Apr 12, 2014
'...The only thing lacking from internet film appreciation — and it’s a telling blind spot, encouraged by the mole-tunnel solipsism of the internet itself — is a sense of the movies as a communal experience. The audience has been vaporised. These young film critics are burrowers, not broadcasters. To read them is to imagine a cinema filled to the brim only with film critics, balding, bearded and bespectacled, all feverishly taking notes on deep-focus mise-en-scène. "The editor wanted me to concentrate on the plot and characterizations and performances because, well, you know, we're mainstream,” is Seitz’s characterization of the typical film critic’s resistance to his manifesto. “It pisses me off,” he fumes. The animus towards Kael often voiced by Richard Brody, The New Yorker’s film editor, drips with similar condescension:
"Kael properly deduced that a huge part of going to the movies consisted of how the audience responded to the people on the screen, rather than simply basing her critique on the competence of the writing or the technical aspects of the cinematography. Her sentences in her radio and print reviews about the onscreen talent of the twentieth century rise to the level of expert observation of humanity in all its manifold variety."In other words: she forgot what she was watching was art. She thought the little people were real. She got lost in the illusion.
So do a lot of people.It may not be the prettiest definition of cinema — boring old characters and plot — or the only one, but it is one that holds for 99% of the people who go to see movies, and also the one that is hardest to get right. It’s not as if Hollywood is exactly excelling in these areas right now. To hear these guys sound off you’d think that we were living in the golden age of film narrative and Rembrandt-rich character studies. At the risk of pointing out the obvious: We’re not. To sit through the average Hollywood movie, it’s not the technique that’s lacking. Most young film directors, reared in music videos and advertising, can cut like Aderall-addicts and swing their cameras from the rafters like Howard Keel, but their grasp on narrative and insight into character limps way out back.
Hollywood needs policing on its weaknesses not its strengths. And what is more most neglected in today’s film culture and could most do with lionization is the not the director’s art but the producer’s — that all too rare ability to corral together a loose, combustible, creative team required to draw the lightning strike of a great movie. “Marlon this part is much closer to you and to myself, too,” wrote Elia Kazan to Marlon Brando in a remarkable letter, during rehearsals for On The Waterfront, in which he drew out the similarities between himself, the actor and character of the orphan Terry Molloy in Budd Schulberg’s script — an act of three-way autobiography, each man seeing himself in the character, all corralled together by the exertions of legendary producer Sam Spiegel.
A similar three-way communion went into the making The Graduate between writer Buck Henry, director Mike Nichols and star Dustin Hoffman, all of whom saw themselves in Benjamin Braddock. Of course it is also a storehouse of film technique, a virtual textbook in how to express internal states onscreen. “I needed everything I had learned in the last 30 years to shoot the Graduate,” said the film’s cinematographer Robert Surtees in an article he wrote for American Cinematographer entitled Using the Camera Emotionally. “We used the gamut of lenses, hidden camera, pre-fogged film hand held cameras…. whatever we could think of to express the mood, the emotion of the scene.” It was all about Benjamin. Scorsese’s grasp of technique, too, was never more fluid or expressive than it was in Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, where it was entirely subservient to expressing the internal state of a single character, born of a three-way tug of love between screenwriter Paul Schrader, director Martin Scorsese and star Robert De Niro, all of whom thought they were Travis Bickle. “The three of us just came together,” said Scorsese. “It was exactly what we wanted; it was one of the strangest things.”
One of the strangest things. Call it Auteurism 3.0: the belief that great films arise not form one man’s mastery but a three-way collision of souls, director, writer and star, all intent on an act of simultaneous autobiography. It’s true of On The Waterfront, and The Graduate and The 400 Blows, it’s true of The Godfather, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and There Will Be Blood and The Social Network. It’s also — and this should make even diehard formalists happy what makes those films films, uniquely so. Creative collaboration breathes its own air, brings its own special suppleness, one which allows the audience to get under the skin of a character, into their heads, behind their eyes. So yes to discussions of technique, but can we remember what the technique is there for?'
