The Big City (India, Satjayit Ray, 1963)

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After seeing Satyajit Ray’s The Big City, Roger Ebert remarked that he had trouble approaching Ray’s films as ‘foreign’: “they are not foreign. They are about Indians, and I am not an Indian, but Ray’s characters have more in common with me than I do the comic-strip characters of Hollywood.” I agree. The film feels both of its time and very contemporary: probably most people living in cities in the non- or recently industrialised world are no more than a generation away from village life (and this includes European countries such as Spain, Romania and many more) and the problems around re-definitions of inside/outside, the family, work and gender roles are not too different than those Ray’s film so delicately and beautifully dramatises.

In The Big City, Subrat Mazumdar (Anil Chatterjee), an accountant who works in a new bank, and his wife Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee) live in a cramped apartment in Calcutta. They’re supporting his father (Haren Chatterjee), a former schoolteacher who needs glasses they can’t afford, his mother (Sefalika Devi) who’s got an expensive tobacco habit, his sister (Jaya Bhaduri), a teenager but still going to a fee-paying school, and their young son Pingu (Pressenjit Sarkar). They can’t make ends meet. The husband drops hints that maybe the wife can get a job. The wife takes the hint but then it is the husband who becomes reluctant to venture any further as a wife working away from home would shame him in front of his parents and friends. However, they see no other solution.

Ray works within the realm of the little hurts, slights, and barriers in life that must be overcome. There are no heroes or villains. The family benefits from Arita going to work but each is nonetheless and in different ways resentful that she’s taken a job. The father who loves his son prefers to bad mouth him in the course of begging for new glasses from former students rather than accept them lovingly from his working daughter-in-law. The older generation is shocked and unaccepting of this modern world in which women are allowed to work. Yet it might be shocking to us that they initially see begging, however delicately and elegantly voiced, preferable to work.

This illustration of middle-class poverty nonetheless focuses on a family who’s got a servant whom they have trouble paying; there are other people who are much worse off then they. You get a real sense of modernity arriving in the city, people who’ve just come from a village and who’ve still got a rural, almost tribal identity but in a changing world. Unusually, Anglo-Indians are depicted as the disenfranchised minority, on the face of it privileged, but de-facto structurally oppressed, their privilege being tied to the world order of a different generation and one that no longer exists. Chandak Sengoopta in ‘The Big City: A Woman’s Place’, an essay offered as part of The Criterion Collection website, offers a marvellous socio-historical context for the film’s drama.

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The character of Arita is the film’s focal point; it is through her that we see Modernity structurally transforming the family and a whole way of life. Initially, the film’s focus is on the husband’s worries, and we see her encased inside the tiny apartment unable to meet the various demands the members of her family make on her. Then we see her fear of the city; how she needs her husband’s support to go outside and into the world. Then her awe and wonder at the richer homes, other ways of life. Soon she’s standing up for herself, walking purposefully through the streets, arranging contracts, wearing sunglasses and even putting on lipstick and meeting men.

The lipstick is crucial. And the lipstick is inextricably linked to her new ability to be with men who are not her husband. Arita is no flâneuse; she’s a career woman now with places to go and people to see; and all these wonderings around the city, all this career success, particularly in the light of her husband’s travails but of the culture as a whole, make her husband, and most likely the film’s initial audience, question her virtue. Part of the beauty of the film is that it makes us understand why her society and her husband might put her morality in question (what else is the husband to think when he finds a lipstick in her purse or sees her with other men?) whilst simultaneously leaving us with no doubt as to Arita’s goodness.

Madhabi Mukherjee who plays Arita seems simultaneously ordinary and a great beauty. Her features are just as delicate as her way of conveying the character’s emotions. She evokes a centered serenity even in her greatest moments of distress, even in her final confrontation with her boss. Her Arita has a calm humbleness, useful when she has to deal with each new difficulty and one which also comes across as tactful and polite: Arita does her best to prevent others from feeling threatened or ill at ease at the sense of empowerment she now clearly feels. Like so many women in the history of cinema, walking the streets offers Arita money and freedom, although Arita walks in daylight, to an office job, selling knitting machines instead of herself and is at all times respectable.

The Big City is also fascinating in relation to film form. There are some extraordinary shots: one of the husband shown through a sheet where the light makes his disembodied profile seem a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde split figure; the other of the wife looking through a glass and trying on lipstick, a modern identity, and showing us being in the process of becoming (the mirror shot is later rhymed with one showing us looking at herself with the money she’s earned from her job, the lipstick and the money crucially interlinked). What we see and how we see it seems extraordinarily modern and imaginative. The film is shot in long-takes sometimes helped along by a rather stilted though no less efficient zoom lens. Each shot is composed sparsely, minimally, there is very little too distract the eye from within the frame, but these sparse compositions create maximum effect.

The pace is languid, audiences might feel a bit too much so. But it all builds into a marvellous, multi-layered, depiction of a society in transition, and the uncomfortable choices a loving family have to make to get by. The film reminds us that drama need not involve superheroes, or natural disasters or fatal afflictions; that good and loving people trying to get by in the world in the best way they can is, when shown with such skill and delicacy, sufficient to create something beautiful and moving. It’s a great film.

****

Seen at the Midlands Arts Centre but also available as a great Criterion DVD

Lovefilm has two other great Satyajit Ray films available to rent: The Coward and The Lonely Wife.

 

José Arroyo

What Maisie Knew (Scott McGehee/ David Siegel, USA, 2013)

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I have not read Henry James’ novel from which the film is adapted so I’m in no position to evaluate how faithful or true it is to the original novel or how well it is updated. On its own terms, the film is well-intentioned, serious, worthy. If effort were all, it would be wonderful.

The structure is classically symmetrical: Four adults, two younger, two older; four couplings; one dissolves at the beginning, the other begins at the end. One child to be tossed around amongst them.

