Wednesday, March 21, 2018


Swagger is a title you earn - and if Olivier Babinet's documentary, about children in an underprivileged cité just outside Paris, amply deserves its name, it's less for the attitude on display amongst the kids themselves, and more for the reckless, thrilling, way over-board filmmaking that Babinet chucks at his otherwise minor project. This is a film that cocks about town, strutting, preening, feeling itself. It's a film to make you chuckle with its chutzpah, its brazenness. There's a great deal of sensitivity and delicacy here too, but it's vastly outdanced by the fun-size wallop of Babinet's aesthetic - and there is something beguiling, unerringly touching, at the idea of bringing such big means to a small documentary about the dreams, hopes, loves and sadness of disadvantaged children. 

Babinet worked with the children on a filmmaking workshop for a year, as part of a project to teach them about cinema. He also interviewed them - and the film is composed of one-on-one interviews with the youngsters, interspersed with weird, dreamlike, fantasy sequences. After a strange opening at nighttime, where the camera flits among the tops of the high-rises, filming the zone like a sci-fi land at rest, we meet the gang as they introduce themselves to camera: Mariyama, Elvis, Paul, Naila, Regis, and a whole load more. The tone is set: odd, buzzing, fantastical visuals; a pulsating imagination - and then tender, naturalistic, artlessly seized candour. For the rest of the film, Babinet will use his subject's startling, strange, enchanting confessions, to create luridly conceived set-pieces that metastasize the ideas of the powerless and unlistened-to into bold, entrancing visions. 

Even when Babinet's camera is at rest, he manages to throw some pop at the screen - Naila is filmed in a backdrop of candy Technicolour in a stairwell, as she empties her funny mind out to camera, disserting on Mickey Mouse and how frightening he is; on white people; and on her dream of becoming an architect so as to stop babies from falling to their death in inner-city high-rises. Paul, dapper and shy in a sharp black suit, is filmed against a lush dark blue; Régis sits in a deserted locker-room. Everywhere you see Babinet's music video-maker's touch, in the slightly too glossy, but still inviting plasticity of these interviews. 

Babinet then devises riotous sequences in between these talking head segments, ranging from a disquieting surge of drones hovering over the projects like a dystopian nightmare, to a sort of jailbreak scene when two kids ring a fire alarm bell in a corridor and escape through a hole in a wire fence into a Pasolini-like field of long brushy grass where a camel is tethered to the ground. The viewer rushes with the boys in a flurry, the hand-held camera keeping the beat as they leap and skedaddle out of the building, before the camera rises in a swoonsome movement once they've made it through the fence, to encompass the whole surrounding environment, signalling a burst of delicious freedom. Or Babinet gifts Paul a Jacques Demy-like dance sequence where he skitters through a disused marketplace and out along the abandoned concrete walkways of his hometown, freed from some of the cares he has shared to camera, the fear of rejection, the shame of his father's mental illness. As Céline Sciamma did in Girlhood, Babinet grants his subjects the chance to be seen the way they wish to be seen. 

These are children who have never met a white person; these children of immigrants talk of 'French-born' people as of another species, so fully ghettoised are they in their suburb. They talk calmly of dealers in the neighbourhood being a job that you can do. They tell of a schoolmate who was shot. Many of them have never been to Paris. All of them long for great wealth; some dream of being President. The great power of Swagger is that it extracts these wholly astounding nuggets without ever dwelling on their potency or underlining the tragedy of these lives. On the contrary, Babinet loves and celebrates these people, gives them time and care, frames them well, and lifts them. 

Speaking of which: no article on Swagger can do justice to the film which does not spend some time on the film's clear star turn (and someone who, in my view, is one of the great LGBTQ onscreen characters of all time): the great, delightful, scenery-chewing, perfectly named Régis Marvin Merveille N'Kissi Moggzi. Obviously afforded extra screentime in light of his charisma, Régis burns up the screen as he talks about his love for his mum, with whom he talks about make-up and fashion; or about his love of the soap opera The Young and the Restless; or about the dreadful fashions sported by his classmates; or the time someone stepped to him and he fought them and won. Régis, a fat, black, funny, stylish, screamingly camp, seemingly perfectly happy, balanced and accepted teenager from an underprivileged background in a social housing development in France in 2016, is nothing less than the most positive and galvanising depiction of an LGBT person I can think of in recent times. From the moment we first see him, sewing at his table at night, to the scene when he struts through school wearing a fur coat in one of Babinet's punchy imaginary sequences, via a scene where he adjusts his bow-tie in a mirror before the camera pans out of his window to film the building from a great height, ten floors above ground, Régis is a star - but more than a star, he anchors the film, gives it further pizzazz. He is the only teen mentioned by any of the other kids, and when he's named it's by a straight boy, who cites him as an inspiration. 

Régis has swagger in spades; Paul has some of it too; Naila has also. Swagger, don't forget, is attitude to wear like a new shiny coat over torn or dirtied rags; swagger represents the act of papering over inadequacies, of shining a light to detract from fears or misgivings. The swagger of the children in Swagger - and the swagger of Swagger - is there in the act of taking some of our time to ask us to believe in the dream. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

A Fantastic Woman

"A Fantastic Woman" is a terrible title. In Spanish, where the phrase is much more idiomatic, the title apparently plays - certainly more clearly than it does in English - on the idea of the fantastical woman, and of the fantasised woman. Both notions are interesting, and key to understanding the film, which, in its brash and expressionist mode, riffs on those concepts in an endearingly head-on, mulish way. In so doing, the movie offers up a bracing, heroic portrayal of a transwoman in combat, but it also ends up fetishising her gender identity, making for an ambivalent depiction.

