Stories and the internet

I am periodically re-publishing the posts that I want to preserve from the previous incarnation of this blog, just in case I ever lose control of that site or it vanishes. What follows was originally published on 29 April 2010 on betweensympathyanddetachment.blogspot.co.uk.

New technologies have an effect upon the way we ‘consume’ fiction (amongst other things), but they also have an effect on the kinds of fictional scenarios that are plausible if stories are set in the present. ‘Don’t let a mobile phone ruin your movie’ is the tagline of and premise behind a still-current series of Orange cinema adverts (which, although they do not ‘ruin’ my trips to the cinema, certainly constitute a source of irritation).

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In praise of 1940s Hollywood cinema

‘the films of Hollywood constituted a world, with recurrent faces more familiar to me than the faces of all the places I have lived.’ Stanley Cavell

Recently I’ve watched, among other things, a little cluster of films made in Hollywood in the 1940s (Christmas in JulyChristmas in Connecticut, and It’s a Wonderful Life), and it brought back to the surface (it’s never far below) my love of 1940s Hollywood cinema. Decade divisions are of course ultimately arbitrary, but if I had to choose a single decade of Hollywood filmmaking to watch exclusively for the rest of my life, I’m pretty sure it would be the 1940s. Continue reading

A model of critical writing: A tribute to Gilberto Perez

At one point in Moana (1926), Flaherty’s documentary about Samoa, we see a native boy start to climb a coconut tree. We don’t see the whole tree, only the bottom part of it, and that view is held, as the boy climbs up, until he disappears at the top of the frame. Then the camera moves upward to take in the boy climbing up another section of the tree, no longer the bottom and not yet the top, and that view is held again until the boy again disappears at the top of the frame. Again the camera moves upward, to take in now the top part of the tree and the boy still climbing until finally he reaches the coconuts he was after. […] Like a narrator, [Flaherty] makes a sequence of something that is not: he shows us the tree a piece at a time, this and then that and then that, as if he were telling us about it. Deliberately he only shows us so much, which makes us curious to find out what more there is and surprised at how very tall the tree turns out to be. The climb, unlike the tree, is itself sequential, but Flaherty’s rendering of it is sequential in a way that the climb is not. Deliberately he allows the boy to leave our view, which draws our interest to where the boy has gone, the space we are yet to see above the frame.
Gilberto Perez, The Material Ghost: Films and their Medium, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998, pp. 53-4.

I was very sad to receive the news that Gilberto Perez, an extraordinary film critic, died suddenly last month. Perez taught at Sarah Lawrence College, and on the college’s website a touching set of tributes has been compiled. I met Perez in person only once, briefly, when he visited the UK for a conference. But as a writer on the page, Perez was a source of near-constant intellectual company, stimulation and inspiration for me for long portions of my postgraduate studies – and beyond. He is one of a very small handful of writers about film that I have tried sustainedly to emulate as a model of critical thinking and writing.

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Taking Calvary seriously

This post contains ‘major’ spoilers, and should not be read by anyone who plans to see Calvary but has not done so yet.

Calvary (John Michael McDonagh), although it contains comedic elements, is a film that seems to want to be taken seriously.  In support of this suggestion, we might point initially to features of the film such as its somber, white-on-black opening quotation from St Augustine (‘Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved.  Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.’), or its swelling soundtrack, which serves to emphasise the intended poignancy of key dramatic moments.  We might also point to the film’s trailer, which positions it within the realm of art cinema, and much of its critical reception, which offers it as a film with something to say.  If the film’s ending is to secure the effects that it seems to be seeking, then the viewer needs, ultimately, to view the film’s characters as beings capable of authentic suffering and moral decision-making.  This, at least, is what I want to argue, and I also want to argue that Calvary fails to satisfactorily reconcile its comedic and dramatic dimensions, resulting in a film that, although accomplished and enjoyable almost throughout, ultimately fails to hang together.

