Friday, December 11, 2015

Films of the Year - 2015

Where I would usually just post a list of my ten favourite films of the year on Facebook and hope to attract upwards of eleven likes and three comments calling me pretentious, this year I've felt compelled to say a few words about my top two films of the year - Cemetery of Splendour by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Mia Madre by Nanni Moretti. At first when I came up with my ranking I thought very little connected the two films, and then, the more I thought about them, the more I found points of similarity between the two that point to a radical shared agenda.

The first aspect on which the films share common ground is their exploration of trances and dreams. They set about this in different ways, so that the similarity can be easy to miss: Moretti's cinematic language is ostensibly forthright and realistic, whereas Weerasethakul's very aesthetic has to do with trances and slumber. Mia Madre, about the professional and personal struggles of a woman trying to make a film while her mother lies on the brink of death in hospital, deals with fairly practical considerations: what meals Margherita should bring her mother, how to get her main actor (John Turturro) to read his lines correctly. But Margherita is also prey to terrible dreams and visions that reflect her panic, her sense of not being up to the task. (All of Moretti's cinema is about incapacity, from his inability to make a documentary in Aprile to the pope's sense that he isn't the right man for the job in Habemus Papam.) Dreams about the death of her mother, half-remembered recollections of past events: these are the things that inhabit Moretti's central character. Moretti's set-up is deceptively simple, but his meshing of dream and reality in Mia Madre, so that the lines are blurred between the real and the unreal, is brilliantly accomplished and points to his antsy vision of a life without respite.

Weerasethakul also finds life and the dreamlike sharing a very hazy boundary. In his story, a nurse cares for a comatose soldier in a school-turned-hospital built on the grounds of an old graveyard for kings. Again we find a set-up of one person caring for another who is somewhere between life and death. Jenjira, the nurse, finds herself half in love with Itt, the soldier who is her charge. With the help of Keng, a clairvoyant who shoulders Itt's spirit to take Jenjira on a journey through the ghost of a now-ruined palace, Jenjira comes to feel she knows the soldier more intimately. Weerasethakul's rhythms, his work on sound, his colours, and the narrative line he sketches where real and imagined worlds are intimately connected, induces a sense of hypnosis in the audience, and opens up wonderful realms of possibilities for his characters who feel like something is missing in their lives. It is also a very sly way for the director to question the politics of his country: suggesting spiritual or imagined dimensions to a world that is controlled by a a military regime is a way of reclaiming a country enslaved by despotic rules. Weerasethakul's film is pointedly political, as the ghosts of the kings buried under the hospital come to nourish the souls of the languishing soldiers in hospital: we see that the film's narrative is deeply connected to the history of his country; the characters are bound to past events.

Moretti joins Weerasethakul in this political dimension, speaking of his country, like the Thai director, at a narrative remove. Not for nothing is the film within the film, that Margherita is struggling to make, about workers going on strike. Moretti's films have always had a political vein running through them (as have Weerasethakul's), touched on directly, as in The Caiman, or at a tangent, as in Caro diario. In Caro diario, his most delicious touch is to skewer the growing impact of television on his country, culminating in a farcical scene in which a character catches up on old episodes of The Bold and the Beautiful at the top of Stromboli. This is nothing less than a sly but murderous dig at Berlusconi, whose hold over Italy came about because of his control of television, which numbed the country with soaps and inane game shows while he set about grabbing the political reins. In Mia Madre, Margherita finds herself incapable of making a film about industrial action: she senses that she has lost the language to talk about it, that her images appear fake, overdone. Moretti shows that his country is losing the ability to talk about politics, to connect with real issues of labour and class struggle. His most thrilling gambit in Mia Madre, a heist that he got away with right under the noses of all the world's critics and filmmakers at Cannes, is to have Margherita's heartfelt, politically engaged film nearly torpedoed by the involvement of a useless American actor, the idiotic Barry Huggins. At Cannes this year were two other Italian films, Youth and Tale of Tales, whose casts were crammed full of American actors, in an effort to crack the international market, which were scuppered in the process. Italy, Moretti says - perhaps a little donnishly - has lost the ability to talk about itself, has forgotten what it represents. Another pointed moment: Margherita's mother, a Latin teacher, is trying to help Margherita's daughter with her homework. Later, Margherita observes (I paraphrase), "I know Latin is useful, but I can't remember why." The country is forgetting about its past: where for Weerasethakul the past is all around, in ghosts and in visions, and in the visible war wounds of his characters, for Moretti the ties with the past are disappearing, becoming dust.

