Monday, 29 June 2020

Too Much and Never Enough

For the second time this month, an injunction has been sought to prevent publication of a book criticising Donald Trump. After failing to stop the release of John Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened, Trump tweeted on 23rd June that Bolton “is a lowlife who should be in jail”. Last week, Trump’s brother, Robert, began legal proceedings against their niece, Mary, over her forthcoming book, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.

The lawsuit against Mary Trump was filed by Charles Harder, who has previously represented President Trump and the First Lady. Harder won libel cases against The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail on behalf of Melania Trump (winning “substantial damages” in the former case, and $3 million in the latter), and famously bankrupted the Gawker website. After his initial filing, on 23rd June, was rejected by the Queens County Surrogate’s Court of New York, he filed a new lawsuit with New York’s Dutchess County Supreme Court on 26th June. Mary Trump’s book is due to be published on 28th July.

“Bangkok’s last movie palace”

Scala
This weekend, the curtains will close on the Scala cinema’s screen for the last time. After more than fifty years, the cinema will show its final film on 5th July.

The Scala was the last of three prestige cinemas in Bangkok’s Siam Square operated by the Apex Group. Their first venue, Siam Theatre, opened in 1966; damaged by arsonists in 2010, it was demolished to make way for a shopping mall. Apex Group’s Lido cinema closed its doors in 2018, after fifty years, though it reopened the following year as Lido Connect, a cinema and performance venue.

Its Modernist exterior and elegant Art Deco lobby (designed by Jira Silpakanok in 1969) made the Scala an architectural landmark. With its velvet curtains, veteran ushers, and vast auditorium, it evoked the golden age of film exhibition.

The building’s fate had been in the balance since 2012, when landowners Chulalongkorn University first attempted to redevelop the area into yet another mall. Continued pressure from Chulalongkorn, combined with a recent two-month shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, made the cinema’s closure a sad inevitability.

In his book Thailand’s Movie Theaters, Philip Jablon called the Scala “Bangkok’s last movie palace”. The building was also photographed for the Filmvirus book Once Upon a Celluloid Planet.

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Shout Out or Shut Up (?)

Shout Out or Shut Up (?)
Shout Out or Shut Up (?), edited by art critic and curator Judha Su, was published by Bangkok CityCity Gallery in 2017. It has the same dimensions as an LP sleeve, and is limited to 300 copies.

The booklet features the first English translation of lyrics by Thai rappers P9d and Liberate P, who Judha describes as “the poets for our generation”. Both artists have released singles criticising the military government, and Liberate P is a member of Rap Against Dictatorship. (The booklet misnames his song Oc(t)ygen as “OCT(Y)GEN”.)

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Give Us a Little More Time

Give Us a Little More Time
Give Us a Little More Time
Chulayarnnon Siriphol’s exhibition Give Us a Little More Time (ขอเวลาอีกไม่นาน) opened today at Bangkok CityCity Gallery. Every day from the 2014 coup until the 2019 election, Chulayarnnon created a different A4 collage from Thai newspaper clippings. There are more than 1,000 of these satirical collages, collected in a six-volume catalogue, and ten of them are on show at the exhibition as enlarged reproductions.

The main gallery space is occupied by a four-screen video installation, showing a twelve-minute montage of overlapping newspaper headlines and photos. This rapid-fire video collage remixes and distills six years of mainstream press coverage of the military government.

The exhibition’s ironic title is a line from a propaganda song released by the junta, Returning Happiness to the Thai Kingdom (คืนความสุขให้ประเทศไทย), part of which is sampled on the video soundtrack. Arnont Nongyao’s video Ghost Rabbit and the Casket Sales (กระต่ายผี กับ คนขายโลง) also samples the song, as does Thunska Pansittivorakul’s documentary Homogeneous, Empty Time (สุญกาล).

Chulayarnnon’s recent film 100 Times Reproduction of Democracy (การผลิตซ้ำประชาธิปไตยให้กลายเป็นของแท้) is another post-coup political critique. Give Us a Little More Time was originally scheduled for 25th April to 21st June, though the opening was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. It will now run until 9th August.

Friday, 19 June 2020

Posters: A Global History

Posters: A Global History
Posters: A Global History, by Elizabeth E. Guffey, was published in 2015. The book lives up to its ambitious subtitle, offering a worldwide survey of poster art from the Industrial Revolution to the present. Guffey’s scope extends beyond design and aesthetics, to consider posters as physical objects within the urban environment, “not in textbooks or museums but in the alleys of Ramallah, the barber shops of Lagos and the market stalls of Chennai.”

The last comprehensive book on the subject, The Poster by Alain Weill, was published more than thirty years ago. Weill covered Chinese and Japanese posters in addition to more familiar Western examples, though Guffey’s book breaks new ground with coverage of posters from India, Africa, and the Middle East. Posters features only 100 colour illustrations, though these are supplemented by vintage photographs, historical newspaper cartoons, and other ephemera.

