24.1.19

The Passenger (Profession: reporter)

"Neither lucidity nor clarity can be counted among my qualities", says Antonioni when talking about this film. Yes, fine, but this is still a step forward from the inscrutable mysteries of Blow-Up for example. The Passenger actually has a plot and a sense of intrigue. Some parts almost feel like an arty version of James Bond – there are gun-runners, luxurious locations, fashionable clothes, and even the resemblance of a Bond girl. And while Jack Nicholson succumbs to the same existential ennui that all Antonioni protagonists go through, he adds a certain energy to the dissolution by virtue of being Jack Nicholson.*

Antonioni is very exercised by the notion of objectivity in this film – Nicholson is a news reporter who has to stand apart and detached from the material he is reporting on. But that attitude to reality leads to disengagement. He undergoes a "personal revolution" and changes identities with a man who does have skin in the game – supporting anti-government guerillas in an unnamed oppressive African country. But underlying this urge for connection with the world is a desire to escape banality, a personal one for Antonioni, who mentions the temptation to forget "my loves and my duties" and "begin another adventure". It's a paradoxical flight from the reality of the world, motivated by an urge to involve yourself more deeply in it. The disappointment comes in the realisation that the James Bond fantasy is equally compromised and unfulfilling.


Only death offers release. Antonioni is known for his endings but The Passenger provides his most epically elliptical yet – a technically complicated tracking shot that shows everything around the main event, but not the event itself. It's a signature move – the camera in Antonioni's films constantly drifts away from the characters and onto their surroundings, as if to emphasise the point that the universe keeps spinning regardless of their actions. For Antonioni, this "freedom" of the camera to go anywhere mirrors the freedom Nicholson gains in adopting a new identity. But the gambit catches up with him – and as he expires it's almost as if his soul finally becomes one with the camera and begins drifting outwards. But actually, you can't step out of the world, no matter how free you are from attachment. And the camera is never free from perspective either – it always tracks and records according to the (in this case, highly convoluted) whims of the person behind it.



* David Hemmings in Blow-Up and Alain Delon in The Eclipse were similarly more lively, which might be why these films are more palatable than the ponderous melodrama of The Adventure or The Night.

20.1.19

Mean Girls

Somewhere in the DVD extras, someone says that while adults can relax and laugh at the gags in Mean Girls, for young people it all still feels a bit too real. That must be why when I watched the film for the first time I didn't clock that some of the jokes were actually jokes – I was too wrapped up in the drama. Now it's obvious, and clearly Tina Fey paved the way for the likes of Juno or Adventureland to really push the quirk in people's faces. Although judging by the film's curious afterlife as a source of memes, it's not the understated ironies of the older SNL cast that that loom large in the collective memory, but the 'Plastics', who are mostly just foul-mouthed updates of the catty leads in 1995's Clueless.

Indeed I wonder whether Fey was unconsciously pulling on Amy Heckerling's creation when trying to formulate a plot. The film is based on a self-help book for parents, so there wasn't a story there to adapt. Like a lot of self-help books the pearls of wisdom aren't particularly original or profound (be true to yourself, don't be mean). The value for Fey came in the case studies used within it, which she found not only instructive but also very funny. From them, Fey constructs a set-up very similar to the one in Clueless – an outsider (played by Lindsay Lohan) is adopted by her new school's elite. But Fey makes the newbie the manipulative one, and in fact makes everyone mean to some degree, including the arty 'freaks' who are Lohan's true friends. Tensions are resolved in a somewhat deus ex machina way, with Fey as the Maths teacher convening a school-wide therapy session where the girls learn to be less mean. It feels like something out of a self-help guru's manual – and given the provenance of the film, it probably is.


The film is at its best when investigating the toxic notion of social hierarchy, which it suggests is the source of all the bitchiness and bad behaviour. The Plastics are like local celebrities who set trends and set women against each other, all to earn the favour of the 'queen bee' at the top of the pyramid. The most powerful scene, therefore, is when Lohan usurps that position, takes off the plastic crown she was awarded at the school dance, and breaks it up and hands it around. It's a gesture of social levelling – cultural capital spread evenly across the population – so that groups can co-exist in relative harmony with each other. Subcultures are an inevitability, but the tension between them can be drained away by an attitude of mutual respect. The film charts a course from schoolyard dystopia to utopia, with Lohan as the revolutionary catalyst – a Rousseauvian agent of change ending the heartbreak of obsessive emulation. 

18.1.19

The Beast (La Bête)

This film's reputation for containing the most outrageous and bizarre sex scene in the history of cinema is well deserved. The scene in question is a dream sequence, shot two years before the rest of the film and initially intended as an entry in Borowczyk's Immoral Tales. On its own it is a piece of very rude, ribald humour, but the film Borowczyk wraps around it is a rather grim tale of family secrets and aristocratic corruption, revealing an intriguing contrast between male sexual shame and female sexual freedom.

The short is pretty incendiary. An 18th century maid searches for a lost lamb in the forest, only to find it dismembered by a terrifying hairy beast. The creature pursues her and begins to rape her, but the maid takes control and brings it to a climax, after which it expires from pleasure. She then buries the body and flees. The central erotic idea – that the woman begins to enjoy her rape by a hideous monster – is obviously a disturbing one. 


