Archives for category: thoughts

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“…Parfois, on me traitait comme si j’étais un chien, guili-guili sur le ventre et sous leurs doigts, je devenais une poupée, un enfant poupée, un poupon qu’on met tout nu dans la baignoire pour le laver avec les mains de toutes ces dames, de tous ces messieurs, et le mettre au dodo dans un p’tit berceau comme un bébé qui rit quand on le touche…”

Jean-Paul Sartre, L’enfance d’un chef (The Childhood of a Leader, 1939)

Childhood is intended as a time of innocence. A period of one’s life that is free from worry, anxiety, and trepidation about the life yet to come. It is where life is lived in the present, and parents’ love is a shield from the corrosive realities of the indifferent world. In Brady Corbet’s astonishingly capable and self-assured hands however, childhood becomes something else entirely. It is a nasty, brutish thing, cold and dark and utterly lacking in warmth. It is here that the origins of the depraved depths of human cruelty are pried apart; it is here that evil begins.

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And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin, When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall, Then how should I begin?

– T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915)

The association between butterflies and the feminine in the western narrative have been canonised in Puccini’s verismo opera Madama Butterfly, itself an allegory for western imperialism. In Act 1 of the opera, the character of Cio-Cio San (a.k.a Butterfly) sings to Pinkerton, “Dicon ch’oltre mare se cade in man dell’uom / ogni farfarla da uno spillo è trafitta / ed in tavola infitta!” (“They say across the sea, if it falls into the hand of man, each butterfly from a needle is pierced and on (a) board fixed!“). The proverbial subjugation of the butterfly (woman) by the man inevitably spells doom, foreshadowing what is to come if Butterfly allows herself to be captured by a colonial lepidopterist.

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“When we do not know why the photographer has taken a picture and when we do not know why we are looking at it, all of a sudden we discover something that we start seeing.”

– Saul Leiter

Manhattan in the 1950s: a metropolis of fog and early-morning commutes; grey days of rain thudding on the pavements and stray cats surveying from the fire escapes; overcoats and umbrellas, tartan sensibilities and Rockefeller glamour, and through the faded drizzle of it all, the flash of a fur coat and carmine lipstick. Very much a seamless component of the urban landscape, yet unmistakeably distinct from her surroundings, Cate Blanchett’s Carol is as captivating as the subject of Edward Hopper’s “New York Office”. Hopper’s gift lay in capturing the still-life moments of the city: that moment in which the animation of urban life is briefly suspended, haste and unrest come to a standstill, revealing rare and unexpected beauties. Similar to Hopper’s paintings, Carol is not so much a film, but an observation of the rare intimate moments of life: an absent glance, a feather-light touch, a forgotten word…While its exquisite attention to detail renders the film ever-so slightly overly mannered, its documentary-like portrayal of a mutual fascination and courtship make for an unhurried and ruminative viewing.

The influence of master photographer Saul Leiter is undeniable, and perhaps even a bit of David Hamilton and Frank Oscar Larsson: a muted tapestry of city life as though seen through a gauze veil, forging an intimacy between the viewer and subject through masterful use of the grainy Super 16 film. The excellent screenplay wastes no time in establishing exposition – we are in the middle of an ongoing narrative almost immediately, at once immersive and organic. Like voyeurs, we simply observe the daily lives of the characters as they happen, who need hardly go into detail establishing their narrative significance.

It is, perhaps appropriate then, that the camera and the act of photography plays a central motif in the film. Therese’s interest in the camera is her conduit into Carol’s world, one that is slightly removed from her own and entices with the promise of the unknown. The incrementally intensifying nature of the relationship between the two women is both subtle and satisfying, punctuated by lingering looks and gestures. Their relationship is not ‘forbidden’ in the traditional sense of societal pressure as the inclination would be, but rather by the characters’ own reticences and insecurities. When they at last come together, the film carefully avoids the cliche of making a political statement, but merely follows the action where it leads, as natural as you like. There are no explosive moments, and instead the film revels in the quiet moments that seethe with latent intensity and longing. Things are not said, but implied. Indeed, the relationship is instigated by the forgetting and returning of gloves – there is much to be said about the reserved yet erotically charged language of gloves in Victorian society; as in dropping a handkerchief, leaving behind one’s gloves was clearly a flirtatious indication of romantic intent.

Carol is a careful and considered film, very much a mirror of the social circumstances in which the relationship takes place, cautious yet brimming with passionate reserve. It is lazy and reductive to denote it as a ‘lesbian romance’ (as Highsmith herself would have no doubt loathed), but rather the spark of a chance encounter that is blown into something more. It is the story of connections and strangers, that curiously erotic moment of locking eyes with eyes with someone with little thought for how one’s world might be transformed from that instant.

