Cinema

“Night Comes On” dir. Jordana Spiro (2018; French title “Long Way Home,” 2019)

Some time ago I read a review of a film, the title escapes me now though I remember it well, which referred to the cliché of mould-encrusted bathrooms, seen in panning shots of the dirty tiles, to represent poverty. Not having money, or the time and skills to fix/remove the mould on the tiles, is represented as base, disgusting. The critic mentioned this as being a particular feature of films where poverty is “feminised.”

Aramide A Tinubu, in her Shadow and Act review on Night Comes On (or Long Way Home, to use its French title) refers to the importance of this film about two sisters and their grief for the murdered mother being written and directed by women:

“The importance of a female director and writing team in this coming-of-age film can’t be overstated here. Fishback’s body was never once put on display gratuitously and moments in Angel’s life, one marred with sexual assault and coercion aren’t used as plot points in the script. Still, it was the moments between the sisters, both the snippy banter and the softer connections where Spiro makes her mark as a director. It seems unimaginable that a male writer or director would able be to capture a 10-year-old girl’s horror at her first period and her big sister's detached but comforting reaction.”

Coming home last night after seeing the film that shared the Prix de Jury prize at the Deauville Festival of American Cinema, a festival set up in 1975, I thought the same thing. I recognised my gratitude for the fact that one particular sequence – when Angel goes to get a gun – avoided spelling out a stereotypical representation of a woman in a state of duress, where her desperation leads to humiliation and abuse. The writer/director team seemed to be aware of this, moreover, drawing attention to what was expected, for it to be interrupted. When Angel does finally get the gun from the dealer, we are shown her walking away from the car, afterwards. Nothing is shown.

Most of all, I was moved by Dominique Fishback’s performance as Angel. Subtle expressions on her face carried this film, the performance by the non-professional actor playing younger sister, Abby (Tatum Marilyn Hall) is wonderful too, but Fishback’s characterisation has such depth, it reminded me of some of the great performances from Italian neorealist cinema, where the central female character tries to gain self-worth in an environment that if not explicitly out to undermine her remains indifferent.

I also truly loved the brief moments of connection between the sisters – see the moment when they touch hands in the above trailer at just before one minute; or when Abby sleeps against Angel on the bus (echoing earlier scenes where Angel sleeps alongside her mother, or dreams that she is). Spiro’s skill lies in the way this scene is deeply moving (even though nothing happens) and the fact that it is given more time than the next, which while a key moment in the narrative is undeveloped. This felt authentic and real.

The film is not flawless, some of it felt a bit too “neat” – perhaps even formulaic, made-for-TV in parts – but its simplicity and the performances of the two leads, more than makes up for any of its weaknesses.

Apparently, the English-language title comes from a Leonard Cohen song of the same title from 1984:

I went down to the place where I knew she lay waiting
Under the marble and the snow I said,
Mother I’m frightened, the thunder and the lightning
I’ll never come through this alone
She said, I’ll be with you, my shawl wrapped around you
My hand on your head when you go
And the night came on, it was very calm
I wanted the night to go on and on
But she said, go back, go back to the world

Here is an interesting MovieMaker interview from August 2018 where the director Jordana Spiro describes the writing process with Angelica Nwandu:

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Walk me through the long writing process, which I understand had many changes, from the original spark to deciding you needed a co-writer and beyond. 

Jordana Spiro (JS): The initial spark started over 10 years ago. I wanted to make a movie about a young woman who is typically cast aside and get inside of her journey and explore the beauty and also the darkness that comes with what’s going on with her.

I asked the executive director of Peace4Kids if he might recommend somebody to work with me. He heard the story I was developing, which has since taken a very different shape, and he recommended Angelica Nwandu. At the time, Angelica was writing very beautiful, visceral poetry about her experiences in the system. We met and found a real complicity in the way we wanted to express ourselves, what we wanted to say. With her on board, the script became a living, breathing thing.

MM: What did Angelica bring into the writing process with you?

