Saturday, 27 April 2013

Inspired by Der Steppenwolf - Herman Hesse

Take me to the place where people howl,
With life, in fear and with ardor,
To the steppes where the soul’s wolf prowls,
Where there’s beauty without order.

Take me to the place where the spirit crows,
With yearning, in joy and in pain,
With dance, with verse, and with prose,
Out on the steppenwolf’s plain.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

On Nationalism

In scattered greens and browns beyond,
Though winding veins of twisted lanes,
In vaulted barns by planate ponds,
They lie and squirm in unjust pain,
For worlds long gone
And times long passed,
When God and sun on empire shone,
But hear them cry: agog, aghast
As if there’s rights within their blood,
That no other blood should hold,
A nobility that in the English stood,
Whilst in other hearts it falls and folds,
As if a birth in lines on maps,
Makes a spirit yet more bold.

Absurd, vulgar, vain and fraught:
there’s no such thing as Englishmen,
Nor any weight does this import,
Beasts are but beasts and men but men.

And though it’s earth, which holds no bond,
As vale is vale and hill is hill,
There’s colours there of which I’m fond,
This is yet my country still.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Too close to call: Close-ups in cinema

We all know the famous closing line from Sunset Boulevard. If you don’t, educate yerself here:

It makes perfect sense that Norma Desmond should crave the ego massage of the close-up at her most ruined and desolate, and it makes perfect sense that director Billy Wilder should choose to give us such a tightly-framed portrait of the insane former actress in the film’s dying seconds, at the moment of total psychic collapse.

After all, in cinema the close-up is the means by which we – those ‘wonderful people out there in the dark’ - fall in love with the figures on the screen, and Desmond wants nothing more than the unconditional love of a silent, distant audience. How many people in our lives do we see so intimately? In normal social interactions, eye contact is brief, respectful, and we don’t get up in people’s personal space. But in the cinema, we’re free to study and drink up beautiful or interesting or sympathetic or repellent faces to our heart’s content. In real life, we can only indulge such curiosity with family members, or a lover. This is the erotics of the close-up, one of the most inviting and addictive aspects of the cinematic aesthetic: whether it’s Maria Falconetti, Juliette Binoche, or Ryan Gosling, we can attentively register every betrayed and involuntary emotion they experience, as if in bed with them.

In early silent movies, stars like Greta Garbo were often photographed using lenses smeared with Vaseline to soften the resulting image and remove any unwanted blemishes from the actors’ faces. Essentially a more primitive (but often more flattering) form of Photoshop, it gave the close-ups of romantic Hollywood movies the clouded quality of the lustful gaze, emulating the manner in which the brain shuts out imperfect details during coitus to increase sexual excitement. Really, the use of Vaseline seems all too fitting: the lubricant smoothing the passage between the friction of reality and desire.

But the close-up Norma Desmond believes she is granting her fans is not the same as the one the audience sees, which is less redolent of love than it is of stark, horrible death, leering out at us and moving towards us as the picture blurs and becomes wholly indistinct, as if Wilder intends to evoke those same Vaseline-soaked pictures from a more naive age.

Film theorist André Bazin postulated that the frame of the cinematic image should not be conceived of as a window, as had been previously asserted, but a mask, showing us a little, but hiding the rest and making us aware as viewers that something is always being withheld. Consequently, the fact that Desmond’s pale visage, plastered in ghoulish, unconvincing make-up, resembles a death mask in this close-up is entirely appropriate: just as her face is a kind of whited sepulchre, hinting at her inner corruption and decay, Wilder’s closing shot intimates quite bluntly the ugliness and rotten core of the Hollywood dream factory behind its seductive surfaces.

Desmond’s swansong mocks the false intimacy of the Hollywood close-up, but it also demonstrates cinema’s preoccupation with how faces can reveal the mind, and perhaps the soul. In her bulging eyes and awkwardly thrusting jaw, we think we see that Desmond’s mind has finally snapped, but of course this flamboyant form of madness could be just another one of her virtuoso, show-stopping performances. It is simultaneously comic and disturbing, and we don’t know whether to laugh at, pity, or fear Desmond. By confronting us with a face that demands to be read, this close-up, like many others, puts the mechanics and ethics of human empathy and interpretation front-and-centre. Such close-ups can make us aware of the process by which we take meaning from the living masks that we all wear, and respond to them.

Even in so ironic and melodramatic an example as this extraordinary scene, it becomes clear that because of the power of the close-up to isolate and individualize on-screen agents and sensitize us to the hidden-presence of psychological experience, cinema is perhaps an essentially (and highly effectively) humanist medium.

