Sunday, 8 April 2018

Crime and Punishment


A note on a film: Crime and Punishment (1983)

In a particularly impressive stroke, Kaurismäki's film - his first as director - begins with a scene taking place in some anonymous Helsinki slaughter house. In close-up, an insect crawls across a blood-splattered plinth. Almost immediately, a cleaver comes down and cuts the bug in two. Ominous music begins to overwhelm the soundtrack as we're subjected to an onslaught of emotionless, repetitive slaughter; a montage of drab, impassive young men in overalls cleaning meat from bone, sawing through sinew and hosing down pools of blood collected under a procession of strung-up animal carcasses.

This first scene introduces us to our central character, Rahikainen; a former lawyer turned butcher, still haunted by the loss of his young fiancé some several years before. However, it also introduces us to the theme of murder, central to both Kaurismäki's film, and the 1866 novel by Dostoevsky on which it is based. More specifically, it introduces us to the idea of murder as somehow existing to sustain balance; the order of murder, as it moves down the chain, from human, to animal, to insect, etc. It also introduces us to Kaurismäki's characteristically ironic and deadpan sense of humour; as he illustrates, in mundane miniature, the very essence of what the film - and, by extension, its esteemed source material - is effectively about.

Like the novel, Kaurismäki's modernised interpretation of Dostoevsky focuses on the attempts made by its central character to kill a principle. Not a specific person or target, but a concept; an ideology. Rahikainen's eventual murder of a seemingly anonymous businessman at first seems divorced from the more conventional justifications we might associate with the crime; such as vengeance and retribution. It doesn't seem motivated by anger or hatred, but instead seems an almost philosophical or moral provocation; an attempt to challenge the societal or evolutionary order of things, as the character sees it.

In this respect, the film predicts certain elements from Krzysztof Kieaelowski's startling Dekalog-spin off, A Short Film About Killing (1988), which probably owes some of its own influence to the work of Dostoevsky. Both films focus on young men cast adrift and unable to connect to a society that seems both cold and colourless, while both films share a thematic preoccupation with the correlation between crime and punishment itself.


Crime and Punishment [Aki Kaurismäki, 1983]:


A Short Film About Killing [Krzysztof Kieaelowski, 1988]:

The similarity feels obvious from the start. While Kaurismäki begins his film in a fully-functioning slaughter house, Kieaelowski famously begins his own film with the image of a dead cat hung from a railing (further accompanied by the sound of children running away in fits of mischievous laughter). Both films evoke the crime of murder, first in miniature, and as a precursor to later events, and both use these crimes against non-human entities to exemplify the loveless nature of the society that these characters are caught up in (Kieaelowski and his screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz go one further by predicting the method of execution that will eventually be favoured by the state; turning their first image into both a personal and political foreshadowing.)

Similarly, the world created by both filmmakers is ugly and dehumanising. Kieaelowski and his cinematographer Sławomir Idziak favour grotesque colour filters that plunge areas of the frame into total darkness, while saturating the remaining image in a wash of green and yellow hues. Conversely, Kaurismäki favours heightened minimalism. His framing is flat and perfunctory, with shots and inserts used sparingly to provide illustration. He focuses on naturalistic location shooting to present an inherent drabness, or dreariness, that seems to suggest something about his protagonist; his lack of prospects and direction; the void of hope.


A Short Film About Killing [Krzysztof Kieaelowski, 1988]:


Crime and Punishment [Aki Kaurismäki, 1983]:

There's also something of Robert Bresson to Kaurismäki's particular aesthetic; not just here, but as it would subsequently develop through his later, better films; such as Ariel (1988), Drifting Clouds (1996) and The Man Without a Past (2002). The presentational nature of the imagery, the use of insert shots, the pace of the editing and the very flat, mannered, almost emotionless delivery of the actors, can't help but evoke Bresson's legacy of works, from Pickpocket (1959) through to L'argent (1983). Pickpocket specifically is said to have been inspired, in-part, by Dostoevsky, and the ending of that particular film is appropriately echoed here.


Pickpocket [Robert Bresson, 1959]:


Crime and Punishment [Aki Kaurismäki, 1983]:

At the end of Pickpocket, the character Michel - the titular thief - finds a kind of spiritual transcendence through incarceration. In this sense, Bresson's film probably has a touch the "existential" about it, as the character intentionally sets in motion a chain of events that will see about his own personal downfall, or a kind of punishment for some perceived weakness or failure. This, as a conception, recalls Dostoevsky, but it also evokes some of the ideas found in Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness (published 1943) and the predicament of the character Meursault in Albert Camus's The Stranger (published 1942). Here the notion that "existence precedes essence", and the idea of a character committing a crime as almost primal scream (as well as an attempt to re-establish some kind of emotional balance within his own personal universe) seems to inform the philosophy of Bresson, and by extension, the philosophy of the film in question.   

