The Revenant (Alejandro G. Iñarritu, 2015)

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It is, of course, hard not to discuss The Revenant in terms of The Hateful Eight. Both were released the same day. I saw the latter on the Monday of this week, the former on the Friday. Both are set within the unforgiving snow territories of North America in the 1800s. Both are gaining a certain infamy for their respective degrees of brutality. Both encourage comparisons to earlier films.

However, whilst The Hateful Eight‘s relationship with cinephilia is what one must call, with an ever-deepening sigh, “postmodernism,” with its fairly cloying nods and winks to camera as it references exploitation, Western and horror films of varying obscurity to score geekdom points above all else, The Revenant‘s relationship with the wider world of cinema is of a traditional, subtler and considerably preferable sort.

Obviously, thematically, The Revenant‘s tale of a man more or less back from the dead, battling both the elements and nature red in tooth and claw, on a mission to avenge a lost loved one can be understood as something of a mixture of The CrowApocalypto, and All is Lost. Its magical realist relationship with its protagonist’s mortality in the context of First Nations territory conjures strong images of Dead Man. (There may also be comparisons to make to The Grey – having not seen The Grey, though, I wouldn’t know).

However, it is the formal elements of The Revenant that made the most impression on me as a cinephile. The roaming camera effect that effortlessly seems to document 360º action and follows characters – both lead and supporting – through water, fire, smoke and snow creates exactly the same sense of immersion within a fully extant universe that the late Aleksei German achieved so stunningly with Hard to Be a God. Meanwhile, the ever-so-slightly more fantastical elements of The Revenant, connecting existentialism, nature and spirituality in a way that exploits aestheticism without compromising humanity connects it to the oevre of Andrei Tarkovsky, by no means limited to Andrei Rublev and The Sacrifice, certainly with flourishes of Akira Kurosawa throughout. The combination of all these elements held František Vláčil’s Markéta Lazarová immovably in my mind throughout the grand majority of The Revenant. It perhaps goes without saying that the very immensity of this project’s approach seems wholly Herzogian.

Especially when we consider the usual Oscar-bait, the certain element of snobbishness that has criticised The Revenant – particularly DiCaprio’s performance in it – can be understood, even forgiven. No, contrary to what some may think, suffering does not equal acting. DiCaprio’s performance reveals considerably more than pain; instead, we see the rapid and necessity devolution of a man into beast to survive a wilderness for he was not made. Certainly, there are avenues down which one can take this to understand a message regarding just whose land the settings can be considered. Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio)’s ability to survive the ordeal is founded upon a boldness and bravery we cannot see in any way connected to his white maleness – instead, we see a variety of skills we can connect most easily to his interaction with (and marriage within) the Pawnee tribe, and a variety of instincts that don’t seem human at all. Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy)’s brand of survivalism seems to be the polar opposite: one based upon selfish cowardice. It is only the Pawnee and Arikara in the film whose ability to withstand such hardship feels inherently assured.

To be sure, the message of The Revenant is complicated and not without flaws. It admittedly does feel rather White Man’s Burden, throughout. The magical realism of the film being tied exclusively to the portrayal of First Nations people, who at the end of the film step in to perform a naratologically necessary act that white morality will not allow Glass to perform, is less than ideal. One cannot help but feel The Revenant would also have been served better by having Glass’ late Pawnee wife (Grace Dove)- even if she did have to remain within the bonds of memory – were able to do something other than act as a levitating source of support in troubling times, repeating the same monologue over and over again. On a more basic level – a complaint that seems to be a reoccurring theme – Tom Hardy’s accent whilst playing Fitzgerald could have been considerably more intelligible.

However, the lack of Fitzgerald’s intelligibility does add a certain 3-dimensionality to the role. I can say that, beyond Bronson, Bane or Ronnie Kray, there is a certain something in Hardy’s portrayal of Fitzgerald that makes this his scariest role. Perhaps it comes down to the relative absence of formalism in the portrayal. Though two of the three aforementioned roles were real people, it would be quite reasonable to suggest the performances were not. Caricatured accent aside, little scenery is chewed in Fitzgerald’s portrayal. We see an antagonist who is calculating, yes, but no more than he deems necessary for survival. He is a proletarian figure of world-weary cynicism who, when challenged on valuing money over his life, brilliantly responds “What life? Ain’t got no life. All I got’s a living.” Indeed, what is scariest about Fitzgerald is his position as an icon of how reasonable an executive decision burying a man alive, after having just killed his son, could in fact seem. It is impossible not to feel a degree of empathy and respect for every character in this film for their endurance in making it alive even to the opening credits, let alone beyond them. Between the harshness of nature, the sharpness of arrows, and the exploitation at the hands of the bourgeoisie, it is entirely reasonable to assume a different set of moral codes exist in the perception of The Revenant‘s characters.

