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

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

Desistfilm (Stan Brakhage, 1954)

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An engaging if rough-round-the-edges look at sociality and sexuality in group settings, Desistfilm certainly feels like one of Brakhage’s more “acted” films and, holding the place as one of his very few sound films, makes distinctly impressive use of sonic/visual juxtaposition with a great, noisy soundtrack that sits somewhere between free jazz and the first wave of industrial artists like Nurse With Wound – all the more impressive, 5 years before Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come. Overall, Desistfilm is a slight, yet compelling, preferable alternative to the ever-overrated (albeit funnier) Pull My Daisy.

 

***1/2

The Mask You Live In (Jennifer Siebel Newsom, 2015)

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The Mask You Live In is a solid and vital, if unadventurous, documentary on the crossover between gender performativity and toxic masculinity and the societal feedback loop that cultivates it / which it cultivates. Its primary tool is an impressively varied set of talking heads and interviewees, the former including neuroscientists, behaviourists, sociologists, sports coaches, social workers and psychiatrists; the latter including reception-age children, high-school kids and young male felons with life sentences. Mask‘s strong point is looking at current affairs and developing recent discussions on pop culture – for example video games – and contextualising the young men – young boys, even – and their engagement with misogynist and hyper-masculine representations of violence as the only means of conflict resolution and rage as the only emotion – if any – worthy of expression to a degree which Anita Sarkeesian has somewhat often fallen short.

It’s a trippy and affective experience, watching such a film as a young woman, raised in childhood to be someone’s son and, perhaps it was as someone with such a relatively unique perspective that I noticed the morals of the film being disappointingly simple – essentially a “don’t do that.” It was a little jarring that it focused so often on language relating to queerphobia and misogyny, but didn’t bother too much to pursue the narratives of queer young men. It was a little tiring to see such an un-nuanced attitude of suspicion and blame towards sex work, including but not limited to pornography, to the extent that there were points at which it did become difficult to see too much distance between Mask and any other special news report. Much like a special news report, Mask mixes agenda with information in a way that, whilst not teaching me very much I didn’t already know, it did have me jotting down the names of some of the consulted experts to find out about any related TED talks etc – without a doubt the most impressive of these is Ashanti Branch.

Problems aside, The Mask You Live In‘s heart is indubitably in the right place and it comes away with considerably more wins than losses. We must just look at this film as the beginning of a much longer conversation.

 

***1/2

Victoria (Sebastian Schipper, 2015)

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There are certainly many arguments to be made about what makes the cinema the cinema, what makes a film a film. A popular argument does rest on editing: the complementation and/or juxtaposition of images. Still, as a well-known fan of post-intellectual montage Socialist cinema (e.g. Tarkovsky), and indeed the cinema post-that (e.g. Tarr), the long take, in which the cameraman effectively becomes the editor is hardly a new concept to me; nor one that presents many inherent hurdles I need to “get over” to enjoy the film.

Nor should it be: the single shot – even the single frame – film has existed, both in concept and reality, bouncing in dialogue between the avant-garde and mainstream cinema for decades now. From Frampton to Hitchcock to Sokurov to Iñarritu. However, Victoria is certainly one of the first genre films I’ve encountered, filmed in one take; generic devices so often by definition relying upon traditional filmic conventions such as editing. I would tentatively suggest that one of the main events that has happened in the 13 years since the release of Russian Arkin 2002 and Victoria, first released in Germany in 2015, was the found-footage-horror boom (The Blair Witch Project was released in 1999, but the explosion of this style to ubiquity only really happened in about 2007). It only was a matter of time, therefore, before the steady increase of genre film with the atmosphere and simulation of an unedited, real-time occurrence would result in a film like Victoria, the moment the technology was there.

The film can, more or less, be split into thirds: before / after Victoria decides not to end her night by opening up the café at which she works, and instead to help her new friends out, with what she doesn’t yet know, and before / after that event itself. I certainly enjoyed the first two-thirds, and found the last section certainly more than watchable. It is in no way unimpressive to see a film develop so seamlessly from a Before Sunrise walk-and-talk to a high-octane crime drama. However, as will all films, it is important to ask: is a film more than its formal elements, even if we understand acting and narratology as a formal element? Does it matter that the story and motivations, divorced from the formal devices – fabulous as they may be – are largely workaday and a little unsatisfactory, or should we just allow them to blend in our minds, as indeed they should inherently do?