The film centres - quite literally so, in the sense that it places Daniela Vega wham-bam in the middle of its frame - on Marina Vidal, a transwoman whose older cis-male partner, Orlando, dies suddenly one night, leaving her homeless, without any legal claims to mourn him, and at odds with his transphobic family. Throughout the film, as Marina fights to get her dog back, attend her lover's funeral, and be recognised in her gender identity by his kin, Sebastian Lelio presents her as a kind of gunslinger in a Western, in a series of face-offs against various foes, standing up for what she knows is right. In between these bouts, Marina is shown jabbing a punch-bag, or walking alone, presented in long backwards hand-held shots that frame her determination and make her a hero. While she is banished to the margins of the world she exists in, in this film she commands the centre-ground, ceding on-screen territory to no-one. 

There is, though, a queasiness in the discrepancy between the way other characters view Marina and the way the film presents her. The film rightly lambasts its secondary characters for deadnaming her, misgendering her, or reducing her to her physicality. In their brutality, Orlando's family treat Marina like a monster, at one point kidnapping her and strapping her face together with tape, in an act that functions as a degradation but also, clearly, as a belittling comment on the way she is seen to have created herself a new physique. The tape, roughly stretched across her face, turns her nose up and squashes her features, making a monster of her. 

At the same time, the film performs a not wholly dissimilar exercise in the way it presents Marina as a magnificent beast. In an extraordinary scene (which, in a scarcely believable coup de theatre, nods to Jurassic Park (!)), Marina climbs onto the roof of the car belonging to Orlando's family, crashing and stomping above the people trapped inside it, like a vengeful monster. It's a positive depiction for sure, glorying in Marina's indefatigability, her resourcefulness, her self-belief - but it's still the other side of the same coin. It objectifies and sensationalises Marina's physicality, making her a species of creature. Marina is never dehumanised, in part because of Daniela Vega's controlled, enigmatic performance, but Lelio's film is so expressionistic, so full-on, that its candid acts of valiance make an object out of Marina's resilience. 

We see this too in the way the film presents Marina's nudity, which ties in to the film's work on the fantasised being and the fantastical being. In one measured, disquieting scene, a female doctor asks Marina to strip in order to take photographs of her body as part of the investigation into Orlando's death. A male doctor is also present, which introduces a level of discomfort into the interaction. The doctors are unyielding, and Lelio's camera doesn't blink: the full tension of the moment is sounded, so that we feel how othered and objectified Marina is; how she isn't allowed to present herself on her own terms. There's sensitivity there, but a touch of prurience too: this accords with how brash the film is in general, how overt and generally full-blooded it is, in its script and its visual cues. But in a later scene, where Marina's (partial) nudity isn't imposed on her by one person, Lelio seems to be playing games, which sensationalise Marina's gender for the viewer. 

In this scene, Marina has to find out what Orlando had left in his locker at a male sauna he patronises. To this effect, she must go to the sauna herself; therefore, in a scene that is uncomfortable because of the way it presents a reversal of 'passing', she has to present as male in order to enter the building. Tricked out in just a towel across her waist, with her incipient breasts registering only as a 'male' chest and with her hair tied backwards, Marina manages to enter the building unperturbed. But this scene, which Lelio after all devised, has a somewhat leering tone, a rather jesting flavour, revelling in Marina's liminal aspect, and using her physicality as a plot point or ploy. 

Marina's descent into the depths of Orlando's sauna, to recuperate a secret that he had left behind, plays I think on the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, a fantastical woman of legend and her departed lover. There is much in the film that pertains to the register of hell and devils: Marina's dog is called Diablo, and scene after scene shows her descending from a point of height - to help her lover after he has fallen downstairs; driving into an underground car-park to do battle with Orlando's ex-wife; visiting the sauna below ground. There's a preponderance of red, too, in many of these scenes, playing on a register of the infernal. In the end, Marina sees a glimpse of her dead lover, Orlando-Orpheus, before he disappears from view. In the sauna, the near-naked Marina-Eurydice is clearly passing through a land that is not hers, that is ruled by other people; there are codes and instructions for her mission into this Hades. This adoption of the legend serves to champion Marina, but I think it also robs her of agency and plays too strongly on her physical presentation. 

Ultimately, A Fantastical Woman is an unendingly bold, combative, interesting, often visually marvellous film, pulsating with ideas - and its odd, unsubtle, often cheering, sometimes clunky discourse on its protagonist, is one of many aspects to crunch over in one's mind long after the lights have gone up.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Lady Bird

Two scenes show you the mettle of Lady Bird, display exactly what the film is made of. In the first of these, Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) wakes on her birthday, to find her father bringing her a cupcake with a candle in it. Greta Gerwig's camera - grainy and companionable - pulls in, right up close to the central character, drawing morning heat from Lady Bird's just interrupted slumber, delighting in the texture of her undone hair, and dwelling with a measure of sweetness on her blotchy adolescent skin. Such a scene would pass without comment were it not for how unusual it is in a cinema industry where young women routinely wake up with a face full of slap, arching their sexy backs, etc etc. But Gerwig knows her character so well, is so kind and honest in the view she trains on her, and brings such sensitivity to bear on this hopelessly questing girl, that it feels of a piece with the film.

A second, fleeting moment that drew my attention: in New York, having finally evaded the cloistering Sacramento of her youth, Lady Bird crosses a sunlit street in Manhattan, filmed at a distance, slightly from above; nearby, another young woman, an extra who graces the movie for all of one second, runs past her with a folder of papers in her hands. It may sound preposterous to have alighted on this moment, but I don't believe I've seen an extra running before, when in my normal life I run to get to places all the time and see people hurrying all around me. In instructing this young actor to run, Gerwig not only shows what care she gives to the world she is drawing, and with what pains she evinces a tangible authenticity from her performers, but gives her film a welcome freshness, something jumpy and winsome; there is real pleasure to be drawn from looking at her movie.

