Sunday, January 20, 2013

I've moved

I have now decamped to Wordpress, which is prettier and more functional. And I'm now a PROPER .com. See you there.

Monday, October 15, 2012

LFF: Antiviral



written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg; starring Caleb Landry Jones, Sarah Gadon, Joe Pingue, Douglas Smith, Malcom McDowell


Syd (Caleb Landry Jones) and the allure of the viral
Syd Marsh (Caleb Landry Jones) is bundled into an imposing black car, and quickly joined in the backseat by one of the men who have just escorted him from a diner. “Don’t look so worried. You’re a commodity,” the man assures him, nonplussed as to the horror of that statement. In the world of Antiviral, though, being a commodity is the highest honour. Celebrities – who, as far as we can tell, are all of the variety whose career is exactly and only that celebrity – are so beloved by the public that such places exist where people pay to be injected with infections and diseases taken from celebrities’ bodies. Syd works for one of these, the Lucas Clinic, selling the needles with an enrapturing, hollow rhetoric. He’s not impervious to the lure of viral glamour and performs rushed operations on himself.

Comparisons to the oeuvre of director Brandon Cronenberg’s father are inevitable; certainly, the cool obsession with the corporeal is reminiscent of almost David’s entire filmography, but Antiviral  feels more clinical, dominated by a conflict between the blinding brightness of this near future and the blood that is vomited onto it. Brandon’s use of space is more reminiscent of Julia Leigh’s recent Sleeping Beauty, or Todd Haynes’ Safe – the almost theatrical framing of spaces, trapping the protagonist within a cold, disconnected milieu. With his endless spread of freckles, Jones is not unlike Safe’s lead Julianne Moore, and, as an infection grips him and he’s encased within a spacious white box of a room, the visual parallels to Haynes’ masterpiece are surely not unintentional.

But Syd is not a passive patient fading away like Safe’s Carol White; not long into his stay in that box of a room, he fights back in a particularly vicious way, of the sort Antiviral is short but punchy with. If there’s a problem here – beyond the essential vapidity of the commentary on celebrity culture, ultimately a platform for demonstrating Cronenberg’s visualisation of a particular world and his display of clinical horrors – it’s that the film is overstretched and doesn’t fill that extended reach with enough visceral action. I’m not asking for gratuity, but from an opening stretch where the corporeal surface is captured with eerie brightness – Syd’s eye opening, full screen, like a vast crevice – the film loses itself somewhat in a quagmire of exposition. When it reignites towards the end, the internal becomes external, as if it’s been percolating all that time inside Syd’s body.

Jones has shades of Michael Pitt about him – a thinner, more angular face, but the same hushed, restrained tone of voice. Coming from Pitt, it gave the impression he was scared of his own brain, but Syd is a more dynamic, jaggedly imposing figure, and Jones uses his voice as an instrument to hold Syd hidden on the sidelines. As the disease weighs him down, Jones deepens the intense focus on the body by hunching so severely he comes to resemble Gollum. Jones’ full-bodied commitment to the narrative is what really makes Antiviral click, surpassing the unbelievable celebrity conceit to become an enactment of deteriorating horror, with similar aplomb to Cronenberg Sr. and his contemporaries.


I also had a conversation on Antiviral with Craig Bloomfield over at The Film Experience, which can be read here.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

LFF: Rust & Bone

I'm back at the 56th London Film Festival for Nathaniel Rogers at The Film Experience; hopefully this is the first of many full reviews I'll be bringing you.

Rust & Bone / De rouille et d'os


directed by Jacques Audiard; written by Audiard & Thomas Bidegain from a story by Craig Davidson; starring Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard


Rust (Matthias Schoenaerts) & Bone (Marion Cotillard)?

Rust & Bone is, as you might expect, a film of rough textures, though they proliferate more through the emotional volatility in the central relationship than though any visual particulars. Director Jacques Audiard is still in the business of tempering abrasive, down-on-their-luck characters in the French banlieues with a style that smears the poetic and the aggressive into one confrontational melting pot. As with previous pictures Read My Lips and The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Audiard embraces his characters as people dominated by darkness and a headstrong physicality. The more positive moments of Rust & Bone are still imagined in corporeal terms – the lusty meeting of damaged bodies, or the rush of memory as Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) re-enacts a routine to Kat Perry’s ‘Firework’ (if nothing else, Audiard has refreshed a song I’d never wanted to hear again).

