I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, France/US, 2016)

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I thought I Am Not Your Negro was about James Baldwin but it’s more about race relations in America, using James Baldwin’s analysis, mainly as articulated in Remember This House, an unfinished manuscript on the theme. The manuscript offered an analysis of race structured around the significance of the lives of Medger Evers, Malcolm Luther King and Malcolm X — what they represented – but also what was signified by their assassinations. It’s a structure the film borrows.

Baldwin’s analysis of race remains amongst the most cogent and potent – to me the most moral and unassailable. Here Samuel L. Jackson gives understated voice to Baldwin’s first-person narrative. I Am Not Your Negro is a historical account, and an argument, but also feels personal, like a confidential conversation on past horrors that becomes a realisation that those horrors of the past are still the current ones. The music is as expected blues, jazz and soul, but largely on a lower key, a mournful one that lends the film an intimate tone.

The film uses lots of visuals — photographs, newsreels, old TV footage — but cinema plays a central role in how the film articulates its case. There are clips of Joan Crawford in Dance Fool Dance, Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon, clips from silent films, John Wayne westerns, the films of Sidney Poitier and Doris Day in The Pyjama Game and Pillow Talk.

The image of Doris Day in Pillow Talk, all bright and beautiful longing in Techicolor, the colours that for Truffaut signified America but are nowhere found in nature — the utopian ideal she represented, the price paid for it, and the erasure of the knowledge that there was a price – powerfully conveyed through a clip from Pillow Talk juxtaposed with images of lynchings. What Ray Charles represented — art, truth, vitality, sexuality and feeling in all its varieties and with all its complexities — is what Baldwin posited against what Doris Day signified, at least to him.

The film argues that history is also now and makes a convincing case. I had never seen the Rodney King beating in such brutal and relentless detail, the power and the cruelty in a society the film evokes as still a police state fifty years after the legal abolishment of segregation. The credits give the impression that the film has money from various countries – with Arte in France given a prominent credit. I thought no American company was credited, giving the impression that such a critique cannot be rendered or made possible in the US now in spite of all we’ve seen that led to the Black Lives Matter Movement. However, I see from imdb that I was wrong to think that.

Essential viewing.

José Arroyo

Strike a Pose (Ester Gould/ Reijer Zawaan, 2016)

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Do you remember Truth or Dare ((Alex Kerkishian, 1991) ) aka In Bed With Madonna in the UK? It’ s the film that documented Madonna’s ‘Blonde Ambition Tour’, the one where she wore Jean-Paul Gaultier’s conical bra and called Warren Beatty a pussy. Strike a Pose is a film about six of her back-up dancers on that tour — Carlton Wilborn, Oliver Crumes, Salim Gauwloos, Kevin Alexander Stea, Jose Gutierrez, and Luis Camacho (the seventh, Gabriel Trupin, succumbed to complications from AIDS in 1995) — where they’re at twenty five years later and how the tour and the film changed their lives.

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Choosing Dare

I saw Truth or Dare in Vancouver, where I was then living, and there was a scene where Madonna and her back-up dancers play truth or dare, spin the bottle, and the dare is for one man to kiss another. I remember the audience in that screening gasping in disgust at the sight. It was an ‘us and them’ moment, Madonna being part of the ‘us’ and it’s one of the reasons I’ll love her forever.

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Madonna and backup dancers then

It was 1991. So many friends my age were dying. I was writing a column for Angles, the local gay paper, and felt I was going to a funeral on a monthly basis, ceremonies made more poignant by often taking place outdoors in Stanley Park, amidst the sublime natural beauty that is Vancouver’s, by the sea, with the Rockies as majestic background, all of us crying over death in front of so much beauty; the friends attending, the family –often still afraid of contagion and making their disavowal evident by their absence; the community, solidarity and hope embodied by those who did gather. And in that cinema, whilst Madonna presented us with youth, beauty, desire, flirtation, freedom, the straight audience laughed and sneered; at one of our lowest and most vulnerable moments as a community.

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Jose and Luis being fab in 1990

Whilst straights voiced disgust, for many young gay men, a generation younger than I, Madonna, Truth or Dare, ‘Express Yourself’, and that kiss in the film represented a transformative moment, a moment in which they recognised themselves, one where they saw there were other people like them. One of the ways Strike a Pose frames the tour and the film is as key and iconic moments of transformation in the Gay Liberation Movement, one entirely interlaced with fights against AIDS, almost that precise moment where ‘gay’ gave way to ‘queer’. There’s a wonderful scene in Strike a Pose where Madonna stops the concert to speak about her close friend, artist Keith Haring, who’d died just a few weeks previously: He ‘was a man who had the courage to tell the truth. The truth is, he was gay. The truth is, he had AIDS. And he said so to anybody who would listen.’ So much of the tour, and of the film of the tour, was about how liberating it was to ‘express yourself’.

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Yet, Strike a Pose, demonstrates how expressing oneself was something not everyone could afford or dared do. Whilst gay audiences were admiring the beauty and the freedom the dancers embodied, many of the dancers themselves were hiding secrets they dared not voice.. Salim Gauwloos, one of the dancers, had himself been diagnosed with HIV in 87, at the age of eighteen, after his first sexual encounter. He’d told no one then, and his mother would be his only confidante on this issue for several years. He was behind Madonna when she spoke of Keith Haring’s freedom and looking at the footage twenty years later says ‘I look petrified. I can’t wait to get offstage.’ Carlton Wilburn was diagnosed whilst on tour in Japan. A third, Gabriel Trupin died of complications from AIDS in 1995, and we see in this film his mother’s continuing anger and bitterness over this.

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Original ad seeking dancers — Wimps and Wanna-Be’s need not apply!

