The world is so unutterably boring

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Sometimes it’s the movement. Just the movement. As the light hits a blade of grass, or a leaf — something that’s completely out of a cinematographer’s control.

Sometimes it’s the perfect placement of a vaguely recognisable object — like a syringe, or a coin, or a calendar page — just below the surface of a liquid such that it shimmers ethereally.

Sometimes it’s the way you’re cued to recognise each of three craniums at varying stages of baldness.

Sometimes it’s the crease of a wrinkle, the way a brow furrows, the tiniest glimmer of a smirk.

It’s a character breaking the fourth wall an hour into a film and it somehow feeling like the most natural thing in the world.

It’s rain falling completely out of nowhere, indoors, for no reason.

It’s a little girl, apropos of nothing, moving a couple of glasses with her mind.

And sometimes, just sometimes, it’s all of these things.

Dunkirk (2017)

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I feel you, er, Jimmy, Timmy, Bobby, whatever your name is.

David Cox’s no doubt controversial take on Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has spurred me to writing, and not, as you might think, to leap to the film’s defence.

I saw Dunkirk on Saturday morning; not in IMAX, as Nolan would make everyone if he could legally do so, but at my local cinema, on a normal screen.

I’d heard similar things to Cox: that Nolan had crafted a perfect war film, a stark and bleak story of suspense and survival. But I, too, left the cinema feeling wholly underwhelmed.

We had a protracted discussion in my studio yesterday about Interstellar and confection. I avoided discussing Dunkirk too much so not to ruin my students’ gut reactions, which I consider just as good a mark of a film’s impact as any well-crafted review. But in Interstellar, as in much of Nolan’s recent work, the score is solely responsible for imbuing any meaning to the image. We watched a 15-minute clip where the protagonist leaves his family and launches into space. Apart from the opening tears and family stuff, the rest of the scene is highly procedural, with McConnaughey, Hathaway, Bentley et al floating about the spaceship, flicking switches and checking systems. There are moments of banter, but nothing hugely affecting. This scene is ‘confected’ (an excellent word used by my co-teacher) to feel like a massively emotional scene, purely by the score. Humorous lines are given a push by lilting string phrases. Little barbs about home are sent into the realm of epic pathos by a booming bass note. It just feels entirely artificial and wrong (comparisons were made to 2001: A Space Odyssey, which pulls off suspense, emotion, awe much more effectively).

Dunkirk is equally confected, but in a very different way. Cox mentions the lack of character development and backstory. When I read the early reviews, I came down on Nolan’s side, arguing naively that perhaps there is room for both well-developed character war films and those that are more visceral. After seeing the film, though, I can’t help but agree with those critics. I would add a couple more criticisms, though.

Compared to the over-exposition of previous Nolan stuff, this film has virtually no dialogue. What dialogue is there is mumbled, or hastily whispered from cover. The dialogue does nothing to explain the characters’ decisions or motivations (exposition), nor does it give a more rounded insight into the characters’ personalities (abstraction/expression). The words just sort of sit there as awkward observations about the characters’ surroundings that, arguably, with the film being shot in IMAX, the audience could probably see and figure out for themselves.

The supposedly ever-present threat from the unnamed enemy comes off as wholly artificial. The enemy is basically represented by a Shepard tone and, because Nolan doesn’t want you to forget that you’re under threat, the Shepard tone never ends. The result is a suspense that is driven not by empathy, or by a feeling of anticipation or fear, but by sheer audience discomfort in the cinema.

The third and final criticism is that this is a blinkered story. The protagonist, if there is one, is played by Fionn Whitehead, who does an admirable job of injecting some affect into the lifeless husk with which the audience is meant to sympathise. If you are going to focus on someone, though, if the audience is indeed meant to feel what a protagonist is feeling, we need something more than an innocent-looking face. At least for Whitehead’s character — Bobby? Jimmy? What gratingly archetypal British name did they give him in the credits? — the audience needs some hint of a story of home, a family or partner waiting for him, loving parents. We get more of that for the sailor’s son, who dies purely accidentally (‘He always wanted to be in the paper’), than we do for the protagonist. We also get next to no sense of the scale of the evacuation, nor of the role that non-British countries played, both in terms of being evacuated and off fighting off the German threat. Apart from two French soldiers holding the line at the beginning, one blink-and-you-miss-him-Dutchman, and the other French soldier pretending to be British, you wouldn’t know that there were not only British, French, and Dutch troops at Dunkirk, but also Canadians, Poles, and Belgians.

330,000 people made it off that beach. That’s the story of Dunkirk. I’m all for visceral cinematic experiences, for switching off my own life in favour of immersion in a story or experience. But in the case of Dunkirk, to ignore the scale of what may well have become ‘the greatest military disaster in our long history’ — to steal Churchill’s words — does something of a disservice to everyone, of all nations, both home and abroad, who somehow got most of those men and women home. To do that, we need to get to know the people on a level greater than pure affect. We also need to see how great, how enormous, this military achievement was. Somehow Nolan, of all people, failed on both counts.