A final point of commonality between the two films, one which is so moving and surprising, is in their blurring of gender and identity. Both directors employ a female alter ego: Weerasethakul's talisman, Jenjira Pongpas, takes the main role in Cemetery of Splendour, and contributed to many of the ideas and stories behind the film, while Moretti teams up with Margherita Buy for a third time in as many films, asking her to play a refracted version of himself. Of the two, Margherita is clearly the more direct stand-in for a director in their film: she plays a relentlessly self-questioning film director given to fits of rage and bouts of depression, who is torn between work and family. These are the hallmarks of Moretti (the man as well as the character) and there are a handful of scenes in which Buy gives an eerily accurate impression of Moretti - his intensity, his questioning body language. It's wonderful to see Margherita raging in Moretti's film, in a way we do not see women rage; to see her working at her job, in a way we are not seeing women accustomed to working on screen. Moretti, through this device, shows that his fears are universal, that he too when confronted with death feels all this tumult and chaos, is a vulnerable creature loaded with doubt. In a further dimension, Moretti himself plays Margherita's brother, Giovanni, a character who appears to be in charge of his life and who sidelines his sister; but Moretti shows him losing his job in a short, devastating scene that reminds you that none of Moretti's characters is ever completely in control. This multiplying of his selves gives a new dimension to Moretti's work, which has always played with fact and fiction: this experimentalism at a late stage of his career is somehow used to terribly touching effect.

Weerasethakul uses Jenjira - the actor's name is the character's, as in Mia Madre - to speak about himself, and about his country. She represents the voice of the film, a spiritual conscience, a conflicted soul, a damaged body. In Cemetery of Splendour she and Weerasethakul seem increasingly fused: she is the originator of stories, one who travels into new dimensions. Her mildness, and something gently sorrowful about her, something questing too, align her with the director. It's touching to see a kindred spirit filmed so lovingly. In Weerasethakul's film, Itt, the soldier, is reborn into the body of the female clairvoyant, Keng - and through her, in one of the film's most beautiful scenes, he licks the wound on Jenjira's battered leg, offering back to her some of the care and attention that she has expended on him in his sleep. Weerasethakul finds identity beyond gender - this fits with his past work on identity, from Tropical Malady onwards, and it is another beautiful act of liberation, of political resistance on his part to say to the tyrants who have stolen his country, that people are not their bodies, and therefore cannot be controlled, cannot be owned.


Final top ten for 2015:

1. Cemetery of Splendour, dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul
2. Mia Madre, dir. Nanni Moretti
3. Carol, dir. Todd Haynes
4. Taxi Tehran, dir. Jafar Panahi
5. Tangerine, dir. Sean Baker
6. The Lobster, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
7. Marguerite et Julien, dir. Valerie Donzelli
8. Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse, dir. Arnaud Desplechin
9. Magic Mike XXL, dir. Gregory Jacobs
10. Force Majeure, dir. Ruben Ostlund

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Honeys of the Year 2015

1. Pearl Liaison from RuPaul's Drag Race, for being sickening




2. Oscar Isaac, for having the highest handsomeness to talent ratio in 2015




3. Carlos Acosta, for retiring at his most bae




4. Big Sean, because, bless him, you don't need to be the best rapper when you're the hottest rapper




5.  Jérémie Elkaïm, for being hot when he shouldn't be in Marguerite et Julien




6. Alexander Skarsgard, for being hot when he shouldn't be in Diary of a Teenage Girl




7. Sufjan Stevens, for being the hottest and only person to make the best album this year




8. Deray McKesson, for being the hot face of Black Lives Matter activism




9. Dustin Brown, for services to tennis sexiness 




10. Tamal Ray from the Great British Bake Off, for being lovely and pretty while making cakes 











Friday, July 17, 2015

White Paper on the Future of the Moon

Executive Summary: this report finds that although 99% of respondents in surveys since the beginning of time said “I love the moon, I like looking at it at night - sometimes it’s crescent and sometimes it’s full, I like that”, now feels like the right time to think about either changing the moon or selling it off in order to receive better results. The moon has been around too long and is beginning to feel antiquated in this era of content on demand. These days a 9 year old can just dial up a Vine on their smartwatch, so why would they want to look at a big orb that will still be there tomorrow? Added to which, last year someone with a pencil wrote a paper saying we don’t actually need tides, so the moon needs to think very carefully about the service it provides.

