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Saturday, 30 November 2013

The cable guy

This is a review of Channeling (2013), as shown at Bath Film Festival 2013

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

30 November (revised 3 December)

This is a review of Channeling (2013), as shown at Bath Film Festival 2013 (@BathFilm) and thanks to a complimentary ticket from the festival

89 = S : 15 / A : 15 / C : 14 / M : 16 / P : 14 / F : 15

A rating and review of Channeling (2013)

S = script

A = acting

C = cinematography

M = music

P = pacing

F = feel

9 = mid-point of scale (all scored out of 17, 17 x 6 = 102)

The title of Channeling* (2013) is deliberately multivalent, meaning both the sense of He channelled his energies into archery, and putting something on a channel (so that others can see and hear it).

As director / writer Drew Thomas told us in answer to one of my questions, the family of whom Wyatt (Taylor Handley), Jonah (Dominic DeVore) and Ashleigh (Skyler Day) are the grown-up offspring is a dysfunctional one : one son travels from Yemen for a funeral, and is then (in his only real-time appearance) told off by the father for not being there in time. I had asked because, when we see him, as a younger man caught on home video, pick up a boy at whom he has barked orders, it is unclear what he did, but it smacked of abuse.

As with Ashleigh’s confessional moment on camera into the mirror, Thomas said that he had intended to portray a self-loathing that might lead someone to seek approval from ratings for their actions or choices (made or to be made). When we saw this system of rating manipulated in the night club, and indeed the events that had led up to it, the film did seem momentarily a bit insubstantial and trivial in a way that The Bling Ring (2013) is in spades, but it moved away from it, and this was something, perhaps a little self-indulgently, that Thomas almost did throughout the film of mining different genres for what they were worth before moving on, and a little too much at the risk of lacking cohesion.

Saying that, the dummy commercial that opens the film is funny, thought provoking, and satirical, with insights into where the world of Twatter and what I call Arsebook logically lead to – it plunges one straight into a counterfactual world that, as in Looper (2012), does not stray far from the things that we know in what it changes.

The moments of humour characterize the film, although we are not always sure that it is permitted to laugh, and it also expects us to do some work in piecing together what has happened in and following the pursuit sequence that we see. Whether it is the equipment that was giving us the audio or how it has been recorded that made the early dialogue hard to follow was unclear – it might partly have been ‘tuning into’ Wyatt’s accent (different from that of his brother, but then his brother is an army sergeant, and has been serving for a long time), or partly that, as in Top Gun (1986) (for example), those in situations of combat or other peril are not perfectly audible in their pressurized communication.

Not least since this is set in California and begins with a car chase, expectations of topping Drive (2011) spring to mind, but the excitement of the action on the road, and elsewhere, has been styled, Thomas told us, to be more like the era of Dirty Harry (1971) (he did not name that series of films) and of film noir. Just in these things (there was a feel of The Rockford Files or Starsky and Hutch, not least with the token black guy who is the IT whizz), there was already quite a mixture of feels, let alone with a gangland punishment (including a British-sounding baddie ?) that made one wonder if it was going to have equivalent scenes in Seven Psychopaths (2012) or – sticking with Colin Farrell – In Bruges (2008) in its sights.

Whether these disparate elements enhance or dissipate the film’s energies, I remain unsure, as it is all too true that many a science-fiction film sticks to type, whereas this one shows off its director’s literacy of references. It also has an enviable soundtrack, making an impact right with the opening commercial, and even a live band in the night club reminiscent of The Doors.

The other question that I asked relates to a film that I only saw once, but which teasingly plays with the question of free will versus determinism, which is Michael Douglas in The Game (1997) : appropriately ‘channelled’ by the festival’s founder**, Chris King, I asked Thomas whether the technology of people sharing their actions and following their ratings, which the film initially seems to be about, had come first, or whether the deterministic theme had always been what interested him most (it had). He had wanted to explore the ways in which people do not (or refuse) to take responsibility for what concerns them, and had seen a link with how people in the US use the technology of social media to arrive at an answer based on what others tell them.

If that Doors tribute was deliberate, maybe it leads off in some other directions : Maybe not the advocacy of mescalin and other mind-altering substances, though, in the film, we see tablets of what turns out to be called Oxy crushed and then snorted as if it were coke, but using the edge of the pervasive sort of mini-tablet as a straight edge to line it up.

Perhaps the Warhol-type being famous for fifteen minutes, and just doing things to get a higher number of followers, is a sort of intoxicant or tranquillizer, not unlike Marx’s ‘opiate of the masses’, not least when we see both what use the club bosses are putting participants’ behaviour to and how they control it ?

All in all, a thoughtful film, even if it may be too much of a rich blend of influences for the competing calls on our attention to allow us to settle down – though, since Thomas seems to have aimed at the feel that it has, and if it does still hold together, it may not be right (in a film about people taking responsibility) to imagine a film that he have made by suppressing some of those instincts***…


Through fatigue and oversight, a few comments did not get formulated originally as more than notes, from which this text is developed :

Wyatt is not alone in his perilous exploits, for he has an accomplice (or whose side is she on ?) in Tara (Kate French). When Jonah tries to explore what his elder brother has been up to, Tara's allure is tangible, but her first reaction to Jonah using Wyatt's device and channel is hostile (a number of retorts to his attempts to speak, such as wishing him cancer).

Comparisons between the brothers are inevitable and deliberate, and, although we see that the professional soldier (Jonah) is tough, and can also drive, he is never going to be Wyatt (perhaps a pressure that he has always put on himself, helped by his father's attitude and actions).

