But that is still a viewing of the film albeit one that confuses your own disdain as something that you are inheriting rather than contributing. Rosenbaum’s review of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln only bothers with the film as an example of failed documentarian scholarship. Rosenbaum’s main concern is that Lincoln is bad history. I am reminded of Tom Waits stage patter about being at a terrible movie and the person behind him leans over and whispers ‘this is based on a true story.’ Waits’ punchline is to ask if that makes the movie better? It doesn’t and if you can agree with that you probably have to agree with the alternative: that a good movie is not ruined by not being true. Of course, Lincoln is presuming a connection to a historical record but that is a contextual foothold and not a source of responsibility. Perhaps if he had been inventive and had Lincoln kill Hitler the lie would be so bold as to pass into the realm of cinema. But he did not, and because the errors are more subtle they seem more devious, more manipulative, changing the historical record for the sake of making a movie more salable. You might think that Lincoln does not properly address the importance of African Americans in their own liberation and you would be right. But does this impact the way you feel about the movie? And if it does do you think that is right? I fear that writers like Rosenbaum fear for the rest of us that we are going to be suckered into believing the things that he knows are not true. I don’t think this is a danger because most of us do not confuse movies with scholarship. And if we do I am not sure, and I realize that this is a contentious point for which in many ways I am wrong, why it is so bad to get things wrong. I was at a public lecture once where the speaker devoted his time to explaining how a major work on the topic was completely wrong about the time that Lutherans first came or developed in a certain South American region. I asked why it mattered that this other author was wrong and was told that people get killed when the truth is not told. This was a pompous response for this topic and an insult to the issues where this is actually a reasonable answer but the truth is that people also get killed when the truth is told. Setting the record straight has its place but Rosenbaum is perpetually ignoring the movement and momentum of a film by his own concern about straightness.
I want to write about DVDs that have come out and tell you why I think they are good, great or even just compelling failures. To do this I want to watch the films and respond to them. I don’t want to pretend that I don’t exist or that I don’t have a morality but I also want to admit that moral agreement is not a prerequisite to affection. As you will see below Downton Abbey strikes me as having many charms, all of which may be despicable, but none of it can be stated simply or definitively and I rob myself of experiencing affection by settling into simple definitions.
Paris, Texas [Blu-ray] (Wim Wenders, 1984) RB UK Axiom Films
Travis Henderson walks in the desert wilderness towards nothing. He has been walking away, for five years now, from a wife he abused and the son that was a by-product of their marriage. He also wants to create distance between himself and the person that he is, a person who did not trust his father and the way he was with his mother; a father that he also sees in himself. The walk is interrupted and he is returned, first to his brother, then to his son, and finally to his wife. His love for all three and his recognition of their need for him require that he make an effort to give and to nurture that are also tormented by a desperate ache for love that makes him eventually incapable of accepting it. The film is the daunting story of a man who accepts the tragic in order to do good for the ones he loves. In a simple way it is a film about a man who knows that his son needs his mother and that the father must be the conduit for this renewing connection that he cannot participate in it. He needs to forgive the wife who has not sinned and he needs to forget the burden of the self that will be lost in this forgiving gesture. It is also a film about the undesirability of freedom. He was free, he found his freedom in that wilderness of self-purging emptiness but this freedom had costs that only he could pay. He is connected to others while alone. Like many of us Travis wishes that life could be much simpler but realizes that the major complexities are not systemic and not personal and he is the one who complicates more than he resolves.
He is haunted by the image of the place Paris, Texas, where he bought some land upon which he never built. It is the place, also, where his father met his mother and in two wildly different anecdotes we learn that it is also the place where Travis was conceived, literally, and, metaphorically, born. The first anecdote explains the joke his father perpetually made about his wife that she was born in Paris… Texas. The pause provides the joke in that expectations are altered, the spectacular made mundane. In the telling of this Travis seems to remember the joke with a gentle, fond amusement. But in a drunken second telling he informs his son that his mother, a simple woman, was mocked by the joke and that his father would not stop telling it suggesting that his father had invented an image of his wife that was not true or real, or desirable to both parties. Travis sadly knows that he is the same way, he cannot divide the persons he loves from the person he wants or needs them to be and in so doing is unable to actually support or love that person as they are. It is the importance of this that Travis temporarily suspends; it is the recognition that he is unable to avoid his disappointment in the actualities of human relationships that makes it temporary. The film does not shrink from this doubling and presents us with vivid accounts of a giving love and a tearing spirit in ways that are haunting and hopeful.
