Why This is El Ay, Nor Are We Out of It

La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016)

Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) are both in suspended animation on board a spaceship on a century long voyage, dreaming of wish fulfilment. I apologise for the spoiler, but I haven’t seen a film this obvious since is-it-meant-be-a-surprise-he’s-dead-what-with-having-been-shot-in-the-chest.

The clue is a traffic jam on an LA freeway, when everyone gets out of their cars and starts a song and dance routine, and no one seems bothered, no one seems angry, no one gets shot and no cops turn up to beat anyone up. This is all the more remarkable given that the drivers are so ethnically diverse and it will be over an hour if not ninety minutes until another person of colour gets to speak.

Mia and Sebastian’s dreams intersect at this point, with one giving the other the finger, although if this is going to be a romantic comedy this is a sign of impending union. She is a wannabe actor, working shifts at a Warner Bros lot coffee shop in hopes of being noticed, going to a hundred pointless auditions in search of a big break. She tries for agency and to set up a one woman show to get herself noticed, and indeed she is picked up for a film that will be based around her.

Can we say, “solipsism”?

But then we are at the centre of our dreams.

Occasionally she breaks into song and she does not seem to find this strange, nor is she that bothered when she finds herself floating around a planetarium — I assume that the gravity has failed on the spaceship. On several occasions she walks across LA in the middle of the night, alone, with not a single sign of a mugger. LA is surely the city where nobody walks. It is the hyperreal.

Meanwhile, Sebastian dreams about being a jazz pianist, wanting to save jazz by creating a club where he can play. In the meantime he refuses to play the set list in restaurants and plays keyboards in covers bands. It shouldn’t be a surprise that when he breaks into song, but there is something delusional about a white person saving jazz, although we can repeatedly point to white singers (Elvis? Slim Shady?) who have become the popular avatars of music of black origin. In perhaps the most offensive scene he becomes the white counterpart to the magical negro who teaches an African American couple to dance.

Sebastian tells us about jazz as a conversation between musicians, a competition of ideas, but when we see him play it is pretty well always alone (aside from the awful bands) on the keyboard. It is playing as self expression.

Can we say, “solipsism”?

But then we are at the centre of our dreams.

In one version of the dream, there is no romcom reconciliation — indeed one of them seems to have started a family within days of their parting. Of course. Their dreams are so self-centred that they cannot find a unified space. In another version of the dream, there is the happily ever after. I give it six months.

Of course, in the process of the film, Hollywood is able to satirise itself, although as is so often the case, it is toothless, because we are seduced by the studio and the inevitable Academy Awards.

And no one seems to wonder why Keith (John Legend) is the only person of colour with substantial dialogue (there’s a casting agent in one scene, too). The dreams both involve an ethnic apocalypse.

During the closing credits, an elderly woman tapped me on the shoulder and said “You must be a jazz fan.”

I think this was an observation rather than an order. And, alas, I don’t think I am beyond the blindingly obvious Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Bix Beiderbecke. So I might be wrong when I suspect there was actually very little jazz in this film.

And then I woke up and it was all a dream…

Judgement Day

Trainspotting 2 (Danny Boyle, 2017)

Back in the day there was a Panic, nay, a Right To Do, over Trainspotting the movie. Irvine Welsh was the Scottish flavour of the month for cult writer, but the film version led to Peter Bottomley and other Tory MPs to condemn it as it would turn everyone into junkies, which is an unlikely experience for anyone who actually saw the movie, as indeed Bottomley hadn’t. Will Self called it drugs porn, whatever that meant, presumably because it didn’t match his flavour of smugness.

Cool Britannia was heading for its height — the Oasis vs. Blur conundrum exercising everyone who hadn’t heard Pulp, Mr Tony was already doing his Tory PM in waiting grin and John Major was still the grey man. Family values and all that? Don’t eat the eggs.

