19.10.14

Red Desert

Antonioni's first colour film is a visual treat. Industrial structures are composed into symphonies towering above Monica Vitti – the protagonist and stand-in for the alienation created by modernity. The film opens on out-of-focus shots of what looks like an energy plant, queasy drones on the soundtrack. The mood is unnatural, inauthentic. Our machines have separated us from the real world. A female voice slowly fades in amongst the electronics – the angelic battling it out with the mechanical. At the end of the film, Monica Vitti tells a bedtime story to her son about a young girl living a carefree life on an island. One day a ship appears and she swims towards it, but it floats away. The girl then starts to hear a beautiful female voice among the rocks, but she cannot find the singer. The parable feels like a microcosm of the film's world, in which people are both attracted to and repulsed by factories and globalisation, and are constantly disappointed in their search for the divine.

Antonioni apparently didn't have precisely this intention, wanting to convey the "poetry" of the industrial landscape. In that he succeeds brilliantly – the images are sumptuous. But the familiar themes of the breakdown of communication between people and the damage caused by "ways of life that are by now out-of-date", remain. The dialogue is characteristically elliptical and frustrating – barely rising out of nonsense some of the time. But that is to the film's purpose, and so forgivable. Monica Vitti herself has to do more work here than in The Adventure and The Night (the other two Antonioni films I've seen), and she acquits herself as well as someone can doing the crazy stuff Antonioni wants. Even the obviously overdubbed dialogue works to establish a sense of unreality to the proceedings (although this is a typical feature of Italian movies of the period).

Vitti's impact in The Night is greater, and that film's shape and coherence is more admirable than the meandering here. But the images Antonioni has crafted in Red Desert is something new and thrilling in cinema, and the film deserves to be seen for that reason alone.

11.10.14

Gone Girl

I went into the film with the twist slightly ruined for me by an FT feature about the gender issues it has stirred up. Fincher's latest effort (and in fact, most of his work) probably doesn't deserve the amount of analysis applied to it, since neither Amy nor Nick's characters can sustain a prolonged investigation into what makes them tick. But let's give it a go:

"Amazing Amy" has (due to her unique childhood) picked up the ability to identify and manipulate the various socially-prescribed roles foisted onto women. She is a femme fatale in the vein of Sin City's Ava – only in Gone Girl she is allowed to get away with it.

Why does she stay with Nick? Self-interest certainly plays a part, but there's also her delight in watching Nick learn his own role of adorable doofus. She has converted him to be her playmate in their sterile sham of a marriage – she can now manipulate him forever, his insides twisting pleasingly as he performs her every wish. Why write stories as wish-fulfillment (like Amy's mother did) when you can write reality itself?

The film ends on a slightly different note – generalising Amy and Nick's relationship into a comment on the institution of marriage as a whole. It does so by underlining the impossibility of ever really knowing what your partner is thinking, and how much of what you observe of them is role-play and bad faith. Fincher twists every sinew trying to extract as much horror from Rosamund Pike's final blank expression as he can. Whether it works depends on how much belief you can suspend in the film's ramshackle plot, which has Amy reacting to as much as shaping events, and which gives very weak motives for Nick staying with her and playing along.

1.10.14

Fashion Beast

Although marketed as a "lost masterpiece", Fashion Beast feels like a minor work in Alan Moore's career – a comic book adaptation of a film script he wrote for Malcolm McLaren in the 1980s. In comparison to the near-contemporary Watchmen, this is relatively slight. Moore admits in the introduction that the world of fashion is largely foreign to him, and his attempts to analyze it have the feel of an outsider looking in. Moore's lecture is summarised thus: the manipulation of our image is an assertion of power over others – an impulse encoded by evolution and that has helped us survive. But for the shadowy Tarot-reading fashion designer Celestine, these images hold out the possibility of transcending our natures, and he fantasizes about a world where humanity is erased and only clothes remain. There are shades both of Ozymandias and Doctor Manhattan in this rant.

Moore prefers to side with the people. The young Jonni is in line to inherit Celestine's throne and finds inspiration in the immanent – sex and the streets. But even then, Moore adds a jarring note – Doll quips that the working class Jonni worships are sexist, racist and homophobic, and she cannot be blamed for trying to run away from her origins. That exchange encapsulates Moore at is best: exploring how the messiness of life undercuts grand visions. He is on shakier ground in contrasting Jonni's base inspirations to the conflict powering Celestine's creativity – an overbearing mother who taught him to despise his own appearance and sublimate sexual desire. Compared to the subtleties of Rorschach or the Comedian, this is relatively blunt characterisation.