Strike a Pose! is more than one of those ‘Where Are They Now?’ documentaries. It highlights the significance of cultural production — something as banal as the representation of a kiss – in historical struggles of liberation. The film is at its best when doing that, showing us how Jose and Luis became stars, the letters Salim (aka Slam) got over the kiss, etc. It’s at its worst in the latter part of the film, an ‘express yourself today’ moment where the spin the bottle scene from Truth or Dare transforms into a ‘coming out as HIV-positive’ scene in Strike a Pose but comes across as manipulative and slightly coercive.

Strike a Pose is trying to demonstrate how whereas these dancers couldn’t express themselves then, they can now. I’m not convinced. In any case, it’s an interesting film, one which shows how the wimp and wannabe in all of us can co-exist with courage and valour. I enjoyed it very much.  It’s currently on Netflix.

José Arroyo

Dancer (Steven Kantor, US/Russia/Ukraine/UK, 2016)

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No dancer has had the effect on me that Sergei Polunin has. I’d come to Nureyev when he was too old and I too young. He was very beautiful still but already stodgy in movement. It’s his celebrity, his history, we applauded then rather than his performance. Even delving into old BBC films memorialising his legendary partnership with Margot Fonteyn disappointed: the films themselves are so static that they get in the way of fully appreciating him in his prime, though even in these awful stodges, where no thought has been given as to how to best present one form via another, his genius and techne shine through (though if these films made me a fan of anyone, it’s Fonteyn). However, Nureyev’s dancing is  best appreciated elsewhere, and from way before my time,  as in this old Soviet footage:

or in this American TV Special:

I adored Baryshnikov. Like so many others, I got to know him first  through The Turning Point (Herbert Ross, 1977) and then through the all too few films he graced (White Nights, Dancers). It was also a thrill to see him in those magnificent specials he did for American television in the 80s, first with Liza Minnelli in Baryshnikov on Broadway (1980) and later Baryshnikov Dances Sinatra (1984). The thrill was fleeting in those pre-VHS days but it has lasted in memory, memories that can now be tested via the re-releases of those works on DVD.

Baryshnikov was the light to Nureyev’s feral broodyness, first a horny pixie, all grace and beauty in movement, one who seemed to radiate earthy joy in its most ethereal aspect, then later, whilst still technically virtuosic, becoming baser, rawer, a hint of cruelty coming out in the more macho dimensions of the dances. He was also quick to branch out into more diverse forms of dance, eager to absorb all of its idioms, from Twyla Tharpe to Jerome Robbins, from his work in the American Ballet Theatre to his later experiments with modern dance in his own White Oak Dance Company with Mark Morris.

The Rudolf Nureyev foundation was later to fund Polunin’s schooling at the Royal Ballet. And Julie Kavanagh has called Polunin ‘the purest virtuoso’ since Baryshnikov. Polunin demands to be compared with, not only the best, but the legendary ones of each generation. I first saw him by accident in a live transmission of  The Royal Opera House’s Sleeping Beauty and was simply dazzled, first by his charisma, then by the way he seemed to attack each move fearlessly but end with enormous control whilst putting a final flourish on the movement. I haven’t seen anyone quite like him.

As Julie Kavanah writes, this time for 1843:

‘A dancer like Polunin comes along once every two or three decades; at 13 his potential was so evident that his teacher would pull up a chair and study him during class. “He’d say, ‘Sergei, show them how to do a rond de jambe.’” To see him demonstrate a movement is to see a blueprint of perfection. Watching him back then at the junior school, where my son was a pupil, I was reminded of home footage I had come across while researching my biography of Nureyev. It was of the teenage Baryshnikov, who was also a living lexicon of classical ballet, articulating academic steps in ways which could hardly if ever be improved. Polunin has it in him to be the heir of both stars, adding Nureyev’s feral impulse to Baryshnikov’s phenomenal virtuosity and clarity, while introducing a youthful masculinity of his own.

In a superb piece for The New York Times, ‘Roger Federer as Religious Experience’ the late, great, David Foster Wallace writes of athletes: ‘Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.’ It’s an idea also developed in ‘How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart’ in Consider the Lobster, where he writes of top flight athletes being beautiful and inspiring:

‘There is about world-class athletes carving out exemptions from physical laws a transcendent beauty that makes manifest God in man….Great athletes are profundity in motion. They enable abstractions like power and grace and control to become not only incarnate but televisable. To be a top athlete, performing, is to be what that exquisite hybrid of animal and angel that we average unbeautiful watchers have such a hard time seeing in ourselves’.

When we add beauty as goal to all that Foster Wallace describes, this sense of carving exemptions from physical laws, of profundity in motion, becomes intensified. ‘So we want to know them,’ adds Foster Wallace:

 ‘these gifted, driven physical achievers. We too, as audience, are driven: watching the performance is not enough. We want to get intimate with all that profundity. We want inside them; we want the Story. We want to hear about humble roots, privation, precocity, grim resolve, discouragement, persistence, team spirit, sacrifice, killer instincts, liniment and pain. We want to know how they did it (pp. 142-143)

Dancer helps us get to know Polunin, whilst reminding us, through thrilling home and video footage, of why we want to get to know him in the first place. We begin with Polunin’s story. Born in Kherson in Souther Ukraine to working class parents, he first studied at the school of gymnastics, where he dreamed of winning a gold medal. But he also did a little bit of dancing in the afternoons and his mother thought he would have a better life exploring that route. So the whole family mobilised to make that dream come true: the father went to work to Portugal as a builder, the grandmother as carer for the elderly in Greece. Both sending home all they earned to pay for the rent and the school fees so he could study ballet in Kiev. But who’s dream was this? The child’s? The mother’s? The family’s? Beware of parents who constantly tell their children they sacrificed all for their future — a shift in perspective turns a sacrifice into an investment; the gilded future of their children into their own.

When Polunin was eleven, he auditioned at the Royal Ballet School, was accepted and quickly impressed. In 2007 he was named Young British Dancer of the year. He was the youngest dancer to be made a principal in the whole history of the Royal Ballet. They gave him practically every lead dance to play, six major new roles in 2011 alone, too many, like exploiting a young footballer’s virtuosity to the point where he risks potential injury and a curtailment of his career. Then in 2012, after his parents divorced and after breaking up with his girlfriend and getting into an argument in rehearsal with his his co-star, Romanian ballerina Alina Cojocaru, he left the Royal ballet for good. It was a scandal that made the front pages.

