Monday, February 28, 2011

Review: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Boonmee is a tamarind farmer in rural Thailand. He is dying of a disease of his remaining kidney. His sister in law has joined him for company for what might be his last days. He has a male nurse to see to his medical needs and a probably illegal Laotian personal servant. Were it not for the closeness of death life in this balmy, insect chorusing agrarian idyll would be perfect.

But death is not such a conversation killer here. Boonmee is deeply Buddhist and thinks of himself less as dying than about to leave his present body.

Talk at the dinner table is about the future, life after Boonmee and it's practical, unsentimental. So matter of fact, in fact, that we hardly notice the ghost of his wife slowly materialising on one of the chairs at the table. I thought she was a reflection until she was unignorably there which is very similar to the reaction of the other characters. Once established, though, they variously take it in their stride or witness it as their worry slowly gives way to acceptance. They then converse as though she's just dropped in for a visit.

Not enough? Footfalls on the stairwell makes everyone's head turn to see the laser-eyed apelike creature from the opening sequence walking up the stairs. It pauses at the sight of all the attention its appearence has engendered but then enters the room and identifies itself as Boonmee's son, missing for decades. He'd become obsessed with a photograph of a strange simian figure, took up photography himself in order to capture another one on film in the forest, and then mated with one and joined them, even taking on their physical appearance. Boonmee's servant enters and is incredulous and fearful until assuaged by Boonmee and the others that it's just a member of the family. Boonmees's sister in law asks the ape why he let his hair grow so long.

Do you see the problem I'm having? I've just spent paragraphs describing events on screen rather than just summing up the plot the film and going on to tell you what I thought of it. Uncle Boonmee resists such treatment. You know what else does? Solaris, Eraserhead, El Topo, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. What? Are you comparing this 16 mm movie to those classics? Yes, and I don't care if they're classics, they all stand outside of conventional narrative cinema and all carry themes or ideas that compel their existence and override observance of the convention. So does Boonmee.

So why don't I just pack it in and cry pretentious? Well, for the very reason that I don't understand it and that I care that I don't understand. Pretension is unfulfilled promise and I cannot say if this film fulfils its promise or fails it. I don't know what this film's promise is.

I do know that it has been made with precision and what appears for all the world to be love.

I know, as well, that for all the otherworldliness of this film there isn't a syllable of dialogue that isn't straighforward and suitable to its context (even when it occurs between a talking catfish and a disfigured princess). I do know that the fact that little or nothing of Boonmee's past lives appear on screen does not let the title down, as some commentators have claimed (it just says he can, it doesn't say he does ;) although how else to explain the scene with the princess from what looks like a medieval period?). I know, too, that for all its sudden bizarreness there is nothing that is intended to be adorably cute or quirky. This film leaves questions and mysteries that are questions and mysteries not the frays of lazy writing. This film is nothing if not intentionally made. I know that anyone who sticks so stubbornly to 16 mm to make his feature films (the sole detail in this review that I outsourced) and makes it look so beautiful deserves accolades for cheek as well as achievement.

I know, also, that this film, unlike most of the films I've ever seen, delivers on at least one promise to perfection. The first thing we see is a bullock in silhouette. The camera is motionless, taking in the slight movements of the animal, savouring the beauty of the curve of its head and horns against the light. It's restless and tugs itself free of the rope binding it to a tree, wandering into the forest nearby, strolling through the new terrain, looking around and emitting odd little glottal chirps as if to say: hmm, what's this? It stops deep in the forest, the camera again lingering studiously on its clean dark beauty. A farm worker with a sickle arrives and gently coaxes it back through the forest. Then we see that all this has been observed. A tall dark figure in the forest turns to reveal itself as a kind of lithe yeti with a pair of glowing red eyes, staring with a human fascination at what it is seeing. Title sequence.

We've been promised a ride both rich and strange. We get it.

Screens at ACMI  until March 14. Please go and see it.

SHADOWS starts up at ABC again this Friday. Here's the program with trailer and flier.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Blind Spots 4: Three cinematic phenomena that I don't care about

This is not a list of overrated titles. Whether something holds an eminent place in popular culture seldom affects my opinion of it. This series is simply things that have consistently failed to touch me. Partly, it's an exercise. I surprised myself when writing of the Coen brothers that I really liked very, very little of their output, having always assumed I liked about half. I started another about Terry Gilliam and ended up having to split it into three posts to cope with what I was finding out about my own opinions. This is another. I'm trying to avoid big targets like Stephen Spielberg who I think should make something he really wants to make or just stop altogether (but I think it would be unwatchably violent: I think he's John Wayne Gacy without the murder). And I'm not fond of targets that are too easy like Wes Anderson who I think should be placed in care if he ever tries to make another film. This particular post pretty much sins against those stipulations. Whaddayagunnado?

This one takes a couple of looks for me because on the surface of it this title shouldn't be here. I really enjoy the film. It's big and goofy with enough mid-80s earnestness and neon lighting to be both a perfect sample of its cinematic era and a neatly wrapped treat. The thing I don't like is one of the things that sells it for many (perhaps most) of its fans: Arnold Schwarzenegger. Ok so if you're into Arnie you're into irony. It's like a club token you can flash. See, it's Arny: irony and my good self, we're like that. And he's part of what makes it so big and 80s. 

So, if all that's true why do I shove it here? Because I made the mistake of watching a making of that revealed that the title role was initially designed for Lance Henrikson. He would have been an extremely low key figure, invisible in a crowd, unremarkable by design. The docco had storyboard art with Lance in the role, swinging off rails, falling through skylights etc. In that instant when I knew that, the big dumb 80s iconic hit movie became a sketch released in place of the real thing. The suits won and Arnie's career, instead of stiffing at Conan and body builder #1 roles became an action hero in a long rope of parts all called John something.  

Terminator went from being a fine piece of 80s'orama to a sellout to the suits, yet another indication in the post Blade Runner scene that big 'n' dumb was going to triumph over intense and clever. In this and other instances, the strong, socially committed cinema of the 70s was given last rites, embalmed and buried. Taxi Driver would have starred Arnie if made in 1986 instead of ten years before. So would Logan's Run, Rollerball and The Parallax View. Terminator was a film which I liked as an original and a sequel. Now I don't like any of them.

Wim Wenders
I know. Wim's a genuine indy, why kick him if he's already down? Well, this post is not about public visibility nor it is about things being overrated. It's simply about me not caring about things I've been told I ought to care about.

One of the essential films to add to your shopping list in the late 80s was Paris, Texas. Then Wings of Desire came along and joined it. A little before that, as a film student, I was strongly urged to see The American Friend and Kings of the Road. The only one I haven't seen of those is the last one. That's because I saw all the others.

