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.

 

**

Ten Great Atmospheric Soundtracks

So, in addition to reviews and the odd academic whatever, I’ve decided to start doing the occasional article, dare I say it, “listicle,” to add a little variation in my blog posts. The first recommendation has come from my good friend Ilhana, who suggested “Top Ten Moody/Atmospheric Soundtracks,” so here we go… I decided to rename it to “Ten Great,” as I’m sure I’m missing off so many stunning soundtracks and scores right now. Numbers are indicative of nothing other than the order in which they sprang to mind:

1. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2014) – Mica Levi

I’ve always said that, were I ever to curate a music festival, I’d need to dedicate three separate slots to the Mica Levi: the first, naturally, for her incredible, danceable left-field post-no-wave band Micachu and the Shapes. The second as a DJ slot for her unbelievable noisy indie grime productions. The third, of course, would be for her to perform solo, with an orchestra, or somewhere in between, her masterpiece of an original score for Under the Skin. The subdued response to the maximalist notion of “space rock” afforded us by Spiritualized, or the overt coolness of Autolux, Mica Levi’s score encapsulates all the simultaneous oxymorons of space itself: it is at once engulfing, and sparse. It is measured, yet elusive. It is ominous, yet beautiful. It is threatening, yet vulnerable. Rarely has a soundtrack reflected the external progression and internal conflicts of a film’s protagonist so astutely and effectively. Winning 11 awards internationally, and being nominated for 7 more, that none of those were for an Academy Award is a disgusting reminder of just how artistically irrelevant the Hollywood meat parade truly is. Micachu, however, seems largely unfazed and just humbly shuffles along, seemingly embarrassed by her own genius. That we could all learn something from her.

 

2. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher, 2011) – Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross

I mean, I was always going to pick something by Trent Reznor, wasn’t I? In many ways the most tragically overlooked of the Reznor & Ross / Fincher collaborations, both in terms of the soundtrack and, indeed, the film itself, this is certainly my favourite score of the three. Whilst the compositions for The Social Network and Gone Girl may be said to reflect the psychology of their protagonists (or, at least, their narrators), the score for Dragon Tattoo reflects the film’s greater preoccupation with questions of an aggressively Darwinian existence in the modern age: survival, adaptation, subterfuge, camouflage, and any level of violence deemed necessary. Thus, much like the visual motifs of the film, the score performs a balancing act between ice and fire, routinely exchanging the precision of The Social Network‘s modular synths for tremolo guitar reverb and detuned pianos. Adaptation and, indeed, evolution play a strong role in the development of sound – what is staccato routinely becomes sustained, and vice versa – aggressive percussion and the distant sound of bells compete for space and the listener may sometimes be surprised which side wins. The breaks for moments of true sentiment are few and far between but, as Dragon Tattoo at its most hopeful may suggest, are entirely worth the struggle.

 

3. Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, 2000) – Mihály Vig

Undoubtedly a film that should have been compulsory viewing for all British citizens before the farcical referendum, with the disastrous results only beginning to ripple through this stupid, petty little island, Werckmeister Harmonies, aligned for the most part with the engagingly loquacious, if a little unsettling, protagonist János (Lars Rudolf)  bears witness to a civilisation destroying itself in mass brutality, seemingly triggered by the arrival of a “circus” – in reality, the giant, decomposing body of a blue whale, and a deformed, malignant “Prince,” of whom we only see a silhouette, who may or may not be the Devil himself. The complete antithesis of High-RiseWerckmeister Harmonies looks on with a spiritual sadness that finds faith and hope where it can, which is absolutely nowhere. Such a profundity of paradox is reflected wholly in longtime Tarr collaborator Vig’s breathtaking score. I challenge anyone and everyone not to weep with a sense of melancholy beyond their understanding as they, with János, stare into the unblinking eye of the whale and the tinkling piano notes of “Valuska” begin to play. Reassuring in its repetition, yet so sombre in its melody, so frail in its timbre, with occasional rushes of emotion in its percussive rolls, this is the music of those who survey the sins of the world and with tears streaming down their face, in the manner of Beckett’s muddied narrator in Worstword Ho!, somehow move forwards.

