The Nine Muses (John Akomfrah, Ghana/UK, 2010)

Blogpost, British cinema, Film reviews, London Film Festival 2010

Shown at the 2010 London Film Festival, but denied even a brief and minimal release until now, The Nine Muses is one of the best films that Jean-Luc Godard never made.

Boring stuff: the film combines archive footage and images of faceless men staring at ganzfeld-like Alaskan snowscapes (think J.M.W. Turner’s later paintings that are more or less depictions of fog in Italian cities) with spoken and written quotations from Joyce, Beckett, Shakespeare, Nietzsche and others, and music by Godardian composers like Arvo Pärt, David Darling and Hans Otte, to develop a poetic collage of ideas that combine to form a meditation diaspora and black (British) history.

The above is ‘boring’ because that’s the brass tacks of the film.

The interesting stuff (to me) is something like the following:

The poet does not necessarily know history, but the poet certainly feels history. The Nine Muses includes a prominent quotation from Zelda Fitzgerald that “Nobody has ever measured, not even poets, how much the heart can hold.” And yet, even if this were true, John Akomfrah as poet is sensitive to (he ‘feels’) the pain that weighs down on migrant peoples as a result of their travels.

That is, not everyone who is from a migrant family knows or understands the past that their ancestors have endured. Indeed, as someone like Ariane Sherine has recently written, the question ‘where are you from?‘ is a boring one.

No disrespect to Sherine, who can make any claim she wants about the implicit (and certainly real, if ‘well intentioned’) racism that such a question entails. I’m not saying that she is in denial of her roots, but her argument runs the risk of saying ‘[personal] history is boring and unwelcome burden.’

And, sure, her roots are in the UK. I’m not trying to imply that she or anyone else whose family immigrated to the UK long ago – and certainly before she was born – is not ‘British.’

But, again, if we don’t pay attention to history, then we might find ourselves repeating it.

Which is to say that we don’t all need to have a full genealogy mapped out such that we can say that we are descended from Spanish gypsy immigrants (as, according to my cousin, I am). Nor do we need wear badges that make clear our family origins.

But we must understand that the long and troubled history of immigration did happen, and we must perhaps try to get a sense of what global relocation means.

And this is what Akomfrah’s masterful cine-poem seems to be about. It reworks Homer to say that African, Caribbean and Asian immigrants to the UK are wandering souls, and that, as Basho has said, the journey/the wandering is perhaps itself our home.

And yet, wandering is a difficult home to inhabit; it is cold, arduous, and it puts humans on the limits of all that they know, there where humanity itself is forged (for humanity is only a measure of the limits of humanity; anything easily within its limits is almost inhuman, perhaps it is even death).

The enormity and difficult nature of this journey – this is what Akomfrah suggests, and his reworking of footage of immigrants now either grown old or lost to the world, such that literally their beautiful holograms haunt the screen as we see them reanimated – a cinematic punctum of the highest order – is what we should not forget.

We should not forget that the most famous rapist of all time, Zeus, begot the muses with Mnemosyne, the incarnation of memory. That is, memory is the mother of all art. If we forget, then, pace Sherine, art like this will be lost.

The answer to the question ‘where are you from?’ is not, then, some mythical ‘Africa’ or ‘Barbados’ or ‘India’ – but that we are from here, the place in which we currently reside, and which is perhaps always changing. It is not the condemnation to death of the past by declaring the past to be, precisely, finished; it is the declaration of the continued existence of the past in the present.

The poet, then, carries history not as history – but as the fundament upon which is based the present. This is what I mean by ‘feeling’ the past rather than necessarily knowing it (being ‘good at history’ in terms of dates and events, important though that also is).

In a week when the government published its findings on and hopes for the British film industry, it strikes me that a film like Akomfrah’s is all the more important to champion.

The document published – which admittedly I have only glossed – talks a good game of supporting diversity in British independent cinema. And many of the films cited – usual suspects including not just The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper, UK, 2010), but also people like Terence Davies – would arguably make us think that this diversity extends beyond the popular appeal of the former and into the ‘art house’ realm of the latter.

But… One gets the jittery feeling reading the document that it really does mean supporting more mainstream cinema – The Inbetweeners Movies (Ben Palmer, UK, 2011) was a commercial hit, don’t you know? So why not make more films like it? – with not so much regard for art cinema of the kind that Akomfrah has made here, and which does not have much/any of the commercial appeal of British comedies and heritage films.

Given the year and a half turnaround on The Nine Muses between the London Film Festival and its current cinema release (showing only at the glorious ICA at present), one worries for films like Akomfrah’s: it must take a lot of persuading for someone finally to agree to stump up cash to take on the risk of even a one-week run at a single screen in London. Sure, DVD sales will be reasonable, but even with the plaudits on the poster (testimony to the failing power of journalists to convince anyone other than the pre-converted to step out of the multiplex?; there were 9 (nine) people at the beginning and 7 (seven) at the end of the screening I attended), The Nine Muses is still obviously struggling. And with the government paper’s emphasis on the profitability of films, one cannot see labours of love like Akomfrah’s being anything other than lost in the future.

