Thursday, 26 November 2009
Thursday, 12 November 2009
You've got to hand it to the French - when it comes to cinematic extremism, they pretty much own the copyright. However, it is not the so-called 'New French Extremism' that I'm talking about. I want to look beyond the films of Francois Ozon, Gaspar Noe, Catherine Breillat, Phillippe Grandrieux and Bruno Dumont whose films have been, most purportedly to date, set upon breaking down cinematic taboos and bringing confrontation to the big screen. These filmmakers have had their work pitted against the proverbial 'cinematic greats' who came before (not all of them French) such as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean-Luc Godard, Guy Debord and Luis Bunuel, and measured against those previous models of taboo breaking their work has been slated for lacking either political, philosophical or artistic merit. I'd venture to say it is because of these criticisms and not in spite of them that the movement has turned a new, critically interesting, corner. For all their commentary upon their own origins, the works I am about to discuss demand the now corroded category 'New French Extremism' be dramatically re-defined. With Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury's Inside (A l'interieur) (2007) and Pascal Laugier's Martyrs (2008) comes a mode of extremist cinema that is once again political, philosophical and artistic in merit.
Sunday, 1 November 2009
Friday, 16 October 2009
- Formal complaint number one: it isn't a horror film. Where's the suspense, the gore, the unadulterated and unflinching carnage I was promised? Well I can tell where it's not: anywhere in the film, that's where.
- Formal complaint number two: the rules. They're not particularly clever or insightful and let's be honest, as far as self-referentiality goes it happily checks any ounce of innovation/intellect that it might have had at the box office - where your money now resides, smugly in its place. The cliches aren't parodic, they're tiresome.
- Formal complaint number three: tacky sentimentality. Seriously with this one, what the fuck? I mean, "Rule 32: Enjoy the little things", are you for real? That said, maybe we can give some credit for it being the most horrific moment in the film: did almost get a visceral reaction from me, as I dry retched into my purse that is.
- Formal complaint number four: heteronormative, all-American nuclear family propaganda. Now if you're reading my blog then you already know that this stuff really grinds my gears. Two boys, two girls; starts with a father figure to a young, lost boy, and comparably, a mother figure to a lonely, young girl, then, the oedipal complex kicks in (in an all too obvious manner) and the boy overthrows his father to get to the mother (yawn). Later, the 'father figure' undergoes a reversal and becomes the child, ending the film with a happy family of four in an ultra enviro-friendly 4x4- all's well that's ends well, innit? Actually no, it fucking isn't.
- Formal complaint number five: it reinforces hateful stereotypes. I'm not going to dwell on how distasteful I found the scene where white men literally smash the products of indigenous American Indians, but I will say this: the scene was presented as another moment where you are supposed to 'enjoy the little things'; all-important, all-American, though really, they are all-encompassing fascistic actions where race relations, colonialism and the destruction of an indigenous culture are presented as 'the little things'. Really fucking nice.
- Formal complaint number six: lots of 'little things' in the film were accumulatively annoying. The false sentimentality of dialogue such as, "I haven't cried like that since Titanic" was lame and trying at best, the two leads dancing together was almost akin to watching Beauty and the Geek - only minus the sincerity or good humour, the automatic running of the rides was not only ridiculous for its blatant disregard of health and safety regulations, but it is actually impossible to run a ride whilst on it. Plus you probably need, I don't know, training. Oh yeah, and the overly stylised heavy use of slo-mo in the opening credits really pissed me off too - it's unnecessary, well, rather, it would have been if the film were actually any good.
- Formal complaint number seven: the snakeskin jacket. How. Fucking. Dare. You. Harrelson is no Sailor and Zombieland sure as hell ain't Wild At Heart (1990). Fuck you Zombieland.
- Formal complaint number 47: the way in which they abandoned the sequential nature of the rules and began to jump ahead as if there were so very many of them. Just to be clear, calling this my 47th complaint doesn't mean there are 47 complaints. It's my eighth formal complaint, and you know why? Because eight follows seven, that's fucking why.
