Monday, November 30, 2009

Lars von Trier - Antichrist (2009)

Rarely have I seen a movie that so blatantly screamed ‘undergraduate’ garnering so much attention. Antichrist tells the story of ‘He’ (Willem Dafoe) and ‘She’ (Charlotte Gainsbourg) – the pronouns in themselves tell you a lot about where we’re going here – a couple who retreat to a woodland cabin in the attempt to deal with ‘her’ grief over the accidental death of their baby – during which things take a turn for the grotesquely violent.

To begin with the positive – Antichrist has some beautiful scenes, reminiscent of the work of Bill Viola or Bill Henson. However, this is a highly problematic work. Despite the controversial scenes (which add nothing to the gore-repertoire seen in movies like Saw or Hostel, not to mention Bloodsucking Freaks) for the most part, this is a boring film, slow moving, with clunky and at times clichéd dialogue, and little in the way of narrative pull. The symbolism is massively heavy-handed: the dead son is called ‘Nick,’ the place where evil manifests is ‘Eden,’ dead babies appear and re-appear as a motif. The premise is absurd – who leaves a baby in a room with an open window when it’s snowing outside (a case where the question of realism should be applied not whether the film is ultimately a realist work – it is not – but rather a question of realism of character, given that this film, as a two-hander, is nothing if not an attempted character study)?

All this would be acceptable in a film which was B-grade and/or kitschy, intentionally or not, but in a film with pretensions to profundity it’s merely obvious. Indeed, the opening scene, in which we see the aestheticised death of the infant, juxtaposed with a pornographic encounter between Dafoe and Gainsbourg, accompanied by the banal strains of Handel’s ‘Lascia ch’io pianga,’ reminds one of nothing more than this. The gender politics – from a male lead paired with a woman sixteen years his junior onwards – sit, essentially, at or below the level of the rape-revenge fantasy, and the fact that nods are made toward the understanding of the existence of gender politics as such only compounds this issue, acting thus as a disingenuous screen. Indeed, the entire movie, though it features extreme violence toward Dafoe’s character, is a celebration of the objectification of the irrational and evil woman, who, after harming the male subject through the employment of her seductive, perverse and extreme sexuality, admits her blameworthiness and erotically desires her own violent punishment (not to mention nature as the embodiment of feminine evil) – hardly an original narrative. Indeed, there is a lack of originality throughout – the scenes in which the camera enters the incidental landscape, though striking, are pure Lynch; the beautiful sylvan cinematography and colouring are reminiscent of works like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village; while the soundtrack, heavy on the ominous and doom-laden to indicate the intrusion of evil (just in case the audience didn’t get it – spelling out the obvious is a major ongoing issue), also features the creaking sounds of menace used to such great effect in Japanese horror such as Ringu. Oh, and did I mention perhaps the film’s most absurd moment, the talking fox? Or the other contender for that title, the dedication to Tarkovsky?

While Dafoe and Gainsbourg, both actors for whom I have a lot of time, do a fine job with the material they have to work with, ultimately, this is a disingenuous, misogynistic, unoriginal and deeply banal film masquerading as a work with pretensions to artistic merit. Indeed, it could be read as the ultimate challenge of overblown ego – to put material like this out there, and see who, if anyone, will call the bluff and recognise that the emperor’s blatant emulation of Godiva is not shocking, only tedious. For a work which succeeds where Antichrist fails, I’ll take Evil Dead anyday of the week.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza - [REC] (2007)

Can one ever see too many zombie films? Admittedly, last week I turned off Severed, but the question with [REC] – a question which often arises in the context of the zombie film, and the genre film more generally – is one which relates to the originality of its ingredients. This Spanish film puts into play two notable factors which may raise this question, one of technique (handheld camera) and one of content (reality television). Both are deployed to good, though not spectacular, effect. The narrative begins as Angela Vidal, host of a low-budget late-night documentary TV show, follow some firemen on duty into a building where a woman is trapped. As things in the building take an increasingly nasty turn, escape is made impossible as the authorities quarantine the area (indeed, the inevitable American remake is titled Quarantine), and tensions between those trapped inside rise (racial and official, among others). In the horror arena, handheld camera, I would say, still remains associated with The Blair Witch Project, but is increasingly becoming normalised as a technique (for example, in the surprisingly good Cloverfield or Paranormal Activity - of which more below).

