Philosophical Screens: Professione: Reporter/The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy/Spain/France, 1975)

This is a written version of sorts of the analysis that I gave on 17 January 2019 after a screening of The Passenger, a film featuring as part of the British Film Institute‘s Michelangelo Antonioni season, and which analysis was part of their ongoing Philosophical Screens series.

The discussion involved contributions from John Ó Maoilearca from Kingston University, and Lucy Bolton from Queen Mary, University of London, as well as from many audience members.

I shall try to stick only to what I said, even if this means foregoing some of the wonderful comments and ideas expressed by those other participants, including a brief if fruitful discussion of the relationship between the philosopher John Locke and the film’s lead character, David Locke (Jack Nicholson).

For, if the former represents something like a dualistic world view, then the latter comes to represent something of a progression away from that, not least as Locke leaves behind his identity as Locke and assumes the identity of David Robertson.

For, The Passenger tells the story of a journalist, Locke, who encounters Robertson (Chuck Mulvehill) at a tiny hotel in a small town in an anonymous African country, where they get drunk – in spite of the doctor’s advice for the latter not to.

After a relatively fruitless day of looking for rebels whom he can include in his documentary, and after getting his Land Rover stuck in the desert, Locke returns home to find Robertson dead – apparently from a heart attack.

Seizing his opportunity (not least because he looks a bit like Robertson and the locals will not be able to tell them apart), Locke assumes Robertson’s identity and says that it is Locke who has died.

Former colleague Knight (Ian Hendry) and estranged wife Rachel (Jenny Runacre) mourn Locke back in London, where the latter goes to pick up some stuff from his home and to check out Robertson’s world.

Indeed, before going to his Notting Hill home, Locke visits the Brunswick Centre, where he passes a girl (Maria Schneider) whom he will again encounter in Barcelona.

But Locke will not get to Barcelona before using Robertson’s ticket to head to Munich, where he discovers that Robertson was/is an arms dealer, and who was/is involved in supplying arms to the rebels in the nameless African country where the opening sequences of The Passenger took place (and which generally are thought to be based on Chad, about which more later).

As implied above, this is the first of several scheduled encounters between Robertson and the rebels, who are led by a man called Achebe (Ambroise Bia). However, after Achebe is abducted by presidential agents in Barcelona, that meeting does not take place.

Nor do the subsequent meetings that Robertson was supposed to have – at least according to the schedule in Robertson’s diary – in a (fictional) place called San Ferdinando and then at the Hotel de la Gloria in Osuna.

For, and here are some SPOILERS, after discovering that Robertson was with Locke the night before the latter supposedly died, Knight and Rachel both decide to try to track Robertson down.

As a result, when Knight nearly discovers in Barcelona that Robertson is in fact Locke, Locke has to go on the run – and where better to go than to the meetings that Robertson had scheduled, not least because they have led to him receiving a substantial sum of money from the African rebels?

What is more, Locke does this with the girl from the Brunswick Centre, who by seeming coincidence also happens to be in Barcelona when he is – supposedly looking at architecture as part of her studies.

Indeed, it is at what appears to be Antoni Gaudí’s Palau Guëll that Locke encounters the girl for the first time in Barcelona, before then catching up with her again at La Pedrera after spotting Knight on the Ramblas near his hotel.

Locke has chased the girl down to ask her to get his stuff from the hotel. This she does, and after the girl has evaded Knight, the pair travel on south towards Osuna via San Ferdinando.

Hearing that Robertson is being evasive, a curious Rachel also goes to Spain – but not after visiting the embassy of the African country in which Locke and Robertson were both working.

Knowing that Robertson is a gun runner for the rebels, the ambassador has his men follow Rachel, which ultimately results in the government forces finding Locke at the Hotel de la Gloria, where they assassinate him before Rachel can arrive with the local police.

Faced with Locke’s body, Rachel says that she does not know this man, while the girl identifies him as Robertson – and the film closes.

But beyond this synopsis of the film, what is also crucial is the film’s style, which I hope to explore in more detail in what follows – not least by picking up on numerous details that Antonioni features in his mise-en-scène.

My basic suggestion is that – however problematically – Locke has a primordial encounter in Africa, and this means that he can no longer remain who he was, in particular a dispassionate image-maker and reporter who is not directly with, but who rather observes the world. As Knight says of him in a televised discussion of Locke’s work: he had ‘a kind of detachment.’

The reason why this encounter is problematic is because it runs the risk of mythologising Africa, a mythologisation that might be as much my invention as I read it as being Antonioni’s.

That said, I hope that the evidence I present will suggest that this is at least as much Antonioni’s as it is my invention, while at the same time not necessarily being wholly unjust from a political perspective.

Twice in the film, Locke is asked whether he finds the landscape beautiful – once towards the start of the movie when Robertson asks him about the desert landscape by the small-town hotel, and once towards the end of the movie when Locke’s hire car has broken down and he looks at the desert landscape with the girl.

Notably, Locke’s answer changes in the interim between these two questions. For, the first time that he is asked, Locke shows little interest, suggesting that he prefers men to landscapes, to which Robertson replies: ‘There are men who live in the desert.’

The second time, meanwhile, the girl asks Locke whether he finds the landscape beautiful, to which Locke responds: ‘Yes, it’s very beautiful.’

In other words, Locke’s attitude towards the landscape has changed. What has happened?

Well, for one thing, anyone who has lived in, or even visited, a desert knows that sand gets everywhere (indeed, as I suggested at the BFI, Locke’s stuff is remarkably clean when it is returned to Rachel by the ambassador).

That is, the sand of the desert demonstrates that humans are incapable of controlling the space in which they live. For, try as they might to keep things like sand and dirt out, it always creeps in.

Now, architecture plays a prominent part in The Passenger, as the prominence of spaces like the Brunswick Centre and the Gaudí buildings makes clear.

Architecture is thus in some senses an attempt by humans to control space – to create a space that is free from the ravages of the desert, and of nature more generally.

Certainly, the London architecture of the Brunswick Centre would suggest this… while in Africa and in Spain, The Passenger is full of what I would call ‘porous’ architecture.

I call it porous architecture because repeatedly we see open windows and doors, and/or we see through open windows and doors, which themselves suggest not a shutting off of the outside, but a continuity between inside and outside (or, thinking of the reference to the philosopher Locke above, not a duality but a singularity of space).

Furthermore, in Africa in particular we see people wander into and out of frame from strange angles – appearing where we thought there might previously be nothing, as if the frame of the film is itself porous, and open to unexpected intrusions. Such unexpected intrusions might be called chaos.

And chaos can interrupt anywhere: for example, a pink rose extends largely into frame as Locke stands outside his own London home – as if nature cannot help but extend into the supposedly controlled world of men.

Furthermore, when Locke discover Robertson’s body, the fans in the room causes his hair to move, just as the towels that hang from pegs on the wall also twitch under the power of the breeze.

This is a universe of constant movement – one that is beyond our control as even humans move about after death.

And yet, men try to control the world – as can be seen by the inclusion in one shot of a speed limit sign in the desert. What is the point of a speed limit sign in a place where there are no roads? The asphalt may not have been laid down yet, but in order to stop the desert constantly from shifting shape and eluding control, the speed limit sign suggests that it will be coming.

It seems that Locke has, or at one point certainly had, a propensity for chaos, or for breaking down barriers and losing control, as is suggested during a flashback when we see him burning tree branches in his Notting Hill garden, an action that prompts Rachel to call him crazy – a moment to which I shall also return.

But somewhere along the line, Locke also lost this propensity for chaos – with Rachel subsequently suggesting to Knight that ‘David really wasn’t so different’ to other people, and that ‘he accepted too much’ – in particular referring to an interview with the African president, in which Locke did not challenge him about his policies, especially his treatment of the rebels.

Indeed, while an adventurer of sorts Locke seems to have become a human who has bought into the world of control – and yet who may still come back to accepting and understanding the world of chaos.

(This transition from control to chaos is the Jack Nicholson persona par excellence, from Easy Rider, Dennis Hopper, USA, 1969, to Five Easy Pieces, Bob Rafelson, USA, 1970, to Chinatown, Roman Polanski, USA, 1974, to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Milos Forman, USA, 1975, to The Shining, Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA, 1980, to Batman, Tim Burton, USA/UK, 1989, to A Few Good Men, Rob Reiner, USA, 1992, to As Good as It Gets, James L Brooks, USA, 1997, to About Schmidt, Alexander Payne, USA, 2002.)

As the Land Rover gets stuck in the desert, Locke starts to whack it with a shovel, breaking down in tears as he can no longer cross space in the way that he wants to.

In other words, he has lost control – and this infuriates him. Locke cannot cope with entropy; he cannot, if you will, cope with the idea of his own death. To quote another famous Achebe, he hates it when and cannot stand the fact that things fall apart.

And yet, Locke changes, or at the very least reconnects with his propensity for chaos, and after finding Robertson he decides to embrace chaos and to become someone else.

For, even to have a name (David Locke) is in some senses to seek to control one’s identity, and/or to be controlled. By becoming someone else, Locke enters into a world of becoming rather than a world of being, a world that goes with the flow, allows things to fall apart, is okay with entropy, allows in a little death (perhaps this is even an orgasmic existence, as petite mort, or little death, comes to mean orgasm in French).

But it is not just finding Robertson’s body that produces this change.

There are two sequences interpolated into The Passenger that bear discussion. The first is an interview that Locke shot with a man referred to typically as the Witch Doctor (played by an uncredited James Campbell).

Since the Witch Doctor has been educated in France and Yugoslavia, Locke is surprised that he has not abandoned his superstitious beliefs and instead adopted a more ‘western’ or ‘rational’ perspective on the world: ‘Has that changed your attitude toward certain tribal customs? Don’t they strike you as false now and wrong, perhaps, for the tribe?’

The response: ‘Mr. Locke, there are perfectly satisfactory answers to all your questions. But I don’t think you understand how little you can learn from them. Your questions are much more revealing about yourself than my answer would be about me.’

That is, Locke here demonstrates that he projects on to the world a western perspective that is closed-minded, much as westerns try to close the outside world off from their architecture, and much as many filmmakers try to close their frame off from any unexpected intrusions.

Notably, though, the Witch Doctor soon takes the camera from Locke and starts to film him.

In other words, there is a transition from Locke as ‘detached’ (as per Knight’s reckoning) to Locke as implicated – not someone beyond the frame, but someone as part of the frame.

What is more, at a later point in time we see footage, supposedly real, of a man being shot by a firing squad.

Knight, who is looking at this footage, responds in a blasé fashion – as if he had seen such images a hundred times before, while Rachel is appalled.

This suggests – perhaps again problematically – that a ‘female’ perspective is more implicated than a ‘male’ perspective, even if the latter is the one that is associated with image production and power, as per Knight’s job as a television producer.

But more than this, one can imagine that Locke, who recorded this footage, was himself so shocked by it that it ended his ability to be detached.

For, in presenting to us footage that supposedly is real – rather than being staged for the film – Antonioni provides us with an encounter with something real, much as Locke, too, encountered real death.

There are a couple of issues to pick apart here. For, we are still seeing a recording of death and not death itself when we watch The Passenger, and within the fiction of The Passenger, we are led to assume that Locke still recorded this moment in addition simply to observing it.

To say that the moment involves an encounter with what psychoanalysts might refer to as the Real, then, is problematic; the real life taken here is still reduced to an image.

And yet the documentary nature of this footage does in some senses mean that the fiction of The Passenger comes face-to-face with reality.

But is this not still then to render aesthetic something that is supposed to elude the aesthetic and to be instead real – a real encounter that leads Locke to give up on a life of detachment and to embrace chaos, such that ultimately he embraces death?

So the question now becomes: can film picture the real, or will it always only render or reduce the real to an image?

Perhaps film cannot, but the documentary image at least points to the real – to a beyond the frame that is in accord with Antonioni’s desire for his frame also to be ‘open’ to outside encounters via his filmmaking style as discussed above and as I shall explore in more detail below.

In this way, we might charge Antonioni with being unethical by interpolating into The Passenger a seeming snuff movie the provenance of which remains unknown, its participants anonymous?

For, by not telling us where this sequence comes from, Antonioni runs the risk of simply saying something problematic like ‘violence like this happens in Africa’ – a generalised Africa that is essentially violent and not riddled with violence as a result of specific histories and concrete circumstances?

And yet one might also contend that Antonioni, knowing that this footage exists, cannot not show it, since that might be more ‘unethical’ yet (to know that such things happen and not to acknowledge as much).

More than this, to ‘reduce’ issues such as African contemporaneity (corruption, postcolonialism, violence) to specific concrete histories would potentially be to make them manageable. Indeed, they might as a result lose their power as the Real – because like Locke himself, it would give an anthropocentric identity to a reality that has no name and is entirely chaotic.

And even if Antonioni cannot name or explain the footage, since it is, like reality itself, inexplicable (to explain it would be to conquer it, to control the uncontrollable), there are nonetheless hints as to the political reality to which Antonioni alludes.

For, we see that Robertson is reading, for example, a book about or by Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese independence leader, while the film was shot in a Chad undergoing political turmoil in the mid-1970s as well.

What is more, the film takes us beyond Africa when we read in Robertson’s diary that he has a meeting with ‘Daisy’ (presumed by Locke to be a codename for Achebe or other rebels/guerrillas) at the Hotel de la Gloria in Osuna on 11 September 1973.

This is of course the date on which General Augusto Pinochet bombed La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago, in the process killing president Salvador Allende.

In other words, The Passenger potentially links to not just an African but to a global repression of independence movements that are not in thrall to the colonial powers from which they were trying to liberate themselves.

Indeed, Locke/Robertson dies on this day, with The Passenger thus potentially suggesting on the one level a pessimism with regard to liberation movements, while at the same time Locke learns to embrace chaos and to let himself die.

Is there any other way out of this labyrinth? Or are humans condemned to fail in their bid to work with rather than against chaos, in that this always leads to death – perhaps especially at the hands of those who seek only to control?

Perhaps this is Locke’s tragedy. He can escape Locke; but he is still restrained by/as Robertson. Or, as Locke himself puts it, ‘it stays so difficult to get away from your own habits.’ And: ‘I’ve run out of everything. My wife. The house. An adopted child. A successful job. Everything except a few bad habits I couldn’t get rid of.’

Those habits might include the need for an identity, even if not ‘his own.’ This is his tragedy, perhaps the tragedy of western man… but perhaps western man must understand that a future is coming in which he does not play the starring role – even if Antonioni cannot make that film since that is not who he is. He, also, is the dying western man and not the (post)human of the future.

