Moonlight (US, 2016)

Moonlight shadow

Moonlight won Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, not something that particularly interests me as they are hardly a reliable barometer of great films. The commercial bent of Hollywood, the Oscars are designed to market films that are harder to sell than its usual product, has meant that non mainstream fare is rarely celebrated. Was it because ‘films of colour’ were badly treated at last year’s Academy Awards that this year members leaned toward such minority filmmaking as Moonlighting? Whatever the reason, this year the voters have got it right, not because Moonlight is necessarily the best film of 2016, but because it is a great film about vastly under-represented people, gay men of colour, that should be widely seen.

I’m not going to judge the film as a work of Queer cinema but as a melodrama; not for any ideological reason just I understood the film primarily as melodrama. The three-part story covers roughly three decades of the bullied Chiron’s life from being ‘Little’ to a young man (‘Black’) with the teenage years (‘Chiron’) in between. Melodrama focuses on relationships and often uses narrative in an overtly exaggerated fashion, using coincidence for dramatic effect. Moonlight eschews this aspect of the genre, however, and its relatively slow pace, and sometimes alienating use of rack focus, situates the film’s aesthetics in ‘art house’. Although the narrative is slow, punctuated by one particularly explosive moment of violence that is all the more shocking in the ‘slow’ context, it never drags; the rack focus (a change in the depth of field in the shot so different parts of the image go either in or out of focus) occasionally puts the image’s subject out of focus for no apparent reason which I haven’t seen before. I think the visual style, quite violently handheld at the start, and point-of-view shots, is intended to emphasise Chiron’s subjective experience of a hostile world. In this, the film is expressionist a style that fits with melodrama.

Without spoiling, the most melodramatic moment is near the end of the film when Barbara Lewis’ ‘Hello Stranger’ is played on a jukebox and the song’s words speak the character’s thoughts – a moment to wallow in cinema’s power. The drug dealing milieux is represented through some great hip hop and the film starts with ‘Every Nigger is a Star’. In addition, the character with a Cuban background is celebrated with Caetano Veloso’s classic ‘Cucurrucucú Paloma’ and there’s even room for Mozart. Melos = music and writer-director (adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play) Barry Jenkins has excelled in bringing melodrama back to its roots where music substituted for dialogue.

Obviously we are invited to empathise with the bullied Chiron… I was about to write ‘who wouldn’t?’ but The (London) Times film critic, Camilla Long, managed to spark outrage with her review that suggested that the film would only be watched by straight, white and middle class audiences (you can see enough of the review here). Her bizarre contention seems to be that such art cinema as Moonlight is only for people like herself, such mono-vision is itself evidence of the necessity for diversity in representations. Piers Morgan recently complained that he wasn’t considered to be ‘diverse’ in a spat about… well, I’ve forgotten what the publicity seeking hound was bellyaching about but his response was indicative of the fact that challenges to white, male (and straight) hegemony are often seen to have gone ‘too far’ (when they’ve really gone nowhere) by those in the position of privilege. My MP, the execrable Philip Davies, persistently tries to ‘talk out’ legislation designed to protect women on the grounds that men are being discriminated against. You couldn’t make it up but rather than berate the straight-white-middle aged-males for their stupidity it’s best to remember that it is ignorance rather than a lack of intellect that informs their perspective. Where was I…?

The film’s strength is not only in its sympathetic representation of black gay men, the first character we meet is the local drug ‘king pin’, played with vast charisma by Mahershala Ali, and the street dealer stereotype is thoroughly challenged as he becomes a father figure to the besieged  ‘Little’ in the first part of the story; we might have expected him to cultivate the youngster as a worker for his business. He’s humanised but the film also doesn’t fail to highlight his hypocrisy when he berates the young boy’s mother (a fantastic Noami Harris) for her addiction; she points out that it is he who sells her the rocks. The nuances portrayed in the film offer a complex representation of life.

