The fun of lesbian crime, the emptiness of vengeance, the cyclical cruelty of abuse, and the horror of naked full-body cat Idris Elba.
My Dad is currently sat in the intensive care unit of the Queen’s Medical Centre in Nottingham. Just over a month ago, on one of his days off from work, he went motorbike racing at Donnington and, when coming around a turn, slammed at full speed into the back of another rider (who as far as I am aware was completely uninjured) and flew over the top of his handlebars. He broke his back, his arms, his wrists, separated one of his shoulders, and broke over half of his ribs. He spent three of the past four weeks in a medically-induced coma because the damage to his ribs was too severe to keep him awake without causing enormous amounts of pain. The surgeon who repaired his back does not think he will walk again. Last Wednesday, they finally woke him from the coma but he’s currently still on a ventilator, combined with a tracheotomy, because one of his lungs was accidentally pierced in the meantime and he needs to recover from that which means he cannot speak.
And, of course, I cannot see him because the entire country is on lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite my family’s repeated assertions that I shouldn’t dwell on this because that’s just gonna wreck my forever precarious mental health… yeah, in the midst of a lockdown where there is nobody else to talk to and nothing meaningful to do to stave off such a thing, it’s kinda hard not to spend my days dwelling on this. There were a pair of weeks where, even though it was still rather at the forefront of my thoughts (because how could it not be), I could at least find momentary distraction from going out to the cinema, seeing a few friends (all of whom have been far better than I deserve throughout this) and working a few cover shifts at my ever-tenuous job. Seriously, when you’re going through something like this, the comparatively mundane trials one hits when working a job with bosses who do not know what the fuck they’re doing or much care for you is genuinely welcome. Hard to focus on the long-term psychological fear-fuckery of your father being unlikely to walk again when you’re dealing with the immediate problem of the store iPad which is the key to doing literally everything locking out everyone but the person who doesn’t work there anymore, because it’s their iPad and their account the shop just took from them cos management are too lazy/stingy to buy their own equipment yet expect you to somehow deal with, y’know?
Then the pandemic took full hold cos our collective world governments who have spent much of the past decade denigrating experts at every turn and gutting their respective health services reaped what they sewed – although I guess that turn of phrase isn’t really applicable since they are getting off mostly scot-free whilst we, the unwashed masses who elected them to power, are the ones actually suffering – and now I have nothing but time to dwell. Since the week following the accident, I’ve been residing at my dad’s house in order to keep everything safe and, much more importantly, look after his cats (there’s a long story attached to those I imagine we’ll get to at some point). I’ve been fighting to try and get a routine going, to ensure I’m not fully wasting my days away watching YouTube videos or scrolling aimlessly on my phone. Some days it works, other days pass and I have accomplished absolutely nothing.
I’ve started feeling actively resentful of my dad for this. For the mess he’s left the rest of us in the family to clear up, for the mental trauma he’s left on all of us, for not being here whilst the rest of the world goes to absolute shit, for the uncertainty over what in the fuck our lives become now as a result of this. I hate having this feeling and this thought process because I know how shitty and awful it is. After all, he didn’t choose to have an accident, and I know that it is going to mentally destroy him that he will spend the rest of the year (at least) in various hospitals and physio centres wanting to do things his body physically cannot whilst separated from everyone he knows and loves – Nottingham is two hours away, the physio centre in Sheffield he will be sent to once his condition stabilises is an hour away. I feel like being able to physically see him in person conscious (I got to go once before the hospital locked down and he was in the coma at that point) would stave off that horrible selfish feeling of resentment and anger… but that’s not happening for a long while. They can’t even set up Facetime or whatever at the hospital for no adequately explained reason. So, all I can do right now is sit and dwell.
That’s why I’ve been silent. Actually, it’s one of many reasons I’ve been more silent than I normally am in my “silent” periods. We’ll work through those together in the coming months. It’s not like any of us can do much else for the time being.
Here’s what I’ve been watching this week.
