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Les Quatre Cents Coups

In Film, Reviews on January 31, 2012 at 8:12 am

François Truffaut, 1959

Is this your story, or mine? Or his?

Les Quatre Cent Coups repeatedly presents us with familiar tropes on which we build to create our own story, only for Truffaut to invert those tropes and thus thrust upon us Doinel’s, and its unapologetic difference from ours. Doinel is a Parisian schoolchild who frustrates and alienates everyone around him – his teacher, his parents, his psychologist, his juvenile correction staff. But has he betrayed them, or have they betrayed him? The only person who sticks by him is his friend, Renžé, who eventually is turned away from the correctional facility when trying to visit him.

The film starts with panning shots of Paris as we imagine it from the ground, grand buildings, wide boulevards and always the Eiffel Tower in the background. We are then introduced to the classroom, where we witness boys being boys. They pass around a picture of an almost naked lady until one of them is inevitably caught; this is our introduction to Doinel. He writes a rude rhyme behind the blackboard and one almost smiles to oneself – ah, the follies of youth. We then follow him home, where he pulls out his books, ready to do his homework before his mother gets home. But when she does, she sends him out again to buy flour. Two women talking about childbirth make him queasy. Well, it would, he’s a child.

Is he? The high jinks at school develop into truancy and then lying, followed by vagrancy and then theft, for which he is caught. The opening shots of Paris are repeated as we see him transported in the back of a police wagon. This time though, the camera lingers behind the bars – this is not Paris as we remember it. This is not our story. The inverted tropes continue. In a wonderfully acted, wonderfully executed scene at the correctional facility, Doinel speaks to a psychologist (whom we never see as Doinel speaks straight to the camera) and reveals that he had once overheard his mother screaming that he had been an accidental pregnancy, that she had wanted an abortion, that it was only the intervention of his grandmother that had led to his birth. The scene in which the women speaking of childbirth had made him feel faint takes on more layers.

Other particularly grand scenes include one in which we watch hundreds of toddlers’ transfixed, innocent faces as they watch a children’s puppet show. Again we are lulled into thinking of childhood as we normally do – a time of untainted purity – until we hear Doinel and Renžé discussing how best to steal a typewriter from his father’s office. The camera lingers on the innocent faces before panning to the two plotting friends. This is their story.

The film poses questions of how Doinel has ended up where he is. A pompous English teacher suggests haplessly to Doinel’s mother, ‘Perhaps it’s the genes.’ When Doinel’s lies to his teacher are exposed, his parents say, ‘This is a family matter, we will deal with it at home.’ And yet, eventually, they decide that they can not do so. They appeal to the judge at the juvenile court to ‘scare’ him, because they can not ‘control’ him. The familiar themes of modern politics under Blair and Cameron (and Sarkozy) are raised: rights and responsibilities, a culture of entitlement. When the judge suggests putting Doinel in a correctional facility, his mother asks somewhat ridiculously, ‘Can it be by the sea?’ The judge does not flinch, ‘I’ll see what I can do.’ The film offers no easy answers.

Finally, the film ends with a snapshot on the beach. Not the summer beach of our youthful summers. His beach is beautiful, empty and very much his own. His accusatory (or is it confused?) stare asks: whose story is this?


Tropic Thunder

In Film, Reviews on January 3, 2012 at 7:21 am

Ben Stiller, 2008

Comedy can be a method of asserting one’s superiority – the satirical lampoon, the one-line takedown, the witty riposte. The spoof movie fits well into this category: I see through your movie so I will expose its transparency to comedic effect.

But the spoof genre is not a homogenous entity. One spectrum along which spoof pictures vary is the level of affection which they hold for the original. Films such as the Scary Movie series assert their superiority by holding their target films in great disdain. They mock the perceived simplicity of the horror genre without acknowledging the merit of horror films. At the other end of the spectrum are movies so respectful of the source material that one wonders at the definition of ‘spoof’. Scream is one example, The Big Lebowski is another. In fact both of these films pay homage to the original films. In this sense, they are displaying their deference while mocking at the same time.