 

4. Marketa Lazarová (František Vláčil, 1967) – Zdeněk Liška

Considered by a great many to be the jewel in the crown that was the Czechoslovak New Wave, Marketa Lazarová is a delirious immersion into the theological, tribal and sexual politics of 11th century Czechoslovakia, as bestial Pagans war against Teutonic Christians, each side’s vindictive brutality rivalling the other’s. Zdeněk Liška’s music is the only accompaniment imaginable to such a kaleidoscopic vision of dialectics, as it pits ecstatic choral voices against primitive percussion – the grand majority of the percussion either designed via the input of historians to help Liška achieve the most legitimate sound of the era, or alternatively completely new inventions to achieve sounds not heard neither the 11th century, nor yet in the 20th. It is appropriate for a film whose very overhead narrator may be God himself to have music that may imply we are all seeing the action from the heavens, with all the glory and violence we associate with religions both organised and chaotic.

 

5. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007) – Jonny Greenwood

Obviously a toss-up between this and Greenwood’s equally brilliant score for the equally brilliant Inherent Vice, I elected on the earlier composition largely for the reason that, unlike Inherent Vice which also has a soundtrack of 60s and 70s pop (my personal favourite being “Les Fleurs” by Anderson’s late, great mother-in-law Minnie Riperton), There Will Be Blood‘s lack of any music other than Greenwood’s score and is thus all the more affected by it. Sergei Eisenstein, master editor for the Soviet Union, viewed not only the filmic narrative but the filmic form as reliant on conflict – certainly, my captions in this article so far have borne that out in the description of juxtaposition after juxtaposition. There Will Be Blood is preoccupied with the ungodly, primal beast lurking within a well-tailored “of the people” oil driller who manipulates, dominates and kills in his lust and quest for a success he can only understand in terms of victory or defeat. Scoring the film as it follows Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) from a hopeful silver miner down a shaft to a violent, decrepit and alcoholic oil baron in an all-but empty mansion, Greenwood’s composition doesn’t so much explore juxtapositions between instruments as find alternative, often highly aggressive, uses in instruments – oftentimes allowing his ondes martenot to take control of some of the most legato passages, whilst giving his violinists guitar picks to turn their stringed instruments into tolls of unique and alarming percussion. Thus, the theme of ugly revelation carries on beautifully from the narrative to the music.

 

6. Queen of Earth (Alex Ross-Perry, 2015) – Keegan DeWitt

As a film, Queen of Earth still perplexes me. Although on a narratological level, I’m still unsure of its ultimate success, its formal brilliance was absolutely enough to keep me pretty enraptured until the end. The acting is spot on, the editing is as revealing and obscuring as it’s clearly intended to be, the cinematography is fantastic, with the lens focus being played like a violin as it masterfully captures the two protagonists’ destructive selfishness and crippling loneliness all at once. Not to mention, of course: the original score by Keegan DeWitt. Rarely straying too far from its classical influence, Queen of Earth‘s  main theme works contextually in much the same way as the music from Tristan und Isolde interacted with the simultaneously idyllic and apocalyptic visuals of Melancholia – clearly a not unreasonable filmic comparison to make. However, its chattering high notes and echoing, Chinese-water-torture-reminiscent percussion recall both the other-worldliness of Under the Skin and the paranoia of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, expertly reflecting the dissociative truculence of, in particular, Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) and, according to DeWitt himself, is a tonal reference to Polanski’s criminally underrated psychological horror The Tenant. Add to this busily arpeggiated and scale-running woodwinds à la Philip Glass, and you have a score that reflects perfectly internal projections onto an otherwise beautiful world.

 

