Zero Dark Thirty

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Django Unchained

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Amour

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.

Amour screens as a part of the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival with another session on Monday August 13th at 6.30pm. 

Douglas Sirk Box Set

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.


No Room for the Groom (1952)

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.


All  I Desire (1953)

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.


Magnificent Obsession (1954)

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.


Taza, Son of Cochise (1954)

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.


All That Heaven Allows (1955)

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.


There’s Always Tomorrow (1956)

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.”


A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958)

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.


The Tarnished Angels (1958)

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.


Imitation of Life (1959)

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.

Douglas Sirk: King of Hollywood Melodrama is released through Madman Entertainment.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

127 Hours

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.

127 Hours is released in Australian cinemas on Thursday February 10 through Twentieth Century Fox.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

Sanctum (3D)

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.

Sanctum 3D is released in Australian cinemas on Thursday February 3 through Universal Pictures.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

Another Year

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.

Another Year was released  in Australian cinemas on Wednesday January 26 through Icon.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

True Grit

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.

True Grit is released in Australian cinemas on Wednesday January 26 through Paramount Pictures.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

The Fighter

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”.

The Fighter was released in Australian cinemas on Thursday January 20 through Roadshow Entertainment.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

Black Swan

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.

Black Swan is released in Australian cinemas on Thursday January 20 through Twentieth Century Fox.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.