So what then is is the definition of a spoof? A film that mocks another film, or whole genre of films, through knowing imitation?

By that definition Tropic Thunder is certainly a spoof, but one that rather ambitiously takes on not just one film, not just one genre, but the entire Hollywood film output. But does it see itself as superior? Or does it accept that it, and its team of actors, are just as mired in the bullshit as everyone else?

The film is hilarious. But the send-ups of Hollywood clichés are, well, cliché. The Lothario who ends up being gay, the Vietnamese war hero who is nothing of the sort, the geeky one who is relatively sensible, but easily intimidated by the big guys – these are stock characters. Ben Stiller’s slightly dim but largely well-meaning action man and Robert Downey Jr’s method-acting prima donna are also easy targets. Action films have been better spoofed in Team America, war films in Hot Shots.

Which is not to say that these characters are not funny – they are. They’re very funny, but not as witty exposés of the self-serving vapidity of Hollywood; that side of things is somewhat dull. They’re funny because they’re silly. The best moments of the film involve Downey Jr’s character struggling to be black, Jack Black’s character saying or doing outrageous things while going cold turkey and, most triumphantly of all, Tom Cruise being, ahem, a cunt. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Tom Cruise is a revelation.

So, superior? I don’t think they even saw themselves as such. ‘Preening LA people who like everything to be about them’ are something of a theme for Ben Stiller. Reality Bites, Zoolander, Greenberg and now this – of those four films, three directed by him. It appears that Stiller is attempting to explore and expose not something around him, but something more deeply personal. The ridiculousness of losing your own sense of self in the character of a ‘retard’ or a ‘black man’ or any other generalised non-self, non-identity appears to be irking him.

But seriously, Tom Cruise is a revelation.


In Film, Reviews on December 4, 2011 at 7:36 am

Noah Baumback, 2010

A trendy film, with a trendy cast, by a trendy director.  A superstar lead man in a self-consciously indie role.  And a James Murphy soundtrack?

I did not see this film at the theatre when it came out because the trailer made me want to run for the hills, or at least the 60s.  Or some other time when the subculture existed as a challenge to the mainstream, not an extension of it allowing consumerism to tap into a tribe who see themselves as more informed or more aware or, dare I say it, more cool.

Oh those cool kids, how maligned they are.  The contemporary demonisation of the hipster is almost as complete as that of the hippy.  Before you remind me that the subculture of the 60s as we imagine it is a romanticisation, let me ask you if the modern hipster is really such a recent thing, or if they are really any worse – or any different – than young Frederic Moreau.

The trailer plays this movie for its cool, its slacker charm, its mid-30s underachieving middle class ennui.  And the film has all of these things, but fortunately – thank fuck – that is not all it has.  It follows the story of Roger Greenberg, played by Stiller, a 41 year old carpenter who has just been discharged from a psychiatric hospital, and has decided to spend some time ‘doing nothing,’ while house-sitting for his brother who has gone on holiday to Vietnam.  House-sitting means living in a huge family home in Hollywood, with a pool and a nanny with whom he develops an on-off relationship over the few weeks he is there.  The nanny is played by Greta Gerwig as a cutesy, slightly flakey, mid-20s woman who has not achieved much since leaving university and is just beginning to feel some discomfort at this.

Much criticism has been aimed at the film’s self-indulgence.  It is a film made by Noah Baumbach and Jennifer Jason-Leigh, both children of writers who would have enjoyed the comfort of a middle-class upbringing not dissimilar to Greenberg’s.  I did spend the first quarter of the film stewing at the monumental level of solipsism not just of the characters, but of the very idea of making a feature length movie about how awful it is to be an awkward middle-class teenager trapped in the body of a 41 year old IN A FUCKING 6 BEDROOM HOUSE IN HOLLYWOOD.  Oh no, the neighbours are using the pool.  Fuck off.

Woody Allen did something similar in the 70s.  He made movies exploring the neuroses of the New York middle class, infused with enough wit to make some otherwise insufferable characters charming.  Alvy Singer is the perfect example of a self-absorbed prick made interesting by an inspired performance, a sparkling script and some cracking jokes.  Move forward thirty years, substitute the West coast for the East, and replace Allen’s intellectuals with people who wanted to be rock stars but ended up being carpenters, nannies… normal people (albeit with greater than normal wealth).