He's made other films and I haven't bothered to give them a fighting chance as everything I hear about them makes them sound like the ones I have seen. I'd write this exact post (so far) about Wes Anderson except that rather than not give a toss I actively loathe his films; Wenders just leaves me cold. Before you start mentally defending Herr W. against the charge of pretension be advised that I'm not going to bring one. "Pretentious" is one of the most abused terms in all of cultural criticism and you'll witness my use of it very, very sparely.

I don't think Wim Wenders is claiming more than he delivers I just cannot care about what he does deliver. I would care that a gang of angels want to retrieve one of their own whose rebelled by staying on earth if the tale of it were not so meandering and loose-threaded. I find the monologues of the actor and the circus performer stiflingly unengaging. It is not enough for me that they are angels. It isn't enough that they are rendered in sumptuous black and white (not trying to be funny there, I love black and white). And it is too much to put that goof Nick Cave on screen as though his pointless, affected badboy songs were going to add anything useful.

Paris, Texas has the advantage of being attached to a real writer, Sam Shepard. Additionally, the cast is superb. There is also some fine music that not only carries the scenes it's in more than they deserve but became one of THE soundtrack albums to make conspicuous in your collection. And then, snatching defeat from the jaws of certain victory, comes our mate Wim to suck all the vim out of the proceedings as fully as possible. Harry Dean Stanton, already long a careerist character actor, made a big public entrance in his central role in this film. And boy, is he good. He doesn't say a word for the first three weeks of screen time and when he does it's something endearingly trivial which brings him further into our hearts than we'd thought possible ... assuming we're still awake.

The problem with Paris, Texas for me is that its themes of perdition and redemption are good ones. Seeing the hobo errant attempt to repair the disaster area of his life as a brother, husband and father should make us want to talk to people at tram stops or fulfil requests of $2.75 from junkies who need to visit their mothers dying on hospital beds. Well they would make us want those things if Wim Wenders' idea of auteurism didn't have an 'e' and a 'u' and an 'r' too many. In the hands of a genuine cinematic master this hands-off approach might result in subtlety or understatement. With Wim at the helm it translates as gormlessness.

I have heard many impassioned pleas for the quality of this and Wings of Desire and I don't think any of the pleaders are in error or have bought into hype. I just can't join in.

I am indifferent to the entire saga even though I've only ever seen the first one in it's entirety and a few of the others in little grabs.

Late 1977. I went to see this at the twin cinemas in Townsville (it was one building with two cinemas which bore different names, Forum and Odeon: multiplexing was yet to be perfected) with friend Wayne. The preceding short (the economy of plugging so much advertising into the pre-feature time at cinemas had yet to be perfected) was called To Protect and Serve and was made about, for and by the Queensland Police who, even to my cosseted middle class white boy sensibilities, bore the reputation of being a corrupt and violent wing of the state government. The resulting propaganda outing was so hilarious it put everyone into the most receptive mood imaginable for this film that was already hyped to the galaxies. There were two girls sitting in the row in front of us and one of them for reasons unwitnessed darted Wayne a poison look. As was his custom at the time he responded with a protracted: "faaaark off!" She turned back around and that was that except that I joked that he should take that one and I'd go for her brunette friend. He whispered loudly that he'd seen them in the foyeur earlier and they'd both resembled human Mack trucks which put paid to that endeavour. Anyway, the film...

There it was, bigger than life, the rolling prologue about the long long time before in a galaxy far far away and I settled into the gentle but real thrill of being present at a new and significant world event. It began by winning me pretty thoroughly. The opening sequence of action and intrigue seemed to have more substance than the usual sci fi fare and soon enough, the establishment of Luke's world was a revelation. No Star Trek standard valleys of styrofoam here but pure desert that by virtue of its being littered with alien technology felt like another world.

And when I say littered, I mean littered. The first really important thing I noted about the movie was the scrap spaceships. All it had taken was someone modifying the image of a car scrapyard but how impressive it was to see it taken through to this extent. None of these convincing craft ("spaceships with rust!" I gasped at the time) were intended to fly across the screen at any point in the film. They were there to suggest the world beyond the frame of the story. And then the story proper kicked off and my interest drained steadily until the end credits allowed me to exit with honour.

First I hated the naming of things which seemed lazy. Tattooine? Skywalker? Chewbacca? They could convince me that I was beholding an alien world but it was one whose names came from the kind of five minute creative thinking exercise that office workers are serially condemned to every few years in training workshops that their HR departments are obliged to outsource. This alone unlocked the mystery of the Star Wars Universe. It felt like they stopped caring after finishing a few dazzling bits.

By the time I got to the cantina scene started mentally scoffing everything I saw. This was meant to be a bar in a port like the ones in ol' Marseilles or Casablanca so there was meant to be a great range of different types in there mixing it up. There was a great range but that's all. I don't remember any groups of aliens just a room full of completely different life forms with no suggestion that any commerce had brought them there. Compare and contrast the same film's munchkiny beings, the Ewoks. Desert scavengers dealing in scrap. A good idea convincingly borne. Nothing like it in the cantina which looked like an animation of those books done by fans of aliens that are so beautifully rendered the viewer almost forgets to notice that they wouldn't be able to move without hydraulic assistance in the third dimension.

And there was the cuteness. The duo of droids, the poncey one and the little smartarse one who emitted little bips and bleeps which were obviously meant to be sarcasm. Alright that last detail was clever (saved them writing any real funny dialogue for the movie's chief wit, after all) but it grew tiresome very soon (please note that I didn't say "it grew old", I'm trying to write in the idiom of the time ... kinda). Lucas and co liked this so much that they did exactly the same in the cantina scene and with Chewbacca. The occasional dryness delivered by Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford provide the movie with its sole gravitas (Alec Guinness notwithstanding) and when you say that of a film you know it's in trouble.

The final thing that turned my smile upsidedown about Star Wars was something I was noticing in blockbuster cinema in general at the time and was turning me away from it title by title. The film seemed to be constructed by such a gigantic premise and teensy plot that it really felt like a rip off. See also Superman: The Movie (and anything from the time whose title was appended with "The Movie"). Yes, it was dawning on me that big cinema extravaganze were not necessarily being made for their contribution to cinematic progress. But there's something else.

Two other things happened in 1977. First, the rock music version of Star Wars had already appeared on screens in the form of Led Zeppelin's concert movie The Song Remains the Same. The boys' own version seemed insigificant after that. Also, Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols was finally released which was hype come true and wiped the table of cultural significance for me that year (including the Led Zep movie which by then looked like a delfated velociraptor-shaped balloon) and served to keep slick big mainstream culture at a distance and lead to the discovery of all such things hitherto obscured.

