For the first time, Eavesdropping at the Movies is not talking about a film… or is it? Game of Thrones spent eight years and countless millions of dollars in pursuit of cinematic production values, visual spectacle, and the world’s unquestioning fealty and attention. Is it television? Is it film? Is it something in between? How can we even talk about it if we can’t define our terms?
Well, after 73 episodes, HBO’s epic, brutal, violent, sexy, melodramatic fantasy has finally reached its conclusion, and everybody’s been watching. José’s been watching it since it started. Mike’s been watching it since last month. Did it end well? What made it interesting to watch? How did it change over the years? What of Podrick? All these questions and more might be answered in this spoilerific conversation.
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The first part of Marvel’s ending to the unendable story wallops us with two and a half hours of punching and planets. Mike is even more gullible than usual. Jose stays cynical and rightly so. The film leads to discussions on whether we can actually find themes in it, the leaps of faith necessary to buy into it, the way in which we can’t help but buy into the story logic in the way we talk about it, and the nature of even trying to talk about corporate assets this enormous. It all gets quite meta. Jose mentions the state of modern America again. We bring up Call Me by Your Name somehow.
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King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is typical Guy Ritchie, all the Cockney crim faux-mateyness — even in Camelot! — with that amped up camera movement that doesn’t quite let the audience see, and the narrative cheats — the seeing and the re-seeing –through characters’ re-telling the story. The narrative this time encased in a by-the-book Oedipal structure. And yet I found it great fun.
I like all the macho schtik and the fast pace and the cheekyness. Plus it’s a good looking cast, which always helps. Charlie Hunnam’s never been more appealing on a big screen and it’s got Eric Bana, Jude Law and a host of excellent Brit actors relishing their parts. The film looked darker than I would have liked. But some of the fantasy/magical images were very striking (if edging on sexist — the octopus/snake witches!).
I also loved the film’s picturing of Londinium, which looks a grand riverside ruin with one of those busy bridges with shops and brothels and so on; full of Roman architecture, including remains of a Coliseum, Roman palaces etc.. The film must have been greatly influenced by the Scott Lynch’s ‘Gentlemen Thieves’ books like The Republic of Thieves or perhaps Game of Thrones because it’s all about King Arthur growing to be a man by leading a hard-knock life as a petty thief raised by a gaggle of prostitutes in a brothel instead of growing up true blue on a farm as traditional renderings have it.
It’s not good but it is fun if you don’t ask too much of it. And it was all worth it to witness the Queer as Folk re-union between Hunnam and Aiden Gillen: hey honeytits! I found it perfect rainy day Saturday afternoon viewing.
Walking through Birmingham City Centre yesterday, I saw the image pictured above and I thought, ‘Why is Jon Snow advertising Jimmy Choo?’ I at first didn’t realise the ad was for perfume and was picturing Jon Snow with his shaggy hair and his furs — an essential accessory for Castle Black but also such a gorgeous backdrop to his brooding face — now wearing Jimmy Choo heels through the ramparts of The Wall, perhaps hoping the heels would lift him up from the cloud of melancholy that always seems to surround him.
It then struck me that I had referred to the image as Jon Snow rather than Kit Harington. That never happens when I see Leonardo DiCaprio flog TAG Heuer watches: there it’s always Leo. And what ‘Leo’ means has changed and expanded over time. ‘Leo’ is polysemic: he is Romeo, Gatsby, Howard Hughes; he is also the characters he played in Titanic (James Cameron, USA, 1997), Inception (Christopher Nolan, USA, 2010), The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorcese, USA, 2013); he’s a great actor and the biggest box office star of his generation; he’s also someone who shags models, works to enhance social awareness of endangered species and climate change and dances like one’s dad.
