1960s, Biopic, War

Hell to Eternity (1960)

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Director: Phil Karlson

By Roderick Heath

Phil Karlson is one of those indispensable figures for the enterprising movie fan in search of lost heroes: a jobbing studio hand with a chequered career whose touch, nonetheless, betrays for the attentive a wealth of individuality manifest in scattered gems. Karlson started off with C-grade screen filler in the ’40s, and finished up helming gaudy cult flicks like Ben (1972), Walking Tall (1973), and a couple of Matt Helm movies; in between, he made a run of deeply eccentric and richly textured little noir films, including the belatedly beloved likes of Kansas City Confidential (1952), 99 River Street (1953), 5 Against the House and The Phenix City Story (both 1955). Karlson’s vivid sense of storytelling, with a special feel for moments of intense violence, combined in his best work with a discursive approach to structuring scenes and absorbing character that was rare in the era’s cinema. Karlson anticipates the likes of Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese, the latter of whom has included Karlson in the long list of film influences on him. Karlson’s heroes tended to be cynical proto-hipsters or hard-scrabble, blue-collar guys and girls alienated from their own society, and several of his films dealt with racial persecution and social conflict.

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Just as his noir films are joyfully strange, Hell to Eternity, a film based on the life story of Guy Gabaldon, is one I saw once many years ago and could never get out of my head. Revisiting it recently, I realized why: it’s a rowdy, dirty-minded, defiantly deromanticised film that’s a fascinating marker in the era of the decline of the old studios and the oncoming age of a new realism. Karlson’s best films greatly resemble Samuel Fuller’s in taking on meaty subjects with a hard wallop to the metaphorical jaw. Although Karlson ultimately lacked the spiky individualism that irresistibly endeared Fuller to critics and filmmakers even when his career almost entirely foundered, Karlson’s films, often just as bold in their subversion and raw in style, are just as deceptively sophisticated.

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This film’s uniqueness is partly disguised by its god-awful title, which tries all too obviously to suggest a melding of the Audie Murphy biopic To Hell and Back (1955) and Fred Zinneman’s From Here to Eternity (1953). Karlson’s film commences during the Depression. Young Guy (Richard Eyer) is a member of a multiracial gang, getting into brawls with the blond Neanderthals in his California schoolyard. Japanese-American schoolteacher Kaz Une (George Shibata), father of Guy’s friend George, is disturbed by Guy’s semi-sadomasochistic displays of bravado and antisocial anger, and drives him home one day to discover he’s been living alone in his house because his gravely ill mother has been hospitalised. Kaz takes Guy to live with him, and Guy swiftly finds unexpected love and unity with the Une clan, including Kaz’s parents (Bob Okazaki and Tsuru Aoki), a couple of harmless, lovable old moths who could have stumbled in directly from an Ozu film. Mother Une begins teaching Guy Japanese, and Guy responds by helping her with her English, a task he’s surprised that none of Kaz’s younger siblings have tried. After his mother dies, Guy becomes a permanent member of the clan and remains virulently aggressive towards anyone turning racist epithets on his family as he matures into the virile form of Jeffrey Hunter. His life reaches a singular and historical crisis point when Guy, as a favor to George (played when grown by an absurdly young George Takei), takes George’s crush Ester (Miiko Taka) out to find out what she thinks of George. When they stop at a fast food joint, insults are thrown her way. Guy assaults the big mouth, only to learn that everyone’s hot under the collar because Pearl Harbor’s just been bombed.

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The Unes are soon collectively bustled off to the American internment camps, or, as Guy angrily calls them, concentration camps by another name, in a blunt sequence that concludes with Guy left utterly alone, the bland and friendly suburb he’s grown up turned into a ghost town in the blink of an eye. Ironically, as his family adapts to their exiled circumstances and his brothers are able to join the famous 442nd Regiment, he’s rejected as a 4F. He eddies in frustration and anger at the government until he’s finally inducted into the Marines,because of the desperate need for translators. Guy, never particularly at ease with authority, clashes with raucous Sgt. Bill Hazen (David Janssen) and bests him in a judo match-up, which, of course, cements their subsequent friendship. They’re both attached to a special unit composed largely of skilled, hardened warriors from the Pacific theater being put together for a new campaign, and along with another friend from boot camp, Corp. Pete Lewis (Vic Damone), they raise hell in Honolulu before being shipped out to join in the landings on Saipan, an island colonised and garrisoned by huge numbers of Japanese, and about to become the site of a bloody and protracted death match.

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Hell to Eternity bends aspects of Gabaldon’s tale a little: there’s no mention of the fact he was of Latino background, and the actual reason it took him so long to be accepted into the army was because he was still only 17 when he was accepted in 1943. But Gabaldon acted as advisor on the film, and presumably signed off on all that followed. The film fits nominally in with the run of ’50s war movies based on true stories, with their focus on interesting individual experiences of the war, and the sudden onrush of movies about racism and tolerance that began to increase in frequency, urgency, and bluntness throughout the decade. Karlson’s film in that regard is less like the message movies of Stanley Kramer and more reminiscent of the likes of Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow (1950) and Kings Go Forth (1958), and Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono (1960), in blending the drama with other generic concerns. Karlson doesn’t merely present racial harmony as the only sane option, but fills the film with violently neurotic energy, as the characters are caught between world views and melodramatic crises that expose their conflicts on macrocosmic levels. But Karlson’s film, on another level, couldn’t give a damn about the message aspect of the story, compelled as Karlson really is by Gabaldon as a character, a man filled with anger at his own society and soon filled with it again by the enemy in a war zone, a man whose fractured psyche, informed by his strange, almost Candide-like variety of experiences and outsider perspective on the era, drives him to near nihilism and lunacy before finally turning him into a rare kind of hero. Hunter, an actor of whom I’ve never been greatly fond, gives what is almost certainly his best performance, coherently inhabiting Guy’s emotional extremes.

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Most ’50s war films out of Hollywood sadly tended to be rather plastic, best if they stuck strictly to combat. A lot of solid war novels, like Leon Uris’ Battle Cry and Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions, and other projects that tried to depict not merely raw warfare but the sexual and emotional lives of young men engaged in profound adventures of body and mind hit the screens so bogged down with prestige, prettification, and pandering that they finished up weak and interchangeable. Hell to Eternity is infinitely less self-important, possessed of a gamy vigour and a refreshingly disreputable, gritty, semi-anarchic feel, beyond even what Stanley Kubrick and David Lean then dared put in their war movies. Hell to Eternity instead looks forward, in its cruder way, to the raucous, earthy sensibility of Sam Peckinpah, whose ’60s films, like Major Dundee (1965) and The Wild Bunch (1969), have a similar feel for the overflowing joie de vivre of men who are ironically trapped in lethal situations, as well as the seamy reality of violence. Remember how Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was supposedly the first film to openly defy the Hays Code convention about not showing a gun fired and the person shot in the same frame? Well, Karlson does it here years earlier, and with the same DP, Burnett Guffey, in a sequence that’s amazing for other reasons too. Long before The Wild Bunch, Karlson depicts bursting bullet wounds close up in the midst of a grueling sequence in which Gabaldon, maddened by Hazen’s death, stalks the battlefield flushing out exhausted, wounded, and starving Japanese soldiers and shoots them in the back.

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Hell to Eternity is therefore curiously anticipatory and modern in both aspects of technique, and in the tangle of raw violence and ripe sexuality that makes it into the film. Karlson had a peculiar, indulgent interest in simply watching his characters behave on screen, and a particular genius for depicting what I might call the intricacies of homosocial behaviour, or put more simply, guys hanging out. In this attribute, he is reminiscent of Ford and Hawks, but more distinctly modern in tone and attitude, less romanticised. 5 Against The House blended a heist drama not only with portraiture of the psychological damage and social difficulties of former soldiers, but also with a flip and funny collegiate playfulness, especially in its lengthy, discursive opening, that looks forward to the likes of Robert Altman’s MASH (1970) (in fact, 5 Against the House can be described glibly, but with some accuracy as “Animal House goes Rififi.” For its part, Hell to Eternity’s middle sequence in Honolulu offers for no particular reason, except to get some T&A into the tale and to suit Karlson’s taste for an epic, oddball sequence of pure behaviour, the quest of Guy, Hazen, and Lewis to get drunk and laid in roughly that order.

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Guy scams a taxi driver out of a load of booze, and, hitting the nightclubs, Guy uses his linguistic skills to hook some Japanese-American B-girls, whilst Hazen points out to Lewis the Mount Everest of conquests, journalist Sheila Lincoln (Patricia Owens), stationed in Honolulu to report on the great enterprise of young men going off to war, and whose ability to brush off the most charming GI lothario has confounded all comers so far. “She writes that everyone should give their all to the enlisted man, but she don’t practice what she preaches!” Hazen murmurs with the ruefulness of one who’s tried. But Sheila does accept an invitation to a party from Lewis, only for the party to prove just a drunken orgy in a hotel room, where another one of the girls the boys have managed to pick up proves to be a former stripper who gives a show, whipping Hazen and Lewis into a frenzy. Sheila, after guzzling liquor with gusto whilst sitting apparently cold and disdainful all night, suddenly arises to do her own striptease, whereupon the males do a fair impression of Tex Avery’s big bad wolf, and Guy finishes up making out with Sheila on the veranda. This whole movement of the film is glorious in its unapologetically discursive, seamy fashion. But Karlson lets it unfold as if it’s really the raison d’être of his film, possibly torn directly from somebody’s memory, maybe Gabaldon’s, maybe Karlson’s, maybe those of screenwriters Ted Sherdeman and Walter Roeber Schmidt—or perhaps they just wished it happened to them. What it clearly does is capture the explosive, incantatory sensual energy of the characters who soon will be venturing into war and the women close to them. It also feels like an attempt to show how the scenes with Frank Sinatra, Monty Clift, and Donna Reed in From Here to Eternity should really have played. In any event, Karlson offers the sexual gamesmanship, frank carnality, and almost blackly comic contrasts of character and situation—with Janssen’s excitement reaching near-lunacy, and Guy, already a practiced seducer, conquering Mount Everest almost casually—with a fearless intensity that lingers long in the mind. Either way, it’s like barely anything in Hollywood cinema between the late silent era and the mid ’60s.

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Perhaps such carnality and camaraderie is so emphasised because Hell to Eternity isn’t in any sense a typical war movie celebrating a hero’s competence with violence, but whose gifts for bridging cultures and charming people give him a chance to transcend war. This film is the wicked twin to Sergeant York (1941), revolving as it does around a hero whose heroism is, surprisingly, about saving lives in the midst of carnage and finding unexpected common humanity—except Guy’s not a goody-two-shoes but a man furious with the world, and for whom love and hatred are forever closely related. When the warriors actually hit the beaches of Saipan, the film turns into a grueling, slaughter-clogged slog across country, anticipating Terence Malick’s version of it The Thin Red Line (1998), and in a set-piece sequence in which a band of Japanese defenders, rather than surrender, mass for a banzai charge that engulfs the Americans. Suddenly they’re hurled back into the warfare of centuries past where what hand-to-hand combat skills they have must keep them alive, and the film turns into a Kurosawa movie.

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Lewis dies in this battle, and the survivors overlook the aftermath of astounding carnage, ground strewn with corpses. Hazen is killed shortly afterwards by enemy soldiers on the charge, and Guy becomes somewhat unhinged. Where before he had difficulty shooting anyone, he becomes near psychopathic, and where he had used his language skills to talk individual soldiers and pockets of resistance into surrender, he now drops grenades on them and flushes the exhausted and ruined men out to meet his gun. By the end of the ’60s perhaps it wouldn’t be so odd to see a movie protagonist acting in such a fashion, but even then, not usually a hero and a real war hero to boot. It’s revealing then that Gabaldon let himself be portrayed in such a fashion, and it gives force to the feeling, coming on top of the film’s frankness about unfairness of the internment camps and even the dirty playfulness of the Honolulu scenes, that Hell to Eternity is perhaps the most morally complex, honest, and tough-minded American war movie of its era, in its conception of war as a place where any individual can act on both the best and the most bestial impulses within themselves, depending on the pressures in any given moment.

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Finally Guy’s CO, Capt. Schwabe (John Larch), tries to intervene, weakly at first (“I’m not saying what you’re doing is wrong, but…”), and then by trying to talk him into resuming his translation work by taking him to watch the spectacle of Japanese civilians hurling themselves off cliffs in obedience to the Emperor: Guy sees his family in the innocents casting themselves to their deaths, and this shocks him out his murderous phase. Finally, he and another soldier locate the underground dugout being used by the Japanese commander, Gen. Matsui (Sessue Hayakawa), and are able to eavesdrop on him ordering his men to stage one last suicide charge. Guy assaults the dugout and takes the general captive, the two men engaging in a duel of wits that, oddly, evokes the deceptions and gamesmanship of the Honolulu scenes, as Matsui, like the reporter, plays coy whilst testing the mettle of his opponent. Guy outsmarts him by not revealing his knowledge of Japanese until Matsui tries to trick him, and Guy finally convinces Matsui to forego the hopeless destruction of the remnant of his army, which, when they go out to see it, proves to be a mass of barely clothed, starving, ruined humans: “God, what a pathetic sight!” Guy says with a mix of disgust, contempt, and pity. Karlson stages an unforgettable climactic shot as Matsui commits seppuku after ordering his men to surrender, sinking to his knees and dying with Guy at his side and the column of his soldiers moving past, barely able to spare their dying commander a nod as they trudge toward the safety Guy has given them. All that’s left is for one of Guy’s fellow soldiers to bestow on him the unofficial title of “Pied Piper of Saipan” as his soldiers see him leading this unlikely exodus.

