Thursday, 3 November 2011

Move over

Cinematic Investigations has moved to Wordpress! Please see here for a new review of Gillian Wearing's Self Made and for all future investigations into the cinematic!

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

It's Cinema, but not as we know it...

Recently I attended a screening of Troll Hunter at my local Picturehouse cinema – The Cameo in Edinburgh. During the pre-feature attractions, my attention was particularly drawn to the a trailer for the latest live broadcast cinema event, which was not, as has become usual, promoting a National Theatre production, but instead something that could be considered to further blur the lines that once separated our established modes of spectatorship. Coming soon to a cinema near you … Leonardo Live.

The press release from May this year promised viewers; Leonardo Live will provide a unique opportunity for art lovers to share in the excitement of viewing 'Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan' the night before it opens to the general public.’ Several things bother me about this statement. Who are these art lovers who would accept an evening in their local Picturehouse above seeing the paintings in the gallery? What kind of ‘view’ will one get, witnessing the projection of a satellite broadcast, of paintings that are potentially hundreds of miles away?

In principle, I like the idea of making art accessible to more people, certainly not everyone will be able to travel to London to see these works, but surely this kind of event just presents a falsehood, that anyone in the audience won’t be able to say that they actually ‘saw’ the show? Simply a mediation of it, not art, not cinema, not even theatre, so what is it?

Leonardo Live continues a trend that was sparked by the success of the Metropolitan Opera’s live broadcasts, which in turn inspired the National Theatre to broaden its horizons, starting with Phèdre starring Helen Mirren in 2009. The difference was, that NT Live promised a solution to the problem of static camera placement that initially conveyed staleness in the Met’s shows. For Phèdre and subsequent NT Live productions, a separate team of director, camera operators, lighting director etc, were hired to create a show that would convey the drama to a cinema audience. That means camera movement, hidden mics and different lighting cues. A review by Michael Billington (The Guardian) of Phèdre Live described the adaptation; ‘Robin Lough, using five multi-video cameras, also directed Hytner's production impeccably for the screen: the cameras took us inside the action, allowed us to see faces in close-up and framed characters against the blue cyclorama, investing them with an epic quality.’ Despite the positive critique, these comments seem only to confirm that perhaps broadcast theatre is still most successful when it resembles cinema, giving the spectator what traditionally, theatre could not offer – the close-up. We are thereby brought back to the question, what is it?

The time of clear distinctions between the arts and media is long gone. Where once film theorist and godfather of the nouvelle vague, Andre Bazin discussed the notion of presence with regard to the difference between theatre and cinema, we now have art forms that merge indiscernibly with one another, backed by clever brand awareness and marketing. Leonardo Live’s promotion is clear in its message of the collaboration between The National Gallery, Sky Arts HD, Picturehouse Cinemas and Seventh Art Productions. This is a production where media converge, (in accordance with the theory of Henry Jenkins); when perhaps it is not important to discern what it is we are seeing, at least in terms of coverage for those funding the project. Still, I wonder how Leonardo Live will leave the association of art history television behind to become ‘cinema’.

Press release here

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

No surprise that The Skin I Live In has many layers

Almodóvar once again envelops the viewer within a host of different visual motifs and references, in his latest work, The Skin I Live In.

On this occasion, I feel that a short review would be enough for the great Almodóvar – just see this film. For all its baroque themes and aesthetics, even a professed Almodóvar sceptic would get some nourishment from this film. It is pure cinema. I say that in the sense that other arts forms are present and correct, with references to literature and such evocative music, not least of all fine art in the paintings by Titian and sculptures by Louise Bourgeois. The film has so much to offer the viewer, both as an aural and visual feast and all the while encompassing such grand themes as betrayal, revenge, passion and hysteria.

As with the Spanish auteur’s previous films, such as Talk to Her (2002), Volver (2006), All About My Mother (1999) and my personal favourite, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988); The Skin I Live In moves across many genres, and is all at once melodrama, horror, sci-fi and comedy. Now arguably the most successful Spanish filmmaker of all time, Almodóvar’s mish-mash cauldron of influences could almost be a genre unto itself - there is no doubt his work can be instantly recognised.

