A one-off experience visits Birmingham’s Electric Cinema: The Afterlight, an 82-minute collage assembled from footage in which every person in frame is now dead. Director Charlie Shackleton accompanies the film on its tour, not only to give post-screening Q&A sessions, but also because he is in possession of the only copy of the film in existence – a single 35mm print that gradually degrades with each successive screening, picking up scratches and other wear and tear, and when it’s finally too damaged to watch any longer, it’s gone for good.
It’s a compelling idea, invoking questions of film preservation, the ways in which film captures and preserves moments in time, and the peculiar cinematic magic (and particularly magic of celluloid) that brings ghosts to life through illumination. And Shackleton is a charming, intelligent and witty speaker, the best advertisement for his own film, although his style and confidence activate José’s cynicism circuits – do we really believe that he hasn’t kept a copy of the film for himself?
But as for the film? It’s an enjoyable experience, the footage assembled into a rough narrative of sorts that takes us through similar actions and settings seen across countless cinematic sources, and both the choices of source material and the editing’s sense of rhythm create an appealing mood throughout, but much of the specific choices feel too vaguely motivated. Why has this shot in particular been included? Why the focus on one setting or action instead of some other? These questions are never satisfactorily answered, and the film meanders with too little intention.
One point of comparison in particular comes up in our discussion: The Clock, Christian Marclay’s 24-hour installation film that we saw large segments of both together and separately when it visited the Tate Modern three years ago. It’s similarly constructed of clips from films, its rubric to find shots that show clocks and other timepieces so that the film itself can function as a clock. We think about the difference in how often Shackleton and Marclay take creative liberties with their source material and build something new and expressive with it, and the different ranges of that source material to begin with (one of our biggest criticisms of The Clock being the unimaginative Anglo-American cinephile context from which most, if not all, of its sources came).
Criticisms notwithstanding, The Afterlight is an interesting and enjoyable one-off experience that literally – and we do mean literally – has to be seen in person, and if it screens near you it’s worth the evening. It won’t look as good as it did for us, admittedly, but at least you’ll be helping it look even worse for the next audience.
Something a little different for us today, as we visit the Tate Modern to view Christian Marclay’s 24 hour long video art installation, The Clock. It’s a looping supercut of clips from film and television that involve clocks, watches, and people telling each other the time, synchronised to the real world. If you watch it at 8:10pm, it’s 8:10pm in the film too. Supported by London’s White Cube gallery, some 12,000 clips were assiduously located and assembled over three years by Marclay and his team of six researchers to create The Clock, and since its first exhibition in 2010 it’s been popping up every now and again. We jumped at the chance to see it.
The Clock‘s scarcity, ambition, and strength of concept have arguably been partially responsible for its uniformly positive reception since 2010. We, however, find plenty to criticise, including a certain imperial flavour to the overwhelmingly Anglo-American choices of source films, not to mention the whiteness that pervades the entire project and lack of imagination displayed by its reluctance to explore outside the canon. If one of the ideas behind the piece is to draw commonalities between cultures and eras, as Mike suggests, then this is a failure not just to please our sensibilities but to achieve its own purpose. The few non-English language clips that do intermittently show up serve only to highlight their own absence.
There’s also a discussion to be had about the piece’s presentation. On the one hand, housed in a vast, purpose-built room, entirely darkened, with sofas lined up in perfect geometric alignment, it’s an unadulterated joy to be in the room and let the time fly by, even when you know full well that you’ve been stood up for two hours because no seat is available and the specific time is right there mocking you. José decries the dismissive, contemptuous treatment cinema receives in art galleries, on which he has also recently written – https://notesonfilm1.com/2018/12/22/the-museums-disdain-for-cinema/ – but finds The Clock‘s presentation in this respect faultless. On the other, likely for the sake of a smooth viewing experience, the source clips have all been cropped (and in a few cases, stretched) to fit the same aspect ratio, a decision that we feel shows disrespect for the images and people behind them that far outweighs any benefit it has as to unifying them.
