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.

 

 

Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, USA, 2014)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews

There is a scene in John Cameron Mitchell’s somewhat overlooked Rabbit Hole (USA, 2010), in which mourning mother Becca (Nicole Kidman) talks with Jason (Miles Teller), the young man – a boy, really – responsible for the loss of Becca’s child.

In one scene, set on a park bench – just like the moment when Mark Ruffalo also did something extraordinary with the equally wonderful Laura Linney (whither Laura Linney, though?) in Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count On Me (USA, 2000) – Miles Teller became for me a real talent to watch.

A bunch of teen drinking movies later, and here he is playing Andrew in Whiplash, being given the hardest, probably unethical push by his jazz teacher, Fletcher (excellently played by J.K. Simmons – but the award nominations mean everyone already knows this), and then becoming the man, or realising the potential that he has had all along.

Spoilers: this film is really all about its stupendous, virtuoso climactic scene in which Andrew steps up and takes over from Fletcher in order to begin his own life.

That said, the film is entertaining throughout. Well paced, well acted, with an excellent script involving great put-downs from Fletcher, the film also contains some nicely conveyed moments of arrogance from Andrew (at a family dinner – maybe Thanksgiving), and, in a mildly original way, he does not get the girl because he has acted like a tool towards her earlier on in an equally arrogant way.

I came out of the film thinking that this was the first film among those that I have seen at the cinema in 2015 that I’d want to see again – mainly for that final scene, because I also feel that both Enemy (Denis Villeneuve, Canada/Spain, 2013) and National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman, France/USA/UK, 2014) are excellent (and I hope to blog about them when I get time).

And don’t get me wrong – Teller and Simmons are both fantastic, but that final scene is really about the drumming (apparently Teller himself, with some highly accomplished editing) and, for me, a reaction shot from Andrew’s father, Jim (Paul Reiser), when he sees/hears just how good his son really is.

People have been enthusing about Whiplash for a while, and not for any wrong reason. ‘It’s a music film shot as though it was a thriller,’ is what I remember hearing around the time it played at the London Film Festival (for reasons of ticket pricing and opportunity, I don’t go to see films at the festival that likely will have a major release at a later point in time).

But – here’s where we get to the meat of the blog – I am not particularly convinced about a student-teacher relationship as thriller being so original. I never really got what was that original about Låt den rätte komma in/Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, Sweden, 2008), either. So I could be an ignoramus. But this kind of hybridising of genres is for me inevitable – someone would have done it at some point in time. What it is not is that original – i.e. of a uniqueness that one can never look at anything the same way again.

Let me clarify: Whiplash is excellent, but it is also conventionally shot, cast and played. What is more, about 20 hours after seeing it, other questions and doubts about the film come to mind.

Charlie Parker is referenced a lot in the film, especially the (incorrectly recounted) story about how Jo Jones threw a cymbal at Parker’s head one time, inspiring Parker to go away, practice and to become the legend that is Bird.

Two things: Charlie Parker was black. And Charlie Parker was a jazz musician – a form of music originating in America, and which consists not uniquely of black musicians, but regularly, or most often. Indeed, it is sometimes referred to as a form of black music.

So major critique number one is the fact that a form of music that has race at its core, or in its blood, we might say, becomes here a struggle between two white men. Sure, white musicians play jazz, and it might well be that in the contemporary era white musicians have over-run jazz, thereby making Whiplash something of an insightful film about the state of jazz today. But while we get to see black faces in this film, they are supporting roles – i.e. barely a speaking part – as the story becomes in the end the thesis-antithesis-synthesis of two white dudes.

It makes me think that more people should watch Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler, USA, 2013), which is a truly extraordinary film, or, failing that, something like Finding Forrester (Gus Van Sant, USA, 2000).

(In Andrew’s rise to greatness, the film also tells us that women are unnecessary, perhaps even a plain hindrance, for men, but I shall leave that critique for someone else to make. Perhaps it is significant that Nicole, played by Melanie Benoist, works in a cinema, and that Andrew watches movies there with Jim. With a missing mother, he maybe realises that Nicole is a stand-in mother – a cinematic projection – and that he does not need her; men can raise each other, as Jim and now Fletcher have done with Andrew; women are evil wastes of time, anyway, and best seen as objects on a screen and not as autonomous human beings…)

And now beef number two is that this is a film about jazz. And I am just not sure that formally the film reflects its connection to jazz, being structured and paced much more like a mainstream film – even if a thriller while being about music school – rather than the slightly offbeat, somewhat hard to get into, sometimes downright oppositional mode that jazz historically has been.

Here we have again a racial dimension: the form of this film is about as white as we can get. But more than that… For me, given cinematic form, jazz looks something like the movies of John Cassavetes, who dealt directly with jazz in Shadows (USA, 1959), which with the central character of Ben (Ben Carruthers) explores precisely with the issue of race and to which places and rhythms of life the colour of one’s skin gives us access.

I’d also like to refer to other Cassavetes movies like Husbands (USA, 1970) and Gloria (USA, 1980), in which you don’t have any idea where these movies are going to go from one moment to the next. This inability to read these films, their dangerous, improvised quality, in which everything teeters on the brink of disaster and in taking us to the edge makes us find beauty of the most fragile sort, that is what cinematic jazz is and feels like for me.

It is perhaps problematic – for this argument – that Cassavetes himself was white. But one feels like he’s risked everything to make every single one of his films, and that the freedom and fear involved in this produce amazing work. We get a sense of this happening for Andrew in Whiplash, but not necessarily for its director, Damien Chazelle.

‘The road to greatness can take you to the edge,’ pronounces the UK poster for Whiplash. Damien Chazelle’s film demonstrates great talent – but in the spirit of Fletcher, perhaps one ought to say that it is controlled, scripted (even if the film involved ad-libbing) and basically a safe if excellent film. Its ‘safety’ is demonstrated in its whiteness. Maybe Chazelle will next time produce something truly extraordinary; I hope that he does. Maybe he will be able to do so by engaging more closely with gender and colour. Maybe I shan’t go to watch this at the kino again.