Perhaps the best that such a man can hope for is an angel who turns up in the form of Maria Schneider (who may well be Daisy?), who will guide him towards death.

Or perhaps the best that humanity can hope for is that they will be replaced by a new intelligence, one that may indeed be a human who is a bit more like cinema.

This is a curious assertion, so let me work it through. By this, I do not mean cinema as it most commonly manifests itself, with its strict demarcations between characters and actions, but a cinema that is itself far more like, or in tune with, or even a manifestation of the chaotic flow of the universe.

Instead, this is a cinema that refuses to recognise boundaries and which does not necessarily prioritise human action over anything else, instead locating the human as simply another part of space and time.

In Barcelona, we see Locke walk past a cinema called Cine Eden as he flees from Knight. Cinema might indeed present to us a new Eden. And we can see how this is so in Antonioni’s film in various ways.

Gaudí’s curving, chaotic and African-inspired architecture seems to announce Locke’s transition, a shift away from the rigid and into the flow, much as the journey south that is the film’s road trip also signals a motion towards a different reality beyond the hard lines of the global north.

The camera drifts away from Locke and focuses on a fan. It wanders up some electric wires and looks at some insects. Some cars drive past Locke and the girl, and the camera pans right, then left, and then right again – dancing with the passing cars rather than focusing on the film’s protagonists.

Famously, the camera pans around Locke’s hotel room and suddenly we see Robertson alive again, talking to Locke at an earlier point in time, even though there has not been a cut.

So not only do we see insects, cars and other machines take on a life of their own, as even the hair on a dead body can dance in Antonioni’s film, but time itself dances around, with the past co-existing alongside the present, and perhaps with an imagined future if in fact Locke is the one who died, but it takes him until 11 September 1973 and with the help of angel to realise as much.

Maria Schneider may (problematically) herself come also to signify such a cinema. She can turn up in Barcelona having been in London – as if by magic. She can anticipate Locke’s arrival at the Hotel de la Gloria by signing in ahead of him as Mrs Robertson. She can be a Daisy, a flow-er that many disregard as a weed, a force for chaotic revolution, as Věra Chytilová knew.

Indeed, as is made clear in Torremolinos 73 (Pablo Berger, Spain/Denmark, 2003), Spaniards would flee the repressive, controlling regime of Francisco Franco and head to France in order to see Schneider in Ultimo tango a Parigi/Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, France/Spain, 1972), surely a problematic film, but one that nonetheless signalled a desire to flow with cinematic desire rather than repress it.

As mentioned, Rachel calls Locke crazy for starting a fire in his Notting Hill garden. What is also worth pointing out here is that this is not Locke’s memory, as per the earlier sequence shots that see involving Robertson, but Rachel’s memory.

That is, the film has transitioned without signalling it from Locke’s memory to Rachel’s, out of his brain/mind and into hers as if cinema knew no identity, no boundaries, but is only a force for chaotic flow and becoming.

And then of course we have the film’s famous final shot, a seven-minute sequence in which we see Locke lying on his bed before we see various cars arrive through the open window beyond.

The camera tracks slowly, slowly forward before then passing through the grille that otherwise blocks the window, circling around the dusty yard outside.

Locke is killed – notably offscreen – during this sequence, before the camera slowly, slowly returns to show us, now through the grille, Rachel, the girl, the hotel owner and some police officers standing over Locke’s body.

In other words, the camera – and by extension cinema – can pass through borders. It is a porous medium that embraces chaos and which flows; it is a flow-er, which takes us out of this world and into Eden, or a world without, beyond, and after humanity.

(At a push, I might provocatively add that the recent documentary, Nae pasarán, Felipe Bustos Sierra, UK, 2018, which tells the story of Scottish Rolls Royce workers who refused to do repairs on the engines of Pinochet’s Hawker Harrier jets in 1970s, also suggests that humans are at their best when they, too, defy borders and control. That is, cinema and socialism alike point to the flowers that humans can become, and as which we might bloom.)

It is perhaps only a series of chaotic coincidences that sets in motion the plot of The Passenger: Robertson dies in Locke’s hotel, the girl is in London and Barcelona, Rachel leads the government agents to Locke.

‘You work with words, images, fragile things,’ says Robertson to Locke back in the hotel. Images are fragile things, and they are not the concrete things that Robertson claims ‘people understand’ (and what he sells).

The world of hardness and borders is a world of war. Perhaps cinema is a world of love, even if it is a world of death,  a world of loving death, which loving is to deprive death of its fear-inducing power.

Westerners may condescendingly characterise Africa as being a continent stuck in the past. But Antonioni’s film perhaps also shows us that, in knowing that all things fall apart, it inevitably is also an image of our future. Cinema may show us images of the past (by definition, since what we see when we watch a film must be something that has already happened). But in what lies beyond the human, and what lies beyond the frame, perhaps this is where we find once again a future without humans, our future, cinema itself. Death itself. Flowering.

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Posted in European cinema, Film education, Film reviews, French Cinema, Italian Cinema, Philosophical Screens, Spanish film, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

La villa/The House by the Sea (Robert Guédiguian, France, 2017)

I have enjoyed the films of Robert Guédiguian for 20+ years now, with Marius et Jeanette (France, 1997) being at the time of its release a singularly pedestrian pleasure – not pedestrian in the sense of inferior, but in the sense of how Guédiguian seems to make gentle films that progress pleasantly at their own pace, as the French title to The Last Mitterand/Le promeneur du Champ de Mars (France, 2005) would suggest (since it literally means ‘The Walker of the Champ de Mars,’ the latter being a park near the Eiffel Tower in Paris).

It is not that I have seen all of Guédiguian’s films, a good number of which do not get released in the UK, and the back catalogue of which stretches much further than Marius et Jeanette, as La villa itself testifies – since in a wonderful ‘flashback’ moment, the film features footage of three of its leads (Ariane Ascaride, Jean-Pierre Darroussin and Gérard Meylan) in his earlier Ki Lo Sa? (France, 1986).

As such, I am not a Guédiguian ‘expert’ (I have seen six or seven of his 21 films, with my brain not being certain as to whether I have seen Au fil d’Ariane/Ariane’s Thread, France, 2014).

But it does seem clear that Guédiguian almost always makes films about socialists living in and around his native Marseilles, and almost always featuring the same ensemble of actors, with La villa being no different, as the footage from Ki Lo Sa? also testifies, in that 31 years later, here are Ascaride, Darroussin and Meylan in another film set in exactly the same location, namely the Calanque de Méjean, a small inlet that lies across the bay from Marseilles.

La villa is not a sequel to that film (which at this point in time I have not seen, but which naturally I am curious to), with the three actors playing different characters. Nonetheless, La villa is about the passage of time between those eras, and in particular how the world has changed – and left more or less destitute small communities like Méjean, with its tiny restaurant, the Mange-Tout, being not just a business run by Armand (Meylan) in the film, but also a genuine restaurant to be found in that location.

The film tells the story of three siblings: Armand, Joseph (Darroussin) and Angèle (Ascaride) who return to Méjean following news that their father, Maurice Barberini (Fred Ulysse), has had a stroke. Leftist intellectual Joseph comes with his much-younger fiancée, Bérangère (Anaïs Demoustier), while Angèle is a successful stage and television actress who remains the crush of much-younger local fisherman Benjamin (Robinson Stévenin), who when a youngster saw her on stage in a version of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan and never forgot her.

Armand, meanwhile, has remained all of his life in Méjean, running the Mange-Tout with his father and living opposite Maurice’s old friends, Martin (Jacques Boudet) and his wife Suzanne (Geneviève Mnich), whose son Yvan (Yann Trégouët) is a successful doctor about to move to London to open a new lab.

***Semi-spoilers***

What ensues are in some senses the usual confrontations with the past that are to be expected from the family return film. Angèle is mad at her father for allowing her daughter Blanche (Esther Seignon) to drown while in his charge, while Joseph realises that he is losing Bérangère to Yvan – much as Angèle must struggle with being the fantasy of Benjamin.

Armand must work with the idea that Méjean has increasingly empty houses, inhabited only on occasion by rich holidaymakers and not by permanent residents who live and make a community there. Indeed, Martin and Suzanne are being priced out of Méjean by landlords that will make far more money from schemes like AirBnB (not named in the film) than they will from permanent and long-standing tenants.

The film repeatedly shows the viaduct over the calanque, and which carries the Transport express régional (TER) trains that bypass Méjean, taking commuters and tourists instead to other coastal resorts in and around Marseilles.

In other words, while very beautiful, Méjean has kind of been left behind by progress – at least for the time being. For, we see tourist prospectors visiting the small harbour in a motorboat as the film progresses, while Bérangère, who seems to work in PR, also can see great things happening in the village.

Such get-rich schemes, however, run counter to the ethos of Armand, Joseph and also their father, who set up the Mange-Tout in order to offer cheap but good food to honest, working French people – and not exclusive restaurants and resorts for only the rich.

Indeed, Martin discusses at length how the Barberini family home, the villa from which the film takes its title, was built collectively by the whole village, including its impressive balcony that overlooks the bay and on to which Armand and Joseph daily move their father so that he can observe its happenings in his quasi-catatonic, post-stroke state.

In this way, the film offers up the usual pedestrian Guédiguian fare, as we see the characters walk around the bay and up in the surrounding hills, leading an ‘honest’ and socialist life in the face of the trains, cars, motorbikes and other modes of transport that we see people use to get in and out of the village, or simply to pass it by.

However, where the film gets particularly interesting for me is a sequence in which Angèle dips her foot into a rockpool, holding it there deliberately so as eventually to lure out…

… an octopus, which clings to Angèle’s leg and which later the family will eat at a dinner between the three siblings, Bérangère and Benjamin.

Now, I have written recently in my blog concerning Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, Mexico/USA, 2018) about how David H Fleming and I are writing a book about cephalopods and cinema (cephalopods being octopuses, squids, cuttlefish and nautiluses).

We have provisionally called our book Kinoteuthis Infernalis: The Emergence of Chthulumedia. ‘Kinoteuthis infernalis’ means ‘squid cinema from hell,’ not least because we are looking at films, often horror and science fiction movies, that feature cephalopods and/or other tentacular aliens/monsters that come to destroy (human life on) Earth – or at least this is what the protagonists of the films suspect.

‘Chthulumedia,’ meanwhile, means media in/as the chthulucene, an era that Donna J Haraway theorises as replacing the anthropocene. If the anthropocene is the era in which humans have basically altered their planet such that they have brought about mass extinction and the creation of conditions that might well see humanity’s own demise, then the chthulucene is a ‘posthuman’ era in which humans may not necessarily go extinct, but in which certainly we shrink in population, learn to live more harmoniously with our planet, or perhaps go extinct and/or evolve into (or with) new/other life forms.

Cephalopods and the chthulucene are connected because HP Lovecraft famously called his world-ending monster Cthulhu, with that creature being tentacular and octopus-like. And so while Haraway does not much like Lovecraft, the connection between cephalopods and the similarly-named chthulucene remains.

More than this, though, is the fact that cephalopods are often considered to be ‘intelligent aliens,’ a lifeform so different from humans and yet with which we share our planet, that it challenges our anthropocentric belief that we are the be-all-and-end-all of intelligent life (although if we do consider ourselves the only really existing lifeforms [we are all that be], then we probably will bring about the destruction of the planet [we will end all]).

Furthermore, the cephalopod is a key metaphor for the tentacular reach of capitalism in the era of digital technology and globalisation. Much like the octopus, which does not so much have separate organs as have its whole body perform all possible functions at once (apart from ingest and egest), everything in the contemporary era is connected.

In other words, our globalised planet sees techno capital itself emerge as a kind of intelligent alien (the birth, if you will, of the singularity/artificial, digital intelligence) that may well replace humans, or at least play a part in our evolution, while perhaps also literally signalling the destruction, or at least a resetting of the planet, as the oceans quite literally rise (as Cthulhu rises from the ocean) to drown humans and to replace us with other lifeforms.

Perhaps the main issue raised by the chthulucene, then, is whether we as humans are willing to let ourselves go – be that by evolving into new lifeforms or by simply allowing ourselves to die – or whether we will take our whole planet with us as we seek not to die but to live forever.

In this way, cinema in the chthulucene is often about children and childbirth, as I have mentioned in several other blogs (including the one on Roma), since it is about whether we want to have offspring, which by definition are different from us, or whether we want ourselves to remain as we are forever.

With this brief description of the theories that David and I try to develop in mind, hopefully it is clear how La villa might similarly be reflecting on such themes as capitalist development, globalisation and childbirth – even if it is nothing like a big budget spectacle along the lines of Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, USA, 2016), about which David and I have written already, and which functions as a film also about tentacles, aliens and childbirth.

But where are the aliens in La villa, you might be thinking?

Well, crucially, La villa also has as one of its central premises the intrusion into the Barberini’s restaurant of some soldiers who are on the lookout for illegal immigrants whom they suspect as having arrived on the shores of France after discovering a wrecked boat in the vicinity of Méjean.

Joseph in particular is frosty towards the soldiers, and before long he and Armand discover three Arab children (played by Haylana Bechir, Ayoub Ouaed and Giani Roux) hiding up in the hills around the village.

They take in the three children, crucially clothing them in garments still in the Barberinis’ possession following the death of Blanche.

In other words, and as is fitting for a socialist like Guédiguian, the trio are invested in welcoming aliens, or what Haraway would call ‘making kin’ with others. Indeed, the Barberinis treat these aliens as they would any human, i.e. as they would treat themselves, which in turn leads us to understand how all-too-often humans treat each other not as kin, but as precisely aliens, monsters, or lifeforms about which we do not have to care or for whom we do not have to take care.

Guédiguian’s film is in some ways straightforward: Angèle becomes a kind of angel who will help these children, while the father figure (Maurice/God) can only look on silently and without intervening as his children learn to live according to his socialist principles.

In other ways, the film is complex, in that the lead soldier is played by Diouc Koma, an actor born in Mali and whose character Joseph berates for not appreciating the work that he did as an old socialist – presumably in helping to push the postcolonial message and to establish the equality of French citizens from its former colonies (an ongoing problem in French politics and daily life).

That said, the soldier does seem to express some shame at the treatment of refugees, especially children, once they have been found – telling Armand over a coffee that they are either sent home or put into orphanages, a fate that in either case is sub-optimal at best. That is, while he has a job to do, his politics may not align wholly with the results that his job achieves.