JS: Initially, I didn’t know what I was looking for. Was I looking for a co-writer, or was I looking for a kind of consultant to educate me? But it became very clear, as we started working together, that I wanted to ask her to be my partner in writing. We are both drawn towards a kind of lyrical and poetic sensibility, which allowed us to bounce ideas off each other. You’ve got an idea that you can only see a part of, but when you bounce it off of another person, the idea evolves and grows into something else. We had a similar appreciation for the poetry that you find in the details. It was a rich partnership.

And an interview with the director and the film’s lead actors linked to the success at Deauville …

To read my writing on films (Barry Jenkins, Chantal Akerman and others) please go to the “cinema” tag.

In praise of: ‘Manifesto,’ dir. Julian Rosefeldt, starring Cate Blanchett (2017)

‘Nothing is original (okay?)’/‘So you can steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration and fuels your imagination (okay)?’

Cate Blanchett, ‘Cinema’ Manifesto, playing the part of an Australian primary school teacher

'Manifesto  is a 2015 Australian-German multi-screen film installation written, produced and directed by Julian Rosefeldt. It features Cate Blanchett in 13 different roles performing various manifestos. The film was shot over 12 days in December 2014 in locations in and around Berlin. The film premiered and screened at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image from December 9, 2015 to March 14, 2016. The installation was also shown in Berlin at the Museum für Gegenwart (at Hamburger Bahnhof), from February 10 to July 10, 2016, and the Park Avenue Armory in New York City from December 7, 2016, to January 8, 2017.

A 90-minute feature version premièred at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017

The film integrates various types of artist manifestos from different time periods with contemporary scenarios. Manifestos are depicted by 13 different characters, among them a school teacher, factory worker, choreographer, punk, newsreader, scientist, puppeteer, widow, and a homeless man. The film consists of 13 segments, each 10:30 minutes long.' 

Six people in the cinema, including me, it’s around lunch-time at the Cinéma des Cinéastes (Place de Clichy is just outside, the location written about by Henry Miller in books I thought about re-writing, or at least parts of them, from the point of view of the absent women). All very appropriate when watching Cate Blanchett feminise, embody, the great texts I studied as a much younger woman at high school and university. 

Listening to her intone the pop-sensibility of Claes Oldenburg as if it were a prayer, when saying grace to her own family (eyes closed, to their sudden laughter at one point) or declare the Dada manifesto at a funeral, spitting out the words with spite, at times. Here is an extract from one of the many manifestos written by Tristan Tzara, this is from 1918.

Every product of disgust capable of becoming a negation of the family is Dada; a protest with the fists of its whole being engaged in destructive action: Dada; knowledge of all the means rejected up until now by the shamefaced sex of comfortable compromise and good manners:

DADA; abolition of logic, which is the dance of those impotent to create:

DADA; of every social hierarchy and equation set up for the sake of values by our valets:

DADA: every object, all objects, sentiments, obscurities, apparitions and the precise clash of parallel lines are weapons for the fight:

DADA; abolition of memory: Dada; abolition of archaeology: DADA; abolition of prophets: DADA; abolition of the future:

DADA; absolute and unquestionable faith in every god that is the immediate product of spontaneity:

DADA; elegant and unprejudiced leap from a harmony to the other sphere; trajectory of a word tossed like a screeching phonograph record; to respect all individuals in their folly of the moment: whether it be serious, fearful, timid, ardent, vigorous, determined, enthusiastic; to divest one’s church of eve ry useless cumbersome accessory; to spit out disagreeable or amorous ideas like a luminous waterfall, or coddle them—with the extreme satisfaction that it doesn’t matter in the least - with the same intensity in the thicket of core’s soul pure of insects for blood well-born, and gilded with bodies of archangels. Freedom:

DADA DADA DADA, a roaring of tense colors, and interlacing of opposites and of all contradictions, grotesques, inconsistencies …

Originally created as an art installation with all the texts being heard at the same time, here they are transformed into ‘readings’ - as in readings for an audition, we are always aware that they are being performed because of Blanchett’s technique (see, for instance, that striking scene where she is a ‘tattooed punk’ inhaling smoke on the word ‘incandescence’ as if mocking the pretentious nature of the word and language itself. When checking this scene after writing that sentence, I realised this is my imagination, the inhalation of smoke follows the words, it does not frame them).  