Now, I have seen Kit Harington in Pompeii (Paul W. S. Anderson, USA, 2014) and in Spooks: The Greater Good (Bharat Nalluri, UK, 2015) so why does he remain Jon Snow? Does it have to do with the degree of stardom? I don’t think so. Harington is as hot an actor as any at the moment; that’s why he’s had big-budget films built around him; and indeed that’s why he’s being paid to flog perfume by Jimmy Choo. Does it have to do with differences between stardom in one medium or another? Again, in the past I would have said yes. But I don’t think that’s any longer true. James Garner, Matthew McConnaughey, Woody Harrelson, Charlie Sheen and many others since at least the fifties have had enormous success on television without being solely identified with one character. Perhaps it’s process. After all, Clint Eastwood was ‘Rowdy Yates’ throughout America for years before he became ‘Clint Eastwood’.
So, let’s say it’s not about intensity or extent of stardom, or even the medium in which that stardom was first created and took hold; let’s say that it’s merely about polysemy and intensity, about the power and range of different meanings signified by a star sign, such as Kit Harington’s face. But in that case, is Kit Harington ‘The Jimmy Choo Man’ or is it Jon Snow. If the latter, wouldn’t it be appropriate for Harington to hand over some of what he got paid over to whomever owns the image rights to Jon Snow? Isn’t the image for sale on the basis of its meanings here not that of Kit Harington but of Jon Snow? or at best, that of Kit-Harington-as-Jon-Snow? I suppose the two are one in the public imagination. Kit Harington’s face and body is what now embodies Jon Snow; it’s how Jon Snow is signified. In the novels, we each had our own view of him. Now Kit Harington gives flesh to Jon Snow; and we like that embodiment so much that it can be commodified and put for sale; it has an economic value; but until Kit Harington becomes ‘Kit Harington’ does he have the right to commodify Jon Snow and attach those meanings to a scent? Does Kit Harington have the right to get rich from what Jon Snow might mean to an audience? Just a thought.
How does Game of Thrones manage to juggle so many characters and such convoluted plots in a way that makes sense but without losing complexity and whilst furthering the narrative? One of the ways is by keeping the structure simple, breaking it up into distinct but linked sections, ensuring that each picks up logically from where the last one left off, and building into at least each of the larger units a question for the viewer that incites a desire for an answer that will have to wait for later, usually the next episode.
The fourth episode, Sons of the Harpy, was 50m21s long. I had assumed all episodes were the exact same length but I now see that they’re not; the previous episode, High Sparrow was 59m50s, the next one, Kill the Boy, will be 56m37s. In this one, the narrative proper begins 1m53s into the episode, after the celebrated opening credits, and ends at 48m59s, before the closing ones. Episode Three ended with the kidnapping of Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) leaving us unsure as to whom did it and why. The fourth episode begins by providing an answer: it’s Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) and his aim will become clearer later on. This sequence lasts just over a minute and at 2.57, whilst one brother is being moved on a barge in one direction, the other, Jamie Lannister (Nicolaj Coster-Waldeau) is on a boat headed to Dorne to bring his daughter/niece back home to King’s Landing without causing war between Westeros and Dorne. This segment is also very brief and 5m47s into the episode, we’re with Cersei Lannister, the mother of Jamie Lannister’s daughter/niece Myrcella (Aimee Richardson), where we will linger for about ten minutes until 15m48 seconds into the narrative.
What one can extract from this is that one of the things that links the first three episodes is that they all revolve around the Lannister siblings. There are also further connections: Tyrion has been kidnapped after Jamie freed him; thus Tyrion is free only to be kidnapped; in Jamie’s segment, the second one, Jamie promises to split Tyrion’s head in two should he run into him; visually they are linked by boats and water (see figs a & b above). In turn, Jamie and Cersei are linked by their daughter, Myrcella, whom Cersei has commanded Jamie to bring home and is the reason for Jamie’s voyage; visually we’re shown them in the same glowing honey-brown palette (see fig.1 and fig. 2 below).
