in the swamp

Sense8: empathy and ecstasy

My votes in the annual Sight & Sound Films Of The Year poll were for:

Silence
Personal Shopper
Elle
mother! (mentioned here)
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (mentioned here)

One of these received double-figures votes, so by last year’s standards I swerved into the warm currents of the mainstream.

In the comment box some matters arising, in a year when more matters arose than usual:

Sense8 on Netflix was just as vivid a transfer of a filmmaker’s vision from one form to another as Twin Peaks, and gave the same impression of a modernist machine being prodded by critics using old and inappropriate equipment. If criticism is going to be relevant in the current cultural earthquakes and in the accompanying porn panic that will be along shortly, it will have to dust off the ability to grasp form as well as content, and get back to the idea of art as a mirror, rather than a prescription or a lie detector test.

Time spent arguing about whether Twin Peaks counts as a film or not while all the crockery falls off the shelves around us seems like time thrown into the abyss, but film critics’ modern dust-ups are all the same argument, the one about relevance and audience. Film critics habitually produce a thing called a Best Films Of 2017 list which a general public cannot interact with in the same way as a Best Books/Music/Art/Theatre/Poetry/Design/Beer of 2017 list, a voluntary irrelevance which I have never pretended to understand, but the additional difficulties posed by Twin Peaks should now just be ignored altogether. The audience is anyone finding an artistic thing wherever they find it; the relevance will have to be conferred on our mighty words by them, since we have a habit of forgetting that their interaction with art outranks ours.

Film criticism still doesn’t really know what to do with TV or TV criticism, and vice versa, since one of those trades came to terms with talking about a mass-market consumable art form a long time ago, and the other clung doggedly to the idea that mass-market consumables are exactly what mainstream films were not. Twin Peaks sailed forth on a medium which has left the notion of gatekeepers far behind, and out into a culture which doesn’t know what it wants arts criticism to do other than repeat platitudes. It’s still possible – just – to think of Silence or mother! as works where critics could moderate a functioning cultural conversation and legitimately call that conversation part of the work’s effect, but the idea that Twin Peaks needed a gatekeeper to tell you what was up seemed nuts before the end of the first episode. Twin Peaks was so singular that there was only ever you and it, looking each other squarely in the eye in the quiet of your own home, and the same would have been true if by some miracle it had beamed in via BBC2, and arrived notionally for free. On that level at least, the otherwise pretty threadbare analogy between the show and experimental gallery art was on the money.

Any conversation about Twin Peaks is inherently a step forward for those of us who tried to start one about the empathies and ecstasies of Sense8 a year ago, and any conversation about form rather than content is a valuable advance, even under duress. Reluctance to talk about form has long since stopped looking like a blind-spot and become unhappily tinged with simple snobbery against things which are Not Films. It also happens to suit the ascendant lefist wish that the content of people’s words should be all that’s needed to reveal their hidden wickedness, and the form in which they say them reveal nothing at all. Attacks on Blade Runner 2049 and mother! suggesting that sexual images were present because the actual films themselves were sexist were at least better than not talking about the images at all, but the implication that mass-market art is obliged to write a prescription rather than invite you to register your own flaws is a censorship I was inoculated against at birth. Not coincidentally, a new porn-panic has nearly kicked off twice already – one (male) actor I like was heard saying that Harvey Weinstein became the man he was because top-shelf pornography magazines still exist, apparently with a straight face. Once porn gets indicted again, we’ll have to hold on to our hats.

“The idea of art as a mirror, rather than a prescription or a lie detector test.” Critics telling people that they are doing films wrong is just the worst look in the world, and that’s before we even get properly stuck in to the arena of weeding out the existing art now made suspect by the names of the men in the credits. Retreating from the hubbub into my CD collection, the infinite malleability of music and the possible benefits-at-a-distance that apply there are even more obvious and immeasurable than the ones involved in film. If we’re going to expand the current police operation beyond the artists who are outright monsters and start rounding on the ones who were temperamental man-children taking out their frustrations on women, then there won’t be a bonfire big enough for all the albums that you’ll be wanting to burn. Ike Turner was a thug to Tina and Phil Spector is crazier than a snake in a sack, but I’m not giving up River Deep – Mountain High because the thing they helped create has made me an incrementally better person from one end of my life to the other. Empathy and ecstasy. I’m not sure what arts criticism is supposed to be for, if not to talk about that.