Which is why the story added on top of the short is an important bit of framing. The dream is no longer just presented as a simple product of Borowczyk's perversities – he gives it to a character. And that character is a woman – the rape fantasy becomes hers. It inspires her to repeatedly seek satisfaction from her ugly husband-to-be, only to be rebuffed. In taking control of her desires, she also mysteriously slays her own beast (although Borowczyk has some fun suggesting that this was an act of God and a punishment for bestiality).

The power dynamic therefore is an odd one. Male sexuality is presented in a traditional way as violent and dangerous, something women must either tame or get devoured by. However the modern beast is a timid, ugly, underdeveloped man, who is too nervous even to speak to his fiancée. She is the one who takes the initiative, and it is her sexuality that ultimately proves the most dangerous. As with The Story of Sin, Borozczyk is ultimately on the women's side. And in this film he provides them with a narrow escape from the gruesome clutches of the venal, hypocritical and downright gruesome patriarchy.

13.1.19

Carrie

Stephen King started on the novel after feeling piqued by the criticism that he couldn't write about women. Naturally his very male imagination took him to a girls' shower room. Brian De Palma's too – and the opening scene of his adaptation is pretty heavy on the male gaze. Carrie is a victim of high school bullying, and therefore someone the creators sympathise with, and want the audience to sympathise with as well. She's a real, rounded character as a result. But then King also makes her the vessel for otherworldly dangerous powers – a female threat born of festering resentment and the psychological disease created by patriarchal religion. As such she is the manifestation of a peculiar male sense of guilt about male desire, and how it locks women up in the impossibility of being both a madonna and a whore. The stress that creates leads to a bloodbath.


De Palma links Carrie's menstruation with the development of her telekinetic powers – female sexuality is a threat. But unlike a lot of subsequent slasher films, where that sexuality is punished, King clearly wanted repression to be the dangerous choice, leading to unnatural abilities and the will to use them for murder. However, that softcore shower scene at the beginning of the film feels like a trap for the audience, still. It's dangerous territory for prying eyes to enter. A less voyeuristic director than De Palma would have abandoned the slowmo and soft focus and made the scene look real, not fraught with sexual tension. The problem isn't sex but Carrie's ignorance, but De Palma muddies the waters (sorry).

Sissy Spacek is magnificent in the role – spending much of the first half of the film looking like an alien, before being transformed Cinderella-style into a real princess. De Palma has some fun turning her house into a gothic ruin and her mother into a witch. He is less successful when it comes to the horror of the prom, where he starts deploying outré tricks like splitscreen to try to convey the sense of confusion, which now look dated. But the mood of the final mother-daughter confrontation is well-built, and the shock twist in the last scene is justly famous.

12.1.19

Legally Blonde

"Although Elle fits so many fifties stereotypes and although the relentlessly feminine fashions are Legally Blonde's most visible element, the film also has an agenda consistent with the politics of veteran feminists."
Says Carol M. Dole's in her article on the film – which to be fair then goes on to flag the various ways the film portrays the clash between second-wave and third-wave feminism. Reese Witherspoon's Elle is a fashion-obsessed blonde who only goes to Yale in order to bag a man. There she meet feminist caricature Enid, a humourless, obsessive women's studies major who mocks Elle's sparkly sorority girl demeanour. Enid isn't given a happy ending in the final moments of the film. Her patronising attitude throws her out of the sisterhood. Instead the film ends with the severe brunette female professor ceding the stage to the smiling blonde graduate – symbolising the transition from the rigours of the second wave to the open attitude of the third.


So much of that is down to Witherspoon's winning character and performance – where an almost naive good faith in people is tested by the grey, cut-throat world of the university and the law. Elle is an update of Alicia Silverstone's Cher in Clueless – a bright woman who isn't taken seriously because she plays up to traditional norms of femininity. But while Cher has some lessons to learn, all Elle needs to do is believe in herself and her own go-getting positive attitude. That impervious sense of fair play and kindness, rather than the clothes she wears, is what makes her a feminist.

It's a preposterous film, and demands as much suspension of disbelief as any superhero movie. The acting is so over-the-top it borders on pantomime, with only Luke Wilson providing a sense of calm amidst the madness. It's almost as if the creators are daring you to dismiss the whole thing outright as a piece of fluff, adding neon pink opening titles and a saccharine teenpop soundtrack on to the silly outfits and impromptu dance routines. It's no surprise they turned it into a musical – it's pretty much one already.

6.1.19

Blame!

Am quite partial to the far future cyberpunk visions of Tsutomu Nihei. This Netflix film adaptation of his manga has him on board as writer and creative consultant, and is a good introduction to his particular grim style. Imagine if the Matrix sequels dispensed with the philosophical gobbledigook and focused on mood, action and the encroaching threat of the elimination of the species.