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2010s, Biopic, Canadian cinema, Drama

A Dangerous Method (2011)

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Director: David Cronenberg

By Roderick Heath

I tend to blow hot and cold on David Cronenberg’s oeuvre, filled as it is with works such as Videodrome (1982), Naked Lunch (1991), and A History of Violence (2004) that strike me more as catalogues of interesting moments and ideas rather than completely coherent films. But it’s impossible to deny that the Canadian auteur has been one of modern mainstream cinema’s most consistently visceral, intelligent, and original fountainheads, and at his best, can be a fearsome artist of psychological straits and the overflowing id. Cronenberg’s reputation is still often immediately associated with his early, overtly horrifying essays in body distortion and corruption; thus, A Dangerous Method, his latest and one of his most subtle films, seems, in abstract, like an outlier. But A Dangerous Method’s guardedly realistic approach to character and historical setting revolves around some very Cronenbergian motifs, not the least of which is the strange and often perverse manner the inner self and the outer self relate.

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The film’s early scenes are fixated on Keira Knightley’s unhinged performance as Sabina Spielrein, a young Russian Jewish woman who suffers from an overwhelming, physically manifest neurosis. Sabina, dragged out of the carriage that brings her to the Burghölzli Clinic in Switzerland in 1904, is placed into the care of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), a young, brilliant doctor at the clinic. He decides to employ Dr. Sigmund Freud’s theoretical and almost untested “talking cure” on her. Sabina, in the extremes of her disease, contorts and buckles and twists, her jaw elongating as things push about inside her, looking as if she’s about to explode like a character out of Scanners (1980) or undergo a transformation similar to Jeff Goldblum’s in The Fly (1986).

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Sabina’s pathological pain and rage prove to have two sources: her hatred for her father, the kind of authoritarian who’d make her and her siblings kiss his hand after he struck them, and her powerful masochistic urges, partly imbued by that cruelty, that she can’t assimilate in any form other than as a kind demonic aberration. As Jung works with her, she slowly begins to return to a functioning state, and as part of her therapy, is encouraged to pursue her interest in studying medicine. Two male figures overtly and covertly influence her fate: Jung and his medical field’s unchallenged leader and guru, Freud (Viggo Mortensen). Not long after Sabina becomes Jung’s patient, the peculiarities of her case and Jung’s success in putting Freud’s method into practice becomes a catalyst for the two men to meet, form an initially powerful accord, and then slowly but surely break apart.

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Freud, proud and fully aware of his virtually imperial position in a nascent realm of medicine, is actively searching for heirs apparent, and he soon declares Jung one. He entrusts to Jung’s care another of his potential heirs, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassell), a cocaine-sniffing libertine who begins to preach total liberation from traditional familial and social forms, and who is considered insane by his own authoritarian father. His egocentric arguments coincide with a time in Jung’s life when his rich wife Emma (Sarah Gadon) is pregnant, and their marriage is strained, leading Jung to capitulate to his attraction to Sabina.

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We live in a world where the catchphrases and oversimplified versions of psychoanalytic theory have gone through phases of utter disdain, near-religious acceptance, and back again. A Dangerous Method sets out to portray a window in not-so-distant history when ideas of the self and society seemed set for a radical change, and the consequences of that change were still potentially inexhaustible, but the people offering the change were still irrevocably tethered to the world as it was. Freud and Jung are portrayed as men caged by their worldly concerns. It’s not the first film to look at the formative years of psychiatry and its figures: John Huston’s amazingly undervalued Freud (1962) pitched the tale of Freud’s speculative development as an expressionist detective story where the younger hero fights through his own neuroses to uncover experiences and epiphanies that he converts into his classic theories. Cronenberg’s film takes a calmer tack and comments wryly on the way Freud, Jung, and Spielrein each in their way turn a fierce personal intelligence in on itself with analytical daring, and yet still constantly give in to bad judgment and behaviours they would reject and criticise in others. Freud proves a fascinating mixture of wisdom, moral rectitude, and a powerful circumspection, even timidity, in the face of disrupting social assumptions and straying beyond immediate scientific rationales.

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Many directors become long-winded, not always unfruitfully, but often indulgently, in their late-period films, but Cronenberg here has honed his style to a succinct, discretely impressive economy. He wastes no more frames and words than necessary in a series of interpersonal exchanges, like the way he shoots Jung’s sessions with Sabina constantly from in front her, her alarming visage dominating the foreground whilst the calmly listening doctor hovers behind. The stage origin of Hampton’s work is detectable in the essentially limited range of characters—only five of the actors really matter—and the largely conversational drive of the tale. Cronenberg’s approach to such material is cunning, breaking his film up in a fashion that makes us aware of leaps of time whilst maintaining unity in the flow of vignettes and talk reminiscent of epistolary novels, accumulating over a nine-year period and coalescing into a narrative. Cronenberg does this through a purposeful use of cuts between episodes that lack the usual passage-of-time film grammar, watching relationships evolve and devolve. Simultaneously, Christopher Hampton’s screenplay, adapted from his own play and a book by John Kerr, accumulates detail in an unforced but clear-minded and literate fashion: for Hampton, the story has clear affinities with his script for Agnieszka Holland’s Total Eclipse (1995), which similarly delved into the sordid affairs of fin de siècle antiheroes.

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If A History of Violence and Eastern Promises (2007) saw Cronenberg leveraging flashes of personal inspiration out of essentially impersonal material, A Dangerous Method sees him thoroughly submerged in his chosen story, which has echoes as far back in his oeuvre as The Brood (1979). Rather than placing into a dramatic context the imagery of the id, here he peers with quiet wit at the forceful, often violent meeting of minds and bodies that gave life to modern psychological theory. Cronenberg, at any rate, steadfastly refuses to go in to standard biopic histrionics and structures the film backwards, with Sabina’s neurotic explosions all at the start; the finale sees the protagonists all diverging on solitary adventures. The mesh of cultural, political, and personal values that bind and define the characters is laid out in concise terms, especially when Freud draws Jung’s attention to the difficulties of their profession and that fact his theories are gaining credibility as being bound up in the overwhelming Jewish membership of the Viennese psychiatric circle. When Jung asks, “What’s that got to do with anything?” Freud replies, “That, if I may say so, is an exquisitely Protestant remark.” Freud is well aware that such irrational, yet potent prejudices as anti-Semitism can only give fuel to the aggression of his detractors, who will not stomach the implicit condemnation of all Victorian ideals of child-raising, and aspects of the social structure itself, that will inevitably flow out of psychotherapy’s new wisdom.

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This is, after all, early 20th century Europe, with its uneasy blend of the liberal and untold lodes of hypocrisy and buried frustration that will soon be released in its orgiastic moment. Sabina seems a by-product of the peculiarly bestial undercurrents and power-favouring assumptions of the era, which the starched collars and trim skirts cocoon. Jung and Freud present less frenetic yet identifiable versions of the same thing, particularly well invested in Fassbender’s expert acting, as he squirms both within the assurances of his professional and actual garb and the tools of his mind to control his impulses, and yet he requires only slight encouragement to give into them. Nonetheless, in the first half of A Dangerous Method, Jung’s use of Freud’s talking cure pulls Sabina back from the brink of self-destruction and helps form a partnership between the two doctors, and the scene fulminates with creative and intellectual potential, as their first meeting goes on for hours before Freud first notices. Taking lunch in Freud’s apartment, Jung yammers away on sexual theory until Freud casually encourages him to not observe any conversational niceties, causing Jung to remember that Freud’s family are listening with beguiled fascination.

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Cassell’s Gross is the serpent in this particular Eden, in which Freud is initially high priest and lawgiver who puts Jung and Gross together like the experimenter he is, hoping for another catalytic reaction, and then getting chagrined at some of the results. Gross proffers a blend of entitled addict’s reasoning and unapologetically rebellious attitude, which persuasively preaches a total freedom whilst seeming at the same time to be deeply disturbed. He penetrates Jung’s head with temptation exactly when he’s vulnerable to it, attracted to Sabina on several levels and alienated from his wife and her bourgeois rituals of family-rearing—rituals Gross mocks mercilessly. Perhaps the most revealing, biting, and propulsive aspect of A Dangerous Method is the way it identifies the porous boundaries of the psychoanalytical field, with characters stepping over borderlines between doctor and patient according to the necessity of the moment, and the implicit theory that it takes a neurotic to know a neurotic. “You’re exactly the sort of person we need,” Jung tells Sabina when she asks him if he thinks she can ever be a psychiatrist: “Insane, you mean?” she deadpans.

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Jung’s actual affair with Sabina is undoubtedly sexual—Cronenberg casually zeroes in on the stain of blood left when he takes her virginity—but is punctuated by his indulging her masochistic desires. He’s glimpsed methodically smacking her backside as she writhes in erotic frenzy with the air of man simply extending therapy into the bedroom. Sabina sets out to seduce Jung out of romantic interest, but also to satisfy her growing awareness that a good psychoanalyst with an interest in sex like her ought to know something of what she’s talking about. Gross is glimpsed fornicating in the garden with a clinic nurse whose bored expression suggests it’s an equivalent to emptying bedpans and giving out medication, and Gross with an expression redolent of the junkie getting his daily fix. Gross commences as at least a tacitly functioning intellectual but soon enough flees like a man chased by ghosts, asking Jung to tell his father he’s dead. Sabina, on the other hand, travels from barely functioning wretch to a professional. Jung, after deciding early on to steer Sabina toward the medical ambitions she’s already harboured, makes her an assistant in experiments, including one in which he has his wife perform a word association test where the quiet discord in the Jungs’ marriage is made apparent to Sabina.

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Jung’s privileged position is underlined when his wife buys him a huge house and a yacht whilst acquiescing coolly to the possibility of his having an affair, and just as coolly reclaiming him with the certainty that for all his percolating temptations to break with his fastidiously bourgeois upbringing and outlook, he’s effectively held within those limits by his own conscientious thinking. These factors do lead him to break with Sabina and even to try to obfuscate the nature of their relationship in his dealings with Freud, obfuscation Freud later claims as one reason for his severing his ties with Jung. But that split already began when Freud tried to block Jung’s desire to move beyond strict adherence to Freud’s purely sexual model, itself challenging enough that Freud predicts that people will still be resisting aspects of it for a century, and starts adopting theories the older man dismisses as unscientific nonsense. In one scene, Jung, having absorbed a criticism from the older man, suddenly begins interpreting a clicking sound emerging from a heating system that coincides with a twinging in his stomach as proof of the possibility of psychic anticipation. Of course, all what’s really manifesting is his anguish at Freud’s determination to remain the guardian at the bridge of legitimacy.

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As with the word association scene, close to the film’s end, there’s a clever use of theory to introduce a new idea: in 1913, Jung recounts a dream we know contains a dread portent for the world he lives in, filled with images of waves of blood and piled corpses. Freud’s own spurts of unease when confronted by Jung’s wealth is drolly handled and gives a telling weight to Freud’s discomfort and determination to retain his intellectual leadership. Freud’s understanding of the perilous position he’s in, reminding Sabina of their shared Jewish responsibility, gains a chilling clarity in the coda where we’re reminded that Freud died as a refugee from the Nazis and that Sabina perished at the hands of an SS murder squad in 1942.

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One quality of A Dangerous Method that distinguishes it from Cronenberg’s earlier films in a similar key—my favourite of his works, Dead Ringers (1988), and my least favourite, Crash (1996)—is that where he might have adopted an air of chilly archness when dealing with such characters and situations, the tone of this film also has a strong grasp on the hothouse feeling underneath. As with his uneven yet occasionally remarkable Eastern Promises, there’s a deep ocean of feeling and a quiet beauty to the film, as if Cronenberg has grasped at last a way to articulate passion as well as pathology without stooping to bathos. Fassbender’s characterisation of Jung is very much the centrepiece of the film, though he doesn’t dominate. Of the startling amount of work he’s ploughed through in the past 18 months, Fassbender gives one of his very best and most subtle performances here, capturing the finite play of guilt, frustration, attraction, and professional zeal in Jung, a man who doesn’t quite seem to find his sense of mission until after his break with Freud and his last goodbye to Sabina.

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Undoubtedly when the time comes to estimate awards, the early scenes of the deeply disturbed Sabina will count most both for and against Knightley’s performance; but the quality of her acting is best noted by how she modulates the characterisation in the later stages, her overt symptoms dissipating, yet maintaining something freakishly odd about Sabina, who operates on a level of feverish strength beyond anything Jung and Freud can contemplate releasing in themselves. That strange intensity is most apparent in such moments as when she’s taking notes on a roomful of Jung’s patients listening to Wagner, hovering with a blend of geeky enthusiasm and hawkish intent. Mortensen is however perhaps the film’s quietest coup, incarnating his Freud as an icon of pipe-smoking sang froid and cagey authority. It’s as restrained a piece of star acting as you’ll ever see, and one of the most effective. Like the film itself, he’s so measured, smart, and effective, you almost don’t realise it.

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1940s, 1950s, Biopic, Epic, Foreign, Historical, Russian cinema

Ivan the Terrible, Part I (1944) / Ivan the Terrible, Part II (1958)

Ivan Groznyy / Ivan Groznyy: Skaz vtoroy

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Directors: Sergei Eisenstein, M. Filimonova

By Roderick Heath

The creation myth for Sergei Eisenstein’s final work is as vast in scale and resonance as any epic movie. Like most other Soviet filmmakers, Eisenstein was forced to flee east during the German invasion and near-capture of Moscow during World War II. Away from the capital, Eisenstein, whose relationship with the state and Stalin had gone through many rollercoaster switchbacks, had been ostracised when his initially successful Alexander Nevsky (1938) had been embarrassedly put away following the Non-Aggression Pact with Nazi Germany, and then rehabilitated after Operation Barbarossa. Eisenstein struck upon the idea of making a film about one of classical Russia’s most controversial figures: Tsar Ivan IV, the self-declared first “Tsar of All Russia,” whose nickname “Groznyy” (usually translated as “Terrible”) encompassed the awe-inspiring and fearsome figure he remained in the Russian memory.

