2001: A Space Odyssey, the magic of pure cinema.

Section 3 of Kubrick's iconic sic fi classic.

Section 3 of Kubrick’s iconic sic fi classic.

People often remember 2001: A Space Odyssey as being divided into three parts. It’s actually in four sections. The first part sees us in the depths of our prehistory. And it’s a pretty accurate summary of what was then known about our origins in the mid 1960s.

We began as part ape part man, gradually moving from the former to the latter, living as one amongst many animals, some of whom we preyed upon, and some of which preyed upon us.

But our ability to fashion tools, and our understanding that this is what sets us apart from all of the other animals, begins the process which will see us come to dominate the planet. And is so doing, it introduces rivalry between us and our neighbouring clans.

Section 1: no sex please, we're (adopted) British.

Section 1: no sex please, we’re (adopted) British.

Predictably, the one element that Kubrick leaves out of our prehistoric evolution is reproduction, because that requires sex. Despite the fact that sex is the very engine of all the best drama, Kubrick avoids it, because sex leads to emotion and Kubrick doesn’t do emotion – see my earlier review here.

The second part jump cuts, famously, to the future, where an astronaut has been sent into space to investigate an extraordinary discovery on a nearby moon. And when that goes wrong, we move further into the future for the third part, as another pair of astronauts have been sent into space two years later to investigate what happened.

Miss Jones! Rigby in section 2.

Miss Jones! Rigby in section 2.

This then becomes a battle of wits between one of them, and the on-board computer, HAL. And when then the bedraggled astronaut speeds off into space for the fourth part we are flung further forward into the future and into what seems to be a new dimension.

What happens when we get there is instructive. In appearance impressively enigmatic, it’s actually fairly easy to break down. The fourth section is basically an exercise in subject displacement.

From the pod, we see him, the object. He then becomes the subject, looking over at the object, the elderly man eating at the table – that man being his older self. The dining man, now the subject, hears a noise, and turns to see the new object, an even older man lying in the bed. And that man now becomes the subject, looking over at the new object, the granite slab which stands in front of him, and which links all four sections of the film, suggesting so much yet saying so little.

Section 3: man V machine.

Section 3: man V machine.

The response to all of which might very well be, so what? It’s all wonderfully evocative, but it’s not actually about anything. Neither philosophically, intellectually nor narratively. And that goes for the whole film. The only section of the film with any actual drama in it is the third, where fairly standard fears about machines taking over the world are explored, albeit in a wonderfully tense way.

But that would be to completely miss what the film is. It’s not, and was never intended to be, a conventional, narrative film. What it is instead is a sequence of beautifully composed, imagistic tableaux, painstakingly constructed and all meticulously framed by brilliantly chosen pieces of complimentary classical music.

The enigmatic section 4.

The enigmatic section 4.

When, for instance, the spaceship docks in part 2 to the tune of the Blue Danube, for a full six minutes(!), that’s not what space looks or sounds like. That’s what we’d like it to look and sound like in our imaginations. Unfettered by the constraints of conventional narrative, Kubrick let his imagination roam. And it’s ravishing.

If all films were like this of course, none of us would ever bother watching any of them. But as a lone beacon that stands proudly in contrast to every other great film, with its dismissal of narrative and therefore of emotional engagement, and its celebration instead of pure images set to sublime music, verily its vision to behold.

It’s on general release this summer in a spanking new 70mm print. And here’s the 2001 trailer.

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A Bigger Splash, in case you missed it.

A Bigger Splash.

A Bigger Splash (2015) is the fourth film from Luca Guadagnino, and the one he made before the much acclaimed Call Me By Your Name, which was nominated earlier this year for four Academy awards, and which I reviewed here.

Tilda Swinton plays Marianne, a Bowie-esque rock god who has decamped with her sculpted, documentary film maker man to the island of Pantelleria, one of the many stepping stones that link Africa to Europe in the southern Mediterranean.

Call Me By Your Name.

But the peace and quiet of their island idyll is shattered with the arrival of Harry, Marianne’s long-time partner and one-time producer, and the one who introduced her to her new beau. And on his arm he arrives with what seems to be his latest conquest, but what turns out to be his recently discovered teenage daughter.