Soon, the tabloids were full of stories on  the ‘bad boy of ballet,’  the significance of part-owning a tattoo-parlour in North London, and proof of those  tweets about his drug-taking and clubbing. In the UK the ballet establishment wrung its hands, a talent wasted they thought. What the film shows us is more personal. He’d been over-worked and burned out. And what was the point of continuing? In his eyes, he’d done it all for his family who’d sacrificed so much for him. It’s not something he wanted for himself. And if his family had fallen apart in the process of collectively making possible that which was not his dream…well what was the point of it all?

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The aftermath was not as well-covered by the press. I eagerly bought tickets for a ballet based on Midnight Express at the London Coliseum. Polunin cancelled but I soldiered on and fully understand why he pulled out. It was a complete disaster: sensationalist, crude, bombastic, salacious. He might have made it watchable. But not without embarrassment. What I had not noticed, partly because I did not then know of him, was that the strong, tall man, with his hand on the shoulder of the vulnerable Polunin in the poster (see image above) was Igor Zelenksy.

In Dancer, Polunin’s mother, Galina, describes him as the father Polunin always needed (and we also see how this view hurts Polunin’s handsome, gentle and self-sacrificing real father, Vladimir). Polunin followed Zelenksy to the Stanislavsky ballet. We see footage of him dancing there, and them dancing together in Spartacus. Dancer shows us how Polunin had to rebuild his career in Russia. He took part in a national ballet tv show, something comparable to The Voice or Britain’s Got Talent but with ballet dancing rather than singing as its focus. This way, Polunin once more became not only the leading dancer of his generation but once more a national celebrity, an international one. And once more the film shows us him running away to give it all up. This time to collaborate with former Royal Ballet classmate, Jade-Hali Cristofi in choreographing a ballet set to Hozier’s ‘Take Me to Church’, rather hackneyed both in sound and choreography but beautifully directed and danced, and which up to his point has racked up 19,331,185 views on you-tube. Extraordinary.

It’s clear from the film that this was at one point thought to be the ending of the film. It’s all structured to lead to this. But then, once, more Polunin returns to ballet, thankfully for us and for the film.

Dancer is fascinating in at least two ways; one, because through all the fantastic early footage it demonstrates the genius — there’s no other word for it — of its subject; two, because it also shows us all the work, dedication and sacrifice needed to develop that talent into genius. In the process of transforming raw talent into these otherworldly beings Foster Wallace describes, with that grace, power and control that ‘carve out exemptions from physical laws’, the single-minded focus extracts a price, social and psychological.  Here the irony is that all the family sacrificed, then the incredible talent actually realised. But it wasn’t Polunin’s own desire. And he struck struck out angrily — at least for a while — and shunned the family who sacrificed so much to make it possible. What was gained was a social good its subject and focus had no particular stake in, i.e. our enjoyment of his talent. He himself wanted first his family; then when he realised he couldn’t get that, maybe a car. Then when the realisation hit that’s that not what he’d be getting either. Well, why bother? There’s a Greek tragedy in this film, one that could have been better drawn out.

Richard Dyer, in a lovely piece wittily entitled ‘Classical ballet: a bit of uplift,’ originally written for Marxism Today, writes‘, ‘Classical ballet celebrates the potential harmony of the human body, the utopian ideal of collective endeavour, the possibility of the interchange between the sexes of human qualities we now label masculine or feminine. Something of this is what has recommended ballet to the communisms of the ballet of the USSR, Cuba and China. Beneath the aristocratic tat of the settings and the charming but dispensable never-never of the stories, there is an implicitly socialist vision. (p. 42) Dyer, may be right. It’s part of the argument that’s been used about the Busby Berkeley musicals vs the Astaire and Rogers ones. You can be Ruby Keeler, clod-hop along as part of a group, and still create wonders if you work together. But ah, only Astaire and Rogers can be as exceptional as they are.

Dyer continues, ‘At one level, its yearning for the transcendent grace of the individual human body in the abstract is a refusal of the actual limitations of the human body in reality. But at another level, its dream of being at one with one’s body and of being the harmony (united in and through differences) with other bodies is the feeling form of socialism. And the fact that you have to train and work for this is what makes it most powerful of all. Classical ballet does not say harmony is natural to human beings, but rather we can learn to achieve it. Likewise, socialism does not emanate from us naturally, it is the harmony we can learn to create together. (p.44)

Those two quotes of Dyer’s are so fascinating because we can see how they are so regarding the potential of the human body, the sexes, etc. But also how it’s not so. Here we see footage of Polunin at thirteen, dancing with a skill and ease that leaves all his colleagues in the dust, and enjoying it. He knows he’s exceptional. That he’ll be the star, and they will be the collectivised chorus who’s primary goal is to make him shine. Polunin — not to speak of all the sexual intrigues, competitiveness, nasty plotting and criminal acts of violence that recently occurred at the Bolshoi — indicates that if classical ballet has a feeling form evoking socialism, it’s one with a place for a Stalinist variant, with competition, exceptionalism, and hierarchy; with a natural selection harnessed before children are even given the choice and before the age where consent is in any way be meaningful, and then ruthlessly honed to the point where they are either exceptional enough to thrive, mediocre enough for the corps de ballet, or ruthlessly expunged from the stage altogether. Caught between one of the stage mothers of all time, a gentle and giving father, and evidence of natural ability, Dancer demonstrates the what, why and how of Polunin, marvellously.

