And Then One Day Things Weren’t Quite So Fine

The Danish Girl (Tom Hooper, 2015)

And oddly, it was only later, that I pondered which one it is.

I mean, the film is clearly meant to be about Danish artist Einar Wegener, seen fingering dresses from early on in the film, forced (not entirely unwillingly it must be noted) to wear female clothes for his wife Gerda Gottlieb’s paintings and who begins to realise that he is really she, and begins a journey to becoming Lili Elbe.

Except, it’s not taken directly from Elbe’s own diary, but rather a 2000 novel by David Ebershoff, which plays hard and fast with the truth, apparently making Gerda Greta, an American. At least some of the facts get reinstated, as far as I can see. Not all, mind. Hans Axgil (art dealer and Einar’s childhood friend) and Henrik (artist and Lili’s friend) are not real people.

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Saving Captain Powers

Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg, 2015)

Actually, that’s not fair, there’s a scene where the train crosses a bridge in New York or Brooklyn that is clearly meant to mirror a sequence when Hanks is leaving East Berlin by train.

I tend to prefer Spielberg’s Entertainments. I can see why he’d want to make something like The Color Purple or Schindler’s List as a means of getting films made that a less money-making talent would struggle, but I think there’s a political confusion to his serious efforts that he hasn’t lumbered his thrillers with. As Greg Tuck pointed out to me years ago there’s something disturbingly exceptional about his subject matter — Jews who survive the holocaust or slaves who get to go home. Gotta have that triumph of the human spirit.

But of course Spielberg can tell a story on a big canvas and has trained us to watch crowds — but he never knows where to end a movie. Imagine how devastating Minority Report would have been if it had ended with Tom Cruise in jail rather than conjuring up an estranged wife who suddenly forgives and springs him out of jail.

Bridge of Spies is the same. And it is posing as an Entertainment.

It should have ended with Tom Hanks on the bridge, unclear as to what will happen next, rather than bringing him back home to hearth and family and acclaim. There’s a line in the film about how it doesn’t matter what people think of you as long as you know that what you have done is right. But Hanks’s character is given redemption and applause, in a scene that echoes an earlier restless silence in a train in which he has been viewed as a traitor.

The film begins with a bridge — the Brooklyn bridge — and Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) posing as an artist in Brooklyn and receiving some nuclear secrets of one kind or another. He is arrested and put on trial — and in order to show that the American way of life is sacrosanct, he is given a trial of sorts, with insurance litigator James Donovan (Hanks) called upon by his boss (Alan Alda) to defend the indefensible. The trial is not as rigged as it might be, but in here we have a commentary of the importance of the constitution being followed even in times of war. I’m guessing we’re meant to have Guantanamo Bay in mind.

And Hanks is the most Mr Smith style actor in Hollywood today, with rare exceptions playing the decent, sincere, all-American man. If anyone can make us care for an insurance man as Capraesque rather than Kafka-esque it is Hanks. And Alda, in M*A*S*H*, played one of the most decent characters in sitcom history, so much so that he’s mostly acted against type since. He is very wary about Hanks’s attempt to appeal on Abel’s behalf. Donovan was smart enough to know that at some point an American spy would be captured and a swap could be made with Abel if he were still alive rather than executed. (Is Abel his real name? Is seems too NATO phonetic alphabet to be entirely genuine.)

And into this plunges U2 spy plane pilot Gary Powers and obviously Donovan is sent to negotiate his release.

We sort of know how it’s going to end because, yanno, history, but the waters are muddied by an American PhD student who gets caught in the wrong side of the wall in Berlin. Meanwhile, Spielberg brings his fetish for widescreen historical reconstruction, in this case of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

And you can’t help noticing that this is a male world — the only women are wives, daughters, secretaries and cleaning ladies and everyone else is about bone structure. I suspect it’s a nearly all white world — the only African American I recall being on the back of a lorry in Brooklyn. But America is recuperated and that is hardly exceptional for Spielberg.

