Wow

Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007)

I’d been recommended this a few years by a colleague who I don’t think read sf, but knew I did. I never got around to it until this summer, despite a pile of copies in Albatross House’s SILENT ZONE which is where I tend to work. Other friends liked his worked, and I often use those rather chunky quotation in lectures:

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Meh Fetishism

Seeing three exhibitions in one day was a mistake, but two were about to end and the third was next door to the first so I booked slots for Their Mortal Remains and Into the Unknown and shouted at the Science Museum website for not having the complete list of tickets. I allowed about two hours for the first — not enough as it happens — and booked at five for the the Barbican, which would give me an hour to do Robots and an hour to get across London.

I reckoned without the Victoria and Albert Museum’s crappy signage — it would be helpful to know the toilet is on a staircase and not easier accessed — and the Science Museum’s layout — the main lifts are out of action and you have to navigate around the block from lift B to the exhibition (not that lift B is obviously signed from what I assume are Lifts A and none of them have labels).

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And the Real Thing is the Best Thing Yet

Detroit (Kathryn Bigelow, 2017)

Some time ago I was doing some research into the history of Detroit, and read that this was an integrated city with little disturbances over racial lines. It was the heart of the American motor industry and then a music industry, which have since collapsed and moved elsewhere. Julien Temple’s extraordinary documentary Requiem for Detroit (2009) documents its collapse and attempts at reconstruction. Having done further research, I’m not sure what the author was talking about — and this film centres on a reconstruction of a devastating event at the heart of a disturbance, at the Algiers Hotel.

An illegal drinking venue is raided by largely white police men, arresting largely African American patrons. This leads to unrest on the streets, which the film labels a riot, over a number of days. An aspiring male vocal group, The Dramatics, have their performance cancelled just before they are due to go on, thanks to the curfew, and they try to find their way home. Larry Reed and Fred Temple book a room at a motel and try to pick up two white tourists, Julie Ann and Karen, who introduce them to Carl Cooper and Aubrey Pollard. Pollard fires a starter gun out of the window, attracting the National Guard, the police — including Philip Krauss, who has shot someone dead in the back — and a security guard, Melvin Dismukes. Krauss starts interviewing every one left in the motel, with sadistic glee, staging mock executions. Then things go really wrong. When the night is over, the white cops and Dismukes are put on trial, with an all-white jury.

There has been a certain amount of fuss about whether this was a story that Bigelow, as a white director can tell this story. It would be interesting to see a John Singleton or Spike Lee version, of this film, but cautious Hollywood rarely gives big budgets to African American directors. Equally, they rarely do so to women — Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight and Wonder Woman being rare exceptions — so perhaps we should celebrate a woman being given a $34 million budget, although that is not huge. Bigelow is the only woman to win a best director Oscar, so perhaps has the chops to swing the gig for an African American director and act as producer; on the other hand she has had a lot of flops, in the arcane world of film accountancy her films are rarely in profit, making about three times the budget at best. At the moment, Detroit is a flop.

It is not an easy film to navigate, as we take a long time to get to the motel and then we have the aftermath to deal with. All of this is necessary. There are a bewildering range of characters in the first half hour, before the set piece kicks in, and this gives us a portrait of a city in crisis, if not the mundane every day life. The context of unrest in 1967 Detroit is sketched in with drawings and captions — the move of workers from the south to work in the car industry and the slow exodus of the white population (the words “white flight” are not used). We don’t get the fall out from Jim Crow laws, the Civil War and slavery, but that was more in the south anyway. We are told that change is inevitable, although it is not clear when or how. Bigelow slips between documentary footage and reconstruction.

In a sense the film is all reconstruction; we are told that it is not clear what happened, even with court testimony and the memory of survivors. Characters will be compressed into composites, dialogue will be invented, people were on their own. This matters because this is an event of political importance — but the story has to be told. There is violence, but we can’t be sure it is the right violence. Above all, we can never quite get into the heads of Krauss and his fellow cops — of what made them racist. Or to behave as they did. Their interrogation is tactical, but we don’t know who set that up.