Perhaps it is Tara's confusion, on all levels, that leads her to blow hot and cold towards Jonah, but she definitely starts by imputing blame : here, there seems to be a sort of fog of war about who people really are and who did what, which, in a digital age, when people do masquerade, and when the film explores the boundaries between what is real, what staged (and what predictable, what fixed), makes for even greater richness of reference.

Other questions from the Q&A

Had the Eyecast technology been patented ? Thomas seemed pleased enough not to have been sued, and did mention Google glasses (which, he said, make one look like a dork). He did not appear to have investigated whether it had any commercial possibilities.

Was Eyecast a real application (some would say 'app'), or had the screens that showed it been green-screened ? Yes, it is a real application, but, for technical reasons, some screen-shots had been re-done in post production.

Was Ashleigh meant to be sympathetic or irritating ? Thomas took it that the questioner must have found her irritating (which was confirmed), but answered by emphasizing her position as a person seeking approval (see main text, above).

Given the acts that people are performing or committing on a live channel, why were the police not - or slow to be - involved ? Thomas pointed to other works on film and t.v. where the police lag behind, and suggested that the same might be as true here. (The Agent Apsley wondered whether Eyecast had bought them.)


* One ‘l’, because it is a US spelling.

** Who relayed questions through a microphone linked to the laptop for the Skype connection.

*** Just one likely flaw : when Jonah goes to Eyecast, gains access by his brother’s account name, and passes himself off as he, the assumption is that Wyatt never did what Ashleigh does and put herself on camera by reflection. (It could be that, given how the account has been used, that was never done.)

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Ma Bête !

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

30 November

This is a review of La Belle et La Bête (1946), as shown at Bath Film Festival 2013 (@BathFilm) in a new BFI (@BFI) restoration (a trade-in for writing a Film Note for the festival)

99 = S : 17 / A : 17 / C : 16 / M : 17 / P : 16 / F : 16

A rating and review of La Belle et La Bête (1946)

S = script

A = acting

C = cinematography

M = music

P = pacing

F = feel

9 = mid-point of scale (all scored out of 17, 17 x 6 = 102)

Georges Auric, just on the showing of this score (though, amongst others, he worked his effect on such highly rated films as Passport to Pimlico (1948) and Roman Holiday (1953)), would be considered an insightful composer. He gives us, for example, a compact overture, builds to a finale to match the assumptive apotheosis, and, in between, has unresolved chords when a dark forest is being penetrated, tellingly uses the middle part of the oboe’s register at key moments, and transforms and modulates themes to suggest the transitional moods.

As one would expect of him, Jean Cocteau has produced in this film a work that resonates with literary, cultural and homosexual allusion and yields an almost overwhelming richness of meaning*. On one level, Adéläide (Nane Germon) and Félicie (Mila Parély) are the ugly sisters from Cinderella, except that they are not ugly beyond their attitudes and aspirations, but just that La Belle (Josette Day) is more beautiful in all of those things. (We also have something like the looking-glass from Snow White, hints of Goldilocks when the father enters La Bête’s domain, and Little Red Riding Hood with the perilous forest.)

Looked at differently, we have Shakespearean perspectives in La Belle’s father as Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, with Bottom’s becoming an ass, and with Lear’s division of the kingdom between his daughters, where La Belle asks but for a rose (as against a monkey or a parrot) and is blamed when plucking one (with all the rich symbolism of rose-picking going back to The Romaunt of the Rose) proves dire.

On the level of realistic narrative, a father looking to save himself at the suggestion that one of his daughter’s should die in his place seems monstrous, though little as monstrous as much in Lear, but it amounts to the same thing : which of the daughters loves him more than the others to take his place (with all the suggestion of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice) ? Link this with the insincerity of La Belle’s sisters, their scheming, and their desire to subjugate her and one has quite a bit more than the Prince Charming story.

What we must also have is inspiration for other filmic enterprises such as Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), The Elephant Man (1980), Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Edward Scissorhands (1990), but also wide influences from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (for whose film Auric wrote the music ten years later) and Nosferatu (1926) (those doors that open themselves) to the Wife of Bath’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales.

Names are important (though probably inherited by Cocteau, but he would have known what to do with them), with, beyond Belle = Beauty, ones that mean happy or lucky (Félicie), noble or honourable (Adéläide), fame or fighter / warrior (Ludovic), and pleasant or welcoming (Avenant) : link beauty with happiness and honour and you have a powerful trio, but, when being happy means selfishly seeking out one’s own comfort (even at the risk of another becoming a slave) and when it is only honour amongst thieves, one has a pair as corrupt and venal as Goneril and Regan.

The circumstances of shooting, so soon after the end of the war, mean that the privations that Chris Baker brings out in his festival film not only match those of this family wracked by debt by vessels being lost at sea (U-boats, etc.), but are also reminiscent of The Cherry Orchard, with so many people, other than the self-motivated sisters, failing to do anything beyond moping or spending the last pennies in the tavern to remedy the situation (and La Belle only incidentally does that by her holy tears of pity turning to diamonds). The requirements to be careful whom one trusted in war time, and who one’s real friends were, must have been raw topics at this film’s release.

