Archives for posts with tag: country: uk

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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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“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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O ye who believe! Take not into your intimacy those outside your ranks: They will not fail to corrupt you. They only desire your ruin: Rank hatred has already appeared from their mouths: What their hearts conceal is far worse. We have made plain to you the Signs, if ye have wisdom.

– The Qur’an, 3:118

Imagine an overcast day in Hamburg, with shades of navy and greys, and the pending threat of rain. The stench of rotting fish, wood, and steel waft in waves from the harbourfront among the shrieks of mottle-feathered gulls, and the anachronistic clash of neo-Renaissance and modern industrial architecture stare silently on as secrets are whispered, concealed, and divulged around the rain-soaked pavements. It is the ideal setting for a spy story, simultaneously unassuming and fraught with tension. Like pieces on a chessboard, the many players each assume a particular role, cool and composed and set at a deliberate pace as the action unfolds carefully and gradually. In this taut drama, Anton Corbijn’s expert direction guides the viewer’s gaze over the action as it happens, not allowing one to get to close, but to coolly observe from a distance, as lives crumble and the world turns on.

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We may hope that machines will eventually compete with men in all purely intellectual fields. But which are the best ones to start with?

– Alan Turing, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” (1950)

In the very first line of Alan Turing’s seminal paper, he asks the question, “Can machines think?” To solve such a problem, he proposes the following thought experiment: suppose an interrogator and a human subject are placed in two separate rooms, but able to communicate. The role of the interrogator is to surmise the identity of the subject (an intermediary may or may not be included to aid in this process) by posing questions to the subject – a relatively straightforward enterprise. Now suppose that a machine takes the part of the subject: will the interrogator now be able to correctly discern that the subject is no longer a human, or is the machine capable of assuming the place of a human subject without disrupting the interrogator’s identification process? The imitation game, as Turing called it, has since been considered a benchmark proposition and holy grail of attainment in the domains of artificial intelligence, cognitive science, and a plethora of related fields. As much as it is a scientific question, it is also a philosophical one, and one that is at the heart of Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game. The eponymous game is not only a scientific endeavour, but one that questions the very nature of humanity. You may be able to discern from my blog that questions of science, humanity, and their intersection – especially in film – are of deepest significance to me, and The Imitation Game balances all three with equal weight in a way that few films have done so previously. While the themes of embracing differences to achieve triumph is made somewhat heavy-handedly, the more powerful themes of Turing’s original conception of the imitation game as both a scientific and philosophical question are interleaved more subtly, elevating the film above mere awards bait to a genuinely moving account of scientific genius and humanity.

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