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I love that moment in Boyhood…

…where Mason Sr./Ethan Hawke and Mason Jr./Ellar Coltrane are driving through the desert on their way to a night of camping, and a country song comes on the stereo.  Mason Sr. turns it up, and commences enthusiastically narrating and appraising the song.  It’s straight-up country, he says, nothing fancy, but the way he says it, we know that this is being offered not only as the terms upon which the song is to be enjoyed, but also a reason for doing so.  The desire to articulate and share enthusiasm that is one of the hallmarks of Ethan Hawke performances in Richard Linklater films (and one of the most beguiling qualities of those performances) is here given a parental inflection: Mason Jr. is still young enough to have his taste ‘coached’ by his father, but also old enough that might reasonably be expected to partake of the pleasure being offered.  Both times I have seen the film, this moment has elicited a smile of recognition, and a feeling of warmth towards the characters.

Brief reflections on The Double (Richard Ayoade, 2013)

I saw The Double (Richard Ayoade, 2013) at Hull Independent Cinema Project last night, and I enjoyed it more than its trailer had led me to believe I might.

The set design, as per the trailer, is indeed meticulous and overbearingly atmospheric; much of its character is captured in José Arroyo’s description of it in his short review as ‘the present… imagined as a dark 19th-century world with 1930s appliances where everyone is lonely’.  (In terms of its look, the film’s closest relative in many ways is Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, as Ayoade has acknowledged, but in terms of feel, The Double does not have, or go for, Brazil’s wide streak of mania, opting instead for humorous deadpan.)  Dim, artificial light pervades the film (I don’t remember any scenes in daylight), punctuated by moments of elaborate lighting design, another way in which the film sometimes feels, a bit like its characters, organised to within an inch of lifelessness.  The film’s opening scene thoroughly embodies these qualities.  Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), the film’s protagonist, sits on an underground train, tunnel lights flashing across his face, the rhythmic clacking of the tracks dominating the soundtrack.  A man, whose face we do not see, curtly informs Simon (the film is not afraid to prefigure its central theme as boldly as it introduces its style) ‘You’re in my place.’  A monotone exchange, with long gaps between turns in the ‘conversation’, ensues.  Simon protests, but without conviction.  After a long beat, the close shot on Eisenberg is replaced by a wider one which confirms that, as we probably suspected, the man is demanding that Simon vacate the one seat in the carriage that is occupied.

Such archness has its pleasures, but they are pleasures of a limited sort.  Likewise, achieving such a tone is an achievement, but again, a limited one.  But then, just as I was turning against the film, it modulated.  Mia Wasikowska’s character, Hannah, the object of Simon’s romantic fixation, becomes the film’s much needed locus of authenticity and tenderness.  Her apartment, which Simon views (much in the style of L B Jefferies in Hitchcock’s Rear Window) via a telescope installed in his own apartment across the courtyard, is noticeably softer and warmer, in its set design and lighting, than anything else in the film.  I am not so much praising the fact of the film’s positioning of a woman as the object of a man’s desiring and often intrusive gaze and as a means of alleviating that man’s sense of the harshness and futility of his existence, but the way in which the film so successfully captures the feel of such predominantly one-way relationships as these (with their combination of deep feeling on the one hand, and repression and stuntedness on the other), and builds this feel into its architecture, using it to offset, and be offset by, the gloomy environs and affectless exchanges that characterise the rest of the film.  The pauses, repetitions and poker-facedness of much of the film’s dialogue gives way to rapid-fire, overlapping, engaged exchanges during some of Simon’s encounters with Hannah (and some with his doppelganger, James).  It would be an exaggeration to describe Simon’s exchanges with Hannah as fully authentic or communicative, but there is at least the sense that both parties are invested in making the effort, and Wasikowska’s performance is, for the most part, in a significantly more ‘authentic’ register than the performances in the rest of the film.  In the moments where Simon observes Hannah, Ayoade finds perfect details or framings to hang these moments on: as Hannah sleeps, her inhaling and exhaling disturbs a few strands of hair hanging in front of her face; whilst Hannah photocopies a document for Simon, the camera’s angle and close framing, combined with Hannah’s posture, emphasises the nape of Hannah’s neck, and its elegance.  There is also a nice moment where Simon returns to his cafe table to discover that Hannah has left, but that she has left behind a note and a coin, instructing him to play a song for her on the jukebox, a moment which Simon embellishes in his head in a well-crafted moment of fantasy.

