Thursday, 31 January 2013

Encounter Thailand

Encounter Thailand
Chris Coles
My third feature for Encounter Thailand magazine, Reeling In The Cliches, was published in December last year (on pages 42-44). The article examines how Thailand has been portrayed by foreign films set in the country.

[Note: Banco A Bangkok OSS 117, Deep River Savages, Teddy Bear, Mammoth, Elephant White, The Detective, and Stealth were omitted for reasons of space; Bangkok Revenge will be reviewed in a later issue.]

My portrait of artist Chris Coles, and three photographs of his paintings, have also been published in the same issue (on pages 34-36). My previous Encounter Thailand features were published in October and November last year.


Friday, 25 January 2013

Operation Dark Heart

Operation Dark Heart
Last week, the US Defense Department agreed to partially uncensor Anthony Shaffer's memoir, Operation Dark Heart. When the book was first published, in September 2010, it contained classified information about Shaffer's experience as a military intelligence officer in Afghanistan. To prevent the book's distribution, the Defense Department bought the entire first printing and incinerated all 9,500 copies. It was reprinted two weeks later, with 433 redactions imposed by the Pentagon, 198 of which have now been rescinded. Several dozen copies of the unredacted first printing remain in private ownership, and The New York Times printed a side-by-side comparison of the censored and uncensored editions on 18th September 2010.


Thursday, 24 January 2013

Django Unchained

Django Unchained
Django Unchained, the new film by Quentin Tarantino, is a revisionist 'spaghetti western' revenge fantasy set in America's antebellum south. Its central character, played by Jamie Foxx, was appropriated from the spaghetti western Django; the title is a combination of Django and Herculese Unchained, another 1960s Italian exploitation film. As usual, Tarantino has assembled an impressive cast, which this time includes Christoph Waltz, Leonard DiCaprio, and Samuel L Jackson.

Tarantino's first film without editor Sally Menkes (who died in 2010), Django Unchained is his longest film to date, a western on an epic scale. It's also his most classically linear narrative. There are landscapes worthy of John Ford; in fact, the search for Django's captured wife parallels the quest for Natalie in Ford's The Searchers.

Quick zooms and close-ups on eyes show the influence of Sergio Leone, and there are numerous references to Leone's westerns, including music from Ennio Morricone. Django emerges from the smoke after a dynamite explosion like Clint Eastwood in A Fistful Of Dollars, and the insult "son of a..." is interrupted before its final word in a reference to The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly.

The film is also self-referential, of course: there's a tense countdown from ten to one, as in Pulp Fiction, and the "tasty beverage" from Pulp Fiction and Death Proof is slightly modified to "tasty refreshment". Tarantino has an indulgent cameo, with an awful Australian accent. (His cameo in Sukiyaki Western Django, also inspired by spaghetti westerns and Django, was even worse.)

Samuel L Jackson, who plays the old house slave Stephen, has appeared in most of Tarantino's previous films: Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill II, and Inglourious Basterds. It's that last film that Django Unchained most resembles: both are revenge fantasies (as are Kill Bill and Death Proof), both contain spaghetti western elements, and both present revisionist interpretations of major historical atrocities, combining dramatic licence with ironic exploitation.

Django is a slave freed by Christoph Waltz's bounty hunter, Schultz. Waltz (who also starred in Carnage) played a 'Jew hunter' in Inglourious Basterds, and his characters in both films are eloquent, charming polyglots: Schultz speaks English and German, with a few lines of French. Leonardo DiCaprio (Inception/Shutter Island/The Departed/The Aviator) is also excellent in his first bad-guy role, surprisingly menacing as Candie the plantation owner. The plantation, Candyland, is a counterpoint to the romanticised Tara in Gone With The Wind; Tarantino even uses scrolling text in the same style as that Civil War classic.

The performances, direction, and widescreen cinematography are outstanding, though the plot doesn't really stand up to scrutiny. Django and Schultz "get into character" (another line from Pulp Fiction) and pose as mandingo dealers to trick Candy into selling them Django's wife, one of Candyland's slaves. (Her name is von Shaft, a reference to Blaxploitation hero John Shaft.) Their scheme increases the film's tension, and produces some terrific set-pieces, though ultimately the elaborate deception was un-necessary: they would have achieved the same result by simply telling Candy the truth from the outset.

Django Unchained is shockingly violent: slaves are tortured and torn apart by dogs, as justification for the bloody revenge of the final massacre. The film has also been criticised for its language: the word 'nigger' is used more than 100 times. (Tarantino also used it, with less frequency, in Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown.)

