July 07, 2016

‘This is my city: I’ll show you around’: The City as Home in ‘The Secret Life of Pets’


Title The Secret Life of Pets

Year 2016

Dir. Yarrow Cheney, Chris Renaud

Screenwriter Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio, Brian Lynch

Distributor Universal Pictures

Featuring Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart


The Secret Life of Pets is a fun film for kids, premised on the same ideas which provided the basis for Toy Story: it shows the audience what their pets get up to in New York City when left at home alone all day.

Mischief, is the answer, as all animals—and even different breeds—have a variety of characteristics. Poodles are moshers; dachshunds are cunning escape artists; eagles are tricksters.

But how do they form their community? And how important is the city to that community?

Family

When Eric Stonestreet’s Duke intrudes into Max’s (Louis C.K.) life, Max fears being ousted as his owner’s favourite. Duke comes to represent the bigger brother who bullies the smaller, trying to win brownie points with his human mum. This rivalry drives much of the story, and therefore becomes an important measure of the film’s values. Thus, although Max and Duke don't get on at the beginning, Duke shows his true colours as Max’s brother when he saves him midway through the film. The two of them live, as it were, happily ever after.

There are other families, though, each of which has its own space in the city. Max and Duke cohabit in an apartment; Pops (), an elderly dog with wheels in place of his rear legs, hosts parties at his apartment while his owner spends long weekends away. Thereby Pops becomes notional father to all and sundry.

Not to forget the sinister white rabbit, Snowball (Kevin Hart), and his un-owned radical peers: these animals live in the sewers and reject the idea of being pets at all. Yet they, too, are a family of sorts. Even in the hellish space beneath the streets, family and camaraderie flourishes. Snowball calls them his ‘underbelly brothers', and he’s dead right.

Divisive city

But the city in which all the characters live is a divisive one.

In terms of height, those who live high up are wealthier and live more luxurious lives. Those down on the street are the undesirables, living in dumpsters in back alleys—these spend their time avoiding the city’s animal pound grunts who want to trap and imprison them.

And, of course, those underground. The symbolism is clear: those underground are the revolutionaries trying to incite anarchy and a rejection of the colonial structures of ownership and slavery.

Moreover, the city has more natural divisions. The river becomes a border between Manhattan and Brooklyn, two boroughs that are made out to be as alien as East and West Berlin. For example, Duke originally lived in Brooklyn and, when this news is announced, Max is shocked. He doesn't know how to treat this alien invader.

Given these divisions, the city is much less hospitable than it appears.

City for dwelling

And yet, the city is still a home to each of these families.

Philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) called this feature of city-living ‘dwelling’. He begins his ideas by noting the importance of building bridges across rivers. In this, it would suggest that the fact that the two important boroughs here are joined by a bridge is a sign of dwelling, not division.

Moreover, as the film transitions from rooftops to sewers, between dumpsters and bridges, the audience sees a range of diverse cohabitants. Instead of these differences being mere divisions, they signify the city’s hospitality, and its welcoming of a variety of citizens. This New York in The Secret Life of Pets is the modern, cosmopolitan city in which all comers are welcome and, more importantly, can become members of different families.

Final thoughts

As Pops says to the pets looking for Max when he disappears, ‘This is my city: I'll show you around’. More than that, to call it his, and to be able to show them round, proves it as his, and their, mutual home.

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June 20, 2016

'You don't need to pay me': Class and Money in 'Me Before You'



Title Me Before You

Year 2016

Dir. Thea Sharrock

Screenwriter Jojo Moyes

Distributor Warner Bros Pictures

Featuring Emilia Clarke, Sam Claflin


Spoiler warning!

Much has been made recently of the approach to disability in Jojo Moyes' narrative Me Before You. Its main narrative concerns a young man, Will, who becomes paraplegic following a motorcycle accident. A novel before a film, the author adapted it for the screen and kept the chief narrative identical.

Critics question whether disability is properly respected in the story, or whether, instead, it is used as a prop to extol the virtue of those who are more physically abled, and charitable.

However, whilst I do think there are questions to be answered in the representation of disability in the film—where, for example, are the other disabled characters, either of physical or mental disabilities?—I think that the greater issues in the film centre on age-old, English problem of class and wealth.

Joblessness

Unemployment is a recurrent motif in the narrative. Emilia Clarke's Lou Clark loses her job in the second scene; her father, Bernard (Brendan Coyle) has also been made redundant prior to the story. As such, Lou's unemployment causes trouble in the family home: with six people to support, and only two members employed, there's a shortage of money. For this reason, Lou ends up seeking a job—any job!— as soon as possible. Luckily, a job comes up as a carer at the Traynor household, looking after a paraplegic young man: Sam Claflin's Will.

Will is, lest we forget, also unemployed. In fact, the opening scene sees him not only lose the use of his legs, but also his profitable, late-capitalist job as finance asset-stripper.

And yet, when Will loses his job, it doesn't cause a problem in the Traynor family. By contrast, his unemployment brings his family closer, granting them an opportunity to spend more money, not more time worrying about money. Their family draws closer—more comfortably united—because of Will's unemployment.

To the upper classes, unemployment makes no impression; to the labouring classes it almost spells doom.

Labour

Lou's job at the Traynors is not to nurse Will, but instead to entertain him—to be a friend to him. Given Lou is employed by Will's mother, Camilla (Janet McAteer), Will is less than pleased with her appointment. Will doesn't believe that he needs either cheering up or entertaining.

Nevertheless, Lou does break down Will's stern and cool exterior, ending up his friend and source of amicable entertainment. In short, Lou's 'work' is reduced to 'leisure'.