That peace and quiet is considerably more fragile than first it appeared. Marianne is recovering from surgery on her throat, and must refrain from speaking, while her man is a recovering alcohol who one year earlier made an unsuccessful attempt at taking his own life. Harry meanwhile is, unsurprisingly, still in love with Marianne, and his daughter has arrived there with an agenda all of her own.

Dakota Johnson making a splash.

There’s a wonderful sense of menace and impending doom which contrasts gloriously with the warmth and colour of the landscape which provides the film with its lush backdrop. And the combination of untrammelled hedonism, base carnality and the kinds of primary colours that only the Mediterranean can produce, proves a heady mix. And yet.

As good as A Bigger Splash is, it’s not quite the definitive cinematic marker one was hoping for. Like I am Love (2009) before, and Call Me By Your Name (2017) after, it is ever so slightly too cool and aloof to really engage on an emotional level. It’s definitely the best of what Guadagnino has called his trilogy of desire, but desire is the one thing that’s missing from all three. Granted, there’s no shortage of idealized desire, of requited love, in Call Me By Your Name. But desire without pain is meaningless. If you want to witness true desire, watch Brief Encounter (1946).

David Lean’s peerless Brief Encounter.

The problem is I think that Guadagnino works exclusively as a director, and relies on others for his source material, and on scriptwriters to then write his scripts for him. This frees him up to explore the stylistic elements of his films, and there’s no question that A Bigger Splash looks magnificent. The film’s signature stamp are its many close ups of a face masked by mirrored sunglasses, which manage at once to be an enigmatic portrait of the protagonist on view, and an expansive establishing shot of the landscape reflected behind.

But it also means that he doesn’t pursue his chosen themes with the same kind of obsessiveness and purblind passion as does, say, Truffaut, Fellini, Antonioni or, most obviously, Bergman.

Fabulous Fiennes.

Still, what elevates A Bigger Splash and really brings it to life is the magnetic performance that Ralph Fiennes gives as Harry. You can’t take your eyes off of him. He is both the most obviously annoying and insufferably obnoxious character, who you just know will ruin everything, because he always ruins everything. And, the most impossibly charming individual you could ever hope to meet, and the one person who you know will make whatever the evening is a memorable one.

You can see the trailer of A Bigger Splash here.

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The Handmaid’s Tale: the future of television.

The Handmaid’s Tale.

In the first decade of the new millennium the music industry was destroyed, felled in a single strike by Napster. Suddenly, indeed overnight, every song that had ever been recorded was freely available over the internet.

Traditional media was a thing of the past, and any day now, television, newspapers, magazines and all of those other relics of the twentieth century would likewise be consigned to the dustbin of history.

The Napster himself, Sean Parker.

But as we move into the third decade of the new century, newspapers and magazines are still around, TV is thriving and even the music industry is actually doing rather nicely, albeit in a diminished form.

There are two perspectives on the digital revolution. One says that the future is digital, and everything else is doomed to go the way of vinyl. The other slightly more nuanced view goes as follows; we all have a certain amount of money that we enjoy spending on stuff. All the digital revolution does is to change the way that we distribute whatever that sum is, by adding a new outlet to channel those funds into.

So if you had a certain amount of money that you looked forward to spending on cds in any given year, the fact that any album you might be interested in is now freely available on the internet will very probably mean that you now spend little or none of that cash on actual cds.

The handmaids.

You’ll still spend that money on the music industry though. It’ll just be on going to gigs, on downloads or on merchandise, say on a rare, deluxe cd boxset, or on a vinyl edition of an original recording.

Indeed, what all the research shows is that you’ll very probably spend more than you used to now, whether that be on music, film, television or publishing. As the internet creates further synergies for all of the other mediums, in much the same way that television, and then video and cable did for cinema, in the 50s, 70s and 80s. Having access, in other words, to all that free music just makes you want to spend even more of your money on music than you used to, before everything was available for free.

Amazon’s Seattle bookstore.

The same thing has happened in publishing. When ebooks began to take off about ten years ago, the death of the printed book was confidently predicted and was, more over, a matter of days and weeks.

But ten years on, ebooks have plateaued and been superseded by audio books. Neither of which, we now realise, are going to replace the printed word. Rather, ebooks and audio books are an added source of revenue for a rejuvenated publishing industry. And it’s not just the industry that’s bouncing back. Independent book stores are experiencing a mini renaissance as well. Indeed, the big bad wolf itself, Amazon, has started opening up its own bricks and mortar, actual physical books stores.