Discussion of these many references can be found in countless reviews and articles elsewhere (in fact it is very hard to review the work of a director who has been so widely discussed!), so instead I’ll concentrate my efforts on one particular pleasure of the film, namely the scopophilic one. A love affair with looking is demonstrable by the numerous inventive ways the characters are seen to engage in staring, spying and gazing.

Held captive in the Cigaral, Vera (Elena Anaya) wears a body stocking to protect her artificially engineered skin. The architect of this doubly layered outerwear is her captor, Dr Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) who has used transgenesis to grow a new super skin that will withstand burns and insect bites. Contained within the four walls of her room, Vera is the subject of camera surveillance, and is watched by Robert on a giant flat screen, reclining on her bed, much like the Titian nudes hanging on the walls of his home. It is because of this manifold mediation, that of seeing Vera in the frame of a widescreen TV, wearing a stocking to cover the skin that is not her original - that Almodóvar’s lingering shots of her eyes have such great resonance, as becomes apparent in the film’s revelatory third act. These gateways’ to the soul sparkle and emote, and it is testament to Anaya’s performance that she conveys so much with her eyes in a role that demands a great deal from her whole body.

Equally, in a case of mistaken identity, Zeca (Roberto Álamo) desires Vera after seeing her in one of the many smaller screens in the house’s kitchen and displays a fervent, frustrated, passion in his attempts to overcome the boundary that separates him from the object of his craving.

In another beautifully directed scene, the problem of personal perspective and what is hidden from view is brought to the fore. At the wedding of a friend, Robert keeps an eye on his socially awkward daughter, Norma (Blanca Suárez). A series of shot-reverse - shots show Robert to be peering at Norma through the bodies on the dance floor, glimpsing her exchanges with her peers. In the meantime Norma is looking at a young man, who reciprocates her gaze. What follows is a masterful revealing of the actual and speculative events, as Robert infers one conclusion, and the viewer is made complicit in the real interaction between Norma and her young beau. This Hitchcockian sleight-of-hand is a pleasure to behold, as the foundations are laid for the characters dark intentions and even darker actions.

The Skin I Live In offers much for the viewer to revel in. Especially Banderas, who shows how great his range, is when compared to his other collaborations with Almodóvar, Women on the Verge… and Tie me Up! Tie me Down! (1990). He expresses a cool and distant presence, but one who nonetheless feels deeply for those he loves.

Still, for all its genre-bending inventiveness, the film is most successful as a horror, and it is the ideas and images expressed in that vein that will linger in my mind …

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Life on Earth, no small concerns in Attenberg.

In Attenberg, the producer of 2009’s Dogtooth presents another orally fixated exploration of the world, from the perspective of an isolated young woman.

Director Athina Rachel Tsangari has crafted a curious and detailed portrait of four people living in a Greek coastal town, built around an industrial plant. The film focuses on Marina (Ariane Labed) daughter of Spyros (Vangelis Mourikis), an architect dying of cancer. The film’s title comes from Marina’s passion for watching David Attenborough documentaries with her father, something that has lead to her habit of mimicking the animals in the programs (Attenberg being a mispronunciation of the name by Marina’s friend Bella). In fact, it could be said that some of the most honest and poignant communication in the film derives from the more animal-like exchanges between characters. Attenberg begins with Bella (Evangelia Randou) teaching her repressed counterpart to French kiss. Marina’s literal distaste for what she considers to be a repulsive act eventually overcomes her impulse to learn and the two women resort to ape-like displays of aggression in the grass. This scene, when considered in relation to the film as a whole, is actually the perfect introduction to the central female relationship – intimate, inquisitive, partially dependent and ultimately tinged with an instinctive jealousy.

