Skinflicker

A conflict has been percolating for some time, between the responsibility of art in a violent world, and the idea that art has no responsibilities. Slightly different from the idea of censorship, manifestations of this conflict have lead left-wing protestors (typically anti-censorship) to do things like boycott an X-Men film (ostensibly a children’s film) because of a poster showing a woman being choked, and right-wing protestors (usually pro-censorhip) to hide their arguments behind the flimsy muslin gauze of ‘free speech’. A very charitable reading of this debate is that people are demanding higher standards from their art. A less charitable one might be that people, as Jarett Kobek has observed, are so saturated in capitalist media that the very act of seeing a superhero film can be considered ‘activism’, and thus people are requesting that the landscape fit their beliefs.

Tony Bicat’s prescient yet hollow 1972 work Skinflicker reaches from the past into the present and throws both sides of the conflict into sharp relief. A rough and grungy work, it is filmed in found-footage style (perhaps the first in this style), and tells the story of three political dissidents who kidnap a prominent MP, torture him, and eventually hang him. The style and tone recalls later films such as Man Bites Dog (at its periodic best), or even August Underground (at its frequent worst), in the flippant insouciance and casual hatred of bourgeois values and moral guardians of society that the film displays.

There is an obvious discussion point; watching this film, it is hard not to think of the tragic and abhorrent murder of Jo Cox. Cox’s murder was shocking for a number of reasons, but for me it seemed to represent an almost symbolic point at which politics became more than just a game with a safety net. Politics has never been ‘safe’ (and it shows my largely cushy existence in a liberal democracy to even suggest it is), but to see a public official murdered in broad daylight is both sickening, and very disillusioning. Both sides of the aisle, rightly, united in their condemnation for the act, and it was a tragedy that rippled through all of Westminster.

However, Jo Cox’s murder was a real event that actually happened; this film, conversely, is an obvious work of fiction, and a flawed one at that. These flaws make this a difficult piece to write. If the film was good, it would be easier to take it seriously as a legitimate statement, and it wouldn’t seem as disingenuous to discuss it in real terms.  Yet the film is, both as a film and a political commentary, very poor. Aside from a silent sequence in the middle which shows the kidnapping, the film is frequently content to lapse into histrionic overacting that doesn’t do justice to the ideological underpinnings that the film may (or may not, and probably doesn’t) have, and the awkward structure over the forty minute runtime feels somehow both baggy and rushed. It doesn’t once discuss the motivations of the killers, yet doesn’t play into mindless nihilism enough for us to not have to question why they’re doing this.

The form of the film, too, is only operative to a point. The interiors of the garage, where most of the film is set, are effective, with dirty and bloody handprints lining the walls, yet the crude application of the found-footage style, with the exception of a couple of scenes, fails to present the architecture of this building in a way that might have built tension or reflected the moral architecture of the characters. Where Man Bites Dog used the homeliness of its sets to make a point about the banality of evil in the domestic setting, this film is just ‘there’. It is obvious that the filmmakers had something to say, but less obvious that they’ve actually thought about what that something might be.

But for all its flaws, it did make me think about the responsibility of art, especially in a political context. On the one hand, I do not think that this film in particular, or any film in general, can be said to directly cause violence or promote hate crimes. The worst I could say is that a film can act as a conduit that exacerbates pre-existing feelings, but a film cannot radicalise, or motivate, unless it is propaganda, but propaganda is not film, it is film as an arm of the state, and for all of Skinflicker’s issues, it is not propaganda.

And yet. Ideas gain acceptability through exposure, and without making this about The Internet and How It Is Ruining Us (yawn), we do live in a time where everything is happening all at once, and anyone with a certain opinion will be encouraged to engage with others who feel the same way, or feel so differently that your original viewpoint becomes encouraged through some kind of Hegelian witchcraft. This film is a small and probably inconsequential piece of an insurmountably larger puzzle, in which one person ended up murdering an elected public official.

