I Am Not Your Negro (Switzerland-France -Belgium-US, 2016)

Plus ça change

This superb documentary on James Baldwin, who died in 1987, is timely in the light of the neo Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville earlier this month. Baldwin was an important figure in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. He refused to align himself with the radical Black Panthers, Martin Luther King, NAACP (which he deemed middle class) or Malcolm X but, through his articulate arguments and his feted novels, offered an intellectual perspective on racism. Raoul Peck’s film intermingles archive footage, much of it of Baldwin speaking for himself, with Samuel L. Jackson’s (beautiful) voice over speaking Baldwin’s words.

The film uses the unfinished Remember This House as its starting point. Here Baldwin was trying to come to terms with the deaths of King, X and Medger Evers who was murdered by white supremacist, Byron De La Beckwith; it took 30 years for Beckwith to be convicted. Whilst this may seem to be dilatory justice the American judicial system, as the Black Lives Matter campaign illustrates, is still highly reluctant to convict when the victim is black. One of the most notorious incidents in recent years is Trayvon Martin, shot in the chest by a vigilant, George Zimmerman, who was unbelievably found ‘not guilty’ of murder. Peck intersperses the film with examples such as Martin’s to illustrate that racism is still destroying lives. At Charlottesville, social media footage shows, a supremacist shouted “Nigger” and then fired a gun at protestors; the police did not intervene.

During the 1960s it must have seemed that, through the Civil Rights protests (see Selma for example), things were going to get better for minorities. However, what has become clear, although there have been improvements in equality with the abolition of Jim Crow laws, racism is still endemic (see 13th) and the increased profile of neo Nazis is symptomatic of this. In the film there is footage of 1960s racist protests which include banners emblazoned with the swastika . I’m not sure what is most shocking, the neo Nazis of today or those of the ’60s, just 20 years after the end of the war in which Americans had died fighting against fascism.

Baldwin’s sophisticated analysis of racism, including much on cinema from his book The Devil Finds Work (1976), concludes with the statement that black people know more about whites than whites do about black because white people don’t see blacks as people. Whites are the ones who invented the ‘nigger’ and, Baldwin asks, what is it about white people that led them to do this? What is their problem?

 

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Love (France-Belguim, 2015)

You don’t know what you’re doing

Gaspar Noé does provocation more that any other director I know; even Lars von Trier. Love is a hardcore art movie that focuses on the consequences of Murphy’s (Karl Glusman) ‘sleeping around’. Like the musical, pornographic films use the narrative as a frame on which to hang the sex scenes; the story takes us from one routine to another. Although Love is pornographic it’s not pornography because the sex is necessary to the investigation of the male, or some male’s, psyche. It’s motivated by the narrative not the other way around.

The other reason it’s not pornography is, despite the sex being totally explicit and ‘real’, the relationship between the characters is always important. The sex is an expression of the characters’ feeling for one another.

I didn’t see the film in 3D (it’s on Netflix) and was also part of its provocation; one shot included an ejaculating penis with semen flying at the audience. There are various ways of responding to this: disgust being one, laughter another. But it also is a point of view shot from a female perspective that puts many of the males in the audience in a position they’ve never experienced but may expect their partners to be placed.

Noé’s humour is also apparent in the jokey references to naming a child Gaspar and Noé is a character played by  himself. The funniest moment, for me, is the ending when Murphy tells Omi (Klara Kristin) that, “I’ll love you to the end.” At the moment ‘The End’ title appears. It’s funny until you realise how cruel that humour is.

At first I was irritated by Murphy, who self-regardingly blames his penis for his misdemeanours, but as the film progresses he becomes more sympathetic. Hilariously when he’s arrested in Paris for assaulting Noé he finds the investigating officer invites him for a drink to discuss sexual desire and relationships.

It’s telling, perhaps, that I’m reluctant to state too clearly my feelings about the film as in its graphic depictions of sex, and laying bare the tortured/pathetic (delete as applicable) male psyche, its revelation of what’s usually in the private sphere are maybe too truthful for me to share in the public sphere of this blog.

Dheepan (France, 2015)

What’s it all about?

I was enjoying Dheepan‘s representation of migrants on a French estate dominated by drug dealers until the end. Director Jacques Audiard seemed to be drawing parallels between the outsider status of both and the precariousness of drug dealers’ existence being not entirely dissimilar to the Tamil Tiger’s civil war. At the start of the film we see Dheepan escaping Sri Lanka at the end of the war, the Tigers having been defeated. He is thrown together with a woman, Yalini, who we meet trying to find an orphan child to complete their ersatz family.