Trainspotting was a breath of fresh air as I recall, being neither the chocolate box heritage adaptation nor the mockney gangster, Danny Boyle (and Ewan MacGregor) was hot from Shallow Grave and Robert Carlyle was emerging as a great character actor (Hamish Macbeth? The Full Monty was on its way). John Hodge weaved a series of vignettes into a linear but heavily narrated movie, the stories of junky Renton (MacGregor) and his friends in Edinburgh. The editing and mise en scène was sharp, the pacing assured, transcending various moments of MTV video. A hundred moments stand out — a freeze frame of Renton leaning on a car bonnet, Renton licking his cut finger, Renton wincing at a needle, Spud (Ewan Bremnor) gabbling his way through a job interview, a toilet dream fugue…

Carlyle and MacGregor went onto greater things — the latter fell out with Boyle when he wasn’t cast in The Beach and did Star Wars instead — Bremnor would appear from time to time, Jonny Lee Miller (Sickboy) never quite made star status and seems to have had more success on TV. And Boyle never quite repeated himself, so a return to Trainspotting seemed unlikely even though Welsh had written a sequel Porno.

But the creative team reassembled twenty years on — double the interval of the first two Linklater/Delpy/Hawkes Before movies — and found space for a sequel. Oddly, I had the same sense of fanboy stomach lurch when I saw the trailer for T2 as I did for The Force Awakens, which puts Carlyle somewhat in the Harrison Ford position and suggests that he may well have an emo kid who will be the death of him.

T2 is a darker film, both visually and thematically, even as Edinburgh itself has thrived. Renton, last seen heading for Amsterdam with a hold all full of money, has had a dull career and failed marriage, Spud used the money left for him on more drugs, Sickboy has moved into pimping and blackmail and Begbie (Carlyle) has been in and out of prison. Renton returns to Edinburgh, partly to rebuild his life and to make amends, but not everyone is pleased to see him. Revenge is on the cards.

Of course, we want to see the old team together again, whether it’s the three junkies and Begbie or the crew of the Millennium Falcon, but we know it can’t be the same again. Boyle cleverly plays with the desire from reunion, whilst quoting the earlier film in a parallel way to Abrams with Lucas. Sometimes it’s a matter of music cues — although in different recordings — sometimes it’s equivalent scenes such as chases, fights and Sean Connery impressions. We get the odd filmic flashback, lifting Trainspotting footage, sometimes we get newly shot versions. We even get, finally, the vignette that explains both the film’s title and Begbie’s behaviour, just in case we don’t realise the danger his son faces.

The junky lifestyle seems to be about history repeating itself, always as tragedy, certainly as fuck up, and the four leads always circulate around the possibility of falling back into old ways. There is the Big Scheme, one last scam, that will help them all escape, but you know they are doomed. Judgement Day awaits.

If Trainspotting was Renton’s film, then this is Spud’s, with a curious arc of redemption that almost makes the film eat its own tail. Certainly he is the focus of the stand out visual set pieces. He steals the scenes as Begbie chews and punches and kicks the scenery; Sickboy meanwhile is a minor villain and Renton largely an enabler.

If you remember the original posters for Trainspotting there were five figures in black and white surrounded by orange. The fifth, the only female, was Diane, Renton’s underage conquest, although in a sense he was the one who was conquered in a rather dubious sequence. Diane is back, in cameo, but relegated from poster duties. Two decades of sexual politics leads to a film about four men; the women here are mothers and ex-wives or girlfriends, the common sense of a normal life when the boys have stopped playing.

Danny Boyle would be eighty if we checked in again in twenty years. Is it a cheap metaphor to wonder if we would like another fix? Do we want to see the characters as the old men in the bar, nursing pints and chasers as young men fight each other? I suspect it is. I suspect we do.

Oldham On Sea Welcomes Careful Bathers

Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)

There’s a truism, to set aside the assertion that there are no famous Belgians, that there is no great novel set in Manchester. Well, here we have a contender, although I’m not sure where they filmed it. The Manchester Ship Canal never looked so good, is what I’m saying.

And everyone speaks with American actions.

So we begin with Lee Chandler, a janitor, Casey Affleck — you know, the talented brother — dealing with a series of thankless jobs in various apartments, mistreated by some tenants, hit on by others, clearly heading towards losing it with some of them before the world is much older. He seems allergic to kindness — when clearly being hit on at a bar by a younger woman, he prefers to hit two men, who are presumably gay.