As a debut, Crime and Punishment lacks much of the nuance and personality that would become characteristic of Kaurismäki's later cinema; which would really come into its own with the release of his third feature, Shadows in Paradise (1986). Subsequent works would take a similar approach to the one seen here, incorporating the same influence of Bresson and the milieu of socio-economic hardship as a backdrop to a more conventional filmic narrative, but would punctuate the deadpan humour and the mannered performance style with a sensitivity seemingly plucked from the quiet melodramas of Yasujirō Ozu (note the appearance of the red kettle in one of the screen captures featured above as an early nod to Ozu's cinema.)

Nonetheless, the film still provides a fascinating insight into Kaurismäki's early approach, his creative vision, and his particularly sardonic sense of ambition (a cavalier approach to adapting literary classics that would eventually carry through to his later, similarly modern and satirical adaptations of Shakespeare - Hamlet Goes Business, 1987 - and Henri Murger - La Vie de Bohème, 1992 - respectively). Crime and Punishment is a film very much worth experiencing, both in its own right, and as a way of introducing the rough essence of what an Aki Kaurismäki film is before approaching his subsequent, more interesting endeavours, such as those aforementioned.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Heart is Where the Home Is


Thoughts on a film: The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

With its extensive use of wide-angle lenses to distort perspective, prolonged tracking shots that unfurl through a maze of labyrinthine corridors and slow, penetrating zooms that seem to expose the hidden emotions of its characters, The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) is nothing if not a masterpiece of cinematic form.

In terms of its actual creative lineage, it was difficult not to be reminded of the films of Stanley Kubrick, both in its thematic design and its actual on-screen direction. More specifically, it brought to mind the presentation of Kubrick's similarly languorous and claustrophobic horror film The Shining (1980), where the discordant soundtrack, sense of isolation (both spatial and psychological) and the depiction of a family being pushed to the brink by external, possibly even supernatural forces, calls to mind the same events seen here.

However it also seems reminiscent of the detached and paranoid psychodrama at play within another of Kubrick's films: the often underrated Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Here, a successful doctor/surgeon is thrown into an emotional tailspin when his comfortable image of the world (and his own place within it) is challenged by an accusation that hits a little too close to home.


The Killing of a Sacred Deer [Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017]:

In keeping with the influence of Kubrick, Nicole Kidman once again appears as the wife of a successful doctor/surgeon whose all-knowing perspective on the narrative (and its secrets) creates a question of complicity. The role itself, and much of the resulting scenes, seem to offer a conscious throwback to Kidman's earlier role in Eyes Wide Shut.

Eyes Wide Shut [Stanley Kubrick, 1999]:

In Eyes Wide Shut, Kidman plays Alice; wife of the successful doctor Bill Hartford. It's Alice's initial confession about an erotic fantasy and possible extramarital affair that sends Hartford on his nocturnal odyssey; creating a question as to whether or not Alice is simply a victim of her husband's circumstances or a part of the greater conspiracy acting against him.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer [Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017]:

The frequent tracking shots through the labyrinth-like hospital feel specific to the point of establishing the location as an almost sentient space. Suggesting something of "the corridors of the mind" even; where the presentation seems to recall the vast passageways of the Overlook Hotel, or the hedge-maze and its wider (and applicable) connotations to Greek myth.

The Shining [Stanley Kubrick, 1980]:

Despite the Kubrickian similarities - as well as references and allusions to other works, which will be discussed shortly - The Killing of a Sacred Deer never feels like a copy or a work of imitation, but instead seems to have its own sense of morality and creative identity. It's an assemblage of influences, for certain, as almost all films today seem to be, but one that nonetheless reflects the general attitudes and worldview found in other films by Lanthimos and his co-writer Efthymis Filippou, such as Dogtooth (2009), Alps (2011) and The Lobster (2015).


Dogtooth [Yorgos Lanthimos, 2009]:

Like Dogtooth, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is preoccupied with exploring the roles and routines that come to define the conventional family unit. These routines depict a particular kind of American domesticity that is familiar from Hollywood movies and daytime television, but the scenes that feel most familiar, or recognisable, are robbed of personality, warmth and even basic humanity.

Again, as with Dogtooth - which presented an even more radical deconstruction of the suburban family - Lanthimos and his collaborators exaggerate these domestic routines until they become like little rituals of dehumanisation. Conversations about body hair and mp3 players or scenes of characters flossing their teeth are presented as a reality, but are depicted in such a way that it's as if we're witnessing aliens from a distant planet attempting to grapple with or engage with some rudimentary semblance of human behaviour.

Every scene in the film feels heightened, posed or artificial in construction. There's an almost 'autistic' quality to it, in the sense that so much of The Killing of a Sacred Deer is presented as if reflecting the worldview of characters unsure of how people are expected to respond or react to a situation; or where the intermittent bursts of discordant sound create a feeling of sensory overload; or where the mannered performance style and the bluntness of the dialog don't quite resonate with what feels 'recognisable' to us (whatever that might mean) and yet make sense within the context of everything else.