With La Belle and La Bête, the polarity is more obvious, with him moaning Je sais que je suis horrible – she, who was a willing sacrifice, brings to him her goodness and faith, which he finds hard to receive, and is adamantly vocal that she should not kneel to him. At the start, with a clapperboard that was going to set things off interrupted by Cocteau’s written admonition read aloud by him (and, as in the credits, with a superscript five-pointed star), we are urged how to try to enter into this world. La Belle, likewise, enters into La Bête’s world, and, in return for glowing less with a kind of saintliness in her beauty **, takes on a different beauty that she can share with him, where La Bête can become Ma Bête.

As, in more senses than one, this is a tale of enchantment, I had a theory about La Bête (which turned out to be wrong), but I became more interested in his psychology, brought out wonderfully by Jean Marais both in his vocal tone, and his eyes, demeanour and gait. He did change, did develop before our eyes, and the side of him that exacted bargains from people on pain of death, humbled before La Belle, appeared to soften. He is a sort of Prospero, swearing a vengeance on his brother and other betrayers that he does not - cannot - carry out (which is where the Greenaway connection is), or a bit the man behind the illusion of The Wizard of Oz.

Cocteau winds up the story gradually, seeming to be an unmagical one until the branches part in the forest and the father finds himself in La Bête’s domain. When he enters, and the male hands holding a candelabra move and gesture, and the male faces watch and follow, we are conscious that he is a man amongst disembodied male features, and there is a homoerotic tinge (when the hand at the table lets go of the shaft (sic) of the candelabrum to pour the wine, the father jumps a mile) – later, when La Belle passes through, and, after that, describes how they brush her hair, they take on a different character. Striking imagery that could not have failed to say some to a film-maker such as Peter Greenaway, or a writer such as Samuel Beckettt.

Whatever meaning one tries to put on this film, no one will adhere, because it is, with music, words and the visual world, such a coherent piece of art that it is, as Chris Baker says was Cocteau’s desire, poetry, and demands to be watched over again.


* Whatever its starting-point in the writing of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.

** I am not with Chris Baker in finding a Vermeer resemblance made out, not even to what is called Girl with a Pearl Earring, as hair swept back and in a headscarf is not an unusual look.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Mira Schendel at Tate Modern - Part II

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

28 November

This is Part II of a review of a current exhibition at Tate Modern of the work of Mira Schendel (Part I is here), which is due to finish on 19 January 2014

Any show of this kind has a Room 1, where the firstlings are exhibited – these are pretty good early exhibits, and the wall notes tells us that, in an exhibition at this time, Schindler had her work reach out into the gallery space by how it was displayed. That said, such use of what conditions how art interacts with where the viewer is, and some of her later preoccupations, invite comparisons (none are drawn) with other twentieth-century iconoclasts, perhaps Marcel Duchamp, Hans Arp, or even, in a very different way, Kurt Schwitters.

Then, in Room 2, colourfield works make one inevitably think of Rothko’s approach to composing a canvas (as in Room 3 ?), but, curatorially, there is again nothing. As will emerge later, one asks for whom has this exhibition been mounted – those who would be helped by such comparisons being made, or those who are cognisant of where Schendel fits ? What, indeed, is the purpose of a room guide* (the leaflet that contains them credits curator Tanya Barson for the text) or a wall note ?

Yet, on another level, the room guide in Room 1 makes the claim that follows (it is not expressed as a possible view, but as fact) :

Her work constitutes an experimental investigation into profound philosophical questions relating to human existence and belief, often addressing the distinction between faith and certainty, and examining idea of being, existence and the void.

The paragraph concludes by telling us something of what the artist thought (although not how we know this, or how we can guess at what ‘activating the void’ means) :

Schendel saw her work as activating the void, thus poised between being and nothingness.**

In a different vein, in this room, one canvas, with verticals and two painted square apertures (as against the actual shapes cut into neighbouring works), seems very strong, and prefigures trompe l’œil works in the next rooms, where, for example, a painting appears to be four square tiles with grout, but this appearance has been rendered on the surface of the canvas (or other substrate, since, by now, Schendel sometimes used jute, apparently to give an effect of roughness).

In Room 3, making remarks about Sem título*** (Fachada) (Untitled (Facade)), from the 1960s (there are two works on this wall), the wall note says it is ‘suggesting a continuing preoccupation with the theme of home and with exile or displacement’. What the note fails to say is what other examples of ‘the theme’ there are, and I do not recall any other notes that talk about it (though, logically, they must be in Rooms 1 and 2): if there is a preoccupation that continues, one should, at least, be able to say where one has seen it before, and ‘exile’ is a strong word to use (although true in Schendel’s case, because her Jewish ancestry made her leave where she lived, in the German-speaking world).

The work does not necessarily need to be read as a building exposed and on its own, although that suggested description in the wall note seems to fit its neighbour – on one interpretation, the detail top left of the first work could be part of a complete façade represented by the rest of the surface****, rather than being the empty background in which it sits. We are reminded, by the room guide, of ‘the void’ :

[…] Schendel’s use of dark tones and archetypal forms re-state [sic] her interest in the relationship between being and the void and reinforces the fact that her work is underpinned by an investigation into the philosophy of existence.

Later, we are told about when Schendel came to England and read Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations : there are two things here, painting (art) and philosophy, and it is not self evident that reading (or carrying out) the latter is somehow portrayed or depicted in the former, although the reading, etc., may inform the artist’s views and practice. How much does it help, if Schendel read ontological works in the 1960s, to know that ? Would it help any more or less, if Bacon, Hockney, Riley read them, too ?