And yet, this is the kind of film precisely to support as vociferously and as eloquently as possible. It is a poem that deserves to be seen repeatedly, and even if it is ‘lost’ on some people (those who walked out of the screening I attended?), its feeling for, or sense of, history – and not in the sense of the ‘great man’ myth peddled by The King’s Speech, but, rather, in the way that human lives in a collective sense prop up and enable any great man (or woman) to exist at all – is what makes it worth promoting.

I know I’ll carry on making movies for nothing – and I more or less expect never to get funding for my films. Sad though this makes me (if I allow my vanity to speak), a superior talent like Akomfrah should be supported at every level: by funders and by audiences.

See The Nine Muses, then, before it is too late.

Mike Leigh in Ruins

Blogpost, British cinema, London Film Festival 2010, Uncategorized

This blog is not going to say Mike Leigh is really in ruins. With his new film, Another Year (UK, 2010), Mike Leigh proves that he is still on good form. But the idea is also to compare this new film at least in part to Robinson in Ruins (UK, 2010), the new documentary from Patrick Keiller, and which I saw at the 2010 London Film Festival.

For both films are concerned with the decay of a certain mode of British existence and both films are concerned with history.

Condescending towards his characters. The characters are stereotypes. Bittersweet. These are the stock opinions and phrases that are wheeled out to discuss the work of Mike Leigh. All hold true here, but not necessarily in a bad way.

Another Year centres around the Hepple family, which consists of Tom (Jim Broadbent), Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a couple in late middle-age, and Joe (Oliver Maltman), their 30-year old son. Tom is a geologist; Gerri is a counsellor; Joe is, from what I can tell, a barrister. They are all, after a certain fashion, happy go lucky, in that they all make light and learn to find the positive side of the tribulations and slings that life puts in their fortunate way.

They have a lovely house, a back garden, and an allotment somewhere in London (not specified, unless I missed it). They also have a small group of friends that includes:

– Mary (Lesley Manville), who is perhaps in her late forties, who is single, and who desperately wants to find a man, preferably a young man, perhaps even Joe;
– Ken (Peter Wight), who is an old university friend of Tom and Gerri, who is similarly single and in need of love, and who lives in Hull;
– Ronnie (David Bradley), Tom’s brother, who towards the end of the film becomes a widower, and who moves down to stay from Derby with Tom and Gerri.

There are other friends – but these are the main ones.

Mary and Ken in particular drink like fishes. In fact, each sequence in the film is more or less divided into Tom and Gerri receiving house guests, notably Mary and Ken, and watching them get pissed as a way to cope with their nervousness and with their solitude. Tom and Gerri do drink, but not like these people.

Mary and Ken come in for the worst treatment. Ken is a fat lad who is annoyed with the fact that ‘his’ pubs in Hull are now populated by young lads – particularly graduates (Ken graduated from Manchester with Tom and Gerri) – who make a lot of noise. In one particular scene, he drinks about four large glasses of red wine in about three minutes while delivering a rant with his mouth full of food about the above decline in his social life: the UK does not want old people to be seen or heard.

As he scoffs more food (despite having a seemingly empty plate) and drinks more wine, we cut to shots of Gerri in particular looking down at his glass of booze, which he then slugs in an oblivious fashion – as if his behaviour were beyond his control/he was beyond the censure of others.

Similarly, Mary gets pissed round at Tom and Gerri’s place, she seeks to flirt with Joe (and Tom on occasion), and she expresses repeatedly her angst and nervousness at being alone in the world. Men have treated her poorly, while there is also a sense that she ‘wasted’ a good chunk of her life working in bars in Mallorca and Corfu (perhaps chasing dreams that Shirley Valentine might also have chased), and, perhaps, that she has addled her brain from smoking a lot of pot, also in her youth.

Booze features prominently in the film: Tom, Gerri, Joe and Ronnie drink it more or less constantly, but Ken and Mary drink it most of all, since they drink it copiously and constantly. Furthermore, Tom and Gerri repeatedly hint at both of their friends that they should stop drinking or cut down – though never outright do they say it.

Instead, the film is indeed full of furtive glances at the glasses of these characters as they become drained. And slowly it begins to emerge that Tom and Gerri do actually judge their friends. Not obviously, but implicitly.

This is made most clear through the role that their house plays in the film. Aside from a few brief forays on to the road (with Mary, who has a new car; with the Hepples as they travel to the funeral of Ronnie’s wife; a golf course; opening shots of everyone at work), the house and Tom and Gerri’s allotment are the only settings for this film. Coming to stay with the Hepples is a real treat for Ken and Mary – as it is for Ronnie at the end of the film.

In fact, Ronnie’s Derby home is depicted as about as grim a 1950s north Midlands house as you could wish for: VCR stacked on top of old television about four foot from the settee, with an unwelcoming grey-green wallpaper, cramped hallway and staircase, tiny kitchen for one. “This place has not changed,” says Tom, or words to that effect when arrives at his brother’s house.

The implication being that he has left and never really bothered to return to Derby, since he has, unlike Jenny from An Education (Lone Scherfig, UK, 2009), had an academic education, and he has used this to escape from the grim north and down to the beautiful south.

