Thoughts on The Lady from Shanghai and noir

Orson Welles’ 1947 masterpiece sticks in my mind like a barbed spear. It’s my favourite Welles, despite being (like almost all his films) shredded by overzealous editors. Many grace notes were lost, such as the virtuoso opening tracking shot through Central Park, and the film is fragmented as a result; but even RKO’s most savage cutters couldn’t deodorise erase the sweaty claustrophobia. While Touch of Evil (1958) has a more quintessentially ‘noir’ plotline, it doesn’t have quite the same tenacious grip on my imagination.

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Shanghai concerns a doomed love triangle (is there any other kind?) between Michael, an Irish sailor (Welles); Elsa, a beautiful woman with a dark past (Rita Hayworth); and her polio-stricken husband Arthur (Everett Sloane). Michael and Elsa soon become embroiled in a virtually incomprehensible murder plot, orchestrated by the sexually repressed, deeply creepy Grisby (Glen Anders). Or so he thinks, the fool.

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In Shanghai, sex is always deeply weird and/or illicit. The extremely tight framing and harsh lighting highlights every male sweat glands in the vicinity, while Hayworth shimmers over these pathetic, decaying figures like an angel reimagined by Goya. As Arthur and Grisby leer and cackle over Elsa’s impossible beauty, Welles’ cynicism about human sexuality is laid bare.

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It’s testament to the paramount importance of mood in noir. No genre has been so confused with its moth-eaten collection of stock props. A Bugsy Malone-esque pastiche of gangster movies is still a gangster movie of sorts. Any old trifle about a downtrodden team triumphing against all odds is still a sports movie. A cowboy shooting his nemesis makes a western. But noir’s not a shopping list – real classics of the genre can only be made by perverse spirits, which is why so many neo-noirs fail as homages.

Vicious

Take the Wachowski Brothers’ sexy but vapid Bound (1996), essentially a mulch of noir tropes. There’s femme fatales, bloodied banknotes, fall guys, prison stints, etc. All the ingredients are there … but it ain’t noir. Yet Basic Instinct (1992) is the greatest modern Hollywood noir due to its sickening spiral of gluttonous lust, founded on a fascinated revulsion for human addictions.

While the criminal element of noir is seen as its defining feature, but it’s actually a red herring – the genre’s really about neuroses and the damage they do to people’s psyches, where chaotic desires leak poisonously from men and women’s rancid souls. It’s just that criminality’s the most fertile soil for growing these noxious fruits.

And that is why I dislike procedurals, that genre that parasitically subsists on noir’s cred. Once you know roughly how a police department works, procedurals are all the same. Those doing the spadework are invariably boring, and the criminals are dumb or faceless.

The Asphalt Jungle (1950), for example, is a humourless defence of benevolent authority; the superbly shot He Walked by Night (1948), charting the extended pursuit of a criminal through city and sewer, has its incipient noir atmosphere deracinated by its detached perspective and bland pieties about ‘the long arm of the law’. Snore.

Of course, not all films can be about desperate, irredeemable people helplessly engulfed in psychological vortexes of their own making. But in this neurotic’s view, they’re the best.

Tim Roberts

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The Salvation (2014)

Mads MikkelsenOh, Mads.

Mads, Mads, Mads…

What a face.

A face you could fall into, swim around in, cut yourself on the craggy bits and the snaggletooth, get overwhelmed, and wonder how you’ll ever make it out again.

Leading man in Danish filmmaker Kristian Levring’s multicultural Western The Salvation, Mads Mikkelsen is a magnetic screen presence, and his well of inscrutable expressions almost carry the film into the territory of memorable updates of the genre. Almost. It is underwritten and overacted to just the right degree, steely stares and furtive glances standing in for expository dialogue. The problem is that there is too little to expose. The story is predictable from the off, and proceeds with inexorable steadiness towards a by-the-numbers set-piece ending in which everyone who deserves it dies, along with the requisite few collateral damage. What is perhaps most remarkable about the film is how many of the characters unambiguously deserve their comeuppance. It is a film without subtlety in sketching it’s bad guys.

The Salvation (2014)And this it where I think the film overreaches and falls flat: To make a modern Western, a genre nearly as exhausted as the dry desert setting, needs of something to say, a message or a metaphor or a reason to trot out the familiar tropes (and there is every last one of them in The Salvation, from the stagecoach hijack to the rocky mountain manhunt, all the way down to the base motivation of oil money. At one point I felt like hollering “black gold! Texas tea!”). The Salvation has nothing much to say, other than to say it with style. It plays like a 90 minute showreel for a Western; a director showcasing their eye for dust and detail, their literacy of the roll-call of tropes, their polish at representing rugged edges. But it never becomes a fully formed film in itself, feeling more like a series of earnest and well executed references to other films, or a glossy teaser to an idea of a deeper, denser story.

