Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Shantay, Bouvier

To say that Jackie is a camp classic in the making isn't to say that it's a bad film. It's even, at times, a very good film, particularly in its formal mastery which extends to the composition, camerawork, palette and score. But the qualities in Jackie are precisely what prevent it from being trash, thereby making it camp. The film's artifice and mannerisms, its purposeful vulgarity and body horror, its quotable bon mots, its impish delight in tearing down institutions, and last but not least the huge female performance at its centre, make it, at least in this viewer's eyes, a bona fide gay trip.

Jackie is a film about a woman struggling to keep alive her public image and uphold the carefully constructed idea of the American fairytale. Jackie Kennedy's turmoil in the days after the assassination of JFK, then, becomes almost a pretext for a revisionist disquisition on femininity, sexuality, motherhood. The film does not pretend to show the real woman: rather, in a series of fragmented vignettes, it shows us how the figure of Jackie Kennedy responds to a series of situations. This gives us a sense of a woman always on show, and banishes any attempt at psychological verisimilitude. Hand in hand with this, the institution that Jackie Kennedy was the smiling face of, the White House, is revisited as a sort of prison, with its cavernous rooms and impersonal fittings. This betrays on the part of the filmmakers a somewhat malicious streak, which takes an irreverent pleasure in revisiting and despoiling American iconography. This approach is a cousin to queer readings of history and womanhood, which have traditionally subverted positions of power.

The film's jittering, frantic rhythms, often accompanied by a feverish score by Mica Levi, augment the sense of unreality. Many of the edits between scenes cut off whole sentences as they jump to another scene merely seconds later: this presents us with a fragmented look at a character, and forbids us to see Jackie on a sincere, emotional level; the movie is not about interiority. Some of the editing is so sharp that it becomes almost funny, which makes the experience of watching it more pleasurable and again distances the viewer from an earnest reading of it.

Meanwhile, Jackie positively revels in blood and mud and body horror. Watching an ersatz Jackie Kennedy wipe blood off her face - and wipe it very badly, so that she is as much wiping blood over her face as she is removing it - is at once horrifying, and shriekingly camp, as it is very hard to take seriously. This is the blood and brains of the legendary president John F. Kennedy! The whole scene is bound up in an attempt to maintain image and promote her femininity: it is played as a grotesque reversal of another scene in which Jackie prepares for an event in front of the mirror. You could compare it to a defeated Glenn Close removing her make-up at the end of Les Liaisions Dangereuses, except it lurches into outright gore. Another scene of Jackie escaping a political retinue to charge through a muddy graveyard in her high heels plays on the same level, dirtying and dragging the pristine image until its ironies feel pointed and a little hysterical.

Natalie Portman's incarnation of Jackie Kennedy is straight-up drag, let's say it. A full-blown performance that isn't afraid to tip into badness and frequently does, it relies on some astoundingly expressionist tics and mannerisms, and gives us a voice absolutely crying out for drunken mimicry. There are many scenes in which Portman's deliciously over-the-top accent sounds exactly like the gay icon Little Edie, from the Maysles' brothers' camp classic Grey Gardens. Of course, Little Edie was a cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier, so Portman's accent could be spot-on, but the parallel once set is there to stay: and so the White House becomes a sort of grey garden for this woman whose best days are behind her and is struggling to show face to someone seeking to document her. This level of meta-textuality is, in the words of drag queen Latrice Royale, high drag, darling, high drag.

Portman's Jackie, with her wicked accent and her withering put-downs for the ages, joins a gallery of flawed but strong women seeking to control their image and at once be liberated, within the shackles of their gender. Little Edie, Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, Faye-Dunaway-as-Joan-Crawford: these are the points of reference for this studied, but certainly vampish performance. The scene where Portman takes a deep puff on a cigarette before saying "and I don't smoke", and another scene in which she elegantly slurs, "only crass and stupid people commit suicide", have all the lazy zing you could possibly require. Gays flock to this sort of performance because it reflects back to them an identity that is both a gift and a curse, something to dream of and fear: the idea of playing with identity like that is queer in the extreme. (The camp doesn't stop at Portman's performance: Peter Sarsgaard's reading of the line "we're just the beautiful people!" should become legendary if there is any justice, and Jackie's interior decoration adviser is played by Richard E. Grant for crying out loud.) The cherry on the cake is an extended central sequence in which Jackie tries on a succession of evening gowns while smoking, popping pills and getting wrecked, to the sound of the original Broadway recording of 'Camelot'. I searched for John Waters in the credits but he wasn't there.

