A Review of Cinema in 2017

In an essay for Frames Cinema Journal, I once suggested that Sean Baker’s Tangerine (USA, 2015) was as important as, if not more important than, Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs (UK/USA, 2015). My reasoning was that in its use of the iPhone to make a film about transsexual sex workers in Los Angeles, Tangerine did something more interesting both thematically and formally than Boyle’s fantastically smart biopic enshrining the Great Man behind Apple.

In a year that ends with Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, USA, 2017) marching rapidly and in very little time towards being the highest grossing movie to be released in 2017 (with much of its gross yet to come in 2018), it would seem that in The Florida Project (USA, 2017), Sean Baker has again made a timely film that offers a critical corrective to the mainstream.

For, as Tangerine uses the iPhone to open up new vistas not offered by the conservative Steve Jobs, so does The Florida Project give us insight into America’s underside, as it tells the story of kids living in motels not far from Orlando, of course the home of Disney World.

Indeed, Baker’s film ends with a fantasy escape by two of its child protagonists (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince and Valeria Cotto) away from the police and care workers who will separate one of them from her mother and towards Disney World, which the kids approach as the film cuts to black and ends.

In this image, Baker surely acknowledges the power of Disney in offering escape from and perhaps solace for real world problems, such as negligent parents, poverty and so on. But Baker also reminds us that what we see in The Florida Project is the kind of reality that rarely features in Disney films… and even if it does, it is one from which escape is typically completed rather than left suspended in mid-flight, as here.

In this sense, The Florida Project challenges the approaching monopoly of Disney on the realm of audiovisual entertainment by reminding us that cinema need not be the colonisation of the imagination via escapism, but that it can find beauty in all manner of things, including six-year old kids spitting on a car, trashing an abandoned house and more.

Indeed, The Florida Project is regularly reminiscent of François Truffaut’s classic The 400 Blows (France, 1959), even if Baker’s protagonists are significantly younger than was Jean-Pierre Léaud when he starred in Truffaut’s French New Wave flagship. And as Truffaut breathed new life into cinema by showing the life of children and their refusal to conform to papa and papa’s old-fashioned cinema, so might Baker also breathe new life into cinema by showing the life of children and their refusal to buy into the fake plastic world of toys and the toyification of life.

My stupid Disney conspiracy theory
But if The Florida Project is going to achieve a rejuvenation of cinema, it certainly has its work cut out. For, if we look at the list below of the highest grossing movies of 2017, we see that half of them are Disney movies, with Universal managing two on the list, and then one apiece for Sony, United Entertainment and Warner Bros (with the Sony property, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Jon Watts, USA, 2017, being a Marvel adaptation, meaning that this franchise might at some point return to Marvel Studios and thus to Disney, as happened recently with X-Men after the acquisition by Disney of Fox).

1 Beauty and the Beast Disney $1,263,521,126
2 The Fate of the Furious Universal $1,235,761,498
3 Star Wars: The Last Jedi Disney $1,056,389,228
4 Despicable Me 3 Universal $1,033,508,147
5 Spider-Man: Homecoming Sony Pictures $880,166,924
6 Wolf Warrior 2 United Entertainment $870,325,439
7 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Disney $863,732,512
8 Thor: Ragnarok $848,084,810
9 Wonder Woman Warner Bros. $821,847,012
10 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales Disney $794,861,794

Now owning Fox, Marvel, the Star Wars universe, Pixar and of course its own back catalogue (Beauty and the Beast, Bill Condon, USA, 2017, is a remake of a 1991 animation), Disney’s stranglehold on contemporary cinema looks set to increase – not least because there can be endless spin-offs and spinouts and reboots and what have you of the Marvel and the Star Wars universes, exploring the everyday life of ewoks on Endor in a bid to get us watching only Disney and to Disneyfy the planet.

It is noteworthy that as per 2016, the highest grossing films are all sequels or remakes or part of a franchise and that basically all of them feature talking animals and/or flying humans. Some of these might have female, foreign and/or quasi-indie directors (Patty Jenkins, Taika Waititi, James Gunn, Rian Johnson), but they nonetheless all peddle fantasy, violence and escapism, as well as an emphasis on hyper-mobility and speed.

Soon after the invention of the lantern, writes Wolfgang Schivelbusch, light was weaponised, in the sense that it was used as a tool for policing behaviour, while also being used to blind enemies while the wielder of the light remains in darkness. In the era of the atomic bomb, the weaponisation of light becomes clear. And it becomes clearer still in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, when light speed is used to tear apart the destroyers of the Empire (or whatever it is now called).

Cinema also uses light in order to attract/distract attention, and thus in some senses is equally a mechanism of control and thus is put to military use. Some of the highest grossing movies gesture towards being politically progressive (postcolonial elements in Thor: Ragnarok and feminist elements in Wonder Woman), but one wonders that they reflect how cinema through its weaponised light is really the militarisation of all aspects of contemporary life, including political engagement (the militarisation of the postcolonial and woman, as opposed to militant postcolonialism and feminism).

But this mention of Wonder Woman allows me to get to my silly Disney conspiracy theory mentioned above. As Warner Bros owns the DC comic adaptations and as Disney owns Marvel, the studios are like the comic book publishers in competition with each other.

With the exception of Wonder Woman, though, all new Warner Bros films get critically panned, while all Disney films get praised to the heavens – perhaps especially the thoroughly mediocre Last Jedi. The opposition is made most clear when we look at how Captain America: Civil War (Anthony and Joe Russo, USA/Germany, 2016) was celebrated while Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder, USA, 2016) was derided, even though the two are basically the same film (one superhero mistakes another superhero for his enemy, when in fact they could work better together). Justice League (Zack Snyder, USA/UK/Canada, 2017) also received a critical drubbing, even though this viewer thought that it distinctly bore the hallmarks of Joss Whedon, the film’s writer and who does no wrong when he is writing scripts for Disney (e.g. Whedon’s Avengers movies).

Dissing Warner Bros films and praising Disney films – even though to this viewer they are all as good/bad as each other – leads me to this thought: no one knows what a good film is – and it is debatable that the criticisms of the Warners films truly dents their commercial appeal, since even if they are not as high on the list as the Disney films, they still make good money. But the perception of what a good film is becomes as stage-managed as cinema itself.

In other words, I sometimes wonder that somewhere behind the scenes, Disney is simply employing bots to tweet negative reviews of Warner Bros films in order to diminish their standing, while tweeting rave reviews of Disney films in order to improve their rating. Faced with the pressure of having to conform with what the kidz on the internets are saying (even though these accounts are as real as the influential accounts set up by the Russians during the recent American elections), flesh world critics end up agreeing with these perceptions (Warners bad, Disney good) in order to continue to look like they know what people like and thus to attract a wider readership. And so what is really going on is a hidden battle for ratings that in turn may or may not help takings played out across the digital media landscape.

I wish just to emphasise that this is a dumb conspiracy theory and not true. But part of me would not be too surprised if parts of it were true. It is cheap and easy to set up fake accounts and also easy to gain good reviews by paying off genuine online influencers. We know that the practice of buying good reviews has been long-standing in print journalism (just look at the Metro newspaper in London, and you will often see a three-star blockbuster given a full-page spread as Film of the Week, while a four-star documentary gets maybe half a paragraph on the next page – even though by definition the four-star film should be Film of the Week over the three-star film). So it would even be surprising if this did not happen to some extent in the twittersphere.

Performances of 2017
Having mentioned Wonder Woman, I might also suggest that Una mujer fantástica/A Fantastic Woman (Sebastián Lelio, Chile/Germany/Spain/USA, 2017) was paradoxically a much more empowered film, even if it is a film about a transexual, and thus someone whom certain people might claim is not therefore a ‘real’ woman. (Although given that she is immortal and that her body achieves blows that far surpass her shape and bone structure, I would find any claims that Wonder Woman as played by Gal Gadot is a ‘real woman’ highly curious, too.) In the year of Weinstein and so on, I would not want to suggest that it is a man (Lelio) who has made a more progressively feminist film than a woman (Jenkins). But since the films bear similar titles, it becomes hard not to compare them, and Una mujer fantástica is much more in alignment with my personal sensibilities than Wonder Woman – although I was sad to miss and hope soon to catch Mrs Marston and the Wonder Women (Angela Robinson, USA, 2017), which may well be the best of the three.

In starring Rebecca Hall, Mrs Marston and the Wonder Women reminds me of her turn in Christine (Antonio Campos, UK/USA, 2016), which I saw in 2017, and which likely remains an easy winner for the best performance that I saw in a film this year. Daniela Vega’s performance in Una mujer fantástica follows.

And then other standout performances would for me include the afore-mentioned Brooklynn Kimberly Prince in The Florida Project, Michelle Williams in Manchester by the Sea (who in a fraction of the time made me want to watch the film about her character and not Casey Affleck’s character), Mahershala Ali in Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, USA, 2016), Pyotr Skvortsov in The Student (Kirill Serebrennikov, Russia, 2016), Ruth Negga in Loving (Jeff Nichols, UK/USA, 2016), Sonia Braga in Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho, Brazil/France, 2016), Ethymis Papadimitriou in Suntan (Argyris Papadimitropoulos, Greece/Germany, 2016), Ellie Kendrick in The Levelling (Hope Dickson Leach, UK, 2016), Jack Lowden in England is Mine (Mark Gill, UK, 2017), Nuno Lopes in São Jorge (Marco Martins, Portugal/France, 2016), Colin Farrell in The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Yorgos Lanthimos, UK/Ireland/USA, 2017) and Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, Italy/France/Brazil/USA, 2017).

I want also to say how much I enjoyed specifically seeing Ewen Bremner return and evolve the character of Spud in the otherwise somewhat mediocre T2: Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, UK, 2017), while I continue to harbour soft spots for Keanu Reeves (in John Wick 2, Chad Stahelski, USA/Hong Kong, 2017), Dwayne Johnson (in Baywatch, Seth Gordon, UK/China/USA, 2017) and Tom Cruise (in American Made, Doug Liman, USA, 2017).

Finally, what with Assassin’s Creed (Justin Kurzel, USA/France/UK/Hong Kong/Taiwan/Malta, 2017), The Snowman (Tomas Alfredson, UK/USA/Sweden, 2017), Song to Song (Terrence Malick, USA, 2017) and, to a lesser extent, Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott, USA/UK, 2017), it would appear that Michael Fassbender continues to choose complete codswallop. Were it not for his remarkable turn in the equally remarkable Trespass Against Us (Adam Smith, UK, 2016), I’d be worried about chalking Fassbender up as a lost cause. (Trespass Against Us also featured good turns from the ever-reliable Brendan Gleeson, while Barry Keoghan also got about between this film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan, UK/Netherlands/France/USA, 2017.)

Movie watching in 2017
Listed at the bottom of this blog are 387 films that I saw in 2017. The absolute vast majority of these are films that I saw for the first time.

That said, while normally I do not list the relatively significant number of films that I watch not for the first time, be that because of teaching or research (the total likely would be around 450 if these were included), a couple are listed below – and for slightly different reasons (maybe because I gave a talk about a specific film and so seeing it was tied to a specific event, which is the case with Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese, USA, 1990; or maybe because I went to the cinema to watch the film before realising that I had seen it before, which is the case with All This Panic, Jenny Gage, USA, 2016; or maybe because I am still not sure whether I have seen the film before or not, which is the case for The Patience Stone (Atiq Rahimi, Afghanistan/France/Germany/UK, 2012), which seemed familiar throughout, but I just cannot remember when I first saw it if indeed I had seen it before).

Typically I do not include short films on my end of year list, but I have in fact begun to list short films quite regularly, especially when they are work by ‘artist filmmakers’ and whose œuvre gets showcased on MUBI (e.g. Jay Rosenblatt).

Anyway, of these 387 films, I saw 183 at the cinema, with a further 150 online – mainly on MUBI, although I was beginning for my sins to watch an increasing number of films on Amazon’s rental and buying service. I had rented but did not quite find time to see a few films that I really wanted to watch in 2017, but which I shall now have to watch in 2018, including Marjorie Prime (Michael Almereyda, USA, 2017) and I Am Not a Witch (Rungano Nyoni, UK/France/Germany, 2017).

In addition to these two main sources of film viewing, I saw 34 films on DVD, 18 on an aeroplane and two on television, while I also include on the list Homecoming, Richard Mosse’s video installation at the Barbican, both because much of it was quite remarkable audiovisual work, and because it really is worth seeing if you have not and get the chance.

Clearly, therefore, I have not seen all of the films released in 2017, and thus am not in a particularly strong position of authority to make pronouncements about the best films of the year, etc.

Nonetheless, I shall describe below a few more of my experiences before highlighting the five films that really stood out for me this year, as well as some thoughts on end of year film lists in general.

Particularly pleasurable this year was to see various of the films by Philippine slow cinema auteur Lav Diaz. Thanks to a series of screenings up at the University of Westminster’s campus in Harrow, combined with a season of his films on MUBI, I was able to sit through some c40 hours of Diaz’s work – leaving me I think with a tick against every feature film that he has made.

Following his death in 2016, it was also a great pleasure to be able to see various films by the late Julio García Espinosa at Birkbeck, University of London, where Professor Michael Chanan curated a retrospective of JGE’s work, including the brilliant Son o no son (Cuba, 1980).

MUBI also offered introductions to various other filmmakers whose work I am glad to have come to know, including Sergei Loznitsa, Pia Marais and Oliver Laxe. MUBI also provided an entry into a whole slew of films by El Pampero Cine, a group of filmmakers including Mariano Llinás, Alejo Moguillansky, Verónica Llinás and Laura Citarella, who make very intelligent work out in the Argentine countryside.

A remarkable film that I saw on MUBI, but which would not be in my films of the year because it is too old is Até ver a luz/After the Night (Basil da Cunha, Switzerland, 2013), which together with the above-mentioned São Jorge shows real depth to contemporary Portuguese cinema, beyond the likes of Miguel Gomes, Pedro Costa and João Pedro Rodrigues.

MUBI also allowed me to further my knowledge of the work of Raoul Ruiz (four films), while YouTube provided me with an opportunity to see four films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (and which I really should have seen beforehand). Furthermore, the double bill of Pere Portabella’s Informe general sobre unas cuestiones de interés para una proyección pública (Spain, 1977) and Informe general II: el nou rapte d’Europa/General Report II: The New Abduction of Europe (Spain, 2015) also felt very timely as a result of Brexit and the recent unrest in Catalonia.

With regard to online film viewing, I am also glad to have encountered the work of Fabrizio Federico, whose Pregnant (UK, 2015) is one of the most remarkable punk and experimental films that I have seen.

The year also started very well with regard to experimental cinema, as in the same week I saw 55 Years on the Infinite Plain by Tony Conrad at Tate Modern, before then also seeing La région centrale (Michael Snow, Canada, 1971) at the Serpentine Gallery. I also got to see some audiovisual work live by Phill Niblock at Tate Modern also relatively early on in 2017.

