The comedy of experimental cinema

American cinema, Blogpost, Canadian cinema, Experimental Cinema, Film reviews, Uncategorized

I can only say what I saw and heard (and felt and thought).

Over the last two evenings, I have attended two experimental film events. The first was a screening of Michael Snow’s La région centrale (Canada, 1971) at the Serpentine Gallery, which screened alongside the opening credits of Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1958) – with both being chosen by artist Lucy Raven, whose solo exhibition, Edge of Tomorrow, is currently on there. The second was a performance at Tate Modern of Tony Conrad’s 55 Years on the Infinite Plain (originally called 10 Years on the Infinite Plain when first performed in New York, USA, in 1972, and which has been growing in age ever since – now beyond Conrad’s death last year).

For those unfamiliar with either of these works, the former is a three-hour film shot on the top of a mountain in Québec, and which features images captured remotely by Snow using a robotic arm, to which Snow’s camera was attached, and which rotates in a long series of different directions. The latter is a 90-minute piece featuring ‘drone’ music and black and white strips that flicker on a screen from four projectors simultaneously.

Both experiences involve a fair amount of discomfort, not least because traditional cinema seats were not provided, with the viewer instead having to sit on a wooden stand (La région centrale) or on the floor (55 Years…). Standing is an option. But either way, one really feels the presence of one’s body as one tries to find comfort during the screenings (and live musical performance in the case of 55 Years…).

I am not an expert on experimental cinema. I have seen a fair amount, read a fair amount of literature about it, and also think about it (and occasionally write about experimental aspects of cinema that is otherwise not so overtly non-narrative as these two films).

I am driven to write about these back-to-back experiences, though, not simply to expose my ignorance of the subject (I can’t imagine that I shall say much that others have not written – or certainly thought – in relation to these films), but to convey some thoughts that I had while watching the films. Perhaps that is, after all, one of the things that a blog can do.

To get to my thoughts, though, we must describe what happens in the films. As I have already hinted, ‘not much happens’ from the perspective of someone looking for a film that tells a story. La région centrale features images captured by the camera as it moves round and round, back and forth, spinning upside down, moving in circles in all sorts of directions and more.

55 Years…, meanwhile, features a deep electric bass line (performed on this occasion by Dominic Lash), accompanied by violin (Angharad Davies) and long string drone (Rhys Chatham). At first one projector, then two, then three, then four fill the wide screen with the flickering lines, before all four projectors slowly begin to converge, their images overlapping, and then are turned off one by one, until only one flickering image remains.

Probably sounds pointless, maybe even dull, right – especially if one lasts 180 minutes and the other 90?

I do not think so. Indeed, quite the opposite.

The Snow experience induced in me so many different thoughts, which perhaps have at their core a sense of seeing the Earth as if through the eyes of an alien. Initially surveying the ground, the camera then begins to rotate in such ways that we are consistently being given new perspectives on our world – toying with it, twisting it, turning it, experimenting with it.

As María Palacios Cruz explained in her introduction, Snow deliberately tried to find a spot in his native Canada where no visible trace of human life could be seen (something that might recall my earlier post about the ‘American eye’ in relation to Le corbeau). In other words, he absolutely wants us to see the world from an inhuman perspective; to see the world ‘for itself.’

In the process, we begin to understand how as humans we often do not see the world ‘for itself’ but how it is ‘for us’ (and this is not necessarily a bad thing; we are driven to live and survive by our selfish genes, after all). By getting us to see the world ‘for itself,’ the world itself is made ‘alien’ to us, or we see the world as if through alien eyes. The film becomes a panoply of different ways to look at the world through the insistent movement of the camera – with the non-stop nature of that camera movement also bringing to mind the way in which our relatively static perspective of the world is perhaps key in bringing about our inability to see the world ‘for itself.’

For, the world is also movement – but generally we do not have eyes to see it. The rhythms of the world are perhaps too slow for us to detect. What Snow’s film does, then, is to bring to mind those rhythms. Not just Snow’s film, but by extension cinema as a whole is thus in part a machine to present to us something like ‘deep time’ – the long, slow rhythms of the world that extend further back than we can remember and further into the future than we can imagine (in other words, a world without humans). Perhaps this is why a narrative classic like Vertigo is also chosen to play in part alongside Snow’s film.

If Snow’s film takes us into the realm of planetary time, Conrad’s film takes us (or me, at least) into the realm of universal time.

Using black and whites strips alone, Conrad takes us into a realm whereby I am confronted not just with a world that exists far beyond the human realm, but with the way in which the world – the universe itself – comes into and out of being. If the world pre-existed humans by billions of years, and if it will outlive humans by billions of years (La région centrale), then Conrad’s film tells us that the universe pre-existed the world by trillions of years, and will continue to exist after the world has gone by trillions of years. (It exists beyond time itself, and beyond measure. Again, language becomes meaningless.)

More than this… 55 Years on the Infinite Plain tells us – in its flickering of white, or being, and black, or nothing – that existence itself comes into and out of being. That there is a beyond existence; that there is a beyond being; that there is a beyond ‘is’ – such that one cannot even express what we are describing since to say that ‘there is a beyond “is”‘ is clearly a contradiction in terms (how can not-is and is co-exist?)!

If language cannot suffice for the task of explaining what we see, then we enter into the realm of experience and of a new, different kind of thought (that also cannot be defined simply by what we ‘see,’ since it must be experienced, too).

What is the universe? But simply a flicker of light in an otherwise infinite blackness.

If 55 Years… takes us somehow beyond the universe, then it takes us into a realm not of a singular reality (a uni-verse), but into the realm of multiple realities. An alien perspective, or what philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy and physicist Aurélien Barrau might suggest is the necessary understanding that there is no world, but only multiple, infinite worlds.