Please respond to the following questions in this wide-ranging public consultation, so we can work out how best to work with the moon to optimise everyone’s experience.

1. Isn’t the moon a bit shit sometimes? Often you can’t see it behind clouds, and the sun is better. Mark the moon from 1 (quite shit) to 8 (very shit) according to user experience.

2. Have you ever been on the moon? Only a few people have. The moon should be for everyone. Please write ‘I hate the moon’ in red letters in the box provided.

3. The moon is too big. Yes? Please write yes, or YES.

4. How can auditing of added value generation models affect wider disparities with regard to the moon, notwithstanding the facilitation of economic patterns for subsequent generation of content data, over the last fifteen years? This one’s the biggie. Please cite Milton Friedman in your reply.

5. The moon has a known left-wing bias, as identified by Michael Heseltine when he was pissed up at a by-election in Berwickshire in 1987. What can be done to make the moon more egalitarian? Pick one.
a. Plant a flag with Rupert Murdoch’s face at the Sea of Tranquility.
b. Make the moon go from left to right in both hemispheres at once.
c. Always be a full one.
d. Scrap the moon so it doesn’t exist for anyone.

Thank you for answering, we'll get back to you in due time. Remember, anything could still happen, this is a totally open process.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

So You're Writing An Article About Modern Man

You are a man and you have decided, or been commissioned by a desperate editor with two pages to fill, to write a thinkpiece about ‘the new man’. Who is the modern man? What does he think? What does he wear? What beer does he drink and why? Congratulations! You are about to add to a rich and storied genre, whose practitioners’ aggregate Pulitzer count is through the roof. Here are some helpful tips to assist you in writing this era-defining piece:

1. Give a brief precis of the history of modern man. This can go back to the 80s, or the 60s if you are determined to be exceptionally rigorous. Mention the swinging sixties and Mick Jagger, of if you are starting your history in the 80s, talk about yuppies and Magnum P.I. Then seamlessly guide us through to the present day. Feel free to mention any or all of the following:
Nuts Magazine
Britpop
Paul Gascoigne’s tears at Italia 90
David Beckham
Mad Men

2. Coin a new portmanteau for the bullshit phenomenon you are purporting to describe in your article. The king of all these words is ‘metrosexual’, which means tit-all but has stuck and is therefore dynamite. ‘Retrosexual’ doesn’t mean anything either and it rhymes with the King Word, but I’m afraid it’s already taken. Still up for grabs: “Letterosexual”; “”Betterosexual”; “Hypotheterosexual”. Go for it!

3. The phenomenon that you are pretending to notice must be anchored in zeitgeisty events. Be sure to namecheck any of the following: a recent X-Factor finalist who dresses a certain way; somebody from a popular TV show (think HBO or Netflix); an up-and-coming politician who tells it like it really is; a cult Twitter user.

4. There are only two directions this article can go, but don’t let that discourage you. It’s been written hundreds of times before and can be written again. One direction is: “men are becoming more masculine again after a disturbing feminisation period”. The other direction is: “men are becoming more feminine”.

5. Pepper your article liberally with  wordplay on man stuff. “Manorexic” always goes down a treat, but also splash out on “mangry”, “mangst”, “he-roes”, “men-tal health” and “dick-ay”.

6. Have you mentioned David Beckham yet? For god’s sake mention David Beckham.

7. Remember, this isn’t an article about gay men.

8. Whisper it: it’s not really about men of colour. (You may want to code this into your article a bit more subtly than your total leaving-out of the gays, which you can justify because people don’t think of gays as real men.) Interviewees for this article should be called Steve, John or Michael, not Olatunde.