Apr 5, 2014
"It's the story of Anna, whose husband dies, jogging in the snow in Central park. For 10 years she mourns and then she agrees to marry again. But at the engagement party a boy appears, and tells her he is her husband. Anna laughs, but the boy is serious, and gradually the occult idea breaks down her sanity or security. I won't say more about the story, or what the film means, but as directed by Jonathan Glazer (he made Sexy Beast – which you may have seen), this is a mysterious and haunting study of emotional insecurity. Nicole Kidman is Anna, and if you have ever doubted her, this is the film to see. For a few years I have been doing all I can to get everyone to see Birth. Try it – you will see, and you won't believe anyone got away with making a film like this." — David Thomson on BirthI'm not sure about the stuff about emotional insecurity, but I, too, have been dragging people to this film since I first saw it in 2004. The story has the thematic purview of the more thoughtful type of horror film (Rosemary's Baby, Don't Look Now, The Sixth Sense), the roiling emotions of a Puccini opera, and is shot with the spooky, poker-faced imperturbability of a Midwich cuckoo. It's one of those films you fear you might have dreamed — true limbic brain cinema.
The New York Times:—
'Damn. Another writer I have to care about. After a certain age it is as irksome to add to the list of writers one reads as it is to add to one’s circle of friends. For most of his career, Lawrence Osborne gave the impression of someone one could safely ignore. He wrote a novel in his youth that went the way of most first novels, before carving out a career as a travel writer and wine connoisseur, but then in his fifties something jolted him into writing another novel, The Forgiven, about Westerners partying on the edge of the Muslim desert, which turned out to be dark, brilliant and about as ignorable as a switchblade. Now he’s written another, and every other page there’s an image that catches the eye or sticks in the mind: “She handled them in the way that a buyer in a market will handle small fish before buying them.” That’s a woman betting on a hand of Baccarat. What’s great about those fish, apart from the way their size makes them so easy to flip, is the fear that they may go bad, just like a hand of cards. And how quickly they turn, too. You see? How can you hang into your indifference in the face of a simile like that? The setting is Macau, on the tip of mainland China closest to Hong Kong, where our narrator, a man known only to the locals as Lord Doyle, sits hunched at the baccarat tables of the local casinos, mustering a show of exceptional indifference as he burns his way through a stash of money in his suite. He is watched only by a call-girl in her late twenties named Dao-Ming, who observes, after sleeping with him, “you play as if you don’t care.” He doesn’t disagree. Lord Doyle, we quickly learn, is no such thing, but a lawyer from Sussex on the run after embezzling money from an elderly widow. Now he plays like a man in a freefall, waiting for the bottom to hit. “Everyone knows you’re not a real player until you secretly prefer losing” he observes. He’s certainly picked the right game: Baccarat, the game of instant death, dispensing millions, or raining damnation, in a matter of seconds, which may explain why it is the preferred game of James Bond. “It has danger, a steel edge to it,” says Doyle. For sheer clarity of exposition, there will probably never be any beating the famous opening scene of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, in which Bond relieves his opponent Le Chiffre of 70 million francs by a mixture of mathematical wizardry and good old-fashioned intuition. “You never play your hand, you play the man across from you,” says Bond. One shudders to think what Bond would make of Lord Doyle, a lost soul locked in mortal combat with himself, a pallid ghost ensnared in Macau’s casinos, with their neoclassical gold, potted palms and unmistakable smell of “humans concentrating on their bad fortune.”'
Apr 1, 2014
Last week, The New Yorker sent its film critic Anthony Lane to profile Scarlett Johansson, to mark the occasion of two new movies featuring the actress, Captain America: Winter Soldier and Under The Skin. He found the newly-pregnant Johannsson “radiant”, possessed of a “dry and dirty” laugh “as if this were a drama class and her task was to play a Martini.” But the libations really flowed around her performances. In Vicky Christona Barcolona, she “seemed to be made from champagne.” In Her, she acted using only the “honey” of her voice. Johannsson is well “aware of her sultriness” onscreen, noted Lane. “If the opening shot [of Lost in Translation] was a sly joke, presenting us directly with Johansson’s backside, barely veiled in peach-colored underwear, the rest of the movie was dedicated to the principle that she would no longer be treated as a nice piece of ass.”
