Monday, 21 May 2018

“Jeanne Dielman” and Why We Need More Women Filmmakers

Available for free on MUBI (until 14 June 2018).

Over the weekend, I posted about the MUBI Film Schools Program, which allows any user in South Africa to stream selected films for free, and to which any South African can sign up for free. My first experience of it was, as I wrote, a major event; the second, which this post is about, was a great wonder. Its full title is Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles; it was written and directed by the queer Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman and released in 1975; and it’s rightly heralded as a revelatory breakthrough of feminism in cinema, in that not only is it a great and momentous film made by a woman, but it takes a woman’s view of a woman — of women and the lives of women — as its subject, and puts forward vast and pointed ideas about that woman, about that woman’s view, about those women’s lives, and about the political circumstances and imperatives of those lives that could not have been done so strongly and so exquisitely not only by any man, but by any other filmmaker in history. Akerman — who tragically committed suicide in 2015, at the age of 65 — shot the film with an entirely female crew, which would have worked out alright, except that she didn’t get to choose any of them. Working off a government grant (of about US$120,000), she was assigned a crew, and, though she didn’t appreciate the directive, she managed to deliver one of the crucial works of movie history at the age of twenty-four years.

Jeanne Dielman follows its petite bourgeois title character through three days of her life, as she performs her routine domestic tasks, such as cooking, cleaning, babysitting, and tidying up. (The rest of the title is the address of her Brussels apartment, where she lives with her son.) It also depicts her work that she takes on to support herself and her son, namely prostitution. While he’s away at school, she discreetly accepts gentleman callers who arrive soon after she’s placed her food on the stove and leave a little while later, as she prepares to set out dinner. Her daily activities (excluding her sex with callers, but including a nude shot of her cleaning herself in the bath) are shown in real time and very long takes, all in pretty much the same framing, with the camera entirely stationary throughout each scene and at table-top height, at an equal distance from the subject at all times (and the subject is just about always Jeanne Dielman). An interruption to her routine is introduced on the second day, and the startlingly spiralling and abstracted psychological after-effects of it throw that very routine and its vast web of implications into harrowing relief.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

What to See This Weekend: “Othello”

Available for free on MUBI (until 9 June 2018) and on DVD.

The American streaming service MUBI (otherwise unavailable in South Africa) has launched a special platform it calls its Film Schools Program, to which anyone in South Africa can sign up for free, and to which they upload one new movie each day that stays on the platform for thirty days. To watch any of the movies is free as well, so effectively the only cost to you is the cost of your internet service to stream these movies. The selection comprises movies from many different countries, from a number of filmmakers I’ve never heard of, and includes old forgotten titles, new festival favourites in need of a larger audience, classic masterpieces, popular favourites, and probably will cover a few other sectors of the moviegoing market in the future. Due to a number of personal priorities, I haven’t had the time yet to watch any of the titles (or to update this blog much) until last night, when I saw the first of the films I’ve chosen to see, one that’s available for 21 more days, and it was a major artistic event in my viewing life, one that would have been worth even a considerable cost had I had to pay for it — Orson Welles’s mighty 1951 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello.

When I first mentioned Welles on this blog — writing of my experience of first seeing his earlier adaptation of Macbeth as one of my favourite movies of all time — I tried to express the wonder I underwent at experiencing the “excessively beautiful and hypnotically fascinating work” of something that appeared to have so many technical shortcomings. Welles was shooting under the circumstances of an early kind of independent filmmaking — what one had to try to get by with, absent the efficiency, power, and financial security of a studio project, back when studios ruled the cinematic world — and his production of Othello was beset with what sounds like even greater difficulties: it was shot piece by piece, way out of the dramatic order of the scenes, over four years, and in a wide array of different locations. Shots were cut together into scenes with seams as conspicuous and cumbersome as giant zippers — two actors talking to each other in a scene may not have even been filmed in the same year or in the same country — and most of the dialogue was dubbed (and hardly synchronised) onto the soundtrack long after the filming ended. The scenes move haphazardly from one location to another so that I could hardly keep track of where anyone was as each scene started, and, in all, Welles’s production of Othello does basically nothing to make the plot or the dialogue of Shakespeare’s play any clearer to any viewer who watches in hope of understanding it more easily.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Steven Soderbergh’s Leap Forward in “Unsane”

