April 30, 2017

The bears

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (Dmitry Vasyukov and Werner Herzog, 2010). If this feels uncharacteristic of Herzog, it’s because he came to it late: Vasyukov had made a series of four one-hour docos tracking four seasons in a remote part of Siberia before Herzog saw it and offered to recut it, narrate it and re-release it as a feature. Not only does it not look Herzogian, but the narration is unusually straight and subdued, free of both philosophical speculation and the occasional sideways mockery of subjects. But in another important way, it feels like a response to Grizzly Man. If Timothy Treadwell was a deluded sentimentalist who paid with his life, the Russian hunters in Happy People share Herzog’s wary respect for nature. These bears are mindless vandals and killers, and a hunter knows to keep his distance. A black bear is only seen once but their presence is sensed throughout and a story told about a bear attack is the only truly harrowing moment in the film. Nature, for Herzog, is always unsentimental. 

April 22, 2017

Morality and family

Norte, the End of History (Lav Diaz, 2014). You probably knew people like this: intellectuals who dropped out, isolated themselves, developed their own systems of thought, messed everything up. They probably read a lot of Nietzsche. The one thing worse than being all talk and no action is to be both talk and action. Diaz’s leisurely (four hours plus) film takes an anthropological approach to such figures; it is a moral film about morality and family. 

April 20, 2017

Bob, Bonnie, Clyde

Warren Beatty says he wanted you to play Clyde Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde. Did that offer get to you?
No, the offer was sent to my manager’s office and we weren’t speaking; we had had a falling out. I didn’t get any mail or offers that were sent there.
You could have had some love scenes with Faye Dunaway – any regrets?

April 19, 2017

Avoiding people is easy

Patience (After Sebald) (Grant Gee, 2012). “Coincidence is like dreams. If you talk about them, they become dead, inert,” says artist Tacita Dean in this film. Does over-explaining the work of German writer WG Sebald, and his masterpiece The Rings of Saturn in particular, have the same risk? Reading Sebald has always been a highly private and individual experience; everyone (mis)remembers the books differently. The good news is that Gee’s sensitive documentary leaves Sebald’s deep and singular mysteries intact even as its selection of well-known Sebald fans have the fervour of cult followers – besides Dean, there is Iain Sinclair, Marina Warner, Rick Moody, Andrew Motion and, possibly the most insightful of all, psychologist Adam Phillips. Artist Jeremy Millar takes a nearly Shroud of Turin-like photo of the site where Sebald died and the veneration does get almost holy. But Sebald still slips away. There is a sense that he was both unique – a German writer living in England, writing in German, often obliquely about the Holocaust, and with an antiquarian sensibility – and a pioneer of a type of writing that now almost borders on cliché. As Sinclair says, “The countryside is black with people going for walks to write books.” In most cases, these have a therapeutic angle: they are restorative nature walks, feel-good treks. Sebald’s walk dwelled instead on the dark catastrophes of history and the trip put him in hospital. Nor did he ever ask for disciples – as Sinclair says, following the trail of The Rings of Saturn is the worst way to experience or understand Sebald. It unfolds in your head. 

April 13, 2017

April 11, 2017

Cruelty and sorrow

Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford, 2016). The art worlds depiction of strong or violent emotions pales in comparison with the real thing. 

April 8, 2017

Ghost houses, bomb shelters

Under the Shadow (Babak Anvari, 2016). Ghost houses, bomb shelters. Well-known horror tropes (children see things) and a genuinely fresh setting and perspective. 

April 6, 2017

Planet of the idiots

Hard to be a God (Aleksei German, 2013). This Russian medieval sci-fi epic is a distant cousin of sorts to Tarkovskys Stalker and Andrei Rublev: it shares an author with the former and a sense of grimy, lived-in medieval authenticity with the latter. But the excess and even derangement of Chimes at Midnight is here too. The planet Arkanar is a world of dirt, blood, spit, fog and gore and your engagement is less about a coherent plot than an immersive experience that has the consistency, or even pungency and texture, of a nightmare. Rain means something in Tarkovsky, but here it is just rain. It is constant and it turns everything into mud.