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.