Kid Icarus (Mike Ott and Carl Bird McLaughlin, USA, 2008)

American cinema, Blogpost, Documentary, Film education, Film reviews, Uncategorized

I recently heard that Mike Ott and Carl Bird McLaughlin’s Kid Icarus will soon be available on VOD.

This blog post is a kind of reflective piece written to celebrate its release – and to encourage readers to watch the film.

And so I begin…

Only yesterday, I read another feed on Twitter in which a.n. minor celebrity spoke of how a teacher had told them at school that they would amount to nothing – and that now the minor celebrity was taking great pleasure in effectively getting ‘revenge’ on their teacher by telling them, and the world, how much money they had made in their lives.

Aside from the way in which this narrative reaffirms the idea that all teachers are always already failures for not going into a more lucrative career (because the minor celebrity is affirming success via the fact that they have made a lot of money, while their teacher is wallowing in the decidedly unlucrative career of teaching – because money is the only thing that validates humanity?), my personal response to reading such online discussions involves two queries.

Firstly, I wonder if perhaps it was the very ‘insult’ given by the teacher that inspired the pupil/student to ‘make something’ of themselves – since some people perhaps respond better to what we might proverbially term a ‘kick up the arse’ (or at the very least to constructive criticism) than they do always to being told at all points in time how brilliant they are. Indeed, since the minor celebrity is taking the time to recount this ‘revenge’ story, it seems to stand to reason that the ‘insult’ did indeed function as a spur to them to ‘make something of themselves.’ By this token, the student should probably not be so annoyed with their former teacher, but grateful to them for motivating their achievements, even if that motivation was ‘negative’ (i.e. done as an act of revenge rather than as a positive act done for oneself).

(Not that such a student – that is, the sort that might ‘benefit’ from the so-called ‘kick up the arse’ – would offer thanks to the teacher, especially if they did not really want their newfound minor celebrity and wealth, preferring instead to be able to go back in time and simply to have had a different teacher who did not inspire them to become a minor celebrity.)

Secondly, I query what the student was like at school, and/or whether they had the self-awareness to know what effect their behaviour had on their teachers (which is not to say their peers).

Don’t get me wrong. There are probably some terrible teachers out there, and perhaps some undeserving students have been offered insults by those nasty teachers before going on to achieve fame and fortune, while other excellent and praised students have achieved ‘nothing’ (whatever that means), while others received negative feedback at school and went on as predicted to ‘amount to nothing’ (which I guess means not making much money and/or not being mildly or massively famous). Meanwhile, yet others always were and continue to be ‘high achievers,’ while many more just middled through school and life, and still others fluctuated gently between positions over time.

I am sad for anyone who has been insulted by their teachers and taken it so much to heart that they have constructed a life narrative of revenge around it. I am also sad that any teacher would educate their students – positively or negatively – to believe that money and fame is what makes a life valid.

Furthermore, I am sensitive to how many humans have difficulties learning and/or concentrating in a classroom setting – and who thus may find the experience problematic, if not traumatic. School is certainly imperfect – and working at one entails precisely this: always working towards doing a better job, even as this might be exhausting (if not all-consuming).

I do not want to negate this diversity. Nonetheless, I might suggest from experience that some students have the sad effect of coming across to their teachers and peers alike as arrogant. Now, I have not (to the best of my knowledge) ever told any of my students that they will never amount to anything (because I do not really know what this means, let alone am I capable of knowing someone else’s future – and I have a policy to try only to say things that I know to my students).

Be that as it may, some students can, as mentioned, be perplexing and taxing in their arrogance, capable as they are of insulting their teachers – advertently or otherwise – through their comments, their attitudes and their actions.

What is more, they may be completely unreceptive to their teachers and/or perhaps not so good at listening – such that they might hear an accusation that they will ‘amount to nothing’ when really they are being told that **if** they want to achieve their ambitions, then perhaps they ought to make more of an effort to be more receptive to others, more humble in their attitude, more thoughtful in their comportment.

Indeed, in my own experience (which has involved about as much time studying as it has involved time teaching), the psychological trouble that problematic students can cause to teachers is far more taxing than any of the trouble that teachers caused me as a student.

(Not that this will apply to everyone, not least because most people do not go on to teach; that said, statistically my point stands to reason, since a teacher will encounter 1000s of students over their career, while students might only encounter 10s of teachers; let us not broach the role that peers play in the lives of students.)

All this pre-amble is to say that just this past semester, two students sat right in front of me playing chess with each other during a lecture that I was delivering.

When I then asked them whether they thought that their behaviour was rude – being absorbed in a chess game rather than my class – they denied as much and said that it was doing no harm to anyone. When I asked them if their behaviour was reminiscent of Leigh Harkrider, the main protagonist of Kid Icarus, they said no.

For, perhaps the biggest irony of this chess experience is that I had just shown to my students Mike Ott and Carl Bird McLaughlin’s documentary about students trying to make a film at the College of the Canyons community college in Santa Clarita, California.

For, even though they had just seen that film’s main subject, film student Leigh Harkrider, repeatedly ignoring the advice of his film instructors as he proceeds to make a mistake-ridden movie as part of his film class, they could not see that they might share some of Leigh’s arrogance. That is, their behaviour was, like Leigh in Kid Icarus, completely self-unaware – perhaps convinced, like Leigh, of their brilliance, and thus not in need of anything so boring as a lecture on filmmaking (let alone a lecture on filmmaking as filtered through Kid Icarus).

Sometimes I wonder that this sort of arrogance is especially acute in film classes, since we live in a world where everyone assumes that they are an expert on cinema, and yet where few people realise how much time and effort has to go into making movies, fooling themselves that their capacity to enjoy films will automatically be matched by a capacity to make films.

Perhaps this tendency is indeed especially acute in film classes because we live in a world dominated by movies – whether we watch them in theatres or not. For, we are surrounded by screens that show us content designed to capture and to maintain our attention as much and for as long as possible (i.e. screens that feature content made using the techniques developed over the course of the history of cinema).

To succeed in life – to be rich and famous – only works if you can be seen as rich and famous; that is, it only works if there are images of you in circulation that demonstrate your wealth and fortune. In other words, success is linked in contemporary society to the cinematic, or at the very least to the mediated.

If success is about appearance, then, small wonder it is that people don’t just want to get on with being successful, but they want to mediate their success. In other words, the values of our culture breed arrogance – in the form of people who lord their success over others by making it as visible as possible, and which breeds the values of revenge, whereby people publicly flip the bird at anyone who stood in their path to success.

Luckily for Leigh Harkrider, Mike Ott and Carl Bird McLaughlin are not themselves interested in ‘revenge,’ even if there might be moments when Kid Icarus seems like an exploitation of student arrogance for the purposes of making a movie – that is, for the purposes of using another person’s lack of cinematicity to reaffirm one’s own cinematicity, with cinematicity (or appearing cinematic) being a measure of success.

For while Kid Icarus does gently expose Leigh Harkrider’s arrogance as he believes that he can create a cinematic masterpiece without a clue and, more importantly, without putting in any effort, the film is also sympathetic towards him – not that he necessarily deserves it.

The film follows Leigh as he tries haplessly to make his student project, Enslavence, at the afore-mentioned College of the Canyons, where Mike Ott was working as a film professor at the time of shooting.

Kid Icarus is a catalogue of what not to do when making a film. Leigh alienates his friends (potentially stealing a script idea, getting rid of his most faithful crew member, Cory Rubin, and getting everyone to sign endless contracts handing all rights over to him), while also demonstrating little idea of how to create a story – even as he aspires witlessly to be Steven Spielberg and David Fincher.

And yet, Kid Icarus is more than just the humiliation of a student who does a fine job of making an arse of himself (such that he at times might just deserve a kick up it). For, while the film does show us the chaos on set of the student and/or amateur film production – making of Kid Icarus a wonderful companion piece to Christopher Smith’s 1999 masterpiece, American Movie – it also shows us the conditions of Leigh’s life.

Leigh has a Superman cap, he has a Superman check book, his favourite show is Smallville, and he discusses Superman at various points in the film. And yet he is also a guy who lives with someone else’s family, who works at The Home Depot, and who generally seems quite alienated and lonely.

And so while Leigh might dream of being or becoming the Man of Steel, Kid Icarus takes the time to show that this desire is born from its complete opposite, a sense of powerlessness, which itself is tied to one thing that perhaps Leigh Harkrider does share with Kal-El, namely an inner solitude (Superman as an orphan).

Furthermore, while the Enslavence shoot is an at-times hilarious disaster, making of Leigh something of what James Franco might call a ‘disaster artist,’ in the making of his film, Leigh does make friends with all manner of people, as is made clear at the film’s end when he is surrounded by cast and crew come to celebrate at the wrap party.

In other words, Kid Icarus gives Leigh rope enough to hang himself as far as his pretensions of being a great filmmaker are concerned – with Leigh at one point even failing to impress Jay Keitel, whom he courts to be his cinematographer (and who has since gone on to lens episodes of Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz’s Steven Soderbergh-inspired show, The Girlfriend Experience).

But at the same time, Kid Icarus also demonstrates how film brings people together and how filmmaking does create friendships that help to stave off that loneliness. If community college teaches anything, it is perhaps a sense of community.

And this sense of community functions as a counter-example, then, to the self-serving values of wealth and fame that I described at the outset of this post. There is no need for revenge when we treat people with dignity, and there is no need for hatred if we can learn to love, with Ott and McLaughlin clearly loving the subjects of their film even as Leigh in particular is infuriating.

Not only is this a testament, then, to Ott’s patience and qualities as a teacher, in that he does not succumb to telling Leigh he will amount to nothing, even if he gets him to query whether he is a more committed viewer than maker of Smallville. (That is, Ott gets his students to question themselves, their values and their ideas; that is, he inspires in them the desire to learn.)

It also is a testament to Ott’s commitment to community, a commitment that he has continued to explore in his subsequent films as he sticks primarily to the Antelope Valley region of California and as he explores the lives of those who have often been overlooked by a society that values only visibility and wealth.

If visibility and wealth are cinematic, then Ott creates something of an anti-cinema, or what Robert Campbell refers to in his study of Ott’s films as a non-cinema (see Campbell 2018). Or what Ott himself might call ‘small form films.’

But more than this, it is a human cinema, with people defined by their humanity and not by the amount of money or celebrity that they have. And it is a cinema committed in many respects to reality – to showing how real people are more wonderful and complex than any fiction film can imagine, even as fiction films shape our sense of who we are and whom we aspire to be.

With this in mind, step forward Cory Zacharia, who progresses from a friend incidentally on location during a visit with Leigh to The Home Depot, to the prime focus of much of Kid Icarus, where Cory explores who he is on camera, to the main actor with whom Ott has worked in various subsequent film and video projects.

Repeated work with Cory Zacharia not only makes Ott’s relationship with him akin to that of François Truffaut with Jean-Pierre Léaud, but it also demonstrates Ott’s care for and concern with not just Cory, but many other of his collaborators.

Leigh may lack a visible family in the film, but in making Enslavence, a new, substitute family is born. And in making Kid Icarus, a new family is born for Ott and with which he will work on numerous subsequent projects, including Littlerock (2010), Pearblossom Hwy (2012), Lake Los Angeles (2014), Lancaster, CA (2015), California Dreams (2017) and the online movie criticism show Cinema Club (2018-2019).

Bringing humans together and making meaningful and creative bonds: this is the true power of cinema, far more than the wealth and fortune that its most visible makers achieve.

But does it work? That is, if my students could not see how they might have some of Leigh’s arrogance (if they could see it, then they would not have disrespected the class by ignoring it and playing chess), then can Kid Icarus create communities among those who watch the film?

Well, for starters, I can only say that after showing Kid Icarus to students for many years now, it continues to be a film that inspires both laughter and tender responses – as well as being a film with which the vast majority of film students can identify.

But also the very fact that the film is becoming available means that it is a film that can continue to inspire learning. Held up for many years in a distribution gridlock, the film now is becoming available at least in part because of its value as a learning experience for all involved, including Leigh, with whose blessing Kid Icarus can find new audiences.

Perhaps there is hope, then, for not just my own students but perhaps for us all to learn equally to learn, and to continue learning to learn as life goes on. Ott’s films and Ott himself do this, being thus akin to the very best teachers – of the sort that I myself aspire to become: not interested in petty glories or insults, but rather in simply learning for the sake of learning, making films not to achieve fame and fortune, but out of love.

The gift of love and learning to love: no wealth and fame can buy those things at all. That is why they are precisely gifts, offered to us by gifted filmmakers. For those who can now watch Kid Icarus for the first time (or for a second or third time), you are about to receive something wonderful.

Philosophical Screens: Professione: Reporter/The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy/Spain/France, 1975)

Blogpost, European cinema, Film education, Film reviews, French Cinema, Italian Cinema, Philosophical Screens, Spanish film, Uncategorized

This is a written version of sorts of the analysis that I gave on 17 January 2019 after a screening of The Passenger, a film featuring as part of the British Film Institute‘s Michelangelo Antonioni season, and which analysis was part of their ongoing Philosophical Screens series.

The discussion involved contributions from John Ó Maoilearca from Kingston University, and Lucy Bolton from Queen Mary, University of London, as well as from many audience members.

I shall try to stick only to what I said, even if this means foregoing some of the wonderful comments and ideas expressed by those other participants, including a brief if fruitful discussion of the relationship between the philosopher John Locke and the film’s lead character, David Locke (Jack Nicholson).

For, if the former represents something like a dualistic world view, then the latter comes to represent something of a progression away from that, not least as Locke leaves behind his identity as Locke and assumes the identity of David Robertson.

For, The Passenger tells the story of a journalist, Locke, who encounters Robertson (Chuck Mulvehill) at a tiny hotel in a small town in an anonymous African country, where they get drunk – in spite of the doctor’s advice for the latter not to.

After a relatively fruitless day of looking for rebels whom he can include in his documentary, and after getting his Land Rover stuck in the desert, Locke returns home to find Robertson dead – apparently from a heart attack.

Seizing his opportunity (not least because he looks a bit like Robertson and the locals will not be able to tell them apart), Locke assumes Robertson’s identity and says that it is Locke who has died.

Former colleague Knight (Ian Hendry) and estranged wife Rachel (Jenny Runacre) mourn Locke back in London, where the latter goes to pick up some stuff from his home and to check out Robertson’s world.

Indeed, before going to his Notting Hill home, Locke visits the Brunswick Centre, where he passes a girl (Maria Schneider) whom he will again encounter in Barcelona.

But Locke will not get to Barcelona before using Robertson’s ticket to head to Munich, where he discovers that Robertson was/is an arms dealer, and who was/is involved in supplying arms to the rebels in the nameless African country where the opening sequences of The Passenger took place (and which generally are thought to be based on Chad, about which more later).

