Thursday, March 23, 2017

FILM BUFFS FORECAST : a personal ramblection

Three things came true about Melbourne. It was cold. There were trams. People cared about the life they led and those around them. That last one was important. I'd come from the Brisbane of the SEQEB dispute (Google it) and whatever sense of city there had been was pressed into gutter mud. We lived in our houses in a place. Melbourne was a city and felt like a community: hangover-bloating barkers at the Vic Market, genuinely funny tram conductors, pubs that roared with the living, bafflingly tribal sport fandom, and radio stations that made you feel part of everything. That was immediately noticeable: the talk.

I sampled all of them, the community-based stations, because they all felt like open windows. There had been an exciting tension to 4ZZZ's hot politics and exploratory pursuit of the life in the shadows of culture but the Melbourne stations, unburdened of the near totalitarian conditions of the deep north, could talk about so much more and did. Support of the constantly spiky and compelling local music scene was unquestioned and expected but the hours of comics, zines, theatre, literature and contemporary life not so much. There was even sport! (In the Brisbane of the early '80s you could be alternative or care about sport: binary. So it was never on 4ZZZ and to this day I can't tell you a damned thing about football.) And then there was film.

I was a recently graduated BA in a degree heavy with movies. I was a snob about it but that was draining from me the more I saw of film outside of a range of directors (which included Jean Luc Godard and .... well, just him, really). I learned to recall how much I loved the cinema outside of its intense political uses. Melbourne had a lot of cinemas. The arthouses alone seemed to number as many as indy rock venues and were as crowded. In my first month I saw Ray Lawrence's Bliss at the then new (now vanished) Russell and Orson Welles's version of The Trial at the old Valhalla. I was a Welles fan and knew the Kafka film from a few stills and a chapter of commentary at uni and considered it effectively lost. With both old and new so accessible the city seemed genuinely fabulous, paradisical.

Saturdays began late as we were always hungover. We'd make it to the markets after eleven, come back laden with goodness and bash together a big fried breakfast with a lot of coffee and the papers. The radio went on and Film Buffs Forecast came out. At that time the team was John Flaus and Paul Harris and they did something I hadn't heard before on any media show about cinema: they talked. I mean they talked like they were in the kitchen with us. It might have been something contemporary like Kiss of the Spider Woman or vintage like Night and Fog but the talk was gapless, often so enthusiastic that it felt like eavesdropping on the awkward conflict that only happens between friends.

Their interviews were similarly conversational, a literal exchange of views, and could draw out any guest (except director Ian Pringle whose responses were as sparse as his films' dialogue and allowed me to notice him audibly lighting a cigarette with a match and who was described while still in the room as not so much an expressionist interviewee as an impressionistic one). The conversation went for two hours on a Saturday afternoon and I left it with my head buzzing with references and notes to myself. Bugger the forging of prose fiction that day. I'd usually just go for a walk around Royal Park and digest everything.

The other thing was film music. They played music from the movies they were talking about or others they just liked or were somehow related. Flaus and Harris talked about that, too. It was the era of arthouse soundtracks in the record collection. Everyone had a copy of something like the Betty Blue or Paris Texas discs which became the dinner music of the time as we eased into our twenties and started affording things like dinner parties. But to have it on the radio along with talk of the movies themselves was bliss. It formed a kind of 3D cube from the speakers, a construction that included interviews with the filmmakers but also composers, editors, writers, cinematographers, stunt people and so on which constructed the world behind the screen and the scaffolding around the ideas and the practice. And inside, where the pictures rolled past and the music played and the voices spoke was a house with many mansions. That seems a lot to give a couple of hours of chat and tunes but all that's missing from the description is the purpose of the exercise, the source point and continued pursuit of quality. It's not the entertainment value (the show is frequently hilarious with off the cuff quipping) and it isn't the vast command of subject that Paul Harris and his varying cast of co-hosts have provided over the decades. It's not even the unflagging cinephilia. It's something more essential. It's community.