The things, then, that I admired most about The Double revolved around its (probably) secondary relationship, between Simon and Hannah, rather than the (probably) primary one between Simon and James which more straightforwardly drives the film’s plot and themes (and its marketing).  This also explains why I was most engaged by the film’s middle, rather than its beginning or end.  However, precisely this tension between ‘foreground’ and ‘background’, and the way the two play off each other, was one of the key pleasures I experienced whilst watching the film, and whilst reflecting afterwards on the experience it offers.  Ayoade managed to pack more arresting, eloquent images into this one film than one often sees in a dozen, and he demonstrates a sure hand for combining the elements he works with.  On the strength of The Double, I’ve just ordered Submarine (Ayoade, 2010), and I’m very much looking forward to watching it.

In Your Eyes

I’d been keeping tabs on the progress of In Your Eyes (Brin Hill, 2014) for a while – because it was written by Joss Whedon.  A couple of weeks ago I saw that it would be premiering at Tribeca, but even at that point I could still see no news of a UK release.  Given how tricky it was for someone living in a city without an independent cinema to get to see Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon, 2012), I wasn’t optimistic about getting to see In Your Eyes any time soon.  So I was delighted when a friend texted me this lunchtime with the news that the film is available to stream now on Vimeo, for just $5, via http://inyoureyesmovie.com/.  I have now watched it, and it may well be my favourite film that Whedon has written and/or directed (not including Toy Story, for which Whedon gets first screenwriting credit but which clearly remains John Lasseter’s film first and foremost).

The first part of the review below is spoiler-free (aside from discussing the concept that drives the film, which is introduced at a very early stage), then there is a clearly-signalled division before I proceed to discuss the film as a whole, including its ending.

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I love that moment at the end of Frances Ha…

Mini-spoiler alert:  Frances Ha (Baumbach, 2012) is not a film particularly susceptible to being ‘spoiled’ by learning how it ends before one sees it, but readers should be warned that the below does talk about the film’s closing minutes and answers a question that viewers may well have been pondering whilst viewing.

I love the final scene of Frances Ha (along with the rest of the film).  Frances, after sharing two different apartments with friends during the rest of the film, is moving in to her own place.  The film ends with her in the hallway of the apartment building, making a name label for her mailbox.  She begins by writing out her whole name (I can’t remember her surname, and can’t find it on the internet either!), but it’s too long to fit in the window.  Instead of re-writing, Frances just trims (or does she fold?! I wish I could see the scene again, and apologise for any other falsely-remembered details contained here!) the piece of paper.  The film ends with a close-up, held over the credits for quite some time, of the finished result: ‘FRANCES HA’.

This detail is lent some weight by being the last image we see, and also by finally explaining the film’s title.  And its implications when it is treated as a symbol are a nice fit with the rest of the film, and a nice note to end on.  Over the course of Frances Ha, we see Frances suffer embarrassment, financial hardship, insecure employment, and difficult friendships.  In the film’s closing minutes, though, we see a series of small triumphs, which cluster around a dance recital that Frances has choreographed and put on.  Frances achieves some measure of artistic and professional fulfilment through having planned and executed a short dance sequence featuring a small group of small (and very cute) children, shown to a respectable gathering of friends and acquaintances.  At the same event, she receives the praise and approval of her former mentor, and appears to reach reconciliation and a new phase of friendship with her former room mate and best friend Sophie.

Structurally, then, after this event, the writing of a name tag feels like a coda.  But it also marks a new beginning, and serves as a(n appropriately-understated) declaration.  Frances does not have her name in lights, or even her whole name on display, but there is a label that tells people ‘I am here’.  The apartment and all that goes with it may not be enough to accommodate or express Frances’s whole being, but they are a landmark on the journey.