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 The world is a parable – the habitation of symbols-the phantoms of spiritual things immortal shown in material shape.

– J. Sheridan le Fanu, Uncle Silas (1864)

For millennia, the storytelling tradition has been bound up in tales of the unspeakable, the unknowable, and the unexplainable. The hushed conjuring of demons, spirits, and all things wicked were direct counterparts to our own frailties and secrets – the horror that lies within. The gothic movement in the mid-18th century to the end of the late-19th century was the culmination of such conceits, with literary, artistic, and architectural manifestations of the terrible and wonderful – macabre, sinister, and wholly sensational at times.The gothic tradition extended from the Romantic one, as radical artists broke free from the lofty ambitions of the Enlightenment, and decreed a manifesto dedicated to all things wild, unbridled and, above all, concerned with death. The popularity of gothic fiction rose to apical heights in the Victorian era, and its preoccupation with death, sex, and the psychosexual imagination was rather scandalous to those decorous Victorians and their moral propriety; unsurprisingly, enthusiasm for tales of swooning heroines succumbing to dark and mysterious terrors in the candlelit shadows of foreboding castles was unbridled. Such is its influence, the gothic imagination has persisted over 250 years since its original appearance in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, as tales of dark stormy nights have assured their place in popular culture.

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LOVE-IS-STRANGE

Love is Strange is a lazy Sunday morning. It is reading a book on the windowsill in the early pale sunlight before the world has awoken. It is quiet contentment, gazing out at a season of spring in Manhattan, watching the city stretch and yawn before resuming its usual motions.

Love is Strange is a Chopin prelude: simple, moving, and as Molina’s character states, in no need of embellishment. Although he speaks this quite late in the film, it is an entirely apt analogy for the tone of the film itself; this romance requires neither dramatics nor ostentation. As with any relationship lasting nearly forty years, the casual and comfortable intimacy is one that has no need of clumsy proclamations or insecure assurances – being and existing is simply enough. The very real vulnerabilities of old age and navigating the awkward logistics of separated living are not lost, but rather act to reinforce the realism of the couple’s bond, and how, despite it all, physical separation is no match for the underlying strength of a relationship as Ben and George’s. In the vein of the best of Altman, Allen, or Rohmer, Sachs has created a beautifully authentic and understated portrait of love in its later years, with all its complications and rewards intact.

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“All art is quite useless.”

– Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)

“What is art?” asks John Ruskin, preeminent Victorian art critic and long-time champion of JMW Turner, with all the gravity of one begging the question “what is Religion? or Morality?” In a similar vein, we might ask, From what instinct in man does it spring? To what faculties does it appeal? By what rules is it to be judged? What purpose does it serve? (R.P. Downes) These are the questions that engaged Victorian admirers of art, and which continue to circulate within contemporary criticisms of art and its purpose in modern consciousness and context, but largely within academic institutions and (often) elitist circles. How, then, does art criticism maintain validity in the 21st century machine of temporary flavours? Few art films have broached the subject of art criticism specifically, likely due to the impudence of criticising one art form through the medium of another. However, with his customary cheek and candour intact, Mike Leigh presents an art film in Mr Turner that does not coddle its subject, nor go out of its way to make an emotional case for the eponymous artist’s tortured soul. Moreover, it is neither mired in cliché nor obedience to bourgeois taste, but rejects those very standards of what constitutes ‘good’ art. The criticism is twofold, first presented as Turner’s rejection of the intransigent Victorian art zeitgeist, and then as a sly commentary on perhaps Leigh’s own conceptions of critics of his filmography and more fully, the place of art criticism in the 21st century. In the technological era in which everyone seems to have an opinion on everything (the irony is not lost on me, fear not), Turner balks at public and critical opinion, but instead of bowing to them, forges ahead in solitary pursuit of aesthetic majesty. Mr Turner is not only a subtle satire of the art world however, but a figurative and literal portrait of a deeply complex and human artist, anchored by Timothy Spall’s immense performance as Turner himself, caught between shifting artistic landscapes and personal foibles.

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He, who navigated with success
the dangerous river of his own birth
once more set forth

on a voyage of discovery
into the land I floated on
but could not touch to claim.

Margaret Atwood, “Death of a Young Son by Drowning” (1969)

As the days grow shorter, the air colder, the wind sharper, I long for the quiet films. As the artist Andrew Wyeth says, “I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape — the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.” Hong Khaou’s debut film Lilting has much of the same quality, sharing lifeblood with Arvo Pärt‘s Für Alina, at once sparse and poignant. Though modest, it is a profoundly delicate and graceful meditation on loss and human connection, coupled with the mechanical insufficiencies of language within the landscape of the immigrant experience.

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