In other words, is someone showing off here : Schendel that she read this matter, etc., or Barson that she can make remarks about Schendel having done so, and asserting that it is in (or is part of) the work ? In Part I of this review, I commented on the works in Room 6, and what it is that these Monotypes, employing, with words in other languages, three related terms in German, Umwelt, Mitwelt, and Eigenwelt – so what, exactly, is the Italian phrase (cut up as indicated, and complete with spelling mistakes****) doing here ? :


Unless Schendel is being philosophically playful, why is she writing in Italian when she cannot do so without making mistakes ? For whose benefit is she putting a phrase in that language in her work – mine, that I can work out what she means ‘Your orange hair’ ? The room guide has a lot to say :

The Monotypes are marked by Schendel’s use and exploration of language. Often combining different languages, Schendel addresses concepts of belief, being and nothingness, and ‘the void’. Drawing on philosophical ideas of phenomenology (the study of consciousness) – she considers how we exist in the world (Umwelt or environment), with the world (Mitwelt or social world), and within ourselves (Eigenwelt or inner world).

In an essay (or a lecture), one might ‘address’ these concepts, or ‘consider’ these terms, but we have rough assemblages of these words on sheets of rice paper, and that is supposed to be doing those things ? Here is a collection of descriptions from the first part of the exhibition, which make similar claims (or report others’ claims) :

Room 4 :
These paintings [still-lifes] can also be seen as dealing with a philosophy of being (plus references to Heidegger)

Untitled (Landscape) :
Mario Schenberg describes these paintings as “ontological landscapes” linking them to reflections on being or existence

Room 5 :
Such words conveying a positive or affirmative relate to the themes of assent, acceptance or of conscious decision-making in her work. Therefore the work reveals the importance of an examination of conviction or belief in Schendel’s work and of ideas addressed in John Henry Newman’s An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent 1870

The room guide in Room 6 goes on to talk about ‘radical ways that they [the individuals linked to Signals gallery] attempted to reframe the contemporary art of their time’, in which that gallery was part of its time, but one is still drawn back to what putting words on a sheet does in the art / calligraphy / poetry sphere – did the Monotypes ever ‘say’ anything, and what can an observer in 2013 / 2014 be expected to make of them ?

Mira's writings are not texts. They are not about anything, and so they cannot be read as representations. They are pre-texts. They are what texts are before they becomes texts. [...]******
Vilém Flusser, 1965

At the same time, also displayed in Room 6, Schendel was keeping in notebooks a Diario de Londres, where, rather than writing roughly on sheets in ink, she has begun to use (as is seen later) rub-down lettering (which was sometimes marketed under the name Letraset, and which, contemporaneously with Schendel’s use in the late 60s and 70s, I was using).

Room 6 is host to a third type of exhibit, with rice paper used again, but in a sort of knotted paper-chain, either climbing upwards (as arranged), or suspended as mobiles – in either case, the apparent bulk is effectively without mass. The breakthrough seems to come for Schendel in combining works on paper with hanging it, as becomes apparent in Room 7

Even if one ultimately thinks that Imogen Robinson is harsh about Schendel's works in her Review : Mira Schendel at the Tate Modern for Just A Platform, it is of interest to find comments where she echoes finding pretension in the curation and the claims made


* By ‘room guide’, I mean the introductory text to each room, as against ‘wall note’, a piece next to a work (or group of them) and regarding it / them.

** There seems no consciousness that this phrase quotes the title of one of Sartre’s seminal works on existentialism.

*** A designation of almost all of Schendel’s work, which must make curation a challenge – in the other Tate Modern show, for Paul Klee, we see that he added the year, a sequence number for that year and a title to each work and kept a register of hose details. A British composer of whom I heard recently also does not use titles, but uses a letter (such as ‘V’ for ‘violin’) and the year to denote each piece.

**** It should read  I TUOI / CAPELLI / D’ARANCIA.

***** Likewise, the detail bottom right could be the atrium of a large building occupied by the rest of the panel (not out of place, say, in Brazilia).

****** Taken from the exhibution's chronology of Schendel's life. 

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

In yer face II

This is a follow-up to a review of Blue is The Warmest Colour (2013)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

28 November

This is a follow-up to a review of Blue is The Warmest Colour (2013)

* Full of spoilers about Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) - linked from the review here *

* Introduction to Adèle’s family and school life (Pasteur, Lille)

* (We learn that she is ‘a junior’, but her age is hard to place, and the French terminology does not mean very much)

* Her female friends urge her that Thomas is interested in her

* When she meets him on the bus, they talk, and he turns out to be ‘a senior’, reading science

* They have a date, but his advances in the cinema seem to cause her problems

* He confronts her with avoiding him, and they sleep together (not very convincingly, she claims that it was good)

* Alongside all this, she has passed Emma in the street (‘love at first sight’, as one of the teachers twice refers to ?), and then has a confused masturbatory dream in which Emma and others feature, from which she awakes aroused and disturbed

* At this stage, it remains open whether Emma and she had been lovers before, and seeing each other in the street has sparked something off

* Valentin, a male friend, has seemed understanding, and reassured her about her appearance (be behaves as if, contradicted by the family set-up, he might be an older sibling)

* Later, after upset regarding telling Thomas that she is breaking up with him, Valentin takes her out of school, and they end up, that evening, at a gay bar

* Adèle tires of watching same-sex kissing and the dancing, and wanders out, and into another bar

* There, she is the subject of interest of various women, Emma (who is on a balcony) and she see each other, and Emma, calling her Sophie, claims to be her cousin : it is soon apparent that they do not, in fact, know each other

