Long Shot (Jonathan Levine, USA, 2019)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews, Uncategorized

Since at least The Great Dictator (Charles Chaplin, USA, 1941), Hollywood cinema has regularly staged the fantasy that politics would be better off with politicians who just came across like normal human beings – rather than the performances of confidence and authority that people with aphasia find funny because they can tell that politicians are lying.

The Great Dictator shows us a simple barber (Chaplin himself) taking on the role of Adenoid Hynkel, the dictator (also played by Chaplin), and bringing to a halt the end of the Second World War through his final message of love and peace. Indeed, Chaplin’s speech is a veritable YouTube meme, so powerful and articulate does the otherwise word shy barber becomes once put in front of a microphone.

Perhaps the medium – here, radio – brings out of the barber this performance. And in bringing out a performance from him, does the barber not become more similar to Hynkel than we might otherwise think – regardless of his message of peace and love?

Indeed, what is perhaps of particular interest about The Great Dictator is the (almost certainly apocryphal) suggestions that Adolf Hitler modelled himself upon Chaplin – the tramp with a heart of gold. For even if apocryphal, this would suggest that when Chaplin impersonates Hitler, he is in certain respects impersonating himself.

In other words, as The Great Dictator promises to show us how politics might be better if it were populated by regular, straight-talking people… it does not realise that Hitler was precisely a regular, straight-talking person, who managed to whip up bloodlust and hatred in a people thanks to the banality of his speeches as much as through any grandiloquence.

Indeed, as Erika Mann (daughter of Thomas) described it in 1938:

he is no scholar… Hitler’s use of language is the worst immaginable, and it will remain at that level… Those who care for the German language may be anxious for its future when they see its deterioration during the five years of Hiter’s rule; newspapers, magazines, schoolbooks – the entire official literature – have fallen into the florid yet brutal, military and vulgar forms of expression that are typical of the Führer himself. (Erika Mann, School for Barbarians: Education Under the Nazis, New York: Dover, 1938, p. 68.)

Long Shot implicitly makes a link with The Great Dictator by opening with journalist Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen) infiltrating a group of Neo Nazis in his native New York. He is exposed as a Jewish journalist and manages to escape by jumping out of a window – crashing into a car… a moment to which I shall return below.

In other words, Long Shot wants to situate itself within a world of political extremism – and one that is specifically threatening to Jews, even if one could hardly call it a revelation to demonstrate that there are Nazis in the contemporary USA (and thus not exactly a telling exposé in the way that the film wants us to believe).

More important, perhaps, is what is driving Flarsky to infiltrate an antisemitic group in the first place. For it seems clear that the film wants also to demonstrate, for better or for worse, that Flarsky has an attraction for certain types of power – even as he disavows such an attraction.

This attraction is made most clear when he meets up with his former babysitter, Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron), who is now Secretary of State. Because she is hot, and because she also gave him an embarrassing boner when he was a kid, we get a sense of how Flarsky’s attraction to power is about as subtle as a porn film (and we’ll get some of that later in the film, too).

So, Flarsky has a boner for power… even as he feels oppositional to it. His writing is considered to be powerful thanks to headlines along the lines of ‘fuck you, climate change deniers’ and so on.

You know, really powerful and sophisticated stuff. Because unsophisticated times call for unsophisticated language. Now is not the time to think and/or contemplate; now is the time to swear and judge.

And thanks to his powers of language, Flarsky becomes Field’s speechwriter (basically writing down what she says so that she can read it back to an audience), which in turn means that he gets to make good on that boner and start a relationship with Field.

Furthermore, because of the ‘humanity’ of Flarsky’s speechwriting, Field’s popularity increases immensely meaning that she is likely set to become the next President thanks to the decision of the current one (Bob Odenkirk) to stand down in a bid to pursue a career in movies (more on this shortly, too).

In effect, the film tells us that people like their politicians ‘human’ – and if only Hillary Clinton had not had that pole stuck up her ass then she might well have had a shot at winning the presidency that Donald J Trump instead won two years and 119 days ago.

But what is this fantasy of ‘honest’ politicians? For is not Trump precisely the ‘honest’ and straight-talking politician that Long Shot wants to uphold as a forward-thinking approach to contemporary American politics?