When I wrote about Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky last year, the work with which he emerged from a dubious early retirement, I noted its copious pleasures, but also that it’s just what one would expect and what a fan would hope for as a follow-up to Soderbergh’s earlier Ocean’s trilogy successes. I didn’t, and don’t, mean this as a slur — it’s a work of formidable technical control, enlivening imagination and invention, bright perspicacity, fond and sparkling humour, and a brazenly circuitous and intelligent narrative sense, that I would happily watch again in its entirety at any time — but it’s a deepening and sharpening, an intensification, of an artistry already well established and assuredly proven, not the great step forward into the next phase of Soderbergh’s immensely promising career. It’s clear that films such as Ocean’s Twelve, Contagion, Side Effects, Behind the Candelabra, Magic Mike, and, now, Logan Lucky are a major achievement above that of, say, Soderbergh’s earliest, and still admirable, work, Sex, Lies and Videotape. But, to join the higher echelons of filmmakers throughout cinema’s history, a radical and elevating development of his artistry is required, which, in contemporary times, often means a radical shift in production methods and circumstances.

Of course, I don’t think this was the conscious purpose of the making of Soderbergh’s newest work, Unsane, but I’m very pleased to report that that exact change — in how and where and with what he makes the movie — has effected the desired development, or, at least, provided a very strong thrust in that direction. Unsane, which was filmed from a script by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, was shot entirely on an iPhone 7 Plus, in 4K, using the app FiLMiC Pro; the film crew and production had been so effectively pared down that the budget is reported at only $1.5 million; and, as with Logan Lucky, Soderbergh released it through his own distribution company, the Fingerprint Releasing Banner. The film’s plot, which takes the form of a horror story or the pastiche of one, should probably be announced with a host of trigger warnings (for rape, stalking, mental illness, kidnapping, captivity, and murder), and, as I see it, is merely a vehicle for the creation of images, moods, and perceptions of the depicted world (and, hopefully, the real world as well). It stars Claire Foy, as a businesswoman dealing with the past trauma of being stalked, who, through an ostensible insurance scam and the screeching deviousness of a dishonest medical practice, finds herself forcibly contained in a psychiatric ward, first for 24 hours, then for a week, then who knows how long. This experience is horrifying enough, but she’s soon confronted once again by the presence of her stalker, and her ordeal descends into the tortuous endlessness of an infernal nightmare.

Friday, 4 May 2018

The Exemplary Melodrama “Wonderlus”

Great melodramas focus on the particular emotional state of an ordinary life, amplifying it onto the big screen and strengthening its force of feeling. A great recent example is Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck, which, for all its raucous and riotous comedy, is a deeply perceptive distillation of intensely felt feelings. Mediocre melodramas, of which Johan Cronje has made an exemplary work, the new Afrikaans release Wonderlus, stretch emotions thin across the screen rather than expanding them; they reduce feelings not to their essence but to their semblance; they distill bathos instead of distilling experience. As I’ve remarked before when writing about South African films, the approximation of feelings they grasp at is one prompted and affirmed by the heavy professional emphases on bland superficial production quality, and the default industry gearing towards television.

Read others’ responses to Wonderlus here.