Big cities, early adulthood, friends, cinema, and Frances Ha

Every once in a while there comes along an enchanted occasion where one’s experience of a film dovetails so serendipitously with the circumstances of seeing it (where one is and how one is feeling at that precise time) that not only are receptiveness and susceptibility heightened, but it becomes difficult to do justice to that experience without also talking about those personal circumstances.

This weekend, I saw the beautiful Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012) whilst down in London visiting friends whom I no longer see as much as I would like, and (for the most part) as much as I saw them when I was working towards a PhD in film studies five to eight years ago.  So I came to the film after a day spent taking tube journeys across London to meet people (people who sparkle!), chat to them, wander around with them, have drinks with them, and exchange or share pieces of culture (I have returned home with a bag full of books and DVDs, and a notebook full of things to explore).  My day was like stepping into that part of my past where I was surrounded by a wealth of friends with a huge thirst for culture and a desire to talk about it that was as constant and as natural as breathing.  So when the evening came, although I didn’t yet know it, I had been primed for Frances Ha.

Frances, played by Greta Gerwig, is a single white female in her mid to late twenties, living in New York and insecurely employed as a dancer.  She splits up with her boyfriend near the start of the film (at the point where he has laid down a deposit on a pair of cats and is asking her to move in with him).  She lives in three different apartments over the film’s duration: first with her friend Sophie, then with two guys she meets at a party who happen to have a room going spare, and finally, alone.  She also takes flights to visit her parents in Sacramento and to go to Paris for the weekend, and spends time in the dormitory of her old school while she works there for a brief spell.

When reviewers (or one’s friends!) try to give a sense of Frances Ha to those who haven’t seen it, Lena Dunham’s excellent television series Girls (HBO, 2012-) will often come up.  The two projects have overlapping personnel and ostensibly similar subject matter.  But in terms of sensibility, they are very different.  Girls is a lot about sex, and is brilliantly raw, with a great deal of palpable pain and anxiety.  Frances Ha has a very different orientation towards sex (we get the sense that it happens, but we don’t see much of it, and sexual tension neither drives the narrative nor is it a strong presence in many of the scenes), and a different pervading tone.  Perhaps surprisingly, given Baumbach’s earlier work (of the films he directed I have only seen The Squid and The Whale, but Greenberg is now on its way…), no character is persistently satirised.  We are also not given characters who keenly feel that the world is not recognising their worth.  Frances does suffer repeated professional rejections across the course of the film, and we see and share her pain, but it is not the pain of a person who sees themself as an undiscovered genius.

The film is not edgy, but it is precise.  An illuminating and in-depth profile of Baumbach and Gerwig in The New Yorker (one of those pieces of culture shared with me by a friend) reveals Baumbach as a writer-director who ‘expects actors to say the lines he wrote for them, and to say them again and again’.  (A little later in the same piece: ‘Gerwig now finds it unnerving to do just five or so takes for another director: “I don’t know that we’ve actually thought about it enough.”‘)  It is also revealed that a lot of post-production work was undertaken on the film’s black and white digital cinematography (with the help of Pascal Dangin, ‘a retoucher known as the “photo whisperer”‘).  Apparently, an early draft of the film split it into five largely autonomous episodes in Frances’s life.  To an extent, that structure remains, but the film is also given a thread, if not exactly a plot, by Frances’s relationship with Sophie.

The first phase of the film shows Frances and Sophie sharing their secret world.  They rent an apartment together; they fall asleep on each other’s beds; they share jokes, language and rituals.  Then (after Frances has refused to move in with her boyfriend because she wants to see out – and probably renew – her lease with Sophie), Sophie moves in with her boyfriend, gets engaged to him, and even moves to Japan.  This gives us the fall-out phase of the film and the relationship.  Frances gets angry with Sophie for failing to honour their former intimacy (in a brilliant phrase I can’t quite remember, she accuses her of acting like the two of them just got bagels together for lunch one time), gets sad when she hears from others about what Sophie is up to with others (this is presented less as possessiveness and more as the sense of missing out on moment of time that ought to have been shared), and embarrasses herself (or at least, makes us feel embarrassed), by trying to recreate that intimacy with an unwilling other (she tries to initiate her new friend in the ways of playfighting, and pushes her in the face; it does not go down well).