And like the best of Allen’s movies, Greenberg gets inside that self-absorption, explores it and exposes it.  And most importantly of all, does it with a nuanced wit.  But unlike Allen, the navel-gazing of these characters does not result in real self-awareness.  What we have here is actually more subtle.  Throughout the film, Stiller accuses the other characters of not admitting their own issues, of dishonesty, of transferring their own issues onto him.  In a standard Hollywood character arc, we might expect there to be a second act crisis after which he finally accepts, explicitly, that he is in fact transferring his own issues onto others.

Baumbach plays with the viewer in reaching that second act crisis point.  We are suddenly plunged into an unplanned house party in the Greenberg family home, at which Stiller takes some cocaine for the first time in fifteen years.  So far, so Garden State.  But while Garden State depicts the use of ecstasy like a music video – pretty girls, sexual freedom and the safety of soft focus, Greenberg shows Stiller putting the viewer continually on edge with his twitchy energy.  We know the crisis is coming, but Baumbach keeps us guessing as to how.  Is Stiller going to go too far in his drug-fuelled criticism of the younger generation, is he going to start a fight over music, is he going to dive into the pool?  The clichés are displayed to us as bait, before he finally reaches the safety of best friend, Ivan, who has quietly put up with his selfish requests and outbursts for the whole movie.  And the crisis point is reached with a simple admission of his feeling that Ivan is more fucked up than he admits.  This act of projection finally pushes Ivan to explode before trying to explain to Greenberg, ‘This is huge.  It’s huge to finally embrace the life you never planned on.’

The acceptance of one’s own mediocrity is perhaps the greatest personal struggle of the baby boomers’ entitled generation.  While Greenberg does not seem to get it, explicitly at least, the argument does leave him in a state of contemplation during which he leaves a long and embarrassingly honest message on Gerwig’s voicemail.  The following day, we expect him to try to find some comical way of deceiving her into deleting her messages.  Instead, we watch him watch her listen to the messages.  He is no longer denying his character flaws or the mistakes to which they lead.  He is accepting them.  And he will live with the consequences.

Chi to Hone (Blood and Bones)

In Film, Reviews on November 16, 2011 at 3:52 am

Yoichi Sai, 2004

Chimneys, incinerators.  Industry, death.  Smoke.

Blood and Bones starts with a scene featuring a boat full of Koreans emigrating to Japan.  We see their excitement as someone sights Osaka in the distance – all chimneys and smoke and industry.  We get a close-up of one young man’s face, his eyes lit up with expectation and hope.  It could be the start of a tale of the hardworking economic migrant, a paean to that dream of a new land fostered or used as a device by so many films.  But that expectation and hope that we see in the young man’s eyes is immediately complicated by the narrator, who tells us that this is his father, Kim Shun-Pei, who has always stood in his way, ‘like a brick wall.’

The oppression of Koreans – first by the Japanese, and then by Kim Il-Sung – provides the historical backdrop for the movie, but it is the oppression of a family by a violent father that is explored here, and the oppression by the same man of the workers in his factory.  It is a portrait of a relentlessly violent, proud man who is enraged by the world and can not contain this rage.  He is excellently played by Takeshi Kitano, inspiring awe, fear and even wonder.  Kitano’s steely, unblinking visage was made for this role.

His unthinking determination and commitment to violence, money and power is remarkable.  He survives longer than his wife, his daughter and his mistress.  It is at his daughter’s funeral that he finally shows some weakness – he takes on an entire room of younger men, and wins, but then has a stroke.  He reaches out to his wife, tenderly telling her he can not move his leg.  She tells him to ‘Go up and die.’  For once, he is unable to retaliate.

