25 February 2012

REPO MAN (Dir. Alex Cox, 1984, US)

Alex Cox is a filmmaker/critic who simply doesn’t sing from the same hymn sheet as the rest of his contemporaries. Repo Man, which has been released on Blu-ray in a startling new print, is one of the most idiosyncratic American film debuts. Watching Repo Man after so many years, I was reminded that cinematic iconoclasm has no room in Hollywood and in many respects both Cox and the films he made were true originals. Much of the film’s charm comes from its diabolical yet philosophical intermingling of genres, narratives and intertextual imagery that references noirs such as Kiss Me Deadly. Even more diabolical was the involvement of a major Hollywood studio in helping to finance and distribute Repo Man; an issue which Cox and his two producers interrogate in a round table discussion as part of the extras. Amazingly, out of the all genres, it comes closest to American science fiction especially in the fantastically bizarre ending with a Chevy Malibu whizzing across the city at night. Repo Man is a cult film and so fans have kept it alive, but the film’s greatest influence is perhaps in the vivid representation of downtown Los Angeles, which is photographed by outsider Robby Muller. Cinematographer Muller also shot Wender’s Paris, Texas in the same year and would return to the territory of Los Angeles on Friedkin’s To Live and Die in LA, another iconic depiction of Los Angeles. The strangest visions of America in the 1980s were somewhat characterised by the presence of actor and cult figure Harry Dean Stanton, who as Bud, is just one of the misfits and oddball characters that populate this subterranean universe. In the round table discussion, Cox shows reservations about Emilio Estevez. In fact, his first choice for Otto was actor Dick Rude but nevertheless, getting the script to Estevez and having him on board seemed to be a small compromise Cox was willing to take for the sake of finance and marketing. Ideologically, the monstrous capitalist idea of repossessing material goods, in this case cars, because people are unable to keep up with the demands of a society based on false needs, is just some of the prescient political subtext that underlines Otto's existence in Reaganite America. Along with Sid and Nancy and Walker, Repo Man testifies to the accomplishments of Cox as filmmaker who has managed to stay outside the system while holding on to the precious commodity called artistic integrity. Repo Man is a film for the past, present and future; it's a true original.

19 February 2012

THAT GIRL IN YELLOW BOOTS (Dir. Anurag Kashyap, 2010, India)

Old and New Indian Art Cinema - Naseeruddin Shah (left) and Kalki Koechlin (right).
Kalki Koechlin’s rise has been somewhat meteoric and deservedly so in many respects. She is a fine actress and her 2010 collaboration with husband-director Anurag Kashyap on That Girl in Yellow Boots (the title refers to the yellow Doc Martins worn by Koechlin) suggests she will inevitable shift into filmmaking. Koechlin wrote the screenplay with Kashyap and she is also the main lead. The story involves Ruth Edscer (Koechlin) who comes to India in search of her father who abandoned her in England a long time ago. Ruth finds work in a massage parlour to supplement her obsessive attempts to track down her father. For a film that was shot in just 13 days, the end product is exceptional and much of the iconoclastic spirit generated by the film is largely down to Kashyap’s ability to improvise with both locations and narrative. Many of Kashyap’s films including Satya (for which he wrote the screenplay), Dev D, No Smoking, Black Friday and Gulaal have a strong visual style that comes directly out of the topography of the modern Indian city notably Mumbai. And what makes his representations of the city so distinctive is the unconventional choice of locations – the living and breathing milieu of alleyways, bars, apartments and roads construct a dystopian melting point. Given the narrative revolves around a search, Kashyap let’s his camera roam through the underbelly of Mumbai as Ruth goes about her quest to find her father. Not to over emphasise Kashyap’s authorial contributions, this film is very much an important collaboration between actor and director. Apparently, the trigger for the story was from Koechlin having experienced the judgemental gaze a white girl or foreigner can be subjected to in a city like Mumbai – a point made expressively transparent in the opening minutes. Koechlin is not your typical Indian film lead and for an actress, she is even more unconventional in terms of her looks. I think this is what makes her quite appealing and starkly distinctive when compared to many of the contemporary film actresses. Koechlin is prepared to take a risk. In the film, working in a massage parlour, Ruth resorts to performing a ‘handshake’ for her male clients at the price of 1,000 rupees.