When I got back home after the screening my Dad asked me what I thought of the film and my shrugged, "alright" was for once not necessarily an adolescent knee jerk.

The first sequel was supposed to be the best one of the bunch. I've seen about twenty minutes of it and have no interest in extending the experience. Ditto The Phantom Menace and the more recent ones.

I was informed in a recent conversation that my aversion to Star Wars put me in the early Gen X bracket as though I was to be sentenced to a life bound by a cultural cordon which kept me from the delights to Back to the Future, The Goonies and Ferris Bueller. Thanks all the same, but I'll take Never Mind the Bollocks over that, then as now.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Rock on Film Part 12: A pot pourri of punk

First, parameters. Long ago, I heard someone's opinion that there had only been three true punk songs. They were Anarchy in the UK, Helter Skelter and Rock Around the Clock. The opinion was reported rather than heard directly so I couldn't ask at the time what they'd meant by true punk. That kind of opinion was a typical pre dawn conversation topic when the party had dregged and nought but Fruity Lexia and Blackberry Nip were left to quaff: rhetoric, nectar and garbage all seem to find their own level. More recently there has been a trend to speak of punk rock as an American invention exported to a grateful UK. As to that I still like Lydon's comment about grunge: "Now they get it."

For purposes of this article my position is that punk was a British music that was born and died in the late 70s. Anything calling itself punk after that was nostalgia or laziness. I care not where or when or for whom the term was coined but as fine an album as it is Marquee Moon does not resemble Never Mind The Bollocks, Damned Damned Damned or The Clash in any useful way at all. Sorry, I'm old and that's my world.

The title of this post, by the way, is from a gig review in RAM magazine from the late 70s. I still find it funny.

Also, I'm omitting movies about the Sex Pistols as I've covered them here.

Punk in London
As flat a record of the good, the bad and the ugly of the scene in 1977 as you could hope to find. A few mumbled interviews and abortive manifestos pepper what is a series of live performances all done with a sole camera (probably a little Arriflex) from the audience. The image of a young (and still white toothed) Shane McGowan being a drunken bleached yobbo has become quite famous through its appearance in other documentaries. But, and you need to approach my vintage to care about this one, see if you can spot a very young Ian McCulloch later of Echo and the Bunnymen dancing in a crowd.

The real value of this footage, though, is precisely that it was taken at the time. All sorts of acts were included that wouldn't rate a mention in today's reminiscences not only appear but are highlighted. Slaughter and The Dogs, for example, look so try hard that it's hard to imagine what they had to do to share a stage with Siouxsie and the Banshees. Well, try-hard or not, they were part of the scene and muscled their way on to a stage or seven. This alone raises the archeological value of the piece. Of course it's great having the likes of Subway Sect and Chelsea playing through footage as untamed as the scene itself but the wannabes and neverwoulds complete the picture better than more extensive material from the major players might. All scenes have these fielders (I know, I was in a few of them in my own little corner of the Brisbane scene in the terrible winter of '82) and it is to Punk in London's inadvertent credit that it includes them.

As there is no commentary outside of the interviews this film's only essay comes from the rough cut footage itself. While this can get as tiresome as sitting through anyone's super 8 dreck from back in the day, the whole yet bears the weight of witness. As such it remains the truest of the accounts dealt with here. All the others are flavoured and spiced through hindsight.

Available as a twofer with the Clash-related Rude Boy on local DVD.

All in the title. The idea is that punk is not a time bound phenomenon but a mode of expression. I shown this to people who have thought it a betrayal as it was made by a Brit who was there at the time but reaches back to US bands and scenes like the Stooges and the New York Dolls. I didn't get that from any of the viewings I've made. It's always seemed more a quest for chronological completeness.

The profound differences between the American and British scenes are made clear in the film. People who think as I do just tend to resent the American story being told on consecrated ground and I'll admit that it's easy to think that's what's happening in this film. The bigger problem in the presentation, for me, is that on the one hand Don Letts is saying here's a history of punk and on the other that punk doesn't have a history as it's an attitude that stands outside of time.

Outside of this Punk:Attitude is a strong quilt of accounts by players like Ari Up, Steve Jones, Siouxsie Sioux and Poly Styrene etc. Left as this and the video record the film is a delight. the problems start with the carriage of the attitude into the post punk era, the 80s, the 90s, the noughties and on where the examples get less and less convincing. As charming an interviewee as Henry Rollins is he cannot hide his ridicule of the more recent attempts on the American scene to keep the baton afoot. The scenes of sweaty cryptofascist gigs or the more mainstream versions like Blink 182 in front of massive outdoor crowds all just look like the kind of cutesy 50s revivalists of the 70s. The fact that their audiences manifestly clamour for this borrowed tradition (there, you go, "we're a trad punk band": I wonder if anyone has been funny enough to say that with a straight face) is a head shaking grimness.

So if the old stuff cannot be dressed up simply as the beginning of something that's good today why make a film like this? The real argument of this film comes late and briefly: if you've got the energy and the gear to get onstage and rant, don't: at best you'll be vacuumed up by a record company that no one buys from anymore and at worst you'll look like a busker from the 70s doing 60s protest songs. You got the 'tude get with the mude: Use the net, make a docco. The rock version is old (well, it was old in 1980 but let's not split hairs).

Punk:Attitude is a fine effort that makes the mistake of pandering to revisionists and irritating traditionalists and is not helped by the appalling attempt at suavely inserting its creator's role in the scene through interviews with the players (Letts was there and important but this is a sleazy way of making the point). See it for the great interview footage and ideas at the end.

Out locally.

Kill Your Idols
Self-threateningly uneven documentary about the nowave scene in New York in the late 70s and early 80s, useful for the reminiscences of highly articulate folk like Thurston Moore, Michael Gira, Lydia Lunch and Jim Thirlwell. And it's an interesting tale. After the storm of punk there seemed nothing left so that's where the artists that came after began. This and in the UK's post punk scene (to say nothing of a very rich vein right here in Australia which went even further by not giving itself a name) was where I see the real revolution, not in the charge of the light brigade of the terrible summer of '77. This was when the uniforms came off and the music mutinied.

The influence on later music was subtler but I think more profound and has more to inform today's highly affected indy scene than the last of the Mohawks. This is where Kill Your Idols both finally finds its argument and loses its power. About half way through the current New York band scene is examined. Everyone in it talks about how much they love the old stagers like Sonic Youth (the film's  title is from their album Evol) and Swans and then proceed to make babbling idiots of themselves every time they open their mouths (the A.R.E. Weapons spokesperson talks like a World Wrestling Federation contender).