But this is not the first show of compassion from Kitano.  Earlier on, his mistress becomes unwell with a brain tumour which leaves her disabled, unable to speak or walk.  We see him tenderly pouring a bath and then washing her.  The camera lingers as he cleans her abdomen and then her breasts.  The scene is just long enough to raise one’s anxiety that he might take the opportunity to abuse her, to subject her to his sexual will as he had done before her illness.  But he does not.

This anxiety in the viewer runs throughout the film.  There is more than one rape scene, the first of which is uncomfortably long.  I was wincing throughout, hoping for it to end, but it dragged on and on, Kitano’s expression not changing, his wife’s screams not yielding.

Several scenes of violence between men are not only uncomfortable and uncomfortably long, but comical at the same time.  In the daughter’s funeral described above, a few of the mourners are carting around the dead body while he destroys the entire room.  They manage to avoid the various missiles that come in their direction and eventually upend a table to protect the body.  In another scene he breaks into his son’s house to beat him.  While searching for him, he destroys everything in his path.  Meanwhile the son, Masao, breaks into his house and attempts to destroy everything there.  His inexpert demolition merely leaves a couple of holes in a wardrobe.  When his father returns, he vaults through a window and then performs a comedy escape run down the street.

In one of the final scenes of the film, the older, weaker Shun-Pei visits his son at a diner in which he is working.  Masao tells him to ‘do whatever the fuck you want, same as you always have.’  He reaches over with his walking stick to strike him, but just manages to poke him in the chest.  One is reminded of Monty Burns giving a man ‘the beating of your life.’

The film finishes with the same scene with which is started, Shun-Pei smiling as the smoke of industry hangs over Osaka.  We interpret his expression differently now; is it the idea of a new stomping ground that pleases him, is it the anticipation of new people whom he might subject to his will and his fist?  It is not the only smoke we have seen in the film.  The camera lingers on the black billowing from the incinerator after his wife’s funeral.  And in the penultimate scene we see another son watch his last breath.  In the cold of North Korea, under a heap of blankets, his last expiration leaves a puff of white in the air, still above his motionless face.  Finally, this force of nature has been stopped.


In Film, Reviews on April 22, 2011 at 2:29 pm

Milos Forman, 1979

Shown at FACT Liverpool, Wednesday 6 April, 1830

As part of their ‘Alternative Musicals’ season, FACT have shown a number of rarely seen gems from various parts of the globe.  Tonight’s offering, the final picture of the season, was Hair, a Hollywood film based on the Broadway musical.

The film follows Claude Bukowski, played by John Savage, as he goes to New York for the first time.  He has two days to kill before joining up to protect his country in Vietnam.  During this time he meets a group of young people who aggregate around a leader figure, Berger, played by Treat Williams.

These characters are clearly meant to be interpreted as hippies, with long flowing hair, flairs and tie-dye clothing.  They take drugs, are unashamedly open with their sexuality, and laugh at others for being ‘up tight’ when they don’t understand their morality. The word ‘hippy’ is now used as an insult, and even when the film was made, in 1979, they had clearly become a caricature, a symbol of something lost.  It is this lost hope which is explored in the film.

Hippies, yes, but not at all politically aware.  When trying to convince Claude not to go to Vietnam, there is no mention of peace, of indiscriminate killing of native Vietnamese, of colonialism, of exploitation of American soldiers from poor backgrounds to further the cause of the rich. The same rich who would never dream of giving up their own lives.  The best the hippies can come up with is, ‘Well if the boot was on the other foot, I wouldn’t do it for you.’

Nor are they non-conformist.  Claude actually spends one acid trip dreaming of marrying a rich girl.  And unlike Bonnie and Clyde, they are not glamorous in their criminality.  At one point they need some money, so Berger tries to con some rich people.  He proves comically inept at this, and so where does he turn?  To his mum.

The picture painted therefore is not of hippies as a revolutionary left, or of a group that is inspirational in any way, except perhaps its Caligula-like disregard for anything except immediate desires.  This is a group of children, skipping their way through life with no care for anyone else.  At one point Claude asks Berger, ‘What did you do that for?’ Berger’s unfazed response is like his manifesto, “What do you mean, man?  Because it was fun.’