At first the film is a little slow-moving, and, frankly, irritating. The narrative, however, contains a momentum which builds almost unnoticed, catching the attention of the viewer (at least this viewer). The reality TV show as frame certainly has potential, and is still a field ripe for further exploration (I’ve appreciated works like Series 7, Dead Set and Drawn Together), and here it is this conceit, along with the handheld camera, which allows the film to provide some seriously nasty scares. However, [REC] doesn’t scale the heights of the truly blood-curdling Paranormal Activity which also employs a narrative based around a camera hand-held by a character. The narrative itself is not particularly original, and the explanatory framework emerges late in the piece – one almost wishes that it was either more fully explored, or left aside (although REC 2 was recently released). Nonetheless, [REC] does what it does very effectively, and the way in which the film provides its gore relatively early in the piece, before turning to looming menace and horror means that the viewer – this viewer at least – is taken unawares in terms of expectations, making the scares that eventuate all the more successful. The setting (the film takes place entirely in a smallish apartment building) will be familiar to anyone who’s spent time in Europe, and is rather well-embodied as a scene of banal domesticity turned to fear and chaos – which isn’t a shopping mall.

[REC] is not a must-watch by any means, but definitely makes a worthwhile contribution to the zombie oeuvre, and is never less than entertaining… it creeps up on you, I think, would be the appropriate phrase.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Michael Winterbottom – Genova (2008)

I haven’t seen any of Michael Winterbottom’s other films except for 24 Hour Party People, which I found disappointing (too much Happy Mondays, not enough Joy Division/New Order and Stone Roses, among other issues) – and, frankly, they didn’t much appeal to me. I wasn’t necessarily expecting Genova to be great, but because I have a deep regard for Genova (Genoa) – a Genet-esque city where medieval palaces and cobbled lanes are populated by sailors, junkies and sex workers, where the ancient meets the industrial – and because it doesn’t get much play amid the Tuscan and Sicilian fantasies of Italy as destination, I thought I would give this one a go. The story follows Joe (Colin Firth) and his two daughters, who move from the US to Genova after the death of Joe’s wife, and the sometimes-perilous social and romantic entanglements they form in dealing with their grief, guilt, and blame. Catherine Keener is particularly impressive as Barbara, Joe’s colleague.

This is an atmospheric film, shot in hand-held fashion which I at first found irritating and claustrophobic, but which grew on me throughout the film. It’s particularly effective in the memorable beach scenes, which channel perfectly a vivid haziness reminiscent of the ‘60s and ‘70s which we also see, for example, in the photographs of Mario Testino. The cinematography and editing are interestingly evocative of the disconnected, fraught and uncertain mood which pervades the work and characterises the characters’ emotional state (to which the well-judged soundtrack also contributes). There are heavy shades of Don’t Look Now in the re-appearances of the mother in the alleyways of Genoa, though in tragic and disquieting rather than horrific register. The cast are all excellent – both Willa Holland as the typical (that is, unbearable) adolescent Kelly, and Perla Haney-Jardine as the younger Mary, do an excellent job – with the singular exception of Colin Firth, who I found irritating throughout, making it difficult to believe the romantic entanglements which he negotiates. The classes he teaches, too, are a weak point, reading like cod-pop-sociology, though they give the Italians, who otherwise form the background, their main chance to be represented as people rather than scenery. While there is a climactic event and a re-emergence of hope, the film refuses to end neatly, and this too is a strength.

There are some hints here of the typical contemporary narrative of Europe as the dark and perilous other of the English-speaking world (think of Hostel or Eastern Promises), but nonetheless the depiction of Italy and Genova in this film is well achieved, and one which bucks prevailing trends – atmosphere is definitely the film’s strongest suite, and for that alone it is worth seeing. While it is flawed, this is never less than an interesting work.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Oliver Stone - Wall Street (1987)

As my list of a week or so ago might indicate, I'm currently undergoing an on-again off-again project of watching my way through important and/or cult films of the '80s which, for one reason or another, I haven't seen before - and the latest instalment is Oliver Stone's Wall Street.

