Friday, 28 January 2011

Enter The Void

Enter The Void
Gaspar Noe is one of the most provocative (and therefore fascinating) directors in contemporary cinema. He has directed several explicit short films, the confrontational I Stand Alone, and the shocking Irreversible. Enter The Void features all of his trademarks: transgressive content, strobe lighting, and Brechtian alienation devices.

The central character dies in the second reel, and the camera rises above him and presents a detached, bird's-eye view of the subsequent action. The effect is similar to the end of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, with the camera looking down directly onto the set. (I Stand Alone was also heavily inspired by Taxi Driver: the misanthropic loner, the narration, the porn cinema, the fantasies of social cleansing, and the violent climax.)

For much of the film, we are inside the protagonist's head, experiencing what he sees through a subjective camera. Similar experiments in first-person-perspective filming were attempted by Orson Welles for his abandoned Hearts Of Darkness project, and more successfully by Robert Montgomery in his Noir thriller Lady In The Lake. There are also long sequences of psychedelic abstract light effects, inspired by the 'stargate' sequence from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. (2001 is another long-standing Noe influence, and a 2001 poster appears at the end of Irreversible; Enter The Void, Irreversible, and 2001 all finish with the birth of a baby.)

The subjective camera and abstract effects are bravely uncommercial and experimental, though also repetitive and long-winded. Indeed, some of these longueurs have been shortened for alternate versions of the film. The original Cannes premiere was the longest version, though it had no opening credits. Four minutes were cut, and credits added, for subsequent festival screenings (and this is the version that I've seen); at some festivals, different music was used for the credits sequence. For general release, reel seven was removed entirely, just as Quentin Tarantino removed a reel from Death Proof. Also, Noe insisted that the film be screened at 25fps rather than the standard 24fps.

Noe is a key figure in the so-called New French Extreme movement, and Enter The Void contains the requisite amount of transgressive sex - filmed internally, as in Channel 5's 21st Century Sex - and graphic violence. An aborted foetus is shown, as in Four Months, Three Weeks, & Two Days. These extreme images, and the regular use of strobe lighting, represent a deliberate attempt at audience provocation, recalling the early films of Michael Haneke and particularly Funny Games.

Black Swan

Black Swan
Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan had been highly anticipated by serious film fans, and it lives up to our expectations. Natalie Portman stars as a naive and repressed ballerina preparing for a production of Swan Lake. Portman's character is encouraged to lose herself in the role of the Swan Queen, and she responds with hallucinations, mutilations, and paranoia. As in Aronofsky's previous film, The Wrestler, the central character is committed to an intensely physically demanding performance.

Like all ballet films, Black Swan owes a debt to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Red Shoes, though Aronofsky takes Powell and Pressburger's surreal fantasy and turns it up to eleven. Visually (and literally, with mirrors and doubles) reflecting the delusions of its central character, the atmosphere is unashamedly Expressionist, evoking Roman Polanski's Repulsion and even (especially in a violent stabbing with a glass shard) the Giallo thrillers of Dario Argento.

The film also feels rather Hitchcockian, and Hitchcock used the doppelganger concept in The Case Of Mr Pelham. The theme of the jealous understudy surely comes from All About Eve. It's all completely over-the-top and thoroughly entertaining, a welcome return to the disturbing psychological intensity of Aronofsky's earlier films Pi and Requiem For A Dream, after the disappointment of The Fountain.

The End Of The Party (paperback)

The End Of The Party
Andrew Rawnsley has added two new chapters to his book The End Of The Party, for the paperback edition. The book was originally published early last year (making its title either presumptuous or prophetic), before the various internal plots against Gordon Brown and the indecisive 2010 UK general election. These events are now included in the paperback edition.

Rawnsley's first history of New Labour, Servants Of The People, covered only Tony Blair's first term in government. The End Of The Party, much wider in scope, features Blair's second and third terms, and Brown's election defeat. Blair has subsequently published his own account of his premiership, A Journey; Peter Mandelson's memoir The Third Man includes an inside account of last year's post-election negotiations.

