Month: May 2017
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is typical Guy Ritchie, all the Cockney crim faux-mateyness — even in Camelot! — with that amped up camera movement that doesn’t quite let the audience see, and the narrative cheats — the seeing and the re-seeing –through characters’ re-telling the story. The narrative this time encased in a by-the-book Oedipal structure. And yet I found it great fun.
I like all the macho schtik and the fast pace and the cheekyness. Plus it’s a good looking cast, which always helps. Charlie Hunnam’s never been more appealing on a big screen and it’s got Eric Bana, Jude Law and a host of excellent Brit actors relishing their parts. The film looked darker than I would have liked. But some of the fantasy/magical images were very striking (if edging on sexist — the octopus/snake witches!).
I also loved the film’s picturing of Londinium, which looks a grand riverside ruin with one of those busy bridges with shops and brothels and so on; full of Roman architecture, including remains of a Coliseum, Roman palaces etc.. The film must have been greatly influenced by the Scott Lynch’s ‘Gentlemen Thieves’ books like The Republic of Thieves or perhaps Game of Thrones because it’s all about King Arthur growing to be a man by leading a hard-knock life as a petty thief raised by a gaggle of prostitutes in a brothel instead of growing up true blue on a farm as traditional renderings have it.
It’s not good but it is fun if you don’t ask too much of it. And it was all worth it to witness the Queer as Folk re-union between Hunnam and Aiden Gillen: hey honeytits! I found it perfect rainy day Saturday afternoon viewing.
I Love Dick, the TV series is doing such great things on television – great female filmmakers – Jill Soloway, Andrea Arnold, Kimberly Pierce, — exploring ideas that concern women: the show is about women, female desire, the female gaze, women on film. I’m finding it like a great art film of the sixties. You might not have a great time watching each episode but you’re dying to talk about everything in it with your friends. However, since none of my friends are watching it, I was driven to read the Chris Kraus novel on which it’s based. Reading it, one becomes conscious of a certain cinephilia.
Susan Sontag described cinephelia in her classic New York Times article, ‘The Decay of Cinema,’ as the love of a specific kind of cinema – modernist, complex art cinema – attached to a ritual of viewing, on a big screen in the dark. ‘The conditions of paying attention in a domestic space’, she wrote, ‘are radically disrespectful of film’. I prefer the more expansive and inclusive description offered by Girish Shambu of a ‘new cinephilia’ in his great eponymous book on the subject: ‘it includes the ‘art cinema’ that was primarily (Sontag’s) taste, and it includes the traditional theatrical viewing experience of the era she mourned but also has many other kinds of viewing situations. Further, it is an internationalist cinephilia, not just in terms of the films but, equally important, in terms of the cinephiles themselves.(Loc 20 of 832, Kindle)’ Furthermore, and importantly, it also involves ‘an active interest in the discourses surrounding films’.
In the novel of I Love Dick Chris Kraus uses sentences like ‘Back at Dick’s, the night unfolds like the boozy Christmas Eve in Eric Rhomer’s film My Night at Maud’s’ (p.4). She includes speculations like : “Who’s independent?” Isabelle Huppert’s pimp demanded, spanking her in the backseat of a car in Sauve Qui Peut (stet). ‘The maid? The bureaucrat? The banker? No!” Yeah. Chris Kraus assumes that everyone has seen those films; that her readers are cine-literate and cinephiliac. Guy Bolton’s excellent murder mystery, The Pictures, draws on knowledge of Hollywood in 1939, The Wizard of Oz, Louis B. Mayer. Other novels’ borrowings are more structural and include filmic aspects of point-of-view and narration.
Film cultures are an essential reference point to 21st century culture in general and cinephilia is one of the ways of engaging with it. The TV series of I Love Dick takes it even further than the book because it’s not only referencing the films but deploying Shambu’s more expansive notions and taking on the discourses around the films. Thus we see how the second episode is inspired by Chantal Ackerman’s Je, Tu Il, Elle and uses clips from the film to structure the show. In the first episode we get a whole dramatization of aspects of Laura Mulvey’s ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative’ cinema and other feminist writings on ‘the female gaze’ and a dramatic exposition of discourses around Women in Film citing once again Ackerman but also Sally Potter and Jane Campion and doing a montage of their films.