I really enjoyed Attenberg. Initially I couldn’t verbalise why, but the more I think about it, the richer it gets, as the characters interactions with each other and their environment are actually beautifully composed gestural encounters, (Cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis also worked on Dogtooth). It is telling that the themes of the film are the grandest; Marina comes to terms with adult relationships and responsibilities via her experiences of sex and death. Tsangari doesn’t explain why Marina has such a limited experience of life, other than in scenes between father and daughter in which Marina expresses her frustration at her Dad’s desire for her to get out of her comfort zone, despite him raising her in opposition to this. At one point she describes herself as asexual, and declares that she wished her Dad didn’t have genitals.

It is in the portrayal of the sheltered central character that Attenbergs similarity with Dogtooth is revealed. In both films the absurdity of human behaviour in the 'adult' world, is exposed by young people seeing it for the first time. When Marina is eventually attracted to a man, (an engineer, played by Giorgos Lanthimos, director of Dogtooth) their forays into lovemaking are made comically endearing by her instinct to narrate their actions as though they were animals in an Attenborough documentary. The oral fixation is shown in both base actions – spitting, and in word play as Spyros and Marina volley rhyming words back and forth eventually devolving into grunts and growls. This repetition of play and games is also present in the interspersed scenes of Marina and Bella marching along a neglected strip between houses, in a beguiling tribute to Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks. At first these sequences can seem too contrived, but on second thought are no less ridiculous than the other human rituals on display. Notable in this category is the detailed process necessary to allow Spyros to be cremated after his inevitable demise. In a scene weighted with pathos, we see the funeral director explaining the choices for the casket and the urn, and the irony of Marina’s insistence on a non-synthetic coffin lining for her allergic father.

Attenberg isn’t simply a study of human behaviour, however, nor is it entirely similar to Dogtooth; Tsangari having created a funny, beautiful and sad film that also reflects on the ‘failed revolution’ in Greece, represented by the damaged and ruined buildings, and lamented by Spyros who (at least in the film) designed them. Ariane Labeds’ performance is both brave and tender, and it won her the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival. It is delights such as this and an almost music video style karaoke section with Bella and Marina that means the film will stay with you a lot longer than any mainstream coming-of-age tale.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Super 8 - a little bit super.

The director of Star Trek (2009) and Mission Impossible 3 (2006) once again demonstrates his immense love for lens flair in this nostalgic ode to films and filmmaking in the 1980’s.

Some may find it irritating, but I really appreciate a director who steadfastly adheres so an aesthetic choice, even if it makes little sense to the plot. What’s that in the sky? Is it a UFO? Nope, in this case it’s just light reflecting off the lens. Brilliant. Lenses are an important factor of the tension in Super 8, which sees a gang of early teens, in the style of The Goonies (1985) or E.T (1982), investigate an alien presence in their small town in Ohio. Shot on a combination of RED digital, the eponymous 8mm and 35mm – the tradition of analogue filmmaking is very much at the heart of Abrams’ Spielberg distilled Sci-Fi. The tension comes from the deliberately 1980’s aesthetic - the production design seeming to owe so much to Spielberg’s 1982 classic, from the brown home interiors to the nod to the emergence of the Sony WALKMAN. This combined with the appearance of the grain on the filmstrip – a visible signifier of the pre-digital past. The grain is all part of the nostalgia, but this being a film made nearly thirty years after Elliot discovered an alien in his back yard, the effects are far from attributable to the analogue. As a result we get beautiful scenes of the chaos of small-town life looking as if it has been literally lifted from E.T and a motion-capture CG alien running tearing up a train crash and running amok at the local gas station. What’s interesting is where the love of the grain colludes with the necessity of delivering a creature that will comply with a 21st century’s audience expectation. No longer can we be satisfied with Bruce the shark, in all his rubbery menace. Two scenes in the film show the gang watching super 8 films, in which the alien can be seen, all fluid movements of its spider-like limbs. Knowing that this is a digital effect, presented as supposedly the past within the time frame of the films’ events, juxtaposes old technology with new, in a brilliant demonstration of multiple mediation in the post-photographic age. We love the grain, but we don’t need the grain in order to signify the past, we can fake it with digital effects. A film that is so obviously a love affair with past filmmaking practices belies its integrity through the force of invention.

