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.

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