Telephones (Christian Marclay, 1995)

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Pleasantly humorous and humorously pleasing, Telephones is a classic Christian Marclay film, utilising montage as a visual DJing technique, mixing up films of all eras and varieties, focused on the classic device of the telephone conversation. Unlike the unique formal premise of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid , Telephones does not establish new dialogues between characters in a series of shot-reverse-shots; instead, we may imagine characters from such films as Psycho, Sleepless in Seattle, Ruthless People and Goldfinger encircling a black hole, absorbing these bisected conversations, these half-stories – all these classical Hollywood films (whether in terms of era, or narrative construction) now have their leading characters speaking into the void – the void that is, what? The cutting room floor? I don’t wish for the existential angst of my art student review to detract from the light comedy at the centre of Telephones – merely to praise it for its function as film-as-film-theory. However, its restricted premise never allows the full potential of this function be reached as it might in a Peter Tscherkassky or Martin Arnold film and, my own navel-gazing aside, Telephones remains little more than I described at the start of this review: pleasantly humorous, and humorously pleasing.

***1/2

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Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985)

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As with a great number of other films I adored with one viewing, there are no elevator pitches for Shoah that would encourage anything other than avoidance from most potential viewers. “Shoah, the 10-hour Holocaust documentary” – I can already imagine the stream of parodies such a description would invite. But, quite honestly, I cannot imagine any one film that would feel equally pertinent of a shorter length. Night & Fog‘s formalism results in an auteurist masterpiece more than a documentarian one, Schindler’s List‘s hammy Spielberg pathos renders it a cartoon, and the cornucopia of breathtaking WW2-themed cinema to come from Eastern Europe in the 1960s (The Third Part of Night, Diamonds of the Night, Romeo, Juliet and Darkness, Ivan’s Childhood etc), always seem best understood, like Fog as a reflection of the artist, or as part of a vast number of artistic responses to atrocities of Nazi projects of invasion and extermination. I must confess, as of writing this review, I have not yet seen Son of Saul.

Shoah is a grand-scale documentation of an immeasurable atrocity. Although it does not carry the aesthetic of auteurism, it does not hide director / interviewer Claude Lanzmann’s stance on the topics discussed, or the people with whom he discusses them – at many a point, when sharing space with German perpetrators, he struggles and sometimes fails to hide his aggressive contempt towards these men. At such moments as these, Shoah‘s closet sibling appears to be The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On which should perhaps be unsurprising, considering both films’ highly unique preference for oral subjective history over any attempt at “adult education.” Does this allow for bias against Poles? Yes. Does one feel like even a little time could have been devoted to the other victims? Yes. Does this make Shoah any less of a film? No. The film’s ambiguity in many respects parallels the myriad contradictions of the event itself: the brutality and yet the bureaucracy; the titanic proportions and yet the alleged invisibility. Such an unfathomable catastrophe demands conflicting responses of objective abstraction and subjective obsession.

Noticing Lanzmann’s own biases whilst watching Shoah does not make the film about his reaction; rather, it makes it about reactions, generally. Interviewees are routinely put in overtly staged environments or protracted states of discomfort and we the spectators are equally disquieted. No-one can watch Shoah without questioning ethics of both documentation and perhaps memory, itself. Chelmno survivor Szymon Srebrnik at one point is filmed, standing with his former Polish neighbours in front of the Church used at one point to imprison him and others before being shipped to the extermination camp, looking not unlike an extended family photo. The camera zooms in on his falteringly fixed smile as they speak jovially of his parents’ murder, of the Shoah being possible repercussion of the Jews’ murder of Christ. We share in Szymon’s quantum state between rage, despair and disassociation – much like our reaction to the Holocaust itself – perhaps such an event that defies understanding can only be documented in a manner that denies tact and taste.

Shoah is a film of poetry and symmetry. Discussions in the first hour of Nazis’ insistence on Jewish corpses being referred to as Figuren – “dolls, marionettes, puppets” – are recalled in the ninth hour, remarking on Adam Czerniaków’s description of the Warsaw Ghetto’s Judenrat as “marionettes.” We hear of a survivor’s dream, when in Treblinka, to survive Shoah and be the sole living human being on Earth, echoed in the final scene of the film, in which a resistance fighter for the J.C.O describes being in a seemingly empty Warsaw, thinking “perhaps I’m the only Jew left.” The camera takes us into claustrophobic conversations, and the agoraphobic open spaces of what once were the camps themselves – none of the modernised cities of Krakow, Berlin, or even New York have escaped the touch either, appearing each time either a little too grainy or a little too sheen – there’s nowhere truly safe or happy to be found in this post-Holocaust world.

Shoah’s narrative, such as it can thus be described, predominantly flows from Chelmno to Treblinka to Auschwitz-Birkenau to the Warsaw Ghetto. Whilst the ordering surprised me at first – the Czerniaków’s diary in Warsaw ending the day after the first shipment of Jews from the Ghetto to the camps, after all – however, this seems to aid Shoah’s holistic directive. Rather than a chronological ordering that charts a system of escalation, the temporal reshuffle stresses that the Shoah was not any one phenomenon, but something that touched all Jews and other Figuren throughout Europe. That the most bloodcurdling tale told is by Jan Karski of his visit to the Ghetto – the Ghetto which, crucially everybody knew about, no matter who knew what about the extermination camps, everyone knew about the Ghetto – is so vital. It denies any Nazi officer interviewed throughout the rest of the film (or, for that matter, not interviewed in the film) any sense of plausible deniability. Even if they didn’t know about the Final Solution, they still knew about the Hell on Earth that was the Ghetto. This unrelenting sense of responsibility Lanzmann places on the Nazis, on the Poles, on anyone who did anything other than actively fight against the atrocity, is at the heart of Shoah – even if they only knew 1% of what was going on, they knew 100% of that 1% and that is enough to damn them. The Shoah happened not just to the Jews, but to the world. The world itself is damned for having such incomprehensible barbarity upon it, and it is the world that requires redemption.