As implied above, this is the first of several scheduled encounters between Robertson and the rebels, who are led by a man called Achebe (Ambroise Bia). However, after Achebe is abducted by presidential agents in Barcelona, that meeting does not take place.

Nor do the subsequent meetings that Robertson was supposed to have – at least according to the schedule in Robertson’s diary – in a (fictional) place called San Ferdinando and then at the Hotel de la Gloria in Osuna.

For, and here are some SPOILERS, after discovering that Robertson was with Locke the night before the latter supposedly died, Knight and Rachel both decide to try to track Robertson down.

As a result, when Knight nearly discovers in Barcelona that Robertson is in fact Locke, Locke has to go on the run – and where better to go than to the meetings that Robertson had scheduled, not least because they have led to him receiving a substantial sum of money from the African rebels?

What is more, Locke does this with the girl from the Brunswick Centre, who by seeming coincidence also happens to be in Barcelona when he is – supposedly looking at architecture as part of her studies.

Indeed, it is at what appears to be Antoni Gaudí’s Palau Guëll that Locke encounters the girl for the first time in Barcelona, before then catching up with her again at La Pedrera after spotting Knight on the Ramblas near his hotel.

Locke has chased the girl down to ask her to get his stuff from the hotel. This she does, and after the girl has evaded Knight, the pair travel on south towards Osuna via San Ferdinando.

Hearing that Robertson is being evasive, a curious Rachel also goes to Spain – but not after visiting the embassy of the African country in which Locke and Robertson were both working.

Knowing that Robertson is a gun runner for the rebels, the ambassador has his men follow Rachel, which ultimately results in the government forces finding Locke at the Hotel de la Gloria, where they assassinate him before Rachel can arrive with the local police.

Faced with Locke’s body, Rachel says that she does not know this man, while the girl identifies him as Robertson – and the film closes.

But beyond this synopsis of the film, what is also crucial is the film’s style, which I hope to explore in more detail in what follows – not least by picking up on numerous details that Antonioni features in his mise-en-scène.

My basic suggestion is that – however problematically – Locke has a primordial encounter in Africa, and this means that he can no longer remain who he was, in particular a dispassionate image-maker and reporter who is not directly with, but who rather observes the world. As Knight says of him in a televised discussion of Locke’s work: he had ‘a kind of detachment.’

The reason why this encounter is problematic is because it runs the risk of mythologising Africa, a mythologisation that might be as much my invention as I read it as being Antonioni’s.

That said, I hope that the evidence I present will suggest that this is at least as much Antonioni’s as it is my invention, while at the same time not necessarily being wholly unjust from a political perspective.

Twice in the film, Locke is asked whether he finds the landscape beautiful – once towards the start of the movie when Robertson asks him about the desert landscape by the small-town hotel, and once towards the end of the movie when Locke’s hire car has broken down and he looks at the desert landscape with the girl.

Notably, Locke’s answer changes in the interim between these two questions. For, the first time that he is asked, Locke shows little interest, suggesting that he prefers men to landscapes, to which Robertson replies: ‘There are men who live in the desert.’

The second time, meanwhile, the girl asks Locke whether he finds the landscape beautiful, to which Locke responds: ‘Yes, it’s very beautiful.’

In other words, Locke’s attitude towards the landscape has changed. What has happened?

Well, for one thing, anyone who has lived in, or even visited, a desert knows that sand gets everywhere (indeed, as I suggested at the BFI, Locke’s stuff is remarkably clean when it is returned to Rachel by the ambassador).

That is, the sand of the desert demonstrates that humans are incapable of controlling the space in which they live. For, try as they might to keep things like sand and dirt out, it always creeps in.

Now, architecture plays a prominent part in The Passenger, as the prominence of spaces like the Brunswick Centre and the Gaudí buildings makes clear.

Architecture is thus in some senses an attempt by humans to control space – to create a space that is free from the ravages of the desert, and of nature more generally.

Certainly, the London architecture of the Brunswick Centre would suggest this… while in Africa and in Spain, The Passenger is full of what I would call ‘porous’ architecture.

I call it porous architecture because repeatedly we see open windows and doors, and/or we see through open windows and doors, which themselves suggest not a shutting off of the outside, but a continuity between inside and outside (or, thinking of the reference to the philosopher Locke above, not a duality but a singularity of space).

Furthermore, in Africa in particular we see people wander into and out of frame from strange angles – appearing where we thought there might previously be nothing, as if the frame of the film is itself porous, and open to unexpected intrusions. Such unexpected intrusions might be called chaos.

And chaos can interrupt anywhere: for example, a pink rose extends largely into frame as Locke stands outside his own London home – as if nature cannot help but extend into the supposedly controlled world of men.

Furthermore, when Locke discover Robertson’s body, the fans in the room causes his hair to move, just as the towels that hang from pegs on the wall also twitch under the power of the breeze.

This is a universe of constant movement – one that is beyond our control as even humans move about after death.

And yet, men try to control the world – as can be seen by the inclusion in one shot of a speed limit sign in the desert. What is the point of a speed limit sign in a place where there are no roads? The asphalt may not have been laid down yet, but in order to stop the desert constantly from shifting shape and eluding control, the speed limit sign suggests that it will be coming.

It seems that Locke has, or at one point certainly had, a propensity for chaos, or for breaking down barriers and losing control, as is suggested during a flashback when we see him burning tree branches in his Notting Hill garden, an action that prompts Rachel to call him crazy – a moment to which I shall also return.

But somewhere along the line, Locke also lost this propensity for chaos – with Rachel subsequently suggesting to Knight that ‘David really wasn’t so different’ to other people, and that ‘he accepted too much’ – in particular referring to an interview with the African president, in which Locke did not challenge him about his policies, especially his treatment of the rebels.

Indeed, while an adventurer of sorts Locke seems to have become a human who has bought into the world of control – and yet who may still come back to accepting and understanding the world of chaos.

(This transition from control to chaos is the Jack Nicholson persona par excellence, from Easy Rider, Dennis Hopper, USA, 1969, to Five Easy Pieces, Bob Rafelson, USA, 1970, to Chinatown, Roman Polanski, USA, 1974, to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Milos Forman, USA, 1975, to The Shining, Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA, 1980, to Batman, Tim Burton, USA/UK, 1989, to A Few Good Men, Rob Reiner, USA, 1992, to As Good as It Gets, James L Brooks, USA, 1997, to About Schmidt, Alexander Payne, USA, 2002.)

As the Land Rover gets stuck in the desert, Locke starts to whack it with a shovel, breaking down in tears as he can no longer cross space in the way that he wants to.

In other words, he has lost control – and this infuriates him. Locke cannot cope with entropy; he cannot, if you will, cope with the idea of his own death. To quote another famous Achebe, he hates it when and cannot stand the fact that things fall apart.

And yet, Locke changes, or at the very least reconnects with his propensity for chaos, and after finding Robertson he decides to embrace chaos and to become someone else.

For, even to have a name (David Locke) is in some senses to seek to control one’s identity, and/or to be controlled. By becoming someone else, Locke enters into a world of becoming rather than a world of being, a world that goes with the flow, allows things to fall apart, is okay with entropy, allows in a little death (perhaps this is even an orgasmic existence, as petite mort, or little death, comes to mean orgasm in French).

But it is not just finding Robertson’s body that produces this change.

There are two sequences interpolated into The Passenger that bear discussion. The first is an interview that Locke shot with a man referred to typically as the Witch Doctor (played by an uncredited James Campbell).

Since the Witch Doctor has been educated in France and Yugoslavia, Locke is surprised that he has not abandoned his superstitious beliefs and instead adopted a more ‘western’ or ‘rational’ perspective on the world: ‘Has that changed your attitude toward certain tribal customs? Don’t they strike you as false now and wrong, perhaps, for the tribe?’

The response: ‘Mr. Locke, there are perfectly satisfactory answers to all your questions. But I don’t think you understand how little you can learn from them. Your questions are much more revealing about yourself than my answer would be about me.’

That is, Locke here demonstrates that he projects on to the world a western perspective that is closed-minded, much as westerns try to close the outside world off from their architecture, and much as many filmmakers try to close their frame off from any unexpected intrusions.

Notably, though, the Witch Doctor soon takes the camera from Locke and starts to film him.

In other words, there is a transition from Locke as ‘detached’ (as per Knight’s reckoning) to Locke as implicated – not someone beyond the frame, but someone as part of the frame.

What is more, at a later point in time we see footage, supposedly real, of a man being shot by a firing squad.

Knight, who is looking at this footage, responds in a blasé fashion – as if he had seen such images a hundred times before, while Rachel is appalled.

This suggests – perhaps again problematically – that a ‘female’ perspective is more implicated than a ‘male’ perspective, even if the latter is the one that is associated with image production and power, as per Knight’s job as a television producer.

But more than this, one can imagine that Locke, who recorded this footage, was himself so shocked by it that it ended his ability to be detached.

For, in presenting to us footage that supposedly is real – rather than being staged for the film – Antonioni provides us with an encounter with something real, much as Locke, too, encountered real death.

There are a couple of issues to pick apart here. For, we are still seeing a recording of death and not death itself when we watch The Passenger, and within the fiction of The Passenger, we are led to assume that Locke still recorded this moment in addition simply to observing it.

To say that the moment involves an encounter with what psychoanalysts might refer to as the Real, then, is problematic; the real life taken here is still reduced to an image.

And yet the documentary nature of this footage does in some senses mean that the fiction of The Passenger comes face-to-face with reality.

But is this not still then to render aesthetic something that is supposed to elude the aesthetic and to be instead real – a real encounter that leads Locke to give up on a life of detachment and to embrace chaos, such that ultimately he embraces death?

So the question now becomes: can film picture the real, or will it always only render or reduce the real to an image?

Perhaps film cannot, but the documentary image at least points to the real – to a beyond the frame that is in accord with Antonioni’s desire for his frame also to be ‘open’ to outside encounters via his filmmaking style as discussed above and as I shall explore in more detail below.

In this way, we might charge Antonioni with being unethical by interpolating into The Passenger a seeming snuff movie the provenance of which remains unknown, its participants anonymous?

For, by not telling us where this sequence comes from, Antonioni runs the risk of simply saying something problematic like ‘violence like this happens in Africa’ – a generalised Africa that is essentially violent and not riddled with violence as a result of specific histories and concrete circumstances?

And yet one might also contend that Antonioni, knowing that this footage exists, cannot not show it, since that might be more ‘unethical’ yet (to know that such things happen and not to acknowledge as much).

More than this, to ‘reduce’ issues such as African contemporaneity (corruption, postcolonialism, violence) to specific concrete histories would potentially be to make them manageable. Indeed, they might as a result lose their power as the Real – because like Locke himself, it would give an anthropocentric identity to a reality that has no name and is entirely chaotic.

And even if Antonioni cannot name or explain the footage, since it is, like reality itself, inexplicable (to explain it would be to conquer it, to control the uncontrollable), there are nonetheless hints as to the political reality to which Antonioni alludes.

For, we see that Robertson is reading, for example, a book about or by Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese independence leader, while the film was shot in a Chad undergoing political turmoil in the mid-1970s as well.

What is more, the film takes us beyond Africa when we read in Robertson’s diary that he has a meeting with ‘Daisy’ (presumed by Locke to be a codename for Achebe or other rebels/guerrillas) at the Hotel de la Gloria in Osuna on 11 September 1973.

This is of course the date on which General Augusto Pinochet bombed La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago, in the process killing president Salvador Allende.

In other words, The Passenger potentially links to not just an African but to a global repression of independence movements that are not in thrall to the colonial powers from which they were trying to liberate themselves.

Indeed, Locke/Robertson dies on this day, with The Passenger thus potentially suggesting on the one level a pessimism with regard to liberation movements, while at the same time Locke learns to embrace chaos and to let himself die.

Is there any other way out of this labyrinth? Or are humans condemned to fail in their bid to work with rather than against chaos, in that this always leads to death – perhaps especially at the hands of those who seek only to control?

Perhaps this is Locke’s tragedy. He can escape Locke; but he is still restrained by/as Robertson. Or, as Locke himself puts it, ‘it stays so difficult to get away from your own habits.’ And: ‘I’ve run out of everything. My wife. The house. An adopted child. A successful job. Everything except a few bad habits I couldn’t get rid of.’

Those habits might include the need for an identity, even if not ‘his own.’ This is his tragedy, perhaps the tragedy of western man… but perhaps western man must understand that a future is coming in which he does not play the starring role – even if Antonioni cannot make that film since that is not who he is. He, also, is the dying western man and not the (post)human of the future.

Perhaps the best that such a man can hope for is an angel who turns up in the form of Maria Schneider (who may well be Daisy?), who will guide him towards death.

Or perhaps the best that humanity can hope for is that they will be replaced by a new intelligence, one that may indeed be a human who is a bit more like cinema.

This is a curious assertion, so let me work it through. By this, I do not mean cinema as it most commonly manifests itself, with its strict demarcations between characters and actions, but a cinema that is itself far more like, or in tune with, or even a manifestation of the chaotic flow of the universe.

Instead, this is a cinema that refuses to recognise boundaries and which does not necessarily prioritise human action over anything else, instead locating the human as simply another part of space and time.

In Barcelona, we see Locke walk past a cinema called Cine Eden as he flees from Knight. Cinema might indeed present to us a new Eden. And we can see how this is so in Antonioni’s film in various ways.

Gaudí’s curving, chaotic and African-inspired architecture seems to announce Locke’s transition, a shift away from the rigid and into the flow, much as the journey south that is the film’s road trip also signals a motion towards a different reality beyond the hard lines of the global north.

The camera drifts away from Locke and focuses on a fan. It wanders up some electric wires and looks at some insects. Some cars drive past Locke and the girl, and the camera pans right, then left, and then right again – dancing with the passing cars rather than focusing on the film’s protagonists.

Famously, the camera pans around Locke’s hotel room and suddenly we see Robertson alive again, talking to Locke at an earlier point in time, even though there has not been a cut.

So not only do we see insects, cars and other machines take on a life of their own, as even the hair on a dead body can dance in Antonioni’s film, but time itself dances around, with the past co-existing alongside the present, and perhaps with an imagined future if in fact Locke is the one who died, but it takes him until 11 September 1973 and with the help of angel to realise as much.

Maria Schneider may (problematically) herself come also to signify such a cinema. She can turn up in Barcelona having been in London – as if by magic. She can anticipate Locke’s arrival at the Hotel de la Gloria by signing in ahead of him as Mrs Robertson. She can be a Daisy, a flow-er that many disregard as a weed, a force for chaotic revolution, as Věra Chytilová knew.

Indeed, as is made clear in Torremolinos 73 (Pablo Berger, Spain/Denmark, 2003), Spaniards would flee the repressive, controlling regime of Francisco Franco and head to France in order to see Schneider in Ultimo tango a Parigi/Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, France/Spain, 1972), surely a problematic film, but one that nonetheless signalled a desire to flow with cinematic desire rather than repress it.

