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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