Never would the Hepples entertain the idea of staying with Ronnie, nor even of helping him out from a distance. The only way to make Ronnie’s life better is to take him into their homely pad where he can rehabilitate/come to terms with his grief.

Similarly, although Mary and Ken both describe their pads, we never to get to see them; why would we want to? They don’t want to be at home; they’d rather be chez Hepple, too. And so the assumed betterness/superiority of the Hepple household is confirmed in the mise-en-scène of the film, which does not allow us into the homes of the other characters.

With the ‘betterness’ of their home comes a sense of betterness more generally. Joe reveals this early on: in his job, he represents an old man, Mr Gupta (Badi Uzzaman), who has been ill and who now faces repossession if the court does not find that he has not been paying his bills due to the enforced absence that his illness provoked. “Hmmm, lovely,” says Joe to Gupta and his young lady friend (Meneka Das), when she explains to him that they own a restaurant. Joe’s tone is one of condescension and is met with awkwardness by Gupta and the friend.

As if the aspiration of owning a restaurant were a bad one – although Mike Leigh did make much of a fool out of Aubrey (Timothy Spall) in Life is Sweet (UK, 1990), who opened and aspired to make a success of the Regret Rien.

Where Aubrey does come to regret his restaurant, though, it would seem as though Tom and Gerri here have little to regret – while Mary and Ken’s lives are full of nothing but. And because they have nothing to regret, because everyone wants to come round their house, they can look upon others not with disdain per se, but with a hidden and never-to-be-expressed self-congratulatory sense of self that is in fact fundamentally disinterested in other people as, precisely, people.

More on this: Tom has evidently not been to Derby for a long time – and so is obviously not particularly bothered to keep in touch with Ronnie. However, he then chides Ronnie’s son, Carl (Martin Savage) for not being involved in family life with father Ronnie and his late mother, for not being a good son and staying in touch with his parents. Carl is a bad son, while Tom is a good brother – when he wants to be. Unspoken/unseen in the film are presumably all of the times that led to Tom and Ronnie being such different, perhaps even opposite, people, despite being from the same family.

Family is everything here, as Gerri says to Mary at one point – again provided that that family is nice and cosy – and when everything is nice and cosy it is easy to sermonise to others about how badly they lead their lives.

Gerri’s turn: one of the opening scenes of the film shows Gerri talking to Janet, a woman who is sleepless and who is depressed, who gives her life a 1 out of 10, and who would not change anything but everything about it if she could. Janet does not want treatment, really, from Gerri, but she has to go if she wants her sleeping pills.

That said, while Janet may ostensibly be set up as a key figure (not least because she is played by Imelda Staunton), she in fact disappears from these opening moments in the film and never surfaces again. As she expresses resistance to Gerri’s desire to ‘help’ her, Gerri ends up saying that only Janet can decide whether to come to therapy or not – the implication being that Gerri feels that only therapy can help Janet, and that it is Janet’s fault if she does not want to help herself.

Loaded into this, if it is accepted as what is going on in the film, is a deep-seated self-righteousness that could never even be pointed out to the character were they alive to hear it, because even if they did hear it, immediately it would be denied, since every safety mechanism has been created to disengage as and when any trouble comes along and to blot out of her life anything that does not conform to expectations.

Take Gerri’s rejection of Mary. Mary acts like a silly heartbroken girl when finally she meets Katie (Karina Fernandez), Joe’s girlfriend, who also works in medical care (looking after old people, no less). However, while Mary is acting like a heartbroken 12-year old, it is not entirely her fault. However manic and imbalanced she is as a character/person (and the transparent nature of Mary’s character, in that she can do nothing to hide her desperation, might lead some to accuse Mary in particular of being a character condescended to, deprived of any real soul or depth, and played as a stereotype by Manville), it is not as if this car crash had not been anticipated. Joe flirts something rotten with Mary – and in front of his parents. He gets Mary to drink-drive him to Kings Cross, before dumping her with Ken, who is also cadging a lift to his train back to Hull. And he stares relentlessly at her to gauge her reaction to Katie when they are introduced. Something very cruel is going on here, principally through Joe, but with the whole family’s complicity, too. And having set a trap that someone like Mary would never be able to avoid, Gerri can soundly reject Mary, as can Tom and the others. And hereafter the knives come out: even though Mary has already been described as ‘special’ by Joe to Katie just prior to their first encounter, come their second one – months later – Katie is happy to make unpleasant gestures about Mary when she cannot see them.

Don’t get me wrong; Katie can indeed feel irked by Mary’s behaviour. She least of anyone could have anticipated how she would act upon discovering Joe to be in a relationship. But she quickly gets in on the game that sees the Hepples play the welcoming and warm-hearted family as long as it is on their terms and as long as no one steps on their toes – and quickly they will find a ruse not only to eject people from that place when they want to, but also in such a way that it is the fault of the other person and they can feel good about themselves. Classic passive-aggressives – as Gerri’s treatment of Janet and as her judging eyes on Ken and Mary’s wine glasses also show.

