Russia on the BBC, Part 2: Adam Curtis’ TraumaZone

Adam Cur­tis first emerged from the con­fines of con­ven­tion­al BBC pro­gramme mak­ing in 1992 with Pandora’s Box, in 6 parts, and he’s been plough­ing his glo­ri­ous­ly idio­syn­crat­ic fur­row there ever since. 

Rather than con­ven­tion­al doc­u­men­taries, what Cur­tis pro­duces are filmic essays, in which he explores the con­tra­dic­tions that have result­ed from the rise of tech­nol­o­gy, the malaise of con­sumerism and the cat­a­stroph­ic mis­takes made by the var­i­ous empires that have risen and sunk over the course of the last one hun­dred and fifty years. 

His most famous films to date are prob­a­bly All Watched Over By Machines of Lov­ing Grace, in 3 parts, from 2011 (reviewed ear­li­er by me here), which casts a cold eye over evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gy, glob­al cap­i­tal­ism and the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment. And Bit­ter Lake, from 2015, a bril­liant autop­sy on how the West end­ed up in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And his lat­est, Rus­sia 1985–1999: Trau­ma­Zone, What It Felt Like to Live Through The Col­lapse of Com­mu­nism and Democ­ra­cy, to give it its full title, is his best to date. Notwith­stand­ing the fact that two of his trade­mark stamps are absent. Gone are both his silky if point­ed voice over, and his care­ful choice of music, which usu­al­ly acts as coun­ter­point and com­men­tary to the images they accompany.

That’s because, he says, these images speak for them­selves. Which they do, and don’t. And that’s an entire­ly good thing. 

What’s he done is to gath­er up all the out­takes, all the reams and reams of footage left over, after the var­i­ous BBC cor­re­spon­dents have filed their report on what­ev­er was going on then in Rus­sia, and used them all to pro­duce a por­trait of Rus­sia as it sinks into anarchy. 

The result is a 7 hour jour­ney, in 7 one hour parts, chart­ing the dis­in­te­gra­tion of what had been the Russ­ian empire. It’s at times charm­ing, qui­et­ly mov­ing and con­sis­tent­ly cap­ti­vat­ing. There is a con­ven­tion­al nar­ra­tive, but that’s cov­ered in about one of its sev­en hours. 

There’s Afghanistan, and Cher­nobyl and Gor­bachev, open­ing up Sovi­et mid­dle man­age­ment to prof­it shar­ing and con­sumerism. And those man­agers team­ing up with orga­nized crime, to rob and pil­lage the state-run busi­ness­es they were sup­posed to be nur­tur­ing. And the ram­pant crime, cor­rup­tion and vio­lence that follows. 

There’s Yeltsin, out­ma­noeu­vring Gor­bachev, embrac­ing untram­melled cap­i­tal­ism, and the cat­a­stroph­ic eco­nom­ic col­lapse that that caused. And the rise of the oli­garchs that fol­lowed, as Russ­ian indus­try was raped and stripped clean. And the nation­al­ism that emerged in response. And Chech­nya, and the fright­en­ing sense of an aston­ish­ing­ly rapid descent into unimag­in­able vio­lence, cor­rup­tion and soci­etal disintegration.

But dur­ing the oth­er six hours, we see; grad­u­ates get­ting their degrees in soon to be inde­pen­dent Ukraine, as a mass grave dat­ing back to the Sovi­et peri­od is dis­cov­ered right next to where the cer­e­mo­ny is tak­ing place.

An old woman trav­els hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres, from the mid­dle of nowhere, to some­where else in the mid­dle of nowhere, in the freez­ing cold, to gath­er and take back pota­toes, so she has some­thing to live off.

One of the many out­takes so won­der­ful­ly made use of in Bit­ter Lake.

