28.1.12

The Prestige

A Nolan film's themes could be written on a napkin as far as I'm concerned. Storytelling as wish-fulfillment, basically. What the protagonist in Memento demonstrated is that people need their lies in order to live their lives. Batman is deceived about Rachel's intentions, Gotham is deceived about Batman -- all for the greater good, so people can be better people. Inception asks whether living in your dreams is preferable to reality, skewed by that last scene so the question becomes whether films are preferable as well. The Prestige is about filmmaking (as a friend of mine told me a long while ago). The three parts of a trick are like the three acts of a movie -- set-up to deliver audience satisfaction. Such manipulation is addictive -- one does it for the roar of the crowd, the other for the ingenuity of the thing itself. Both leave destruction in their wake. While the rivals look to uncover each other's secrets, Sarah wants the truth that really matters. As Inception suggests to the audience at the end -- family is better than all the dreams you can invent.

The Nolans' ideas are interesting, sure, but they do tend to make characters into props. Moreover, the tight control over the plot, the economical script, the utilitarian cinematography, fail to dazzle or astound me. The Nolans are mechanics that build ingenious storytelling machines, and however good their actors are, they never blast through the complex contraptions that surround them.

There is one exception, The Dark Knight, which I watched again not too long ago and am still wowed by. Others found the indulgence the Nolans allowed themselves to be a weakness. For me, the improbable scenarios building to ever more improbable scenarios created a kind of operatic swell that no other Nolan movie can match. It is the feeling of Heath Ledger's magisterial Joker asserting his will over Gotham, an entire city enraptured and terrified by this sinister charismatic presence, that goes down as their supreme achievement. And I have my doubts about whether The Dark Knight Rises will be able to match it.

27.1.12

The West Wing

Schmaltz is just unBritish, isn't it? I think it was Ian Hislop I remember reciting that old cliche about The West Wing being a kind of liberal fantasy to comfort the political classes, the warm glow from their tv sets making them forget the horror show playing out in the REAL White House. But Brits are made of sterner stuff. No, no. We know that politicians are nincompoops, civil servants are weasels, and spin-doctors are power-crazed bullies. We can take it. In fact there's a certain grim enjoyment whenever those low expectations are met...

The defining feature of The West Wing is its sentimentality. The conceit is that all that guff about public service actually means something to the people you're watching. I just finished the final season: this is a show where one of the characters obsessively re-reads the Constitution of the United States when he has time off; where one of the most moving scenes is the President handing his own pocket-sized copy to his aide. When Josh says he prefers Rob Zombie's early work, I'm pretty sure he just has the wikipedia page crammed somewhere in his memory.

The famous frantic walk-and-talk shots don't connote chaos, but efficiency. These people work even when they are between offices, and they stay on top of everything.  They also speak inhumanly fast, and make jokes so quickly it seems as if they're somehow telepathically linked -- a hive mind of witty conversation where the improbable set-ups whizz by so fast you don't notice them until the punch-lines hit.

And the show luxuriates in the grandeur of office. Just the title sequence gives you a flavour. Washington isn't just a place, it's a magical palace at the center of the universe where all human life is monitored and nurtured by caring, committed worker elves buzzing around a kindly Father Christmas. It's manned by impressive guards, it hosts shimmering balls, it has hi-tech video screens displaying satellite images. There is protocol, there are obscure ridiculous rituals. You're all supposed to call him 'Mr President'...

And man alive, the melodrama you endure for SEVEN YEARS watching the cranky, awkward political genius and the patient, perpetually crestfallen secretary circling each other, never quite connecting. And their romance so mercilessly stretched out, every advance circumvented, derailed by their own brutal indecisiveness. This is epic romance on an ENORMOUS scale, Sam and Diane manipulation taken to the very limits of tolerability. By the time they get it on, trumpets sound and the Second Coming has arrived (well, the election of another Democratic President anyway).

And I love it. I find all of this soppy, fuzzy, idealistic bombast nonsense supremely addictive. Having gone through all the seasons now (the luster somewhat lost after season four) I'm more aware of the traps this show lays down to ensnare your comfort-seeking mind. But there is a lesson here as well. Undoubtedly all this pomp and ceremony really does affect people, inside and outside the machine. And sometimes, you need that myopia, those inspiring speeches. They give you that glory-boost to get your ass working and motivated through 15-hour days.

The West Wing is at its most touching when it focuses on characters who sacrifice their lives, their sleep, their peace-of-mind to the never-ending marathon that is governance. When the show steps outside the White House to examine the utter wasteland of their private lives, it reaches a place of deep pathos. I remember some long-ago season where Josh arrogantly lists his achievements before admitting he 'doesn't know how to do this' i.e. ask someone on a date. C.J. says something very similar to Danny at the end: she doesn't know how relationships work, she didn't have the time to figure it out. Sam Seaborn has a life in California which he didn't have when he was Deputy Communications Director. And yet he gives it up, because the job is that important.