The structure is filled out by a straightforward story. Susanna (Julianne Moore) is a rock star. Her husband, Beale (Steve Coogan) is an art dealer. The milieu is well-to-do but bohemian Manhattan. The film begins with the end of their relationship and the beginning of their brutal, acrimonious and selfish custody battle over their daughter, Maisie (Onata Aprile). Margo (Joanna Vanderham), the nanny, is at all times concerned with Maisie’s feelings and need. She initially offers stability but then gets married to Maisie’s father and becomes caught in the crossfire of Susanna and Beale’s selfish hatred. Susanna also marries someone, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgärd), a tender-hearted hunk of a bartender and, like Margo, considerably younger. By the end of the film, it is Lincoln and Margo, now a couple, who are de facto doing the parenting the biological parents are too self-involved to provide.

How divorce affects a child is not a new theme in American Cinema: Mildred Pearce (Michael Curtiz, 1945), The Parent Trap (David Swift, 1961 and Mancy Meyer, 1998), Kramer vs Kramer (Robert Benton, 1979), Stepmom (Chris Columbus, 1998) and many others have in different ways touched on the theme. But cinema has rarely explored the theme as intricately as What Maisie Knew does. Susanna and Beale profess love for Maisie, and the film is complex enough to show us that they do indeed love their child. However, it also shows us how they see that child mainly in relation to themselves, as an extension, rather than as a separate consciousness and then only in the odd moments they do in fact happen to think of her. Neither acknowledges the child as having needs and indeed feelings outside their own presence or perception.

Susanna and Beale constantly declare their love for Maisie, indeed violently fight with each other for her possession, but the violence of their struggle with each other is itself a demonstration of their lack of duty and responsibility towards the child and of their own egocentrism.  Is love pure feeling or is it feeling made manifest in actions; do you still love your child if you neglect it? How much do you love your child if the fulfillment of your needs is at the expense of theirs? I’m sure Maisie’s father thinks he doesn’t love her less when he decides that his business will go better if he moves back to England and thus really can’t be part of her life, at least not on a regular basis any more. I’m sure Susanna’s career requires that she go on tour. Both parents ‘love’ their child but see themselves in difficult situations in which they think they’re doing the best they can. However, the film shows us they can indeed do much better. And little Maisie knows it.

The film depicts the situation from Maisie’s vantage point literally and figuratively: her point of view is privileged and the camera is often placed at her eye-level to show us the action. Maisie is a warm, open, trusting and intelligent child. She watches and she sees, and slowly we see that she understands much more than a child should, and finally, we realise that she might even know and understand more than her parents. Onata Abrile, big eyes on that baby face, brings to mind Ana Torrent in Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, Spain, 1963), and seeing her is one of the film’s pleasures; her little arms reaching out for whoever’s handy for a hug, the eyes watching and weighed-down by the burden of knowing, and her little hand encased in Skarsgärd massive paw are moments that stay and resonate.

The rest of the performances are variable. Julianne Moore is never for one moment believable as a rock star, and the bit where we see her singing at the studio with what sounds like her voice, is pretty terrible (though of course that hasn’t stopped rock stars from being rock stars in the past); however, that aside, she’s not afraid of playing unlikeable and she screeches at her husband, cheats on her lover, and goes on tour with an abandon that always seems true to the character whilst also enjoyable to watch. She’s also very gentle and affectionate when she’s alone with her girl, and has a truly great moment where she goes to pick up her child from her former nanny and Lincoln and realizes with horror that she now makes Maisie afraid.

Skarsgärd is a pleasure to watch as well. I’ve never seen him this boyish on screen. Graphically, his enormous height contrasts well with tiny Abrile, and both are at their most appealing and vulnerable when shown together. Tender, sweet, responsible; he’s the man Susanna really doesn’t deserve. Joanna Vanderham is technically proficient, very nurturing with Maisie and a good match for Lincoln (what is incomprehensible is why someone so responsible and sensible would take up with Beale). Steve Coogan has been getting good reviews for his playing of Beale but I find him opaque in the part; Coogan traffics, and succeeds in irony, detachment, distanciation. He does technically convey the emotions his character’s supposed to feel but always at a distance; he never lets you in and, perhaps because of that,  you never feel that that character is a person rather than Coogan acting out a set of character traits.

The film has many virtues. It does makes one think about love, relationships, parenting, responsibility and it treats those themes complexly. It has some good performances. Though not visually dazzling, it has some memorable images. The main problem I think is that it is too restrained. It’s dealing with material that borders on the melodramatic and doesn’t want to go there. But restraint in a film such as this should mean not to manipulate the audience falsely into emotion rather than simply abstaining from the attempt altogether. It is often through feeling that films get us to think. The main characters in What Maisie Knew deserve a tear. The film’s unwillingness to grant it feels overly detached and rather cold. A pity.

José Arroyo

We’re The Millers (Rawson Marshall Thurber, USA, 2013)

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Comedy’s a wonderful thing. It can cut the rich and powerful down to size, deflate the pompous, make us question our institutions, our relationships and even ourselves. Nothing is outside its scope; and everyone is always grateful for a laugh; but who or what a work asks us to laugh at, what it asks us to laugh about; and how it makes us laugh can all vary enormously and are grounds on which it may be evaluated.

By such criteria, American movie comedy is in terrible shape. I thought The Heat earned its laughs but trafficked way too much in the crude, the base and the cheap. The level’s just as low in We’re The Millers but the laughs don’t come as quickly or as heartily: it’s all stupid Mexican drug dealers, big black dicks, anal penetration, gay jokes and making fun of lower-middle-class squares who ride in camper vans and pray. Fart jokes are about the only thing missing.

The premise is sitcom-y but serviceable; drug dealer David Clark (Jason Sudelkis), Rose O’Reilly (Jennifer Aniston) the stripper next door,  Kenny (Will Poulter), a latch-key kid who also lives in the building but whose mom has run off, and Casey (Emma Robets) the local homeless girl, pretend to be a family in order to smuggle drugs from Mexico into the US. Of course, as they pretend to be a family so they become one; and the film serves a stodgy mix of sentimentality, shoot-outs, and car-chases all stirred with a barrage of jokes and gags: some of them hit.

We’re the Millers never raises itself above the gutter. Though the audience I saw it with couldn’t help but chuckle; indeed, we’re so hungry for a laugh, we may be grateful for anything that approximates it, watching the film is a sad affair.