After one key, traumatic scene, Lou returns from work and declares to Camilla that she can keep her money: 'You don't have to pay me,' she pronounces. In doing so, Lou confirms to the audience and to the Traynors that the work she has done for the previous six months was, in fact, cost free. Again, her 'labour' is reduced to 'leisure'.

This is dangerous because it suggests that for the labouring classes, their work is trivial and, at its best, is merely pleasure-making for the upper classes.

Money

The reality of Lou's giving up her money is never realised. Thankfully for the Clarks, her unemployed father finds work shortly after Will appears in their lives. This is no coincidence, since Will organises that Bernard is employed as head of maintenance at the Traynors' castle. How charitable the Traynors are!

However, in the final scene of the film, money and its power is made even more transparent. Will gives Lou a life-changing some of money. In fact he tells her that it's enough to 'set her free'. This beneficence re-affirms the debasement of her work, and also pities her with guilt-money. Rather than sharing friendship or thanking her for her hard work, Will donates her money, as if she were a charity case.

Worst of all, perhaps, is Lou's inability to see beyond the artificiality of capital—beyond the cash that Will has charitably given her—and instead abides by the wishes Will also gives. Thus she ends up in Paris, far away from their mutual, provincial home town where nothing much happens and no one does anything of note. Through the power of money—and remember that Will's powerful, high-ranking job was as a finance asset stripper—everyone feels happy, their guilt assuaged and the poor are set free from the doldrum that characterises their lives.

Final thoughts

At one level it is difficult to establish whether the writing is deliberately ironising the power of money. After all, in spite of Will's money he is still susceptible to human disability: money is no defence against tragedy.

And yet, if it is trying to ironise those who cherish money over love, then why 'free' Lou at the film's end? Why get Bernard a job at the Traynors' castle? These things are unresolvable, meaning, ultimately, that this is a film that cherishes money and its abstract power more than it cherishes the value of labour and work. The perfect job is one where it involves people giving their time for nothing.

Me Before You, it turns out, is all about a something for nothing culture that politicians and others in Britain have long railed against.

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June 13, 2016

'Ventriloquism it doesn't work': Joining Forces in 'The Nice Guys'

'Ventriloquism … it doesn't work': Joining Forces in The Nice Guys


Year 2016

Dir. Shane Black

Screenwriter Shane Black, Anthony Bagarozzi

Distributor Icon Film Distribution

Featuring Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice


To any that have seen the trailer for Shane Black's The Nice Guys, it is plain that at the beginning of the film, Crowe's Jackson Healy and Gosling's Holland March are far from colleagues, let alone friends.

Nevertheless, the film ends—and this is no spoiler, given the film's title—with the two working together as private investigators known as 'The Nice Guys'.

Their joining forces, and the motif of two becoming one, is critical throughout the film.

Parents seeking children

A driving force of the narrative is parents looking for their children. First up is district attorney Judith Kuttner (Kim Basinger) looking for her daughter Amelia (Margaret Qualley). With the film set in 1970s Hollywood, and the (so-called) evil spectre of the pornography industry, the figure of a mother looking for her daughter is a powerful one.

It suggests that at the heart of the film is a maternal impulse, in which only a mother can properly look after her daughter in a world of exploitative sexuality.

Simultaneously, March has a daughter, Holly, who also goes missing during the film. The apprently innocent Holly is actually cannier than her private investigator father, often pursuing leads in the hunt for Amelia in more intelligent and subtle ways than her dad.

When Holly goes missing, Holland's first thought is to track her down—albeit haphazardly—acting out his paternal care for his daughter. This paternity is redoubled by virtue of the fact that his wife—Holly's mother— previously died in a fire: he is a single father. Like Holland, Judith Kuttner looking for Amelia is to all appearances a single parent. By re-joining parents with their children, this singledom is strengthened to the benefit of the family.

Private investigations

The nature of private investigators in the film is that they are tasked to find people. Initially, Holland is asked to find Misty Mountains (Murielle Tello), before he stumbles on to a path leading him to Amelia. Similarly, Jackson is paid to hunt down Holland, which he fulfils with aplomb.

It could be argued that this trend bespeaks a social atmosphere that pervades both 1970s Hollywood and the film more specifically: individuals care so much for others that they're willing to pay to have them found; or, private investigators are so socially-oriented that they're only too willing to take up an occuptation where they find the loved ones of others.

By contrast, we could think of the trend as pernicious and haunting, in which no individual is free—with the emphasis on capitalism—to do what they want without someone coming after them.

Joining forces

Amidst all of this, two desperately different individuals—Holland's clumsy, though investigative mind; Jackson's shoot-first-think-later efficiency—join forces. They, too, represent the idea of two people coming together.

They definitely don't do it for social reasons, dividing their loyalty between the amount of money they need (Holland) and their respect for the job in hand (Jackson). Nevertheless, by joining forces for the majority of the film, and then permanently in the time after the film, they represent the film's ultimate symnbol of strength through unity.

Final thoughts

And yet, in one of their witty conversations, it's Holland who condemns ventriloquism, the art symbolising two individuals enmeshing: 'it doesn't work'. And he's right in a way, since ventriloquism requires a speaking for, not a joiningor speaking together.

The art of speaking foris more specifically practised by Judith, the district attorney, as she decides whether or not to prosecute the automobile industry for lies about emissions. Judith speaks forthe people; and she also speaks forAmelia when she commissions Jackson and Holland to find her. 'I know what my daughter wants and needs,' she seems to say, 'and only I can deliver that for her.'

Speaking foris a difficult concept politically; philosophers wonder how anyone is able to speak for—to replace, to stand in for, to cover for—another.