And while you're watching The West Wing, you really believe it is.

21.1.12

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

I haven't read the book, but you can't spend the past few years engaged in cultural discourse without being aware of the problematic nature of the author's feminism. Laurie Penny, whose opinion on this I tend to trust, insists that he clearly didn't "intend to glamourise violence against women", he was just trapped by genre conventions. According to Penny, Salander's character is "well drawn" in the books, but I remain doubtful. Following conventions is a choice, and I wonder whether this heroine really escapes the "ninja computer hacker" box Larsson puts her in. But I have no desire to read the book, so I guess I'll never find out.

I wanna talk about David Fincher's adaptation, which is an uncomfortable watch. Back in 2010, Fincher's The Social Network drew out the moralist in me (not always a good thing). This film also gets into trouble on gender politics grounds, which makes me suspect that Fincher is a stylist extraordinaire who doesn't trouble himself with questions of philosophy. Salander doesn't escape sexualisation in this film, even, I dare say, in the rape sequence, which is shot in a dramatic rather than a realistic way. I think the impact would have been harder if the scene ended with Salander desperately trying to escape as the door shuts. The audience can work out the rest from her revenge.

Depiction of rape is complicated. One argument is that it can only be justified when it is done from the P.O.V. of the victim, with his or her lack of consent irrevocably clear to the audience. Thus you try and limit the circulation of potentially dangerous sexual fantasies, which might lead to imitative behaviour in the real world. Another is more liberal, one that the Alan Moore who wrote Lost Girls might support. Fantasies are fantasies, who are you to judge what is criminal or not, if it remains inside people's heads? You can be as disgusting as you like, as long as you respect the rules of consent in the real world and ensure you do not hurt anyone. There are difficulties with such a John Stuart Mill view, but I tend to lean towards it rather than try and legislate on how sex should be portrayed in art. We should live in a world where we can be trusted to control our desires, rather than have them controlled by someone else.

What is crucial for me is that a work is upfront about its intentions. As Sady Doyle tried to show in her demolition of G.R.R. Martin, there is something creepy about a fixation on sexual violence against women (the Tiger Beatdown post about Larsson makes the same point). For me it is enough that someone who fixates on sexual violence should be aware of how creepy it is, so that their work becomes at least in part about that creepiness. I would feel better about Larsson if he treated his stand-in Blomkvist less kindly, and showed the uncomfortable similarities between himself and his straw-men antagonists.

The film tries to do this: the villain suggests that the "urges" he has are shared by the hero. But this is one line going against an entire film in which Blomkvist is hot, smart, suave and impeccably principled.  It's not enough. I wanted to see Blomkvist's mind becoming polluted by the heap of mutilated women he is investigating. I wanted him to get srsly worried about the state of his mental health, feel the risk of contagion from being stuck on an island with a bunch of depraved fascists. Moreover, I could have accepted the film's slick and stylish coating, its motorcycles and its lesbians, if the veneer was more evident. Reviewers have suggested that the opening music video credit sequence was misjudged. It is definitely incongruent with the mood of the scenes that bracket it, but I would have changed those scenes, not the music video. Fincher could have thrown his audience into a fever dream of hip fashion, fast cars and delinquent sexuality, rubbed all the problematic genre conventions in people's faces, so that, as in The Matrix, they are convinced of the unreality of everything around them. And in the middle of this whirlwind, he could have had one bespectacled persecuted journalist becoming ever more uncertain of the ground he is standing on, starting to question himself, just as Larsson should have done.

14.1.12

Shame

I was puzzled by the title as well, seeing as Fassbender and Mulligan's actions are pretty shameless right up until the very end. Never mind the desperate sex, what interested me were the polarities Steve McQueen sets up between this brother and sister: The brother is tall, rake-thin and haggard, the sister is short, youthful and glowing. The brother is super fit and can run for miles, the sister is a slob asking if she looks fat. The brother works some incomprehensible corporate job, the sister is a singer. The brother is totally independent, the sister is totally dependent. Both are lonely.

All of which makes me wonder if the film assembles these gender roles, pushes them to extremes, in order to undermine them -- neither ideal can lead to any kind of society. There needs to be a mean.

Fassbender's character has a penchant for blue -- swathed sheets wrap his privates in the opening shot, as if to put his overactive gonads on ice. Mulligan's performance at the bar is bathed in shimmering gold. The colour returns at the end as a washed-out yellow, which permeates Fassbender's final orgy, him pumping away, looking more and more ill with each thrust. This is the only connection, the only warmth, either sibling is capable of.

