Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, Mexico/USA, 2018)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Latin American cinema, Uncategorized

A few brief thoughts (involving spoilers) on Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, mainly in relation to a concept that David H. Fleming and I have been developing, and about which we recently published an essay in the journal, Film-Philosophy.

In that essay, which is on Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, USA, 2016), we posit the notion of chthulucinema, which is a term that can be used to describe movies that chime with Donna J Haraway’s notion of the chthulucene, an era that follows the so-called anthropocene and which sees the importance of humans wane on planet Earth, if not seeing humans disappear from the planet altogether.

We connect chthulucinema also with the eschatological writing of HP Lovecraft, whose Cthulhu equally signals a threat to humanity, and which is given expression in Arrival by the tentacled heptapods (which arrive not to destroy humanity per se, but which are here to announce an evolution in the human understanding of space, time and, ahem, evolution itself).

This is because the heptapods let humans know that there is other intelligent life out there in the universe (space) and that they have a completely different understanding of chronology (time). What is more, they have arrived because their species and our species are mutually dependent – with all of the drama of the film also being connected to the issue of whether linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) keeps her baby daughter, even if she knows that it will not live long (evolution).

This is about evolution because to reproduce is to evolve: children are not copies of their parents, even as we live in a world in which we seek to live forever, to stay young forever, and never to change through processes such as cloning, cosmetic surgery, and the preservation of the self in data (including the digital data of computer files and the analogue and digital data of images).

If children are not copies of their parents and if to become a parent is to let go of living forever and instead to let a child live – even if it is ‘imperfect’ and itself does not survive past childhood (the premise of Arrival) – then evolution here is also about learning to die and learning to accept death as a necessary part of (cosmic) evolution.

So… if this does not sound too barmy, then the issue becomes: what on Earth does cosmic evolution and the like have to do with Roma?

Well, we can start by suggesting that Cuarón has form in terms of dealing with such issues. To take perhaps his two most famous examples, Children of Men (USA/UK/Japan, 2006) and Gravity (UK/USA, 2013) both deal with the issue of childbirth, in that the former is about a world where children are no longer born and the latter is about an astronaut attempting to recover from the loss of her child.

[Notably, First Man (Damien Chazelle, USA/Japan, 2018) also feels compelled to talk about the conquest of space in relation to the trauma suffered at the loss of a child… as if space travel were the quest for immortality in the face of, and perhaps in a bid to deny, the truth of mortality. As Chazelle whitened jazz in both Whiplash (USA, 2014) and La La Land (USA/Hong Kong, 2016), here, in an era in which cinema tries to explore stories such as the one told in Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi, USA, 2016), he also makes space travel white and male – as per the film’s title – as he celebrates the immortality of conquest in contradistinction to the mortality of becoming.]

To return to Cuarón, Roma is indeed at times quite consciously referential to the director’s earlier work – notably during a long sequence shot during riots in Mexico City in 1971, recalling the main sequence shot in the Bexhill riot zone in Children of Men, and during a cinema visit during which Cleo (the astounding Yalitza Aparicio) watches Marooned (John Sturges, USA, 1969), a film from the pre-CGI era that bears a strong similarity in its premise to Gravity.

But if Roma is something of a summation of Cuarón’s work to date (the story of servants also brings with it shades of A Little Princess (USA, 1995) and Great Expectations (USA, 1998), while the portrait of class tension in Mexico equally recalls Y tu Mamá también (Mexico, 2001)), how does it connect with the chthulucene and related issues?

Well, about three quarters of the way through the film, well-to-do Distrito Federal mother Sofía (Marina de Tavira) takes her children and their housemaid Cleo to the seaside.

I say well-to-do, but really Sofía is struggling: she has been abandoned by her husband (Fernando Grediaga) and money is getting tight. Nonetheless, she still runs a household with four kids and two housemaids, including Cleo, who has just lost a child at birth.

Sympathising with Cleo’s loss, Sofía promises Cleo a break on the beaches of Tuxpan, where she will not be asked to carry out any of her normal tasks of servitude.

