Category Archives: In Focus

Arresting and Transfixing Cinema – A Discussion of Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals

WARNING: THIS DISCUSSION OF NOCTURNAL ANIMALS CONTAINS SPOILERS

TOM Ford’s adaptation of Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan is a compelling and transfixing cinematic experience. Masterfully edited by Joan Sobel, Nocturnal Animals slickly tells three interwoven stories: present, past and fictional.

The centre point is Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), an affluent gallery owner disenchanted with her work. To add to her woes, trouble is brewing in her marriage to struggling businessman Hutton (Armie Hammer).

Ford reflects this in an early breakfast scene. Just as revealingly as the one-side nature of their interaction, the two stand on either end of Ford’s frame – a distance we later learn might be unbridgeable.

Already in a vulnerable state, Susan receives the manuscript of a novel written by distant ex-husband (they haven’t spoken in 19 years) Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). Dedicated to Susan and titled Nocturnal Animals – after a name he used to call her – the novel is a chilling story of violence and anguish.

As Susan reads, Sheffield’s book is played out on-screen to haunting effect. We watch as Tony Hasting (Gyllenhaal once again) and family – wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber) – are attacked while driving down a remote road in the middle of the night.

With no cell service available, the Hastings are left at the mercy of this predatory gang  – led by a hyena-like Ray (a chilling Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The sequence is incredibly affecting (Susan’s reaction confirms this) and adds an unsettling sense of inevitability to the horrific outcome.

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After being separated from Laura and India, Tony discovers the next morning that they have been raped and murdered. Distraught, he turns to dogged Officer Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) for justice – and eventually vigilante revenge.

Susan is moved by the book’s contents and contacts Sheffield to meet up. At this point, we start seeing flashbacks of their relationship which reveal that their past has provided the inspiration for Sheffield’s Nocturnal Animals.

Parallels

With this, the parallels between Sheffield’s book and his past with Susan become apparent. Sheffield and Tony are both victims of the  ruthless and cold-hearted action of nocturnal animals.

For Sheffield, he has been left broken-hearted by – in the words of Susan’s mother – a more ‘strong-willed’ individual. Just as Sheffield was  ‘weak’, his fictional self, Tony, is helpless in saving his wife and daughter from the tortures they suffer.

Tellingly, the parallels between Tony and Sheffield are made clearer by the fact they are both played by Gyllenhaal. Yet, Adams only plays Susan, not a character in Sheffield’s book. That is because Susan represents more than one figure in Sheffield’s fiction.

Part of Susan – Sheffield’s ‘first crush’ and woman he thought he’d married – is shown in Laura (Fisher’s redheaded beauty and resemblance to Adams comes in handy). Tony loses her cruelly along with daughter India – who could represent the child we learn Susan aborted after sparking her affair with Hutton.

The other, darker part of Susan lies in Ray. They both operate in the dark and fulfil their primal pleasures, like animals, at the expense of others.

Editing and cuts

THESE parallels are brilliantly reinforced by the film’s editing. To knit together three strands of story is easier done in a novel than a film, but Sobel manages it in a way that maintains coherence – and enthrallingly enhances the many allusions at play.

Shudders and gunshots carry over cuts, bleeding from fiction into reality. In one moment, Ford and Sobel cut from Tony – sitting in a motel bath the morning after the horrendous incident – to Susan in a luxurious bath pondering Sheffield’s work. It is a striking contrast between the agony Sheffield has felt and the comfort of Susan’s existence.

Pain and excess

MANY frames of the film are spent observing the deep psychological and visceral impact that reading Sheffield’s work is having on Susan. Like most directors, Ford cannot help but utilise one of cinema’s most effective weapons: eyes, Amy Adams’ eyes. They radiate a sadness and pain that makes every reaction shot absorbing.

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Of course, these reactions happen while Susan slinks around her lavish mansion, which itself tells a revealing story of upper-class materialism and the hollowness that often follows. The extravagance of Susan’s home takes us back to the film’s first images.

As part of Susan’s gallery opening, we see obese naked women dancing with US flags and pom-poms while glitter rains down. It is prolonged image of junk culture, pleasure fulfilment and American excess – a vision that a panting Susan is clearly disturbed by. Perhaps this is because she is engrained in this materialistic culture, albeit at the very top.

Red

ANOTHER  link between Susan and this hedonistic culture is that the naked women wear a similar red lipstick to her. Susan later wipes off this make-up on her way to meet Tony, a gesture which shows she wants to leave this decadent life behind.

Undoubtedly, red is an important colour in the film. The dead bodies of Laura and India are found on a bright red sofa – a stark reminder of the one Sheffield and Susan sit on when they meet in New York.

Red is also one of the striking and definitive colours that background Susan throughout the film. The reds, blacks and whites which engulf her surroundings at points of the film bring a sense of artificiality to her world. That falseness is contrasted with the gritty Texas wilderness of Sheffield’s fiction which in many ways is more real than Susan’s existence.

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Art

SHEFFIELD’S writing is raw with human emotion and inner, truthful pain. It is powerful enough  to challenge Susan’s perception of herself and the things around her. Suddenly, she notice the surrounding artwork – the bull with the arrows, the revenge poster and the execution painting.

The fantasy of Susan’s reality is fading as Sheffield’s book forces her to look at the pain she caused. To mirror this, the suave James Bond-ish music that accompanied Susan early in the film is gradually replaced by more contemplative and sorrowful strings.