Sidenotes

1) The cinematography is of the highest order. Jens Schlosser’s camera moves effortlessly through burnt out buildings and grassy plains, zeroing in on the subtlest twitches and flinches and darts of expression on the actor’s faces, carrying so much of the narrative weight. Sophisticated camera movement is complemented by unusual lighting choices – markedly unnaturalistic at times but rarely jarring, and always serving the mood of the moment. Unfortunately, Schlosser’s work is undermined by sequences of clunky, ghostly CGI – buildings awkwardly pasted onto backgrounds or oil rigs stuttering by as the camera pans back over a landscape. The unevenness of these visual elements is a great shame.

Eva Green2) Eva Green puts in a haunting, charged performance as the mute female lead Madeline AKA ‘The Princess’, convincingly motivated despite never being able to speak that motivation. With limited opportunity, Green elicits a depth of pathos lacking from most of the rest of the characters.

3) While the film’s liberal use and cursory exploration of the tropes of the Western is more deflating than anything else, framing the killing of a ten year old boy and rape of a young mother on a stagecoach as little more than to grease the wheels of a chilly revenge narrative feels both cheap and exploitative. While Mads does his best in the time allocated for the requisite mourning scene, it is far too disposable in the scheme of the film overall to feel justified as an inciting incident. Women and children may justifiably be depicted as vulnerable in the Wild West, but they still need to be treated as characters of emotional consequence rather than plot convenience.

Watched on digital projection at ACMI, Wednesday 14 January 2015.

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21 Jump Street and casual sexism

21 Jump Street (2012)The 2012 remake of TV classic 21 Jump Street has all the makings of terrifically entertaining escapism, undone by one throwaway moment at the 95 minute mark that brings the real world crashing back in. A beat no more than ten seconds of screen time underlines how casually insidious certain ideas of sexual politics are in contemporary society, and how the tropes of popular cinema can normalise the objectification of women. It comes at the start of the climactic car chase, when the viewing brain is in full popcorn-munching, explosion-loving, romp-through-the-streets-with-reckless-abandon mode. Channing Tatum’s gun wielding undercover cop rebuffs a young girl’s out-of-the-blue sexual advance with the line “You’re really hot, and you’re really slutty, and it’s awesome, but I gotta shoot people right now.” It is a cheap gag; one disposable moment among so many one-liners. But being so easily thrown away in the noise and swirl of a chase scene in an otherwise progressive blockbuster highlights the extent to which problematic sexual politics remain par for the course.

First, some broader context. The film a big screen reboot of the popular if decidedly hokey cop procedural TV show of the 1980s. The original show might have faded into Nash Bridges level obscurity – re-run on European cable stations and late night summer scheduling – were it not the launch pad for Johnny Depp’s surprising leading-man career. The premise sees fresh police academy graduates assigned to go undercover in a high school to track down a drug ring; complications of the legal, romantic, and teenage angst variety ensue. But in the hands of Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, and an assured supporting cast, it becomes that rare beast – a film based on an existing property that nods to the original while still stamping its own distinct style. The script also it manages to balance a playful self-referentiality and genuine pathos with interesting and largely well-fleshed-out characters with believable motivation.

The main players fit identifiable archetypes while being filled out with qualities that invert expectations. And for a buddy comedy cop film, the lead female role is complex, independent, and given relatively strong agency alongside the save-the-day male leads. Brie Larson gives the role even more depth beyond the nominal romantic interest. It also handles issues of teenage sexuality and the intellectual capacity of high schoolers with surprising deftness, which may be why the casually sexist line in car chase so jarring.

The context of the scene is the inevitable action climax: the heroes have made their breakthrough by unmasking the drug ring leaders (on prom night no less), but things have gone horribly wrong and they are now simultaneously running for their lives and trying to apprehend the perps. Hill and Tatum’s not-so-undercover cops jack a limousine to chase the fleeing drug ring mastermind. In the back of the limo is a drunk girl, waylaid on her way to prom and woken from her stupor by the wild street ride. This is a girl we have seen before fleetingly as one of the group Hill’s character hangs around with at the school. Her character has a name – Lisa – but that she is part of the earlier narrative barely registers, nor does it matter. She is there for the gag, and frankly she could be anyone. As Tatum’s character stands shooting at a car in front through the sunroof, Lisa tries to unzip his fly, repeating that she is ready to party. He slaps at her hands but she keeps going, urging “Just stay where you are!” His response: “I’m not playing! I’m trying to shoot people, will you stop! Just for two seconds! You’re really hot, and you’re really slutty, and it’s awesome, but I gotta shoot people right now…” And then the grand punchline as Lisa replies “You think I’m hot?!”