Teenage girls are schooled in how to com­port them­selves in beau­ty con­tests. The Moscow police force prac­tice shoot­ing guns, aid­ed by the record­ed sounds of gun fire, as they can’t afford to use actu­al bul­lets. Pro­to punk rock bands per­form in under­ground clubs. Thou­sands of the des­ti­tute and home­less sleep in sleep­ing bags on the floors of vast train stations. 

And row after row after row of emp­ty shelves are silent­ly gazed at by the hun­dreds and hun­dreds of peo­ple, who queue every day for hours in super­mar­kets, in the hope of find­ing some­thing, any­thing, to eat.

You get an extra­or­di­nary and vis­cer­al sense of the sheer size and vast scale of the coun­try, strad­dling as it does 6 time zones, and the abject pover­ty that the vast major­i­ty of them had to live in, in unspeak­able con­di­tions. As a tiny, minis­cule minor­i­ty enjoyed a pas­tiche of cap­i­tal­ist excess in a hand­ful of gar­ish, city cen­tre clubs and sub­urbs in parts of St Peters­burg and Moscow. 

And in amongst all of which, there’s Gor­bachev, get­ting side­lined. And Yeltsin, get­ting drunk. And a coun­try, being picked apart, and left to rot and fester.

Until final­ly, a qui­et, unas­sum­ing bureau­crat promis­es to restore order. The oli­garchs shrug, and think, why not. It’ll still be us call­ing the shots. And so a func­tionary from the for­mer KGB is hand­ed the reins of pow­er. And sure enough, order is indeed soon restored.

What’s so com­pelling about Cur­tis’ film, is that it man­ages to both tell that sto­ry, with­out being bound to mere­ly tell that sto­ry. It’s that, and so much more.

You can see the trail­er for Trau­ma­Zone here:

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Tár: a Good Film that Could Have Been So Much More


Tár is a metic­u­lous­ly craft­ed film, boasts a tow­er­ing per­for­mance from Cate Blanchett, and tack­les a seri­ous sub­ject in a care­ful­ly con­sid­ered and mea­sured way. So why does it leave the view­er qui­et­ly deflated?

Todd Field made his direc­to­r­i­al debut in 2001 with In the Bed­room, and fol­lowed that up with his adap­ta­tion of Tom Perrotta’s Lit­tle Chil­dren, in 2006, both of which are superb. 

All his films are clear­ly a con­scious riposte and anti­dote to a cul­ture that seems to have trad­ed seri­ous­ness and depth for ephemer­al triv­ia and emp­ty if imme­di­ate grat­i­fi­ca­tion. And in each film, the lives of com­fort­able but sym­pa­thet­ic mid­dle class pro­tag­o­nists are sud­den­ly uproot­ed by exter­nal threats they’re inca­pable of comprehending.

Lydia Tár, played by Blanchett, is that rare thing, a respect­ed and suc­cess­ful con­duc­tor in the world of clas­si­cal music, who hap­pens to be gay. Though hap­pi­ly ensconced with her part­ner and their 7 year old daugh­ter, she clear­ly is or was roman­ti­cal­ly engaged with her assis­tant, Francesca, and had ear­li­er had some sort of a tryst and or rela­tion­ship with a musi­cal pro­tégée called Krista. 

Enter Olga, the new­ly arrived and much younger cel­list in the orches­tra, who Blanchett instant­ly devel­ops a crush on. Indeed, the only rea­son Olga secures her posi­tion is pre­cise­ly because of said infatuation. 

In the Bed­room, 2001

But when, and with­out giv­ing any­thing away, it’s dis­cov­ered that Krista has com­mit­ted sui­cide and has some­how impli­cat­ed Blanchett, her com­fort­able exis­tence begins to unravel. 

The prob­lem is, the film spends far too much time estab­lish­ing its clas­si­cal music cre­den­tials, and not near­ly enough explor­ing the dra­mat­ic ques­tions it rais­es. What exact­ly is Blanchett accused of doing, what does she think she did, what actu­al­ly hap­pened, and how big is the gap between the pub­lic per­cep­tion of what she’s accused of and what she actu­al­ly did?

