Spanish Canadian working in the UK. Former film journalist. Lecturer in Film Studies. Podcast with Michael Glass on cinema at https://eavesdroppingatthemovies.com/ and also a series of conversations with artists and intellectuals on their work at https://josearroyoinconversationwith.com/
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Are the most interesting British film directors currently working women? Charlotte Wells’ textured, precise and poetic Aftersun begs the question. Clearly influenced by Lynne Ramsey (and Chantal Ackerman), and working in the same indie vein as Andrea Arnold, Wells has an eye for the original expressive image that can externalise interior states. She’s got a feel for rhythm too and alternations between movement and stillness, through editing and simple diegetic movement, is what help the film evoke mood and feeling as powerfully as it does. Aftersun is a beautiful and touching film about memory and relationships between fathers and daughters, overhung with depression but laced through with a love that keeps trying to break through the sadness. Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio are terrific in the central roles. We discuss all of this and more in the podcast.
I talk to Matthew Hays about Queer Film Classics, a series of books modelled on the BFI series, where a writer gets to discuss a single film at book length, the difference being that these are ‘queer’ as well as ‘classic’. Matt is, along with Thomas Waugh, the co-editor of the series, first for Arsenal Press and currently for McGill-Queen’s University Press. The conversation touches on the concept behind the series — what is queer? What is classic?; the rationale for selection of individual titles, and what he’s learned from the close to two decades he’s been co-editing the series, eventually to comprise approximately 40 titles, and including books on films as diverse as Scorpio Rising and I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, Boys in the Sand and Death in Venice,Orlando and Zero Patience …. and many, many others.
The conversation may be listened to as a podcast here:
A discussion of Ousmane Sembène’s BLACK GIRL (France/ Senegal, 1966), a rich and poetic evocation of post-colonial subjectivity. A young girl (M’Bissine Thérèse Diop) goes to work as a nanny for a French family in Dakar and then joins them in France later to continue working for them. But the job has changed: instead of being a nanny, she ends up cooking, cleaning, washing. She feels herself imprisoned in the room, turned into a thing, fetishised as a display: a slave. Outside of her country and away from her family, community and lover, she’s constantly reminded of her outsiderness, subjectivised into subalternity. In French the film’s title has connotations lost in English: the black girl of, the black girl from; connotations of outsiderness, exclusion and possession, whose black girl is she that is not from here? The white family is confounded by her unhappiness and has no idea what is wrong with her. For Sembène, she’s a symbol for the country and for post-colonialism in general. But is this enough? Sight & Sound pollsters thought so and ranked it one of the best 100 films of all time. The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project thought it important enough to fund a restoration with the Cineteca di Bologna. The film is available through Criterion, the BFI, and there is a very good version on You Tube. We found it fascinating but preferred Sembène’s later Mandabi.
Cate Blanchett’s performance as the title character is the highlight of the otherwise unutterably deflating Tár. What begins as an unexpectedly captivating profile of a world-class musical conductor and promises to develop into a story of sexual and psychological intrigue ultimately fails to satisfy when it refuses to offer thrills and drama – not to mention plot resolution. We pick through our problems with it, including what we find implausible, its reactionary attitudes and low opinion of young people, and its embrace of ambiguity and lack of interest in developing the story of Tár’s downfall.
We disagree on Till, which dramatises the events surrounding the infamous lynching of Emmett Till, a black fourteen-year-old boy abducted, tortured, and shot in Mississippi in 1955, and his mother’s decisive actions following the crime, which included having his mutilated body shown in a public funeral service with an open casket, and having brutal photographs of it published in the press. Emmett’s murder and Mamie’s activism forced the USA to confront the reality of its racism and catalysed the civil rights movement – of course, progress made subsequently was not instant and vast racial inequality and injustice is present in the country to this day, but the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 might not have happened if not for the events of nine years prior.
While Till‘s story has often been told and referenced in music, documentary and other media, it’s surprising to say the least that it’s taken this long to be the subject of a major feature film. Perhaps it’s the visceral nature of the case, the importance of the imagery of Emmett’s body that has led to such reticence, and, as José suggests, nervous anticipation of what might be depicted could keep audiences away. That imagery in Till is shocking and upsetting, but the film keeps a tactful eye on what it shows, and refuses to depict Emmett’s torture and murder.