Jennifer Aniston’s very fit, but all her mannerisms are known to us from Friends, a connection Anniston’s been trying to run away from for the last twenty years but which the film exploits in the gag reel at the end. Rose is not a character; she’s simply Rachel, twenty-years later, reduced to stripping, smuggling, worse jokes and cheaper gags.

Sudelkis and Poulter are new to me and a bright spot in the film; Sudelkis has an intelligent, emotionally open face that can look straight at the audience right through the camera and then go right back into the situation (accent on situation — there’s nothing dramatically believable here) without missing a beat; and he’s got an ear for speaking that beat: his timing’s ace. Will Poulter is an even happier discovery; the audience I saw the film embraced everything he did; he’s emotionally transparent, and though he’s got the gauche, thin physique of an adolescent, he moves gracefully and manages to maintains his and the character’s dignity even when a director sends a tarantula up his trousers. He’s a real find and could become a big new star if judiciously cast.

Director Rawson Marshall Thurber has a good ear for a joke and a good eye for a gag but I wish he’d use that eye and that ear to better ends than We’re the Millers.  American cinema used to make us laugh whilst also making us want to be like the people we were laughing at and with; it satirized the culture whilst making us yearn to be a part of it. You’ll laugh at the Millers and their world; but you wouldn’t want be them and you certainly wouldn’t like to live as and where they do.

José Arroyo

Elysium (Neill Blomkamp, USA, 2013)

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In Elysium, rich people have extracted everything they can from earth and made it so dirty, dangerous, ugly and poor in the process that they refuse to live in it. They’ve created a satellite colony, Elysium, where only they can live. It’s like Earth is East LA and Elysium is a super-rich gated community like Beverly Hills. We are introduced to our protagonist Max de Costa (Matt Damon) as a boy, an orphan brought up by nuns in a slum along with Frey (Alice Braga). He’s very intelligent but he’s always in trouble with the law.  His dream is to get to Elysium. As the film gets underway in 2154, he’s on probation, a sentence which gets extended because, in his time like in ours, a poor man can’t even get sarcastic with a law enforcer without paying for it, even if the officer is a machine.

Max has got a shit job, no guaranteed shifts, and he’s made to do hazardous work at the risk of getting fired. As a result, he gets radiation poisoning; but the machines that can cure everything are only available to the 1% living in Elysium. Frey, his childhood companion and not-quite-requited love, is now a nurse. She has a daughter with leukemia who also needs urgent access to those cure-all machines. Max has five days to live, five days to act and try and save himself and the child of his childhood love.

At the same time, Delacourt (Jodie Foster), the Secretary of Defense for Elysium is planning a re-boot of the whole system to stage a coup and accede to total power. Max allows himself to be turned into a cyborg so that a hard drive can be fitted into his brain and an exoskeleton grafted onto his body to give himself enough strength to fight for his life.  Can Max steal this programme, reboot the system so that everyone on earth gets re-enfranchised as citizens and get free healthcare for all, including himself and Frey’s daughter? That’s the film’s plot, a good one, and one in dialogue with key works in the genre: the novels of Huxley, Orwell, Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson; but also Lang’s Metropolis, the Robocop films, the Terminator Films, Total Recall, Blade Runner, Johnny Mnemonic.

Although the plot is serviceable, it’s badly structured. We expect Max’s nemesis to be Delacourt but Damon barely gets to exchange a line with Foster. There are three villains in this film: Delacourt, who is motivated by fascist ideals of strength and security at any cost: John Carlyle, the super-rich industrialist who invented and designed Elysium’s security system and who owns the company that manufactures police robots that Max works for and whose main motivation is mere money; and Kruger, a covert mercenary who Delacourt has on tap to do her dirty work whenever it suits her. Delacourt signifies power though it is illusory in that she relies on others to carry out her commands. Carlyle is rampant capitalism, and his function is to first show his disdain for people and then to have the knowledge that is the basis of his wealth taken from him by Max (William Fichtner gives a superb, very still, dry and funny performance). Max’s true enemy, the one he has to fight throughout the film so that he can achieve his goals, is really Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a covert mercenary, who represents brute and destructive chaos in the service of power.

If Carlyle is a mere plot point, Delacourt is bare symbol. The film could have lost most of her story-line without losing much; and the film is further imbalanced by having Jodie Foster play the character. It’s not that she’s bad, indeed I find her excellent; she doesn’t have much of a character to play with, any in fact; but she makes the most out of the little she’s got with minimal gestures and the kind of accent one imagines in white supremacists. It’s just that she’s Jodie Foster! Everyone under fifty has grown up with her. We know her as the tomboy in the Disney films, the underage prostitute in Taxi Driver, her great Tallullah in Bugsy Malone, the woman for whose attention John Hinckley shot Reagan, and from The Silence of the Lambs until Julia Roberts career picked up again after My Best Friend’s Wedding in 1997, the only female star in Hollywood who could carry a film on her own. When one sees a great actress and a legendary star top-billed in a movie one expects to see more than a cliché making a few phone calls to her minions. Further, I suspect that the nastier aspects of what Delacourt symbolises are drawing on those elements of Foster’s star persona that intersect with the audience’s knowledge of her as a lesbian; and to me, the film’s misuse of Foster feels like a betrayal.

Elysium has a problem in maintaining tone as well. The early child-hood scenes are sappy, and as is illustrated by Sharlto Copley’s performance as Krugor, the film wavers uncomfortably wildly between realism and melodrama. This extends to the whole film. For example, the dystopian world the film depicts is gritty and ‘realistic’. It could be any third-world metropolis (I understand Mexico DF was used a location), or even parts of the US today. The technology is futuristic but the buildings, workplace, lifestyles are all too recognizable. However, the people are not, or not quite, and it should be the other way around.

If who the characters are, what they feel and what they hope for are something we know and can identify with then the external world can be as odd and different as imagination can make it. But here, though the structure of the story is melodramatic, and the tone in which its told also at least touches on the melodramatic, the film itself doesn’t allow for the identification or provide the release essential to melodrama. We know what is at stake in Max’s quest but we’re not able to feel it with him. It seems that Hollywood cinema has given up on trying to make audiences cry and simply retired one of its greatest pleasures and a central element of its art over to television, much to its detriment.

