Twin Peaks – the return.

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Twin Peaks is different, a long way from the world.

Never was this more true than with the return to Frost & Lynch’s world of donuts and lumber and damn fine coffee.  Except, this isn’t that world.  Or is it?  It looks familiar, yet its different – older, sharper, under the harsh modern light and HD digital cinematography.  And where is the music, the quirky characters with their fetishes for shoes, food and silent drape runners?  Well, all that is in the past.  And deliberately so.

When it first came out, Twin Peaks shook television to the core; nothing would be the same again after it.  Cinematic, long form, artistically surreal, sexy, violent – in short, a medium that declared itself an art form.  27 years later, Lynch and Frost were to return to television, to Twin Peaks, and both were a very very different landscape.  We are, many have said, in a golden age of television.  From Breaking Bad to Mad Men to Game of Thrones, high quality, high budget, long format series’s without the restrictions of mainstream network tv, are the mainstream.  While Hollywood disappears down its own rabbit hole of superhero effects fests of increasingly dumb returns, it is in tv that the real drama is being made.

And so what of Twin Peaks.  What would be its place in this new terrain?  Much has been made of the fandom, of their passion and commitment being behind its eventual return.  But fans are a strange bunch – some might say none more so than Peakies.  Fandom tends to have a craving for familiarity, while at the same time they bemoan repeats of the same things.  Take, for example, the fan reaction to the new Star Wars films: the return to tropes, locations, characters and plots that are familiar was greeted with mass adoration and acclaim.  So would Twin Peaks go straight back to the RR Diner, order a damn fine coffee, and dance to Angelo’s tunes again?

In short – no.  Nostalgia has always been the province of danger in Lynch’s worlds.  From the picket fences of Blue Velvet to the classic Hollywood dreams of Mulholland Drive, the past is a false refuge, a weakness that lets the darkness in.  They were never going to simply repeat themselves.  And so new Twin Peaks is a very different beast.  It is, after all, 27 years later.  Much has changed: television, technology, Lynch himself, the actors, the world.  And so we have, from the first two hours of this much hyped “return”, an unsettlingly clear, high-definition digitally shot world of older people, strange rooms, murder scenes, roadside diners and motels, and occasionally some of the actual locations of “classic” Twin Peaks.  There is much that is familiar – the real time pacing of mundane events, easily confused law enforcement officials, dirty deeds and alluring women, and the surreal other-world of the Black Lodge.  But, as noted above, they appear almost ultra-realistic under HD digital cameras and plain, stark, lighting and, most noticeably, the deafening lack of Angelo Badalamenti’s famous score.  Classic Twin Peaks is now remembered in the soft, warm hues of late 80s tv, with lush scores and beautiful young actors and every scene too sexy for the screen: it has become the object of nostalgia.  While watching the new episodes, I could imagine many Peakies longing for its cosy quirky familiarity – imagine, a series about the abuse and murder of a high school girl by her father, while possessed by a woodland demon, has become the object of warm nostalgia.  And there is, I believe, Lynch and Frost’s masterstroke, the danger and darkness inherent in nostalgia.

Other aspects contribute to this feel, too.  Twin Peaks is a town, a singular location full of familiar places and soon to be familiar faces.  Never did the series depart from its north-western locale.  And yet new Twin Peaks barely touched on the town.  Instead we see startling vistas of night-time New York and visit a strange tower with a glass cube at the top floor; we see a crime committed in a resident’s block in a town in South Dakota; there’s a luxury office in Vegas, and a dingy motel somewhere in the mid-west.  There is also technology to contend with.  In classic Twin Peaks, we remember tape recordings of secret diaries, Cooper’s dictaphone, clumsy video cameras and earpieces that never worked.  Now we have digital cameras with memory cards connected to what appears to be massive network hubs, an internet and phone connection in a briefcase that seems able to cross time and space, bad Cooper’s digital dictaphone can tap landlines, mobiles calling to police in the depths of the woods, near-instant identification of bodies and recalling of suspect records.  All of this adds to the lack of centre to this new series – a distinct lack of Twin Peaks in Twin Peaks (yes, we do go there, but in brief moments between bigger scenes).  All of this combines to fuel the nostalgia for old Twin Peaks.  This is Lynch’s view of today’s world – disparate, isolated, spread out across continents, connected by inexplicable technology, viewed in cold, clear HD digital images.  And what we see is familiar, but dark, discombobulating, and deeply unexpected.  In a word – unheimlich – the uncanny, and that is the bedrock on which Lynch has built all of his work.