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Stalin himself made no secret of his admiration and emulation of the man, and this helped Eisenstein get the project off the ground. The result was another of many fiascos that plagued Eisenstein: the second part of the proposed trilogy was shelved and left unseen for more than a decade, well after Eisenstein had died at only 50 years of age. Eisenstein’s film, whether deliberately or not, commences as an expressionist panegyric to ruthlessly strong leadership and curdles steadily into an hysterically gothic, insidious portrait of power corrupting. Ivan’s reign of blood, enforced by his cabal of loyal bodyguards, the Oprichniki, bore too potent a resemblance to Stalin’s purges and the horrors wreaked by the NKVD.

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The actual film moves beyond the dead-ahead narrative simplicity of Alexander Nevsky, whilst pushing Eisenstein’s interest in stylising his cinema to the point where it started to resemble Wagner’s ideal of the “total work of art,” encompassing not only drama and visual artistry, but also music and a quality akin to dance, mime, and opera in the acting styles. During his stay in Mexico, Eisenstein’s friends Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo had encouraged him to regard his movies as “moving frescoes,” a phrase which describes much of Ivan the Terrible perfectly.

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The first film commences with young Grand Prince of Muscovy Ivan being crowned with splendid pomp as the Tsar of the new super-state and declaring his nation as the third and enduring Rome. Ivan’s openly announced plan is to break the power of the aristocratic boyars, whose in-fighting and factional cynicism he blames not only for the deaths of his parents, but for keeping Russia from achieving unity against its enemies. His young fiancée Anastasia Romonova (Lyudmila Tselikovskaya) comes from a family that seems to be behind him, but Ivan’s friends are still few. At his wedding feast, one of Ivan’s friends, Prince Andrei Kurbsky (Mikhail Nazvanov) still tries to woo Anastasia, his former flame, and another, Fyodor Kolychev (Andrei Abrikosov), announces he’s going to avoid the inevitable power struggle by becoming a monk. The feast is interrupted by infuriated common folk, led by hulking Aleksei Basmanov (Amvrosi Buchma) and the chained, seer-like Nikolai (Vsevolod Pudovkin), who threaten to kill Ivan if he doesn’t follow through on his promise to break the boyars. To everyone’s surprise Ivan blesses Basmanov and repeats his vow.

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Ivan faces many formidable opponents, but the most formidable is his own aunt, the fiendishly glowering boyarina Efrosinia Staritskaya (Serafima Birman), who wants to place her own simpleton son Vladimir (Pavel Kadochnikov) on the throne. Even neighbouring Kazan Khanate declares war on him, but Ivan, with Kurbsky as his general, musters a great military force and conquers Kazan instead. The potential power of a united Russia is confirmed, but Ivan falls ill while returning from the war, and the boyars, with Staritskaya leading, refuse to swear allegiance to Ivan’s infant son. Only Kurbsky emerges from this smelling like a rose, because while trying yet again to seduce Anastasia, he hears of Ivan’s recovery and so makes the pledge to the young prince. This pleases Ivan, who sends him off to war in the west against the Polish and Livonians, who are conspiring to stifle Russia’s trade with England. But Kurbsky, after losing a battle, goes over to the enemy, and Staritskaya sets out to assassinate Anastasia because her attachment to Ivan keeps her relatives in check. She tricks Ivan into letting her drink from a poisoned cup. After Anastasia dies, Ivan is convinced by his chief henchman Malyuta (Mikhail Zharov), Aleksei Basmanov, and Alexei’s son Fyodor (Mikhail Kuznetsov) to confederate a force of commoner supporters who will become totally loyal to him. Ivan does so, creating the Oprichnina, and then leaves Moscow for a small town to wait for the people to demand his return.

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Eisenstein had moved a long way from Socialist Realism, as well as the mostly efficient, but rather stagy style then dominant in most western national cinemas. His work here is a constant flow of synergistic illustrations in which the actors are as angular and bristling as the set details and props. Eisenstein never meant, of course, for Ivan the Terrible to be his final, summary work, but that’s what it became, and it’s interesting that the film stands at a nexus, filled with allusions not only to the historical past, but also to cinematic past. It references silent film expressionism, particularly Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924, the last episode of which was a similar fantasia on Ivan), and Josef von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress (1934) throughout in the sheer organic tangle of the historical Russia on display. The amusing casting of Pudovkin, one of Eisenstein’s greatest colleagues/rivals of the silent era, adds to this impression. Yet it’s also a forward-looking work, newly sophisticated in the blending of Eisenstein’s belief in a symphonic, constantly flowing imagism and the techniques of sound cinema. Where Alexander Nevsky needed its Prokofiev score much more than it needed dialogue, here the anti-realistic dramatic exchanges are nonetheless important. The next generation of Russian directors like Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov would build upon Ivan the Terrible’s precepts for constructing a totally immersive kind of cinema.

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Eisenstein had become interested in kabuki theatre when visiting Japan in the late ’20s, and that experience bore fruit here in the intense, highly formalised gesturing and precisely choreographed movements and expressions of the acting. Such an element is easy to mischaracterise: within these theoretically stifling parameters the actors are still good, and Cherkasov pulls off the difficult demands made on his performance with fixity of purpose in uniting disparate and original approaches to filmic drama, particularly as his Ivan deepens from self-righteous crusader to sardonic, mocking ogre. But it’s also a long way from traditional realism. The architecture throughout the film’s elaborate set design subordinates humans to the caprices of space or the lack of it, like the many low doors that require the actors to bow to get through, and the Escher-like, criss-crossing stairwells and passages where nothing is either truly private or expansively free. Ivan the Terrible takes the historical remoteness and Byzantine atmosphere of dread and deceit as licence to paint the setting as a primal and psychologically manifest expression of a corrupt and dangerous world.

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Initially, however, Eisenstein’s film enshrines a vision of Ivan that is idealised and idolising, and geopolitical resonances are easily and aptly mined. Ivan, first glimpsed as a fresh, energetic man in his prime who declares he’s going to take on the world and win with a young man’s self-conviction, is feted as a hero standing up for his nation and his subjects against entrenched aristocratic interests. He declares his plans whilst still in the cathedral, to the shock and outrage of both the boyars and the church, to tax everyone, maintain a standing army, and secure domestic control over seaports and trade routes currently controlled by other nations. Foreign envoys watch and peevishly predict his failure in his reforms and mock his pretensions to being Tsar of all Russia, except for a bespectacled Pole who notes, “If he’s strong enough, all will agree.”

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Ivan is painted as the man willing to do anything to ensure the unity of his nation as the only way it can stand up to the invasions of other countries. This point is proven quickly when the envoys from Kazan come to declare war on Muscovy, and the delegate gives Ivan the gift of a knife with which to commit honourable suicide. Ivan instead reacts with exultation at the challenge, eager to prove the potency of his new super-state. When the band of furious common folk, led by Nikolai, invade the palace wanting to clobber boyar heads, Ivan comes to meet them and promises them that criminals trying to stir up panic by falsifying bad omens in the populace will be caught and executed, a promise that impresses them. “We will crush sedition, eliminate the treason!” Ivan declares in repeated variations, and even on the battlefield he’s being warned against the potential treachery of boyars, seeming to justify Stalin’s paranoid purges of the Red Army. A subplot invokes Ivan’s efforts to trade with England, sending envoys to tell the English to send their ships into the White Sea to Archangelsk, both a true historical detail and a neat echo of the convoy supply route between Britain and Russia still running when the first film was released. Ivan’s retreat from Moscow and subsequent restoration resemble that flight from Moscow by Stalin, Eisenstein, and the government when the Nazis reached the city’s suburbs.

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Gold coins poured on Ivan at his coronation prove to be the first line of a narrative rhyme, for later, dishes are filled with coins by soldiers marching to war with Kazan, to be collected after battle to accurately count the dead: such is the precise totemic reflection of Ivan’s power over the people and theirs over him. The subsequent siege sees Kurbsky stringing up Mongol prisoners on the Russian barricades, the arrows fired by their brethren in the city killing the pinioned captives, before the sapping under the city results in a colossal mine blowing a hole in the fortifying wall. When Ivan falls ill after capturing Kazan, he begs the boyar grandees to swear allegiance to his son while sprawled weak and disoriented on the floor and pleading with physically helpless. but emotionally powerful despair. Their stone-faced gloating makes clear just how much he’s alienated them; Ivan’s determination leaves him increasingly isolated and lacking people he can trust, losing first Kurbsky, and then his wife, a lack he sets out to correct by forming the Oprichnina.

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Ivan even begs Fyodor Kolychev to return to civic life and take over as Metropolitan of Moscow, but even he proves more an enemy than friend, as he lets his boyar relatives talk him into trying to curb Ivan’s power with his religious authority. When Kolychev tries this, Ivan ruefully declares, “From now on, I shall be exactly what you call me—terrible!” The general tone of the film is increasingly dark and twisted, played out quite literally in the acting styles, in the perpetual glower of Staritskaya and Ivan’s hawkish, increasingly gargoyle-like appearance, his swooping, bowing, and hunched-over stances. Yet there is still humour in the film, particularly in Eisenstein’s wittily framed, visual puns and dense, Brueghel-esque shots. Ivan’s European coronation guests, reacting in outrage to his plans, have great, frilled collars that fill the screen and seem to interlock, a wall of impressive, yet easily demolished starched cloth. The King of Poland’s court possesses a chessboard floor upon which the knights and bishops and pawns pose. At Ivan and Anastasia’s wedding, the camera peers directly down the length of the table as the guests strike their cups together over the rows of identical candelabra. Mulyata, to unnerve the boyars, stalks about the palace literally peeling his eye to remind all and sundry that he’s always on the lookout.

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Whilst the first part is generally regarded as the best, I found it merely a cheque that Eisenstein wrote and then cashed with the second part. Part II – The Boyar Conspiracy sees the rush of pageant-like, sprawling historical detail give way to only a relative few, almost operatic key scenes, and the flat, declarative, dramatic pitch of the first part likewise resolves into something more subtle and emotionally penetrating. I suspect the Ivan the Terrible diptych had a large influence on how Francis Coppola conceptualised the first two The Godfather films for the screen, for those gangster films follow a similar arc in setting up Michael Corleone as a self-justifying antihero, and then slowly revising the portrait into that of a craven, self-deluding monster. The second episode alters the meaning of the film considerably, as the characters and their different viewpoints become more substantial, and Ivan alters from posturing hero to sardonic, mean-spirited tyrant.

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The boyars likewise cease to be a mere implacable mass of impediments: the moral quandary of Kolychev is given credence as he tries to curb Ivan’s power and save lives. When the two clash in church before an audience of boyars, a piece of religious theatre plays out with children acting out a parable about the King of Babylon who would have executed three Israelites if not for an angel’s intervention, a part Kolychev is called on to play; the parable is pointed enough to make children watching realise Ivan is the wicked king. There’s a tacit acknowledgement here of the power of smuggled messages in drama that hints why the film’s portrayal of Ivan is being revised. Small wonder Stalin was so furious at Eisenstein the second time around. In Part II, Ivan is still mourning Anastasia’s death, and, realising that she was poisoned and that Staritskaya was almost certainly responsible, faces a crisis that violates one of his few remaining ideals, the untouchable nature of the royal family. Similarly, he gives Kolychev permission to retain power over him in condemning people for the sake of retaining at least one nominal friendship, but this decision provokes another crisis: Ivan can’t be seen to be accountable. Instead, he lets the Basmanovs and Malyuta talk him into letting the Oprichniki off the leash. They scour the royal palace, drag out the boyars who had resisted paying his war tax or otherwise interfered with their plans, and slice their heads off.

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As this is happening, Ivan contorts in conscientious anxiety, but when he comes out and sees the dead bodies, he bows to them, crosses himself, and declares, “Not nearly enough!” Meanwhile the boyarina’s attachment to her dimwit son, whose high cheekbones and large eyes make him look more than a little like a cross-dressing Marlene Dietrich, is portrayed as blending peculiar, discomforting impulses. One supposes initially that Staritskaya wants to put her son forward as Tsar because she can control him easily, but it also proves to be because she worships her twit of a lad. She cradles him comfortingly and sings a lullaby about a beaver being killed to provide him with clothing for his coronation, a display of maternal care that’s more than a little perverse and disquieting, least of all in how power, violence, and child-rearing have become inextricable in her psyche.

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The portraits of a Vladimir as a man who can’t really grow up and a mother who’s all-controlling counterpoint a long flashback in which Ivan recounts to Kolychev his own childhood: he saw his mother die from poison and grew up surrounded by boyars who manipulated him and ran the state for him, until he finally rebelled and confirmed his own power by having a bullying minister dragged away. This tale lends psychologically deterministic weight to the portrait of Ivan, and also elucidates how his idealism is tempered by a constant, vengeful hatred that all too easily leaks out to infect his entire political life. With Anastasia dead, he essentially marries his bodyguards. This peculiar relationship culminates in the film’s greatest scene (shot in colour), a bizarre, florid, homoerotic banquet sequence during which the Oprichniki dance in drunken hysterics, led by Fyodor Basmanov clad in drag, and sing a childish song about chopping off heads. Here, Sergei Prokofiev’s score cuts loose in dizzying, raucous strains as the Oprichniki stamp feet and clap hands in rows and fling themselves about in breathtakingly energetic kazatchok moves. It’s clear that Ivan has created a kind of morbidly erotic cult in his followers.

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When Vladimir drunkenly warns Ivan about an assassination attempt awaiting him when he leaves the banquet to attend to morning prayers, Ivan, instead of being grateful, mockingly dresses his guileless cousin in his own royal vestments, and then sends him out in his place to be stabbed to death by the lurking assassin. Staritskaya rushes out to crow over what she imagines is her defeated foe’s body, only for Ivan to strut out unharmed. The boyarina gathers up her son’s body and starts singing the same lullaby to him. Ivan won’t touch her, and even has the malicious gall to free the assassin, for he has “killed our greatest enemy.” He’s Ivan the Terrible, and he’s also a real stinker.

