea itself suggests a realm that is more or less alien to the human. Yes, we can swim and we have invented submarines, but on the whole the depth of the ocean remains hard for humans to fathom. In this sense, the ocean represents a sort of alien presence, something along the surface of which we can drift, but down into which we cannot descend without often dying.

From its opening image, then, Island suggests the arrival of the unknown, almost invisible because shrouded in fog, and yet which is here perhaps to transport us into a new dimension.

We might say that the film therefore deals in metaphors, or at the very least that it offers us a specifically human perspective on matters (since fog is not necessarily mysterious to fog itself, just as the depths of the ocean are not alien to giant squids; that is, the meaning of fog is different to different species). Nonetheless, the film invites us to connect with the world presented in these images, and to read fog, the sea and a ferry not just in a literal sense, but in terms of what they mean… what they say to us about our own relationship with the world.

There is a discussion of fairies and then angels in the film. As the French philosopher Michel Serres might suggest, angels are evidence of and provide scope for us to perceive hidden dimensions within our world. It is not that we see cherubs with halos as per classical religious iconography. Rather, every encounter that we have and which allows us to see the world anew is in effect an encounter with an angel; marvelling over a gust of wind, overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers, seeing an animal up close. In other words, angels open up new angles of the world, showing us hidden dimensions that lie within plain sight, and yet which often we do not see. To see an otherwise hidden dimension, then, is not suddenly to find secret realities in the sense of popular science fiction film. Rather, it is to realise how limited my vision is of reality when I do not notice animals for what they are, when I do not consider the importance of the wind and when I do not expect strangers to be kind. To be reminded of those things reveals to us the limited nature of our own vision, allowing us to see reality with fresh eyes, renewing us thanks to this encounter with the alien angel that takes us out of our fixed selves and in the process reminds us precisely that we are not fixed, but always changing. In this sense, an encounter with an angel is to experience time, to be in what Alan in the film describes as the now – rather than perceiving reality only in terms of what we want to get out of it (projecting the future on to the present) or in terms of how we have seen it in the past (projecting the past on to the present). To be in the presence of angels is to feel presence.

These hidden dimensions, then, are not hidden from the world; they are simply hidden from us owing to the limitations of our vision, limitations that are not just biological but also shaped by culture. These dimensions are, like the character of Nothing in Boris ‘s In Praise of Nothing (Serbia/Croatia/France, 2017), which also is in cinemas at present and which makes for an interesting companion to Island, around us at all times.

Death itself, then, is also an alien and mysterious other that we typically do not see, and yet which is perhaps always only ever with us. Indeed, if time is change, or becoming, then that which is at any given moment in time must die, and that which was not comes into existence, or is born. Death is everywhere and everywhen – and Island helps us to understand that.

For, humanity may fetishise the dry land of life, but it is only an island surrounded by death. But more than this, as the road leads directly into the sea without a clear cut-off point between the two, so does life lead into death and vice versa.

Indeed, as John Donne famously said, no man is an island. Humans are all porous, consistently excreting liquids and gases via their major orifices and through their very skin. Humans try to close themselves off in many ways – including via the way in which they cocoon themselves away from death. And yet they never succeed, since humans are always being opened up.

To become an island, to separate life from death, to shut oneself off from others is to be closed. To be open, though, is to have open eyes, an open mouth, to cry, to scream, in short to feel and thus to live, to be alive. To be alive is to be open to death. And to live is to be open to others in terms of both giving and receiving, to be an angel to all those around us just as all those around us can be angels to us.

The Greeks described the highest form of love as ἀγάπη, or ‘agape,’ and which consisted of charity: to be open to or to be an angel to others in the form of giving. As Alan dies, his mouth also lies agape; he is open, including being open to death.

More than this. As Alan dies we hear director Steven Eastwood begin to snore as he has fallen asleep in the room with Alan. It is oddly as if as Alan lies agape and breathes his last, Eastwood’s mouth itself falls open and he begins to receive Alan’s breath – as if the latter were an angel opening up Eastwood and the viewer of Island to new dimensions, to seeing that death is normal and everywhere and not a strange, alien object that we relegate to another dimension.

Remarkably, as Alan dies a nurse enters the room and stands in front of the camera, thereby making the film’s frame turn black. Alan’s open mouth has already been a black hole, a void, an impenetrable presence within the film’s frame – and now the whole frame goes black.

The nurse says that Alan is dead – before curiously saying that another breath may yet be drawn. The boundary between life and death is perhaps, like the human, itself porous. And darkness is not what lies beyond the frame or which cinema destroys by shining a light on to it; rather, darkness is within the frame.

