Brief thoughts on People Power Bombshell: The Diary of Vietnam Rose (John Torres, Philippines, 2016)

In 1936, Joseph Cornell reworked footage of East of Borneo (George Melford, USA, 1931) in order to create Rose Hobart (USA, 1936), an experimental short in which the meaning of Rose Hobart is changed as a result of how Cornell re-edits the Melford flick.

Meanwhile, east of Borneo is the Philippines, where another Rose – Vietnam Rose – was supposed to bloom in the 1980s, but who never really saw the light of day.

That is, Philippine director Celso Advento Castillo, the so-called ‘Saviour of Filipino cinema,’ in the 1980s tried to complete a feature film called The Diary of Vietnam Rose with the 19-year-old film star Liz Alindogan.

Alas, however, the film was abandoned after running into logistical and financial issues – with Alindogan herself being so traumatised by the experience that she basically disappeared from cinema for several years, having also functioned as one of the film’s producers.

It was only 30 years later, then, that John Torres put together People Power Bombshell: The Diary of Vietnam Rose, a film that combines footage from some 20 reels recovered from the production of that film with original material made to look like it was shot at the time, and with various experiments in sound also playing a part of the film’s fabric (at times we hear dialogue from the characters in the scenes, but at other times we also hear voices delivering inner monologues and other sounds).

Being shot in 1986, the film was also made at the time of the People Power Revolution that led to the toppling of the regime of Ferdinand Marcos. Also known as the Yellow Revolution as a result of the prominence of yellow ribbons during the non-violent anti-government protests, and as the EDSA Revolution (EDSA stands for Epifania de los Santos Avenue – a chief artery in Manila), the moment brought about the end of martial law and the reinstatement of democracy in the Philippines.

In some senses, then, Torres’ film and the People Power Revolution resonate with each other – although the political aspects of the film are not what I shall focus on here. Suffice to say that as The Diary of Vietnam Rose fell apart, so in some senses did the Marcos regime. But it is not that Castillo or Alindogan are necessarily the equivalent of Marcos, or even that the film’s troubled production – in various ways involving but perhaps also exploiting locals in the remote location where the film was made.

Rather, the fact that the film fell into ruins bespeaks the state of the Philippines in 1986, such that the revolution took place. And where cinema as a force for change found it hard to survive under the Marcos regime, perhaps it is only since that the Philippines has  been able to develop a cinema worthy of the name.

The last paragraph is an overstatement. One need only think of the likes of Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal to realise that oppositional cinema was in some senses doing well under the Marcos regime.

And one might suggest that much mainstream cinema in the Philippines today is pretty mediocre, melodramatic fare – suggesting that cinema as a force for change still struggles to eke out an existence in the Philippines, as it does in many other places around the world.

But what I mean by saying that the Philippines has since developed a cinema worthy of the name is that flowers do grow on the ruins of the Philippines, with People Power Bombshell being a literal case in point as Vietnam Rose blooms a new life – different to the one that Castillo and Alindogan had intended, but which nonetheless is alive, and which suggests future life for the country in spite of ongoing corruption and other controversies. And in breathing new life into the world, People Power Bombshell is thus exemplary of a cinema that can bring about social change.

What is most fascinating, then, is that new cinema, in the form of a rose (red, yellow, pink or blue – as per the blue tint that Joseph Cornell typically added to Rose Hobart by projecting the film through blue glass), flowers where old cinema is thought to have died – east of Borneo, in the Sulu Sea that separates Borneo from the Philippines.

This creates a kind of paradox: this is both cinema but also not cinema, a new cinema born from the old cinema, a cinema that is also a non-cinema – much as Adrian D Mendizabal suggests People Power Bombshell features non-images here.

Indeed, the film shows the original reels from 1986 converted to digital images, but which have not been cleaned up or restored, but which wear on their sleeves the rot and ravage of time. Akin to the work of Bill Morrison, then, Torres’ film sees glitches and imperfections in the aged image not as faults, but precisely as expressive forces in the film – which becomes visually arresting, hard to read, but truly beautiful as a result.

What is more, as flowers grow from the ruins of cinema, so do begin to think of the film as being like another plant form, the rush. For, being made up not so much of finished sequences as rushes, People Power Bombshell sees the rushes grow green, suggesting a sort of amphibian cinema that rises from the depths – again giving testimony to the power of life to continue in spite of the death of any individuals.

Yongchun Fu, Maria Elena Indelicato and Zitong Qiu refer to recent Chinese blockbusters that are aimed at global audiences and which sometimes even involve western stars, such as The Great Wall (Zhang Yimou, USA/China/Hong Kong/Australia, Canada, 2016) as Huallywood – named after huaxia, or China, from the character 華, or hua.

However, perhaps we might make a semi-pun and suggest that this flowering cinema that blooms out of the ruins of the old cinema is also a different kind of Huallywood, but this time based on 花/hua, which is the Chinese for flower. Huallywood is cinema as a flower, which does not cut and shoot in the violent way that traditional (western) cinema does, but which produces new life from cuttings and shoots that grow upwards even amongst the ruins of the Third World.

In her recent Ex-Centric Cinema: Giorgio Agamben and Film Archaeology, Janet Harbord suggests that cinema is less about movement and scenes in which people set out to achieve pre-established goals via recognised and recognisable means, but more about gestures and bodies that move in strange and peculiar ways, which themselves affect us in ways that we cannot predict.

In this way, cinema in its commodified, mainstream form is about controlling bodies. But a cinema that moves away from itself (an ‘ex-centric cinema,’ which is not far removed from what I have – including in relation to Philippine cinema – called ‘non-cinema‘), sees bodies set free, as new life is breathed into them and where like a flower they flow.

Being made up of sometimes indiscernible, sometimes random and sometimes striking images, People Power Bombshell becomes a cinema that, in Harbord’s language,

deactivate[s] the smooth flow of commodity images. Cut, removed, repositioned and replayed, the naturalised sequences of ideal bodies and lifestyles become jagged-edged, unruly, uncomfortable to watch… In contrast to the perfect surface of the commodity image as it is put into circulation, the cinematic image comes to bear the marks of its exhibition, or to put it a different way around, it loses the sheen of its status as fixed record and moves into a zone where recording and transmission become indiscernible… [This is] the exhibition of cinema’s materiality as it surfaces in celluloid, video tape and digital video discs. In the glitches, sparkle and crackle that pattern the images… the commodity is subjected to the registration of its history, to contingency, finitude and decay. (Harbord 2016: 102-103)

In other words, in its very imperfection, the image demonstrates that the cinematic image is not eternal, unchanging and fixed forever – an eternity that is part and parcel of its power, in that only gods can stop time and are eternal, and if cinema is a commodity that has no flaws, then cinema as a commodity becomes, or at least aspires to be, god. That is the world of commodities, the world of capitalism.

In showing us that cinema, like the world, changes, and that it even dies… we learn to understand that life goes on, that things need not and will not remain the same, and that other worlds are possible.

May seven billion more flowers bloom on the ruins of cinema-capital and in the realm of non-cinema.

Many thanks to Aperture Asia & Pacific Film Festival for screening the film at the Close-Up Film Centre in London.

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The fidelity and treachery of images (thoughts inspired by Maryam Tafakory and John Torres)

What is a title?

In some senses, a title gives to things an authority, a name. Something that is titled is also entitled. To have a title, to be titled: these are things that connote importance.

A title can also sum up a work of art, or even a human being. Or rather, the title Lord Snodgrass not only sums up a human being, but it also covers up that human being. For, ‘Lord Snodgrass’ tells us little about a flesh and blood person who has weaknesses and foibles like everyone else. Instead, the title becomes inhuman, a symbol of power. If you don’t have a title, you are nothing.

There is naturally a tradition within pictorial art – but less so in other forms – for works not to carry titles (even if they carry signatures).

But in film, it is quite rare for a work to be untitled.

Nonetheless, titles clearly are important.

But if titles wield power and impose meaning upon a person, then they might also do the same for a work of art, including a film.

As ‘Lord Snodgrass’ takes us away from a flesh and blood human being, then, does a film title not in some senses take us away also from the film itself?

