In the Shadow of the Sun (Derek Jarman, 1981)

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(Screened at Cafe OTO with a live score performed by Psychic TV)

In the Shadow of the Sun exists essentially in the dead-centre of a triangle made of Lucifer Rising (Kenneth Anger, 1974), Begotten (E. Elias Merhige, 1991), and From the Pole to the Equator (Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, 1987). As one might thus expect, it is an oneiric, haunting and paradoxically apocalyptic world-creation, wholly intoxicating in the well-established avant-garde-cinematic mode of queer orientalism and yet, in eschewing a good three-quarters of the campiness we would associate with Anger or Jack Smith, the contrast between skeletal ritual masks and race/class-signifying top hats allows Shadow to approach a slight critique of the colonial “magickal tourism” so often in play. Note I do say “approach,” rather than “reach,” however there is a notable absence of naiveté within the gaze of these blown-up 8mm images.

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The use of repetition and superimposition, as with Jarman’s earlier shorts (from which some of Shadow‘s footage is evidently lifted) invokes a particularly cabbalistic reading of montage – a visual praxis of solve et coagula – that demands numerous rewatching and reinterpretation. I certainly plan to oblige.

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The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (John Emerson and Christy Cabanne, 1916)

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An amusing, if not terribly funny, “cocaine comedy” with several big names (Douglas Fairbanks, Tod Browning and – allegedly – D.W. Griffith) tied to the production, the least surprising being Browning’s. The reasoning behind this two-reeler remains somewhat obscure, other than showcasing Fairbanks’ comedic abilities in the role of Sherlock spoof “Coke Ennyday” (such as they are) and perhaps as a parodical piggybacking onto the serious 1916 adaptation of The Valley of Fear, as does the plot, so The Mystery of the Leaping Fish‘s main selling point is as a piece of campy cult enjoyment to see narcotic abundance as yet unchallenged by Scarface, Party Monster or The Wolf of Wall Street, and for that abundance’s role as a signifier for the legal and social reflections on intoxication in 1916.

Certainly, Leaping Fish is useful therefore also as a retrospective barometer for the racism embroiled in such moral relativity – cocaine appearing an “American” drug, worthy of a hero, in contrast to the malignantly orientalist opium (implicated, as it ever was in this era, in the abduction of innocent white women), but it is not that we should thank Leaping Fish for an entryway into such analysis. There are plenty of other, better films which illustrate this.

Although it certainly gains points for its production design and its meta-textual twist, Leaping Fish would be entirely forgettable and entirely forgotten, were it not for its drugged absurdism theme, and I cannot help but watch this para-postmodernist Sherlock Holmes parody without thinking again and again of how much better in every way Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. was, a mere four years down the line.

 

**1/2

La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016)

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I mean, let’s be clear: it is not necessary to hate La La Land in order to love Moonlight. It makes total sense that it was nominated in many categories throughout awards season, including the Oscars. Neither of those statements, however, speak to La La Land being a good film. It’s a fine film, eminently watchable once you get past the first couple of truly grating numbers, Ryan Gosling’s piano is impressive enough that we may forgive his singing, and it may have grabbed me at several moments, but it never once held me.

People are starting to find the postmodern genre flick, constantly referencing cult classics, increasingly obnoxious. Even I had to put my foot firmly down whilst watching The Hateful Eight, and I’ve given Tarantino pass after pass over the years. It surprises me, therefore, that La La Land‘s “love letter to Hollywood” schtick has been so celebrated. Considering its release during the Brexit/Trump era, I can’t help but think of the 1974 MGM musical compilation film That’s Entertainment! and its piteous tagline “Boy, do we need it now.” Certainly, there’s an affective seduction at the heart of La La Land but I do feel the need to stress the manipulative quality implicit in that observation. Tarantino’s own aesthetic at least allows for hidden gems: you will genuinely enjoy his films more if you do seek out the often semi-obscure B-movies being referenced with varying degrees of subtlety throughout. La La Land, on the other hand, makes unmistakeable-by-design nods towards exceptionally well-known and well-loved classics and yet never exploits their recognisability to the extent of entering into any depth of analysis.