So new Twin Peaks is different.  We should never have expected any different, and yet it is so different as to be unexpected.  In our cosy familiarity of classic Twin Peaks and the golden age of modern tv, Lynch and Frost have once again completely pulled the rug out from under us and taken tv to a completely different place.  A place both wonderful and strange.  And I, for one, could not get enough of it.

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Russian Ark

Russianark

Dir. Alexander Sokurov. (2001)

Russian Ark is a monumental film, a true milestone in cinema history. From its inception, cinema’s uniqueness lay in its editing. And in over 100 yrs, the production of meaning through this procedure has been at the heart of cinema theory. For many, artistic equated with the long uninterrupted take.
In 1948 Hitchcock made “Rope”, a film of long takes edited to make it look like it was one continuous long take. There was a limit to take length, however: the cine camera’s film reel was 12 minutes long, maximum. Physically, there could not be a film with longer takes than this. Godard’s 1967 “Weekend” famously used a full film reel to shoot a single tracking shot. in 2000, Bela Tarr’s “Werckmeister Harmonies” consisted entirely of just 39 long takes.
Not until the advent of digital could this change. On 23rd December 2001 Alexander Sokurov’s crew recorded, on their fourth take, a complete 94 minute film in the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, with a cast of 2000 costumed actors and extras, using a steadicam and a hard-drive in a backpack unit.
As a story, Russian Ark follows a mysterious figure (the Marquis) in a wander through 33 rooms of the Winter Palace, going through periods of the museums 300 year history. The voyage is a voyage through time, with characters both real and fictional appearing as we witness moments of Russian history. but it is not as simple as that: at times the marquis and accompanying camera seem to be invisible, passing contemporary museum visitors, other times speaking to them and likewise to the camera.
Past Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky, who Sokurov is often cited as heir, wrote a book “Sculpting In Time”, in which he outlays his artistic theories on the nature of editing and the relationship between the cut and time. If editing is the mastery over time, then whence the film without a single edit? A clue may lie in Sokurov’s working title/subtitle of the film “In One Breath”. The film drifts, not just in the way of the steadicam, but its languid journey from room to room uses those doorways as substitute edits. Sokurov equates, or even replaces, time with space. This is the key understanding of the film – and it is completely apt for a film in, and about, a museum. For what is a museum but time gathered in spaces?
Taken in this view, the single take is far more than a gimmick or an over-extended device (a la Birdman), the very language of the film speaks of the defying of time that this remarkable place the Hermitage encapsulates: fluid, dream-like, breathlessly contiguous.
The camerawork aside, the staggering beauty of the Hermitage alone is breathtaking. The costumes of over 2000 actors and extras in glorious period detail is equally stunning. The Marquis is a mischievous, mysterious, guide, conversing with a never-seen figure that is the camera’s POV. Snippets of history, courtly rumour, philosophising on the exhibited art, the nature of art, and the passage of time through, over and around Russia. And as the film progresses, that breathlessness builds in the almost impossible to believe  ballroom scene – with a full orchestra and hundreds of ballroom dancers  perfectly choreographed with the Marquis and camera blending perfectly in. The ball ends and the hundreds file out, the camera joining this endless river of humans, a flow of time and history pouring to – what end? A glimpse outside to a (cg rendered) cold, dark, river shrouded in icy fog – the Hermitage revealed as an Ark, caught in the never-ending current of time and history.

Knight Of Cups

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Dir. Terrence Malick (2015)

 

Taking a director’s films on their individual merits, without referring to their previous works, is tricky.  This is doubly so when the director has such a recognisable and distinct style.  Writing on Ozu, Bergman or Tarkovsky, for example, could hardly fail to refer to the respective director’s approach to pacing, themes, shot lengths, music amongst other traits and their prevalence and evolution in the director’s career.  In the case of Malick the evolution of his style, from the static and painterly approach of “Badlands” and “Days Of Heaven” in the 1970s, to the transitionary return of “The Thin Red Line” which featured impressionistic cutaways to character reveries and a multiplicity of voice-overs.  After this, “The New World” marked a complete shift in style: a roving, restless camera, all natural lighting, associative non-linear editing, a preference for voice over and a rejection of traditional dramatic structure.  In his subsequent features, “The Tree of Life” and “To The Wonder”, he took this style to either an un-diluted focus on a determined artistic vision, or repetitive self parody, depending on your view.