As per the translation of their book on the matter: what is these worlds coming to? What these worlds is coming to (note the grammatical error; again, language does not quite suffice) is the co-existence of existence and non-existence. To invoke a different philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, being and nothingness at the same time.

Am I being pretentious? Possibly. I mean, people walked out of both screenings – and so clearly not everyone goes with these films. But at the end of 55 Years… the remaining audience members (perhaps as many as 100 people) sat in silence and darkness for about a minute. Finally, some applause – enthusiastic applause, some whoops of joy. Clearly they needed a moment to catch their thoughts, because this film had taken them somewhere different, somewhere special.

In other words, if to someone who was not there this all sounds like wank, to the majority of people who were there, this meant something – even if expressing it is and perhaps remains difficult. “That was absolutely fucking amazing,” said the woman sat next to me. I felt like dancing (and did nearly throughout 55 Years… – although I refrained from doing so).

Elsewhere I have written about how Hollywood presents to us narrative films that, even if they contain ‘puzzles’ for us to work out (my example is Inception, Christopher Nolan, USA/UK, 2010), they are still designed to be easy to consume and, by extension, not particularly challenging. I then suggest that films that do not involve narratives (my example is Five Dedicated to Ozu, Iran/Japan/France, 2003, by the late Abbas Kiarostami) can be quite challenging, even if there is no specific puzzle to work out – as we just see images of waves lapping the shore, or ducks walking along a beach, or a pond at night.

My argument in that essay is that common responses to Five… might include either ‘I got it after two minutes, so I do not know why I had to sit through that’ or ‘I did not get it’ – while people might easily say that they ‘got’ Inception (even though it is more than twice the length of Five…).

I suggest that there is not so much anything to ‘get’ with Five… (or Inception, or Vertigo – as its inclusion by Lucy Raven in her programme makes clear), but that one might ‘get into’ that sort of film by working at being an attentive audience member and beginning to marvel at what a wave lapping against the shore is and might mean (is it not a miracle that this happens?) as opposed only to marvelling at special effects and ‘mind-bending ideas’ (even though the leaders of the two largest energy companies in the world sit next to each other on an aeroplane and do not recognise each other).

(Besides which, whenever one says that one ‘got’ such a film after two minutes, they clearly do not ‘get’ it since part of getting it must involve experiencing the film in its entire duration, including the sense of slowness, and the different time or tempo of the piece. To demand that it be shorter is not to respect this otherness, but to apply one’s own rhythm to it, to curtail it, perhaps even to kill it.)

(Speaking of marvelling, I also found myself marvelling during 55 Years… about the fact that I can rotate my head. How is it possible that a human evolved from the mud of a planet that itself was a rock spewed from a star, such that it has a head that can rotate on a joint that sits atop a backbone and which contains eyes that can see and ears that can hear?)

To return from these loco parentheses: I make reference to my own essay not simply to continue to explain to a(n imagined?) ‘viewer-on-the-street’ that these non-narrative films might do something for us (and that thus people who might otherwise never go to watch such films might do worse than to give them a try), but also to correct what I wrote in that essay.

In that essay, I wrote that we might ‘get into’ films like Five Dedicated to Ozu by putting in some effort ourselves (rather than having nigh everything served up to us on a plate, as per Inception). However, now I think it would be better to suggest that we do not ‘get into’ but that we ‘get with’ such films (which is not necessarily to the exclusion of ‘getting with’ mainstream films; I believe that we can get with cinema as a whole – but don’t think that we should only get with the mainstream at the expense of the weird and the wonderful).

Why do I now want to say that we should ‘get with’ as opposed to ‘get into’ these films?

Well, in part this is to explain that getting a bit ‘pretentious’ (talking about cosmic things like a world without humans and a multiverse that exists and does not) is to get with what these films are doing, or at the very least what these films can do with us (it might also be an act of love if we were to say that we ‘go with’ these films – since coitus itself means to go with [co-itus] – as I have suggested here).

Furthermore, the preposition ‘with’ (a favourite of Jean-Luc Nancy) suggests not quite a disconnection from the world (seeing it through alien eyes), but also a connection with the world (seeing it ‘for itself’ – or from the perspective of a world that has seen so much more than humans and a multiverse that has seen so much more than our world).

Seeing through the eyes of the other, a kind of forgetting oneself, is also to commune with another – and in this case not just another human, but a whole other timescale (the entirety of existence) and space scale (a planet, a universe – as well, in the case of La région centrale when it shows us the land beneath the camera in close up, a rock, a patch of earth, a blade of grass). ‘With’ is to go beyond the self, to open the self up not only to the other human, but in the cases of La région centrale and 55 Years on the Infinite Plain, the inhuman.

Furthermore, ‘with’ always implies plurality, or a multiplicity of things and perspectives. For, one cannot be with anything or anyone if there is no thing or one beyond the self with which to be. With, therefore, suggests that we live in a multiverse, and that what these worlds is coming to is perhaps us, our understanding of the multiverse, and our place with it.

(The Conrad also suggests with in other ways – particularly the way in which my eyes when they move from left to right can make the flickers seem as though moving in that direction – before then moving in the other direction as my eyes move from right to left… That is, I am with the film in the sense that I co-create what I see; I see not just a different perspective, but a different perspective with my own eyes; I am entangled with the multiverse. This might seem to contradict the idea that I get beyond myself – but what perhaps really is exposed is not just the world beyond the self, but also the relationship between that world beyond self, and the self itself. What is exposed or revealed is our withness – and how the otherness of that with which we are is necessary for me even to exist and to have my sense of self/my perspective in the first place.)

I wish to end, then, by suggesting that these films do not just put us with the universe or multiverse. They put us with the medium of cinema, too, which opens us up to these new perspectives. I hear the 16mm projector rattle along during La région centrale, and I turn to see the projectors during 55 Years…. The experience of these two films is, then, to be with media, to be co-media, to be comedy.