In other words, as the film attempts to critique the political right by making Field a democrat and Flarsky staunchly anti-republican, its fantasy version of politics is in fact an endorsement of precisely the status quo that we have now.

At one point, Field asks Flarsky in a bedroom scene to take her from behind, spank her and perhaps also gently to choke her (or something along these lines). Finally! Some candour about female desire in the bedroom and how it might well involve aspects that some might consider to be masochistic.

And yet, a fear that runs through my head given the context of this film is that such ‘progressiveness’ could be taken as implying that Trump is justified in his self-professed technique of ‘grabbing women by the pussy.’ After all, such twisted logic would go, this is what they really want…

No wonder it is, then, that Flarsky has eventually to face up to the fact that his best friend, Lance (O’Shea Jackson Jr), is a Republican. Not only is Lance a quasi-Magical Negro…

… but he also speaks of how his Republican values have enabled him to achieve success in the business realm (such that he can take a day off to get drunk with Flarsky and give his whole team the day off, too).

Lance explains that he tones down his Republicanism around Flarsky because he knows that Fred will just moan on at him if he does so… a bit like those people that moan on against Trump when he is just getting on with leading the nation in his own particular style.

Surely it is good for a film to offer us a vision of the African-American right, especially when it involves the son of a rapper who once proclaimed that it was right to ‘fuck the police’ (however eloquent or otherwise we find this particular use of language).

For not only does this give us a sense of the diversity of political viewpoints in America (Trump has his African-American supporters), but it also allows the film to simplify its Republican credentials while at the same using diversity as a shield to protect it from criticism (‘affirmative action’ is, if you will, turned against itself as you run the risk of being racist if you criticise this quasi-Magical Negro’s Republican views).

The film sees Flarsky fall heavily twice. The first is when he jumps out of the Nazi gathering at a New York warehouse, as mentioned above. And the second is when he falls down some stairs upon re-acquainting Field, prompting one of the singers from Boyz II Men, who are performing at whatever fundraiser they are attending, to offer one of the film’s funniest lines (‘cracker down’).

Both falls are basically impossible to survive – and so the film is no doubt suggesting that this is not realistic and that we should not take the film seriously – just as Chaplin gets bashed in the head by a frying pan in The Great Dictator.

Nonetheless, these two falls might suggest that the film is Flarsky’s fantasy; that is, Flarsky gets to be reactionary while at the same time purporting to be progressive; he gets to be neoliberal while purporting simply to be liberal.

The same idea is carried by the tattoo that is half-completed on Flarsky at the opening Nazi meeting. To prove that he is part of the gang, Fred agrees to have a Swastika tattooed on his arm – and he is going through with it when some timely internet research by one of the Nazis reveals who he really is.

Later we see the same tattoo as having been converted into a sort of funny stick man, while it makes a final appearance at the end of the film after Fred and Charlotte have moved into the White House.

So while the Swastika gets regenerated to become a stick man gag, it nonetheless also serves as a reminder of Fred’s attraction towards power.

The President wants to quit politics to become a movie star – hoping that the Presidency will project him into film stardom after a career prior to his Presidency in television (where, of course, he was most famous for playing the American President).

A sort of Democrat Trump, in that the latter was also a (reality) TV star before becoming President, the suggestion is that the Presidency will not make him a movie star – since, as Fred at one point says, starring in movies does not make you a movie star.

Not only does the film try to create a hierarchy of media here, then, but it also suggests in some senses that movies are more powerful than politics.

In some senses, this may well be true. But if it is the case, then as Donald J Trump’s suitability as president needs to be critiqued at every turn (a self-confessed abuser of women; a denier of climate change; a colluder with foreign powers), so must cinema such as this be critiqued at every turn, even if that is to spoil the ‘fun’ of a knockabout movie that just wants not to be taken too seriously.

And perhaps it is worth saying that it is quite easy to recognise the fun of the film: as a viewer, I found myself not only at times enjoying the film and laughing at its charming leads, but I also found myself indulging in fantasies of empowerment either in politics and/or in movies, perhaps especially the latter.

In other words, if there is to be critique, then it is a critique that must also be levelled at myself, or oneself more generally. We must be questioning our own propensity to be suck(er)ed in by movies like Long Shot.

