The Artist (France-Belguim, 2011)

They (still) don't make them like they used to

It’s rare to see long queues at Bradford’s art cinema, Pictureville, but The Artist was still packing them in a week after it went on general release. I guess the novelty value (if you didn’t know it’s a silent, black and white movie) and the superbly realised, if simple, narrative has generated great ‘word of mouth’. A solid diet of mainstream Hollywood is likely to give most people a hankering for difference, and writer-director Michel Hazanavicius’ ‘dream’ project is certainly unusual.

I don’t mean to sound… mean, as it’s pleasing to see difference do well, but this is simply a novelty film. Hazanavicius’ OSS117 films were very successful in France, parodying spy movies of the ’60s and ’70s (I haven’t seen them). The best parodies are affectionate, and he clearly has great affection for silent Hollywood. And, as he says in an interview in January’s Sight & Sound, he had no problem using ’40s (expressionist) lighting for a dream sequence; so he’s simply offering a pastiche of ‘old’ film-making. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

He’s also recycled the A Star is Born narrative and we find ourselves in a number of movies, including Singin’ in the Rain (itself a pastiche) and Fairbanks’ Zorro movies. There’s the ‘postmodern’ ‘joy’ (I know I’m ‘over’ apostrophying but that is/was postmodernism folks!) in reliving the naive narratives of the past where dogs can ‘save the day’, mined successfully by Lucas and Spielberg, but I don’t want to diet on it too often.

Shame (UK-Canada, 2011)

The emptiness of sex

I first came across Michael Fassbender in Hunger, directed like Shame by Steve McQueen. His performance, as hunger-striker Bobby Sands, was extraordinary. His promise has been cemented in numerous films since ranging from X-Men First Class to Fish Tank (UK-Neth, 2009). His performance in Shame is also brilliant; he reminds me of Daniel Day-Lewis in the way he totally immerses himself into the role.

Shame is very much an actors’ film; Carey Mulligan and Nicole Beharie are also standout. This is not simply because they are required to go ‘out on a limb’ in their portrayal, particularly Fassbender and Mulligan, of emotionally raw behaviour but also as McQueen’s shooting style regularly features long takes with an immobile camera. There are no edits where the actors can hide. These long takes don’t come across as virtuoso but appropriate to the scene where the relationship between the characters is absolutely paramount.

Fassbender plays a sex addict who, when not using porn or prostitutes, is trying to pick up women merely to have sex with. He is incapable of relating to a woman in any other way which leaves him a hollow man. McQueen has stated that he wanted to show that sex addiction is a malaise and not something that can be laddishly celebrated. He certainly succeeds, particularly in the climactic montage of sex with two prostitutes. The close ups of the grinding, with the rapidly edited montage, coupled with Fassbender’s agonised performance, show the sex not merely to be loveless but also empty of any significance. For a film that has a lot of sex in it, I can’t think of a less sexy film except maybe Cronenberg’s Crash, Can-UK, 1996; a tribute to the film-makers’ ability to realise their project.

Well done to Showcase cinemas for programming (in Gildersome)  the film; though there were only about a dozen watching in an opening night showing. It won’t get a positive ‘word of mouth’ from those desiring smut or those after entertainment on a Friday evening. Prime Minister Cameron was wittering last week about how the British film industry should focus on commercial projects thereby demonstrating both his ignorance of the film industry (where ‘nobody knows anything’) and his philistinism. The Tories have never taken film seriously as an art form, maybe because arthouse cinema, when it gets political, tends to criticise the status quo. This criticism doesn’t matter to them when it occurs in galleries or theatres, with their limited audiences, but film potentially can reach much further. However, I doubt that he need worry because of the conservatism of cinema-going audiences, who see film only as entertainment. The arthouse crowd are a minority and many of them will also frequent galleries and theatres. It is vital that films like Shame continue to be made because they broaden the experience of people who like to be challenged.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (US-Swe-UK-Ger, 2011)

'You will do as you're told!'

It’s inherently irritating that Hollywood insists on remaking commercially successful foreign-language films as it’s due to the fact that the majority of film-goers, in America and UK at least, won’t watch subtitled films. Anyone who has watched a subtitled film knows that after a few minutes they are barely noticeable. Hollywood is only interested in making money and the issue of whether the remake can add something to the original matters little to it. Filmmakers, however, often want to put their stamp upon the new version and it can be interesting to look at differences, many of which will be cultural. Hollywood, of course, can also spend more money on the film which, while not necessarily a good thing, can raise the production values.

However, Hollywood will also spend money for the sake of it. After the ‘indie’ success of Sitting Ducks (US, 1980), director Henry Jaglom was offered an enormous amount of money to make a film. He said that he’d make 10 films for that amount; the offer was withdrawn. Money means stars and, although their importance is in decline, this brings an extra set of baggage to the narrative; though the only ‘big’ name in the remake of Tattoo is Daniel Craig (Stellan Skarsgaard is also well known as a supporting actor).

