MIFF ’12—Michael Haneke’s ‘Amour’

This review was originally published on the Meanjin blog on August 15 2012

A new Michael Haneke film is generally the feel-bad event of the cinema year, affording us the opportunity to be emotionally and intellectually terrorised by a director with an exquisite control of his craft. Although they are always astonishingly well-made (which is reason enough to see them), they are highbrow cinematic junk food—exciting to consume, but mostly empty calories—the equivalent of a slasher movie for the art-house intelligentsia set. His latest film (and perhaps his finest to date) had its first screening at MIFF last Thursday.

In Amour (2012), Haneke shows us the the last days of an elderly married couple. After the wife suffers a series of debilitating strokes, the two retreat into their apartment, where the husband attempts to manage and direct his wife’s care on his own, barely tolerating the presence and interference of their daughter and well-wishers.

Haneke inflicts on us each distressing deterioration of the wife’s physical and mental health, while also exposing for us the simple intimacy of the couple’s love for each other. The film is thoroughly emotionally harrowing.

Haneke is a great filmmaker. But, perhaps like all great filmmakers, he is his own worst enemy. The compelling intellectual authority that drives his best work also drives his films, Amour included, off the cliff.

His cinema is didactic. Each film can be understood as a revisionist corrective to some common cultural assumption or habit. Funny Games (1997) punishes us for our moral laxitude in our fetishization of screen violence. Caché (2005) attempts to rouse us from some sort of post-colonial white bourgeois complacency. Amour dispenses with our sentimentalization of aging and confronts us with the realities of mortality. Haneke is the film-going public’s stern grandfather, and each film is a collective scolding.

His strength and his weakness is his astonishing formal control. His films are immaculately made, and laser precise in their effects (I defy you to leave Amour unmoved), but they are also, ultimately, closed systems: hermetically sealed and climate controlled—nothing can enter which is not permitted by the director. But the trade-off for this power is the absence of anything approaching the looseness and vigour of real life. Thus, in Amour, we have a film about love that has little feeling for the meaning of family, or friendship.

Haneke is unable to admit anything outside of himself, unable to slacken his grip on his material and let it walk around and breathe on its own. This, after all, is the filmmaker who issued forth the same lecture on screen violence twice—the twin versions of Funny Games from 1997 and 2008—and despite the eleven year lapse barely condescended to change a thing.

But more problematic than his intellectual rigidity is the subtle gerrymandering he employs to generate his effects. His films are meticulous in their construction of a ‘realist’ screen affect—with their impeccably life-sized performances, and cooly impersonal camera work. But so often, at critical junctures, Haneke cheats. Consider the way in which the narratives of The White Ribbon (2009) and Caché devolve into studied, dead-end ambiguities. Amour suffers from this as well. After spending most of the film convincing us he has the stones to see his narrative through to its inevitable end, Haneke surprises us with a with a dream-like, elliptic conclusion. I take such intellectually dishonest hand-waving as proof that his schematic narratives are incommensurable to the business of real life.

Like all Haneke films, Amour is a galvanising performance by a master rhetorician—it’s only as we leave the cinema that we pause to reflect on the speciousness of his arguments.

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A new version of life is available. Do you want to update now?—Josh Trank’s Chronicle (2012)

This review originally appeared in its entirety on the website Screen Machine.

Contemporary consumerism is marked by planned obsolescence. Our devices, our phones, our computers, our social medias, go through an endless and artificial progression of updates. Software becomes outdated. Hardware becomes outmoded. Upgrades are required in order to stay current. The logic of the upgrade is deeply embedded in our capitalism. It’s the reason why your iPhone probably won’t last more than three years, and thus is the reason why the gross revenue of Apple as of January this year is more than the GDP of 105 countries, including Slovenia.

But this logic is fundamentally exclusionary. Upgrades are for those with the means to procure them. And so the realm of consumerism is demarcated by class. Upgrades are a decadent conflation of utility and luxury, and they exist first and foremost for those with the means to make aesthetic choices about how their lives are lived, meaning the wealthy. The relationship of the classes to their technology is a division between functionality and aestheticisation; the un-upgraded tech of the poor is merely functional, a means to life itself, while the upgraded tech of the bourgeois is a means to aesthetic pleasure.