Stoker (2013)

I’ve frequently maintained that the best films stay with you. I don’t mean ‘best’ in terms of quality, necessarily — though that helps — but the best films in terms of those that actually meaningfully contribute to what we call cinema. The best films keep projecting into our temporal lobes long after the credits have rolled; they haunt us, they taunt us, they call to us to watch again, to peel back the layers of their meaning, to look beneath their skin just as they have weaved their way under ours.

A few years ago I taught a course at the University of Sydney that examined the transition from celluloid to digital. It was a wonderful course, and inspired me in many ways for the studio teaching and research I’m currently undertaking. One of the films we watched was Park Chan-wook’s Night Fishing. What a weird little film. Shot entirely on an iPhone 4, the film combines night-vision, fishing, camping, mythology, ghost stories, grief — it’s a masterful little thing. It was perfect for that course, too, because it reiterated that it doesn’t matter what tool you use to create cinema; cinema can be created with anything.

I’d been meaning to catch more of Park’s work, particularly Oldboy and the Vengeance trilogy, but they remain on the Shelf of Shame. After seeing a screengrab from Stoker in a talk on Friday though, I was immediately inspired to get the bluray. This film deserves the highest quality, as it is stunningly beautiful. Also, with this kind of movie, you need your blacks to be really black.

Briefly, and trying not to spoil anything, Stoker is a bottled drama starring Mia Wasikowska as India Stoker, Nicole Kidman as her mother Evelyn, and Matthew Goode as India’s Uncle Charlie. India and Evelyn are recovering from the death of India’s father, Richard, as Uncle Charlie moves back into their lives after a long absence. Long story short, some stuff happens.

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The Hitchcockian overtones and influences are readily apparent — the Uncle Charlie/India relationship is pilfered from Shadow of a Doubt, and the tension that slowly builds throughout the film is reminiscent of [insert name of any Hitchcock film here]. But what’s neat about this film is how that tension is woven in with the beautiful imagery. Further, their are even hints of the mobile image (as in mobile phone) that I remember from Night Fishing. In one scene, India and Charlie are playing a duet on the piano. This is a weird moment for a lot of reasons, but the weirdness is reinforced by this tracking shot, about shin-height, that snakes its way between the furniture right up behind them. The tracking shot recalls The Shining, but the movement isn’t entirely smooth. Much like the visual composition of the rest of the film, this shot is not entirely stable. You wouldn’t say its unstable, but there’s definitely something not right. Take any shot of Uncle Charlie, for example. We’re never given the full picture, something is always in the way. It doesn’t hurt, too, that Goode’s performance oozes Anthony Perkins in Psycho.

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Stoker is one of those perfect examples of a film where everything congeals into one single vision. Camera, editing, music, performance, narrative all just happen; there’s really no separating them. There is no distinction to be made here between the analogue and the digital (for what it’s worth, it was shot on 35mm). This is a stream of information, a torrent of meaning, that brings the audience wholly into the narrative in an effortless way. This may not be a quality film (it is), but it certainly is one of the best.

Bridge of Spies (2015)

He's behind you, Forrest.
He’s behind you, Forrest.

It’s hard to believe Spielberg will have to stop making movies at some point in the next 20-30 years, for, you know, biological reasons. It’s hard to believe because he’s still churning out stuff like this.

Apart from a stunning U2 bomber crash sequence, Bridge of Spies is a triumph of quiet tension. It’s a tension that always threatens to boil over at any moment, like the very best Cold War flicks. It’s a tension that is there in every glance, every unspoken word, every shadow on the street. It’s a tension that only the very best director could contain and depict.

The only let-down of this film, and this is a very tiny let-down, is that I felt some of the cinematography was a little trite. Let me get this clear, 98% of Kaminski’s work is utter brilliance, as per normal. But I feel like some of the shots may have been overdone somewhat. My viewing companion mentioned lens flare on par with Abrams, and while I probably wouldn’t go that far, some of the lighting was way off.

Spielberg always has a knack of mixing very familiar faces with several unknowns, or at least somewhat-knowns. Hanks is typically amazing, even when his role threatened to tip into Charlie Wilson territory. The casting of Rylance as his foil, however, was genius. Rylance is probably known to a few cinephiles that are even more dedicated than I, but I wasn’t able to remember his face from anything. On looking him up, I see he’s a lauded stage actor, which doesn’t surprise. The delicacy of his role — as a proven traitor to the USA — is handled with great deftness and humanity. And the supporting cast — Alda, Koch, Shepherd, Matthews — feel right and natural, even if (or probably because) they’re pretty much typecast.

Overall, Bridge of Spies is up there with Spielberg’s best. Can’t wait for the bluray special features.