I like the way the characters are named, this in itself is poetic: 'Burning flame; homeless man; broker; worker in an incineration plant; CEO at a private party; tattooed punk, scientist; funeral speaker; puppeteer; conservative mother with family; choreographer; newsreader and reporter; teacher.'

Watching this film with its emphasis on foregrounds and still scenes (or aerial shots in the dramatic opening sequence) makes you think more about how cinema is something that is constructed. With this in mind the sequence with the mother leaving her sleeping child is particularly touching (and honest, I was grateful that there was no last-minute close-up of the mother embracing her child).

Outside as the dishevelled woman goes to her motorbike in an environment that echoes her face, etched with neglect, the scene reminded me of the great artist Chantal Akerman’s portraits of women and women’s lives. (Minutes earlier the character has the most remarkable language, poetry and politics fill her mind, as she wearily gets ready to go to work). 

Here are links to all the texts and the scenes and this music makes up the soundtrack:

"The French Connection: Alchemist goes to Gaul": an essay on Alchemist's 'French Blend', parts 1 & 2

First published at Passion of the Weiss, 22nd January 2018

One of the most striking aspects of Alchemist’s French Blend, parts 1 & 2, the albums riffing on a Francophone theme that he released at the end of 2017 is the way the Los Angeles producer gets something essential about French/Parisian culture.

Outsiders looking in on France, especially those who have gleaned their knowledge of the country from B&W ‘60s movies, imagine the French capital to be a place where cafés are filled with intellectual types speaking about semiotics while smoking cigarettes: it is. (Remember books by Marx and Hegel are sold at news kiosks in Paris and 11-year-old children memorize Molière in junior high).

Yet, as fans of Nouvelle Vague auteurs, such as Jean-Luc Godard know well - see, for example his 1967 film Weekend that combines social satire and nonsense   (or the famous party scene in Pierrot Le Fou from 1965 that has the characters deadpanning advertising slogans, philosophy and politics). French art and culture tends to spin fixed dichotomies, enjoying the displacement; it can be restrained/elegant/austere, but also silly, its greatest masterpieces whether in literature, music or cinema focus on the power and the passion, while delighting in detail, even if slight and trivial.

Stretching back to the depths of the French chanson tradition, the country’s most important and self-revelatory form of popular culture, say into the ‘60s/’70s you find something similar going on. With Charles Aznavour’s pained nostalgia for love lost on one hand and Nino Ferrer maniacally looking for his dog on the other. The signature style of the country’s most famous singer/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, moreover, is defined by his manipulation of apparent contradictions, with many of his songs from the same period embodying a spirit of play (‘Couleur Café’) and desire marked by ambivalence, which manifests as self-disgust or cruelty and contempt (‘Manon’). 

Alchemist’s cover art for the French Blend series is the first sign that the Gangrene producer/MC might be seeking to mix things up. French Blend part one has an image of a smiling man who looks like the French singer Claude François in bright yellow/orange; the second has abstract shapes, in an almost Escher formation. On closer inspection you can see chopped up images of a bed, a mixing desk and Sylvester the cat.

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In praise of: The Florida Project (dir. Sean Baker)

Some time back a friend asked me to name a favourite recent film from the U.S., the title escaped me (Tangerine) but I remembered how it looked (bathed in warm yellows and oranges, Los Angeles sunshine) and some scenes with the two women in a laundromat and at Donut Time. I really loved that film on pretty much every level: its emotional pitch and humanity, the performances, the humour, its aesthetic.

Two nights ago, I watched the follow-up from director Sean Baker, The Florida Project with another friend here in Paris. This friend couldn’t be more different to me in terms of background, but we were both touched by this film. As we walked to the métro in the cold, we spoke of its elisions (why didn’t the second female character report Halley for beating her so brutally, was it her last, parting gesture of kindness knowing that her former friend was going to lose her daughter, had she been beaten so often before that it no longer shocked her, she saw no point in seeking out justice and restitution for her suffering?)