Once Upon a Time in the West:
Shooting a Masterpiece

Once Upon a Time in the West: Shooting a Masterpiece
Once Upon a Time in the West: Shooting a Masterpiece, by Christopher Frayling, is a definitive monograph on Sergio Leone’s epic Western. The book includes interviews with Leone and his collaborators, a detailed production history, previously-unpublished images, and contributions from Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese.

Frayling is one of our greatest cultural historians, and the world’s leading expert on Leone. His Something to Do with Death is a comprehensive biography of the director, and Spaghetti Westerns and Once Upon a Time in Italy are essential guides to the Spaghetti Western. Once Upon a Time in the West: Shooting a Masterpiece is Frayling’s third book for Reel Art Press, the others being Frankenstein and The 2001 File.

The Art of Earth Architecture

The Art of Earth Architecture
The Art of Earth Architecture, by Jean Dethier, is a comprehensive guide to “the history of architecture, settlements, and structures built from earth.” Technical aspects are covered in the first chapter, while other sections give a chronological account of raw earth architecture from antiquity to the present. It was originally published in French, as Habiter la terre: traditions, modernité et avenir de l’art de bâtir en terre crue.

The subtitle—Past, Present, Future— might seem clichéd, though it’s an apt summary of the book’s three key features: a sweeping historical survey, a guide to contemporary trends, and a manifesto for change. That last element is rather excessive, with Dethier’s repeated evangelising about the benefits of raw earth, though the 450 photographs and global coverage make this a definitive book on earth architecture.

The Art of Earth Architecture is one of several recent books on architectural materials. Others include Concrete, Brick, Stone, and Wood (a series by William Hall); Glass in Architecture (by Michael Wigginton); Brick (by James W.P. Campbell); Architecture in Wood (by Will Pryce); Arish (by Sandra Piesik); and Corrugated Iron (by Simon Holloway and Adam Mornement).

The Room Where It Happened

The Room Where It Happened
The Trump administration has made three attempts to prevent the publication of former national security advisor John Bolton’s forthcoming book The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir. In a letter dated 23rd January, the National Security Council claimed that the book contained classified information: “The manuscript may not be published or otherwise disclosed without the deletion of this classified information.” The book’s original publication date—17th March—was postponed to 12th May, as the NSC’s vetting process continued.

The NSC signed off on the manuscript at the end of April, though Bolton’s successor as national security advisor, Robert O’Brien, argued that “the manuscript described sensitive information about ongoing foreign policy issues”, according to a lawsuit filed on 16th June. The following day, the Justice Department sought an emergency injunction, arguing that the manuscript “still contains classified information”.

The publisher plans to contest the Trump administration’s lawsuits, and publication is scheduled for 23rd June. The Room Where It Happened is currently Amazon’s highest-selling book, based on pre-orders, and Trump’s attempts to suppress it seem highly counter-productive. This is a repeat of the controversy surrounding Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury, which also became a bestseller following Trump’s legal threats against it.

Like Fire and Fury, Fear, and A Very Stable Genius, The Room Where It Happened includes highly damaging allegations. Bolton writes that, at a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump “turned the conversation to the coming US presidential election... pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win”. Trump’s exact words were redacted by the NSC—Bolton originally quoted Trump, “but the government’s prepublication review process has decided otherwise”—though Vanity Fair revealed that Trump told Xi: “Buy a lot of soybeans and wheat and make sure we win.”

Thursday, 18 June 2020

Uncle Boonmee
Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (ลุงบุญมีระลึกชาติ) will return to the big screen for tenth anniversary screenings starting next week. It will be shown at Bangkok Screening Room on 23rd, 24th, and 30th June; and 1st, 4th, 7th, 9th, 11th, 12th, and 15th July. (Uncle Boonmee was one of the first films ever shown at Bangkok Screening Room, playing there the day after the cinema opened.)

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Le jour se lève (blu-ray)

Le jour se leve
Le jour se leve
Le jour se lève marks the high point of ‘poetic realism’, the fatalistic, atmospheric French thrillers that anticipated American film noir. Starring French cinema’s most iconic actor, Jean Gabin, Le jour se lève combines the meticulous visual style of its director, Marcel Carné, with a sophisticated flashback structure from screenwriter Jacques Prévert.

Le jour se lève was released on blu-ray by Studio Canal for its 75th anniversary in 2014. This restored version features two minutes of additional footage—including a rather risqué shot of Arletty in the shower—censored by the French government on the film’s original theatrical release.

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Apropos of Nothing

Apropos of Nothing
Woody Allen, one of the world’s greatest comedians, has become persona non grata, after a lingering though unproven allegation of child molestation. (His adopted daughter, Dylan, told her doctor in 1992 that Allen had groped her; Allen claims that her mother, Mia Farrow, coached her to lie.) Allen’s autobiography, Apropos of Nothing, has sold surprisingly well despite the controversy and some absurdly vitriolic reviews. (It was compared to Mein Kampf in the New York Post, and a column in The Washington Post was headlined “If you’ve run out of toilet paper, Woody Allen’s memoir is also made of paper”.)

