January 31, 2013

January 29, 2013

Car windows

Comments from Chris Petit in an interview on the BFI DVD of Radio On (1979): the car windscreen, from the car interior, is like the movie screen. From top: Radio On, Old Joy (Kelly Reichardt, 2006), Two-Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman, 1971), The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970) and Mildred Pierce (Todd Haynes, 2011). In Haynes’ cool, lavish five-part mini-series, the car is as important as it was in Polanskis Chinatown, and by sticking so closely to the original James Cain novel, Haynes is giving us another socio-cultural history of Los Angeles class, wealth and sprawl and the dark secrets that hide in the shadow of success.

January 25, 2013

Films within films

In Godard’s A Married Woman (1964), Robert (Bernard Noel) meets Charlotte (Macha Meril) at an airport cinema and they watch Night and Fog. Outside the cinema there is a poster of Hitchcock but Godard shows us Night and Fog. We see what they see. The subtitled narration: “Even a perfect landscape, even a prairie with crows flying above, with harvests and hay fires, even a road with passing cars, peasants, couples, even a vacation village with a fair and a steeple, can lead very simply to a concentration camp.” In Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, Richard Brody writes, “For Godard, the lovers’ adulterous embrace in a dark theatre suggests the banality of evil.” In My Week with Marilyn (2011), directed by Simon Curtis, young and naive Colin (Eddie Redmayne) is in a cinema alone, grinning in a crowd, watching footage of one of the two women who play Marilyn in the movie – Michelle Williams, not the second, her body double – re-enacting footage from There’s No Business Like Show Business and, later, from The Prince and the Showgirl, the film she has shot in the interim, with Colin as gofer. Like Godard’s Contempt, My Week with Marilyn is a film in which a studio screening room is a key setting and an imported star is an expensive problem. But the meta-Marilyn film tells you nothing about the movie business other than that it contains bullies and prima donnas. Shallow and frictionless, it’s more the banality of entertainment.

January 20, 2013

The avengers

You can think of Kathryn Bigelow’s Obama-hunt thriller Zero Dark Thirty as an unofficial sequel to Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, prompted by the notorious line of dialogue at the end of the Stone film: “We’re going to need some good men out there to avenge this.” You know what “this” was. “Out there” is a nebulous “place” of black sites and embassies, largely in Pakistan and Afghanistan but not controlled by either country, that is the setting of Bigelow’s film. The first couple of minutes of Zero Dark Thirty set anguished 9/11 phone calls against a black screen, as though 9/11 is an atrocity still too awful to be depicted. The final image is of CIA analyst Maya (Jessica Chastain) leaving Pakistan, inside a military plane, against a background of white and red straps that forms a version of the American flag. She’s crying. From relief and exhaustion? Or from an awareness that the revenge she spent nearly 10 years planning seemed strangely unsatisfying in the end? One of those.  

January 16, 2013

Swampland (West of Memphis/Into the Abyss)

After two and a half hours of West of Memphis (Amy J Berg, 2012), the compelling but slightly overlong fourth documentary on the so-called West Memphis Three and the child murders at Robin Hood Hills, I realised that the person I really wanted to hear more from was Jason Baldwin. To recap: Baldwin, Damien Echols (above, with wife Lorri Davis) and Jessie Misskelley, then teenagers, were found guilty of the murders of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1993. The dead boys were naked, hog-tied and drowned. The first half of West of Memphis is a clear and systematic destruction of the prosecutors’ flimsy case against Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley, which was based on a dubious confession obtained from Misskelley, who is said to be of below average intelligence. Judging by the interview excerpts in West of Memphis, Misskelley seems to have been steered helplessly towards his confession – the interviewing techniques had alarming parallels with those in the infamous and more or less contemporary Christchurch Civic Creche case, where echoes of 80s “Satanic Panic” also played a part. Someone says of Misskelley that, “It’s like interviewing a three or four or five year old child”. Snap.