9. Chuck in some interviewees: they must be men of the people, who tell you about their real lives. You can completely make these men up. Steve should be 28, John 33 and Michael 41. They are respectively single, engaged, and married with children. Their completely made-up jobs are: graphic designer, TV executive and architect. In their made-up quotes, have them mention their wives and girlfriends in order to make clear that they are straight. I repeat: don’t mention any queer guys, that could really sink this very important article.

10. Add an interview with a charlatan/published sociologist. She (!) should be called Chloe Kiriakou or Gemma Shayston, and the bullshit book she published last year should be called something like: “Having It All: Why Men Are Left Holding The Baby”, or “Adam’s Pear”, or “You’re A Big Boy Now: Peter-Man in the Wendy House”. Chloe or Gemma will tell you something about modern man - not a scientific fact, but a hugely generalised opinion based 100% on conjecture - that you will print verbatim as gospel. Ask her for another soundbite in paragraph 10. Hopefully she’ll mention David Beckham if you haven’t already (but really, you must mention David Beckham).

11. Interview another person, who unlike Chloe or Gemma isn’t an expert, but is half famous. Maybe a music producer. Where do they go on holiday? Cuba? Well, that says it all: weave it into your theory about modern man.

12: This is the point in the article where you mention women, in order to make clear that you’re not an arsehole. Some foolish people will be wondering if it’s at all appropriate to be writing a thinkpiece about the plight of men these days, when women are thoroughly dominated in all walks of life. Assuage the doubts of these simple folk by saying something like, “Of course, a lot of men have it easy compared to women when it comes to childcare - but…” or “Competition for jobs is fierce, with many women now going for top positions too.” That should do it.

13. Fashion! You haven’t mentioned clothes. Add something about a designer. Can you think of a straight designer? No? Go with Burberry.

14. It's time for a long bit on facial hair. What way have you determined that modern man is going - the masculine route or the feminine? If the former, mention some people with beards in a trendy part of town and a model who, weirdly, has a beard; if the latter, talk about the new clean-shaven man you can see everywhere from Eastenders to the Oscars. Both these sorts of man exist at the same time, don't worry, you'll be able to name loads.

15. Start summing up. Envision a future for your new phenomenon. Will your completely made-up brand of new man last a long time, or is he destined to die out come the new wave of [HBO shows, X-Factor finalists]? Predict a long reign for your creation. The Letterosexual, you will let us gather, is here to stay.

16. You’ve finished your bravura trend piece. It’s time to send it to the editor with a request to illustrate it with a large photo of a generic man looking at himself sadly in the mirror, plus smaller pictures of assorted Hollywood actors, singers and recent causes celebres.

17. Pick a headline for your piece. “Rise of the [bullshit category]” is good.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Au revoir l'enfance



Louis Malle made Au revoir les enfants, his masterpiece about childhood, set in a French school, in 1987 - the year my family moved to France and I started going to school there. I didn't see it in the cinema at the time because I was six, but a couple of years later it came to be among a handful of bashed-up VCRs my family regularly watched

Au revoir les enfants tells the story of a friendship between two boys - one Catholic, one Jewish - at a boarding school during the Second World War. The film shows the kids at play, in class, and venturing out with their teachers for the odd excursion beyond the school gates. It is shot through with nostalgia for childhood, but is also uncompromising in its examination of loneliness and exclusion. Malle's intuition for the soulfulness of children, the way he grasps their sense of alienation from the world of adults, makes the film poignant and vivid.

The world I went to school in when I arrived in France over forty years after the film's events was in many ways not particularly different. When I watched Au revoir les enfants then, its universe certainly didn't seem foreign or antiquated. The first school I attended, Ecole du Val, a large building with a plain playground at the bottom of town, by an old viaduct, had surely not changed a great deal since the 40s. In class we sat two by two at old twin desks with inkpot holders, and meekly raised our hands to ask to go to the toilet, which was a hole-in-the-ground job at the end of a long and cold tiled corridor. French lessons consisted of dictations and conjugation exercises; Maths, of sums that the teacher would call out and whose results we had to write down fast in chalk on our slates, which we held above our heads. In the canteen, we were served soup from great vats by large dinner ladies. At playtime, children played hopscotch, marbles or skip-rope.

