The Artist


Everything about Michael Haznavicius’ The Artist, a silent film about silent film, is undeniably lovely. Just like its star, the fictional actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), it glows off the screen in crisp black and white, winking and smiling, charming the audience with unfettered nostalgia and an irrepressible sense of romance. Its own cultural life has been equally pleasing – building momentum from a last-minute addition to competition at Cannes to considerable critical acclaim and an emergence as the unlikely front-runner for the best picture Oscar in February. It even has a cute dog.

To watch The Artist is to be frequently delighted: by skillful physical expression, clever visual tricks and well-timed taps of feet. Its centrepiece is a wonderful sequence in which Valentin encounters the young starlet Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) on a film shoot and, distracted, fails to complete the scene, returning numerous times to his starting pose with an inch-perfect thespy frown. We know Haznavicius knows this scene is good, because he reprises it later on. Miller, now a megastar to Valentin’s has-been, recognises and recalls the moment through examining a film reel – something, of course, you couldn’t do today.

But if this is film which – as many critics would have it – is supposed to be celebrating a bygone era, or lamenting a purity lost with the move to sound, it’s not particularly convincing, or consistent. I found myself pondering how silent acting (i.e. mime), and by extension silent storytelling, seem to necessitate a certain broadness of tone. Whilst I enjoyed almost everything that appeared on screen, I was rarely engaged on a level that went beyond amusement.

Indeed, two instances which did have genuine power occurred when sound interjected: firstly, subtly, with the tap of glass on a table during the doubting Valentin’s lurid dream; then, most stirringly of all, through the oh-so human panting of the two performers after a celebratory final dance. The film loads these moments with pure electricity by strength of contrast – so what’s Haznavicius telling us? Not, if anything, about what was lost, but about the excitement of a moment in history. Film was now able to transfix us further, adding nuance and complexity beyond the limit of an orchestral score throughout.

In fact, as it happens, I don’t think The Artist is nearly weighty enough to carry anything so serious as a manifesto, one way or the other. Essentially it’s a brilliant gimmick: a feat of showmanship and a masterclass in charm, pulled off with aplomb. You know there’ll be a happy ending, because you know the film just wants you to be entertained. It’s all the better for it.

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My ten favourite films of 2011


So here they are. In all but two cases, I also had some thoughts at the time – click on the titles for those. Happy new year.

1. Archipelago – Joanna Hogg’s exquisitely observed study of a family on holiday in the Scilly Isles is both gloriously witty and completely horrifying. A perfect film.

2. Blue Valentine – two brilliant actors, some fabulous cinematography and a dash of non-linear narrative combine to make this truly moving and memorable film about (ill-fated) love.

3. A Separation – perfectly balanced, thoughtful and humane Iranian drama which gains enormous strength simply by treating its characters (and its audience) with respect.

4. Kill List – a brilliantly stylish, properly disturbing horror film with superb sound design and an ending that simply went for it. Thrilling stuff.

5. Tyrannosaur – Olivia Colman is incredible in this grim, powerful, violent northern tale. Peter Mullan is one of the best actors out there too. I was so transfixed I didn’t even open my packet of nuts.

6. Cave of Forgotten Dreams – not quite up there with Grizzly Man, but still wild and wonderful in the way only Herzog documentaries can be. ‘Stay here’ was the best line of the year.

7. Senna – I’m still not sure what exactly to make ‘last lap’ sequence in this film, but it had me pinned to my seat like nothing I can remember.

8. The Tree of Life – awful in parts, and yet it drew me back to watch a second time. Something about the whole thing – its utter sincerity, its ambition – was overwhelming. This film felt like an event.

9. Animal Kingdom – stylishly realised, calm but compelling Australian crime drama with a memorably demonic grandma at its head.

10. Wuthering Heights – Andrea Arnold’s stab at a classic falls away a bit towards the end. But for the first hour, this is pure filmmaking: stories through images – and what striking, primal, passionate images they are.

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Wot, no specs?

At its best, Hugo is a wonderfully heartfelt tribute to what Martin Scorsese loves about going to the movies – truly a cinephile’s treat. There are nods to history all over the place, from ‘silent’/mimed romantic vignettes, viewed from a distance as in Rear Window, to elaborately choreographed slapstick à la Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin. The film’s primary subject, the pioneering filmmaker Georges Méliès, is the highlight: Scorsese is fascinated with the physicality of movie making – the clicks and whirrs of a camera, the mechanics of a shoot – and when we see his reconstructions of Méliès’ beautifully designed, logistically miraculous early-1900s film sets, so are we.