Very few Indian actresses would be prepared to breach such an on screen taboo in fear of losing either box office credibility or deconstructing their star image. In one point in the film, Ruth is told by someone she is a cross between ‘bugs bunny and Julia Roberts’, to which Ruth replies, ‘I like bugs bunny’. It is obvious from this exchange that Koechlin feels very self aware about her looks and is not afraid of using reflexivity as a performance device. Ruth is an outsider and her encounters with all of the men in the film presents us with some unsavoury characters such as a drug addict, demented gangster and a self righteous elderly man. Perhaps Ruth’s position as an outsider is extenuated by the anxious representations of male identity – they all want or need something from Ruth. If Ruth’s relationships with the men in the film points to a familiar theme of patriarchal exploitation then the final revelation at the end suggests that masculinity is altogether more corrupt, perverse and archaic than first imagined. Unfortunately, the film was never released in UK cinemas and was not given much of a distribution in India. I guess we could say the same for Kashyap’s best work to date such as Gulaal. That Girl in Yellow Boots was partly financed by NFDC and it is an iconoclastic art film with a dark subject matter. The most direct link between the film and parallel cinema of the past is the presence of stalwart Naseeruddin Shah. Kashyap is such an exciting and uncompromising new voice in Indian cinema and I am really looking forward to his forthcoming gangster project. What separates Kashyap from his contemporaries is innovation, a characteristic that runs throughout his work.

17 February 2012


The death of print media in the face of a new age digital era of the Internet is an issue that continues to envelop the media industry. When the iPad was announced by Steve Jobs, some in the print media business felt it was a potential lifeline for a dying old media form. Others felt it was simply Apple staking their claim and right to digital print media through aggressive innovation. All of this and the recent Assange Wikileaks story forms a backdrop to this fly on the wall insider look at the prestigious New York Times newspaper. I have a great distrust of most mainstream media outlets especially ones which regularly collude with the establishment to perpetuate prevailing dominant ideologies, which usually go against the interests of most people. Andrew Rossi supposedly gained unprecedented access to the newsroom of the New York Times but whereas this so called access points to unrivalled autonomy, the truth is that the documentary fails to show us anything new or revelatory about the print media industry and the New York Times as a media institution. Rossi’s attempts to take an even handed approach to such a reputable institution means he covers the Judith Miller story. Miller, a widely respected journalist, covered the lead up to the Iraq war and ended up becoming a mouth piece for the conservative right, helping to reinforce many of the myths which had been propagated by the mainstream media. The most significant lie was that of Saddam Hussein possessing WMD. The NY Times was just another media outlet that joined in the march to war, helping to galvanise public opinion against the non existent threat posed by Iraq. Miller later justified her reporting by excusing propaganda for poor intelligence sources. Rossi seems to skim over the ideological role that traditional media still play in shaping public opinion and by doing so he brings into question the intentions of his documentary. Ironically, Miller is criticised for having become embedded yet the same could be said for Rossi’s documentary - access to such a closed and influential institution would surely mean some kind of ideological compromise, wouldn't it? The truth we are given is that the NY Times is a media institution that needs to preserved and protected as it has played an important role in the arena of investigative journalism. This might have been true in the past but the turning point clearly seems to have been the Watergate scandal, which was famously covered by Woodward and Bernstein for the NY Times. Today, more than ever, most mainstream media is slavishly subservient to demands made by advertisers and many of them have become outright extensions of corporate hegemony; the notion of hard news has dissipated into something more than soft. If the story of blogger Brian Stetler turned media reporter for the NY Times suggests the traditional gatekeepers have faded then such a misconception is challenged by the way news bloggers continue to use the NY Times as a springboard for ideas, reporting and analysis. What this means is that someone still has to go out and get the story but traditionally this would have been a professional news journalist yet today it could really be anyone. What Rossi’s look at the NY Times proves is that the democratisation of the media has happened but power to shape the news agenda and subsequently circulate popular ideology still remains in the grip of a privileged hegemonic elite. So what else is new?

16 February 2012

TYRANNOSAUR (Dir. Paddy Considine, 2011, UK)