As mentioned, Rachel calls Locke crazy for starting a fire in his Notting Hill garden. What is also worth pointing out here is that this is not Locke’s memory, as per the earlier sequence shots that see involving Robertson, but Rachel’s memory.

That is, the film has transitioned without signalling it from Locke’s memory to Rachel’s, out of his brain/mind and into hers as if cinema knew no identity, no boundaries, but is only a force for chaotic flow and becoming.

And then of course we have the film’s famous final shot, a seven-minute sequence in which we see Locke lying on his bed before we see various cars arrive through the open window beyond.

The camera tracks slowly, slowly forward before then passing through the grille that otherwise blocks the window, circling around the dusty yard outside.

Locke is killed – notably offscreen – during this sequence, before the camera slowly, slowly returns to show us, now through the grille, Rachel, the girl, the hotel owner and some police officers standing over Locke’s body.

In other words, the camera – and by extension cinema – can pass through borders. It is a porous medium that embraces chaos and which flows; it is a flow-er, which takes us out of this world and into Eden, or a world without, beyond, and after humanity.

(At a push, I might provocatively add that the recent documentary, Nae pasarán, Felipe Bustos Sierra, UK, 2018, which tells the story of Scottish Rolls Royce workers who refused to do repairs on the engines of Pinochet’s Hawker Harrier jets in 1970s, also suggests that humans are at their best when they, too, defy borders and control. That is, cinema and socialism alike point to the flowers that humans can become, and as which we might bloom.)

It is perhaps only a series of chaotic coincidences that sets in motion the plot of The Passenger: Robertson dies in Locke’s hotel, the girl is in London and Barcelona, Rachel leads the government agents to Locke.

‘You work with words, images, fragile things,’ says Robertson to Locke back in the hotel. Images are fragile things, and they are not the concrete things that Robertson claims ‘people understand’ (and what he sells).

The world of hardness and borders is a world of war. Perhaps cinema is a world of love, even if it is a world of death,  a world of loving death, which loving is to deprive death of its fear-inducing power.

Westerners may condescendingly characterise Africa as being a continent stuck in the past. But Antonioni’s film perhaps also shows us that, in knowing that all things fall apart, it inevitably is also an image of our future. Cinema may show us images of the past (by definition, since what we see when we watch a film must be something that has already happened). But in what lies beyond the human, and what lies beyond the frame, perhaps this is where we find once again a future without humans, our future, cinema itself. Death itself. Flowering.

Trying to comprehend Trump, Jacksonville, fake news, the World Cup and Crimea: Gaamer/Gamer (Oleg Sentsov, Ukraine, 2011)

Blogpost, Film education, Film reviews, Ukrainian Cinema, Uncategorized

It is perhaps strange to write a post about a film that is now seven years old.

However, I wanted to discuss Gamer, which I saw this week while staying in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, for a number of reasons – a couple of which are complicated by the deaths of three people, including shooter David Katz, at a gaming convention in Jacksonville, Florida, USA, this week.

Gamer tells the story of Alex, or Lyosha, whose gaming nickname is Koss (Vladislav Zhuk). He lives in a small town in Ukraine where he ditches school and shuns the company of others in order to spend his time playing Quake.

He is sufficiently good at the game that he progresses from his small town, Simferopol, to Kyiv and all the way to Los Angeles in the USA, where he comes second in a world championship.

However, this success seems to mean little to Koss, who remains affectless throughout more or less the whole film. As a younger gamer, Kopchick, comes to replace him as the leading gamer in his home town, Koss instead begins to find dignity in helping his mother (Zhanna Biryuk) work in a shop – with one reviewer commenting that this leads him to smile for the very first time in the film.

A movie about a kid who plays truant naturally recalls François Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cent Coups/The 400 Blows (France, 1959), with director Oleg Sentsov being wise to this point of comparison by having his movie end with a freeze frame on Koss – much as Truffaut’s ends with a freeze frame on Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud).

But more than this, the film is also striking for the way in which it, like many a film from the French New Wave, takes to the streets, mixing documentary and fiction as the film involves real gamers and footage taken from real-world gaming tournaments.

Shot on an estimated budget of US$20,000, the film also involves direct sound, long takes in real locations and various other tropes that suggest the economic realism of cinema. By ‘economic realism,’ I mean that the less money one has as a filmmaker, the more one is likely to be pushed into the direction of long takes in order to save on time and money for set-ups.

But this is not a deficiency. On the contrary, it is a strength of the film that it does this, since the resulting intrusion of the real world (hence realism) into an otherwise fictional story is precisely what makes Gamer and numerous other films like it all the more powerful.

Indeed, it is the presence of the real world alongside the fantastic and violent world of Quake, from which we see a few play-throughs, that makes of the film an interesting investigation into the nature of gaming and virtual worlds in the present era – especially in a context like that of the contemporary Ukraine.

It is interesting how in games, the presence of cut-scenes would suggest that the medium aspires in some senses to become cinema. That is, games aspire to have the cultural clout of cinema, even if gaming is a larger industry than cinema worldwide.

Indeed, the cut scene, as well as the exemplary play-through, or the automatic action replay that takes place in some games when one performs a virtuoso bit of skill (or scores a goal) would suggest that the ‘best’ bits of games, and that towards which we should all aspire, become games not for us to play, but videos for us to watch.

In other words, gaming involves a logic of becoming image, or becoming cinema – since to become cinema bespeaks power, elevating the person out of the human realm and into the divine and supposedly eternal realm of the image, or light.

Given the presence of such ‘cut scenes’ in Sentsov’s film, one might suggest that Koss also aspires to become cinema, and to transcend his earthly identity, as marked by his change of names, precisely from Lyosha to Koss.

What is more, since such virtual images are placed alongside ‘mundane’ shots of everyday life, the effect is to suggest that the power of Gamer resides precisely in its not aspiring to be cinematic, but to express something like the outside of cinema, or what in my more academic writings I have termed non-cinema, and which may be something like reality itself.

That is, Gamer as a film charts Koss’ transition from aspiring to being cinematic (even if via gaming), a process that he finds ultimately hollow, and which is set against the smile that he achieves by becoming not cinematic, to his reconnecting with the real world (getting a job in a shop and working with his mum, who herself is also a translator/academic whose job does not pay enough for her to survive, suggesting that critical thinking is undervalued and discouraged in the contemporary world).

Notably, Gamer is also punctuated by other ‘cinematic’ moments during which a brightly lit Koss can be seen turning to the camera as dreamy music plays. A sort of set of fantasy sequences, these moments made me think that Lyosha was dreaming of an absent father – whom we never see and who is not even mentioned during the course of the film.

That is, Lyosha’s aspirations to be cinematic are also about him finding his father: to achieve success, to be famous, to become an image – these are all things that we are encouraged to achieve in our patriarchal and capitalist society (to ‘be someone’/to be ‘a man’ is our father, the thing that we pray for… and not to achieve it is to be a loser, perhaps not even to be human – as many a victim of cyber bullying might testify).

And so, as Lyosha ditches his cybernetic ambitions as Koss, and as he reconnects with the real world by taking a humble and dignified job in a shop as Lyosha, so does he also reconnect with his mother and a more feminine world.

Arguably this means that the film essentialises femininity as earthly and wise or some such. Nonetheless, it still means that the film’s story – together with its ‘realistic’ aesthetic – suggests a rejection of patriarchy and the myth of becoming cinema that lies at the heart of the contemporary capitalist world. Non-cinema is the way forward in a society dominated by the aesthetics and politics of cinema, or the aesthetics and politics of spectacle.

At one point we see Koss look through a window at his school and, using a speck of dirt on the window as a would-be rifle sight, he imagines shooting his fellow pupils.

Notably this moment takes place through the medium of a window. That is, Koss sees the real world through the medium of a separating screen rather than being directly in touch with it. And it is this separating screen that allows him to indulge his violent dreams, with violence itself being part of the logic of the cinematic world, in which we also repeatedly see violent images on screen, especially when playing a game like Quake.

Without wishing to pathologise the deeds of David Katz in Jacksonville this week, it is perhaps precisely because of the warping screen that media create, distorting our vision, that we humans go crazy and carry out violent deeds both in a simultaneous and paradoxical bid to become image (I become famous even if only as a murderer) and to destroy rivals who are seeking also to become image (Katz killing rival gamers, a crime that reveals the way in which the competition to become famous/cinematic perhaps necessarily involves violence, meaning that the murders are oddly and upsettingly a logical extension of the world in which gaming conventions take place – even if of course the absolute vast majority of gamers are wonderful, generous and loving people).

But more than the events of this week, Gamer benefits from a brief comparison with Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg, USA, 2018), another film that is about gaming and gaming culture, and which is one of the biggest box office successes of the year so far.

Indeed, where Gamer reportedly made only US$2,696 at the box office, Ready Player One has made US$582,018,455 worldwide. It is perhaps no coincidence that the film with the major special effects, the fast cutting rate and the conventional hero logic (replete with manic pixie dream girl who is there to help the hero to become a man) should make so much money. For, Ready Player One is patriarchy writ large.

Not only is it patriarchy writ large, but it also is an indulgence in nostalgia for the values of cinema, with a kind of weird fantasy posited at the end that maybe not all humans should spend all of their time playing games (or living in what the film calls the Oasis).

Aside from how closing the Oasis for a day a week would be commercial suicide (as other companies replace it by leaving their virtual worlds open 24:7, which is to say nothing of how to regulate different time zones into this fantasy logic), Ready Player One suggests that the Matrix is not something of which we should be fearful, but that being in the Matrix is great.

More than this, it also indulges a fantasy scenario in which the world of gaming really involves a sort of political activism (even though there are no hackers here), as ‘rebel’ gamers take on the corporate gamers in order to take/retain control of the Oasis.

(Forgive me; I am assuming some familiarity with Ready Player One, rather than explaining everything about it in too much detail. I sort of hope that readers can fill in the gaps if they have not seen the film; it really is all quite predictable.)

The point to make here, though, is that gaming is not rebellious, even if one believes that it is. Indeed, Katz is doing nothing more than committing an act of murder in taking the logic of the game (to ‘win’ by all means possible) outside of the game and into the real world. Indeed, gaming is always to, ahem, play into the hands of power (at least in the way that I am describing it here; I am sure that this view of gaming-as-patriarchy does not and should not always hold – except insomuch as it applies to patriarchal games, which not all games necessarily are, just as not all films are patriarchal; indeed some can be non-cinema, as per my argument above and elsewhere).

Here we come to perhaps the crux of my argument.

For as Gamer presents to us a vision of gaming as separating us from a real world with which we might do well to reconnect, so does Ready Player One suggest to us that gaming and virtual worlds are politically progressive.

To ditch digital culture and to ‘get back to reality’ naturally sounds like a conservative position. It involves a rejection of the novel possibilities that new technologies allow. To embrace those new technologies, meanwhile, sounds progressive, rebellious, young and hip.

And yet I am going to suggest that Gamer is a far more progressive film than Ready Player One. And this is not only because Gamer is not always-already creating spectacles for the purposes of making money/capital. That is, it is not simply because Gamer is not cinema but non-cinema.

However, in order to explain this point properly – and thus to explain the topsy-turvy-seeming logic of a kind of technological conservatism as progressive over a technological utopianism as progressive – we need to think about what has subsequently happened to the director of Gamer, Oleg Sentsov.

If you wander around Kyiv today, you will see numerous posters demanding that Oleg Sentsov be freed.

For, the #SaveOlegSentsov movement started when Sentsov was arrested by the Russian Federal Security Service in 2014 on charges of terrorism against the Russian state and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Widely purported to be fake charges, Sentsov nonetheless was supposedly, according to Verity Healey, coordinating ‘relief efforts to help Ukrainian soldiers barricaded into their barracks by the Russian military.’

Sentsov’s reasons for doing this are that in 2014, Sentsov’s native Crimea, which includes Simferopol and which at that point in time was part of Ukraine, was ‘annexed’ by Russia – and which move remains to this day the cause of combat between the Ukrainian and the Russian militaries.

In late 2013 and into 2014, thousands of Ukrainians poured into and occupied the Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv in protest against, among other things, the decision by then-President Viktor Yanukovych to withdraw Ukraine from signing agreements with the European Union – preferring instead to cement ties with Russia.

After police violence against the protestors, which involved c130 deaths (with Ukrainians referring to the victims as the Heavenly Hundred), Yanukovych was toppled and an interim government set up.

During the instability that followed (not least because some Ukrainians would prefer to side with Russia than to join Europe), Russia annexed Crimea – and during this period Sentsov suspended shooting his second feature film, Rhino, in order to take part in the EuroMaidan and then to protest the annexation.

Sentsov has since his arrest allegedly been tortured and ‘left to die‘ by Vladimir Putin after the filmmaker began a hunger strike while the rest of the world decided to forget about reality and to celebrate Russia as a result of its wonderful hosting of the 2018 Football World Cup.

In other words, for Sentsov active participation in the world is more important than filmmaking. Reality is more important than media. And while we watch spectacles like cinema, games and soccer, people are fighting and dying in an unofficial war over Ukrainian territory.

Let’s ratchet this blog up a bit.

As the UK’s England side, with its rather unremarkable Won 3 Drew 1 Lost 3 record, progressed to the semi-finals of the World Cup, numerous memes began to circulate, often accompanied by the song ‘Three Lions’ by Skinner & Baddiel and the Lightning Seeds, and which encouraged England fans finally to ‘believe.’

What they ‘believed’ was that football might – after 52 years – ‘come home,’ in the sense that it has been 52 years since England last won a major international tournament (the 1966 Football World Cup), and in the sense that the English believe that they invented football since they were the first to formalise an enjoyable sport into a violent, money-making spectacle that today leads many human beings to be trafficked (as per Soka Africa, Suridh Hassan, UK, 2011), which is not mention alleged sexual abuse conspiracies within the sport and other human rights abuses that take place as a result of the sport.

It is interesting that the response of England fans to their team’s perceived success and possible chances of winning the tournament were framed by the word ‘belief.’ Football is not about being the better team, but about believing that one can win. But not on the part of the players, but perhaps especially the fans (which is not to rule out some irony in a good number of the memes, suggesting that people did not really believe that a mediocre England team could at all be the best in the world).

More than this, that belief is spurred on not just by the performance of a football team and its fans, but also by the plethora of media artefacts that circulate around it (and I’d like to write a blog at some point about Gareth Southgate’s waistcoat and the role that it played in both creating that sense of belief, but also ultimately in betraying that belief as false).

That is, what we believe – what we consider to be real and true – is shaped by media. Hence it is that the pages and pages of British media covering men in shorts running around a grass field create a sense in which that sport is more important to many human beings than lives in Ukraine, where a covert war is taking place – simply because the British media do not cover it. (Perhaps rather than cover it, they cover it up.)

