Orfeu branco: You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay, UK/France/USA, 2017)

American cinema, Blogpost, British cinema, Transnational Cinema, Uncategorized

If The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, USA, 2017) recently won the Oscars for Best Film, Best Director and Best Original Score (for Alexandre Desplat), then clearly the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is completely incapable of discerning what makes a good film. Or rather, its concerns seem very far removed from mine, and its definition of cinema is vastly different from mine.

The Shape of Water is perfectly competent, and it has a few nice ideas. But it is nothing like the total masterclass in filmmaking that is You Were Never Really Here, which sees three of the finest filmmakers in the world (Lynne Ramsay, Joaquin Phoenix and Jonny Greenwood) at the absolute top of their game (which is not to mention the film’s excellence in cinematography, editing, general sound design and more).

Oscar has deemed fit to reward You Were Never Really Here with zero nominations, suggesting that it is not interested in what I would call mature storytelling, but rather the infantile fantasies that we see peddled in The Shape of Water.

(Although, if Oscar is going to reward kids’ movies, then why it has not honoured the superior Paddington 2, Paul King, UK/France/USA, 2017, seems incomprehensible to me.)

Anyway, a gripe about how the Oscars seem to revel in a kind of puerile conservatism aside (the recognition of Jordan Peele and Sebastián Lelio’s work notwithstanding), this blog just wants to offer up a few thoughts about Lynne Ramsay’s masterpiece, which seems unlikely to be topped for me between now and the end of the year.

Firstly, Lynne Ramsay seems to have seen and to have taken notice of the growing body of work by the Safdie brothers, with its moody, claustrophobic cinematography and Greenwood’s dark retro synth score bringing to mind the recent Good Time (Ben and Josh Safdie, USA, 2017), with which You Were Never Really Here is in many ways comparable, given its emphasis on New York by night, New York on the move, and the interiors of lower middle and working class domestic spaces.

The other recent film that You Were Never Really Here resembles is S. Craig Zahler’s equally moody Brawl in Cell Block 99 (USA, 2017) – with ‘moody’ here clearly being a by-word for an emphasis on darkness, confined spaces, and an ambulatory approach to violence that is physical, intimate and gory.

For, You Were Never Really Here and Brawl in Cell Block 99 are both re-tellings of the myth of Orpheus, who must descend into the underworld in order to rescue Eurydice. But unlike Marcel Camus’ Orfeu negro/Black Orpheus (Brazil/France/Italy, 1959), which casts the myth alongside carnival and the slums of Rio de Janeiro, thereby giving a sense in which poverty is hell, in both Ramsay and Zahler’s films, hell is entering into the dark corridors of power – be that of the state’s penitentiary system in the latter, or the kiddy dungeons of the rich in the former.

The motif of ‘descent’ is clear as on at least two occasions, we see Joaquin Phoenix’s Joe drop into frame from above – giving a literal sense of downwardness to his journey.

But in addition to being about downwardness, the film is also about absence – as the title of the film makes clear.

Joe is a military veteran whose hulking frame carries numerous scars, and who seems to have been shot, or witnessed a shooting, by a kid in a vaguely Middle Eastern-seeming location during his service. Now home, he rescues missing children from sex traffickers, while also living with his mother (Judith Roberts), whose health is clearly not great. Both his mother and Joe suffered at the hands of an abusive husband/father, with both Joe’s childhood and his military experiences being given to us in flashbacks that are haunting both for their brevity and for their beauty.

Ramsay’s film time and again marries the brutal with the tender, with an especial emphasis being articulated time and again on human touch and the feel of objects (hands on windows, hands on hands, hands on feet, and so on). Culture also is able to bring humans together, as characters sing songs (including an astounding sequence that sees two characters sing along to Charlene’s ‘I’ve Never Been To Me’).

What is more, Joe and his mother bond over Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1960), a film that is most famous for achieving maximum shock value while also showing next to nothing.

And in this intertext we get a sense of Ramsay’s mastery. It is not just that a good amount of the violence in You Were Never Really Here takes place offscreen, as per Psycho. It is that the film repeatedly stages Joe leaving the frame, with the picture then simply showing the spaces of the film’s action, rather than the action itself. This includes the film’s utterly absorbing final image, in which we see nothing more than a table at a diner where human figures earlier sat.

(Apologies for the vagueness in not saying who those figures are. But where normally I do not care about giving away spoilers, here I think it works to give as little of the film away as possible.)

With its emphasis on ’empty space,’ the space within the film becomes a ‘character.’ But more than this, we get a sense that space shapes character and behaviour more than human agents shape space.

That is, You Were Never Really Here suggests that humans are in effect utterly mindless in their belief that they are in control of their destiny and their choice of action, with the film seeking to make us mindful of how it is the environments that we create that shape our actions. New York lends itself to violence and to the trafficking of children for sex – even if any reasonable person would say that it is humans who are responsible for their depravity. It is not that humans are not responsible for their depravity; but we build environments where depravity is encouraged, and so it inevitably will grow.

Perhaps we can get a sense of this through the film’s final sequence, in which Joe attempts a second rescue in the house of wealthy businessman and state Governor Williams (Alessandro Nivola). The camera emphasises in particular a black statue of a woman, and a painting of a semi-nude woman at the end of a corridor.

We are surrounded by depictions in our contemporary world of women as objects. We divide our contemporary world into small capsules (houses, rooms in houses) that we divide for the purposes of ‘privacy,’ and increasingly we remove common spaces for the purpose of developing property (the city as a pit of property development).

In each of these processes, there is an ideology of separation – of separating humans from each other and from the world that surrounds them through the erection of walls, and through the reduction of humans to objects (statues, paintings). If humans do not view each other as humans but as objects, then it is clear that humans will enact on each other things that are not humane, but which instead reinforce separation and objecthood.

For this reason, I say that sex trafficking is almost a logical consequence of the city.

But in making a film, is Ramsay not herself creating objects? Clearly, this is a risk that she runs. But it is perhaps for this reason that the characters in her film regularly elude the camera’s gaze – Joe leaves the frame, or is obscured from view – such that his life (and the lives of other characters) is paradoxically conveyed to us through its absence (Joe cannot be captured), rather than through its presence (which would be to reduce life by rendering the person an object; life must necessarily be other – otherwise it is not alive; and if it is other, it must necessarily elude us, since in eluding us, we get a sense that it has a life of its own, rather than being something that is there for us to/that we can control).

Through Joe regularly being absent from the frame (in never really being here), You Were Never Really Here suggests how in order to get a sense of ourselves, we have in some senses to question our own reality, rather than simply unthinkingly accepting it and its values.

What I mean by this is that if I am a product of my environment as much as I am an autonomous agent, and if life consists in an otherness that by definition eludes us, then ‘I’ am not what I think I am. In seeing that ‘I’ am not an ‘I’ that is separate from, but rather which is entangled with, my environment, I realise that ‘I’ is not really here. Indeed, I realise that ‘I’ is both here and there. And that to say ‘here’ is to  presume a fixed and autonomous ‘I.’ Properly to discover myself, I have to realise that I was never really here. You were never really here.

If you go with this perhaps necessarily obscure point (it is obscure in the sense that it is hard to see and, like Ramsay’s film, shrouded in darkness; we need to understand the importance of darkness and how to shine a light on darkness does not help us to understand it, but rather destroys it), then perhaps we can ask what cinema is.

For what cinema is, or what cinema can do, is to remind us that there is a world beyond us, and that we are thus not autonomous beings, but entangled beings.

How does cinema do this? Cinema does this by showing us other worlds.

Most films, however, show us other worlds as if they were objects for us to do with what we please. Like the statue and the painting, most films objectify the world that we see, and in the process they make us forget that we are watching a film (as the child molester forgets that he is molesting a human being). They do this through light and speed: there is nothing that eludes that mainstream film, but all is visible (darkness is destroyed), and everything moves so fast that it we do not have time to look at it for long enough to get a sense of its otherness.

In the film’s slowness and in Joe’s lumbering slowness, meanwhile, as well as in its emphasis on sheer physicality, we get a sense in You Were Not Really Here of how the film is other, moving at its own pace and not at the pace that we demand from it like slave drivers torturing their object-slaves into evermore accelerated productivity. Absent and slow, You Were Never Really Here runs the risk of alienating its audience (which is why Oscar does not and cannot acknowledge the film).

But through these very qualities, it takes on a life and shows us another world, reminding us not that we are immersed in a story-object as if we were there, but that we as viewers are seeing something other, and that we as viewers were never really here in the world where the story of You Were Never Really Here unfolds.

That is, the film in its title tells us to our faces that we are watching a film and that while this is a fiction, the power of its falseness lies in telling us that we are not autonomous beings, but that other people exist and that there are other ways of seeing the world beyond simply our own (paradoxically mass-produced) vision.

Not only were we never really here, but we’ve also never really been to me.

In 2010, Joaquin Phoenix returned to cinema after a hiatus with I’m Still Here (Casey Affleck, USA, 2010). In casting Phoenix (as well as in its references to Psycho), Ramsay seems once again to be making a film that self-consciously is a film – and one that approaches the critique of solipsism that we also find in Affleck’s film.

For, in Affleck’s mockumentary, Phoenix plays a would-be rapper called Joaquin Phoenix who is so out of touch with reality that he has absolutely no understanding of himself, so corrupted has he become by celebrity and self-absorption.

With Ramsay, Phoenix seems perhaps to be the only person who can see others as human beings and not as objects – the only person who is not solipsistic (and who rejects suicide on multiple occasions in spite of the pull towards it as an expression of how he regularly is made to feel alone in the world; perhaps it is noteworthy that his sense of otherness is experienced as a trauma undertaken both at home and at war, as if the family were as much a tool for war as military service itself).

What is more, Phoenix embodies arch solipsism in another film where he has to learn that he was never really Her (Spike Jonze, USA, 2013). That is, Theodore in that film must come to understand that the AI called Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) eludes him, even though she/it should be an object that he can control.

We are all connected. But we are connected by difference, and not by an ability to control each other. To reduce each other and our world to objects is to destroy the life of that world and those people, much like shining a light on darkness destroys it. Its otherness is a marker of its life.

Lynne Ramsay’s latest film is from start to finish a masterpiece, filled with pregnant images that promise great meaning. Greenwood’s score and Phoenix’s performance are as good as they get.

As Oscar struggles forever to get to grips with otherness (issues of gender, issues of race in the American film industry), it seems a shame that a masterpiece like this one should get overlooked. Perhaps Hollywood cannot recognise otherness when it sees it (and when it does, perhaps it seeks to control it, perhaps even by giving an award to it). In this way, perhaps You Were Never Really Here is better off outside of the Oscars. But I for one feel that my world has improved by having seen it.

From Billy Lynn to Rogue One

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

In Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ang Lee, USA/UK/China, 2016), there is a sequence where Billy (Joe Alwyn) experiences a flashback to his tour as a soldier in Iraq.

The scene is ultimately innocuous, but as Billy looks around him in an Iraqi market, we see and hear how a soldier thinks: could those kids be throwing a grenade? could that man be reaching for a gun?

In keeping with the film’s arch self-consciousness, the sequence also features one soldier buying bootleg DVDs – of a Disney film – for his daughter. But the reason why I want to discuss this sequence is because the iconography of uniformed soldiers walking armed through a traditional ‘Middle Eastern’ market place, replete with stalls, sandy ground, narrow alleys and sandstone walls, and with people wearing elaborate robes, has also been deployed elsewhere in recent cinema, namely in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Gareth Edwards, USA/UK, 2016).

The key difference is that in Billy Lynn, which is far more interesting than its unpromising title would suggest, we are with the soldiers, while in Rogue One, we see these scenes of armed soldiers walking through otherwise traditional bazaars and other ‘Middle Eastern’ spaces through the eyes of the rebels – those who are going specifically to pull out guns and lob grenades in order to defy the imperial presence.

It is not that Billy Lynn is specifically critiquing Disney – even if the Disney bootleg is mentioned. Nor is it that Billy Lynn quite offers a corrective to Rogue One, as it offers a sympathetic portrayal of the life of a soldier who ultimately decides to fight for his fellow servicemen – while Rogue One offers a fantasy of striking back against the Empire, the storm troopers of which are disposable enemies.

Rather, both films in fact help us to understand a more subtle but important process – even though they nominally give us completely different perspectives (soldiers and rebels). And this process is the normalisation of Empire via their shared iconography of soldiers walking through ‘Middle Eastern’ bazaars.

Billy Lynn spends a lot of time conveying how contemporary America is a militarised zone. Although it amuses Billy and his comrades that business people describe their workspace as the ‘war room,’ while using other would-be combat terms to describe their work, such moments nonetheless convey the militarisation of the domestic space and its everyday routines.

This is also conveyed in the violence that the soldiers experience not just in Iraq (during Billy’s flashbacks) but at home, where/when the film is set. The film is about the Bravos, a group of soldiers who have become the face of the Iraq war after a journalist’s film camera – abandoned but left recording during a military engagement – captures footage of Billy rushing to rescue Sergeant Virgil ‘Shroom’ Breem (Vin Diesel).

Given their rise to fame, the soldiers are to appear at a show with Destiny’s Child during the halftime interval of an American football game in Dallas. Celebrated as heroes, the soldiers are also in the process of trying to negotiate a movie deal to tell their story.

Without going into too much detail – since it is not the focus of this blog post – the film articulates the way in which domestic America is as violent as Iraq as the soldiers are constantly harassed and abused – even though they receive acclaim from an otherwise patriotic audience.

What is more, while films like Hail the Conquering Hero (Preston Sturges, USA, 1944) and Flags of Our Fathers (Clint Eastwood, USA, 2006) critique the process of using heroic soldiers at spectacular jamborees in order to sell war bonds in a bid to further the war effort, Billy Lynn demonstrates quite clearly in their bid to have their story made into a movie that war provides the material for cinema, and thus to a degree how cinema also provides the material for war.