Elysium is a liberal sci-fi film. Let’s not overestimate what that means, sci-fi has been one of the few genres in which Hollywood cinema has allowed any kind of political critique (Oblivion is but the most recent example). It’s as if it’s ok to offer social critique on film so long as it applies to the future and not to the now. But let’s not underestimate what that means either. The less integral American cinema is to American culture, the greater the critique allowed. However, this is as potent a demonstration of de-facto disenfranchisement and as clear an argument for universal health-care as I remember seeing.

Elysium, like the recent 2 Guns, is another example of how race is being re-signified in American cinema. Why is Max’s surname De Costa? Why are most of the supporting characters Latin American (not only Alice Braga but also Walter Moura; and Diego Luna brings a burst of sparkle every time he appears)? Why is there so much dialogue in Spanish (it sometimes feels close to a bilingual film). Why does the film side with those poor people trying to enter Elysium just the same way Hispanics try to cross into the US border from Mexico? It’s like Elysium is Versailles, the Hispanics are the sans-culottes, and the film is showing why storming Versailles and brining on the revolution is a good and necessary thing. That’s quite something in a big-budget American film.

Visually, Elysium is a masterpiece. The first few panoramic shots showing us the contrast between earth and Elysium are extraordinary, you can even see people moving in their lush gardens as the camera circles and moves through the Elysium satellite. There are also some shots of Jodie Foster seated in her control console that are breathtaking achievements in shot composition. Matt Damon’s transformation into a cyborg (indeed the whole design of his look for the film), a shot of a robot exploding in slow motion and the villain’s face being re-composed after its been blown off are also indelible visual moments. However, there is also too much hand-held camera throughout the film. I saw it in IMAX and the camera bopping up and down constantly on such a huge screen and in such detail was unpleasant and dizzying. However, that didn’t put me off seeing it twice; it was even more beautiful the second time around; and I suspect it’s a value, a very considerable one, only truly visible on a big screen. Don’t be put off by the reviews (perhaps including mine); it’s very much worth seeing.

José Arroyo

Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, USA, 2012)

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There’s a complex rich movie to be made about the price men pay when they choose to commodify themselves as sexual objects for money; Magic Mike doesn’t explore the theme with any great depth but it is brilliant at depicting the world of male strippers and what choosing to become one might feel like and lead to. The director is having a good time (all those unusual abrupt endings) but I’m not sure the audience is; I certainly didn’t; though like the majority of the people at the theatre, I was very keen to see the display and, if outright fun is denied us, then a much more complex treatment of the subject would have been appreciated.

People turn themselves into sex objects for easy money and lose their youth and future choices in a sea of drugs and easy sex. Big deal. We’ve seen this before. The only difference is that now it’s men rather than women; and that difference — how men charging for a peek at their package, for their ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’, affects their masculinity, that which should have been central to the film’s exploration — is largely bypassed.  The film is too much about the phallus as fun and too little about the effect on those reduced to nothing but its symbolizing function (and only the non-threatening aspects). I would have liked to see more about the tension between the lead characters’ merchandising of the phallus and their own awareness of the fragility of the penis.

Channing Tatum’s  got a sculpted body, very lean and lithe, and he moves energetically, but he looks and moves as if enshrouded in a cloud of depression: ‘bitchy-resting face’ on him would seem sparkly. Either he’s never heard of fun or he’s had so much of it already the serotonin has been all used up. Mathew McConaughey is playing the equivalent of the wise-old-whorehouse-madam roles Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford were reduced to near the end of their careers and his success in this part  started a career revival that seems in no danger of abating. Alex Pettyfer is lovely to look at and very good; he looks like a model from Attitude but walks like the guy in the pub who’s always yelling ‘oy, mate!’ just before barfing. I felt sorry for Joe Mangianello who reportedly cut his price in order to work with such a distinguished director only to be asked to take off his clothes, oil himself up and get in the background just in front of the extras.

Magic Mike was a big box-office hit and made many critics’ top-ten list at the end of the year. I wished I’d liked it more or at least only a little less than friends I respect who are positively rabid about the film. Perhaps its mysteries will reveal themselves once I see it again on DVD.

José Arroyo

2 Guns (Baltasar Kormákur, USA, 2013)

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If film-going were still a simple leisure activity –easy, cheap, the kind of thing one did to while away a Saturday afternoon in between shopping; or as I did as a kid, the place you went to for a bit of fantasy and glamour whenever you felt like it — you’d walk in in the middle of the film and stay until the film re-started again and took you to where you came in; and then, if you liked it, you sat some more and saw it again — if film-going were still like that, rather than the expensive, troublesome, special event its become, then I’d recommend 2 Guns.

The film clearly set out to be an A-minus genre piece. You can imagine someone pitching the concept: a heist movie crossed with a buddy film but with a twist:  the crooks who pull the job, Bobby(Denzel Washington) and Stig (Mark Wahlberg) are really DEA and Navy, and the money they steal is not the Mexican mob’s but the CIA’s.

In 2 Guns no one is who they claim or who they seem to be –Deb (Paula Patton), that beautiful girl Bobby meant to like is double-crossing him with Stig’s prettier boss, Quince (James Marsden). In fact everyone will double-cross everyone. Each betrayal allows the plot a shoot-out, a car chase or both. At the end, the two stars will walk arm-in-arm into the sunset but not before one shoots the other in the leg, partly to even out something that happened earlier but also to eliminate any funny ideas people might have.

I experienced the film as an enjoyable trifle: as befits a comic-book adaptation, it has a handsome, mindfully sparse look; the compositions of a noir but the colour palette of a comic book influenced by noir (browns, blacks, grainy bright yellows); it has Denzel Washington, the most charismatic of contemporary stars (of the other contenders, Will Smith tries too hard — you’re frightened he’ll hip-hop onto your living room ceiling if he got even the slightest whiff it might please you; and there’s something oleaginous and slightly dishonest about George Clooney’s charm – like he’s trying to trick you into liking the he that he is not).

