All posts by NotesonFilm1

Polina Zelmanova & José Arroyo on ‘Raw’

Depth of Field on Raw

Depth of Field

Polina joins José Arroyo in a juicy discussion on Julia Ducournau’s Raw. The film, with its powerful female-gaze, portrays an exciting shift from the traditional female-monstrosity, and Ducournau’s representation of cannibalism is equally unusual. In this podcast episode we explore Ducournau’s intentions with these issues and debate her success, her dialogue with the genre, and fantastic visual style. The conversation leads us to investigate the various social themes the film tackles including alienation, identity politics, and the most prominent question of all: what it means to be human.

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Eavesdropping at the Movies: 183 – The Mustang

A captivating performance from Matthias Schoenaerts as a long-time inmate in a Nevada prison gives The Mustang its heart and emotional centre. The story of an isolated man finding the ability to open up through a relationship he develops with a wild horse isn’t going to win any awards for originality and is pretty one-note, but has its pleasures, and is an easy watch.

Writer-director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre calmly avoids asking obvious and important questions of the American prison system in favour of depicting the benefits of the horse training initiative – based on a real-life scheme that operates in a number of US states – and José suggests that her nationality has a part to play in this apparent lack of knowledge about the deep institutional issues involved, or at least her lack of interest in challenging them. The film indulges in cliché after cliché, but, for all its flaws and lack of imagination, Mike liked it, because that’s what he’s like, and we really can’t emphasise enough how good Schoenaerts’ central performance is.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 182 – Rojo

n the mid-Seventies, Argentina was terrorised by the Triple A (Argentine Anticommunist Alliance), a far-right death squad that disappeared countless people, and it is under this regime of fear and death that Rojo is set – with 1976’s military coup on the horizon. Disappearance is one of the film’s major themes and gives it its central structure: Dario Grandinetti’s Claudio, a lawyer, has an altercation with a rude young man in a restaurant and, though what follows is partially accidental, ends up leaving the man for dead in Argentina’s vast desert.

It’s the first act of disappearance in a film draped with them, disappearances that nobody speaks of, but everybody takes advantage of. Overt signals of the Triple A are absent here – the film shows us how daily life is affected, in a chilling atmosphere not of fear, but of acceptance. Friends are spoken of as having moved away. A house vacated by a family we never see is ransacked by otherwise well-to-do, middle-class neighbours, and presents a money-making opportunity. The culture isn’t fought, it is adjusted to.

Though we find great depth to Rojo‘s thematic complexity, we find less joy in its cinematic technique. José isn’t as critical as Mike, whose arse went to sleep through boredom, but despite an aesthetic that beautifully evokes the 1970s in every way, the film makes no real concessions to the audience, particularly lacking tension, which we feel there was ample opportunity for.

However, despite our criticisms, we recommend Rojo. It portrays a time and place rarely seen, and does so with intelligence and confidence. Its themes, of course, speak not just to mid-Seventies Argentina but keenly to today’s increasingly right-wing societies in Europe and America, and in that light its themes of complicity and adaptation to quotidian far-right terrorism constitute a warning.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 181 – Laurel and Hardy – Twice Two, County Hospital, and Way Out West

The Birmingham chapter of the Laurel and Hardy Appreciation Society shows a few of their films every year at the mac, and this year sees them screen two shorts, Twice Two (1933) and County Hospital (1932), followed by their classic Western feature, Way Out West (1937). We discuss Laurel and Hardy’s style, Mike comparing it favourably to cartoons and less favourably to the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and José remarks upon the joys of seeing a full audience of people aged 4 to 90 all laughing at these everlasting films.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

In Conversation with Julie Lobalzo Wright

 

Julie Lobalzo Wright has written a fascinating book on the concept of crossover stardom and what it tells us about popular male music stars in American Cinema. The book is now on paperback and thus accessible. Julie is also involved in various events around the musicals season at the BFI this Autumn, the highlights of which are: A study day on musicals at NFT3 on October 26th; and a talk on her book on November 4th at the BFI Reubens Library. This matrix of events is the context for the wide-ranging and enthusiastic conversation which you can listen to above, one that touches on, amongst other things, stardom, the musical, Bing Crosby, Gene Kelly, Kris Kristofferson, Justin Timberlake, Barbara Streisand, various versions of A Star is Born, stardom over time, and changes in the musical genre right up to the live network screenings of shows such as Hairspray and Jesus Christ Superstar.