So while Sentsov was protesting the World Cup, England fans got all excited because they managed to stick six goals past a weak Panamanian side and score a few penalties. Sentsov could, in effect, go hang as far as the England fans were concerned; they were having far too much fun on Russian soil to want to think about serious matters like politics.

Indeed, if anything, the UK with its Brexit vote would seem to side with Yanukovych in wanting to be shot of the European Union.

More than this. The UK, with the involvement of Cambridge Analytica in a bid to shape what American voters consider to be real and true, seems increasingly to be the plaything of Russia, which itself seems increasingly likely also to have been involved in shaping what American voters consider to be real and true, and which thus led to the election of Donald J Trump as the 45th President of the United States of America.

You may think that I am going too far and that this all sounds far too conspiracy theory-like.

But the point that I wish to make is that to embrace technological progress as unthinkingly and uncritically wonderful (Ready Player One) is to lead towards the post-truth world of digital fake news that characterises the contemporary era. Hipster rebellion is not rebellion; giving up games and filmmaking in order to fight for something that one truly believes in… is properly to lead a political life – even if that just means making human connections and working a modest but dignified life in a shop (Gamer).

Note that what I do not mean by evoking fake news is that Russian involvement in American politics is not true. On the contrary, we must critically examine what has happened if we are to work out the truth. But what the world of fake news does politically is that it allows everyone to be precisely uncritical and to dismiss as ‘fake’ that which simply does not please them.

It is to dismiss from view the unpleasant realities of a film director undergoing hunger strike in a Russian prison in order to prefer the spectacle framed by ‘belief’ of a football team doing well at a World Cup.

It is to dismiss from view the unpleasant possibility that we are all being manipulated by media in order to manage our perceptions. It is, à la Ready Player One, to prefer the Matrix to reality – reality not as something that lies beyond our attempts to find out exactly what it is, but reality as precisely our attempts to discover it. Reality as critical thinking and ongoing thought, rather than the matrix of no critical thought, a loss of human connection, a loss of humanity, a world of docile reception in which the only actions possible seem not to be ones of love (making human connections), but ones of violence against other human beings (murder) because one does not believe those humans (or perhaps anything) to be real. We love what we consider to be real, or rather what we love is what we consider to be real, and we love images more than humans. And yet to love should be to love humans (and perhaps images, too – but not only the images that one a priori loves; to love is to love what one does not love; to love is to love unconditionally; to love is only to love and not to love and to hate; to love and to hate is really just an excuse to hate).

In rejecting gaming, Gamer, then, tries unlike Ready Player One to take us back to the human realm (even if the hero of Spielberg’s film gets the one-dimensional girl and takes a day off gaming every week in a pseudo-effort to placate the notion that living in a fantasy world might not be all that it is cracked up to be).

Even if Ukraine cannot officially be at war with Russia, and if in this sense it must always already be complicit with the precedence of images over reality (no country can join NATO or the EU if at war, and so if Ukraine wants to join either of these institutions, it cannot be officially at war), we can nonetheless bear in mind that the fate of a Ukrainian filmmaker in Russia is still connected to Trump, Putin, the World Cup, fake news and the murders that took place in Jacksonville. And that Oleg Sentsov’s Gamer can help us to make sense of how this is so.

Understanding that this is so might be key to helping us not simply to accept by forgetting the corruption and the violence of the contemporary world, but also to believe in and thus to help create a better world. To believe not just that England might once again be ‘great’ (a true conservatism expressed through digital media and in the Brexit vote), but to believe that we can live in a world that ignores the divisive mechanisms of nations and nationality and which is based upon the shared humanity and life of our fellow human (and other) beings. To believe not in the patriarchal matrix of a society of control, but to believe in and to act towards a world of liberty and self-determination.

You can watch Gamer on the website for the International Film Festival Rotterdam for US$4. Money goes towards supporting Sentsov’s case.

Neruda (Pablo Larraín, Chile/Argentina/France/Spain/USA, 2016)

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

There are numerous pleasures to be had watching Neruda, including some fantastic performances, an excellent script and some stunning cinematography. Up until now, I have basically enjoyed all of Pablo Larraín’s films (of those that I have seen)… but Neruda seems to function on a whole different level.

For this post, though, I am going to limit myself only to a few comments, which will focus primarily on a key moment that takes place towards the end of the film (although I would not consider anything that I am going to say as really constituting a spoiler).

The film is about the impeachment and then the flight into exile from Chile of the poet and politician Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco). In this process, Neruda comes to be pursued by Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), a policeman who may or may not be a figure of Neruda’s imagination.

After various attempts to leave Chile, the film ends with Neruda leaving for the south of the country with Peluchonneau in pursuit. There follows a continuation and a culmination of the cat-and-mouse game that has begun between the two – even though Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), the then-wife of Neruda, has told Peluchonneau before he leaves for the south that he is simply a fictional construct of Neruda’s mind.

I mention this because the journey south constitutes an important trope in Latin American fiction, especially in the writing of Jorge Luis Borges, a writer who himself was obsessed with detective fiction, as well as with a sort of postmodern blurring between fantasy and reality (about which more later). Indeed, the spirit of Borges seems to haunt Neruda on many levels, even though the film is about the Chilean poet and not the Argentine poet and short story writer.

Now, you will have to forgive my poor memory and the fact that I seem not to be able to find a ready answer to the identity of the author on the usual search engines, but I remember many years ago reading an essay about Borges, in which the journey south was understood to signify the journey away from reality and into fiction.

For many years, I have wondered what this really means: why does a journey south constitute a journey into fiction? It is only while watching Larraín’s film that I feel that I can make some sense of this idea – as Peluchonneau heads south in pursuit of Neruda.

For, hoping not to say anything too idiotic, in Larraín’s film we get a sense of how Latin America is defined by ‘southernness’ as a counter to its relationship to the American (or what we refer to nowadays as the global) north. That is, Chile under Gabriel González Videla (Alfredo Castro) was a country that ended up cementing ties with and economic dependency on the north. If to be Latin American was to be anything, then, it was to be not-northern, i.e. to be southern. And so the journey to the south was to be the journey into the ‘real’ Latin America, here Chile.

But what does this journey south mean?

Neruda declares that the chase that we are to see, as Peluchonneau follows him south, will be salvaje, or wild. And, indeed, in contradistinction to the the ordered space of the city (Santiago) that we see in much of the film, the south is ‘wild’ – defined by snow, coldness, trees and other natural phenomena.

(Perhaps this appeal to the salvaje thus also helps us to understand the relevance of this term as ‘southern’ – or as non-northern – in films like Relatos salvajes/Wild Tales, Damián Szifrón, Argentina/Spain, 2014, and La región salvaje/The Untamed, Amat Escalante, Mexico/Denmark/France/Germany/Norway/Switzerland, 2016 – even if a wilful promotion of ‘wildness’ runs the risk of being deliberately ‘exotic’ for the purposes of pleasing western audiences.)

If the journey south is also a journey into ‘fiction,’ then what does this journey south mean when it is also a journey into the wilderness?

I shall propose that the link between ‘fiction’ and ‘wilderness’ can be understood as follows. The global north is defined by a history of dryness, reason, order and control. In short, then, it is a history of quantification and science, one that is determined not by things like fiction, but by facts, which are hard, permanent and immutable.

If the history of Empire in the twentieth century is a history of the imposition of the hard, and the imposition of the idea that this hardness is permanent and unchanging, then in order to resist this, one must embrace the soft, the ephemeral and the mutable. One must reject ‘science’ and ‘facts’ and instead embrace fiction.

By this rationale, no wonder it is that the Latin American ‘boom’ authors like Gabriel García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes (with Borges coming earlier still) basically invented postmodernism some 20 years before Robert Venturi and his colleagues started writing about the term in relation to architecture in Learning from Las Vegas (1972), and some 25 years before Jean-François Lyotard spoke of The Postmodern Condition (1979) in France.

That is, if the postmodern is a sort of aesthetic blend between fact and fiction – such that the two become hard to tell apart – when it is written about as an oppositional movement in the global north, it is conversely a kind of political reality in Latin America, where to create an identity that rejects the north, and an identity that therefore ‘heads south’ is precisely to create self-conscious works that blur fiction and history, fantasy and reality, as per the deeply political rejection of the north and its values, which increasingly come to be imposed upon a country like Chile as it heads towards the ‘rational’ extermination of dissidents under Augusto Pinochet.

As Neruda and Peluchonneau head south, then, fiction and history begin to blur, as the ‘chaos’ and ‘insanity’ of the wilderness come to take over from the order and ‘sanity’ of the city. Life becomes art here, as opposed to life as business – just as reality when not controlled takes on a poetic dimension, in that things grow in unexpected directions, rather than in readily established, preordained directions (poiesis, meaning ‘making’ or ‘formation’).

(Perhaps it is no coincidence that a writer like Paul Auster, also a postmodernist of sorts, is himself named after the south, auster being the term for south from which the austral, as in Australia, takes its name.)

There is probably more to say about the ‘south’ and its links also to ideas like communism (a common thread in Neruda), animal logics, and the ethos of connection and change as opposed to that of separation and control.

Nonetheless, this foray into how the Chilean south plays a political role in Neruda serves not just to help us to understand an aspect of Larraín’s film – namely that in its blurring of fiction and history and in its journey south in a rejection of the ‘north’ – but also perhaps to understand Latin America more generally, an understanding that we can reach through one of Neruda‘s clear cinematic intertexts.

For as Neruda heads south, Peluchonneau (who stands for the rigid law) is as mentioned told that he is a fictional character by del Carril. However, this scene is not the first time that Gael García Bernal and Mercedes Morán have interacted in cinema.

Indeed, Morán played García Bernal’s mother in the earlier Diarios de motocicleta/Motorcycle Diaries (Walter Salles, Argentina/USA/Chile/Peru/Brazil/UK/Germany/France, 2004), a film that involves a young Ernesto Guevara heading north from Argentina on his way to realising the pernicious effects of the north on Latin America, and thus taking part in various independence struggles as he transitions from Ernesto to ‘Che’ Guevara.

In particular, that film involves a sequence as Ernesto and best friend Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna) cross Lake Temuco from Argentina and into Chile. “Chile!” Alberto shouts as they make the journey. “¡Que viva, Chile, bo!”

Cut to sequences of Alberto and Ernesto in the Andes as they ride on their titular motorcycle, which eventually breaks down, meaning that they have to push it across the border (with Ernesto and Alberto getting into an argument as the latter accuses the former of being a Yankee stoolie as he will travel to Miami to buy American nickers for his girlfriend – a journey that, needless to say, Ernesto never completes).

The iconography of these moments is repeated with some exactitude in Larraín’s film, as Neruda crosses a lake (not identified as Temuco) in his journey towards exile (an exile that will then be ‘documented’ in Michael Radford’s film, Il Postino, Italy/France/Belgium, 1994) – and as Peluchonneau pursues them on a motorbike that eventually breaks down, and which he pushes, before finally ending up travelling through the snowy Andes on foot. Larraín’s film also involves a kind of joyful shouting out at the vast expanses that surround Neruda and Peluchonneau, much as Alberto shouts out in Salles’ film.

It is not simply that Neruda offers a reversal of The Motorcycle Diaries, in that Neruda and Peluchonneau are heading south while Ernesto and Alberto are heading north. Indeed, such a comparison would only reaffirm the australity/southernness of Latin/South America: Neruda heads south to escape the north, while it is only by going north that Ernesto becomes aware of what it means to be from the south.

More than this, though, is the idea that if the journey south is a journey into fiction, and if García Bernal is indelibly associated with Guevara (whom he has played on several occasions), then it is not simply that Peluchonneau discovers that he is a fictional character, but that Guevara might well be one, too.

This is not a denial of the reality of Che Guevara. But hopefully what we can gain from this analysis is that the creation of an independent Latin America involves the creation of an identity that in some senses does not exist yet, and which being non-existent is therefore in some senses fictional. This is also reflected in the transition of Ernesto Guevara (a real person) into Che Guevara (an icon). It is not that one is more real than the other, but that part and parcel of Latin American independence involves the rejection of a strict insistence on a single and unified identity, like that demanded of the north as people who do not ‘fit’ with the dominant vision of what Chile is supposed to be are forced into exile.

The ability to invent one’s own identity – to create a Latin American identity rather than to have Latin American identity imposed by the north – and perhaps even to challenge the very notion of identity, is therefore part of the political struggle involved in independence. No wonder that Neruda, too, switches identities several times, especially between Neruda and Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, his birth name.

This switching between fiction and reality is also reflected in Larraín’s editing and mise-en-scène: the film repeatedly shows scenes that cut between different takes, creating not jump cuts exactly, but rather a sense that many different versions of each scene exist and that they are all, therefore, somehow real (rather than there being one final and ‘true’ cut of a scene or of the film more generally).

This is also reflected in how the film involves various scenes that cut between different locations, even as the characters continue to talk as if no time had elapsed and no jump in location had taken place. Finally, it is also reflected in Larraín’s insistent use of rear projection, especially during travel sequences involving cars and motorbikes: space is not single and unified, but multiple and full of ambiguity.

This rejection of a unified space and time is also a rejection of the conception of the world imposed by the north. ‘We shall eat in the bedroom and fornicate in the kitchen,’ says Neruda (or words to that effect) to a female fan in a restaurant in Santiago. That is, he will not do what he is supposed to do in spaces the meaning of which and the things to do in which are determined from without. We can do whatever we want in whatever space we want and even to be dirty (‘improper’) is to reject the northern notion of cleanliness (in French propre), which in turn is tied not to the connection of spaces and wilderness but to the separating off of spaces in the form of property.

In this way, Larraín’s film counters the official history of Neruda by blurring history with fiction – not least because to write official history, or to believe that there can be an official history, is not a southern but a north American concept. Perhaps this also helps us to understand the disruption of history that Larraín has undertaken in both Jackie (Chile/France/USA/Hong Kong, 2016) and No (Chile/France/Mexico/USA, 2012), as well as the way in which fiction influences reality in a film like Tony Manero (Chile/Brazil, 2008).

By showing us a kind of reversal of The Motorcycle Diaries, Larraín’s film nonetheless shows us how being southern, heading south, and rejecting the fixed world of fact, preferring instead to embrace the malleable world of fiction mixed with fact, is a political gesture that aims to establish something like a Latin American identity, or non-identity, and to elude control/to achieve independence in an era when a country like Chile was under the ongoing control of the north and split between those factors within the country that sought control through violence (à la Pinochet) and those that sought freedom from control.

It is not that Larraín’s film does not chart some of the contradictions of the educated and well-travelled poet who nonetheless somehow connects with ‘the people.’ Nonetheless, as Larraín blurs fiction and history in his playful and beautiful (re?)telling of Latin America’s past, he does this not so much to know the future of Latin America in general and perhaps Chile in particular, but in order to create a future that remains a future precisely because it is not known and perhaps not knowable (for to know the future is to destroy the future, since to render the future as in effect having already happened is to make the future like the past, thereby depriving it of its very futurity).