This all raises interesting questions Raymond Bellour once posed in relation to cinema: how to categorise for analysis? What is a segment? What is a sequence? What is a scene? I won’t presume to try and answer those questions here but will merely indicate that, if one takes unity of character, place and action as foundational criteria, then one would take what I’ve just described above as three different scenes. But if one takes it to a different level of generalisation, one can argue that the episode has just spent the first 15 minutes on the Lannisters and then goes on to spend another 15 minutes on the house of Stark (from 15m48 on Jon Snow and Castle Black and from 25min to 30m16 on Sansa Stark at Winterfell) which has it’s own kind of balance. The standard unit seems to be of about ten minutes and this episode has four such units: Cersei’s at King’s Landing, Jon Snow at Castle Black, later Jamie Lannister’s story line at Dorne and finally the episode with Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) with the rest of the smaller units used as a narrative thread, as rhyming and echoing devices, as comparison or counterpoint to what leads or follows from it, and sometimes simply as a reminder that these other stories are still in process, still at play and will be returned to with an accretion of events and meaning and rendered more complex and richer.
What I found fascinating about each of the ten minute slots is that they offer a staggering amount of plot, most typically conveyed via dialogue and in medium close-up and with striking side-lighting as a characteristic stylistic device (see fig. 3 above) . Thus, in the first segment with Cersei, she ships her daughter-in-law’s father off to Braavos, solidifies her power by making her council as small as possible, resuscitates the Faith Militant — a military religious order previously extinct for two hundred years — and arms them, makes High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce) High Septon, they get so powerful they arrest the brother of the queen and block entrance to the king himself. The new Faith Militant go on a bloody rampage, raiding brothels and killing deviants and infidels like a new Inquisition.
This is only scratching the surface of the plot of this ten minute section; it goes on even further and in more convoluted ways, like a ‘30s Warners film; and like a ‘30s Warners film everything is elegant, spare, understandable, necessary; you get told exactly what you need to know and it all makes sense. And this can be seen as a particular accomplishment since some of the characters have been given names that are equivalent to those in Russian novels — so difficult to remember and write. I also find it hard to keep track of the story, not a problem when viewing, a particular accomplishment of the televisual story-telling — but becomes one when trying to remember, analyse and write here. Mind you, I read the novels when they came out and had forgotten pretty much everything by the time I got to see the show. So keeping all the narrative elements in play, focused, and clear and easy to follow whilst viewing is but one of the particular triumphs of this series.
I also found it interesting that within each of the roughly ten minute sections, the focus of the narrative often moves away from the central protagonist. Thus the section on Jon Snow and Castle Black moves from Jon Snow, his concerns, and Melisandre’s attempt to seduce him into supporting Stannis Baratheon’s crusade against the Boltons, and puts the focus on Stannis’ daughter, her disfigurement, her mother’s guilt at only having borne her husband a daughter — and such a disfigured one! — the daughter’s concern that her father doesn’t love her as a result, and the father’s complete reassurance of his love; something that will have such repercussions later on in the series. This moving the narrative focus from the principal character in the section onto others so that supporting characters – their desires, motivations and actions – are put into focus is also to be found in the section on Jamie Lannister that begins at 30m16 and ends at 39 min; and also on the section on Daenerys which begins at 42.28 and ends at 48m59s.
The episode is also structured around rhyming sequences, thus the spectacular violence of the Faith Militant in the first 15 minutes of the show is echoed in the spectacular violence of the Sons of the Harpy. There are also other rhymings: Like I discussed in relation to the first episode, the image is kept relatively simple with the eye drawn at most to a few elements see figure four above) or a clear arrangement of a handful of elements to be rendered not only delightful but legible on a smaller screen, even when in complex and spectacular shots (see fig. 5)); the use of change of focus that I described as so elegant and meaningful in Episode Three is also used here (this episode is also directed by Mark Mylod) but I found it a bit coarser, too obviously underlining what didn’t need to be (see clip below). Lastly the type of sweeping spectacular reveal that I discussed in Episode Two is also evident throughout this episode, but most interestingly in the last shot, which like the last segment in the previous episode poses questions that will be answered in the next one. ‘Cliffhanger’ endings seem to be typical of the series.