The Silence [Tuesday 31st March]
Dir: Ingmar Bergman
Another one for the “I appreciate the significance and how other people would love this, but I was bored to death” pile. The Silence is a really visually striking movie, and sometimes Bergman uses those coldly austere and studiously composed angular visuals for genuine character-centric storytelling. There’s this shot when Anna hears Esther crying on the other side of the door, shrouded in meticulously arranged shadow, and she lets this particularly spiteful grin peek past the shadow’s edges that stuck with me especially. But, on the legitimate complaint front, Bergman’s… measured pacing too often crosses over into outright tedious stalling; even at 91 minutes, I think this dragged, there’s maybe 65 mins worth of narrative and metaphor at best. Meanwhile, the horror undertones mainly manifest in reductive shorthand that has not aged well. Most obviously there’s the recurring business with the performing dwarf troupe which seems to serve no purpose besides creating a false sense of weirdness from their mere presence as short people, but I also found the usage of sex to be disappointingly conventional and judgemental after hearing about its bold frankness? Sex in Silence is the province of selfish broken embittered trainwrecks and displayed in a very judgy miserablist manner that’s hardly profound even for the stuff from the time I’ve seen.
Other than those, my hang-ups are built on personal taste. There’s just something about the intentional disconnect between the cold and borderline-animatronic design of the shots, sets and blocking of the film’s visuals, and the bursts of hysterical unrestrained ACTING from the performers in movies like The Silence that I just cannot get past. To me, particularly in conjunction with just how relentlessly miserable the narratives can be, it often comes off as kinda silly. (Not pretentious, because films like these often do function as cohesive character and thematic studies, but silly.) I can find myself wondering why I’m supposed to care, why I’m supposed to buy the emotional truths of these characters, and doubly so when the desire to emphasise ambiguity and everything being a freely-interpretive metaphor overrides that emotional narrative as it does here. Given my perpetual crippling fear of death and abandonment, I should’ve been caught in a shaken rapture by that last scene of Ester on the bed as she’s abandoned by Anna and Johan, but I was completely unmoved.
Some of this might just be my worldview. I’m not opposed to arty mega-bummers, but they need to get that balance just right to prevent what happened here. About 55 minutes in, I found myself checking Stereogum to pass the time, saw that Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever announced their sophomore LP, then got their last single stuck in my head on loop whilst going “oh, that album is gonna slap!” instead of properly paying attention; that’s how little I was hooked. Like I said, it’s not entirely The Silence‘s fault and I’m looking forward to trying more Bergman films – guy’s made A LOT of them so law of averages dictates at least some can strike that balance of doing their damn thing whilst not causing my brain to jump to decades of cartoon parodies about arty foreign cinema (usually riffing on Bergman). But I just really did not care about any part of this one. Sorry.
Bound [Wednesday 1st April]
Dirs: The Wachowski Sisters
I went onto the Girls on Tops site the other day to see if, now that I have enforced disposable income due to the pandemic going on, I could get myself one of their shirts with “THE WACHOWSKI SISTERS” emblazoned… only to find that no such shirt exists and there’s no submission form or anything to ask for one! This is a personal attack against me and I will not stand for it! Lana and Lily are the greatest and I love them and I want a shirt that can demonstrate my adoration for the rest of my likely minimal days! Whichever web store can do that for me is getting my money first thing the morning after it goes up for sale, not kidding.
Jesus, Bound is so fucking great, you guys! It can be very easily forgotten since the duo spent their careers afterwards immersing themselves in massively ambitious (and at times unwieldy) CG morasses and diving straight for the kind of earnest cheese which can turn some folks off, but the Wachowski Sisters can direct a fucking movie. From frame one, this thing oozes palpable black comic noir style and a constant sense of forward momentum and propulsion as the pair find themselves working in simpatico with cinematographer Bill Pope – perhaps not surprisingly, Pope, editor Zach Steinberg and composer Don Davis all reteamed with the Sisters for The Matrix – to subtly and ingeniously queer the typically hypermasculine lens of both noir and exploitation cinema. It never feels locked down to a miniscule budget, the vast majority of the action taking place in two apartments and three rooms total, and the thrill of watching the various dominoes that the Sisters’ airtight script set-up and knock down in both expected and brilliantly unexpected ways is giddy-inducing. I can’t even deploy the old cliché “you can cut the tension with a knife” because the tension was so damn thick; I was borderline screaming mentally during that redial bit! And I have not seen better performances out of that main trio in anything else; they play their parts to perfection, camping it up just the right amount like a classic 40s noir.