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2010s, Biopic, Drama

The Social Network (2010)

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Director: David Fincher

By Roderick Heath

One night in 2003, after breaking up with his girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) goes back to his dorm room and, between swilling liquor and firing off angry blog rants about Erica, slaps together a rudimentary website called “Facemash” so that his fellow students can compare and vote on photos of female undergrads. This stunt proves so popular that he crashes Harvard’s network at 4:00 AM. Mark is momentarily in trouble with the college establishment, and in deep, permanent hot water with Erica, but he’s made a name for himself, and now discerns an uncharted corner of the online world’s possibilities. He soon receives an offer by twin rich kids Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer) to build a website they have in mind, to be called “Harvard Connection,” in which the selling point is the exclusivity of the harvard.edu address. Mark signs on, but busies himself instead with developing his own version of the idea using cash and some code provided by his friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and fellow computer wizards Dustin Moskovitz (Joseph Mazzello) and Chris Hughes (Patrick Mapel). Within a few months. it’s clear Mark has put together the basics of a project that has the potential to turn his crew into billionaires—The Facebook, named after the institutional catalogues of Harvard alumni.

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We remember Balzac’s maxim: all great fortunes come from a great crime. The great driving fantasy of the dotcom generations is the possibility of expunging that maxim by accumulating wealth based in digits and know-how rather than polluting the planet and exploiting labour, and yet such innocent wealth is as elusive now as ever. The Social Network tells a story electrifying to anyone who’s young and dreams big. There are certainly moments in it that made me wish I’d dedicated the early years of the millennium to learning how to write computer code rather than coherent sentences. And yet the story confirms enough impressions of licentious misogyny, business bastardry, indulgence in controlled substances, and nerdish social dysfunction to satisfy the antimillennial prejudices of the most jaded fogey.

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The Winklevoss twins, or the “Winklevii” as Mark contemptuously refers to them, believe Mark has stolen their idea, and, after delaying because of Cameron’s gentlemanly scruples, hit Mark with a lawsuit. But the root of all evil and creative ambition in The Social Network is not plagiarism but sex. It’s the fief of the sanctified “Final Clubs” of Harvard where golden boys party all night with good-time girls brought in by the busload, and the promised land for the successful businessman who otherwise lacks natural advantages. After being dumped by Erica, who describes Mark’s conversational mix of brilliance, jealousy, suspicion, and ambition as like “dating a Stairmaster,” Mark sees the market value in creating a site that avoids the tedious work of developing relationships and instead offers you the equivalent of a sign that reads, “I am single, please fuck me.” Later, Mark and Eduardo, their new website having made them instant celebrities on campus and in other colleges that have adopted it, begin accumulating groupies, including Christy (Brenda Song) and Alice (Malese Jow), hot-to-trot Asian students in hooker heels who fulfil all their boyish fantasies in blowing them in the union bar bathroom.

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The serpent arrives in this Eden in the form of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), a randy, drug-and-chick-lovin’ entrepreneur whose website Napster (before being killed by lawsuits) set in motion the degradation of the music business. Intrigued by a glimpse at The Facebook from the bed of a college mademoiselle (Dakota Johnson) he’s just laid, Parker meets with Mark and Eduardo, suggests dropping “The” from the title, and inspires Mark to hire more code writers and move out to California, about which Sean is able to bewitch Mark with visions of endless sexual escapades with underwear models on giant piles of money, or something close. When Eduardo finally follows them out west, he’s dismayed to see Parker attaching himself to their baby and tries to make Mark pay attention to him by freezing the operation’s finances just before Mark and Parker arrange a colossal hedge fund loan. Eduardo soon finds himself manoeuvered into signing a contract that sees his share in the company plummet, inspiring a final blow-up, which, along with Parker’s being disgraced in a romp involving cocaine and underage college girls, leaves Mark alone and beset by vendetta lawsuits.

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The Social Network tells a story worth telling, a key modern “creation myth” (as it’s described in Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay) for a modern movie audience that is often badly served by Hollywood, in particular. The likes of Sorkin and Peter Morgan have cornered a market in offering imaginative takes on events we’re too used to seeing through the surface-only lenses of popular media and the bare-boned language of reportage. Sorkin’s writing and Fincher’s direction lay out the complexities of that story with coherence and cinematic fluidity. It’s as slickly made a drama as any Hollywood’s put out in years, equipped with some witty dialogue. It’s well-paced and the time taken to watch the film passes swiftly.

So why did it all finally ring so hollow for me?

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The trailer for The Social Network, which utilised the Scala Choir’s a capella rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep,” actually delivered images, dialogue, and visual chic of the film with far more spirit, darkness, emotion, and implied thoughtfulness than the complete film comes close to offering. “Creep” was an uncanny choice not only because using Gen X songs seems to instantly thrill a lot of Gen X critics, but also because its lyrics quite clearly lay out the repressed self-loathing and hunger for community that’s a darker aspect of the contemporary youth zeitgeist, and that particular recording imbues it with a spiritual reach and faintly menacing kind of beauty that makes Parker’s pronouncements about “This is our time!” sound vaguely übermensch-like. Instead, in the context of the full film, it’s a rather vaingloriously tacky statement by a piddling debauch.

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I’ve made no secret in the past of my lack of love for Fincher as a director, and The Social Network is a neat portrait of both his strengths and perennial lackings. He’s a formidable technician, and The Social Network represents, at least, a welcome return to the kind of procedural immediacy he brought to 2007’s Zodiac after the spectacular, yet oddly ineffectual fantasy of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). But it’s also peppered with a lot of the shallow social commentary of the vein that littered his earlier work, like Se7en (1995) and Fight Club (1999), is poorly shaped, falling away from a racing start, and filmed, as ever, with his familiar interiors shot through greeny-amber filters, like somebody’s urinated on the lens.

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Even when Fincher toys with open-ended narratives, like that of Zodiac, he holds to such a streamlined, conventional structuring of scenes that the very real strengths of his work—particularly a firm sense of mise-en-scène—are diffused by his determination to be a Hollywood player of the most mainstream kind. Fincher has no idea how to end a movie without an explosion: like Zodiac and Benjamin Button, The Social Network stumbles to a halt, rather than ends, in a way that evokes less the chill of unanswerable questions than running out of time. He domesticates even anarchic and disturbing narratives to an infuriating degree. His approach to wringing drama and sex appeal out of a possibly dry, geeky tale is to play the old DeMille game of employing sexploitation and then moralism, as Fincher offers hot chicks making out with each other and stripping on tabletops, whilst pretending to shake his head over this decadence, or to have people leap out of their chairs and rush across campus when something dramatic happens, like they’ve just discovered the killer’s identity and that the phone calls are coming from inside the house.

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Sorkin, too, shares similar traits: his snap-crackle-pop dialogue and self-assertively smartypants sensibility are all rigorously glib, and the overt, high-pressure cleverness of it all, rather than seeming literate and challenging, smothers the story’s resonances in the cradle. His fine TV series The West Wing and its cinematic ancestor The American President (1995) earned a pass partly because they wore their stagy, fairytale stylisation on their sleeve and partly because Sorkin’s writing wasn’t as consciously arch then as it has become. Every character in The Social Network, except for the odd stoned young wenches who flit by in the background, talks in rapid-fire TV-ese. The emotional and social theses are constantly stated, never felt or deeply communicated by the filmmaking; in fact, they’re typed up like memos. It was a nice reminder of how much I disliked Sorkin’s previous outing as a screenwriter in Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), a despicable film that bespoke the complete exhaustion of the Hollywood liberal film tradition in reducing the Afghan-Russian War to a video game whilst celebrating Tom Hanks’ right to screw Julia Roberts and Emily Blunt. The only flare of real feeling in The Social Network, and the easiest to convey, is Eduardo’s squall of rage when he realises what’s been done to him and stomps out to tear Mark from his IT bubble. And that’s The Social Network in a nutshell: it constantly takes the easier path.

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The depictions of bright teenagers and early twenty-somethings are so stylised as to defy credulity. I’m not saying The Social Network should have been a mumblecore movie, but just a few keen dashes of the sort of well-observed Bright Young Thing angst that make star Eisenberg’s previous film, Adventureland (2009), so engaging would have made The Social Network feel more personal and personable, and given depth to its admirable grasp on the business chicanery at its heart. Certainly getting in touch with its inner teen flick would have been preferable to Sorkin’s patented Walking Insta-Quote Machines. The Social Network is a drama centering around social insecurity and genius IQs, and repeatedly posits Mark’s break-up with Erica as a kind of lost Eden, an original sin, culminating in the final image of Mark patiently refreshing his Facebook page waiting for Erica to accept his friend request.

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This coda hammers home the notion that Mark’s life irony in constructing a forum based in friendship has left him denuded of friends, and one that completely fails to achieve any resonance beyond the obvious, because Mark’s relationship with Erica is so quickly hurled out of the way of the plot. Erica is so obviously conceived as an emblem of things Mark doesn’t get. Why was Erica going out with Mark? Why was he going out with her? Did she mean a lot to him? Or does he merely miss the idea of her, the untrammelled spirit of feminine good sense he heedlessly turned his back on? I had less of an idea about any of this after the film was over than when it began. Mara is eye-catching in her brief contribution to the film, but there’s nothing about her character that begs fixation or even great interest: I even found myself siding with Mark in his feeling of aggravation, if not in his obnoxious, but pretty run of the mill dissing of Erica on his blog, for her dumping of him is as clumsy and insensitive as anything he does.

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Eisenberg plays a brainier and smarter-of-mouth variation on the kind of part he’s become known for, but denuded of charm and insight. He’s very competent, but his portrayal of Zuckerberg, or at least his embodiment of the Zuckerberg handed to him by Fincher and Sorkin, is so closed-off and one-note as to render him a practical nonentity. His sharpest moment in the film comes when he impatiently informs the Winklevii’s patronising lawyer that he doesn’t deserve all of Mark’s attention because he’s also busy thinking of grander schemes at the Facebook offices “where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing.” It’s an interesting moment that both lays on the line Mark’s arrogance and also his honourable dedication to a vision he thinks everyone else would like an undeserving piece of, and judging by the lawyer’s bemused reaction as a defeated foil, Sorkin and Fincher at least in part agree with Mark, both obviously regarding themselves as belonging to that assailed niche of the Smartest Guys in the Room. The film proposes Zuckerberg then as hero and antihero, an identification figure in his outsider anxiety, his assaults on settled bastions, and his carelessness about money, whilst also expediting what is basically an old-fashioned morality play about the perils of success, where Mark’s drive is less financial than one of desiring preeminence as a ticket to inclusion.

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The film presents the Winklevii with a certain wry empathy, especially for Cameron’s gentlemanly pretences, but still offers them up as foils whose sense of entitlement Mark feels no compunction in puncturing. Being jocks as well as rich-kid entrepreneurs, thus combining two of Mark’s pet hates, they compete as Olympic-level rowers, and their loss in a regatta to a Dutch team is portrayed in a pointless scene scored to Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King,” a sequence Fincher might have mined for symbolic value in mirroring the beauties of genuine competition rather than oligarchy, but instead gains only the cheap schadenfreude of watching the rich boys lose.

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And there’s a large aspect of The Social Network that never came alive for me, and this sucked most of the strength right out it: the social conflicts. The class resentment and socio-sexual unease that’s supposed to drive the drama only ever feels rhetorical and convenient, especially considering that we learn so little about Mark’s life and worldview—we can only presume he’s middle-class as well as Jewish. The supposed gap between the WASPs and the Jews at Harvard seems to have been transcribed virtually undiluted from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, even if the golden boys are now wearing baseball caps backwards. The Social Network is bookended by two lines of dialogue spoken by bright ladies. At the opening, in which Erica breaks up with Mark, she delivers this would-be devastating put-down: “You’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.” In the closing scene, Marylin Delpy, a lawyer assisting Mark’s chief counsel, modifies this comment: ‘You’re not an asshole, Mark, you’re just trying to be one.” Very neat, very circular. It’s also clearly a message from a screenwriter commenting on the character of Mark Zuckerberg using these facile female characters as mouthpieces.

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Such do-you-get-the-point-isms like Mark’s line, “Eduardo, it’s like a Final Club except we’re the president,” are unnecessary, especially considering that incidents like how Mark turns a search for interns to do their code writing into exactly the same kind of competition, involving racing against time whilst downing shots, illustrate better the way Mark tries to turn his version of IT capitalism into a mere rival to, rather than dissension from, the kinds of hierarchy, competitiveness, and tribalism he’s supposed to be at war with. As the film progresses, and Parker enters the film, his sexed-up, eternally adolescent ideal of what an IT magnate should look and act like becomes Mark’s model. Parker’s California is supposed to be a land of decadence and conniving, though the decadence on display is dismayingly low-rent: Parker can’t even get down to sniffing cocaine out of a college girl’s navel in peace without getting busted. His pernicious influence on Facebook’s genesis makes itself clear in the underage floozies hanging about the house Mark and the rest of the team share, getting high and playing video games whilst the boy’s club gets on with it. One of the more subtle yet telling moments comes when Mark’s handing out jobs in his I-just-invented-it company to his buddies, and when Christy and Alice ask what they can do, Mark offhandedly says, “Nothing.” Which is fair enough, considering he doesn’t know what they can do, but he doesn’t even think to ask. But I would have appreciated Fincher’s and Sorkin’s efforts to elucidate the misogyny that infects these characters and their world more if their own work didn’t reek of it, particularly in the startlingly cheap comedy they wring from the scene in which Christy gets destructively, pathologically possessive of Eduardo and sets fire to his bed like every caricature of a crazy Asian chick you’ve ever seen in a movie.