Actor turned director Paddy Considine’s debut plays like a pastiche of British social realism. I didn’t feel the film moved beyond such pastiche and constantly throughout the viewing I kept making mental visual references back to familiar British social realist films. The influence of Loach, Meadows and Leigh is evident throughout but it is Alan Clarke who emerges victorious as the single biggest influence on Considine’s approach. Despite taking Clarke as an authorial filmmaker, Considine casts Mullan in the lead role and thus makes everything else somewhat perfunctory. There’s not much hope in the story of an abusive working class male who lives on a council estate trying to come to terms with the death of his wife. Tyrannosaur is a grim film and Considine would argue that it is supposed to be a grim film because it comes out of something grim and painful in his life too. The problem I had with this kind of filmmaking is that Considine takes all the now defunct idioms of British social realist cinema and offers very little in terms of an alternate visual or aesthetic approach. Neither is the framing cinematic or particularly innovative but instead feels conservatively formulaic. And the muted visual look of Tyrannosaur appears dated and indicative of Considine’s misunderstanding that British social realism can be attempted by anyone with a troubling story to tell. Each of the characters are also underwritten, coming across as one dimensional and lacking any sense of 'authenticity', criteria regularly cited when analysing up close the characters and milieu of social realist cinema. I know I may be a little judgemental given the fact that this is Considine’s first full length feature but it lacks the anarchic spark and subtle humour that he has been able to bring to his best performances. Tyrannosaur fails to impress because Considine is in awe of his cinematic heroes, blinding his judgement as a director. Considine fails to see that the ordinariness of his material is paradoxically what is at fault - social realism cannot be predictable, imitative nor contrived if it is to be successful in the hope of revealing reality. What makes me even more angry is the way in which Peter Mullan's remarkable film Neds was simply pushed to one side whereas Tyrannosaur steamed ahead to claim a number of awards.

13 February 2012

HADEWIJCH (Dir. Bruno Dumont, 2009, France)

Dumont’s protagonists are ciphers; challenging, closed, unemotive are just a few of the characteristics that come to mind when trying to describe them. The young Parisian girl Celine (Julie Sokolowski) is one of those ciphers at the heart of Dumont’s 2009 film Hadewijch. Like much of Dumont’s work, which has bypassed me, I was alerted to this film by Jonathan Romney’s embracing review in the latest issue of Sight and Sound. Hadewijch is a brave, risky and astounding work as it takes on issues such as faith, fanaticism and terrorism that are either too problematic for an adequate cinematic treatment or fraught with wider cultural animosities.

Here are some initial thoughts on the film:

1. Dumont’s strength as a filmmaker lies in his precise control over the pace of the film. Although it is a slow film, I don’t want to label it as part of slow cinema because this would not only mean unfairly categorising Dumont’s style but also dismissing his exacting control over pacing as somewhat part of a wider cinematic trend. Dumont has only made four films to date and critics have been quick to draw comparisons with Robert Bresson. In a way, such an authorial comparison seems somewhat justified when considering Bresson’s power as a filmmaker lay in the economy of his shots. The notion of shot economy could easily be applied to Hadewijch as every shot in the film feels natural to the subject matter - nothing appears wasted or contrived in anyway. Admittedly, what joins Dumont to his contemporaries like The Dardenne Brothers is that the elliptical nature of their narratives produces ambiguity which is essential for a convincing reality.

2. Dumont’s treatment of faith is unique for its encompassing view. Celine, the young Parisian girl who has been asked by the Nuns at the order to reconnect with the outside world, finds a potential answer to her blinding faith in Islam and the Arab male. Celine’s initial meeting with a group of Arab youth raised certain expectations - I thought it would be a steady case of sexual corruption by the Arab male but Dumont deliberately complicates the interaction between Celine and the Arab men by suggesting that both groups could be viewed as the Other in the eyes of a secular society. The fanaticism which Celine holds for her love of Christ is mirrored in that of Nassir (Karl Sarafidis), an educated and articulate Muslim, who contextualises his resentment against white European power and the establishment by taking Celine on an eye opening journey to the Middle East. By deciding to deal with the question of faith, Dumont takes an inclusive approach of fanaticism and thus avoids the trap of demonising Islam. The radical conclusion Dumont makes is that by bridging the social void between the Parisian wealthy elite and the deprived banlieues through an apolitical Celine, the film represents fanaticism as non judgemental and devoid of the typical discriminatory labels. In a way, Dumont asks a very difficult question - is it right to interpret blind faith as simply extremism? 

3. Hadewijch is a deeply religious film. Even the peripheral characters including that of David (David Dewaele), an ex-prisoner with a saintly look in his eyes, who works in the gardens of the convent is one who will figure in the scheme of things. It is David who is more of a cipher than anyone of the characters we come across in the film that becomes the salvation of Celine. On the most basic level, David is a symbol of providence and his decisive intervention at the end points to a strategic narrative role that could also be linked to a wider metaphysical idea of interconnecting lives. This connection between David and Celine renders true Nassir’s Islamic proposition that what is invisible and absent in life can only be made visible through a consistency in terms of faith. David is part of the invisible but he is rendered visible in his act of compassion at the end. This seems to prove an ideological certainty; clarity in terms of faith can only be achieved through a complete rejection of worldly pleasures.