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the face of the fabulous new

mother!: back to the garden

At some point the wish that art would present answers rather than questions turns into the wish that art would just go away.

The November Sight & Sound has me talking about American Made, a film which has the usual biopic problems and ends up looking like pretty weak sauce compared to the topic at hand.

I’ll be in the December issue on The Snowman, which is compromised to dust, and also Blade Runner 2049, and that review is also online already here. Whatever you think of the latter film, it is not weak sauce. And if you believe that art has any role to play in getting us out of this mess, then Blade Runner 2049 is another klaxon that we have to get back to treating art as a mirror rather than a prescription.

In practice that will largely mean a mirror for men. There were loud calls for bits of Blade Runner 2049 to go away, and a lot more for the banishment in its entirety of Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, a film which was even further from pallid disengagement than Blade Runner. Both addressed the manhood of manly men in ways which didn’t seem to cut them much ice, before we even get to their varying engagement with women. If you believe that criticism also has a role in getting us out of this mess, then the voices saying so will have to find a way to project farther than they are right now. Mother! also dared to be blackly comic, a timely reminder that actual satire can sometimes be a sharper tool than sci-fi metaphor, although blackly is hardly enough of a word in this case. Every time Jennifer Lawrence commented on her unbraced sink I thought about Tom Hanks and Shelley Long in The Money Pit, and look what happened to them. Blade Runner and mother! generated some clippings for the scrapbook, my personal favourite being a critic conflicted over why les films de Nicolas WInding Refn gave him pleasure and the films of Aronofsky did not, when they were apparently so parallel. Leaving aside the unfashionable theory that you might consider answering these dilemmas before logging in to twitter rather than afterwards, a critic unsure on the difference in effect and affect between Refn’s crystalline colour-saturated objective cruelty and Aronofsky’s subjective grainy proximity to the agonies of Creation might perhaps consider turning in their double-O license.

the marsist

Quatermass Martians: old school

Two new books about Nigel Kneale came out recently, and I read them both for the October issue of Sight & Sound magazine. One is a biography and the other a set of critical essays, so they are very different reads, but anyone interested enough to read one of them should find the other providing some valuable context, and once or twice some suitable balance also. There are some natural ley lines joining the current nature of arts criticism and the health of the critical essay as a form, and I read some of the pieces in We Are The Martians with a mildly clenched jaw, but the book testifies to the way that creativity in one place then seeds the same thing far over the horizon and many miles down range. Into The Unknown deals with how one particular creative came to be in a position to do that in the first place, as well as telling some tales of the early BBC, where a few of its painful future problems are already condensing out of the bow-tied 1950s air. Tales of Kneale-love from modern Hollywood have been well told many times – the suggestion that the kerfuffle around Halloween III has come to overshadow the Kneale landscape now seems entrenched, although it’s a sentiment that flatters the fantasy front-lines – but Joe Dante’s affection for the cheesy 3D sci-fi movie that once turned up in an episode of The Quatermass Experiment is a nice alignment, given the glee with which Dante put an affectionate boot into the same general target once or twice.  Ultimately, talent admires talent.

amos vogel’s ammeter

Cara Delevingne: boldly gone

The September issue of Sight & Sound magazine includes me reviewing Dark Night, a film concerned with American mass shootings and trying to get its arms around a specific and intractable modern evil. A critic should be sure of his footing when declaring the end result of such an attempt to be a failure, now that mainstream cinema and its audience have drawn up some unspoken agreement not to do that kind of thing very much any more; but Dark Night opts for a familiarity that just leads in a tight circle. The agenda of realism, whether in documentary mode or the theatrical tension of an actor being severe  – the safety net of recognisable order, of cause and effect – is currently under weekly kicking from David Lynch and more occasional ribbing from Terrence Malick, and simply isn’t the tool it used to be in this neck of the woods.