Cinephilia seems to have become central to long form television. I was reminded of this when watching the Season Opener of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, ‘The Thief’. Dev (Aziz Ansari) has now moved to Italy, speaks basic Italian, learned how to make pasta and made a group of friends in Modena. The show begins with the camera panning from a pile of Marcella Hazan’s classic Italian cookbooks on one bedside table to a pile of DVD’s — including Bicycle Thieves, La Notte, La Dolce Vita, 81/2, Amarcord, L’Avventura – on the other. Italy is conveyed through food and a series of films from a very particular period, those largely taught in film studies courses.
Dev’s dilemma is taken directly from Bicycle Thieves, it borrows not only the look (b&w), the central premise (but in this case a mobile phone rather than a bicycle) and even classic shots (see below). Of course, this is a comedy: the tone is different. Here the theft doesn’t result in tragedy but merely in Dev losing a date. But part of the pleasure is in recognising the classic Italian art cinema dimension of the episode. And the pleasures of ‘The Thief’ are enhanced not only by recognising the references but by being familiar with the discourses around them. Its comedy relies very considerably on a very particular set of knowledges which it assumes as shared but is only common to an audience with a particular education or a self-acquired cinephilia.
 Girish Shambu, The New Cinephilia, Montreal: Caboose Books, 2014.
A fantastic dramatisation of some of the debates around women and film which many of you will recognise. Kathryn Hahn as Chris is a filmmaker whose latest film has just been rejected from the Venice film festival because she hadn’t secured rights to the music. Dick (Kevin Bacon) asks what it’s about and Chris explains that her film is about a woman — all women — and society’s crushing expectations. ‘Sounds horrible’ says Dick and then goes on to comment how it sounds like she’s crushed by something. Dick then behaves like a dick , talks through her to her husband (Griffin Dunne) and proceeds to mansplain why women filmmakers don’t make good movies. It’s a fantastic scene — Sally Potter, Jane Campion and Chantal Ackerman — get trotted out in defence. I also love the husband’s tokenistic inclusion of Susan Sontag as a coda to the conversation. Chris, torn between outrage at the ideas expressed and desire for the Dick doing the mansplaining, is something to see. I love ‘I Love Dick’. It’s terrific.
Almost 40 years after the release of Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), we’re still interested in the world the first film presented, in the thrills offered, in the monster that caused them and in a set of speculations the original film addressed (what is it to be human, are homo sapiens the only ones who can be so, what is the origin of life, what if impregnation were tantamount to contamination?).
Alien:Covenant is the sequel to Prometheus (Ridley Scott 2012), both prequels to the four other Alien films that began with Ridley Scott’s original in 1979. Prometheus expanded some of the themes of the first four films by focusing on the questions raised by the Titan of Greek mythology who defies the Gods and gifts humans with fire, for which he is then subjected to eternal punishment. The film dealt with the consequences of Elizabeth Shaw’s (Noomi Rapace) seeking an affirmation of her faith and android David (Michael Fessbender) defying his creators. These remain the central themes of Alien: Covenant but are developed in ways that will echo throughout the series. The Captain of this mission, Oram (Billy Crudup) is also a man of faith. David now has a ‘brother,’ Walter, also played by Fassbender, a more developed version of his model, with kinks like a tendency to human emotion and feeling removed, the Alien has morphed into several shapes and we get to see how it takes the form of the one in the first film..
I found Alien: Covenant a spectacularly handsome film, all that amber and steel and it looks deep and textured in Imax. Narratively, I didn’t really care whether anyone died, which made all the alien piercings less exciting than they could have been. The twist at the end was expected but rather thrilling.
It’s not as scary as some of the earlier films – one would have needed to care more for the characters’ fate in order to achieve that — though it was scary enough for me. I think the film remains rich structurally (the change in tone and use of space from the beginning in the ship to the world of the previous film, all those imposing masks, David’s office, spectacular set design – through to the confined spaces amidst new horror towards the end of the film. Shifts in tone are conveyed as shifts in space in a very striking and dramatic way. Indeed Jake Benson has remarked that ‘Visually and tonally it starts so much like Prometheus but segues nicely into the tone of Alien. It really is a nice transition between the universes’.