Even if only by chance, then Island allows us to see the darkness that is not just there at night (and which through electric lighting we try to relegate and banish from our world, meaning that we cannot see the stars), but which perhaps also is always with us, like the void that is Alan’s open mouth.

That Eastwood sleeps – and perhaps dreams at this moment – also suggests the presence of an alien presence – not just in the sense that we might all be dreaming our lives away, but in the sense that sleep allows the brain unconsciously to store memories and so on, with dream perhaps consciously registering some of this process. As humans who bodies run more or less entirely unconsciously, we have hidden dimensions within ourselves that we do not know, which are alien to us, and yet which dream – in all of dreams’ senselessness – can reveal to us (notably Alan also discusses dreams in the film).

Owls appear at various points in the film. Steven Eastwood suggested that they have no metaphorical function within the film. But not only are they quite literally winged creatures within the film, but they also bear other qualities that bespeak a kind of natural affinity with death which means that humans will perhaps ‘naturally’ become curious about them as death becomes us.

It is not simply that owls are supposedly wise creatures. But owls also are associated with the night and seeing (in) the dark. More than this, the owl in various languages is considered to have an onomatopoeic root (‘owl’ is supposed to be not far from the bird’s call), with that root being a kind of harder ‘boo’ sound in various languages (Greek βύᾱς, Latin būbō, Spanish buhó, French hibou). In other words, as per the idea of shouting ‘boo!’ at someone or the concept of a sonic boom, the owl signals the sudden irruption of a hidden dimension within the world – with owls belonging to the order of strigiformes, with this term itself being derived from στρίγξ, or ‘strinx,’ meaning a screecher (as well as from the Latin strix, meaning a furrow, a channel or a groove, as if the owl clawed out new dimensions in old dimensions). As the Giant (Carel Struycken) says to Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) in Twin Peaks (David Lynch, USA, 1990), ‘the owls are not what they seem.’

In some senses, Island is a film about more or less unseen women preparing men for death. That is, the primarily women nurses on the Isle of Wight are angels helping men.

In this way, these angels who are open to death help to make men open to death – since it is the world of men that is the world most often closed off from death. The world of closure – man as separate from nature, man as separate from each other, man as wanting to expel darkness and death from existence in order to preserve itself forever rather than to become or to change – is thus also the world of patriarchy and capitalism. The nurses represent a different world, an open and caring world (that nonetheless increasingly in the UK is under attack as healthcare becomes increasingly privatised).

The film ends with shots of a television screen in which a documentary shows soil pushing forward fresh flowers, before the film cuts to Mary, before then ending.

Without necessarily even wanting to, then, Island suggests that with death comes rebirth and that this process is a female one. That openness to becoming is thus a more female process than it is a masculine one, even if men in death are helped by women to become open to what faces them.

(Notably, Mary had not died by the time that filming for Island had stopped.)

Thinking back to the owl, then, Island strictly (strix-ly) channels the reality that surrounds it. In this groove, we see a world in which the boundary between life and death becomes blurred, and in which a female perspective might help us to see through the patriarchal world of division and closure.

A couple of further thoughts remain.

Firstly, cotton plays a key role in the film as we see pyjamas, sheets and various other articles made of cotton covering much of the frame at various points.

What is more, we might reflect upon how if openness is in some senses a more ethical way of being with the world (being open to it, rather than shutting oneself off from it), then the film frame is always closed – a rectangular boundary separating what is in the frame from what is not in it. The frame of the cinematic image in some senses means that film only ever deals with metaphor.

Unless, that is, one breaks the frame – for example when Eastwood shares a cigarette with Alan, his hands coming into frame to hold it for him, or when we hear his voice. And of course when other figures come into frame, and when the participants in Eastwood’s documentary (perhaps including the owls) look directly at the camera and/or acknowledge the presence of their microphones.

What is more, the sheer duration of a good number of the shots – long, slow takes, with the film having only 140 or so shots in its 90-minute running time – also suggests a kind of out of the frame. Or at least an attempt to allow events to unfold at their own pace and not at that of the filmmaker. That is, reality determines the film rather than the film attempting to determine reality. By being open to this, the film does not simply offer us metaphors, but it allows the world to reveal itself and for us in some senses better to understand that world, since we see new and yet real dimensions within it, and thus come better to understand our relationship with it. If this is one of the major powers of cinema, then cinema can only do this by trying to get over or around the natural limit that is its frame – and to get us to think beyond the frame, just as Island wants us to see not just what is behind the fog, but the fog itself, and as it wants us to see not what the darkness conceals, but the darkness itself. A film that does this must be self-reflective or self-conscious, and this is truly the case with Island.

