Friday, August 28, 2009

On Beautiful Kate and Australian Cinema

By Billy Stevenson

First time feature director Rachel Ward recently published an article defending her new film Beautiful Kate, a family drama set in rural Australia and starring Bryan Brown, Rachel Griffiths and Ben Mendelsohn. In the article Ward attacks critics who labeled her film as just another 'dark and bleak' Australian film:

Well, I'm calling a penalty kick for the niche product. Reviews of any movie without Paul Hogan winking, Hugh Jackman flexing, Muriel squealing or pigs flying seem to be limited to describing them as ''dark'' or ''bleak'' - but that does not mean they are.

Here are a few other adjectives with which film writers might broaden their Australian film vocabulary: enlightening, redemptive, inspiring, compassionate, beautiful, transformative, intelligent, human, engrossing, tender, confronting and, yes, entertaining.

Dark and bleak should be kept for describing the time when we did not have an industry, before the Australian film renaissance of the 1970s, or for the depressing time ahead when audiences have been scared off anything Australian that might have some guts.

The main thing that irritates me about this article is that Rachel Ward never specifies who she means by this "campaign...of criticising filmmakers like me." She can't mean critics - the film has received alot of great reviews. Margaret and David both gave it four and a half stars - a rare agreement. My sense is that she's been inspired by the relatively low rating, and poor comments, on imdb - and perhaps, more generally, the poor internet response, such as on the comments section of the 'At The Movies' website. But, to be honest, even these haven't been consistently poor. And who makes a film expecting unanimous acclaim from every sector? In any case, the ultimate result of Ward's failure to identify these evil critics is that anyone who dislikes the film somehow becomes a spoilsport - or, to use her fairly self-important analogy, becomes one of those people preventing the little kid getting to the goal.

Well, I did dislike the film. I disliked it alot, partly because of the very self-importance that pervades this article. At first, I was going to write a humorous, casual response - but after reading this, I feel like being a little more systematic. Firstly, this is not the masterpiece that Ward seems to think it is - and, really, how could it be? How many directors make a masterpiece with their debut? It requires an overwhelmingly, prodigiously original directorial vision. And my main criticism is that this is a generic Australian 'arthouse' film - and, in that sense, is far more indebted to the "dictates of mass marketing" than Ward seems to acknowledge.

Most basically, the plot is an generic prodigal son narrative. This wouldn't be fatal - partly because there is an idiosyncratic incestual subplot - were it not for the script, which sounds like how foreigners think Australians speak; or, perhaps more accurately, how a Balmain director thinks that rural Australians speak. I have family living on small farms all over Australia - none of them speak in this grunted, moronic register, or reminisce about the time "they were swimming in the dam and got a leech in their fanny". The film exudes a contrived, self-important working-class 'voice' whose only purpose seems to be to flatter a Palace cinemas demographic with a sense of 'authenticity'.

About half the film is made up of flashbacks, which follow a relatively linear trajectory, parallel to the contemporary narrative - there's nothing original about this. And they're shot with a completely generic 'breathlessness' - hand-held camera, backlit, extreme close-ups, as if to remind us how sincere, emotional and, above all, undislikable it is. The depictions of the landscape aren't bad, but they're entirely in keeping with the slightly trite immanence that characterised Somersault.

The acting isn't terrible, but the actors aren't given much to work with: Bryan Brown's your average cantankerous old bastard, Ben Mendelsohn's just a place where cliched masculine angst happens, Rachel Griffiths is a mere cipher for good old-fashioned bush wisdom ('Blames a mug's game, mate'). And the portrayal of Aboriginal people is laughable - I'd rather see them omitted entirely than used, as they are, as vehicles for the restoration of our own self-esteem and sense of belonging. Oh yeah, and did I mention that the main character starts writing down his version of events, which gradually segues into an interior monologue? Just in case we don't understand the emotional magnitude of what's taking place.