In Josh Trank’s Chronicle this consumerist logic is articulated through the current blockbuster trope du jour, the superhero origin story. Three high school students discover a mysterious glowing crystalline object, and subsequently develop telekinetic abilities – the ability to move objects with their minds and, eventually, cause themselves to lift off into flight. Sophomoric fun ensues. But one of the trio, Andrew – the poor one – is mentally destabilised by his new powers. Violence erupts, and he must be put down.

…continued at Screen Machine.

Making a spectacle of montage: Christopher Nolan picks up where the Russians left off

This article appears in its entirety at Screen Machine.

Has there ever been another great art so persistently mis-apprehended? I refer not, of course, to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises—which is by no measure great art, and by some measures bad art—but to the cinema itself. And I avoid the term misunderstood deliberately. It’s not that the cinema has not been understood, in some fashion; it’s that the terms on which it is grasped are so often the ones of least significance. So much of the contemporary dialogue around cinema—and especially around blockbuster events, like The Dark Knight Rises—is tuned to the wrong frequency.

An audience may ask any number of questions to decide the worth of a film. Is the narrative coherent? Are the characters believable? Do I find its politics acceptable? But a great deal of contemporary critical discourse tends to neglect those questions most fundamental to apprehending film; like, is this really cinema? Does this film instantiate, in some notable and compelling way, the qualities of cinema as art? The issue here is not one of enjoyment, but of understanding the fundamental criteria that delineates cinema as a unique art form.

The fact of the matter is: a bad movie can also be great cinema.

…continued at Screen Machine.

Carlos (Olivier Assayas, 2010)

This review originally appeared on a now-defunct version of the website Screen Machine.

Olivier Assayas’ Carlos is a project of epic proportions; a five and a half hour, three part, made for French television, biopic of notorious 20th century terrorist Illich Ramirez Sanchez (known as Carlos ‘the Jackal’), the film is an incisive portrait not only of one revolutionary, but also of the radical Left in the Cold War, and, indeed, of the methods, means, and reality of terrorism per se. Carlos, a Venezuelan-born, Moscow-educated, would-be Che, began his career as an agent for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, before the murder of two unarmed policemen at a Paris party in 1975 sealed his notoriety. A highly publicised turn in the spotlight as the bad-boy of international terrorism followed in the late 70s and early 80s, including a lead role in the famous OPEC raid in Vienna, and then a slow decline as a revolutionary for hire in Arab states like Syria and Jordan, until his arrest by French authorities in 1994 in Sudan.

Part 1 gives a propulsive account of Carlos’ early days with the PFLP, leading up to an exquisitely staged depiction of the murder of the policemen in Paris. Part 2 is largely taken up with an incredible, minute account of the Carlos’ raid on an OPEC conference in Vienna, as the initial paroxysms of violence when the terrorists storm the conference deteriorates into threats of murder that never erupt, planes idling on tarmacs as the group and its hostages are turned away by Arab nations who don’t want them, and tedious logistics of sleep, fuel, and food (the Austrian authorities send a room full of Muslim hostages ham sandwiches). The raid a failure, Carlos – who was ordered to kill a Saudi Arabian delegate, but accepted a bribe instead (for the ‘good of the revolution’) – is dismissed by the PFLP, and begins his extended exile behind the Iron Curtain and in sundry Arab states. Part 3 finds him as something like a mercenary, alternately protected and passed around by governments who aren’t sure they want him, his ideology and scruples growing increasingly thin as he himself get fatter.

Assayas’ technique throughout each part is largely to just get out of the way of the material; scenes are built faithfully from the accounts of participants, and dialogue is even lifted straight out of Stasi recordings from bugs planted in Carlos’ home. He guides us with a minimum of fuss through the proceedings, using skilful blocking, long takes, and a nimble, floating camera for an elegant, distanced perspective on each episode, and the film benefits in richness and durability from the confident simplicity of this approach. I’m increasingly fond of formally and theoretically minded directors like Assayas and Steven Soderbergh (whose scandalously underrated Che is an obvious companion piece to this film) who apply themselves to factual material in this fashion, and who don’t waste time trying massage ideological shapes out of the raw materials of history (Spielberg’s Munich, I think, suffers from this). Carlos has a lot to say about its subject, and about our recent history (and as Assayas is a child of May ’68, how could it not?), but real life and real history has enough unintended ironies that all it really takes is someone with the wit and skill to get it on screen.

