December 30, 2012

Reading books, watching television

Mad Men, season 5. The Hour, season 2. Homeland, season 2. Girls. Campbell Live. Coronation Street.


Sherman Alexie, Blasphemy. Simon Armitage, Walking Home. Laurent Binet, HHhH. Steve Braunias, Civilisation: Twenty Places on the Edge of the World. Don DeLillo, The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories. Junot Diaz, This is How You Lose Her. Janet Frame, Gorse is Not People. Alan Greenberg, Every Night the Trees Disappear: Werner Herzog and the Making of Heart of Glass. Charlotte Grimshaw, Soon. J Hoberman, Film After Film: Or, What Became of 21st-Century Cinema? Denis Johnson, Train Dreams. Hari Kunzru, Gods Without Men. DT Max, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. Salman Rushdie, Joseph Anton. Bruce Russell (ed.), Erewhon Calling: Experimental Sound in New Zealand. Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara (eds.), Extreme Metaphors: Selected Interviews with JG Ballard. Dana Spiotta, Stone Arabia. Jane Stafford and Mark Williams (eds.), The Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature. Brad Tolinski, Light and Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page. Bianca Zander, The Girl Below.

Paul Auster, Invisible. Paul Auster, Oracle Night. David Ballantyne, Sydney Bridge Upside Down. John Banville, The Book of Evidence. John Banville, The Infinities. Andy Beckett, When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies. Teju Cole, Open City. Don DeLillo, Point Omega. Robert Forster, The Ten Rules of Rock and Roll. Kate Grenville, The Secret River. Michel Houellebecq, HP Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life. Derek Jarman, Dancing Ledge. Colin MacCabe, Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at 70. Tom McCarthy, Tintin and the Secret of Literature. Greil Marcus, The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years. Emily Perkins, Novel About My Wife. Ron Rash, The Cove. Will Self, Walking to Hollywood. Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell. Dana Spiotta, Eat the Document.

December 27, 2012

How to film ghosts

Ghosts will appear under certain conditions, when it is not quite dark and not quite light (at the break of dawn and twilight).
At first the dead don’t realise they are dead. When they pinch themselves, it still hurts. They think they still have their own bodies. But it’s just an illusion; all in the mind. They walk around talking normally to people but no one takes any notice, no one can see or hear them.
Haunting isn’t the right word. The ghosts in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives don’t haunt. They are attached to people, not places, and not all are visible. But still, there is an assumption that the world is full of invisible beings who occasionally become visible (dawn and twilight). Unseen ghosts are still ghosts. When they appear, you might be startled for a moment – such as the first appearance in Uncle Boonmee of Huay’s ghost at the dinner table (above) as she gradually becomes more solid – but your belief in what is real and not real will not be tested. Generally, in films made in the west, ghosts are in two categories: the terror of The Innocents/The Others/The Shining or the romantic attachment of a loved one that continues to guide you from beyond his or her death (Ghost, obviously). The ghosts in Uncle Boonmee are neither of those. They are not reassuring, but nor are they terrifying. They have nothing much to say. The afterlife, a ghost says, is boring. They are no help to the living or the dead. Unlike, say, The Innocents or Ghost, these ghosts aren’t out to prove to anyone that they exist. The space between life and death is more porous than in the Christian/post-Christian west. They are taken for granted.

There are Buddhist values and Thai folklore in Uncle Boonmee. There are the laws of karma. There are monkey ghosts – human-sized, shaggy beings with bright red eyes that live in forests. On one hand, Uncle Boonmee comes to the west as something exotic, dreamlike and metaphysical, and more persuasive and profound a mix of folklore and localised story than, say, Beasts of the Southern Wild, told in European art-cinema language (generally post-Antonioni: long takes, limited camera movements, emphasis on space). It won the Palme d’or in 2010 – Tim Burton was head of the jury and called it “a beautiful strange dream”– and then it got a limited New Zealand Film Festival showing but didn’t get as far as the South Island, from memory (I’ve reviewed it off the UK blu-ray release). Critics were mostly respectful but audiences were divided and this review from student magazine Salient seems typical of the idiotic responses (“The result is a long, boring movie”). Or maybe it’s a parody of the idiotic responses.