When I arrived I could say 'bonjour', 'au revoir', 'merci beaucoup', 's'il vous plait', 'je m'appelle Caspar' and the numbers from one to ten. I had lived in the countryside in England, and to be propelled from quiet walks in the Blackmore Vale in Somerset to a busy Parisian suburb where I didn't understand anything, felt terribly hard. Teachers were enormous and forbidding - there was none of the Blue Peter-style singing songs and palling around with kids over Play-Doh that my teachers had gone for in England. Educators were strict, and inclined to tell you off or punish you, and school was a place for hard work, from 8.30 to 4.30 every day.

This is, in essence, the world that Malle depicts so brilliantly in Au revoir les enfants: crucially and devastatingly, the film hinges on that sense of displacement that children feel - that, perhaps, specifically French children feel, or felt. This sense that the world of grown-ups is forbidding, that you had better keep your nose out of their affairs, is key. In perhaps the best scene in the film, the main character, Julien, is left behind on a field trip taken by his class, in the enormous forest of Fontainebleau. Malle shows how children depend on grown-ups, are completely reliant on their help, and extracts so much anguish from this scenario. He very intelligently puts the viewer in the skin of the child, showing how although a war is going on, such a quotidian development can of itself be terrifying and devastating to a child. Later, he brilliantly shows how Julien is only dimly aware of events in the school: how the teachers are sheltering his friend Jean and several other Jewish people, and how compromised their existences are. In Malle's world, events in childhood are relatively simple, and it is adults who create terror, who manipulate the truth and hold secrets. When the film's terrible conclusion unfolds, Malle suggests that the act of growing up may simply be the veil of innocence being lifted from your eyes.

When preparing for school trips - my class went on 'Classe de mer' when I was eight, for two weeks - I remember my mother being frazzled by the list of demands. My twin sister and I needed our name printed on labels sewn into all our clothes, had to take a flannel each and our own soap box, were made to pack cagoules and thermal socks and all manner of old and hilarious clobber. We were made to write letters home to our parents every day, which our teacher read before posting "to check for spelling mistakes". Something of it seemed Gradgrind-like, revelling in the olden days, in the way things had always been. Childhood was a rehearsing of the past, built on a curious assimilation of hard education, tradition and high-minded French notions of 'liberty'. This aspect of France comes through in Malle's film, too - in its detail (the old, cold bathrooms in which Julien is left to soak on his own, dwelling on his own loneliness and misery; the harsh music lessons; the formality and strictures of school as well as its sense as a locus for discovery) - as well as in its argument. Malle is extremely stern towards the French, showing the banality of collaboration, the way it flourishes in a society that obeys and doesn't question. At the same time, he sees clearly the good intentions of French school, and laments the way it does not connect with children because it is built on lofty principles that evaporate all too easily.

I learnt French quickly enough; subsequently made friends easily and fast. Even then, French school could be daunting, but at least I was daunted at the same scale as other French children. But memories of being different in a cold, new world, still sometimes remind me of Au revoir les enfants. Weirdly, to this day, I consider my childhood as having taken place before I got to France, when I was innocent, back in England. Before I was six. Growing up takes place in that first burst of sorrow and discomfort.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Abdicate!

KINGSMAN,  a new ultra-violent Bond pastiche for attention-deficient 4Chan users, out today, is an almost breathtaking example of moral double standards. Matthew Vaughn, who oversaw the train wreck in question, not only has his racist, classist, homophobic, sexist, violent cake, but he eats it. Oh, how he eats it.

The film tells a basic story (we intend 'basic' here in its Web 2.0 usage, meaning 'obvious' or 'unsophisticated') of a young man being groomed by an old secret service of spies to become one of them in order to save the world over and over. The protagonist, known as 'Eggsy' in order to signpost his working class origins, is recruited by dashing posho action man Colin Firth to join the Kingsmen, an old bunch of secret agents who use umbrellas to fight, and all wear suits and glasses and have side-partings to denote their upper-classness. Having made it through an arduous training process during which 'Eggsy' defeats a selection of absurdly toffish rivals to be anointed the new 'Kingsman', he must defeat Valentine (played by Samuel L. Jackson with a check-this-out-yo lisp), a dastardly tech mogul who has invented a chip in your phone or something that makes people kill each other for no reason.

