Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Black man's burden: "I Am Not Your Negro"

Somewhere deep down in the rightly glowing reviews for Raoul Peck's documentary I Am Not Your Negro, there may be an acknowledgement that this is, among other things, a rediscovery of a vital and compelling critical voice; and that, as such, the film makes the case for us almost as well as it does the case for James Baldwin. Peck's hybrid - part biog, part rumination - takes as its raw material those notes and letters Baldwin penned in advance of Remember This House, the project the writer began in late 1979 but left behind as an unfinished manuscript upon his death eight years later. The book was commissioned as a memoir in which Baldwin would cast his eye back to mid-century America and reflect upon his relationships with the late Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X; while addressing the civil-rights era those men embodied - the struggle for recognition and parity, the pushback against hidebound institutional racism, the sight of young black men being shot down in the streets - Peck also elects to cast an eye forwards to the present day, the fallout from Ferguson and the first stirrings of the Black Lives Matter movement, and in so doing, he invites us to weight up how far or little we've travelled in the past fifty years.

For the most part, the film is conventionally composed: Baldwin (as voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) talks us through his ideas and observations over a variety of footage pulled from the archive. Peck has one popcultural advantage, though, in that Baldwin was a particularly astute viewer of the movies, capable of taking down such putative landmarks as The Defiant Ones and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? - or allowing them to take themselves down simply by setting them against a commentary on the harsher realities of their times. This tension between idealised image and imperfect, deleterious actuality runs throughout the film. In a televised 1965 debate at the Cambridge Union - a fascinating scene in itself, with the great black intellectual surrounded by white scions of privilege, and no less an adversary than William F. Buckley lurking in the wings - we witness Baldwin elucidating the Eureka moment he experienced upon watching a Gary Cooper western and realising that, culturally, he had more in common with the defeated injuns than he did with the white-hatted hero.

The collage approach ensures I Am Not Your Negro tesselates appreciably with Goran Hugo Olsson's The Black Power Mixtape 1967-75 and Concerning Violence, themselves potent documents of that post-war period of reconstruction when all the old issues of colonialism and hegemony were suddenly up for discussion again. Yet the Baldwin of the late Seventies is clearly speaking from the perspective of a battered and bruised survivor of that tumult, one of the few who lived past forty to patch together and pass on the sorry tale that the likes of Evers, King and X couldn't. Certainly, Peck's film never lacks for explosive, blood-spattered footage drawn from the fractious frontlines of the civil-rights battle: here is history being made before our eyes, with a cordon of scowling or smirking white supremacists doing their damnedest to stop it. All of which can't help but make you wonder: are we just going round in circles nowadays? And is there any way out of the cycle?

Given the gestation period of the average documentary, it's possible Negro was pitched and developed as one film - straight-up Baldwin biography - before shapeshifting into another as events beyond the editing suite developed. The biggest indictment Peck makes of our time is formal: it is genuinely shocking just how seamlessly the archived, Kodachromed images cut together with that footage sourced from, say, 2014's Ferguson unrest. Baldwin's words continue to resonate when set to news coverage of those 21st century youngsters shot down by police, or of America's rapidly swelling, increasingly black prison populations (subject, of course, of Ava duVernay's recent 13TH); when he identifies an "unfeeling white majority" who consider him inhuman, the accusation chimes with certain Brexiteers' (and certain Brexit-supporting newspapers') attitudes toward migrants of any shade. Cultures infantilised by capitalism seek solace in fantasy and reassuring self-images; within those cultures, minorities have tended to be recast as boogeymen bringing chaos in their wake. 

It may have required a storyteller to finesse this point, and it becomes an obvious problem when violence - the right to bear arms - is as much part of your culture as cherry pie. As Baldwin is heard to argue at one point, the treatment of the negro shows up the American Dream - freedom and good times for all - as the sham it might well be. Race remains the most complex of issues, as the film that beat Negro and 13TH to the Best Documentary Oscar (O.J.: Made in America) demonstrates at length, and if there are no easy answers or quick fixes here, the Baldwin we encounter proves as good a guide as any: supremely eloquent, invariably sober, he's a paragon of thoughtfully channelled anger, chastened by events while remaining quietly hopeful we might see better down the line - in our lifetime, if not his. You emerge from this thoroughly energising film burning to know what he would have had to say on the Obama era, the success of Get Out, the Rachel Dolezal saga - for, like the very best critics, Baldwin makes us a sharper, more engaged observer of both the world and its people.