Jackie isn't only these things. It is also an extremely pointed and timely decimation of the dream that America sells to the world, a critique of the supposed righteousness of the presidency. To see Jackie Kennedy talk about JFK's predecessors in the White House, for instance, is to be reminded of its current incumbent, who is set upon devaluing the presidency to a low never seen before. But the central quality of Jackie for this viewer at least and, I hope, for drag queens across the world for years to come, is the film's playfulness, its artifice, its some-time staleness, its vulgarity, its heightened performativity, in short its prevailing if inadvertent fabulousness. Grab a Martini and your loudest fag pal, and hie thee to a shriek-along Jackie extravaganza!




Thursday, January 12, 2017

Money Shot: Towards a Representation of the Male Orgasm Onscreen

Whereas the most famous female orgasm onscreen is a fake one (Meg Ryan, in When Harry Met Sally), arguably the most famous male orgasm in cinema is a joke one: Kevin Kline, in A Fish Called Wanda. It's hard to think of any representations of the male orgasm onscreen at all, meaning that Kline's preposterous cumface (which you can find on YouTube in a clip called "Funniest Orgasm Ever") takes the top spot. Kline plays Otto, a smug, vainglorious and aggressive buffoon, whose preposterous grimace at point of climax is mined for laughs and underlines his ridiculousness and self-importance.

It isn't that men don't orgasm in movies - I'm sure I recall various grunts and moans from male actors in all the sex scenes I've seen, indicating pleasure of sorts - but in most cases the camera is trained on the woman's face, to show her expression of all-consuming delight. In The Big Easy, for instance, Ellen Barkin is reduced to mush with a few minutes of fingering from Dennis Quaid, while in Rust and Bone, the camera stays on Marion Cotillard for the sex scene, playing an amputee who gets fucked back to life in a few cursory missionary thrusts from Matthias Schoenaerts. The implication, I think, is that to be shown at orgasm is to display your vulnerability: therefore, these scenes represent an act of power over the women by the men, who are able to find the key to their moment of powerlessness. To flip the switch would mean casting men as submissive, since to orgasm is to lose control, make yourself defenseless.

Supporting this idea: an interview of Xavier Dolan in December 2016 by Vulture magazine, in which he is asked about his lack of inhibition, for a sex scene in I Killed My Mother, in which he bottoms. This shows that sex is still rigidly coded, perceived as an act of dominance, of doer and done-to, and that to be marked as the receiver of pleasure is to be stripped of your power. One onscreen male orgasm, that of Louis Garrel in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers, backs this up. Garrel plays a teenager caught up in a game of sexual daredevil with his sister (Eva Green) and an American visitor (Michael Pitt); his orgasm comes when his sister browbeats him into masturbating in front of them, and the scene shows that she is using power over him, making him retreat into a private sphere and display his secret self.

In certain gay films this imbalance, this actually rather ludicrous and harmful misapplication of antiquated sexual roles, can be redressed, although as we saw with the Dolan interview, ideas of dominance cross over into homosexual representations. Stranger By The Lake is a rare film to show male orgasm, although the film does it in a couple of ways - once with an actual cumshot, and on another occasion with a discreetly lit shot of two men cumming together, silhouetted against the night as it falls around them. In Brokeback Mountain, whose lone sex scene (one less than Annie Proulx managed in her short story) I only dimly remember, I believe the act is shown as a succession of gestures, fumblings and thrusts, rather than dwelling on a facial expression of pleasure or surrendering of a body to throes. Again, this is a nonsense: in the original short story, the cowboys' connection is primal and deeply sexual, with Jake telling Ennis at one point how much better it is with him. When Proulx's cowboys rush off together, abandoning Ennis's wife, it's because they are overcome by their desire, and Proulx sweetly talks of them "jouncing" a bed together. Scenes depicting this joint surrender to ardour and pleasure together would give a better idea of what connects the men than the ludicrous scenes of them arguing by a river like two old queens. But again: showing that racking physical transport, the visual depiction of vulnerability, the complicity and sweet innocence of cumming, would mark these men out as not manly, and I don't think an actor in Hollywood would take the role.

The Spanish film 10.000 km by Carlos Marques-Marcet provides a thrilling counter-example, starting with a long and terrifically well acted and choreographed scene that culminates in sexual intercourse between the protagonists. The camera remains with the man and woman as they talk and gradually give over to sex, building up progressively to pleasure felt by both but an orgasm that conspicuously judders through the man, as his girlfriend rides him. It's a clearly intentional and feminist decision, which shows us in a realistic and warm way a man who is deeply connected to his partner, and - as couples are - willing to surrender to a moment in her company. Their smiles and laughter in the moments afterwards, as the camera stays on them, show the well-crafted authenticity of the moment, and establish a connection that will be of great emotional importance to the rest of the film, as their bond begins to crumble.

