Shouldn’t It Be “And I”?

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, 2015)

There’s a scene towards the end of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl when Greg (Thomas Mann) goes into Rachel Kushner’s (Olivia Vooke) bedroom through the window. This was somewhat of a relief to me, since I was getting worried about Gregg’s use of the front door. Admittedly, it’s necessary that he go via Denise Kushner (Molly Shannon). The teen bedroom is that curious private/public space, the first space a teen owns and yet on sufferance of the parents. (At one point Greg threatens to look through his parents’ things in their bedroom; his father (Nick Offerman) warns him there would be a lot of tampons.) Erika Pearson, discussing the online presence of the typical teen, refers to the glass bedroom:

Inside the bedroom, private conversations and intimate exchanges occur, each with varying awareness of distant friends and strangers moving past transparent walls that separate groups from more deliberate and constructed ‘outside’ displays. The glass bedroom itself is not an entirely private space, nor a true backstage space as Goffman articulated, though it takes on elements of both over the course of its use. It is a bridge that is partially private and public, constructed online through signs and language

In the teen drama the identity is constructed in the actual bedroom (and the high school), although it is not necessarily a sexualised space. Greg here makes a big deal of not falling in love with Rachel, as well as his masturbatory habits. But, like the vampire, he also needs to be invited in.

Rachel has leukaemia. Greg’s mother (Connie Britton) has ordered Greg — awkward, dorky, self-loathing — to go to talk to her and be a friend, whether either rof them like it or not. Both Rachel and Greg are those kind of lovable, wiser-than-their-years, square-pegs-in-round-holes that Kevin Williamson put on the TV map in Dawson’s Creek (and Whedon did in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and are obviously film films because, hey, we are watching a film. Remember cinema is narcissistic (see The Wolfpack) and Gregg not only likes films, he makes his own versions with his “co-worker” Earl (Ronald Cyler II). He likes Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows (François Truffaut, 1959)) and Taxi Driver (Martin Scorses, 1976) and Burden of Dreams (Les Blank, 1982) and the works of Powell and Pressburger and the two have made their own versions of forty films. (I hope the DVD will have these on.)

And so Earl and Gregg are persuaded to make a film for Rachel as she is dying — but Greg can’t quite work out how to do so as his present (a carefully cultivated neutrality at school) and future (university) begin to disintegrate.

The bittersweet nature of the film is balanced by a degree of whimsy — I knew I recognised the name of production company Indian Paintbrush and on checking they produced The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson, 2007), Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014), among others. I assume the animation expertise from some of those films is part of the talent here. It is perhaps shamelessly manipulative of our emotions.

It also offers a commentary on race in America, although I suspect it bodges it. Earl is African American and lives in a poorer part of town (there’s a factory or plant in the back of shot), Greg is WASP and Rachel is Jewish (there’s a minora carefully visible in more or less the first shot of her house). Difference is not shirked, but there is a risk that Earl will become the magical negro that Hollywood loves. He does, however, perceive Rachel as white. I suspect the minor characters are less diverse in their identities.

(It’s only now, a day afterwards, that I’m thinking of Robin Wood’s account of the interracial buddies (and Leslie Fiedler’s version in Love and Death in the American Novel) that I wonder whether the true love story is of me and Earl — with the dying girl as the heteronormative alibi. In their version of Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969) there is a distinctly eroticised shot of Earl.)

Meanwhile the film is stolen by Nick Offerman as Greg’s father, a sociology professor, and by Jon Bernthal as Mr. McCarthy, a history teacher, both of whom are clearly Greg’s male role models and are associated with strange food. Make of that what you will.

Bibliography

  • Hicks, Heather J. (2003) “Hoodoo Economics: White Men’s Work and Black Men’s Magic in Contemporary American Film”, Camera Obscura 18(2): 27-55.
  • Pearson, Erika (2009) “All the World Wide Web’s a stage: The performance of identity in online social networks”, First Monday 14(3): http://firstmonday.org/article/view/2162/2127

Advertisements

Exhibitions for Expotitions

This is in no way complete… it’s mainly exhibitions that I could conceive of getting to, with a London/Southeastern bias. Although I can conceive Edinburgh, Newcastle, Gateshead, Liverpool and Manchester. Go figure. Check details before travel — galleries really don’t like Mondays.