Hanks is solid throughout, but frankly the film is stolen by Rylance, whose portrayal of Abel is somewhere between his Thomas Cromwell and Private James Frazer from Dads Army. You kind of despair for the CIA, of course, as they think that Abel might come from Northern England. As in Scotland, Northern England. But he is wonderfully dry and curiously makes you feel sorry for a spy.

And so in the end, the Guantanamo parallels aren’t pushed to their limit. The American way of life is recuperated and following the Constitution is the thing to do (and I wonder if we needed a little historical context for the pledge of allegiance “under God” in the school sequence, which dated from 1954 and the McCarthy era). And rather than leave Hanks unclear as to the fate of his unlikely friend, we need to bring Hanks back to home and family and people thinking right of him.

Strangers on a Train Set

Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015)

This is a haunted film.

It’s based on a pseudonymous and groundbreaking 1950s novel by Patricia Highsmith — got but not read — who is better known for those queer crime thrillers Strangers on a Train (filmed by Hitchcock from a Chandler script) and the Ripley trilogy (filmed in various versions). Groundbreaking because — spoilers — it has a happy ending unlike the gay gothic ending of most other gay and lesbian novels of most of the twentieth century. The instinct is It Can’t End Well.

And the Chandler link and the gun one of them has points towards the noir version of the tale, more suitable for pulps, with the ordinary Jo seduced and ruined by the femme fatale. It Can’t End Well. And Haynes has made the pulpish Mildred Pierce for TV, which I really must watch.

And then there’s the best film by the Wachowski Siblings, Bound, the best lesbian gangster money-in-a-suitcase movie yet made.

But here we have the linked lives of working class shop girl Therese (Rooney Mara) with sort-of boyfriend and monied older woman Carol (Cate Blanchett) with disintegrating marriage. We begin towards the end, with an apparently parting assignation in a hotel bar, and Therese seeing Carol walking through the New York streets from the back of a car. This scene anticipates a similar car journey with the roles reversed.

Then we cut to their first meeting in the toy section of a department store — Carol wanting to buy a doll for her daughter, Therese suggesting a train set, and Carol inadvertently leaving her gloves behind creating an excuse to meet again.

And then I remember a decade or two years old reading about butch femme power dynamics.

Then we cut to their first meeting in the toy section of a department store — Carol wanting to buy a doll for her daughter, Therese suggesting a train set, and Carol deliberately leaving her gloves behind creating an excuse to meet again.

Hmm. I think it’s an accidental meeting but Therese is always already masculine and fancies Carol and Carol recognises a kindred spirit in her. The affair feels like it should be doomed given the clichés of narrative. Therese dreams of a career in photography, either as artist or journalist, although fails to name check any of the female photographers active in the fifties. Somehow it was a suitable job for a woman.

We’re spared the worst of it, but it is hinted that Carol has to go through some pretty severe therapy to cure her of her moral laxity (the l-word is not actually used), but desire will out in the end. I’ve not read the novel, so I’m not sure if the narrative stays with Therese or allows us into Carol’s world. I wonder if it would be better viewed from the outside of Carol’s life, but we get more Blanchett with the double focus.

If I’m honest, I suspect the film is a little too long, too leisurely and fetishising the 1950s detail. I miss the mischievousness of Haynes’s earlier Velvet Goldmine. But clearly Haynes has fought for twenty years to get this made and it is glorious in its performances and luxuriating in a Carter Burwell soundtrack.

My Heart Belongs To Dada

May contain spoilers

The Force Awakens (J. J. Abrams, 2015)

I was seven when Star Wars came out – and I’d swear it had the subtitle then, but I suspect it was a couple of months into the run. I’d not seen The Searchers, The Dam Busters, Hidden Fortress or even Triumph of the Will, so it felt original. I’d probably seen Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials, and at some point the Glen A Larson version showed up. I would have seen The Wizard of Oz, but didn’t make the link to Star Wars, but both were modern fairy tales and I knew them, albeit via panto and Disney and Ladybird Books. There was a novelisation, apparently by Lucas, which suggested earlier segments. I didn’t yet know The Lord of the Rings.

