Category: Film

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A shot of mother and daughter arguing in a car from Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird" (2017)

Her Identity of Place: On Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” (2017)

When you are 18, your identity resides in the past. Where you are from, where you went to school, and who your parents are. You simply haven’t lived long enough to accumulate a string of accomplishments, nor have you had the opportunity to make enough life choices to define you. So, when you are uprooted at 18 and transplanted to a university—‘Where are you from? Where did you go to school?’—these are the questions asked. They serve as a shallow introduction—a way of establishing your place—of defining you—within these new surrounds.

Lady Bird is directed by Greta Gerwig, and I was familiar with her performance in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2012), which is one of the most cinematically unattractive films I have ever seen. Shot in dingy black and white for no other reason than to evoke French New Wave, the film is typical Baumbach insomuch that you can almost hear him whispering, ‘This is a Noah Baumbach film. Expect it to be intellectual with lots of literary namedropping.’ His films are sciolistic in some way or other, but admittedly there was something about Frances Ha that made me enjoy it, despite its weaknesses. Perhaps that something is Greta Gerwig’s performance as the ambitious yet vulnerable Frances.

Lady Bird stars Saoirse Ronan as Christine, a high school senior who prefers to be called Lady Bird, rather than her birth name. The reason is never explained but we can gather that she doesn’t like her ordinary life and so this is her attempt to differentiate herself. ‘Do I look like someone from Sacramento?’ she asks. ‘I hate California.’ Her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) works double shifts as a nurse and she takes her daughter’s words as a slight. ‘You have a great life,’ she informs. But Lady Bird, in midst of her longing, doesn’t see it. ‘I wish I could live through something. I want to go to the East Coast,’ she says. ‘I want to live where there are writers.’ ‘You can’t even pass your driver’s test,’ Marion reminds. (Gerwig, who is from California and attended university in New York, based Lady Bird on her own experience.) […]

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A shot of a terrorist from Rainer Fassbinder's "The Third Generation"

Cops or Robbers? – On Rainer Fassbinder’s “The Third Generation” (1979)

Rainer Fassbinder is one of the critically important voices in 20th century cinema – in fact, he’s good enough to make a boy jealous. He is known not only for his rapidity in his process, but his uncanny ability to extremify the positive points of a movie while glossing over the unimportant features. Unlike his contemporaries Kubrick or Coppola, he wasn’t at all fastidious. He had a laid-back and European approach to his process, instead of the furious quasi-mysticism seen in a lot of American filmmakers operating in this period.

His films are characterised by an austere and stripped back quality to the visuals, one very much in line with the French new-wave. He is an heir-apparent of Brecht – his start in theatre gave him that edge, or innovation; he always stood out from Herzog and Wenders. He captures atmosphere through amazing attention to sound design – dialogue either blending into the overbearing noise, struggling against it, or coming through crisply from silence like the worst thing you’ve ever been told.

The visual magic of his cinema is that despite his subjects being audaciously simple, they are brought to life with a restrained formal complexity. Evidently, each film has a unique atmosphere, like a fingerprint, one established in composition and diegesis. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is domestic and melodramatic and its visuals reflect that, almost soap operatic, and paranoid. Satan’s Brew is an anti-humanist nightmare and farce, characterised by its unappealing, ugly compositions and palettes. […]

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A shot of Monica Vitti against an industrial backdrop in Michelangelo Antonioni's "Red Desert"

The Human Intrusion: Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Red Desert” (1964)

Prompted by the recent death of Monica Vitti (1931 – 2022), on a day my city shut down due to inclement weather, I re-watched Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert. Outside, the streets iced into the night and through the blinds, I noticed that the sky glowed white. I then got to thinking that the notion of human seemed absurd, as who are we to battle nature? We hunker in our houses under heavy blankets in our defense against the outside. We are newcomers to this planet, after all. We arrive and then we depart, hoping that our presence has made some sort of impact.

