Brawl in Cell Block 99

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Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)
Dir. S. Craig Zahler

The same DOP that flattened wild west expanses for Zahler’s ultraviolence and comic book one-liners in Bone Tomahawk flattens streets and cell blocks for Zahler’s ultraviolence and super direct (comic book) melodrama before cramming us into evocative in a weird way medieval torture chambers. They also shoot Vaughn so Vaughn looks his height which is of course with his eyes and bulk, terrifying, and Vaughn does his post-True Detective s02 understated routine, now with the punctuation intact (which is good but also sad for anyone who enjoyed those unusual line-readings). It is impossible to say whether or not Brawl will be an enduring ‘thing’, as everything from the title to the posters suggests that it does not want to be a ‘thing’ at all, and this goes with its spirit of exploitation played straight- no winks, barely a nudge, ostensibly no desire to cater to or even please us (which as exploitation played straight is its biggest and most enduring con). The cameras stand back too far and the shots cut too infrequently to let Vaughn slack off, instead he remembers fight routines which to be fair basically just add up to him getting hit and then hitting back once or twice way harder. There is a horrific sort of pleasure to this sort of a fight scene- they’re not interesting or even impressive, and in fact they’re all narratively programmed so as to not feel good or bad, just blunt and horrible. It knows what we want to say about this, and calling Brawl in Cell Block 99 an interrogation of our desire to see violence gives it more and less credit than it deserves or even asks for. At its core exploitation was about efficiency, and melodrama, emotions. Here dragging itself while keeping us at arms length amounts to something, I’m sure, but it’s hard to tell what. Zahler wants to be a brilliant idiot, and he’s pulling it off even quicker than the time it’s taking him to figure out what that means.

Thorndon

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Thorndon (1975)
Dir. Joanna Margaret Paul

One need look no further than the soft pastel tones of John Kinder’s nineteenth century watercolours for insight into the settler-colonial mindset. Unlike his contemporaries openly promoting the rape of Native bodies for the acquisition of indigenous land, forging pre-contact histories where the land belongs to no one, and working directly with the companies selling indigenous land, Kinder’s work is eerily quiet, quaint. The outright violence of the others’ external colonial advocacy (use the military to kill people, take their land, sell the land to settlers) makes Kinder’s work feel unassuming even though we are well aware of the internal project running concurrently- figures like Reverend Kinder might not have shot anyone, but with a warm peaceful smile they erased and rewrote the belief systems of those with whom they came into contact. Those other artists and their audiences knew they had the worst intentions, but Kinder might have thought he was doing God’s work. Kinder’s paintings are frightening because there is nothing in them to answer back to, just gentle utopias stripped of indigenous bodies and settler-indigenous conflicts alike. The violence is in its absence. Kinder’s world is peaceful because in it the colonising process has long been complete.

The most sinister of Kinder’s images is Auckland from the Verandah of Mr Reader Wood’s Cottage. The frame within the frame is domestic colonial architecture- even if the landscape looking out was hostile it would still be framed the same way. It would still be home. If this was by an ordinary settler we might consider it a means of rationalising how things were in reality on arriving in Aotearoa- no amount of settler naivete could explain away the fact that Māori had taken up arms to protect their land from being sold to too many settlers, and that the government was provoking conflicts in order to confiscate land to sell to new settlers, and so on. (There is something pitiable about this home that can’t find home). But it’s by Kinder. The Reverend’s goal, whether he believed in its Goodness or not, was to take that frame and implant it into the heads of Māori and settler alike so that when Māori looked out to the land they called home they would never ever be able to access it free of that colonial frame. That, for Kinder, is the end of history. Joanna Margaret Paul takes Kinder’s settler gothic arch and follows it with flat concrete, reversing the positive and negative forms so that it’s a gravestone and not a frame. History’s not dead, Kinder’s dead.

Mirror Reaper

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Mirror Reaper (2017)
Bell Witch
Profound Lore Records

In a recent interview with Richard D. James the artist describes the perpetual lack that comes with the constant access to the object(s) of our desire, as well as the sense of homogeneity that results from globalisation’s spatio-cultural flattening: the holy grail for a music fan, I think, is to hear music from another planet, which has not been influenced by us whatsoever. Or, even better, from lots of different planets. And the closest we got to that was before the Internet, when people didn’t know of each other’s existence. Now, that doesn’t really happen. If, with the internet, there is no longer an other to hear ‘new’ things from, and if all the obscure synth and noise and Memphis tapes of the past have been found in every attic and basement and ripped and archived on defunct music blogs, and for lack of extraterrestrial record stores/streaming sites, everything is bound to sound in one way or another familiar, then we are left to either keep pushing our imaginations into the unheard sounds of space (a novel decision making for future retro-futurism), or to re-examine and pick away at what we perceive to be familiar. Any fan of Black Sabbath and Melvins can tell you that this second approach is a popular one with lazy artists. It is as though these fragments of genre have been scattered throughout the world, and group after group of artist-archaeologists are finding them and bringing them to us as though they aren’t just making photocopies down the road. It’s disappointing, depressing even, to conclude that the picture we have is complete. Bell Witch very much approach what they do with a similar methodology, but the difference is that they take as much as they give- we never listen to a Bell Witch release and think this is novel!, but neither do we think we’ve reached the end of something. Rather than providing (fake) new pieces to the puzzle, they challenge us that maybe we could look at or feel what we think we know in different ways.