As rust does, these sensations wear down, although it seems to be part of Audiard’s intention to throw severe miserablism at his audience just to see if they can survive. As the film reaches its second peak of tragedy, the eerie suddenness of Stephanie’s early accident has been replaced by a heavy, inevitable dread, with the crack of disaster impending in the background of one lengthy take. Such momentous foreboding doesn’t lessen the emotional pain, but it does make it feel ever so slightly gratuitous.

Still, such a vibrantly confrontational film with such a charged sense of the physical is a rare thing, and Audiard works to balance the lead performances by Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts between a dark emotional percolation and a keen awareness of their physicality and the relationship of their bodies. Typically, the male is the one with the more willing engagement of the physical – Ali (Schoenaerts) proudly participates in organised fights in a wasteland and engages in casual sex with nameless women – making the camera’s sense of Stephanie’s less frequently engaged physicality all the more heightened. Cotillard is expert at scorching her character’s lust and enhanced sense of her own body onto the screen, and the building frisson between Stephanie and Ali collects less through dialogue (the brisk, careless attitude of Ali puts paid to that) and more through the relation of their bodies and faces.

Rust & Bone is a brutal but sensual portrait of two people learning to exist independently and happily, and demonstrates the value of other damaged people in achieving that goal. It may tilt wildly into grandiose dramatics or viracious sentimentality, but while some of those notes may strike an off chord, they are all part of Audiard’s passionate approach to his narrative, and reflect the beautiful, distorted, uncomfortable mess of a world that these two people inhabit. The rust rubs up against the bone and they spark, hurting but creating fire and feeling.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The LLGFF exploded my expectations, but also my fingers

The 26th London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival ended a few weeks ago, and I was fortunate enough to have joined the writing team at So So Gay just in time to be part of their team covering the event. Across the event I saw fifteen features, some accompanied by short films, and rounded it off with one programme of shorts. What's more pertinent here is that I reviewed all fifteen of those features and the shorts programme for the website, and that's what this post is about. Among these links might be the big gay hits of the future, or gems you might need to seek out, or sadly films that we won't hear from again. But they're all worth reading about.

In rough order of my affection for them, then:

Joe + Belle (Veronica Kedar, 2011, Israel):
Registering with an almost inexplicable amount of pleasure, Joe + Belle is an anarchic conflagration of rebellion, danger, romance and political implication. The first Israeli lesbian feature is spearheaded by Kedar, who, as writer, director and star, drives the film to unbounded success. Her energetic, tactile direction never allows the film to fly too far out of reach – delivering such a revolutionary piece with such carefree panache is a commendable achievement in itself.
365 Without 377 (Adele Tulli, 2011, Italy):
Tulli’s close camera angles and sharp editing techniques create a film that really feels alive with the sights and smells of the city, bolstered by rich colour photography and a pointed sense of humour. As the film builds towards the triumphant anniversary celebrations, Tulli dynamically depicts a Mumbai that has bloomed into full colour under the progression of a fairer society. 
This Is What Love in Action Looks Like (Morgan Jon Fox, 2011, USA):
This Is What Love in Action Looks Like motors forward with a sense of purpose, and as part of the filmmaking process come the realities of progressive change – those involved were instrumental in the implosion of the Love in Action programme and the fairer, more open treatment of teenage homosexuals in the wider American culture. 
I Am (Sonali Gulati, 2011, USA/India):
Gulati realises a softly beautiful approach in her documentary. She contrasts the heteronormative society of India, reflected through a prevalence of advertising, with the Western world where the realisation of the new generation’s sexuality is often enacted. The interviews are frequently shifted to a voiceover of slowed, reflective imagery, moving them from the domestic space to the winding streets of India. 
Love Free or Die (Macky Alston, 2011, USA):
 Graciously, Alston isn’t blind to the struggles within the shifting church. At least two minutes are devoted to a tearful bishop who brokenly announces that despite her love for the gay members of her church, she cannot reconcile her biblical comprehension with their lifestyle. 
Jobriath A.D. (Kieran Turner, 2011, USA):
Jobriath A.D. mourns the under-appreciation and the loss of a great artist – his music is the dominant soundtrack and feels vibrant with invention – while also celebrating the groundbreaking effect Jobriath had on music culture. For newcomers, this is an enthralling education; for those familiar, this is a paean to celebrate. 
Ballroom Rules (Nickolas Bird & Eleanor Sharpe, 2012, Australia):
What the overwhelmingly charmingBallroom Rules leaves you with is a sense of the bountiful possibilities that these dancers have revealed. Oh, and a huge grin and maybe something in your eye.
A Safe Place for the Wild (Hanna Högstedt, 2011, Sweden):
Hanna Hogstedt’s intimate depiction of an unconventional romantic utopia is delivered with a gentle humanity that connects the drama to the most familiar emotional concerns. Through the collaborative and symbolic effort of tearing down the wall, a raucous housewarming party, an intimate twilight tryst and an awkward morning after, the dynamics of the relationships shift in unpredictable ways. 
Waited For (Nerina Penzhorn, 2011, South Africa):
The women’s discussions of their experiences leads Penzhorn to focus her documentary more of the issues of race embedded deep within the country. Kelly in particular provides some incisive musings about how ‘profound the logics of apartheid were’. 
Shorts programme: "Life's Too Short" - includes girl bunnies, lesbian clichés, and man-eating wedding dresses.