As the group arrives at a coastal resort, they pass a large image on a wall of an octopus, before then being in a seaside diner where octopus also appears on the menu.

I am not saying that Cuarón included these details because he consciously believes what follows. But from the perspective of chthulucinema, which is a cinema of tentacles and thinking about the world from a non-human, more invertebrate perspective, the presence of these octopus references is telling.

For – and no more than this – they simply are reminders of alternative lifeforms, but whose biology and anatomy is so vastly different from ours that to ponder them does give pause to our everyday assumptions about time, space and evolution… and which does ask us to consider how an intelligent alien (which is how octopuses are often described) might perceive the world in a fashion that is completely different from the human.

(Octopuses and octopus-like creatures are common in Mexican cinema, as Fleming and I discuss in what we hope to be the book-version argument of our Arrival essay, nominally called Kinoteuthis Infernalis: The Emergence of Chthulumedia, which title means with a doff of the cap to Vilém Flusser ‘the squid cinema from hell,’ and which takes in other films like Cefalópodo/Cephalopod (Rubén Imaz, Mexico, 2010), La región salvage/The Untamed (Amat Escalante, Mexico/Denmark/France/Germany/Norway/Switzerland, 2016) and Una corriente salvaje (Nuria Ibañez, Mexico, 2018). I might mention here how Roma also seems indebted at least a little bit to Güeros (Alonso Ruizpalacios, Mexico, 2014), with its long sequence shots and images of civil unrest.)

However, while the presence of the octopus in Roma simply helps us to think about ‘intelligent aliens’ that are not us and which perhaps stand alongside and might help to evolve the contemporary human world, which we might otherwise describe as a patriarchy, it does also tie in with a narrative that is about children/childbirth, and which involves fantasies of transcending the planet (Marooned), changing the current structure of society (civil unrest) and perhaps even creating a matriarchy (Sofía and Cleo bonding) instead of a patriarchy.

It is not that Roma is obvious or mawkish. Indeed, problems remain as at the last Cleo returns to her position of servitude, and the loss of her child is not really mitigated by a weekend in the sun (where she ends up nearly drowning as she tries to save Sofía’s children from getting swept away by tidal currents).

Nonetheless, Cuarón is clearly investigating issues surrounding what another world might look like or be – as perhaps is befitting of someone who shares a culture with one of the great childbirth novels, namely Carlos Fuentes’s Cristóbal Nonato/Christopher Unborn (1987). He does this by studying a period of transition within a family as a nation also undergoes transition. And he does this by exploring what it means to reproduce – or not.

With the heartbreaking loss of Cleo’s child, Cuarón would seem to paint a bleak picture of a world where change may be hard to achieve, and where the poor really are sacrificed for the ongoing benefit (‘eternal life’) of the rich.

But as the octopus’ presence suggests, and as Cleo herself emerges from the sea with Sofía’s children, and as the unrest continues in the streets, if change may not have happened yet, it nonetheless is on the way – and we shall experience new worlds that currently are alien to us.

And this is because while Cleo suffers, she is also indestructible. Not in the sense that she is immortal, but in the sense that – and I am not sure I can overstate the magnificence of Aparicio’s performance here – she cannot be destroyed by hardship, even as she undergoes terrible hardship after terrible hardship. Cleo (and Apricio’s performance) are so strong. They are strength. And even if not now, they are the vision of a more just world.

Or something like that.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to make of such a motif?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

Notes from the LFF: La jaula de oro/The Golden Dream (Diego Quemada-Díez, Mexico, 2013)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Latin American cinema, London Film Festival 2013, Transnational Cinema

In a Q&A session after the screening of The Golden Dream, director Diego Quemada-Díez compared his film to a western.

The film follows the journey of four youngsters travelling from Guatemala towards Los Angeles across Mexico – in a bid to have a better life in the north of America. They include Juan (Brandon López), Sara (Karen Martínez), Samuel (Carlos Chajon) and an Indian boy, Chauk (Rodolfo Domínguez).