This begins to look increasingly like agressive editing done once the Eureka moment had struck the filmmakers and they locked on to the kill. Now I hate bands like The Yeah Yeah Yeahs who sound like record company designed punk from the early 80s (youtube Transvision Vamp and try to spot the difference) but is Karen O really as stupid as she sounds here? Britney Spears comes across as a Rhodes Scholar by comparison. O's interviews really look like a film school assignment in misrepresentative editing. It's almost too obvious to opine that today's fringe music sounds like yesterday's mainstream but the point of that has long passed its shelf life. No one cares and maybe no one should. Still, it's fun to listen to Michael Gira or Lydia Lunch rant against it.

Initially I liked this docco but the more I thought of it the more I had to admit how indigestibly smug it is once it has found its point (which takes a lot of screen time to reach). If No-Wave didn't care then why should anyone, least of all the scenesters o' today who seem happier to receive its mantle than they should. 

I Swear I was There: The Gig that Changed the World
Hands down funniest title and freshest take on the history. This is the story of how two Mancunians got the Sex Pistols to play in their hometown and thus inadvertently ignited the fuse of the northern scene which informed the world of what would come after punk. The pair in question were Peter McNiesh and Howard Trafford who were far better known as Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto once their band The Buzzcocks emerged. They had dipped down to London, soaked in the scene there and saw the Pistols live and resolved to get them north.

This they did and the rest is hysteria. Through a quilt of interviews and contemporary footage the deals and logistics are revealed of a feat of epoch-making significance that, however plagued by turbulence, seems to have been achieved so simply.  Shelley and Devoto really just went to London, asked and received. The resulting gig at the Free Trade Hall was the stuff of legend, germinating an ethos still influential today in music and pop culture. The attendant tv appearance on Tony Wilson's show So it Goes only cemented this and to witness, as this docco allows, the act the preceeded the Pistols on the show is to witness the most important guard change in British music history. The other act (whose name has fled from me but it was something like Gentleman) are energetic and forceful, a kind of Roxy Music for accountants, They vanish from memory as soon as the Pistols appear. Seriously, watching it, you even stop laughing at them when the familiar lines and colours of the So it Goes Pistols clip commence.

Lydon, the funniest loudmouth in the history of rock music from his time to now (apart, perhaps from the Fall's Mark E. Smith) is absent from the direct interviews in this account which is appropriate as it is best told by the events' architects. We are witness to a good idea that made history. It feels like it but (this is a British documentary) you get all the minor annoyances, long held slights and grudges (the surviving Slaughter and the Dogs are unintentionally hilarious here) and throwaway humour. As such I Swear I was There is purely bloody wonderful.

Possibly available on import.

SHADOWS recommences March 4 at 8pm. Program here.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Interzone vs Intern's Own: good and bad readings of books

The Remington Roach: Interzone's finest.
There were a number of attempts to adapt William Burroughs' novel The Naked Lunch into a film but none reached the big screen until David Cronenberg's version in 1991. I was glad of this. Not only was any diluted attempt to present the novel literally now rendered needless the interpretation was now in the hands of someone who could be trusted to create an extension to the book rather than gaffer tape all the safer scenes together and call it macaroni.

That's important. The Naked Lunch is one of the most fiercely individual novels of its century. Its narrative swings a long slow arc above a canvas of set pieces as crowded as a Bosch painting. While a given passage is rendered in perfectly lucid prose (it was written before the cut up method) any group of them together could bewilder a Joycean scholar (especially this amateur one). Much of the descriptions were considered unfilmable because of their extreme violence or graphic sex which were often indistinguishable from each other. A faithful depiction of what was on the page would be condemned to the feared X rating; cinema death.

But Cronenberg knew his material and the halflit world of its birth among the leading heads of the beats in New York and the hallucinogenically alien realm of Tangier. He knew that Burroughs had made several kinds of journey writing it and had little trouble analogising reality and realising analogy. He'd even offered a bridge which he called interzone. Cronenberg took these concepts and ran. He thought like a filmmaker.

Beginning in New York with a title to inform his audience that we start on a recognisable Earth, we follow Bill Lee, his marriage and his career as an insect exterminator. His apartment is peopled by figures traceable to their biographical inspirations (a clear Joan Burroughs along with a Ginsberg and a Kerouac) who discuss the far out vibe-nations of the dharma ticket while shooting up Bill's bug powder. This life on the ocean page comes to a big loud wreck the afternoon that Bill plays William Tell with his wife's head and a whiskey tumbler. Goes badly.

So off he goes to Tangier. The zurnas wail and the air is filled with hash smoke. Expats speak to him telepathically and he gets a job as an agent reporting from interzone. His typewriters have been turning into insects that talk like Bowery bums. He has an affair with the wife of the American abroad in chief who is a reiteration of his own wife. They have steamy erotic encounters in which his typewriter metamorphoses into as many sex organs as it is possible to fit into the machine's size. It falls humping to the floor and crosses the room to the light.

The Ginsberg and the Kerouac pay a visit and the world of the film is revealed. When Bill is addressing them they are in sunlit Tangier. When they bear witness to his state they are in a garbage swashing slum less than a nautical mile from the initial action. Dig? This is interzone. One way of looking at it is to imagine Hell as a state of mind: you see one thing and everyone else sees its opposite. You know the No one believes you. Cassandra is queen.

That's Cronenberg's doing. He locked on to the only concept that could not only bridge historical reality with the tortured imagination of the writer but provide a bridge for us as well. The result is a constant scission which yet remains seamless. There's the book and there's the film; a perfect fit. That's how you do an interpretation.

George C. Looney: man bear goat.
In Jon Ronson's The Men Who Stare at Goats the man who did stare a goat to death did so by imagining a religious scene in which he is beckoned by Jesus to walk a path of golden light which gives him power. He then conjures an image of St Michael standing by the goat in the next room. St Michael plunges his sword into the goat's body and the goat in the room collapses.

In the film version of this George Clooney stares at a goat through a glass wall until it falls down.

Here's the problem. This book presents a series of fantastical anecdotes that are intentionally left unverified until the end notes. It is written as a journalistic account, not a novel but the author's skill encourages his readers' credulity as tale after mind boggling tale unfolds. While this does involve a lightness of touch to the prose it is administered with extra care to keep things just this side of implausible. Result: a highly entertaining book that presents some intriguing ideas that feel like the most enjoyable after dinner lies once you've finished reading.