José Arroyo

Who’s Gonna Love Me Now? (Barak Heymann/Tober Heymann/ Alexander Bodin Saphir, UK/Israel (?), 2016)

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A touching documentary about a gay man, Saar Maoz, born and raised in a religious kibbutz in Israel who’s kicked out of it for ‘not following the rules’, ie. being gay.  He moves to London in his early twenties, meets a man he loves and starts a long term relationship. It doesn’t last.  Amidst the sorrow and sexual experimentation that follows the break-up, he becomes HIV. He finds support from the London Gay Men’s Choir and then, at 40,  finds himself in complicated discussions with the very extensive members of his family about whether to return to live in Israel. What makes it so moving is that the family is very loving yet almost murderously homophobic: ‘Why don’t you just kill yourself?’, asks one of his brothers. This is the type of film where the wish for a sibling’s death encased in an avowal of love is rendered understandable.

Saar Maoz is a great subject: charismatic, exuding energy and intelligence, emotionally transparent yet very vulnerable; moving fluidly between a learned ironic stance and a need for love so naked it feels an ache. What at first seems a contradiction becomes reduced to a tension as the film progresses. It’s encapsulated also by the London Gay Men’s choir, at once camp in their movement, kitschy in their song selection, yet simultaneously pure and  true in their singing. The film places Maoz between family, where he is  loved but is outcast (the scenes with his father are great), and community where he is a cherished but minor part of a very large group. In between them, Maoz suffers and longs.

Ultimately, London, with it’s cosmopolitan and multi-ethnic culture and make-shift support group of choir, medical lifeline, exes and friends, is nonetheless seen as a place of exile: where Maoz has gone to spare his family angst and shame, at great cost to himself. In the end, he decides to return to Israel, and to his family, in a job — running an HIV/AIDS organisation — that requires him to be out about both his sexuality and his HIV status. It’s a choice that raises lots of interesting questions: what is community? what is family? what does Maoz find in blood-ties that he couldn’t invent or construct for himself in London?

Who’s Gonna Love Me Now is not a formally daring or innovative documentary. But it will resonate and be of interest to anyone familiar with cross-cultural conflicts within families.

 

José Arroyo

Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt, USA, 2017)

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I want to write on this great film in the greater length it deserves. But for now, in the absence of time and to encourage as many people as possible to see it: Kelly Reichardt is the great poet of contemporary American cinema. The West, the poor, marginalised or oppressed; a loneliness and ache lived against wonders of nature are some of her themes. Here, three interlinked stories of four women in Montana, framed through windows, or from outside the windshields of their cars, always near but always separated by something, at a distance, some trying to help, some trying to cheat, some oblivious to the passions they incite; all doing their best in difficult and often lonely circumstances. From the beginning, when you see Laura Dern framed in a circular mirror on the edge of the frame whilst the back of her adulterous lover occupies a larger portion of the rest, their looking at each other fractured for us through peeks at mirrors, the compositions are superbly expressive.  Certain Women is so beautiful, visually and narratively, and the actors so superb: it will be a long time before I forget the image of Lily Gladstone’s beautiful face, stars in her eyes as she gazes longingly at Kristen Stewart. What a great film.

 

José Arroyo

Toni Erdmann/ Min Pappa Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, Germany/Austria/Switzerland/Romania, 2016)

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Is Toni Erdmann a teensy bit over-rated? Cahiers du cinéma named it its best film of the year and it also came tops in Sight and Sound’s 2016 poll of 163 critics worldwide. I saw it as an overlong (162 minutes!) exploration of a father/ daughter relationship, with some laughs, a quite worked-through dramatisation of sexist dynamics in the work-place and a thought-through but muddled critique of neo-liberalism that made its points partly through an excellent use of setting — mainly Bucharest but also rural Romania — and partly by making the character of  the daughter, Ines,  a corporate consultant in international downsizing with a specialism in  moving jobs off-shore and firing people. What holds it together is a fearless performance from Sandra Hüller as the daughter. What raises all kinds of questions is the conceptualisation of the character of the father (played by Peter Simonischek).

When watching it I thought how well it would fit my colleague James McDowell’s exploration of the ‘quirky’ in cinema. It’s not an American Indie obviously — a friend said a poster advertising ‘German Comedy’ is what put her off seeing it at all — but it does adopt a particular tone, where the humour happens in a place of seriousness, often seeming to come out of nowhere, off-key and initially slightly off-pace in a way that changes the film’s rhythms altogether, that well fits into that style.

Toni Erdmann is in many ways about a father crashing in on his daughter’s work place and work life in a different country as a way to  develop a line of communication  with her and  alter the direction of an oh so busy life that keeps her glued to the phone. The appearance of Toni at inappropriate times and doing things like wearing fright wigs and false teeth are so abrupt and inappropriate they carry almost a jolt of violence that can erupt into humour. Personally, I felt that if my father did those things to me, I’d have him committed. Yet, the film asks us to laugh at a father’s de facto attempts to undermine his daughter at her workplace (though the filmmakers I’m sure would see it differently, more as an attempt to get her to change her priorities and make her know in her bones that he’s always there for her).

There are several moment that friends have talked of in the film’s favour: a) The sequence were Ines has a birthday party/workplace bonding exercise where she can’t get herself to dress as the sexy/efficient/ cool corporate robot she’s become, opens the door nude, and gets some of her colleagues to join her, with mixed results. You can see that it’s a moment that’s been conceptually worked through but somehow not very well executed – that it’s better thought than filmed; and I think that gets to something about this visually undistinguished  yet nonetheless highly-praised film. The boldness for which it’s praised must obviously lie elsewhere (but where exactly?).

b)Friends have also found particular favour in a scene where father and daughter go to a birthday party at the home of an upper-middle class Romanian family and the daughter ends up singing a full and atrocious version of Whitney Huston’s ‘The Greatest Love’. It’s funny to me – though it is also a bit of business that is much better executed by Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins — and clearly a moment of solidarity (if initially coerced and subsequently resulting in anger) that builds and solidifies changes initiated  in the ‘nude’ party  scene — but not funny enough to be given so much time to in the film.

c) The last, which no one I know can really explain to my satisfaction is a scene in a hotel room where the Ines ends up eating petit fours smeared with cum. I’m sure it’s symbolic of something.  In an interesting piece on the film for Pop Matters, Alex Ramon argues that the amount of praise Toni Erdmann has received is overcompensation for a dearth of films by women this year and notes of this particular scene  that it is Ines’ idea of fulfilment. But I’m more convinced by his reading of the praise then of the scene. I simply don’t get it. Most of my straight male friends have left it at ‘Eww!’