Incidentally, Django Unchained was filmed in 35mm. Tarantino - along with Christopher Nolan (who filmed The Dark Knight Rises in 70mm IMAX) and Paul Thomas Anderson (who filmed The Master in 70mm) - is one of the few contemporary directors who remain committed to celluloid filming and exhibition.

The Wonderful, Horrible Life
Of Leni Riefenstahl

THe Wonderful, Horrible Life Of Leni Riefenstahl
Ray Muller's three-hour documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life Of Leni Riefenstahl profiles the director of the Nazi propaganda film Triumph Of The Will. Muller addresses the persistent accusations of Nazism made against Riefenstahl, though he also explores her entire life's work.

Riefenstahl's film career began when she starred in The Holy Mountain, by Arnold Fanck. This silent film, set on a mountainside, was one of several 'Bergfilme' ('mountain films'), a genre created by Fanck. Riefenstahl became a star, though her image was adventurous and athletic, in contrast to Marlene Dietrich's predatory sexuality. In a more significant contrast between the two icons, Dietrich emigrated to Hollywood after Hitler's rise to power, though Riefenstahl remained in Germany and directed Triumph Of The Will, a documentary film of Hitler's 1934 Nuremberg rally.

Triumph Of The Will is a masterpiece of editing and visual composition. Like The Birth Of A Nation, however, it's a masterpiece with an unredeemable reputation: it was commissioned by Hitler, and used as propaganda by the Nazi Party. Riefenstahl herself visited Hitler regularly, until as late as 1944, and sent him a congratulatory telegram after his invasion of Paris. In Muller's documentary, she revisits the rally venue, and admits that she regrets making the film, though she doesn't accept any responsibility for the political power of her work.

Olympia, Riefenstahl's documentary of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, provoked accusations of an obsessively Fascist aesthetic. Her documentary, released in two parts, celebrates the beauty of the athletic body. She would face similar accusations when she photographed the Nuba tribe in Sudan. Tellingly, in Muller's documentary, she explains that she was attracted to the Nuba as a subject because of the muscularity of the tribespeople.

Riefenstahl, who was ninety when the documentary was filmed (and 101 when she died), was also an expert diver, and for Muller's film she posed underwater with a giant stingray. Muller's title - The Wonderful, Horrible Life - captures the contradictions in Riefenstahl's work: a skilled documentarian and photographer, who was permanently associated with a brutal dictator.

In the final sequence, Muller gives her a last opportunity to apologise for her political associations. The documentary ends with her characteristically assertive answer: "I was never anti-semitic and I never joined the Nazi Party... So where does my guilt lie?".


Hitchcock, directed by Sacha Gervasi, was one of two films made last year about Alfred Hitchcock. (Toby Jones starred in the other Hitchcock biopic, The Girl.) Hitchcock dramatises the filming of Psycho, whereas The Girl covered the making of The Birds and Marnie.

Hitchcock ends with a shot of a bird on the director's shoulder, effectively setting up The Girl as a sequel. Hitchcock is generally a much more sympathetic portrayal of the 'master of suspense' than The Girl: Anthony Hopkins plays him as a director fighting for artistic integrity and (in a sub-plot presumably invented by the script-writer) jealous of his wife Alma's interest in another man.

Whereas Toby Jones in The Girl was noticeably shorter than Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Hopkins has a more suitable stature. In contrast, Jones gave an uncanny vocal impersonation, whereas Hopkins sometimes slips back into his own accent. In one sequence, when he's narrating the script while Marion Crane is driving, Hopkins goes into Hannibal Lecter mode, as if he were psychoanalysing Clarice Starling.

Helen Mirren, playing Alma Hitchcock, is an excellent actress (especially in The Queen), though she is far too tall for this role. (Imelda Staunton, in The Girl, had a remarkable physical resemblance to the real Mrs Hitchcock.) James D'Arcy, playing Anthony Perkins, gives a practically perfect performance, almost indistinguishable from Perkins himself.

Hitchcock was based on Stephen Rebello's comprehensive book Alfred Hitchcock & The Making Of Psycho. (Other books about Psycho include The Moment Of Psycho and Psycho In The Shower.) The production of Psycho is dramatised reasonably accurately, though - presumably for copyright reasons - Psycho's dialogue is always paraphrased.

To add dramatic tension, several nightmarish fantasy sequences show the director becoming obsessed with the serial killer Ed Gein. These are not necessary, and they undermine the film's credibility, though they're fortunately quite brief.