Plenty of other scenes from other films underline what an outlier this film is in cinema. Certainly in films depicting heterosexual intercourse, the man retains a facade of power throughout sex in most instances, and the exceptions are rare. The extraordinary rarity of cunnilingus on film, compared to its (as I understand it) common practice among heterosexual companies, corroborates this sense that films are unwilling to show men in a submissive role. In 2016, A Bigger Splash's best sex scene involved Matthias Schoenaerts going down on Tilda Swinton, which goes hand in hand with his easy sexuality, his depiction as a modern, fluid man. Before that, I recall The Cooler (which I admit I haven't seen) meeting with extraordinary reactions in 2003 for, apparently, including a scene where William H. Macy eats out Maria Bello. This sense that going down on a woman would represent a loss of face to a man crosses over to most sex scenes in Hollywood, or even in Europe, where women are constantly depicted taking pleasure from vaginal intercourse unpreceded by foreplay. Needless to say, cinema is replete with blowjobs, from Pretty Woman to Casino via The Man Who Wasn't There.

Paul Verhoeven's Elle, out in the UK this year, gives the lie to these ideas, in a sex scene that is gutsy and liberating, as Michele, played by Isabelle Huppert, is overcome by a kind of auto-delayed orgasm that she takes pleasure in on her own, after the act, away from the man, and whose seismic seizures freak out her abusive lover, turning the tables on his twisted acts. In this instant, we see that female pleasure is its own beast, is not submitted to or bound by male power. It's a sharp and beautiful retort.

Meanwhile, we're still waiting for a commensurate depiction of male sexual ecstasy onscreen, in not just one but several, many films, films which could show men divesting themselves of inhibitions, self-awareness, and hideous, defeating power roles. Films which might show kind, sexy, good men generously giving and happily receiving sexual gratification; willingly abandoning themselves to a moment of true defenselessness; charmingly and with no afterthought displaying the full expression of that gladly seized vulnerability.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Newsletter 2: Sir Ian Sir Ian Sir Ian WIZARD YOU SHALL NOT PASS Sir Ian Sir Ian Sir Ian

(This is a reprint of the second newsletter I sent. You can subscribe to it here: https://tinyletter.com/CasparSalmon)

What do we mean by 'good' acting? It's a subject that you could write a whole book on, and PERHAPS I DAMN WILL, but in the meantime here are a few thoughts.

Acting is easy, and everyone can do it. It's obvious to say, but every time you tell a lie you are acting, and even your day to day behaviour, while truthful, contains elements of performance. You choose to heighten certain words, to pause, to exaggerate, to use your body language for emphasis, in order to make your character manifest. Once, when I was at school, a boy in my class changed his walk almost from one day to the next. He had a boyish walk and changed it to a perfectly ridiculous, would-be cool saunter, which came with a stride that was too long and stretched his legs to visibly preposterous effect. But I suppose he wanted to convey something.

This is to say that everyone makes a big fuss over acting, which seems a bit hilarious to me. A lot of people are confused about acting: is it good acting if you notice it? Is the acting good if it's visible and you can pick up on what the performer is doing? I'm reminded of boys who went to a single sex boarding school and spend years afterwards wondering what girls are like, what drives them, how they tick. They're the same as you, dummy!

When I used to act, as a kid, the most important thing you could do to help me play a scene was tell me where to stand and how loudly to talk. When I was 10 I played a scene too big and the director told me to take it down a level, and I said I was worried the camera wouldn't pick it up, and the whole crew laughed at me - a big roar, rippling from sound guy through to best boy. But actors need to be told what they're acting for: where to look, stand, how fast to move, and how the camera is picking all of these things up. Every actor should look through the lens before each scene, to see what space they are performing in, and what comes across, in order to modulate their tone.

Let's take it that these are the basics of acting; the ground zero of plausibility and simplicity: being heard, being seen, saying the lines correctly. On top of this, add a basic comfort with the costume you have been given and chemistry with your fellow actors. This is the least, a minimum requirement - what you might expect of someone like, say, Keira Knightley after years in the business. What then adds excellence to these considerations?

Seven out of the last ten Oscars for best actor have gone to actors playing people who really existed. 'Only' four out of the last ten Oscars for best actress have gone to imitations of real people. It's both obvious and a commonplace to observe that these performances are often easier to interpret than purely invented characters, so that people who are foxed by the idea of acting can measure them against a known grade of verisimilitude. In my view, this sort of acting is fine, and actually sort of fascinating in many ways, and the ability to do it well is rather extraordinary, as it bespeaks an ability to subsume your own character, and behave with a truly different set of tics and mannerisms. But Meryl Streep's performance as Margaret Thatcher is nobody's favourite Meryl Streep performance, and Cate Blanchett's Katharine Hepburn is fun but not a patch on her Meredith Logue in The Talented Mr Ripley. In that film, her way of pushing her hair back is so perfectly self-conscious, and her line readings walk such a fine line between naivety and archness: it's like seeing a grain of sand blown into a glass balloon.

