GFF20 #19: Children of Men (US-UK-Japan 2006)

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Life without a future

As we live in a sort of dystopia with the Covid-19 enforced lockdown, we can cheer ourselves up by observing that things ain’t as bad as they might be. In Children of Men, director Alfonso Cuarón and his four other scriptwriters, show a truly terrifying vision of a future without children (based on PD James’ novel). As is the way with science fiction, the film is about now; and the now of 2006 is even more relevant in 2020. The focus of the film is on the treatment of migrants and things have got much worse in the last 14 years as the right-wing dehumanisation of human beings has gained more traction. It’s noticeable that there are those on the right, in the current crisis, who are being honest in their defence of the economy over the lives of the old and infirm (I won’t link to any as they are not worth reading). If the likes of Toby Young are seen on mainstream broadcasters such as the BBC again . . .

In the film Cuarón highlights the lack of human empathy in our world through: the treatment of migrants; police state tactics; the desecration of the environment; the war on terror; celebrity culture. It shows illegal migrants being caged before deportation and a police state similar to that imagined by George Orwell in his novel 1984 (published 1949). There are numerous contemporary UK references, such as the burning of livestock because of ‘mad cow’ disease and the hysteria that accompanied the ‘national’ mourning of Princess Diana.

In a documentary short that accompanied the DVD release of the film, The Possibility of Hope (US 2007), the broader issues of climate change and capitalism (which both fuel increased migration) are investigated showing Cuarón to be a political filmmaker even if his films are commercial in nature.

I’m not sure why Children of Men wasn’t a hit as it is a brilliant action movie containing some of the most thrilling sequences in cinema. Cuarón likes to use the long take, also used to devastating effect in Roma and with didactic purpose in Y tu mama tambien. Film theorist André Bazin would likely have approved of Cuarón’s aesthetic except for the fact he favours a moving camera. Having screentime mirror the audience’s experience of time does signify realism, we get a sense that we see characters acting in real time and so avoiding the manipulation of editing (ignoring the fact that a number of long takes in the film are separate shots digitally welded together). In addition, this ‘sense’ of real time can serve to heighten suspense in a ‘race against time’ narrative sequence. Hence, when the protagonists are under attack in a car the escape unfolds in the same time experienced by the spectator and, as there are no cuts, it seems as if the profilmic event happened as it is shown. Having the camera inside the vehicle further enhances the suspense as this gives the audience the same viewpoint as the characters.

Cuarón’s long takes are not always focused on key narrative action. For example, at one point the camera wanders away from Theo, who is present in every scene of the film, to seemingly investigate what’s going on elsewhere: when he’s on his way to work, soldiers are standing on the street and the camera walks through them to see a block of flats being emptied, presumably of refugees.

Clive Owen’s taciturn persona as the protagonist Theo is perfect for the role. Danny Huston’s cameo as a government minister is a masterful portrayal of the vapid urbanity of the English upper class. Michael Caine channels John Lennon as a Steve Bell-like political cartoonist (Bell did the actual cartoons on view) and Chiwetel Ejiofor, as a revolutionary, manages to convey deranged fervour and genuine concern. However, the true star of the film is Cuarón and his long-time collaborator, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who have produced a devastating vision of life without a future and life with humanity.

The Daughters of Fire (Las hijas del fuego, Argentina 2018)

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On the utopian road

This is a startling film for a number of reasons. Most obvious is the nature of the representations of sexual intercourse, which are the most explicit I’ve seen. Compared to In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no korîda, Japan, 1976) and The Idiots (Idioterne, Denmark-Spain-Sweden-France-Netherlands-Italy, 1998), for example, both of which feature hardcore sex, this film raises the bar for arthouse explicitness. The film even trumps Gaspar Noé’s provocations (at least the ones I’ve seen such as Love) as this is indisputably a pornographic film. Director Albertina Carri (she also co-wrote with Analía Couceyro) does use the narrative as a frame for moving on to the next sex scene. I can’t remember where I read that pornography is like the musical: in the latter the narrative moves us on to the next ‘song and dance’ number; in the former it is for the ‘moan and grope’ sequences. However the film is also more than porn.

