February 1, 2013
Coming from a director whose filmography and talent suggest she is both switched on and aware, it’s hard to believe Kathryn Bigelow would claim, “the film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge.” (Kathryn Bigelow, The New York Times, December 17 2012) Her hope, one assumes, is to hide her gentle conservatism deep within the spectacle of quality filmmaking craft. But Bigelow wears her patriotism on her sleeve and in so doing can’t help but reveal her brand of just morality. Whilst this is absolutely her prerogative the trouble with it is the casualties are viewers and ethics. Manipulated by carefully constructed and well executed craft, viewers are implicated in post-9/11 moral hysteria. Whilst technically Zero Dark Thirty is a “good” film, it is not free of judgement and worse still, attempts to hide its agenda behind an unethical brand of gentle conservatism.
That most people feel uneasy watching Zero Dark Thirty goes some way towards confirming Bigelow’s claim that she is presenting events as they (for the most part) occurred. It could be argued too that her presentation is successful in its ability to make the viewer feel uncomfortable, potentially questioning their responses to the methods used to locate bin Laden. But even if this were true, it assumes hunting down another human with the intent to kill is an acceptable final outcome.
Jessica Chastain plays Maya, the highly intelligent, headstrong CIA operative determined to track down Osama bin Laden. Despite her strong will and hard-line, she flinches a little during an early torture scene in the film to signal her as the character for audience alignment. Later, after initial hostility towards both male and female colleagues to prove her work ethic above her humanity, Maya begins to soften and to allow working friendships to develop. This negates accusation against her character as being void of all humanity. The conflicting character developments then attempt to create power and empathy simultaneously but prove too much for Chastain who often comes across as soft where she ought to be sympathetic.
Framed now as a woman with great power, intelligent with a dash of empathy, Maya appeals to the viewer as moral compass. But she has no ethics, her decisions and behaviours are based on personal moral feelings, “A lot of my friends have died trying to do this – I believe I was spared so I could finish the job.”, and as such compromise the integrity of the viewers who are implicit in her political/personal/moral position.
In Washington, the many suited men advise their probable certainty of Maya’s intel being accurate, refusing to commit to their position, explaining, “We don’t deal in certainty, we deal in probability.” Maya assures the men and in so doing the audience that she is absolutely sure, “One hundred percent.” Bigelow justifies the invasion that follows. Sure, what follows is some of the best technically orchestrated filmmaking I’ve seen onscreen in years and as narrative thriller plays out with incredible tension, but preying on people’s sympathy for Western innocents killed during US and UK terrorist attacks, is a low card to draw to allow moral hysteria into the narrative where ethics ought to be present. Never once does the film allow an ethical position and never are the audience privileged to see the face of the Other.
Recently, the critical backlash against her earlier comments have forced Bigelow into honesty as her comments here reveal:
“On a practical and political level, it does seem illogical to me to make a case against torture by ignoring or denying the role it played in U.S. counter-terrorism policy and practices.
Bin Laden wasn’t defeated by superheroes zooming down from the sky; he was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation.”
- Extract, Kathryn Bigelow, Los Angeles Times online, January 15 2013. Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
Zero Dark Thirty is released in Australian cinemas Thursday January 31 2013.
January 24, 2013
In Inglorious Basterds (2009) Tarantino burns celluloid and explodes cinema. In Django Unchained (2012) he explodes himself. Along with the medium, so too burns on-screen history and the physical, tactile imprint of the past. And now, a return to ‘the death of the author’.
Whilst it might be beyond accepted and indeed popular to call Tarantino an auteur, Django marks a new distinctly new direction for the writer/director. To re-examine his oeuvre is to discover a fascinating trajectory from voice to image. Rather than expressing a world-view through his work, Tarantino presents, re-invents and interpolates. From homage, to self-reflexivity, postmodernist practice, pastiche and back again, Tarantino presents images and ideas from the past, present and future together; blending aesthetics and history until it becomes a pulsating palimpsest on screen.
Or at least that is how his films feel as though they are communicating. But if viewed as myriad instead of tapestry, Tarantino ceases to be cinema’s contemporary enfant terrible, presenting instead of connecting, and perhaps someone to be seem as a type of cinematic decouper.
