February 29, 2012

The very bad seed (We Need to Talk About Kevin)

Like her second film, Morvern Callar, Lynne Ramsay’s daring suburban horror We Need to Talk About Kevin starts by putting us inside a traumatised consciousness. How often do we see Eva (Tilda Swinton) coming to, or remembering, persecuted by a sense of guilt and her memory, trying to understand her role in an atrocity? The atrocity has been committed by Kevin (three actors, most notably Ezra Miller), her demonic teenage son, but the point of view is consistently Eva’s. The Lionel Shriver novel apparently took the form of therapeutic letters, from Eva to her husband; Ramsay has dumped that device, not even offering a compensatory voice-over, but still drawing us deep into Eva's fragmented point of view, through Malick-style associative editing and imagery and through the sheer, unnerving power of Swinton’s acting. Ten years after Morvern Callar, which Kevin recalls like a fond memory in opening scenes at the Spanish Tomatina festival, Ramsay’s protagonist is older, unhappier, stuck in suburbia (despite stylistic overlap, this film is more depressive and tougher than Morvern Callar). Point of view is everything: in interviews, Ramsay has talked about her derailed plans for an adaptation of The Lovely Bones, which would have shifted perspective to the murdered girl’s father, as a kind of Hamlet haunted or driven mad by a ghost. More intriguing still, Ramsay has talked of wanting to remake We Need to Talk About Kevin from two other perspectives: the goofy, unknowing dad and the almost cartoonishly evil son. At how many points would their perspectives coincide? Of course it will never happen, but like her Lovely Bones, they are films we can imagine. 

February 22, 2012

River of flowers, Beckenham (22/2)

On February 22 last year, at 12.51pm, I was at the movies. I went from the movies to home to school, on wrecked roads clogged with traffic, drivers in states of shock or panic. At the school, or in the park next to it, all the kids sat in tidy, quiet groups with their teachers, waiting for their parents. It was the calmest thing when everything else around us was chaos. In places, liquefaction -- grey muddy water -- burst through the grass and pooled on the surface, creating piles of silt. There were aftershocks. But still the kids stayed put.

A year later, most of the same kids and many of the same teachers assembled in exactly the same place in the same way. Two minutes' silence, then balloons, a short speech, then class by class, they went to the river. Flowers came from home, from gardens, and were thrown into the river. I liked to think, as the flowers floated past, that some were coming from further up the river, from other sites -- other parks, schools, houses. Notes were hung from trees, some written by children, some by teachers, some by parents.

At the edge of the moraine

The chairs -- 185 of them, painted white -- look like they are awaiting the general resurrection of the dead. Empty seats for expected guests. Pictures by Christchurch City Libraries (from here). The installation at the Oxford Tce Baptist Church is by artist Peter Majendie.

Take the time to read this, this and this.

Two minutes of silence at 12.51pm, flowers in the river. Hundreds of flowers, thousands. "A roll call and then silence," said Catholic Bishop Barry Jones, on radio this morning. It is silent on the streets; when people phone, they sound subdued, cautious.

"I was just laying aside a Lausanne paper I'd bought in Zurich when my eye was caught by a report that said the remains of the Bernese alpine guide Johannes Naegeli, missing since summer 1914, had been released by the Oberaar glacier, 72 years later. And so they are ever returning to us, the dead. At times they come back from the ice more than seven decades later and are found at the edge of the moraine, a few polished bones and a pair of hobnailed boots." -- WG Sebald, from The Emigrants.

"Flower of wonder, flower of might: if I see thee on the other side, when I am dead, I’ll know there is an other side." -- Andrew Johnston, from "The Sunflower" (here).

February 19, 2012

A last glimpse of the land now being lost forever

They said it couldn't be done. Maybe it can't. Grant Gee made the documentary Joy Division, which we talked about it here back in 2008. We don't want to come across as prescient or anything but that entry actually began and ended with Sebald quotes.