Not simply as someone whose family tree had significant branches torn off by the Shoah, or someone who would have been sent to the camps in a heartbeat, wearing a yellow star combined with a pink triangle, red triangle, or black triangle as the Nazis saw fit, but as a living being on this Earth, Shoah was a film that spoke to me about hope and hopelessness, survival and despair, guilt and innocence, and the world’s constant need for redemption. Shoah is the example of cinematic language bravely doing what human language cannot and, for that, I cannot give it anything but the highest rating, and the highest recommendation. This is that for which cinema was made.

*****

Napoléon (Abel Gance, 1927)

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One of the few films for which you can employ the term “epic” with absolute confidence, Abel Gance’s 1927 magnum opus Napoléon is a triumphant crescendo of the late silent era which cannot help but fill me with a certain resentment at the introduction of sound to cinema at all (or, at the very least, to the blockbuster). Over-optimistically intended as merely the first part of a six-film-series, documenting the whole of the French Emperor’s life, Napoléon covers his school days to the invasion of Italy, over a five-and-a-half-hour that flies by, balanced well enough as to leave the spectator wanting more, purely on the basis of not wanting to leeave that world just yet.

However, to maintain circus analogies, one might describe Gance’s directorial method not merely as a balancing act, or even juggling but perhaps a veritable flying trapeze act between historical documentation, speculative dramatisation, superimposition, multiple exposure, unchained camera techniques and multi-screened “polyvision.” Thus, Napoléon achieves a breathtaking simultaneous marriage of celebrating France’s greatest moments of yesteryear with a vibrantly modernist format that proffers a knowing and participatory form of phenomenological reception over any standard suspension of disbelief. This is not the “transparent cinema” that so draws Godard’s ire; rather, by taking the impressionist mode of representation and signification, and expanding to it beyond-Griffith grandeur, this is truly the climax of the blockbuster’s existence as a form of genuine experimentation.

Perhaps the one and only pitfall lies in Napoleon himself – by no means at all in Albert Dieudonné’s performance, which is second only to the incredible child actor Vladimir Roudenko’s portrayal of the child Bonaparte – but in one aspect of his portrayal. Namely, Gance’s choice to use, wherever possible, genuine quotation, combined with the protagonist’s typical laconism results in a character who is enigmatically, stoically silent, who then occasionally blurts out such prideful remarks as “I am the revolution!” This establishes a certain point of confusion between the historical and the symbolist Bonaparte which inevitably results in him remaining perhaps a too-unknowable character for someone I just spent 5 and a half hours with.

However, the knowledge that this was intended as the first in a much longer series of films investigating his life leads me to the satisfied conclusion that we would have gained more insight, had Gance been able to finance such a titanic feat. Even so, my sadness at the absence of its sequels is not for lack of a sense of completion, but merely the eager desire for more. At least we have this!

****1/2

Lights Out (David F. Sandberg, 2016)

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Like an awful lot of its ilk, Lights Out is a horror film made by people who believe that being quiet for a long time, then being loud briefly is the same as being scary. Thus, I’m exceptionally happy for the filmmakers that Lights Out is at least very scary by their own valuation, even if by virtually nobody else’s on God’s green Earth.

I walked in, knowing nothing about this film but figured within seconds of it beginning that this was basically an 80-minute version of one of those completely samey “3-minute horrors” on YouTube. I realised, as the end credits rolled, that, no, that’s exactly what this film was. Thus, the entire point of this feature-length adaptation appears to be the search for a narrative justification for the micro-narrative of the original short. Needless to say, I found the search distinctly frustrated.

Here’s the thing: some horror films work brilliantly with no explanations whatsoever. It’s good that nobody can say 100% for sure why, for instance, Jack is in the photo at the end of The Shining. Alternatively, there are many horrors that successfully balance heavy extrapolation – take, for instance, Martin or The Wicker Man – with a still greatly cinematic aesthetic. What doesn’t work at all is when you explain loads about half of something, then just drop it, and that’s exactly what happens here. All this does is confirm that you as a filmmaker had a premise, but no real insight whatsoever into the plot of your own film. It means your film is severely lacking in justifications and motivations but not because you’re representing a world of chaos; rather that you just aren’t a good writer.

What we gather in this film is that “Diana” the supernatural antagonist, who exists only in the dark, definitely did exist as a human girl once but is now, like, a ghost? But she’s grown older? And she’s intrinsically connected to the mother’s mental state? But she still functions when the mother’s been knocked unconscious? Seriously, in terms of logic, this film is driving on empty.

I remember when I walked back home in a quietened daze from the first time I saw The Babadook, I said without a hint of irony or reservation that the family-based abuse-metaphor psychological horror filmmakers may as well just pack up shop: whatever hadn’t been covered to perfection the first time round by The Shining had absolutely just been covered to perfection by The Babadook. Because I understand The Witch in somewhat broader gender-oriented and theological terms, nothing has successfully shaken my opinion since – Lights Out is not merely no exception; it is in fact re-confirmation.