Weerasethakul was inspired by a book by a Buddhist monk from Thailand’s north-east who could recall his past lives. In the story, Boonmee is dying and his sister and cousin come to stay at his farm. Huay was Boonmee’s wife. His son appears too. Lives are recalled. But there is more to it than that. The film is also concerned with Weerasethakul’s own memories and perceptions of time (in an interview on the blu-ray, he says that Boonmee is dying in the same way his own father died), and the way that films can play tricks with time. When the future is talked about, the film suddenly becomes a series of stills with a voice-over, in the style of La Jetee. In those stills, soldiers pose with what seems to be a captured monkey ghost in an obvious movie costume.

Everywhere we went there were stories. Helicopters shot down here, friends shot there, beheadings happened here.
The same soldiers appear in A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, a short film that is included on the blu-ray. It tells you that the feature, Uncle Boonmee, is just one part of a larger project concerned with the recent history of Thailand’s north-east, near the border with Laos. There is a brief but crucial reference to this history in Uncle Boonmee, when the title character wonders if his disease was caused by his karma, from his part in the killing of communist sympathisers. The history is more explicit in A Letter to Uncle Boonmee. Weerasethakul’s own writing about the project, some of which is also included in the blu-ray, is even more detailed about his research trips to Thailand’s north-east and the Thai government’s opposition to local communist insurgency from the 1960s to the 1980s (that writing is also the source of the quotes in this blog). Who or what are the ghosts? A ghost is always just an absence. In Uncle Boonmee, Boonmee’s sister explains why she is unwilling to take over the farm: she would be surrounded by the farm’s “ghosts and migrant workers”. They occupy the same level. Migrant workers are normally invisible too, just like the villagers from remote parts of the country who disappeared in the 1960s. This wider context isn’t vital for an appreciation of Uncle Boonmee but it deepens the experience.

December 26, 2012


A newsman stated that due to a decreasing birth rate, the German race would completely disappear in one hundred years.

“That’s untrue,” Herzog declared. “The German race will disappear due to obesity and boredom.”
Alan Greenberg’s Every Night the Trees Disappear: Werner Herzog and the Making of Heart of Glass is a making-of book unlike most others, and not only because Heart of Glass is a film unlike etc (famously, infamously, Herzog hypnotised the actors). This is a making-of book that is entirely free of such typical themes as studio interference, hovering producers and money worries. It is concerned entirely with Herzog’s pursuit of his ideas and visions – to the extent that, 35 years on in an afterword, Herzog thinks that he comes across in the book as “didactic and dictatorial”, as the production, in his memory, had more coherence and organisation about it.

In the mid-70s, Herzog’s fame was growing in the United States and the Herzog persona was developing. What would fame do? Four decades on, he seems an avuncular, less driven, less singular figure – not as strange, and able to appear, for example, as the Hollywood villain in Tom Cruise’s Jack Reacher movie (one hopes that decision was partly a sly reference to this). We also know Herzog now as a quotable figure, a producer of epigrams. They are scattered through his conversations here, too (“Close ups are a personal violation of the actor” etc). And:
“People should look straight at a film,” he suggested. “That’s the only way to see one. Film is not the art of scholars but illiterates. And film culture is not analysis; it is agitation of the mind. Movies come from the country fair and circus, not from art and academicism.”

December 18, 2012

“Real children. Real birds. Real cats. Real graves”: Films and music, 2012

THE TEN FILMS OF 2012 (more on these and some others in my Werewolf column)

1. Amour

2. Margaret

3. Holy Motors

4. Martha Marcy May Marlene

5. The Cabin in the Woods

6. A Separation

7. The Skin I Live In

8. Shame

9. Autoluminescent

10. Looper

Wuthering Heights. The Red House. Brother Number One. Arrietty. Le Havre. We Need to Talk About Kevin. This is Not a Film. The Dark Knight Rises. Shihad: Beautiful Machine.


Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)

In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950)

Journey to Italy (Roberto Rossellini, 1954)

Pickpocket (Robert Bresson, 1959)

Eyes without a Face (Georges Franju, 1960)

Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961)

La Jetee (Chris Marker, 1962)

Masculin Feminin (Jean-Luc Godard, 1966)

Le Cercle Rouge (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1970)

Punishment Park (Peter Watkins, 1971)

La Vallee (Barbet Schroeder, 1972)

The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973)

The Parallax View (Alan J Pakula, 1974)

Fingers (James Toback, 1978)

Camera Buff (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1979)

Altered States (Ken Russell, 1980)

Dressed to Kill (Brian De Palma, 1980)

The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

Possession (Andrezj Zulawski, 1981)

Pirate Tape (Derek Jarman, 1983)

This is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1984)

Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986)

The Double Life of Veronique (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1991)

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Three Colours: Blue (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1993)

Ulysses Gaze (Theo Angelopoulos, 1995)

Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1997)

The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998)

The Wind Will Carry Us (Abbas Kiarostami, 1999)

Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Andersen, 2003)

Basic Instinct 2 (Michael Caton-Jones, 2006)

Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006)

Lady Chatterley (Pascale Ferran, 2006)

Into the Wild (Sean Penn, 2007)

The Man from London (Bela Tarr, 2007)

Mock Up on Mu (Craig Baldwin, 2008)

Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos, 2009)

Fantastic Mr Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009)

Lebanon (Samuel Maoz, 2009)

Lourdes (Jessica Hausner, 2009)

Animal Kingdom (David Michod, 2010)

Film Socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard, 2010)

Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, 2010)

The Runaways (Floria Sigismondi, 2010)

Bobby Fischer Against the World (Liz Garbus, 2011)

Kill List (Ben Wheatley, 2011)

Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011)

Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011)


Earth, Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light II, and live at King’s Arms, Auckland, September 8. Swans, The Seer. Demdike Stare, Elemental. X-TG, Desertshore/The Final Report. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! Monolake, Ghosts. Our Love Will Destroy the World, Thousands Raised to the Sixth. Burial, Street Halo/Kindred. Pete Swanson, Gate, Eye, Adam Willetts, at the Physics Room, Christchurch, August 10 and September 29. The Pin Group, Ambivalence. Konx-om-Pax, Regional Surrealism. Kemper Norton, Carn and Collision/Detection v6. The Caretaker, Patience (After Sebald) and Extra Patience. Hacker Farm, “Fuck the Olympics” and UHF. The Haxan Cloak, The Men Parted the Sea to Devour the Water. Carter Tutti Void, Transverse. KTL, V. Mark Stewart, The Politics of Envy. Blanck Mass, White Math EP. Raime, Quarter Turns Over a Living Line. White Rainbow, The Contemplator. My Bloody Valentine, EPs 1988-1991. The Close Readers, “New Spirit”. Bill Callahan, “So Long, Marianne”. Leonard Cohen, “Darkness”.


The title – “Real children. Real birds. Real cats. Real graves.” – comes from La Jetee by Chris Marker (1921-2012). In his essential Film as a Subversive Art, Amos Vogel (1921-2012) called La Jetee a “mysterious, profoundly disturbing masterpiece” and “a poignant philosophical speculation on memory, loss and human destiny”. La Jetee extends from and meditates on Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which from now until at least 2022 is the best film ever made, according to Sight and Sound, who should know. Also, Theo Angelopoulos (1935-2012).

December 12, 2012

The sensual world

Andrea Arnold shot her version of Wuthering Heights in the old-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio, with a handheld camera, no music on the soundtrack and little dialogue. The effect can be like watching a strange, grimy home movie shot on the Yorkshire moors, somehow unearthed after 200 years. Everything is immediate and almost pre-literate – we are constantly in the present, and time elapses and leaps with little warning. Boldly, Arnold’s Heathcliff is a black boy (Solomon Glave then James Howson) found on the streets of Liverpool, a slave port. There are two Cathies: the younger (Shannon Beer) is more convincing than the older (Kaya Scodelario). All is rawness, mud and rain, the cruelty of nature and the cruelty of others. There is a heaviness to the storytelling, a sense that the world is confined to the horizon and ruled by seasons and weather, and an impressive subversion of starchy prestige period film conventions (some precedents: Pascale Ferran’s Lady Chatterley, Michael Winterbottom’s Jude, Jane Campion’s Bright Star), while the epic scale you might expect is compressed. Arnold’s previous film, Fish Tank, was itself a refreshment of kitchen sink clich├ęs about a trapped, bullied child. The theme comes back here, stronger than any romance that the title’s history promises.   