A final two thoughts.

Firstly, Isla is the name of Jamie’s daughter, whom we see singing songs from Frozen (Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, USA, 2013). One wonders whether Isla, as a female representative of the future, is also a key aspect of the demonstrating that no man is an island, even if men try to make rocks and islands of themselves (as per ‘I Am A Rock’ by Simon and Garfunkel).

4CBD958B-7A81-4CBC-8A94-735C241BE37F

Steven Eastwood (centre, with his name projected on to his head), talks with Island producer Elhum Shakerifar (left) and Chris Harris of Picturehouse Central (right) as Jamie Gunnell looks back from the screen at a preview showing of Island on 10 September 2018.

Secondly, in response to a question at a Q&A screening of Island at the Picturehouse Central on Monday 10 September 2018 and in which a viewer asked why the film did not give intertitles during or at the end explaining to audiences not just who the people in the film are, but what happened to them , Eastwood remarked  that he did not consider markers regarding names, dates and so on as being important to his project. Indeed, dates do not, it would seem, help us to understand a life.

And yet, there is a set of dates that is given in the film right at the end of its credits – those of the late filmmaker Stuart Croft to whom Island is dedicated. Not in the film, one wonders nonetheless to what extent dates are an attempt for us to make sense of the alien nature of death when we have not had a chance to confront it (let us say, to grieve). When we are open to and live through death (when in some senses we expect it), then we can reach a state of presence and of time wherein we do not need dates at all. We can escape from death as a sudden and terrifying boom, instead looking it in the eye, normalising it and finding that mere numbers do no justice to death nor to the life with which it is entangled.

The Escape (Dominic Savage, UK, 2017)

Blogpost, British cinema, Film reviews, Uncategorized

A woman is unhappy with her marriage and her children and so becomes depressed and dreams of escape.

Sound familiar?

If you are familiar with the plot of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856), then maybe you will indeed know this story.

And of course Gemma Arterton, who is the star of The Escape, played a modern-day version (of sorts) of Emma Bovary in Anne Fontaine’s Gemma Bovery (France/UK, 2014), in which Martin (Fabrice Luchini) tries to project on to Gemma the story of Emma after she and her husband (Jason Flemyng) have moved from England to live in the French countryside, where Martin works as a baker (having quit the city life some time before).

So perhaps it comes as no surprise that here Tara (Arterton) lives in an unhappy marriage with Mark (Dominic Cooper) and their two annoying kids somewhere in Kent.

Mark clearly has a decent job, even if we never find out what he does, since the house that they inhabit on their close is pretty big and they have two cars. In other words, Tara is not unhappy because of a lack of material wealth.

Mark, meanwhile, is not without his flaws. He veers between being an ignorant oik who has no interest in art and boring things like that, and actually being quite a sensitive man who wants to make an effort to understand and to improve the lot of his clearly unhappy wife…

However, for whatever reason, he does not quite have the emotional or intellectual intelligence properly to help Tara, as can be signalled by his lack of care for her pleasure when having sex and in the way that he does not let her rest at a barbecue and/or passively-aggressively complains about her not having his dinner ready.

Since Mark is, to put it bluntly, inarticulate (or what we might call ‘a bit thick’), he gets angry when he cannot help Tara, and so he lashes out. Not that he hits her, but he swears at her and puts her down, calling her stupid and deriding her artistic ambitions.

For, Tara is depressed by her repetitive life of getting the kids breakfast, taking them to school, picking them up, being treated like a shag object by Mark and so on. And she clearly dreams of doing something more creative with her time – as signalled by her aspiration to sign up for an art course after taking a day trip up to London, and as signalled by the first part of her ‘escape,’ which involves going to Paris to see tapestries that she also has read about in a book she buys on London’s South Bank.

As a study of depression, The Escape involves some very strong performances – especially from Arterton (although I shall return later to issues of accent – both in relation to her and in relation to Dominic Cooper).

However, The Escape is also not quite a study of depression, be it post-natal or otherwise. For depression does not necessarily go away if one happens to escape one’s milieu; being a psychological disorder, it is something that can follow one around and affect even the most privileged person.

**Spoilers**

In The Escape, though, the film ends with Tara having moved from Kent to London, where she lives in a massive apartment right next to a square that does not look dissimilar to somewhere like Eaton Square Gardens by Sloane Square.

