Month: August 2017

Logan Lucky (Steven Soderbergh, USA, 2017)

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logan lucky

Logan Lucky: a great performance from Daniel Craig, amiable ones from the rest of the starry cast (Hilary Swank, Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Katie Holmes, Seth McFarlane); every shot is something worth looking at; there are at least a trio of really interesting female characters (written by Rebecca Blunt, who it is said is a pseudonym, though it is not clear for whom), and the theme of getting one over a system that seems stacked and unfair is very well done. For a change, here’s an American film that *likes* its white, working-class rural characters. There’s a lot to praise. So why did it feel so slack and rambly to watch? This has been an interesting feature of quite a few of Soderbergh’s recent films: Haywire, Contagion, Side-Effect. And yet, there’s Behind the Candelabra when every shot is necessary and everything moves at a clip, hard to do in what is a character study, even such a flamboyant one. Odd. And I don’t think this is true of his Magic Mike films or his other more glam and streamlined caper films, except for maybe Ocean’s 13.

José Arroyo

The Hitman’s Bodyguard – Eavesdropping at the Movies – Ep 2 – 23rd August 2017

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The second instalment of the Eavesdropping at the Movies podcast with Michael Glass of Writing About Film,  where we hope to offer the experience of eavesdropping on friends chatting informally about a movie after just watching it.

This week the focus is on The Hitman’s Bodyguard and the topics under discussion include: Can an action film that goes through Coventry be any good? Is it important that action scenes are funny? Is Gary Oldman a whore? All valuable questions. All answered in our chat about The Hitman’s Bodyguard. I think.

José Arroyo and Michael Glass.

Tom of Finland (Dome Karukoski, Finland, 2017)

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A film that felt essential viewing going in but a let-down upon leaving. What I love about Tom of Finland’s drawings is the freedom and joy they evoke, their playfulness, the emphasis on male beauty — albeit one version of it only, and a very exaggerated model at that– and what seemed the subversiveness of its fetishization of uniforms and the authority figures associated with them. In Tom of Finland drawings, men are having sex everywhere, in and out of uniform, often on bikes, often in nature, and they’re relaxed, free, easy, happy, playful. This is almost the opposite of what the film tells and evokes

Screen Shot 2017-08-25 at 12.27.29.jpg Touko Laaksoonen — a former Finnish officer who got the look for the Kake drawings from a Russian parachuter he kills with a pen knife — lives in fear. The police chase him when he’s in the parks; the private home parties he attends could be raided at any moment; he’s vulnerable to the dangers of shock treatments in sanatoriums, to blackmail and robbery from tricks and pick-ups. All of this is what many people who lived through that generation in Finland and elsewhere experienced. But they did not produce the sexy and joyful drawings Tom of Finland is associated with.

The first half of the film is grim and dour without even the excitement that war and danger sometimes evoke. The risky sex in parks and public toilets evoke not one frisson of sexyness or even desire. It’s all needy grimness and glumness, in compositions often shot at eye-level or just above. For a film about an artist, the film does not exactly dazzle with visual finesse. What’s depicted is dangerous but the compositions are so dull that the danger is seen but not felt.

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As the film unfolds, Touko who lives with his sister, falls in love with a dancer, Veli (Lauri Tilkanen), the romance of his life. They go live together, and eventually Veli gets to hold hands with Touko in public and gets the sissy-ish yellow curtains he’s always dreamed of, but only because the throat cancer he’s been struggling with is now certain to kill him. By this point Tom has already made a name for himself in an America that, in contrast to Finland, is shown as being sunnier and lighter in spirit as well as in sexually freer. This is where Touko Laaksoonen becomes Tom of Finland.

The film first treats his drawings as a kind of therapy, a vision of what it is to be gay that many gay men found personally liberating, and which I don’t doubt is true; it then brings up the issue of AIDS, something Touko arrogantly takes responsibility for, believing that the sexual freedom his work represented and propagated was the cause, thus losing  the heart to draw.  The film ends with Tom of Finland finding renewed purpose and returning to his art, this time in aid of AIDS research and awareness.

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Touko kills a Russian soldier and gives birth to his ideal

The film is a disappointment because nothing about it evokes the beauty, joy, sexyness and skill that Tom of Finland drawings do, not even at the end in California, when the film clearly means to. Contrast for example the photo of Tom of Finlandd at the International Mr. Leather Contest to the way the way we’re shown it: one is happy and sexy, the other….well it tries.

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The real Tom of Finland
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The film’s representation of the same event

The film’s structure might seem a bit trite. It’s framed as Tom of Finland’s reminiscence as he’s waiting to enjoy the acclaim we will see him earn by the end — a staple and rather hoary structure in the traditional biopic. But it has also got interesting moments of reverie in which Tom’s fantasies join him in his room. I did find aspects of the film moving, particularly the central relationship between Touko and Veli. It was also a great pleasure to be exposed to the beauties of Finland itself. But it’s always a bad sign when one comes out of a film praising the landscape, particularly when it’s a biopic of such a personage.