This is not to say that the film isn’t hugely enjoyable. Though lacking originality – (any parent would be wise to simply sit their kids down with a screening of E.T rather than this: it’s for those who can remember riding a Chopper or using a CB radio). Abrams creates enough thrills and humour to entertain for the duration of the running time. The choice to cast relative unknown’s as the kids, (with the exception of Elle Fanning as Alice who was last seen in Sophia Coppolas’ Somewhere) is also an effective one and the chemistry between them as they bicker their way through making a zombie film and escaping death-by-alien is very entertaining. Unfortunately the film’s Spielberg-ness extends all the way to its conclusion, with the creature defying expectations based on its previous behaviour, in favour of a family friendly face-off between boy and deadly extra-terrestrial.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Like, Slack ... er, films ...

- Got any plans for today?

-I have got a bit of a project actually, I’m going to be as inactive as I can in order to really get into the psyche of someone who’s say, I dunno, unemployed, not just vocationally but cerebrally, to see if the predicament of enforced passivity actually exhausts itself, you know; does inactivity breed laziness?

- Oh, right, are you gonna write an article about it?

- Nah I can’t be bothered.

Such is the wit of Jessica Hynes and Simon Pegg in Spaced (episode ‘Help’ 2001), summing up in one exchange the apathy of the slacker in the millennial generation. In this particular episode, the inactive Daisy (Hynes) is berated for her passive attitude by her flatmate, Tim (Pegg) and landlord Marsha (Julia Deakin), eventually bated into going running with the latter, in an hilarious demonstration of competitiveness. In contrast to Daisy’s inertia, Tim and best friend Mike (Nick Frost) embark on an action-packed adventure to retrieve a caricatured portrait of the man about to assess Tim’s suitability to work for DarkStar Comics.

Pegg, Hynes and director Edgar Wright’s portrayal of the twenty-something adrift in post millennium London is a brilliant example of a generation. A g

eneration post Gen-X, (Gen-Y?) no longer simply stepping back from their aimless lives and viewing them through the mediation of the video camera and reality TV as seen in Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites (1994) or Cameron Crowe’s Singles (1992) – literally seeing not doing. This generation is so steeped in pop culture, demonstrable via the ubiquitous screen: TV, laptops, mobile phone

s, cinema, that every moment of their lives is not simply an instant unto itself, but viewed as reference to some film, or game, or pop song, Just as Mike imagines breaking into the offices of Tim’s would-be boss as a scene from The Matrix, or a heroic save by Brian (Mark Heap) is accompanied by the theme from The Magnificent Seven and Daisy’s recollection of a netball match back in high school is narrated as a series of comic-book frames accompanied by the theme from TV’s Grange Hill.

Spaced can be considered a commentary of what could ostensibly be called the sub-genre of the Slacker film, despite being TV. It sits at a mid-point between the cool passivity of Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation (1980) in which apathetic Allie wanders around Manhattan, dances to Charlie Parker and ignores his girlfriend and the so called Mumblecore movement that emerged in the past ten years, with such titles as Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007). In the latter movement the term slacker is taken to a whole new level in which so loose is the aesthetic that the presence of a script would be unthinkable.

Perhaps the epitome of this genre is Richard Linklater’s 1991 film Slacker. Structured as a relay-race of interweaving encounters with the (mostly) twenty-something inhabitants of Austin, Texas, Slacker combines meandering mini-narratives with snapshots of philosophical, political and artistic opinions, all delivered in a typically earnest and impassioned style. Whereas Linklater’s style was criticised for this earnestness – the idealism of talking big and seemingly doing very little, seen again in later work such as Dazed and Confused (1993), Before Sunrise (1995) and Waking Life (2001) - the mumblecore movement is slack for reasons other than the inactivity of its protagonists. Most cite Funny Ha Ha as the earliest and best example of the classic characteristics of the decade’s work in low-fi filmmaking. Characters played by non-actor friends of the writer/director, location shooting, loose framing, no script thereby leading to an overwhelming presence of hesitating interjections in the dialogue, e.g. “So, like, what do want to do?” “I, er, [sigh], don’t know, er, how ‘bout you?” and so forth. It is in the dialogue that mumblecore (the clue’s in the name) differs so greatly to the work of Linklater and his contemporaries Crowe and Kevin Smith who were so highly praised for their work as screenwriters, capturing the concerns and articulations of their generation.