She walks into the square’s gardens and turns to look at some children playing – whom we hear but do not see. It is hard to tell what Tara is thinking and feeling, but Arterton comes close to tears (there is a lot of crying in this film), suggesting that in part she misses her kids (whom, we infer, she has left with Mark).

But at the same time, the film would seem to end on a positive note: Tara has left behind her shitty working class life in Kent and now is more fulfilled, and more in her skin, living in posh ends in London. She may still get sad, but it would seem that she is no longer depressed. Meaning that The Escape is basically a fantasy of becoming (upper) middle class: when you get to live in a ridiculously large apartment in somewhere like Sloane Square, having got rid of your chavvy husband and your screaming brat chav kids, then depression melts away and you are fine.

Note that I explicitly do not want to say anything along the lines of Tara being a terrible mother for abandoning her children. I do not want to make this a critique of her character based upon some predetermined biological role that she as a female is supposed to play.

No – I am happy to take it on face value that Tara is happier without her children, and that this might indeed be the case for many people, even if The Escape would look odd when placed alongside Tully (Jason Reitman, USA, 2018), where post-natal depression gets paradoxically a much more realistic treatment, since the kids there are not depicted as such an unremitting nightmare, but are characters that can do more than just scream (but perhaps this is because they are not ill-educated chavs).

Rather, I am more concerned with how The Escape paints estuary England with such total bleakness that it is hard not to see the film ultimately as a work of complete snobbery, even if it has claims to realism.

Don’t get me wrong. I sometimes wonder how the eloquent and erudite Owen Jones (the author of Chavs) would survive if he had to spend all of his days with Mail-reading Kent and Essex boys rather than with The Guardian and Celebrity Pointless lot that are his contemporary crowd.

That is, there is an element of British society in which a kind of unconscious anti-establishment attitude emerges through wilful ignorance – even if this plays directly into the hands of the ruling classes (problematically to generalise: schools are designed deliberately to discipline working class society members, who then are betrayed by schools that do not help them and/or who betray their class by doing well at school, and who must then choose not to do well at school and/or to ditch school in an act of rebellious ignorance that then consigns them to the working class for the rest of their days, which imprisonment they will fiercely defend, hence a tendency for conservative thinking to flourish in working class areas).

By which I mean that I can sympathise with Tara wanting to do something else with her life other than knock out more kids and begin to drink gin and smoke fags in her close until she withers away.

But The Escape as a film also specifically wants us to share Tara’s desire for escape, and in this it must present to us a relatively specific vision of working class Kent life. Or rather: lower middle class Kent life, which may involve certain material trappings (nice house, two cars, coffee from a cafetières at breakfast, orange juice decanted into a jug – ‘lower’ middle class/’working class’ is not really defined here by money), but which nonetheless lacks any sensitivity or sensibility towards thought and/or art (class defined here by cultural capital, and in particular how one spends not so much one’s money, but one’s time). A life that lacks, if you will, the humanities, and thus, as the film might at times want to have us believe, (a certain type of ‘refined’) humanity.

And in performing this trick, the film becomes (for this viewer) problematic. Since surely there is so much humanity in estuary England that it need not be a world that one can only escape by moving to Paris and/or Sloane Square – as if becoming posh were the only true solution to the class problem in the UK.

Where Flaubert – in his typically misanthropic and misogynistic fashion – makes Emma suffer (and die) for her imprisonment and her aspirations (even if she is married to a dullard doctor rather than a besuited barrow boy), Tara escapes. Not that she should be deprived of any class mobility (for to suggest that we all must know and remain in our place would betray a different kind of conservatism). But her escape involves leaving chav life behind.

The Arterton star persona here becomes important. For, it is as if her physical beauty (as well as her bosom, which Savage allows to play a prominent part in many scenes, even if always covered) is being used here as a tool to help convey that Tara is better than and does not deserve this life. That is, beauty cannot survive in and does not belong to the Garden of England, but a cinematic central London Garden of Eden.

Arterton is loosely associated with Cinderella-type roles. Tamara Drewe (Stephen Frears, UK, 2010), for example, is about the transformation of Arterton from ugly duckling to beautiful swan, while Gemma Bovery also sees Martin project on to her the narrative of social climbing that Flaubert so mercilessly mocks.

That said, Arterton broke through playing a kind of troublesome private school girl in St Trinian’s (Oliver Parker and Barnaby Thompson, UK, 2007), meaning that her star persona sits somewhere uneasily between different class strata – something that also holds for Dominic Cooper, whose breakthrough role was as Dakin in The History Boys (Nicholas Hytner, UK, 2006) – in which his character wins a scholarship to Oxbridge as a result of his academic excellence.

