Tetro (2018)
Dir. Francis Ford Coppola

Antonio Canova hired workers to carve marble into sculptures, and then he, the sculptor, polished the surfaces. This is not uncommon in the arts: for centuries the unnamed hands of artist workshops or atelier committed much of the labour to producing artworks, and the artist whose name you know might have offered its final touches- the colour blue, a hand, an eye. Even just the under-sketch: your favourite painter might not have laid their paintbrush on your favourite painting. Often if you know the artist’s name it’s because they took on a role that we might now associate more with a director, overlooking a coherent vision across the various people involved in the works’ production. When we look at a number of these works we look for the consistency of concern, and then the artist flourish. This should not be shocking: it’s not Beethoven himself playing the piano on your recordings, it’s not Sofia Coppola acting in every role or running every camera, and it wasn’t necessarily even McQueen laying every stitch. The reason that I have highlighted Canova is because his name is entirely synonymous with that final bit: the marble’s polish. The forms of his sculptures are beautiful but typical of his time, and it is the surface touch that differentiates the artist from his peers.

Coppola, to me, has always seemed a Canova type. Compared to most of his contemporaries (e.g. Altman, De Palma, Malick), who explored their hangups and artistic whims across the many hundreds of hands involved in each production, Coppola’s most celebrated works offer something that from a distance typifies the Platonic ideal of New Hollywood, but which up close go hazy with a Coppola sheen. This is not a criticism of the director; in fact, I have always admired his commitment to the solid and reliable over the scrappy and experimental, even if this is not to my taste. There is a real kick to be had from something that seems so obviously good that its ineffable flourish is just the sense of making complete sense. It’s almost artless in how much sense it all makes. I know this will read as sacrilege to fans of The Godfather, but even his fairly bizarre take on Dracula seems somehow to suggest that Dracula movies should look and feel like this now. Apocalypse Now is a horror movie with surreal bits, but it also shrugs and says Hey, I’ve got an idea for all war movies from this point on, what do you think? Unlike his peers who might’ve slummed it in genre to see how far their aesthetic could bend, Coppola seems to go in as a student genuinely wanting to learn, and then surprises even himself with how quickly he finishes the curriculum. The humility of it all just makes the confidence that much more compelling, the artfulness of the mechanics that much more artless. The production difficulties behind some of his best works just add to their professional anti-charm: like Canova, it’s all too good to seem daring. But unlike Canova you don’t see any of this stuff before Coppola, making him a kind of pioneer of artful artlessness, of professionally good popular art.

Half a century on a host of younger directors (Villeneuve et al.) are aspiring to their nostalgic idea of New Hollywood and in the process are producing formally conservative but very well done films. Coppola has been displaced as maker of well done popular films, but rather than taking this as a cue for retirement, he has become liberated from the solid and reliable. As a consequence he is now one of the best we’ve got. Whether he thinks popular cinema needs a bigger kick now than it did half a century ago or if it’s that he can no longer be bothered being polite about it, he is no longer being polite about it, and that’s what matters. He has recently become scrappy, stylised, broken, and against all expectation, personal. He messes with genre to squeeze every bit of melancholy he can from it, and he comments on film not because he makes movies for a living, but because they’re a memory we all share. Because where once long-shots seemed radical, now it’s an interrogation of our soul. Now that he has changed tact, he has gone from nineteen seventies America personified to a director that you know will break your heart.

Tetro‘s straightforward bio reads that a man travels to Buenos Aires to find his older brother, a failed writer whose unfinished play holds a great family secret. The way that the film negotiates the expectations of these promises (rather than delivering on them exceedingly well as the director did in his so-called prime) is why Coppola is now so revolutionary. If it suggests something noir-ish, something metatextual, something roman à clef, Tetro delivers. But it does so by undermining the now safe rhythms of the first two things using the third. He reintroduces a more immediate darkness to the noir, rescues the metatextual from the smug mindgame, and then in a virtuoso move, uses them both to universalise the autobiographical. As complex as it sounds it’s actually a dream arrangement: the more personal for him, the more personal for us. And the more the surface breaks, the more it gives way to a flow that sweeps and dives through feelings with the structure of an essay and the character of a piece of music. As Tetro slowly self-destructs on a dramatic level its images and ideas swell like the powerful middle act of Sans Soleil, doubling back and marching forward. Only without voice over narration and with its linear narrative still hanging on, the way he pulls it off is a complete mystery.

Ehrenreich has the gummy face for noir, but Gallo’s skull jars framed that way. Neither of these things matter too much, as Coppola directs Ehrenreich like Emile Hirsch, and Gallo, clammy as ever, snivels his lines less a Broken Genius than a dork student of Coppola’s nephew Jason Schwartzman. The way he rebukes Ehrenreich for using his ‘real’ name, They call me Tetro here, communicates the mystery, while its cutesy awkwardness makes it a believably alienating exchange between estranged brothers, rather than strictly a twee send-up. The black and white initially unsettles as well, and while this seems like a back to basics indie film setup for the director so that he can frame interiors in a stagey way (lamps to the left or right in the foreground, action in the mid, the placement of windows in the back, all become pleasingly obvious in black and white), it comes to mean more texturally. This world gives way to personal and film memories (here one and the same) rendered in full sticky colour. These memories are more conventionally cinematic than the film housing them, and this is emphasised by the boxier aspect ratio that turns the majority of the screen into a frame. We become a second-order audience to a film that is also a memory, feeling and remembering what we need to so that we can make more informed decisions in the present.

