Citizenfour (Germany-US-UK, 2014)

Citizenfour for as all

Citizenfour for as all

Edward Snowden is a very 21st century hero: whistleblowing on how everyone is being spied upon via compromised networks. Whistleblowers are the heroes of our time and it’s an indictment of our time that they often end up more vilified than the criminals they are revealing. Snowden says, in Laura Poitras’ fabulous film, he hopes that when he is ‘shut up’, like the beheaded Hydra, seven other whistleblowers will appear behind him. They haven’t, testimony to the treatment they know they will receive but also the complicity that those who work for ‘security agencies’ have in the destruction of our ability to have a private life.

Along with Wikileaks, Snowden revealed what many of the left have always suspected: the security services operate beyond the law and legislatures have no desire the rein them in. Although this fact wasn’t a surprise, the breadth of their infiltration of our communications is still shocking. Without people like Snowden, and reporters such as Glenn Greenwald, along with The Guardian newspaper, we would well and truly be screwed. Or would we? We probably are anyway.

It’s unclear to me what affect the revelations have had upon the NSA, in America, and GCHQ in the UK; the latter, Snowden says, has even greater penetration of British communications than the NSA has over American’s. The response of many people seems to be to shrug as if it isn’t important. This might be because they are politically on the right (though it is quite striking that the libertarian right – to which Snowden belongs – has mostly been quiet) or they don’t want to hear such disturbing talk.

Many years ago, when I sold hotdogs at Chester Zoo during the summer, my fellow salesman delighted in regaling me with his belief that the ‘general public is thick’. I still don’t believe this but I think ‘the general public is ignorant’. Part of this is due to consumption of the right-wing media. Take the Daily Mail‘s front page (yesterday) that expressed shock that the charity Cage, which assists people who’ve been ‘targeted’ by the security services, should say that it is possible that ‘Jihadi John’s’ unspeakable behaviour (in beheading victims on behalf of ISIS) was in part caused by harassment by MI5. The Mail, in particular, is like a child who avoids hearing anything contrary to their beliefs by putting their hands over their ears and sings ‘la-la-la…’ It’s obvious that harassment could cause radicalisation but to acknowledge this would lead to questions about the effectiveness of security policy. Toward the end of Citizenfour it’s revealed that the NSA has 1.2 million people on its watch list! Whilst computer surveillance can watch us all, the security services don’t have the resources to directly monitor everyone on the lists. At some point they may decide, in order for us to be safe, internment without trial of suspects is needed.

The ignorance of the public can also be ‘wilful': they are more interested in celebrity gossip than issues that affect their lives. For example, on Thursday the FCC guaranteed net neutrality, a triumph against the increasing commercialisation of the internet, however the internet was ‘full’ of ‘the dress’.

UgbPOwi

Like George Romero’s zombies finding shopping malls reassuring, many won’t deal with the issues of our time (until they are the victims).

All this surveillance is done in the name of the bogus ‘war on terror’. Terrorists have no power to threaten nation states so they commit atrocities in the hope that the states will over-react and create a fertile ground for further recruitment of terrorists. I would say ‘stupidly our leaders over-react every time’ except I believe they know exactly what they are doing: terrorist acts become an excuse for more government control. In this way ISIS and governments have a symbiotic relationship: the victims are ordinary people of all cultures.

Well done to the Academy for awarding this documentary an Oscar; it was by far the most important film of the contenders but Radio 4’s Today programme managed to avoid mentioning it. Hopefully the award will raise its profile (it’s not available on DVD in the UK) as will Channel 4’s screening (in a graveyard slot but that matters little these days). Quite simply this is a film that all should see though it will be difficult to use in schools without plenty of background information but it is necessary to fit it into the curriculum!

 

Birdman (US-Canada, 2014)

All the film's a stage

All the film’s a stage

I’m not often keen on satirical takes on Hollywood, it’s too easy a target, however Birdman is so technically adept, and very funny in parts, it’s easy to like. Iñárritu’s decision to film the bulk of the film (the exceptions are the beginning and ending) as if it was shot in one take, unlike Russian Ark (Russia et al, 2002) which actually was, is surely a way of dramatising the difference between acting on film (usually in bits) and on stage (in ‘real time’). The film interrogates the actors’ profession: it concerns a ‘washed-up’ Hollywood star, Michael Keaton playing of sort of ‘alternate world’ self (for we cannot take what we see at face value), trying to gain artistic credibility in his Raymond Carver adaptation for Broadway. This interrogation focuses on theatre, we see the final few days before the opening night, but at the same time, because it’s Keaton we are watching perform as a ‘has been’ acting on stage, also raises questions about acting in film (which, of course, everyone in the film is doing).