Corrections welcome.

Yes, I know this is messy. Tidier next month.

Closing September 2015

Continue reading →

Reservoir Wolves

The Wolfpack (Crystal Moselle, 2015)

For a form about voyeurism, cinema is very narcissistic. Coming up soon is Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, 2015), where the characters make their own movies, and there was Son of Rambow (Garth Jennings, 2007) and Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry, 2008), alongside all sorts of Hollywood satires and actors as characters.

Apparently Moselle saw half a dozen teens, dressed like characters from Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992), in Manhattan. See spoke to them and found that they were part of a large family of children, all named for Indian gods, who had spent most of their lives locked in an apartment. Their father, Oscar Angulo, a Peruvian, had the only key to the place and strictly regulated any trips out — perhaps several a year, perhaps none. He wanted to protect them from the outside world of drugs and sex and violence and yet one cant’t help but feel this is another kind of abuse — especially given mentions of violence against their midwestern mother Susanne and his frequent drunkness.

And yet they were perfectly at liberty to watch Quentin Tarantino movies, indeed the apartment apparently had five thousand VHS tapes and DVDs. Not only could they watch these films, they could film their own versions of them with home made props. Movies within movies. A real life version of Gondry’s films.

As they reached adulthood, there was clearly going to be conflict — and finally Mukunda escaped, leading the others in turn. They go on a train for the first time, to Coney Island for the first time, to a cinema for the first time.

The documentary leaves more questions than answers and is not comfortable. We are given no indication as to how it came about and what access Moselle had, and how much her intervention made the story. It is not clear how the apartment is paid for — Oscar has worked but doesn’t seem to, Susanne has home schooled them with some payment, but they have no visible means of support. And you get the feeling you wouldn’t want them for neighbours. The abuse has clearly been normalised — the Angulo family seem curious happy and content, despite their imprisonment. It is as if the have been living in Plato’s cave their whole lives.

You can only hope that the world will live up to them.

Anguished Martian

Agnes Martin (Tate Modern, 3 June–11 October 2015)

In the ongoing round of suppressing women’s writing, so to speak, it is striking how rare a solo-female artist show is in a major institution show. In the moloch of the Tate, things are getting better — there’s the Hepworth show at Britain and the Sonia Delaunay at Modern overlapped with this. I confess to not having heard of Agnes Martin — who I guess historically fits into Abstract Expressionism pigeon hole and was associated with Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd.

Born in Canada in 1912, she moved to Washington to study in 1931 and was influenced by Zen Buddhism scholar D.T. Suzuki. The early work includes various biomorphic forms, dominos, game boards and claws, with Earth colours of brown, yellow, grey and white being prominent. But clearly she was striving toward the square and the grid, with an evident dislike of the curve.

Three years ago, Tate Modern had a Yayoi Kusama, with thousands of spots, apparently symptomatic of her struggle with mental breakdowns and her willingly living in a psychiatric institution. Here we get the square grid as expression of Martin’s schizophrenia.

The obsession, the repetition, the very straight lines.

H’mm. I don’t know. I’m not sure the diagnosis is helpful.

But you can see that she works a very narrow range of variants on the grid and the stripe, the faded deck chair. By the time you get to The Island, a series of white squares with grey lines, the impact is very subtle and yet loud. It invokes eastern formlessness, apparently, but that again is a tad essentialist.

Holiday

The later paintings of black rhomboids on grey fields are positively excessive by comparison.

I’m not sure that at the end of the day I was hugely impressed by her. Certainly I’m glad to have made her acquaintance, so to speak, and it’s always useful to get a wider sense of a period of art. But it didn’t feel, alas, like coming across a long lost friend.

I ATEN’T DED

The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson (Julien Temple, 2015)

It’s a long time since Earthgirls are Easy (Julien Temple, 1988), a valley girl sf satire with roles for Geena Davis, Jeff Goldblum and (a heavily-furred) Jim Carrey that is great fun in memory and yet sank at the time. This was Temple’s penance for sinking the British film industry with Absolute Beginners (1986). And he is is, doing television documentaries that get a cinema release.