Having read the book and taught the original film I had a lot of baggage when watching the remake. However I admired Fincher’s early films (I wrote a York Film Notes on Se7en, nla) so was interested in what he could make of the film. Incidentally, apropos the previous post, the Kim Newman in February’s Sight & Sound states ‘that Fincher brings cutting-edge Hollywood narrative skills…’ (18a); I suspect that that was scriptwriter Steve Zallian, Kim.

Did I enjoy the remake? No… what follows is a number of points, in no particular order, outlining my dissatisfaction and contains spoilers:

  • the film is well-acted but Daniel Craig is wrong for the role. He’s far too beefy, and carries connotations of action-man Bond, for the role of the non-macho journalist.
  • there are a number of points that reduce Salander’s spiky character including the first sex scene where, as in the original she starts on top but, unlike the original, finishes underneath.
  • After the sex, in the original, Salander gets out of bed and Blomkvist complains he wants her to stay for a post-coital cuddle; the remake fades to black…
  • and fades up with Salander having made breakfast! FFS!
  • Salander saves Blomkvist but then asks his permission to kill Vanger; the original’s denouement is far superior as Salander does what she wants which includes failing to save Vanger after the car crash. She is not faced with this choice in the remake.
  • There is an absurd shot of Salandar with a gun framed in front of the burning car; we’ve suddenly switched genres to a mainstream action flick.
  • Blomkvist’s assent to the death of Vanger removes the moral dilemma from the original in favour ‘let’s kill the bastard’.

So it is an artistically pointless remake with the hard-edges of Salander’s character smoothed off for the patriarchal American audience. The original Swedish title of the book was Men Who Hate Women and while I can understand the publisher changing this to a more commercial title, why not ‘woman’ instead of ‘girl’ – see an excellent post by Anne Helen Petersen.

I did like Trent Reznor’s and Atticus Ross’ score though but found the much-praised title sequence too much like a music video.

UPDATE (11/1/12): Hmm, might have to revise my opinion that title sequence was like a music video… see here.

Kill the director

'I can't believe they took my politique so literally!'

In the current issue of the generally excellent Sight & Sound magazine a review of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows states:

Ritchie goes for cheap laughs by having the brothers call each other “Mikey” and “Shirley”… (p78b)

Now unless the reviewer knows this for a fact, we should assume that this ‘cheap laugh’ originated with the scriptwriters rather than the director, Guy Ritchie. However the idea that the director is the author of the film has led to a blind assumption that the he (it is male 90% of the time) is responsible for all the creative decisions. To be fair S&S has published a number of letters recently complaining about the same tendency; nevertheless many of its reviewers blindly repeat the canard. The effect is that all the other creative forces are regarded as subordinate and film, that most cooperative of artforms, is reduced to the ‘great man’ theory of the world.

The origins of this obsession are in the 1950s. For following is from my Introduction to Film:

Writing in Cahiers du Cinéma, Truffaut excoriated what he called French cinema’s ‘tradition of quality’, films that were tasteful and bound by their scripts. He dubbed the directors of such films as metteurs en scène, those who merely filmed the script, and contrasted them negatively with auteurs, directors who brought a personal vision to the film. Truffaut’s attack was intended as a critical policy and not a theory; however Andrew Sarris’ wrote in 1962:

‘Henceforth, I will abbreviate la politique des auteurs as the auteur theory to avoid confusion.’

(‘Notes on the auteur theory in 1962‘ Andrew Sarris)

It could be argued that auteurism has been confused and confusing ever since. However, the view that certain directors can be seen as the author of their films continues to be held. Sarris believed that:

‘The strong director imposes his own personality on a film’ the weak director allows the personalities of others to run rampant.’

In Britain Victor Perkins, and his co-editors of Movie magazine [now happily revived on the web], took up the auteur baton and, like their Gallic colleagues, used the ‘theory’ to eulogize Hollywood directors such as John Ford and Nicholas Ray… They believed the personal vision of such men (it was by necessity men, as women rarely directed during Hollywood’s Golden Age) transcended the commercial context in which they worked. Hollywood became, for the first time, a respectable area of study. B (low-budget) pictures, by directors such as Sam Fuller, and the ‘women’s pictures’ of Douglas Sirk, were seen to be offering subversive takes on the American dream from within the heart of capitalist Hollywood. Auteurism was particularly useful in allowing the revaluation of the American films of European directors, such as Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock.

The approach was particularly in chime with the British academic tradition, exemplified in F. R. Leavis’s work on literature, with its emphasis on close reading of canonical texts. So although it was radical in the way it treated the mass culture of Hollywood as art, it was simultaneously reactionary because it used the traditional discourse of Romanticism in eulogizing ‘great men’. (pp 155-6)

I’ve only seen a couple of Guy Ritchie films so can’t comment on whether he’s an auteur or a metteur en scène, but film criticism must move on from the assumption that the director is only creative force we need to consider. The idea was ridiculous when Truffaut first suggested it; why are magazines like Sight & Sound still propagating it? Comments more than welcome.