According to imdb the film cost an estimated $1.5m to make. This is a sensationally small amount for a film with such high production values. Clearly the lives of black men are cheap in America and such humanising representations of an ethnicity under fire need to be widely circulated to call out the racism of those that have made #blacklivesmatter a necessary locus of resistance. So well done to the Oscars for doing social good; if La La Land had won at the expense of Moonlight then 2017 would have been another year of Academy Award irrelevance.  

Manchester by the Sea (US, 2016)

Split personalities

It’s wrong to judge anything against something it’s not trying to be so I’m hesitant in criticising Manchester by the Sea as I’m probably falling into this trap. However, having been impressed with the first half of the film I found my engagement derailed by the flashback of the narrative enigma, a traumatic event (spoilers ahead).

The film focuses on Lee whose past returns to haunt him. That sounds formulaic but the narrative and visual style takes its cue from early 1970s New Hollywood, which favoured art over commerce. Casey Affleck’s portrayal of Lee is point perfect: a youngish man who is trapped within inarticulate masculinity; he habitually chooses to end his solo boozing sessions with a fight. He is a man whose manual work offers no fulfilment and he speaks his mind to ungrateful customers. The slow paced early scenes that introduce his mundane existence, in a snow littered Boston, are reminiscent of the down-at-heel locations favoured by, for example, Bob Rafelson (The King of Marvin Gardens, 1972, and Five Easy Pieces, 1970). The relatively long takes of Lee’s routine work, beautifully framed and using a long lens to flatten the mise en scene, are redolent of such ‘70s American art cinema and I was delighted to watch this part. Rafelson’s films also dealt with delusional and ‘bottled up’ males who won’t engage with their reality. For Rafelson this was the ‘human condition’ of a certain type of man, however Kenneth Lonergan’s (he wrote and directed) Lee actually has a reason for his emotional stunting. And that’s where the film took the wrong path for me.

About half way we find that Lee is responsible for his children’s death in an accidental fire. Unfortunately Lonergan uses Albinoni’s Adagio, a saccharine-sweet ersatz piece of classical music, in the staging of the fire and this lurches the film into full blown melodrama that is at odds with the realism of the first part. Was the death of the children needed to explain Lee’s obtuseness or would it have been enough that he’d lost his wife (the incredible Michelle Williams) through his boorish behaviour we see in one of the many flashbacks? Either way, the melodrama (a genre I love) turned me off the film and it took Williams’ all-to-brief appearances to get me involved again; she is an amazing actor.

Lee becomes his nephew’s trustee, after his brother’s death (the motivating incident for Lee to return to his hometown) and I wasn’t convinced by the young man’s (he’s 17) response; this wasn’t Lucas Hedge’s performance but the script’s fault. He – Patrick – obviously yearned for a parent, he wants a relationship with his absent mother but his grief at the loss of his father, to whom he was clearly close, is muted at best.

Lonergan shoots Lee’s brother’s funeral, like the fire scene, ‘at a distance’ with no diegetic sound (sound derived from what we see on screen) with only music accompanying the images; this aestheticism struck me at odds with the New Hollywood style. However, of course, maybe that wasn’t the film Lonergan was making so my criticism should be moot. I suggest he makes a female version of the film, sans the fire incident, that focuses on an emotionally damaged woman (or Sarah Polley could do this – see her great Take This Waltz with Williams). I am bored of male stories; women have them too.

La La Land (USA, 2016)

Not a do-do

Not a do-do

‘Don’t believe the hype,’ rapped Chuck D, in the eponymous song, which is good advice because hype is about selling and the need to sell is often corrupting. Indeed, such is the effect of selling that I suspect most people treat hyperbole, especially if written by an estate agent or spoken by a politician, with scepticism. Film fandom tends to be resistant to scepticism, indeed it fuels the hype so, for example, all things Star Wars and Marvel are wonderful.

La La Land has been buzzing for months and is typical of the hype surrounding a film that’s unusual for mainstream cinema (in this case a musical) and yet is still (surprisingly) entertaining. For some the ‘surprise’ can make it the ‘best film I’ve ever seen’ (to quote a student) simply because they haven’t seen anything like it before. This isn’t to patronise as the ‘awe and wonder’ of discovery is the essence of film watching; if only I still had it!

