Kino Keeno

"Film is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates…"

Category: Reviews

Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami 1940-2016)

by Ben Diamond

kiarostami

Close-Up (Kiarostami 1990, 98m)

It’s always sad when a musician or director dies, but art has an interesting relationship with the thanatotic, because, if anything, a great artist becomes immortalised through death.  The sadness, I feel, comes in part from the fact that their current filmography or discography ossifies – there is no longer the potential for one last great film, one last great album.  But, in a strange way, everything about an artist that is superfluous to the consumer, the things that they shared with all other, less brilliant humans – their daily routines and doctor’s appointments and trips to the supermarket – fade away, leaving the most important part behind: the work.  The body might fail but the spirit intensifies.

And so it is often the case that I take the opportunity to become acquainted with a filmmaker after they die, when the inevitable retrospectives roll into town.  Having seen none of Kiarostami’s films, I was pleased to see that the ICA (and I should really do a post some time about how the two most important cinemas to sign up to as a member in London are the ICA and the BFI) were doing a few screenings of Close-Up.

As an aside, I have found it more difficult to keep up seeing and writing about films since starting work full-time.  I find I have to have an espresso (least liquid = least likely to need to go to the toilet) before a film if I go after work now, otherwise I’ll focus all my attention on not falling asleep rather than the film itself.  Also, I don’t know why, considering it’s not much fun going to the cinema in hot weather, but these last few weeks I’ve had a solid run (The Neon Demon, Notes on Blindness, Queen of Earth).

Close-Up (‘based on a true story’) is about a man who gets arrested for impersonating a film director, or rather for taking a family along for a ride in thinking that he is a famous film director.  The film flits between the court case and his interactions with the family who believed he was who he said he was.

It’s a difficult film to unpack.  My main observation would be that the whole court case, where the judge seeks to determine his reasons for pretending to be a famous artist, shows:

  1. Impersonation can have its own authenticity
  2. Impersonation can be an artistic act
  3. If you try and channel the brilliance of another, that can have transcendental results
  4. It is very hard to explain or justify something you have done, outside of the act – the act speaks for itself

That will probably only make sense for those who have seen the film, and if you haven’t – check it out, it’s very cool.

I found the endless justifications as to why this man pretended to be a director fascinating.

I could also see links and connections with all sorts of other films and directors.  The car scenes – the way the camera was mounted on the bonnet and the way the conversations unfolded – reminded me of Kiarostami’s contemporary, and fellow countryman, Jafar Panahi.  The combination of driving and trial scenes must surely have influenced Nuri Bilge Ceylan, especially in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.  And the authenticity/inauthenticity theme also reminded me of the whole subplot involving a child passing a Pink Floyd cover off as his own in The Squid and the Whale.

When the impostor meets the person he’s been pretending to be at the end, the malfunctioning lapel mic doesn’t allow us to properly hear what passes between the two.  A postmodern trick to end a very postmodern film.

Son of Saul

by Ben Diamond

son of saul

A reconstructed, blood-curdling scream – Son of Saul (Nemes 2015, 107m)

I’m not sure what there is to say after witnessing a day and a half in the life of Sonderkommando Saul Ausländer, prisoner of Auschwitz in 1944.  The choice to simply show, through the eyes of one man, what was happening, in real time, in Auschwitz, is a bold one.  ‘Hollywood Holocaust’ narratives – The Pianist, Schindler’s List, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas – look like they are portraying a whole different Holocaust compared to this.  Son of Saul is beholden to no-one and, as such, chooses to show, all around Saul, the sickening details that other films have turned their heads or shied away from.  Such is the freedom that has been granted to a director on his debut who, by all accounts, struggled to secure the funding needed for such a daring piece. The mounds of ashes being shovelled into the water, the bodies being dragged along the floors, the banging on the walls of the gas chambers.  All these and more are constants in the film, sickening realistic details that never simply fade into the background, no matter how repetitive. They never lose their power to shock.

