Stories that are based around a character or characters undertaking a long journey – often two people who are bound together by circumstance, or a sense of duty, or family ties, etc – are ten-a-penny in cinema, and especially so within the western genre. Such a time-worn set-up applies to Jacques Audiard’s latest, a revisionist oater in which antiheroes Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly on very good form) and his younger sibling Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) are employed as henchmen by a wealthy figure known as The Commodore (Rutger Hauer in a minor, non-speaking role). Charged with tracking down a gold prospector by the name of Hermann Kermit Warm, the two brothers bicker and endure – rather than enjoy – each other’s company, making their way from town to town, heading from Oregon into California. Along the way, the calmer, more contemplative Eli contemplates a change of direction in life, while the impetuous Charlie remains utterly wrapped up in the moment, largely incapable of seeing beyond the next saloon brawl; cinema conditioning dictates that we instantly expect them both to undergo some kind of change during their journey south.
If the outline sounds familiar, there are specific elements of the film that ensure it stands out from the litany of other works that combine the figurative inner journeys of characters with physically-demanding slogs across land, not least the ever-shifting tone and mood of the piece. These changes echo those of Patrick DeWitt’s source novel, a work that wrong-foots the reader by skipping between, say, brutal violence and sardonic humour, often in the space of the same paragraph. Very early on in the film it’s clear that the audience – like the brothers – is in for an uneasy ride: one minute you’re watching a shoot-out, the next a gruesome slice of body horror, then lighter, knockabout comedy (with Phoenix even offering touches of slapstick), and finally, in its most intriguing state, The Sisters Brothers morphs into a meditative, almost dreamlike study of the ties that bind.
In addition, there is a lot of elliptical storytelling (a device that all-too-often sounds the death knell in terms of a movie’s box office performance, and perhaps contributed to this film’s status as a financial flop). The plot is never unduly complicated and the story is always easy to follow, but occasionally the viewer is required to do a little work and fill in the gaps. For example, some gunfights involving the brothers end abruptly, mid-shootout, and Audiard might cut to a scene showing the pair farther on down the line, where more conventional films would clearly establish that every adversary has been downed before doing so. A grizzly bear attack – something that became the most memorable moment in The Revenant – is dealt with in a similar fashion, with one of the characters simply waking from a deep slumber to find a defeated, dead bear slumped in the camp; we don’t see any of the struggle that ensued, or get to experience any of the tension that would undoubtedly have been caused by the animal’s appearance.
That’s not to say Audiard’s film is light on excitement or action, but it’s very much a secondary concern, any near-death experiences being business-as-usual for these experienced hired killers. The director is far more interested in the changing relationships between Eli and Charlie and, in a subplot that eventually merges with the main strand, the tentatively homoerotic union between Riz Ahmed’s Warm and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Morris, the latter another of The Commodore’s hired guns (and one whose highfalutin ways constantly anger Charlie Sisters).
At its best the film recalls the woozy, spiritual style of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, and there were enough of these passages to leave me thinking that The Sisters Brothers will be very warmly regarded as time passes, perhaps one day seen as a cult concern (if indeed it isn’t already; such things seem to be enshrined pretty quickly in the 21st century). The pared-down score by celebrated composer Alexandre Desplat certainly enhances the overall sense of oddness, sounding like a choppy, jerky reworking of something that might have begun life as a ‘classic’ western theme. Benoît Debie’s impressive digital cinematography, meanwhile, features some crisp interior low-light work and stunning landscape photography, even if Audiard seems wholly uninterested in lingering over the beautiful mountain vistas and plains for too long; an American director or cinematographer might have been more tempted to romanticise the land and slot in with the history of the genre by shooting on film and leaving certain views up on the screen for a few extra seconds. The Frenchman and his Belgian DoP seem less interested in such convention.
With all that in mind, as well as the generally poor box office showings of other modern westerns, it’s hardly a surprise that this failed to find a large audience upon release, but as long as you’re not the one taking the financial hit or hoping for a long and successful career in Hollywood (as Audiard may have been) that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As The Sisters Brothers peters out with a gently reverberating coda – eschewing an obvious stopping point or uplifting ending – it becomes clear that this is one that has been made for the few, rather than the many. It also strikes me that Reilly, had he been acting in another era, would have played dozens of roles in the western genre. (****)
Somewhat belatedly, here is a list of my 20 favourite documentaries of 2018, which is the second post of my three-part round-up of last year (click here for the first bit; the third will follow in the next week or so). The simple criteria is that the films were officially released in the UK during 2018 in cinemas, shown on streaming services or screened on TV.