Mirror Reaper asks this question of form as it asks of human experience- we all know grief, but is grief always the same? We can say and maybe spell the word, we recognise it in fictions, we know it’s everywhere, but unless it invades our lives and breaks our routine we glide over it like it’s a word and that’s all. Bell Witch don’t offer an unorthodox take on genre or grief, they instead call for a moment of meditation to break the dismissive flow of the listener’s life; to re-feel and re-examine what we take for granted. The record is nominally and visually divided in two parts, As Above and So Below– both eschewing gratuitous spectacle and aimless metaphysics alike for Real-Poetic grief. (It should be noted that we are describing the visual and musical aspects of the record at the same time- Bell Witch are better at building landscapes than most, and the album art is if anything a visual guide that comes after the fact). The above side leans on the romantic sublime’s sharp contrasts in scale to trigger simultaneous wonder and horror in the audience, while the second follows suit but also removes the ground from beneath their feet. In employing this well established language Bell Witch strip away everything that does not need to be there, and in leaving only what matters, give a presence to what is left that is crushing while the piece itself is left quiet, spacious. It probably does not need to be said that when entering a landscape we (consciously or unconsciously) imagine our own bodies in various places in the frame (hence the comfort of high angles, tranquil waters, and nearby trees in Picturesque works), and it is with the sublime that artists reveal pleasurable dis-comforts: majestic and beautiful things that are more significant than us and could even do our bodies harm (jagged cliff faces, raging waters). We die in a hundred ways whenever we enter a sublime artwork.

A reaper stands back from nameless, faceless masses chanting their way towards hellfire and a humanoid monster roars and wails through knotted bloody fabric. In the reaper’s small frame and compositional prominence (the bottom left corner answering diagonally to the monster, always always pointing up and out, to the infinite) we defer to the masses, and on seeing the uniformity of their suffering we scale the smooth gradient of the nearby hill to a campfire. We want to spend time here. It has been put here just for us. Nobody else is going to challenge us for this spot. From this campfire we can look around and get a better sense of what is happening. We can stay here as long as we need, it’s okay, but we know what has to happen. This is the beginning of things. The chanting and roaring below are now marching to a drum. A sunset gradient, the most warm and comforting colour-range, has been perverted. The space between the reds of the sun and the teal of the sky has gone from dusky to corporeal; a fog of human dirt. Worse still, rather than feeling as though magic hour has been captured forever, we feel the present rapidly descending into night. A sunset never lasts long enough and it’s when we’re left standing out there that it feels like the night will go on forever. It’s past twilight here- the last bits of warmth are in the mirror or back by the hilltop fireplace. The So Below side removes any ground for the listener to stand on and this makes us feel as though we are falling. No campfires, no hilltops, no warmth. The artist renders this side in blues, with a placid ocean marking the horizon line at the bottom fraction of the composition. We feel ourselves falling, but we know we’ll never fully plunge into its cold waters. The terrifying beast all taut fingers above lets the dead go as birds into the Whistler-ish night below.

In Gnostic thought as above, so below is used to describe how the micro and macrocosm are interconnected, how we’re made of profane and celestial bodies. Again Bell Witch are not the first to connect the two in suffering, and if anything it might seem peculiar that in experiencing Real Death, they have found consolation in such a picture. Chris Bell questioned the existential limits of belief in I Am the Cosmos forty years earlier- if I am the cosmos and you are the cosmos, if the earth and heavens are the same, then how can it be that I’m standing here alone and unable to see you. A hundred and thirty years before that Catherine Earnshaw proclaimed in a landscape that echoed the lives of those that lived within it If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it, in the same monologue issuing a typology of natural symbols that hardly settle her anxious heart despite their proximity and human resemblance. During the Protestant Reformation, the Iconoclastic Fury saw the destruction of religious icons on the grounds that material bodies cannot at the same time be celestial, leading to expressions of faith and suffering through depictions of nature- new figures of speech designed to evoke rather than depict, to carry the viewer’s feelings to what cannot be seen. This is the horror and beauty of the sublime. Mount Eerie declared in the same year as Mirror Reaper that with Real Death, all poetry is dumb, and all signifiers point only to themselves when grief enters the house. Real Death kills even that Protestant-Romantic picture. Then in Earth a year later the same narrator struggles to keep poetry dumb, to read nature’s indifference as callous, to see bodies as carrion signifying nothing, to imagine eroding into eternal muck. It is no longer viable to maintain this materialist anti-poetry with the realisation that the magic symbols and natural phenomena, the dreams and myths and (indeed) poetry are returning. But this doesn’t mean that things will always nor should ever progress in this way, because grief is always different.

