Month: July 2013

Design for Living (Ernst Lubitsch, USA, 1933)

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design for living

A Lubitsch film adapted by the great Ben Hetch from the Noel Coward play about his relationship with the legendary Lunts*? The heart speeds, the mouth salivates. Yet, it’s extremely disappointing; indeed almost awful. Coward and Lubitsch are like oil and vinegar or rather two superb vinegars that might have got toxic when mixed by Hetch. The film tell of two artists, playwright Tom Chambers (Fredric March) and painter George Curtis (Gary Cooper), who love the same woman, like each other, and decide to share a flat. Miriam Hopkins is the ‘free spirit’ who makes a condition of their living together that she will critique their work but won’t sleep with either (probably everyone’s idea of hell).

Fredric March was a big star, but on the evidence of his work here, his appeal is lost in the mist of time. Miriam Hopkins is made for Lubitsch. She’s simply wondrous as the elegant crook in Trouble in Paradise and her Princess in The Smiling Lieutenant is a continuing delight (Her transformation from princess to flapper, culminating in her performance of  ‘Jazz Up Your Lingerie’, ciggie in one hand hand, garters visible, and visibly vibrating to post-ragtime jazz,  is priceless). She always exudes a slight harshness but here she doesn’t have enough funny lines to compensate. She seems merely harsh; and not as pretty as Gary Cooper.

gary

Orson Welles said Cooper was so beautiful he practically turned into a girl whenever he saw him; one look at Cooper here and one understands Welles completely – even Miriam eventually succumbs. He does some good double-takes too. But ultimately he’s unbelievable in the Coward role; whenever he’s discussing art you sense he’d really rather be on a horse. The first Lubtisch I’ve not liked. It is a pre-Code film and as daring as  American cinema would get for another thirty years; but not delightful.

*(Alfred and Lynn, considered the great acting couple of their day and so famous they even figure in J.D. Salinger’s The Cather in the Rye, ‘they didn’t act like people, and they didn’t act like actors’)

José Arroyo

Tonight or Never (Mervyn LeRoy, USA, 1931)

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Tonight or Never

A soap opera about a Hungarian prima donna (Gloria Swanson) who believes she needs to experience ‘love’ so she can put more feeling into her opera singing. She falls for Jim (Melvyn Douglas) who she thinks is a gigolo. Her feelings for him enable her to sing so divinely she gets a contract to perform at the Met. She discreetly leaves him her emerald necklace by the bedside table as payment for services rendered. Quelle surprise!: he’s not a gigolo.

It’s tosh but tosh worth seeing because a youngish Gloria Swanson in an early speaking-role plays the diva and because Chanel’s wardrobe for the film is glorious. A close-up of Swanson glowing with diamonds and emeralds alone is sufficient to make the whole film worth seeing, though the film does offer other pleasures. Swanson  is too short and squat to be the ideal model for Chanel’s clothes, she’d thickened around the middle by 1931 — but they certainly did have faces then; she’s stunning. As for  Melvyn Douglas as the not-quite-gigolo… you can see why all those great stars (Garbo, Dietrich, Crawford) chose him as a leading man; in spite of his proficiency, you don’t look at him whilst they’re around; you certainly don’t here when Gloria appears with her hats and her clothes and her diamonds and those beautiful eyes. Because he had so many hits and because we still see so many of the films he directed (I Am a Fugitive From A Chain Gang, Gold Diggers of 1933,  Broken Blossoms, Random Harvest, Gypsy) we sometimes forget that Mervyn Leroy was a terrible director. Tonight or Never will remind you.

José Arroyo

Swanson wears Chanel
Swanson wears Chanel

I Want Your Love (Travis Mathews, USA, 2012)

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I Want Your Love

An uneven film but very interesting for all kinds of reasons, not least the way it was — and is currently being — distributed, the context in which I saw it and the film itself: it’s a greatly flawed but bold and daring work.. I happened on the film by accident whilst looking up what was showing at Cineworld, noted that it was only showing for one night without the benefit of any publicity and, following Pauline Kael’s advice that one should always try to see that which the major distributors seem to want to dump, I raced to see it.

Of course, we live in a world were films are not quite released in the way they were in Kael’s time, and this film has nothing to do with the major distributors. It’s a 71 minute indie out on DVD and VoD from Peccadillo Pictures. But the idea fuelling Kael’s advice, that we should make an effort to see what others have a stake in not wanting to show us, holds. The combination of being screened only once but at Cineworld was interesting enough to attract a considerable crowd though I suspect the greater part of the audience went to see it based on the title, probably expected a nice romantic comedy, and seemed first a bit surprised when it turned out to be a gay film, then somewhat more agitated when the hardcore fucking started onscreen. However, only a few people walked out.

The story is straightforward, Jesse (Jesse Metzger) a young performance artist whose been living in San Francisco for a decade has finally run out of money and his notion of options, and has decided to move back home to the Midwest. On his final night, his friends, community and the ex he still hankers for gather together for his leaving party. This sets the context for an exploration of gay relationships, the importance of sex, the influence of context on identity, sexuality and art, and what it might mean to be a gay man, an artist and an adult today.