José Arroyo.

On ‘When I count there are only you…but when I look there’s only a shadow’, Farideh Lashai, The Prado Museum

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IMG_8127

I don’t normally write about art installations but I was so moved by Farideh Lashai’s ‘When I count there are only you… But when I look there is only a shadow’ that I felt compelled to write and this led me to think about Picasso’s Guernica, the World War 1 photographs I had seen in WW1 museums across the north of Europe and of course, Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’ which Leshai’s work is in dialogue with. There is an expanded version of this search below:

 

 

All of this, a necessary context I think, brings me to Farideh Lashai’s multimedia installation, the meeting of Goya and Leshai, and how Leshai re-works Goya, (see clip above). The Installation is situated in the Prado between the room that houses Goya’s The 2nd of May and the The Third of May and the room that houses his Black Paintings. Farideh took only 80 of the 82 etchings that make up The Disasters of War so she could form a rectangle of 8×10. She then did her own etchings based on Goya’s, copying them, but removing all figures from background so that they seem to be only landscapes. These landscapes act as a kind of screen. She then did an animated film that reinserted the people onto the landscape. When the film, constructed as a circle that acts as a both iris and spotlight hits the screen, what we see are the landscapes first empty of the terror it once housed as they might now once again be in real time, now once more populated, but populated by corpses and other disasters of war it once was a sight for. The spotlight is only ever partial, the moving spotlight does not usually fully reveal what is in each individual and rectangular etching. It acts as a kind of memory. It’s fleeting, partial. The music, Chopin’s 21st Nocturne in C minor, adds to the beauty and the sadness.

 

 

DSC01830
Goya’s etchings emptied of people, events and horrors that once populated it, reduced to landscape
DSC01811
The slow and partial reinsertion of events, history, people: Goya’s full disasters of war, once more returned to a tragic scene.

Watching the installation reminded me of returning to the Montreal neighbourhood I grew up in after an absence of twenty years, something every tango lover knows leads only to sadness and heartache. I recognised every street, every building, every monument. But whereas once I walked those streets surrounded by friends and saying hello to dozens of people as I walked, I now knew no one. The site being the same had the effect of rendering me spectral to myself. I had changed. It hadn’t. My presence there was almost a ghostly one. Except for the people who, because no longer there in situ presented themselves and walked with me in memory. I walked through those real streets but now with the people I once loved, made present in my mind through their absence on the street. Lashai’s work makes one think of such things. I found it interesting that the Spanish title ‘Cuando cuento estás solo tú…pero cuando miro hay solo una sombra’, translates as ‘When I tell there is only you….but when I look there is only a shadow’. But the English Title of the installation is ‘When I Count, There Are Only You…But When I Look, There is Only a Shadow’. I wonder if that an error in translation or does the ‘is’ become ‘are’ as the installation unfolds, pluralised  just as I became we walking through those all too familiar streets where I once knew so many but now walked alone?

The catalogue of the installation is prefaced by an excerpt from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land  from the first section, ‘The Burial of the Dead’

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
What Leshai does with Goya is to make us pay attention to what is already in Goya but which our times might have made us less sensitive to. Her reduction of Goya’s etchings to bare landscapes only underlines, as the spotlight hits them and reveals the drama of the events, the fate of the people — the full horror. They’re settings for the cultural ‘Tragic Scene’ T.J. Clarke attributes to Picasso’s Guernica. We see, for a moment, in a glimpse, the death and vulnerability that once peopled the scene. We see it too late. The tragedy has happened. We see it as a series of spectacles through the etchings. But that ‘undefended mortality’ not only excites horror but evokes pity and terror. Leshai makes whole what time might have erased from ‘The Disasters of War’. She looks under the stony rubbish, into the broken images, extracts the shadow, and does indeed evoke in T. Eliot’s words ‘fear in a handful of dust’. The Chopin adds a serene melancholy to the watching of that which we cannot change. Even if our view now, seen though the centuries and across cultures, can only be a partial illumination.  It’s a masterpiece of an installation, a dialogue between works, and by masters of their form.
José Arroyo

Notes on Goya, Picasso, T. J. Clarke on Picasso as a context for Farideh Lashai’s ‘When I count there are only you…but when I look there’s only a shadow’

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goyaesque
Figure 1: Image from Sanctuary Wood

Last week, whilst visiting Sanctuary Wood, a WW1 museum in Belgium, original trenches still visible outside,  the history surrounding them still vividly commemorated and mourned, I came across this image (Fig 1, above). I’s from a big wooden stereoscopic viewer where you place your eyes on peepholes and the mechanism creates the impression of three dimensionality in order to convey the disasters of war. I managed to get my camera’s lens only through one of the peepholes but succeeded in capturing this image, by necessity partial. It reminded me of Goya’s ‘ ‘The Disasters of War’, particularly the ‘This is Worse’ image (see Fig. 2 below).