For, indeed, when a seeming long shot comes about, as per Trump’s victory in the last US elections, then we do need to question how well we know our social and political realities, and how well we know ourselves if we assumed that the realisation of that long shot was previously unthinkable.

In this way, Long Shot‘s depiction of Fred as being attracted to power (even as it wants to tell us that power is attracted to him) is indeed honest – and a level of critical reflection might help us collectively to address the seduction that power offers.

The problem is that Long Shot is dishonest about its honesty, since it involves little to no critical self-reflection, even as it claims to with its PoMo television star President and its gags about TV stars not making it in the movies.

Instead, like Fred, the film just offers us a masturbatory fantasy about being ‘chosen’ by the powerful, offering up to us as progressive the idea that a guy with jizz on his face would make for a loveable First Man.

As webcam blackmailing, or ‘sextortion‘, grows rapidly, it is indeed perhaps a fantasy that such online behaviour might be empowering. But the truth is that it empowers only a global criminal network.

Perhaps being involved in a global criminal network is precisely how we should begin to consider the current American president.

Plemya/The Tribe (Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, Ukraine/Netherlands, 2014)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Ukrainian Cinema

This is a brief review of The Tribe in order to accompany the introduction to the film that I made last night at the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton, London.

I have been meaning to write about a number of the films I have introduced, but only now have had the chance.

The Tribe is Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy‘s first film, and it tells the story of a young deaf man (Grygoriy Fesenko) who arrives at a boarding school for deaf people in Kiev/Kyiv.

Soon he becomes embroiled in the students’ criminal activities, being chosen after the accidental death of one of his peers to pimp out girls from the school.

He falls in love with one of the girls (Yana Novikova), and then proceeds to defy the rule of King (Oleksandr Osadchyi), the lead gangster.

Developing on from Slaboshpytskiy’s Glukhota/Deafness (Ukraine, 2010) – which can be seen hereThe Tribe contains almost no dialogue, with almost all discussion and conversation taking place in Ukrainan sign language. It also features no subtitles.

The Tribe is relatively easy to follow in terms of plot. Nonetheless, clearly the effect of the sign language (some, but few, viewers will be Ukrainian signers) is to alienate audience members somewhat from what they see.

Slaboshpytskiy also achieves this in part through his stylistic choices: The Tribe often features long takes, or sequence shots, which also are long shots – i.e. the camera maintains a relatively long distance from the events that we see onscreen.

That is, by refusing to ‘speak’ both in terms of dialogue (with traditional subtitles) and in terms of the usual language of cinema (close-ups explaining to us what we need to know, linked to shots that match the eyeline of the characters, such that we know who sees what and when), The Tribe, while easy to follow on some levels, is also a complex film to follow: what are we supposed to look at during each frame? What is going on?

In refusing to answer these questions, Slaboshpytskiy’s film clearly wants us instead to think. And in some respects to see the world anew. For, in being a film without dialogue, The Tribe clearly recalls the classic, silent cinema.

And as silent cinema, when it first arrived, helped audiences to see the world anew, through techniques such as slow motion, fast motion, reverse motion and freeze frames, so, too, might The Tribe achieve the same goal.

More than this: The Tribe might not only allow us to see the world anew, or as if for the first time (a process of estrangement/defamiliarisation from the world that Viktor Shklovsky called ostranenie), but might also allow us to see cinema as if for the first time.

Why would this be important?

It would be important because we live in a world in which cinema is the measure of reality. Why do I say that cinema is the measure of reality?

Well, obviously it is a provocative statement (though others, like Jonathan Beller, also argue as much) . Nonetheless, we live in an age in which we all try to force ourselves to look as much like movie stars as possible. This is not simply copying the fashions of the movies, but about creating an image of oneself that conforms to the lighting, make-up, image quality, variable focus and so on of cinema and photography. We detag ourselveis when we look ugly on Facebook. Because do not look cinematic – even if we look like ourselves. And as you are not really real if you not on Facebook, so if you do not conform to the widespread image standards do you not really get to exist in the same way as everyone else.

In other words, if we accept my prognosis that the world is cinematic (‘it was just like in a movie’ says everyone when something exciting happens to them, as if the rest of their lives, the uncinematic bits, were inferior, boring, not worth commenting upon, unreal), then to see the world anew is by definition today about seeing cinema anew, too.