The question becomes: does the film share in this ‘passive-aggressive’ behaviour? Sort of. Carl is dismissed as a thug (perhaps it is relevant that he has moved further north than Derby, to Yorkshire, where it is even more grim than down in lov-er-ley Lahndahn). And Ken is a bore.

Given that the scene featuring Ken drinking an amazing amount in such a short space of time, and given that while doing this he is permanently chewing on food that is not on or from his plate (or so it would seem), Another Year seems to want to make an eating and drinking spectacle of Ken – and that rather than portray him realistically, we have instead a stylised rendering of gluttonous behaviour, masquerading as realism, as is Mike Leigh’s way. Is this Gerri’s point of view, then? Is the porcine Ken that we see in fact the version of Ken that Gerri is looking at and judging? Or does the film itself wish to say that Ken actually is this bacchanalean, and that we are therefore not given Gerri’s point of view in a calculated and signalled manner, but instead are sutured into her point of view, which is also the view of the film itself? That is, does the film endorse Gerri and, by extension, the rest of her family, or does it implicitly critique them?

To be honest, on this score I am not sure. Mary is treated like a fool, but this is okay because she acts like a fool. She buys a new car in this film, making her something of a grown-up version of Poppy (Sally Hawkins) in Happy-Go-Lucky (UK, 2008), Mike Leigh’s last sortie. In that film, Poppy learns to drive with Scott (Eddie Marsan), only to find that he is psychotic, and here Mary gets behind the wheel only to be led on in the car by Joe, groped by Ken and ripped off by the guys that sold the motor to her, since constantly it breaks down – although it is also her fault because she drives and parks badly (as well as while under the influence).

Not only might we implicitly find a message that the freedom of movement engendered by driving is ‘not for women’ (something that arguably continues with Sally Hawkins into Made in Dagenham (Nigel Cole, UK, 2010)), but also that where Poppy had aspirations to drive but learns to be happy with what she has, a miserable old wreck is where she might end up if she continues on. Except Poppy, being a teacher, had perhaps more of the Gerri than the Mary in her. So perhaps she will be fine. Maybe not an older version, then, but Mary is somehow Poppy gone wrong.

The film ends with Mary being allowed (as opposed to being invited) to sit again around the Hepple table as Tom, Gerri, Katie and Joe talk about all of the travelling that they have done and will do. Tom used to work in Australia and he and Gerri took seven months to travel back. It may not be the same thing, but Joe and Katie are going to Paris for the weekend (and we know that Joe has gone for the weekend to Dublin on a stag, too). Mary and Ronnie, meanwhile, sit silent, at the table but not party to the conversation. Mary, we know, had to choose between a holiday and her car; having chosen the car, it then broke down on the one time that she wanted to go on holiday – to Brighton – and in fact ended up back at the place where she grew up, Crawley. Ronnie, we suspect, has not left Derby for years.

It is not so much that there are generations of people who now have access to cheap travel via low-cost airlines and the like (although this may be true). It is more that the educated classes of any/every age get to travel and enjoy the world – and to be happy – while the non-educated, including Ronnie and Mary (who is ashamed of her secretarial qualifications in the face of Katie’s questioning about them), are left behind and can only dream of second hand travelling, of being at the Hepple family’s table, where they can hear talk of such things/avoid having to hear about them by drinking to excess.

Tom, Gerri and Ken were at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1968, as we learn from their reminiscences. 1968 was probably not the year I’d have chosen to be at the festival in the first three years of its running, since 1969 was Dylan and The Who, and 1970 was Hendrix, The Who, The Doors, Joan Baez and Miles Davis, while 1968 was ‘merely’ Jefferson Airplane and T Rex. But, of course, 1968 is the iconographic year of the youth movement and the Paris ‘revolution.’ It is made relatively clear that Tom et al did not really take part in/love the 1968 festival in the way that many hippies might have done at the time, but at least they were there. But implicit in this might be the notion that whatever 1968 stood for, they have perhaps sold out on it, swapping a wish for equality for condescension, while those who try still to relive their youth (Ken and Mary) are made fools of/are shown as fish out of water.

The older I get, the more I realise that history is important. This is a sentiment expressed by Tom when in bed with Gerri one night. And yet, he seems not to be able to connect with history, in that Tom did not really live 1968 as the myths have it as being lived. Or rather: for Tom, history is best when it is just that – history and subject to amnesia that misremembers one’s part in it. Meanwhile, Ken and Mary who try to keep the past alive, who in effect live ‘historically’ are derided. History is important, but it is Tom and Gerri that forget it, while Ken and Mary seem to want to live it. As such, it seems problematic not that the film explores these issues, but rather that the film wants us to take Tom and Gerri’s side, to ‘suture’ us into their point of view.

As such, the one-sidedness of Ken, Mary and Ronnie (which is not to mention Carl) seems deeply unfair and, indeed, condescending (Leigh as usual). Tom and Gerri are, as their name suggests, the real cartoon characters, while Mary, Ken and Ronnie have real issues to deal with. So closely have the Hepples worn the facade of happiness that they do not know how to get back to really living. The burden of really living is a hard one to bear, and it is easy to criticise a drink-obsessed culture when one disavows one’s roots and participation in it. But living a real life might indeed force one to seek solace in wine and beer. The Hepples have no real problems and so can frown upon drinking – they do not need it, in the same way that Janet does not need the sleeping pills, or so Gerri would have us believe.