Friday, 10 July 2009
Thursday, 4 June 2009
Jaime King plays Sarah Palmer, the busty, beautiful final girl and 'all-American moral mom' whose extreme stereotype is pit against the other similarly overdrawn female characters in the film; slutty and outspoken Irene (Betsy Rue) and bitchy back-stabbing mistress, employee and friend to Sarah, Megan (Megan Boone), who both, unsurprisingly for their respective 'sins', die bloody and violent deaths. Not exactly new territory here, and certainly a thinly veiled cinematic confirmation of the sanctity of marriage & the virtues of heteronormative life. Dull yes, but at least the deaths are interesting in their exploitation; Irene, who is seen having rampant sex with a characterless man finds out she is being filmed and treated like a prostitute, (unsurprising really, most women who have sex in a non monogamous manner in horror flicks get punished according to their so-called 'crimes'), but Irene bears no shame and, tits out, runs outside following said man to retain the video footage of her exploits- a thinly veiled guise for what's left of her dignity- but failing (of course) to retrieve the tape, she watches as the man who she just fucked gets killed and then runs timidly (breasts still bouncing) back into the sleazy motel room, home to her 'sins', before being bloodily butchered herself. Nice.
Tuesday, 5 May 2009
So, Ben Carson (Kiefer Sutherland) is a man who has just about lost everything; suspended from the force and estranged from his wife and kids, sleeping on his sister's couch and addicted to meds that are supposedly helping him kick his alcoholism (poor Carson), takes a job as a security guard, night shift of course, at the burnt-down Mayflower department store in New York City where he begins to see things in its grand old mirrors. In terms of my own reading the fact that this film is a remake of a Korean film and whether or not it is in fact scary is of little significance, it is really only the role of the mirrors and the role of the Carson that are of interest to me. That out of the way, Carson's primary encounters with the mirrors are ones where he sees things that are not physically there in the world around him, although, as the viewer later learns, they did happen in that very place sometime during the past. The psychological process that goes along with this is such that it allows him to understand himself and his own world as separate from that which he sees in the mirror. This process is clearly Lacanian in origin and parallels that of the infant distinguishing between himself and (m)other. Furthermore, this contemporary psychoanalytic process which includes his vision of something past figuratively mirrors the position of Lacan's theories as appearing later than, yet still in acknowledgement to, well established psychoanalytic models that came before, most notably those of Freud. Carson has now accepted this past model and identified himself within the context of both past and present, the importance of context being a significant acknowledgement for film studies in the 1960s.
Later, Carson learns that the Mayflower department store used to be a psychiatric institute where (of course) 'terrible things' happened. Back peddling to the '50s here he tracks down a elderly woman, Anna Esseker, who, now a nun, was supposedly possessed by an evil spirit as a child. Forced to face her demon (quite literally) Anna was strapped to a chair in a room surrounded by mirrors - some kind of supposed identification therapy. Of course, this form of therapy marks several significant moments in film studies whereby theorists such as Christian Metz and Laura Mulvey took spectatorship theory to the next level: from subject-object identification, sharing POV with the cinematic apparatus, the spectator then aligned his POV with the on-screen male gaze. Initially in the film the viewer's gaze is aligned with the camera's POV, opening with an objective view of the previous security guard taking his own life - in a mirror image. Then, once the camera has settled on Carson, and up until this point in the film, the viewer's gaze is aligned with his.
Next in our metaphorical story of cinematic spectatorship, the only way to stop the 'evil force' behind the mirrors from killing himself and his family Carson must bring Anna Esseker back to the Mayflower and to that fateful room. Okay, okay, dramatics aside, once back in the room and forced to re-identify with herself and her past, something really interesting occurs: the viewer becomes entombed in the room of mirrors just like Anna, and faced with an all-encompassing situation which reeks of Kaja Silverman's theorising of cinematic suture whereby the spectator is stitched into the filmic world so that the look of the camera is completely forgotten.
The departure from theories of passive spectatorship paved the way for contemporary film theorists from the 1990s onwards to explore more active and experiential models of spectatorship through phenomenology, cognitivism and haptics. Vivian Sobchack's writing on phenomenology considers spectatorial experience one of embodiment, through corporeal affectivity. Adopting a nonanthropocentric gaze, the focus shifts from the film as authoritative maker of meaning to an essentialist view of its affective reflection as experienced by the spectator. And this is what Mirrors is really about. Evident in the scenes where Carson's family are at home, in danger, the gaze has shifted and it is no longer the person in front of the mirror (the filmmaker, the film itself) that determines the outcome; the 'meaning'. It is that which lies beyond the mirror, behind the screen; it is the spectator for whom the film is a mediated experience, but one in which determinism is something they must embody.