Tarantino details who, where and when for the audience as if context were an object to be decorated. These details are written in words rather than read through images. That cinema’s abilities to ellipse time and space has long been a central distinction between it and other art forms matters little to Tarantino. For him, these details become the permanent, unmovable object around which to create. Everything else within the picture is decoration; fluid and itself subject to semiotic ellipse.
We begin; “1858, 2 years before the Civil War, Somewhere in Texas”. Context firmly and as literally as digital can, painted onto the screen. The only thing we can be certain of in this establishing sequence is where and when we are. What happens next is decorative addition; through history, myth, legend, collective memory (and here too through the construction of popular mediums such as film, where Tarantino gives his audience a game of film reference bingo), and of course aesthetics.
In fact, it is largely in the aesthetic that Tarantino’s departure from pastiche and movement towards a more decorative mode of filmmaking can be located. Where some of his earlier films including Jackie Brown (1997) and Inglourious Basterds, but most specifically here, Death Proof (2007), went to great technical lengths to ensure they worked within historically specific aesthetic forms (rendering the form a choice rather than a given and in doing so rescued themselves from postmodernism), Django not only ignores historically specific aesthetic form but goes out of its way to show how it is not important for the film. For the most part Django‘s aesthetic is contemporary; mixing a range of styles to create a non-specific “look”, one that can simultaneously encompass the deep South and the far West. There are too flashback images to the ‘past’ (within the narrative), given a grainier quality and colour washed with a yellow hue. The tint (or taint) of the past is intensified and heightened with intent to highlight artifice and to negate any quality of aesthetic historical authenticity. Moving away from pastiche, Tarantino demonstrates a very deliberate fluidity in style, but also in story, and one that might for some achieve a disharmony between visual spectacle and the narrative imaginary.
No doubt there are moments of historical truth in Django, but mine is not to discover what is and is not subject to that o’erbearing harbinger. My questions is, if Tarantino presents himself as absent from this linear, causal narrative film, and if everything except context is added decoration, whose story is Django?
Story too changes and moves with fluidity throughout the film, passed from character to director to viewer and back again until all ethical viewing becomes sutured into the story in really a most fascinating and arresting way.
The deep South, ‘afore the Civil War, a foreigner, and a freed slave become our object, decorated by Tarantino with great effort and gusto, gorgeous and gaudy at once. The “story” then belongs to us all. Beyond pastiche, we are presented with a burden and a beauty, shared.
Django Unchained (2012) is released in Australian cinemas Thursday January 24, 2013.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
August 9, 2012
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining carried a tagline: The Wave of Terror That Swept Across America. Interrogating just what that wave of terror might be, Room 237 consists of a series of off-camera interviews offering a number of focused readings of Kubrick’s film. Unfortunately, Room 237 is unkind to its contributors in its clumsy assemblage and presentation of their ideas.
The disembodied voices whose observations are told are never seen, leaving the viewer with no association for the words that spring forth. But worse than that, there is no presentation – not even a quick title onscreen – as to who these voices belong to at all. No names or credentials are ever given which further undermines and betrays their readings by asking the viewer to take a huge leap of faith and trust the opinions given, irregardless of their origins.
There is also little innovation in the visual style with many of the clips from The Shining, and indeed other Kubrick films, shown ad nauseum when one clear example from the text ought to suffice in illustrating the point. Coupled with the fact that the quality of the footage itself is visually poor, makes it difficult to become immersed in the analysis. Interesting and provocative readings aside, Room 237 is like a first year film student attempting to give a third year lecture. Messy.
August 8, 2012
Killer Joe Cooper suffers psychopathy. He is a manipulative, egocentric, unempathetic, guiltless symbol for the patriarch and the Name of the Law – penal, and later, familial. His character commands control and receives submission from both on-screen characters and viewers alike. Therein is the problematic in “enjoying” Killer Joe.
