Under the Skin (UK, 2013)

Getting under the skin

Getting under the skin

On the basis of his first two features, Sexy Beast (UK-Sp, 2000) and Birth (UK-US-Germany, 2004), there’s no doubting director Jonathan Glazer’s talent and it’s disappointing that it’s taken nine years for his third feature; but it was worth the wait. Based on Michel Faber’s unsettling novel of the same name (2000) the film follows an alien’s exploration of Scotland. Although I’ve tagged the film SF it eschews the iconography of the genre with its distinctly art house sensibility. Mark Kermode links the film to Nic Roeg’s work, particularly The Man Who Fell to Earth (UK, 1976) and the opening sequence references 2001: A Space Odyssey (US-UK 1968). However the images in the sequence, that recalls space ships docking in Kubrick’s film, consists entirely of light and transpires to be the lens that are creating Scarlett Johansson’s unnamed alien’s eyes. It’s a beautiful abstract image followed by an extreme close up of an eye; itself extremely beautiful.

This abstractness runs through the film, her lair is more art installation, or  video art, than SF, but it is counterbalanced by the literal realism of the alien picking up men off Glasgow streets. This was done, in the most part, candidly. Whilst I realised the scenes had the quality of being improvised but I concluded that they were just very well done as the cameras didn’t seem to be concealed. However, it transpires that Glazer used up to eight hidden cameras. Not all the men gave their permission to be used in the film; I guess it’s not everyday that a Hollywood star tries to pick you up.

The casting of Johansson is crucial as, to coin a negative stereotype of Glasgow, it’s hard to imagine someone like her being more out of place than the rough streets of the city. I’m not  sure that’s fair on Glasgow but it does work dramatically. Although Johannson’s bewigged and fake-fur dressed, there’s no disguising her sensuous lips and, entirely appropriately, she drives a white van.

Hard SF deals with ‘what it means to be human’ and the alien is therefore characterised as an ‘other’ (to human) as we can’t truly conceive of the alien. However, Glazer’s film has come closest, I think, to conceive of what an alien sensibility might be like in a disturbing scene on a beach.

Mica Levi’s music is brilliantly ‘other-worldly’, its hypnotic repetition of microtones perfectly reinforces the otherness of the mise en scene. As noted earlier, placing Johansson ‘fly-on-the-wall’ in Glasgow is other-worldly in itself but we are also invited to see the mundanity of everyday life, walking in the street, shopping etc., from the alien’s perspective. It ‘makes strange’ our reality and it didn’t look pretty. Obviously shooting in a wet Scottish winter loads the dice in this but, nevertheless, street scenes have never seemed as uncanny. However, the focus here is on, stereotypically, working class people and I’d have felt easier in accepting the film’s representation if it hadn’t been so classed based.

The narrative does develop slowly and I won’t spoil. However, true to its art house provenance, the film doesn’t explain everything. In many ways it’s an open text and I’m not sure that knowledge of the original novel is helpful, it might actually get in the way of reading the film. Casting a Hollywood star is one way of getting finance and, hopefully, an audience, but it works also entirely to this film’s purpose. Johansson is naked in a few scenes of the film and in one of them, where she examines, what is to her, her alien body I was reminded of the scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris (France-Italy, 1963) where Brigitte Bardot’s body is similarly scrutinised (though there by a man). Johansson is examining her own body and maybe, in doing so, is reclaiming it from the male gaze.  Peter Bradshaw described the film as ‘very erotic, very scary’; I’m not sure about the eroticism. The alien’s seduction, she is a femme fatale, is hypnotic and matter of fact; it doesn’t know what it’s like to be sexy. Later in the film she finds out and this leads to a turning point.

Daniel Landin’s cinematography superbly captures the bleakness of the film’s world. Glazer combines the elements of the film brilliantly and this is will be one of my films of the year. Hopefully we don’t have to wait a decade for Glazer’s next outing.