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José Arroyo

Debbie Harry, Face It

 

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I´ve very much enjoyed reading Debbie Harry´s Face It and thought of James Maker whilst reading the first few chapters. She was also an obsessive of the New York Dolls, travelled miles to every gig, subsequently became friends with most of them. She comes across as a real New York Art girl, first on the fringes, hanging out at The Factory, eventually invited to dinners with Warhol — who not only did the usual silkscreen portrait but also an experimental one with a commodore, one of the first done using only computer technology — and at the bunker with Burroughs etc. Basquiat appears in ´Rapture´one of the Blondie videos, and she offers the best description of his charm and attractiveness i´ve read.  She also describes herself as ´Punk Til I Die´. And the combination of Art and Punk makes for an interesting set of observations, cool, intelligent, perceptive, detached; always surprising.

Face It is the tale of a woman who set out to be an artist, ended up being a pop star and chose a bohemian life. There are three incidents, two already much publicised, that speak of an attitude. On heroin: ´you either quit or you die´: she doesn´t linger on the struggle. On being mugged and raped in front of Chris Stein in her own apartment, she says it´s terrible but what she remembers feeling most is that the mugger stole their equipment and without it they could not work. No mention of psychological damage or what effect it might have had on her relationship with Stein. An interesting accent on the telling, perhaps an elision and occlusion. The last is when Bowie playfully takes out his dick and waves it at her. She admires it but wonders why Iggy Pop, who is sitting next to Bowie, doesn´t do the same.

It´s a marvellous book, full of such stories. She seems to know everybody in the New York Art scene, partly because of where she worked in the early years (Max´s Kansas City) or through the career with Blondie and beyond. We get stories on the music scenes of the period and filmmakers she worked with like Cronenberg and John Waters, and she has interesting and original  observations on all of them. And , of course, her own music and its making is covered in detail.

The person that is evoked is a New York tough cookie, with glimmers of a heart of gold (her nursing of, and lifelong attachment to Stein) burdened with a lifelong fear of abandonment  but with the will and daring to make her own life in conditions not of her making, plowing on and following her interests in art, music and fashion, fearlessly experimenting in all those areas. And appreciative of her fans whose art is lavishly illustrated throughout the volume. We see he as she chooses to depict herself in her life and as fans have seen her through her career.

For those like I for whom Blondie marked and is central to their youth this book is very heaven indeed.

 

José Arroyo

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 180 – Joker

 

It’s as though we’ve seen two different films, with José bowled over by Joker‘s social commentary, Mike bored and annoyed by its perceived self-satisfaction – not to mention an audience that applauded at the end. Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is explored to be a product of an uncaring, broken society that reaps in him what it sows, in a 1981 Gotham City that is the New York City of the era in all but name. José argues that the film will become a bellwether of the time, depicting the anger of the oppressed and downtrodden – Mike suggests, though, that in demonising them and aligning them to villainy, it gives the right-wing what it wants, in a vision of antifa, the enemy it believes it faces.

We discuss issues of race and representation, Mike seeing similarities between some of the film’s scenes and real-life historical crimes to which they may refer, and in observing racial components and changes to them, asks what the purpose may be, though, struggles to work towards an answer. And José remarks favourably upon everything aesthetic, including the way in which poverty is written into Phoenix’s withered form, the expressiveness and grace of his movement, and the film’s use of shallow focus.

There’s a lot going on in Joker, both on its own terms and in the cultural conversations it has ignited, and it may be worth a second go.

 

The film is just out and has already incited interesting debate:

 

from Jason Jacobs:

Jake Rutukowski:

David Sims in The Atlantic: 

Glen Weldon:

Yet another good essay, this one from Leslie Lee

and many others

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 179 – Rambo: Last Blood

Donald Trump’s vision of Mexico as America’s terrifying, criminal neighbour to the south finds a home in Rambo: Last Blood, a film in which a journey to Mexico is no less than a descent into Hell, and the comfort of the USA means a ranch, horses, sunsets, and a subterranean network of tunnels in which to viciously trap and slaughter Mexican rapists. You may be surprised to hear that we weren’t that keen on it.

Considering Sylvester Stallone’s age – a mighty 73 years old – Last Blood‘s action can’t ask as much of him physically as did the Rambo films of old, but through the use of traps and ambushes, Stallone’s limitations are smartly made irrelevant. But that’s about as positive as we can get. This is a film that cost $50m, if the production budget figure on Box Office Mojo is to be believed, and if Stallone hasn’t taken $40m of that for himself it’s impossible to tell where it’s been spent. This is cheap, nasty, acrid cinema, and it spurs José to look back on Stallone’s career and decry it for not simply having too few hits but moreover representing a betrayal of what Stallone meant to immigrant kids and underdogs back when he broke out with Rocky in 1976.