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As the film grinds into its last quarter, the dramatic strands, scenes, and time frame all become increasingly fragmented. The flash-forward structure, constantly drawing us from the immediate travails of building Facebook to the grisly lawsuit roundtables, proves finally to be a rather half-hearted expositional device: the results of the lawsuits are tossed off in a final explanatory scrawl, and the probable desired effect, one of bewildering, tragic distance between “then” and “now” is lost because there’s no variation in the dialogue or editing styles, or in Mark’s pithily dismissive attitude. I could go on dissecting what displeased me in The Social Network, but not perhaps without boring both you and myself, so I’ll settle for saying that The Social Network finally left me with a curious impression of great loquaciousness concealing a lack of anything to say. I can at least praise the cast easily. That Hammer does a great job playing the Winklevii is not worth denying, even though I wondered if pulling such a stunt really contributed anything to the film other than allowing Fincher to advertise that he’s still a technical master. I kept spotting the matte lines and focus gradations that bear out the special effects, and then, in turn, kept unnecessarily alerting me to the unnecessary trickery—was it really that hard to dig up a couple of good-looking twins? Timberlake manages to do an amazing amount with very little: Timberlake’s musical persona of a privileged puppy with a glint of the genuine satyr that gives him some grit helps enliven his characterisation, swinging from swinger-smooth highs to humiliated, almost boyish desperation when he’s trying to assuage Mark’s alarm when he finally crashes and burns. But otherwise, if good is the enemy of great, The Social Network is Exhibit A.

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2000s, Biopic

Nowhere Boy (2009)

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Director: Sam Taylor-Wood

By Roderick Heath

Something that’s always struck me about the music of the peace-and-love era’s pop artists, particularly British ones like Roger Waters, Pete Townshend, and John Lennon, is how much anger, confusion, and frustration often radiates from their lyrics. I got some insight into this through my own father and his experiences as a young British male, a personal key for glimpsing a generation that often felt they were raised like the proverbial mushrooms, kept in the dark and fed on bullshit. “All John Lennon Needed Was Love” states Nowhere Boy’s threateningly facile tagline, but it’s not such a long bow to draw an immediate link between the Beatle’s overt longing for a fellowship of Man and his emotionally bereft, often disturbingly abusive low points. A trait of his generation was the way in which a sense of their own psychological integrity was vitally linked to the state of the world around them, and Lennon exemplified that: the ’70s were, for him, the ultimate bad trip after a euphoric high. It’s clear in hindsight that a private psychodrama that eroded Lennon’s achievements and consumed much of his later life, began in Lennon’s adolescence. Sam Taylor-Wood’s debut directorial feature attempts to discern through Lennon’s experiences a more general bildungsroman: how does the way we’re brought up affect us? Do we sense lies and mysteries in spite of all efforts to hide them? Is it useful to channel these problems into creation, or is that merely self-crucifixion?

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Lennon’s life, and others like it, represents heavily-trodden ground for rock biographers, journalists, and memoirists, but not so much for filmmakers. A few ’70s films, especially the fictionalised versions of Lennon’s life That’ll Be the Day and Stardust (both 1974), and Quadrophenia (1979), Franc Roddam’s riff on Townshend’s themes, evoked the teenage highs within the tawdry world of the first Brit-Rock era with immediacy and grit. Alan Parker’s film of the Waters-masterminded Pink Floyd opus The Wall (1982) described with inspired breadth of vision the psychic landscape of a burnt-out ‘60s rock star. Backbeat (1993), a minor, but well-directed and acted account of the Beatles’ crucial years in Hamburg (especially by Ian Hart, his second stab at playing Lennon after the 1991 telemovie The Hours and Times). Backbeat makes for a virtual prequel to Taylor-Wood’s film, which ends with Lennon setting off to Hamburg. Someday, I suppose, someone’s going to take on the unenviable challenge of trying to squeeze the history of pop music’s most definitive band into a feature film, but so far, movies have been content to describe the edges of that phenomenon. Lennon’s status as an avatar for his age’s confused masculinity could, nonetheless, be a cultural lightning rod in the right artist’s hands as much as it was in his own.

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Nowhere Boy recounts a defining triangle that’s well known to anyone who’s ever read about Lennon’s life: his relationship with his stern bourgeois aunt and guardian Mimi (Kristin Scott-Thomas) and his mostly absent, free-spirited but fragile mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). Julia left John to live with Mimi amidst the wreckage of her marriage, another part-victim of the Second World War’s chaotic impact on settled lives, and also of Julia’s own mental instability; these reasons are at least in part motivations that John (Aaron Johnson) has to discover in a variety of emotional detective story, because they’re deeply hidden under layers of protective propriety. The sudden death of John’s father figure, his Uncle George (David Threlfall), proves a catalyst for John as he’s passing through his middle teens; his behaviour becomes wilder and angrier, and he glimpses Julia for the first time in years, hovering at George’s funeral. When his cousin Stan (James Johnson) pries John away from Mimi for a day trip to Blackpool, he tells John he knows where Julia lives. When John calls on her, she grasps onto him with famished eagerness. After he’s suspended from school for touting pornography, John starts hanging out during the day at Julia’s place, and she introduces him to playing the banjo. That cosy arrangement ends when Mimi finds out what’s going on and confronts the pair; John momentarily spurns Mimi, but is forced to return to her when Julia’s husband Bobby (David Morrissey) worries that having John around might cause another of her breakdowns.

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In the meantime, John doodles in notebooks, practises funny voices, cuts class, seduces girls into elementary sex in the park—there’s one of those “fish and finger pies”—and bubbles with latent creativity. He stoically dismisses his headmaster’s abuse by calling himself a genius. As rock ‘n’ roll soon becomes John’s obsession, he finds it’s also Julia’s love, and she gleefully explains the etymology of the phrase. His channelling of his unruly, rebellious, creative energy into that despised art form is partly informed by the alternatives Julia offers, and her own wayward, undisciplined joie-de-vivre and porous boundaries. Discomfortingly, a spark of something suggesting attraction between him and Julia percolates unconsciously as the sensual older woman encounters the good-looking young bloke she barely knows. John, having found a constructive form of rebellion, announces to his mates when they’re gathered for a smoke in the school toilets that he’s going to form a skiffle band. When they prove surprisingly enjoyable at a public performance in a local park, with John’s charismatic, enthusiastic performing drawing real interest, they soon attract Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster) and an alarmingly young George Harrison (Sam Bell). They have prodigious instrumental skills Lennon smartly adopts forthwith, but he’s also jealous of them when he notices they can turn attention, including Julia’s, away from him. Meanwhile, John’s increasingly aggressive, brittle behaviour drives Mimi to ineffective punishments and widens the gap between them.

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Nowhere Boy is most distinguished by a smart psychological grasp on its protagonist, depicting aspects of Lennon’s behaviour that would recur throughout his life, and positing the reasons why. Taylor-Wood does bend over backwards to avoid the usual tropes for foreshadowing future greatness, portraying Lennon and McCartney’s first meeting as a deft mix of shy friendliness and power-playing, and the one moment in which a future song is preordained is an ugly one, when John attempts to drunkenly apologise to one of his girlfriends, only for her companion to pull her away dismissing him as a loser. Lennon and McCartney’s crystallising understanding commences when John learns Paul’s still grieving for his recently deceased mother, and is finally sealed, ironically, when John clobbers Paul and then embraces him with desperate self-disgust, in the wake of tragedy. The narrative builds steadily toward a night of crisis that is Lennon’s 17th birthday; Julia throws a party for John and his friends, but John’s seething frustration begins to boil over, and he slams a washboard over a friend’s head, insults Julia and confronts her over her abandonment of him, and then leaves in a fury. Returning to Mimi, he finds she prepared a birthday feast, too, and bought him a new electric guitar. Julia turns up desperate to heal the rift, resulting in a tempestuous airing of dirty laundry that reduces Julia to pleadingly explaining her mental problems whilst being dragged along the floor. John, dazed and forlorn, wanders into the night and awakens in the dawn light on the Mersey bank.

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That’s a sustained and effective depiction of the way youthful rites of passage can sometimes turn into eruptive opportunities for catharsis. Duff and Scott-Thomas are excellent at portraying opposites of character and social expectation conjoined in their pained, fractious sisterly relationship, and the preternaturally unusual and infuriating young man they share. Particularly admirable is the scene when the two sisters finally sit down together, Duff’s Julia registering Mimi’s unexpected kindness with the faintest of tremors running through her face. It’s a pity then that Nowhere Boy finally sets its sights rather low, both stylistically and thematically. A common problem with biopics is that they rarely muster anything like the invention of their subjects, and Nowhere Boy is the kind of middle-of-the-road, tasteful piece of work Lennon would likely have mocked. Similar to the pre-Swinging-60s sociology of another recent film, An Education (2009), it fails to recreate visually and convincingly the milieu in any but the most prettified and flavourless of fashions. Like Anton Cobijn, who brought a pungent, yet unforced verisimilitude to Control (2007), his film about Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, Taylor-Wood is a former photographer. This fact usually entails an advanced visual sense and much less advanced drama-shaping skills, but oddly the opposite seems a problem here. Taylor-Wood doesn’t do anything to grit up the long-since deindustrialised environs of Liverpool, and the necessary recreation of the tactile, gritty world that produced the Beatles is missing. There’s not much invention or poetry to the visuals, and though the performance scenes are convincing and enjoyable, there’s little electricity or sense of a talented but inexperienced band getting better.

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Taylor-Wood does offer one excellent little flourish, when Julia’s given John his banjo and he strums it clumsily and makes progress in snatches of real-time whilst Julia’s household whirls in time-lapse around him: it’s a strong vision of the kind of self-removal and obsession-mastering any art requires. If Taylor-Wood had mustered more such invention, Nowhere Boy might have added up to more, but it feels like a movie that’s over before it’s getting started. More subtly, it fails as a specific portrait. Johnson’s performance is terrific in its way, in his period mannerisms, playful imitations, and deft reserve of Liverpudlian obscenities, but he never quite seems to have a handle on Lennon’s individualistic humour and spiky intelligence, and he emphasises glowering teen angst to the point of tedium: Lennon’s snaky charm is too often missing. Still, there’s an effective vision of a young man growing into his skin when Johnson’s Lennon, after wasting so much energy trying to appear tough and defiant, walks away from the art college he’s now attending clad in rocker hairdo, blue jeans, and Buddy Holly glasses, clearly, suddenly, stridently in control of his persona and his mind, if not his emotions.

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The failure to add up to much is exacerbated by the film’s last-act weaknesses and pat scripting, particularly the common fault of foreshadowing tragedy—Julia’s death in a car accident—with scenes that amble along in just such a way that lets us know something bad’s going to happen purely by their lack of urgency. The very conclusion is airbrushed into a standard-issue crisis resolution, with John seeming to have accepted Mimi as parent and setting off to conquer the world. Completely avoided is John’s later, pained encounter with his long-absent father. Modern films are under the spell of giving us closure, even when it’s inappropriate, and it’s inappropriate here. Although Taylor-Wood’s debut is filled with engaging touches, it still required more daring and personality. The guy who wrote “I Am The Walrus” as well as “I’m A Loser” deserved as much.

Standard
2000s, Biopic, Drama, War

Che: Part One / Part Two (2008)

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Director: Steven Soderbergh

By Roderick Heath

With the success of Sex, Lies, and Videotape in 1989, Steven Soderbergh helped make American independent film into a minor religion. He followed that debut up with a battery of peculiar, uneven, but interesting works in the ’90s before finding new traction with 1999’s The Limey, a cryptic and stylish but curiously hollow neo-noir. Actually, I could attach those adjectives to most of his films, which are definable by their refined surface approximations and which made him a mainstream darling with 2001’s oddly empty sociopolitical panorama Traffic and the wittily styled, equally shallow Ocean’s Eleven. Soderbergh has found a niche in the last decade as a polished pseudo-auteur and pet ringmaster for various movie stars, specialising in ironically deadpan satires, genre works clad in retro chic, and occasional returns to indie cinema realism. Last year’s The Informant! was interesting chiefly for combining the disparate halves of his oeuvre and preoccupations, with its genuinely probing sense of modern American values and expansive, concerned sense of political culture, mixed in with jaunty ’70s-ish music and candy-coloured, caricatured visions of Midwestern suburbia.

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His colossal Che Guevara project, on the other hand, seemed a total rejection of his Hollywood side, and it’s largely a success as that: Che looks for much of its length like something Ken Loach might have made, minus his up-the-proles sentimentality, but failing to generate the kind of gritty tragedy and rousing sense of fighting for a cause that Loach managed in his Land and Freedom and to a lesser extent his The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Che as a whole seems precisely designed to alienate the people who might have paid to see it—young faux-radicals wearing Che t-shirts—as the flavour of Soderbergh’s work is purgative, studying in unremitting detail the arduous experience of Guevara as victorious and tragic revolutionary warrior. The approach to the project, coproduced by star Benicio Del Toro, is an attempt at total resistance to any whiff of romanticisation, aiming merely for tactile realism and elemental narrative. It’s also equally possible to label Soderbergh’s cool, procedural approach as avoidance of controversy. Certainly, cautionary examples are on offer, like the infamous 1969 Richard Fleischer film Che! It is, however, a coherent unit of his career, and one that casts some of what he’s been trying to get at in new light.