December 10, 2012

Last furnished room

with mother finally *****, and the last fantastic book flung out of the tenement window, and the last door closed at 4 A.M. and the last telephone slammed at the wall in reply and the last furnished room emptied down to the last piece of mental furniture, a yellow paper rose twisted on a wire hanger in the closet, and even that imaginary, nothing but a hopeful little bit of hallucination —
     Allen Ginsberg, from Howl: for Carl Solomon.

What is it like to die, she wonders, what is it like to be dead? Is it like anything? Like being under an anaesthetic, perhaps, with the forgetful anaesthetist gone home and all the lights in the operating theatre turned off and the doors locked and the last squeaky footsteps fallen silent down all the long corridors.
     John Banville, from The Infinities.

Still from Amour (2012).

December 4, 2012

Auto shop

“The best films about Los Angeles are, at least partly, about modes of transportation. Getting from place to place isn’t a given. Cars break down, they get flat tyres.” Thom Andersen, in Los Angeles Plays Itself.

Pictured: Drive (2011), Lost Highway (1997).

November 30, 2012

Not dead (Skyfall)

Just as the Dark Knight films aspired to be Bond (as Chris Nolan explains here), so the new Bond, the Sam Mendes-directed Skyfall, aspires to be a Dark Knight film, with Javier Bardem (camp, bleached, monstrous) as its scene-stealing Heath Ledger. They come together in other ways. In the Dark Knight films Nolan wrestled with the comic-book implications – they were superhero movies that didn’t really want to be superhero movies – and, equivalently, Skyfall is an espionage thriller that takes in almost supernatural elements, especially in its depiction of the villain (his island of ruins, his techno-omnipotence). The hero – Bond (Daniel Craig) – seems overshadowed, blandly mechanical, barely present. Apart from M (for mother), the women are superfluous and even the sex isn’t fun. The Craig-era Bond is never enjoying himself; the Roger Moore-era Bond was only ever enjoying himself. Like Nolan’s Bruce Wayne, this Bond confronts and exhumes childhood memory and trauma – recurring image: tunnels – with Albert Finney’s Kincade as his Michael Caine and the ruins of Skyfall in Scotland as his Wayne Manor. As in a Nolan film, the lines are clean and the palette is limited – shot by Roger Deakins, this is at least the best-looking Bond film in years, possibly forever – and the sense of Nolan-like ambivalence and sombre psychology dominates. Since Goldeneye in 1996, the Bond films have had to face their own redundancy; in this instalment, re-evaluation of espionage values has turned into resentment for both Craig’s Bond and Bardem’s Raoul Silva. Action cliches? Yes, two of the worst – car chase through crowded market in foreign country, endless fight atop a train – but both are done before the opening credits, before the serious business of death-resurrection-death-resurrection gets going. “With pleasure,” Bond says at the very end, to his new boss, incongruously but almost convincingly, perhaps anticipating a happier film to come in two years, with the past out of his system and more people dead.

November 29, 2012

Can the world be as sad as it seems?

My best (and some worst) films of 2012 list is up at Werewolf. An expanded version, with some books and music, will be here in a few weeks.

November 26, 2012

Window of a train

“Later she would look at time like scenery outside the window of a train, just a way of noticing what had passed her by, or what she had passed by.” Dana Spiotta, from Eat the Document.

Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011). Irene Jacob in The Double Life of Veronique (1991).

November 23, 2012

David Foster Wallace, movie critic

As you read DT Max’s excellent biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, other books suggest themselves. How about a volume of the Wallace-DeLillo letters? And maybe Wallace’s notes on movies? The book gives us only a small taste of the latter.