20. The Final Year (Barker): Illuminating access-nearly-all-areas work that follows President Obama, his family and his administration during the final year of office.
19. Even When I Fall (Neal, McLarnon): An extremely moving film detailing the setting-up of Nepal’s first circus by performers who were previously trafficked as children and sold into Indian circuses.
18. Joan Jett: Bad Reputation (Kerslake): At times this doc feels a little workmanlike and predictable as it moves from one stage of Joan Jett’s long, successful career to the next, but there’s a certain energy that comes from the interviewees (including Jett herself) that helps it tick along. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel… but perfectly enjoyable nonetheless.
17. Make Us Dream (Blair): The first of three football-related documentaries on this list, which is more a reflection of my love of and interest in the sport, as opposed to us being in some kind of golden age for such films. This one’s about Steven Gerrard’s Liverpool career, and it smartly eschews the hagiographical style of your usual football puff piece, focusing as much on the lows the all-action midfielder experienced as a player as it does on the relative highs and providing plenty of psychological insight along the way.
16. Bobby Robson: More Than A Manager (Clarke, Jones): And here’s the second. This is a warm portrait of a thoroughly decent gentleman, whose generous kindness and geniality was not always reciprocated by the media or the people who employed him. There’s plenty of interesting material here about Robson’s time as manager of Barcelona, in particular.
15. McQueen (Bonhôte, Ettedgui): A thorough portrait of a major, influential designer within the fashion industry, charting Alexander McQueen’s career from youthful, exuberant apprentice on Savile Row to his later, often controversial, collections, shows and collaborations. His suicide at the age of 40 hangs over every minute in which his death isn’t being explicitly discussed; this is the sad tale of a man who was, by all accounts (I don’t have much knowledge about the fashion world myself), a great talent.
14. Take The Ball, Pass The Ball (McMath): The Barcelona team managed by Pep Guardiola is the best that I have seen in nearly 40 years of watching football, and I firmly believe that Leo Messi is the finest player that has ever walked this planet, so this film – which traces the formation of the Barcelona style and the gradual steps to near-perfection taken by the team featuring Messi – is like catnip for me. Couldn’t get enough of the wide-ranging, insightful interviews, particularly those involving the tactically-astute Xavi.
13. The Price Of Everything (Kahn): I do wish this eyebrow-raiser, which gleefully spends time analysing the shocking amounts of money changing hands within the modern art world, was a little bit more forthright in its condemnation of… well, anything (even if it was just venomous about the ugliness of it all). The director’s approach is deliberately – and often infuriatingly – standoffish, but I applaud those who took part who were only ever going to come out of it looking bad or embarrassed. This is an effective summation as to how cosy art and commerce have become as bedfellows, albeit a film that tiptoes around egos a little too lightly.
12. Bros: After The Screaming Stops (Pearlman, Soutar): This one quickly gained notoriety on account of the cringe-worthy, unintentionally hilarious soundbites provided by (former?) pop stars Matt and Luke Goss as they reformed their band Bros for a one-off gig. The ‘Spinal Tap’ moments are plentiful, but the twin brothers came across well overall, and it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for them as they unwittingly stitch themselves up. Third band member Craig Logan (or ‘Ken’ as he was once regularly called by Smash Hits) wisely steered clear of the whole affair.
11. Shirkers (Tan): There are two equally-fascinating stories in this film by Sandi Tan; the first concerns her youth in Singapore, its burgeoning indie film scene and her attempt at making a movie within that environment, which was thwarted by a man who mysteriously and cruelly disappeared with all the footage. The second relates to the present, twenty years on, in which the 16mm film is discovered and Tan and her colleagues analyse their memories of the time, the working relationships they had with one another and the act that – temporarily, at least – stopped them in their tracks.