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Figure 2: This is Worse

It also seemed to coalesce and bring into focus a series of art exhibits, experiences and reading of the past few weeks, that all of a sudden seemed to be meaningful not only in themselves but in relation to each other: Firstly, a superbly moving installation by the great Iranian artist Farideh Lashai called ‘When I count there are only you…but when I look there’s only a shadow’, a conversation across the centuries — centuries of war and destruction —  with Goya’s ‘The Disasters of War’, currently on display at the Prado museum, exhibited amongst  its superb collection of Goyas, the best collection in the world. Farideh’s work — on which more later — is in dialogue with Goya’s.

Fig 3

Secondly, I’ve also been thinking about the current ‘Pity and Terror: Picasso’s Path to Guernica’ exhibit at The Queen Sofia Museum in Madrid, which so well demonstrates how Guernica’s depiction of disorientation, suffering and terror quickly became an emblem of the modern condition. The exhibit shows how in Guernica, the world had been “changed into a furnished room, where all of us, gesticulating, wait for death” Picasso’s Guernica is also very much in dialogue with Goya’s work. In the ‘Picasso: Tradition and avant-garde’ exhibit, jointly hosted by the Prado and the Queen Sofia museums in 2006 as part of the celebrations of  the 25th anniversary of Guernica’s return to Spain, the Prado demonstrated Picasso’s dialogue with art history, his re-workings and explorations of works like Velazquez’s ‘Las Meninas (see below)’ and works by other key key painters in the the history of art such as Rubens, Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt, and many others, including Goya.

las meninas picasso

At the Queen Sofia, what was explored more particularly was Guernica and its legacy. I remember being impressed by corridors exhibiting — in chronological order —  all the sketches Picasso produced in preparation for it. Picasso worked every-day, prodigiously so, and every-day the figures became clearer, simpler, more powerful.  The installation also placed together Goya’s Third of May (1814) with Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian (1869, see Fig 3. above) as well as Picasso’s own The Charnel House (1945) — so clearly a re-working of Goya’s The Third of May — and Massacre in Korea (1951, see below), in relation to Guernica, the earlier ones acting as contexts for it.

 

The third element, tied to all of the above, that’s been on my mind is T. J. Clark’s superb essay in the August 17th issue of the London Review of Books on Picasso and Tragedy.  In it he writes:

‘For some reason – no doubt for many reasons, some of them accidental or external to the work itself – Picasso’s painting has become an essential, or anyway recurring, point of reference for human beings in fear for their lives. Guernica has become our culture’s Tragic Scene. And for once the phrase ‘our culture’ seems defensible – not just Western shorthand. There are photographs by the hundred of versions of Guernica – placards on sticks, elaborate facsimiles, tapestries, banners, burlesques, strip cartoons, wheat-paste posters, street puppet shows – being carried in anger or agony over the past thirty years in Ramallah, Oaxaca, Calgary, London, Kurdistan, Madrid, Cape Town, Belfast, Calcutta; outside US air bases, in marches against the Iraq invasion, in struggles of all kinds against state repression, as a rallying point for los Indignados, and – still, always, everywhere, indispensably – an answer to the lie of ‘collateral damage’.’Clarke expands on his definition of ‘Tragic Scene’ as follows: ‘the moment in human existence, that is, when death and vulnerability are recognised as such by an individual or a group, but late; and the plunge into undefended mortality that follows excites not just horror in those who look on, but pity and terror (see footnote 1)

In the rest of the article T. J. Clarke sets out definitions of tragedy and their connection to Pity and Terror, the connection between tragedy and the monstrous ( see quotes under footnote 2), the relationship of spectacle to tragedy and the monstrous (see quotes under footnote 3), and how this figures in relation to the representation of space (and connected to the comments on the world as a furnished room above, but also the quotes under footnote 4). Clarke concludes:

‘Perhaps, then – though the thought is a grim one – we turn to Guernica with a kind of nostalgia. Suffering and horror were once this large. They were dreadful, but they had a tragic dimension. The bomb made history. Mola and von Richthofen were monsters in the labyrinth. ‘And everywhere we see them perishing, devouring one another and destroying themselves.’ It may be true, in other words, that we pin our hopes on Guernica. We go on hungering for the epic in it, because we recoil from the alternative – violence as the price paid for a broken sociality, violence as leading nowhere, violence as ‘collateral damage’, violence as spectacle, violence as eternal return. But how could we not recoil? And does not the image Guernica presents remain our last best hope? For ‘vulnerability, affiliation and collective resistance’ still seem, to some of us, realities worth fighting for.

