The Diary of a Teenage Girl (US, 2015)

Empowering the twisted sister

FilmFour, in the UK, are to be congratulated for putting on a season of female-directed films to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of (limited) votes for women. Marielle Heller directed and adapted Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel; she’d previously adapted it for stage and appeared in the titular role played in the film by British actor, Bel Powley.

This is an excellent test case study to investigate what a female perspective can bring because the narrative shows a 15-year-old seducing her mum’s boyfriend; in the wrong hands this would not get beyond ‘creepy’. Whilst there’s plenty of female nudity it is motivated by the narrative and Minnie’s issues with her body; the female direction means it doesn’t feel exploitative. (This is not to say that a female director cannot make a misogynist film or necessarily has to deal with ‘female’ issues). However, by ensuring the film is Minnie’s narrative, she gives us a commentary on her feeling via tape recordings and in dialogue with animated characters who appear from her imagination, we can feel confident that this is a female perspective.

Although set over 40 years ago in 1976, the issues of female anxiety about being validated only through being attractive haven’t changed. Heller captures the post-hippy, pre punk ambience very well reminding us it was a time of potential revolution. There had seemed to be a genuine possibility of change for the better in the post-Vietnam era. Reagan’s election at the end of the decade nailed that particular coffin.

Kristin Wiig plays Minnie’s mixed-up mother: she tells her daughter to get a boyfriend and then states that’s not a ‘feminist thing to say’. The portrayal of her is quite reactionary in that she is something of a hypocritical wastrel: the ‘hippies as hypocrites’ trope, most notoriously seen in Forrest Gump (1994), has some mileage but too often is used simply to dis counter culture. However, I guess the novel is autobiographical and Phoebe’s mum was just like that.

Satisfyingly Minnie becomes increasingly empowered through her experiences whilst the boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård) is shown for what he is. Gratifyingly Heller hasn’t had to wait too long for her second feature: Can You Ever Forgive Me?, starring Melissa McCarthy, is due later this year.


Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (US-France, 1992)

Happy families

I was lucky enough to receive the belated season three of Twin Peaks as a gift so embarked on re-watching series one; I never saw series two when it came out. Series one remains a milestone television series with its mix of the uncanny and humour, much of it derived from the genre mash-up of film noir and soap opera. Season two was more wayward, I found the ‘arch villain’ Windom Earl unconvincing though whether that’s due to Kenneth Welsh’s performance is uncertain. The bizarre Lynch-directed final episode almost redeemed it.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was Lynch’s response to the prematurely-ended, due to low ratings, series (on episode 29, including both series one and two, and a pilot); Lynch apparently had shown little interest in the programme in its second season even though he appeared in a few episodes. As far as he was concerned as soon as the killer of Laura Palmer was revealed, which the television company insisted on, the programme lost its raison d’etre. When Lynch directed he ignored the script, probably because it was trying to explain what was going on. Fire Walk With Me was a prequel to the first series and focused on Laura Palmer whose corpse, in the pilot, stimulates the investigation in the small town. Apparently those who were fans of the series found the film disappointing; when I saw it at the time I was ‘blown away’ by the portrayal of abuse and thought the film was at least as good as Blue Velvet (1986). 25 years later its power remains and I was particularly taken by Sheryl Lee’s performance as Laura; she superbly conveys the girl’s resignation to her fate even as she rails against the forces that have exploited her. It remains uncomfortable viewing.

Given Lynch is in love with surrealism, we can see the first 30 bonkers minutes of the film almost as a short to accompany the feature; unless I’m missing something…

I’ll now embark on the 19 episodes of series three that apparently take Fire Walk With Me as their starting point. I’m enthused enough, at the moment, to then revisit all Lynch’s films for they were all (I haven’t seen The Straight Story, 1999) designed to get us thinking.

