February 4, 2011
Elements of visual and sound design including cinematography, editing, music and sound mix, whilst not necessarily always best used as compliments to the diegetic world (countless examples from Soviet Montage to underground experimenta and political found footage/ensemble films certainly support a counter-argument), it is most often the case that with Hollywood cinema these formal properties of a film act, albeit manipulatively, as a guide for audience reception (for more on this see Greg Smith’s chapter “The Mood Cue Approach to Filmic Emotion” in Film Structure and the Emotion System). And whilst I am not at all against cinema that pushes the boundaries of generic expectancy and indeed the formal economics of predictability that years of viewing have firmly impressed upon us (quite the contrary), I do find it difficult to appreciate the abrasive use of a film’s formal qualities when there is no apparent or at least positively affecting result in doing so. Danny Boyle has long been a director whose formal choices seem to me curious, if not superfluous, in this regard. His latest feature film, the much-anticipated 127 Hours (2010) is possibly the greatest example yet of how saturating formal technique is used to juxtapose the diegetic content of a film with disappointingly reductive results.
For a film about a man who gets stuck in a cave, his arm crushed under a firmly lodged boulder, it might seem a little odd that the opening credit sequence should show several images on a split screen where hoards of humans appear to heard themselves about like animals. Of course, this is a Hollywood film, so it isn’t long before these images are adequately explained as an insight into our protagonist’s view of the world. Aron Ralston (James Franco) is a man who prefers the company of the outdoors to others. Independent to the point of apparent neglect (he fails to tell anyone where it is that he’s going so that in the actual event something does happen to him, no one is able to even think about looking for him), Aron is as self-sufficient and individualist as they come. Suggesting with the split screen that our being surrounded by others does not necessarily forego fragmentation, Boyle sets up the film’s primary “message” and “concern” in a fairly standard and easily digestible manner.
After a few more establishing scenes where the stylistic choices add a sense of franticness to the film’s tonality, somewhat exploring human impact/interaction on/with natural spaces, our protagonist takes the inevitable plummet that will serve as the real life premise for the remainder of the film: with his arm crushed by a now firmly lodged boulder that came loose upon his free fall descent, Aron is condemned to the proverbial ‘127 hours’ where survival and solace seem unlikely. Unfortunately, where Boyle could easily have constructed the rest of the film as a tense, even terrifyingly sublime exploration of one man’s true isolation, the use of flashback, hallucination and overwrought visual and aural additives often detract from the true severity of the focal situation. An initial panic communicated to the audience after his fateful fall, where one genuinely thinks the rest of the film could well be James Franco screaming in agony for near on a hundred minutes (something that would undoubtedly have been more terrifying and visceral to watch), Boyle employs popular music and fast paced camera movement with far too short ASLs (average shot length) to even come close to adequately communicating a sense of prolonged pain.
Though occasional lines of dialogue reconfirm the idea that stillness is an illusion and that movement is constant; “Everything is moving all the time” and “Everything just comes together”; the film itself is not so fortunate so as to benefit from the illusion of stillness which, sadly, detracts from its overall tension. And whilst the most critical sequence in the film does show how style and sound can increase visceral affect, it does so in isolation as it is the one sequence that actually builds to crescendo. Certainly the majority of the time that Ralston is onscreen would have been communicably improved by a slow build in tension and a sense of suture style claustrophobia, akin to the likes of last year’s Buried (2010) which successfully managed such a feat by never expanding upon or leaving the confines of the diegetic world.
Ending with Ralston relenting that he does in fact “need help”, the film re-confirms the idea that we all need others and that connections between humans is an imperative to every individual’s survival. Moreover, Boyle takes it a bit too far when he then goes on to end the film by pointing specifically to Ralston’s now wife and kids as if familial life were some sort of epiphanic salvation. In terms of making a truly horrific life-threatening and, no doubt life-altering, event into a piece of entertaining filmic fare, Boyle has succeeded but in terms of communicating any sense of true gravity of the situation or even the fascinating and compelling temporal dimension to his experience which even operates as the film’s title, Boyle remains dismissive and reduces the scope and terror to a mere cavalcade of visual and aural superfluouity. It’s not so much the case that Boyle preferences style over substance, rather that his use of style operates as an overwhelming distraction from audience access to substance, an active choice that I find far less palatable.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
February 3, 2011
It’s mere myth that there is such a thing as an “average” or “normal” family. The dynamics that exist between family members – heteronormative nuclear ones or otherwise – are distinct to each family as they are relational in the first instance. As such, it might just be the case that writer/director Andrew C. Morgan’s recently finished short film The Skellys (2011) is not at all what it might at first appear.