The set-up of the drama involves starting off in the wake of the rougher, tenser moments, and jumping back and forth between the two time periods (the night of, and the morning after) to weave together the various plot strands involving the handful of featured characters. In true South African romantic melodrama/comedy fashion, it centres on a picture-perfect destination wedding, on some luxury farm location a few hours out of the city; there’re chalets and a dam amidst golden highveld grasslands; there’s an irritable guest and her obtuse boyfriend, who bicker constantly and fruitlessly; there’re immature groomsmen and their tittering bridesmaid counterparts; there’s the groom himself, gracious and forthcoming, and even prettier than his young bride; and there’s a nervous air of unanswered doubts and unsettled bodily drives.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Critic’s-Eye View: “Wonderlus”

The new Afrikaans film Wonderlus, by Johan Cronje, opened this past weekend. I’ve collected the reviews that I could find, so that readers can get an idea of the various responses to it in the South African press.

Read The Back Row’s review of Wonderlus here.

On his RSG film-reviewing slot, Leon van Nierop awarded the film nine stars out of ten, and declared that

Like Johnny is nie dood nie, it takes Afrikaans film to places it’s never been. It experiments with style, dialogue, juxtaposition of time periods, and brutal frankness like few other Afrikaans films. … It is one of the best Afrikaans movies ever, because it moves radically away from the pattern of other Afrikaans movies, especially comedies. People talk like real people, the camera moves around freely, and there are jumps in time to give context and perspective to the relationships and decisions of the characters. As far as direction, performance, the script, and camerawork are concerned, it is excellent.

Graye Morkel reviewed Wonderlus for Channel24, awarding it four stars out of five, and writing that it

takes a brave look at the conversations and doubts young South Africans have about love and relationships. … [The dialogue] felt real and authentic. But be warned, it might not sit well with your average Afrikaans tannie. Swear words and phrases like “tiete is ons troosprys” slip into almost every conversation. … The love and party scenes are uninhibited and not for a conservative audience. … The camerawork is exceptional.

Monday, 30 April 2018

The Unsolved Conundrums of “Così fan tutte”

The Metropolitan Opera’s 2017-18 season is close to its end, and there are only three productions left to be seen broadcast in South African cinemas. The first, Così fan tutte, by Mozart, in a new production by the British director Phelim McDermott, had its first screening on Saturday evening; the other two, Verdi’s Luisa Miller and Massenet’s Cendrillon, will both begin in May. (The Met has already announced its productions to be broadcast in the 2018-19 season; you can read about them here.) Così fan tutte, Mozart’s final collaboration with the eminent librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, poses a number of heady puzzles to the director of any production of it and, now that I know the opera (that is, the score and libretto) myself, I’ve found it fantastically interesting to check clips of different productions on YouTube to see how the directors have managed their way around and through them. How to understand Mozart and Da Ponte’s attitudes to the piece? Is it a thoroughly cynical, bitterly pragmatic view of romance? Is it a benevolent yet worldly approach to sexual politics? Is Mozart ascending to the loftiest of ironies, or descending to the most rooted and human sympathies, when he sets the sextet of characters’ sordid frolics to some of the most beautiful music written for the stage? And is a harsh moral judgement being passed on any or all of the young lovers, or is the opera a show of deep and tender fellow-feeling with each of them? A director faces the epitomic conundrums of opera stagings, which only become larger and more difficult as times change and audiences develop.

McDermott has chosen a grand concept to envelop his production and scoop these problems right out of the way. He’s set it on Coney Island, in New York, in a carnival setting, during the 1950s or early 60s, at the threshold of America’s sexual revolution. The colourful sets and costumes and splendidly enchanting lighting of the whole show are pleasures to see, and the outflux onto the stage of one clever idea after another is delightful, even if the total cumulative effect is less of a joy than a pleasing diversion. He has cleverly enlisted actual Coney Island sideshow performers as his background (non-singing) cast, and they appear in most scenes, embellishing the settings around the lovers’ arias, or listening with a detached satisfaction to Don Alfonso’s asides, like Oberon’s fairies. I’d heartily recommend that fans of Mozart operas go see one of the remaining shows of the production (check the Ster Kinekor website for details), warning that joyless reactionaries are likely not to have as good a time as the rest of us.