When I came home I read more about the film and discovered some fine pieces of criticism: the first, by Anne Helen Petersen published (surprisingly) in Buzzfeed in November. This part struck me as I too could feel the influence of European film-making, in particular the loose crowd scenes at the hotel, the way the camera was positioned then and the preference for keeping it low-key and allusive, elusive.        

The fact that Baker couldn’t afford to fly in actors meant that most of the cast was sourced locally, as Petersen writes: ‘The characters feel deeply Floridian: They know the cadences of speech, but also the particular gait required in Florida heat; they have the listlessness down, the early crinkles around the eyes from squinting too much into the sun.’

Decisions like these link Baker with the neorealist filmmakers of the mid-20th century. Starting in Italy with De Sica, Antonioni, and Fellini, before spreading all over Europe, those directors paired bare-bones production style (shooting on location, with non-actors, with small budgets) with a focus on the everyday realities of post–World War II working-class life.

These films — Bicycle Thieves, most famously, but also the work of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach in Britain, both of whom Baker lists as major influences — ran counter to the narrative logic of Hollywood. Their actors weren’t polished; their plots didn’t follow the three-act structure. But along with films coming out of France, Japan, Russia, and elsewhere, they provided an alternative to the standards of storytelling that had been cauterized by Hollywood. As Baker made his way through the art-film canon in the ’90s, he consumed and internalized all of it: the meandering narrative, the scenes that seem to lead nowhere but linger in unaccountable beauty. He’s famous among his friends, he told me, for always preferring a 10-minute tracking shot in which nothing happens over even a moment of exposition.

I also liked this piece by David Sims from The Atlantic that focuses in on the scene where the Willem Dafoe character, Bobby, shoos away some birds.   

Sims writes:

'This has been Bobby’s role for the whole movie: He’s a protector. He’s kind and dad-jokey, softly spoken but authoritative as he takes care of a place that looks hellish at first glance. Bobby, though, is uninterested in accolades and is largely on the receiving end of verbal abuse from customers like Halley. In depicting Moonee and Halley’s life on the margins, Baker could have dialed up the gritty depravity just to drive home the film’s larger societal message. But The Florida Project is all the more powerful for portraying tenderness and optimism where one might not have expected it.

Bobby isn’t a hero. He’s just a person trying to make the lives of others a little easier, whether it’s Moonee and Halley (whom he indulges despite her increasingly difficult behavior) or the passing ibises, who serve as a reminder of the weird magical fantasyland that Florida still is. In the end, Bobby’s help only means so much—the end of the film sees him trying, and failing, to comfort Moonee as case workers from the Department of Children and Families attempt to take her away. It’s his effort that’s moving, not the result. The world Baker is showing viewers is mostly miserable, which makes the moments of compassion matter that much more.

Right after Bobby’s confrontation with the birds, the film cuts to Moonee and Halley sneaking into a fancier hotel and treating themselves to a big buffet breakfast, pretending to be guests to get a free meal. Moonee’s face fills the frame as she names all the foods she’s eating and narrates her delight as Halley looks on smiling. It’s an act of kindness from a mother who, in many ways, has failed her child. She might be scamming the hotel, but Baker still doesn’t want to overlook the goodness that drove her actions. That’s why The Florida Project is so transcendent, and one of the very best films of the year, despite its bleak subject matter: It’s a movie that can find something bright in the darkest corners, and can locate deep humanity even in a jokey, throwaway conversation with a flock of birds.'

Interview with Baker and PBS/Newshour report on the film: 

In praise of: Félicité, dir Alain Gomis (2017)

(Oh, how I adored this film): the winner of the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at this year's Berlin Film Festival, directed by Alain Gomis - who is of mixed French-Senegalese heritage - offering up an expression of the cinema of the unheard that is full of beauty and mystery (I especially appreciated those scenes that represented 'the night') alongside a moving evocation of love; a mother's love and a love between two people, coming together despite or because of their imperfections. And the way it was filmed, all those close-ups that encouraged us to experience, alongside the characters, something of their daily fight to live a life of dignity, amid such cruelty - wonderful performances too and music, of course.      