If that seems a shocking statement today, it is because we are probably more, not less, conflicted about the question of looks onscreen than we were in 1961. The level of beauty required from our actors and actresses is probably even higher than it was in the hey-day of the studio system — just look at the winner's paddock at this year's Oscars — but our denial that this is so is ten times greater, with performers fleeing any hint that their success is tied to their sexual availability as if the mere mention of it were career death. That's why I find Scar-Jo so refreshing: she's the only A-List actress I can think of to dare to touch this third rail and live to tell the tale. She plays hardball with the male gaze. She has received her fair share of flack for it, often from female journalists — "she's no Natalie Portman" sniped a reporter from Forbes, after the actress self-depracated about her SAT scores — but shrugged off that nude selfie with an equanimity worthy of Monroe: "I know my best angles." This disapproval of her is partly fueling the disapproval for Lane's piece, I feel. But he didn't ask her about Woody. And that would deliver her quintessence as a screen performer how exactly? Under The Skin is fantastic, by the way: a horror-sci-fi fantasia on human desire and as seen through the Baconian meat shop, featuring Scarlett as an alien preying mantis in dark wig and laddered tights, feasting on Scotsmen who seem to have wandered in from a Ken Loach docudrama about unemployment figures. A film of vast ugliness and surpassing beauty, sex and death, Hollywood star wattage and Caledonian grunge, it's Lynch without the camp flourishes, just a hard driving through-line of images as dire and unignorable as oncoming headlights in rain. I white-knuckled my pen throughout, and later found a near undecipherable trail of words in my battered critic's notebook: strobe, desire, meat, mountain, baby, pitiless, Tommy Cooper!, burr, death. My first A- of the year.
The reaction to the piece was swift and merciless. “Try to imagine The New Yorker running this about Matthew McConaughey, or Michael Fassbender” fulminated Esther Breger in a piece for at the New Republic, entitled “Anthony Lane's Scarlett Johansson Profile Turns The New Yorker into a Men's Magazine.” She found it “the worst profile I can remember reading in The New Yorker.” Over at Slate, Katy Waldman said that the problem with the piece was " not [just] that it salivates over ScarJo, but that it refuses to treat her as a human subject, with qualities of mind” she said. “A real profile would have peeled back the sex appeal altogether and shown us the woman underneath.”
Ah. That, certainly, is the illusion we have come to expect from the modern-day celebrity profile, which turns an hour of carefully-alotted time with an actor or actress into a cunningly crafted facsimile of intimacy, from which all PR apparatus has been carefully photo-shopped. Lane’s piece stood in stark defiance of such conventions. He pointed out that not only had he been forbidden from asking personal questions, but also that a member of Johansson’s PR team hovered in constant view lest he should; he hung around for the 17-minute photo-shoot to observe something of the actress’s chemistry with the camera, and when writing up his piece, showed much more interest in elaborating and toasting her onscreen persona— the “honey of her voice”, the “champagne” of her skin etc — than he was in probing the performer for tidbits.
It’s what happens when you send a critic to write a profile. “The first duty of a film critic — the sole qualification, to be honest — is to fall regularly, and pointlessly, in love with the people onscreen,” wrote Lane in his review of Before Sunrise. Send them to meet the people behind the people onscreen and the results tend toward controlled delirium. Kenneth Tynan’s profile of Greta Garbo, for Sight and Sound in 1961, began with this famous declaration of intoxification:—
“What, when drunk, one sees in other women, one sees in Garbo sober. She is woman apprehended with all the pulsating clarity of one of Aldous Huxley’s Mescalin jags. To watch her is to achieve direct, cleansed perception of something which like a flower or a fold of ilk, is raptly, unassertively and beautifully itself.’
