Sunday, 23 February 2014

Lars and the real girl: Nymphomaniac Review

The crux of Nymphomaniac, Lars Von Trier's latest wilful expedition into the jungle of human behaviour, is probably the moment in the second volume of the four-hour theatrical cut when Joe, the jaded connoisseur of carnal pleasures played respectively as a young woman and a middle-aged woman by Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg, defiantly rejects the label of 'sex addict' thrust upon her by a self-help group, identifying instead with the title given to her by the film. 'I am a Nymphomaniac, and I love myself as one' she declares, before walking away proudly, leaving her shell-shocked fellow patients in her wake.

  At the beginning, Joe is found beaten and unconscious in a gloomy alleyway by a bookish middle-aged virgin called Seligman, who carries the mysterious woman to his nearby apartment and tends to her wounds whilst she recounts the story of her life from childhood to her present situation. It quickly becomes apparent that it has been a life ruled by sexual adventure (not to mention misadventure), and sensual excess. But although Joe warns her mild-mannered confessor that it will be a 'moral' tale, any such expectations of proselytising are quickly shattered by the film's freewheeling, wonderfully mercurial structure.

  As Joe sees it, and as Von Trier obviously wants to suggest to us, the diagnosis of 'sex addict' would seek to make her simply a passive victim, gripped by a pathological disorder beyond her control. This is the depiction that we find in Steve McQueen's Shame, informed by the language and the worldview of psychiatry, where Michael Fassbender's life is ruined by his almost vampiric dependency upon sexual gratification. But it is no such straightforwardly 'moral' perspective that drives Von Trier's exploration of the subject.

  The antiquated, almost mythic idea of a 'nymphomaniac', allows Joe to see herself and us to see her as having assumed a liberating agency and self-determination divorced from what she comes to see as the assimilating and neutralising tendencies of society, sinister forces cloaked in a benign promise of treatment.

  Of course, although this moment with the self-help group may represent a small victory for Joe, obviously it doesn't make her chosen way of life any easier or more comfortable. She exposes herself to a torrent of heartache, abuse, degradation, and loneliness in her struggle for sexual freedom.

  Oddly, to return to Steve McQueen, Nymphomaniac can be seen as a continuation of some of the themes raised in the Brit's latest acclaimed drama, 12 Years A Slave. Solomon Northup's story is one of overcoming adversity and escaping bondage, where the promise of freedom represents the end point of his journey. Von Trier takes up where McQueen leaves off, exploring the issue of what happens once freedom has supposedly been obtained in a modern democracy.

  Nymphomaniac challenges the notion that humans want freedom. Most of us, it intimates, are more interested in security, comfort, and belonging. Joe, somebody seemingly more committed to the concept of freedom than most of us, doesn't even seem particularly convinced by it herself, repeatedly bemoaning the loss of loved ones brought about at least in part by her irrepressible sexual urges.

  Von Trier's movie is more complex than McQueen's because it does not present freedom as an unchangeable goal, but as something nebulous and painful that must be constantly negotiated, bargained with and assessed by every individual. It is, for Von Trier, not so much the key to a set of chains, as it is a magnificent coat of thorns.

  Steve McQueen portrays suffering as an aberration, whether it is the mortal anguish of an individual or the physical subjugation of an entire people; something which has been allowed to encroach upon the equilibrium of life and which can be eradicated by moral effort. Von Trier sees suffering as the condition of life: to be alive is to make destructive choices and to commit all types of self-sacrifice, therefore to live is to suffer.

  If all of this makes Nymphomaniac sound overly dour, then don't worry. Whilst it certainly has its share of tragedy and gloom, particularly in the more downbeat second volume, the prevailing mood is one of sly humour and aesthetic playfulness. Von Trier has stated that the drama represents a new cinematic genre he has named 'digressionism'. As with most of his statements, this should be taken with a heavy pinch of salt, but there is a very distinctive flavour to the way the story unfolds. There's a touch of Tristram Shandy to the way the narrative is frequently interrupted by Seligman's increasingly eccentric analogies and flights of intellectual fancy, with the autodidact pulling together subjects as disparate as fly-fishing, the music of Bach, and the death of Edgar Allan Poe by way of commentary on Joe's experiences.

  Likewise, Von Trier never lets a single tone become too well established before he pulls the rug out from under us. For instance, by suddenly blasting into a thunderous Rammstein song after a near-silent and serenely beautiful opening montage of snowflakes falling in a back alley, or mixing comedy with pathos in the scene where Uma Thurman's scorned wife (a scene-stealing performance) confronts Joe and her adulterous husband in our hero's flat, dragging along their three young boys for the ensuing fireworks. It all adds up to an uncommonly addictive and entertaining piece of cinema, rarely dragging despite its indulgent length.