At the end of the film, Ines and Toni have bonded; she’s accepted and adopted some of his views; she’s grown. But has she changed? To me she’s merely exchanged her job as a corporate consultant specialising in downsizing with one company in Bucharest to move to another famous company to continue the same job but at a higher level in Singapore. We all seem trapped by neo-beralism, particularly when watching a film that lasts 162 minutes.

Film scholar Roy Grundmann agrees that the film has been overpraised and believes the key to understanding such a critical reception is the loss of film historical knowledge:

‘It’s interesting that the label “indie film” seems to get summoned to help people make sense of Toni Erdmann’s provenance. What is forgotten today is that mainstream cinema–Hollywood cinema–used to make films in a very similar vein. They weren’t indie films; they were studio films billed and received as off-beat comedies. Its directors were Hal Ashby and Robert Benton. If one wanted to be kind to Toni Erdmann, one would have to call it an homage. But because few today are aware of, or have actually seen, films like Harold and Maude or Being There or Nobody’s Fool, Toni Erdmann is celebrated as the second coming (though whether it can do for French desserts what GHOST did for pottery remains to be seen). Hence, it is deeply ironic that Hollywood’s rushing in to remake the film would generate so much indignation, particularly from reviewers at daily newspapers (traditionally the custodians of mid-cult in the U.S.). If anything, such a remake would bring the film’s generic provenance and artistic philosophy full circle. I must confess I haven’t seen the director’s earlier films, which have received high praise. I take it she’s no novice. It thus strikes me as odd that her five or so endings she tacks on to her movie read like nothing so much as a graduate from film school feeling pressured to select from mainstream cinema’s menu of formulaic endings, not quite able to make up her mind, and eventually deciding to just go ahead and use all of them’.

According to Germanist Brian Ha, ‘There are a couple of interesting pieces on the film in German, which provide a fair bit of German-specific context regarding humour (especially satire in recent German cinema), gender politics, intergenerational issues, particularly as they relate to the so-called ’68 generation (embodied by the father’s character), the question of it being a ‘German’ film (e.g. Simonischek is a very well-known Austrian stage actor, at least in the German-speaking world; personally, there was something in his character that struck me as more Austrian than German), etc. And I’m not sure what to make of the hype surrounding a not-especially-funny German film set in Romania, while a quite good Romanian film set in Romania by a Romanian director — Cristi Piu’s Sieranevada — remains largely overlooked’.

So there! And yet, for me, the film does work intermittently, and I did laugh, and I did find some moments between Ines and Toni touching. A conversation in a hotel lobby where the international consultants are talking about what it’s like to work in Romania, how all the Romanians they know are highly educated, usually with MA’s from abroad, how they speak several languages; but how all of this is why they also can’t be relied upon to convey the views of ordinary Romanians — they’re now a separate class, an international one — continues to resonate and I’m still thinking about it. I didn’t find  the great film everyone is shouting about. But it is very much worth seeing…. if you have strong bladder.

***

(the views expressed here are all mine but they were elucidated through a conversation with – in no particular order – Adrian Garvey, Brian Ha, Vincent Quinn, Rosalind Galt, Andrew Moor, Louis Bayman. Mikel J. Koven, Scott Henderson, Dag Sødtholt, India Grande, Dîna Iordanova, Patrick Pilkington, Richard Pickard, Mark Fuller and Tiago de Luca)

José Arroyo

A Brief Note on The Great Wall (Zhang Yimou, China, 2016)

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A note on the much maligned The Great Wall, which I saw on the weekend: there is no characterisation to speak of, the plot is merely a serviceable monster story, and the theme would please China’s governing central committee. But…It is from the director of Ju Dou, (1990) and Hero (2002) and The House of Flying Daggers (2004), and Curse of the Golden Flower (2006). It has the most astonishingly beautiful use of colour I’ve seen in recent cinema. Yang and cinematographers Stuart  Dreyburgh and Xiaoding Zhao, plus the set and design people, have created colours so beautiful and so rarely seen in cinema, and then the way they put those colours together in a frame, make them work alongside each other not only to keep the eye on the action but also to please it, is quite exceptional. There’s a scene in a tower in the last great set-piece where the imperial palace is over-run by monsters, the tower is slowly falling apart, and every colour if the rainbow seems to break through — orchestrated and choreographed — in an extraordinary cacophony of colour that is just breathtakingly beautiful: how could so much be arranged to rest so easy and simply on the eye?  This use of colour is conveyed in gorgeous compositions and truly inventive use of camera. Visually, the film is like a Renaissance Masterpiece. As usual with Zhang, the acrobatics are wonderful to watch and there are scenes with women warriors diving into a sea of monsters with spears that is just dazzling to see. And though the characters are archetypes and not fully fleshed out, Andy Lau and Willelm Dafoe and Tian Jing are still worth looking at — if for different reasons — and Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal have great chemistry. It’s out now and if cinephiles aren’t bothered to see it on a big screen they’re not worthy of the name.

José Arroyo

Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi, USA, 2016)

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Hidden Figures is the kind of film Hollywood has been praying for since #OscarsSoWhite, #BlackLivesMatter and Bechdel Tests. It’s also the kind of movie that Hollywood’s been making since forever but usually with men. It’s rosy and feel-feel good. Things might be difficult but if you have courage, wit and the work ethic of a Calvinist believer, you will end up in the best of all possible worlds, your world….but better. It could have been made in the forties if you cobbled together some of the plots of Greer Garson, Rosalind Russell and Katharine Hepburn movies.