And yet, no one perhaps needs drink and pills – and the provision thereof is in some respects therefore the ruin of the nation (whatever that is). But if you can do without drink and pills, then perhaps it is because happiness is, too, a social prosthetic used to hide the emptiness that lurks inside all human souls (?). Happiness is not something that we aspire to; it is something that we use to hide from reality (except that reality itself is vague enough to allow such a condition to be professed and upheld as, precisely, real). Happiness is a technology of the self: it helps us to understand ourselves – it is a tool.

Perhaps the real issue is the notion of selfhood, which could in other circumstances perhaps be called into question, and which perhaps was called into question in 1968. Ken, who, ironically enough, claims to have been born in 1896 – the year of cinema’s birth according to many of the records – also recalls going down the pub in his youth as a collective/group exercise. And he dreams of being part of the pack, or so it seems. And yet he cannot be.

Tom, who never really liked the crowds on the Isle of Wight, was always an individualist – prepared to create a small family because this was the best he could do to compromise between individualism and collective living; and those that really did pursue collective living, which I perhaps misread here as Ken and Mary, are left alone and to fend for themselves, idiots for having dreamt of something different.

Perhaps Another Year does not enact what it depicts. That is, the film does seem non-judgemental towards its characters – and we certainly are with Mary and Ronnie as the film ends and they sit silently as the Hepples and Katie talk off screen of hotels in the Marais. It is not that the film should come out and condemn the Hepples; far from it. Nor should it love Mary and Ken. But by not letting us into the lives of Mary and Ken (because Tom and Gerri are not really interested in doing so – or because the film is not really interested in doing so?), the film does run the risk of the usual Mike Leigh clichés.

That said, perhaps it is precisely for this head-scratching reason (is it the people or the film that finds Mary and Ken one-dimensional?), Another Year is deliciously ambiguous and sees Mike Leigh tread carefully through a Britain in ruins.

Meanwhile, Robinson in Ruins is Patrick Keiller’s long-awaited follow-up to London (UK, 1994) and Robinson in Space (UK, 1997).

In some senses, the film is no disappointment. Although Paul Scofield’s voice over has been replaced by the wry tone of Vanessa Redgrave, and although Robinson is no longer necessarily the character who always accompanies the speaker on his journeys, being instead now someone who comes and goes and who remains somewhat elusive, the film bears many of the traits of its two predecessors.

That is, the film is witty, informative, angry, and beautifully shot. It lingers on minor details of local and British history that most British folk would overlook as they busily travel around paying no attention to the very space through which they are travelling, obsessed instead as they are with the destination. As such, Patrick Keiller aims to take to his viewers the kind of passion about history that does allow us to know who we are and to learn – unlike Tom and Gerri, who seemingly talk a good game.

But much as I enjoyed Robinson in Ruins, I could not help wonder this, which is, unfairly to the film, the only thing I wanted to say about it, and which tenuously is only linked to this blog because of the films’ shared (at least professed) concern with history. And the ‘this’ that I referred to in the previous sentence goes as follows: as we are given yet more information about yet other places and details of history, one comes, or at least I came, to wonder that Robinson… is the first film of the Wikipedia age.

(Forget Facebook for the time being, though I may blog about that film at another time.)

For, hearing more and more details about various phenomena felt like clicking through on Wikipedia in order to achieve similar. I doubt that this would please Keiller at all, since one wonders that he wants precisely to present his films as somehow old fangled, hence the static cameras, the lingering takes of flowers in the wind, and so on. And Wikipedia is about rapid click-throughs (people hate an entry with too much information). So while diametrically opposed, I wondered if Robinson… and Wikipedia are in fact two sides of the same coin. And that may be this: the more we wish to preserve every detail in films like Robinson… and online, the more these prosthetic memories/our drive to outsource our need/desire to have to remember things, the less, indeed, we do remember things. Heaven forbid, because in so many ways do I disagree with myself for saying this, but Keiller may even be like Tom Hepple: history becomes important to him, but only a version of history that agrees with what he wants history to be. In this sense, both Leigh and Keiller’s perhaps ‘modern’ films are read ‘against the grain’ as ‘postmodern’ – and in fact are revealed to accelerate the ruination of the very thing that celluloid might otherwise have preserved.

Notes from the LFF: Neds (Peter Mullan, UK/France/Italy, 2010)

Blogpost, British cinema, Film reviews, London Film Festival 2010

For those who do not know, NED stands for Non-Educated Delinquent, although it typically is a term bandied about north of Hadrian’s Wall by the bourgeoisie when it wishes to describe people whom those south of the border would call chavs (or Kevs, depending on your generation).

