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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to make of such a motif?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Accidental Love (David O Russell, USA/UK, 2015)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews

I wrote this review for The Conversation. They spiked it because they needed the piece to be shorter than it is, but did not see how to make it shorter and to get across the point that I am trying to make with it.

Why a website cannot be flexible with regard to word length beats me. Especially one that caters primarily to an academic audience. But there we go. The spike allows me to post it here, and at least without The Conversation‘s usual unmaginative headline – of the sort that makes you think Rabelais was correct about the Agelastes.

Also, editing out a reference to Karl Marx/Slavoj Žižek (which happened between drafts) seems strange to me, again given the academic readership of the publication. Some identity uncertainty seems to be in place: for whom is The Conversation? (With whom does it want to converse? On this occasion, apparently because I speak for too long and namedrop philosophers, not me!) Perhaps we see here an up-front/a priori (unthinking) capitulation to (unthinkingness and) academic research as only useful when of identifiable use (and preferably surplus) value.

Anyway, such speculation aside, here goes the review, which of course may be incomprehensible, as per the view of my editors. If this is so, and I am living alone in a land of blindness and stupidity, then I apologise…

Starts:-

The premise is utterly ridiculous. On the night that small town Indiana cop Scott (James Marsden) proposes to roller skate waitress Alice (Jessica Biel), a nail is driven through her skull during a DIY accident in a local restaurant.

Alice has no insurance, and so the hospital doctors refuse to operate (eating burgers instead). Basing his decision on the probability that the nail will cause Alice’s behaviour to become erratic, resulting eventually in death, Scott dumps her.

This prompts Alice to endeavour to win him back by going to Washington DC to see Congressman Howard Birdwell (Jake Gyllenhaal), who will help her to put through a healthcare bill that will allow those without insurance to receive medicare when necessary.

In Washington, Alice finds herself embroiled in a plot that involves Machiavellian intrigue as Birdwell bows to Representative Pam Hendrickson (Catherine Keener), who wishes to put into action her plan to build a military base on the moon – all in the name of defence.

What follows is a farce along the lines of the Marx Brothers meets Capra, something like Groucho Goes to Washington, except with more references to sex and to race.

The film’s ‘lunatic’ story involves Alice sleeping with Congressman Birdwell as a result of uncontrollable urges brought on by the presence of the nail in her brain. Everything nearly goes wrong, but after a dose of _deus ex machina_, the film ends with a wedding and everyone’s happy — even if the wider issue of healthcare remains unresolved (because who could resolve that issue without alienating a large chunk of the American audience?).

So … after giving you such a synopsis, you may well ask why I’m writing about this film, not least because it has been almost universally panned. Well, I’m interested because the film’s director, ‘Stephen Greene,’ is in fact a pseudonym for David O Russell, the successful director of such illustrious fare as Three Kings (1998), I Heart Huckabees (2004), The Fighter (2010), Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and American Hustle (2013). His second film, Flirting with Disaster (1996), demonstrated that he is perfectly capable of this kind of farcical comedy.

Why the change of name, then? Mainly because Accidental Love, which for a long time was to be called Nailed, is a film that went into production nearly ten years ago.  However, owing to financial difficulties – on some occasions the crew wasn’t paid, while on others the cast quit for the same reason – it allegedly got shut down 14 times.

In 2010, Russell quit the film, which he had co-written with Al Gore’s daughter, Kristin Gore. The remaining scenes were supposedly shot without him. So the film, like Alice, was in effect lobotomised. Fast forward through five years of limbo, and Accidental Love gets released on all of the contemporary platforms (VOD, DVD, etc), including a small theatrical release in the USA – with test screenings apparently taking place unbeknownst to Russell and the stars in the interim.

Now, just because Russell at least partially directed it does not make Accidental Love particularly interesting (or particularly good). But what is interesting is what its troubled history reveals about contemporary Hollywood.

That a woman’s libido expresses itself only as a result of a nail in the brain (Alice’s lobotomy) is of course problematic. It suggests that female sexual desire is somehow abnormal, the result of a brain gone wrong. This in turn suggests that Hollywood cannot tolerate an active female sexuality.

(See how ScarJo in The Avengers films has to end up single because her agency, even if she can deflate the Hulk – male-eating Black Widow as causing loss of erection.)

But this plot device suggests to us that the film as a whole, like a nail in Hollywood’s head, also gives expression to things that the American film industry otherwise tries to deny. The film is a repeat of the kind of farcical films that today seem anachronistic and unfashionable – as made clear by the presence of supporting actors from another time in Paul ‘Pee Wee Herman’ Reubens and Kirstie Alley.

If Hollywood does anything, it repeats itself, returns over and again to the same things: sequels, remakes and ‘reboots.’ But if, in the spirit of Karl Marx and, more recently, Slavoj Žižek, what happens once is tragic and what repeats is farce, then the industry denies that this endless repetition is farcical. Rather than an admission of being forever out of ideas, we are told that this is perfectly controlled filmmaking.

Hollywood has sought to get rid of Accidental Love as quickly and as unnoticeably as it can (the film grossed a meagre US$4,500 at the American box office). And yet, that the film has resurfaced at all suggests the return of the repressed, namely the fact that the processes of repetition and return themselves reveal the film industry’s inability to know what it is doing and why.

You may have heard of a man called Phineas Gage. In 1848, he had a bar driven through his skull when at work – and yet he lived for many years while supposedly undergoing something of a complete overhaul of his personality (he was ‘no longer Gage’ say contemporaneous reports – although the validity of these has been doubted).

Accidental Love is something of a cinematic Phineas Gage – a film that got nailed in production and which continues to be nailed by the critical community.

And yet, in this accidentally lobotomised film, we might find much to learn about the ‘normal’ functioning of Hollywood’s film industry, just as Gage is the exception that allows us better to understand the brain’s role in ‘normal’ human behaviour.

Better put, in an era when industry, including the film industry, demands rationalisation and when risk is removed as much as possible (and one removes risk by sticking to what one knows, i.e. by repeating), Accidental Love helps us to understand that Hollywood, perhaps industry as a whole, is in fact deep down irrational, and that its compulsion to repeat and to return is a sign not of a reduction of risk, but really of its overall lack of control.

It is a sign that Hollywood, maybe even capital as a whole, is not superhuman and beyond question or doubt, but wonderfully, farcically, profoundly human – and thus wholly open to question and to doubt. With regard to Accidental Love, then, even if the film is no great shakes, sometimes there’s nothing so interesting as a complete failure.

Ends