 Gerwig's subject is ostensibly hoary and boring: the American high-school movie; the coming-of-ager; the misfit who goes to prom. We've seen everything in it a hundred times, from its laughable sports teacher to the roll-ups-smoking cool kid, from the forbidding mom with a heart of gold to the moment the protagonist learns she's got into her university of choice. How, then, does Gerwig's film feel so different, so new and easy? In part it's that she's so confident in her voice, and that her plain, serviceable directing style marries with her script so well. 

There's something still of the Baumbach influence in her screenplay, not least in the characters' quirks and the somewhat startling way they have of stating their intentions or their personality upfront. This trait is reminiscent of Yorgos Lanthimos' writing, in a way: it's disarming and fairly modern, and makes the characterisation teeter on the brink of caricature. Gerwig certainly deals in types, but she also finds a way, through her direction of actors, to steer her types into different, surprising territory - or to give them a singularity in their voice or mannerisms. And her personal experience, her eye as a still young woman, enable her work to feel free of the mockery and facility that has infected Baumbach's recent films (not least Mistress America, which Gerwig co-wrote). On the contrary, because Gerwig attempts so little with her filmmaking, the script is allowed to sing, and there is even something in the film that exalts her characters. Part of the trickery is that, afterwards, you can't really remember what was so enrapturing: was anything here stark or memorable, did it hit me in any way? No - but while it was happening I was acquainted with these people, I heard them and knew them. 

Two things confirm this purity of purpose, this courtship of what is real & alive. The costumes in Gerwig's film are so perfectly devised, so beautifully true for each character. In a coming out scene where one character cries on the shoulders of another by the bins outside a cafe, almost the most touching thing was the disastrous length of his bootcut jeans, flopping over his shoes as he leans in for a hug. Lady Bird's long, flattening shift dresses perform the same job, as do her bell bottoms at the end of the film when she is becoming a woman in New York, which are on the very verge of coolness but, in the end, not at all there. These are the touches of someone who knows her character inside out, who remembers feelings and smells, who is able to share with us every aspect of a person's existence in a way that just fits, that is somehow heady in its veracity. 

The other aspect of Gerwig's film, returned to again and again, in a way which marks it out, is money - the way Lady Bird and her family have none, and how it sets them apart. In another movie less at pains to convey that want, we might get a few lines from the central character about wanting to afford more things - but in Lady Bird, this need, the financial precarity, is a whole system, informing the very story of the film, giving impetus to the action, and manifesting in various, distinct narrative threads, from Lady Bird's parents' jobs to her choice of college via her relationships with other kids at school. 

Money is in the language of the film, in the shabby setting of Lady Bird's house and the vulgar pretensions of the people whose company she aspires to, in her prom dress and her school grades, in asides from her mother about her own upbringing. Everywhere this asperity is felt, this fear of slipping through the cracks or not making it; everywhere this is seen, which peculiarly marks Lady Bird out, not just as an honest film, but as something richly conceived, which perceives the full socio-cultural compact of its microcosm, and which views its setting with a dry, critical eye rather than with hackneyed nostalgia. 

All of this is played with fervour and delicacy by the cast - Gerwig's work as an actor must have helped her secure these sensitive portrayals - to an extent that overrides the film's handful of flaws, such as its tendency to overstate, especially in its final scene which takes an emotional misstep. It will be interesting to see Gerwig invent more stories, to see her carry her original voice over to other projects, and grow as a filmmaker so that - hopefully, and quite naturally - her lexicon expands beyond the beautiful, breathy intimacy on display in this tiny, inexpensive, well-meant, endearingly badly wrapped Christmas present of a film. 

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Film 2017

In May of this year, I left the screening room in Cannes where I had just seen L'atelier, a film by Laurent Cantet, feeling full of vigour and excitement. I had seen a film whose brilliance I longed to write about: I wanted to give voice to my feelings of elation as it had begun to dawn on me what Cantet was up to in his sharp, gleaming, deceptive movie. The film is about a writer of thrillers who mentors teenagers in a creative writing workshop in the south of France over the summer. The youths are from all sorts of backgrounds, and have enrolled in the course for a number of reasons: the idea is that together they will write a crime novel set in their own town of La Ciotat, drawing on its culture and history.  To begin with, the writer, Olivia, engages her charges in a series of conversations about the crime that will occur in their book, which gets them onto the wider topic of violence, where it stems from, and what might cause someone to kill. The youngsters, being contemporary French citizens, are all only too aware of recent mass shootings in the country, particularly the attacks at the Bataclan in Paris:  this gives their conversations a political edge and causes them to tip into anger and racially tinged insults.

So far, so worthy and Socratic. The film displays all of this perfectly competently, with naturalistic writing, good ensemble acting, and a pert and ironic eye in the way it paints its main character, a well-meaning but patronising writer who believes she has a greater understanding of the world than her students. But there remains something a trifle academic, a touch programmatic in the way the film sets out its stall, airing contemporary issues through conversation, and seemingly scoring easy political points via its set-up. But this is where Cantet flips his film, and sends the viewer off into a much harder tangent. One of the students has been displaying racist, violent tendencies that are increasingly evident in his writing and his interactions with the other pupils - and Cantet leads his narrative off into worrying, dark territory by focusing on the growing opposition between him and Olivia. The film, gradually, and then very suddenly, descends into complete chaos, throwing all of its carefully hedged considerations out of the window. Suddenly, the viewer is faced with something more primal, which is the meaninglessness of violence, the sheer panic of terror. The film's production itself mirrors this tilt into the unknown, going from sun-dappled wide shots and searching close-ups into deep, disquieting long shots in semi-obscurity as it drifts into the realm of the thriller, except with no hard and fast thriller rules to reassure us. We are faced with a void. The film's shock is that it flips in on itself and punches the viewer into the stomach. After this crescendo, a coda comes about that scarcely reassures you much more, leaving the spectator punch-drunk and buzzing with thoughts about violence, destruction, extremism, but also the role of the artistic creator in dealing with these topics. It's a heady mix, showing everything the cinema can do in terms of talking about its time and reflecting the world back to us.