Perhaps it is for this reason that John Torres gives to one of his short films the improbable title of Wala kaming pakialam sa demokrasya. Ang gusto namin: pag-ibig, pag-asa at ang kamukha nito/We Don’t Care About Democracy. This Is What We Want: Love, Hope and Its Many Faces (Philippines, 2010).

In its very unwieldiness, the title gets us away from an imposed meaning, and instead perhaps reminds us of how titles impose meanings, thereby perhaps allowing the film to ‘speak for itself’ – without the title interfering.

Indeed, in giving to us an unrememberable and convoluted title, perhaps Torres asks us to get away from normal cinema, which is defined by titles, and into a new realm of cinema, perhaps even a non-cinema (as per the non-films that Torres’ Philippine compatriot Khavn de la Cruz creates – often using equally impossible titles), in which we see images not constricted by the meanings of words and titles, but images that speak for themselves as images. Strange, alien, perhaps undecipherable – the essence of cinema, but which by virtue of being unquantifiable and unsellable without titles, language and meaning, become non-cinema because not ripe for capitalist exploitation.

Except for the fact that Torres’ short film is all about titles, because as the action of the film unfolds – as actors Edgardo Maynar and Manilyn Glemer discuss their relationship on a bed – we get simultaneous English-language and Mandarin titles sprawling across the bottom and the right-hand side of the screen respectively.

Similarly, Maryam Tafakory’s I Have Sinned a Rapturous Sin (Iran/UK, 2018) also involves titles working their way into the fabric of her short film – be they written in white on a black cloth as she writes out the words of Forough Farrokhzad’s poem, ‘Sin‘ (from her collection The Wall), or as words from the poem appearing in various sizes across the frame of the images of her film.

It is widely proven that when viewers watch a film with subtitles, their eyes spend a long time looking at the subtitles in order to read them, meaning that their eyes cannot spend so long looking at the image itself. Especially if the film involves fast motion and a fast cutting rate, then this means that viewers watching a film with subtitles miss vast amounts of visual information presented to them – more than the already huge amounts of information to which they do not attend even when the film does not have subtitles.

It is notable that Torres’ film involves a discussion of fidelity, while Tafakory’s is also infused with exploring active female desire in the context of an Iran that seeks systematically to repress that desire, as is demonstrated in the film by the use of footage of imams and other figures of authority explaining how to prevent women from feeling desire (feeding them lettuce is put forward as a decent ploy).

The films do not quite use titles in the same way, but they do in some senses reflect upon the same issue, which might be as follows: to spend one’s time looking at the subtitles rather than the remaining contents of the image is thus in some senses to be unfaithful to the image.

Indeed, in I Have Sinned… one of the talking heads from the film’s found footage suggests that to look is at the root of desire, and that if one does not look then one might not fall into sin.

Perhaps it is true of films: titles (which perhaps erroneously are referred to most commonly as ‘subtitles,’ even though they dominate our attention) force us to look away from the film itself and to desire instead not the film as it is, but the film as it is controlled by the use of language.

More than this.

For if titles ascribe meaning to images that might otherwise remain free and ambiguous, titles in part do this, then, by imposing their own rhythm on the images, which in some senses is to impose a certain narrative on the images that might otherwise defy that narrative.

So in some senses, then, titles impose a temporality or a rhythm on images – they subject images to the time of translation and control – rather than allowing images to be free, to breathe at their own rate, to be themselves.

Titles, then, in some senses betray images – as René Magritte perhaps knew all too well in adding to his 1948 painting of a pipe the title Ceci n’est pas une pipe, or ‘this is not a pipe.’ And what is the official title of the painting? La trahison des images, or ‘the treachery of images.’ For the title betrays the image, just as the title also forces the viewer to betray the image by imposing on that image a meaning that curtails that image’s potential to mean so much more. (Khavn may yet have it right when he says of all of his movies that ‘this is not a film.’)

treachery-of-images

But there is yet more.

For as Torres’ film continues, the titles come to speak for the male character, suggesting his own thoughts of infidelity to his partner. That is, the titles do indeed come to signify infidelity – to the woman and perhaps to the cinematic medium, but reducing to literature something that is cinematic (just as cinema routinely is reduced to scripts by film industries that must pre-approve all movies in their literary form before they even have a chance to become movies at all).

For Tafakory, meanwhile, the whisper of her voiceover, the distributed nature of her titles (sometimes hiding in the frame, sometimes announcing themselve boldly) and the pictorial nature of the Farsi script all ask the viewer to indeed be unfaithful in some senses to the image, but in other ways the titles also ask our eyes to caress the image, to hunt for the titles, which themselves are incomplete.

That is, Tafakory’s use of titles means that titles work against themselves (even if in some respects it chimes with the increasing desire for film producers to create expressive titles that are embedded into the film’s mise-en-scène, including for those hard-of-hearing audience members that need the titles in order to follow the film’s action).

While Torres plays explicitly with infidelity and treachery in his titles, Tafakory induces a sensual relationship between text and image, as the female figure that we also see remains mysteriously hidden behind her hair – in a fashion not dissimilar to Mania Akbari under bath foam in her and Mark Cousins’ other homage to Forough Farrokhzad, Life May Be (UK/Iran, 2014), and in opposition to the speaking imams who are all given faces. It is as if language here is courted precisely in order to bring us to a ‘sinful’ relationship with the film – which wants to explore the poetry of sin and the sin of poetry rather than the straitjacket of prosaic desire.

(My memory is not working properly – but the use of the whisper also recalls the female whispers that are used extensively in I think Samira Makhmalbaf’s Sib/The Apple, Iran/France, 1998… but my brain not be remembering properly.)

In both cases, then, the ongoing and problematic relationship between language and images is intelligently and beguilingly explored, unsettling at all times our understanding that a film has a singular, controlled existence.

For, if we are not sure whether we fully understand everything, and if we are not sure which ‘version’ of the film is the correct one (with or wthout subtitles? even if with subtitles, which titles?), then in some senses the film remains mysterious, sensual, other and alive. We can have a loving relationship with such a film, rather than the sort of controlling relationship that patriarchal logocentrism claims is love, but really is a kind of imprisonment.

Torres and Tafakory thus paradoxically set cinema free. Long may they continue to do so.

*The screening of these short films was part of Day for Night’s Asia through the Aperture workshop held at the University of Westminster on Tuesday 18 September 2018, and which was jointly organised by the Centre for Research and Education in Arts and Media (CREAM), the University of Westminster, and Aperture: Asia & Pacific Film Festival.

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Diamond Island (Davy Chou, Cambodia/France/Germany/Qatar/Thailand, 2016)

I was fortunate enough to catch the UK premiere of Davy Chou’s Diamond Island at the Aperture: Asia & Pacific Film Festival as organised by Day for Night at the Close-Up Film Centre on Monday 17 September 2018.

The film is a beautiful movie told largely in the neorealist tradition, using non-professional actors, being shot on location, and having as its primary concern the social mobility of two brothers, Bora (Sobon Nuon) and Solei (Cheanick Nov), in contemporary Phnom Penh.

For, Bora, having recently moved to the city to work on the building site for the luxury development from which the film takes its title, runs into his brother, Solei, after not having seen him for five years.

Bora has come to town to raise money to help his mother, who is ill, while Solei, having left home for unknown reasons, makes his way in the capital as a well-to-do student who is being sponsored by an American.

The brothers reconnect and Solei begins to help Bora financially, promising to take him abroad – and dragging him away not only from his friends on the building site, but also from Aza (Madeza Chhem), whom Bora fancies, but whom Solei tells him to leave behind.

What plays out is a film that is ponderous and yet visually arresting, with no real recourse to melodrama, although Chou does use both atmospheric musical sequences and the odd ‘experimental’ technique (e.g. split screens) in order to give to the film a visual and aural fabric that takes Diamond Island away from neorealism and into the realm of poetic realism.

In particular, the film’s lighting scheme adds an expressive element to the film’s mise-en-scène, and it is this that I would like to discuss here.

