Saturday, July 20, 2019

On CATS and the cat, in 1992

I was 11 going on 12 when it became my misfortune to have heard a song from the musical 'Cats'. My sister had gone on a school trip to England with her English teacher (who was our mother), and the class had been taken to see Cats on the last night. When I had been on the same trip the year before, we had watched Me and My Girl, an altogether more suitable entertainment, but the show had since closed and, to her dismay, my mum had had to fall back on the Andrew Lloyd Webber show.  The class loved it, because they were silly children who knew nothing about anything, and my sister and her best friend spent the next few weeks singing the infuriatingly awful songs from the show around the house.

Back then, in pre-internet days, and because my sister hadn't bought the CD, my only knowledge of the show had come through comments I picked up, and my sister's rendition of the songs. It's a... whole show... about cats? And the actors are all dressed up... as cats? And, sorry, the songs are adapted from T.S. Eliot poems... about cats? Everything about this mess was confusing, and even as a young boy I was shocked by the existence of something so trashy-sounding, knowing that it was my duty to look down on such tawdry junk. My father said something to the effect that Andrew Lloyd Webber was a twat, and my mother would have said something along the lines of, "Well, the play was absolute drivel, complete rubbish of course, but I couldn't get tickets for anything else." And my sister and her friend, even though they had enjoyed the performance, sang the songs sort of satirically, as if knowing that they were appalling: they would drag out the second syllable on "McAvity" and sing it flat on purpose to highlight the thin melody, or sing "Skimbleshanks" in a theatrical way designed to annoy. And I was sort of alarmed to think of a play that had grown-ups in it, playing cats called things like 'the Rum Tum Tugger', and couldn't even begin to imagine how this was a real theatrical production. Within a week I knew at least four of the songs from this show I hadn't seen and had no desire to see, off by heart.

We lived in a small flat back then, a cramped place where I shared a bedroom with my brother, and where our own cat, who had always had somewhat frangible nerves, had begun to show signs of having a breakdown fairly early on. We had moved from a house with a garden to this apartment three floors up, and the cat would occasionally go completely pyschotic from being cooped up, and tear around the flat, skidding into carpets and leaping about the place like a dervish. She always seemed to be standing just behind you at any given moment, perhaps during a phonecall, or while you were eating cereal, so that when you stepped back you would tread on her tail and she would emit a blood-curdling yowl. Or she would sit under a chair and try to scratch your feet, or simply disappear for a few days. When you opened a door for her she would make a pert little sound, a patronising kind of BBC period-drama noise of disapprobation when passing through, which sounded very much like a feline version of "about fucking time."

She was a somewhat sour and unloving cat, a beautiful tortoiseshell creature who was rather contemptuous - when my friends came to stay they would unfailingly remark what a cunt the cat was. I had a fractious relationship with her, being by some distance the least favourite of the five people she lived with and disdained - and I suppose I was not especially kind to her. At times she would condescend to sit on me, if nobody else was available, and my whole body always tensed up as she padded about on my legs, testing the territory, trying to find the most comfortable sitting position - knowing that her claws would come out to help her steady herself if I moved, sinking into my thighs or dick. At such times I would shove her off me, and she looked offended but not at all surprised at such low behaviour from the vermin she was forced to share time with. On car journeys to Normandy at weekends, we initially allowed her to roam about, and she would dig her claws in on sharp bends, or quietly pounce on you from the boot.

The cat was supposed to be called Lucy, but she went by the name 'pussy' most frequently in our household. My father had for some reason adopted an ear-splitting shriek of "PUSSY" at times when he was calling for her to be fed - a sort of very loud, high-pitched scream that leapt out of nowhere with its startling plosive, taking you by surprise. I was always of a rather nervous disposition, and would leap in the air with fear if, while I was reading peacefully in the sitting-room, my father should suddenly shout "PUSSY" near me. The cat would come haring along in the flat for her food - and this became the common cry to get her to arrive. In Normandy at the end of weekends, when we couldn't find her to get back in the car and return to Paris, as night fell and we began to dread the long drive home, we would all clang bowls with spoons and shout "PUSSY" outside the house in the dark until she contemptuously strolled back, and someone then had to catch her and bundle her in. Looking back, I can't say for a fact that my father's violent daily screams for pussy were responsible for turning me gay, but it seems highly likely.

We lived in times - and a country, France - where there was wasn't a great deal of respect for animals, and people generally smacked them and got them to do stupid shit the whole time, or mistreated them. The very idea of "animal rights" was viewed with scorn and hilarity, not least by me. A young girl in my class had cut her cat's whiskers once, just to see - an act of horrendous cruelty, when I recall it now - and the cat had gone totally loopy, losing all its spatial awareness and literally walking into walls. Another schoolfriend had once famously held his cat above a classmate sitting on a sofa, and squeezed a tiny shit out of the animal onto him.

In our village in Normandy, a woman called Madame Benard, who had lived in our house just before my parents bought it, was a famous cat-lady - a sullen scarecrow of a woman, who was said to have killed some of her unwanted kittens by banging their heads against a barn wall. My sister and I, bored senseless because we didn't have a TV in the countryside, used to adapt nursery rhymes:

Ding-dong-dell, pussy's in the well
Who put her there? Madame Benard. 