Most obviously of all, television is alive and well and booming. Which isn’t to say that the digital effect has been negligible. Far from it, digital has completely disrupted every conceivable corner of the media landscape. So that the way that we now watch, read and listen to films, television, music, the radio, books, newspapers and magazines has been completely transformed. It’s just that none of them are about to disappear any time soon.

Apple’s view of the future.

If you want to see what the future of television is, all you have to do is look at screen size. Mobiles want to be smart phones, smart phones want to be laptops, laptops want to be desktops, desktops want to be TVs and TVs want to be cinemascope. Everything is getting bigger, not smaller. And all content is following suit, and is trying perpetually to move in the same direction. How many TV stars do you know that dream of one day being on the internet?

Try watching the Handmaid’s Tale and see how you feel. Of course you could watch it on your laptop, or even on your mobile. But as you do so, you’ll have this increasing itch to see it on a proper screen and with a grown-up sound system. So you can really luxuriate in the tactile sound of an old fashioned fountain pen, as it scrawls and scrapes its italic script clumsily across the fibres of an actual piece of old fashioned paper. And you can pick

out with pleasing clarity the dusky book covers as the Commander runs his finger lovingly over their corners, as he appears from the depths of the shadows to gaze greedily on his mahogany bookcase.

Elizabeth Moss and Joseph Fiennes square off.

And the people who make the best television, and the television being made at the moment is some of the best that’s ever been made, the Handmaid’s Tale being a case in point, feel exactly the same way about making their programmes as we do about watching them.

Nobody’s going to choose to watch something on a laptop if given the choice of seeing it on a 32 inch television. And no-one’s going to be satisfied with watching it on that 32 inch screen if offered the chance to see it on a 55 inch one. Television’s not dead. On the contrary, it’s getting bigger and bigger.

You can see the trailer of the Handmaid’s Tale here.

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Habaneros, BBC doc on the Cuban revolution.

Havaneros – You Say You Want a Revolution.

Habaneros, the BBC’s brilliant new documentary charting the history of Cuba, completes an unlikely comeback for Julian Temple, one time enfant terrible of British cinema.

Temple shot to fame in 1980, when he documented the rapid rise and demise of the Sex Pistols in The Great Rock and Roll Swindle. In it, Malcolm McLaren cleverly presents himself as the evil Svengali pulling all the strings, and the brains, therefore, behind the band’s success.

On the back of which, Temple was handed the reigns on Absolute Beginners in 1985, which duly became the most expensive film ever made in Britain, and which was supposed to have established Goldcrest as a rival for the big Hollywood studios across the pond.

Absolute Beginners.

Instead of which, the film bombed, the quote studio unquote crashed – aided by the disaster that was the Al Pacino vehicle Revolution – and Temple departed with his tail between his legs in the general direction of the Hollywood hills.

One of the peculiarities of the film industry is that it is always better to have made something, anything, however vacuous, than to have more prudently done nothing at all. So once there, they gave him more money to make his second feature, the instantly forgettable Earth Girls Are Easy, from ‘88. He spent the next decade making equally forgettable if impressively expensive music videos for big name artists like the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, The Kinks and David Bowie.

The Great Rock and Roll Swindle.

But his unlikely comeback began in 2000 with The Filth and the Fury, his well-received Pistols doc which went someway to correcting the biases of his earlier venture. While in 2015, he made the Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson, one of the many, many impeccable Storyville docs that BBC4 has been producing over the last decade (reviewed earlier here). And now this, once again under the auspices of the BBC, this magisterial doc charting the history of Cuba over the past hundred years or so.

The first half of Habaneros charts the history of Cuba in the run up to the revolution in ’59. The repeated interference of the US throughout the first half of the century, which eventually produced the Batista revolution in 1933. But he quickly proved himself to be every bit as corrupt as the regime he’d revolted against, and he and his acolytes bled the island dry before retiring to Florida in ’44. But he returned once more in ’52 when he was re-installed as a US puppet – imagine that, a US backed military coup to overthrow a democratically elected foreign government. Well there’s a first.

Havaneros.