In Funny Ha Ha, central character Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer), a recent graduate, wanders through a series of encounters with her peers, losing a job here, kissing her friends’ boyfriend there, and making to-do lists that will most likely never be accomplished. She is slack in every sense of the word. Non-committal, passive when confronted with her failings, apathetic about which image to be tattooed with, literally shutting down, unwilling to engage in conversation even, seemingly unable to articulate her feelings. Whilst watching this pathetic display of inertia I wondered whether the characters name was a reference to the Hitchcock film of the same, in which Tippi Hedren in the title role, is ‘broken’ by Sean Connery’s Mark Rutland, who considers that Marnie needs to be made passive and agreeable in order to function in society as a woman. The perspective in Funny Ha Ha is not a particularly female one, as the pool of people floating around Marnie all talk and act as though ideas and opinions are not worth having.

It is exactly this excruciating mundanity that has garnered praise for the mumblecore movement. Critics rarely demonstrate whole-hearted enthusiasm for the work of Bujalski, Swanberg, Greta Gerwig and the Duplass brothers, but note warmly, for example that ‘Bujalski's improv approach is gracefully married with a style that is not overly-dramatic, and therefore seems just a hair short of pure documentary’ (Robert Koeller, Variety, 2003). Mumblecore, (a term the filmmakers now dislike) can be at best be seen as being like life, if your life involves being a partially employed, twenty-something graduate living in semi-poverty. The argument against these films being in the slacker genre is the hardworking attitude of the filmmakers, as Andrea Hubert noted in The Guardian back in 2007, ‘In five years, they have produced a total of 14 self-financed films between them’ now Mark and Jay Duplass work with the likes of John C. Riley and Marisa Tomei (Cyrus, 2010), where they transferring their improvisational directorial style to extract comedy from the super-awkwardness of the concerns of middle-aged singles.

For my own part, I have little patience for the so-called realism on display in Bujalski’s work. I liked Joe Swanberg’s Night’s and Weekends (2008), if only for the sweetness of Gerwig’s performance (seen recently playing alongside Ben Stiller in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, another wandering protagonist film). Wah Do Dem (2009) directed by Ben Chase and Sam Fleischner is a more successful portrait of a slacker, as musician Max (Sean Bones), recently dumped by his girlfriend finds himself literally alone and adrift on a cruise to Jamaica. The film almost loses itself to pointless repetition and an unlikeable central character, but is saved when this slack-jawed slacker gets his comeuppance for being arrogant enough to assume that the worst had already happened to him.

Whereas the mumblecore movement exposes the myth that doing little and having few responsibilities is cool and funny - as seen in the work of Linklater, Jarmusch, Smith, Crowe and of course Pegg, Hynes and Wright, it is exactly because of this that I find it so unengageing. Slackers are at their most entertaining when thrust into action against their base desires, as seen in Greg Araki’s Smiley Face (2007), in which Anna Faris’s Jane eats her flatmates hash cupcakes and has to replace them, and pay back her dealer by 3pm. Even Pineapple Express (David Gordon Green, 2008) managed to be intermittently hilarious for it depiction of stoner’s thrust into an action film.

The idea here being, and in of course Spaced and Wright’s most recent Scott Pilgrim Versus the World (2010) that the inactive only relate to action in a mediated form. The characters only become active in their being removed from such action, i.e. un-real and within a fantasy/pop culture world. Inaction is moderated by a world they cannot in reality inhabit, unlike in mumblecore, where being and doing nothing are the only course, and that’s just plain dull.

For a nice little parody of mumblecore click here