Nymphomaniac: Volume I

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Joe: It’s my own fault. I’m just a bad human being.

Seligman: I’ve never met a bad human being.

Joe: Well, you have now.

Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Volume I (2013) stages a confessional narrative; a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg/Stacy Martin) recounts her erotic experiences to the man who saves her after a mysterious assault.

Joe is preoccupied by guilt, she sees herself as a ‘bad’ person because of the way she has expressed her sexuality. The sections of her life she reveals to us, then, are skewed to present her in a deliberately dark light. Von Trier structures the film into five chapters or episodes in Joe’s sexual experience. Ranging from losing her virginity to tentatively falling in love, it charts the rise of her obsessions but also focuses solely on them.

The action in flashback is accompanied by Charlotte Gainsbourg’s retrospective voice-over narration. Gainsbourg’s voice performance is captivating, especially when laid over Von Trier’s trademark use of images inter-cut with action.  

Yet, Michel Foucault argues that confession is a “power discourse” in which the confessor is empowered by his position to “judge, punish, console and reconcile”. This is in some ways true of Joe’s confession which has a therapeutic dimension. While not asking Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) to forgive her, in fact she often wants to shock him, she is seeking to unburden herself by intimately sharing him what she has experienced. It has been suggested that Nymphomaniac I presents a misogynist view of female sexuality, and I would argue that this confessional discourse underpins this idea. There is an inherent voyeurism to Joe recounting her sexual experiences to a man. While Seligman tries to comfort her, comparing her natural desires to the metaphor of fly fishing in a stream, in her mind she is still confessing her ‘sin’ of desire.

However, Nymphomaniac I was much less sensationalist than the media hype made out at the time of its release. The orgasmic poster campaign featuring the lead actors for instance doesn’t really reflect what the film is about at all. Yes, there is a lot of sex, but it is not a porn film. The characters have depth and emotion, especially, and most importantly, Joe herself. So while the outdated nympho label is tagged onto her character, the film explores much more than her adventurous sex life to become a complete piece of art.  

The Congress

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In its opening premise The Congress (2013, dir. Ari Folman) raises issues relating to the commodification of the female body in the film industry. Set in the near future, an aging actress (Robin Wright) sells her image to Miramount movie studio. Now in ownership of all future versions of her digital performance, which can be re-created at any age, Wright is expected to retire and keep quiet.

An amalgamation of animation and live-action, Folman explores images of aging on screen, commenting on our perceptions of women in the film industry. We see Wright in various guises; a mid-40s star in decline, a stylised cartoon representation, and back again. Playing a fictionalised version of herself, The Congress draws heavily on Wright’s real back catalogue. The camera lingers lovingly on The Princess Bride (1987) poster featuring a head-shot of Wright’s more youthful visage. For the studio then, this new technology is a way to make its female stars forever young, forever beautiful. It’s telling that the movie that goes on to be the most successful using Wright’s digital image is a Tomb Raider-esque sci-fi slasher starring a younger, scantily clad version of herself.

The Congress also questions the power of the role of the actor in the film industry. Wright is willing to consider the studio’s offer but not with their unconditional right to cast her in any genre. Her veto to sci-fi is a nice touch, making a prophetically satirical comment on the erasure of her power. Harvey Keitel as Wright’s agent, Al, plays a convincing devil’s advocate to her desire for control over the future use of her image, arguing she never had any real in choice in performance, particularly as a woman. Keitel’s speech as Wright is being scanned is a particular highlight, working against the more gimmicky instances of the film to cut to the emotional core.

Indeed, the film loses its way as live performance switches to animation. As Wright is summoned to the eponymous congress at Miramount, now an exclusively animated zone, her journey across the desert gradually transitions to a warped, hallucinogenic style of cartoon. While I enjoyed the initial stages of the shift –Wright’s cartoonified eyes flicker in the mirror–the overall effect is cliché and feels overdone. The road becomes a twisting rainbow, the sand dunes are writhing waves and giant sea snakes and dragons leap out of every orifice. Clearly this is meant to satirise the grotesque vanity of the animation zone but its exaggerated tone makes Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s look subtle.

At this point the film all but abandons its premise, becoming more and convoluted in both storyline and, for me, a disappointing style of animation. The cartoon version of Wright feels too automated, a skeletal stick with very little emotion, stalking about with jerky, unpolished movements. Wright becomes trapped in the cartoon world, is she trying to escape? Bring down Miramount? Find her son? We don’t know. The juxtaposition of scenes feels very stilted with no logical flow as the characters blunder around from one disaster to the next. While the return to live action towards the end is refreshing, I feel this interplay could have been used better to fully explore the divisions between dystopian reality and utopian fantasy.

