“Annihilation” and the demise of British film criticism

Annihilation.

Aside from the aborted first attempt at an Irish Film Board in the 1980s, for most of the 20thcentury there was no indigenous film industry in Ireland. So when the Film Board was re-established in 1992, and the economy finally began to take off, the few films that started to get made here were greeted by everyone as miraculous events akin to the moving statues that had preceded them the decade before. 

This was as true of Irish audiences as it was of the film critics who served them. Which was perfectly understandable. But that didn’t make it any less disappointing. Films like Words Upon the Windowpane, 1994, Circle of Friends, ‘95, The Sun, the Moon and the Stars, ‘96, The Last of the High Kings ’96, The Nephew, ’98 and Ordinary Decent Criminal, 2000, were all joyously celebrated and applauded when they should have been quietly lamented and apologised for.

A poster as meticulously crafted as the script they used.

For one thing, it’s hopelessly patronising to the film makers. We don’t laud Dubliners, the Pogues or Brian Friel because they’re Irish, but because they’re good. To encourage audiences to see a film or watch a television series just because it’s Irish is mortifying. It’s criticism sunk by a sense of inferiority, anchored by a cripplingly chipped shoulder. It is, in short, unforgivably parochial.

Which was why, in days gone by, we turned to Britain when we wanted any serous cultural criticism. When The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, The Times or The Sunday Times reviewed a British film they judged it on its own merit. 

That contrast in innate cultural confidence was all the more striking in the decade that saw Trainspotting and Four Weddings at the cinema, Britpop on the airways and the YBAs take the global art market by storm.

Trainspotting: the British were coming.

But since the turn of the century, the view from across the Irish Sea is of a very different Britain. It’s suddenly become uncharacteristically provincial and insular. Smaller and less interesting. 

That loss of confidence has recently become visible in its film criticism. Dispiritingly, British films have of late been handled by the film critics over there with the same kind of kid gloves that we used to handle our own films with. Annihilation being a case in point.

Annihilation (2018) is Alex Garland’s follow up to Ex Machina, his well–received 2014 screen debut. In the triumphantly positive review that he gave it in The Telegraph here, Tim Robey descried Annihilation as being “exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure”. Whilst Benjamin Lee, in the 4 star review he gave it in the Guardian here, praised it for being “admirably uncompromising… and wonderfully unknowable.”

Ex Machina.

Really. Imagine a group of first year film students after one too many joints on a picnic in Central Park. And they suddenly decide, inevitably, that what they absolutely have to do is to shoot a film on one of their phones, right now! So they stitch together a script for what they think will be an hilarious B movie pastiche, a sort of Ghostbusters meets Alien but with 5, all female protagonists, who are all, get this, scientists!! 

But once they get back to their dorm to edit what they’ve shot, they completely forget that the whole thing was meant to have been a joke, and they all start taking the whole thing terribly seriously. This, alas, is the result.

Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta; happier times. c/o wallup.net

Apart from anything else, it all looks and sounds so unremittingly cheap. What on earth can they have spent the $55m budget on? The effects look like they were done on an earlier version of the phone you replaced your current one with. And the, ahem, science that the misfortunate actresses are asked to spout is of the sort that would once have been found on the back of a matchbox. 

It’s hard to know what’s more disappointing, the film itself or the reviews that it received. Still, no need to write Garland completely off quite yet. Six episodes into Devs, his BBC/Hulu TV series suggest something of a return to form. He just needs to stick to conventional thrillers, and leave the big science to actual scientists. 

You can see the trailer for Annihilation here

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“American Epic” watch, listen and marvel

American Epic

American Epic is an extraordinary window on to the roots from which American music sprang. And it provides therefore the key to understanding all subsequent genres that popular music went on to spawn throughout the course of the 20thcentury. Essentially, it’s in two parts.

The first, American Epic, is the three part documentary series produced by BBC4’s Arena, and the 5 cd box set that that produced. The second is The American Epic Sessions, which is a documentary feature (effectively episode 4 of the series), and the two cd box set that that generated.

Jack White and The American Epic Sessions.