Watching this film reminded me of the chilling exchange in Season Four of The Thick Of It, where spin doctor Malcolm Tucker defends the leaking of information on the grounds that ‘it’s not a big deal, nobody died’, only to be tersely reminded of the fact that ‘actually, someone did die’. Everything is inconsequential until there are consequences, and just because you didn’t see something coming and had no reason to see it coming doesn’t necessarily mean you’re off the hook.

The fact that the film communicates its point so badly, or perhaps doesn’t have one, doesn’t help it. If it directly condemned the killers, then it would be easier to treat it as satire (and it could have been excellent satire). But it doesn’t do so. And you could argue that any film which shows these acts is necessarily condemning them due to their inherent abhorrence, but this reeks of that particularly obnoxious ‘it’s not sexist/violent/racist, it’s about sexism/violence/racism!!’ defence, which has allowed many terrible films to me made under flimsy pretenses.

To put it frankly, this film left me troubled. It seems to me that there was once a time where a film like this could be made and taken at face value. Yet things have shifted so much in the intervening years that this film reads more like a missive from an alternate past where we could have actually predicted the mess we’re currently in. And there is also my persistent worry that things have always been this way, politically speaking, and it is the folly of the young (which I am) to experience the repetitious anxieties and crises of politics and life as if they are happening for the first time.

Anyway. Skinflicker draws me closer to the side of the debate which states that art does have a responsibility, and that any filmmaker taking on a theme with real world applicability should prove, through the film, that they have the chops and have done their homework enough to do justice to the issue. There should also be a counter-responsibility on the part of moviegoers to engage with these films, even if they are bad, instead of flippantly dismissing them.

Perhaps it simply comes down to the worth of the piece; Lindsay Anderson’s masterful If…. degenerates into a school shooting, but through white-hot filmmaking bravura and a commitment to outlandish satire, it justifies its existence and repeated critical attention even in the wake of Columbine and Sandy Hook.

Of all the films I’ve seen from the past, Skinflicker is the one I am most confident in saying could not be made now. And even though it seems to reflect our current circumstances, and might even be a little instructive, I’m not altogether convinced that that’s a bad thing.

For those interested, Skinflicker can be watched for one pound here.

 

 

 

When A Film Is No Longer A Film: Re-Examining My Relationship with Three Colours Blue.

Three Colours Blue was the film that made me a cinephile. It was among the first films I wrote about, after I first watched it at the age of fifteen. It is the film that both shaped, and thus limited, my view of what cinema was capable of, and that first viewing eight years ago was akin to a religious experience. It tells a simple story, of a widower coping with the loss of her husband and daughter in a car accident, through her attempts to ‘free’ herself from her grief (the film is modelled on the French ideal of liberty), and yet seeing it for the first time I felt my soul being lifted up, to places other films were simply incapable of reaching. It was the first film that felt like it was being born inside my eyes, relentlessly alive and almost conscious.

It didn’t feel constructed so much as it felt sculpted. Previous films I had seen were made, but this film felt carved, out of time, images, and emotion. The impact it had on me was immeasurable, and to date has never been equalled.

It also gave me an easy answer; what’s your favourite film? someone might ask. And I could say Three Colours Blue without thinking.

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Later this week I will move to Brighton, in what is the biggest life-event since I went to university. In a way, this move is bigger, since university was prescripted to me from the age of eleven, when I was accepted into a grammar school, a badge of privilege that will be with me forever; conversely, this move to Brighton has been decided largely on a whim. I will be living in a hostel, and money will be exceptionally tight. I am going to have to leave most of my possessions at my parents house (the ones I haven’t sold to raise money for accommodation), and that includes my copy of the Three Colours Trilogy.

To commemorate, I decided last night to watch Three Colours Blue for the first time in four or so years, only the third time I have ever watched it overall. I am, ostensibly, a different person from who I was when I was a teenager.

Starting the film, I was concerned that the places where the film had touched me were now closed for business; this was a film that had, for better or for worse, formed a small kernel at the core of my identity, and the idea that I might no longer enjoy it scared me. This probably speaks more to my experiences of the last five years than anything else. University was, frankly, turbulent. For every good thing that happened (making the friends that I will have for the rest of my life, getting a distinction, learning about the world, engaging with feminism, becoming a more ethically minded person), there seemed to be something worse to counter them.