The tag line elusively reads: “A suburban fantasy inside a remote reality.” On first viewing it might occur to the viewer that here is a presentation of a strange, dysfunctional and, for wont of a better word, “bogan” family. Of course, they would be the reactions of a presumably middle class viewer who considers him/herself to be “well-adjusted” and “well-bred”. Reactionary responses aside, The Skellys is in fact a view of a family from their own perspectives and, instead of being a condemnation of their interaction, the film is actually pushing for the “suburban fantasy” and its “remote reality” as a sacred psychogeographical space; access to which is exclusive, closed to outsiders.
The Skellys is a short rendered as if it were a “home video”, complete with tracking issues and a lack of smooth transition between sequences. Whilst their home is semi-dilapidated and their activities “strange” – to a stranger -their dynamics are shown as “honest”. It is always inferred that behind the camera is a family member. Furthermore, although the film is set up as the young girl’s “video for class”, it is suggested that the actions and interactions of her family as shown are neither censored nor edited. Affection, anger, fantasy, fear, destruction and togetherness are all shown in equal and adequate measure.
Subtly bringing the viewer and his/her assumptions and accusations against Others into question, The Skellys is far more thoughtful than it might at first appear.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
February 2, 2011
The expectation that an audience will suspend disbelief and identify with an onscreen world and its characters is something I usually consider a fair request. But when the film in question itself suffers a crisis of identity, then the necessary contract between the filmmakers and the audience has been violated, and thus spectatorial alignment void. When access to an onscreen world is broken even if ‘moments’ are beautiful, the whole becomes fragmented and the experience abrasive for the viewer. Due to some terribly trite dialogue and a complete breakdown of generic and tonal consistency, Sanctum 3D (2010) is one such film that sadly fails to communicate with or suture in its audience.
Opening with an incredibly beautiful shot of a diver floating through an abyss of water the film offers first a notion of disembodiment. Reflecting well the content that will follow, Sanctum suggests already that the physical human body and its connectedness to other weighted objects or entities is not a given: constancy and attachment both psychological rather than physiological constructs. Cutting to a village in Papua New Guinea (although the film was actually shot in Australia on the Gold Coast), Sanctum briefly, and I dare say too flippantly, establishes its premise and characters: a diving expedition into a system of underwater caves soon becomes a fight for survival after storm waters flood and collapse the entrance, leaving a small group of individuals, ranging from veteran to first-time divers, with the challenge of working together for the grand prize of their lives.
Like many Australian productions before it, Sanctum is somewhat concerned with the relationship between human development and the persistence or resilience of the natural world. Illustrating this with ease, our most expert diver Frank (Richard Roxburgh) is sure to explain the wonder of the natural world by visual experience in the first instance; “Let me show you.” There is also the suggestion that the natural world is itself a force to be reckoned with and that human affinity with it is far from established, the “unknown” and compelling harsh beauty it presents formidable; “This cave’s not going to beat me.” Inauspicious as it is, the natural world is also posited as sublime; the overwhelming beauty and awe in which it inspires God-like. The unexplored areas our protagonists discover become the “sanctum” in question, and several sequences reference the bible, religious undertones resonating throughout, most notably towards the film’s end when our Christ-like Son of God performs a sort of baptism as he forgives his Father.
But even with these moments where subtext and visuals come together to achieve something worthy of serious and contemplative reflection upon issues pertaining to the human condition, the film constantly falls apart due to clumsy dialogue – dialogue that jars terribly with the visuals and abrasively halts any meditative aspects the film might otherwise champion. Moreover, its crisis of generic and tonal identity mean the films flits far too often and too disjointedly between being a serious drama, a tense horror/thriller and a light-hearted blockbuster action/adventure flick.