Holland's condemnation of ventriloquism and its speaking foris ultimately a criticism of Judith, and praise for his and Jackson's hatchet job of an alliance. Instead of speaking for, when Jackson and Holland join forces, they speak together.

The film starts with two voice overs: Holland's and Jackson's respectively (and competitively) narrating their particular jobs and lives. It is right and proper that when they unite permanently at the film's end, their voices are thought to speak as one.

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June 06, 2016

'Viriliter Age': Competing Masculinities in 'Sing Street

'Viriliter Age': Competing Masculinities in Sing Street


Year 2016

Dir. John Carney

Screenwriter John Carney

Distributor Lionsgate

Featuring Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Jack Reynor, Lucy Boynton


Warning: spoilers below!

John Carney's Sing Street has won widespread praise for its charm and simplicity. It's an enjoyable watch, making the most of indy cinema's 'feel-good factor'.

But it goes much further than mere entertainment. Sing Street also has an intelligent and troubling narrative about competing masculinities. 'Masculinity' is a dominant theme in much modern and contemporary Irish literature, such as James Joyce's and Samuel Beckett's. As in their writing, Carney asks in Sing Street who the most powerful man is, and what makes him so powerful.

Synge Street, the name of the school where Walsh-Peelo's Cosmo attends is a Christian Brothers school. Its Latin motto is 'Viriliter Age': 'Act manly'. The motto commends my reading of masculinity in Sing Street.

Authoritative masculinity

Authority is most obviously represented by the Christian Brothers at Synge Street school, most forcefully in Brother Baxter (Don Wycherley). Br. Baxter commands Cosmo to wear black shoes instead of brown, and also physically abuses Cosmo when the latter wears make-up.

By forcing Cosmo's head under a tap and nearly choking him, Baxter's behaviour is not dissimilar to the water-boarding torture techniques practised by corrupt administrations the world over. It becomes even more disgusting by virtue of its infliction on a child.

Br. Baxter's counterpart in the authority stakes is Barry (Ian Kenny), the school bully. Barry, after failling to persuade Cosmo to do his will on the latter's first day at school, decides that Cosmo needs to learn a lesson. Like Br. Baxter, Barry thereafter torments Cosmo wherever he finds him—Barry exercises masculine authority in order to assume a position of power.

It is notable that Barry has an abusive father whose assertion of masculine authority is mimicked by Barry himself. Under the cosh, Barry echoes his father's attempts at authoritative masculinity.

Sexual masculinity

Cosmo loves Raphina (Lucy Boynton), but she has an older boyfriend who owns a car. A car, a mainstay of representations of sexual prostheses, indicates that Raphina's boyfriend symbolises heightened sexual masculinity. Cosmo, by contrast, takes Raphina home on the back of his push bike.

The danger of a sexual masculinity is plain to see in Raphina's character. She lives in a social home for girls. Her mother is dead and her dad in prison. Subtly she explains how her father sexually abused her when she was younger, with him claiming that he 'loved her too much', which she didn't understand because her mother was more beautiful than she was—this was what she thought when he 'had finished' with her at the end of the night.

Finally, Cosmo's father, Robert (Aidan Gillen), is cuckolded when Cosmo's mother, Penny (Maria Doyle Kennedy), leaves him to live with her boss-cum-lover. This represents another ego blow, with Cosmo and Robert suffering the same sexual challenge: how to overcome more virile and sexually attractive men.

Unlike his father, Cosmo meets this challenge; he does so through his art.

Artistic masculinity

In all of this, Cosmo's band 'Sing Street' offers a way to overturn these problematic masculinities. Instead of defeating the authoritarians and the sexual alpha males, 'Sing Street' subverts traditional masculinities.

First, Cosmo wears make-up. This threatens Br. Baxter most obviously, and also challenges Barry's conception of what 'real men' look like.

Cosmo also prefers art over other academic subjects. In doing so he garners favour from the only visible woman teacher in the school. In one small way, this shows how art, as opposed to the 'hard' sciences, earns the respect of women and of women in authority.

Finally, Cosmo's lyrics challenge the authoritarians who sought to stop his artistic endeavours. As such, the song Brown shoes sticks two fingers up to Br. Baxter's fascistic rule-of-law:

Who the hell are you to tell me what to do?

You wear a dress and tell me not to wear brown shoes.

You think you're man enough.

Singing onstage, with his classmates dancing madly around in the school hall celebrating Br. Baxter's emasculation, Cosmo is able to show Br. Baxter who curries favour—who holds the masculine power after all.

Final thoughts

I titled this post 'Competing masculinities', though in truth the competition ends in a strange way, albeit still a celebration of alternative masculinity.

Rather than the artistic masculinity defeating its other variants, the artists subsume the sexual and authoritarian masculinities into their own. In this vein, the bully Barry becomes the band's 'roadie'—their in-house security. He passes them their guitars and keeps the drunk schoolboys off the stage.

Similarly, Cosmo wins Raphina's heart not by bullying or beating her into submission—nor indeed does he beat her boyfriend. Instead, he wins her over by writing her the sad-happy song she longed for. Their elopement to England is neither based on Cosmo knowing anyone in London, nor knowing anything about London (unlike what her previous boyfriend offered her). Rather, it rests on the freedom made possible by art and creation—returning to the oldest of definitions of poetry, the ancient Greek poiesis which means a 'becoming' or 'artistic creation'.

Sing Street thus celebrates art and artistry. Whilst it has a traditional boy-meets-girl narrative, it offers a far more important evaluation on the importance of art, and the possibilities of defeating traditional masculinities. 'Viriliter age', 'acting manly', it turns out, happens by subverting problems commonly associated with masculinity.