Here's one more very powerful close-up:


Short Story: Where from?

In the beginning, there was already a question.

The ones who lived in the oasis. Their skin, translucent and paler than the moon's ghost. Sometimes the sun could catch a glimpse of their beautiful skin, usually sheltered beneath the canopy of trees. Seraphic hands might touch that pale skin, shoulder blades or a limb, as one of the dwellers there hesitated on the edge of that canopy, before disappearing back inside.

The oasis. Vegetable patch. Honeyed garden. Where the fruit rotted in its place on the bough. The canopy dripping with wine and cordial, an endless, dizzying inner ferment. The trees dripping white sap, sugar, semen.

Beings of all kinds were there. In the shade of the canopy, in aching corners, they would come out to life. In the spaces of silence, when the pale figures who ran here and there lay down to rest, they would come out to life. One day there might have been a wasps' nest. Another day, a crow that could read its own entrails. Or a mouth that drinks up the canopy and drowns before it can talk.

These beings could have been the beginning of many things. But for whatever reason, the shade of the oasis, and its endlessness, soon forgot them. All we know is that they had come and gone before the pale figures awoke.


The canopy opened onto a desert. The sand so dry and hot that to place one's foot upon it after the cool earth of the oasis, as the pale figures often would, felt like the exquisite jolt of an unlawful trespass. And then, after returning to the shade of their familiar world, they would carry the sensation a few steps further, and it would redouble in their faint minds like a neighbouring presence: the first breaths of conscience.

A great flurry beneath the canopy. Something is venturing beyond its border, and it is one of the pale figures. This should be one of the times of rest, when the pale ones sleep and other, madder wildnesses are able to stir. The others look on at their brother's progress, and they are filled with horror, hatred, and fright. The sun catches sight of a shiver as it passes along the ranks of the gathered watchers, despite the steady warmth of the light.

There is an expectation for the first time, and for the first time something outside of their usual being and rest: a sight.

Every step that the lone walker took on the sand caused him to stiffen momentarily. When his quivering had subsided enough, never subsiding completely, he stepped forward again. The shadow he cast behind him sprawled like an idol thrown upon its side. When he turned to look at his shadow, the walking figure thought he saw the neighbouring presence he had always felt near the threshold of the sand.

As the shadow fell towards life on the sand, its sibling was born in a moaning corner of the oasis. It gripped the bark of a tree with clever hands, climbed into the canopy, and refused to die.


The pale figure on the edge of the desert, underneath an empty sky. Viewing this hole for the first time, away from the nets of the canopy, the pale figure thought he would fall into it and that his plummet would never end.

Look at the sky, we say, and you cannot fail to summon to yourself a question.

And now he stopped, and he stayed where he found himself. And after remaining there for some time, he decided that it was good. With the others watching, he threw up handfuls of sand. His clever hands, made for grasping food and flesh in the dark, now fashioning a shape out of the sand. He made a hole. At first, only wide enough for his feet, but when he had stepped inside of it he continued to dig, until the hole was deep enough for a figure of his size to sit in it. But he still swept the sand with both arms to either side of his body, like a bird sinking, and even as it is sinking taking flight. Soon, he had submerged himself entirely, and even though the sand in that spot where he lay immersed seemed the same as the sand lying everywhere else, it had undoubtedly been shaped and forever altered by that figure's hand.

At first, nothing further happened. The pale ones gathered at the edge of the oasis felt the fingers of the seraphs and the fingers of the sun pressing upon their eyelids, and with sighs of relief they returned to their home, its rest and its docile, empty wisdom.

But after their departure, much happened and remained unseen.


In the hours after their retreat, the one who had departed from their company embedded himself ever more stubbornly in the desert floor. He would not move, even as the sand pressed upon his eyelids and his chest. He refused to move, even as the sand crept through orifices of nostril, ear, mouth, and anus, towards his shuddering innards.

Like an iron weight the sand pressed down upon him, and as it did so he felt the breath of life depart, and his penis grow thick and turgid, churning the sand as the rest of his body succumbed to the weight. The more the sand squeezed his ribcage, the thicker and harder he became. Until, like a weed, stubbornly ugly and stubbornly alive, it burst out of the sand and pointed at the sky. Like the tusk of a long-dead beast, uncovered by the endless subsidence, he poked skywards, quivering and laughing blindly in the breeze.

At this moment, a dribble of semen might have issued from it, and brought forth the first desert orchids. This might have happened, but it did not.


The ones who retreated into the oasis, slept soundly for a space. They would rest together, often embracing, or reaching out suddenly for a body nearby if a nightmare had taken hold.