The most overt bit of authorial meddling is the music: Assayas has cannily chosen to soundtrack the film with a selection of 70s and 80s Punk and New-Wave songs, and it’s a resonant complement to the heady juvenility of the revolutionary goings on. One scene has a particularly wild German terrorist, Gabriele ‘Nada’ Tiedemann, being chased down and apprehended to the ‘fuck authority’, ‘don’t need no mum and dad’ ersatz-nihilism of The Dead Boys ‘Sonic Reducer’. I was reminded, and not just because of the New Order on the soundtrack, of Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, his chronicle of the haphazard rise and fall of Factory Records and the ‘madchester’ music scene, wherein the midwives of that cultural moment are shown to be just as clueless, ineffectual, and rudderless as anyone. Trying to wage a revolution must be a little like trying to be a hit band. There’s a time, and a place, and a cultural moment, and those who catch it are never any greater, more talented, more special, than those who don’t. Carlos, for all his braggadocio, and for all that he is one of the most famous terrorists of the 20th century, is something of a joke, along with all his compatriots. They literally couldn’t hit the side of a plane with a rocket launcher. Their most practically successful operations are also the most vindictive and cruel: throwing a grenade into a crowded bank; leaving a suitcase bomb on a train, both petulant reactions to the failure of more ideologically higher-minded schemes. Carlos understands that the mythologising of a movement, be it punk or Marxist, is largely built from the outside in; by the teenagers putting The Clash posters on their walls, or spouting ideology in coffee shops. Being part of the song, the band, the group, the scene, the revolution always looks better, sharper, realer, for those on the outside. On the inside it’s just a bunch of crap people, no wiser than the rest of us, and usually a good deal more myopic. Punks are never really all that punk, and revolutionaries rarely ever revolt.

X-Men: First Class (Matthew Vaughn, 2011)

This review originally appeared on a now-defunct version of the website Screen Machine.

Although any and all think-pieces on the state of contemporary film (or the ‘here’s what wrong with film today’ article) are detestable, I’m going to propose to you that there is a crisis in contemporary action filmmaking, and that Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class is a form of relief.

Spearheaded by filmmakers as diverse as Michael Bay, Paul Greengrass, and Peter Jackson, the contemporary action sequence is generally marked by spatial disorganisation, incoherence in shot structuring and sequencing (often passed off as ‘kineticism’), and an unmotivated emphasis on spectacle. Basic rules of thumb dictating that action should be motivated by character and grounded in conflict, result in tediously arbitrary obstacles in these sequences (we have to get to that MacGuffin through this burning building!), and embarrassingly schizophrenic characterisation (I cannot go with you through this burning building!).

Vaughn, throughout his brief four-film career, has demonstrated an innate understanding of the primal dynamics of action cinema, aided by a crack conductor’s sense of tempo and pacing. He knows that the best action scenes are at heart equations of cause and effect, with events breeding inevitable and escalating consequences, and logistical problems, where character’s established capabilities can be activated at pre-ordained moments but only with already intuited limitations and nullifications. More importantly, he and his writers (frequent collaborator Jane Goldman, I think, deserves a lot of credit) understand that these rules cannot be shoe-horned post-conceptually, but must grow organically out of the demands of the narrative and the characters. He also knows that upping the stakes of an action sequence is not the same as upping the antics – a single bullet fired, if grounded in a moment of revelation for the character, is worth a thousand exploding buildings.

This is all just a long way of saying that my enthusiasm, both emotional and analytic, for the climax of First Class, is boundless. The film is cleverly structured as a giant coming out party both for mutant characters and for mutant-kind in general, as they take up or test their abilities and enter onto the world stage. The opening salvo of the climax and big-money moment, familiar from the trailers, has Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (played by Michael Fassbender) levitating an entire submarine out of the sea and dumping it on a Cuban beach. The moment connects both as a galvanisingly cathartic character beat (the film is in part the story of Lehnsherr’s ascension into his full abilities) as well as an appalling display of power that sets the course for the fate of the mutants throughout the close of the narrative.