During their arduous and unforgiving journey (not all them make it to the United States), we see Juan pose for a photo session dressed as a cowboy, while Chauk is dressed as an Indian.

Although the analogy is neither perfect (Juan is not necessarily a Yankee, even though he is both most determined and most successful in his bid to get to the USA) nor subtle (to have Chauk pose as a ‘Red Indian’ is something of an ‘obvious’ image), we sense nonetheless that Quemada-Díez is suggesting that the migration of Latin American peoples (here, from Guatemala) to the USA is a direct result of the settling in what was to become the USA of white Europeans.

That is, The Golden Dream seems to suggest that it is American/US history, replete as it is with imperial/economic expansion into the rest of the continent, alongside a longer history of European colonialism, that has caused the economic imbalances that lead to people wishing to travel north to places like Los Angeles in order not to live in a slum (Juan), and in order not to work on a garbage tip (Samuel).

However, where (in broad terms) the western is about the taming and ‘civilisation’ of nature, in particular via the suppression of the savage ‘Indian’, here nature is the dog-eat-dog world of the railways and stopovers that span the length of Mexico – and its conquest ultimately, for Juan, at least, is (*spoiler*) to eke out a similarly ‘bare’ life working in a meat factory north of the border.

That is, the ‘golden’/American dream is severely compromised – as in fact ‘civilisation’ has resulted in huge economic imbalances that in turn bring about a morality that is far removed from that of Ransom Stoddard and Will Kane. Indeed, The Golden Dream does not pull its punches in terms of showing how fraught life is for those on the margins of the USA and who are hopeful of ‘getting in’ (as one apparently ‘gets in’ to ‘the industry’ that is cinema – without any need to qualify ‘the industry’ as ‘the film industry’, since for many people the manufacture of images is the only industry that really counts).

Quemada-Díez also mentioned Eduardo Galeano’s blistering text, The Open Veins of Latin America, in his Q&A. In other words, he (Quemada-Díez) seems determined to locate his film within a history of exploitation that is indeed made most clear at the film’s climax in the meat factory: necessary labour is taken on without papers and job security, such that the USA is now importing from countries south of its border the single resource that is perhaps Latin America’s strongest, its human workforce.

The Golden Dream has an excellent bedfellow the similarly-themed and disturbing film, Sin Nombre (Cary Fukunaga, Mexico/USA, 2009), while also offering a similar structure to Michael Winterbottom’s masterful migration tale, In This World (UK, 2002).

Indeed, Winterbottom – among many other filmmaking luminaries, including Fernando Meirelles, Gillo Pontecorvo and others – is thanked in the film’s end credits. As are some 600 real-life migrants/would-be migrants whom the filmmakers encountered and filmed along the way during the film’s making.

Diego Quemada-Díez gives a Q&A at the London Film Festival 2013.

Diego Quemada-Díez gives a Q&A at the London Film Festival 2013.

Although staged, then, The Golden Dream is a strong film that has many documentary elements – not least real-life participants in such fraught journeys (Sara’s fate, in particular, is too horrific to recount here).

Nonetheless, The Golden Dream also features many poetic elements. Quemada-Díez has a fascination with trains – a key component of the journey, as well as using spaces that are former buildings now reclaimed by nature. It is as if we have, then, something like an anti-western – the return of the ‘wild’, the ‘savage’ to haunt the USA, because it is upon the wilderness and the ‘savage’ that the USA relies – much as the tradition of Thanksgiving is founded upon European settlers in America receiving aid from native Americans, who (broadly speaking) were then summarily exterminated in recognition of their help.

Particularly of interest is the way in which ‘dream’ images of snow, initially linked to Chauk, who has never seen snow, become the reality of Juan. It is problematic that the Indian boy must be sacrificed for Juan’s ‘dream’ to come true; but the truth is far from being as beautiful as a dream, and snow certainly is nothing like gold. One dreams of comfort, and instead one has cold.