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  • An article on how Joyce, similarly, sought to overturn masculine domination in his novel Ulysses (1922).
  • The publisher's page describing Jennifer Jeffers' academic book on Beckett's Masculinity.
  • The Wikipedia page explaining the ancient Greek concept of poiesis: poetic becoming and poetic creation.
  • An archived BBC page on the history of the Christian Brothers in Ireland.
  • A Guardian article about the problem of 'lad culture' in British universities—Britain's current, pernicious version of masculinity.

May 30, 2016

'Cats shouldn't be in fridges': Intrusion in 'Everybody Wants Some!!'

'Cats shouldn't be in fridges': Intrusion in Everybody Wants Some!!


Year 2016

Dir. Richard Linklater

Screenwriter Bryan Snipe

Distributor Entertainment One

Featuring Blake Jenner, Tyler Hoechlin, Ryan Guzman


Richard Linklater's Everybody Wants Some!! divides opinion: some of my best friends say that it's the best film they've seen this year, while some critics have lambasted its explicit sexism as unforgivable.

The film, set in 1980, tells of the three days leading up to the beginning of college for Jake (played by Jenner), when he meets his baseball-playing housemates and comes across the other, female freshmen moving into their halls of residence.

Following a hint from the film's title—the idea of sharing and caring, perhaps a little too much and too bodily—I examine how private spaces and their intrusion is managed in Linklater's film

Sexual intrusion

The film's title—taken from a Van Halen song, complete with the double exclamations—lends itself to thinking about sexual desire. This comes true in the opening fifteen minutes. Jake takes a shining to Zoey Deutch's Beverly, going out of his way to note down her room number.

Jake later leaves a letter and flowers at Beverly's door—at this point Jake is yet to learn Beverly's name. Though Jake doesn't go into Beverly's room without invitation, the uninvited flower/letter combination could be seen as an approach just a bit too strong. Beverly, far from being concerned by Jake's suspicious, insider knowledge of where she lives, responds kindly to Jake's approach. Jake is, admittedly, kind and less threateningly masculine than some of his baseball-playing peers, but he is accepted because of his quasi-stalkerish behaviour—his intrusion on Beverly's private space—and not in spite of it.

Intrusive dancing

A major feature of the film includes the nights that the male students spend dancing, on the hunt for women who 'want some'. The first night they go disco dancing, and on the second they move from the disco hall to the country music bar. They also spend time at a metal rock party for a couple of hours.

In the disco bar, the young men are initially successful, with all of the players on the baseball team finding a woman to take home. The social lubricant that is the dancing is very much the catalyst in these relationships. In fact, it isn't a stretch to say that music is one of the main characters in the film.

On the second night, following a fight, the men are thrown out of the disco bar, heading to the country bar in order to 'save' their evening by finding other women. If sex equates to success, then their evening was successul.

By their very nature, the students' roaming between music venues confirm their chameleon-like nature—the students' ability to fit in wherever they go, 'succeeding' in finding women to take to bed, whether in the disco, metal rock or country bars. It could be said that success for the students correlates with their ability to intrude in a range of social spaces.

Personal space

Paradoxically, the houses where all the baseball players live are off-limits to alcohol. Even female friends are not allowed upstairs—these are the coach's orders, trying to maintain a semblance of professionalism around the sports' scholars. The baseball players' personal space, by the rules set down, cannot be intruded. Except, that is, when they invite the intrusion themselves.

And so it is that the men bring women home to stay with them, for a few minutes or even overnight. The men succeed by suspending the rules made for them, by inviting women to intrude on their space.

One of the players, Billy (Will Brittain), initially upholds the rules and is condemned as a backwards country bumpkin by his teammates. By refusing to engage in the sexual rat race on campus, and by rejecting Jake's request to bring a woman upstairs into their shared room, Billy is excluded from the main group. Not committing to the logic of intrusion in the film sets Billy as an unwelcome outsider.

At one of the parties, however, the film also allows one of its male characters to comment on the nature of intrusion. As such, when someone opens the fridge at one of the house parties that the students attend, an annoyed cat jumps out. 'Cats shouldn't be in fridges,' says one of the baseball players. By reducing it to comedy—and emptying the shocking moment of any negative feeling—Linklater reduces the motif of intrusion to something worth laughing about.

Final thoughts

As a title, Everybody Wants Some!! is at once description and command. It provides the premise of the film, and asks its audience to buy into the logic of fulfilling sexual desire at whatever price. To purchase the ability to intrude, the film's cost is boundaried and limited space.

In this privileged, heteronormative movie space, inevitably the boundary that is intruded upon is personal and sexual, the men dominating control—both over the rules that govern their private space, and the access that they have to women's privacy.

Intrusion has a flipside, of course: hospitality. Is this instead a film about the successes of hospitality in a college environment? The first flushes of adulthood could be said to celebrate sharing and the power of hosts willingly submitting to guests. Alternatively, Emma Sulkowicz and her 'Carry That Weight' artistic performance might have something to say to condemn the flippant representation of male control over female personal space. Perhaps we should listen to Sulkowicz.

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May 23, 2016

'Our Kind of Traitor': Untouchable Bodies


Our Kind of Traitor: Untouchable Bodies

Warning: spoilers below!


Year 2016
Dir. Susanna White
Screenplay Hossein Amini
Distributor Lionsgate
Featuring Ewan McGregor, Damian Lewis, Stellan Skarsgård, Naomie Harris


Our Kind of Traitor follows other successful adaptations of John le Carré's novels: Thomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) and the BBC's The Night Manager (2016). It tells the story of Perry Makepeace (McGregor) as he becomes a quasi-MI6 agent, helping a Russian dissident, Dima (Skarsgård) expose the Russian mafia. Here I examine the strange motif of bodies in the film.