The Skinny (Patrik-Ian Polk, 2012, USA):
The Skinny never forces neat resolutions and easy forgiveness. A sequel beckons for these characters, and though the lessons they learn aren’t revolutionary, and they might have grown from Sex and the City-esque character types (Magnus wants the 2.5 children; Kyle is Samantha), it’ll be hard to resist spending more time in their sexy, sparkling presence. 
The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye (Marie Losier, 2011, USA):
Although it seems petty to complain about sexism in a film concerned with the breakdown of gender roles, Lady Jaye’s scant presence – she often exists as a mere haunting giggle – is the film’s inherent weakness. Losier constantly delves back into aspects of Genesis’ past and arcs these entangled narratives towards the present, but only once does Lady Jaye’s life receive the same treatment, as narrated by Genesis. 
Difficult Love (Zanele Muholi, 2011, South Africa):
Difficult Love feels a little unevenly constructed, with an overarching eschewed narrative. However, as a portrait of the power of the creative, challenging patriarchy and homophobia without their violent tendencies, it isn’t difficult to admire. 
Yes or No? (Saratsawadee Wongsomphet, 2010, Thailand):
It’s hard to really dislike such a sweet, bubblegum romance between such a likeable pairing. But the film almost turns into a strange checklist of every romantic cliché in the rulebook. There’s a dramatic confrontation in torrential rain, one character eavesdropping on an emotional declaration, an obsessive rival threatening suicide, and so on. 
The Mountain (Ole Giæver, 2011, Norway):
Filmed in vast widescreen, you’re unlikely to happen upon a film as beautifully shot as The Mountain very often. Cinematographer Oystein Mamen is attuned to every breath of wind on every blade of grass, working with the sound designers to make the mountain a third character in this sparse drama. 
Stud Life (Campbell X, 2012, UK):
Budget constraints obviously contribute heavily to the small, overexposed location shooting, but the close camera work feels like an imposition on the engaging performances of the actors. Worse, this style neutralises every space, so that the sense of danger inherent in the visibility of the alternative lifestyles with the London cityscape never connects, even when events take a darker turn. 
Of course, you shouldn't forget to check out the rest of the reviews on the SoSoGay website - the most comprehensive coverage of the festival you'll find anywhere, and all top class. I mean, it's unlikely that I bagged all of the great films.

Image from Joe + Belle courtesy of

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Queer Anglo Films, Take #3: Sebastiane

For our third discussion, James and I move both forward and backwards in time. We're five years on from last take, Sunday Bloody Sunday, but Derek Jarman's feature debut is set thousands of years back in Ancient Rome. There's something interesting about Sebastiane, and it's not just his penis...

David: Sebastiane was the first film to be recorded entirely in accurately translated Latin. That's a hell of a way for Derek Jarman to introduce himself to cinema. (We should note that Sebastiane was co-directed by Paul Humfress, but since he's done no feature work since, we'll probably talk exclusively about Jarman.) Jarman's films are the type that lie everything controversial on the surface, so that you can't even look at them without confronting these issues and opinions and images, which is why I feel this discussion might be considerably more difficult that our previous two. Sebastiane intertwines religion and sexuality on the level of imagery and of text, and I'm finding the extrapolation of what these mean within the film hard to manage. It's also something we can't avoid, so brace yourself for some inappropriate comments and boneheaded observations.