One does wonder why Chauk’s native dialogue is not subtitled; while it conveys the way in which Juan, Sara and Samuel do not understand what he is saying, it also runs the risk of having Chauk appear an incomprehensible ‘other’, a fetishised ‘body’ who in fact cannot speak, because no one understands him. That is, while we in fact are given access to Chauk’s dreams (of snow) and visions (of Sara, after she has been separated from the boys), we are at risk of having no ‘real’ access to him, because we (Western viewers) are not privy to his words. The decision is as problematic, then, as it is pointed.

But Quemada-Díez has made a superior film about the issue of economic migration/would-be migration – and his ability to mix the documentary with the poetic, potentially problematic in that he might mythologise too much what is a real world issue, in fact seems sensitively handled and makes for harrowing viewing.

Becoming Light: on recent documentary film (In Memoriam Chris Marker)

American cinema, Blogpost, British cinema, Documentary, European cinema, Latin American cinema, Transnational Cinema, Uncategorized

I rewatched Sans Soleil/Sunless (Chris Marker, France, 1983) today in honour of the passing of Chris Marker. It was as, if not more, beautiful than the first time I saw it.

Nonetheless, I want to write about four other things today: Madame Tussaud’s in London, and the films Nostalgia de la luz/Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzmán, France/Germany/Chile/Spain/USA, 2010), Swandown (Andrew Kötting, UK, 2012) and Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, Sweden/UK, 2012). But while this post is not explicitly about Marker, I hope that his spirit infuses it somehow.

Time – the single most under-considered element of reality – will hopefully allow me one day to write the book, Becoming Light, that will draw upon what loosely I here wish to talk about. But in order to explain what this curious phrase, becoming light, means, I shall start today by considering Madame Tussaud’s.

There is plenty to say about Madame Tussaud’s, one of the most enduringly popular museums in London. For example, it is extortionately expensive (£30 entry). What is more, it also features a 4D cinema experience made in association with Marvel/Disney, which I may well mention at this blog’s conclusion.

One might also analyse the role – made prominent in the exhibition itself – played by waxworks in bringing an element of visuality to what we might call the news. That is, when old Mme Tussaud made waxworks of prominent people, the curious could finally get a sense of what the faces of those famous and infamous names looked like.

Umberto Eco, in Travels in Hyperreality (recently redubbed Faith in Fakes) has intelligently analysed the way in which waxworks played a role in constituting the age of simulation in which we now live. That is, for Eco, viewers of waxworks ended up mistaking the map/the simulation for reality, such that when the real was actually seen, it was somehow disappointing, or less than real.

This analysis is pertinent to what I want to say about Madame Tussaud’s (henceforth MT). For, when one enters the museum, one is taken via a lift up to the top floor, where one exits to the sound of flashing bulbs and paparazzo-style invitations to pose for the camera.

That is, MT opens up with glamour: one walks into a room filled with waxworks of, inter alia, Bruce Willis, the Twilight boys, Kate Winslet, Colin Firth, Helen Mirren, John Travolta, Johnny Depp, Daniel Radcliffe, Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, Russell Brand, Cheryl Cole and so on. Not all film stars, but predominantly so.

It is a deeply unsettling experience. Sure, some people perform humourous poses with, say, J Lo, by pretending to bone her from behind. But on the whole people walk up to the waxwork, put their arm around it, and pose for a photo taken by a friend as if with a real person for a normal photo: maybe a victory sign, maybe a thumb up, but basically just a smile.

Being a snob, I naturally refrained from posing in any photo. I want to discuss my snobbery. But first I want to think about what the posing by other people means.

I use the phrase becoming light to signify what I believe humans most deeply desire: to divest ourselves of our bodies in order to exist in a state whereby we occupy all places at once and whereby we move with total speed. To become light, then, is to exist purely as an image.

When I say we want to divest ourselves of our bodies, I need to clarify what I mean. We want paradoxically not to have our bodies, but we also want physically to experience the becoming of light, the being pure image. That is, to have no body but also bodily to know what this feels like.