Richard D. James had a point about access, desire, and homogeneity, and there’s a whole series of dissertations needed for that, but he was also explaining why his latest piece fundamentally could not sound as alien as his earlier works had back in 1992, and how in lieu of that he’d made something more emotional and exploratory with relatively terrestrial textures. Similarly Bell Witch don’t want to pretend that they’re fixing doom, or even offering up any new pieces. They target that lack in James’ picture, descending into its absence, slowing down and concentrating on what we feel is there. Doom metal is as elemental as folk, if not in form then in nature, and a language for addressing what we’ve always had to confront which is death and loneliness. Bell Witch don’t bother looking for new planets when we’re still here with the same fears as always. Mirror Reaper believes in tying art to reality, not necessarily for art-as-therapy, but because the two inform one another. Its loss is Real, but it recognises the magic in natural phenomena, as well as the dreams, myths, and ghosts that come and go from our heads and linger over our shoulders. As above, so below, but the picture is never complete, and Bell Witch will always make sure it stays this way. They work in ghosts and echoes because grief is never the same. All the poetry in the world is never going to bring a person back, because to say that something below is another thing above just means that there’s a glimpse or an echo of that person; never a full picture, and never anything substantive enough to hold onto and squeeze. That’s the limit of the poem- that we’re stuck here writing poems, catching echos and reflections, and they’re somewhere else. Just as we die a hundred different ways inside a sublime artwork, we grieve as many ways as we think of those we’ve lost, and if the artwork is good, as many ways as the artist-world cares to express. And it makes the world more painful, but it makes it less lonely too.

Tomb Raider

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Tomb Raider (2018)
Dir. Roar Uthaug

Uthaug and team noticeably shoot and edit movement with more enthusiasm than they do bodies moving through spaces, and as a consequence the film’s two most engrossing action pieces come early in the film with the dramatically mundane bicycle race and boat chase. If this generation’s Lara Croft was an off-brand superhero then movement-as-movement would suffice, but instead she’s written to be brave yet humanly vulnerable, obsessed to the point of self-destruction. This Lara was born to the same era of fetishised survivalism that emphasised the gravity of violence in The Last of Us and sustainable butchery in open-world environments elsewhere (retrievable arrows and knives, plants and hides for crafting). With Tomb Raider writers Evan Daugherty and Geneva Robertson-Dworet gesture to the ‘grit’ of something like War for the Planet of the Apes, but ensure that as a creation myth Lara is defined less by reaction than a series of positive movements instead.

Reaction/action in an action film might sound like two ways of framing the same thing, but Uthaug takes the difference seriously. When it is narratively/emotionally critical that the film start closely observing spaces and Lara’s place in them (so as to anchor events/decisions to her mortality and improvisational capacity), the director quickens things to the extent that it almost becomes abstract again any way, a bobbing of heads, a fluidity of pivoting glances, an environment always in motion. We’re never glued to Lara as a broken body in a hostile environment; instead we’re wired directly to her heart rate, waiting impatient for the moment where she can become one with that sense of movement, in sync with the film’s progress and environmental charge. Uthaug is so concerned with making her a channeler of energies that the human dimensions to the character are entirely for Vikander to embody. She’s proud enough to conceal her fear, but not convincing enough to distract us from the tangible objects of her worry. The improvisatory element of her character is key here- by no means Jackie Chan level panic, but enough that we’re actually convinced that she could die at any moment, and she knows it. This same pride creates a kind of mask for her tragic madness- to be potentially followed up at a later date, but Vikander plays it inscrutable so as not to take away from any of the victories herein. When the film queues reflective Moments they’re even half convincing thanks to Vikander’s doubt and panic whenever her momentum’s obstructed.

Daniel Wu’s Lu Ren is given more personality than any romantic interest slash sidekick in recent memory (as well as an uprising narrative following his own father’s legacy as Croft pursues her’s), and Goggins oggles in a fixed concrete way while moving like water, making it impossible to know whether he’s in control of the situation or a skeleton lost to lonely madness. The film is full of these sources and negations of power- we know that as an origin story we’re still at the bottom of the ladder when the film closes, but we’re able to glimpse across at weird figures like Vogel and even Richard and wonder how stable any of this is. Old money is linked to sketchy multinational businesses both of which are invested in boring front companies making everything from weapons to canned goods, and secret societies slash militia with ancient ties to the Catholic church. The contemporary touches are a bonus- it’s been observed that said militia are rando crossfit bros, and Lara’s in a situation where it’s either inheritance or working for Uber Eats. Tomb Raider is not the traumatised body horror that the source material requested, but it’s a film so imbued with goodwill and kinetic thrills that it’s infectious, setting a joyous and unexpected rhythm for future journeys into the material.

Glamorous

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Glamorous (2006)
Fergie

Like the best things in life Glamorous is actually so hard to find words for: a thing that can and should only really stand for itself, like a face, sound, or smell that causes one to suddenly take notice and then before it can answer back to what are you?, is gone forever. Anyone who tries will open themselves up to hyperbole or groan-inducing impressionism (apt to be fair given the inherently fleeting, sentimental quality of said sounds, smells, visions) so bear with me. The opening synth-strings are a house or trance track arrested and doomed to never begin, and following them through Glamorous is to watch only the water from the window of a plane; the sky’s burned it the colours of fire and so we gaze upon it and disappear into our heads, knowing that beneath the reflected warmth of this ocean fireplace is an unfathomable expanse of cold dark miseries, so we shudder and disappear again knowing that getting too close is dangerous. That’s one trip we can take as listeners, Fergie puts us in the plane with her, so another perspective might be watching the clouds dyed sunset peach, imagining whole cities and lifeforms and languages, but then feeling oneself slipping through them into that cold fiery ocean thousands of feet below. The fall’s inevitable but it’s not as exciting as that sounds, it’s just that every night spent indoors when it’s raining outside has its comfort predicated on the fact that it’s another story on the other side of the window.