February 17, 2012

"Daffodils bloom gay and golden" etc

Within the excellent selection of Christchurch-oriented films and TV clips put online by NZ On Screen in advance of the first anniversary of the February 22 quake, there is this 60-year-old short Christchurch: Garden City of New Zealand, a city council promo -- a city of flowers, rivers, parks, schools, sports; a city "where even factories have gardens". This of course was the film sent up viciously by Peter Jackson in the opening minutes of Heavenly Creatures: a sleepy, tranquil, pseudo-English backwater violently disrupted, with that ridiculously crisp Home Counties voice-over interrupted by girls screaming ...

February 15, 2012

Sons of the silent age (The Artist, Hugo)

Enjoy the silents? How strange it is that two films that pay tribute in different but equally affectionate ways to early, silent cinema should appear so close together. One is a French film set in the American industry, in California; the other is an American film set in Paris, and concerning the French industry. Each film looks back at a different period of silent cinema but both are set at roughly the same historical moment – 1929/1930. That was the point at which silence was replaced by sound and Michel Hazanavicius’ film The Artist is a buoyant, undemanding consideration of the ways in which some benefitted from the new technology and some did not. As it opens, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, pictured above as the Sun King) is one of Hollywoodland’s – we even see the archaic sign – reigning stars, appearing in Douglas Fairbanks-type pictures. Hazanavicius’conceit is that his black-and-white film about silent films is itself silent, with a minimum of intertitles, although the conceit doesn’t extend as far as actually mimicking the shooting and cutting style of a 1920s film (if anything, it looks more like an American studio film from the 40s or 50s). As sound comes in, and studios turn their backs on silents, Valentin won’t or can’t adapt to the new era and is cast out by studio boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) who tells both him and us that the audience wants the new and the audience is always right. The star goes it alone, writing, directing, producing and appearing in his own version of a Valentin picture, and ends up bankrupt, like so many who have tried to work outside the system.

The film benefits enormously from the charisma of its two French stars – Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, the latter playing up-and-comer Peppy Miller – and peddles a pleasant, even anodyne vision of 1920s Hollywood (this ain’t Hollywood Babylon). It is also less conceptually daring than it could be, or than you might want it to be – Guy Maddin has toyed with silent film language and style more radically than this. The end result is closer to an in-joking gimmick film for cinephiles, in the tradition of earlier old/new tributes like Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Peter Bogdanovich’s Nickelodeon. But of course there is contemporary resonance: the idea that big players left behind by new technology can catch up and satisfy audiences anew must be soothing to a Hollywood fretting about rapid change in the way that films are made, distributed and consumed. Is this at least part of the reason why a film so slight – enjoyable, yes, but slight – is being seriously considered as an Oscars frontrunner? Another question: how close does Terrence Malick's much more deserving Oscar contender, The Tree of Life, come to being a silent film, only a silent devised in a film language that is subjective, personal and experimental? That has, essentially, moved on in leaps and bounds from the 1920s?

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is set in a movie-dreamed, effects-enhanced Paris (think Amelie, Moulin Rouge) populated by British actors (Ben Kingsley, Jude Law, Sacha Baron Cohen, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Richard Griffiths), which tells you that it was shot in studios in the UK. The main set is an intricate version of the 19th century Montparnasse station, where Hugo (Asa Butterfield) hides from the station inspector (Baron Cohen) and keeps the clocks running. The unlikely notion of a kids’ film from Scorsese is a lure -- as critic Karina Longworth said, it’s “a personal statement disguised as a sell-out” -- and the film, like Spielberg’s AI, occupies a difficult middle ground: a film about childhood that isn’t really for children but still depends on the perceived purity of the child’s response to (film) “magic”.