I developed crippling anxiety, which still dogs me to this day. I became cynical, and hard, rhapsodising angrily about the injustices, real or imagined, of the Conservative Party, dimly aware of how insufferable I was being, but aware enough that this left me feeling guilty and unlikeable. I cultivated a larger-than-life persona that I was and am uncomfortable with. My existential doubts multiplied by the day, to the point where I rarely attended lectures. I nearly witnessed a completed suicide. I also nearly witnessed a full drug overdose.

I lost sight of who I was; before university, I was quiet, naive, amorous, inquisitive, and blissfully lost in the selfish fug of teenage life. I was not happy, in the all-consuming sense, nor was I a particularly moral person, but I was content, and I had a clear sense of who I was and what I liked. During and after university, a rage began to consume me and muddied my purpose. In my worst moments, I would direct this rage inwards in a blizzard of pitiful self-loathing.

I was also embarrassingly prone to flights of fancy; one week I was going to give my life over to charity, another I was going to devote my life to the pursuit of knowledge. Sexual experimentation was never just that; I was so concerned with whether I was gay, or not, or bisexual, or not, or something else, or not, that I made precious little headway in actually navigating my sexuality. These things had always been present, but at university they intensified and became issues, instead of quirks. I made frequent and misguided attempts to redefine myself, weekly, monthly, annually.

I framed these moments as instances of reaching towards betterment, but really they were symptomatic of a profound discontent. So desperate was I to change that I pinned myself to all manner of personality traits that, simply, weren’t me. The first time this dawned on me was when my close friend made a passing, but deeply perceptive, comment about how often I tried to define myself as something I wasn’t; it took at least a year to recognise that it was something I should work on; over a year later, I am still working on it.

Thus, my worry that Three Colours Blue might not work for me was a profoundly existential one, one tied in with my identity. If the film didn’t work, then it wouldn’t have been because the film had changed, but instead because I had strayed so far from myself that a film I have held as central to my tastes would cease to have worth; and thus, I would lose a part of myself.

And the thought of this scared me.

Yet, going away as I am, it felt right to rewatch the film, to ground myself and remind myself of my roots before my next adventure. And I am glad I did. The film continues to work for me, like all great cinema does, and it actually goes beyond my remembrances, and is profound in ways I could never have seen as a fifteen year old. Within the first fifteen shots, leading up to the car crash that shapes the film, I was weeping; this weeping continued through to the point where Juliette Binoche’s protagonist, the widow Julie, brusquely rebuffs a journalist, inquiring about her husband’s music (we learn he was an eminent composer). Then when the film moved into its middle section, a quiet psychological study of Julie’s grief (or lack thereof) I didn’t stir. I drank in this film.

Some thoughts. Firstly, I was struck by how cohesive and absolute Kieslowski’s construction of cinematic space is; not a single element of any frame is wasted, even down to the use of extras. I noticed, for the first time, in the famous shot of Julie pouring coffee on her icecream, the unusual placement of an extra at the bar, Kieslowski giving him an unusual amount of space as if to say ‘this man has a life too’. In a later scene, where the young witness to the accident tries to return Julie’s crucifix, I noticed the use of protesters with placards as extras, returning from a march of some kind. Both of these highlight Julie’s absolute isolation from the world, in a way I had never picked up on.

More broadly, I was stunned at how fearlessly Kieslowski constructs the entire film around the mental state of a character who is wilfully enigmatic. The colours of the film represent Julie’s mood, with Kieslowski at times bathing Binoche entirely in blue light; the film even sets the soundtrack to her head, as she imagines the music that her husband hadn’t completed before he died. From the cinematography to the sound editing, this is an entire work dedicated to a fictional headspace. It takes risks that other films wouldn’t dare to, and overcomes those risks with a virtuosity that I recognised as being uncommon at the age of fifteen, and now see as deeply cherishable qualities.