There are five central characters; after Joe there is Ansel, the endearing but incompetent patriarch before Joe enters and assumes the throne in their domestic domain, and Chris, Ansel’s rogue, harebrained son who comes up with central plot device of killing his own mother to collect on the life insurance. Whilst Ansel and Chris are depicted as unintelligent, foolish and are often the subject of some particularly base jokes, they are kept just barely on the right side of audience alignment by the film’s further and more persecuting jokes aimed at the female characters. Of whom there is Adele – the absent mother mostly referred to as a bitch and only shown once where we see her dead – or at least near-dead – body during the patriarch’s removal of her impotent reign. Then there is Sharla, the deceitful, scheming, unfaithful woman who represents whore. Joining these two already glowing representations of women is Dottie, the virginal, naive, slightly affected and potentially mentally challenged daughter and ultimately little more than the retainer following a contract transaction between aforementioned patriarchal figures Joe, Ansel and Chris. After the film removes the impotent, it condemns the whore and finally rapes and damages its virgin. Dottie is almost the film’s innocent charmer until the final scene where she too forgoes any previous sense of morality, ethics, empathy, compassion – heck, humanity, and callously kills the only people she supposedly loves and cares for. The final sting being that all the concern for the weak and seemingly innocent version of the feminine was still a waste of male time and energy as she, like all women, was only to turn on the males in the end.
But what’s most concerning about Killer Joe is the guise that it is a “Black Comedy”. The entire Smith family are depicted as pathetic and parasitic to society. Although the focus is never on Joe as an officer of the law, we are always aware that he represents the penal code, societal structure and of course the Name of the Law. Here, with a family that are willing and eager to turn upon themselves, leaving one another out to dry, Joe is the only character with whom the audience are even close to aligned. Are we to take then that psychopathy is preferable to those who are depicted here as the economic dregs of society?
Certainly it is possible to take controversial, uncomfortable subject matter and satirise it in a way that is bleak and comedic; depictions of depravity that leave the viewer with feelings of uncomfortable self reflection on their ability to find such material amusing or films that expose their protagonists as weak, unstable – Happiness is a great example of such an achievement; but Killer Joe does none of these things. It may well be true that Matthew McConaughey’s performance is brilliant and even that the character of Joe captures onscreen the displays of psychopathy to perfection, but enabling that character control over the audience and their responses is a curious and pivotal choice for the film’s ultimate success. The result, unfortunately, is a room full of laughter – not at the suggestion of a misogynist act – but at the humiliation of the act carried out.
There are further issues in the film and certainly this is a gloss in terms of examples but what’s problematic about Killer Joe isn’t that its lead character suffers psychopathy, nor that it employs humour in a tale of such subject matter, but that it uses the psychopathy as a tool for seduction through which it repeatedly revels in the successful delivering of dangerous ideology.
August 6, 2012
From silent credits to abrasively intruding through the front doors of an affluent French home, Haneke immediately instructs his audience that their position is one of outsider intruding upon a personal space and by beginning with the film’s end allows the viewer an uncharacteristically kind act of mercy by letting us know from the outset that this will not be a film of causal narrative structure, negating any possibility of a sublime experience by removing the potential anticipation of ‘when will it happen’? Then Haneke allows the audience one more opportunity to choose to leave should our disposition be too weak to take on what he is about to uncover – a seemingly lengthy view of an audience sat in a theatre waiting for a performance to begin announces that we are about to look very much at ourselves through someone else’s story. The camera is stationary, unflinching in its observation.
Long takes and carefully composed, often still frames, with real-time movement ensure there is no escape for the audience from the film’s steady pace or the at times painfully tedious details of the story. Surmising ‘plot’ is a fruitless exercise here as Haneke’s voices tells us that we don’t recall the reaction or the film, but the emotion, that the vehicle and response don’t matter, it is the feeling that remains. This is his own synopsis of Amour. He further lets us know that “imagination and reality have very little in common” and gives us only Eva (a minor role here for Isabelle Huppert) as a possible stand in for the failed viewer’s anticipated insolent response, “What happens now?”, a question met with simplicity, “What’s happened up until now.”
Another achievement in truly affecting and intellectual cinema, Haneke’s Amour is confronting, inescapable; devastatingly brilliant.
August 6, 2012
Jonas Mekas, regarded as the godfather of the American Avant-Garde, and José Luis Guerín, an accomplished documentary and narrative filmmaker, embark upon a series of film correspondence as part of an ongoing project funded by Barcelona’s Centre of Contemporary Culture. Though commissioned rather than ‘found’, the correspondence between the two is clearly the result of genuine friendship and a very earnest passion for visual representations of the moments and thoughts that construct life.