Realism isn’t on A Ghost Story‘s mind either, which pretty much guarantees it a higher degree of success from the off. There are holes to be picked in it from top to bottom, and the internal logic of the ghost’s time traveling never even tries to cohere. Having gone forward in time to some neon metropolis, why does the spirit’s resigned “suicide” land him back with the early settlers, rather than, say, the dinosaurs? The visual gag – no harm in calling it what it is – of the ghost under the sheet either works for you or it doesn’t, and David Lowery tips his hand a bit when another ghost is signposted as female by the girlie patterns on her version of the outfit. But the symbolism, the implications, the whole conceit, echo in ways that sometimes make it swing close to the poetic, its images bouncing backwards through your own mind. The score by Daniel Hart is terrific, emotive and needling and disconcerting, while the deliberate childishness of the premise – instantly grasped from the first second and entirely deliberate for a film of bereavement, a feeling that makes children of us all – leads as deep into your personal history as you choose to go. Any flicker of cynicism and the whole thing falls to bits, but at this point I’ll take that chance any day of the artistic week.

At the other end of the chute, Atomic Blonde is chancy for all the wrong reasons, so desperate to transmit its knowing bromance with 1980s music and cinema that it feels about as up to date as the 1890s. The one absolute quality of the John Wick school of direction and filmmakers from a stunts background – in this case David Leitch going solo post-Wick – is its emphasis on physicality and kinetics, but you can’t go back to that well too often without having to find some actual characters to do the moving around for you. The lapse is most galling whenever Sofia Boutella appears, given the way her dancer’s grace has perked up films in the past; here she seems as chained to floor as she was in The Mummy. As usual in films where characters only step out from a rancid blue light so that they can step into a stale red one, no one in the story is very engaging, and we’re well beyond the point where an extended corridor punch-up is automatically a sign of anything good or anything at all. Really the film only seems happy as a vehicle for both its period soundtrack, applied without diegetic rhyme or reason, and its colour scheme, based on a long-ago daydream of Michael Mann’s in a warm bath. I’m not a huge fan of The Coldest City graphic novel source material either, but the huffing effort by which its black and white shallow focus deliberately scratchy pen work has been turned into something with this degree of caffeine and cacophony and so little charisma says more about the current state of second-hand IP recycling than anything else.

For real use of colour, and of IP from comics for that matter, there’s Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets, Luc Besson’s latest indulgence which has flaws a mile deep but slobbers all over you like a massive dog that just wants to be your buddy, a film so untroubled by market forces that its final robot-army gun battle only breaks out five minutes before the end. But then Besson, one of the last anti-cynics left standing, isn’t going to go changing his ways at this late date, so his return to creature-filled multi-planet space-burlesque is about half as irony-drenched as your average Guardians Of The Galaxy and roughly twice as interesting. Besson’s career-long themes bubble away: a peaceful aboriginal island culture living in harmony with the land gets squashed by a military force wearing peaked caps in the first reel, but forgives without forgetting, and left to its own devices mankind’s natural habitat is the teeming bazaar. As with The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, Besson puts the original French comic through legitimate transformations that completely redirect the source but still keeps track of where its deep humanism came from in the first place, and knows that crises of principle are more interesting than the crises of identity that litter the landscape in heaps. This approach must surely be more promising than Atomic Blonde‘s obsession with improving the source material all the way into some high orbit of Pure Thrill. In any case, it means that translation of bande dessinées material into films feels a richer and more artistic process than whatever is going on with the American superheroes, which are dragging themselves onto the big screen as if on the road to Golgotha. Valerian bounces along under a score by Alexandre Desplat, and gives Cara Delevingne the chance to confirm the usual rule that models do acting pretty well when the characters know they’re being looked at – although you could also safely say that Luc Besson has a type – but you’re reminded of the film’s true intentions every time the face of her boss appears on some futuristic viewing bubble and turns out be that of Herbie Hancock, the mark of a film that actually wants to please rather than to pummel.

