Inheritance Rites

TRON: Legacy (Joseph Kosinski, 2010)

tronSo, I accidentally saw TRON: Legacy.

I’d planned to watch it, but I wanted to rewatch TRON (Steven Lisberger, 1982) first, but it turned out that the bar code was slapped across the word Legacy in a somewhat misleading manner.

So I’m coming to this without having seen TRON since 1999 or 2000, whenever it is I wrote the Pocket Essentials Cyberpunk volume.

There will be spoilers.

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Fifty Shades of Hamearis lucina

The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, 2014)

Towards the start of the opening credits of The Duke of Burgundy, I spotted the name of executive producer Ben Wheatley. He directed the genre bending Kill List (2011), the rather baffling A Field in England (2013), a couple of episodes of NuWho and he’s working on High-Rise. I couldn’t help but see that there was an uncanny film at work — a hidden film. On the one hand, there’s the Peter Greenaway version, which would need a Michael Nyman score, more camera tracking and an organisational system (by genus of butterfly?). On the other hand there’s the horror film,  possibly sf. Clearly the credits sequence is meant to invoke 1970s low budget movies, a sexploitation or two, maybe even a hint at Hammer. In a recurring scenario — this film is so about its repetition — the camera pans along a crowd watching a talk on butterflies and moths and, among all the woman, there are a couple of shop dummies. Autons? Cheaper than  extras? A nod toward the artificiality of it all? Or do we have a body snatchers scenario and they’re all insects? As  Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) locates and opens a body-sized chest in the house, I wondered what horror we were to find in it. Later, briefly, there was an answer (as well as a longer answer).

So Evelyn (there’s an echo of Angela Carter there) arrives at a house, knocks and is admitted, being told off by Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) for being late and for sitting down without invitation (I confess my first thought was she had not been given permission — a Pavlovian training from my own childhood).  Evelyn is set to work, cleaning the study — a space full of dead butterflies and larvae — and doing the laundry. When, as is inevitable, she fails to please her mistress, she is punished, behind a closed bathroom door, and possibly by a method that the British government recently criminalised on streaming video. If the acting seems a little off — well, think of the acting and dubbing in Dario Argento films if you haven’t (as I haven’t) seen Jess Franco films, and the fact that it is All More Complicated than you think it is.

It is obviously less explicit than that other film, Fifty Shades of Grey (2015), for the most part at least, and we would do well to avoid falling into an old value judgement about pornography and erotica. Here’s Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian:

Peter Strickland’s new film, The Duke of Burgundy, is different: it is a labour of love, whereas Fifty Shades of Grey was a labour of money.

Whilst clearly a budget of some significance was thrown at the other film, it has made pots of money and the original texts were bestselling adaptations of bestselling novels, this rather begs a question about Sam Taylor-Johnson’s artistic intentions in making the film alongside all the other crew members and the cast. Strickland, presumably, didn’t get a fee? Srsly? Whilst clearly I wasn’t a fan of that better known film, it is very easy to be snide about materials that a large female audience has enjoyed.

Obviously there are ambiguities to navigate. I’m inclining to the sense that it’s an exaggeration of the kind of materialistic relationship that many straight women enter into in capitalist society and that it isn’t necessarily endorsing it. This is not quite the same as suggesting that it’s a dramatization of the kind of abusive relationship that too many women (read: any non-consenting abusive relationship) are in or that women have the freedom to choose their sexual activities even if these are masochistic in nature (and, indeed, that’s so none of my business). Whilst clearly we could say the words Internalised Misogyny, we have a novel by a female ur-writer transformed by a female novelist adapted by a female screen writer filmed by a female director. Compare, say, Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976), where a male novelist is adapted by a male screenwriter is filmed by a male director. It’s not my place to label, but which one seems more likely to be feminist? One of them is a female vision of (some) female fantasies and the other is a male vision of (some) female fantasies. The fact that both characters are female makes a difference.

So, whilst it has to be noted that the entire cast of The Duke of Burgundy appears to be female, Peter Strickland, director and screenwriter, is a bloke. The BDSM scenario may be a representation of female empowerment, but it’s a male vision.  Clearly the film passes the Bechdel Test, but that’s no guarantee it’s feminist. (I note, again, I have no authority to issue such a label.) At points I found myself pondering whether entomology is part of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) and the problem of a narrative in which the abuser has apparently been “seduced” by the victim. (“She made me do it.”)

I was particularly disturbed by the sequence when the camera zooms in on the darkened crotch of Cynthia and goes on an extended fantasy riff — in both the sexual and non-realist sense — before pulling back again. Is this, I wondered, a misogynist fear of what all those women get up to when men aren’t around? Perhaps not even women, but Insect Things? Where are all the men? Victims of preying mantises?

