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 in 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 flat. The sea was glinting in the lamplight 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 no longer 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 a villain, 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. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

On being small

Twice a year when I was a boy my mother would bounce me out of school for the morning and take me into Paris on the train to see an old man who would make me take all my clothes off and cup my dick and balls. My paediatrician (for this was the old man I humorously painted as a sex pervert in the previous sentence!), would run other tests besides: height, weight, and a series of X-rays designed to see if my bone age had increased at all since the last visit. My height and weight would then be tracked on a graph, where they ran comically under the average for a boy of my age, and the X-rays would be checked by the doctor just before the genital check-up. The cock and balls test - which took the form of a humiliating weighing-by-hand - was intended to see if my puberty was anywhere around the corner. (It never was.) The doctor would then ask me if I was eating enough, and my mother would ask him for a rough estimate as to what height I might reach as an adult; the doctor would then give a lugubrious assessment of my chances of attaining even a slightly normal height, and my mum would take me for a hot chocolate to cheer me up.

I was a preposterously, hilariously small child. When I started high school a couple of months short of my eleventh birthday, I weighed a little under 3 stone - or, to put it another way, twice what my son weighed when he was exactly two. I'm not sure I noticed that I was small until high school: until then, everyone had been small, as we were all children. In high school though, there were actual giants - kids of 14 or 15 who were wildly tall and gangly, who might come and steal your tennis ball at any minute and throw it onto the school roof - or who might, in the case of one not especially bright senior, come up to you roughly once a week and say, "Hey, uh [snigger], guess what - you've come to the wrong school... [guffaw] - the primary school's over the road!"

Being small is funny, because you forget you're small most of the time, and it's only other people who remind you. In this it's like being gay or having a spot on your nose. For you, it's completely routine to walk around at this height you know so well and have known since, let's face it, the age of five: your natural view of people is up their nostrils, and this is how things have always been. You know, factually speaking, that you are small - but it doesn't enter into your interactions with people to the extent that it enters theirs with you. That's why when people used to let slip how small I was, as if it were a terrible secret that everybody was keeping from me in a Henry James novella, it could be so bruising. My twin sister shot up one summer, and afterwards at term time a friend of the family said to her, in front of me, "Haven't you grown!" - and then, realising that I was right there and that something had to be said to me if only for the sake of conversational logic: "Not you obviously Caspar, you're still the same."

There was a weird sense behind people's comments that I had somehow, obscurely, disappointed them - or even, at times, that I was a little embarrassing. I think my smallness used to irk people when I was 14 or so, and fond of talking about books I had read, in my still very high-pitched voice. The fact that I was the opposite of shy probably contributed to that irritation: imagining a miniature, perky 14 year-old right now I shouldn't wonder if you too, dear reader, aren't somewhat annoyed.

Mostly I played the part, and the jokes and jabs I received about my height were meant and taken in good spirit. It was fine to acknowledge my smallness if you could get in a good uppercut. Once when I was 13 or so my pals and I were sitting around talking about mad stuff that we used to believe when we were much younger, the tooth fairy and all that. I said, "Yes, when I was little..." and a friend was so quick to interject, "Was?" and earn a well-deserved group laugh, that even as I went hot all over I couldn't deny him his moment. Nevertheless I did think that someone who had a more feeble constitution might have had a rougher time of it than me.

Some other humiliations, off the top of my head. For one term, in P.E., we did wrestling, and everyone had to pair up with a few people who were their own weight in order to fight. The boy who was put with me, who was a dear friend, was also small, but weighed close to a stone more than me. Once, when I was about 15 I think, a McDonalds employee gave me a balloon, while my brother and sister stifled howls of laughter. Had she thought I was actually 5? We returned to the same McDonalds a few months later, and I spotted the same woman doing her rounds, going about the restaurant and giving small children badges and toys. I hid in the bathroom until I was certain she had gone. On yet another occasion, I inadvertently made all my friends miss out on seeing the film Leon, because I couldn't get in: it was a 12 certificate and I was fifteen. Friends who had already paid for their ticket before I got denied kindly went back via the kiosk and got refunds, and we sat in the park for a couple of hours, pretending that our day hadn't been ruined.

That selflessness, the kindness I received on occasions like that, shows you that I got off lightly. Other children might have been tormented. Partly I was lucky to go to a school full of kind, thoughtful kids; partly, I think, I built up a character to fit the size, so that I was virtually unbulliable. No-one wants to hit someone radically smaller than them, to punch down quite literally. It was in my character that I got away with wise-cracks, and my acting-up was smiled upon. This is the aspect of my smallness that has stayed with me most - the clowning to be noticed; the way I made my weaknesses into sport. At parties I would slow-dance with the tallest girl in the class while standing on a chair.