What is more, while the explosions during the halftime show panic the soldiers as much as does real combat in Iraq (and not simply in a way of setting off a traumatic memory), we get a sense in Ang Lee’s film of how the contemporary USA is indeed built as a simulacrum of war that is itself sufficiently traumatic that the soldiers prefer to bond with each other and to return to Iraq (there are two extraordinary scenes in which men declare their love for each other) rather than to stay at home.

In other words, PTSD is not specifically caused by the trials of war itself – but equally by the never-ending war-like/militarised aspects of contemporary American life: the same car manufacturers (Humvee), explosions, aggressive people, loud noises – except here surrounded by plenty and with a huge emphasis on consumption/consumerism.

Even if the soldiers are doing a job that is not everywhere popular (they themselves understand very well that the major result of their work is that it likely breeds rather than reverses anti-American sentiment), it is in their interactions and experiences with each other that they can find some humanity in a world where otherwise they are simply (undervalued and underpaid) commodities and objects.

This even extends to Billy’s love life; in a remarkable sequence, he realises that Faison (Makenzie Leigh), a cheerleader whom he has just met but upon whom he is sweet, desires him only as a soldier and not as a person (she is disappointed when Billy says that he wishes he could run away with her; a soldier must fulfil his duty). Lee and actor Alwyn subtly manage to capture both Billy’s vulnerability in projecting his own desire for escape on to Faison (the youthful intensity of the recent crush – demonstrating that even though he has fought in combat, Billy is still in some senses a child), as well as the way in which that crush is extinguished in an instant by a single turn of phrase (her disappointment that he does not return willingly to Iraq).

There is a clear critique of Billy Lynn to be made for its treatment of women, including the way in which Billy’s anti-war sister, played by Kristen Stewart, is a woman scarred from a car accident and whom Billy is specifically fighting to protect by serving his country in order to pay her medical bills. But an extended critique will be for someone else to make.

Furthermore, there is of course a critique of the film to be made in its refusal to give us the perspective of those against whom the soldiers fight in Iraq – even though we see at length what it means to take a life by hand as Billy scrambles with someone who might typically be referred to as an insurgent next to Shroom, who has been shot.

However, while Rogue One may in some senses offer a corrective – by giving us the perspective of the rebels (even if in a fantasy universe now owned by Disney) – both films contribute to the same process of naturalising Empire.

Billy Lynn clearly articulates the way in which war is a mediatised spectacle. Everyday life becomes militarised as it also becomes mediatised, while war itself becomes everyday as it, too, becomes mediatised. In its own way, Rogue One does this, too.

While in Billy Lynn Iraqi lives are somewhat disposable (in spite of the extended depiction of the death of the insurgent at Billy’s hands), in Rogue One storm troopers are disposable. While Shroom is killed in Billy Lynn and all of the rebels perish in Rogue One, the imbalance in both films between the numbers of deaths that we see means that both also broadly convey a fantasy of war as simulacrum, or what we might call a war without casualties. War as entertainment. Not war as real (even if Billy Lynn also tries to get to that reality).

This reflects to a certain extent the way in which contemporary warfare is – from the perspective of the West – a war without casualties (we are horrified when the numbers of Western casualties grows – even though countless Iraqis and Afghans have died in this war – as if their lives did not matter or count since they are somehow not quite as human).

In reference to the first Iraq/Persian Gulf War in 1991, French philosopher Paul Virilio argues that ‘[t]he war of zero casualties (or nearly, on the side of the allies) was therefore also a war of zero political victory.’ Saddam Hussein remained in power – which in the fullness of time led to a second war, where Hussein was toppled (one cannot help but think not only of Hussein’s ungainly death, but also of the much more viewer-friendly toppling of his statue; this is a war about symbols and aesthetically pleasing images – and thus about media – as much as it is about humans, who have a propensity to be aesthetically unpleasing, or war, which also is likely not as pleasing to behold in real life as it is in movies – with Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (Australia/USA, 2016) doing a fine job of hypocritically saying how bad war is before pouring on the war porn in heavy doses), and then to an ongoing war that the American soldiers describe in Billy Lynn as being beyond their understanding as Iraqis now fight each other as well as them.

While Virilio’s assertion is insightful, what he does not quite articulate here is that political victory is not the point. The war itself is the point of the war. The war produces the images, which produces the war, which produces the patriotism, which produces the buying, which produces the consumption, which produces war bonds in the form of bondage to war, which produces cinema, which produces war, which produces cinema, which produces war… and so on.

If there were victory in this war, the war would end and there would no longer be images for us to look at and advertisers and patriots and others for us to get to use those images to make money, and there would no longer be arms sales or private business contracts, or movie deals, and so on. The becoming-everyday of war is matched by the militarisation of everyday life, then, since both are the same process of keeping capital going, with the media playing a major role in the making-everyday/naturalisation of this process.

More than this. If the war cannot end, since this would also mean the end of capitalism, then soldiers in the ‘Middle East’ is to become an everyday – or at least repeated – occurrence. This is, in other words, Empire-building. It is not colonialism, or at least will not go by that name, since a) colonialism is unfashionable and generally condemned and b) because it does not involve colonisation specifically so much as an ongoing and repeated military presence in such places – because the perpetuation of war (war as capital) demands it.

In this sense, Rogue One is for all of its rebellious bluster serving the same purpose as Billy Lynn, even though the latter critiques it: normalising images of invading/Western soldiers in ‘Middle Eastern’ locations – because this is indeed our new reality.

What is more… while Rogue One plays the card of giving us a fantasy of rebellion, it still only perpetuates fantasies of violence, while at the same time demonstrating that Disney’s attempts to regain/retain global domination also involves a kind of militarisation of cinema/a making-cinematic of war.

For, as Disney via the Star Wars franchise and Marvel shows us how we are set to have endless, perhaps infinite, stories set in each fictional universe (not just sequels and prequels, but ‘Star Wars stories’ and the infinite regression of the Marvel spin-offs), so, too, is Disney normalised as the only reality.

This process of normalisation – as delimiting the human imagination such that it can do nothing other than imagine the world as it is, and not a different world that we may ourselves forge – is itself war. It is an ideological war that is about getting people to buy only certain products and to mistrust others (it can be seen in Tesco, Sainsbury and Waitrose opening stores all across the UK and which are putting out of business countless ‘corner shops’ – perhaps not coincidentally run often by immigrant families with brown skins). And this war is waged through the media, which in turn depict how war is a supposedly necessary and normal part of our lives.

It is a complex and confusing world, where we are – specifically to use war terminology – bombarded by images and sounds that render us all always nervous and on the edge of our seats – in a world very far removed from the quiet and the natural sounds of pre-industrial humankind. It is a war waged for the control of our planet and of each other, with the idea of fighting for control and/or of seeking power becoming naturalised such that no one even questions it anymore. That is, we do not object to being controlled – as we instead reach constantly into our pockets to receive micro-hits of cinema from our smartphone screens, so normalised has this disciplining via militarisation of the everyday become.

The question becomes, then: do you buy into this world of warcraft, or not?

Lion (Garth Davis, Australia/USA/UK, 2016)

American cinema, Australian Cinema, Blogpost, British cinema, Film reviews, Transnational Cinema, Uncategorized

There is a sequence in Lion where Saroo (Dev Patel) and his soon-to-be girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara) walk to a party on opposite sides of the street.

Lucy does a wee dance, and Saroo then copies her – the pair thus doing some cute romance as they swap dance moves from across the road that separates them.

The moment is an uncredited homage to Spike Jonze’s short film, How They Get There (USA, 1997), which you can see in full below (for as long as it remains on YouTube).

Given that Lion is a film about a young boy who by accident becomes separated from his family and who ends up being adopted by Australians, and given that the film is based upon a true story, it seems strange to have this extended reference to Jonze’s film included.

For, while Jonze’s is a playful and witty short, Lion seems to be in the business of taking itself very seriously – as perhaps it should do given that it is a film about a topic as weighty as transnational identity, and which is seeking to pick up various awards during this year’s season. The homage, therefore, shifts the film tonally from serious to playful in a way that jars with the what the film otherwise seems to set out to achieve.

So let us say that Saroo and Lucy had seen How They Get There (these characters do supposedly live in the real world, after all, meaning that they may well have done). Surely the inclusion in the film is therefore justified – a kind of audiovisual exchange that could just as easily be the characters bonding via conversation over, say, their love of Aravind Adiga or Powderfinger (also real world figures)?

Well, maybe. But since Lion so clearly adopts this scene from Jonze, it simply feels tired, unimaginative and unoriginal – as if the filmmakers could not themselves come up with anything better than nicking someone else’s idea in order to convey romance. One’s confidence in the rest of the film is undermined: how much more of this film is entirely derivative?

More than this. There is a cinema in the world where such shifts in tone are in fact commonplace, such that they become perhaps even the defining feature of that cinema.

I am of course talking in quite a general sense about Indian cinema, with the Mumbai-based industry known as Bollywood generally functioning as its metonymic figurehead.

Lion is a transnational co-production, as the stated involvement of Australian, American and British monies makes clear above. And yet the film is also largely set in India, with locations including Kolkata and Khandwa, which lies close to Saroo’s home town of Ganesh Talai. What is more, the film also features numerous performances by Indian actors. So, one asks oneself, where is the Indian economic involvement in the film?

Or does the tonal shift marked by the adoption of Jonze’s idea also mark the adoption of ideas (tonal shifts themselves) from Indian cinema, which in turn marks the adoption of Indian cinematic resources for this film – which is a film about the adoption of Indian boys by white Australians?

There are plenty more things to say about Lion, but I would like to limit myself to three things – the first of which relates to How They Get There.

For, in Jonze’s film, things end badly as the male dancer gets run over, with the driver of the car perhaps also dying – and the male dancer’s shoe ending up in a gutter by the side of the road.

Does the reference to this film in Lion, therefore, signal a similar pessimism with regard to Saroo? While the film clearly is about ‘How They Get There,’ are we to believe that Saroo is, as it were, a shoe in a gutter – looking up at the stars that might help him in the developed world? There seems to be no clear analogy, but any way that one looks at it is never far from offensive.

Indeed – to move on to my second point – there is another strange sequence in the film where Saroo’s adoptive mother, Sue (Nicole Kidman), explains that when she was 12 she had a vision whereby she saw herself with a ‘brown boy’ – and that this is what drove her not to want to have birth children, but to want to adopt kids herself.

The daughter of an alcoholic, Sue in some senses seems to declare here that Saroo is partially an object that helps her to get over her own traumatic childhood. Which I guess is fair enough, except that this again reduces Saroo to simply a brown boy who may not want to be, but who is indeed the plaything of sorts of white Australians. No wonder that Saroo’s adopted brother, Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), is himself so troubled.

In this way, it seems oddly fitting that Saroo is not, in fact, Saroo’s real name. His infantile tongue could not properly pronounce his name (nor the name of his home town), and so Saroo is the result of the boy (played by Sunny Pawar) trying to say Sheru (meaning lion), and Ganestalay his attempt to say Ganesh Talai – a town that no one could find as a result of this difference.

What a thin thread possibly prevented Saroo from being able to find his way home. Nonetheless, the erasure of his Hindi roots through this ‘error’ does, as mentioned, seem oddly apt through its occultation of Saroo’s origins.

Of course, Saroo is haunted by his past and he does finally discover his origins – so at least we see that he cares for truth and is haunted by his privilege knowing that his mother is a labourer who carries rocks for a living while he enjoys boats and aeroplanes (and visions of his past from a drone – with his discovery of his past enabled in large part by the surveillance technology of Google Earth).

In other words, Lion clearly is a film about worlds separated by technology and in particular transport as a means of defining humans according to their different abilities to travel/move (even if true, it is oddly apt, then, that Saroo’s destiny is changed by his inadvertently being on the wrong train – the great distance that it covers from Khandwa to Kolkata signalling his destiny to be catapulted into a new, more mobile world).

And we are glad that Saroo is saved from this world, even if we see him running and laughing and loving his family in Ganesh Talai. For it is also a world defined by manual labour, paedophilia, child abuse and uncaring authorities. Saroo really is better off, it would seem, in Australia – and his rescue is thus in some senses justified, even if his adoptive mother has dimensions of the would-be White Saviour.

Dev Patel gives an excellent performance as Saroo. The film as a whole is powerful. But as the film ultimately endorses the fast pace of modernity at the expense of the slow pace of those pedestrian labourers who function as the very props upon which this modernity is based (it is the labour of his birth mother that brought Sheru into the world, even if Sue takes credit for raising Saroo), so, too, is the film constructed according to the fast pace of western films.

That is, the film has rapid scenes, often cutting into action and getting the viewer to infer what has happened – rather than allowing the viewer to see events unfold for themselves.

In this sense, we regularly see Saroo/Patel at points of high emotion – but the film in this regard does not show us ‘how they get there.’ That is, we do not see the onset of emotion, the change that takes place – we just see the emotion itself, with the emotion itself thus becoming symbolic, a symbol of emotion, rather than an emotion grounded in the real world of change and becoming.

The film’s decision to rush emotions in this way – to be too busy/in the business of business to want to take us through the complexity of emotion – reflects the privileged speed of the highly technologised First World, where emotions become empty because of their own speed, rather than real because slow and enworlded.

In its form, then, the film undermines what it otherwise would seemingly want to achieve: we want to connect with people across boundaries, but really what we are seeing are power games and the use of other people and their real lives for the purposes of our own entertainment, edification and comfort. This makes for troubling viewing, even if I also was swept up personally in the story that I was seeing.

While Patel seems excellent as Saroo, then, it also seems a shame that he is edited in such a way that we do not really get to see him act. Or rather, his performance is reduced to acting as a result of the editing: here is Saroo unhappy, here is Saroo sad, and so on. To get beyond acting exposed as acting, to get to acting as an embodied performance, we need to see the transitions; we need to see how they get there.

Oddly, such a transition is shown in the film – but by Sheru’s mother, Kamla, when they are reunited. I believe that this moment is performed by Priyanka Bose (she plays Saroo’s mother when he is young; it is unclear whether it is still her but aged via make-up when they finally meet again).

In a few brief moments of screen time, we see Bose carry out an extraordinary performance of recognition and then emotion as she recognises her boy. And yet what plaudits for Bose in the celebration of the film at awards season?