For example, Wallace as a teenager “went to a lot of movies”. There was Being There, “which he saw over and over again and which fascinated him with its portrait of a man who learns everything he knows from television” (Wallace watched a lot of television). And there was Jaws, “which sealed his fear of sharks”. Later, in his twenties, Wallace “loved” Brazil – a detail that comes into the text because there was talk that Terry Gilliam might want to direct a film of The Broom of the System (later, Gus Van Sant was apparently interested in optioning Infinite Jest). But Blue Velvet was the revelation. Wallace wrote:
It was my first hint that being a surrealist, or being a weird writer, didn’t exempt you from certain responsibilities … That whatever the project of surrealism is works way better if 99.9 percent of it is absolutely real …
Later, Max reiterates that “Wallace never forgot David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and the skein that separates unremarkable from abnormal in America”.

In the 90s, he sees Jurassic Park and Titanic, like everyone else. In the depths of reading the Infinite Jest proofs, he watches the family dog movie Beethoven over again and again on video as he works. 

“Movies, he liked to say, were an addict’s recreation of choice,” Max writes.
Then he wrote letters about the movies. DeLillo was his chosen correspondent and his opinions were anti-elitist and mildly contrarian. For instance, he saw and loved the cyberthriller The Matrix – “visually raw and kinetic and riveting in a way that only something like Bochco’s Hill Street Blues was in ’81,” he wrote his friend – and hated the acclaimed Magnolia, which he found pretentious and hollow, “100% gradschoolish in a bad way”.
DT Max doesn’t mention Lost Highway, which was of course the subject of an epic magazine-meditation-on-Lynch by Wallace back in 1997 (and it can be read here).

November 15, 2012

Evasion and surveillance

As a footnote of sorts to yesterday’s bit on Body Double, a capsule on De Palma’s Femme Fatale that ran in the Listener sometime last decade when the film screened late one night on free-to-air television, probably in an erotic thriller graveyard slot (no theatrical release in NZ, of course). Femme Fatale is every bit the movie movie that Body Double was. I used to rate these things out of 10 – and Femme Fatale got a 9. In the still above, the lead blonde is introduced watching Double Indemnity on television, with French subtitles. Which nearly says it all.
Femme Fatale
Stylish, mysterious and preposterous, Femme Fatale might be the culmination of Brian De Palma’s career-long obsession with the films of Hitchcock. While there are elements of Rear Window – it’s a film about watching, spying, in which both the male and female lead are introduced with cameras in their hands – the role model here is Vertigo. Like Vertigo’s Kim Novak, Femme Fatale star Rebecca Romjin-Stamos appears as both blonde and brunette in a plot that is about evasion and surveillance. While De Palma has made some seriously bad choices over the decades, his Hitchcock bag of tricks is as full as ever: the sudden twists and dreamlike mood swings, sexual tension and pathological motivation, icy music and icier blondes. And while it lags in the middle, both the opening sequence – a jewel heist during the Cannes Film Festival – and the ending are sensational. (2002) 9
Also, in relation to Body Double: there were the same telescopes in the swinging Hollywood Hills in the Blake Edwards sex comedy 10. There, spying on nearby women did not reach a sinister conclusion but was taken as a cute side effect of Dudley Moore’s mid-life crisis. Only in the Californian 70s. Through his telescope, Moore watches the Boogie Nights-style sex parties of some big-shot porn producer. Both films could have been retitled The Sex Lives of Others, but Body Double renders it all closer to decadence than innocent fun.