Film Buffs Forecast appears to have had its future pulled. And recent conversations and exchanges on social media have spoken up about this and many of them are quick to point out that thirty-six years of the show constitutes an inviolable tradition. Well, I guess so but I know that it needs only one administrative new broom to remind us that all things come to an end. However unjust it might seem that person will always say that secure that they come off as boldly forward thinking. It's too vulnerable an appeal for me. You can never argue against change. You can, however, argue for something that survives change, slowing like Ol' Man River beneath and beside the most brutalising change. So, to buggery with tradition, I want want I had and should still be able to claim: give me my community. Commitment to community is the thing that makes my annual re-subscription a no brainer. Community is what makes listening to 3RRR so engaging, after all this time I still feel a sense of belonging to something outside of my life of work, social circles and leisure; outside but also within. It's permanent but portable ... well it was permanent. Things must change? Sure, but ditching Film Buffs for a music show is like buying out a Fitzroy bookshop to put another cafe on Brunswick St. Well, I still live in Fitzroy but I make my coffee at home these days.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Review: LOVING

When it was against the law a white man marries a black woman and they are banished by a court from their home in Virginia. It's 1958 and no one's been looking too hard at how creaky some of the antebellum legislation has grown. The civil rights movement is rising and the couple's case is on its way to Washington. Great courtroom drama stuff, this. Except that doesn't happen. This is a Jeff Nichols film.

Nichols has been earning his auteur stripes all decade long with his strange spare fables like Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter. He keeps things day-to-day but knows how intense that can be. And here, at the centre of what becomes a national case the voices in the courts might rage with oratory but on the ground it's bricks wrapped in magazine articles left on a driver's seat or faceless men in utes following closely on darkening country roads. The hatred is in the air, the light and the heatwaves on the bitumen, never quite breaking out of a constantly worrying smoulder.

Mostly, though, there is the life of a growing family. Kids are born, play and run in front of cars. Mum and dad go about their lives. The lawyers and the Life Magazine reporters come and go as we are reminded that these people are living with this outrage among the breakfast cereal mornings and sitcom nights in front of the tv. The space and light of a house has seldom been so palpable on screen as here. This can be measured and studious but it isn't boring for a second. And when he needs it Nichols can bring the action or the tension out without effort. The sense of deliberate helmsmanship is continuous.

And when it's time for the lawyers to front the court and make their epochal speeches it has a pageant quality, the bench of judges blurred as the educated heads appear in close focus. In turn they begin their cases but we hear little more than the very first statements. Spielberg or Stone would forge an extra hour of French polished set dressing and mighty declamation, a faltering line here or there to instil a little doubt at the outcome, perhaps, but moving toward a great motion in history. Here we get Richard Loving working on his car and Mildred doing the ironing. At what might have been a great echoing gavel of a climax in a more conventional film we get a smile, the kind of smile that would have happened anyway but now is eased with conclusion.

So, how do we put up with it, this courtroom epic that isn't? Casting, for starters. The central pair carry a load. Ruth Negger's Mildred runs on anger and intelligence but knows where she comes from and can falter in speaking her mind or asking the life-changing questions. Joel Edgerton is all containment. His near albino presentation and tightly controlled body language speak for most of his screen time which features so few lines you'd swear the ghost of Stanley Kubrick edited them. A grunt can go a long way in this role and frequently must. Together, the couple convince us of the threat of the world outside their door and the strengths that carry them through the hours. Also, Nichols' eye for landscape and space has not failed him. This is a stunning visual feast.

For a story that had broad brush politics written all over it, Nichols' refusal to submit to studio-style grandstanding is admirable. He gives us the life worth debating rather than the debate as he knows we can do that ourselves, and probably will, after the credits roll out. And one final point of achievement: this story that concerns southern U.S. country folk and the traditions of American oratory, there isn't a syllable of religious pleading in the entire running time. Nichols himself is from the South (his Mud was shot in his native Arkansas) and surely intended this to weigh with his American audiences. He continues to interest me.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Valhalla Regained #3: MAN FACING SOUTHEAST

An Argentinian film that kept popping up on the arthouse schedules and had a persistent word of mouth. I don't know why I didn't see it at the time as the premise sounded intriguing. Saw this with two friends on the Labour Day long weekend. An extra patient, Rantes, turns up in a psychiatric ward claiming that he is an alien studying Earthlings and their reported stupidity. Is he telling the truth or mentally impaired? A series of dialogues between him and his psychiatrist reveal little more than his conviction and, if anything, begin to influence the doctor rather than the reverse. A strong and complex piece that might not resolve neatly for the central characters but has more to say about the Earthlings themselves. The notion of perception and its effect looms large and I wonder if one of Rantes' powers is meant to be shared hallucination or literal reality. I'll happily watch this again to find out.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Valhalla Regained: A Project


Shadows as a film night swells up like a ghost limb on a Friday evening. It's always bad but if I find myself on Smith Street at that time it can weigh a ton. I'll still glance down Perry Street and I'll want to cross the road and get myself to the Campbell Street corner, swing in through the steel door, wave to Milos and set up the projector.