The campaign to free the West Memphis Three, which eventually happened in 2011 via the mixed blessing of the Alford plea, has been described as the first crowd-sourced innocence campaign in history. It was an internet-age phenomenon and has continued to be one since their release, which also means that you don’t have to go very far online to find noisy opposing camps, including those who still believe that the three men are guilty, and the website of “quiet, laid-back” Terry Hobbs, stepfather of one of the murdered boys and seemingly identified by the makers of West of Memphis – co-producer Fran Walsh, in particular – as the most likely suspect. The second half of the film therefore shifts into a more detailed exploration of Hobbs and his milieu, a world of intergenerational trauma, abuse, drugs and everyday violence that is not dissimilar to the context of Werner Herzog’s recent death row doco, Into the Abyss. This is a world that is less bizarre and more routine than the initial scenario of teenage devil-worshipping killers carving up naked bodies, but surely it’s problematic, or maybe even just plain irresponsible, for the documentary makers to be so clearly identifying the person they believe is the guilty party, especially after the second West Memphis Three doco – Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost 2: Revelations – implied a different suspect and got it wrong. Even more ironically, that wrong suspect – Mark Byers – also jumps on the Hobbs-is-guilty bandwagon in the new film.

The crimes in Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss (2011) were more straightforward and less ghoulish than those in West of Memphis. Three people were shot dead over a car in Texas in 2001. That doco’s mood is tragic and philosophical, and Herzog is not attempting to solve a crime, or clear someone’s name. Instead, he is communicating his abhorrence of the death penalty, and the Herzog style is more muted and restrained than usual – the na├»ve yet effective interview technique remains but Herzog opts not to appear on camera. Its central character, the since executed Michael Perry (above), comes across like the much less pleasant, distinctly uncharismatic inverse of Damien Echols.

As a documentary, Into the Abyss is only partially successful. Still, it has at least one theme in common with the West Memphis Three story: the one about a woman who falls in love with a convicted killer, initially by post, and helps with his cause. In Into the Abyss, it is the wife of Jason Burkett, Perry’s accomplice, who is doing life; in West of Memphis it is, more famously, Lorri Davis, who married Echols and also became a co-producer on the film. Her efforts attracted Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson in New Zealand, and she and Walsh became email pen pals. Walsh and Jackson saw the first, groundbreaking Paradise Lost doco and funded a campaign to free the West Memphis Three, which already had celebrity support (Henry Rollins, Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder have all been associated with it). But why did Echols – and to a much lesser extent, Baldwin and Misskelley – become such a cause? Rollins argues that they were victimised for nothing more than being teenage outsiders – dressing in black, listening to metal, reading books about witchcraft. (An unexplored parallel here is Walsh’s earlier interest in teenage outsider killers Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme.) Arguably, the West Memphis Three were people that the rock world could identify with, and had even created. Echols became the charismatic and attractive spokesperson for that part of the story – now he and Johnny Depp have matching tattoos.

West of Memphis is strongly focused on the Echols and Davis relationship, with the ensuing Jackson and Walsh-funded investigation creating one of its narrative threads. It is a film in which the producers are key characters and are interviewed sympathetically (although Walsh doesn’t appear on camera, her emails to Davis are quoted). The Jackson/Walsh money paid for DNA testing and new experts, such as FBI profiler John Douglas and a turtle specialist who suggests that the “Satanic” knife marks on the boys’ bodies may have been something more ordinary and yet still horrifying. Jackson and Walsh also commissioned the doco itself from Amy Berg. Good on them. But while the Echols story differs a little from the others – he was on death row, the other two were looking at life in prison – it has also overshadowed them. So I came to admire what I heard about Baldwin and his personal integrity. As a 16-year-old he refused to testify against Echols for a shorter sentence, because that would be lying, which was not how he was brought up, as he is quoted as saying in the film. Equally, he agonised over the Alford plea, which let the three go free while also technically leaving them as guilty (a solution that lets the state of Arkansas save face). Baldwin would have preferred to wait for a retrial that would find the three not guilty and lead to a pardon – surely the best outcome – but caved in to help his friend, Echols, whose health was apparently worsening on death row. To me, Baldwin is the hero of this story. Since the doco wrapped, he has co-founded a non-profit called Proclaim Justice, aimed at clearing others.