It also has Mark Wahlberg, looking like an inflated galumph; as if he were an ordinary Joe trying to get fit but instead getting fat on the wrong protein shakes;  but with those sad, knowing, little eyes of his telegraphing that he’s not as dumb as he sounds. His voice, gentle, low but thin, an expressive counterpoint to the power implied by his body, always hits the right note when he’s got a joke to put across.

Washington and Wahlberg, play off each other with rhythmic ease; they give and take on the lines, battle it out for the camera’s focus on the two-shots. You never get the sense they’re playing real people, they’re big stars trying to outdo each other and trying to entertain us; they’re both slightly past their prime physically which perhaps makes one even more aware of just how good they are and how rare their skill.

The film delivers on what the advertising promises. In fact it does better than that. Edward James Olmos is terrific as the Mexican gang-Lord: greying, measured, gravitas backed up by weaponry, and with principles, the only ones the film has on offer. Bill Patton is just as good, all southern charm laced with sadism. Lovely to see Fred Ward also, as the Admiral who plays by a set of rules different to Stig’s. And James Marsden seems to have found his calling as the bad guy. He’s the type of star who’s so good looking and so pleased with himself you always wish someone would smack him; when he plays the bad guy, somebody does! He should play bad guys more often.

As I was walking home after the movie, I thought, ‘it’s ok’; and then I began mulling on how interesting the film was ideologically; it criticizes all the institutions, CIA, DEA etc. It’s a corrupt world through and through; where the only relationships are instrumental, where people mean to love but end up betraying or marrying up and for money. The film’s message is clear: the only thing that matters is taking care of the guy next to you. Moreover, 2 Guns felt like the first of these interracial buddy films were race didn’t really seem to figure as an issue  (compare to the 48hr films) and I don’t think it’s only because Bobby is white in the original comic book.  Race is currently being re-signified in American cinema and this is a good example of how it’s happening. I haven’t quite worked through these ideological implications; I’m not even sure they’re worth working through; but by the time I’d got home the film seemed richer, more suggestive, at least worth a think.

And then, by the time I started writing this, I thought, people might not go to the pictures as they used to but maybe the way we consume films might not be that different: Pop the DVD in, see a bit of it, if you like it see it several times. And really, the real test is that unlike most films, some whom I initially thought more highly of, I would see 2 Guns again when it comes out on DVD: It looks good, moves well, the actions scenes are competent, and it delights with expertly exchanged banter, a few good jokes, and two stars showing each other and the audience why they’re stars. Moreover, the supporting cast is made-up of people who normally headline and are here at their best. Plus it seems to have interesting things to say. When did I get so picky?

2Guns_2ndShot_CVRJosé Arroyo

Blancanieves (Pablo Berger, Spain, 2012)

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There are some truly lovely moments: Angela Molina dancing with her grand-daughter, Maribel Verdú trying on Art Nouveau gowns, the bit where Macarena García is carried out of the bullring, the final tear. It is a re-telling of Snow White through clichés of Spanishness (Carmen, flamenco, bullfighting, the grotesque, esperpento) and using the style of late-period Silents. But I wouldn’t show this to children. There’s something very primal about fairy tales anyway: childhood reading of the Grimms have led to countless and long-lasting nightmares. But this touches on slightly darker areas, goes even further: not only murder, the killing of parents and children being rendered orphans but also s&m, a soupçon of sexual abuse. It all ends with a hint of white slavery, set in a freak show no less, and one from which there is no escape. It’s slightly camp, which is lovely  as it adds that touch of theatrical excess in gesture which an edit into the eyes  can then render as internal  and emotive (Angelina Molina and Maribel Verdú throw themselves into the Silent vernacular and are glorious with it); But in spite of all the lovely work on the image, there’s something slightly off about all the extreme wide-angles and the too-sharp focus; it seems to take us away from the dream/nightmare scenario; the contemporary is put too much in evidence. Obviously influenced by The Artist but offering greater depth and more sophisticated pleasures.  In the former cute little dogs wag their tale, beg for our applause and get it. Here, well let’s just say roosters don’t always get to crow another day.

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José Arroyo

Heavy Girls/ Dicke Mädchen (Axel Ranisch, Germany, 2012)

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Sven (Heiko Pinkowski) a harried, overweight, middle-aged bank employee lives in a small apartment in a block of flats with his mother Edeltraut (Ruth Bicklehaupt) who is very dear in spite of her Alzheimer’s. Whilst he’s away at work, he gets help from Daniel (Peter Trabner), a carer. One day, Daniel is washing the windows on the balcony outside and Edeltraut forgets he’s there, locks him out, and goes for a wander. Six hours later, the son return to find Daniel freezing and the elderly mum gone. They search high and low but they can’t find her. Sven bonds with Daniel but asks him to go home as it’s very late and there’s nothing further to be done. When Daniel returns home his wife promptly kicks him out because she thinks he’s been with another woman and he goes back to Sven’s where the mother has since returned. Daniel and Sven, at Edeltraut’s urging and with her blessing become close and later fall in love.

The film is full of tender, funny, glorious scenes rarely seen in cinema: Daniel, a romantic adolescent at heart in spite of his age and girth, trying to find some sexual privacy from his mother and rapturously dancing naked to Ravel. He looks like a middle-aged Dumbo and is just as sweet. The mother peeks through the keyhole of course, and fondly: there’s total love and intimacy between them. In another scene, after they’ve become a couple, Daniel’s young son comes to play at Sven’s and the focus is on Sven’s displeasure at the son’s rudeness, a refusal to simply melt away and disappear when children appear on the scene, that many gay people will recognize (and they’re all in his house! His indignation is funny but also palpable and true).

Sven and Daniel are made for each other. They laugh at the same things, understand each other. They delight in the other’s craziness. There’s a marvelous scene where they all sing and dance in the living room, drink to excess, have a glorious time, each applauding the outrageousness of the other, the mother joyful at it all. That night she dies. They’ve given her the perfect send-off —  a life ending presumably as its been lived, with love and laughter; and she’s given them the platform through which their relationship can develop.