There are, though, ways in which Marclay manipulates the source material that we find valuable. Indeed, the entire piece assembles clips from thousands of films, and editing is what it’s all about. When The Clock edits clips together along thematic lines, such as when we see people in different films, places, and eras all taking their seats for concerts and plays at the same time, or formal exercises it plays in cutting together car doors slamming or people smoking, it qualitatively changes its source footage into something different, achieving interesting and sometimes simply swoony effects. At other times, a character in one film will pick up the phone and speak to a character in a different film (often in a different era), the piece using humorous juxtaposition to connect them. And the piece constantly edits and mixes its own soundtrack, using the source films as a basis and typically fading between them, again smoothing the viewing experience, and occasionally building a soundtrack that sits behind an entire section of clips, binding them and creating something new, such as the anticipation generated by Run Lola Run’s soundtrack at the film chases down noon. It’s at these times that Mike is most impressed, seeing a marked difference between when The Clock is a film and when it’s a film project, finding that too often is it the latter. But those moments of filmmaking are quite fantastic.
The Clock is a singular work and one we’d urge anybody to see given the chance, but with room for significant and fair criticism. Keep an eye out for it.
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Theo and Hugo: Paris 05.59 is the best gay movies I’ve seen since Giraudie’s Stranger by the Lake and in a line of films like those of Giraudie’s or Travis Matthews’ I Want Your Love and others that feature explicit sex as part of the narrative whilst keeping the focus on feeling. The first fifteen minutes are a tour de force of filmmaking with one of the most fabulous romantic meet cutes in the history of cinema, one which Lubitsch would have been proud of even though it’s the anti-thesis of his filmmaking (see clip below).
For the first fifteen minutes we’re at a sex club, we follow a young man we will later find out is called Theo (Geoffrey Coüet) down to the basement, see him look around, and his eyes fix, temporarily, on another, who will turn out to be Hugo (François Nambot). They begin to reject or play with whoever is nearest in the middle of an orgy. Theo keeps glancing at Hugo having sex with other people but Hugo seems unaware. Theo gets in closer and closer proximity to Hugo and at a certain moment, whilst they’re fucking other people, their eyes lock, thrill at each other, they begin to kiss, and then proceed to have sex with each other in a way that that is transformative for both. “Your eyes are closed” Theo says. “It helps me to see you, to be with you,” Hugo responds.
After they orgasm, they wait for each other outside the club, start to go home together through the neon-lit streets of northeast Paris which, even for Paris, and even as it eschews all the landmarks, has rarely looked so romantic, and that’s really saying something. Hugo is in a kind of sexual ecstacy: ‘I love your dick. I think your dick is beautiful. Your dick is perfect to the touch. I think you can fall in love with a guy’s dick. ….I mean it was like we were producing love…we *made* love, see what I mean?’
As they near home however Theo discloses that the reason it might be so special is that he barebacked Hugo, by accident but without his consent. Hugo however is positive, became so in the provinces where he’s originally from and on his first time. What to reveal, when to reveal, the clash between reason and feeling: all beautifully dramatised. And also very cleverly done. The film would have been an entirely different story had it been the other way around.
Directors Ducastel and Martineau are tactful, honest and complex in their representation of desire and romance in a pandemic. And they’ve now got vast experience dramatising and representing it, dating as far back as Jeanne and the Perfect Guy from 1998, an AIDS musical no less. Reviewing their Drôle de Félix for Sight and Sound in 2001,I described the film as ‘one of the first films with an HIV+ protagonist who is offered the expectation of a future, however delimited….the final clinch between the lovers isn’t a deathbed scene but the beginning of an idyllic holiday. It would be wrong, though, to label Drôle de Félix simply as an HIV+ romance. Like so much else in this film, the issue is introduced seemingly sideways and by stealth. Initially Felix’s positive status seems no more or less defining than his being from Dieppe or unemployed or gay or fatherless or half-Arab….Yet the fact Félix is HIV+ is a major element driving the events of the film’.
Paris 05:59 Théo and Hugo shows similar tact and complexity. After an initial conflict, the protagonistsend up at the hospital together to get emergency treatment, and as they walk and talk through the Northeast of Paris, by the Canal St. Martin, they begin to know each other better and really fall in love. Few external characters intrude on this reverie of discovery of the self, the other, and of feelings they’re sure of but can’t explain: there’ s a nice and helpful doctor at the hospital, a homophobic elderly man at the A&E, a Syrian refugee at the kebab shop who tells them how lucky they are not to grow up in a war-torn country. They take the first train at Stalingrad Station where they meet an elderly lady who lacks a sufficient pension and is forced to clean, though feeling happy and lucky with it. She blames falling in love too easily for her present predicament. These encounters with others as they come to consciousness of their feelings for each other are, as Daniel Chan has mentioned to me, reminiscent of Minnelli’s The Clock.