Before I go on to discuss the films that I thought were strong, I was in particular sad to miss a couple of films, especially Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami (Sophie Fiennes, Ireland/UK, 2017) and God’s Own Country (Francis Lee, UK, 2017), which I suspect would have joined The Levelling, Trespass Against Us and England is Mine as strong British movies of 2017, with three of these notably taking place outside of the cities and instead in the countryside. I also wanted very much to watch Bar Bahar/In Between (Maysaloun Hamoud, Israel/France, 2016).

Films of the Year
So, in addition to various of the films mentioned above (perhaps especially The Florida ProjectUna mujer fantásticaThe Levelling, Moonlight and Aquarius), I’d add these films as pretty good and thus as proxime accessunt to a relatively arbitrary bar, but the measure of which is a film that makes me rethink my understanding of something, including life, the universe and cinema itself.

These films include: Get Out (Jordan Peele, Japan/USA, 2017), Neruda (Pablo Larraín, Chile/Argentina/France/Spain/USA, 2016), Grave/Raw (Julia Ducournau, France/Belgium/Italy, 2016), Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt, USA, 2016), Twentieth Century Women (Mike Mills, USA, 2016), Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson, USA, 2016), The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer, USA, 2015), Prevenge (Alice Lowe, UK, 2016), Homo sapiens (Niklaus Geyrhalter, Switzerland/Germany/Austria, 2016), Miss Sloane (John Madden, France/USA, 2016), Kedi (Ceyda Torun, Turkey/USA, 2016), City of Ghosts (Matthew Heineman, USA, 2017), Step (Amanda Lipitz, USA, 2017), A Ghost Story (David Lowery, USA, 2017), Logan Lucky (Steven Soderbergh, USA, 2017), Brawl in Cell Block 99 (S. Craig Zahler, USA, 2017), Patti Cake$ (Geremy Jasper, USA, 2017) and El auge humano/The Human Surge (Eduardo Williams, Argentina/Brazil/Portugal, 2016).

The latter of these films came closest to being on the list of five below.

That said, the list below is not five because of any reason other than that these films really did kind of ‘blow me away,’ in the sense mentioned above of making me rethink the world/life/the universe. I personally don’t see the point of naming 10 films or 20 or any number for the sake of it. To do so is arbitrary and it leads to adding in and ruling out movies for very imprecise reasons – albeit that these can have real effects (with regard to my own filmmaking, the number of screenings that my films get relates very directly to the number of mentions that they have in various different media; getting a friend even to Tweet or mention one of my films in a blog seems like the biggest task in the world, in that rarely will anyone do me that favour [perhaps because they think that my films are rubbish]; that said, where normally I list my own films in my annual round-up, since technically I have seen them… this year I have not, though I could mention The Benefit of Doubt, UK, 2017, Circle/Line, UK, 2017, Sculptures of London, UK, 2017, and #randomaccessmemory, UK, 2017, all of which I completed this year).

Thinking about end of year lists also makes me think that 1 January is a weird date to start the year. That is, from a UK perspective, why start it 10 days after a solstice and seven days after a major religious festival (Christmas)? Why not start the year on the solstice, such that the year aligns with the sun? (But, then, whose solstice? But, then again, why this solstice?)

Either way, the entire thing seems irrational and so to mark an irrational transition with a list seems… irrational, even if organisationally sensible, I guess.

What also seems irrational is that any year will be better or worse than another.

But finally I’d just like to say that if my list is of films that really opened my mind, then in some senses that list runs the risk of only getting smaller as I get older, experience more and come across fewer novel approaches to the world… This does not necessarily follow (why is there not just an endless stream of new visions from different people and people who become different by virtue of themselves changing?), but it is a risk.

What I want to suggest, though, is that when one sees a film and says ‘yeah, that’s fine,’ but someone else sees that film and goes ‘wow, that blew me away,’ then one simultaneously wonders what they have or have not experienced and one wonders what one must have missed in order for them to find that film so good that you only found fine.

The same can happen with end of year lists, then, but on a grander scale, as one wonders how many films other people must have seen and/or how closely they or I watched the ones that did or did not make it on to their lists such that they get or got named there.

When the lists themselves become predictable (like the selection of films at Cannes, for example), then the films on the list – as well as lists more generally – can looked tired, formulaic, uninspired and uninspiring.

These five films, though, really did inspire me in my thinking, and so I include them not for the purposes of choosing films that are more obscure than thou, but to see if they also can inspire other people – who might otherwise look at me and ask what it is that I have experienced to like these films most from 2017.

This… together with a sense of increasingly liking only films that try to break cinema as I find cinema technologically, industrially, aesthetically and institutionally a problematic medium, and which at times therefore I think should be disbanded…

Here goes:-

Island (Steven Eastwood, UK, 2017)
An incredible documentary about people dying at a hospital on the Isle of Wight. Philosophically very profound.

La región salvaje/The Untamed (Amat Escalante, Mexico/Denmark/France/Germany/Norway/Switzerland, 2016)
A brilliant study of life on Earth and perversion.

Félicité (Alain Gomis, France/Belgium/Senegal/Germany/Lebanon, 2017)
Gomis basically has no fear of making a raw film about life in contemporary Kinshasa.

Work in Progress (Adam Sekuler, USA, 2017)
Had I seen Homo sapiens before this, the two might have swapped places – but this one got there first, even though they are in various respects similar. Nonetheless a brilliant and contemplative documentary that looks at the role of work in the contemporary world.

Good Time (Josh and Ben Safdie, USA, 2017)
The film I feel most uneasy about including because others have included it widely on their lists. I am late to the Safdies (this was my first film by them), but this has much to commend it, including two great performances from Robert Pattinson and Benny Safdie.

As I look at all of these films, I am ashamed at the eurocentrism of my tastes, and in particular by the lack of films from Asia that I have seen/included this year.

But there we go. Hopefully I can do better in 2018.

‘Full’ List of Films Seen in 2017

 

Key:-
Film Title (Director’s Name)

No marker – seen in cinema
* = seen online (specifically streaming)
^ = seen on DVD or file
+ = seen on aeroplane
” = seen on television
> = seen in a gallery

When see you the entry surrounded by parentheses – as follows: (Film Title (Director’s Name)) – it means that I had already seen the film, or at least I think I may well have seen the film before.

Silence (Martin Scorsese)
A Letter to Elia (Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones)
Hud (Martin Ritt)*
Médecin de Campagne (Thomas Lilti)
Duelle (Jacques Rivette)^
55 Years on the Infinite Plain (Tony Conrad)
La région centrale (Michael Snow)
Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)
(Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese))
La femme du boulanger (Marcel Pagnol)
Railroad Tigers (Ding Sheng)
La La Land (Damien Chazelle)
Dangal (Nitesh Tiwari)
Elegy to a Visitor from the Revolution (Lav Diaz)*
The Train Stop (Sergei Loznitsa)*
Assassin’s Creed (Justin Kurzel)
A Monster Calls (J.A. Bayona)
Le fils de Joseph (Eugène Green)*
Work In Progress (Adam Sekuler)*
America America (Elia Kazan)
The Big Country (William Wyler)
The Settlement (Sergei Loznitsa)*
Jackie (Pablo Larraín)
Lion (Garth Davis)
Split (M Night Shyamalan)
The Nights of Zayandeh-rood (Mohsen Makhmalbaf)
Eye in the Sky (Gavin Hood)*
10+4 (Mania Akbari)
Cairo Station (Youssef Chahine)^
Christine (Antonio Campos)
Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson)
Triple Agent (Eric Rohmer)*
Victoria (Justine Triet)
T2: Trainspotting (Danny Boyle)
Buddies in India (Wang Baoqiang)
Chinese Roulette (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)*
Hacksaw Ridge (Mel Gibson)
Zero Day (Alex Gibney)*
Loving (Jeff Nichols)
Marguérite et Julien (Valérie Donzelli)*
Baraka (Ron Fricke)
Samsara (Ron Fricke)
(Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade))
Twentieth Century Women (Mike Mills)
(Heremakono (Abderrahmane Sissako)^)
Moka (Frédéric Mermoud)*
Portrait (Sergei Loznitsa)*
Death in the Land of Encantos (Lav Diaz)
Factory (Sergei Loznitsa)*
Zootropolis (Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush)^
Ten Meter Tower (Maximilien Van Aertryck and Axel Danielson)*
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ang Lee)
Prevenge (Alice Lowe)
Tiya’s Dream (Abderrahmane Sissako)*
Lovetrue (Alma Har’el)
Fences (Denzel Washington)
Batang West Side (Lav Diaz)
Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)
A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (Lav Diaz)
Ruined Heart: Another Love Story Between a Criminal and a Whore (Khavn de la Cruz)^
An Investigation on the Night that Won’t Forget (Lav Diaz)*
The Great Wall (Zhang Yimou)
Patriots Day (Peter Berg)
Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi)
Blockade (Sergei Loznitsa)*
Logan (James Mangold)
Bunny Lake is Missing (Otto Preminger)*
Letter (Sergei Loznitsa)*
The Woman Who Left (Lav Diaz)
Trespass Against Us (Adam Smith)
Thumbsucker (Mike Mills)*
Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)
The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer)*
Kong: Skull Island (Jordan Vogt-Roberts)
Le parc (Damien Manivel)*
Rostov-Luanda (Abderrahmane Sissako)^
(La vie sur terre (Abderrahmane Sissako)^)
The Student (Kirill Serebrennikov)
Elle (Paul Verhoeven)
Le jeu (Abderrahmane Sissako)*
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (Tim Burton)*
Le roi de l’évasion (Alain Guiraudie)*
Microbe et Gasoil (Michel Gondry)*
The Love Witch (Anna Biller)*
Domitilla (Zeb Ejiro)*
Sexto aniversario (Julio García Espinosa)^
Dancer (Steven Cantor)
Viceroy’s House (Gurinder Chadha)
Aventuras de Juan Quinquin (Julio García Espinosa)
Son o no son (Julia García Espinosa)
In memoriam (Paul Leduc)
Les aventures d’Arsène Lupin (Jacques Becker)
La región salvaje (Amat Escalante)
Get Out (Jordan Peele)
(All This Panic (Jenny Gage))
My Old Lady (Israel Horowitz)*
100 Mile Radius (Environment III) (Phill Niblock)
T H I R (aka Ten Hundred Inch Radii) (Environments IV) (Phill Niblock)
The Age of Shadows (Kim Jee-Woon)
Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho)
Life (Daniel Espinosa)
The Lost City of Z (James Grey)
Ghost in the Shell (Rupert Sanders)
Filmfarsi (Ehsan Khoshbakht)
Lettre de Beyrouth (Jocelyne Saab)
Beyrouth, jamais plus (Jocelyne Saab)
Beyrouth, ma ville (Jocelyne Saab)
Free Fire (Ben Wheatley)
Viva (Anna Biller)*
Demain on déménage (Chantal Akerman)*
Grave (Julia Ducournau)
For Ellen (So Yong Kim)*
I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck)
The Merchant of Four Seasons (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)*
Graduation (Cristian Mungiu)
Florentina Hubaldo CTE (Lav Diaz)*
Neruda (Pablo Larraín)
The Sense of an Ending (Ritesh Batra)
Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks)*
incoming (Richard Mosse)>
The Trip to Spain (Michael Winterbottom)”
Los colores de la montaña (Carlos César Arbeláez)
Los cuerpos dóciles (Diego Gachassin and Matías Scarvaci)
El futuro perfecto (Nele Wohlatz)
Na sua companhia (Marcelo Caetano)*
Beauty and the Beast (Bill Condon)
The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Juho Kuosmanen)
The Transfiguration (Michael O’Shea)
Their Finest (Lone Scherfig)
Clash (Mohamed Diab)
Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 (James Gunn)
Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd)
Suntan (Argyris Papadimitropoulos)
Effi Briest (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)*
Young Love Lost (Xiang Guoqiang)
Mr Donkey (Liu Lu and Zhou Shen)
Nights and Weekends (Greta Gerwig and Joe Swanberg)*
Pleasure Love (Huang Yao)
Félicité (Alain Gomis)
The Road to Mandalay (Midi Z)
Re:Orientations (Richard Fung)
Fox and His Friends (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)*
Mindhorn (Sean Foley)
The Promise (Terry George)
Honor and Glory (Godfrey Ho)*
Homo Sapiens (Nikolaus Geyrhalter)
Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise (Mark Cousins)*
Harmonium (Koji Fukada)
The Levelling (Hope Dickson Leach)
Frantz (François Ozon)
(Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky))
The Queen of Katwe (Mira Nair)+
City of Tiny Lights (Pete Travis)+
Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott)
Maman(s) (Maïmouna Ducouré)+
Dear Zindagi (Gauri Shinde)+
Homme au bain (Christophe Honoré)*
Baywatch (Seth Gordon)
The Other Side of Hope (Aki Kaurismäki)
The Red Turtle (Michaël Dudok de Wit)
Miss Sloane (John Madden)
Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins)
A Century of Birthing (Lav Diaz)*
Les hautes solitudes (Philippe Garrel)*
Fahrenheit 451 (François Truffaut)^
The Mummy (Alex Kurtzman)
Tom of Finland (Dome Karukoski)
The Road Movie (Dimitrii Kalashnikov)
Island (Steven Eastwood)
El rey tuerto (Marc Crehuet)
Plato’s Phaedrus (dn rodowick)
Kedi (Ceyda Torun)
Les gouffres (Antoine Barriaud)*
Song to Song (Terrence Malick)
A Man Called Ove (Hannes Holm)
The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola)
Edith Walks (Andrew Kötting)*
Baby Driver (Edgar Wright)
Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan)
City of Ghosts (Matthew Heineman)
I Am Not Madame Bovary (Feng Xiaogang)
Una mujer fantástica (Sebastián Lelio)
Détour (Michel Gondry)*
Today (Reza Mirkarimi)
Portrait of Madame Yuki (Kenji Mizoguchi)
Kóblic (Sebastián Borensztein)
Voyage of Time (Terrence Malick)
Inversion (Behnam Behzadi)
Visages Villages (Agnès Varda & JR)
Anarchy in the UK (Jett Hollywood)*
Transformers: The Last Knight (Michael Bay)
The Big Sick (Michael Showalter)
War for the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves)
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Luc Besson)
England is Mine (Mark Gill)
Pregnant (Fabrizio Federico)*
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky)^
The ABCs of Death (Various directors)^
Atomic Blonde (David Leitch)
Step (Amanda Lipitz)
Maudie (Aisling Walsh)
A Ghost Story (David Lowery)
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk)
Eldorado XXI (Salomé Lamas)*
The Italian (Andrei Kravchuk)^
Whisky (Pablo Stoll and Juan Pablo Rebella)^
From Greece (Peter Nestler)*
Arunoday (Partho Sen-Gupta)+
Crosscurrent (Chao Yang)+
Gbomo Gbomo Express (Walter ‘Waltbanger’ Taylaur)+
Vers Mathilde (Claire Denis)*
Rhine River (Peter Nestler)*
Death and Devil (Peter Nestler)*
The Event (Sergei Loznitsa)*
The Ferry (Attia Amin)+
Om Shanti Om (Farah Khan)+
Night Train to Lisbon (Bille August)+
Sisterhood (Tracy Choi)+
Nieve negra (Martín Hodara)+
Logan Lucky (Steven Soderbergh)
Detroit (Kathryn Bigelow)
Dilwale (Rohit Shetty)+
The Young Karl Marx (Raoul Peck)+
Kingsman: The Secret Service (Matthew Vaughn)+
The LEGO Batman Movie (Christian McKay)+
Balnearios (Mariano Llinás)*
Away With Me (Oliver Mason)*
Souvenirs d’un montreur de seins (Bertrand Mandico)*
Historias extraordinarias (Mariano Llinás)*
La impresión de una guerra (Camilo Restrepo)*
Underground Fragrance (Song Pengfei)*
Kontra Madiaga (Khavn de la Cruz)*
It (Andy Muschietti)
American Made (Doug Liman)
El auge del humano (Eduardo Williams)*
Description d’un combat (Chris Marker)*
Castro (Alejo Moguillansky)*
Vive la baleine (Mario Ruspoli and Chris Marker)*
Y a-t-il une vierge encore vivante? (Bertrand Mandico)*
El loro y el cisne (Alejo Moguillansky)*
Maelström (Denis Villeneuve)^
Dev.D (Anurag Kashyap)^
El escarabajo de oro (Alejo Moguillansky and Fia-Stina Sandlund)*
The Hitman’s Bodyguard (Patrick Hughes)
Volta à Terra (João Pedro Plácido)*
Soul Food Stories (Tonislav Hristov)
A Run for Money (Reha Erdem)*
Ostende (Laura Citarella)*
La mujer de los perros (Laura Citarella and Verónica Llinás)*
Notre Dame des Hormones (Bertrand Mandico)*
Miséricorde (Fulvio Bernasconi)*
Stronger (David Gordon Green)
Kingsman: The Golden Circle (Matthew Vaughn)
Yenish Sounds (Karoline Arn and Martina Rieder)*
Juana a los 12 (Martín Shanly)*
Damiana Kryygi (Alejandro Fernández Mouján)*
Depressive Cop (Bertrand Mandico)*
A Respectable Family (Massoud Bakshi)*
Regeneration (Raoul Walsh)*
Europe, She Loves (Jan Gassmann)*
La León (Santiago Otheguy)*
Flatliners (Niels Arden Oplev)
Pueblo en vilo (Patricio Guzmán)*
Victoria and Abdul (Stephen Frears)
La ville des pirates (Raúl Ruiz)*
Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down The White House (Peter Landesman)
Risk (Laura Poitras)^
Le bonheur (Agnès Varda)*
Point de fuite (Raúl Ruiz)*
The Foreigner (Martin Campbell)
Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve)
Agua fría de mar (Paz Fábrega)*
Blade Runner Black Out 2022 (Shinichiro Watanabe)*
Blade Runner 2036: Nexus Dawn (Luke Scott)*
Blade Runner 2048: Nowhere to Run (Luke Scott)*
The Law in these Parts (Ra’anan Alexandrowicz)^
Scialla! (Francesco Bruni)
Santouri – The Music Man (Dariush Mehrjui)^
Project X (Henrik Moltke and Laura Poitras)*
Le concours (Claire Simon)*
You Are All Captains (Oliver Laxe)*
Napolislam (Ernesto Pagano)
The State I Am In (Christian Petzold)*
Loving Vincent (Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman)
The Man Who Left His Will on Film (Nagisa Oshima)^
The Snowman (Tomas Alfredson)
Blessed Benefit (Mahmoud Al Massad)
Porcile (Pier Paolo Pasolini)^
Paraísos artificiales (Yulene Olaizola)*
The Great Wall (Tadhg O’Sullivan)*
A Simple Event (Sohrab Shahid-Saless)*
Trois vies et une seule mort (Raúl Ruiz)*
The Traveler (Abbas Kiarostami)^
mother! (Darren Aronofsky)
Human Flow (Ai Weiwei)
Geostorm (Dean Devlin)
Eva no duerme (Pablo Agüero)*
Naissance des pieuvres (Céline Sciamma)*
Ce jour-là (Raúl Ruiz)*
Into a Dream (Sion Sono)*
Burn! (Gillo Pontecorvo)^
N’oublie pas que tu vas mourir (Xavier Beauvois)*
El vendedor de orquídeas (Lorenzo Vigas)*
Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine (Bahman Farmanara)^
El mar (Agustí Villaronga)*
Brawl in Cell Block 99 (S. Craig Zahler)
La sirga (William Vega)*
Only the Brave (Joseph Kosinski)
Suburbicon (George Clooney)
Thor: Ragnarok (Taika Waititi)
Impolex (Alex Ross Perry)*
Spring (Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead)*
Kapò (Gillo Pontecorvo)^
No sucumbió la eternidad (Daniela Rea Gómez)*
At Ellen’s Age (Pia Marais)*
When Monaliza Smiled (Fadi Haddad)
Layla Fourie (Pia Marais)*
Informe general sobre unas cuestiones de interés para una proyección pública (Pere Portabella)*
General Report II: The New Abduction of Europe (Pere Portabella)*
Villegas (Gonzalo Tobal)*
Tem Gringo No Morro (Marjorie Niele and Bruno Graziano)*
The Void (Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski)*
Mafioso (Alberto Lattuada)
The Pornographers (Shohei Imamura)^
The Dresser (Peter Yates)*
White Ant (Chu Hsien-che)*
Restricted (Jay Rosenblatt)*
Murder on the Orient Express (Kenneth Branagh)
Justice League (Zack Snyder)
The Living Corpse (Khwaja Sarfaraz)^
Até ver a luz (Basil da Cunha)*
Las horas muertas (Aarón Fernández)*
Bye Bye Brazil (Carlos Diegues)^
Sérail (Eduardo De Gregorio)*
Worm (Jay Rosenblatt and Caveh Zahedi)*
Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani)^
São Jorge (Marco Martins)*
Okja (Joon-ho Bong)*
Sight (Eran May-Raz and Daniel Lazo)*
Waves ’98 (Ely Dagher)*
La pesca (Pablo Alvarez-Mesa and Fernando López Escriva)*
Camp de Thiaroye (Ousmane Sembène and Thierno Faty Sow)^
Cidade Cinza (Guilherme Valiengo and Marcelo Mesquita)*
The Conspiracy (Christopher MacBride)*
Wonder (Stephen Chbosky)
Wonderstruck (Todd Haynes)
The Mountain Between Us (Hany Abu-Assad)
A Viagem de Yoani (Pepe Siffredi and Raphael Bottino)*
Good Time (Josh and Ben Safdie)
[The Silence (Mohsen Makhmalbaf)^]
Xenos (Mahdi Fleifel)
A Man Returned (Mahdi Fleifel)
A Drowning Man (Mahdi Fleifel)
La cuerda floja (Nuria Ibáñez)*
Sharp Tools (Nujoom Al-Ghanem)
Mary Shelley (Haifaa al-Mansour)
Under Electric Clouds (Aleksei German Jr)*
L’illusion comique (Mathieu Amalric)*
Into the Arms of Strangers (Mark Jonathan Harris)*
Sofía y el terco (Andrés Burgos)*
Céline et Julie vont en bateau (Jacques Rivette)^
Beats of the Antonov (hajooj kuka)*
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson)
Nine Lives (The Eternal Moment of Now) (Jay Rosenblatt)*
[The Patience Stone (Atiq Rahimi)*?]
Prayer (Jay Rosenblatt)*
Coco (Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina)
I Used to be a Filmmaker (Jay Rosenblatt)*
Comet (Sam Esmail)^
Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry)*
Hanna (Joe Wright)*
Uncle Kent 2 (Todd Rohal)*
The Twilight (Mohammad Rasoulof)^
The Killing of a Sacred Dear (Yorgos Lanthimos)
The Sheik and I (Caveh Zahedi)*
Patti Cake$ (Geremy Jasper)+
The Other Land (Ali Idrees)+
Whitney: Can I Be Me (Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal)*
Assistance mortelle (Raoul Peck)*
Heaven Knows What (Josh and Ben Safdie)*
Brave (Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman and Steve Purcell)^
John Wick: Chapter 2 (Chad Stahelski)”
The Disaster Artist (James Franco)
Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci)
Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino)
The Florida Project (Sean Baker)
Happy End (Michael Haneke)
White Christmas (Michael Curtiz)