For, Diamond Island is defined regularly by a blue hue that emanates most often from neon lights, digital screens, moments that take place at dusk, the sky, the sky as reflected on occasion in the water that surrounds the titular island, and various objects in the mise-en-scène, including pallets, t-shirts and pipes.

However, it is in particular the blue neon lights upon which I’d like to concentrate.

For, consistently throughout the film, we see a cool neon blue light permeate the space of the film, particularly via the lights on the mopeds and smartphone screens that the richer kids in the film can afford, and which we see at various points being used by youths during Chou’s various montage sequences.

In other words, the blue light becomes associated with digital technology in the film – as per the blue light emitted by phone screens and which disrupts the production of melanin, and consequently disrupts sleep patterns, converting humans from entities that live in circadian rhythms into beings that live according to the permanent now of 24:7 capital and the attention economy.

Becoming blue, then, is akin to becoming economically successful – having a screen existence in which one peddles one’s own image rather than singing other people’s songs off a karaoke screen as per Bora’s poorer friends.

Soon after Bora’s arrival at the Diamond Island building site, Chou cuts to a 3D digital animation that offers us a simulated fly-through of the hotel and tourist site that is soon to appear on the island.

The moment is notable both for the digital nature of the images and for the sensation of flight through the space that the animation provokes. This compares significantly with the relatively static camera that follows Bora at pedestrian pace and level during the majority of the film.

Not long after Bora has re-found Solei, Solei takes him out on his moped – and now Chou uses a drone to follow Bora, Solei and his richer friends as they ride around the island and at one point also into Phnom Penh.

It is not that Solei introduces Bora to a world of increased mobility; it is that this mobility is also associated with elevation and the ability to rise above the ground and dirt that Bora normally works on the building site.

Humans under capitalism wish to head upwards – to disconnect themselves from the ground and to become airborne. That is, and as per ‘blue sky thinking,’ they want to head up into the blue. To become blue, then, is to become integrated into capitalism by virtue of becoming rich.

Indeed, it is perhaps coincidental but nonetheless telling that Bora’s transition out of the building site is achieved by taking a job managing the café that Solei’s friend Blue (Batham Oun) sets up in Phnom Penh.

In addition, Bora accompanies Solei and his friends to a party in an empty apartment, where Bora sleeps for a period on a lavish bed that has blue neon lights around its head. It is also in this space that the friends gather to look at some 3D holograms – the height of digital imaging technologies. Notably, one of the animations is of a blue jellyfish – as if the blue light of digital technology also took on a tentacular and Cthulhoid quality – as befits the work on digital technology and tentacled sea creatures that David H Fleming and I have been developing, and the first published iteration of which will soon appear in the journal Film-Philosophy.

The promise of the capitalist blue sky may in fact be the appearance ‘out of the blue’ of an alien, digital intelligence that is not the culmination of humanity, but its very replacement.

And if Cambodia is still marked by the history of the Khmer Rouge, as per Chou’s last film, the documentary Golden Slumbers (France/Cambodia, 2011), then, without wishing to make too crass a pun, then the toll on the new Cambodia that emerges along with global capital might be characterised as a Khmer bleu.

Or, to link this film’s fairground sequences to another ‘blue’ film that also uses the fairground as an important backdrop for its descent into greed, this might be Cambodia’s ‘blue ruin.’

The ultraviolet quality of some of this blue light also brings to mind the possibility of seeing in the dark and different colours on the light spectrum that typically remain invisible.

As Bora progresses into visibility, then, he is contrasted relatively strongly with the more telluric hues of the his construction worker friends, who continue at the film’s end to live on Diamond Island, eking out existences that may not have the mobility that Bora comes to enjoy, but which nonetheless have an enduring dignity that Chou’s film sensitively captures.

 

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A brief note on The Predator (Shane Black, USA/Canada, 2018)

The Predator is old-school Shane Black with smart talk, back chat, banter and gags all amidst an ultra-violent tale of aliens invading Earth.

There are some zeitgeist references, including how the predators are preparing to come to Earth to inhabit it as the human species dies out according to climate change (we may last one, maybe two more generations, the film says).

But really the film is just about sniper daddy Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) learning to find a meaningful relationship with his autistic son Rory (Jacob Tremblay), whose autism is linked to an ability directly to understand the aliens, something that chimes with Steven Shaviro’s assertion that autism is not solipsism but a kind of democratic vision of the world – in that the autist prioritises no one piece of information over others, but instead sees the world in a flat (if affectless?) fashion.

In addition to being about fathers and sons, then, the film is also a reworking of The A-Team (Stephen J Cannell and Frank Lupo, USA, 1983-1987), except with a slightly larger squad, in that Quinn is Hannibal, Nebraska Williams (Trevante Rhodes) is BA, Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key) and Baxley (Thomas Jane) are combined Murdoch, except that it is Lynch (Alfie Allen) who is on hand to fly helicopters, and then with Quinn himself and Nettles (Augusto Aguilera) being a good and bad Faceman respectively. This then makes Olivia Munn’s expert biologist Casey Bracket the equivalent of Amy.

Indeed, thinking about it as I write, the set-up is also not wholly dissimilar to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Kevin Eastman et al, USA, 1987-1996).

With Munn’s role in #metoo in mind, in that she came forward to discuss harassment by director Brett Ratner in late 2017, one wonders that the film might make itself less blokey and perhaps have a more pronounced female presence, as men – both human and alien – beat their chests for the 107 minutes of the film’s duration.

But, all that said, I really only want to highlight one aspect of the film that I found interesting.

The predators bring with them this time some alien dogs. At one point Nebraska shoots one of the dogs in the head at point blank range. However, he fails to kill it – meaning that the alien dog thing recurs throughout the film – but this time as more or less Casey’s pet.

Indeed, it is suggested at one point that Nebraska did not kill, but rather simply lobotomised the beast.

What is interesting, though, is that when we first meet him, Nebraska and the rest of Group 2 are being transferred to a special installation precisely to be lobotomised – each for slightly different reasons, but with Quinn going because he has witnessed a predator in person.

Nebraska’s reason for going is that he shot his commanding officer in a fit of rebellion… only for us subsequently to reveal that he was his own CO, and that the person whom he shot was himself…. in the head. Only he missed.

In other words, not only is a link set up between Nebraska and the dog, in that he shoots both himself and the dog in the head – and yet fails to kill them. But also if Nebraska has already lobotomised himself by shooting himself in the head, then the fact that he is a kick-ass soldier who seems to feel no pain and who ultimately…

SPOILERS

… sacrifices himself by jumping into the jet engine of an alien spacecraft in order to bring it down, suggests that lobotomisations take place not to stop these men from being soldiers, but precisely in order to militarise them.

Indeed, that the Group 2 soldiers all suffer from PTSD, madness and more, The Predator would seem to suggest that these things are not the consequences of war, but the pre-requisites of war.

That the predators do not kill for survival but for sport is mentioned several times as grounds for the name being a misnomer: the predators are not predators but sports hunters.

Meanwhile, Quinn tells his son that he does not enjoy killing… before then confessing – as he kills two fellow American soldiers – that he does. That is, Quinn is a killing machine, while his son also has no qualms about having murdered a punk metal fan who hurls an object at him when he is out trick-or-treating.

Indeed, Rory explains that it is the weapons that do the killing of their own accord when the bearer of the weapons is attacked. Total fantasy of disconnect: I did not kill you, my weapon did.

But more than this.

For, at one point government agent Traeger (Sterling K Brown) describes a dead alien with the n-word, thereby creating a link between soldiers, animals, lobotomised creatures and black people.

Naturally, the film does not explore these associations any further (and it is worth noting that Traeger is himself black).

But if we add in to the mix that actor Rhodes is most famous for his part as homosexual gangster Black in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (USA, 2016), then there are yet further associations in the film with oppression, minorities, abuse and violence.

That everyone ultimately subordinates themselves for the reunion of the white father-son dyad… would suggest the sacrifice of these minorities for the purposes of protecting the planet from aliens is really to maintain the status quo of power and not to bring about any social change.