4. It would be wrong to label Celine a terrorist especially considering Dumont’s decision to use ellipsis to represent the bombing that takes place in Paris. I know some critics have referred to Celine as a terrorist but to take up such a position smacks of a besieged mentality that religious extremism is the likely cause and outcome of such strong faith. Dumont is wise to leave open the question of the bombing, refusing to tell us if Celine or Nassir were involved. None of this is explained to us. It might seem easy to conclude that Celine’s suicide attempt at the end is a direct result of her involvement in the bombing but this yet again is left open ended as it could also be as a consequence of the extreme emotions produced by her fanaticism.

5. Is Dumont the heir to Bresson? He might just be.

12 February 2012

JOGAN (Dir. Kidar Sharma, 1950, India)

Director Kidar Sharma is a name I stumbled upon repeatedly during my research and his 1950 Hindi film Jogan is one of his most popular works. Sharma is yet another key figure in the evolution of classical Hindi cinema and his output in the 1940s and 1950s offers some distinguished melodramas. What makes Jogan an extraordinary melodrama is the way in which Sharma constructs narrative largely through the soundtrack. This may seem like an obvious point to make about a Hindi melodrama made in the 1950s especially one with major stars but Jogan is not merely another film with the so called narrative interruptions. A Bhajan is a devotional song and many Hindi films especially ones with a strong religious theme used bhajans as a way of telling the story. Jogan uses fourteen different songs, mostly bhajans, to advance the narrative. This means that although dialogue is still important, all filmic elements are subordinate to the soundtrack. The story of Jogan revolves around the relationship between an ascetic or mendicant called Surabhi (Nargis) and an atheist, Vijay (Dilip Kumar). The religious figure of Surabhi has origins in the real life mystical singer Meerabai who has been a source of inspiration for numerous films, literature, songs and paintings in Hindi culture. Vijay’s atheism is challenged when he hears Surabhi singing a bhajan. The attraction is instantaneous and Vijay’s pursuit of Surabhi results him repeatedly returning to the temple to hear her sing. We discover that Surabhi has escaped an arranged marriage that would have ruined her and that rejection of worldly pleasures is necessary if she is to be successful at renouncing her life and embracing greater religious ideals. In a way, Vijay is envious of Surabhi’s unflinching level of devotion to an ideological cause and way of thinking. Given the prolific nature of the soundtrack, the scenes between Vijay and Surabhi are admittedly scarce and this means the songs articulate levels of emotions that would have not been possibly with traditional storytelling techniques. Even though songs dominate, Sharma’s visual style and approach is somewhat understated and conveys a realism which seems at odds with the melodramatic form. Additionally, the theological dimension, with the emphasis on the conflict between atheism and asceticism, transforms the melodramatic form into something more sophisticated, radical and unexpected from a mainstream Hindi film. The understated approach is echoed in the low key performances by Nargis and Dilip Kumar who are shot largely in close ups as a means of ensuring the limited time afforded to their exchanges are foregrounded and not lost in the overwhelming soundtrack.

11 February 2012

BOMBAY BEACH (Dir. Alma Har'el, 2011, US)