Furthermore, in a few brief instants we here sense a story that we never otherwise got to see – the story of an illiterate labourer whose son has been taken from her in rural India. How much more interesting might that film have been, rather than the troubles that a boy had in discovering his hometown through the use of Google Earth?

That we see a film that privileges the privileged masculine perspective is perhaps profoundly western. If, we wanted to watch a film featuring the female perspective, then we likely have to discover a different cinema – perhaps even the cinema of a place like India, where a masterpiece like Mother India (Mehboob Khan, India, 1957) dares to tell precisely the story of a female labourer struggling to bring up her children in the Indian countryside.

(Much as I tend to enjoy the performances of Casey Affleck, the performance from Bose in Lion reminds me of how Michelle Williams acts Affleck off the screen in Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan, USA, 2016, even though she has minimal screen time and even though her big scene is scripted basically to suggest that she still is in love with the man who is largely responsible for the death of her children – i.e. it is a male fantasy-fulfilment.)

(This in turn reminds me that both Lion and Manchester by the Sea continue the trend of films about dead, lost, and otherwise problematised babies and children – as I have written about elsewhere. It is the preoccupying theme of contemporary western cinema.)

Forasmuch as it is well made and enjoyable, then, Lion seems to have adopted various things from various other places not in order to present us with any changed vision of the world, but to replicate the vision of a superior western, technologised, cinematic world – even if this world is built upon the labour of people like Kamla, whose plight remains invisible.

How we got here – to such a world that seemingly is made up of different worlds – is hidden.

And yet it might be the most important (hi)story for us all to learn.

I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach, UK/France/Belgium, 2016)

Blogpost, British cinema, Transnational Cinema, Uncategorized

A brief thought about I, Daniel Blake, including **spoilers** (for which apologies).

The film is about the title character (Dave Johns), who has recently had a heart attack. Although his doctors advise that he does not return to work, the company contracted by Blake’s local employment bureau in Newcastle deems him fit for work.

As a result, Daniel must go in search of work – at least nominally – in order to get benefits and thus economically to survive.

One day in the employment bureau, Daniel meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother relocated to Newcastle from London by the housing association, who misses her first meeting at the bureau, and so who thus does not receive benefits.

The two strike up an unlikely friendship, with Daniel helping to keep Katie’s home warm, helping her out with food and more.

In some senses, I, Daniel Blake is a large-format, narrative version of the famous ‘Computer says no’ sketch repeated in various ways on Little Britain (Matt Lucas and David Walliams, 2003-2006): it is about the inflexibility of systems that are dominated by information technology.

It is not that information technology is necessarily bad. It is the internet and a direct link to a show manufacturer in China that gives Daniel’s neighbour, China (Kema Sikazwe), a chance of getting out of his own employment misery.

But, through Daniel’s unfamiliarity with computers, it does speak of a generation of humans who are being left behind by the insistent computerisation of all aspects of life. If one does not know how to use or speak to the computer, then the computer will inevitably say no.

As per Ken Loach’s Kes (UK, 1969), Daniel’s answer is frustratingly right before his (and our) eyes, and yet he does not act upon it. In Kes, Billy Casper (David Bradley) demonstrates at length that he is excellent with animals. And yet at no point do any of his teachers or the employment office suggest that Billy might make a good zookeeper, say, with Billy himself also fairly resigned to working down in the Barnsley pit.

Likewise, carpenter Daniel fabricates beautiful wooden mobiles – suggesting in some senses that he might also simply endeavour to work at a pace that is not stressful or necessarily detrimental to his precarious health, and to sell his wares at least to supplement his benefits lifestyle. At one point, Daniel even turns down an offer to buy some of his work from a man (Stephen Halliday) who otherwise buys up all of his furniture.

Something of a tangent: when Lewis Mumford writes in The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development that the surplus labour force provided by slaves in the USA basically led to a stagnation in technological development (no need to create machines to do work that humans will do for free), he also would seem to suggest that it was only when machines were created that could outperform slaves that slavery was abolished.

It is a controversial claim, but one might even say that the American Civil War was in some senses brought about for economic reasons: advances in technology and thus the ability to make profit without slaves is what made some people comfortable with the idea of abolishing slavery – while those who did not have the same technology (the South) were forced to accept the ‘privileged’ perspective that slaves were (now) deemed to be a Bad Thing… and ended up going to war over this.

And so it might be with computerisation: the privileged, technologically advanced people can force their technologies on to everyone else, thereby consigning to misery those who cannot really afford or get access to them.

(Read in terms of a technologised elite imposing its privileged perspective on the masses, one can in some senses account for both Brexit and the election of Donald J Trump as a negative reaction against precisely such a process – however ‘misguided’ or otherwise one might consider both Brexit and/or Trump’s election to be.)

There has been a lot of hoo ha in the reactionary press about I, Daniel Blake being contrived (I think of reviews by the likes of Toby Young). And yet, its contrivances are what make I, Daniel Blake most powerful.

For, there is a sense in Loach’s film of making absolutely clear at all stages that this is a film: the ‘naturalness’ of the acting (which can sometimes seem ‘amateur’), the somewhat forced nature of the script. It would seem that Loach is not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes that this is a film.

This is also made palpable as a result of Daniel’s death at the film’s end: Daniel cannot deliver the speech that he has written about his experiences and how he has been handled, which instead Katie reads out at his funeral. If Daniel lived and delivered the speech himself, then the contrivances of the film would be hidden. Instead Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty place them front and centre. Daniel Blake must die.

This is not to say that we should dismiss I, Daniel Blake simply on the grounds of being manipulative. What else do you think that cinema is if it is not manipulative? Acknowledging its own manipulations, the film nonetheless brings its viewers into a position of having to think about why the film is doing this – not simply for the sake of fooling viewers. On the contrary, it is so that we might take seriously what the film has to say.

The final confirmation of this is when Daniel and Katie enter at first into Daniel’s hearing (if I remember correctly). Looking directly at the camera – for the first time in the film – both speak not to the assembled assessors, but also directly to us.

I, Daniel Blake contains warmth and nightmarish visions of life on benefits in equal measure, with Katie’s display of hunger at a food bank (where she opens and begins to eat directly from a tin of cold baked beans) being in particular harrowing.

We are all implicated in this world. We all should take on the collective responsibility for our fellow citizens. Through the false, Ken Loach encourages us to confront the real.

Adventures in Cinema 2015

African cinema, American cinema, Blogpost, British cinema, Canadian cinema, Chinese cinema, Documentary, European cinema, Film education, Film reviews, French Cinema, Iranian cinema, Italian Cinema, Japanese Cinema, Latin American cinema, Philippine cinema, Ritzy introductions, Transnational Cinema, Ukrainian Cinema, Uncategorized

There’ll be some stories below, so this is not just dry analysis of films I saw this year. But it is that, too. Sorry if this is boring. But you can go by the section headings to see if any of this post is of interest to you.

The Basics
In 2015, I saw 336 films for the first time. There is a complete list at the bottom of this blog. Some might provoke surprise, begging for example how I had not seen those films (in their entirety) before – Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, France/UK, 1985) being perhaps the main case in point. But there we go. One sees films (in their entirety – I’d seen bits of Shoah before) when and as one can…

Of the 336 films, I saw:-

181 in the cinema (6 in 3D)

98 online (mainly on MUBI, with some on YouTube, DAFilms and other sites)

36 on DVD/file

20 on aeroplanes

1 on TV

Films I liked
I am going to mention here new films, mainly those seen at the cinema – but some of which I saw online for various reasons (e.g. when sent an online screener for the purposes of reviewing or doing an introduction to that film, generally at the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton, London).

And then I’ll mention some old films that I enjoyed – but this time only at the cinema.

Here’s my Top 11 (vaguely in order)

  1. Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, France/Germany/Switzerland, 2014)
  2. El Botón de nácar/The Pearl Button (Patricio Guzmán, France/Spain/Chile/Switzerland, 2015)
  3. Eisenstein in Guanajuato (Peter Greenaway, Netherlands/Mexico/Finland/Belgium/France, 2015)
  4. Bande de filles/Girlhood (Céline Sciamma, France, 2014)
  5. Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, France/Mauritania, 2014)
  6. Saul fia/Son of Saul (László Nemes, Hungary, 2015)
  7. 45 Years (Andrew Haigh, UK, 2015)
  8. Force majeure/Turist (Ruben Östlund, Sweden/France/Norway/Denmark, 2014)
  9. The Thoughts Once We Had (Thom Andersen, USA, 2015)
  10. Phoenix (Christian Petzold, Germany/Poland, 2014)
  11. Mommy (Xavier Dolan, Canada, 2014)

And here are some proxime accessunt (in no particular order):-

Enemy (Denis Villeneuve, Canada/Spain/France, 2013); Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, USA, 2014); Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2014); Jupiter Ascending (Andy and Lana Wachowski, USA/Australia, 2015); The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, UK/Hungary, 2014); Catch Me Daddy (Daniel Wolfe, UK, 2014); White God/Fehér isten (Kornél Mundruczó, Hungary/Germany/Sweden, 2014); Dear White People (Justin Simien, USA, 2014); The Falling (Carol Morley, UK, 2014); The Tribe/Plemya (Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, Ukraine/Netherlands, 2014); Set Fire to the Stars (Andy Goddard, UK, 2014); Spy (Paul Feig, USA, 2015); Black Coal, Thin Ice/Bai ri yan huo (Yiao Dinan, China, 2014); Listen Up, Philip (Alex Ross Perry, USA/Greece, 2014); Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs, USA, 2015); The New Hope (William Brown, UK, 2015); The Overnight (Patrick Brice, USA, 2015); Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse/My Golden Days (Arnaud Desplechin, France, 2015); Manglehorn (David Gordon Green, USA, 2014); Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller, USA, 2015); Hard to be a God/Trudno byt bogom (Aleksey German, Russia, 2013); Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie, USA, 2015); Trainwreck (Judd Apatow, USA, 2015); Mistress America (Noah Baumbach, USA/Brazil, 2015); While We’re Young (Noah Baumbach, USA, 2014); Marfa Girl (Larry Clark, USA, 2012); La Sapienza (Eugène Green, France/Italy, 2014); La última película (Raya Martin and Mark Peranson, Mexico/Denmark/Canada/Philippines/Greece, 2013); Lake Los Angeles (Mike Ott, USA/Greece, 2014); Pasolini (Abel Ferrara, France/Belgium/Italy, 2014); Taxi Tehran/Taxi (Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2015); No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman, Belgium/France, 2015); Dope (Rick Famuyiwa, USA, 2015); Umimachi Diary/Our Little Sister (Kore-eda Hirokazu, Japan, 2015); Tangerine (Sean Baker, USA, 2015); Carol (Todd Haynes, UK/USA, 2015); Joy (David O. Russell, USA, 2015); PK (Rajkumar Hirani, India, 2014); Eastern Boys (Robin Campillo, France, 2013); Selma (Ava DuVernay, UK/USA, 2014); The Dark Horse (James Napier Robertson, New Zealand, 2014); Hippocrate/Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor (Thomas Lilti, France, 2014); 99 Homes (Ramin Bahrani, USA, 2014).

Note that there are some quite big films in the above; I think the latest Mission: Impossible topped James Bond and the other franchises in 2015 – maybe because McQuarrie is such a gifted writer. Spy was for me a very funny film. I am still reeling from Cliff Curtis’ performance in The Dark Horse. Most people likely will think Jupiter Ascending crap; I think the Wachowskis continue to have a ‘queer’ sensibility that makes their work always pretty interesting. And yes, I did put one of my own films in that list. The New Hope is the best Star Wars-themed film to have come out in 2015 – although I did enjoy the J.J. Abrams film quite a lot (but have not listed it above since it’s had enough attention).

Without wishing intentionally to separate them off from the fiction films, nonetheless here are some documentaries/essay-films that I similarly enjoyed at the cinema this year:-

The Wolfpack (Crystal Moselle, USA, 2015); National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman, France/USA/UK, 2014); Life May Be (Mark Cousins and Mania Akbari, UK/Iran, 2014); Detropia (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, USA, 2012); Storm Children: Book One/Mga anak ng unos (Lav Diaz, Philippines, 2014); We Are Many (Amir Amirani, UK, 2014); The Salt of the Earth (Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, France/Brazil/Italy, 2014).

And here are my highlights of old films that I managed to catch at the cinema and loved immensely:-

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis/Il Giardino dei Finzi Contini (Vittorio de Sica, Italy/West Germany, 1970); Il Gattopardo/The Leopard (Lucchino Visconti, Italy/France, 1963); Images of the World and the Inscriptions of War/Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges (Harun Farocki, West Germany, 1989); A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes, USA, 1974).

With two films, Michael Fassbender does not fare too well in the below list – although that most of them are British makes me suspect that the films named feature because I have a more vested stake in them, hence my greater sense of disappointment. So, here are a few films that got some hoo-ha from critics and in the media and which I ‘just didn’t get’ (which is not far from saying that I did not particularly like them):-

La Giovinezza/Youth (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy/France/Switzerland/UK, 2015), Sunset Song (Terence Davies, UK/Luxembourg, 2015); Macbeth (Justin Kurzel, UK/France/USA, 2015); Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad, USA, 2014); Slow West (John Maclean, UK/New Zealand, 2015); Tale of Tales/Il racconto dei racconti (Matteo Garrone, Italy/France/UK, 2015); Amy (Asif Kapadia, UK/USA, 2015).

And even though many of these feature actors that I really like, and a few are made by directors whom I generally like, here are some films that in 2015 I kind of actively disliked (which I never really like admitting):-

Hinterland (Harry Macqueen, UK, 2015); Fantastic Four (Josh Trank, USA/Germany/UK/Canada, 2015); Pixels (Chris Columbus, USA/China/Canada, 2015); Irrational Man (Woody Allen, USA, 2015); Aloha (Cameron Crowe, USA, 2015); Point Break 3D (Ericson Core, Germany/China/USA, 2015); American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, USA, 2014); Every Thing Will Be Fine 3D (Wim Wenders, Germany/Canada/France/Sweden/Norway, 2015).