The rest of the song bubbles where those drones soothe and shudder, but even then the song’s verbal and aural semantics are complicated because of course they are: a year later Yeezy made a whole album out of the ambivalence of fame (which more or less started a genre), but Fergie’s melancholy comes draped in gold where Ye’s bites back cold- if you ain’t got no money take your broke ass home launches Fergie’s place in the song, but verse by verse she undermines the sentiment, only opening up at the end with this malevolent father-figure trying to instill in her a sense of socio-economic Darwinism. It would be enough to have opposing words, but in the song’s final showdown Polow da Don barks lines with the blind aggression of an abusive stepfather and Fergie, now in the same room as this person, loses the ability to answer back: my daddy told me sohe let his daughter know.

Nothing’s ever resolved- she tries out a similar existential reassertion to J.Lo in Jenny on the Block, and even makes gestures to enjoying what she’s made for herself. The problem for Fergie is she knows J.Lo never made it back to the garden- she’s left pining for the impossible. And in the way of adapting, Fergie recognises that others don’t have it as good as she does, but there’s the specter of that father figure yelling his mantra and throwing fists every time she watches the bubbles rise in her champagne glass. We get the sense that whatever happens, whatever she lets us see, it’s all in past tense.

An aerosol velvet tearjerker- I hope she’s doing well.

Ex

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Ex (2017)
Ty Dolla $ign & YG

Ex was fortuitously released just in time for the hottest summer on record in like 200 years, but it arrived feeling as though it had already soundtracked the (imagined) last twenty summers of the listener’s life as well. Perhaps an insurance move in a ruthlessly accelerated age, it feels like the kind of song that has recently started to appear on throwback playlists by pop culture tastemakers, and that the listener was always familiar with but considered minor until its low-key ascent. Like the best pop songs it sounds like it wants to be throwaway, adhering to the reverse logic of pop music that a disposable few minutes means minutes of ecstasy emblazoned in eternity.

The song’s bassline brings to mind the kind of Cameo-inspired beat Pac would’ve employed for a crossover hit (in reality 112 got to it first), and the guitars squirm like vintage DJ Quik. Its timeline as a period-piece is complicated by Ty’s chorus which plays like Pac contemporaries Jay-Z and Snoop’s early-mid 2000s singles runs orchestrated by The Neptunes. What would have already sounded sunbaked and wistful in 1996 would have been doubly so when 1996’s veterans sunbaked themselves in 2004, and so hearing it reappear a decade and a half later without the constancy of a veteran threatens to destabilise the illusion altogether. What seals it here is the presence of YG, who is one of the more successful time-traveling mid-90s Compton rappers since The Game appointed himself 90s Compton hagiographer over a decade ago. The presence of new generations of retro-gazers delivers on the game’s morbid wish, authenticating his signifiers and burying him with his heroes. YG is less highbrow than his west coast Top Dawg contemporaries and certainly not as out-there as what is happening in the south (and has been happening for decades), and so stands in for a kind of nostalgic conservatism that fans’ll argue isn’t there, but which the rapper certainly fosters on the surface(s). Unsurprisingly in Ex, inserting time-traveling rappers into a triply simulacral beat yields good results when time’s been stretched to the point it’s lost its elasticity. YG’s verse on Ex is present but insubstantial, and is made even weaker when he’s interrupted 3/4 of the way through by Ty who cuts him short, and then allows YG to come back for an uncomfortable fraction of a bar. It is the kind of verse that might have happened to a legit mid-90s Compton rapper on a legit mid-90s r&b track, or that a big name might have phoned in c. 2004, and as such is authentically a non-event that receives both more and less visibility than one might expect.

The thing that stands out as unusual however is the angle of the lyrics. Ex is an infidelity sing-along, but where someone like Pac would dedicate the song to a woman he was in awe of for her confidence and inability to be tied down, Ty and YG boast about their power over people who are absent from the song: silent, almost hypothetical. Adultery-as-virility in music is a well worn trope, but for some reason the sunshine r&b format makes it all ring as corny, like Ty and YG have transformed into two guys in Hawaiian shirts running their mouths to anyone who’ll listen that it’s Christine’s turn to look after the baby and hence they’re gonna live it up just for tonight. Where Pac needed specificity to craft characters, Snoop removed all traces of it for getting blown in general. Ty and YG sound like they want the vibe of the latter but end up tangled in the details of texting to say they’ll not be home and bumping into exes, and this unlocks a weird mundane domestic image that feels sad instead of celebratory. What was Ty’s unfinished business with this woman? Who ended it? Is his going back to her an autodestructive move to exit a relationship in which he feels trapped? In his words she gets him thinking about the old days, signalling that he’s invested in her this image of a better past and he’s willing to ruin anything to feel for a moment like it could be real again. It’s more Woody Allen or Judd Apatow than thug passion. There’s as much to be made from this fantasy of running into an ex/the past incarnate as processed through a droste effect of sunbaked wistfulness as the listener is willing to indulge for Ty, as well as what this means in terms of a song that keeps turning up to have us compare the state of our life to the last time we heard it. When it disappears from radio it’ll either be resurrected by Grand Theft Auto 15 or lurk in the basslines and accidental melancholies of every Ex that came before and after this long hot summer.