The film also flags up other active modes of spectatorial studies such as cognitivism. Distinct from both psychoanalytic and phenomenological models, Noel Carroll and David Bordwell theorise the spectator as a subject of cognition. After having identified himself, his context and its resolution it is completely up to Carson to 'actively' make meaning out of it all - i.e. that he must reach the conclusion to find Anna Esseker and deduce that she must be brought back to the Mayflower in order for these horrific events to stop. Finally, when Anna re-embodies the demon she expelled many years earlier the mirrors explode and shattered glass fills the frame for a good minute or so. Obsessive framing is used to a point of excess which as Kristin Thompson has us all studiously believing is counter-narrative and operates on a level of materiality so that the spectator simultaneously sees the material nature of the film as well as its underlying structures - that is to say that the pretence is stripped bare and indeed the early spectatorial and Freudian cinematic suggestion that one must disavow is removed in accordance with it. The fragmentation of the mirrors that until this point were so perfectly intact parallels the arrival of that dreaded word, (now rather passe of course) that Cultural Studies has afforded us with; 'postmodernism' meets film theory.
But where Mirrors truly comes alive is right at the end, for even after this fantastic scene of excess violently introducing postmodernism and all its baggage, the final scene reveals something truly spectacular: Carson has made it to the Other side. He has turned the psychoanalytic mirror into a phenomenological window, shattered the restraints of what came before and literally walked through the looking-glass like little Alice did so many years ago. What is on the Other side? Or, are we to think he is trapped within the mirror-world? Either way, this leads to new areas of film studies that are, as I write, being opened up in accordance with Carson's movements: haptics & ethics. Laura Marks's theorising of haptic spectatorship is similar to phenomenology in its emphasis on the cinematic experience and is primarily concerned with sensory impressions, yet it is distinct from phenomenology in its attempt to theorise a proximity to the object, closing the distance between object and subject whilst still allowing a symbolic distance from it. Well now, I'd say going through the mirror, being in one's own reflection is probably about as haptic as it comes. And if turns out to be ethics (should Carson really have sacrificed the life of Anna Esseker for the survival of his own family?) well, his encounter with the Other will surely make for a seriously challenging sequel.
Tuesday, 28 April 2009
Kim Newman's review (Sight & Sound, May 2008) offers an oppositional viewpoint to mine, stating that, "Overall the epic-length film is as remote, disinterested and unapproachable as Dr Manhattan...Whereas the comic tried hard to grapple with the lives of particular, fallible, ordinary folks, Snyder can't get interested in them...It's almost an achievement to make a film in which the audience finds itself not caring about the survival of mankind." I want to acknowledge Newman's sentiments because a) I have enormous respect for both S&S and Newman himself, and b) because I think there is an interesting irony in this statement. An achievement it certainly is to communicate an extreme apathetic response, in place of an emotional one, to the survival of mankind. But it is fact in this pursuit where Moore succeeds and Snyder fails. Moreover, there is more to Dr Manhattan than remote, disinterested, unapproachability; for certainly science too is at times ambiguous and subject to complex contradiction, but a finer discussion of quantum physics aside, Dr Manhattan is the pinnacle of the text's groups- Minutemen and Watchmen alike, he is also the fans' favourite, and to some extent a central point of identification for the reader/viewer. Dr Manhattan operates as such in a number of ways for he embodies qualities both human and Other; 1) he was once human (Jonathan Osterman) and resembles human form, 2) his behaviour is human; he is in a romantic co-habitive relationship (sure it doesn't work out, but loads of humans encounter this problem) he has a job, and he lives in a house (etc. - essentially, he is subject to the inanity of the average human existence), 3) as Other he represents an impartiality to converse and conflicting human emotions & subjective opinions, and 4) he is a stand-in for Fate, something with which Moore seems to be extremely interested in (Fate plays a key role in both Watchmen and V For Vendetta, although I will not say much more on that here). Moreover, Dr Manhattan, or Jon as he is referred to by the humans he most frequently interacts with, is likely to be the character who most accurately conveys authorial intention, indicatively so because of points 3 & 4. The irony therefore in Newman's comments is that Snyder would have in fact been doing Moore a justice had he been able to achieve the conveyance of such dissociative apathy for the constant and continual destructive nature of the human race, something the overall tone of the graphic novel communicates. But the reason the graphic novel is able to achieve this is precisely because it slows things down unto stillness. It shows the alternate future as fractured and dismal, but also suggests it as a prophetic possibility, explicated carefully through the use of still and fragmented imagery, and stilted dialogue. The film's converse fluid movement and experiential involvement necessarily draw the viewer in to its temporal pace (whether or not they appreciate this is irrelevant), bringing them into alignment with assumptions and judgements that essentially remove much of the ambiguity offered in the segmented frames of the graphic novel.