But in ‘56, the exiled Fidel Castro sailed back to the island with 81 troops, only to be immediately ambushed on landing. Just the 12 of them survived, fleeing in desperation for the hills of the Sierra Maestra, with the sum total of seven rifles between them. But in what must surely be the most unlikely successful revolution ever embarked upon, just three years later he and Che Guevara marched triumphantly into Havana on News Year’s Day of 1959, having taken control of the entire island.

This first half of the film is undoubtedly the more lively of the two, as Temple brilliantly mixes media, telling the breathless story of the lead up to the revolution through a montage of carefully chosen interviews, archive footage and animation, on to which he superimposes newspaper and magazine pages that comment on the visuals and voice over underneath.

The second half then follows the history of the island in the wake of that revolution, from the Bay of Pigs, to the Cuban missile crisis, the cold war and the eventual collapse of the Soviet bloc in the‘90s, which resulted in their sole source of funding disappearing into the ether.

Viva la revolucion!

As scrupulously fair as you’d expect from one of the many projects overseen by the peerless Alan Yentob, the second half is inevitably less exciting than the pre-revolutionary fervour that precedes it. As on the one hand, the revolution continues to be celebrated by some, who rightly point to the heroic resistance that the island has maintained against the avaricious interference and oafish grandstanding of its bullying neighbour to the West. And on the other, there are all those who lament how inevitably disappointing that revolution proved to be for the lives that so many of the islanders were forced to live.

It’s a brilliant film, intoxicatingly so in its first half, and everyone involved, especially Temple, should take a very deep bow.

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You Were Never Really Here, a new film from Lynne Ramsay.

You Were Never Really Here.

Lynne Ramsay is one of the few, genuinely exciting film makers working anywhere in the world, and You Were Never Really Here is her latest offering.

She arrived on the scene with Ratcatcher in 1999, which covers exactly the sort of terrain you’d expect from a first film, but in an unexpected and impressively enigmatic way. Next up was Morvern Callar, from 2002, which comfortably confirmed all of the promise that had been hinted at in her debut.

We Need To Talk About Kevin

Mundane events, in what appears to be a conventional genre film, are presented in an off-kilter and distinctly left of field manner. And everything is transformed by her insistence on fully exploring the cinematic language and grammar at her disposal. So that sound is used every bit as expressively as the visual elements, and pace is as pregnant with meaning as any of the sparse if carefully considered lines of dialogue.

We Need To Talk About Kevin came next, in 2011. Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s contentious novel was as viscerally disturbing as the source material demanded, and was one of the stand-out films of that year. So is this, her fourth.

Joaquin Phoenix and Ekaterina Samsonov in You Were Never Really Here.

You Were Never Really Here centres around Joaquin Phoenix as one of those nebulous, violent fixers prepared to do the sorts of things that well brought up, middle class people wouldn’t dream of doing themselves, but which they are perfectly happy to pay others to do for them. When a high level politician’s 12 year old daughter is abducted and enslaved, Phoenix is dispatched to recover her.

Over the course of the film, we move back and forth between the sinister events of the present day thriller, and the equally dark episodes from his past. The abuse he suffered as a child, and his experiences as a soldier in whichever one of the US wars he was sent over to pointlessly partake in.

Boorman’s Point Blank.

You Were Never Really Here could have been, indeed is essentially, a genre piece. But what might have been little more than a conventional thriller is elevated into something significantly more substantial thanks to Ramsay’s very distinctive stamp. So that the sort of violence which ordinarily washes over us so easily is rendered shocking and even surprising because of the stylised way in which it is presented.

Rarely is anything shown in an expected manner, as key events take place off screen but are heard, loudly, or are seen at one remove, on the CCTV in the corner of a corridor. While Johnny Greenwood’s score, though sparingly used, further adds to the heightened sense of dislocation and the constant sense of threat.

Morvern Callar.

All the performances are pitch perfect and Phoenix is exceptional, but the real star of the show is Ramsay who delivers infinitely more in 90 minutes than just about any other film maker around manages to do in twice that time. And, although there are clear shades of John Boorman’s Point Blank, particularly in its dissonant, staccato editing, and of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in its themes, this is a triumphantly original piece. She might not yet have produced that definitive masterpiece, but Ramsay’s first four films, and particularly the last three, herald the arrival of a gloriously distinctive and impressively original cinematic voice.

You can see the trailer to You Were Never Really Here here.

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