Making the film about performance artists in San Francisco means it’s almost de-facto a bit navel-gazy and narrow. I generally don’t like it when artists make their subject artists and their struggles because it tends to generally be a looking in to the self – me, me, me! – rather than a look out onto the world. However, and perhaps paradoxically, I Want Your Love also seems comparatively more true to life than the standard film. Perhaps because the production values are low, and there probably wasn’t much of a budget for sets and costumes, one feels that how these people dress, where they live, and how they talk is an accurate and evocative representation. I remember living in flats like Jesse’s in my youth: never a straight surface, all wonky, with too many coats of paint and never quite clean. You rarely see apartments like this in American cinema.

What I liked best about the film was its star, Jesse Metzger. He looks shabby, alternative, handsome in an unassuming way, the way someone who doesn’t want to bring attention to his looks sometimes makes himself appear. His face is absolutely transparent and the longing, hesitation, speculation, awkwardness and fear that he conveys at various moments, is palpable. There are two other actors who make a very considerable impression but whose names I was able to neither get nor find: the chubby man with the Asian boyfriend who does a marvelous step dance on the sidewalk; and a thin nervy black actor who ends up making out with Jason’s ex Ben, the impossible object of his affections. The black actor manages to be funny, smart, ironically distanced and vulnerable all at the same time and is a joy to watch.

What the film will probably best be remembered for is its integration of hard-core sex into a narrative feature. Bruce La Bruce tried doing something like this over ten years ago with Skin Flick — a.k.a. Skin Gang (Bruce La Bruce, Germany/Canada, 1999), which perhaps interestingly was also produced by a company that specialized in porn, Cazzo (I Want Your Love, is produced by NakedSword). But it wasn’t quite the same as, if I remember correctly, La Bruce ended up with two different versions of the same film, the hard-core and the not hard-core, to be released in as slightly different way to different audiences. The non-porn version caused a sensation when it was shown at an NFTS screening which I hosted featuring a Q&A session with the director: members of the audience protested that the very idea of a skinhead gang raping a black man was unacceptable (such a depiction would be banned if as today’s Independent claims, ‘Possessing pornography that depicts simulated rape is to become a criminal offence in England and Wales ‘. Skin Flick was a daring if ultimately unsuccessful experiment functioning neither as porn nor as drama.

I Want Your Love does what audiences and critics are salivating Lars von Trier may do in Nymphomaniac – which is to integrate the representation of sex into a fictional narrative on film. I Want Your Love is a graphic gay romance whose main intent is to show sex as part of life rather than as something to make the audience come. The sex is emotional with elements of embarrassment and humour as is true so often of sex, but full on hard-core even though the accent is on feeling; and those faces ‘feeling’ sex is also so different from porn that it is, I don’t know what, different, new; I didn’t quite know how to process it. I found it alternately erotic and embarrassing as if you were being turned on by something you should’t be watching in the first place, but beautiful. Seeing it on a big screen and in public is a factor as well: it might very possibly just look like not-too-hot porn viewed on a monitor or small screen. In any case, I found that it worked in that I’d never quite seen anything like it (emotional hard-core sex; hard-core sex rendered to depict intimacy) but it also worked against the film in that the sex kicked your head right out of the narrative and focussed your eye right on the genital area no matter where the camera was placed.

We live in a pornographic culture. What I mean by this is the many products of the culture industries are designed to simply get you off; to place you on the quickest route to ejaculation, either literally or metaphorically, and which is not quite the same, to me, as orgasm much less jouissance. ‘ Getting you off’ is the American expression, or cumming, and that’s what porn is designed to do. That’s why we have food porn, and real-estate porn, and so on, it’s not about cooking but about salivating, not about helping you find or make a home but just about increasing your desire for spaces you can’t own at prices you can’t afford. It’s all about creating desires and about eliciting the bluntest and quickest physical reaction possible to make one feel that those desires have in some way been met. As Herbert Marcuse noted, it’s the very structure of ‘One-Dimensional Culture’.But such ejaculations, what the French nickname la petite mort, ‘the little death’, even in a hyperreal form, do chip away at a notion of what it is to be human. Representations affect and have an effect.

What’s so interesting about I Want Your Love is the attempt to reclaim feeling not only for the society at large that keeps insisting that queers are simply disobedient, disorderly, fractious, frenzied, headstrong, hysterical, impetuous, indocile, insubordinate, insuppressible, insurgent and lawless desire that is out of control. But also its attempt to reclaim feeling and intimacy from a commercial gay culture that teaches us that being gay is about having a particular look, going to particular places and having sex in particular ways. There’s an interesting split in that most gay men watch gay porn of various kinds that creates a particular way of being gay, entirely focused on particular kinds of sex; and then there are ‘gay’ fictional narrative films that overly sentimentalise romance and relationships. By integrating sex into love in the ways that it does, I Want Your Love is a protest not only against the mainstream culture we all live and participate in, but the commodification of ways of being imposed by commercial and/or official gay cultures themselves. A flawed film, yes; but a must-see one.