I left the film, then, abuzz with sensations and ideas, and after an elated conversation about the film with a friend, set off up the hill from the harbour, to my lodgings. The sea was glinting in the lamplights behind me, and as I progressed through the town tweeting my excitable thoughts the town was quiet and still around me. I finished tweeting, and then looked to see what other people were writing about. Then I saw that, an hour behind me, in Britain, people were just then getting the news of a terrorist attack at a concert in Manchester.

I don't want to be facile; the attacks are not the occasion of a beautiful realisation for me, the deaths of innocent people cannot be weaved into an easy story about the power of cinema. My stomach flipped, for a second time that evening - this time with the jolt of reality. A friend of mine had been considering going to the concert; my friends in Manchester were offering their houses to people in distress who needed a place to stay. I felt sheer anguish at the thought of a senseless killing in my country. Still, though, something of the film remained in me - a line that a student from the writing group had uttered, positing that what might induce somebody to kill could be not so much rage or religious conviction, as boredom; the wish to do something, anything. As people online looked for meaning in the events, I thought to the film that I was fresh out of, which had taken such a valiant stab at the question and ended up with so despairing and bleak a conclusion. It's too simple to say that art had given me hope, but I was, rather, invigorated by the sense that the art I love and follow - cinema - was trying, with all its might, to respond to my world.

Something pressing seemed to make itself felt, at least for me, around that time, and grew in amplitude as the year went on, until it became a deafening roar. I search films for ways in which I feel they speak about politics, the topics of our time - but I realised, also, that the very methods of those films must be challenged; that the industry itself, from film directors to festivals via distributors and film-going punters, have also a duty to change, and reflect our new world order, with its questions of globalisation, oppression of women, racial hatred on the rise. While some films I saw this year tackled these issues, it is the actual industry itself that has to change, because it is itself complicit in abuse and injustice.

Already in Cannes the repeated non-selection of female directors in competition had become a recurring topic in the film world. But with the Harvey Weinstein story, I grew to see this injustice to the work of women not as an accidental foible of the film world, but a tacit scheme, however unspoken, to sideline women, ignore their voices and stories, in favour of telling the same male stories over and over. It seems obvious to me now that helping foster this imbalance in any way, for instance by reviewing films made by male abusers of women, or by distributing the work of known attackers, or by pretending women aren't capable of directing major studio films, plays directly into the gender imbalance that allowed Harvey Weinstein to prey on women. I feel clearer than ever that allowing women's work to flourish, granting women power to make decisions and not be seen as pawns in the stories of men, would start to create a society in which men exploit and silence them.

This year brought all this into relief: the micro-politics of my filmgoing, of the work I watch, of the work that is made. Being a good and conscientious filmgoer comes down to simple things like highlighting gender and racial imbalances in festivals and awards, or pay inequality and poor employment conditions at cinema chains. I would go so far as to argue that the spate of superhero films we now see carries an extremely potent political charge, playing into a bankrupt political worldview where good and bad are the two warring sides, and where superheroes (mostly male) get to save the day by being on the right side. On the contrary in the last year , at least in the film world but arguably right up to the presidency of the United States, we've seen that evil is systemic and purposeful, using a hierarchy of privilege to reward the few at the expense of the many. The task of repairing the world will be so knotty, and will involve comprehensively dismantling and rebuilding the institutions that propagate inequality. Can cinema rebuild? Will Hollywood cinema grow up a little, and stop painting itself as merely a provider of harmless escapism and fantasy, to take on bigger questions?

Watching Get Out this year gave me a shock, because for once (at last!) I was watching a big, open, engaging film that wanted to kick me in the arse. I remember going hot and cold with sheer joy, something like pure euphoria, at the succession of events that Jordan Peele had so artfully orchestrated in order to smuggle through his political wallop. The horror of Get Out's set-up was compounded by an almost unbearable feeling of white guilt, and also the queasiness of seeing my smug right-on-ness, itself, be beaten to death. I felt such extraordinary tension, something phsyical in the pit of my stomach, at not being the hero of the film; watching the movie as one of the villains, and waiting for my comeuppance, gave me a mounting but elating feeling of anguish, which rendered the film's jump scares, narrative shocks and twists, and general climate of racial dread, all the more savage. Meanwhile, all around me, the audience was reacting in ways I have never seen in a cinema in all my life, with screams, whooping, and several spontaneous rounds of applause. I joined in the cheering after a while, daring to clench my fist and shout "FUCKING COME ON" at the film's most glorious final moment of unexpected catharsis, and once again felt myself go hot all over. I will never forget the experience of watching Get Out in a cinema, as long as I live.

Get Out isn't the answer, even though the way its phrases and tropes have entered common currency give me hope for more confrontational films that can address our times and start to redress a gaping imbalance. The work ahead is so much harder than that.

On the way back from my stay in Cannes I read a magnificent, astringent piece by Hisham Matar in the London Review of Books, which considers the role of the writer in times of conflict. Matar concludes:

"If we say that at one extreme there are those who believe that literature has nothing to do with politics, and at the other end those who insist that everything, literature and even the way a child speaks, is a political act, then to hell with both. Both positions are tyrannical."