10. Filmworker (Zierra): You could make the rather cruel argument that this film is less about the former actor Leon Vitali and more about the man Vitali would work with as a personal assistant for many, many years – a certain Stanley Kubrick. However, this is also a study in the dedication, the loyalty and the constant effort put in by a relatively-unknown crew member working behind the scenes, and the unusual nature of the subject matter – we don’t hear from these people so much – was welcome.
9. A Northern Soul (McAllister): Having lived in the city of Kingston upon Hull for a number of years, this film about Steve Arnott’s work during Hull’s UK City of Culture celebrations really struck a chord. At the time of filming Arnott was balancing his job as a warehouse worker with his family duties and a desire to realise his dream of running a hip-hop bus for the benefit of the younger members of his local community; however funding was hard to secure, and financial struggles pervade every minute of Sean McAllister’s smartly political documentary – for here is a man that embodies the very notion of David Cameron’s Big Society while living within a city that has suffered more than most from the actions of various UK governments, and particularly at the hands of the Tories. It was made by a director with similar roots to Arnott’s, and it’s never patronising.
8. New Town Utopia (Smith): A fascinating study of an English ‘new town’, ie one created after the Second World War to accommodate the London overspill. In this case, the subject is Basildon in Essex, and Christopher Ian Smith’s film seems to me to be a thorough, exhaustive study of the place – the camera tracing all that Brutalist, concrete architecture (underpasses and shopping precincts appear a lot, if memory serves) and numerous residents providing an entertaining oral history of ‘Bas Vegas’ through their interviews.
7. Ex Libris: New York Public Library (Wiseman): Frederick Wiseman’s latest examination of a major institution or community (and I guess, in a way, this library can be seen as being a micro-community) is typically bum-numbing, at 197 minutes, but engrossing for pretty much all of that running time. I visit two of my local libraries two or three times a week, on average – they are the last quiet refuges in most towns, now – and to see the intricate workings of one this big was a real treat. Wiseman’s chronicling of high-level meetings is a necessary feature of his documentaries, but I preferred the rest of the assembled footage here, which managed to show the different roles the NYPL performs in people’s lives.
6. Black Mother (Allah): A restless, personal documentary about womanhood, Jamaican identity and the country itself that endlessly shifts from one form to another – juddering between 16mm film, digital and so on. There’s no music on the soundtrack, and voices come in and out of the mix to haunting effect.
5. American Animals (Layton): I wondered whether to put this docudrama on this list or on a forthcoming one that will detail my favourite (non-documentary) 2018 releases, for it could easily sit on either. The story, about a botched heist by four students, is ripe for such cinematic treatment, of course, and its telling here is pretty riveting (the switches from talking head interviews to dramatic reconstructions are incredibly smooth). A subtle examination of modern white male privilege and the extraordinary and damaging drive some people have for new experiences.
4. They Shall Not Grow Old (Jackson): I had such a strong reaction to this film when I saw it on the big screen and then, three days later, on TV, that I’m surprised it hasn’t cracked the top three of this list. The colourised archive footage of the First World War (specifically the Somme trenches populated by British soldiers) is startling, and the digital adjustments made by Jackson and his team seemed to me to be made with sensitivity.
3. Free Solo (Chin, Vasarhelyi): Glad I saw this in a cinema; it was a blast. My palms were sweating repeatedly during the various climbs undertaken by Alex Honnold as he takes on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without any safety harnesses, and the filmmakers – who previously made the excellent Meru – do a great job in capturing it all, reducing the main attempt down to half-a-dozen key moments. It’s a fine study into the mental state of a climber – particularly one whose approach is as extreme and dangerous (or as pure, depending on your point of view) as Honnold’s – and the way in which their pursuit of a goal can affect the people who are closest to them.
2. Arcadia (Wright): A journey into the heart of the British countryside that’s often dark and weird, making great use of the BFI’s vast archive of film and a superbly unsettling soundtrack by Will Gregory and Adrien Utley. Arcadia is at its best when it is suggesting an underlying oddness existing within the rural environment, but there is real breadth to the included footage: fox hunting, the beauty of the landscape and nature (as well as its harmfulness), farming, cheese-rolling, the gradual removal of services from village life – there is much to ponder in this deliciously offbeat amalgamation.
