Saturday, 25 November 2017

What to See This Weekend: The Struggle

“Malcolm X” (Spike Lee, 1992)

Available on iTunes; on DVD.

Spike Lee’s biopic of the civil rights activist and Muslim minister Malcolm X is based in large part on his autobiography. I noted on this blog that James Baldwin had written an earlier treatment of Malcolm X’s life for film, which was developed into the screenplay for Lee’s film. Having never read the autobiography nor Baldwin’s treatment (nor the versions in between that and the final script), I couldn’t say how much of the film comes from either source. Nor could I say, now having seen the film, how much of the stuff of the film itself comes from Spike Lee and his actual thoughts, feelings, and artistic impulses, and how much comes from what Spike Lee thought ought to be one’s thoughts, feelings, and heavily wrought artistic representations of these. Malcolm X displays an undeniable cinematic artistry, but only in flashes; although the film may seem like it’s set out like a textbook, or pseudo-testimony, and made not out of a drive for artistic creation but an assertive, unambiguous, even peremptory account of Malcolm X’s life and work, Lee’s distinctive style works to keep his film falling into the deadening craters of other Oscarisable biopics (think of Gandhi, Shine, Out of Africa, A Beautiful Mind, The Imitation Game, and the rest).

Lee seems determined to include as much of Malcolm X’s life as his distributors would allow in the film; many episodes are enacted in what feels like their real-time full length. The comparison between this and another, far greater recent biopic is striking: in his movie about Emily Dickinson, A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies keeps his telling elliptical, choosing a few distinctive moments — some of them even partly or mostly fictional — in Dickinson’s life in the foreground to suggest a rich and multiplicitous background. Of course, Lee couldn’t have done the same here, because of the very real cultural and political risks in leaving too much of Malcolm X’s story to interpretation, or even of refracting it too sharply through one’s own interpretation. Unfortunately, however, this ostensibly faithful account occludes a probing, questioning, curious, ambivalent, ambiguous, or polysemous attitude to the content, and so precludes a highly nuanced or inflected filming of it. And, in an oblique way, it works against Lee’s intentions: when an artist resorts to hard assertions, especially in an apparent effort to set the record straight, and especially in a form derived from and assimilating to fiction, it’s particularly difficult to trust in its veracity, even (or, perhaps, especially) when it’s demonstrated that the narrative is mostly fact-based. The facts don’t speak for themselves, and an artist is in store for deep pitfalls when he presumes that they might.

One of the most notable things about the political aspects of watching this film today, especially after the excellent slate of recent releases such as I Am Not Your Negro, Get Out, and Moonlight, is that, rather like the brilliant recent film Hidden Figures, this biopic is notably conventional and unchallenging (and that applies to its aesthetics, as well). Times have changed since 1992, when the film was released, and even more since 1965, when Malcolm X was murdered, and most white viewers can watch Malcolm X without feeling at all confronted or threatened. The biopic was originally meant to be directed by Norman Jewison, a filmmaker of stunning ordinariness (mentioned in Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro), and, a few times in the film’s three-and-a-half hours, I couldn’t be sure that it wasn’t — though, of course, Lee is an artist with so irrepressive a sense of style that there were many more times when Jewison’s absence was certain. Lee still manages to include moments of invention, of illumination, and indeed of great humour, which itself is a sign of imagination, but really no revelations of his figures’ inner lives, other than what the admirable actors themselves could provide in their mere presences.

Lee shows a much surer power in presenting the rhetoric and rhetorical amplitudes of the Nation of Islam, whose evangelists are first encountered when Malcolm X is serving a prison sentence. It’s as if Lee gives himself a much greater freedom and room for manoeuvring (and for error) in presenting their teachings to viewers. I have no idea about Lee’s own personal views on the Nation of Islam, but he certainly seems less pious in his consideration of them than he is towards Malcolm X (and who could blame him?); in much of the ample speechifying that fill the movie, Lee seems far more interested in what Malcolm X has to say for himself than what he or anyone else have to say for the NOI. Much of the film’s focus is on his work of building up black pride and his teachings of black distinction, rather like an American Steve Biko, and not on his more radical and explicitly religious ideas. This cultural and political breadth is what is referred to in the film’s epilogue, when Malcolm X’s message and work are affirmed to be of enduring value to the people of the day (1992, that is); and I doubt Lee’s idea would be very different if he were making the movie for black audiences in 2017.

“Win It All” (Joe Swanberg, 2017)

Available on Netflix.