In other words, both actors sort of connote upward mobility – which means that their very chavviness here rings somewhat false. That is, their Estuary English accents seem just a bit forced at times (to this viewer), suggesting that the film involves actors performing downwards in a film that is about a fantasy of moving upwards. While Arterton grew up in Kent and is from a relatively working class family, thereby meaning that she surely has claims to giving an authentic performance, the same performance could have been given without the forced accents. With the forced accents, the film again comes across as slightly disingenuous, condescending even – regardless of whether the emotional range of the performance(s) on offer is superb (which it is).

But more than this. What is equally interesting about The Escape is its formal features.

About halfway through the film, Tara has a conversation with her mother (Frances Barber), who explains that her life is not like a television show.

And yet, in its very domesticity, The Escape is not wholly dissimilar to British soap operas, even if it uses various stylistic features that we typically do not associate with the smaller format (slow motion shots, variable focus, extreme close ups, musical accompaniment, relatively abstract shots of the sun setting and so on).

In this way, The Escape would seem in some senses to be about the escape from television and into cinema – as if these very media were themselves representative of different classes.

It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that Tara heads to the South Bank in order to get a sense of what life might be like outside of the close. For it is on the South Bank that Mark (Michael Maloney) will hop – somewhat embarrassingly – alongside Nina (Juliet Stevenson) in Truly Madly Deeply (Anthony Minghella, UK, 1990). And it is on the South Bank that Charles (Hugh Grant) will talk to his brother David (David Bower) about love in Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell, UK, 1994). It also is on the South Bank that Alex (Alex Chevasco) will meet Patricia (Hannah Croft) in En Attendant Godard (William Brown, UK, 2009).

There are more examples, but these three will alone suffice to demonstrate that the South Bank is a middle class space that is in some respects associated with cinema – and certainly not with television. Indeed, the stall where Tara buys her book, on the cover of which is The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry from the Musée national du moyen âge in Paris, is right next door to the British Film Institute.

Gemma Arterton must be saved from television and upheld as truly cinematic. Tara, too, must be cinematic. And Tara, too, must therefore not just practice art, but also become art – which is what happens when Tara ditches Kent for Paris and meets Philippe (Jalil Lespert) at precisely the Musée national du moyen âge – after he spots her on the Boulevard St Michel.

(Is Tara suddenly finding herself inside Peter Sarstedt’s ‘Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?’ – even if that song is a critique of the emptiness of living in a fancy apartment in Paris and hanging out with Sacha Distel?)

For, Philippe is a photographer who cannot but take photos of Tara in front of The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry – because she is to beautiful. Inevitably they sleep together, then, with Tara calling herself Sam (her real self, rather than the fake woman who leads a fake life in Kent?).

(Jalil Lespert is an actor associated with upward mobility, too, owing to his role in Ressources humaines/Human Resources, Laurent Cantet, France/UK, 1999, where he plays a university graduate who must sack his own father and the rest of his workforce from the factory in which they have for many years worked – all in the name of economic rationalisation.)

And yet, this view of Paris is highly romanticised, as is clear from the homeless people that Tara passes and the beer can that nestles on a Gare du Nord cornice as she exits the station. Tara seems not to notice these ‘trash’ details, but instead falls immediately in love with the City of Lights for what it means: escape from dull and grey England.

Cinema is upheld as better than television – and Tara manages to make her life cinematic by leaving behind all that she knows in Kent. This is a far cry from that other relationship between a man and a woman who has artistic aspirations and who seeks to escape an unhappy marriage – and which is perhaps one of television’s finest achievements, namely the relationship between Tim (Martin Freeman) and Dawn (Lucy Davis) in The Office (Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, UK, 2001-2003).

In sum, then, The Escape involves a wonderful central performance from Arterton, with Cooper also being as strong as in anything else in which he features and which I have seen (the film is sympathetic to him as he cries after feeling out of place in a posh London restaurant; but he is also unredeemable, suggesting a sort of hopelessness about his character).

However, the film also would have us believe that the chav classes of the UK are a hellhole from which one must escape – televisual and bleak as opposed to beautiful and cinematic, associated with relentless interiors and small gardens as opposed to clear skies and open space.

Arguably the film stages the way in which public space is not public, but really middle class – with Tara wanting to gain access to these spaces. But she does so by leaving her Kent home behind. A study in depression that is sympathetic both to Tara and to Mark, the film nonetheless posits that the cure for all of this is to escape. And that Brexit Britain is a small-minded and awful place, with a ‘European’ sensibility being the only one that can save us. (Don’t get me wrong – I am strongly anti-Brexit; but how The Escape is quite one-sided just means that it is not the film to give pro-European views the most fair account.)