The rest of climax unfolds, to my mind, as a model of what all superhero films, or indeed all action films, should aspire to. Multiple groups of adversaries (here including Navies both American and Soviet, and mutants both good and evil) confront each across a spatially well-defined arena of conflict, and as sub-groups split off to conduct their own battles, Vaughn and his writers carefully and speedily collapse these sub-conflicts until all parties are drawn inexorably together into one final showdown. The axis of the arch-conflict shifts cleanly as these sub-conflicts are dispatched, obstacles arise, are overcome, and are re-formed (an admirable amount of business is found, particularly, in the mechanics of where and when James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier can extend his telepathic abilities). By the time the whole thing comes to a head the orientation of individuals and parties, as well as the consequences of the entire conflagration, has shifted perceptibly in a way that’s thrilling, emotionally resonant, and motivated by character. It’s kind of structurally perfect, and a joy to watch, and proof that Vaughn and his collaborators just plain get this kind of filmmaking on a cellular level, and have a sure grasp on the principles which are otherwise misused and abused by their contemporaries.

 

Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010)

This review originally appeared on a now-defunct version of the website Screen Machine.

I write on Martin Scorsese’s new film Shutter Island mostly as an excuse to cross reference it to one of my favourite quotes I’ve encountered in my time spent reading film criticism. The author in question is NY Press’s noted contrarian Armond White, who wrote of Brian DePalma’s maligned 2000 sci-fi flop Mission to Mars that “It can be said with certainty that any reviewer who pans it does not understand movies, let alone like them”.  As declarations go it’s pretty deliciously outrageous, but it nevertheless says something important. I suggest to you that any reviewer who dismisses Shutter Island as one might dismiss Mission to Mars can similarly be said to not understand movies. Here’s why:

Most who dismiss the film will focus, not without reason, on the story, and the various narrative twists and turns. And it is true that on this account Shutter Island is pretty silly. The narrative is basically a shell game, and when people figure out they’re being fooled with, probably quite early, they’re going to get cranky. And the major turns, when they come, are going to get scoffed at, especially since the narrative logic that gets them there is tenuous at best. US Marshals Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule head to an isolated island, taken up entirely by an institution for the criminally insane, to find a missing girl. As Daniels’ troubled past rises to the fore, the line between sane and insane becomes blurred. You see where this is going. You can feel the filmmakers trying to get a two handed grip on the narrative, and for the most part the tone and intention is quite clear, but the tale itself has insurmountable logic and structural flaws.

The big issue is that Scorsese, a master filmmaker by anyone’s definition, has decided to employ all the bombast and trickery and playfulness he can muster at the service of what is essentially a weak story. And for people for whom the story is the most important element, who treat cinema as little more than recorded theatre or literature, who, in short, don’t really understand or like cinema, this is going to be major discrepancy, and an insurmountable flaw.

For the others, who know how to and enjoy engaging film on a purely formal level, it’s not such a big deal, particularly when Scorsese is just throwing big dripping gobs of pure cinema up on the screen like a guy having a seizure. It’s so much fun; just a series of punchy episodes organised around the central themes of memory, madness, and trauma. Scene to scene he‘s doing something different, and weird, and bizarrely affecting. From the strangely clunky opening dialogue scene, to the back-projection-like green screen effects he drops into otherwise normal location scenes, to the handful of gob smacking dream-sequences he pulls off, along with two or three achingly moving flashbacks, it’s pretty much a sensory feast. The formal elements that Scorsese is so good at, the kind of stuff he serves up here, is the essence of cinema, and it’s often too easy to forget that story, dialogue, ideology should be mostly secondary concerns.

I read Dennis Lehane’s book before I saw it. I’d recommend even just reading the Wikipedia page. Remember: play along, don’t get played.

MIFF ’09—Mother (Bong Joon-ho, 2009) and Thirst (Park Chan-wook, 2009)

These reviews originally appeared on a now-defunct version of the website Screen Machine.

Mother

I think with Mother, his fourth feature length work, Bong Joon-ho cements his place as my favourite working director of any nationality. I’ve seen him compared (on the basis of his two previous works; The Host, and Memories of Murder) with Spielberg and Hitchcock, and unlike most such analogies this description manages to be both utterly foolish and somewhat apt. It’s easy to scramble for such names when discussing Bong’s work for two reasons. First, because despite defying most generic narrative descriptions, Bong’s films nevertheless feel like they belong in the thriller tradition in which those two directors made their names. Secondly, because it’s rare to find a director so utterly, even supernaturally, in control of his material, and with such an unerring grasp of timing and audience response. Scene after scene unfolds with strange tonal and formal zigzags, but Bong never seems anything less than confident in his ability to string the audience along. And unlike most other directors who are intent on keeping the audience in their palm (think of, perhaps, Michael Bay or Peter Jackson), Bong’s films feel totally effortless.