This aesthetic is symptomatic of the director's need to find new ways of expression; presenting familiar ideas, scenes and characters in a way that is aggressively unfamiliar. It's reflected in the imagery as well, as Lanthimos and cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis shoot from angles that are slightly left of the conventional; or use the wide-angle lens to dwarf the perspective of the characters, making them appear smaller, and the world around them, by contrast, appear greater, more overwhelming.


The Killing of a Sacred Deer [Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017]:

As an aesthetic approach it arrives fully formed with the film's astounding first image; a bird's eye view of a human heart beating inside the exposed chest cavity of one of the surgeon's patients. The shot immediately establishes context - who the character is, what he does for a living, etc - but also reinforces many of the thematic points of reference and interpretations that will develop as the film plays out. The idea of the heart as a symbol - with its conventional connotations of love, family, emotion (the expression, "home is where the heart is", etc) - but also the idea of the heart as a system. A functional organ that beats at the centre of things; like the character Martin; the teenage harbinger who enters into this family and disrupts it from within.

On the surface of it, The Killing of a Sacred Deer seems to blur elements of classical Greek tragedy - specifically the story of Iphigenia, with its themes of revenge, atonement and child sacrifice, as well as the implications of the title itself; which relates to Agamemnon's accidental killing of a deer in the grove of Artemis, who subsequently demands the death of Agamemnon's daughter, Iphigenia, as a penance - alongside further allusions to the film Teorema (1968) by Pier Paolo Pasolini.

In Pasolini's film, a beguiling young stranger enters into the life of a bourgeoisie family and attempts to destroy them from within; an element of the plot that is closely echoed here with Martin's initial acceptance within the family. There's also a suggestion of the children of the protagonist conspiring with the stranger to punish the father for some real or imaginary transgression; which seems to reflect not only the predicament faced by Colin Farrell's character in the film in question but also that of the Daniel Auteuil protagonist in Michael Haneke's similarly cold and clinical psychological study/revenge parable Caché (2005).


Teorema [Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1968]:

The Killing of a Sacred Deer [Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017]:

Caché (aka Hidden) [Michael Haneke, 2005]:

The final act builds to a kind of theatre of cruelty that feels close to another of Haneke's films; the home invasion thriller/didactic cine-essay Funny Games (1997). Here the contrasting elements of Greek myth, psycho-thriller and suburban satire collide in a moment that surely ranks as one of 2017's most jaw-dropping cinematic moments. As a climax to an otherwise slow and hypnotic study in sustained tension and emotional distance, the violent inevitability of this climax, and the way that the characters embrace it so unquestioningly, is absurd and outlandish; illustrating just how far the filmmakers are willing to go in order to honour the bizarre rules and rituals that they've created for themselves through this concoction of influences.

However, the climax is not gratuitous in nature. It doesn't stray into the realms of exploitation or sensationalism, as many of Haneke's (or even Kubrick's) imitators so often do when attempting to provoke or outrage their audience's sensibilities, but instead presents a final reckoning that is unflinching in its commitment and intensity.

While The Killing of a Sacred Deer struck me as an excellent film, much of it only works if we approach it on a level of allegory. Like Darren Aronofsky's recent film, mother! (2017) - which is similarly divisive and similarly brilliant - it's a work that seems to be playing with symbols and representations as opposed to a more tangible kind of reality that an audience can invest in, either emotionally or philosophically.

If we hold the story and its characters up to any kind of close scrutiny then nothing actually works and the whole thing just unravels into a muddle of unanswered questions and loose ends. But it's worth grappling with these issues and inconsistencies in order to experience how the story unfolds, and to appreciate how Lanthimos and his collaborators are able to put together these diverse influences to create something that feels so singular and so different.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

The Road to Nowhere


A note on a film: Falling Down (1993)

The film begins, atypically, with an intense pullback shot from the character's half-opened mouth. It's a hideous close-up; distorted by the use of a wide-angle lens, which seems to exaggerate the as yet still concealed repugnance of this character. His propensity for violence, his racism and frustrations with the modern world - which will soon spill-out; defining both the narrative and the character's ensuing journey into the darkness of his own despair - are already transforming him into something not quite human. A monster maybe? Although not the literal type of monster as defined by Dr. Victor Frankenstein, or a Count Dracula even, but as something more recognisable to the concerns and general disposition of America in the last half of the twentieth century.

In this first image, the mouth - less a conduit for food, water and air; less a means for verbal expression - seems transformed into an open wound...


Falling Down [Joel Schumacher, 1993]:

The way the camera pulls back from this mouth is itself like an act of revulsion. In a sense, we, as the viewer, are too close to the wound of it; the stench, the hatred; the snarl of aggression is too much for the audience to bear at this point in the narrative. But the shot also represents a kind of visual exhalation of breath. The character breathes out, in time with the movement of the camera, and in this gesture the entire film is like the last gasp expression of all of the different anxieties and frustrations that compel the character to make his final stand.