“Knight Of Cups” follows Rick (Christian Bale), a successful screenwriter in Hollywood, drifting through the glamour and glitz of Los Angeles, from parties to film sets and photo shoots, various luxurious apartments and hotel rooms, the freeways around LA and the coast of the Pacific.  Rick, like many late era Malick heroes, is lost, spiritually empty and in a state of longing.  He drifts between a succession of beautiful women (Imogen Poots, Teresa Palmer, Freida Pinto, Isabel Lucas, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett), all of whom seem to recognise Rick’s weakness and emptiness, particularly Cate Blanchett’s Nancy, his ex-wife and a nurse, who is scathing about his failings.  Also in his travels are his wayward brother, somewhat prone to emotional outbursts, and their father, who while he admits (finally, one gets the impression) is proud of Rick’s achievements, is less enamoured of his lifestyle.  There are pushy agents, quasi-spiritual drug users, an ageing lothario (played by Antonio Banderas), two armed burglars, a pimp who although a believer admits his weakness for wealth and sin, a zen Buddhist teacher and a tarot card reader on Rick’s Los Angeles odyssey.  None of these encounters are played out in traditional dramatic manner, with dialogue, shot and reverse-shot, character and plot progression.  The vast majority of Knight Of Cups sees Rick wandering as an aimless observer; we hear him speak on camera once, perhaps twice, the camera follows him, spending a lot of time directly behind Bale, glancing around and seeing things at all manner of striking angles and locations.  Voice over is the dominant form of expression for characters here, something those familiar with Malick’s late style will be  aware of.

Malick’s rejection of traditional narrative structure means that searching for a plot, searching for events or direct character dialogue or exposition is fruitless.  This is not story driven cinema, it is purely poetic, with the intention being to deliver emotions via images, actions, montage, mise-en-sene, movement, format and music.  Rick’s life is fragmented, without meaning, surrounded by wealth and glamour, sensuality and scraps of spirituality, thus Malick’s film follows such a path.  Scenes are often joined after something seems to have happened, or just before, leaving us with a collection of traces of feelings and memories suffused with ennui, melancholy and longing.  One is expected to travel with Rick, and Emanuel Lubezki’s searing camera, standing on the shore as wave after wave of imagery and music wash over you.  There are a handful of allegories that the film alludes to throughout, the most obvious being the tarot.  The eponymous card is said to represent change, new excitements, particularly romantic in nature, as well as opportunities and invitations.  The Knight is a bringer of ideas, is constantly bored and in need of stimulation, but also artistic and refined. Reversed, it represents fraud and false promises, a person who has difficulty discerning truth and lies.  Seen in this respect, Bale’s character is quite clear.  The rest of the film is divided into eight rough segments, each identified with an inserted title card.  They are in order:

The Moon (the life of the imagination away from the life of the spirit.)

The Hanged Man (life in suspension, but life and not death)

The Hermit (soul-searching introspection, being alone, inner guidance)

Judgement (reflection, self evaluation, judgement, rebirth, absolution)

The Tower (disaster, upheaval, sudden change, revelation)

The High Priestess (intuition, higher powers, mystery, the subconscious)

Death (endings, beginnings, change, transformation, transition)

And lastly Freedom, which is not a tarot card and can, presumably, refer to an escape from the pre-destination and fate of things like tarot.

Then there is The Pilgrim’s Progress, a Christian dream allegory written in 1678 by John Bunyan.  Like Dante’s venture through Purgatory, we are invited to follow Rick’s quest as a liturgical allegory in the manner of the Pilgrim.  The film opens with the unmistakable tones and gravitas of Sir John Gielgud’s reading from Bunyan’s text.  Indeed with the title and first lines being recited over the opening titles it gives the feel that this is a re-telling of the tale, from the  City of Destruction (the modern City of Angels) to the Celestial City atop Mount Zion, burdened by knowledge of his sin.  The final liturgical layer comes from  an early 3rd Century Apocryphal text The Acts Of Thomas, in particular a passage called the Hymn of the Pearl, described thus:

The hymn tells the story of a boy, “the son of the king of kings”, who is sent to Egypt to retrieve a pearl from a serpent. During the quest, he is seduced by Egyptians and forgets his origin and his family. However, a letter is sent from the king of kings to remind him of his past. When the boy receives the letter, he remembers his mission, retrieves the pearl and returns.