The director treats the melodrama seriously, even as it becomes tonally incongruous, rewriting the rules of Tetro as it plays out. Its use of lush cinematic drama and jarring perspective shifts to sincerely express familial wounds reminds in places of Twin Peaks: The Return, particularly with Coppola’s use of digital technologies to mimic the forgotten manual effects of film’s bygone era. It’s then dusty, melancholy, but shockingly contemporary. Although that’s the tingle at the top of your spine by your skull, it’s not the sum of it. Its rigorous structure, as much essay as poem as song, is the propulsive drum that you can feel and not hear, pushing you ceaselessly toward increasingly uncertain actions and images, conclusions that you can feel and not read.



Hereditary (2018)
Dir. Ari Aster

Shifts critical-fashionably between polarities of dumb. Hereditary has a secret desire to lose itself to black blooded horror, but it is restrained by Ari Aster’s smothering auteurism. The twist is that it’s the latter impulse which manifests in ham-fisted cries and hollow shocks, some so shrill that the film inches towards something like a satisfying genre piece. It’s kind of hysterical: Collette’s gravity defying agony can’t steal focus from the smug master crafting callous scenarios in his very own miniature named Hereditary.

Like fellow dollhouse director Wes Anderson he figures there is exactly one angle from which to view the world and that is symmetrically in the middle of a space. Where Anderson employs literate retrograde crashes and montage however, Aster is entirely enamoured with slow pan and zooms, as though Hereditary was filmed in a world where It Follows was actually the genre re-defining moment its press release said it was. It wears what it doesn’t do with pride, but even its design by deduction comes shielded with citation- Aster, like anyone who watches movies, knows what he likes in the ones he likes, but on being tasked with putting his likes into action, struggles to display a knowledge of why, much less what can and should be achieved through, to be fair, fully capable mimesis. The set-up and denial of the ever-reviled jump scare for example becomes more of a focus within the film than actually coming up with ways to scare in its place, and the aforementioned symmetrical compositions make a clever miniature out of the house but at the expense of an eerie geography. Colin Stetson’s music, so angry and afraid in The Rover, so terse, becomes noise. In Aster’s world, art galleries call and harrass miniaturists like the art world depends on it, and in our world, film critics call Asters to make accomplished but vacuous miniature fetish products like the artform needs it too. It’s kitsch, a hideous replica.

It is fair to say that we might as well encourage over-confident filmmakers with no ideas in their heads to continue in the direction of exploitation ooze, because eventually they might stumble their way into negotiating pop horror kineticism with nu-horror portent. Aster, entirely without anything to say about anything (but with a tab open on One Perfect Shot), unconsciously begins hacking a path here. And if that fails, and atmosphere remains ‘atmosphere’, and the occult remains the last resort of those without content trying to cover their thematic bases, then we will at least get more laugh out loud deluded ultraviolence screening at mall cinemas and less mean-spirited family dramas in the festival circuit, which is a win-win.

Kids See Ghosts


Kids See Ghosts (2018)
Kids See Ghosts
GOOD Music | Def Jam

At a glance the middle act of Lemonade to ye‘s wounded first and tender last, its battle drums, guitars, and dry late sixties textures expressing timeless its desire to be cleansed on one listen, and to demonstrate its rebirth on another. A work fluctuating (internally, as well as in the listener’s day-to-day life) between fiery assertion and lacerated appeal. This might hold in a sense, and unlike the photographic yeKids See Ghosts contains both minute joys and a host of durable frameworks for said joys, poignant discursions, and circular questioning. It is, in effect, a hugely successful jam session by two artists who brought shambling with them everything they ever were and wanted to be.

Their own sense of excitement at seeing it come together is infectious. We’re caught off guard when ever consummate Pusha T introduces the record, but understand intuitively that it’s Cudi moaning from somewhere above and Ye screaming along to his own drums below that is Kids See Ghosts‘ statement of intent. He leaves us with this bizarre and volatile duo and locks the door, hoping things will go well. They do. Kanye quickly reasserts his role as beatmaker on his own terms, standing back from the drums with a huge grin and seeing what colours he can throw around. Vietnam War era Fire shepherds a bummer with its playstation flutes, 4th Dimension spins Christmas backwards into a rubber hose spiritual being performed on a fictional island in Scooby Doo (the Wicked Witch of the West is also there), and Marcus Garvey watches as Ye and guests destroy themselves just to know themselves. Kanye’s an intoxicated hack magician skipping around the junkyard and freaking out that there’s now magic shooting from his palms, but also thinking Let’s see how far this goes. He plays the part perfectly, but once he gets everything he needs from it on Freeee, he moves on.

Although Cudi’s distinctive contribution to ye‘s Ghost Town met broad criticism, Kanye evidently believes wholeheartedly in the man’s blurry monotone and the clarity of his lyrics. Peace is something that starts with me isn’t much on paper but when Cudi sings it it might well be Shakespeare, and by the time it’s God, shine your love on me, save me, please, the record slows and the temperature drops even as the drums keep going. The record’s rise in intensity is inversely proportional to its musical aggression- ultimately Kanye turns Cudi’s voice into a disembodied instrument for repetition, with the beats as their guide. Altering the music-making relationship in this way might initially seem like the producer asserting dominance, but here it’s for neither Ye nor Cudi specifically but in service of a kind of meditative space where everything becomes clear at once. Its pain, its desire, and its furious belief in rebirth (in second chances), all become unavoidable, repeated so as to slow the heart instead of racing it through big purgative moments.

