Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

18 November 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria

Rich, complex, Chekhovian, and very sexy. Talkier than other Assayas movies, but Clouds of Sils Marie deals with the problem at its center through circumlocution, spinning around and around it, talking about it, certainly, but then, as it turns out, the important stuff is never what is said.

Clouds is all about desire, and the clouds at the film's center (or are they at the film's peripheries?) are a perfect metaphor for the desire(s) the film attempts to describe in roundabout, impossible ways. These eponymous clouds are known for a phenomenon where they come down through a mountain pass and shape themselves into the form of a snake, coalescing for a very brief moment before going off on their own and becoming simply clouds again.

Clouds of Sils Maria is also, in many ways, an All about Eve for 2015, discussing our desire to live other people's lives, the difficulties of embodying the lives of others, and the ways that other people's lives can take over our own, both by eclipsing them and through sheer force of the other person's will.

The acting is flat out superb. Juliette Binoche knocks it out of the park yet again, and Kristen Stewart is flawless. I was really into this picture.

15 November 2015

Votes for Women!

Suffragette is a fairly straightforward Hollywood-style movie, although Suffragette is a British film, perhaps more emotionally akin to last year's The Theory of Everything than to anything else I can think of at the moment. [The following may have some spoilers, but this is all historical fact, so none of it ought to be particularly surprising if you know what happened to British suffragettes in the years before the '14-'18 War.]

Sarah Gavron's film follows a young working woman in 1912 as she becomes politicized around achieving greater rights for women in a country (England) that doesn't extend rights to women. This fight about women's rights (especially the rights of working women) is fought under the banner of voting rights. In this way Suffragette has obvious debts (in style as well as structure) to last year's Selma. Gradually Maud Watts, the film's main character (played by Carey Mulligan) comes to understand that she actually has no rights whatsoever in England. She is beaten, imprisoned, tortured by London police, her child is taken away from her. She is disowned by her husband, fired, kicked out of her house, and reduced to homelessness on the streets of London. Her body, she finds out quite clearly, is not her own, and she has no recourse to fight any of these assaults upon her her person or her family. And so she decides to join the suffragettes, and the suffragettes decide to fight.

All of this is shown to the audience in an emotionally rousing, sentimental style, and the film does its best to spend time awaking all of the feelings we have about justice and motherhood and bodily integrity. In this way the film succeeds somewhat and is a crowd-pleaser, but it is not my kind of film. The older white-people crowd will love it – the audience I was with applauded when the film was over – and the film in many ways makes people feel good about beliefs that they already possess. Yes women should have access to their children; no one oughtn't to be fired for a political view; no one oughtn't to be sexually available to one's employer. Yes women are just as smart as men; no women oughtn't to be kicked out of their houses by their husbands; yes women ought to be able to vote.

But, then, these women are also terrorists, let us make no mistake. They become criminals, existing outside of the law, defying a government that affords them no protections. And here is where I am pretty sure that my read of the film differs from the read of its intended audience. For me, Suffragette became a film about unchecked state violence.

At numerous points in the movie, police literally beat peaceful protesters until they are bloody and then they arrest them and imprison them for any amount of time they wish. The police violence on the bodies of civilians goes absolutely unchecked. Here, for me, is where the film becomes more interesting. Watching this violence onscreen we might be in Harpers Ferry or Auschwitz or Selma or Ferguson or Baltimore in 2015. Police in Suffragette act with absolute impunity. They are the law and there is no law above them to check their actions because the bodies broken by their violence possess no rights of their own. In this way Suffragette, if it is a film about the struggles of working-class white women in Britain in 1912-3, can also be read about violent resistance to police brutality and unjust governments across the globe in 2015. It certainly called up for me police violence against black bodies in the U.S., the violence that says that people from non-European countries deserve no protections under the EU, and certain Republican presidential candidates' refusal to accept immigrants from other countries, including Mexico.