Phantom Thread (US, 2017)

Please let it end

I’m happy to admit I don’t get P.T. Anderson: Phantom Thread is meritorious tripe . I think it may be the third shot of the film when the klaxon sounded that I may be wasting two hours of my life: the ever-intrusive music swells as if for a revelation, the camera pans up to show a spiral staircase where the women workers of the fashion house ascend… That’s it. I had similar problems with There Will Be Blood; by the time I worked out what the film was trying to say I didn’t care and wasn’t interested in what it was saying anyway. In fact what I said about Anderson’s The Master is relevant to Phantom Thread:

‘What is the point of The Master? Its narrative is suitably elliptical for a ‘arty’ house film; it lacks the clear drive that’s bespoke Hollywood. It features lauded performances of the sort that Oscar voters like. It’s beautifully  shot and superbly set designed with some striking  compositions …  The music, both ‘found’ and scored (by Jonny Greenwood) is terrific… What’s the film’s point?’

I only went to see Phantom Thread for Daniel Day Lewis but when his character sees the next ‘love of his life’, Alma, and she seems to fall for a man twice her age immediately my doubts about the film were doubled. Anderson is a tasteful old-fashioned filmmaker but such patriarchal pap doesn’t stand watching in, what I hope is, our #MeToo era. It’s not simply that Lewis’ character is abusive, but the idea that young women readily desire old men is long past its sell-by date.

The milieux  of ‘high fashion’ was never one that was going to interest me so I was prejudiced against the film which is beautifully shot by Anderson himself. By the end (halfway actually) I was watching in a detached way that is rarely useful in film watching and so could observe how Anderson used close-ups, and more swelling music, to nail a devastating point about Lewis’ character. BUT IT WASN’T INTERESTING! I’ll shut up now…

Except I’m not sure why the music was so high in the mix. I loved Jonny Greenwood’s score for The Master and his old fashioned scoring for Phantom Thread is in keeping with Anderson’s aesthetic but it sometimes seemed to flood the mise en scene; this Pitchfork review is enlightening.



Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (UK-US, 2017)

Several levels of desperation

Three Billboards is one of the glut of ‘awards’ movies that fill the cinemas in the early months of the year to take advantage of the publicity garnered by the Oscars and BAFTAs. The idea that these are the best films of the year, often middle brow and never blockbusters, shows the one-eyed perspective of cultural commentators as they are usually all English language films. Pity the rest of the world who can’t hope to compete with Anglo Saxon culture!

Three Billboards is, however, good in the sense I enjoyed it and there were moments that were absolutely riveting. The performances are excellent, Martin McDonagh’s direction and script are great. With one proviso, which we’ll come to, it probably is one of the best American films produced last year.

Frances McDormand plays Mildred who places contentious statements on billboards in order to get justice for her murdered daughter. Police chief (Woody Harrelson) is the focus of her ire. One of his deputies, Sam Rockwell, is a racist and not fit to wear an officer’s uniform. The set-up is clear but McDonagh then sets about challenging our preconceptions, much derived from generic expectations, and offers depth to the characterisation. He also, typically of melodrama, over-exaggerates to the extent that Rockwell’s character is barely believable.

So what’s the problem with the film? SPOILERS AHEAD! Rockwell’s Dixon, despite being extremely racist, is redeemed when he helps Mildred. I thought the catalyst for this was weak, a letter from the now deceased police chief, but nevertheless thought it worked in the melodramatic framework. However, as Zeba Blay says in Huffington Post:

‘[The] disconnect between (mostly white) viewers who see Dixon’s having tortured a black man as a character quirk, a shorthand for anger and sadness, and (black) viewers like Denby, who can’t let go of this character quirk in order to root for the character, lies at the center of what makes the award-season success of “Three Billboards” so fascinating.

For a black audience Rockwell’s racism is far less likely to be forgiven when the character redeems himself because using racism as a signifier of weakness downplays its power. I think this is a fair comment and McDonagh’s defence weak:

“That ambiguity is exactly what I was going for in it. So it’s not a surprise, I think, and it’s nothing I can’t happily defend at any stage. I think it’s a really good film, and I think often the backlash is kind of a knee-jerk reaction maybe. And I think certainly in time — not right now, in time — the heart of the film will definitely be seen as something that’s deserving to be recognized.” (also in HuffPo article)

To describe a black person’s reaction to Dixon as ‘knee-jerk’ suggests McDonagh doesn’t understand how racism affects black people as does his self-congratulary contention that ‘the movie says “an awful lot” about race and policing’  I think it says more about white treatment of race than race itself.