What seems a lost opportunity for an interesting ending, even if unlikely in the face of the film’s conservative heart, is that rather than having the predator-killing technology turn up as a gift from a rogue predator at the film’s climax, the predator should have delivered to Earth an alien as per AVP: Alien vs Predator (Paul WS Anderson, USA/UK/Czech Republic/Canada/Germany, 2004)… in order to unleash a whole new series of chaos that might indeed help defeat not only the predators, but also the dominant white men at the same time…

 

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Towards a natural language of cinema: Island (Steven Eastwood, UK, 2017)

Steven Eastwood’s Island is a documentary about death and dying. It is set on the UK’s Isle of Wight, where we follow four main people, Alan, Jamie, Roy and Mary, as they suffer from terminal diseases.

The film is sensitive and beautiful, although surely it may not be for everyone given its subject matter and different people’s experiences of/with death and/or their attitudes towards it.

It is not that one can really give spoilers for a film that is about death and dying; the inevitable is bound to happen. And yet, I shall be discussing the last images of this film later on in this blog, so be warned that it does reveal in some respects how the film ends.

However, I would like to start with the opening image, which is of a ferry emerging from fog as it heads towards the Isle of Wight. For, what I wish to suggest in this blog is that cinema can offer us a natural language, not in the popular sense that everyone can more or less understand it, but in the sense that the world (nature) possesses a kind of language that is there for us to decipher if we so choose to. In this way, not only can cinema help paradoxically connect us to the natural world, but it can show us not just metaphors of the world, but a sense of its natural language. That is, cinema can be a system not just for symbols and meaning, but for a sort of folk or natural wisdom.

In order to take our first steps in this direction, let us consider the opening image. Fog is of course an indicator of mystery, and thus the arrival of the unknown, while the ferry signifies transition as one passes over the sea from one location to the next. Meanwhile, the sea itself suggests a realm that is more or less alien to the human. Yes, we can swim and we have invented submarines, but on the whole the depth of the ocean remains hard for humans to fathom. In this sense, the ocean represents a sort of alien presence, something along the surface of which we can drift, but down into which we cannot descend without often dying.

From its opening image, then, Island suggests the arrival of the unknown, almost invisible because shrouded in fog, and yet which is here perhaps to transport us into a new dimension.

We might say that the film therefore deals in metaphors, or at the very least that it offers us a specifically human perspective on matters (since fog is not necessarily mysterious to fog itself, just as the depths of the ocean are not alien to giant squids; that is, the meaning of fog is different to different species). Nonetheless, the film invites us to connect with the world presented in these images, and to read fog, the sea and a ferry not just in a literal sense, but in terms of what they mean… what they say to us about our own relationship with the world.

There is a discussion of fairies and then angels in the film. As the French philosopher Michel Serres might suggest, angels are evidence of and provide scope for us to perceive hidden dimensions within our world. It is not that we see cherubs with halos as per classical religious iconography. Rather, every encounter that we have and which allows us to see the world anew is in effect an encounter with an angel; marvelling over a gust of wind, overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers, seeing an animal up close. In other words, angels open up new angles of the world, showing us hidden dimensions that lie within plain sight, and yet which often we do not see. To see an otherwise hidden dimension, then, is not suddenly to find secret realities in the sense of popular science fiction film. Rather, it is to realise how limited my vision is of reality when I do not notice animals for what they are, when I do not consider the importance of the wind and when I do not expect strangers to be kind. To be reminded of those things reveals to us the limited nature of our own vision, allowing us to see reality with fresh eyes, renewing us thanks to this encounter with the alien angel that takes us out of our fixed selves and in the process reminds us precisely that we are not fixed, but always changing. In this sense, an encounter with an angel is to experience time, to be in what Alan in the film describes as the now – rather than perceiving reality only in terms of what we want to get out of it (projecting the future on to the present) or in terms of how we have seen it in the past (projecting the past on to the present). To be in the presence of angels is to feel presence.

These hidden dimensions, then, are not hidden from the world; they are simply hidden from us owing to the limitations of our vision, limitations that are not just biological but also shaped by culture. These dimensions are, like the character of Nothing in Boris ‘s In Praise of Nothing (Serbia/Croatia/France, 2017), which also is in cinemas at present and which makes for an interesting companion to Island, around us at all times.

Death itself, then, is also an alien and mysterious other that we typically do not see, and yet which is perhaps always only ever with us. Indeed, if time is change, or becoming, then that which is at any given moment in time must die, and that which was not comes into existence, or is born. Death is everywhere and everywhen – and Island helps us to understand that.

For, humanity may fetishise the dry land of life, but it is only an island surrounded by death. But more than this, as the road leads directly into the sea without a clear cut-off point between the two, so does life lead into death and vice versa.

Indeed, as John Donne famously said, no man is an island. Humans are all porous, consistently excreting liquids and gases via their major orifices and through their very skin. Humans try to close themselves off in many ways – including via the way in which they cocoon themselves away from death. And yet they never succeed, since humans are always being opened up.

To become an island, to separate life from death, to shut oneself off from others is to be closed. To be open, though, is to have open eyes, an open mouth, to cry, to scream, in short to feel and thus to live, to be alive. To be alive is to be open to death. And to live is to be open to others in terms of both giving and receiving, to be an angel to all those around us just as all those around us can be angels to us.

The Greeks described the highest form of love as ἀγάπη, or ‘agape,’ and which consisted of charity: to be open to or to be an angel to others in the form of giving. As Alan dies, his mouth also lies agape; he is open, including being open to death.

More than this. As Alan dies we hear director Steven Eastwood begin to snore as he has fallen asleep in the room with Alan. It is oddly as if as Alan lies agape and breathes his last, Eastwood’s mouth itself falls open and he begins to receive Alan’s breath – as if the latter were an angel opening up Eastwood and the viewer of Island to new dimensions, to seeing that death is normal and everywhere and not a strange, alien object that we relegate to another dimension.

Remarkably, as Alan dies a nurse enters the room and stands in front of the camera, thereby making the film’s frame turn black. Alan’s open mouth has already been a black hole, a void, an impenetrable presence within the film’s frame – and now the whole frame goes black.

The nurse says that Alan is dead – before curiously saying that another breath may yet be drawn. The boundary between life and death is perhaps, like the human, itself porous. And darkness is not what lies beyond the frame or which cinema destroys by shining a light on to it; rather, darkness is within the frame.

Even if only by chance, then Island allows us to see the darkness that is not just there at night (and which through electric lighting we try to relegate and banish from our world, meaning that we cannot see the stars), but which perhaps also is always with us, like the void that is Alan’s open mouth.

That Eastwood sleeps – and perhaps dreams at this moment – also suggests the presence of an alien presence – not just in the sense that we might all be dreaming our lives away, but in the sense that sleep allows the brain unconsciously to store memories and so on, with dream perhaps consciously registering some of this process. As humans who bodies run more or less entirely unconsciously, we have hidden dimensions within ourselves that we do not know, which are alien to us, and yet which dream – in all of dreams’ senselessness – can reveal to us (notably Alan also discusses dreams in the film).

Owls appear at various points in the film. Steven Eastwood suggested that they have no metaphorical function within the film. But not only are they quite literally winged creatures within the film, but they also bear other qualities that bespeak a kind of natural affinity with death which means that humans will perhaps ‘naturally’ become curious about them as death becomes us.

It is not simply that owls are supposedly wise creatures. But owls also are associated with the night and seeing (in) the dark. More than this, the owl in various languages is considered to have an onomatopoeic root (‘owl’ is supposed to be not far from the bird’s call), with that root being a kind of harder ‘boo’ sound in various languages (Greek βύᾱς, Latin būbō, Spanish buhó, French hibou). In other words, as per the idea of shouting ‘boo!’ at someone or the concept of a sonic boom, the owl signals the sudden irruption of a hidden dimension within the world – with owls belonging to the order of strigiformes, with this term itself being derived from στρίγξ, or ‘strinx,’ meaning a screecher (as well as from the Latin strix, meaning a furrow, a channel or a groove, as if the owl clawed out new dimensions in old dimensions). As the Giant (Carel Struycken) says to Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) in Twin Peaks (David Lynch, USA, 1990), ‘the owls are not what they seem.’