Forgiving its pitfalls proves difficult. Disruption in the natural flow of both the narrative and the visual story leave Sanctum a film with a great deal of promise and some truly magnificent moments but, most unfortunately, too confused for its own good.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
January 29, 2011
As each season comes to pass, so too do the moments belonging to time, giving and taking in a continuous cycle. Such is the constancy of our well established calendar and so too our very understanding of time. And yet, we are distinct from these elements. For us, “another” year signifies the next chapter in accumulative time whereby what comes to pass never wholly leaves; belonging in split division to both time and those it is impressed upon. Mike Leigh’s Another Year (2010) carefully and exquisitely examines the weight and imprint of time upon a small group of individuals. But perhaps its greatest feat of all is that it impresses upon the viewer so strikingly poignant and thoughtful an explication of how time means.
The film opens, confrontingly, in the middle of a session. Shot mostly in close-up or extreme close-up, it is initially unclear if the woman (Imedla Staunton) is visiting social services or a GP. As both the frame and the scene expand, it becomes clear that she has come to see a doctor in the hope that some prescribed sleeping pills might plaster over her problems and assure her with at least one decent night’s sleep. Her GP, the heavily pregnant Tanya, refers her to a counsellor to help find the root of her anxiety and depression after concluding that her insomnia is merely a symptom of a deeper issue. When Tanya asks this woman, “What is the one thing that would improve your life apart from sleep?” The woman’s only response is “A different life.” Indicating already here that what time leaves behind is so permanent that only another life could be free of its piercing effects, so begins Leigh’s examination of the determinism behind the formation of a group of individuals and their now lives.
Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) are as absolutely middle class as they come. They live in a comfortable yet not exceptional home and spend considerable time tending to their allotment. Their relationship is strong and loving, built upon the very fabric of the time passed in their lives. Having met in college, been apart and then reunited, they have lived “shared lives” including the raising of a son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), their now existence built of age. As they quite literally reap the benefits of the time they have put in to cultivating their love – aptly mirrored through their tending to an allotment – their friends conversely suffer at the hands of time and its cruel reminder that contentedness is far from instantaneous.
Further demonstrated through the birth of Tanya’s son, Spring brings new life and with it new joy, but only through the passage of “natural time”. Gerri’s work colleague and friend Mary (Lesley Manville) understands better than anyone the results of poor cultivation, having lost her home and partner, now living a temporary existence in a rented property and without companionship. But like the woman in the opening scene, Mary is impatient and plasters over the problems brought by time with temporary relief: drinking and smoking, clumsily asking, “Everyone needs someone to talk to, don’t they?”, Gerri replying in earnest, “Yes, they do.” Mary feels time has been unkind to her and instead of attempting to understand and deal with her past – its memories too painful – she favours a quick fix, unable to accept that the permanence of her past is inescapable.
When Tom and Gerri’s other friend Ken (Peter Wight) comes to London to visit, he too is beginning to feel the weight and force and time. Another character who, like Mary, plasters over his problems with great indulgence; eating, drinking and smoking to excess, Ken’s greatest fear of all is the sprawling time he will be left with if he retires. When asked, “What would you do with your time if you retired?” He wearily answers, “Pub. Eat, drink and be merry.” Having lost someone close to him the expanse of time is merely a reminder of his now loneliness and the thought of being confronted with its scarring effects ad infinitum is too much to bear, and so, Ken breaks down at the very mention of such a reality.
The juxtaposition of Tom and Gerri with Ken and Mary is stark but it operates not to vindicate those who have found a way to share their time and to victimise those who have not. Rather, it is there to illustrate the way in which we are all a product of the effects of our own experience of time, howsoever that time may come to pass. With winter, Leigh brings death and another character, Ronnie (David Bradley), whose loss of lifetime companionship has left him as a shadow without its casting.