1. Faces Places (JR, Varda): I had Paul Wright’s Arcadia listed as my favourite documentary of 2018 and Agnès Varda’s life-affirming street-art—rural-celebration-travelogue – which she made with the artist JR – at number two. But Varda’s recent death at the end of March got me thinking about Faces Places again, and how welcome such an optimistic work is at this point in time. It’s a great celebration of people and art, with an emphasis on the act of seeing as well as on the aging process, and the touchingly bittersweet ending will resonate even stronger now Varda has passed. Despite Jean-Luc Godard’s rather cruel snub, Varda’s positive, forward-thinking outlook is irrepressible – nobody can stop the good vibes that radiated from her, and that can be found in this wonderful film.
While watching the first half of this latest film by director J.C. Chandor – who had previously made the kinda-sorta Hollywood outliers Margin Call, All Is Lost and A Most Violent Year – I wondered whether he had taken Richard Ayoade’s recent book The Grip of Film as straight-faced gospel, given that book’s amusing obsession with 80s trash action movies, their heroes and the men who played them. On the face of it, and certainly during the opening hour, that’s what Triple Frontier is: a slick, modern take on those hi-octane, ultra-macho 80s flicks (with a slight homage to the more esoteric Sorceror) in which a tooled-up dude or team of tooled-up dudes performs some sort of task or undertakes some sort of journey, usually in a foreign land that the US government has a vested interest in.
The retrograde plot of Triple Frontier involves Oscar Isaac’s former special ops bro putting together a team of other former special ops bros (Pedro Pascal, Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund) for that fabled ‘last job’, which will make them all rich beyond their wildest dreams – a story that, quite frankly, has been done to death. Affleck becomes the de facto leader, partly because he was the group’s main man when they were performing nefarious badness for the CIA, US military et al in the past, and also presumably because he’s the most famous actor in the picture, while each of the characters is (poorly) fleshed out with a minimal backstory establishing their motivation (bored with job, daughter’s college fund needed, etc etc).
While the characterisation and plotting early on is as half-arsed as it is regressive, it does at least let you know that each man has given a lot in dubious service to their country without really receiving the kind of above-board fiscal compensation they should have, considering their actions and the risks involved. Having been conditioned to think in a certain way by Hollywood for decades, we therefore hope that each man succeeds in the film’s mission – a daring, non-government-sponsored heist carried out on foreign shores – and will thus be set for life. They crack jokes and seem likeable. They’re even robbing a South American cartel head who executes people and has made a shit ton of cash, just to make sure there’s a recognisable ‘big bad’ with plenty of disposable, killable employees to hang the first and second acts on.
Without wishing to give too much away, Chandor takes ‘that’ film and gradually whittles away at what usually tends to underpin such fare, making a far more interesting and morally complex movie as a result (ie one that’s as fascinating as his first three). The final hour of Triple Frontier still has its fair share of well-shot and extremely gripping action sequences, all of which see our expert team handling things expertly and in a team-like fashion, but suddenly we start to feel differently about them as individuals and a group: we see that they are robbing a family home in which children live; their greed becomes ever more unpalatable, as does their ruthlessness; and soon they’re not just facing Evil Anonymous Cartel Henchmen, but opportunistic (and barely-trained, but still anonymous) farmers or young teenagers who have presumably been pressed into cartel service on account of their poverty (a move which really does suggest the power and the reach that the most sizeable racketeering organisations have). Our empathy drains away, which is very much an ‘anti-Hollywood’ move.
What Chandor has done is worth admiring, I think: on the one hand this is a slick, good-looking ‘heart-of-darkness’ actioner with serviceable-to-good performances (Affleck is probably the standout, Isaac is decent but can be and has been better) and an easy-to-follow plot, and the film can absolutely be enjoyed on that level alone. It’s also rather deft at debunking the myth of the American hero – let’s just say that the mission isn’t a success, some rather nasty things happen in the name of it and very quickly you begin to side just as much with the people whose lives this band of bros are affecting. It’s a shame that the supporting characters are given short shrift and that there’s a terribly cheesy, uplifting coda to emphasise the inherent nobility of the American criminals (after the time spent undermining such cliched bullshit), but overall this is a tense heist thriller that, enjoyably, asks more questions than most other genre flicks. (3.5)
Before I begin, I probably ought to admit that this kind of documentary is like catnip for me. Although some of the things seen or said within it are objectionable, I’m afraid that I do get a little tingle of pleasure whenever I watch anything featuring rich people attending exclusive events or buying expensive things (and, indeed, when said rich people are so brazen and proud and shameless in discussing such matters). And The Price of Everything, a 2018 documentary about art and commerce, features lots of very rich people buying lots of very expensive things, and making sure that you know exactly how much of their money was spent – the bastards!