The film’s many songs are rarely more than two-minutes long; some are very good, most are very catchy and almost all are frankly hilarious.  They openly take on, but brazenly refuse to explore, many issues that remain taboo thirty years later – sexuality, race, class.  It is all part of an exhilarating journey through the morality of 1979 America, where the characters treat the taboos in the same way the film does; not as issues, but as games, or objects of mockery.

The real story is not in the issues or the taboos, but in what the characters can do with these games, whether they can take responsibility for each other at the same time as enjoying the freedoms they think they enjoy, and for which they exalt themselves over their less enlightened compatriots.

There are echoes of other films that explore the late 1960s and early 1970s here, such as Easy Rider and Shampoo.  The latter made its point by explicit reference to the election of Reagan in 1981, whereas this film uses Vietnam as its political anchor.  The thrust with all of them was not to reminisce of what might have been, of the potential of that ‘great’ period, but actually to mourn what was lost.  The final scene reminds one of Warren Beatty in Shampoo, watching ruefully as Julie Christie drives off into the sunset with the man with the money, or of Peter Fonda in Easy Rider whispering wistfully, ‘We blew it, man.’

Well, they blew it.

Will we?


In Film, Reviews on April 16, 2011 at 7:51 pm

Joel Coen, 1996

Fargo is often seen as the Coen brothers’ finest film – less silly than The Big Lebowski, less self-consciously philosophical than No Country for Old Men. Actually, despite being a superb film, I believe it is inferior to both of them. In fact, in many ways I see it as a sketch, a dress rehearsal for them.

Fargo introduces us to many of the Coen brothers tropes seen in The Big Lebowski and No Country – the briefcase full of money, the psychotic killer, the avuncular, good-natured central figure, bemused by the world. In this last case, the similarities between Fargo and No Country are obvious, with Frances McDormand and Tommy Lee Jones both highly competent officers of the law working in rural areas and surrounded by somewhat dull people who look to them as reassuring but modest leaders.

Both try to make sense of an overwhelmingly harsh world, McDormand’s final words to Peter Stormare, ‘Well, I just don’t understand it,’ echoing Lee Jones final words to his wife, trying to make sense of the world through his own dreams of his father, ‘out there in all that dark, and all that cold.’ And of course, both look to their unassuming spouses for support. The warmth shared here is wonderfully observed and contrasts sharply with the coldness and detachment of Stormare and Javier Bardem.

The comparison between McDormand, Lee Jones and The Dude is a little more complex. Still bemused by the world, still a kind of leader for his comically inept peers, but far less fervent in his attempt to make sense of the world. The man just wants his rug back.

This is partly why I see The Big Lebowski as the finest of the three films – The Dude is as much a passenger in his own story as the other two are the chiefs to which the surrounding characters look for leadership. And so his enforced adoption of some kind of managerial role in the grand old mix up becomes all the more comical, the way in which circumstances overtake him becomes all the more easy to relate to.

The final trope common to all three films is a recurring theme in many other Coen brothers pictures – the overt reference to the Western. Fargo starts with a Morricone-like score, while a ute ploughs through a blanket of snow. One can immediately draw parallels with the horse-drawn carriage traversing the desert.

The story of a lone lawman (or woman in this case) trying to bring justice to his (her) wild town is perfect fodder for such references. Of course, there are no horses, only cars. Cars that beep when the front doors are left open. And the love story between an old hired gun and a prostitute is replaced with disjointed and awkward stolen minutes with local ‘hookers’ in each town.

There’s enough of the iconography and thematic concern of the Western here not only to list the references, but actually to classify this as a Western itself. The most iconic of Hollywood film genres is not eulogised here, but energised.

In all of this, I have not mentioned the other main character in Fargo, the desperate car salesman played terrifically, and terrifyingly, by William H. Macy. Again and again we wince at just how pathetic he is, and wonder at just what kind of ‘trouble’ it is that he is in. Of course, we are never told exactly why it is that he needs all that money. In this respect we are reminded not of the stock characters of old Westerns, but actually of Willy Loman.