The book is lovingly put together by Antony Johnson and Facundo Percio, who keep quite a bit of the cinematic camera zooms that Moore used in Watchmen, as well as a few visual/verbal segues that bridge his scene transitions. The characters in particular are extraordinarily well-rendered. McLaren apparently demanded the couple be a girl who looks like a boy and a boy who looks like a girl – and it's astonishing how well this is pulled off on the page. Likewise the two Madams that guard Celestine have these wonderfully pinched wrinkled faces, and seem to float in their ornate baroque costumes. Although the story's origins as a screenplay are not entirely erased, Johnson and Percio both deserve a good deal of credit for how well it works as a comic.

28.9.14

Paris, Texas

The first Wim Wenders film I've seen (Beyond the Clouds doesn't count – it was terrible anyway), and its the craft that is most immediately striking. The pace is on slow burn for most of the picture's running time, but interest is maintained by the central mystery behind the protagonist. The story has already happened, we just don't know it and have to settle for watching the consequences unfold.

Then there is the light. The first shots of the desert are technicolor western pushed to Black Narcissus levels of lushness. The colours of those location shots are postcard perfect. And as Travis slowly returns to civilisation the neon glow seeps in. The final shots of him in the parking lot wreathed in green fluorescent mist, of him driving bathed in tail-light red, felt like all of Refn's Drive compacted into a couple of minutes.

And then there is the actual story, not shown, but narrated, in a setpiece right out of David Lynch's repertoire except this is a couple of years before Blue Velvet. It feels like a confession – Travis and Jane taking turns in the booth. And their stories are not just theirs, but ours: star-crossed lovers, the cowboy, the private eye, the femme fatale, the whore. And buried beneath, a man, woman and child unable to make their family work under the weight of these roles they have to play.

21.9.14

Sin City 2: A Dame To Kill For

The great virtue of Sin City is its clarity. If an extraterrestrial falls out of the sky and asks you what noir is, sit them down in front of the film or give them one of the comics it was based on. Frank Miller's creation isn't noir at its purest – it's noir at its most blown-up. All the subtleties of the genre are ripped away to reveal the machinery pumping underneath.

The brazenness is admirable for one reason only: it exposes the politics that structure the genre. The 'yarn' I felt did this best was the one I read first – A Dame To Kill For – which provides the centrepiece for the second film. Dwight is a Jekyll desperate to "never let the monster out" (no cigs, no booze, no women). Men in Frank Miller's world are rapacious animals, at their best when they grovel before female goddesses, at their worst when they assault the divine feminine that provides the only moral force in the world. Galahad and Lancelot are the exemplars, devotion to the unattainable Guinevere the rock upon which righteousness is built. To simplify, the bad guys beat and rape women and the good guys stop them.

A Dame To Kill For destabilises this manichean outlook by introducing a goddess who turns out to be a witch. The femme fatale uses sex rather than violence to achieve her ends. Nonetheless, there is a proto-feminist tone present in Ava's determination never to have to lie on her back to get what she wants. Here at least a woman is allowed to have a will-to-power of her own, rather than be an object of male worship or denigration. Needless to say, Dwight must terminate this assertiveness and avenge the good men she has ensnared.

The third story in the film finally gives a woman's voice to the protagonist role - this time it's Jessica Alba avenging Bruce Willis. The film bottles it a bit by having Hartigan come back from the grave to distract Rourke just enough for Nancy to shoot him. Does Rourke develop a conscience in those final moments, or does Nancy have the force of will to somehow project her own guardian angel into the world? Or is it actually a real ghost? If the latter, then the film robs the only female protagonist of agency just as its prospect is within reach.

The first film was a success partly down to arrangement: two weaker stories were bracketed with a very strong third one, ending on a genuinely moving finale in which Hartigan commits suicide. The sequel doesn't have anything approaching so poignant a moment. While I loved the original book enough to forgive Eva Green and Josh Brolin's take on it, the two new stories were very slight. I'm just hoping the film makes enough money for Rodriguez to make a straight up adaptation of Hell and Back (the final book) with Johnny Depp, rather than compiling assorted new brainwaves occurring to an increasingly demented Frank Miller.

31.8.14

"I feel as if I were a painting already. Or a statue. I looked down at my own body like some object, some impersonal object" - Anaïs Nin, 'Artists and Models, Delta of Venus

27.8.14

La Belle Noiseuse

I watched the four hours over two days (more films should have intermissions) and enjoyed almost every second. Exhaustive is probably the right word to use for this study of the creative process, in that there is no one process being depicted, no one reading you could apply to the characters and relationships presented. Instead the artist and model set-up serves as a springboard for multiple elliptical essays on the subject.