This is, of course, an extremely apt film in the context of the present moment - the GFC and the impact that it's had both on voices opposed to the current socio-financial system, and the way in which the response has re-emphasised the massive power of business as usual. Wall Street, set in 1985 (two years before the film was released) is a reflection of the insider trading scandals which broke in that period ('85-'86). For those who haven't seen it, the film is a Faustian tale of Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), a naive and unsuccessful but ambitious young trader who gets his break in the form of ruthless corporate honcho Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) - but at what cost?

In the present era, the film's stylistic aesthetic, which in the contemporary period would have signified wealth and luxury, seems a little cluttered and clunky in comparison to current 'classy' minimalist wealth-signifiers - as does some of the dialogue around this milieu. Of course, one often underestimates the farcical crassness of wealth. But the city itself, shimmering at dawn and dusk, is a more timeless signifier of the fantasy of fluidity as solidity and thus, power. The message itself - wealth corrupts, and a price must be paid, the authenticity of blue-collar union resistance, self-sacrifice as heroism - is rather obvious, as is some of the dialogue. Nonetheless, the tale itself is deeply engrossing - personally I have little interest in or understanding of the complexities of the financial world, but nonetheless I was gripped, despite Oliver Stone's trademark directorial self-indulgence.

For my taste, although this is a story of the way in which the system corrupts, it's essentially too much a critique of the immoral Randian individual (Stone cited Upton Sinclair as an influence, and, interestingly, the same critique has been made of the way in which Sinclair's Oil was translated into film in There Will Be Blood) rather than of the system which creates such individuals and provides them with a readymade framework of moral distance. I also find it difficult to believe Gekko's famous 'greed is good' speech (to a board of shareholders) would actually be a triumph - not because of its content, but because of the use of the word 'greed.' Rhetoric of justification, in my experience, tends to function because it labels actions which might appear to be immoral, as moral, and explains why they should be perceived in this way. Gekko's valorisation of the merciless market as the universally beneficial invisible hand fulfils the second, but not the first of these functions.

There are some intriguing flourishes - occasionally we are tempted to think that 'the lady doth protest too much,' that (as with other fictional works of social criticism, in particular Brave New World) the author can't help being seduced by the ostensible object of criticism - and what are we to make of Michael Douglas' excellent Gekko enjoying the beauty of a sunrise, the only scene where he shows a positive human emotional trait? The supporting cast are a veritable smorgasboard of eighties favourites - including Martin Sheen, the Blade Runner double whammy of Sean Young and Daryl Hannah, and old favourite James Karen, who to me will always be Return of the Living Dead's Frank.

Essentially what we have here is a classic film of the eighties dialectic, a rejection of the inauthentic and artificial world of untrustworthy fluidity and glittering surfaces which can't help being somewhat seduced by its own object.

PS ... did I mention the sublime Talking Heads song, This Must Be The Place, which plays over the closing credits? Or the fact that the soundtrack (somewhat incongruously, but I can't fault the choice) also features two songs from Byrne & Eno's My Life In The Bush of Ghosts? Swoony...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Michel Houellebecq – The Possibility of an Island (2005)

Why, you ask, read Michel Houellebecq now after I’ve ignored the much-lauded Atomised for so long? Iggy Pop’s brilliant new album Preliminaires is one of my top listens for 2009 (of which more soon), and the work is inspired by The Possibility… - so much so that one of the tracks is a spoken-word piece from the book itself. So in a somewhat unwonted spirit of failing to let preconceptions shape a good opinion, I embarked on the work. In some ways, I wasn’t surprised – the factors that I thought I’d dislike in Houellebecq’s work (sexual misogyny and two-dimensional female characters, ill-informed cod-sociohistorical analysis masquerading as fictocriticism) were there in spades. And indeed, I can’t say I liked the book overall. But it was definitely thought-provoking. In a sense, far from being a revolutionary writer Houellebecq is (re)exploring the grand themes of French literature – sex, death and ennui. The Possibility… takes up one of my least favourite themes in literature, and one which is common to the later works of many lionised male writers – the sorrows of aging, in particular in relation to sexuality (which never seems to stand in the way of affairs with nubile young nymphets). Indeed, the tropes which are put in this novel are surprisingly sentimental and banal – apart from the abovementioned, we also deal with love as ‘the only engine of survival’ (as another French-speaking artist put it), masculine jealousy, sexual activity as the ultimate (and indeed only) transcendence and engine on human activity, and the value of the unconditional and pure love between dogs and humans.