Erase and Forget (Andrea Luka Zimmerman, UK, 2017)

Blogpost, British cinema, Uncategorized

Andrea Luka Zimmerman is clearly one of the most important voices in British contemporary cinema and perhaps art more generally.

Her Taşkafa, Stories of Street (Turkey, 2013) is a fascinating investigation into the lives of street dogs in Istanbul – a precursor to Ceyda Torun’s Kedi (Turkey/USA, 2016), and in some senses unjustly overshadowed by the latter, charming though that film is.

Meanwhile, Estate, A Reverie (UK, 2015) is – alongside Enrica Colusso’s Home Sweet Home (UK, 2012) – one of the most important investigations into the condition of housing in contemporary London, focusing especially on the displacement of long-term estate residents for the purposes of renewed property development (which is perhaps a euphemistic way of saying gentrification).

With Erase and Forget, Zimmerman provides us with an investigation into the life of Bo Gritz, a former soldier who supposedly is/was the real-life inspiration for John Rambo, the maverick soldier who is the central character of such films as First Blood (Ted Kotcheff, USA, 1982), Rambo: First Blood Part II (George Pan Cosmatos, USA, 1985), Rambo III (Peter MacDonald, USA, 1988) and, latterly, Rambo (Sylvester Stallone, Germany/USA, 2008).

However, where we might expect something go an aggrandisement of heroism and service to and for one’s country, instead we have really a quite extraordinary investigation into something like post-traumatic stress disorder (I say ‘something like’ because it is not revealed ay any point whether Gritz has been diagnosed).

Zimmerman’s film is not simply remarkable for having access to a remarkable figure. Nor is it simply remarkable for having been made on a shoestring.

What equally makes Zimmerman’s film remarkable is how its lack of budget is in fact one of its chief virtues, rendering Erase and Forget not just a powerful documentary, but also in many respects a work of art. That is, it is not simply the film’s content that is remarkable, but also its form.

To describe the film’s form, I am going to use the term non-cinema.

To describe a work of cinema as non-cinema may sound like the sort of thing that a wankstain academic who has nothing to do with their time but invent poncey-sounding terms would come up with in order deliberately to confuse people and in the process endeavour to use that confusion as a way of making the reader feel stupid and thus the author to seem clever.

Perhaps it goes without saying that this is not my intention – even if, as a feeble-minded human being, this ends up being the result.

But in a bid to stave off that result, let me do my best briefly to explain what I mean by non-cinema.

By non-cinema, I mean a set of values that typically are not found in cinema, and which perhaps are antithetical towards – not because one cannot find those values in certain films, but because those values do not conform to the drive for profit that is at the heart of cinema (and capitalism more generally).

The drive for profit (rather than, say, subsistence) requires permanent growth, which can be achieved in large part through (and thus in some senses logically demands) exploitation.

Exploitation requires humans to consider each other not as humans, but as things or objects or units of production – with my profit being predicated upon my ability to yield ever-greater production from my workers/units of production, while at the same time trying to reduce how much money I spend on protecting and ensuring the health and safety of my workers/units of production.

What is true of workers is true of resources: since profit is my over-riding goal, then I must find not the best but the cheapest way of creating products. In considering my raw materials and my workers as merely things, they become objects that are deprived of humanity.

A capitalist society, then, is a society in which we see people not as people but in some respects as symbols or as objects. This creation of people as symbols de-realises or dehumanises them (they’re just a symbol, so you can do with them what you want). It also creates separation where otherwise there might be connection.

That is, capitalism and its necessary exploitation leads to the creation of class divisions (rich and poor), as well as to the concept of (private) property (this is mine and not yours), which in turn leads to an ethos of selfishness and not sharing, and which in turn is linked to the idea that the self is a sovereign entity that does not rely on, want contact with, or which depends upon others, but which is entirely able to live on its own.

In the language of Simon and Garfunkel (and against John Donne), it is to say: I am a rock, I am an island. In the language of Ralph Waldo Emerson, it is say that I am self-reliant. And in psychoanalytic terms, it is to create a phallocentric society, in that the individual stands like a hard, solid cock, not interesting in touching of making love with someone else, but interested in pumping and pounding the other – i.e. once more treating them like an object.

This is, then, the world of patriarchy, and it is also the world that, during the onset of neoliberal capital in the 1980s saw mainstream films characterised by the hard, phallic bodies of action stars like, precisely, Sylvester Stallone – who killed other human beings with impunity and without remorse (in the sequels if not in First Blood, as director Ted Kotcheff pointedly remarks).