From here the camera ascends. It moves over his nose, where sweat drips from the tip like a slow faucet leak, to his eyes piercing behind horn-rimmed spectacles; a meek and officious look that seems incongruous to that rictus-like rend that the camera had previously pulled away from. As the title appears on-screen, the character's now closed eyes suggest a state of trance, as if a primal force, once dormant, is about to be awoken. The suggestion that this character - this sleeping tiger - is about to be shaken from his complacency; from the deceitful delusion of the American dream.


Here, the iconic 'stars and stripes' appearing in the background of the shot seem significant. A sort-of symbol that defines the character (or his own conception of "the self"), as well as becoming a part of the film's essentially heavy-handed social commentary; which only becomes more hysterical and histrionic as the film plays out.

The same shot continues, unbroken. It movies down, over the character's hands - now gripped tight to the steering wheel, as if trying to anchor himself to this moment of mundane actuality - and further, along the body of the car now trapped in this social deadlock (the combination of the traffic jam and the tracking shot now recalling the iconography of Jean-Luc Godard's similarly controversial 1967 film Weekend - although the comparison is no doubt unintentional).


Weekend [Jean-Luc Godard, 1967]:
In Godard's film, the traffic jam/tracking shot seems to offer a reflection of the then-contemporary French culture at a kind of impasse. The cars are no longer moving, just stuck in one place, unable to progress or move forwards, but as ever, a semblance of life goes on. The two protagonists from the film, married couple Roland and Corrine, eventually break free from the inactive lifestyle represented by these cars, complacent in their immovable stagnation, and cut their own path towards anarchy, revolution and eventual destruction.

8½ [Federico Fellini, 1963]:
A more accurate but still perhaps unintentional point-of-reference to the scene from Falling Down could be this sequence from Fellini's masterwork 8½, where the idea of a traffic-jam as microcosm of modern-life is once more viewed through the eyes of a white, middle-aged, male protagonist on the brink of some kind of crisis or collapse.

Schumacher's camera keeps moving; a slow prowl across an overheated radiator - venting steam as a preface of things to come (the engine of the vehicle signifying the growing fury of the character off-screen?) - before tilting upwards and tracking closer towards the rear of the car in front.


Falling Down [Joel Schumacher, 1993]:

Here, the little girl with the plastic doll peers back at the protagonist with dead eyes that seem devoid of life and wonder; the gaze becoming more a gesture of judgement, or accusation, than of curiosity. To the audience she's just a kid like any other, but to the character she's a possible representation of the dual role of the mother and daughter that will soon define the film's emotional conflict (even the hair and appearance of the child is styled as if to resemble that of the actors Barbara Hershey and Joey Hope Singer, who respectively feature later in the film as the protagonist's estranged wife and daughter).

The camera now swings right, across another vehicle. It moves slowly, revealing the sight of a woman applying lipstick in the car's side mirror (another grotesque mouth; another exhaling expression) and across to a plush novelty Garfield toy suction-cupped to the rear side window.



The combination of vanity and consumerism becomes an affront to the character's position as someone drifting outside of the borders of conventional society; presenting another attack on the culture of indifference - or the inability to look at the world for what it is because we're all too concerned with our own private, hermetically preserved existence - but it's also intended, in its use of iconography, to again bring to mind the presentation of the mother and child.

The woman, enhancing her femininity (is her self-worth only defined by external appearances, or is the make-up another mask that people wear in order to face the world, or to conceal the monster within?) and the toy, as a reminder of childhood innocence, are offered to show, on a more subtle level, how these symbols (the mother and child) have become distorted by the central character's anger and contempt. His rage against the superficiality of the contemporary American society in stark contrast to the perceived idealisms of the past.

The shot continues now, moving further along the side of a school bus. Here unruly children throw paper planes from open windows, oblivious to the adult concerns of the traffic jam, or the grown-up fear of missing work or social engagements, and the penalties that such actions might incur.



Now the commentary becomes broader, less personal; the children as possible literal representations of the innocence of youth? They're not bothered by the traffic jam; they see it as an excuse to play. But their joviality and their efforts to make the best of a bad situation are once again an affront to the character's inner turmoil, and their voices, exaggerated on the soundtrack, cuts through the percussive assault of James Newton Howard's score like a dentist's drill.

As the camera descends, once again revealing the 'stars and stripes' emblazoned on the side of the bus, it would be easy to interpret this symbolically, as the literal "youth of America" (these kids, trapped in a state of innocence; in a sense protected from the horrors of the world outside), but it seems more likely that the flag is a reminder of the ideals that the character, in his anger and delusion, feels have been lost or corrupted. The flag as a reminder that America was once a land of opportunities, which seems incongruous if not cruel to the character's own position as a divorced, recently unemployed, forty-something male, reduced to living with his ailing mother in the bedroom of his childhood home.



The commentary continues as the camera maintains its descent. From a scene of children at play we pass over the heads of two young executives finding their own amusement as they sniff coke off the back of clenched fists and make deals on portable phones. For these yuppies, money never sleeps, and the traffic jam is just another opportunity to cash out or make connections; the "new America" of the energetic '80s drifting effortlessly into the burnt-out cynicism of the 1990s.