21 Jump Street limo stillAs gags go, this one is particularly cheap: girl doesn’t notice life-threatening gunfire because she is too concerned with mythologising prom as the ‘best party ever’ and too vain in the face of a compliment. But there are far more problematic ideas simmering below the surface here. ‘Slutty’ is used as a backhanded compliment, directly aligned with ‘hotness’, as a desirable thing for a young girl to be. I don’t want to suggest in any way, shape, or form that female sexuality should be repressed, but ‘slut’ is a loaded term and in this context is becomes a powerful synonym for the objectification of women – not only as objects to be looked at but objects to be used for sexual pleasure (if only there weren’t pesky gunfights to be had). Lisa’s sexual desire is also not shown as something she wants for herself, but something expected of her – she wants to suck cock because that’s what you do at a prom party. This notion of displaced sexual desire is underlined by the fact that throughout the film Tatum’s character has been shunned by Lisa’s group. Under the logic of earlier scenes, she wouldn’t want to be anywhere near his cock. Here her desire is not her own but a role given to her by society (i.e. the screenwriters). To make matters worse, she is shown as investing disproportionately in how Tatum’s character values her looks (“You think I’m hot?!”), further transforming her sexual desire into something that functions for – or because of – the male character.

I’m sure people would argue that I’m making a mountain out of a blowjob gag. Maybe. I doubt the screenwriters, directors, actors, producers or anyone else involved in the production lost any sleep over whether or not to include this scene, if anyone noticed a problem at all. It’s all part of the fun, isn’t it? Can’t I just take a joke? And no doubt there are cases where people behave in such a way. Kids might not be having gunfights out of the sunroofs of limos, but at prom nights all over the world such sexual encounters are bound to happen. The question remains though, why script it into a multi-billion dollar blockbuster comedy when it adds nothing to the plot? Can’t escapist entertainment also be an escape from the kind of representations of women that casually reduce them to objects? There is already enough of that in the reality we fumble our way through. This is a world in which the governments of Western democracies are still voting against measures to close the pay gap between the sexes. A world in which what women can and can’t wear is still being legislated (mostly by men). A world in which critics of the representation of females in gaming receive death threats. A world in which women I love fight and push and face shit every day to be treated as equal. The limo scene in 21 Jump Street may seem minor, but it speaks of the normalisation of these ways of talking about and representing women. It isn’t a stretch to see a link between countless moments of objectifying, dismissing, labelling, and stereotyping in popular media and the institutionalised and sedimented attitudes that license cultural oppression.

I’m wary of objecting to representations of other people on their behalf, imposing my perspective of what is acceptable or not in representing sexuality, or adopting the role of comedy police. As a white middle class male I need to recognise that not only have I been privileged in the life-path opportunities afforded me, but that moral outrage is precisely one of those opportunities that needs to be carefully measured to not be abused or taken for granted. All that said, it still stands that in the moment of watching 21 Jump Street I found reference to a teenage character as a desirable combination of slutty, hot, and awesome – as though it were the most self-evident thing in the world – arrestingly objectionable.

I have a problem with ‘slutty’ being a measure of a female character’s worth as much as I have a problem with it being used as an insult hurled on city streets. I have a problem with film characters being written in to be punchlines for sexist gags. I have a problem with throwaway lines that demean and objectify women. I have a problem with this kind of offhanded sexism in cinema. It undermines us all on a narrative, cultural, or humanist level. So as a gag, the limo moment adds next to nothing to 21 Jump Street the movie, but it does leave a whole lot of takeaway; namely just how far we still have to go in representing gender on screen.

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Ant colonies and The Bling Ring (2013)

Sophia Coppola’s The Bling Ring is loosely based on the true story of a gaggle of spoiled Hollywood brats who took to breaking into celebrity homes and taking what they wanted. As Coppola tells it, the teens were motivated more out of boredom, a desire for proximity-by-proxy to the circle of fame, and a seeming lack of consequence than any malicious intent, wearing clothes and jewellery and adopting the irrational self-importance that attends reality-TV, everyone’s-a-star culture. Fittingly, as they inevitably get found out and hauled in front of the media for their crimes, the more spotlight-savvy among them flip the script leverage their 15 minutes of notoriety into genuine – if Z-grade – celebrity status.