Things are more complicated than a simple this-is-how-things-were account for two reasons.  Saul lives longer than most because he is a member of the Sonderkommando, the unit made up of Jewish inmates who assisted the Nazis in disposing of bodies after they had been gassed, before eventually being disposed of themselves.  So part of the complication of this film is that Saul is, in some way, a collaborator with the Nazis and a traitor of his own people.  But, for me, the more interesting, second complication, concerns the chain of events set in motion at the start of the film, where Saul spots his own son – still breathing – among the dead after the gas chamber doors have been re-opened for the Sonderkommando to remove all evidence of evil before the next group of Jews arrive.  The horrors of Auschwitz become secondary to his quest to give his son a proper burial, the camp being a nightmarish maze he must zigzag through in order to avoid his own demise, find a rabbi to say mourner’s kaddish with him, and lay his son to rest in the proper way.  Another prisoner accuses him at one point of prioritising the dead over the living, his desire for proper Jewish ceremony putting the prisoners’ plans for an uprising in jeopardy.

The film has interesting things to say about perspective, too.  There is a discord between the viewer’s experience and Saul’s experience.  The camera is almost always trained on Saul – he is usually either walking towards or away from the camera. Things happening in the background are simply that – things happening in the background.  Saul’s determination to give his son a proper Jewish burial is carried out with determination, and he is always purposefully doing something, never stumbling about aimlessly.  For the viewer, however, the experience is overwhelming, chaotic and confusing, even though Saul never has a moment where his resolve wavers.  We can’t know what he’s thinking, planning to do next, or even seeing.  This seems like a serious challenge to the idea that we can properly document or understand such dark periods of history.  We can only watch and try to interpret.  It is a rare beast where you have a strong understanding of a character’s motivation and at the same time a sense of utter bewilderment at what is going on.  There are definite parallels between the techniques used in Aleksei German’s fictitious Hard To Be a God – a similar case of a camera always in flight with terrible scenes constantly unfolding all around – and Son of Saul.

For the perpetrators, the logical extension of the telos of the Holocaust is the denial of the Holocaust after it has happened.  We witness this today.  This film is all about documenting, witnessing, remembering, in the face of forgetting.  This is the power of film – to show the impossible. Because no such videos exist of the actual atrocities.  Part of Son of Saul shows the struggle to document the horrors of Auschwitz as one inmate tries to covertly take pictures of the extermination taking place, and another hides his writings.  The Nazis also tried to exterminate the Sonderkommando.  So this film serves the dual function of documenting of how memories were erased, as well as trying to reconstruct some of that memory.  Auschwitz, of course, became the focal point of post-Holocaust memory because it was both a work camp and an extermination camp, leading to many survivors’ testimonies.

The most horrifying scene in 12 Years a Slave, another film about parts of our recent past that some would rather forget, shows the lynching of a man, low enough so that if he just stands on the tips of his toes, he can breathe.  And he struggles on for an excruciating length of time, the camera static.  The big personal revelation for me after seeing that was that I only remembered this scene again a few days after I’d seen the film – I had erased the most shocking part from my memory, pretty much as soon as I had witnessed it.  As the atrocities pile up in Son of Saul, you feel that director László Nemes has tried to construct such an unblinking portrait that it is simply impossible to forget.

Other Holocaust-related writings from this blog:

Night Will Fall

No Home Movie

See also: Martin Amis’s book, The Zone of Interest, in part told from the perspective of a Sonderkommando.

Sex Lives of the Potato Men

by Ben Diamond

Screen Shot 2016-04-02 at 17.18.04

“Vegas and Crook are a sleazy dream-team and brilliantly cast as the soft-core spud men… After several pints and a curry it could be the lads’ film of the year.”

-Mark Adams, The Sunday Mirror, 22nd February 2004

“Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival”

-Extract from Mark Adams’s Twitter bio

Where were you when you first watched Sex Lives of the Potato Men?

(Subtext: I am ashamed that the review of this film exists alongside my review of Son of Saul).

You can’t spend your life watching great films.

Sometimes you have to ground yourself.  Remind yourself why it is that great films are great.  Because it’s all relative, isn’t it?  If you went to see something as good as Barton Fink every week at North Finchley Vue then the spectacle would fail to astound after a while.

And so it was that I found myself in a living room in Sunderland watching Sex Lives of the Potato Men.

I remember seeing posters for this on buses when it came out.  I remember seeing Mackenzie Crook up on that poster, and the Office connection made me want to see it.  But unfortunately I was 13 years old for most of 2004.  Now I’m a big boy – 25 years old – so I allowed myself the indulgence of checking out a film that was notoriously bad.  There was a special aura of badness surrounding this film, folkloric tales of a 0% rating on RottenTomatoes, outrage at the million pounds of public funds from the UK Film Council used to make this film.