In the most “Mike Leigh” of all the scenes in the film, Tom begins to voice some of the misanthropic auteur’s world views, suggesting that bosses are fascist and by discussing the importance of lowering one’s carbon footprint and caring about the imminence of catastrophic climate change. Tom speaks to the issues and to himself when he says, “The older you get the more relevant it seems.” But it’s not just the exponential rate at which capitalism, its greed, exploitation and negative impact upon our environment (physical, social and psychological) are advancing that Leigh is here referring to, it is also the fact that having seen and experienced the accumulative damage of these things affords it with greater weight. To the same end, it is hardly coincidental that the film should be set in London with Northern ties: the psychogeographical palimpsest of the country’s heartbeat city contrasts starkly and effectively with the nation’s grim and neglected townships.
The myriad of conflicting emotions brought out by the cast and Leigh’s craft in this film are at times uplifting and at times depressing. Gerri’s exemplary English resolve that, “We stay cheerful. We don’t let things get us down.” contrasts beautifully with Mary’s constant feeling of being hard done by, “Life’s not always kind, is it?” It’s not so much that cognition versus fatalism here but rather that outlook results from those physical, social and psychological piercings of time passed. Examining the way in which one individual can’t not affect another if their time is shared, and the various ramifications of each person’s actions and attitudes, Another Year is an incredibly thoughtful and masterfully poignant work. Offering an examination rather than an explanation, Leigh has created a world that does in its duration for its audience exactly what its characters do for one another: traverse and effect, piercing with the very permanence of time.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
January 27, 2011
The world of inspired-bys, adaptations and remakes is hardly new territory for writing/directing/producing duo Joel and Ethan Coen. And, like much of their previous work, True Grit (2010) operates on a level closer to homage than pastiche. However, simultaneously darker and funnier than Henry Hathaway’s 1969 version of the 1968 Charles Portis novel, those brothers Coen have shifted their film’s focus slightly so that the story, and therefore the questionable “true grit” at stake, pertains to the young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) rather than her male role model Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges).
At first Mattie is introduced to us as precocious. Following her father’s murder at the hand of his employee – one Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) – Mattie intends to “settle” his affairs and “attend” to his business. Armed only with the sense of justice bestowed upon her by a now dead patriarch, Mattie tries to make sense of the order of things with its pinnacle now forcibly removed. Proving herself more than capable of bargaining with grown men (notably merciless ones at that), Mattie constantly refers back to “the force of the Law” to support her gumption. But once she earns her place on the actual physical journey that makes one a man, she begins to learn that both the Law and the Name-of-the-Father associated with it can only take her so far and that to truly attend to her father’s “business” she must prove herself worthy of true grit, instead of relying on a strong male role model to provide it for her.
To this end, Mattie is told early on that “the world is vexing enough as it is” and she is later told how to fire her own gun – the phallic weapon being almost all she has left to represent her father and something she knows about only about in theory yet has no command over until the proverbial moment of truth finally dawns. Her presence is constantly challenged and there is even a sequence where an outsider questions her directly, “I’m puzzled by this. Why is she here?”
Mattie learns ultimately that the Law does not always apply outside of the town and that in the country proper she must adhere to an altered version of it deciding what is “an act that is wrong to itself” and what is “wrong according to your laws and morals.” Bit by a snake (another phallic signifier) Mattie undergoes a type of castration and we then learn that she never marries. Unable to meet either the requirements of a lady or a man, Mattie is neither assimilated into or bound by the rules of the patriarchy. She now has something infinitely more important: the grit she so desperately searched for all along. Still presenting a formal (visual) version of her gender however, Mattie is sure to chastise a man for failing to stand when she presents herself before him. Less about her role as a woman and more in condemnation of his failing to acknowledge her well-earned grit, Mattie has more than settled her father’s business, she has reclaimed it as her own. A bold and encouraging achievement.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
January 24, 2011
Capturing and conveying more than just the dot points of “a true story” is a challenging if not problematic task. And yet so much Hollywood fare is motivated by the opportunity to cash in on these “true” and, by inference, relatable and relevant stories. The latest in line is David O Russell’s The Fighter (2010).