In The Shining, the monster is not merely the abusive father, rather the great old evil behind all such events – it is a force patriarchal, racist, misogynistic, addiction-enabling and murder-encouraging. This is why there’s little to no contradiction when all the symbolism points to the ghosts being part of Jack’s own mind (for instance, the fact that, every time he speaks to one, he’s stood before a mirror/reflective surface) and yet they reveal themselves to have power and presence separate from him (Grady’s ability to open the pantry door, Wendy’s visions etc). In The Babadook, the monster 100% reflects Amelia’s grief, pain and despair in the face of what she perceives as the intrinsic connection between her husband’s brutal if accidental death and the birth – in fact very existence of her “problem child,” Samuel. Its existence as an entity separate from her is as nuanced as the distinct between anyone’s personality and their mental illness. Thus, the answer to the question “is the monster real, or is it just a representation of a mother’s anguish?” is, of course, a resounding and simultaneous “yes” to both. No such nuance in Lights Out. The remarkable imbalance in this film leaves the meaning behind Diana’s presence entirely nonexistent, and yet mother Sophie still appears, in everyone’s esteem, entirely to blame.

The Shining and The Witch might both most simply be described as horror films about a family desperately tearing itself apart, whilst The Babadook may most simply be described as a horror film about a family trying desperately to piece itself back together; Lights Out seems to have the type of philosophy of family Robin Wood described in “The Lucas/Spielberg Syndrome,” charming, yet entirely motivated by a brutal neoliberal ethic. If a member of the family is too mentally unwell to fulfil their role satisfactorily, it’s best they just kill themself, so the rest of the family can carry on without them. Thus, what is most insidious (no pun intended) about Lights Out is not the horror at all, but the attitude it takes towards mental illness – one as mercenary as it is antediluvian. Even within the grand scheme of cookie-cutter jump-scare horrors, this film stands out as one worthy of particular reproach.

 

(Additional note: so what? The stepfather was a neuroscientist who worked at a mannequin factory? Why do they never explain what all the mannequins are doing everywhere?)

 

*

There’s Method in the Method

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When it comes to “method acting,” I’m very much on the fence. On one side, there’s still that child within me, very much alive, who loves grand stories about grand acts. I don’t know how many times I’ve read Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon at this stage and, indeed, I even recorded an album inspired by the imagery it conjured. Like the rock fans of decades past, reading up on the outlandish and, routinely, morally repugnant acts committed by bands like Led Zeppelin in planes and hotel rooms all round the world, ridiculous tall tales about Marilyn Manson having ribs surgically removed to perform auto-fellatio, not to mention the extent to which the character of The Thin White Duke allegedly had on David Bowie’s nervous breakdown during the production of Station to Station, film journalism even in 2016 cannot get over romanticising the self-destructive exploits of certain, otherwise abundantly privileged Hollywood stars.

The other side of me, and I cannot stress this strongly enough, doesn’t give a toss about actors. When some of the greatest films ever committed to film have been made without so much as a single camera, let alone a single actor, the necessity for the obnoxious toadyist personality cultism, and the obnoxious cultish personalities upon which cinema is allegedly dependent really starts showing its holes. There’s more and purer cinema in Paul Sharits’ Ray Gun Virus than in Room and Spotlight combined, so please don’t insult me by suggesting we need to put up with Christian Bale disgracefully losing his shit at a blue collar worker for “throwing him off” his unintentionally hilarious performance in a Terminator sequel nobody ever asked for.

Given that you’re currently reading the blog of someone with a Maya Deren tattoo, but is as yet bereft of any Spielberg-related designs, you’re presumably less than surprised my main interest is not, in fact, contemporary Hollywood. That’s not to say, however, that I don’t have a certain adoration and fascination for its potentials – just read my recent love letter to Some Like It Hot if you need convincing of my faith in Hollywood as an entity’s abilities. It takes considerably less practical or academic knowledge of the machinery of the American film industry (which, I’ll be the first to admit, is not one of my strong suits) to know that everything is a product, every product has an “image,” and make no mistake, the image of having no image at all is the most meticulously constructed one there is. Thus, concepts such as “truth” and “reality” become aesthetic choices in their own right – André Bazin discussed “realism” as essentially the dialectical synthesis of reality and the inherent artifice of the cinematic medium, and that was when he was describing people wandering through bombed-out Rome with a 16mm, let alone the studio sets of tinseltown, complete with traumatised runners, dodging traffic whilst desperately clutching Mr. Cruise’s almond milk extra foam double shot decaf mint mocha matcha macchiato in one hand, and his prize pet salamander in the other.

See, here’s the thing: there’s a certain undiscussed, unacknowledged violence in empathy. Alejandro González Iñárritu is quite correct in saying The Revenant would never have worked if, the moment he yelled “cut,” Leonardo and Tom could happily pop back to their trailers for hot coffee. Thing is, though: coffee is still available at the end of the road. It always is. Lived experience is not simply some room you can walk into; it’s a complex intersection of an array of nuances, multiple pasts, presents and futures. Who cares that you’re hungry today? You were at a 5-star restaurant last month and, come the wrap party, you’ll be at one again. Dumping your girlfriend and selling your house is not, actually, an accurate way of accessing first-hand experience of being a victim of Shoah. Losing masses of weight by only eating melon and steamed fish for a set period of time will teach you nothing – repeat, nothing – about destroying and ending your life through heroin addiction at the tender age of 21. Trust me. Still, I have no objection to someone changing their lifestyle to one degree or another during a role in order to achieve better the constructed aesthetic of realism, as opposed to the constructed aesthetic of “stageyness;” knock yourself out. What I object to is not the addition of realism to a role; what I object to is the complete undermining of the “method” by creating such a performance out of the method itself that the only thing embellished is the star’s own image, to the great detriment of their character.