What we can experience during these films is thus the comedy of the multiverse. When we find such films frustrating, we are perhaps taking them far too seriously (I personally found myself laughing regularly during both films as I marvelled at the possibility of anything existing at all). When we are serious, it is because we are rigid in our ways, in our thinking, and we are resistant to change. We do not become, we are not coming to, we are not with (perhaps we are solipsistically dreaming, a state of unconsciousness from which we can recover only by ‘coming to’).

To be less serious, to enjoy the comedy: this is not only a route to laughter and thus by extension happiness – it is perhaps also a route via with to wisdom (to be ‘other-wise’).

Long live experimental cinema. When screenings like these come along, I can only recommend one thing: get with it.

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.

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:


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!


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

The Theory of Everything
Le signe du lion (Rohmer)
Exodus: Gods and Kings
Au bonheur des dames (Duvivier)
Il Gattopardo
Daybreak/Aurora (Adolfo Alix Jr)^
Eastern Boys
The Masseur (Brillante Mendoza)^
Stations of the Cross
National Gallery
American Sniper
Fay Grim^
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)
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
Two Rode Together
Patas Arriba
Relatos salvajes
Clouds of Sils Maria
Still Alice
The Experiencer (Michael Kohler)^
Cabiri (Michael Kohler)^
White Bird in a Blizzard*
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)*
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)
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)
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
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
Fantastic Four
99 Homes
Iris (Albert Maysles)
52 Tuesdays*
La isla mínima
Diary of a Teenage Girl
Sciuscià (Ragazzi)
Hard to be a God
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Mistress America
Precinct Seven Five
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*
Fando y Lis*
La Giovinezza
The Lego Movie+
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone+
Ruby Sparks+
Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (Johnnie To)+
La loi du marché+
OSS117: Rio ne répond plus+
Irrational Man
Une heure de tranquillité (Patrice Leconte)
The Lobster
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)
Umimachi Diary (Hirokazu)
Lamb (Ethiopia)
Saul fia
Ceremony of Splendours
[sic] (Eric Baudelaire)*
The Makes (Eric Baudelaire)*
The Martian
Anime Nere
Crimson Peak
The Lady in the Van
Steve Jobs
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)*
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*
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^
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*
Surprise: Journey to the West
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

Café de Flore (Jean-Marc Vallée, Canada/France, 2011)

Blogpost, Canadian cinema, Film reviews

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged and plenty have I seen in the last few months about which I could have blogged. But time being what it is, I’ve not had chance.

Maybe Café de Flore is not the best film I have seen in the last few months, but it has provoked my thoughts in such a fashion that I feel compelled to put something online about it.

Given that there is plenty to say, I’ll try to limit myself to only 2,000 words. This will make things more palatable for readers, too.

I must confess being behind on Vallée’s films; I know of them, but I’ve not seen them, so this won’t be an analysis of his wider work, just what is on offer in this film.

Nonetheless, Café de Flore tells the story of a deejay, Antoine (Kevin Parent), who is in a relationship in contemporary Montreal with the love of his life, Carole (Hélène Florent), with whom he has two beautiful daughters. All is well until Antoine meets and falls in love with Rose (Evelyne Brochu), seemingly a younger, blonder model than Carole.

At the same time, we are also presented with the story of Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis) and her Down syndrome son, Laurent (Marin Perrier), who live in Paris in 1969 and on into the 1970s.

The two stories intercut each other, but we are not sure what the link is between them until relatively late on in the film. Here are some spoilers (because I don’t see how I can write a cogent analysis of this or any film without discussing fully what happens): it turns out that Antoine and Rose are the reincarnation of Laurent and the love of his life, fellow Down sufferer Véronique (Alice Dubois). Furthermore, Carole, who discovers this past through a medium (Emmanuelle Beaugrand-Champagne), is the reincarnation of Jacqueline, who killed herself, Laurent and Véronique in a car crash because she could not stand the thought of her son loving someone else more than her (or so it would seem, anyway).

Having learnt of this past, Carole finally decides to ‘get over’ Antoine and to accept his relationship with Rose. Indeed, having given them her blessing, she endorses their marriage and everything seems to return to normal. Until, right at the film’s climax, an aeroplane flying high in the sky – and presumably carrying Antoine whom we see regularly flying around the world to go deejay in London, Barcelona, etc – explodes.

In view of these spoilers, one might be drawn to one or both of two conclusions. The first is that the film plays out as a boy’s fantasy: basically, the plot conspires to tell the man that dumping his wife of 20 years and the mother of his children is fine and that going after the sassier blonde chick is justified and justifiable. This is not meant as a defense of old-fashioned death do us part values; it just means that men can take the women they want and women will forgive them.

The second reading might be that the film is hokum; reincarnation and the like makes of this film something akin to an artsy version of The Lake House (Alejandro Agresti, USA/Australia, 2006). Indeed, the latter reading might in particular explain the relatively luke warm reception that the film has received.

However, I think that even though these readings are valid, Café de Flore has some more interesting things to say than these, particularly about cinema itself and, I shall tentatively suggest, about Québec today.

Café de Flore is choc full of photographs. We see many of them in detail and at one point, Antoine tells his psychiatrist (Michel Laperrière) that he has spotted consistent themes in them. In many there are bottles of gin, which remind him of his father. And in others there is Carole. Indeed, in so many photos is Carole that even Rose comments that she finds it uncomfortable being in the house of Antoine’s parents, because Carole is everywhere to be seen there, too.