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Impressions of cinema in the UAE

In The Sheik and I (USA/UAE, 2012), Caveh Zahedi is invited to make a movie for an exhibition organised by the Sharjah Art Foundation, exploring the theme of subversion.

Zahedi finds it ironic that even though he is told repeatedly that he has open rein to make whatever movie he wants, he is also given a series of quite strict guidelines, perhaps especially the idea that he cannot critique the titular Sheik, who is funding his film, and Islam.

What ensues, then, is Zahedi making a film in which, among other things, he critiques employment practices in the UAE, creating a fantasy in which the Sheik himself decides to allow guest workers in the country to be able to achieve Emirati citizenship, and thus a civil status that is on a par with the historically local population (whatever that is or might be, and which Zahedi never quite specifies). Religion also plays a key part in the film, but I shall not be touching upon that here.

Rather, I open this post with reference to The Sheik and I because towards the end of his film, Zahedi explains how so many of the people whom he meets in the UAE are, in his own terms, ‘cool.’ That is, they get his sense of humour, and they are not offended by his jokes with regard to religion and employment, since they recognise both his concern for human beings regardless of race, religion, nationality and so on (Zahedi as humanist), and that his film is not to be taken too seriously.

However, Zahedi then suggests that the people whom he meets, perhaps most especially those at the Sharjah Art Foundation that is funding his film, are ‘not cool,’ because ultimately they pull the plug on his film, meaning that he does not make the film that he wanted and instead makes The Sheik and I, a film about not being able to make a film (and thus in some senses a non-film).

Here I personally part ways with Zahedi in terms of his opinion of his collaborators in the UAE. Where he sees them as ultimately ‘not cool’ for not going with him all the way in his subversion, I see them still very much as ‘cool.’ And that they do not ‘betray’ Zahedi so much as find themselves confronted with contradictions that they already know very well and concerning which Zahedi refuses to give any quarter.

What are these contradictions? In short, they are the fact that Zahedi’s collaborators in the UAE are by no means blind to the shortcomings of their society, but they cannot go about addressing them in the way that Zahedi does – while Zahedi’s charge that they are ‘not cool’ would seem to suggest that Zahedi thinks that they refuse to address these shortcomings. If they refused to address these shortcomings, Zahedi would not even be there, and so in some senses while his film is very funny and touching, in other ways it lacks subtlety – confronting head-on issues that might otherwise be addressed in more nuanced fashion.

I open with this reference to Zahedi, then, because it strikes me that for all of the clear and necessary criticisms that could be levelled at the UAE as a nation in terms of its structure and organisation, it is important to remember that the UAE is very much a cool place with some very cool minds that are as sharp as the minds anywhere, and which share a similarly ‘liberal’ sensibility – even if that sensibility, for reasons that I cannot fully explore here (for the sake of space more than anything else), is expressed in different ways.

It is important to remember that the UAE is ‘cool,’ because it can be very easy to lose sight of this fact – as perhaps is suggested in what follows.

Should anyone care to read it, I argue in a different essay that ‘cool’ drives much of the contemporary world. That is, the contemporary world is driven by appearances, with image therefore becoming as important as, if not more important than, reality. To take images for reality, to believe in images is in some senses to worship images – in the sense of attributing worth/value to them. In some senses, then, cool is associated with the superficial – the belief in surfaces and the visible as opposed to depth and that which might elude the sense organ of the human eye (which is sensitive only to about 5 per cent of the light spectrum).

In this post, though, I use the term ‘cool’ to mean something quite different, perhaps even the opposite of the definition used in that essay. Here, to be cool does not refer to appearances and a capitulation to the society of the spectacle, whereby flashiness is used to empower the self. Rather, ‘cool’ here refers to seeing through the surface of things and understanding that certain aspects of reality lie beyond the surface – and that if we accept only the surface as real, then we have a very incomplete understanding of reality.

So when I say that people in the UAE are cool, what I mean to say is that there are as many people in the UAE who are – to use a fashionable term – ‘woke’ as there are in any other part of the world that I have visited (if I am in a position to be a judge of coolness or wokeness). Indeed, I would say that the proportion of people who are ‘woke’ and/or ‘cool’ (by my imperfect reckoning) is about the same as anywhere.

What for me is the shortcoming of Zahedi’s film, then, is that he only goes by what is visible, endlessly creating scenes that in principle give us a ‘behind the scenes’ look at what happens in the making of a/his film, but in reality never going ‘behind the scenes,’ because that which is ‘behind’ the scene can by definition not feature in a film, since films can only be made up of scenes. Zahedi insists upon making a scene and upon only scenes being real rather than accepting the reality of that which is behind the scenes.

In other words, it might be possible to say that cinema as a tool is not capable of going behind the scenes – even if many films gesture at doing this by being self-conscious, reflexive and so on. That is, cinema is (very often) superficial.

What lies behind the scenes is not all good stuff. Indeed, we use the phrase ‘behind the scenes’ to describe intrigues and conspiracies, precisely the abuse of appearances and more. The desire to expose, to make a scene out of and thus to make seen, such ‘behind the scenes’ practices is valid and in some senses necessary.

But to insist that that which is behind the scenes is necessarily ‘bad’ (as Zahedi might seem to) is to accept only the seen/the scene as real, while it is also to have ‘bad faith,’ in the sense that the invisible (that which one cannot see and in which one therefore must have faith) is bad. Is it possible for us to construct a world in which we have good faith, and in which we trust that behind the scenes some good things might be going on? Zahedi would seem not to think this possible of the UAE. But I wish to suggest here that it is, and that there is reason for good faith in and about the UAE.

The UAE is not a cinematic society, in that few are the films that have been made there and the history of cinema in the UAE is not particularly long (fewer than 25 feature films in the last 12 years). That said, as cinema begins and grows in the UAE, it is becoming increasingly cinematic.

That the increasingly cinematic nature of the UAE is tied to a burgeoning belief in images might be clarified by the link between movie theatres and shopping malls there. The vast majority of cinema screens are inside multiplex cinemas that sit inside shopping malls, where people by fashionable products in order to demonstrate through their appearance (i.e. via their projected self-image) about how valuable they are/how much they are worth/how much they should be worshipped. In other words, having been uncool, the UAE is becoming increasingly cool in the negative sense defined above: a society that invests increasing amount of money and time in appearances, including the industry of appearances that is cinema.

But this does not mean that there is not quite a lot of cool stuff going on ‘behind the scenes’ and thus cool in the positive sense that I wish to use here, and which is related to cinema in various ways.

In what follows, then, I wish to relay some of my experiences of cinema in the UAE over the course of the four months that I was working there between late August and late December 2017 – for the simple purpose of sharing my imperfect and surely problematic (superficial?!) understanding of cinema in that place with other curious/interested parties (should they exist).