The problem is that this sparkling homage (which dominates the last half hour) is grafted onto a much less successful kids’ film about an orphan boy living in the nooks of a Paris train station who discovers Méliès (now an older, disillusioned shopkeeper played by Ben Kingsley) and his art. We can see what Scorsese might have been thinking – it’s through a child’s eye that magic truly happens – but these early sections are hamstrung by the performances of his two young actors and a lumbering script. At times the dialogue is oddly slow, inviting the audience to search for hidden meaning where none is being communicated. Even Sacha Baron Cohen, last seen wrestling stark-naked with a 30-stone man in Borat, has had his wings thoroughly clipped, playing a stern station inspector with a nondescript accent and curiously expressionless face.

Given the technological enterprise at the heart of its subject, it’s perhaps no surprise – perhaps even appropriate – that this film is in 3D. Scorsese’s foremost new toy, however, appears to be the omnipotent camera, which swoops and dives around the train station and through the insides of clockwork contraptions as if it had no physical form at all. The first two minutes, for instance, plunges us down from the Paris skyline, along train tracks, into the station and up towards Hugo’s wide eye peering through the number ‘4’ of a giant clock. It’s impressive but also clunkingly conspicuous, having the effect of an industry demo for what modern CGI can do.

In fact as an opening it’s rather instructive: this is a film about the possibilities of cinema which forgets to create much magic of its own. It’s caught bewteen looking backwards and forwards with equal wonder – and is far less convincing when doing the latter. The 3D, as usual, adds nothing  – other than an ironic slant to a scene in a cinema (apparently based on truth) in which we watch people watching the Lumière brothers’ famous arriving train and flinching away from the screen. Of course, like countless cinemagoers since, these patrons are fooled by simple use of perspective. Their screen is ‘flat’. And as we, Scorsese’s audience, sit watching in our dark plastic glasses, nothing could be clearer demonstration of their redundancy.

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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

See paragraph three

With this adaptation of John le Carré’s novel, Tomas Alfredson has set himself the unenviable task of squeezing a notoriously labyrinthine plot (later reworked into a seven-part television series) into two short hours of cinema time. For a Tinker Tailor virgin, watching it is not unlike the initial experience of watching The Wire: finding one’s bearings, working out relationships, and coming to terms with the particular language involved. In this case it’s not street slang but code-words, like ‘control’, ‘the circus’ and ‘Karla’, on which no elucidation is offered. It’s a slightly distracting puzzle, and makes you want to watch the first hour again.

The film is beautiful – all dusty rooms and smoky corridors, yellows and browns and three-piece suits – and contains a masterful performance from Gary Oldman as Smiley, the retired MI6 agent tasked with uncovering a mole amongst his former colleagues. His is a face you could watch for hours – and Alfredson seems to agree. One memorable moment sees a whisky-fuelled Smiley reliving a former encounter, the camera settled on full facial close-up – one eye obscured by the shadow of his thick-rimmed glasses; the other glinting, expressive; thin lips offering the merest hint of a sneer.

The ‘frames’ of these glasses provide a motif which Alfredson uses in countless other shots, presenting the action through lace-curtained windows or half-opened doorways, repeatedly partially obscured. He’s unafraid to show us characters walking away, or the back of people’s heads. Two of the most important figures in Smiley’s life, his main adversary in Russia and his estranged wife, remain unseen throughout. This is a murky world to which, emphatically, access is not ours.

It’s curious for an ostensible ‘whodunnit’ to expand so little on the very characters (tinker, tailor, etc.) who drive the plot by being under suspicion. In fact, their portrayal by such a stellar cast is about the only thing that helps us distinguish between them – and when the culprit finally is revealed, the moment delivers surprisingly little narrative punch. Perhaps that’s the point: it’s not really about the discovery, but Smiley’s journey – but then I have to admit I was also unsure about what exactly he’d learnt from the experience, or how he’d grown. So perhaps that’s the point, for those unacquainted with the book, at least: this highly stylised visual accompaniment will remain – like Smiley himself – a quiet, elegant enigma.

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Between the walls

In about three hours I’ll be starting a PGCE – which, by all accounts, is not going to leave me with hoards of spare time in the months to come. So, whilst I hope to keep things going on this here blog one way or another, posts might inevitably become fewer and further between for a while. Just so you know. Thanks to everyone who’s been good enough to read these ramblings so far, and especially those who have taken the time to comment – it really does warm the cockles of my heart. I’ll keep you posted.

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Kill List

The music sounds like this shot looks

Kill List opens emphatically in media res: a woman, her face in close up, screaming abuse at her husband whilst their fearful young son listens in his bedroom. The couple are Jay and Shel, both former soldiers, now living in comfort in the hills near Sheffield. When Jay’s friend Gal (also ex-army) brings his new girlfriend round for dinner, there follows an evening of tension, and another blazing row. Think Mike Leigh, less sharply observed but with a harder edge. I couldn’t decide whether these sudden arguments suffered from a slight weakness in acting or if it was intented that they appeared launched into with such relish.

