Friday, 11 August 2017

What to See This Weekend: The Good Fight

Every Friday, The Back Row compiles a short selection of recommendations for readers’ weekend viewing. The links are for the convenience of those who wish to stream the films on the suggested websites (make sure it’s available in your territory before entering your payment details); readers may well prefer other sites with alternative arrangements for the streaming and downloading of films, and can’t be stopped from using those instead.

“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”

Now playing in theatres across South Africa.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the first Luc Besson film I’ve seen, and it’s nowhere near as disappointing as other commentators would have had me expect. The general consensus in critical reaction is summed up in a sentence from Herman Lategan’s review of the film (which awarded it two stars) for the Beeld: “The storyline is weak, but it’s a visual spectacle.” But South African reviewers have been considerably more generous to the film than international ones; for Channel24, Gabi Zietsman, who awarded it four stars, compares it to Besson’s cult favourite The Fifth Element, writing that “it surpasses the scope of that world into something that can only be described as magical.” She goes on to criticise its plot, dialogue, and lead actors (Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne), but affirms that it “deserves its four-star rating just because of the sheer volume and awe of the universe that Besson presents to us.” Leon van Nierop, in another four-star review, for the Rapport, writes, “One seldom sees such strange creatures, futuristic cities, weird beings, and a totally ordinary hero and heroine. … Luc Besson enjoys himself immensely, and, visually, it’s one of the most overwhelming experiences yet.”

I have had even more memorable, more wondrous, and more singularly original visual experiences in the movies myself, but Besson’s film is indeed a treat. It’s understandably often been compared to James Cameron’s Avatar, which also featured an entirely invented CGI-scape of planets, natural wonders, races other than human, and alien animal and plant species, set centuries in the future and far from earth. But, where Cameron toured across a single planet (based on a factual location in our own solar system) and the specific spiritual contours of a single society inhabiting a part of it, Besson bounds through the universe, from one solar system to another, including intriguing interactions with a parallel dimension and the material threats inherent to a movie-maker’s satire of virtual reality experiences. And, where Cameron set out a rather standard — in fact, clichéd — political fable, Besson spins something far more original and daring, which, though related, bears much greater import for the moment.

DeHaan and Delevingne play a pair of government agents in the 28th century, where the government is a colossal interplanetary federation of peaceful union and diversity. The development of this federation, which is centred on an international space station pioneered from Earth known as Alpha and gives the film its title, is shown in a brisk and humorous montage at the film’s opening, and no special qualifications in media studies are required to understand how Besson’s obviously benevolent view of Alpha relates to his political feelings regarding a current wave of nationalistic fervour, particularly over the last few years in Europe, where he lives, and the United States, where he often works — the two most famous and prestigious confederations so far in human history. Yet Besson projects his serious ideas into his imagined future with good humour and playful intelligence; this film was a long-brewing project of his, based on a beloved French comic book series, Valérian and Laureline, and, judging from the evidence on the screen, it seems his imagination teemed fruitfully in the years he planned his adaptation (which, incidentally, became far firmer a realisation with the release of Avatar, in 2009).

Besson stuffs his film with the off-centre, zanily coloured fun of a satirical comic (the kind not yet acquired by the Disney corporation) and his story follows a similarly loose pattern of pulp-fiction junketing. I affirm that, unlike other reviewers, I found nothing at all to complain about in the structure of the plot in Besson’s script, or the artifices of the dialogue — they seem as though they were written by an affectionate comic-book fan who wishes only to pay homage through his own comic creation, which is probably exactly the case. The dialogue may as well have been animated as text in white speech bubbles coming out of the characters’ mouths — a little like the exclamations in Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs the World — and it would have been just as delightful, and clearer what the attitude of its creator was. The performances were conducted in the same way, which is where, I confess, I did find something to complain about. The essence of movie acting is the impression of mere and infinite being: it’s in everyone, but it’s not visible in everyone, which is why some people make it as actors and others don’t. Part of the essence of beauty is surprise. The condition of humour and play, at its peak, is rebellion: rules must be broken for something to be funny. Besson breaks rules of physics, chromatics, anatomy, geometry, romance, and nationalism; in these things, his film is a pleasure. His actors, however, conform to his schemas of fantasy, speculation, pulp-fiction plot structure, and grand political commentary. They’re not allowed room to break rules of their own, to discover essences of their own, nor to invent methods for modes of being — and they don’t struggle to take it, either. DeHaan and Delevingne, despite what you may read elsewhere, are mightily competent actors, and happily engaging presences, but, as Major Valerian and Sergeant Laureline, they’re constrained, and their manners lack spontaneity and essential truth like the submerged monsters they encounter lack oxygen.