In the book, Allen gives a detailed—though, naturally, one-sided—account of the ensuing custody case. For example, in his summing up, judge Elliott Wilk wrote: “The evidence suggests that it is unlikely that [Allen] could be successfully prosecuted for sexual abuse. I am less certain, however, than is the Yale-New Haven [child psychology] team, that the evidence proves conclusively that there was no sexual abuse.” Allen quotes only the first sentence. He also paints Farrow as “an unhinged and dangerous woman” and insinuates bias on the part of the prosecution, while glossing over the judge’s criticisms of his own parenting.

To borrow a line from Stardust Memories, the best parts of Allen’s autobiography are the “early, funny ones.” (I say parts because there are no chapters or headings.) When he’s writing about happier times (especially his childhood and his relationship with Diane Keaton), the jokes come thick and fast. But his account of his recent films feels much more perfunctory.

Saturday, 13 June 2020

The Last President of Europe

The Last President of Europe
William Drozdiak’s study of Emmanuel Macron, The Last President of Europe, takes stock of Macron’s presidency three years after his election. This is a mostly admiring account, as the subtitle (Emmanuel Macron's Race to Revive France and Save the World) makes clear. Drozdiak interviewed Macron both on and off-the-record, at the Élysée Palace and in Washington.

The book begins with a brief recap of Macron’s domestic reforms and the ‘gilets jaunes’ (‘yellow vests’) protests against his government. This section is overly sympathetic to Macron, with the crisis considered largely from his perspective. (Three paragraphs begin with “Macron believes...”, for example.) Macron is portrayed as a victim of the protesters—his guards “pushed him inside his limousine as the menacing crowd approached”—and their anger is presented as discourteous to the office of the presidency.

Whereas Sophie Pedder’s Revolution française focused on Macron’s domestic agenda, The Last President of Europe is mainly concerned with foreign policy. There are chapters on Macron’s bilateral relations with Angela Merkel, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and, of course, Donald Trump. (The US President apparently asked Macron flatly: “Why don’t you leave the European Union?”, rendering the unflappable Macron speechless.)

Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Wat Nong Tao

Wat Nong Tao
A temple in Uthai Thani province has been ordered to remove part of a mural from its walls, after it was deemed inappropriate. The mural at Wat Nong Tao depicts transgender celebrity Sitang Buathong pointing at an orange, in a reference to her claimed telekinetic ability to stop a rolling orange with the power of her mind.

According to the National Office of Buddhism provincial head, the mural should show Sitang gazing at the Buddha rather than a citrus fruit. Charanpat Kaewum, who painted the mural, has agreed to alter it.

Bangkok Screening Room

Singin' in the Rain
Aguirre, the Wrath of God
Bangkok Screening Room will reopen its doors on 9th June, following the enforced two-month shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. Hollywood’s greatest musical, Singin' in the Rain, will be shown on 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 20th, and 21st June. Werner Herzog’s epic Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes) is screening on 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st June.

Monday, 1 June 2020

Farewell My Concubine

Farewell My Concubine
Pride Film Weekend
Cinemas in Bangkok reopened today, after two months of closure due to the coronavirus pandemic. Lido Connect will be showing Chen Kaige’s ‘fifth generation’ masterpiece Farewell My Concubine (霸王別姬) this afternoon, and it will also be shown as part of Bangkok Screening Room’s Pride Film Weekend on 27th and 28th June. The film, starring Gong Li, was the first Chinese production to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Team of Five

Team of Five
Team of Five: The Presidents Club in the Age of Trump, published yesterday, reveals how the most recent ex-Presidents and their spouses have adapted to life out of office. Author Kate Anderson Brower interviewed Jimmy Carter and three former First Ladies, though most of the ‘team of five’ didn’t participate.

Brower also spoke to the incumbent, Donald Trump, and the book begins with her Oval Office interview. Trump showed Brower a letter he had received from Kim Jong Un, presumably the same one that he showed to another interviewer, Doug Wead. In both cases, Trump used the document to give the illusion of bringing the interviewers into his confidence: he told Wead that his advisors “don’t want me to give these to you”, and he told Brower that she “was not meant to see this,” though he had already Tweeted the letter months earlier.

Friday, 15 May 2020

Sunset Boulevard (blu-ray)

Sunset Boulevard
Billy Wilder’s masterpiece Sunset Boulevard was first released on blu-ray by Paramount in 2012. The disc included a newly-discovered deleted scene, in which lyricists Ray Livingston and Ray Evans sing one of their own compositions, The Paramount Don’t Want Me Blues. The song was cut from the film—and replaced with Buttons and Bows—because the studio considered it too much of an inside joke, though plenty more inside jokes survived the edit.

