A Touch of Sin (Tian zhu ding, China-Japan-France, 2013)

The genre film

The genre film

I’m a fan of Jia Zhangke’s work (see Still Life and Xiao Wu posts) and his latest is no disappointment. The title references the classic  A Touch of Zen (Xia nü, Taiwan, 1971), a wuxia that was successful at Cannes, and suggests that Jia is working in genre rather than the social realism of his previous features. The latter label doesn’t quite do justice to Still Life as its setting, a town about to be submerged for the Three Gorges Dam, is semi-surreal and includes a shot of a building blasting off into space. However, the purpose of Jia’s work is no doubt to highlight the plight of ordinary folk left behind by the vast expansion of China’s economy.

A Touch of Sin tells four stories, based on ‘true life’ as told through Weibo (China’s Twitter), of ordinary folk being pushed to their limit and each, while telling of sin, ends in violence. Thus we get a fascinating mix of Jia’s, as usual, brilliantly fluid steadicam direction, that waltzes us through the ridiculously rundown places to the sublime modernity of, for example, a massive bridge, and genre violence. The third (of four) story, featuring Jia’s wife, Zhao Tao (below), who also appeared in Still Life, steps into the wuxia of Zen in its bloody climax.

The social realist film

The social realist film

I enjoyed the audacity of mixing two discourses (genre and social realism) and it worked to emphasise the way in which China’s headlong rush into modernity has left many people behind so their only recourse is to violence. Apparently President Xi is a fan of Jia’s work which is why the film has been distributed in China; a surprising eventuality given how critical it is of the state, albeit indirectly – see Tony Rayn’s excellent piece.

Room in Rome (Habitación en Roma, Spain, 2010)

Stranger in lu(s)v(t)

Stranger in lu(s)v(t)

As far as I know Room in Rome didn’t get a cinema release in Britain, somewhat surprising as it written and directed by Julio Medem, whose films like Sex and Lucia and Lovers of the Arctic Circle (Spain-France, 1998) made some impact. Add the highly marketable bodies of Elena Anaya (a Medem and Almodovar regular) and Natasha Yarovenko, who spend virtually the whole film in states of undress, it’s even more surprising that no distributor would take the risk. Medem said it was his most successfully pre-sold film after Sex and Lucia. The film is  mostly in English, presumably for commercial reasons. Fortunately I stumbled across it on Amazon Instant Video (not comfortable with giving that company a plug) and thoroughly enjoyed the ‘strangers spend a night together’ narrative.

As a heterosexual male I would have to admit that the women’s bodies were part of the attraction but Medem’s fluid visual style, even though it’s virtually wholly set in a hotel room, and the beautiful cinematography (Alex Catalán) make this a visual feast. For much of the film the women, only one of whom is a lesbian (Anaya’s Alba), about their lives; Medem’s (he scripted, loosely based on  In Bed (En la came, Chile, 2005)) postmodern playfulness is in evidence in these tales, but not excessively so. In the original the couple are heterosexual. I don’t know why Medem switched the gender of one of the lovers, though he does favour female protagonists, but the characters’ sexuality seemed incidental.; they are two strangers who connect for one night.

The central question of the film is ‘can strangers fall in love ‘at first sight’ or is it lust that is driving them?’ To succeed in engaging an audience (other than those who only want to feast on the pornographic elements) for nearly two hours requires powerful performances and both the leads are brilliant. Anaya is a great actor but Yarovenko was new to me and she matches the Spaniard’s performance; they are both entirely convincing. It could be good to see more of her in film.

Beyond the performances, it is Medem’s direction, where the camera will drift off to admire the paintings in the room (Cupid appears several times), that gives the film weight for me; I’m not sure why that is the case. Others found it pretentious in part and Jocelyn Pook’s soundtrack also divided opinion: I loved it.

 

Fruitvale Station (US, 2013)

#BlackLivesMatter

#BlackLivesMatter

It’s quite extraordinary how many black people are being killed by law enforcement officers in America and getting away with it. Racism is so institutionalised that even when Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year old, was shot in the back by a vigilante, George Zimmermann, the latter was found ‘not guilty’. Clearly it is open season on people of colour. The UK is not without its problems, Mark Duggan for example, but we can’t compare to America.