Untouched bodies

Two parallel storylines start the film: mafia boss Prince (Grigoriy Dobrygin) reluctantly shakes the tattooed hand of Misha (Radivoje Bukvic), a mafia financier whom Prince is soon to have killed; Perry and his wife Gail Perkins (Harris) fail to consummate their reunited relationship while on holiday in Morocco.

By separating these two sets of bodies, the mood of unease is clearly delineated. For Perry and Gail, other signals linger of their separation, such as the parallel escalators they ride upon arriving at the airport on their return to London. The clear metaphor of separated though parallel lives is visually impressed on the audience. The hint is that their narrative will resolve by reuniting these disparate bodies.

As for Misha, whose early death provides the primary impetus for the plot, the Prince's behaviour compels another tattooed Russian to seek revenge: Dima.

Marked bodies

The idea of 'marked men' in this film is no cliché. A host of (specifically) men wear tattoos that commemorate their membership of mafia, gangs and groups of murderers. Dima is emphatically one of the latter. He reveals his 'murderer' tattoo to Perry when compelling him to help Dima defect to the British. Dima's marked body helps to persuade Perry to aid Dima. The marked body on display drives the plot.

During one key event when Dima meets with the MI6 agent in charge, Damian Lewis' Hector, the assignation takes place in a massage room at a private members sports club in Paris. Whilst many men parade naked in the changing room, Dima's nude and inked body is stark against the others' implied purity of male whiteness. By meeting in the massage room, MI6 tacitly consent to this body politics, meeting Dima on his, and not their, terms.

Perry is unsure in this environment, notably feeling uncomfortable when he is watched by Russian mafia bosses while he plays tennis with Dima. This tennis match, much as in Shakespeare's Henry V (1599), represents a political contest in micro. Watched by Emilio (Velibor Topic), mafia enforcer, Perry and his bodily fitness visibly suffer.

Bodies coming together

As predicted, Perry's and Gail's bodies do eventually reunite, thereby absolving Perry of his past infidelities. Their consummation takes place just as Dima and his family are on the brink of escape from Russia to Britain.

Dima's teenage daughter Katia (Katia Elizarova) has also consummated her love with her mafia-conspirator boyfriend Andrei (Marek Oravec). Katia's pregnant body is not visible in the film, but is the cause of a key turning point in the plot. Calling Andrei from their safe house, Katia inadvertently attracts the mafia to come and attempt to assassinate Dima and his family—including Katia.

Not long after the mafia fails to kill Dima at the safe house, they succeed in killing him in a helicopter. Taking off nearby to the safe house, the helicopter is ferrying Dima finally to England. Katia's and Andrei's coming together heralds the end of Dima; this is bodily treachery par excellence.

Final thoughts

A motif of T.S. Eliot's poem 1922 'The Waste Land' runs through the film. Perry is an English professor and is seen lecturing about the poem. He quotes the line about people crossing the River Thames:

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.

This passage addresses the metaphorically 'dead' bodies of people who work in the City of London. The 'Waste Land' motif concludes when we see Perry walking over London Bridge, notably against the tide of the other commuters: he is the only one walking in that direction.

What this shows is that, in spite of his reconciliation with wife Gail, his body is still different, separated, unique. The film concludes that, with bodies as its main marker, once separated, people's bodies are very difficult to reunite. The cost to Perry of saving Dima's family, if not Dima himself, has been his relationship with his wife.

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May 16, 2016

'Demolition': Vocalising Grief

Demolition: Vocalising Grief

Jean-Marc Vallée's 2016 Demolition, starring Jake Gyllenhaal (as Davis C. Mitchell) and Naomi Watts (Karen Malone), concerns Mitchell's grief for his wife who has died in a car crash which he escaped unscathed. Partly because of this seeming invincibility, Mitchell appears desensitised to his wife's death, and so the film is a space in which he questions the relationship he had with her. Mitchell literally demolishes objects in a bid to see how they work; thereafter, the plan is to put them back together. Mitchell becomes friendly with Malone, but only as a sort of medicine that helps him to work out the true feelings he had for his late wife.

Moving through moods of confusion, exhilaration at the feeling of pain, teary sadness and finally to happiness, Mitchell processes grief in an unconventional way.

Problems with metaphor

The major device that reins the various strands of narrative together—Mitchell at work, Mitchell with his family-in-law, Mitchell with Malone and her son—comprises the complaint letters that Mitchell writes to a vending machine company. After the sweets he buys get stuck in the machine, ailing to deliver his sweets in the aftermath of his wife's death, Mitchell devotes energy to these letters which are ultimately read by Malone at the vending machine company. In one of them, Mitchell writes that 'everything is a metaphor'. 'Demolition' is the predominant metaphor in the film.

This line in particular has brought film critic Mark Kermode to complain that by vocalising this idea, the film then undercuts the narrative strategy of deconstructing Mitchell's life in order to put it back together. The metaphor, for Kermode, is weakened by its naming.

If this is true, there yet remains a way of seeing the work of the metaphor in Demolition as valuable. Rather than the metaphor of deconstruction of life, it is instead the metaphor of failed vocalisation: what goes unnamed in the film.

Beyond language

Through nearly the whole film, the quest for love goes unnamed. Two chief questions arise from this unnaming: does Mitchell love his wife and/or Malone? And, more complicatedly, is Malone's son Chris (Judah Lewis) homosexual?

Pondering this question, as a young teenager Chris is confronted with a choice: act like himself and risk social ostracisation, or conform to the norm and risk losing his identity. A frank conversation with Mitchell convinces Chris that he should risk social ostracisation, but be himself. As Chris goes to a party and dances in the street, thereby 'speaking' his homosexuality through his body, he is badly beaten up. Speaking out, vocalising his sexuality, leads to censure.