If anyone knows the name of the writer on Borges who discusses the role of the south and fiction in his stories, then do please let me know. Otherwise, I hope that this blog has given something to think about in relation to Larraín’s film. It is really thought-provoking and well worth watching.

Wakaliwood: where supercinema meets non-cinema

African cinema, Blogpost, Film education, Film reviews, Uncategorized

This is a slightly extended version of a paper that I gave last week (on Wednesday 8 March) at the University of Reading. It was part of a symposium called Reconsidering Movie Special Effects: Aesthetics, Reception, and Remediation, organised by Lisa Purse (University of Reading) and Lisa Bode (University of Queenland). My thanks to them for inviting me to give the paper…

While there have been various high profile and big budget special effects movies coming out of Africa in the recent past – with Neill Blomkamp being a chief player in this move with films like District 9 (South Africa/USA/New Zealand/Canada, 2009) and CHAPPiE (USA/South Africa, 2015) – digital special effects have also been on the rise in other, lower budget African productions.

Indeed, in this paper I shall discuss the role that digital special effects play in Who Killed Captain Alex? (Nabwana I.G.G., Uganda, 2010), a film made for the princely sum of US$200, and which comes from Wakaliwood, the piecemeal film industry run by Nabwana in Wakaliga, a suburb of Kampala, Uganda.

I shall argue that the film’s raw aesthetic – but perhaps especially its lo-fi digital special effects – follow what Achille Mbembe, after Mikhail Bakhtin, might classify as an attempt to embrace ‘obscenity and the grotesque’ in a bid to ‘undermine officialdom by showing how arbitrary and vulnerable is officialese and by turning it all into an object of ridicule’ (Mbembe 2001: 103-104). Except that here, rather than officialdom and officialese being the language of the ruling classes in Cameroon, the object of Mbembe’s study, here officialdom and officialese are mainstream cinema and mainstream film aesthetics.

As we shall see, the adoption of lo-fi digital special effects in Who Killed Captain Alex? can be understood politically, then, as an attempt to give expression to a Ugandan sense of disempowerment in postcolonial Africa – not because the film aspires to be ‘cinematic’ by adopting digital special effects in the first place, but because the film is deliberately ‘imperfect’ or ‘non-cinematic.’

In this way, Who Killed Captain Alex? allows us to bridge the gap between the ‘perfection’ of contemporary mainstream digital special effect blockbusters and the impoverished if still digital lives of contemporary Ugandans.

Who Killed Captain Alex? tells the story of a crack commando, the titular Captain Alex (William Kakule), who is seeking to shut down the criminal Tiger Mafia organisation, which controls Kampala and which has at its head a man called Richard (Ernest Sserunya, who also did the props for the film).

During an early skirmish between Alex’s commandos and a group of Richard’s mercenaries, Richard’s brother, Martin (Farooq Kakouza), is captured and taken into custody. Bent on revenge, Richard dispatches his right-hand man, Puffs (Puffs G.), to kill Alex – except that Alex has already been killed by the time Puffs and his men get there, meaning that Puffs can only take hostage two of Alex’s soldiers.

Alex’s unnamed brother (Charlse Bukenya), a kung fu master, turns up to try to find his brother’s killer, while the soldiers themselves bring in a famous commando, Rock (Dauda Bisaso), to help them defeat Richard and the Tiger Mafia.

All hell breaks loose as Richard sends one of his henchmen to steal a police helicopter and to bomb Kampala, as Alex’s brother arrives at the Tiger Mafia camp and starts fighting with some of Puffs’ newly-acquired mercenaries. The commandos also attack – both on foot and by assault helicopter – and a bloody battle ensues until Richard is shot and taken into custody.

A news report featuring archive footage repurposed for Nabwana’s film tells us that order is restored in Kampala thanks to the imposition of martial law, but… we still never discover who killed Captain Alex.

If the plot of the film sounds a bit silly – a kind of African mash-up of 1980s hard bodied American action films and kung fu movies from Hong Kong in the 1970s – then the style of the film is what we might term ‘raw’ at best. The sound is all recorded on location, meaning that many lines of dialogue are inaudible, while the film has blotchy digital images that generally are captured handheld and seemingly often on the fly – with a spot just right of centre near the top of the frame clearly staining the camera lens, and thus the images captured, for much of the film.

Slide3

In an early scene where Alex’s men relax in a local bar after setting up camp in Wakaliga, it seems clear that those performing the soldiers are improvising, not least through the awkwardness of their movements. Indeed, the acting is on the whole ‘atrocious,’ and the physical performances of Alex’s brother – who is not bad at martial arts at all – are clearly of far more importance to director Nabwana that any emotional connection that we might develop with the film’s characters.

That said, Who Killed Captain Alex? does have an array of interesting stylistic features, including some canny editing in order to make stunts seem more impressive than perhaps they were (a mercenary leaps into the air; cut to Alex’s brother with some feet striking his head; cut back to the mercenary landing on the ground), some innovative cross-cutting between the different strands of the action (Alex’s brother, the commandos, the helicopter attack on Kampala), and slow motion, freeze frames and other techniques that demonstrate some engagement with film form above and beyond ‘straight’ storytelling.

However, perhaps most noteworthy and celebrated about Who Killed Captain Alex? is the film’s use of super low-budget digital special effects, especially enormous spurts of blood as soldiers and criminals are shot, wafts of smoke, bursts of flame from the muzzles of various of the (wooden prop) guns that the characters fire, and the helicopters that destroy Kampala, the Tiger Mafia camp and the surrounding jungle.

I shall return to these effects shortly, but there is one other technique that I ought in some detail to discuss, namely the inclusion in the film of its own commentary.

Who Killed Captain Alex? is violent and certainly open to critique from the perspective of gender. There are women soldiers in the film, but on the whole the female characters are untrustworthy, including Vicky (Ssekweyama Babirye), who is a soldier in Richard’s pay, and one of Richard’s multiple unnamed wives, who betrays Richard by helping Alex’s brother to break into his camp. While these are serious charges to level against Captain Alex, it nonetheless aspires to be something of a knockabout film, as is perhaps made most clear by the mainly English-language commentary that we hear throughout the film from VJ Emmie Bbatte.

Where normally we might think of a VJ as a video jockey (an audiovisual equivalent of a disc jockey), in the context of Ugandan cinema, a VJ is a ‘video joker.’ Since cinema theatres are rare in Uganda, most people go to watch movies in video halls. Indeed, where Lizabeth Paulat says that there were only three dedicated cinemas in Kampala in 2013 (see Paulat 2013), The Economist reports that there were 374 video halls in Kampala alone in 2012 (M.H. 2012) – a ratio of 1:124 (which is not to mention video libraries, of which there are supposedly over 650 in Kampala). It is very common practice in video halls for a VJ not only to explain and to interpret what is happening in the film, but also to comment upon the action – often ironically and amusingly.

As two interviewees explain in the report in The Economist: ‘most people don’t want to concentrate and follow the movie, so the translator interprets the movie, making it easier for them to follow… [and] I watch translated movies because of the dramatic expressions the guys add in their descriptions, making them fun to watch’ (M.H. 2012).

In other words, the practice suggests that viewers do not necessarily pay that much attention to the films. As a result, film-viewing in Kampala shares similarities with the ‘cinema of interruptions’ of Bollywood, in that people come and go during the course of a movie (see Gopalan 2002). What is more, it also resembles early silent cinema, which equally made use of narrators (commonly referred to in Japan as benshi) in order to make sense of events on screen for the audience.

This echo of early silent cinema that is found in contemporary Kampala perhaps also opens up space for us to think about special effects cinema – and perhaps cinema as a whole – as a form of spectacle as much if not more than it is a form of narrative.

But more importantly for present purposes, the version of the film that exists on the ‘official’ Wakaliwood YouTube channel includes commentary provided by VJ Emmie, meaning that his words are not so much an unofficial layer added post hoc to the film during a screening, but they have become an important part of the film itself.

There are several issues to pick apart here.

Firstly, for Who Killed Captain Alex? to include its own voice over commentary in the film is a self-reflexive step that suggests that, far from being ‘primitive’ (a term that occasionally is applied to early silent cinema), Captain Alex is as ‘post-modern’ in its self-reflexivity as anything that Hollywood (as per DeadpoolTim Miller, USA, 2016) or someone like Michael Winterbottom (think A Cock and Bull Story, UK, 2005) would dare to produce.

Secondly, that the voice over from VJ Emmie is so parodic means that the text of the film itself is destabilised. For example, when Alex conducts a press conference early on in the film, Emmie suggests that all of the female reporters love him, only for Emmie to slip into being the voice of Alex’s consciousness, declaring ‘I like men.’ Equally, when Alex’s brother later encounters Richard’s wife, VJ Emmie says, as if he were also a voice inside the brother’s head, ‘I’ve never seen a woman.’ Although possibly problematic in its reference to homosexuality, the commentary – now an official part of the film – undermines the otherwise masculinist narrative that is being put forward. That is, the film undermines its own authority as it goes along.

To be clear, Emmie’s explanations are sometimes very helpful. When Alex’s brother turns up at a warehouse, fights three men, and then has a conversation with another man about how he wants revenge, it is only really thanks to Emmie that we know that we are at the dojo of Alex’s brother’s kung fu master (Ivan Ssebanja) – even though Emmie cannot help but also undermine the master’s authority by calling him ‘fat.’

On the whole, though, Emmie’s comments are intended as amusing and self-conscious. For example, when the wife of Richard who is now helping Alex’s brother remembers how she came to marry Richard, the film flashes back via black and white images to a sequence in which another woman, presumably another of Richard’s wives, throws water over her, having offered her the ultimatum of marrying Richard or dying. ‘She was caught watching Nigerian movies,’ Emmie comments as we see the wife being ‘tortured.’ ‘This is Uganda,’ Emmie continues. ‘We watch Wakaliwood.’ At other moments, Emmie also plugs subsequent Nabwana productions, such as Bad Black (Nabwana I.G.G., Uganda, 2016), while enthusiastically preparing the audience for action as we near combat sequences: ‘Movie movie movie… One hell of a movie!’

While creating some ironic distance from the action that we are seeing (as well as guiding us through narrative lacunae), Emmie’s commentary also possesses a political dimension. When we meet Alex’s brother, Emmie describes him as the ‘Ugandan Bruce Lee,’ and even names this otherwise unnamed character ‘Bruce U.’ This appeal to Bruce Lee would suggest that Who Killed Captain Alex? is endeavouring to embody the same principles of anti-imperialism that have been read into that actor’s star image (see, for example, Prashad 2003).

In other words, the violence of the film is related to a postcolonial desire to be taken seriously on the world stage, to throw off colonial/imperial oppression and not just to be recognised but in some respects also to enact some sort of revenge – even if the master of Alex’s brother says that revenge is not the aim of martial arts. That is, the reference to Bruce Lee would suggest a desire to be or to become cinematic.

As far as Charlse Bukenya’s martial arts prowess is concerned, Who Killed Captain Alex? is utterly cinematic: he is skilled and graceful. However, on another level, the film fails entirely to be cinema.

This is not simply a case of Captain Alex not screening in cinemas, but rather in video halls, where the ‘video joker’ makes clear how from a ‘western’ perspective a film like Captain Alex might be considered a ‘joke’ (which is not to mention how audience members will not be concentrating on the film very much, thereby consistently ‘interrupting’ the film, as suggested earlier).

Nor is it strictly related to the fact that director Isaac Nabwana has ‘never set foot inside a movie theatre’ – instead watching films himself on television and/or ‘seeing’ films based upon oral accounts of what happens in them (see Park 2016).

Rather, we can see Captain Alex as failing to be cinema as a result of its sheer cheapness, as made clear by the film’s clunky and blocky digital special effects, which are more reminiscent not of movies but of video games.

The issue of Captain Alex not being cinema, or, put more positively, being non-cinema, relates to the status of Uganda on the world stage. For, if there are only three cinemas in Kampala, then Uganda itself is a nation that rarely if ever achieves recognition in cinema, a lack of recognition that mirrors the lack of recognition for Uganda in a geopolitical sense.

Uganda is not a nation where cinema thrives. But what does thrive in Uganda is non-cinema, with Nabwana’s non-cinema nonetheless being explicitly tied to the nation when Emmie declares the brilliance of Wakaliwood and when he shouts ‘Uganda!’ during the action scenes.

‘Tell everyone that Uganda is crazy,’ Emmie implores at the end of the film, with sanity thus being linked to cinematic prowess, and Captain Alex and Uganda more generally thus being vaunted precisely for not being sane, or cinematic, but for being crazy or non-cinematic.

In other words, Uganda on the whole lies beyond the purview of cinema; as a nation created by colonial powers, we might understand that cinema is the preserve of the nations of the First and Second Worlds, but not the Third World. Being a Third World film, Who Killed Captain Alex? can thus be read via the tradition of ‘imperfect cinema’ established by the late Julio García Espinosa, who proclaimed that

[i]mperfect cinema is no longer interested in quality or technique. It can be created equally well with a Mitchell or with an 8mm camera, in a studio or in a guerrilla camp in the middle of the jungle. Imperfect cinema is no longer interested in predetermined taste, and much less in ‘good taste.’ It is not quality which it seeks in an artist’s work. The only thing it is interested in is how an artist responds to the following question: What are you doing in order to overcome the barrier of the ‘cultured’ elite audience which up to now has conditioned the form of your work? (García Espinosa 1979)

Nabwana’s film may seem to be an old-fashioned action movie, but it is also a film that gives expression to the way in which not just a Ugandan but also a global ‘“cultured” elite’ has erected a barrier whereby Ugandan cinema (and by extension Uganda itself) does not really exist, not least because it does not exist (or only rarely exists) on cinema screens both in Uganda and in the rest of the world.

When García Espinosa writes that imperfect cinema should ‘above all show the process which generates the problems,’ he may not necessarily be talking about a film that exposes corruption or which explores the history of Idi Amin, Milton Obotwe or Yoweri Museveni, who since 1986 has been leading Uganda.

Rather, Nabwana and Emmie show how cinema is what Jonathan Beller (2006) might describe as the embodiment of capital, and that cinema itself is thus a process that generates problems, by generating the distinction between the included visible, who are thus cinematic, and the excluded invisible, who are thus non-cinematic.

That is, Who Killed Captain Alex? demonstrates little to no interest in exposing specifically Ugandan problems or Ugandan history, not least because ‘[m]ost Ugandans (including every RFP actor except one) grew up long after the violence of Idi Amin and the civil war’ (McPheeters 2015).

Nonetheless, it does expose how cinema and colonialism both functioned as tools for a capitalism that has created Uganda as such and yet which has also rendered Uganda incapable of being the equal of the First and Second World, incapable of being cinematic – even if Nabwana’s film clearly conveys a defiant appetite for cinema.