The Blue Angel [Blu-ray] (Josef Von Sternberg, 1930) RB UK Masters of Cinema
The Blue Angel is an astonishingly sad and beautiful movie. Immanuel Rath, a noted and stern professor, becomes outraged at the influence on his students of sexual attraction being advertised by the local night club The Blue Angel. He finds that he is not quite up to the task of returning his students to the moral fold and instead finds himself infatuated by lead dancer Lola and her sexual promise. Because of his belief in his own moral and intellectual stature he is less able to confront his own ability to be tempted in the ways that do not actually challenge his younger charges. They know that the thrill is intoxicating and cheap; he becomes more implicated because of his conviction that his experiences must be as elevated and true as he is. He is destroyed as a professor but he becomes a human being though in clown form. The questions that the film raises are many and deep. Is Immanuel an example of the failure of moral superiority to actually consider the carnal and base natures of human beings? Does the influence of carnality, and its allegiance to the capricious, necessitate personal destruction? Is personal destruction something to be avoided? Is Immanuel a reluctant participant in the purging of the vanity of his dignity or is the surrender of this dignity the source of devastation? The film is decadent and recognizes the centrality of decadence to many of our impulses or, in other words, that we define ourselves in reaction to apprehensions about decadence. The movie is never obscure but is constantly complicated. A flighty dancer, with her own desperations, fears and need to acknowledge a nature plays with the heart of a man who freed from the dark side of self-righteousness finds himself with no mooring at all except in the rhythms of collapse – the measure of being able to live is found in the ability to accept the sordid nature of life. It is an attractive theme but the thing about the delights of all things sordid is that they are also sordid and we exhaust before they do.
The Confrontation (Miklos Jancso, 1969) R2 UK Second Run
The perpetual singing of Marxist songs paired with Hungarian folk dances along with pontificating dialogue about the importance of the dialogical did threaten this viewer with apprehension about what this was film was up to and what he was going to have sit through. Luckily, the singing does not last and the speech-making is quickly shown as ironic. The film is about the subtle flow of power and how its presence infiltrates even good natured meaning and expression. The premise is of young communists storming a religious academy to debate the place of Christianity in the new history writing of socialism. The vanguard youth are likely not without ideas but they are so annoyingly self-compelled you feel like you are being beaten about the eyes and ears with bad propaganda. The interesting thing is the slow way the film shows that their best ideas have collapsed into their own sense of righteousness and authority. They praise the necessity of argument but the victory of their power in society has already convinced them that they have won all arguments. Listening, then, becomes a condescending tolerance and when that is not received as a gift from above they become solidly totalitarian, reduced to the threats already implicit and implied in their professed desire to communicate. The meek and confused become the ones we identify, we do not know how to respond because our responses are being measured and deemed to be gestures of political intent when they are mostly honest bafflement or frustration. The question here is about the impact of context on political discourse, in other words, the impossibility of rhetoric of political tension. Perhaps it is telling that it is a movie that well shows the futility of the chat.
Detachment (Tony Kaye, 2011) New Video Group
To call this film the best in the genre of ‘teachers making a difference in a tough school’ is, to quote the words of our main character Henry Barthes, “a dubious endorsement.” All too often films set in rough and tumble high schools offer only a stark range of human personality, the high and the low with nothing ordinary and believable in between. The good moves the bad, who are only really the bored, and a belief in the inherent goodness of all is propounded and observed. The problem of teenagers in other films is that no one cares about them until that one plucky teacher shows up, her heart on her sleeve, and gets down to the tough love. The beauty in this picture, besides the believable acting, is that the message is a lack of care is what is needed. Barthes notes to a rude student that there is nothing he or anyone can do to hurt his feelings because he does not care in that personable way. He is detached from a sense of personal validation based on his empathy or sympathy. He does not care. And he also does not care about his lack of care. It is this that is crucial. He is defined by his detachment, it is not a pose or a persona and it is this that allows him to actually give to his students. He helps people but he is unmoved by it. He does it not because it is his duty or he because it is his desire to give back but because it is something that can be done. By the end of the film this Eckhartian scheme is botched in a failure for which there was no apparent institutional solution but until then the film is superb in its presentation of the bland terror that is youthful nihilism. The film addresses that yes, there may not be anything in this world to really be devoted to that is not going to burn you, but it also understands that to make this truth your sense is to fall into the abyss.