Pussycat, pussycat, where have you been?
I went up to London to visit the queen
But unfortunately I didn't get far
Because an old lady ran me over with her car

Madame Benard's husband died not very long after we had bought the house that the Benards had been renting, and he was buried in the churchyard at the end of our garden. "Il surveille sa maison," Madame Benard told my parents, darkly.

In later years, when the internet arrived and I moved to Britain for university, it turned out that more people than three in the world had seen Cats, and it was astonishing to look it up, or talk about the show, and discover that this shit was famous, beloved even. Two university friends told me that Sarah Brightman had said Andrew Lloyd Webber had an enormous dick - a horrifying thought. At the end of phone-calls home to my parents in the evening, when they were both a little sozzled after dinner, my father would say, "Pussy wants to say goodnight", and there was a pregnant pause while he put the phone down and went to grab the cat, and eventually a muffled sound of the receiver being picked up once again, and the sounds of a light scuffle, followed by another pause as my dad was evidently giving the cat a bit of a squish, and then eventually there would be a terse "mrow" down the line, and another pause, and then my dad back at the phone again: "Did you get that? The cat said goodbye", and my mum would be laughing in the background.

Our cat died a horrific death while I was away at university. She simply went missing one day, and nobody thought too much of it. But my mum opened up our cellar several years later - a room we didn't use at all - and found a rotting old cat skeleton in there - and said, "Oh god, I've just seen there's a horrible old dead cat in the cellar!", and we all said, "Mum... that's probably the cat! Pussy!" I don't know how or when she had got trapped in there and died, but it seemed in retrospect a miserable, terrible end for the poor animal. I still have no real affection for cats - they live their lives, I mine - but look back with a slight sadness on this hard-to-love animal who was in our house for so long. My parents have a new cat now, a far more amenable creature, but perhaps a little more shallow, a bit less interesting - I have a grudging respect now for Pussy, that distant and cantankerous animal who never compromised, who never gave in, who never courted sympathy.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

A five star, spoiler-free review of AVENGERS ENDGAME, which I haven't seen

For all that the Marvel Universe has provided us with intensely cinematic moments over the years (who can forget Captain America single-handedly pulling a helicopter back down to ground, or the screwball chemistry between Iron Man and Pepper Potts?), the franchise has come to resemble nothing so much as a rollercoaster ride. And what a ride it has been. Now, with Endgame, as the carriage trundles along the tracks towards its final destination, don't expect any decrease of pace, but on the contrary loop-the-loops and precipitous drops galore. Whoosh!

The last time we saw the Avengers, at the end of Infinity War, there were a number of complications that the gang faced, in a variety of ways. Fans of the MCU will recall that Thanos (Josh Brolin, having the time of his life) had set about his wicked business of attacking the Avengers, in a manner which we'll skate over here, save to say that it left the gang in a certain state at the end of the film. Who, if any of them, survived, and what was to be done in terms of countering the villain, was very much up in the air. Talk about a cliffhanger.

Endgame picks up pretty much where its predecessor left off - that is, in a state of high drama. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr., bringing his usual star quality to a role that now feels as familiar as a beloved pair of shoes) and the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, as charming and ironic as ever) are among those who, it's safe to say, survived whatever skirmish the previous film had set in motion. Now they, and members of the crew including Black Widow, Thor, and the Jeremy Renner one, must gather together once more to mount a combined resistance to Thanos.

Much of the films' attraction has rested on the chemistry and derring-do that the stars bring to their roles. The franchise has represented nothing so much as an assertion of good, old-fashioned star quality, with stunning and talented celebrities inhabiting their characters with a great deal of charisma. In contrast to DC, the Marvel imprimatur has always been about lightness of touch, bringing to mind the swashbuckle of Errol Flynn and the irony of 007. Endgame manages to synthesise all of these elements marvellously, providing fans with all the bravado and insouciant repartee they could possibly ask for. It would spoil the joke to repeat it here, but Thor's quip as he prepares to face an assailant whose identity it would be criminal to reveal, had the audience screaming. Elsewhere, there are welcome returns for some familiar faces, and blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameos from some fan favourites, including one appearance by somebody most unexpected. Finally, new recruit Captain Marvel (Oscar-winner Brie Larson) brings a welcome acidity to proceedings, creating a sensational frisson with one of the other Avengers, in scenes that will delight new converts to the series.

This isn't to say that the film trades only in lightness, and of course MCU adepts will know that the franchise is also at its best when it leans heavily into the sturm-und-drang of its apocalyptic set-up. Part of the Avengers' appeal has always been that they realise the enormity of their calling - which invests proceedings here with requisite seriousness. One unexpected reunion finds a superhero showing unsuspected vulnerability, which audiences may not have been prepared for by past films. Early reports that this film would feature the permanent death of one or several protagonists cannot be confirmed, but suffice to say that tissues will be in short supply by the film's ending. And what an ending it is - the narrative is both satisfyingly concluded, and open to further adventures by the film's endpoint, in a way that is bound to please everybody.