Unsurprisingly, Jared Leto is the strongest example here, and not just on the basis of his remarkable levels of self-satisfaction, but also on the basis of his remarkable levels of self-preservation. See, Leto represents quite simply the ultimate hypocrisy of outlandish method acting: not only do you get to pretend that lived experience is simply a room you can just walk into, you also get to choose exactly how long you stay in the room, and even how far into it you’re willing to walk. “He started watching footage of actual violent crimes on YouTube, until he had to stop himself.” Oh, fuck off. It’s 2016. Who hasn’t? I couldn’t go to school without someone shoving a phone in my face, with footage of Saddam Hussein’s execution, or a military contractor’s beheading. I imagine for a moment the cornucopia of “useful” method experiences that were so easily accessible to him for which he apparently did not opt – namely, anything that might have put him remotely in harm’s way.

I think back to all of his godawful interviews with regard to the character Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club. It’s actually quite incredible how many people are willing to blow smoke up an actor for the most trivial and frivolous of pursuits. Take John Patterson’s pitifully obsequious interview with Leto, in which he, riotously, describes Rayon as yet another example of Leto’s “total immersion.” What method of total immersion is that, you ask? To go out, dressed as the transgender female character. Once. TO WHOLE FOODS. Let’s break this down for a second: Jared Leto, method actor extraordinaire, “immersed” himself as his character once and only once, “to get a little judgement, some meanness, a little condemnation…for the part,” from those notoriously violent denizens of spelt bread, purple cauliflower, and ultra-conservative social politics: Whole Foods. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve gotten the occasional dirty look, passing through a farmer’s market, but it’s not exactly the same as wandering into a Plaistow lock-in, either. Of course, the irony of Leto’s choice lies not only in the stereotypically liberal stance Whole Foods projects – however genuine or ersatz these projections may be – but in the fact that, at the steep prices of Whole Foods’ organic gourmet produce, there’s not a snowball’s chance in Hell that Rayon, or indeed most trans women – real or fictional – would or could ever shop there, anyway. Perhaps Leto is too solipsistically self-involved to realise that, or perhaps he knows perfectly well, but didn’t feel like taking a bigger risk. Still, it was vastly apparent that his “method” was founded upon ignorance, hypocrisy, or both. Beyond the issues’ amplification due to Leto’s inappropriateness as an actor for the role, by being cisgender in the first place and the hilarity of his jaunt round the supermarket being called “total immersion” is that, for trans women desiring genital reconstructive surgery, required time for “total immersion” into the role of one’s true gender can be a year or more. Had he the desire, Leto could have got estrogen and anti-androgen medication delivered to his trailer on a silver platter within the hour but, no. Some total immersions can be a little too immersive, apparently. Am I suggesting that Jared Leto should have altered his hormone levels, thus reducing body hair and developing breasts? I don’t know, I’m no actor; I’m just a film-loving tranny with an axe to grind.

Leto can flatter himself into thinking he “got into the mind of a psychopath” by sending his fellow Suicide Squad cast and crew dead pigs and used condoms because it didn’t affect him. He was surrounded by professionals who were kind enough not to leave him, picking up his teeth with a broken arm, but also were kind enough not to have him sectioned under any local mental health acts for doing so, as would of course happen to anyone who was actually suffering bouts of mental illness, and was making others suffer, too. It seems particularly pertinent because, of course, there are uncountable people who have had front-row access to abusive, sadistic, psychopaths and narcissists their entire life, in the form of their mothers, fathers, husbands, boyfriends… But who cares about the survivors of those kinds of psychopaths, the real ones? They’re boring, right Jared? Perhaps, more than anyone else, Leto represents the ultimate paradox of a “method” actor, who is clearly bereft of the experience of being told “no,” on account of who he is: there’s no chance of a character’s fictional psyche EVER dominating an ego already so inflated. I might politely suggest that, for his next role, Leto might want to try and get cast as a decent human being, mindful of others, with more than a shred of humility. But I’m sure he’d manage to interpret his remit as requiring him to shoplift from charity stores and prank-call orphans, pretending to be their parents.
The meticulous cynicism with which actors like Jared Leto pick and choose which roles demand what levels and what means of “method” approach reveal all too clearly that we aren’t dealing with an actor “losing himself in the role.” We’re seeing someone push all known boundaries to ensure that the role gets lost in him.

You will never understand
How it feels to live your life
With no meaning or control
And with nowhere left to go
You are amazed that they exist
And they burn so bright
Whilst you can only wonder why
Rent a flat above a shop
Cut your hair and get a job
Smoke some fags and play some pool
Pretend you never went to school
But still you’ll never get it right
‘Cause when you’re laid in bed at night
And watching roaches climb the wall
If you called your dad he could stop it all
Yeah

“Common People,” Pulp

American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000)

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All in all, it’s pretty difficult to watch American Psycho as anything other than an adaptation of the novel. Beyond some good performances – naturally, Bale’s above all else – the film doesn’t add anything to the narrative whatsoever. It does, however, subtract an awful lot. The book worked primarily as a document of obsession – particularly, obsessive attention to detail. Nobody walks into a room without Patrick Bateman describing in full and minute detail what each character is wearing, where they bought it, and how much they paid. At the drop of a hat, he can provide a virtual PhD thesis on why one should only ever drink mineral water out of glass bottles. With this same level of inhuman meticulousness does Bateman describe unthinkable levels of rape, torture, murder, cannibalism and necrophilia at levels rivalling and quite possibly besting Bataille and Sade. Degrees of repugnant atrocity that defy understanding and thus flatten the relief of phenomenological perception, and are merely delegated to emotionless description.