In some senses, Island is a film about more or less unseen women preparing men for death. That is, the primarily women nurses on the Isle of Wight are angels helping men.

In this way, these angels who are open to death help to make men open to death – since it is the world of men that is the world most often closed off from death. The world of closure – man as separate from nature, man as separate from each other, man as wanting to expel darkness and death from existence in order to preserve itself forever rather than to become or to change – is thus also the world of patriarchy and capitalism. The nurses represent a different world, an open and caring world (that nonetheless increasingly in the UK is under attack as healthcare becomes increasingly privatised).

The film ends with shots of a television screen in which a documentary shows soil pushing forward fresh flowers, before the film cuts to Mary, before then ending.

Without necessarily even wanting to, then, Island suggests that with death comes rebirth and that this process is a female one. That openness to becoming is thus a more female process than it is a masculine one, even if men in death are helped by women to become open to what faces them.

(Notably, Mary had not died by the time that filming for Island had stopped.)

Thinking back to the owl, then, Island strictly (strix-ly) channels the reality that surrounds it. In this groove, we see a world in which the boundary between life and death becomes blurred, and in which a female perspective might help us to see through the patriarchal world of division and closure.

A couple of further thoughts remain.

Firstly, cotton plays a key role in the film as we see pyjamas, sheets and various other articles made of cotton covering much of the frame at various points.

What is more, we might reflect upon how if openness is in some senses a more ethical way of being with the world (being open to it, rather than shutting oneself off from it), then the film frame is always closed – a rectangular boundary separating what is in the frame from what is not in it. The frame of the cinematic image in some senses means that film only ever deals with metaphor.

Unless, that is, one breaks the frame – for example when Eastwood shares a cigarette with Alan, his hands coming into frame to hold it for him, or when we hear his voice. And of course when other figures come into frame, and when the participants in Eastwood’s documentary (perhaps including the owls) look directly at the camera and/or acknowledge the presence of their microphones.

What is more, the sheer duration of a good number of the shots – long, slow takes, with the film having only 140 or so shots in its 90-minute running time – also suggests a kind of out of the frame. Or at least an attempt to allow events to unfold at their own pace and not at that of the filmmaker. That is, reality determines the film rather than the film attempting to determine reality. By being open to this, the film does not simply offer us metaphors, but it allows the world to reveal itself and for us in some senses better to understand that world, since we see new and yet real dimensions within it, and thus come better to understand our relationship with it. If this is one of the major powers of cinema, then cinema can only do this by trying to get over or around the natural limit that is its frame – and to get us to think beyond the frame, just as Island wants us to see not just what is behind the fog, but the fog itself, and as it wants us to see not what the darkness conceals, but the darkness itself. A film that does this must be self-reflective or self-conscious, and this is truly the case with Island.

A final two thoughts.

Firstly, Isla is the name of Jamie’s daughter, whom we see singing songs from Frozen (Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, USA, 2013). One wonders whether Isla, as a female representative of the future, is also a key aspect of the demonstrating that no man is an island, even if men try to make rocks and islands of themselves (as per ‘I Am A Rock’ by Simon and Garfunkel).

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Steven Eastwood (centre, with his name projected on to his head), talks with Island producer Elhum Shakerifar (left) and Chris Harris of Picturehouse Central (right) as Jamie Gunnell looks back from the screen at a preview showing of Island on 10 September 2018.

Secondly, in response to a question at a Q&A screening of Island at the Picturehouse Central on Monday 10 September 2018 and in which a viewer asked why the film did not give intertitles during or at the end explaining to audiences not just who the people in the film are, but what happened to them , Eastwood remarked  that he did not consider markers regarding names, dates and so on as being important to his project. Indeed, dates do not, it would seem, help us to understand a life.

And yet, there is a set of dates that is given in the film right at the end of its credits – those of the late filmmaker Stuart Croft to whom Island is dedicated. Not in the film, one wonders nonetheless to what extent dates are an attempt for us to make sense of the alien nature of death when we have not had a chance to confront it (let us say, to grieve). When we are open to and live through death (when in some senses we expect it), then we can reach a state of presence and of time wherein we do not need dates at all. We can escape from death as a sudden and terrifying boom, instead looking it in the eye, normalising it and finding that mere numbers do no justice to death nor to the life with which it is entangled.

Posted in British cinema, Documentary, Film reviews, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Trying to comprehend Trump, Jacksonville, fake news, the World Cup and Crimea: Gaamer/Gamer (Oleg Sentsov, Ukraine, 2011)

It is perhaps strange to write a post about a film that is now seven years old.

However, I wanted to discuss Gamer, which I saw this week while staying in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, for a number of reasons – a couple of which are complicated by the deaths of three people, including shooter David Katz, at a gaming convention in Jacksonville, Florida, USA, this week.

Gamer tells the story of Alex, or Lyosha, whose gaming nickname is Koss (Vladislav Zhuk). He lives in a small town in Ukraine where he ditches school and shuns the company of others in order to spend his time playing Quake.

He is sufficiently good at the game that he progresses from his small town, Simferopol, to Kyiv and all the way to Los Angeles in the USA, where he comes second in a world championship.

However, this success seems to mean little to Koss, who remains affectless throughout more or less the whole film. As a younger gamer, Kopchick, comes to replace him as the leading gamer in his home town, Koss instead begins to find dignity in helping his mother (Zhanna Biryuk) work in a shop – with one reviewer commenting that this leads him to smile for the very first time in the film.

A movie about a kid who plays truant naturally recalls François Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cent Coups/The 400 Blows (France, 1959), with director Oleg Sentsov being wise to this point of comparison by having his movie end with a freeze frame on Koss – much as Truffaut’s ends with a freeze frame on Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud).

But more than this, the film is also striking for the way in which it, like many a film from the French New Wave, takes to the streets, mixing documentary and fiction as the film involves real gamers and footage taken from real-world gaming tournaments.

Shot on an estimated budget of US$20,000, the film also involves direct sound, long takes in real locations and various other tropes that suggest the economic realism of cinema. By ‘economic realism,’ I mean that the less money one has as a filmmaker, the more one is likely to be pushed into the direction of long takes in order to save on time and money for set-ups.

But this is not a deficiency. On the contrary, it is a strength of the film that it does this, since the resulting intrusion of the real world (hence realism) into an otherwise fictional story is precisely what makes Gamer and numerous other films like it all the more powerful.

Indeed, it is the presence of the real world alongside the fantastic and violent world of Quake, from which we see a few play-throughs, that makes of the film an interesting investigation into the nature of gaming and virtual worlds in the present era – especially in a context like that of the contemporary Ukraine.

It is interesting how in games, the presence of cut-scenes would suggest that the medium aspires in some senses to become cinema. That is, games aspire to have the cultural clout of cinema, even if gaming is a larger industry than cinema worldwide.

Indeed, the cut scene, as well as the exemplary play-through, or the automatic action replay that takes place in some games when one performs a virtuoso bit of skill (or scores a goal) would suggest that the ‘best’ bits of games, and that towards which we should all aspire, become games not for us to play, but videos for us to watch.

In other words, gaming involves a logic of becoming image, or becoming cinema – since to become cinema bespeaks power, elevating the person out of the human realm and into the divine and supposedly eternal realm of the image, or light.

Given the presence of such ‘cut scenes’ in Sentsov’s film, one might suggest that Koss also aspires to become cinema, and to transcend his earthly identity, as marked by his change of names, precisely from Lyosha to Koss.

What is more, since such virtual images are placed alongside ‘mundane’ shots of everyday life, the effect is to suggest that the power of Gamer resides precisely in its not aspiring to be cinematic, but to express something like the outside of cinema, or what in my more academic writings I have termed non-cinema, and which may be something like reality itself.

That is, Gamer as a film charts Koss’ transition from aspiring to being cinematic (even if via gaming), a process that he finds ultimately hollow, and which is set against the smile that he achieves by becoming not cinematic, to his reconnecting with the real world (getting a job in a shop and working with his mum, who herself is also a translator/academic whose job does not pay enough for her to survive, suggesting that critical thinking is undervalued and discouraged in the contemporary world).

