Some notes on cinema in 2016

Blogpost, Film education, Film reviews, Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach, UK/France/Belgium, 2016)

Blogpost, British cinema, Transnational Cinema, Uncategorized

A brief thought about I, Daniel Blake, including **spoilers** (for which apologies).

The film is about the title character (Dave Johns), who has recently had a heart attack. Although his doctors advise that he does not return to work, the company contracted by Blake’s local employment bureau in Newcastle deems him fit for work.

As a result, Daniel must go in search of work – at least nominally – in order to get benefits and thus economically to survive.

One day in the employment bureau, Daniel meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother relocated to Newcastle from London by the housing association, who misses her first meeting at the bureau, and so who thus does not receive benefits.

The two strike up an unlikely friendship, with Daniel helping to keep Katie’s home warm, helping her out with food and more.

In some senses, I, Daniel Blake is a large-format, narrative version of the famous ‘Computer says no’ sketch repeated in various ways on Little Britain (Matt Lucas and David Walliams, 2003-2006): it is about the inflexibility of systems that are dominated by information technology.

It is not that information technology is necessarily bad. It is the internet and a direct link to a show manufacturer in China that gives Daniel’s neighbour, China (Kema Sikazwe), a chance of getting out of his own employment misery.

But, through Daniel’s unfamiliarity with computers, it does speak of a generation of humans who are being left behind by the insistent computerisation of all aspects of life. If one does not know how to use or speak to the computer, then the computer will inevitably say no.

As per Ken Loach’s Kes (UK, 1969), Daniel’s answer is frustratingly right before his (and our) eyes, and yet he does not act upon it. In Kes, Billy Casper (David Bradley) demonstrates at length that he is excellent with animals. And yet at no point do any of his teachers or the employment office suggest that Billy might make a good zookeeper, say, with Billy himself also fairly resigned to working down in the Barnsley pit.

Likewise, carpenter Daniel fabricates beautiful wooden mobiles – suggesting in some senses that he might also simply endeavour to work at a pace that is not stressful or necessarily detrimental to his precarious health, and to sell his wares at least to supplement his benefits lifestyle. At one point, Daniel even turns down an offer to buy some of his work from a man (Stephen Halliday) who otherwise buys up all of his furniture.

Something of a tangent: when Lewis Mumford writes in The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development that the surplus labour force provided by slaves in the USA basically led to a stagnation in technological development (no need to create machines to do work that humans will do for free), he also would seem to suggest that it was only when machines were created that could outperform slaves that slavery was abolished.

It is a controversial claim, but one might even say that the American Civil War was in some senses brought about for economic reasons: advances in technology and thus the ability to make profit without slaves is what made some people comfortable with the idea of abolishing slavery – while those who did not have the same technology (the South) were forced to accept the ‘privileged’ perspective that slaves were (now) deemed to be a Bad Thing… and ended up going to war over this.

And so it might be with computerisation: the privileged, technologically advanced people can force their technologies on to everyone else, thereby consigning to misery those who cannot really afford or get access to them.

(Read in terms of a technologised elite imposing its privileged perspective on the masses, one can in some senses account for both Brexit and the election of Donald J Trump as a negative reaction against precisely such a process – however ‘misguided’ or otherwise one might consider both Brexit and/or Trump’s election to be.)

There has been a lot of hoo ha in the reactionary press about I, Daniel Blake being contrived (I think of reviews by the likes of Toby Young). And yet, its contrivances are what make I, Daniel Blake most powerful.

For, there is a sense in Loach’s film of making absolutely clear at all stages that this is a film: the ‘naturalness’ of the acting (which can sometimes seem ‘amateur’), the somewhat forced nature of the script. It would seem that Loach is not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes that this is a film.

This is also made palpable as a result of Daniel’s death at the film’s end: Daniel cannot deliver the speech that he has written about his experiences and how he has been handled, which instead Katie reads out at his funeral. If Daniel lived and delivered the speech himself, then the contrivances of the film would be hidden. Instead Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty place them front and centre. Daniel Blake must die.

This is not to say that we should dismiss I, Daniel Blake simply on the grounds of being manipulative. What else do you think that cinema is if it is not manipulative? Acknowledging its own manipulations, the film nonetheless brings its viewers into a position of having to think about why the film is doing this – not simply for the sake of fooling viewers. On the contrary, it is so that we might take seriously what the film has to say.

The final confirmation of this is when Daniel and Katie enter at first into Daniel’s hearing (if I remember correctly). Looking directly at the camera – for the first time in the film – both speak not to the assembled assessors, but also directly to us.

I, Daniel Blake contains warmth and nightmarish visions of life on benefits in equal measure, with Katie’s display of hunger at a food bank (where she opens and begins to eat directly from a tin of cold baked beans) being in particular harrowing.

We are all implicated in this world. We all should take on the collective responsibility for our fellow citizens. Through the false, Ken Loach encourages us to confront the real.