So why does this movie feel like Midnight Run in camouflage? Why? Because it hangs its bum between two stools: here a kind of revisited Catch 22 satire using the book's more outrageous claims and there a limping self indulgent buddy movie with George C. Looney at his cutest and Ewen MacGregor as a foil to George. And along for the ride we also have a Kevin Spacey who gets a chance to consciously point to how smug his usual screen presence is and just ends up being smug again. Jeff Bridges acquits himself as the founding father of the First Earth Battalion but he always acquits himself.

Where's the book in all this? Well it wasn't that great a book to begin with, reading like a million of those pulp jobs from the seventies about UFO encounters or pyramid power. There is clear skill in its pages but the fact that it presents itself as pointing to the plain sight hiding place of the esoteric arms race pretty much disqualifies its credibility. From there you can, of course, say, "well, that's all part of the plan, isn't it?" at which point I run out of patience. It's not a fine book but doesn't care that it isn't. The film, on the other hand wants to be something phenomenal, a kind of cross of Oliver Stone and Robert Altman. But any film that has to resort to dosing the stiff neck character with LSD for ironic laughs has long lost its way.

There's a moment where Clooney tells MacGregor about killing the goat with his mind and how haunted he is by it. MacGregor slips in with, "the silence of the goats." The line hangs in the air and floats around the lighting for the rest of the scene, an ugly remnant of a late late night's brainstorming that wasn't erased before it hit the shooting script. MacGregor does get the surprisingly well crafted final moment but by then it is far too late. Read the book and leave it on a tramstop but use the ninety plus minutes you might have wasted on its film adaptation doing your taxes or really committing to watching that cinema classic you've been putting off every time you look at it on the shelf in your living room. Go on, you know you need to.

SHADOWS resumes March 4. Program here.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Pedagogues or demogogues : teachers on film.

Nanu nanu

Hands up who's had an inspiring teacher! Yeah, same here. Now, hands up who's had a teacher who's said something like, "I want you to look through the painting" or has torn the pages of a prescribed text, calling it excrement? No, me neither. But the latter example is how a great teacher in movies behaves: a fiery champion of individuality who will risk his own career for the intellectual wellbeing of his kids and who will often be so humbled by their lesson for him that he will abandon all greater career ambitions to do the same thing we've seen him do year after year until death.

Now, I know the tenets of dramatisation demand a misshapen portrayal. That's not what I'm talking about. When education or educators are employed in the central roles in fiction the values of education usually take a beating. At best these depictions can themselves inspire but at worst their idiosyncratic maelstroms of inspiration can make them well-oiled Mussolinis. Here are a few I despaired of earlier.

Blackboard Jungle
"You will NEVER split an infinitive"
Same scenario as To Sir With Love but made a decade earlier. Glenn Ford takes a post teaching in a rough neighbourhood school. Things get nasty and violent before Glenn finds the way.

There is a genuine toughness to this one and it might be difficult to fully appreciate considering the host of imitators playing down the five decades since its release. But it would be a mistake to judge this by its cover versions. This was the first significant teacher hero movie to suggest that the problems in the classroom lay beyond its walls. Also, that the nasty pasty disruptor might be retrievable if approached with respect. Vic Morrow in that role demonstrated all the knotty sinew that would serve him in Machoworld later. Sidney Poitier also impresses (he must have graduated as he appears ten years later as a teacher in To Sir With Love). It's Glenn Ford, though, who really impresses in this one. He starts all middle class ex-marine respectable like but visibly learns the method by which teaching, real education might be achieved and young folk might be saved from the prescribed desparation of their adulthood. Sincerely.

This film carries a strange byproduct. The scenes of wild youth untamable that run beneath the titles play to the beat of Rock Around the Clock. It's the first use of rock music in a feature film. Cinemas were reputedly torn apart during screenings when fiesty teens were driven to frenzy by the calumphing thud of Bill Hayley and his Comets. I shouldn't sarc that up, really. It does after all provide an interesting case of unintentional prediction: that said wild youth untamable continued to feel the pulse of rebellion in the packaged conformity of rock music. To this day the terms of rock 'n' roll are wildness and rebellion. Not bad for a music that however bad born turned crewcutted and consumable from its infancy.

When the maths teacher in Blackboard  Jungle brings in his collection of old swing records to demonstrate the numbers in music, the kids smash the discs, calling for ... Frankie Sinatra. The ones who might have cried Elvis had the film been made a year later would have been the good kids in the class.

"An A for effort."

Mona Lisa Smile
You mean we'll just be playing teachers when we're older, Miss?
Julia Roberts heads a dream cast in a tale of one bohemienne's journey into ivy league frigidity to battle the forces o' post war women's oppression. Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Julia Stiles, Juliet Stevenson? All in the one photograph? I'm looking.

Begins well. Julia's first encounter with her class of WASPish wunderkinder is pretty fraught. Julia can't get a word of a suggestion out before one of the perfectly presented students carries it out (turning the slide projector on and the lights off, for example). Then in an odd replay of a scene in Omen II the students identify each slide as soon as it appears on the screen. Then, when asked who has read the entire prescribed text book, every single hand in the classroom hits the air. As this scene progresses it becomes clear that not only are these students young, energetic and intelligent but also as  fledgling daughters of the ruling class they fall into their roles like automatons, presumably to be animated into free thinking Pinochios who will walk among us as Amazons of Creativity.

So does Julia decide to accept this? You bet! And that's where it all bogs down. The various future matrons variously shock or are shocked by Julia's petite west coast boho and her ways. I'm not being dismissive, it's an enjoyable film, but the journey of the gifted student to demigodhead and the teacher's to earthly humility is, with one exception, nothing but routine. There isn't another moment in the rest of the film like the arresting classroom scene I described before. I could easily have watched a film where every obstacle the young teacher faced was as challenging as that. But it just spreads across the surface like peanut butter until the regulation affirmation from the students and life resignation by the teacher as she discovers the higher purpose of pedagogy.

"Could do better."

To Sir, With Love
I'm touched ... Is this ticking?
First seen. Tightest written. Best actor. Best song.

Sidney Poitier goes to teach at a grubby London state school only to face a constant tide of testosteronic vim, racism and general attention deficit (do Etonians have attention surpluses?) When this noise reaches the levels boasted by the workplaces these kids are headed for in only a few months Sid realises that the only relevant information he can convey to them is life experience. He challenges them to act like adults if they are to be treated so and finally gets their attention. Thomas Hardy and times table out, grooming and salad making in. Welcome to the world beyond the bell.