And yet, despite all of Malick’s allegory and structural devices, this remains a sprawling epic of a detached view of a familiar yet altogether alien world.  Lubezki’s camera sees the LA we have seen in countless films, tv series, music videos, fashion shoots and computer games.  It moves from being populated by interchangeably “perfect” men and women in various states of intoxication and undress, to empty streets and back lots of film studios.  “Do you know anyone here?” Rick asks Freida Pinto at one party, by means of introduction and eventual seduction.  Nothing is real – Rick’s work is the production of fiction, Hollywood being the “dream factory”, reminding one of the similitude of a dream in the title of The Pilgrim’s Progress.  From fake pre-revolutionary French architecture in ostentatious mansions to film sets and the brief sojourn to Las Vegas, with replica pyramids and Eiffel Tower.  Rick’s progress through this hall of mirrors in search of genuine meaning and connection leads to a number of baptismal dips in the Pacific, and a drive out to the desert, isolated and away from the Babylonian trials and temptations of LA.  Just as the structure and narrative are dramatically non-conventional, so there should be no expectation of dramatic resolution.  What to take from this morass of shots and ellipses and rumination ?  Many will find subjects, methods and shot to be similar to those from “The Tree Of Life” and especially “To The Wonder”.  Some have seen it as a reductive retreading of the same ground.  However, his is such a different and unique style, one that is clearly evolving and being taken further and further on a singular vision.  Rarely in contemporary American cinema is there any such reflection, contemplation, honest spirituality and unapologetically unconventional form.  That, alone, makes it a tremendous and worthy achievement.  Even if the stunning cinematography, the masterful editing, the incredible soundtrack, didn’t combine to make a beautiful, engaging and deeply moving cinematic poem.

The Assassin

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Dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien

Variance from the norm is such a common feature of auteurist cinema that it almost can become expected.  From Kubrick to Herzog, cinema goers have become used to the phrase “a unique take on the genre”, be it horror, western, gangster and so on.  It has become a game for audience and director alike to show their awareness of the genre conventions, and to note the variances from the norm and how this is in line with the directors own artistic methods and milieu.  Which brings me to Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien and his latest film, the exquisitely filmed “Cìkè Niè Yǐnniáng” (The Assassin).  Ostensibly a Wuxia martial arts film, people would be better prepared knowing they were watching a Hsiao-Hsien film than a genre defined by flashy personal combat.  As such, this film is defined by characteristic long takes, meticulous composition, long periods of stillness and silence, gorgeous cinematography and only fleeting regard to traditional narrative structure and character development.  In many ways, I found myself thinking of this as the “Barry Lyndon” (Kubrick, 1975) of Wuxia films.

The story, such as it is, is set in 8th century Tang Dynasty China and concerns the eponymous Nie Yinniang, a young woman taken at the age of 10 and trained as a deadly assassin by a nun-princess.  Her targets are corrupt officials in the turbulent internecine conflicts of the Chinese empire at the time.  The film begins with a prologue piece shot in crisp, high contrast, black and white that demonstrates  the startling skill of the assassin.  After failing to complete a mission due to her “heart lacking resolve” her master dispatches her to the troubled Weibo province where she is to kill a warlord – who happens to be her cousin.  The conflict of loyalties is further complicated when we learn that the warlord was once betrothed to the assassin.  The film then plays out on these conflicts, political, personal and physical, in a series of stunning tableau’s that are more indebted to Hsiao-Hsien’s elliptical style than the requirements of the Wuxia genre.