The bonus is the video which cuts between a standard (artificial) cinematic mode and brutal digital footage of streets and lowriders that no shit brings to mind Michael MannWhen we did Collateral, it was the first photoreal film shot digitally. You cannot capture night photochemically. Very shallow depth of field, very pretty, diffused, defocused lights; exposure-wise, you can’t get that crazy magenta sky you have in L.A., when the sodium vapor lights are bouncing off the marine layer that’s about 1,200 feet at that time of year, and the soft illumination of magenta and orange is very alienating, very attractive, and lonely at the same time.

The New World

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The New World (2005)
Dir. Terrence Malick

One cannot with a clear conscience cast an eye backward or forward into a colonial history and resist feeling horrified, and an artist dealing in history should undo the anesthetizing effect of its make-pretend inevitability- to do something with that sense of horror. Whether this means humanising and thus validating outrage, suggesting alternatives, or just shaking progress narratives comes down to what a work requires of its audience. In The New World we are thrown into a shapeshifting vision of the past that variously heightens and betrays its subject matter. Malick avoids the historiography that we might expect from an intelligent artist- this is not an untold story, this is not a new angle, this is not even a ‘true’ recreation of events, these are all moments and figures from collective myths that we are asked to dream again.

Kilcher, Bale, and Farrell all play archetypes and play them well, and Malick treats their emotions seriously rather than using specificities to make us believe in them. Bale is too Good, Farrell is all crying eyes, Kilcher is too much an angel, but we’re there. The setting never explicitly looks back and revises itself either, so it is to the director’s credit that The New World comes to feel like a new wound in spite of itself. In something like William T. Vollmann’s Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes, the artist-historian is pushed toward the future but desperately clambers back to find moments and relics and counterarguments to dismiss the feeling that any of this was meant to be; that there was never another way. Vollmann makes history present through compressing events and aftermath through an urgent and mangled language that causes our hearts to race, but Malick’s approach seems almost simplistic- rather than picturing all time ‘now’ he pretends to transport us to another time altogether, making us remember, re-witness what we think we know.

We see a closeup of a person looking at something/someone, and in the next cut expect to see an eyeline match, but instead we jump over the shoulder of someone else looking at that original person who has their back turned to us both. Did their eyes ever meet or were they always engaged in other things. Or is this another day altogether? It doesn’t matter. The most breathtaking shot in the film is one that is never repeated and is almost embarrassedly understated- the middle of Pocahontas’ forehead to the parting in her hair, that unromantic area that you adore in someone when you love them and when it’s kissed you tingle and shrug and go red smiling. Watching a film about a contentious and grim subject that nevertheless gasps for air just to fill its lungs highlights how dire a place the director was in when he made the vampiric Knight of Cups. Sometimes The New World’s fat spirit is too much to handle- the title cards should grate or embarrass the flow of the work, but instead they give us room to breathe. Some things do stop time, or rather slow it and rearrange it like rocks jutting out of a stream- I’ve never liked or disliked Malick’s writing, but Kilcher delivers lines with this disappointed fear that makes them heartbreakingly stilted. They’re too straightforward, even artless, to be stylised, but she delivers them that way any way. Malick’s not being clever and neither is she, which makes some of the exchanges so unusually painful:

“I suppose I’m happy”

“Married? You said you did not know the meaning of the word exactly.”
“But I am”

“Did you find your Indies, John?”

The New World’s theatrical cut might be straightforward. Malick’s fluid-through-fragmentation impressionism gives a breathless quality to the advertised subject matter: love, period, encounter. We see Pocahontas’ act of faith bind her to John which keeps the invaders fed which leads, Malick knows we know, to centuries of genocide culminating in reservations and pipeline disputes and Thanksgiving celebrations. There is a great amount of pain in this, but through the theatrical cut we’re asked not to judge this original sin, because the sin’s name was love. Next to the more cerebral extended cut it seems that the theatrical might have been achieved through hacking away at data- a prosaic explanation for what might be one of the great love stories, but which results in an almost completely different work. The extended cut is all but dispersed, decentralised, meaning that the sounds, cuts, images all charge themselves and never in the service of linear storytelling- it’s form, not style (or form and style). Rather than abundant broken strokes, the extended cut takes the form of water through a more rigorous film language. The recurring, almost obsessive images of lakes and rivers make it known- it’s all subjectivities and experiences that dance and flutter and fold into one another, always the same and different, back and forth forever. The theatrical landscape is a sort of Eden for Smith’s Adam and Pocahontas’ Eve, but extended it is given its own memories, moods, and facets of character.