Endings

NOCTURNAL Animals gives us an ending that combines retribution and loss: the bitter-sweet killing of Ray by Tony and his accidental suicide, followed by Susan sitting in an expensive bar waiting for Sheffield to show up (he never does).

Tony and Sheffield have got their revenge, but at what cost? While it is death for Tony, it could just be a part of Sheffield that has died with writing his book. Even still, their blows have a fatal impact on Ray – and in a different way – Susan.

The image of Susan sitting alone in the expensive restaurant implies she is doomed to stay alone in this vapid, self-indulgent world. It reminds me of what Carlos (Michael Sheen) had told her earlier in the film: ‘Our world is a lot less painful than the real world.’ Maybe that it true, but as Susan has realised, their world is more empty.

Whether or not you see something different in Nocturnal Animals, I hope we can agree on one key fact. Namely that Nocturnal Animals is an arresting film with powerful performances from Adams, Gyllenhaal and Shannon.

I got even more out of it second time  around – possibly one of the most underappreciated films of 2016. Give it a go – first-time or second-time around. Read the book too – if you can spare the time.

 Nocturnal Animals is available on DVD and Sky Cinema

 Thank you for reading. Please like, share and comment!

Also read: Williams – Shining Light on a Formula One Legend (Film Review)

Netflix Originals All Stars, No Substance – The Circle and To The Bone (Film Reviews)

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Amy Adams – Susan Morrow

Jake Gyllenhaal – Tony Hastings/Edward Sheffield

Michael Shannon – Bobby Andes

Aaron Taylor-Johnson – Ray Marcus

Isla Fisher – Laura Hastings

Ellie Bamber – India Hastings

Armie Hammer – Huton Morrow

Michael Sheen – Carlos

Frames of Beauty: A Kristen Stewart and Olivier Assayas Collaboration

DIRECTOR Olivier Assayas seldom hides his admiration for Kristen Stewart.

This was evident at a fascinating Curzon Q&A earlier this year in London. At the event he introduced Personal Shopper – his second project with Stewart following 2014’s Clouds of Sils Maria – by stating it was as much her film as his own. As more words of admiration followed it was clear both actor and director had benefited from their collaborations.

For Clouds of Sils Maria, Assayas gave Stewart a chance to act with a freedom that Hollywood studios, finely-oiled and profit-focused beasts, tend to discourage. After working alongside the majestic Juliette Binoche in Clouds, Stewart had both the grounding and confidence to deliver a wonderful solo performance in Personal Shopper.

Equally, Stewart’s humanity and vulnerability as an actress made her ideal for Assayas to embrace issues of artistic legitimacy and, later, the supernatural.

With the release of Personal Shopper on DVD and Blu Ray, it seems an ideal time to examine their collaborations in finer detail (through the use of selected images) and assess what we can learn from the mesmerising way Assayas photographs Stewart.

Isolation

IN both films, Stewart’s characters – Valentine (Clouds of Sils Maria) and Maureen (Personal Shopper) are faced with feelings of isolation.

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For Valentine, these emotions are rooted in her inability to connect with Maria (Binoche) on a creative level. The above image comes after Valentine – cutting a more frayed figure than earlier in the film – finds her thoughts shot down once again by her finicky boss.

This disconnect between the two is made clear with Valentine sitting tense and frustrated while Maria sleeps in the background. It is a fascinating image which underlines Maria’s obliviousness to her assistant’s state of mind.

Similar moments are placed by Assayas at points in the film to reinforce Valentine’s growing disillusionment – something we are left to ponder unlike Maria, who is wrapped up in her own  insecurities and stubborn outlook.

In Personal Shopper, Assayas makes Maureen’s isolation visible  in moments of transport. Most eye-catching are the shots of her drifting through the Parisian streets on her scooter.

Assayas’ image of alienation in a blurry foreign city is brilliantly supported by Stewart’s acting which, even in these short moments, communicates her character’s troubling inner-turmoil.

Close-ups

CLOSE-UPS can be a powerful and illuminating cinematic tool.

We see this early on in Personal Shopper when the camera fixates on Maureen’s face as she tries on her boss’s boots.

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The scene is subtly and enchantingly acted by Stewart, who shows a self-assurance that contrasts with her nervousness waiting for her twin brother Lewis to ‘arrive’ in the house. With forbidden boots on, she looks a transformed figure: is this what she craves to be?

Tellingly, it is a similar look  – one exuding seductiveness  and sensuality – we will see later when she tries on the sparkling dress.

The frame also reminds me us a close-up of Valentine at the start of Clouds of Sils Maria. Here, Stewart’s face takes up the frame giving a sense of honesty, relatability and closeness to the character.

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The feelings provoked by this close-up are more significant given the distance Valentine is from Maria in this train scene. Perhaps Assayas is visually foregrounding Maria’s inaccessible nature to highlight the conflict with Valentine’s openness.

Reflections

ONE fascinating visual aspect of Personal Shopper is Assayas’ use of mirrors and reflections.

Their presence certainly plays into the film’s investigation of our relationship with the invisible. As far back as the Romans, there have been ties made between the supernatural and mirrors (in cinema think of ominous horrors such as Clive Barker’s The Candyman and Mike Flanagan’s Oculus).

So the inclusion of mirrors could be part of the same probing by Assayas which also led him to feature the art work of Helmut Klimt.

As part of this link, reflections and the act of seeing ‘double’ are reminders that Maureen was once a twin. For Maureen there will always be a part of her missing with the loss of Lewis, a painful truth that keeps her in Paris and leads her on this turbulent inner-journey.