Hitchcock is one of several fictionalised films about the making of real films, including My Week With Marilyn, Gods & Monsters, Ed Wood, RKO281, and Shadow Of The Vampire. Laurent Bouzereau's documentary The Making Of Psycho goes into more depth about Psycho's production, but Hitchcock is extremely entertaining and great fun. It demonstrates one of the director's famous maxims: films should be slices of cake, not slices of life.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Pop Culture Exhibition

Pop Culture Exhibition
Pop Culture Exhibition
Pop Culture Exhibition, a celebration of Pop Art, opened in The Ideaopolis, part of the newly renovated Siam Center mall in Bangkok last Friday. It will close on 3rd March. A handful of artworks by Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein are included, notably Warhol's screenprints of Marilyn and Mao.

This small, kitsch exhibition focuses on the icons (or cliches) of American Pop, including an oversized replica of a Campbell's soup can; the exhibition itself is held inside a two-story Brillo box replica. British Pop pioneers, such as Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi, and Peter Blake, are not represented (though Hamilton and Blake are at least name-checked).

Thursday, 10 January 2013


Apichatpong Weerasethakul has released a new short film online, titled 2013. The film, less than a minute long, features solarised, double-exposed footage of a ghostly man walking in a forest. Apichatpong's previous online short films are Cactus River, Ashes, For Alexis, Phantoms Of Nabua, Mobile Men, and Prosperity For 2008.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

The Sun

A High Court judge in the UK has granted an injunction preventing The Sun from publishing potentially embarrassing photographs of Ned Rocknroll. The photos were taken by James Pope at a party in July 2010, and posted on Pope's Facebook page.

The Sun downloaded them at the beginning of the year, and planned to print them on 4th January. Rocknroll sought an injunction before their publication, which was granted yesterday.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

La Vie De Mahomet

La Vie De Mahomet
Tomorrow, Charlie Hebdo will publish La Vie De Mahomet: Les Debuts d'Un Prophet, a comic-book biography of Mohammed by Stephane Charbonnier and Zineb el Rhazoui. This will be the fifth time that the newspaper has printed provocative images of Mohammed: its first Mohammed cartoon was published in 2002, followed by a 2006 Mohammed cover, a Charia Hebdo edition 'guest-edited' by Mohammed in 2011, and a naked Mohammed caricature last September (criticising the protests against Innocence Of Muslims).

Mohammed cartoons first caused controversy when a dozen of them were published by Jyllands-Posten in 2005. Since then, many other newspapers and magazines have also printed Mohammed caricatures: Weekendavisen, France Soir, The Guardian, Philadelphia Daily News, Le Monde, Liberation, Het Nieuwsblad, The Daily Tar Heel, Akron Beacon Journal, The Strand, Nana, Gorodskiye Vesti, Adresseavisen, Uke-Adressa, and Harper's. The International Herald Tribune published Mohammed cartoons in both 2006 and 2012.

Equally provocative drawings of Mohammed as a dog were exhibited in 2007. The short film Fitna also includes a Mohammed cartoon, and there was an Everybody Draw Mohammed Day! event in 2010.


Radio Times Guide To Films 2013

Radio Times Guide To Films 2013
The Radio Times Guide To Films 2013, edited by Sue Robinson, contains capsule reviews of 23,068 films. It has up-to-date coverage of mainstream movies, though entries for foreign and independent films are more limited.

After the cancellation of the excellent Time Out Fim Guide, and the termination of Halliwell's Film Guide with the awful Movies That Matter, the Radio Times Guide To Films is now the last remaining annual film guide published in the UK. It's now in its thirteenth edition, though how long it can survive in print, when many other reference books are moving online, remains to be seen.

518 films have been added since last year's edition. They include The Dark Knight Rises ("a superhero franchise unmatched for its mood, menace and quality"), To Rome With Love ("fluffily entertaining"), Prometheus ("asks profound questions about creation and mortality"), The Artist ("this loving pastiche is a sheer delight"), Hugo ("a little indulgent and heavy for kids"), Carnage ("a tightly wound, enjoyably cynical little chamber piece"), and Spy Kids IV ("frenetic and charmless").

The Radio Times Guide To Films had a now-forgotten predecessor: the Radio Times Film & Video Guide, by Derek Winnert. The book was published in 1993 and 1994, though it was withdrawn from sale after a plagiarism lawsuit from the publishers of Halliwell's Film Guide. There is also a comprehensive Radio Times Guide To TV Comedy.


Fourteen academics, including the entire editorial board of the journal Sohbat, are facing blasphemy charges in Pakistan, following complaints that the journal published art promoting homosexuality and defaming the Koran. The controversy relates to an article in the journal's third issue, Shedding The Fig Leaf, in which Aasim Akhtar discussed queer theory in relation to contemporary Pakistani art.

The article was illustrated by two paintings, by Muhammad Ali, of Muslim clerics sitting with semi-naked boys. Quotations from the Koran inscribed on a shrine are visible in the background. The journal, published by the National College of Arts, was withdrawn from circulation in May, and its editorial board was disbanded.