And in the film? A couple of out-of frame and/or dimly lit stabbings and a couple of shootings, breaking the monotony of Bateman out and out telling us how crazy he is, and that he does terrible things. In essence, this is the problem – although the film is narrated by Bateman, and there is hardly a single scene without him, American Psycho betrays film’s status as a visual medium, by consistently telling us what it should be showing us, and maintaining too great a distance from the protagonist’s mental state. Having an unreliable narrator, as American Psycho assuredly does only works when the spectator has first undergone a required process of alignment with the protagonist’s subjective position, first.

American Psycho thus remains, to my mind, an unfilmable novel, its film adaptation doing nothing to sway this opinion: in order to work, the film would need to show levels of violence stretching beyond that of August Underground’s Mordum or Melancholie Der Engel and yet, in doing so, it would have no budget required for the plethora of conspicuous consumption that dominates the characters’ lifestyles. It’s not simply a question of violence, of course: the amount of time that would need to be devoted to the dogmatic description of food, drink, men’s fashion, social etiquette etc would render a legitimate adaptation more 24 Hour Psycho than American Psycho. Goodness knows, I’m the first person usually to argue with anyone who believes the success of an adaptation should be measured by its fidelity to the source text, but the heart and soul of this story is devotion to minutiae which, in the film, are passed off as diversions and vagueries. Beyond there being no blood in American Psycho, there’s considerably little meat – it’s a largely glossy, rather funny, and certainly very well-executed advert for the book, complete with fine acting and a wonderful John Cale score. It’s an enjoyable watch, but far too bland to offer anything incisive in the way of social satire or, at least, a good horror.

At the end of the day, American Psycho‘s essential if enjoyable failure – much like The Neon Demon‘s – reveals what may at first seem like paradox, but later seems like common sense: if you want to investigate shallowness, you have to have your film go deep.

***

Suicide Squad (David Ayer, 2016)

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Let’s not split hairs: Suicide Squad is a veritable How-To manual in making an absolute incoherent catastrophe of shambolic narration, cynical pandering and intensely problematic racial and sexual politics. And yet, somehow, I didn’t hate it.

It’s actually interesting how paradoxical this film’s existence really is. What feels like a good 20 minutes of the film’s beginning is literally someone eating steak, going through a file, and talking about some – not even all – of the characters who are to be rounded up and become the originally named “Task Force X,” aka the “Suicide Squad” in question. Sure, there are flashbacks contained within the description, but only really as visual aids to the narration – after all, if the introductory scenes to these characters were considered strong enough, they wouldn’t need some suits explaining to us who these people were, or what their motivations are. So, although this is essentially an action whose intended audience is clearly the exact age of the rating (15), the film-makers somehow figured that talking talking talking would be a preferable introduction to a motley band of super villains… and Captain Boomerang… who’s little more than a fake Tom Hardy, armed with a children’s toy. Ironically for a film that relies so heavily on exposition, nobody ever really stops to answer “why?” Why did you set this up on essentially a whim with virtually no provocation?Why do you think you actually need an ANYTHING Squad, when you believed yourself to be in control of a witch/goddess (which is it, by the way?)-possessed woman who can literally dash off to Tehran in half a second, steal nuclear documents, then dash back? Why do we spend so much time building up some sort of energy with the prison guard, for absolutely no pay-off? Why did you only introduce some of the villains in the file, then tack on a couple more halfway through? Why, when you’ve literally implanted bombs in the necks of each member of the Squad, does Rick Flag need Katana to help him control the team, at all? Also, why are we supposed to care about Rick Flag at all? Why are we supposed to care about anything?

Perhaps this is the conceit of the 21st century comic book film: they assume everyone walking into the cinema is a hardened fan, who’s seen everything, and blow anyone who isn’t. Certainly, when I saw The Avengers, with its bad guy from Thor using the weapon from Captain America, when all I’d seen was the first two Iron Man films, I felt genuinely punished for my complete absence of loyalty to this insidiously ubiquitous franchise. Suicide Squad proudly displaying what I can only imagine is a major spoiler from the end of Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, which I have not yet seen, suggests exactly the same thing. Indeed, Suicide Squad shows such an aggressive bravado in its wholly unwarranted self-confidence, I almost feel as though it were daring me to question its, or its characters motives and motivations, beyond the most intuitively asinine.

Speaking of which, let’s turn to the characters: Deadshot, by virtue of Will Smith, is an enjoyable enough and watchable enough boilerplate Will Smith experience. His character’s been given a cute daughter and, my god, please Hollywood stop giving criminals cute daughters! just for a change, I’d like to see them be givenany other kind of motivation. (Mental note: watch John Wick, apparently his motivation’s the death of his dog. That works.) Diablo (Jay Hernandez) at least has an element of complexity, due to his sympathetic repentance for a truly terrible crime. However, he is for the most part reduced to a walking, talking racial stereotype, even if not too ugly a one. Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is a disgustingly underused character, not only because Croc is invariably awesome, but also because he is being portrayed by an absolutely fantastic actor in Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who was without a doubt one of the best elements of the TV series Lost. He is also reduced to a disappointing racial stereotype – his “demands” at the end of the film apparently being a widescreen TV showing non-stop generic sexist rap videos, and a shelfful of Hennessy. Katana (Karen Fukuhara) is a bland racial stereotype (anyone see a pattern emerging?), with nothing but a samurai sword and a “you killed my father; prepare to die” storyline. Slipknot (Adam Beach)… well, we don’t know a single thing about him, other than the fact he is played by a First Nations Canadian, wasn’t even considered worthy of a backstory, and is killed before he’s said 10 lines. Seriously, this film is racially abysmal.