Every Thing Will Be Fine struck me as the most pointless 3D film I have yet seen – even though I think Wenders uses the form excellently when in documentary mode. The Point Break remake, meanwhile, did indeed break the point of its own making, rendering it a pointless break (and this in spite of liking Édgar Ramírez).

Where I saw the films
This bit isn’t going to be a list of cinemas where I saw films. Rather, I want simply to say that clearly my consumption of films online is increasing – with the absolute vast majority of these seen on subscription/payment websites (MUBI, DAFilms, YouTube). So really I just want to write a note about MUBI.

MUBI was great a couple of years ago; you could watch anything in their catalogue when you wanted to. Then they switched to showing only 30 films at a time, each for 30 days. And for the first year or so of this, the choice of films was a bit rubbish, in that it’d be stuff like Battleship Potemkin/Bronenosets Potemkin (Sergei M Eisenstein, USSR, 1925). Nothing against Potemkin; it’s a classic that everyone should watch. But it’s also a kind of ‘entry level’ movie for cinephiles, and, well, I’ve already seen it loads of times, and so while I continued to subscribe, MUBI sort of lost my interest.

However, this year I think that they have really picked up. They’ve regularly been showing stuff by Peter Tscherkassky, for example, while it is through MUBI that I have gotten to know the work of American artist Eric Baudelaire (his Letters to Max, France, 2014, is in particular worth seeing). Indeed, it is through Baudelaire that I also have come to discover more about Japanese revolutionary filmmaker Masao Adachi, also the subject of the Philippe Grandrieux film listed at the bottom and which I saw on DAFilms.

MUBI has even managed to get some premieres, screening London Film Festival choices like Parabellum (Lukas Valenta Rinner, Argentina/Austria/Uruguay, 2015) at the same time as the festival and before a theatrical release anywhere else, while also commissioning its own work, such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s documentary Junun (USA, 2015). It also is the only place to screen festival-winning films like Història de la meva mort/Story of my Death (Albert Serra, Spain/France/Romania, 2013) – which speaks as much of the sad state of UK theatrical distribution/exhibition (not enough people are interested in the film that won at the Locarno Film Festival for any distributors/exhibitors to touch it) as it does of how the online world is becoming a viable and real alternative distribution/exhibition venue.  Getting films like these is making MUBI increasingly the best online site for art house movies.

That said, I have benefitted from travelling a lot this year and have seen what the MUBI selections are like in places as diverse as France, Italy, Hungary, Mexico, China, Canada and the USA. And I can quite happily say that the choice of films on MUBI in the UK is easily the worst out of every single one of these countries. Right now, for example, the majority of the films are pretty mainstream stuff that most film fans will have seen (not even obscure work by Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, Jean-Luc Godard, Fritz Lang, Terry Gilliam, Robert Zemeckis, Frank Capra, Guy Ritchie, Steven Spielberg, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Wes Anderson). Indeed, these are all readily available on DVD. More unusual films like Foreign Parts (Verena Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki, USA/France, 2010) are for me definitely the way for MUBI to go – even in a country that generally seems as unadventurous in its filmgoing as this one (the UK).

I’ve written in La Furia Umana about the changing landscape of London’s cinemas; no need to repeat myself (even though that essay is not available online, for which apologies). But I would like to say that while I have not been very good traditionally in going to Indian movies (which regularly get screened at VUE cinemas, for example), I have enjoyed how the Odeon Panton Street now regularly screens mainstream Chinese films. For this reason, I’ve seen relatively interesting fare such as Mr Six/Lao pao er (Hu Guan, China, 2015). In fact, the latter was the last film that I saw in 2015, and I watched it with maybe 100 Chinese audience members in the heart of London; that experience – when and how they laughed, the comings and goings, the chatter, the use of phones during the film – was as, if not more, interesting as/than the film itself.

Patterns
This bit is probably only a list of people whose work I have consistently seen this year, leading on from the Tscherkassky and Baudelaire mentions above. As per 2015, I continue to try to watch movies by Khavn de la Cruz and Giuseppe Andrews with some regularity – and the ones that I have caught in 2015 have caused as much enjoyment as their work did in 2014.

I was enchanted especially by the writing in Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up, Philip, and then I also managed to see Ross Perry acting in La última película, where he has a leading role with Gabino Rodríguez. This led me to Ross Perry’s earlier Color Wheel (USA, 2011), which is also well worth watching.

As for Rodríguez, he is also the star of the two Nicolás Pereda films that I managed to catch online this year, namely ¿Dónde están sus historias?/Where are their Stories? (Mexico/Canada, 2007) and Juntos/Together (Mexico/Canada, 2009). I am looking forward to seeing more Rodríguez and Pereda when I can.

To return to Listen Up, Philip, it does also feature a powerhouse performance from Jason Schwartzman, who also was very funny in 2015 in The Overnight. More Schwartzman, please.

Noah Baumbach is also getting things out regularly, and I like Adam Driver. I think also that the ongoing and hopefully permanent trend of female-led comedies continues to yield immense pleasures (I am thinking of SpyMistress AmericaTrainwreck, as well as films like Appropriate Behaviour, Desiree Akhavan, UK, 2014, to lead on from last year’s Obvious Child, Gillian Robespierre, USA, 2014; I hope shortly to make good on having missed Sisters, Jason Moore, USA, 2015).

I don’t know if it’s just my perception, but films like SelmaDear White PeopleDope and more also seem to suggest a welcome and hopefully permanent increase in films dealing with issues of race in engaging and smart ways. It’s a shame that Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq (USA, 2015) may take some time to get over here. I am intrigued by Creed (Ryan Coogler, USA, 2015).  I was disappointed that Top Five (Chris Rock, USA, 2014) only got a really limited UK release, too. Another one that I missed and would like to have seen.

Matt Damon is the rich man’s Jesse Plemons.

Finally, I’ve been managing to watch more and more of Agnès Varda and the late Chantal Akerman’s back catalogues. And they are both magical. I also watched a few Eric Rohmer and Yasujiro Ozu films this year, the former at the BFI Rohmer season in early 2015, the latter on YouTube (where the older films can roam copyright free).

Michael Kohler
During a visit to Hartlepool in 2015 to see my good friend Jenni Yuill, she handed me a letter that she had found in a first edition of a Christopher Isherwood novel. She had given the novel to a friend, but kept the letter. The letter was written by someone called Michael and to a woman who clearly had been some kind of mentor to him.

In the letter, Michael described some filmmaking that he had done. And from the description – large scale props and the like – this did not seem to be a zero-budget film of the kind that I make, but rather an expensive film.

After some online research, I discovered that the filmmaker in question was/is British experimental filmmaker Michael Kohler, some of whose films screened at the London Film Festival and other places in the 1970s through the early 1990s.

I tracked Michael down to his home in Scotland – and since then we have spoken on the phone, met in person a couple of times, and he has graciously sent me copies of two of his feature films, Cabiri and The Experiencer (neither of which has IMDb listings).

Both are extraordinary and fascinating works, clearly influenced by psychoanalytic and esoteric ideas, with strange rituals, dances, symbolism, connections with the elements and so on.

Furthermore, Michael Kohler is an exceedingly decent man, who made Cabiri over the course of living with the Samburu people in Kenya for a decade or so (he also made theatre in the communes of Berlin in the 1960s, if my recall is good). He continues to spend roughly half of his time with the Samburu in Kenya.

He is perhaps a subject worthy of a portrait film himself. Maybe one day I shall get to make it.

And beyond cinema
I just want briefly to say how one of the most affecting things that I think I saw this year was a photograph of Pier Paolo Pasolini playing football – placed on Facebook by Girish Shambu or someone of that ilk (a real cinephile who makes me feel like an impostor).

Here’s the photo:

Pier-Paolo-Pasolini-Calcio

I mention this simply because I see in the image some real joy on PPP’s part. I often feel bad for being who I am, and believe that my frailties, which are deep and many, simply anger people. (By frailties, I perhaps more meaningfully could say tendencies that run contrary to mainstream thinking and behaviours – not that I am a massive rebel or anything.) And because these tendencies run contrary to mainstream thinking and behaviours, I tend to feel bad about myself, worried that others will dislike me.

(What is more, my job does not help. I often feel that the academic industry is not so much about the exchange of ideas as an excuse for people to bully each other, or at least to make them feel bad for not being good enough as a human being as we get rated on absolutely everything that we do – in the name of a self-proclaimed and fallacious appeal to an absence of partiality.)

I can’t quite put it in words. But – with Ferrara’s Pasolini film and my thoughts of his life and work also in my mind alongside this image – this photo kind of makes me feel that it’s okay for me to be myself. Pasolini met a terrible fate, but he lived as he did and played football with joy. And people remember him fondly now. And so if I cannot be as good a cinephile or scholar as Girish Shambu and if no one wants to hear my thoughts or watch my films, and if who I am angers some people, we can still take pleasure in taking part, in playing – like Pasolini playing football. And – narcissistic thought though this is – maybe people will smile when thinking about me when I’m dead. Even writing this (I think about the possibility of people remembering me after I am dead; I compare myself to the great Pier Paolo Pasolini) doesn’t make me seem that good a person (I am vain, narcissistic, delusional); but I try to be honest.

And, finally, I’d like to note that while I do include in the list below some short films, I do not include in this list some very real films that have brought me immense joy over the past year, in particular ones from friends: videos from a wedding by Andrew Slater, David H. Fleming cycling around Ningbo in China, videos of my niece Ariadne by my sister Alexandra Bullen.

In a lot of ways, these, too, are among my films of the year, only they don’t have a name, their authors are not well known, and they circulate to single-figure audiences on WhatsApp, or perhaps a few more on Facebook. And yet for me such films (like the cat films of which I also am fond – including ones of kitties like Mia and Mieke, who own Anna Backman Rogers and Leshu Torchin respectively) are very much equally a part of my/the contemporary cinema ecology. I’d like to find a way more officially to recognise this – to put Mira Fleming testing out the tuktuk with Phaedra and Dave and Annette Encounters a Cat on Chelverton Road on the list alongside Clouds of Sils Maria. This would explode list-making entirely. But that also sounds like a lot of fun.

Here’s to a wonderful 2016!

COMPLETE LIST OF FILMS I SAW FOR THE FIRST TIME 2015

KEY: no marking = saw at cinema; ^ = saw on DVD/file; * = saw online/streaming; + = saw on an aeroplane; ” = saw on TV.