A Fallible Girl (UAE-China-UK, 2013)

A failure of form?

A failure of form?

This first screening of Conrad Clark’s second feature, at the Bradford International Film Festival, had the director in attendance and he explained he was attempting an ethnographic approach to portray the effects of global capitalism. He does this but I thought the film to be poorly made. Others have responded far more positively, see here, and Roy’s view here. Why didn’t I like it?

Narratively it’s obtuse; and there’s nothing wrong with that. The audience has to work to fill in the gaps between the ‘slices of life’, about a female Chinese entrepreneur in the UAE. Sang Juan’s Le Fei, the protagonist, is also unlikeable as a character; she often rudely berates her workers; though I acknowledge that’s probably a cultural judgement. Again, I’m not against narratives that don’t offer easily identifiable characters but when, at the end, we are clearly meant to feel sympathy for her – through mise en scene and music – I wondered why we are purposefully alienated from her at the start. So, I didn’t find the narrative convincing; the direction, for me, was also at fault.

Again I’m not against, per se, poorly composed shots and/or non ‘classical’ styles. Indeed the handheld ‘realist’ style, here almost certainly dictated by budgetary constraints, has much to offer. However, when Clark insists on shooting a conversation using whip pans he does risk both nausea in the audience and being asked the question (politely I didn’t stay for the Q&A) ‘what’s wrong with shot/reverse-shot?’. Similarly he insists on using extreme close-ups, both in sound and vision, presumably to bring us closer to Le Fei, but again it risks ‘unpleasure’ when we experience her slurping noodles. Similarly, the camera often follows characters close-up from behind, which reminded me of the Dardenne brothers’ technique in Rosetta (France-Belguim, 1999). Whilst in Rosetta I felt the eponymous protagonist’s determination to get on, here I experienced being dragged along on characters’ backs.

As Roy notes, there are a few scenes which are clearly documentary in nature; they look like Clark has asked itinerant workers to talk about their lives to one another. Interesting, yes, but they didn’t fit in with the film. As my recent posts on Kim Ki-duk films suggests, I am very interested in hearing about the downtrodden in our world, but there was too much wrong with the film for me to hear them clearly.

And I’m still uncertain as to why she was ‘fallible’ or why she was a ‘girl’ and not a woman.

Address Unknown (Suchwiin bulmyeong, S Korea, 2001)

The subaltern scream

The subaltern scream

I seem to have embarked on a season of Kim Ki-duk films (see Bad Guy), whose ‘extreme cinema’ raises hackles as well as bile. Audiences are probably expecting the worst when the film opens with the message that no animals were harmed in the making this film and a short introductory shot shows a young girl being shot in the eye. However, although physical violence, as in Bad Guy, is a manifestation of the psychological pain inflicted upon the (subaltern) underclass, much of the violence in Address Unknown, mercifully, happens offscreen.

Set in 1971 in a US army base camp town, the narrative offers fairly loosely connected ‘slices of life’ from three main characters: a schoolgirl who, after being raped, is thrown out of the school and two young men, one with mixed raced (African-Amercan/Korean) parentage and the other the butt of bullying who fancies the girl. The ‘letter’ of the title is sent by the mother to the father, now returned to America, of Chang-guk; however, they are returned with the titular message. Unsurprisingly, given the setting, the focus is on the colonial nature of the American encampment, the girl – Eunok – walks to school beside the base’s fence. She is befriended by an American soldier and Kim is sympathetic to the psychological effect of the American’s displacement, but his presence is ultimately destructive.

There is humour, too, in the mire of the characters’ existence: all three are framed, in one scene, with injured eyes. Hardly funny in itself but it’s part of Kim’s project to unsettle the audience and this he does. Kim has directed 20 features in 18 years, a remarkable tally given his lack of box office success. Despite the speed at which he works he produces work of quality, both in terms of direction and script, that demands to be seen. He is also one of the few who give a voice to the underclass which makes him one of the most important political filmmakers of our time.