Blanchett is plausible, but she also does something different, which is to play on another level, or in a different register. Sometimes this is called overacting. But some of my favourite actors do something different, seem to bring fizz or punch from somewhere, which occasionally whips a film into shape.

One of my favourite performances this year is by Michael Barbieri in the film Little Men. Playing Tony, a young Latino kid from a less privileged family who dreams of making it to acting school, Barbieri for some reason chooses to play it like a young De Niro, with some quite stupendous line readings that aren't afraid to tip into badness. What makes the performance so much fun is that it's set in a pristine, elegant, perfectly controlled little film, a comedy of manners, a social satire, so that Barbieri's purposefully slurred words, his slouch, his playfulness, are almost at odds with the movie. But Ira Sachs has chosen to let him play it up like this, and it gives the film a significant boost, by giving his character a chance that the script cannot allow him. The film knows that this boy, though bright and charming and good, will amount to little, and cannot summon the reserves of privilege that his young friend (played with gentle melancholy by Theo Taplitz) has at his disposal: but Barbieri and Sacks lift Tony out of this impasse, by giving him such chances to shine in the viewer's eyes, by making him the magnetic focal point also for the film's shy desires. And, most importantly, the performance gives us pleasure: it's exciting to see someone try something, use his energy, and be so reckless.

Isabelle Huppert exhibits this fearlessness in her career choices rather than in her acting, which is much more controlled and calibrated than Barbieri's. But even she, in her two standout performances this year, does things that surprise, and take the viewer out of their presuppositions. The biggest shock in Things To Come comes when she utters a big, dramatic "yoohoo!!" at her ex-husband, frustrated when he cannot understand something: it's so fresh and funny, because it's the language of children, waving at you sarcastically, shouting, "Hey, wake up, dum-dum!" - but with the added hilarity that Huppert's character is a philosophy teacher, very measured and articulate, whose understanding of language is key to her concept of the world. Huppert throws these things in (watch her, for instance, delicately overplay a scene of slipping in muddy sand on a deserted beach while trying to find a signal on her mobile phone) because she is trying to take us out of our routine, trying to give something else to her performance. These jolts, these little nuggets of comedy or shocks of truth, serve to keep the audience on its toes. And again, it provokes pleasure.

My favourite thing is to see actors doing things. Any actor can recite lines, but I love to see actors talking while doing stuff. My favourite things I've seen actors do include: playing catch (the cast of Friends), climb a tree (Belmondo in Pierrot Le Fou), do the washing up (Sabine Azema and Pierre Arditi in Same Old Song), put flowers in a vase (Meryl Streep in The Hours), and cook an omelette (Stanley Tucci in Big Night). The things they do can be simple, but I derive pleasure out of seeing someone do these things easily, simply, while being a character; and I think that the idea of doing stuff is impressive, and gives us a sense of spectacle. Alden Ehrenreich does things in Hail, Caesar! - things of a different order (watching him use a strand of spaghetti as a lasso is one of the greatest joys in my life), but the idea is the same: to make the ordinary interesting, bring elements out of the everyday to underline them, and create pleasure.

In a sense, the best actors do the washing up with their words, make a spectacle out of that simplicity: language that we use all the time is played with by the best actors, rolled around in their mouths for fun, joy, to create something different. Jean-Pierre Leaud, Katharine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, Cary Grant, Denis Lavant, to name just a few: these are people who can play with a sentence, whose way of making something standard unusual elevates them into a level above pure verisimilitude. I like acting that underlines itself, and I like acting that plays, both in the sense of playing a game and of manipulating us.

I think we need to move away from worthy, realistic, 'good' performances - or, rather, make space for other sorts of performances. For instance, the best performance of all time is, factually speaking, John Goodman in The Big Lebowski: what he does is true but also absurd and ridiculous; vital and satirical; collaboration and deceit. John Goodman has never won an Oscar, and perhaps he will one day, for playing, I don't know, Oliver Hardy: but Walter Sobchak is the one who hums with life, who does something so necessary and good and nourishing. We need actors like this, who will take a risk, and take us away from reality, the better to make us appreciate the lives we have.

Newsletter 1: #Huppert2017

(This is a reprint of the the first newsletter I sent out. You can subscribe to it here: https://tinyletter.com/CasparSalmon)

I grew up in the same town as Isabelle Huppert. Ville d'Avray is a serenely pretty, slightly colourless place in the Parisian suburbs, between Paris and the more rarefied Versailles. Ville d'Avray joins Versailles by a quiet road that wends past lakes and through the forest, finally opening out onto grand tree-lined boulevards that lead to the Chateau. To get to Paris from Ville d'Avray, you drive through the heights of St. Cloud, where Marine Le Pen grew up in a private residence, and wind down to where the Seine circumscribes the city. Ville d'Avray was memorialised in painting by Corot in the 1860s and on film by Serge Bourguignon in the 1960s, in his film Les dimanches de Ville d'Avray. The town is quiet, a little haven from the lights of Paris, and its inhabitants are wealthy, white, educated, bourgeois, presumably right-wing. Walking home from school I would go past enormous stone houses with big wrought-iron fences, such as the one Isabelle Huppert grew up in, and they felt mysterious and forbidding.