The whole project revolves around the technological revolutions that were going on in sound at the beginning of the 20thcentury, and the cultural waves that those ripples produced. For the first couple of decades, the music industry had been an exclusively middle class enterprise. Phonograph recordings were manufactured so that opera arias, classical music and Broadway show tunes could be played in well to do homes.

But the invention of radio in the 1920s seemed to have dealt a fatal blow to that nascent industry. Anybody with electricity could listen to any amount of music, all day long. So, in desperation, the recording industry sent scouts out into rural America to record the sorts of music that people without electricity – and therefore a radio – would be interested in listening to on their hand-cranked phonographs. 

Charley Patton.

They then went back to headquarters with these stacks of discoveries to fuel the most powerful medium of the day, radio, with the same thing that all media are always in search of; content.

What this did, crucially, was to connect the urban radio listeners and the industry that served them, with an entire country of rural communities that had, up until then, existed in effective isolation. 

In many ways, it was the field recordings that came out of the 1920s that moulded and created a United States of America. And it was these recordings that laid the foundation for what would become the blues, country, bluegrass, soul, RnB, gospel, rock n roll, hip hop and each and every conceivable kind of pop.

The second part, The American Epic Sessions, focuses on the technology that made all of this possible. In 1925, Western Electric made a portable recording apparatus that could be powered by battery. Scouts were quickly sent out to scour the country to record anyone who had a song to sing and wanted to have it memorialised on wax. 

Lead Belly.

Overnight, a host of nationwide stars were born. The Carter family, the Memphis Jug Band (because they used jugs in place of the instruments they couldn’t afford), Charley Patton, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Willie McTell, Lead Belly, Jimmie Rodgers and Robert Johnson to name but a paltry few.

Depressingly, the US government melted down the vast majority of these 78s in the course of their second WW effort. The shellac that records were made from before the advent of vinyl was needed for the production of camouflage paint. So by the time the folk revival kicked in in the 60s with its celebration of all things Americana, incredibly few 78s were left in existence. And none of Western Electric’s recording pieces had been preserved for posterity.

The Cater sisters.

Until now. Because over the last couple of decades, sound engineer Nick Bergh has managed to get his hands on the individual bits and pieces that the apparatus was made of, to painstakingly reconstruct a single, functioning recording piece. 

And he and programme maker Bernard McMahon decided that the best way to re-master all the original recordings that go to make up American Epic, was to invite current performers to record a song on wax, using the original, recreated Western Electric recording apparatus. That way, they would all gain an unrivalled understanding of exactly how it had functioned. 

So Alabama Shakes, Elton John, Taj Mahal, Nas, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Raphael Saadiq, Rhiannon Giddens, Los Lobos and Ashley Monroe got together with producers Jack White and T Bone Burnett to record an album, which they documented on film. 

Monroe by the way penned one of my favourite lyrics, with her autobiographical Like A Rose, which she wrote with none other than Guy Clark.Ran off with whatshisname when I turned eighteen…” which is quite simply the perfect kiss-off.

Rhiannon Giddens.

Documentary wise, the 3 episode American Epic is the one to watch. The Sessions is basically an added bonus. Conversely, musically speaking, unless you’re an aficionado, you should go for the 2 disc American Epic Sessions, rather than the 5 disc American Epic box set. As the former is that bit more expansive, made up as it is of original as well as traditional songs. Obviously though, if you can, watch and get both.

Taken together, the whole enterprise is nothing short of monumental.

Watch Los Lobos here

And Alabama Shakes here

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Parasite; mmnah

Parasite.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with Parasite, the seventh film from South Korean film maker Bong Joon-ho. And, had it arrived under the radar, as it were, much as his fourth film, Mother, did in 2009, then very probably it could have been forgiven its many glaring inconsistencies.

Sure, it’s about half an hour too long. And, like Mother (not to be confused with Darren Aronofsky’s execrable Mother!, with an exclamation mark, reviewed by me earlier here), it can’t make up its mind whether it’s a dark comedy, a creepy thriller, or a social satire – cant it be all three, you ask? On which, more anon.