I didn’t find it to be as nasty and misogynistic as some critics made out.  I didn’t even find it so terrible, so awful, such a heinous crime of cinematic attrition.  I even laughed a few times.  Yes, it’s abysmal.  But so is loads of stuff.  It held my attention more than recent Oscar-winner Spotlight, which tried to occupy the centre ground between thriller and procedural and ended up being neither, essentially a montage of interviews with victims of abuse masquerading as a testament to the selfless heroics of investigative journalism.  The Wire Season 5 it weren’t.

Four thoughts on Sex Lives of the Potato Men, or as it was called in France, La Vie de l’Homme de Pomme de Terre.

  1. Sometimes it’s easier to write about a bad film than a good film.
  2. Someone had to write this film.  It came out of someone’s head.  I’d love to have been a fly on the wall in the psychotherapy sessions this bloke has been to.  And if he hasn’t, he really needs a few sessions.  Someone had to think of the idea that a man used to spread strawberry jam on his other half’s pudenda before he performed cunnilingus.  Someone then had to think of the idea that he missed the taste of such an experience so much that he had to start eating strawberry jam and fish-paste sandwiches to replicate the taste.  It’s like Proust’s madeleines but with a subtle hint of fanny juice.  Either the man who wrote this is a genius or needs to be in Broadmoor.  Some of the conversations in this film are so dead-end and nonsensical that they almost (almost) come full-circle and turn into a brilliant Kafka-esque satire on the banalities of modern discourse, each conversation simply a compendium of phatic utterances.
  3. In a way, this feels like a precursor to the era of Inbetweeners-style humour. Crucially, Vegas and Crook are total losers and their sex lives are shit, so they are playing underdogs.  But the tone of the film is so off, so wrong, that the fine-tuned charm of the Inbetweeners is instead bludgeoned to death.  Maybe Sex Lives of the Potato Men had to be slain on the altar of comedy for better things to come after it.
  4. Some scenes, concepts, dialogue in the film are genuinely disturbing.  And this irritates me.  Because I’ve watched Rome, Open City.  I’ve seen Fitzcarraldo.  I recently sat through the entirety of Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma.  I’ve watched the greats, kids.  And I can barely remember anything from any of them.  And I can remember loads from Sex Lives of the Potato Men.  In excruciating detail.  Like the scene pictured at the top of this article, where one character opens a door at an orgy and, in a break from the reality of the rest of the film, strolls through a neon-lit avenue of obscenities – ‘piss flaps’, ‘beef curtains’, even – and we’re talking the height of eroticism here – ‘fingering’.  Fingering.  The holy grail.  And my point here is that these neon signs are now forever burned into my mind’s eye. This film, in its shittiness, has made more of an impression on me than most of the greats.  And that has disturbing implications for art. Great art and bad art.  And how the void left by bad art is the thing that is left when the good art that you actually had to think about evaporates from your short term memory.  And if bad art leaves the strongest impression, then ad execs know, by extension, that if they throw enough shit at you, literally and metaphorically, at least some of it will stick.

Sandwiches, anyone?

Anomalisa

by Ben Diamond

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Womb Service – Things get frisky in Anomalisa (Kaufman, 2015, 90m)

I think the image I have provided says it all.

So many Houses of Animation – Aardman, Studio Ghibli, Pixar – boast some sort of otherworldly beauty.  That is the pull of the animated film.  A distinctive visual style.  A mechanics that wouldn’t work with real-life physics.  A colour palette that couldn’t have been captured by filming real life.

So.  Charlie Kaufman is already fucking with the fabric of animation itself.  He has chosen that most pliable and versatile of styles, and he has chosen it to represent…what, exactly?  A man tenderly going down on a woman in a hotel room.  I cannot remember such an unblinking portrayal of the act since Ben Stiller ventured south in Greenberg.

Maybe these moments are the truly beautiful moments.

I had to stop and pinch myself.  Was I really watching stop-motion characters copulating on a hotel bed.  At 11.30am.  At the Barnet Everyman.