Despite the fact that the term refers to what one class calls another, however, Peter Mullan’s latest film, Neds, does not really deal too much with class difference. John McGill (Conor McCarron) is a bright young thing from a working class family who makes friends with a posh kid, Julian (Martin Bell), at one point, and after Julian’s mother tells John that she does not want him around her house anymore, John comes back and throws some fireworks through their window, shouting: “If you want a Ned, I’ll give you a Ned.”

Aside from this (and a brief moment in which John sees Julian on a bus some time later, before having to flee from the police), the issue of class difference does not surface too much. Instead, the film spends most of its time showing how John, like another John (Reece Dinsdale) from British cinema, becomes seduced by and ends up embracing more than any of his peers, the world of (in Neds, 1970s Glasgow) gang violence.

When John does tell Julian’s family that he’ll give them a Ned if that’s what they want, however, there is of course a sense of ‘Neddishness’ as a performance. Given that John has been rejected by the upper middle class, he decides fully, it seems, to become that which that self-same class loathes and fears: a violent Weegie who’ll chib ya for looking at him the wrong way.

It is not that the rejection of Julian’s mother is the sole factor that turns John from class swot destined for university to the Ned that he becomes. His family is a broken one, with his father (Peter Mullan) habitually beating/raping his mother, while his brother is also the hard man about town. What is more, when he makes friends with the rest of Car-D, the gang that he joins, he seems genuinely to make friends. Why not hang around with these guys if Julian is going to be so two-faced?

However, if Neddishness is something of a performance, then what lies beneath? Well, John the swot remains; even though by the end of the film John has been placed in a class for kids who cannot/will not perform academically, he continues to be a bookworm – and one gets a sense that he will ‘rehabilitate’ himself/that the clever and timid boy we saw at the beginning of the film is still there.

While this may be so, John remains someone who in the course of the film is responsible for holding up a bus at knife point (and the driver remembers him, hence John’s need to flee from the police when he encounters Julian on the bus later on in the film), for giving a kid permanent brain damage by dropping a gravestone on his head, and for knifing a rival from another local gang. It is not that we end up disliking John for these things (personally, I did, but many viewers may not); it is more that all of this must catch up with him one day – not least because the driver and rival gang members recognise him.

In other words, if being a Ned is a ‘performance,’ it is a performance that John takes so far that it becomes hard, if not impossible, for him to turn back to the ‘real’ John at the end of the film, even though to an extent this is what we are led to believe.

The film ends with John leading the boy whom he has given brain damage across a safari park. The moment is surreal, in that John and the boy (whose name escapes me – and IMDb has minimal information, so my apologies) hold hands and walk past a (digitally inserted) pride of lions. It is not clear what this moment ‘means,’ but it does suggest that John will be haunted forever by the crimes that he has committed, and also that the animal/lion in him is never going to go away. But it also suggests that somehow he has come to terms with himself after all of the experiences that he has had – and that, therefore, he is somewhat at peace (the lions do not attack the boys). This is fair enough, but how John will escape revenge from the other gang, or arrest when randomly the bus driver spots him again, or why indeed he does not hand himself in for all of the above, is unclear. Or rather: it is not unclear so much as troubling. We should bear in mind that Peter Mullan’s film does not have to avoid being troubling, but I did feel resistance to the forgiveness that it seemed to want me to give John.

Perhaps this means that Neds exposes my bourgeois values: I cannot get my head round someone who does not make real the ‘moral’ lesson that they have learned by facing up to what they have done. I feel this because I am a victim of luxury, a hypocritical sense of my own innocence, and, most likely, a lingering sense of morality bestowed upon me by my Christian upbringing (chapel every day at school, etc).

John, meanwhile, has been betrayed by Julian, the film’s bourgeois representative; he has experienced the thrill of gang violence that I am too cowardly to face (though I like the idea of it); and he has – in a dream/hallucination sequence that takes place when John is high from sniffing glue – literally been knifed by Jesus. So why would John care for my moral values and want to act in a way that I feel is appropriate to him? In some respects, he may ‘want’ to do this; but then again, he’s a Ned, so why not behave like a Ned and not do what I want him to do?

That John ends up in a safari park is perhaps significant. There is a scene in La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, France, 1995), in which the main characters (Vincent Cassel, Saïd Taghmaoui, Hubert Koundé) tell a news reporter investigating the banlieues to go forth and multiply, explaining that ‘this is not Thoiry.’ Thoiry is a safari park near Paris – the implication being that the media should not wander into housing estates with their cameras and look curiously at and record for amusement the lives of others that they thus in part consider to be animals put out for show. (Oh, the problems of shanty town and favela tourism – or poorism as sometimes I think of it.)

One wonders whether Peter Mullan is making a similar point with regard to Neds. We cannot make of the working classes (or the past, since Neds is set in the 1970s) a theme or safari park through which we wander, flirting with ‘danger’ and ‘excitement’ without ever experiencing either. Neds therefore self-consciously raises the issue of whether the film itself is not an exoticisation of working class Glasgow life. Whether the film itself is not something of a performance of Neddishness, beneath which is… a creative spirit as bourgeois as those with which the film otherwise denies kinship?