Huppert understands her privilege, and her body of work sets out with an almost calculating precision to needle at, defile, and destroy her bourgeoisie. In Claude Chabrol's Madame Bovary, she conveys perfectly the gnawing sense of being stuck in an almost-place. Although Emma Bovary is of lowly stock, her aspiration to be better, to live more, to get to Paris at last, chimes with Huppert's recurring theme of a frustrated life. And Huppert, not for the first time, plays the mistress of the house, a big, foreign, daunting house that imprisons her within its codes. She does this in The Piano Teacher, too, leaning more into the perversion behind class systems - what Huppert does is not so much open the gates to the big house, but open them upon a sham: she shows the cruelty, the anguish, the screaming pain of the humans inhabiting these roles. Elfriede Jelinek, author of The Piano Teacher, and Michael Haneke, director of the film, are keen to work over the dislocation of the upper classes, the sense that they represent a crumbling caste, a totally vulnerable sect in a modern world they no longer own - and Huppert's performance fits into this, but she plays something else too, which is the soul of a woman. In The Piano Teacher, Huppert uses her body in an almost sacrificial way to locate something truly lost and damaged: this literal stripping away of artifice shows her decoding the role of the bourgeoise.

What is stunning about Isabelle Huppert's work is its artistic coherence. Time and again, although she has never written or directed a film, her work returns to these tropes. In Patrice Chereau's Gabrielle, as a woman trapped in a loveless marriage, in one of her best, most fully incarnated performances, Huppert has no agency, and to see her so impassive and wan, flushed with tears and misery, is to see her again chipping away at the edifice of bourgeois roles: her tears are a rebuke, a hot embarrassment, and mark her resistance of sorts to the prison she finds herself in.

What are a woman's choices? Isabelle Huppert is thrillingly in control of her own career, being one of the only actors in the world to create projects, to reach out to directors, to suggest writers; but she also submits fully to a director's creation, molding herself into their story. This paradox plays out in the very characters she plays, who are shaped by the way they resist, the way they choose, or on the contrary are sometimes defeated by their lack of control. She flirts with this idea in Hong Sang-Soo's playful and delicious In Another Country, where she plays a sort of theory, a lost woman in a world that isn't her own, playing out a series of hypotheses set by her director; and she rams it home in Claude Chabrol's Story of Women, in which her wonderfully liberated, care-free, entrepreneurial backstreet abortionist is brought to her knees by a society of men who see her breaking free of her role as a wife and mother.

In her sensational brace of films this year, Things To Come and Elle, Huppert comes back to this. How she got the roles, how she made them what they are, is crucial. Things To Come was originally written as a far more maudlin work, about a woman whose husband leaves her after 25 years together, at a time when her mother is dying, leaving her to consider her own future, career, love life, solitude and mortality. Huppert elected early on to play the role with a far greater lightness of touch than the director, Mia Hansen-Love, had anticipated, finding something almost perversely skittish or amused in her character at times. (Quick aside: Hansen-Love is from the same sort of world as Huppert: bookish, bourgeois, liberated; her father taught philosophy in the school I attended) For Elle, Huppert made herself available for the film from the start, even at a time when Paul Verhoeven was looking to cast other, more famous actors in the role: she clung on in, making the film viable finally because of her suppleness, so that she could play this perverse CEO whose response to her rape is to entrap her rapist in a sexual game of cat-and-mouse. Verhoeven admits that the creation of the character belongs to Huppert, such as a scene where she screamingly evicts someone from her house and continues screaming long after they have left. What we have seen this year is Huppert's decisions, her choices, coming to frame the women she plays: this gives them an added depth, and something off-kilter.

You could not simply say that she is her own auteur now: but something of her accrued experience, of the stories that she has made it her career to choose for forty years, has come to wash off on two of her best, most complex, most playful performances.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Forget it, Jake: thoughts on the year 2016


Earlier this year, the famous man Giles Coren opined:
His tweet missed a couple of extremely obvious points - namely, that what you are doing with your life could very well be associated with the fucking news, and that there is such a thing as compassion. His angry response (dig the all-caps and the swearword!) to the genuine anguish that people were expressing soon after the electoral victory of a stupid and dangerous man to the most powerful job in the world is just one of the reasons I, along with so many other people, have reached the end of this year feeling drained. It feels like we now have to contend with two forces, both of which take their emotional, psychological, intellectual toll: the first is that world events seem to have reached a peak of horror lately, and the second is that there are always people on hand to belittle people reacting in earnest, and posit that things are actually OK. Sometimes, the second force goes through the looking glass, and a public figure will now take time to explain that something good and sensible, such as anti-racism, is actually the bad thing here. It is exhausting.