One of the ways in which the effect and affect seem most connected is the phenomenological impression left on the viewer. By the last section of Victoria, the shaky camera and high intensity of the storyline combined to make me feel utterly seasick and a little anxious for the film to end, though I was acutely aware that this was quite likely a genuine empathetic connection with the protagonist. However, the fact that Victoriadrew my attention to the formal process of itself, even as it had an emotional, even haptic, effect on me left me with the impression I had seen a gimmick – an engaging, well-acted gimmick – but a gimmick nonetheless.

However, Victoria still wins on many levels: Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen gets billed in the end credits above director Sebastian Schipper, as is only correct – as good as the majority of the acting is (and it really is), the camera work can really only be classed with one word and that is “heroic.” The fluidity not only of its movement (how Grøvlen wasn’t tripping over himself constantly through all the location changes on foot and in automobile is beyond belief in and of itself) but its focus changes provide a film in which the whole frame is constantly vital: moving deftly from exactly those sorts of close-ups Hitchcock famously likened to crash cymbals to a shot that utilises foreground and background simultaneously, with the spectator encouraged to study both, even when one is highly blurred. Such an effect is truly harmonious in the context of a film in which the protagonist is a non-German-speaker, surrounded by Germans, affording the spectator a slight upper-hand in terms of understanding over Victoria, even though we are constantly aligned with her. Aptly enough, the recent found footage (esque) horror Unfriended, set entirely on a computer screen made use of the spectator’s ability to read messages the protagonist would write and delete before sending them, as way of giving a unique point of access to her interior monologue.Victoria‘s use of Sonne, Boxer and Blinker’s frantic German discussions, going right over Victoria’s head give a similar effect, albeit in reverse.

There is an awful lot going for Victoria, thus I don’t want my labelling of it as a gimmick to be seen as pure dismissal. Rather,Victoria should stand proudly as testament that, just because a film may be groan-inducingly characterised as a “rollercoaster ride of a movie” doesn’t mean the rollercoaster can’t have a little depth.

 

***1/2

Dear White People (Justin Simien, 2014)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

***1/2

The Dance of Reality (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 2013)

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Feeling all at once his most flippant work, and the one to be taken most seriously of all, Jodorowsky’s The Dance of Reality takes the surrealist semi-autobiographical route of the last number of Takeshi Kitano features, whilst ending up focusing considerably more on the tale of his father, abusive and hapless bourgeois communist Jaime than on young Alejandro himself. Jaime is slowly transfigured over the course of the narrative from Nom-de-Père monstrosity to a figure who might have stepped out of an Artaud-directed production of Les Mains Salles, to a figure of surprising and moving redemption.

Watching it, as I did, as the second feature in a double bill with Santa Sangre I couldn’t help but be struck by Jodorowsky’s consistent reflections on processing guilt in the face of sins of the father (and, indeed, mother). Considering his own childhood existence as the abused and alienated end result of spousal rape, it’s hardly a surprise, though made all the more poignant by his continued trend of casting his own offspring in the lead roles – The Dance of Reality being the first of his films to star three generations of Jodorowsky’s, including himself, as himself.

Genuinely funny as it regularly is, perhaps the most pleasantly amusing element of Reality is the way in which it acts as a biopic, subtly referencing – as far as I could tell – all of Jodorowsky’s back catalogue. Just as other films about an artist’s life regularly invent characters and circumstances the filmmakers assume may have influenced iconic moments in their oeuvre, Jodorowsky adds such tongue-in-cheek speculation himself. It may be true to state that Reality is not so much surrealist as it is magic-realist; symbolist, even. On this more subdued, linear plane, Jodorowsky allows his philosophy to rise to the surface with relative clarity: whether the depicted events in Reality happened in the most literal sense feel quite irrelevant to the question of whether they’re true. As is stated in the film itself, truth is the path to God – a path Jodorowsky, now apparently 85, is clearly ever more aware of walking.

Reality is not perfect, and the earlier Jodorowsky films it nods to throughout all have considerably more re-watch value and are, without a doubt, more fun. However, this is a very good, earnest and honest film from one of the true masters of psychedelic cinema. I am grateful to have finally seen this film.

***1/2