The shot finally comes to rest on the back of the protagonist's head, once again reinforcing his position as central to this image of America as a roadside microcosm; the catalyst for all subsequent events. This final shot, which signals the end of the credits and the end of this intricately planned sequence, places the audience inside the head of the central character; forcing us to identify, on some level, with his perception of the world before the full course of the narrative takes shape.



For me, this entire sequence is amazing, and along with Flatliners (1990), Tigerland (2000) and The Phantom of the Opera (2004), remains one of the greatest things Schumacher has ever directed. Unfortunately I can't say the same for the rest of the film, which despite its enduring popularity among certain audience members who feel the same sense of cultural alienation and displacement felt by the central character (and as such see his acts of reckoning and misdirected rage as justifiable), soon falls into the typically blunt, often judgmental hysteria that one might associate with the 'auteur' of films like St. Elmo's Fire (1985), A Time to Kill (1996) and Trespass (2011).

From here, Schumacher undermines the subtlety of the scene by repeating all of the same images, only this time within the context of a bludgeoning, Eisensteinian montage. It borders on parody, making obvious what has already been suggested, while turning what could've been a complex and multi-faceted look into a serious social and generational phenomenon (one that still has some sobering relevance if we think of the film in the context of the candidacy of President Trump, the rise of the 'alt-right' and the fascism of modern identity politics) into something with only a modicum more nuance and intelligence than the average Stallone or Schwarzenegger movie from the same period.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

England's Dreaming


Thoughts on a film: Jubilee (1978)

Queen Elizabeth I, transported back in time by the spirit-guide Ariel, conjured from the pages of Shakespeare's The Tempest by the oracle, mathematician, astronomer and occult philosopher John Dee, bears witness to an England in decline. Their year of arrival is 1977; that of the later Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee celebrations, and - perhaps as-notably - the year punk broke the mainstream; however, it could just as easily have been later than that. Forty years into the future in fact. In the present day...

Had these characters arrived in the year 2017 - a year, which from the timeline of the film itself would've seemed like the stuff of science-fiction; as divorced from the reality of the everyday as Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey must have seemed to audiences in 1968; or the setting of Blade Runner 2049 (2017) still seems to us - they would've found a landscape even more ravaged by economic hardship, mass unemployment, divides of multiculturalism, class exploitation, uneasy political frustrations, violence and criminality; making the film less a product of its time than a prescient future-shock; a vision of the future from the perspective of this imaginary Queen Elizabeth I that is also a vision of our own present, drifting beyond the brink.


Jubilee [Derek Jarman, 1978]:
  
Returning to Derek Jarman's second feature-length work in the context of the world as it exists today is revelatory, but also depressing. It's a film that I first saw as a young teenager; caught as part of a late-night screening on the now-defunct UK subscription channel Film Four Extreme. I hated it! I was new to Jarman's work and was yet to be thrilled by his later achievements with Caravaggio (1986), War Requiem (1989) and Edward II (1991); passionate, painterly, poetic films that benefited from their gorgeous cinematography, imaginative production designs, eclectic soundtracks and diverse performances. These were films that mixed the personal with the prophetic; the political with the profane.

Jubilee seemed like none of these things. From the perspective of someone then unversed in the avant-garde or the legacy of Andy Warhol, this was a coarse, vulgar film, both thematically and aesthetically. I was shocked, not just by its content, but by its method of delivery; the unashamed, low-budget nature of the thing. As a child weaned on Hollywood decadence, Jarman's frugal ingenuity, his gleeful borrowing of high and low-brow institutions, the garish, post John Waters' impropriety of the thing, was lost on me. However, looking at the film anew, with a much broader appreciation of Jarman's other achievements, and in the context of recent events, it's now clear that despite the low-budget nature of the film, this is a work of great insight and lasting ideas.


Jubilee [Derek Jarman, 1978]:

In Jubilee, Jarman depicts an alternate 1977 that seems ravaged by a third world war. Hitler is alive and well, and with him the spirit of fascism still reigns supreme. A multimillionaire media tycoon has bought and privatised the press, the entertainment industries, the government and even the church. The character of Amyl Nitrite - one of the nihilist punk protagonists at the centre of the film - rewrites history and presents her findings to her followers. They become like news reports from some imaginary present; the foundation of what we now call alternative facts; or literally 'fake-news.'

Amyl's reports are delivered straight-faced and direct to camera. They appear like conventional news bulletins from the BBC or similar channels, although the modern-day association to this might be closer to the kind of populist vloggers that thrive on social media platforms, such as YouTube and Twitter; presenting to their audience a veneer of officious professionalism, faux-pathos and concern for the state of the nation, while simply distorting the facts to vent their own highly personalised, heavily biased opinion as truth.