It is not simply a case of ‘oh, there’s an octopus in this film and therefore it must be about globalisation, the death of the local, the arrival of aliens, the future of humanity, childbirth, the relationship between the land and the sea, and learning perhaps to accept death’ – even though this is true of La villa, especially as Martin and Suzanne end up committing joint suicide for reasons that I shall discuss below.

Rather, the octopus arrives precisely at a time when Angèle and her brothers ruminate on their father’s legacy, with the soldiers first arriving at their house during the octopus meal, during which we also hear Benjamin sing Angèle’s praises for her performance in the Brecht play, and explain how theatre allowed him to understand that the world need not be only as it is, but that new worlds can be created.

In other words, the octopus appears at the moment when the characters express an openness towards a new world – that of making kin with aliens and the way in which theatre (and by extension cinema and art more generally) is itself a kind of alien that expands our horizons and perhaps even helps us to evolve… which stands in distinct contrast to those who would try to keep our world as it is by reaffirming borders and not letting aliens enter to change it.

Even though Benjamin has lived all of his life in Méjean, and even though he fishes and fixes nets for what must be a pretty meagre living (even if he is in harmony with the sea?), he nonetheless is open to change.

This is perhaps why he desires Angèle, who is much older than he is. For, at least as far as Guédiguian might push it, this desire for the older woman is ‘queer’ enough for La villa to suggest that making kin is also to love against the grain – to love what the law forbids, if the law also is about maintaining fixed and strict boundaries.

Joseph’s love for Bérangère would express something different, but as he learns that he must return to writing in order to create another world with ink, so must he let go of Bérangère and allow her to go with Yvan, who himself will meet her in London (i.e. on alien terrain).

Notably, Yvan rides a fast motorcycle that Bérangère takes for a spin early on in the film – during an initial dinner in which it is clearly signalled that the two younger adults have an attraction for each other. Bérangère, meanwhile, is often making work calls on Skype or equivalent on her laptop. That is, both Bérangère and Yvan are equated with new technology.

But Guédiguian does not dismiss these ‘millennial’ behaviours outright – much as the suicide of Martin and Suzanne is not necessarily a case of ‘learning to die,’ not least because part of what spurs them on is their impending homelessness and their refusal to let Yvan take care of them financially (although mainly this would seem to be because they want him to lead his own life, and do not want to live forever, even if in some senses they are also destroyed by a cruel and relentless capitalist system).*

Change is coming and as a new world emerges, an older one dies. Guédiguian’s use of footage from Ki Lo Sa? suggests his personal nostalgia for that older world, even as he hopes that many of its (romanticised) principles will remain in the new one (evolution is not complete abandonment, after all).

That new world may be heartless and cruel in its bid for money and the separation of the luxury-filled rich from the poor, who are excluded increasingly from those luxurious places (Méjean as increasingly a holiday resort and not a local community, whose beauty becomes privatised, implicitly by the cost of access if not explicitly by putting up a wall around it, as opposed to being a commons that is open to all).

However, that new world could also be generous and kind towards aliens, and open to those who come to our shores seeking help as a result of war and trouble in their own land.

By remembering the better lessons that the older generation can teach us, we may yet be able to cultivate the latter, even as new technologies that promise connection in some ways also hasten division.

As Maurice’s children and the refugee children shout their names under the viaduct and create echoes, La villa shows us the father sat watching the harbour, and turning his head towards the sound as the camera pans up to the sky.

To be childlike and to find wonder in echoes, subverting the viaduct by enjoying its sounds rather than it being simply a tool for loudly carrying the moneyed over Méjean, bypassing it for the sake of speed and convenience. Perhaps this is how to create a commons, even if under threat as capital comes to fill in the gaps that this calanque at present remains. And perhaps that lesson will echo for a long time to come, being a sound that we can all hear and from which we can all learn.**

* A plot hole that is never explored is the consequence of Martin and Suzanne’s suicide. Assuming an autopsy, it would be clear that they die from an overdose. It would then not be too much of a step to work out where they got their drugs from, that being Yvan, their doctor son. Even if inadvertently, one wonders, then, that Yvan might be struck off and/or have his career destroyed for assisting in the death of his parents (although I am not sure how this would work under French law).

** I am still troubled by the way in which the protagonists of the film eat the octopus. That is, they lure the alien in only to kill and to consume it, even as the film wants to be about welcoming aliens (the children are not similarly consumed, e.g. by selling them into slavery). The octopus totally fits the film and turns it into an example of what David and I call ‘chthulucinema.’ But at the same time, the film’s carnivorousness does mitigate somewhat some of the kin-making that I have tried to suggest above and which the film otherwise embraces – including at least land-based animals as Armand sets up a post that delivers grain and water for rabbits and birds to consume, and at which he finds the eldest refugee, as if refugees were indeed not human but animals – at least in the eyes of the law. Notably, Armand is also invested in protecting the environment from fire, giving to the film a sense of ecological care, too (even if Armand achieves this by creating pathways that divide the land).

 

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Happy New Year, Colin Burstead (Ben Wheatley, UK, 2018)

In 2018, I published an essay called ‘From Down Terrace to High-Rise: The “Unreal Estate” Cinema of Ben Wheatley’ in James Harvey’s edited collection, Nationalism in Contemporary Western European Cinema.

What is more, I am due to give a talk about this essay at the British Film Institute on Monday 14 January (if you are reading this ahead of the event, then tickets are available here!).

However, given that Ben Wheatley’s new film is currently available on the BBC iPlayer (and until 28 January 2019), I wonder that I might talk about that film – not least because it chimes with much of what I have to say about Wheatley’s cinema.

And so this blog can in some senses function as a written version of that talk, in which I shall suggest (or will have suggested) that Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is not so much a step backwards for Wheatley (who ‘returns’ to the UK after Free Fire, UK, 2016, which although British-backed was set in Boston and featured a host of international stars, including Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Brie Larsen and Cillian Murphy), but rather something of a summation of his work to date.

For, as I suggest in my essay, Wheatley’s films return relatively obsessively to the concept of real estate and the home – as things that in principle should be markers of a stable territory, and thus points of certitude, but which in Wheatley’s anarchic cinema are often revealed to be unstable and thus in some senses unreal.

More than this, Wheatley is basically sensitive to how claims to own land are claims to shape reality; that is, the ‘real’ of real estate is a term used to convince people that the ownership of land and property is legitimate – even if historically the ownership of all land is based on exploitation and theft.

For, no one actually owns any land at all – unless you can convince people that this otherwise free Earth that we can cross in any direction we please is in fact divided up into territories that you may or may not be able to enter, depending on whether you have the right kind of pass or credentials.

If you do believe that these bounded territories are real, then ‘real estate’ has done its ideological trick, since it has not only made you believe, but it also has made you modify your behaviour and actions based upon this belief. That is, estates are made real because you have swallowed and embodied the notion of ownership.

This is not necessarily for the bad. For, in believing in the ownership of space, you may then also make a home – and believe that this space is yours and yours alone (every Englishman’s home is his castle)… and be happy with that space, even as others grab vast terrains of land and claim it as their own, and only lease to you your land for 99 years.

However, given that Wheatley’s cinema repeatedly sees people violate private spaces and begin to see that estate is in fact unreal, this also means beginning to see that the world is carved up by powerful agents who need you to believe in their legitimacy – otherwise they will no longer have any claim to exploit that land, together with your brain and body as you allow them to do so because you accept that the estate is real and walk around it or do not enter it because it is theirs and not yours, even though the land belongs to no one, as mentioned.

Working through Down Terrace (UK, 2009), Kill List (UK, 2011), Sightseers (UK, 2012), A Field in England (UK, 2013) and High-Rise (UK/Belgium/Ireland, 2015), I suggest that Wheatley’s cinema is somehow meaningful in the era of Brexit and Grenfell Tower, given that Brexit has for many British people a core sense of reclaiming land for themselves from Europe, with the Grenfell disaster seeing many people homeless even though numerous apartments and houses lie empty in the very same area of London (North Kensington) – owned, but not occupied, and not occupy-able because owned.

In other words, Wheatley’s cinema has something to teach us at a time when we seemingly continue to believe and thus to accept as real claims to national territory and private property. As per the title of James Harvey’s edited collection, this then means that Wheatley does chart the ongoing notion of nationalism within the contemporary UK.

Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is about property and homes – especially as they relate to family. The very first image that we see is of a house, out of which Colin (Neil Maskell) then appears with a cup of tea and a Vape (we see him exhale smoke in slow motion).

Colin has arranged a New Year’s Eve party for his family at Penn Castle on the Isle of Portland in Dorset, the choice of which location I shall explore more in detail below.

Travelling mainly down from Brighton or thereabouts, Colin is joined by his wife, Val (Sura Dohnke), and their daughter Fran (Nicole Nettleingham), as well as his parents, Sandy (Doon  Mackichan) and Gordon (Bill Paterson), and his sister Gini (Hayley Squires) and her partner Warren (Mark Monero).

Also present are Sandy’s friends, Maya (Sudha Bhuchar) and Nikhil (Vincent Ebrahim), together with their ne’er-do-well son, Sham (Asim Chaudhry), Jimmy (Peter Ferdinando) and Ed (Joe Cole), who seem to be cousins of some sort, and cross-dressing Uncle Bertie (Charles Dance).

Finally, the group is rounded off by Paula (Sarah Baxendale), who is the ex-wife of David (Sam Riley), Colin’s estranged brother and the black sheep of the family, who turns up at Gini’s request with his German girlfriend Hannah (Alexandra Maria Lara).

What is more, the castle is run by Lord Richard (Richard Glover) and one of Colin’s exes, Lainey (Sinead Matthews), who also has had a relationship with Sham, who basically crashes the party in a bid to get back together with her.

***Spoilers***

As hopefully is clear, then, the scene is set for a total clusterfuck of a party as Gordon tries unsuccessfully to tap Colin for some money to save him from losing his house, and as Val finds out about Colin’s past with Lainey.

What is more, Bertie is dying, Sham has lost his job, Gini and Warren bicker about the latter’s inability to do anything, and David has slept with at least three people at the party, including Paula (with whom he has a child), Hannah, and, a late revelation to the audience, Val.

Colin has, nonetheless, managed to steady and maintain his relationship with Val, with whom he has had a second child, Baby Jamie (Marvin Maskell). But this does not stop him from eventually having to walk away from his family.

Indeed, as David comes through at the last to help Gordon, it would seem that he (at the behest of Hannah, perhaps) has a stronger sense of family than Colin, whose final words he shouts to the sea: fuck them!

In other words, while David clearly does not necessarily respect boundaries when it comes to women, he nonetheless does after five years want to re-become and to remain part of his family, especially as his mother Sandy also seems to have had a tough year, perhaps struggling with illness.

That said, there does remain some interesting ambiguity around Colin’s relationship with Lainey, for example, through whom he hires the castle and who acts as caterer for the party… apparently he has done this to help her out, but perhaps there is more to that relationship than meets the eye… meaning that Colin may not only stray himself, but also that he, too, does not believe in the fixity of family.

Indeed, while our sympathies waver in terms of how we feel about all of the characters, ultimately the film opens up the possibility that, as per Down Terrace, a loving relationship can in fact supersede a sense of family. In other words, there are no rules and nothing is fixed or guaranteed – not the love of a family and certainly not the reality of home.

And so it is to the film’s take on property that I should like to turn. For, Penn Castle is clearly impressive and a much bigger home than those typically inhabited by all of the characters in the film, including, as we subsequently discover, Lord Richard.

First sight of the castle prompts comments from various characters, with Sandy managing somehow to trip up on the small step that leads up to its doorway, meaning that she subsequently spends a portion of the film in a wheelchair found in a shed.

Indeed, this ‘accident’ (which Colin amusingly finds tiresome and all-too-predictable) would suggest that Sandy does not feel at home in this space, instead somehow intimidated by it – in thrall to the way in which architecture is often designed in order to elicit precisely such a response. For, if one is made to feel uncomfortable (or even comfortable) in lavish spaces, then one is halfway towards believing that estates are real.

The castle similarly evokes an aggressive response from Jimmy, who later tries to intimidate Lord Richard by claiming that he has been to the castle before – for a rave, at which he bought a dud pill, supposedly from Richard.

What is more, this use of space to intimidate people is felt by Gini, who believes that Colin has given her and Warren the smallest bedroom precisely to put her in her place.

In other words, there is tension in the film between how the organisation of space is trying and in some ways succeeding in making us feel (that estates are real, that the social order is timeless and unchangeable), and how people want to feel (that they can be and do anything and go anywhere).

Indeed, a rave is precisely an event that reappropriates private property and uses it for a semi-public purpose (even though many raves are ticketed and guarded, which in some senses and paradoxically defeats what I would take to be one of their primary purposes: to disrespect property rules and the notion of private space).

Not even Richard, however, is lord of this manor. He is, as he confesses at one point to Lainey, a ‘piss poor’ (but genuine) Lord who lives in significantly smaller digs abutting the castle, and who has started to host events like this as a means to stay afloat.

In other words, Lords are no longer the rulers that they used to be – but this is not as a result of the abolition of systems of ownership and power. Rather, Richard has simply been superseded by the company/corporation that now runs the castle, selling to families like the Bursteads the carnivalesque illusion that they, too, can be lords – even if only for a day.

It seems only to be David who feels no intimidation, with Hannah describing him at one points as being like a puppy shitting on the carpet – since he knows no boundaries and observes no rules, except at the last the rule of filiality, as he comes through for his father.

David is also associated with a space that is the opposite of a private house, namely the public house that he goes to for a drink after his first confrontation with Colin. Indeed, as he later invites all of the pub-goers, including a local band, to come back to the party at the castle, we get a sense that David endorses a kind of spatial free-for-all – a rave, if you will, that perhaps also extends to his thinking about money. That is, perhaps David supports his father not so much out of a sense of filial duty, but also because money is meaningless rather than a necessary possession to him (although this latter point might be a bit of an overstatement based on the evidence that Wheatley presents to us).

Richard at one point makes the obvious joke that Burstead sounds a bit like bastard, calling the Bursteads a bunch of bastards as he shows Lainey his modest living quarters.

But beyond a joke, the pun is also telling in that a bastard is of course an illegitimate child who challenges the notion of family, suggesting a far more complex and real world, in which there are no real rules, even if we all act as if there were. The Bursteads may well be bastards, then, in the sense that they do feel in some senses outsiders and alone in the world, perhaps with only each other for support (and Colin perhaps with less than that come the film’s end).