Cudi is still best as an instrument, and as an instrument here he weeps, mourns, and pleads in a way that a vocalist would smother. Kids See Ghosts has him as a kind of reluctant protagonist who has less to do in the space than whoever he’s with, but who with effortless sadness makes it known that we’re seeing and feeling this all through him. He’s both more exposed and more preoccupied than his shape-shifting foil, waiting politely for his guardian angel. That’s the relationship: Kanye the magician summons environments for Cudi, gets his best angles, pokes and bandages his wounds, and changes costume so much that it becomes a game trying to see what he does next. On Cudi Montage he even reminds us that he can rap outside himself for a tearjerk verse so unimpeded by formal experiments and satirical barbs that the both sides lose somebody outro could believably have been co-authored by Lil B. It is of course the best song on the album alongside Reborn which thanks to Cudi’s gorgeous sustained ugliness could repeat itself another ten times and get better. Ye and Cudi both seem surprised by the fact that it all goes so well, and they appear revitalised, making Kids See Ghosts feel like a fleeting transitional thing.

This is not to undermine its power- it is a strange release full of mysteries and unconscious gambles, its questioning and moments of affirmation, confident and not, strike in ways that make more conscientious poets appear ineffectual. It’s earthbound even as it aspires to the cosmic, painted and glued together from shaky pasts and imagined futures. The nature of works such as these is that they are born of turbulence, and it is up to the listener to find and hold onto the moments that make sense to us, that mean something to us, and it is incredibly touching to know that the junkyard kaleidoscope Kids See Ghosts will forever be that fiery lacerated moment for so many.



ye (2018)
Kanye West
GOOD Music | Def Jam

He would have it no other way than to be characterised as the patron saint of mental illness. Although his iconoclast compulsively destroys idols made of him, this one might as well be carved in stone. In an interview c. Yeezus the artist describes the thug motivation-ish superhero that sits opposite the saint: he is there in the song whenever Kanye pretends to be super so that the listener can feel super too. Anyone paying attention to the music had of course noticed that by Yeezus his sustained cries of loneliness had permeated his sound as well as his words. Escapist motivation was no longer viable, nor did it need to be. What this means in terms of differentiating saint from performative superhero, of creating music that is inspiring for listeners yet honest for the artist, is an uncertain area that ye lays bare and cautiously begins to resolve.

It is another release by the artist that is interested in process over product, spontaneity over deliberation, sincere expression above all else. It has been eight years since he’s cared about demonstrating a composer’s virtuosity in bringing about a coherent whole. As listeners we’re encouraged to see his body of work as a thing in progress, as a network of ideas, feelings, and moments that reignite and recontextualise themselves as time passes. ye is what it sounds like when the superhero tips closer to the saint- when he makes music as himself, living in a world with us. Its essence is fragile, an unguarded hope that has always been there but has routinely been corrupted in its expression: amplified and mocked by the artist who is always neurotically guarded, particularly when he tells you that he’s being honest. His superhero anthem Power topples as it transforms so excited into suicide; one of many polarities exposed across My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy with strategic clarity. It’s a virtuoso move: the mess was planned from the beginning. He later admitted that record was for his critics and not himself, its mess represented as superherodom, and he knew every step of the way it that it would be hailed as a popular masterpiece upon release.

ye moves quickly to slip past this neurotic performer who organises messy emotions into their aestheticised representations. It is small, intimate, simple, like a single photograph alone on the museum wall just over from a big dick artist installation work. It might seem meagre but it isn’t. The analogy holds- speed in the photograph is critical, along with scale and cropping. With Yeezus, the first break from the virtuoso or super-Kanye, the artist stripped layers from the finished product and left as much work as possible to spontaneous performance. This revealed a vitality that over-composed works lack, and aimed to capture raw performance instead of showcasing best takes. The Life of Pablowas its inverse: stitched grandiose from pieces roughly sanded back, built to feel unfinished, a perpetual work in progress where the proper take is ever yet to come. It is a sprawling collage of photographs, journal pages, unused musical notation. A light breeze could enter the space and remove a piece of the ephemera and it would be interesting instead of disastrous. As quick, as liberated as these works are, they heave and move and change shape in front of us. They also contain in them the shadow of the composer who might one day add or subtract more, to finish them.

ye has no sense of that authoritative shadow, and it’s jarring- you can feel its absence immediately. It’s just the one photograph and he’s in it, looking sick, sad, happy, embarrassed, recording. It’s undeniably brief, but it begs us not to make it fleeting. The song, as with the photograph, finds its meaning in what it decides to include and exclude from a take. In Berger: “a photograph bears witness to a human choice being exercised. This choice is not between photographing x and y: but between photographing at x moment or at y moment.” Yeezus is built on the absence of completed sounds, and Pablo the presence of negated sounds. ye on the other hand feels like unaffected reportage; more about its moment than minute creative details and exposed structural narratives. Why this moment in particular matters is clear from the start- it’s a cry not for anything, but from this place where gravity has kicked in: nothing hurts anymore / I feel kind of free (a humble comedown from the frantic workouts of I just wanna feel liberated two years earlier). It’s a shift from look what I can perform living with mental illness and I live with mental illness. That photograph alone on the wall is powerful in the space that it leaves- we wonder what other images might have been taken around the same time and added to the wall, but ye‘s power is in its solitary vulnerability.