I Am Not Your Negro is now playing in selected cinemas.

Monday, 24 April 2017

1,001 Films: "Killer of Sheep" (1978)

Charles Burnett's debut film Killer of Sheep fell between Shaft and Wild Style on the timeline of landmark moments in black cinema, but it looks to be taking place somewhere else entirely: during a never-ending depression on the other side of the world. In beautiful monochrome images, we observe a working-class family interacting with their environs, the rundown Watts district of Los Angeles. At first, the focus is on the family's youngsters: its kids-at-play sequences remained the best up until David Gordon Green's George Washington, on which Burnett's film clearly had a considerable influence. The protagonist, though, turns out to be their father Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), who rejects the easy money offered to him by a pair of gangsters to earn an honest living hosing the shit and blood off a slaughterhouse floor. In the course of the film, Stan has to perform several near-Sisyphean tasks: trying to fix up a house in a neighborhood beyond repair; carrying a car engine down several flights of stairs only to see it fall out the back of his pick-up truck. The film is so rooted in its particular place that it has secondary value as a discourse on the architecture of the ghetto, and sets one to wondering just what became of LA in the 1980s. 1991's Boyz N The Hood, perhaps the next great 'hood drama, would play out on flat suburban spaces, but the Watts of Burnett's time is all steep inclines and jagged descents, closer in look to the favelas of City of God; for its inhabitants, everything's a slippery slope or an uphill struggle. 

This is a place of violence and impotence: practically everyone on screen gets beaten up one way or another, while literally dirt-poor kids, who may just have had the (mis)fortune to survive long enough to witness or participate in the Watts riots of the early 90s, throw rocks at one another, because there's nothing else for them to play with. There's something particularly disconcerting in Stan's inability or unwillingness to make love to his wife (Kaycee Moore), which suggests a pent-up frustration that never quite finds release. Even at the last, a flat tyre thwarts his efforts to take family and friends on holiday; there's just no escape from it all. For all this, the film preserves more poetry than suffering, and details at least as much good cheer as it does degradation. Burnett's young performers are tremendously funny and expressive, while the soundtrack (ranging from Paul Robeson to Earth, Wind & Fire via Dinah Washington) remains both pointed and pleasurable. It has more to do with documentary or photography than the blaxploitation of its decade, and in Stan, Burnett bequeathed us one of the great characters in cinema, an African-American Tom Joad: a decent man bearing the immense weight of a broken-down world on his shoulders, but still trying to raise his children right on the limited means available to him. Despite - or perhaps because of - its roughness, its authenticating texture, this is unforgettable filmmaking.

Killer of Sheep is available on DVD through the BFI.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

1,001 Films: "Taxi Driver" (1976)

Funny old time for Travis Bickle to raise his ugly mohawked head once again. Here is cinema’s original angry white male, stepping out of the sewer smoke as the midpoint of the BFI’s Martin Scorsese retrospective, at a time when angry white males have seized control of public discourse. Back then, Bickle looked very much a product of his circumstances: post-Nixon, post-Vietnam America, pre-gentrified New York. Watching him in 2017, the mind boggles: would Bickle feel vindicated by our world? Would he be gunning for or supporting the President? Would he be even angrier for seeing Uber devouring his client base?

By all accounts, this was Scorsese and his collaborator Paul Schrader writing what they knew. Most male filmmakers craft flattering self-images within their early features; Scorsese and Schrader, by contrast, punched up their own neuroses and hang-ups into a portrait of lethally toxic masculinity. They found a willing ally in Robert de Niro, at that stage where he was willing to push and pull his body every which way: here, warming up for Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, he transforms the boyish, shy-smiling Bickle of the early scenes into the shaven-headed loon who stalks through the unforgettably bloody finale.

In showing how one Travis becomes the other, no film has better captured a certain kind of masculine solitude: the loneliness, the boredom, the growing entrenchment that follows from Travis driving around in his yellow Checker cab, fantasising and projecting (many have noted the parallels between screen and windscreen), becoming ever more detached and alienated from the world outside. There’s a marked contrast between him and those civic-minded individuals (Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks) observed trading quips in scenes suggestive of a “normal” movie of the late 1970s.