 ‘The Disasters of War’, part of Goya’s Caprichos (Caprices), is a series of sadnesses and horrors drawn in two sketchbooks in 1797 and 1798 and published in 1799. According to The New York Times: they detailed ‘abuses by the Roman Catholic Church, societal ills from pedophilia to prostitution, and rampant superstition in an age of revolution and terror.’ ‘What is a ‘capricho?‘ asks Robert Hughes in Goya, his masterful work on the painter (Vintage Books, 2004): ? ‘A whim, a fantasy, a play of the imagination, a passing fancy….the word derives from the unpredictable jumping and hopping of a young goat (p. 179)…Goya, however, was the first artist to use the word ‘capricho’ to denote images that had some critical purpose: a vein, a core, of social commentary. This he made clear with the notes that he wrote on a drawing for what was to be the first of the Caprichos, but whose final etched version got shifted to plate 43: The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (Hughes, p. 180, see image below).

The dream o reason produces monsters
The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters

Writing on the ‘Sleep of Reason’ image, Sarah C. Shaefer says,

In the image, an artist, asleep at his drawing table, is besieged by creatures associated in Spanish folk tradition with mystery and evil. The title of the print, emblazoned on the front of the desk, is often read as a proclamation of Goya’s adherence to the values of the Enlightenment—without Reason, evil and corruption prevail.
However, Goya wrote a caption for the print that complicates its message, “Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders.”
In other words, Goya believed that imagination should never be completely renounced in favor of the strictly rational. For Goya, art is the child of reason in combination with imagination.
 I should add that inherent in Goya’s caption for the etching is the driving force of The Enlightenment, and in the juxtaposition of Goya’s Sleep of Reason’ and Picasso’s  Guernica is the essence of Adorno and Horkheimer’s argument in The Dialectic of Enlightenment: that Reason, which brought so many freedoms and so much progress since the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ carries the seeds of its own destruction: Reason  on its own and unharnessed dialectically is also what leads to total annihilation (or the Atom Bomb as they’d say). Thus here we have Goya, with what has become an iconic image of the Enlightenment and Picasso with what has become an iconic image of Modernity. It’s worth looking at them once more and side by side:

Some other interpretations of this iconic image of the Enlightenment and its limits by Aldous Huxley and others can be found here

Cubierta Goya 2
Goya in Times of War

Revolution, chaos, war, disaster, death; all figures so heavily in Goya’s work that there was an exhibit at the Prado, with accompanying catalogue (see image above) just on this subject in 2008.  Goya was born in 1746 in Aragon and died in exile in Bordeaux in 1828. He suffered from an illness in 92-93 that left him deaf, made him determined to follow a path of free expression in painting and resulted in work that was darker, anguished troubled, and that manifested itself not only in the etchings but also in the portraiture, most famously in his painting of Charles IV and his family (see below). Has a royal family ever been depicted thus? La_familia_de_Carlos_IV

 

These are the years of the French Revolution and subsequent terror from 1789 onwards. The French declaring war with Spain and the invasion of Rosillon by the French in 1793, the defeat of the Spanish Armada by Nelson in Cape Saint Vincent in which Spain lost Trinidad to the English interrupting traffic between Spain and its colonies in the Americas. These are the years of the Bonaparte and the 18th Brummaire (1799). These are also the years Goya becomes the highest ranking Royal Painter, the ‘Primer Pintor de Camera.’ And this is all before The Spanish War of Independence against the French (1808-1814) and the fatal consequences that arose form it from 1814-1820, from the moment that Napoleon is exiled to Elba to the moment Fernando VII swears to the new constitution in the Cortes in Cadiz in 1820.

Goya’s deafness isolated him, made him delve more into his own consciousness and into his own thought. But his vision was clear and what he saw was horror after horror. And he had the daring and the skill with which to express it (random examples that caught my eye from the Goya in Times of War exhibit below). According to Ana Martínez Aguilar, ‘The Disasters of War, for many (Goya’s) best series of etchings, is the work of a mature man, one whose made Enlightenment thought his own, humanising it. He articulates a personal vision of the world, penetrated by skepticism and, at the end, in my view, by compassion understood as empathy to the suffering of others’.1

The great Iranian Artist FarideChoiph Lashai (1944), was greatly inspired by Goya, particularly the etchings, the caprichos that constitute ‘The Disasters of War’. Like Goya, Farideh lived through times of revolution, immense social changes, death and disaster, and the rule of power, fear and terror,  in what we now called Iran but was then called Persia. In 1951 Mohammad Mosaddeqh’s nationalisation of the petroleum industry resulted in a military coup which, with the help of the CIA and MI6 removed him from office, put him in jail and facilitated the return to power of the Shah. In 1971 we see the start of armed resistance in Siahkal. In spite of extraordinary repression, what ends up becoming an Iranian revolution deposes the Shah in 1979 only to replace it by the Popular Republic of Islam ruled by the Ayatollah Khomeini, Imperial rule deposed only to be replaced by Theocratic one. This is then followed by the Iraq-Iran war from 1980-1988 where war and religious power downgrades reason, upgrades superstition, stabilises the tyrannical and results in the kinds of effects so well dramatised by Goya in the ‘Sleep of Reason’ and in his ‘Disasters of War’. Lashai was imprisoned from 74-76 and lived through Hussein’s  bombardment of Tehran in 1986.