An ambitious, maybe too ambitious film, The Congress starts off well but descends into a convoluted clutter of half-baked plot lines and strange editing.

***

American Psycho: Voice-over

A voice-over is used to address the audience of a film directly. Typically moving beyond straightforward diegesis, it furthers our understanding of the film’s characters and events at first-hand. In American Psycho (2000, dir. Mary Harron) Patrick Bateman’s (Christian Bale) voice-over allows the viewer access to his thoughts and fantasies. While this use of voice-over can enable audience identification with a character, the heavily modulated and sublimely structured dark philosophy of Bateman’s monologues serve to separate us further from his psychosis:

I have all the characteristics of a human being: blood, flesh, skin, hair; but not a single, clear, identifiable emotion, except for greed and disgust. Something horrible is happening inside of me and I don’t know why. My nightly bloodlust has overflown into my days. I feel lethal, on the verge of frenzy. I think my mask of sanity is about to slip.

Bateman’s thoughts are as meticulous and obsessive as his lifestyle. His focus on the body conveys his fixation on sensory experience, one of the only similarities he has with those around him. Indeed, the perfection of Bateman’s body in American Psycho ties into the repeated mistaken identities throughout the film. He is beautiful and yet rotten, concealing himself in plain sight.

However Harron’s use of voice-over is not so clear cut. Bateman’s aggressive outbursts often go unnoticed by those around him, questioning the film’s boundaries of reality and fantasy: “You’re a fucking ugly bitch. I want to stab you to death, and then play around with your blood”. Although almost all of the voice-over text is lifted from Bret Easton Ellis’ novel, it is one of the few features of the film adaptation he disliked, feeling it was “too explicit”.

Yet there are so many self-aware monologues in American Psycho that surely the odd voice-over here and there wouldn’t make a difference. The infamous Phil Collins speech for instance reveals as much of Bateman’s character as a well placed introspective voice-over could, yet by including the silent listeners on screen his frightening narcissism is fully evoked.  

In Too Deep is the most moving pop song of the 1980s, about monogamy and commitment. The song is extremely uplifting. Their lyrics are as positive and affirmative as anything I’ve heard in rock. Christy, get down on your knees so Sabrina can see your asshole. Phil Collins’ solo career seems to be more commercial and therefore more satisfying, in a narrower way. Especially songs like In the Air Tonight and Against All Odds. Sabrina, don’t just stare at it, eat it. But I also think Phil Collins works best within the confines of the group, than as a solo artist, and I stress the word artist. This is Sussudio, a great, great song, a personal favourite.

Bale’s clipped, robotic delivery of these speeches brings out the automated nature of Bateman’s insecurity. The high register is so discordant with both the topic and the situation that it feels rehearsed, revealing how much effort Bateman puts into this apparently impromptu social occasions. The seamless interspersion of imperatives conveys a sociopathic emotionless as well as revealing Bateman’s egotistical desires.

However, as the violence reaches a crescendo Bateman’s voice-over dissipates, his rampage playing out over a suspenseful orchestral score. While this could convey a breakdown of Bateman’s logical processing and reactions, in my opinion, it reflects his freedom from having to constantly explain and rationalise himself. Fantasy blurs with reality as a single bullet to a police car sends it up in a fireball. It is only when he reassesses his actions that Bateman begins to monologue once again. Confessing to his lawyer’s answer machine and shot in an extreme close-up of sweaty disarray, Bateman appears to be finally sharing his unmoderated thoughts with the viewer. His speech, for instance, is more realistically fractured. It is telling, then, that this moment of self-expression and remorse goes unnoticed by those around him. Presuming it to be a joke his lawyer then goes on to think Bateman is someone else, effectively erasing that exposure of his character.

"This confession has meant nothing".

The Rover

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Set after an unknown global ‘happening’ in the bleak wastelands of the Australian outback, The Rover (2014, dir. David Michôd) is a post-apocalyptic thriller charting one man’s seemingly futile quest to get his car back.  

It’s a very sparse film, both visually and in terms of narrative. We are given very, very few clues as to what triggered the global collapse, nor are we offered much in terms of character development. Eric (Guy Pearce) slides into view with no exposition, just moments before his car is stolen by three fellow rovers and the film begins. Don’t get me wrong, I love a mysterious dystopia… but occasionally I felt that The Rover would have benefited from just a bit more context.  