Paddington
The Theory of Everything
Le signe du lion (Rohmer)
Exodus: Gods and Kings
Enemy
Au bonheur des dames (Duvivier)
Il Gattopardo
Daybreak/Aurora (Adolfo Alix Jr)^
Eastern Boys
The Masseur (Brillante Mendoza)^
Stations of the Cross
Foxcatcher
National Gallery
Whiplash
American Sniper
Minoes
Fay Grim^
Tak3n
Tokyo Chorus (Ozu)*
Kinatay (Brillante Mendoza)^
Wild (Jean-Marc Vallée)
La prochaine fois je viserai le coeur
Pressure (Horace Ové)
La Maison de la Radio
L’amour, l’après-midi (Rohmer)
The Boxtrolls^
A Most Violent Year
The Middle Mystery of Kristo Negro (Khavn)*
Ex Machina
Die Marquise von O… (Rohmer)
An Inn in Tokyo (Ozu)*
Big Hero 6
Images of the World and The Inscriptions of War (Farocki)
Corta (Felipe Guerrero)*
Le bel indifférent (Demy)*
Passing Fancy (Ozu)*
Inherent Vice
Mommy (Dolan)
Quality Street (George Stevens)
Les Nuits de la Pleine Lune (Rohmer)
Jupiter Ascending
Amour Fou (Hausner)
Selma
Shoah*
Fuck Cinema^
Bitter Lake (Adam Curtis)*
Broken Circle Breakdown^
We Are Many
Duke of Burgundy
Love is Strange
Chuquiago (Antonio Eguino)*
The American Friend*
Set Fire to the Stars
Catch Me Daddy
Blackhat
Hinterland
Two Rode Together
Patas Arriba
Relatos salvajes
Clouds of Sils Maria
Still Alice
The Experiencer (Michael Kohler)^
Cabiri (Michael Kohler)^
CHAPPiE
White Bird in a Blizzard*
Hockney”
Love and Bruises (Lou Ye)*
Coal Money (Wang Bing)*
Kommander Kulas (Khavn)*
The Tales of Hoffmann
Entreatos (João Moreira Salles)^
White God
Insiang (Lino Brocka)*
5000 Feet is Best (Omer Fast)*
Bona (Lino Brocka)*
Difret
Aimer, boire et chanter
May I Kill U?^
Bande de filles
Appropriate Behavior
The Golden Era (Ann Hui)+
Gemma Bovery+
A Hard Day’s Night+
The Divergent Series: Insurgent
De Mayerling à Sarajevo (Max Ophüls)
Marfa Girl
When We’re Young
Timbuktu (Sissako)
La Sapienza (Eugène Green)
Enthiran^
Serena (Susanne Bier)+
22 Jump Street+
Undertow (David Gordon Green)*
Delirious (DiCillo)*
Face of an Angel
Cobain: Montage of Heck
Wolfsburg (Petzold)
The Thoughts Once We Had
El Bruto (Buñuel)*
Marriage Italian-Style (de Sica)*
Force majeure
Workingman’s Death*
The Salvation (Levring)
Glassland
The Emperor’s New Clothes (Winterbottom)
The Avengers: Age of Ultron
Life May Be (Cousins/Akbari)
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
The Falling (Carol Morley)
Far From the Madding Crowd (Vinterberg)
Cutie and the Boxer^
Samba (Toledano and Nakache)
Mondomanila, Or How I Fixed My Hair After Rather A Long Journey*^
Phoenix (Petzold)
Cut out the Eyes (Xu Tong)
Producing Criticizing Xu Tong (Wu Haohao)
Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa)^
Accidental Love (David O Russell)*
The Tribe
Unveil the Truth II: State Apparatus
Mad Max: Fury Road 3D
Abcinema (Giuseppe Bertucelli)
Tale of Tales (Garrone)
Tomorrowland: A World Beyond
Coming Attractions (Tscherrkassky)*
Les dites cariatides (Varda)*
Une amie nouvelle (Ozon)
Ashes (Weerasethakul)*
Jeunesse dorée (Ghorab-Volta)^
La French
Inch’allah Dimanche (Benguigui)
San Andreas
Regarding Susan Sontag
Pelo Malo*
The Second Game (Porumboiu)^
Dear White People*
Spy (Paul Feig)
L’anabase de May et Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi et 27 années sans images*
Punishment Park*
Aquele Querido Mês de Agosto (Miguel Gomes)*
Black Coal, Thin Ice
Listen Up, Philip
Future, My Love*
Lions Love… and Lies (Varda)*
De l’autre côté (Akerman)
Les Combattants
London Road
West (Christian Schwochow)
Don Jon*
Mr Holmes
The Dark Horse*
Slow West
El coraje del pueblo (Sanjinés)^
Scénario du Film ‘Passion’ (Godard)*
Filming ‘Othello’ (Welles)*
Here Be Dragons (Cousins)*
Lake Los Angeles (Ott)*
Amy (Kapadia)
Magic Mike XXL
Hippocrate
It’s All True
I Clowns*
The New Hope
The Overnight
Sur un air de Charleston (Renoir)*
Le sang des bêtes (Franju)*
Chop Shop (Bahrani)*
Plastic Bag (Bahrani)*
Love & Mercy
Terminator Genisys 3D
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
The Salt of the Earth (Wenders/Salgado)
Mondo Trasho*
Le Meraviglie
True Story
Eden (Hansen-Love)
A Woman Under the Influence
River of No Return (Preminger)
Love (Noé)
Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse
Ant-Man 3D
Today and Tomorrow (Huilong Yang)
Inside Out
Pixels
Fantastic Four
99 Homes
Iris (Albert Maysles)
52 Tuesdays*
La isla mínima
Manglehorn
Diary of a Teenage Girl
Sciuscià (Ragazzi)
Hard to be a God
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Trainwreck
Mistress America
Precinct Seven Five
Theeb
The Wolfpack
The President (Makhmalbaf)
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis
45 Years
Straight Outta Compton
Osuofia in London*
Osuofia in London 2*
Idol (Khavn)*
Diary (Giuseppe Andrews)^
American Ultra*
La última película (Martin/Peranson)*
Pasolini (Ferrara)*
Les Chants de Mandrin^
Odete (João Pedro Rodrigues)*
Hermanas (Julia Solomonoff)*
Taxi Tehran (Panahi)*
Mystery (Lou Ye)^
Lecciones para Zafirah*
Ulysse (Varda)*
Excitement Class: Love Techniques (Noboru Tanaka)*
Speak (Jessica Sharzer)*
Image of a Bound Girl (Masaru Konuma)*
The Color Wheel*
Jimmy’s Hall*
Shotgun Stories*
El color de los olivos*
Discopathe*
Fando y Lis*
La Giovinezza
Aloha+
The Lego Movie+
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone+
Ruby Sparks+
Eadweard
Detropia
Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (Johnnie To)+
La loi du marché+
OSS117: Rio ne répond plus+
Self/Less+
Irrational Man
Junun*
Une heure de tranquillité (Patrice Leconte)
Sicario
The Lobster
Macbeth
Goodbye, Mr Loser
Fac(t)s of Life^
No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman)
Legend (Brian Helgeland)
Mia Madre (Moretti)
Mississippi Grind
Sangue del mio sangue (Bellocchio)
Botón de nácar (Guzmán)
Storm Children, Book 1 (Lav Diaz)
Dope
Umimachi Diary (Hirokazu)
Dheepan
Lamb (Ethiopia)
Saul fia
Ceremony of Splendours
Parabellum*
[sic] (Eric Baudelaire)*
The Makes (Eric Baudelaire)*
The Martian
Everest
Anime Nere
Suffragette
Crimson Peak
The Lady in the Van
Steve Jobs
Tangerine
Manufraktur (Tscherrkasky)*
Lancaster, CA (Mike Ott)*
The Ugly One (Eric Baudelaire)*
The Program (Stephen Frears)
Everything Will Be Fine 3D
Agha Yousef
The OBS – A Singapore Story
Eisenstein in Guanajuato
Letters to Max (Eric Baudelaire)*
SPECTRE
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2
My Lucky Stars (Sammo Hung)+
Dragons Forever (Sammo Hung and Corey Yuen)+
The Crossing: Part One (John Woo)+
John Wick^
Junkopia (Chris Marker)*
The Reluctant Revolutionary*
How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck?*
Happy People: A Year in the Taiga^
The Shaft (Chi Zhang)^
Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974*
Um lugar ao sol (Gabriel Mascaro)*
The Story of My Death (Albert Serra)*
Juntos (Nicolás Pereda)*
¿Dónde están sus historias? (Nicolás Pereda)*
Golden Embers (Giuseppe Andrews)^
Cartel Land^
Outer Space (Tscherkassky)*
L’Arrivée (Tscherkassky)*
It Follows*
At Sundance (Michael Almereyda)^
Aliens (Michael Almereyda)^
Woman on Fire Looks for Water*
Fantasma (Lisandro Alonso)*
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation*
Coraline^
Adela (Adolfo Alix Jr)*
Point Break 3D
Another Girl Another Planet (Michael Almereyda)^
The Rocking Horse Winner (Michael Almereyda)^
Foreign Parts (Paravel and Sniadecki)*
Star Wars Uncut*
Warrior (Gavin O’Connor)*
Evolution of a Filipino Family^
Lumumba: La mort du Prophète^
The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner^
PK+
L’échappée belle+
Legend of the Dragon (Danny Lee/Lik-Chi Lee)+
Magnificent Scoundrels (Lik-Chi Lee)+
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens 3D
Devil’s Knot (Egoyan)^
Anatomy of a Murder*
Two Lovers^
Elsa la rose (Varda)*
My Winnipeg*
Carol
Joy
Surprise: Journey to the West
Grandma
Mur Murs (Varda)*
In the Heart of the Sea
Sunset Song
Il se peut que la beauté ait renforcé notre résolution: Masao Adachi (Grandrieux)*
Black Mass
Mr Six

Spectre (Sam Mendes, UK/USA, 2015)

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

Spoilers. And it’s long. Sorry.

The plot of Spectre is that James Bond (Daniel Craig) uncovers a secret society, Spectre, which is basically in charge of all world crime and terrorism, and which also has at its core a plot to develop a total surveillance society.

In some senses, the film is about information and quantification, against which it pitches memory and emotions.

For, if quantification is about measuring and thus giving to everything an extension/measurement, then memory is about quality and the irreplaceable intensity of experience (intensity, not extension).

The film is a fantasy, as marked in several moments in the film. It is also in some senses the last James Bond film, though Bond will almost certainly ‘return’ – as the end credits habitually announce.

Starting with the more mundane fantasy aspects, we can then build up to what I consider to be the more meaningful ones. We have:-

1. In the opening sequence, Bond attacks a helicopter pilot, who might well be an accomplice to the escaping Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona), but who at this point in the film is – as far as audience members are concerned – just a helicopter pilot. He does later attack Bond. But since he is in the helicopter above a massive crowd of Mexicans celebrating the Day of the Dead, clearly Bond is not particularly concerned about innocent lives.

2. After inadvertently blowing up a building by shooting a bomb, Bond finds himself in a crumbling building. He slides down a collapsed floor, and then leaps on to a ledge – the remains of an already collapsed storey. The ledge collapses and Bond lands… on a sofa. The moment is funny, but also nonsensical; what happened to the collapsed ledge? why is the sofa not covered in the concrete that fell before Bond?

Perhaps correctly, one might already be thinking: this guy is taking this film too seriously. But these are already early signs that the whole of Spectre might be Bond’s fantasy. This is also signalled by the fact that helicopters, a collapsing building, and the motif of falling through a collapsing building all recur at the film’s climax. That is, the circular structure of the film not only signals ‘good storytelling,’ but its ‘neatness’ also potentially signals that ‘none of this is real.’ Or certainly, not realistic; who can have this sort of luck – both bad (the same things happen over and over again; the same things return) and good (the sofa, the final safety net).

Onwards…

3. Bond is involved in a car chase in Rome. At one point he finds himself stuck in a narrow alleyway behind an old guy in a small car past which he cannot drive. This gives evil henchman Mr Hinx (Dave Bautista) a chance to catch him up, but ingenious as ever Bond simply uses his Aston Martin DB10 to push the old guy out of the way. But don’t worry – the old guy safely manages to come to a halt, only lightly boffing a bollard before his airbag punches him in the face.

A funny moment, except for two things, one of which we shall return to. Firstly, while stuck behind and/or pushing the old man’s car, we see Bond drive past at least two crossroads, down which he easily could have turned in order more successfully to flee Hinx. In other words, logic be damned for the sake of a good spectacle. Or rather, this is still all Bond’s fantasy.

Secondly, the film takes care to emphasise the fact that this old white Italian man survives Bond’s antics. Not so the no doubt various Mexicans who perished in the destroyed building in Mexico, and various other collateral victims of Bond’s antics throughout the rest of the film. The film, which as Bond’s fantasy also means Bond himself, believes a white European to be worth saving. Not so much anyone from the Third World.

4. Bond goes to find old rival Mr White (Jesper Christensen). He finds him in the basement of a house in Austria, where he is sat watching various television screens featuring… news coverage of disasters. This is straight out of South Park, and simply goes to signal that White is ‘evil.’ Given that this is a film that takes care to show us Ernst Stavros Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) in espadrilles without socks and kissing a cat, why isn’t White making a cup of tea or something? Because this is a fantasy.

5. Personally, I also found ridiculous the white tie costume that Bond puts on for the dinner he has on a train with Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux). Why dress up this way for a train dinner seems ridiculous to me. As does Hinx’s arrival. A fight ensues, and Hinx, who wears a weirdly flammable suit that goes up in flames after having a candle thrown at it, dies, in part through Madeleine’s help (she shoots him in the arm). After Hinx’s death, she asks – a line that telegraphs the next shot with such clarity that one wonders why there is no interception/unusual cutting: “What do we do now?” Cut to a sex scene (well, some rather prudish kissing anyway). The entire scenario is silly, especially since on the back of this one brief sexual encounter, Madeleine will shortly declare to Bond that she loves him. If knowing someone for about 48 hours and killing a third party is the recipe for love… then surely we are in a fantasy land.

6. The same goes for Bond’s seduction of Sciarra’s widow, Lucia (Monica Bellucci). Bond kills two henchmen by shooting them in the back just before they finish her off (the reason for her necessary death not being too clear, except perhaps that she ‘knows too much’ – and apparently did not love her husband, or so Bond tells us anyway). And then he seduces her. Just like that. Because that’s what happens in real life.

7. Bond has injected into him some nanotechnology that means not only that Bond’s location can be known at all times (a phone can achieve this), but also his physical condition (the film never really explores this aspect of the tech). At first Bond convinces Q (Ben Whishaw) to lie about the information provided by the tech, before M (Ralph Fiennes) tells Q to destroy the files. Which is fine, if one wants to hide where Bond has been. The tech is still in his blood, though, and so finding where Bond is will be very easy for the film’s villains, since they can just track him using this tech. Which is perhaps the case, since Bond is found with ease at all times. But this does then beg the question why M would tell Q to destroy the records at all. (The film does not tell us that the baddies know where Bond is because of this tech.)

8. Bond is taken prisoner by Blofeld somewhere in the Sahara. Blofeld – dressed, as mentioned, in an oddly realistic way and rolling around on an executive (‘wheely’) chair – carries out some unnecessary dentistry on Bond before inserting a drill into what he says is Bond’s fusiform gyrus, the area of the brain in which humans stores memories for faces. Apparently Blofeld is not successful, since Bond remembers Madeleine instants later. Maybe Blofeld just missed. But this suggests something more strange…

9. The film climaxes in the old MI6 building, to which Bond is abducted by more Blofeld henchmen (who also die).

(Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), Tanner (Rory Kinnear) and Q are in a car behind M, who is heading to the new building for joint security agency, CMS. Cue the most redundant line in the film – from Moneypenny: “They’ve seen us, reverse,” she says before the henchmen shoot at the car, apparently grazing Q, though this is never confirmed to us. A real ‘no shit, Sherlock’ moment.)

Anyway, back to the MI6 building: Blofeld has had installed into it some weird ropes, suggesting something like a maze, as well as a bullet-proof screen, and a bomb. Just in case you didn’t know there was a bomb that might go off, the bomb conveniently produces a sort of ‘countdown’ sound, meaning that Blofeld also wired the ruined building with speakers just to remind Bond of the fact that he has a deadline: to find Madeleine before the building explodes.

Not only do we have pointless dialogue (Moneypenny), and a somewhat improbable scenario (rigging the building with speakers, for example), but the fact that Blofeld sets all of this up simply so that he can torment Bond suggests that the plot to obtain world domination is just persiflage, and that all of this really is about Bond himself. That is, it is Bond’s fantasy about being the centre of the world.

I insist that this is Bond’s fantasy precisely because I am not that concerned with making judgments along the lines of ‘the film is full of plot holes.’ It’s only a Bond film would be the obvious and correct response if that were my only intended task; of course the film is full of plot holes, since this is indeed ‘only’ a Bond film.

But while I have used the above ‘plot holes’ to begin my demonstration of the film as Bond’s fantasy, we can go a step further and show how the film seems not just to feature improbable moments of action that we can simply excuse by saying ‘but of course the film is a fantasy’ but which also seem to suggest that the film is not only a fantasy, but specifically James Bond’s fantasy. To wit:-

1. When Bond arrives at a Spectre board meeting, Hinx announces himself by gouging the eyes out of a rival, before Blofeld addresses Bond – suggesting that the entire meeting has been set up for Bond, and not really for the purposes of discussing evil and world domination.