It's appropriate that Ward refers to the Australian Renaissance. Back in the 1970s, it was an original aesthetic gesture for Australian films to focus on exurban protagonists (and, despite the kangaroo-laden rural backdrop, this effectively feels like yet another elaboration of outer suburbia) in a heightened demotic, vernacular register. Now, it just feels tired - a completely contrived bleakness and banality that reproaches you for not being 'authentic' enough, or caring about Australian cinema enough, if you don't like it.

Well, I do like Australian cinema, and think there have been some great films in the last decade. For my money, Rolf de Heer is the greatest Australian auteur of the last fifteen years or so - a consistently original, daring director, who I always respect, if not always enjoy. Ray Lawrence would also be up there, if he were a little more prolific. And there have been directorial one-offs which have been more impressive as well. 'Praise', for example, was John Curran's first feature film - although it was admittedly based on a very strong novel. Speaking of which, critics have waxed lyrical about Ward's success in transplanting her source material - a short story set in the American South - to the outback, but, to me, this just seems to clarify how much of a generic afterthought its insistent 'Australianness' is.

Don't get me wrong. This isn't an unwatchable film. And it's understandable that any director should feel pride in their product. But you're allowed to dislike it without being un-Australian.

For more on Australian cinema see this previous post on Noise.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

The endings of Paranormal Activity

Rumours are filtering through that one of the scariest movies ever made will finally get a US release date almost three years after it finished production. The facts are still elusive but signs point to September 25 as the date for a limited release in the States. But as audiences begin to gear up for one of the most traumatic experiences to be had in the cinema, controversy will surely turn to which ENDING they will be getting.

The word is director Oren Peli has been tinkering with his cut of the film over the last year and may even have ditched the film's original ending for a an alternative ending. As this site reported, an alternate ending was screened with the film at various festivals over the last 12 months, including the Sydney Film Festival. Unfortunately, as I wrote in my review, the ending was the one time I felt the film went Hollywood and utilised more conventional shock tactics and even added an annoying, self-referential touch. So it made sense when I found out the ending was actually an alternate ending and there was an original ending said to be much longer and much more horrific.

Two months ago I thought I had found it. *SPOILER* A description from someone who had seen a screener of the film described a longer ending in which Kate kills Micah offscreen and then walks into the bedroom with a bloody knife. She then sits and rocks beside the bed for days (long enough that we hear the phone ringing and worried messages left in the background). Katie's female friend then comes to the house worried and Katie goes downstairs where you hear the friend scream. Katie comes back to the bedroom and continues rocking beside the bed as the counter records more days going past. Finally police arrive and as she approaches them with the knife they open fire on her and we fade out to the sound of police radios. It sounded much more unsettling than the ending I had seen and seemed to make better use of the dread that rendered the rest of the film so traumatic. The only thing that seemed off was the use of police - it seemed a little anti-climatic and risked providing too much closure.*SPOILER*

But I've recently learnt that ending was not the original at all. It was in fact one of THREE different endings. So which one was the original? From what I've heard I believe the description below to be that of the original ending, or at least the earliest one screened. Unlike the previous two, I regard this ending to be the perfect finish to one of the most original horror films I've ever seen. When I first heard the description, I gasped. I can't imagine how it's going to feel on screen.

I recommend you go into Paranormal Activity cold but if you've already seen the film and are curious about the original ending here is a description below:

This ending initially repeats what we see in the other two endings. We watch through the camera as the couple sleep. Then suddenly Kate sits straight up, gets out of bed, walks over to Micah and stands over him staring at him for a few hours. Then she walks out of the bedroom and we hear her going downstairs. After a few minutes tick off the clock, we hear Kate screaming. Micah wakes up, screams to Kate that he is coming to help her, and he darts out of the room. For the next few minutes you just see an empty bedroom with the ticking clock and you hear both Kate and Micah screaming and a lot of commotion like they are fighting. After a few minutes, the screaming stops and it is silent. After a minute or two of silence, you hear a loud stomping sound (like something very heavy is coming up the stairs).