When they awoke, the shadow's sibling hung out over the canopy above their heads. This being was the first they ever saw, the others having come and gone in the hours of their rest, even though their moans and chatter would bubble up into the pale ones' dreams like warm air from an underwater volcanic fissure. The being filled them with fear, and yet their hearts were afflicted for the first time with love.

All of them stood and gawped. As the being looked down, they all stared up.

It was the clever hands of the being that they couldn't help but watch. Picking fruits and flowers and leaves from the canopy roof, the being fashioned them into sights unknown; frightening, many-limbed and violently coloured, it was as if the being had plucked out the visions they often saw during their rest. And as he made these images, the being would lay them out along the branches where he crouched.


The pale one in the sand was squeezed dry of breath. His innards so invaded by the sand that there was nothing between him and the desert itself.

And now he found that, after some time had passed, the only sensations he had were to be found in that part of him protruding from the sand. The consciousness he still had dwelt wholly in that dry, shaking root. No sight, no sound, or smell, but the feel of the breeze and the warm air on that part of his skin still exposed to the sun.


A woman approached from across the desert floor. She had been wandering for longer than the longest utterable time is long. When she crouched down to clear her bowels, she could have been mistaken for a mountain a long way off.

Her body threw itself in every direction beneath a rag of sackcloth. Her eyes turned sand to glass, and all creation sped away from them. Her thick hair towered upon her skull like a pillar of broken rocks.


The being under the canopy sat among the images he had formed. All of them grouped as if in session and judgment on the pale ones looking on. And then the being, lordly, began to teach his audience the names of each different creature he had made. And the pale ones thought that the creatures on the branches watched them reproachfully, as if reproaching them for everything they still had to learn.

The pale ones remained mesmerised by the being's clever hands, still weaving and shaping as the being shared the new names. The hands and their movements seemed to beckon the watchers, as if through a newly opened door.

And then at last the being stopped and stood up on his high perch. The mouths of the pale ones were slightly open in awe, as he rubbed himself vigorously. Eventually, with the spasm of a fish successfully caught, he showered his seed upon them.


The woman saw that pitiful worm in the sand and made for it at once. It can't have been what she had been searching for, she thought. But it's all I've ever found.

When she came to that chosen spot, and began to lower herself upon that abandoned object, the sun was already declining towards dusk.


Sunday, 14 April 2013

Pining for the past - Place Beyond The Pines Review

The Place Beyond The Pines marks up-and-coming indie director Derek Cianfrance's first attempt at making the Great American Movie. It has all the hallmarks of that illustrious canon: the sociological inflections, the operatic tenor, and the application of near-biblical themes to the modern United States landscape in its story of father-son relationships and burdens of guilt echoing across economic divides and down the generations.

  The crime drama is split quite clearly into three separate sections set in and around the city of Schenectady in the state of New York. In the first, Ryan Gosling plays Luke Glanton, a motorcycle stunt driver working for a travelling fair, and another one of the rising star's accomplished portrayals of a damaged loner. Upon discovering that one of his brief flings, played by Eva Mendes, has borne his child, he decides to force himself into his newborn son's life by giving the mother money gleaned from a series of bank heists he carries out with the aid of a local mechanic (Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn in another memorable supporting role).

  Needless to say, things end badly, and the focus shifts to police officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), as he deals with the aftermath of Glanton's crime spree and sets about unearthing deep-seated corruption within his own department of law and order. Rather than see this subject matter through to its explosive, courtroom set conclusion, as one would expect to see in a more conventional movie, Cianfrance unexpectedly drops us fifteen years into the future, for a sombre coda showing the sons of Glanton and Cross crossing paths and reopening some old family scars.

  It might be less accurate to describe these sections as acts, than to define them as movements, as any linear narrative thrust is sublimated in favour of the recurring thematic preoccupations, until the movie comes to resemble a piece of music in its emphasis upon mood and emotional resonance over action or event.

  Like those great 70s American movies of Scorsese, Coppola and Polanski to which Pines is so obviously indebted, where generic crime material was expanded to introduce a more sophisticated interrogation of male psychology, Cianfrance's modern saga is overwhelmingly male and about men. Its depiction of the role of inescapable fate, economic circumstance, and pigheaded selfishness in shaping the motivations and failings of American masculinity paints a very bleak, albeit completely engrossing, picture indeed. Ultimately, the film is about masculine paralysis: the male inability to move forward, to forgive, forget, or show compassion and love, until at the movie's end maleness itself seems to lie prostrate across the film's shadowy woodland locale like some monolithic and rotting corpse.