Carri, whose short film Barbie Can also Be Sad (Barbie también puede estar triste, Argentina, 2002) is reputably also worth a watch, has made a meta-porn movie using arthouse techniques to comment on and question what we are seeing. This is primarily through the voiceover of one of the two characters who embark on a road trip (to stop one of their mothers selling a car!) where they pick up other women along the way. Inés Duacastella’s cinematography beautifully captures the austere landscapes of Patagonia; I’m not sure but I think they are headed south toward Tierra del Fuego, the end of the world (continent) which is named after fire. Road movies usually lead characters to learn about themselves, but this bunch are already full of knowledge about their sexuality and apparently need little more. In this sense, the spaces they move through are utopian; there are no psychological impediments to their lasciviousness. They are challenging patriarchy and have little problem dispensing with the two homophobic misogynists they come across: a utopian space indeed!

Carri’s crew was apparently virtually all female and although I found the film intensely erotic I (heterosexual male) am not the target audience. I suspect many will find the graphic sex scenes too much to view but the film is clearly more than porn (listen to the interesting discussion between academics José Arroyo and Deborah Shaw). (I’m trying to avoid ‘protesting too much’ so it seems I’m justifying watching porn).

There are moments of great beauty in the film. The hallucinogenic sequence when the characters take mushrooms, where imagery of sea life is superimposed on the image, is particularly stunning. Whilst not going the whole Godardian hog of alienating the spectator from the film with the voiceover, Carri does enough to get us thinking about what we are seeing. The final, long take, of a woman masturbating reminded of the scene in Godard’s British Sounds (UK 1970) where a naked woman stands on a stairway with a Marxist-Leninist tract on the soundtrack (as I remember it at least). The content of the shot is such that the viewer is interrogated as much as the image.

The film’s showing on MUBI for a while and is available on at least one pornographic website, an interesting platform for an arthouse movie.

Neighbouring Sounds (O Som ao Redor Brazil, 2012)

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Bourgeois complacency

It was good to catch up with Kleber Mendonça Filho’s debut film (on MUBI) after being wowed by Aquarius and Bacurau. Its narrative is like the latter’s in terms of lacking a clear protagonist and both share a political dimension. However, it lacks the thrust of his latest movie as it offers a mosaic of life in an upmarket housing complex in Recife, Filho’s home town. Like the roaming Steadicam of the opening shot, we spend our time with different neighbours: Maeve Jinkings’ Bia, a bored housewife tormented by next door’s howling dog; Joao (Gustavo Jahn) who works, unhappily, as his grandfather’s estate agent; Clodoaldo (Irandhir Santos) who at first appears to be a hustler offering street security. Minor problems, a broken into car, a receptionist asleep on the job, seem to all the conflict available to drive the narrative forward.

The film actually begins with a montage of photographs that seem to be from colonial era sugar plantations; the patriarchal grandfather (WJ Solha) bemoans the fact his family no longer visit the sugar mill. The purpose of these images is not clear until the very end. I say ‘not clear’, I mean not to me whose knowledge of Brazilian history is extremely limited. While indigenous audiences are always likely to get more from a film, in this case I suspect it is substantially more.

Filho, an ex-film critic, came to directing in his 40s (he also wrote the script) and has clearly absorbed all the ‘lessons’ of making films. The sense of space could easily have been confusing as we buzz about different apartments, but the film is skilfully constructed to ensure we know where we are. There are a couple of odd moments: a couple steal into a apparently empty apartment to have sex and, in a horror movie moment, a person suddenly runs past the bedroom doorway! And when Joao is standing underneath a waterfall, whilst on a visit to the countryside, the torrent of water suddenly turns red. Whilst the former moment is not explained, the expressionist purpose of the latter is made clear at the end.

If I sound somewhat disengaged from the film then that was my experience. It clocks in at over two hours and Filho makes few concessions to entertainment, though there is some humour (the gag with the boy and his football should have run longer) and some sex scenes. That said, the cumulative effect of experiencing a slice of affluent Brazilian life, contextualised by the ending, is more than worth the effort.

It is certainly an antidote to the ‘poverty porn’ of City of God (Brazil-France-Germany, 2002) and has some similarities to the Mexican La Zona, though that was much more genre based.