Assayas’ use of mirrors also works as a commentary on the fashion industry. In the captivating image below, Maureen daringly takes a photo of herself in her boss’s dress. The fashion industry, which Maureen is a part of as a personal shopper, is image-obsessed and in this frame we can see her being enticed by the empowerment and confidence this can bring.

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Ultimately, mirrors and reflections have a revealing quality which Assayas captures strikingly. With them, we almost have a 360 view of Maureen with nothing unseen or hidden. Visually, Maureen’s true nature is on show as she begins to explore an untouched, devilish part of her inner-being.

In these frames, Personal Shopper’s themes of the supernatural, technology and image are melded together. It is the type of imagery that makes Assayas such an interesting and thoughtful director.

Not only that, but Assayas also has one of the finest performers in the world to populate his frame.

The Assayas and Stewart axis is one of beauty. Let us hope there is more to come. Cinema will be the better for it.

Personal Shopper is now available on DVD and Blu Ray. Click here to buy from Amazon. 

Thank you for reading. Please like, share and comment!

Also read: Kristen Stewart’s Solo Masterclass – Personal Shopper (DVD Review)

Kristen Stewart: Back from the Twilight

Personal Shopper Q&A with Director Olivier Assayas

Grief and Isolation in Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea

Spoiler warning. Our In-Focus series takes a look at Manchester By The Sea. 

OVER the past year American cinema has given us some beautifully tender and moving moments. The kiss in Moonlight, the planetarium dance in La La Land and the closing revelation in Arrival.

But none more heart-rending than the ‘stroller scene’ in Kenneth Lonergan’s magnificent Manchester By The Sea.

A moment which brings together former husband Lee (Oscar winning Casey Affleck) and wife Randi (Michelle Williams, another Oscar winner). Two broken hearts that are stranded at different stages of an unbearable grieving process – the loss of their three children in a house fire caused by Lee’s negligence.

It is a difficult, uncomfortable and emotionally compelling scene. Three minutes of cinema that will remain ingrained in my brain forever.

Speaking at a Curzon Q&A earlier this year, Lonergan explained the thought process behind the scene. He said: ‘I said to Casey: you cannot bare to speak to her, but you also don’t want to hurt her feelings for asking. To make her feel bad for trying to speak to you. But you also have to try and get out of the conversation.

‘I said the same to Michelle: you have to reach out to him and pull him out of the hole he’s in, but you don’t want to hurt him by doing it.’

The scene arrives with Lee, still at the bottom of his irreconcilable pit of anguish, and Randi, now re-married and ready for some form of reconciliation. All the while the stroller, a signifier of Randi’s progress and her willingness to continue with life by creating another human being, sits as a silent barrier between them.

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Moving away from the stroller scene, Lonergan reinforces Lee’s self-imposed isolation with his framing.

Lee is often shunted to the side of the screen or captured slightly out of our reach. When Lonergan’s camera does get close, Lee’s eyes drift to one side or, even more evasively, to the floor.

Likewise, Lee’s posture is rigid and guarded. His shoulders are hunched in defeat and his arms rarely move from his side – unless he is ready to throw a few fists. Indeed, Lee seems willing to make any excuse to get in a fight and, better still, get beaten up.

The brawling, partially a result of his Bostonian machismo, also acts as an outlet for self-harm – in many ways a less definitive punishment than his attempted suicide in the police station.

The life Lee has set out for himself is akin to a prison life-sentence.

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His desolate mourning is only underlined by the people around him. The film opens with janitor Lee (a jack of all trades) attending to customers who have issues going on in their lives. One moment, we view a grandmother making plans to attend a Bar Mitzvah. The next, we see a flirtatious woman on the phone to her friend seemingly infatuated with Lee.

Lee, for the most part, remains emotionless or is provoked into losing his temper, triggering a rebuke from his boss. He returns to the solitude of his barren room to fall asleep while watching hockey with a beer in his hand.

But is it his relationship with nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) which make his grieving most apparent.

When the two return home from visiting Joe’s body (his brother and Patrick’s father), Patrick immediately asks if he can invite his friends over. Patrick’s friends lift his spirits with aimless chat about Star Trek, while Lee retreats, once again, to spend the evening alone in his room.

This was not always the case for Lee. Manchester By The Sea is told in a non-linear fashion, adding a sense of mystery and dread to his story.

The most tragic flashback occurs as Lee finds out he has been chosen as Patrick’s guardian. Lonergan cleverly pairs together the haunting moments which have prompted Lee’s isolation with a moment, at least intended by his brother, to help pull him out of this state. To give him responsibility and purpose – something or someone to live for.

These flashbacks also offer a window into the kind of character Lee was before the tragic incident. A warm family man with many friends. A love for fishing, booze, weed and sex with his wife.

But in the present he has stripped himself of the right to a personal life. Even when Sandy’s mum (Sandy being one of Patrick’s girlfriends) invites him in for a friendly chat, Lee cannot bring himself to muster up thirty minutes of small talk with Jill (Heather Burns). Upstairs, Patrick is trying in vain to get into Sandy’s briefs (Sandy is flirtatiously played by Anna Baryshnikov).

Patrick’s grief, more manageable because of the inevitability of his father’s passing (Joe had a long standing heart condition), does not prevent him from continuing his life. As he points out to Lee, he has a band, many friends and at least two girlfriends.

