Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Without Memory | Hirokazu Kore-eda, 1996

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Poetry | Lee Chang-dong, 2010

A woman sits on a rock by a river looking up at a bridge for inspiration. She has gotten into the habit of carrying around with her a small notebook to write down passing observations and feelings she has about and towards the world: the reflection of sunlight from an apple, birds singing in the trees, and now this bridge. As she makes to put pen to paper, she pauses, searching for the right words. Before she can find them it starts to rain and her blank page is peppered with raindrops. She looks across the broken surface of the river, puts away her notebook, and sits for a while in the rain. The world cries.

Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry observes as this woman, Yang Mi-ja, a 66 year old in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, tries to find meaning in the world around her. She takes a short-course in poetry, two lessons a week for one month, and is tasked by her teacher to write one poem by the time the month is up. Meanwhile, her oafish grandson, who lives with her instead of his absent mother, has admitted to his teachers that he repeatedly raped a female classmate with his friends over the course of several months, ultimately leading to her suicide. Cornered by the other boys’ fathers, Mi-ja is forced to join them in offering the girl’s mother hush money, that she can’t afford, so that she won’t press charges. The school doesn’t want to tarnish its reputation with bad publicity, and the police don’t want to investigate unless the mother presses charges. And so, this unconscionable cover-up is allowed to unfold, acknowledged by all parties as the only logical course of action.

How does one look upon such an ugly world and write poetry? “Poetry is dying,” her teacher tells her, and it’s easy to see why. Lee, whose films are filled with trains, taxis and buses, portrays this community as one filled with moral passengers: people who will continue to profit as long as their behaviour remains unchecked. Mi-ja works as a maid for an elderly man recovering from a stroke, who surreptitiously takes viagra instead of his regular pills in an attempt to trick her into stimulating his penis while she bathes him. Later, Mi-ja is told that a brash policeman at a poetry recital was demoted and sent to their rural town from the city for reporting internal corruption.

This world has been poisoned by wilful silence in the name of profit, yet Mi-ja, though stupefied by the behaviour of those around her, is single-minded in her determination to find some semblance of beauty, whether that’s the taste of a fallen apricot on the ground of an orchard or justice for an unpunished act of devastating violence. When her finished poem is finally revealed, she is the only person in her class to have written one. “It’s too difficult,” a woman says when asked why she hasn’t done the one thing the teacher asked of her. The rest of the class smile bashfully like schoolchildren, relieved in the knowledge that while they’ve wasted their time, they are not alone in doing so and therefore cannot realistically be made to feel bad about their failure. It’s easier to stay quiet than to speak up, and Lee leaves us with a room of poets with nothing to say, listening as the teacher begins to read the absent Mi-ja’s exorcistic poem aloud. This ordeal is over. Is there a future for poetry?

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Femme Fatale | Brian De Palma, 2002 
Ophelia | John Everett Millais, 1851-1852 (cropped)

In Hamlet, Ophelia’s death is described in vivid detail but not witnessed first-hand. As Queen Gertrude tells Laertes, Ophelia is said to have climbed a tree overhanging a river only for the branch to snap, causing her to fall into the water and float downstream, the weight of her wet clothes finally dragging her below the surface. Shakespeare presents us with an account of events, the details of which suggest that Ophelia's death was either witnessed but not intervened upon, or the narrative of it has been pieced together from assumptions based on clues found after the fact. We're also presented with a woman’s body, identified, buried and mourned as Ophelia. We have to assume that Ophelia drowned by accident because there’s nothing to prove that this recounted tale of events is false. All that matters is that she died. The play goes on. John Everett Millais’s Ophelia, his most famous work, is a depiction of this description. The body of Ophelia floats downstream accompanied by daisy-chains, her clothes billowing in the water and her face contorted in despair. A visual representation of a described death. Millais can’t know the truth of what happened to Ophelia as it is never witnessed in the play, only repeated third, fourth, fifth-hand. All he has is the account. The perception of events is visualised and immortalised on canvas. An image to prove the words.