José Arroyo

(July 22nd, 2013)

Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, USA, 2010)

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Winter's Bone 

Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, USA, 2010) is a quest movie with a deadline: Ree Dolly’s father has put up the family home and the land they live off as bond for his bail. As the film begins, we’re told he’s due to go to court but the Sheriff can’t find him. After he misses his court date, the bail bondsman tells Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) she has a week to get her father to turn himself in or the family will be evicted from their property. Barely seventeen, Ree is presently taking care of her mother, who is clearly suffering from mental illness and a residue of drug addiction, and her two younger siblings, who are too young to feed themselves. They currently live off the land and without it they’re lost. There’s a discussion of separating the children and leaving them with various relatives but the film also intimates that this would make them vulnerable to abuse, though whether it’s sex or drugs or violence is menacingly hinted at without being fully articulated. Ree has no choice but to search for her father. This will put her in the path of danger and in turn offer the audience a prime view of a rural American culture ravaged by poverty and crystal meth.

The centrality of the necessity of the father to the very existence of the home and the family is one of the most powerful structuring elements of this film. Without the father, the family will lose land, house, each other. Ree lives in a patriarchal culture, clearly gendered in relation to tasks (‘don’t you have no menfolk who can do this for you?’ she’s asked). But men just fight, drink, strut, abuse their women and leave them helpless. We not only see them do this but the film underlines men’s absence (even when they are there), their uselessness or threatening presence by the way the film photographs them: in acts of aggression towards woman (fig.1.1-1.2), or far away and out of focus to show that they’re not there or simply won’t help(fig 2), or at a low-angle to make their threat a looming one (fig 3), next to weapons (fig 4), or constantly doing drugs.

fig 1
Example of Acts of Aggression Towards Women A
fig 1b
fig. 1.b
fig.2
fig.2
fig. 3
fig. 3
fig. 4.1
fig. 4.1
fig. 4.2
fig. 4.2

A man is necessary but the family is better off by just bringing his bones in and proving he’s dead. The film shows us this over and over again in the conversation that she has with her best friend Gail(who has to ask her husband’s permission to have access to the family truck); in the names given to the men (most prominently Teardrop and Thump Jessop and the interesting dynamic created by the juxtaposition of those two names), in the gentle songs of suffering (mostly country and bluegrass in relation to women with the odd notes of honky-tonk or thrash metal woven in at low volume in relation to men). Men here are a problem; whether it’s the bail bondsmen, the sheriff, the father himself, or the other patriarchs in the film. They’re threatening either when they are the law (the bondsman, the sheriff) or outside the law (drunk, violent, or repressive), even the military recruiter, who is shown as kind, cannot help (and the help he has to offer is one most of us would refuse. Note how what stands between the patriotism signaled American flags on the right of Fig.8.1 and the recruiting poster which avows that the military’s mission is a better future is the reality of Ree’s conditions of existence and the military recruiter’s advice to heed them). Teardrop, as is indicated by his name, is a kind of bridge between a male figure that enables and a masculinity that destroys; he begins oppressively (‘I’ve already told you to shut up with my mouth. Don’t make me have to say it again’) but eventually helps because of bonds of blood (and guilt?).

8.1
fig. 8.1

If men are a problem, women are the solution in this movie. Their faces might be ravaged by meth, they might also take a turn at ‘laying on the hurt’ but they’re also the ones that solve every problem all the patriarchal structures put in place of the family’s survival. And it is through women that Ree finds food (from her neighbor Sonya), emotional sustenance (from her friend Gail, but also that final adoring look her helpless mother gives her at the end) and finally even her father’s bones (through the woman who is attached to the gang leader who had her father killed –the film hints he’s head of a bike gang which is a front for a drug distribution business).

 

fig. 9.1
fig. 9.1

These gendered relationships are supported by labyrinthine set of  social mores with extremely codified rules of behavior (depending on gender, kinship, age, and bounded by the school, the military and the law) which we see Ree teaching her younger siblings (e.g. ‘don’t ask for what should be offered’). And they take place in a particular place, the Ozark mountains of Missouri, hillbilly country, here shown as the face of rural America, traditional moonshine land now cranked up and crippled by Crystal Meth. Often we are shown this wintery rural landscape with horses, hay, dead leaves on the floor; a landscape that reaches a peak of beauty in its autumnal dying; and in the midst of this natural setting we’ll see some clothes hanging and a waft of smoke that could be fog before we realize it is really smoke from an illegal lab; the pastoral and the domestic enshrouded and infected by the chemical and the synthetic(see fig 9.1). The culture of the market is seen as a culture of crime (what we see constantly on demand and constantly being supplied is drugs); manufacturing is here shown as only the making of poison and forgetting (there’s a haunting travelling shot following our heroine and another woman through a junkyard full of old cars, a cemetery of an America with no place to go which is very reminiscent of Walker Evans’ Depression photographs of car graveyards, (See Fig. 5.2); education is shown in relation to taking care of babies and marching with guns; American individualism at its most extreme is shown as an underage girl with no social safety net having to risk her life for basic food and shelter.