Of course, beyond the unexpectedly emotional narrative arc, the films have always been celebrated for the whizz-bang bravura of their action setpieces, and Endgame is no exception. The Russo Brothers once more juggle a number of competing superheroes (including Ant-Man, reprised by the perennially puckish Paul Rudd) in some breathtaking battle sequences that reach a peak of excitement towards the latter stages of the film. One early battle is particularly thrilling, with several Avengers all converging on the scene of action and bringing their particular powers to bear on the fight. As the skirmishes reach ever higher pitches of intensity, and the magnitude of each battle amplifies, so the directors are able to expand their vision to include more and more combatants, with Avengers combining in declensions that have seldom been seen before.

Whether the franchise has reached its conclusion with Endgame, or whether the carriage has merely acceded to a peak whence it will hurtle around the rollercoaster with even more accumulated speed, is left deliciously open at the end of this latest iteration. MCU fans are in for a treat.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Death, Religion and the Quest for Goodness: on After Life and Fleabag

Television comedies didn't use to have much truck with altruism. Generally speaking we would watch awful people doing terrible things, and there was a certain catharsis to be found in either cheering them on or witnessing their failure - and this went for Basil Fawlty as much as for Larry David, Homer Simpson, the Bluths from Arrested Development or Nighty Night's Jill Tyrrell. In Britain this tendency appeared blunter, but there was a considerable vein of misanthropy in US television as well. But in recent times we've had a number of programmes chewing on the idea of human kindness, where the comedy of misbehaviour or or social anxiety is counterbalanced by ideas of caring for others and making our lives on earth worthwhile. Why? Why now?

Michael Schur's The Good Place was the first off the mark, making ideas of human goodness central to its very conceit. In the show, we follow four supposedly bad people (note that Schur can't actually bring himself to write terrible humans, merely un-good ones with a few egotistical kinks) who find themselves in a hell dressed up as heaven, all the better to be tortured by their feelings of inadequacy. The four of them nevertheless undertake to study philosophy with a view to bettering themselves, and this quest to become truly good has become the show's defining narrative. A crucial aspect of the programme is that the fact of having died forces the four of them to rethink their lives on earth.

This element is present in spades in Russian Doll, the Netflix show starring and co-written by Natasha Lyonne, in which Nadia and Alan, two souls adrift in New York, keep dying and being reborn over and over again, forcing them to reassess their existence. Finally realising their duty to protect and care for each other, the pair are given a new lease of life in the last episodes, and discover a purpose that had been missing. The programme's bleakness eventually takes on a pulsating fervour not unlike the ecstasy of the last few scenes of It's A Wonderful Life, when everything that had seemed quotidian or even sub-par becomes bathed in all the more wonder for it having been so nearly extinguished. Russian Doll achieves this without ever succumbing to commonplaces or cutesiness.

Now we have two further programmes adventuring onto this terrain, but this time British shows, with varying degrees of acid to offset the self-actualisation. In both Fleabag and After Life, an atheist protagonist comes face to face with the meaninglessness of existence, and struggles to find reasons to continue. This crisis prompts, in Ricky Gervais's weirdly unsuccessful but still somehow compulsive After Life, a decision to become a good person. What's notable in the first few episodes of Gervais's programme, is the way that Gervais gifts himself the opportunity to vent his misanthropic spleen: playing Tony, whose wife has died of breast cancer, permits him to unleash all manner of spew, predominantly against fat people but also bores, religion, and Twitter. (Gervais is so hungry to have a pop at Twitter that he even gives other characters dialogue that criticises it - something which rings hollow) This process is reminiscent to me of the way Quentin Tarantino has recently taken to writing atrocities into his films that justify the bloodthirst for revenge that he has always depicted: the Holocaust, and slavery, licence him to reach new levels of violence. Similarly, Gervais needs something as definitive as the death of a loved one to get away with the bile that he has now been regurgitating for a while. What's interesting about the show is its utter bleakness and misery - including the sheer bleakness of Gervais's hate. This darkness becomes close to pure nihilism - and it's unclear at the finish whether Gervais has much of a worldview with which to replace it. In the end, Tony's change of heart doesn't seem to stem from any great realisation about his purpose, but merely comforts Tony/Gervais in his rightness about everything.

An interesting facet of Fleabag is that Phoebe Waller-Bridge writes doubt into her character: not for her any great certainties about the world, as Tony displays in After Life when Gervais crowbars in a whole scene where Tony lectures his colleagues about the idiocy of religion. On the contrary, the latest episode of Fleabag sees Waller-Bridge's forlorn character seemingly attracted by the guidance that faith can bring. In the programme, the protagonist is trying to make sense of two deaths, those of her mother and of her best friend, Boo - the latter of which she blames herself for. In series 1 of Fleabag, this feeling of culpability, and of being unmoored, prompted a great deal of acting out, as it does in After Life. It's notable here how gendered these behaviours are in both characters: in After Life, Tony's misbehaviour is mostly tolerated, and takes the form of belittling others, as well as suicidal ideation. In Fleabag, Waller-Bridge's character mistreats others but mostly harms herself, and her acting out is often sexual in form; this prompts other people to feel concerned for her, as if she were stepping out of her allotted role.