During a very brief moment in Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale, part of a poster for an art exhibition is glimpsed as a labourer removes it from a billboard in a Parisian square. The same poster is seen later on a different billboard in a different part of town. It appears to include a copy of Millais’s Ophelia superimposed upon a different painting, depicting a large clock tower with its hands showing the time as 3:33, a time shared by all analogue clock-faces in this film. Millais’s work, however, is no longer exactly as he painted it. Instead, it depicts the face of the actress Rebecca Romijn, or, presumably, Laure, or even Lily, her character(s) in the film, in the place of Millais's original Ophelia. Alongside her is the same daisy-chain that Millais painted, and she is reclined in the same position, wearing the same dress, with the same reeds by her head and the same swirl of red hair below the surface of the water. Her expression, however, is different. Laure is relaxed and carefree, while Millais paints anguish on his Ophelia. Laure is dreaming, far from the imminent and inevitable death known to Ophelia, while asleep in a bathtub in a different reality. This is her dreamed future, featuring only faces from her past: strangers, enemies, lovers. "I put the clues together and I know what happened," says Nicolas, a photographer caught up in it all, but he has no idea. It's all too perfect, too easy, too reliant on chance and deja vu — it's unreal, but only in hindsight. In the moment, it's taken at face value. A float downstream, a constructed chain of events. Laure is Queen Gertrude trying to pass as Ophelia, fully in control of the narrative while presenting herself as a victim of it. A perfect plan executed faultlessly. A dream masquerading as an unquestioned truth. The play goes on.

Saturday, 28 April 2018

Passing Summer | Angela Schanelec, 2001

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Johnny Handsome | Walter Hill, 1989

A photo of dead men. A man with a new face and a new identity, sat with his mentor, a man double-crossed and murdered in a heist gone wrong. The past and present collide in montage. Memories drive reality. Johnny Handsome moves from his apartment to the strip club his betrayer bought with his and his partner's share of the money in a few quick cuts. He can only be there for revenge.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Some short impressions / reviews / whatever, written between June 2015 and last week, all taken from my Letterboxd, and all revised to be a little less fragmented. I like them, and I'd rather they were all in one place — so here they are.

Autumn Tale | Eric Rohmer, 1998

The way Rohmer shoots conversations between two people in this is fascinating. Characters talk objectively about their love lives together in a two-shot, before, usually as one of them says something the other doesn't agree with or want to talk about, one of them leaves the frame. The camera stays as it is, leaving one character alone in a shot made for two, while Rohmer cuts to the other in a shot of their own. The conversations continue as if nothing has happened, cutting back and forth between the two shots, and the characters generally reunite within one frame after talking a little more, but the distance between them in these brief moments, however small, feels enormous, suggesting a divide between them that bubbles under the surface of every word they're saying.

An Autumn Afternoon | Yasujiro Ozu, 1962

Calendars and clocks, usually placed right next to each other, seem to take up space on the walls of every building. One of the clocks, in the eldest son's small, modern apartment, needs to be wound to stop it from stopping, and the calendar in the hyper-Americanised bar shows two months on a single page. Ozu isn't just making us aware of time and its passing, but also how indefinite and imprecise time can be. That clock could have stopped hours, days, even weeks earlier, and the date could be represented by any of the numbers on the calendar. The present becomes harder and harder to grasp — an uncertain period between the past and the future, tradition and modernity, men and women, East and West, the old and the young.

The Color of Money | Martin Scorsese, 1986

A retired pool hustler turned whiskey salesman drinks a can of Coca Cola in a practice room after working on his game, as if to embrace the new-school, sugar-rush attitudes that have made him obsolete. His maniacally arrogant new protégé values the short term thrill of a victory over the long term reward of making people believe you're a loser and taking their money when you show them that you're not. There's no time to wait for craft anymore. It's about the rush. Quick money for a quick game. Coca Cola sells by the can while his whiskey fills boxes in storerooms. It doesn't sell anymore.

Homework | Abbas Kiarostami, 1989

A series of very simple 1-on-1 interviews in which Kiarostami (wearing sunglasses indoors, sat behind a desk) asks several schoolchildren about their homework that, collectively, paints a picture of a generation of children failed by education, both in school and at home. As the interviews mount up, patterns begin to emerge: stories of violent schoolteachers, illiterate and impatient family members, the importance of cartoons; and the accumulation of these similarities creates a sense of universality, that education in Iran is failing not just at this school, but across the entire country. Away from the interviews Kiarostami observes life in the school: in particular, a school-wide religious ceremony of remembrance that quickly descends into chaos. The students are asked to repeat the words of a religious song the headteacher is singing, but their attention drifts. They talk among themselves and play with their friends, not because they're disrespectful, but because they have no comprehension of why this ceremony should be respected. Dictation and repetition does not create understanding. Kiarostami emphasises this by silencing their singing ("out of respect for the ritual", an adult perspective), instead focusing on the indifferent, unknowingly offensive behaviour of the students, while the teachers simply continue, seemingly oblivious to the problem in front of their eyes.