It is alright to be exhausted. We have to let ourselves be tired, and we must talk about the ways that world events, and the myriad ways they are rehearsed in public discourse, can feel truly upsetting, defeating even. It must be possible to state that the human disaster of the refugee crisis, the shelling of Aleppo, the election to public office of Donald Trump, can bite a chunk out of you, without being accused of solipsism.

I have wept on more occasions in 2016 than any year since my early childhood, when the main thing to avoid was falling off my bicycle. Staying up all night to watch the US elections, which brought a steady mounting dread, a sickness in my stomach, left me feeling shattered; I seized a hug from a friend, who felt so small in my embrace, and cried all the way home. Later, Gwyneth Paltrow called Donald Trump's election 'exciting' and Amanda Palmer hoped it would bring about the rebirth of punk-rock. An article by Amelia Gentleman that I read at work in August caused a huge raft of sobs to rise from somewhere deep within me, eventually coming out as gasps that made me flee my desk and rush to the bathroom. I thought about Abdul, aged 10, whose father is dead, travelling across Europe with his nephew, aged 9. I tried adding seven years to my own son's age, and imagining him setting off across nine countries after I had died, only to end up in a camp, in charge of the wellbeing and safety of another child. I couldn't imagine this. Later, Britain's tabloid press would question the age of the refugees who had been sent to us, and call for their teeth to be checked.

I cried for Jo Cox. Later, I felt wan throughout the obligatory call, from people who know better than everyone what a death means, not to politicise her political death. I cried a week before that, in an airport, on the first day of my holidays, thinking of the LGBT people in the club in Orlando who got massacred, and wondering again why people want to kill my kind. People denying that the attack in Orlando was homophobic would later have fun arguing that George Michael's legacy had nothing to do with his sexuality.

The events, then the response to the events. Breathe. Reset.

Earlier this year I had an epiphany. I'd been struggling for a while to think who or what Donald Trump reminded me of. More than this, I had a faint sense, at the back of my head, that my thoughts and feelings about Donald Trump reminded me of my thoughts and feelings about something else. What was it? I knew that he sickened me; that his words and actions caused deep feelings of revulsion in me, his voice made me feel somehow unsettled, and I had a feeling when looking at him, or hearing about him, of wanting to protect my loved ones from him, wanting to shield them, as you do when a skeevy man is hitting on a drunk friend of yours at a party. And then I realised: Donald Trump reminds me of John Huston playing Noah Cross in Chinatown. As in Chinatown, I became gradually aware of exactly what he had done, how vile he was, and how he had schemed, using lies and influence, to grab what he desired; as Faye Dunaway does in Chinatown, I wanted to protect people from him, knowing what he wants to do to them; and as Jack Nicholson does in Chinatown I felt overwhelmed by my helplessness, and my realisation that the big, rich, perverse white man has everything at his disposal to win.

That sense of helplessness is tiring too. Everyone I know looked around them after Brexit, after Trump's election, during the worst of the refugee crisis, and asked what they could do. We knew we could give money. We're all rich. We could perceive that the big political decisions hinged on inequality, and we felt a sense of wanting to help, to bridge a gap, to try and make things better somehow. But what could we do? We're citizens recycling bottles while governments fail to levy gas emissions. The frustration, the gnawing sense of wanting things to change, to go back to the way they were before, even, takes it out of you.

Just as tiring: educating yourself to realise, remember, and say out loud, that things were never OK before, they were just easier to ignore. I own that, and I'm angry with myself for it.

There have been times when I felt like I could nearly see the pattern behind everything that happened this year, the way that everything connected. Staring at the jumble of events until my eyes watered, I could almost pick out the 3D picture - something to do with male violence? - that then disappeared just as quickly. I'd look again: yes, yes, there it is, it's hoving into view, it's all to do with the way men have always killed and destroyed, but I can't quite connect all the dots, it's nearly there; it's gone.

Throughout all this mess, this utter degradation, the year was marked by various sorties from famous white people who were aggrieved at the way the world was becoming, if anything, too liberal. No matter that Brexit had been voted in on the back of an overtly racist campaign by Nigel Farage and the murder of a politician by a neo-Nazi, or that Donald Trump had been supported by the Ku Klux Klan and voted in after promising to make Muslim people sign a register. Devil's advocacy is just so spine-tingling! Lionel Shriver, bravely donning a sombrero for her own tilt at the windmill of identity politics, wanted to express her annoyance that she had been criticised for putting a black woman on a leash in her new book. Simon Jenkins, mounting his faithful Rocinante to charge at new liberalism, wished to tell you that he, a straight, white man, feels like a black person probably did in the 80s. My favourite intervention, though, came on Twitter from darts player Eric Bristow MBE, who couldn't understand why men these days wouldn't simply lamp the poof who had abused them as children. Quoth Eric: "Sorry meant paedo not poof."