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Il Re di Bangkok

Il Re di Bangkok
Il Re di Bangkok
The graphic novel Il Re di Bangkok (‘the king of Bangkok’), was published in Italian last year, and has now been translated into Thai. The book was written by Claudio Sopranzetti and Chiara Natalucci, with illustrations by Sara Fabbri. (The Thai edition has been self-censored—on pages 93, 157, and 205—though the Italian edition is unexpurgated.)

The title character, Nok, is a blind lottery-ticket vendor from Isaan who travels to Bangkok for a better life. Economic migration from upcountry to the capital is commonplace, and was a standard theme of politically-conscious writers and directors in the mid-1970s. Nok becomes increasingly politically engaged during his time in Bangkok, as he lives through the ‘Black May’ massacre, the ‘tom yum kung’ economic crisis, the rise and fall of Thaksin Shinawatra, the 2006 coup, and the ‘red-shirt’ protests. The book ends as the red-shirts are massacred by the military, an event that took place exactly a decade ago.

For its Thai publication, Il Re di Bangkok was retitled ตาสว่าง (ta sawang), which describes the sense of political awakening experienced by Nok. Several of the Thai filmmakers I’ve interviewed have explained their own feelings of newfound political enlightenment. Pen-ek Ratanaruang (“somebody like me, who five years ago had no interest in politics at all”), Yuthlert Sippapak (“I never
gave a shit about politics. But right now, it’s too much.”), Chulayarnnon Siriphol (“I turned to be interested in the political situation”), Thunska Pansittivorakul (“I started to learn about politics”), Apichatpong Weerasethakul (“I was politically naïve”), and Nontawat Numbenchapol (“I was a teenager, a young man not interested in politics so much”) all discussed their personal experiences of ta sawang.

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Cannibal Ferox (blu-ray)

Cannibal Ferox
Eaten Alive!
The short-lived Italian cannibal horror subgenre was one of the most controversial chapters in the history of exploitation cinema. Umberto Lenzi directed the film that launched the cycle, Man from Deep River (Il paese del sesso selvaggio), though Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust is the only example of any real cinematic interest. Despite its exploitation origins, Cannibal Holocaust provided a multi-layered critique of mondo filmmaking, and it directly influenced The Blair Witch Project and other ‘found footage’ horror films.

Cannibal Ferox eschewed the structural sophistication of Cannibal Holocaust in favour of ritualised, explicit violence. As Kim Newman wrote in Nightmare Movies: “Lenzi takes the form about as far as it can go in the direction of gratuitous violence”. Both films contain scenes of genuine animal killings, and both were included on the ‘video nasties’ list in the UK, though Newman calls Cannibal Ferox “the nastiest of the nasties”.

The deluxe blu-ray edition of Cannibal Ferox released by Grindhouse in 2015 features approximately twenty seconds of newly-discovered footage. This extra material, which has no soundtrack, includes additional shots of a pig being killed. (As a vegetarian, scenes like this are hard to watch.) The blu-ray supplements include a feature-length documentary, Eaten Alive! The Rise and Fall of the Italian Cannibal Film, directed by Calum Waddell, featuring interviews with Lenzi, Deodato, and Newman.

Monday, 4 May 2020

No Filter

No Filter
Which is the most harmful social media platform? Facebook’s attention-grabbing and data-mining is unprecedented, and it hosted anti-Rohingya propaganda with devastating consequences. Fake news spread by WhatsApp group chats has led to mob killings in India. But Instagram has an arguably more pernicious cultural impact, and—as Sarah Frier writes in No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram— it’s changing our entire way of life.

Cafés, galleries, and tourist attractions have become mere selfie backdrops, visited to be photographed at rather than experienced. As Frier notes, savvy businesses capitalise on this by changing “the way they design their spaces and how they market their products, adjusting their strategies to cater to the new visual way we communicate, to be worthy of photographing for Instagram.”

Instagram’s square frame is like the pool that captivated Narcissus. Instagram influencers post daily semi-naked selfies, and Instagram is a world of endless vacations, flawless bodies, and ideal homes. As Frier writes, “Instagram has made us not only more expressive but also more self-conscious and performative.” Whereas traditional advertising is aspirational, the picture-perfect lifestyles self-promoted on Instagram are absolutely unattainable.

Instagram’s founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, initially resisted commercialisation, though after Facebook bought the company they began running ads to placate Mark Zuckerberg. But most advertising on Instagram is more insidious and ambiguous: what Frier calls “this thriving new economy of influence. As Instagram grew, so did the set of people willing to take money in exchange for posting about their outfits, vacations, or beauty routines, choosing their “favorite” brands with financial incentive to do so.”

Zuckerberg’s cooperation with the book extended only to a two-sentence email, though Frier did interview Systrom and Krieger. Zuckerberg comes across as the villain of the piece, though this may be because his perspective is missing. Once under the Facebook umbrella, Instagram was pressured to increase revenue. When it achieved this, by crossing previous red lines on user privacy and design integrity, it was regarded by Zuckerberg as an internal threat to be subjugated. (Inevitably, Systrom and Krieger resigned in 2018, just as the founders of other Facebook acquisitions—WhatsApp and Oculus—had done earlier that year.)