I personally tend to think that everything is political, and I do believe that the way a child speaks draws unknowingly on the child's socio-political circumstances. I sympathise with the view that film does not have to answer questions, and I respect and even sometimes adhere to a school of film-viewing that seeks sensory pleasure in film, a way to experience visual and sonic joy through the beauty of pictures. Many films this year even gave me that, from the glitchiness of Bertrand Bonello's Nocturama to the popping colour schemes of Leonor Serraille's Jeune Femme.  But I hope too for greater awareness in films, more willingness to fight, to include, and to query.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

I'm A Loser Baby (So Why Don't You Kill Me)

Once, on a beach in Brighton a few years ago, to tease me, my friends started adding up all the money I have wasted over my lifelong career as a loser-of-things, breaker-of-things, forgetter-of-things. I've lost cash, for instance by putting it down in a shop while I packed my things, and then leaving it there; or simply by losing my wallet (we'll estimate my losses of wallets at a conservative ten, with an average of, say, 11 pounds in them each time = £110). I've lost bank cards. I've lost or broken my mobile phone at least eight times: let's estimate a minimum of £50 to replace an insured phone, over £100 to replace a non-insured phone. I've lost clothes; keys to my house (£10 for every new set of keys I've had to have made = £100); train tickets, passports, bills, books, CDs, a laptop, an iPod.

Factoring in bills I have forgotten to pay, which have then accrued interest over a number of years, and other miscellaneous objects, what my friends had begun as a lighthearted moment of bullying became a devastating itemisation of thousands of pounds' worth of fuck-ups; a veritable assassination of my character as an inept, compulsive financial self-harmer. I stopped laughing about half-way through the exercise. Since then I have decided to turn my life around, but totally failed to do so and continued to fuck myself in the eye.

How stupid have you ever been? Maybe you've locked yourself out of your house once or twice. I've locked myself out of my house at least twenty times. I've locked myself in my house once. I've locked myself out of the house and my housemate in the house once. I've locked myself in my bedroom once. I've locked myself in my stairwell once, for a period of three hours - without: a phone or anything to read; with: a full bladder. On at least seven occasions, at five different addresses, I've had to break into my own home, usually by climbing up a drainpipe at night and shimmying along a ledge before reaching my window and levering it up with my fingertips from the outside. (One of the flats I lived in was mercifully easy to get into from the outside, by climbing on top of a bin and hoiking yourself up onto the balcony by the railings) When breaking into your own home in broad daylight, it's best to notify the neighbours that you're about to do it. "Hiya! Hey, yeah, it's me, from next door - I think you've seen me going into that house a few times? Yeah, you know me. Phew! Yeah, so, just to say, I'm about to climb up the outside of my house right now, due warning!"

I've got on the wrong train at least four times, ending up at places up to a hundred miles away from where I was supposed to be going. I've missed flights, buses, taxis, concerts. The list is quite possibly endless! I've seen a bank card through to its expiry date just once in my adult life; by contrast I've lost a new bank card within the space of a week at least three times. My record for losing a new bank card is 33 hours (still breaking records in 2017!!). I once broke my phone three times in one month (smash; toilet; pint). Once, in the spring of 1994, I lost one denim jacket a month for three months. I've left my coat on a train four times. Here are some everyday things that you may own but which I, Caspar Salmon, can never own: a watch; an umbrella; sunglasses.

How did I get like this? Is there a way to change? My propensity to lose, break or forget everything I come into contact with causes me extraordinary anguish on an almost daily basis. Figure this: I suffer, as everyone does, the cold-running of blood around my body when I realise I have ballsed something up, which will ruin my day or week and cost me in time and money; this nervous feeling sits in my frame for hours. This is routine and commonplace (but I experience it more than other people). What makes me different is the anguish caused by never being certain that I haven't forgotten something. It's a constant, very real possibility, at every hour of my day, that I have omitted to do something that will screw me over in a couple of hours. Even if I haven't locked myself out of my home, there is always the chance that I might have. I can never, but never, be sure that I've done everything right. This causes me to be on edge quite a lot of the time, and almost certainly compounds my errors.

I want to change, although I'm reluctant to expend effort on taking meaningful steps to do so, such as by going on a mindfulness course. I also entertain a very slim, ridiculous apprehension that part of what makes me who I am is contained in this propensity to lose stuff; that if I were to educate myself out of it, I would somehow lose my originality, my quiddity, what makes me liked by people. My fuck-uppery might be to my character as Samson's hair was to his strength. I might lose all my loopiness, my humour; my life might be depleted by want of struggle, by failing to meet and engage with the good people of banks, lost-and-found offices, passport services. Perhaps, I sometimes muse,  my losing stuff is karmic penance for my otherwise absurdly charmed life, my wholly unearned good fortune.

I don't know exactly when it all began - in school, certainly, when I almost never had the right pens, exercise books, sports equipment or bus ticket to get home with at the end of day, leading me to resort to begging from friends. It seems to have become worse over the last few years, perhaps as a response to my inevitable accumulation of responsibilities as I get older: I believe that having to concentrate on my children has, hilariously, led me to bollocks up other aspects of my life concomitantly. Remember to have nappies in the house for when my child comes to stay? Fine. But this will be balanced out by a huge whoopsie in the days to come. The positive and negative columns have to even out. If I am mindful to pack all of my kid's clothes and all of mine and get us on a train on time, and not leave him on it or lock him in a toilet, I can be certain that I will throw away a stack of old letters containing an urgent missive from HMRC in the coming week. Om shanti om.

There is no smart lesson to this. I haven't learned anything, I cannot make it stop; I don't believe that I'm able to get better. I'm sort of able to make peace with my idiocy, my fallibility; kind of apt to cope with the constant disruptions to the steadiness of my life. But after a while, to those who know you best, mining your pathologies for laughs starts to wear thin, and they see behind the gauze, to the depleted being you are. My problem is not that I can't stop losing things, that my quotidian life is a shambles; it's more that I've become less certain how to spin it.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Two moments

I’ve only wanted to stop living twice. In between these times, my life has seemed worthwhile, beautiful even, comfortable often too. But on those two occasions everything in my mind went so dark—I entered such a whorl of clashing thoughts that clanged together and pained me—that I didn’t know my existence properly, and hoped for it to end.