So my expectations for La La Land were resisting the hype but my renaissance of enjoying film ‘insisted’ I go and see it and, I’m afraid, you need to believe the hype (in this case). The film is a tribute to ‘50s Hollywood musicals, through narrative (Singin’ in the Rain) and form (Vincente Minnelli’s cinemascope framed long, flowing takes) but doesn’t forget it’s in the 21st century in its clever narrative resolution.

A distinct difference from Golden Age musicals is the limited, if perfectly utilised, song and dance talents of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone; they ain’t Astaire and Rogers, but that is of no matter. I even enjoyed Gosling’s taciturnity for once and Stone is entirely engaging.

Will La La Land lead audiences, not in the know, to the classics musicals or will it remain an exciting ‘one off’?

Carol (UK-US-France, 2015)

Love at first sight?

Love at first sight?

Fifties (set) melodrama; what’s not to like? Haynes’ Far From Heaven (US, 2002) sumptuously recreated Sirkian melodrama. Here his mise en scene is more restrained though the passion of the characters, perfectly played by Blanchett and Mara, sears the eyeballs. If anything, visually Carol is a little disappointing given the graininess of the super 16mm film; Haynes’ explanation, in December’s Sight & Sound, seems to be that he doesn’t like the sheen of digital film. I had assumed he was after a retro look however I just found it distracting. Enough cavilling!

Haynes’ framing reminded me of Fassbinder; characters are placed at the edges of unbalanced frames. This reflected the ‘forbidden’ love of the protagonists in the homophobic 1950s. The stupidity of those times might be laughable but when Trump is the Republican front runner it’s not funny as many people’s mentality obviously remains backward (to be polite).

I particularly liked Mara’s character; although she is a young woman finding herself in the world she refuses to be browbeaten. Blanchett’s Carol, too, decides not to be a victim of patriarchy and the final scene, with men almost swirling through the mise en scene, is extremely powerful. Undoubtedly one of the films of the year.

PS there’s an excellent Screen International article on the production of the film here.

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.

Eden (US, 2012)

Men's entitlement to women

Men’s entitlement to women

A film about sex trafficking would fit readily into exploitation film and so it was a relief that director Megan Griffiths, who also co-scripted, avoided the potential for salacious representation and simply focused on the degradation. It’s based on Kim Chong’s, a Korean-American, true story of abduction and induction into sex slavery in the American South. Ex MTV-presenter, Jamie Chung, brilliantly fills the role from bewildered teen to one who will do whatever is required to escape. The fact that the other women are under-characterised may be intentional and reflect their submission to their exploitation. Matt O’Leary is similarly excellent as the guy running the operation, under Beau Bridge’s corrupt eye; O’Leary captures the junkie’s twitch brilliantly.

Ostensibly the film is a thriller, however Kim’s resistance is long-developing which works against the genre. Correctly, the ‘real life’ source material over-rides the genre’s prerogative and any audience frustration that Kim isn’t fighting back enough works to enhance the feeling of entrapment. Griffiths is excellent in her representation of men, most of whom have no interest in women other than as sex objects and recipients of their ejaculate. Men are shown to feel entitled to the women. It seems that society socialises men to believe they are better than women and any woman who challenges that needs ‘taking down’; hence the bile of trolls against any feminist discourse. The fact that all of these men are pathetic in some way, because they cannot take being challenged by a woman, is something that inevitably escapes them.

Eden works both as a thriller and a feminist film that attacks complacency regarding the position of women in our society.

I recently caught up with a brilliant BBC documentary Blurred Lines: The New Battle of the Sexes; a look at the comments below the YouTube video (link) gives a clue as to some men’s inability to understand feminism. Laughably (well it’s not that funny) many of them suggest it is men who are victims. The merest challenge to their entitlement of superiority sets them off on egregious rants. I do sense we are at a tipping point, as in the ’60s and ’80s, when feminism is going to make a big impact and, hopefully, not be recouped by patriarchy.

 

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…