¡Viva! 26 #4: Esto no es Berlín (This Is Not Berlin, Mexico 2019)

From left: Carlos, Gera and Rita

This Is Not Berlin is a stylish and exciting picture set in Mexico City around the time of the 1986 World Cup and shot in ‘Scope with a strong music soundtrack. It focuses primarily on two families with 17 year-old sons at a local high school. At first I thought it might be a conventional youth picture/teen movie. As the narrative begins Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León) appears to be in a dazed state in the midst of a pitched battle between two local high schools. In the next few scenes his taste in music is mocked by his mates. He is with his best friend Gera (José Antonio Toledano) when they come across Gera’s 18 year-old sister Rita (Ximena Romo) and her boyfriend kissing passionately. Next morning Gera is renting out his father’s girlie magazines to his classmates. It’s not long, however, before the narrative develops a rather different feel. Carlos clearly has his eye on Rita but she ignores him until she discovers his electronics skills. When he is able to fix the electronic keyboard used by the band in which Rita is the singer, he and Gera are invited to a performance at Azteca, a new underground club. This proves to be a real eye-opener for Carlos. He is introduced to new music, performance art, new drugs and a developing LGBTQ scene.

This is the fourth feature by director Hari Sama. His career has involved an equal interest in film and music and many of his projects seem to have been autobiographical in some way. He was born in 1967 so This Is Not Berlin has been taken as drawing on his experiences in the mid-1980s. As several reviewers have noted, what he offers is a fairly objective view of young people searching for an identity at a specific time in Mexico. According to this interesting review by Alistair Ryder for ‘Gay Essential website, Sama identifies as ‘queer (but not as gay’). What Sama can clearly represent is a mixture of 80s music and performance art that even someone like me, with not much interest in either, can find engaging and exciting. Carlos is attracted in particular to the art created by photographer Nico, but is he ready for Nico’s sexual advances? Carlos is a very attractive young man and also very creative. It’s not long before he is accepted by Nico’s group and becomes part of the stunts they organise – including a performance piece opposing the homophobia of football – in the midst of the World Cup. But the more Carlos (or ‘Charly’ as Nico calls him) becomes involved, the more he moves away from Gera and his schoolfriends – and his family.

Carlos and Gera chilling out

The film is also a family melodrama. In fact it is a genuine hybrid, mixing several repertoires. I’ve read various reviews, mostly from the Sundance screenings of the film early in 2019 (it was picked up by Samuel Goldwyn Films and released in the US in August 2019). Many discuss the music, the queer discourse and the ‘coming of age’ narrative, but few mention the family, especially in relation to social class. The two families seem to me to belong to a ‘European’ middle class living in the outer commuter belt of Mexico City. Sama in the Press Notes tells us this is meant to be Lomas Verdes (‘Green Hills’). Wikipedia tells me this is 7 miles from the centre and describes it as ‘upper middle class’. But this puzzles me. Two well-known films that have something in common with This Is Not Berlin are Roma (2018) and Y tu mamá también (2001), but in both these cases the families have live-in servants, usually mestizos or indigenous people. Sama’s two families don’t have servants as far as I can remember. He describes them in the notes as “broken families, conservative and dysfunctional”. Carlos lives in what seems a relatively small house with his mother Carolina (played by a criminally under-used Marina de Tavira, the mother in Roma) and his much younger brother. Carolina seems severely depressed and possibly dependent on prescription drugs. We don’t learn much about Gera’s parents until the final scenes. Sama argues that the youth of these families in effect found a family ‘on the streets’ and eventually in the ‘post-punk’ underground. They were the children of parents who had experienced the political upheavals of 1968 and the early 1970s (the focus in Roma). 