In my twenties one night when I had been crying in my bedroom for hours, I sat up with a strange resolution, and walked in a sort of stupor into the kitchen. So many tears had dried around my eyes, which ached as I wiped the last few away. I looked in a cupboard and found some painkillers, and carried them over to the kitchen table with a glass of water. I got a piece of paper and a pen and laid them out ceremonially.

It’s difficult now, such an upheaval, to try and get my mind back into the state that I was in; so hard to stand next to that person sitting alone at 4 a.m., and ask him what he was thinking. I know that I found it almost impossible, then, to conceive of ways to live a good life, a fruitful life. I couldn’t see what a future might look like for me, besides carrying on in the way I had, making do. I felt unloved and untouched. I was being driven gently mad by my own unrequited impulsions.

I stared at my blank piece of paper for a long time, willing thoughts to turn to words. I wanted to explain to my friends, asleep in their rooms nearby, that I could not cope. But all the words I could think of died out: the weight of everything was so great, and words were so fragile, that I struggled to write at all. I wrote: “I”, and stopped. This seemed, in itself, a tremendous effort, and I was already exhausted. I added: “am”. I am. Eventually I completed it: “I am so sorry” – and I left it at that. I was certainly sorry; nothing here was a lie, and nothing had been under- or overstated. I couldn’t write anything more without saying everything, without going way back, and having to tear such a chasm in myself that I couldn’t bear it.

I picked up the handful of pills, and took a sip of water. By now all my actions were zombie-like, undertaken in a type of trance. I stared again, at the pills this time, and stared past them, focusing my eyes further on so that they blurred in my view. I was thinking that I didn’t want to exist, but I was so filled with fear about what not-life might be like. All I had ever known, gone forever - and replaced with nothing. I wasn’t in love with the great big absence of anything, didn’t feel the call of nothingness: I was merely so tired and defeated by the accumulation of continuing stuff. Why couldn’t there be a middle ground between all-encompassing nothing, and this great big mass of everything that was life? If life could be somehow less, that would have suited me.

Meanwhile my arse was starting to go numb and I was cold. I was sitting there in a t-shirt and pants, and the straw in the chair’s upholstery was beginning to dig into my thighs, creating itchy indentations in my flesh. I shivered, and considered that I wasn’t going to do anything tonight. I couldn’t imagine how it would happen. I didn’t want my friends to come in and find my body. I didn’t want, either, to swallow some pills and then charge into their bedroom, burbling, “I’ve taken some pills, this is one of those cry-for-help ones, don’t worry, but let’s phone 999 to be safe.” Would my painkillers even do anything, or were they merely the sort that might just give you cramps and occasion a weary stomach-pumping from a fed-up A&E nurse?

Because I couldn’t work out how to do it; because I still had reason and a sense of humour; because my bum ached and I was longing for sleep; because I lacked the overpowering need for death and the guts to make the leap – I packed my things up and went back to bed. I slept deeply. In the morning, I came in to the kitchen to find my friends, whom I loved so much, getting breakfast things together, singing songs, busying themselves. I sat back at the same seat at the table and talked with them, and out of the corner of my eye, a little further away, on the floor, I spotted a piece of folded-up paper: “I’m—”. In a panic, I couldn’t work out how the note had ended up there, and didn’t know if anyone had seen it, and I couldn’t just walk over to it and pick it up and bin it without drawing attention to myself. I bided my time; no-one walked near it; I saw my moment and went and swept it up and threw it away. It was a Sunday, and sun streamed through the windows.


Some years later—a couple of years ago—I took a day off work and went to Broadstairs. It was early Spring, and I had spent all of Autumn and Winter without seeing the sea. The sea has always made me feel at peace. I love looking at it, hearing it, being in it. There’s a literature of homosexuality that calls on swimming as a motif: maybe the sense of being a part of the world that you find inside water is something that queers can recognise. At any rate I felt the need to see - Americans would call it ‘the ocean’, but of course it’s just a minor stretch of water between here and France.
As I travelled to the seaside I listened to Sufjan Stevens – his album Carrie & Lowell. Here are some lyrics from his song, ‘The Only Thing’: “The only thing that keeps me from cutting my arm/Cross-hatch, warm bath, Holiday Inn after dark”. Here are some lyrics from his song ‘Fourth of July’: “We’re all going to die. We’re all going to die. We’re all going to die. We’re all going to die.”
I arrived in Broadstairs, the quaint seaside town in the heart of Brexit-voting Britain, feeling overcome with misery. Stevens’ music doesn’t always do this to me: it’s so full of beauty and delicacy, so lit from within by an otherworldly sort of grace, that on the contrary it always fires up my spirits. But on this day, as I made my way down the tall steps to the shore, it had made me feel sad, and alone.

My plan was to walk from Broadstairs to Margate along the sea. I had done a walk the year before with a friend, along clifftops from Whitby to Scarborough, and the sight of the sea on our side as we ambled, gleaming in the sun and stretching off to a silver horizon so far away that it began to curve, had filled me with joy. Today the air was cold, the sea was white, and small waves lapped lackadaisically over pale sand. I began my trudge along the coast, which became hilariously sadder as the trip progressed. At first the walk weaved by the sea, along the prom, and then led off up steps, past vulgar residential houses, joined a main road, jerked back towards the sea and then went inland again. I walked past a hoarding for a Conservative MP, in a field of cauliflowers. The path led back towards the sea again, down sandy, sparsely-grassed steps to an empty car park that you could imagine, in the summer, full of family cars, with children getting buckets and spades out of car-boots, mums carrying towels and suntan lotion; dads with jumpers around their neck. There were dormant shacks that in high season would sell beachballs, with wording on their sides advertising surfboards or ice-cream. The tide had gone out some way by now, leaving a sodden shore behind on which there were fresh jeep tracks. I walked here, deciding finally to abandon the prescribed coastal walk in favour of doing the last part on the beach itself. I walked past old bits of disused seaside Victoriana and crumbled cliff-edges. Sometimes a dog-walker strode past. There were graffiti on the sea walls, about people who loved one another at the time of writing.