But then Taxi Driver is far from a normal film. This viewer has always been a touch resistant to claims for its greatness: nothing about it seems especially healthy, and the sense of men egging one another on towards vileness hardly relents with Scorsese’s cameo as a racist creep. (He looks like Manson.) You wonder how many fanboys have forced their girlfriends to squirm through it, like Travis forcing porn on Shepherd’s Betsy. Still, it endures as the furthest studio movies were permitted to descend into the mire; the following year, George Lucas made Star Wars on wipeclean sets, and the rest was movie history.

That isn’t to deny Taxi Driver’s occult power. It is superlatively performed by character actors who didn’t care for being likable: there are brilliantly uneasy encounters between De Niro and Harvey Keitel’s pimp, the awkward silences allowing us to hear the tin cans and other trash blowing down the street. And Bernard Herrmann’s score sneaks up behind you, places its hands over your eyes, and eases you back into the darkness: the film should be a bumpier ride than it is, but this was Scorsese – on that trajectory that took him from Mean Streets to GoodFellas – learning how to seduce the viewer with violence.

That had consequences: part of Taxi Driver’s legend is that it inspired John Hinckley to take a pop at Ronald Reagan in a bid to impress Jodie Foster, as Travis sought to woo Foster’s child prostitute Iris. Somewhere in here, alongside the useful skewering of white knight syndrome, is a beginner’s guide to becoming an assassin. It is, however, Travis’s insular worldview that now appears most terrifying, and most familiar. In ’76, that bicentennial year, this guy was surely a lone face in the flagwaving crowd; nowadays, whether lurking on the Internet or in the halls of highest office, he seems to be everywhere.
(Reader's Digest, February 2017)
A 40th Anniversary Special Edition of Taxi Driver is available on Blu-Ray through Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

1,001 Films: "The Travelling Players/O Thiasos" (1975)

The players in Theo Angelopoulos's The Travelling Players are stand-ins for the Greek people, and they travel - or, rather, they wander, while the camera travels beside them in directorial solidarity - back and forth through the first half of the 20th century, attempting to perform an old standard of the Grecian stage (Golfo the Shepherdess), all the while being whittled away, by time and by circumstance. At the head of this troupe sit the left-leaning manager and his errant wife, playing away with another actor known for his fascist sympathies; the married couple's son is a soldier dispatched to various fronts as war and civil unrest break out, interrupting his own romance with the company's leading lady. The film's unifying theme is that very unrest, disruption: in a subversion of the theatrical maxim "the show must go on", these players barely get beyond the first scene of their chosen text. As the curtain of each new dawn rises, they're obliged to start all over again - often from a worse place than before. First, the leading man is pursued offstage (and arrested) by government agents; after a brisk spot of recasting, the next show we see them perform is cut short by an air raid. It's hardly a surprise that the story becomes scrambled, achronological, as though losing its thread: the camera pans one way, across a road as observed in the run-up to the 1952 elections, then pans back, without cutting, to show the same thoroughfare as it was under the Nazi occupation - the idea being that this tumult and turmoil was ever thus.

Watched from the perspective of the early 21st century, The Travelling Players makes sense of almost everything that has followed: it's a fulsome introduction to a society that considers it standard operating procedure to smash the plates at the end of every meal, a culture with drama in its blood. In a scene that seems crucial to what the film is getting at, an officer steps onto the stage to shoot yet another of these accursed thesps dead, only for the onlooking audience to break into applause, having long since learnt to accept such violent ruptures as part of the scenery. No film has engaged more with the political ramifications of what it is, and what it means, to act: whether that means to give in and become a plaything, something to be molded by firmer hands, stripped and sent to wardrobe to come back with a new uniform, or conversely to hold out, to resist, and in doing so, to begin to assert one's independence as an individual. Angelopoulos regards history as a crowd scene, an epic swaying to-and-fro, with all the internal tensions that implies: the characters are identified less by their given names than by what they chant or sing, the flags they carry and discard. 