From here, the ending diverges: Kate walks into the bedroom covered in blood and holding a large butcher knife down at her side. She walks into the room very heavy and stiff-like. She walks right up to the camera so that the upper half of her body is in the shot (but she isn't staring into the camera or looking at you, she's sort of looking downward), and then she simply pulls up the knife and slashes her throat in one quick, graceful movement, and falls down on the ground. The camera keeps rolling so we just see an empty bedroom for a few seconds and then the camera shuts off and the movie ends.

I love this ending. It's actually much more in line with how I hoped the film would finish. Not only is there no ironic self-referencing (Kate thankfully doesn't look at the camera) but it is a moment of sudden and horrific violence that would likely mark the most traumatic point of the movie.

If the dread of Paranormal Activity is the traumatic, sustained experience of pure desire (desire being an experience of lack, of absence), this ending is traumatic precisely because it realises that desire. Violence is withheld and withheld in this film, fueling our anticipation for it, an anticipation that becomes unbearable. We know something horrific is about to happen but the more the film shies away from it the worst our expectations become. This ending finally gives us all the violence we feared. More than that, it directly posits the violence as something we desire by offering it up in front of the camera.

What may have started off as a neutral viewing position through the camera has gradually become the eyes of the demon itself. It is less Kate who is possessed in this film than us. The demon is seeing through our eyes. What is shown to the camera is not just guided by the desire of the demon it is also guided by our own desire when we walked into this film - a desire for horror. This other worldly nature of our desire, this implication of our neutral gaze, is traumatic, and it's the original ending that so perfectly realises the nature of this gaze.

Why Dreamworks decided to change the ending is beyond me. Perhaps it was too gruesome for the rating they were trying to secure. Perhaps some timid audiences found it too confronting. Ultimately though it's an insane move. The fact is the film is not complete without its original ending. To give audiences one of the alternate endings would go against everything that is so unique about the film - its avoidance of the usual Hollywood scare tactics, its anticipation of a final moment of raw, unapologetic violence, indeed the very viewing position we have occupied for the last 90 minutes.

But there are signs of hope. At least according to the film's official website, which quotes my review, the filmmakers have read my criticism of the first alternate ending. Hopefully they'll be paying attention here as well. Let's not forget that at one stage we were actually going to get a Hollywood remake instead of the original. Perhaps these alternate endings will go the same route.

According to an interview with Peli, the original ending was the police ending. The suicide ending on the other hand was a rare alternate ending screened publicly only once. Peli goes on to say that there were many more alternative endings but they never got screened. However, we may see all of these endings on some kind of special edition DVD in the future.

Watch the original police ending here!


Monday, August 24, 2009

Glorious Basterds

Inglorious Bastards was the surprise of the decade for me. Having read Tarantino's script mid-last year my expectations were low to abysmal. The script was overly indulgent, juvenile, pretentious, lame and dull. From that first reading, I was ready to predict the end of Tarantino's career. Having seen the film last week, I can say I've never been so happy to be wrong. The film is exhilarating and tense, emotionally poignant yet also unadulterated fun.

But reading the script first actually clarified to me what makes Tarantino such a good director. His films take place in a brilliantly and imaginatively thought out world, down to the last detail. What we’re given though is a privileged but essentially limited insight into that world. The effect is that it leaves us wanting more but in the best possible way – it inspires our imagination. Think of the complete lack of explanation regarding Brad Pitt’s noose mark, or the truly bad-ass characters of Wilhelm Wicki and Hugo Stiglitz – minor roles yet I wished they owned the movie. That’s not a criticism of the film but a sign of my love for it. It's a world that exists outside the constraints of narrative and the demands of the audience - and is all the more real for it. Critics who argue that the Basterds story ended up being fairly insignificant forget how Tarantino's films work. They're films inspired by cinephelia, which means they're based on details, moments and scenes that are decidedly anti-plot. Even the scenes that appear driven by narrative (the tavern scene and the cinema climax) are in fact accidental (the chance presence of Nazis in the tavern, the synchronisation between Shosanna's plot and the Basterds operation). It's an accident that refers not to narrative but to the anti-narrative reality of Tarantino's world, a world that is hidden even to himself.