Half-brothers Dickie Ecklund (Christian Bale) and Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) are both fighters from a poor neighbourhood in Lowell, Massachusetts. Dickie, now a washed up crack addict, is known locally as “The Pride of Lowell”, owing to his past success where he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard (July 18, 1978) in a Welterweight championship (Welterweight being a category that sits between Lightweight and Middleweight). Boasting an unlikely “comeback” Dickie trains his younger brother Micky who shows more promise and discipline – and let’s not forget that all important quality known as “heart” – than his older brother. His manager is also a family member, mother Alice Ward (Melissa Leo) and the film is sure to emphasise the great importance of “family” from the outset. Things that have always been a certain way begin to change when Dickie finds himself incarcerated and Micky meets no-bullshit love interest Charlene Fleming (Amy Adams).
Whilst the story is centred around Micky’s rise to fame as a fighter it is just as much – if not more – Dickie’s story, and unsurprisingly Bale manages to outshine Wahlberg in just about every scene. But what is really at stake here is the believability of the characters as based on real life people and whether or not the often troubling interaction of their family dynamics is indeed authentic. To this end there is a lot “documentary style” footage and great effort goes into contrasting the aesthetic quality of both this and the “televised footage” with the slickly shot main drama in the film. As a result the documentary and televised sections add credence to the central drama, positing the stylistic differences as fragments of a whole; the “story” of these individuals and their lives.
Of course, even with such successful visual direction there are unanswered questions and, largely, these spring from the film’s scripting. Light-hearted and even comedic at times, the dialogue is often a little too witty to be entirely believable and by that I mean that the exchanges between characters are often too close to sitcom-like sparring which makes their interaction with one another subsequently less plausible. And of course, comedy can’t help but come at the cost of communicable emotion and felt empathy which arguably posits these people closer to caricatures than characters. As such, it is at times difficult to buy the story as a complete package; the visual style coming across as successful but notably deliberate even if it doesn’t feel forced.
Adding footage of the “real life” brothers during the end credit sequence gives further weight to the “truth” of the story and yet one can’t help but wonder what the story would look like if it were these two who featured onscreen for the two-hours just passed. Perhaps a little ironically even, the final thought goes to brother Dickie whose performed character in The Fighter experiences the disappointment of seeing himself (mis)represented onscreen. Could it be that Russell has knowingly indicated the distance between self-perception and what makes a good cinematic story? Either way, The Fighter is an enjoyable enough film that occasionally errs a little too heavily on the side of feel-goodery. For better or worse, The Fighter, with all its might, is sure to revise public perception of “The Pride of Lowell”.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
January 22, 2011
The Green Hornet (2011) is exactly what you would imagine a collaborative effort between director Michel Gondry and writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg would be: an excessive display of cinematic excess. With its aesthetics drenched in potent artifice and its content stretched to the very limits of farce, The Green Hornet is all about how the rich and influential powers that be can do whatever such ludicrous things as they so please. Using excess to make asses out of, well, asses, watching The Green Hornet is nothing short of a rollicking good time.
Starting with a very personal memory, The Green Hornet establishes the imperfect father-son relationship between Green Hornet-to-be Britt Reid (Seth Rogen) and his father, local newspaper mogul James Reid (Tom Wilkinson). Britt leads a decidedly laddish lifestyle, partying hard with fast cars and loose women, much to his father’s chagrin. When James dies unexpectedly, Britt finds himself in charge of a paper he hasn’t the patience, skill or remotest desire to run. So how does he become the Green Hornet? Well, it is actually all down to one very bad cup of coffee that the film manages to advance forward in any kind of causal narrative trajectory. The absurdly bougie pivotal point from which the action then springs forth tells you just about everything you need to know about the focus of what is yet to come. Teaming up with his father’s employee, barista extraordinaire Kato (Jay Chou), the unlikely duo recklessly find themselves fighting crime after immaturely committing crime. From here, the Green Hornet and his nameless partner/sidekick unwittingly take on the city’s apparently poorly dressed, not quite menacing enough, and largely misunderstood crime lord Chudnofsky (expertly played by Christoph Waltz).
Chudnofsky is an old school gangster and the rise of Gucci-clad wannabes is beginning to get under his skin. Having already settled a few local issues it is only when the Green Hornet appears that Chudnofsky fully realises the extent to which the new generation, whose reputations rely largely upon aesthetics and public image as opposed to his own years of strategic planning, have no respect for tradition or the past. But Britt didn’t learn to be a twat without his father’s help and likewise it is affluence and class as well as his generational standing that are responsible for his appalling attitude towards life. Impressed upon him from an early age, Britt thinks “Trying doesn’t matter if you always fail.” Concerned with results rather than effort, the destination rather than the journey and, above all else, the present irregardless of its history, Britt charges forward in a childish pursuit of fame and glory.