It’s not clear whether we’re meant to be sympathetic yet, but we’ve already seen him on a fishing boat, trying to convince his nephew that he would rather live with him than his father. It turns out the father has a heart defect and has not got long for this world. And it comes down to it, Lee Chandler (Affleck) would rather not follow through because of his Guilt about His Past.

There’s another truism about the gun over the fireplace in Act One — someone will be shot by it in Act Three. Here we are repeatedly told that the fishing boat owned by Lee’s brother and eventually to be Patrick’s (Lucas Hedges) has a dodgy engine. Sooner or later it will break down or explode — and so we are set up for the Drama — Patrick out alone on the water, unable to move the boat, either redeeming Lee’s guilt if he survives or kicking a man when he’s down if he’s a duffer.

But this is not exactly a film about redemption, even if it’s clear the characters are Catholic. Lee is damaged goods and you can understand why, but he’s more interested in putting himself through hell. His very body language speaks of being unable to express his feelings — he can barely cry, let alone hug. He cannot be helped, even when those most hurt want to reach out. The only language he can speak is violence.

Patrick, meanwhile, is an extraordinary character — bereft of a mother (although communicating with her in the quiet) and now of a father, speaking the family language in a fight at a school ice hockey practice. He has a band and at least two girlfriends — who try to set Lee up with dates — and is evidently wiser than his years. He is thrown by a cool uncle who refuses at first to set limits and even more thrown when they are imposed. We can see the cycle continuing.

And yet, no matter how sharp the film is over broken masculinity, its careful if fragmented demonstration of how the men get to be that way, I don’t think we get to understand the women in the same way. I don’t think the women have even the hope of consolation.

Michelle Williams is Lee’s ex, Randi, defined both as a mother and a killjoy, a peripheral supporting role perhaps as thankless as Brokeback Mountain. There is the sense that this might be how Jen ended up if she cleaned up her act in Dawson’s Creek and Casey is Pacey. But she is what she is through no fault of her own, whilst Lee’s sister-in-law, Elise (Gretchen Mol), is a drunk who walked out, and another killjoy. Her arc is unclear — we don’t know why she ended up the way she did. I don’t think the film really cares. I think her rôle is to tell us that redemption doesn’t make things any better.

But these worries aside, it is an impressive film, if one that will not give you what you want. I suspect it could lose twenty minutes, but again the broken arc of the films means an ending could come at any time.

so much depends upon a red collar

Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, 2016)

Eddie Redmayne was lauded for his problematic performance in The Danish Girl, but it’s not until the closing credits of Paterson that it is revealed that here Marvin the dog  is actually played by Nellie (and has since died).

What are we to make of this? Is it a sign that her human, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), is so obsessed by her relentless redecoration of their house in black and white that she hasn’t noticed Marvin’s sex? Or in her world is Marvin a gender neutral name? She is explosively creative — painting the walls, the soft furnishings, the shower curtain, trying to learn the guitar in three days, wanting to make a fortune with cupcakes — and even subjecting Marvin to the indignity of bad paintings. It’s only a wonder she hasn’t painted on Marvin.

Whilst Laura stays at home, hubby Paterson (Adam Driver) drives a bus.

Imagine that. Imagine the version where they’d cast Minnie Driver.

Paterson, living in Paterson, has read Paterson and aspires to be a poet. He writes poetry when he should have been starting on route 23, he writes poetry in his lunch hour and he writes poetry in his den. He writes it in big friendly letters in his Moleskine (gotta love stationery porn) and on the screen, just in case we don’t get it. It is clean and there are no crossings out.

First thot, best thiught.

Obviously it is Paterson-esque because this is Paterson in Paterson. No wonder Marvin’s confused. Is it meant to be any good? Paterson’s let Laura read it, but he’s never performed it and he’s never submitted it anywhere and because he doesn’t do any fucking drafts, the Moleskine is his only copy. So is it any good?