That scene is cut against Mitchell's own beating at the hands of Malone's lover, Carl (C. J. Lewis). Carl sees Mitchell enter Malone's house and, reading this as an act of infidelity—as an explicit act of love—he beats him up.

Both Chris' and Mitchell's relationships that confound language suffer condemnation. Here implicit meaning conquers the explicit, with the power of the unsaid deemed as threatening as that of the said.

Grief

Demolition is, ultimately, a work of grief. In this respect, Chris' 'coming out' is also an act of grief, certainly in Freudian terms. He grieves the loss of his love for women, welcoming instead his love for other men.

As with Chris, the cost of grief for all characters is the focus on something new. Phil, Mitchell's father-in-law, inaugurates a college scholarship in his daughter's name; Malone breaks up with Carl and has to accept her son's newfound independence. For Mitchell, this is the element of grief he can't solve, despite trying severally:

Malone and Chris represent a new 'family'; Chris introduces Mitchell to new music; Mitchell tries a new career as a demolition builder; he also pulls the emergency brake on a commuter train, just to see if it works. These novelties, however, fail to resolve Mitchell's grief.

Mitchell finally finds respite in a fitting memorial to his late wife. Rather than something new, in dedication to his late wife Mitchell restores a defunct carousel. This restoration is not just an acknowledgement that grief isn't always resolved by novelty in this film, but also that grief can find its resolution in memory—it is a memory of Mitchell with his late wife on a carousel that compels him to restore this defunct carousel.

In this respect, the metaphor of destruction and recreation is a red herring, leading down an avenue of false interpretation.

Final thoughts

It is to the director's credit that Mitchell is never fully likeable in Demolition. It means that we take all his actions with a pinch of salt, precisely because of what Kermode complained about: the screenplay's flag-waving. 'This is what I'm doing!' says the script to the audience.

And whilst I don't want to suggest that Demolition is a great film, I think that the ideas of the unsaid and unsayable need as great attention as those of the said—that how it confounds its own ideal of vocalisation is an effective strategy to examine a range of grieving strategies.


May 09, 2016

'Eye in the Sky': The Virtue of Distance

Eye in the Sky: The Virtue of Distance

Eye in the Sky (2016, dir. Gavin Hood), offers a tense narrative in a mood of confusion. This mood is evoked by the moral quandaries compelled by the weapon emblematic of twenty-first-century evil banality: drones.

In the film a joint UK-US taskforce has tracked some highly-wanted terrorists to Kenya. The initial mission was to apprehend the terrorists; however, when the terrorists relocate to an Al-Shabbaab held area near Nairobi, Lieutenant-General Frank Benson (played by Rickman) and Colonel Katherine Powell (Mirren) ask the government to kill, rather than apprehend, the terrorists.

Mirrors

Mirrors provide a central motif in the film. For example, these two British military generalissimi, are tied together by several ideas: their isolation in their respective rooms of command (Benson in Whitehall and Mirren in a military HQ in Northwood, London); their radical pursual of military intervention, by whatever means; and their (unusually) short blonde hair, with all its Aryan implication.

Blond Rickman Blond Mirren
Rickman and Mirren crowned by their short, blonde hair. This is a particularly stark change from Rickman's Professor Snape from the Harry Potter franchise.


Other mirrors include the British and American foreign secretaries on their respective trade missions, the British and American command centres in Northwood and the Nevada desert and also the relative inexperience of two personnel in the cabinet offices in Whitehall and the drone controllers in Nevada. However much theatrical strength these mirrors offer to the drama, they also offer the viewer sights of fissures and fractures between members in these rooms.

Conscience in the room

In Northwood, Colonel Powell is assailed by questions from her subordinate, Sgt Saddiq (Babou Ceesary), while General Benson finds his bloodlust checked by junior minister Angela Northman (Monica Dolan). Through these two consciences, the director persistently offers an opposite view to each of the individual impulses from those in command—notably from those in power.

Sgt Saddiq and Northman frequently express reticence: should Col. Powell be able to attack in spite of the likely collateral damage? Is it legitimate and legal to change the mission from ‘arrest’ to ‘assassinate’? These questions offer the pacific audience-member a voice in the drama as much as their opposite.

However, the fact that the plot needs more than one conscience is symptomatic to its most prominent motif: distance and dissociation.

Distance and dissociation

There are in total seven distinct locations. Far from fracturing the narrative, these diverse locations and their multiple characters redouble the film's tension, particularly at critical decision-making moments.

The same conversations are replayed in these different arenas, with the characters' differing responses to the problem revealing the characters’ personalities: Col. Powell makes Sgt Saddiq stoically bend his conjectured statistics to her will; Northman and Aaron Paul's US Airman Steve Watts both respond in tears.

The importance of the distance and thereby the level of moral dissociation that these characters cultivate is of central importance to the film. Hooper's direction, in this regard, asks us to question whether it is unfair to judge those making these decisions, given that there are geo-temporal distances that cannot be overcome in the moment of the decision.

Further, the moral position of the film remains unresolved narratively, leaving to the audience—at another remove of time and space, outside the film and without the ability to affect its outcome—the problem of weighing up the pros and cons of attacking, with the considerable likelihood of collateral damage.

Final thoughts

What this film does, finally, is to impel the audience, in spite of their geo-temporal distance from the narrative, to decide, along with the characters, what we would do in the situation. At a distance, and in a different time-frame to the events onscreen, the audience is as culpable as Col. Powell and Lt.-Gen Benson if they prioritise bloodlust, and as passive and weak as Northman if they disagree. If, as with the foreign secretaries, they wash our hands of the decision—'We have protocols for these things for a reason ... Follow the rule book.'—then there is condemnation for the decision not to take the decision.