Everything seems to float or drift in this film, a gesture that seems to become a device, a representation of the ghost-like presence of the assassin and the brief touch on the pages of ancient history that these characters make.    The camera, while not making Scorsese-esque winding steadicam moves, is always wafting as if on a slight breeze, observing long takes as if from a respectful distance.  Candle flames dance throughout the mise-en-scène, and countless curtains and sheets of gossamer silk flicker and drift in layers within the frame .  On more than one occasion a scene is observed from behind a wispy curtain that drifts in and out of focus, obscuring the characters in a silken mist before, imperceptibly, unveiling them again.  This device echoes the way narrative and character details are dealt out in this film; nothing is presented directly or as a matter of fact.  In the monochrome prologue, we see a warlord watching his child play, first with a ball and then a passing butterfly.  Yinniang drops, ghost-like, from the rafters and we cut to the warlord cradling his child – presumably slain, though we do not see the act, only the reactions from the warlord (a contained mix of rage and grief) and the assassin (again contained, seemingly emotionless and cold, but still with something, remorse, guilt, fear, buried inside).  Containment of emotions is the dominant form for the characters, with codes and traditions observed with such tenacity that one wonders if there is any individuality in such society.  We see this in the way costumes and hair identify people far more than their personalities would, but more importantly in the way Yinniang is a figure under control and duress throughout her life.  She is chosen and given to martial arts training as a child, an act that took her from another choice made for her – that of marriage to her cousin, the warlord.  As a grown woman, the assassin is still controlled by her master, and it is the initial act of disobedience, an expression of free will in refusing to kill, that leads to her involvement with her cousin and the personal and political battles that will ensue.  The combat, which would normally be the centre piece of Wuxia films, are few and fleeting.  She either appears and acts with unerring skill, or one of the zen-like stillnesses where characters, and audience, seem invited to contemplate what has transpired is suddenly disrupted, exploding into the frame.

Hsiao-Hsien places his characters within a natural world not normally associated with his cinema. And his lens pays attention to nature in an almost Terrence Malick like way.  After the first assassination, the film cuts to a shot of leaves in tree branches against the sky.  Later, as a procession of dignitaries on horseback ride through a valley, they remain out of focus and instead the camera focuses on a small, bright, bush in the right hand foreground of the frame.  But, like other aspects of the film – such as the mysterious gold-masked female assassin that is seen walking through a forest and, towards the end, engages in battle with Yinniang – they are there and then gone, like the silken curtains, like a torchlit procession at night, an assassin leaping unseen from rafters to kill and vanish.  Likewise, the film offers no epic conclusion to the political conflicts in which this story is set.  We are there to witness one character breaking the bonds imposed on her by masters, family and warlords.  By film’s end, she travels on like the Ronin of Kurosawa’s epics, her own woman in an uncertain time.

Clouds Of Sils Maria

clouds of sils maria

dir. Olivier Assayas.

Assay’s latest, his fifteenth feature, would appear on the surface to be in the vein of the well shot, comfortable and assured work he has produced since leaving behind the “b-movie trash” of the new french extremes of “Boarding Gate” and “Demonlover” with his 2009 tale of middle class Parisians dealing with their mother’s death.  Continuing with “Carlos” and “Apres Mai” the former Cahiers du Cinema critic appeared to be taking a semi-nostalgic view of French life and recent history – specifically the decade that followed the tumult of 1968 and the revolution that almost happened in the summer of that year.  The notion of nostalgia is taken up in this film, embodied in the form of iconic actor Maria Enders, played by iconic actor Juliette Binoche, who is asked to return to “Maloja Snake”, the play that launched her career.  Maria was on her way to Zurich to collect an award on behalf of the play’s author Melchior, when she learns that he has died suddenly – suicide as his widow confides.  While dealing with this shock, she is approached by a popular young theatre director who wants to put on the play once more.

The play concerns the stormy love affair between 18 year old Sigrid and middle-aged Helena, who is eventually driven to suicide.  Previously Maria played Sigrid,  only this time she would play the older woman to the ingenue that she portrayed in her youth.  Sigrid, then, would be played by a young American actress (played by Chloë Grace Moritz) who seems to be a stand in for a Lindsay Lohan-esque character, a shimmering spiral of drink and parties and celebrity website gossip.  Alongside Binoche’s Maria throughout the film is her PA Valentine, played by Kristen Stewart of Twilight fame.  Valentine is the first person we see on screen, juggling Maria’s life on two mobiles while the camera juggles with the train bouncing along the tracks.  Maria is never away from Valentine (barring one brief scene), and it is between these two that the majority of the film’s scenes take place.  Persuaded to take up the role of Helena, Maria is offered the use of Melchior’s villa in the eponymous region of Sils Maria in the Swiss Alps by his widow, to prepare.