The focus on music in This Is Not Berlin links it to Y tu mamá también, but that is a film that looks outward from Mexico City to explore a ‘national metaphor’ and to encounter the mestizo and indigenous peoples of the South West. The only direct contact, as I remember in This Is Not Berlin, between the middle class European youth and the ‘other’ Mexicans, is at an outdoor concert (much like the entertainments in Roma) on waste ground where Rita’s band plays and the hostile crowd are not interested in the ‘post-punk’ synth-based music. The local band (of mestizos?) sport mohicans and play music more recognisably ‘punk’ in the UK sense. I should also point out that the film opens with a quote from Proust and the film’s title comes from a comment, a put-down of Nico, in a brief but telling political argument in which Nico is accused of just imitating European art movements. You are not a true artist he is told. The politics go further, Nico’s friends are accused of “just partying” all the time with AIDS spreading while they take no notice.

Carlos as a naked slave in a street protest by Nico’s performance art group

The music genre question also permeates the family melodrama. Hari Sama has a small role himself as Carlos’ uncle, his mother’s brother. He wears leathers and rides a motor-bike and his musical taste appears to have developed through listening to old blues guys like Lightning Hopkins, whose more melodic guitar playing seems to have influenced Carlos in turn. The uncle also turns out to be the engineer who encourages Carlos to develop his talents and think of electronics engineering as something to pursue. Early on in the film Gera scoffs at Carlos for playing a track and praising the guitarwork which Gera dismisses as ‘country’. Meanwhile Rita identifies herself with Patti Smith’s poetry in a school literature class. There have been criticisms of This Is Not Berlin because it doesn’t have a strong narrative drive. This is odd, since at one point I thought the structure was becoming too conventional and I was concerned about how the eventual ‘high life’ that Carlos was pursuing would eventually come crashing down. I won’t spoil the narrative resolution and I did eventually come to appreciate the mix of cultural and political issues in the film. Having said that, I think it is the case that the film raises too many narrative possibilities that can’t all be pursued. But better too many than missing some out altogether?

Much of the impact of the film depends on the cinematography by Alfredo Altamirano which manages to create a variety of moods through fluid movement as well as close-up work and the use of various devices to create textures. Altamarino does not appear to have a long list of feature credits but he is very experienced in shorts and commercials and his work has been featured at many festivals. He has some interesting promo reels on his website here. Overall it is the combination of music, camerawork and art direction – all the creative units – as well as the performances that present this evocation of a period.

This film seems to be destined primarily for streaming, which is a shame as it would be a wow on a big screen. I note that IMDb records a US rating of TV-MA which I understand is a rating for cable TV and streaming? There is a significant amount of nudity (much of it male nudity ) in the film and it’s interesting that this hasn’t stopped the film’s US release. It was due to feature in the BFI’s Flare LGBTQ festival which has had to be postponed. I hope that it will get a UK release of some kind. There are already three other Mexican films available with links that might encourage analysis and further study. As well as the two mentioned above, I would add Güeros (2014) as another film about youth, music and ‘protest’ set in 1999, but harking back to New Wave styles.

The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea (To thávma tis thálassas ton Sargassón Greece-Germany-Netherlands-Sweden, 2019)

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Lost in Mesolongi

As cinemas are not an option at the moment I’ve taken advantage of a free offer from MUBI and so am plunging through two films a day to catch up with its ‘one new film a day’ distribution pattern. I won’t see them all but the opening of The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea was promising enough to stick to the end though, generically, it was slightly misleading. The excellent Angeliki Papoulia plays Elisabeth who is busting terrorists in Athens only to be chucked to the backwater of Mesolongi, on the coast west of the capital. There she’s the chief of police and the narrative resumes 10 years on where she has become as corrupt as the cops she seemed to be evading at the start.

Her wayward cocaine-snorting, gun waving detective reminded me of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (US, 1992). The setting, in the marshes and lagoons of Mesolongi, reminded me of Marshland and the relative remoteness of the location is important. Here social rules become looser and police presence isn’t necessarily welcome. The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea goes further than Marshland as some characters seem to be losing their grip on reality somewhat; there are scenes re-enacted from the bible with no, as far as I can tell, link to the narrative. Director Syllas Tzoumerkas, who co-wrote the interesting Suntan (Greece-Germany, 2016), wrote the film with co-star Youla Boudali who plays Rita, the bullied sister of an egomaniac drug dealer (Christos Passalis oozing sleaze). Rita works in the eel-processing factory, detailed in gruesome documentary detail, which links the area to the Caribbean’s Sargasso Sea as that’s where the eels go to breed. Peter Bradshaw suggests the location is a metaphor for renewal though one of the comments below his post suggests it’s more to do with decay. The latter is more likely given the film’s ending.