bad habits

This year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival was subdued, but livened up no end by the sight of Aubrey Plaza swearing her head off while dressed as a nun. The language emerging from underneath that wimple in The Little Hours could curdle the milk, but the register of the film is distinctly old fashioned compared to most current US comedies and their giggling Puritan vibes about the carnal. There was a time when sex comedies were vigorous and spicy because the topic was illuminating, rather than just because people were salaciously goosed by it, and The Little Hours is the first film in a while to remember – largely by drawing on a story from around 1350 written in the shadow of a slow and painful death. I watched it for Critic’s Notebook, pondering the profane while bewitched by the witches.

I also watched Final Portrait, Stanley Tucci’s very affectionate portrait of Alberto Giacometti which makes the old boy seem impossible but also has no doubts about his genius. Tucci’s well documented love of art in general and this artist in particular stops the film being dull, but it is reverential to a fault, and some of the artistic choices are a bit more bemusing than probably intended. I am, though, increasingly a fan of Armie Hammer’s nice line in needlessly-stressed decency. Lumbering any actor with the label of old-school stylist is the kiss of death, but Hammer is pretty much one of those. A review of Final Portrait will be up at Critic’s Notebook in due course.

Meanwhile on the twitters:

 

goddess of too much

Amazonia: Wonder Woman via Ron Rege Jr and Maja D’Aoust

When the August Sight & Sound magazine arrives it will include me on Pirates Of The Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge, which has all the woes of the modern digital idyll and the trans-national franchise on the skids. “In the deep ironic oceans of the mainstream, the more that digital entertainments try to do all the reacting for you, the more conformist they all become.”

The Greek god of scheduling placed Pirates, in which a proto-feminist briefly cooks up her own agency before settling for all the norms, adjacent to Wonder Woman, a character outfitted at birth by her creator to give conformity a kick in the ἀσπίδες. More power to all moved by Wonder Woman, especially those moved to exercise that power when normally denied it, but beware the cultural-industrial complex bearing gifts. A shift in a genre film’s content is one thing; it will be changes to form that prove the ground is actually shifting. And Wonder Woman‘s form seems almost as conspicuously straitjacketing as before, especially during a creaking climax that gives up any intent at radicalism and just waits for the usual high-five from a weary spectator. If there really is an opening for diversity of intention and input in this neck of the woods, then there’s also a potential calling for critics up for grabs: the one in which we finally patrol the border between technique and essence in the art that emerges, and put the screws on it with something more effective than blank verse.

It’s more than 20 years since Scott Bukatman pointed out that female comics characters were becoming more free by the minute – free to be as musculinized and armoured as all the men. He thought that the muscles of Image Comics female heroes were part of the body-building culture lurking behind superheroes in general, but in modern films it’s always the myth of redemptive violence that’s exerting the magnetic pull. When Wonder Woman strides into the no man’s lands of World War One, she hasn’t had to bounce back from the kind of unmanning castration scenarios that a male’s journey would have involved by that point – no Mel Gibson martyr she – and Gal Gadot’s frown of determination is so sweetly guileless that it’s probably one reason she was cast. But how different exactly would the sound and vision at that point be if she were male, armed to the teeth and taking out the trash? The electric cello lick that Hans Zimmer and Tina Guo created for Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman makes my fillings hurt – at best a motif, at worst an example of film music no longer even attempting to do the things it used to do – but when applied to punch-ups in the middle of World War One, content has mugged form and tipped it into a dumpster.

It’s no accident that Connie Nielsen, even weighted down by wig and dead animal, and Robin Wright, trapezius muscles bare and tensing, are treated to some decent stabs at characterisation, while Elena Anaya’s scarred brittle evil genius gets nothing at all. Any hint of thematic interest in her destroyed femininity, in her encased body versus the Amazons letting it all hang out, would have gone a long way to bolster the film’s ambitions; but redemptive violence prefers its villainy to be rote, so Dr Poison’s is no more colourful than that of her male ally played by Danny Huston, tripping balls on mystic nitrous.