One of the biggest risks (in this case one that unequivocally paid off) is making a film around music. Priesner’s Song For The Unification of Europe is one of the most beautiful compositions I have ever heard, a haunting elegy to love and unity, and there is a sense in which the film hangs around it; it is teased consistently, in a number of shots which take us directly into Julie’s headspace, and there is even one scene near the end of the film where the song is deconstructed, literally, in front of the viewer.

I was also surprised at what I had remembered, and what I hadn’t; my mind had erased the scene where Julie brings herself to suicide but cannot follow through, the fact that Julie’s husband’s mistress was pregnant, and the flowing montage of characters at the end. Yet I had remembered the fact that Julie’s friend, the adult worker Lucille, doesn’t wear underwear; I remembered the shot of Julie’s finger touching the screen showing footage of her husband and daughter’s funeral; I remembered the way the film would cut to black mid-scene, play an excerpt from the score, and then return to the scene after a few moments. This technique could have been disruptive and flashy, and yet because the film commits to fully to Julie’s emotions, it serves to immerse us further.

The film works on two levels; on the first level, it is a very literal examination of the mental gymnastics of grief that entirely tracks with my own experiences; Binoche’s face is so evocative of emotions buried and struggling to make it to the fore, alongside other emotions that she is feeling and trying not to, that you seem to understand everything that is happening to her even as she fails to understand it herself. One remarkable moment even sees Binoche come to a character’s door with her head turned away from the camera, and we can imagine with clarity her expressions simply by the way they bounce off the actor facing her.

The second level is a much more philosophical, and symbolic one, in which the entire construction of the film seems to reflect greater truths that we all encounter within our day-to-day lives. From the scene where Lucille reaches out to Julie in anguish at the strip club, to the mouse infestation in Julie’s apartment, to Julie’s insistence on going to the same cafe and sitting in the same place, Kieslowski consistently dramatises what other filmmakers would proselytise or preach. This allows Kieslowski to highlight the ideas of his film, of freedom, and of grief, whilst the film simultaneously works as gripping drama.

Julie’s life takes on a philosophical significance beyond the specifities of her scenario. Where Julie tries to extricate herself from what she is feeling, life consistently finds a way to make her feel it regardless. Kieslowski is obviously commenting on how it impossible to live without being alive, hard as we try, and yet so much time is given over to Julie’s attempts to do so that we can’t help but feel a sort of involuntary sorrow at how her attempts fail. As mentioned, the film is modelled on the French ideal of liberty, yet it ends with Julie embracing the ‘traps’ of friendship and love that she derided in the beginning of the film, relinquishing her freedom in favour of happiness.

As Elizabeth Fox-Genovese puts it, “our highest realization of self results from the gift—or loss—of self”. Whilst her comments are directly about Christian faith, they are true for any pursuit you give yourself over to. When Julie makes the commitment to love once more, to open up again, she is not sacrificing her liberty but giving herself as a gift to those willing to receive her. Kieslowski seems to indicate that liberty is the one true trap, or it can be when pursued dogmatically.

Perfection doesn’t exist, and yet; Three Colours Blue is a perfect film. It has a phenomenal, relentless command of every single element of filmmaking, from the mise-en-scene to the sound editing, from the cinematography to the blocking, from the acting to the screenplay, from the drama to the themes. I cannot conceive of a way in which this film could be improved, or a way in which it is at fault. Form and function, thematic and aesthetic, both collide with a precision that is incredibly, painstakingly rare in cinema.

I also see, now, how much the film has shaped my taste. Whereas before I thought this film stood apart from other films (and in a way it still does), it also acts as a blueprint for qualities I luxuriate in in films. There is a certain texture, a vibe, to nineties cinema, a grainy roughness hewn from an emotional fidelity that’s ultimately indefinable, yet almost tangible when it’s there. Previously I could name three films that articulate it the best (Catherine Breillat’s Romance, Arnaud Desplechin’s Ma Vie Sexuelle, and Cedric Kahn’s L’ennui), but I see now that it can be traced back to this film, with the scene of Julie in the strip club, reaching out to a friend for the first time, with the shot of Julie walking down the street while dustmen sweep in the background, with the recurring motif of the coffee shop as a bubble away from life.