While Mother, which follows the frenetic attempts of a woman to exonerate her simple, sweet son of the brutal murder of a teenage girl, may present less immediately engaging, or obvious thematic subtext than the law and order and institutional indictments of The Host and Memories, I feel confident that repeated viewings will illuminate a critical portrait of contemporary Korean family and social dynamics. Regardless, the film’s formal thrills more than make up for this on first viewing. Also interesting is the way Bong recycles scenarios and dynamics from his two previous works: the endlessly compassionate parent guiltily caring for a mentally diminished child; an indifferent police force coercing culpability for a murder out of a simple man-child; staged public re-enactments of crime scenes; unconventional families and absent parents.

Equally exciting is the way Bong carefully replays and recycles moments two or three times, tracking their changing significances. It’s such a simple narrative trick, and often the hallmark of a well-structured script, that I’m surprised it’s something more directors don’t utilise. In particular, observe the progress of a golf club, a box of acupuncture needles, a little-known pressure point on the thigh, and the way a certain name appears; twice humorously, once tragically.

The film also contains my very favourite single shot of the entire festival, perhaps of the entire year. The mother has snuck into the house of her son’s callous friend, suspecting him of framing her child. When he returns home with his girlfriend she is forced to hid in the closet, clutching a piece of potentially damning evidence. Bong plays out a scene of high tension as the two lie post-coital on the floor, and the mother must navigate her way past a forest of half-empty water bottles. As one tips over, Bong, almost outrageously, cuts to a close detail of the water slowly seeping towards the man’s dangling, twitching fingers: so simple, so mundanely hilarious, so stunning. And it got the best audience reaction I heard all MIFF.

Thirst

With Thirst, Park Chan-wook, best known for the excellent Vengeance Trilogy of the past few years (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Oldboy, and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) takes a welcome step into full on Grand Guignol horror melodrama; only it takes him a bit too long to get there. Park’s best films, particularly Mr Vengeance and Oldboy, are models of dramatic construction; beginning with a simple set-up that slowly, inexorably, spirals down into violence. You come out feeling like you’ve been put through the wringer, and thinking that Park may be a modern master of tragedy. Thirst, on the other hand, fumbles around for its first half, never quite finding its footing, and while it’s never anything less than interesting, you can almost feel it relax in relief when it finally gets its ducks in a row.

The film follows an aimless priest, Sang-hyeon, who volunteers for medical experimentation to help cure the illness that threatens his flock. Just as the deadly, and grotesque, disease is about to kill him, a last minute blood transfusion saves him, and begins to effect strange transformations. Park wisely gets all this vampire business out of the way pretty quickly (it isn’t long before Sang-hyeon is sucking blood out of a comatose patient’s hospital tubes) and moves on to the priest’s desperate, carnal affair with the battered wife of a childhood friend. Here the film becomes a free adaptation of Emile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, before a not entirely unpredictable narrative turn propels the film into its immensely satisfying conclusion.

Thankfully, even when the film is fumbling around, the two leads, Song Kang-so as Sang-hyeon and Kim Ok-bin as Tae-ju (the wife), keep it engaging. Song (seen also in Bong Joon-ho’s The Host and Memories of Murder, as well as Park’s Mr Vengeance) seems to be the most effortlessly expressive, and quietly chameleonic, actor working anywhere today. He’s so good you could watch him reading the phonebook quietly to himself. And Kim, whom I don’t believe I’ve seen elsewhere, is incredible; it’s not a coincidence that the film is at its best when she is allowed to dominate. With Tae-ju (weak; naïve; duplicitous; steely; crazy; sexy; totally awesome) she creates my favourite monstrous feminine in a festival that seems unusually full of them (see also, Antichrist).

While the second half cannot satisfactorily tie up Thirst’s myriad narrative, thematic, and tonal loose ends, when it is at its best (as with a relentlessly violent climatic sequence at the couple’s apartment), the film is fabulously sick fun.