Much of the appeal here isn't plot or even character, which is rudimentary, but the gorgeous look and feel. And the studio Polygon Pictures have really gone to town on creating the sort of effects that throw you into proceedings – camera shifts and judders that reflect the shockwaves of the fireworks on screen. It's very enjoyable nonsense, but proof if any were needed of Nihei's unique imaginative gifts.

5.1.19

Air Doll

There's absolutely no doubt that Kore-eda can put a beautiful shot together. There's quite a lot of them in this film, which makes sense given it aims for a fairytale vibe – all slow pans and zooms over twinkly music. There's also no denying that this film drifts intolerably, and no amount of lovely camerawork can save it.

The premise is almost all there is. A sex doll is given life and a "heart", and wanders around the city observing the lonely souls that inhabit it. The very obvious point that these people share something of the emptiness and awkwardness of the doll is made early and often. As with other Kore-eda films, the stress is on the need for human connection. But unlike his other films, which major on how such bonds develop in adverse circumstances, here the doll is too alien to ever truly be able to bridge the gap and create a community among the misfits. That remains a dream she dreams as she's dying, although her death amidst the rubbish does appear to inspire another wastrel to mend her ways.


That incompatibility must be behind the most inscrutable part of the film, where the boy that has fallen in love with the air doll wishes to perform a strange sex act on her – letting out her air and blowing her up again. It it an indication of a sadistic sexuality? Or perhaps a way of asserting control in an otherwise powerless existence? Or perhaps an attempt to give pleasure? The film is enigmatic on the point, but firmer on the doll's desire to breathe something back into the people who look after her. She fails the first time – with disastrous consequences that recall Oshima's infamous In The Realm of the Senses. But her suicide does the trick, although even then the effect seems to be ephemeral. The big city doesn't allow for true, "natural" connections to be made. Yawn.

2.1.19

His Girl Friday

OK so imagine the scene in The Big Sleep where Bogart and Bacall prank call the police for no reason apart from to demonstrate the fact that they are soulmates. And then make a film out of it. Hawks seems to have missed the rapid back-and-forth from His Girl Friday and contrived to insert a bit of the same anarchic spirit into his Raymond Chandler adaptation. It sticks out like a sore thumb in that picture. His Girl Friday, on the other hand, is perfection.

You can tell that this is a film based on a play. Hawks was obsessed with getting the fastest dialogue of all time in the movie, and used unheard of studio tricks in order to achieve it. But the effect isn't something that can't be replicated in the theatre. And the film is quite theatrical – all on a sound-stage, shots held for ages, and the actors given the space and time to do their thing. Part of the fun is how the zaniness is turned up slowly throughout, so that you start with a relatively simple love-triangle and build to an utterly outrageous cacophony of noise at the end. It requires the same suspension of disbelief that Shakespeare's company relied on when strutting their hour upon the stage.


Half the original script was changed, and Hawks encouraged his actors to improvise and ad lib. Apparently Rosalind Russell hired her own scriptwriter to fill out her lines so she could match the size of Cary Grant's part. It was a good-natured battle off and on the screen. And although Russell's character fantasizes about settling down and becoming an obedient wife with a dopey husband, she can't resist the pull of the press room. It's a strange vision of an independent woman with a successful career, who nevertheless loses the war of words with Grant's shyster of an editor. Unlike her namesake in As You Like It, who has her man firmly under her spell, Hawks doesn't allow his leading lady to get the upper hand. The natural state of affairs is for the boss and husband to keep running the show.

1.1.19

The Big Sleep

Howard Hawks prided himself on being a 'straightforward' director, but as David Thomson notes The Big Sleep isn't a straightforward adaptation of Raymond Chandler's murky noir masterpiece at all. The trailer for the film has Lauren Bacall recommend the novel to Humphrey Bogart in a public library, and goes on to preview their romantic scenes, before acknowledging that yes there will be some snooping and shooting as well. Chandler's thriller is hijacked by Hawks and his two stars, who turn it into a love story – with the added frisson that the stars were already sleeping with each other.


So the labyrinthine plot, already difficult to follow in the book, is transposed without the effort to simplify or explain it. It doesn't matter really, it's just a pretext to throw Bogart into scene after scene in which he gets to flirt outrageously with every woman who crosses his eye-line. Bacall is only one of several options who fall for him immediately and inexplicably – the most baffling being a bookseller who closes her shop in order to take a drink and maybe a tumble with Ol' Bogie. That in itself is a strange reversal of standard noir tropes. Usually it's the femme fatale that has the men turning heads and serving her every whim. Here it's a guy that has all the ladies eating out of his hand. And it's all the weirder that he's pushing 40 and is no one's idea of a conventional hunk.

Even with the lascivious horse-racing metaphors, the film is less edgy than it looks. Bogart's character in Casablanca – supposedly a feel-good picture – is actually much darker, the heroism compromised by an environment in which men extort love from women in order to smuggle them to safety. Bacall's duplicity in The Big Sleep never feels dangerous because you know already that Bogart will put her in his pocket. The fact is established in a bizarre scene in which the pair improvise a prank call to the police. The two are already telepathic inseparable love-birds. It's cute, maybe, but it drains the tension and blasts the grit right out of the film.