However, this is not a reason not to see the film, which I think is very fine but with the qualification that it’s racial politics are, at the very least, contentious.

Snowden (France-Germany-US, 2016)

Blessed are the truth tellers

At the start of Snowden, a biopic of the NSA whistleblower, I wondered whether there was any point in watching it as it was recreating scenes directly from Laura Poitras’ brilliant documentary Citizen4. However this film’s focus on a libertarian’s (he was a fan of Ayn Rand) slow realisation that the system he was part of is corrupt makes riveting viewing. Directed with restraint, by Oliver Stone (not something necessarily associated with him), and anchored by a convincing performance in the lead, Joseph Gordon Levitt, this film is a vital record of how we are sleepwalking into a surveillance society that even Orwell did not dream up. I say ‘vital’ because it acts as a warning by letting the general public know what’s being done by those in power.

But there’s a problem: Citizen4 enjoyed the high profile of winning an Oscar and although Snowden flopped at the box office, millions of people have likely seen it. Has anything changed? Snowden’s life has, he’s in de facto exile in Moscow. Whistleblowers often find their lives in ruins for doing the right thing something that is not a coincidence. Those in power do not want to be held to account. Stone’s early film, the brilliant Salvador (UK-US), showed the moral corruption of American intervention in other country’s politics but that didn’t change the way American governments behave. Snowden’s revelation of illegal mass surveillance, in the name of security, caused some embarrassment but it will still be going on. Brave are the people who do the right thing in the face of the general populace’s inertia, which is fed by the misinformation of mainstream media, and the damage it does to their lives.

MSM is often vilified by those on the right and left for its partial reporting. We are living in scary times where the right is cementing its power through propaganda, which is distinct from MSM’s partiality, disseminated through social media, newspapers like the Daily Mail and Fox News. The Overton Window, the political breadth defining what is acceptable to the mainstream, is palpably shifting to the right. The BBC included extreme right commentators Anne Coulter and Kassam Raheem in its broadcasts this week and they must have a subscription to Nigel Farage as he’s on television again tomorrow; the current leader of UKIP (now a spent political force) was on Question Time this week. The BBC claim these voices are offering ‘balance’ but I doubt we’ll hear any extreme left wing views to counter this, which shows that the centre has moved right. Indeed, and I’m trying to avoid thinking conspiracy, at least three times recently the BBC have misrepresented Jeremy Corbyn (who they probably define as ‘hard left’): yesterday they allowed Tory supporter Dylan Jones to ridicule him on the flagship Radio 4 Today.

This shift to the right, most obviously seen in America, is dangerous. My generation were brought up in the shadow of World War II and it was ridiculous to think anything like the Nazis could happen again but we are on that path. Snowden reminds us that we should do the right thing and not be scared of standing up to power in whatever form it takes.

Mudbound (US, 2017)

Bound in pain

Mudbound is one of the best films of the year but you’ll be lucky (from a UK perspective) if you can see it in cinemas even though it was only released yesterday; it’s a ‘Netflix original’. I wish I could see it in the cinema if only for Rachel Morrison’s beautiful cinematography. I’m not just referring to the sunsets but also the mud-sodden fields where much of the action takes place. I’m not having a go at Netflix,  at least they supported a black, female director – Dee Rees – in making an uncompromising film about racial hatred in 1940s America.

With high quality television sets, high definition streaming and sound bars, watching films at home has never been better. I remember watching Tarkovsky’s Solaris (USSR 1972) on a black and white portable television, I still enjoyed it but… One thing we’re likely to never know, however, is how popular Mudbound is with audiences as Netflix doesn’t release figures. That’s commercially sensitive information allowing it to know what types of film to make so anyone with a Netflix subscription watch it! The film’s won festival awards and is being linked to the Oscars but ‘box office’ figures will forever be absent.