Over the course of the 17 weeks that I was in the UAE, I went to the cinema 42 times (I went twice to the cinema in the USA during this period during a brief work trip there soon after my arrival in the UAE). This averages at just over twice a week. Should you care to know, the full list of films I saw there is as follows:-

It (Andy Muschietti, USA/Canada, 2017); American Made (Doug Liman, USA, 2017); The Hitman’s Bodyguard (Patrick Hughes, Netherlands/China/Bulgaria/USA, 2017); Soul Food Stories (Tonislav Hristov, Bulgaria/Finland, 2013); Stronger (David Gordon Green, USA, 2017); Kingsman: The Golden Circle (Matthew Vaughn, UK/USA, 2017); Flatliners (Niels Arden Oplev, USA/Canada, 2017); Victoria and Abdul (Stephen Frears, UK/USA, 2017); Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down The White House (Peter Landesman, USA, 2017); The Foreigner (Martin Campbell, UK/China/USA, 2017); Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, USA/UK/Hungary/Canada, 2017); Scialla! (Francesco Bruni, Italy, 2011); Napolislam (Ernesto Pagano, Italy, 2015); Loving Vincent (Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, UK/Poland, 2017); The Snowman (Tomas Alfredson, UK/USA/Sweden, 2017(; Blessed Benefit (Mahmoud Al Massad, Germany/Jordan/Netherlands, 2016); mother! (Darren Aronofsky, USA, 2017); Human Flow (Ai Weiwei, Germany, 2017); Geostorm (Dean Devlin, USA, 2017); Brawl in Cell Block 99 (S. Craig Zahler, USA, 2017); Only the Brave (Joseph Kosinski, USA, 2017); Suburbicon (George Clooney, UK/USA, 2017); Thor: Ragnarok (Taika Waititi, USA, 2017); When Monaliza Smiled (Fadi Haddad, Jordan, 2012); Mafioso (Alberto Lattuada, Italy, 1962); Murder on the Orient Express (Kenneth Branagh, USA/UK/Malta/Canada, 2017); Ugetsu Monogatari (Kenji Mizoguchi, Japan, 1953); Justice League (Zack Snyder, USA/UK/Canada, 2017); Wonder (Stephen Chbosky, USA/Hong Kong, 2017); Wonderstruck (Todd Haynes, USA, 2017); Tabiib (Jim Savio, USA/UAE, 2017); The Mountain Between Us (Hany Abu-Assad, USA, 2017); Good Time (Josh and Ben Safdie, USA, 2017); Xenos (Mahdi Fleifel, UK/Greece/Denmark, 2014); A Man Returned (Mahdi Fleifel, UK/Denmark/Netherlands/Lebanon, 2016); A Drowning Man (Mahdi Fleifel, Denmark/UK/Greece, 2017); Sharp Tools (Nujoom Al-Ghanem, UAE, 2017); Mary Shelley (Haifaa al-Mansour, USA/UK/Luxembourg, 2017); Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, USA, 2017); Coco (Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, USA, 2017); White Christmas (Michael Curtiz, USA, 1954); and The Killing of a Sacred Dear (Yorgos Lanthimos, UK/Ireland/USA, 2017).

This list does not include a programme of 8 short films that I watched at an event celebrating cultural exchange between the UAE and the UK, and which included four films from the UK and four films from the Gulf region (mainly the UAE) – an event to which I shall return shortly.

A brief glance at the above list will suggest that the majority of films that I saw are American films or transnational co-productions that include American talent and/or money. However, it should be worth emphasising immediately that there is a wide of range of films from India consistently playing at the cinemas in the UAE (I had in particular wanted to see Qarib Qarib Singlle, Tanuja Chandra, India, 2017 – mainly because I really like Irrfan Khan, who stars in it), as well as the occasional Philippine film, some Egyptian films (I was in particular sad not to be able to make it to see Sheikh JacksonAmr Salama, Egypt, 2017) – and more.

That said, American blockbusters do basically dominate the market – and in this respect movie theatres in the UAE are very ‘cool’ in the superficial sense – since a good number of the blockbusters mentioned above (for example, Geostorm) look good and have lots of loud crashes, bangs and wallops, but they do not have much depth. (Remember that this is the list of films that I saw, not the list of films that were showing.)

However, even within that list, there is clearly an appetite for work by relatively well regarded filmmakers, including Todd Haynes, Darren Aronofsky, George Clooney, Ai Weiwei, Yorgos Lanthimos and David Gordon Green. Furthermore, ‘sleeper’ films like Brawl in Cell Block 99 played, as did the Safdie brothers’ excellent Good Time, as well as experimental animation Loving Vincent. In other words, there might as anywhere be some shallow movies playing, but there is also some cool stuff – even at multiplexes in shopping malls.

If there is a distinction to be made between the films I saw and the films that showed, there is also a distinction to be made, meanwhile, between the films screening and how many people went to see them. This is anecdotal evidence, but I should highlight how on a semi-regular basis (on four or five occasions), I was the only audience member in the cinema, with audiences rarely exceeding ten – with even mega-blockbusters like Justice LeagueStar Wars: The Last Jedi and Thor: Ragnarok seeming to have relatively slim crowds when I went to see them.

What we might infer from this, then, is that the movies show and that no one is particularly interested in them. This would confirm that idea that there is no cinema in the UAE, and this is a position that seemed to be held also by a spokesman for Image Nation Abu Dhabi at the UAE-UK cultural exchange mentioned above, and which was supported in part by the British Council.

During an exchange at the event, someone asked why local films were not supported by the cinema chains in the UAE, with the response being along the lines that there is no appetite for them for the twin reason of people not being interested in movies and the perception that local films are not of a high enough quality in the sense that they do not match the production values of a Hollywood feature film.

However, to counter the first point, I would like to bring in a couple of bits of evidence. For while I did spend a fair amount of time sitting in relatively empty movie theatres while watching American blockbusters and auteur films in the UAE, I did also sit with very busy communities of filmgoers at more or less every film that I saw which was not an American blockbuster or the work of someone like Haynes and Aronofsky.

There is a film club called Cinema Space that meets three or four times a week at the Manarat al Saadiyat on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, and at which I saw a handful of films, typically foreign and/or classic (Soul Food StoriesScialla!MafiosoUgetsu MonogatariWhite Christmas). While the average audience size in the mall multiplexes was less than 10, at Cinema Space the average audience size was about 50. And with their comprehensive and varied programme, Cinema Space is about as close to a cinematheque that Abu Dhabi has – and there clearly is an appetite (more of an appetite!) for art house over mainstream work.

Further evidence for the appetite for non-mainstream work would include the occasional film screenings held at Warehouse 421 in the Mina Zayed (port) area, and The Scene Club in Dubai, which also programmes independent work. I might also mention that I curated a series of 27 films based upon the theme of mavericks (maverick actors and maverick/cult-ish films), and which took the name of DXB Experiments Presents: The Cinema. With the screenings taking place in Le Royal Méridien Beach and Spa resort, this was like the other film clubs mentioned above an example of not-quite-theatrical film exhibition. And while the 27 films were relatively mainstream, the reported average audience again of about 50 far surpasses my experience of the multiplexes in terms of audience size.

With the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, in which there was a tiny amount of moving image work on display (mainly a film about land art), together with small amounts of moving image work also on display at the Abu Dhabi Art Fair (held like Cinema Space at the Manarat al Saadiyat), and with a Guggenheim and other museums promised in the future, hopefully the appetite for artistic and/or experimental cinema will also continue to grow.

That said, a seemingly greater appetite for classic, independent and/or art house cinema than for mainstream work does not translate into an audience for local films. However, here I may suggest that an enterprise like CinemaNA, which is a joint venture between New York University Abu Dhabi and Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi, would again suggest the opposite. It is through CinemaNA that I saw Blessed Benefit to an audience of over 70 at the Sorbonne and When Monaliza Smiled to a full-house at NYUAD. Being Jordanian, we may say that these films are not strictly local, but nonetheless they suggest an appetite for films in Arabic.

Furthermore, I also attended a screening of Jim Savio’s locally-shot Tabiib at NYUAD, which similarly enjoyed a full house, while a triple-bill of short films by Mahdi Fleifel, the director of the excellent documentary, A World Not Ours (UK/Denmark/Lebanon/UAE, 2012), had over 30 people in attendance.

In other words, and in particular contrary to the Image Nation Abu Dhabi spokesman, it would seem that there is an appetite not just for classic, independent and art house cinema, but also for Arab and perhaps even more specifically Emirati cinema – with audiences going to watch these latter films not necessarily in spite of their low budget, but perhaps very much because of that low budget.

For, as many humans wear their wealth cosmetically as a means to demonstrate their worth/as a means to be worshipped, so, too, do movies. And so in some senses it is the more humble, less opulent film that stands a greater chance of taking us beyond appearances and which can give us a sense of what happens ‘behind the scenes,’ lending depth to the world that we see being depicted in the film. The truly cool, then, is not necessarily that which shares the values of a superficial world (that is only superficially to be cool), but that which sees through/beyond the surface and which perhaps demonstrates to us that there is a beyond the surface.

If cinema is only about surfaces, then perhaps films that go beyond and/or which demonstrate that cinema is superficial are not really cinema. Maybe, then, such films are non-cinema – even if they are still cinematic (in that they are still films). In this sense, the spokesman of Image Nation Abu Dhabi was perhaps right in suggesting that there is no cinema in the UAE. But he also did not appreciate how there positively is non-cinema in the UAE, the status of which as non-cinema is also reinforced by the non-theatrical venues in which many of the above clubs are held.

Here we reach the issue of production values. At the UAE-UK cultural exchange event, it seemed that speakers both British, American and Emirati insisted that all films have a certain (high) level of production values, and without which Emirati cinema will never get off the ground – before the speakers then (inexplicably) slamming today’s youth (millennials!) for not having the commitment (at university age) to learn the full range of skills involved in filmmaking.

Indeed, to return to the Image Nation Abu Dhabi spokesman, he invoked in his talk Woody Allen in order to suggest that the business dimension of show business is absolutely necessary – and that anyone who thinks that they can make films without also being a businessman is misguided.

The reference to Woody Allen is linked to the discussion of production values, because in order to achieve high production values, one needs money, which means that one must understand the cinema is a business. That is, cinema is inherently a capitalist enterprise, in which looking good (and thus qualifying as cinema) depends upon money. This means that young filmmakers must respect those who have money if they want to make films, since without that money, the films will not be funded. Again, cinema becomes a means for worshipping superficial values, in that the greater material worth of the rich person is deemed to be a more real worth than the measurement of humans according to a non-materialistic criterion.

It is not the UAE is a poor country. Far from it. But young people typically do not have access to money in the way that working adults do – and the UAE-UK cultural exchange event was aimed at discussing the future of film in the UAE, while also being attended by would-be future filmmakers in the UAE. To suggest that cinema requires money and that in some respects cinema is inherently conservative (since access to money is achieved by respecting one’s elders and their ethos of business) is not to encourage young filmmakers by telling them that it is possible, but to put up barriers to entry into the world of film – even though the desire to make films is clearly there given the presence of young filmmakers at the event.

The criticism of millennials by various of the speakers only clarifies further a split that the cultural exchange event drew out: that the established filmmakers and the established ways of making films do not feel enough respected, and perhaps that the young filmmakers and would-be filmmakers in the audience do not share the same conservative values as the established filmmakers.

Two examples of those conservative values might be explained. In her discussion of her career, Nayla Al Khaja somewhat jokingly explained how when she made her first short film, Arabana (UAE, 2006), she ended up with far too much money to make the film because so many people were enthusiastic to support her – and that in the end, she spent not very much money on her film but a huge sum of money on promoting her film, including by hiring a cinema and insisting upon a VIP guest list at her premiere.

Al Khaja’s entrepreneurial spirit is to be admired, and she clearly is a supporter of independent cinema in that it is she who organises The Scene Club in Dubai. But similarly this story not of making a great film but of channeling money into promotion suggests a capitulation in advance not to substance but to appearance (even if Arabana is a film about child neglect). Al Khaja is not necessarily wrong to play a superficial world at its own game, but she also implicitly accepts rather than challenges that world.

Meanwhile, the second example is the Image Nation Abu Dhabi spokesman’s reference to Woody Allen. For, as was suggested at the time, evoking Woody Allen in late 2017 as a shining light to be followed in the global film industry seems somewhat strange. That is, Allen may well acknowledge the business side of the film industry, but Allen also stands at this present time for an abusive patriarchy that objectifies women, rendering women as superficial images rather than as flesh and blood human beings with depth. The reference to Allen does not just suggest that cinema is inherently conservative, but it also suggests that cinema is inherently patriarchal.

That the Image Nation Abu Dhabi spokesman invoked Allen as a means to dismiss as naïve a question about youth filmmaking movements suggests not only that he does not understand the history of cinema (which since at least the nouvelle vague is a history defined by youth and/or by the most important filmmakers making work for very little by finding alternative ways to make films, or to make non-films if those alternative ways are not considered legitimately to be cinema), but it also suggests his own patriarchal perspective.

Given that in the audience of his talk was a group of c40 young female Emirati film students who had travelled to Abu Dhabi from a higher technical college (HTC) in Fujairah (a journey of about three hours by road), the reference to Allen also seemed especially inappropriate. But more than this, it confirmed the future of Emirati non-cinema, in the sense that if cinema is conservative and patriarchal, and if millennials do not respect cinema, and if the future generation of filmmakers (those same millennials) are mainly women… then the future of cinema is a non-superficial, non-patriarchal non-cinema – just as developments in cinema traditionally have been driven not by those who conservatively uphold its values, but by those who innovate by finding new ways to make – and to see films.

In this sense, if it is not in multiplexes but rather in clubs and in particular university spaces that alternative films get seen, then the UAE in the 2010s is not so dissimilar to the USA in the 1960s, where campuses were one of the main spaces in which young future filmmakers would see work by the likes of Ingmar Bergman – since you could not see these at the mainstream cinema, of which the younger generation had become tired, since the mainstream did not reflect their values or outlook on life. It is exposure on university campuses to European art house cinema (exemplified here by Bergman) that led to the reinvigoration of American cinema via the so-called Movie Brats that included Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Peter Bogdanovich and more. Again, the history of cinema is driven not by old men, but by brats – and in the UAE perhaps by female brats (with Al Khaja functioning as a kind of godmother figure, even if her emphasis on the superficial might also not quite chime with the younger generation).

What is true of exhibition is hopefully also true of production. In the era of digital media, in which ‘everyone can make a film,’ it seems clear that not only can everyone make a film, but that in some senses everyone does make films – just in formats that are not recognised by those who ‘officially’ define what cinema is.

Indeed, during my time in the UAE, I had the opportunity to speak at an event for Young Arab Media Leaders (YAML), which was attended by over 100 young media users from all over the Arab world (with the exception of Qatar). Indeed, you can see me images of me delivering my talk in the video below, and which was created after the YAML event, and which was posted by Shamma Al Mazrui, to whom I shall return imminently.