I’m going to argue that Café de Flore presents an eloquent contemplation of the way in which images, both still and moving, play a key role in identity formation and memory. What do I mean by this? I mean that it is impossible today to remember whether that photo we know of ourselves when young was something one truly remembers, or whether we really only remember the photograph. Photographs (and home movies) thus function as tools for outsourcing memory from the human brain; we do not actually need to remember events, since the images are there for us to store memories outwith our brain itself. As such, if our memories might actually be photographs of events that we really have forgotten, then photographs shape our memory, a process that in turn shapes our sense of self, our sense of personal experience, our sense of memory, our sense of identity.

In and of itself, this is not necessarily any great revelation. But what is excellent is the way in which Vallée interweaves images with sounds, too. As a deejay, Antoine is emblematic of today. Music triggers memories in a less direct way than photographs. I see a photo of me, I remember something about myself that is embodied within the photograph by my physical presence. I listen to a song and invest music with my memories, then something different is happening; I am not ‘in’ the song as I am in the photograph, but the song feels as much me as any photograph ever could (hence Antoine describing the music of – I think – Sigur Ros as expressing him perfectly).

Let us pause for a second on Antoine as deejay, then. With no disrespect intended to the great levels of creativity that go into deejaying (I used to deejay, relatively poorly, as a student entz rep and in the odd nightclub and wedding type thing, so I know that there is a fair amount of skill to it), I would nonetheless contend that a deejay is not the creator of music. Rather, as Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) points out in Michael Winterbottom’s magnificent 24 Hour Party People (UK, 2002), the deejay is a medium. The deejay channels music by other people and reworks it in such a way that what emerges is not just a list of work by other people but something that is by and of the deejay him/herself.

In other words, the deejay makes music his or her ‘own’ in the same way that we perhaps all make music our own because the intense meaningfulness that songs can have personally to us means that they, like photographs, play a key role in helping us to construct our sense of identity.

(It is for this reason that I maintain that Inception (Christopher Nolan, USA/UK, 2010) is a stylish but ultimately silly film, because it refuses to acknowledge that inception – the planting of others’ ideas in our heads – is not just an everyday occurence, but that perhaps there is no sense of self at all without such processes taking place the whole time. If willingly I hear a song and appropriate it as if it expressed my life, then I don’t see why all the fuss – except for the benefit of making a (logically inconsistent) action film – about putting an idea in someone’s head…)

What is true of music, then, is also true of films. That is, many humans feel as though they have achieved something not when they have a unique moment in their life, but precisely when their life conforms most to a film, an image or a song that they have seen. Check out any number of Facebook profile photos, including my own, and you will see great testimony to this: we present ourselves as we wish to be seen, not as we are. And how we wish to be seen is somehow as cinematic. We want, in this sense, to become light. Everything is a performance, of sorts. We are intensely aware of mediation, then. For the medium is the message.

Café de Flore weaves together a rich soundtrack of Sigur Ros, Pink Floyd, the Cure, various versions of the song from which the film takes its title, and much more. If the film mixes and remixes music, when it comes to images it is not that the movie consciously drops in visual references to other films. Such references may be there, but I did not spot them, and Vallée seems not to do cap-doffing homages as does, per exemplum, Quentin Tarantino.

However, Café de Flore does seem to suggest that film, like music, plays a role in the construction of self – and this is most visible in the Paris subplot involving the Down children.

While the use of a medium to reveal the characters’ past lives might be hokum – if you believe the story as one hundred per cent true – it is nonetheless canny and knowing. Not only does this film offer an intense awareness of media of all sorts (including the psychic medium here), but it also explains to what sense our lives are constructed around fantasy versions of ourselves, moments in music, cinematic moments of becoming light and so on. A logical extension of this is perhaps the way in which Carole uses the story of Jacqueline, Laurent and Véronique to make sense of her own life. In other words, the fantasy might be ‘false’ if we feel that we must cling to some strict binary opposition between true and false. But it is true enough for Carole, since it helps her to live in the contemporary world. And Vallée’s understanding of that contemporary world is that we are as much constructs of our fantasies and of music and fiction as we are products of a fleshworld that has a material (and thereby empirically more convincing?) existence.

That the images set in 1960s and 1970s Paris are shot as if filmed at the time, the grain of which stands in contrast to the cleanness of the contemporary images of Montreal, London, Barcelona, etc – suggests this to be true. That is, Paris is made not to look like Paris in the 1960s, or not uniquely like Paris in the 1960s. Rather, it is made to look like images of Paris from the 1960s. That Paris, then, is not necessarily real. It could be a constructed fantasy. Indeed, before we definitively do dismiss this strand of the plot as hokum, we should make clear that the medium tells Carole’s sceptical friend Amélie (Evelyne de la Chenelière) that she cannot tell Carole the whole of Jacqueline’s story because she (Carole) will not let her. That is, the medium seems to say here that she only tells Carole what she wants/needs to hear, that she only really reflects back to Carole what it is that Carole is herself saying. As such, the Paris episode could be a pure fantasy, but it makes no difference: in a world where we use and need fantasies in order to exist, the previously accepted dividing line between fantasy and reality is definitively eroded.

In this way, the medium is the parallel of Antoine’s own shrink: he is a sounding board for Antoine to express all that is within him, a similar medium of sorts who can help Antoine to rework his fantasies and experiences in such a way that they make sense. As if the act of making sense of the world required fantastical elements. As if, like the family that gathers at New Year’s parties and offers a prayer to God despite never going to Mass or even believing in God (as Antoine tells us is the case), we need fantasies just to give everything a sense, or a semblance, of order.

What really is most interesting about Café de Flore, though, is the way in which it works this conception of the blend of fantasy and reality into the form of the film itself. This is not just a question of digital retouching of images, such that a contemporary film can be made to look like an old 16mm so successfully that we cannot tell a ‘real’ old film from a fake one. Rather, this is the way in which the film jumps back and forth across time frames; unannounced Café de Flore will move back and forth in space and time, linked by a visual or aural motif that suggests not causality between past and present, but correspondence.