Above all, and just as in Pirates, some stubborn conservatism reveals itself in characters stuck with a crisis of identity rather than a crisis of principle. Wonder Woman loses the original version’s role as a proselytising ambassador for female authority, and instead gets lumbered with being the latest Chosen One off the production line – the dreariest destiny modern cinema to offer, although one that says a bunch about modern society.

Students of form vs. content had to make do with PowerPoint slides until last year, when Alex Proyas made Gods of Egypt. The critical recoil from Gods of Egypt settles any argument about the way that irony now weighs upon an IP-driven pop-culture like a lead apron. Deliberately engineer the irony away, and everyone loses their bearings. Go even further, go all the way into whimsy and pick Bryan Brown to play the god Osiris and have him practically say G’day, and everyone loses their minds. Élodie Yung sashays through Gods of Egypt with all the agency and self-determination and sexual advocacy that the Nile Delta can hold, as free as the air, and she does so speaking dialogue by the same writers who scripted Dracula Untold and The Last Witch Hunter, words made of meaningless rubble – and that right there is the difference between form and content. No cultural-industrial complex in the world is going to allow Gods of Egypt again for a while, or let Élodie Yung play Wonder Woman, although she was apparently considered. Some considerably different film that might have been. If Yung had been given a musical identity of modernist electrified shredding, it would only be because she charged onto the screen playing it herself before beaning someone with the cello.

(art by Ron Regé, of whose Wonder Woman more here.)

dead centres

For the June issue of Sight & Sound magazine I watched astronauts get eaten in Life, a film happily symptomatic of the age.

“There are no margins or centres now, just a digital bacchanal of in jokes, scuttlebutt and lore churning a tense and self-conscious pop culture.” – says me, pointing in the direction of both Erik Davis and Kim O’Connor and stealing their lunch money.

We nerd out on culture that we experience as data to play with.
The in jokes, scuttlebutt, mash ups, and lore obsession of geekery allow us to snuggle up to the uncanny possibilities of magic, superpowers, and cosmic evil without ever losing the cover story that makes these pleasures possible for modern folks: that our entertainments are “just fictions,” diversions with no ontological or real psychological upshot, just moves in a game.

Erik Davis in Techgnosis (2015 edition Afterword)

People never feel more self-satisfied than when they recognise what one thing takes from something else. Abhay Khosla described this phenomenon in an essay about Michael Fiffe’s COPRA:
“Categorise. Classify. Regiment. Bag. Bored. Bleh.”
I like the idea that there’s some critical space where you can attend to a work that is not just a take – that criticism is capable, perhaps, of transcending whatever it’s about.

Kim O’Connor‘s essay How We Take, in Zainab Akhtar’s (now Eisner-nominated) compilation zine Critical Chips (2016)

Categorise, classify, bored, bleh. What are the chances of a film criticism that can transcend whatever it’s about, if it remains content to be a traditional conservative academic humanities discipline, and while audio-visual culture mutates away from everything that made that approach viable? You could equally ask why film criticism ever wanted to be a traditional conservative humanities discipline in the first place, but then we’re back to David Bordwell again.

poets day

For Critic’s Notebook I watched Ben Wheatley’s new film Free Fire, and once again was left trying to work out whether the problem is him or me.

I reviewed Confusion and Carnage, Adam Nayman’s new book about Wheatley, in the May issue of Sight & Sound and looked for some answers in there too. But the book has a fan’s certainty and doesn’t set out to convince doubters. Back when criticism could still be called niche employment, David Bordwell called for less interpretation and more poetics in film criticism, on the grounds that “interpretation has become easy, but analysis is still hard.”

He had enough solid reasons to be going on with in 1989, although couldn’t foresee the one that’s become most pressing right now. When expertise is mistrusted and the voice of authority has become more of a death rattle, ceaseless interpretation of every raised eyebrow and rainbow is just a really bad way to change anyone’s mind about anything.

A rhetoric of musts and onlys, of always alreadys, of dangers and complicities portrays the writer as one guided by certainties.