The film first demonstrates dramatically, and then articulates through dialogue, the way in which the friendships between people who possess independence but not yet responsibilities or security are sustained by deep, near-continuous rituals of intimacy, and that when these rituals come to an end, this can be difficult to deal with, at least at first.  Towards the end of a dinner party scene in which Frances’s estrangement from Sophie and gloomy work prospects have caused her to act foolishly (but also, if the film has had its desired effect by this point, endearingly), there is a luminous long take in which Frances talks about the nature of such relationships.  The moment she chooses as indicative is when two people are at a party, talking to other people, but then look across the room at one another, and share an understanding that does not require and in fact surpasses language.

Ian Parker, in his New Yorker profile, gets it right when he observes:

That late-twenties moment is still vivid to Baumbach, and part of the charm of “Frances Ha” has to do with the way it combines, in one character, a partial self-portrait of two writers [Baumbach and Gerwig], from two generations. If “Girls” describes the life of a certain kind of mid-twenties New Yorker, “Frances Ha” overlays that experience with memory, and the result is as romantic as a forgotten pop song that, years later, revives a place and a mood.

One pop song that the film uses repeatedly, and especially brilliantly, is Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’.  (When I sat down to write this blog, I thought of opening it with a couple of lines from Springsteen’s ‘Bobby Jean’: ‘Now we went walking in the rain talking about the pain that from the world we hid/Now there ain’t nobody nowhere nohow gonna ever understand me the way you did.)  Another source of the film’s music is Les 400 Coups (François Truffaut, 1959).  Even before part of that score kicks in, brilliantly, as Frances is running through New York in search of an ATM, I was thinking that the French New Wave felt like a truer tonal point of reference for the film than either Mumblecore or Woody Allen (comparisons have been drawn with Manhattan, a film I probably ought to revisit).  The New Wave in general, and Truffaut in particular.  There is a similar romance, nostalgia, eye for the poetic and/in the everyday, retrospect, combination of looseness and precision, at work.  (It would be interesting to sustainedly ‘compare and contrast’ Les 400 Coups and Frances Ha; two things that might be especially interesting to think through would be the mobility and the ages of each protagonist.)

Wittgenstein once said,

In teaching you philosophy I’m like a guide showing you how to find your way round London.  I have to take you through the city from north to south, from east to west, from Euston to the embankment and from Piccadilly to the Marble Arch.  After I have taken you many journeys through the city [sic], in all sorts of directions, we shall have passed through any given street a number of times – each time traversing the street as part of a different journey.  At the end of this you will know London; you will be able to find your way about like a born Londoner.

It’s a quote I never tire of returning to, and I sometimes put it before students as a way of thinking about approaching criticism.  You have to go on many ‘journeys’ through a film, and ideally not all of those journeys will be signposted by other people’s interpretations or by a given theoretical position.  The thing that strikes me about the quote as I write now is the act of embarking on journeys in company; the relationship between journeys and friendship.  The things that people do together are part of what friendship is, and memories of visiting a city will often be memories of doing certain things at certain times with certain people.  Likewise with films.  Of course, Frances Ha unfolded before me, in a ‘linear’ way, one might say, but my ways into, ways around, and subsequent journeys back through it are shaped by where I was in my life and who was with me (in person, or in memory) when I saw it.

One of the heartfelt aims of this book is to popularise the possibilities of film (of all moving sound-images) by reinventing the language of its description.  Too little is written about the power and impact of images – the writing on film that reaches the public is almost exclusively led by plot and acting and cultural references.  My argument is that reconceptualising film as thinking will hopefully allow a more poetic entry to the intelligence of film.  Filmosophy does not just offer a linking of thinking to film (not just an interest in making the comparison), but an analysis of film as its own kind of thought.

Daniel Frampton. Filmosophy: a manifesto for a radically new way of understanding cinema. Wallflower Press, 2006.