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Like Traffic, Che questions the cost the triumph of the United States and consumer culture has had on poorer neighbours and points out the dubious aspects of postwar American hegemony (even his otherwise totally disastrous The Good German had that element). As in many of his other films, it offers a doomed hero locked in a battle with combines and conspiracies—with the obvious difference that Guevara was a real man, one idolised and vilified with equal fervour. It’s possible either way to discern more than a dash of nostalgia in Soderbergh’s film for foreign antagonists of the U.S. and alternate political creeds about something more substantial than bristling religious prejudice and hazy geopolitical spite, for the days when even such opposites as Guevara and a U.S. senator (in this case Eugene McCarthy, played by Jon DeVries) could converse with firm but polite discourse, and for the thrill of new possibilities when Latin American socialism didn’t bring to mind the horrors of the Shining Path on one hand and the egotisms of Hugo Chavez on the other. That nostalgia is, however, troubling in itself: what exactly Guevara’s journey means to the contemporary landscape other than, in strict terms, lessons on how to fight, win, and lose guerrilla wars, is only suggested in animating spirit rather than concrete depiction. Moral necessity and moral cost are questions kept at a very distant arm’s length. One thing is certain after the film is finished: the man was determined. And even if the film’s precepts are backwards-looking, Soderbergh attempts to realise Guevara’s trials as the most immediate kind of cinema.

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The ironies of Guevara’s career are captured with some dexterity. Guevara is still venerated, and comrade-in-arms Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir) has become a faded figure of sclerotic despotism, largely because Guevara gave up the tricky arts of management to keep on with the gritty arts of war. Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) is heard to say early on in the film that “revolution is not exportable,” in the sense that each form of revolt has to be specific to the soil from which it will spring. Yet Che forgets this in ignoring warnings that Bolivia is too xenophobic and peculiar for it to accept a simple repetition of his Cuban success. The film’s diptych structure is stimulating not only as a study of diverse outcomes, but also of perspective: what looks heroic and determined in one case looks foolish and pig-headed in the second. Present is the suggestion—not analysed—that Che’s desire to bring the revolution to Bolivia is motivated by its proximity to his native Argentina, whose sleazy dictatorship he would have held in contempt.

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The screenplay by Peter Buchman, with Benjamin A. van der Veen contributing to Part Two, is adapted with few digressions and little psychological or sociological portraiture from Guevara’s own diaries and accounts. Part One is punctuated by flash-forwards to Che representing Cuba at the UN and being interviewed by journalist Lisa Howard (Julia Ormond) in New York, his air of ruffled but towering dignity and paramilitary clothing cutting a swath through that city’s chattering classes. This stands in counterpoint to the finicky business of the actual revolution: telling off sloppy soldiers, weeding out unpromising recruits, executing criminals, listening to the tales and complaints of Cubans he and his men encounter, and a hundred other tiny aspects of turning a band of uninspiring adventurers into a popularly supported, effective army, one that he finally leads to victory in a memorably filmed sequence of street warfare in the town of Santa Clara. Che, in New York, is absorbed by Soderbergh’s camera as faintly dissociated, weary, haunted, and happy in ways that are all indefinable, whilst still fierce enough to take on the cabal of petty dictatorships and hypocrites that comprise the other American delegates—out of place at parties and amusingly exasperated by his translator’s constantly absenting himself to see the town. The suggestion is there, too, that Che’s fame came as much out of the impact he made in being seen in that environment, packing the spirit and the firm corporeal rigour of the revolutionary into his intimidating person in an incongruous context, as it did from any anecdotal triumph.

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The contrast, with the younger, beardless Che and Fidel speaking seriously but amiably about their plan in an apartment in Mexico City before embarking on their Cuban adventure, is telling in itself, and even more so is the vision of Che in Bolivia, increasingly gaunt, grizzled, and wheezing in crippling asthmatic fits, engaged in what looks awfully like the kind of quixotic bourgeois adventuring he would have disdained. There he’s aided by some hangers-on of dubious relevance, like a German socialist dubbed Tania (Franka Potente), as he and all his warriors take on pseudonyms and too little organic contact with the Bolivian radicals they’re supposed to be aiding. The film takes care to note that the Soviet-backed local Communist Party refused all aid to Che, whose style and aims by this time were all too clearly as offensive to the Eastern Bloc as to the West (at least so the films suggests, whilst many historians feel that Che’s committed Marxism had the opposite effect on the Cuban revolution). The Communists instead instigate a strike that results in the massacre of miners. Meanwhile, in perhaps the film’s most pointed scenes of contemporary relevance, American military and intelligence personnel advise and aid the Bolivian army in tracking down their insurgents.

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Soderbergh’s deliberately happenstance sense of continuity, though sometimes bewildering, is convincing in portraying a world where faces and events whip by and out of view: even Che’s battlefield romance with Aleida March (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is only vaguely, tangentially suggested. “We’ve only won the war,” Che tells a cadre when Batista’s fall is announced: “The revolution starts now.” The irony there is that Che soon runs off to another war, bringing up the possibility it’s war that he’s truly best at and is now more comfortable in such situations than in his home life, and certainly not in the impersonal squabbles of governing and diplomacy. Soderbergh constantly notes Che’s immediate, interpersonal sense of decency that both inspires loyalty and hero-worship amongst his soldiers and the people he meets, and renders his sensibility finally inimicable to the kind of personality-cult leadership that Castro radiates. He also retains a good little middle class boy’s propriety for private property, as noted in the first part’s amusing coda, when he tells off some of his men for embarking on their triumphant ride to Havana in a stolen hotrod. The revolution will not be a joyride.

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Soderbergh’s visual discoveries are sometimes quietly revelatory. The Cuban half is defined by a sense of dynamism, with the intercutting between war and present endowing all the bits and pieces with a sense of direction and meaning. Even the denseness of the jungle is as enclosing and reassuring as it is frustrating and arduous, for it hides the revolutionaries from their enemies. The purposefulness of the structure as well as the described narrative is always apparent, as Che and his army leave behind that jungle for the flatter hinterland and, finally, the clean white streets. In Part One, Che is shown learning how to punish transgression with some neatly disposed court justice, when he quickly shoots two of his soldiers who have turned to stealing and raping, thus prefacing his eventual comfort executing hundreds of state enemies as the militarised, expedient ethos of the battlefield became the defining key of the new nation.

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In the Bolivian half, no such reassurance is present. Che and his soldiers move in less definable directions, and are as often as not discovered sitting or standing about in patient but discernable cluelessness about what to do next. Their one ambush of Bolivian soldiers is a tragicomic interlude where the enemy soldiers’ hated officer blubs and cowers, and the men are finally marched off without their guns and gear. The Bolivian landscape, often as unforgiving but more arid and less enveloping, invokes in itself the failure of Che’s efforts to flourish. He and his band are finally caught in a canyon by Bolivian soldiers whose advancing ranks, picked out in an effective long pan, are reminiscent of a similar army that appears to crush the rebels at the end of Spartacus (1960).

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Che’s two parts have definite conceptual rigour in the balance and contrast that define its hemispheres, and the project retains a compelling, hypnotic flow that suggest that by stripping himself of all obvious supports, Soderbergh found a kind of purity. But conceptual rigour doesn’t guarantee depth of purpose, and what the Che diptych finally achieves is questionable for a work of such scope and heft. As a plain portrait of a man of war, it’s an undoubted success, one charged with a kind of spare poeticism and effervescent melancholia. On the other hand, it’s a film that might have infuriated Che, at least to the extent that it’s so disengaged from any personalised, dramatised sense of what he was fighting for. If Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) reduced young Ernesto Guevara to a gap-year holiday-maker who once read a political pamphlet, it nonetheless captured a sense of a man whose sensibility was fed by interaction with the world. What that world, and Guevara’s politicised interpretation of it, means to him, is much less vaguely defined here, for Soderbergh’s approach owes less to neorealism than to television documentary, where everything is depicted through snatches of interviews and wobbly glimpses of chaos. Che’s cause is explicated through recited rhetoric and snatches of sloganeering: the meaning of Guevara’s politics, both to himself and to the political business he got involved in, remains a given—and a ghost, tantalisingly and finally irritatingly out of reach. Whilst Soderbergh’s focus is coherent in intent and effective in result, he finally seems to have worked himself into a corner, where the most interesting reasons for making a film about El Che—to wrestle with recent history and understand the revolutionary appeal—have been excised.

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Perhaps it’s because Soderbergh’s clearest similarity to Guevara is how both men quickly became dissatisfied with past achievements and must move on to new projects. Soderbergh’s wild pace of work in the past few years, playing with styles and technical challenges, feels the trait less of a radical than of a craftsman out to test his skills. The great amount of time and effort that Soderbergh takes to say some obvious things (revolution is hard work, failing and dying is a pain in the ass) is partly vindicated by the many small treasures he unearths along the way, but finally Che adds up to a fascinating and occasionally superb failure. It’s less suggestive of a creative mind avoiding cliché than of a process one witnesses too much these days: an artist-intellectual arguing himself into an expressive dead end.

Standard
1960s, Biopic, Experimental, Fantasy, Foreign

Sayat Nova (1968)

aka The Colour of Pomegranates

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By Roderick Heath

An authentic piece of cinematic shamanism, Sayat Nova was a work that placed its brilliant Georgian-born, ethnic-Armenian director Sergei Paradjanov in hot water with the Soviet-era authorities. At first glance, this seems nearly incomprehensible. What the hell was so subversive about a plotless, characterless, almost-silent extended montage of beautiful and mysterious images? Perhaps therein lies the answer: nothing upsets the bureaucratic mindset like mystery. Of course, there are layers to such a controversy. Paradjanov was a dedicated nonconformist, a bisexual bohemian linked to nationalist and civil rights groups and celebrator of pan-Caucasian folk traditions, and his film was an aggressive act of cultural dissembling. Damn it if the commissars didn’t sense something under all the strange gestures and allusions to Armenian history. The Soviet Union, like Tsarist Russia before it, had always maintained a hegemonic domination of the many smaller nations it bordered and swallowed, and Paradjanov’s fetishist celebration of his culture’s dreamtime past seemed a jab at that hegemony.

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A contradictory quality of much post-Stalinist Soviet cinema is what appeared to be its relatively unfettered artistic bent, producing wondrously innovative cinema from the likes of Paradjanov, Tarkovsky, Klimov, Shepitko, Konchalovsky and others, which rarely betrayed any sign of subordination to the familiar rigours of narrative appeal. Indeed, Paradjanov was taking to an extreme something Eisenstein had begun in his historical films Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible Part I and Part II (1946-58) in reducing mise-en-scène to iconography and acting to gesture: the distance from Ivan the Terrible’s wedding dance to Sayat Nova’s figurations isn’t so great, even if the gothic force and giddiness of Eisenstein’s style is dispensed with. Such a retreat into formalism and poetic allusion angered authorities, but it often was the only mode of expression left to genuine film artists when “Soviet realism” was defined only as sanctioned realism. Either way, Sayat Nova was edited, retitled as the less culturally specific The Colour of Pomegranates (reflecting one of the first images of the film) and often completely suppressed; its director was later imprisoned on trumped-up charges, including that he raped a man bigger than he was.

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None of which says much really about Sayat Nova as a piece of artistry, which in intent and effect transcends the immediate agonies of its history. Named for and, after a fashion, telling the life of famed 18th century Armenian “ashug” (poet-troubadour) Harutyun Sayatyan (his popular title means “King of Song”), Paradjanov refused to create a biopic, instead preferring images illustrating poetic metaphors and vaguely describing the key acts of Sayat Nova’s life. The opening seems to be juxtaposing images associated with one of Sayatyan’s poems on the stages of the soul’s ripening. Paradjanov apparently identified deeply with the poet, and the on-screen biography seems partly imbued with aspects of Paradjanov’s own life: both men were born in T’bilisi outside of their ethnic homeland.

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In vaguest outline, Sayat Nova is similar to Paradjanov’s good friend Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev: both examine the role of the artist in terms of society in historical contexts infused with allegorical purpose. Each embellishes sketchy life narratives with similar details as both films’ heroes reject the world after youthful pains and burrow deep into monkish asceticism, only to spurn such mortification as death-in-life, and return to the world without spurning faith. It’s easily discernable why such a narrative could fascinate artists in a troubled political milieu. There, however, similarities end: where Rublev is allusive and illustrative in a rarefied but comprehensible and mostly realistic fashion, Sayat Nova is pure artifice, exploring Nova’s poetics and life through tableaux vivant that achieve a synthesis of the aesthetics of early cinema; the Byzantine-influenced, flat-perspective stylisation of Orthodox religious art; and the ritualised dance and theatre of folk cultures.

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The biographical details Paradjanov evokes of Sayatyan’s life (he’s played at different stages of his life by Sofiko Chiaureli, Melkon Aleksanyan, Vilen Galstyan, and Giorgi Gegechkori) can be discerned through this panoply of artifice. We see him in childhood, the son of wool vendors in a small village. He is taught a love of books by a priest and introduced to the human body and eroticism by spying on men and women in steam baths. His life as a courtier and traveling diplomat, his ill-fated romance with a princess, his retreat into a monastery, his final disillusionment with such a withdrawn life, and his failed attempt to return to the world all follow, before his final violent death at the hands of invading Persians. Much of the film was shot in or near the 1,000-year-old Haghpat Monastery, where Sayatyan really met his end. Paradjanov invokes such details with a fascinating creative method, relying on the viewer’s visual literacy, for instance, ability to infer from a woman’s beauteous mode of dress and bearing what her social rank is, and how she holds a veil of embroidery over her face to suggest the barriers of form and propriety that keeps Sayatyan from being able to love her.

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The fact that the same actress, Sofiko Chiaureli, plays both the young poet and his princess amour suggests the narcissism often inherent in young crushes (and also an inherent sexual ambiguity in Paradjanov’s sense of the artistic figure); Paradjanov juxtaposes this with a pair of mimes enacting a ritualised romance between the figures of a devil and an angel. In between the identifiable moments of narrative in Sayat Nova is a cornucopia of evocative imagery, built out of the cultural and religious tropes of classical Armenia, and essayed in not-quite-surrealist terms. The wonder of music as it is presented to young Sayatyan is evoked by his standing with music teachers amongst a number of hovering instruments; a love of literature explicated in a remarkable moment when a priest has him and others rescue soaked books and dry them upon the roof of a church, the young poet standing amongst dozens of the wind-wavered pages.