Objective? Of course not. Smitten? Almost certainly. Personal info? Almost none. By the standards of today’s celebrity profiles, Tynan’s piece is as much of a wash-out as Lane’s. He spent an afternoon walking around Westminster Abbey with the actress, noting the “broad ivory yoke of her shoulders,” which “belong to a javelin thrower”, her “secret half smile”, strong knees and “sidelong, tentative,” way of entering a room “like an animal thrust under the a searchlight”. Walking, she “seeming to idle even when she strode, like a middle weight boxer approaching an opponent.” Of her famed androgyny he wrote, “she has sex but no particular gender. Her masculinity appeals to women, her sexuality to men.” As for the ‘woman underneath’ the sex symbol: phooey. Tynan gave us the woman on top, the triumphant exterior, the shining chassis, lovingly polished in a 3,000-word rhapsody to lay alongside James Agee’s prose bouquet to Liz Taylor and Pauline Kael’s to Cary Grant. “If it is true that no clothes seem meant for her, much less to fit her, that is because her real state is not in clothes at all… She implies a nakedness which is bodily as well as spiritual,” he wrote, adding “I dwell on Garbo’s physical attributes because I think the sensual side of acting is too often under-rated. Too much is written about how actors feel, a too little about how they look.”
Mar 27, 2014
From my piece about God and the movies for The Guardian:
'... In place of a sultry middle East, Aronofsky shoots against the black sands of Iceland in a parched, dessicated landscape that looks less pre-apocalyptic than post-apocalyptic. Like many post-punk imaginations Aronofsky makes a fetish of impurity. This earth looks already destroyed, as indeed, in his telling it has been: by man. The word “God” is absent from this ecological retelling of the Biblical narrative; Noah instead talks throughout of “the Creator,” and the earth is destroyed not for its unchecked fertility and murder rate but the despoliation of it’s natural resources. The film’s boldest stroke, though, comes from a logical quibble with the Book of Genesis: if God was asking Noah and his family to repopulate the earth, was he not demanding incest? Aronofsky adds an adopted daughter, Ila, played by Emma Watson, to give them an out, but Noah remains convinced that God’s intention was to exterminate all of mankind for his sins, including him and his family; he grows homicidal on the Ark, and afterwards drinks himself into nightly oblivion, convinced he has failed. All this is perfectly in line with Aronofsky’s prevailing ethos of adamantine self-punishment, even as it usurps divine prerogative— Noah has almost become a deity unto himself, dispensing his own justice. He even steals one of His best lines, “be fertile and multiply.” The irony is that if a self-recriminating protagonist, bent on oblivion, was what he was after, the Bible had one all along, maybe not as overtly self destructive as Randy “the Ram” Robinson, or Nina in Black Swan, but a creative, just like them, a perfectionist driven by rage for the imperfections of his creation (“for I regret that I made them…” 6:7), and so annihilating it in what amounts to a massive fit of artistic pique. Aronofsky’s clearest aesthetic alter ego is entirely off-stage.'