It brought to mind Philip Roth’s book Sabbath’s Theater – and the titular antihero, Mickey Sabbath, and his past run-ins with the law because of his lecherous, obscene Punch and Judy street theatre antics.

This one’s all about the horror slowly dawning on you.  And then you realise it’s been there all along.

At first you think Michael Stone is wearing a nifty pair of wire-framed glasses. Then it dawns that he has a line running along the bottom of his forehead.  A testament to the cranial pressure within.  Everyone else has these fissures too.

Then you notice the strange tonal qualities of all of the voices of the people Michael Stone interacts with.  Then you try to ignore it.  Then you come to see its significance.

The reality is probably worse than the dream.  And hundreds of other micro-realisations along the way too.

We all have ‘Do Not Disturb’ signs hanging on our doors to Hotel Subconscious.

Maid Kaufman is ignoring all such warnings.

 

The Revenant

by Ben Diamond

revenant

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant (Iñárritu, 156m, 2016)

Warning – spoilers

Don’t you hate it when you’re on an expedition for pelts and you get into a fight with a bear, and the bear sort of wins the fight?  And then the bear gets cocky and comes back for more and you decide that you’re not going to take this bear’s shit any more?  (At this point, if someone asked me if I was going to take this bear’s shit anymore, I would reply ‘Does a bear shit in the woods?’).  So then, don’t you hate it when the bear comes back, and you shoot it, but it keeps laying into you, and you’re all ‘Get OFF me, bear!’ and eventually it sort of does, and you both roll down a ravine and the bear lands on you but you’re still alive, and your friends find you, and you think you’re home and dry, that they’ll look after you, and then they decide to kill your son and leave you for dead?  But you’re not dead?  Don’t you just flipping HATE that?

I like that director Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu has clearly put the everyman at the forefront of his concerns when making The Revenant.  In David Cameron’s Big Society, we’re all getting savaged by bears on expeditions for pelts.  Every bloody day.  It really gets you down after a while.  So here’s DiCaprio, and he’s got a message for Cameron.  He’s mad as hell, and he’s not gonna take it anymore.  He’s got an e-petition for Downing Street.  And he’s just fallen off a fucking cliff, on a horse.  But he’s landed, and he’s alright. And he’s got another horse.  And he’s heading for Millbank.  And he’s not stopping at Tate Britain on the way.

But.  And there is a but.  No-one can understand what Tom Hardy is saying.  I can’t understand what Tom Hardy is saying.  DiCaprio can’t understand what Tom Hardy is saying.  Even Tom Hardy can’t understand what Tom Hardy is saying.  Come to think of it, I can never understand what Tom Hardy is saying. In any film.  Maybe all directors are desperate to have Hardy-specific subtitles, but there’s a ‘no-subtitles clause’ that Hardy’s agent writes into every contract, lest his ego be bruised.  It’s like Hardy got sent the script from a mumblecore film by accident instead and learnt his lines and everyone was too scared to tell him, so they all just went along with it.

“Is that good, what I’m doing?  All the prowling and mumbling?”  Hardy probably mumbled to Iñárritu, during filming.  “What did Hardy just say?” Iñárittu probably whispered to an assistant.  “I can’t understand a word he’s saying.  Let’s sort that out in post.  Make a note to sort that out in post.”  Alas, the post-it note to to sort it out in post must’ve got lost.  Probably in the post. Lost in the post.

Shades of Enter The Void-style Gaspar Noe, with the omniscient floating camera. Shades of Uncle Boonmee, with the implication of a second, nature-based narrative.  Shades of Castaway, with the “WIL-SOOOOON!”.  Cameron might’ve face-fucked a dead pig, but DiCaprio’s been inside a dead horse.

The Hateful Eight

by Ben Diamond

The Hateful Eight (Tarantino, 187m, 2016)

The Hateful Eight (Tarantino, 187m, 2016)

The audacity of Odeon Leicester Square to hold an oligopolgy over the 70mm Ultra Panavision print of the film and then charge £20 a ticket couldn’t spoil my enjoyment.  The cheerful on-screen imperatives during the intermission to go forth into the foyer and purchase diluted syrup Coca-Cola, Malteasers and other treats couldn’t spoil my enjoyment.  The wanker chowing down on smelly nachos next to me couldn’t spoil my enjoyment.  The middling reviews that I read in the week leading up to me seeing the film couldn’t spoil my enjoyment. Even the cunt who started looking at their mobile phone during the most tense end scene of the film couldn’t spoil my enjoyment.