There’s something so sad about the sea in England, which stems from a strange mis-selling of it as a place of enormous jollity. In summer it can be fun, I suppose: you could lark about in the waves, make castles, play leap-frog. But even then a lot of compromising is required to make it work: people malleting in windbreakers; donkey-rides brought in to liven up the blowy concourse; fish and chips on the pebbles as a treat. The seaside in Britain can be so hostile that “It’s bracing!” is a famous marketing line coined for it. But the sea isn’t cheery, and it isn’t naughty or saucy: in Britain the sea is all around, and it is what keeps us from other people; it’s cold and mysterious, it can be truly beautiful; in parts it is magnificent, tempestuous, frightening; it can be soothing, can delight. In France, where some of the coast is like the sea in Britain, at least the stretch from the north down to Brittany, they don’t pretend that the sea is a pure gas. The sea there is wild and strange, there are beaches. It’s marketed as glamorous sometimes, or health-giving. In part this may be because the working classes in France have often been kept away from the seaside, in favour of the ruling classes who take it easy in Le Touquet or Etretat – so there was never that push to Pontins it up. In part it’s because there is genuinely warm and inviting coast in France that you can get to if you just go a bit further south. So the sea doesn’t feel so misrepresented there, at least.

Here in England, somewhere between Broadstairs and Margate, staring out wanly at a milky sea in an unpeopled cove, I suddenly thought of taking my shoes off and wading out into it. Nobody was around to prevent or notice me.

My thoughts were so different this time. Before I had felt such a turmoil: here it was a crush, a great weighing down on me. Again it felt like an inability to cope, but this time it was a continuation of a general incapacity to manage certain aspects of my life, rather than a culmination of desperate thoughts. My misery felt logically arrived at, which was all the more frightening to me. How do you tell people that you find life very difficult to manage? My problem is so obviously twatty and rarefied that it hardly bears voicing: that I find it hard to cope with the cruelty and mundanity of the world. I see nastiness and banality, not everywhere, but increasingly frequently, and it tears into me. It’s strange how the two things exist alongside one another: the viciousness of people, and the callous unthinkingness of others, allowing it. Is there any way to say that the want of novelty and beauty in the world is devastating to you, and makes you wish to give up, without sounding too Blanche Dubois meets Oscar Wilde? No? Fine, I accept that. But sometimes, and I know it is preposterous, a raised voice will compound a misused word I’ve read in an article, which, added to the horrors I’ve heard in the news, will make me feel so abjectly low that I cannot continue, that I must leave my desk at work to cry in the toilets.

Added to this, I experience a low-key, constant panic when trying to lead a normal life. I’m always petrified I have forgotten something, which I often have: my keys, someone’s birthday, my passport. The troubles that these losses cause in my life, leading me to lose money, time, people’s trust, and my goddamn mind, exert an aggregated toll on my nerves. I couldn’t—can’t—work out how to tell people, to the extent that I should, that I am incapable, that everyday life sometimes feels completely unmanageable.

I gazed at the sea. I did want to stop being. I had the desperate and untrue thought that if I ceased to be, nobody would truly miss me. I had the true thought that my existence was probably quite immaterial to the good of the world. I felt, then, unneeded. I could see that I was loved, but I couldn’t think of one person who would be irrevocably torn by my going; it seemed to me that my friends and family would, on balance, be able to get by. Other things I brought to the world—my writing; my physical body out there in the city, decked in the colours I’ve picked out; my voice and my jokes—were just so much decoration.

Today at the sea I didn’t wholly want to end my life for ever; again I wasn’t drawn, as I think you must be in order to take that final step, by a tempting call from nothingness. But I did so want to interrupt my life for a while. I would have been extremely interested in causing my life to go on hold for a couple of days, or a month ideally, while I indulged in the luxury of not having to do: not having to feed or clothe my body, or get some sleep, or remember to wash my clothes, or work, work, work at life and all its menial necessities.

I looked at the sea a little longer. Finally a woman walking a small dog came past, and I melodramatically imagined her as the person who saw the last of me, my head bobbing under. I turned and walked along the shore. At Margate, before catching my train back to London, I wandered along the sea, and looked at a grotesque building looming darkly in the distance - and I knew that if I took a photo of it and posted it online, remarking on its hideousness so near the sea, someone would eventually crop up to tell me that it was, in fact, a masterpiece of Brutalism.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

It Had To Happen: Thoughts on NOCTURAMA

Nocturama, Bertrand Bonello's potent and wildly adventurous drama about a group of young people who orchestrate a series of attacks in Paris, has ended up on Netflix following a predictably fraught battle to be released anywhere at all. It is one of the great films of the year, raising and answering questions touched on by current events and other films of 2017; its politics are disquieting in their vamping nihilism, yet they also seem to chime with the state of the world around us. How does the film fit in the world as we see it today? I'd like to compare it to a few other films in order to tease out its singularity of purpose.

Nocturama is a film of French youth - and it is a film about French youth and violence, which aligns it thematically with Celine Sciamma's Girlhood (2014) and Houda Benyamina's Divines (2016), as well as Laurent Cantet's equally prescient and lithe The Workshop (2017). All four films address youth as a terrain of political displacement, showing characters who feel deracinated from their surroundings, who turn to violence or crime as a relief from this disconnection. Cahiers du Cinema criticised Girlhood and Divines as films whose politics exalt money and consumerism, and decried the way the films saw no alternative for their characters than petty crime, showing the new generation in France as greedy and politically zero. Girlhood imagined a dream scenario for its bold, black heroines, painting them as goddesses in the film's most visually stunning episode, as they dance to Rihanna in a luxury hotel: is this really a patronising view of youth, cornering these young women in a thin consumerist dream, or is it actually a beautiful and upliftingly positive depiction of black female camaraderie, seeing the girls as they can imagine themselves to be? I would tend to side with the latter interpretation, even if I agree that Sciamma's film errs on the bleak side, with elements of manipulation in its narrative.