What I like about this one is that the teacher is so pragmatic that his frustrated questions are put to himself. The early blows to his confidence draw an observable pain from him that must find a cure. That comes from his ingenuity. His lesson on respect is for mutual respect, not a veiled respect due him by unruly youths. At a later moment involving the white kids overcoming an ingrained racism his unspoken indication is toward the occasion's solemnity. There is a round of smiles from the kids who have turned up against their culture's wishes but it is met not with a returned smile (hey, we all brothers) but a look that reminds them that they are at a funeral. After being overwhelmed by the events of the ending he makes the decision generic to the heroic teacher movie and is incidentally taunted by a brace of his future nightmares.

He feels his increased strength. End. Except I do get the feeling in his case that he himself will learn the way back to teaching curriculum as well as the great lessons o' life. He is neither sobered nor vainglorious. He's just a bloody teacher. A good one but just a teacher.

"Top of the class. A credit to this school."

Dead Poet's Society
Just what part of Mein Gross Weltanchaung don't you understand?
If it's true that true education must extend beyond the blackboard, as suggested in the previous entries, Dead Poet's Society extends beyond that truism and leaps into the constellation of demogoguery prime.

Robin Williams plays John Keating an old boy of an old school for the sons of old money returns to the scene as a new English teacher. He finds the curriculum stodgy and his students unethusiastic so he starts pepping it up with performance.

This leads to exercises to shake the kids out of their drowsy complacency to soar into the celestium of individuality through poetry. This leads to his insistence on the students' individuality in enforced demonstrations of anti-conformity. This leads to the school's administration bearing down on Keating for ... well not for straying from the cirriculum they are paying him to teach but for being anti-conformist. The Principal himself actually uses the word conform the same way that a baddy in a sci-fi might use the word obey.

During one cryptomilitary exercise in non-conformity, one of the boys is admonished by Keating for standing still. The kid says he's exercising his right not to do as the others. Keating's reply is that the boy is acting perfectly within the spirit of the exercise. That should sound self-blindingly true, a eureka moment for the teacher that he is in fact coercing his charges with his idea of individuality. But it is delivered with the same tone that any parent or teacher will use to convince a kid that he can't win. Another scene has Keating roughhousing a boy until the kid comes up with a free verse poem. It's meant to look liberating but ust ends up looking like the kind of religious or political bullying done from time immemorial to extract conformity from subjects.

After all this, some sneaky guidance for the boys to seek out and fetishise his old notebooks, after a failure of his to recognise a boy's self-fatal fragility, after his rightful dismissal, the boys stage one final protest which affords him the same smile the Mussolini would've repressed after the March on Rome. Right or wrong, the boys are his. Whether teacher, Duce, pope or general he can command their hearts and minds against the best efforts of the system ... the other system, I mean...

I hate this film from the same director who rankled so joyously against homogeneity in society with The Cars that Ate Paris and understood the big spooky attraction to really truly going out on a limb against the unknown in Picnic at Hanging Rock. If that's a good teacher then Hitler was a good advocate of tolerance.

"Fail. Does not play well with others."

Ok, so the hero teacher movie in the main is an ode to the discovery of the worth in doing the less glamorous jobs, of being able to make a difference just by doing your day to day. I know from bitter experience having my trips to town interrupted by old girls from my mother's school stopping her in the street in spontaneous worship that good teachers are treasures. But it extends. Every supercilious waiter or cooler-than-thou shop assistant I encounter reminds me of how the dignity of anything can be violated by sociopaths. This is all well and good but as it seems to be so easily hijacked its worth as a vehicle for this lesson is questionable. When the notion of education is valued by the personal force of its practitioners we land in the same saddening territory as popular culture in general and even more so its margins where unassuming talent and vision will always be crushed under anything with more front. Robin Williams' Keating would have kicked Sidney Poitier's ayess. That's the problem.

SHADOWS resumes March 4. Program here.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Picnic at Hanging Rock: rebalancing the dress

This landed on my desk yesterday, February 14. A FB friend posted about seeing it as a Valentine's Day film and my world came tumbling down. I've been an admirer of the film from its release in the 70s and no viewing subsequent to that has altered my rating of it. However well I thought I knew the film I had never thought anything of the importance of the temporal setting of the story. A group of virgins in white dresses leave their cloistered protection to enter into the threatening realm of nature, some of them forever.

Virgin girls, virgin century, virgin nation (one year almost to the day before Federation) and big hungry nature. I heard a recent podcast in which two people reviewed this film favourably but complained about it being too British to be regarded as an Australian film. This bizarre misreading got me so angry that I almost ... wrote this then rather than now. What a point-missing thing to say. Australia in 1900 considered itself Britain's backyard; its customs, culture, manners and class system were as British as cucumber sandwiches and croquet. By contrast, the broader Australian presence is ably handled by John Jarrat (who would later surface in Wolf Creek as the AntiCrocodileDundee), Garry McDonald and Jackie Weaver etc.

Contrast, say I! Picnic at Hanging Rock happens in a realm that might as well be a settlement on another planet where the invaders cling steadfastly to their identiy as Earthlings. Australia in 1900 was such an other planet. The Britishness is intentional and entirely appropriate. It would unrealistic without it. Contrast only the behaviour of the children of the local town as they run tauntingly after the girls' carriage with the vestals within remaining expressionless and protective of a status of which they are forbiddingly aware. And on travels the shipment of sacrifice from halls sighing with girlish whispered poetry to the venomous inferno of the new world.

Once there, the European saint toasted with ginger beer in enamel mugs, alpha girl Miranda plunges the knife into the pink heart of the cake whose pieces will soon feed a colony of very grateful ants. Here, the signifiers of the peoples of the northern hemisphere look like fancy dress. Mademoiselle's breathed French phrases, the plates in a book of Renaissance painting, the watches that stop at noon because they are as useful here as boat rudders, and the dresses, the flowing white umbilical remnants of the old order, the ridiculously inappropriate corsetry and skin stewing layers that look like home but on the obviously 30 plus degree day in the film must have felt like hell.

Those dresses are not just the banners of social elevation they are its prison cells as well. When Miranda and her friends splinter off from the main party it isn't long before the constraints come off. Not erotically, though, we've had a dose of that from the opening sequence when they were put on. This clothing removal is practical. Involving as it does a means to meet Big Nature on her own terms, it is also afforded a ritual and perhaps even mystical significance. Canny artists from this country have known how to make the Australian bush fascinating by keeping it spooky, surrounding and quietly threatening. When the girls climb the rock and get closer to the point at which they vanish their Englishness, affected or geniune, falls from them. The words fall away and the music takes over. Miranda, face completely covered by her golden mane, walking into a crevice and seeming to be consumed by the rock to the sound of a wordless choir sends the same kind of shivers it sent when I saw it in the 70s. She has gone forever. The terrified crying of her name by the outcast Edith cannot bring her back.