Rage (UK-US, 2009)

Rage against the green screen

Rage against the green screen

90-plus minutes of talking heads anyone? I think the thought of that is why Sally Potter’s Rage is rated a mere 4.7 by imdb users. In reality, of course, it’s – at the least – an engaging film that relies on its excellent script and performances to allay any ‘poverty’ in the image. Riz Ahmed, Steve Buscemi, Judi Dench, Eddie Izzard, Jude Law and David Oyelowo are the stand outs in what can actually be called a ‘star studded’ cast. The monologues are ostensibly, we never see him, shot by a student for his school project; though he’s actually posting them on a blog. His subject is a fashion show, which is going ‘pear-shaped’, and Potter’s intention is to skewer the pretensions of the industry.

Not a difficult target, I would suggest, but Potter also goes beyond that focus by implicating western consumerism, and wars, into her film. We are invited to read between the lines of what the self-justifying characters are saying. Inevitably, most of them are as two-dimensional as the green screen; which is almost any colour but green, background. The actors perform the shallowness of the characters to perfection; Bob Balaban talking about his new ‘opportunities’, having being sacked, is particularly good.

But why this form? Potter’s targets are valid but are monologues to camera the best way to offer a subversive look at our capitalist world? I suspect it’s a case of form winning over content. Potter’s purpose was to make a film for mobile phones and chose the best – only? – visible format that would be effective on such small screens. This is not to say it doesn’t look great on the big screen, it makes the performances literally ‘towering’. Rage is worth seeing as Potter, and her performers, have risen to the challenge created by the form’s limitations, but it is more an exercise than a entirely convincing piece of cinema.


Something in the Air (Après mai, 2012, France)

The personal or the political?

The personal or the political?

I can’t say I’ve been taken by Olivier Assayas’ films, though I liked Irma Vep (1996), but I thoroughly enjoyed the awkwardly titled Something in the Air. The original title, After May, is far better but distributors presumably thought that English-speaking audiences wouldn’t get the 1968 reference. This semi-autobiographical film focuses on the personal-political fallout of May ’68, in the early seventies, of teenager Gilles, Clément Métayer, who campaigns for progressive politics whilst ‘falling in love’ with two girls.

Although I’m far too young to remember, or rather, I’m not quite old enough to remember, the time, I found the fervent atmosphere of the era, amongst leftists at least, convincingly portrayed. Assayas doesn’t romanticise the period, the men get on with talking whilst the woman are meant to do the domestic work, and Gilles is torn between his political convictions and his desire to join the art establishment.

Assayas uses wonderfully flowing camerawork to create a convincing narrative world and Eric Gautier’s cinematography captures the tone of the locations, from Paris to Italy, very well.

It’s unfair to compare the youth of today with those portrayed in the film but with climate change disaster, for youngsters in particular, looming it’s disappointing to see such lack of engagement. It’s actually worse than ‘lack of engagement’, they are not even aware of the developing disaster. The UK government’s recent budget saw fit only to bribe old people because they are more likely to vote. British youngsters, and others of course, are too burdened with debt, once at university, to feel too much like rocking the boat I suppose. For this I blame the parents, not only are we destroying the planet but have failed to engage our children in its future. Something in the Air, at least, shows that the young did care and, although politically May ’68, failed, culturally it still resonates today as this piece I wrote for in the picture suggests:

Knowing Arses from Elbows
(issue 60, July 2008)

Do your students know their left from their right? Whilst few still believe Francis Fukuyama’s pronouncement, in 1989, that history was at an end as the Capitalists had won the Cold War, the consequent shrinking of the ideologically left wing in mainstream politics has blurred the political landscape to such an extent that there are no easy shorthand descriptions of left and right wing. Blair’s ‘Third Way’ was an attempt to describe non-ideological politics; however it proved to be an oxymoronic chimera that nobody mentions any more. Besides, Blair’s New Labour clearly had more in common with Thatcherite politics than Socialism. However, the confrontational Westminster politics, and broadcast news’ need for ‘balance’, still suggests that (New) Labour and the Conservatives are opposites, whereas both occupy, broadly, a right-of-centre position that vaunts the private sector, at the expense of the public, and courts Big Business as a matter of course. Today’s 14-19 year olds can be forgiven for not knowing what the difference is between the left and the right.