Servants Of The People's biggest scoop was an anonymous briefing that Brown had "psychological flaws". Rawnsley did not reveal the source of this quote, writing only that it came from "someone who has an extremely good claim to know the mind of the Prime Minister". Like Bob Woodward (Obama's Wars) and the authors of Game Change, Rawnsley relies on 'deep background' interviews with senior yet unidentified figures, and he has not yet fulfilled his pledge to reveal his sources after Blair left office. In The End Of The Party, Rawnsley hinted indirectly that Alastair Campbell was the source of the "psychological flaws" quote; while Campbell's book The Blair Years contained no reference to the incident, the unedited version published this year confirms that Campbell was indeed responsible.

The Empire Five-Star 500

The Empire Five-Star 500
Empire magazine has published an alphabetical list of 500 films, selected from those that it has awarded five stars when they were released at the cinema or on video. The special issue, titled The Empire Five-Star 500, also includes an article on George A Romero's original Living Dead trilogy written by Kim Newman.

Empire published a list of all its five-star reviews in its 100th issue (October 1997), a total of ninety-one films. More recently, the magazine published a 500 Greatest Movies poll.

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Friday, 21 January 2011

Akira Kurosawa: Master Of Cinema

Akira Kurosawa: Master Of Cinema
Akira Kurosawa: Master Of Cinema is a beautiful and lavish book celebrating Kurosawa's contribution to world cinema. The book's numerous full-page photographs are its main attraction: glossy reproductions of film stills, paintings, and script drafts, all of which look stunning.

The author, Peter Cowie, divides Kurosawa's films into modern and historical narratives (the traditional Japanese Gendai-Geki and Jidai-Geki dichotomy), with an additional chapter on Kurosawa's literary inspirations and a rather esoteric discussion of miscellaneous 'elements'. Cowie has written a satisfactory overview of Kurosawa's life and work, though the text is clearly secondary to the gorgeous images.

Martin Scorsese provides a brief foreword, and there is an introduction by Kurosawa expert Donald Richie. Cowie acknowledges that Richie's book The Films Of Akira Kurosawa is the definitive account of Kurosawa's work, and offers Master Of Cinema as "a pictorially driven tribute" to Kurosawa that complements Richie's study.

Master Of Cinema, with a short note written by Kurosawa's daughter Kazuko, is a semi-official commemoration of Kurosawa's centenary. Kurosawa's own perspective is provided in his book Something Like An Autobiography and the anthology Akira Kurosawa: Interviews. More of Kurosawa's paintings can be seen in Karl French's book Art By Film Directors.

Cowie also wrote one of the first studies of the films of Orson Welles, A Ribbon Of Dreams; authorised production histories of The Godfather (The Godfather Book) and Apocalypse Now (The Apocalypse Now Book); and a BFI Film Classics analysis of Annie Hall. He is also an authority on the career of Ingmar Bergman.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Styles, Schools, & Movements

Styles, Schools, & Movements
Styles, Schools, & Movements, by Amy Dempsey, is an expanded edition of a work first published almost a decade ago. The original subtitle was An Encyclopaedic Guide To Modern Art, now replaced by the more assertive The Essential Encyclopaedic Guide To Modern Art.

The main entries give a brief history of 100 significant art 'isms', arranged chronologically from Impressionism onwards. Each chapter has a short bibliography, though these contain secondary rather than primary sources. A glossary gives capsule descriptions of a further 200 isms. Stephen Little's book Isms: Understanding Art has a similar concept, though Dempsey's book is more in-depth than Little's.

Akira Kurosawa: Interviews

Akira Kurosawa: Interviews
Akira Kurosawa: Interviews, edited by Bert Cardullo, is part of the Conversations With Film-Makers anthology series. Being a Kubrick completist, I also have Stanley Kubrick: Interviews from the same series. However, I generally prefer the earlier Directors On Directors series, which consists of in-depth, book-length Q&As rather than anthologies of shorter, sometimes repetitive interviews.

The volume on Kurosawa (whose 100 Years Retrospective finished in Bangkok yesterday) is most valuable for its reprint of Donald Richie's interview A Personal Record, which was first published in 1960 and is otherwise unavailable. (Richie's other Kurosawa interview, Kurosawa On Kurosawa, is not included, though it was partially reprinted by Sight & Sound magazine last year.)