My aim is not to discuss the aesthetics/production values of this video, which may seem superficially cool with its use of slow motion, triumphant music and so on. Rather, I wish to say how, in particular during discussions after my talk, it seemed clear to me that there are young media users, including filmmakers, who are developing new ways to create and to show their work – and if cinema does not acknowledge the legitimacy of this work, then it is only cinema that will be left behind, and not the millennial generation.

Or rather: perhaps this millennial generation does not care for cinema with its inherently superficial and/or patriarchal set of values, but is instead developing non-cinema in order to create a different, better world.

In the old days, you did need vast amounts of money to make a film, which meant having contacts and so on. But nowadays, perhaps (by definition?) the most vibrant work is made without money. Or at the very least it is created with minimal budgets raised via crowdsourcing sites and by young, female voices with something to say – including, for example, Amal Al Agroobi, whose Under the Hat (Qatar/UAE, 2016) is a sweet tale of precisely old and new worlds colliding, and who is crowdsourcing money for a feature film about Philippine domestic workers in the UAE – a subject that is not a million miles from that of Caveh Zahedi’s The Sheik and I.

It is telling, then, that the YAML event was organised by Shamma Al Mazrui, the UAE’s first Rhodes Scholar and who at 22 was the youngest government minister in the world. Known for her engagement with media, Al Mazrui represents a female future of media leaders who perhaps move beyond the conservative/superficial/patriarchal values of cinema, and who instead create a different, deeper, more ‘feminine’ (non-)cinema, and/or society that moves beyond the superficial and cinematic values that define much of the world under globalised neoliberal capital.

Spending a few months in the UAE, I met many local cinephiles, whose knowledge and enthusiasm for cinema impressed me enormously, including Hind Mezaina, whose Culturist blog is one of the essential sites for discovering what goes on under the surface (‘behind the scenes’?) in the UAE.

It was lamented several times (including by some of its former organisers) that the Abu Dhabi Film Festival is no more, even if the day that I spent at the Dubai International Film Festival would suggest a vibrant capacity for cinema in the UAE. Indeed, the screening that I attended of Sharp Tools, a documentary about the late Hassan Sharif, the UAE’s best known conceptual artist, would give hope that people might support not only local films, but also local documentaries (i.e. non-mainstream films) about local artists who themselves were seeking consistently to push the envelope in terms of making art that raised consistently the question ‘what is art?’

As Sharif asked through his work ‘what is art?’, so might tomorrow’s Emirati filmmakers not simply accept the definition of cinema that is handed down to them, but instead they might continually be re-posing the question ‘what is cinema?’ in order to push the boundaries in terms of working out what it is that cinema can do. In this sense, art and filmmaking are not dissimilar to the human project of getting better to know ourselves and pursuing the ethical development of working out what it is that humans can do and learn. With bad faith, we will assume the worst and suspect that humans can realise great evil and that the quest to find out what it is that humans can do will lead only to violence. But with good faith, we might well learn that humans are capable of the most amazing and generous things.

This is not to deny the human capacity for evil, which is clearly documented even if regularly occulted because a) people do not want necessarily to see evil and b) because those who commit evil deeds do not necessarily want to be seen (evil takes place behind the scenes). But this does not mean that good can only take place in scenes (that good can only be staged). For this would be a world not necessarily of good, but of performed good – a world in which appearances of goodness would come to count for more than actual goodness, a slippage that would take us away from goodness itself.

If the UAE currently has no cinema (in a metaphorical if not in quite a literal sense), then I have faith that it will produce good if not excellent cinema before long – and that it might be all the better if that cinema includes a healthy dose of non-cinema. Indeed, the health of a nation might better be gauged not by its cinema, but by its non-cinema. In this respect, it may not at present be perfect, but the signs for the UAE are good.

 

 

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F for Fake: Murder on the Orient Express (Kenneth Branagh, Malta/USA, 2017)

One of the key scenes in Murder on the Orient Express involves Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) exposing Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe) as a fake Austrian scientist as a result of his failure correctly to pronounce Turin. Hardman – if that is his real name – pronounces it TURin, whereas a genuine Austrian, as Poirot reminds us, would have pronounced it TurIN.

Given the importance that the film places upon pronunciation as a sign of authenticity, it is notable that on two occasions we hear the Belgian sleuth incorrectly pronounce the plural of the French word for eggs. The singular, œuf, involves the pronunciation of the f: ‘urf.’ However, when said in the plural, French speakers drop the f sound and say ‘uh’: des œufs (‘des uh’). Poirot, however, on both occasions persists incorrectly with the f and says ‘urfs.’

If it is an incorrect pronunciation that exposes Hardman’s act, then by the same token Poirot’s incorrect pronunciation exposes his own act. That is, if it is because he cannot correctly pronounce words that Hardman is revealed as not Hardman, then because he cannot correctly pronounce words, Poirot is similarly revealed as not Poirot. In other words, it is because of an f that the Poirot of Murder on the Orient Express is revealed as a fake.

What are we to make of this?

On a primary level, we can simply say that it is an error that any actor (here, Kenneth Branagh) might make when saying words in a language that is not his own. That is, the slip is meaningless – the sort of slip that should not be the basis of an entire argument about the film.

But, given that the film itself involves sleuthing based upon such slips, then by the film’s own standards, we can mount a case against the film as a result of its linguistic inaccuracies. If Hardman’s slip is deliberate, in the sense that it provides a clue as to the real nature of what it is that we are witnessing, then so must we read Branagh/Poirot‘s slip as deliberate.

[SPOILERS.]

Hercule Poirot finds himself on a train where 12 people have gathered ritually to murder a man (Edward Ratchett/John Cassetti, played by Johnny Depp) who himself abducted and killed a child in the USA some time prior to the titular train journey taking place. Each has a link to the victim and the victim’s family – and each is sufficiently devastated by the original murder that they are willing to take part in the murder from which the novel – and subsequently the film – takes its name.

The film presents to us as if it is by chance that Poirot happens to be on the titular train. Indeed, the murderers would have gotten away with it, too, were it not for the pesky Poirot’s presence – and an avalanche that happens to keep the train stuck for a day or more near Brod, in what at the time of the film’s setting (1934) was the recently formed Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and which today finds itself in the Muslim-majority country of Kosovo.

But what are the odds that all of these people with a connection to Cassetti happen to be on the same train – at precisely the same time that the world’s greatest detective happens to be there, too?

As the odds are extremely slim that so many people with connections to Cassetti can be on the same train as him by chance, so, too, are the odds slim that Poirot would be on the same train as all of these people and as Cassetti by chance.

Indeed, as it is not by chance that all of these same people are on the same train as Cassetti (they are here specifically to murder him), so might it also not be by chance that Poirot is on the same train. For, as Hardman is not Hardman, so is this Poirot not Hercule Poirot.

Instead, as indicated by his fake f, this Poirot is in fact an actor playing the part of Hercule Poirot – the world’s greatest detective – precisely so that he can uncover the crime and then use his credentials as a great moral arbitrator in order to excuse those who commit the murder of Cassetti.

That is, this Poirot is not on the train by chance, but, like all of the 12 perpetrators, he is equally on the train as a result of engineering. This Poirot is there not just to uncover the murder, but to justify the murder. He is part of the plot to allow murder to happen justifiably. For if the world believes that even Hercule Poirot allows these people to get away with murder, then everyone will allow these people to get away with murder. It is necessary to fake Poirot’s presence in order to justify murder.

But why do this?

On one level, this must be done in order to keep the train’s owner, Bouc (Tom Bateman), at bay. Where Bouc might otherwise blow a whistle about the murder, thanks to Poirot’s presence and his condonement of the killing, Bouc will keep quiet and let the killing happen ‘in peace.’ Bouc thus is a kind of bouc émissaire, or scapegoat, for the murder – not because Bouc literally takes the rap for what happens, but because Bouc’s naïve belief in the fake Poirot reconfirms (the fake) Poirot’s (fake) verdict that the killers are justified in their actions.

Except that Bouc specifically invites Poirot to take the train when Poirot is called to London to investigate the Kassner case. That is, Bouc is necessary in order to corroborate that this curious man whom we see is Hercule Poirot, while at the same time providing the necessary setting for the murder to take place. Bouc is in on it, too.

It is not simply that Poirot is part of the plot to murder Cassetti, then. It may even be that Poirot – this fake Poirot – is the mastermind behind the plot, a man playing the role of the Belgian detective in order to allow a murder to happen that he himself will expose and then condone precisely so that it takes place without consequence.

What evidence do we really have that Ratchett is Cassetti? None. That is, we have 12 liars who insist that this man is Cassetti, a child murderer who was never caught and the evidence for whose crime is never revealed to us. And then we have the word of a fake Poirot, whose explanations of the crime may be ingenious – but they explain to us neither who has been killed nor why.

Murder in Yugoslavia, or more specifically Kosovo, is therefore justified by the word of a fake authority. Indeed, because of the authority of a fake Belgian who justifies it, it becomes the perfect murder. Collective murder is perfect.

At the outset of the film, we see Poirot asking for the eggs that are the centre of this argument. Four minutes, he says, which presumably means that Poirot likes his eggs with a bit of unboiled snot in them given that five minutes is in my experience the best time to achieve a soft-boiled egg – give or take 30 seconds depending on the size of the egg.

(Furthermore, the boiling point of water falls with decreasing atmospheric pressure, and so it takes longer to cook an egg when one is at a higher altitude, since the boiling water there is not as hot and thus not as speedy a cooking medium as it would be at sea level.)

Having received two eggs that simply by appearance he does not like, the fake Poirot dismisses them and demands two more, which duly arrive.

Poirot (the fake Poirot) then takes out a ruler and measures the eggs, even though the eggs are visibly not the same size.

What is more, having dismissed the initial pair of eggs, he now accepts the second set of eggs, even though they are visibly disparate – and even though measuring them will not help him to know whether they have been boiled for the four required minutes.

In other words, first the insistence, then the refusal and then the nonsensical measurements are carried out in order to convince those around him (and we viewers) that this man is Hercule Poirot, the sort of man who would do such nitpicking. But of course, this is simply a performance by an impostor.

When Poirot makes it on to the Orient Express, he is served two much more equally-sized eggs for breakfast by the train steward Pierre Michel (Marwan Kenzari). How Michel knows to prepare the eggs this way is not revealed to us – and this is Poirot’s first experience on the titular train. In other words, Michel would seem already somehow to know Poirot. And Michel will eventually be revealed as yet another part of the plot to kill Ratchett, whom the murderers also claim to be Cassetti.

What is more, when Ratchett endeavours to employ Poirot to protect him from what he senses is imminent danger, Poirot (the fake Poirot) refuses – in part because he does not like Ratchett’s face.

In other words, not only would it seem that Poirot (the fake Poirot) is known in advance to at least one – but perhaps more – of the criminals who murder Ratchett. But it would also seem that Poirot himself has something against Ratchett. Perhaps it is for this reason that this detective who jumps up and who leaves his berth upon the slightest sound also somehow manages to sleep through 12 humans piling into a berth, stabbing a man and leaving again… because he also was a part of it.

But then who is this fake Poirot?

When the fake Poirot arrives at Istanbul train station with Bouc, he is told that there is no room left on the train – and that he therefore cannot travel in spite of his friend Bouc’s promise that he can.

At the last minute, however, someone suggests that an Englishman named Harris has not made it on time to catch the train. Passengers must arrive 30 minutes before departure, otherwise they forfeit their right to travel – and Harris has not arrived before departure and therefore cannot travel.

What has happened to Harris? Harris may have forgotten or missed his train. Or, given that Harris was otherwise booked on to a train where all of the passengers and even some of the staff members know each other, as an outsider he has been conveniently forced to miss the train – so as not to disrupt the murder that is about to take place (Harris is the victim of a second, earlier murder?).

Or, more simply, Harris does take the train. For the man who claims to be Hercule Poirot is really an Englishman called Harris, hence his inability correctly to pronounce the plural for eggs in French (des œufs/des ‘uh’).

Perhaps it is for this reason that MacQueen (Josh Gad) initially expresses surprise at seeing Harris/Poirot – for he does not recognise his friend in disguise, prompting Harris/Poirot to express his own dismay at MacQueen’s appearance. That is, Harris is indirectly expressing his own disappointment at having to look like Hercule Poirot.

Everything that follows is persiflage, pure show, or simply noise like the whistle of a train (per-siffle-age), including a somewhat nonsensical ‘action’ sequence in which Poirot chases MacQueen along a wooden bridge.

Indeed, this would explain the highly theatrical opening of the film, too, in which the fake Poirot supposedly solves the case of a missing treasure of which a rabbi (Elliot Levey), a priest (David Annen) and an imam (Joseph Long) are accused of stealing.

The fake Poirot himself points out that this is almost a joke scenario to the assembled crowd, who for some reason accept that a trial can or should take place in the open air and under the authority of a fake detective hired by the British government. That is, the trial is indeed a joke.

For, it becomes immediately obvious that there are not just the three religious men involved in this case, since the fake Poirot quickly explains to us that the last person to see the triumvirate was the British Police Chief Inspector (Michael Rouse).

We are told that Poirot (the fake Poirot) solves this crime as a result of a mark left by a shoe on a painting that lines the wall beneath the treasure. But far more simple a solution is to include among the suspects the very man who has known to accuse these three religious figures in the first place.

In other words, the ‘trial’ at the film’s opening is a pure show, a sham that is also put on in order to convince the assembled crowd and we viewers that this fake Poirot is the real Poirot.

The Chief Inspector supposedly steals the treasure, but it seems more logical to this viewer that the crime itself is a set-up so that the trial can be staged and so that the fake Poirot can be inserted into the story world.

That is, the fake Poirot is really engineered by the British – not to sort out who is responsible for the looting of valuables in Jerusalem (where the film opens), but in order to justify the British looting of valuables from Jerusalem and elsewhere in the Empire.

Supposedly called to London for the Kassner case, the British have in fact set Harris up as Poirot so that he can go on to the Orient Express to mastermind and then to justify the murder of Ratchett.

Why do this? Because Ratchett, too, is involved in the business of buying and selling antiques, including fake ones. That is, Ratchett wants to get involved in the very same racket that the British are operating throughout their Empire: stealing antiquities and replacing them with fakes that are sold at high cost.

As an upstart possible competitor, Ratchett must naturally be neutralised – otherwise the claims to power of the British will be exposed as fake. The Empire will be exposed as fake, its pretences to power merely an illusion staged to fool the assembled crowds that its figures of authority (the so-called Poirot) are in fact more powerful than their religious authorities (the rabbi, the priest and the imam).

Only two people will know the identity of the murderer, says the fake Poirot: God and Hercule Poirot. But if Hercule Poirot does not exist, then God may not exist. Or if Hercule Poirot is fake, then God may also be fake. That is, all who claim to be authorities on this Earth are fake, actors in a spectacle that is put on in order to create the illusion of power and in order to convince the spectators to believe in that illusory power.