So far so OK-yeah-we've-seen-this-in-James-Bond-films. But where KINGSMAN differs from all that hokum is that it brings a new, schizoid, i-Pod generation -style ultraviolence to the mix, along with cheap visuals and tacky politics. The result is a film that aims to be bracingly tasteless, enjoyably daft, excitingly politically incorrect. The film's grossness, its intellectual barrenness and moral vacuum, are so completely inbuilt and assumed as positive points by its makers, that detractors will be wary of appearing prim for finding it vulgar and disgusting. But it is, and here's why.

KINGSMAN's director wants to return to an era before James Bond films got so dreary and politically correct. And he's right, it's so tiresome that people expect Bond's fuck-interests to have lines of dialogue these days. Why can't you just objectify women like you used to? Taking this Inbetweeners-level credo as its M.O., the film features three women - one a murderer who kills men with the blades she has instead of legs (zomg), the other a fellow recruit to the Kingsman service called Roxy who is given next to nothing to do and is handily ignored for vast chunks of the film, and the third a sexy Swedish princess, who is captured by Samuel L. Jackson and promises 'Eggsy' anal sex in return for her liberation. Stay classy, Matthew. The makers of the film clearly think that having a token female character recruited to the service is a pioneering act of feminism that gives them licence to sexually demean a paper-thin character who serves no purpose other than to be objectified. It's a double standard that is reflected everywhere in the film.

Early on, Colin Firth brutally beats up five men who have made the huge mistake of implying that he's gay. I know how he feels, I get ever so upset when that actually happens to me for real in the street. Later on, as if to serve penance for this act of grotesque prejudice, Firth murders a congregation of homophobic southern baptists in one long and disgustingly violent sequence. It's OK, two wrongs make a gay rights.

The film has a black villain, played by Samuel L. Jackson. Hooray for the inclusiveneness! Shame they had to ghetto him up to all hell and have Colin Firth smirkingly remark on his 'colourful' nature. 

Classism? Roll up, roll up. The film makes a huge deal of sticking up for the little guy, urging us to support 'Eggsy' in his defeat of the posh toffs who are his rivals for a job in the Kingsman service. The filmmakers apparently deem this stance to be sufficiently right-on for them to paint the upper-class kids as sneering poseurs, while 'Eggsy''s family and friends are depicted as ugly, feckless layabouts straight from Eastenders in the 90s. The film's one act of class consciousness in no way validates the stale and condescending depiction of class in the film. Meanwhile, although the film pokes fun at the upper-class yahoos it presents as straw-men for 'Eggsy' to defeat, it is in laughable thrall to flash cars, top hats, the races, 'Britain' and fine tailoring. Here we have, thrillingly, what seems to be a triple-standard. Exciting.

On, then, to supra-violence, and the orgy of cake-eating that this occasions in the film. Vaughn and co clearly believe they are permitted to display as much violence as they like, with the defence that the murders and attacks they depict are droll or fantastical. It's like a comic! Why, then, do they cynically make a big deal of the murder in the church and, later, of a moment when 'Eggsy''s mother is on the brink of murdering her baby daughter because of Samuel L. Jackson's stupid murder-chip making her do it? You can't extract sentiment, pathos or suspense out of individual killings of proper characters while brutally offing legions of cartoonish other ones in the name of 'a bit of fun'. It's not just distasteful, it's nonsensical, two-faced, cowardly, boorish and stupid. 

But then that's Kingsman all over - just a bit of fun, but one that hasn't bothered to consider why political correctness exists. It's politeness, that's all; it's manners, quite unlike the sort of parody of manners that Colin Firth's character exhibits and mansplains at tiresome length. And it isn't there to ruin everyone's fun, just the fun of little unreconstructed white boys who want to play with guns and women. Bad luck, 'Eggsy'. 