The ghost of the superhero, the composer, who suffers and performs power for us can be found in traces around the room, but he’s lost: Niggas say they hero- I don’t see no cape, and later That’s my bipolar shit, that’s my superpower, ain’t no disability I’m a superhero. The former is a clear enough denouncement of the superhero concept, and the latter (compared to something like Power) is guided by the fragility of human belief rather than a concrete assertion of knowledge. Because it’s effectively naked, signature embarrassing Kanye jokes fluctuate between gross drunk uncle gags (none of us would be here without cum), and bland awful dad ones (I love your titties ’cause they prove I can focus on two things at once). They’re moments of insipid reprieve in a room that might need them: I can feel the spirits all around me (…) They know I got demons all on me is as chilling as when Future muttered I know the devil is real on DS2, and Ye’s gallows humour never felt bleaker than on Yikeshospital band a hundred bands, fuck a watch. He provokes himself to continue, to get shrill, but there is something awful in the image of Ye outside of the verse: They don’t know they dealing with a zombie. These are interspersed with candid reports that add to the photographic quality of the album where poetry can only be heard if poetry was there at the time. What moves most are the tender and mundane specifics of bankruptcy, of gratitude for your loved ones standing by you, of finishing a record with a song about your daughter. There’s no poetry in these parts because there was no poetry at the time, no ghosts or demons, and so they’re left bare, as in a domestic photograph. ye smiles.

It is no surprise that as rapper-producer it’s the presentation of voices that matters most here. What is surprising is how the artist has responded to Tim Hecker’s question of what liturgical music should sound like post-YeezusPablowas an exploded view of possibilities, of rough-cut gospel, sound poetry, and transcendental autotune. The standout however was Rihanna’s flat, unadorned rendition of Do What You Gotta Do on Famousye takes Rihanna’s bit as a starting-point for uncomfortable, candid voices delivering uncomfortable, candid words: before we even begin picking apart the contents of a bar the photographic quality of the record has done the affective heavy lifting. I Thought About Killing You is like a blast of cold wind in the way that the rapper allows himself to be foregrounded- nasal, unsure of himself, exposed in the cold mountain air. Ghost Town is a post-All the Young Dudes glam anthem with Rihanna’s Famous and Lil B’s All My Life (Remix) as foundational text- a worshipping Shirley Ann Lee sample checks the liturgical box, before his guests deliver the weirdo performances of a lifetime that have the listener shudder, laugh, and then a few listens later weep tears of happiness. Wouldn’t Leave has a baptism from sixty years ago enter the song-space in the scattered, clipped form of howls and claps that would be right at home with Moodymann, but the difference in texture is harsh, like holes torn in the fabric of the song. The distinction between the sacred and profane is something Kanye has methodically deconstructed since day one, but post-Yeezus the two have coexisted in this earthly space, invading each other’s worlds.

ye has new and old answers, and it’s explicitly for Ye, as someone who lives and suffers the same as we do. It’s the first of his that’s not major in the sense of defining a cultural zeitgeist and influencing what comes next. Instead it’s by and for the individuals that might need it. And like everything he does, it breaks your heart. Because even as he destroys your icons and starts fires, the pain that’s there in the music is immediately relatable, and it makes you feel less alone when you hear something so messy and awful, so familiar, coming from this kind of a platform. I think about killing myself every day, and have done for as long as I can remember. How can you describe the feeling when someone says I love you and that breaks you, for like two and a half minutes, out of your year-long spell as a zombie, and it makes you rush to feel more again, to breathe in that freezing cold air, to climb up high even though it might destroy you, and you slip and come crashing down again. What are the right words when that person rolls you over so they can look you in the eye and say again I love you. No matter what, I love you. You might find that there’s no poetry present in these moments, nor does there need to be: I love you. Thank you, and I love you.

ye, cautiously, smiles.

ye is inspiring- it’s a moment in which we can believe that even if our disorders don’t make us superhuman, understanding and living with them might.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me


Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)
Dir. David Lynch

Geared to free-fall with nothing in the way of surrealistic detour or arthouse roadblock- Lynch’s pop cultural uncanny was employed in seasons one and two to have the viewer drop their guard, to have them feel as though the horror implied might exist somewhere in their own memories- the ubiquity of television sets in living rooms meant a spectral house guest in the form of figures and beats stripped from their spatio-temporal contexts and brought into an endless flow of laughs and suffering, greasers and Batmen, highschoolers and aliens- Twin Peaks exists in accordance with the logic of the viewer’s everyday life if the viewer grew up with a television in the house, hence its unprecedented invasive horror- in Fire Walk with Me it’s not the viewer wondering what lurks inside and around our (in significant part) televisual memory, but that figure taken for granted as dead (setting our hallucination into motion) addressing face-to-face that which exists right in front of her. Indeed it’s different this time around- it’s not for us- familiar locations are shot outside of the usual camera and lighting setup, Dana Ashbrook is finally in on the joke that is Bobby, James goes from annoying/sweet/dumb to always wanting something (everyone in this wants something), Leland is aggressively evil, the suburbs take precedence over the woods. It’s also though probably an artistic freak out, a response to those who misread the show’s delirious unease (activated through camp) as quirky, ironic, the central tragedy as a mystery to be solved, a person to be fixed or saved. This is a fear that never went away: if the director provides the nerves it’s Sheryl Lee that makes it scream (and anyone can tell you this is what matters most)- all the way to finding her angel again. Until twenty five years later, out of nowhere, this happens:

Laura: Where are we going?
Cooper: I’m taking you home
(Cooper turns around, Laura is gone)

Laura: Where are we going?
Cooper: I’m taking you home
(Laura screams the stars out of the sky)

So concludes this whole body of work- a wound reopened that will never ever heal. But that’s The Return. It’s different here again- the intergenerational abuse that stalks Laura and Leland is in the first two seasons a tragic ghost that hides smiling in the fibre of the world and deforms all of its joys- by presenting it here in concrete we’re beaten with it for two hours, which however harrowing means that we’re able to name the abuser, to begin to cope. All four visits to Twin Peaks are vastly different, even to the point that they can seem oddly separate- this one’s either the cruellest or most compassionate of them all.