There’s much more to note about Besson’s film of peculiar interest — like any good film, what one has to say about it never seems quite sufficient — yet there’s a distinctly fascinating aspect that I wish to draw attention to, so unusual and unexpected that I almost doubted I had witnessed it. It concerns a subject of burning historical and current significance, which seemed all the more immediate because of what I’d recently read on Albert Camus with regards to his attitude on Algeria, as well as controversial remarks surrounding President Macron of France soon after his electoral victory: the atrocities of colonialism. (SPOILER ALERT) The plot, as it emerges, concerns the Commander of Alpha’s military and enforcement bodies (played by Clive Owen), and a large-scale cover-up of the destruction of a little-known planet of a low-tech peaceful humanoid race, in which the Commander is implicated. The allegory of shameful colonial histories is surprisingly closely drawn: an alternate story is fabricated by the regime, in which it paints itself and its guilty leaders in a good light; secret violations of human rights are committed, such as the torture of political prisoners for information and submission; witnesses and dissenters are discredited and silenced; the large machinery of the state is mobilised to thwart the oppressed peoples who seek independence and the means to self-determination; the leaders responsible for the atrocities justify their actions through fanatic jingoism and a false tribute to the banner virtues of “peace” and “progress”; the resistance to oppression revolves quietly and in secret, but is kept alive by its hope in righteousness and liberty; and the beneficiaries of colonial exploitation are complicit, despite a complacent ignorance to the evils done in their interest. Besson edifies his outrage and historical injustice (which, I take it, is rooted in the repressed yet abiding French guilt for unspeakable atrocities committed in Algeria, as well as other European nations’ actions in other colonial territories) with his proposed solution: the descendants and beneficiaries of the colonial wrongdoers are to acknowledge their unfair advantage due to crimes and exploitations waged, are to take responsibility (which is distinct from guilt) for what they’ve unfairly benefited from and for the resolution of injustices, and are to return to the wronged what is rightfully theirs. Besson recognises the power of speculative fiction to abstract real-world situations and ideas, and uses the vacuum of artifice to straightforwardly set out a wholly real concept, as he sees it. If it’s simple enough for a comic book fantasy to show audiences, why should a well-educated electorate struggle?

“A Countess from Hong Kong”

Available on iTunes; on Google Play.

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held its very first annual awards ceremony, in 1929, it presented an Honorary Oscar to Charlie Chaplin, citing “versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing, and producing”. This was in specific reference to Chaplin’s film The Circus, which was released in early 1928, but holds true for his entire oeuvre, and rarely was the Academy inspired with such insight and perspicuity in the 43 years between that ceremony and the one held in 1972, when Chaplin was once more honoured with a special Oscar for “the incalculable effect he has had in making pictures the art form of this century.” But in the 54 years of his film career (which lasted from 1913 to 1967), Chaplin had done even more than just that — he had transformed the art form; indeed, he had played a seminal role in Hollywood in turning its burgeoning film industry into an art form.

In my recent post on my favourite movies, I quoted Jean-Luc Godard, who, in the special American issue of Cahiers du Cinéma, in 1963, wrote that Chaplin “is beyond praise because he is the greatest of all,” or, at least, the only one

“to whom one can apply without misunderstanding that very misleading adjective, ‘humane.’ … Chaplin, while remaining marginal to the rest of cinema, ended up by filling this margin with more things (what other word can one use: ideas, gags, intelligence, humour, beauty, movement?) than all other directors together have put into the whole book.”