Mar 21, 2014
From my Guardian review:—
How Orwellian is college? Very, if Divergent is to be believed. Adapted from Veronica Roth’s bestselling YA novel, it stars Shaylene Woodley as Beatrice a young 16-year-old girl trying to find her place in a world seemingly modelled on a series of giant Frat houses, each named after an abstract virtue or noun. There’s Amity, who farm the land Amish-style; there’s Abnegation, who think only of others and work in government; there’s Candor, who tell the truth, doubtless on course for a career in daytime TV; there’s Erudite, who like to show off their vocabulary but can’t for the life of them work out they are an adjective not a noun like everyone else. Finally there’s Dauntless, very much the Extreme Sports set, defined principly by their carelessness with regard to train timetables, since they always run, jump and leap for the train home to an accompaniment of Stomp-style drumming. These gonks are being groomed for jobs in the military although how you would get them to show up on the battlefield is anyone’s guess. I’ve seen better discipline in the Keystone cops. Beatrice, who wears baggy skirts, boots and her hair in a loose bun like an Emily Bronte Fan, jumps ship at her initiation ceremony and choses Dauntless over her native Abnegation, and very soon, she is running and jumping for moving trains, too, all the while harboring a secret: her aptitude test revealed her to be “divergent”, a freakish original thinker, fated to be hunted and killed if she is ever found out. Quite why she faces this drastic a penalty, given that the rest of Roth’s future society seems wholly bent to the task of identifying and nurturing the skill-sets of its teenagers is hard to fathom. Roth has filled out her world without thinking it through as a dramatic space. She's built a utopia that thinks itself a dystopia. “They built fences for a reason,” Beatrice is told, which in any other story would be a prelude to monsters, but no more is heard of it. Instead, the bulk of this 2 hour and 40 minute film is taken up with an endless slog of evaluations and physical aptitude tests in smoky, diffusely lit interiors that look like a Bill Fitzgibbons art installation. Director Neil Burger amps up every snap crackle and pop but there’s no escaping the fact: what we have is science fiction that devotes its considerable resources to imagining the future of SAT tests. Maybe that’s why Winston Smith went AWOL: a droopy grade point average.
Mar 20, 2014
From my piece about bad sex cinema for The Guardian:—
What is it about sex that leaves so many films teetering perilously between the pornographic and the parodic? Maybe because it is one of the few activities to actually rival cinema, less a subject among many others than a rival medium. It asks people to act on their fantasies, usually takes place in the dark, can involve looking and role-play, pulls people into their bodies but aims for a blissful loss of self. To adapt the old quote, making a movie about sex is like dancing about architecture — a redundancy, both too much and never enough. Good sex, anyway. Bad sex restores cinema to full representative powers. Bad sex — which is to say, empty, compulsive, spiritually-deadening sex against graffiti-strewn dumpsters by the light of a thin, existential dawn — is something the camera excels at depicting. In fact, we are in the middle of what some might called a bad sex renaissance. What started with Hannah Horvath having her face planted into the sofa in the first season of Girls has spread like a damp patch to the sticky sheets against which Michael Fassbender grimaced and rutted in Steve McQueen’s Shame (2011), Mark Ruffalo speed-dialled Estonian call-girls in Thank-you for Sharing (2012), Joseph Gordon-Leavitt made love to his porn collection in Don Jon (2013) and Leonardo di Caprio got humped with candles in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). The figure of the sex addict has become for the indie-auteur sphere what the serial killer was for mainstream thrillers in the 1990s: a repeat offender, plot driver and sensation source, drawing audiences with a mixture of curiosity, skepticism and blimey-mate astonishment.
This week, comes one such masterwork, Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Volume I—in many ways the Kane of bad sex movies, in which Charlotte Gainsborough, or her body doubles, including one with the delightful name of Eljira Friss, is pinned against headboards, dirty mattresses, kitchen tables and train-lavatories to blasts of Teutonic industrial-hard-core while Von Trier swings his camera from thrusting buttocks to bored face. “I’m ashamed of what I became, but there’s nothing I can do now,” she tells the middle-aged academic Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) to whom she is narrating her story and who interrupts her to launch lofty digressions on fly fishing, piano chords, the rise of the bourgeoisie, and Bach. "That's a very clear parallel to fishing in a stream," he yelps excitedly upon hearing that she and her friend competed to seduce men on a train. “Those are Fibernaci numbers!” he exclaims upon hearing that Shia la Boeuf took her virginity with three thrusts, then five, in the basement of a gutted building. This leads, as it so frequently does, to a discussion of polyphony and the cantus firmus in work music of Johann Sebastian Bach, as Von Trier splits his screen three ways to view Joe being taken from behind by one lover, given a jungle-cat–style mauling by another, and licked all over by Shia LaBeouf in a third, although if the Transformers star had outsourced the job to one of his robot friends we might have really been in for something special.