Furthermore, we will often see something like an image of Antoine, then cut to an image of his youth, only to then realise or at the very least ask whether this is Carole’s memory of events, not Antoine’s, because we then cut to her and not back to Antoine.

This latter type of jump not only across time but also between people remembering happens regularly. What is more, various flashback scenes feature snippets of conversation – between parents, between children – that none of the main characters (whom we otherwise would assume to be the person remembering these events) could possibly have remembered, since they were not there. Not only does this suggest the way in which we misremember perhaps precisely in order to remember (memory is predicated on an inability to remember correctly, should there even be such a thing as ‘correctness’ when it comes to memory, and perhaps even when it comes to direct perception itself). But it also suggests our interlinked nature.

That is, if I am made up of music by Robert “The Cure” Smith (especially, tellingly, the song ‘Pictures of You’), and I am also made up of photographs and of films, then perhaps I am also made up of others’ testimonies and experiences. Indeed, who has not, be that out of intention to pass them off as one’s own, or simply for the sake of convenience as one realises that the memory recalled is not in fact one’s own, passed off other people’s stories and memories as if they were their own? Similarly, who has not told themselves that they are so good at lying because what they do is actually to believe their lies such that they are not lies anymore? As such, I am not entirely separable from other people; I am not the island-like individual that sometimes we try to pretend we are (capitalism prides itself on the socialisation (natch) of the myth of the impenetrable individual – hence the hokum of Inception). Instead, I am and perhaps can only exist in relation. I would not even have a sense of self were it not for others. So in some senses, how much hokum is a myth of reincarnation? If in fact I only exist in relation, then in some senses I am only an incarnation of others, as if incarnation itself required others (which it does through the fact of parents, but I also mean this on a more abstract level).

As such, riffing from one person’s memory to another’s as if there were no difference between the two is perhaps not just confusing for a viewer to watch (and something that drives Café de Flore in the direction of ‘artsiness’ alluded to above). But it also reflects a particular and perhaps true conception of identity itself: that it is shared, as are memories, and that perhaps not only do memories evolve through interactions and exchanges with others, but that in the same process so do our very identities change, evolve and become. Expressive editing thus becomes a form of realism.

What is best about Café de Flore, though, is its insistence on tiny details and what I shall call feedback. As I watched the film, I began to see gin bottles cropping up around the place (and not just in the still images where Antoine points them out), as well as passers by in the film’s present that I think, or at least wondered, were played by the actors from the film’s past (although in a world in which we cannot easily tell each other apart, perhaps nor can we easily tell different moments in time apart, because the past influences the present, and the present influences our understanding of the past, even if to propose that the present directly influences the past itself might overstep the mark for many because it is utterly unprovable – unless we contend that there is no past, only our malleable understandings thereof, which only ever exist in the present).

The film makes this most clear by the pentagrams that begin to crop up repeatedly – in tattoos, on the floor at the bottom of Jacqueline’s staircase, etc. It is not that pentagrams are important per se (maybe they are, but I don’t think they have to be). Rather, what is important is that the elements of the visual field that we typically think of as unimportant in fact play a key role in shaping our understanding of the world. That is, we privilege many elements of our visual field in terms of what consciously we perceive; we tend to concentrate on human figures, movement, and other elements that might be prey, predator or mate. But in fact the details uphold this perception, perhaps even shape it, such that we see most when we see as ‘holistically’ as possible.

This is what I mean by feedback: we do not just act upon our environment, but our environment also acts upon us.

Café de Flore ends with a slow track and zoom into a photo of Carole and Antoine in front of a photo of Paris, in which we finally see the blurred figures of Jacqueline, Laurent and Véronique, whom we see waving at Paris’ bateaux mouches at a couple of points in the film (replete with heavy flash bulbs from cameras, as if this were their ‘becoming light’ – in the city of lights). They are a detail taken in a photo by Antoine’s parents on a trip to Paris in their youth.

And yet this tiny detail, out of focus and so easy to miss, is intimately connected with the present. That Jacqueline, Laurent and Véronique are ‘in’ the photo therefore suggests a different form of feedback. Not only do photographs function as an externalisation of our sense of self. But the contents of those photographs also speak, or feed, back to us; they come from ‘out of’ the photograph and modify how it is that we understand ourselves and the world. Photographs are not ‘dead’ things, but they have a persistence, a strange life of their own, one that we may not even see consciously, unless a further medium allows us to bring that consciously to mind.

Ultimately, Café de Flore might be Antoine’s fantasy of redemption in the face of his guilt over leaving Carole, a fantasy acted out in his dying moments before his plane explodes. Inspired by the Down syndrome kids who have the pentagram tattoos and whom he sees while walking to his plane at the airport, they inform his desire for Carole to forgive him as he faces death. Maybe, then, Antoine needs the story of reincarnation as much as Carole does to survive, or rather in Antoine’s case, to face death. Antoine imagines himself as the reincarnation of Laurent in order to be given a paradoxical sense of identity at the moment of the end of his identity, that is at the moment of death. This fantasy allows Antoine to make the literal returning to the universe – the dispersal of one’s constituent atoms over the Earth’s entire terrain – bearable, a positive experience justified by an understanding that we are all already interlinked and ‘one’ anyway, something we would understand better if we were not so inceived with this myth of individuality…

As such, filming the plane’s destruction in vast long shot is telling. Not only does its movement towards a huge and burning sun suggest the desire to become light (and an Icarean sense of doom in attempting to become light?), but it also means that Antoine is at the last a tiny speck in a massive universe. He is, indeed, simply part of the universe’s mega-mechanics. And it is as if the film’s ecological philosophy – whereby we are interconnected, inseparable, and ‘one’ – were the latest myth that humanity is inventing in order to justify its own extinction. The myth that will allow us to go gently into that good night, because we will realise ultimately that there are greater forces at work than human will.