In the UK, No Filter is subtitled The Inside Story of How Instagram Transformed Business, Celebrity and Our Culture. In her preface, Frier describes the book as “an effort to bring you the definitive inside story of Instagram.” That effort was certainly successful, and No Filter stands alongside Facebook: The Inside Story, The Facebook Effect, and Hatching Twitter as an essential account of the creation and consequences of social media.

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Moments of Silence

Moments of Silence
Thongchai Winichakul’s Moments of Silence: The Unforgetting of the October 6, 1976 Massacre in Bangkok, published this month, is equal parts memoir and academic analysis. Thongchai, one of Thailand’s leading historians, is a survivor of the 6th October massacre, and the book begins with his personal account of that day and its aftermath. The massacre was swept under the carpet for decades and, in fact, it’s primarily due to Thongchai’s efforts that it’s still commemorated at all: he organised an exhibition marking the twentieth anniversary in 1996. This book now serves as a permanent reminder of the inexplicably savage event.

Forty-six people were killed on 6th October, when militia groups and state forces stormed Thammasat University, though there has been no accountability and the attackers have never been prosecuted. Instead, the massacre remains officially whitewashed, conspicuously absent from the national history curriculum. As Thongchai explains, “the silence about the massacre speaks loudly about Thai society in ways that go beyond the incident itself: about truth and justice, how Thai society copes with conflict and its ugly past, about ideas of reconciliation, the culture of impunity, and rights, and about the rule of law in the country.”

Thongchai has interviewed relatives of the victims, including Jinda and Lim Thongsin, whose son Jaruphong was killed. The chapter on the Thongsin family’s long search for closure is truly heartbreaking. He also sought out some of the perpetrators, such as Lieutenant Colonel Salang Bunnag (who was photographed aiming his gun while nonchanlently smoking a cigarette) and General Uthan Sandivongse (in charge of anti-Communist radio propaganda, and described in the book as the “most infamous propagandist in modern Thai history”). Thongchai’s encounters with “the Wolf who devoured the Lamb” recall the documentary The Look of Silence, in which a survivor of the Indonesian Communist purge confronts those responsible for the atrocities.

Moments of Silence is notable as the first commercial book to reproduce the incendiary Dao Siam (ดาวสยาม) front page that sparked the massacre. (The front page was included in an art book published last year, though it was given only to participants in a research study.) For that reason, and for Thongchai’s discussion of “the biggest elephant in the room and the most troubling question for Thai society”, the book is highly unlikely to be distributed in Thailand.

Monday, 27 April 2020

Cultures at War

Cultures at War
Cultures at War: The Cold War and Cultural Expression in Southeast Asia, edited by Tony Day and Maya H.T. Liem, was published in 2010. The anthology includes ten essays that examine how Southeast Asian popular culture embraced independence and modernity in response to Cold War ideologies and geopolitics.

The cover depicts Mitr Chaibancha as the Red Eagle, and in one chapter Rachel V. Harrison discusses the character’s political subtext. In Mitr’s final film, he vanquishes a Red Eagle imposter—“his heroic guise has been commandeered by leftists”—and is transformed into the Golden Eagle, “epitomizing Thailand’s Cold War struggle with the communist enemy.”

Other Thai films of the Cold War era featured more pernicious anti-Communist messages. Harrison’s essay includes a close reading of หนักแผ่นดิน (‘scum of the earth’), a notorious propaganda film that glorifies the royalist paramilitary Village Scout movement.

Thailand’s anti-Communist purge ultimately led to the ‘red barrel’ killings and the 6th October 1976 massacre. The Moonhunter (14 ตุลา สงครามประชาชน) and Pirab (พิราบ) dramatise the decisions of radical students to join the Communist insurgency. Santikhiri Sonata (สันติคีรี โซนาตา), A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (จดหมายถึงลุงบุญมี), Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (ลุงบุญมีระลึกชาติ), and the exhibition Anatomy of Silence (กายวิภาคของความเงียบ) interrogate northern Thailand’s violent anti-Communist legacy.

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Apichatpong Weerasethakul


Pen-ek Ratanaruang

Yuthlert Sippapak

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Kubrick by Kubrick

Kubrick by Kubrick
Grégory Monro’s documentary Kubrick by Kubrick (Kubrick par Kubrick) premiered on the French Arte channel on 12th April. The film is largely comprised of audio clips from Kubrick interviews recorded by Michel Ciment in 1975, 1980, and 1987, and begins with Kubrick’s admission that “I’ve never found it meaningful, or even possible, to talk about film aesthetics in terms of my own films. I also don’t particularly enjoy the interviews.” Most of his thirteen films are covered, with three exceptions (Killer’s Kiss, The Killing, and Lolita).