fig. 5.2
fig. 5.2

In Winters Bone the American century is over. The most striking images in the film are those of decay and here they mourn what America has become. But instead of setting the action in a retro future as in Blade Runner or other futuristic dystopias of a previous era of American Cinema (The Running Man, Total Recall, the Robocop films, the Aliens films, etc.), Winters Bone’s dystopia is constructed from putting an idea of the past in the present rather than in the future. The film is set in the rural heartland and we are made to see it as a problem that not much has changed since the days when Elvis was a child and his mama could only cook squirrel on shortening. In fact the places and faces very much evoke Dorothea Lange’s Depression photographs (see Figs 6.1-3)

fig 6.1
fig 6.1
fig 6.2
fig 6.2
fig. 6.3
fig. 6.3

We see not a culture of consumption but the remains of one, its detritus is everywhere but the things themselves are no longer affordable. Children ride their old, dirty toy horses on trampolines. But this is a consumer culture where the evidence of an abundance of things is only a sign of the lack of essentials (almost industrial size trampolines but no food; gun rather than book displays at the High School, bars and all-night convenience shops but no churches or other places where people can socialize). We do see a gathering with Marideth Sisco singing but the song is Fair and Tender Maidens (‘To all the fair and tender ladies, be careful how you court your man. They’re like a star on the Summer’s morning, they first appear and then they’re gone… I wish to the lord I’d never seen him. Or in his cradle he had died…’).

What hope the film offers is one centered on human will and character rather than institutions (‘I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back. I ain’t going nowhere’, says Ree at the end). Children have to be taught to shoot, and gut animals in order to survive (‘There’s a bunch of stuff you’re going to have to get over being scared of real soon,’ Ree tells her brother). The film shows a regression into a social organization that offers no structures of support except kinship, which it simultaneously posits as the greatest danger to the individual and to the family.

Winters Bone is directed by Debra Granik, who also co-wrote the script with Anne Rossellini. It’s a rare American film that places a woman at the centre of the action, this is rarer still in that the narrative takes us through a relay of female characters for the action to be completed and it does so through a woman’s point-of-view. But greater still is the film’s creation of a new archetype which Jessie Lawrence embodies with warmth and purpose. For whilst people like Ree might not be new in life, they are rare in mainstream representation: a woman that we first see in the home making breakfast; who takes care of her Mom and her sibling but is good with a gun; who’s ashamed of her father’s dealing and snitching but finds room to love him; who considers joining the army and embarks on her dangerous journey to save her home; this is a representation we’ve not seen much in cinema before: a young girl takes out a gun to nourish her siblings and risks her life to fulfill the obligations her parents cannot meet; her duty and her actions exceed her obligations; and importantly they centre on a domesticity that this film finds courageous.

That Ree is so earthily brought to life by Lawrence, and that this actress playing this character connected with audiences so vividly that the type  was almost instantly reprised in The Hunger Games, is something to celebrate. In it’s mourning for what America has become the film has also created a new idea of person who might yet transform that culture for the better. The film’s dystopia is the culture that now is; it’s utopia is that the type of person who can make it better is a woman, and one who doesn’t need men to keep the house going.

José Arroyo.

Oz, The Great and Powerful (Sam Raimi, USA, 2013)

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oz

The 3-D is piercing —  I literally shrank away from it (it was very effective though not pleasant). The colour is the brightest and happiest I have yet seen on digital. I adore seeing what Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis  can do, even with roles so unworthy of their talents and their art. However, James Franco is the one with the meaty role and he makes the most of it: nobody could have captured the shabby, gauche, two-bit conman, kind-of-ladies man but too honest and goofy to be a lady-killer, sweet-but-not-innocent shyster of a wizard as well as he. He’s just perfect. Michelle Williams does better than anyone could possibly hope with that role (though, unless the intended look was mumsy,  her make-up and costume people have  done her no favours here). I love the doll character and Zach Braff voices the monkey with warmth and humour. The last scenes with the smoke and the face are superb. I liked it much more than I expected to.

José Arroyo

Snow White and the Huntsman (Rupert Sanders, USA, 2012)

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Snow_White_and_the_Huntsman_Poster

The story is what you’d expect but with maybe more of an accent on the magical. The film is visually dazzling, with dgi here used expressively to create a magical world, damply dark or sinister, or life-giving, unfolding whiteness. The scenes of the transformation of the forest, or indeed any transformation involving Charleze Therzon are astonishing. Therzon herself looks the part better than she acts it but gives a serviceable performance. Chris Hemsworth is rugged and gorgeous. Kristen Stewart has both a transparency and also a kind of awkwardness that is now an integral part of her star persona. She never seems at ease, is always awkward but somehow true. Here she’s astonishingly beautiful, a beauty made amazing because you initially don’t quite notice, it catches you by surprise in particular shots and then hits you as breathtaking. Girls will love her in armour at the end. There’s something that stops this film from quite working and yet I would like to see it again.