This makes Players sound demanding; in fact, it's an unusually absorbing watch in its feel for cold, wet, quiet (often port or hillside) towns - the kind of place at the furthest reaches of the rep circuit - which suddenly find themselves invaded or bombarded. If it's not the fascists entering stage right, it's the Communists charging in from the left, and it's all the actors can do to hit their marks, remember the roles they've been handed, and try not to be too distracted by what may be lying in wait for them in the wings - nor, indeed, by the threat of dying on their backsides. The film has a lofty reputation as Angelopoulos's masterpiece: at almost four hours, it's certainly a considerable benchmark against which to set all this director's subsequent examinations of Greek history. But don't let the running time put you off: essentially, we're watching history played out in one take as farce, in the next as tragedy, and then over and over again until it really does begin to take on the weight of history - something complex, alive, and (the real liberator, once you come to accept it) hard to pin down while you're milling around in the very middle of it.

The Travelling Players is available as part of Artificial Eye's The Theo Angelopoulos Collection vol. 1. 

Friday, 21 April 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of April 14-16, 2017:
1 (new) Fast & Furious 8 (12A) [above]
2 (1) The Boss Baby (U)
3 (2) Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
4 (3) Peppa Pig: My First Cinema Experience (U)
5 (6) Going in Style (12A)
6 (new) The Handmaiden (18)
7 (5) Get Out (15) ****
8 (7) Smurfs: The Lost Village (U)
9 (4) Ghost in the Shell (12A) ***
10 (new) The Sense of an Ending (15) **

(source: theguardian.com)

My top five:   
1. Mulholland Dr.
2. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
3. Neruda
4. I Am Not Your Negro
5. Their Finest

Top Ten DVD rentals:  

1 (1) Rogue One (12) **
2 (2) Moana (PG) ****
3 (3) Arrival (12) ***
4 (8) The Magnificent Seven (12) **
5 (4) Doctor Strange (12) **
6 (5) Trolls (U)
7 (6) Bridget Jones's Baby (15) *
8 (9) Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (12)
9 (7) Inferno (15) *
10 (10) A Street Cat Named Bob (12) **
(source: lovefilm.com)

My top five:  
1. Moana
2. Catfight
3. It's Only the End of the World
4. Tanna
5. Adult Life Skills

"Their Finest" and "Rules Don't Apply" (Catholic Herald 21/04/17)

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. The spectre of the “well-made British film” – well-cast, well-acted and well-dressed, yet so emotionally hemmed in as to pack all the wallop of a damp handkerchief – hangs heavy over Their Finest (***, 12A, 115 mins), Lone Scherfig’s take on Lissa Evans’ WW2-set bestseller. It’s certainly well-cast and well-produced, lining up its national treasures like mantelpiece tchotchkes. There’s a self-reflexive curl about its stiff upper lip, however: Gaby Chiappe’s script maps the progress of screenwriter Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) within the wartime propaganda industry.

21st century career women will recognise elements of Catrin’s predicament: territorial male colleagues, limited pay, a wider institutional sexism that dubs women’s dialogue “the slop”. Why, then, is Their Finest but mildly stirring? Partly, it’s the drab grey fug Scherfig shrouds scenes in, constantly obscuring her more colourful features: amusingly vain lead Bill Nighy’s double-act with schnauzer-toting agent Eddie Marsan, Rachael Sterling’s no-nonsense producer. Partly, it’s self-satisfaction: each wry snipe at thespian ways removes us only further from anything like real pain or sacrifice.

Their Finest instead emerges from that keep-calm-and-carry-on mentality determined to recast WW2 as a jolly, best-of-British romp: it’s fish-and-chips in newspaper wrappers, pretty girls on bicycles, and a pantomimic rendering of Dunkirk spirit via a caricatured crew (plucky heroine, square-jawed Yank) forming their own cosy platoon. At the outset, Henry Goodman’s Korda-like bigwig lists a successful picture’s key ingredients as “authenticity, optimism, and a dog”. Scherfig’s film can claim two of these three, enough to provide genteel matinee distraction – but it’s barely more sophisticated in appealing to a modern audience.