The second series of Fleabag seems to be opening out its initial premise, to give the protagonist a shot at goodness. We've already seen her help out her sister, Claire, in the first episode, and since then we have seen her paired with a priest who seems to be both an angel and a devil on her shoulder. In his sober form he offers the bonds of kinship (he is the only character who can hear her fourth wall breaks, and even, in a shiver-inducing moment in episode 4, gives a look to camera) and kindness; in his drunk self he acts as the ringmaster for the protagonist's dark urges, someone lured in by misspeaking ("well fuck you then") and fucking. In this character, who like the protagonist goes unnamed by all, Waller-Bridge seems to be giving her own heroine a way out and a path towards doom - and this is freighted further by the fact that we know goodness is within reach.

Death comes for us all - and perhaps laughter, the laughter of meanness and subversion, is a way to cheat it for a while. Perhaps, too, we have grown bored of comedies that detach themselves from life and its finality, cocooning themselves in laughter that sustains itself. In Russian Doll, Alan's first death - his suicide - hits us, and makes everything that has gone before, all the parties, the perverts, the lost cats and the drunkenness, seem both mundane and essential. Death finally recasts all our littleness, the comedy of menial existences, into something great, and prompts the question of whether we need, or even want, anymore, to laugh at everything. 

Monday, March 25, 2019

US and them

The end of US, Jordan Peele's gnarly new masterwork, sees him pull off a coup, by panning away from the family at the film's heart, towards a shiver-inducing formation of bodies clothed in orange-red clothes reminiscent of prisoner uniforms, holding hands in a line that stretches to the horizon. A supremely ambiguous shot given the social, racial and identity politics that have preceded it, this finale marks a leap forward for a filmmaker whose previous masterpiece, GET OUT, seemed to close down on itself in the final moments, finding a resolution of sorts and giving its audience a much-needed catharsis. In opening his film out like this, and accepting the inevitable messiness that this implies - Peele allows his movie to swell and sprawl, throwing ideas at the screen almost constantly - Peele gives the full measure of his thinking, giving us a film that asks much more than it answers.

Both GET OUT and US locate horror in the heart of the family. In the former, Chris finds himself a prisoner of a nuclear family whose casual racism is amplified by the film into a wider metaphor of overt, murderous racism, where white supremacy has the shape and feel of a cult and black identity is horrifyingly used by and subsumed into a soulless culture that only feeds itself. US presents another nuclear family (and here Peele is already fooling around with us; it would have been easy for him to at least mix up the kids' genders from one film to the next, so the fact that he has chosen to concentrate on this model feels pointed). The mother, Adelaide or Addy, and her partner and their children, are a black, affluent, middle-class family on holiday together: Peele once again manipulates his socio-cultural signifiers with ease, from pop culture references to markers of class, swiftly etching a tidy picture of a standard, goofy family. But he is already at work undermining the workings of the family, even before the horror of their house invasion by a zombie-like family of doppelgangers. Peele shows family squabbles ostensibly as a way of depicting a standard family, but this also gives us an understanding of a fault line in the family itself, from a teenage daughter who is disconnected, to a son caught in his imaginary world, and parents who communicate poorly.

In taking a knock at the stereotypical image of the family - Peele was brought up by a single white mother, which may be significant here - the director is already having a pop at American society, with its capitalist patterns of inclusion and markers of achievement. He also shows how trauma (Adelaide experienced a horrific shock as a child, when she came face to face with an eerie doppelganger in a hall of mirrors) is choked by the family, since the family unit exists for itself only: Adelaide can hardly talk to her husband about her pain, and her children will likely never know.

In this respect, then, US is merely furthering one of Peele's core concerns. But where US is more risky, and is prepared to get its hands dirty, is by shifting its glance outward, beyond the family, towards wider society. For all the people we see here, the families living their lives, Peele proposes a matching, literal underclass, a cohort of non-citizens who don't see the light of day but whose lives and actions mirror ours in a way that speaks to their misery and abandonment. (I should add at this point that Peele seems to be spinning his own beautiful pop culture web here, by making these figures resemble the creatures from Michael Jackson's Thriller video, which is referenced on a t-shirt in the film. Peele would have been 8 in 1986, the same age as his protagonist, and is clearly enjoying giving a hint of dread to key elements of his childhood)

This idea of an immiserated underbelly, which finally rises and attacks bien-pensant middle class America, making itself seen in that final, devastating shot I described earlier, gives US great heft. Peele refuses any easy interpretations, which is perhaps what makes the film become slightly messy at times in its structure and scenarios - this is because Peele is proposing something radical and gritty, which is a tearing down of class collusion. Nobody among Peele's audience could watch US and feel let off - this time he's coming for black America as well as for white. The attackers are 'us' and 'the US' (and Peele's willingness to be on the nose about this is to be saluted), this is clear: this means that we're all implicated. Peele is tearing at the very fabric of our society, of our bourgeoisie, of what we assume to be our own identity. The way Peele shifts his narrative in the last minutes of his film so that it's impossible to pick a side in this battle with our undernourished 'other' selves, is masterful. His vision of people fighting to maintain their good lives and the misery of others, is equally shrewd.