If the film had failed to ful­ly address any of its dra­mat­ic ques­tions, and had insist­ed instead on remain­ing stead­fast­ly enig­mat­ic over the course of, say, a 90 minute film, then that might have been one thing. But Tár goes on for the guts of 2 and ¾ hours. 

And what you get instead are extend­ed dis­cus­sions of Mahler’s 5th, and the mild­ly con­tentious ques­tion around the tem­po of its adagi­et­to, and reams and reams of her jog­ging, rehears­ing and com­pos­ing. The open­ing scene in par­tic­u­lar, in which she’s inter­viewed by the New York­er’s Adam Gop­nik, goes on for ev er.

Lit­tle Chil­dren, 2006.

You’d love to have sent them away for a month with their script and a rig­or­ous script edi­tor. Or alter­na­tive­ly, to have been left alone with the fin­ished film and a pair of scis­sors in an edit­ing suite.

When it does focus on the dra­ma, as for instance with the scenes between Blanchett and Olga, or between Blanchett and her wife and daugh­ter, the film siz­zles and sparks fly. It just fails entire­ly to pro­duce any kind of sat­is­fy­ing third act.

Tár is impec­ca­bly made and impres­sive­ly seri­ous, and it’s com­fort­ably one of the best films to come out of Hol­ly­wood in years. But, dis­ap­point­ing­ly, that’s all it is. When it could and should have been so much more substantial. 

You can see the trail­er for Tár here:

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Bones and All”, “Aftersun”; teenagers times two

Bones and All.

As I came out the cin­e­ma after watch­ing Bones and All, I won­dered briefly whether that was per­haps the most instant­ly for­get­table film since what­sit­called with what­shis­name, you know, that one that was nom­i­nat­ed for all those Acad­e­my awards. And I pre­sumed that that would be the very last time that it ever crossed my mind. 

But over the few weeks that fol­lowed, to my baf­fled bewil­der­ment, a slew of star­ry-eyed review­ers lined up to loud­ly sing its prais­es. The Guardian, the Sun­day Times, the Irish Times, the Lon­don Inde­pen­dent and even, if you don’t mind, the New York­er’s august Antho­ny Lane all man­aged to momen­tar­i­ly divest them­selves of their crit­i­cal fac­ul­ties to be born forth on its agri­cul­tur­al rhythms. 

raio Argen­to’s Sus­piria.

It’s like watch­ing some­body sit­ting on an inflat­able pool toy as it rests stub­born­ly motion­less on your liv­ing room floor. While they flash you an excit­ed smile, bob­bing game­ly this way and that, telling you that the water is amaz­ing, and won­der­ing why you’re not jump­ing in to join them. 

Let’s get one thing straight. Bones and All is absolute­ly not a bad film. It’s very com­pe­tent­ly made and is as inof­fen­sive as you could pos­si­bly wish for. And if you’re famil­iar with Guadagni­no’s films, you’ll not be sur­prised by what you’re being pre­sent­ed with.

As with his point­less remake of Dario Argen­to’s tow­er­ing Sus­piria (reviewed ear­li­er here), where he neutered any sense of beau­ty to focus instead on pro­duc­ing an accu­rate­ly researched repro­duc­tion of drea­ry, drab, dull, grey 1970s Ger­many, here he con­cen­trates care­ful­ly on recre­at­ing grim, grimey rust-belt, mid­dle Amer­i­ca, cir­ca 1989. 

It’s com­mend­ably con­vinc­ing, but utter­ly devoid of any­thing approx­i­mat­ing dra­ma, and is entire­ly free of tension. 

Obvi­ous­ly, if you’re a teenag­er, con­fi­dent in the cer­tain­ty that you have all the time in the world, then the prospect of watch­ing two attrac­tive would-be teenagers gaze lov­ing­ly into one another’s eyes, as they amble aim­less­ly across the plains of Amer­i­ca from one trail­er trash dive to the next, will quite pos­si­bly strike you as time well spent. 