Jubilee [Derek Jarman, 1978]:


Latest Atrocities in Modern Art [Paul Joseph Watson/YouTube, 2017]:

In keeping with the narrative of today, the future of Jubilee is a future where women have seemingly taken control; where the men are either brutal enforcers or neutered servants. Homosexuality is freely embraced; there is a sense of collective engagement between the gang; a sense of trying to move towards something greater, even if it's only destruction. These things are wonderful, but in the modern-day context they become the nightmare of the alt-right/alt-left fear-mongering that now exists in relation to things like the rise of fourth-wave feminism, cultural emasculation (a scene of actual castration occurs), identity politics, the disintegration of traditional gender roles, as well as feeding into the more deeply held conservative attitudes about young people being debauched, depraved, lawless and radicalised. Of course Jarman contradicts these things on many levels, creating a much richer satirical commentary.

As with the society as it exists today, the presentation of these things offers only a single narrative that is always worth scrutiny. While the charismatic but brutal punk matriarch Bod seems to run the gangs - commanding a level of respect from her female associates while the men are reduced to the level of sexualised decoration - Jarman shows us that the real power still rests with those that have always wielded it; specifically rich, privately-educated men. His progressive microcosm of the gang and their liberated way of life is contrasted by the way the media, the government, etc is manipulated by the wealthy mogul Borgia Ginz, or by the police who roam the streets carrying out wanton acts of violence against anyone unwilling to pay-up.

It's as if Jarman was able to look into the future and sees how these fears could at first take root before manifesting into something far more insidious. It's an example of Jarman's tremendous insight into the nature of the human condition; his ability recognise that history repeats itself; that movements occur in waves, cyclical, always recurring.

The England that Jarman depicts may have been an exaggeration at the time of the film's production, but it's taken on greater resonance when we see it in the context of the world as it exists today. How organisations and institutions have hijacked issues to further their own (often financial) agenda. How young people betrayed their principles for fame and fortune. How fascism (which the early punk and new wave music often flirted with, in iconography if not ideology) was able to regain popularity, as people out of work and out of hope were coerced by the media into find a new enemy. How the divide and conquer mentality has worked to pit us against our neighbours, against our own communities, through envy, suspicion and distrust. For the media the goal is to have us point the finger of blame at those that are different, rather than to blame the bankers and the economists and the politicians and the media itself. All of this finds a kind of expression in Jarman's film.

This is a world of police brutality, intimidation, corruption; violence for the sake of it; a world where celebrity is the thing to aspire to; the cult of celebrity that builds on the post-Warholian prediction that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, and finding something of a precursor to the reality TV/social media fixation of 'status' through popularity. Now imagine someone from the era of Queen Elizabeth I seeing this landscape for the first time, without having watched our society evolve to this particular point. The sense of shock that is felt by the audience is intended.


Jubilee [Derek Jarman, 1978]:


Hate Crime Surged... [Alan Travis/The Guardian, 2017]:


Jordan's Dance [Derek Jarman, 1977]:

If the polemic here feels like it straying into the realms of the Daily Mail and its tabloid-level outrage, then it's important to add that Jarman's projection of a future England in decline is not intended as a piece of fear-mongering, but merely as a hypothetical. He doesn't point the finger of blame at his violent punks, but merely observes their interactions. As in A Clockwork Orange - both the 1962 novella by Anthony Burgess and the 1971 film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick - which seems something of an influence, it is the system that is the real villain, not the violent individuals caught up in it.


A Clockwork Orange [Stanley Kubrick, 1971]:


Jubilee [Derek Jarman, 1978]:

While the film depicts a level of violence and brutality, there's always a sense of contrast found in Jarman's work; a push/pull between oppression and liberation, between ugliness and beauty, between conservatism and decadence. Politically Jarman appropriates punk because it was current; because it was part of the then-tapestry of modern Britain; but he stands apart from it. His depiction of the record industry is brutal and depressing; his view of pop stars is cynical and perhaps even condescending. And while the filmmaker creates a work that is every bit as provocative, violent and aggressive as his punk subjects, there seems to be an underlining yearning for something of the old England. An ongoing nostalgia for Jarman for the England of his childhood; a romanticising of the Queen, as a figurehead, of the Union Jack, or green fields and the post-war years. The iconography that he returns to again and again, in films such as The Queen is Dead (1986), The Last of England (1987) and the aforementioned War Requiem.

In Jubilee's most beautiful sequence, Jarman takes the footage of a short film he produced a year earlier called Jordan's Dance (1977).  Here, the titular actress (who here portrays the character of Amyl Nitrate) performs a ballet recital among the rubble of the ruined dockyards. Masked spectators, one naked, wearing the head of Michelangelo's David, watch as she performs. The shutter and shake of the 8mm footage flattens the perspective of the artist and the flames that surround her, creating the impression of a graceful white swan - perhaps the swan of Avon; the Shakespearian avatar as eulogised in the opening narration of The Last of England, which died a syncopated death - performing within this raging inferno. It's a moment that feels open to interpretation, and like Jubilee as a whole, seems to burn with sadness and the promise of things that could never be.