Made by Nathaniel Kahn and released in 2018, the film mostly concentrates on the American art scene and American-based collectors, though there are some voices from other countries, such as that of a Russian or Eastern European collector living in New York – she cries when discussing the Damien Hirst hanging in her apartment, and it’s one of the few surprisingly disarming moments in a documentary that often feels slightly, but not transparently, cynical. (It’s interesting to note as an aside that we also hear from British employees of auction house Sotheby’s, an American multinational that still trades heavily on its British heritage.) Kahn also focuses on the people – dealers, artists etc. – who benefit directly from the largesse, and whenever any of these interviewees betrays their smugness with a little smirk Kahn is there, leaving micro-pauses so that the moment is noted by the viewer.
Such moves suggest that the director finds this mega-commercialisation of modern art fascinating but disgusting, and that he’s ‘out to get it’, though in truth this is a fairly even-handed examination of ‘big’ commercial art; even those who make huge profits are able to look at the situation objectively and question whether a bubble is about to burst, or whether it’s a healthy state of affairs (of course it isn’t). Kahn devotes plenty of screen time to those who feel that the astronomical prices attached to work by the chosen few (George Condo, Jeff Koons, etc) are damaging for modern culture more generally. Critics and people employed by big city galleries and museums, for example, lament the fact that works purchased by the super-rich are then lost to the world, hidden away in luxurious apartments or ultra-secure basements, as opposed to being on public display. I tend to agree with them – that it is a shame – but it’s also worth saying that there’s something refreshingly open and honest about several of the wealthy collectors here that I appreciated; they’re not necessarily always being boastful, and although one or two of them aren’t particularly articulate when describing the art they have bought and enjoy seeing in their homes, their lack of erudition shouldn’t be misread as a lack of passion, or used to suggest that they’re somehow not deserving of these works. I’ve seen that kind of reverse snobbery in reviews of this film, and it strikes me as being pretty ugly.
It’s intriguing to see the different artists at work. Most are still directly involved in the production of their own artwork, laying paint on canvas themselves, as it were, while Koons is emblematic of the famous artists who have developed a factory of sorts, employing studio-based staff to produce pieces that will later have the artist’s name attached to them. (He is unashamed and open about his methods, explaining that if he did everything himself he’d only be able to make one work a year. I don’t think he is driven by a need to exploit his own popularity for commercial gain, it’s more to do with finding a way to get all of the ideas in his head out into the world; at least – giving him the benefit of the doubt – that’s how I read it. But his working practices do seem crucial to a film that is asking why certain works sell for millions of dollars and why others do not.)
It’s a shame that The Price Of Everything always feels like a gentle, 90-minute discourse into the commercialisation of modern art, as driven by the super-wealthy. It neither fully skewers its intended targets (if indeed there are any) nor reels in horror at some of the practices depicted or the astronomical figures that are bandied about in auctions; so it feels to me that Kahn is at times sitting on the fence a little too comfortably, and that taking a side or having an opinion that is expressed more clearly would have been welcome. Many of the artists featured feel awkward about or bemused by the prices their work can command, though they also cosy up to the commercial movers and shakers, posing for pictures and answering questions in a sort of dutiful manner that I don’t think is necessarily driven by a sense of politeness; more about playing the game. It is a shame that Kahn – perhaps out of politeness himself – doesn’t directly ask the artists who feature about this. But, as a glimpse into a world I’ll never be a part of (and don’t wish to be a part of) this is often fascinating viewing. (3.5)
Like many other film fans I like to take stock at the end of the year, and in this post I’m going to discuss the previous twelve months in a general, rambling fashion, with reference to my ‘blind spots’ (yup, still doing that) and other notable works that I saw for the first time during 2018. The second part of the round-up – which may be as late as March – will include my annual selection of 50 favourite feature films released in the UK and 20 favourite documentaries. At the time of writing I still want to watch some highly-rated titles that I missed in cinemas, including the likes of Burning, Shoplifters, Cold War and The Rider, and will spend a month or so doing that before making a final list.