And then, of course, we have Joker (Jared Leto) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). The portrayal of their relationship is utterly gross. It is depicted unambiguously as being one of an extremely controlling, coercive and abusive nature, and also depicted unambiguously as being one worthy of romanticisation. There are already multiple essays and articles on this topic, so I shan’t waste much time dwelling on this, here, but what’s really frustrating is that, if we are to see Harley as a character almost entirely defined by her devotion to an abusive, largely absent, psychopath, her response to thinking her puddin’ has just died in a helicopter crash is not going to be snuffling for two seconds and then sucking it up, buttercup, and putting a brave face on things. That’s just not how these things work. This film is so utterly lazy in its narrative threads, it will happily have 180º levels of inconsistency in its protagonists. Honestly, I think Jared Leto’s performance as Johnny Depp’s performance as Willy Wonka and The Mad Hatter’s performance as the Joker is reasonably passable. I mean, it without a doubt is the weakest performance I’ve seen committed to screen, from Cesar Romero to Mark Hamill, but that’s not saying all that much, considering the powerhouses all those performances have been. Arguably, the strength of his own, such as it is, lies almost entirely in its sporadic brevity. Contrary to what everyone’s favourite overrated emo, Ayn Rand-reading, marginalised community-appropriating asshole of an undeserving Oscar winner seems to think, a film named Suicide Squad – a squad of which Joker is not a member – was always going to be an ensemble piece in which Joker should not be a protagonist. Thus, he exists more as an idea – specifically an idea of pleasure for Harley and trepidation for everyone else – than he does as an actual game player. Harley’s existence in this film as a character removed from him is… debatable. However, she’s funny and well acted, even if she does keep spouting lines off of mass-produced Camden Market t-shirts from over ten years ago: “‘normal’ is a setting on the dryer,” yeesh.

Cara Delevigne as Dr June Moon / Enchantress, the possessed child archaeologist, is interestingly terrible. She does a reasonably steady job, when the two identities are separate, Enchantress being portrayed not at all badly by CGI but, by the time she takes over, the film-makers clearly decided it would be wrong to hide the beauty of a skinny white woman (though clearly not the beauty of an exceptionally attractive Black man), and thus strip her of all her dignity by sticking her in one of the most pathetically appropriative garbs I’ve seen since the sound era. I say “since the sound era,” given that June Moon / Enchantress’ headdress and ridiculous twitchy shoulder-based dance moves are clearly based upon the Evil Maria clone from Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis. Only difference is, whilst Brigitte Helm was clearly having the time of her life, throwing shapes in a ridiculous get-up, there’s absolutely no joy in the absurdity of Delevigne’s villain. Thus, we can only squirm in embarrassment and humiliation on her behalf.

Between the under-arm serves by way of humour, the trick-or-treat costuming, the inanely quotable lines, Suicide Squad painfully appears to be the filmic equivalent of Reading Festival. And then in comes the music, to confirm it all: “Paranoid,” “Ballroom Blitz,” “Sympathy For the Devil,” “Seven Nation Army” – these are all quite literally the songs you expect to be playing on the PA system before a bank holiday music festival headliner comes on, and they are all played, seemingly at total random, for no reason other than to have a blandly cool soundtrack. At least Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” seems vaguely appropriate, playing whilst Deadshot – a bald, Black man – is on the screen. Seriously, this bloody film…

For some reason, though, there were just enough jokes to make me actually laugh, there was just enough action to keep me excited, and there was just enough charm in a couple of the performances – not least Smith and Robbie’s – to make sitting through all 130 minutes of this disasterpiece not quite the teeth-grinding, migraine-inducing nightmare I worried it might be. By no stretch of the imagination can I recommend this film to anyone. Is it that bad? Absolutely, but it’s not THAT that bad.

**

Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)

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I don’t even know how many times I have seen this film, and it should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone who knows me, but this film never fails to enthral and delight me, every single time. I absolutely belong to the not-inconsiderable ranks of those who consider Some Like it Hot to be the greatest comedy of all time.

But what is it about Some Like it Hot that makes it stand out, 57 years after the fact? Leaving aside – at least for now – the universally impeccable performances (even though it is made quite clear in Marilyn Monroe’s eyes and occasional uncertainty in her voice that she was clearly struggling under the influence of pills at this stage – stories of 47 takes just to get her to say “It’s me, Sugar” in the right order attest to this – and yet, through direction and editing, not to mention her own perseverance, her most memorable performance still shines through), much of its greatness comes from its writing.

The narrative flow in this film is as smooth as running water and, as such, everything is exactly in its right place. Consider the opening: we begin with a hearse, driving through a city at night, all of a sudden pursued by a police car, all its inhabitants guns blazing, only for the passengers of the hearse to produce rifles of their own and return fire. As the hearse makes its escape, liquid leaks out of the bullet-holes left in the casket, whose lid is revealed to contain nothing but scotch whiskey. Finally, the words “Chicago, 1929” appear on the screen. In a way, this simple sequence articulates classical film-making at its very best: narrative created through conflict; not just the obvious conflict of cops vs robbers, but the more subtle examples of oxymoron and juxtaposition, allowing the humour and confusion of subverted expectations to carry the scene, with the conflict’s resolution also acting as its first explanation: this is Chicago, 1929: city of bootleggers, in a time of prohibition. Any other film might have had an establishing shot and/or those words, telling us the date/location before the fact, thereby making this some pseudo-documentarian “slice of life” point; instead, by reversing this trope, the setting justifies the action, allowing the action full comedic and dramatic potential, unencumbered by detail (I recently, appreciatively noticed the series Preacher doing just this, too).