As a theatrically astute and balanced work of art, Eye in the Sky works through the moral quandary of the drone with intelligence and patience.


December 07, 2015

Colm Tóibín's 'Brooklyn': Book, Film


Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn: Book, Film

Book vs Film?

I toyed with the idea of using this post to play off Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn (2009) against the film released last year (dir. John Crowley): which is better and why? where does the film change the story?

But then I wondered if it's like comparing the proverbial apples and oranges, since books and films are entirely different beasts. Even if they're telling the same stories, so do apples and oranges approximate spheres. But their texture, the way you chew them, their indigestibles (skin, pips, pith) once you've finished with them are all different.

Apple and orange


The salient question, instead, is: which better serves its medium? What's needed in these comparisons is a sort of metacriticism, judging the two productions' relative successes and failures. So instead, I offer here a brief reading of both book and film, with some concluding thoughts that show which I consider better suited to its medium and why.

Book

Tóibín's novel was very successful when published. It won the Costa Novel Award in 2009, winning fans all over the reviewersphere (I just made this word up; should I keep it?). Christopher Tayler pointed out that 'This simple-sounding story takes on depth and resonance in a number of ways, starting with what it leaves out'; while Liam McIlvanney in the London Review of Books commented that 'Much of the pleasure of Brooklyn comes from the freshness and penetration of Eilis Lacey’s vision', even if McIlvanney also found problems with Tóibín's prose.

[Warning! Plot spoilers coming up!] In any case, there are two chief ideas here that I enjoyed about the story. Tayler's point, that there's a simplicity to the story, is complemented by the hidden depths of that story. I could detail the story like this: girl moves away; girl meets boy and they fall in love; girl goes home temporarily and falls in love again with someone else; girl makes critical decision about whom she loves more.

But to write so simply about the story is to do it a disservice. Much else goes on beneath the surface. For example (and I could have chosen many others), the importance of the dancehall both in Enniscorthy, co. Wexford, and Brooklyn, New York, is historically accurate, and reveals the changing nature of men-women ('heteronormative') relations in 1950s society.1

There emerged church-endorsed spaces for women to meet men, and Irish culture was the glue that underpinned them (each of the dances in the novel has an Irish set-dance included at some point). In this sense, then, the novel draws on an innovative time, not only in terms of mobility to-from Europe and North America (there is no concern, for example, that the ship might not make it across the Atlantic), but also in terms of organising structures that underpin heteronormativity among the youth, both at home and in emigrant communities.

But central character Eilis (pronounced 'eye-lish') defies her surface simplicity by being a semi-independent woman in the Republic of Ireland. This adds to McIlvanney's idea that Eilis's vision is penetrating and illuminating. The novel opens with the news that Eilis is amending her ledger in which she had been practising her bookkeeping skills. This resolve and independence is not only laudable because Eilis is young and has not received the education available to the youth of today, but also because she is setting out on a path that directly contradicts Article 41 of the Constitution of the Republic of Ireland:

2: 1° In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.

2° The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.

A woman's role in Ireland – still constitutionally the case – is firmly located in the home, and her financial status is negligible. By contrast, Eilis is not only an independent woman, but one whose independence manifests itself in the ability to earn her own money. It's a kind of 'two fingers up' to certain people's idea of what the Republic ought to look like.

This carries through to Brooklyn, when Tony (Eilis's love interest) and his brothers, all of whom are professional tradesmen, invite Eilis to join them in setting up a company of builders. Eilis will be the accountant, a professional and, before both, a woman.

Film

Having listened to the @wittertainment review recently, and an interview with Saoirse Ronan from the week before, I expected great things. I was not disappointed.

The film manages to reel out, at a slow pace, the very basic storyline without complications. It is a plot that provides few unresolvable issues; it is not a 'problem-solving' narrative.

Nick Hornby's screenplay deals deftly with the original material, including rejigging some of the organisation of Eilis's emigration to New York, placing it all prior to the film's beginning. We start, therefore, like the novel in medias res, but a different, more urgent res: Eilis telling her bitchy employer that she is leaving for America.

The success of the remainder of the story is its calmness: we are rarely given insight into Eilis's emotions and their rise and fall. That's not to say that we don't see Eilis's emotions, but there is a distance between vision and understanding. We know she suffers from homesickness that makes her cry and despair; but equally we see that this experience is modal and temporary. It is lived through, and then passed into the past. This does not invite an indictment on shallow characterisation, or even a lack of audience empathy; conversely, it more accurately represents the evanescence of a city like New York, and the pace at which emotions are lived.

The final scenes in the film do not exist in the novel. Eilis makes a decision to go back to New York in both book and film, but only in the latter do we see her actual return and reunification with her lover. Do films need greater resolution than written fiction, I wondered? Can films not handle ambiguity? That's definitely a question that needs a fuller response, but I'll say this for now: the experience of finishing the book, with its open-ended hope, was gratifying; the experience of watching Tony run into Eilis's arms at the end of the film was equally satisfying. Perhaps this speaks to the differing powers of written and visual media.

Book, Film

Some final thoughts. This book was adapted brilliantly, and it is a very good book to begin with. However, my preference is for the book (is that so surprising?), partly because the screenplay removes some of the greater nuance of the novel. For example, Eilis's independent ideas about becoming an accountant when in Enniscorthy are left out of the film, and only reinstated by Father Flood, the Catholic priest. This removes some of Eilis's autonomy, returning it to the Catholic church who had approved the derogatory constitutional restrictions quoted above. The screenplay also removes entirely some contemporary race issues that the book deals with in passing. I think that this reduces the depth and subtlty of the film.