One last thing: how much of the interest in this story is based on prurience and prejudice about what goes on in the unsophisticated or backward South? Not just the culture that created the killers (whoever they really were) but the apparently corrupt and/or inept law enforcement? I’ve been reading John Jeremiah Sullivan’s superb collection of essays, Pulphead, and some lines jumped out from an essay called “American Grotesque”. Sullivan, who knows the South and lives in North Carolina, goes to Kentucky to write about a murder that has attracted national attention from “entitled outsiders … who remember that your state exists only … when something fantastically horrible happens”.

January 14, 2013

Here in my car I feel safest of all

Finally, Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, 2012). I’m not the first person, and I won’t be the last, to have the experience of being baffled and even slightly disappointed on a first viewing of Cosmopolis and much more impressed on a second. In fact, Cosmopolis gives you the rare sensation of looking forward to a second viewing even while you are in the first. On the first viewing, we watched Cosmopolis in a double bill with Looper (second viewing of Looper). There are superficial similarities: you compare and contrast the faces and manners of teen idols Robert Pattinson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt; you note that both films take China as the future; you note that while Looper is officially the science-fiction film, it’s actually Cosmopolis that looks more like science-fiction (the interior of the limo is lit up by what look like futuristic jukeboxes or The Fly’s telepods – even the title is a step on from “metropolis”). But Cosmopolis is intensely confined, in both space and time, against the openness (fields, decades) of Looper.

For Don DeLillo fans, to see Cosmopolis – finally – is also to see the results of an experiment that they have anticipated for years. Does DeLillo dialogue sound natural when spoken? You know it reads natural. The answer: no, it doesn’t, at least not here. The delivery is, for the most part, arch and artificial, with Pattinson as deadpan and vampiric as Peter Weller in Naked Lunch (the familiar Cronenberg hero is the man observed in meltdown or breakdown: Weller, James Woods in Videodrome, Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers, Ralph Fiennes in Spider). Vampiric is an obvious word when your star is Pattinson, post-Twilight, and the padded interior of the long white limo that the 28-year-old billionaire capitalist Eric Packer occupies look at times like a luxurious coffin (“You look like someone dead 100 years”). The limo moves, nearly inch by inch, through crowded Manhattan streets, flanked by security guards. It is “safe from penetration”, Packer says, knowingly, surely aware of the Cronenbergian nature of the line. “We are buffered from attack,” is how one of his assistants puts it. The language of combat recurs, and the look as well – two of Cronenberg’s models were Das Boot and Lebanon. The first film was about war from inside a German submarine, the second from inside an Israeli tank. There are real threats: anarchists with rats and cream pies and a more “credible” one to come.

What is the world view and when is the setting? The novel appeared in 2003 and was taken as a post-9/11 comment about the nervous texture of New York City, but the real basis would have been anti-globalisation protests, circa 1999. Arriving when it did, the book felt stranded in time. Ten years on, the film seems more satirical about, or critical of, the world of mega-capital than the novel, and not just because we’ve had the global financial crisis in the meantime. The narrative arc is capitalism’s self-destructiveness – what else is Packer steering his limo towards? There is a repeated line in a rap song from a Sufi rap star’s funeral (one of the other big traffic events in Manhattan on this day): “Death, no matter where you go, will get you.”

Packer takes meetings in his car, like it’s a mobile office. It’s a space for the exchange of ideas, for briefings from the world. It’s completely silent (it’s been “Prousted”, meaning cork-lined). In the film’s first half, the order of these one-on-ones could be juggled and it would make little difference. He takes meetings with his art buyer (Juliette Binoche), his chief of theory (Samantha Morton), his doctor and other flunkies and employees. He runs into his wife (Sarah Gadon) from time to time. The most memorable of the meetings might be with Morton’s theorist who says things like, “Time is a corporate asset now”. More than ever in Cosmopolis, DeLillo’s dialogue is a series of endlessly quotable aphorisms – “One learns about the countries where unrest is occurring by riding the taxis here” – but sometimes that oracular quality is sent up too:
Eric Packer (Pattinson): “I remember what you told me. Talent is more erotic when it is wasted.”
Didi Fancher (Binoche): “What did I mean?”
The film is so faithful to the text that you can almost read along at home, but Cronenberg and DeLillo share an approach too. One of the keys to appreciating DeLillo is to see that he writes about the contemporary world – politics, finance, espionage, terror, sport – in the same way that others write about art and literature. Art always features (thus, action painting during opening credits, Rothko during closing). Packer wants to buy the entire Rothko Chapel not just a single Rothko. The pauses and syntax in a statement by a commerce minister are examined as though the film is about literary critics not financial analysts. Yet, this is also Cronenberg’s most Cronenbergian film in years, even with its incredible fidelity to the novel. The hermetic interior of the limo feels like one of Cronenberg’s borderlands, a feeling familiar from eXistenZ and Naked Lunch – the limo never feels like it’s in the same space as the world outside. There are dreamlike textures, throbbing and glowing surfaces, ridiculous weaponry and a numb and detached guide. Even during the day, it feels like a night world.