If the film’s narrative was non-linear it’d be unimaginative, because this is part of the film’s secret- whatever the blurb says and whatever people praise, it’s not about the subject matter or even the images. The whole power’s in the edit. Its relentlessly discontinuous editing makes for a hallucinatory overlapping present that is more complicated, less manipulative than the simple shuffling of events. It’s quieter that way, and able to mimic different ways of timekeeping, different ways of piecing a film or a life together. This makes the lesson where Pocahontas learns to tell colonial time more of a clear turning point in the film- hearing the fluidity of experience conceptualised as static ordered numbers ushers in a drab procession through further disenchantment, right to the grave. If there is one thing the theatrical cut does better here, it turns this final act into something that can only be described as a free-fall, and one of the best free-falls in all of art. The extended cut is at this point still emotional of course, but it feels considered where the theatrical has the floor fall out from beneath us. If there’s truth in the more conceptually strong extended cut it is that this story is just one that can be found in a sea of unsettled accounts and causes and connections, voices yelling and crying. But then if that theatrical free-fall works it’s because it lets go, submitting itself and us directly to the yelling and crying.

The truly obvious radical work is for someone else, and it’s tempting to call The New World evasive or even humanistic for its absence of explicit outrage, but there is this oblique anger in it that would be bubbling beneath the surface were it not so elemental. The film does not try to conceal the fact that the arrival is violence, that the trust of the invaders is a tragic mistake, and that their/our ‘civilisation’ is a disease, but Malick forgoes an assumed universal Native American perspective to advocate the landscape as an agent and observer. The quasi ethnography of the first act doesn’t pretend to hold any communicable information, nor does it assume the perspective of those present necessarily. And yet there the film is, shapeshifting until it becomes something else. The subject dealt with directly should be painful, and dealt with cartoonishly should be propaganda, and dealt with aesthetically should be insensitive. How again does it feel like a new wound? How does it hurt more and hurt different every time we sit down and watch it? Days of Heaven was shot from the perspective of a vengeful landscape calling forth the apocalypse, but the thoughts and feelings of The New World are harder to pin down. These people never meant well, they never meant to leave, they were always gonna spread like a disease, and The New World suggests that the landscape always knew because it remembers like a river.

Peasant

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Richard Dawson Peasant (2017)
Weird World

The first thing that one notices in Richard Dawson’s guitar playing (which he claims is as important as the voice), is that it sounds exactly like Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him on the mild morning air. His phrasing’s odd but his dexterity shines when he lets it, and furthermore his bum-notes ring to open new and unexpected avenues rather than just ending there as prickly avant-gardeisms. Whether this music is ‘ritual community music’ or avant-garde is something that Dawson never wants us to know exactly, and precisely what makes his work so excellent. Any interview will show him conflicted, explaining how he’s learned those riffs through playing sludge metal, how those Orcutt and Bailey excursions are him studying Orcutt and Bailey, how he puts coins in his acoustic because he studied the recording of the person who did it first, and so on, but smiling fully like it all just came together. The compulsion to be rough and make-pretend commonsense in order to capture and interrogate a national consciousness is commonplace across all the arts (it’s probably something to do with performative masculinities and circumnavigating a fear of the cultural/intellectual elite in order to get a point across (would people have listened to what Springsteen had to say about transgender rights if he was not also ‘The Boss’?)), but it is curious when the artist is resoundingly avant-garde.

Virginia Woolf obsessed over Joyce, or specifically her repulsion caused by Joyce, and reading her private and public vitriol reads a lot like the self-image pushed by Dawson, ‘self-taught working man,’ ‘raw, striking, and ultimately nauseating,’ ‘illiterate and underbred,’ ‘a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples’ (lol). For all Woolf’s classist and racist contempt, there is the sense that she is frustrated by not being able to understand if she’s reading a genius, a hillbilly, or a genius pretending to be a hillbilly. This of course is by design. Economist Galenson later articulated two motivations for creation: experimentation and conceptualism. Experimental artists look for answers through making, while conceptual artists start with an idea to be proved through the work. Experimental artists are always ‘becoming’, with their best works yet to come, while conceptual artists tend to run out of steam (see for example the post-Cubist career of Pablo Picasso). Dawson’s first album was called Sings Songs and Plays Guitar which now seems like a red herring, though in truth The Magic Bridge and everything before it was a song suite, and The Glass Trunk worked as a series of experiments stemming from a clear conceptual framework. Since then it’s been wholly concept, from idea to execution.

Galenson’s framework is reductive and daft as it is helpful- many have pointed out that it is context that motivates creation and not individuals working in a vacuum, but it is still a tidy way of appreciating the fundamentally searching quality of one artist’s work as well as the rougher and more argumentative qualities of a contemporary. It’s also a nice thing to consider before setting out to make something, although one can always feel the push and pull of ‘idea in head’ and ‘where this execution is taking me’. Dawson’s work arrives at concepts through years of study and experimentation, which makes it more organic than disruptive, and offers the benefit of being both meticulously constructed and feeling like a work in progress- as good as this all is, his best work is certainly still to come. With Nothing Important the concept was the responsibility of individuals, and now this time it’s collective responsibility. Why in turbulent times someone would make an album set in the medieval period is plain enough- to return to Joyce, History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake. For Dawson and Joyce, history is a nightmare that is happening- there is no then and now because they constantly inform one another, and the best we can do is remember the horrors that have occurred while recognising our responsibility to lives lost and lives to come. It’s a sincere work which leaves no room for jaded cynicism or political conservatism. History and community are for Dawson sites of erasure, nationalistic grand narratives, and barbarism, until they become reflexive and at that point they have the potential to become revolutionary.