After watching US I recalled reading Zadie Smith on GET OUT a couple of years ago - a brilliant, considered essay full of admiration for the film, which nevertheless kindly took him to task for what the author deemed a slightly simplistic view of race. I wondered if I had remembered the final words of her essay correctly, because if so, it would mean that in her criticisms of Peele's first film she was already anticipating what he would do with US. I returned home and looked up the article (you can read it in full here), and got shivers up my spine. Here is the conclusion of her piece:

"Get Out—as evidenced by its huge box office—is the right movie for this moment. It is the opposite of post-black or postracial. It reveals race as the fundamental American lens through which everything is seen. That part, to my mind, is right on the money. But the “us” and “them”? That’s a cheaper gag. Whether they like it or not, Americans are one people. (And the binary of black and white is only one part of this nation’s infinitely variegated racial composition.) Lobotomies are the cleanest cut; real life is messier. I can’t wait for Peele—with his abundant gifts, black-nerd smarts, comprehensive cinematic fandom, and complex personal experience—to go deeper in, and out the other side."

Did Peele also read Smith two years ago? Right down to the 'us' of her last paragraph and his film's title, he is doing in his churning, furious, funny movie exactly what she called for in her cool, lucid essay. US is the work of someone going deeper - he digs right under what we thought were our solid roots - and coming out, to the blaring sounds of Minnie Riperton, in one final shot that stretches across the wilds of an embattled America, on the other side.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Beautiful Boy - What's It All About, Nic?

Beautiful Boy comes out on British screens tomorrow - and if the film has socking great flaws in its concept and execution, well, that's OK, because it's 'about' something. Dismiss it at your peril, for here is a film whose subject is so obviously necessary and important, and so self-seriously handled here by a team wishing to 'do justice to the subject matter', that it hardly matters if the film has any qualities of its own. We demand aboutness now - or at least, from those few movies that don't centre on magic immortals beating ten shades of Stars and Stripes out of each other. And how blessed we are, to have--alongside the obligatory biopics 'about' recognisable stars whose fame simply demands a film treatment--an endless supply of 'issue' movies. HIV, slavery, drugs, gay conversion therapy or the financial crash of 2007-2008: these are all not just valid topics for a film, but subjects whence it's easy to dispense an ever desirable lesson of some shape. "I don't think it really had all that much to say," people will observe of a standard film telling a simple story, before weeping hot tears at Beautiful Boy's basic "drugs are bad" homilies. Amy Poehler put it best when hosting the Golden Globes a few years back: "I loved 12 Years A Slave, and I can honestly say that after seeing that film I will never look at slavery the same way again."

But looking beyond the towering whatness of Beautiful Boy to its simpering howness, you quickly find an obvious paucity of means for treating this matter. And, in being so clearly thin, Beautiful Boy manages to let in some big errors, not least an unthinkingly patriarchal stance that obviously sinks the movie. In a better film with more resources, fewer embarrassing gimmicks and a more coherent concept, it might not matter so much that everything is so unquestioningly masculine. But Beautiful Boy is riddled with peacocking masculinity, offering a declension of malehood in two characters who, of course, clash in the way they own the scenes and the characters around them. To Steve Carell's cool-dad sincerity, rag-losing and cloying heartbreak, the film opposes the nu-kid Chalamet in expressionistic drugs hell and junkie dickhead mode. Rather than question their relationship in any way--perhaps examining the inevitable toxicity of their proprietorial rapport and their individual solipsism--the movie is content to observe them strut their man-ness about the place, according each one moments of deplorable grandstanding or self-consciously candid 'reflection'. This is some butch stuff, playing at emotional vulnerability in order to assert all the better the power of new men. In the process, women are cast off to the sides: witness a hilariously nothing scene where Maura Tierney's nobody character gives chase to Nic (Chalamet) and his no-one girlfriend in her car, only to lose track of them and for her lone big moment to fizzle out like an old balloon in the corner of a party. This is about as much as she is granted--the same goes for Amy Ryan as Nic's mother--because the film is only interested in its duelling musketeers. For swords, merely substitute 'emoting'.

These faults are so glaring because of the film's quite mind-bogglingly ropy form, from its shambolically indelicate music cues through to its SNL-level montages; from the uncontrolled performances to its on-the-nose set decoration; from the cutesy-poo writing to the wobbly flashback structure; from the uneven tone to its dreary aesthetic. So many scenes are boring, unconvincing, or plain incomprehensible - a Nirvana-set flashback perhaps encapsulates these defects best, with its overwrought visuals, the way it is chucked so roughshod into the main narrative, and its comically heightened performances. Of course it would be raining at Nic's lowest ebb! So many other scenes overplay their hand, or on the contrary go nowhere, such as David Sheff's lolworthy experiment with drugs to get into his idiotic son's headspace. At no point does the film puncture any of this rot with something approaching wit or bite. All it presents is stuff, an accumulation of flat scenes that get us from the drug addiction narrative's beginning to the drug addiction narrative's end. At least, I suppose, the film doesn't attempt to make out there is much to be learned from the mess we've witnessed - but it does end on some typically solemn post-credits "Nic is now twelve years clean" guff, as if we have watched a searching documentary rather than a tepid staging of moments.