  From a technical point of view, the film is a similarly encouraging testament to Cianfrance's growing mastery of the medium. It opens with a bravura dolly shot following Gosling's character as he leaves his trailer and swaggers purposefully through a glowing, bustling carnival to the tent where he will perform his motorcycling stunts, cheered on by a large crowd of onlookers. The way it shows Gosling cutting through stationary bystanders instantly highlights his loneliness, and the camera's relentless forward momentum draws the viewer seductively into the picture's melancholy yet beautiful universe. But Cianfrance refrains from such showiness elsewhere, his largely hand-held camera instead hovering in close proximity to its cast, capturing the flickers of anguish, pain, and moral conflict that pass across their boyish yet broken faces.

  In the leads, Gosling and Cooper once again affirm their positions as two of their generation's most compelling screen actors, and the two unknowns chosen to play their grown-up children are remarkably naturalistic and convincing as inarticulate teenage boys. You can almost smell the BO off of them, and I can only assume that they were instructed not to shower for a month in order to essay more authentically the griminess of young men. Although Gosling isn't given the time to improve upon his layered, wounded performance in his previous collaboration with Cianfrance, Blue Valentine, this in itself is noteworthy in that it shows this serious-minded young actor's dedication to his craft and that picking interesting characters in adventurous movies is more important to him than the ego-serving privileges of making star vehicles - which must surely have been offered to him.

  Tellingly, Cianfrance includes Arvo Part's 'Fratres (for cello and piano)' alongside the efficiently atmospheric if uninspired original score by long-time experimental rocker Mike Patton. This piece was recently used to great effect by PT Anderson in There Will Be Blood, and by reusing it here Cianfrance is surely intentionally trying to align his artistic ambitions with those of his acclaimed peer, and to show that he is similarly determined to make thoughtful and deeply felt works about the state of America as refracted through its social history.

  I don't want to overpraise Pines, as much of the plot's knotty mix of criminal underbellies and small town corruption is too derivative to have the same indelible impact as Anderson's work or that of their 70s forerunners. But, as a bold and handsomely mounted triptych on the faultlines in American life and the male psyche, Pines is at the very least one of the best and most surprising American crime movies in years.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

I Knew Y'all Were Special: Spring Breakers Review

"Spring Break, y’all. Spring Break forever.” So James Franco’s hoodlum Alien drawls intermittently throughout Spring Breakers, the latest from former enfant terrible Harmony Korine. Fascinating and repulsive in equal measure, Franco’s total transformation perfectly embodies the core conflict running through this ode to teen hedonism, arguably Korine’s most accessible film yet. Yet whilst Spring Breakers may lack the fangs that marked his breakthrough script for Kids, it has just as much to say about teen culture in America.

 From its very opening sequence, as Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” blares over a montage of beach debauchery, Korine makes clear his complex fascination with this staple of US college life. Quickly slipping from enticement into outright garishness, the scene sets a quietly nightmarish undertone that will pervade throughout the rest of the film, even as it seems complicit in its protagonists’ total and utter worship of the spring break experience. So important is spring break in the American university experience that it has even become pervasive UK pop culture, despite it having no clear analogue on our less-than-sunny shores. Its legendary status is (partly) what forces Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Faith (Selena Gomez), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine) to hold up their local fried chicken shack with squirt guns and a mallet, quickly gathering up enough cash to get the next bus out of stale dorm life and straight into the bleached streets of Florida. However, their escape into a haven of sun-drenched parties takes a sudden turn when they’re arrested at a rave – only to fall into the lecherous, blood-splattered hands of Alien.

Many have billed what follows as a “Crime Thriller”, yet the descent of the girls into a world of hardcore drugs and gang warfare functions merely as the final stop on a journey into total and utter escape, with Alien’s words coming to form the mantra to a single, extended moment of pseudo-spirituality. Whilst Korine forces the point somewhat in having Gomez’s Faith be a devout Christian looking for her own piece of heaven, the reverence these characters put into an increasingly hollow institution renders them with a pathetic charm – one that Korine seems quite happy to admit he is also intoxicated with.

Spring Break becomes an accepted safety-zone where people may live out their fantasies, and what these fantasies are offers a rather bleak outlook on modern culture. Some critics have compared Spring Breakers with Korine’s earlier, far more experimental work Trash Humpers, with them both presenting complementary sides to the American landscape, and the reality of the so-called “American Dream” (this is arguably a defining theme in Korine’s entire oeuvre), yet the growth of Spring Break into a modern-day Bacchanalia places it far more comfortably in the realms of Donna Tartt’s hit Campus novel, The Secret History. Yet where the promise of no consequences proves to be as fantastical as the hedonism in that story, here, the fantasy really is allowed to exist in perpetuity.