* Again, Adèle ends up leaving, but Emma waits at the school gates, and they go off together

* Valentin indiscreetly (though innocently) reveals where Adèle and he went, and she is then taunted for associating with a ‘dyke’ (Emma) and accused of ‘eating pussy’

* She then meets Emma again and does so – full, intimate, unhesitating sex-acts from someone who has never slept with a woman before

* Unclear where (need not be Lille), but a LGBT march, where Emma and Adèle are prominent marchers and kiss publicly

Significant other events :

* Introduction of Adèle to Emma’s parents (who accept her sexuality) – the parents question the solid nature of Adèle’s intention of doing a master’s course and going into teaching, as against taking more of a risk on the job market

* Seemingly on her return from this visit, a surprise eighteenth-birthday celebration (so we learn her age)

* Likewise with Adèle’s parents (but Emma goes along with saying that she helps Adèle with her philosophy, and even that she has a boyfriend) – her parents stress the precarious nature of being an artist, and Emma claims to be a graphic artist, too, and to get work from it

* Huge jump in time (unless it is teaching practice) to Adèle taking primary classes, and a male teacher urging her so come drinking after work

* Big party for Emma’s art career, where she meets Lise, and Adèle talks to and dances with Joachim, eyeing Emma and Lise suspiciously – pitting Egon Schiele against Gustav Klimt, etc., does not convince as the height of intellectual conversation

* The male teacher drops Adèle off, and Emma, who is watching and sees them kiss passionately, confronts Adèle, who admits sleeping with him when lonely (because Lise was helping Emma with her art, which makes Adèle suspicious)

* Emma calling Adèle ashamed of her and a whore and a slut, given that, later, Emma has a relationship with Lise, makes one wonder whether Adèle’s supicions of Emma were right, and Emma was just covering falling out of love with Adèle (as she had been with a girl for two years when she slept with Adèle)

And so on...

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

In yer face I

This is a review of Blue is The Warmest Colour (2013)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

28 November (updated 30 November)

* May contain spoilers *

This is a review of Blue is The Warmest Colour (2013)

This film does not drag, largely because one urges the development of the story between the two principals, but, at the same time, because the film is only incidentally ‘about them’, it also feels somewhat hollow : at 105 minutes in, that seemed OK, and about right (when one knew that a screening that went in at 4.15 was not due out until around a titanic 7.35), but then one was tempted to keep an eye on the time to guess how it would end.

When it ends, not with the flagged-up possibility (at which, even as a misdirection, one cringes), but just with a departing figure and a black-out, the next thing on the screen, in white on the black, is :

La vie d’Adèle

Chapitres 1 et 2

It felt like a mid-air ending, and this credit almost confirms that, as with the 600-page novel La Vie de Marianne (Pierre de Marivaux’s unfinished book) that Thomas tries to read, this could be just part of a long story.

What is that story so far ? Roughly chronologically, it is set out here (for those who wish to see it), but there are various themes that emerge from the film in general :

Adèle makes a habit of walking out of social situations, and we see her at what seems her most relaxed when she is dancing (with men, largely ?), but she does confront her accusers at school in what is a scuffle. A scuffle with seemingly no consequences, although the feelings that others have about her would scarcely evaporate – director Abdellatif Keciche may think it immaterial to do more than show that such attacks exist in life, but treating it as if hostility from Adèle’s circle were a one-off that she would easily live with at school is fantasy. (Maybe we do not need to know, if she could not ride the storm, had to change schools, and her parents found out what it was about.)

Likewise, marching in support of LGBT causes and kissing in public – unless a distance away from Lille – is not going to be without ramifications, and, as mentioned, how long will Adèle’s parents be put off by Emma being ‘a friend’ ? Are these just dream-scenes, including the six or so graphic minutes of continuous sex, divorced from being real-life events ? If they meditate on anything, such as showing how Adèle’s parents shape what is probably an inferiority complex, they just subvert an unremittingly linear narrative and make it seem empty.

What fills it, with Emma’s face less so than with Adèle’s, are the screen-filling close-ups, so large that one is simultaneously torn, if reliant on the subtitles (maybe Keciche did not think of that), between reading them and adjusting one’s vision to the angle subtended by the large image : whereas, with a typical medium shot, specifically deployed as a departure in, amongst other places, the primary school, one can relatively easily switch between the shot and the next caption.

As against the head, or torso shots, at dinner with her parents, these vastly magnified images of Adèle (or Emma) constitute a form of immediacy, but one can hardly be unaware that the pair seems engrossing because there is nothing else to see, however winning Léa Seydoux’s smile (as Emma) may be. It does not hold up the film’s progression, but only a fluent speaker of French could have the full impact of the huge facial depictions and the dialogue.

As the film proceeds, Adèle comes in contact with Emma’s friends, seemingly, for the first time at the party that we see, where she broadly feels inadequate (as she appears to comment when undressing) – has she no way of knowing about herself (and saying to Emma) that parties are not her thing, rather than throwing herself into the catering as if she planned the whole thing ? (Whatever did happen with her one-time school-friends, Adèle does not appear to have asked anyone with whom she socializes, maybe because she does not, and Emma is all in all to her.)

Actually, she may have planned the whole thing as a way of meeting these friends, if Emma has not actually shared them – what we are shown does not give confidence that there is some thinking about the characters (which some call ‘a back story’), but one may come back to that being the point, that the situations are not doing more than drawing attention to their artificiality. (Probably not true, but this is an attempt to be charitable.)