Because at the end of the day, a New Tarantino is a New Tarantino and nothing can take that away from me.  I still felt the buzz driving to the cinema.  I still felt the buzz of being in the cinema.  Yes, Tarantino may have lost his edge.  He’s still head and shoulders above the rest of the competition.  His ear for dialogue may have gone.  It doesn’t matter.  He’s still the master storyteller.  And thank fuck he decided to exempt himself from acting in this one, relegating himself to the brief role of narrator.  Never before have I been so excited and intrigued by the sight of a single jelly bean lodged inbetween the floorboards.

It’s some people.  In a shed.  Being tense.  That’s basically all there is to it.  It’s great.  It has shouty Samuel L Jackson.  It has some civil war unfinished business.  It has a ‘Red Apples’ moment so people can feel sophisticated by recognising the most fucking obvious visual trope in the history of cinema Tarantino’s calling card.  Ooh, and look at the snow – outside!  Looking pretty. Cinematography and that.  Great, innit?

The Stephen Fry quote (about PG Wodehouse) comes to mind – “You don’t analyse such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendour.” Wodehouse and Tarantino don’t sound like they have much in common.  They don’t.  But they’re literary and filmic comfort food for the soul.  Fry’s right. Don’t analyse it.  Just bask in it.

Over the three-plus hours, there’s actually very little action.  Just little doggies, barking all day.  Ramping up the tension.  Tarantino must be doing something right.  Roll on number ten.

Carol

by Ben Diamond

Carol

Carol (Haynes 2015, 118m)

I liked Carol, but I’m not sure I liked it as much as everyone else did.  In fact, I’m sure I didn’t like it anywhere near as much as everyone else seems to have done. The levels of hype on this one seem to have snowballed to such an extent that it stikes me as odd, the amount of noise generated for what is really a quiet, reserved piece, a mood piece, really.

It reminded me of Tom Ford’s A Single Man, the adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s novel.  Here, director Todd Haynes has adapted Patricia Highsmiths’s novel The Price of Salt, which takes place exactly a decade before A Single Man, in 1952.  It still has the Mad Men feel, the revelling in the period details.  It does look fantastic.

But beneath the surfaces, the detailed interiors, through the windows, in the car, through the cigarette smoke, I was left with nothing to hold on to.

Rooney Mara plays Therese – young, nervous, introverted, sort of into men. Cate Blanchett’s Carol – the older, more experienced of the two, who has been in a relationship with a woman before – strides into the department store where Therese works, the two fall for each other, and we go on from there.

Why do they fall for each other, though?  I wasn’t sure, even by the end.  I wasn’t satisfied that the two were ever really in love.  In fact, they never really seem to have a direct conversation about their own relationship. Which I suppose is the point, partly.

The relationship hits the rocks when Carol realises that her (soon to be ex-) husband is using her relationship with Therese as leverage in the divorce settlement, where he is pushing for sole custody of their child.

I found the character of Harge, Carol’s husband, to be something of a cardboard cutout, not properly fleshed out.  The divorce proceedings metastasise and dominate the plot as the film goes on.  Meanwhile, the story of Carol and Therese by this point seems weirdly cold, distant, fast-forwarded, too much shorthand and not much to go on.  The agonised scenes at the lawyer’s office seemed to clash with the subtlety of the rest of the piece.

I must admit that I drifted through this one, slightly bewildered throughout, admiring the craft of the scenes, the photography, the way things looked, but not managing to delve much deeper than that.  There’s a moment where a character is projecting a film and claims to be looking for the discord between what someone is saying and how they’re really feeling.  I sat through Carol trying, and failing, to do much the same thing.

Bridge of Spies

by Ben Diamond

‘Bridge of Spies’ by DreamWorks Studios.

Vous sortez du secteur Américain… Bridge of Spies (Spielberg 2015, 141m)

Only when you analyse Bridge of Spies after you’ve seen it do you realise what a strange beast it is.  It’s a thriller with no plot twists, or any real thrills per se.  But you simply don’t notice.