  At the end of Nymphomaniac, very little has been resolved, and as an audience it's unclear how we're meant to feel about Joe's experiences. A shocking, unexpected crime is committed, the screen cuts to black, and Von Trier gleefully hurls the jigsaw pieces that he has collected for our perusal up into the air again, inviting us to assemble them ourselves. In effect, to step in and assume the role of Seligman, the fascinated interpreter of Joe's perplexing story. This is, perhaps, one mark of a great filmmaker as opposed to a merely good one. A good filmmaker makes films that are about something, whereas a great filmmaker makes film that could be about many things. McQueen remains only a good filmmaker at present, but with Nymphomaniac Lars once again demonstrates himself to be a filmmaker of strange, diabolic genius.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Northern Soul: Revival Squared

To enter the world of northern soul is to enter into a culture unashamedly trapped in the past. Even in the movement's seventies heyday it was a retroist movement, isolated both in time and space. The essence of it is that some time in the late sixties a number of mod clubs in the north of England began to move away from eclectic rosters consisting of various forms of jazz, R&B and other black American music, and instead began to focus solely on danceable fast-paced soul influenced by the output of Detroit's Motown label. The original Northern Soul club, the Twisted Wheel in Manchester, closed in 1971 under pressure from the authorities for its reputation as a drug haven. By this time however, the culture of the music and the associated all-night amphetamine fuelled raves, where dancers were renowned for their skill and stamina, had spread to other parts of the North and the Midlands. Nights were held at famous venues such as Wigan Casino and Wolverhampton's The Catacombs.

The movement reached its zenith in the mid to late seventies, and by this time musical exclusivity was the focus of most of the DJs who operated within the scene. This is mirrored currently in the penchant within UK bass music for VIP mixes and other commercially unreleased tracks which can only be found within mixes by the most respected DJs. Rarity was prized and DJs often would secure their bookings on this basis, perhaps by being the owner of the only known copy of a particular record. As such the scene was based upon failures; records by US mid-western artists which had not made an impact upon their release a decade prior were now esteemed in an entirely different context to that from which they emanated. As such, besides the DJs there were no real stars of the Northern Soul movement, the artists having long since faded into obscurity, had they ever left it.

In the intervening years Northern Soul has itself somewhat disappeared, but now it seems to be coming back, giving us a revival of what was also originally a revivalist movement. Instead of events taking place in the original venues, which have long since moved on to other things, they now occur in working men's clubs and similar halls across Britain. There are even events down in London, making Northern Soul no longer quite so northern. The attendees seem to have lost their insatiable desire for rarity, with many events featuring DJs who were major players in the old scene now advertising as "Northern and Crossover" soul, and playing more well known records. They finish much earlier too, with all-dayers now far more common than the previous all-nighters.

I recently paid a visit to one of these nights, at a Labour Club in The Black Country, not `quite sure what to expect. Initially I was greeted with a largely empty hall, and an even emptier dancefloor. It was an odd sight; most attendees were well into their fifties at least, and were sat dotted around the room which looked more like a church hall decked out for a poorly attended OAP’s club. The cobs wrapped in foil on sale next to the bar hardly helped, and neither did the faux hand pumps from which the "real" ales were served at the bar. Little more than an hour later, however, and the dance floor was almost full, and covered in the talcum powder traditionally used by dancers to facilitate exuberant sliding moves across the room. The vigorous dancing had long since given way to arthritic joints and were more shuffling than the acrobatic shapes that would have been on show over three decades ago, but those on the floor seemed not to care, just happy to be back moving to the music of their youth with like-minded people. It was fantastic to have seen men and women dancing and enjoying themselves without pretence, not looking around to see who has their eye on them, and "keeping the faith". Perhaps this is something that some of the clubbers of today could learn from.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

'Her' Review

Whether it’s the result of a weird little door in a dwarfed office block, a case of authorial envy, big shaggy monsters or a disarmingly chipper AI, there’s a distinct yearning for affirmation - even completion - running through all of Spike Jonze’s oeuvre, varied as it is. Her might have initially raised laughs at its “Siri goes a’smoochin’” premise, but there’s much, much more going on in this not-quite-sci-fi story of the relationship between a man and his OS. Carrying its soul on its sleeve, Her polishes up many of the thematic concerns of Jonze’s most recent projects, offering something as heartfelt as it is slick.

Still racked from the breakdown of his marriage, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) spends his days writing handwritten letters of love and friendship for those who struggle to reveal themselves fully. Theodore has retreated from the world into videogames and his work, though maintains a close friendship with game designer Amy (Amy Adams). Enticed by the latest upgrade to his PC and Smart Ear Phone, Theodore soon finds himself in the company of a complex, adaptive OS called Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), who quickly fits into Theodore’s life and becomes his confidant.

What could easily have been Lars and the Real Girl for the digitally connected generation circumvents any awkwardness by making clear just how permissive Theodore’s society is toward this budding dynamic between humans and AI. It comes to show the possibility for new points of connection (and frustration) rather than tell, at once exploring this novel concept whilst also presenting the very real lifespan of an intense relationship between two people. If Jonze’s short I’m Here used technology as a metaphor for the process of giving oneself to another, here, the possibilities of the future creates, at times, an uncomfortable frisson between the roles of the creator and the creation that firmly captures the initial excitement and wish fulfillment of any relationship. As Samantha evolves however, so too does the relationship - for better and for worse.

It helps, of course, that Jonze has ensured his film is impeccably dressed (and its stars too - there’s a reason Twombly’s minimalist chinos are available to buy), offering an optimistic take on the coming 21st century that Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography joyfully soaks up. Arcade Fire and Owen Pallet’s soundtrack, meanwhile, whilst perhaps overrated after all of the Oscar hype, nevertheless builds up to match the film’s unabashed, climactic moments.

We’re only a month into 2014, and it’s already looking like a year of cinema to be thankful for, but of all the sterling releases so far, it’s Her that has stayed with me the longest after viewing - I’m still finding new threads in the nuances of its script. With so many films looking back to the past, it’s refreshing to see one that’s actually hopeful for the future - particularly when so much cinema at the moment feels like one giant funeral for the 20th century.