Avengers: Infinity War


Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Dir. Anthony & Joe Russo

The days of Dorothy Gale’s naive predicament are long gone: we now desire a humanity behind the spectacle. The idea of something being big and broken is one that currently endears as it suggests an impassioned work by an imperfect creator rather than a detached streamlined output of algorithms generating audience satisfaction. Like the Davids in Prometheus or A.I., we’re anxious to draw back the curtain but we need to believe that somebody is behind it all. Everybody will receive in their feed a different set of takes on Avengers: Infinity War that are tailored to appeal to whatever taste/demographic pattern their data-trail presents, and from my media-bubble the film is unanimously a strange, impassioned work that critics and audiences alike are drawn to and repulsed by for its big broken qualities. It is the same angle that was pushed with DeadpoolSuicide Squad, and Guardians of the Galaxy, but unlike those films which were actually the more dully conservative films of their kin, Infinity War only reveals the impressions of a creator when the film is most quiet- when it is least big and broken.

This is not for lack of trying- following the criticism that Marvel films have ugly flat lighting (which defenders point out comes down to visually dull sets more than the lighting setups- it’s both and the point is that it’s dull), the Russos inject anonymous concept art moodscapes with garish colour palettes which are a welcome change from daylit monochromes, but neither the colours nor the forms ever alter the playing field- these are sets in the sense that they look a certain way and actors stand in front of them. They are ostensibly there for context, and their context is activated through fights, and the fights are justified through talking. To say that the fights are not good fights would require a discussion of choreography and editing, and both of these things are of secondary importance to the talking, which means that each blow landed or missed comes down to where Infinity War‘s dramatic stakes need to be at that precise moment, resulting in rote bludgeonings on either side. It is broken as these things have been since at least 2012, which is more the result of cynical compulsions to audience satisfaction than any sort of human touch. To cut out the middle (the fights) would be to disappoint those wanting action, but none of this is action any way; it’s a sustained cartoon opera where even the arias are covert recitative. This excuses the sets which are the monumentally expensive equivalent of an opera’s painted backgrounds, and the nondramatic wizardry which is nondramatic wizardry, but focussing on context and talking should result in something dramatically satisfying seeing as there will be no catharsis from action in this loud action film.

Thumbhead Marvel overlord Kevin Feige and screenwriter McFeely have said that Brolin’s genocidal Bad Guy is the protagonist of the film which clearly marks Infinity War according to its creators/processes as a film about failure (a la last year’s The Last Jedi). Unlike some other viewers, I found the faint tremble of a heart in this as I am always drawn to failure(s), but unfortunately McFeely et al. use Thanos’ perverse hero status as an excuse to not delineate any clear alternative to genocide in the Good Guys, and this results at best in a kind of aimless teenage angst and worst in the sickly familiar feeling that this is all opposition for the sake of spectacle, and spectacle for the sake of generating content. Looking down the middle where Infinity War so safely aims, it turns out that rather than feeling as a consequence conflicted, painful, this results in something dramatically inert but melodramatically shrill, like hypothetical emotions or queue emotions cues. Yes, the Bad Guy is sympathetic but unlike Killmonger, this is because no effort has been given to showing or even telling anything about his opponents- as far as villains outside of Marvel films go he’s still a genocidal maniac. His Big Decision is echoed in the Good Guys too and is given a drawn out conflict and even poetic denial of closure, such is his curse forevermore, and we know why he’s making hard decisions. As for everyone else the question of Why is answered early on (Star-Lord: Because we’re nice), but never Who or What. In that other blockbuster about failure, conditions are clearly drawn, options are made available, and agents according to their perception of Good choose which options to pursue in order to improve things. Infinity War has none of the patience required to draw the conditions for success or failure beyond Stop the Bad Guy getting the Things, which makes it difficult to identify why certain individuals are involved in certain conflicts, others in others, and what anyone desires or stands for.

Maybe this comes down to the scale- it’s the second most expensive movie ever made because We want more, We want everything, Yes of course we do, and so an intimate and horrific hero’s journey into large-scale genocide (!) is forfeited for more and everything. I remember an interview with an electronic musician who said that with new technologies the artist has every sound, every texture, at her disposal, and so freedom in the creative act only comes about through clearly defined parameters. This will obviously never happen where these films are concerned- where consumers demand and content administrators listen and then bait, generating content that exists to generate interest, interest existing to justify the generation of content, this toxic relationship, this carrot and stick, this perpetual trailer. Tony Stark gets hurt and the whole theatre gasped, I shit you not.

I like what it is for seconds at a time, those seconds where I detect a person behind the curtain, although Infinity War expresses in a very long two and a half hours not a single cinematic idea much less a dramatic, narratological, philosophical one, is loaded with insufferable meta jokes for the kind of people who say I like meta jokes, and is a kind of embarrassing time-capsule in which every scene begins and ends with a bearded guy Doing Things (pointed out via meta joke btw) so if for whatever reason people still watch these things in the future they will look upon Infinity War and say I thought you reached peak beard around the time of Iron Man.