Alien Covenant is a serious film; and it’s a visually beautiful film. The characterisation, or lack thereof, is a problem, as was the casting: the film is an entirely charisma-free zone except for Fassbender, making the most of his dual role in spite of the constrictions placed by both roles being non-humans. The action is conceptually rendered as exciting but fails to be so because the person in danger tends to be one you don’t much care about. I enjoyed it and I think most people will if they go in with reduced expectations. It’s quite possible that the success of Alien:Covenant lies more in what it adds to the franchise than what it achieves on its own.
PS friends and critics have been overly dismissive of the film. What are we comparing it to? It’s true it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the franchise at its diverse best (each of the first three was as if from a different genre). However, I have seen all other twelve films playing currently at Cineworld except for the Hindi ones. Alien: Covenant is by far the most intelligent and most ambitious, the thematically richer and best-looking film of the bunch, and that alone deserves some consideration I think.
Kevin Bacon appeared last week on the Graham Norton Show to promote his new series for Amazon Prime, I Love Dick, and talked of how it was explicitly about the female gaze. I was a bit surprised — this is not usual talk-show fodder — but intrigued. And indeed — as you can see in the clip above — this does seem to be the case. I can’t remember seeing a star ‘entrance’ on-screen as driven by a woman’s look since Redford’s introduction through Streisand’s gaze in The Way We Were (Sydney Pollack, 1973). It’s fascinating. That the Dick in question is based on Dick Hebdige, the celebrated cultural theorist and author of Subcultures: The Meaning of Style London: Routledge, 1979) and — my own favourite of his works — Hiding in the Light: On Images and Things (London: Routledge, 1988), is an added attraction.
One of the reasons the second season of Sense8 continues to be so enjoyable is that it’s not only intriguing, enticing and wonderful to look at but it’s also giving us so much to think about. In the clip I extracted below, film star Lito Rodriguez (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) has been outed when pictures of him having sex with his boyfriend are photographed with a telephoto lens and leaked over the internet (raising all kinds of questions about the rights to privacy in the current digital, inter-webbed era). Soon his agent drops him and instead of getting leading roles in big-budget action movies, he now gets offered small roles (9 pages) of drug dealers, drug addicts, or other unhappy people on the edges of criminality who basically fulfil a plot point and kill themselves whilst giving the real star of the movie a chance to shine. It’s not unlike the situation of gays and lesbians in Hollywood cinema that Vito Russo so eloquently described and analysed in The Celluloid Closet almost half a century ago.
We have to assume that these filmmakers — so well versed in the art, economics and politics of Hollywood filmmaking — know what they’re talking about. And yet, we are on the one hand invested in wanting stars to be out, and indeed to out them – think of the pressures on Jodie Foster from the 80s until she came out recently and on people like Tom Cruise and John Travolta and so many others right up to the present; On the other hand, we also like to point to those who are out and whose careers don’t as of yet seem to be affected by it. Think of Cynthia Nixon on Broadway, or the success with which Neil Patrick Harris played heterosexual Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother, or how we applaud when Colton Haynes and Charlie Carver, both from Teen Woolf ,come out. We also like to indicate how the film careers of people like Ian McKellen’s didn’t suffer at all: as he likes to point out, he didn’t really have much of one before he did.
But it might be good to compare like with like. There might be differences in the parameters a TV star is allowed to operate within, ones that might be greatly expanded in the theatre, and ones much more severely limited for film stars. The fact is we still don’t have a film star, one who is currently commanding the best film roles, having film built around him/her, one who puts people on seats and is the focus of marketing, who is currently out.