Thus, to summarise, in spite of the complex plot, the array of characters, the obscure names and convoluted array of kinship and alliances, the episode is made easily understandable by being kept simple with the main sections kept at approximately ten minutes each, generally with four sections per episode, but threaded through with smaller ones that echo, or rhyme with previous ones but that also help set the context for the subsequent one; there is a logical order to the episodes both thematically (clans) and also stylistically (use of colour or rhyming contexts); there is also a clear but melodramatic conveyance of plot with cliffhangers from episode to episode, usually through dialogue and in close-up. The episodes are tied together through familial relationships, or through editing on lighting or objects (see, for example, how the candle in front of Stannis Barathean motivates the cut at 25m to the episode with Sansa). The complex plot is also made manageable through a consistent use of stylistic devices within each episode and from episode to episode in spite of the different directors that work on each. I’m sure there will be more thoughts, shorter, and clearer, once I’ve thought this all through a bit more. But the main message is obviously that there are a lot of complex structural factors that go into making the storytelling in Game of Thrones so clear, elegant and satisfying.
In ‘High Sparrow; the third episode of Game of Thrones S5, the series continues to impress by the conscious expressiveness of its mise-en-scène, the way that it creates a sense of place of where the action happens that is tied to a mood the work wants to convey that in turn expresses meaning, partly through the use décor, costuming and lighting on its own, partly through a more overt symbolisation of those elements.
Place is of course central –Winterfell, Castle Black but also and more specifically the Gladiatorial Coliseum of Meereem, the House of Black and White in Braavos, etc. Each place is tied to one narrative thread; it is symbolic of a home, a kingdom, and is itself sometimes a pawn in a struggle for dominance. I will come back to this in a later post and demonstrate how each of these places and thus each of these narratives is visualised for us to evoke, express and also to narrate. But for now I just want to indicate a few things that caught my eye in the third episode.
The episode is called ‘High Sparrow’ because this is where we’re introduced to the character played by Jonathan Pryce but it seems to me that it’s as much about marriage, the promise of its surface, the lack of agency those it is offered to have in its acceptance or rejection, the threat the state of matrimony poses to the newlyweds and those they are newly allied to. And all of these elements it seems to me are symbolised in the still below:
Cersei’s son Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman) is marrying Margaery Tyrrell (Natalie Dormer), a much desired union politically. But what’s symbolised by the shot is the horrible ramifications such a union will have on the status of Cersei (Lena Headey) and thus on the power that she will wield; will she now be known as Queen Mother or Dowager Queen? or perhaps, hopefully soon, Queen Grandmother? is Margaery’s taunt to Cersei. Each of those is a step closer to political irrelevance; and the need for Cersei’s plotting to involve the High Sparrow in order to control any such new re-distribution of power and to maintain her hold is perfectly symbolised by the shot. What’s important is not the marriage per se, but the affect of that marriage on Cersei, and the steps she will put in motion to ensure she will be the focus and centre of power in spite of Margaery now having much closer and much more intimate contact with the King than any mother could. Cersei will try her best to do her worst and cause that union to fade.
The use of a shift in focus is also made very expressive in the scene in which Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) gives Jon Snow (Kit Harington) his opinion of what he should do with Ollie (Brennock O’Connor) sitting behind and looking on. It’s an intimate scene, just the two men and the boy, with the shots alternating between those of Jon Snow filmed largely from below in medium close-up and those of Davos and Ollie, with Davos in the foreground and Ollie behind. Note how when when Davos first asks Ollie to recite the oath — ‘how does the Night Watch’s Oath go again? I bet you’ve got it memorised since you got here’ –the scene places Davos in the foreground but fixes the focus on the young boy, an indication that what the oath signifies will become more and more meaningful as the series progresses. Then when Davos tells the boy not that bit, the bit at the end, and the boy begins to recite, ‘I am the Sword in the darkness, the watcher on the walls, the shield that guards the realms of men’, that shot is filmed in depth so that Davos and the boy are both in focus though the composition favours Davos who is foregrounded. Then when Davos himself repeats, ‘the shield that guards the realms of men’ Ollie is shown completely out of focus. Attention is now on Davos as his listening underlines the meaning of those words for the audience; and the significance of those words, and the repercussions they portend, is then shifted by a cut onto Jon Snow, shown the more powerful by being shot from below, so that he can turn those words to action. Here something as simple as a shift of focus is rendered very meaningful and expressive, something characteristic of the series.