The Bling Ring 1As a piece of entertainment, the film is overly long and none of the characters are given depth beyond a glazed look of learned aspiration and a barely-held desperation that seems to drive everything they utter. Nonetheless, it works on some level as a careful study in the alienation of celebrity and consumerist culture (echoing with refrains from Coppola’s earlier films, especially Lost in Translation from 2003 and Marie Antoinette from 2006). More precisely, it is a film about consuming celebrity, where the voracity to have a piece of celebrity lifestyle extends to invading their homes, taking their clothes, stealing their jewellery, and adopting their excesses as though they are Hollywood birthrights. The voracity to consume the signifiers of success is matched only by the affected flippancy with which they are worn.

The Bling Ring 2We see glimpses of the unique reasons each of these six central characters is drawn to deviance and celebrity obsession – the absent parents; being the awkward new kid looking for a way in; jealousy of the more popular friend – but each is shown as essentially the same drifting, disaffected soul. Each is seduced by the promise of their own minor celebrity – having cash to splash around, dressing like stars, their own circle of notoriety growing. Each is intoxicated by their proximity to already ordained celebrities and imagines them-self in that place. And each becomes more and more immune to the perversity of what they are doing, more and more distant from each other, and more and more estranged from a sense of self.

The Bling Ring 3This sense of alienation is visually punctuated by one long single take scene, tracking almost imperceptibly, showing two teenagers breaking into and ransacking a reality TV celebrity’s house. (Within the logic of the film, it doesn’t matter who the celebrity is since each is as disposable as the next, blurring into each other, rising from and falling into the ranks of ‘everyone else’ with alarming ease.)

The house is all glass. Two teenage figures dart through intersecting rooms pulling bags from wardrobes and grabbing boxes from under beds. Lights flick on and flick off, all in plain sight. The shot is from a nearby hill, the house distant but in full view. The scene frames us as voyeurs, spying on ‘real’ lives from afar; fascinated, judgemental, and doing absolutely nothing. Insulated by distance, excited by proximity. A lot like watching celebrities play their lives out in magazine inches and websites and TV screens. We become the consumers, watching things of next to no importance but invested all the same. For two and a half uncomfortable minutes, we are the ones breaking into other people’s lives – other people whose celebrity extends far enough to be the subjects of a Hollywood film – and giving a shit what happens to them. It reminded me of an ant farm. One of those plastic contraptions, backlit, showing mindless insects scurrying about their work.

Ant_Farm_1When ants are crushed they emit alarm pheromones that, somewhat paradoxically draw other ants to the scene, sometimes sending them into a seeming-frenzy if the scale of the destruction is big enough. Seeming only because of the activity; ants don’t panic. They crowd around the dead body of their colony-mate. Ant rubbernecking. The insect-gaze. Not out of curiosity or sadism, nor fear for their own fate; out of blind, automatic reflex. Coppola’s film – and this single shot break-in scene in particular – offers the Hollywood version of alarm pheromones. A crush-reflex. A chance to crowd around and pick over the body of the fallen, drawn in by the scent of things going wrong. I’m not sure if Coppola knows anything of ants, but she no doubt knows about the celebrity machine, and an ant colony seems about as good a metaphor as any to represent it. Wanting to know about their lives. Tapping on the glass waiting for something to happen. It doesn’t make The Bling Ring a good film, but it does stand as a cutting commentary on contemporary celebrity culture.

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The Armstrong Lie (2013)

The Armstrong Lie posterAlex Gibney’s documentary The Armstrong Lie, about former cycling champion come disgraced drug cheat Lance Armstrong, is as much about the power of celebrity as it is about drugs in sport. The ‘lie’ of the film’s title points not only to the elaborate scaffold of lies told by Armstrong himself and by the insiders of the cycling world, but also to the way the adoring public consumed the fairytale of Armstrong’s comeback from cancer and so strongly resisted the mounting evidence against him. As Gibney notes in the film, Armstrong’s charisma is so compelling and the beats of his cancer-comeback tale so perfectly plotted that everyone from the head of the international cycling body to his teammates directly implicated in the deception to the punters buying his ‘Livestrong’ branded apparel were swept up in his wake. Eventually, however, the people Armstrong trod over and trampled on to rise to the top came out against him, going public with enough evidence to force official investigations from both cycling bodies and US crime agencies into Armstrong’s shady connections and suspect behaviour. It turned out that the winner of seven consecutive Tour de France events was doping and drug cheating throughout each of his major successes from 1999 to 2005, and probably on his much-lauded comeback in 2009 when he finished third in the Tour. While the scale of the lies and cover-ups make it seem like the truth would inevitably come out, Gibney’s film cleverly foregrounds the way that Armstrong himself courted his own downfall through his own hubris, craving the spotlight and being unable to walk away while the going was still (relatively) good.