Of course, that’s misleading. His heart’s clearly always been in documentary — The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1988) as one take on the Sex Pistols and The Filth and the Fury (2000) as another. His films Ray Davies: Imaginary Man (2010) and Rio 50 Degrees: Carry on CaRIOca! (2014) were part of Botney’s Imag!ne strand on the BBC, and The Ecstasy has a producer credit for Alan Yentob. (And, music aside, Requiem for Detroit? (2008) was a great piece of work.)

So, Wilko Johnson is a … rhythm and blues guitarist, in 1971 a founder member of Dr. Feelgood and associated with a range of musicians from or near Canvey Island, Essex. I will have heard his stuff, although not knowingly and I frankly cannot name a single track by the band. I’m either too old or too young and prog-rock of the Yes/Floyd ilk is what I listen to from that period.

I have no musical taste. But it’s my no musical taste. Get over it.

So any way, he was still going and still playing and in January 2013 he was diagnosed with inoperable, late stage pancreatic cancer and opted not to go through chemotherapy. The diagnosis was the making of him — there’s that classic interview between Dennis Potter and Lord Bragg of South Bank where the former discusses the blossom outside his window and the world and senses come alive. Wilko is saturated in Romantic poetry (and Shakespeare and Icelandic sagas and … studied a degree in English Literature and taught for a year) and has clearly had a Blakean epiphany. At one point he mentions LSD trips — but this clearly felt more vivid.

Temple had already interviewed him for Oil City Confidential (2009), a documentary on Dr Feelgood, so it seemed natural to go back. There was a great interview between Wilko and John Wilson — for Kaleidoscope Front Row? — and so he had proven he could talk feelingly about his own life, and not be maudlin or angry or depressing. Pretty well the only other voice here is Roger Daltrey, whom Wilko made an album with when he thought he was too ill to tour — oh, and a clip or two from Wilson and BBC news presenters.

It would make a great radio interview.

But this is a film — and I guess there aren’t enough bits of footage or archive photographs to eek out the talking head. The conceit of him playing chess against Death is appropriate — and Temple intercuts bits of Det Sjunde Inseglet (The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)) to help us. His taste for Shakespeare mean he can quote Hamlet (and Temple can intercut footage of a film of the play — I *think* Richard Burton’s), although it’s less clear if he knows that famous soliloquy is about suicide not just death. Then there’s A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1946), a classic film about an airman’s near-death experience, which obvious offers a chance for A Canterbury Tale (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1944) for a rather more Kentish (and Canterbury Sound) take on neo-romantic landscape. Oh, and Nosferatu and La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau, 1946)) and … Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979). And something Italian with books and chickens.

Temple’s own footage, when he’s not content to film Wilko in a landscape is ploddinly literal — growing/decaying plants, sands in a timer, stars rotating around sky, time-lapsed.

EVERY THING ENDS.

Although, of course, spoilers.

A photographer and oncologist Charlie Chan saw Wilko and though, that doesn’t look like that kind of tumour. You need a second opinion.

So now we have a Wilko very much in recovery — but frankly more depressed than when he thought he was going to die.

Don’t go to this expecting to get a sense of what Dr Feelgood was — I guess you need the other film for that — but try and edit out the frankly sub-Jarman visuals in favour of one of those great English musical characters who is still very much alive.

Death of a Maître d

Mistress America (Noah Baumbach, 2015)

The central sequence of this film feels like a stage play: Brooke (Greta Gerwig) wants to open her dream restaurant in New York but is several thousand short, so has travelled to Greenwich, Connecticut (screwball comedy central) to borrow the money from her nemesis Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind) who had previous stolen her best idea for a tshirt, her kittens and her fiancé Dylan (Michael Chernus). She has been driven there by Harold (Matthew Shear), friend of her soon to be step-sister Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke) and Harold’s girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones).

Brooke is a dreamer, probably self deluded, the kind of role that a Ricky Gervais or a Ben Stiller or a Jim Carey would play at any opportunity — a motor mouth, turning on a sixpence, full of how great they are and how dreadful others are. It’s rare that it’s a female character, although it clearly offers a version of the unruly woman. It’s a twenty or thirty year younger version of Edina and Patsy. Her dream of a restaurant, Mom’s, where you could get a hair cut and would be a shop in the day and where her children when she has them would do their homework, needs money, but we go through various shades of farce as she attempts to get it — foiled by a pregnant lawyer at Maire-Claire’s bookclub, a snide neighbour and Nicolette’s jealousy of Tracy.