Cléo de 5 à 7 (France, 1962)

Zeitgeist of its time

It’s a sign of age, and too much time watching movies maybe, that I’m running out of ‘classic’ films to see. Cléo de 5 à 7 has recently come available and, having studied and taught  the French new wave (nouvelle  vague), it was great to catch this oft-mentioned film. That said, I was a tad disappointed. Maybe my middle age ennui is getting the better of me…

On the plus side, there are great shots of Parisian streets and some stunning compositions, particularly using mirrors. In an early scene in a cafe, the frame is cut by a post making it seem as if it’s actually split in two. Cleo is listening to others about her going about their lives as she waits for 7 ‘o clock when she’ll receive the results of tests for cancer. The soundtrack also privileges her perception as she hears people’s conversations as she passes them by.

It’s a sort of two-hour (90 mins running time) road/walk movie as Cleo approaches the dreaded hour of her diagnosis. All good stuff; including a silent movie pastiche starring Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina. However…

Cleo is a pop star and so is, unsurprisingly, represented as rather vapid. The idea is that she gains character as the hour approaches however I found the film’s final scenes, where she meets a soldier about to return to Algiers, entirely unconvincing. I found Antoine Bourseiller’s soldier creepy rather than inspirational. However, the moment of the diagnosis is handled well.

For me there are bits of brilliance, and it must have seemed amazing in the early ’60s, so I shall say it’s very much a film that is the zeitgeist of its time.

Cape Fear (US, 1961)

Truly a disturbing force

When I first saw the original version of Cape Fear I thoroughly enjoyed it, however in this re-viewing I was struck by Gregory Peck’s woodenness. Indeed, the Christmas tree was giving an Oscar-winning performance in comparison. As a film that dramatises a violent disruption of an all-American patriarchal family, and there doesn’t come many more disturbing forces than Robert Mitchum’s Max Cady, the imperturbability of the said patriarch is entirely unconvincing. Even at the film’s climax, Peck’s perfect father-lawyer can still tell daughter to ‘run and hide’ before returning to the fray.

I’m not sure the degree to which this was purposeful. Could it be that the film means to say that the stolid head-of-the-household (who comments near the start that one shouldn’t teach females to tell the time because later they will hold it against you) should be that indestructable or couldn’t Peck do mental disintegration in the face of Cady’s threat?

There are still some terrific scenes; that is, all those with Mitchum in. When he threatens the ‘little wife’ by crushing an egg, and then caressing her chest were the albumen had split, is truly horrible. The scene where Barrie Chase, as the ‘drifter’ picked up by Cady, is asked to testify after being raped, is also notable.

2011 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 23,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 9 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Best of 2011

Films released last year


1. Black Swan
2. We Need to Talk About Kevin
3. Pina
4. Melancholia
5. 127 Hours
6. Meek’s Cutoff
7. Attack the Block
8. Wuthering Heights
9. Hugo
10. Rise of Planet of the Apes

Films Seen Last Year

The end again

1. Apocalypse Now
2. Black Swan
3. It’s a Wonderful Life

4. Bloody Sunday
5. We Need to Talk About Kevin
6. Black Narcissus
7. Amores Perros
8. The Battle of Algiers
9. Battle of Seattle
10. Pina

Books of the year

Grim as it should be

1. Birdsong, Sebastian Faulkes
2. The Master Switch, Tim Yu
3. Hello Everybody, Joris Luyendjik
4. Estates, Lynsey Hanley
5. Delusions of Gender,
Cordelia Fine
6. Small Wars, Sadie Jones
7. The Sense of Ending, Julian Barnes
8. Retromania, Simon Reynolds
9. Jilted Generation: How Britain has Bankrupted its Youth, Ed Howker & Shiv Malik
10. The Big Short, Michael Lewis

Albums of the year

1. Boulez conducts Stravinsky
2. Verneri Pohjola Aurora
3. Shabazz Palaces Black Up
4. Brahms/Tchaikovsky: Symphonies, New Moscow SO – Bashmet
5. Mercedes Peon SOS
6. Schoenberg/Brahms: Piano Quartet 1, Berlin PO – Rattle
7. Lucian Ban Enescu Re-Imagined
8. Pina
9. Adele 21
10. Roddy Woomble Impossible Songs and Other Songs

Live events of the year

1. The Unthanks, support Trembling Bells, Howard Assembly Rooms – Leeds
2. Broken Glass
by Arthur Miller, Vaudeville Theatre – London
3. Ken Dodd’s Happiness Show, Victoria Hall, Halifax
4. The Unthanks, Hebden Bridge Picturehouse
5. Roddy Woomble, Trades Club, Hebden Bridge
6. KT Tunstall, O2 Academy, Leeds
7. Mugyenko Taiko Drummers, The Spa Centre Scarborough
8. Villagers, Brudenell Social Club, Burley
9. Cinderella, Matthew Bourne, Alhambra – Bradford
10. World Press Photo Awards, Royal Festival Hall