Joe Swanberg’s dramatic comedy about a gambling addict was not theatrically released anywhere in South Africa, but its distributor, Netflix, has made it available to South African subscribers. One of the advantages for us in streaming services’ new focus on production and distribution of films is that they open here the same time as they do all over the world, and less familiar independent filmmakers’ works, which would not normally be acquired and shown by South African distributors, are more readily on hand for us to watch. So far as I can tell, no Swanberg movie has ever been released in South Africa, but this, his latest movie, as well as his latest television series, Easy, are as easy to access and watch as mega-hits, such as The Wizard of Oz or Furious 7.

And what a delight that easy availability is! Win it All is the first Swanberg work I’ve seen as well, and its bright limpidity, resolute realism, and gliding spontaneity have made me eager to see at least a few of his already copious selection of works (Swanberg, who is 36, has directed nearly 20 feature films of his own, and worked as editor and cinematographer on a few others). The performances (by Jake Johnson, Aislinn Derbez, Joe Lo Truglio, and Keegan-Michael Key) wonderfully embody the freewheeling intensity, fluidity, and enlightenment of being alive; their characters, already cleverly and compellingly set out in the script, are made fascinating by the actors’ strong expressions of unassailable humanity.

The story, which takes it turns through some terrifically funny moments, is a vehicle for Swanberg to show the emotional and practical risks of addiction. François Truffaut is said to have remarked that it’s impossible to make a war film, since the depiction of violence and savagery in some way or another will always ennoble it, or at least evoke the primal thrill of it. In the same way, movies about addicts couldn’t wholly succeed in deterring audiences from addiction, because the substances of addiction — drug use, alcohol, sex, or gambling — can never be properly depicted without reminding viewers of the pleasures and gratifications each holds. Swanberg deftly avoids sanctimonious caution and counsel, and reveals instead how the pursuit of these pleasures is inseparable from the inherent dangers and costs inherent to them. His resolution for the gambler Eddie is far from an easy and settling conclusion to the problems set up in the plot; Eddie has many challenges before him, both personally and professionally, but dealing with his immediate problems has clarified his intentions, desires, and their obstacles, and freed him up to begin the lifelong struggle of working on them. Swanberg has related the story back to his own filmmaking: If he can deal with a problem at hand and achieve a “win” (a commercially successful feature film), he can go on to discover and grapple with more problems further on; filmmaking itself is a gamble, and what’s at stake is far greater than the mere comfort of a successful career.

“Logan Lucky” (Steven Soderbergh, 2017)

Available on DVD.

Steven Soderbergh is back, after announcing his retirement, which turned into a hiatus from feature film directing. His last feature films were Side Effects and Behind the Candelabra, both from 2013. Now, with a script by the mysterious first-time writer Rebecca Blunt (whose identity remains a secret, even to most people who worked on the film), Soderbergh has returned to the popular heist film genre, which he famously left his mark on with Out of Sight, from 1998, and the Ocean’s trilogy, starring George Clooney. Logan Lucky is set in West Virginia, and is populated with working class and criminal types, what Soderbergh referred to as an “anti-glam version of an Ocean’s movie”. It stars Channing Tatum and Adam Driver as two brothers who, with the help of a convicted safecracker (Daniel Craig), engineer a heist of the Charlotte Motor Speedway, home of NASCAR.

The delights in this film are multiplicitous and ample. Blunt’s script is taut and finely conceived, while Soderbergh’s realisation develops it with expansive energies that lend the story a relaxed yet keen concentration, a broad yet detailed imagination. Soderbergh’s movies have often been obsessed with process (as in, how Danny Ocean and his team plan their heists, or how Erin Brockovich and Jude Law’s Dr Banks each investigate the crimes and conspiracies they’ve come across, or how Magic Mike grooms Adam into a successful male stripper, or how Jennifer Ehle’s medical researcher hunts for a cure to a worldwide contagion), and the planning of the Logan brothers’ heist is hardly an exception. But there’s a surprisingly broad view of the specific and distinctive milieu of the characters; Logan Lucky seems to be as much about southern accents, and the kind of culture that Jack Donaghy once attributed to “race car-loving wide-loads,” as it is about familial intimacy, loyalty, and the resourcefulness of principled rebels.

Soderbergh seems to have taken on a warm sympathy for the much-stereotyped working class whites of the south; his characters’ ambitions include success in beauty pageants and football, they respect the veterans and admire them for their sacrifice, and their villains are the bureaucrats and economic élites. The Speedway is chosen as their target not only for practical reasons, but for a class resentment against the corporate types who run it, and, in particular, a vulgar racing celebrity they end up fighting in a bar, played by Seth MacFarlane. Even the work of the FBI agent who is appointed to investigate the heist and prosecute the perpetrators is frustrated and belittled by the bureaucratic operations of, well, the Bureau. Logan Lucky follows up on the success of Ocean’s Thirteen and exactly what audiences loved about it, which is the source of many of its pleasures; I’m anxious to see what Soderbergh has in store for us in coming years in terms of a greater and higher and more furious art.

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