How do we cope with this debilitating level of commentary? It feels like conversations are always at risk of becoming more toxic, that opinions are more polarised. How do we bridge the gap? What can we say to each other?

When I was eighteen, I left France, where I had lived for twelve years, to come to university in England. That year, two of the most important people in my life when I was a child died within a few months of each other. Sam was the first friend I made when I got to France: funny, sensitive, intelligent, different, and with a tinge of folly to him; Petra, the mother of two childhood friends, my parents' best friend, and a beloved teacher, was brash, funny, outspoken, kind and exciting. When they died, I mourned them - and clearly the most painful and important thing about their deaths was losing two original, brilliant people. But I also, in part, mourned my life as I had known it, and I struggled to understand what the world was like now, when they weren't in it. Something old and reliable that I had known was gone forever, and the new situation felt unreal, and difficult. How were things supposed to work now?

I have relived that feeling this year, that sense of not knowing how to adjust to this new world. Something feels different; when I look at the world I don't completely understand it. Trying to keep up with it, to see into its heart, to understand how it moves, fucking knackers me. And I think of future events and wonder if I will have the energy to look at them, when they come along.

In France, where I grew up, the choice for president in 2017 will be between a fascist, Marine Le Pen, and an extreme rightwinger, Francois Fillon. I now find myself in a situation where I desperately want the extreme rightwinger to win - the extreme rightwinger, that is, who wishes to repeal gay adoption in order to protect children (such as my son) from LGBT people (such as myself). This leap, this disconnect that I have to make, to get things to fit, is so hard. Beyond fighting back the tears, I have to displace my thoughts, sort of put them inside-out, and then try them on again and see if they work that way. It's constricting.

I don't have any answers. I'm writing this because I want to say that it's alright to feel worn out, and nervous, and I want us all to look out for each other, because we're going to need it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

2016 Top Tens

Films

  1. The Assassin
  2. Things To Come
  3. Embrace of the Serpent
  4. Elle
  5. Little Men
  6. The Ornithologist
  7. The Witch
  8. Love & Friendship
  9. Your Name
  10. Victoria

Albums

  1. Coloring Book - Chance The Rapper / Telefone - Noname
  2. Blonde - Frank Ocean
  3. Atrocity Exhibition - Danny Brown
  4. Malibu - Anderson.Paak
  5. A Mulder do Fim do Mundo - Elza Soares
  6. Emily's D+evolution - Esperanza Spalding
  7. Still Brazy - YG
  8. The Life of Pablo - Kanye West
  9. Bucket List Project - Saba
  10. We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service - A Tribe Called Quest

Honeys

1. Antoine Griezmann, from football




  1. 2. Anthony Joshua, from boxing






  2. 3. Nassim Si Ahmed, from Marseille (Netflix) 



  3. 4. Leonardo Bonucci, from football



  4. 5. Paul Hamy, from THE ORNITHOLOGIST



  5. 6. Nilbio Torres, from EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT




  6. 7. Daniel Goodfellow, from diving


  7. 8. Greg Casar, from Austin, TX council


  8. 9. Billy Eichner, from Billy On The Street



  9. 10. Ore Oduba, from Strictly Come Dancing



  10. Wednesday, November 30, 2016

    Paterson; or, Life in the Woods; or, Bad Luck Fetty Wap!

    Paterson, Jim Jarmusch's new movie after Only Lovers Left Alive, about a bus-driving poet in New Jersey, would seem to bear few similarities with its predecessor. Only Lovers Left Alive told a story of two vampires, lovers,  who are at odds with the 21st century and spend their days reliving their memories. But Paterson is in fact as much of a fantasy as Only Lovers Left Alive, rehashing that film's themes of disconnection from the modern world and fetishisation of the past, and it fails on exactly the same artistic grounds, being mannered, fusty, self-regarding in tone, hollow in its intellectual proposition, and politically vacant or regressive.

    If you're paying attention you should have noticed one of the film's big themes before it's pointed out to you - but for the slower viewer, Jarmusch has it underlined in a moment of conversation at the old-timey, TV-free neighbourhood bar that Paterson (Adam Driver) frequents. Namely: Paterson is completely analogue in a digital world. He appears to wake without an alarm clock, serenely checking his wrist watch every morning as he rises on his way to work. He doesn't have a phone, or a TV. We learn that his girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) has a phone and a laptop, but Paterson himself stops short of these frivolities. We're told, in the conversation that rams the point home (since Jarmusch now trades in a cinema of the obvious) that the world worked perfectly well before these things.