November 14, 2012

The killer drove a white Ford Bronco

Which peak-era De Palma film has the worst reputation? Dressed to Kill, Scarface or Body Double? It’s probably still Body Double. I think Dressed to Kill is the best of the three (the most coherent, the most unforced), Scarface is the most operatic, the most violent and the most serious, and Body Double is the most entertaining, the most ridiculous and easily the most movie-conscious. Like David Lynch’s Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, Body Double takes Hollywood as its subject – the seedier end, where B-movie indie blurs with the porn industry. In the early 80s, the porn world is going video, and the wider atmosphere of De Palma’s film seems contaminated by its ever-lowering production values. The central image of Body Double, repeated in posters and stills, was a man watching a woman through a telescope: the Hitchcock-quoting De Palma was citing Rear Window but there is actually more of Vertigo in this set-up (the man, Jake Scully, suffers from claustrophobia as Scotty suffered from vertigo; like Scotty, he follows a woman around a shopping arcade but takes spying to its inevitably seedy conclusion; there is blonde/brunette confusion) and in its doubling. Meta-levels multiply ­– De Palma sends himself up, casting Dennis Franz as a movie director reshooting the shower scenes from Dressed to Kill for his horror cheapie, Vampire’s Kiss ­­– and at its craziest moment, the softcore action stops so that Body Double can become a Frankie Goes to Hollywood music video, with Holly Johnson and Paul Rutherford standing by. At this point, another Holly appears, played by Melanie Griffith, who is herself a Hitchcock quote (as daughter of Tippi Hedren), but the leading man is a let-down, less everyman than nobody. Craig Wasson plays Jake Scully and did anyone ever hear from him again? Dressed to Kill had dreamlike texture and terror. This has the same kind of logic but little genuine fear. And also, weird prescience: there is an uncanny line of dialogue that goes, “there is a woman being killed in that Ford Bronco right there”. A few months back, I noticed that David Lynch was saying that Lost Highway had some OJ Simpson in it; Body Double got one of that story’s key details, as well as its wider murder-in-Hollywood sleaze-ambience, eight years early.

November 2, 2012

The whole city is haunted by an imaginary past

Dream double bill: Mock Up on Mu (2008) and Southland Tales (2006).

California’s apocalyptic state. Revelations via entertainment and entertainment via revelations. Paranoid style. In both cases, sprawl and maddening overload.

That sentence – “The whole city is haunted by an imaginary past” – comes from a footnote attached to J Hoberman’s review of the David Lynch film Inland Empire in Hoberman’s new Film After Film: Or, What Became Of 21st-Century Cinema? In the footnote, Hoberman is talking specifically about Thom Andersen’s cine-essay Los Angeles Plays Itself (like Mock Up on Mu, easily viewed in full on YouTube).

Spookily, you then turn the page and get this: “The desire to couple movies most likely derives from the Depression-era gimmick of the double feature.” That leads into a discussion of Douglas Gordon’s Between Darkness and Light (After William Blake), an artwork in which The Exorcist and The Song of Bernadette are screened at the same time. Dream double bill ...

October 31, 2012

“L Ron’s got the tech” (Mock Up on Mu)

Scientology-critical movies? Before Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, itself delayed in New Zealand until possibly next year, there was Craig Baldwin’s Mock Up on Mu (2008), a found-footage epic that replayed the dark mythology of Scientology’s creation as both historical fact and improbable conspiracy. Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard’s official history of himself cast him as a military secret agent ordered to break up black magic covens in Southern California after World War II; the unofficial or suppressed history, relayed in books like Jon Atack’s A Piece of Blue Sky, has him as an active participant in rituals borrowed from occultist Aleister Crowley, working closely with rocket scientist and Satanist Jack Parsons and witch and future artist Marjorie Cameron on something called The Babalon Working (see Chapter 6 of Atack: “His Magickal Career”). At least two books have been written about Parsons, a handsome genius who died in a lab explosion. Wasn’t one of the books optioned by a genuine movie star? Until that movie happens, Mock Up on Mu will do as an appropriately eccentric Parsons biopic.

A found-footage artist, Craig Baldwin is still best known for Tribulation 99, which I wrote about back here. In the films that followed, Baldwin has blended his own melodramatic low-budget footage – real actors speaking real dialogue – with the off-cuts that he edits into rapid-fire secret histories. The blend was still a little clunky in Spectres of the Spectrum; Mock Up on Mu is less comic, more narrative-based and, despite appearances, more rooted in fact (Erik Davis, who knows the secret histories of California, wrote about it here). And while it can seem like a crazy, obsessive film about craziness and obsession – “too much science too soon will drive you insane”, someone says, and the same is surely true of occultism and perhaps even Baldwin’s movies – there is a genuine point.