Directed by Rupert Sanders,  a first time director.

José Arroyo

The Spiral Staircase. (Robert Siodmak, USA, 1945)

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The Spiral staircase 1946

 

 

A High-Concept film avant la lettre. There’s a serial killer on the loose in a small New England town early into the 20th-Century. The killer generally chooses women with some kind of imperfection, and our heroine, Dorothy McGuire, a maid who works in a mansion for a rich family, is mute. The film delights with every Gothic thriller cliché in the book: an orphaned heroine in an overstuffed mansion full of spiral staircases and dark corners, a Freudian explanation to McGuire’s muteness, music that positively telegraphs what you’re meant to feel, a portentous Surreal dream sequence, a camera that takes you right into the killer’s eye but not quite into his mind(at least until the end),  a McGuffin, candle-lights that blow out, streaming wind, pouring rain, dark cellars, and a narrative that keeps taking you down false-corridors but never quite cheats. The question is not whether the killer will get the star; nobody kills the star in a big-budget studio film in 1945 Hollywood.  Instead the film taunts and teases us to wonder who the killer might be and when exactly the star will scream.

The cast is quite good if not quite top grade (Dorothy McGuire and George Brent instead of, say, Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer). McGuire is effective if a bit out of her league; Brent is Brent no matter what league he’s in; and there’s a reason we no longer remember Kent Smith and Gordon Oliver, even after playing   important roles such as here. The rest of the supporting cast, however, is a film buff’s delight (Elsa Lanchester as the scullery maid that likes her nip of brandy, Ethel Barrymore as a bed-ridden matron who’s handy with a gun; Rhonda Fleming, before she became the Technicolor hottie with the flaming red hair in low-budget spectacles, as, I kid you not, a secretary).

The real star, however, is director Robert Siodmak: his camera movements alone are a thrill to see; they creep, glide, close in, pay attention, sweep, peek, penetrate; all in wonderful compositions that will elicit awe and joy in those who can appreciate them. Nicholas Musuruca, who was also dop on Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, USA, 1942) and Out of the Past (Tourneur again, USA, 1947), produces wonderful work on camera here as well. A classic which perhaps has been slightly overlooked because it begs comparison with Hitchock’s work, indeed solicits it, his influence is everywhere evident here, and slightly falls short.

It’s worth noting here that I paid £7.40 to see it at the Electric Cinema in Birmingham where they showed it in what seemed a not-very-good DVD and had to be told-off by me because they were showing it in the wrong ratio.

It might also be worth noting that when the cinema is very dark (as it should be and as the Electric was) when sparse, high contrast, quasi-noir lighting like this goes very dark, as the eye focuses on the source of light, the image seems to expand into wide-screen. I wonder if this is just my own personal perception or if the experience is more widespread.

José Arroyo

Kiss of the Damned (Xan Cassavetes, USA, 2012)

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kiss of the damned

A film buff’s delight, and not only because of the director’s parentage (John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands for those of you who might not yet know). The film begins with some of the narration from Vittorio De Sica’s Indescretion of an American Wife (a.k.a. Terminal Station, USA/ Italy, 1953) with Jennifer Jones expressing her loneliness and her need whilst visually we’re introduced to a handsomel house in Connecticut and a lovely woman, Djuna (Joséphine de la Baume) who evokes some of the beautiful porcelain vacuity of an Ursula Andress or a Sharon Stone.

Djuna meets Paolo (Milo Ventimiglio) in a video store showing Algiers (John Cromwell, USA, 1938) with Hedy Lamarr. He drinks scotch and writes arty screenplays that don’t sell. At a bar, they fall for each other but she can’t see him: she’s got an ‘illness’. He pursues her, wants her; he longs for the danger and excitement he knows she can provide. He follows her to her house and there’s a brilliant scene where she keeps the door chain on, they kiss, the kiss is filmed from above in a striking composition made up of a rectangle of light formed by the partly opened door, but then he recoils in pain, looks through the side of the door and sees her fangs reflected in the mirror (this is a vampire film that does not respect all vampire lore).

He doesn’t quite believe that she can really be a vampire so she gets him to tie her to the bed with enormous silver chains, turn her on and wait for the fangs to come out. The chains ensure his safety but he doesn’t want to be safe and removes them. The scene is delirious and ludicrous and sexy and something else too: one gets a sense that sex can be bloody and dangerous and all the more desirable for that. This is rendered even more perverse by the insertion of the wonderful scene from  Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana where Don Jaime (Fernando Rey) drugs his niece Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) and plans to rape her whilst a little girl climbs a tree to get a better view.