(It is by this token important that the fake Poirot exposes corruption among the occupying British forces – the supposedly criminal Chief Inspector. In doing so, the fake Poirot would claim to show that the British bring their own people to justice – in the process covering over how the system of Empire will itself never be brought to justice. That is, the small crime is used as a mask for the massive crime that is taking place in broad daylight: the undermining and replacement of the local figures of authority for the purposes of ransacking the territory that the forces of Empire are infiltrating.)

Given the presence among the perpetrators on the train of three to five further Americans – MacQueen, the fake Hardman, Dr Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr), the fake Countess Elena Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton) and the fake Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer) – it would appear that the British are not alone in ransacking the rest of the world.

Let us not also forget the Russians, including Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and Count Rudolph Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin), who seems expressly to take pleasure in the murder (as well as being prone to violence in general).

The group is rounded out by naturalised Americans Biniamino Marquez (Manuel García-Rulfo) and Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), as well as British citizens with strong American ties, including Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) and Edward Masterman (Derek Jacobi), as well as Jewish émigrée Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman).

In other words, the major world powers are all united in a front to frame and to justify the murder of a man, Ratchett, whose crime is to seek to get involved in their game. Whose crime is to seek also to be a criminal. And who for his effrontery is branded a child abductor and murderer such that his assassination for theft and the peddling of fakes becomes morally justified.

When the fake Poirot performs his charade of egg inspection before a young boy (Yasine Zeroual), the fake Poirot explains that the disparity in size is not the fault of the eggs, but of the chicken. Or rather, that it is an inexplicable mystery.

To what end this prologue, which does not appear in the novel?

Perhaps Branagh is trying to tell us that as no two eggs are the same, so are a film and a novel not the same. That is, one can never get the original to match the copy. And so Branagh is suggesting from the very beginning that this is a fake version of Agatha Christie’s story that we are watching – and that it would be pointless to try to get the one to match the other.

Similarly, the film’s opening by the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem does not happen in the novel, which rather opens in Aleppo, and which sees Poirot travel by train (on the Taurus Express) to Istanbul, rather than by boat (as happens in this film).

We have already established how the film’s opening takes place simply for show – in the sense that it is a show designed to convince the world that this fake Poirot is the real Poirot and that the British are thus justified in their dominion over Jerusalem (which of course the British celebrate as being theirs whenever they patriotically sing the hymn ‘Jerusalem,’ as written by William Blake, to whom we shall return shortly).

But here the opening with its overhead shots, its supposedly reliable flashbacks to the dispute between the rabbi, the imam and the priest are all designed to convince us not just of the authority of the fake Poirot, but of the authority of the film.

This is especially clear in the fake Poirot’s illusory ability to predict the movements of the Chief Inspector. Firstly, he sends a guard to stand at the south gate in advance of denouncing the supposedly corrupt policeman, while also placing in the wall his walking stick, which eventually the fleeing Police Inspector will run into.

But this miraculous ability to predict the future is not so much magic as simply stage management: it is easy to seem to predict the future when it has been prearranged in advance for the policeman to go to the south gate and then to run into the walking stick.

In other words, the film wants us to believe in the power and authority of the film, when all of this is really staged, a fake that is a far cry from Christie’s novel. This is not Murder on the Orient Express that we are watching, but a fake film created by an impostor.

Put differently, cinema as a whole is an illusion machine that is used to give authority to those who peddle it. Like Ratchett, of whom the fake Poirot and his friends must get rid, cinema passes off fakes as if real, making handsome profits in the process while also stealing real local treasures via Empire, and as rendered here through the use in this film of Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall.

Which of course is not the real Wailing Wall, but a fake filmed in Malta.

More than this. As the fake Poirot is put into motion in order to justify the murder of Ratchett, so is cinema put into motion in order to justify murder more generally. As the disappearance of Ratchett is a conspiracy between the British, the Russians, the Americans and various naturalized Americans, so is the disappearance of Aleppo, for example, a conspiracy that is made to look like a struggle between the major world powers.

The point that I wish to make is not specifically about Aleppo, nor Palestine which was the nation in which Jerusalem resided at the time in which the film is set.

Rather, I am using Aleppo and Palestine here as examples of Empire and the role that cinema plays in the continuation of Empire. In bringing this fake magic trick to the world, the power of those who create cinema is justified.

The film regularly features extended sequences filmed from the exterior of the train, such that the train itself becomes a ‘character’ in the film. We might venture further yet, though, and suggest that it is not simply as if the train itself were a key player in the events that are unfolding, but as if the train demanded these events.

That is, the train is like cinema a tool for the creation of modernity. And what is modernity? Modernity is the creation of a system of power whereby some use the trickery of technology in order to demonstrate their power over others, whom they then ransack in order to consolidate their power – a perfect feedback loop of empowerment.

But this empowerment of some over others also involves the disempowerment of others for the benefit of some. This disempowerment is in effect murder. As a human seeking to become god kills others in order to use their life force and blood in order to prolong, increase and perhaps render permanent their own, so does modernity involve the sacrifice of many to sate the claims to divinity that a few are trying to make.

Naturally, anyone who sees through this fakery and who aims to achieve their own power must be removed – hence the murder of Ratchett. Revolutions, or not to believe the proclaimed divinity of those who would have power, and to seek to establish via the same means one’s own power, similarly requires suppression, or else power will not be consolidated but distributed.

(It would seem all too human for humans to seek to become gods.)

In order for power to take on magic qualities that reinforce its power (power as appearance), power also seeks to hide its origin. As the projector from which images originate is hidden in the cinema, so is the provenance of power generally hidden. Power comes as if from nowhere, via sleight of hand. It is magical. And thus its authority is not to denied since it is beyond the ken of other, uninformed humans.

The status of Murder on the Orient Express as a Maltese-American co-production, then, functions as a means to hide the film’s own source of power (and that of cinema more generally). This is a film that comes from a ‘small’ place (Malta), but which really just reaffirms the big interests of cinema (Hollywood) – with Malta itself a screen enabled by the tax breaks that drew the production to it in the first place, and which tax breaks function as an invitation to under-pay local, Maltese workers, thereby justifying under-payment and exploitation as a whole.

What is more, as Malta functions as the home of an infamous Masonic order, and as small islands generally function as tax havens, or what the recent leak of documents would confirm to be ‘paradises’ on Earth (or what Nicholas Shaxson further defines as islands of [stolen] treasure), so does the presence of Malta in this production function as a means of burying treasure, turning theft into an illusion – something the reality of which cannot be proven, and which therefore is both godly and not real. To believe in it is to be an insane conspiracist. To be part of it is never to be discovered.

This is how Empire functions: power is nominally regulated through the creation of taxation systems, with the powerful then placing themselves outside of the jurisdiction of such regulation. Regular humans who are too stupid to be crooks are punished for their honesty (their money is stolen from them, and they receive next to nothing in return), while the so-called gods are never punished for breaking the rules that they impose upon other people.

(Europe/the West must be defended from Islam by the Knights Templar of the Order of Malta, a specifically Christian group that aims to put down the revolutionary religion of Mohammad, who is not divine but human, and so who threatens to undermine the claims to divinity of other humans. Murder in Kosovo is justified.)

And what of William Blake? The fake Poirot is called to London for the Kassner case. To what might this refer? Perhaps it refers to the work of author Rudolf Kassner, the man who translated Blake into German and who also was influenced by Laurence Sterne, whose Tristram Shandy is a novel in which fabulation becomes impossible to tell apart from truth as we are presented with illusion after illusion.

(Tristram Shandy as a deconstruction of power, and as a deconstruction of cinema avant la lettre/avant la caméra. In famously featuring a black page, Tristram Shandy renders itself antithetical to cinema, which relies upon darkness, but which cannot make darkness visible since this would be to bring to light and to humanise its otherwise invisible and would-be divine workings.)

(And so the ‘Jerusalem’ of Empire is not the real Jerusalem; it is a fake, builded elsewhere in England. But in building that fake Christian as opposed to that multi-faith Jerusalem, so are the dark Satanic mills of Empire put into motion.)

It is a kind of Blakean demonic energy that Ron Rosenbaum attributes to Adolf Hitler in a bid to explain his ascent to power – as if Hitler were the ultimate revolutionary little man born to rob power back from the gods in which he did not believe, and who thus provoked global war as the gods naturally demanded his blood to prove that Hitler was human as Hitler demanded blood to transcend his humanity and to become a god. With their nuclear light, the winners of the war demonstrated that they verily were gods.

The fake Poirot is perhaps, then, called to investigate the rise of Hitler and the role that literature, translation and perhaps even cinema played in that rise. Hitler is one more upstart, like Ratchett, whom the fake Poirot and his British, American and Russian friends must help to put down in order to perpetuate the balance of power as is. America, Britain and Russia may squabble over who has most power between them, but these squabbles merely cover over the bigger question of why they have power at all. They are a cinematic show that plays out so that people believe in their divinity as they rob the world of its treasures, selling back fakes to make yet more money and to consolidate all power in their own hands.

So for the sake of an f, Murder on the Orient Express is revealed as fake.

Or perhaps a simple show of ignorance on the part of Kenneth Branagh (he does not know how to pronounce his œufs) sets in chain a conspiracy theory that nonetheless reveals the very humanity and not the divinity of the world’s systems of power – and the role that cinema plays in creating and maintaining them.

Or perhaps this is just idle conspiracy theoretical fabulation, patterns where there only is chaos, and to be disproved in an ongoing apocalypse of false idols.

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Fifteen thoughts about Flatliners (Niels Arden Oplev, USA, 2017)

1. Resuscitated films end up being haunted and made to feel bad by their past. Kiefer Sutherland is on hand to ensure that this is so.

2. In the contemporary age, suicide becomes the logical extension of the pressure to work oneself to death (and not to be a loser who simply works and goes home at the end of the day).

3. Computers are the urns in which we are always placing our remains.

4. Rich kids are not really haunted by feelings of guilt for their past sins. They in fact love their demons and accept even the most insincere of apologies – because they never really needed one.

5. The future of medicine is the preserve of the already-rich. They will play god with the lives of the poor who come to visit them. Medicine becomes like sport as doctors compete with each other to satisfy their narcissism.

6. “Why do you like me?” asks Nina Dobrev to Diego Luna after they have just boned. “Because you’re really hot,” he answers. Dobrev, her head on Luna’s chest, looks away with a satisfied glint in her eye: yes, I am, she is thinking. And even though Luna then adds that he was joking and that he likes her because she really cares about people, we all know that she does not care about anyone but herself and the only reason that he likes her and the only reason why anyone would like this film is because… she is really hot.

7. If the film is really a celebration of Hot People Boning, this all gets censored out in the UAE (where I saw this film). Meaning that the even less sense that the film makes… actually highlights precisely the senselessness of the film.

8. Death involves seeing oneself as if from outside one’s own body: death is basically the selfie stick/the selfie stick basically offers us a glimpse of death.

9. The fact that death comes back into life after the kids flatline would suggest that really these kids are already dead (inside).

10. People drive cars way too young in the USA. In being a film in which a woman (Ellen Page) is haunted by her sense of guilt after killing someone while answering her phone at the wheel, then it is not just a remake of a 1990s mediocrity, but it is also a remake of Lucrecia Martel’s Mujer sin cabeza/Headless Woman (Argentina/France/Italy/Spain, 2008). As we shall see, as that film is an expression of bourgeois guilt (or a lack thereof) for centuries of exploitation, so, too, is this film (although this does not make it any good).

11. As selfies are a channel through which we can see our own dead bodies, so are mobile phones a channel through which we speak to the dead. That is: mediation takes us away from direct human contact as we prefer instead phantom contact, or contact with phantoms.

12. The Mexican does not need to flatline – because as per Octavio Paz and the character who comes from the place where they celebrate El Día de los Muertos, he is basically already dead, too.

13. Privilege is based upon geopolitical exploitation and murder. But if you have it within you to forgive yourself, then it is okay to be a Nazi.

14. This recalls Slavoj Žižek‘s old observation that it is only when captured that Nazis tended to kill themselves – thereby exemplifying the public nature of shame, which is unbearable, versus the private nature of guilt, with which we can live. The film would seem to suggest a renewed era of shamelessness: I am shamed, but I basically can live with it – because I do not care (and because I am Really Hot). With the ongoing interest in figures like Eva Mozes Kor in mind (hat tip to the wonderful film scholar Leshu Torchin), one wonders that the forgiveness of victims only adds to the sense of shamelessness. Odd though this may sound, perhaps it is not for victims to forgive. Only God forgives. And if we do not think that this is so, then we are opening the door to new fascisms.

(And if there is no God, then we need a Law that can forgive. And if we have no universal Law as the guilty walk free, then who knows what is to happen? As the oppressed forgive their oppressors, then either we live in a world in which the oppressors are correct to oppress the oppressed, since neither God nor Law will judge them, and really there is no human equality, but only entitled superhumans and subjugated subhumans – many species as we cling to the illusion that really we are one species… or we must invent equality, change the Law, invent God, and give those self-proclaimed homines dei something really to be afraid of. The thing that the homo deus fears most in his belief that he is the summum of evolution… is revolution.)

15. Sex is a theme that runs throughout the film: slut-shaming; being a slut for having a one-night stand; paying for an abortion after a liaison with a working-class woman. Having a sexuality appears as more shameful than anything else, and at least on a par with murder – even though sex is designed to create and not to end life. Sex is shameful because it reveals mortality and failure in an era when one is supposed to live forever. In this way, sexuality has become death, an admission of mortality and of a body – as opposed to being an image, a selfie taken from outside one’s own body – about which one ought to be ashamed (it is only after flatlining that the Really Hot People can bone).
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Pretty Vacant: Song to Song (Terrence Malick, USA, 2017)

A Malickian montage of thoughts about Song to Song, the latest film from Terrence Malick.

Kill your gods
There may be a God. There may even be Gods. But there is no god who is a human. And for many years I thought Malick something akin to a god after various films that I enjoyed enormously: BadlandsDays of HeavenThe Thin Red Line. I am even one of a few people whom I know who liked To The Wonder.

Things began seriously for me to fall apart with Knight of Cups. Christian Bale moping around his privileged world, standing over homeless black people and moaning on about how tough his life is. A punch in the face and a few gulps of shut the fuck up were what I thought Bale’s character merited upon seeing the film.

And here, with Song to Song, the same trend continues.

More on this below. But the initial point is that Malick – together with director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki, whom filmgoers also feel can do no wrong… are mortal. Utterly and thoroughly mortal. To this extent: Song to Song made me believe that I am a better filmmaker than Terrence Malick and that my cinematographer, Tom Maine, is as good as Emmanuel Lubezki. And we work wonders from a position of relative poverty. Letters to Ariadne says as much as if not more than Song to Song. And Tom’s images are every bit as beautiful as El Chivo’s.

But this bit of flexing aside, let us look at the film…

Pretty Vacant
Of course latter day sell-out Johnny Rotten turns up to collect his fee by being in Song to Song, thereby evoking the whole history of punk that he has turned his back on as he takes role after role in advert after advert.