2. When Blofeld shows Bond around his desert lair, he takes him and Madeleine into a room of henchmen at computers. (As if by magic, they catch on CCTV at that exact moment M discussing the closing of MI6 in London, with MI6 being subsumed under CMS, which is headed up by C (Andrew Scott) and who happens to be a Blofeld lackey as well as, we are told, old school friends with the Home Secretary.) At a certain point, the lights go off and everyone stands up and turns towards Bond. Some amazing choreography, which must have been practised beforehand (that is, in the fictional world Blofeld must have issued orders along the lines of ‘well, what’s gonna happen, guys, is that I’ll bring Bond to this point in the room, and then Brian, you hit the lights, and everyone turns towards Bond and stands up. It’ll really shit him up. Okay, shall we practice? Go… Keith, for Christ’s sake, no! I said turn towards Bond, not the wall. Someone take Keith and feed him to the sharks…). Failing such a moment having happened in the fictional world of the film, the moment again suggests that this all could be in Bond’s head.

3. “It was all me,” Blofeld soon confesses, in saying that all of his recent misdemeanours have been – in spite of words to the contrary – about Bond. Indeed, it turns out that after Bond’s parents died, it was Blofeld’s father who adopted Bond – with Bond surpassing Blofeld in winning the admiration of his father. That is, world domination really comes down to rivalry over daddy love between two kids, one British, one German.

4. Once Bond has been lobotomised, it is hard to tell whether anything is reliable anymore. Perhaps he has no memory for faces. Perhaps he has no memory. Perhaps this is all just a fantasy.

So, if you buy what I have said thus far, not only do the plot holes, but also some far more deliberate moments in the film seem to suggest that this all is or could be Bond’s fantasy. That saving the world in fact plays out in the troubled mind of the middle class British boy – described as being ‘blue eyed’ by Blofeld in a way that naturally recalls the features that in popular memory were the preserve of Aryans under National Socialism in Germany.

The question becomes not ‘is the film good or bad as a result of this?’, but ‘why does the film do this?’ Or rather: what is the film telling us by doing this?

So here we arrive at memory and intensity, which also relate in the film to issues of history, race, sex, the Bond mythology itself, and the medium in which the Bond franchise most powerfully exists, cinema (together with other audiovisual media).

When Bond comes around in Blofeld’s lobotomy chair, Blofeld is explaining to Madeleine about the moment Hinx took out the eyes of Guerra (Benito Sagredo) in the Spectre meeting that was not necessarily a real meeting, but which might in fact have simply been set up for Bond/been Bond’s fantasy.

It is not entirely clear what Blofeld says – we hear things from Bond’s perspective, a little bit unclear since he is still coming round. But basically Blofeld seems to be explaining to Madeleine that the mind exists separately from the body, and that when Guerra’s eyes were removed, he did not function properly as a human being anymore (so if you’re blind, you’re basically not human).

This separation of mind and body that Blofeld seems to be discussing is important (and contradictory, as I’ll explain below). It’s important because if the mind exists apart from the body, then everything might well be a fantasy, something in Bond’s head and which he is not really experiencing. Furthermore, if there is a mind that exists separately from the body, then this dualism suggests a reality in which we humans can see the world as separate from us (i.e. ‘objectively’). If our mind were entirely part of our bodies, and since our bodies are in the world, then this would suggest that our minds are a product of the world. A separate mind suggests the autonomy of humanity, which has conquered the mere body and thus conquered the material world, and which exists independent from the world.

I do not think that such a view of the the mind separate from the body is sustainable, although Spectre has an ambivalent relationship with this concept. I am strongly of the view that the mind is linked to the body, and that what the mind comes up with is linked thus to the world.

However, with regard to Spectre, the separation of mind and body is important, because the film also invokes the idea of voyeurism at times. Voyeurism is liking to watch things, but also liking to watch things as if separate from them, unaffected, disconnected.

Bond accuses Blofeld of being a voyeur, while voyeurism looms large in M’s dislike of C’s plan to instil the perfect surveillance system (the workings of which are never really explained). That is, the film characterises as bad those who are voyeuristic, those who believe in separation of mind from body, and those who believe, therefore, that they are or can be separate from the world.

“I said turn it off!” shouts Bond, somewhat redundantly, to Blofeld as the latter shows to Madeleine footage of her father’s suicide (Madeleine is Mr White’s daughter). He then tells Madeleine not to watch the footage and instead to look at Bond.

At this moment, we get a sense in which Bond does not want Madeleine to be a voyeur, someone who watches but who is not seen (because/thus suffering from the illusion of being separate from the world). Instead, she and he should share eye contact (the basis of their love?). Which happens as Madeleine does not watch the footage.

Similarly, M describes to C the process of killing a human being while looking them in the eye. Surveillance and drone culture supposedly involve separation and not connection. And with separation and not connection, one does not see the rest of the world, including humans, as connected to us, but as disconnected from us, and thus as something that one can treat as an object. In other words, Blofeld and C’s voyeurism is part and parcel of a dualistic view of the human, which feeds into a system of exploitation and inequality. Bond might kill people, but he does so knowingly, taking on responsibility for his actions… supposedly.

Except for the fact that, contrary to M’s argument, Bond does not take responsibility for his actions (unless being a heavy drinker is supposed to signify guilt and thus deserving absolution). As mentioned, Bond kills henchmen and likely also is involved in killing Mexicans without much of a care (he shoots Lucia’s would-be killers in the back). This is not someone who is connected with the world (looking his victims in the eye), but someone who believes it to be his playground, mechanically and uncaringly dispatching those who are in his way.

In other words, as a fantasy, the film is the expression of the privileged white, middle class and male European belief that one is separate from and superior to the world, which one can indeed treat as one wishes. Blowing up a Mexican building, nearly crashing a helicopter and so on: this is fine, especially when the older Italian driver is not killed, thus salving our conscience since those Mexicans and henchmen are not really real to us (Bond is a psychopath). Hence, in a similar vein, Bond’s treatment of women as playthings.

Perhaps this is made most clear when Bond says of his own life: “I don’t stop to think.” What Bond seems to be saying here is that Bond does not consider the consequences of his actions – he does not consider himself to be part of the world – but he considers himself to be separate from the world, and he has no need to think about what he does, since from his perspective it will always be correct. That is, Bond is a solipsist, someone who is selfish, and who does not consider the consequences of his actions, because he does not believe that his actions have consequences (he does not think he is part of the world) and because this may indeed all be in his head (a fantasy).

And yet, Spectre perhaps enacts the way in which the repressed – the reality from which Bond believes himself to be separate – in fact returns (‘returns’ will be a phrase to pick apart with some finesse).

Firstly, if Blofeld does believe in the dualism of mind and body (with the concomitant voyeurism and ability to exploit others that this entails), then he also cannot sustain such a belief in the face of the fact that he also lobotomises Bond. That is, it is by changing Bond’s material body that he changes Bond’s material mind.

Except for the fact that the lobotomy does not work. Does the fact that the lobotomy does not work suggest that, at the last, the mind is separate from the body, since Blofeld changes Bond’s body, but his mind survives, and he still remembers Madeleine even though he should not?

(In some senses, the forgetting of faces is important for fans of James Bond. That is, we forget that Daniel Craig is not Pierce Brosnan, is not Timothy Dalton, is not Roger Moore, is not George Lazenby, is not Sean Connery. We remember that we forget this, since everyone is always arguing over who their ‘favourite’/’the best’ James Bond is. And yet, we also properly forget the differences between these faces, since we go to watch the films regardless and believe that we are watching James Bond – even though the change of appearance would suggest that at least one of these Bonds is an impostor. In other words, cinema is a kind of lobotomy. A lobotomy that makes us believe that mind is separate from body – this is still James Bond even though that is a new face he has – which in turn makes of us voyeurs, separate from the world, forgetful, returning to the cinema, complicit with exploitation, happy for the trafficking of humans and contemporary slavery to happen… since without them the comfortable world in which we live would not exist.)

Back to whether the failed lobotomy suggests a separation of mind and body.

Well, I shall argue for something slightly different and paradoxical. And this is that the lobotomy does not work because Bond is indeed a solipsist and this is his fantasy, but that the lobotomy also signals the beginning of Bond’s return to reality – perhaps.

Why does the lobotomy not work? Not because Blofeld just gets his procedure a bit wrong. But because Blofeld is not carrying out the procedure; this is just Bond’s fantasy, with Blofeld a figment of Bond’s imagination.

This is signalled by the unlikelihood of Blofeld’s organising his entire criminal corporation around Bond – and visually by the way the two face each other through the glass wall, with Blofeld even (at one point) describing them as ‘brothers.’

As a figment of Bond’s imagination, Blofeld does suggest that Bond is a solipsist with a mind separate from his body. However, this solipsism is not sustainable, with Madeleine in fact signalling Bond’s re-entry into reality, a re-connection with the real world.

How is this so?

Madeleine Swann is a name clearly inspired by Marcel Proust, whose Remembrance of Things Past is a novel about the nature of memory. Swann is the name of the novel’s main protagonist, while it is the smell of a madeleine (a kind of French cake) dipped in tea that induces in Swann many of the memories that are the novel’s contents.

A high brow reference for a Bond film, no doubt. Nonetheless, Proust suggests the importance of memory, with memory being embodied, since smell – i.e. the influence of the real world – is what allows him to remember. That is, for Proust the mind is not separate from the body, with the human not being separate from the world; instead, the two are intimately interlinked.

Prior to the lobotomy, Blofeld explains that Bond will have no way to remember all of the women that he has seduced in his life, and that Madeleine will be just another woman. However, since Bond is a solipsist, what Blofeld is really pointing to is the fact that Bond doesn’t remember apart his conquests as it is (with characters like Vesper Lynd, played by Eva Green in Casino Royale, Martin Campbell, UK/etc, 2006, supposedly providing the odd exception). Women are, for Bond, simply objects (he views them ‘objectively’).

(Here the name Madeleine takes on a renewed resonance – this time with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (USA, 1958), in which Scottie (James Stewart) falls in love with a woman who does not exist called Madeleine, before forcing the woman who played the part of Madeleine, Judy (Kim Novak), to become not like Judy, but like Madeleine. That is, Scottie treats Judy as an object, with Madeleine being that object. In this way, Bond’s love for Madeleine might also signal that she is still just another woman, interchangeable with others, and not real, since Madeleine in Vertigo is equally a fantasy and not real.)

Interestingly, it is because Spectre begins to be involved in the trafficking of women and children that Mr White refuses to take part in the organisation, prompting Blofeld to poison him, hence his decision to kill himself with Bond’s gun when the two meet.

In other words, Mr White is signalled as a voyeur (watching the spectacle of terrorism on his television screen, with terrorism reduced to a spectacle on a screen and not involving real people; i.e. it is something over there, not part of a world with which we are entangled), but really he cannot go on in a world in which women and children are treated like objects.

(A Spectre henchwoman, Dr Vogel (Brigitte Miller), with shades of Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), describes in the Spectre board meeting that 160,000 women have successfully been placed in the ‘leisure industry’ – suggesting the trade of faceless women, a trade that is in part engendered by the likes of Bond who do not see women as individuals with whom to interact, but as objects to fuck. Indeed, M and C have an exchange in which C tells M that M stands for moron, to which M responds that C stands for… careless, because M has removed the bullets from C’s too-obviously-hidden gun. Of course, mature audience members will be thinking that C stands for cunt, because C is a bad character who believes in total surveillance, voyeurism and drone violence. That is, C embodies – paradoxically – the belief that women are just cunts to be fucked as opposed to real human beings, because C also stands for separation, objectification, exploitation, detachment, solipsism, Eurocentrism.)

As the daughter of Mr White, then, and as associated with Proust and Vertigo, Madeleine is the revival of memory within Bond – a revival that takes place at precisely the moment that Blofeld thinks he destroys Bond’s memory. Bond now remembers, is now enworlded, and is now capable (once again?) of love. Or so he says…

If we don’t remember anything, we won’t learn from our mistakes, and we just repeat ourselves. Things get repetitive as we forget what came before and do not change (although we may not be aware that there is repetition, precisely because we do not remember).

For Bond to treat women like objects is associated with amnesia, forgetting, not remembering. For him to learn to love, both by getting together with Madeleine and by not killing Blofeld, as happens at the film’s end, suggests that Bond starts to remember.

And yet what does Bond remember?

For, Madeleine Swann seems to be such a contrived character – she ‘loves’ Bond after a brief encounter – and Blofeld is Bond’s imagined evil twin. That is, Bond loves a fantasy woman who is not real (Vertigo strikes), while he keeps alive his evil other half. Meaning that there will be more Bond films as Bond wants to, but cannot quite change (he cannot really love, except to love a fantasy).

Perhaps this is why Spectre is a film that rehashes many tropes from previous Bond films, including a somewhat redundant series of references to octopuses that surely evokes Octopussy (John Glen, UK/USA, 1983). The octopus is oddly the symbol of Spectre (why not call it ‘octopus’?), while also featuring prominently in the opening credits. And then it does not really to reappear. Meaning that it is an empty reminder of former Bonds rather than a meaningful image/symbol (I am happy to stand corrected if someone has a good explanation for it).

I shan’t list all of the other Bond self-references. There are many.

But the point that I wish to make is this. Obviously, as viewers, it is because we have a memory of other Bond films that we can recognise these references. That said, on the part of the filmmakers it paradoxically also suggests a lack of memory, and a compulsion to repeat, since rather than doing anything different, the film recycles things that the series has already done time and again. Memory should be a tool to allow for difference, rather than a way of repeating oneself.

And yet, in not killing the baddie and in falling in love, does Spectre not learn and offer us something different? Well, yes. On a certain level. But if this is still just solipsism (Madeleine and Blofeld are part of Bond’s imagination), then Spectre suggests as a whole the haunting of the Bond series by the other, earlier Bond films, and its inability to move on from the past, in spite of its attempts to do so.

This inability to move on from the past, it is in some senses capitalism. Capitalism is defined by returns, for example box office returns. Things change under capitalism – we get new Bond films – but things remain the same, as we basically repeat. If we repeat, we forget. If we forget, it is because we do not carry memory with us. Memory requires us being in or with the world, and so forgetting is separation from the world. Separation from the world is what enables us to treat others as objects. Treating others as objects is at the core of capitalism, since it involves exploitation (the creation of hierarchies of human beings based upon socioeconomics, as opposed to equality among humans based upon the fact of sharing and being sustained by the same planet). The repetition of Bond tropes – even if we can recognise it – is thus capitalist; and Bond will return, then, even though Spectre threatens a new Bond who does not kill his enemy, who does no longer treat women as objects, but now who instead professes to love. This lesson will be forgotten – and so while Spectre threatens to be the end of Bond, it in all likelihood will not be.