No Tarantino film explores this more than Inglorious Bastards. Watching the film is like being let in on a secret, a secret that only cinema can encapsulate. So much of the film seems concerned with the way characters are viewed - a secret that is a mystery even to the characters themselves. Think of Landa’s ambiguous discussion of his nickname (first he likes it because he’s earned it, then he disowns it because it degrades him); or the card game played in the tavern where others are aware of your identity but you are not; the scene where Shosanna discovers how Zoller is viewed by the public; the legend of the Bear Jew that the Basterds themselves take pleasure in. When Pitt tells the German officer that the Bear Jew is the closest thing they have to the movies – is he referring to the baseball bat violence or the anticipation of that violence fueled by legend? The amount of time the scene spends on anticipation would suggest the latter. Likewise, the pleasure of the film is the tension of a secret both revealed and hidden.

Inglourious Basterds thus works because it creates a world that is a mystery to us but one that is also revealed in subtle details. Characters work like detectives, each one trying to reveal the secret of the other: Hans 'the Jew Hunter' Landa is of course a self-titled detective; Archie Hicox is a former film critic (another kind of detective); the German officer in the tavern prides himself on detecting accents (indeed the use of foreign languages reveals further details that English speakers would not pick up on); Zoller’s own fascination with the mysterious and resistant Shosanna also neatly parallels these characters. It seems to be this tension of the secret that Tarantino believes cinema embodies and it is a tension that is given full catharsis in the film's epic climax. The enjoyment of the climax is the complicit and transgressive enjoyment of a secret revealed. Not only does the massacre of the Nazis take place in a alternative, non-existent history (the secret transgressive fantasy of history itself), but it seems to be a crime perpetrated by both cinema (the flammable film stock) and the fantasies of dead people (Zoller and Shosanna). In Tarantino's most emotionally poignant scene to date, Shosanna and Zoller end up dying at each other's hands (again the true perpetrator here is simply bad luck) but living on in the image on the screen. Their characters' secrets or fantasies less a personal trait than an 'accidental' yet inherent property of the cinematic gaze itself. Likewise, Inglorious Basterds is a film that almost exists outside of itself, beyond its closing credits. It is a film literally inspired by a love of film, of a world beyond our limited gaze yet also the very condition of that gaze.


In response to those critics who argue that IB is a defense of Israel's position or somehow insensitive to the Jews and the significance of the Holocaust:

Firstly, the film is proudly and demonstrably a fantasy, one that revels in the black and white dichotomy of WWII films. Indeed, Tarantino has said in interviews that he was directly inspired by WWII propaganda films, which were often made by directors living in Hollywood after the Nazis had taken over their countries. Basterds' willingness to problematise this fantasy and our enjoyment of it (eg. Pitt's speech about the Nazi comes straight after Landa's speech about the Jew) is not some sign of disingenuity but actually a mark of the film's fundamentalist honesty. It's the same kind of openly transgressive, cathartic violence that vigilante films like Rambo, Taken and Commando take part in. I don't think there's anything wrong with that precisely because of the level of honesty these films have about their revenge fantasies and means of catharsis. It's their brazen honesty that makes these films so much fun (it's also an enjoyment that you can only really have in the cinema). IB's controversial climax isn't a lie against history but the film's complete honesty about its status as cinematic fantasy (how do you 'lie' about how the fate of WWII anyway?), with all the problems that entails.

Ultimately the film privileges this level of emotional sincerity above all things. The Basterds are literally the name for the band of scalping Jews - there's no glossing over the horror of what they're doing. The Nazis on the other hand are portrayed as disguising their violence with culture, ideological pretension and social mores. For Tarantino this is far more offensive than what the Basterds are doing and ultimately marks their point of difference - emotional honesty. The basterds' carving of swastikas on the heads of Nazis is the film's fundamentalist enforcement of that honesty. No longer do the Nazis have the glamour of class, culture or social pretense to mask their libidinal desires and racist thoughts. Now they've literally got to wear their prejudices on their head.