This profound sense of loneliness (we are all ultimately on our own and have no one to help us) chimes with what I would call Wheatley’s ‘atheism,’ by which I mean to say that his cinema does not respect the gods who claim that estates are real, and who in some senses – as an autodidactic filmmaker – does not respect the gods of cinema.

Perhaps the film’s form can therefore be understood as reinforcing this lack of rules. There clearly seems to have been a lot of improvisation in the film – with the actors being credited at the end for having provided additional material on top of Wheatley’s own script.

Not only does improv suggest a refusal to stick to the script, which gives to cinema a life that is ruleless (anything could happen), but this also means that Wheatley almost by definition has to edit the film rapidly (in a fashion that for some might be ‘excessively choppy’), and that cinematographer Laurie Rose also has almost by definition to film handheld so that he can respond to and find the details in the performances that are taking place.

Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is clearly redolent of Thomas Vinterberg’s dogme ’95 classic, Festen/The Celebration (Denmark/Sweden, 1998), not only in its tale of family disharmony at a special gathering, but also in its use of handheld cameras and naturalistic performances. Although Wheatley is not a ‘dogmatic’ filmmaker, Happy New Year… does in some senses share with Vinterberg and the other founders of the famous Danish film movement an irreverence towards the cinematic establishment, with the film moving so fast at times that it becomes hard to follow (for example, I am still not sure why Jimmy and Ed are at the party, nor really why Maya and Nikhil got invited, even though my family also has ‘members’ who are not related by blood at all and yet who come along to every gathering that we have – and they are thus family members).

Indeed, if Happy New Year, Colin Burstead recalls a Danish film, it clearly also is exploring a relationship between the UK and Europe, as is made clear by David’s relationship with Hannah, as well, in a more muted fashion, Colin’s relationship with Val, in that Sura Dohnke is Belgian, which creates a strange resonance with Kill List, in which Neil Maskell’s wife is played by Swedish actress, MyAnna Buring, in an equally understated fashion.

Indeed, perhaps the film would wish to suggest that who is British and who is European is indeed almost impossible at times to tell – with the Asian heritage of Maya, Nikhil and Sham also suggesting a Britain that has no pure or precise characteristics, with Mark Monero’s presence and Charles Dance’s turn as a transvestite also troubling any idea that Britain is a nation of straight white people.

In a truly touching and climactic moment, David sits at a piano and sings a song that he has written for Sandy – with shades of Sam Riley’s turn as Ian Curtis in Anton Corbijn’s Control (UK/USA/Australia/Japan/France, 2007) coming through. After he has finished, Hannah sings ‘Die Gedanken sind frei,’ a German traditional, the title of which translates as ‘thoughts are free.’

Hannah sings the first three verses:-

Die Gedanken sind frei, wer kann sie erraten,
sie fliegen vorbei wie nächtliche Schatten.
Kein Mensch kann sie wissen, kein Jäger sie schießen
mit Pulver und Blei: Die Gedanken sind frei!

Ich denke was ich will und was mich beglücket,
doch alles in der Still’, und wie es sich schicket.
Mein Wunsch und Begehren kann niemand verwehren,
es bleibet dabei: Die Gedanken sind frei!

Und sperrt man mich ein im finsteren Kerker,
das alles sind rein vergebliche Werke.
Denn meine Gedanken zerreißen die Schranken
und Mauern entzwei: Die Gedanken sind frei!

… which translate as follows…

Thoughts are free, who can guess them?
They fly by like nocturnal shadows.
No person can know them, no hunter can shoot them
with powder and lead: Thoughts are free!

I think what I want, and what delights me,
still always reticent, and as it is suitable.
My wish and desire, no one can deny me
and so it will always be: Thoughts are free!

And if I am thrown into the darkest dungeon,
all these are futile works,
because my thoughts tear all gates
and walls apart: Thoughts are free!

The last lines are in particular resonant for my argument here: Wheatley believes that thoughts can tear gates and walls apart, even as walls and gates are put up, kept and thus in some senses are real – as Bertie goes on to affirm immediately afterwards by saying how much he loves his family, which then leads into the New Year’s countdown, a rendition of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and the year ends as a new door opens (January being derived from the Latin ianua, meaning door).

There are several references to Brexit in the film, with Colin calling Gini a ‘remoaner’ and Fran suggesting a lack of interest in politics by saying ‘fuck Labour and fuck the Tories.’ What is more, while this political context does form the backdrop for the film, there are some very and specifically British touches/references in the film – for example, Colin’s invocation of 1970s stand-up comedian Norman Collier, whose ‘broken microphone’ routine he re-enacts to pretend that the phone line is not working clearly.

(Indeed, it is a relatively common trait throughout the film for Colin not to listen. He puts on earphones at the film’s start, before shutting Val in a larder once they reach the castle; he avoids David for as long as he can, enlisting Sham to help him… and so while I wish to come back positively to Colin, in some senses he perhaps does epitomise Brexit Britain, right down to the hypocrisy of having a Belgian partner.)

Happy New Year… also involves Wheatley’s trademark use of British folk music on the soundtrack (which also was composed by Clint Mansell), with the film ending with that staple title card from British sitcoms ‘You have been watching…’

In other words, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is as British as the BBC, which produced the film, and yet it also suggests something non- or post-British as it analyses how walls and gates delimit our thinking and create an island mentality, while at the same time pushing for more open, free and ‘European’ thinking.

I suggest in my essay on Wheatley that the use of folk music in A Field in England in particular takes us back to pre-monarchic times – which is apt for a film set during the English civil war. Perhaps here they do something similar, while the setting at Penn Castle and on Portland Bill does something similar, which I shall turn to now, as promised.

For, Penn Castle is the former home of John Penn, whose family founded and colonised Pennsylvania – before being turfed out following America’s own civil war. This in and of itself suggests a history of colonialism, land-grabbing as the foundation of the British Empire, and also revolution against such tactics.

But more than this, the island setting and the presence of the sea, at which Colin shouts at the film’s end, suggests a different world that is not defined by solid walls, but which instead is liquid, always shifting and, like thought, oceanic.

Dorset, meanwhile, takes its name from the county town of Dorchester, which not only is the name of a posh London hotel into which only moneyed elites can go, but it is also the modern version of Durnovaria, from the Romano-British duro-, meaning ‘walled town.’

That is, Dorset is a place of walls, while Portland Bill is a kind of exception to that. More than this, Dorset also recalls the idea of the dorsal, the backbone and thus of the vertebrate; perhaps’s humanity’s bone structure is itself part and parcel of how and why we think in terms of walls and fixity, property and privacy, turning and returning (our time is structured like our space: with barriers and divisions, rather than waves of time lapping and washing over us).

To think in an invertebrate fashion, away from the hard land and instead in the fathoms of the sea, is perhaps to think in a different, ‘improper’ way (to think improperly is perhaps necessary to think outwith and to outwit the concept of property), with Colin (whose name is also French for hake, even as it is a diminutive of Nicolas) rejecting the vertebrate notion of family and instead trying to rework his identity, even as this perhaps tragically leaves him isolated and alone.

He stands on Portland Bill’s Chesil Beach on England’s Jurassic Coast, shouting at the English channel. Where Ian McEwan’s novel and the subsequent film, On Chesil Beach (Dominic Cooke, UK, 2017), tell a story of a couple refusing to have sex, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead tells a story of bastards who are fucking irrespective of the law – in language and in deed.

Where McEwan/Cooke create a typical British heritage film that is white and virginal, clean and pretty, even as it includes McEwan’s weirdly prudish leaking of desire, Wheatley’s is a coarser but in many ways far more honest and embodied cinema that shows and acts upon desire, rather than dying tragically without having done anything about it. In this sense, Wheatley’s cinema is vibrant and alive, whilst Cooke’s cinéma de papa is tired and dying.

The Jurassic Beach also recalls a history much longer than simply the presence of humans on Earth (the so-called anthropocene), fitting Wheatley’s fictional world into a universe where there are no boundaries and not even the human race is permanent (and in this sense, Colin’s presence on the beach at the end might well help in getting us to see that there are no rules – not of space, not of time, not of family, not of species).

Working with regulars Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Neil Maskell, Mark Monero and Sam Riley, together with Laurie Rose on the camera as usual, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead does nonetheless involve some new directions for Wheatley, including writing the script without his partner Amy Jump (who produced) and with no part in the film for Michael Smiley.

(Small wonder that Wheatley is slated to direct a remake of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, another tale of real estate as Manderlay dominates the lives of the de Winters. Hopefully his version will be less heritage than most other literary adaptations!)

All the same, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead also functions as a summation in many ways of various of the anarchic and ‘atheistic’ ideas that circulate throughout his œuvre. Channeling other recent films like Archipelago (Joanna Hogg, UK, 2010) and The Party (Sally Potter, UK, 2017), as well as the ongoing work of Mike Leigh (whose influence was especially recognised with Sightseers), Wheatley remains one of the most interesting and innovative voices in British filmmaking (even if watching a film on iPlayer shows some irreverence towards what we used to call cinema).

Given the shit that we are about to face as we leave the European Union (the storming of the Houses of Parliament notwithstanding), Wheatley’s is perhaps the most important cinematic voice to be talking at the moment. Happy New Year. Let’s hope some walls come crumbling down and that some doors and gates get opened – otherwise 2019 might well be a year to forget. Die Gedanken sind frei!

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Films of 2018

I saw roughly 406 films for the first time in 2018.

I say ‘roughly’ because this figure is not entirely accurate, since there are a couple of films that I went to watch only to realise that I had seen them before, or at the very least to suspect that I had seen them before (In Praise of Nothing being a case in point).

What is more, there are some films that I saw at the Strange Days exhibition at London’s 180 Strand, but which are not listed here (Pipilotti Rist’s 4th Floor to Mildness functions as a stand-in for all of the ones that I did see).

On that topic, there are two gallery/installation films that I enjoyed a lot, but which I did not get to see in full, those being Christian Marclay’s The Clock at Tate Modern and Ragnar Kjartansson’s A Lot of Sorrow at the Strange Days exhibition. Of the former, I managed to see from 10:02 through to about 18:00 – although there is one final all-night session in January 2019 that may allow me to see the film in its entirety provided that I go and that I stay awake for it. And of the latter, I only managed about half an hour, but it was hypnotising and I would like to see more (it is available on YouTube, but I have not had a chance to see it).

Beyond that, I saw 220 films at the cinema this year, making it the most common venue for my film viewing. This was followed by 144 films that I saw online, 22 films that I saw on DVD, VHS or from a file, 11 films that I saw on an aeroplane, 7 listed here that I saw at galleries, and two that I saw on television.

This includes various short(er) films.

The distinction between cinema and online continues to be eroded, in that many films are readily available online at the same time that they are in theatres. I would say that when I see a film like Bird Box, and I can see the image blur as the internet connection wavers, or when I see a film like Mudbound and I can see streaks of grey (as well as my own reflection) in the black of a nocturnal scene as my laptop cannot handle the tonality of darkness… then I feel that the theatre is still the best venue for watching films.

I fell asleep during a relatively large number of films this year, but I did not keep a record. That said, I did sense that I was beginning to fall asleep on occasion during mainstream films, which previously was only a very rare occurrence. Perhaps I need more sleep, or to change my lifestyle in numerous ways (drink less, stop smoking, do more exercise, watch fewer films, not work so hard, learn to be an adult, and so on). All the same, though, maybe blockbusters are having less of an effect on grabbing my attention than they used to.

I also noted that I would check and answer messages on my phone more regularly during film screenings. I am not sure how to stop the endless tide of messages or the insistent compulsion to answer them. In part this may be because watching films can sometimes still feel like skiving.

There are a few filmmakers by whom I saw several films this year, and these include Ingmar Bergman (as part of the retrospective of his work at the British Film Institute), Alia Syed and Kamran Shirdel (as part of events organised through the Birkbeck Institute of the Moving Image), and then Philippe Garrel, Krzysztof Zanussi, Mark Cousins, Angela Schanelec, Rick Alverson, Kevin Jerome Everson, Barbara Hammer, Annemarie Jacir, John Torres, Lou Ye, Gérard Courant, John Carpenter, Douglas Sirk, James Marsh and Christoph Schlingensief. These latter are mainly as a result of retrospectives on MUBI, although some are also a result of me wanting to catch various of their films out of a sense of failure at not having seen them already (Carpenter), or simply because they seem to have been productive (Mark Cousins and James Marsh, who, via The Mercy and King of Thieves, seemed this year to begin a trend of Brit-film mediocrity that I hope does not last too long).

Of these, the work of Jacir and Everson was in particular a pleasant discovery, while my engagement with Torres was more a case of finally reaching a destination that I had been meaning to visit for a few years. I enjoy but continue not to be blown away by Garrel, while Schlingensief is (or rather was) perhaps one of the most interesting and subversive European filmmakers of the contemporary era. Indeed, without wishing to sound too much like an arrogant c-unit, Schlingensief and Torres would in particular make excellent case studies of what I term ‘non-cinema,’ and about which I published a book this year.

On this note, I also saw a handful of South African films this year (Love The One You LoveThe Wound, We Are Thankful, Revenge, Girl from Nowhere, as well as a couple of experimental shorts not listed below by Jyoti Mistry and Nobunye Levin), some that I preferred more than others… but of which Love The One You Love and We Are Thankful struck me as really strong low-budget pieces of work (and which thus might qualify as what I term ‘non-cinema’). In particular I’d in the future look out for work by Jenna Bass, the director of the former, as well as further work by Mistry and Levin.

Other films that I saw (but which might not necessarily be new), and which might qualify as good examples of ‘non-cinema’ (and which for me were memorable viewing experiences) include Joséphine Ndagnou’s Paris à tout prix, Eric Eason’s Manito, Li Ning’s Tape, Khoa Do’s The Finished People and Josh Appignanesi’s Female Human Animal.

What was also interesting for me was to think about my conceptualisation of non-cinema in relation to the work of Kevin Jerome Everson mentioned above. Briefly put, non-cinema is a way of thinking about low-budget, anti-hegemonic filmmaking (read, work that critiques or offers alternatives to white, heteronormative patriarchy), and which at times is wilfully (but not necessarily) anti-commercial. In particular the argument tries to work productively with the idea that the digital is in some senses not cinema anymore in terms of production (celluloid) and distribution (theatres). And so if for various reasons it is ‘not cinema,’ then maybe we can positively say that it is ‘non-cinema.’

