A Monster Calls

Brief Flashes on Viewing and Reading in January

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Jackie (Pablo Larrain, Chile/France/ USA, 2016)

A complex story about story-telling, about the relationship between truth and legend, about the imaging of history, the shaping it through the construction of particular images to render them iconic, so memorable that history is not only read through them but actually reifies into those images themselves. Natalie Portman is extraordinary. I can’t think of any other actress who’s had so many demands made on her by one movie in the last year; on a surface level — in terms of what one likes — she carries the whole thing (though I also perked up at the first sounds of Richard Burton singing ‘Camelot’). Portman and her work are what emotionally engage. The achievements of the film itself — like with Larrain’s other work — are too intellectual, too distancing to be encompassed or warmed through a word such as ‘like’. One ends up cooly admiring, rather dispassionately, and perhaps as a result, the mind doesn’t linger over the ideas too long either. One knows it’s extraordinary but one wants to move on, quickly, to something warmer and more instantly gratifying…and yet the story and its telling won’t quite let you and pull you back to thought.

Manchester By the Sea (Kenneth Lonnergan, USA, 2016)

The moment when Michelle Williams appears with the baby carriage in Manchester by the Sea….it’s like the whole audience collectively opens up the tearducts, and they stay open to varying degrees –from trickle to full flow — until the end. I’ve not seen anything like this since Terms of Endearment, and Manchester by the Sea earns its tears more honestly.

Rebecca Meade in a wonderful piece on Lonnergan for the New Yorker gives us an insight on the infinite accumulation of detail that makes this such a great movie:

‘Affleck, another of Lonergan’s longtime friends and collaborators, says that he and Lonergan spent hours discussing how Lee Chandler’s character is revealed not just in his words but also by his unthinking actions. In one harrowing scene, Chandler is shown clutching a bag of groceries. “That was written into the script—that he is holding this bag. It was one of the few scenes where, when I read it, I thought, What is going on here?” Affleck told me. “I thought, Well, if I have to get upset, I can get myself to feeling upset. But why does he want me holding a bag? Then, when we came to do the scene, it made perfect sense. The character—he doesn’t scream and gnash his teeth and pull out his hair. He is just clamped down on himself. From that moment, he tightens up. So once I just held on to the bag I thought, This is how the rest of the moment ought to play out. He is just trying to hold on, and that ends up carrying over to so much more. He never lets himself have any sort of catharsis or release in any way.” It was, Affleck said, “an example where I learned to have faith in the writing, and in Kenny. It seemed like a little detail, but it made so many other things work.”

La La Land (Damien Chazelle, USA, 2016)

At the end of La La Land the audience’s need to applaud was palpable but only a few people managed to overcome their shyness.It’s not perfect but it is romantic and sad with many sequences that make one feel happy at the rhythm and the movement and the colour, like musicals should. The things one loves in musicals are often ineffable (the way Ryan Gosling ends his dance steps for example). Personally, if I’d had any guts myself, I would have started applauding after the duet at the beginning when Ryan and Emma first dance together. It’s a lovely film. The expected backlash is ridiculous, and building. I find it obnoxious because a: the film was a risk to make, on a tight budget, and it’s success in no way assured b) it seems anti-populist and popular, echoing that old elitist self-delusion that anything that masses of people enjoy can’t possibly be any good c) there’s more than a hint of, I wouldn’t say misoginy but anti-feminine, anti-art, anti-pretty sentiment in that backlash, all which come across as macho whether it’s expressed by men or women.Jonathan Rosenbaum beautiful expresses the pull of the film by highlighting the sadness in it: ‘A fact about many of the greatest musicals (and greatest post-musicals, such as those of Jacques Demy that Damien Chazelle is so obviously emulating) that characteristically gets overlooked, which is how much the elation of song and dance is only half of a dialectic that also highlights failure, hopelessness, and defeat.’ This is very true of La La Land and is a necessary component to the utopian dimension expressed by the musical numbers. If there’s a better musical than La La Land since All that Jazz what is it?  Chicago? Mamma Mia? Burlesque? Rock of Ages? La La Land might not be perfect but it’s perfect for me.

A Monster Calls (J.A. Bayona, USA/Spain, 2016)

Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, and Geraldine Chaplin, all in one film. the latter with one black dot painted right in the centre of heavily mascaraed lower lids. The film, A Monster Calls, is directed with great skill and sensitivity by J.A. Bayona –for a film dramatising a child dealing with his mother’s death of cancer, it’s incomparably restrained — and is almost as good as The Orphanage, the great Spanish horror film that made his international reputation.I like the way this is done almost as a gothic horror film/ fairy tale. My complaints would be in relation to the looks (it still has that metallic tinge I hate, though other aspects look beautiful or seem really imaginative); and also the accents: Sigourney’s English sounds a bit ridiculous. The rest I liked very much and the child is wonderful.We’re spoiled at the moment and A Monster Calls is yet another of the great crop of recent films. Will the 2016 vintage challenge 1939?

Sing Street (John Carney, Ireland/UK/ USA, 2016)

The other great musical of the season is Sing Street; on Netflix at the moment and totally charming.

Grey Gardens at the LGBT Centre in Central Birmingham:

For a while last week we were afraid no one would turn up for the Grey Gardens (Ellen Hovde,/Albert Maysles/ David Maysles/Muffie Meyer, USA, 1975) event at the LGBT centre. But eventually 12-15 braved the weather and slowly trudged in. I did not know the film had become so canonical in the annals of American camp until I started talking to friends about showing and then all instances came out (comedic sketches, RuPaul drag race take-offs etc). Interestingly, the audience for this screening were mostly women, the mother-daughter aspect of the film clearly trumping the camp dimension gay boys find so entertaining, emotional engagement clearly winning over ironic distancing.

Thoughts arising from reading Felice Picano’s many, many –too many – memoirs:

I think it’s just a question of time before this is written about at least as much as Bloomsbury: the artistic circles in which Pauline Kael, James Broughton (father of Kael’s daughter and lover of Harry Hay, founder of Mattachine Society, Radical Faerie and a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence), Robert Duncan (involved with Kael and Robert DeNiro Sr.), Virginia Admiral (artist, mother to DeNiro Jr and partner of critic Manny Farber), Robert Horn (involved with Kael again but also Gian Carlo Menotti etc), and many many more key figures in American Arts of the 20th century all intersected sexually and artistically. A great PhD project for someone. You’re welcome.

José Arroyo