They finally arrive at Anvers where Theo has a room. The film ends at 05.59 on a note of possibility. They both acknowledged they’ve fallen in love. Whether it will lasts or how long it will last they don’t know. But the film ends on them both undertaking that adventure.
In Théo and Hugo we see that original orgasmic moment of jouissance, where sex, and rather sordid sex at that, has produced love. They’ve made love. They also learned they might have instigated disease, illness and death. Yet by the end, they’ve really fallen in love, and taken another risk, that of trying out a future together in spite of death and with an acknowledgment of it. Hugo says he’s told to live with the virus that might be undetectable but is always there but that he always feels he’s living against it instead of with it. The end might be a dialectical turn in which with Theo, Hugo can now live both with and against it. Love creates a different setting.
The film is told in real time. The film starts at 4.47 and ends at 5.59 just on the cusp of 6:00. The obvious comparison are Andrew Haigh’s Weekend and the Before Sunset films. Some have also pointed to the film’s original title (Theo and Hugo in The Same Boat) as a nod to Jacques Rivette. Bélen Vidal also tells me that Ducastel and Martineau were present for a Q&A at the Flare screening in London, and confirmed that the structure of Cléo de 5 à 7 was their main template.
In a great article on the film in Out, Armond White writes, ‘That pathetic teenage hand-job that haunts the hero of Moonlight all his life is exposed for the sentimental claptrap it is by the sexually frank Paris 05:59: Theo and Hugo.’ I haven’t wanted to write on Moonlight because I agree with White but wanted others to see the film. Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is an almost great film. I accent the almost because I couldn’t believe that you could grow up in one of the most dangerous areas of Miami, look like Trevante Rhodes does, grow up to be a drug dealer and yet be so traumatised by an adolescent fumble in the dark that you never have sex again for the duration of the film and into your twenties. I thought the film was catering to what it perceived to be the worst of its audience, its homophobia, and by catering to that instead of a gay audience, the majority of whom would have trouble recognising such a scenario, flirting with homophobia itself. But it’s also useful to temper with this criticism with the acknowledgment that Moonlight is about so much more than a character discovering his sexuality or falling in love: it’s a whole moving and intelligent commentary on poverty and race in America..
In a wonderful article entitled ‘In Praise of Soft Cock’ for Cléo, Sophie Mayer writes of how the film ‘traces a shift from an anonymous exchange of hard cock that fits seamlessly into capitalist consumption and disposable labour to a resistant formation of softness, in which the couple is reframed as precarious, provisional, interdependent and marginal….’ She notes the last image of cock we see is Theo’s — semi-tumescent but soft and not erect — as Hugo says, in a series of phrases that echo but importantly change the initial conversation outside the sex club: ‘I like your dick. It’s really beautiful. I don’t know how to describe it, but I like it. I like looking at it. I like taking it in my hand. I like kissing it. Your balls are beautiful, too. Here, in my hand, they’re delicate. Yet they have weight. I kiss them. They’re soft. So soft.’ Mayer astutely notes: ‘While early reviews drew attention to the unprecedented sex acts of the opening minutes, it is in the closing minutes that the film enters truly new territory, of a tenderness that is also explicitly erotic and embodied, rooted in Théo and Hugo’s discovery of each other as “fellow-creatures” who have complex bodily histories’.
A friend praised Theo and Hugo for being ‘so true to life’. By that I take him to mean that it’s frank about the thrills, physical and emotional, of sex but doesn’t reduce everything to sex, that it deals intelligently with the dangers around sex for gay men at the moment, even with the availability of the triple combination therapy the film discusses so intelligently, and dramatises them convincingly; that in spite of all the sexual explicitness, a desire for sex so powerful in young people and the easy availability of sex for young gay men, all of which the film treats intelligently and valorises, the film also dramatises, romantically, a desire for love. In spite of the explicitness, sex here, as rapturously exciting as it is shown to be, is also only what sparks something deeper and more meaningful. It’s a great film and stake a claim for Ducastel and Martineau becoming our best chroniclers of love in a pandemic.