I love this film even though it looks like it was shot with a handheld camera of not-very-high resolution by people who didn’t understand the fundamentals of light: the image is thin and  scenes get into shade all of a sudden and for no reason. Yet, in spite of its look, emotionally each scene plays well and holds true. I also didn’t understand the ending: Sven kicks Daniel out because of all of the problems with his son and goes to Australia, which is meant to signify a new start and a new life. But will Sven ever find someone who he can be so easy, so himself so amused and loved as with Daniel? It presumably took him fifty years to find Daniel. Why didn’t they just work it out? We want them to. And think of how rare it is today to ‘want’ something for characters (other than a slap and a quick end).

A tender, loving look at the travails of not good-looking, not-rich, no-longer young people that is sweet, funny, tender and has some beautiful and daring performances. Very much worth a look.

José Arroyo

Seen at Kitoks Kinas, Vilnius, July 30th.

The Heat (Paul Feig, USA, 2013)

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Everyone is so happy to have a comedy that isn’t ugly, gross, adolescent, and stupid that they’re falling all over themselves to praise The Heat. Except The Heat is pretty ugly: do even comedies have to look like the side of a warship now? It’s also ugly in spirit: If Melissa McCarthy’s family in the film were Black or Hispanic instead of Irish, activists would rightly be up in arms; it’s one nasty stereotype of Boston Irish after another; and all put there to get you to laugh at their expense: aren’t they stupid, uneducated, vulgar, etc. etc. The film’s  also pretty gross; it’s all body humour — small nuts, things falling out of vaginas, etc. – except we’re supposed to praise Allah because it’s women being gross. As to adolescent, the film’s emotional moment is that Sandra Bullock was so unpopular in high school that only a teacher wrote on her year-book, so by the end, warm, ebullient, ‘down’ Melissa McCarthy writes something nice in it and claims her as a ‘sister’. But, you know, Sandra Bullock is old enough to be a grandmother several times over and she looks every year of it, face lifts or no. Isn’t she a bit old to still be worrying about, well the film says 1982, but there are doubters; and really, if at her time of life the only relationship in her life is her neighbour’s kitty…well I won’t go on. We can and do suspend disbelief.  The Heat is another of Bullock’s transformation narratives: she goes from being the kind of snarky, friendless, controlling person who’s always right to being soul-sister to Melissa McCarthy,  ‘earthy’ and ‘real’  but without having to get fat — neither the film nor Bullock is stupid. It’s a high-concept female buddy film that works; it does have plenty of belly laughs; and it does pass the Bedschel test with flying colours. Moreover, Bullock’s timing continues to be ace, Paul Feig times knows how to direct the gags, and Melissa McCarthy is the most joyous presence in American cinema today. It’s not a great comedy but  as a wise man once said, perhaps in Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be, ‘oh, I wouldn’t sneeze at a laugh’. The Heat offers plenty of reasons not to sneeze.

José Arroyo

A Note on Dial M for Murder

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Dial M for Murder

(Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1954)

I saw Dial M for Murder in 3-D last night and what struck me most is what a bad actress Grace Kelly really was and how little that matters when you look and dress like that in a Hitchcock film. She’s just stunning in that red Edward Carrere dress with the matching lace shrug (though the shrug itself, cutting into her armpits as it does,  is badly designed — we can understand why Hitchcock would move on to Edith Head). Also, The use of 3-D WAS and remains exceptional. The whole film is about the control of space, control over how things are placed in that living room, and the fear and terror any misplacement of things within that space incurs, as things being out of place  could and do lead to death. Kelly is able to save herself because her scissors aren’t where they’re supposed to be. And of course, the keys, the key to the crime, the whole resolution to the mystery, relies on first finding out where they are, then where they’re supposed to be, and then realigning where they’re supposed to have been in the light of whose they were. It’s all about the placement of things in space, just like  in a 3-D movie. It’s a fascinating exercise. Hitchcock uses quite long fluid takes, sometimes the 3-D is not for effect, except obviously at the climax, but simply to build a 3-Dimensional look for that space. A lamp, a phone, a purse is what anchors it. They’re where they’re supposed to be. Wonderful to see.

Aside from applauding at the concept, at the 3-D and at the execution, one really is left wondering about actors. I mean Kelly is not good but beautiful, Ray Milland is past his prime, well, he never really had a prime but he’s ok. But Robert Cummings? I’m sure Hitchcock had reasons for his casting but I’m sure they couldn’t have had anything to do with making the film better. He seems fit only for something like Bewitched, as Samantha’s husband perhaps,

 

José Arroyo

Brotherhood/ Broderskab (Nicolo Donato, Denmark, 2009)

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Thure Lindhardt stars as Lars, an officer from a well-to-do and well-connected family who is effectively discharged from the military for making a pass at two sub-ordinates. At loose ends and disaffected, he joins a neo-Nazi skinhead group. He rises quickly through the ranks, finds fraternity there but falls in love with Jimmy (David Dencik), another former military man but from a lower class. Jimmy reciprocates Lars’ feelings and they enjoy a brief idyll before they’re discovered and all hell breaks loose.

It’s a melodramatic story, one with no way out for its protagonists, and very depressing to see. Why someone like Lars would join a neo-Nazi skinhead group rather than just dance his tits off at a skinhead night in some club and pick someone up on his way out is not made clear. In fact the film seems barely conscious of the place of the figure of the skinhead in gay erotic subcultures, much less that there might be anti-Nazi left-wing gay skinhead associations (what’s fetishized is the look — thin men, head shaved, Doc Martin boots under rolled-up tight jeans – and a ritualized violence in sex that can verge on the extreme: Cazzo films made the production of such films addressed to a gay market its specialism in porn).

David Dencik as Jimmy is very good: one can understand his wrench in giving up his ‘family’ for Lars. There’s a wonderful appearance also by Nicolas Bro, who some might remember from The Killing, as ‘Fatty’ the leader of the neo-Nazi gang. But the camera really focuses on Thure Lindhardt; he’s the reason to see the film; and not only because his superb performance in Keep the Lights On (Ira Sachs, USA, 2012) remains so memorable. Here, he comes across as goofy, calculating and un-theatrically masculine; that combination of ordinary and extraordinary that stars are said to have. The film has a wonderful scene where he’s in the shower, steam rising form his body, mouth open, gaze on Jimmy steady, longing  palpable, that is as wonderful an evocation of desire as I’ve seen on film.