At the end of the film, visiting Emma’s show, it is just more of the same, as if somehow Adèle thought that she would have Emma to herself – false expectations and inevitable disappointments.

A teacher in one of her classes at school had talking about Antigone, about childhood, and about tragedy being unavoidable – are we meant to recall that, and think of Adèle, being hurt and feeling outside life ? The title of the film then means that Emma, the blue-haired girl, was, she realized, all that she ever wanted.

Adèle Exarchopoulos, who plays Adèle, is hardly off the screen, and is larger than life (literally, in character, although actually very reserved and even awkward). Seydoux and she* do a very good job of bearing the weight of this film, but, in particular, the scripting of the party scenes does not persuade that these people are Beaux Arts graduates, the dialogue between the two about ‘fine’ versus ‘ugly’ arts is barely credible, and the camera does well to show little of Emma’s putative artworks, even the sketch of Adèle (which is, she says, both like and not like her).

A film that has a significant element of the art world really ought to know its material better – unless, again, this is a sort of pastiche, maybe Adèle having a nightmare about throwing a party for Emma, and then feeling quite out of place, alienated**. Blue is the Warmest Colour suggests a topsy-turvy distance on and from the world, but one can only speculate so long on what is sloppy, what intentional…


* Interestingly, Seydoux is 28 (born 1 July 1985), Exarchopoulos 20 (born 22 November 1993).

** At least three times, we are shown the triangle of Adèle's mouth open as her head lies on the pillow, which seemed to be acknowledging that those in their teens sometimes need more sleep (Adèle tells Emma that she eats everything, except shellfish (a dislike that she conquers), and a lot), but could be suggesting that what seems to be happening is but in dream (what else is cinema ?).

The Marivaux novel, from what can be quickly judged of it, does as the film's subtitle suggests that it should, i.e. to take the central character's (inner) point of view. Forty-eight hours after the screening, thinking about what we see of Adèle's life leads to the possibility that there is some element of Belle de Jour (1967) here, and that what may appear to be straight, linear narration is actually more of a dreamscape, a projection into a future that is yet to be...

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Mira Schendel at Tate Modern - Part I

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24 November

This is Part I of a review of a current exhibition at Tate Modern of the work of Mira Schendel (Part II is here, whereas Part III is here), which is due to finish on 19 January 2014

When it is a matter of referring to works (tiresome though titles can be, with their weight of meaning), it has to be said that Schendel could have done herself a favour by not calling almost everything Sem título (‘Untitled’) : curatorial difficulties apart (in knowing what on earth piece one is requesting on loan from where), the viewer could at least be able to refer to a work, if she had adopted the approach, say, of Paul Klee (in addition to a title) of giving everything a sequence number and its year of production, uniquely identifying it.

When surveying a period of 35 years or more (the early paintings are from the 1950s, and a final series from 1987), a retrospective, even in the typical space of 14 rooms*, will tend to group pieces by date, style, technique, theme, and run chronologically. I take issue with this show in two regards, as to inclusion and extent :

(1) Starting with the huge Room 6, both issues arise in relation to some of the ‘works’ on rice paper (apparently, a medium that Schendel started using in 1964) : not wishing to say that there necessarily is not blurring between the realms of art, poetry and calligraphy** when an artist imports words onto the substrate.

However, there is a contrast to be drawn with the works in Room 5 (where the words sim (‘yes’), passe (‘pass’) and que beleza (‘how beautiful’, slang for ‘how cool’)) figure on the canvas in a similar way, say, to that Ceci n’est pas une pipe does on that of Magritte. For the words on rice paper in Room 6 are (a) all that the work comprises (on its own or in relation to other such sheets), (b) sometimes scrawled (although perhaps legible to a native and / or sympathetic reader), and (c) not obviously any more than a rough sketch, rather than some sort of displayable work.

Seeing much of this, in one of the four largest rooms in the exhibition, may be a preparation for Room 7, but the lesson that one learns there is that the nature of this mass of hanging written material is not – though some of it can be – to be read. The work (in no ways a preparation for the sheer beauty and effect of the installation in Room 12), which was in Brazil’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1968, does not require one to have seen, at such length, constituent elements to appreciate it – those in Room 6 are Graphic Objects (against (the Monotypes) in Room 6). I have no doubt that there are more than 2,000 Monotypes, because I cannot conceive it to be difficult to have generated them.

(2) On the calligraphic level, and still in Room 6, I am invited to consider the manipulation of the trio of German words Umwelt, Mitwelt and Eigenwelt, which I am told are terms used in Heidegger’s thought and in European philosophy, as some sort of work or statement, but I would say that, in relation to the Magritte work referred to earlier, I am not required to study Hume, for example, before I can approach it. However, whatever Schendel is about, even though – as far as I recall – the words are legible, is unlikely to mean anything to the average person trying to approach the work (even though the wall notes translate and explain the terms).

The opacity of the work – which inclines me to believe that it belongs on the page (not in the gallery), where those who want can refer to it – is akin to the barrier (perhaps deliberate) in scrawling texts (whether or not original) elsewhere in the Monotypes. Contrast this with the calligraphic simplicity of the word ZEIT (German for time, and written in capitals), displayed nearby, with the tail of the ‘T’ extended down the sheet. A calligrapher, in English (using the word TIME), could just as easily have extended that letter, or the three spokes of the ‘E’, but it would be craft, not art, and displayed alongside settings of lines from Blake or Keats.