[cross-posted from Letterboxd]

Whiplash (2014)

"There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'Good job'."
“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘Good job’.”

Richard Brody didn’t like Whiplash (2014).

That’s fine. Critics, of all people, are certainly entitled to their opinion. And Richard Brody is by no means an unqualified critic. What Brody’s done here, though, is fundamentally misunderstand the thrust of the film he’s critiquing. It’s a trap that a great many critics fall into: thinking the film is about one thing, when it’s actually about something else, or a bunch of other things.

‘The movie’s very idea of jazz,’ writes Brody, ‘is a grotesque and ludicrous caricature.’ It certainly would be, if this was a film about jazz, rather than a jazz film.

What on earth is a jazz film? Damn fine question. The notion came to me in one of the earlier scenes in Damien Chazelle’s film. Miles Teller’s Andrew leaves the Conservatory, heading home after thinking he’s failed to make the cut for the concert band. Amid the standard cutting of Andrew walking the streets between his school and his home, random shots show street lamps, illuminated windows, signage, traffic. This isn’t a standard contextualising montage between scenes – these are random shots interspersed with the character-centric frames.

This random approach to cinematography and editing persists throughout the film – take the phenomenal final shots which obscure the subjects’ faces, and not the parts a cinematographer would normally mask.

So while perhaps Chazelle is not glorifying jazz, the learning of music, or education more broadly, he is certainly contributing a jazz sensibility to the craft of cinema.

Billy Crystal is quoted as saying ‘That’s the thing about jazz; it’s free-flowing, it comes from your soul.’ This idea works for Whiplash: not only is the flow of images free, but they all feel as though they came from some deep place.

This is particularly appropriate given that this is not a film about music, or education, or history, or culture. This is a film about the systematic manipulation and mangled reconstruction of one soul by another.

Whiplash is a staggering film, that I’ll struggle to get over. It’s a stellar character piece, and I feel that the claustrophobic intimacy of its dark story will haunt cinema for some years to come.

The 10th Victim (1965)

Don't worry, Marcello, I'm just as confused as you are.
Don’t worry, Marcello, I’m just as confused as you are.

I found The 10th Victim on Letterboxd. I’m not sure exactly how it emerged in my field of view, but probably some crazy collision of Blade Runner, The Hunger Games, and 8 1/2. Regardless, I ordered the Bluray, then settled in for an evening of messed-up Italian future-noir.

It took me a few runs at it, but I made it through. It’s not the easiest watch. Petri treads the line between noir, drama, and utter camp, and sometimes his editing lets him down as far as pacing goes. That said, his cinematographer does an amazing job to frame a very specifically production-designed future. The little touches like the yellow backlit back door on the Hunt Club, and the transparent phone box, and Marcello’s fantastic clear-topped car — these top off a perfectly-realised future-world more accurately than any leather-clad Jennifer Lawrence.

The influence of this film is clear: from Ursula’s bra-guns that no doubt inspired Austin Powers’ fembots, to the competition itself, which finds echoes in The Hunger Games and Maze Runner. Overall it’s worth a look, if only for Mastroianni’s calm and deliberate persona.

[cross-posted from Letterboxd]

A day of catching up

Not exactly emptying the Netflix queue, or making a dent in the Letterboxd watchlist, but still productive, I think. I also half-watched Mad Max: The Road Warrior and A Year In Champagne, which I’ll try to knock over by the end of the week.

Primer (2004)

I’m still not entirely sure what to make of this film. I didn’t quite get it. But I really think that’s exactly the point. The dialogue is so obscure, so layered, so full of scientific jargon, but not at all in a deliberate, dramatic-concealment kind of way. If two dudes stumbled across time travel in a garage, I pretty much think this is how things would turn out. Give or take. I’ll let you know when I watch the film earlier tomorrow.

Seven Days in May (1964)

I expected something of a Cold War countdown, similar to Fail Safe, or its comic attache, Dr Strangelove. Instead I got a tensely-wound political thriller, quite simply detailed despite its tentacle-like story threads. Lancaster and March hold this up — and I say this in spite of the presence of Martin Balsam and Edmond O’Brien in supporting roles.

What struck me most of all today (and you may be sensing a pattern today) is the cinematography. The framing in some of the scenes of this film is phenomenal. Some of the editing, on the other hand (I speak for the sequence where Douglas watches Lancaster’s speech) is akin to proper ’70s paranoia films (I’m looking at you, Parallax View).

But this had me hanging, which is an achievement for films of this ilk. [cross-posted from Letterboxd]

Pandora’s Promise (2013)

Just to top off a day of science and paranoia, I finished up with this rather optimistic view of what nuclear power might offer a world aching for a clean and safe source of energy. I enjoyed this, despite its sometimes feeling a little like a Kickstarter promo video. [cross-posted from Letterboxd]