Media Studies specifications usually encourage, at least at A2, historical contextualisation and the need to understand the ideological basis of meaning, so delving into the past is the an opportunity to give our students an understanding of what the left and right mean. This is one of the reasons the Establishment so reviles our subject, we do not deal in ‘common sense’ (the definitions offered by hegemony), but attempt to understand the ideological underpinnings of how meaning is created. In so doing, we often find that media texts are driven by patriarchy, consumerism and xenophobia and are not ‘windows on the ‘natural’ world’.

The 40th anniversary of May ’68 was an opportunity to consider the events of the time (seminal for the development Media Studies) and contemporary reflections upon it. Although the film is deeply disappointing in its focus on the characters’ sex lives, The Dreamers (France-UK-Italy, 2003) does start out with a magnificent evocation of the events that served as a catalyst to May, the occupation of the Cinematique in defence of Henri Langlois. The ‘making of…’ DVD extra is also a useful tool in giving historical background.

The ‘60s was the formative decade for our consumerist society and yet is regularly reviled by conservative politicians (most recently Nicolas Sarkozy) including Tony Blair who declared, in 2004, that the ‘liberal consensus’ of the decade had been taken too far. Apart from the rise of consumer culture, the decade was characterised, in the west, by the move from deference to challenging the Establishment; the emergence of Youth Culture that was often anathema to older generations; the mass demonstrations against the Vietnam war; Civil Liberties movements and so on.

When considering current views of 1968, the most obviously right-wing newspaper in Britain is bound to offer a distinctive view. Add renowned right-winger, Peter Hitchens, to the mix and you get some entertainingly ludicrous pronouncements. In an article about drug laws (The Mail on Sunday, 11 May, 2008, http://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk/2008/05/the-class-of-68.html) Hitchens wondered:

 ‘how many civil servants, BBC and Guardian journalists, ‘respected academics’ and politicians are concealing serious current drug habits from us.’ (p. 31a)

 The article was headlined ‘The class of ’68 smoke their dope, as the poor go to hell’. This is a typical Mail headline, more a moral rant than a succinct summary. Hitchens conflates the generation of ’68 with moral turpitude by stating that the thing they care about is drugs:

 ‘They pretend to be worried about dictatorship in Burma or hunger in Africa or the oppression of women in the Muslim world. But that’s just the dinner-party fake concern. The real issue for the 1968 generation has always been their right to have fun, however much it costs other people.’ (p. 31b)

 This suggestion is that the protestors of ’68, who are now at least in their 50s, where never really politically engaged and so we shouldn’t pay any attention to their agenda. Another right-winger, Niall Fergusson, writing the FT Weekend Magazine (May 17/18), agrees:

 ‘They wanted a revolution. But they wanted a mixed-sex party – a really big one – even more.’ (p. 35a)

 What does Ferguson mean by a ‘mixed-sex’ party’? He goes on to argue that the:

 ‘siouxant-huitards exploit their still dominant place in the western media to romanticise their youthful antics…’ (p. 35b)

 Therefore we shouldn’t pay too much attention to romantic (ie left wing) representations of ’68 as they are merely nostalgia. The right wing regularly suggest that the BBC is in the thrall of a ‘liberal conspiracy’, which it probably looks like from their position on the political spectrum. To those on the left, the BBC appears to be a repository of consensus politics and so resides on the right. Ferguson argues that the ‘cultural changes’ that occurred during the ‘60s were more the product of demographics; in America the proportion of 16-24 years olds ‘surged from 11.5 per cent in 1957 to a peak of 17.2 per cent in 1978’ (p. 34b) as if that, in itself, would be enough to gain Civil Rights as a black person or as a woman. The puritanical streak in both Hitchens’ and Ferguson’s columns is clearly in evidence; as if ‘having fun’ is not a reasonable thing to do.