Tone is the hardest thing to describe, and yet the most beautiful thing to experience.

A big movement in film studies at present is ‘reception studies’; that is, the study of the ways in which films have been received, their audiences, followings, and so on. I am very sympathetic to its aims, as it opens up spaces for discourse that deviates from common narratives, but it comes with an assumption that we bring ourselves to a film, and watch it via the lens of our own identity.

It has little to say about what happens when the reverse is the case; when a film has shaped our identity. The ability of a film to do so is the greatest gift of the medium, and I implore everyone to hold these films close to them, whatever they are.

Finding Hope in G.W Pabst’s Kameradschaft (1931)

I attended this screening at the Friends Meeting House in Brighton last night, as part of a series of screenings hosted by OpenColour. They obviously care deeply about film, and deserve any serious filmgoers support and attention. It was an honour to attend and I feel lucky to have been there. Information can be found here: http://www.opencolour.co.uk.

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The Ecstasy of ‘Us’

Jordan Peele’s latest horror film, Us, is a delirious and visually captivating experience that, before anything else, is about images and movement. Over the course of its perfectly paced two hours, Peele strips away extraneous details of his film until it culminates in a near-symphony of exquisite framing and unfettered physicality. It proceeds organically from the bare bones of the horror genre, and along with cinematographer Mike Gioulakis (who also worked on It Follows), Peele has created a film that works as a postmodern-ish riff on horror techniques, as well as a fine example of the genre on its own.

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Arrested Development: or, when to say Enough is Enough

Like a lot of people, I love Arrested Development. It’s the ultimate show for neurotics, taking the format that Seinfeld pioneered (awful people doing awful things while the programme itself maintains a deceptively breezy tone) and doubling down on the obscure, the minutiae, the bizarre. Jokes were set up, riffed on, and a couple of season’s later twisted inside out; there is no such thing as an idle minute in Arrested Development, where everything will be called back to, or is setting up some obscure payoff however far in the future. It is the hardest show to explain the appeal of to someone who hasn’t seen it. It’s just… Funny. Not because of this joke, or that joke, but simply because the whole show operates as a joke.

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Dennis Woodruff’s ‘Spaceman’

I spend a lot of this review essentially disparaging the director of this film, who has embarked on a career largely focused on perpetuating his own cult of personality. I admire that. I also admire how utterly mysterious this guy is. To remain mysterious after literally jobbing yourself, after putting your phone number on the header of your website, takes some doing. You can read about this cult of personality here. You can look on his website here. Whether his persona is some kind of knowing ironic send-up of the jobbing actor is not for me to say, because I don’t know. If this is, indeed, a stunt, then I will say that this Woodruff guy has got Tim and Eric, and Eric Andre, utterly beat. But as I say, I don’t know. You have to take these things at face value; and I’m sure after reading what I had to write, you’ll understand what face value means.

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Every now and again, a film comes along that redraws the map a little on what you thought cinema was capable of. This can be good (A Bout De Souffle), or it can be bad (the August Underground Trilogy). Films that open your eyes to new pathways in the medium are, necessarily, few and far between, but they are always miniature landmarks in the lifetime of the committed viewer. Roger Ebert spoke of the top-shelf of the mind, a place where films stay and leave a lasting impact, where other, lesser films simply come and go.

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The Anguished Man: Dismantling Simon Sinek’s Empty Platitudes

Look at The Man. Behold Him. The Man is Anguished- can you tell? He is so anguished, the Anguished Man. He holds his head, barely able to contain the affliction of his mighty intellect, for his is the Brain; The Biggest Brain. He speaks and you listen (we must all listen to Anguished Brain Big Man). You note the words coming out of his mouth. You register that he is speaking. It is very scary, what he is speaking like. His voice is scare, so we, too, must be scare. Then, perhaps, later, you listen to what he is actually saying, the content of his speech, its meaning. You dig through the noise vibration gently pummelling your eardrum, emanating from Big Man Brain. You hear- is it?- yes! Yes. It is. It is phone. Phone bad! he says. Phone is the big bad.

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