The work of both Goya and Lashai, develops against a backdrop of revolutionary though and in an intellectual context of writers, dramatists, artists and philosophers: the historical context for Goya was the Enlightenment, The French Revolution of 1789 and the Spanish War of Independence; Lashai’s world is that of protest and liberation movements in the ’60s and ’70s, the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1978-79, and the Iraq-Iran war 1980-1988)

 

All of this brings me to Farideh Lashai’s multimedia installation, the meeting of Goya and Leshai, and how Leshai re-works Goya, my original reason for writing this post (see clip above). The Installation is situated in the Prado between the room that houses Goya’s The 2nd of May and the The Third of May and the room that houses his Black Paintings. Farideh took only 80 of the 82 etchings that make up The Disasters of War so she could form a rectangle of 8×10. She then did her own etchings based on Goya’s, copying them, but removing all figures from background so that they seem to be only landscapes. These landscapes act as a kind of screen. She then did an animated film that reinserted the people onto the landscape. When the film, constructed as a circle that acts as a both iris and spotlight hits the screen, what we see are the landscapes first empty of the terror it once housed as they might now once again be in real time, now once more populated, but populated by corpses and other disasters of war it once was a sight for. The spotlight is only ever partial, the moving spotlight does not usually fully reveal what is in each individual and rectangular etching. It acts as a kind of memory. It’s fleeting, partial. The music, Chopin’s 21st Nocturne in C minor, adds to the beauty and the sadness.

DSC01830.jpg
Goya’s etchings emptied of people, events and horrors that once populated it, reduced to landscape
DSC01811.jpg
The slow and partial reinsertion of events, history, people: Goya’s full disasters of war, once more returned to a tragic scene.

Watching the installation reminded me of returning to the Montreal neighbourhood I grew up in after an absence of twenty years, something every tango lover knows leads only to sadness and heartache. I recognised every street, every building, every monument. But whereas once I walked those streets surrounded by friends and saying hello to dozens of people as I walked, I now knew no one. The site being the same had the effect of rendering me spectral to myself. I had changed. It hadn’t. My presence there was almost a ghostly one. Except for the people who, because no longer there in situ presented themselves and walked with me in memory. I walked through those real streets but now with the people I once loved, made present in my mind through their absence on the street. Lashai’s work makes one think of such things. I found it interesting that the Spanish title ‘Cuando cuento estás solo tú…pero cuando miro hay solo una sombra’, translates as ‘When I tell there is only you….but when I look there is only a shadow’. But the English Title of the installation is ‘When I Count, There Are Only You…But When I Look, There is Only a Shadow’. I wonder if that an error in translation or does the ‘is’ become ‘are’ as the installation unfolds, pluralised  just as I became we walking through those all too familiar streets where I once knew so many but now walked alone?

The catalogue of the installation is prefaced by an excerpt from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land  from the first section, ‘The Burial of the Dead’

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

What Leshai does with Goya is to make us pay attention to what is already in Goya but which our times might have made us less sensitive to. Her reduction of Goya’s etchings to bare landscapes only underlines, as the spotlight hits them and reveals the drama of the events, the fate of the people — the full horror. They’re settings for the cultural ‘Tragic Scene’ T.J. Clarke attributes to Picasso’s Guernica. We see, for a moment, in a glimpse, the death and vulnerability that once peopled the scene. We see it too late. The tragedy has happened. We see it as a series of spectacles through the etchings. But that ‘undefended mortality’ not only excites horror but evokes pity and terror. Leshai makes whole what time might have erased from ‘The Disasters of War’. She looks under the stony rubbish, into the broken images, extracts the shadow, and does indeed evoke in T. Eliot’s words ‘fear in a handful of dust’. The Chopin adds a serene melancholy to the watching of that which we cannot change. Even if our view now, seen though the centuries and across cultures, can only be a partial illumination.  It’s a masterpiece of an installation, a dialogue between works, and by masters of their form.