And every night, Marvin is taken for a walk to a bar. Not into the bar — he is made to sit outside, even though it is made clear that dog jackers are about. His life is at risk.

Paterson just sits there nursing a drink, chatting to the locals, in a kind of post-racial utopia where one of the African American patrons can pull a gun and not be gunned down by the law. Everyone can quote Abbott and Costello routines.

Maybe Marvin is better off outside.

But clearly Marvin is building stress and resentment, and, having committed minor acts of vandalism takes a bloody revenge on his humans. Serves them right. He’s mad as hell and he’s not going to take it anymore.

I have to say I never quite trusted Paterson. I suspect he’s on the edge of becoming all emo, obsesses over his dead grandfather and is likely to upset his parents.

Meanwhile, Marvin the paranoid canine has good reason to be paranoid, and Nellie is a great loss.

Showing his True Colours

J.M.W. Turner: Adventures in Colour (Turner Contemporary, 8 October 2016-8 January 2017)

Joseph Mallord William Turner has to be the hardest working artist in British history. Pretty well every provincial art gallery I’ve been to has one of his works, usually of a local view. This island is obviously well gifted with landscapes, the genre which he made his own. Even the Carbuncle in Lisbon has a couple on display. In his early career, I presume he used coaches, but steam boats and then trains presumably helped his meandering — especially after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. He got to Italy, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Czech, Slovenia, Austria and so on.

And yet I confess to a little resistance to him — I suspect there’s a little too much TurnerTM, Heritage painting, and I even went through a phase of liking the earlier, more classical styles. And I have a memory of visiting the Clore Gallery at the Tate — as you have to if you want your Blake fix — where a chunk of Turner’s unsold paintings he left to the nation are on display. Someone came in, took photos of every single panting, and left after four minutes. Very odd.

He was, of course, controversial in his day, his tastes and methods questioned, so I need to reevaluate him and his work. The Turner Contemporary has offered a couple of chances to do so — it always aims to have one of his works on show, it did a big Turner and the Elements show and now has J.M.W. Turner: Adventures in Colour as another opportunity.

The Tate posted an image of Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire on Facebook, and I noted it was a shame that this image of a sailing ship being towed by a steamboat out of a sunset to be broken up would be better if the coast were on the correct side. Someone responded that this was to do with composition and did I know the story of how Turner, on varnishing day at the Royal Academy of Arts, struck a red blob of paint on his canvas, next to Constable’s, and then worked it into a buoy.

Well, yes, actually, I do, if there’s one story that everyone knows about Turner, it’s the one where Turner, on varnishing day at the Royal Academy of Arts, struck a red blob of paint on his canvas, next to Constable’s, and then worked it into a buoy.

The coast is still in the wrong side. And anyway, sailing out of a sunset is hardly elegiac.

But clearly, the man had a way with colour, and the joy of the book on Turner and the Elements was its discussion of the technology of colours and Turner’s acquaintance with scientists of the day. The two cultures were not so divided back then. I think he was the first artists in Britain to use cobalt paints and I wish there’d been a bit more on this back then. I suspect, in what is a show that is frankly too big, the narrative got a little lost.

The first paintings you pick up as you enter are views of Norham Castle and Lincoln Cathedral. These follow the rules of landscape painting which I learned from Astrup’s breaking of them: you accentuate earthy brown in the foreground and exaggerate the blue in the background. This adds to the sense of perspective and scale — ideally you stick a human figure or an animal in the frame to give an identificatory viewpoint or a yardstick for size. Dolbadarn Castle (1800), silhouetted by the evening son, features bandits, adding a narrative (apparently about a Welsh family). Failing that, a spot of white or a splash of red will draw the viewers’ attention. His Fishermen upon a Lee-Shore (1792) has a limited pallete of browns and greens, made mobile by flecks of white and a red jacket.

In his training at the Royal Academy he was exposed to Claude Lorrain, Salvator Rosa, Nicolas Poussin, Titian and Canaletto, painters who tended to classical or Biblical narratives with landscape background. In the period of striving for realism I think you can see this — in his volcanos, fireworks and burning Houses of Parliament you can see Rosa. At much the same time, Joseph Wright was doing more interesting things with the light and John Martin finding a more monumental scale, but that’s more my taste.