Fruitvale Station, which recounts the last hours of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan, brilliant in the role) before he was shot in the back whilst being arrested lying facedown, was released around the same time of the Trayvon Martin verdict. Its $16m North American box office was indicative of the film’s topicality as well as its quality.

As further evidence of the racial divide of America some commentators sought to attack the film because of its inaccuracies. For example, Grant is seen tending to a dog, victim of a hit and run, as it died. Although this never occurred, writer-director Ryan Coogler is clearly using the dog a melodramatic emblem of the way African-Americans are treated. The dog’s bloodied mouth mirrors that of Grant’s after he has been shot. So Kyle Smith’s attack on the film, in Forbes, is more interesting for what it says about Smith than the film. Spike Lee has been the subject of similar attacks when the dares to confront racism in America.  Do the Right Thing (1989) was particularly vilified by critics (see here) who suggested that the representations of the subordinate position of African-Americans was designed to stir up trouble. As Ed Guerrero says:

When a commercial film depicting a social issue or perspective challenges Hollywood’s strategies of ideological containment, that film usually comes under attack for inflaming and exacerbating the very problem that it seeks to expose, engage or change. (Guerrero, 2001: 18–19)

Although these films are dramatizing the social problem, right wing critics characterise them as being part of the problem. Unlike Zimmermann, the transport policeman was found guilty and sentenced to… two years (served 11 months). His defence was he thought he was firing his taser. The video footage, filmed by numerous onlookers (it was the early hours of New Year’s Day, 2009), may have helped get the conviction though this is doubtful as it didn’t help Rodney King get justice. The film starts with this ‘confused’ footage and then reconstructs Grant’s last hours, using a realist handheld camera style and shooting on Super 16 to avoid any slickness.

The film reminded me, as we followed Grant’s fairly ordinary last day, of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (US, 1977) as it focuses on ordinary people’s lives who happened to be black. It is strikingly rare to see such representations of ethnic minorities in cinema. Fruitvale Station was produced by Forest Whitaker’s Significant Productions, also responsible for the recently released Dope; presumably Whitaker is taking it upon himself to get the ‘African-American’ voice into film as Hollywood won’t do it.

I found the film compelling, not only because of the excruciating climax which is superbly staged, but also because of the performances: Melanie Diaz and Octavia Spencer, as Grant’s girlfriend and mother, are both standout. Ashley Clark’s perceptive review, in Sight & Sound, finishes with a quote from James Baldwin’s The Devil Has Work:

“The root of the white man’s hatred [for black men] is terror, a bottomless and nameless terror, which focuses on the black, surfacing, and concentrating on this dread figure, an entity which lives only in his mind.”

It seems, for many law enforcement officers, the only way to combat this terror is to shoot it.

Guerrero, E. (ed.) (2001) Do The Right Thing, London: British Film Institute.

The Sugarland Express (US, 1974)

'What do I do now?'

‘What do I do now?’

During the early 1970s the Hollywood studios, for the only time in their existence, were interested in art-cinema. After the success of Easy Rider (1969), at a time when audiences were in decline, directors got to ‘call the shots’. The Godfather‘s (1971) success gave hope that the mass audience would appreciate the auteur-driven films but most, by directors such as Robert Altman, Alan J Pakula, Bob Rafelson and Martiin Scorsese, were not successful enough to stop producers taking control again after the summer blockbuster success of Jaws (1975). Ironically Steven Spielberg contributed The Sugarland Express to art-cinema Hollywood (it was produced through Universal) the year before Jaws ‘ate the movies’.

Spielberg had learned his craft directing three TV movies, including the celebrated Duel (1971), before making Sugarland, his first feature. Duel was broadcast on ABC where Barry Diller and Michael Eisner had developed the TV movie as a way of creating cheap programming. They realised that small screen movies had to be easy to market as they wouldn’t be pre-sold by cinema exhibition and so developed the High Concept. This allows films to be summarised in a sentence and so are easily understood by audiences; Duel, for instance: ‘A duel is about to begin between a man, a truck, and an open road. Where a simple battle of wits is now a matter of life and death.’

Shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, who like fellow Hungarian Laszlo Kovacs had a great influence on the look of New Hollywood films, The Sugarland Express is based on a true story: Lou Jean (Goldie Hawn) breaks her husband, Clovis (William Atherton), out of an open prison to get their son back. It’s a road movie that descends into farce as they kidnap a policeman and are then tailed by a phalanx of police cars as they make their way to Sugarland and their son. The film features three American obsessions: cars, families and guns and if Spielberg over-emphasises the car smashes he does leave room for character development and the eccentricities of American life. Like many cinematic outlaws before them, such as those in Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), the ‘people’ are on their side and shower them with gifts. Hawn (who frighteningly looks the same as she does now) is an entirely dumb blonde but you could argue that Clovis’ (Atherton) inability to oppose her situates him in the same intellectual bracket. An interesting review in Jump Cut points out the film’s misogyny as well as Spielberg’s inability (like much of American cinema) to deal with social class.

Ben Johnson’s casting as the sympathetic police captain gives us a clue to the film’s despair at contemporary America (still embroiled in the Vietnam war at the time). His associations (usually as a good guy) with Westerns, and the fact he sports a ten-gallon hat, harks back to the ‘old days’ when you could tell what was right from wrong. The America of this film, like the one now unfortunately, is full of trigger-happy men and you know, like most of New Hollywood films, it is going to end badly. Which, of course, is why audiences didn’t flock to the films as they are more interested in the ‘cinema of reassurance’, where narratives end ‘happily ever after’.

No (Chile-France-US-Mexico, 2012)

Ad exec takes on military dictatorship

Ad exec takes on military dictatorship

General Pinochet, whose CIA-backed coup overthrew Salvatore Allende’s democratically elected Socialist government on September 11 1973, was almost held accountable for his crimes when he visited the UK in 1998. He was let go on health grounds: the ruling classes certainly look after their own as there was nothing wrong with him! This film recounts how Pinochet was deposed: a Referendum, as to whether he should continue as President, in 1988 imposed on Pinochet by his western backers. They wanted him to have the veneer of democratic respectability but were surprised by the victory of the ‘no’ vote. No recounts how the ‘no’ campaign was successful and uses footage from both the actual campaigns and the brutality of Pinochet’s troops.

From a naive perspective it is surprising that many would vote ‘yes’ for a military dictatorship but that neglects the fact that many, in the middle class, had benefited from Pinochet’s rule. So it’s self-interest over democratic ideals and fairness; a ‘principle’ that goes some way to explain why many voted for the Conservatives in the May UK Election. Democracy is a fig-leaf that is useful to gain consent (‘hegemony’) from the masses and if people dare to misuse their vote – as in the Greek Referendum on the economic destruction of their country – they will be ignored; in the Greek case by the EU and  European Bank (the World Bank at least acknowledges that Greece can never pay back its debt under the terms it’s been given).

It struck me also how Pinochet’s Minister responsible for the ‘yes’ campaign referred to his opponents as ‘fools’; anyone who opposes their ideas must by definition, they think, be idiots. Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign, for the leadership of the Labour Party, have been characterised in similar ways. Corbyn is challenging the status quo and has a high level of support, this the Establishment cannot tolerate (because it means that they aren’t necessarily right) and cognitive dissonance kicks in, so they start ridiculing what is opposing them as they can’t rationally argue against them.

Back to the film: obviously well worth seeing but Larrain’s direction did irritate me. He seemed to delight in shooting into the sun presumably to give the film a documentary feel with its ‘uncomposed’ shots. It was shot on 1983 U-matic video camera (in the 4:3 ratio) which means the image quality is poor; that didn’t bother me. Gael Garcia Bernal, as the ‘heroic’ ad exec (that phrase doesn’t occur very often), is brilliant as usual. His appearance in a film, in itself, seems to guarantee quality.