If it seems a bit ‘clever-clever’ there is enough emotional heft (the actors’ insecurities; the ‘price of fame’ on family life) to deliver more than technical brilliance. The performances are outstanding throughout and Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is both breathtakingly beautiful and virtuoso in its steadicam prowling. Both Mahler and Tchaikovsky feature on the soundtrack: Mahler’s ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (‘I am lost to the world) signifies (along with his 9th Symphony) the protagonist’s angst whilst Tchaikovsky’s 5th represents the melodrama of Hollywood. This might suggest that the theatre, which is more likely to dramatise middle class ennui (and sometimes working class existence) than film, is the superior. Hollywood, through economic necessity as the international market becomes ever-more crucial, is now almost entirely focused on big budget spectaculars (more so than ever before) to please the masses more than the niches. However there’s enough ambiguity in the film to suggest…

The Exterminating Angel (El ángel exterminador, Mexico, 1962)

Dooming and dooming the rest of us

Doomed and dooming the rest of us

Luis Bunuel was good at excoriating the bourgeoisie; in The Exterminating Angel they are trapped at a dinner party for no apparent reason and their reason soon goes. The civil veneer of the the ruling classes is shown to be just that and beneath the surface most of them are scumbags (the doctor, however, is decent). Are the bourgeoisie these days the 1% who own 99% of the world’s wealth? Or do they include the ‘squeezed middle’ who politicians (including Labour!) seem so concerned about? Whoever they are they remain as self-centred as they have been since the rise of capitalism. The brutal behaviour of the guests in The Exterminating Angel is being meted out to the poor in Britain and elsewhere. Hopefully Syriza’s victory is the start of a left-wing revolution that will end the economic nonsense of ‘austerity’, the Tories announced today they are promising more if re-elected, that has devastated many people’s lives. Good on the Greeks, a third of whom live in poverty, for giving the ‘troika’ the finger.

As Marx suggested the bourgeoisie are doomed, the only question is whether they will destroy the rest of us. Climate change, fuelled by unsustainable economic growth, will finish us off given long enough. However, given the stupidity of neo liberals who, irrationally, still believe in the ‘free market’, it could be that civil dissent causes a meltdown before Gaia does.

Starred Up (UK, 2013)

Inside on the edge

Inside on the edge

Jack O’Connell was brilliant in ’71 and here he plays another working class lad brought up in an institution. There may be dangers of typecasting except the characters are so clearly delineated that there’s no possiblity of eliding the two. It’s another fantastic performance by this rising star. He plays Eric Love, a 19-year-old we see arriving in prison for a ‘very long time'; we don’t know what his offence is but it will be violent. Like previous posting, WhiplashStarred Up seeks to make deeply unsympathetic characters understandable. Jonathan Asser’s script is immensely successful in this no doubt aided by his work as a prison therapist.

O’Connell’s is one of many superb performances; Rupert Friend as ‘O’, a therapist, manages to convey his own mental trauma with little explanation as to why he, without pay, wants to help these violent thugs. Thugs they are but they are also people who have become violent because of how they were treated, as children, and their immersion in macho culture. Melodramatically Eric’s father, Neville (Ben Mendelssohn – fabulous), is in the same prison and in one scene they sit down to ‘talk': Eric has only one question.

O tries to get the men in his group to have conversations with fellow inmates and hence empathise with each other and themselves. I see Eric’s behaviour, in the way he relates to authority, many times during the week in my work as a teacher. Young boys (mostly) who don’t want to learn academically and/or have ‘issues’ at home. The same surly refusal to engage, that O’Connell shows as Eric, marks them out, not as future criminals necessarily, but youngsters who are being failed by our education system. It is our duty to engage them. I’m not blaming teachers but the system that insists on ‘one size fits all’. The ones who are failed by the dogma destroying education are predominantly working class so the idiots running the Ministry of Exam Passing don’t care.

The violence is extremely violent and the climax had me twitching in my seat, a tribute to David Mackenzie’s direction. A quite breath-taking movie.

Whiplash (US, 2014)

Brutal

Brutal

The intention of this blog is to write about ‘films with something to say'; that’s a bit of nonsense as all films have ‘something to say’. I’m trying to suggest the blog’s about films that have ‘something interesting to say’. Many films are interesting though I tend only to blog about films I like. I’m making an exception of Whiplash because it has been critically acclaimed whilst I detested it. If you’re planning to see the film don’t read on as there will be spoilers. In brief: the film celebrates JK Simmons’ character despite the fact he is a homophobic, racist, sexist, violent bully.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle is trying to pull of that difficult trick of getting us to admire someone who’s abominable. Daniel Day Lewis managed to get me to sympathise with his monstrous Bill ‘The Butcher’ in Gangs of New York (US-Italy, 2002) and I understood the psychological torment suffered by Michael Fassbinder’s Edwin Epps, a racist in love with a black woman, in 12 Years a Slave; however JK Simmons’ martinet music teacher, Fletcher, is irredeemable. That’s not, I think, to do with his performance but because the premise of the film, that such bullying can be necessary to achieve greatness, is wrong. Greatness in musical performance, and other spheres, is achieved through talent and utmost dedication to practice. Whiplash does show that but the closing scene’s exchanged smile between the protagonists suggests that every vile thing Fletcher did was to the good is, for me, as vile as his character.