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The necessary connection of artistic passion to the earth is communicated when the young poet pours earth from a dish onto a cloth he holds; later, when his sense of life has degraded, he holds up an empty dish forlornly. A late crisis in his sense of life is communicated through an awe-inspiring sequence in which the roof of the church transforms into fields reaped by labourers, whilst the aged poet stands on a ledge, his pale body contrasting dead stone whilst the chaff rains, his separation from the natural wellsprings of creativity confirmed. Interestingly, Paradjanov criticised Fellini for driving ever deeper into mystification. This is a curious stance because mystification seems an objective for Paradjanov, and the men used not-dissimilar techniques.

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But it becomes apparent that such an affection for the corporeal, the tangible, an attempt to suggest through texture alone the solidity of things rather than mere dreaminess through surrealism, is altogether exceptional: Paradjanov ransacks and offers up the very building blocks of a culture in its many manifestations (songs, poems, books, architecture, clothing, paintings, dance, acting, religious and social ritual, design and pattern) as wrought from the same tactile relationship with soil and nature. Paradjanov’s visions take on the characteristics of mystical incantation, even magic, but they are certainly nonetheless linked to a subtle dialectic between spirit and flesh, earth and aesthetic, that refuses the celebratory, but arguably solipsistic reinvention of reality that Fellini offered up in his final films.

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Nonetheless, in structure and effect, Sayat Nova is a rite, a liturgy, an invocation for the sake of remembering, as well as a study in the nature of poetic elucidation and the formation of artistic character. The film is almost entirely lacking in spoken dialogue, and indeed many immediate sound effects are also muted in favour of folk music styles on the soundtrack, and recitations of Sayatyan’s poetry. Paradjanov notes a child’s fragmented, distracted way of reading existence in the early sequences, full of jagged observations of such fleeting wonders as the feet of women dancing upon carpets being washed in his home village where such carpets are made, boiled up in vats of crimson dye that becomes interchangeable with blood and therefore sustenance.

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Likewise barnyard animals constantly appear throughout the film, most memorably, a chicken that sits on the poet’s arm like a natural aide, and a flock of sheep that invades the church. Such glimpses are linked to the much later, more complex metaphors of the grown artistic imagination. Later in the film, the cloistered Sayatyan is visited by nuns, one of whom, looking like the princess, magically strips off her black gown, stepping out in blinding white, and comes to him with a carpet, as if embodying the lingering spirit of the fecund, romantic, industrious life he left behind: when she moves to kiss him, he pulls the carpet up between them, echoing the veil the princess once held up to him and reinforcing the self-imposed barrier he’s put up against life.

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This encounter precipitates his crisis, however, for the poet’s search is for an utterly selfless kind of love, and yet discovers in such a moment that his retreat is self-obsession. Begged to come perform by villagers, he ventures back into the landscape with the blessing of the monastery’s abbot to spread his art through the land. But he seems to be too late, finding nothing but empty dishes and encountering the white-clad woman’s burial. Escorted by cherubim, he returns to the monastery. There, however, he meets her again, incarnated now as a nature goddess or angel of resurrection: she tips a vat of red dye over him, symbolising his final murder, falling victim finally to utter corporeal truth. But as he dies, a workman holds up lengths of pipe and calls for him to sing; his songs echo forever from the pipes, a plain metaphor for the ability of the artist’s work to transcend death, and his songs become part of the structure of his culture and nation. The angel provides the final, reigning image, of an evergreen creativity.

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Whilst all of this might sound obscure and dull, the images flow with hypnotic rapidity and teeming imagination that always tantalise and stimulate even at their most bewildering; it’s also a weirdly, subtly sexy movie in its layered textures and obsessive refrains to Chiaureli’s ambisexual beauty. Sayat Nova moreover doesn’t so much demand intellectual dissection as emotional involvement with the intricacy and beauty of its images. Certainly such a conjuring requires an intensely shared cultural basis to work from, as well as a keenly developed symbolic imagination. Still, peculiar and unreproducible as it is, Sayat Nova also seems to have influenced many a director, like Pasolini, Scorsese (in Kundun, 1997), Theo Angelopolous, Gus Van Sant and Bela Tarr, through perhaps to Todd Haynes’ Dylan flick I’m Not There, which sustained a similar conceit of using multiple actors, including a woman, to embody a hero reduced to a series of quotes and affected figurations.

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It’s worth noting in such light that Paradjanov’s impish sense of humour is often in evidence, in moments such as when a number of monks are bathed by their fellows and then carried away as if in preparation for some rite, but actually for treading wine grapes; a flashback the poet has to his childhood of a wool fair that sees a gusting wind upsetting everyone’s wares; and those sheep in the church circling whilst the monks repeat sonorous cant to mourn their dead Patriarch evoking the silliness of religious solipsism and Pavlovian habits of worship. And yet the film’s texture surely confirms two of Paradjanov’s personal statements of his aspiration: “Direction is about truth. It’s about God, love, and tragedy”, and “Beauty will save the world.” Whether he’s right or not, Sayat Nova certainly suggests an untapped world of cinema still awaiting conquest.

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2000s, Australian cinema, Biopic

Bright Star (2009)

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Director/Screenwriter: Jane Campion

By Roderick Heath

Jane Campion is a puzzle to me. She rose out of Aussie cinema in the late 1980s with something of the reputation of a firebrand and a new breed of woman director which she has never really lived up to. Her international hit The Piano (1993) was a kind of mash-up of college-level lit studies, feminist theory, and perfervid Victorian melodrama, with its half-defined metaphors for control of the female voice and the often bartered nature of erotic desire, scored through with a weird variety of emotional and sexual masochism. Those notes were something that recurred in her execrable adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady (1996), Holy Smoke (1999), and In the Cut (2003), in all of which smart but curiously febrile ladies throw themselves at the mercy of beastly male conquerors. It seemed as if Campion’s only mode for exploring femininity was in its battles with a particularly prickly kind of masculinity, whilst never being as direct or lucidly provocative as Catherine Breillat. The cornerstone of her reputation remains, then, her biography of writer Janet Frame, An Angel at My Table (1991). Finally, with Bright Star, about the famed poet John Keats and his amour Fanny Brawne, she goes back to English lit class.

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Bright Star begins as an intriguing and layered look at three distinctive characters: Fanny (Abbie Cornish), a dressmaker and designer who lives with her mother (Kerry Fox) and younger brother and sister Margaret and Samuel (Edie Martin and Thomas Sangster) is part of the social circle of the Dilke family. The Dilkes are renting out half of their house to two poets, Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Charles Brown (Paul Schneider). Keats is spindly, doe-eyed, and visionary; Brown is sarcastic, stolid and jealous of Keats’ attention, aware that he’s by far the greater poet. Fanny, intelligent but uneducated, with a defensive prickliness bordering on offensive in her initial encounters with the two men, wants to understand poetry better. She purchases a copy of Keats’ poorly received first book Endymion in order to find out “if he’s an idiot.” Impressed, she makes more tentatively appealing approaches to Keats, asking him to teach her how to approach and understand the poetic process. Brown and Fanny’s encounters are punctuated by grazing, elusive cross-purposes and suspicion, but her talks with Keats are restrained, intelligent, and convivial. The penniless Keats soon falls in love with Fanny, whom he is completely incapable of marrying and taking care of in the expected style.

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The film’s earliest segments, detailing the uncoiling, complex, elusive triangle of admiration and frustration between the two poets and the invasive female, are compelling and original. The idea of introducing Fanny as a transcription of a more contemporary type of woman into a period setting to constantly set Brown on edge illustrates a well-described set of appositional tensions. The masculine fellowship of Keats and Brown, Brown’s resentment of Fanny’s intrusion into it given an even keener twist by his attraction to her, and Keats’ efforts to be fair to everyone whilst dealing with his dying brother Tom (Olly Alexander) are all given their moment’s attention.

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Campion’s firmly physical invocation of time and place, realised by Greg Fraser’s interesting cinematography, emphasises a Georgian England of flapping laundry, singing birds, insect trills, mud, colour-bleached woods, and freeze-dried winter forests. Scenery is absorbed with simple yet intimate vividness, as the natural setting that defines the characters’ lives and that both helps feed Keats’ imagination and wastes away his body. Campion’s feel for physical context is one of the strongest in modern cinema, and the setting, a Hampstead village still not yet annexed by the city of London, seems nearly as exotic as the stormy shores of New Zealand in The Piano. In a splendid early sequence, Fanny and Keats attend a soirée where Campion tries to define the fecundity of an era based entirely in oral and literary skills using a short, but droll turn by Samuel Roukin as John Reynolds, a friend who elegantly evokes the beauties of Keats’ work and a choral of singers spinning beauties in the shadows of the period house. Later, as the couple’s relationship blossoms, their play together is in a fashion that’s offhand, charming, and possessing the flavour of real life. The central pas de trois concludes when Brown writes Fanny a teasing valentine; when Keats hears of it, he erupts in jealous suspicion, Brown insultingly dismisses Fanny as a mere flirt and fan, and Fanny runs from both of them, grievously insulted. It is, however, only the momentary crisis that allows Fanny and Keats’ love to truly expose itself.

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Unfortunately from this point on Bright Star steadily ebbs away to nothingness. The trouble with almost all biopics with a focus on such ill-fated figures is that they eventually must lurch into morbid deathbed fetishism. Campion, far from trying to sidestep the problem, embraces it like an ardent hippie girl with a poet crush determined to feel every hopeless minute of it. There are endless scenes of the heretofore intriguing Fanny weeping over an increasingly desiccated Keats coughing up blood and his friends trying, too late, to secure passage to the healthier climes of Italy. The screenplay’s fatal problem is that the conception and portrayal of Keats never develops beyond spindly, endangered, romantic victim. All the originality and detail of characterisation goes into the sparring duo of Fanny and Brown; Whishaw, who’s already cornered the market on playing bedraggled, doomed avatars of creative self-consumption, is left spouting airy poetic theory and then wasting away in despairing angelic fashion, as if he were as gossamer and ethereal a creature as the famous nightingale of his poem. In one scene, having been installed in a London flat to wait out the time before he can sail, and to spare Fanny and her family the sight of his pain, he turns up lying on the lawn, having walked all the way to berate Fanny for not coming to him.

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Finally this Keats suggests less a living, or dying, man, than an idea for Fanny to fall in love with, an icon to inspire female suffering. In opposition, Schneider’s full-bodied, gratingly convincing performance is far more affecting not only because does he seem more realistic, but he also actually seems to be in the room. Of course, Bright Star is as much, or more, about Fanny, but here’s an equal, quieter failure. Fanny is introduced as a spottily-educated woman desperate to gain some intellectual traction in an almost strictly masculine field of endeavour, and Campion presents a dual-layered parallel of the difficulty Keats faces as an innovative artist in an epoch set strongly against stylistic advance (and as a poet in any era) and that faced by a woman seeking a more than merely passive relationship to both art and men. The trouble is Campion never even tries to reconcile the disparate concepts, the doomed pair of arch-romantics, the wasting troubadour and the weeping true love, and the earlier, more complex creations.

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Cornish’s terrific performance is indeed the force that drags the film along, with alternations of sniping, self-promoting anxiety, her somehow forlorn efforts to prove herself in showing off the dresses she made with their too-showy adornments as her substantial riposte to the airiness of Keats’ words, and finally devastated grief. But Campion’s script pulls the rug out from under her in the second half, and her hopefully devastating final scenes lack the impact they ought to because she’s already been crying for most of the last half-hour. Nor is the film finally interesting for saying anything new about poetry or sexism in the arts: Campion flinches from the questions she raises, so that whilst her filmmaking is artful, her concepts come up empty. Compared with, say, the Julian Temple’s Pandaemonium (2000), which tackled this kind of material with less finesse but far more intellectual heft and provocative cultural theory, Bright Star looks like a witless and stilted objet d’art.

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2000s, Biopic, British cinema, Historical

The Young Victoria (2009)

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Director: Jean-Marc Vallée

By Roderick Heath

There’s a new subgenre of prestige pics delving into underappreciated women of history, featuring young starlets hunting for Oscar glory by strapping on corsets like their male movie counterparts often strap on body armour. Last year’s The Duchess was, hard as it was to admit, one of the most solidly satisfying and intelligent works of its kind, a quiet success amidst the stern and manly business of making end of year best-of lists. The Young Victoria seemed primed to be a strong successor, offering the up-and-coming Emily Blunt a meaty, attention-grabbing role as the monarch who gave her name to an entire era and way of life, and yet who remains largely a cipher in the public imagination, largely envisioned as a tubby old lady speaking about herself in the collective pronoun.

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As contemporary historians have often revealed, however, Victoria was a woman—at least in her early years—who, along with her husband Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, became synonymous with the increasing liberalisation, moral probity, and broadening outlook of British society and empire, a process that began with her own ascendance at the fading of the highly macho, less domesticated era embodied by the aged Duke of Wellington. The Young Victoria attempts to dramatise that very point in portraying the teenage Victoria as confined as much by her opportunistic mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), and her ferocious bully of an advisor and confidant, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong), as by protocol and concerns over her safety as the only heir to the throne, with her uncle King William (Jim Broadbent) childless and her own father long dead. Early sequences of Conroy terrorising Victoria and kicking dogs resemble Victorian melodrama, sure enough, you know, like The Woman in White or something where the young heiress is being browbeaten by the wicked relative into signing over her fortune. Whether or not Conroy is the Duchess’ lover is mooted, yet not ventured into, and the Duchess’s willingness to let her daughter be used as a plaything of state is underscored by Victoria’s rather closer relationship with her childhood confidant and fill-in governess, Baroness Louise Lehzen (Jeanette Hain).