This will only be possible when humans work out how to use light as a system of memory storage. From what I understand, humans are actually working on this process. I am more specifically referring to the creation of computers that use light as a system of memory (this is what humans are working on), but one might also read cinema as a whole as a system of preserving/outsourcing memory through the storage of the physical as an image via means of light and shadow. That is, cinema already is this external memory machine.

The reason that we need to know how to use light to store memory in order to become light is because memory is embodied: it is the system whereby we use our physical/embodied experiences in the world in order to understand reality and/or predict with as great accuracy as we can what probabilistically will happen in the future. Memory is a result uniquely of the physical nature of our existence – and if we can find a way of preserving memory as a process via light and without requiring a physical body to do so, then perhaps we will be able truly to divest ourselves of our crude skinbags.

What does this have to do with MT?

The desire to pose alongside waxworks of stars for me speaks of the desire to become light. One could read posing alongside waxworks of stars as consolation for the fact that the people who stand with them will never meet the real star. This is their brush with fame and glory. This is as good as it gets.

This is not wrong. But it also overlooks an important aspect of the desire to become light. For it is not that the waxworks can equal flesh and blood human beings. Rather it is that the flesh and blood human beings are already waxworks; they are already disembodied light. And what people want to become is not a film star who works or anything like that. The connection is much more metaphysical than that: it is the desire to become simply an image.

There are grounds to argue that the desire to become light reaches something like epidemic status when we consider that people are so in love with images that they prefer images to real people. Perhaps it is for this reason that the daughter of the family that I visited MT with actually blushed when she put her arm round the inanimate waxwork of Johnny Depp and placed her head on its shoulders for a photograph. So heavily do we invest our desire in images that their grip on us is more powerful than reality. Were the real Johnny Depp there, no doubt reality would have censured the girl from being so forward as to put an arm around him. Instead, the blush comes from the total honesty that is involved in showing publicly that one loves not a person but an image of a person. We are in the age of hyperreality indeed.

Now, the reason I did not want to pose with the stars is probably because I would also blush but do not wish to be exposed as investing more in images than I do in people. I know that as I looked at Kate Winslet and Cheryl Cole, I could feel desire. Not uniquely sexual desire – these waxworks did not arouse me, though this does not mean that they could not. But an intense, brain-burning desire to have the image look at me, to return my gaze, to render me also an image.

To thus feel in effect that my life is not complete because my body is not capable of transcending itself and of becoming light speaks of how powerful the desire to become light is. For it destroys the possibility to be happy with whom we actually are. To lead our lives in a bodily fulfilled fashion, rather than to feel shame, to blush, precisely when our bodies expose their very corporal nature before powerful images.

This discomfort at the waxworks in MT was alleviated as soon as one passed into the sports section – I do not invest in Sachin Tendulkar and Johnny Wilkinson with the same level of desire as I do film stars – only to resurface somewhat before Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé Knowles and others in the music section – because music stars are in videos. That is, they are also images.

(This feeling finally died away again in the politics section where, bizarrely, Mohamed Fayed had a waxwork – probably the only person, I speculated to myself, who paid to be featured as a waxwork, so desperate is he to become light.)

Now, the desire to become light – the illness/addiction that cinema and other moving image technologies has induced in human beings such as myself – is problematic because it is based upon exceptionalism.

This is to do with speed. Those who can afford to move quickly, they are closer to becoming light. They are closer to becoming images. And when your image travels around the world faster than your body ever could, then you have become light. (This is why people are addicted to Facebook.) And what enables speed – is wealth. And wealth is the remit of the few, the seldom few, not of the many.

Furthermore, the issue with overemphasising light is that it means that all that is not brought to light is overlooked. It is forgotten, since memory has become conflated with light and the testimony of those who physically bear the scars of history are counted for nil if those wounds cannot be exposed as easy-to-consume images.

In some senses, this strikes me as the theme of the masterful Patricio Guzmán’s wonderful Nostalgia for the Light. For, this film is about precisely the role that light plays in memory.