Here the drama engages in the central conceit of duality and the meta-narrative of a play within a play (or in this case, film).  Valentine reads for Sigrid as Maria rehearses her part as Helena – Binoche trimming her hair to a lesbian-chic close crop for the part.  The dynamism and chemistry in these scenes are riveting, not just from the (melo-)drama of the play’s dialogue, but the clear on screen chemistry between the two.  Perhaps as might be expected from such a scenario, the question of wether the lines are coming from, and referring to, the characters they are playing in the play or in the film becomes an intriguing riddle.  Further, we as an audience cannot escape the on screen spectacle of arguably the pre-eminent actress of her time turned 50, opposite a young star recognisable to all of her generation.  That these two spar over dialogue that demonstrates the generational difference between both characters and actors brings out a tension that sparkles more than any tweenage vampire could.  There are some fantastic moments, particularly after they go to see the latest (3D) sci-fi superhero spectacular starring the 18 year old star that will take the role of Sigrid this time.  Over beers afterwards, Stewart’s Valentine tries to argue that there is depth in the, mainly ludicrous, spandex clad tale of evil enemies and space-spanning love.  Valentine is genuine and heartfelt, while Maria can only erupt into fits of laughter and spits of beer.

It is not without cause that I mentioned “Persona” earlier, as Bergman’s film of complex personal psychology bears some relation to this.  In both an actor’s sense of self and identity is questioned, a period of isolation accompanied only by another woman who balances between servitude and adoration.  In Persona, the dissolution of one personality into the other becomes the subject of the psychological crisis; in Assayas’s film it is Maria’s self that wavers around the characters of Sigrid, her own past, and Helena.

MAJOR SPOILER: And one instance toward the end of the film throws into question all that we have seen before.  While on one of their hikes through the Alps that their fiery relationship and repartee seems to turn into a genuine argument.  They are looking for the actual Maloja Snake – a weather phenomenon where a river of cloud, like a snake, pours down a valley into the lake; like Rohmer’s “Rayon Vert” this hard to see phenomena takes on a symbolic role, a “you have to believe” concept that, Valentine argues, the young and angry Maria, like the young snd angry Sigrid, would see.  And then, after crossing a hill, Maria thinks she sees it, or is it mist, or maybe  – and then she turns and Val is gone.  Maria screams for her, wide shots show she could not have ran away.  The camera lifts to the horizon, Pachabel’s Canon resumes as the Maloja Snake drifts with an eldritch majesty, unaffected and unwitnessed.  We fade to Epilogue, London, a few weeks later.  Maria is in another hotel room, skyping her agent, seemingly able to handle her professional and personal life.   Valentine is never mentioned again, Maria has a PA (with the same boyish short haircut Maria adopted for her role) but their relationship doesn’t have the spark that excited the air with Val.  Obviously, the question remains: did Val exist?  Is she as much a fiction as Helena and Sigrid?  The on-screen manifestation of 20 year old Maria, channeling Sigrid.

En route to a dinner meeting with the director he tells her that a friend of Jo-Ann had made a suicide attempt and was in the hospital.  The director is devastated as is Jo-Ann, he relates..  Maria makes one of her frequent turns to Google (something Valentine always told her to do when short of knowledge about current pop culture) and can already find a paparazzi photo of the young woman being taken into hospital.  Over their dinner the director Klaus and Maria discuss the play and the writer as to what he may mean, and how to interpret their new performance.  Jo-Ann and Kris and Klaus engage in a feverish drama of phone calls, texts and fear of the paparazzi that Maria can only watch, bemused and faintly horrified.