Should anyone ever read the book, one of the issues that they might have with it is that I want or insist that filmmakers who do not belong to white, heteronormative patriarchy somehow should or must produce ‘non-cinema,’ meaning that the wonders of cinema remain the preserve of the powerful.

This is not the intention behind my argument at all and I do try in the book to make clear that ‘non-cinema’ is still (or at least can still be) ‘cinematic’ (whatever that means), while also (perhaps without articulating it in so many words) wishing to encourage film viewers to consider that various of the things that they might consider to be ‘bad’ or ‘not even’ cinema are not necessarily a result of inferior filmmaking abilities (which is to create hierarchies of power), but that they might be positive choices, expressions of difference, perhaps especially expressions of a lack of access to power (especially money-as-power since many filmmakers simply cannot afford to make films that are as pristine as a Hollywood production), and thus aesthetically innovative should we have the eyes and ears to think about them in that way.

In other words, non-cinema is a tool to try to level the playing field of film aesthetics, which in turn might help to level the playing field of our political world, not least because aesthetics play such a central role in our political thinking (the political message is perhaps not as important as how it is presented, i.e. its aesthetic dimension; in cinema, he who makes the most noise and who has the flashiest colour palette is often/in many popular quarters considered to be the winner).

From this, it hopefully would be clear that one can make ‘cinema’ and still be anti-hegemonic (nothing necessarily precludes this, although the closer one gets to cinema there may well yet be a tendency to have to make films that try to make money simply because of how much it costs to make a film). Indeed, to make cinema can still be subversive, and this to me is the power of Everson’s films.

For, by regularly using polyester film stock to portray the everyday lives of working African Americans, Everson surely does ask viewers to consider his subjects to be equally as cinematic/as worthy of cinema as the figures that we see in mainstream, commercial cinema. This gesture is profound and powerful, and I would hope that it works in tandem with filmmakers who embrace non-cinema (low budget digital filmmaking) in order equally to level the playing field. Both are, I hope, working towards creating a more just and democratic world.

Perhaps it does not merit mention in the year after Get Out that African American filmmaking appears to be especially strong, with Black Panther being a necessary film to mention given its status as the first ‘black’ superhero movie (even if I personally had some issues with the film, as I have issues with superhero fantasies more generally, and even if I feel that the Saturday Night Live episode of ‘Black Jeopardy’ with Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa was not only one of the most enjoyable audiovisual experiences that I had in 2018, but also politically one of the most astute and powerful).

Nonetheless, one thing that struck me about the films that I saw in 2018 concerning the African American experience (if I can put it that way) is the legacy of Spike Lee. This is not to disregard other figures in the rich history of African American filmmaking, nor is it to disregard Boots Riley’s criticism of Lee concerning the latter’s BlacKkKlansman. But films like Riley’s Sorry to Bother You and Carlos López Estrada’s Blindspotting seem to carry strong traces of Lee’s influence, with Lee’s work itself remaining relevant and which, when considered as a whole, is relentlessly brave, even if personally I can sometimes find it derivative and testing. One thing is for sure: he continues to experiment and to push himself as a filmmaker, and in this respect he is nothing less than admirable (if that is not too condescending a thing to say).

Lee’s influence can also be seen in films like Justin Chon’s Gook, which tells the tale of American Korean Angelinos, and the turn to which also helps us to consider how currently there is equally a growing visibility of Asian Americans in contemporary cinema – with John Cho being a central figure in this growth as he begins to hold together films as varied as internet rescue film Searching and architecture essay-film Columbus.

(Can one summarise 2018 without mentioning Crazy Rich Asians…? Maybe this single mention is enough.)

I did also see two films by Steven Spielberg in 2018, those being The Post and Ready Player One, the latter of which was my first 4DX experience, and which ideologically annoyed me quite a lot – but so be it. I was also mildly disappointed by some of the Netflix films that did not get (much in the way of) theatrical releases in the UK, including Alex Garland’s Annihilation and Julius Onah’s The Cloverfield Paradox.

But rather than linger on disappointments, perhaps one might instead celebrate achievements, and in this sense 2018 saw a fair amount of what I would consider to be strong American films coming out. Among these I might include I, Tonya (a hangover from 2017), the afore-mentioned BlindspottingBlacKkKlansman and Sorry to Bother You, ColumbusLeave No TraceAmerican AnimalsMid90s, TullyLuckyThe Old Man and the GunRalph Breaks the Internet and Assassination Nation (which nearly sustained its headfuck aesthetic until the end).

Indeed, while I shall list below my ‘proper’ favourites of the year (these ones that I am discussing currently being points of interest and ever-so-nearly my favourites), I was worried that American filmmaking might run away with it this year, not least because a whole bunch of films by big-name world auteurs (including by non-Americans) were fine, but did not quite do it for me in the way that some of their earlier work has done. By this I mean that while I saw films by the likes of Jia Zhangke (Ash is Purest White), Lars von Trier (The House that Jack Built), Kore-eda Hirokazu (The Third Murder and Shoplifters), Pawel Pawlikowsi (Cold War), Steve McQueen (Widows), Fatih Akin (In the Fade), Corneliu Porumboiu (Infinite Football), Lucrecia Martel (Zama), Ruben Östlund (The Square), Jafar Panahi (3 Faces), Andrei Zvyagintsev (Loveless) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread), these did not quite do it for me (even though I liked a good number of these films a lot).

A list of films that really came quite close to doing it for me include Jacir’s Wajib, Mohammad Rasoulof’s A Man of Integrity, Naomi Kawase’s Radiance, Robin Campillo’s 120BPM, Jonas Carpignano’s A Ciambra, Frederick Wiseman’s Ex-Libris: The New York Public Library and Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still. I liked Paul King’s Paddington 2. Both Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite are great films that really have at their core magnificent performances by female leads (respectively Yalitza Aparicio and Olivia Colman, although Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz from the latter are worth mentioning, too – with Weisz having also shone alongside Rachel McAdams and the under-rated Alessandro Nivola in Sebastián Lelio’s Disobedience).

I might also say that The Favourite made me think that Peter Greenaway’s legacy remains strong, as well as leading me to believe that the film is perhaps the best Grexit-Brexit comment to have been made in the recent past – not least in the face of much ongoing and conservative British cinema (although Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country is also a beautiful investigation into Anglo-European relations up in Yorkshire).

In a year that also saw The Greatest Showman and Mary Poppins Returns saturate our big screens, the legacy of Baz Luhrmann also seemed to loom large, making me wonder what he is up to and why he seems not have any projects along the lines of his best work (William Shakespeare’s Romeo + JulietMoulin Rouge!) on the go. Hopefully these would be more enjoyable than the two musicals mentioned above – even if my niece insisted on dancing repeatedly to ‘A Million Dreams’ and ‘Never Enough’ from the former throughout the Christmas period.

Returning to the UK in the era of Brexit, William English’s It’s My Own Invention, which I caught randomly at the Close-Up Centre one night early in 2018, has really stuck with me as a kind of bizarre insight into insanity as it charts the life of Hugh de la Cruz, who claims to have invented a perpetual motion machine. It perhaps chastened me with regard to my own propensity for insanity.

Although a couple of years old, I might mention Jenni Olson’s The Royal Road as one of the best essay-films that I saw for the first time in 2018, with Guy Maddin, Galen Johnson and Evan Johnson’s The Green Fog being a beautiful and very funny video-essay on San Francisco as depicted in cinema (and which thus shares a lot of ground with my forthcoming video-essay on the Golden Gate Bridge).

Finally, out of retrospective films that I saw at the cinema in 2018, I might make mention of Youssef Chahine’s 1969 film The Land, which was beautifully restored and screened at the Ciné Lumière as part of the SAFAR Film Festival 2018.

And so now we can come to my personal favourites of 2018, which number 9 in total and which appear below in no particular order:-

Between Fences by Avi Mograbi, a film (actually from 2016 and which I saw online, but what the heck) about acting workshops with African refugees in a camp in the Negev desert. This made me want to make films like it, while also leading me to read Augusto Boal, who is an influence on theatre director Chen Alon, who with Mograbi ran the workshops.

The Nothing Factory by Pedro Pinho, which is a weird micro-budget musical about workers on strike at a lift factory in Lisbon.

You Were Never Really Here by Lynne Ramsay, which has at its core a towering performance by Joaquin Phoenix, an incredible score by Jonny Greenwood and some of the most taut directing from Lynne Ramsay at the absolute peak of her powers.

A Deal with the Universe by Jason Barker. This no-budget diary film is about a man transitioning from being a woman, but who delays said transition in order to have a child. Tender and beautiful.

First Reformed by Paul Schrader. After The Canyons (which I secretly admire but do not particularly like), this came from nowhere – and is about as impassioned a film about environmental disaster as one can hope to see.

Summer 1993 by Carla Simón. A heartbreaking film about an orphan girl taken in by her aunt and uncle and which left me sobbing.

The Rider by Chloé Zhao, which uses non-professional actors from the world of rodeo to tell the story of the decline of the American west – and which also left me devastated and hiding in the cinema until the credits had finished so that I could have a good cry and time to dry my eyes unseen.

The Flower by Mariano Llinás. A kind of compendium of six separate feature films in one and all starring the same cast, this 14-and-a-half-hour long film becomes completely hypnotic and is a wonderful example of infinite storytelling, of the sort that Llinás’s fellow Argentine Jorge Luis Borges would endorse, and which keeps alive the Scheherazadean tradition of storytelling as life (it also made me love Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights even more for doing something similar).

The Wild Pear Tree by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, which is for me his strongest film. Ceylan continues to edit across different takes in such a way that one gets a sense of not a single story world, but parallel universes that all talk to each other. This film features perhaps the most beautiful scene of love that I can remember, as ne’er-do-well Sinan talks to his old crush Hatice by a tree. Furthermore, I felt chastised by the film for sharing many of Sinan’s faults, such that I really want to change my life and endeavour to be a better person… even if now in the fog outside of the cinema, I continue to feel lost and unsure of what it is that I am supposed to do with existence.

Although the next film is not really among my favourites, this talk of changing my life does lead me to my final thoughts, various of which concern Weeks in the West End, a no-budget independent feature made by Ian Mantgani and which I saw as a result of an invitation from a friend (Hind Mezaina) at the Prince Charles Cinema on the eve of the London Film Festival.

It is a personal story about the filmmaker’s relationship with cinema and the way in which the London Film Festival annually brings about a strange set of rituals as one endures long days of film-viewing and long nights of partying and film discussion.

It is also in some senses a kind of love letter to the filmmaker’s then-partner, as well as an account of the disintegration of their relationship.

What is curious about the film is that I once asked out the filmmaker’s partner for a drink (at around the time that they got together if my understanding of their timeline is correct). However, the filmmaker’s ex turned me down, and so Weeks in the West End became this odd experience of feeling slightly sorry for myself (a sense of inferiority at not being as attractive as the filmmaker, at least in the eyes of his ex; a wonder at how my life could have turned out so differently).

But more than this, the film also became an exercise in seeing how the filmmaker’s obsession with cinema perhaps got in the way of his relationship, maybe even ending it.

Weeks in the West End might work as a piece of non-cinema in many respects, not least because so low budget, even if shot in a wilfully quirky fashion on film. However, the movie is also beholden to cinema, especially as it goes off on numerous tangents that aim to showcase Mantgani’s beautiful turns of phrase as he reviews films that he has seen at the festival.

Two thoughts.

Firstly, we do not see those films that are described, but just the title and what is written about them in the London Film Festival catalogue from 2017. Weeks in the West End seems desperately somehow to want to be cinema, and this desire to be cinema seems ultimately to be destructive of human relationships. Perhaps we should never love cinema more than we love people. Perhaps I also watch too many films, even if I try to hate and in some senses to destroy cinema in my filmmaking and in my writing about film and coming up with notions like ‘non-cinema,’ which various of my friends would tell me are worthy of Pseuds’ Corner. I must learn to be a better human being and to value others ahead of my stupid fantasies, which I must also try to shed in order to see other humans for themselves and not filtered through my idiocy (I must stop being an idle romantic dreaming of other worlds rather than helping to improve this one).

Secondly, Mantgani is a beautiful writer. The Wild Pear Tree is a contemplation of literature, while The Flower also feels very literary/novelistic in terms of how it is constructed and how long it takes to get through it (the same applies to An Elephant Sitting Still, which is based on Hu Bo’s own novel, to name but one more among various others mentioned above and below).

One of the most important conversations I had this year was about how many of the great filmmakers are also great readers – and about the ongoing and perhaps necessary relationship between literature and cinema (or between text and film more generally).

If indeed we are drifting into a world where people do not have the time or the patience for novels (especially ‘difficult’ novels), then this also will lead to the impoverishment of cinema (and perhaps by extension to the impoverishment of human relationships).

Let us continue to read and write in order to make and to understand films as best as we can.

Some people hate him, but Jean-Luc Godard perhaps still has it and is on point with his latest film, The Image Book, which in some ways is a consideration of the relationship between cinema and language/literature/text, between images and books, and which is also a proxime accessit film for me this year: I loved it, but only as much as other work of his and not as if I had seen something anew (hence not in my favourite favourite list).

But most of all this: if we love cinema and/or literature, then let us also see if we can learn to love each other.