When Longworth says this is a personal statement, it’s because the film's real subject is French movie pioneer Georges Melies, who was rediscovered working in a toy and sweet shop at Montparnasse station in the late 1920s, long after he too had been bankrupted by the movie business, events that Hugo dramatises. Like George Valentin in The Artist, Melies is shown to have been abandoned by audiences and changes in popular taste (which was not entirely true, as Giovanni Tiso notes in his very good blog entry about Hugo: the aggressiveness of Pathe and Edison also helped to put Melies out of business). This film is ultimately a lesson about the value of preserving cinema history, of maintaining good archives -- a Scorsese passion for decades -- sneaking into multiplexes as a 3D holiday film. But how many cinephiles will think it’s a travesty that Scorsese has inserted a contemporary actor’s face into a reproduction of one of Melies’ films? What would we say if George Lucas pulled the same stunt?

Or, then again, maybe we would think it was fitting. Melies was essentially the father of movie special effects rather than cinematic storytelling or the art film. So it’s easy to reinvent him as the original hero of a Hollywood increasingly peddling empty spectacles. French film historian Georges Sadoul wrote, “With Melies, the gimmick is always trying to startle us: it is the end, and not a means of expression. Melies invents the syllables of a future language, but still prefers ‘abracadabra’ to words.” For Gilbert Adair, writing in Flickers: An Illustrated Celebration of 100 Years of Cinema – the entry for 1902 is Melies’ Le Voyage dans la lune – Melies “invented the articulate fireworks of special effects. Sherlock Jr, King Kong, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Star Wars and even Terminator 2 are all films in the Melies tradition."

In Hugo, cinema is shown to really work on kids: Hugo and Isabelle in the present, watching Harold Lloyd hang from a clock in Safety Last!; fictional film scholar Rene Tabard as a kid in a flashback, looking in wonder at Melies’s glass-house studio. But this is one of Hollywood’s present marketing concerns projected backwards and it reveals a certain desperation about the future of cinema, or at least big-studio viability, as does the intended comparison between increasingly routine 3D technology and the kinds of visual breakthroughs that Lumiere and Lloyd – among others -- came up with, which Scorsese then gives us less thrilling digital versions of (there is no longer any magic in the magic). No spoiler to say it ends in triumph: a gala screening of rediscovered films by the rediscovered Melies, complete with rapturous audience response, so closely resembles an Oscar lifetime achievement award moment that you might feel that Hugo has even come with its own self-congratulatory commentary, like a sitcom with a laugh track.

February 10, 2012

"What a fine place it was": Terrence Malick

“The world was like a faraway planet to which I could never return. I thought what a fine place it was, full of things that people can look into and enjoy.” Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek) in Badlands.

Badlands is a poetic film about juvenile delinquency, outlaw culture, a 70s genre – the camera takes in a yellow moon over the plains, cloud formations, car lights at night – that anticipates the more self-conscious beauty of Days of Heaven, a film of impressive sights but less narrative drive. In both, an idyll comes after the set-up, making a second act. In both cases, pleasure: in Days of Heaven, the pleasures of not working (“The rich got it figured out”); in Badlands, Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly hiding out in a tree house in the woods, living in nature, living as nature. A Malick gallery of the sensual life: close-ups of grass and trees, sunlight, people splashing in rivers. Holly talks of trees rustling overhead like whispers, an anticipation of the Malick soundtrack from The Thin Red Line through to The Tree of Life. Real holy laughter in the river.

“Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.” Train (John Dee Smith) in The Thin Red Line.

In The Thin Red Line, Witt (Jim Caviezel, later Jesus for Mel Gibson) has gone AWOL. He is brought back to the war by Welsh (Sean Penn) and a scene follows that would lead those who are scouting for Christian Symbolism in the Films of Terrence Malick to think of the confrontation between Christ and Pilate. “I can take anything you dish out,” Witt tells Welsh. “I’m twice the man you are.” Witt tells Welsh that there is a world beyond this one; Welsh refuses to see it. Witt talks with a peaceful certainty; the more macho Welsh never looks entirely convinced of his own militaristic position. The man of violence lives in fear – partly the fear of being found out. Ten years later, Malick would get Penn back to do much the same thing in The Tree of Life.