Notably, Gamer is also punctuated by other ‘cinematic’ moments during which a brightly lit Koss can be seen turning to the camera as dreamy music plays. A sort of set of fantasy sequences, these moments made me think that Lyosha was dreaming of an absent father – whom we never see and who is not even mentioned during the course of the film.

That is, Lyosha’s aspirations to be cinematic are also about him finding his father: to achieve success, to be famous, to become an image – these are all things that we are encouraged to achieve in our patriarchal and capitalist society (to ‘be someone’/to be ‘a man’ is our father, the thing that we pray for… and not to achieve it is to be a loser, perhaps not even to be human – as many a victim of cyber bullying might testify).

And so, as Lyosha ditches his cybernetic ambitions as Koss, and as he reconnects with the real world by taking a humble and dignified job in a shop as Lyosha, so does he also reconnect with his mother and a more feminine world.

Arguably this means that the film essentialises femininity as earthly and wise or some such. Nonetheless, it still means that the film’s story – together with its ‘realistic’ aesthetic – suggests a rejection of patriarchy and the myth of becoming cinema that lies at the heart of the contemporary capitalist world. Non-cinema is the way forward in a society dominated by the aesthetics and politics of cinema, or the aesthetics and politics of spectacle.

At one point we see Koss look through a window at his school and, using a speck of dirt on the window as a would-be rifle sight, he imagines shooting his fellow pupils.

Notably this moment takes place through the medium of a window. That is, Koss sees the real world through the medium of a separating screen rather than being directly in touch with it. And it is this separating screen that allows him to indulge his violent dreams, with violence itself being part of the logic of the cinematic world, in which we also repeatedly see violent images on screen, especially when playing a game like Quake.

Without wishing to pathologise the deeds of David Katz in Jacksonville this week, it is perhaps precisely because of the warping screen that media create, distorting our vision, that we humans go crazy and carry out violent deeds both in a simultaneous and paradoxical bid to become image (I become famous even if only as a murderer) and to destroy rivals who are seeking also to become image (Katz killing rival gamers, a crime that reveals the way in which the competition to become famous/cinematic perhaps necessarily involves violence, meaning that the murders are oddly and upsettingly a logical extension of the world in which gaming conventions take place – even if of course the absolute vast majority of gamers are wonderful, generous and loving people).

But more than the events of this week, Gamer benefits from a brief comparison with Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg, USA, 2018), another film that is about gaming and gaming culture, and which is one of the biggest box office successes of the year so far.

Indeed, where Gamer reportedly made only US$2,696 at the box office, Ready Player One has made US$582,018,455 worldwide. It is perhaps no coincidence that the film with the major special effects, the fast cutting rate and the conventional hero logic (replete with manic pixie dream girl who is there to help the hero to become a man) should make so much money. For, Ready Player One is patriarchy writ large.

Not only is it patriarchy writ large, but it also is an indulgence in nostalgia for the values of cinema, with a kind of weird fantasy posited at the end that maybe not all humans should spend all of their time playing games (or living in what the film calls the Oasis).

Aside from how closing the Oasis for a day a week would be commercial suicide (as other companies replace it by leaving their virtual worlds open 24:7, which is to say nothing of how to regulate different time zones into this fantasy logic), Ready Player One suggests that the Matrix is not something of which we should be fearful, but that being in the Matrix is great.

More than this, it also indulges a fantasy scenario in which the world of gaming really involves a sort of political activism (even though there are no hackers here), as ‘rebel’ gamers take on the corporate gamers in order to take/retain control of the Oasis.

(Forgive me; I am assuming some familiarity with Ready Player One, rather than explaining everything about it in too much detail. I sort of hope that readers can fill in the gaps if they have not seen the film; it really is all quite predictable.)

The point to make here, though, is that gaming is not rebellious, even if one believes that it is. Indeed, Katz is doing nothing more than committing an act of murder in taking the logic of the game (to ‘win’ by all means possible) outside of the game and into the real world. Indeed, gaming is always to, ahem, play into the hands of power (at least in the way that I am describing it here; I am sure that this view of gaming-as-patriarchy does not and should not always hold – except insomuch as it applies to patriarchal games, which not all games necessarily are, just as not all films are patriarchal; indeed some can be non-cinema, as per my argument above and elsewhere).

Here we come to perhaps the crux of my argument.

For as Gamer presents to us a vision of gaming as separating us from a real world with which we might do well to reconnect, so does Ready Player One suggest to us that gaming and virtual worlds are politically progressive.

To ditch digital culture and to ‘get back to reality’ naturally sounds like a conservative position. It involves a rejection of the novel possibilities that new technologies allow. To embrace those new technologies, meanwhile, sounds progressive, rebellious, young and hip.

And yet I am going to suggest that Gamer is a far more progressive film than Ready Player One. And this is not only because Gamer is not always-already creating spectacles for the purposes of making money/capital. That is, it is not simply because Gamer is not cinema but non-cinema.

However, in order to explain this point properly – and thus to explain the topsy-turvy-seeming logic of a kind of technological conservatism as progressive over a technological utopianism as progressive – we need to think about what has subsequently happened to the director of Gamer, Oleg Sentsov.

If you wander around Kyiv today, you will see numerous posters demanding that Oleg Sentsov be freed.

For, the #SaveOlegSentsov movement started when Sentsov was arrested by the Russian Federal Security Service in 2014 on charges of terrorism against the Russian state and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Widely purported to be fake charges, Sentsov nonetheless was supposedly, according to Verity Healey, coordinating ‘relief efforts to help Ukrainian soldiers barricaded into their barracks by the Russian military.’

Sentsov’s reasons for doing this are that in 2014, Sentsov’s native Crimea, which includes Simferopol and which at that point in time was part of Ukraine, was ‘annexed’ by Russia – and which move remains to this day the cause of combat between the Ukrainian and the Russian militaries.

In late 2013 and into 2014, thousands of Ukrainians poured into and occupied the Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv in protest against, among other things, the decision by then-President Viktor Yanukovych to withdraw Ukraine from signing agreements with the European Union – preferring instead to cement ties with Russia.

After police violence against the protestors, which involved c130 deaths (with Ukrainians referring to the victims as the Heavenly Hundred), Yanukovych was toppled and an interim government set up.

During the instability that followed (not least because some Ukrainians would prefer to side with Russia than to join Europe), Russia annexed Crimea – and during this period Sentsov suspended shooting his second feature film, Rhino, in order to take part in the EuroMaidan and then to protest the annexation.

Sentsov has since his arrest allegedly been tortured and ‘left to die‘ by Vladimir Putin after the filmmaker began a hunger strike while the rest of the world decided to forget about reality and to celebrate Russia as a result of its wonderful hosting of the 2018 Football World Cup.

In other words, for Sentsov active participation in the world is more important than filmmaking. Reality is more important than media. And while we watch spectacles like cinema, games and soccer, people are fighting and dying in an unofficial war over Ukrainian territory.

Let’s ratchet this blog up a bit.

As the UK’s England side, with its rather unremarkable Won 3 Drew 1 Lost 3 record, progressed to the semi-finals of the World Cup, numerous memes began to circulate, often accompanied by the song ‘Three Lions’ by Skinner & Baddiel and the Lightning Seeds, and which encouraged England fans finally to ‘believe.’

What they ‘believed’ was that football might – after 52 years – ‘come home,’ in the sense that it has been 52 years since England last won a major international tournament (the 1966 Football World Cup), and in the sense that the English believe that they invented football since they were the first to formalise an enjoyable sport into a violent, money-making spectacle that today leads many human beings to be trafficked (as per Soka Africa, Suridh Hassan, UK, 2011), which is not mention alleged sexual abuse conspiracies within the sport and other human rights abuses that take place as a result of the sport.

It is interesting that the response of England fans to their team’s perceived success and possible chances of winning the tournament were framed by the word ‘belief.’ Football is not about being the better team, but about believing that one can win. But not on the part of the players, but perhaps especially the fans (which is not to rule out some irony in a good number of the memes, suggesting that people did not really believe that a mediocre England team could at all be the best in the world).