In some of the great British New Wave films, such as The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson, UK, 1962) and Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, UK, 1963), there is a real sense in which the anti-hero, in these films respectively Colin and Billy, who are both played by Tom Courtenay, refuses at the last to take the opportunity to escape from his ‘depressing’ and working class life. Colin refuses to win the race that might help him to improve his lot in borstal, while Billy refuses to get on the train that might lead him to a different and supposedly ‘better’ life. The failure of performance becomes here a performance of failure, which in turn hides something of a success. Why should Colin run just to please other people? Why should Billy get on the train in order to find a ‘kind of living/loving‘ that is not necessarily his own? One may want more money, more freedom to move, and so on – but the Mephistophelian contract of class mobility demands that if you want wealth and, most of all, to be ‘accepted’ by those people that have brandished you as chavs or Neds, then you have to turn your back on and give up everything that you have ever known.

Where Cemetery Junction (Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, UK, 2010) sees Freddie (Christian Cooke) successfully run away by train in the end (albeit an hour late), the British New Wave films’ characters do not want to turn their back on everything they have known in order to have a ‘better’ life. Perhaps this is because, at the last, they are prey to the very ideological beliefs that imprison people – psychologically as much as physically – in economic penury. John in Neds cannot at the last kill his father, in spite of his father’s wish for him to do so, and in spite of the vicious beating that John gives to him with a saucepan or frying pan earlier in the film. While this shows that John finally loves his roots, no matter how ‘terrible,’ violent or traumatic they are both for him and for we audience members who judge it, as is expressed by his tearful embrace of his father, it might also be one set of beliefs that John cannot throw off – namely that you love your family through thick and thin.

Let us think about this: if we (or I, certainly) feel cold towards John at the end for not, say, handing himself in, it is because I am trying to impose upon him a set of moral values that are middle class but which present themselves as being natural and universal. I similarly feel saddened that John has not embraced/realised his academic potential and gotten out of Glasgow as he ‘should’ do. However, if getting out of Glasgow and the working class means turning one’s back on everything that one is or from which one comes, then in some respects, John would have figuratively if not literally to kill his father in order to achieve this/to do so. And yet, John does not kill his father when he has the opportunity to do so. My hypocrisy resides here: I in fact think John should have killed his father, or done the equivalent thereof by leaving Glasgow and never returning (something that John’s brother apparently does by moving to Spain, though this is also to avoid the heat that he has coming, too), but at the same time I frown upon John for all of the other acts of violence that he has perpetrated. I want John to believe in something, while at the same time asking him to believe in nothing. John may be a ‘fool’ of sorts at the end for not realising his potential, but in other respects, by keeping his potential as, precisely, unrealised potential, John may frustrate my expectations of him, but he also remains somehow pure potential, a member of a coming community or a people to come.

(In this sense, Neds does fit the model of cinema that has already been applied to Peter Mullan’s previous Orphans (UK, 1997) – as has been discussed here.)

John walking through the safari park, then, perhaps signals that John, unlike his brother, will not run away; instead of traveling to Spain or to Africa, the journeys he will make will be inner journeys, perhaps imaginary ones – and if he is caught for previous crimes committed, then he will face up to them, as opposed to going to Spain to escape them like his brother. In other words, John finally does show profound moral responsibility for what he has done – even if he is not in a hurry to hand himself in. Furthermore, he fails to perform/performs failure, and does not turn his back on his family life – which gives him a sense of integrity greater than that of the audience members/me who are egging John on to realise his academic potential, to go to university, and… what? Get a humdrum job like everyone else, watch TV every night over dinner, and congratulate himself on the fact that he feels nothing, believes in nothing, and has no trouble with anything…?

Upon first leaving the cinema after watching Neds at the London Film Festival, I felt somewhat disappointed in the film, as did my two Scottish companions who watched the film with me. Maybe the film felt like a bit of ‘poorism,’ without the overt community values that would have turned the film from Neds into This is Scotland. It was a performance of Neddishness, underneath which lies, as per Shane Meadows’ film, a sweet heart that wants the love of the middle classes that it so happily titillates throughout its duration.

Furthermore, the film was a performance of ‘shite Scotland’ that so pleases English and other communities: a ‘you’re only happy when you’ve escaped Glasgow’ kind of narrative that allows the English to feel safe in their condescending sense of superiority over their neighbours.

In these ways, Neds was disappointing – but that John chooses not to leave Glasgow also made the film interestingly troubling: we don’t like narratives that falsify how shite Glasgow/Scotland is, but we are perplexed that John does not want to escape it. We want to eat our cake and have it. But such reactions also perhaps do not give the film credit for what it is, since they try to judge it against an imaginary film that Neds is not – although if that film did exist, it might be a mix of Small Faces (Gillies Mackinnon, UK, 1996) and

Notes from the LFF: Rizhao Chongqing/Chongqing Blues (Wang Xiaoshuai, China, 2010)

Blogpost, Chinese cinema, Film reviews, London Film Festival 2010, Uncategorized

Chongqing Blues tells the story of Lin (Wang Xueqi), a sea captain who returns home to Chongqing upon hearing the news that his son, Lin Bo (Zi Yi) has been killed by the police.