Much more extensive extracts from Ciment’s recordings were broadcast on French radio in 2011, though the material in the documentary has improved sound quality (thanks to noise reduction). Some extracts also appeared in Making Barry Lyndon. Extended interviews with Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut) and Orson Welles (The Lost Tapes of Orson Welles; This Is Orson Welles) have also been released in audio format.

If your main source material is an audio tape, how can you make a visually appealing documentary film? Monro follows the pattern previously adopted by other documentaries built around audio recordings: as in Marlene and Listen to Me Marlon, a tape recorder plays while the camera prowls around a set. In this case, the set is a recreation of the bedroom from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the audio is supplemented with vintage talking-head clips, shown on an old CRT television (just like the TV playing Summer of ’42 in The Shining).

Other Kubrick interview recordings have also been released in recent years. The collector’s edition of The Stanley Kubrick Archives included a CD featuring a 1966 Kubrick interview by Jeremy Bernstein for The New Yorker. A 1987 Kubrick interview by Tim Cahill for Rolling Stone was issued as an episode of The Kubrick Series podcast. Japanese TV producer Jun’ichi Yaoi interviewed Kubrick by telephone in 1980, and VHS video footage of the interview was released online in 2018.

Monday, 20 April 2020

The Awful Truth

The Awful Truth
In 1933, Cary Grant appeared in supporting roles alongside Mae West in She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel, but it was The Awful Truth, released four years later, that made him a star. Grant and Irene Dunne (who received top billing) play a mutually distrustful—and mutually unfaithful—married couple who decide to divorce, yet are unable to stop themselves from sabotaging each other’s new romances.

The Awful Truth established the suave persona that would become synonymous with Grant for the remainder of his career. It’s one of the greatest screwball comedies, a subgenre that emphasised farcical action, fast-paced delivery, witty repartee, and battle-of-the-sexes humour.

Leo McCarey’s direction is a notch below that of Howard Hawks, who made the screwball classics Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday (both also starring Grant), though The Awful Truth is a more satisfying film. In Bringing Up Baby, Grant’s character is absent-minded and ineffectual, and the havoc wreaked on him is rather exasperating. His Girl Friday’s frenetic pace is impressive though exhausting. In contrast, The Awful Truth feels more sophisticated, and its satirical swipes at the institution of marriage are as sharp as ever.

The film ends with a touching scene clearly modelled on the Walls of Jericho sequence from the popular romantic comedy It Happened One Night (which is sometimes—incorrectly, I would argue—described as the first screwball comedy). In turn, The Awful Truth’s essential premise—Cary Grant jeopardising his (ex) wife’s engagement to a rube played by Ralph Bellamy—was repeated in His Girl Friday.

Sunday, 19 April 2020

The Criterion Collection
Dr Strangelove

Dr Strangelove
Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove was first released by the Criterion Collection on laserdisc, in 1992. That transfer was supervised by Kubrick himself, and he even designed the front cover, though the disc was swiftly withdrawn from sale after Kubrick complained about the unauthorised inclusion of a screenplay draft among the supplementary features. (The draft script opened with a segment titled The Dead Worlds of Antiquity, told from the perspective of an alien civilisation.)

The Criterion laserdisc presented Dr Strangelove “in its original split-format aspect ratio for the first time.” The film alternated between 1.66:1 and 1.33:1, as it had on its original theatrical release. (Criterion’s Lolita laserdisc also featured these alternating ratios.) When Dr Strangelove was released on DVD for the first time, in 1999, the split-format was retained, though all subsequent releases have been matted to 1.66:1. Sadly, the Criterion blu-ray, released in 2016, is also framed at 1.66:1, though it does have an uncompressed mono soundtrack.

The blu-ray’s supplementary features include an extraordinary new discovery: an exhibitor’s trailer of highlights from the film, narrated by Kubrick himself (“Please remember, as you watch this, that the material is uncut”). The disc also includes an interview with Mick Broderick, author of the excellent Reconstructing Strangelove. The packaging is equally impressive, with reproductions of the “miniature combination Russian phrasebook and Bible” and the “Plan R” dossier.

Monday, 30 March 2020

Facebook: The Inside Story

Facebook: The Inside Story
David Kirkpatrick’s book The Facebook Effect, published in 2010, remains the definitive history of Facebook’s formative years. But the Facebook of 2020 is very different from that of 2010, and Steven Levy’s Facebook: The Inside Story provides an updated account of the social network’s exponential expansion.

As Levy writes in his introduction, “the Facebook reputational meltdown has been epic.” That meltdown arguably began in earnest during the 2016 US election, when pro-Trump fake news was shared on Facebook more often than genuine news stories. In an interview with Kirkpatrick two days after Trump’s victory, Mark Zuckerberg dismissed concerns about the impact of fake news as “a pretty crazy idea.” Interviewed for Levy’s book three years later, Zuckerberg admits that he “might have messed that one up”.