A final note on that word “finally”. This film about the speed and immediacy of information in the new world, if you like, debuted at Cannes in May 2012. Sometime in the second half of 2012, viewers in New Zealand learned that Cosmopolis would not get a theatrical release at all – and it’s not alone (at the time of writing, The Master will play only two New Zealand cities, Amour and Holy Motors have not returned after acclaimed festival screenings and Lawless will, like Cosmopolis, go straight to video). Cosmopolis has its New Zealand DVD and blu-ray release on February 20 – a full nine months after Cannes.

January 11, 2013

I hate sleep

PLAYBOY: Let’s talk about movies. Why did you decide to do The Man Who Fell to Earth?
BOWIE: Well, I’ll tell you what happened. I was sent the script and was immediately intrigued with the character of Newton, who had a lot in common with me. He dreaded cars but loved fast speeds. He was physically emaciated; there were so many characteristics we had in common. One problem: I hated the script.
PLAYBOY: How did you get around that?
BOWIE: Nicolas Roeg, the director, came over to my house a number of weeks after he’d sent the script. He arrived on time and I was out. After eight hours or so, I remembered our appointment. I turned up nine hours later, thinking, of course, that he’d gone. He was sitting in the kitchen. He’d been sitting there for hours and hours and wouldn’t go upstairs, wouldn’t go into my room. He stayed in the kitchen. God, I was so embarrassed. I thought I would be embarrassed into doing the film. He said, “Well, David, what do you think of the script?” I said, “It’s a bit corny, isn’t it?” His face just fucking fell off. Then he started talking. Two or three hours later, I was convinced the man was a genius. There is a very strong story line, as it turns out, but that only provides the backbone to the meat of it. It works on spiritual and prime levels of an incredibly complex, Howard Hughes-type alien. I still don’t understand all the inflections Roeg put into the film. He’s of a certain artistic level that’s well above me.
PLAYBOY: Why did Roeg want you?
BOWIE: He had Peter O’Toole cast, but he couldn’t do the film. And I believe the editor of the film advised Nick to watch the documentary about me, Cracked Actor, that was on the BBC. Nick watched it and I guess it was my attachment to Ziggy, the alter ego, that captured his interest and imagination. And my looks helped, too. Roeg wanted a definite, pointedly stark face – which I had been endowed with.
PLAYBOY: How long did it take for you to adapt to the cameras?
BOWIE: Less than an hour. My first film, I couldn’t have worked with a director unless it was somebody I knew instinctively would become a mentor. I couldn’t have worked with someone I considered to be less than myself – and I have a very, very high opinion of my own abilities. Within the first hour on the set, I knew that I’d picked the right one. Just wait until I become a director, though. I’ll be tremendous.
PLAYBOY: Do you find acting more worthwhile than rock ‘n’ roll?
BOWIE: Rock ‘n’ roll is acting. All my albums are just me acting out certain poses and characters. That’s why I’m not entirely proud of a lot of my records – the visual side is sorely missed. My finally being on film simply makes it official. I’m sure I’ll take my following with me. They’re very faithful.

David Bowie interviewed by Cameron Crowe in Playboy, 1976 (full text).