The film also has its fair share of influence from Gaspar Noe’s master class in Nihilism, Enter the Void; less surprising given that Noe’s frequent collaborator Benoit Debie was the DoP for Korine’s fuzzy neon world. With its frequent use of jump cuts and looping dialogue, the film takes on a hazy, dream-like tone that well expresses the mindset of Candy and Brit, finished with a sleazy soundtrack from Skrillex and Midnight Movie scorer du jour, Cliff Martinez. It won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but if you’re at all interested in cinema, Spring Breakers is worth a peep at, if only to see James Franco’s remarkable performance.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Lux Can Be Deceiving - Post Tenebras Lux Review

Forming a stable opinion of controversial Mexican auteur Carlos Reygadas' latest, Post Tenebras Lux, is rather like trying to nullify the effects of an optical illusion: Every time one attempts to fix the picture in one's mind, it has already shifted. It is maddening and mesmerising in equal measure, and endlessly elusive.

Let's just try starting with what it's all about. Easier said than done: Set in rural Mexico, at its core it's the extremely low-key story of a wealthy, middle-class family living in luxury amidst the poverty-stricken locals, many of whom work as their employees and house staff. The father develops a friendship of sorts with one of the men, albeit one never exempt from the possibility of mutual exploitation and duplicity. Eventually, inevitably (for a film examining socio-economic tensions), it ends in ignominious catastrophe.

Or is it the story of a marriage? Although Reygadas localizes most of the film's duration to a period in time when the wealthy couple, Juan and Nathalia, are raising toddlers, he jumps backwards and forwards to show the trajectory of their relationship. In one sequence, we witness them seemingly attempting to spice up their love life by visiting a bizarre bathhouse-cum-swinger's club, where they indulge in the most solemn onscreen orgy since the one staged in Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut.

And then again, it could be an evocation of life from the perspective of a child. Many of the most memorable scenes track the vivid experiences of Juan and Nathalia's two young children. At the beginning, we see their daughter, Rut, alone in a water-logged field surrounded by a strange menagerie of dogs, cows, and donkeys. Although the girl is delighted by the intensity of the animals' wild behaviour, the mood becomes increasingly threatening as the beasts' fight with one another before the sky darkens towards night and a thunderstorm breaks out.

At other points, the son, Eleazar, is shown to be the only one aware of the night-time visitations made by a glowing-red devil with a briefcase, whilst the rest of his family sleeps. Reygadas' strategy seems reminiscent of Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience in the way that it presents a child's point of view as a means of approaching an unmediated, culturally uninhibited understanding of the world and all of its hidden, metaphysical secrets.   

If there is a narrative as such, it doesn't unfold in linear time, but in space, with each new perspective - parents', workers', children's - adding a new and unexpected room to what increasingly comes to resemble a form of cinematic architecture. By exploding and then reconstituting materials that might have gone to make up a more conventional drama, Reygadas is either merely trying to imbue the film with a touch of avant-garde prestige, or illuminate the stuff of dull domestic lives and class division in fresh and insightful ways. It seems to me that Reygadas' formalist ambition is to make us see like the aforementioned children - to look past the assumptions bred by familiarity and suddenly be confronted with the beauty and the horror of life, even at its most mundane. 

Visionary filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky once said that it was his ambition to make a film that would feel as if it had existed before anybody started to watch and would continue long after anyone remained. Lux has that same quality - and I don't just mean because it's likely many auditoriums will empty out before the movie has run its course. At its best moments, it does have the thrilling atmosphere of a self-contained universe to which we have been granted a brief and privileged point of access. 

The ultimate 'message' of Lux, if that's what you want to call it, could be that violence and brutality are so ubiquitous that they in fact constitute life itself: The white-collar devil and its dwelling place in the home of the middle-class family might symbolise how their comfortable, exclusive lifestyle is contingent upon the dirty work silently carried out by a corrupt social and political system. The husband, Juan, can only articulate his love for his wife through his control of her sexuality, informing her over the washing-up that he is going to fuck her in the ass, and giving her over to the sexual attention of other men. And the scenes of a rugby match at an English boarding school show boys being trained to embrace the heady thrill of violence during even innocent pastimes.

It's a disturbing truth, and Reygadas fixates upon it with what could be considered a case of self-indulgent, sometimes tedious monomania and simplistic cynicism. But Lux is less interested in questioning societal norms than in challenging viewers to reassess the way they typically receive screen stories, and leaving them with the disorientating experience of an eccentric alternative model for cinema.