The first half of Levy’s book covers the same ground as Kirkpatrick’s. Like Kirkpatrick, Levy was granted extensive access to Zuckerberg and dozens of other Facebook executives. (Levy also draws on “a seventeen-page chunk” of Zuckerberg’s 2006 journal.) The Facebook Effect’s assessment of the company was scrupulously balanced, though Kirkpatrick has since revised his opinion, telling the Financial Times in 2018 that Facebook represents an “extraordinary threat to democracy on a global scale”.

In Facebook: The Inside Story, Zuckerberg discusses Facebook’s early years in detail, though the chapters on more recent crises have a conspicuous lack of Zuckerberg quotes. The biggest of these PR disasters was the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, which Levy calls “the worst catastrophe in the company’s history”.

In the last of his seven interview sessions with Levy, Zuckerberg is more candid about his company’s failings: “Some of the bad stuff is very bad and people are understandably very upset about it—if you have nations trying to interfere in elections, if you have the Burmese military trying to spread hate to aid their genocide, how can this be a positive thing?” The answer is that it can’t be.

Sunday, 29 March 2020

The Birth of a Nation (blu-ray)

The Birth of a Nation
The Birth of a Nation
The Birth of a Nation, the first epic American film, is now rightly regarded as racist propaganda. Even on its original theatrical release, it was condemned as inflammatory. Nevertheless, it’s a historically significant film, and it was released on US blu-ray by Kino in 2011. A UK blu-ray edition, as part of the Eureka! Masters of Cinema Series, followed in 2013. The Birth of a Nation was the very first film to feature an intermission, and the “End of the first part” intertitle was restored for the two blu-ray releases. (It had been missing from previous video versions.)

Blade Runner
(30th Anniversary Collector’s Edition)

Blade Runner
Dangerous Days
The Blade Runner 30th Anniversary Collector’s Edition blu-ray features five (yes, five) versions of the film: the original theatrical release (with the studio-imposed happy ending and narration), the international theatrical cut (with slightly more violence), the director’s cut (with the unicorn dream sequence), The Final Cut (with some CGI enhancement), and the workprint. (For an exhaustive comparison of the different versions, see Future Noir.)

The three-disc blu-ray set also includes the feature-length documentary Dangerous Days, a definitive guide to the making of the film. The set was originally released on DVD in 2007, and was rereleased on blu-ray in 2012 for the film’s 30th anniversary.

The Exorcist (blu-ray)

The Exorcist
Raising Hell
Mark Kermode’s The Fear of God is the definitive documentary on the making of The Exorcist. It was first broadcast on BBC2 in 1998, and an extended version (featuring interviews with actress Mercedes McCambridge and censor James Ferman) was released on the BBC iPlayer last year. However, the 2010 blu-ray release of The Exorcist contained a thirty-minute featurette, Raising Hell, which includes newly-discovered silent 16mm footage shot on the set.

The Criterion Collection
Night of the Living Dead

Night of the Living Dead
Night of Anubis
Due to a technical oversight—the omission of a copyright notice in the opening title sequence—George A. Romero’s zombie classic Night of the Living Dead was a public-domain film from the moment it was released. (The law has since changed, and copyright is now granted automatically.) Without copyright protection, the film was distributed on video by all and sundry, in various poor-quality editions.

A restored version was finally released on blu-ray by the Criterion Collection in 2018. The Criterion edition also includes a workprint version of the film, with the alternate title Night of Anubis. (The workprint is silent, though audio from the theatrical version was synched with it.) The blu-ray also features newly-discovered dailies (also silent), and the release was supervised by Romero shortly before his death.

The Criterion Collection
The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick’s stunning The Tree of Life was released on blu-ray by the Criterion Collection in 2018. One disc features the theatrical version, though Malick also created an extended version (fifty minutes longer) especially for the Criterion release. The extended cut has also been reframed, revealing slightly more of the image while retaining the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio.

It Came from Outer Space (blu-ray)

It Came from Outer Space
It Came from Outer Space
Jack Arnold’s classic 1950s sci-fi film It Came from Outer Space was released on blu-ray in the UK in 2016. The disc features both the 3D and conventional 2D versions of the film, though this edition is particularly significant for completists as it includes the original theatrical intermission.

Intermissions are usually associated with epics such as Gone with the Wind, though they were required for all 3D films in order to change reels on both projectors. So, despite its brisk eighty-minute running time, It Came from Outer Space also had an intermission, and this blu-ray release is the first video edition to include it.

Apocalypse Now (Full Disclosure)

Apocalypse Now: Full Disclosure
The three-disc Full Disclosure edition of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now was released on blu-ray in 2010. The box set includes the original theatrical version of Apocalypse Now, the extended Apocalypse Now Redux, and the making-of documentary Hearts of Darkness (though not, of course, the five-hour workprint or the recent Final Cut version). It also features a booklet with material from Coppola’s archive.

This release is most notable for its aspect ratio, it being the first time that the film was ever released in 2.35:1 on any video format. All previous video editions were cropped to 2.0:1—the Univisium ratio retroactively applied by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro—a fate that also befell Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo).