Calvary (Ireland-UK, 2014)

Crisis of religion

Crisis of religion

It’s impossible for an English atheist to understand the impact/stranglehold the Catholic Church had upon Eire until recently when the ceaseless revelations of scandals undermined its authority to the extent that Gay marriage was easily approved in the referendum earlier this year. Peter Mullan’s The Magdelene Sisters (Ire-UK, 2002) had shown the disgusting treatment of young women, who were pregnant out of wedlock, up until the 1980s. John Michael McDonagh’s film (like Mullan he scripted and directed) puts the pedophile priests in its sight and, with a brilliant narrative set up, starts with a ‘confession’ that Father James (the brilliant Brendan Gleeson) will be killed the following Sunday because he is a good man. This, the perpetrator feels, would be a justice of sorts. The small west coast town setting is full of ‘characters’ and James spends the week deciding what to do.

McDonagh’s debut was the well-regarded (though not by me) The Guard (Ire, 2011); Calvary suggests he might be a special talent. The slightly flippant humour that runs throughout (one priest reads, boggle eyed, The God Delusion) might have derailed the seriousness with which the film is intended to be regarded; fortunately it works to relief the ‘heaviness’ of the crimes committed by the clergy. Child abuse is used too often as a ploy to shock; in Calvary the abuse was real and by approaching it tangentially McDonagh offers us powerful insights into the relationship between ordinary people and the Church in the aftermath of the scandals.

Clearly actors, including Chris O’Dowd, Aiden Gillen and Gleeson’s son, Dohmnall in a cameo, are keen to work with McDonagh. Calvary shows us why.

The Party’s Over (UK, 1965)

Over before it started

Over before it started

This is the latest film I’ve caught on BFI’s Flipside DVD and Blu-ray series investigating 1960s ‘under the radar’ films and it is really interesting.  As ‘interesting’ suggests it’s the film’s position in history that makes it worth seeing rather than its intrinsic merits. The date on the print is 1963 but it was two years before it was released, because of problems with the BBFC, and then it was hacked so much that the director and producers had their name taken off the credits. The BFI have restored the original and although some scenes are pretty scratched it generally looks good; some of the cinematography, by Larry Pizer, is striking. Of course the rating has changed: from the original adults-only X to 12. I wonder if it had been submitted for certification a few years later whether it would have encountered the same problems as the nudity is all indirect, unlike in say Blow-Up (UK-US-Italy, 1967). Probably, like the banned until 1968 The Wild One (US, 1954), the lack of moral condemnation of the ‘beatniks’,  at the end of the film, worked against it. Apparently the version that was released does have a change of focus at the end. That said, there’s no doubt the film is condemning the youngsters, just not enough for the moral arbiters who probably believed ‘weak’ minded young people would want to be like the nihilistic wastrels.

The film features Oliver Reed, who unsurprisingly out-charismas most in the film, as Moise the conflicted ‘beatnik’ and was directed by Guy Hamilton who went on to make Goldfinger (1964) and three other Bond movies.

It’s not just the changes in censorship that makes the film interesting. The representation of young people (the ‘beatniks’) at a time when London hadn’t quite yet started swinging is fascinating. It’s clear that screenwriter Marc Behm (b. 1925) absolutely hates them as they are shown to be a particularly unpleasant bunch of hedonists; the conclusion of the film urges them to ‘grow up’.  A Hard Day’s Night (1964), often thought of as the precursor to the Swinging Sixties films, hadn’t been released (Behm scripted the later Beatles film, Help!, 1965) but it’s clear that the bohemian lifestyle that became emblematic of the ’60s was already annoying fogies, such as the 38 year old Behm. By the time the film was released it would be hopelessly out of touch with the zeitgeist of British cinema that was. in its youth pics at least, celebrating young people; though often in a reactionary way – see Here We Round the Mulberry Bush (1968).

Apart from its fogeyness, the other disappointing aspect of the film is the narrative structure of the script. It has a quite good conceit, involving retelling of an event, that could have been at the centre of the film. But the meandering opening fails to gain the narrative drive that would help the audience to care about what happened. My overall impression, however, is the middle aged resentment at young people supposedly enjoying the hedonistic lifestyle that had not been available to them in their youth.

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