The two styles are almost polar opposites and as such compliment one another by creating an almost natural wave-like ebbing to and fro - Guerín’s videos to Mekas in black and white, perceiving the cities, people and spaces with the eye of an auteur expressing a reflective world view, filming never ‘taping’, whilst Mekas’ videos to Guerin are like home videos up from the underground blending the public and the personal with innocent ease. From revolving doors with stunning reflections in Guerín’s examination of the people he records and their supposed inability to put down roots in expansive public spaces to Mekas’ following an unaware Ken Jacobs down the street and occasionally filming his own feet in the wake of stopping to speak and smell lavendar - Correspondence is paced naturally with an intuitive rhythm that carries the viewer safely between a personal conversation and filmic endeavour from beginning to end.
The natural passing of time through recording of seasons gives the film its temporal structure effortlessly as our narrators release their perspectives on the world through honest nuggets; “I react to life”, and gentle reassurances that we are not intruding on their personal diaries; “It’s only part of a game”. An experience akin to being a very welcome guest in someone else’s home, Correspondence is a citric delight in a varied feast of a festival.
August 6, 2012
Questioning the societal infrastructure built to dispense ‘justice’ and ‘morality’ is not restricted to any single nation. Headshot, a Thai/French co-production concerned with these themes does so predominantly through perspective and physicality. Opening with striking POV cinematography, introducing its protagonist through first person perspective and then a mirrored image sets up the film’s intent to explore interiority. Positing then the viewer as existing somewhere between aligned with and yet distanced from protagonist Tul, Headshot continues to play brain against braun in what is essentially a decent enough but far from innovative dramatic thriller.
Through a physical metamorphosis we see Tul transform from rogue individual to a modest monk. Performing the physical attributes of a monk however has no bearing on saving his ‘soul’. Just as it becomes apparent that Tul is an assassin carrying out a hit, he is shot in the head, falling into a three-month coma only to awake with a literally inverted view of the world. His now altered perspective is 180 degrees opposing his previous belief system as he views the world upside down. A series of temporal interruptions to the narrative fill in the past alongside the present preferencing neither as a true or correct path, leaving final judgement to the viewer.
Juxtaposed against one another are the presentations of intellect and physical strength; Tul reads about the conception of evil as originating from genetics and then works out whilst contemplating the merits of scholars and education. Unable to side with either and struggling with each as the narrative unfolds – adopting again the physical life of a monk but never truly able to submit to its ideology and repeatedly theorising his life without killing whilst running, fighting and shooting at his pursuers – Tul has reached an impasse between his body and his mind. His perspective unable to shift despite the rupture to linear progression and his body constantly trying to heal despite repeated affronts upon it, Tul cannot locate ethics within the moral minefield of Bangkok’s underworld.
Interesting though the themes may well be, the film covers well trampled ground and ultimately fails to tread on anything fresh enough to be innovative or truly provocative. Its absence of ethical questioning is difficult to ignore as it contemplates morality only as far as the system’s effect on the individual is concerned without ever really contemplating the Encounter with the Other. A decent if somewhat standard crime thriller.
August 6, 2012
It’s been almost a year and a half since my last blog post. For shame. The lack of words appearing on/in this cyber spatiality is less a reflection of my disinterest in writing however and more of a symptom of my finally becoming employed in February 2011. Lost to a timelessness that is reminiscent of many an experimental piece of cinema, I return with similarly sublime ambiguity; stating neither that this will be a permanent return to form, nor that my blogging days are necessarily an occurrence specific only to the past. If my subject matter is free to play with time and space, why not I? With that in mind, what I do wish to do is attempt to cover the Melbourne International Film Festival 2012 as best I can (time and energy permitting) here again at Liminal Vision.
Should you however hold a grudge toward my reckless abandon and failure to commit myself to the blogosphere then you can always listen in to Melbourne radio station 3RRR 102.7FM on Thursday August 9th 7pm to hear me speaking my reviews with esteemed colleagues both Josh Nelson and Cerise Howard in our Max Headroom MIFF Special.