So, assuredly, The Revenant‘s greatness does not lie in its originality. Rather, it lies in its honest-to-God attempt to lift up the blockbuster to a status to which audiences in 2016 never expect to see films on a Hollywood budget held. Hopefully, it may encourage audiences to seek out a Tarkovsky or a Viacil, but even if it doesn’t, I’m glad their money will have been spent on a truly cinematic experience local multiplexes have not been built to host in a long, long time. And, for that, I am gratified.

****

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The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino, 2015)

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I hate agreeing with Mark Kermode. Especially on the subject of Tarantino. I find it an utter bore that people are so anxious to be iconoclasts that it’s become as cool as it is to say you hate Tarantino’s filmmaking in the same breath as denouncing The Beatles. No, neither of them are as good as the hype. Nothing is. That’s why it’s called hype.

That saidThe Hateful Eight is just too damn long. I mean, it really is so long. I’m saying this as someone who holds Sátántangó  and Dekalog in the highest regard. Appreciating and sometimes studying the films of Hungary, Poland, Russia, China, Romania and Japan to name a few has solidified in my esteem the ability of an extended average shot length to re-centre the spectator’s focus, away from any plotline froth to the humanity and, by extension, spiritual dignity of the characters, navigating unforgiving territory, both geographical and existential in nature. The length of The Hateful Eight can, for the most part, only be understood as representative of Tarantino’s vanity and self-assurance.

Indeed, though it certainly became apparent during the considerably more enjoyable Django Unchained, the mask of Tarantino started solidly to slip for me in Eight. I as aware going in that it would take at least half an hour for us even to arrive at the cabin, which sounded fine to me – I mean, it takes longer than that to get into space in Solaris or the Zone in Stalker; who needs a racing start, especially with that celebrated Tarantino dialogue? The Hateful Eight, apparently. Indeed, one of the problems with relying ever more on genre film archetypes in a historical setting is that the quotidian profundity that punctuated his slick crime thrillers, that later developed into genuinely heartfelt poignancy in Kill Bill: Vol 2 is little more than a nostalgic memory. Instead, as opposed the spectacular use of Ultra-Panavision 70 setting up a precedent for full use of cinema as a visual medium, Tarantino tells, rather than shows the narrative set-up with some of the clunkiest expositional dialogue I recall seeing outside of the ending of Vanilla Sky. “Do you know why they call him ‘The Hangman’?” Warren (Samuel L Jackson) asks Daisy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), as she is literally manacled to John Ruth aka “The Hangman.” He proceeds to mansplain to Ruth’s live bounty that Ruth doesn’t kill his bounties, before Ruth asks to see Warren’s “Lincoln Letter,” which he’s already seen. Near everybody knows each other, but they still have to introduce themselves to one another, for the sake of the audience, which seems utterly ridiculous when you know Tarantino’s going to throw in a narrator’s voice for ten seconds, like Jackson’s in Inglourious Basterds, you figure he could have quickly introduced the characters via narration or on-screen text and saved us at least twenty minutes. Gorgeous as the landscapes certainly are, the philosophy of tell-don’t-show (which is something of a consistent re-occurrence  throughout) is surely Tarantinto at his least cinematic.

We are saved, somewhat, by the time we reach the cabin and are afforded more characters. Tim Roth’s performance certainly tries to steal the show, but is afforded nowhere near enough screen time to do so. There is also the niggling feeling that Roth’s success in this film – or, at the very least, his character’s – is based largely upon a close modelling and channeling of the notable-by-absence Christoph Waltz. Eight establishes itself as something of a paranoid thriller, in which Ruth harasses everyone else in case they try to lay their hands on Daisy, his $10,000 bounty (something which might be aided by him not constantly telling everyone how much she’s worth), and develops into having the barest semblance of a locked-room mystery, and eventually devolves into an extended Mexican standoff. In many ways, The Hateful Eight is a remake of Tarantino’s own Michael Fassbender sequence from Basterds – which a vast number of people, myself not actually included in this case, complained was too long – turning it into a film the best part of three hours, which damn near everyone is saying is too long. I’m doing my best to keep this review spoiler-free, but I shall simply say: there is a gaping plot-hole surrounding the nationality of one character and the alleged racial prejudice of another, and the devolution from locked-room mystery to Mexican standoff is catalysed by a plot device I feel I can only describe in one word: cheating. Indeed, though the main issue with Eight is quite simply that it is a Western thriller with elements of mystery that is incredibly short on suspense. I don’t think I really felt any tension in the film until a considerable number of the characters were already dead. However, soon after the tension was established, it then became pretty clear nobody was fully sure how the film should end. “Very ploddingly” was apparently the answer.