One of the ways in which we can see cinema and the world both anew via The Tribe is through the film’s emphasis on gesture.

Benjamin Noys, drawing on the work of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, suggests that cinema might not be about image, but in fact about gesture. And yet, we tend to think of cinema as being so much about image, rather than about gesture, and we tend to think of the world as being about image rather than about gesture, too. Thus, for The Tribe to foreground gesture – the gestures of Ukrainian sign – is for most audience members a way for them to rethink what cinema is and what the world is.

This needs greater explanation. Most of the time, when we watch movies, and indeed when we see people going about their daily lives, we see people carrying out movements, but not necessarily gestures.

What is the distinction between movement and gestures? Movement has an end: I go from A to B (in order to carry out X). Gesture, meanwhile, has no end.

More: the world under capital is about the control of the body, such that the body’s movements are productive, and thus function as a means for capitalists to profit.

This is the philosophy of the production line: the production lines enforces repetitive, mechanical movements that are the control of the body’s gestures, turning them from gestures to movements for the purposes of capital.

As an example, we are back to silent cinema, with Charles Chaplin as the filmmaker par excellence of the production line, especially in his Modern Times (USA, 1936).

We also know that capital is about the control of bodies, because we find so funny and liberating bodies that are out of control. Think, for example, of the Ministry of Funny Walks or David Brent’s dance in The Office.

(Of course, we also find out of control bodies disgusting at times, too: a general antipathy towards certain ‘unruly’ body types, or bodies that cannot maintain strict boundaries – we dislike bodies that ooze, for example, sweat, snot, piss, blood, sleep, and so on.)

Furthermore, in the contemporary age, so many YouTube videos are about not out-of-control dancing, but controlled dancing. Control of the body, especially then to turn controlled body into image, such that the image of the controlled body can then capture attention, which in turn helps that body to become monetised, since if we all always look at certain types of body (woman as the world’s biggest industry), then we can use that body to sell things (cinema as the base language of advertising; advertising as a clear expression of capital).

In contrast to controlling our bodies, we might otherwise work out what weird and strange things that our bodies, in the spirit of Baruch Spinoza, can do. That is, as we are all different, so do we all move differently and thus we ought to be concerned with individuality and not conformity in terms of how we move. In other words, we might progress from movement (controlled bodies under capital) to gesture (bodies doing unfamiliar things, bodies out of control).

The Tribe is a film that is quite consciously about what bodies can do (and, through its non-mainstream filmmaking techniques – the long shots and long takes – about what cinema can do) . Indeed, this is a film in which all of the characters not only express themselves linguistically (Ukrainian sign) through their bodies, but in which violence, prostitution and various other bodily movements and gestures become prominent for us to see.

Importantly, though, the film does not limit itself to showing to a hearing audience the unusual bodies of these deaf people – making of it a voyeuristic exercise in seeing different bodies, but fetishising them precisely for being different.

On the contrary, the film is also about the control of bodies, and about how the limits of Ukrainian sign (language also as a system of control?) are quickly reached, and bodies must as a result find new ways to express themselves.

It is entirely logical and appropriate, then, that The Tribe is also a difficult film to watch in the sense that it is full of violence, sex and, ultimately, a gesture carried out by the lead character (referred to as Serhiy) that is so terrifying that the film thoroughly deserves its 18-rating in the UK.

For, these are gestures that shock us out of our unthinking perceptions and movements, making us see the world anew. And we do not just gawp at deaf Ukrainians in watching The Tribe, but we also are moved by the gestures that we see, causing us to reflect upon what our bodies can do, and to think (with thinking being a journey into the unknown in which we do not so much repeat what we already know, but work out what it is that our brains can do, but following routes of thought that we have not yet discovered – what mental associations can I make; a journey by definition into the unpredictable).

This, then, is what makes Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe a great movie, and one that I think as many audiences should watch as possible. It is troubling, harrowing, alienating. But in forcing us out of our comfort zones, the film engages us in the ethical challenge of finding out not just who we are, but who we could be – with the result being that consciously we ourselves choose to become, perhaps, better, more ethically engaged human beings.