Nostalgia's best use is to fill gaps in the present. So, one day when I tried a search on the Valhalla catalogues that used to be a part of the decor in any inner city shared house I came up with nothing. Asking a cinephile friend was rewarded with a swag of them from the eighties and nineties. I got them home and wrote down the title of everything I'd missed at the time and then worked out how to source it. Lack addressed. Well, a start.

It's not just the old days and ways but the sense of getting in front of the unknown again. We who went to them trusted the arthouses to give us the hidden and the outcast as well as the non-anglophone. They confronted us with Irreversible, terrified us with Ringu and delighted us with ? (and that's just the 2000s). And in between those titles were the ones I couldn't make. Time poverty, poverty from part-time hours, whatever it was I missed them. This is their story and the tale of the thrill of gem hunting. These home screenings will not always be crowd pleasers and I won't be responsible. I'll know only enough about the choices to make me want to see them (really just the premise) so I won't be able to vouch for them.

The first two were:

The Official Story:
Argentina's dirty war has been swept away and school teacher ? enjoys an easy privileged life with her businessman husband and adorable adopted daughter. But history keeps coming at her from the unruly classes of the creative literature teacher before her and the dissent the boys are learning to the increasingly forgetful circle of middle class friends she can scarcely tolerate. And the trail leads all the way back home as her investigations into atrocities suffered by a close friend intrigue her.  A slow burn depending on solid performance and an unfliching eye on the issues.

I only vaguely recall seeing this in the calendar in the mid-eighties but, given the subject matter, I wonder that I didn't get to it at the time. We were sobered by it, even after the champagne and heavy home made pizzas of dinner


Walker:
William Walker, a mercenary employed by uber-capitalist Cornelius Vanderbilt to stabilise central America becomes his conquered territory's dictator and eventual enemy of his boss. Alex Cox's far superior follow up to the execrable Sid and Nancy finds him in fine form, giving us all the cheek of Repo Man but none of the reverence of the biopic. Using anachronism with increasing force to reduce the gap between U.S. incursions south of the border and allowing a dynamic central performance by the still little-known Ed Harris Cox creates a solid fable with a lean eye on the stylising.

I did want to get to this one and was even dating a woman who lived around the corner from the Valhalla when it moved to Northcote. We planned to go but household politics at her place demanded support from me. It got intense. Thinking of it, even though the issue was resolved in time neither of us would have taken to the quirks of the movie. Though ever on the left my politics had started to lighten. I don't think hers ever did.

Good start. Where next?

Friday, March 3, 2017

Review: BEFORE I FALL

The only thing I knew about this film before I bought a ticket is that I was outside its demographic. That became the exercise. Was I growed up enough to give a YA story a fair hearing?  The cinema was sparsely attended (noon on a weekday) but I outranked the twenty or so twenty somethings and felt their judgement of me as some old X-er double dipping in the teen film timeline. "Hey old man, get back to your Blu-Ray of Heathers and leave us alone," each imagined neuron seemed to be hissing. And as the cloying scenes of teenage girls joking like teenage girls in the car to school progressed to a diabetic intensity I felt something very like shame at being here and being too old. But then something happened: the movie got good.

Sam, a beautiful and popular girl, is one of high school's one percent. She wakes on Cupid's Day with a tight fitting arrogance that softens only in the company of her fellow alpha chicks whose spiky banter in the car is expert status maintenance. At school the celebration gently disrupts the classes as Heidi-like flower girls breeze in to deliver roses to the admired. Just when you think you're in for a cloying ninety minutes of life lessons from a teenager the class lesbian says: "I'm in hetero-normative hell!" Then, at lunch the quartet of friends get their Heathers on, barbing each other but uniting in their hatred of the school leper. What felt a little too shiny before starts souring. At the party crowning the day of tributary narcissism the leper is ostracised with barely restrained violence. Party over, the girls drunkenly drive home and die in a head-on. Sam wakes in her bed. It's Cupid's Day. Again.