Troubled by the sludginess of the browns and greens, Turner from 1805 started preparing his canvases with white paint or pigments, which gives a greater luminosity to everything that goes on top — I wonder if this was to be a Postimpressionist technique, as L. S. Lowry was to use it on advice of an French artist. Of course, sometimes the whiteness began to overwhelm the painting — the more famous canvases of clouds and seascapes, the mistiness of Frosty Morning (1813), the almost monochrome Venice with the Salute (1844) looking like spilt milk. On the other hand, he uses a European blue-coloured paper to stand in for sky or water in some drawings and a rich vermilion in Vermilion Towers (1838).

We learn along the way that he uses a mix of linseed oil and resin, megilp, as a means of enriching his standard paints and he started engaging with debates about the nature of colour. As Professor of Perspective — great job title — at the Royal Academy, he lectured on colour, colour wheels and chromatography, and whilst we have his handwritten notes on show, his writing is not legible. A transcript would have been useful — I should of course Google to see if they have been published. More annoying is the mention of refutation of Isaac Newton’s work on colour by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in which Turner sided with Newton, who described the splitting of light into the spectrum via the prism and discussed colour as reflected light. Goethe, on the other hand…

Well, I’m not sure what his theory is. I m not even clear, from further reading, that it is a theory. In part, in seems to depend on the prism being a special case and the refraction being more complicated than Newton allows, as well as the colour of shadows. Scratches head. Goethe’s Theories of Colour was translated by Charles Lake Eastlake in 1840, apparently a friend of Turner. Again the two cultures was unformed.

This comes to a head in Turner’s Late square canvases, with the colour taking on the curves of the circle — although I seem to recall the same circles in the work of John Martin. Two examples, I think Shade and Darkness — the evening of the Deluge (1843) and Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory), The Morning after the Deluge — Moses writing the Book of Genesis (1843) — seem to be explorations of Goethe’s thoughts on colour and emotion, but I’m not clear how this follows through.

These paintings might be pointing back nearly forty years to his picture The Deluge (1805), in itself a response to Poussin’s painting Winter (The Deluge) (1660-64), which features a boat within a cove or a cave pool by the sea. Turner seems to have seen this in 1802 and commented “The colour of this picture impresses the subject more than the incidents which are by no means fortunate either as to place, position or colour, as they are separate spots untouched by the dark colour that pervades the whole.” Turner is setting out to correct the deficiencies he goes into note, and adds a black sailor, although this might be a much later addition. The gallery notes Turner’s investment in 1805 in a cattle farm in Jamaica, connecting him to the slave trade. However, Turner was to become abolitionist in later years.

But the story of Turner and colour is distracted by the various views of Margate that Turner produced over the years — and it is undeniably interesting to see the obscure fishing village that became a watering hole transformed over the decades, and to note how much the town has declined since. Whilst the revamped (and distinctly post-Turner) Dreamland seems to limp along from financial crisis to financial crisis, the Turner Contemporary seems to flourish. The temptation to offer local views is understandable and is one thing that will draw people in.

Just as Mitchell and Kenyon clearly filmed locals to whom they then screened the films in the 1900s and for decades the walky photographers took photos of tourists to sell to tourists, so Turner clearly had an eye on what would sell to locals — or might interest those on tour. The corner devoted to engravings and mezzotints shows how Turner could further monetise his work — with some extraordinary work — even as his perfectionism cut against this success. As a painter of working class origin, he would see no shame in pleasing as many markets as he could, even as his experiments clearly pushed at the boundaries.

Stockholm from Home

Passengers (Morten Tyldum, 2016)

I have a memory of being taught by an alleged ex-nun who, when she was teaching film, apparently kept reaching for “it was all a dream”. Psycho, for example, didn’t happen, but was dreamt, presumably by Marion Crane in the hotel before Loomis arrived and before she stole the money and drove to a motel. Passengers could well be a dream — it certainly comes across as wish fulfilment.

Spoilers will follow. Continue reading →