Moving on to Room 9, and some of these abstruse notations or scribblings have become books. However, I have to ask whether the jottings of Einstein have any more – or any less – place in a gallery than, amongst other things, the Calculations : what branch or level of mathematics am I supposed to be familiar with to make any sense (if any is actually to be made) from these notations ? Do they have aesthetic or artistic appeal beyond any such understanding ?

These comments – maybe criticisms – are at a curatorial level. Even if a work forms a sizeable part of an artist’s work, does one have to give a proportionate amount of wall-space to make the point. For it has to be said that the installations in Room 12 (already mentioned) and Room 10 are world-class art, but, one somehow feels, some of the space devoted to other work is less worthwhile. If it is an intrinsic part of Schendel’s journey, one needs, I feel, to know more fully why it is – the basic question is whether it is truly integral to a survey of her work, or could have been given less time without impairment : I do not feel that that the notices in each room make the case for why this work merits our attention, and, with a less patient visitor, might lead to switching off from what, in my opinion, is of outstanding merit.

Continued, with other positives, in a separate posting

Even if one ultimately thinks that Imogen Robinson is harsh about Schendel's works in her Review : Mira Schendel at the Tate Modern for Just A Platform, it is of interest to find comments where she echoes finding pretension in the curation and the claims made

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Thursday, 21 November 2013

The ferocity and frailty of war

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21 November

97 = S : 17 / A : 16 / C : 17 / M : 15 / P : 16 / F : 16

A rating and review of Land and Freedom (1995)

S = script

A = acting

C = cinematography

M = music

P = pacing

F = feel

9 = mid-point of scale (all scored out of 17, 17 x 6 = 102)

* Contains spoilers *

This film, set relatively early in the Spanish Civil War, not only has some gorgeous music by George Fenton, which only momentarily attracts one’s attention when it should not, but some very good acting and scripting. Director Ken Loach, working with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, fills the screen with the immediacy of faces, and, at the times when David Carr (Ian Hurt) is part of the militia (POUM), immerses one in the vibrancy of that life and comradeship.

Loach also puts a distance on it, by the medium of (what turns out to be) David’s granddaughter Kim reading the letters that he sent back from the front, with a deliberate alienation that he is somehow able to send back photographs of those alongside whom he is fighting – despite never seeing a camera, one might come up with an explanation where he gets films developed on leave, but it seems wiser to infer that Loach intends it symbolically.

The effect of those photos being looked through puts the events that are being so vividly shown, and with such a colour palette, back into history as ‘old photos’, along with the folded press clippings : unless we can stop and think, clearly the latter had not been sent with the former, but have ended up together as a subjective account along with (in the newspaper) a supposedly objective one.

Hurt is never better than when his voice is heard reading his letters aloud as Kim looks at them, and the images from abroad. On screen, probably deliberately, he seems a shadow of what we hear, which makes him perfect to be afloat in a world of politics and coalitions that are convenient only for a time – there may be a film that does not leave one confused about the rights and wrongs of the situation, of which Eyes on the Sky and The Forest are but two, and in need of a reliable history*, but Loach captures the incomprehension of people who find themselves on opposite sides.

The scene around the table in the town in Aragon that has been liberated is telling : Loach has the local people at the centre of the scene, but, at the margins, three pondering shots of members of the militia in civvies and casting glances, or speaking quietly, to each other. Before they are invited into the discussion, this makes it look like a mistake that they have been given nothing to add, but, afterwards, they make quite clear that they have views, the differences in which feed into the succeeding action.

Add to this guilt, the horrors of war and of retribution, a love story (Blanca, full of conviction, well played by Rosana Pastor), and needless death, and there is a powerful film, which maintains its pace, and does not deliver short on how divided those united against the fascists were. Loach, although he is known for left-wing inclinations, pulls no punches on that account.


* Before the screening at Cambridge Film Festival, curator of the Catalan series, Ramon Lamarca, helped alleviate some difficulty regarding the anti-fascists and the International Brigade, whereas the husband whose family is at the centre of things is, although a conservative, not for that a fascist. The town shown being captured, which may be Mirambel or Morella (whose people are thanked in the credits), appeared to be the local town in the Catalan film.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

What Hitchock says about Dial M for Murder...

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21 November

Some who scour these pages (I find that Brillo® is best) will already know that I favour a Faber & Faber series of collections, film by film, of interviews with directors.

In this case, it is Hitchcock on Hitchcock, into which I have delved for some revelations of what he put on record about Dial M for Murder (1954) :

First, in ‘Elegance Above Sex' (a very short piece of prose, which was originally published in Hollywood Reporter*), Hitchcock observes, regarding this film and Grace Kelly's part in it :

It is important to distinguish between the big, bosomy blonde and the ladylike blonde with the touch of elegance, whose sex must be discovered. Remember Grace Kelly in High Noon ? She was rather mousy. But in Dial M for Murder she blossomed out for me splendidly, because the touch of elegance had always been there.
(p. 96)

The only other mention of the film in this volume is in a very long-suffering** interview entitled ‘On Style’ : An interview with Cinema***, from which two extracts now follow

H : When you take a stage play, I said ? What do you call opening it up ? The taxi stops at the front door of the apartment house. The characters get out, cross the sidewalk, go into the lobby, get into an elevator, go upstairs, walk along the corridor, open the door, and they go into a room. And there they are, on the stage again. So, you might just as well dispense with all that, and be honest and say it’s a photographed stage play and all we can do is to take the audience out of the orchestra and put them on the stage with players.

I : You didn’t do this completely though. In Dial M ?