Still, while we agree on the sensitivity and care with which we feel the film handles these crucial elements, we disagree on almost everything else. José sees in Till an intelligent, complex exploration of racism and power structures; Mike finds amateurism in its visual compositions and excess in its orchestral score. It’s a valuable film and one that never indulges in smugness or didacticism, but we refuse to provide a coherent opinion as to whether it’s good or not.
We take a trip to London to see Avatar: The Way of Water again, this time on the biggest screen in the country at the BFI IMAX, in high frame rate and 3D. We discuss the difference in experience between seeing it here and at the IMAX Digital cinema at Cineworld Broad Street, where we saw it previously. Mike questions why the film switches between 24fps and 48fps, rather than sticking with the high frame rate throughout – director James Cameron describes how HFR assists in making 3D imagery less difficult to resolve, and implies that he limits its use to avoid the so-called “soap opera effect” that made the Hobbit films and Gemini Man look so cheap, but Mike doesn’t buy that it’s necessary to keep returning to 24fps, and thinks Cameron’s a big scaredy-cat. José, on the other hand, can’t seem to tell the difference between the frame rates at all.
We also discuss what a second viewing of the film brings into focus that we hadn’t put our finger on before, Mike comparing it to the nature documentaries that IMAX have produced for years, and José implores the film community to drop its snootiness and embrace the opportunity to see such a marvellous spectacle while it’s still in cinemas. It’s really special.
The stage musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1988 novel, Matilda, about a young girl with hyperintelligence, telekinetic powers, uncaring parents and a terrifying headmistress, premiered in 2010 and has gone on to achieve enormous popularity, as well as seven Olivier Awards and five Tonys. This cinematic adaptation features the same music and the same director as the stage version, but does it have the same magic?
A mere thirteen years after the release of the highest-grossing film of all time, its sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, arrives to a cinematic landscape that has changed significantly. James Cameron’s epic sci-fi franchise Avatar began life in 2009, when Marvel had released only two of its (at present) 30 films which would make universes, crossovers, and interconnected stories de rigueur for blockbuster cinema – and one of which would, briefly, overtake Avatar‘s record for worldwide gross. That’s how long it’s taken to create just one sequel to Avatar, with no indication that anything more complex than a linear progression of further sequels is planned. And there was no question that this sequel would, like its predecessor, make use of stereoscopic 3D – but while the 2009 film catalysed a new wave of interest in the technology, it has since fallen out of favour, as it always has over the years. As 2023 approaches, is The Way of Water out of date?
There’s an unwelcome element of particularly American and ill-fitting barbarism in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, a film that we hoped would be cleverer and more charming than it is. It’s also more of a straightforward thriller than a whodunnit, with one particular alteration to the murder mystery formula meaning that so much is kept from the audience that it stops being fun to play along. There’s still enough here to enjoy, but we’d like the third film to be more like the first, please.
When Helen Wheatley asked for recommendations for novels to read over Christmas, someone recommended the Hazard and Somerset mysteries, for which many thanks. I picked up on it, ordered some, and I’ve been immersed in them ever since. Emery Hazard returns to his hometown in Missouri for a job as a detective where he ends up being paired with John Henry-Somerset, the man he had a crush on since high school, and part of a gang of homophobic bullies who had carved a tattoo on his chest with a knife. As the series unfurls, they both deal with the past and the changing circumstances of each, as Hazard pairs off with someone else and Somerset reunites with his wife and daughter. But the sexual and romantic tension between them continues until eventually they get together, marry, adopt a teenager and along with Somerset’s daughter form a new type of family. The crimes are all set in a small town in Missouri and paint an interesting picture of small-town life in the Midwest, a place where everyone knows each other but crimes are small-town version of national conflicts: the novels deal with political corruption; the police is in the pocket of the mayor and can’t be trusted; the religious right has armed training camps nearby where some of the police are involved; land developers are entwined with investment companies in more cosmopolitan cities are willing to kill for profit; there are paedophile rings and sexual slavery; meth labs and murder. But these all take place in a small town where Hazard is the only out public person, there is one high school, and one place the cool teenagers hang out in, at the one mall. Hazard and Somerset are drawn straight out of Honcho stereotypes, but with feelings. The developing romance is straight out of Harlequin though with some sexuall explicit scenes; a result of, I understand, readers’ demands (mostly female) They have an interesting structure. Each novel solves a particular murder but it’s part of a larger web that gets that gets drawn out and resolved over a series of five novels. The writing is at best adequate, the characterisations are cliché-ish but the books are nonetheless unputdownable: the plotting is superb. And in spite of the writing, one does get a sense that this is a small-town world the writer knows and makes worth knowing; and there’s also a fascinating utopian dimension to the fantasies of love, sex, family, relationships and social justice that the novels also strongly evoke. I’ve now read eight more. Gregory Ash is churning them out at the rate of three or four a year. For which I’m grateful, as I plan on reading all of them.