Yet, saying that, I really enjoyed the bleak empty aesthetic of the film which matches the purposeless roving of the characters. Michôd frames the narrative beautifully against the backdrop of the Australian outback. There is a dangerous quality to the landscape, burned out, dry and arid it symbolises the wider circumstances of the doomed world as well as the predicament of the individual.

Robert Pattinson puts in a really strong and mature performance as Rey. A fellow traveller Eric encounters on the road, and coincidentally the brother of one of the car thieves. The relationship between Eric and Rey sustains the film through its essential bleakness. Indeed, Pearce and Pattinson rub along well together, complementing the others  performances. Pattinson’s accent and idiosyncratic speech patterns for Rey are subtle and convincing, conveying his character with sensitivity and skill.

The portrayal of violence in The Rover is shocking and brutal. Michôd’s minimal soundtrack adds a frightening realism creating a bleak and unshowy vision of the necessity of violence in this new world order.

Despite quite a slow opening, the dystopian world of The Rover is one I couldn’t look away from. Packed with plenty of twists and turns, the initially minimal seeming film becomes a sophisticated piece of storytelling, masquerading behind a sun-bleached facade. The two leads’ exceptionally strong performances captivate the viewer until the film’s very, very bleak conclusion.  

****

Boogie Nights

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Set in the 1970s, the Golden Age of porn, Boogie Nights (1997, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson) follows the rise and fall of Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg). When spotted by a porn director, Eddie’s life is turned upside down. Being in adult films allows him to escape the violent claustrophobia of his parents’ house, finally being able to live and work independently, not to mention all the sex, alcohol and drugs along the way. The shimmering highs however lead, inevitably, to crashing lows. The dawn of the Eighties brings more excess and greed which coupled with Eddie’s—now known as ‘Dirk Diggler’—increasingly difficulty to ‘perform’ on cue draws him towards other more dangerous ways to fund the lifestyle he has become accustomed to.

Anderson directs a large ensemble cast ranging from those directly involved in the porn industry such as performers, directors and financiers, to families, friends and hangers on. While the main focus of Boogie Nights is Eddie, Anderson offers the viewer snapshots of life in the business. This fast pace switching between characters, usually at parties, stresses the importance of reputation and fame within the industry. The next batch of rising stars is always just over the next horizon, and don’t the current stars know it.

The adult content of Boogie Nights was always going to make it controversial. However, in presenting pornography as a business rather than an amusing pastime, Anderson offers what feels like a very real, and at times very dark glimpse into the vulnerability of performers and the harmful effect the industry has on them. The juxtaposition of Melanie Safka’s jaunty “Brand New Key” intercut with a medium close-up of Jack Horner’s (Burt Reynolds) impassive face watching Eddie and Rollergirl (Heather Graham) fuck on the sofa is incredibly uncomfortable, questioning the voyeuristic nature of pornography, not just for the consumer, but also those involved and exploited within the industry itself.   

Indeed, Anderson doesn’t shy away from the dark side of the business. A young woman overdoses, blood caked over her nose and chin, she is carried away while the party continues. For all the cocaine and caviar, these people are disposable, easily replaceable and can all too easily fall through the cracks.

But Boogie Nights is also a film about film-making. It is through his discovery of Dirk that Horner is inspired to make his films better, truer and more dramatic. For the shooting of Dirk’s first film Anderson pans across the crew watching Dirk and Amber, again highlighting the voyeuristic nature of the industry. As the camera passes over the entire crew in sequence it ends zooming onto Horner’s camera lens itself; the two cameras come lens to lens, almost kissing, in a meta-filmic comment on not only the power of the camera to draw attention to certain things but also the ever present, silent watching viewer.

Having only seen Mark Wahlberg in his more recent action roles, I found his performance in Boogie Nights to be a bit of a revelation. While he plays the innocent and fresh Eddie well, he really comes into his own during Dirk’s downward spiral. The scenes speaking to himself in the mirror are particularly moving: “I’m a star, I’m a big bright shining star”. Wahlberg really captures the Dirk’s essence of both sadness and desperation, mourning the elliptical nature of stardom and his own fall.

Over its 2 hours Boogie Nights courses through a huge range of emotions and circumstances, inviting us in to the heady world of the seventies, before spitting us out onto the hard concrete of the eighties come down.  A seduction, a break-up and heartbreak all in one, it’s both an absorbing and draining watch.

Guardians of the Galaxy

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Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy (2014, dir. James Gunn) is the latest of their super-hero creations to make the leap to the big screen. The tenth installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Guardians is the story of a rag-tag group of misfits who join together for various (and dubious) reasons, only to end up saving the galaxy.