What I find far more dishonest and offensive are the sentimental or sombre Holocaust realist films which ostensibly sympathise with the Jews but disguise any libidinal desire the Jews might have for retribution. Films such as Jacob The Liar, Life Is Beautiful and even Schindler's List are borderline patronising and condescending. If a Jew has any desire for real agency in these films it is usually minimal, concealed or behind the scenes. Critics of IB's Jewish portrayal seem to prefer the idea that the Jew should not be anything other than a victim in a WWII film, when really what other person but the Jew has the right to enact such divine vengeance against the Nazis? IB is one of the few films I've seen (along with perhaps Black Book) that's fully honest about this and recognises that if any medium should express the Jew's desire for vengeance against the Nazis it's in the WWII propaganda films. Ultimately Basterds is a fantasy, but its honesty about that fantasy is far more real than most Holocaust kitsch.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Is District 9 racist?

District 9 kicks off with a hallucinatory spectacle. An alien spaceship hovers ominously over Johannesburg, a distant blur through the smog of the city. After three months of uncertainty, humans cut through to discover a sprawling mass of sick, malnourished aliens. The insect-like refugees are rounded up and segregated into shanty town encampments on the ground, then treated with all the prejudice that whites applied to blacks during apartheid. Director Neill Blomkamp sets up his sci-fi blockbuster as a hallucinatory, doco-styled satire on racism, but ultimately favours entertainment and action over politics and social substance. The shift in priority was a deliberate decision made by Blomkamp but it also renders the film's racial subtext worryingly ambiguous.

From the beginning, the aliens (referred to by the derogatory term 'prawns') are portrayed as a dirty, aimless mass, a primordial horde surviving in slums and scrounging through garbage. When they're not sniffing petrol, they're stealing cell phones and sneakers. Moreover, they're a leaderless mob, with their command ship having broken off and disappeared. The film's first 45 minutes sets it up so the aliens are pure Other, a cypher for all our racist libidinal projections. And it's a comfortable set up. Not only are the 'prawns' aliens in a sci-fi film but they're computer generated, detached from our usual human sympathies. A lot of time we even laugh with, rather than at, the racist comments made by interviewees. Indeed, the first act begins to resemble a racist joke: one interviewee wise cracks "they steal sneakers, then check for the brand", while interracial sex becomes a running gag. At one point, Wikus jokes about aborting some alien babies as he kills off some alien pods ('they pop like popcorn!') and callously offers a subordinate a souvenir for his first 'abortion'.*

The jokes would usually just pass as edgy satire. But somewhere down the line Blomkamp passes from straight satire into pure entertainment - and it's not clear when. D9's movement from satire to action to sentimentality creates a half formed, schizophrenic tone that ultimately fails to cohere. Ostensibly realistic with its documentary style and expert interviews, the film also employs a video game aesthetic of violence and action. Despite raising ideas of libidinal projection and our prejudiced subjective responses, it then asks us to enjoy the detached spectacle of bodies of 'bad guys' blown up and shot up. Similarly the film's satirical intent backfires in the face of its cosmic sentimentality. When Wikus tells the aliens they must relocate he advises the camera: “The prawn doesn’t understand. One has to say ‘This is our land. Please, will you go?’” The intention is a satirical reversal of the attitude of European colonisers to South Africa. But as Armond White points out, the allegory is misapplied "because the prawn, who resent their mistreatment, primarily yearn to beam up back to their Mothership." Wikus' racist statement is not only true in the context of the film, it's also in the interests of the aliens themselves. The problem is similar in the case of the 'leaderless' nature of the aliens. Although likely a satirical reference to the racist attitude that blacks are no more than uneducated and unruly workers who need white guidance, the film's narrative actually differs little from this racial subtext - the apparent leader, Christopher, needs the intervention of white guy Wikus before he can help rescue his fellow aliens. The end result is a confusion of genres that turns the film against itself. To quote White again: "Blomkamp and Jackson want it every which way:The actuality-video threat of The Blair Witch Project, unstoppable violence like ID4 plus Spielberg’s otherworldly benevolence: factitiousness, killing and cosmic agape." It doesn't work.