Gibney’s film begins in 2009 cataloguing Armstrong’s bid to return to the Tour four years after retiring from the sport, not with the assumption Armstrong was a drug cheat but the question of why he wanted to return to cycling. By the filmmaker’s own account told in voiceover, the initial parts of the film captured Armstrong’s remarkable drive as well as how determined he was to fit his relative failure in that comeback effort to a heroic self-narrative, but Gibney also notes something was missing from those early scenes, that all was not as it seems. It isn’t clear whether Gibney’s account is accurate or told with the greater clarity of hindsight in the context of the controversy that boiled over soon after the 2009 tour, when Armstrong’s drug abuses were publicly outed by a growing circle of cycling insiders. Gibney cleverly contrasts the two interviews that form the backbone of the film – one in 2009 just before the comeback ride and one in 2013 a few months after Armstrong’s appearance in a prime time interview with Oprah where he admits his previous performance enhancing drug use. While Gibney demanded Armstrong owed him another interview after his admission because the film he had invested so much time in making was now unusable, Armstrong doesn’t relinquish control of his own narrative to the filmmaker. The ‘truth’ he gives in the later interview is as measured as the lies he told earlier. Armstrong is equally magnetic and convincing in the 2013 interview as in 2009, carrying himself with the same sense of surety, which inevitably blurs the line between which account is the truth and which is the lie.

Lance ArmstrongGibney’s film is all the more compelling because it was started as a project documenting Armstrong’s comeback trail, intended as a look into what drives Armstrong so ferociously that he couldn’t walk away from the sport even when his legacy as seven times champion was all but assured, and a comeback entailed the very real (and eventually realised) risk of bringing his past lies to the surface. The narrative Armstrong had built up during and after his career seemed strong enough to be able to contain the many skeletons piled in his closet, but the comeback opened the door to that closet wide enough for the lingering trickles of doubt to become a flood. So complete was Armstrong’s self-mythologising that he fully expected to win the Tour in 2009, even while having to ride clean because of the intense scrutiny he would be under and the advances in testing that had developed since he lest the sport four years earlier. In Gibney’s version of events, given this level of scrutiny there were three possible outcomes to Armstrong’s comeback. 1) He does ride the race cleanly, wins, and in winning able to bulldoze the simmering accusations of past drug use. The present victory would serve as past proof. Case closed. 2) He would ride clean but be well off the pace, adding fuel to the fire of his detractors and reinforcing their claims his earlier wins were doping assisted. 3) He would be off the pace, and despite the enormous risks of being caught, be tempted to dope again, and the whole myth would come crashing down. Armstrong took the final option, was found out (albeit with not entirely conclusive evidence), and his legacy was left in ruins. Gibney’s film, however, makes this scenario more complex through the trace of tragedy it lends to this story. Armstrong is presented not as a deluded megalomaniac but a deeply flawed character with enormous natural talent and drive whose life was shaped by the competitive culture he lived in. It isn’t sympathy we are offered to feel for Armstrong, but it isn’t outright condemnation either. Adding a further layer to this complex telling is Gibney’s voiceover that constantly questions his own position as filmmaker and whether or not he can or should trust the new story Armstrong spins for his camera.

It is also, then, a film about filmmaking and the shifting relationship of power between the storyteller and the subject whose story is told. Armstrong is anything but passive in the narration of his own mythology, and he exercises significant influence over the way Gibney’s film unfolds. One moment he gives Gibney a steely eyed denial of the allegations against him; the next moment with the same steely look he admits to having lied. To the filmmaker’s great credit, we are shown him being taken in by both performances, and Gibney’s voiceover constantly reflects on how difficult he found it to tease out the truth from the lies. Armstrong claims he didn’t dope in his comeback third place Tour, but Gibney admits to having no idea if that is true or not. The filmmaker’s constant reference to his own uncertainty of the truth and the degree to which he is willing to listen to Armstrong’s newly minted explanations implicates the viewer as part of Armstrong’s lies. Standing in for all of the cyclist’s adoring fans, past apologists, and co-conspirators, there is the palpable sense that Gibney wants Armstrong to be telling the truth. That we all want to be able to believe him, now as in the past. That we are willing to bend logic and evidence because his story is just too compelling. These questions extend to implicate the cycling community and the general public who at different times craved Armstrong’s victories and clamoured for his downfall, eager to make Armstrong into a fable one way or another. The feedback loop between celebrities, their rarefied worlds, and the fans that consume their celebrity comes acutely into focus throughout The Armstrong Lie.