From this point we get where mystery stories usually start: the disappearance has happened and the detectives piece the events together. But we already know what happened, kind of. But there is no end to the mystery. The townsfolk are spooked and sculpt tiny monsters out of gossip. The police are baffled. Back at the school a sense of doom drives its namesake Miss Appleyard to the cognac and a thousand mile stare. A large scale search retrieves Irma but she can reveal nothing more than her thanks at being alive (the scene of her return is a beautifully staged horror from everyone's childhood). The new century is about to start and the new nation is wanted on stage. Get over it. Be haunted.

To celebrate Picnic at Hanging Rock for its atmosphere is stating a given. You can watch it for the spookiness alone which extends well beyond the initial disappearance. But spare a moment of sensory input to see the secret admirer's card floating on the screen. Mysterious, scary AND seductive nature, be my valentine. Never has a more deeply felt love letter been delivered to this country than in this film.

SHADOWS Autumn program begins March 4. Program here.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011



The afternoons stretch and the blaze cools. Leaves tan and wither. The skies thicken with grey smudges and the breeze curls, chilled, around ankles.Evening comes down sooner every day and the dark prepares to swell around the daylight until spring. Not quite the time for rugging up but Milos will chop and burn some wood if the merc drops too low after dark. S'autumn, friends. Time for tales 'n' wine (or beer) and here they are, six tales o' flight for earthbound Friday eves. Your chairs, soeurs 'n' freres!

Unless otherwise stated, doors open at 7.00 for a screening at 8.00. The first few screenings might have to start closer to 8.30 to allow for daylight saving (ceiling has skylights).

VENUE: Milos's place (link at end of post for map), ABC Gallery 127 Campbell St,  Collingwood.

Friday March 4 8pm

(Tarsem, ?, 2006)

Comfortable? Right, let's begin. Once upon a time there's a man called Roy who is a stuntman for the silent movies in the bakelite eon. He's in hospital after a mishap on the job, possibly crippled for life. Also, the unattainable movie star he was trying to attract seems to have hooked herself up to the leading man. He's not looking forward to tomorrow.

Into his ward falls a child's note, meant for someone else. When its author comes to retrieve it, Roy sees a solution to his problems. How do you get a child to kill you? You make it fun.

This candid take on the reason for telling stories is only the beginning of why The Fall is good. From this point there is a constant reminder of how the manipulation at the heart of storytelling expresses itself in cinema. The little girl, Alexandria sees an accidental camera obscura image very early on in the film. The spectacuar scenes of the story that Roy makes up as he goes along are her imagination. When he describes a character as Indian he means Native American but she imagines a Sikh. The forbidding figure of a radiologist in his lead armor gives her the look for the evil henchmen in the tale. The heroine of the story often talks and acts like her. And the story itself is chaotic, being frequently retooled by Roy as Alexandria doesn't like or understand a detail. However slick this film looks (and it really does) it must in the end bow to the limitations of its story and the forces forging it.

Tarsem Singh made this film with a Babel of funding and support from industry friends (Spike Jonez and David Fincher add their names to the credits as presenters) and even his own coffers while on the many locations he went to for his main work, hi-gloss tv commercials and music videos. But it's not just locations. The guy has an eye. The world of Alexandria's imagination is told through some of the most beautiful cinematography I've seen in a fiction film. If the overall tale of the movie weren't substantial by itself I could just watch this one all day long for the pictures alone.

This film took me completely by surprise as I'd expected it to be little more than a show reel of hollow setups. Singh, however, took his inspiration from a Bulgarian film called Yo Ho Ho (acknowledged in the credits) which gave him the kind of solid base for his imagination that he lacked with The Cell (the final and most idiotic of the 90's serial killer genre). The reason you haven't heard of it is due to its being near impossible to market. Too violent for the kids and too whimsical for their parents, perhaps.

Whatever, this is the film that the filmmaker wanted to put on the screen. As such it joins the signature works of anyone who ever struggled to do the same which makes it a rarity. Happily, it's a good rarity.

Friday March 11 8pm

(Volker Schlondorf, Germany, 1979)
"Once there was a gullible people who believed in Santa Claus...but Santa Claus was really the gasman."

The best literal film adaptation of a novel EVER.

Nobel laureate Gunther Grass became my favourite living author after I read his first novel. The native Danziger combined his own life with that of a brattish child he observed in a cafe and set them both coursing on the slight shoulders of Oscar Mazerath as he walks through the Nazi years unhindered.

Oscar, highly intelligent from the age of embryo, does not like what he sees when he sees adults. They are deceitful, lustful, violent, hating buzzkills, worse when they're having fun than when they're serious. He chooses not to join them and effectively prevents any expectations that he might, by injuring himself irrevocably. From that time he walks through the world of his town of dangerously divided loyalties (the Free City of Danzig) as unhindered as any child. For everyone else they are a Pole, a Jew or a German (Grass actually went one further by declaring Oscar and his family Kashubian). This would make for tough enough stuff if it weren't for the fact that in the relative peace of the inter-war years the adults in his life are so forcefully directionless. Then when the ones with the swastikas on their arms come marching, blundering, thundering, crashing and bashing in then all bets are off.

The novel, written in a kind of magical realism developed independently of the better known Latin American strain, uses the perceptions of the self-made freak at its centre. An able bodied adult male in these circumstances would be absorbed by nazism or resist it. Oscar avoids both by his childlike appearence which harbours the experience of adulthood and the determinedly childish worldview. David Bennent seems to have materialised from the pages of Grass's manuscript, he is a radiant young boy with a pair of ice blue eyes which at once gather and judge the world entering them. His voice in the quote I began with goes from a singsong to a Hitlerian rasp and chills the line to permafrost. Lesser casting of this role would have left it a curio. With Bennent in the lead, The Tin Drum is a masterpiece. Volker Schondorf's only one. but he could die with only that film on his slate and get a decent seat at the table of the cinema greats.

Funny, terrifying, heartrending, eye-widening, The Tin Drum is always compelling. Locally released but it's in here as I've found few among those I've spoken to recently who know of the film or its source. Come and change that.

Friday March 18 8pm

(William Peter Blatty, USA, 1980)
What is a wonderland without a Mad Hatter's tea party? Exorcist author William Peter Blatty took that story's themes of belief into more theological terrain. Where better than a mental institution, a place held by many to have replaced the church as sanctuary to the troubled spirit?