We need more from films than having them merely tell us things, because we should be educating ourselves on films' means. The undeserved showing of awards, for a while now, onto issues films, and onto performances that can be easily matched to the 'real-life' originals, shows that we are lacking in creativity, and in the ways we interpret original material. Film must be more than merely a rendering: we have to make a case for inventive, loopy, bold, virtuoso film-making whose very mode is its outstanding quality rather than its matter.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Review - This Magnificent Cake!

At one stage in Emma De Swaef and Marc James Roels’ stop-motion animation short This Magnificent Cake!, a child is rattling the lid of a grand piano, which causes the instrument to shake, tumble out of its castor-holders, and roll down a marble floor, whereupon it falls down on one level, on top of a poor unfortunate standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Mere minutes later, in this film whose every shot exhales a delicate inner life, a large man crossing a rope bridge over a vast precipice while eating a banana tosses the peel over his shoulder. It lands on the bridge, where he is being followed by five other people, a groanworthy cartoon cliché just begging to be subverted. But as with the grand piano landing on someone’s head, the banana peel serves here to puncture our expectations and feed into a quietly bristling politics, since these dark jokes fall on both occasions at the expense of people of colour, who suffer from the unthinkingness of white people. The child prodding the grand piano is a white, rich boy in a luxury grand-hotel in Africa, and the man it lands on is a put-upon Pygmy working there as, literally, a human ashtray, with a vessel strapped to the top of his hat. On the rope bridge, the adventurer is Van Molle, a colonialist leading slaves across the rope bridge, and his banana skin causes five of them, roped together as they carry his belongings, to fall off the bridge into churning waters below - rendered, in this bewitchingly inventive film, by lengths of twine tumbling over themselves, set to a great hum of crashing water.

The joke, then - if indeed there is one here - is that the joke isn’t funny; or the joke might be on us, the viewer, expecting a sick joke, and being met only with two flatly played scenes whose bathos is matched by something quietly, dispiritingly gruesome without hitting any sort of comical beat. The filmmakers show their tartness in the way they play on these obvious animation tropes - but also display the lambent gentleness of their tone, which accompanies a rich and sophisticated stance on the evils of colonialism. At every turn, the hand-made craft of the characters flitting from chapter to chapter of this weird, quite entrancing film, seem to enact a sort of dislocation. The film is notable for the way its people do not connect; there is touching between them, on occasion, but more often than not the characters - these beautiful hand-sewn figures with blotchy complexions, closely set eyes and thin, regretful mouths, whose heads are a frazzle of thin fur - appear to be at a remove from one another.

In this aspect of the film, which relies on finding quite miraculous perspective and giving scenes a depth of field that hardly seems possible, the filmmakers perform their greatest feats of storytelling. Take Van Molle, a failed businessman seeking his luck on the new continent, who appears as one of many grotesques. The filmmakers turn the nature of their animation to their immense advantage, by alternating hypnotic close-ups, which dwell on the texture of felt and fur, with surprising vistas of countryside, depicted in lush shadows, and interesting middle-distance scenes with great depth of focus. In one of these, Van Molle follows a snail - just go with it - down a passageway, into a cave whose stalactites and stalagmites balloon around him like Freudian nightmares, which have the appearance, too, of sarcophagi. Van Molle cuts almost a comical figure, bumbling forward with his distended belly and shouting after his snail friend in his high-pitched Steve Carell voice: this creates a disconnect, too, with the odd, oneiric scenario. Van Molle becomes lost, and, finding the snail again, puts a wig on the snail’s head and feeds it beer - before causing it to die by, again, his grotesque clumsiness. This narrative - the film is a sort of compendium of interconnected stories - is perhaps where This Magnificent Cake! realises its most potent cinematic potential.There is a metaphysical quality at play here that never feels overburdened, and the work on character that realistically should not have this much force is pitched perfectly.

In the process, the film begins to feel Conradian for the way it uses ideas of empire, wildness, opportunity, identity and otherness, to talk about the human soul. De Swaef and Roels are clear, however - where Conrad, in Heart of Darkness, was perhaps deliberately ambiguous and certainly racially ropey - that the brunt of this questing, will always be born by black people, and the price to pay is violence and death. That’s where the film’s ostensible mildness - born completely from its stylings and rhythm, as well as its sound mix - becomes interesting, since it clashes with the desperation that it hints at. The final and most extended sequence, which sees Louis, a deserter, revisiting Van Molle territory, returns him to the vast and deserted building where Van Molle’s adventure was set, where - and the film doesn’t dwell too much on this aspect - the place is lined all around the grounds with human skulls. Even in dwelling on Louis, in a bold dreamlike sequence where he is able to cross the sea on foot to make his way home, the film makes clear the human price of our soul-searching - or perhaps, safer to say, our moral footprint.