It's a striking film, with brilliant performances by the leads. I don't agree with the complaints from certain quarters that the characters lack depth. McQueen is quite suggestive about the possible origins of their malaise, but leaves enough ambiguity about their past and future to let his audience make up their own minds.

Jane Eyre

I haven't read the book, but you don't live into your twenties without knowing every beat of this story. I want to talk about the 2011 film directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, which is magnificent. Although I knew what was going to happen, before seeing it I didn't know what Jane Eyre was about. Many things, turns out, all of them leading up to Jane's flight from Thornfield Hall, which serves as the dramatic opening sequence of the film. Jane is young, poor, female, with a rare intellect, a bountiful imagination, and ambitions beyond the station God and fate have assigned her. Her horizon is ring-fenced, but Rochester's betrayal pushes her to escape. This is suicide, and Jane is lucky to survive. Freedom is barren when the mores and institutions to foster it don't exist. What is there to do apart from settle for love.

And for that you need respect, your own and that of your partner. This means honesty, and humility. Jane grows up surrounded by deceit, hypocrisy, arrogance and abuse. It is miraculous she has any faith in family or religion at all. And yet she does, resolutely committed to the idea that her essence as a human being conveys a fundamental dignity no prejudice can efface. Rochester is a coward, and must be maimed and impoverished before Jane can accept him. What is attractive about him is that, as a libertine, he doesn't give a flying toss about Jane's provenance or situation. Also, he's played by Michael Fassbender and Michael Fassbender is all caps HOTNESS. Jaime Bell can't rival that, poor guy. He offers wider horizons but a passionless marriage, and his ultimatums suggest it will be far from equal. Jane has to run again, but this time she has money, and Rochester has been cut down to size. So, in the end, she marries him.

Quite interesting that several viewers, while admiring the gothic tone of the film, missed out on the melodrama. This I find surprising, as I teared up three times in the cinema (even though phones rang FOUR TIMES during the screening, one swine even picked up). My guess is that the film dialled back the romance in the novel (which, after all, is narrated first person). Mia Wasikowska's Jane is very controlled, she pushes the emotions inward. I thought that was believable and moving. The whole film is a glorious piece of work, and will (surely?) become the definitive adaptation of the book.

8.1.12

A Dangerous Method

Jake over at Not Just Movies notes that much of this film occurs in bright daylight -- no accident. Like A History of Violence, Cronenberg is interested in the socially unacceptable and repressed impulses that lurk beneath ordered normality. Jung and his wife Emma live in meticulously managed opulence. Their conversation is the height of good breeding. And a bit boring. Keira Knightley's Sabina arrives to shake things up.

Knightley has proven that she could do educated, steely and ambitious in films such as Pride & Prejudice and Atonement (let's forget Pirates for now). Here she does all of that as well, but first she has to twist and wrack and scream and distort her features, and she succeeds in being both sympathetic and unsettling. Her confession scene (no other word for it) is dynamite stuff, the camera slowly drifting from two shot to centre on her face as she reaches some kind of apotheosis. We really should forget Pirates.

The poster for the film suggests that Sabina is caught between Freud and Jung. She is, in that her intellectual debt to the former clashes with her personal relationship with the latter. But I think the more interesting entanglement is Jung's -- how he drifts away from his mentor and father figure under the influence of Sabina, and the instigator of their affair, Otto Gross. Freud's method retained the belief that the unconscious required restraint, and that neurosis develops when the regular process of repression was disrupted. Mortensen plays him as fastidiously careful. He is mindful of all enemies to the cause of psychoanalysis, he does not reveal his dreams to Jung. Gross, on the other hand, is a libertine -- pleasure is a simple good and people should be free to seize it. Sabina, while never meeting Gross, finds that sexual exploration is the route towards serenity and transformation, although she prefers to elucidate her experience using Freud's terminology.

The root of Sabina's neurosis was sexual, but Jung thinks Freud's fixation with sex is counterproductive. He is also dissatisfied with Freud's complacency in simply helping his patients cope with the world as it is. He has wacky ideas about the mind's powers over matter and time.  The unconscious is much more vital than Freud thought -- a pathway to transcendence, rather than a threat to civilization.

A dangerous method? I guess the film's point is that the 'talking cure' for mental disorders can contaminate the person who cures, just as much as physical cures for contagious disease. Madness is catching. We are told at the end of the film that the onrush of war killed Sabina and exiled Freud. For Jung, it spurred a mental breakdown, from which he emerged to become the preeminent psychologist of his day. He died in comfort. The film suggests that the breakdown was partly personal, Jung losing Sabina forever. But perhaps it is also intellectual -- the mass slaughter showing that Freud's emphasis on repressing animal instincts was right all along.