Nocturama similarly holes its protagonists up in a deluxe boutique, and as with the hotel scene in Girlhood, part of its strange appeal comes from probing the odd psychological disconnect between its fleshed out characters and the confected luxury of their surroundings. The clash of the worlds, in both films, is depicted with a buzzing, hypnotic fervour, finding something heady in the conflict, and tacitly siding with youth through visual and musical choices, which displace the surroundings and render them alien. But where the Diamonds in the Sky sequence in Girlhood clearly is aspirational, in Nocturama the store where the young terrorists shack up after their crimes feels only alien and strange. The film accumulates instances and visual cues that puncture the opulence of the clothes and goods on display: this surfeit renders the riches completely banal, and transforms the shop into nothing but a big theatre of excess, a souped up dressing-up box. The lives of people who can afford these things are unimaginable: they don't enter the film's compass, and they are satirised by being so artlessly played with. For instance, when one of the kids uses some of the shop's top-notch make-up, a couture outfit and a wig to execute a lipsync of I Did It My Way, the things used are not even remarked upon, as they are meshed totally into performance, and therefore owned and subverted by a youth that is only interested in how these things can be used. (Bonello brilliantly cuts between the performance of the song and the quiet, butchered world outside, which undercuts the excess but also shows how dislocated the young people are.) Similarly, the outsize televisions on display are only of interest for what they can do, not for what they represent: the youths use them to find out that the police are onto them, and that their hours are certainly numbered. 

In this, the claustrophobic feel of the film and its busy visual treatment echo certain aspects of Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk (2017). Furthermore, both movies depoliticise their heavily political scenarios, in ways that intersect but are ultimately different. For both films, the avoidance of political specificity positions the youths at their heart as pawns, or puppets. The young men dodging bombs and hoping for evacuation from Dunkirk are barely aware of the series of political events that dictated the situation: Nolan's characters mention "the enemy" most of the time, and Germany only a couple of times; Hitler never. This sense of the boys being unwitting actors in a skirmish that is completely beyond them is underlined at the end when Alex, played by Harry Styles, worn out and shell-shocked, mumblingly reads the news in the paper. Shorn of Churchill's grandiloquence, the reading of the events seems oddly dim and untethered to reality. Nolan, I would argue, goes too far in this exercise, since the events of Dunkirk and the whole WW2 effort were actually motivated by a quite dramatic exercise in propaganda: the moral imperative to defeat the Hun was used as so much leverage to spur British activity and nationalism. 

Nocturama also, in a much weirder way, sees its protagonists as pawns, particularly in an oddly oneiric sequence in which David (Finnegan Oldfield), the gang's de facto leader, adventures into a ghostlike Paris, and meets a young woman on a bicycle. He asks her about the day's events, about what is going on, hoping to hear what an ordinary person's take might be on the violent attacks he and his friends have committed earlier in the day. Extraordinarily, the young woman seems unfazed by the atrocities, and even expresses a belief that they 'had to happen'. "It had to happen. Now it's happened", she says, and pushes off on her bike into the night. Why did 'it' - a violent attack on Paris - 'have' to happen? In Bonello's world, the events are weirdly pre-ordained and the young people are merely vectors of this violence: this reading is certainly supported by the film's virtuoso opening scenes, which follow the young men and women as they prepare, with a cold determination, to unleash their brutality on an unwitting world. I would argue that these characters barely have any agency in Bonello's film: they are caught up in cataclysmic forces that are beyond their scope. 

Indeed, what are the young people even protesting here? What is the object of their action? Bonello never states his case, beyond a glancing reference in conversation between two young men of Arabic extraction to the notion of attaining paradise as a reward for violence. But jihad is only alluded to, never pinpointed as a motivating factor, and in fact many of the protagonists here are white, well to do, and integrated. How can Bonello purge his film of the very particular motivations behind violent terrorist attacks, which in France over the last couple of years have been specifically attributed to an Islamist desire for retribution, and which have been often associated with ISIS? Bonello's events belong almost to the category of fantasy, which creates an intensely disquieting sensation when married to the film's hubbub of activity, its astonishing plastic beauty, and its strange vision of young people performing. Doesn't this add up to a bleakly nihilistic worldview, in which society does not exist? 

Bonello is cannier than this, surely. First, he creates a series of situations in which we are clear that there exists between these people a sense of camaraderie and unity. He exalts their beauty, and finds in many of his characters a desire for connection, for bodily communion; in David there is a soulful desire to protect his girlfriend (Laure Valentinelli); Yacine (Hamza Meziani) longs to be seen and touched; Mika (Jamil McCraven) is eaten up with worry for his peers. Perhaps there is a sense in these characters of a desire for beauty, for isolation from the ugliness of the world outside; for togetherness in their actions. Secondly, the young people here are shown as victims, too, of a state - their brutal demise in the film's closing shoot-out, filmed with a savage precision in refracted time, so that the events repeat and repeat, speaks of a generation that is oddly hopeless and lacking in true agency. They have never imagined a future for themselves; that future does not, in any case, exist.

This vision of a youth so cruelly wanting in agency, that is resigned to an absent future; that performs its audacity while shielding itself from reality, is certainly bleak, and probably nihilistic - but there is also a poetry to Bonello's film, a savage grace, that somehow redeems this stance, bestowing sweetness, casting forth beauty, drawing out wonder, showing all the possibilities that are to remain so miserably untapped.