If Louis’s adventure finally brings him back to dreaming of being recognised by the King - whom we see in a deft opening sequence, and who is probably a stand-in for Leopold II of Belgium, the notoriously cruel and barbaric ruler of the Congo, this is just one more of the This Magnificent Cake!’s many consummate ironies. Named for Leopold II’s statement about Africa - a magnificent cake, in his view, that he needed to possess, divvy up, and, I suppose, eat - the film shows enormous delicacy in the end, in the diverse ways it finds - through its intelligent structure, its craft and optics, its storytelling - to engage with the soul of man, while recognising that we have our feet on the ground.

This Magnificent Cake! is showing at the LSFF on Sunday 13th January:

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Awards Chatter - 2019 Edition!

When I was a young boy my parents bought me a big hardcover book about cinema for my birthday, which traced the art form from silent film through to the 90s. The book had lots of glossy pictures of Hollywood and European cinema stars, segments for each year about who had won the major festival awards and Oscars, and little sections on the main releases, scandals or developments of any particular year. In the pre-IMDb years, before I had seen any, really, of these films, I looked at photos of Silvana Mangano in Bitter Rice, or read about the release of Last Tango In Paris or the early days of the Venice film festival, and was semi-obsessed with the whole shebang. I acted in a couple of films on time off from school, and was generally fascinated with the world of cinema - with the smell of a film set, with the gossip, the posters, the galas and prizes. Growing up in France and reading Premiere magazine, I thought I was a sophisticated cinephile by seeing Clerks or La Haine.

Now, when I am so incomprehensibly blessed as to write, occasionally, for the Guardian or for Sight & Sound about cinema; when I look at my life and consider that I make however menial a living out of watching films and thinking about them - I simply cannot believe my charmed existence. It doesn't get you many paid gigs to say in public that you'd have done it for free - but for many, many years I essentially did, writing about films I'd seen, on my blog, for nine people and no pounds; or covering Cannes for my dear friends at Pajiba, without whom I would never have done anything, simply for the unspeakable pleasure it gave me, knowing they had no money and not caring. This is because cinema means the world to me - and that lure, in different forms, extends to millions of people around the world. The cinema itself is the experience I myself come back to - being in the room and feeling that hallowed hush as the lights go down; a close-up on a beautiful, smiling face, and the heave of emotion it can raise through your ribcage; a soft lament of a closing credits sequence when you turn to your mother, both of your faces streaming with tears. This extended, when I was a teenager, to premieres and awards shows, and all the resulting glitter and glam: Gong Li on the red carpet in Cannes; Johnny Depp arriving somewhere or other with Winona Ryder; the legend set in stone of Marlon Brando sending Sacheen Littlefeather to collect his Oscar in his stead.

All this to say that I still have a romantic view of 'the movies' in my head, and my decision to write about film - to try to be a film journalist - stems from a love; a love that I see matched by all my colleagues. That love is essential to write about film properly, in order to convey, as well as possible, the thrill of a great movie and the spell it can cast. But, because cinema is an industry too; because it is founded on glamour - that word again, where sex and money do a dance - it can be difficult to hold cinema to account, and to look at it for what it is. You can only see something fully if you take a step back, and at the moment it seems clear to me that too many people's noses are pressed up against the window for them to see the building.

I sometimes feel as a film writer who tries to have an ethical code for writing about cinema - someone who occasionally will speak out, about some of the issues of the day - that I am seen as either a stick-in-the-mud, or a belligerent upstart, some kind of half-moon-glasses-wearing ranter. The truth is that I think a lot of the film industry is too cosy (and of course, this should go without saying, too white, too male, too straight, too middle-aged, too posh). The web of connections between people writing for the main publications and the people that they write about is too obvious and knotty for there to be the requisite critical outlook on artists, or for publications to take a severe stance on creators who abuse their position. Money connects everyone, and film companies throw a fine party. PR companies send a lovely basket. The schmooze is real - and no schmooze can be greater than 'awards season', a bizarre, wholly confected time of year where some of the big names get to drench each other in wine, ostensibly while celebrating film as an art form.

But awards only get you so far, and pointing out the deficiencies of the Oscars is like shooting Crash in a barrel. It has been a commonplace for a while now that the Academy Awards are kind of trash:  preceded by the far more overtly trash Golden Globes, they get it wrong probably more often than they get it right, although the occasional instance of something half-decent landing a little gold man manages to muddy the waters sufficiently. Moonlight is a great film, which helps you overlook the awards for more ropey fare or the fact that, in the year of Moonlight's triumph, a man accused of sexual abuse (Casey Affleck) won best actor and a film by another man accused of abuse (Mel Gibson) won two more awards, while female directors won nothing.

It can be exhausting to go on about this, so here is a weary reminder of the facts. Those of us who talk about this are chronically fed up of saying it, so please forgive a dry tone as I work through the same old dispiriting figures. (The conclusions I draw from them become more severe with each passing year, however, so stick around.) There have only ever been five nominations for a female director in the Best Director category at the Oscars in nearly 90 years: those women are Lina Wertmuller, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, Kathryn Bigelow and Greta Gerwig. One win. There have only ever been five black directors nominated for a Best Director Oscar, and none before 1991: those directors are John Singleton, Lee Daniels, Steve McQueen, Barry Jenkins and Jordan Peele. No wins. Please note that 'black' and 'female' do not intersect once for a nomination, as Ava DuVernay, director of the Best Picture nominee Selma will know only too well. Until Gerwig and Peele's nominations last year, the same number of men accused of abusing women (four: Bertolucci, Allen, Polanski and Gibson) had won Best Director awards.

