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.

The Skellys

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.

The Skellys is a Prorevolution Films production

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.

White Material

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.

White Material screens in Melbourne from Friday January 14 – Wednesday February 2, 2011 at ACMI.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

As some of you may already know, when I’m not updating this here blog I am often writing reviews for Melbourne’s grand old Astor Theatre. Although I usually only publish here original content written specifically for Liminal Vision, I am on this occasion reproducing my critical analysis of Blade Runner: Director’s Cut as written for the Astor Theatre’s E-Newsletter (which, by the way, I recommend subscribing to), week beginning Sunday September 26th.

Blade Runner: Director’s Cut will run at the Astor Theatre from Thursday September 30 – Sunday October 3 2010.

Blade Runner: Director’s Cut simply refuses to fade into the vast catalogue of forgotten film history. Its persistence as film’s pedestal sci-fi owing to its innovative and intelligent contemplation over ontological questions of authenticity and artificiality as they pertain to a rapidly, and terrifyingly, techno-advanced, mechanized, global future society.

Set in Los Angeles in the year 2019, Blade Runner depicts, through its neo-noir aesthetic, a dystopian future where humans have created their own robotic slave-race known as Replicants. In one sense the Replicants act as soldiers, in a time of hyper-universality on “Off-world” human colonies of other planets. Four dangerous Replicants have returned to earth in the hope of confronting the corporation responsible for their very questionable existence: Tyrrell Corporation. Alerted to their illegal activities in a hyper-modern police state, Blade Runner Unit enlist Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) to find and “retire” (kill) the four who are merely desperate to prolong what they think are their “lives”.

That the film is set in Los Angeles is far from incidental. Although New York is America’s foremost “global” city with regards to economic and cultural growth/wealth, LA is its “expansive” counterpart in that its spatial development and the sheer scale of its urban planning exemplifies the artificial “constructedness” that the film is concerned with in the first instance. As such, the dark, seemingly boundless sprawl of the dystopian LA landscape operates in the film as a psychogeographical reflection of the labyrinthine, almost indistinguishable cerebrally sound constructs of the Replicants’ cognitive minds.

Beyond their declared “at least equal intelligence to the genetic engineers who created them”, the Replicants, also described as “virtually identical” to humans, are suggestively “evolved” rather than “constructed” beings. The implication of their proverbial “evolution” affords the Replicants with organic rather than robotic capabilities, creating from the outset a distinct atmosphere of ambiguity; blurring the boundaries between the human/non-human attributes they are imbued with, rendering them, in some advanced cases, as liminal beings even unto themselves. Furthermore, following the “bloody mutiny” on Off-world colonies, Replicants have been “declared illegal on earth, under penalty of death”. In light of a Derridean comprehension of binary oppositions the very notion of “death” here suggests “life”, providing further substance to the idea that the Replicants are “living” beings. Moreover, the final two sentences of the prologue to the film read; “This was not called execution. It was called retirement.” The two sentences appear onscreen isolated from one another and from the paragraphs that came before. In using “called” twice in such close proximity Scott emphasizes the semiotic construction of a concept based upon two otherwise abstract things. That is to say that we (human viewers) comprehend the action as one thing and not another through a system of signifiers and signifieds that links the action to its name. This subtle note at the outset is designed to make the viewer think through the implications of the Symbolic Order itself, and therefore the constructedness of everything human, including something that mistakenly considered natural: language. The reminder so early on that almost everything is constructed and/or performed already alludes to Scott’s overarching provocative contention.

But what exactly does it mean to be “living” and where does that leave the boundary between legitimate “born” human beings and illegal “created” Replicants? For the purposes of distinguishing between the two (primarily so as not to accidentally “retire” a human), the Blade Runner Unit have created a test that is “designed to provoke emotional response” from its recipients, measuring their levels of empathy through indicators such as response time and pupil dilation. The only obstacle here being the fear that after a few years they would – in line with the aforementioned process of evolution – “develop their own emotional responses” and it is, for this reason, that their life-span is restricted to a short four years. Moreover, the more advanced and indeed “experiment” Replicants of which Rachael (Sean Young) is one, are given greater access to the concept of humanity through programmed memories which act as a “cushion” for their own subjectivity helping them to believe they are human. It is at this moment in the film that the true nature of every character, including Deckard himself, is brought into question.

Ignoring the extensive implications of this revelation, Deckard denies Rachael’s inference when she asks him if he has ever taken the test himself. Clearly hurt by the determination that she is a Replicant, implanted with memories from Tyrrell’s niece and believing them to be her own, Rachael sheds a solitary tear, displaying clear and unmistakable human emotion. Following this display the two become romantically involved which, if he is human and she is a not is dodgy ethical ground at best, but, if (as Scott certainly intended it to be) they are both Replicants who merely believe themselves to be human is an equally consensual union. The inclusion of this scene operates as reiterative of the Replicants’ ability to experience human desire and also to provide a strong ethical questioning of the resultant actions of a Replicant who considers him/herself to be human.