Not only is the cinema of capital a cinema that reflects this hard-bodied, phallocentric outlook, then. But perhaps cinema, in being a medium that almost as a matter of course turns human beings into symbols dancing around hieroglyphically on a screen, is also inherently capitalist.

More than this. For, as we are encouraged to respect the rich and to disrespect the poor, so does the separation of humans into classes not just involve a separation, but also a hierarchisation (rich above poor, both socioeconomically, morally, and on nearly every other level that we can think of).

More still: not only are we are encouraged to respect the rich and to disrespect the poor, but we also are encouraged to respect richness and to disrespect poverty. That is, I do not respect the other as a human, but I disrespect them because they are poor (or I want to steer clear of them since they might contaminate me with dirt, disease, bad luck, and so on). That is, I see the other not as a human who to be poor, but as an incarnation of poverty. That is, I see the other not as a human but as a symbol. That is, the symbol becomes more real than the actual human. That is, symbols become the measure of reality more than reality becomes the measure of symbols (we consider humans to be inferior because they are poor, rather than considering poverty to be an inadequate concept since it discourages us from seeing the poor person not as poor but as a person).

Finally: as we see rich humans as being better than poor humans (and as everyone therefore pursues the goal of becoming rich, or special, or famous, or phallcentrically like a hard cock to be admired), so, too, do we see rich images (images that require a lot of money to create) to be better than poor images (images that are made on a shoestring).

If this is true (or if we allow ourselves to entertain the possibility that this claim has some truth), then the idea behind saying that something is non-cinema, then, is because it ignores or critiques capitalism, or it tries to find another way of depicting the world that is not capitalist. If cinema is capitalist, then non-capitalist cinema has to be something that cinema is not, i.e. non-cinema.

Put differently: while rich images might be created to critique the system of rich images as being inherently superior to poor images (as rich people are perceived as inherently superior to poor people as a result of the separation of rich from poor that was a necessary result of exploitation, which was demanded by the relentless pursuit of profit), it seems unlikely that, as rich images, they will do anything other than reinforce the idea that we should only look at rich images.

So, if you want to create images that challenge the system of validating only rich images at the exposed of poor images, then you have really to create what Hito Steyerl might term poor images. Or you have to create non-cinema.

Kedi opens with an aerial shot of Istanbul taken from a drone. Taşkafa, meanwhile, opens with a handheld shot of a dog lying in the street, its paws in the air in a heliotropic trance.

Where Kedi‘s opening shot suggests power and mastery through its technologically-enabled overhead drone shot, Taşkafa suggests something much more pedestrian and poor. Indeed, the opening shot of Taşkafa sees the camera film the dog for a bit, then approach it to reframe closer up – and then approach and go round the other side of the dog to reframe it again.

Rather than appearing as if made without effort (the drone shot from Kedi), Taşkafa makes clear the work that has gone into its making.

While the film is obviously made up of symbols (since it is a film), Taşkafa at least goes to the effort of demonstrating in its opening shot, though, that we are seeing nothing more than symbols, and that these are constructed. In revealing its own process of creation, the images from Taşkafa do not arrive as if fully-formed and perfect (like a god), but as imperfect and human. Taşkafa demonstrates its humanity from the get-go – in the process using symbols to undermine the system of symbol creation that is cinema.

In being a ‘poor image,’ Taşkafa runs the risk of alienating its viewers, since they may not like poor images – in a way that is similar to how they do not like poor people. But at least  in the process, the poor image points out to to the alienated viewer how their dislike of poor images expresses little more than their own prejudices and a subservience to phallocentric power – on an ideological level even if not on a physical level (it is common enough for poor people to dislike poor images, precisely because they are ashamed of poverty, a shame brought about not least as a result of being treated like a part of society of which to be ashamed; perhaps inevitably such tastes can veer towards the ‘gauche’ as any and every sign of wealth, be it sophisticated or crass, is better than a sign of poverty).

But perhaps enough explanation of non-cinema and discussion of Taşkafa. For this blog post is about Erase and Forget, and thus should do justice to that film by properly giving it its due.

In being a film about the real-life John Rambo, Erase and Forget is clearly in some ways about cinema – or about the way in which cinema reinforces a masculinist, hard-bodied sense of separation, individual heroism, personal sovereignty and violence.

And yet, Erase and Forget also in some senses deconstructs that myth, allowing us to see not just Gritz as a performer of ultimate masculinity and, quite specifically, as a symbol of American heroism.