Lee, on the other hand, has become a janitor, undeserving of anything else.

The closing moments of Manchester By The Sea show Lee and Patrick fishing on the family boat. This appears to be the only place Lee truly feels at ease.

The sea offers him respite and evokes memories of a better time. It allows him to be detached from the town where his children perished and out of reach from the locals who still gossip and judge him.

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Indeed, in an earlier scene, he had even cracked a smile on board before bumping into Randi back on land – a meeting marked by the thumping halt to the upbeat and promising sounds of Ella Fitzgerald’s I’m Beginning to See the Light.

Manchester by the Sea is a magical film which has deserved all the awards that has come its way. But that stroller scene will linger long in my mind. It deserves an award in its own right.

Thanks for reading. Please like, comment and share!

Also read: “I just burst into tears” – Q&A with Manchester By The Sea director Kenneth Lonergan

MTV, GTA and Britney: Nightmares of Popular Culture in Spring Breakers (2012)

Falling in Love with La La Land

Cinematic Poetry: An In-Depth Reading of Jim Jarmusch’s Film Paterson (2016)

 

MTV, GTA and Britney: Nightmares of Popular Culture in Spring Breakers (2012)

DO you remember a time when MTV was the edgiest – if not the coolest – channel on television?

Well those days are long gone now. Turn on MTV and you will likely be watching re-runs of Catfish or some show about teenage pregnancy.

No longer at the cutting-edge of youth culture, the channel seems content churning out relatively safe and formulaic reality shows.

But there was a time when MTV, as blogger Amanda Marcotte put it, had the power to open up ‘a whole new world of possibilities’ – particularly for those living in secluded areas where conservative values are fiercely guarded.

MTV could expose small town religious folk to cosmopolitan, inner-city progressive thinking in a fresh, youthful and vibrant manner. It pitted old against young. Teachers against television. Bible against Britney.

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This, of course, was every strict conservative parent’s worst nightmare and many fought back to censor such vulgarities.

Harmony Korine’s film, Spring Breakers, envisages a realm where these parental guidance fears and insecurities have been actualised in the most outrageous fashion. A culture of young people raised on the morals of Britney Spears, educated by the laws of Grand Theft Auto and pacified by MTV music videos.

Spring Break is all about kids in bathing suits’ – Bob Kusbit, MTV Senior Vice President of Production (1999)

The overt sexualisation of celebrities, especially in music videos, continues to be a fiercely debated subject.

Figures such Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj have come under fire for setting poor examples to their younger audiences. In Spring Breakers, Korine parades former Disney stars in bikinis as they tote guns, toke bongs and lustfully lick phallic objects.

Korine sets this tone from the opening sequence, confronting the viewer with a barrage of naked and out-of-control bodies to the equally abrasive sound of Skrillex. This sexualised imagery immediately becomes part of the aesthetic, which includes black and white camcorder shots that evoke thoughts of MTV Spring Break specials and Girls Gone Wild.

Our bikini-clad protagonists (played by Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez and Rachel Korine) are clearly influenced by the music videos they grew up with.

Early on in the film, they sing Nelly’s It’s Getting Hot in Here as they mess around in their underwear. The focus of Korine’s camera switches between voyeuristically distant shots and, momentary, hyper-sexual close-ups.

This connection with the music they grew up with also seeps through in more subtle ways, such as the repetitive voiceovers which keep returning, hypnotically, like the hook of a pop song. Moreover, Korine uses iconography that we might expect to see in music videos, like the lifting garage, the mopeds through the streets or the silhouetted girls standing in the pouring rain.

My loneliness is killing me (and I) I must confess, I still believe (still believe)
When I’m not with you I lose my mind
Give me a sign
Hit me, baby, one more time – Britney Spears, 1998

Later on, music from the young women’s youth is more closely linked to their moral decay. They sing Britney Spears’ Hit Me Baby One More Time and dance around a parking lot, at one point trying to mimic the dance moves from the music video.

Their fun peters out and they begin to recreate the earlier robbery scene. This time they make Faith (Gomez) – who was not there and represents the must innocent figure in the film – the victim.

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Korine interjects with images from the robbery, this time showing perspectives from inside the diner. The effect second time around is strikingly different and deeply unsettling. The women show an intense raw aggression – and perverse enjoyment – which clearly upsets Faith.

This detachment from their violent actions is established as the girls hype themselves up for the robbery by saying: ‘just pretend like it’s a video game.’ Certainly, the ease of at which they commit violence acts, especially in the closing scene, mirrors video games such a Grand Theft Auto.

As highlighted by the gun sound transitions Korine uses, this violence lingers unapologetically around every corner of Spring Breakers.

This one’s by a little known pop singer by the name of miss Britney Spears. One of the greatest singers of all-time, and an angel if there ever was one on this earth.” – Alien, Spring Breakers

It is no surprise that the most memorable scene of the film provides the most direct and disturbing link between their popular culture upbringings and their corrupted behaviour.

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The young women (minus Faith, who has returned home in terror) sit around a piano to hear Alien sing a cover of Britney Spears´ hit Everytime. More unnervingly, they are clutching guns and donning fluorescent balaclavas reminiscent of punk feminist protest group Pussy Riot.

Once again, Korine interjects, this time with a montage of violent robberies. It as though they are sitting around the church organ, worshipping their perverse and chilling hedonism to the sounds of their ‘angel’ Britney.