Indeed, most cynically, Damien Chazelle & Co. seem to rely on the general audience’s lack of knowledge about either films or music, which brings us on to the question of jazz. Does La La Land have a racial problem with regard to jazz music and white saviourism? Undoubtedly it does. And yet, for my white, jazz loving money’s worth (which, admittedly, may not be worth much at all), it’s not something we need take all that seriously, because La La Land‘s relationship with jazz is so utterly surface-level, it doesn’t risk teaching anyone anything about it at all, either racist and incorrect, or gospel truth. Jazz is little more than the mcguffin for Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) to mansplain to Mia (Emma Stone) throughout the narrative. It could have been replaced with oldskool techno, heavy metal, opera, and the effect would have been precisely the same. It’s not, after all, like much of the score even has that much to do with jazz – certainly the type Sebastian is interested in – it really just, much like in Whiplash, acts as the catalyst for the extreme gender problem both films seem to reveal about their writer/director.

Jazz music is a serious white concern for serious white men who, for the sake of its continued existence, must not be distracted – let alone criticised – by any woman. Both films seemingly follow the logic of Foucault’s description of neoliberalism to the letter, stressing the need for ruthless micromanagement and the absolute discardability of personal relationships for the acquirement of human capital. Perhaps most interesting is Chazelle’s desire to have his cake and eat it too by also acknowledging the necessity for amoral situational adaptability in the quest for human capital (whether sustaining abuse in Whiplash or – at least temporarily – “selling out” in La La Land) whilst still romanticising the nature of integrity, left entirely abstract by the end of the film because being “principled” is more important as a general personality quirk is worth so much more to Chazelle than ever detailing what these principles are. It’s entirely reasonable for many people to state that, no, Keith (John Legend) is by no means a sell out; acid jazz etc etc is a generic tradition in its own right and has been since the 1980s – more or less the only thing Sebastian told us / Mia about jazz is that it has improvisation, and he clearly is allowed to improvise onstage with that band, too. If Sebastian truly is as horrified as he seems, the first time he sees The Messengers employing synthesizers in a jazz setting, he’s going to freak out when he learns about Herbie Hancock’s later work. Clearly, these concepts of “integrity” etc are decided by one person and one alone: Damien Chazelle. If you don’t agree with his worldview, your enjoyment of La La Land is instantly going to be limited.

“Integrity” and, indeed, “passion” are the codewords for – from the romantic perspective – that which allows you to “achieve your dreams” and – from the capitalist perspective – that which allows you the most easy access to human capital. “Integrity” and “passion” are codewords for individualism and whiteness. Despite the intersubjective, often democratic, nature of jazz performance, about which Sebastian speaks at length – the type of thing that allowed Thelonious Monk multiple times in concert to stop playing piano and just dance to the sound of his sidemen – Chazelle’s interpretation of jazz always has but one most important player and that player is always the protagonist. La La Land routinely made me think of Whiplash‘s ending, in which the protagonist, who has never once met the band before, high-jacks the entire performance for the sake of an alienating if impressive solo, after the more-or-less antagonist of the piece had moments before decided to ruin the show for all of them, just to humiliate him. The solipsistic – not to mention white – gall of that scene drives the whole of La La Land, no matter how much more subtly, and that strikes me as the crux of its white, capitalist cynicism.

Apparently, Chazelle’s desire when making La La Land was to “have something which had the magic of musicals, but also had the texture and the grit of real life.” So, just like Cabaret, Chicago, All That Jazz, New York New York, Rent… As I said, no matter how well put together this film is – and it certainly is – La La Land is a duplicitous exercise. It demands you praise its referential nature, whilst ignoring its unoriginality. It demands you praise its affect, whilst ignoring the working class / POC labour and genius upon which it depends. It demands you praise its romanticism, whilst ignoring its capitalism.

Huh, maybe it is a genuine love-letter to Hollywood and the music industry, after all…

**1/2

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

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.

*****