We do know that Rupert Everett blames the decline of his starring career in films on choosing to be out. In 2009, Everett told The Observer: “I would not advise any actor necessarily, if he was really thinking of his career, to come out. The fact is that you could not be, and still cannot be, a 25-year-old homosexual trying to make it in the British film business or the American film business or even the Italian film business.” This caused the expected backlash with people arguing that he had a perfectly good career. However, no one knows his career better than Everett does himself, and whilst he continues to be a celebrity in various fields and arguably has become a West End star, he’s not had a career as a film star since he came out, with even his comeback in cinema, supporting Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding, taking place on a different, lower, plateau.
We also know that when an actor’s outed there is a period in which it’s not acceptable and then one in which it doesn’t matter. In my experience for a good decade after Rock Hudson’s death I couldn’t show one of his sex comedies without hearing snickers from the class, and a generation later, it didn’t matter at all, but maybe that was because the audience had forgotten that dimension of his later star persona. They seemed to have forgotten that Rock Hudson was gay and had died of AIDS. Most of them didn’t have a clue as to who he was period.
Adrian Garvey pointed out to me the instance of Luke Evans, who has been out since since a 2002 interview with The Advocate, is clearly a name and in one of the biggest hits of the year, Beauty and the Beast (Bill Condon, 2017). On the surface, being out hasn’t harmed his career at all. On the other hand, Dracula Untold (Gary Shore, 2014) is the last title role I remember him in. The article in Time, hyperlinked above, notes how when he moved to Hollywood, his management team tried to drag him back in the closet in order to push his career, an impossibility in the age of the internet. I see that he’s also been in High Rise (starring Tom Hiddleston) and The Girl on the Train (Justin Theroux played the male lead) and good in both parts, albeit secondary. He’s very charismatic, talented and clearly a name with a following. Yet compare his career to those of Eddie Redmayne or Benedict Cumberbatch. Isn’t it telling that Evans’ only title role in the movies recently has been as Dracula? If you’re gay you get blood-sucker, if you’re heterosexual like Redmayne and Cumberbatch you can play anyone, including a whole range of gay men. I don’t see films built around Evans the way the are around Redmayne, Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Michael Fessbender and other British stars in or out of Hollywood. It’s almost an impossibility to speak with certainty on this as it’s a game of woulda-coulda-shoulda and might-have-beens, but I find the comparisons informative.
I don’t mean to only imply that these actors suffer form a degree of homophobia. Of course they do, and Sense8 renders it very evident. But Sense 8, in a scene immediately following the clip I posted above, also demonstrates how it’s more complex than that. When Nomi (Jamie Clayton) and Amanita (Freema Agyeman) go with Bug (Michael X. Sommers) to see Our Father Who Art in Heaven at the Castro Cinema in Episode 5, the film takes pleasure in showing us how a trashy crude action film like that nonetheless involves great pleasures and complex processes of identification and desire. I suspect that the element of desire is not the greatest of problems: we’ve seen how adolescent girls continue to scream at their teen idols no matter what their sexual orientation (from Ricky Martin to George Michael) and I’m sure Bug had no desire for Lito to begin with. But the kind of identification — the way he says ‘No More Lies’ alongside the character Lito is playing onscreen; an idealised wishing one could do and say and move and look like who’s on the screen — I suspect that’s an area where sexual orientation does matter, particularly to men, and especially to young men already burdened with all kinds of anxieties about sex and sexuality.
What the little scene in Sense8 reminded me of is to extrapolate a further question, one which the speculation on Evans above also begs, which is that before we can answer whether a film star can remain a film star after they come out, we need to ask what is a film star today, something which we know to be different from what it was in the classic period, and even right up to the early nineties (think of how Sense8 uses the figure of Jean-Claude Van Damme) but which I’m not sure we’d necessarily have a shared understanding of, or response to, today.
So two things then, A) I think film stardom now is different than it was when Richard Dyer wrote his groundbreaking Stars and thus the methods he offers with which to analyse the phenomenon might no longer apply — or maybe only apply partially — to stars today and B) that questions of desire and identification, always considerations when talking about stars might affect stardom in ways that are not due solely to ‘homophobia’, which might be more ‘I don’t want to be, am not, like him/her’, rather than merely ‘Ugh’
Thanks to Adrien Garvey, David Sugarman, Celia Nicholls and Andy Medhurst for their input on this.