I want to take this down to the most basic reading I made of the film at the end. If we read the entire film as queer, which seems necessary, then Sebastian, despite his refusal of Severus' advances, is gay too. Only what his rhapsodic words to Justin demonstrate is the purity of his gayness - the separation of love from lust. "You think your drunken lust compares to the love of God?" he asks Severus boldly, even in the face of potential rape. Severus' hazy slow motion views of Anthony and Adrian's wet make it clear that he seems the men around him purely in terms of the bodily, carnal involvement, but I think what the actors do, both in those scenes and later when Adrian is leaning against Anthony, is suggest the genuine affection and coupledom between the pair. Lust is part of love, but Severus' separation from the men around him causes him to objectify and see sex as the only possible connection to them. He's also, along with Max (who momentarily acts as our narrator), the old guard, the remnants of the brutal Roman society they've left behind. One of the most amusing moments is where the camera's so disinterested in Max's lament over how the glory of the past is receding that it lingers heavily over another man shaving his body.

It's easy to criticise the film for baring so much flesh and filming certain scenes in such an erotic way they're straight (no pun intended) out of porn films, but Jarman and Humfress don't use these techniques so basically. The constant appearance of dicks becomes normalised; even comedic when they all try to outdo each other's fake endowments. Especially late in the film, the degree of nudity for the various men seems to reflect social status. Note how emphasised Adrian is in the final scene and how he has to be forced to shoot Sebastian, because he is the submissive partner of Anthony, and has been teased earlier about being a virgin, the younger member of the group at the prey of his superiors. His posing in the final scene is erotic, but it's also so posed that it reflects the kind of emotionless decorative qualities of male flesh that we see in the ornate opening, with a motionless man painted gold and muted.

The film's natural equivocation of sex and violence (swords = penises, you know the drill - and Sebastian doesn't want to have sex so he refuses to clean those swords!) create the natural solution to Severus' sexual frustration - if he can't sex Sebastian, he can reach satisfaction by piercing Sebastian with an arrow. In fact, the involvement of all of the men in this final act is a perverse reflection of the bukkake climax to the dancing scene that opens the film. And now, James, you have carte blanche, because I've just said bukkake. Twice.

James: Maybe we can start a drinking game. Every time we say "bukkake" in this post, the readers have to take a drink. It's really the inevitable continuation of the Bridesmaids girls' "SCORSESE!".

Sebastiane was my first Jarman film. All I really knew about him was that he made queer avant-garde films and that Tilda Swinton was his muse. So, I was actually surprised to discover that Sebastiane wasn't as "out there" as I had feared. Then again, what does it say about me that I did not find a film with a barebones plot and shot entirely in Latin "out there"? Perhaps it was the gratuitous amounts of male flesh on display, unashamed of just how gratuitous it was. Like you mentioned, many scenes were shot like they were straight out of a porno. Perhaps, though, Jarman and Humfress weren't "borrowing" so much as they were influencing that genre. I'm no expert in 70's porn, but a few of these scenes, particularly the one where the guys, nearly naked and wet, start throwing around a ball on the beach, felt completely modern to me: "Oh, look at these strapping young dudes, just tossing a ball around like the hot, macho jocks they are. Hot, macho jocks who are going to fuck each other, that is."

I like what you have to say about the film's "love vs. lust" angle, which I must admit completely escaped me when I was considering Sebastiane's queerness. I was more focused on the relationship between Sebastian's homosexuality and his Christianity. There's no doubt that Sebastian was attracted to Severus--he openly admits it--yet I never quite saw it as something he was interested in experiencing or exploring. In fact, he seems oddly ashamed of it. Jarman and Humfress are not exactly subtle in making Sebastian a Christ-like figure. Over the course of the film, he is brutally beaten for refusing the follow Severus' orders, sexual and otherwise. Instead of getting the punishment over as soon as possible, however, Sebastian refuses to give in, accepting beatings far beyond what his body can handle. It's almost as if he feels he deserves these punishments for the sins he has committed, namely his homosexual desires (It's no coincidence that he mentions his desire for Severus during one of these cruel punishments). The purity of Sebastian's Christianity contrasts strongly with the hedonistic Romans who surround him. He won't allow himself to give into Severus' lust, but he also still has some feelings for him. Besides, as you said, the films shows that love and lust go hand in hand, but neither Sebastian or Severus can see this. In a way, the film's finale is the only way it can end: Sebastian must die for the sins of not only himself but of the soldiers around him.