– Dr Bordwell, fortune teller.

dunstabbin’

Certain Women: horse sense

My notebook says I was positive about Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves, which proves that memory is a tricky thing. But Certain Women is the real deal, achieving what advocates of minimalism always say it can do and inviting you to meet it halfway as a genuine way of seeing. Short film festivals would be better off these days looking away from conventional narrative fictions, but Reichardt’s third story, in which Lily Gladstone forms an attachment to Kristen Stewart that seems born out of simple stoic yearning, would be a perfect 30-minute entry for anywhere so inclined. The confused affection of these two characters is never articulated but constantly visualised, eventually in the way Stewart reflexively hugs Gladstone slightly more tightly while riding on her horse – and immediately she’s gone, no longer able to shoulder whatever it was that just happened. Gladstone returns to her horses, as do we all. This has been a key few months for grappling with what realism looks like on screen, and Reichardt’s style always opens up another front on the issue by pruning away elements of urban life in a manner that would give Ken Loach a headache; but Loach always seems to be moving towards you from the screen, an over-emphasis that draws on his instincts as a placard-holder but which can ruin as much as it reveals. Reichardt generates pull rather than push – on the whole a more profitable transaction. Continue reading

marginals

invitation

The Invitation: raise the red lantern

The annual Sight & Sound Films of the Year poll is online and in the January 2017 print magazine. My votes were for:

Little Sister  (discussed in part here during the Edinburgh Film Festival)
The Invitation  (wiki)
Flag Without a Country  (reviewed at Critic’s Notebook)
Queen of Earth  (wiki)
The Neon Demon  (gallery)

Other votes for these films by poll participants:  0, 0, 0, 1, and 4 respectively.

In the comment box, some matters arising:

“Three of these used video-on-demand as their route to a UK audience, either with a momentary theatrical release or doing without that gesture. Should this alter how critics process them? Perhaps. The position and impact of art is criticism’s business, but the opaqueness of streaming revenues and viewing figures leaves the matter of these films’ success vague in economic and cultural terms alike. Faced with terra incognita, critics’ exploratory outlook matters. Saying that a film is in cinemas, when we really mean it’s in two cinemas for a single day, is either a safety-blanket privileging of the cinema experience or a flat parroting of the marketing message; but either way, pointing people towards places where the art isn’t looks a lot like voluntary redundancy. All grist for a rebalancing of our cultural journalism remit, perhaps via conceding that ceaseless personal curation isn’t the same thing.”

The position of art is indeed criticism’s business. Protecting the language of expertise falls to us too, in an age when the default response to any authoritative voice is disdain; so we had better recognise when we’re facing the world and when we’re facing the wall. A blind spot for coherent language when notable art falls on streaming platforms rings an alarm bell on all counts. Flag Without a Country didn’t even make it that far, yet every time the TV beams pictures from the Middle East into my living room, I find myself wondering whether Helly and Nariman are still in a position to draw breath. What exactly is notable art for, if not that?

As always, the idea that we’re curators – scholars, pathfinders – rather than cultural journalists flatters us to bits, but you end up having to justify why something called a Best Films Of 2016 list has no intention of providing the same information as a Best Books Of 2016 list, and little chance of revenue-bearing like one either. Reclaiming our authority over art as it currently exists and its effects on people we don’t already know would be a fine idea at this point – and a more challenging destiny than mapping the world from within the walled garden of a film festival, or falling for the flattering idea that the first person to correctly appreciate any given film is surely me myself and I.

Also: a review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story will be in the S&S February print issue and is online here. The major unhappy tendency in current films is still a fixation on content while somehow remaining oblivious to form, which in films with the money to polish each pixel individually turns into a grim metallic certainty that hot visuals matter more than invisible things like narrative and character. As articles of faith go, it’s debatable. It became the Last Temptation Of Lucas as well, but his was a singular vision, for better or worse. And Rogue One is not.

The present manners of the nation would deride authority, and therefore nothing is left but that every writer should criticise himself.

– Samuel Johnson, voting in the 1783 Films of the Year poll.