 

IMG_8127.jpg

José Arroyo

 

Footnotes, all from T.J. Clarke

 

  1. ‘Tragedy,’ he says in a famous passage, ‘is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain grandeur; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play … producing pity and terror in the audience, and thereby cleansing the audience of these emotions.’ The word bequeathed to us by the last sentence is katharsis, whose roots seem to lie in medicine or rituals of purgation. Why the experience of pity and terror in the theatre is cathartic Aristotle never explains – he seems to take it as self-evident. Some have questioned Aristotle’s confidence, others (like Brecht) have disapproved of the cleansing. Is pity an emotion we want to be purged of? Are we right to call it an ‘emotion’ in the first place? But let me put these questions aside – they take us towards insoluble mysteries – and return to the question of the monstrous. Aristotle knows full well that horror and disproportion are intrinsic to tragedy’s appeal. But he makes a distinction between the appearance of the dreadful on stage and its unfolding in an action – its progress towards a moment of recognition. Tragedy, he admits, is partly a matter of theatrical effect: the circular stage, the dancing and wailing chorus, the backdrop of the ‘scene’. He calls this physicality ‘spectacle’ and is conscious of its power:

Pity and terror may be aroused by means of spectacle; but they may also result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way … For the plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what is taking place … To produce this effect by mere spectacle is a less artistic method … Those who employ the means of spectacle end up creating a sense not of the Terrible but only the Monstrous, and are strangers to the true purpose of tragedy.

2. ‘I doubt that an artist of Picasso’s sort ever raises his or her account of humanity to a higher power simply by purging, or repressing, what had been dangerous or horrible in an earlier vision. There must be a way from monstrosity to tragedy. The one must be capable of being folded into the other, lending it aspects of the previous vision’s power.’

‘The terrible and the monstrous – these do seem repeated terms of Picasso’s art after 1925. And spectacle, as Aristotle understood it, is certainly Picasso’s god. But in Guernica didn’t he find a way to make appearance truly terrible, therefore pitiful and unforgivable – a permanent denunciation of any praxis, any set of human reasons, which aims or claims to make what actually happens (in war from the air) make sense?’

 

 

3. We are circling back to Aristotle’s notion of ‘spectacle’, which extends to all things appealing primarily to the faculty of vision: the Greek word is opsis. Modernity is a system of incessant opsis. So the prominence of war in modernity – and the fear that it may be modernity’s truth – is not a matter of more and more (or less and less) actual conflict, but of violence as the form – the tempo, the figure, the fascinus – of our culture’s production of appearances.

 

4.’ spatial uncertainty is one key to the picture’s power. It is Picasso’s way of responding to the new form of war, the new shape of suffering. Uncertainty about the nature of space is, further, a charged matter for him – especially when the space in question is that of a room, a table, walls, windows, a chequerboard floor. For the room is the form of the world for Picasso. His art depends on it. Guernica puts in question, that is, the very structure of Picasso’s apprehension’.

‘It is this combination of domesticity and paranoia – of trust in the room and deep fear of the forces the room may contain – that makes Picasso the artist of Guernica.’

Other Footnotes: 1, Ana Martínez de Aguilar, ‘He custodiado cada cosa dentro de mi’, Farideh Lashai: Cuando cuento estás solo tú…pero cuando miro hay solo una sombra, MadridMuseo Nacional del Prado, 2017. My own translation from ‘Los Desasters de la guerra, para muchos, su mejor serie de estampas, es la obra de un hombre maduro, que ha hecho suyo el pensamiento de la Ilustración humanizándolo. Articula una visión personal del mundo, penetrada por el escepticismo y, al final, a mi juicio, por la compansión, entendida como empatía hacia el dolor ajeno’, p. 33.

Paris 05:59: Théo et Hugo (Olivier Ducastel, Jacques Martineau; France, 2016)

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Theo and Hugo: Paris 05.59 is the best gay movies I’ve seen since Giraudie’s Stranger by the Lake and in a line of films like those of Giraudie’s or Travis Matthews’ I Want Your Love and others that feature explicit sex as part of the narrative whilst keeping the focus on feeling. The first fifteen minutes are a tour de force of filmmaking with one of the most fabulous romantic meet cutes in the history of cinema, one which Lubitsch would have been proud of even though it’s the anti-thesis of his filmmaking (see clip below).

For the first fifteen minutes we’re at a sex club, we follow a young man we will later find out is called Theo (Geoffrey Coüet) down to the basement, see him look around, and his eyes fix, temporarily, on another, who will turn out to be Hugo (François Nambot). They begin to reject or play with whoever is nearest in the middle of an orgy. Theo keeps glancing at Hugo having sex with other people but Hugo seems unaware. Theo gets in closer and closer proximity to Hugo and at a certain moment, whilst they’re fucking other people, their eyes lock, thrill at each other, they begin to kiss, and then proceed to have sex with each other in a way that that is transformative for both. “Your eyes are closed” Theo says. “It helps me to see you, to be with you,” Hugo responds.

After they orgasm, they wait for each other outside the club, start to go home together through the neon-lit streets of northeast Paris which, even for Paris, and even as it eschews all the landmarks,  has rarely looked so romantic, and that’s really saying something.  Hugo is in a kind of sexual ecstacy: ‘I love your dick. I think your dick is beautiful. Your dick is perfect to the touch. I think you can fall in love with a guy’s dick. ….I mean it was like we were producing love…we *made* love, see what I mean?’