Let me pose a question that has been nagging at me since I watched this film: Why is it that the movies associate Ancient Rome with male homoeroticism and homosexuality? There are countless examples, no doubt, but perhaps the most glaring choice is Fellini's Satyricon, released just a few years before Sebastiane. That film was an epic about one young Roman's love/lust for an even younger male (a twink, to be more specific) and the journey he takes to be with him. It's a surprisingly brazen film, both for the time it was made and even among Fellini's filmography, but I think it got away with it precisely because of its historical context. Even with last year's The Eagle, many spectators were hoping Tatum and Bell got it on because that's what we expect from Ancient Roman epics. Why is it that Ancient Rome was, and, to an extent, still is a safe haven in films for homosexuality, or at the very least homoeroticism, to flourish? In other words, why is it we got to see bukkake in Sebastiane without UK censors burning every last print of this movie? Is it because of the well-recorded decadence of the empire, particularly during its final years? And why is Rome used more often than Ancient Greece, where homosexuality and pederasty was widely reported and approved?

Max (Neil Kennedy) momentarily acts as conduit
David: I think they key to your last question lies in your final word. It's quite clear that although homosexuality is a common occurrence among these Romans, it's not strictly approved. In Sebastiane, at least - I've not seen The Eagle nor Satyricon, and I'm no expert on Roman history, so I'm proceeding with caution on this subject. But Jarman and Humfress seem very careful to give a fair amount of time to Max, who, even though he admits having engaged in it himself, views homosexuality as inferior, wrong somehow. "They're okay for a quick one." I'd guess that we see much less of Ancient Greece within this topic precisely because it was too normalised. I think the Roman films we're talking about rely, to an extent, on a frisson of deviation from the normal. Sebastiane is a gay film from gay directors for gay audiences, but the central conflicts we've been discussed are powered by that sense of castigation and punishment of someone who is inherently wrong. As you suggested, Sebastiane equates Christianity with homosexuality - at its most essential, the film is an allegory for the homophobia and resulting violence that still occurs in modern society and certainly did in the 1970s, where homosexuality was more visible due to legalisation, but far from accepted. Jarman and Humfress twist these depictions to a brilliantly confrontational degree - the Jewish man crucified by Christians (Jesus) equates to a Christian crucified by Romans (Sebastian) to a gay man attacked by (possibly repressed) heterosexuals (the contemporary audience). The final point is an obvious, but essential one - discrimination is bad. Your excellent perceptions also pick up on the self-hatred that is often induced in gay people by the repressive society around them, becoming convinced that they deserve their punishment, when they are instead essentially suffering because of the self-hatred of people who can't accept homosexuality (their own, but also simply the concept).

I do remember as it began thinking, "this is the weirdest film I have ever seen" - and then ten minutes later, it felt almost ordinary. I think it takes a certain brazen attitude to pull that off, as you suggested - even though it does use the nudity for titillation, it contextualises that within an environment where the titillating elements are always on display, and thus, normalised. The exotic is sucked out of the nude bodies because we see them doing everything naked. And so those scenes you describe are not necessarily pornographic, simply the day-to-day life. You're right, though, since '70s porn (I am honestly not lying when I say I've been reading academic pieces on pornography just hours before I write this - it's part of my module on Exploitation Cinema) was driven by actual narratives, as opposed to the more direct clips we get today. And scenes like those ball games definitely reflect the infamous volleyball scenes in earlier films about nudist camps. How developed pornography was in terms of the slow-motion erotica Jarman and Humfress shot, I couldn't tell you, but I think it's worth noting that they aren't strictly sex scenes - what exuded powerfully from those scenes for me was the good humour of the two men. Porn generally reduces sex to a physical connection and those scenes felt more emotionally driven.

Adrian (Ken Hicks) and Anthony (Janusz Romanov) embrace
I'm most intrigued by the character of Justin. As his relationship with Sebastian seems to strengthen, it becomes clear that he's actually in love with him, to the point of sacrifice (where he's too made to ape the crucifixion, with a crown of thorns forced onto his head). The film doesn't depict any actual relationships that aren't founded on sex - it doesn't seem possible for these men to simply be friends. A society without females seems to suggest that the sexual drive is so strong that homosexual interaction is simply inevitable, which rather shatters the idea of sexual categorisation that our society is based on. It takes a story set in such an ancient time period as this to make these things apparent - which is why I found the character of Max so strange, because he's the only one so insistent on the deviant nature of homosexuality. He isn't strictly judgemental, but he doesn't understand the preference - whereas for the rest, even the idea of preference doesn't seem to exist.