What, then, is keeping it chugging along?

Well, that would be Tom Hanks.

I shouldn’t have liked this film.  I shouldn’t have liked the clunking patriotic message of ‘let’s treat our captured Russian spies better than the Russians would treat our spies, because we’re America and we’re the best’.  I shouldn’t have liked the same diffused-light atmospheric setup Spielberg uses for every tense conversation in every room.

It’s 1957, the height of the Cold War, and Tom Hank’s character, a New York lawyer named James B. Donovan, is given the task of defending the indefensible – a Russian spy captured by the FBI. After striking up not quite a friendship, but a respectful relationship with said spy, Rudolf Abel, and managing to limit his sentence to 30 years in prison, narrowly avoiding the death penalty, he is sent on a diplomatic mission to Berlin to negotiate the exchange of Abel for Francis ‘Gary’ Powers, CIA spy shot down during a reconnaissance mission over Soviet Union airspace.

At the beginning of the film Donovan sets out his moral stall for a rival lawyer whilst they are discussing an insurance claim they are both involved in. Donovan’s client has driven into several motorcyclists.  The lawyer representing the claimaints says Donovan’s client is responsible for paying insurance claims for five separate incidents – the five injured parties.  But Donovan isn’t having any of it – using the analagy of knocking down ten pins in a game of bowling, he says that that is one event, not ten separate events.

On his trip to Berlin, Donovan continues this holistic approach to cause and effect by deciding to take matters into his own hands by negotiating for the release of two prisoners, not one, by dragging Frederic Pryor, a wrongly-imprisoned American economics student into what is now a three-way negotiation between the GDR, the Soviets, and the USA.  It’s all one big bowling game, and Donovan isn’t coming away with anything fewer than both pins.

This is no John Le Carré adaptation.  No double-crossings or moral ambiguities. It’s clear what Donovan wants.

Which brings us back the original question again.

If Tom Hanks is the reason why the film works, and Hanks plays it straight down the line, what is he doing that’s so special?

I don’t know.  It’s the Spielbergian magic.  It has something to do with his understated way of playing a character with such decency and moral seriousness.  He really shines in a very tense scene after he’s crossed over into east Berlin where a gang approaches him and tries to steal his coat.  Just by being Tom Hanks, he comes out of the situation intact.  It’s Catch Me If You Can Hanks we’re talking about here – decent man doing a difficult job, in the most decorous way possible.  There is something completely charged and magnetic about his onscreen persona, without even the whiff of ham.

I must confess to having a similar feeling leaving the cinema that I had with SPECTRE – that it didn’t all quite add up, a sense of dissatisfaction at how things had resolved themselves by the end.  Except, with SPECTRE, the whole film didn’t add up and the individual set pieces weren’t all that either, and in Bridge of Spies, without much actual action going on, individual scenes have a real sense of momentum to them.

Bridge of Spies strings its disparate parts together like Picasso’s Guernica.  In this corner we’ve got an action sequence where Powers’s plane gets shot down.  In that corner we’re watching Abel be pursued by the FBI on the New York subway (despite the obvious conclusion of this scene, it is a compelling opening).  Over here we’re witnessing the revulsion which the public feel towards Donovan for defending a spy.  And over there, there’s a runny nose, being passed from a Soviet spy, to Hanks, to others.  Spielberg tries to spin a lot of plates at the same time.  But it all adds up to something rather good.

Güeros

by Ben Diamond

Güeros

Who are you calling a Güero? (Ruizpalacios 2014, 106m)

Young lad Tomás has been a bit naughty – dropped a water bomb from the roof of his block of flats onto an unsuspecting mother and child below – and so has been packed off by his mum to stay with his brother, Federico, who is living with his flatmate Santos in a state of semi-squalor. Federico and Santos are straddling the line between being diligent students who should be working on their respective theses and being conscientious student-protestors, occupying their university campus.  They end up being neither.  As Federico says, they are on strike from the strike.  Their efforts are more fruitfully employed in stealing electricity from the flat below them, utilising a complex system of tin-can-on-a-string communication with the little girl whose bedroom window they use to ferry the power cable up in a bucket.  Problem sorted.