More than this, that belief is spurred on not just by the performance of a football team and its fans, but also by the plethora of media artefacts that circulate around it (and I’d like to write a blog at some point about Gareth Southgate’s waistcoat and the role that it played in both creating that sense of belief, but also ultimately in betraying that belief as false).

That is, what we believe – what we consider to be real and true – is shaped by media. Hence it is that the pages and pages of British media covering men in shorts running around a grass field create a sense in which that sport is more important to many human beings than lives in Ukraine, where a covert war is talking place – simply because the British media do not cover it. (Perhaps rather than cover it, they cover it up.)

So while Sentsov was protesting the World Cup, England fans got all excited because they managed to stick six goals past a weak Panamanian side and score a few penalties. Sentsov could, in effect, go hang as far as the England fans were concerned; they were having far too much fun on Russian soil to want to think about serious matters like politics.

Indeed, if anything, the UK with its Brexit vote would seem to side with Yanukovych in wanting to be shot of the European Union.

More than this. The UK, with the involvement of Cambridge Analytica in a bid to shape what American voters consider to be real and true, seems increasingly to be the plaything of Russia, which itself seems increasingly likely also to have been involved in shaping what American voters consider to be real and true, and which thus led to the election of Donald J Trump as the 45th President of the United States of America.

You may think that I am going too far and that this all sounds far too conspiracy theory-like.

But the point that I wish to make is that to embrace technological progress as unthinkingly and uncritically wonderful (Ready Player One) is to lead towards the post-truth world of digital fake news that characterises the contemporary era. Hipster rebellion is not rebellion; giving up games and filmmaking in order to fight for something that one truly believes in… is properly to lead a political life – even if that just means making human connections and working a modest but dignified life in a shop (Gamer).

Note that what I do not mean by evoking fake news is that Russian involvement in American politics is not true. On the contrary, we must critically examine what has happened if we are to work out the truth. But what the world of fake news does politically is that it allows everyone to be precisely uncritical and to dismiss as ‘fake’ that which simply does not please them.

It is to dismiss from view the unpleasant realities of a film director undergoing hunger strike in a Russian prison in order to prefer the spectacle framed by ‘belief’ of a football team doing well at a World Cup.

It is to dismiss from view the unpleasant possibility that we are all being manipulated by media in order to manage our perceptions. It is, à la Ready Player One, to prefer the Matrix to reality – reality not as something that lies beyond our attempts to find out exactly what it is, but reality as precisely our attempts to discover it. Reality as critical thinking and ongoing thought, rather than the matrix of no critical thought, a loss of human connection, a loss of humanity, a world of docile reception in which the only actions possible seem not to be ones of love (making human connections), but ones of violence against other human beings (murder) because one does not believe those humans (or perhaps anything) to be real. We love what we consider to be real, or rather what we love is what we consider to be real, and we love images more than humans. And yet to love should be to love humans (and perhaps images, too – but not only the images that one a priori loves; to love is to love what one does not love; to love is to love unconditionally; to love is only to love and not to love and to hate; to love and to hate is really just an excuse to hate).

In rejecting gaming, Gamer, then, tries unlike Ready Player One to take us back to the human realm (even if the hero of Spielberg’s film gets the one-dimensional girl and takes a day off gaming every week in a pseudo-effort to placate the notion that living in a fantasy world might be all that it is cracked up to be).

Even if Ukraine cannot officially be at war with Russia, and if in this sense it must always already be complicit with the precedence of images over reality (no country can join NATO or the EU if at war, and so if Ukraine wants to join either of these institutions, it cannot be officially at war), we can nonetheless bear in mind that the fate of a Ukrainian filmmaker in Russia is still connected to Trump, Putin, the World Cup, fake news and the murders that took place in Jacksonville. And that Oleg Sentsov’s Gamer can help us to make sense of how this is so.

Understanding that this is so might be key to helping us not simply to accept by forgetting the corruption and the violence of the contemporary world, but also to believe in and thus to help create a better world. To believe not just that England might once again be ‘great’ (a true conservatism expressed through digital media and in the Brexit vote), but to believe that we can live in a world that ignores the divisive mechanisms of nations and nationality and which is based upon the shared humanity and life of our fellow human (and other) beings. To believe not in the patriarchal matrix of a society of control, but to believe in and to act towards a world of liberty and self-determination.

You can watch Gamer on the website for the International Film Festival Rotterdam for US$4. Money goes towards supporting Sentsov’s case.

Posted in Film education, Film reviews, Ukrainian Cinema, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Escape (Dominic Savage, UK, 2017)

A woman is unhappy with her marriage and her children and so becomes depressed and dreams of escape.

Sound familiar?

If you are familiar with the plot of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856), then maybe you will indeed know this story.

And of course Gemma Arterton, who is the star of The Escape, played a modern-day version (of sorts) of Emma Bovary in Anne Fontaine’s Gemma Bovery (France/UK, 2014), in which Martin (Fabrice Luchini) tries to project on to Gemma the story of Emma after she and her husband (Jason Flemyng) have moved from England to live in the French countryside, where Martin works as a baker (having quit the city life some time before).

So perhaps it comes as no surprise that here Tara (Arterton) lives in an unhappy marriage with Mark (Dominic Cooper) and their two annoying kids somewhere in Kent.

Mark clearly has a decent job, even if we never find out what he does, since the house that they inhabit on their close is pretty big and they have two cars. In other words, Tara is not unhappy because of a lack of material wealth.

Mark, meanwhile, is not without his flaws. He veers between being an ignorant oik who has no interest in art and boring things like that, and actually being quite a sensitive man who wants to make an effort to understand and to improve the lot of his clearly unhappy wife…

However, for whatever reason, he does not quite have the emotional or intellectual intelligence properly to help Tara, as can be signalled by his lack of care for her pleasure when having sex and in the way that he does not let her rest at a barbecue and/or passively-aggressively complains about her not having his dinner ready.

Since Mark is, to put it bluntly, inarticulate (or what we might call ‘a bit thick’), he gets angry when he cannot help Tara, and so he lashes out. Not that he hits her, but he swears at her and puts her down, calling her stupid and deriding her artistic ambitions.

For, Tara is depressed by her repetitive life of getting the kids breakfast, taking them to school, picking them up, being treated like a shag object by Mark and so on. And she clearly dreams of doing something more creative with her time – as signalled by her aspiration to sign up for an art course after taking a day trip up to London, and as signalled by the first part of her ‘escape,’ which involves going to Paris to see tapestries that she also has read about in a book she buys on London’s South Bank.

As a study of depression, The Escape involves some very strong performances – especially from Arterton (although I shall return later to issues of accent – both in relation to her and in relation to Dominic Cooper).

However, The Escape is also not quite a study of depression, be it post-natal or otherwise. For depression does not necessarily go away if one happens to escape one’s milieu; being a psychological disorder, it is something that can follow one around and affect even the most privileged person.

**Spoilers**

In The Escape, though, the film ends with Tara having moved from Kent to London, where she lives in a massive apartment right next to a square that does not look dissimilar to somewhere like Eaton Square Gardens by Sloane Square.

She walks into the square’s gardens and turns to look at some children playing – whom we hear but do not see. It is hard to tell what Tara is thinking and feeling, but Arterton comes close to tears (there is a lot of crying in this film), suggesting that in part she misses her kids (whom, we infer, she has left with Mark).

But at the same time, the film would seem to end on a positive note: Tara has left behind her shitty working class life in Kent and now is more fulfilled, and more in her skin, living in posh ends in London. She may still get sad, but it would seem that she is no longer depressed. Meaning that The Escape is basically a fantasy of becoming (upper) middle class: when you get to live in a ridiculously large apartment in somewhere like Sloane Square, having got rid of your chavvy husband and your screaming brat chav kids, then depression melts away and you are fine.

Note that I explicitly do not want to say anything along the lines of Tara being a terrible mother for abandoning her children. I do not want to make this a critique of her character based upon some predetermined biological role that she as a female is supposed to play.

No – I am happy to take it on face value that Tara is happier without her children, and that this might indeed be the case for many people, even if The Escape would look odd when placed alongside Tully (Jason Reitman, USA, 2018), where post-natal depression gets paradoxically a much more realistic treatment, since the kids there are not depicted as such an unremitting nightmare, but are characters that can do more than just scream (but perhaps this is because they are not ill-educated chavs).