February 22, 2011
Despite the plethora of TV comedy out there, it isn’t actually all that often that I find myself truly and consistently tickled by a TV show. Luckily for me, Adult Swim exists. And whilst I find most of what I’ve seen from them very, very funny there is one show in particular that rises above their own very high standard and deserves far more attention and accolade than it receives. That show is The Venture Bros. Having waited for what seems like an eternity to an avid fan, Season 4 Part 1 is now available to purchase on DVD in Australia thanks to Madman Entertainment. And it’s every bit as absolutely awesome as the three incredible seasons that precede it.
At the end of Season 3 viewers were left wondering not only where the line between “good” and “evil” lay with relation to key characters but also who exactly would make it back alive for Season 4. Well, I’m not going to spoil things by answering those rather excellent questions but what I will say is that you needn’t worry because – one way or another – all your favourites will be returning and, as has been the case all along, the “plot” (I think we can just about call it that) thickens. There are important updates afoot with regard to The Guild of Calamitous Intent, The Sovereign, budding romances between certain young characters, the mental health of various other characters and of course, the very complicated, legal minefield that applies to the world of Arching.
If everything I wrote in the last paragraph means absolutely nothing to you then I suspect you are unfamiliar with the best cartoon ever made, in which case, you really ought to start with Season 1 and catch yourself up. Don’t worry, this recommendation is about as iron clad as anyone’s sanity, so if you have a sense of humour (and particularly if things that are a little bit not quite right so happen to tickle your fancy) go buy Seasons 1-4 NOW.
The only negative thing to be said about this DVD is that once you’ve finished watching the eight wonderful episodes it boasts, you’ll no doubt wish you had the next eight at the ready (sadly, they are not yet available over here). But, on the up side, you can go back and watch those eight episodes all over again which, so far as I’m concerned, is actually pretty bloody exciting because if Seasons 1-3 taught me anything, it’s that The Venture Bros. only gets better with repeat viewings.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
February 14, 2011
Whilst the idea behind Valentine’s Day might be to me quite perplexing, the idea behind giving someone a gift loaded with sentiment and love is not. With that in mind, there are few things of such ilk that you can readily fit into a 21.5 by 15.5 by 5 box. Yet, somehow, the good people at Madman have managed it. At a combined 869 minutes of melodramatic bliss, the Douglas Sirk: King of Hollywood Melodrama box set is an object of just those dimensions and, whether you’re interested in buying a gift for your Valentine, yourself or anyone with even an ounce of good taste, then might I suggest that you buy this. Aside from making your heart swell and your lips curl themselves into an incredibly frequent wry smile, the only side effect will be your calling everyone “Darling” for a week or two in the interim which, in all honestly, is such a warm and endearing term that it ought only to work in one’s favour.
Of course, as is often the case with a director box set, there are one or two films that seem to be at slight tonal odds with the rest of the collection. However, for anyone who cares to take even a moment to reflect, these anomalies are only really bound by the confines of genre and narrative; their thematics and auteuristic world view more than consistent with their company. To this end, the Douglas Sirk: King of Hollywood Melodrama box set offers a gentle critique of American aspirations; all the way from early settlement to the at the time modern-day model of white, heteronormative, familial life. It suggests, rather boldly for its time, that defining one’s own aspirations against and attempting to achieve them within such relational societal constructs is anything but simple, anything but stark, and, never – even when the picture itself might be – black and white.
A classic example of screw-ball comedy, No Room for the Groom sees Alvah Morrell (Tony Curtis) try desperately to consummate his too much trouble marriage to Lee Kingshead (Piper Laurie). A quality comedy that is short and to the point, No Room for the Groom plays with gender stereotypes and the pressures of marrying into a family when all you want is to be in love. Humourously acknowledging and explaining its own causal paradigm, “It’s called cause and effect”, and displaying just enough cynicism to rouse a giggle out of its audience, “marriage is keeping your mouth shut”, Sirk skillfully shows both parties in a marriage to be annoyingly and endearingly constricted by social pressure, “Should a girl have to tell a man when she wants to be kissed?” A fantasticly light-hearted start to an epic journey of melodramatic discovery.