To say that Watchmen is a humanist text is true, but it is also a text about the flaws and fractured state of humanity. Certainly the popularity of Watchmen is founded upon the faults, or at least the 'human' qualities, of its characters; these 'superheroes' - Dr Manhattan aside - have no superhuman powers. For the most part, and Dr Manhattan is included here, they act upon their own moral codes, they make mistakes, they are at times devastatingly mortal, they aren't loved unconditionally or universally by their public or the establishment. They are liminal characters who occupy liminal spaces, somewhere between humanity and its destruction. Even the supposedly 'good' and 'bad' characters are ambiguous; their individual actions are often unethical, but their avocation for the preservation of mankind is valiant and moral in its intent. So when the most remarkable character, Dr Manhattan, is seemingly indifferent to the survival of the human race you have to consider that Moore probably intended to communicate some emotive affect to this end. Considering Moore's other works such as V for Vendetta (1982-85) it is likely that the man himself is disillusioned with humanity and so communicating apathetic response is probably an intentional provocation on his part. However, what remains is this: Dr Manhattan eventually comes round, convinced the specificity of each human life is a scientific miracle. That he is convinced is hopeful for those who are cheering for humanity, that he is convinced by a scientific revelation rather than by a person with whom he was intimate- i.e. Laurie, further confirms the notion that the overall tone intended in the text is dissociative.
Finally, there are numerous examples of stillness through the form of Watchmen that mirror the content of its story and its characterisations therein. These include but are not limited to; 1) the seriality of the text, a periodical of twelve individual installments that are in themselves quite contained, 2) the subtle inference and allusion at the end of each chapter through quotation, often of a popular song lyric or prolific writer which function as a summation of each chapters' narrative tone, in cinematic adaptation this is achieved by actually playing the song as part of the non-diegetic soundtrack, often over a montage of images - the effect is more blatant and integrative than it is still and fragmented, 3) the comic within the graphic novel- Tales of the Black Freighter, which acts as a metaphorical mirroring of the predominant narrative actions within the text, 4) the interview segments etc. that appear at the end of each chapter, again these reflect upon events within the text and yet also stand alone as extra-diegetic information, but in moving-image work any extra-diegetic information can only be communicated through visual integration, and must be done at a pace which is in keeping with that of the film's temporal structure. Consequently, this denies certain resonances achieved through stillness.
The referential and even self-reflexive nature of the text is often lost in the fluid movement of visual imagery and the at times excessively stimulative nature of the mise-en-scène. One still frame from Watchmen that has really stayed with me backgrounds signage for a cinema that is showing the work of Andrei Tarkovsky. It is this knowing reference by Moore that acts as a clear semiotic indicative for the importance of temporal stillness in this particular text. It is not then that Watchmen as a text, as a brand, and as a story is 'unfilmable' as Gilliam once suggested, rather that its tone and its quality are such that they cannot be captured by live-action moving image work. It is not a question of aesthetics or scriptwriting, but a question of tonality, something difficult to film and also, it would seem, to discuss.
Wednesday, 8 April 2009
Such glaring omissions however lead to the inevitable questioning of what it is that Soderbergh's much anticipated epic tale is about. Well, it's a very measured, diplomatic and thoughtful look at how any one thing cannot be easily characterised for it is always inherently complicated and conflicted. This is well observed through the converse chapters which reveal the success and failure of Che's revolutionary efforts first in Cuba and then in Bolivia. What Soderbergh is really rather poignantly illustrating by dividing the film into these two parts, one showing success and the other showing failure, is that Che was a man as any other; contradictory at times, conflicted in some ways even for a cause that is determined, for it leaves moral and ethic grounds divided, and moreover, that the man is the product of both history and myth; for his triumphs there were shortcomings, for his efforts there were omissions, and for his altruism there was brutality. These things may not be shown explicitly in the film but there implicit presence cannot be denied. Che was a complicated individual and his story is not one that can be easily told. Soderbergh is not taking the easy way out by not turning his story into a psychological profiling of Che, largely because the man's psyche is such that it cannot be fully explained nor understood from the events of history alone. Furthermore, his story is not his own; the story of Che belongs to many, not least the Cuban and Bolivian people as it is a part of their shared histories, and a part of their contemporary identities- for better or worse.
Finally, Del Toro does a terrific job playing a man impossible to portray. Performances were, across the board, outstanding in both parts, and for any and all of its own shortcomings, the finished product is still a masterpiece that I feel sure will stand the cinematic test of time as generations to come will not only have a chance to see Soderbergh's epic tale, but to critique it as well, for I suspect it will be one for the schoolrooms.