As they near home however Theo discloses that the reason it might be so special is that he barebacked Hugo, by accident but without his consent. Hugo however is positive, became so in the provinces where he’s originally from and on his first time. What to reveal, when to reveal, the clash between reason and feeling: all beautifully dramatised. And also very cleverly done. The film would have been an entirely different story had it been the other way around.

Directors Ducastel and Martineau are tactful, honest and complex in their representation of desire and romance in a pandemic. And they’ve now got vast experience dramatising and representing it, dating as far back as Jeanne and the Perfect Guy from 1998, an AIDS musical no less.  Reviewing their Drôle de Félix for Sight and Sound in 2001, I described the film as  ‘one of the first films with an HIV+ protagonist who is offered the expectation of a future, however delimited….the final clinch between the lovers isn’t a deathbed scene but the beginning of an idyllic holiday. It would be wrong, though, to label Drôle de Félix simply as an HIV+ romance. Like so much else in this film, the issue is introduced seemingly sideways and by stealth. Initially Felix’s positive status seems no more or less defining than his being from Dieppe or unemployed or gay or fatherless or half-Arab….Yet the fact Félix is HIV+ is a major element driving the events of the film’.

Paris 05:59 Théo and Hugo shows similar tact and complexity. After an initial conflict, the protagonistsend up at the hospital together to get emergency treatment, and as they walk and talk through the Northeast of Paris, by the Canal St. Martin, they begin to know each other better and really fall in love. Few external characters intrude on this reverie of discovery of the self, the other, and of feelings they’re sure of but can’t explain: there’ s a nice and helpful doctor at the hospital, a homophobic elderly man at the A&E, a Syrian refugee at the kebab shop who tells them how lucky they are not to grow up in a war-torn country. They take the first train at Stalingrad Station where they meet an elderly lady who lacks a sufficient pension and is forced to clean, though feeling happy and lucky with it. She blames falling in love too easily for her present predicament. These encounters with others as they come to consciousness of their feelings for each other are, as Daniel Chan has mentioned to me, reminiscent of Minnelli’s The Clock.

They finally arrive at Anvers where Theo has a room. The film ends at 05.59 on a note of possibility. They both acknowledged they’ve fallen in love. Whether it will lasts or how long it will last they don’t know. But the film ends on them both undertaking that adventure.

In Théo and Hugo we see that original orgasmic moment of jouissance,  where sex, and rather sordid sex at that, has produced love. They’ve made love. They also learned they might have instigated disease, illness and death. Yet by the end, they’ve really fallen in love, and taken another risk, that of trying out a future together in spite of death and with an acknowledgment of it. Hugo says he’s told to live with the virus that might be undetectable but is always there but that he always feels he’s living against it instead of with it. The end might be a dialectical turn in which with Theo, Hugo can now live both with and against it. Love creates a different setting.

The film is told in real time. The film starts at 4.47 and ends at 5.59 just on the cusp of 6:00. The obvious comparison are Andrew Haigh’s Weekend and the Before Sunset films. Some have also pointed to  the film’s original title (Theo and Hugo in The Same Boat) as a nod to Jacques Rivette. Bélen Vidal also tells me  that Ducastel and Martineau were present for a Q&A at the Flare screening in London, and confirmed that the structure of Cléo de 5 à 7 was their main template.

In a great article on the film in Out, Armond White writes, ‘That pathetic teenage hand-job that haunts the hero of Moonlight all his life is exposed for the sentimental claptrap it is by the sexually frank Paris 05:59: Theo and Hugo.’ I haven’t wanted to write on Moonlight because I agree with White but wanted others to see the film. Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is an almost great film. I accent the almost because I couldn’t believe that you could grow up in one of the most dangerous areas of Miami, look like Trevante Rhodes does, grow up to be a drug dealer and yet be so traumatised by an adolescent fumble in the dark that you never have sex again for the duration of the film and into your twenties. I thought the film was catering to what it perceived to be the worst of  its audience, its homophobia, and by catering to that instead of a gay audience, the majority of whom would have trouble recognising such a scenario, flirting with homophobia itself. But it’s also useful to temper with this criticism with the acknowledgment that Moonlight is about so much more than a character discovering his sexuality or falling in love: it’s a whole moving and intelligent commentary on poverty and race in America..

In a wonderful article entitled ‘In Praise of Soft Cock’ for Cléo, Sophie Mayer writes of how the film ‘traces a shift from an anonymous exchange of hard cock that fits seamlessly into capitalist consumption and disposable labour to a resistant formation of softness, in which the couple is reframed as precarious, provisional, interdependent and marginal….’ She notes the last image of cock we see is Theo’s — semi-tumescent but soft and not erect —  as Hugo says, in a series of phrases that echo but importantly change the initial conversation outside the sex club: ‘I like your dick. It’s really beautiful. I don’t know how to describe it, but I like it. I like looking at it. I like taking it in my hand. I like kissing it. Your balls are beautiful, too. Here, in my hand, they’re delicate. Yet they have weight. I kiss them. They’re soft. So soft.’ Mayer astutely notes: ‘While early reviews drew attention to the unprecedented sex acts of the opening minutes, it is in the closing minutes that the film enters truly new territory, of a tenderness that is also explicitly erotic and embodied, rooted in Théo and Hugo’s discovery of each other as “fellow-creatures” who have complex bodily histories’.