My cinema-going in 2018 was mostly limited to my local multiplex, for which I have an annual pass that allows me to see as many new releases as I can stomach; I still only go around once a week, on average. Sadly the multiplex tends to pass on a lot of arthouse-friendly fare, foreign language films and independent productions, and I can’t say I blame them; when they have taken risks (if ‘risks’ is the right word) I’ve found myself sitting in crowds as small as four or five people, whereas like most places in the world the heavily-marketed blockbusters, family films and familiar franchise entries are still putting bums on seats and dominant.
For those smaller releases I’ve tended to wait for the DVD release – Luddite that I am – and have generally eschewed paying full whack to stream films on platforms like Curzon Home Cinema and BFI Player, which I used regularly in the past. I don’t feel the same urgency to see films during the week or month of release any more, but it’s also partly because I already pay out for three subscription services on a monthly basis, so I’ve always got plenty to watch without paying £10 a pop to see a new release in the comfort of my own home. Anyway, I had some fun times at the cinema this year, and even most of the dross I checked out wasn’t too bad.
I’m told by Letterboxd that I logged 487 entries in 2018, with probably around 20 of those being for TV series (2017’s Twin Peaks: The Return being the standout) and short films. I’m pleased with the total, though inevitably watching so many titles means that there are some films I can barely remember anything about – for example I know that I watched Pompeii, but I couldn’t give you a synopsis (I freely admit my attention repeatedly diverted towards my phone while it was playing); even some of last year’s awards season favourites are fading from memory.
My blind spot list last year was varied, and despite a couple of delays I managed to watch all twelve much-admired movies for the first time before the year-end. My favourites from the dozen were Rashomon and Sunset Boulevard, although in truth all the others impressed. Vivre Sa Vie contains a terrific performance by Anna Karina, whose character is perhaps unfairly treated by vindictive puppeteer Jean-Luc Godard. High Noon is a tense examination of the decent Old West lawman and Stalker is a magnificent, moody and thought-provoking work that I will certainly watch again. Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanours is a career highlight, while Georges Franju’s Les Yeux Sans Visage is still a vibrant, unsettling horror decades after it was first released; the same can be said of Poltergeist, I guess, though it is a very different beast. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a hugely enjoyable slice of kitchen sink drama as well as being a landmark in British cinema on account of its depiction of working class characters, and for the Woodfall Films production company, while for very different reasons the production and grand scale of Brazil and Doctor Zhivago impressed. Had I seen Terry Gilliam’s Brazil as a teenager I imagine it would have become a favourite that I subsequently returned to over and over again, but as I was watching I had a sense that that particular boat had sailed. Fun movie, though, and great looking. The only ‘blind spot’ selection that didn’t really resonate deeply was Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour. I probably didn’t concentrate hard enough and as such failed to see its supposed greatness, but I still liked it; I have a DVD copy so perhaps I’ll watch it again someday.
The idea of doing a blind spot list is becoming increasingly pointless, as during any given year I’ll watch a great many other films for the first time that could easily qualify. I’m not sure there’s much point in listing all of them, but I guess I’d just like to register the fact that the following films were all new to me and each one made a big impression. I recommend them all highly if there are some you haven’t seen yourself. (Directors’ names in brackets.)
Man With A Movie Camera (Vertov) Life Is Sweet (Leigh) Like Father, Like Son (Koreeda) The Consequences of Love (Sorrentino) The War (Burns, Novick) In The Mood For Love (Kar-Wai) Blow Out, Carrie (both De Palma) The Lovers On The Bridge, Mauvais Sang (both Carax) Moolaadé (Sembène Café Lumière (Hsiao-hsien) A Separation (Farhadi) Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier) Dogville (Lars Von Trier) The Red Balloon (Lamorisse) Hunger (McQueen) Meru (Chin, Vasarhelyi) Fragment Of Fear (Sarafian) Get Carter (Hodges) The Conformist (Antonioni) Bringing Up Baby (Hawks) Unforgiven (Eastwood) Birth (Glazer) The Green Ray, Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle (both Rohmer) The Beaches of Agnès (Varda) M (Lang) Irma Vep (Assayas) The Pianist (Polanski) Bicycle Thieves (De Sica) All The President’s Men (Pakula) Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Weerasethakul) The Headless Woman (Martel) The Arbor (Arnold) Starred Up (McKenzie) Cool Hand Luke (Rosenberg) Whatever Happened To Baby Jane (Aldrich) The Player (Altman) Point Blank (Boorman) Soylent Green (Fleischer) The Misfits (Huston) The Day The Earth Stood Still (Wise)
My 2019 blind spot list is made up of the following: The Elephant Man, Last Year At Marienbad, Marathon Man, The Right Stuff, Lawrence Of Arabia, Monster, Some Like It Hot, Young Frankenstein, Aguirre, Wrath Of God, Videodrome, The Philadelphia Story and The Night Of The Hunter. On we go!