I'm not using these issues to say absolutely that the book is better than the film, but that the novel creates a greater depth of character to Eilis, and more nuanced details to 1950s America than the film. Perhaps the film couldn't sustain all these added elements – film paints with different materials to written art – and so it pared back the story and Eilis's character even further than the straightforward plot with which it started.


  1. See Barbara O'Connor’s The Irish Dancing (Cork: Cork University Press, 2013) for more on this.


November 10, 2015

#1: Doubling up in John Banville's 'Ancient Light'


#1: Doubling Up in John Banville's Ancient Light

What?

In this post, I want to try something different. I might even keep it up for the rest of my posts. I want to show the process of literary critical production, of writing and publishing articles.

I write 'process' as if there is a way of writing articles that is automatic: input ideas, roll through the factory, output a peer-reviewed article. Unfortunately that's not true. But, I will show my process, my stages of development as I move from 'initial idea', to 'developed idea', to 'writing' and finally – I hope – to publication.

In order to keep track of all of my ideas as they change and progress through the stages, I'm going to tag them sequentially. This idea about Banville's novel (described below) is #1. I'll keep a webpage open to detail the original 'idea' of each project, regardless of how they develop. Some will only have one post detailing the 'initial idea', if that 'initial idea' doesn't develop into the next stage.

With all of that in mind – and I hope it makes sense! – it's about time to get on with the idea.

Banville's Ancient Light

Ancient Light1 (2012) is a novel by Irish author John Banville. As with many of Banville's novels, it is narrated by an intense first-person male character – here the actor Alexander Cleave – and the writing is lyrical, poetic and sumptuous. You can chew the prose delicately as you read.

John Banville

In his Guardian review, Tim Adams praised Banville's writing: 'Cleverness is on display, and nothing might be quite what it seems, but Banville's duty of care, to the emotional lives of his characters, to the worlds in which they live, is not neglected for a moment.' Ben Jeffery in the TLS wrote indifferently about the novel, but did at least offer the idea that 'There are moments in Ancient Light when Alexander’s grief is made heartbreakingly real'. Finally, in the Telegraph review, Keith Miller writes that there is 'both sensibility and extravagance aplenty' in the novel. These comments could equally apply to any of Banville's novels.

The narrative of Ancient Light is structured in two: in the past, Alexander remembers an affair he conducts with his best friend's mother; in the present, Alexander is offered a role on a film production playing Axel Vander. The narratives interweave and both are concluded in the final pages.

As with other Banville novels, also, the stories presented here are described in other of his novels, albeit from different perspectives. Important background and parallel texts – 'paratexts' – here are Eclipse (2000) and Shroud (2002), in which Alexander Cleave and Cassandra Cleave (his daughter), respectively, are the heroes. In Shroud, Axel Vander is also a key figure. Banville's signature could be summarised as internecine connectivity, and in Ancient Light, it's obvious to any reader initiated in his work.

But my 'initial idea' here centres on one central feature: alliterative names.

Alliterative names?

Yep, alliterative names. In this book alone, there are the following alliterative names – including characters absent from the book:

  • Cassandra Cleave (daughter)
  • Dawn Devonport (actor and co-star; stage name)
  • Marcy Meriweather (agent)
  • Pauline Powers (character played by Dawn)
  • Stella Stebbings (Dawn's 'proper' name)
  • Toby Taggart (director)
  • Ambrose Abbott (school acquaintance of Alexander)

Three things unite this group: (1) They only exist in the 'present' of the novel; (2) Most of them are to do with the acting business; and (3) Nearly all of the time, these names are mentioned in full, both forename and surname.

These alliterations intrigue me because of the number of them: they're not one-offs, and the fact that both names are mentioned on most occasions suggests that they count for something more than just naming someone.

My initial feeling is that it all has something to do with masking reality. (Did I mention that John Banville uses an alias for his crime novels: Benjamin Black?) This seems like a simple idea – that an author of fiction novels is interested in masking reality – but I'm wondering why in the novel certain characters are given an extra layer of masking. Dawn Devonport is key here, as her primary name, Stella Stebbings, also hints to a mask. Dawn says to Alexander in the novel [warning! plot spoiler!]:


'My name,' she snapped. 'You could start by learning that. Stella Stebbings. […] You see?' she said with weary disgust. 'I don't know why I bothered trying to do away with myself in the first place. I'm hardly here at all, not even a proper name.'

And now, I've started to develop a fresh thought. The question of 'proper'-ness at the end of this passage takes us easily into ideas about 'property' and, therefore, ownership. To possess one's name is, according to Dawn Devonport (see: even I'm doing it now), to be. Without her name, she might as well not be there.

So, perhaps, the mask of the alliterative name isn't a mask at all, but is the substance of the character themselves. Perhaps, that is, the forename and surname are always mentioned together because those characters lack personality; the doubled names make up for that lack.

At the moment it's just an idea: alliterative names; masking; doubles. And it's not wholly new, since plenty of critics have remarked on the near anagram of 'Alexander Cleave' with 'Axel Vander', and even I've written something in my thesis about the doubled self in Banville's writings.

Nevertheless for the time being it's a beginning of something that might develop into a more fully-fledged idea about these themes in Ancient Light, or in Banville's writing more broadly.

So, if you want to see if this 'initial idea' becomes a 'developed idea' keep track of #1 on my Blog; and if it doesn't, then there surely will be further 'initial ideas' along the way.


  1. John Banville, Ancient Light (Viking: London, 2012).


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