And yet this Sex Pistols song, ‘Pretty Vacant,’ effectively sums up Malick’s film: ‘Oh we’re so pretty / Oh so pretty / We’re vacant.’

For we basically get Rooney Mara (actually quite good in this), the Gos, Fassbender and a collection of other, typical Malickameo stars turning up to give us their thoughts and feelings about life, the universe and everything. That is: everyone is beautiful and everyone is ‘Troubled’ because they have, like, you know, relationship and daddy and self-absorption issues.

Real estate and empty parking lots
Song to Song has loads of shots of empty parking lots. America has been constructed around and for the car. What is the car? A machine for travel, of course. But specifically a machine that one uses to travel only in small groups or alone; a private form of transport, increasingly taking on the bulk and the aggression of a tank.

Space is dedicated for the temporary housing of these vehicles. They are often empty. Pretty. And vacant.

Song to Song also features lots and lots of empty apartments. These also are pretty. And vacant. We have real estate for cars and we have real estate for stars. Malick’s film insists upon such spaces so much. The emptiness no doubt reflects the inner emptiness of the characters that we see onscreen. Well done, Terrence, for using ‘Symbolism.’ Repeatedly. But to what end?

Whenever anyone calls anything ‘real,’ they are making a claim about the nature of reality. That is, they are labelling one thing as real at the expense of other things. The real (so say I) effect of the phrase ‘real time,’ for example, is not that we watch things unfold at the pace that they would in the ‘real world.’ On the contrary, the effect of the phrase ‘real time’ is to justify only one particular temporality or rhythm – the rhythm of the media that deliver ‘real time’ footage, which in turn is the rhythm of capitalism – as real. All other temporalities and rhythms are thus demoted to a realm outside of reality. This is a political manoeuvre.

And so it is with real estate: to say that only these estates are real is to consign to unreality those other estates that people occupy: the hovels, the slums. There is no room for these really in Malick’s film; offscreen, they are unreal. Instead, the only reality that he offers is the pretty and vacant world of lavish apartments.

Glass houses and the attention economy
How many windows and glass fronts are there in Song to Song? In the pretty and vacant estates that are passed off to us as real, we see glass house after glass house. ‘Transparency’ is the ‘Symbolic Meaning’ of that: all of our lives are on show, for people to see, constantly under scrutiny from others and our selves.

Oh, how tough it must be to be a star we find ourselves thinking: always being watched, it must So Hard.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not sure that I would care to be Famous particularly (I have not experienced it so I would not know). For, I am sure that being Famous is not such a Good Thing as we are led almost always to believe.

But here we have Famous People being Pretty and Vacant on screen for 129 minutes. They are Pretty, for sure. But to what end is this being shown to us?

Malick’s film is filled with scene after scene of people Acting Out. Look, a Pixie Woman cannot but do a Pixie Dance as she crosses a road because Pixie Women are Free, and Free People do Free Things like Pixie Dances.

But what is the Pixie Dance really about – and why is Song to Song filled with Pixie Dance after Pixie Dance?

Pixie Dances are about Getting Attention. And the reason why people want to Get Attention is so that they can Be Seen, which in turn allows them to Make Money from Being Seen and Getting Attention and doing Pixie Dances. That is, the Pixie Dance is a capitalist performance that feeds into the attention economy.

Is Malick critiquing the attention economy? Or is he really reinforcing it by showing Pixie Dance after Pixie Dance? Why is there basically no dialogue in this film – but instead a relentless collection of solipsistic inner monologues? Look at me! Give me money!

Men handling women
Watching Song to Song, you will notice that the film is also filled with scene after scene of Men handling Women. Gripping, grabbing, tying up, covering over. The film is a relentless demonstration of how men consider women to be property.

Rooney Mara at one points ties up the Gos – but two things: he pulls her along as she holds on to the rope used to tie him up; and then we see her untying him.

Men want to possess women. But does this mean that Malick is critiquing this tendency? Is that why Rooney Mara is only billed third in the end credits, despite having the largest monologue and occupying the most amount of screen time?

And what is the deal with that lesbian relationship with the Unbelievably Pretty (and Vacant) Parisienne who turns up part-way through the film? Oh, that’s not there for the titillation of the male viewer (like the insistence of Lubezki to film Natalie Portman at breast height and for the camera to be on Mara’s waist at every available opportunity)… that is Mara’s character Discovering Herself.

So where is the scene of the Gos sucking off Fassbender? Fassbender connotes Shame. And where McQueen was trying to replicate Malick with the use of thoroughly Hans Zimmer-like music in Shame, it would seem here that at least McQueen has bettered Malick with Shame, while Song to Song remains utterly prurient, even oddly innocent, while trying to give us some sense of Desire as understood by someone who seemingly Does Not Fuck On First Dates.

Indeed, the Gos asks Mara longer than halfway through the film whether she has slept with Fassbender. Are you serious? In my world, I’d have asked her that about three minutes into our relationship… and what does it fucking matter anyway? Of course people can do what they want. But not these ones: they are Troubled and Alone. Ah, the burdens of being Pretty and Vacant.

Montage of the mind and Patti Smith
But you have to understand that Malick is making a New Form of Cinema. Because his movies are not narrative, but rather Montages of the Mind. They are, as they say, Film-Philosophy, because they show that film can ‘think’ and that the Brain is a Screen is a Brain.

Okay. Sure. But then why insist on characters and narrative – even if the montage is choppy, fragmented, and clearly as much concerned by space (and the location of Austin) as it is by story?

Patti Smith turns up a few times to tell us a few pearls. And one cannot but think of Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme, where Smith rocks up on the Costa Concordia, too. But where JLG pushes for a radical montage that basically says Fuck You to story in a bid to democratise the image, Malick just offers Pretty Vacant Image after Pretty Vacant Image. There is no democracy here, for there is no critique of the rich, even if it is Democratic to explore how they might be Troubled by their Prettiness, too. This is just the Rich and their Troubles. Be Democratic, Terrence and get out of the Privilege – otherwise you are simply blinded by the limitations of your own world and showing us your blindness. No hermophroditic and fortune-telling Tiresias here, though; this is the blindness of the Powerful, who do not see that their own empty Real Estate is about to crumble.

Another Godard touch: an interview with a prostitute, whose pock-marked face perhaps reminds us that not everyone is So Pretty As A Star. She would have been a more interesting film than Song to Song, but Song to Song basically forgets her, just as it stuffs a few dollars into the hand of an old Mexican woman so that we can look at her face for a moment and Remember The Poor People – before going back to being Pretty and Vacant.

No one works
In the world of Austin, Texas, where Song to Song is set, apparently everyone is working on some music. Except that no one ever does any work. Ever.

Maybe the Gos and Mara pluck a few chords – because we all know the Gos can Play Piano after LaLaLand.

But basically No One Works in this world.

Because people basically drive around, park up, and then do some Pixie Dancing in or around Empty Real Estate, before driving on to a different Empty Lot where they do a bit more Pixie Dancing, they have nothing to fill their time or their minds but their worries about Love and Love Things.

But wait… at the end – more shades of a LaLaLand alternative ending montage – we see the Gos working for about two minutes. And we are told by Mara about how he dreamed of the simple life.

Because being an honest, hard-working American is a Simple Life, whereas being Pretty and Vacant is Difficult and Hard and brings with it many Troubles. Oh, to be poor and ugly. Life would be so much easier. And yet, we must carry our burden, and we are so burdened by it that we build glass houses so that everyone can see it. So that we can make ourselves gods, so that people will worship us as we demand their attention and thus earn money so as not to work but to worry about Love and Stuff.

And what work is it that the Gos does?

Of course it is drilling. So he is basically reminding us of how the USA is built upon energy for cars, so that the solipsism can continue. The destruction of the planet as fracking becomes increasingly common and we destroy nature even though we look at Birds and Dogs and Llamas and Deer and Horses and the various other Animals that feature in Malick’s film – along with Water and Air to remind us that there is a world out there and that the Privileged feel So Connected With Nature.

And America is not built upon genocide and slavery. And land grabs. And the claim that the estate created is real.

There is a rumour that Terrence Malick loves Zoolander and quotes it quite regularly. Maybe Song to Song is his Zoolander. But the speed of his Montage of the Mind would suggest more an ADHD editing style that is about Getting Attention as the film itself does Pixie Dance after Pixie Dance to convince us of its Prettiness and Worthiness (because it, too, is Heavy and Troubled). Indeed, for a film that is supposed to go from Song To Song, it seems odd that the film never in fact allows a song to play in completion.

The World Reduced To Symbols. A World Reduced To Cinema. To Be Consumed. And the poor, and women and other estates: they may feature as the playthings of the Rich – so in some senses they are in the film. But why not just commit to rejecting cinema and the values of the capitalist attention economy more thoroughly and make a film that really takes us into a human, even post human democratic or socialist vision of the world?

Even Zoolander, let alone Film Socialisme, manages to do that.

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Philosophical Screens: Chinesisches Roulette/Chinese Roulette (West Germany/France, 1976)

This blog is a written version of some of the things that I shall be discussing tonight (Wednesday 10 May 2017) at the British Film Institute in London, where there is a screening and panel commentary on Chinese Roulette as part of the BFI’s Philosophical Screens series, organised in association with the London Graduate School.

The film tells the story of the Christ family, which consists of Gerhard (Alexander Allerson), Ariane (Margit Carstensen) and their crippled daughter Angela (Andrea Schobel). Both Gerhard and Angela are having affairs and one weekend Gerhard claims to be going to Oslo and Ariane claims to be going to Milan on business, but instead both go with their lovers to the Christ mansion in the countryside.

As a result, when Gerhard comes back from a roll in the woods with his French lover Irene (Anna Karina), he walks in on Ariane in the arms of his colleague, Kolbe (Ulli Lommel). But they are not alone, for Angela then turns up with her mute Polish nanny, Traunitz (Macha Méril), implying that their daughter has engineered this confluence of partners and has come to observe the fallout.

What is more, events are also observed by the mansion’s housekeeper, Kast (Brigitte Mira), who has a mysterious connection with the family, and her son Gabriel (Volker Spengler), who fancies himself as something of a philosopher-poet.

What is set in action, then, is a lean eight-header, in which various tensions are unravelled and revealed in the mansion, which, together with the objects that fill it, plays a key role in the film, which culminates in a  game of the eponymous Chinese Roulette. This is a guessing game in which one group asks questions to another group in order to discover which person from the first group the members of the second group are describing.

***Spoilers***

The game culminates in an act of violence – as Angela, Gerhard, Traunitz and Gabriel describes Ariane in various ways, including as a worm-eaten apple (if this person were a painting, what would feature in it?), a gilded mirror (what object would this person take to a desert island?), a whore (is this person a saint, a mother or a whore?), already dead (what might be an appropriate death for this person?), and the commandant of Bergen-Belsen (what role would this person have played in the Third Reich?).

Although Kast believes that they must be describing her, as do Irene, Kolbe and Ariane, when it is revealed by Angela that they are in fact describing her own mother, she flies into a fit of rage, takes out a gun from beneath a transparent chess set and aims it at her daughter… before shooting Traunitz.

All good melodramatic stuff!

But what makes Fassbinder’s film all the more interesting is not just what happens in it (which ultimately is not that much given the minimal settings and the restricted cast), but how it is put together.

For although Chinese Roulette only merits a few brief mentions in Thomas Elsaesser’s Fassbinder’s Germany: History, Identity, Subject, and while Christian Braad Thomsen seems positively to dislike the film, it is nonetheless a remarkable masterclass in mise-en-scène and cinematography, with the film being shot by Michael Ballhaus, also the director of photophraphy for Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (USA, 1990), which was discussed at Philosophical Screens earlier in the year.

(This is not to mention the strength of the acting in Chinese Roulette, which is superb.)

For, although somewhat spartan, the Christ mansion is filled with relatively elegant objects, including a prominent transparent drinks cabinet, which is matched by a second transparent cabinet that contains a high fidelity music system. These accompany the afore-mentioned transparent chessboard in which sits the gun used to shoot Traunitz.

Time and again, these objects take up space in the frame, the camera placing them prominently before us, together with a birdcage in which budgies tweet and flutter. While we are supposed to and in some senses can see through these objects (they are transparent), in some senses they also get in the way, mirroring, distorting, fragmenting the bodies that we see and the actions they perform.

That is, while transparent, they in fact also change our perspective on things, suggesting that any perspective, therefore, is skewed, inaccurate and not necessarily correct. That this takes place in a film lends to Chinese Roulette a self-consciousness that elevates it out of the realm of a typical fiction film, in which events are presented to us as if in an accurate, objective and reliable fashion, but instead a film in which it becomes hard to read what exactly is going on.

There are several things for us to pick apart, since these dimensions of the film relate to larger ideas concerning family, class, history, fascism and cinema itself.

For, if in Fassbinder’s mise-en-scène we get a sense of how all views are potentially distorted, then we also get a sense of how quite possibly we can never therefore access the truth. And yet, in a country that is going through the kind of self-analysis that Germany was doing in the aftermath of the Second World War, the need to get to the truth, the need for transparency is it were, is tantamount – such that is becomes a guiding myth for an entire nation.

The myth might be that in confronting its fascist past, Germany can perhaps move beyond it, becoming so open in its dealings that fascism will never be allowed to rear its ugly head. In some senses, this explains the Christs’ compulsion to ask about the role of the chosen person in the Third Reich: they must acknowledge that they, too, are capable of fascism.

And yet, when confronted by this fascism, Ariane (in this instance) cannot tolerate it, and  she is compelled to let out her violent tendencies somewhere – in this instance on Traunitz.

For all of the desire to remove fascism via transparency, it creeps into everyday life in invisible ways. ‘Fascist,’ says Kast as another road user cuts her up as she drives home to the mansion near the start of the film.

Even in our cars, then, we have a sense of the human who separates themselves from the rest of the world, and thus begins to treat others not as fellow humans with whom one makes contact, but rather as people to use and abuse. That is, the seeds are sewn of seeing other humans as disposable, of the sort that we might thrown into a gas chamber.

If fascism is thus invisible, we might say that fascism is beyond the purview of cinema, that cinema cannot gain access to the inner recesses and the darkness that lurks within all human hearts. And yet, I am not sure that this is quite right – and we can explore this by returning to the transparent cabinets.

For, if the transparent cabinets in some senses get in the way and obscure the reality or truth of what it is that we see in Chinese Roulette, in order senses, those cabinets do not get in the way, but they are the way, with the distortions and reflections that they create not taking us away from a true vision of things, but being the true vision of things.

That is, distortion is the truth (that there is no truth). But more than this, a cinema that claims to offer us an undistorted or transparent image of the world such that we can begin to understand something like the Holocaust does not so much get beyond or allow us to recognise fascism, but it is fascism. In its supposedly objective presentation of the world, cinema is fascist as it reinforces the necessary separation of humans from the world and from each other that objectivity would by necessity require (to be objective, we have to be detached from the world).

