Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Film 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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