Friday, December 20, 2013

Natural Born Killers, Innit?: Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers and the Decline of Britain

German poster for Sightseers, by Heike Jörss, which MUBI's Notebook declared
to be one of the best posters of 2013.
I remember reading somewhere in the work of far left-wing nutjob Tariq Ali that the United Kingdom is just a medium-sized Northern European country.  And it struck me as a revelation, to think of Britain, this great fount of artistic achievement, the land of Shakespeare and Milton, as being decidedly marginal.  Its permanent position on the UN Security Council is just a relic of an era long since passed and whatever power it still wields in the world is either a legacy of colonialism or a concession from its powerful ally, the United States.  And like the United States, Britain is in decline.  A country like Norway may be marginal (militarily and probably culturally, unless we consider black metal and Ibsen revivals to be an influential part of modern culture), but it’s still got its shit together, economically.  Norway is a nice place to live and will continue to be a nice place to live for the foreseeable future.  Britain, by contrast, is falling apart, and has been ever since Margaret Thatcher took a sledgehammer to the welfare state and declared that “there is no society,” which is the kind of thinking that led her to rip up Britain’s social contract.
So Britain’s been falling to pieces since Thatcher, and Christ knows it shows in their cinema.  I should say first off that I’m not a huge fan of British cinema.  If you contrast it with the cinemas of countries of comparable size and historical-cultural influence, like, say, France or Japan, it’s downright pitiful.  They either sent their best filmmakers abroad (Chaplin, Hitchcock) or had to import them from overseas (Kubrick, Gilliam, all those Korda brothers).  The only truly great British filmmaker working in Britain back in the day was Michael Powell, and he shared credit on his best productions with the Hungarian-born Emeric Perssburger (the credits typically read “Written and Directed by Powell and Pressburger,” although my understanding is that Powell did most of the directing and Pressburger most of the writing).  In recent years, British movie production has focused mostly on two types of film: the kitchen-sink drama (or bleak chic; in America, we call it K-mart realism), embodied by the films of Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, and Andrea Arnold; and period pieces: like Pride and Prejudice and Atonement or The King’s Speech (the auteur theory crowd must not think too highly of these films’ directors, as I don’t know their names). 

But there is a third type of British film, pioneered by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg: the gritty black comedy bloodbath (think kitchen-sink drama with zombies).  This is the best description I can think of for Ben Wheatley’s 2012 film Sightseers.  The film stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram (who also wrote it, along with Amy Jump) as Tina and Chris, a pair of sad sack lovers who go on holiday together.  With camper in tow (or caravan, as the British apparently call it), the couple seeks out a series of innocuous tourist sites in Yorkshire (including a historical exhibit about tram cars and the pencil museum, at which Tina purchases an enormous pencil—shades of the hamburger phone in Juno).  Tina and Chris (and, based on no research, I’m going to assert that they were named after the couple in the Talking Heads) run into a spot of bother when Chris reveals that he has a nasty habit of murdering people who piss him off.  His first victim, whom he kills (somewhat) accidentally, is just a random asshole, but subsequent victims are upper-class and well-educated, and a blistering class resentment soon makes its presence known.  Now, in America, we certainly have class, but we’re generally not allowed to talk about it: internet joke and former presidential candidate Rick Santorum recently asserted that even a term as inoffensive as “middle class” is Marxist and un-American.

Sightseers strikes a remarkable balance between hilarity on the one hand and passionate hatred and despair on the other (it’s the hatred that I don’t think an American film would be able to pull off).  Sightseers shows what absolute freedom looks like: it is desperate and it is necessarily short-lived, sustainable only until the authorities catch up with you.  As long as societies likes Britain’s (and America’s) continue to languish in anomie and economic decay and class warfare (by which I mean the war perpetrated by the plutocracy against everybody else), we will continue to see people flip their shit, abandon the future, and perpetrate horrific acts of vengeance against the world that tantalized them with everything and provided them with nothing.  In the words of Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, these are the people who were “shown how to feel good and told to feel bad.” Although I suppose the American conservative would just dismiss them as “entitled.”