Instead, we see a remarkable portrait that goes beyond the cinema of Rambo – and into the non-cinema of a human being. As cinema is part of a system that replaces humanity with symbols, Erase and Forget tries to replace symbols with humanity.

Gritz is an inspiration to children who want to grow up to be like him. That is, Gritz clearly is understood by many people as a symbol.

And yet, Zimmerman then includes in her film a sequence in which she plays back an encounter between Gritz and two young men who wish to follow in his footsteps – only for Gritz to comment while watching the video that these kids are wasting their time as they will only get killed in combat and/or scarred irreversibly by their otherwise-desired experiences of war.

This moment is significant in at least two ways.

Firstly, it undoes the myth of violent heroism, suggesting that war as a process of ensuring separation between countries is in some senses futile.

Secondly, it does this by showing Gritz watching a video of himself at a moment that we have already seen as a part of Erase and Forget. That is, akin to the opening shot of Taşkafa, Erase and Forget shows its own process of being made, thus also undercutting the very process of symbol-making that is cinema itself.

What is most remarkable is that in being so honest about its own imperfections – in being a human cinema – Gritz allows himself to become more human, too.

That is, Gritz clearly develops a close and trusting relationship with Zimmerman, such that he is willing at times to let his guard down and to express his disillusionment with war and perhaps with various other aspects of contemporary life more generally.

In other words, in not treating Gritz as a symbol (which is how most people do treat him, including his lovers from what Gritz says), we get the most remarkable aspects of this film, namely access to intimate parts in which Gritz is not necessarily not performing, but in which he offers to us a performance that is different from the one that he is carrying out most of the time as a war hero.

It is important here to emphasise that Gritz is not consistent. That is, Zimmerman’s film does not show us the ‘real’ Bo Gritz that lies underneath the ‘fake’ Bo Gritz that walks around performing heroism and/or performing being a war hero.

Indeed, if the film did this, it would not demonstrating that symbols are constructed as simply trying to replace one symbol with another (this symbol of Gritz is the ‘real’ one).

If the film is to deconstruct the system of symbols as a whole, then it has to show the many Gritzes alongside each other: he is all of these different sides to his personality, and he is inconsistent, and sometimes he does believe in his heroism and at other times he does not. And sometimes he seems to prefer to recount his life as if he were a legend, and sometimes he feels sorry for himself.

It is not in his singularity that the humanity of Gritz will emerge. It is precisely in his plurality, his multiplicity, his complexity. And it is not that the film will give us the full complexity of Gritz. In some senses, cinema, as a system of symbols, cannot achieve this. But rather than presenting us an incomplete picture as if it were the complete picture, it can make clear that we are seeing is incomplete. It can point to the outside of cinema, to the human, and thus be (or at least point to the realm of) non-cinema.

The Bo Gritz story is truly remarkable, with the man having played a role in Vietnam, Panama, the Middle East, Ruby Ridge, and more. He is a man who has struggled with life – having attempted suicide at one point and being surrounded by violence at many points (with a violent death also taking place during the film’s making).

Zimmerman’s film is all the more remarkable for not shying away from this complexity, while also embracing its own limitations (being self-conscious – including by having the film’s original images feature alongside images from various Rambo and other films – but taking low-grade DVD-rip YouTube images from these films, thereby creating a shift in image quality in the film, again bringing to mind/making the viewer conscious of the how we somewhat arbitrarily put out faith in rich images more than we do in poor ones).

Gritz is a fragile human being. But in showing his struggle with reality and with himself, the film highlights the very impossibility of being human in an era when we are supposed to see each other and to turn ourselves into symbols. Since the human is inferior to symbols, we are encouraged to hate ourselves and our human aspects, and to eliminate them for the purposes of being only symbolic or existing only in the symbolic realm.

Rather than pick apart Gritz’s possible insanity, then (in the sense that Gritz is inconsistent), Erase and Forget instead takes us into that insanity, depicting how a certain kind of schizophrenia is the logical result of an inhuman world in which to be human is shameful. It does this by itself being a ‘crazy’ film – perhaps in some ways not even a film at all (not a ‘proper’ film made with a ‘proper’ budget).

[In this way, there is some resemblance between Erase and Forget and William English’s recent It’s My Own Invention (UK, 2017), which likewise takes us into insanity not in a bid necessarily to bunk or to debunk it… but show it as a kind of logical extension of a world where humans suffer from the collective insanity of mistaking symbols for reality.]

Zimmmerman’s refusal to buy into the language of symbols makes Erase and Forget about the most human, if non-cinematic, piece of cinema going…