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Victoria, however, despite being raised as if wrapped in cotton wool, has a nascent strength of will, and this, along with William’s ranting distaste for the Duchess and Conroy, holds them at bay long enough so that Victoria, on her uncle’s death, is crowned. Meanwhile, back in Belgium (now there’s a phrase I never thought I’d write), the fresh prince of that newborn kingdom, King Leopold (Thomas Kretschmann), wants his young relative Albert (Rupert Friend) to present himself as an interested suitor to the newly minted female monarch. Albert, awkward and intellectual rather than dashing and lordly, appeals to Victoria for precisely these reasons. But Victoria soon falls under the spell not of a romantic rival but a political mastermind, the current liberal Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), a vigorous manoeuvrer and charmer, who works to fill Victoria’s household with his friends’ wives and soon uses her influence to outmaneuver his chief rival, Robert Peel (Michael Maloney).

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Julian Fellowes’ script attempts to draw in as complete and fleet-footed a fashion as possible the proper political perspective as well as the intimate human drama at its core. The idea here, as usual, is to humanise the icons, which means moments like that in which Victoria and Albert express their giddy love for each other by skipping about in the rain. It is in many respects, and not just in being about the same woman, a prequel to Mrs. Brown (1997): where that film’s title came from the epithet spat at Victoria for presumed dalliances with her footman John Brown, here Victoria is branded “Mrs. Melbourne” for her ties to the Prime Minister after he loses an election to Peel, a way of portraying a society that couldn’t perceive a woman as anything more than an extension of whichever man was close to her. Victoria stands firm in not dismissing his cronies in her employment to please Peel, precipitating a constitutional crisis that forces Peel to concede to Melbourne and provokes the usual yowling movie mobs to chuck bricks at Buckingham Palace’s windows. Likewise, director Vallée works to keep things moving with a springy, edit-happy pace, as if trying to live up to having Martin Scorsese as a coproducer.

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Fellowes, to his credit, tries to suggest some depth to his view of the personages, from Wellington (Julian Glover, having fun) commenting on his inability to charm Victoria like Melbourne due to his dislike of her father (“The meanest officer I ever met”), to Conroy halting his gothic tantrums long enough to contemplate his wasted potential. But these remain potted little pretences to character portraiture, and you won’t come away from the film with any but the vaguest feel for who these people were. Threads that are supposed to be affecting, like the rivalry between the Duchess and Lehzen for Victoria’s heart, are doomed because neither is rendered as more than a sketch. Nor do Fellowes and Vallée come close to finding an appropriate rhythm of storytelling or a compelling dramatic arc. The film opens with a sluggishly written voiceover by Blunt and a choppy montage that suggests the techniques of a cable TV docudrama, a feeling that never truly fades. In one moment, Vallée has Victoria glide weightlessly across a ballroom floor towards Albert to take her first post-coronation dance, a gimmick designed to suggest her buoyant love in a moment of triumph, but really a mere showy rupture in the film’s technique. Rather than infuse it with vigour, Vallée’s approach sucks away whatever contiguity it might have possessed, and the comparison to any scene in Sofia Coppola’s hip, yet incisive Marie Antoinette (2006) is not becoming.

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Whilst the politics of the era are evoked and touched upon, there’s no real penetration into the complexities of governing or indeed what exactly is being governed. There’s acknowledgement of Victoria’s interest in social welfare as opposed to Melbourne’s lip-service liberalism, but precious little of the breadth of Victoria’s interests and what she meant to the people of her age—how, for instance, she forcefully repudiated and insisted on contrition for the often crazed suppression of the Indian Mutiny. The scope of the drama rarely proceeds far beyond a procession of gorgeous interiors employed in such a way that doesn’t so much suggest Victoria’s purposefully limited horizons as it does the usual contradiction of this genre: emotional brutality and repression leavened by classic real-estate porn. And, yes, the costumes, buildings, and lighting and shooting thereof (by Hagen Bogdanski) are all pretty indeed, infused with a kind of honeyed light that suggests the luxuriant beauty of being held closest to the bosom of the belle époque.

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Moreover, The Duchess at least found an intense and wrenching personal story at the heart of the period bric-a-brac, something that’s stillborn here. The romance of Victoria and Albert is not one of consuming passion, but the niceties of this kind of film don’t allow the filmmakers to find any humour and discursive unconventionality in their romance. Friend nicely captures Albert’s uneasy, but innately decent manner, but Blunt’s characterisation never quite comes into focus. Blunt has talent, but her portrayal remains curiously inert. The pitch of Victoria as a quietly gutsy woman taking on a world rigged against her self-determination remains entirely theoretical. Ironically enough, her best moment comes in the most contradictory scene, in which Victoria, having fought to assure everyone she’s not too young and too female to rule, throws a bratty fit at Albert for taking an active part in managing royal affairs, to which his entirely justifiable response is to walk out on her as she orders him to stay. In the next scene, he gamely receives a wound in throwing himself between Victoria and a lunatic assassin’s bullet, just in case you take him for some Eurotrash nancyboy. The best performance is easily that of Bettany as Melbourne (not surprising as Bettany often steals films), providing the charm offensive Melbourne requires, and yet sharpening to a wicked point in a scene in which he explains to a still-hopeful Conroy: “I’m sorry, I can see that I am not speaking clearly—you have played the game, and lost!”

Otherwise, we are only mildly amused.

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2000s, Biopic, British cinema

The Edge of Love (2008)

Director: John Maybury

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By Roderick Heath

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spendthrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.
In My Craft or Sullen Art, by Dylan Thomas

The above poem comprise the last words of the The Edge of Love. They are used as a kind of thematic underlining of what we’ve seen. They’re also the reason that the film has been made, to the extent that any film like this is made—to get off on the presence of greatness that lends some sense of weight to an otherwise feckless tale. At least a musical biopic is self-explanatory—there’s music we like on the soundtrack with the people who made it magically returned to youth by cinematic sorcery. Dylan Thomas, for whom the film largely has nothing but contempt, is the reason why it’s been made.

I always come to the end of films like Sylvia, Pollock, Control, or Surviving Picasso—those in which the tortured arty soul ends up like a goldfish flapping on the floor or the prick gets his comeuppance from someone speaking as the voice of contemporary sexual politics—wondering why they are made, why they treat their subjects so. In Thomas’ case, a drunkard who collapsed and died in a Greenwich Village bar at age 39, there’s not much image to despoil, and this is part of the problem. Anthony Burgess fought to have Thomas acknowledged as a meticulous craftsman who endlessly revised his ecstatic phrasings, a man used up at least as much by his own dedication as he was by drink. Thomas’ work in the film is portrayed as nothing more than an excuse to ignore his kid. It’s a common complaint that artist biopics rarely offer much in the way of insight into the art. Thomas’ poetry features throughout The Edge of Love, in disjointed voiceover readings that reduce them incoherent snatches of prettification.

The Edge of Love was directed by John Maybury, former experimental director with a Schnabel-esque love of visual gibberish who broke out with Love Is the Devil (1999), a similar portrait of Francis Bacon’s affair with his rough-trade criminal boyfriend. An obtuse, often insufferable work, that film was at least aggressive in studying how a ruthless soul makes for strong art and bad housekeeping. I wonder then if the reason such films are made is to take peeks into modes of lifestyle otherwise forbidden to mainstream filmmakers. A lot of artists have juicy private lives. And a lot don’t. I don’t foresee a film about Anthony Trollope, holding down a lifelong career as a designer of mailboxes whilst writing great English novels, anytime soon. But in what other kind of high-profile movie sporting rising stars of import are you going to get explorations of multiple-partner romance that doesn’t also include a singalong to “I Say A Little Prayer”? Films about adults doing adult things don’t get much play these days beyond certain restricted cable channels.

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The Edge of Love threatens to study a ménage a trois. The film’s early hype, its poster with Sienna Miller and Keira Knightley lying back on the grass, red lipstick lacquered on and encouraging you to take a dive in, promised gorgeous decadence and anarchic indulgence. Fooled you! Miller and Knightley lounge in bed together and giggle like they’re having a sleepover; they certainly don’t engage in any Sapphic naughtiness. Thomas does bed both women, but, of course, that funny business isn’t allowed to stand.

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I’m talking around the point—which could be because I’m not sure what the point is. One could have made The Edge of Love to explore the way society degrades talent in the living and then celebrates it once they’re dead. Thomas’ words are prostituted by wartime authorities, yet he can barely make enough to feed his family, forcing him to live by sucking friends dry, to create work that now gets films made about him. No, wait, this isn’t what the film’s about. It’s about two bestest best friends, Caitlin Thomas (Miller) and Vera Phillips (Knightley), who hide underneath the covers and giggle and make kissy faces at each other and prance in Super 8 home movies and cry when one of them like becomes a total slut with the other’s guy. No, wait, it’s about Vera’s husband, tragic soldier William Killick (Cillian Murphy) who is desperately in love with her, suffers in war, and comes back horrified to find his wife’s had it off with her old boyfriend, the fancy-pants poet who’s also spent all his money. No wonder William goes taking pokes at loud-mouthed pseudo-socialist bitches and shoots his Sten gun through the wall to shake the smart-asses up a bit. No wait, it’s a courtroom drama where Thomas tries to destroy Killick because of love for Vera. No wait, I’m bored.

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According to critics and biographers, the film is based in vague, specious speculation anyway. Most films of this sort end up, even if they don’t want to, as finger-waving moralising. Artists take and give nothing but words back. The male artist who fucks freely will be condemned for his feckless, misogynist ways. The female who does so will be celebrated for her liberation even if the world in the film condemns her. Behind every great man is a woman. Get married and stay that way. Good thing you listened to your parents and became a lawyer. Love’s intended audience—and they sat all about me in the theatre—can walk away tut-tutting about disgraceful behaviour, whilst having received a sugar rush from it. I recall my old high school English teacher doing after we’d been watching Tom & Viv (1994). Eliot! That bastard! Leaving his wife in a loony bin! For being a loony! Just goes to show you! No normal person’s marriage disintegrates because of mental instability, no. Only those of famous poet-type male chauvinists.

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The Edge of Love begins well. Maybury concentrates on texture, and the first half-hour is a dense web of impressions. He plays energetically with Dennis Potter-esque evocations of jazz-age images of perfection and exoticism colliding with hard reality in Vera’s singing act, staged bizarrely in underground air raid shelters. Thomas, Caitlin, Vera, and Killick live under the shadow of the Blitz, the threat of death a constant reality, streets reduced to dark warrens of menace, even the familiar refrains of romance taking on an existential quality and Thomas’ sonorous radio readings acting as shadowy artistic conscience for this calamitous age. Both Vera’s act and Thomas’ poetry then are presented as dichotomous cultural responses to an age of omnipresent darkness. But the truth is, the film is not in the slightest bit interested in this notion, and the drama moves to the false refuge of the Welsh coast to become a glorified bedroom farce played as lacerating character study. What begins as a layered study of the relationship between artistic effort and society becomes just another tale of what happens when you dip in more than one honey jar.

One of the few films that effectively portrayed why artists do such things was Philip Kaufman’s Henry and June (1990). Henry Miller, his wife June, and their mutual girlfriend Anaïs Nin, use each other and enjoy each other in an attempt to gain experience and push their sense of life to the limit. The Edge of Love never approaches such exploration, largely because it’s not sure what it’s exploring, and comes up with just a bunch of arty boozehounds hurting each other. The film makes sure to shame pacifistic, romantic, socially outcast, mercurial Thomas before honourable upright soldier Killick. The last images of Love see Dylan and Caitlin heading, grey-faced and dour, into oblivion, whilst Vera and William settle down to become happy rose growers. Is this really what Maybury and screenwriter Sharman MacDonald wanted to tell us?

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If I’m aggressively misunderstanding this film, it’s because I went into it dreading exactly the type of film I got. “Why do I sleep with other women?” Thomas asks rhetorically at one point. ‘Because I’m a poet!” This got a big laugh out of the audience; of course guys only become poets to get laid as often as possible. Despite Maybury’s efforts, The Edge of Love ends up as another facile bit of patronising, bohemian eavesdropping, ending by whacking all its characters as firmly on the knuckles with a hickory switch as it can get away with considering that, all in all, the drama has added up to nothing.

What one gets out of it is some uneven but generally solid acting. Nobody except Rhys is at home with their accents, but I’ve never found that as important as some critics insist it is. Energy and expressiveness are far more important. Murphy is the least well-used, putting his protean, pansexual physiognomy in such a square part. Knightley plays a woman who is as much a fascinating siren’s image as she is reality to the men in her life. Miller is the rampaging wild woman whose energy goes all outwards rather into her art. Knightley’s never really topped her ironic casting in Pride and Prejudice (2005) as a woman whose intelligence both subverts and increases her attractiveness. Here she’s left playing another sobbing Celia Johnson wannabe. Miller and Rhys both exude a kind of solidity that threatens to eat through the tinnier reductions of their characters. In films like Casanova (2005), Factory Girl (2006), and here, Miller always takes me by surprise as a broadcast from a slightly earthier age of screen femininity, with her broad freckle-spotted cheeks and surprisingly husky voice. She fills the cliché of the fiery Irish boho girl with real zest, whether thumping Thomas’ head against the floor or picking out her stitches in sadomasochistic fury. Rhys is good to watch, too. He had previously evoked a pitch-perfect Lord Byron in TV’s Beau Brummel: This Charming Man, and here presents a Thomas somewhere between the rosy-lipped fawn of Augustus John’s portraits and the bloated disaster area of his Chelsea Hotel end. Thomas once told a story about being fascinated by his grandmother’s grey face so much as a boy that he crawled under a table to lift her skirt and see if all the rest of her was grey, too. There’s not much of that Thomas in The Edge of Love for Rhys to have fun with. l

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