Unsurprisingly, the one that struck me most is the confrontation at the end of the first half. Frenhofer becomes dominating, forcing the (always naked) Marianne into increasingly twisted poses. He talks of breaking her bones, and there are uncomfortable sexual undertones coursing through his mania. But then he starts talking about her flesh as a portal to galaxies and black holes. He is attempting to stamp his authority not only on women's bodies but reality itself. Everything must become an object under the control of his paintbrush.

Marianne at one point recoils at being treated like a doll, but submits immediately afterwards and apologies. Why does she go through with it? Shortly after Frenhofer's existentialist rant, she laughs in his face, and he storms out. But she forces him to continue. The extraordinary beginning of the film (one of the best opening sequences I have watched) introduces her as a consummate mask-wearer. Maybe she's partly seduced by Frenhofer's talk of truth in art, a window into her self that she can't look through on her own. Or maybe as a writer she using him for material as much as he is using her. After all, the film begins and ends with her voiceover – she more than anyone is its author. Perhaps she is the trouble-maker, the nutcase, that spins everyone around her fingers for the diversion of a (foreign, ignorant) audience – just like the English tourists the film opens with.

But then it turns out the painting is a masterpiece. In Frenhofer's definition: it captures a lifetime in a single image. Frenhofer's wife Liz marks the back with a cross, and its composition does feel like a kind of crucifixion. And like Christ, it has to be walled up in a tomb. The idea of it emerges in wings of crimson from the blue nude Frenhofer fobs off to the public – streaks of blood cracking open the human shell. Just three characters (a trinity?) see the miracle unveiled, we only glimpse a bit of it. The Balzac short story the film is based on apparently haunted Cézanne and Picasso. Here it's Marianne more than anyone that haunts the film, denying us answers, but teasing us with the possibility of miracles.

25.8.14

Fun Home

The latest edition of the London Graphic Novel Network is now up. I've written about Fun Home ages ago, and I don't say a lot of new things, but the other reactions are worth reading. My bit below:

It's telling that Bechdel explains explicitly why [the literary allusions] are used:

"I employ these allusions not only as descriptive devices, but because my parents are most real to me in fictional terms. And perhaps my cool aesthetic distance itself does more to convey the arctic climate of our family than any particular literary comparison"

I say "telling" because each allusion Bechdel uses is ALSO explicitly explained. Fun Home isn't like rounds of Radio 4's Quote Unquote where you are quizzed on your literary knowledge. It's not a game of spot the reference, because Bechdel always does the work for you and gives you all the answers. Which is why some ppl can read it and not even be fazed by its uber-literate stylo. And her attitude is the opposite of haughty. Instead she describes the habit almost as a tic - and the reasons behind it are actually (when you read the above) q sad.

I almost get the sense that the references are involuntary - an abnormal, almost pathological way to engage with the world. I like to draw a link with the obsessive compulsive disorder Bechdel develops and then overcomes when she's 10. There is a sense in Fun Home that literature becomes about asserting control of a reality that is in fact ~beyond~ your control. Developing links and patterns to your experiences is a way to digest and understand them, and there is a comfort and satisfaction to that very similar to counting things and coming to an even number.

That for me is the central insight in the book, and why I think it's so brilliant.

23.8.14

Orphan Black

The only TV commentary I read comes from the folks at ILX, and this rings particularly true: every explanation to date has less been an explanation and more a reveal of something else that requires explanation. The writers blog each episode, and it seems that the show-runners tend to throw in random scenarios which the room then has to fold into the narrative. This leads to very noticeable lurches where a character or plot-line is wrenched away from one location to the next, all in the service of thrills and spills. No doubt the velocity of the story is captivating, but when you step away from the vortex you're left with more questions than answers.

And as great as Maslany is, she can't make a character like Rachel breathe without the writers giving her a motivation to run with. An obsession with motherhood feels incongruous buried within a ruthless corporate clone: are all female leaders (the hated boss bitch) just sublimating their maternal instincts? The show as a whole is vague about the conflict it sets up between religious nuts and science freaks. Ostensibly, the heroes are fighting for a middle way between these extremes, defending their family against the assaults of ideologies that seeks to destroy it. But 'family' is also an ideology and subject to change in the face of social and technological change. This is ripe territory for the show to explore.

As an example: how will the mechanisation of childbirth transform motherhood? How will women feel towards their children when they are freed from constraints men have never had to bear (the process of pregnancy, birth, postpartum). The show steps back from such a future. Instead both Rachel and Helena (and the organisations that raised them) are obsessed with children and jealous of Sarah for having a daughter. Clones are facinating and valuable for still unarticulated reasons. Two seasons in, that's disappointing.