Let us work through this. To suggest that we can have nostalgia for the light suggests that the light is no longer with us. And this is in part Guzmán’s thesis. Both much of the universe and those who were disappeared in Chile under General Pinochet remain shrouded in darkness: invisible and therefore forgotten. And we should not ignore the darkness. Indeed, at one point Guzmán asks us to look beyond the light – paradoxically to see into the darkness, to see all of reality. In my own words, to concentrate solely on the light means to lead a Luciferean existence whereby only the lit is important. God, however, is in darkness. We must remember the crucial role that darkness plays in the universe. And while we might suspect that even the darkest secret will eventually come to light (because some enlightenment takes a long time, it must wade through darkness before any actual enlightenment could ever take place), the fact remains that some things will never really come to light, some mysteries will remain – unless we start to believe in that which we cannot see. And even though the slaughter of thousands of Chileans was and perhaps always will be invisible, meaning that we must feel nostalgia for the light because of its absence, we must also learn to appreciate darkness, to believe in things – perhaps God himself – even though/precisely because there is no evidence of or light to prove him.

When we look only at the light, when we mistake the map for the terrain, then we are in the realm of the hyperreal. And yet sometimes we must travel the terrain, not at light speed, but slowly – because this is the only way in which we will ever really know the world in which we live, when we experience it physically and not as an image travelling through it in an ethereal fashion/when we only travel through ether.

This seems to be the theme of Swandown, in which director Andrew Kötting and writer Iain Sinclair travel from Hastings to Hackney via swan-shaped pedalo. To go slowly, to see all of the dark, off-the-map bits of space in between the light, the emphasised areas of the map.

It is perhaps the film’s only pity that it involves celebrity interludes from the likes of Stewart Lee, Alan Moore and others. These are not bad per se, but nor are they particularly enthralling. It is nice to see how ‘normal’ they are as people – their ‘banter’ is mildly amusing, but not electric. Nonetheless, part of the brilliance of, say, Gallivant (Andrew Kötting, UK, 1997) is that it finds magic in countless regular people up and down the land as the director travels with his mother and daughter in search of authentic British people.

Finally – and apologies for being so circumspect/suggestive/imprecise on this blog – part of the brilliance of Searching for Sugar Man is the example that the film makes of forgotten folk singer Rodriguez. Not only does the film suggest the role that music can play in bringing about social change, but it also has Rodriguez adhere (with some economy of truth, no doubt) to a principle whereby becoming light, becoming an image, is not what he chooses for himself (even though this happens simply by virtue of his being in a film and/or being a music star).

As Rodriguez’s family make beautiful statements about the fact that class cannot make a human or their hopes and dreams more beautiful (that is, they criticise the common assumption that wealth is not simply an index of itself – i.e. wealth simply demonstrates material value – but also an index of human value – i.e. rich people are better people), and as Rodriguez refuses properly to become a star/an image/light (we are told he gives away his money to charity, friends and family, preferring simply to live in his modest Detroit apartment), so we have an object lesson – set against a deprived Detroit background – of a man who refuses to become light – or whose decision to come into the light is tempered by an acknowledgement of the benefits of darkness. This is not only signalled by Rodriguez’s career trajectory (although the film glosses over tours to Australia that the performer did in the late 1970s/early 1980s – long before his South Africa comeback but also long after his early 1970s flirtation with fame), but also by the first shot we see of the man – lingering at length in shadow behind a closed window, Rodriguez is at first pure image, before finally he steps forward, opens the window, and is seen in the cold-ish Detroit light of day.

In Sans Soleil, Marker repeatedly shows us shots of people. They are just images of people but, to paraphrase Jean-Luc Godard, to show images of people is also just. That is, Marker creates something like a democratic cinema, not based upon the individual, not one that reaffirms the desire to become light, but which instead looks at people who live in a world without light.

People here are not stars; we may see their images, but they are not stars, not images of people whose image is already moving at light speed, ubiquitous, disembodied, individualised, privileged.