Appendix
(featuring all of the films I saw in 2018)

[Blank = cinema; * = online; ^ = DVD/VHS/file; > = gallery/installation; // = television]

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (Paul McGuigan)
Menashe (Joshua Z. Weinstein)
Battle of the Sexes (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris)
Youth (Feng Xiaogang)
Brad’s Status (Mike White)
Paddington 2 (Paul King)
Marius (Marcel Pagnol)
Jupiter’s Moon (Kornél Mondruczó)
Rey (Niles Attalah)
Glory (Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov)
Molly’s Game (Aaron Sorkin)
Field Niggas (Khalik Allah)
Darkest Hour (Joe Wright)
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonough)
Tempestad (Tatiana Huezo)
Swan (Alia Syed)
Unfolding (Alia Syed)
Syntax (Martha Haslanger)
Light Reading (Lis Rhodes)
Fatima’s Letter (Alia Syed)
Three Paces (Alia Syed)
Red Shift (Gunvor Nelson)
The Post (Steven Spielberg)
Attraction (Fyodor Bondarchuk)
Hex (George Popov and Jonathan Russell)
The Greatest Showman (Michael Gracey)
Barbara (Mathieu Amalric)
A Man of Integrity (Mohammad Rasoulof)
Radiance (Naomi Kawase)
Hannah (Andrea Pallaoro)
120 battements par minute (Robin Campillo)
A Fábrica de Nada (Pedro Pinho)
Downsizing (Alexander Payne)
Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Room for Let (Yuzo Kawashima)
The Serpent’s Egg (Ingmar Bergman)
Makala (Emmanuel Gras)
Shame (Ingmar Bergman)
Loveless (Andrei Zvyagintsev)
The Mercy (James Marsh)
Black Panther (Ryan Coogler)
It’s My Own Invention (William English)
It Rains on Our Love (Ingmar Bergman)
The Song of Cotton (Yuancheng Zhu)
The Worldly Cave (Zhou Tao)
From the Life of the Marionettes (Ingmar Bergman)
I, Tonya (Craig Gillespie)
Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig)
Dark River (Clio Barnard)
The Devil’s Eye (Ingmar Bergman)
La vendedora de fósforos (Alejo Moguillansky)
Vers la mer (Annik Leroy)
Rewind and Forget (Andrea Luka Zimmerman)
The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro)
Red Sparrow (Francis Lawrence)
You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay)
Gringo (Nash Edgerton)
Sweet Country (Warwick Thornton)
The Nile Hilton Incident (Tarik Saleh)
Women’s Prison (Kamran Shirdel)
Tehran is the Capital of Iran (Kamran Shirdel)
Women’s Quarter (Kamran Shirdel)
The Night It Rained, Or The Epic of a Gorgan Village Boy (Kamran Shirdel)
Gook (Justin Chon)
Tomb Raider (Roar Uthaug)
Unsane (Steven Soderbergh)
Tomorrow Never Knows (Adam Sekuler)
Luz Obscura (Susana de Sousa Dias)
Gholam (Mitra Tabrizian)
A Deal with the Universe (Jason Barker)
Have a Nice Day (Liu Jian)
The Third Murder (Kore-eda Hirokazu)
The Square (Ruben Östlund)
Peter Rabbit (Will Gluck)
Martyr (Mazen Khaled)
God’s Own Country (Francis Lee)
Ready Player One 4DX (Steven Spielberg)
Journeyman (Paddy Considine)
A Quiet Place (John Krasinski)
Ghost Stories (Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson)
The Camera: Je, or La Caméra: I (Babette Mangolte)
Pacific Rim: Uprising (Steven S. DeKnight)
The Finished People (Khoa Do)
The Sun Island (Thomas Elsaesser)
Intruder in the Dust (Clarence Brown)
Un beau soleil intérieur (Claire Denis)
The Wound (John Trengove)
Avengers: Infinity War (Anthony and Joe Russo)
Something Wild (Jonathan Demme)
Beast (Michael Pearce)
Journey to the South (Jill Daniels)
Revenge (Coralie Fargeat)
Tully (Jason Reitman)
Shadow World (Johan Grimonprez)
Funny Cow (Adrian Shergold)
Le redoubtable (Michel Hazanavicius)
Deadpool 2 (David Leitch)
Jeune femme (Léonor Serraille)
Zama (Lucrecia Martel)
Solo: A Star Wars Story (Ron Howard)
Entebbe (José Padilha)
Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson)
L’amant double (François Ozon)
3 Faces (Jafar Panahi)
Frontières (Apolline Traoré)
Infinite Football (Corneliu Porumboiu)
Plaire, aimer et courir vite (Christophe Honoré)
Una questione privata (Paolo and Vittorio Taviani)
Morocco (Josef von Sternberg)
Absolute Rest (Abdolreza Kahani)
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (JA Bayona)
Veere di Wedding (Shashanka Ghosh)
Mobile Homes (Vladimir de Fontenay)
A Ciambra (Jonas Carpignano)
In The Fade (Fatih Akin)
Leave No Trace (Debra Granik)
Sicario: Day of the Soldado (Stefano Sollima)
The Women Weavers of Assam (Aparna Sharma)
Clem (William Brown)
Ocean’s Eight (Gary Ross)
Hereditary (Ari Aster)
Bao (Domee Shi)
Incredibles 2 (Brad Bird)
First Reformed (Paul Schrader)
Pin Cushion (Deborah Haywood)
Estiú 1993 (Carla Simón)
The Receptionist (Jenny Lu)
Generation Wealth (Lauren Greenfield)
Extinction (Salomé Lamas)
Apostasy (Daniel Kokotajlo)
Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (Frederick Wiseman)
Mogambo (John Ford)
El Mar La Mar (Joshua Bonnetta and JP Sniadecki)
Cocote (Nelson Carlo De Los Santos Arias)
Ant-Man and the Wasp (Peyton Reed)
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (Ol Parker)
Mission: Impossible – Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie)
The Escape (Dominic Savage)
Las herederas (Marcelo Martinessi)
No Date, No Signature (Vahid Jalilvand)
The Eyes of Orson Welles (Mark Cousins)
BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee)
Christopher Robin (Marc Forster)
The King (Eugene Jarecki)
Under the Tree (Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson)
Searching (Aneesh Chaganty)
Robot Jox (Stuart Gordon)
Yardie (Idris Elba)
Baronesa (Juliana Antunes)
Cold War (Paweł Pawlikowski)
The End of Fear (Barbara Visser)
American Animals (Bart Layton)
Home of the Resistance (Ivan Ramljak)
Uppland (Edward Lawrenson)
(In Praise of Nothing (Boris Mitić))
(Island (Steven Eastwood))
The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Desiree Akhavan)
The Predator (Shane Black)
The Search (Hossam El Din Moustafa)
Stories of Passers Through (Koutaiba Al-Janabi)
Poisonous Roses (Ahmed Fawzi Saleh)
Scheherazade’s Diary (Zeina Daccache)
The Film of Kyiv (Oleksiy Radynski)
Lucky (John Carroll Lynch)
Diamond Island (Davy Chou)
We Don’t Care About Democracy. This Is What We Want: Love, Hope and Its Many Faces (John Torres)
I Have Sinned a Rapturous Sin (Maryam Tafakory)
The Land (Youssef Chahine)
Wajib (Annemarie Jacir)
Nervous Translation (Shireen Seno)
Marvin (Anne Fontaine)
The Rider (Chloé Zhao)
People Power Bombshell (John Torres)
MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A. (Steve Loveridge)
Climax (Gaspar Noé)
El reino (Rodrigo Sorogoyen)
Venom (Ruben Fleischer)
Blindspotting (Carlos López Estrada)
Weeks in the West End (Ian Mantgani)
Skate Kitchen (Crystal Moselle)
Wild Relatives (Jumana Manna)
Columbus (Kogonada)
aKasha (hajooj kuka)
Mandy (Panos Cosmatos)
Kusama – Infinity (Heather Lenz)
The Wife (Björn Runge)
Bad Times at the El Royale (Drew Goddard)
La flor parte 1 (Mariano Llinás)
Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema (Mark Cousins)
La flor parte 2 (Mariano Llinás)
La flor parte 3 (Mariano Llinás)
Halloween (David Gordon Green)
Fahrenheit 11/9 (Michael Moore)
Dogman (Mateo Garrone)
First Man (Damien Chazelle)
The Old Man and the Gun (David Lowery)
Beautiful Boy (Felix Van Groeningen)
The Man with the Iron Fists (RZA)
Mid90s (Jonah Hill)
Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhangke)
Wildlife (Paul Dano)
The Girl in the Spider’s Web (Fede Álvarez)
Widows (Steve McQueen)
Nae Pasarán (Felipe Bustos Sierra)
Assassination Nation (Sam Levinson)
Shoplifters (Kore-eda Hirokazu)
Bohemian Rhapsody (Bryan Singer)
The House That Jack Built (Lars von Trier)
Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley)
Roma (Alfonso Cuarón)
An Elephant Sitting Still (Hu Bo)
Disobedience (Sebastián Lelio)
Le livre d’image (Jean-Luc Godard)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Peter Ramsey, Robert Persichetti Jr., Rodney Rothman)
The Green Fog (Guy Maddin, Galen Johnson, Evan Johnson)
Mary Poppins Returns (Rob Marshall)
The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos)
Aquaman (James Wan)
The Wild Pear Tree (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Ralph Breaks the Internet (Rich Moore and Phil Johnston)
Happy Christmas (Joe Swanberg)*
Unexpected (Kris Swanberg)*
Daphne (Peter Mackie Burns)*
I am Not a Witch (Rungano Nyoni)*
Marjorie Prime (Michael Almereyda)*
Monsters: Dark Continent (Tom Green)*
Tentacles (Ovidio G. Assonitis)*
On the Road (Michael Winterbottom)*
The Last Movie (Dennis Hopper)*
Mega-Shark versus Giant Octopus (Ace Hannah)*
The Protagonists (Luca Guadagnino)*
Ender’s Game (Gavin Hood)*
A Spectre Is Haunting Europe? (Julian Radlmaier)*
Dyketactics (Barbara Hammer)*
The Dunwich Horror (Daniel Haller)*
It Came From Beneath the Sea (Robert Gordon)*
The Crimson Kimono (Samuel Fuller)*
Superdyke Meets Madame X (Barbara Hammer)*
Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard)*
The Structure of Crystal (Krzysztof Zanussi)*
(20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Richard Fleischer)*)
It Came From Outer Space (Jack Arnold)*
Dead Slow Ahead (Mauro Herce)*
Hokusai Manga (Kaneto Shindo)*
L’amant d’un jour (Philippe Garrel)*
Untitled (Michael Glawogger and Monika Willi)*
The Constant Factor (Krzysztof Zanussi)*
Las Plantas (Roberto Doveris)*
Mirror World (Abigail Child)*
Life is a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease (Krzysztof Zanussi)*
Wùlu (Daouda Coulibaly)*
Clash of the Titans (Louis Leterrier)*
The Gorgon (Terence Fisher)*
Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief (Chris Columbus)*
On Body and Soul (Ildikó Enyedi)*
In The Mouth of Madness (John Carpenter)*
Annihilation (Alex Garland)*
The Cloverfield Paradox (Julius Onah)*
The Bridge (Eric Steel)*
Paris à tout prix (Joséphine Ndagnou)*
The Year My Voice Broke (John Duigan)*
Spotswood (Mark Joffe)*
La Jalousie (Philippe Garrel)*
L’ombre des femmes (Philippe Garrel)*
Why Him? (John Hamburg)*
Kékszakállú (Gastón Solnicki)*
Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (Thom Andersen)*
Silverlake Life: The View from Here (Tom Joslin and Peter Friedman)*
Lean on Pete (Andrew Haigh)*
Shanty Tramp (José Prieto)*
Afternoon (Angela Schanelec)*
Audition (Milos Forman)*
Orly (Angela Schanelec)*
There’s Always Tomorrow (Douglas Sirk)*
Night Tide (Curtis Harrington)*
No intenso agora (João Moreira Salles)*
The Dreamed Path (Angela Schanelec)*
The Tarnished Angels (Douglas Sirk)*
Allende mi abuelo Allende (Marcia Tambutti)*
Ma Loute (Bruno Dumont)*
Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (Nagisa Oshima)*
(La petite vendeuse de soleil (Djibril Diop Mambéty)*)
Refugiado (Diego Lerman)*
New Jerusalem (R. Alverson)*
The Comedy (Rick Alverson)*
Lek and the Dogs (Andrew Kötting)*
The Tingler (William Castle)*
Matinee (Joe Dante)*
Casa Roshell (Camila José Donoso)*
Daddy Longlegs (Josh and Ben Safdie)*
Polytechnique (Denis Villeneuve)*
Human Desire (Fritz Lang)*
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (Paul Mazursky)*
Agilem (Ilkka Levä)*
Manito (Eric Eason)*
Separado! (Dylan Goch and Gruff Rhys)*
Adiós entusiasmo (Vladimir Durán)*
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (Jake Kasdan)*
Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival (Fabrizio Terranova)*
Central Intelligence (Rawson Marshall Thurber)*
Mala Noche (Gus Van Sant)*
Alipato: The Very Brief Life of an Ember (Khavn de la Cruz)*
Aditya (Gérard Courant)*
4:44 Last Day on Earth (Abel Ferrara)*
Rubber (Quentin Dupieux)*
Je meurs de soif, j’étouffe, je ne puis crier… (Gérard Courant)*
They Live (John Carpenter)*
Inkheart (Iain Softley)*
Invaders from Mars (William Cameron Menzies)*
Evolution (Ivan Reitman)*
Jesús (Fernando Guzzoni)*
Fausto (Andrea Bussmann)*
Gamer (Oleg Sentsov)*
Mr Kaplan (Álvaro Brechner)*
We Are Thankful (Joshua Magor)*
Revenge (Coenie Dippenaar)*
Meteors (Gürcan Keltek)*
Temporada (André Novais Oliveira)*
Between Fences (Avi Mograbi)*
Djon África (Filipa Reis and João Guerra Miller)*
Born in Flames (Lizzie Borden)*
El apóstata (Federico Veiroj)*
Todo Todo Teros (John Torres)*
The Andromeda Strain (Robert Wise)*
Spring Fever (Lou Ye)*
Blind Massage (Lou Ye)*
The Supplement (Krzysztof Zanussi)*
Bonsái (Alex Andonie)*
The Last of Us (Ala Eddine Slim)*
120 Days of Bottrop (Christoph Schlingensief)*
When I Saw You (Annemarie Jacir)*
Terror 2000 (Christoph Schlingensief)*
All You Can Eat Bouddha (Ian Lagarde)*
100 Years of Adolf Hitler (Christoph Schlingensief)*
Tonsler Park (Kevin Jerome Everson)*
Quality Control (Kevin Jerome Everson)*
Teatro de Guerra (Lola Arías)*
Cinnamon (Kevin Jerome Everson)*
1428 (Du Haibin)*
Three Quarters (Kevin Jerome Everson)*
Una corriente salvaje (Nuria Ibáñez Castañeda)*
Wild Plants (Nicolas Humbert)*
A morir a los desiertos (Marta Ferrer)*
Giuseppe Makes a Movie (Adam Rifkin)*
Tape (Li Ning)*
Years When I Was a Child Outside (John Torres)*
‘Til Madness Do Us Part (Wang Bing)*
Trees Down Here (Ben Rivers)*
Spice Bush (Kevin Jerome Everson)*
L’Apparition (Xavier Giannoli)*
Season of the Devil (Lav Diaz)*
Girl from Nowhere (Mark Jackson)*
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Ethan and Joel Coen)*
L’année des méduses (Christopher Frank)*
Alba (Ana Cristina Barragán)*
Mañana a esta hora (Lina Rodríguez)*
L’affaire des divisions Morituri (FJ Ossang)*
Female Human Animal (Josh Appignanesi)*
Bird Box (Susanne Bier)*
Li Shuangshuang (Lu Ren)*
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (Noah Baumbach)*
A Star is Born (William A Wellman)*
Mudbound (Dee Rees)*
Mon Souffle (Jihane Chouaib)*
Octopussy (John Glen)^
Cathy Come Home (Kenneth Loach)^
Les amours de la pieuvre (Jean Painlevé)^
A Lesson in Love (Ingmar Bergman)^
Waiting Women (Ingmar Bergman)^
Sleep Has Her House (Scott Barley)^
Io Sono Li (Andrea Segre)^
The Royal Road (Jenni Olson)^
Freakstars 3000 (Christoph Schlingensief)^
Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (Jonas Mekas)^
By Night With Torch and Spear (Joseph Cornell)^
Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy (Martin Arnold)^
Disorient Express (Ken Jacobs)^
The Trail of the Octopus (Duke Worne)^
I Love You (Marco Ferreri)^
Love The One You Love (Jenna Bass)^
Cefalópodo (Rubén Imaz)^
The Draughtsman’s Contract (Peter Greenaway)^
L’uomo in più (Paolo Sorrentino)^
Cabaret (Bob Fosse)^
Web Junkie (Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam)^
Mare Nostrum (Rex Ingram)^
Live By Night (Ben Affleck)+
Eat Pray Love (Ryan Murphy)+
Goodbye Christopher Robin (Simon Curtis)+
A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan)+
Epic (Chris Wedge)+
Alpha (Albert Hughes)+
Crazy Rich Asians (Jon M Chu)+
King of Thieves (James Marsh)+
Isoken (Jadesola Osiberu)+
Hearts Beat Loud (Brett Haley)+
The Meg (Jon Turteltaub)+
4th Floor to Mildness (Pipilotti Rist)>
Purple (John Akomfrah)>
Joan Jonas (Joan Jonas)>
Despair (Alex Prager)>
La Petite Mort (Alex Prager)>
Face in the Crowd (Alex Prager)>
La Grande Sortie (Alex Prager)>
About A Boy (Paul and Chris Weitz)//
Bros: After the Screaming Stops (Joe Pearlman and David Soutar)//