But the actors do what they do well, and it is beautifully shot and designed the hell out of — there’s a perfume credit, a long list of butterflies and very detailed annotations of the field recordings used in the film. It deserves to do well so that BFI and Film Four investment can be repaid. To say this is a better film than Fifty Shades, however, is probably not a useful judgement; I’m not even sure that I’d be more likely to rewatch it. I do want to seek out Katalin Varga (2006) and  Berberian Sound Studio  (2012) though.

The Real Thing, Or: Love is Strangled

[I wrote this some time ago, but it didn’t seem to be published at the time]


Love is Strange (Ira Sachs, 2014)
Gay movies always seem to be about death. Well, maybe that’s an over statement but male gay narratives partake of a gothic that seems out of statistical probability. If it’s not HIV related, it’s suicide or a violent end. One reaches for the Kleenex far too often and not in a happy ending way. Living happily ever after is a fantasy too far, it often seems, although – I know, I know – for drama to happen bad things have to happen to good people. (But see Der Kreis)

File Love is Strange under bittersweet. Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) have lived together for thirty-nine years, one a talented if unsuccessful artist, the other a talented music teacher for a catholic school. But the marriage means that the school can no longer turn a blind eye to George’s sexuality and he is fired – meaning that they can’t afford the mortgage on their appointment. Whilst there is the option of moving to Poughkeepsie, the two stay in spare rooms (or spare bunkbeds/sofas) of friends and relatives whilst they sort themselves out.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Molina – he was Kenneth Halliwell in Prick Up Your Ears Stephen Frears, 1987), was a hoot as a habitual liar in Trust Me (Tony Dow, 1992) and is in the film of The Normal Heart (Ryan Murphy, 2014) – and Lithgow I first saw as transgendered Roberta in The World According to Garp (George Roy Hill, 1982). The relationship is absolutely beautiful, utterly credible, with a real sense of a shared history between them. The awkwardness of being put up – which rapidly turns in being put up with – is convincing, although I think Kate (Marisa Tomei) is given a bit of a thankless rôle as overly keen host and self-centered if put upon writer. The direction is leisurely, braving the chance to hold a shot for ten seconds longer than comfortable. It feels – not to be critical – that it wanted to be a theatre play. Unlike most New York comedy dramas or sitcoms this is a multiethnic New York.

At the same time as the leisurely pace we are left wanting to know more – one family crisis seems unresolved, George’s letter to the school parents is more political speechifying than plot development, a positive twist is too far in the fairy tale wish-fulfilment territory and the resolution mechanics seem unfocused. The epilogue is positive, a story arc pays off, diversity seems to thrive. But it is a sunset.

Meanwhile, I recognised John Corbett from Northern Exposure, and the face I knew but couldn’t name belongs to Ed (Darren E. Burrows) from the same programme. Game of Thrones gets a product placement, and I’m not sure I’ve seen a Dungeons and Dragons consultant credited before on a film.

All of this is certainly worth a look, although I noted this is another example of how every five years “Hollywood” notes that there is a mature audience as well as teenagers of all ages.

Keep the Wensleydale Flying

Shaun the Sheep Movie (Mark Burton and Richard Starzak, 2015)

“But just at that moment, as though at a signal, all the sheep burst out into a tremendous bleating.”

I guess there are spoilers here.

Deep into the end credits of this film, the producers acknowledge their appropriation of Silence of the Lambs – not the property of Thomas Harris or even Jonathan Demme, but of MGM. The pastiche itself – which should fall under the fair use provision for purposes of parody – came at precisely the point that it occurred to me that this was a much thinner film than Chicken Run (Pete Lord and Nick Park, 2000) or Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were Rabbit (Nick Park and Steve Box, 2005). Both of those were stuffed full with movie references, whereas this is more cautious in its appropriations. Ownership is respected.

It’s a familiar enough reactionary fable: on the farm the sheep are alienated from the product of their labours, the days ticking by in Sisyphean toil. A dog, lackey of the system, helps the farmer in his exploitation, blind to the ways in which he too is a cog in the system. The very name of the farm – Mossy Bottom – shows its position within society and the stasis of such society.