Alongside all of this, I remember being afraid a lot of the time. I was always a timorous boy, but I think my size made me especially frightened of danger, of coming to some sort of harm, of being physically unable to defend or save myself. I still have that; it lives in your bones, that feeling that the world could crush you, that you are a miniature guest living at everyone else's pleasure; that you don't own or command anything. I believe I still defer to people, still entrust myself to them, blindly almost - and still seek friendships with protecting people, who are stronger and better able to cope. Twinned with this fragility I felt was surely my sexuality - which, given that puberty eventually deigned to visit me at the age of sixteen, I hadn't had much opportunity to explore. People say that you're born gay and I wouldn't want to contradict that in any way; but before I really considered my attraction to men I knew my difference, my sensitivity, and I sought the company of girls, not merely because of my sexuality and the common subject of boys, but because girls were so much more gentle and considerate, and I was often physically daunted by the boys in school. I believe that my sexuality was there from the start, yes, but was exacerbated by my smallness, which set me apart and made me devise strategies.

I deluded myself about my height. I developed a strange conviction, which helped me cope at times, that even though I was so small, my age could be read on my face; no-one who interacted with me could doubt that I was twelve. Now, looking at photos of me at twelve, I see a seven-year-old, and wonder how exactly I imagined that I conveyed my true age to people. The truth in my eyes? I must have been a little mad at times.

Being small stays with you. Even after you've grown - I'm hardly a giant now, but my height mostly goes unremarked upon - the sense of yourself as a small person remains, is part of your identity. Once, earlier this year, a person online was surprised to discover that I'm below the average height: he had thought from my behaviour, I suppose, that I was tall. This astonished me, because I feel everything I do conveys my tininess; I still have the sense of being dust in the world, floating about and landing here and there; still, I make the case for myself every day, striving to be noticed and heard, to turn my failures and oddity into something funny and recognisable. It's a question of perspective.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Directors' Cuts

On the popular social media website I mused yesterday that the hair of David Lynch deserves to earn more plaudits. If you look up reviews of his films, by such critics as Anthony Lane or Peter Bradshaw, you will note with bafflement that the subject of Lynch's perfectly coiffed locks is never addressed, when of course this is one of the most important things about him.

The comments soon drew a hitherto un-guessed-at swell of fervent replies from the denizens of Film Twitter, chiming in with their agreement about the wonders of Lynch's follicles. "It's like the sea, it's like ice cream," offered one tweeter on the subject of Lynch's hair. "He has damn rock star and I love it/want it," said another. "When he runs his fingers through his quiff in The Life of Art it doesn't even look sticky," swooned a third. "What *does* Lynch use in his hair," pondered a serious critic, adding: "It doesn't seem stiff at all, even with that structure."

Indeed. Lynch's hair has only got undeniably better with age, just as his later work as a film director has silenced those who might have deemed his earlier films somewhat sketchy. Here is the work of a master: rich, silky tresses that surely emanate a pleasingly peppery aroma; hair with direction, full of ideas; gorgeous locks with a magnificent silvery hue, tumbling elegantly into one another, giving the viewer so much to wonder at and feed on. Lynch's hair in his middle period, around the time of Wild At Heart, was certainly of a good quality - but he has only gone on to confirm that promise, and come good on everything of which he was capable.

What other directors have good hair, I wondered, unleashing yet more replies from critics and plebs alike, championing their favourite filmmaker barnets. This shows that there is a hunger for this subject to be discussed; it's frankly astonishing that we should have waited so long to shine a light on the matter.

In my original post I argued that Sofia Coppola and Ava DuVernay are contenders - Coppola for her elegant, understated, almost effortlessly beautiful hair, full of delicate texture; DuVernay for her distinctive braids, swept up into a magnificent nest that then cascades down around her, framing her face to give it real allure. Reconsidering these two, I will keep DuVernay for my top 10 but leave Coppola aside, purely because while her hair is undeniably classy, maybe not enough is happening there.

Agnes Varda and Jim Jarmusch drew the most write-ins on Twitter. "Iconic" is the word most used to describe Varda's work with her hair, both back in the day and now. Her style is affecting and lacking in belligerence: you recognise its quality because it simply is. Likewise, Jarmusch's hair is a statement: it speaks of rock music and poetry; it shouts out to Rimbaud and punk. Volume is key here, like Lynch except electrocuted.