Downton Abbey Season 3 [Blu-ray] (Julian Fellowes, 2012) – PBS
It is a soap opera. It is a soap opera because it exaggerates and accelerates the moments of a life all into one compact bubble of a family through whom we suffer through more trials and broken romances than see most communities in a generation. It is also very watchable and will move you in ways that you are too smart and sensitive to usually be moved. You are certainly being played but it feels nice to be played with by people who know what they are doing. The predominant theme of this season is the tension between tradition and change but given that the time period is 1920 that which they are considering to be change is already our tradition. The theme then is a bit of a trick to show us where our sympathies lie (patriarch Robert Crawley standing in defense of tradition at one point enthusiastically describes the returns offered by investment in Charles Ponzi) and there is not much matter of complicated allegiances. The fact that this false theme is played against the backdrop of a class system to which none of us belong does complicate things. Do we really care about the Crawley sprawl and the maintenance of Downton Abbey beyond our inclination to watch the show? Do the perils and problems of the landed rich, largely due to their wealth, actually concern us? If they do it is because I suspect we seek to identify with them. The basement bunch excepting the elders of Hughes and Carson who act with so much dignity and observance of decorum that they may as well be rich are the only employees who are not either slightly stupid or too vain to accept their place. The folks downstairs are children; those upstairs are actual human beings. It may be our own vanity that places our own sympathies on the upper floors along with a patronizing affection for those whose lot it is, or should be, to take care of us. But it is none of it real and I watch it like a child. When I was a boy the CBC broadcast a similar television show called A Gift to Last riveted and astonished me. My feelings for such entertainment have diminished over the years but they do nostalgically remain as a childish treat.
The Duellists [Blu-ray] (Ridley Scott, 1977) Shout! Factory
Gabriel Feraud, a soldier in Napoleon’s army, is prone to being offended by just about anything and his favorite recourse to justice is to insist upon a duel. Armand d’Hubert, a fellow soldier in a different regiment, attracts Feraud’s wrath in delivering a message. For the next twenty years, Feraud continues to demand further duels with d’Hubert, with mixed but non definitive results. What makes this all fascinating viewing is Feraud’s ferocity and d’Hubert’s anxiety in the name of an account of honour that resists articulation. In this way it is an existential tale of the way that the idea of death stalks a person (we are only shown the life of the anxious d’Hubert) and that the measure of a man is the very reluctant acceptance of this battle when it is brought to the fore. His fear and exhaustion over the fear fill him and permeate through the screen into the viewer. Wherever he goes, whatever he does, the possibility of running into Feraud and into the call of self-defending or defeating violence is present. He longs for the conclusion, for a peace, between them but this is perpetually denied; there is no peace that can be made with this demand. d’Hubert manages a life in the grip of this haunting spectre and while one might think, as the clichés have it, that he even more deeply cherishes the movements of his life because of the perpetual threat. It is not the case, he manages, but his life always feels fragile and himself a cowardly gentleman. It is this recognition that teaches him about himself and about this dubious and glorious thing called honour which he knows that he does not understand but that he is devoted to, willingly or not. The cinematography is beautiful and appropriate to a tale of perpetual nervousness where the eye sees more detail in its paranoid glances than it wants to bear but is moved by the sight all the same.
