Tuesday, 28 February 2017

The Numbed Pains and Furies of “Tess”


That sexual and domestic violence are severe problems in all pockets of South African society should not come as a shock to any moviegoer walking into Meg Rickards’s new feature film, Tess. Rickards doesn’t aim only to inform us of this fact, but to evoke in us the rage and the pain that attend the victims of these acts of violence, and she hopes that that common sympathy in audiences can help turn the tide in our country and change what we now commonly know as a rape culture. Her film is adapted from the novel Whiplash by Tracey Farren (first published in 2008), about the doleful sex worker Tess who, in the course of a career on the beach front of Muizenberg, unexpectedly falls pregnant. Tess (played by Christia Visser) has been masking her own deep psychological pain with a stone-cold face of impenetrable flint, and numbing it with an increasingly dangerous codeine addiction.

Rickards shows us, as if forcing both herself and the audience to watch without flinching, the wearying sexual encounters Tess undergoes daily, her stressful living circumstances with a neighbour whose boyfriend flies into sudden and murderous rages, the physical toll taken by a drug addiction, and the crushing spectacle of an abortion. There’s no aspect of a sex worker’s life that she finds too unseemly to put up on the screen for an audience to endure; in fact, she films these scenes and scenarios precisely because she wants her audience to know those grimy specifics – one scene of terrible physical and sexual violence even depicts Tess’s brutal rape by an unrelenting john. There’s brief nudity later on as well, to highlight the degradation in Tess’s work; Rickards intelligently offers sensationalism without arousal.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

My Oscar Predictions

This year’s Academy Awards face a slightly unusual circumstance: more people than usual will be watching the results keenly to see how the nominated individuals fare, but, perhaps, (hopefully), more people than ever before have also realised how trivial and irrelevant are those results. Following a few months of political tumult, and in the midst of a global uncertainty in just about all regards that matter, people who care about movies know that there’s no consequence in who the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences think gave the best supporting performance, or which film they think was photographed best. Award names like “Best Picture” and “Best Actress” have always merely been the Academy’s homonyms for the actual best film and actual best lead performance by a female actor in a year; any concurrence between superlative artistic merit and industry recognition has always been strictly coincidental; statistically, the two matters are mutually independent.

But this year there’s increased attention on the results, because, for one, the Academy has managed to nominate films and individuals that resonated more deeply through the culture than recent years’ selections, and because viewers understand that Oscar success, while fatuous and meaningless in itself, is a marvelous help to the career of many film-makers; if the movies and individuals we love win Academy Awards this evening (tomorrow morning before dawn in South African time), they’re likely to be given both more opportunities and more freedom in making the kinds of movies they feel strongly about. For example, Martin Scorsese went through the routine struggles of making the feature films and documentaries he dreamed of making, and ran into the usual kind of financial and creative obstacles that plague directors in the system; but since he won his Oscar in 2007, for The Departed, he’s found much greater freedom in Hollywood to bring his grand visions to exhilarating, sublime realisation, and that freedom has shown in the three films of his that have been released here (Shutter Island, Hugo, and The Wolf of Wall Street) that was markedly missing from all his previous films.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

A Winter’s Tale

“Manchester by the Sea”

Kenneth Lonergan’s appreciation for and apprehension of music is made lustrously clear in his new family melodrama Manchester by the Sea. Not only does he movingly and thoughtfully use classic Baroque works by Handel and Albinoni (and the soothing tones of Ella Fitzgerald) to enhance his drama in certain scenes, but the very images through which he transmits that drama are carried by an inherent musical lilt. Lonergan is better known as a writer than a director – he is an accomplished playwright and, in addition to those of each of the three movies he directed himself, has written the scripts for other films, including Martin Scorsese’s epic Gangs of New York – but his artistry in directing this film (I have not yet seen You Can Count On Me and Margaret) is manifest and expansive. Beyond his mastery of the formally classical crafts and techniques he employs – his fixed compositions, broad establishing shots, clean movements, bright lighting, inconspicuous editing, credible dialogue and performances, definitive narrative structure, measured pace in unfolding the story, et cetera – there is a spark of ardour and originality to what we see on the screen, and it carries all the force of emotion and strength of substance that any film artist could bring to his or her work.

Manchester by the Sea stars Casey Affleck as the sullen handyman Lee Chandler in a large town in Massachusetts, just south of Boston, whose brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), in the thrall of a chronic heart condition, suffers a heart attack and dies in their home town of Manchester-by-the-Sea, a few hours’ drive north along the coast. Lee is left with making all the arrangements for Joe’s funeral and afterwards, most importantly looking after his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). To Lee’s alarm, he learns that he has been designated Patrick’s guardian by Joe in his will; the prevailing crisis of the remainder of the plot is the tug between Lee, who is anxious to leave Manchester-by-the-Sea as soon as is proper, and Patrick, who is adamant that he will stay just where he is and continue his life in its current vein. Subsequent scenes survey the scope and dimensions of that vein: Patrick is comfortably set in a group of friends, the devoted lead guitarist of a comically earnest high school garage band, and is self-satisfied in the attention he draws from his prettier classmates, including Sandy (Anna Baryshnikov) and Silvie (Kara Hayward, Hedges’s entrancing costar in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom).

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Hell on Earth

“Hacksaw Ridge”

I’m given to understand that Mel Gibson is a rather devout Roman Catholic, and, if I were to judge that before this month from the only movie he has directed that I’d seen, I’d quite believe it. Besides anything else a viewer may say about it – and millions of viewers have had their say and much more – The Passion of the Christ looks to me like a sincere article of the ardent faith of a genuine believer. The finer details of that doctrine can’t really be discerned from the film, and probably shouldn’t be surmised from Gibson’s regrettable personal statements and actions, but there is one thing we were all made absolutely sure of by The Passion of the Christ, in ways that would never let us forget it: In Gibson’s worldview, human faith (of the kind he practices) and brutal violence are indissolubly linked in the immense suffering that each causes mankind. For Gibson, as necessary and rewarding as it is, faith brings tribulation and its force is met with a proportional ferocity in the violence (physical or psychological) one inevitably encounters.

As repellently violent as The Passion of the Christ is, Gibson managed to illustrate quite effectively the broader points of that worldview. His narrative, rather than demonstrating anti-Semitic biases, paints all humans (except his main character, of course) as inherently sinful, guilty, unworthy of God’s favour, and deserving of harsh punishment for their sins, which brings about a blazing contrast with the grace and mercy of Jesus, who undergoes just the kind of horrific scenes of torment and agony that grip Gibson’s imagination – and reinforce his ideas of man’s sinful nature – to deliver a remorseless human race from an even more remorseless judgement. With this kind of narrative underpinning the central doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, it isn’t surprising that such tight bonds are drawn by so many Catholic artists between the notions of faith, guilt, and suffering, nor that the personal expression of Gibson’s religious convictions turned out as so off-putting to such large numbers of viewers. His obvious sincerity, allegiance to doctrine, and determination to cinematically represent those ideas explain its enormous success among equally large numbers of viewers.