Monday, 23 March 2020

The Big Goodbye

The Big Goodbye
“It’s set in Chinatown?”
“No. Chinatown is a state of mind.”
“A love state of mind?”
“The detective’s fucked-up state of mind.”

Screenwriter Robert Towne’s pitch to producer Robert Evans perfectly captures the essence of Chinatown. And The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood, by Sam Wasson, perfectly captures the making of that extraordinary film. He recounts the on-set tensions between Faye Dunaway and the crew (“They hated her”), a melodramatic play-fight between director Roman Polanski and Jack Nicholson (“They were down to their underwear, screaming at each other”), and the creation of the film’s legendary ending (“a grand crane-up evokes a lost Hollywood—most famously the last shot of Casablanca”).

Wasson’s account is bookended by two notorious scandals in Polanski’s life: the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate; and his conviction for the rape of an underage girl. As with most five-star classics, Chinatown’s production history is broadly familiar from previous memoirs and documentaries, though The Big Goodbye is already being justifiably acclaimed as one of the best making-of books ever written.

Sunday, 22 March 2020

A Curious History of Sex

A Curious History of Sex
A Curious History of Sex, published last month, is a fascinating guide to sexual attitudes and rituals. As author Kate Lister explains in her introduction, the book is not a comprehensive encyclopedia of sex, offering instead “a paddle in the shallow end of sex history, but I hope you will get pleasantly wet nonetheless.” Lister provides potted histories of a wide range of often-overlooked sex-related topics, including a chapter on the c-word that’s the most detailed study of the word in print. (I’ve been researching the c-word for twenty years.) A Curious History of Sex is impressively scholarly (with eighty pages of notes and references), and has plenty of extraordinary historical illustrations.

Bad Words

Bad Words
Bad Words: Philosophical Perspectives on Slurs (edited by David Sosa), was published in 2018 as part of a series titled Engaging Philosophy. The final chapter, Nice Words for Nasty Things by Laurence R. Horn, takes its title from an infamous definition by lexicographer Francis Grose in his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: Grose defined the c-word as “a nasty name for a nasty thing”. In his essay, Horn discusses the euphemisms devised to avoid not only tabooed words themselves but also their otherwise-unrelated homophones: “taboo avoidance occurs more broadly, even in the absence of phonological identity between the taboo and innocent items, the latter of which may suffer a kind of contagion or guilt by association”.

Horn cites an interesting French example, que l’on (‘that one’), which is regarded as more polite than the contraction qu’on due to the latter’s homonymy with con (‘cunt’). He also identifies what is surely the earliest instance of the practice, a comment by Cicero in his treatise on rhetoric, Orator. Cicero writes that the Latin cum nobis (‘with us’) should be rendered as nobiscum, to avoid an obscene juxtaposition (“obscænius concurrerent litterae”). The unspoken reference is to cunno bis (‘into the cunt twice’), which supports the (increasingly contested) etymological connection between cunnus (‘vulva’) and ‘cunt’.

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

“WIFE-BEATER DEPP”

The Sun
Johnny Depp is suing The Sun newspaper for defamation, following publication of an article labelling him a wife-beater. The article, the lead story in Dan Wooton’s Bizarre column, appeared in the tabloid on 28th April 2018, headlined “HOW CAN JK ROWLING BE ‘GENUINELY HAPPY’ TO CAST WIFE-BEATER DEPP IN FILM?”

In the article, Wooton criticised author J.K. Rowling after she endorsed Depp’s casting in the film Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, adapted from one of her novels. Depp has been accused of assaulting his ex-wife Amber Heard, and he filed a libel suit against her after she wrote about domestic abuse in The Washington Post.

The Sun’s print headline did not include the usual scare-quotes around the word ‘wife-beater’. However, the online version omitted the word altogether. The article remains online, though a note has been added, saying that “the article is the subject of legal proceedings.” Depp attended pre-trial hearings at the High Court in London last month, and the trial itself will begin on 23rd March.

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Sunday, 1 March 2020

"...a blatant false attack
against the Campaign."

The New York Times
Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign has filed a defamation lawsuit against The New York Times, accusing it of “a blatant false attack against the Campaign.” The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages “in the millions”, after the newspaper published an op-ed by one of its former editors, Max Frankel.

The article, published on page 27 on 28th March 2019, argued that, before the election, Trump had an implicit quid pro quo agreement with Vladimir Putin: “There was no need for detailed electoral collusion between the Trump campaign and Vladimir Putin’s oligarchy because they had an overarching deal: the quid of help in the campaign against Hillary Clinton for the quo of a new pro-Russian foreign policy, starting with relief from the Obama administration’s burdensome economic sanctions.”

The suit was filed by Trump’s lawyer Charles Harder, who became famous for bankrupting the gossip website Gawker. Harder also obtained substantial damages from the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, in relation to allegations about Melania Trump. Trump previously threatened the publisher of Fire and Fury with a lawsuit, making the book an instant bestseller.

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