James: Does the film position Justin as the idealized love counterpoint to Severus' lust? I never thought of it before, but now that you mention it, the idea makes sense to me. As you said, Justin is clearly in love with Sebastian. However, we never get the feeling that Justin is lusting after him. He's the pure love that Sebastian seeks, yet he's too racked with guilt over his "unnatural" feelings for Severus to even notice. To put it in terms more people will understand, Justin is the Ducky to Sebastian's Molly Ringwald: he'll always be there and may always have feelings for him, but Sebastian / Molly Ringwald is too caught up in their own little world to take him seriously as a romantic suitor.

Sebastian (Leonardo Treviglio) lost in his own little world
And now that I've reduced this film to an 80's Brat Pack movie, let's talk about something else. We have talked a bit about how Sebastiane is set in an army post, secluded from the world and, consequently, other women. This seclusion from the outside world is a perfect place for homosexuality to occur, as they are away from societal mores that would normally prevent it (or, at the very least, look down upon it more, as Max does). What's interesting, however, is the fact that the homosexuality of the other films in this series has taken place in seclusion as well. All of the men in Victim hid in cars and kept it quiet in their apartments because they had to. Daniel and Bob were more openly affectionate with each other in Sunday Bloody Sunday, yet they too kept their love secluded in Daniel's apartment. We never really saw them go out in public together. At first, Sebastiane appears to follow the same pattern: the slow-motion lovemaking scene we have hinted at previously takes place in a small quiet beach away from the post. We think that they are secluded even further from the already secluded post. But then we see Severus looking down at them. And, before long, Sebastian stumbles upon it as well. The couple isn't as hidden as we thought, and when they are called out by Severus, we are surprised that they aren't punished or even looked down upon. In fact, it's quite the opposite really. The couple is openly affectionate with each other among the other men. Even Max, who mercilessly goes after Sebastian and his homosexuality, makes a silly one-liner about them and moves on. If we view this film as a metaphor for homosexuality in the 1970's, as you previously mentioned, then perhaps Humfress and Jarman are saying that in gay society, cut off from the heteronormative world, relationships can flourish. It's not perfect yet--we still have those who are self-loathing and those who don't understand--but there is hope, as evidenced by the open affection between these two men.

David: I don't know that it's that positive - after all, this is a society where refused advances lead to someone being crucified and pummelled with arrows. If the film shows a gay society flourishing, it also shows that these are still men - and men have the tendency to deal with their problems with violence. I think the film does still delineate between the butcher men and the more effeminate ones - Sebastian being feminised through the torture he undergoes. This is still a world governed by heteronormative, gendered systems, only mapped onto a society where everyone has a penis. You are right, though - the open affection does seem like a moment of simple, loving interaction between two equals. It's definitely the most content and positive depiction of homosexuality we've seen so far.

Next take: My Beautiful Laundrette

Friday, February 24, 2012

Motifs in Cinema, '11: Is Old The New Young?

Once more into the breach... Andrew Kendall recently asked me to participate in his quasi-blog-a-thon, and I'm all about the community. So here's my piece on ageing in the cinema of 2011, preceded by Andrew's elegant introduction to the one-day series. Be sure to check out the other great pieces in the series from the hub at Andrew's blog.
Perhaps because it’s one of the youngest artistic forms, cinema is often assessed in a much different manner than literature, or the visual arts. We discuss it in terms of genre, not in terms of thematic offerings. Comparing, for example, Corpse Bride and Up because they’re both animated leads to some dubious discussion, especially when – like any art form – thematic elements examined in cinema and the way different filmmakers address them make for some stimulating discussion. Motifs in Cinema is a discourse, across eleven film blogs, assessing the way in which various thematic elements have been used in the 2011 cinematic landscape. How does a common theme vary in use from a comedy to a drama? Are filmmakers working from a similar canvas when they assess the issue of the artist or the family dynamic? Like everything else, a film begins with an idea - Motifs in Cinema assesses how the use of a single idea changes when utilised by varying artists.

When director John Wells insisted that Meryl Streep was "the only conceivable choice" for his upcoming adaptation of acclaimed play August: Osage County, he was rubbing at a scar that had only just stopped bleeding. Just a few years after her status as the only real female star of her generation was solidified by her scoring bona fide populist hits in Mamma Mia! and It's Complicated, Streep returned as a headlining star in 2011, albeit in a film destined to remain in Oscar circles for its US audience. But there's the not unfeasible idea that The Iron Lady exists thanks to Streep's mighty status rather than from any strong desire to tell Margaret Thatcher's story. And while it may tell the story of an elderly woman, she's a distinctly uncommon one, dementia deteriorating her within a lonely, restricted locale.