A friend praised Theo and Hugo for being ‘so true to life’. By that I take him to mean that it’s frank about the thrills, physical and emotional, of sex but doesn’t reduce everything to sex, that it deals intelligently with the dangers around sex for gay men at the moment,  even with the availability of the triple combination therapy the film discusses so intelligently, and dramatises them convincingly;  that in spite of all the sexual explicitness, a desire for sex so powerful in young people and the easy availability of sex for young gay men, all of which the film treats intelligently and valorises, the film also dramatises, romantically, a desire for love. In spite of the explicitness, sex  here, as rapturously exciting as it is shown to be, is also only what sparks something deeper and more meaningful. It’s a great film and stake a claim for Ducastel and Martineau becoming our best chroniclers of love in a pandemic.

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies — The Dark Tower

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The second instalment of the ‘Eavesdropping on Mike and José after a movie’ podcast with Michael Glass of Writing About Film,  where we hope to offer the experience of eavesdropping on friends chatting informally about a movie after just watching it. The focus this week is on The Dark Tower and topics under discussion this week include whether Idris Elba has it in him to be a film star, the excellence of Matthew McConaughey’s performance, the value of watching a film in 3-4DX, and whether Mike has better eyebrows than Carla Delevingne.

José Arroyo

The Films of Isaac Julien

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This is not an Aids Advertisement 2For those of you who might be interested, I see that an article I wrote on the films of Isaac Julien over a quarter century ago is freely available online at Jump Cut here: https://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC36folder/IsaacJulien.html

 

 

Atomic Blonde (David Leitch, Germany/Sweden/USA, 2017)

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Atomic Blonde lost me in parts and the story is not very well told. But I loved seeing Charleze Theron embodying that 70s comic-book via Helmut Newton clichéd lesbian dominatrix character. I loved the look, the styling, and the fight scenes. And it’s got a marvellous cast: James McAvoy, John Goodman, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan and, quickly becoming my new favourite, Sofia Boutella. Lots of great 80s tunes, plus it’s set in Berlin just as the wall is coming down. Lots to love. I think it will have a long afterlife across various platforms.

A look at panels from The Coldest City,  the graphic novel by Anthony Johnson on which Atomic Blonde is based on is illuminating. The look and styling is completely different: she’s not a blonde for one thing. The French agent is a man, so the whole lesbian Sofia Boutella element is an interesting twist. Also, the James McAvoy character seems about twenty years older in the book. The film nonetheless follows the narrative of the graphic novel extremely closely. Fascinating in terms of how they’ve re-visualised and styled for the film

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping on Mike and José After a Movie

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mikeandjose3.jpgEpisode 1 (Girls Trip, Malcolm D. Lee, USA, 2017)

This is a trial episode of a possible podcast that Michael Glass of ‘Writing About Film’ and I are posting primarily to get feedback. It’s done as an mp4 so you can play it on your computer’s usual player, like a video. I have this romantic idea of the movies as a conjunction of place, people and experiences, all different for each of us, a context in which individual and separate beings try to commune, where the individual experience overlaps with the communal and where that overlapping is demarcated by how we measure the differing responses between ourselves and the rest of the audience: do they laugh when we don’t (and what does that mean?); are they moved when we feel like laughing (and what does that say about me or the others) etc. The idea behind this podcast is to satiate the urge I sometimes have when I see a movie alone – but that I also hope is shared by at least some of you — to eavesdrop on what others say. What do they think? How does their experience compare to mine? Snippets are overhead as one leaves the cinema and are often food for thought. A longer snippet of such an experience is what this podcast hopes to provide: it’s two friends chatting immediately after a movie. It’s unrehearsed, meandering, slightly convoluted, certainly enthusiastic, and well informed, if not necessarily on all aspects a particular work gives rise to, certainly in terms of knowledge of cinema in general and considerable experience of watching different types of movies and watching movies in different types of ways. It’s not a review. It’s a conversation. One roughly transmuted into another format so that you may overhear. We know the design of the image is lousy; and that the transitions between snippets are roughly cut. But what do you think of the idea, the title, the format?  Feedback and suggestions most gratefully received.

 

José Arroyo

(also on behalf of Michael Glass)

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Almodóvar/Jeanne Moreau

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Amodóvar recognised the mystery and enchantment of Jeanne Moreau’s voice and shared his appreciation of it in this moment of cinephilia from Broken Embraces.

José Arroyo