Most of the film portrays the ‘family’s’ integration, of sorts, into French society and gives a powerful perspective from the outsider’s view. When one of the drug dealers explains to Dheepan, who’s the caretaker on the estate he’s living in, that he’s not from around here and he’s brought in because he has no connections, the film seems to be showing the two group’s similarity: neither belongs to where they are. Similarly, Yalini finds herself looking after a debilitated old man whose son is the local ‘drug lord’, Brahim. Vincent Rottier is sympathetic as Brahim but not sentimentalised. That fact that Jesuthasan Antonythasan, playing Dheepan, was actually a Tiger adds to the realism.

However, at the climax of the film this social realism is replaced by a ‘worm turns’ thriller narrative as Dheepan’s Tamil Tiger is reignited by an encounter with ‘the Colonel’ who, dementedly, is determined to continue fighting, and anger at a shoot out on the estate. It’s interesting to mix two seemingly unrelated genres although I didn’t find it convincing. And as to the ending… (won’t spoil) but it’s so far fetched that I don’t believe Audiard believes it either. Even if it’s not meant to be true but a fantasy I still don’t find it convincing. I was more interested in Yalini’s story anyway for her oppression was greater than Dheepan’s.

The Handmaid’s Tale (US, 2017)

Piece of resistance

We are living in extraordinary times, politically; this is particularly obvious in the Trump presidency and the openness of neo Nazis in America. Canadian Margaret Attwood’s 1985 novel seemed to me, when I read it at the time, to be out of its time. How naive of me and how prophetic of her. Like all SF (I don’t care she doesn’t like the term that’s what this is) Attwood wasn’t prophisizing but writing about trends in the contemporary world. Bruce Miller’s adaptation, he’s credited as series creator and wrote some of the scripts, obviously updates the source material but Attwood’s premise, of how patriarchy is based on ownership of women and violence, is horrifyingly of the moment. Beware spoilers ahead.

Many of the 10 episodes are written and directed by women, a smart move by Miller for this is a story of oppression of, and ultimately rebellion by, women. Especially powerful were the scenes of sexual exploitation and, without having closely analysed the making, I suspect this is because they were shot from a female perspective. Similarly, in the final episode, when Moira reaches Canada her experience as a refugee is brilliantly realised.

The ability of art to place us in others shoes, and hence encourage empathy, is ‘soft power’ that enrages those on the right, when the texts are liberal, and encourages them to march with their hard power – guns and violence. The monolithic and individualist world view of the right seems to express a mental fragility that cannot cope with anything different to themselves.

The acting is superb throughout; even Joseph Fiennes, who I usually find insipid and weak, has been superbly cast. The direction and cinematography is superb, which is increasingly the case in ‘quality TV’. The dull palette, and freezing weather, contrasted by the blood red cloaks of the handmaidens, is a perfect setting for a world empty of love and passion. I doubt I’ll see anything better on television this year.

Dunkirk (UK-Netherlands-France-USA, 2017)

Wishing you weren’t there

I’ve admired Christopher Nolan’s filmmaking, Memento (US, 2000) and The Dark Knight (US-UK, 2008) in particular, but his previous films did not prepare me for the brilliance of Dunkirk; I almost felt literally blown away. I was certainly hanging on to my seat as the visceral representation (without needing gore) of the evacuation of Dunkirk was utterly gripping.

Nolan has spoken about his desire not to make a conventional war film (see interview in August Sight & Sound) but to show what it was like to have been involved in the evacuation, either on land, sea or air. At first I was confused by the titles telling us that land (‘the mole’) story was ‘one week’, the sea ‘one day’ and ‘the air’ one hour not realising that the film was collapsing three time scales into a 106 minute narrative. Inevitably, toward the end, they increasingly overlap and we see the same events from different perspectives. I can’t think of any film that has done this and it is dramatically daring and effective.

I was unfortunate enough to see a tweet by Nigel Farage urging everybody to see this film (he had pictured himself in front of the poster) even thought Dunkirk was a ‘great’ British defeat. As David Bordwell points out:

‘A cynic could call the movie Profiles in Cowardice. Tommy flees German bullets and instead of helping the French hold the barricades, he keeps running. The French boy steals boots and an identity in order to get off the beach sooner.  He and Tommy try to slip on board a departing Red Cross ship as stretcher bearers. When that fails, they hide among the pilings. When the ship is hit, they leap into the water, the better to pretend to have been among the survivors and get a new ride. The Shivering Soldier wants to cut and run, and the soldiers who drift beyond the perimeter plan to use the blue trawler to carry them to safety, jumping the evacuation queue. All too often, despite acts of aid and comfort, it’s every man for himself.’ (‘The art film as event movie’)

Maybe Farage was overwhelmed by the immense evacuation, Zimmer’s score morphs momentarily in Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ for the arrival of the civilian flotilla, and Churchill’s ‘on the beaches’ speech we hear at the film’ conclusion. Although the Dunkirk story plugs into the myth of Britain’s greatness, Nolan’s Dunkirk isn’t interested in that, as Bordwell’s comment shows. His film portrays raw survival in all its ugliness as well as the bravery of the RAF pilots, in particular, and Mark Rylance’s Dawson, who represents the stoic civilian response.