See the press conference below from the festival where Gomis speaks of the orchestra as 'the ancient heart' (and later 'the beating heart') of the film and how this music symbolises the possibility of reconciliation.     

In praise of: Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)

Walking through the métro, the word came to my mind and repeated itself, as if insisting to be known until I recognised it: tenderness. That now celebrated scene where the man cradles the boy - a black American Pietà – against the nineteenth century inkiness of the Atlantic Ocean.

In this scene where the man and child are one: ‘I hated my mother, too’ (and the camera shoots from below, as if we are there, with them, watching from a close distance).

And then the tiny child, tenderly, carefully carrying an over-sized pot full of boiling water, which rumbles acoustically into the bath, surrounded by cracked tiles. His arms are so thin, as if he were the vulnerable child, forever outside your protection (the child that haunts my nightmares, any mother’s nightmares). The child you cannot keep safe.

Or the back of the battered teenage boy’s neck as he submerges himself in the water to stem the bleeding. Blood stuck with white paper from injuries inflicted by another who had expressed love for him the night before (quietly, shyly without words in front of the ocean).

To speak about this film, there are choices.

Like so many others, I was deeply affected by Barry Jenkins’ film, Moonlight.

At times, it was as if something turned inside me. In those moments, I couldn’t help but bring the story back to me and my life. That child could be my son, hiding out there (in the darkened room). Even though they share nothing at all, other than their age.

The teenager, awkwardly carrying his books close to his chest in a pathetic protective gesture, reminded me of someone I used to know (who, though many years older, could be his brother). Even though they share nothing at all, other than a fleeting expression on their faces. 

Often the most affecting scenes in Moonlight were left under-developed. Take, for example, the moment when Little dances at an after-school class. The camera is positioned so we can only see glimpses of his happiness, the bodies of other children obscuring the child’s movements.

In the hands of a lesser artist, this moment could have been ‘transformative’ – the moment when Little finally realises what it is to be free. Instead, here, we can barely see the dancing child, hidden by the moving bodies of anonymous others. 

The portrayal of Chiron’s mother (played by Naomie Harris) is another source of interest for me. Another more literal director would have dutifully provided the back-story, listed the various traumas that led her to neglect her son and become an addict, Jenkins refuses to do this. And this refusal makes this film political, while also making it true.  

Jenkins understands the power of bringing attention back to the filming process itself and this was why I wasn’t surprised to read that his favourite film director is Claire Denis – the great artist of contemporary French cinema who infuses her films with an intense corporeality (and sensuality) making the creation of cinema seem to be ‘physical work’ – never natural …

At the beginning, when Little is trying to escape his persecutors the camera moves raggedly behind him, hand-held as if forcing us to feel something of the terror of the little boy, so desperate to escape. (But as we are behind him, we are unable to see his face).

Arguments could be made about the politics behind this; the way women (and perhaps film directors who don’t fit the typical mould) understand that the act of seeing, and being seen, is never neutral. It is embodied, it is enacted. Arguments could be made.

Jenkins’ other cited reference is the Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai.

Knowing this, that final scene between the adult men, after a long separation, takes on nuances carried in memories from other cinematic love stories set in Hong Kong, in Buenos Aires ... The debt lies not just in Jenkins’ act of homage to the Wong Kar-wai aesthetic, but also his awareness of how powerful unspoken emotion can be (as the essence of a romantic sensibility as portrayed in art).   

Remember that lingering shot on Kevin’s face in the diner where the colour of the wall echoes the colour of the man’s skin and the way the camera just rests there for longer than expected, gently. The expression of Kevin’s face is full of emotion, but we are aware that he is being seen.

Or the fact that it was a sugary song from a jukebox that was put forward as the reason for the late-night phone call that forced Black to wake.     