But for any chick­en for whom spring is, alas, a now dis­tant mem­o­ry, you’ll be left qui­et­ly seething at hav­ing fruit­less­ly wast­ed more than two gold­en hours on glo­ri­fied Wallpaper.


After­sun is about a teenag­er, but is very much a film for grown-ups. And is in fact one of the films of the year, and com­fort­ably so. As such, it’s the ide­al palette-cleanser for Bones and All.

I’ll say very lit­tle about the plot. Indeed, there’s lit­tle to say about it. It’s slow, mea­sured, appar­ent­ly lan­guid, and yet there’s a ten­sion that qui­et­ly and then omi­nous­ly builds. 

Paul Mescal is the bare­ly thir­ty some­thing year old father of an 11 year old daugh­ter, played by the daz­zling new­com­er Frankie Corio. And he’s tak­en her to a resort in Turkey to spend some qual­i­ty time togeth­er, now that he and her moth­er have separated. 

Metic­u­lous­ly paced, pre­cise­ly shot and care­ful­ly con­sid­ered, its shoe­string bud­get is vis­i­bly but fleet­ing­ly. Oth­er than which, it’s con­scious­ly cin­e­mat­ic in a way that few films any more both­er to be. Writ­ten and direct­ed by first time Scot­tish film mak­er Char­lotte Wells, it’s the most con­fi­dent and impres­sive fea­ture debut for many a moon.

You can see the trail­er for After­sun here:

And the trail­er for Bones and All here.

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Triangle of Sadness’ — Gallic shrug emoji

Tri­an­gle of Sadness

Tri­an­gle of Sad­ness won Swedish direc­tor Ruben Östlund his sec­ond Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly won in 2017 with The Square. So I was slight­ly per­plexed by the reviews it gar­nered when it was released, which seemed to sug­gest that they’d enjoyed the film, but had remained qui­et­ly under­whelmed by it. 

Sure­ly a clas­sic art house film either daz­zles and bewitch­es, or leaves you shak­ing your head in utter bewil­der­ment at what all the fuss had been about — vide Par­a­site, reviewed here. And yet.

The prob­lem with the film is, in a word, its obvi­ous­ness. It’s not just that its plot is lift­ed from, amongst oth­ers, an episode of The Simp­sons. A group of upstand­ing cit­i­zens get strand­ed on a desert island, and their social hier­ar­chy is turned on its head. Nor even the fact that it takes Östlund the guts of 2 ½ hours to do what The Simp­sons did in 24 min­utes. It’s the fact that the film is sup­posed to be a social satire. 

O Lucky Man!

The tar­gets you’d expect an art house film to be satiris­ing are the sorts of peo­ple who go to, or make, award-win­ing art house films like this. Hence, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (’60), Lind­say Anderson’s O Lucky Man! (’73) and Bunuel’s The Dis­creet Charm of the Bour­geoisie (’72). Tri­an­gle of Sad­ness aims its poi­soned darts at the fash­ion world, and the 0.1% who fund it.

The prob­lem with Östlund goes back to and stems from the suc­cess he enjoyed with his third fea­ture, and his break out film, Force Majeure, from 2014. Which was won­der­ful­ly unset­tling, and looked and felt for all the world like quin­tes­sen­tial art house fodder. 

But it’s obvi­ous from The Square, which was some­thing of a mess, and now this, that Östlund is one of those very com­pe­tent but con­ven­tion­al Hol­ly­wood film mak­ers, who just hap­pens to be work­ing in Europe. In much the same way that the likes of Alan Park­er and Jim Sheri­dan used to do in the past. 