7. Made in USA (Ken Friedman, 1987) – Sonic Youth

Okay, I’ll admit it: I haven’t seen the film. Honestly, I’ve never met anyone who has. I notice it is on YouTube, so perhaps I shall to cure me of the shame of discussing the soundtrack to a film I have not yet seen, but all reports say that the best thing about the film is the soundtrack, and the film severely underused it at that (Sonic Youth’s music for Made in USA wasn’t even released until 8 years after the film’s release). Recorded in 1986, the soundtrack to Made in USA was made during what I always refer to as Sonic Youth’s “dusty period” – immediately following Bad Moon Rising and EVOL, Sonic Youth’s two albums that turn their attention away from the New York City no wave scene to a more expansive sound, and to more Californian topics such as the Manson murders, not to mention titular nods to Creedence Clearwater Revival. Slowly but surely, their sound transitioned towards one with more pop sensibility – something that would be confirmed by the the more conventionally palatable Sister in 1987 and their double-album magnum opus Daydream Nation in 1988. Made in USA undoubtedly expands upon the Americana implications of Bad Moon Rising and EVOL, not simply employing increased use of detuned pianos and even harmonica. The guitars, whilst remaining entirely Sonic Youth, do employ that countryfied element in their bent notes that feel not unlike pre-eminent noise rock parodies of perhaps, Hans Zimmer’s work in Thelma & Louise and, in an attitude heavy criminal road movie, why would it not?

 

8. Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) – Vangelis

In a manner not dissimilar to the panoply of editions in which Blade Runner as a film has itself been released, there is a long and messy history relating to the soundtrack’s release I shan’t go into here, but it is interesting how many hurdles at times stand between us and works of greatness. Vangelis’ unforgettable composition strikes me as owing a debt to Wendy Carlos’ masterpiece of a score to A Clockwork Orange (my heart breaks that I was unable to add a trans woman genius like Carlos to this list but, sadly my aim for as many original compositions as possible restricted me from adding the soundtrack so defined by her stunning “switched-on” reworks of the classics) but arguably diverts from her tone inasmuch as Vangelis doesn’t allow the dystopian noir to overshadow the impressive, if ecocidal, grandeur of the gargantuan urbanisation of Planet Earth. Electronics, of course, take the lead, though Vangelis does employ oneiric use of some organic instruments, not limited to saxophone, gamelan and tubular bells, in such such a way as to refer to the particular type of lounge jazz emitting from 80s radios (regularly and appropriately associated with the erotic thriller and other such bastard offspring of film noir) as a half-forgotten memory in this future Earth. The urbanity, the despair, and the sleaze are thus all readily accounted for in the soundscape, though all may still play second fiddle to the brimming crescendos that accompanied the first audience’s gasps of such oppressive beauty.

 

9. No Country For Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007) –  Carter Burwell

Fully aware of the cheekiness of this one, I simply couldn’t not add a soundtrack of (save for the end credits) almost complete silence to the list. I initially considered adding the silence of The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes, though I have unfortunately seen a naturally sub-par screening of that with musical accompaniment, so I feel a mainstream cinematic release such as this works for the best. No Country For Old Men is certainly nothing if not laconic with regard to dialogue and even the most violent and murderous of character interaction. Nearly every single character being a Vietnam vet, the act of not discussing the traumatic burdens one carries Certainly borrowing from the western and the film noir, No Country deals to a certain degree with archetypes on an individualist level, but not to such an extent that anyone’s personality can truly dominate a given situation – with the one possible exception of the nigh-Satanic antagonistic juggernaut Anton Chigurrh (Javier Bardem), whose alien and obscure moral code feels not at all un-reminiscent of “The Bad” Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) from The Good, the Bad and the UglyNo Country is a film that meditates on evil within a world of negative space. Thus, the absence of any sound, save for the extremely occasional distant Tibetan singing bowl, or a piano detuned to the frequency of a refrigerator’s hum, is precisely what is required: un-embellishing, un-relieving, and un-forgiving.

 

10. Performance (Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg, 1970) – Various

My favourite feature-length film of all time, Performance  – much like my favourite musician, Keiji Haino – fundamentally represents for rock ‘n’ roll both its apex, and its annihilation. Sublime as it is nasty, femme as it is macho,  Performance‘s soundtrack accesses rock ‘n’ roll’s roots, and its future, and then surpasses it. Thus, Jack Nitzsche, Randy Newman, Merry Clayton, Buffy Saint-Marie, Merry Clayton, Bernie Krause and, naturally, Mick Jagger himself (with his greatest song of all time) contribute music both diegetic and non-diegetic that nods to gospel and the blues, makes use of one of the first moog synthesizers to create foreboding, Schaefer-esque pulsations, not to mention play the inimitable Black nationalist spoken word artists The Last Poets – rapping astute and powerful politics ten years before the Sugarhill Gang would form. Naturally, the centrepiece of Performance is the proto-music video for “Memo From Turner” (yes, my namesake) by Jagger, which makes the most thinly of veiled Ronnie Kray references throughout, as it delights in sending the casually racist butch world of London thuggery and queer Surrealism in head-on collision with one another inside a washed-up genderqueer rockstar’s daydream:

 

 

 

We are the Flesh (Emiliano Rocha Minter, 2016)

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Okay, now this is something very special. Tenemos la carne / We are the Flesh is one of those feature films for which the concept of the 5-star rating was invented: it is a film I feel, on some level, truly grateful for. I hesitate to give any real synopsis as part of this review as it is a delirious enough experience to make it unclear what would be a spoiler and what would not. Suffice to say, my assumption of the premise on the basis of the (still very good) trailer with regard to narrative events and character dynamics was pretty much erroneous, though for all the better, as my anxieties about this simply being a Mexican answer to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were quickly allayed.

Instead, We are the Flesh appears to be the brainchild of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, not to mention Jean-Luc Godard, the late playwright Sarah Kane and a whole host of video artists, devised theatre groups and installationists. In fact, what The Revenant may positively be described as being to European Art Cinema (a not-inappropriate link to make, considering Iñarritu’s backing of this film, alongside Carlos Reygadas and Alfonso Cuarón), I feel We are the Flesh may be said to be to a contemporary Artist’s Film & Video. The premise meanwhile combines what appears to be Catholicism, folklore and fairy tales, with a central figure whose name may be Mariano who appears and acts all at once akin to Charles Manson, Rumpelstiltskin and the Devil incarnate (no pun intended). The first act, amongst other things, details the transformation of an abandoned floor on an abandoned office building in an unexplained post-apocalyptic landscape into a womb-cave that may act as venue to each character’s Id to fully express itself. The film’s themes of sexuality, violence and cannibalism all have direct connections to psychoanalysis, as much as they do to the concepts of sin, and both are exploited to full symbolic effect in the film. Meanwhile, We are the Flesh rallies between states of modernism and post-modernism as the “film itself” struggles and seemingly fails to contain the jouissance within – visuals break to singe photographic frames as someone foams at the mouth; a sex scene turns into a music video shot in heat-cam and, later, another sex scene reaches a level of volatile intensity that the film distorts and colour-shifts into oldschool anaglyphic stereoscopic vision.

At pivotal moments (though I may not intend the pun, I’m not so sure the filmmakers don’t) throughout the film, the camera appears to spin 360⁰ in a style highly reminiscent of other recent Satanic Mexican art film Lucifer (interestingly enough, I believe the titular character’s actor, Gabino Rodriguez, may make a cameo in We are the Flesh though I’ll have to check when IMDb is more accommodating)’s use of “tondovision.” At others, it exploits a fantastic score, masterful editing, and psychedelic post-production values to elicit anything from empathetic lustmord to kolpophobia (at these points, one may detect faint echoes of William S. Burroughs’ writings in Central and South America, above my personal favourite, all Cities of the Red Night).

If We are the Flesh may be understood as a response to anything, I feel inclined to view it as a response to Ben Wheatley’s infinitely disappointing adaptation of High-Rise, whose ironic detachment from the narratologiccal grisliness was far too distant in the former and far too “stylish” in the latter – certainly a word of which all film-goers should be wary, due to its typical indication of little more than plenty of shiny things in the mise-en-scène. In the papier-mâché catacombs of We are the Flesh, nothing shines, though the entire film glows with an intoxicating, evil beauty of which I cannot wait for my next fix.

 

*****

Before I Go to Sleep (Rowan Joffé, 2014)

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A film I feel like I’ve seen a million times at this stage due to my usually reliably lesbian best friend’s obsession with both Colin Firth and Mark Strong, Before I Go to Sleep combines the Memento premise of reoccurring short-term-memory loss, the “is my partner secretly a psychopath?” trope of Suspicion, and the “spooky hotel corridor” visions of The Shining, but with a dispassionate Britishness of sensibility that produces the psychological thriller equivalent of a soggy, grey-skied afternoon.