The only difference between Hidden Figures and that type of movie is that these women are black: three brilliant women held back by patriarchy overcome insurmountable odds and manage to help send a man to the moon. They end up becoming bosses, getting married to gorgeous men and having beautiful families, all the while being saintly to the nasty white people, male and female (James Parsons and Kirsten Dunst), who get in their way, just like Sidney Poitier in Lillies of the Field (Ralph Nelson, USA, 1963) and most of his other movies. It’s not the fault of the poor sinners: they’ve yet to be enlightened. Kevin Costner is the big white daddy who resolves most problems.

The protagonists being black is a major difference to past films of this type. The title is no accident. It’s all about re-claiming that which is lost or risks being lost to an #ohsowhite and #ohsomale history. I feel churlish not liking it more. The audience I saw it with responded to everything and applauded at the end in a way I’ve not quite seen since I saw Waiting to Exhale (Forest Whitaker, USA, 1995) with a mostly black, mostly female audience when it first came out. Maybe I’m too old. The audience’s response is proof such a film needs to be made now. Yet, I feel I’ve seen it all before. And after seeing Fences (Denzel Washington, USA, 2017) and Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, USA, 1917) Hidden Figures feels particularly safe, sitcom-y, predictable and phony. I was dying for Taraji P. Henson to explode and slap somebody, even if only verbally, like she did all of the first great season of Empire (Lee Daniels/Daniel Strong, USA 2015 -).

The actors are the best thing about Hidden Figures. I love Octavia Spencer’s face, wonky and slightly crushed-in; suspicious and full of mischief; and capable of expressing all there is. I also loved Kirsten Dunst’s stuffy and repressed supervisor: she’s closed in and angry at life, feels asphyxiated by it. It was also good to see Mahershala Ali, even as the perfect man. Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monaé are clearly stars and one loves looking at them as such whilst wishing they wouldn’t quite project the smug self-satisfaction their roles demand of them. I wished instead they’d get angry and smash things and that the film would make people fell the same way. Instead, Hidden Figures feels like an ideological project designed to keep everything in its place whilst moving people up a few notches. The audience applauded. And it’s turning into a landmark box office success. But….

 

José Arroyo

John Wick: Chapter 2 (Chad Stahelki, USA, 2017)

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A highly-saturated neon-noir. John Wick: Chapter 2 is all Keanu Reeves, action-set pieces in exotic locations and attitude. Keanu has the face of an oriental sage, a body that’s imposingly lean and athletic, and the stance of a surfer dude who’s acquired sophistication along the way but still doesn’t get wit: He tries, and the camera helps him along. But who cares? He’s got a marvellous stillness, a face so full of architectural planes it refract enough shadow to sculpt darkness out of light: you can project anything you want onto it, onto him, and it projects something back, maybe something different for each of us but maybe also something sad and broody that’s unique to you.

The film is an updated notion of dumb fun. The plot merely an excuse for staging exciting action in glamorous places. The fights are indeed exciting: they’re well-choreographed against museums, art installations, subways (Montrealers might recognise the Place des Arts metro), Iconic monuments – this time mainly in Rome and New York.

In between fights, treasured character actors are given a chance to conjure some laughs and shine: some succeed (Lance Reddick, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishbourne), some don’t (John Leguizamo, Franco Nero, Peter Stormare). In a sense, the film reminds me of Speed (Jan De Bont, 1994): everything in the movie is designed as pace-in-time, to showcase action; it’s all move along, move fast, and bang bang against a series of distinctive images. But Keanu has a very particular and distinctively pleasurable way of holding a gun: elbow in, eye on the trigger. And Chad Stahelski knows how to stage action so that one sees the complete movement, is aware of the geography of characters and bodies, and in backgrounds that add visual pleasure and thematic density (the mirrored ‘Souls’ installation near the end). It’s a great-looking film (shot by Dan Laustsen) , a brightly hued noir that adds a sharp if artificial light to a series of explosive actions amidst an encroaching darkness. All of that plus Dog. Great fun. Even better than the original.

PS Since writing the above I’ve come across a really interesting analysis of Keanu Reeves by Angelica Jade Bastién for ‘Bright Wall/Dark Room’ that you can find here.

José Arroyo

Ballet First Dates

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Are you interested in ballet but don’t know your first position from your fifth, your cambré from your relevé? Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Ballet First Dates is designed to introduce new audiences to ballet or to deepen the understanding of the casual fan. Ballet Master Dominic Antonucci — informal and charismatic — takes us through the basic positions, movements, jumps and how these are all assembled together into ballet moves in a narrative ballet. With the help of Karla Doorbar and and Lachlan Monaghan — both First Artists with the Birmingham Royal – and an excellent rehearsal pianist whose name I’ve sadly forgotten, Antonucci gets the dancers to show us barre exercises, then move on to demonstrate balance, jumps, dance steps, and finally an excerpt of Coppélia with full-blown costumes and even the odd prop.

It was educational. Antonocci passed around satin point shoes so one can feel them, see their insoles, and even put one’s hand in the shoe and feel the support ballerinas get on their toes (not much). Costumes were also brought out at the end so one could look close up and three-dimensionally. One did learn. More importantly, it was thrilling to see the dancers complete their moves so well and so close-up. The audience was filled with children, who clearly adored the whole show and queued up to take a selfie with the dancers at the end. It was a lovely hour, all for a fiver. I can’t encourage the Birmingham Royal Ballet to do more of these. It’s on once more tomorrow at the Hippodrome at 6.30.