H : Yes, and I’ll tell you why. Because I’ve seen so many stage plays go wrong through opening up, loosening it, when the very essence is the fact that the writer conceived it within a small compass.

I : But you would still treat it cinematically ?

H : Within its area. If I can. As much as I can.
(p. 293)

What is of interest here is that the interviewer makes no mention of what is discussed in the review on this blog, i.e. how 3D makes the experience different, on the screen, from that on the stage, with looming bottles in the foreground, and, most of all, that fatal hand, reaching out to the audience, as if for mercy.

Moving on :

H : Well, let me say this as a maker of films. Maybe it’s a conceit on my part. I think content belongs to the original story of the writer, whoever wrote the book, that you are adapting. That’s his department.

I : That’s an interesting statement. You don’t feel then that the director, as such, is responsible for content, as you would select any different …

H : Well look, I make a film – Dial M for Murder – and what have I really had to do with that ? Nothing. It was a stage play, written for the stage, written by an author. All I had to do there was go in and photograph it.
(p. 297)

The interview is all about the element of 'style' mentioned in the title (as against 'content'), and Hitchcock contrasts the situation of this film with that of North by Northwest (1959), where his co-writer and he created the scenario, and he most interestingly goes to talk about the expectations that he sets up and then upsets in the famous crop-spraying scene.

Just for this interview alone, the volume is a very useful insight, through Hitchcock's own descriptions of what he was about with Psycho (1960), and how much more that it is that we think that we see, rather than the material that the cutting (pun intended !) actually used.


* Vol. 172, no. 39 (November 20, 1962, 32nd Anniversary Issue).

** The unnamed interviewer, 'I' in the interview, claims (in response to Hitchock's enquiry as to what Cinema is) to be asking questions on behalf of the ?? intelligent cinema-goer ?? [actual wording needs to be checked]. However, he or she does not know what cross-cutting, art direction, or even 'a cut' are, and Hitchock - seemingly patiently - has to explain. (Why do I have the impression that Hitchock had a reputation for being 'difficult' - or was that at another time, or on set ?)

*** Originally published in Cinema 1, no. 5 (August – September 1963) 4–8, 34–35.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The soul of solar power : components of a new life

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
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21 November

This film was screened in a special session on Saturday 16 November 2013 at Aldeburgh Documentary Festival

* Contains spoilers *

This is a review of Rafea (2012)

Rafea is not quite the star of this film, because there is also the other solar engineer, her relative, Umm Badr (not mentioned in the IMDb summary) – both sent as ambassadors from Jordan to Barefoot College in India to bring back the technology and knowhow to introduce producing electricity from solar resources.

If it had been a straightforward ride, it would just, as series producer* Nick Fraser said after the film that he did not want it to be, have been about transistors and the work of the college, but, although selected to go, Rafea faces opposition from her family, principally her mother and her husband (he has two wives, and she is the second), who do not easily give their blessing for her to be in India for six months.

Rafea has to leave her four children to the trust of their grandmother (who was a bit abrupt, but some in the audience did not laugh in a kind way) and in the hope that their father will, for once, spend some time with them. We see all this from very close, because another trust has been established in the period of two years (all in all) that it took to make this film, that between the families and the film-makers, Mona Eldaief and Jehane Noujaim.

When Fraser talked afterwards in conversation with Mary Ann Sieghart, he explained how the two had worked with Rafea’s family, because she and the audience were quite curious to know how Rafea had been found, and whether her story had been shot in parallel with that of other women (it had not) :

Shooting with a very small team helped, he thought, for people to forget that the camera was there, although the opposite view was expressed by a director in the audience, that bringing a deliberately large team into someone’s living-room and rearranging the furniture could also work to focus on him or her being open and direct.

There was no doubt that, when Rafea’s husband has pestered her when she is away and claimed that her daughter is sick, he feels absolutely free to express his views when she flies back. Before she went, the danger was that he would do as he said, divorce her and take away the children, throwing her onto the dilemma whether she wanted to continue the same life, or take the opportunity, and risk her husband doing as threatened.

The Minister of the Environment (?) has sought for all this to happen as a pilot project, and his interaction with Rafea’s family is interesting at all levels – not only that he has confidence in the women (in a male-oriented world) and that they will return and spread their knowledge in their homeland (rather than being drawn to the city), but also in the level of excessive civility in the dialogue between Rafea’s husband and him when she visits his office to talk about the problems.

The place in which the Jordanian two study gives them scope for mixing with women from other nations and cultures, both building up a good relationship in the classroom, and socializing. Abu Badr, who has accompanied his wife on the trip, shows himself to have a love of dancing, and Rafea and his wife enjoy themselves, and, elsewhere, Umm Badr shows herself to be a wit of an eccentric kind.

They do not know what things will be like when they return, and some of what they have learnt is neatly reserved to show us when they do, but they throw themselves into the work of study. Umm Badr, not to be thrown in the shadow because illiterate, even determines that she is able to write and starts making marks in a notebook, much to Rafea’s amusement.

The film is heartfelt at a genuine level, and was immensely well received at Aldeburgh, both in itself, and – as the discussion widened out – as an example of what Fraser has been doing with Storyville. He is a man who just does not believe in some things about what films do, and is sceptical what films like this can achieve in changing attitudes at some levels, e.g. (as I understood his point) to have some power to educate by example, but he was clear to state his views and that he was not seeking an argument by it.


* The series is ‘Why Poverty ?’ (a title that Fraser did not like), as part of BBC’s Storyville, for which he is editor.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)