By movie’s end Maria is reading lines in a hotel room with her (new?) PA.  She appears willing to take a role in just the sort of effects-laden show that she laughed at with Val.  In final dress rehearsal, Maria offers a suggestion to Jo-Ann about how to play Sigrid, based on how she played her.  Jo-Ann replies that Helena is washed up, a wreck – “the character, not you”; Jo-Ann doesn’t take her advice and this stuns Maria somewhat – she says she is “lost in old habits; I guess I’ll just have to break them”.  In her dressing room she meets the director of the blockbuster she is considering.  They discuss the character’s age, her modernity, with Maria suggesting a younger, more modern, actress – Jo-Ann but, to her surprise, he dismisses her and the era they both inhabit as one of Jo-Ann Ellis and viral internet scandals.  He says he wants someone outside of time, a concept Maria says is “too abstract”.  And yet as the camera cranes through the glass offices set on opening night we rest on a mid-shot of Maria, her gaze distant and her visage of dignity in resignation – or is it acceptance?  An amalgamation of youth and age, of Sigrid and Helena.

WINTER SLEEP

WinterSleep

dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Winter Sleep is that bizarre seeming contradiction – an epic of deeply intimate proportions.  Ceylan’s love of Tarkovsky is worn on his sleeve throughout his oeuvre, and the painterly shot composition and glacial pace of the Russian master are both present here.  But in his new film, the Turkish auteur has constructed his most verbose and literate screenplay that quotes and recalls Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare and Voltaire, but also more cinematically, Bergman’s intimate and claustrophobic personal dramas.

The over-riding metaphor here is one of hibernation, another meaning of the Turkish title.  The grizzled, bearded old bear Aydin is a retired actor who owns various properties, including the Hotel Othello (an obvious reference to his cultured, thespian, past), built into caves in the Anatolian Steppes.  He pads around his domain, hunched against the encroaching winter, guests leaving the hotel to the members of his close family and the conflicts within that spark and flicker to life when the winter sets in, like a Chekhovian Overlook Hotel.

When an angry young boy, the son of an indebted tenant, breaks the window of his land rover we are taken into a cold world of class, privilege, anger, pride and shame.  This gulf between the struggling, impoverished family’s raw emotions and their direct contact with the harshness of life and the elements, and the privileged, entitled pontifications of Aydin and his wealthy family in their heated hotel, are at the heart of this drama.  Aydin spends his days ensconced in his dimly lit, cavernous, study writing extraneous articles extolling his bohemian values and aesthetics for a small local paper that, as his captious and clearly bored divorcee sister Necla points out, no-one really reads. It is from Necla that the first of several lengthy dialogue scenes comes.  She questions if evil would exist, or be so strong, if those who represented good did not rise to oppose it; her logic being that by not resisting, it gives the evil doer the chance to feel shame and to stop.  Aydin dismisses this in a manner that becomes familiar as the film progresses: he is arrogant, controlling, pompous, dismissive.  But this is not portrayed in the manner of soap operas that Aydin proudly proclaims he did not once lower himself to during his 25 year career.  “Winter Sleep” is a film of long looks, pauses, minute gestures and unhurried movements.

Aydin’s other main relationship is with his younger, beautiful, wife Nihla.  Nihla plays as a kind of damsel in distress, her every material need provided for by the wealthy husband, but their marriage is clearly dying in the remote wintry steppes.  Her only joy in life is organising fundraisers for local charitable causes with other wealthy elites.  However even this her husband cannot allow her, his desire to control and his arrogance intrudes and tries to take over her little venture, a move he cannot see as anything but right and what his superior experience must do, even if it means destroying the last of their marriage.  Her last act of defiance brings her into the home of the poor tenant family who’s young son hurled a rock at Aydin’s vehicle in anger at his father’s shame. Here we see the poverty stricken aesthetic Aydin wrote about so disparagingly in his ivory tower article.  Here Nihla sees both a simple, homely pride and a fierce pride in a shocking scene of such brilliantly conceived tension that it could almost serve as the climax of the film. But this is a film of Aydin’s inner turmoil, about the slow autumn of love becoming winter until both participants are frozen, trapped in place, without the momentum to leave or change.