Ms. Bonham Carter
But the film also conflates "voting rights" with other problems, and this is where I got a bit confused by the film's politics. Many of the problems I articulate above – problems with the lack of rights attached to women's bodies in Britain before the first World War that the film addresses (men's presumed sexual access to working-class women, women's rights over their own children, the gender pay-gap) – are really unrelated to voting rights, or at least their links to voting rights are not made clear by Suffragette. This is, perhaps, one reason why one easily jumps to thinking about other injustices in the world rather than thinking deeply about the means the women took to achieve their desired political result. Because this is a sentimental film, the whole thing becomes about justice and injustice in the generic. These are women who couldn't get any newsmedia to cover their struggles and so they resorted to terrorism to get media attention, including suicide terrorism. The film, for reasons I find baffling, isn't really interested so much in these political tactics as it is in "good" and "evil". In this way Suffragette to my mind falls far short of a film like Selma, a movie that discusses political realities and the decisions with which activists must grapple when attempting to achieve political change.

In any case, Suffragette should do pretty well with Oscar, I'd wager. Expect a nomination for Carey Mulligan and maybe also one for Helena Bonham Carter (both are great). Ben Whishaw is also great, but his character is "bad" and in a picture this sentimental he won't get any awards love. A costume design nomination seems like an easy get, here, too. And Alexandre Desplat will probably get one for his score. In short, expect a couple. As I said, this is a crowd-pleaser.

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Oh! One last word. There was some brouhaha during the marketing of Suffragette about the film's (white) actresses posing in t-shirts that contained the phrase "I'd rather be a rebel than a slave" as a way of marketing the film. My opinion of this kerfuffle is that it was (like most things that happen on social media) a too-quick, knee-jerk reaction that practices both an anti-historicist view of political struggles and (as my reading of the film reflects) a too-strict view on readings of cultural products like films. For me, Suffragette was about the immigration crisis in the EU and unchecked police violence against black bodies and the gender pay-gap in the U.S. Representations always make meanings that vary from their ostensible subject matter, and to attempt to restrict the word "slave" to a particular historical period erases real instances of the enslavement of bodies that are ongoing in the world today.

09 November 2015

Beasts of No Nation

Clearly one of the best films of the year so far is Cary Joji Fukunaga's Beasts of No Nation.

It is true that I generally find it difficult to find a lot of words when I am talking about a movie that I simply love without almost any reservation, but I am holed up in the Portland airport waiting for a red-eye back to Central Florida from the ASTR conference, and I am way too tired to read. In other words, forgive me if this post is out of control; know that I have slept very little the last few days and won't get to sleep for another large number of hours.

Beasts of No Nation is a film about child soldiers, better even than 2013's War Witch. This is a film mostly in English and it is upsetting a lot of people because it is being released on Netflix simultaneously with its (Academy-qualifying) theatrical release. Distributors can say whatever they like about this, however. It will not alter the fact that this is a superb film.

If War Witch is Beasts of No Nation's most obvious recent cinematic reference point, if you ask me the film's debts are primarily to the ecologically minded utter genius filmmaker Terrence Malick. Malick's style isn't copied here – that would be profoundly unfair – but many of Fukunaga's questions about the world are the same. Like Malick, Fukunaga is fundamentally interested in the natural world that violence destroys and the ways that adults have powerful effects on children.

I am evoking Malick, too, because Fukunaga uses (but does not overuse, as some of Malick's acolytes do) a voiceover technique, where the film's main character articulates to us the reasons he has made the decisions he's made and the ways he deals with the psychic wounds of having done what he has been forced to do. This allows Fukunaga (who also wrote the screenplay) to describe the wounds experienced by a character while at the same time turning his camera on the jungle or on plant- or animal life.

Both filmmakers also present the violence in their films in fundamentally ethical ways, treating acts of bloodshed with horror and surprising the audience with the viciousness exhibited by their characters. Fukunaga doesn't let us be sentimental about violence without then following sentiment with ruin, with terrifying details that shock us out of our tendency only to mobilize the default emotions of pity or fear. (I guess I shouldn't speak for all of us, but I am convinced that this is how these things work so I'm just going to keep talking.) Sequences of excessive violence treated with a truly horrifying perspective have the power to unsettle us deeply, so that once we move past pity or shallow sentimentality, we can move into an area where we no longer feel like we understand this violence's limits. What I think this refusal to allow us to see violence's limits does is transmit to us a deep feeling that we no longer understand what humans are capable of doing. It becomes clear – we know in our bodies – that there are worse things than the director has allowed us to see. We know we have not understood. Beasts of No Nation does not let us rest in the complacency of believing we "get" it. The limit Fukunaga's film makes clear is not the limit of the violence of child soldiery but the limit of our ability to think it.