The sound design was particularly effective in conveying what it was like to have been there, especially Hans Zimmer’s score which exploits the Shepard tone (and Shepard-Rissot glissando) a clever way of generating tension (see here for an explanation).

The editing between the three narratives works well; for example, an RAF pilot fighting to get out of his ditched Spitfire as the water flows in is cross cut by men scrambling to get out of a sinking ship. The chronology also allows us to understand the trauma of war: Cillian Murphy’s ‘shivering soldier’ is introduced as  suffering from PTSD but we see him later in the film, but earlier in the story, calmly telling men that they can’t get on an overfull rowing boat and they should swim back to shore. The contrast between the two, from authoritative to useless, strikes home.

At the climax, though to be honest most of the film felt climactic, Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot saves the day in an impossible way; his plane is out of fuel but he still manages to down (off screen) a Stuka. Given the realism of what’s gone before this might have struck a sour note however I read it as foretelling what happened over the next five years. Britain won the war against impossible odds… Except, of course, it didn’t. The allies won the war for Britain would likely have lost if it had had to stand alone: we were all in it together and isolationism has no role in greatness.

Force Majeur (Sweden-France-Norway-Denmark, 2014)

Happy families

I thoroughly ‘enjoyed’ Ruben Östlund’s Play and found this subsequent feature equally engrossing. Skewering the bourgeoisie is not exactly a difficult task and cinema has been at it since at least the Surrealists in the 1920s, but Östlund manages to revisit the territory in interesting ways. The bourgeois family are holidaying in the bourgeois winter destination par excellence: a skiing resort. Östlund separates scenes with shots of the overnight maintenance of the ski slopes which, particularly when accompanied by a demented accordion version of Vivaldi’s ‘Winter’, are surreal.

Östlund’s camera, as in Play, is detached from the events it portrays through the use of longish takes such as in the image above: a recurring banal activity but as the fractures in the family widen the subtle changes in behaviour speak loudly. After a traumatic event the family unravels as the patriarch’s shallowness is revealed. I’ll not reveal the dramatic moment as it’s intensely gripping.

Östlund (he also wrote the script) is not afraid of challenging the audience and the final scene, when the family are leaving the resort on a coach, is brilliantly done leaving a final image where the family are shown to be a microcosm of bourgeois life. Brilliant stuff.

The Beguiled (US, 2017)

My eyes were dim

Another low-medium budget US film (after me complaining about their decline) but in spite of the rave reviews, and Cannes recognition, this remake of the Clint Eastwood 1971 version, of Thomas Cullinan’s 1968 novel, did not hit my buttons. I’d be interested to see the earlier version again, directed by testosterone-fuelled Don Siegel, to compare with Sofia Coppola’s adaptation. I remember enjoying the original film but not why I did. Is it the feminine sensibility of the remake that disengaged me? (Hope not).

One problem I had was with the extremely low light levels, many of the interiors are (apparently) only candle lit; I kept nodding off (end of term exhaustion). The cast is great: Kidman and Dunst in particular. I like the way Colin Farrell appeared to be cast against type, at least for the first part of the film. However, I struggled to understand his motivation: was he flirting with the women ‘naturally’ or calculatedly? I couldn’t connect his ‘second part’ melt down (though it was understandable that he was angry) with the charmer of the first part. Was that the script or performance? Either way, Coppola is responsible.

The opening shot looked fake to me. It’s a Southern Gothic forest that appears to be out of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ but it looked stylised. It may have been (mostly or all) real but one of the problems of modern CGI is the plasticity of digital effects (though The Beguiled was shot on film that doesn’t preclude digital manipulation) have corrupted (in my eyes) the contract of film that asserts the pro filmic image is real. Of course special effects have been a part of cinema virtually since its inception, however CGI has lost its ‘wow’ factor through its ability to show anything. I rarely find any ‘visible’ special effect awesome. Most effects are ‘invisible’, such as eradicating a jet’s stream from the sky, but when a scene doesn’t look real it’s easy to think CGI is to blame and so from the first shot of the film I was (slightly) disengaged because I didn’t believe the image. That is, the image’s verisimilitude didn’t convince me. I apologise for the meandering paragraph but CGI has changed the way I watch films and I’m trying to understand how.

At the conclusion of the film, where Southern Gothic was writ largest, I did start to enjoy the movie. Kidman’s a fine actor and her shift between ladylike and malevolence was virtually imperceptible. It’s great to see her getting great roles again.