Depardieu in Les Valseuses.

And sure, it’s the sort of film that Bertrand Blier was making eons ago, but with much more verve and brio. Films like Les Valseuses (limply translated as Going Places) from 1974, Buffet froid from ’79 and Tenue de soirée from ’86. All of which starred Gérard Depardieu in all his pomp, and which all displayed, not to put too fine a point on it, considerably more balls.

But it didn’t. Parasite arrived garlanded, anointed and verily festooned, blazing a trail of un-checked praise.

That it should have won the Academy award for Best Film is very much par for the course. It’s exactly the sort of skin deep, un-demanding social satire that the Academy likes to pat itself on the back for applauding. What’s much more surprising is that they should have given the nod to the genuinely edgy Moonlight (reviewed by me here) three years previously.

Tim Robbins in The Player.

But it’s baffling that the grown ups at Cannes should have been equally wowed, albeit in a particularly weak year. Mind you, they gave the Palme d’Or to The Square in 2017, which was similarly unfocused.

So, what’s wrong with being a dark comedy, a creepy thriller, and a social satire? Well, nothing. It can be done, as with Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (’82), David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (‘90) and Twin Peaks (’92- present) and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (‘73) and The Player (‘92). All of which of course were completely overlooked by the Academy. 

You just need to answer the three fundamental questions that all stories must answer; whose story is it? What do they want? And what’s stopping them?

The Long Goodbye,

So whose story is being told in Parasite? To begin with, it’s the son’s. Then, 20 minutes in, it switches to his sister. Then his father. Then it’s a mix of all four, their mother now joining them. Before finally reverting to the son once more. This does not produce a whimsical mixing of genres and a delightful flitting hither and thither. It’s all just a bit of a mess.

If we don’t know whose story it is, we can’t know what they want, and what therefore is stopping them from getting it. So we’ve nobody to root for, and there’s no way for us to get emotionally engaged, so there’s nothing at stake. This is not some optional extra. It’s the very foundation upon which all stories are built.

Laura Palmer, Twin Peaks.

Not that any of this should really have come as a surprise. After all, before making Mother, Boon hooked up with Michel Gondry and Leos Carax, two of the most inconsequential and insubstantial film makers to have ever come out of France, to make Tokyo! (08) together.

Let’s hope nobody introduces poor Boon to Terrence Malick and the aforementioned Aronofsky, America’s answer to messers Gondry and Carax. Perish the thought.

You can see the trailer for Parasite here.

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HBO’s Our Boys

Our Boys is the sort of thing many people will feel they ought to try and see, rather than something that they actually want to watch. Well, I’m happy to report, though perfectly understandable given its subject matter, that reticence is entirely unwarranted.

Co-created by the Israeli showrunner Hagai Levi, who’d previously made In Treatment, and the Palestinian writer, Tawfik Abu-Wael, Our Boys was picked up and shown on HBO, and was met by almost universal acclaim.

Predictably, hardliners on either side of the Israeli Arab divide were equally furious, offended and outraged. Which, needless to say, strongly suggests the show hits absolutely the right note.

The story that the drama depicts takes place at a very specific moment in time. Three Jewish boys have been kidnapped and murdered by Palestinians, but Our Boys begins in the immediate aftermath of that horrific event. 

In other words, it doesn’t focus on the deaths of the three Israelis, but on the kidnapping, killing and burning of the Palestinian boy that a trio of fanatical Israelis take their revenge on.

Our Boys.

What’s so gripping and endlessly fascinating about the show is the way it delineates each of the layers that sub-divide both sets of communities. Giving each and every faction its own weight, and its characters a chance to explain themselves from their points of view.

Despite focusing on two very narrow tracts of land on either side of what is effectively the current boarder, each community is endlessly split within its own walls. So there is the divide amongst the “settlers”, between the Ashkenazim and the Mizrahim. 

And then between the more, and the less pious, in both of those groups. And, amongst that former group, between those who are more peaceably inclined, and those who feel that enough is enough, and an eye demands an eye, as the bible clearly states.

Gabriel Byrne in HBO’s remake of In Treatment.