Café de Flore, then, seems something of a philosophical film, no matter how lightly one takes its storyline, which could indeed be construed as daft if you so wished to view the film that way. That philosophy could be a political philosophy. By this I mean to say that Café de Flore could also be read as an allegory of the relationship between Québec and France, as Québec’s present, in Antoine and Rose, faces its French past, perhaps embodied in Carole, but certainly in Jacqueline (that French identity being as real to these Québecois as a song, as if Vanessa Paradis’ history as a singer were not just accidental casting). In this reading, which is imprecise and tentative (apologies), Québec functions as some sort of strange, monstrous offspring (problematically rendered in the figure of the Down child), but whose love is pure and who is reincarnated in the present and who must be forgiven in order to continue, even if this means a rejection of the old. Perhaps I should pause there; the film seems pregnant with some sort of allegorical meaning, but perhaps I am not the person to deliver it.

On a final note, though, I’ll briefly say that Café de Flore is an odd bedfellow with another film out in the UK now, Jeff, Who Lives at Home (Jay and Mark Duplass, USA, 2011). Without going into details and at the risk of referring to the film in such a way that I alienate those who have not seen it, the new Duplass movie has a similar fascination with the notions of fate and destiny, and to a lesser extent with identity. The idea that there might be patterns in the world that we do not immediately recognise, but which we can if we are attentive enough. I was struck in particular how Café de Flore features a prominent Kevin in the cast (Kevin Parent as Antoine), since in Jeff…, Jeff himself (Jason Segel) follows anyone and everyone called Kevin having believed that he received a sign (significantly from the medium of the television) earlier in the day on which the film’s story takes place.

Maybe seeing Jeff… led me cosmically to see Café de Flore… Because everything is connected. Because this is how we understand the world to work if we try to see whole. To see holy.

Before I take this blog in the direction of too much hokum, though, I should call it a day. While Jeff… shows the usual Duplass charm and involves some pretty amusing moments, it is Café de Flore that seems the more sophisticated of the two.

Notes from CPH PIX: Xavier Dolan vs Andrzej Zulawski

Blogpost, Canadian cinema, cph pix 2011, European cinema, Film reviews, Uncategorized

I am writing this blog from CPH PIX, where my new film, Afterimages (William Brown, UK, 2010) will be playing on 22 April at 14h15 at the Dagmar and on 27 April at 22h30 at the Husets Biograf.

I include this information on the off-chance that anyone reading this blog is from or in Copenhagen – and that this mention might in turn boost the number of people attending. There is very little web presence for Afterimages at present – although this is understandable because not many people have seen it. And so I thought I ought to do some self-promotion. Apologies if this is too callous, particularly on the day that Tim Hetherington was killed in Libya.

Either way, while no doubt I shall blog a bit about the experience of being at CPH PIX as a festival, really I shall try to dedicate this blog to the films that I see here (and to promote my own, as mentioned above – although this is not strictly limited to Afterimages, since I also had a very small part – apparently on the cutting room floor – in Abdellatif Kechiche’s new film, Vénus Noire/Black Venus, France/Italy/Belgium, 2010, which also plays here during my stay).

So… The first film I saw today was Les Amours Imaginaires/Heartbeats (Xavier Dolan, Canada, 2010).

I had been told by one of the CPH programmers whom I met this morning that Heartbeats was a departure from the disgustingly young Dolan’s first film, J’ai tué ma mère/I Killed My Mother (Canada, 2009). The programmer did confess to not having seen Dolan’s first film, made when he was 19, and so I don’t feel too bad about contradicting him, for, if anyone has seen and liked J’ai tué ma mère, then you will in part know what to expect and should enjoy Heartbeats. For, like its predecessor, Dolan’s new film features arch framings, lots of slow motion shots of people walking and touching, an elliptical narrative style separated by black frames, some prolonged MTV-style sections, and a delight in leafy, autumnal forest scenes.

How it differs, perhaps, is the way in which Dolan seems to have swallowed some Pier Paolo Pasolini in the gap between the films. I say this because Heartbeats is somewhat redolent of Pasolini’s wonderful Teorema/Theorem (Italy, 1968) in that it features a mysterious young man (here, Niels Schneider, as opposed to Terence Stamp) who enters into the lives of a young couple (here Dolan himself and Monia Chokri, as opposed to a family environment), and he seduces pretty much everyone (although here he sleeps with no one, at least as far as we can tell). This may make the film in fact sound very different to Theorem, and it might be my over-reading of Dolan, like Pasolini, as a ‘queer’ filmmaker that links them (with François Ozon, who himself sort of remade Theorem with his own Sitcom (France, 1998), also playing a role in my thinking). But this is what struck me most throughout the film, not least because of the way that Dolan frames Schneider at several key moments – against a monochrome background, looking down and to the side, as if lost in whimsical thought.

(To continue the ‘queer’ links, there is also a strong reference to Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki, USA/Netherlands, 2004), in that Dolan’s character, Francis, dreams of Schneider’s Nico at one point in a similar pose, but standing under a shower of marshmallows, which is similar to the shower of sugar-coated breakfast cereals that Araki’s paedophile movie pictures.)

Like Theorem, Heartbeats is about the violent effect that beauty can have on us – violent in the sense that we lose our sense of reason and carry out acts that normally we would never do simply for the sake of catching a greater glimpse of the subject of our admiration. But where Pasolini does go for the family, here Dolan simply goes for 20-something Québecois.

Obsession must involve an element of projection: to (believe that we) feel so strongly about someone we barely know must involve us creating a version of the person whom we crave that does not necessarily conform to how or who they really are. Dolan captures this well, not least through the When Harry Met Sally… (Rob Reiner, USA, 1989) style vox pops that other, otherwise uninvolved stalkers offer from time to time during the film.