Also unlike the unintrusive Leigh, Ben Wheatley composes his stories with a highly stylised mixing pot of sight and sound: dialogue from one scene will bleed into images of the next (or previous) whilst sharply cut shots (of, for example, a melancholy hug) contribute meaning and depth with beautiful economy. The music, woozy and resonant, links it all together, and achieves an intriguing effect as the film progresses: on at least two occasions, I was unsure whether a prominent sound was extradiegetic or part of the characters’ experience, adding an extra layer to the general unease.

Jay and Gal make their money as hit men; we see Gal persuade his friend out of temporary retirement to take on the titular job. It soon becomes clear that Jay has what we might call ‘issues’ – giving himself reasons to go outside his remit and commit some pretty horrific acts. The film doesn’t shirk from showing these properly: one scene in particular, involving a hammer, is reminiscent of the infamous fire extinguisher shot in Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible. Indeed Wheatley has some Noé-esque comments to make about the depiction of violence in films (at 3:25 in this video). It’s a position with which I think I’m in broad agreement.

What seems like an (excellently made) post-traumatic Iraq war film than takes a major turn for the weird in its final section, almost eschewing the rest of the film entirely – but it works. Aided by the music and some deft camerawork, the ‘discovery’ sequence here was one of the creepiest things I’ve seen for a while. It’s great to see a director confident enough to plant a seed of doubt early on – in this case, Gal’s girlfriend carving a strange symbol on the back of her hosts’ bathroom mirror – and leave it to gestate, unelaborated on for the best part of an hour. Wheatley is similarly happy to leave loose ends untied when the credits roll: his is a horror film that leaves you surprised and confused – ‘disturbed’, in the best sense of the word.

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I recently discovered that in 1986, Andrei Tarkovsky wrote this:
I think that what a person normally goes to the cinema for is time: for time lost or spent or not yet had. He goes there for living experience; for cinema, like no other art, widens, enhances and concentrates a person’s experience – and not only enhances it but makes it longer, significantly longer.
I was struck – not only because, as an obsessive cinemagoer myself, I recognised it – but by its apparent unerring prescience. After all, visionary director or not, the Tarkovsky of 25 years ago could barely have predicted the mobile phonecalls, instant messages, news feeds and twitter streams that would come to define our everyday experience. These are the conditions that lend his statement extra weight in a modern context: amidst the abundance of information and interaction, there is never a dull moment – but also never a spare one. Time itself begins to take on the guise of an increasingly precious commodity.

I feel as if my brain is slowly being trained out of its ability to concentrate, as if afflicted by some as-yet-unclassified modern form of ADHD. I don’t think I’ve finished a book since I left university – I’ve started lots, but always get impatient before the end, moving on to the next book, or article, or review, or email, or blog post, or podcast on the list. I can’t sit through a DVD without pausing it to get a drink, or answer a text, or look up the film on IMDb. My own blog is written only at the dead of night, when it feels as if the rest of the world has stopped and finally there’s some time to use, space to think. I can’t remember the last time I was bored.

Amongst it all lies the oasis of calm that is cinema. Somehow, when those lights go down, normal life is brought to stop: there is literally nowhere to look but at the screen, nothing to do but give yourself over to the images it holds and adjust to the rhythms it suggests. As brilliantly shown by Christian Marclay’s The Clock (the exception that proves the rule) narrative film exists on its own temporal plane, unconnected to the minutes passing outside the auditorium or even the time experienced by the actors, directors and editors who create it. The best experiences leave you unaware of what day it is, or where you are, or how you got there – until suddenly the screen goes black, the credits roll and reality bursts back in.

In fact, I can remember the last time I was bored – it was undoubtedly in a cinema. But ‘boredom’ in this context is a rare luxury – ‘slow’ films like Archipelago or Meek’s Cutoff provide a pleasing respite, giving your eyes time to see and your brain time to process a depicted fictional circumstance, without the multiple stimuli normally competing in everyday life. At some points there might not be much actually happening on screen – but that’s ok. Thoughts can wander, images can linger and phrases resonate. You’re offered the chance to think about the world in a way the real world doesn’t often allow.

Time lost or spent or not yet had. I think I’m discovering what it is that keeps drawing me back. There’s no decorum, and the performers can’t see you – so you can wear what you want and sit how you like without fear of showing a lack of respect. In that dark space you are, essentially, given your own little world in which to wallow – untempered pleasure, brought about through the marriage of physical comfort with gentle intellectual massage. I wonder if I’ll ever grow out of it, and come to a stage where the appeal begins to decline. It doesn’t feel like it at the moment.

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