The prologue has warned us about this. And then the class we see is a lesson on Sisyphus who was condemned by the gods to a torture of constant futility. The sharper girl in the quartet mentions a documentary about the butterfly effect. So, Mean Girls meets Groundhog Day? That's what I thought. But that's wiped off the table quickly as the first repeated day is distinctly different from the previous but for some significant events which repeat like Sisyphus' tasks. The ostracism, for example, remains in every repeated day.

High school movies are about growing up through breaking the forbidding social order of adolescence and triumphing in an act of public self actualisation. No straying from that here (well not much) but what is refreshingly absent is a try at black comedy. Sam's predicament is bewildering and frightening and takes this film away from the gleeful satire of Heathers or the darker reaches of Ginger Snaps and brings it closer to recent teen horrors like Unfriended or It Follows. The insistence on the ostracism with its increasingly dire consequences gives Sam need to break the cycle an edge.

Speaking of edge Zoey Deutch brings a lot to Sam. Some close ups are so intense you can hear the synapses arcing. A lot is asked of her in the role including an impressive reversal of the makeover scene which takes her from a fragile teen Rose Byrne to a snarling older-than-her-years Natalie Portman. The worldliness implied by the superficial change just gets her into worse trouble as well as the more generically correct morsels of maturity. The mostly unknown young cast do very well here. One montage scene of the girls spending the party night at a sleepover with its joyful physicality (sometimes seen through glass doors as from a stalker/slasher's perspective) both advances the tale and delights with its celebration.

Groundhog Day is not the only time loop film but it's the highest profiled example and fulfils the brief by describing an arc of redemption through a compelled self-awareness. That, at heart, is what Before I Fall is also all about. Sam's growing sense of her place and its responsibilities is pretty much it without a lot of collateral. But then the need to keep the playing table uncluttered for a ninety-nine minute running time must have pressed. But it works. Add a strong electronic score supplemented by some solid indie pop and hip hop and a little subversion of both through some pretty deft audio looping (in a pivotal scene) and you have something well above another Heathers rehash.

If you see this film, and I'd recommend it, one thing to ponder is what it would be like without the narration. This is not obtrusive for most of it but does bear down in the bookending sequences where the moral of the story gets the billboard font treatment. I'm exaggerating a little but only a little. I wonder if this is a legacy of the source novel being so beloved by its readership and a perceived need to serve that. I also think of the Tin Drum (my vote for the finest literalist film adaptation of a novel ever) and how some very judicious use of Gunther Grass's powerful prose enhanced rather than laboured what you saw. A revision like the one that happened to Blade Runner might reveal a darker and stronger film. But would it still be a teen film?

Friday, February 17, 2017

Review: MOONLIGHT

Juan, the amiable neighbourhood meth merchant befriends a small boy who clearly lives in fear of the local bullies. Juan recognises something kindred in the boy, Chiron, who takes a long time to speak so much as his name to Juan and his wife and then it's to explain that most people, meaning the bullies, call him Little. Juan persists with his gentle mentoring of the boy, teaching him to swim and telling the story of how once in the moonlight he was given a nickname which he then rejects, preferring to define himself. Chiron understands but we know how difficult it will be for him to dream of such independence. It's not just the bullies. His mother is one of Juan's customers and her violent mood swings push the boy further away from a life that does not welcome him.

Adolescence is no kinder to Chiron. The bullies are worse and his mother's addiction runs hotter and colder. His emerging sexuality confuses him into shame and anger, especially that it seems to match the hateful labelling by the bullies. One act of the closest thing he has known to love is followed by a brutal betrayal. His equally brutal response forms his most decisive act of identity yet and leads him into an adulthood of one ineluctable course. Or does it? Is there some way out?