It’s a large ensemble cast including Chris Pratt as Peter Quill, (the human hero) Zoe Saldana as Gamora, (sexy, green assassin and token woman) as well as the voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel as genetically modified raccoon Rocket and his side-kick/body guard Groot.

The well judged balance of humour and action makes Guardians a great family film. Refreshingly, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, There’s  showy explosions and visual gags for the kids as well as some more subtle jokes for the adults too. Yet this bathetic tone occasionally undermines the action, disrupting the flow by interrupting the tension. The final battle with Ronan (not Keating), for instance, feels too underplayed, making the ending a bit of an anti-climax.

Chris Pratt gives a solid performance as the likeable hero, demonstrating great comic timing and the cast gels well around him. As the only human character in the world of the other, he is the character the viewer feels the strongest bond with. Indeed, in not glamorising Quill and also highlighting his weaknesses as well as his strengths, he is endeared to the audience as the emotional and moral centre.

However, the plot felt underdeveloped at times and lacks contextual detail. After seeing Quill’s abduction we are suddenly whisked ahead to see him installed in a pretty impressive spaceship with no explanation how he got there. Although I understand that this avoidance of Quill’s ‘origin story’ makes narrative sense; cutting straight to the action-packed adventures of the adult Quill makes a much more exciting film, it does leave quite a few loose ends untied.

The same can be said about Guardians’ baddies. A strong and believable villain needs a clear motivation for his evil plans. But Ronan is an identikit bad guy, complete with the deep voice and shadowy face. Sadly Karen Gillan as Nebula is also a bit disappointing. Skulking around, screaming orders, engaging in fights to the death, all felt paradoxically wooden and hammy.

Guardians of the Galaxy is a fun and enjoyable action adventure. The plot arc is exciting, if a bit lacking in development and moves along at a roaring pace.

***

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

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What if you grew up to realise that your father had used your childhood as an experiment?

Rosemary doesn’t talk very much, and about certain she’s silent. She had a sister, Fern, her whirlwind other half, who vanished from her life in circumstances she wishes she could forget. And it’s been ten years since she last saw her beloved older brother Lowell.

Now at college, Rosemary starts to see that she can’t go forwards without going back, back to the time when, aged five, she was sent away from home to her grandparents and returned to find Fern gone.

As the first novel on this year’s Man Booker longlist I have read, I was steeling myself up for a difficult read. In recent years the Booker has gained a reputation as a champion of impenetrable literary fiction; Will Self’s Umbrella defeated me completely, so it was with growing surprise that I eased myself into We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Fowler’s prose feels very natural and effortlessly draws the reader Rosemary’s dysfunctional family life. 

Around seventy pages in, Fowler hits us with the twist: *spoiler alert* Fern is a chimpanzee. I don’t know whether it’s because I read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves sporadically over a few weeks or I just missed all the signs completely, but I was genuinely surprised. The preceding chapters, while lacking a sense of driving narrative, do not build the kind of tension usually expected before a big revelation. Indeed, Fowler’s structure is well developed circulating around the main events in Rosemary’s life, revealing only snippets to the reader. Drawing on the traumatic episodes of Rosemary’s past and the difficulties of returning to childhood memories the fragmented structure frames her experiences well.

Although it made narrative sense to push through to the ending after the reconciliation, I felt this section was rushed. Partly, this is down to Fowler’s skill as a writer, the reader becomes attached to her characters and, naturally, wants more of them, but the unexplained changing relationship with Rosemary and her mother in particular felt jarring.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves has a powerful animal rights message. Without ramming it down the reader’s throat, the careful character development of Fern is a challenge to the unseen norms of animal testing and experimenting, highlighting our complicity and ignorance. The interspersed psychological theory both from Rosemary’s father and her lecturers give the novel real grounding. The further reading section at the back is well-judged and something I intend to explore further.

Fowler’s novel is a strong contender for the shortlist. Immensely readable, it has a powerfully thought-provoking message told in an accessible way.

WINNER OF THE 2014 PEN/FAULKNER AWARD FOR FICTION

LONGLISTED FOR THE 2014  MAN BOOKER PRIZE FOR FICTION 

ALSO POSTED AT THAT LIT SITE 

Videodrome

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1983: the beginning of the video wars. As home VCR players became more affordable, Sony’s Betamax and JVC’s VHS slogged it out to be the chosen format of viewers worldwide. Only one would win. But eventually both would lose.

David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) is very much a product of its time. A cable network executive’s forays into disturbing late night broadcasts take a sinister turn when the dividing screen between fiction and reality begins to melt away. Unlike today when media is consumed wirelessly and invisibly, the physical object of the video cassette is an important trope in Videodrome. Indeed, Cronenberg uses the oppressive nature of the bulky, noisy hardware to create a sense of claustrophobia. Harlan’s backroom office, for instance, is crowded with blinking screens and players restricting the space the two men physically inhabit.