Who Killed Captain Alex? may thus fit García Espinosa’s paradigm of imperfect cinema, but it is not exactly an example of Third Cinema in the classic sense defined by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino.

For, the film does not eschew the entertainment of First (North American) Cinema and the artistry of Second (European) Cinema in a bid to create a new, political ‘Third’ cinema that gives expression to postcolonial political realities and which seeks to overthrow imperial oppression (see Solanas and Getino 1976).

Rather, Captain Alex embraces action cinema and attempts to provide a film that is spectacular. It is in the knowing disparity between the imperfect special effects of this film and the special effects extravaganzas provided by Hollywood, however, that the film’s power lies: Uganda aspires to a spectacular, cinematic existence, but it simply cannot afford one.

In this way, it is not that Captain Alex is worse than a Hollywood film; in some senses it is every bit the equal of a Hollywood film, if not significantly more impressive given the resources and budget with which Nabwana and colleagues are working (this is not intended as a case of presenting a condescending appreciation for the film, thereby repeating a neo-colonial claim to power over the Third World text).

Instead, with Captain Alex being the equal of a Hollywood blockbuster, we can understand that all films are equal. If all films are equal, then what distinguishes films is not quality (a measure that has been destabilised thanks to thinking ‘philosophically’ about Nabwana’s film) so much as the amount of money that they have, with the amount of money that they have determining in some respects the amount of money that they can make. In cinema as in life under globalised neoliberal capital, the rich live in a different world from the poor.

To refer back to Mbembe, Captain Alex suggests an obscene and grotesque assault upon the ‘official’ language of cinema, where the cost of an image is conflated with how ‘official’ it is perceived to be. That is, the ‘official’ language of cinema is the language of capital: cinema is legitimated by money, not by cinema itself. By undermining this process through its proud display of cheap special effects, Who Killed Captain Alex? points to wider economic imbalances, as also conveyed by the existence of Captain Alex (and Uganda more generally) outside of cinemas, even if Captain Alex is cinematic (albeit cheap).

The lack of resolution in the film here comes to the fore. Never finding out who killed Captain Alex might function as a mirror of the Hollywood franchise film that equally must never be fully resolved for the purposes of creating sequels and spin-offs. But in some senses it also presents a mystery regarding the injustices of global economic disparities: what is the reason for Uganda not to be recognised as a legitimate nation with a legitimate cinema?

Captain Alex, as the hope for establishing order and justice in Wakaliga, is killed – but we do not know by whom. Not only might this constitute an unresolved mystery suggesting the chaotic nature of the universe as per the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, for example, but it also points to the impossibility of Uganda to achieve economic equality and to receive justice for its colonial exploitation – as instead the film demonstrates a chaotic world of male-dominated violence (undercut by Emmie’s commentary), and in which martial law is the only way of restoring domestic order.

If Who Killed Captain Alex? does not, in its bid to entertain, fit the classical paradigm of Third Cinema, it also does not fit the definition of a powerful and entertaining First Cinema that Solanas and Getino suggested conveyed bourgeois values to a passive audience.

Emmie’s commentary would suggest an active audience that is encouraged to engage with the political dimension of the film’s digital aesthetics, rather than for the film’s digital aesthetics seducing its audiences into forgetting about politics.

If the film is not an example of First Cinema, it is also not quite an example of ‘supercinema,’ which I have defined elsewhere as being a digitally-enabled cinema that seeks philosophically to democratise space, time and identity (see Brown 2013).

For, Captain Alex is defined as much by its self-conscious failure to achieve big budget special effects as it is by any success in rivalling a Hollywood film production. And yet, if Captain Alex is as much a manifestation of digital special effects cinema as a Hollywood spectacle, then perhaps Who Killed Captain Alex? functions as a film, and Wakaliwood as a space, where supercinema meets non-cinema.

That is, the potential of digital cinema to open us up to new ways of thinking as a result of how it can depict space, time and identity, comes up against the realities of a world – also digital – in which disparities of wealth, mobility and visibility, as well as political injustice, continue to be part of the fabric of everyday life.

Supercinema may elevate us beyond the cinematic divisions and boundaries that are typical of the society of the spectacle; non-cinema, meanwhile, validates the obscene and the grotesque, it validates difference, in a bid for us democratically to understand that, even if Isaac Nabwana cannot afford high end special effects, all films and thus all humans (and perhaps even non-humans) are not necessarily the same (they are different), but they are also equal.

Bibliography

Beller, Jonathan (2006) The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle, Lebanon, N.H.: University Press of New England.

Brown, William (2013) Supercinema: Film-Philosophy for the Digital Age, Oxford: Berghahn.

Brown, William (Forthcoming) Non-Cinema: Global Digital Filmmaking and the Multitude, London: Bloomsbury.

García Espinosa, Julio (1979) ‘For an imperfect cinema’ (trans. Julianne Burton), Jump Cut, 20, pp. 24-26.

Gopalan, Lalitha (2002) Cinema of Interruptions: Action Genres in Contemporary Indian Cinema, London: British Film Institute.

Mbembe, Achille (2001) On the Postcolony (trans. A.M Berrett, Janet Roitman, Murray Last and Steven Rendall), Berkeley: University of California Press.

M.H. (2012) ‘Coming to you live,’ The Economist, 2 November.

McPheeters, Sam (2015) ‘A Ugandan Filmmaker’s Quest to Conquer the Planet with Low-Budget Action Movies,’ Vice, 3 March.

Park, Gene (2016) ‘How a Ugandan director is making great action movies on $200 budgets,’ The Washington Post, 28 September.

Paulat, Lizabeth (2013) ‘Going to the Movies in Kampala,’ Living in Kampala, 3 September.

Prashad, Vijay (2003) ‘Bruce Lee and the Anti-imperialism of Kung Fu: A Polycultural Adventure,’ positions: east asia cultures critique, 11:1, pp. 51-90.

Solanas, Fernando, and Octavio Getino (1976) ‘Towards a Third Cinema’ (trans. Julianne Burton), in Movies and Methods: An Anthology (ed. Bill Nichols), Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 44-64.

 

 

Trump cinema

American cinema, Blogpost, Film education, Uncategorized
Some people suggest that Donald Trump’s victory in the American election is as a result of his television personality.
In some senses, I do not doubt it. More than this, though, I wonder about the role that television (and other media) played in ensuring only a 58 per cent turnout of the electorate at the polls. (This is by no means unique to the USA.)
“People don’t care,” Trump repeatedly has said about his avoidance of paying tax – as this article reminds us. Perhaps it has always been so… But perhaps the numbing effects of the media and their anaesthetics is equally turning many people off politics – and this truly is something we should worry about.
As I look to the right hand-side of my Facebook page, I see that 440,000 people are talking about the forthcoming Beauty and the Beast film release. And that 120,000 people are talking about Jason Isaacs and Tom Felton meeting up in Orlando.
Frankly, who gives a shit?
Now, I am a film scholar – and so a lot of my work is about studying the media. What is more, I am heavily into cinema – and so I know that I can post things on my Facebook wall that are ‘trending’ and/or which are about ‘fluff’ like movie releases and performers.
I did, after all, post something about how much I admired Rebecca Hall’s performance in the film Christine (Antonio Campos, UK/USA, 2016) last night – even if my admiration for her exceptional performance is also mixed with sympathy for a film that portrays the rejection of intellectual thought for the purposes of promoting sensationalist news reporting (a kind of Nightcrawler-from-the-other-side).
That is, I think that the film is an intelligent and critical piece of work as opposed to yet another loud, meaningless spectacle.
Am I a hypocrite – in that I seemingly care more about cinema than about politics?
My hope is that I care about the politics of cinema and try to talk about cinema as politics – and that this is linked to our political realities, as is made clear by the election of Trump as a media politician and by the role that the media might have played in turning enough people off politics such that Trump wins, albeit with a clear minority of the vote.
(Even if media-induced apathy is hard to substantiate, we can and must take seriously this question because of media-created-Trump.)
I more or less got upbraided the other night by two friends of mine for not making entertaining films, who equally felt that my analysis of film as political was unfair – because, for example, Tom Ford is an artist and therefore Nocturnal Animals should not be charged with carrying any political weight. Perhaps this refusal to mix politics and entertainment – and to prefer entertainment to politics – is something like my point.
On what feels to be a related point: I paid £16 to watch Christine last night at the Curzon Bloomsbury cinema in London.
I vowed never to return to a Curzon cinema on an evening or a weekend, since I basically am priced out of watching films there, meaning in turn that I am basically priced out now of watching art house cinema in London (I can of course watch it at a later point on DVD and/or online).
I pay £19.99 a month to watch as many films as I want at Odeon cinemas – and nearly the same to watch a single film at a Curzon. As I shall demonstrate below, this is not an advert for Odeon.
But, as the adverts played in the Curzon, their own ident ended with something like the words ‘the home of people who love cinema’ – and I found myself shouting out at the screen a correction: ‘for rich people who love cinema.’
Something struck me, which I have known for a long time and yet the weight of which I felt as if for the first time: we do not talk in cinemas – myself included. We have been cowed into silence before our screens – listening, obeying, but never answering back (and yet with so many people desperate to get on to or behind those screens so as to make themselves feel empowered).
I thought about some of the rot that I have seen in the last few months – nigh every blockbuster and a good number of Oscar films as over-hyped rubbish. That Odeon membership allows me mainly to see bollocks. (I told you that this was not an advert.)
Now, I understand that many, perhaps most people, do not consume films at the cinema. But they do consume films, which increasingly become ‘universes’ comprised of constellations of films.
Furthermore, they also consume ‘smart’ television that is made up of hours and hours of episodes (the person next to me on the Tube last night was watching Breaking Bad on their phone, I think).
Might it be that ‘smart’ television leads to a dumb populace as we spend more and more time following a show than we do taking part in political life – just as universes of Marvel and Star Wars (i.e. Disney) films keep us watching rot about flying humans and talking animals?
Dumb – not necessarily in the sense of stupid. I assume that most people are pretty smart. But dumb in the sense that they do or say nothing about what is happening, not even voting, and thus being voiceless.
I ended up really liking Christine, and felt that this critical film restored a faith in cinema after my outburst at the screen. It is, as mentioned, a film about the rejection of intellectuals and intelligence in the age of sensationalism-for-ratings. In other words, a film that is on point, relevant, and says something about our world today (especially its gender politics and an insight into how we might better understand and deal with mental health issues).
But here it is playing in a Curzon cinema at £16 a pop, meaning that barely anyone can watch it – while detritus like La La Land, which involves little to no political engagement, is effectively on for free for anyone who wishes to pay a similar amount to go to an Odeon whenever they wish.
(This is not to mention the way in which La La Land has received 14 Oscar nominations, thereby meaning that its fluffy nothingness is validated by the entertainment complex more than a film like Christine, which has received none – not even for Hall whose performance is leagues better than anything else I have seen in the past year.)
I shouted at the screen and fortunately for me, last night, the screen answered back with a complex, meaningful film. But who will watch Christine as it plays on two screens in London and at an exorbitant price?
It should be playing there where it will reach a wider audience. Because in the Odeon, not only do people not shout at the screen, but the screen also does not offer anything nearly so thought-provoking, instead cowing its audience into dumb silence as they behold loud spectacle after loud spectacle.
Getting beyond spectacle. Answering back to the media. Getting used to answering back. Developing media savviness and political awareness. These might be tools that we need to develop in order to come up with an answer to Trump (and of course our own, related issues in the UK).

Philosophical Screens: Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, USA, 1990)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film education, Philosophical Screens, Uncategorized

This post is a written version of the thoughts that I shall be giving/gave about Goodfellas on Monday 23 January 2017 as part of the London Graduate School‘s Philosophical Screens series, and part of the ongoing Martin Scorsese retrospective being run by the British Film Institute.

Goodfellas tells the story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), who has always dreamt of being a gangster. As he rises up through the ranks of New York’s Italian mafia, however, his life begins to unravel in two ways. Firstly, as a half-Irish/half-Italian, he is not 100 per cent Italian and so cannot Get Made to a full fledged mafia boss. Secondly, against the advice of his boss, Paulie (Paul Sorvino), Henry goes into the drug business.

When Henry’s operations thus come unstuck with the law, it would appear that he cannot turn to his mafia family in order to rescue him; more likely is that they will kill him. And so he breaks both golden rules of being in the mafia, and he rats on and betrays people that might otherwise be his friends.

Henry’s situation is not helped by the fact that he is in cahoots with Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), both of whom are loose canons, with the latter being particularly psychotic – taking pleasure in murdering various minor hoods with whom he happens to cross paths, and one major hood, Billy Batts (Frank Vincent), whose murder will eventually bring about Tommy’s own undoing also.

The film is famous for various lines, scenes and sequences, including when Henry takes his wife-to-be, Karen (Lorraine Bracco) on a date to the Copacabana club, entering via the delivery basement entrance and touring her around the kitchen before entering the club where a table and drinks are laid on as the owners and other clients seek to impress the unassumingly powerful Henry with gifts and gimmes.

Other examples include Tommy grilling Henry about how he is funny (‘Funny like I’m a clown?  I amuse you?’), and a confrontation between Henry and Jimmy in a diner involving a celebrated dolly zoom (whereby the camera tracks backwards and zooms in at the same time, thus giving a vertigo effect) as Henry realises that Jimmy is setting him up for death.

However, a detail in the film upon which I’d like to focus and which will form the starting point of my analysis of the film is Morrie’s wig.

Morrie (Chuck Low) is a small-time hood who runs a wig shop. When we first meet him, we see a television advert of Morrie explaining how good his wigs are as he jumps into a swimming pool and as he is surrounded by women who kiss him on the cheek.

The advert is deliberately cheesy, and after seeing it, the camera pulls back to reveal that we have been watching the image of Morrie on a television screen that loops his advert. The camera turns to Jimmy, who watches the advert, and then back through Morrie’s shop to Henry, who talks to Morrie in person out back.

Morrie is refusing to pay Jimmy the interest on some money that he owes – which leads Jimmy to start to strangle Morrie with rope as Henry receives a phone call from Karen. As Jimmy strangles Morrie, his wig comes off – demonstrating that he is a small-time hood who clearly lies, since his advert declares that his wigs can withstand hurricanes (or words to that effect).

The moment is – like much of Goodfellas – amusing, even if violent. (Jimmy lets Morrie go – on this occasion.)

The aim here is not to discuss the comedy of Goodfellas, and perhaps of Scorsese’s work more generally, not least because this is something that John Ó Maoilearca will discuss/did discuss in greater detail at the Philosophical Screens event. That said, I shall end by making reference to the comedy of his work.

Rather, Morrie’s wig allows us to think about the ethos of Goodfellas as being one based upon excess. For, not only is a wig that is obviously a wig funny (especially when it falls off), but it also demonstrates the way in which humans use things that exceed their natural abilities/possessions in order to demonstrate (in Morrie’s case) a kind of youth, strength, virility – and thus power.