A Quiet Place


A Quiet Place (2018)
Dir. John Krasinski

The director-aesthetic is currently en vogue in horror, which becomes knotty with the accompanying ‘thinking person’s’ appendage and late capitalist logic of re-presentations-as-innovation. In a twist to postmodern hyper-awareness, anonymity of craft is still having a financially good run (evinced whenever Bay is reviled and the Russo brothers are celebrated), but in smaller budget genre fare pastiche is frequently mistaken for and celebrated as New. A Quiet Place aims to please new horror audiences while displaying a genuine love of the limits and impulses of the genre that make it more than a cynical exercise. Krasinski’s persistent director-aesthetic openly channels Shyamalan’s visual storytelling, wholesome horror, and pervading disquiet, but he breaks from that director in critical ways. The classical compositions and clean early 20th century editing are all there, but that director’s aesthetic context extends to line-readings and performances where Krasinski favours contemporary ‘realism’ in these areas.

The director being both in front of and behind the camera means that A Quiet Place’s sense of intentionalist authority takes on more of a presence than it might otherwise in the playground of negotiated meaning that is the film- the potential for indeterminacy between collaborators and environments is hushed for a clarity of purpose. A Quiet Place’s thesis reads concurrently in its conceit and between the arched anxious wrinkles and scraggliness of the survivalist patriarch beard. This is not necessarily a bad thing- it is the most critically and commercially successful horror movie in years and has received unanimous praise for its consistency of vision and expression. The supposed brilliance of the film is that it is already its own punchline: whatever you’ve heard, however you go on to describe it to people, the summary sentence of the its Wikipedia page, that is what A Quiet Place currently is. This echoes Shyamalan again who frequently turns up as the punchline to jokes about punchlines. Advocates of that director such as myself find that his works actually open up once the punchline is revealed (i.e. on repeated viewings), and it will be interesting to see in time whether A Quiet Place outlives its format.

The irony of the silence here as others have pointed out, is that A Quiet Place is actually exceedingly loud. This is the result of both Krasinski’s anxieties as a young director, which is understandable, and his decision to opt for performances as performances are understood in 2018. The other director I’ll not name again transports melodrama from the past such that emotions and revelations are delivered with the quiet uncanniness of being out of time, stately and deliberate as the films’ aesthetic context. Krasinski’s is communicated in an anxious rush of sweat, tears, and big gestures. The director uses a specificity of material process, namely survivalist process, but employs breathless emotional shorthand to get the audience onboard almost impressionistically with the plight of the central family. This worked for a lot of people, but I felt as though I was always trying to play catch up to a big self-serious charge that didn’t want to wait for me. Visually as well Krasinski tells us too much in an effort to avoid verbal exposition- the Chekhov’s whiteboard appears once as something that’d make a zombie game safehouse designer blush, and then half a dozen more times as farce. As far as emotions are concerned, Krasinski is already well adept at communicating character relationships through composition and shot sequencing, but he has them sign obvious dialogue as well just in case. Marco Beltrami’s score draws attention to the lack of words spoken by filling the perceived gaps with overwrought music that would not be out of place in a dairy commercial. The lack of spoken words is treated as a challenge rather than an opportunity- the director overcomes the challenge, but he could have done more through believing in himself and the audience, and in all likelihood he will do something truly daring with his next effort.

A Quiet Place’s rift is best embodied in its conceit on one side and Krasinski’s beard and wrinkles on the other. One plays things understated, without words, and the other wants to make sure we’ve noticed, and to guide us in how to feel about things. This tension might have been a more readily exploitable facet if we were able to separate the actor from the vision, namely that the work is silly and the faces play it straight. The way the director sets up scares is similar to the gleeful foreshadowing of James Wan’s films, in that they turn the screen into a funhouse where scares could just as easily be swapped out for physical comedy (as they’re both built on expectation and the release of nervous energy). But the severity of the performances in this film emphasise that it’s for drama, for real human stakes, and this gravity has the audience assessing the realism of the setups, as well as the tangible qualities of the people involved. The logical/causal inconsistencies that are revealed in this process can easily be ignored (my day to day life at least is riddled with plot-holes, obvious lapses of judgement, contradictions of character), but this second empathetic hurdle is more difficult to overcome. To get back to emotional shorthand, this would probably be more easy to get on board with if we were not also told through loud scoring, signing, and performances how to feel about things- it wants to bring us in, but it all kept me at a distance.

It’s a beating generous heart that doesn’t fix anything (nor does it profess to), and it’s perhaps too formally conservative for its own good, but this feels like a compromise drawn from nerves rather than depletion or vision, which then at this point can’t help but suggest that there’s more and better to come, which in the terrain of ironic malaise and amnesiac sound and fury is something worth fighting for and celebrating.



Calvary (2014)
John Michael McDonagh

It might’ve been funny (it has all the characteristics of a small-town absurdist farce), but Calvary treats its crises and revelations with such a measured severity that it never loses itself to grotesquerie. A priest walks around Easkey which for the way it’s shot might as well be the end of the world, either despised as one of history’s monsters, or pitied as a ghost of loathsome old Ireland (“I’m just a washerwoman, remember?”). He knows he has to die, that he’s a final line to God that no one wants to use, and he’s got a week to get his things in order- an arbitrary time-frame that given the circumstances will be a week-long wait for the inevitable. There’s never a suggestion that the priest is doubting his faith or waiting for a miracle to reveal itself, because Calvary wouldn’t dare provide an argument to move beyond its own impossibility.