District 9's half formed satire is what I imagine critics thought the satire of Bruno to be: a dangerous representation of stereotypes that inadvertently supports the racist attitudes it satirises. But unlike Bruno, which takes the stereotype to the point of rupture, District 9 fails to even interrogate it. Yet the critics who were so quick to jump on Bruno for its 'gay face' have praised District 9 almost unanimously. They see no problem with the ambiguous cypher-like nature of the aliens or even the more outlandish Nigerian stereotypes, who come across as scary black voodoo gangster figures who wish to steal our jouissance (the alien powers). Indeed, all the characters of District 9 are little more than cartoon caricatures, with the film's main protagonist the most one dimensional of them all. It's hard to see Wikus as anything more than a satirical punching bag yet the film urges us to invest in a completely unbelievable romantic relationship between him and his wife. Not only are we supposed to accept him as a real and complex character but we're asked to sympathise with him to the point of offensiveness. Wikus himself is a racist, but his racism is 'endearingly' portrayed by the film as self-centred stupidity. His sudden 'selfless' shift in the final act appears not only arbitrary and against character but a desperate manipulative bid by the filmmakers to win audience sympathy. Moreover, the film seeks to show him in a positive light by contrasting Wikus' pathologised and bureaucratised racism to the 'real racism' of the hardcore corporate/military elite. Personally, I prefer the hardcore racists - at least they're honest (and coherent).

The film's only real attempt to get behind the alien stereotype focuses on two characters: Christopher and his son. But the way it tries to reveal their 'human' side is through a patronising sentimentality that borders on insult. Exploiting a soppy soundtrack and a cute Ewok-like baby, the film bluntly tries to elicit pity for the two aliens despite a distinct lack of character development. Rather than putting the aliens on an equal level of respect and sympathy, this 'compassionate voyeurism' keeps them at a condescending distance. In its own ignorance, the film thus establishes a link between compassion and cruelty. Both compassion and cruelty treat their object with condescension and ensure their subject's superiority as the one giving compassion or perpetrating cruelty. The effect is borderline sadistic. While the film publicly expresses its sympathy, the viewer can secretly continue projecting the same libidinal fears because the film's sympathy is so detached. District 9 sets up a system of cruelty that it supposedly critiques but its patronising solution is disturbingly similar to that same position of cruelty.

What may have begun as a genuine attempt to reveal the hallucinatory object of racism, ends up merely confirming the racist attitude as the film's ideal vantage point. District 9 has promising ideas - the horrific metamorphosis as a radical turn to empathy - but they fail to be exploited and serve mainly to aid the film's video game aesthetic. Ultimately the film's satirical and sentimental detachment works merely to let the viewer off the hook. The enjoyment of the film's narrative and the dictates of its genre are however completely dependent on the racist stereotype it satirises.

*The main protagonist's surname 'van der Merwe' is also a common name used in Afrikaans jokes.

Mike Ely at Kasama contextualises D9's racism brilliantly:

There is an English-speaking liberalism in South Africa that sees itself as very enlightened and even “anti-racist.” It views the Boers (South African whites speaking a Dutch dialect) as racist cavemen — as the authors of the horrors of apartheid. And yet this same Anglo-liberalism is notorious for its own deeply embedded sense of white superiority, and its own “civilizing” mission. There is a patronizing white racism that self-righteously poses as support for a particularly non-radical kind of “multiculturalism” in South Africa.

This film struck me as a very coherent expression of that Anglo-liberalism in South Africa — with its vague support for tolerance, and its deeply flawed view of the real horrors of sub-Saharan Africa today. In other words, this was not a racist portrayal of Nigerians somehow “plopped down” into a wholly different plotline — the racist view of subsaharan Blacks is part and parcel of a particular critique of apartheid and “the Boers.”