Recently sexual abuse of pupils at an elite music school in Manchester has come to light (that’s one sin Fletcher is not guilty of) and high-pressured relationship between tutor and pupil can obviously be psychologically damaging. For Whiplash to acknowledge this, Fletcher has to resign after a bullied pupil (who nevertheless became successful) committed suicide, and then to say but really what Fletcher did to Miles Teller’s Andrew, a drummer, was right is reprehensible. I could go on about the absence of women, Andrew’s girlfriend only exists to be dispensed with and his mother is dead, but I won’t.

The critics and audiences love the film (imdb is at 8.7) so I’m out of step on this one. Maybe because I am a teacher Fletcher’s  dreadful behaviour is personal. I don’t know but I do know I hated this film.

PS the music is terrific.

The Green Ray (Le rayon vert, France, 1986)

Where do I go from here?

Where do I go from here?

The Bechdel test is mentioned regularly on the feminist sites I look at and The Green Ray, known as Summer in America, certainly passes. It follows Delphine (Marie Rivière) as she decides what to do after a friend dropped out of a holiday at the last minute. Delphine is unhappy and whilst the cause of this is because she’s been dumped by a man the film focuses on her desires rather then men’s. It’s ‘co-scripted’, or rather improvised, by Rivière and director Erich Rohmer and this, with the location shooting, where you can see passers-by looking at the filming with curiosity, gives the film a realist dimension. All the other characters are ‘playing’ themselves including Paulette Christlein, the ‘free spirit’ Delphine meets in Biarritz, who, like the other performers I sampled, never appeared in another film.

The long-takes, and meandering narrative, is similar to the style and form that Richard Linklater used in his Midnight films; the subject matter is similar too. Not a lot happens, or rather, quite a lot happens slowly and I was wondering why I was enjoying the film so much as it seemed to be an example of Rohmer’s whimsy. It helps that Rivière’s is brilliant and the several locations used are beautifully shot. The revelation, toward the end, of what the ‘green ray’ is does give the film a weightier philosophical dimension. I don’t think the title Summer is a good one; presumably distributors were afraid audiences might confuse the film with science fiction.

It has recently been re-released in the UK and it’s well-worth catching this film, particularly if you like Linklater.

The Fall series 2 (UK, 2014)

She will get her man

She will get her man

I’ve only just finished BBC2’s second series of The Fall otherwise it would have featured in my year’s top 20; I’m sure it will will be there next year. Central to the series, like many serial killer texts, is the relationship between the hunter and the hunted. Allan Cubitt, he wrote, produced and directed (now that is auteurism in action) is clearly exploring men’s (or is it misogynist men’s?) attitude toward women and so focuses on the psychological, which is also a trope of the genre. So far so conventional but The Fall – both series – have been compelling viewing; what makes it so?

Performance is always important and Gillian Anderson is perfectly cast as the ice-woman that spills tears on her virtually unemotional face. Anderson is an hypnotic screen presence (or is that the heterosexual male in me?) and, I guess, a role model for women who would like to deal with male aggression in such a calm way. Her ‘shameless’ attitude toward her sexual appetite was also refreshing to see; I felt the need to put ‘shameless’ in inverted commas because it is often used as a critical term, in this context, to vilify women who ‘sleep around’ whilst reserving the right of allowing ‘men to be men’ as an excuse for their promiscuous behaviour.

Jamie Dornan’s killer, Paul Spector (a mix of ghoul and voyeur), superbly mixes charm and hatred and Aisling Franciosi pulls off a very difficult role of a precocious, and ultimately demented, teenager brilliantly. The Belfast setting, with sectarian violence simmering beneath the peaceful streets, added to the atmosphere of unease.

The whole cast articulated well Cubitt’s purpose to show up hypocritical attitudes toward women and the complexity of relationships. I particularly liked Gibson’s last word on Spector: that she despised him.

Although the psychological climactic battle with the killer didn’t quite come off, Anderson’s Stella (she is a star) Gibson was too unruffled, and the finale was redolent of Se7en (US 1995), The Fall is an prime example of quality television that is, fortunately, characteristic of our age. If The Fall had been included, half of my top ten films/TV programmes last year would have been for television. Whilst there were many films I missed out on, such as Boyhood (US, 2014), there are TV series that I’ve yet to catch up on.

It’s hard to write about television effectively, and even the British quality press TV critics still seem to be unable to deal with the medium seriously, because of time: The Fall series 2 clocked in at almost six and a half hours. Writing about film sometimes requires a second viewing, to do that for television serials would be virtually impossible not simply because of their the time of individual serial or series, but there is so many to see watch!

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