Whether or not we recognise the voice of Father James’ killer in the first scene alters the tone of the film (my partner watched a doom-laden mystery while I watched seven episodes of a priest trying to be impartial to his killer), but they ultimately amount to the same thing. He’s impartial because of a detached piety he wears with pride (which it transpires is his undoing), and because he knows better than anyone that if this individual hadn’t put his hand up to do it, somebody else would’ve. Because they’re wrong when they say he’s a ghost that doesn’t recognise that it’s his time to go. Of course he knows what he is. Because everyone wants an answer, and everyone wants someone or something to blame for their shitty lives, and for some it’s not even a case of the parish offering naive promises and blase platitudes, it’s the Catholic church that stands at that point of historical and immediate trauma. A nightmare that time reveals as a systemic evil- something so boundless in its violence that it robs you of your trauma and tells you to take a number and get in line.

The voices of non-believers are many in the film- as this picture of transgenerational abuse and fearful imperialism hardens in mass consciousness they ask what a pious person looks like and how they would respond to this. In Calvary the answer is that he looks like a priest (the sea to his back, torches and pitchforks enclosing), and that he has nothing to say: “This isn’t the mission” “You’ve been reading your history”; “Did you cry when you read about what your priests had done?” “No, I felt detached from it”; and critically “Memories fade” “No, they don’t.” Or, he has a lot to say, but none of it is particularly helpful. At one stage Father James calls the writer character out for saying “one of those things that sounds clever, but doesn’t really mean anything at all,” which is a reflexive moment for the writer-director that doubles as the character’s own confession.

McDonagh’s (stage-)playful writing ensures that Calvary‘s quasi-dialectic feels as though it’s a sparring match when it’s actually a war of attrition- silence would be the bitterest conclusion of all, so Father James busies himself making perfectly phrased sounds to no end, signifying nothing but the negation of silence itself. Because Calvary‘s impossibility is in its immovable negations. The townspeople who loudly reject the church are still bound in their every move to doctrine- their attempts at freedom are expressed through the negation of positive Christian traits rather than something outside of Christianity altogether. Speaking uniformly with writerly elocution, they present arguments for the church’s irrelevance or social harm, and never receive a counterargument. They want to negate Father James, to crush the faith they know is there but which they cannot see, and we want him to negate their cynicism (achieving synthesis), but Calvary is about limits and negatives, not positive answers.

So the ghost-priest, present as his own negation, wanders at the end of the world in the pitch blackness and knows whether or not there’s something there, there’s something there. It’s tempting to think that McDonagh is asking for a thesis for the future, but it seems more likely that for him silence’s negation will suffice.



Manifesto (2015)
Dir. Julian Rosefeldt

In general it is worth supporting the right of an artwork to exist, whether the individual(s) behind it are an out of touch once-great artist, a derivative guitar band, a young but retrograde east coast rapper, or a bored grandparent that never picked up an art book but now half a decade into retirement feels an affinity for Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. When a major work is criticised for misjudging its time, we can assume it will find an audience somewhere (there is of course the recurring dissonance between critic/public (e.g. Richard Dawson playing in Auckland to a crowd of maybe thirty people, Ed Sheeran selling out arenas and having murals painted of him in Dunedin)), and if not then we can at least believe that the artist felt a sense of satisfaction on seeing their work completed. I believe this entirely- the worst art is not the worst for everyone, and this is why I was so confused yesterday leaving Manifesto‘s multi-screen installation and feeling for the first time that a work might as well not exist. Manifesto is not an ugly work, quite the opposite, it is not without content (the concept makes sure of that), it is no more glaringly useless than any of the aristocratic family portraits that line so many museum walls, and yet it seems to exist as itself and that is all.

Existing for the sake of existing is not uncommon in artist commissions where the artist is basically not feeling the brief or the person/institution behind the commission, but in these cases the means of the (useless) work’s production are not useless- the person or institution gets their artwork, the artist can pay rent and buy materials, and if we’re lucky then the work’s very uselessness will serve a subversive function- to make the work about the cynical transaction behind its own uselessness. But Manifesto is not a commission, it does not think itself useless, and it is blatantly expensive. It is just as stupid to deride blockbuster art as it is blockbuster cinema or pop music, because we should expect some sort of value in what is made regardless of its budget and expected audience. But when a thing looks or sounds expensive, is not about looking or sounding expensive, and expresses very little, it is easy to find oneself distracted by how expensive it must have been to make. Manifesto is too expensive to be ugly. The prologue, Burning Fuse, mistakes tech porn for imagery- it is about expensive cameras, not Marx or Dada, and not Manifesto igniting anything. I heard someone on their way out saying the work was inspiring, but what does it inspire? Does anyone come out of Manifesto a changed person? Anyone with a $30 smartphone has the tools they need to make videos, and anyone with access to a library can find these manifestos, but then comes the hard work: the art. Julian Rosefeldt had access to more than $30, in all likelihood has a library card in his wallet, and he made Manifesto, and that is the story of Manifesto.

As a work of research it is more exciting than volumes on art movements from the early to mid twentieth century. After all there is no Cate Blanchett in those old books, no thirteen screens screaming and fighting for your attention in a space hollowed out and dedicated just to Manifesto. Whole gallery spaces are cleared out to make room for Manifesto, which is a work about Manifesto being inspiring, or about Manifesto being about manifestos. With all of the manifestos at its disposal, all of these burning fuses, Manifesto is Manifesto, just the same as Burning Fuse is about the camera shooting a burning fuse. Rosefeldt’s eye is that of an artist who thinks he’s slumming it in cinema, or a pompous documentarian who wants to be praised for the cinematic qualities of his work. It is all so mannered, so knowingly gifable, so synthetically ‘cinematic’ without a hint of daring, that it feels like a television ad, and hearing the material read in this environment is every bit as queasy as that sounds. Which is not to say that the work is flawless to its detriment- the artist is unsure how to direct Blanchett other than just trusting her to act because she’s an actor, and as such there are passages and whole characters where she is visibly uncomfortable with the lack of clarity on his end. This is fine in Worker in a garbage incineration plant which is her most comfortable role, making small improvised details feel like character vulnerabilities and not film school amateurism.