Far more of an anti-hero than a superhero (the closest thing he has to a superpower is the ability to be an almighty asshole), the Green Hornet is not actually a likeable figure in quite the usual way Hollywood protagonists tend to be. But, partner/sidekick Kato is. Balancing out assholery with endearment the duo work decidedly well: structure and subversion standing side by side.
Visually it is a veritable feast, and The Green Hornet takes Kristin Thompson’s theorising of cinematic excess to its farthest extreme: to the point where style actually becomes a character in the film – a mocking, self-reflexive one at that. Revealing artifice as substance for an entire class of insolent wankers, The Green Hornet is stupendously entertaining at every turn. Blatant in its depiction of bougie blasé, it is no coincidence that the costume for our wealthy dumb-ass is quite so literally the colour of money. Outstanding stuff.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
January 20, 2011
Binary opposites are often used both visually and thematically in mainstream cinema to provide simple and stark contrast with disappointingly little examination of the grey area in between. Taking into account Jacques Derrida’s theorising that there are inherent hierarchies within these dichotomous pairings, there exists a more compelling standpoint from which to consider, not only the way in which the two might interact, but also how it is that they might then begin to break down. A dynamics of power, the interplay between the two is necessarily relational. As such, in even considering the hierarchical structure there exists the possibility that the relationship is organic and that the two might then traverse, confront and collide with one another in their struggle to appropriate the higher ground. This rather striking contemplation of binary opposites is what Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller Black Swan (2010) exemplarily explicates.
Natalie Portman gives her finest onscreen performance as Nina Sayers, a young ballerina who has, until now, always been a great technical dancer with incredible dedication and discipline. Straight-laced, and having lived a sheltered life at the hands of her controlling mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), Nina is also ambitious. Like any performer, she is driven by the desire to not only achieve but also to embody perfection. When long-standing prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) is to be replaced – an inevitable fate for an aging ballerina – the company’s artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassell) casts Nina in the leading role, but, not without hesitation. Although he believes she absolutely embodies the White Swan; elegant, innocent, graceful; he labels her “too frigid” to play the darker side of the Swan Queen, the Black Swan. As such, Nina is, from the outset, anxious about the role and determined to achieve something in self-discovery that will prove her skeptics wrong. When the equally beautiful and certainly as talented Lily (Mila Kunis) joins the ballet Nina becomes irrationally scared of being replaced (a symptom of her guilt felt in replacing Beth) and begins to project the manifestation of all her anxieties onto Lily; slowly, and then psychotically. Whilst in reality Lily poses little threat to Nina and if anything, offers only friendship and support, this is the first of many in Nina’s erratic and delusional interpretations of events.
Though it is certainly true that Aronofsky paints with broad strokes in terms of the motifs to indicate light and dark, rigid and free, it is a very detailed and accomplished contrast that is drawn. From the pastel pinks and delicate jewellery Nina wears, right down to how tightly she secures her bun, she is always shown as a picture of aspiring perfection. Conversely, Lily wears black, adorns herself with chunky bangles, bags and an iPod, and lets her hair down even in rehearsal. But it is not so simple as Nina being “good” and Lily being “bad”. Far from it, Lily is actually a beacon for what Nina must aspire to: a freer, more natural self. In fact, even with Nina’s sexual awakening and her performative journey blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, her taking on the role of the Black Swan is a positive, emancipatory experience. Finally freeing herself from the little girl who turns to mummy for every little thing and finally engaging in something of a life outside of her own discipline and rigidity, Nina’s partial submission to her binary opposite, though difficult and even traumatic, is both healthier and liberating.