Time of the season

Without wanting to be too kooky or fried bananas, I watched a film before (okay, I'll admit it, it was the most recent Will Smith star-vehicle - we all need to switch off sometimes, can't be too serious every single minute; let's hope that this performance wins him his Oscar, I understood those scenes when he was riding his bike, it reminded me of a classic song by Fugazi), anyway, this film had a character with my name in it, the 'hippest child' character has my son's name (with some spelling modifications for both) and a link to my late mother ...

The film's message was strong and honest: how can we make sense of life after the event, in the debris of grief that remains with us, those who are still alive. Sometimes it can feel like this trace-memory is too difficult to bear, as we seek out repetition in our desire to make sense of that electrical current that burns inside. And yet this knowledge also offers us the potential to feel, along with others, and this can give us power. Not always, but it can sometimes.

Before the film, sitting outside near Les Halles in today's brilliant sunshine, I was listening to the radio and this came on, surely the most (fill in adjective) 60s pop-song 'of all time' ... How sublimely perfect is this?

On every level: the exhale that becomes part of the beat, echoed in this more recent song ... the backing-vocals and the lyrics that remain mysterious and gently humorous, the drumming itself and that keyboard solo towards the end: it's sweetness on a stick. When I heard this song, I did a little dance in my plastic seat and felt something close to true happiness. 

Coda: When reading about Stevie Wonder over the weekend, I came across this comment in a review about 'I love every little thing about you' (also from Music of my mind) that I couldn't include in the piece, but it fits here perhaps;

The song ‘uses Stevie as an “instrument” as well as a voice: he amplifies his breath being exhaled through the teeth as well as open-mouthed — a beautiful, subtle sound I associate with Brazilian music and marvelously effective here ...

Interesting this idea of using the body as an instrument, I think.

Poverty & politics

Often it works out this way for me, for a period of time all the references point in one direction and in this sense for a period of days I found myself thinking about poverty and politics in the broadest sense, or how the poor are represented and represent themselves.

First, the recent Palme d'Or winner at Cannes, the film by the British director, Ken Loach ... I, Daniel Blake.

Scenes in this film made me cry, those relating to the single mother (feeding herself desperately from a tin at the Food Bank, shoving the food in her mouth; or when her daughter crawled into her bed at night and spoke of her shame).

While certain plot developments in the film were far from subtle, and heroics in films like this never appeal to me there is no question that Loach has created a film of great heart and humanity. As always, it's difficult to know how such a film might affect the current UK politic, which seems obsessive in its desire to punish those considered to be unworthy, but the existence of such films is important to me.

Around the same time, I was reading Jon Ronson's funny and clever The Psychopath Test, subtitle A Journey through the Madness industry (2001) which included a very moving description of those left behind in the United States post-industrial South: Ronson is taken around the ruins of a town that no longer exists (all the factories were closed by Albert J Dunlap, when he was CEO of Sunbeam Corp, the man who was nicknamed 'Chainsaw Al' for his mass dismissal of employees that pleased the stock markets no end). 

Many of the same people are most probably now voting Trump in 2016, buoyed by a feeling of being heard after decades of economic and social neglect. Whatever we might think of Trump's political movement, we can't deny the fact that those who support him feel acknowledged within his political platform, and this represents a kind of revolution in politics, seen not only in the US but also in Europe with the ascent of far-right populist movements and Asian demagogues, such as Duterte in the Philippines.

Much has been written on this, too often after the event (where middle-class correspondents from big cities are sent to these disadvantaged areas as if they are astronauts visiting the moon), but I found this article interesting: 'How economic inequality found a political voice' by Michael Spence, published in MarketWatch that details the link between social media and these political movements. 

On a slightly different tangent, I recommend this documentary - Poverty, Inc - (2014) that explores how the dominant charity model in international development/aid exploits those in the Global South, leading, for example, to the dumping of unwanted goods that ends up destroying local industry, or more generally how the system serves the interests of the givers (global corporations and international aid agencies) rather than the receivers.

Poverty, Inc. challenged and educated me, and I hope will lead me to becoming more active in campaigns to disrupt this situation in the future, in particular with relation to certain countries in West Africa (Mali, Ivory Coast) - and might offer some sort of path.