The morality plays of this masterful film play out like pages from an epic novel – a fact some may find daunting.  But the honesty and intensity of the lead performances take you and hold you through their troubles and strife.  From the towering centre of Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) to pained and trapped Nihla (Melisa Sözen), cat-like sister Necla (Demet Akbag) and the ever smiling imam Hamdi (Serhat Mustafa Kiliç) who is the only person who actually tries to like Aydin, the cast are uniformly superb.  These are characters, deftly painted, not two dimensional mouthpieces of a single, unchangeable, viewpoint.  In one scene Aydin is criticised by his sister for never grieving over their parents.  In the next scene, we see him sat by (what we must assume are) their graves, alone on a mist shrouded hillside.  Permanently smiling imam Hamdi tries to broker peace between his fiery brother and Aydin and his assistant, but then on one occasion we catch him curse about Aydin under his breath as he turns away.  As a political tract, a view of modern Turkey, we see the issues and matters that Aydin and his family pontificate over in their wealthy, more European and secular bohemian lives are met in cold hard reality by the suffering, poor, religious, family that endure what Aydin convinces himself is his benevolent authority.  The ever-present matter of pride and shame, of resisting evil or letting it act to recognise its own flaws, runs through the very blood of every scene, manifesting between the dying love of a marriage, the bored intellect of a divorced woman, the struggle to survive of a poor family and ultimately if dignity has a price, a cost, or is only the province of the wealthy.

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

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dir. Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson has become a staple, a mark of artistry and independence in American cinema.  His creation of a completely self contained world that seems to expand with each new release, yet still abide by these self sustained rules, brings to mind other American auteurs like David Lynch or Tarantino.  Yet none, I think, have ben so meticulous and persistent with their construction.  A Wes Anderson film is instantly recognisable, perhaps quicker than any other director’s work today.  Be it the framing, editing, the colour scheme, the fetishistic attention to a sickly sweet wealth of details to set, clothing and property, Anderson’s world is expressed without restraint onto the screen.

In his latest outing, Anderson tells the story of Gustave H, played with delicate finery by Ralph Fiennes, the former concierge of the eponymous establishment  during the 1930s, as told through a (somewhat needlessly multi-layered) plot device of flash-back via ageing owner Zero, played by F Murray Abraham in a recollection to Jude Law in the late 1960s.  Zero, in the flashback, is a hapless bellboy and sidekick to Gustave H.  When one of Gustave’s favourite guests (one of the many elderly blonde women he was intimate to in their twilight years) dies and leaves a priceless painting to him in her will, her suspicious and angry son (Adrien Brody) cries murder to the solicitor (Jeff Goldblum) and the authorities (Ed Norton).  There then begins a hair-brained chase across the snowy landscapes and streets of the fictional Eastern European Republic of Zubrowka that involves incarceration and subsequent escape (thanks to a gang of prisoners led by Harvey Keitel) and a chase through an empty winter olympics course by blood thirsty henchman (Willem Defoe).

If it seems like there is a stellar cast filling all manner of roles, it is because the cast are used like the endless details in the set and props and costume department: they are pretty and amusing details that are there, however momentarily, to catch the viewers eye and give the impression that the screen is crammed with detail, information and substance necessary to the plot.  Unfortunately, much like many of his other affectations, I found it to be a case of too much and yet not enough.  Let me explain.

Anderson shoots his films, it seems, with only one lens and one filter – a wide angle lens that, when combined with the director’s penchant for framing all of his shots so completely central and symmetrical, give everything a Point Of View, curved distortion and forced perspective effect.  Similarly, use of filters to give everything his much beloved yellow hue while vignetting round the edges of the frame means that every shot has a familiar feeling.  Camera moves, too, are taken from a very limited playbook which consists of horizontal whip-pans, dollies (to maintain the perfectly centred framing, usually) and meticulously measured zooms and little else.  As such, and youtube users have proven this, anyone could take these simple instructions and recreate the Wes Anderson look for themselves.

What, then, would raise the director above the sum of his parts?  Perhaps script and performance?  Unfortunately, the script exists as a collection of scenes and shots that serve as demonstrations of the director’s personal foibles and obsessions, and very little else.  All performances are the same – a monotonous deadpan with actors as statuesque clothes horses of their quirky wardrobe with barely a recognition, acknowledgment or eye contact with anyone else in the scene.  Dialogue consists of rapid fire delivery in the same monotone full of quirk and kook and detail that flies out to try and substitute for substance (and fails).  Scenes are whizzed past in an eagerness to reach the next prettily decorated set and star cameo which, while in other circumstances could be understood as screwball comedy but here feels hurried and aloof.

There are things to like in this film that has garnered critical praise seemingly across the board, but unfortunately for me they were in isolation and did not work as a coherent film.  For most of the film I felt I was watching a flicker book of heavily filtered instagram photos for a deeply hip publication.