I also liked that the film doesn’t condemn the skin-head gang outright. One does get a sense of the anxieties, fears and all kinds of social exclusions and oppressions that drive them to form such a ‘family’. However, it’s a film of very partial pleasures; there are too many things in the story that don’t quite make sense; the film has some beautiful shots but the direction and pacing of those shots sometimes feels purposeless; and overall, and in spite of my anticipation, I found the film a bit of a trial to sit through:  it’s not sexy enough to make up for its relative lack of insight.

José Arroyo

Seen at Kitoks Kinas, Vilnius, July 29th 2013

 

Broderskab

Only God Forgives (Nicholas Winding Refn, France/USA/ Thailand/ Sweden, 2013)

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If films had a smell, humid wafts of drug-propelled sweat, sperm and blood would emanate from Only God Forgives. It’s a feverish nightmare of a movie, like Blue Velvet but without the desire. Here there’s only the dread of sex and the wish for violence, as ritualized as possible but explicit. The film has a wonderful soundtrack where every sound is rendered distinct but all-enclosing; one feels entranced in a vacuum, a shared but private dream, already clammy with dank and damp. The film is dedicated to Alejandro Jodowrosky, and the violence makes one understand why this is so. But the film also made me think of the Fassbinder of Querelle, all fevered renderings of the forbidden, slow-moving and not fully intelligible,  on the verge of being laughable but prevented from being so by the potency of their presentation. Kristin Scott-Thomas, looking like Donatella Versace and acting like a real housewife of New Jersey, is the mafia Medea who might just as easily fuck her children as kill them. The film is like a fragment of a nightmare, a glowing neon-noir: hypnotic, entrancing, scary, disgusting. It doesn’t have anything to do with any world I recognize yet I’m already finding it hard to shake off. Kristian Eidnes Andersen designed the sound. Larry Smith was in charge of the cinematography. Both deserve applause.

José Arroyo

American Vagabond (Susanna Helke and Mary Morgan, Denmark/Finland/ USA, 2013)

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A feature documentary about a young man, James Temple, barely 18, life made impossible by his family for being gay, who runs away to San Francisco in the hope of finding a gay paradise. Instead he finds hunger, homelessness, and a desperate if short-lived descent into prostitution. The America we see in all kinds of films today is no longer that of the ‘American Dream’. You have to be brave in this America but that’s because it’s no longer free and it’s no longer just. What’s wrong with a family who prefers to see their child hungry, cold, homeless, abused and sold so that they can uphold their ‘Christian’ principles? What’s wrong with a country that puts a nice teenage boy in jail for three years and permanently stains him as a pedophile because he slept with another teenage boy who was under two years younger? What’s worse is that once the boy is put in jail, that family becomes his main source of support. One comes out of this film in a rage against that family, that system of injustice, this shocking, new and barbaric America. Russia is brutalising its gay youth officially; America no less efficiently for being unofficial. In ‘The Swimmers’ a short story written for The Saturday Evening Post ( 19th of October 1929),  F. Scott Fitzgerald writes, ‘France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea…was a willingness of the heart.’ This makes one ask where is that willingness of the heart now in America? Or has that heart withered so  its only willingness is for hurting its young, its poor and its weak? The film is crude, unsophisticated and lacks texture: but it sure does the job.

José Arroyo

Seen at Kitoks Kinas, Vilnius, July 29th, 2013

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The Country Teacher/ Venkovský ucitel (Bohdan Sláma, Czech Republic, 2008)

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Petr (Pavel Liska), young, shy, gifted, arrives in a rural village from Prague to teach science. How will he fit in? Why has he left Prague? The film has a lovely feel for nature and for rural life; people take each other milk in bottles as gifts, calving becomes a metaphor for people’s relationships, some people are allowed to make love naturally, almost openly, in haystacks; others aren’t. The narrative  is designed around three sets of structuring tensions: the city vs the country; one urban, ambitious, controlling mother vs one who farms, gets by, and is understanding without being a pushover; and two sets of sons, a highly educated and sensitive gay boy who moves to the countryside and an equally sensitive boy with learning difficulties who wants to move to Prague and win back his girlfriend. The film looks beautiful and makes one long to experience the Czech countryside. It also succeeds in showing, with insight and delicacy, multiple ways of being and various ways of life that still exist, co-exist, and happily, today. As the tagline to the film’s poster says, ‘Everybody needs someone’; the film is quite moving in showing how this somebody one needs might not necessarily be who one thought, expected or initially desired.  I also loved the performance of Zuzana Bydzovská as Marie. She looks like Katharine Hepburn, exudes the rueful worldliness of Jeanne Moreau but can ride a tractor like nobody’s business. The film’s main fault is in its climax which I found self-abasing to the point of self-hatred and which almost ruined this lovely film for me.

José Arroyo

the country teacher

Seen at Kitoks Kinas, Vilnius, July 26th, 2013

Labyrinth of Passion (A note on) (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain, 1982)

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The film is over thirty years old now, still potent, and now seems a lot darker than it used to, with the incest and the rapes taking on a different significance in the light of Almodóvar’s subsequent work. I first saw it in the mid-1980s at a packed midnight screening at the Alphaville cinema in Madrid where the audience itself made the event seem a party for and a celebration of what the film represented (a new way of being in a new Spain) and of themselves (a postmodern coalition of dissident youth cultures, gay and straight, with a shared view of the past and shared hopes for the future). The audience knew all the lines and uttered them before the characters in the film did, with the appearances of Fabio de Miguel as Fanny McNamara being greeted with particular enthusiasm (he remains a highlight, his very presence a witty and forceful protest against domineering institutions and homogenizing ideology).