Of just about any other filmmaker, that would be an exaggeration so ingratiating as to be vulgar, but, of Chaplin, it’s just about right. The beauty that arises from Chaplin’s inimitable interflow of unruly, anarchic humour — mostly in the form of slapstick — and generously warm-hearted compassion is often too inordinate to describe: like the best of cinema, it belongs to the ineffable, and the task of communicating it in text, as in this blog post, is heartily challenging, but can only ever fall short of success.

My view of Chaplin is not an uncommon one nowadays, nor has it been since about the time Chaplin was awarded his second Honorary Oscar; but, in the 1920s and 30s, and in 1967, the establishment of sophisticated film commentators (which was far more homogeneous than it is today) took rather a less generous view of his work. His final film, A Countess from Hong Kong, which was released 50 years ago this year, was a critical as well as a commercial failure, with the New York Times noting that “if an old fan of Mr Chaplin’s movies could have his charitable way, he would draw the curtain fast on this embarrassment and pretend that it had never occurred.” Leonard Maltin, giving it one-and-a-half stars, called it “badly shot, badly timed, badly scored” (Chaplin wrote the music himself); TV Guide gave it one star and described it as “a dismal, uninviting comedy”; even today’s brilliant Mark Harris, in his featured column in the great film journal Film Comment, focusing on the films of the seminal Hollywood year 1967, calls it “just a comedy without laughs and a romance without chemistry”.

It’s true that, were one to take a conventional approach to reflecting on the film’s aspects, one could come away, as Harris does, complaining of “all text, not subtext … flat, washed out, overlit colour,” “static” shooting, “unadorned” scenery, and the the blank inexpressiveness of Chaplin’s two star leads, Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren. Fortunately, the way to approach a film is not through convention, and, while noting each of these aspects and admitting that, technically, Harris describes each of them accurately (except, of course, for the notion that there’s no subtext), none of them diminishes the beauty and wonder of Chaplin’s final masterpiece. I wrote above that the actors in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets exhibit no spontaneity; here, nor do Brando and Loren, but that’s by Chaplin’s design. He painstakingly acted out every scene for Brando to imitate, and kept a firm grip of minute control over each gesture and inflection. Though A Countess from Hong Kong is a romance melodrama in sound and colour, Chaplin films as though he were making another silent black-and-white comedy, and the boundless excesses of his rebellious personality are clearly in evidence here. Under his strict rule and before his unrelenting long closeups and takes, Chaplin’s actors themselves are visibly uncomfortable on the screen; he transfers that, not only to their characters, who are uncomfortable in their situations in the plot, or to his own personal discomfort in the new world of modern Hollywood, but to a universal dimension, in which, by the older Chaplin’s bitter worldview, people are uncomfortable with their lives in the world, and where the only redemption is anarchic comedy and romance; it sounds hackneyed in prose, but comes across tenderly and sincerely on film.

Each of the characters other than Loren’s Natascha is, to be frank, unpleasant, reflecting Chaplin’s distaste for the modern world. Brando’s Ogden is vapid and selfish, and Brando’s performance is one of his best, in which he submits actorly control and craft to the strong will of Charlie Chaplin’s irresistible personality, allowing himself to be closely calibrated in nuance of gesture, action, and dialogue. Natascha is the Chaplin stereotype and archetype: resourceful, straightforward, romantic, endlessly playful, irrepressibly warm-hearted, and slyly assertive. She even has a few moments of imitating Chaplin’s famous Little Tramp, as when she wears Ogden’s pyjamas, obviously far too large and baggy for her, and waddles around in them, or smiles sillily in an unsuitable hat that Ogden has hurriedly bought for her. He reserves his most brilliant visual invention for her, at the film’s romantic and dramatic climax — a heartbreaking closeup of her watching her love sail away, which includes nothing else in the frame and no movement, and lasts at least thirteen full seconds.