Needless to say Djuna and Paolo fall in love. She ‘turns’ him and introduces him to her coterie of chic vampires led by Xenia (Anna Mouglalis), the queen of the ‘international clan’ who is a star actress longing for human applause and whose house they are staying at. The vampires talk about human blood substitutes, the beluga of ethically sourced platelets and True Blood whilst listening to Chopin. She’s clearly introduced him to a glamorous witty world he’d never have had access to and everything seems to be going swimmingly until Djuna’s sister Mimi (Roxane Mesquida, she of the frank, gritty, somewhat coarse, rather wonderful Catherine Breillat films) arrives. Mimi is hungry, rapacious, amoral: there’s a wonderful scene where she tries to manipulate Xenia by presenting her with a fan, a virgin, and making sure her water glass is nicked so as to draw blood.  Can Xenia resist? Can Paolo resist Mimi?

All of this is filmed as a kind of homage to Hammer Horror and Italian giallo, with particular reference to Dario Argento. Everything about the film seems slightly off, other-worldly, consciously fake and slightly stilted; a feeling exacerbated by everyone except Ventimiglio and Michael Rapaport (wonderful as a sweaty, rapacious agent) seeming to speak their lines phonetically. The music too, though evidently composed for the film, also evokes the cinema Kiss of the Damned renders homage to. It’s nice to see a vampire film that’s once more about romance, loneliness, violence and the polymorphousness and mutability of desire.

In Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, a Professor of Greek tells his students, ‘Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instants, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves…If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face: let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn’ (pp.44-45).

The characters in Kiss of the Damned  feel as the professor does even as they try to take control of themselves. However, the film itself suffers from also reining itself in by genre, convention, allusion and quotation. It sometimes seems more concerned with expressing its particular themes through an evocation of a period and a genre, to exist tightly locked into a matrix of allusion, than to elicit the raw pleasures audiences that go to genre films expect. Kiss  of the Damned has sex, gore, desire and romance; and it does thrill – just not enough: not enough terror, not enough beauty.

2013-07-20 13.26.46

José Arroyo

Wanted (Timur Bekmambetov, USA, 2008)

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wanted

It’s James McAvoy’s film. Angelina Jolie has only a small, supporting role, though she looks every inch the movie star throughout and you can’t help looking at anyone else when she’s on screen. What distinguishes this film is the visuals: mind-bending, space-bending curving distortions of geographical space and direction that I think are new in action; a kind of space-warping, slow-mo, high-speed demonstration that is just thrilling to watch. This technique is also evident in Timur Bekmamvetob’s other films such as Night Watch (Russia, 2004) and Day Watch (Russia, 2006) and might be what brought him to the attention of American producers. The rest of the story-telling in Wanted is crude, tending towards the grotesque and the emphatic, no subtlety whatsoever, a kind of filmmaking meant to be consumed in a distracted environment amongst lots of other, competing, media. Wanted doesn’t support too much attention but neither does it require it: the story is almost instantly forgettable. However, the action sequences are truly remarkable. Watching these dazzling sequences is what led me to the technically rougher but more textured, complex and better ‘Watch’ films. Good fun.

José Arroyo

The Turin Horse (Ágnes Hranitzky, Béla Tarr, Hungary, 2012)

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The turin horse

A masterpiece but one which may require a big screen to fully appreciate. The film begins with an anecdote about how, in trying to save a horse from a whipping, Nietzche fell and that fall may have spurred the serious mental illness that he would suffer from for the rest of his life. The anecdote ends with a question: what happened to the horse? And then the film begins and goes on to show us a peasant and his daughter with that horse, living through a storm in a barren land, day-by-day of poetic harshness: they get visited and threatened by gypsies (who also leave them a holy book), the horse refuses to work, the water runs out, they try to leave but the storm pushes them back. We see them eating an uncooked potato and certain to starve. It’s repetitive, slow, harsh, bleak, shot in black and white; the poverty grinds, albeit in classic, and classically beautiful, compositions that ennoble the attempt to keep on going on in the face of all evidence. János Derzsi as the father has one of the most beautiful and expressive faces, a leonine one, I’ve ever seen on screen. The harshness of life is everywhere and relentlessly present. No other film has so vividly and remorselessly highlighted to me how basic food, shelter and clothing mustn’t be taken for granted. The film is ennobling of its characters, shaming of its audience. Very beautiful.

José Arroyo

The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, USA, 1974)

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Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 22.13.09

The Parallax View ss a marvellous, paranoid conspiracy thriller. It has wonderful set-pieces: the opening, the end, the subliminal programming, the judgment, the scene at the damn; and even a pretty good car-chase. Gordon Willis did the cinematography and it is beautiful; some of the most interesting lighting of any film from the 70s, sparsely modernist, with an almost geometric composition, and all in the vernacular of noir. Warren Beatty is good as the lead but he is almost too beautiful: I kept staring at his lips. The 70s clothes and haircuts were not really attractive on men though he pulls it off as well as anyone ever did. The film is so bleak it’s hard to imagine anyone thought it could be hit. Also the story doesn’t quite work; or I didn’t get it; who’s behind the conspiracy and why? It’s an important question to leave unanswered. And yet, the film does seem great to me – at any rate, a visual masterpiece.