Look, I know that the analysis here is not deep or well-structured or anything, but right now I’m in a “FUCKING WATCH THIS MOVIE, OH MY GOD, IT’S PERFECT, IT’S JUST PERFECT” kinda high that I both can’t fully and am not yet ready to come down from. Pulling Bound apart for closer analysis will likely cause that appreciation to jump into overdrive, but right now this does feel like a film whose greatness is just self-evident. One of those instances where critics cop out and utilise the phrase “it’s just pure cinema” in hopes that anyone reading will understand what they’re on about. Why did we ever stop the Wachowski Sisters from directing movies again?
The Proposition [Thursday 2nd April]
Dir: John Hillcoat
Whilst I’m not sure whether it amounts to much overall thematically beyond wallowing in lots of horrible macho violence visited upon truly monstrous people, none of whom are remotely likeable or sympathetic – and I do feel like a film which goes for as deliberate a pace and sparsely-drawn narrative like this one should have a larger coherent thematic point – I cannot deny how enrapturing the results are. The Proposition is almost like a mood poem or a song in its mixture of languid stretches and studied characters often interrupted by unflinchingly brutal acts of squirm-inducing violence. No surprise then that the script came courtesy of Nick Cave and the direction was from music video auteur John Hillcoat. There’s a real muck and toughness in both the production design and BenoÎt Delhomme’s cinematography which feels, for lack of better and less lazy terms, authentic and tangible. The clinical songwriter’s remove provides a stark and immediate sensation to proceedings, a consistent sense of volatility and unrest concocted with punchy editing and an ever-present flow.
I vastly prefer this to Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale. Both films cover not entirely dissimilar ground narratively, thematically, visually and racially, but The Proposition is far less pretentious, self-indulgent and clumsy in its storytelling and indigenous portrayal, even though (unlike Kent’s abysmal misfire) it’s not really about race. My biggest criticism is the bewildering sound mixing, where dialogue is almost exclusively at a barely-audible murmur yet the music and gunshots blare through the speakers as if they’re happening right next to your ear. I really liked how every gunshot has a shocking and sickening oomph to them – films examining the abhorrent nature of violence I find still take the sound and punch of gunshots for granted instead of doing anything with them – but if I’m having to leave subtitles on for the whole time to understand anything anyone is saying, then maybe some better audio balancing should’ve gone on before sending the film out the door.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance [Saturday 4th April]
Dir: Park Chan-wook
Some initial problems with communicating character relationships in the opening 40 or so minutes aside, Mr. Vengeance is an excellently grim time. Whilst watching, and in between being gripped by Chan-wook’s off-kilter direction (the seeds of his more kinetic and playful later work occasionally making themselves known through the blackest comedy you and I may ever witness) and the great Song Kang-ho putting on another acting clinic, my brain ended up naturally making a pair of connections that placed Mr. Vengeance into a really interesting light. The first, and the one that doesn’t require retrospection and my Johnny Come Lately-ness to work, is that of the Coen Brothers. Vengeance has that same Kafkaesque nihilism of many a Coen flick – whether that be handled seriously as in Miller’s Crossing, humorously as in A Serious Man, or some combination of both as in Fargo – which is not an influence I would’ve considered when looking at the other Chan-wook films I’ve seen but is all over this one (my incoming long-overdue rewatch of Oldboy will soon reveal whether that’s a feature of the Vengeance Trilogy and if I’m a dumbass for not recognising sooner). The difference being that the Coens largely adopt an amused remove from their protagonists, whereas Chan-wook is deeply invested in the tragedy that unfolds in his film and treats it with the emotional melodrama found in a lot of East Asian cinema.
The other connection was to Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite. Both films examining South Korean class differentials, the cruel predatory unfairness of capitalism, the metaphorical inability to be able to meaningfully communicate between the disparate classes, and a complex morality where arguably nobody is a good or bad person that’s deliberately uncomfortable to have to grapple with. Obviously, Chan-wook’s film differs from Joon-ho’s in that the former is much more fixated on the futility of revenge and numbing all-consuming hatred over being wronged, the examinations of capitalism and class coming more as a bonus natural occurrence from telling this story this way, whilst the eventual piling up of bodies and copious sickening displays of blood and violence can arguably distract from Chan-wook’s various points – Joon-ho I feel does a better job of integrating the explosion of action in his final third better. This is not meant to be “hack White western critic sees superficial similarities between two films by two of the best-known South Korean directors,” for the record. I genuinely find it interesting to see, through these two films, how prevalent and similar these issues with capitalism in South Korean art and society are despite almost two decades of ostensible “progress.”