Still, you have to admire, even with all its faults, a script that devotes a huge chunk of its time to an elderly woman's struggles with the encroaching effects of ageing. The flawless work of the make-up team leaves Streep free to explore the fracturing mind of Thatcher, as seen from within. Abi Morgan's script imagines Thatcher accompanied by the ghost of her beloved husband Dennis (Jim Broadbent), carefully maintaining a spectatorial balance between sympathetic involvement and the resigned concern seen in her daughter Carol (Olivia Colman). Though Broadbent makes Dennis a genial, soft sort of ghost, his task is to be the little devil on Maggie's shoulders, pushing her to maintain the delusions and imaginings that become dementia's overpowering weapon.

Having to split its thematic concern between Thatcher's political life and her ageing, The Iron Lady finds little room for reflecting the positives of Thatcher's past that dementia returns her to. Instead, it takes a similar tack to Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar in its scattershot structure, spinning back into the past at the stroke of a bronzed statue. Dementia is reduced to a plot structuring device, and depth on the subject is as avoided as any definite political stance. Biopics like these seem to necessitate the use of old age as a duller counterpoint to an exciting youth. This tendency compounds the film industry's obsession with youth and beauty over the multitude of disparate experiences in the human world. Like Thatcher and Hoover, George Méliès and his wife Jeanne (Ben Kingsley and Helen McCrory) in Hugo have entered the dark despair of later life, and are led to look back on their former glories in order to find happiness.

Lee Chang-dong's elegiac South Korean drama Poetry seems to suggest the opposite, with its more classic view of the wiser, more fulfilled elderly generation. It even does this in the face of central character Yang Mija (a remarkable Yoon Jeong-hee) facing the onset of Alzheimer's Disease. Like The Iron Lady, Poetry contains a multitude of thematic threads refracted through an elderly female character, but Yang Mija does not lose herself inside her own head and memories of former glories. Instead, her efforts to focus her deteriorating mind by joining a poetry class open her up to revelations about the beauty in the world around her, even in the face of her grandson's horrific crime. Like Potiche, Francois Ozon's colourful French comedy, Poetry demonstrates a view of ageing as a positive progression. Yang Mija and Suzanne (Catherine Deneuve) are still allowed to discover new experiences and be active participants in their society.

Nanni Moretti's We Have A Pope portrays a man who longs for that same thing. Faced by the overwhelming responsibility of being appointed Pope, Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli) has somewhat of a mid-life crisis, a mixture of fatigue and youthful hope present in his escape into the anonymity of the city outside the Papal Palace. He slips away from the absurdist comedy that percolates inside the conclave and into his own tender, affecting plot of a man who simply desires to be true to himself. That's also the choice of the monk community in Of Gods and Men, whose religious dedication is, like Melville's, severely tested, but the truth of these men is instead to stay strong in their faith, even in the face of violence and possible death. Neither We Have A Pope or Of Gods and Men, though essentially presenting opposing views of religious life, judges their protagonists for their decisions one way or the other, warmly presenting their wizened men as capable, reasonable decision makers.

Beginners, 2011's most celebrated and evocative portrayal of old age seems, helpfully enough, to tie all these themes together. The revelation of his terminal cancer is what makes Hal (Christopher Plummer) feel liberated enough to reveal his homosexuality to his loved ones, finally realising the truth in his life because the release of death is assured. But disease doesn't turn Hal inwards to regret and self-reflection; rather, Hal uses his late-blooming freedom to love Andy (Goran Visnjic) and inspire son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) to find his own fresh beginnings with Anna (Melanie Laurent) once Hal has passed away. Beginners depicts the liberty of old age, once people are past the age of financial responsibility, equating in its title the freshness of Hal's and Oliver's romantic experiences as just as engaging and valuable as the other, wrapping sexuality and age together. Beginners stands tall as 2011's finest depiction of the elderly generation, and crucially, levels separate generations as equally worthy of exploration and fulfilment.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Why Home Alone Disappoints: Scream, Kevin, Scream!

No, I'd never seen Home Alone. (I didn't see The Wizard of Oz until I was sixteen either, so go yell at my parents.) As it started, and John Williams' familiarly magical score piped up, I immediately thought of Harry Potter - although dwelling on those two dodgy efforts with which Chris Columbus began the series is not something I'm really interested in. On the face of it, both Harry Potter and Home Alone are about orphaned boys. However, for a film that seems to be expressed in the pop culture space as the wild expression of a free child, Home Alone turns out to hew remarkably close to the whimsical holiday movie traditions of something like Jingle All The Way. What I wanted was the manic, unbridled release of free will; what I got was the affirmation of its suppression.