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José Arroyo

The Last Detail (Hal Ashby, USA, 1973)

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The last Detial

A film that is beautiful and great.  I’d heard how terrific Nicholson is in it; I don’t remember reading anything on Randy Quaid; and, to me, he’s Nicholson’s equal here. He’s got this great baby face on this very tall — and at this point in his life, lanky — body and he makes you feel like giving him a hug, though he’ll probably pick your pocket whilst you do so. He doesn’t necessarily need what he steals, but he can’t help himself. He’s like a greedy and gleeful baby who simply wants more of what he likes. Quaid possesses the rare quality of looking innocent and vulnerable whilst also seeming unquestionably heterosexual. The Last Detail is also more interesting visually than generally acknowledged; each shot is thought through and planned yet unobtrusively so; you have to look at it mindfully to see how well designed it is; and to appreciate how much its mise-en-scène brings to the story it is telling. Ashby appears briefly (he’s a surprisingly tall bloke) and Carol Kane, she of the high whiny voice, a 70s Betty Boop, is any filmgoer’s delight as the young hooker. A humanist film about the injustice of the law and about the importance of kindness in the face of systemic unfairness; a film that makes one sad and hopeful; a film to love.

José Arroyo

Looper (Rian Johnson, USA, 2012)

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looper

Visually disappointing but narratively enthralling film about a Looper, an executioner who kills people from the future in the present. Time travel doesn’t exist in the present but it does in the future, thus people from the future get shipped back to the film’s present, the looper shoots them as they appear, disposes of the body and gets paid. No one is looking for the bodies in the present and nobody can find them in the future. But who is disposing of these bodies and why? That’s what the rest of the story tries to tell in this dystopian futuristic thriller in which one can detect elements of The Omen (Richard Donner, USA, 1976) and The Fury (Brian de Palman, USA, 1978). The story lacks tension and feels a bit long but it does fascinate. The drugs, the want, the sense of a failed state with no law and order, with hungry people rummaging the countryside and those prairies full of rotting fields are a subtle critique of America now and, like many contemporary films, Looper deals with current anxieties by depicting, denouncing and somewhat resolving the most hateful aspects of this new Depression we’re living in, albeit tangentially. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a subtle imitation of a young Bruce Willis, it’s mostly the nose, but with a few mannerisms thrown in; then he shows what a truly brilliant actor he is because he can let go of the disguise; it’s not straightforward imitation. Emily Blunt disappoints; sadly, because she’s so sympathetic one wants her to be good. Looper is intelligent and enjoyable sci-fi thriller that offers well-executed action and also leaves audiences with an interesting set of ideas to think about and discuss.

José Arroyo

In Praise of Flatpack

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Gaynor and O'Brien dance in 'Sunrise'
Gaynor and O’Brien dance in ‘Sunrise’

F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), screened to a live score by Alcyona Mick at The Arena venue of the Midlands Arts Centre, made for a magical and very English Summer evening on the 28th of June, 2013. People gathered on this outdoor yet intimate performance space, obviously modeled on a miniature Roman arena but reminding me a little of the  small ‘plaza de toros’  of the village I’m from in Spain, with seating built into the space itself out of rock and cement: basic, functional, social. There were grandparents, families, kids running around, groups of friends. A Murnau film had drawn a lot expected film types and some queer folk; the jazz trio, quite a lot of music lovers; everyone at ease with each other. The forecast had dissuaded the mob but there was still a good crowd. There was indeed a gentle drizzle that accompanied the screening, seeming to fall or not, in weightier and lighter drops, as the mood took it; umbrellas came up, went down, came back up again. But the film so enraptured the audience that no one left.

Ian Francis introduces the screening and the musicians (on the left)
Ian Francis introduces the screening and the musicians (on the left)

Ian Francis, founder of Flatpack, was on hand to introduce the screening, which he did with a soft voice and with information so humbly presented one might not easily notice how clever it was, and how well thought-through various elements of this event had been put together. He told us that we were watching a copy of Sunrise which had recently been discovered in an archive in the Czech Republic; that  at 79 minutes it is considerably shorter than the official 97 minute version; that it was nonetheless of great interest because it was edited differently, not only to make it shorter, but to allow for shots not included in the original;  that the original version had had a Fox Movietone sound-on-film soundtrack,  but that this 79 minute version had no official score, thus handing Flatpack and Birmingham Jazz an opportunity in 2010 to commission a score from Alcyona Mick; that this lovely score had been performed once before at a special screening in St. Martin’s Church and here it was being performed again, for us, by Alcyona Mick on piano, Calina DeLa Mare on violin and Jon Wygens  on guitars.