Swandown asks us to move slowly, to appreciate the terrain itself (despite being a film that of course elides terrain in order to become a map/film of sorts). Its use of (admittedly minor) stars is problematic, in that it creates tension between Kötting’s otherwise democratic cinema and his film that, through collaborator Sinclair, seems to want to protest the London 2012 Olympics for precisely bringing light to a Hackney area that by definition casts into shadow those who are not Olympian heroes (even if I do not personally invest in sports stars as I do in film stars, as my MT experiences told me).

Nostalgia for the Light, meanwhile, also shows the importance of darkness in the contemporary world – and its insistent and beautiful shots of night skies and swirling galaxies demonstrate this: while we tend to fixate on the stars, they only stand out in such a beautiful fashion because of the darkness that surrounds them. Read socially, the 1 per cent needs the 99 per cent, even if it believes somehow that it can do without them.

Indeed,I am anticipating finding The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, USA/UK, 2012) problematic in what seems from the trailer to be a defence of the 1 per cent against the 99 per cent, but the jury is out since I am yet to see it.

But perhaps giving attention to Nolan’s film also runs counter to the way in which this blog tries to being attention to three far less glamourous and widely covered documentaries, all of which are worth watching, not necessarily instead of Batman (I can’t stop people from wanting to see a movie as hyped as this one), but certainly in addition to Batman (don’t forget the 99 per cent of movies).

Although it is slickly made and has some nicely visceral effects (as well as some uncomfortable ones, such as a rod being shoved into your back and some 3D shots that force you to look at eye-splitting flying objects), Marvel Super Heroes 4D (Joshua Wexler, USA, 2010) takes place in what at MT used to be a planetarium.

It would seem, therefore, that the museum – and its myriad visitors – prefer not to edify us about mysteries of the universe, the universe being so mysterious because so much of it is in darkness, but rather to transport into the fully lit world of Marvel’s superheroes, where whatever darkness there is, is simply dismissed in a Manichaean fashion as ‘bad.’

The love of cinema is not just based upon the light that shines on the screen, but also the darkness of the room that accompanies it, the darkness of the leader, the darkness of the frames between frames that are onscreen for 50 per cent of our viewing time, the darkness of our blinks, the darkness that the phi effect covers over as we saccade.

Darkness is key to life, or certainly key to the kind of dignified life that Rodriguez exemplifies/is made to exemplify in Searching for Sugar Man. The Luciferean enlightenment project is not necessarily entirely beneficial, accelerating us in general as it does towards an individualistic world in which only the chosen few get to be stars, while the abandoned rest are left to flounder in poverty.

We dream of becoming stars – this dream itself being a major obstacle in liberating us, because the dream of stardom promises to free us from poverty, when freedom will only arrive when we liberate ourselves from the dream of stardom. Indeed, the dream of stardom is what imprisons us in a world in which we are in fact already free, since all humans are born free, but they place themselves in chains, seeking to divest themselves of their bodies and to become light because we are force fed images, brought up on them, addicted and dependent on them, from the very earliest age.

It is paradoxical that Nostalgia for the Light, Swandown (which Kötting describes at one point as an anti-narrative – read mainstream – film in a world dominated by narrative/mainstream cinema), and Searching for Sugar Man are, of course, films that show light and darkness.

But they are films that each – in their own way – seek to emphasise the importance of darkness and not the surimportance of light. With this perhaps they share something that Chris Marker understood.

Chris Marker the alien is perhaps now only in darkness, a mystery we will no more see express himself. Nonetheless, as far as his films are concerned, with Sans Soleil standing in here as their figurehead, he was a truly dignified ambassador for making us remember darkness.

Now it is up to all of us to try to remember that we do not need to become light.

Leading the embodied life that we have to the best of our abilities, moving at whatever speed we want or need to, existing in our own time and not in the uniform speed of light – this is what we can learn from recent documentary film read in the shadow of Marker’s most sad passing.