Like Deckard and Rachael, Roy (Rutger Hauer) and Pris (Daryl Hannah) are “coupled” Replicants, only in this case they know themselves to be so. The difference here is that along with their knowledge of what they truly are comes another human desire: the will to live. Their mission is to have their lives extended at any cost, their fear of death very human indeed. But it is Roy who goes to see Dr Tyrrell, leaving Pris to defend their newly acquired “home”. His presence at Tyrrell Corporation is met with a combination of kindness and cruelty as Dr Tyrrell lovingly refers to him as the Prodigal Son returned. At this moment Roy becomes Jesus to Dr Tyrrell’s God and Roy’s anger towards his maker results in a murderous crime of passion – yet another decidedly human action. Dissatisfied and disillusioned with the God who created him, Roy returns home to find Pris has bled to death, and Scott lingers on her blood to reiterate yet again the very human qualities of the Replicants.

In the final showdown between Roy and Deckard, Roy makes an ultimate sacrifice of himself, accepting the inevitability of his life cycle. Mirroring his surroundings, like the rain that gushes into the house, Roy is in many ways an organic being trapped into a constructed environment. As he forces a nail through his hand and then his own head through a tiled wall, he further blurs the boundaries between natural and unnatural, removing the confines and limitations that one necessarily holds over the other. In this way the final scenes of the film move towards breaking down Derridean binary oppositions, suggesting that there are grey areas and ultimately that humans are the result of both organic evolution and the extraneous influences and input that are responsible, at least in part, for their existence.

The Directors’ Cut in particular, is the version of this film that led to the discussion surrounding whether or not Deckard was human or Replicant. Ridley Scott has himself professed that Deckard is a Replicant and if we take this reading at its word then he is, by his own admittance, justified by the system: “Replicants are like any other machine: they’re either a benefit or a hazard. If they’re a benefit, it’s not my problem.” Ultimately serving the system and its self-perpetuating myth surrounding the significance of authenticity versus the threat of artificiality, Deckard is the exemplary product of a well governed police state; unwittingly serving its needs to his own detriment; ignorant of its ideology and only able to see through its constructedness so far as it allows him to. If we however, do not take Scott at his word and allow Deckard to remain ambiguously human then the film does not fail, it merely suspends itself and its determination in the liminal space that it so brilliantly creates.

Written by Tara Judah for the Astor Theatre E-Newsletter; reproduced for Liminal Vision.

The Extra Man

September 13, 2010

It might seem at first glance as though The Extra Man (2010) is a film about contemporarily misplaced dandys or the struggle of the individual to reconcile his interiority in an o’erbearing and rapidly advancing societal structure. But it seems to me at least, upon further reflection, that The Extra Man is in fact a film about a city. And not just any city; New York City: an intrepid psychogeographical palimpsest; simultaneously existing in both the past and the ever advancing present.

When young dandy Louis Ives (superbly performed by Paul Dano) is fired from his respectable teaching job at Princeton for inappropriately mishandling a colleague’s “undergarments”, he decides it might just be the perfect catalyst for him to take a risk and move to New York, a decision with which his late employer decidedly, judgementally, agrees, “I think New York would be the perfect place for a young man – like you.” Already situating provincial ivy league townships in the US as oppositional to the big smoke, New York is presented as somewhere inclusive or, at least, cosmopolitan and diverse enough in its acceptance of people who might otherwise find themselves anomalous amidst their surroundings.

Upon arrival in New York however, Louis comes into almost immediate contact with one eccentric old man, Henry Harrison (faultlessly performed by the flamboyantly fantastic Kevin Kline). Harrison serves as both Louis’ landlord and societal mentor, based in part upon a shared longing for the style of writing, and indeed the style, of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and, most notably, his construction of masculinity in The Great Gatsby. At this stage, still optimistic about his journey through subjectivity, Louis is told in no uncertain terms by his “mentor” what is to become his most important lesson in life, “You won’t find yourself in New York.” That Louis would even conceive of such a thought is practically unbearable, for it is not the role of the individual that is of significance in this film, it is the city. In a manner of speaking, Harrison’s first lesson to Ives is that small-minded people look to find themselves – something easily done in a small town – but broad-minded, interested (distinct from interesting) individuals are drawn to interesting cities where subjectivity gives way to greater questions of anthropology.

As Louis attempts to contend with the city he also wrestles with himself but ultimately the city holds a far greater sense of history than the individual. That the characters in the film appear at times to be caricatures of extreme stereotypes speaks to the film’s strong sense of awareness regarding the individual’s inherent need to find an identificatory connection to the past; a connectedness that the city already, and inherently, holds. What’s left at the end of the film is a young man and a older man who, despite their disparity and despite their incompatibility, co-exist with a strange sense of cohesion, much like the contradictory contexts and content of NYC.

The Extra Man is an exclusive Cinema Nova release and sessions start from Thursday September 16.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

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