Blatty's inmates are not the patients Fr Karras sees when he visits his mother (they were real patients, btw), they are drawn from Shakespeare and his bloodthirsty, bearbating colleagues of the Jacobean theatre. Remember, this is not about psychiatry, it's about belief, and Blatty is happy to let the lunatics take over and carry on like actors challenged at an audition to "really go insane". The gothic Californian castle they live in seems, also, to have an unlimited prop room and wardrobe. The archaic face of their condition is deliberate, though it takes a little settling for the point to become visible.

Into this Krazy Kastle comes the new head of psychiatry, Colonel Kane, gentle, self possessed and haunted as MacBeth. Through the noise of the loonies (who nonetheless are given some deleriously funny lines) comes Cutshaw, the astronaut who panicked at the last moment and had a kind of spiritual implosion. We quickly see in the highly theatrical meet-up scene between the two that here are two souls who might save or destroy each other.

If you make it that far you are in for a reward. This is not a proto buddy movie, it's a dialogue. And it's a serious one, about the nature of belief and the need for a purposeful science or a responsible god. If you're worried about this sounding like those old Christian Television Association dramas, don't. Take a tip from a lifelong atheist (hi, it's me, come and see this film).

If you enjoyed The Rapture's honest look at personal faith you just might find this a worthwhile extra step.

Friday March 25 8pm

( Jaromil JireŇ° Czechoslovakia 1970)
Filmed fairy tales usually play fair. They begin with a realistic frame (like The Fall or The Princess Bride) which makes it easy for anyone to plunge into the imaginary world. Usually, this involes a tranistional device. Alice falls down a rabbit hole and comes out in Wonderland. That doesn't quite happen here. And Valerie's Wonderland can be found on any map that includes the Carpathian Mountains and the land of Maldoror. No rabbit hole but a single drop of blood on a flower is enough for the journey. From her first period, Valerie steps into a fairy tale both sumptuous and deeply troubling.

If her Mittel European village was picturesque and endearing it is now, piece by piece, a seething pit of rabid eroticism and near sadomasochistic repression. It's not all good: the avuncular figure who might well be her absent/deceased father/uncle/related authority figure appears to also be a chalk faced nosferatu. Or is he a priest? Actually, in the world of this film there's no "or" about that. What of the young maid being prepared for nuptials at the beginning in a ceremony so highly ritualised it could be an outtake from The Wicker Man? Valerie's landscape has changed forever and she must do some quick thinking to survive.

This remnant of the initial push of the Czech surrealist movement (reputedly still in rude health) made it to the screen against all odds. The recognised auteurs of the Czech new wave were busy getting squeezed out of work and nation or just pressed behind bars as the great red hope moved in. This strange and constantly anti-authoritarian dreamscape survived the Soviet invasion's crushing of the flowers and cancellation of the Spring. Was its superficial whimsy deemed harmless? Did any of them actually watch the thing?

While dangers of womanhood fill the screen the accompanying freedom of coming of age is never too far away, here. If that's too esoteric, there's always the sheer beauty of the Autumnal sunlight and the arresting visuals of pretty much every single scene. And can you look at yourself and really not love a film that inspired an entire Broadcast album (Haha Sound)? Oh, you want inspiration? How about Angela Carter's Bloody Chamber and Company of Wolves?

Friday April 1 8pm

(John Scheslinger, UK 1963)
Billy Fisher is young and exploding with dreams, ready to catapult himself into the great tide of NEW that was Britain in the 60s.But if his imagination could lead him to greatness it has already landed him into such a well of trouble that his days become a series of dodges against rapidly rising consequences.

Swinging London is just down the road and if he were there he would be a star and all these annoyances would be celebrations of his style. But in the dowdy old northern town he wades through nothing is going to be like that. Whether it's the two girls he's engaged to or the increasingly futile quest to hide the futz he made of a simple PR task for his job he is not going to get out of it easily. Into this bleak comedy come the twin lures of a tv comedian in town to open a supermarket and a vision of everything he wants in a young and radiant Julie Christie. He could get a script to the comic if he can get close (and if he can be bothered to write one) and/or just accept the girl's outstretched hand and zing down to London and launch. Then everything will be alllllllright.

Well, this is a British film from the kitchen sink era. All those from Cliff Richard movies happened on the other side of town. Billy Liar is constantly funny and dizzyingly accurate in its depiction of a youthful imagination but it is determinedly set in a grey civic purgatory of an England that celebrates the industrial revolution more than the Blake that damned it. But instead of a worker's paradise we have a working class debarked by consumerism in a ceaseless damp winter. London's only a train ride away, Billy, the Beatles are about to crack America wide open.

Friday April 8
(Michelangelo Antonioni, USA 1970)

The film opens in a setting typical of late 60s American cinema, a student political meeting. Mark, unaffiliated and unimpressed walks out. He is soon to be politicised, however, when he is thrown into the slammer with a lot of other longhairs and embarks on arming himself for the good fight to come. This goes awry when his planned debut on the stage of student protest goes horribly wrong. He takes flight, literally, heading to the desert in a stolen Cessna. Meanwhile, Daria, hippy-leaning secretary to a land developer determined to concrete the desert with dream homes, heads west in her car to join her employer in his lookout aerie for a meeting with the larger of the local wigs who might buy into it. Guess which pair of hopeless dreamers meet mid-desert?

Ok, so the plot of Zabriskie Point isn't the point. Here the desert isn't a barren waste, it's a haven. Once the politics have served to launch Mark into Icarus territory they are dispensed with. His dashing flyover courtship of Daria is the stuff of legend and that is the point. Having nailed the fragility of pop image making (and self image making) in Blow Up, Michelangelo Antonioni turned his eye to the unavoidable spectre of America. He found an America of futile struggle and stasis, a mythical land without a myth. Like the mythmakers of cinema before him, he headed west to see if he could find the makings of legend.

Did he succeed? I still don't know but the remainder of the film does have the clean lines and expansiveness of a legend. Once we hit the desert we know the forces that have shaped the central pair. Their meeting feels inevitable and their communion in the desert has a quiet epic quality as though these human figures enter the landscape to complete it. The meeting itself seems to amount to little (unless we are to take the great sandy love-in literally) but each continues richer for it toward graver things. So it feels like a legend.

I can take or leave Antonioni. I can find him inspiring or ponderous and dull but here I was surprised on my second look in as many decades at the elegance of his execution here. As an early example of a sourced soundtrack it has few rivals in this regard (always felt Easy Rider's constant late 60s jukebox intrusive) and, outside of The Wall (nyuck nyuck) you won't find a better use of Pink Floyd's music in a film. It grounds the deliciously excessive surrealist finale in a way that a conventional orchestral score or a cutesy ironic pop song ever could. I don't know if this is great cinema. I don't know if this is an aaaaaart film. But I do know that I like it.