I very much like the series of films that have been put together using the BFI’s vast archive, of which this 2018 release – by Paul Wright – is the latest. There’s something about the historical aspect, and the general strangeness of some of the footage (particularly from the earlier half of the last century) that appeals, as well as the fact that they serve as illuminating guides to British life and highlight some important 20th century social change, with regard to class, gender politics, leisure time, war, immigration, declining industry, etc.
Kim Longinotto’s Love Is All was a spirited run-through of romance in British cinema (scored, aptly, by crooner Richard Hawley); Benedikt Erlingsson’s The Show Of Shows examined circuses and other similar forms of entertainment with a soundtrack from Sigur Rós and Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson; and Penny Woolcock’s From The Sea To The Land Beyond was a powerful illustration of life lived at the coast, with British Sea Power re-purposing some of their earlier songs for the occasion. Wright’s film is, roughly speaking, about the countryside, and he uses the setting to explore aspects of the British psyche and society, pointedly depicting both a bucolic Utopia – indeed ‘Utopia’ is one of several intertitles used to split the film into specific segments or chapters – and a more nightmarish, psychedelic space that’s characterised by folk horror, disturbing or bizarre rituals, huge class and economic gulfs and plenty more besides. This one has been scored by Adrian Utley of Portishead and Will Gregory of Goldfrapp, though some traditional and atmospheric folk music makes the cut too.
I liked the score, overall, as it shifts and encompasses different styles of music, depending on the chapter, but it does begin to affect your interpretation of the footage a little too much for my liking. For example, the ominous-sounding thrum that accompanies film of Morris men dancing suggests a dark, menacing undertone to the action that is taking place, and while such dancers are certainly seen as being quirky today, I’m not entirely sure they represent British folk tradition at its weirdest or most threatening. But still, the music certainly helps to tie all of the assembled footage together, so I’m wary of complaining too much about it; it’s a soundtrack I would like to buy, but haven’t got round to yet.
While watching the film, I found that some of the dots that Wright joins together are a bit of a stretch; one example would be a section in which punk – really something I’d say was a preserve of more urban areas, particularly during its heyday – is linked to the underground raves and festivals that became emblematic of British outsider culture, and were later turned into massive cash-generating enterprises by some rural landowners. I guess there is a wider point being made here, perhaps about the way in which culture more recently has tended to trickle outwardly from cities, but it does seem a little unclear to me; and while there’s certainly a theme here about people escaping to the countryside to let themselves go – nude hippies and naturalists feature regularly throughout – any footage here that looks like it was made in a town or city seems oddly intrusive and out of place.
That said, part of the appeal of Arcadia is its oddness, the times when its rambling looseness and the accumulation of footage seems to build into or generate something greater, some repeated point about how strange British people are; although there is a coherence and organisation too, mostly thanks to the chapter-based structure. It is a restless work that is packed with ideas and there are many successfully forged links, while there is definitely a thrill to be had in going along with it and simply enjoying the sheer variety of archive material that Wright has uncovered and used. Perhaps it doesn’t matter all that much if some aspects are tied together more tightly than others.