Not that I will ever share in the (erroneous) ‘they used to make albums, not songs!’ rhetoric that lends itself to rockist nostalgia, much less call for an outright return to the pompous concepts of yesteryear, but Richard Dawson is one of very few artists working that can make a release feel like a gift to the audience rather than content existing just to generate content. In all likelihood the next one’ll be a new set of experiments, and this’ll continue to feel momentous. Like Johnnie To or Yeezy there’s an unsettledness to the artist that makes them vital, and also a generosity that leaves things in full clarity for us to hold onto and fixate over. Of course made under a restless spirit it’s an event in some ways, but mostly like an actual gift that we are grateful for and can warm up to and enjoy and fall out with and apologise to and learn from. Nauseating and pimply, its covert intellectualism guides its big fat emotions to bigger realisations- Joyce said with vast readership that he wanted to write ‘the moral history of my country’ (did I nick that comparison from someone on here?), and Dawson, humbly as singer of songs and player of guitar, takes this to heart. However much he tries to lead us off Joyce by citing the ruddy peasant world-paintings of Bruegel, we catch him in the act taking from both and doing more.

The average reviews on here are genuinely upsetting, not because I disagree with what they have to say, but because they aren’t really saying anything at all. Because here’s what this is, Peasant is a new old work by someone who plays the bard and talks shit and goes off in private to study everything until his brain’s mangled and his fingers are bleeding, not because he’s stuffy like a perfectionist, but because he believes in everything that came before him one hundred percent and he believes in what he’s doing right now maybe even more, because he’s channeling it all towards something that’ll improve things, because he wants to improve things, ’cause he cares where we came from just as much as where we’re going next. He cares where we are right now, because right now’s heading in both directions at once and that makes us responsible here and now to both. And more important than everything I’ve said is this thing which leaves visible all the smudges and cracks of the author’s hand, and but which yearns to transcend its own mundane origins- it’s not Dawson’s, it is ours and everyone else’s in it, and there are lives and stories and whole worlds in this thing that we owe it to listen to, hard as that might be when the sun’s dying and all sense of the world is lost. But that’s the thing- it’s ours.

Pulse

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Pulse (2001)
Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa

What got you started on the internet?
Nothing in particular…
You wanted to connect with other people?
Maybe… I don’t really know…

You cannot begrudge Kurosawa for wanting to explain the film through the mouths of the characters, because then all that’s left for the viewer is to trudge through the misery of its implications. For a viewer that is slow to understand even the things that the film says outright (me), this works to circumnavigate uncertainties and leave us feeling tired and alone- watching Pulse has a very similar effect to walking to work on a crisp and decent morning and coming across a missing persons poster sellotaped just above the button at the pedestrian crossing near your house. It is possible that this attack on the viewer’s sense of safety and wellbeing is all one needs from Kurosawa, and that the internet in Pulseis simply a conceit to allow for new terrifying images, but it seems more that the director is cautiously examining his works in terms of what looks to be the final frontier for human connection. If we cannot stand to be, or through circumstances just cannot be with one another physically, we can now connect remotely through dots- abstract and immediate. Given the ability to share with countless lonely individuals, why would we not just help one another, listen to one another, and generally spread good will? Something like Unfriended would later examine how that utopianism would buckle under compulsory connection via enacted and complicit cruelty, a kind of hyperconnection that make-pretends remoteness (which in turn stokes said cruelty). The weird tragedy of Pulse is that it feels around for something to say not about bullying, but about lonely people who want to be warm. The new millennium must have been an incredibly exciting time for Kurosawa to establish the frameworks for a whole new era of despair.

People don’t really connect, you know
Like those dots simulating hauntings
We all live totally separately

Most of the film’s scares derive from its characters receiving live feeds of other people, lurking cold and alone in their own sad rooms. They jump back, recognising themselves in these images of blunt loneliness. The point here seems to be that even if we are to share and listen to one another in full sincerity, we will make ourselves sick with the pain of others- our own situation becomes real when it’s reflected back to us, like a depressive mirror stage. There is no sense of community in this despair (Nightmare on Elm Street), in fact it severs social bonds. These people withdraw further into themselves instead of helping one another through mutual loneliness. ‘If two dots get too close, they die.’ On discovering that their friend has hanged himself, a group of friends reflect that they had no idea he was so sad, and then offer super deadpan I suppose I think about it all the time and can see why he did it. Would knowing more about his mental state have saved this friend? Pulse seems to say that even if omniscience was possible there would be nothing we could do, and in fact knowing might be a bad thing. If this is the case then it is sort of the opposite of Unfriended– connectivity in Pulse could never be used as a malicious force because it is only ever a dead end. As something which finds us in and broadcasts us from the vulnerability of our own homes, there is inadequate distance for professional and social performance. We become doppelgängers, dots getting too close and then disappearing. If we look at the material quality of the ‘dots simulating hauntings’, there is something to be said for the voluntary breakdown of a physical body into information, and the infinite distribution of this ghostly self. Kurosawa does not seem interested in how this matters in terms of physical and digital bodies, but that we have the potential to become through our own pixelated worthlessness a kind of boundless plague.