Holy Motors [Blu-ray] (Leos Carax, 2012) RB UK Artificial Eye
It does not take long to realize that the set-up of the film, an actor prepares for a role, is the film. Once confusion subsides what is left to do is enjoy the vignettes as they rush or dawdle by. The film does though carry a momentum of exhaustion, with each progressive character the amount of work spent investing in the artifice of the role genuinely feels taxing and draining. This is not only for the fantastic work of lead actor Dennis Levant but for the viewer as well. Even though some of the stories in their mellow tone may pretend to be a reprieve from all the constant effort they are not, all moments lead to more moments, moments connected only by the singularity of the person pretending to play the role, and this feels endless. The film is vague but not really very subtle. It appears to be about the influence of film on our modern lives and about the content of the human being as contextualized roles. It is vague enough to almost persuade you that such understandings are over simplistic tropes. And without them you will have nothing and that would be fine as well. The film is its own excuse and nothing more. If this is your idea of the pretentious there is nothing here to dissuade you. If you don’t care and you like actors acting and you like absolutely meaningless suspense (what innocuous thing is going to happen next!?), you will enjoy yourself. For myself, I did not think I was engaged at all but a week later I have not tired of re-watching many of the scenes, foremost among them the accordion interlude.
How Green Was My Valley [Blu-ray] (John Ford, 1941) RB UK 20th Century
There is a scene about two thirds of the way through How Green Was My Valley that speaks to the films power and to John Ford’s brilliance. Two brothers of a fairly large Welsh family have discovered that their charming town has no work for them due to labor cuts at the local and murderous coal mines. The brothers with much personal and family sadness are to travel to America in order to find employment. Their town has nothing for them. At the same time another brother receives notice that his men’s choir has been granted the honour of performing before the British queen. We then have a scene of the choir performing God Save the Queen on the streets of the town and I was thinking this is the most sentimental treacle ever committed to film. But just as I am thinking this less than charitable thought the camera pans away from the choir to show the two brothers, bound for America, collecting their few belongings and exiting, walking in quiet shadows the opposite way down the cobbled street. The juxtaposition is not only a visual one it implants itself in your critical imagination. At the same moment you are reeling from the mawkishness of the town as they devote themselves to their queen you are also presented with the victims of her majesty’s inability to keep jobs in the United Kingdom for the young men. It is both at once, as it always is: the sentimental patriotism that also runs us aground. The whole film, the antithesis to The Quiet Man, is about a town coming closer to the coal slag that is developing around the mine covering everyone in the dust of yesterday and death. It is about ache and near collapse, failures in hopes and failures for no dreams at all; it is about sons going to America to fight for their lives. And yet the tone is cheery and the people’s spirits are bright and whatever acrimony is there is accepted. And that makes it all seem so much sadder.
Jack Irish: Bad Debts/Black Tide
These two made for television films demonstrate that HBO is available in some form in Australia. The show mixes a bit of The Wire, a bit of Luck and something else that while not fresh does not have a brand. It is smartly written, the plot is dense, and the characters are believable as television characters (which is to say that I am less convinced that such people actually exist). The enjoyment of these two films is not in the resolution of a complicated mystery but as it is with HBO at their best it is in the opening of complicated webs of social institutions and city planning. Jack Irish, lawyer and amateur drunk, discovers with surprise but not shock that the simple presumptions of an organized life are pre-arranged by others whom he does not know. He is tenacious in his pursuits but his tenacity stems both from a sense of self-defeat and discouragement that he lives in a system that is so cavalier in its manipulations of him. It takes a man who does not care for his eventual success within that system to actually confront it and thus it is this activism through decrepitude that allows Jack a bit of movement. This is just good television, a step above from the usual American procedurals, and nothing more.