In many ways, indeed, Houellebecq is deeply conservative, a fact concealed by his celebration of sexual libertinism. The extreme suitability of science fiction as a vehicle for the moral fable is one which has been well-recognised, and Houellebecq’s tale – which alternates between the story of Daniel 1 (set in the present) and Daniel 25 (his neohuman clone in a post-apocalyptic future where the original humans live in what could be described as ‘barbarism’ while neohuman clones exist isolated, without physical contact with each other) – could be described in this way – albeit that the moral message is ambiguous. The narrative, such as it is, describes Daniel’s sexual and romantic life, intertwined with the story of the seeds of the neohuman society in a Scientologist-esque cult (the fascinating metaphysical questions raised by personal identity as a chain of clones remain underexplored). Houellebecq’s social commentary (which takes place in relation to a constant stream of current pop-culture references which sometimes give the impression that he’s trying a little too hard) swings wildly from extremely acute and original observations, to ones which are so far off that this reader (at least) wondered if there was something he was missing – not least in the somewhat saccharine poetry which peppers the work, or in imagining the rather ponderously philosophical narrator as a successful comedian. Indeed, overall these tendencies left me with the question – is it all a con job, purposefully constructed to induce impressed bemusement as a literary effect in itself, perhaps as a mirror in the reader’s consciousness of certain themes in the work? Or is this actually a blindness on the writer’s part to his own contradictions and critical tonedeafness? In this sense, the work was thought-provoking, although at the same time a more skilled writer, I think, would be capable of allaying such doubts. As a writer, Houellebecq creates some beautiful imagery, in particular of landscape, though I was infuriated by the constant run-on sentences (I’m unsure if this is a function of the translation, or exists in the original French) and some of the slang, in English, seemed oddly oldfashioned in relation to the worldwise (not to say worldweary) tone of the narration.

As I’ve mentioned, this is a book which is never less than thought-provoking – but I nonetheless think that Preliminaires, which brought me to it, is by far the better work. Ultimately, there is certainly something here, but I remain doubtful as to whether Houellebecq is indeed the cutting-edge talent he has so often been proclaimed to be.

Return of the Living Blog

After spending a year with no blog, during which I've been running from one thing to the next - not least completing my doctorate - I felt that I might have enough time on my hands to begin reviews again. A quick sample of what I've been up to in the meantime:

Katherine Ashenburg - Clean: An Unsanitised History of Washing
Nick Cave - The Death of Bunny Munro
Wilkie Collins - The Haunted Hotel
Raewyn Connell - Southern Theory
Karen Connelly - The Lizard Cage
F. G. Cottam - The House of Lost Souls
John Dickie - Delizia: The Epic History of Italians and their Food
Gerald Durrell - The Picnic and Suchlike Pandemonium
Judith Flanders - The Victorian House
Thomas Hardy - Desperate Remedies
Michel Houellebecq - H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life
Ryszard Kapuscinski - Another Day of Life
Ryszard Kapuscinski - The Shadow of the Sun
Nancy Mitford - Love In A Cold Climate
Thant Myint-U - The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma
Philip Reeve - Mothstorm
Kate Summerscale - The Suspicions of Mr Whicher
Ian Thomson - The Dead Yard - Tales of Modern Jamaica
Anthony Trollope - The Chronicles of Barsetshire
Peter Washington - Madame Blavatsky's Baboon
Bee Wilson - Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud

Pedro Almodovar (various)
The Bad Seed
Beautiful Boxer
Capitalism: A Love Story
Cat People
District 9
Drag Me To Hell
Drugstore Cowboy
Eating Raoul
Escape From New York
A Fistful of Dollars
He's Just Not That Into You
(oh the shame)
I Love You, Man
Earth Girls Are Easy
Howard the Duck
Mala Noche
Man On Wire
My Name Is Bruce
Once Bitten
Paranormal Activity
Sunset Boulevard
Tears of the Black Tiger
There Will Be Blood
Van Diemen's Land
Weekend At Bernie's

Green Wing
Mad Men
The Sarah Silverman Program
True Blood

As for music, I've got my best of 2009 coming up. Stay tuned...