José gave an introduction to the MAC’s screening of The Old Dark House, a 1932 comedy horror directed by James Whale, focusing on queerness. James Whale was openly gay – although what it meant to be openly gay in the 1930s is up for discussion – and knowledge of his sexuality has led to interpretations of his work in that light, including Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933). The Old Dark House arguably invites such readings more explicitly than those, with the demeanour of Ernest Thesiger as Horace Femm (not to mention his surname), the relationship between Morgan (Boris Karloff) and Saul (Brember Wills), and the casting of a woman in the role of patriarch, with actress Elspeth Dudgeon credited as John Dudgeon.
As well as its queerness, we discuss its preponderance of tropes and how well they cohere, its use of distorted imagery, its pacing and more.
There’s so much posing and bad faith around the whole Sight & Sound list thing –oh i hate lists but here’s mine, with a 10,000 word intro about how all lists are horrible — that I feel moved to say I love lists. I love getting advice on what to see and read. They always offer a curious person a window and an opportunity. There’s no obligation. One needn’t follow up on any of it. As an immigrant kid whose parents did not speak English, lists have been especially important to me as a guide into a foreign culture. And they’ve been a good one. Grace Jones, Tom Waits and The Clash I found on my own, but it’s through lists that I discovered Sinatra and Billy Holiday, Jean Vigo and Jean Gremillon, Stendhal and Baldwin and other artists who’ve enriched my life. I can’t recall any of these lists causing damage. There was a period where I made a conscious decision to stop contributing to some — the S&S one in particular — on the principle that if the magazine had gotten too boring to read one should stop contributing to it. Maybe I was part of the problem. But I was honoured to be asked again and happy to think my suggestions might enrich someone else. The list is not definite; it’s not finite; we’re seeing it constantly changed; it can be challenged. It’s not the only list. But I’m glad they’re all there.
Here is mine:
Conversations with friends highlighted several issues, one that a list of ‘favourites’ would be different than a list of ‘best’, and that we’d all used different criteria. My list of ‘best’ would have been different on any given day but I did have a particular set of criteria. I didn’t care if the films had been influential or radically new. Instead I looked for what I took to be a varied or inventive use of the medium that led to a complex dramatisation and evoked an intensity of sometimes contradictory feelings. So it’s interesting merely to note that people fulfilled the brief according to different criteria.
The second point I’d like to highlight is that people, in expressing dismay over where each film had placed on the list seem to have forgotten how counting works. Nobody chose that The Searchers would come in at 15. It added up to that placement.
There were many other issues brought up but the last one I’d like to bring up here is that if you are going to see Jeanne Dielman, see it on a big screen where you don’t have access to a pause button. Modernist slow films require a cinema experience. On a small screen, it’s something else, something much less powerful and much more unprofitably boring.
The Menu is a smörgåsbord both of scenes, its plot dropping ideas as soon as it picks them up in its rush to entertain, and of styles and genres, with black comedy, satire and horror combining. But while it’s witty and engaging, it’s also inconsistent, unfulfilling, and, although the flights of fancy with which it imbues some of its action are good fun, fairly trite. As is way The Menu thinks of the food it mocks, so is the film itself: it looks delicious at first blush but fails to impress under scrutiny. And such small portions!