 

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Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, Mexico/USA, 2018)

A few brief thoughts (involving spoilers) on Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, mainly in relation to a concept that David H. Fleming and I have been developing, and about which we recently published an essay in the journal, Film-Philosophy.

In that essay, which is on Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, USA, 2016), we posit the notion of chthulucinema, which is a term that can be used to describe movies that chime with Donna J Haraway’s notion of the chthulucene, an era that follows the so-called anthropocene and which sees the importance of humans wane on planet Earth, if not seeing humans disappear from the planet altogether.

We connect chthulucinema also with the eschatological writing of HP Lovecraft, whose Cthulhu equally signals a threat to humanity, and which is given expression in Arrival by the tentacled heptapods (which arrive not to destroy humanity per se, but which are here to announce an evolution in the human understanding of space, time and, ahem, evolution itself).

This is because the heptapods let humans know that there is other intelligent life out there in the universe (space) and that they have a completely different understanding of chronology (time). What is more, they have arrived because their species and our species are mutually dependent – with all of the drama of the film also being connected to the issue of whether linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) keeps her baby daughter, even if she knows that it will not live long (evolution).

This is about evolution because to reproduce is to evolve: children are not copies of their parents, even as we live in a world in which we seek to live forever, to stay young forever, and never to change through processes such as cloning, cosmetic surgery, and the preservation of the self in data (including the digital data of computer files and the analogue and digital data of images).

If children are not copies of their parents and if to become a parent is to let go of living forever and instead to let a child live – even if it is ‘imperfect’ and itself does not survive past childhood (the premise of Arrival) – then evolution here is also about learning to die and learning to accept death as a necessary part of (cosmic) evolution.

So… if this does not sound too barmy, then the issue becomes: what on Earth does cosmic evolution and the like have to do with Roma?

Well, we can start by suggesting that Cuarón has form in terms of dealing with such issues. To take perhaps his two most famous examples, Children of Men (USA/UK/Japan, 2006) and Gravity (UK/USA, 2013) both deal with the issue of childbirth, in that the former is about a world where children are no longer born and the latter is about an astronaut attempting to recover from the loss of her child.

[Notably, First Man (Damien Chazelle, USA/Japan, 2018) also feels compelled to talk about the conquest of space in relation to the trauma suffered at the loss of a child… as if space travel were the quest for immortality in the face of, and perhaps in a bid to deny, the truth of mortality. As Chazelle whitened jazz in both Whiplash (USA, 2014) and La La Land (USA/Hong Kong, 2016), here, in an era in which cinema tries to explore stories such as the one told in Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi, USA, 2016), he also makes space travel white and male – as per the film’s title – as he celebrates the immortality of conquest in contradistinction to the mortality of becoming.]

To return to Cuarón, Roma is indeed at times quite consciously referential to the director’s earlier work – notably during a long sequence shot during riots in Mexico City in 1971, recalling the main sequence shot in the Bexhill riot zone in Children of Men, and during a cinema visit during which Cleo (the astounding Yalitza Aparicio) watches Marooned (John Sturges, USA, 1969), a film from the pre-CGI era that bears a strong similarity in its premise to Gravity.

But if Roma is something of a summation of Cuarón’s work to date (the story of servants also brings with it shades of A Little Princess (USA, 1995) and Great Expectations (USA, 1998), while the portrait of class tension in Mexico equally recalls Y tu Mamá también (Mexico, 2001)), how does it connect with the chthulucene and related issues?

Well, about three quarters of the way through the film, well-to-do Distrito Federal mother Sofía (Marina de Tavira) takes her children and their housemaid Cleo to the seaside.

I say well-to-do, but really Sofía is struggling: she has been abandoned by her husband (Fernando Grediaga) and money is getting tight. Nonetheless, she still runs a household with four kids and two housemaids, including Cleo, who has just lost a child at birth.

Sympathising with Cleo’s loss, Sofía promises Cleo a break on the beaches of Tuxpan, where she will not be asked to carry out any of her normal tasks of servitude.

As the group arrives at a coastal resort, they pass a large image on a wall of an octopus, before then being in a seaside diner where octopus also appears on the menu.

I am not saying that Cuarón included these details because he consciously believes what follows. But from the perspective of chthulucinema, which is a cinema of tentacles and thinking about the world from a non-human, more invertebrate perspective, the presence of these octopus references is telling.

For – and no more than this – they simply are reminders of alternative lifeforms, but whose biology and anatomy is so vastly different from ours that to ponder them does give pause to our everyday assumptions about time, space and evolution… and which does ask us to consider how an intelligent alien (which is how octopuses are often described) might perceive the world in a fashion that is completely different from the human.

(Octopuses and octopus-like creatures are common in Mexican cinema, as Fleming and I discuss in what we hope to be the book-version argument of our Arrival essay, nominally called Kinoteuthis Infernalis: The Emergence of Chthulumedia, which title means with a doff of the cap to Vilém Flusser ‘the squid cinema from hell,’ and which takes in other films like Cefalópodo/Cephalopod (Rubén Imaz, Mexico, 2010), La región salvage/The Untamed (Amat Escalante, Mexico/Denmark/France/Germany/Norway/Switzerland, 2016) and Una corriente salvaje (Nuria Ibañez, Mexico, 2018). I might mention here how Roma also seems indebted at least a little bit to Güeros (Alonso Ruizpalacios, Mexico, 2014), with its long sequence shots and images of civil unrest.)

However, while the presence of the octopus in Roma simply helps us to think about ‘intelligent aliens’ that are not us and which perhaps stand alongside and might help to evolve the contemporary human world, which we might otherwise describe as a patriarchy, it does also tie in with a narrative that is about children/childbirth, and which involves fantasies of transcending the planet (Marooned), changing the current structure of society (civil unrest) and perhaps even creating a matriarchy (Sofía and Cleo bonding) instead of a patriarchy.

It is not that Roma is obvious or mawkish. Indeed, problems remain as at the last Cleo returns to her position of servitude, and the loss of her child is not really mitigated by a weekend in the sun (where she ends up nearly drowning as she tries to save Sofía’s children from getting swept away by tidal currents).

Nonetheless, Cuarón is clearly investigating issues surrounding what another world might look like or be – as perhaps is befitting of someone who shares a culture with one of the great childbirth novels, namely Carlos Fuentes’s Cristóbal Nonato/Christopher Unborn (1987). He does this by studying a period of transition within a family as a nation also undergoes transition. And he does this by exploring what it means to reproduce – or not.

With the heartbreaking loss of Cleo’s child, Cuarón would seem to paint a bleak picture of a world where change may be hard to achieve, and where the poor really are sacrificed for the ongoing benefit (‘eternal life’) of the rich.

But as the octopus’ presence suggests, and as Cleo herself emerges from the sea with Sofía’s children, and as the unrest continues in the streets, if change may not have happened yet, it nonetheless is on the way – and we shall experience new worlds that currently are alien to us.

And this is because while Cleo suffers, she is also indestructible. Not in the sense that she is immortal, but in the sense that – and I am not sure I can overstate the magnificence of Aparicio’s performance here – she cannot be destroyed by hardship, even as she undergoes terrible hardship after terrible hardship. Cleo (and Apricio’s performance) are so strong. They are strength. And even if not now, they are the vision of a more just world.

Or something like that.

 

 

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Female Human Animal (Josh Appignanesi, Mexico/UK, 2018)

I’ve been meaning to write a few blogs recently, and am only now getting around to it. But I did want to write a couple of brief thoughts about Josh Appignanesi’s Female Human Animal, mainly in light of its treatment of plastic.

The film tells the story of Chloe (Chloe Aridjis), who is a writer and curator who is helping to organise a retrospective of the relatively forgotten surrealist painter Leonora Carrington at Tate Liverpool.

As the film progresses, however, we begin also to see develop Chloe’s relationship with a German/Austrian man (Marc Hosemann), who is kind of stalking her – although she may also be stalking him… and in such a way that we begin to be uncertain about what is real and what is not.

The film is rich in symbolism, especially through its use of animals, including a tarantula that at one point appears… while also being something of a contemplation of what it means to be single and/or not a mother at an age that many would consider to be suitable for bearing children (I do not share this view, but I express it as a view that a good number of people share, supposedly with biology to support them – and I say ‘supposedly’ not because I think that biology is wrong, but because each human’s biology is different and perhaps not even determined on a personal, let alone on a species, level).

Indeed, at one point, we see Chloe on a stage in a club where suddenly she has to perform on a microphone. Behind the stage the word moth is written in large letters. To make a pun of the sort that psychoanalysis loves, to be a mother is to be more than a moth… and so while not a biological mother, perhaps Chloe is herself the moth (moth, not moth-er)… on stage and under scrutiny like moths pinned to a board by an entomologist for study and display.

The surrealism of the film (what is real? what not?) is exacerbated by some interesting moments that push language to its limits. In games of the ilk played in his work by Eugene Ionesco, characters repeat words over an over again (‘perhaps,’ ‘so’), lending to Female Human Animal an oneiric/dream-like quality that makes a mockery of language and thus takes us into the realm of the inexpressible… perhaps taking us closer to what it is like to be Chloe, while also recalling the influence of Carrington.

But this evasion or twisting of language is also reflected in the fabric of the film itself. For Female Human Animal is also shot on videotape as opposed to on polyester or even digital memory cards. In this way, the film as a whole defies film, exploiting instead a supposedly ‘obsolescent’ material that is reworked to create something remarkable (much as Chloe herself is, as Kinneret Lahad might put it, ‘still single’ – and thus ‘obsolete,’ but also highly creative).

And this brings me to the insistent use of plastic in the film. For on numerous occasions we see sheets of transparent plastic filling sections or all of the screen, including when Chloe first meets the man, as well as in a sequence where Chloe herself wears a transparent plastic Mac.

Indeed, the film ends with images of plastic production at a factory – images that seem otherwise disconnected from the surrealist narrative that has preceded them.

What to make of such a motif?

Well, in part it reminds us of the plastic nature of the contemporary world: synthetic products are filling our lands and our seas, as well as surely creeping into our bodies and blood streams via micro plastics and other materials that may well end up choking us, as if plastic were itself some sort of alien intelligence slowly invading and overtaking our planet. The sort of idea that Reza Negarestani might have.

The plastic sheets on the screen literally distort our vision of what lies beyond them, thus bringing into question the validity of our vision. That is, plastic has changed the way that we see the world, with humans beginning to take plastic as natural when in fact it is not (with plastic thus proving that our world is in a certain sense plastic, in that its form and our perspective of it is not fixed, but rather malleable).

What is more, they also help us not to understand what is real or otherwise.

Plastic sheets and other cauls have also been used to distorting and disturbing effect in Francis Ford Coppola’s classic, The Conversation (USA, 1974), which tells the story of, er, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), who in short aspires to a position of omniscience regarding a murder mystery that befalls him, and who ends up going mad because he cannot achieve his desired position of total knowledge (frankly, who can?).

At one point in that film, we see blood across a white sheet on the screen – and the blood seems to signify how Harry is projecting the murder on to the white screen. This in turn makes us think about what cinema itself is, namely images projected on to a white screen, and which thus are not real, but which our imagination often confuses with reality (we find reality boring if it is not cinematic).

Now, the reason for mentioning The Conversation is because the use of the plastic sheet in Female Human Animal seems to be doing something similar – except that rather than depicting a white sheet that recalls the cinema screen, we see transparent plastic sheets that remind us that film itself (be that polyester or videotape) is a plastic.

Indeed, if you enter ‘film’ as a search term in Google Scholar, the first things listed are not studies of cinema but typically studies of plastics and surfaces. For, plastic is a film as film is plastic. And plastic is all surface. Whither depth in the era of plastic? Perhaps even whither plastic in the era of data?

In other words, Female Human Animal seems to be in part a sophisticated study of how human perception only allows us access to the surface of things, while also being a self-conscious exploration of cinema and video as plastic media that also can only ever explore surfaces. What lies beneath? And how to get beneath?

And yet, where Coppola uses a white sheet (and distorting windows) to suggest that cinema is perhaps like human perception a projection as much as it is a reception of information from the outside world, Appignanesi in his film oddly pushes further by insisting on the transparency of the plastic film.