An outdoor screening in England
An outdoor screening in England

 

I want to pause here for a moment to praise Ian Francis and Flatpack because they are excellent at doing all the things film festivals are expected to do: put together an excellent programme; discover and nurture new talent, introduce new works to audiences; create a space for artists to meet and exchange ideas; create new audiences for new, different and difficult types of works; draw people from other localities at home and abroad into the city for the event, generate press, etc. But they are also superb at doing what film festivals sometimes see as beneath their remit and which should by rights be fundamental to it: to contribute to and enrich  the cultural life of the city, and not only on the dates the festival is scheduled for.

Kids waiting for the screening to start
Kids waiting for the screening to start

This screening of Sunrise was an example of the multitude of ways Flatpack is contributing to Birmingham’s cultural life and indeed simply making of Birmingham a more pleasant place to live in. It’s an instance of Flatpack being involved not only in programming, distributing, publicizing, exhibiting etc. but of commissioning and, furthermore, from the moment of commissioning to the screening I saw, of collaborating with at least three other city institutions (Birmingham Jazz, The Midlands Arts Centre, St. Martin’s Chruch); of introducing jazz fans to film, film fans to jazz, young audiences to Silent Cinema, audiences of all ages to one of the great screen classics and in a new and interesting version. The archival, the historic, the cultural and the social all brought together for our attention and pleasure at this event.

Czech credits
Czech credits

Flatpack has introduced me to new parts of the city, places that after living here for ten years I’d never actually been to (I’d been to the MAC but not to the Arena, I’d seen St. Martin’s Church, but only from the outside, I’d never been to the Ladywood Broadway Cinemas). Thus it wasn’t just that Flatpack is introducing Birmingham to festivalgoers arriving for the first time in the city but also a way of re-introducing Brummies into the riches Birmingham has to offer, amongst which Flatpack, both as conduit and as a destination in itself, must be counted and treasured.

Groundbreaking cinematography by Charles Rosher and Karl Struss
Groundbreaking cinematography by Charles Rosher and Karl Struss

As the sun went down and the film began, as we saw George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor try to rediscover what they’d once loved about each other, as the plastic macs went on and the umbrellas up, as the band played, my mind turned to humans making magic. Sunrise is the result of  Murnau’s orchestration of a whole army of people  arranging particular  imprints of light on celluloid, and that now once more needed the absence of light and then more light to bring it to life. The music, the physical effort, breath even, evident in the bending of every note, of the choice of particular rhythms by a group of people making sound out of notations; sounds that surrounded these very beautiful images and connected them to us in a newly designed way; then the event itself, the result of a combination of state (funding for MAC), church (the original site for the first screening in Birmingham), arts organisations (Flatpack, Birmingham Jazz) and the whole team of volunteers who contribute to Flatpack.

The comic bit in the dance-hall
The comic bit in the dance-hall

The Sub-title of Sunrise is ‘A Tale of Two Humans’. This screening was the result of many humans coming together over time (at least 80 years), space (Hollywood To Birmingham), across many different organization, both state-funded and community-led, professional and volunteer, to create something beautiful. At the end of the screening, when the musicians seem both shy and delighted by the mad applause that accompanied their efforts, I felt gratitude to everyone involved for having taken the trouble. It does take an army. It was worth it. I felt very lucky to be there and to have benefitted from everyone’s efforts. They deserved even more applause than they got.

Listening to Sugarfoot Stomp play (mostly) jazz before the screening.
Listening to Sugarfoot Stomp play (mostly) jazz before the screening.

José Arroyo

Safe House (Daniel Espinosa, USA, 2012)

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safe house

There is a very marked disillusionment with politics and the world in the better American films of the moment; Safe is a good example. It presents a world where no one is to be trusted, nothing is what it seems, and ‘idealist’ is another name for patsy. The film has an interesting look: the image is too white but also high contrast and slightly grainy. Cape Town has never looked uglier, even the beach scenes. However, it is nice to see a thriller set in Cape Town and the film makes very good use of its locations: one gets a sense of pent-up danger amidst a world not completely known, slightly sleazy and with aspects of developing world infrastructure overlaid with cutting-edge technology. I was lured to the film because it was publicized as Denzel Washington playing a villain but it’s a ‘villain’ as played by a star, i.e. one understands him, the rationale for his actions, and really, he’s the only person with integrity in the agency (aside from the second-ranking star, Ryan Reynolds). Reynolds is the revelation here; with enormous close-ups of him crying, wetting those lovely lower lashes he’s got, a face that seems slightly freckled but worn, the no-longer boyish face of someone in the process of losing his innocence. The telephone sequences with between him and his girlfriend are truly moving and he gives a fully-fledged star performance: he makes you understand, empathise and feel with him. I’ve never quite been taken in by Sam Shepard’s charm; he’s tended to get by on laid-back nonchalance — which sometimes seems like sheer not-giving-a-damn — and handsomeness made palatable by being less than pretty; here he’s definitely cast as the usual WASP prototype but seems to bring something more to it than he usually does; grasping, calculating deceit laced with gravitas (though my mind was mainly focused on how much he’d aged). Ruben Blades appeared and the sound of his voice alone made me happy. I was sad to see him killed. A good thriller.

José Arroyo