In this particular instance, Morrie’s pretensions to power are ironic given that he is about the most camp character in Goodfellas (although he is married) and also deeply insecure (hence his constant talking whenever he is onscreen).

The fact that we see Morrie’s wig at first on a television screen also plays into this. Jimmy himself says that Morrie should not have wasted money on the advert given that he could have used the money to pay him back. That is, the advert is excessive. Furthermore, the advert itself functions as a kind of ‘bad wig’ – in the sense that it is intended to show mastery of the image, but in fact comes across as cheap.

With both the wig and the advert, then, we get a sense of Morrie aspiring to power, but not being able to attain it – in part because the workmanship of both is too poor. Morrie aspires to excess – just as his fellow hoods do – but in some respects he is not excessive enough to be a successful gangster.

However, while Morrie might be a figure of fun (who ultimately gets killed by Tommy for being a probable liability after the crew steals US$6 million from a Lufthansa flight), Morrie in some senses unlocks the whole of Scorsese’s film and the philosophy of excess that it sees as key to the (attractions of) gangster life – even if at times this excess is disavowed.

For, while the film equally shows Jimmy criticising Johnny Roastbeef (Johnny Williams) and Frankie Carbone (Frank Sivero) for spending the Lufthansa money on pink cadillacs and mink coats – i.e. for being excessive – it is precisely this excess that Henry desires and which Karen, too, also finds seductive. Indeed, just after Jimmy has bust Frankie and Johnny’s balls for their profligate spending, we see Henry arrive home at Christmas saying that he bought the most expensive tree they had: Henry likes extravagance.

As we see the Hill family Christmas, Scorsese’s camera tracks in towards a bauble that hangs from Henry’s all-white Christmas tree. Why is this shot here? What does the bauble signify? The fact of the matter is that it is hard to tell. But the bauble is shiny and comes to fill the screen. That is, the shot itself is ‘excessive’ in the sense that it is unnecessary. In this way, Scorsese with his film does not simply show us excess, but he also takes us via his camera movements into the mindset of finding excess attractive. His film itself is excessive, full of ‘unnecessary’ shots and moments, which themselves come to be a chief pleasure of the film beyond simply the telling of a story.

(What is a bauble if not an excessive feature that is part of the festival of excess that Christmas under consumerism has become? These fragile balls that hang from trees for no reason, and yet which we pack away carefully each year, scared that they might break, too thin to hold in hand for fear of crushing them… The bauble perhaps is total excess.*)

With excess in mind, the Copacabana shot comes into its own. As Henry leads Karen around the kitchen, we can – if we pay close attention – see that Henry basically does a lap of the kitchen by ignoring the fact that he can go straight through into the restaurant. The lap of the kitchen is pure excess: he is showing off to Karen.

But more than this. In having a single, unbroken tracking shot that also takes us around the kitchen and into the restaurant, Scorsese is also showboating, showing off to us, showing us a film that also is excessive, and which certainly exceeds the perceived necessity of ‘economic storytelling’ considered to be so dear to the American film industry (the ethos of getting rid of everything superfluous, not least because time is money and it costs a lot of money to put it in there; Scorsese’s film, like the gangsters themselves, dishes out in spades ‘fuck you money’ in terms of superfluous shots).

What emerges from this showboating/showing off, though, is that Scorsese does not show us something that exceeds cinema. Rather, through the excess of Goodfellas, we come to realise that cinema is perhaps excess itself – especially when it lampoons the smaller television screen for aspiring to excess but failing miserably à la Morrie’s wig.

In other words, what Henry aspires to be or to become is cinematic, to lead a life of excess. And this becomes clear as we see how Scorsese’s film is rammed full of never-ending camera movements, which are punctuated not so much by static images as more specifically freeze frames, of which there are numerous throughout the film. In other words, even when Scorsese stops his frenetic camera, it also is done in the ‘excessive’ fashion of halting the narrative entirely for Henry to announce some insight, thereby also showing his mastery since it is as if he can control the film.

Soon after Karen has joined the mafia family, we see her at a wives’ gathering, where the women are described in her voice over as wearing too much make-up. However, when we look closely at the gathered women, it becomes clear (if not over-stated) that at least two of the wives are wearing make-up in order to cover up bruises and cuts that likely have been caused by beatings from their spouses.

In other words, we might consider make-up to be a form of excess, but really that ‘excess’ is here used as a way of masking damage in the form of bruising. What this in turn suggests to us is that the other excesses of the film – from the bling to the bravado camera movements – are also trying to hide over some form of damage or bruising, as Morrie tries to cover his otherwise bald pate.

But what is this damage/bruising?

In Tommy’s case, his excessive violence seems to be a standard little-man syndrome, as even he seems to suggest at one point during the story that leads to the ‘funny’ sequence (with Tommy’s storytelling and ‘funniness’ itself being a way of covering over his psychosis – and the film’s comedy as a whole being a way of covering over the psychosis of mafia life more generally). But Tommy’s little-man syndrome here also explains to us something that all of the other characters tend to carry, too: a refusal to be a ‘nobody’ but instead the desire to be a ‘somebody.’

In other words, it is the fact of having been born as a nobody that is the bruise that these gangsters wish to cover over.

There is more to it than this. When Henry betrays his ‘friends’ at the film’s end, he explains that only a Birth Certificate and a record of his previous imprisonment are what the government has on record about his existence. Earlier, when Henry begins to ditch school as a young hood, he says that he does not want to pledge allegiance to the flag or profess any ‘good government bullshit.’

In other words, it would seem that the damage that Henry wants to cover over is not simply being born a nobody, but being born a subject in America, which in turn is to be born a subject under capitalism, with the nation functioning as the structuring principle of the system.

A paradox: governments give to their subjects a name. Indeed, they give you a subjectivity. However, far from turning you into somebody, this assigned name confirms you as a nobody, since really the name functions as a form of what Louis Althusser would call ‘interpellation.’ That is, when the government calls your name, you respond, thereby affirming not your power, but the power of the government as you answer its call and respect its rules. Those with real power have no name (as Paulie perhaps understands in the film – always carrying out his business in secret). To be somebody, then, is paradoxically to have no name.

In this sense, excess – and the desire to show one’s wealth – is always the gangster’s undoing and why gangster films are always films about social climbers, or those who defy the power of the state and/or those in power – while power is really consolidated in hidden areas (even if Paulie does in the end die in jail). We do not know the names of the powerful.

(Read in this sense, Donald Trump is a gangster upstart – and we might even admire him for taking on the invisible corridors of power [represented by the Clintons?], were it not for the fact that Trump clearly does not seem invested in doing anything for anyone other than himself and his cronies. But like all gangsters, he is likely to come undone.)

Bearing in mind Henry’s avoidance of taxes and refusal to pledge allegiance to the flag, we can understand that the mafia (any mafia) functions as an alternative form of government. As Henry says, the mafia was simply protection – at least prior to its entry into the narcotics racket.

More than this, though, we can understand that the protection offered by a government, with taxes functioning as protection money, and with the government giving to its subjects a name (a birth certificate) and keeping tabs on them (police records) is really nothing other than a mafia. Governments are mafias; governments are the institutionalisation of gangsterism – as the Trump election perhaps clarifies.

Viewed in this light – that any national subject is really just a nobody paying protection money to a government that has convinced its subjects via interpellation that it is ‘good’ – it seems obvious that in order to become somebody, Henry will paradoxically go against his government, not pay his taxes, and in effect form his own republic.

More than this: as someone who will never quite be accepted into the mafia family on account of not being 100 per cent Italian, Henry will inevitably betray that family, too, since ultimately he works out that he is not really anything to them, either (they will kill him the minute he begins to get in their way).

It is a further paradox in the film that Henry must lose his identity as Henry Hill by entering into the witness protection programme. Ultimately, the government does get him – and his anonymous identity under witness protection confirms that the government does not care about its subjects, but it definitely wants to bury the competition by having the mafia bosses put away – as happens to Paulie and Jimmy.

And so Goodfellas shows us a world in which one is born a ‘nobody’ via being given a regular name. It then shows how to become somebody, one must rival government. In this process, though, one typically enters a world of excess – the need to show one’s power off and/or to cover over the bruises of being nobody. This allure of excess is one’s undoing, since it identifies one as a threat to all and every other person aspiring to power. Violence and comedy both ensue (as does violence as comedy), since rival powers will feel compelled to fight as long as power is perceived as unevenly distributed (the system of power is the institutionalisation of uneven distribution), and comedy will function as a way of covering over the bruises that cause the hunt for power and which also are caused by the lack of power.

Scorsese’s film does not just tell this story; it also embodies it with its own excesses – specifically trying to demonstrate that cinema is superior to/more powerful than television, with cinema thus being revealed as itself a key tool in the institutionalisation of power via consumerism (advertising and those who profit from it), the power of the media/cinema industry itself, and the sense that if you are not in a movie, then you are nobody.

(Even if the really powerful in the film industry are not the people whom we see – the stars – although these stars make bids for power on many occasions, but rather the unnamed people whom we never see. No wonder that at least one oppositional force has worked out that a potential way to rival governmental power is to be Anonymous. No wonder that show-offs with money in the UK are looked down upon by the quietly powerful as nouveau and gauche. No wonder that the storing of all data by government takes place as a means of precisely identifying who you are as a subject, in order that you continue to respect the power of government – cybernetics as, precisely, a form not of liberation but of government [both government and cybernetics have the same etymological roots])

There are many more things to discuss about Goodfellas, including its specifically masculine world – where women are in some senses part and parcel of the cinematic and excessive existence that these men desire (they want women, but not a woman who talks back/who tries to assert her power – with Henry’s demise being mapped from the start by his attraction to Karen when she upbraids him for standing her up, i.e. Henry is ‘weak’, a demise also signalled regularly by Henry’s lack of appetite for violence and so on).

There is also a racial dimension to the film, with the music equally playing an important role (perhaps it is telling that it is the second, piano-driven ‘movement’ of Derek and the Dominos’ ‘Layla’ that forms the film’s final theme – for this section of the song is also ‘excessive’ after the otherwise famous Eric Clapton guitar riff and singing that forms its first ‘movement’; notably the music also plays as we see Johnny Roastbeef and his girlfriend excessively murdered in the afore-mentioned pink cadillac, with the repetition of the song itself constituting some sort of ‘excessive’ use).

While a more complete reading of the film would look closely at these topics, however, I should like to end with two observations.

The first is that the name Goodfellas in some senses implies capitalist relationships, since the term ‘fellow’ means “one who puts down money with another in a joint venture.” That is, good fellows are ones who work with each other for money, and not for friendship.

(The film’s title differs from that of Nicholas Pileggi’s book from which the film is adapted, Wiseguys. The word ‘guy’ is derived from the same word as ‘guide’ – and by extension the Spanish term for a film script, guión. Wiseguys ‘see’ – whereas goodfellas invest. Perhaps the cinematic excess/cinema as excess of Scorsese’s film suggests how it, too, is trying to carve out an existence under the capitalist regime of filmmaking – getting away from the written form/script/guide/guión and into something different, a cinema of pure excess. Scorsese as gangster upstart filmmaker – with the arts clearly tolerating upstarts as a controlled form of excess, i.e. Scorsese is not really a threat to anyone, being much like a clown, the person who can speak truth to power and not get killed for it – obviously Tommy does not want to be a clown, since he does not want to speak truth to power; he wants power…)

Secondly, watching Goodfellas today, it is clear how closely Scorsese’s subsequent Wolf of Wall Street (USA, 2013) follows it as a guide – including various flourishes such as the lead character turning to camera and discussing what is going on. Indeed, it is almost as if The Wolf of Wall Street is a remake of Goodfellas transposed from the mafia and into the world of banking.

Two subsequent things can be observed from this parallel between Goodfellas and The Wolf…. Firstly, the rise of the mafia is more or less concurrent with the rise of investment banks in the 1970s and into the 1980s, a parallel that potentially alludes to the mafia-esque nature of banks (to which governments are beholden and not the other way around, as post-crisis bailouts would seem to suggest).

More than this: both the rise of the mafia and the rise of the banks are linked to the rise of the drug trade – as well as to media and the excesses of gambling. Gangsterism, banking, cinema, drugs, media: all are excesses, suggesting that the rise of neoliberal capital is precisely the rise of a world of excess in which to be a nobody is a humiliating failure and all will humiliate themselves in order to be a somebody. This striving for excess is ultimately a control mechanism to keep everyone consuming, thereby maintaining the power of those ‘invisible people’ who already hold it.

Goodfellas uses comedy to critique this world, with Scorsese emerging perhaps as the ‘King of Comedy’ through his ability to laugh at even the most sick violence. The comedy is done through Scorsese using excess against itself.

An ambivalence arises between critiquing and indulging cinema’s tendency towards excess, and this ambivalence is a rich vein that Scorsese has long since mined. May he continue to do so – even if this means that he is perhaps more complicit with capital than critical of it… Unless like Henry, Scorsese, too, is getting to the heart of capital in order ultimately to betray it and to put it behind bars.

* Note added 17 January 2019: it strikes me that when the camera tracks in on the Christmas tree and the bauble, the shot is in fact a reference by Scorsese to Luchino Visconti’s Ludwig (Italy/France/West Germany, 1973), which thanks to MUBI I saw early in 2019. Visconti’s film, which tells the tale of the excessive life of ‘mad’ King Ludwig of Bavaria (Helmut Berger), is equally excessive in style (lavish décors) and duration (just shy of four hours). And it also features a shot that cranes in on a Christmas tree that is decorated also by baubles, etc. In Visconti’s film, excess is equated with madness. Perhaps Scorsese also is suggesting that the propensity for excess is a sort of American madness. (Liotta as Henry seems to deliver a performance that at times, in its effeteness, seems not too far from that of Berger as Ludwig.)

Some notes on cinema in 2016

Blogpost, Film education, Film reviews, Uncategorized

I saw 416 films for the first time in 2016. I saw 237 of these at the cinema. I saw 128 online. I saw 27 on DVD or from a file. I saw 13 on an aeroplane. I saw 9 in a gallery. And I saw 3 on television.

I do not know how well qualified I am to judge anything like Films of the Year, although I suspect that I have seen more films than a number of people who have offered up their thoughts on the matter. But as a result of the number of films that I have seen, I can at the very least draw upon a wider knowledge base – if not a stronger understanding of what I have seen – than those others in order to summarise the year.

In my view, there were two films that really stood out for me at the cinema. The first is Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade), which I understand many other people also greatly to have liked. The second is We Come as Friends (Hubert Sauper), a documentary about South Sudan.

Beyond this, I was very much taken with Actor Martinez (Mike Ott and Nathan Silver), Güeros (Alonso Ruizpalacios), Under the Shadow (Babak Anvari), Baden Baden (Rachel Lang), Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven), L’Avenir/Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve), Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello) and I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach). So these films might constitute my Top 10 of sorts.

