INLAND EMPIRE (David Lynch, 2006)

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Lynch’s masterpiece, and I won’t countenance any opposition, INLAND EMPIRE is a challenging development on the möbius strip structure of Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive and into what appears to be a meditation on a murdered Polish sex worker, quite possibly from the 1930s, trapped simultaneously in a Sartrean (albeit this time seemingly purgatorial) hotel room and in a state of Deleuzian eternal recurrence, experienced both by her and we the spectators (she watches all the filmic events through a television screen, herself) as a rhizomatic system of assemblages that serve to investigate genealogies of gendered violence, ultimately in search of a line of flight.

Or, at least, that’s how best I make “sense” of INLAND EMPIRE. The keenest interpretation is one that doesn’t necessarily accept any (I say “any,” rather than “either”) of Laura Dern’s characters as the true protagonist. Characters merge, they fracture, they exchange roles, become each other’s mirrors, avatars, spiritual doppelgangers. In so doing, INLAND EMPIRE reflects on the ways in which we can become our own victims and perpetrators and, accordingly, how much self-liberation may feel like self-murder.

Constant motifs of holes speak to the permeable membranes of ontology and identity that come to define the constellation of bodies that make up the assemblage of characters and situations of INLAND EMPIRE, the folded silk reflecting the foldings at levels both spatial and temporal which Sue/Nikki/? as the Lost Girl’s avatar/s must strategically navigate to a point of self-realisation and radical self-realignment to achieve meaningful deterritorialisation and liberation. When that moment finally arrives, it is perhaps Lynch’s most sublime, moving and beautiful moment in his whole career. Indeed, it expresses a similar sense of pathos as the ending to The Tempest in which Prospero’s letting go is clearly Shakespeare’s as well. It comes as no surprise that INLAND EMPIRE was announced as Lynch’s final film for entirely the same reason: it’s a film, made of endings. It may not be an ending everyone likes, nor one everyone understands, but it is nonetheless perfect in its philosophy and its execution.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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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.

⭐⭐⭐

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.

 

*****

The Revenant (Alejandro G. Iñarritu, 2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

Lost River (Ryan Gosling, 2015)

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Watching Lost River, I couldn’t help but get an eerie feeling of déja-vu. After half an hour or so, I realised that it’s more or less one of the film scripts I wrote in my bedroom at age 14 up till the moment where my laptop had the good sense to die forever, depriving the world of more derivative, albeit aesthetically harmonious, twaddle.

It is instantly apparent that each and every one of the characters are entirely picked from a deck of instantly recognisable archetypes but, strangely enough, not a one of them is fleshed out enough even to fulfil the required tropes. Granted, for this it makes the characters less obnoxious than the overbearingly paint-by-numbers archetype list to be found in so many films from Birdman to Calvary, but that’s but there is more than one alternative to glitzy 2D character writing that isn’t frustratingly 1D character writing. Lost River‘s aimless approach to in media res means that we’re never really given insight into any motivations, allegiances or conflicts, and the nearly-last-days universe, for all its neon cool, just isn’t interesting enough forLost River‘s lack of tight plot to be made irrelevant by immersive experience, à la Hard to Be a God.

To be sure, I have occasionally wondered what Ryan Gosling’s blu-ray collection looked like, and I’m glad to have Lost River take me from J through M (Jodorowsky, Korine, Lynch, Mallick) as well as confirm for me that he’s seen and enjoyed Stalker at least once, but I cannot help but resent him for recycling these auteurs in such a dull, privileged way. I say privileged, because there are films that have managed to borrow unmistakable elements from, say, Lynch on what seems to have been a fraction of this film’s budget and make a simple, pleasant watch. Enemy is a fine example of such a film. Lost River, by contrast, feels simultaneously somehow too simple and too complex at the same time, Gosling never quite sure what point he wants to make, but never having the nihilism of the majority of his considerably more existential influences to allow it to have no point with dignity.

It’s heartbreaking to think Gosling believed he was making something good and new with Lost River and it’s sickening to think some stupid teenager will honestly believe this is the peak of filmmaking. I certainly hope they discover the source texts for every rip-off in this film and realise how much more there is to explore than Lost River.

**

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

It’s Such a Beautiful Day (Don Hertzfeldt, 2012)

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First watched and reviewed June 30, 2015

Surreal, funny, tragic, and profoundly moving, I can’t think of any film that takes you on such a long journey in such a relatively short amount of time as It’s Such a Beautiful Day. Hertzfeldt makes perfect use of the illustrative medium and, though I usually find myself very much aligned with the André Bazin / Dudley Andrews way of thinking (that animation, by definition, cannot be cinema), the 35mm medium and bewildering and beautiful in-camera effects of which Don Hertzfeldt makes most skilful use renders Beautiful Day an exception to this rule, creating new examples of what we considered lost in the age of CGI: Cinema Magic. Old school and entirely new all at once,Beautiful Day is already an historical treasure that will surely only gain more praise and followers as time rolls on.

*****

Enemy (Denis Villeneuve, 2014)

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Jake Gyllenhaal gives not one but two impressive if quiet performances in this evocative film that manages to feel simultaneously high concept and yet also strangely small – at about 90 minutes, the last thing Enemy is is baggy. With its subject matter of doppelgängers and mysterious keys, there is an unmissable Mulholland Driveconnection which, much like its predecessor, provides an easy enough interpretation for those who don’t much like to think and will only watch it once, with enough questions left unanswered for those who will want to return a few times more. I imagine when I watch it a third time, this will up from a 3.5 to a 4 star rating as I uncover more of this pleasingly unpretentious example of 21st century surreal cinema.

***1/2