Likewise, amongst the Palestinians, the boy’s father wants to press the Israeli police for justice and attend the court proceedings that follow, once the perpetrators have been apprehended. But all that does, he is angrily told, is to acknowledge the Israeli’s right to jurisdiction over them, and to absolve them of the continued and perpetual mistreatment that the Palestinian people are forever the subject of at their hands.

What’s so depressing, and of course so familiar for anyone who’s ever spent any time north of Dundalk, is that, despite all these subtle and nuanced distinctions, absolutely every discussion, conversation, argument and fight ends up being about one thing. Either you’re with us, or you’re with them. Which is as true for the Israelis as it is for the Palestinians.

Ultimately, the show triumphs by refusing not merely to take sides, but to in any way judge. The result is a series that is continually illuminating and endlessly gripping.

You can see the trailer to HBO’s Our Boys here. And you can read the slightly longer appraisal in Harretz, the admittedly liberal (in the context of Israeli politics) journal here

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HBO’s triumphant Watchmen: cinema V television

Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen.

First things first; Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen is something to behold. It’s Back to the Future directed by Lars von Trier on a particularly good day, and scripted by Dennis Potter. Except it’s been fused in a parallel universe on the other side of the looking glass, so that race and gender have been reversed.

We’ll come to that in a bit. But to begin with, how has this succeeded where so many others have failed?

Scosese’s Raging Bull.

As has been well documented, two fundamental changes have taken place across the media landscape over the last couple of decades. On the one hand, we’re in the midst of a proverbial golden age of television. And on the other, the world of cinema has become completely polarised. 

Superficially speaking, that polarisation has always been there. 20thcentury cinema was made up of Hollywood films, and independent films. But those two canvases produced a wide variety of different kinds of films. Hollywood could mean Double Indemnity, The Godfather or Raging Bull. Independent could give you The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Amélie, Babette’s Feast or Prospero’s Books.

Amelie.

It’s impossible to imagine any of those being made today with the aim of screening them primarily at the cinema. Because there are only two kinds of films that you’ll find in the cinema today; franchise products, and really low budget, genuinely independent fare.

That’s what Scorsese was complaining about in those series of interviews that he gave towards the end of the year just gone, and which culminated with that op ed piece in the New York Times, here.

He can’t connect, he says, with any of those superhero movies, because there’s nothing at stake. How could there be? They’re superheroes. And none of the people making those movies have the room to take any kind of risks. Because there’s just too much money involved in the franchises they fuel. Which is why, if you’re an adult hungry to explore grown up themes and ideas, it’s to television that you today turn to. And not, alas, cinema.

So what would be the biggest risk when exploring the comic book landscape?

The Wachowskis V for Vendetta.

Ignoring the super of your heroes and viewing them instead as grown ups dressed in masks. If they don’t have their superpowers, then there’s no need for all that green screen nonsense. And when you don’t have that to fall back on, you’re forced to explore instead the relationships between your various characters, and how they fit in in the world in which they find themselves. What would drive an articulate, intelligent person to put on a mask and fight crime?

That was why V for Vendetta worked so powerfully, and it’s why Lindelof’s Watchmen is such a triumph. The DC universe of masked crime fighters allows him, and the Wachowski siblings before him, to explore individuals whose time is out of joint and who feel cursed to set it right. Not because they’ve been arbitrarily gifted with some nebulous super power. But because they can do no other.

And what, if you are a 21stcentury American, are the two most pressing personal and societal issues? Race and gender. So here we are in Watchmen, presented with a cast (and crew) who are predominantly black, and female. And older.

Lindelof’s The Leftovers.

Interestingly, both V and Watchmen originated with the perennially grumpy Alan Moore, who, predictably, has disowned them both. I tried reading (is that what one does with a graphic novel?) his Watchmen, and I have to confess it sailed serenely over my head. I just found it flat, and static, and all too black and white.

Lindelof’s Watchmen is so much more dynamic. And relevant. 

You can see the trailer for Watchmen here.

And if you haven’t already, you should watch Lindelof’s The Leftovers, which I reviewed earlier, here.

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