There’s a deliberately specious feel to this, like Bart Simpson’s sarcastic homework, as if Von Trier were mocking the tendentiousness with which the European art-house has served up sex under cover of metaphysical speculation — Antonioni’s pensées on alienation and lingering shots of women’s legs, Fellini’s mixture of Jungian sublimation and cleavage. The film is all about its frames. If it had been shot in France, or Von Trier’s native Denmark, it would have been a less provocative beast, but Von Trier’s single masterstroke was to set the whole thing in some unspecified Euro-capital, and have everyone — La Boeuf, Uma Thurman, Christian Slater — speak in wobbly British accents, upping the propriety levels, and pushing the film towards teetering, Pinteresque comedy, as the actors flip their non-sequiters back and forth across railway compartments and breakfast tables. “For me nymphomania was callousness,” croaks Gainsborough in her best Kate-Moss-on-tranquillizers tone, as if advertising a new scent — Sex Doll, perhaps. “We were committed to combating the love-fixated society.” A sensation-seeking nihilist, Joe has sex the same way Von Trier makes movies: to keep the wounds open and salted. His interest in a return to psychic health is precisely zero... What’s most interesting about the film is the tension between its bristling air of art-terrorist provocation, and the clear nostalgia, left over from Von Trier’s previous film, Melancholia, for the older, more humanist forms of centuries gone: the music of Bach, the novels of Edgar Allen Poe, the penny dreadfuls of the Victorians, which drew readers with promises of lewdness under cover of concern for the nation’s youth. Maybe not so much has changed after all—the Victorians mixture of sentimentalism and moralism is not so alien to the era of Dr Drew, VH1’s Behind-The Music and Celebrity Rehab. Von Trier’s fondness for the formal structures he has long since detonated, is, in some senses, the oldest story in the book. Guess what? Cinema’s enfant terrible misses his parents.
Mar 4, 2014
Boyhood (Linklater), Gone Girl (Affleck, Fincher, Oct 3) Midnight Special (Dunst, Driver, Nichols) Fury (Pitt, Ayer, Nov 14) Mr Turner (Spall, Leigh) Foxcatcher (Carrell, Miller), Interstellar (Nolan, Nov 7), Wild (Witherspoon, Vallee, Sept 21), We Are The Best (Moodyson, May 30) Carol (Haynes, Mara, Blanchett), The Judge (Duvall, Downey, Oct), Inherent Vice (Phoenix, Anderson, Dec 12) Birdman (Keaton, Iñárritu), A Very Violent Year (Chandor, Isaac, Chastain), The Giver (Bridges, Noyce, August 15), St Vincent de Van Nuys (Murray, April 11) Godzilla (Olsen, Binoche, May 16) Unbroken (Jolie, Dec 25) A Most Wanted Man (Hoffman, McAdams, Corbijn) The Skeleton Twins (Wiig, Wilson) While We're Young (Baumbach) Miss Julie (Chastain, Ullman), The Interview (Rogen, Franco, Oct) Far From the Madding Crowd (Mulligan, Vinterberg) Big Eyes (Adams, Burton) Sweet Blood of Jesus (Lee) The Cobbler (Sandler, McCarthy), Child 44 (Espinosa, Oldman) The Equalizer (Washington, Fuqua), The Double (Wasikowska, Ayoade), The Immigrant (Gray, Cotillard), Locke (Hardy), Manglehorn (Pacino, Hunter, Green), Stranger by the Lake (Guiraudie), Blue Ruin (Saulnier), The Two Faces of January (Mortenson, Dunst, Isaac), Suite Francaise (Williams, Schoenearts), True Story (Hill, Franco), The Gambler (Monahan, Wahlberg), The Rover (Michod, Pattinson, Pearce), Everest (Gyllenhaal, Clarkson), The Imitation Game (Cumberbatch).