We then follow an undercover detective, entering Spats Columbo (George Raft)’s riotously successful speakeasy, ingeniously hidden within a funeral home, sitting next to the dancing girls and the band, tenor sax and bass played respectively by Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) – we are led to our principle characters by following a secondary plot. After the club is raided, Joe and Jerry witness the gangland massacre by Spats of the rivals who ratted out his establishment, inspiring them to dress in drag and join up with Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopators for a three-week gig in Miami, Florida.

It seems a small point, but it is in fact highly illustrative of the tightness of the narrative: we follow police, following mobsters into the mobster speakeasy, where we meet our protagonists, who are put out of a job by the police raiding the joint, inspiring a bloody reprisal by the mobsters, who chase the protagonists into Florida, where, eventually, the mob will end up, chase them again, before themselves being killed in a bloody reprisal against the first, whilst the events in Florida see the protagonists to safety. Complex, yet purely seamless, every single scene matters, and is beautifully interwoven not only with the ones immediately before and after it, but throughout the entire film. Thus, Some Like It Hot exists in a wide and believable universe, but also in an holistic one – by having each situation matter, each occurrence is justified. By each occurrence being justified, the audience will never feel cheated or insulted by a turn of events. Thus, the narrative thread of “destiny” upon which classical film structure is so dependent has rarely been so deftly executed: we, as an audience, are able to place our trust in Some Like it Hot, in a way unlike so many contemporary films.

It is without a doubt this harmonious interconnectvity that carries this film so well: it feels as though each and every line has its own comeback AND at least one call-back. There are at least three or four separate jokes in the film relating to Blood Type O alone, all of them different, all of them funny, all of them contextual. That’s pretty damn impressive, if you ask me. Joe at one point lists all the terrible things that could (and, of course, totally did) happen, early in the film: “suppose the stock market crashes, suppose Mary Pickford leaves Douglas Fairbanks, suppose the Dodgers leave Brooklyn, suppose Lake Michigan overflows…” (a line which, in any lesser comedy, would have the characters stopping for multiple tedious fourth-wall-breaking nod to the audience), to which Jerry replies (having seen the detective) “don’t look now, but the whole town is underwater.” Far, far later into the film, as Joe is schooling Jerry in the old adage that one can’t make an omelette without breaking an egg, Jerry sees Spats and his henchmen turn up in Florida and responds “don’t look now, but the omelette is about to hit the fan!” The skill of the writing allows call-backs to function in the most oblique and purely tonal sense, whilst still remaining completely successful in the process. It is this devotion to the god in the details that ensures Some Like it Hot will carry on gaining new fans in another 57 years and beyond, long after the cynical “<insert joke here>” format films of men like Seth MacFarlane and Todd Phillips are rightfully forgotten.

Of course, Some Like it Hot is also a vital film in its existence as one of the final nails in the coffin of the oppressive Film Production Code, in its glorious celebration of many facets of queerness, not only in having hired the brilliant drag queen and trapeze artist Barbette as an on-set consultant in the art of “gender illusion,” but in the wider context of its presentation of drag’s potentiality. Little if any time at all is spent remarking on preconceived notions of humiliation or emasculation as a necessary element of, or psychological response to, cross-dressing. Instead, both protagonists are liberated from what might otherwise have been an inescapably predictable tropey existence: Joe, who begins the story as a selfish, womanising manipulator, becomes in Josephine a respectable and more than a little prim confidante for Sugar Kane (Monroe), whilst Jerry – Joe’s hapless sidekick, dragged around, constantly pessimistic – becomes the gloriously loud, opinionated and popular Daphne. Of course, perhaps most interesting is Joe’s other other persona: his male drag-king act as Junior, the Cary Grant-caricature millionaire, in many ways the dialectical synthesis of Joe and Josephine, via whom he manipulates Sugar into falling in love with him (in a not un-Shakespearean fashion) through a parodic process of what one can only consider erotic conversion therapy for the type of man one would normally expect to say “when I’m with a girl, it just leaves me cold.” However, through the foundation of gentleness and sensitivity of their communion – a trait Sugar inexplicably believes all short-sighted men share – he finds enough of a conscience to spare himself from unsalvageablity. Jerry as Daphne’s relationship with the fantastically named lecherous “rich millionaire” party-boy Osgood Feelding III (Joe E. Brown) is consistently hilarious whilst also profoundly effecting for any queer audience member – no reading-into required, when that final line in the film comes, it’s a joyous celebration of “whatever”-ness in the face of social convention that will remain with me for all time.

The cinephilic ensemble of Some Like it Hot expands the concept of performativity to be relevant to all characters in the film. The gangster subplot is littered with as many recognisable faces – George Raft, Pat O’Brien, Edward G. Robinson Jr – as the comedic narrative is – Joe E. Brown, Dave Barry and others. The gangsters not only reflect real life (the opening credits may claim similar events are completely unintentional but the fictionalised St Valentine’s Day Massacre says otherwise), but also fictionalised ones. Spats is only just stopped at one point from smashing half a grapefruit into a henchman’s face, in a clear reference to the most infamous scene in gangster film classic, The Public Enemy. It seems reasonable to view Some Like it Hot performing Butler-esque commentary on the performativity of aspects of gender, race and class all round. Of course, the cineliterate nature of the film’s comedy has also paradoxically helped it escape dating: by being a film, made in the tail-end of the 1950s, set in the tail-end of the 1920s, opting to be one of the exceptionally few 1959 films shot in monochrome, Some Like it Hot convinces the audience it is an older film that it is, only amplifying its relevance in the resultant contrast. The fact it manages to do so by addressing themes progressive for the time it was made allows it to exist in a time all its own, as it shall continue to do for years to come.