Ferguson does, however, have a point when he outlines the electorate’s reaction to 1968 in electing right wing governments in both France and USA. In The Guardian (1 May, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/may/01/1968theyearofrevolt) Geoffrey Wheatcroft suggested that, though the right won the political battle, the left won the cultural war. Like Ferguson, he uses lyrics from the Rolling Stones’ Street Fighting Man to belittle the participants in the street protests (cue students’ analysis of the use of lyrics as a political tool; compare them with standard pop ‘boy meets girl’ fare?) as if these were a political manifesto. Wheatcroft’s response to the ‘naivete’ of the lyrics is ‘Oh, come on, old boy.’, discuss: what social class does Wheatcroft come from?.

From a left wing perspective, Gilbert Adair concentrates on these cultural gains:

 ‘What its detractors have always failed to comprehend is that the real bombs that were hurled in the streets of Paris were time bombs. They exploded later, sometimes decades later. It was, in France at least, out of May 68 that the liberalising ideologies and reformations that we now take for granted were born: modern feminism, the ecological movement, homosexual liberation, the outlawing of cultural censorship, the rejection of national service. If, for all its disfiguring scars, ours is a rather more civilised world than that which our parents and grandparents knew, it’s in some part due to those posturing rebels.’ (http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,,2268966,00.html)

 Both Wheatcroft and Adair were writing in The Guardian; an example of how that newspaper does offer contrasting ideological voices. Mike Marqusee writes in Red Pepper (Apr/May, http://www.redpepper.org.uk/1968-The-Mysterious-Chemistry-of) how it’s best to view 1968 as ‘a year of contradictions and confusions’ (p. 10) and focuses on the American experience. With Barack Obama heading for the Presidency, this is surely a good moment to look at the Civil Rights movement. Indeed it’s always a good exercise to get publications, such as Red Pepper and Socialist Worker, that most students are unaware of into the classroom and compare their views with mainstream coverage.

Prospect (May, http://www.prospect-magazine.co.uk/article_details.php?id=10164, nla) ran 54 short responses on the impact on May ’68; in blog form on the internet. These offer a variety of viewpoints and could be used with students as an exercise where they guess writers’ political orientations; this could be supplemented by further internet research to try and find out if they were correct. This would combine research skills with making clear that knowing the position from which the writer (source) is coming from is crucial and encourage students to use more than one source to verify the efficacy of what they’re reading. And, hopefully, at the end of the exercise – a good one to do in the summer term after AS levels – students will have a more concrete idea of the ideology, which will help them distinguish between the arses and elbows, that they are reading.

Further reading: 1968 The Year That Rocked the World, Mark Kurlansky, Vintage: 2005)

A collection of my articles from in the picture can be purchased for kindle here.

Bad Guy (Nabbeun namja, S.Korea, 2001)

Good bad guy

Good bad guy

Distributor Tartan marketed some East Asian films under it’s ‘Asian extreme’ imprint, an obvious marketing device that nevertheless failed when ithe company went bankrupt in 2008. Probably amongst the most ‘extreme’ of these offerings were the films of Ki-duk Kim, who attacks the sensibilities of those who wish to experience the ‘extreme’; hence, they are quintessentially extreme.

How do you deal with the films of Kim Ki-duk? Take Bad Guy, the ‘guy’ is undoubtedly – he forces a young woman into prostitution – bad, but we (well ‘I’) found myself eventually becoming sympathetic toward him. I doubt I am the only one who experiences this counter-intuitive engagement with the film though many don’t; his films are routinely dismissed as misogynist. Not only is she forced into prostitution but Kim shows us her first experience of sex when she is raped. The charge of misogyny is not hard to suggest and yet… Kim certainly doesn’t shoot the rape as anything other than a violation and the camera’s position minimises the possibilities of titillation. So what’s his point?