The longest text in the anthology is a New Yorker profile from 1981 that seems more observational than interrogative: the writer describes, sometimes in oddly minute detail, what Kurosawa did during a five-day visit to New York. The interviews are almost exclusively from American publications, thus translations of Japanese press interviews would have been fascinating additions. Also, there are no early, pre-Rashomon, interviews, though Kurosawa covered this period in his own book, Something Like An Autobiography.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Summit Business Review

Summit Business Review
Two journalists from Summit Business Review magazine have been arrested in Uganda. Director Samuel Sejjaaka and editor Mustapha Mugisha were subsequently released on bail pending charges.

They were arrested after the magazine's October 2010 issue featured a cartoon of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni on its cover. Billboards reproducing the cartoon have been taken down in Kampala.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

August Underground's Mordum

August Underground's Mordum
August Underground's Mordum has been called the most violent and disturbing film ever made. It doesn't quite live up to such hyperbole, though it is an extremely uncomfortable film to watch and I can't imagine ever wanting to view it again.

Like Man Bites Dog, Mordum is a serial-killer pseudo-documentary, filmed with hand-held cameras for extra verisimilitude. Specifically, Mordum approximates the style and content of a Snuff film, and therefore it consists entirely of protracted torture and murder sequences without any conventional narrative. I have no idea who the target audience is, but most viewers would surely be repulsed by characters (including one who looks and acts like Crackers from Pink Flamingos) who rape their victims and vomit on each other.

There are more violent films than Mordum. Flower Of Flesh & Blood, for example, a fake Snuff film from the Japanese Guinea Pig series, depicts a sedated woman being slowly dismembered and decapitated. Also, splatter films such as Braindead contain so much gore that they are hard to take seriously. Mordum does include an evisceration and a castration, though its impact is derived from the sordid atmosphere rather than specific violent set-pieces; its convincing faux-Snuff aesthetic makes it more realistic than conventional horror films.

Also, Mordum is less unsettling than Mondo documentaries such as Faces Of Death or exploitation films such as Cannibal Holocaust that combine Mondo footage with fictional narratives. Cannibal Holocaust's faux-documentary style and graphic violence surely influenced Mordum, though both films were ultimately inspired by Peeping Tom.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Saying The Unsayable

Saying The Unsayable
Saying The Unsayable, edited by Soren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager, is a fascinating collection of academic papers discussing the political role of the constitutional monarchy. The editors argue that the monarchy is inseparable from politics, up to and including Prem Tinsulanonda's alleged role in the 2006 coup; a similar point was made by Paul Handley in his Bhumibol biography The King Never Smiles, though Handley's book is banned in Thailand whereas Saying The Unsayable is available here legally.

The book's subtitle, Monarchy & Democracy In Thailand, arguably requires inverted commas around one word: 'democracy' is an ambiguous concept in Thailand, as Kevin Hewison and Kengkij Kitirianglarp recognise in their chapter on Thai-Style Democracy. Controversially, they write that "it is important to acknowledge the palace's involvement in the events that paved the way for the military's seizure of power". (Two former prime ministers have previously confirmed this: Thaksin Shinawatra in a 2009 Financial Times interview, and Samak Sundaravej according to WikiLeaks.)

Peter A Jackson begins the book with a chapter titled Virtual Divinity, noting that "Bhumibol has become enveloped by a symbolism and discourse of magico-divinity". Implicit in the media's spiritual and supernatural descriptions of the King, and in the ubiquitous public reproduction of his image, is the notion that the King should therefore be unconditionally venerated. (Indeed, article eight of the constitution states that "The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship".)

Discussion of the monarchy in Thailand is, of course, overshadowed by the lese majeste law, which prohibits any criticism of the royal family (for example: The Economist, 6th December 2008; Tribune, 8th May 2009; Foreign Correspondent, 13th April 2010; and The Guardian, 15th December 2010), as discussed by David Streckfuss. Saying The Unsayable's publication in Thailand demonstrates, however, that The Unsayable is becoming increasingly sayable.

Monday, 3 January 2011

3rd French Open Air Cinema Festival

3rd French Open Air Cinema Festival
Breathless
The 3rd French Open Air Cinema Festival will begin later this week, running from 14th to 23rd January. The highlight will be a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's masterpiece Breathless at Santi Chai Prakan Park, Bangkok, on 21st January.

Breathless was previously shown as part of The Godard Week at Alliance Francaise. The Open Air Cinema Festival is organised by Alliance Francaise, and tickets are free.