Kate (Catherine O'Hara) is too softly lit to be a bad mother
Actually, Home Alone does give you both. Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) wishes for his family and their constraints and their bullying to disappear, and they do, with an astute mixture of plausibility and movie magic. Editor Raja Gosnell - who graduated to director by Home Alone 3 - does particularly sharp work intercutting Kevin and his mother's (Catherine O'Hara) realisations that he's been left home alone. There's some similarly deft work from cinematographer Julio Macat - particularly the gliding zoom in on the parents, still blissfully unaware in their aeroplane seats, the realisation slowly but surely creeping towards them. When Kevin realises, everyone involved delivers a sledgehammer blow to the fourth wall - "I made my family disappear!" he exclaims into the camera. Frequent shots of him rushing to the top of stairs see him stop at the camera, stare, and then turn tail and run towards his room in the other direction. It's a technique that can be normalised, to an extent, through the idea of the id unleashed - Kevin is of the age where inhibitions aren't sealed, and having been cut free from his family allows him to do such unsocial things as talk to himself.

Kevin screams into the camera, which seems to block his way
Home Alone follows a narrative trajectory where Kevin's unleashed id is tamed, in the absence of a family to suppress it, by its having to fight against a darker expression of the id - the criminal. Or rather, criminals, in the mostly unthreatening form of Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern), the former of whom is in the film almost as soon as Kevin, masquerading as a policeman standing untended in the foyer of the house. Harry and Marv, easily bested by Kevin, are repeatedly figured as childlike figures, particularly Marv, who's afraid of the dark ("Not not not!" he protests), and insists they be known as the "Wet Bandits" due to his "calling card" of leaving the robbed houses flooded. Harry is the gruffer and darker, the mastermind of the pair. As such, Kevin's victory over Harry - one which he ingeniously avoids taking credit for - is not so much Kevin ensuring his own safety, but the value and integrity of his family and their home. Notice how Kevin magically - with the final comic exception of Buzz's room - tidies the house up for the return of the family he didn't know were returning. And by not telling of his heroic exploits, Kevin reasserts the status quo, without gaining any superiority over his siblings and parents.

Manchild Marv (Daniel Stern) and mastermind Harry (Joe Pesci)
Moreover, the film sees Kevin, in the absence of control, shifting from wild unleashed id to suppressed normality remarkably quickly - a few short scenes of exuberant physical madness and some eating unsuitable food combinations (what is that), and then he's done, doing shopping and laundry and protecting the home fortress. He finds safety and solace in the most communal of places - a church, where he also discovers that another 'Other', his frightening old neighbour Marley (Roberts Blossom), is in fact not a murderer but a melancholy grandfather. Marley - surely a nod to A Christmas Carol - inevitably becomes part of Kevin's victory over the robbers. But crucially, Marley is only a force for good once he's been normalised as part of a family unit which Kevin secures the reunion of. Kevin has passed through the final expression of the id and functions as a householder, working as part of a community (albeit a select one - but then it is Christmas and people are rather busy) to bring down an external threat.

Obviously I'm not suggesting that Home Alone should have been about Kevin teaming up with the robbers to tear the house to the ground as a symbol of the destruction of domestic society and the true freedom of the id. This is a family comedy, a Christmas classic for many, and I did enjoy Macaulay Culkin's sprightly performance and the slapstick of his intricate booby traps. But I'd always imagined the film as featuring a kid really cutting loose, enjoying his freedom, being a proper kid without repression. Home Alone could be read in a more positive way along these lines - Kevin's concealment of his triumph keeps the power of the id hidden, so society and family life can continue as normal, but we have still witnessed the positive power of the freed kid. His victory over the criminals was greater than the mere arrest they'd have suffered under the influence of Kevin's parents - what Kevin did was humiliate them. But Kevin is always tied down - before he begins taking responsibility for the house, his freer expression is intercut with scenes of the family fretting on the other side of the ocean, so that you don't ever forget that he's still part of a functional family. O'Hara does an excellent job of making this worry very palatable, and I'm not against family or anything - but is it so much to ask for Kevin's brief freedom to be precisely that? Probably. No one likes to overthink this stuff, it's Christmas.