Family dynamics in The Thin Red Line anticipate The Tree of Life. Staros (Elias Koteas) thinks of the troops as his sons. He defies the suicidal orders of the autocratic, bullying Tall (Nick Nolte); together, Staros and Tall mirror the saintly mother and autocratic father in The Tree of Life. In this scenario, Penn’s Welsh is akin to the older brother and Caviezel’s Witt to a younger, gentler one. As in The Tree of Life, Penn has something to learn from his brother’s death.

“I’m your father. A family can have only one head and that is the father.” Bosche (George Clooney) in The Thin Red Line.

On The Tree of Life, Malick and his small crew roamed entire suburban blocks which were open as one large outdoor set, using only natural light. Nostalgia for childhood follows, again as pleasure. The way weather felt, the way spaces felt, the perspectives you had. The simultaneous love and anger. A growing sense of the world beyond the family, of people who are richer and poorer, of injustice and unfairness. A realisation that there was a time before you existed (“Tell us a story from before we can remember”). All the attendant emotions come back as you watch it.

Now, the swimming underwater image that appeared as an addition to the Malick gallery in The Thin Red Line and The New World is movingly recast as a metaphor for being born. Bodies of water are intermediary spaces between life and death; the very last shot is of a bridge across a river. There is a quick shot of a mask in water near the end, within the film’s bright daydream of a resurrection of the dead, and you think (as Malick was/is a philosopher): “Do you not know that there comes a midnight hour when everyone has to throw off his mask? Do you believe that life will always let itself be mocked? Do you think you can slip away a little before midnight in order to avoid this?”

Edited from a longer post at werewolf.co.nz

February 9, 2012

Frank Sargeson on Parker-Hulme

This blog has had an on-off interest in (obsession with?) the Parker-Hulme murder and its coverage/depiction for a few years now (see here, here, here, here and here). Living in Christchurch helps -- or doesn't, depending on your point of view. Anyway, for entirely non-blog reasons, I've been reading Letters of Frank Sargeson (selected and edited by Sarah Shieff, Random House), which is out next week, and the murder appears in there too.

Frank writes to John Reece Cole, on June 24, 1954 (two days after the murder):
What a lovely murder in Chch! Just shows how far astray we writers are when Life insists on copying the Greek playwrights -- instead of the creations we provide for it. But it isn't clear whether the brick was in the stocking or employed separately. Surely Baxter can rise to something as distinguished as 'Lizzie Borden took an axe ...'
To Charles Brasch, on October 16, 1954.
Point about Hulme-Parker is the universal nerve is touched. Getting rid of a parent -- what everybody has thought of -- the foundation of every religion -- Freud, the anthropologists. Only real point of interest in the case is just why the strongest taboo of all broke down in two intelligent schoolgirls. Nearest parallel I know of is Lizzie Borden, and she accounted for both:
Lizzie Borden took an axe,
And gave her mother forty whacks,
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty one!
Amazing that about 40 blows should operate in Christchurch just as in New England ...

February 6, 2012

Early Gothdom

Nothing much to say about this, other than: what a brilliant poster. The use of colons, the polite "et cetera". Who drew it? Who put "the Torture Chamber" night on? Was it a one-off or a series? I found the poster here, within a page on a band called Sons in Jeopardy -- I remember the name but I'm sure I never heard them -- who looked the part around Auckland, c1983-85. I was a few years too young to be going to nights like this but I remember the thrilling band names swapped after our immersion in the weeks-late NMEs posted from the UK -- Sex Gang Children, Southern Death Cult, et cetera -- and the odd Goth sighting in the suburbs (it was a more glam, feminised thing then than it became in the 90s). I wonder who won the prize for "the biggest deviant". And what the prize was. Did everyone "dress-horrid"? How many times did they play Bela Lugosi's Dead? Quays was on Quay Street, unsurprisingly; October 20 was a Thursday in 1983, so it was actually pretty early for all this.