We were so impressed by Metin Ersksan’s Dry Summer (Susuz Yaz, 1963), that we decided to continue exploring his work. We’ve just seen A Time to Love/ Sevmek Zamani (1965), and remain impressed. This is the first in-house restoration by MUBI and fully understand why they chose this particular filmmaker and this particular film as a calling card for this new venture. Indeed we are grateful that they did so.
A Time to Love is an easy film to parody: an artsy, philosophical film about love and art, distinctions between being and appearances, class and alienation, traditional and modernity; greatly influenced by the art cinema of its day, particularly the work of Antonioni. But, if one gives oneself over to the style and sensibility of the work, one finds it’s a work of depth, texture and beauty as great as any produced in Western Europe in the same period. We talk about all of this and more in the accompanying podcast:
I was very excited to discover Josh Bullin’s new programme of queer films scheduled to be presented at the Rio Cinema in London from November 24th to the 5th of December: Unsilenced: The Resilience of Queer Cinema, A season of films which explores contemporary queer cinema from nations where regimes remain openly oppressive towards LGBTQIA+ identities. These hidden gems are a celebration of the persistence of the queer communities in these countries and remind us of the injustices not far from home that need to be fought against.
In this podcast we talk about the individual films –WET SAND (Elene Neveriani, Georgia, 2021) , LEITIS IN WAITING( Dean Hamer, Joe Wilson & Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu; Tonga/USA, 2018) GRACEFULLY (Arash Eshaghi, Iran, 2018) & MEMORIES OF MY BODY (Garin Nugroho, Indonesia, 2019) — but also about the rationale for the programme as a whole. What goes into curating such a programme? Why are some films chosen and not others. What does a curator do? And what are the hopes for the resulting event? An illuminating discussion of what promises to be a fascinating event.
The sequel to the best Marvel film by far has to deal with tragic circumstances – the star of the first, Chadwick Boseman, died at the age of 43 in 2020. His role was not recast; instead, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever shows us the funeral of his character, T’Challa, and his sister, Shuri’s, difficulty in dealing with his death. Letitia Wright, playing Shuri, has primarily been a source of comic relief in the MCU until now – we discuss how she copes with the dramatic heavy lifting now required of her.
Despite the foregrounding of Shuri, Wakanda Forever is reliant on an ensemble, and quite a radical one, as José puts it: the story of a male superhero has been adapted to feature a group of women in his place, and what’s perhaps most remarkable is how the film does it without the feeling of overt messaging and tokenism that is often present in tentpole films that do something similar. And the villain, Namor, has been given an ethnic background José assures Mike was never present in the comics, his new Mayan origins and historical conflict with the conquistadores allowing for his underwater civilisation to mirror Wakanda.
While memorialising Chadwick Boseman, Wakanda Forever is able to see a future following the loss of his character. That it would deal with Boseman’s death with tact and sensitivity wasn’t in doubt, but that the world of Black Panther could thrive without him was, and this sequel shows that it’s certainly capable of doing so.
Fran Hughes talks to Tom Farrell about Mike Mill’s 20th Century Women, a coming of age film that deals with masculinity from various feminist perspectives. These get explored in the podcast along with considerations of Jimmy Carter’s ‘Crisis of Confidence Speech’ both historically but also in relation to the various characters who share the same house in the film. The conversation recasts the main themes of the film through the lens of other key films by Mike Mills. Fran and Tom also discuss parent-child relationship, community vs individuality and how all of this relates to history and changes through time. A conversation that brings unexpected depth to a film that might seem ‘low stakes’ to some.
A melodrama about two brothers, Osman and Hasan. Osman is the eldest and has power and rights over how their land is run. Hasan obeys until he realises Osman has broken every rule that binds. A complex film about patriarchy in agrarian culture and the damage it does to all the individuals involved whilst also tearing a community apart. A melodrama that seethes with sexual desire, and where that desire overrules familial relations that would normally be considered taboo. A complex film depicting a way of life that is not so distant, probably still current in some parts of the world and which is not afraid to be poetic and allegorica. It is instantly and thoroughly engaging in spite of two incidents involving animals that inadvertently act as a distanciating device and might make some think twice about watching it. Much of the podcast is devoted to exploring why we recommend people do so.