Tracy is meant to be the viewpoint character — in her first term at a swanky New York university, wanting to be a writer and to join the university’s fraternity (of writers) and the Nick to Brooke’s Gatsby or the I to her Withnail. Tracy has stolen Brooke’s character for her latest fiction, something that will lead to friction. She is dull of course, but we should luxuriate in a rare example of a movie built around female friendships. There is a minor drama around how far she will become like Brooke, but there’s more of a sense that she can see through her whilst wanted to give support.

Your liking of the film will depend on your liking for cringe comedy — think of the embarrassments of Basil Fawlty, David Brent and (restaurant investor) Larry David. At times it’s nails on a blackboard, fingers on a balloon, laughing bat rather than with. But it also has that awkwardness of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, the tragic hero of the American Dream, who believes the tales he spins because to sell objects requires commodifying the seller. You can see straight through him and yet don’t want him to fail.

It is surely no accident that the film is Mistress America: Brooke becomes the personification of the American Dream that anyone can make it. She’s brash, self-deluded, yes, but also determined and ambitious. We don’t have to like her — but I think we can respect her.

Meanwhile, how does the film fit into the history of the bizarre post-apocalyptic depictions of New York in which all People of Colour have been wiped out? Well, Brooke has an African American neighbour, there’s the pregnant lawyer in Connecticut and, of course, Nicolette, whose jealousy reminds me of Angela (Jaz Sinclair) in Paper Towns. Is the indie-flavoured young female of colour there to be insecure or clingy? I hope not, but it’s just a sample of two.

All in all, an interesting film, although I can’t say I laughed out loud more than once or twice. But Baumbach and Gerwig, cowriters here, have plainly hit a groove that will be interesting to follow (and I should look up Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012), which is clearly on a similar theme).

Be Careful Out There

Precinct Seven Five (Tiller Russell, 2014)

We’re used from television programmes such as NYPD Blue and The Wire to the complex interrelations between cops, criminals, politicians and victims and the shades of moral greyness that are faced in policing the streets. Our news of the last couple of years has been filled with dubious shootings of African Americans — not that this is a new phenomena. And despite the fact that particular police forces are clearly — in Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton’s term — institutionally racist, we keep ending up with the one bad apple alibi.

This account of New York police corruption in the late 1980s and early 1990s is a documentary, although you can imagine Al Pacino and Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro playing the roles and the DEA guy is a double for J.K. Simmons. Thus it is mostly talking heads — with only one of the speakers shown in silhouette, one of the New York dealers — along with police evidence video, grainy reconstruction, archive photos and the inevitable skycam view of the streets.

But it begins with former policeman Michael Dowd giving evidence to some kind of enquiry and is taken up in talking heads. There had already been corruption in a nearby Brooklyn precinct, and several cops had resigned lest they be exposed too. Dowd, having reflected on the cynicism with which their ethical training was treated, began his shadow career by asking for a bribe rather than arresting a criminal and then started lifting cash from crime scenes. Soon he recruited his partner, Kenny Eurell, by giving him a hundred dollar bill from a crack dealer. Dowd appears the most dynamic of the speakers, the camera moves with him rather than staying locked off and it is clear there is next to no remorse.

We’re talked through his career — the bribes and thefts proceed to a working relationship with a local king pin to arresting the competition to a potential kidnapping of a debtor’s wife. The amounts of money involved are clearly vast — hundreds of thousands a week, devastating hundreds if not thousands of lives. The Dominican kingpin clearly admired Dowd, but still thought of Eurell as a cop and not up to it. (Meanwhile: cast Jared Leto?)

And inevitably it comes crashing down — we see his testimony — and we might reassure ourselves that criminals will not prosper. Dowd served his sentence. Only one female voice is heard — Eurell’s wife — and none of the consumers of crack. What is striking is that the real emotions come when you see Dowd and Eurell’s discussion of their feelings for each other — textbook homosociality. Clearly a cop’s partner is a blood brother, indeed when they discuss becoming partners you expect there to be a swapping of blood. You have to have each others’ back. You have to trust the other person won’t betray you.

And you get the sense that Dowd doesn’t regret a single moment of his career — only the betrayal.