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The setting for the barre exercises
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Stepping in and out of the stage
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Selfie Time
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Admiring the Costumes

José Arroyo

Jackie (Pablo Larrain, Chile/France/ USA, 2016)

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A complex story about story-telling, about the relationship between truth and legend, about the imaging of history, the shaping it through the construction of particular images to render them iconic, so memorable that history is not only read through them but actually reifies into those images themselves. In a way Jackie can be understood  as a continuation and development of some of the themes first explored in No, Larrain’s 2012 film about the development of an ad campaign to defeat Chilean Dictator Agusto Pinochet in a national referendum. Natalie Portman is extraordinary. I can’t think of any other actress who’s had so many demands made on her by one movie in the last year; on a surface level — in terms of what one likes — she carries the whole thing (though I also perked up at the first sounds of Richard Burton singing ‘Camelot’). Portman and her work are what emotionally engage. The achievements of the film itself — like with Larrain’s other work — Tony Manero and Post Mortem come to mind — are too intellectual, too distancing to be encompassed or warmed through a word such as ‘like’. One ends up cooly admiring, rather dispassionately, and perhaps as a result, the mind doesn’t linger over the ideas too long either. One knows it’s extraordinary but one wants to move on, quickly, to something warmer and more instantly gratifying…and yet the story and its telling won’t quite let you and pull you back to thought.

 

José Arroyo

Fences

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Fences is stagey and heavy-haded: Denzel is not much of a director. But he’s a great actor and this is a great role in one of *the* great American plays of the second half of the twentieth century. He and Viola Davis are something to see, together and individually and they overcome every other fault. Watching it reminded me of seeing Sidney Poitier as a child or reading James Baldwin as a teenager: it’s beautiful, so charming as to diffuse but not hide the underlying anger, and with a dash of low-down sexyness, here all the more praiseworthy given the protagonists’ ages. One feels elevated by the experience. I didn’t care that it’s not ‘cinematic’. What it does offer is great.

 

José Arroyo

An early plug for two bios: Barthes and Renoir

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The English have excelled at biography for so long that it’s even been spoken of as an English genre or at least an English-language one. And this to such an extent that the Spanish, to their shame, often don’t even bother writing biographies of their most famous personages and simply translate the most famous ones (Paul Preston on King Juan Carlos and Franco, Ian Gibson on  García Lorca and Machado etc) from English into Spanish. However, the two best recent biographies I have read are French (in English translation) Tiphain Simoyault’s exhaustingly fascinating brick on Barthes and Pascal Mérigeau’s fantastic book on Renoir, deserving of the Prix Goncourt, the Grand Prix de l’Essai and all the other prizes its’s won.

 

Bad reader that I am. I began the Renoir with the move to America. I’m now almost at the end of filming of Elena et les hommes and plan to return to the beginning at the end.The research is gobsmacking, incredibly detailed in all areas, yet beautifully synthesised. It adds to your knowledge of his work, changes your views of him as a person, and only makes you admire both more.Nothing I’ve read from England or America this year comes near to touching the achievements of either book and I highly recommend  them.

 

José Arroyo

A Note on Brief Encounter (David Lean, UK, 1945)

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Brief Encounter is woven through and through with loss, sadness, the stifling of desire, the structuration of forces of repression — the state, the police, the institution of marriage: all that is so beautifully expressed in the scene where we see Laura (Celia Johnson) going to have a smoke under the the War Memorial, the park bench still wet from the rain, after her failed attempt at the assignation with Alec (Trevor Howard) that had exercised her so — interpellated as personal lacks and individual moral failings.

It was only on my last viewing that it became clear how the film is actually structured around the moment of loss, a moment which bookends the film, and which we first see narrated objectively and then come back to subjectively at the film’s end (and Catherine Grant’s marvellous video essay, Dissolves of Passion, take on an even richer resonance when seen through the lens of loss, of Dolly Messiter robbing the couple of their last minutes but also the loss of a love that is desired but cannot be).

The film begins to tell us a story, one that doesn’t start of as but then becomes Laura’s story told in flashback, and the end returns us to to the beginning but now fleshed out as Laura subjectively experiences– and by this I mean something different than told through her point of view — those last moments with Alec, the loss, the despair, the world infringing on and robbing her of that which is so important to her but which she cannot speak of, except to us, the audience.

As we can see in the clip above, the film begins with a train, engine steaming streams of smoke, heading towards us and slicing through the frame. We then begin with a medium close-up of Mr. Godby (Stanley Holloway). The camera cuts to passing trains once again, before again picking up Mr. Godby, crossing the track on foot. Why begin here and with Mr. Godby? Clearly the passing trains, the platform where people linger only momentarily before heading elsewhere, the steam; all help create an emotional as well as physical setting for the drama that will be played out. But look also at the formal elegance, at the beauty of the compositions. This dangerous speed, the transient and furtive meetings, the steaming desire the film will dramatise, all will be contained by the same order, hierarchy, symmetry, the elegant manner that also characterise framing and composition (and in a different way, Mr. Godby’s uniform).

I was struck also by how in the shot in the station café, the focus is entirely on Mr. Godby and Mrs. Bagot (Joyce Carey), flirting away, in their own way negotiating and making possible the fulfilment of the desires denied the more middle class Lauras and Alecs. You might note that the camera pans from Mr. Godby and Mrs Bagot to Laura and Alec, that significantly they remain at a distance. We don’t yet know who they are and we don’t yet hear a word they say. Mr. Godby’s voice is still carrying, now off-screeen, now speaking of police, whilst the camera lingers at a distance is on this new couple we will later get to know so well. So from the very first images, we get speed, steam, the sense of transit and indeterminacy but also of order and containment, all whilst being brought to notice regarding forces of repression. And the film tells us this whilst making a homology between two couples characterised as belonging to two different classes, one the servants; the other those being served, even if only in a cafe.

I will write  about the two ways we’re shown Dolly Messiter’s intrusion into the last moments the couple have together –the one objective at the beginning, the other subjectively near the end —  in my next post.