The racism as portrayed in D9 is a view of racism as the product of ignorance. Although an outdated view, it is actually perfectly conducive to view of liberal multiculturalists. Under the liberal viewpoint, Wikus is a racist because he's stupid and doesn't know better. Yet this same viewpoint engages in a more complex and fetishistic disavowal of racism. Instead of 'my culture is better than yours', reflexive racism argues 'your culture is different to mine'. This idea of 'tolerance' allows us to publicly believe that all cultures are equal, but still act as if ours was superior. The way the film then excuses its seemingly derogatory portrayal of voodoo loving Nigerians is that it's out of respect for the uniqueness of their culture - that they enjoy differently. Indeed, the film's portrayal of Nigerians sways between the reflexive and classic racist fantasy: the ethnic Other has access to a jouissance that is strange to us (the voodoo); and that they want to steal our enjoyment from us (the alien blood from Wikus' transformed hand). What both fantasies share is a 'threat' that comes from 'them'.

And yet D9 does (if not self-consciously) show a more complex push-pull in its racist subtext by portraying capital and globalisation as also a threat (the MNU corporation). The strengthening of ethnic identities (the Nigerians) can be seen as a reactionary defense against the spread of capitalism and its Western forms of enjoyment (MNU). But what are the 'prawns' in this context? Zizek offers a clue when he outlines the underlying fantasy of all racism as being "if only they weren't here, life would be perfect, and society will be haromious again". What the prawns represent is this hallucinatory figure of racism. In a sense (the film falls short of entirely exploiting this), the prawns are not blacks so much as they are the racist embodiment of blacks - a fantasy figure whose erasure will lead to an organic, whole society (much like the Nazi's view of the Jews). Yet instead of exposing the racist fantasy - that the subject of racism isn't an obstacle to a harmonious society but actually conceals its impossibility - District 9 seems to actually endorse it. The public fantasy of having the aliens 'get off our land' becomes the private fantasy of the aliens themselves. The spectre of a harmonious society hovers over the film like the alien mothership - one that can only be realised once the aliens leave the earth.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Working with Terry

Emmanuel Lubezki on working on The New World with Terrence Malick.

I've read just about every interview or essay on Terrence Malick, but these four brief snippets have to be the most insightful portraits of the man I've seen so far.


Monday, August 10, 2009

Coffee and Cigarettes

Watched Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control last night. Reminded me a lot of the rhyming and rhythms used in Coffee and Cigarettes, so thought I'd post my old MSN review of Cigarettes (since taken down) before I write up my take on Limits:

Long before there was Tarantino, there was Jarmusch. It's a name synonymous with indie cool but his latest opus could be his hippest flick to date. Opening (and closing) to the confidently chilled beat of "Louie Louie", Coffee and Cigarettes preaches Jarmusch's minimalist cool with a slow nicotine burn and the ricochet of caffeine induced conversation. The film was shot in customary black and white over a period of 17 years and collates a series of short, seemingly detachable scenes in which characters engage in natural and bizarre dialogue over coffee and cigarettes.

The humorous exchanges between characters often skirt the void of abstract chaos but there's more method than there is madness. The episodes build up cumulative and interrelated meanings, with Jarmusch making copious use of rhyming and doubling, twins and cousins, characters and real life stars. In the film's inspired use of cameos (including a fantastic double performance from Cate Blanchett), celebrities are shown playing themselves, characters or sometimes both. In turn, their conversations end up happening on two, even three seperate levels simultaneously (as in the hilarious "Cousins?" vignette featuring Alfred Molina and British comedian Steve Coogan).

The titular drugs soon become the rhythmic base line to the characters' tangential riffs and failed attempts at communication (which only seem to result in more doubling), so that towards the end they seem to pull the film back in on itself. It's only in the final scene that the underlying loneliness and estrangement is held back to reveal two old timers blissfully reminiscing, allowing us to settle into a tender poignancy beyond (or amongst) the absurdity. Perhaps in the end, the film seems to say, our greatest human connections will always be in the past, in our memories, or in a tenuous double imaginative that we can rarely grasp.


Saturday, August 01, 2009

Why I Love Jeff Goldblum

Because the only thing better than Jeff Goldblum is a Jeff Goldblum impersonation.