I struggled slightly at the start of the film to orientate myself as the film sprawls somewhat in setting up the backgrounds of the two families; I also struggled with the accents of the characters but I could have put on the subtitles. However, the early scenes are important and once the McAllans arrive in Mississippi the narrative grips. Part of my struggle may have been because a number of characters have their own voiceovers which made it uncertain who were the main protagonists. I’m indifferent to voiceovers usually, unless it’s film noir, as they seem to be a failure of cinematic narration; however in Mudbound they work superbly to offer a multiplicity of viewpoints.

All the performances are extraordinary from Carey Mulligan to Mary J. Blige, unrecognisable (she’s in the image above) without her make up. Rees’ direction is subtle: I particularly liked a shot on V.E. Day with Ronsel, a member of General Patton’s Black Panthers, with his German lover looking out of the window at the celebrations in the street. He’s in the background and, despite the joyous scene, it’s clear he’s unhappy because it means his relationship is now over. Rees is equally confident in the battle scenes conveying the visceral horror and fully setting up the relationship between two veterans when they return from war.

As a chunk of Southern Gothic melodrama, Mudbound delivers brilliantly and hopefully Netflix finds it worth while to finance more of Rees’ films.


Koyaanisqatsi (US, 1982)

Mind blowing, mind expanding eco cinema

The content of the images of this film, mostly shot in the ’70s, may have dated but its portrayal of human (capitalist?) stupidity is even more relevant as our planet is now kicking back at us for the way we have treated it. The screening I saw had a live accompaniment, of their new score for the film, by GoGo Penguin. It was a fantastic performance.

Godfrey Reggio’s (mostly) fast motion montage of city life – bookended by images of the Grand Canyon – is in the tradition of the city films of the 1920s, such as Berlin, Symphony of a City (Germany 1927). Graphic matches in the editing, for example fast motion clouds flowing over hills is cut to water flowing, link the images but the lack of a voiceover requires the audience to construct the narrative. Reggio’s purpose, however, is clear; shots of sausages being produced on a production line are followed by (fast motion) people flooding into a commuter station, tells you what you need to know about his opinion of modern life. Toward the end the frenetic pace accelerates and I felt like the astronaut in 2001: A Space Odyssey (UK, 1968) – see image above – as he enters a worm hole (or something).

The shots of factory workers operating robotically shows the dehumanising effect of the production line. Today their function will probably have been taken over by actual robots. On one level this is an improvement; on the other, it’s not: what jobs are there for the factory workers? The answer is low paid, ‘flexible’ (for the employer) hours contracts. Instead of using the savings created by using robots, in time and money, to better the life of humanity, wealth has percolated upwards to those who don’t need it. This madness, which won’t end well, is different to the madness of modern life portrayed in Koyaanisqatsi but, nevertheless, is incredibly stupid.

I’m a fan of GoGo Penguin, a jazz trio (piano, bass and drums), but was sceptical about what they could bring to a film that benefited enormously from Philip Glass’s hypnotic score. At first I found the live performance distracting as you have to concentrate on the images, remember what follows what to create the narrative, and so can’t ‘follow’ the music. However, I soon tuned in and was gobsmacked by the trio’s integration with the images; if they missed a cue it was only by tenths of a second. The crashes of cymbals as bombs exploded was truly visceral. Brilliant playing of a superb score.

35 years after the film’s release, which only happened thanks to the intervention of Francis Ford Coppola, we are surely at a watershed in terms of whether we are going to repair our planet in time. In America the disconnect between political leadership and the need for ecological change could hardly be greater. This week California experienced record temperatures for the time of year and winter is now two weeks shorter than it was one hundred years ago. One scene in Koyaanisqatsi shows dollar bills being counted and for many money is all that matters. For an increasing number that’s simply a matter of survival; for the rich… Well, I don’t know why they need more; do they?

The only thing I missed hearing in this screening was the Hopi Indian chants of ‘koyaanisqatsi’ (‘unbalanced life’) that occur, if I remember correctly, at the end. If life was unbalanced in the ’80s we’re now in a tail spin.