In The Mouth of Madness | John Carpenter, 1994

Carpenter's tight framing and slow panning offers a world of potential horrors offscreen, forever out of sight: an unfathomable danger that may not exist, emanating from a place that's impossible to accurately comprehend. A town, not on any map, and only found following a bizarre transportive nightmare, is the source of a demonic plague affecting the readers of a smash-hit horror novel, and viewers of the smash-hit movie adaptation (a lot of people across America (at least)). But is it really happening, or is it a fiction? Nothing is concrete. It's an illogical movie, or one that at least has its own logic: roads impossibly loop back on themselves, people disappear in one place and reappear somewhere totally different. Something is making people do crazy, monstrous things, whether it's real or not. Cultural hysteria or supernatural force: what's the difference?

Lady in the Water | M. Night Shyamalan, 2006

Shyamalan loves closed-off, self-sustaining communities (the farm in Signs, the village in The Village, etc), in which some kind of unfathomable alien threat is closing in from outside. Here, the threat is so strange: a fantasy in real life, but taken seriously to the point that nobody questions it. A water nymph appears in the pool of an apartment complex, and the concern of the characters isn't "who are you really?", but rather "why are you here?" and "how can I help you?" The entire community runs with it, and everyone in the complex has a role that they take without question. Total, unwavering faith. Hearing is believing. Action is never in doubt.

Loft | Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2005

The stagnation of an award-winning author out of ideas, commissioned to churn out a generic, marketable romance novel and embroiled in a ghost story that may or may not be a fiction. "The eternal corpse," used here to describe a 1000 year old "mummy" preserved virtually intact by the mud of a swamp (mud that the author inexplicably coughs up, as if to reject the idea that preservation of past glories will be any part of her future), could be equally used to summarise a genre that, by 2005, had perhaps run its course for Kurosawa (his only other classifiable horror movie since then, Retribution, was released the following year as part of a J-horror series in the pipeline since 2004). A funeral of sorts, then, and what a send off it is — flitting gleefully between classic Kurosawa accretion of tension and an exaggerated, Twixt-like visual flare (swirling fog on a lake, cartoonish green corpses, incongruous whip pans and fade outs), this bizarrely constructed narrative, complete with flashbacks and dream sequences contained within blurred layers of fiction and reality, is significantly less concrete than its face value suggests. And then there's the devilish ending, only muddying the waters further. A bewildering line in the sand.

Masques | Claude Chabrol, 1987

Perhaps the quintessential Chabrol movie. Makes literal his interest in masks by presenting each character as a false version of themselves, generally used to hide their real, somewhat surreptitious motivations. The match-making for the elderly TV show, with its assertive "applaud!" signs and love-heart number cards being an interesting parallel to this idea of an ever-present falsehood clouding reality — although perhaps a more interesting one would be the game of tennis that the show's host and his biographer briefly play, if only because of tennis's unusual status as a sport in which a player can score more points and win more games than an opponent and still lose the match.

Private Fears in Public Places | Alain Resnais, 2006

Connections based on (literal) divisions: walls, windows, curtains, bars; relationships based on untruths: false names, sexuality, miscommunication, the difference between hearing and listening. If nobody is what they appear to be then nobody really knows anybody, and we're all doomed to be disappointed and alone, with or without another person.

PTU | Johnnie To, 2003

To equates respecting the police to respecting a violent gangster who could kill you for not bringing him a beer quickly enough in a restaurant — and why not, when the cops spend so much of their time covering up their own mistakes and incompetence by planting drugs on the innocent, stealing evidence from crime scenes, and torturing people for information, instead what they should be doing: solving crimes, catching bad guys; all under a misguided code of brotherhood. The fact that the absurd conclusion is a triumph for some and an embarrassing failure for others is particularly damning — people who slip on banana skins are invariably clowns.