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Birdman's Comeback, or (I Don't Need To See That)

In an early scene in Alejandro G. Iñárritu's new film, Birdman, the main character, an old ex- movie star looking to make a name for himself in a new play on Broadway, speaks to a group of assembled journalists in his dressing-room. Among them are an excitable Japanese fellow who wants to know if Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) will make a follow-up film in his old 'Birdman' franchise, and a pretentious journalist who drawls at length about the act of creation. That journalist is played by Damian Young, whom viewers of the TV show The Comeback will recognise as Mark, husband to Lisa Kudrow's Valerie Cherish, an old ex- TV star looking to make a name for herself in a new TV show on HBO. To say that the comparison does not flatter Birdman may be more to do with The Comeback's strengths, particularly in the way it critiques the world it is set in.

The two works are defined by their method. The central conceit of  Birdman is that the entire film has been craftily edited to appear like one continuous shot, meaning that we follow the film's action over the course of several days in what looks like one dizzying take. This means that there is a great deal of Steadicam work involved in following Michael Keaton along corridors, and a fair amount of aerial match cuts designed to give the illusion of continuity. This stylistic straitjacket means that a lot of the film comes across as an extension of Riggan's mind: indeed, the film does some great work of positing the theatre as a metaphor for the actor's psyche, travelling with him into dark recesses and along tortuous corridors backstage, where Riggan frets about his life and work, and back out onto the vast and overlit stage itself, on which he hopes to present himself to the world.

The Comeback also hews closely to its central character, as the show affects to be a reality TV documentary following Valerie Cherish in her private and professional life. The format also allows us to explore the difference between reality and performance, making the audience work to discern what part of Valerie's presentation to camera is affected and what is genuine. The difference with Birdman is that the docu-drama conceit gives us the chance to experience the world around her in hyper-reality, and we are able to see what a helpless pawn she is, how tiny and futile Valerie's struggle is. Birdman's perspective is masculine, and masculinist: it perceives the world, and other people, as ramifications of Riggan's mind, and when he steps into the world outside his theatre (in one of the film's best scenes, when the actor unwittingly locks himself out of backstage in only his underwear) he may be vulnerable but he is walking in his world. The Comeback's perspective is feminine, and feminist, going so far as to criticise the world that Birdman adopts unquestioningly as its own: Valerie is essentially powerless in her own existence, relying on men and their clout for work and validation. The world she works in is not hers: it is just another place for her to fall over in, and she can be trod on by men or rescued by men, but her chances of making something for herself, as a woman, are slim to non-existent.

We see this in fantasy sequences in both works. In Birdman, Riggan imagines his own character from his film franchise, a winged superhero, giving him confidence and spurring him on, in a bravura sequence in which he takes flight above New York while voices tell him he can rise above everyone else. He also imagines himself to have the power to displace objects with his mind, which he does in his dressing-room when alone, smashing vases against walls. Riggan's imagined powers are violent and magical, enabling him to escape his situation, granting him uniqueness. He is special by dint of - well, in Birdman, a weakness of the film is that we are made to take Riggan's exceptionalism as granted and will him on for no other reason than that he is the central man. In The Comeback Series 2, Valerie Cherish plays a character based on herself, in a TV show called 'Seeing Red', scripted by her old foe from Series 1, Paulie G, who detests Valerie and has always made a point of demeaning her. The show within a show on Series 2 is Paulie G's revenge on Valerie, writing her into his show as a shrewish monomaniac who pushed him to depression in the past, and exacting humiliations on her both as a character and an actor. In fantasy sequences, Valerie is made to fellate Paulie, dress as a cartoon monster, and be tied, bound and gagged in a car trunk full of snakes in a sweltering desert. This is The Comeback's brutal takedown of male navel-gazing: the sense that the world is his to play around in, to build in his own image, is Paulie G's birthright. Valerie knows that she must go along with him or be perceived as joyless, stupid, a harpy - but the programme is clear that his fantasies are extensions of his self-aggrandising masculinity.