    It's become increasingly voguish to fetishise a pre-digital world, culminating this year with the release of Stranger Things, which dwelt with relish on such deliciously quaint things as rotary phones, and photographs that you used to have to develop in a dark room. Adam Driver even appeared in a film that satirised this mode, Noah Baumbach's While We're Young, in which he played a smarmy hipster who plays board games with his friends and collects vinyl. While the film's observation of Paterson's physical world, and the pleasure it takes in objects and nature, seems sincere, there is something fraudulent about the way it posits its protagonist as somehow embodying a more authentic life by rejecting connection and technology in favour of introspection and objects. This lends the film a musty flavour, as it is set in an artificially constructed world in which nothing comes to jolt Paterson from his technological hermitage.

    The film's paean to a pre-digital era is symptomatic of a generally nostalgic bent. Cleaving to his irritating name-dropping shtick from Only Lovers Left Alive (in which such figures as Marlowe and Jack White got a shout-out), Jarmusch gives it up in Paterson for William Carlos Williams, Iggy Pop, Lou Costello, Petrarch, Allen Ginsberg, Jean Dubuffet, and Wallace Stevens. In three particularly cloying scenes, moreover, he finds ways to have children talk about those burningly topical folk heroes Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter, Gaetano Bresci and Emily Dickinson. Jarmusch's ploy here is that many of these figures (Williams, Costello, Bresci, Carter, Iggy Pop) are famous inhabitants of the city of Paterson, where the film is set, and the idea seems to be to exalt them as products of their environment, and to tie them into their community. Indeed, Paterson himself was born and raised in Paterson, making him emblematic of the argument that art and ideas have connections to place, to people. But in glorifying the past, Jarmusch makes his film feel socially and politically regressive. He has acknowledged in interviews that the most famous inhabitant of Paterson currently is the singer Fetty Wap, known for his all-conquering hit 'Trap Queen' - but Fetty Wap is too modern and commercial for Jarmusch. You won't see a trace of him in this film, because he represents the exact opposite of the proposition that Jarmusch is making - that the past is better for being more real, honourable, truthful, slow. I'd add furthermore that Jarmusch's fanboying of these male artists and heroes (the sole line about Emily Dickinson is given to a little girl of 10) chimes with his male-centric worldview in which men are the artists and doers.

    The machismo of Paterson's outlook extends to its depiction of the couple at its centre. Merrily flunking Bechdel at every turn, the film shows a couple where the man works while the woman stays at home; he is shown to be a great artist, while she is an idiot whose role is to give him support and encouragement. And cook for him. And decorate the house. And be corrected when she gets William Carlos Williams' name wrong. Paterson's one domestic task seems to be walking the dog at night, which he does without his girlfriend, leaving her at home while he goes to a bar. Indeed, while Paterson is always travelling around town, seeing people and working on his poetry, Laura leaves the house twice throughout the film, and is never shown talking to someone who is not her boyfriend. He supports her financially, on his bus driver's salary. The film consistently demeans Laura and laughs at her, such as a scene when she mentions Petrarch in conversation to her boyfriend, and he marvels at her having found out about someone such as Petrarch on the internet; or the scene when she says she liked an old film because it was black and white; or the scene when we learn it's her dream to be a country singer. She is a figure of perfect ridicule, decorating everything she owns in black and white swirls like some sort of mentally imbalanced Tim Burton groupie. Laura's redeeming qualities are her beauty, and the sense that she inspires Paterson to write some of his poetry, and seems somehow to grasp what makes his writing tick: everything she represents is shown through him.

    Paterson's regressive stance goes beyond its iffy take on domestic politics: Paterson's unmooredness, his disconnection from the modern world, betrays a retrograde take on contemporary America. It's almost astonishing that in the America we now know beyond any doubt was roiling with tension and toxic divisions, we never hear or see any turbulence, no-one discusses politics of any sort, and no disorder comes to trouble the self-imposed peace of this hermit. Paterson is folded in on himself, writing poems about matches and rain, while the country is about to be overtaken by a political maniac: you could hardly ask for a more shining example of the inward-looking solipsism and apathy of the American white man, willingly shielding himself from any difficulties in his world or his own outlook, and looking to a glorified past for solace and inspiration.

    What is sad (!!) about Paterson is that it purports to provide an alternative vision for a better world, and at times it hits its mark. The movie's slowness is best felt in the way the filmmaking takes its cues from the central character, matching his gait and his little darting glances with slow camera pans and quick cut-aways: this slowness feels right, because it is anchored in physical truth, and doesn't comment on itself. This rhythm is fresh, and it is oddly soothing, leading the viewer to relax into the film and feel stimulated by its gentleness and observation: but these sweet successes of the film's first few minutes make its late failures all the more dismaying when the authorial voice takes over from the character to create such an artificial universe in support of a retrograde voice. The backward-looking politics masquerading as a Zen life manual leaves a sour taste.