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This 25th of July, over thirty years later, it was the opening film at Kitoks Kinas, the LGBT film festival in Vilnius, introduced by His Excellency Don Miguel Arias Estévez in front a whole host of dignitaries (Ambassadors from The Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Denmark etc.). Lithuania is going through a transition not unlike what Spain went through in the 1980s. The right to a Gay Pride March through Vilnius City Centre was against the wishes of the City’s Mayor, had to be fought all the way through to the Supreme Court, and was won only just before the march itself, which took place in the face of vociferous right-wing opposition. It was an honour to be there and to participate. The Spanish Ambassador gave a witty and elegant introduction to the film explaining why it had been chosen to open the LGBT film festival in Vilnius and what it had meant to his generation in Spain.

Labyrinth of Passion was never a masterpiece. It is technically rough and the shoe-string budget (reported then at 20 million pesetas) is everywhere evident. However, it’s still cheeky, corrosive, queer punk at its best. Worth seeing for many reasons not least Fabio McNamara, early appearances from mainstays of Spanish-speaking film and TV such as Immanol Arias and Cecilia Roth and Antonio Banderas’ very first appearance on film, already fearless as an actor and clearly a star from the get-go, as a gay Muslim terrorist with pictures of the Ayatollah on his wall and an unerring sense of smell.

The scene with the sniffing of the nail polish, and the one where Almodóvar himself directs Fanny in a fotonovela where Fanny is pleasured by having his heart and his guts drilled, are still hilarious (and we get to see Almodóvar and McNamara in a rare, crudely camp performance of ‘Satanasa’ as well). And of course, all of Almodóvar’s themes (sexual identity, gender, uncontrollable desires, consumer culture, various kinds of violations, etc) are already present, some in scenes that recur and get better executed in later films (for example, the chase to the airport that we later see in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown but many others as well).

 

Seeing the film again all these years later made me reflect on camp humour, and how the film’s deployment of it now seems so culturally specific. The film went over well but not brilliantly in Vilnius and I suspect it’s because some of the humour is simply untranslatable. One of the things that fascinates me about camp is that the structure of its operations seems to be transnational, you find it almost everywhere, certainly everywhere I’ve been to. But its specific manifestations are often highly coded, work on various levels simultaneously and only manifest to a few, those in the know. The reference points to La Movida, the pop and underground culture of the era, even the narrative woven by Hola (Hello magazine) throughout the 1960s about the tragedy of the Shah of Iran having to divorce Soraya, the woman he loved, because she couldn’t bear him children, the basis for the film’s story, all of these sets of knowledges that enhance one’s appreciation of the film, I don’t find to be essential.

However, much of the camp humour in Labyrinth of Passion comes not only from situation, which is relatively easy to get, in spite of missing specific references, but from dialogue. Almodóvar is simply brilliant at everyday quotidian dialogue. I sometimes felt that I could close my eyes when seeing his films and hear my aunts.  But in this film more than others, those phrases work on multiple levels: who says them, the intonation with which they’re spoken, whether a line is inflected at beginning or end; all bring different meanings, draw on different sets of knowledges, set the perfect pitch and the optimum timing for the punch-line: the Vilnius audience only got the visual. Might this now be true of all audiences except the generation of Spaniards who grew up around the moment of the transition?

It’s worth remembering that the film was made a year after Colonel Tejero’s armed intervention in the Spanish Cortes, the coup that failed; that only a few years earlier, Almodóvar would have been arrested for such representations had they been possible; that in 1982 there was no guarantee that there would not be a political reversal (much as the situation now in the aftermath of the Arab Spring).  To dare to make a film as nasty, as queer, as funny as this one in that context: no Spanish artist of the last four decades has been braver or more true to himself. Few have grown, developed and improved as much as he did since Labyrinth also. The film works best as a document of its time. Yet, the wit, the daring, the corrosive critique, the in-your-face queerness of it all still thrills, still shocks, still makes it worth seeing at any time.

José Arroyo

The Wolverine (James Mangold, USA, 2013)

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You gift filmmakers a fantastic imaginary world, characters that are mythic yet three-dimensional, wonderful actors who can play them; and you get…. The Wolverine? It doesn’t seem a fair exchange. The story is good if predictable but structured around dream sequences with Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) that don’t quite work; the set-pieces are sometimes very imaginative (I love the tactile bed we see in the trailer) and there is a truly superb villain in The Viper (a magnificent Svetlana Khodchenkova). For fans of the comic book, the fact that the story is set in Japan, will also have special resonance (and the way Japan is designed for this film makes for a joyous setting). The film seems to have all the ingredients for a great film but everything seems slack, even the humour seems off-rhythm and badly timed, the punch-line arriving after the audience’s already got the joke.

It’s a proficient movie but I didn’t feel moved or thrilled; and the film never once made me feel part of a somewhat embittered community of the alienated and disaffected who shared higher morals and ideals than the world depicted, the way the various x-men comic books at their best did. There’s a lot of talk at the moment about declining audiences and the industry trying to figure out whether it’s changing ways of viewing, or marketing, or delivery platforms. But really they should look at the films; all the big-budget ones seem to be made by a transnational committee and by-the-book but also by-passing feeling altogether; and if films don’t engage with dreams, hopes, aspiration, conditions of existence or the way people think and feel, see and/or experience, what’s the point of them (other than to make one feel a feeder for some corporation’s bank-balance)? And I suppose that’s the problem with this film; it’s ok but so what? And that in itself is a condemnation of the present industry because these are great characters in a superb imaginary world that audiences have loved and identified with for decades and the filmmakers have been given a lot of money to turn it all into a movie. If ok but so what is the response you get, you didn’t deserve to get to make the movie.

José Arroyo

Design for Living (Ernst Lubitsch, USA, 1933)

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

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

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

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

José Arroyo

Tonight or Never (Mervyn LeRoy, USA, 1931)

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

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

José Arroyo

Swanson wears Chanel
Swanson wears Chanel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

José Arroyo

(July 22nd, 2013)

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

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Winter's Bone 

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

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

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

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

8.1
fig. 8.1

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

 

fig. 9.1
fig. 9.1

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

fig. 5.2
fig. 5.2

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

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

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

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

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

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

José Arroyo.