Yet when all is said and done, they return home largely unscathed and ready to sink back into the routine and conformity of their lives. The violence and the partying have all just been part of the fun – an escape from boredom so as to indulge in a culture of taboo and chaos.

Korine simply observes, sometimes too close for comfort. He does it in a way that is provocative and layered, mindless and pleasure-filled, repulsive and exploitative. It all depends on the viewer’s disposition.

Regardless, this is one hallucinogenic, stylish, neon-lit thrill-ride I recommend that you take a chance on.

Thank you for reading. Please like, share and comment!

Also read:

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More In-Focus:

Falling in Love with La La Land

Kaufman’s Puppet Show: Alienation in Anomalisa

Cinematic Poetry: An In-Depth Reading of Jim Jarmusch’s Film Paterson (2016)

Subversive casting: Introducing Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers

Falling in Love with La La Land

SPOILER WARNING: Prestridge²’s In-Focus series goes to La La Land

I fell in love with La La Land at 11.12am on January 8, 2017.

Sitting in seat A8 at the wonderful Curzon Victoria, Damien Chazelle’s musical masterpiece swept me away with its vibrant vision. One so finely tuned, entrancing and delightful that I kept coming back for more.

Now available on DVD, we can begin to appreciate the finer details of Chazelle’s work. If you are anything like me, you’ll fall even deeper in love with La La Land after an In-Focus look.

Just Waiting to be Found

Set to the backdrop of urban Los Angeles, La La Land tells the love story of Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling).

Seb is a jaded jazz pianist. As part of his throwback personality, he dresses in formal clothes and drives a classic brown 1982 Buick Riviera. Seb clings onto the past with boxes of jazz memorabilia which are stacked up in his grey and bare apartment.

In keeping with his sister’s assessment that he is a ‘hermit’, Seb spends his time sitting across the street from his tarnished jazz mecca, the Van Beek, which, to his disgust, is now branded ‘Tapas and Tunes’. As he puts it: ‘pick one, do one right’ – a line which forebodes the breakdown of his future relationship with Mia.

Despite living life on the ropes, he still dreams of one day restoring the Van Beek – and jazz – to its past glories.

Mia, on the other hand, has dreams of becoming a Hollywood actress. She is one of many hopefuls auditioning for roles as teachers, policewomen and doctors. Unfortunately, she has to deliver corny lines to disinterested casting agents before leaving, dejected, in a cramped elevator.

To supplement her acting, Mia works as a barista in a studio-lot coffee shop. She deals with complaints about gluten-free pastries and watches open-mouthed as a movie star walks to collect their coffee.

Mia does appear more optimistic than Seb. Where his plain apartment walls suggest he is worn down, Mia, still a dreamer, has a giant Ingrid Bergmann poster on her colourful bedroom wall.

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Certainly, the stunning dresses Mia wears to lavish Hollywood pool parties – reminiscent of Judy Garland and Bergman – make her stand out from the crowd like a Hollywood star. As one of the songs suggests, Mia is ‘just waiting to be found.’

A Star is Born

Indeed, Chazelle expertly utilises costume, camera movement and lighting, not only to give the film a dazzling and energetic aesthetic, but as a fascinating undercurrent to the storytelling.

Bright primary colours take focus, like the ones found in Jacques Remy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1963), radiating sheer joy off the screen. Mia’s outfits often reflect – and intensify – the moods of scenes. This includes playful yellows, passionate reds and starry blues. In the magical planetarium scene, she wears a classy green that evokes Garland in A Star is Born (1954).

Similarly, the blues and reds feature prominently in the lighting. Mia is cast in a red glow before she enters the restaurant to first cross paths with Seb. The same red appears in the final scene to anticipate Mia unknowingly entering the jazz club to lock eyes with Seb – perhaps for the final time.

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The camera matches this colourful enthusiasm with a dancing fluidity. At the first party, it has a mind of its own – plunging into the pool and spinning around. On other occasions, it glidingly pans up to the sky and back down.

Drained

However, the colour and movement begin fade as the romance between Mia and Seb falters. When she attends The Messengers concert and is visibly disappointing to see her boyfriend has ‘sold-out’, Chazelle casts Mia in a cold blue – as if her romantic dreams of Seb have been drained.

We next see Mia at the tense break-up dinner. She wears a reserved dark jumper, as though she is prepared ready to mourn the loss of their relationship. When their argument is over , the jolting sounds of the fire alarm ring out as Chazelle’s camera follows Mia out of the apartment in a shaky documentary style. Reality has finally hit their Hollywood love.

The colour has completely drained when Mia performs her play to an almost empty audience.  Seb, missing Mia’s play for his band’s photoshoot, is also in black and white, although he looks comical compared to his normal formal wear. Perhaps this is because he realises he is no longer the serious artist he wanted to be – a notion that is drilled home by the leering and over-the-top British photographer.

These bleak colours had appeared earlier in the film. Mia’s original boyfriend (played by a Yuppie looking Finn Wittrock) wears a grey business suit to dinner along with his brother. In this mundane setting, Mia can’t help but hear the faint jazz music calling her to Seb and the bright red seats of the Rialto cinema.

Likewise, Seb performs in the dimly lit restaurant in the stages of the film. The dull Christmas lights are the only hint of colour – a far cry from the intense blues which light up his jazz club in the final scene.

Whiplash

Speaking of the restaurant, Chazelle recalls his last film – the gripping and visceral Whiplash (2014) – with casting and camera movement. JK Simmons, who played Andrew’s (Miles Teller) ruthless jazz instructor in Whiplash, is Seb’s stern restaurant boss in La La Land.