Cats [Sunday 5th April]
Dir: Tom Hooper
On this eve, I gathered together three of my friends over Skype to finally, at long last, expose them to the brainmelting horror that is Tom Hooper’s Cats. I had been planning to wait until the film came out on Blu-Ray then invite all of my friends (plus whatever friends they wanted to also invite) over to my house whilst family were away for an unrelated evening of revelry and, once they were all inside and trapped behind the nonsensical security door my ridiculously paranoid mother recently installed, spring Cats upon them unsuspectingly in a pretty foolproof effort to set a world record for most friendships ended in the quickest timespan. Bad news: the pandemic and general lockdown have put those specific plans on indefinite hold. Good news: the lockdown managed to turn a few of my friend’s brains to deranged soup enough that, when I broached the online shout-along to them after watching three excellent Cats-related video essays in the span of three days – Lindsay Ellis’s obviously gets the most attention, but Maggie Mae Fish’s is genuinely one of the best video essays I have ever watched and you need to check it out – they completely voluntarily of their own accord without any manipulation or cajoling on my part turned up to witness Art in motion.
The collective scream of pure disgusted terror from all three of them that greeted the sight of naked full-body cat Idris Elba will go down as my life’s greatest achievement. I don’t know about those three, but I had an absolute blast and really needed this right now.
Mustang [Monday 6th April]
Dir: Deniz Gamze Ergüven
What I’ve learned in the years following on from experiencing it first-hand is that the movies which made 2015 not the unmitigated dumpster fire I largely wrote it off as back at the time were either located overseas or held off until 2016 for a UK release because the world likes to punish me for wanting to try a broader film palette. Appropriate Behaviour, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Phoenix (which I thankfully was able to acquire at the time), and now Mustang, one of the bigger foreign films of the 2010s I had yet to check off. (Still to try go before my Top 100: Holy Motors, Toni Erdmann, Zama, Shoplifters, Son of Saul and actually this list is getting embarrassingly long forget I ever brought it up.) Regardless of my protracted road to finally seeing Ergüven’s magnificent debut feature, Mustang is still a fantastic work of cinema.
A confidently directed, empathetic and, by the time of its incredible final act, heart-stoppingly tense examination of stubborn patriarchal tradition being rebelled against (in both minor and major ways) by natural societal and feminist progression. A film which doesn’t downplay the often-tragic consequences of such attempted rebellion but refuses to get bogged down in the misery. Whose camera revels in the joy of unity and sisterhood – the way that it shoots the five sisters often makes them look like a united form of loving shared limbs, even as each sister gets to express their own individuality. With fantastic performances and strong editing that, rather like Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of Room, gain their power from inference and focussing on the humanity that is powering and altered by the consequences of everyone’s decisions rather than revelling in their shock value or misery. Utterly adored this, in so many words.
Minding the Gap [Tuesday 7th April]
Dir: Bing Liu
There are parts of Minding the Gap that are going to stick with me for a very long time. Bing Liu’s deeply personal and astutely-observed documentary captures small-town poverty-line life with affecting relatability and constant self-examination. Frequently expanding and contracting its scope as he and his friends bare their souls, trauma and ugliest facets to the camera in a manner they all, at various points through its runtime, liken to therapy. A gutting visual essay dissection of the punishing cycle of generational abuse, and how factors of class and race and one’s own upbringing cause that cycle of constant damage (both inward and outward) to perpetuate ever more, Liu’s film functions both as a stand-in case study of America at large and a deeply personal cry for help towards his childhood friends.
It’s a heavy, heavy film that is messy and complicated even whilst the filmmaking is virtuoso in its delivery. Empathetic yet constantly critical and questioning, never more so than to itself – Liu’s interview with his mother is the apotheosis of this approach and the results are enthralling to witness. The way he and his co-editor Joshua Altman arrange and drive this near-decade of footage across 90 minutes is gutting in its effect, the gradual drifting apart whilst highlighting how little has really changed across that period of time. How all the maelstrom lifts like a clearing fog during the joyous expressions of the skateboarding sequences, and that complete opposite of such a feeling during a heartwrenching and chilling admission by Zach just near the end.
One of the best documentaries I have ever seen, and the song Liu chooses to send to credits with pushed me over the brink into full-on cathartic sobbing. Perfect all round. Probably not the best film to watch whilst my dad’s in the ICU, mind.
Callum Petch is not scared (anymore).