His vapid salutations and the transparently empty alacrity with which he tackles every problem grate on the viewer until he finally explodes with anger while de-icing his windscreen. After this, the vents of built-up pressure become more regular, with Macy losing it in his office, then with McDormand, and then finally in a motel room while being held down by police.

His forced, attempted geniality contrasts sharply with the easy amiability of McDormand and husband. By the time we are introduced to them, the scene has already been set; blood has already been shed. And then suddenly we are given the warmth of the expecting couple. For the rest of the film, this becomes the backdrop for the action.

As is common in the films of the Coen brothers, the attention to detail with the script is acute, with recurring motifs and endearing local patter. This serves as a gel to hold together the increasingly out-of-control happenings in Brainerd. We are told more than once, by independent observers, that Steve Buscemi is ‘kinda funny looking.’ Every time I heard McDormand or her husband say, ‘Oh yah?’ or ‘You betcha,’ it served to reassure me that all was not lost. Whatever kind of world we have that can create the sociopathic Stormare, the pathetically compromised Macy, or even McDormand’s manipulative old friend in ‘the Twin Cities,’ well we haven’t got it all wrong if we can also create these McDormand and husband.

So not their finest, but still a great film. And in many ways – thematically, aesthetically, in content and in screenplay – a prelude to the even greater films, (even greater Westerns) to come.

Les Biches

In Film, Reviews on April 8, 2011 at 11:53 pm

Claude Chabrol, 1968

This picture shares many similarities to Godard’s Le Mepris, particularly in its mischievous study of feminine capriciousness and gender roles, but ultimately is sadder.

The final scenes before the return to Paris reminded me of Brad Pitt asking Casey Affleck in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, ‘Do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?’ Similar to that film, the answer is not immediately obvious, but the conclusion is the same.Again, the subservient member of the duo is forced into a position where he (in this case, she) only has one course of action left through which she can assert her power.

Unlike The Assassination of Jesse James, this discourse of power switching hands is explicitly related to class in Les Biches. Another interesting thing to note in Les Biches is that one’s sympathy lies with Frederique for most of the film – she is intelligent, beautiful, well-mannered and, well, a classy sorta babe. Why is impetuous, childish, manipulative and more than a little creepy.

However, in that final scene, to which we know the conclusion from the start, because of the camera continuously returning to Why’s swinging handbag, it is Frederique’s disregard of another’s life, another’s emotions, her bourgeois disregard of her plaything’s love, her unhidden disgust at Why’s honesty that hit me. Suddenly, I not only knew what Why would do, but willed her on. It became what she must do. And so when she did it, not only Why, but also I was implicated.

A brilliant work.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

In Film, Reviews on April 8, 2011 at 11:09 pm

Werner Herzog, 2010

Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams was my first 3D film since Beowulf. And it was a cracker. The imagery was immediately arresting, even before we entered the cave. The opening shot - a camera roving down a row of crops towards the cliff face in the distance - reminded one of the little crosses of the graveyards of those who fought in WW2. Herzog began his voiceover and already we knew this film would search, and be searching.

So many questions were asked, about art, about history, about how to create a story, and if one ever can create a true story, how to respond to art, how to think of our forebears. Like all the best films, many of these questions were left incompletely answered, or not at all. The paintings themselves were treated with religious reverence by Herzog, with the patient, still shots and slow panning to which we have become accustomed in his films.

The haunting choral soundtrack was pure Herzog, reminiscent of Aguirre or the start of Nosferatu. This reverence was clearly a reflection of that shown by the discoverers and investigators of the cave, and a link was drawn here with the actual artists. At first this was done implicitly through discussion of how little time one could spend, how few people could enter, how protected the cave was. This was not just a cave, it was a church. Silence within the church, and let us listen to our hearts beating.

Finally, the link was made explicit by revealing that the original artists may have used the cave as a temple, as evidenced by a central rock on which had been placed an animal's skull, like an altar.

Herzog avoided drawing too many such conclusions - the story here was not the artists', it was... it is ours. The story is in fact in the fascination of having all these props, these inspiring works, which we can only connect through fiction, not through history. What does this mean for us, for our story?

What will the crocodiles think five thousand years from now?