In a funny turn from Whiplash, this JK Simmons character has no time for free jazz. Instead, he tells Seb to stick to the set list of Christmas carols. After Seb inevitably strays, Chazelle’s camera mimics the quick zooms found in Whiplash to show a disapproving Simmons.

On top of this, the scenes with classic jazz feature on-beat cuts, like in Whiplash, to emphasis what Seb calls the music’s ‘conflict and comprise’.

Past and Present

La La Land is a force of cinema, borrowing from the past to create a timeless spectacle.

The film is littered with well-documented odes to classic cinema, particularly in the musical sequences, imitating everything from Singin’ in the Rain (1952) to West Side Story (1961) to Rebel Without A Cause (1955). Even the four seasons structure, mirroring the stages of Mia and Seb’s relationship, is taken from Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

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These allusions also make their way onto the LA backdrop as Mia walks past a mural featuring Hollywood greats Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin, James Dean and many others.  Circularly, Seb later walks by a mural, which he can’t bare to look up at, painted in the image of Hollywood’s next great star – Mia.

Casablanca

For all the praise La La Land received, there have in turn been very vocal critics. David Cox of The Guardian described the film as the ‘tale of two narcissists who sacrifice love for self-interest’

I didn’t quite see it that way.

One particularly revealing scene occurs when Seb surprises Mia at the coffee shop and they walk around the studio-lot. In these moments Chazelle anticipates the rest of the film – and its sentiments.

Mia and Seb are dressed in white tops, as though they are blank canvases ready to be inspired. The two lay out their ambitions and, after telling Mia to pursue her playwriting aspirations, Seb jokes that his ‘work here is done’. Of course, it is only just beginning.

The couple are destined, with love and intense passion, to fuel each other’s dreams. Mia and Seb even peer into a movie-set that they will later dance through in the majestic epilogue – a cheeky Chazelle nod to the fate of their romance.

Yet it is the two mentions of Casablanca (1943) which speak the loudest in this scene – a classic film that showed sacrifice can also be a powerful form of romance.

The final shot of La La Land shows Mia, drenched in a dreamy jazz blue, glancing at Seb across the crowded club.  The gentle smile they share says it all. Gratitude, sadness and pride.

They wouldn’t have realised their dreams without each other, but it is time to move on.

There is no shame in that, just love.

Thank you reading. Please like, share and comment!

IN-FOCUS: Subversive casting: Introducing Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers

Kaufman’s Puppet Show: Alienation in Anomalisa

Cinematic Poetry: An In-Depth Reading of Jim Jarmusch’s Film Paterson (2016)

Kaufman’s Puppet Show: Alienation in Anomalisa

Spoiler warning: Our In Focus series continues with Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa (2015)

IT can be a daunting prospect to sit down and watch a Charlie Kaufman film.

They are difficult to grasp – even after repeat viewing – unapologetically demanding and disobedient to mainstream expectation. At times, this means his films are more accessible to academic dissection than mainstream consumption.

Understandably, being plunged into a labyrinth of philosophical thought is not everyone’s idea of entertainment. That certainly showed in the financial reception of Synecdoche, New York (2008). Although critics raved about the film, Kaufman’s complexities had clearly reached too far for the casual viewer.

To make matters worse, the economy and movie industry continued to shift further out of his reach. Suddenly, Kaufman was unfashionable, unprofitable and unable to get a project off the ground.

In 2012, the writer-director turned to his fans. With the help of crowd-funding website Kickstarter and animator Duke Johnson, Kaufman used puppets to bring his project, Anomalisa, to life.

Originally a stage play performed in 2005, Anomalisa tells the story of Michael Stone, an author from England who travels to Cincinnati, Ohio to give a talk on his field of expertise – customer service.

Michael spends a night in a hotel, The Fregoli, where relationships – past, present and impending – begin to haunt his lonely and self-destructive mind. Despite having a family at home, Michael becomes engrossed by a shy female admirer called Lisa, who he nicknames Anomalisa.

Small Talk

At the film’s core is the notion of alienation. We live in a growingly detached world where people are more invested in computers than humans and genuine conversation is a dying art.

Michael, middle-aged and likely suffering from a mental health issue, is a victim of his own inability to connect with others for more than one fleeting evening. Shortly after arriving in Cincinnati, he is visibly irritated when the friendly cab driver tries to engage him with talk about the weather, chilli and the local zoo.

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Michael then grits his teeth through a similarly bland interaction with the hotel’s bell boy before finally reaching his room where the magazine Cincinnati sitting on his table reads: ‘Try The Chilli’.

For Michael, every interaction appears to be mundane, repetitive and frustrating. The film’s setting, a hotel, only reinforces these feelings of sameness and distance.

Later on it is the small talk mention of the Cincinnati zoo which awakens Michael to Lisa’s perceived normalcy.

The Fregoli Delusion

The use of stop-motion animation gives an effective – but contained – range to Kaufman’s creativity. If Synecdoche, New York was his grand, and at times overwhelming, masterpiece, then Anomalisa is his tidy and accessible puppet show.

It allows Kaufman to play with voices and faces, both of which he keeps the same for every character apart from Michael and Lisa. This uniformity has an unnerving and disorientating affect, particularly in the image-obsessed culture we now live in.

As referenced by the name of the hotel, Kaufman was inspired by Fregoli delusion – ‘in which person holds a delusional belief that different people are in fact a single person who changes appearance or is in disguise’.