Monday, 9 April 2018

South Africa’s Prestigious “Five Fingers for Marseilles”

Michael Matthews’s first feature film, the Sesotho-language Five Fingers for Marseilles, written by Sean Drummond, has been marketed everywhere with maximum ostentation as South Africa’s very first western, and, reflecting on the experience of watching it, that fact bodes well for the future of South African cinema: Other attempts at the genre have nowhere to go from here but up. The film is a hefty haul of all-too-familiar features that have come to characterise what I think of as our country’s prestige cinema: the movies meant to show off and advance our slowly developing film industry, but that, to me, throw its limits and shortcomings into sharp relief. These features include an ostensibly detailed attention to quality photography, a plot thrown together from local television and international blockbuster clichés, an elision of personal and idiosyncratic style for the sake of specious substance, dialogue of the most hackneyed and unimaginative variety (in whatever language is chosen), a conspicuous absence of directorial presence or artistic personae, a dismayingly narrowed and uniformly professional attitude to performance, a totally conventional notion of drama, a view of character and method of drawing characters that is both blunt and shallow, and the lack of detailed attention to milieu or specific setting.

Read others’ reviews of Five Fingers for Marseilles here.

The weak drama unfolds the plot doggedly, without accumulating details or views of anything on show, whether the setting, the characters, the broad contexts of the story, or the ideas meant to be introduced to it. Does it matter which small town was chosen as the location of the fictitious Marseilles? Would it have been any different if it had been filmed at any one of the many dozens of other small towns surrounded by dry landscapes across the country? Is there anything at all that this specific location offered to the filmmakers’ vision? If so, it isn’t to be seen in their film. If not, should it not then be used to springboard more general ideas about the country at large? I didn’t come across these, either. The script introduces elements without developing them any further than the first subordinating conjunction of a basic character sketch or plot synopsis, without tightening the emotional tensions of the film, and without mapping out a perspective or context for it. Avoiding spoilers, the resolution of the drama renders pretty much all of what came before inconsequential and insignificant. It wastes the resources of a hard-working cast of dedicated actors, who fixed their grim facial expressions in place for the entirety of the shoot, as well as the location scouts who went to great lengths to find the appropriately harsh and windswept natural settings.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Critic’s-Eye View: “Five Fingers for Marseilles”

A new Sesotho-language South Africa film, Five Fingers for Marseilles, opens today in local theatres. Much has been made on social media about the fact that it’s a western, updated and translated to a contemporary South African context, and it’s been sufficiently hyped by pundits and publicists to draw the attention of South African moviegoers. Here’s hoping for significant commercial successes.

Read The Back Row’s review of Five Fingers for Marseilles here.

Nikita Coetzee reviewed Five Fingers for Marseilles for the entertainment site Channel24, awarding it four stars out of five, and writing that she

struggled to imagine what a South African western would look like — in my mind picturing clichés like tumbleweeds, cowboy boots, and a sheriff who makes it known that he is in charger around these parts. Thankfully, I found none of that. The creators of this film did a fantastic job taking what many expect a western to be, and flipping it on its head. While there were still many elements of the classic western film, Five Fingers for Marseilles is so uniquely South African that midway through I stopped looking for the things that made it a western, and started looking out for the things that made it a good film.
That being said, if breathtaking cinematography is what you’re after, then this movie is definitely for you. Filmed in the Eastern Cape, it boasts beautiful visuals that are enough to keep the eyes of someone with a short attention span like myself entertained. In fact, had it not been for the amazing imagery, I may have found myself staring at my watch a few times as the slow pace of the film caused my mind to wander every now and again.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

The Excessive Beauty of “Phantom Thread”

Among Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous films, I have only seen There Will Be Blood, which I found turgid and tendentious. It’s the kind of arthouse epic that the word “grandiloquent” is reserved for. Phantom Thread comprises such a vast leap in artistic creation that I struggle to recall the earlier work; it’s totally eclipsed.