This story of self affirmation is given a muscular treatment by Barry Jenkins on his second feature film. The play with focus and motion at its best (Jenkins can use both excessively) establish solid location and motivation. A 360 pan following the bully in chief as he circles Chiron in the quad, bashing into other people who give way to his violence as though he were a rabid dog creates a freezing dread. The conclusion of the scene with its brutality is almost a relief. The consequent scene that travels from a moment of self-realisation in a mirror to a hardened metaphor of breaking barriers and ends in a retributive act feels finished but, thankfully not satisfying. The violence that repays violence is not celebrated the way it would be in a Stephen King story. The sense that it is the next step of a process is too strong for this to be a gratifying conclusion. That's the thing about this film that pushes it ahead of any comparable outing about forging identity and battling injustice: the absence of sentimentality in a genre characteristically turgid with it keeps things focused and intense but also, strangely, light.

There is a strong choreography of character in Moonlight that also sets it apart. The establishment of space, of characters in their landscape and between each other and what that means for the strength of their identity never lets up. A strong cast (some familiar faces but many unknowns) deliver fine goods. Dialogue is lean and the action is intense, allowing moments of beauty to elevate under their own power and very little assistance from the score or burdensome writing. This is a lean masterpiece and a masterpiece of leanness. In recognition, this review will close here.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Review: JACKIE

Fade in. The exquisite beauty of Natalie Portman's face fills the screen as she walks. The scenery around her is a blur. You know this film is about Jackie and you chose it because of that. But if you were expecting an inspiring celebration of strength in a darkest hour you are already being told that that is not going to happen on this screen. The music is played by a string section but the chord bends, everything at once, violins to basses in a descending portamento. Then does it again with the next chord, delivering a sense of vertigo. Pretty movie star vs the kind of groaning strings of post war doomers like Penderecki. Dig it, you feel worried from the first minute.

This is not a conventional biopic. There's a familiar framing device of the titluar character relating the story to a listener but even there the resemblance is distorted. At its worst this can be a clunking parasite sticking out from the rest of the body but behaving as though it's a part of it. Even the great Amadeus which used a fanciful Salieri to tell a crazy tale of Mozart brought the comfortable story to the table. Jackie stops that in its tracks early when the journalist who is to hear the story is told that his subject must be allowed to edit it so that it tells the story she prefers. That is what this intense film is all about. Jackie doesn't start and end a heroine through adversity, she takes the savaging of her beautiful life from politics and violence to Camelot.

Meantime we follow as she descends the steps of Airforce One, her dress spattered with her husband's blood, as she asks the driver of the limo bearing his coffin if he knows about some of the lesser lights on the Presidential timleline, as she asks about the calibre of the bullet that killed JFK, as she numbly fends off the ascendant Lyndon Johnson from invading her house, as she deals with the complexity of her relationship with Bobbie Kennedy, and so on. The choreography, differing aspect ratios, alternate filmstock choices (public events have an uncomfortable Zapruder vintage Super-8 look) parade before us to the point of fatigue.

You would be forgiven if you started finding this film plotless and little more than a series of living tableaux as Jackie gets her story straight but, as we swerve back into a scene from the time she is relating to the reporter and are again immersed in the last days of her life as the president's wife we notice, more and more, in the bustling activity around her that we are getting a lot of National Geographic quality close-ups. While in a more conventional film, close-ups are used to such a familiar effect that we are discouraged from noticing them as we are to the editing. In Jackie we are compelled by them. They are glamour shots with dried blood and brain matter, with distress smouldering through the eyes. The glamour, though is as important as the rage and grief behind the persona for it is the glamour that will be needed for the screaming widow behind it to survive this cataclysm. Thus we don't get to enjoy the Oliver Stone style of cynicism warmed with idealism (or naivete) but the stress that forged the legend, the disease that made the cure look so beautiful.

Natalie Portman, on screen for almost the entire running time conveys this complexity with unfailing skill. From rage to confusion to numb flotation she runs the gamut but more impressively conveys the maelstrom beneath the poise. Did you ever wonder why John Hurt was nominated for the Elephant Man when he spent all of it under city blocks of latex? Watch it again. This is a performance to recall that one. John Hurt is in the film (his last role?) as a priest who, while attentive to her, seems gently impatient with her. And as we approach the photogenic moments of the presidential funeral with ceremonies that are more like performance art than ritual (yes, what's the difference? but there are moments that reminded me of Matthew Barney), Jackie's quest to find herself and her family in history draws close, too. And we arrive, without cheaply bought cynicism or hagiography, to the painful extent that a place in history requires. I stood and left during the credits, while it was still dark, just to keep face.