To return to frivolous art, those portraits of aristocratic families hung in spaces near Manifesto served a function for the families that commissioned them, and the fact that they are now on display for people who never knew the families indicates that they have taken on a usefulness above and beyond that original intention. It could be the artist’s technique, the historical value of the costuming, the gestures and placements of the individuals and what this tells us about family structures there/then, the missing family members that have the family mourning, the typologies that crack the facade of the family unit and expose their hopes and dreams and insecurities. To greater and lesser degrees everything has something to tell us. But here is Manifesto a few spaces over. If we are to agree with Oscar Wilde’s “all art is quite useless,” we can forgive Manifesto for its uselessness, but then also question how mean an artwork must be to collect a hundred and fifty years’ worth of manifestos on art’s usefulness and render them all as television ads advertising Manifesto the expensive useless artwork. As a provocation about the failures of artistic utopias and the victory of vacuous artworks such as Manifesto it actually works, but in the loudest, most expensive, most End of History way possible. This will be the lesson it teaches its future audiences, when it matures to signify more than just itself. Rosefeldt had the budget and the library card, and the reputation to not only get this made, but to have it shown at art galleries and film festivals, so it is frustrating that he has so little to say with that kind of power. The work is broad to the point that it is ineffectual, but as a twentieth century art wikiquote page it is also unbearably elitist. Worker in a garbage incineration plant quotes Robert Venturi: “I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning,” and it is at this moment in the work that it is clear that Manifesto has in its expensive blasé nothingness neither of these things because it doesn’t mean anything.



Annihilation (2018)
Dir. Alex Garland

One of those inexplicably bland tasting meals cooked from the same key ingredients that have excited, nourished, and comforted us many times in the past, that we add more and more salt to hoping that it will ‘bring out the flavours that are already there’, but it just shrinks and gets saltier. Everything that is said about Annihilation is indeed there from the environmental dis/un/ease to the fracturing of time and self, but Garland cannot make any of it matter. He is the missing taste receptor, the plant scrambling what should be a clear signal, the director of moodboards who doesn’t care about composing a shot much less how to get to the next one. His moodboards, always on hand, are filled with images of the greats of show, don’t tell and less is more, but Garland doesn’t have the patience much less skill to pull off anything even resembling these reference-points.

Expository dialogue, while it should be avoided, is not an inherently bad thing, but Garland’s feels like a series of reflections for the director himself lest he forget what he’s doing. Oh, that’s right, self-destructing cells and mutated growth, oh yes, ‘broken’ and self-destructing people- the characters say these things out loud and it is as though Garland is hitting ctrl+s on his screenplay that doubles as a treatment. The cast can act with or without words, making this all stand out more than if they were newcomers, and where a better director would suggest that there is more to the picture (think Mann’s fleeting characterisation, Malick layering dialogue over trees or water), Garland simply frames the actors reading their lines front-on and hopes that their experience acting is enough. This must have been an incredibly frustrating experience for veterans such as Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and one can sense in them the discomfort of Garland’s inability to direct actors as well as suffocating sense of control over his product. This worked in Ex Machina where Isaac went surly Zuck and Gleeson conveniently defaulted to nice-guy, but the broadness of the performances in Annihilation are awkward instead of tidily didactic. They’re defined by their brokenness (again told rather than shown to us, in a visual medium!) but this has nothing to do with how they behave, or critically, how the film’s narrative/thematic horrors manifest.

It is bizarre that Annihilation shoots for psychological drama when we’re given no insight into the psychologies of the characters. This of course is excluding Portman’s Lena who is given the bare minimum in flashbacks, and this turns out to be the film’s biggest missed opportunity. If everyone else is actually fodder, fine, get it over and done with early- they self-destruct so abruptly and with so little foreshadowing that if the film had been three hours long we can still assume that Garland would have mishandled these moments. But the (also abrupt and mishandled) final act transitions into a horror of divorce and this is where it begins to shine. Suddenly everything the film has to say about identity not only lands but becomes affecting- acknowledging one’s past mistakes as the reason for one’s current situation, deciding not to be defined by said mistakes however things are stacked, wondering where that leaves our perception of self given that we’ve hated ourselves for so long, journeying into the familiar (but now that we’re alone and fragmented) finding it mutated and hostile, committing to a rebirth but finding the same old faces just different. Like gravity we return to the first things we fell in love with, so the best we can do is hope that we learned from the past and can do better this time.

Of course Garland rushes through this and delivers it with a series of twists, tacky title cards, and blunt exposition framed within a frame of exposition- Lena tells her story in the present about a group of female scientists who were chosen because they were not military guys but who just shot stuff any way and who readily narrated in the past the story as it happened for them. I am all for replicant/bootleg versions of better films, and yeah, Annihilation is fun but in its artless disregard of cinematic languages, incredibly dangerous. It cares about what but not how with its visuals making it at least more considered than I don’t know a sitcom. It goes by lightly by virtue of sticking firmly to the middle of the road and it ends as quickly as it started. It mistakes seriousness for intelligence, and it has a premise with no interest in how to deliver on any of its ideas. It is strange that it ever had a theatrical release, because it is not cinema, it is Netflix.