Papoulia has appeared in three of Yorgos Lanthimos’ films that epitomise the current arthouse favourite ‘Greek weird cinema’. Lanthos’ films do nothing for me (see The Favourite) but I’ve nothing against ‘the weird’. However, as I couldn’t find even the most tenuous connection between the bible re-enactments going on, and the presence of Albanians also seemed to be significant, the film seemed half complete. Maybe it’s my own lack of religion that makes me blind to the allegory. However, the film is worth seeing if only for Papoulia’s ‘bad cop’; such a rare thing to see in a female character. Here’s a review of an earlier Tzoumerkas film, A Blast .

The Silence (Tystnaden, Sweden 1963)

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Sisters at war

I’m an absolute sucker for Sven Nykvist’s chiaroscuro cinematography allied to Ingmar Bergman’s deep focus compositions. In The Silence they are welded in a chamber drama of two sisters at war: one lasciviously animistic; the other cooly intellectual until she accepts the truth of her imminent death. The 1960s were probably the height of arthouse cinema in terms of the acceptance by audiences, however minority, of abstruse narratives and we are plunged into a strange world without explanation. The sisters, Ingrid Thulin’s Ester and Gunnel Lindblom’s Anna, are travelling through an unidentifiable east European state either in the throes of, of gearing up for, war. Anna’s young son, Johan, is with them and the opening, on a train, sets the tone that we are as much inhabiting a psychological as a physical landscape; the unscrolling landscape is obviously a back projection.

In Hamish Ford’s interesting Sounds of Cinema review, he quotes Bergman as saying: “It follows Bartók’s music rather closely – the dull continuous note, then the sudden explosion.” Ford notes a ticking clock is heard at the start and end of the film (it could be a metronome in keeping with the musical metaphor), no doubt indicative of our lives’ movement toward their inevitable end. Bergman’s existential angst, which often seems mangled up in misogyny, plays out as the sisters vie for psychological supremacy. I must confess that I spent most of the film unclear on what the heavily portentous goings-on actually meant, but I was never less than engaged. Knowing Bartok didn’t help.

The film was a hit, probably because of the (for the time) explicit representations of sex. Ester masturbates whilst Anna witnesses a couple having sex in a theatre and seduces a waiter for the same purpose. I’m sure that this was the reason the film was successful with audiences though it was to Bergman’s chagrin:

One is always glad when a film is a success. Be then, when I discovered why it was a success, and how many of the people who were going to see it were saying furiously they’d never again go and see an Ingmar Bergman film, I was terrified. (Bergman on Bergman, Björkman, Manns and Sima, 1973: 180)

I’ll take his statement at face value, though it should be noted that the relative explicitness of arthouse cinema was one of the reasons why it became so popular in the post-war period. As I wrote in Introduction to Film (which is going cheap on Amazon at the moment!):

Although art-cinema’s increasing popularity was relative, and was always far below the mainstream’s, there is little doubt that the presence of (female) nudity in Summer With Monika (Sommeren med Monika, Sweden, 1953) helped establish director Ingmar Bergman as a favourite.

Films such as this helped break the censor’s stranglehold. The nudity would not have raised many eyebrows in un-puritanical Scandinavia. Because the nudity was not obviously sensational, and the film was received as art (putting it, in cultural terms, on a similar level as the nude of Renaissance painting) and consumed by a middle-class audience, it was harder to justify it being censored. In addition, these films, produced abroad, had no obligation to the Production Code. (Lacey, 2016: 118)

Even if I finished The Silence unsure of what I’d experienced there are some moments of direct emotional power. For instance, when Ester has an ‘attack’ (I’m guessing she has TB) and rails against death. I don’t think the strength of the scene was accentuated by the fact the ‘grim reaper’ is abroad great numbers worldwide at the moment due to the pandemic; the position of the shot, at the head of her bed, and Thulin’s performance are enough to make it terrifying. The film is available on MUBI for another four days.