Red Desert might be the most (anti-)nature film ever made. Set amid the grime of industrial plants, pollution, metal wire, and murky water, only the sky and wind remain intact. But that doesn’t stop humans from polluting it. ‘Why is the smoke yellow?’ the boy asks his mother. ‘Because it is poisonous,’ she replies. Monica Vitti plays Giuliana—a young mother who is undergoing trauma from a previous accident. Her husband, Ugo (Carlo Chonetti), works at the industrial plant she visits. It is a dirty and inhospitable wasteland, where grit and grime are the norm and where colored smoke fills the sky. She visits one day while the plant workers are on strike. Upon witnessing a man eating a sandwich, she offers to buy it even though he has already bit into it. Confused and fragile, something is amiss. […]

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A stylized screenshot from Damien Chazelle's "Whiplash" (2014)

Charlie Parker & The Drive For Greatness In Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” (2014)

Few films address the drive required for artistic greatness. Rather, we are presented with notions that are nebulous—wherein so-called ‘achievements’ are validated via one’s desire to be famous. But greatness is not measured in fame. In the world of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, artistic craft exists as an objective thing, and certain musicians are notably better than others. Those who excel move on to First Chair. And those who can’t change their major to pre-med. (‘I guess he got discouraged,’ Fletcher says.) I must preface this by stating that I am not a musician, and so I am unable to comment on the accuracy and perfection of the playing therein. But I can comment on the writing, which is extremely accurate with regard to the intensity involved when one wishes to triumph. As example, when an artist strives for greatness, compromises must be made. Often, artistic achievement comes at the expense of friends, family, career and a social life.

Miles Teller plays Andrew Neiman, a first-year student enrolled at Shaffer Music Conservatory. With saxophonist Charlie Parker (1920-1955) as his hero, Andrew does not merely play the drums—he lives them. More than anything, he longs to be ‘One of the Greats.’ He desires this so much so that in an arrogant moment, he breaks up with his girlfriend Nicole (whom he only seems to call when feeling good) on the basis that his drums are more important and that she would only get in the way. It is a cold move on his part but understandable, given his perspective. Paul Riser plays Andrew’s platitude-driven yet loving father who clearly does not understand him. Early in the film, the two are seated in a theatre as his father (Jim) pours Raisinets into a large tub of popcorn. ‘I don’t like the Raisinets,’ Andrew whispers, as he picks for the popcorn. ‘I just eat around them.’ Bemused, Jim looks at his son and responds, ‘I just don’t understand you.’ […]

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A still from C. Scott Lewis's "The Woodmans", a film on Francesca Woodman.

So Much Is Delicate: C. Scott Willis’s “The Woodmans” (2010)

In C. Scott Willis’s documentary, George Woodman asks with regard to his daughter’s posthumous fame, ‘Does her work deserve it?’ A painter himself, he admits, despite his support, to feeling overshadowed. But again, we must ask if her work deserves it? Francesca Woodman (1958-1981) was a prolific photographer who died by suicide at the age of 22. In many respects, The Woodmans addresses (and challenges) numerous artistic clichés—the sad artist, the rejected artist, the need to feel special and unique. But more importantly, it addresses the need for one to forget the creator in order to appreciate the creativity. To not imbue too much personal tragedy into each and every frame. To allow—that is—to give the artist the opportunity for her craft to exist separate from her identity. (To not do so would be to disparage the importance of one’s brilliance.)

I am always underwhelmed by the lackluster attempts by so many artists. Writers especially can win the appropriate praise so long as they employ the correct politics or regard themselves in a certain way. That their work leaves one’s mind feeling like flat soda is irrelevant. This, I feel, is where the selfish (poseur) artist resides. Give me money. Give me attention. Give me a prize. Fame too comes at a cost—often at one’s integrity. They don’t care that they are boring so long as the perception (or so-called ‘experience’) suggests otherwise. […]

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The opening scene of rice-milk drawings from Jean Renoir's "The River"

The Romantic Longing within Jean Renoir’s “The River” (1951)

It is not easy for the child of a well-known artist to embark into his own successful, creative realm. Certainly this does happen, but what I mean is that the child of the so-called artist must manage on his own without need for the parent’s name to bring leverage. It is a tricky game, as one must thrive whilst not being in the shadow of someone else. (Jean Renoir is the son of yes, that Renoir—Pierre-Auguste Renoir—the renowned painter.) I mention this because when one is the son of a famous artist, there is always going to be a pressure to succeed and not be seen beneath the wing of the parent.

Whilst I have seen a number of Jean Renoir’s films, The River is my favorite and the most wonderful. Filmed in Technicolor, it is told from a young girl’s perspective—the romantic, distant dreamer. The innocence within offers a similarity to that of Renoir the painter, in that, this world is pleasant, beautiful and mostly without worry. There is the desire to remain young and within a kind of forever.