There was a space race of blockbusters — Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Empire Strikes Back, Superman — and at some point there was Star Trek the movie, nicknamed The Slow Motion Picture or The Motion Sickness and boy was it dull. But we saw the gang coming together for One More Mission and there’s that extraordinary ten minute sequence when Kirk and Scottie check out the old girl on the big screen. Talk about your male gaze.

And years passed and puberty hit and Empire was clearly the best of the three and the three prequels happened. Oddly the BBC paid me a lot of money to write something about sf for their website and to review the novelisation. I went into The Phantom Menace knowing the plot. But then (spoilers) we knew the ending — Little Orphan Annie Kin is going to go wrong. The poster told us. There were call backs — more westerns, an attack like the one on the Death Star, but only C3PO, R2D2 and x to link us to the trilogy. There was Obi Wan Kenobi, but in an odd non-Guinness style by Ewan McGregor. The prequels were pants.

And years passed and that seemed to be that — although there was an odd Star Trek reboot that felt more like Star Wars, and director J.J. Abrams clearly preferred that franchise.

And then Disney bought Lucas (not Lucas Entertainment) in a no-brained multi billion deal that would pay in terms of merchandising alone, even without a third trilogy and spin offs. Our friend would be back.

So what happens next? Well, Han and Leia retire to the suburbs and Uncle Luke bounces their kids above his knee. Although Han did turn into seventies dad in the original.

Well, Abrams only has one one thing to do — to not kill the golden goose. Because, frankly, the magic bean counters at Gold Mouse Central will have calculated that the deal is repaid by merchandising alone — and endless iterations in Lego.

So we shake the magic eight ball of plot and we find an orphan with exceptional abilities, the finest pilot in the galaxy, a cute robot, a wise cracking sidekick, the finest pilot in the galaxy and a new evil man in black to recreate the original plot, and bring back the older versions of the old gang. This is somewhere between fan service and prick tease — we know from the poster that Han, Leia, R2D2, C3PO, Chewbacca and the Millennium Falcon are back, and can make a few shrewd deductions about Skywalker’s absence from the poster but Hamill’s name on it. There’s a balance to be struck between delayed gratification and seeing what we want.

In a sense the original films were reruns — variations on Buck Rogers and the Flash Gordon Lucas had wanted to make. Both the later films in the trilogy and then the later we-shall-not-speak-of-it trilogy ape that, albeit with diminishing returns. The secret plans of The Death Star (which presumably are on file at the local council offices) are the secret map to Luke, entrusted to the faintly double entendred BB8, the cat to R2D2’s puppy, and inevitably this ends up on the not Tattooine desert planet which is home to this film’s orphan du jour, the kick ass Rey. BB8 is antenna in hand with ex-stormtrooper Finn, whose conversion to the light side is as easily and convincingly accomplished as Annie Kin’s was to the dark.

Incidentally, the crapness of this generation of storm troopers — shuffling embarrassedly out of shot at one point — could be used as a racist argument against diversity… Ooops.

And through such frail travelling coincidences we assemble the old team and the old set pieces — scavengers, trips across deserts, scrap dealers, strangulation by the Force, a cantina, hologram chess… Fan service. Give us what we want.

A character is killed off. Oh yes — although apparently the director was so enamoured with the actor that he is completely unexpectedly brought back. Because the thing we know about popular culture — I’m looking at you, Doctor Who — is that death is simply a matter of contractual obligations. But then, death didn’t slow Ben or Yoda down. So that death that comes later is clearly a wrench but there are two more films to play out.

And so we come to the new Big Bad, so evil he has to kill someone à la Vader, Kylo Ren, who hero worships a Vader he plainly doesn’t know. He appears to have a helmet fetish, which cramps in his impossibly bouffant hair style. Incidentally, his looks seem to be be more like an Alan Rickman than his putative father, suggesting his mother has the same kind of morals as Annie Kin’s mother with her “I got knocked up by the Force” cover story. This is a man, nay a boy, with anger management issues, who would throw his toys out of the pram with or without the Force, as witnessed in his really stupid light sabre attacks on consoles. Quite what the even Bigger Bad, Gollum Snope, sees in him remains a mystery.