Friday, December 13, 2013

On the Decadence of Contemporary French Cinema and the So-Called “New French Extremity”

*Full of a bunch of spoilers for all sorts of movies*
*Also, I don’t usually say this, but I guess I should issue a trigger warning as well*

In my viewing of twenty-first century French cinema, I have seen the following things: a group of soldiers gang-rape a woman, and one of the soldiers is later castrated in retaliation; a man with an axe smashes a car window open and murder a woman and a girl inside and then rapes another girl; a gay man sodomizes a woman in a tunnel for about ten minutes and her fiancée and his friend retaliate by smashing the rapist’s skull to bits with a fire extinguisher inside the most nightmarish gay club since William Friedkin’s Cruising; a man watches a tape of his brother-in-law having sex with his niece.

The scenes I have just described come respectively from the following films: Bruno Dumont’s Flanders (2005), Catherine Breillat’s A ma soeur (2001, released in the U.S. as Fat Girl for some fucking reason), Gaspar Noé‘s Irreversible (2004), and Claire Denis’s Bastards (2013).  These films are all examples of what they call the “New French Extremity:” fucked up movies where every horrible thing that would once have taken place off screen, or at least that would have been mitigated by jump cuts and other forms of elision, is depicted onscreen in unsparing detail.  It is underpinned by the philosophy that every horrible thing can and should be put on film, and that a film has no responsibility to be pleasant or aesthetically pleasing (Bastards especially lingers in my memory as a grim, dirty, visually ugly piece of cinema).

Now, I don’t consider myself to be prudish or censorious in my film-watching habits.  I don’t find anything inherently objectionable in films that depict “extreme” subject matter or that make use of an “extreme” style.  Hell, I love contemporary Korean cinema, which has to be the most fucked up national cinema in the world; one of my favorite films is Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (the original, of course), which is an incest-fueled bloodbath.  But it’s a very stylish, even, dare I say, pretty, incest-fueled bloodbath.  Or take Kim Ki-duk’s elegant film The Isle, which depicts: a man swallowing a bunch of fishhooks, a woman driving fishhooks into her vagina, and more unsimulated animal cruelty than I’ve seen in any other movie.  And yet these are not unpleasant films to watch.  Because the directors understand that there is a balance to be struck.  And so, if we’re going to have fucked up subject matter, we will balance it with stylish compositions and clever, engaging plotting.

The problem with the New French Extremity is that there’s no balance.  These films are unrelentingly bleak, drab, ugly, and depressing.  To take Denis’s Bastards as an example: the title could apply pretty well to all the characters.  Or it could just as easily have been called Very Bad Things Happen to Terrible People with a Gray and Brown Color Palette.  Or let’s go back to Korea for a moment, and consider one of Kim Ki-duk’s latest films, 2012’s Pietà.  In this movie, which follows a brutal loan-shark as he rampages through Seoul torturing people who can’t pay off their debts, Kim fails to strike the balance like he did in The Isle.  Instead, we have a tedious movie depicting horrible things with an ugly color scheme (how this film won the grand prize at the Venice Film Festival is a mystery to me).  Now, this tendency in French cinema wouldn’t be all that problematic if it was confined to just a few films, but it’s becoming positively ubiquitous.  Noé and Breillat have always made brutal movies, but it’s also beginning to suck in directors with a broader skill-set, like Denis and Olivier Assayas,  Something has to change here, as I can’t imagine that this already unpalatable film movement has much energy left in it.  You can only film so much rape and torture before you’ve exhausted the permutations and need to find new material.  Perhaps we should pin our hopes on the older generation of French filmmakers; people like Agnes Varda and Jean-Luc Godard, not content to repeat themselves, continue to come out with weird and innovative new movies.  If only the young French enfants terribles could take the lessons of these octogenarians to heart.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

On the Sanitizing of Nelson Mandela for American Media and Political Consumption

In the wake of the death of Nelson Mandela, there has been an extensive (and not particularly surprising) attempt by American media outlets and the American political class to sanitize and defang the late ANC leader.  As a public service—as we here at Say a Prayer for the Octopus value education—here are a few popular misconceptions about Mandela, cleared up for your edification.
First, there is the myth that Mandela came from humble beginnings.  Although it is true that he was born in rural, white-ruled South Africa, which I suppose is its own form of humble, he is in fact descended from King Ngubengcuka of the Thembu nation of Xhosa-speakers.  This makes him royalty.  There is nothing particularly humble about that.

