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).