It turns out that all the films are about relationships between fathers and sons — from Annie Kin’s anonymous trick to Darth Emo’s petulance. If we compare it to perhaps the only other multi-chaptered, anachronous saga — Shakespeare’s War of the Roses plays — we can see how the quasi-patricide of Richard II by Henry IV is still playing out in the relations of (spoilers) Hal and Falstaff and even Henry VI. We have divided good and evil fathers, fathers who can’t measure up, sons who can’t measure up (and as far as I recall, the spoiler of Luke-I-am-your-father, supposedly not known about when Star Wars was filmed and Leigh Brackett’s contribution to the saga, was there in the comic book adaptation released before Empire). Annie Kin’s missing father (and thus under developed superego if you buy Freud) is played out in Darth Emo’s over compensation.

But fathers are there to be obeyed. Well, the good ones.

When Star Wars was released in the late 1970s we had had a run of adult themed, grown up sf movies and were desperately in search of heroes in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate disillusionments. It made us children again — even those of us who were children. Arguably, Lucas and then Spielberg infantilised the sf genre with their fort da sagas. Again, again! And made shit loads of money. Fathers and sons, sons and fathers (but Indy was the dog).

The Force Awakens is a cosy old set of clothes and slippers and presses the buttons expertly. The question the remaining two films will have to answer is the nature of mothers and sons, but more importantly daughters and mothers. It is to be hoped that Rey gets to stay kick ass, rather than face the domestication Leia endured from agent to slave.

Out Damned Scot

Macbeth (Julian Kurzel, 2015)

I suspect — because it was my O Level set Shakespeare — that The Scottish Play was the first live Shakespeare I saw; a People Show production, I’m guessing at Nottingham Playhouse, with Bernard Hill and Julie Walters in the chief roles. We imagined, given it was the era of Boys from the Blackstuff that they’d play to their accents — The Scouse Play if you will — but it was played straight. Possibly even Scottish. We may have seen a BBC version, but what stays in the mind was Roman Polanski’s 1971 version with lots of violence and nudity.

And Keith Chegwin.

It was the first film he made after the Charles Manson stuff, the murder of Sharon Tate, and the violence is brutal — it precedes the rape/statutory rape scandal and the murky depths of whether he skipped justice or an unwise plea bargain. It is hard for some to watch a Polanski without the spectre of his life. The Scottish Play is a cursed play. Which is why you should never say “Macbeth”.

Gak.

And there was a Sam Worthington version a couple of years ago and now we have the version which Zack Snyder would direct in the tradition of 300 Spartans, but without the leather shorts.

Shame.

Plays are not films — the filmed play can seem stagy and closed in, but if you open it out you probably have to cut stuff to make room. Chunks of Shakespeare are scene setting, of course, his stages being almost bare rather than Wagnerian epics, so you can trim. The important thing is you can show rather than tell.

Oddly, however, the director felt the need to give us a written prologue that explains that a long time ago, in a country far far away, England was invading Scotland and Macbeth was top warrior. Why have a bloody man tell King Duncan the plot when we can read it?

We also have an invented scene of a burial for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s child. This is significant because at some point MacDuff, whose younglings have been killèd, says (perzoomably of Macbeth), “He has no children” and yet Lady Macbeth suggests that her breasts beasts have given sup. Either we posit that she is on a second marriage or a dead bairn. The two of them are thus grieving for a lost child, which they compensate for by arranging for lots more children to be killèd.

The decision seems to have been taken to play the action somewhat like a western; lots of open spaces and a slow burn (for what is a short and nippy play), although more to the point, none of the actors seem to open their mouths, which are for the most part covered in thick beards. Knowing the original text helps in working out who is speaking.

There are other liberties. Post battle, Macbeth — thane of Glamis — and his mate Banquo run into the three witches, who tell them that Macbeth is going to be promoted and Banquo should be proud of his children. Three witches, the three graces, the Virgin, the Mother and the, er, Other One.