Wednesday, 25 March 2009
Katy Courbet (Eva Mendes), is a television producer who heads up a new show for a failing network based on the 'game' Russian Roulette. The stakes are extremely high: six players, of which five stand to win; five blanks and five cheques made out for five million dollars. Oh, and one silver bullet. Before each contestant places the gun at their temple, a short audition video is shown, supposedly to the television show's studio audience, revealing who that person "really" is. But in fact it is the spectator watching LiVe! who is being fed six character stereotypes, including; (1) Jewel, a blonde twenty-something aspiring actress/airhead, (2) Abalone, a mid-thirties ex-model come performance artist, (3) Pablo, a young & poor Spanish lad, (4) Byron the "token black guy" who comes from a nuclear family and privileged background, and consequently, for his lack of suffering, has failed to make it as a writer, (5) Brad the stereotypical bleach-blonde Californian surfer-dude, and finally (6) Rick, the family man- who just wants to win so as he can continue to keep the farm his father and his father before him ploughed, and someday pass it on to his son...
Of course it won't be the Spaniard or the African-American who land the silver bullet because that would make the film read as racist. Similarly, it won't be one of the women (who are both objects of beauty rather than agency in this film) as to choose either of them would result in a reading of misogyny, and provide yet another example of cinema's longstanding history of punishing women for being "the object of the male gaze". That leaves the two white alpha males. One is a 'waster' and the other a 'family man'. Pretty obvious which of those America, and the average spectator, will feel they can do without. In killing off the least likeable/most seemingly superfluous of characters, LiVe! implicates the viewer in its own moral judgement, and its decision to weigh the value of six peoples' lives against one another. This asks of the spectator, is it possible to see any Other, as they are presented through stereotype on screen, ethically rather than morally?
Following the 'live' (nice pun) airing of the show (and at the climax of the film no less) Katy rushes to the bathroom where she is violently sick. A young kid who had his whole life ahead of him - even though he only intended to use it to 'surf'- has died. Katy's realisation acts as an ethical awakening for the spectator, blatantly and confrontationally asking, who are you to judge the worth of human life based on an individual's intended 'use' thereof? Immediately after this awakening Katy is shot, dead. And it is her death that attracts the most attention, not Brad's; the 'motive' of her killer is openly questioned and though he is unidentified, he is ultimately held responsible. This leads to an inevitable questioning behind the motive and culpability for any killing. It is this idea- that any one person has the right to kill or deny the equal footing of any Other that LiVe! astutely highlights and questions. Finally, the spectator must assume the responsibility of their now dead and thus absent protagonist, whose burden has in death shifted onus.
Of course, you could watch this film and take, as Tyler did, its narrative veneer as a mere distraction. But then you would be denying the truly ethical existence of the Other, even as they are presented through stereotypes, for in that distraction lies the poignant dilemma LiVe! raises: denying your own responsibility in viewing such an atrocity, true or satirised, means you too are passing a moral judgement.
Tuesday, 17 March 2009
For example, there is a scene in which the two young boys, who serve as our protagonists, must steal and sell goods on a train as a means by which to live on. Despite this being an horrific reality for young, homeless, parentless children who have just escaped the clutches of an organised crime leader, the experience is shown through what can only be described as a very tacky montage sequence which shows the two boys smiling, laughing, and for all intents and purposes, presumably having fun, this is matched to a soundtrack of the recent pop song by MIA, Paper Planes (All I Wanna do is 'Bang Bang' and Take Your Money). Now I can't be entirely sure that the reason Boyle chose this song is for the incredibly transparent effect the children's voices on the track provide, though I'd be more than confident in suggesting it's a motivating factor; the boys are immediately framed as taking rather than surviving which leads to the inference that they are enjoying and profiteering from their actions. This is but one of many examples that can be drawn from Boyle's incredibly misguided and intensely disappointing 8 Oscar Winning film, that clearly expose it for the shallow and superficial trite that it is.
Essentially, the question that the film provokes is by no means new, inventive, or even imaginative, but rather more and more pressing in an increasingly homogeneous climate, and that is one surrounding who has the right to represent. Kate Winslet crooned on the red carpet that it was "so great" that they had brought "the little children" from India all the way to the Oscars. Why is it so remarkable that the people whom the film is supposedly about be allowed to attend? And why then is the director, who as far as I can see really has nothing to do with the situation upon which the film is based, not only allowed to attend, but given an award? I'm sure that there are many people involved in the film who, off the back of its success, will go on to become millionaires, but i seriously doubt that it will be the self-titled "slumdog(s)".