Films that then get a kind of proxime accessunt might include: The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu), The Big Short (Adam McKay), Spotlight (Tom McCarthy), Rams (Grímur Hákonarson),  Chronic (Michel Franco), Obra (Gregorio Graziosi), Les Habitants (Raymond Depardon), Desde allá (Lorenzo Vigas), Notes on Blindness (James Spinney and Peter Middleton), Heart of a Dog (Laurie Anderson), Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas), Sieranevada (Cristi Puiu), Sweet Bean (Naomi Kawase), I am Belfast (Mark Cousins), Divines (Houda Benyamina), Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie), Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi), After the Storm (Kore-eda Hirokazu), Ma’Rosa (Brillante Ma. Mendoza), Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith (Stuart A Staples), Ta’ang (Wang Bing), Paterson (Jim Jarmusch), Les Innocentes (Anne Fontaine) and Your Name (Makoto Shinkai).

I feel that I ought not to given the hullabaloo about it, but I also found Birth of a Nation (Nate Parker) and Snowden (Oliver Stone) to be quite curious films that I cannot claim to understand, and yet the verve and self-confidence of which still remain with me.

Other highlights of the year included the British Film Institute’s retrospective of the work of Jean-Luc Godard, which provided me with the opportunity to see a bunch of films that I had not seen before. I was also especially taken with the retrospective of Kidlat Tahimik’s work that took place as part of the Essay Film Festival organised through Birkbeck.  This involved a rare opportunity to see Who Invented the Yo-yo? Who Invented the Moon Buggy?Why is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow? and Balikbayan #1: Memories of Overdevelopment – all of which are excellent.

MUBI continues to offer numerous pleasures, including a wee season of Jacques Rivette films (especially Out 1: Noli Me Tangere) that I enjoyed immensely, with an ongoing retrospective of Lav Diaz (whose Heremias (Book One: The Legend of the Lizard Princess) I also saw for the first time) also taking place. Meanwhile, MUBI also allowed me to see Pedro Costa’s In Vanda’s Room and Horse Money. Furthermore, I enjoyed getting to know a bit the work of Joseph Morder and Jean-Paul Civeyrac through MUBI, while also being taken with White Dog (Sam Fuller), Mikey and Nicky (Elaine May), Los Hongos (Oscar Ruiz Navia), and Mes séances de lutte (Jacques Doillon).

Beyond MUBI, the internet also provided me with various other pleasures, including an introduction to the work of Paolo Gioli, about whom I spoke with John Ó Maoilearca at the Wilkinson Gallery, and Beyoncé’s Lemonade extended video. The BBC iPlayer allowed me to see Adam Curtis’ provocative HyperNormalisation, while I was also very excited to see Michael Chanan’s Money Puzzles online. The latter two are thought-provoking and wonderful films, with Chanan working on almost a zero budget to investigate the workings of contemporary capital.

Meanwhile, three fantastic gallery exhibitions were John Akomfrah’s solo show at the Lisson Gallery, William Kentridge’s Thick Time at the Whitechapel Gallery, and The Infinite Mix at the Hayward Gallery. I also enjoyed Tacita Dean’s Event for a Stage at the Frith Street Gallery, with Stephen Dillane’s performance being one of the most exciting things I have seen in a while. Finally, Hito Steyerl’s How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, which is showing at Tate Modern as part of their Media Networks exhibition, is well worth seeing, too.

With regard to actors, I did keep noticing Finnegan Oldfield cropping up in lots of French films; perhaps one to watch out for. The films in which he featured all seemed to draw upon a nexus of anarchic sex and/or violence from young people.

In a year of celebrity deaths, Brexit, Donald Trump, Homs, Aleppo, Mosul, Andrey Karlov and more, it struck me that there were a lot of films about child birth, lost babies, stolen babies, abortions and so on – from Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford) through to Blue Jay (Alex Lehmann). I have commented in my last post on Le corbeau on how I query that this relates to creeping fascism in our time.

There also seemed to me to be a number of films about the difficulty of distinguishing between life and death – including The Girl with All the Gifts (Colm McCarthy) and Swiss Army Man (Daniels).

I read a couple of student essays while teaching my World Cinemas class towards the end of the year, in which it was claimed that Bollywood recycles ideas, is thus unoriginal, but also unrealistic in its story lines – while the West is more invested in originality and realism.

My reply to the students who said this was to ask them to look at the highest grossing films of 2016. These include Captain America: Civil War (a sequel), Finding Dory (a sequel), Zootopia, The Jungle Book (a remake), The Secret Life of Pets, Batman v Superman (a sequel), Deadpool (based on a comic book), Suicide Squad (based on a comic book) Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (a sequel) and Doctor Strange (based on a comic book).

If the West is so invested in originality, then why does the Top Ten list consist of eight sequels and/or  adaptations based on existing material? Furthermore, if the West is so invested in realism, then why are all 10 of these films either about talking animals or flying humans (or both)?

The point is not simply to demonstrate how the young Western mind continues regularly to have little to no idea about its own cinema, its own reality, its own originality, its own understanding of what realism is or might be and so on – such that it can make such sweeping claims. Rather, the point is also to show that it is outside of the mainstream that the most interesting, the most original, and perhaps even the most realistic work might be found.

All of this said, I think I am still hoping for something really quite extraordinary from contemporary cinema – be that its makers (if it does not yet exist) or programmers/promoters (if it does exist, but we simply do not get to see it). Perhaps I am too beholden to cinema as a form (and really the most exciting stuff is circulating outside of cinema). I completed three films in 2016 – Letters to AriadneCircle/Line and St Mary Magdalen’s Home Movies, and I am proud of all of them (which is not to mention the compilation film that I have curated, Roehampton Guerrillas (2011-2016), with which I am deeply proud to be associated). It is a shame that there seems not to be an audience for these films (blanket rejections from festivals so far); I am not sure that there is much out there like them, and yet I personally (being biased) of course feel that there is much to like about them. What I mean when I say that I am ‘hoping for something really quite extraordinary,’ then, is that it would be extraordinary but wonderful to find some films that chime a bit with mine – however arrogant, narcissistic, stupid and plain twattish that might sound.

Ade, Sauper, Kidlat, Lang, Ott/Silver, Ruizpalacios, Depardon, Chanan, Mendoza, Rivette, Costa, Morder, Cousins, Lang, Steyerl, Hansen-Løve, Diaz, Dean (and Khavn de la Cruz, whose Goodbye My Shooting Star I also got to see this year, with Ruined Heart: Another Lovestory Between a Criminal and a Whore lined up for viewing shortly): perhaps they all have in common a sense that they don’t care about imitating the cinema of other people, and are instead making the films that they want to make, often disregarding the so-called rules – and regularly working on tiny budgets.

Far from being (overly) alienating as a result of its weirdness and difference, such filmmaking paradoxically becomes all the more exciting for it. It is in some senses a cinema of poverty, then, or a cinema of commiseration, that is most exciting to me. And I should like to see that pushed further. I certainly find it more exciting than the unoriginal mainstream stuff being churned out and which dominates the box office. I hope that makers, programmers, distributors, promoters, reviewers, audiences and others alike can encourage this other cinema – this micro-cinema, what Steyerl might characterise as the poor image, or the wretched of the screen, and what I might call non-cinema – to proliferate.

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

There Is No Cinema

Blogpost, Film education, Uncategorized

I am going to do an end of year review-type thing tomorrow (1 January 2016), so if you are interested in my adventures in cinema in 2015, then you will have a full run-down then…

But this post is really just a brief note prompted by a couple of books that recently I have read and greatly enjoyed (I know I generally only write about films I’ve seen; this is in contrast a slightly different type of post).

The books in question are Francesco Casetti’s Lumière Galaxy: 7 Key Words for the Cinema to Come (Columbia University Press, 2015) and Pavle Levi’s Cinema by Other Means (Oxford University Press, 2012).

I am afraid that I am not going to write a review of either book, since I plan to engage with them more fully elsewhere and in a more traditionally academic fashion.

However, I should just present a gist of their arguments in order to set up my brief note.

Taking them in chronological order, Levi argues (brilliantly) that we should not just think of cinema as audiovisual phenomena, but that cinema can also be created via (the clue is in the title) other means: using filmmaking equipment in unusual ways/devising and creating unusual filmmaking equipment; writing scripts that are never meant to be filmed, but which nonetheless might constitute cinema; the role that darkness – and not light – plays in cinema.

Casetti, meanwhile, argues (excellently) that in the contemporary world cinema has migrated out of the movie theatre and is still manifest in new media, including DVDs, streaming movies, gallery spaces and more. That is, cinema has adapted and changed, and we need some new words in order better to understand it – but that these other media are basically still cinema. Casetti is also interested in the role that darkness plays in cinema.

I personally tend to agree with Casetti. Indeed, my own forthcoming book, entitled Non-Cinema (details of publication pending), also argues that in the contemporary age cinema remains at the heart of new media, and that what I term non-cinema challenges the domination of a certain type of (capitalist, mainstream) cinema by adopting techniques and dealing with subject matter that the (capitalist, mainstream) cinema generally ignores. In this way, non-cinema is still cinematic – even if it does not adopt the now-predominant capitalist logic of cinema (it must grab attention in order to use eyeballs to make money). Suggesting that digital technology has intensified the potential for and the actualisation of such an a-capitalist non-cinema, I also argue that darkness has a key role to play in non-cinema.

Nonetheless, while I generally agree with Casetti (I do not agree with him on everything), what both he and Levi’s books make me wonder is how real the cinema has ever been. By which I mean to say: in exploring cinema by other means, Levi implies that there is, or at least that there once was, such a thing as cinema, such that we can identify what those ‘other means’ are. Similarly, in saying that new media are more or less still cinema but in modified form, Casetti equally suggests that an unmodified cinema once existed.

The point I want to make is subtle (if I am capable of subtlety). For, I do not disagree with the idea that cinema has existed and continues to exist: cinema generally is a place that one visits (a theatre dedicated to showing films), while also involving moving pictures and sounds projected on to a white screen/wall (cinema is also a set of equipment), and equally something that one watches in the dark (cinema is also a way of viewing films).

(This is not to mention that cinema for some also involves strips of celluloid or polyester that are passed first through a camera, then through an editing suite, and finally through a projector; in the digital age, this material base – you can touch a film strip – has disappeared.)

I also cannot disagree with the argument that in the contemporary world we watch films that do not involve visiting that place, which do not involve the projection of images on to a wall and accompanied by sounds, and which we now increasingly watch not in the dark but in broad daylight, as Gabriele Pedullà would put it.

Indeed, this morning I watched Il se peut que la beauté ait renforcé notre résolution: Masao Adachi/It May be that Beauty has Strengthened Our Resolve: Masao Adachi (Philippe Grandrieux, France, 2011) on the Doc Alliance website. This involved neither a dedicated film viewing space (I watched it in bed – where I also write this blog), nor a projection (it was streamed on to my computer screen), nor being in the dark (even though dark outside when I started to watch the film, I still had a bedside lamp illuminated throughout viewing).

(Philippe Grandrieux is for me a good example of a maker of non-cinema, and so it is perhaps fitting that I watched this film online – the only place that I can in fact find it these days.)

However, while all of the above is for me true, what I wish to suggest is that even when one does watch a film in a darkened room, using a projector and in a building dedicated to the viewing of that film, this still is not a flawless experience.

That is, while cinema has changed in the contemporary era (Casetti), and while it has long since existed by other means (Levi), cinema has only really ever been imperfect.

Some examples:-

In 1998 at the UGC Ciné Cité in Lille, I see Alien: Resurrection (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, USA, 1997) and the sound is about two seconds out of sync with the image.

In 2013 at the Ritzy in London, I see Only God Forgives (Nicholas Winding Refn, Denmark/Sweden/Thailand/USA/France, 2013) and the sound is so loud that I have to pull my hoodie over my ears to muffle the noise.

In 2014 at the Odeon Putney in London, I see The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, USA/Germany/UK, 2014), and after about an hour and 15 minutes, the film freezes and will not continue until maintenance work has been done.

In 2015 at (if memory serves) the Cinema Village in New York, I see Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, France/Mauritania, 2014) and the sound is turned off for the first 15 minutes of the film.

In 2015 at the Milenium Cinema in Skopje, I see Every Thing Will Be Fine (Wim Wenders, Germany/Canada/France/Sweden/Norway, 2015) in 3D, and the bulb on the projector is so weak that the film is barely visible, so dark are the images.

I also remember seeing a film in Paris (I am pretty sure at the UGC Orient Express, but cannot remember which film; in my head it was Cop Out, Kevin Smith, USA, 2010) where/when the staff forgot to turn off/down the houselights.

And I remember seeing a film (I cannot remember which one, though in my head it was something like A Cock and Bull Story, Michael Winterbottom, UK, 2005) at the Gate Cinema in Notting Hill, London, where the film was out of focus – prompting several rounds of oneupmanship from various patrons regarding the technical reasons for why this was so.

The simple point that I wish to make, then, is that if the ‘other means’ and the contemporary, extra-theatrical practices of cinema demonstrate by implication/comparison a ‘classical’ cinema (place, projection, mode of viewing), that so-called ‘classical’ cinema exists only really as an ideal – while in reality cinema is an imperfect process, as my examples highlight.

My examples only become more clear when we add in the distractions of toilet breaks, people talking, people munching popcorn, people snogging, people tapping on their phones, people walking in and out.

The examples only become more clear when we add in the fact of watching imperfect, scratched prints of old films – even if digital restorations give to an old film a renewed life. The scratches are not part of the film as intended by the makers, but they are often a much loved part of the film as experienced by the viewers.

In other words, we have never really seen a movie in the ideal way. Reality always intervenes somehow.

But, more than this, I wish to say that these are not distractions from the viewing of the film (even if we find some of them annoying – other people talking, for example). Rather, my suggestion is that these everyday realities of viewing films are precisely part of cinema.

That is, the ideal of cinema might well be watching a film uninterrupted (and yet communally). But this ideal does not exist. Instead, the reality of cinema is interruption, imperfection, and so on. And these interruptions and imperfections define cinema as much as, if not more than, the ideal. Indeed, when we think about memorable viewing experiences, those that linger in the memory are often imperfect viewing experiences, as per my examples above.

In this way, we might say that there is no cinema. Or at the very least we might refine what cinema is and say that there is no cinema without reality, and that reality always interrupts into cinema, and that reality is imperfection, but also memory, perhaps the defining feature of cinema, and perhaps the source and cause of cinema’s great beauty. In the terms of my pending book, there is no cinema without non-cinema. Recognising the importance of non-cinema to cinema, then, recognising reality itself, instead of escaping from reality, is perhaps not only the greatest thing that cinema can do, but also our most pressing job to perform as film viewers.