However, while Nico is supposedly the reason that best friends Francis and Marie (Chokri) become so obsessed, they seem to get more access to him than we do. That is to say, Nico does tell them that he does seismological work from time to time (though this is probably a lie, because while he says that this pays him very well, his mum – a dancer played by Anne Dorval – still gives him an allowance every month), and he does tell them that he also studies literature at McGill, but beyond this we learn next to nothing about him. Whatever conversations and good times that the trio have – either as a trio or as Nico-Marie or Nico-Francis configurations within their triangle – we do not see them; instead, as mentioned, Dolan offers us slo-mo shots of hands conveying longing and frustration, of contemplative glances, and little actual conversation.

The superficial nature of the obsession from both Francis and Marie is signalled early on: Nico, supposedly a country bumpkin Adonis who has just arrived in Montreal, is sat at a table while they prepare food in a kitchen. At this dinner party, then, Nico is only ever already an image to both Marie and Francis, and penetrating beyond that not only does not happen, but also deliberately does not happen. In other words, it perhaps not supposed to happen.

I hesitate with where I want to go next in this review. I feel tempted to say that Dolan shows his age by allowing his characters to become so obsessed. Marie is 25, and so should in theory be beyond such infatuations, and so I don’t really credit this as a believable story. This is borne out by the end of the film: as is to be expected, not only might Nico be a liar, but he also strings along and then ‘brutally’ discards both Marie and Francis, only to disappear to Asia. Upon his return a year later, he throws a party, at which Marie and Francis both spurn him in public – with Francis letting out some strange cat hissing noise that signals that he does not want contact with Nico anymore. In other words, while I might conceivably not put obsession past someone over 25 years of age, this childish response a year after everything has fallen apart seems to me to be a cut caused by Nico that surely could not have been that deep since he, or we at least, never got to know him that well. And because, from this, we can only conclude that Nico is in fact a bit boring, if utterly beautiful.

Marie and Francis love images. Marie styles herself on Audrey Hepburn, not least because Nico says that she is his favourite, while Francis is a sucker for James Dean. Dolan’s stylised mise-en-scène would suggest that he loves images as well – and that he wants us to love them, too. As a cinephile, I can happily say that I also love images. But even if Dolan’s film is a reflection on what I shall nebulously call ‘soullessness,’ it becomes hard not to believe that his film is also a bit soulless.

Not only is this because the film is an exercise in good looks with little attention paid to character (even if there are pensive gazes aplenty), but also because of the ending of the film. I had caught myself thinking that Schneider bears more than a passing resemblance to French heart-throb Louis Garrel on several occasions during the film, and as the film ends, both Marie and Francis see none other than Louis Garrel at a party and, so the soundtrack – the recurring them of ‘Bang Bang’ by Dalida – suggests, the whole cycle starts again with them walking towards him in slow motion.

It is possible that we live in a universe in which self-involved humans are obsessed only with images and the surface of things, and in which humans never learn anything, but instead are condemned repeatedly to making the same mistakes. But I am not sure that I believe this; and I think that if I did believe this, I would love Dolan’s film. When the truth is that I really do not. Images are great, and the force and power of images are great. We live in a superficial, Barbie world, and whatever feelings we have for people are real enough, at least to us. But the power of feelings suggested in Heartbeats were not convincing for me. And while in J’ai tué ma mère, I got the sense of a wickedly detached sense of humour from time to time, there was not enough evidence here for me to think of this film as a critique. At a certain point in time, elliptical editing may well still challenge the norms of narrative cinema, but it also reduces films to moments that do not cohere – in terms of our understanding of character psychology at least – across time.

I shall perhaps be able to express this better through a comparison to Possession (Andrzej Zulawski, France/West Germany, 1981), which also has an elliptical method of telling its story. But first I might also compare Heartbeats to another threesome film featuring the self-same Louis Garrel, namely The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci, France/UK/Italy, 2003). In that film, not only do all three members of the love triangle have sex (and in that film, two of the three are brother and sister), but the film also has political resonance, since it is perhaps ultimately about the failure of the 1968 generation to create a meaningful alternative to ‘the system.’ Dolan’s film, alas, lacks this political bite, even if it is a film that has cynicism as a common ingredient. Perhaps Heartbeats is trying to suggest that a new 1968 is around the corner (as many dyed-in-the-wool – and potentially outmoded – Marxists like to think). But given the ‘no sex please’ attitude – particularly of Nico – who just turns out to be a bit boring – then Heartbeats – perhaps as a final recuperation of the film – becomes an account of the self-destructive libidinous forces of the ill-communicating, self-absorbed urban generation that is all trousers and no nudity. And which want affirmation in terms of sexual orientation by having the most beautiful not just fuck, but also (fail to) fall in love with you.

In comparison to Heartbeats, the mindfuck that is Zulawski’s Possession takes elliptical narration to a whole new level. Zulawski’s work is part of a retrospective here at CPH PIX and apparently I missed the director by about half an hour when I arrived in Copenhagen. A pity, but then again, I had not seen any of his films before Possession, so the real pity is not that I missed a director by whom I had not seen a film, but that I had not seen a film before I missed him.

Possession tells a 1980s-set Cold War story of a seeming spy, Mark (Sam Neill), who returns home after a prolonged absence to wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) and son Bob (Michael Hogben). It quickly transpires that Mark and Anna have drifted apart during his absence and that she has taken up with new age transcendental sex explorer, Heinrich (Heinz Bennent). Except that in actual fact she has not. Instead, she has really taken up with a demonic creature whom she keeps in an apartment downtown, and who will be ‘complete’ once Anna has fed to him enough people, including a pair of homosexual private detectives that Mark hires to follow her.