Rejected by his wife, Lin begins to spend his time following his son’s best friend, Xiao Hao (Qin Hao), in order to get to know his son better.

As per other films that I have been by Wang Xiaoshuai, the film is contemplative in style. That is to say, the films move at a ‘gentle’ pace, and slowly allow audiences to accrue information about the characters, who typically are haunted by a loss of some sort.

In Shiqi sui de dan che/Beijing Bicycle (China, 2001), the lost object is a bicycle. In Qing hong/Shanghai Dreams, the thing is lost is the family’s life in Shanghai, to which they want to return. And in Er di/Drifters (China/Hong Kong, 2003), that lost object functions in part as both a place (a return home from the USA) and a son whom the father (Duan Long) wishes to see. Here, however, the son is dead – having been gunned down by police while attacking people with a knife in a supermarket. But the same motif of loss and a return home are still there.

The plot is important and can read ‘allegorically’: Lin represents a Chinese patriarch who has lost contact with and finds it difficult to understand the younger generation, who in turn feel adrift and without clear guidance in the absence of a father figure. This suggests a China that, tentatively at best, is feeling a rift between generations – not least because of the breakdown of the family unit in the face of the need to travel to work (Lin at sea), and also because of the fast-changing face of contemporary China, shaped extensively as it is by new technologies.

For, Lin obsessively looks at a Chinese equivalent of YouTube at images of his son’s crime – captured on a CCTV camera in the supermarket and placed online. He even has a still image of his son from this video blown up (twice) on to large photographs – in order that better he can contemplate what his son had become before his death.

And yet, these images of Lin Bo are pixellated, such that he is a blur of colour squares, recognisable perhaps at a distance, but fragmented and unrecognisable up close. Technology – here, digital imagery – seems to have played a part in this breakdown of the family unit, such that it has rendered Lin Bo unrecognisable to his father.

The mobile phone also seems to play a key role in the changing face of Chinese youth, with Xiao Hao in particular being literally chained to his phone (which he carries in his pocket, but keeps on a chain). Father Lin has a chance to speak to Xiao Hao’s father; the latter knows that his son works as a dancer in a nightclub and he does not see it as being genuine work, one gets the impression, but at least Xiao Hao is paid to do this. In other words, the older generation does not understand the bright lights and loud noises in which the younger generation immerses itself (most arrestingly seen when we go with Lin Bo into the deafening and neon-lit club – which serves as a stark contrast to the other scenes set in and around Chongqing, particularly its pastel seaside palette and its ‘blues’).

Notably, it is the moment that Xiao Hao does not answer his phone that, in part, leads to Lin Bo’s death. In need of help in the supermarket, Lin Bo calls Xiao Hao, but the latter does not respond. But whether answering the phone would have ‘saved’ Lin Bo or not, one gets the impression that relationships are not direct in contemporary Chongqing among the urban youth, but are instead highly mediated and dependent on real time telephonic technologies.

It turns out that Lin Bo was more or less stalking a girl who did not necessarily love him as he felt that he loved her. And it is his desperation to have her that, seemingly, leads him to commit his futile crime.

Here, then, we have a sense in which the new generation follows the lure of images, particularly of woman as image, perhaps, such that their human relationships are dysfunctional and idealised, as opposed to tangible and real.

That said, it is not as if Lin’s relationship with his wife is any better. She violently rejects him for most of the film and in one important scene she throws at him the newspaper report about Lin Bo’s death: Lin Bo has become himself pure image (both in print and online) and this copy (without an original?) is the closest that either parent seems to be able to get to their son. Even Xiao Hao, Lin Bo’s closest friend, finds Lin Bo an odd fish and seems to let the latter hang out with him out of sympathy and a sense of needing to protect him, as opposed genuinely to liking him.

If Lin Bo is something of a mystery, then, perhaps the only thing that ‘explains’ him is his insistence that his father will one day return and that he will be able to go fishing with him. Hence Lin Bo’s continual returns (in flashback) to the sea, where he hangs out for seemingly interminable periods of time, looking out to sea.

If there has been a breakdown in family and more general human relations, then, the youth in particular feels that it is because of the absent father that this has taken place.

Do we read the film, then, as being an allegory of the capitalisation/globalisation of China, with the influx of telecommunication technologies that this entails, and in need of a strong but now absent father figure (one cannot help but think back to the Communist regime, e.g. under Mao) to ‘sort it out’?

If – and this is a strong if – there is a sense of this at all, it is only more ambiguous than the last paragraph lets on. By which I mean that the film does not pose any solutions to these conundrums, and it is all the better for it. What has been done cannot be undone, and while the film engages at length in the trauma of loss (with Lin even tracking down the police officer who killed his son, who professes that he might get some ‘peace’ out of the meeting for himself rather than simply helping the father to understand what happened), and is instilled with a sense of regret, at the same time, the film seems determined not to explain the past too much (we never fully understand why Lin left), but rather to deal with the present.

A melancholy film, for sure, Chongqing Blues is an excellent addition to the London Film Festival line-up, even if to some extent a ‘festival’ film through and through.