Hye Seung Chung’s excellent The Films of Kim Ki-duk make it clear that the director’s films are an attack on the class structure of South Korean society. The extreme nature of the imagery is a manifestation of the extreme humiliation that is inflicted upon the underclass. The subaltern (the underclass) is often absent in a nation’s cinema, Ill Manors is one recent example in Britain which worked in a similar way to Bad Guy in enabling the audience to sympathise with ‘badly’ behaved people.

One thing that is easy to like in Kim’s films is his mise en scene. His ‘painterly’ eye offers many beautiful compositions, such as when the bad guy and his victim are shown to be mirror images of each other. Is that enough to put oneself through the gruelling torture of some of the violence represented in his films? I think it is, unless you have a visceral dislike of representations of pain; Bad Guy is, at least, not as graphic as The Isle (2004). Kim’s cinema, with the notable exception of Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring (2003) is extreme but his purpose is not simply to shock but to also to communicate. In this his films are autobiographical, he’s from the underclass, and usually box office failures in South Korea. Who wants to see what we don’t want to see? As for Kim’s success in the west, it may be their ‘orientalist’ appeal to jaded audiences. Dig a bit deeper, though, and his films are striking for what they tell us about ourselves as much as the east.

Sally Potter in Conversation @ BIFF

Age doesn't wither

Age doesn’t wither

Sally Potter was the recipient of the Bradford International Film Festival Fellowship, awarded after ‘Sally Potter in Conversation’ with Rona Murray. Potter’s certainly a worthy holder of the award and proved engaging in conversation. We know that women struggle in the resolutely sexist film industry and Potter, because she works on the fringes of the mainstream, must surely find it even harder than most of her sex to get her films made. The fact that she’s built up a substantial body of work, all screened during the festival, is a testament to her determination, as well as that of her producers.

Potter and producer Christopher Sheppard, who was also in attendance, set up Adventure Pictures in 1988 and the conversation was illustrated by extracts, provided by the company. I’m sure that even those, in the sizeable audience, that were unfamiliar with Potter’s work would have gained much from her observations. Particularly interesting were the ‘behind the scenes’ footage of the screen tests, including Quentin Crisp for Orlando, and examples of the 2000 girls who, via Facebook, submitted their own tests for Ginger and Rosa; though none were cast.

The conversation offered an insight into Potter’s way of working, which very much concerns getting close to actors to build mutual trust. Potter has managed to work with an impressive array of talent, given the non-commercial bent of her cinema; she says that she’s only failed to get ‘on’ with one (who remains nameless). In the Q & A, that followed the conversation, she was asked about the formal experimentation of her films; she replied that was rooted in her London Film Maker’s Co-op background. The fact that everyone, including Julie Christie, was paid £25 a day on her first feature, The Goldiggers (1983), suggests her political orientation, as does her feminism. Though, she noted somewhat ruefully, that didn’t mean some on the set didn’t work much longer hours than others. I was surprised to learn that Goldiggers was the first British feature directed by a woman since World War II; and shocked to hear that Barry Norman, on the BBC Film Night programme, likened Potter to Dr Johnson’s quip about a dog on hind legs. Yes, the industry is still sexist but not as bad as it was 30 years ago.

When asked if being able to draw on recognised ‘talent’ made it easier to get funding for her films I was surprised to hear that it was only a ‘marginal’ advantage. Then again, it’s true that the influence of Hollywood stars are in decline, with the rise of special effects ‘spectaculars’ dominating what’s bankable.

Mention was made of Potter’s new book, Naked Cinema: Working with Actors, which is described as the book she would have liked to have read when she started making films. That in itself is enough reason to read it.

As to the awarding of the award: it was a little anti-climactic, it was more thrust upon her; though Potter’s short acceptance speech was entirely gracious,


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