Armstrong LieIt is a fascinating look at cultural mythmaking. On the surface of the story, the film shows a champion’s fall from grace, snatching disgrace from the jaws of immortalised glory because he couldn’t be content to stay out of the spotlight. Yet the very fact of the film being made, and seeing the degree to which Gibney was taken in by both sides of Armstrong’s story, shows a different kind of myth being born. In this new myth, Armstrong was the victim of a system that he didn’t create, to be admired for his admission of guilt and paradoxically to also be excused for having played the game of doping and been better at it than his peers. Gibney structures The Armstrong Lie around exploring that paradox, offering an answer to the question of why he returned that is both complex and compelling even as it relies a little too much on speculative psychology. For a man so determined to win, Gibney suggests in the film, the lie became a game. When the power of the truth became greater than the power of the lies, Armstrong switched narratives. He adopted the narrative of reluctant villain – a man caught in the bind of being driven to be the best, and playing within the unspoken rules of a sport in which drug taking is endemic even if that meant relentless deception to the public that sustained it. Gibney’s reluctance to outright condemn Armstrong in this film gives further hold to that narrative, and highlights the pervasive power of celebrity to demand our attention even if it does not demand our respect.

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Utopia (2013)

John PilgerUtopia is the latest documentary feature from renowned Australian journalist and filmmaker John Pilger, whose work on social justice issues spans over 40 years. The film broadly examines the shocking history of suffering by Indigenous Australians since white settlement, from the earliest days of colonialism to the squalid conditions of contemporary outback settlements. A sequence half way through the film shows Pilger interviewing Australia Day revellers at Sydney’s Darling Harbour. Pointing his microphone at a selection of white, middle class people – from drunken youth to middle-aged women, young families to tourists – he casually asks what they are celebrating and what they love about Australia. Each interviewee talks enthusiastically about celebrating the diverse heritage of Australia and the privileges we enjoy as compared to the rest of the world. However ineloquently put, there is a note of genuine nationalistic affection in each of their responses. The interviewees are clearly under the impression that Pilger is there to make a film about the positive dimensions of contemporary Australia. After all, the filmmaker puts himself in the middle of a party-like atmosphere in a public space on a national holiday, and approaches people in a casually interested way. We see the social desirability effect – people acting in ways to gain approval from those they interact with. Each interviewee gears their response to emphasise their patriotism, thinking that’s what Pilger is searching for.

Instead Pilger follows up his initial question with a pointed barb, asking each interviewee whether they think the First Australians have anything to celebrate on Australia Day. He makes the point that this public holiday commemorates Indigenous Australians’ land being invaded and taken from them over 200 years ago.

The awkwardness, discomfort, and occasional aggression of the responses to the filmmaker’s second question highlight two things. Firstly, that this particular selection of interviewees (and we don’t know who else was interviewed but didn’t make final cut) hadn’t thought too deeply about what Australia Day might represent to Indigenous Australians, or at least didn’t see their present celebrations through that lens. In a nation with such deep and lasting scars tracing through its history highlighting this fact is a stark reminder of how far from an inclusive society we are. Those scars implicitly define our present with an underlying current of guilt, desperation, denial, and misunderstanding, which is why the issues Pilger’s film tackle are so important. The gulf of understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians represented in this sequence is undeniable, even if it is only partially representative of general sentiment.

The second thing that this sequence highlights, however, is the disingenousness of Pilger’s approach. By setting these people up for ridicule – people for whom the past is still a place of denial – Pilger undermines the possibility of the film helping to heal the scars of the past and present. By deliberately flipping the script of his line of questioning he also negates his own credibility. Pilger comes off as a practiced interviewer winning a game of ‘gotcha’ with interviewees unprepared and ill-equipped to answer his challenge.