In being able to see through it, with the distortions often only very subtle, Female Human Animal does a delicate and artful job rendering almost invisible the distinction between dream and reality – while also giving us pause to consider how media themselves might be films that get between us and reality, giving us a sense of separation and detachment from that reality, making it hard for us to know what is real, making us feel alienated, because these films are alien intelligences here perhaps to kill us, or at the very least to destroy the current logocentric and patriarchal order (as per the film’s exploration of a female psyche that is at odds with and which ultimately kills that phallic order, even if that phallic order is itself surrealistically weird – if it is real and more than an illusion at all).

In this way, Female Human Animal is a kind of anti-cinematic (or what I might term non-cinematic) piece that uses non-film to make a film that is very much about film and the filmic nature of the contemporary world.

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Philosophical Screens: This is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, USA, 1984)

This post is basically a written version of a talk that I gave at the British Film Institute last night (Thursday 22 November 2018), as part of their ongoing Philosophical Screens series, and where This is Spinal Tap played as part of their Comedy Genius season.

Other speakers at the event were Lucy Bolton of QMUL and John Ó Maoilearca of Kingston University. Some of the below feeds a bit on what they said, and I hope here to acknowledge as much.

Now, to offer up an analysis of a comedy naturally lends itself to immediate charges of spoiling the humour and not allowing audiences simply to enjoy the film. But there we go. Hopefully what follows is a fairly cogent reading of the movie.

And this reading relates to the film’s treatment of hardness and softness, as well as to the relationship between 1 and 0, or the line and the hole, the phallic and the vaginal, the solid and the void – with my argument being that comedy can put us in touch with the void, making it a transformative experience.

For, transformative human experiences all necessarily involve an openness to the outside. Without such an openness, we would be closed off and we would not change. When we are open to the outside, we change, we learn, we become.

We can think of this quite easily in relation to our mouths. Not just in the sense of opening our mouths to live by eating, drinking and breathing. But we also open our mouths when we experience orgasm, when we die, and when we experience something new. Along the lines of the jaw dropping open and we say to ourselves ‘oh yeah,’ as we realise something for the first time.

Each of these experiences involves contact with the outside, with the new, and each involves us learning, developing, changing, becoming.

The same applies, then, to laughter: when we laugh, we experience an openness to the outside. And as much can be understood by the word comedy itself – since the term implies withness (co-) and contact (media), or commedia as they say in Italian. Contact with otherness, with the outside, it tickles us, our mouths open, and we develop as human beings.

And yet we live in a world in which we try to close ourselves off from and to avoid contact with the outside: erecting walls, creating borders and boundaries, hiding in cars, behind screens, not talking to strangers, putting concrete over nature, living indoors and so on. Individualism, too, would suggest the desire to close oneself off from others.

And to build walls, etc, is to create a hard world with hard edges and clear definitions, rather than a soft world of overlaps, contact, vagueness (as per the waves/vagues of the sea) and more. Comedy is a soft form, while seriousness is hard.

Music, meanwhile, can a bit of both of these things. Music can bring people together, but it can also be a hard, aggressive and scary medium. Think of how drums have been used by many peoples to demarcate their territory, and think of how loud music is often defined as a ‘wall of sound.’ Indeed, rock and metal music both suggest hardness.

And this hardness is typically male and phallic.

And so it is that This is Spinal Tap charts a tension between the hard and the soft. This is not simply a question of hard rock music. But it also can be seen in how the band plays around with hardness, aspiring to hardness and to a solid masculinity.

Examples abound in the film, but several include the cricket bat that band manager Ian Faith (Tony Hendra) carries around with him, the band’s famous Stone Henge set, the album cover of Intravenus de Milo, the proposed Smell the Glove cover, and the tin foil-covered vegetable that bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) keeps down his trousers.

Repeatedly, the band strives for hardness – as also is made clear by the band’s name: Spinal Tap. For, the spine is itself a hard, vertical series of bones that keep the human upright.

And yet, every attempt that the band has at becoming hard/male/phallic/vertical is somehow thwarted. Ian doesn’t really use the cricket bat; the Stone Henge set is comically small; Intravenus de Milo is derided (as is Shark Sandwich, which in being described as ‘shit sandwich’ conveys a softness that the band otherwise tries to escape); Smell the Glove is temporarily shelved as a result of the proposed cover; Derek is humiliated by an airport security staff member when he tries to pass through a metal detector with his would-be massive cock. As Alice Pember also pointed out after the film, when they first arrive in New York, the band is greeted by their driver (Bruno Kirby) with a sign saying ‘Spinal Pap.’

Perhaps an exemplary image of this desire for solidity comes early in the film at the band’s tour launch party, where a mime (Dana Carvey) offers food to guests. Berated later by Billy Crystal (‘mime is money’), the mime signals the round 0 of his mouth and feigns the gesture of eating.

Where the mime tries to pretend that there is something solid where in fact there is only empty space, so does this mime gesture to the hole, to the 0 while seeming to signal a 1. This Crystal image, then, is a crystallisation in some senses of This is Spinal Tap itself: mime, like the band, wants to be money/capital/solid, but in fact it is an empty hole.

We can even return to the name of the band itself: while the spine might keep the human upright and hard, a tap is a vent hole. In other words, while tap also makes us think of drums (the tapping of the drum), it equally is an open hole, an orifice that makes the spine porous rather than solid and upright.

Perhaps the exploding drummers in the band also suggest a porous humanity, with drumming itself punching holes in a wall of sound that otherwise aspires to be solid.

That solidity is to do with modernity and in particular the sound that is afforded by electricity and the electric guitar – even as that sound is also punctured by the radio signals that are picked up by the wireless set on the lead guitar of Nigel Tufnell (Christopher Guest).

It perhaps also is to do with a nascent digital age, as we see keys player Viv Savage (David Kaff) playing a computer game on the band’s tour bus.

And yet, what is the digital? The digital is defined by binary code – that is, by 1s and 0s. By a combination of the phallic (1) and the vaginal (0).

And yet, as the band aspires towards being hard, it aspires only towards being phallic – and so instead of playing at 10, the band instead wants to replace the 0 and, as Nigel so famously explains, play at 11. In other words, the band wants to play only the phallic (11) and not the phallic and the vaginal (10).

The two-fingered horn gesture so beloved of rock fans (🤟) also suggests an exclusive masculinity: men only (1–1) – as is made clear by the band and their rejection of women (or at least Nigel’s rejection of Jeanine, played by June Chadwick, who is the partner of lead singer David St Hubbins, played by Michael McKean).

This all-male phallic club is also suggested as somehow demonic, perhaps even satanic when we link the horn gesture to the devil, whose horned head also functions as a backdrop to many of the band’s gigs.

It is not that rock music is literally the work of the devil. More, in its desire to be hard, all male, phallic and solid, it excludes the soft and so is a perversion of nature. It is patriarchal. It is patriarchy.

If modernity is the era of 1 (individuality, walls, exclusivity, masculinity, patriarchy), then the digital era involves something different – the advent of a 0, the advent of death, the advent of enlightenment, the becoming that is part of the 0 of the open mouth as it comes into contact with the outside.

(Perhaps it is for this reason that musicians like Lars Ulrich of Metallica were so against digital-era technologies like Napster: their patriarchal masculinity was threatened by the advent of the 0, the desire to make money over the desire to share.)

And This is Spinal Tap may be a film that comes out ahead of the digital era in its fullest manifestation (although as mentioned, the presence of the computer game, notably played by Viv, the weirdest and perhaps softest of the band members), but it is a film that itself is in touch with 0, hence functioning as a comedy.

(Notably, the film is not a nasty comedy, either. It is not phallic and mean towards its would-be phallic characters. Instead we have a lot of time for David, Nigel, Derek and the others – because the film in fact shows their softness even as they aspire to be hard. They want to be phallic spines, but we see also their invertebrate, fearful side – much as Derek at one point gets trapped inside a vaginal pod on stage that otherwise he wishes to escape.)

It was the philosopher Duns Scotus who first wrote of haecceity as a form of ‘thisness.’  That is, haecceity refers to uniqueness and the individuality of things. In some senses, then, haecceity relates to defining things and separating them off from the rest of the world. Or giving to things the form of a 1.

To announce ‘this is Spinal Tap,’ then, is to announce the ‘thisness’ of the band, or their aspirations towards being a 1. And yet what really is ‘this’ when we look at Spinal Tap?

The band may aspire to create a wall of sound as they take us on a jazz odyssey, but really they made their name with their flower power hits from the 1960s (when the band was known as the Thamesmen).

That is, their softer numbers were what made them famous… and as the band tries to cling to fame, so they become harder and harder, undergoing a sclerosis that does not go with the flow (as all flow-ers otherwise do). Or rather, they seek not to go with the flow and instead to be in control… but like all human lives, theirs, too, is a catalogue of errors, a series of failures to escape time, change, becoming, 0 and flow. And in recognising their failed attempts to escape time, we can perhaps recognise our own hubristic desire not to die – and so we laugh, since in the comic moment we do indeed come into contact with a little bit of death.

The clown is a twisted clone. That is, in the pursuit of cloning, humans attempt to live forever and to defeat time, since we will be able to repeat our lives over and over and never die. This is the phallic, patriarchal and planet-destroying quest to become what Noah Yuval Harari might term homo deus.

The clown, meanwhile, is a bit like the clone – but also different, in the sense that the clown like the mime mimics/clones reality, but in such a way that reality is presented to us as if new. That is, reality itself becomes new, soft and a force of becoming/change/time (0), rather than something hardened and never-changing and which, petrified, escapes the ravages of time (1).

The clown – who always speaks truth to power (itself a system of 1) – thus presents us not with reality as we want it to be (under control) but as it is (out of our control, changing us). The clown gives us comedy and a little bit of death (which is why people can also often be afraid of clowns, and why the clown has indeed become something to fear in our era of never wanting to die and seeking permanent life).

Cinema itself might be a tool for presenting idealised versions of ourselves back to us – a tool for escaping the ravages of time as we become permanent in images, or, to take Roy Scranton‘s twist on Harari’s homo deus, to become light, or homo lux.

But if much cinema wants to do this – to show us as permanent and never-changing, halting change – cinema can also show to us change itself, as well as being a force of change. Cinema, then, can be a clone of reality, a virtual world in which we hide from time, death and becoming (1). Or it can be a clown that reminds us that we are all going to die (0) and that our efforts to escape death (1) indeed constitute the human comedy.

Indeed, in the language of Henri Bergson, comedy is essentially the exposition of le mécanique plaqué sur du vivant, or the mechanical mask that we aspire to put on living flesh, the hardness that we use to cover our softness, which, in being exposed as precisely a mask shows us our inner softness.

With This is Spinal Tap, cinema is thus a indeed clown – and this is part of the film’s power.

If the statuesque and petrified Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaims in his movies that he’ll ‘be back,’ what he suggests is a desire to become rock solid, hard bodied, permanent and never-changing. To seek always to be back – i.e. to have a spine – is to seek always to return, to control time, not to die.

This is Spinal Tap, though, taps/puts a hole (0) in that spine (1) and takes us into a less vertebrate realm. The film passingly references The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese, USA, 1978), thus situating itself knowingly in the genre of the concert film, the music documentary, or what director Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner) calls the rockumentary. By extension, the film is also a backstage musical, i.e. showing us behind the scenes of the spectacles that we otherwise see on stage.

One of the great music documentaries is D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (USA, 1967), a film that takes us behind the scenes of Bob Dylan’s controversial tour to the UK in 1965 (and during which he also tried to solidify his music style by playing electric guitar).

Backness – or the spine – is key to music and films about it. In asking us not to look back, Pennebaker suggests how it is perhaps best not to peer too hard into the life of Dylan, or else we might discover that the legend is just a man – and one who quite deliberately seeks to erect his phallic identity (the would-be 1 of Bob Dylan as opposed to Robert Allen Zimmerman, the musician’s birth name).

Pennebaker’s film opens with a tracking shot of Dylan walking from his dressing room and on to the stage, thus announcing that his film has access to Dylan backstage, as well as access to how he constructs his onstage front. This is Spinal Tap, meanwhile, follows the band around backstage – only for them never to find the stage and thus not to get to the front.

While the film does allow Nigel and the band a final Japanese comeback (Spinal Tap are back!), in showing that they are only back (only backstage?), This is Spinal Tap deconstructs their spinal/solid/phallic aspirations, their thisness, their haecceity, their addiction to the spine – as expressed in David’s lyric in the typically puerile ‘Big Bottom’: ‘how can I leave this behind?’

Although there were numerous mockumentaries prior to Spinal Tap, with Luis Buñuel’s Las Hurdes/Land Without Bread (Spain, 1933) being perhaps one of the earliest and best known, This is Spinal Tap nonetheless remains perhaps the landmark mockumentary, the film that defines the genre.

In this way, the film is an event, perhaps unique, and in this it is arguably itself a 1. However, in being a film that softens the distinctions between fiction and documentary, it is also a soft film, a film that has a 0 in addition to its 1, and which thus constitutes an openness to the outside.

It is this openness to the outside, its own open-mouthed 0, that makes the film new, and thus a landmark film, even if it is not the first of its kind. As all 1s must be born from 0s (vaginas), then so do we see that 0 is (without wishing to be too heteronormative) the defining feature of human life. The film is a 0, or a cipher, that allows us to deconstruct the 1 of phallic, patriarchal society.

What is more, the film would seem to allow Nigel to come to understand this, as he progresses from wearing his skeleton t-shirt that depicts his hard, vertebrate self to professing that he likes tinned tuna because it has no bones.

No bones about it: This is Spinal Tap is a great film, and it is so because of its softness, including both the softness of and the film’s softness towards its character, as well as the softness of the film’s structure as we do not phallically/linearly progress along a solid line, but instead meander about, get lost, find new things, have chance encounters, and in the process open our mouths, laugh, let the outside in, die a little (oh/0 to die laughing!), and become new, wiser people as a result of our encounter with the clown.

The digital era may yet be the era of comedy, where we learn to live with our planet rather than destroy it, and to live with each other rather than to humiliate and exploit each other (Nigel and David deny but cannot but subtly express their latent misogyny and racism as the film progresses).

It is an era in which we learn to let in and to remember that we come from (and may well return to) the 0. The spine will be tapped and the phallus will fall – and we will move from a hard ‘boner’/boney culture to one of flaccidity, softness, touch and kindness. An era of comedy, where we laugh and in the process love. Let This is Spinal Tap be remembered for tapping early on into the societal changes that are taking place.

 

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