The resistance to Chaplin’s brilliance can probably best be attributed to a fast-evolving and intellectually developing film-watching culture, both fifty years ago and today. A Countess from Hong Kong is frightfully old-fashioned in its techniques, but wondrously modern in its essence and beauty. Chaplin rather reminds me of Dickens, in that (as a friend and I recently remarked on the great English novelist) his characters are thin archetypes or grotesques, his plots are contrived, his temperament is treacly with sentiment, his mode is markedly old-fashioned, and his dramatic outcomes are entirely foreseeable — in fact, predictable. And yet, he is the greatest. This fact itself is part of the essential mysteries of art and beauty: there are is no formula.


Available on iTunes (pre-order); on Vudu; on Amazon Video; on Microsoft.

Martin Scorsese first read Shūsako Endō’s novel Silence in 1989, shortly after his own work of profound spiritual agony, The Last Temptation of Christ, was released, and obtained the film rights soon afterwards. The Cecchi Gori Pictures production company has claimed that Scorsese signed an agreement with them in 1990 to film an adaptation of the novel after what would be his next most overtly religious project, Kundun, which was eventually released in 1997; however, Scorsese, chose to first make Bringing Out the Dead (1999), Gangs of New York (2002), and The Aviator (2004). It was then purported that Scorsese signed an agreement to further postpone the adaptation to make The Departed (2006) and Shutter Island (2010), and then one more agreement to delay Silence in order to direct Hugo (2011). Scorsese’s legal trouble finally arrived when he allegedly breached that contract by filming The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) ahead of Silence. The matter was settled out of court and the terms sealed, but the suggestion of a quarter-century in development and gestation for so passionate a filmmaker already proves fascinating, and revealing. Scorsese himself hints at inner turbulences in an interview with Deadline, shortly after the start of production was announced, in 2013:

“As you get older, ideas go and come. Questions, answers, loss of the answer again and more questions, and this is what interests me.”

And this personal uncertainty, the ebb and flow of psychic states and spiritual imminences, becomes the very subject of Scorsese’s film. It follows two Portuguese Jesuit priests (Father Rodrigues, played by Andrew Garfield, and Father Garupe, played by Adam Driver) in the seventeenth century, who travel to Japan in search of a mentor (Liam Neeson) who is rumoured to have apostatised in the midst of brutal persecutions of Christians sweeping across Japan. The particular time of religious persecution depicted in the film is related to political circumstances, involving a rebellion of mostly Roman Catholic Japanese peasants against an oppressive feudal government, whose state religion was known as Shinbutsu-shūgō, a syncretism of Buddhism and kami worship. But Scorsese completely elides the political aspects of the matter for an entirely personal and interior fable of a spiritual odyssey.

The silence of the title refers to the apparent silence of God with which the Jesuit priests are faced throughout their moments of tribulation in the film. Scorsese renders it palpable with an overtly quiet or even empty soundtrack for much of the film’s 161 minutes, and achieves something amazingly inventive — as other gifted directors who film the performances of reams of dialogue can turn the utterance of words into images, Scorsese virtually turns silence into images, and extracts a stunning wealth of ideas and experiences from that artistic turn. The film has much to do with the question of how one is to externally display and expand so internal a dimension as one’s faith. The journey of a priest navigating his faith through a hostile foreign territory appeared to me as an allegory of Scorsese himself, navigating his faith and identity through the ostensibly hostile domain of Hollywood and the art world: Can one conform to what is expected, or may even be necessary, though it may appear to undermine one’s true self and beliefs? How much can be given up, while retaining the strongest kernel of truth possible within oneself? And how much is required not to betray something that ostensibly requires your whole life? Scorsese draws the questions out to their full, harrowing extents, and the answers he suggests reach extremes of both fascination and beauty, right up to the film’s final shot.

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