José Arroyo

 

 

 

 

Carole Lombard gets a star entrance in To Be Or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch, USA, 1942)

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The opening scene of To Be or Not to Be has to be one of the best in all of classic cinema. The very first line, ‘Lubinski, Kubinski, Lominski, Razanski and Poznanski’ already set a tone for the film. The names are almost inherently funny in themselves. Perhaps a bit of a cheap joke but note the spacing, the intonation, and the variation between the first three and the last two. From the first five words we know we’re in a comedy, a high one, satirical and elegant but not afraid to go low-down and below the belt.

These are jokes being designed by masters. And they keep coming: Hitler is a vegetarian but ‘he doesn’t always stick to his diet. Sometimes he swallows whole countries.’ The film’s setting and all of the film’s themes are set-up in this elegant, polished, harmonious opening, beautifully calibrated so that each each bit shines on its own whilst also providing a sparkling setting and springboard for all the film will have to offer later.

We’re introduced to the theme of performance, the love of theatre, how drama can save lives. Indeed from the very beginning what we see is not what we think it is. What we thought was ‘life’ in the movie was really theatre whilst later the theatre will be a setting in which performing will save lives. Thus the title of the film is not just that of the famous soliloquy in Hamlet, or a joke making it the cue for an assignation. It is the essence of the film itself: what is the relationship between being and performing? Is performing not being? What are the connections between appearances and being. How and when do we perform and is that which we perform ourselves? And how is that performance tied to appearances. To what extent can that which merely appears to be real pass for reality?

The scene has many lovely elements that will recur and be riffed on by the rest of the film: the recurrent repetition of ‘Heil Hitler’ three times as a standard which then, by accentuating pauses, accents or irregular repetition, can transform something banal into something funny; the joke about Hitler being named after a piece of cheese will also recur in various guises; the ‘Heil myself joke’ rhymes nicely with the command to ‘Jump!’ near the end; the mechanics of how one is brought from the theatrical piece which we think is the film to the film proper through the director slamming his fist and yelling ‘that’s not in the script!’ is marvellously self-reflexive, as Lubitsch’s opening scenes so often are; and of course the great ‘I wound’t sneeze at a laugh’ line in a film in which the getting of laughs is simultaneously that most essential and that most desired so that all its perfect flourishes seem absolutely necessary.

The opening scene is so delightful one firstly enjoys it as if comedy is always this easy and fine. But the more one thinks about it, the more one is awed by the mere mechanics of the piece, how beautifully it’s designed not only as an opening scene but as the seeds from which everything else in the film unfurls, not to speak of the beauty of its realisation and the genius of its performances.

There is really too much to say about it and here I want to focus your attention in the clip below, on only on the four shots in the sequence, where we are introduced to Lombard and Benny as  Maria and Joseph Toura: She the great star, he the great actor. Note how in just over a minute we’re told that this is a serious drama about atrocity, that it will have terrific laughs, that real film artists will clown around. We’re also  given the whole dynamic of the couple’s relationship –the love, the art, the jealousy, the competitiveness, the grounds for infidelity — whilst also making a great joke out of a dress that will prove so important to a later encounter with Nazis if not concentration camps.

Note how in the first shot, Lombard heads towards the camera through a swastika, surrounded by Nazis as the director, says ‘this is a serious play, a realistic drama’ , then the interruption about the dress before ‘it is a document of Nazi Ger..’ Note the wonderful double take and that line, which must have been so shocking once: ‘is that what you’re going to wear in the concentration camp?’ Then a cut to a medium shot in which the dress Toura dreams of for her scene  — ‘Imagine me being flogged in the darkness, the audience screams, suddenly the lights go on and the audience discovers  me  in this beautiful dress’ highlights every curve of Lombard’s body. There’s a sense in which so accentuating a dress and so feverish reading of lines complement each other.  But that they contradict anything to do with concentration camps is part of why it’s so daringly funny.

The staging is undramatically inventive as well. See how Dobash gets between star and director  with the line about getting a terrific laugh, only to be replaced then by the husband when the director says ‘that an artist like you can be so inartistic’. It’s beatifully staged, including the moment where she begins to walk and the camera moves with her leaving him out of the shot. Then when the camera inserts his reply, he joins her in a travelling shot through we get to see all the dynamics of the relationship played out: him accusing, her fracturing, him chasing, both talking through each variation and all in one brief movement. iIt’s brilliant and brilliantly economical on practically every level.

José Arroyo

A noir hero’s idea of the perfect woman.

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I seem to remember this idea of the perfect woman being attributed to Bogart himself, or maybe Bacall in her memoirs just mentions how much his conceptions jived with those expressed in this movie, in any case I didn’t realise the story originates in this excerpt from John Cromwell’s Dead Reckoning. One can imagine this being a widely shared ideal whilst still thinking, ‘yikes!’

José Arroyo

Lizabeth Scott’s intro in Dead Reckoning

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I found it interesting that Dead Reckoning affords Lizabeth Scott a magnificent star entrance that begins with her voice. That gravelly huskyness is what rendered her unique amongst forties femme fatales. Here we hear her before we see her, and before we hear her, she’s already framed for us by Bogart’s troubled thoughts, by his dislike of the big lug calling him a friend. Then we hear her referred to as Mrs. Chandler by the barman, implicitly casting questions about why a married woman is a regular at the bar. We then see her through Bogart’s point-of-view: first the shapely gams, then a close-up on the cigarette, the jewelled evening gown, the neckline plunging into the dark fabric of the dress, then that beautiful face in profile, with cigarette as Bogart lights her up and she gives him that looks that seems a challenge born of a hurt. ‘Cinderella with a husky voice’ is how Bogart describes her to us. ‘Where have we met?’ ‘In another guy’s dreams’. A great star entrance, a great mise-en-scene of noir: darkness, desire and the unconscious beautifully twisted together to set the scene for the drama that will come.

José Arroyo

Lizabeth Scott on Film Noir

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Lizabeth Scott, the beautiful blonde with the gravelly voice that graced so many forties noirs, gives her take on film noir. 

From a series of great interviews conducted by Carole Langer in Janet Leigh’s home in 1996. They can be seen in their entirety on you tube here.

José Arroyo