Patricia Walters plays Harriet, an upper-class British girl who crafts poems in her diary and dreams about the world from her lush Indian home set along side the Ganges River. Here, her world is peaceful and tranquil. She has a secret place where she escapes to write by candlelight. The film is set in the past, likely around the year 1946 following the War and we hear Harriet’s perspective in voiceover, told years later. Jean Renoir crafts his opening with Indian women using rice milk to draw circled shapes upon stone as the credits roll. And what a comfort this brings, wherein this world is about as far from War or turmoil as could be—yet it is not without the longing that accompanies one’s inward struggle. […]

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A stylized screenshot of Glenda Jackson as Stevie Smith, in the film "Stevie" (1978)

Poetry’s Recitation, Reflection: Glenda Jackson as Stevie Smith (“Stevie”, 1978) 

Stevie Smith (1902-1971) prided herself on her individuality. An iconoclast born Florence Margaret Smith, she lived her life in England and died of a brain tumor at age 69. She worked a publishing office job for 30 years until her poetic achievement allowed her early retirement. She never had kids nor did she marry. In fact, she shares similarities to both Marianne Moore and Emily Dickinson in that all three women have an oddness (or is it fondness) about them. Stevie Smith’s verse is unique in that she uses a nursery rhyme approach whilst addressing sad or ‘dark’ themes, often with biting humor. It was rumored that she was a combination of high wit with a dash of the naïve. But then again, aren’t we writers all a bit of this?

Stevie (1978) stars Glenda Jackson as the lead and what a lead she is. Whilst this isn’t a One Woman Show, the film focuses much on the poet’s daily life, her relationship with her affectionate aunt (Mona Washbourne), her views on life, art and poetry. ‘Not a literary person,’ Smith says, with regard to her aunt. The two laugh it up over sherry and sometimes gin. At one moment, Stevie Smith rejects a marriage proposal from a male suitor, claiming that she is better as a friend. ‘I need to be away,’ she says. ‘But I always come back.’ […]

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A stylized shot from "Poetry" by Lee Chang-dong.

Flowers and Odd Things: Lee Chang-dong’s “Poetry” (2010)

In the same way that Steve McQueen’s Shame uses sex addiction merely as one avenue into deeper issues, Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry takes a similar tactic with its protagonist’s malady (Alzheimer’s) in order to play upon its own – not just deeper, but insidiously so – concerns. For all the film’s talk about beauty, and its genuinely poignant moments of personal confession and aesthetic consideration, there is a sense of pervading cruelty which is under constant subversion, from the opening moments of a uniformed girl’s corpse floating face-down in a river – the title “Poetry” almost demurely phasing in beside its stillness – to Yang Mi-ja’s persistent self-deceit, which she both helplessly suffers and, in a way, actively (and selfishly) utilizes.

What do I mean by this, exactly? Of course, Yang Mi-ja (or just Mi-ja; played by the pitch-perfect Yun Jeong-hie) is not to blame for her sudden cognitive ailment – such is common enough for a sixty-six-year-old. And, at least outwardly, she is a kind, beautiful, somewhat genteel woman, with an almost precious comportment in her dealings with others. She has raised her divorced adult daughter’s son in her stead (the daughter, without a voice or body for most of the film, lives in Busan) and also works as a caregiver for a partly-paralyzed old man, Mr. Kang (Kim Hee-ra). All worth at least some admiration, surely. Lee Chang-dong introduces her in a doctor’s visit: Mi-ja’s complaints about arm pain quickly turn towards the more concerning issue of memory loss. She has begun to forget common words, which embarrasses her, but also becomes something she quickly learns to charmingly deflect from. When, in a phone call with her daughter right after, she neglects to mention this troubling issue, the viewer knows something is awry – indeed, this seems heralded by a grim scene outside the hospital: the floating corpse has been found (suicide, apparently), and the girl’s mother is in a mournful daze, creating a spectacle where several bystanders watch in mute fascination as the disheveled woman mutters and groans and collapses on the street. Nothing is explicitly stated – the event occurs matter-of-factly, with little dialogue. It’s a good scene, playing into the idea of a public’s inability to sufficiently deal with its darker elements, and will have deeper relevance for Mi-ja, later on, for this will not be the first time she encounters the dead girl’s mother. […]