Bloody Terry Pratchett rip-off.

Only, here there are four witches, and a child and a baby. Odd. Makes no sense.

So, Macbeth and his wife live in a simple yurted community with I think a Scandinavian church (or is it a feast hall?) and Shakiecams* follow their plotting to murder Duncan (David Threwfell) and pin the blame on his bodyguards. Then we’re meant to get one of the least funny clowns in the Shakespearean canon talking about brewer’s droop, but that gets cut. There’s some odd business with Duncan’s son Malcolm, which I think has been added, and then everyone buggers off the Bamburgh Castle and a Norman-style cathedral that pushes at the anachronistic. I mean, I suspect it’s about fifty years too early to be possible, and hardly seems likely. Meanwhile, they’ve finally found a tripod for the camera but can’t be bothered with continuity editing.

It’s been a long time since I saw the Polanski version of this and I know some people who would refuse to watch it on principle (and wasn’t there a Orson Welles one?), but however problematic it was, I don’t recall it taking one of Shakespeare’s shortest, speediest plays and making it just a tad dull.

Even if you did get Keith Chegwin.

* Shakiecam. As opposed to Steadicam. But there’s a pun there if you look hard enough. Possibly.

The Dead Woman in the Attic

45 Years (Andrew Haigh, 2015)

One of the songs that Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) want to play at their forty-fifth anniversary party is “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”. And it seems likely to — it’s filmed in a perpetually semi-foggy Norfolk, Geoff (and latterly Kate) sneak out for cigarettes and that might be a tear or two.

Theirs seems a happy marriage. Kate is a retired teacher, we learn from a tell-don’t-show conversation with her postie, Geoff is a former factory worker, slowly falling apart, whose heart condition caused their fortieth anniversary celebration to be cancelled. They have few photos of themselves and no children — but several dogs.

Then comes the bombshell. Fifty years ago, Geoff had pretended to be married to Katya, a German woman two years older than him, on a holiday in the Swiss mountains. She had fallen into a crevasse and her body has only just been found.

Kate notes that it is ridiculous to be jealous of a woman who died before they met. But still.

Indeed. Still.

Kate clearly feels haunted by Geoff’s ex (and Kate/Katya are so close as names), as the house becomes increasingly creaking and full of drafts. How much of their lives together were dependent on her not being Katya? Did they not have children because of this? And have far has Geoff been thinking of her? The mementos are in the attic — how often has he been with them? How often has he been with her? Had they slept together? Was she pregnant?

Haigh lets the camera rest on the two of them, lingering, letting us soak up the atmosphere. One or other will slide out of shot or come into view, forcing us to read faces (and sometimes silences). It’s all about reading the reaction.

Part of you may well think that she should just get over herself — why should someone he knew before her make her jealous? But, still. Did she have no boyfriends before him? But, still.

Both actors come with histories — La Caduta degli dei (The Damned, Luchino Visconti, 1969)), Il portiere di notte (The Night Porter (Liliana Cavani, 1974)) and Max mon amour (Nagisa Oshima, 1986) for her, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson, 1962), Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, 1963) and Last Orders (Fred Schepisi, 2001) for him — and apparently he’s Corporal Jonesy in the Dad’s Army Film. I associate a certain iciness yet sexuality with her (a Nicole Kidman with talent) and a melancholia with him. The actors, bravely, give us a sex scene — which we are initially teased over by the director as the bedroom door closes — and a lot of film history has flowed under the bridge for it.

I was struck by a certain amount of Katherine Mansfield-ness about the narrative — which turns out to be based on a short story. Her epiphanies are never as earth changing as Joyce’s and always seem a little out of reach — an infinity glimpsed, a set of footsteps over your grave, something learned but immediately forgotten. What shall we do now? What shall we do?

Kate needs her exorcism — but there seems to have been a lie at the heart of their marriage that its forty-five years cannot erase. The trust is gone and yet they might be closer than ever. Her friend Lena (Geraldine James) has tried to reassure her, how it is with women and how it is with men, and there has been a life, they have had a life (with photographs) … But, still.

Haunting.

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