The poetic mode seems to have the edge at the moment. Documentaries such as Pina, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Senna and now Bombay Beach, reject the overly politicised approach. Instead they substitute the participatory, reflexive and interactive styles for a poetic approach, which was first popularised in the 1930s by the British documentary movement with filmmakers including Jennings. Riefenstahl is another pioneer, developing the poetic mode with both Triumph of the Will and more strikingly with Olympia. One of the major differences with documentaries today is that the language in which they speak to us can be imitative of Hollywood fictional cinema. A case in point is Man on Wire, which uses dramatic reconstruction's, genre conventions, a charismatic central character and satisfying narrative development. What makes Man on Wire poetic is the use of montage. Much of the drama in Man on Wire comes from the careful juxtaposition of archive footage to the emotive soundtrack made up of music from Michael Nyman’s back catalogue, creating a delicate rhythm and above all a tone of transcendence. If the poetic mode creates mood, tone and rhythm through the editing of material then it usually means a voice over or interviews will be used to anchor and reinforce a certain ideological point of view. Bombay Beach is a documentary that captures a community of haphazard residents who live on the California coast line. Bombay beach is a tiny community made up of around 300 people, many of whom are living in poverty. The triptych narrative involves three stories; Benny Parrish (a young boy suffering from bipolar disorder and alienated from mainstream school life), CeeJay Thompson (a black teenager who has escaped the violence of the ghetto so he can concentrate on his potential life as a American football player) and Red (a lonely old man with outdated values). Newcomer Alma Har’el filters her observations and interests with the community of Bombay Beach through performance especially dance, which strangely enough unites all three stories. It is with dance, and moments of staged performance for the camera, juxtaposed to a folksy soundtrack by Beirut and Bob Dylan that Har’el creates a melancholic rhythm. Thematically, the melancholic rhythm works to underline the way in which dreams of the past and of the future are a social necessity but attainment of such hopes is fundamentally flawed by both wider and more personal equivocations. By avoiding the trap of historical ruminations, this is a documentary that captures the spirit of a time and place in the world which appears out of synch with the accelerated and instantaneous narratives of contemporary society. The poetic style is no bettered illustrated than in the final montage as little Benny is seen riding through the town on a fire engine dressed as a fireman - it is a dream which Benny will he probably never achieve but by giving him the cinematic opportunity to act out such a wish, the documentary edges closer in its explorations of the inherently escapist nature of mainstream cinema. Har’el lets her three protagonists use the documentary form as a space for realising such dreams, and as false as they are, the space is rendered poetic by the scale of tones. Har’el resorts to staging her action on many occasions and although some would argue such intervention of reality is in essence a violation of the rules of observational filmmaking, like the work of Nick Broomfield in which truth is such a trickery concept, it is only by interacting with the subject on a personal level can any notion of the truth be uncovered, explored and questioned.  

8 February 2012

THE DESCENDANTS (Dir. Alexander Payne, 2011, US)

Alexander Payne’s long-term writing partner is Jim Taylor. Together they received an Oscar for their screenplay to the 2004 film Sideways. The Descendants is the first film, which doesn’t feature Taylor as a writing partner, and although he does get a producers credit, it is telling because this is Payne’s weakest film to date. I saw it with a group of film students and the reactions were mixed. Some said it was well made whereas others felt it was a little contrived and lacking humour. I’ve seen The Descendants twice now and I’m pretty sure it is best viewed as a middle of the road family melodrama. Now, if we were to apply an authorial approach to Payne’s latest film then it seems plainly obvious that such a theory fails to take into account the contributions of the other so called scriptwriter. Here’s my proposition – Payne should never make a film without Taylor as a writer. The two of them work together perfectly as witnessed in the brilliance of their previous films. The Descendants is arguably an awards film as it possesses all the necessary qualities required for a Best picture Oscar; the weepie aspect, a star turn from a much loved Hollywood favourite, a relatively safe narrative, and most importantly, wider social and political issues are given the requisite simplistic and liberal treatment. Yet again this is one of those films that have been swept up in the awards euphoria and Clooney has resultantly been praised for achievements much earlier in his film career. Oddly enough, The Descendants could easily have been made as a pilot for a new HBO TV series as it ticks all the perfunctory idioms of the melodrama.

7 February 2012

CERTIFIED COPY (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, 2010, France/Italy/Belgium)

The end shot to Certified Copy
'Film begins with D. W. Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami' - Jean Luc Godard

TAKE SHELTER (Dir. Jeff Nichols, 2011, US)

Michael Shannon experiences apocalyptic visions of the future.
Michael Shannon’s face terrifies me. The bug-eyed expression relays an anxiety that transfixes whereas his cumbersome physique carries an image of dread not so distant from the docile terror of Frankenstein’s monster. Take Shelter is strictly not a horror film but every inch of the frame is filled with an apocalyptic dread that echoes the prescient nature of religious ideologies caught up in culture wars. Jeff Nichols debuted with the memorable Shotgun Stories in 2007, which also featured Michael Shannon. Shannon will next be seen in the forthcoming Superman film as General Zod and over the years he has produced some terrifically impressive performances in films such as Revolutionary Road, Bug and most notably as Nelson Van Alden in the HBO gangster series Boardwalk Empire. In Take Shelter, Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, a family man who has a series of nightmarish premonitions that point to a forthcoming end of the world scenario with strong biblical overtones. Nichols uses Curtis’s mother’s paranoid schizophrenia as a conceit to explore the rational thought processes that are commonly applied to apocalyptic visions. Curtis acts on the nightmarish visions and converts an old storm shelter into a modern day equivalent of an Ark, which he plans to use as protection for his family. No one believes Curtis, assuming he is totally insane but as the ending demonstrates, this film rapidly evolves into a meditation on the absence of faith.