Those interested in arthouse releases or the Oscars will already know the context of the story, and the cultural reverberations of Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance at its centre. He plays a fictitious renowned couturier, named Reynolds Woodcock, in London in the 1950s. His milieu is the highest society of Europe: his fashion is wrought for the aristocracy and royalty who admire the beauty of his work, or, rather, the great light in which it casts them. He is obsessive and controlling by nature, which brings about the exquisite creations of his art, a demanding work environment for those employed by House of Woodcock, and fraught tensions in any personal relationships. The work environment is efficiently run (and his personal relationships coldly smoothed over) by his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), who is unmarried and who systematically manages Reynolds’s fashion house and his life.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Angling for Ideas in “Catching Feelings”

Comparisons to older Woody Allen classics are rife in the reviews of Catching Feelings. The parallels only struck me afterwards, in reflection, and not while I was watching it. The first of the two ways in which it resembles a Woody Allen film is in that Kagiso Lediga stars in it as well as having written and directed it, setting it within a cultural context in which we can safely believe Lediga himself lives in real life; and the other is that one of the most prevalent and repetitive motifs is men and women who cheat on their spouses. The ways in which the two filmmakers are different is far more numerous, and, as always, more interesting to consider.

Read others’ reviews of Catching Feelings here.

Lediga demonstratively and immediately establishes the location of his film — the City of Johannesburg — as an important feature in the story; unlike Allen’s encomium of New York City in the prologue to Manhattan, Lediga’s attitude towards Johannesburg and its people is far sourer, and his emotional responses far more tempered. The scene is set after an animated prologue, in which a soldier grows horns out of jealousy and possessiveness over his wife, whom he catches engaging in the rut with a “Moor”. It’s styled as a faux-medieval comic book fantasy, and indicates that the central problem to be faced in the unfolding film is cuckoldry, in all its archaic and patriarchal tensions.

Friday, 16 March 2018

“Loving Vincent” and Admiring Art

I’m no art aficionado — my conversation on the impressionists extends only so far as I can compare them to my beloved musical impressionists, like Satie, Debussy, and Ravel — but I have immense admiration for the work of Vincent van Gogh. His paintings may be impressionist in style, but feel as though they approach the painfully intimate in scope and the cosmic in spirit. It’s a cliché to say that the style appears senseless or jejune when viewed in close detail, but accumulates to an engaging rendering of a scene when viewed as a whole, yet it’s that exact fact and quality of reality — both the reality of the soul and of the cosmos — that van Gogh’s art reflects. An emotion or an observed corner of the universe are not likely to make sense when considered in isolation, but can form the part of a revelation of a greater truth when an artist interknits and interworks them into a comprehensive and beautiful creation. And that sense of both exquisite elevation and baffled despair are all too present and immediately apparent in the story of van Gogh’s life.

Loving Vincent presents only pieces of the story of that life, and only in flashbacks. The main action takes place a year after his death, when Joseph Roulin (Chris O’Dowd), the postman who befriended Vincent van Gogh, comes by a letter that the painter posted to his brother, Theo, and tasks his son, Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), with delivering it to its intended recipient. Mingled with Armand’s task, and presented to him by Joseph together with the letter, is the mystery of how Vincent could swerve from what he himself had described as a “calm and normal” mood to suicide in a matter of a few weeks. Vincent’s apparent suicide has cast a gloomy pall over the people to whom and places to which he was once familiar, just as he had lit them up during his life. Armand’s journey to deliver the letter shifts its focus into finding the answer to Vincent’s death, which transforms his route into one of discovery of Vincent’s life, who he was and what he contributed to the world. It brings him into contact with a host of characters, all taken from actual accounts in van Gogh’s letters and diaries, or depictions in his paintings, and played by a roster of prestigious arthouse favourites: Saoirse Ronan, John Sessions, Helen McCrory, Jerome Flynn, and Eleanor Tomlinson round out the cast.