Hollywood, meanwhile, is harking back to that late Fifties golden age when rich white men might still present as romantic mavericks. Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply (**, 12A, 127 mins), American cinema’s biggest financial flop of 2016, deploys a juicy Howard Hughes quote (“Never check an interesting fact”) to justify its entirely fictional love triangle between ageing satyr Hughes (Beatty himself), a self-improving starlet (Lily Collins), and her designated driver (Alden Ehrenreich), played out as a Kodachromed cruise down a Sunset Strip converted for the occasion into an erratic memory lane.

Familiar faces (Ed Harris, Annette Bening, Alec Baldwin) prove subservient to the dominant creative force: Beatty-as-Hughes emerges from the shadows after a half-hour, and begins pawing Collins in a manner that might well put you off the movies forever. Poignant flickers arise in its trade-off between innocence and experience, and its nostalgia feels more sincere for emanating from someone who actually lived through the mythmaking. Yet as Rules rambles on, it becomes clear it’s been funnelled into a pretty fitful vehicle: a misfire caught between lavishly expensive folly – a silver-screen Spruce Goose – and the year’s best-appointed dad joke.

Their Finest and Rules Don't Apply open in cinemas nationwide today.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Soft diplomacy: "Letters from Baghdad"

Letters from Baghdad is an excavation of sorts: an attempt to return to plain sight a figure who, while not necessarily forgotten, may have become obscured over the past century. That figure is Gertrude Bell, adventurer, mapmaker and contemporary of T.E. Lawrence, and we know full well how the cinema's idea of British involvement in the Middle East has been shaped by that very white male romantic. Here, then, is a counterhistory, striving to pin down a woman who occupied much of the same space as Lawrence, yet was more often than not behind the camera rather than before it, and thus never appeared on David Lean's radar. The directing partnership of Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum set out their case in much the same fashion as 2014's The Decent One, Vanessa Lapa's documentary on Heinrich Himmler, layering readings of their subject's diaries and correspondence over photographs and archive footage. Thus are we carried from an idyllic Home Counties upbringing to fin-de-siècle Oxford, thence a series of expeditions into the wider outposts of Empire: one moment Bell finds herself in newly liberated Tehran, the next this professional migrant is making herself entirely at home in Syria, in a way that can only seem poignant indeed to onlookers in the year 2017. Here is a woman determined to go her own way.

It makes sense that the directors should have asked Tilda Swinton to provide the contours of Bell's voice in adulthood: as we learn more of her assignments for the Foreign Office, she emerges as a restless, idiosyncratic soul, not terribly interested in settling down - Lawrence, we learn, described her as "not like a woman" - yet bound by a sincere wonder at and love of the region to which she was dispatched. Her personality, arguably, registers rather more forcefully than the film overall, which finds a groove early on and never deviates from it. The Himmler doc deployed its handwritten notes to investigate the discrepancy between its subject's reputation as an architect of evil and the banal reality of a petty-minded bureaucrat permitted to give free rein to his prejudices. Clearly, there is no comparable discrepancy here, though Bell's correspondence grants us an inside line on her experiences, a sense of the high esteem she was held in by her employers and many of her contemporaries, and of the huffy-stuffy patrician forces whose clumsy attempts to divide up the ground she was standing on resulted in several still ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.

Set side-by-side without any further context or deeper analysis, however, all they amount to is a naggingly flat chronology: a series of wish-you-were-heres, pins on a map, names, dates and times - which, for all Krayenbühl and Oelbaum's evident facility and dexterity with archive images, never really come to life as compelling cinema. "It's strange to be treating all these tragic places as stages in a journey," Bell confesses in one of her missives, suggesting a degree of self-awareness that exists just beyond the film's reach. Every now and again, something pops up to catch and hold the eye: you can't help but struck by the few surviving photographs of Bell, where she cuts a spectral, Zelig-like presence - as though she wasn't meant to be there, as doubtless some in high office would have insisted, or simply as if she didn't want to impose herself upon the environment in the same way the men of the party clearly did. Yet almost the entirety of the second half is turned over to the kind of diplomatic minutiae that, while historically revealing, makes for a perilously dry sit. For all that Krayenbühl and Oelbaum have succeeded in bringing Bell back to the surface, they immediately entomb her in what feels often like an exhibition projected vertically - and one that allows scant room for the viewer's imagination to truly roam.

Letters from Baghdad opens in selected cinemas from Friday.