It is this kind of superb moviemaking for which Fukunaga has come to be recognized. Think about some of the sequences in True Detective's first season; there were entire sections of that show when my jaw was in a permanently dropped position.

Mr. Attah
It goes without saying that the film's photography is breathtakingly detailed and exquisite. Fukunaga was his own DP, and the film's cinematography is precisely what we have come to expect from his camera: images worthy of Malick himself. His camera, like the master's, lingers lovingly on the land, treats with beauty and respect the bodies that have been destroyed, refuses the pleasure that audiences desire when they watch violence. And he has set the film in the most gorgeous locations. Characters slog through trenches of bright red clay, the sun on the ocean serves the function of allowing the film finally to breathe near its end, and the banal, artificial lighting of the war rooms and bunkers allow the audience to appreciate beauty where the film wishes us to do so, and feel constrained and even slightly nauseous when such a feeling is merited.

I must, of course, also tell you that the acting is excellent. Abraham Attah, a fourteen year old Ghanaian actor, is absolutely riveting as the lead character, Agu. And Idris Elba brings extraordinary depth to this terrific villain. His performance is so extraordinarily brave that the film, almost entirely through Elba's performance, is able to address the tensions of desire that exist between the exploiters and the exploited in this situation of child soldiery. I am using only the word desire (without qualification) here on purpose. What becomes clear throughout the film is a kind of longing for youth, for acolytes, for sexual subjectivity, for mastery, that comprises the exploitation of child soldiers. It is a harrowing insight from what is, finally, a brilliant film, absolutely not to be missed.

03 November 2015

Walking on Air

I thought Robert Zemeckis's movie The Walk – which is based on a story told in James Marsh's Oscar-winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire – was a trifling bit of fluff.

I had heard tell that The Walk was an exciting movie, that it took some time getting started, but that once Philippe Petit, the tightrope walker who put a wire between two corners of the Twin Towers, got onto his wire and started walking across, the movie was really going to get going.

I had also heard that people were getting sick in this movie, getting vertigo or becoming disturbed somehow by the dizzying heights portrayed in the film. (This obviously appealed to me.)

But... The Walk is, more than anything else, a kind of whimsical fairy tale. The screenplay is designed like a children's story, and it is actually narrated by the actor playing Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from the balcony at the top of the Statue of Liberty's torch. He tells us the story from there, while pulling rabbits out of hats and making coins appear from behind the ears of ingenuous children.

One might say that there is more to this film than whimsy, but The Walk insists on a kind of triviality, one that believes in the magic power of mimes. Throughout the film Petit talks a great deal about Art with a capital A, and he believes that his walk is a grand, superb artistic gesture. Frankly, I am inclined to agree with him. But Zemeckis's film is not interested in Petit as an artist, despite the number of times the word art is repeated in the screenplay. For Zemeckis, the protagonist of The Walk is a kind of magical grown up who can show us all what it is like to be a child again. Petit is reduced from what he thinks he is (an artist) to a kind of street magician, a latter-day Peter Pan who refuses to grow up and from whom we all can learn how not to be old. I don't know about you, but I think that kind of thing is silly.

The Walk is also a miniature love letter to the World Trade Center towers at the center of the film. This is understandable, and this aspect of the film is The Walk at its best. Near the film's end a character says something like "People have hated these towers since construction began on them, but now that you did what you did, people say they love the towers – they say that the towers mean something to them now". The actor who says this line, Steve Valentine, renders it beautifully, and embedded in his delivery is what happened to the towers in September of 2001, and what Petit did as an artist to change how people saw the towers. (The Eiffel Tower had its haters when it was first erected in 1889, as well.)

In short, the likability of the film's star and the sensational quality of the narrative the film wishes to tell are both undermined almost irrevocably by The Walk's writer and director. There was a cool film hidden in here somewhere, but maybe the cool film to which I refer is actually just Man on Wire.

01 November 2015

Pal Joey

Pal Joey is actually really good despite Kim Novak's terrible acting. The gowns by Jean Louis are incredible: imaginative, gorgeous, novel. There are a couple of good tunes in here, too – and Rita Hayworth gets two great numbers.

But this film is at its high point when Sinatra blows the roof off with "The Lady Is a Tramp".