January 8, 2013

Holiness of the body

A few times, The Sessions (Ben Lewin, 2012) reminded me of the incredible first paragraph of an Independent story about Richard Holloway from August, 2001. I read this at the time and have never forgotten it:
I am sitting with the Rev Richard Holloway, formerly Episcopalian Primus and Bishop of Edinburgh, now a Michel Foucault-lookalike public intellectual. We are musing on the theology of the homosexual blow-job. “I remember inviting Rabbi Lionel Blue up to talk to my rather conservative clergy,” he says. “He told us the most powerful experience of the sheer gratuitousness of the love of God he’d ever witnessed was in a male sauna in Amsterdam. He watched a young man going down on a raddled old gay man, who just didn’t have the ability to pull - and it was an act of pure grace. Now, how can you have that level of promiscuity associated with the grace of God?”
A couple of months back, the question was: when did sex in the months stop being fun? That was in relation to Shame, in which Michael Fassbender’s hero is on a joyless quest through the bars, beds and toilet stalls of Lower Manhattan, as in a 70s sex film with a damned hero. As such, it’s as moral and borderline religious as Steve McQueen’s suffering-saint movie, Hunger (about Bobby Sands). The Sessions has a sunnier disposition. Lewin adapts the true story of poet and journalist Mark O’Brien, paralysed by polio at age six. He spent most of his life in an iron lung. In his late thirties, he sought to lose his virginity and hired a sex surrogate, a story he told in this article, which is the direct source of The Sessions. Helen Hunt, prompting memories of her role The Waterdance 20 years ago, plays sex surrogate/therapist Cheryl Cohen Greene, who has now written her own book on the back of this.

The film is entirely on O’Brien’s side. Sex is not just fun, it is healthy, even therapeutic, and central to being human. O’Brien’s Catholic priest, expanded from a brief reference in the article to “Father Mike”, and played in the movie by William H Macy (hip priest, pictured), has no real objections (“Jesus was never big on rules ... he often broke the rules out of compassion”). The story is told from within Catholicism’s world view, though, which O’Brien both adheres to and challenges, while the sex surrogate is in the process of converting from Catholicism to Judaism, a subplot that brings about some other religious considerations of the body (and a cameo for Rhea Perlman).

It’s not at all ponderous, though. It’s frank, funny, touching, sharply-written and well-performed. The most impressive acting is by John Hawkes as Mark O’Brien. Unrecognisable from his bit as cult leader/folk singer Patrick in Martha Marcy May Marlene, Hawkes is the thin, fragile form that Lewin contrasts repeatedly with the suffering figure on the cross. Richard Holloway and Lionel Blue would approve of that comparison, as well as of O’Brien’s worldly cynicism (“I believe in a God with a sense of humour. I would find it absolutely intolerable not to be able to blame someone for all this.”)

January 4, 2013

Caravan of love

Round these parts, Ben Wheatley’s comic-horror thriller Kill List has become a genuine word-of-mouth cult movie, carried from one viewer to another like a secret. (Can you handle the violence? Are you prepared for the narrative shocks?) Sightseers (2012), an awkward black comedy of the English outdoors – antecedents: Nuts in May, Withnail and I, Coogan and Brydon’s The Trip – starts in such humdrum domesticity than you know, based on Wheatley’s previous form, horrific or spectacular violence must follow. But the feel is different. Steve Oram and Alice Lowe developed their characters Chris and Tina in stand-up, with a TV series in mind, and the project came to Wheatley and his partner, co-writer Amy Jump, fairly complete. It’s a very English scene of small aspirations, class tension and quiet resentment, and the tone remains gentle rather than heading towards Kill List’s growing, even unbearable, dread. As their caravan winds through Derbyshire and Yorkshire, Chris and Tina encounter pompous travel writers, heritage wankers, would-be shamans, litterbugs and a hen party, as though Kill List’s famous guitar-in-restaurant scene could be copied and recopied. It’s absorbing, often funny, well-performed, and while its satirical ambitions – a killing set to Blake’s Jerusalem? – mostly go unfulfilled, it does get romantic awkwardness, feeling at times like a violent English version of Eagle vs Shark, which also means that, like Loren Horsley in Eagle, Tina emerges as the heart of it.