Jordan's Dance [Derek Jarman, 1977]:


The Last of England [Derek Jarman, 1987]:

A decade after Jubilee, Jarman would return to the same subject matter with his avant-garde masterwork The Last of England. The first film project that Jarman undertook after being diagnosed as HIV positive, The Last of England would strip away the narrative necessities of the film in question to create a work that subjectively expresses his own feeling of rage, concern and disappointment. Tearing away the mask of cinematic convention, Jarman translates the still relevant themes of Jubilee into a kind of audio-visual onslaught. Creating a mixed-media montage of contrasting sounds and images, which allow the audience to feel something akin to the artist's own perception of the world, as opposed to standing away from it and studying it with an ironic eye.

Taken as a kind of cinematic diptych, Jubilee and The Last of England have remained, in both commentary and artistic approach, significant, necessary and singular creative works.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Shapeless



Thoughts on a film: The Shape of Water (2017)

N.B. I started writing this piece before the film's recent Oscar success,
so this should in no way be seen as an effort to play devil's advocate,
but merely to present an honest opinion on the film.

On his blog, The Kind of Face You Hate, critic Bill R. describes The Shape of Water as: "A morally thoughtless wagonload of bullshit that believes it's a morally superior "fable," [...] it judges not just its villains but finally the whole world based on how it reacts to del Toro's pure heroes. Anyone who looks askance at any part of this is not just immoral, but might even actually deserve to die. It's an ugly movie that has sold itself as a beautiful one. And it's not that I believe del Toro thinks this way; it's that I don't believe del Toro thought at all."

While my own opinion isn't so negative - I, like many viewers, left the cinema impressed and affected by the depths of its imagination and the clever way the filmmakers subverted second-hand B-movie iconography to tap into themes of repression, loneliness and cultural alienation - I do have a fair few reservations about the film that for me keep it from achieving the same creative success as other del Toro-directed masterworks, such as The Devil's Backbone (2001), Pan's Labyrinth (2006) and the underrated Crimson Peak (2015).

While the performances, production design and cinematography are each impeccable - which is to be expected from a del Toro film - The Shape of Water has a tonal (as well as moral) inconsistency that for me was absolutely jarring.


The Shape of Water [Guillermo del Toro, 2017]:

Fatally, The Shape of Water seemed to me to be a film that couldn't decide who its target audiences was, or to whom it might be speaking. On the one hand, the film has the emotional and intellectual simplicity of a children's film; its sense of magic and wonder as a parallel to the mundane world of the central characters recalling the experience of classic films such as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Spirited Away (2001). On the other hand, it features explicit and often taboo-breaking scenes of sex and violence, as well as a socio-political backdrop of historical prejudice and abuse.

Such indulgences put the film off-limits to the type of audiences that would have been most susceptible to its storybook construction and the broad black and white characterisations that announce themselves as 'good' and 'evil' between almost every scene. It plays instead to an audience already familiar with the actuality of racism and prejudice (in the real world sense), when it would have done better to tailor its message of tolerance and understanding to a younger audience who may have found such themes to be beneficial, if not educational.

Now let's compare the development of Del Toro's film to another project with a very similar plot but an entirely different reputation.

In M. Night Shyamalan's Lady in the Water (2006), a band of broken and hopeless characters, living through a time of war and political uncertainly, find their purpose in life to be reaffirmed when faced with a mythical water creature unable to return home. Shyamalan's film was ridiculed by critics and audiences for a supposedly ludicrous plot, while also drawing criticism for being egotistical, pretentious and bizarre. But Lady in the Water is a film that at least understands who its target audience is; announcing its intentions from the outset with an animated story-book prologue that establishes the themes of the film and why we should invest ourselves in the life of this creature that the narrative deems sacred.


Lady in the Water [M. Night Shyamalan, 2006]: 

Shyamalan billed Lady in the Water as a bedtime story, citing his own children as the influence for its creation. While it's a film full of great sadness - its characters haunted by grief; lost and disconnected; the shadow of violence hovering over many of them - it tells a story of hope and belief. The relationship between the human protagonists and the creature is paternal rather than sexual (as in Del Toro's film), and while there's a necessary level of threat, fear and even death, there's no on-screen violence. Shyamalan knows that his audience is universal and that while his idealistic themes of faith in humanity and the triumph of good over evil will be received cynically by adults, it will nonetheless make its most profound mark on the younger audiences.

While the tonal shifts in Shyamalan's film rubbed a lot of viewers the wrong way, the seesawing between supernatural mystery, character study, elemental fantasy and goofy comedy make perfect sense in the context of its bedtime story conception; where the entire narrative has the feeling of a tall tale being created for an audience a little too eager to find out the next instalment.