Goodness knows, the London-based melodramatic kitchen sink thriller (surely there must be a potential abbreviation in there somewhere?) needn’t be nothingy – I mean, I’m hardly in love withNotes On a Scandal, but it was at least pretty meaty in terms of character development and interaction, cause and effect. The problem in Before I Go to Sleep may lie in its presentation of Christine (Nicole Kidman)’s anterograde amnesia: by having her memory reset to a time long before the incident that caused her brain damage, every time she goes to bed, her personality itself becomes essentially a blank slate each day. Now, that’s actually a pretty good set up, but only when either the writer is skilled enough to establish and re-establish interpersonal relations between characters both efficiently and meaningfully, or at the very least the actor gives a strong enough performance to tease out said emotional veracity which, unsurprisingly, Nicole Kidman as ever fails to do. Thus, most conversations in Before I Go to Sleepessentially translate to:

“Agh! Who are you?”
“I’m X, you can trust me, honest…”
“Oh… ‘kay.”

The absence of personality in Christine, not to mention the absence of charisma in Kidman, leaves Colin Firth’s suspicious husband character as the character most worthy of our interest though, even then, the dialogue never really takes off: “Christine, you’re 40,” he tells her as the film starts, in a tone of voice that implies she just walked into the room in fishnets and a miniskirt. Mark Strong’s dashing doctor character is yet another phone-in who never manages to raise tension – of dread or sexuality – high enough to have any particular impact on the plot. Thus, when The Revelation finally occurs, the audience can essentially rest easy that the mystery is over, but sigh deeply for the film isn’t yet.

**

The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (Stan Brakhage, 1971)

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Though I’m unsure how many times I have seen this film at this point, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit this was the first time I had realised the meaning behind the title: that “autopsy” (derived from the ancient Greek autos meaning “self” and optos meaning “seen,”) can in fact be translated to “The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes.” This information massively contextualises the content: rather than the film providing us with a typically unseen vision – corpses – in a manner one might describe, for example, Mothlight as doing, Act of Seeing instead places the kino eye within the morgue as locus of the revelatory event of autopsy. The reality of the film itself merely provides an entrance to a very literal unveiling. Stripped away is skin, fat, muscle, organic matter and what is left is… hard to say. But impossible not to see… and that, in a nutshell, is Brakhage’s game.

Such discomfort that I endure during Act of Seeing is not on account of gore; rather, much like sea-sickness, which is the visceral response to cognitive dissonance between perceptions of balance and vision, the nausea arises from the cognitive dissonance between the loss of these human bodies living, experiential subjectivity, and the addition of their objective potential as containers of mystery. Perhaps most disturbing is seeing the removal of faces, peeled away like a mask, revealing largely un-individual skull. The barrage of graphic imagery inducing a certain nigh-intoxicated effect, I mused, stoner-like, about the etymological meaning of “person” – mask. I recalled Alan Watts’ discourse on “who am I?” in which he discussed the ways in which one may not know oneself, in the same way one may not taste one’s own tongue or indeed see one’s own eyes with one’s own eyes, without the use of a mirror. How interesting that what we use to identify one another, read one another, be attracted to one another, is that about ourselves we are unable to see unaided…

I could go on but, as an act of mercy, I shan’t.

That Brakhage is able to elicit just as much wistful navel-gazing as he is pure revulsion is highly impressive, but perhaps also to be expected from his mastery of camerawork. Act of Seeing performs a certain phenomenological Cubism: flattening, thus relativising, the relief of subjectivity by stripping away the outside world, as so too is stripped away the flesh of the bodies, vision once again becomes an act of holism, just as it did in Dog Star Man. When the body of a larger woman is wheeled in near the end, green, the whiteness of the fat revealed as her chest is sliced open giving the effect of mattress foam more than anything as shocking as body tissue, it becomes ever unclear through the juxtaposing montage with other corpses of hues white, brown and grey, if the green-ness of this body was an effect of decomposition, or a trick of the light. The universal eyeball of the kino eye makes no valuation. Not this time. The final conflict between the lyrical hand and the Bazinian objectif in this film ends, I believe, in the latter’s favour. Though these corpses may no longer possess the subjectivity of the anima of their former living hosts, the gaze in the Act of Seeing feels considerably more akin to that expressed by Todd McGowan than by Laura Mulvey: this is no controlling gaze. Neither Brakhage’s eye, the camera’s eye, nor our eye has anymore say in what happens to these bodies than the bodies themselves; all we can do is see them, or turn and look away.