The last scene that grabbed my attention (see clip below) is the one where Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish (Aiden Gillen) standing on the edge of a precipice with Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), grabs her face with his hands and tells her: ‘There’s no justice in the world. Not unless we make it. You loved your family: avenge them!’They’re wearing black capes, the hill behind them is wintry green, The wind is blowing a banner on the right bottom of the frame indicating that they’re on official mission, the personal is political here, she looks at her old home — and though everything in her fears and revolts agains the notion, now her future one — and as Littlefinger is foregrounded smiling and about to head on his way, we see Sansa with his back to him and to us contemplating the black ruins of her past and her future, on that precipice and below tumultuous low-hanging clouds. Littlefinger smiles as they ride off, his mission accomplished, and the the camera pans left through the black, burnt, war-torn ruins of her past and future. But as we’re shown the horses riding towards the ruins of Winterfell, the camera moves past them only to settle on two other people on a horse, Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) and her squire Podrick (Daniel Portman) thus linking the fate of one to the other, linking one story to the other through a now shared landscape, and by mingling them perhaps offering the viewer a bit of hope that Sansa knows nothing of yet. It’s brilliant filmic storytelling.
‘The Sweeping Reveal’ – A Note on the Second Episode of Game of Thrones, S5
Andy Medhurst has called the category of HBO-type ‘quality’ series of which Game of Thrones belongs to, ‘television for people who don’t like television’. In conversation, Victor Perkins has told me he can’t see the difference between this type of work and cinema. Many other critics have talked of the ‘cinematic’ dimension of this type of work.
Watching the second episode of the latest series of Game of Thrones, I’m coming to the view that it’s a kind of cinema designed to be viewed on a small screen. Narratively, it’s episodic and relies on cliff-hangers to create suspense, and the roots of this can probably be traced to the very earliest serials. However, unlike early serials and much of traditional American network television, the narrative develops and acquires depth and texture from episode to episode, something which the mini-series developed for television but which the HBO series have since refined. Moreover, there’s not one central protagonist but various, something movies have always found difficult to do (bringing into the discussion something like Coronation Street in the UK would complicate the broad strokes sketched above but not negate them).
What fascinates me about Game of Thrones is that it sets out to be spectacular and succeeds. Thus for the first time, I find my eye gazing at the credits for cinematography (David Franco), production design (Deborah Rivery) costumes (Michele Clapham) and sfx (Steve Kullback and Joe Bover) as well as the director (Michael Slovis).
In looking at how the series achieves its intent to be spectacular, one begins to detect patterns in certain types of shots. In a note on the first episode, I remarked on how ‘I was struck also by how one saw shots (see below for an example) that one could not have imagined possible for TV even a few years ago, the scale, the spectacle (though when one looks closely one sees, again, how simple and uncluttered it is, how few elements actually go into it; but enough to be dazzling in themselves. Something that is probably minimises cost but maximises visual impact). Here the image begins by seeming only of sky, moves down so one get a clear close-up of the stature, keeps moving down and away so one see sit in full and, as it crashes down the camera keeps pulling away so one sees people and then the full panoramic dimension of pyramid, sea, mountains and city as it comes crashing down. Absolutely dazzling’.
In the second episode, we get a very similar shot at the very beginning (see below), just after the Captain tells Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) not to be afraid and we get a close-up of her saying ‘I’m not afraid’, she looks off-screen but instead of her point-of-view of the shot of the statue of the Titan, the focus of attention, and what her gaze and ours has been directed to thus far, we get a shot which rhymes but surprises; instead of cutting in to the shot of the statue of the titan (‘it’s just a statue’), we get a sweeping panoramic shot which moves away from the statue and which shows us what she doesn’t see, a busy port city beyond, full of people and activity, and which suggests that it’s a place to be feared if not by the character then by the audience.