Rather, I am more concerned with how The Escape paints estuary England with such total bleakness that it is hard not to see the film ultimately as a work of complete snobbery, even if it has claims to realism.

Don’t get me wrong. I sometimes wonder how the eloquent and erudite Owen Jones (the author of Chavs) would survive if he had to spend all of his days with Mail-reading Kent and Essex boys rather than with The Guardian and Celebrity Pointless lot that are his contemporary crowd.

That is, there is an element of British society in which a kind of unconscious anti-establishment attitude emerges through wilful ignorance – even if this plays directly into the hands of the ruling classes (problematically to generalise: schools are designed deliberately to discipline working class society members, who then are betrayed by schools that do not help them and/or who betray their class by doing well at school, and who must then choose not to do well at school and/or to ditch school in an act of rebellious ignorance that then consigns them to the working class for the rest of their days, which imprisonment they will fiercely defend, hence a tendency for conservative thinking to flourish in working class areas).

By which I mean that I can sympathise with Tara wanting to do something else with her life other than knock out more kids and begin to drink gin and smoke fags in her close until she withers away.

But The Escape as a film also specifically wants us to share Tara’s desire for escape, and in this it must present to us a relatively specific vision of working class Kent life. Or rather: lower middle class Kent life, which may involve certain material trappings (nice house, two cars, coffee from a cafetières at breakfast, orange juice decanted into a jug – ‘lower’ middle class/’working class’ is not really defined here by money), but which nonetheless lacks any sensitivity or sensibility towards thought and/or art (class defined here by cultural capital, and in particular how one spends not so much one’s money, but one’s time). A life that lacks, if you will, the humanities, and thus, as the film might at times want to have us believe, (a certain type of ‘refined’) humanity.

And in performing this trick, the film becomes (for this viewer) problematic. Since surely there is so much humanity in estuary England that it need not be a world that one can only escape by moving to Paris and/or Sloane Square – as if becoming posh were the only true solution to the class problem in the UK.

Where Flaubert – in his typically misanthropic and misogynistic fashion – makes Emma suffer (and die) for her imprisonment and her aspirations (even if she is married to a dullard doctor rather than a besuited barrow boy), Tara escapes. Not that she should be deprived of any class mobility (for to suggest that we all must know and remain in our place would betray a different kind of conservatism). But her escape involves leaving chav life behind.

The Arterton star persona here becomes important. For, it is as if her physical beauty (as well as her bosom, which Savage allows to play a prominent part in many scenes, even if always covered) is being used here as a tool to help convey that Tara is better than and does not deserve this life. That is, beauty cannot survive in and does not belong to the Garden of England, but a cinematic central London Garden of Eden.

Arterton is loosely associated with Cinderella-type roles. Tamara Drewe (Stephen Frears, UK, 2010), for example, is about the transformation of Arterton from ugly duckling to beautiful swan, while Gemma Bovery also sees Martin project on to her the narrative of social climbing that Flaubert so mercilessly mocks.

That said, Arterton broke through playing a kind of troublesome private school girl in St Trinian’s (Oliver Parker and Barnaby Thompson, UK, 2007), meaning that her star persona sits somewhere uneasily between different class strata – something that also holds for Dominic Cooper, whose breakthrough role was as Dakin in The History Boys (Nicholas Hytner, UK, 2006) – in which his character wins a scholarship to Oxbridge as a result of his academic excellence.

In other words, both actors sort of connote upward mobility – which means that their very chavviness here rings somewhat false. That is, their Estuary English accents seem just a bit forced at times (to this viewer), suggesting that the film involves actors performing downwards in a film that is about a fantasy of moving upwards. While Arterton grew up in Kent and is from a relatively working class family, thereby meaning that she surely has claims to giving an authentic performance, the same performance could have been given without the forced accents. With the forced accents, the film again comes across as slightly disingenuous, condescending even – regardless of whether the emotional range of the performance(s) on offer is superb (which it is).

But more than this. What is equally interesting about The Escape is its formal features.

About halfway through the film, Tara has a conversation with her mother (Frances Barber), who explains that her life is not like a television show.

And yet, in its very domesticity, The Escape is not wholly dissimilar to British soap operas, even if it uses various stylistic features that we typically do not associate with the smaller format (slow motion shots, variable focus, extreme close ups, musical accompaniment, relatively abstract shots of the sun setting and so on).

In this way, The Escape would seem in some senses to be about the escape from television and into cinema – as if these very media were themselves representative of different classes.

It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that Tara heads to the South Bank in order to get a sense of what life might be like outside of the close. For it is on the South Bank that Mark (Michael Maloney) will hop – somewhat embarrassingly – alongside Nina (Juliet Stevenson) in Truly Madly Deeply (Anthony Minghella, UK, 1990). And it is on the South Bank that Charles (Hugh Grant) will talk to his brother David (David Bower) about love in Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell, UK, 1994). It also is on the South Bank that Alex (Alex Chevasco) will meet Patricia (Hannah Croft) in En Attendant Godard (William Brown, UK, 2009).

There are more examples, but these three will alone suffice to demonstrate that the South Bank is a middle class space that is in some respects associated with cinema – and certainly not with television. Indeed, the stall where Tara buys her book, on the cover of which is The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry from the Musée national du moyen âge in Paris, is right next door to the British Film Institute.

Gemma Arterton must be saved from television and upheld as truly cinematic. Tara, too, must be cinematic. And Tara, too, must therefore not just practice art, but also become art – which is what happens when Tara ditches Kent for Paris and meets Philippe (Jalil Lespert) at precisely the Musée national du moyen âge – after he spots her on the Boulevard St Michel.

(Is Tara suddenly finding herself inside Peter Sarstedt’s ‘Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?’ – even if that song is a critique of the emptiness of living in a fancy apartment in Paris and hanging out with Sacha Distel?)

For, Philippe is a photographer who cannot but take photos of Tara in front of The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry – because she is to beautiful. Inevitably they sleep together, then, with Tara calling herself Sam (her real self, rather than the fake woman who leads a fake life in Kent?).

(Jalil Lespert is an actor associated with upward mobility, too, owing to his role in Ressources humaines/Human Resources, Laurent Cantet, France/UK, 1999, where he plays a university graduate who must sack his own father and the rest of his workforce from the factory in which they have for many years worked – all in the name of economic rationalisation.)

And yet, this view of Paris is highly romanticised, as is clear from the homeless people that Tara passes and the beer can that nestles on a Gare du Nord cornice as she exits the station. Tara seems not to notice these ‘trash’ details, but instead falls immediately in love with the City of Lights for what it means: escape from dull and grey England.

Cinema is upheld as better than television – and Tara manages to make her life cinematic by leaving behind all that she knows in Kent. This is a far cry from that other relationship between a man and a woman who has artistic aspirations and who seeks to escape an unhappy marriage – and which is perhaps one of television’s finest achievements, namely the relationship between Tim (Martin Freeman) and Dawn (Lucy Davis) in The Office (Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, UK, 2001-2003).

In sum, then, The Escape involves a wonderful central performance from Arterton, with Cooper also being as strong as in anything else in which he features and which I have seen (the film is sympathetic to him as he cries after feeling out of place in a posh London restaurant; but he is also unredeemable, suggesting a sort of hopelessness about his character).

However, the film also would have us believe that the chav classes of the UK are a hellhole from which one must escape – televisual and bleak as opposed to beautiful and cinematic, associated with relentless interiors and small gardens as opposed to clear skies and open space.

Arguably the film stages the way in which public space is not public, but really middle class – with Tara wanting to gain access to these spaces. But she does so by leaving her Kent home behind. A study in depression that is sympathetic both to Tara and to Mark, the film nonetheless posits that the cure for all of this is to escape. And that Brexit Britain is a small-minded and awful place, with a ‘European’ sensibility being the only one that can save us. (Don’t get me wrong – I am strongly anti-Brexit; but how The Escape is quite one-sided just means that it is not the film to give pro-European views the most fair account.)

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