Paranormal Activity 4 [Blu-ray] (Aaron Schulman and Henry Joost, 2012), Paramount
The Paranormal Activity franchise provides its viewer with an education in attention. The films depend on our awareness of the usual jolt and jump clichés of horror viewing and slow them down requiring the viewer to watch the whole screen looking in advance for the thing that is going to grab them. The visual strength of the movies is that they continue to succeed in startling us despite our expectations; it is these expectations that give the scenes their power. Often nothing happens, like in the closing scene of The Sopranos, but we fill the screen with the content of our apprehensions. As such the films, and number four is no exception, are about the delicate pacing of tension. Cinematically this is their central merit; thematically it does not make sense why the demons in charge need to be so patient. This complaint is completely irrelevant to one`s enjoyment, any lover knows you need to slow down if you want it to last. What is also irrelevant but less problematic is the thematic thrust of the films as metaphors for various social mores of the modern American life. Casual wealth, distant parenting, platitudes as the basis of communication except among the young who are free from the arrangements of how to be but are headed there through technology, all of these it proves are conducive to possession by demons and once the families involve start to shout get behind me Satan, it is too late. The trick this time is using the cameras that surround our homes through Skype and most effectively through the xbox Kinect gaming system. These devices connect and liberate the younger generation, giving them not distance from each other but intimacy and a neighborhood where they do not have to behave under the eyes of apathetic adults. But the new technology is not immune to disgrace and its ability to map the movement of that which cannot be seen but only felt is both beautiful in its way and also no protection. The earlier films began with the possession of the adults and now are making the move to the children, the adults are already fodder and the kids are next. There is nothing in the film that suggests that they can be protected from the change in the community.
Scene of the Crime (Roy Rowland, 1952) Warner Archive Classics
What separates this movie from the others in the recent Warner Archive film noir offerings (Code Two, Death in Small Doses, Murder is My Beat) is writing and acting. It has a semi-intricate plot with characters who seem to be speaking their mind rather than their lines. This adds up to an enjoyable ninety minutes of living among people a little more desperate, a little colder, and a little grimier than you or me. Someone making this film must have argued that the difference between ordinary and interesting can be orchestrated by giving the audience characters with idiosyncrasies that they will remember even if the character is not on the screen very long. This works, although on further reflection the ticks do not seem like personalities but affectations, and it also helps you lament them if they disappear. The film humanizes its characters, all of them, from the romantic to the rotten. The marriage is believable and informative, the friendships are real and their banter not forced, the villains actually seem to live in a different world both chosen by and forced on them and as a result one can understand and empathise with their wicked ways.
That Obscure Object of Desire [Blu-ray] (Luis Bunuel, 1977) LionsGate
I am finding that watching a lot of movies provides a pull towards disappointment towards that which you are watching. You become used to things, you become used to things that once might have grabbed you. You watch Resident Evil: Retribution and you are not awed by the special effects and action sequences, you are annoyed by the flimsiness of the film’s basics. If you did not watch everything you would likely be more impressed but you have seen these same rhythms before and they are not as enticing the nineteenth go around. And on the other side you can be confronted by films that offer alternative rhythms. These alternatives can be attractive but they can also be alienating. The Confrontation was alienating, off-putting in the ways that it was unaware of what was expected from film-makers and what grammars they were expected to respect. Films that have their own rhythms, that require a different sort of attention than that which is normally requested, are life changing when they reward. You feel validated for choosing the dangerous option of leaving your home. That Obscure Object of Desire plays with your sense of rhythm, and like a film by Eric Rohmer, is something unique in movie watching. I am referring not only to the fact that the female lead is played by two different women and that the logic of which one might appear is not obvious (but does tend to raise symbolic questions which I have ignored in respect for the obscure). The film is a love terror story about what attracts. The usual suspect of sex is entertained but Conchita’s steadfast refusal to perform, despite perpetual agreements to do so, and her eventual manipulations of Mathieu’s tendency to possession and jealousy, split the couple but never irrevocably. It turns out that the obscure object of desire is the threat itself, the threat to one’s sanity and to one’s safety. Love is a terrorist act and we like it like that although we are not prone to admit. We seek self-destruction in another, traditionally this has been the metaphor of the sexual act, that in coupling the self is lost with the other. But this is just the printing of a larger text, what we seek is the display of our own apprehension, our own darkest denials brought to light to accuse us of our inadequacy. We love to hate and our hate is no match for our love. The films is smart in the ways it makes its movement, our sympathies do not ever totally belong to one or the other and at alternating moments we feel sympathy for the aggression and plight of both. By the film’s end we cannot imagine them apart or content.
Weirdly, the vase that is smashed by accident in this film is later saved in Resident Evil: Retribution.