For the viewer, as it is for Nina onscreen, the certainty of what is real and what is imaginary becomes increasingly indistinct. This lack of clarity is Aronofsky’s presentation of the grey area. As Nina allows chaos into her life the previous order begins to break down. However, it is not the case that she ever truly gives in to it and ultimately the rigid version of herself, driven to perfection, still reigns. She says early on in the film, before her encounter with the opposite, “I just wanna be perfect”. Dancing the White Swan she stumbles; dancing the Black Swan she flourishes. Returning to both her real self and the White Swan, reality is restored. Nina realises that the freedom she experienced from herself existed for only a moment onstage and that she is now, as she ever was, incarcerated in a prison she built for herself. Achieving, however fleeting, the culmination of two binary opposites working at so beautifully both against and with one another, Nina reached the summit of perfection: “I felt it. I’m perfect. It was perfect.”
The last note is bittersweet: perfection is reached through destruction. The break down of hierarchy within these binary opposites creates an internal implosion whereby union can only result in the annihilation of one. The White Swan, Nina’s troubled, ill self is tragically what persists and though she is content, having reached perfection, its resonant lesson is deafening: perfection is imperfect. An engaging and visceral presentation of thoughtful thematics, Black Swan is as ambitious, and as perfect, as its lead.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
January 13, 2011
Concerned with capturing something rather than commenting too heavily upon the politics and effects of French colonisation in Africa, Claire Denis returns with White Material (2009), another remarkable film that both reveals her exemplary craft and the complexities of psychogeographical conflict. Very much in tune with her previous work (Beau Travail, 1999 and 35 Rhums, 2008 to name but two), White Material is set in an unnamed African country where French occupation is being withdrawn in the face of worsening internal conflict between authorities and rebel soldiers. Taking one white woman’s fight for her plantation as its focal point, White Material shows a multitude of devastation free from accusation and moralising. Far more philosophical in its presentation of colonial consequences, the film presents a series of ethical questions that permeate beyond the confines of the screen world.
As “Survival Guides” are dropped from helicopters with less physical but equal psychological impact upon the people and the landscape, Maria (brilliantly and effortlessly performed by Isabelle Huppert) maintains her resolve and insists that her family stay and fight to harvest their crops. The political situation is beautifully and perfectly mirrored by the volatile landscape, elucidating the idea that the white colonial inhabitants will “grow mediocre coffee that we’d [Indigenous Africans] never drink” and that “It was already too late when you [white French colonialists] built it.”
The titled “white material” is explained twice in the film and, for a land metaphorically castrated the “material” in question, it is understandably displaced (in a distinctly Freudian way) onto an object: a lighter in this instance, described as “just white material”. The second explanation comes via a radio broadcast that re-directs this earlier displacement back onto the people whose culture and objects have impressed, negatively, upon the land, “As for the white material, the party’s over. No more cocktails on shaded verandas while we sweat water and blood.” The contrast here between natural elements such as “water and blood” and constructed materials such as the lighter and then the cocktails and shaded verandas successfully communicates the way in which Indigenous culture is at odds with forced occupation and the seizing of natural resources, namely the now irrevocably altered landscape.
Furthermore, the film brilliantly weaves in an incredible exploration of melancholia (again in a Freudian understanding of the term), whereby the response to the loss of something one never really had ownership of and that hasn’t actually died, but has nonetheless been lost, produces psychosis. This psychosis is explored through the character Manuel (Maria’s son), a boy born in Africa but of French identity; his masculinity and his identity symbolically stripped.
The subtle and respectful ways in which Denis explores such explosive and complicated issues is admirable; her stylistic and narrative choices always carefully crafted with aplomb. A tonally masterful film, White Material‘s communicable affect is at once devastating and poignant. Posing a series of ethical questions yet never so arrogant as to answer them, this is an astounding piece of work that deserves both attention and acclaim.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
January 12, 2011
Whether or not you’re partial to psychoanalysis and its theoretical application to film, there’s no denying the significance of Laura Mulvey’s seminal article, “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema” (1975). With the musical, cinematic spectacle that is Burlesque (2010) about to hit cinema screens across the country, Mulvey’s article proves not only relevant but still absolutely applicable to gendered spectatorship of contemporary Hollywood narrative cinema.