I loved the stark black and white photography of Güeros.  I loved the concept of a road trip that isn’t a road trip.  The protagonists never seem to cover much ground.  I loved the ‘fuck it, let’s give it a try’ attitude towards innovation and invention in the film.  A particular highlight being when Federico & co. create their own traffic jam simply by coming to a stop, a riposte to the statement ‘No one would care if we died’ – well, they would, but only because you’re blocking their way.  Certainly, getting stuck in traffic isn’t a common feature of the empty open stretches which dominate the genre.  This is road trip, Mexico City style. Federico’s panic attack in the back of the car, feathers flying and tinnitus ringing, was especially well done.  Mentions of Veracruz and the 90s feel of the film situated it firmly in my own head in the same shared space occupied by Roberto Bolaño’s epic work of fiction 2666.

Güeros is a film of two halves, though.  Although in part the gang are on the trail of the legendary musician Epigmenio Cruz (once supposedly made Bob Dylan cry), who they learn through a newspaper is ill and in hospital, a large part of the film is dedicated to the ins-and-outs of student politics during the university occupation, which I must admit I found a little tiresome, especially the hackneyed discussions about revolution, whether it should come Now or Later, what kind of an active role people should play in it, etc etc.  The political points were perhaps unsubtle, but maybe important in terms of Mexican history – my own fault for being ignorant of any form of university-based activism beyond clocking students selling copies of the Socialist Worker on the Strand during my own tenure at university.

I liked Güeros most when it was at its most aimless – Tomás, Federico and Santos sat on a car bonnet in the sun listening to Epigmenio on a tape walkman. One pair of headphones between three.  No sound for the cinema audience – just a look of bliss.

Black Souls

by Ben Diamond

Black Souls (Munzi 2014, 109m)

Black Souls (Munzi 2014, 109m)

Black Souls is a Sopranos-style tale of power struggle and revenge, but with an anthropological, analytical, plodding approach, as opposed to a high-octane, flashily-edited package of drive-by retributions.

Giuseppe Fumo plays Leo, with a huge, serious bloodhound’s face.  Bored with the agricultural life, he leaves his dad’s farm and takes off for Milan to get involved in his uncle’s less wholesome ‘ndràngheta business.  Before he leaves, he shoots up the shutters of a bar owned by a local mafia boss who (I think) was involved in killing his grandfather.  This unwittingly sets a chain of events in motion which ultimately has dire consequences for his own family, who get dragged back into an old feud where perhaps it would’ve been best to let the dust settle.

I got the feeling that these tensions that have been stirred up by Leo were actually revelled in by other members of the gang, simply because modern mafia life is really boring.  The most exciting thing these associates get up to in the film’s prologue appears to be stealing some goats for their dinner, hastily stuffing them in their car boot and speeding away from a farm.  There are other scenes where goat-herding plays a part, reminiscent of another recent Italian film, Le Quattro Volte. The film alternates between tension and boredom, almost mocking its audience for wanting some sort of quick-fix or burst of violence.  Munzi goads us with goats.

Fabrizio Ferracane plays Leo’s dad, Luciano, looking like a Jeremy Corbyn-Jose Mourinho hybrid.  Starting from a position of reluctance to get involved in his family’s violent business, he slowly gets dragged back towards the fray, leading to some brilliantly tense stand-offs between himself and Leo.  As they tussle for the reins to control the narrative of the developing mafia war, Luciano tries to grasp onto a fading notion of parental supremacy, whereas Leo appears to be wielding a more masculine, alpha-male power, which he enjoys lording over his dad.

In the world of Black Souls, goats, farming, the beautiful Calabrian countryside – all have some purpose, fit in to the natural order.  The human beings in this film really do represent the titular Black Souls – the living dead, serving no purpose other than to finish each other off with their bitter feuds.  A ‘don’ from a neighbouring clan makes his way up the mountainside to facilitate some interspecies breeding, bringing a young granddaughter in the hope that she’ll hit it off with Leo.  Ancient breeding rituals amongst a dying breed, doomed to extinction.

A large portion of the film is devoted to the process of mourning, and the rituals surrounding it. These people are living on the fringe of the land of the dead, devoted to ushering their kind from one world to the next.  Marking out the time until it’s their own turn to go.  This is an anti-Goodfellas, where the rewards of the lifestyle never yield, as the members of the clan dig their own graves.  Nothing to see here.  Move along.