This Land is Mine (Jean Renoir, 1943), Warner Archive Collection
Before it comes to completely rely on speech-making, the film does a fine job of presenting its ideas in visual form. Charles Laughton’s portrayal of Albert Lory as a coward, on the outside, that is also internally brave is perfect. The presentation of a community overtaken by occupying Nazi forces is also compelling drawn. The viewer is thrown into the complexity of the arrangement and the morality of acquiescence versus resistance to these external authorities is properly complex. I recognized that I, too, am a coward, basically critical of rebellion when the forces of oppression seem so general and innocuous. This is the state of Albert Lory, why fight that which is not so bad? Why fight on principle when fighting makes life tenuous and dangerous? Why do something when doing nothing is really so much easier? Those who do something are destroyed, those who play along are rewarded. Is the choice really so hard? The film and its date of release are obvious propaganda designed to support partisans and freedom fighters throughout Europe but the meaning of the film for today is more potent and powerful. There is a system that we live under, it is a system of our own making and of our own acceptance but we do not actually know what it is and its power over us. And as a system it seeks to destroy us. This system is the organizing structure of life: get educated, get a good job, make more and more money and buy more and more things. The system does not support you, you support it. It is your job in life to discover where you fit and what it is you can give or surrender; any other notion of life that you may have is to be lived on the margins of this main pursuit. It is, as every single one of us knows, a devastating system that nurtures us with constant anxiety and fear of failure. To refuse its call, to live in some way, is to fail, to invite mockery, to be ostracized and outcast. The final speech of the film is a praise of the American Declaration of Rights and Freedoms. I suspect that the film intends to be sincere in its praise of the American way but I am knocked out by the irony. The rights and freedoms are only words and our belief in them as a guiding principle continues to keep us from being ever free. We do not fight for our children, our friends, or ourselves, we watch them diminish daily and we fight for the rights to keep dying. Albert Lory is some kind of anti-hero for our times.
White Zombie [Blu-ray] (Victor Halperin, 1932) Kino
This is the first zombie movie in the history of film. These zombies are not flesh eaters and nor, it should be noted, are they all white. To be a zombie in the parlance in the film is to be enslaved, without any recourse to a will of one’s own. I am guessing that by calling the film White Zombie we are to imply that white people can be slaves too. I am not sure if this is just weird language or if it is racist. To be sure, the souls we want returned to their bodies are the white people although the only actor in the film that seems to have any actual life in him is the black stage driver. The acting is terrible, the metaphor of living a dead life unclear (although there is a profound suggestion that the zombie life for the lead female character begins the night of her marriage and is the result of the general male desire to possess her), and much of the sets look like obvious matte painting, so why recommend it? I am not convinced that I should be but I am basically drawn to the small creepy moments of lighting and shadow, and of some genuinely horrifying imagery of the drudgery of zombie life. And for that alone I found it worth the time.
The Awakening [Blu-ray] (Nick Murphy, 2012) Universal
Cast A Long Shadow (Thomas Carr, 1959) Shout! Factory
Citadel [Blu-ray] (Ciaran Foy, 2012) New Video Group
Code Two (Fred Wilcox, 1953) Warner Archive Classics
Cold Light of Day [Blu-ray] (Mabrouk El Mechri, 2012) Summit
Death in Small Doses (Joseph Newman, 1957) Warner Archive Classics
The Double [Blu-ray] (Michael Brandt, 2011) RB UK High Fliers Films
Fear and Desire [Blu-ray] (Stanley Kubrick, 1953) RB UK Masters of Cinema
Hotel Transylvania [Blu-ray] (Genndy Tartakovsky, 2012) Sony Pictures
Kit Carson (George Seitz, 1940) Henstooth
Looper [Blu-ray] (Rian Johnson, 2012) Sony
Murder is My Beat (Edgar Ulmer, 1955) Warner Archive Classics
Paranorman [Blu-ray] (Sam Fell, 2012) Universal
Resident Evil: Retribution [Blu-ray] (Paul W.S. Anderson, 2012) Sony
Seven Psychopaths [Blu-ray] (Martin McDonagh, 2012) Sony Pictures
The Woodsman and the Rain [Blu-ray] (Shuichi Okita, 2011) RB UK Third Window Films