Bunuel’s The Dis­creet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

Which is absolute­ly fine. But what it means is that how you respond to Tri­an­gle of Sad­ness will depend on the type of film you’re hop­ing for. If you’re look­ing for a lush, plush and com­plete­ly unchal­leng­ing com­pan­ion piece to The Dev­il Wears Pra­da, that’s beau­ti­ful­ly shot, impec­ca­bly act­ed and whol­ly pre­dictable, then you’re in for a treat. 

But if a duel win­ner of the Palme d’Or cre­ates expec­ta­tions of gen­uine sub­stance, I’m afraid you’re going to be as under­whelmed by its longueurs and as per­plexed by its suc­cess as the rest of us.

You can see the trail­er for Tri­an­gle of Sad­ness here.

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Destroyer’, starring Nicole Kidman


I missed Destroy­er first time around, when it was released in 2018. Inex­plic­a­bly, so did every­body else, and it grossed just $5 mil­lion, bare­ly half its bud­get. Which is crim­i­nal, as it’s one of the most intel­li­gent and grip­ping thrillers made in the last decade.

The fifth film by Karyn Kusama, it was writ­ten by her hus­band Phil Hay and his writ­ing part­ner Matt Man­fre­di, and is their third col­lab­o­ra­tion together. 

And although her fea­ture debut, Girl­fight (2000), was laud­ed at Sun­dance and Cannes, it fared poor­ly at the box office. As did her next two films, Aeon Flux (‘05) and Jennifer’s Body (’09). So she spent the fol­low­ing 5 or 6 years work­ing as a direc­tor for hire on television. 

Kid­man’s best per­for­mance since To Die For in 1995.

But she went back to the sil­ver screen in 2015 for The Invi­ta­tion, a well-regard­ed hor­ror that had only a lim­it­ed release. But Destroy­er takes her work to a whole new level.

Con­fi­dent­ly plot­ted and impec­ca­bly script­ed, the direc­tion and cin­e­matog­ra­phy are con­stant­ly thought­ful and care­ful­ly chore­o­graphed. Which ought of course to be true for every film, but almost nev­er is. While the twist is low-key, sub­tle and, clev­er­ly, structural.

But the entire film revolves around the vor­tex that is Nicole Kid­man. The grav­i­ta­tion­al pull of her self-destruc­tion seems to drag the whole of Los Ange­les down into the hole she’s hell-bent in bur­row­ing for the grave she’s deter­mined to dig for herself.

Kidman’s a fun­ny one. Her choic­es are actu­al­ly almost always both chal­leng­ing and impres­sive­ly intel­li­gent. But the few duds are so glar­ing, they can be momen­tar­i­ly blind­ing. But real­ly, it’s only The Step­ford Wives (’04), Bewitched (’05) and Aus­tralia (08) that baf­fle. Birth (’04), Mar­got at the Wed­ding (’07) and Nine (’09), for instance, might not work as films, but they were all choic­es and risks worth taking.

This though is com­fort­ably her best per­for­mance, and is the answer she’ll give when St Peter asks her to point to the one thing that could move him to open the pearly gates for her.

Lynne Ram­say’s You Were Nev­er Real­ly Here.

As for Kusama, she pre­sum­ably finds her­self once more at a cross­roads. Hav­ing had her fin­gers burnt try­ing to pro­duce com­mer­cial fod­der for the Hol­ly­wood bean-coun­ters, she was once again offered the chance to get her hands on a siz­able bud­get, for a re-make of Drac­u­la, only to have the project can­celled. So which way does she go now, to the left or to the right?

Does she fol­low the path of Kathryn Bigelow, and trade in her intel­li­gence for dol­lar bills, or that of Lynne Ram­say (whose You Were Nev­er Real­ly Here I reviewed here) and Debra Granick, into the under­growth and uncer­tain­ty of the inde­pen­dent world?

I hope some­body sits her down and forces her to watch repeat­ed view­ings of Zero Dark Thir­ty (’12). There but for the grace of God…

You can see the trail­er for Destroy­er below:

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