I thought Arcadia is at its best when it is suggesting an underlying oddness existing within the countryside, but there is real breadth to the included footage: fox hunting, the beauty of the landscape and nature (as well as its harmfulness), farming, cheese-rolling, the gradual removal of services from village life – there is much to ponder in this deliciously offbeat amalgamation. It probably lands better with those who have experience of living in the UK and who will therefore pick up on some of the subtler suggestions, but I dare say if you have a more general interest in life anywhere there is something for you to enjoy. As it stands, it probably just about edges Frederick Wiseman’s thorough paean to the community services of the New York Public Library, Ex Libris, and Agnès Varda and JD’s warm study of art, ageing and people, Faces, Places, as my favourite documentary of 2018. (4.5)
While watching Kelly Reichardt’s 1994 road movie – her debut – you can sense the influence of other independent filmmakers who were firmly ‘established’ by the mid-1990s. There are echoes in this film, which tells the story of two untypical criminals on the run, of landmark pictures such as Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy and Terrence Malick’s Badlands in terms of the tone, cinematography, locations, production design and plot, although there is also enough evidence of Reichardt’s own voice and early self-confidence to ensure that River Of Grass is more than mere pastiche and to indicate that she wasn’t timidly in thrall of those earlier works.
In fact, there is much to distinguish this film from the road movies and crime dramas written and/or directed by men (it’s rare that a woman tackles either genre today, and it was doubly so in 1994). As per much of the director’s subsequent output, the pace of River Of Grass is decidedly unhurried, and therefore completely at odds with the breakneck speed regularly employed in most crime movies of the mid-1990s. Additionally, any scenes of sudden, sporadic violence – and there are a few here – are underplayed, and that also distances Reichardt from any contemporaries she had at the time – with regard to bloody acts of cruelty, other (male) indie filmmakers of the era were going big at every available opportunity.
Where the likes of Quentin Tarantino celebrated the murderers and criminals on the lam who appeared in his screenplays (turning at least four of them into notable early-1990s antiheroes), the two main protagonists of River Of Grass hit the road after shooting a man while they are trespassing on his property, and spend a lot of the subsequent running time in motels, stores and cars, unsure as to whether they’ve actually killed him. There is no revelling in their combined baseness here: you couldn’t describe the duo as ‘cool’, and their shared self-doubt courses through the film, as does their vague lack of direction and inability to escape the area of Florida that they live in; the highway should offer a way out, but here it just seems to send the couple round and round in circles. By way of contrast, the outlaw couples of, say, Badlands, True Romance and Natural Born Killers all seem to be going somewhere at pace, and seem more sure of their respective relationships and shared short-term and long-term goals.
A gun features prominently in Reichardt’s film, but it is handled in such a way as to suggest that both characters are either fairly unfamiliar with firearms or completely inexperienced. Again, unusual for the period. (Clarence Worley, in Tony Scott’s Tarantino-scripted True Romance, by way of comparison, seems a natural shooter despite being a comic store clerk with, presumably, very little experience of guns – the implication being that comics and movies can teach you everything you need to know about weapons and how to handle them, or that some kind of innate masculine know-how is unlocked when fingers first wrap around cold steel.) Only near the end is the gun of River Of Grass used with real intent and purpose, and when it is fired it’s a surprising act – the two characters have been making their way across unremarkable Floridian landscape for most of the movie, never really getting anywhere, and then suddenly the plot veers off in a pleasingly unexpected way. There’s a very Reichardtian sense of new hope by the end, though typically it’s just left hanging for the viewer to contemplate, rather than explicitly followed up on.
Elsewhere in this film there’s innovative deployment of montages, a formal decision that also helped to distance Reichardt from the pack in the mid-1990s and marked her out as a talent whose career would be worth following. (Something that’s easy to say in hindsight, admittedly.) That said, there is also plenty here to date the film, from some of the events that unfold and the dreamily-delivered narration to Jim Denault’s cinematography, which has a certain sun-bleached indie aesthetic that I associate with the era. The lead performances by Lisa Donaldson and Larry Fessenden also seem very typical of the early 90’s to me: less cartoonish and overt a Kit n’ Holly homage than Patricia Arquette and Christian Slater in True Romance, but still kind of harking back to the American New Wave and actors like Spacek, Sheen, Nicholson or Dunaway when they were young. None of this is intended as a criticism: it’s an indie film made in the mid-90s and that’s exactly what it looks and feels like. However, it was also a very promising, intriguing debut that successfully undercut some of the tropes of the increasingly predictable and successful crime films directed by men at the time. (3.5/5)