After he got his law degree, Mandela became active in the African National Congress (ANC), the largest of the anti-Apartheid political parties in South Africa, which was allied with the South African Communist Party of Joe Slovo, which was the only significant majority-white South African party to support the ANC’s militancy.  Because the ANC was a militant organization.  Perhaps the greatest misconception about Mandela is that he was a Gandhian.  He was nothing of the sort.  He famously said that non-violence is a tactic, not a principle.  And when the ANC’s non-violence got them nowhere in the fifties, they turned to armed insurrection in the sixties, and Mandela briefly became the head of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, and led a guerilla campaign against the government.  He wasn’t a particularly good guerilla commander, and was shortly thereafter arrested and commenced upon his twenty-seven years in prison.

In the late eighties, with the South African economy crippled by foreign sanctions, Mandela began negotiations with the white minority government to end Apartheid, dealing first with the hard-line Afrikaner nationalist P. W. Botha and then with the more congenial F W de Klerk.  It has been said in the American media that the end of Apartheid was peaceful, but it came amidst considerable violence between the ANC and their fellow black Africans in the Bantustans.  These were the ghetto-statelets invented by the Apartheid regime so that they could claim they were granting black people self determination.  The reality of the Bantustans was that they were puppet states, but their leaders liked the idea of having their own states and fought viciously against reintegration into South Africa in the early ‘90’s.  It should also be noted that the end of Apartheid came after the bloody war in Angola, where South African troops were soundly defeated by the communist forces of the MPLA and their Cuban allies.  When Mandela was released from prison, the first foreign leader he met with was Fidel Castro, whose friendship he would never forget.  He was also close with Muammar Gaddafi, who had supported the ANC when the U.S. and British governments were still calling it a terrorist organization (and Mandela would not, in fact, be removed from U.S. terror watch-lists until 2008).

Now, Mandela is often praised in the U.S. for seeking reconciliation with the Afrikaner establishment rather than reprisal, but what did this reconciliation consist of?  Mandela essentially said to the Afrikaners, “If you give up your political power, we’ll allow you to preserve your economic power.” I’ve always thought that the end of Apartheid was something of an economic boon for Afrikaners, as it brought an end to the sanctions regime and brought to power a regime that was willing to let white South Africans retain their grip on the economy.  Now, in Mandela’s defense, his conciliatory attitude towards the white establishment prevented a mass exodus of white people from the country (although South Africa did lose about a sixth of its white population) and they probably would have taken with them their wealth and their technical and administrative know-how, which would have crashed the South African economy (as we have seen in similar flights of white people from neighboring countries like Angola and Zimbabwe).  Furthermore, there was the very real possibility of civil war in the early ‘90’s, and Mandela deserves praise for averting it.  But he likely gave up too much, as the economic inequalities of the Apartheid era largely remain to this day, where nearly eighty percent of the land in South Africa is white-owned.

I don’t say any of this to diminish Mandela’s legacy.  I think it’s quite possible that he was the last person of our time whose global moral stature rivaled that of Martin Luther King or Mohandas Gandhi.  But knowing and stating the truth about Mandela isn’t the same as denigrating him.  People of all political backgrounds are going to try to exploit Mandela’s memory in the coming days (hell, Ted Cruz has found something nice to say about Mandela, even though American conservatives hated him in the ‘80’s) and it’s important that we establish what the facts are before the American myth-and-mystification machine goes to work on him.