This theme continues with gender politics and the approach taken in both works to sexual relations between men and women. In the 'blowjob' episode of The Comeback (one of the most coruscating pieces of work you could ever see about women in the TV industry), Valerie Cherish is made to fellate Paulie G, the man who hates her. In Seeing Red, his re-imagining of their old conflicts, Paulie G is played by Seth Rogen, who early in the episode confuses Valerie by riffing during a scene they have together. She is a woman so she must stick to her lines; he is allowed to play around, to put his imprint on the work. It's not her world. She must compromise. Later, when they have to play the blowjob scene together, Rogen is directed to beckon Cherish's character over. He says: "Walk over here." At this point, Valerie, who has gone practically mad with worry about how to play this scene, and who is not only feeling the pressure of performing well in her first HBO show but struggling with the demeaning nature of the episode, elects to riff the following line, which naturally falls flat: "Walk? It's been a long day - why don't you just rape me?" The line is actually pretty good, but Rogen is horrified, and the director shouts cut. Valerie was clearly speaking out of exasperation, obviously venting her frustration, her impotence. The scene is reshot, eventually, with Valerie's head resting by Seth Rogen's crotch while he embarks on a stream of sexual comments, and the camera stays on her, showing how agonising her situation is to her.

Birdman, by contrast, is so ruled by the masculinity of its perspective that it finds three different ways to laugh at and minimise an attempted rape. In a performance of Riggan's play, the volatile and quirky actor played by Edward Norton attempts to have sex with the actor played by Naomi Watts, on stage and against her volition. When interrupted by another character in the play mid-scene, he stands up with a full-on erection, which the audience laughs at. The offence is minimised by the film as the characters are also partners within the film. Later, Naomi Watts complains about the attempted rape (not in those words) to a fellow actor, played by Andrea Riseborough, who reacts as follows: "That's hot!" Cue audience laughter. Whoa, thanks for the support, sister! Birdman was written by three men.

These are the derelictions of tone that make it difficult to view Riggan as an ambiguous character. Is his solipsism, his puffed up sense of himself, being critiqued in the film? His daughter, played by Emma Stone, tells him how small his life is, how little he matters, and the special effects sequences occasionally seem to paint him as a delusional pseud - but the film's tone seems to be saying something else with its insistent, rattling score, with its swirling and swooping camera, with its feverish close-ups and its metaphors. It makes too big a fuss of him for us to ignore him. Riggan does matter, it seems to say. Look at him - his struggle counts, it is your struggle, it is our struggle! A struggle to be noticed! By contrast, The Comeback is frighteningly, caustically aware of how little is at stake in Valerie's quest for fame, and of how much has been sacrificed for this folly. We see her lose her dignity, struggle with her loved ones, and all for what? To be recognised. Not in the sense of being celebrated, but in the sense of people being aware of her existence, at all. The Comeback has more heart than Birdman, so finally it gives us something to care about: it shows us Valerie's talent. In the end, her sacrifices have been so great, she has tried so hard, and she has an ability that she had never been able to tap before. The second series of The Comeback finds us rooting for her like never before, while remaining fully aware of the paucity of her dreams. Riggan is seemingly not talented, and no-one in Birdman has bothered to ask us to care about him: we have no backstory, few meaningful relationships, nothing to hang our emotions onto apart from the cast-iron interiority of this main man.

In a key scene in Birdman and a key episode in The Comeback Series 2, the star meets a journalist from the New York Times, who is set to write a make-or-break review of their forthcoming work. In Birdman, Riggan furiously confronts a theatre critic played by Lindsay Duncan who tells him for reasons not made especially clear that she will pan his play before she has even seen it. He rails at her, telling her to stick her review inside her 'tight ass'. The scene is too jarring to be read on one dimension: Duncan's character stands for all reviewers, all critics, all those intefering, who have no idea about the guts required to create, to put your art on the line. Of course she is female and of course she is old, and the fact that she reviews plays sight unseen is another low blow by Iñárritu, who makes clear his contempt for reviewery, for anything that might interfere with the nobility of his purpose. Valerie on the contrary learns from her reviewer - having worried about a negative review, she is surprised to hear, learn and then to believe that she has talent. The New York Times reviewer correctly identifies a rawness in Valerie's performance that she perceives as 'brave': when The Comeback satirises journalists it does so gently, showing that the term 'brave' only applies to female actors when they have surrendered the qualities that are meant to make them female; the whole reviewing industry does not have to be vilified in so doing.

At the end of Birdman an ambiguous sequence, a final flight of fancy closes the film. Riggan appears to have literally taken flight, and the last shot finds his daughter marvelling at his freedom, at the audacity of his escape. Valerie, in The Comeback, has to stay aground.