Ready Player One | Steven Spielberg, 2018

The gamification of culture is the death of culture. No new ideas in 30 years, just commodified nostalgia, malleable avatars and usernames; cross-brand fantasies played out ad infinitum. The Oasis is a desert, a cultural wasteland, a "place" that Spielberg seems to simultaneously be wary of and have deep reverence for. Specially designed game suits translate digital sensations to physical ones, but they don't cover mouths and tongues — nobody can tell what's real anymore. A race for extraordinary IRL power quickly becomes a URL war for freedom, fought by regular people wearing VR headsets in the streets of a city but lost in a fake world, going through the motions of punching and kicking and shooting each other without physically connecting with anything.

The Unknown Girl | Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2016

Indigestion and vomiting, the benefit of release. Haenel's doctor encourages confession: her patients speak and their illnesses disappear, her ex-intern speaks and becomes a doctor again; but she processes her own guilt in silence, embarking upon a frustrating investigation that she's not equipped to handle while the world around her gets smaller and smaller: a promising career and a dead-end job, a spacious flat and a duvet on an office floor, and a literal hole in the ground that she can't climb out of without someone passing her a ladder.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Streets of Fire | Walter Hill, 1984

Sunday, 18 February 2018

L'Enfance Nue | Maurice Pialat, 1968

A young boy, Francois, is passed around foster homes. His mother, never shown on screen, doesn’t want him, but doesn’t want to let go of him either. There’s no permanence to his life, no security. He’s, in their words, treated fairly by his foster family. His foster sister sleeps in a newly-decorated room on her own. “Whatever she dreams at night she can see in the day.” He sleeps in a fold up bed on the landing. He drops the family cat from the top of a staircase to impress a group of kids but tries to nurse it back to health in secret. He steals. “He’s not like other children. You can’t tell what’s on his mind”. He buys his foster mother a gift to say goodbye. “Take him away.” They do.

A new home with new walls. Thick, garish paint forces colour into the rooms but nothing sits well together. A blue wall and a yellow door, floral wallpaper and yellow tiles. Forced life. He now lives with an old lady and her husband, married too late in life to have children of their own so they foster instead. They’re kind and strict and fair. But they know there can be no longevity to this relationship, and Francois is doomed to move on again. He tries to make friends with boys at school by doing what they do: smoking, fighting, throwing bricks from bridges onto roads. They tolerate him. He’s the slowest runner, the fall guy, quickly abandoned by the herd. Invisible and alone, he tries too hard to make people see him: kicking holes in doors, causing a car accident, killing the family cat. But seeing isn’t the same as loving. He’s a yellow door in a blue room. You always know where the exit is because it’s the one thing that doesn’t fit.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

In August last year, I decided to write about every film Clint Eastwood has directed. This project lasted just one night before I abandoned it, but in that night I wrote briefly, as I do, about three films, all serendipitously beginning with the letter "B". Maybe this is something I'll return to.

Breezy | 1973

A romance complicated by nothing and everything. A teenager with flared-jeans and a guitar, a middle-aged businessman with an empty house and an unused fireplace. Preconceptions evaporate, love blossoms. He gives her an ocean and they’re dwarfed by the waves; she’s drained by the day and he carries her to bed. Their love moves with the tide, back and forth, vast and tempestuous. Sometimes he’s too old, sometimes she’s too young. Tennis and hitchhiking, a vodka martini and a Shirley Temple, an age gap, a black cloud. But he lit the fire for her. There was no warmth until she arrived. She makes his house a home.

Bird | 1988

A tragic life remembered from a hospital bed, an extraordinary artistry rendered in fragments and destroyed by addiction, a lack of balance, a spirit drained. Charlie Parker is already the virtuoso, the myth, the man in decline. The physicality of jazz embodied by a man for whom failure is both unendurable and inevitable. His family is in ruins, his old haunts have been turned into strip clubs, jazz makes way for rock and roll. He’s never on time but people won’t wait for him anymore. His art doesn’t sell. It’s over. The end of a scene. The end of Bird.

The Bridges of Madison County | 1995

An all-consuming love-affair embalmed by letters, diaries, photographs; souvenirs locked away and found again years later by adult children who never knew. A nostalgic reverence, a memory so beautiful because it almost made it but never did. A bridge between eras. A time before and a time after, and a brief window in which they’re together, unsustainably in love. He stands in the rain waiting for her. She finds shelter in her husband’s truck. A film of objects and (in)actions that shape their world, imbued with the ghost of lost love. And then a shared cremation: two lovers together again, under the bridge, forever free.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade | Steven Spielberg, 1989