Death was… eternal loneliness

When I was running today I took with me the appreciation that Auckland contains pocket after pocket of unused space, all overgrown with weeds. I thought about Kurosawa’s ‘dots’ and how if these pockets began to find one another and link up, they would form a big green wall of divine uselessness that would laugh at all of the big-scale things that humans value and hold onto and treasure. London is very much the same. I feel that these green useless spaces have the potential to grow and spread, and they are benign if not just indifferent to us and what we do. Their charm is that they are in no way a picturesque reminder of what the land once looked like, but rather evidence of what happens when we brutally landscape everything and then forget how to use it. The ‘natural way of things’ has long been lost, and we’re too far gone the other way. These are not ‘the good plants’, but ‘the bad plants’, and they only emerge when we are not doing the job we started as landscapers of the whole world. Victor Hugo called the land between the city and the country the ‘bastard countryside,’ and these are bastard plants and prankster ghosts. In Pulse there are no bastard plants to mock and outlive us. No rats and insects and birds. Instead, everybody lives in a sad apartment building where half the rooms are vacant, never to be filled, and on every block’s an abandoned factory. People die in Pulse all the time and they disintegrate not out of respect for the bodies, but because the people in it disappear and no one ever finds them. They turn into of all the noble things, oil stains.

Kurosawa’s films are the most inventive with pretend simplicity that you are likely to find outside of like Tarkovsky, but/and I find every time that I can barely stomach what they say and how they force the viewer with all of their soul to feel as well. I fundamentally disagree with every point they make, but am also familiar with every one of these points, because I think about them and squirm with fear every single day of my life. ‘I am cold.’

Halloween

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Halloween (1978)
Dir. John Carpenter

One could fairly assume that through parody, replication, and saturation Halloween’s individual merits have long been lost to its importance and so dulled by virtue of its own influence- its innovations the norm, since then antique. Certainly a so-what response is reasonable, but I’ve never had the ability to see through the eyes of an imagined past audience and Halloween strikes like an arrow. Carpenter equates the camera with the killer in the opening POV sequence and this threatens to read like an exploitation trick, but there’s something about it disturbingly inevitable, black eyed, bereft of desire. Dr Loomis confirms as much when he says his patient as a child was already a lost cause, pure evil, and in the right mood there’s pathos to this resignation, but Carpenter wants him to take on any Shape that we need. In one of its best scenes a group of patients lurch glowing white in the pitch black field and later Michael’s mask takes on the same quality- forgotten ghosts, bogeymen, or just people, they are whatever we need them to be. These Shapes and by extension cameras are a mirror, a black hole and a blinding light.

In a cinema of scares we all jump the same, but in an architecture of horror we’re left to deal with how it feels in our own guts. Carpenter is one of the great directors of space, and Halloween is as immersive as one would expect, but this is complicated by that opening scene. We undergo a split and then combined recognition- we imagine ourselves in the scene, and we see ourselves being watched through the eyes of a watcher. There is something surreally awful about seeing yourself in the eyes of another for two hours. Peeping Tom like Halloween combined the camera with the knife and added a mirror so victims could watch themselves die, but Halloween does not attempt such malicious intimacy. Had the cameras a desire to harm or punish or strip, the watcher/watched would divide itself but Halloween is emphatically reflective.

Anyone who has ever made anything knows you can hear, see, taste everything wrong with it the moment you see someone else hear, see, taste it, and Halloween from a distance shows you everything wrong with your life- it is the difference between looking at yourself in the mirror before leaving the house, and while you’re at the party having seen other people. Without an obvious judgement from within the camera’s gaze we become paranoid- it’s not watching us because we’re young (Friday the 13th), or attractive (Blow Out), or just people (Maniac), but whatever we see in its cold black eyes, whatever form its blank white face takes. If the camera is Laurie’s perception of herself, then she is alienated, meandering, alone. In the way of overt violence, she also sees herself as vulnerable, a potential victim. Laurie is afraid that she will be attacked in public spaces and this is sadly not uncommon, although its prevalence has been described as a Spatial Paradox: women tend to be more afraid of attacks in public over domestic spaces, however they are more likely to be attacked at home by somebody they know. There is no telling what Laurie sees in Michael’s blank glowing face and glistening black eyes, but it’s something and someone she recognises.

But then everyone sees it different- even Laurie sees something different every time we/she looks. The reflection shows us whatever we need it to show, whatever we currently need to deal with. Loomis calls it pure evil, and it is hard to deny that there is something purely evil in the camera’s impassivity, but even this can lead to entirely different takes depending on whether or not one believes in evil (America loves its serial killers). Is Loomis recognising his own failure as a doctor, or is it something else? In the hit film It Follows, Mitchell imitates Halloween’s cameras to mimic the eye of the grim reaper, the morphing Shape of the attacker, but the idea was already fully formed in this older work. All the attacks take place in houses, in the manufactured Safety of the suburban streets, or does it matter more that Laurie stands up to the Shape, fighting her way out of the closet? It could be mid-tier Carpenter (I always thought it was until recently) but that still means that it’s the densest and most generous of its time.