Don’t get me wrong, there are flashes of brilliance in this film, and I do not regret watching it. It’s lovely to see Tim Roth and Michael Madsen return triumphantly to Tarantino’s fold, even if they are both criminally underused in favour of the fairly unlikeable Walton Goggins and increasingly pretty tiresome duo of Jackson and Russell. The dialogue is not all dreck, certainly past the expositional hurdles, and it really is pretty gorgeous. Oddly enough, it may well address racial issues better than Django, even though the number of people of colour has been significantly reduced from that film to this. However, there is a scene in Eight that relies on the white fear of the symbolic Black male body, within the context of sexual assault via coercion that made me desperately uncomfortable – speaking as someone who really doesn’t get uncomfortable in films easily. For sure, that was the point, but that it was Tarantino’s point, rather than another writer/director better qualified to make it is less than impressive. The bloody violence is enjoyable and the score does indeed scream “modern classic.” I didn’t hate this film; just, speaking as someone who still likes Tarantino, despite herself, I was left very disappointed.

**1/2

Slideshow On Steven Shaviro’s “Emotion Capture: Affect in Digital Film”

This link opens a slideshow of a presentation I did, a couple of months ago, on the subject of of “Emotion Capture: Affect in Digital Film,” an essay that deals with concerns over the indexicality of the photographic image in an age of digital reproduction, focusing on “Waking Life” (Richard Linklater, 2001 – one of my favourite films of all time), “A Scanner Darkly” (Richard Linklater, 2006) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004). My presentation focuses predominantly on the first two, with reference to the “CinemaScope Trilogy” (Peter Tscherkassky, 1997-2001)

(This was made at a time when I was still under the impression Anohni identified as non-binary, thus the symbol/icon/index section using her photograph is now incorrect)

Dear White People (Justin Simien, 2014)

 

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Dear White People is a genuinely funny, brilliantly acted and assuredly relevant dramedy that follows student politics in the lead-up to an altercation between students of colour and the attendees of a blackface-themed Halloween party on campus.

Whilst Dear White People cannot be said completely to shy away from the label of “issues-related” or “social problem film,” its fictional Ivy League backdrop and all-round exceptional performances allow for its collective-protagonist-driven roaming narrative and crescendo of property damage (the physical violence against white people in the scene in question is as absent as systematic violence towards Black people is present) to act as a witty parallel to Do the Right Thing, rather than simply trying to “update” it. Justin Simien has gone on record as not wanting to be called “the next Spike Lee,” and nor should he. But he has also name-checked Do the Right Thing and it would be dishonest to act as though I hadn’t noticed similarities.

The well expressed (if – at moments – a little stagey) socio-political discourse to one side, Dear White People‘s strength – its vividly multi-dimensional narrative, carried by 4 stellar leads and a fabulous host of supporting cast, acts paradoxically as its weakness. The desire to see so many characters have a legitimate story – as Sam (Tessa Thompson) herself says, with development and a background other than their race – in a 108 minute film does somewhat result in none of the characters quite fully having that.

Troy (Brandon Bell) is given the most background (due to the presence of his father, also the Dean of Students, played by the ever wonderful Dennis Haysbert) but, whilst a fine character, is arguably the least interesting/evocative of sympathy, on account of his seemingly greater degree of fiscal and class privilege. His conflicts are by far the most addressed, in my opinion at the risk of the film’s pacing. However, it’s not simply that I feel there are scenes that should have made it to the cutting room floor; rather, I feel certain there are scenes lying on the cutting room floor that could do with re-entry.

The film’s rhythm does leave a little to be desired – whilst we enjoy the company of all the film’s characters, their motivations for suddenly dropping and/or picking up (for want of a better term) “the cause” are left consistently partially obscured. I want to know more about Lionel (Tyler James Williams)’s inner tensions between his Blackness and his queerness that seems to keep him away from the BSU. I want to hear more about Sam’s book, her radio show, her films, her family, her relationship with Troy. I want to see more Coco (Teyonah Parris) in the film just generally – she has nowhere near a big enough role, and the film could have easily done with some tightening up to fit her in. I should add, it’s not just an overabundance of Troy that needs tightening up – there are several filler scenes of Lionel just kinda hanging out that could easily have been done away with in favour of more story and character development. Plus, there was this reality TV plotline that added so little, I’m honestly not sure why it existed, beyond showing off the fabulous Malcolm Barrett?

Still, Dear White People has left me panting for more of a good thing and that is not the same as it being an unsatisfying watch. It is funny, it is righteous, it is angry, it is well-written and deals with serious topics of history, identity, and society, balancing just the right levels of irreverence and clarity to make Dear White People a sophisticated yet unpretentious, didactic yet un-preachy, exceedingly worthy campus social satire.

***1/2