I had to reject write-ins for Spike Lee (appealingly brash and bold but too dry), Cary Fukunaga (too slick) and George Lucas, whose distinctive shock of hair found one admirer and one passionate detractor ("It looks like a loaf of bread"). I also decided not to allow directors who were just as famous as actors, so Warren Beatty didn't make the cut, 'Shampoo' puns be damned.

I've decided to include Xavier Dolan, whose pioneering work in hair makes him the head of a new generation including such exciting directors as Katell Quillévéré. This new set of directors, which also includes Tomasz Waszilewski (who did not make the top ten but whose career we will continue to follow with great interest) draw on the work of their predecessors while showing exciting new directions for hair to go in.

Some more rejections: Michel Franco (too divisive); John Waters (original in its lankiness but ultimately unsettling); John Carpenter (scary). Among the gays, Almodovar's hair started out as a bold riot but has become gradually softer and more touching, and Lisa Cholodenko's is pleasingly shaggy and teenage - but neither break the top 10. Near-misses: Julie Dash, for her beautiful, totally underrated melee of golden curls, Kathryn Bigelow for her regal, sleek and rewarding style, and David Cronenberg, whose wonderful swish of grey completes the Jarmusch-Lynch trifecta of older American indie statesmen. I salute J.J. Abrams for the vigour and charm of his hairstyle, but what he produces is ultimately too mainstream to earn a place here.

Thomas Vinterberg earns a spot on the list for his surprisingly sunny hair, like a Californian dream; of all the directors, Vinterberg's is most at odds with his work, leading one to think he might make a delicious indie drama with Reese Witherspoon one day. Jane Campion was a popular candidate on Twitter, for her hair that, on the contrary, presents an encapsulation of her onscreen work: beautiful, brave, slightly weird, and long. Campion also gets points, as does Dolan, for filming hair so well: consider Whishaw in Bright Star, or Holly Hunter in Top of the Lake. This is a master.

We round off our list with Maya Deren - avant but warm and approachable - and Jean Cocteau, whose wonderfully rebellious hair must surely have influenced generations. Born a full 100 years before Dolan, he shows us that flair and ambition are everything.

The Top Ten

David Lynch

Agnes Varda

Jim Jarmusch

Xavier Dolan

Ava DuVernay

Jane Campion

Thomas Vinterberg

Katell Quillévéré

Maya Deren

Jean Cocteau

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Things I Would Rather Do Than Go To The Cinema To Watch Kingsman 2

  • Follow Lin-Manuel Miranda on Twitter
  • Go to a meat restaurant and dare some male friends to order the big meat platter too if they're man enough, the one with all the ribs and wings
  • Sit my not-quite-3-year-old son down for a chat about how the world is actually quite a terrible and terrifying place, and I'm not sure what I'm doing, and he has to understand that I'm making it all up as I go along, and I don't have the answers, he can't rely on me, he has to question everything, do you hear me, everything
  • Have another crack at Infinite Jest
  • Do my work commute on my knees, arriving at 10.47 with bloodied trousers and a winning smile
  • Go on Carpool Karaoke and do Hotline Bling, and then find out that Drake is a surprise guest, and then do One Dance and high-five each other
  • See my complete Grindr interactions hacked and uploaded onto an easily accessible Tumblr with amusing captions for the photos
  • 100 press-ups in a London park, very early in the morning, above a dog turd, while a personal trainer who did a stint in the army shouts, "Push up, up, OK AND NOW DOWN, SMELL THE SHIT, DOWN, DOWN, SMELL IT, OK back up again mate"
  • Write a comment piece about how, even though I am of course leftwing myself, I find it impossible to vote for Labour because Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable
  • Re-enact my beating-up of 2010 for a BFI-sponsored short film 
  • Go on a lovely romantic date with Tyson Fury
  • Carve '4 real' into my arm with a razorblade for a Manic Street Preachers disco in Clapham
  • Meet Simon Amstell and tell him how much I enjoyed Carnage while chewing a Peperami, adding, "Want some? LOL. Do the bit from Buzzcocks where Preston walked out."
  • Watch every episode of Mrs Brown's Boys only for an editor at Vice to tell me that my article "I Watched Every Episode of Mrs Brown's Boys" has been bumped for a piece by Sam Kriss about why elderflower wine is Brexit. 
  • Ed Sheeran

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Shantay, Bouvier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Money Shot: Towards a Representation of the Male Orgasm Onscreen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 5, 2017

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

(This is a reprint of the second newsletter I sent. You can subscribe to it here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newsletter 1: #Huppert2017

(This is a reprint of the the first newsletter I sent out. You can subscribe to it here:

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

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

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

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

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

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