When these revellers give a less than eloquent answer, Pilger restates his question in increasingly demanding tones, making a spectacle of the ‘ignorance’ of these unthinkingly patriotic people. I use inverted commas here because there is some measure of truth in Pilger’s point. There is a problem with the ignorance – often willful ignorance – many Australians harbour about the dark history of Indigenous relations. (As a relatively politically engaged viewer, I still learned a lot from Utopia about the specific horrors faced by particular Indigenous communities.) In that willful ignorance lies a degree of complicity in perpetuating many of the problems Indigenous communities continue to face. But the obvious hoodwinking of the people in front of Pilger’s camera sits horribly uncomfortably alongside his professed aim to change that situation.

In the preview screening I attended, uncomfortable laughter rippled through the audience at these scenes. The laughter was of the ironic kind. It expressed disbelief and dismay at the lack of awareness and lack of concern about Indigenous issues that these interviews highlight. The discomfort, however, lay in recognising that we in the audience were being positioned above the people on-screen. That we were being encouraged to both judge them in their lack of awareness, and to pat ourselves on the back for our own concern. In short, the scene drew a line between a new ‘us’ and a new ‘them’: ‘us’ in the cinema sitting on the other side of the intellectual divide to ‘them’ in front of the camera.

The burning question this scene leaves, beyond the question of how that intellectual divide came about, is how to bridge that divide. To this question, however, Utopia doesn’t offer an answer. Instead it compounds the problem. Inviting the audience to laugh at (or at the very least judge harshly) these interviewees cheapens the issue and draws more lines of division – this time between the ‘educated’ viewer and the ‘unthinking’ wider public – rather than bridging gaps in understanding. It is an angry view from the inside scattering outwards. I don’t want to suggest repressing the right to feel or to express anger. In the context of the critical issues Pilger explores and the stories he profiles, anger is completely justified. But when anger is justified it needs to be carefully directed, and when reconciliation is the aim, the target should not be those invited to reconcile. The people on the street should not be those targets. If this is the section of Australian society furthest away from engaging with the issues of Indigenous recognition and reconciliation, how can belittling them – catching them off guard in the name of journalistic point scoring – possibly contribute positively to changing that situation? Demanding guilt does not engender empathy, and pointing out past failings without offering some kind of common ground does little to advance discourse.

Further divisions are drawn in other sequences of the film. Pilger dominates his interview with former Indigenous Minister Warren Snowdon, often cutting short Snowdon’s responses to his questions and launching his next barbed comment before allowing the former Minister to finish a full sentence. As an interviewer, Pilger’s approach goes beyond holding Snowden accountable for political excuse-making and strays into territory far more akin to shouting from the gallery. And rather than opening up a constructive conversation about Indigenous issues, this approach draws deeper lines between politics and the people it governs. As a man who has committed so much of his life to trying to expose issues of injustice and exploitation, Pilger’s frustration with the slow and often counterproductive machinery of politics is understandable. By not tempering that frustration in this interview, however, the filmmaker not only disrespects Snowdon but also erodes his own ambition to reignite genuine and honest dialogue about these issues.

Because of the absolute necessity of reigniting that dialogue, I found it particularly hard to come to terms with the film’s shortcomings in delivery. Clumsy framing of the issues should not determine our response to them, and focusing excessively on the flaws in Pilger’s film risks undermining the social problems represented. Yet this is exactly what critics of the issue will do. It is a desperate shame, then, that Utopia is intent on drawing divisions as much as on advancing the discussion.

Utopia childrenThere is a deep and distressing current of racism that runs through this country, and it has been buried under bureaucracy and masked by systemic issues. The more that current is brought to the surface the better. But for all the arresting images it shows us, for all the utterly horrid conditions Indigenous Australians have suffered and continue to suffer it highlights, and for all the valid points it makes about the despicable politicising of the issue in favour of actually addressing the problems, Utopia builds up divisive binaries that undermines the potential of the film to contribute to positive change. Pilger’s target in this film is important, but his aim is less than true.

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The Smell of Burning Ants (1994)

A film by Jay Rosenblatt • 21 minutes • 16mm • color/B&W • 1994

Jay Rosenblatt’s The Smell of Burning Ants is an intensely personal film about growing up male, growing into a man, the societal pressures of gender, and the confusions of boyhood. It is a compilation film, combining a diverse set of archival photographs, home video footage, and sophisticated montage – an approach to the subject matter that powerfully suggests how gender is constructed and performed (per-formed, or formed per instance) across individual narratives. It isn’t autobiographical per se – the path mapped is abstracted from any particular story – but the filmmaker’s own experience can be felt throughout the film. There is a tight tension in the structure, and precise insight into the particular (white, industrial, lower middle-class) shape of growing self-awareness and increasing self-alienation in the transition to manhood: violence, defiance, frustration, anxiety, petty triumphs, and the inexorable march of self-destruction, chipping little corners of the potential self away with every ill-considered move of youth.