Come the day of the revolution – masterminded by Shaun – the dog is restrained by a turncoat dog and the farmer is driven into exile. The sheep briefly take over the farmhouse and briefly enjoy the fruits, but the opportunist pigs rapidly take their place in the second part of the June Revolution. Unable to function without a master, the sheep face starvation and follow the similarly interpellated dog into the Big City. In perhaps the most interesting ideological move of the film, the wider system becomes apparent – the dog substitutes for a surgeon and the farmer for a barber. Note how the farmer/barber receives but a fraction of the payment for his work, his excess labour swelling the surplus value of the salon. In a sneaky use of a dual time frame, the farmer becomes gains the status of a commodity whilst the animals remain in Aristotelian time. Meanwhile there is social satire in a restaurant worthy of Buñuel.

As a parable for children, however, the urge is for restoration. Dorothy may get out of Kansas, but she knows there’s no place like home. The Bakhtinian carnival of the central section of the film is but licensed escape and the Animal Containment officer’s encagement of the sheep as strays in the city disguises the cage of Mossy Bottom farm in an appropriately Foucauldian manner. The gate must be kept shut at all times. We prefer it that way.

The Gun Over the Fireplace in Act One

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014)

Film has three kinds of meta – the film about the film, which attempts to bite the hand that feeds it without ever really drawing blood (think The Player (Robert Altman, 1992), the film about TV, which is about how inauthentic and cynical that medium is (Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976)), and the film about theatre, which is about a huge cultural cringe and the superior authenticity of the stage. There’s a cameo role on Birdman for Lindsay Duncan, a fine actor, who steals the film as Tabitha Dickinson, theatre critic, in a film full of more acting per square centimetre than is entirely comfortable; she gets to tell Riggan Tomson, former star of three superhero movies, about how awful it is that such folk are taking up space in Broadway Theatreland and that they can’t act for toffee. Ah, one on the chin. A palpable hit.

Tomson is played by Michael Keaton, who was in the first two Batman movies back in the day, and a few movies since but hardly any you could name without looking them up (Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1998), Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh, 1998), Jack Frost (Troy Miller, 1998) and others, and a lot of voice work, it turns out). Tomson’s long-cherished dream is to repay a debt to unwitting mentor, Raymond Carver, by writing, directing and starring in a Broadway adaptation of a Carver story. The previews are not going well, and there is strife with a male costar Ralph, Jeremy Shamos, who is (un)fortunately knocked out by a falling spotlight. A new actor is brought in, Mike Shiner, played by Edward Norton – who was in the semi successful The Incredible Hulk (Louis Leterrier, 2008). Meanwhile, there are potshots at Robert Downey Jr. (Ironman (Jon Favreau (2008, 2010, Shane Black, 2013) and George Clooney (who killed the 1990s run of Batman films with Batman and Robin (Joel Schumacher, 1997)) and a Man of Steel poster on the skyline. (It’s a neat touch that the theatre chosen is opposite one playing The Phantom of the Opera.) It’s a close-run thing whether any of the actors will make it to opening night, let alone that the play will open.

There’s the ex-wife (Amy Ryan), in town for the premiere, the druggie daughter (Emma Stone), looking for redemption, an ex-girlfriend (Naomi Watts) uncertain of her place, a female costar (Andrea Riseborough) who’s in a relationship with Shine and a best friend/lawyer/agent/producer (Zach Galifianakis) trying to hold it together. Fairly soon, you are ready to concede that Duncan’s critic has a point. Who cares about these people?

What ratchetts up the tension is that Tomson is either going through a major nervous breakdown or has both a Sekrit Identity and super-powers. Todorov eat your heart out. Has he? Hasn’t he? Was the accident with the spotlight an accident? Why can’t he control them better? There’s a sense that this is bordering on horror – I misheard Riggan as Regan (as in The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)) at first and the endless tracking shots down theatre corridors began to echo The Overlook Hotel. Redrum! Redrum!

Oh yes, the film is composed of endless tracking shots, pursuing characters from room to room, picking up conversations and actions, kicking sand in Hitchcock’s face for pitiful ten minute takes in Rope. I guess there’s a sense of claustrophobia and being trapped and basically the director can. The director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki, seems to think that this is the first time anyone has done this. Oh dear. The Player is one example, although it abandons the conceits after the first shot.

And then there’s a highly telegraphed climax where the film really has its cake and eats it, parts of which are visible from the first act and most of which is not as clever as it thinks it is. It’s a wonder that everyone doesn’t wake up and realise it’s all a dream. Or maybe everyone else did but me. I have to say I was reminded of the elegance of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing (1982), which folded real life into play into other people’s materials with an eleganc this lacked.

Oh, and in a year where there were complaints about the music soundtrack drowning out the dialogue in Interstellar (Chris Nolan, 2014), we appear to have the soundtrack from Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, 2014) or the longest drum solo in recorded history.