Avoid Rambo: Last Blood like the self-mythologising, racist bile it is.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 178 – Downton Abbey

deologically hideous and cinematically not even trying… we hate Downton Abbey. Hate it. But José especially so.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 177 – Apocalypse Now: Final Cut

Francis Ford Coppola’s classic 1979 war epic, once renovated already in 2001’s Redux, now sees a second altered version, restored in 4K from the original negative, 40 years since it first came out – Apocalypse Now: Final Cut. And what an extraordinary film it remains. José has endless praise for the genius work of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro – this film defines painting with light – and in the cinema it visually dazzles, iconic, bold imagery in every frame. The scale of Coppola’s production still amazes, particularly in those early scenes with Robert Duvall’s manaical Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore orchestrating helicopters, napalm, infantry, smoke, music and surfers to insane, theatrical effect. And in its long fades between images, superimposing almost abstract compositions over one another, José feels the influence of the avant garde and marvels at what was possible in that era.

Marlon Brando’s famous role as Kurtz at the end is shorter than José recalls, in part because the French plantation segment, not present in the theatrical cut, shortens it proportionally; in part because the film focuses on him as the target of Willard’s mission from the start, giving him ample time to settle in our minds; but mostly because Kurtz is so iconic, Brando investing him with such gravity and Coppola shooting and editing him with such care and confidence, that he defines our lasting impression of the film. Even when we finally reach him, far along the Nùng river, he still takes as long as he wishes to emerge from the shadows.

Mike finds issue with the film’s depiction of Vietnam, suggesting that in the film’s determination to adhere to Heart of Darkness, the 1899 Joseph Conrad novella on which it is based, it presents an inaccurate and problematic view of Vietnam as uncivilised, its people savages – but is quick to accept that such inaccuracies are far from unique to Apocalypse Now, and José argues that the USA found it impossible to deal with its loss in Vietnam. Mike also queries Willard’s motivations, asking what drives him and what his aim is, suggesting that alongside the psychological damage it wreaks, the film depicts an attractive aspect to war, a desire for it.

There’s no question that Apocalypse Now is a masterpiece of cinema. On the small screen one can appreciate its beauty and madness – on the cinema screen, one feels it. If and when it comes around, you cannot miss it.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

See below for about a billion screenshots Mike took this morning in his own manic episode. Some relate to things we discuss in the podcast, others are chosen for.. any other reason you’d care to mention. They’re just incredible images.

(Click to open them full size.)

King John, RSC, Sept, 27

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King John is not often revived and I suspect that´s because it´s one of Shakespeare´s weaker efforts. But Rosie Sheehan´s female-focused  production currently at the RSC in Stratford is extraordinary. Bridgitta Roy plays King John, Katherine Pearce is a witty and sassy Cardinal Pearce. Male pronouns are kept, even though it´s women playing the roles. The costumes are all circa 1965. It has musical interludes at the beginning of scenes, accompanied by dances that echo that period just before hippies and Haight-Ashbury, that bring a shot of adrenaline to the whole production. The fight scenes are all staged as if in slow motion. And the tone of the show is a bit like Down with Love throughout — knowing, slightly camp, a winky play to the gallery –until the final descent into tragedy. All of this surrounds the language, which sometimes powerfully pierces through (“Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale). One of those productions were you run to buy the program at the intermission because you´re so excited by it you want to know who did what. I still couldn´t quite follow the plot, and this in spite of having seen the previous production at the RSC of a few years ago.  But that felt irrelevant.

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José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 176 – Fight Club

A film that jogs memories for Mike, as in the process of revisiting Fight Club he realises what an impact it had on him as a teenager. David Fincher’s outrageously stylish and visceral story of a generation of dispossessed men finding purpose in violence has only increased in relevance in the twenty years since its release, drawing comparisons to incels and school shooters, but it also leads Mike to recall how it affected his interests and attitudes in his youth. José, who saw it on its release, was on the positive side of its mixed response and recalls trying to convince his friends of its greatness – and is proud to have been proven right in the years since, in which it rapidly became perhaps the defining cult hit.

Mike is surprised to discover a sexual dimension to it that he hadn’t quite realised was there – obviously, Tyler and Marla’s ceiling-shaking lovemaking sessions hadn’t escaped his attention, but it wasn’t until this screening that he saw Marla as desirable and human, rather than simply present and symbolic. She’s weary but hopeful, fiery and alive but constantly flirting with death, and with the benefit of knowing the film’s infamous twist, deeply sympathetic. Mike argues, too, for a strain of homoeroticism — Steve Erickson writes that Chuck Palahniuk came out as gay in 2004. The clues are everywhere both in his book and Fincher’s film — in the fighting and particularly in Brad Pitt’s appearance – more than powerful and intimidating, he’s attractive, the narrator’s ideal self (though we don’t, as José points out, see him topless and sweaty nearly as often as we might remember).