Taking into consideration Mulvey’s theoretical exploration of how scopophilia (looking as a source of pleasure) and identification (recognition/misrecognition and the viewer’s subjective formation of the “I” predicated upon Lacanian psychoanalysis) are significant in understanding spectatorial positionings, it is curious as to how the female viewer (and here I am specifically concerned with the alignment of the heterosexual female gaze) might access a contemporary film such as Burlesque.
Following the same fame-seeking story you’ve no doubt seen before (most notably Coyote Ugly, 2000), Burlesque follows a young waitress as she escapes the boredom of a small-town and buys a one-way ticket to the magical world of glitz and glamour in L.A. Stumbling upon a struggling, independent burlesque joint she starts waiting tables, watching and learning the routines of the other young women who are already erotic objects, valued for their “to-be-looked-at-ness”. Having looked at them long enough to quite literally mimic them, she is finally allowed to audition. From here, our scrawny white girl protagonist, Ali (Christina Aguilera), wins over ice-maiden and burlesque mama, Tess (Cher), first with her watchability, then with her body, then her incredible pipes and lastly, her indomitable spirit.
Whilst the premise is both simple and formulaic it is also a little disturbing, not least because it perpetuates the current myth of celebrity culture suggesting that the female viewer align themselves with Ali because we all want to be “special”, “talented” and to achieve “fortune and fame”. It’s not that I am advocating the crushing of dreams exactly, but it ought to be said that the majority of us, by very definition, are not “special”, many of us are far from “talented”, and we most certainly will not all reach the dizzying heights of “fortune and fame”. With this statement of relatively plain fact and an understanding of how women are rendered passive for an active male gaze it is difficult to see how a female viewer might “identify” with either of the film’s female leads.
Ali, certainly an erotic object in the first instance, undeniably present for her “to-be-looked-at-ness”, described as having “a body that could stop a truck” and dressed, made-up and performing her gender at every visual opportunity, is hardly successful based on her “talent” alone. Furthermore, her “success” progresses at an equal rate to her appeal to the male characters onscreen. For a heterosexual female viewer who cannot align her gaze with that of the onscreen male characters nor identify with a character who harbours vocal and visual talents, and who has little to no interest in themselves becoming a spectacle, access to the images beyond bemusement seems impossible.
Absolutely fitting Mulvey’s critique, Burlesque is not dissimilar to early musicals of the ’40s and ’50s insofar as the role of “woman as spectacle” is concerned; “Women displayed as sexual object is the leit-motiff of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to strip-tease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire.” As a decidedly erotic object for screen characters and viewers alike, “the device of the show-girl allows the two looks to be unified technically without any apparent break in the diegesis.” And yet there is still nowhere for the female viewer to look during the film’s two-hour run-time.
Resultantly it stands to reason that the film hopes to capture the standard male gaze and likely too the queer gaze. But wait, isn’t this film aimed at women? As I have already alluded to, with the advent of celebrity culture, the female gaze has become displaced and so, a generation of female viewers concerned with body image and a form of success that comes from embodying the spectacle, align themselves with Ali, who looks first at the women performing their gender with envy and admiration, and who then steps into her own gaze. Thus, the intended female gaze for Burlesque is narcissistic in the first instance as the viewer is invited to desire their own gaze. This is essentially what Teresa de Lauretis theorises as a “double-identification” whereby the female viewer identifies simultaneously with the active male gaze (voyeurism, fetishistic scopophilia) and the passive female image (her “to-be-looked-at-ness”), so that they are actually “seduced” by the female image onscreen. Cruel and coercive in its seduction, it seems to me that this is precisely how celebrity culture and fame fascination work which is why Burlesque will face no obstacle in finding and seducing its target audience.
However, being myself a female viewer who is certainly and most happy to accept being average, I have no idea how to access the presentation of a series of images that intend to render me passive. A self-professed cognitivist, and with no personal desire to ever become an erotic object or spectacle for either the male or female gaze, my own viewing experience of Burlesque was one of first bemusement and second curiosity. Simultaneously fascinated and alienated by the experience, the most interesting thing this film throws up is the idea that the contemporary female gaze is narcissistic in the first instance. And whilst I still look most forward to when Hollywood find a way to capture the active female gaze, I suppose I ought to take as my consolation their admittance that it even exists.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.