The Smell of Burning Ants scorpion suicideIn particular, representing the journey of growing up through an image of a scorpion surrounded by fire, killing itself with its own tail to avoid the flames, is a desperate metaphor. It speaks of how the encounters of youth leave scars on both body and being; little deaths born of the struggle between the encroaching world and the urge to protect the self, or at least minimise pain.

The film paints in broad brushstrokes, but not at the expense of reducing the diversity of formative experiences to a handful of common ones. Instead, it suggests a thread (a somewhat Lacanian thread) of youth as hostile, a perilous crossing. Like insects, hostility and peril take many forms. It is a bleak and cynical, but it isn’t wrong…

Just this morning, I got an email from a list server announcing a call for papers theoretically re-examining the relationships and differences between men and women. Part of the contextualising reads:

Is feminism as a social movement obsolete? Or should we speak of the return of sexism (Natasha Walter)? One commentator has pub­lished a study suggestively entitled The Second Sexism, detailing the gender-specific issues which affect men rather than women (David Benatar). Alternatively, as another commentator has suggested, it’s high time women exploited their full “erotic capital” (Catherine Hakim).

The anxieties of gender, of maintaining or collapsing ancient binary distinctions, of making sense of difference while overcoming the fragility of our own sense of self and belonging, they all persist, quashed in one forum only to sprout in new ground, under different guises, smuggled in to social spaces not because they are necessary but because they make a cheap crutch. I have too often found myself trapped with horror in online comment threads, my own blood rising in response to the vitriolic slinging of abuse back and forth along gendered lines. The knowledge that men are overwhelmingly the aggressors, a handful of self-appointed culture police flexing their insecurity by belittling others, becomes crushing. Why the fuck does it matter how someone else chooses to live their life? What entitles the assumption of a right to pass judgement on other people’s choices? Why do we (men, and I say ‘we’ as one among them, at least the cultural version Rosenblatt’s film deals with) cling to an uneven, unearned, and unjustifiable power, wielding gender like an axe? And the ground made a battle extends in unthinkable directions, enacted everyday in millions of cuts, both tiny and severe. Bullshit emotional violence, reprehensible physical violence on a vast scale, pervading the corners of our lives. Violence against women and gays and lesbians and foreigners and children and outsiders and anyone different – even though we are different – directed outward because of things unresolved inwardly. There are marches and articles and speeches and campaigns, and it still simmers and boils.

It disgusts me that there is a place for a theoretical rethinking of whether sexism has returned. And the answer to that question is more disgusting still – sexism hasn’t returned because it never went away. Far too often it feels like we still can’t cope with difference, especially along the spectrum of XX and XY. So we (men) inflict little deaths – on women, on each other, on ourselves – without knowing why.

The Smell of Burning Ants running figuresReturn to The Smell of Burning Ants.”The film is about a man,” the voiceover tells us. “He is angry. He is not entirely sure why.” Rosenblatt might as well have been looking into the future when penning these words. Looking to now.

“Boys become boys in large part by not being girls. Later, he will be with women. He will feel what he has been robbed of.” Being a man, Rosenblatt tells us, is not about assertion but denial. It is a denial of what else we could be. It is a denial maintained in assertions, assertions of anger, sometimes directed, oftentimes not. Assertions of the worst kind. While women are conspicuously absent from the film, Rosenblatt’s exploration of how masculinity is constructed resonates with womanness – as something not desired to have but desired to be, what has been robbed and is longed for. Womanhood cuts through the film as possibility, representative of the possibility of embracing a way of being more positive than the unknown anger.

As for the anger, it isn’t an excuse Rosenblatt offers us, but an exploration. An articulation of how and where this kind of unknown anger is seeded. It is up to us to take his articulation and re-imagine that anger, to let go of it or face it and consciously decide to put it somewhere else. More than ever, it is crucial to see what The Smell of Burning Ants shows us – to not just see it but to take its images up for ourselves, to put them in our own lives, and to address the anger of the man who doesn’t know why – because I for one am desperately sick of running into other people’s anger. It may be a necessary character of youth (I don’t know, but I suspect all youth is remembered as hostile in some way), but I do know it doesn’t have to be the character of adulthood.

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