This year looks set to lead to the same embarrassments and disgraces, since Bohemian Rhapsody by Bryan Singer has somehow become a prime Oscar contender in the wake of its unforgivable Golden Globe award and its disgusting nomination, this morning, for a BAFTA, at the expense of any film by someone who doesn't stand accused of raping adolescents. Say it again, and say it loud: it isn't being a killjoy, or misunderstanding the film industry, to decry again and again - as many times as is needed - the way the film industry continues to celebrate people who use their position to sexually abuse others. I have tried to write enough articles about the allegations against Bryan Singer, which have ended up on the scrap-heap or unrecognisably defanged, to know how litigious he is; and the writers of the oft-mooted tell-all Esquire article about him, which is still nowhere to be seen several months after it emerged it was in the works, will probably have far more to say on the subject. But the wheels are coming off. Two days ago, the actor Evan Rachel Wood tweeted: "So we just..we are all still supposed to be pretending we dont know about Bryan Singer? Cause it worked out really well with and ." That tweet still hasn't been taken down, which it would have been by now in years gone by - plenty of accusers have quickly come and gone, such as the actor Noah Galvin, who said in an interview a few years back: "Bryan Singer likes to invite little boys over to his pool and diddle them in the fucking dark of night" and then made a swift, not-at-all legally compelled retraction a few days later. To be clear, the allegations against Singer aren't a secret: they're there on his Wikipedia page, and you can read a fine breakdown of them on Indiewire by googling that.

Hand in hand with this vile kowtowing to powerful men - let's not forget how Harvey Weinstein ruled the Oscars, year after year, while hiding in plain sight as a sex-attacker, under the guise of being, simply, an amusingly legendary bully - come routine, by now unremarkable acts of discrimination against women and minorities. And it must be repeated, again and again because this stuff does not fucking sink in somehow with awards-drunk film-heads and industry bloggers, that these things are a part of the same disease. It isn't a coincidence that Debra Granik, Lynne Ramsay, Marielle Heller, Tamara Jenkins, Nicole Holofcener, Chloe Zhao and Alice Rohrwacher, to name a few off the top of my head, made critically acclaimed and award-winning films that came out this year and that none of them, probably, will be nominated for a Best Director Oscar. Women make considerably fewer films than men - but it isn't even a question of tokenism anymore to talk about rewarding them to the same tune, not when the resources are there to make up a whole, perfectly shiny Best Director category without any men in it. The journalist Kayleigh Donaldson said it best today, with this tweet: "If nothing else, this awards season has given me further proof that the industry hates women directors. Nothing they do will ever be good enough because hey, the Dumb & Dumber guy made Driving Miss Daisy!" (This is in reference to the widely derided Green Book by Peter Farrelly)

Discriminating against women and minorities is merely the natural by-product of caping for powerful white men, and a direct result of this is that men will feel confirmed in their ability to continue as before. At a time when people are fond of talking about #MeToo destroying men's careers, it's quite notable how many abusers are out there and working perfectly contentedly, two years into the movement. Celebrating these men gives them opportunities; employing them gives them money and power; supporting their work gets them more gigs. You don't have to want an artist's work to die out to realise that directly subsidising their power to abuse and contributing to their ability to buy people's silence is probably, let's say, a bit tacky these days; a little gauche.

But the film industry doesn't learn, and I am becoming disheartened at how much there is out there to fight, and at how few people I see using the terrific power vested in them by their public platforms to speak out. This week a fairly consequential figure in the industry said in a trade paper that the best way to deal with Bryan Singer is to ignore him. We have to be so clear that the people holding these stances are part of the disease that horrifies those of us who love film and want it to get better, and that by their silence they collude, however unconsciously, in acts of abuse. The revolution that is so needed in cinema, which is badly reported in our media, and which doesn't just apply to celebrities naming other celebrities as oppressors but which touches people at all levels of the industry, right down to (and perhaps especially) cleaners and blue-collar workers; this revolution will involve unseating those who abet abusers by looking away. Critics and industry writers must get more tough, cast off any partiality they may have, and talk about the disease. Mention the rot, every single time you get a gig - there isn't an aspect of the film industry untainted by it. This means staying vigilant, informing yourself about the personal ethics of actors and industry figures, and trusting in principles to guide you; it may even involve missing out on some opportunities and lovely things.

We can't keep having a conversation about awards shows if we don't talk about the problem staring us in the face. I don't want to think about who is going to win Best Screenplay when someone who allegedly drugged and assaulted a teenager is nominated for Best British Film. Enough. Enough. The clearing out of the cupboards has barely begun, and it won't be pretty anymore maybe, not like it was before when we didn't spoil the party by saying anything. It will not be easy and lovely perhaps; it may involve wrangling and kvetching. But this is the only way ahead, when the thing we love so dearly is ailing.