The film ends up with Mark killing Heinrich and going round to his house to tell his mother (Johanna Hofer), with whom he still lives. She takes some drugs and kills herself. Anna, meanwhile, kills her best friend Margit (Margit Carstensen), or so we are led to believe, and shags the weird creature in her house. Mark, desperate to save Anna (perhaps), stops the police from finding her by shooting one of his former spy colleagues. They give chase, end up killing Mark as he tries to reach the top of a high rise. Anna arrives with the ‘complete’ creature, who looks just like Mark. Anna and Mark die – leaving the creature-Mark to go find Bob, who has been left in the care of his school teacher, Helen (also played by Isabelle Adjani). As the creature knocks on Helen’s door through a pane of frosted glass, Bob tells her not to open the door and goes to drown himself in a bath, while the sound of (presumably) nuclear bombs starts to fall. In part this might be because Mark, who had quit whatever spy forces he was working for to work on his family life, did not fulfil the contract with another, unnamed spy, who, refusing to ‘trade’ (or whatever was supposed to happen) now that Mark is no longer on the job, perhaps sets off the end of the world. Except that this other spy, who is known his pink socks, might also be one of Mark’s employers/colleagues, as we see at the end of the film when one of them (Maximilien Ruethlein) is seen wearing said socks in the chase sequence at the high rise.

Add to this the fact that the film is set in Berlin, with images of East German guards looking at Mark through binoculars from the other side of the Berlin Wall, and this is not only a confusing film, but one that lends itself deeply to a projection of Cold War paranoia.

Nowhere is this better marked out than in the mise-en-scène, where many of the sets are just empty apartments and empty streets; one would think Berlin almost deserted from this movie. And this, in turn, reflects perhaps the empty interior that Dolan, in another context, is trying to reach for. Except that Zulawski’s cinematography, although never as beautiful as Dolan’s (in fact, just plain ‘ugly’ at certain moments), is also significantly more thought out (as far as this viewer is concerned). For, while Dolan never really gives depth to his images, meaning that we concentrate almost at all times on what is at the surface, Zulawski is happy to film in long shot with a startling regularity, meaning that his characters become lost in the empty spaces through which they wander.

Furthermore, Zulawski puts his props into play with more powerful effect than Dolan does. Meat, knives, creatures, detritus, car wrecks, and other figures that occasionally make it into frame such as tramps (one weird scene has Anna sit down on a Berlin metro train in a fluster, only for the tramp next to her to take a bunch of bananas from her shopping bag, take one, peel it, eat it, while replacing the rest, all without any clue as to why this is happening or what this means) and disabled people in wheelchairs outside a church. Each of these seems deliberately placed and no doubt has a role to play in the overall effect of the film. But where Dolan’s beautiful use of filters (during love scenes that Francis and Marie have with anyone other than Nico) and framing of body parts are glorious to behold, their vacuity is disappointing in comparison to Zulawski’s objects and framings, which seem utterly pregnant with meaning.

The other thing to say about Possession is the emotional pitch at which it takes place. This is a nervous breakdown of a movie, that is hilarious and hysterical in equal measure from start to finish and with no let up. So powerful is this, then I really did find myself wondering why more films are not made like this.

CPH PIX has a strong emphasis on experimental cinema – the kind of stuff you will not see week-in, week-out at the local Odeon. Perhaps this is why my films have been allowed to play there (although this may not say anything special about my films). And watching Possession, one indeed wonders about the grip that narrative expectations have on mainstream film viewers. People walked out of both Possession and Heartbeats, so obviously they are not pleasing everyone – but this also is perhaps more fuel in the fire that cinema seems to have become enslaved by narrative. And in the same way that slavery dehumanises humans such that we only see their function as opposed to their humanity (a wider issue with capitalism?), so, too, does the hegemony of narrative encourage us to see films not as individuals who perhaps have the life of a human being in some respects, but as simply objects that should do certain things only – and we are not really that interested in the secret talents and the hidden aspects of cinema. But watching Zulawski, it makes it feel as though we should be…

I have no idea what the ‘meaning’ of Possession is – but it is fascinating in its desire to put humans into the most extreme emotional situations imaginable, and to let rip. One scene – almost unexplained except in that Anna is talking about a ‘twin’ part of her personality that has died – features Adjani in a metro tunnel literally screaming and shouting and shaking for, who knows?, three or four minutes, before she breaks her shopping bags against a wall, rolls around in milk and mashed up food for a bit more, before vomiting spunks and bleeding from her ears until she is truly covered in filth.

The film is, as I have said, pregnant with meaning. It seems to be ‘about’ lots of things (jealousy, love, marriage, the Cold War, paranoia and surveillance culture). But before this gets too vague, let’s just stick to pregnancy. Zulawski’s film is a monster of a movie that impregnates all who see it. Humans have a tendency to abandon that offspring – the disabled, the unlovely, the unbeautiful – that it can and does give birth to. Zulawski seems to want precisely to explore the possibility of having ugly children, of we viewers having foul and disgusting thoughts, while at the same time seeming to insist that this is not some separate and to-be-discarded aspect of humanity, something that is almost inhuman. Instead, the inhuman thing is not to consider those aspects of humanity, for they are still us and we should cherish or at the very least accept ourselves in all of our limitations, shortcomings, perhaps in short our evil, if we are to understand ourselves and to be able to live a life that involves anything but hypocrisy.

Dolan offers us a study of hypocrisy. One scene does (comically) features Francis masturbating with one of Nico’s pullovers over his head. But even with this ‘unlovely’ scene, the film seems to want to seduce us via its beauty. I don’t believe that this cliché is really true except as precisely a cliché, but we can use it here: beautiful is sometimes a bit boring, whereas an ‘ugly’ film like Possession can be something that we love so much more. I have childish tastes and am a sucker for ‘beauty,’ though putting Heartbeats into comparison with Possession makes me think that I should always be looking for something more, otherwise my life will not only be superficial, but empty and perhaps eschatological on the inside, too.