C suggests in Spectre that information is the most important asset/resource, and that to have (access to) it is to have power. Indeed, information is the production of the very system of power and hierarchisation. For, information as computer data and quantification is extension, repetition, the compulsive fucking of women, the cynical killing of Mexicans (even if an old Italian guy is saved). Bond learns through memory not the extent of fucking (a list of women he has bedded), but the intensity of love. Which will be perhaps quantified itself – ‘another Bond film in which he falls in love’ – as opposed to Bond learning to love and going into retirement and there never being another Bond film again.

Bond forgets the women he has bedded. He forgets the Mexicans he has killed, as well as the henchmen. And the whole film comes down to being a dispute between rival boys, with Bond as the perfect Aryan.

Is it perhaps the case, then, that as Bond forgets these things, so Spectre similarly forgets, but cannot help itself from giving expression to, the hidden history of the world that has allowed Europe to become so self-absorbed and solipsistic that it makes films about boys squabbling and letting many others die in the process.

The Mexican opening. The Day of the Dead. The African desert. The considerably longer world history evoked by the presence in the film of a meteorite, suggesting that the world itself is not isolated but part of a bigger universe. The film cannot but point to a history of colonialism and the exploitation/theft that enabled Europe to become the centre that thought itself so powerful that it could treat others as objects. And this within a world in which it is likely because of interventions from outer space, in the form of meteorites, that the conditions were created for humans to emerge as a dominant species in the first place.

(Léa Seydoux and Christoph Waltz have met before, of course, in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, USA/Germany, 2009. This and the film’s Aryan politics might even suggest the return of the Holocaust as a repressed point in history. Furthermore, the constant references to ‘shit’ in the film also suggest the return of a repressed body in what otherwise might all be taking place in James Bond’s mind.)

In other words, Spectre seems to encourage us to forget world/planetary history, but it also cannot help but suggest it. As the film posits a dualist identity (signalled in the Bond-Blofeld and the Bond-Madeleine dyads), it also suggests a much more ‘schizophrenic’ enworldment.

Commercial cinema itself might be part of a compulsion to repeat/a compulsion to forget, since it also often involves a sense of voyeurism/separation (looking without being seen).

As much perhaps is demonstrated in that we are happy for Bond to be involved in the needless deaths of Mexican civilians and henchmen who, while not ‘innocent,’ are also contracted to work for evil. That we carry these views forward into the real world (we allow the deaths of many civilians in the name of combatting evil, while at the same time finding abominable the victimisation of our own people even though they might be considered, like a henchman, accomplices to the hierarchisation, separation and solipsism that is capital) perhaps indicates that the logic of cinema, voyeurism, separation from others and exploitation is not just shown within the film but also applies to Spectre itself.

Spectre is a film that consciously deals with these issues. I think ultimately it cannot help but be a product of the capitalist system from which it springs. But at the same time, since there is the world, it cannot help but show the world.

A smart and complex film (it is knowing about its issues), Spectre suggests that the whole film is Bond’s solipsistic fantasy while at the same time showing that the solipsistic fantasy of overcoming solipsism is the expression of the privileged white, straight and European male. Bond learns, but we suspect that he will return, that he is the real spectre. Who knows, though…? Perhaps the series will end and by remembering, we will learn to create something completely different…

Sorry for the rant. Bond as usual in many respects. But also a more self-conscious and knowing (‘post-modern’?) Bond than usual. Which in turn highlights precisely how the postmodern world is a western fantasy of globalisation (via exploitation, fantasies of tourism, the ability to kill poor people) that has at its core a mind-body dualism. Which in turn reminds us how untenable this dualism is in a world with which we are in fact always already entangled.

We Are Many (Amir Amirani, UK, 2014)

Blogpost, British cinema, Documentary, Film reviews

I am only going to write a brief blog about We Are Many, Amir Amirani’s documentary about the 2003 anti-war march in London.

For, while there are two things that I personally did not enjoy so much about the film, it has at its core some truly extraordinary ideas that are worth pondering for a brief while (well, they’re worth pondering for a long while, but I shall only briefly ponder them here/today).

The film opens with a 20-minute or so introduction to the 2003 war in Iraq. The films countdown structure towards the war suggests that it was inevitable, no doubt as a result of the fact that we know now, in 2015, that the war has indeed been and gone. The events of 11 September 2001 of course play a key role in this countdown, and while in some senses it is necessary to mention this and other events as context for the war in Iraq, to me it felt like we have seen all of this many times before. Or rather, the film did not in this section add anything about this moment to what we do already know.

The second issue I have with the film is its reliance on celebrities to lend credibility to the story being told. I hate to sound like an arse – not least because I could just plain be wrong – but when we see and hear Richard Branson telling us that he was moments away from preventing the Iraq war as a result of a meeting that he set up and bankrolled between Saddam Hussein and Kofi Annan, and which oh-so-nearly took place, one just wants some critical scrutiny to emerge to check whether this is really true, nice guy though I am sure Richard Branson is and all that.

Indeed, the seemingly obligatory celebrity vox pops from the likes of Susan Sarandon, Damon Albarn, Brian Eno, Mark Rylance, Danny Glover, Ken Loach and more can lend to the film a touch of the self-congratulation that is celebrity culture, and which stands in some respects in stark contrast to the extraordinary ideas mentioned above and which the film also contains.

For, one of the most extraordinary ideas in the film is its celebration of mass human gatherings, especially when carried out with/for political intent. Repeatedly the vox pops do emphasise that being in a massive crowd is moving, joyful and special.

More than that, though, is the crowd footage that Amirani uses in his film. If in asserting that ‘the people are missing’ from cinema, French philosopher Gilles Deleuze was referring to the way in which movies rely perhaps overly on the individual agent who will overcome the world, here we get a sense of the presence of the multitude, and of how, when gathering in huge numbers, an emergent, borg-like identity might well emerge from crowds, which do indeed challenge individual agency and the notion the individual as agent and the agent as individual full stop.

Joy, a term used repeatedly to describe the experience by crowd participants in the film, is, I wish to suggest, felt when humans realise that they are not alone, adrift in a solipsistic daze, but are thoroughly enworlded, and enworlded with other human beings. We do, at such moments, stand looking not just with our own eyes at events, but beside ourselves. And as to be beside oneself with laughter is joyful, so to be beside oneself and simply seeing that one is part of a huge, magnificent and shared existence is joyful because literally mind-expanding: we are forced to recognise both that we are tiny in the world, but that irrevocably we are with the world. Indeed, this sense of joyful withness, with the world and with our human conspecifics, is inherently comedic.

Comedy’s etymology is, according to this site

probably from komodios “actor or singer in the revels,” from komos “revel, carousal, merry-making, festival,” + aoidos “singer, poet,” from aeidein “to sing,” related to oide.

In other words, comedy is a sing-along, a festival of withness (‘com’), a revel and a revelation, in which our eyes are opened to see beyond/beside ourselves and to see that we are with the world.

That Amirani’s film suggests this via its treatment of crowds is, like I say, extraordinary, even if at odds with the celebration of individuality with the emphasis of celebrity that the film elsewhere conveys.

The second extraordinary thing about We Are Many is its insight into subsequent mass movements, especially in Egypt’s Tahrir Square in 2011. For, participants in that crowd suggest that coverage of the anti-war marches in Britain played a key role in inspiring Egyptians themselves to take to the streets several years later. This is extraordinary, because while we may sit pessimistically thinking that the crowds achieved nothing in the UK and elsewhere, and that the war with Iraq took place anyway, that it had a legacy elsewhere in the world suggests that we need not be so pessimistic. And whatever one makes of the consequences of the s0-called Arab Spring, the film thus brings about a sense of hope in collective expression and maybe even of collective change, or change that has as its principle interest not the benefit of the few, but the benefit of the many.

An independently produced film, We Are Many is an extraordinary achievement that, while not a film with the seeming restraint of, say, a Claude Lanzmann, nonetheless is a great rabble rowser, one that makes us question events both from our recent past and ongoing, and which gives us a sense at times that we are all part of the human comedy that is life.

Set Fire to the Stars (Andy Goddard, UK, 2014)

Blogpost, British cinema, Film reviews

If humanity can lay claim to any powers beyond those of the other species that swarm this frail planet, then it is the power to create. The Greeks referred to this process of creation as poiesis. In the contemporary world, we might refer to this process as poetry.

There are many things that humans can create, from technologies to buildings to works of art. And while perhaps all machines transform our world and thus help us to see not just the world anew, but to realise that the world is only ever progressing into the new as the machines themselves both emerge from the constituent matter with which our universe is built and reconfigure that matter by bringing the machines’ products into existence, perhaps art nonetheless has a special place in and with the world, since art does not just bring beautiful new objects into the world (so-called works of art), but art also makes us see that beauty lies everywhere in the world.

Set Fire to the Stars was shot in 18 days in early 2014 on a relatively small budget. It tells the story of Dylan Thomas (co-writer Celyn Jones) on the verge of his first American tour in 1950. However, rather than concentrate uniquely on Thomas, the story is also about would-be poet John Malcolm Brinnin (Elijah Wood), a New York poetry professor who has brought Thomas to the USA, and who struggles to keep a leash on his guest, who otherwise is raising alcohol-pumping hell.

At one point Thomas catches Brinnin correcting his students’ poems in the Connecticut retreat to which the latter has brought the former in a bid to dry him out. Thomas reads the poem – and with gusto. Why, Thomas asks, does Brinnin have to write all over this work? He is a professor, replies Brinnin, which only prompts Thomas to suggest, in so many words, that creation must be encouraged, not stifled. And we can imagine Thomas’ thoughts: that with only the courage to write, all of the respect for technique will follow, but if one only learns technique and no courage, then one’s poetry will be an empty exercise.

Set Fire to the Stars is a technically accomplished film; it has a nostalgic quality that is brought forth by the film’s black and white cinematography, suggesting a speakeasy States populated by hearts that pump blood and soar with spirit like anywhere else. Maybe the film could go further in exploring just what it is that a human can think, feel and do on this cold rock, in the sense that maybe there could be even more laying bare of the souls that we see in the film. But Set Fire to the Stars is, after all, a film with a lot of heart. A film with a lot of poetry.

For, few are the films that feel as though they had to have been made by its makers before they try and fail to outscream the screaming devil that is death. And yet, in Set Fire to the Stars, one gets a sense that Goddard and in particular Jones could not have led a life that did not at some point in time feature a version of this film. We are, after all, equally human and as such, we all have a duty to try to pocket the moon if that is what we wish to accomplish. That is, if we dream it, then we must have the courage to make it.

And this is what one feels watching Set Fire to the Stars: that everything has been put into this that the filmmakers could muster within and without themselves. To create is tread fearlessly into the world of crisis, where critics uphold themselves as the gatekeepers between what is supposedly good and bad. And yet to create takes courage and should thus be both encouraging and encouraged. Good and bad can drown themselves in jealous rivalry under the surface of Lake Film Reviews. What is great, alone, is that the film is done, and its courage is what shines through.

To confirm the poetry of the film, one happily is transported to America’s New England for its duration, even though the film is shot in and around Thomas’ native Swansea. What more affirmation of magic can there be than such alchemy of place, whereby we find America in Wales and, while at times we may notice, we do not really care? This is not to be hung up on rules and wherefores, but it is lead a life of play, make-believe and joy.

Maybe the film should be more angry, more ugly. But Set Fire to the Stars is nonetheless a defiant film that like all creations is born out of love. Being now in and with the world, there is no need to scrawl all over its margins, but instead simply to admire it, the Thomas that it give us, and to learn courage from it to lead a life of creation ourselves.

 

A Story of Children and Film (Mark Cousins, UK, 2013)

Blogpost, British cinema, Documentary, Film education, Film reviews

This blog post is written ahead of introducing A Story of Children and Film at the Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton, London, at 6.30pm on Tuesday 27 May 2014.

A Story of Children and Film explores the way in which cinema has dealt with children over the course of its florid history. Mark Cousins, most famously responsible for The Story of Film (UK, 2011), makes a movie that involves clips from some 50 plus movies from all periods of film history and from all over the world.

Analysing clips from films as diverse as E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, USA, 1982), Beed-o baad/Willow and Wind (Mohammed-Ali Talebi, Iran/Japan, 2000) and La petite vendeuse de soleil/The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun (Djibril Diop Mambéty, Senegal/France/Switzerland/Germany, 1999), Cousins suggests that children bring to cinema an energy, a vitality and perhaps even an innocence that is not always present in mainstream, adult-centred fictional cinema.

Indeed, remarkably Cousins brings into the film his own niece and nephew, who themselves are by turns timid and performative as he trains his camera on them.

It is an entirely everyday scene, with Cousins and his young wards dressed in pyjamas playing with toys on his living room floor. Nonetheless, there are several things to highlight here.

Firstly, the very everydayness of the situation is important. For, in presenting to us a scene of everyday life, rather than a specific and rehearsed performance of children singing, for example, Cousins brings to his film precisely what he admires in those of other filmmakers, namely life.

This is in part Cousins’ documentary spirit at work, but with the child, it ties in with the sense of energy that children can and do bring to a film, and which Cousins describes in an interview. For, even when acting in a fiction film, there is a sense in which the child is not acting (even if they are acting up), but rather are performing themselves, performing as themselves, and thus revealing to us something more genuine than a studied performance.

In effect, in not being an adult, the child brings to cinema something unadulterated – and this sense of the genuine, of the unadulterated, is perhaps the most exciting thing that cinema can offer – not a projection of our fantasies, but a mirror that shows back to us our world, replete as it is with fantasies of being or becoming cinematic (kids can be and often are, after all, very aware of the camera).