If a would-be objective cinema is thus fascistic, then how do we get around this? Fassbinder does this precisely through his distortions, which thus become not so much distortions as a kind of Brechtian verfremdungseffekt that makes us aware that we are seeing not an objective truth, but precisely a constructed fiction.

I shall return to Fassbinder’s cinematography imminently. But here I want to discuss how it is not just cinema that typically separates humans from each other, but perhaps even the concept of family itself – even if family is of course supposed to unite people. For, while families are units, that they are units who seclude themselves off in larger or smaller domestic spaces – i.e. houses – shows how they separate themselves off from the world and then from each other.

On numerous occasions in Fassbinder’s film do we see chandeliers and various other objects (including the feet of a doll whom Angela seems at one point to have hung) jut down into the bottom of the frame. Not only do these render strange the images that we see, in that rather than being rectangular, the frame can take on different, indescribable shapes as these objects are visible only as darkness, but they also suggest the oppression that hems the Christs and their guests in.

This we can compare to Gerhard’s brief moment of happiness in the woods with Irene: he has escaped from the family hearth, but it will be back in the home and with is family that the fascism will recommence.

In other words, the characters of Chinese Roulette clearly want connection – otherwise they would not have lovers and so on. But they find such connection almost impossible to achieve, and the house bears in on them, constricting them to the point where they lash out in violence. Family, then, provides connection of a kind, but it is not enough, so constrained, for the characters to feel free.

Take the opening shots: we see Ariane in one window before we see Angela in another. The two seem to be in the same room as Gustav Mahler’s Uns Bleibt Ein Eidenrest plays on Angela’s record player. And yet it is revealed that in fact they are in separate rooms. Both clearly seek the freedom of the outside – hence being at the window; but they in fact are separate both from the outside and from each other – perhaps even wilfully.

But there is more than just a family in Chinese Roulette; there is also Kast and her son and Irene and Kolbe, after all. And yet there seems little connection even between these extended cast members. Separated by objects, seeing each other in reflections, rarely looking each other in the eye: the characters are together, but they cannot connect either, as is made clear when Kolbe, fully clothed, begins to strangle a topless Ariane in bed (although she curiously wears a hairnet), and by the class division that seems to separate Kast and son from the Christs and daughter. Various forms of separation, then, are all at play, suggesting an impossibility of freedom.

With its depictions of bodies, especially heads, in space, gazing off in different directions, Fassbinder’s film is very painterly, with the stasis of the characters here also suggesting in some senses their failure to connect (since they cannot move in order subsequently to connect).

Here Ballhaus’ roaming camera comes into its own. For, if the characters do not move so much, then Ballhaus’ camera roams freely. And if an objective cinema is fascistic, then the remarkable camera movements that Ballhaus has the camera perform may depict a world where people do not connect, but which endeavours and perhaps succeeds in creating a film with which we do connect.

It is important here, then, that these camera movements seem unmotivated – in order to remind us that we are seeing a film, rather than watching but not noticing these camera movements because they are integrated into a clear and objectively presented narrative.

In this way, we understand that if cinema is fascist, then this is because capital is also fascist. For the cinema of supposed objectivity, in which we should not be reminded that we are watching a film, but in which we should instead simply forget about the real world for a couple of hours, is also the cinema of making money, a cinema for profit rather than a cinema of art. If profit and thus capital are achieved through supposed objectivity and separation from the world, and if fascism is also predicated upon a perceived separation of self from world and others (such that one can treat those others as objects rather than as people), then capital is also fascistic, and the capitalist cinema a key tool in promoting this fascistic ideology.

Elsaesser describes how Chinese Roulette can best be understood by the title of an essay that Fassbinder wrote on Claude Chabrol. In ‘Insects in a Glass Case,’ the director criticises Chabrol for simply looking at but not really getting involved with his characters, with the result being that his work is superficial (much as Fassbinder otherwise likes the work). Compared to an objective view, then, Fassbinder shows how the case (the transparent cabinets, the house, the cars) shape the behaviour of the insects/his characters, while also not being afraid to have his camera move freely inside the case rather than simply observe from beyond.

And yet, if the characters pose as if in paintings, static and separate, perhaps it is because they want this. They want separation and they perhaps even want the humiliation of knowing that they want separation and can do little to overcome the tendency towards it. This is why the Christs laugh upon discovering each other’s affairs, as well perhaps as in how they supposedly started those affairs when it was revealed that Angela was a cripple: faced with an imperfection, they simply adopt an illusion in order to turn away from that imperfection.

And yet this imperfection only marks the imperfections, the fascisms, that lie within and which are embedded via a history of war and exploitation that extends far further back in time that World War Two.

The Christs are clearly wealthy and international jet setters: they travel for work, have a house in Munich, the mansion in the countryside and a place in the mountains (that Gerhard mentions at one point). As much is also made clear by the names of their business acquaintances, whom we also hear about as the film progresses. Gressmann, Farucci, Petrovich, Ali Ben Basset: this is an international lifestyle that they have.

But how did the Christs get here? For it is never quite clear how they make their money, although at one point Gerhard speaks with Kast about the murder of Ben Basset – seemingly a reference to Mehdi Ben Barka, the Moroccan freedom fighter who disappeared in Paris in 1965. ‘We are the only two left,’ he says to Kast, as if they were now the only dissidents remaining.

But what kind of dissident owns at least three houses, one of them a mansion? What would the Christs’ interest be in something like Moroccan independence?

Conceivably the answer might come in the form of Traunitz. Towards the end of the film, when Ariane has shot her daughter, Kast calls for an ambulance, telling it to come not to the Christ mansion but to the Traunitz mansion.

At the start of the film, Angela turns to Traunitz and says ‘your great-grandfather should have won the Battle of Katowice.’ It is unclear to which battle Angela is referring, while it is also unclear where exactly the mansion is – but one gets a sense that the Christs have acquired the mansion from the Traunitzes, much as Katowice historically was occupied by the Germans and then liberated by the Polish.

What is more, Macha Méril, who plays Traunitz, was born and died in Morocco, meaning that her mute subservience as Traunitz to the Christs obliquely speaks also of a history of North African colonialism and exploitation, which in turn suggests a world of capital in which the rich are empowered through exploitation, an act of separation from the exploited that the capitalist does consciously and for which they must therefore atone through occasional bouts of self-humiliation and abjection – the search for connection when they know that this will be fruitless because they cannot let go of their sense of superiority towards others as a result of their capitalist separation from them that is the necessary precondition for hierarchies.

It is fittingly cruel, then, that it is Traunitz who should pay for Angela’s insult to Ariane – since it reaffirms Traunitz’s role as a voiceless victim to this history of exploitation – even if the film’s closing gunshot over a frozen image of the exterior of the mansion suggests another act of violence, perhaps Ariane now shooting Angela or shooting herself.

Fassbinder opens the essay on Chabrol with a quotation from Theodor Fontane, whose novel Effi Briest Fassbinder later famously adapted (West Germany, 1974).

‘Every debt must be paid on this earth, even that of showing shadows or half-shadows as human beings,’ the quotation reads (although I do not know its source).

Fassbinder would seem to suggest, then, that the debt owed by exploiters to the exploited may one day have to be repaid – perhaps here with the blood of Ariane, who cannot in the end tolerate the prison that she has made for herself in separating herself from the world.

More than this, in discussing the presentation of shadows as human beings, Fontane also predicts cinema as a debt – the fascistic tendencies of cinema that must also at some point be paid back. In his self-conscious cinema, Fassbinder would seem to foretell a cinema that does pay back this debt, or which at the very least shows us not shadows as human beings, but shadows as shadows. More: it is not that the shadow is separate from the human being such that one can be presented as and taken for the other. Rather, the shadow is perhaps always with the human, entangled and touching each other, much as the human is not separate from the world and from other humans, but inevitably also entangled and touching, even if we deny it and even if we deny denying it in such a way that our separation becomes unbearable, leading from repression to abject release and self-humiliation.

 

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Hymyilevä mies/The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Juho Kuosmanen, Finland/Sweden/Germany, 2016)

Spoilers – although since this film is based on a true story, revealing its outcome should not be too traumatic for readers (if there are any).

The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is about a boxer, Olli (Jarkko Lahti), who in 1962 has a world title fight against Davey Moore (John Bosco Jr) in Helsinki. He loses. Easily.

I shall return to the final fight itself.

But really I only want to talk about a couple of things that feature prominently in this film, the main one of which is moments of play.

Olli is in love with Raija (Oona Airola) – and while he is keen on fighting, he is perhaps more interested in being with her, even ditching his training at one point in order to travel home to Kokkola, his hometown, in order to be with her.

This, together with Olli’s lackadaisicalness in general, exasperates his coach, Elis (Eero Milonoff), who has a lot of money riding on bringing a world title fight to Finland, having himself also been a competitive boxer and who travelled to the USA (where he claims he became friends with Frank Sinatra).

This is not, though, a tale of how preferring to be with women destroys the boxer’s competitive edge. Or if it is, then Juho Kuosmanen’s film certainly does not condemn Olli for this. Rather, The Happiest Day… is about not just about how love for a woman is perhaps more pleasing than fame and fortune obtained via pugilism. It is also in some senses about a more general kind of love that is characterised by play.

There are two key moments that signify Olli’s love of play. The first is when he skims stones across a lake with Raija and the second is when he discovers a kite stuck up a tree while on a run. We see Olli climb over a fence and begin to try to shake down the kite – before the film cuts to a long shot of a smiling Olli running through a field, the kite flying not far behind him.

These moments signal play because there is ‘no point’ to them. Olli is not trying to skim his stones further than Raija, and the flying of the kite is not for any reason than some sort of childish enjoyment of simply flying the kite.

In other words, play here is defined as a moment when one steps outside of the demands of capital, and instead enjoys things not for the purposes of making money, but the sheer joy of it.

Play is in this sense very different from sport, which is play subsumed for the demands of capital: play is not now playing for no good reason, but it is playing to win, with winning itself equalling economic and other benefits.

Play is a form of love because it expects nothing back from what it encounters – much as love itself should be disinterested and not so much about possession (capital) as about sharing, enjoyment and fun. Nothing is demanded in return in order to close off a deal; it is open and open-ended.

Sport, meanwhile, is about returns and about control. Indeed, Olli is no longer allowed to be who he is now that he is a professional boxer. Instead, he must modify his appearance, be that by purging his body of excess weight in order to achieve the appropriate size for a featherweight (57 kilograms), or standing on a stool in order to advertise a suit (Olli is shorter than the female model, played by Pia Andersson, who accompanies him in the photo, thereby clearly demonstrating the constructed nature of patriarchy as superior in the system of profit-seeking capital).

In an early scene, we see how Olli literally would not hurt a fly, while he also storms away from his training after Elis gets him to beat up a sparring partner against his will. It is not that he is without boxing skill; but he lacks the killer instinct.

What is more, during a sequence in which Elis has to find more money ahead of the bout in order to keep his life – and Olli’s title campaign – solvent, he goes to a sort of Masonic institution, where the sponsors of the campaign question that Olli might be a communist.

It is not that Olli need be a card carrying party member; rather, his is a world defined not by work, but by play, but a sense of equality in life, and also by associations with nature. Indeed, Olli seems happiest when training without the attention of the media and just for himself.

Widely reported for being shot on 16mm, the film would also seem in its form to suggest that it is playful: using equipment that is now obsolete, The Happiest Day… would want to tell us that filmmaking itself should be ‘useless.’

That said, the film nonetheless constructs a somewhat romantic or mythological version of Olli’s life and of Finland more generally. While Elis and others are clearly in life for the money, Olli and Raija are smiling, peace-loving characters who never seem to get too angry, while Olli’s most successful training seems to take place not just in nature, but also in a specifically Finnish sauna. That is, the film suggests that play, nature, communism and a lack of competitive, capitalist edge, is somehow a core and rural Finnish value.

While it is admirable that the film suggests that no one is a failure (since success and failure mean nothing) in the realm of play, it nonetheless provides us with a canny performance of failure, which in turn conceivably undermines the reliability of the film in terms of its moral message: the film wants to perform failure as actually success, but really this is a deliberate strategy, along with the nostalgic use of 16mm black and white photography, in order to give to the film a paradoxical use- and exchange-value, i.e. so that it can make money and thus serve the purposes of capital.

Nonetheless, perhaps at this point we can return to the final bout itself. It is so heavily anticlimactic that Olli’s naïveté is thoroughly exposed. But more than this: Moore’s ‘killer instinct’ does not seem to come from his arch-desire to make money (even if this was in real life the case), but more born from an understated sense of the suffering and anger experienced by a black American in 1962.

That is, Olli gets his arse handed to him in the fight as his comfortably Finnish life is confronted by the reality of trying to escape life under historical slavery – where the ‘escape route’ is not a retreat back into the country, but by explicitly hardening and disciplining one’s body in order to become a fighting machine that destroys Olli with ease. For, fighting is not for this boxer fun or play (and the film’s Moore seems to have none of the performed enmity for Mäki that we might expect from contemporary belligerents). As a result, Moore’s body becomes precisely a weapon in order to escape a reality in which there is no room left for either fun or play.

This in some senses also involves an occultation of history. For, Moore went on to be killed within a year of his fight with Mäki in a contest against Cuban-Mexican boxer, Sugar Ramos. Meanwhile, Mäki went on to have a relatively successful and certainly a long career as a boxer.

The Moore’s death at the hands of Ramos suggests that Moore is to Ramos as Mäki is to Moore. Where Mäki is too privileged a westerner really to be any good at fighting, so might Moore be not violent enough in his bid to break American history when faced with the fighter who expresses the extended violence of the continent that lies to the south of the USA. Read this way, Moore might fight to free himself from a history of slavery, but Ramos fights in order to try to break the monotony of capital world wide. That said, Moore’s death (and the violence of Ramos, who killed more than one boxer in the ring during his career) suggests the sad logic of boxing as a spectacle of pugilism, a latter day gladiatorial combat in which most participants fight for ‘freedom’ (riches) because they are not otherwise free to play, coming instead from deprivation and thus attuned to an everyday violence the suddenness of which takes Mäki completely by surprise. The film’s Olli has never experienced anything like it – and is not cut out for this violent world, even  as the classed violence of the fighters is brought under the control of spectacle as opposed to contributing to a genuine revolution.

In other words, at its edges and in its framing of history, The Happiest Day… cannot help but betray its own privilege: the world of play is beautiful and in some senses outside of capital, and in a world full of love and play. But it is also a world of love and play that is precisely inside capital since only certain people can afford it.

In this way, the film’s performance of failure – the Olli Mäki of the film is not cut out for boxing – is really an expression of power – as perhaps the film’s circulation in art house cinemas rather than in multiplexes (where we get to see the boxing fantasies of the Rocky franchise and/or films like Bleed for This, Ben Younger, USA, 2016, regardless of whether they like The Happiest Day… are based on true stories or not). This does not make the film any less charming, nor any less valid in its critique of sport and its praise of play.

Nonetheless, we might bear in mind some of these contradictions that are – pun perhaps intended – at play as we watch this otherwise beautiful film.

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