Some Like it Hot is cinematic viewing at its most fundamentally essential. If you have not seen this film, you have not truly seen film at all.

*****

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (Ben Rivers and Ben Russell, 2013)

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Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness is a, confusingly enough, hypnotic yet frustrating documentation of Estonia, Finland and Norway that undoubtedly shares much of Stan Brakhage’s “back to the land” philosophy, albeit few if any of his aesthetics. Certainly, as a visual and aural reflection on a spiritual commune between man and nature, A Spell works best when it is at both its quietest and its loudest – both of these states most brilliantly carried on the shoulders of semi-protagonist, avant-garde / black metal / drone pioneer Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe.

Unfortunately, what certainly feels like the lion’s share of A Spell is not devoted to Lowe, silently rowing staring with stoned, unblinking eyes at a burning wooden hut, or performing some of the most surreal harsh vocals in extreme music today, but instead to a group of fairly insufferable hippies who mumble and murmur aimless anecdotes and half-baked social theories which, speaking as a mid-20s Arts & Humanities graduate living in east London, I really don’t need to watch a Ben Rivers film to hear. I don’t want to be giving A Spell the relatively pedestrian rating of only 3.5 stars but, beyond having to dock the rating due to the tedium of the aforementioned section, it had to lose another half due to the actual – presumably unplanned – alienation effect this section has on the rest of the beautifully serene film. As I alluded to earlier, A Spell does operate on a paradox here – if the rest of the film didn’t operate so beautifully, it might have ironically ended up with a slightly higher rating. Life is strange.

There is, undoubtedly, a Bazinian beauty to A Spell which absolutely works to the benefit of its philosophy – it is the realism of the cinematic praxis here which endows the film so much with a spirituality of form. Such a relationship to the pro-filmic environment is what allows the opening shot and the final 45 minutes such consistency. Much of this rests on the camerawork, which achieves at its best moments a perfect harmony between phenomenology and restrained documentation. The opening shot is a methodical volley of pans, back and forth across a vast and seemingly completely secluded lake, all of which stop short of being 360⁰ as though to self consciously deny the camera the privilege of an omniscient position. Likewise, in the black metal performance in the last half hour, shot entirely in one take, the chiaroscuro on-location mise-en-scène of the stage, only emphasised when contrasted with the band’s corpse paint, gives the scene an ecstatically disorientated ambience, as the camera snakes around the performers, almost entirely in close-up to extreme-close-up, in such a way that we are left with no concrete understanding of the geography of the stage, or the positioning of the musicians. They seem to appear randomly in the line of the lens’ sight, again stressing the limitations of the artist’s hand in the face of an holistic omnipresence of of man-nature communal spirituality (an ever-increasing preoccupation of black metal lyrics, both in its Scandinavian birthplace and beyond, from France to the Pacific Northwest).

There is so very much to love about A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, I can only hope that, the next time I watch it, I’ll be in a slightly better mood and be able to afford it at the very least half an extra star.

 

***1/2

Mr. Brooks (Bruce A. Evans, 2007)

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“Oh, poor Mr Costner; he tries so hard” – Lisa Simpson
Honestly, I think people are being really quite mean about Kevin Costner in this. I only believe he’s a serial killer slightly less than I believe Michael C. Hall is one and I watched, like, seven and a bit series of Dexter before finally giving up! Mr. Brooks is a strangely ambitious, if ultimately unsuccessful, film about the eponymous, admired philanthropic businessman (Costner), undergoing a relapse into his serial killing addiction, the voice and face of whom is portrayed by William Hurt. Blackmailed into allowing a tag-along, he begins to worry his daughter who may also be a killer… and then Demi Moore’s a millionaire cop, getting chased by an escaped serial killer… whilst getting divorced… honestly, there’s a lot of threads, none of them are all that satisfying.

The strange, unsuccessful, ambition mentioned above largely rests on the way Mr. (not going to lie, that unnecessary period is killing me) Brooks flip-flops stylistically between genres in a way that feels, rather than impressively postmodern, even more distracting than the way The Dark Knight Rises constantly flip-flopped between letterbox and IMAX. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the bulk of Mr. Brooks is a fairly standard David Fincher rip-off, with phlegmatic dolly shots, roaming stately homes of minimalist design, à la Panic Room and Gone Girl, but then someone will all of a sudden discover a dead body, presented as an almost carbon-copy of Se7en. Moore’s Detective Atwood at points encounters her escaped serial killer, at which point the entire film shifts uncomfortably from “psychological thriller” to pure, and frankly stupid, action film territory, not unlike one of the newer, regrettable, Die Hard sequels for a maximum of 2 minutes, before quietening down again. Her divorce, naturally, looks like what would happen if Joel Schumacher tried to direct The Squid and the Whale.

The film is not without merits – Costner and Hurt really are very good, and I do think that, much like Christine, Mr. Brooks makes a genuinely good go at using a horror/thriller format to represent the psychological and personal realities of addiction very well. What’s most interesting, though, it Mr. Brooks‘ ability somehow to be at once not very exciting at all, but still just engrossing enough to make you wonder what’s going to happen next. All in all, the film is an utter mess, but still, a slightly fun one.

 

**