 

*****

Cat’s Cradle (Stan Brakhage, 1959)

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The thing about works of “lyrical film,” such as Brakhage’s is that the artist’s ideology can be understood in many ways to permeate the film to an extent often far surpassing the majority of mainstream cinema’s most recognisable auteurs. Cat’s Cradle is by no means an exception to this rule. Brakhage was, without a doubt, one of the most formally and aesthetically accomplished key figures in the world of artist’s film throughout the entire latter half of the 20th Century and, goodness knows, when his striving to open the door to a cornucopia of visual experiences, as far removed from ideology as cinematically possibly was successful, it was really successful. However, there are also nigh-countless examples of him almost bizarrely making use of archetypal signifiers that act in total accord with the standard symbolic order. Thus, Brakhage may earnestly believe that Cat’s Cradle is an example of “sexual witchcraft involving two couples and a ‘medium’ cat,” but what appears before us is two women, doing womanly duties, and two men lounging around, smoking. The only things missing are a couple of martinis and pairs of slippers.

Thus, although Carolee Schneemann does specifically point toWindow Water Baby Moving as the film against which her ownFuses can be said to fight back, it would seem highly remiss not to mention Cat’s Cradle, not least of all because it involves Stan, Jane, Carolee, James and Kitch the Cat – the latter 3 all having starring roles in Fuses. Window Water Baby Moving assuredly is problematic in taking a film of Jane giving birth and successfully making it all about Stan, it is Cat’s Cradle that so clearly assigns men and women traditional, hetero-patriarchal roles, with which Carolee and James look particularly uncomfortable.

The formal elements of the film, from the red glow to the rapid, chaotic juxtapositions and visual dialogue from gaze to gaze is as beautiful as it is impressive – enough to gain it 3 stars in my estimation – but, with regard to the “sexual witchcraft” remit, it ultimately fails.

***

 

Dog Star Man (Stan Brakhage, 1961-1964)

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Multi-layered in both content and form, the panoply of holistic vision which Dog Star Man presents makes the magnum opus of this stage in Brakhage’s career a pretty clearly intentional candidate for the lyrical film’s equivalent of the Great American Novel. Wholly representative of the Brakhage family’s participation in the Back-to-the-Land movement, Dog Star Man seems to meditate on in the interconnectedness of all things, from – appropriately enough – dogs, to stars, to men. Gratifyingly, the technical brilliance of Dog Star Man‘s post-production is considerably more self-acknowledged than in, for instance,Window Water Baby Moving or The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes, in which descriptions tend to include phrases such as, “completely unedited, except for ____ and ____ and ____,” thus the deftness with which juxtaposition becomes comparison, which in turn becomes abstraction carries weighty meaning in line with some of the more compelling aspects of New Age woo: namely, the similarity between such things as the appearance of galaxies and, appropriately, the human eye.

Dog Star Man ventures on a journey of sight that includes the spectacular cosmos and details, actions and events of the human anatomy, external and internal, beautiful and shocking. The miracle of birth and the flow of blood through capillaries share space with stars and the trees of the Colorado mountains. However, predictably, at the centre of it all does seem to be Brakhage himself, journeying through said trees, up said mountains, felling for firewood. As with any (proto-)hippie-esque piece of artwork, man’s interaction with nature is one of ambiguity, Brakhage himself describing the act as “man felling the tree of the world.” However, sensitive as Brakhage may on occasion consider himself, he is frankly a bit too much of a patriarchal caveman not to tip the balance in his favour: he with his axe and his dog, trudging through the snow, was always going to end up looking more majestic than ecocidal and why wouldn’t it? It’s his visual poetry, and I’m sure he left considerably less of a carbon footprint on this planet than the most of us.

The parenthetical sections Prelude and Part IV are, to my mind, simultaneously the film’s most kaleidoscopic and strongest points, with the middle sections focusing on his mountain-climbing and his baby the least engaging, simply for being the most standard bits of filmmaking. The direct engagement with the celluloid itself, most particularly through the method of scratching patterns into it, is a beautiful precursor to the painting films of his last 15 years. Dog Star Man is wonderful in its ability to express so much of Brakhage the man – both the poetic genius and the patriarchal jerk, and both somehow come across with flair and charm in this essential milestone of the American avant-garde.

 

*****