It’s not without its problems. The question of exactly what it says, and indeed how deliberately it says it, is dependant perhaps on the viewer’s mood and cultural context as much as anything. Fight Club wants to be thought of as a satire, that’s clear, but of what – and is it as much of a satire as it thinks it is? Mike suggests that much of what drives this problematic area of debate is the effectiveness with which the film brings us into the narrator’s mental state, conveying beautifully his attitudes, desires, repressions, regardless of whether we might think of them as positive or negative. Were the film more objective, more willing to offer judgement of its characters, these questions would be less troubling but the film would have none of its potency.

We agree that Fight Club is a considerable piece of work – José less enthusiastically, but it would be hard to be as turned on by it as Mike is. To have seen it on the big screen is a treat – every one of its compositions is electrifying, beautiful, considered and inventive – and the themes it explores have only grown in relevance since 1999. If it comes round, don’t hesitate to buy front row tickets. If it doesn’t, dig out the DVD, which you definitely own, and watch it again.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Demi Moore, Inside Out (London: Fourth Estate, 2019)

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When life gets busy and stressful, I find comfort in reading a biography and sinking into other people´s lives. This first week back teaching I read Demi Moore´s Inside Out. There’s surprisingly little on the career, a sparkly one that is central to an understanding of popular Hollywood cinema in the ’80s and ’90s,  and even less about the films: Joel Schumacher helped her keep her role in St. Elmo´s Fire whilst she got off drugs; people still want to talk to her about Patrick Swayze and Ghost; she thinks Indecent Proposal is a better film than is credited; she gives an insight into how she got that big paycheck for Striptease; the fights to resist the love affair between her character and that of Tom Cruise´s in A Few Good Man that the studio was begging for; she talks of how men in the industry reacted to her G.I Jane body etc. But there´s not much and more space is devoted to the Vanity Fair covers she did with Annie Leibowitz (perhaps rightly). The spine of the story is her relationship with her mother and the best parts of the book are her descriptions of growing up with two parents who were mainly interested in drink, drugs, gambling and a good time, running away from bills and responsibilities all over the country, scamming their way into new houses, and then repeating the cycle all over again every few months with new names, constantly on the move and always on the fringes of criminality. One of Demi´s daughters says she wasn´t raised but forged. And reading the book one understands why. A book I very much enjoyed reading.

 

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 175 – The Blue Angel

The film that introduced Marlene Dietrich to America, Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel tells the tragic story of a man who gives up everything for love. Emil Jannings is delightfully pompous and uptight as Professor Rath, a schoolteacher charmingly disarmed by Dietrich’s seductive cabaret star Lola Lola. The two marry, but unable to change and consumed by jealousy, Rath loses his status, dignity and the woman he loves.

Dietrich is captivating as Lola, wearing a seemingly permanent smirk of knowingness – much of the film’s action takes place backstage, an environment she controls effortlessly, in which the fewer items of clothing she wears the more uncomfortable Rath grows. José notes a moment in which she ungraciously adjusts her underwear, and who cares who’s watching – Mike remarks upon her legs, which at times are posed and filmed to take on a character all of their own. José considers the greatness of Dietrich’s collaborations with von Sternberg, of which this was the first, and in particular the way he composes layered, complex imagery here.

We discuss the film’s characterisation and morality – it’s a tragedy, and to some extent its cabaret world is responsible for Rath’s decline, but because of his inability to understand and adapt to his new life, rather than an inherent immorality to the setting. Lola, too, isn’t simply some succubus; she may find Rath socially useful to marry, given his status as a professor, but moreover her affection for him is apparent. And we consider the film’s two-part structure, how it mirrors itself through its two memorable tracking shots in the classroom, the clown character into whom Rath is transformed, and Rath’s rooster-like crowing on his wedding day taking on a different significance at the film’s climax.

The Blue Angel is ninety years old and remains as tragic and sexy as ever. Don’t miss it if it’s showing near you.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 174 – The Farewell

We love Lulu Wang’s comedy-drama The Farewell, about a Chinese family that knows their grandmother, Nai Nai, has cancer, but keeps it a secret from her. Awkwafina brings humour and sensitivity to the American-raised granddaughter who argues that her family is in the wrong, and although the film opens up questions of cultural differences, it’s remarkably even-handed, refusing to judge or criticise any opinion. Zhao Shuzhen, playing Nai Nai, is delightfully warm and snappy, and shares wonderful chemistry with Awkwafina.

The Farewell is a gentle film that tells an engrossing story, and it’s simply a pleasure to be in its world.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.