This is as close to perfect as film gets for lovers of romance. Barbara Stanwyck is simply sensational as Naomi Murdock, a woman who has left her family to fruitlessly pursue her personal dreams and to escape the scandal of an affair in a small town. One of many of Sirk’s films to show how deeply an individual can wrestle with their own complex emotions and conflicting desires, All I Desire a beautiful story that allows things to somehow work themselves out. It is also surprisingly progressive for its time, exploring the subjectivity rather than the guilt of a woman whose choices may not have always been entirely moral or selfless.
Helen Phillips (Jane Wyman) is model woman, wife, (step)mother, friend and professional. In fact, even when life is cruel to her, she remains poised, gracious and strong. Losing her eyesight she is lured into a love affair that she actively refused when she could see. Her ultimate lesson, and the lesson that her suitor Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) learns too, is that true enlightenment in such a dark world can only come from shutting off your expectations of others. When you are willing, even blindly so, to let others in and to behave towards them truly selflessly, only then will you find in yourself profound peace and happiness. A moving, heartwarming tale.
Although Taza, Son of Cochise is a generic diversion for Sirk (predominantly it is a western), it doesn’t fail to reiterate his concerns for familial obligation and the complexities of love. Taking things a psychoanalytic step further, Sirk explores ideas of totem and taboo within a tribal context as they pertain to the increasingly obtrusive All-American way of life. Stars Rock Hudson as Taza and Barbara Rush as Oona.
Probably Sirk’s most famous melodrama and the primary inspiration for Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (2002), All That Heaven Allows is a remarkable film that uses colour and lighting to exemplarily create mood, silhouettes and shadows to express subtle subtext and overt reference to psychoanalysis (namely Freudian) to explain character motivation and action/inaction. Heavily critical of American upper class social decorum and the sort of repression such false exclusivity necessarily harbours, All That Heaven Allows is a stunning, deeply affecting and astute cinematic work.
The mesmerizing Barbara Stanwyck returns in There’s Always Tomorrow as the spirited Norma Miller Vale who has chosen career over family. Still in love with Clifford Groves (Fred MacMurray) who is under appreciated and somewhat unfulfilled, the two attempt to bring their disparate lives together but soon learn that the confines of morality and the boundaries of their emotions can never allow for such a union. Easily the most heartbreaking film in the box, There’s Always Tomorrow leaves a stunning air of desperation, hope, inevitable resolve and disappointment in its wake: “Darling, if life were always an adventure it’d be exhausting.”
The second generically anomalous work in the set, A Time to Love and a Time to Die is still a melodrama, but is set against the very real backdrop of post World War II Germany. Wistfully explicating how the past absolutely permeates the present, A Time to Love and a Time to Die is as much about ethical behaviour as it is morality; always suggesting that the two are in no way necessarily linked: “Murderers are never murderers twenty-four hours a day.” Ultimately, Sirk seems to posit that love and death – natural drives and inevitable occurrences in human life – present themselves in relation always to anOther.
Exploring both the limits of friendship and the product of loyalty, The Tarnished Angels examines the types of social contracts individuals enter into and what happens to those contracts at the hands of the passage of time. Suggesting love is built upon so much more than just emotion and desire, The Tarnished Angels is another fine example of Sirk’s ability to produce performances of great depth and dimensionality. Stars Rock Hudson, Robert Stack, Jack Carson and Dorothy Malone.
Well, if the eight fantastic films that came before it didn’t win you over (who are you and how is your heart colder than mine?) then Imitation of Life most certainly will. A story loaded with issue and inference at every turn, Imitation of Life reveals a plethora of absurdities that constitute “life” through performativity. From the overt (literally acting) to the ideological (gender, family, class, race), Imitation of Life breaks down many of the ways in which life is constructed and the “roles” each individual assumes; sometimes out of necessity, and sometimes born of personal desire. Constructing life through the dot points that are “the great events of life” such as marriage and death, Sirk shows how we “measure” abstract notions such as “achievement”, “happiness”, “fulfillment” and “success”.
Though there is infinitely more to be said about Sirk and each of these films, the very best way to discover such sound, intelligent and genuinely marvelous films is to open up your own very beautiful box set and let the melodramatic bliss wash over you like so many emotions and so much of life itself. Not just a gift for Valentine’s Day, this is an absolute must-have for cinephiles and cine-lovers alike. Darling, do yourself a favour and let Douglas enlighten you.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.