This cramped staging reflects the intrusive nature of Videodrome on the human brain. Created as a way to psychologically manipulate the viewer, Videodrome uses sexual violence and torture to deaden their senses creating powerful hallucinations. There is a striking similarity to Stanley Kubrik’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) in the shooting of this forced brainwashing. However, whereas Alex’s (Malcolm McDowell) eyes are painfully pinned open, Max (James Woods) is enveloped within the reality of Videodrome. An enclosed helmet is placed on his head, further underlining the penetrative nature of the Videodrome hallucinations which become, for him, a new and horrifying reality.  

Yet Videodrome goes beyond mind control, extending to physical metamorphosis. Dr. Brian O’Blivion (what great name) believes that the screen has become the retina of the mind’s eye: that what appears on the screen becomes a raw experience for those who watch it. While towards the end of the film the pseudo-psychology seems to run in illogical circles, the examination of the interaction of man and machine is well developed. In merging this hardware with human flesh, Cronenberg creates an ultimate ergonomics. Max’s hand merges with his gun to become a nightmarish fleshy stump; part of him and yet part of something else. However while Max is able to escape his programming it is simply replaced with a new philosophy. The ‘new flesh’ figures as an ideology of reclaiming what is ours, but is just as forced on Max as Videodrome. Long live the new flesh.

Also published at That Lit Site

Paprika

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This is your brain on anime

Sometime in near future Japan a revolutionary piece of technology is invented and developed: the DC Mini. A wearable device used to view, record and even enter people’s dreams, it is used as a form psychotherapeutic treatment to alleviate the nightmares of traumatised and unstable patients. However, when one of the devices goes missing from the lab, the dreams take on a more sinister turn as the stolen device is used to manipulate and control. Cited by Christopher Nolan as an inspiration for his mind-bending dreamscape Inception (2010), Paprika (2006, dir. Satoshi Kon) is an ambitious and inventive anime thriller.

The infinite possibilities of the dream scenario really showcase the animators’ skill in Paprika, allowing the imagination to run riot. The film opens within Detective Toshimi Konakawa’s dream, immediately immersing the viewer into the dream world. The colours are lurid, clashing and crowd the picture. The music is similarly overpowering, which alongside the synchronised movements of performers, dancers and frogs, forms a claustrophobic vision of a nightmare. The dream then fluidly shifts from a circus to Tarzan swinging through the trees and finally to a film noir type thriller. Indeed, Kon maintains this structure throughout the film, blurring the lines between dreams and reality with scenes merging into one another.

One of the film’s weaknesses in my opinion is the overly complicated back story to the DC Mini. There is a lot of quite clumsy, but necessary, expositional dialogue explaining the fictional technology of the device. While it helps to flesh out this futuristic world, at times the level of detail that Paprika ventures into can be hard to grasp.

The detailed and intricate animation creates a stylised anime reality. The sky and trees are particularly well realised. There is a good juxtaposition of stillness and action to the images, especially in characters’ faces contributing to the dream-like feel of the entire film. Moreover, the doubling of Paprika and Dr Chiba Atsuko is cleverly translated into the animation; whereas Paprika is vibrant and vivacious, Chiba is impassive and guarded. However, the prods at the overweight Doctor Kosaku Tokita, the inventor of the DC Mini, felt a bit cheap. The only character seen eating, in fact over-eating and comically getting wedged into lifts and cars, Tokita is the butt of many of the films jokes, solely according to his weight. Whereas the other characters, particularly Chiba are super-skinny and chiselled, the rolls of fat and permanent sweat etched onto Tokita’s brow become a grotesque motif of over-indulgence and stupidity.  

So inventive and surprising, the layers of dream and reality intensify as the film reaches its climax. I particularly enjoyed the use of the lift device as a frame for the abstract concept of dream genres: 14th Floor: Adventure Department, 15th Floor: Suspense Department, 16th floor: Romance Department, 17th Floor: Special Department. Concluding with an epic battle to protect reality from the manifestations of dreams and their evil orchestrator, the action is intense and exciting, if a little drawn-out.

Well paced and ambitiously adventurous, Paprika is a brilliantly animated feature. While the plot gets slightly jargon heavy at times, the images are breath-taking, stressing Japan’s position as the fore-runner in the creative use of animation. What’s more it has the line everyone was waiting for…

“And to spice it all up, you add?”

 “Paprika!”