The Shape of Water is a film that also suffers from incredibly broad shifts in tone - moving from forced comedy to repulsive violence, childlike whimsy to erotic fantasy, etc - but unlike Shyamalan's film it doesn't seem to know who its strange creature is, or what kind of a hold it's supposed to have over the protagonist. As such, the motivations and tonal discrepancies here feel unfocused and heavy-handed, confirming the film's overall disinterest in providing a relatable motivation for the relationship and its development based on logic and conviction, but rather as a mere necessity of the plot.


Lady in the Water [M. Night Shyamalan, 2006]:

In Shyamalan's film, the relationship between the creature and the protagonist is a nurturing one. In caring for the creature, the protagonist's life takes on a new meaning. He's able to forgive himself for his past tragedies and find a way to exist in the real world. As such, the two stories and the objectives of each character are complimentary and entirely interlinked.

The Shape of Water [Guillermo del Toro, 2017]:

In del Toro's film, the relationship between the creature and the protagonist seems almost entirely sexual and one-sided. While we're supposed to embrace it as some kind of love conquers all work of pure romanticism, the filmmakers do nothing to establish a connection between these characters, or even explain why they fall in love or what the initial attraction is. It's just quickly explained away that they're both "different"; which gets to the heart of how much of del Toro's film is simultaneously well-meaning and offensive.

At its absolute core, del Toro's film asks us to invest in a love story that is never entirely convincing or appealing, and to accept the creature (all creatures?) as valid, despite its inherent 'differences', but then constantly introduces elements that make it difficult for an audiences to sympathise or identify with their idealistic pursuit.

We're supposed to churn at the abuse suffered by the creature at the hands of the one-dimensionally evil 'G-man' character played by Michael Shannon, but a later scene of animal cruelty carried out by the creature itself is mined for cheap shock-value and uneasy laughs. Similarly, we're supposed to pray for the creature's survival and potential escape, but to make this possible a young guard - one just doing his job - has to be coldly murdered so that our lovers can go free (evidently, the same critics that were appalled by Shyamalan's film having the chutzpah to murder a fictional reviewer have no issue at all with a young security guard being similarly murdered here - and by the 'good guys' no less).

As with other del Toro films there's a feeling of the gratuitous about some of the more explicit sequences, which appear juvenile as opposed to provocative. Rather than feeling like a complete work with a cohesive point of view, the film instead has the feel of a classic Spielberg blockbuster - with the same streaks of sentimentality and the atmosphere of magic and whimsy - punctuated by out of place moments of transgressive sensationalism, which feel closer to the works of Lars von Trier. An uncomfortable mix.


E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial [Steven Spielberg, 1982]:

The relationship in del Toro's film has been described as being akin to Beauty and the Beast but it's actually much closer to Spielberg's E.T. Del Toro's characters are similarly infantilised; the relationship only working if the protagonist is made to be simple, or child-like. Similarly the relationship lacks the maturity or complexity of an adult relationship; instead having the dopey, gooey-eyed romanticism of a school-age crush. This only succeeds in making del Toro's surprisingly earnest flirtation with bestiality and explicit sexuality all the more discomforting and misplaced.

Antichrist [Lars von Trier, 2009]:

Into this infantilised world of myths and monsters, del Toro indulges in explicit scenes, which feel incongruous, if not gratuitous. The delight with which the filmmaker exploits his taboo subject matter feels incredibly adolescent, as he juxtaposes old-Hollywood romanticism with transgressive elements that feel ripped from a work like Antichrist by Lars von Trier. But while Antichrist is absolutely a film for adults, with a deep moral complexity and a genuine psychological depth, The Shape of Water feels more like a cartoon.

Despite these concerns, The Shape of Watwer does reach for something that few directors would ever dare to attempt. The construction of the narrative - a post-modern exercise in intertextual genre-references, combining the disparate elements of a Cold War-era espionage movie, a piece of erotic 'creature from the black lagoon' fan fiction, a classical Hollywood musical and a European art-film in the tradition of Jean-Pierre Juenet (the influences of Delicatessen, 1991, and Amelie, 2001, are inescapable) - gives context for del Toro to create some extraordinary images.

From the opening sequence of a character's apartment submerged beneath the sea, to the audacious musical sequence that encapsulates the film's simultaneous embodiment of the sublime and the ridiculous, to the quietly beautiful moments in which the mute protagonist played by Sally Hawkins rides the bus to work, this is a film where the imagery speaks louder than words.


The Shape of Water [Guillermo del Toro, 2017]: 

Such moments convey in a series of perfectly constructed vignettes the progression of a character from hopeless and empty, to suddenly enriched and enlivened by the purpose of being in love.

And it's here where the film really works; as a poetic, fairy-tale evocation of a character unable to connect with the world around her, both lonely and 'incomplete.' A woman who finds in characters, similarly marginalised and persecuted by society, a kind of surrogate family, and in a creature similarly alone and unknowable, a kind of escape. It's ultimately less compelling as drama, romance or thriller than as a parable about a woman who dreams of a world beyond her own; a world where thoughts and emotions are conveyed without voice, without hurt and without prejudice.