Although Michael does not suffer from this condition, he certainly feels trapped by something similar. As he desperately tells his scorned lover Bella:  ‘I think I might have psychological problems’.

ANOMALISA

Michael is unable to escape his outlook on the world and, worryingly, himself. Yet, the existential moments where his face glitches and later drops off entirely suggest he is a victim. Michael might be at the mercy of the mechanics of his own body, a chemical imbalance that leads him into this damaging cycle.

Or, like the literal puppet that he is, Michael is at the mercy of the society which has created him. He can do little to repair his own condition because it is already decided. Either way, the bleak aesthetic of Kaufman’s film mirrors Michael’s feeling of unresolvable hopelessness.

Love and Sex Toys

Michael’s momentary glimmer of hope – and of love – comes when he meets Lisa. After appearing infatuated by her, perhaps drawn to her vulnerabilities and insecurities, Michael wakes up in the morning to realise it was nothing more than a regrettable fling.

A clue to Michael’s relationship with Lisa lies in the Japanese sex doll which he buys from Dino’s Toys – a wink to producer Dino Stamatopoulps.

On an aesthetic level, Lisa and the doll have similarities. They have scars on the right-hand side of their faces, they both sing to Michael and are voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh.

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But their most meaningful similarity is that they are relatively disposable vehicles to satisfy a male’s sexual desire. Sadly for Lisa, the final shot of the film indicates she is oblivious to this cruel reality.

The events of Anomalisa suggest Michael is incapable of prolonged romantic love. He returns to his home and immediately starts bickering with his wife – back to the reality of a loveless marriage.

Contrast this to earlier in the film when the classic 1936 movie My Man Godfrey (originally Casablanca in the script) plays in the hotel room. Kaufman is harkening back to a time of idealised romance – of courtship and restraint. This seems all too distant in Michael’s one-night-stand reality.

Complex Kaufman

Distinctive, stimulating and inventive.

Anomalisa is a reminder that Kaufman is an American filmmaking anomaly. One that we should all cherish, even if we don’t always understand.

Join us next week as we take an In Focus look at La La Land

Thank you for reading. Please like, share and comment!

In Focus series: Cinematic Poetry: An In-Depth Reading of Jim Jarmusch’s Film Paterson (2016)

Subversive Casting: Introducing Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers

Also Read: The Shallows (Film Review)

Arrival (Film Review)

Kristen Stewart: Back From The Twilight

Cinematic Poetry: An In-Depth Reading of Jim Jarmusch’s Film Paterson (2016)

Spoiler Warning: As part of our In Focus series, we delve deep into Paterson (2016)

AS a litany of superhero movies, Disney remakes and furious cars reign supreme, it is easy to get swept away by the triviality of modern American cinema.

Then a film like Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson comes along.

Far from the loud bustling of Hollywood, this small-scale masterpiece won audience’s hearts with its gentle, endearing and quietly brilliant approach to storytelling.

Inspired by the work of William Carlos Williams, whose epic poem Paterson (1946-58) lingers in the film’s background, Jarmusch captures the poet’s appreciation for the intricacies of American life.

The film follows a young bus driver and poet, named Paterson (played by the superb Adam Driver). He lives in the New Jersey city of (you guessed it) Paterson, spending his days observing those around him and working on his poetry – inspired by hometown hero Williams.

Paterson lives an ordinary life with girlfriend Laura (played by the delightful Golshifteh Farahani), a charmingly enthusiastic jack of all trades. Completing the household is dumpy dog Marvin.

Like Williams’ poetry, Jarmusch’s film can be enjoyed far beyond its surface of tender humour and charming characters. Each carefully constructed scene has hidden meaning ready to be discovered and appreciated.

 

 “A man is indeed a city, and for the poet there are no ideas but in things.”  

– William Carlos Williams, Paterson

 

In some ways, Jarmusch’s Paterson is a celluloid continuation of Williams’ Paterson. From the outset, the director conjures the poem’s metaphor, of the man as the city, by naming Driver’s character Paterson.

Indeed, Paterson is connected in a way many of us who live in urban areas are not. From the elevated position in his bus driver’s seat, Paterson spends his days noticing the unnoticed. Just like Williams, he finds beauty where others do not have time to look.

Jarmusch reinforces this closeness with the city by fading images together. At one point, the Passaic Falls, Paterson and the Ohio Blue Tip matches all populate the frame. It gives the impression they are all connected, at least floating around in Paterson’s mind, fuelling his poetic vision of the city – and life.

 

 “The past above, the future below

and the present pouring down: the roar,

the roar of the present, a speech–

is, of necessity, my sole concern.”

– William Carlos Williams, Paterson

 

To mirror the passages of prose in Williams’ Paterson, Jarmusch playfully builds a history of the city with overheard bus conversations.

This begins with two young boys discussing infamous boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, who, in 1966, was wrongfully arrested and convicted for a triple-homicide in a Paterson bar. Later, two students talk about late 19th Century Italian anarchist Gaetano Bresci, who ran a newspaper in Paterson before assassinating King Umberto I in July of 1900.

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By casting Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward as the students, Jarmusch gives a subtle nod to fellow America auteur Wes Anderson. Perhaps this is because both filmmakers are stylistic anarchists in an all-too formulaic US film industry.