Cinematographer Ed Moore has intriguingly remarked that Michael Slovis, the director of this episode, ‘joins the likes of Phil Abraham (Mad Men et al) as TV directors who were very successful TV cinematographers first (Slovis shot almost all of Breaking Bad; Abraham was launched by The Sopranos). Because on these shows the “show runner” producers are so in charge of script and edit, it does make sense that they would really look for directors with a strong visual sense above all else’.
What made me think of this as a particular type of cinema made for a small screen is that the image would not stand up to close scrutiny on a larger screen. We’d see how such a shot is constructed, the image might lack detail, the city on close scrutiny seems drawn in. But one doesn’t see this on a small screen. What one sees is a brave and frail though increasingly skilled young girl in a new, exotic and dangerous context. The shot is both spectacular and melodramatically expressive. Its spectacularity and expressiveness are both maximised on a small screen. And this is beginning to seem a characteristic shot in the series.
Watching the first episode of Game of Thrones, Season 5, I was struck by how satisfying the use of colour and composition are in the series: the richness of the imagery, the colour, the texture of the materials, the design of the sets and costumes. I’ve not yet thought through the expressiveness of imagery – is it ‘merely’ pretty or is the full expressive potential of these particular arrangements of line, colour, people, places and things being realised? This is something that intrigues me and that I mean to come back to at a later point. But what struck me immediately was how delighted I was by them; and how much I’ve missed this kind of pleasure at the cinema recently. Mad Max: Fury Road is about the only recent film I can remember making an impression on this basis; the rest of the films seemed grey or otherwise lacking in luminosity, thinly textured visually, mis-arranged (Jurassic World) and sometimes even un-arranged (Pitch Perfect 2).
In this first episode of Game of Thrones one sees imagery that would be the envy of many a feature film but designed to be best viewed on a smaller screen. It’s not only a question of privileging close-ups or medium shots (though one detects that element as well, though decreasingly so) but more of keeping the image relatively simple with the eye drawn at most to a few elements or a clear arrangement of a handful of elements to be rendered not only delightful but legible on a smaller screen. Just as magazine covers tend to focus on faces or at most full-figure shots, rather than put landscape or busy arrangements of crowds of people on their covers, these type of shows are also designed to take optimum advantage of the context in which the majority of their viewers might be expected to see them (arguably the home television 1st, and the computer screen second)
I was struck also by how one saw shots (see below for an example) that one could not have imagined possible for TV even a few years ago, the scale, the spectacle (though when one looks closely one sees, again, how simple and uncluttered it is, how few elements actually go into it; but enough to be dazzling in themselves. Something that is probably minimises cost but maximises visual impact). Here the image begins by seeming only of sky, moves down so one get a clear close-up of the stature, keeps moving down and away so one see sit in full and,as it crashes down the camera keeps pulling away so one sees people and then the full panoramic dimension of pyramid, sea, mountains and city as it comes crashing down. Absolutely dazzling.
‘Movies will never die’, writes James Wolcott in ‘Prime Time’s Graduation’, his influential 2012 essay for Vanity Fair, ‘but TV is where the action is, the addiction forged, the dream machine operating on all cylinders. Even in cine-mad Manhattan…the new movie that everybody’s talking about is being talked about by a shrinking number of everybodies. Movies divide and stratify; television, like sports, is the democratic includer’.
I’ve been thinking about Wolcott’s argument because I’ve been away for several weeks in Cuba with no access to TV or internet and found that I hadn’t missed TV at all and furthermore had no desire to ‘catch up’ on anything I missed. My Twitter feed however was full of dozens of articles, comments and lists on the new season of Game of Thrones. This same kind of gigantic publicity whirlwind is now also starting on the new season of Mad Men. I have seen all previous seasons of both shows and they are indeed marvelous. It would be naïve, however, to think that the reason why those shows seem to be central to ‘the conversation’ that happens socially on culture is because of their inherent quality or their superiority to anything else that is happening at the moment or indeed that they’re sufficient to the needs of every cultural conversation worth having.
I did return from Cuba with a desire to catch up on what I’d missed at the movies and was really startled and delighted not only by individual works but by the range of films on offer:
Jalil Lespert’s Yves St. Laurent is a biopic of the coutourier. It’s not really a good movie but the clothes are of course sumptuous, and we get to see practically all of his landmark collections (the Mondrian, the Le Smoking, the Ballets Russes). Pierre Niney give a great central performance, shy but self-centred, slightly repressed, as if when not coiled in he’d make his effeminacy public and dangerous. The film is mostly drugs, sex, haute couture and low-down loucheness but it’s also the only gay film I can think of that’s about what happens after a gay couple move in together, what they do to stay together. It is at times very moving.
Joe and Antony Russo’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a Marvel Comic Book adaptation and one of the best of the recent crop of super-hero films. It’s got superb set-pieces, a sexy and witty performance from Scarlett Johansson as The Black Widow and is part of a series of films (The Place Beyond the Pines is one of many that fit into this category) that mourn the idea of America, that compare the America of the film’s setting to the idea of America as found in the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights and finds it lacking. Neil Burger’s Divergent, also currently playing, is a sci-fi teen film, clearly inspired by The Hunger Games, that thematically plows the same furrow. American cinema has never been more critical of what America has become — of the gap between it should be, what Americans want it to be, and what it is — and, despite the films being of varying quality and some of them, like Divergent, frankly not even very good, they’re collectively fascinating to see and stimulating to talk about.
Also at my local cinema are two other types of adaptations: Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and Richard Ayoade’s The Double. Noah transforms the Bible story into a sci-fi movie of epic proportions, one with an environmental moral. It’s had mixed reviews but is conceptually imaginative, visually dazzling and with another of those great Russell Crowe performances that make one almost forget how crude and obnoxious he often appears in ‘real’ life, or at least in talk shows. The other adaptation is Ayoade’s noir-and-amber take on Dotoyevski’s The Double, a present imagined as a dark 19th-century world with 1930s appliances where everyone is lonely, the self is divided, alienation is the norm and suicide is the only way out. Jesse Eisengerg plays two versions of a character and impresses with each. These are films that dazzle the eye and stimulate the mind.
And these were not even the best of the films playing: Stefan Zweig, the Viennese author of Letter from an Unknown Woman, inspired Wes Anderson to a wit, charm and elegance in The Grand Budapest Hotel that Ernst Lubitsch himself would have been proud of. Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake is a beautiful and daring exploration of desire in the face of death that is as complex and haunting a depiction of sexual compulsion as I’ve ever seen. And then there’s Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin with Scarlett Johansson again, a mysterious, ambiguous and rather magical film on no less a subject than what it is to be human. These three are truly great films, films that deserve to be written about individually and at length, that deserve to be part of ‘The Conversation’.
I’m not sure what TV is at the moment. I’m not sure that series like Mad Men or Game of Thrones are TV or something else (Andy Medhurst has called them TV for people who don’t like TV). I do think that old divisions between high culture and low culture are reasserting themselves and, if the appearance of visual media in art galleries is something to go by, film is falling on the high side of that divide. It certainly seems to have lost the mass audience. As Edward Jay Epstein so ably demonstrates in The Hollywood Economist: The Hidden Financial Reality Behind the Movies, people don’t go to the movies, they go to a movie, the one they’ve been primed to see by publicity budgets that often exceed the cost of making a film.
But if you want to take a pulse reading of the state of an art, you can’t base it on one work, or indeed one medium, you need to see at least a representative range of what’s on offer, and put that in a larger social and cultural context. And from what’s on offer at the cinema now, film is as exciting, stimulating and beautiful as it’s ever been. It might not be ‘The’ conversation but might be another, or many, with probably fewer people but just as, if not more, interesting. It’s telling perhaps that Wolcott’s very latest column for Vanity Fair is a re-think of the arguments that began this column entitled ‘Everyone Back to the Cineplex!’ In this, I’m with Wolcott.