Sometimes there is a sense of punches being pulled. John Boyega as Dismukes is a Good Man, and no doubt he is, but I wonder whether the actor is in danger of becoming a British Denzel Washington, a guarantor of uprightness. Equally, there are moments of good deeds by white people just in case we have wanted to insist #notallwhitemen. It is telling that the two central characters are played by British actors. Was it too much of a hot potato?

Bigelow has always been a director of contradictions, a female director who had tried to inhabit supposedly male genres, more likely to create meaty roles for men than women (but don’t forget Jamie Lee Curtis in Blue Steel (1987)). Her background is in painting and film theory, with auteurial signatures of night shoots and neon lights, often viewed through smoke, but she has worked with and was married to James Cameron. She has worked in art house and television, with a small role in the extraordinary intersectional sf film Born in Flames, but she’s also had big budget. Repeatedly she makes radical films that end up with a whiff of neoconservatism — her vampire film Near Dark (1987) blurs boundaries of sexuality and gender, but white patriarchy and home wins out; her sf Strange Days (1995) has a female African American protagonist, but a white old man saves the day. Detroit was inspired by events in Ferguson, but the dots of true integration still not being achieved are not filled in.

I think this is a film to be seen — even if it’s not a film to like or enjoy — but perhaps on the level that a flawed attempt to tell a story is better than not to tell it. But perhaps the canvas of a thirteen part television series might have been more suitable.

Casey the Nietzschean Ghost

A Ghost Story (David Lowery, 2017)

Your response to this film will depend on whether you can buy its central conceit: when a husband dies in a car accident he haunts his wife in a white sheet. In the next house along there is another ghost, in a rather more fetching design. The cumulative effect is it is not certain how seriously you are meant to take the film — is it a comedy, a tragedy, a bitter sweet comedy, a comedy with tragic overtones? Much of the film is in silence, the husband staring, first at his wife, and then at the various later, or perhaps earlier, inhabitants of the house. The cynic is me suspects that they could only afford Casey Affleck for a couple of days, and a stand in plays the ghost, but apparently it is him.

One of the incomers, present at a party, has a speech longer than all the other dialogue put together. Oddly, when a Spanish-speaking family move in, they are not subtitled — perhaps the ghost does not understand them — but the dead neighbour is.

Lowery works within an almost square ratio, something like 4:3, the same as used in silent films, and this adds a sense of voyeurism to the proceedings. The Curzon’s policy of not closing curtains — maybe there are no curtains — to cover the blank screen draws attention to the empty space outside the restrained diegesis. The ghost is often at the edge of the frame, just in view, with the camera held on the tableaux for longer than we are used to and certainly more than is comfortable. I was reminded of the great southern American photographer, William Eggleston, with his focus on the determinedly mundane. It is ordinary, but there is a beauty in it.

Whilst in Manchester By the Sea delayed the final revelation of what the trauma and guilt at the heart of the film was, this is more circumspect. There is tension between the married couple, over whether they should move or not, the chain of tragic events is less laid out for us. Whilst that film denied us catharsis, this one is even more frustrating of audience desires. The pace is glacial at first, but slowly builds, never less than watchable even as it toys with us. The mourning wife, Rooney Mara, binge eats a chocolate pudding, in spoonful after spoonful after spoonful and I hope this was achieved in a single take for the sake of her waist line.

It is not clear whether it is told in linear time — in a sense it isn’t, as we have flashbacks — but the years that the house lies empty should be stretching out from more or less the present, even as a modern metropolis encroaches on the house. They have laptops. Mobile phones. And we also loop back to pioneers. The film’s epigraph is taken from a Virginia Woolf story, “A Haunted House”:

”Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting. From room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there, making sure — a ghostly couple.”

and Woolf repeatedly plays with duration in her work.

On a couple of occasions the husband loses patience with his squatters and haunts them — exploding light bulbs, throwing books around. We see some of the titles: A Farewell to Arms, some Nietzsche. They mean something. Probably. You may lose patience. You may surrender to the film. You should probably cry.