As their moods range from timid to performative, we see in Cousins’ nephew and niece another of cinema’s chief powers, namely its ability to capture change. Cinema is perhaps unique among artforms in this sense, since it alone allows change to be made visible. Where painting and sculpture can show us the static, cinema shows change – and children help to bring both change itself and the possibility for change to the fore, since children are always on the cusp of change, always changing from day to the next, changing from minute to minute. Children are perhaps, then, inherently cinematic – and this is something that Cousins draws out in spades.

The ability for cinema to depict time means that cinema is also not just about depicting things and objects, but the relations between them. What I mean by this is that cinema is not necessarily about one moment and then the next – even if most mainstream films are structured in such a way as to suggest that cinema is precisely this.

Instead, cinema can and often does show us how we get from one minute to the next – the in-between moments that painting perhaps can never depict (although there is a whole history of painters that do try to do this). In showing us how we get from one moment to the next, cinema is interested in the relations between one moment and the next.

This ties in with what I am calling Cousins’ documentary spirit, or instinct: for, as children make clear to us a sense of the unadulterated, a sense of change and a sense therefore of relations, then cinema at its most powerful for Cousins is a cinema that shows a child struggling against elements in transporting a sheet of glass to his school (as happens in Willow and Wind).

That is, even if this is a scripted scene, it is a scene that takes place in the real world, and which takes time – or which is ‘slow’ from the perspective of mainstream cinema – because mainstream cinema often shows to us what needs to be done and then the thing done, with no sense of the work gone into it.

Cinema with more of an eye for documentary, cinema with more of an eye for what cinema, as a time-based medium can do, thus embraces the slow, it embraces work, it embraces effort, it embraces change, it embraces relations and how we fit into the world. Perhaps it is only apt that Cousins (no pun intended) would include his own relations in the film.

And perhaps it is only apt that he, too, should be such a prominent figure in the film – not least as a result of his voiceover – because he is not an abstracted observer of the world, but, too, is participant in, in relation to, the world – just as films exist in relation to us, influencing and changing us as we change in and with the world ourselves.

So cinema is about relations. And the breadth of Cousins’ choices, from America to Senegal to Iran, helps to demonstrate that all films, just like all humans, themselves exist in relation. Thinking of both cinema and the world ecologically, we come to the conclusion that Senegal is as important as America, even if from the commercial and/or economic perspective it is easy to overlook.

In effect, Cousins adopts a child’s perspective on the world – and finds fascination and takes delight in the so-called ‘small’ film as much as in the big-budget expensive film, because he, like a child, has not yet been trained to take notice only of what is big and loud, but he can be fascinated, too, by the small and the quiet.

In effect, Cousins is, like a child, undiscriminating in his tastes; he takes his cinema pure, unadulterated, not filtered for him by the mechanisms that typically make us view only the fast and the furious (which being full of sound and fury surely signifies little to nothing), but open-eyed and whole.

Cousins says in another interview that his films are all about the richness of looking. This is indeed true. His films are not about the solipsistic world in which, as we grow up, we are encouraged only to look out for ourselves, to think only of Number One, but in looking we also realise that we are in relation to other humans.

In private correspondence, Cousins has told me that he works on budgets for his films that are very similar in size to the budgets that I use to work on mine (which puts me to shame given how good his films are).

This, too, is important: he has made a small film here, about small humans. It encourages us not to look over that which is small, and he encourages not to be fooled by surface appearances. Like a child, we can instead look for and find joy in internal richness

We can find joy in the world as cinema presents it to us: perhaps a bit slow, but unadulterated and full of energy and life.

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (Sophie Fiennes, UK/Ireland, 2012)

British cinema, Documentary, Film reviews

So, this blog post is not really a critique of Sophie Fiennes’ film, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, but more a critique of things that are said in it by its star and writer, pop philosopher Slavoj Žižek.

The film contains many delightful moments, with the usual interesting insight from Žižek, but ultimately I completely disagree with its core philosophy.

I think that this is summed up by Žižek towards the end of the film, when he says that each of us must realise that we are fundamentally and incontrovertibly alone in the universe.

Perhaps I take Žižek out of context slightly; he offers up our solitude as the logical consequence of there being no God.

However, I’d like to consider this matter from a slightly different angle: humans are not, to paraphrase John Donne, islands – and they cannot be so. And yet, Žižek would seem to suggest ultimately that we are all lost in our solipsistic little bubbles, with no real connection to anyone else ever happening.

While I recognise the emotion of solitude, and while I recognise the inevitability of perhaps never knowing any other human being, never being inside their head, never sharing entirely their life, I still shall argue that ultimately humans are not alone.

In effect, epistemologically speaking, humans might be alone – each knows only what each knows, and one cannot – necessarily – experience the world from without one’s own self/being (although more on this later); meanwhile, ontologically, we are not alone.

And if our ontological ‘withness’ can be accepted, then Žižek’s solipsistic worldview might be forced to crumble accordingly.

But we have to build towards this. And this is a blog post. So we shall do so as succinctly as we can and, alas, imperfectly.

How we are not alone

I lie in my bed. I feel my toes touching the end of the bed – a wooden frame. I cannot see the wooden frame, but I can feel it. I can only feel it because it is solid, and because it is supported by a floor, which itself is supported by a building, itself supported by the earth. I feel because I have a body, which itself functions as a result of blood flowing around me, which is possible in part as a result of my breathing oxygen on a planet whose atmosphere can support the life that has evolved to inhabit it. And while I may have great thoughts, even dreams, when I am on that bed, fundamentally I can only do so because I have a body, which exists on a planet whose atmosphere allows me to exist, and whose atmosphere is allowed thanks to planetary age and distance from the sun.

In other words, I am entirely embedded within a physical universe from which I cannot be separated. I am not alone.

That I speak language – any language, but in this instance English – and that I can recognise other human beings as such, as well as their emotions, is as a result of my having all my life interacted with other human beings.

A thought experiment: humans could be raised by machines, and thus human existence is not predicated upon the existence of other humans.

Indeed – it possibly true. We might run the argument of ‘who made those machines’ (although this points to the need for other humans). And we could follow the Bifo line of thought and say that humans are already raised predominantly by machines (mainly televisions) and that this machine-led life leads to humans being autistic (although this does not mean that those humans are not real humans).

But while the thought experiment is valid(-ish), the fact remains that I speak and think according to the conventions that have come about as a result of social living. I am not alone. This is what, for example, mirror neurons tell us: that humans are hard-wired to be social and sociable, to imitate and to learn from others. If Žižek did not believe this, he would not make a film to communicate with us.

Did Žižek make a film to communicate with us? (Becoming light)

I am not convinced that communication is really Žižek’s primary ambition in getting Sophie Fiennes to make this film (or in going along with Sophie Fiennes if it was she who proposed this and its predecessor, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (UK/Austria/Netherlands, 2006) to him).

This is not to say that Žižek does not communicate a plethora of interesting thoughts in his film. He does. But I think the chief rationale for Žižek to make this film is – facile though it may sound – self-promotion.

Žižek believes that we are all alone. To make a film in which he stars, and which basically features only him, would reaffirm as much. Let’s delve into this a bit more, though, because there is a nexus to be worked out that features something along the lines of cinema-neoliberalism-solipsism-Žižek, and all of which can be encapsulated under the concept of ‘becoming light.’

Becoming light is, simply put, the desire to make one’s life cinematic. It is recognisable in the highly visual culture of the contemporary world: people posting photos on Facebook, Tumblr or wherever, and which photos conform to a certain quality and style of image (often to do with warm lighting and a particular Hollywood-inspired aesthetic); people feeling alive at moments when their life conforms to moments in cinema that they have seen; people taking selfies so as to exist more as an image rather than as a flesh and blood human being – since our image is now considered the ‘real’ us ahead of the, er, real us; people desiring to transcend their real bodies to exist as light, as a star, on a silver screen; our fame and celebrity obsessed culture.

To become light, though, is also to divest oneself of a real body and to exist instead on an immaterial plane, or at least on a photonic plane – on a screen, projected to everyone.

If it is as a result of having a body that I realise that I cannot but be with the world and with other people, then it is in a desire to divest myself of my body and to become light that I dream of becoming cinematic, of existing on a plane without touch. This is falling in love with images of other people – masturbating over images of other people – as opposed to living with and being with other people (co-itus = going with other people).

The desire to live one’s life as if it were a film requires one to buy the sort of props that people in films have. This is about advertising, it is about stuff, and it is about what I shall broadly fit under the umbrella of neoliberalism: looking rich costs a lot of money, but if one does not look rich, one’s chances of becoming rich are slim – so one is forced to enter into the world of chasing material products in the pursuit of becoming rich, becoming immaterial, becoming light.

In this way, the desire to become cinema/to become light is tied to capitalism more generally, its neoliberal mode perhaps more specifically. For, if in becoming light I no longer touch anyone, I become a solipsist, living on my own.

But it is not just in becoming light that the solipsism starts. It is in the pursuit of becoming light. It is in ‘social Darwinism’ and ‘competition’ and the need to go further than anyone else to be the one who is noticed. It is a generalised need for exceptionalism. It is celebrity cult. It is the desire to be ‘famous’ at whatever cost – and better to be famous than a nobody, right?, because a nobody, paradoxically, only has their body, while a famous person has become light, has lost their body (even if dreams of sexual union with [images of] people is what drives the desire to become light).

We are all alone: this is the ethos of neoliberal capital. And it is the ethos that Slavoj Žižek also puts forward in an attempt to critique neoliberal capital. But, then again, Slavoj Žižek is saying this in a film about himself, starring himself. Of course Žižek says that we are alone at the moment when he becomes alone as a result of, finally, becoming cinema (inserting himself into movies, a kind of documented truth about set-jetting and the desire to ‘feel a bit of the magic of the movies’). Because not only is he alone, but he also sets himself apart from other people at this moment to become the celebrity that he wishes to be. Žižek wants to convince us that we are all ultimately alone because he is also at heart a stooly for the capitalist system that he otherwise proclaims to see through via his ideological critique.

Žižek’s nose

Žižek consistently touches his nose during A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (and probably in his real life). There is something a bit obscene about this; but really it is Žižek’s ‘tell’.

What he is telling us is that he is indeed a pervert, but the perversion is not based upon any desire for a true encounter with the other, the nature of which is so twisted (say he likes copraphilia, or something) that he dares not speak its name. Rather, Žižek’s darkest desire is his solipsism – that he prefers masturbation over sex with another human being.

Of course, I am not making libellous claims about the ‘real’ Slavoj Žižek. We are in the realm of a metaphorical Žižek here. But the nose in the film is of course Žižek’s (metaphorical) cock, and of course he wants us to see him touching it in public, but he does not want to put it anywhere – because he must indulge in that most solipsistic and cinema-inspired act of jizzing not in his sexual partner, but on his sexual partner, or preferably just out in the open more generally (pornography’s infamous money-shot; sex becomes display and power games rather than going with someone).

Because of course a solipsist who believes in their own exceptional nature also believes that they cannot have offspring that will match them for brilliance, and so they do not see the point in reproducing. Instead, they just masturbate in public – asking everyone to behold their priapic prowess, while in fact being, ultimately, a solipsistic wanker.

The Void

So… Here we are with Žižek now indulging himself and asking us to indulge him by watching him become light while we mortals continue to lead our bodily existence.

That we are alone, that there is at the heart of reality, the Real of the Void itself is for Žižek the ultimate truth.

But in fact there is no void. The thing that is intolerable for humans is not the emptiness of the world and our sense of underlying solitude; what humans really fear through the capitalist ideology that demands solipsism as the most successful means to gain ‘happiness’ is touch, it is others, it is withness.

In other words, the void is the invention of capitalism. The void is not what lies ‘beyond’ ideology; it is ideology itself.

What lies ‘beyond’ ideology is the Real – but it is a Real so mundane as to be beautiful. It is our bodies, usurping our intentions at every turn, it is us bumping into things, tripping up in public, knocking into each other, seeing each other, smiling when someone else smiles at us, getting angry when public transport does not bend to our will. It is the everyday experience of waking up and getting frustrated and contradicted by a world that is always more profound and complex than our mere imaginations can wonder.

Don’t get me wrong; this is not an apology for leading a dreary life. On the contrary, it is an exhortation to find life in even the most dreary moment, rather than conferring to fetishised and cinematic moments a sense of being ‘really alive’. Because alive is all that we are ever are (and when we are not alive, we are, quite literally, not).

Otherness, withness, being not alone: this is all that we ever are. And to remember and to become as conscious as possible of this is the ultimate critique that one can enact upon the capitalist ideology that has naturalised the sense of the void, that has naturalised a sense of solipsism, that has naturalised a sense of being alone in the world.

Epistemology and ontology

Of course, Žižek probably knows all of this already. And the contention will always be: but even if we are with other people, how can we know this if we cannot know other people? And if we cannot know other people, or that we are with other people, then can we really be with other people? Upon what can one base this claim? Surely one bases this claim upon, ultimately, a leap of faith. An act of faith. An act.

This is a great contention. Here’s my reply.

Firstly, there is perhaps inevitably an over-emphasis in a capitalist culture like ours on the visual: one must have visible evidence to prove the existence of an object – and without it, it is as good as non-existent.

Well, if this perspective is indeed a by-product of a capitalist ideology, it perhaps can be re-thought. That is, we can perhaps consider what constitutes evidence through an alternative framework. And that framework might be touch – we can feel that we are not alone.

Furthermore, to stick to the visible realm, it is a question of what I shall term ‘incessant excess’. Black holes: we by definition cannot see them, because light cannot escape from them. And yet we know that black holes exist. Why? Because we can see the effects that they have on all that surrounds them.

Even if we cannot see, or know, others, because they are the equivalent of an epistemological black hole, we can nonetheless feel the presence of others, we can see their effects. Perhaps we cannot see them directly, but this speaks only of a deficiency in our perceptual systems (in our ideology) more than it does in anything else.

In other words, even if others exceed our perception, and even if it is in an incessant fashion that they do this, nonetheless, the excess always allows for something to ‘inceed’ from outside – an effect, a sense, a touch – not us touching ourselves, but a touch from the other.

We are not alone.