The plot? Fifty years after the moon landings, L Ron Hubbard is running operations from his lunar base. He wants what Parsons has, and sends Cameron back to prison planet Earth to get it. The corporation Lockheed Martin is embodied by a person – a middle-aged servant of the military-industrial complex seduced in a strip club during a comparatively light Las Vegas montage (usefully for Scientology, Vegas is full of “celebrities who need to be detoxified”). Crowley seems to have been trapped underground with Flash Gordon; L Ron Hubbard is represented by, among other creatures, Ming the Merciless. Actual Crowley recordings and actual Apollo mission footage mix with material from 50s and 60s sci-fi cheapies, monster movies, westerns and thrillers (and occasionally, they are things you recognise: Logan’s Run, North by Northwest, the Star Trek series, the original Melies’ Trip to the Moon), while Parsons is reinvented as a free energy evangelist and Crowley as a proto-beatnik who gives the film its ultimate, uplifting message: “Make love, not war.”

In other words, there is a political dimension. Baldwin has added a few disclaimers at the end for those who might have started on this without doing their homework (and good luck to those viewers). One such disclaimer reads: “Lockheed Martin is a pastiched character, but is still a very evil reality …” That concerns the occupation of space and the arms race. But when the film dips into Scientology lore, it can be hard to tell if Baldwin is sending the religion up or simply taking it at its word. That is, if there is a difference.

October 29, 2012


It’s good that Pete Majendie’s 185 empty chairs (for 185 dead) earthquake memorial has survived and found a new home on the site of St Paul’s Trinity Pacific Presbyterian Church on Madras Street. This side of town is now becoming the unofficial centre of earthquake remembrance: the empty, still eerie CTV site opposite, the temporary (cardboard) Anglican Cathedral taking shape almost next door, and now these chairs, which initially appeared on the first anniversary of the February 22 quake, on the site of the Oxford Tce Baptist Church. At the time I wrote that they looked like they were awaiting the general resurrection of the dead. Relocated, they now seem like a memorial to themselves, an exhibit about the objects we remember with.

The supporting text came over from Oxford Tce too. It tells us that the empty chair has often depicted absence or loss, as in (Samuel) Luke Fildes’ depiction of Dickens’ empty desk and chair, which inspired Van Gogh and Gauguin. More recently and explicitly, 2753 empty chairs appeared in Bryant Park, New York, facing the fallen towers on September 11, 2011. Empty chairs have also memorialised the Oklahoma bombing and the vanished Jews of Krakow, Poland.   

October 27, 2012

Killing Them Softly

I didn’t know until after I saw it that Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly is adapted from a book from the 70s (Cogan’s Trade by George V Higgins), which accounts for its odd temporal disjunction: the big 70s American cars, the 70s-era urban rot and depressed ambience, against the super-obviousness of the Obama-era recession backdrop. Maybe it would have made more sense to have a resigning Nixon on the TV screens and soundtrack. Recession-era commentary aside, Killing Them Softly mostly feels like great acting in search of a story. Brad Pitt is marquee name and producer; he both looks the part and can speak the pulp dialogue (Dominik’s previous two films are also legendary-killer films: Chopper and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), Ben Mendelsohn is one of cinema’s most realistic drug addicts (dopey, sleepy, greasy), Ray Liotta is Ray Liotta, Scoot McNairy has the innocence and the instability of the young Brad Dourif, but the best of the lot might be James Gandolfini’s Mickey, a washed-out, drunk, sad killer flown into town for a job that he probably can’t manage. You might even feel like you’ve missed him.

October 14, 2012

Harris Savides, 1957-2012

Stills from films shot by Harris Savides: Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007); Birth (Jonathan Glazer, 2004); Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach, 2007); Somewhere (Sofia Coppola, 2010); Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003); Last Days (Gus Van Sant, 2005); Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008). 

“He drops reaction shots entirely for cinematographer Harris Savides’s long, steady gaze and slow, careful glide.” (Elephant review, 2004).