Doc, the owner of the bar Paterson frequents most nights, shows his value for the City’s history by keeping a ‘Paterson Wall of Fame’. With permission from Paterson, Doc adds a newspaper clipping about Iggy Pop being voted the sexiest man in the world by a Girls Club in Paterson.

The Iggy reference, which is a real piece of history, is a fun nod to Jarmusch’s project Gimme Danger (2016), which focused on the turbulent years of punk band The Stooges.

 

 “I would say poetry is language charged with emotion. It’s words, rhythmically organized . . . A poem is a complete little universe. It exists separately. Any poem that has any worth expresses the whole life of the poet. It gives a view of what the poet is.”

– William Carlos Williams, Paterson

 

As part of the poetic mythology that runs through Jarmusch’s film, Paterson keeps noticing identical twins – as if the internal rhyme of his poetry has filtered into his life.

One twin he meets is a friendly young girl who, just like Paterson, writes poetry in her secret notebook. When she reads her poem ‘Water Falls’ (written by Jarmusch) – the split compound noun reminiscent of Williams’ work – Paterson seems moved.

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Soon after, while sharing the encounter with Laura over a cheddar cheese and Brussel sprouts pie, they agree that the young girl’s poem is similar to something Paterson would write. There is also a suggestion the girl is one of the twins Laura dreamt about at the start of the film.

This feeds into the film’s theme of linage – a connection between contemporary artists, past artists and future artists.

 

“We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our checks and shades our eyes”

– Paul Lawrence Dunbar, We Wear the Mask

 

There are mentions of Frank O’Hara (who was inspired by Williams’ work), Allen Ginsberg (who lived in Paterson), Dante (a postcard sits alongside O’Hara’s poems in Paterson’s lunchbox) and Emily Dickinson (who, like Paterson, mainly kept her poetry to herself).

We also get a glimpse of how poetry, language and art can evolve.

While walking Marvin, Paterson stumbles upon a rapper (Method Man) working on his lyrics in the laundry mat. The rapper, whose lyrics meld the racial anguish of Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s ‘We Wear the Mask’ with quotes from Williams’ Paterson, displays the broad horizons of poetry, hip-hop included.

 

 “The duality of man. The Jungian thing, sir.”

– Private Joker, Full Metal Jacket

 

Beyond the presence of twins, duality takes many other forms in Paterson.

The young girl’s smiley surprise that Paterson is a bus driver who likes Dickinson reflects many people’s tendency to pigeonhole others. Jarmusch’s film points out that people can be more than just one thing.  Paterson is a bus driver and a poet, just as Williams was a doctor and a poet.

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In the bar, the helplessly love-struck Everett is a figure of amusement but still comes up with the deftly romantic line: ‘Without love, what reason is there for anything?’

Tellingly, Doc compares Everett and Marie’s relationship to the romantic figures of Romeo and Juliet, as well as the comedic duo Abbott and Costello.

As humans we are full of surprises and contradictions. They are to be embraced.

 

 “My little pumpkin,

I like to think about other girls sometimes,

but the truth is

if you ever left me

I’d tear my heart out

and never put it back”

– Paterson, Pumpkin

 

Laura is an anomaly in Paterson’s life. Her spontaneity contrasts with his working-class routine.

Paterson seems content with life. He drives his bus, has a beer at the bar in the evening and keeps his poetry to himself. Laura, on the other hand, has a new pursuit each day – getting rich from selling cupcakes or trying to become a famous country music star like Tammy Wynette.

She tries to impart these big dreams onto Paterson by encouraging him to photocopy his secret notebook and share it with the world.

He does not oblige and – in Ernest Hemmingway fashion – loses his work in cruel fashion.

One popular theory, shared by reddit user justdrinkmorewater, posits that Paterson is ‘crushed’ by their relationship. While this is interesting, Jarmusch leaves a subtle clue suggesting Laura’s purpose in the film is a more jovial one.

As part of her country singer dreams, Laura purchases a black and white guitar with DVD lessons from the internet. After performing her rendition of ‘I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad’ for Paterson, he sits down with the guitar – which Laura has named ‘Harlequin’ – and grins.

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This image is a reference to Juan Gris’ painting Harlequin with Guitar (1918). Gris, who was Williams’ favourite cubist artist and the inspiration behind his poem The Rose (1923), frequently used the Harlequin figure in his work.

As explained on the Art Story, the Harlequin is ‘a stock character in the commedia dell’arte and a trickster figure with a tendency to act on whim and passion’ – a fitting description of the loveable Laura.

There is also her obsession with black and white which jokingly hints at the aforementioned differences between Laura and Paterson. Embracing their differences, the two are completely accepting of each other – and clearly deep in love.

 

“Shaken by your beauty

Shaken.”

– William Carlos Williams, Paterson

 

The film ends on a circular note of contentment. Paterson wakes up, checks his watch, gives Laura a kiss and sets off for work. He is ready to experience the world and put pen to fresh paper.

As the Japanese gentleman, whose two broken fingers (duality) contrast the healing effect he has on Paterson, wisely says: ‘sometimes empty page presents more opportunities.’

What a film. Small in action and drama but big in heart and meaning. Complex and clever. You will discover something new each time you watch it. What a treat.

 

Join us next week for an In Focus look at Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa (2016)

 

Also read: The Shallows (Film Review)

Kristen Stewart: Back from the Twilight

Whiplash (Film Review)

Warren Beatty Q&A

 

Thank you for reading. Please like, share and comment!

What did you discover in Paterson?

 

Subversive casting: Introducing Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers