Five films about War.

dunkirk-movie-11
Dunkirk (2017)

This week Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk came sputtering into cinemas with all the empty pomp and circumstance of a victory parade. The film is an immersive hour and forty-seven minutes of impressively shot action and tension underpinned by a hackneyed and didactic score. Despite all the means imaginable Dunkirk fails to convey anything about the Miracle of Dunkirk or war itself that isn’t contained in anecdotal knowledge of Operation Dynamo. With no characters beyond allegorical figures of the soldier, the father and the general, Nolan actively cuts the viewer off from having any connection with what happens on screen and one is left with a kind of moodboard of slick cinematography and vintage machinery. After my initial bafflement at the thunderous reception Dunkirk has received I came across comments from Nolan stating that Dunkirk isn’t so much a “War Film” as a “Survival Film”. Such a distinction doesn’t change my reaction to Dunkirk but it did get me wondering; what does it actually mean to be a “War Film”?

First off, it’s unclear whether “War Film” is a genre at all. There are war comedies, war musicals, war epics. Do all of these fall under the same umbrella? What about films that focus in on one particular aspect of a war like Son of Saul where the focalisation is so strongly with Saul in the concentration camp that the finer political implications of wartime seem irrelevant? Furthermore there are hundreds of films where the war is the backdrop to events but is far enough away from the characters, be that in distance or time, that it’s really nothing more than set-dressing. I would consider this to be the case in films such as Gone With the Wind and Frantz.

What makes something a war film for me is the portrayal of people navigating experiences and events that only exist in war. This means that it doesn’t have to be a film directly about soldiers, battles or even the political actors of war. Civilians in a war zone, prisoners of war, families dealing with the absence of their soldier sons and even army officials with desk jobs all fall into this category. The category is, admittedly, vast, but limiting how we talk about war exclusively to front-line action would be dishonest and one thing I love about films is their capacity for honesty.

billylynn-ynms-no
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2017)

Most recently this honesty blew me away in Ang Lee’s 2017 film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. After the poetic opulence of Life of Pi, this film had all the same visual mastery with none of the whimsy. Billy Lynn, a young soldier in Iraq whose actions in the heat of battle have earned him and his comrades a victory tour of the United States, encounters a much less pleasant America than the pageantry would have us believe. Hidden barely a scratch under the surface is a society built on insincerity and insensitivity that knowingly exploits the hopes of those in need and those who serve. The film builds to a flawless and terrifying set-piece; the half-time performance at a baseball game, where the gulf between the treatment returning soldiers need, and what they receive, is felt more and more with every uncomfortable passing second. Lee lures the spectator in with tales of heroism and spectacle before opening a much-needed dialogue on PTSD among veterans and the struggles of America’s working poor.

This is a great quality of war films, to reveal the ugliness in what is normally dressed up as heroism. The very premise of war is that there is an enemy to be defeated but this can, and often is, turned on its head by the end of the film. Take two great films about the Vietnam War. In Apocalypse Now we are thrown into the action so completely that we don’t even get opening credits during which to get our bearings. Instead we open on a hopeless soldier who is only going to have more to endure. The mission to be carried out starts impossible and grows to become a grotesque over-simplification of the horror. Through sequence after sequence Coppola allows us to travel into the darkness and absurdity of the dense, dark jungle. The enemies are omnipresent, on his side, on the other side and potentially even inside himself. On the other hand there is Good Morning Vietnam where over half of the film focuses on the trials and tribulations of a rebellious DJ (Robin Williams, in one of his most touching turns). It just so happens that this DJ is on the radio in Vietnam’s demilitarised zone. This backdrop of relative peace allows him to form personal relationships with Vietnamese locals. As such he enters into a complicated middle ground where he is friends with the Vietnamese, reviled by his military superiors and adored by the thousands of troops who listen to his show. Good Morning Vietnam is light without being flippant. When the brutality of war finally rears its ugly head in the third act it is rendered all the more terrible by the joy that preceded it since the enemy is no longer a faceless aggressor.

All of these qualities and more are present in Empire of the Sun. It’s not Spielberg’s best-known film, hell it’s not even his best-known war film, but it’s my favourite by a long way and holds a place in my top three films of all time. Featuring the best performance from Christian Bale before The Big Short, Empire of the Sun is the adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical story of coming of age in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. The war is abstract and out of reach yet permeates every action the young boy, Jim, can take. We see him wrestle with his identity, sexual discovery, betrayal and good and evil all at once. The changes are irreversible and the film is a poignant reminder that while we may carry some things with us the vagaries of time and circumstance are beyond our control and that one has to keep up with this irreversible current or be swept away.

28e7de
Empire of the Sun (1987)

The War Film has the potential to be and say so many things. It seems therefore a strange label for Nolan to be shying away from especially with a film that so boldly refuses any context or grounding apart from war from the very get-go. Survival is obviously important, but it’s the prerequisite to telling war stories, not the story in and of itself.

Cannes Diary 23/5/17

18517974_10210339372893095_8020711220089127345_o.jpg

I arrived in Cannes on the 16th, just before the festival. That was a week ago. I can tell you now that a week in Cannes is unlike a week anywhere else. The most obvious question here is “How many films have I seen in that time?” and the truth is that I saw four back to back some days and can no longer see straight so I don’t know. In fact I am currently so frazzled that I came back to where I’m staying in Cannes at one point to find that my roommate had used a spoon instead of a knife to spread Nutella and I am actively distraught about having to now decide between using a spoon or washing the spoon and getting a knife. It’s better than the first three days though when I was so excited that I forgot to eat and then promptly nearly fainted while walking to a screening.

What day of the week is it? Who knows. The calendar says Tuesday but to be honest I can now only mentally classify days by which film headlines that day. This is not helpful on days like when there were more than ten films premiering, and that does actually happen. I am vaguely aware that Cannes has not always seemed like the back of my hand and that my normal life awaits me far far away from the croisette. Somewhere out there is what I used to do with my time before my main hobbies became standing in or next to queues at all hours of the day. And it really is all hours. Very early on I went to a 10pm showing followed by an 8am showing the next day. This was an error and I hope to never do it again. Other people have been to a midnight screening followed by an 8am screening. These people are insane.

Cannes is batshit insane on every possible level. Firstly, anyone you  know instantly becomes your friend. If you recognise them, even if you never really spoke they are now you’re best buddy, especially if they have a higher level badge and can get you into more films. Everyone’s a potential ticket, even random strangers. The best method to get into films you want to see in the main screen is to entirely ignore Cannes’ ticketing system and get really good at making signs with the name of films on them. (hey, turns out bubble writing does have a use after all). I remember the first ticket I was given like this and how amazed I was at its very existence in my hands. That took ten minutes and a lot of talking to strangers. I have now got to a point of blasé where I showed up to an 11:30 showing one morning at 10:44 with no ticket and a sign. By 10:57 I was in the auditorium which, by the way, has a dramatic lack of leg room and are for some reason air-conditioned to -1000 degrees while it’s hot enough to cook bacon outside. Good luck dressing for that ! But, then again good luck dressing at all.

Cannes has a dress code. So that’s fun. “tenue correcte exigée” what precisely is ‘correct’ and are they really checking? who knows. Rumour has it people get thrown out for not having socks. I saw a girl at an evening showing wearing a khaki jacket one time. Beats me. Heels are pretty obligatory though, so my feet are now made of 70% blister, 10% mosquito bites and 20% toe-nail polish. I also lost a shoe somewhere in my adventures, a fact I blame entirely on the existence of beaches and the amount of sand that ended up stuck to my shoe forcing me to momentarily abandon it and then have to work up the courage to ask around if staff had found a solitary shoe. Turns out they had and they were so confused by someone losing one shoe that they even kept it. It’s worse in the evening when everyone has to be dressed up to the nines. You want to see people in tuxedos in a mcdonalds in broad daylight? Come to Cannes, it’s not even the weirdest thing you’ll see here.

This has been a stream of consciousness rant about an incredibly eventful week. If you want to read my considered opinion on the Classic films I have been seeing at Cannes, click here. Otherwise, hang around long enough and I might just share my opinions on some of the other stoning films at this year’s festival. You know, once I’ve slept and stuff.

floliketheriver is going to Cannes!

thumb-51106-media-image-x584

Well, you read the title. I’m off! In fact, by the magic of scheduled posts I am currently in a train on my way to Cannes as you are reading this. So why am I headed to Cannes? Because I can(nes)! And now that that joke is out of my system I am very pleased to announce that I am one of six student authors of the Cannes Classics 2017 Blog and we will be sharing our impressions of the films, the festival and many more exciting and interesting things during the two weeks. So go give it a read!

For everything that isn’t Cannes Classics I will be updating this blog and my twitter with comments on the rest of the festival, the films and ~the ambiance~ on the triply reliable basis of: when I remember, when I physically can, and when I have something cool to say, so stay tuned, it’s certain to be a wild ride. Also if I die of exhaustion it’ll make a neat addition to my obituary.

Dark Rooms and Headsets

stock-photo-man-using-a-virtual-reality-device-against-empty-rows-of-red-seats-450489469
I am so legitimately impressed that my overly-specific search term found this image that I don’t even mind the watermarks

When I watch films it’s normally in one of three ways. On a computer, on a DVD player or in a cinema. I feel like that’s basically how audiovisual content is consumed these days by the vast majority of people. However, I have recently had the opportunity to experience a few different forms of moving images and it’s been an interesting journey.

The first that kept surprising me was the idea of film as a physical commodity. I guess somewhere in the back of my mind I always knew this was the case but I hadn’t ever thought about the implications. Now that I study cinema at Uni the implications, I have realised, are wide and varied and they come up when you least expect them. Early manuals on how to edit films talk about how many feet of film a certain shot ought to be. Film was rationed in some countries during the second world war and this helped solidify 90 minutes as the length of a film. Subtitles had to be manually added to every frame of a film print and couldn’t be removed at the touch of a button. All these things blew my small 21st century brain, but at least it got me thinking.

I spent a good deal of time this term watching films projected on original 35mm copies and while thinking about these films (for reasons that will soon be very apparent. Wink wink, nudge nudge) I came to realise how different the experience of watching a physical copy of a film is to a digital copy. A physical film turns itself into an event every time. It can’t be seen without dimming the lights and projecting it from the back of a dark room. Yes, of course, this is still what happens in any cinema projecting any kind of film but it’s no longer necessary. We keep the spectacle of the cinema experience without actually having a cinema experience. Everyone knows that a digital overhead projector works just as well in an open-plan boardroom as a hushed cinema screen. Secondly, a physical film makes noise. Well, the large mechanical projector makes noise as it shows the film. It clicks, it whirrs, it makes a low humming noise and sometimes, just sometimes, the bulb flickers. There’s no point when you can forget the physical presence of the film; especially not when every ten minutes or so the reel needs changing. Here the projectionist has to execute a smooth change or pull the audience out of the film for the second it takes to figure it out.

Apart from anything else, a film on 35mm jumps into life from white, not from black. A dead computer, TV or phone screen is black. Even the default “no media” screen in editing software is black. But a projector, before the film is loaded and blocks the light is a square of white light on a white sheet. The people, places and situations that you see aren’t what’s projected, it’s what’s blocking this pure white light. Very literally a 35mm film is a series of photorealistic shadows telling a story. It’s really no wonder early thinkers likened this to hypnotism and ghosts.

On the other end of the scale I also recently had a chance to see a film in 360 VR. I’d seen 360 videos around but until now had never put on a VR headset and tested the immersive experience. I don’t recommend it for people who get travel sick in trains or cars. If that’s you, you’re gonna have a really bad time in VR. If not, go for it, you don’t really get the hype or potential of the medium until you’ve seen it for yourself, and it is a new medium. The whole experience is different even on the most basic physical level. In a cinema if you’re moving, shifting in your seat, looking around it most likely means you’re bored (or me hiding from the screen in literally any horror film). In a VR headset moving is how you know you’re engaged with the story. You reach out to touch things, you brace yourself for balance when the camera moves and you look around frantically following sources of sound. If a cinema paralyses you when it’s good a VR film is like an invitation to a dance.

 

LA Devotees

An exploration of LA through the prism of La La Land, The Neon Demon and Tangerine

There are places that have a certain personality to them, even if you’ve never been there. Where does this impression of familiarity come from? Culture. The films, songs, poems, photos of a place build up something intangible yet immutable. You only have to look at the stereotype of Paris as the city of Love and the disappointment felt by some tourists when they discover that Paris is, in fact, a city ‘comme les autres’.For me, as a cinema student, one of the largest and richest mythologies in my mind has been built up around LA (it’s close-run with New York but I have actually been to New York so it’s hard to detach myth from memory). LA I have never been to, not even as a child too young to remember. I don’t think I even know anyone who’s spent a significant amount of time there. Everything I know about LA has been passed down to me through cultural artefacts and, as it is the home of Hollywood, largely through the films produced there. I became acutely aware of this imaginary LA over the past year as I seemed to see more films rooted in the city. La La Land (Damien Chazelle 2016), The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn 2016) and Tangerine (Sean Baker 2015).

So what have the movies told me about their hometown?

Ryan-Gosling-La-La-Land-Stills-01-4.jpg

Spoilers. For everything. Consider yourself warned.

Tangerine is the story of downtown LA on Christmas eve. We couldn’t be further away from the glitz and glamour normally associated with the City of Angels. “LA is a beautifully wrapped lie.” proclaims one character. If so, what is the lie, and where is the beauty?

La La Land takes us to the heart of the LA lie, the conceit even. The title itself calls to mind the idea of LA as the Dream Factory – a place where hundreds upon hundreds of anonymised workers can make production line dreams and sell them to a production line audience. The rip-roaring success of La La Land only really serves to underline this point. The machine’s still running, even if it has become self-aware.

The Neon Demon brings us closer to a balanced picture. The city is huge and intimidating and this young innocent model seems determined to rise up the ranks from her grimy motel room. From Sunset Boulevard to those dancers in the opening number of La La Land these characters come to LA with big dreams and “without a nickel to their name”.

In these three recent films the characters deal seem to be striving towards goals that recede away from them, never quite becoming who they’re trying to be, or maybe worse, making huge sacrifices in order to progress. This is not only lauded as the way to make it to the top, but those who don’t make these sacrifices are punished. Jesse (Elle Fanning in The Neon Demon), the naturally beautiful model who realises that she doesn’t have to diet and undergo plastic surgery to make it big is promptly killed by those who have worked harder, longer and suffered more. Similarly in La La Land, removed from their upbeat earworm backing track, the lyrics to Another Day of Sun tell a similar story of glorified hardship.

“Climb these hills/ I’m reaching for the heights/ And chasing all the lights that shine/ And when they let you down/ You’ll get up off the ground”

The whole film begins with a young woman gleefully singing:

“I think about that day/ I left him at a Greyhound station/ West of Santa Fé/ We were seventeen, but he was sweet and it was true/ Still I did what I had to do”

Her smile as she recounts her sacrifice foreshadows what will eventually happen to our protagonists who will mutually decide to give each other up for their individual dreams. The heartrending epilogue as Seb (Ryan Gosling) plays out his fantasy of being with Mia (Emma Stone) confirms our suspicions – had he followed his heart his dream would never have come true. Mia herself is ground down like the runway models by a world where rejection from casting directors is not only omnipresent but entirely indifferent. She goes through the same gruelling experiences as Jesse, surrounded by identical actresses for every role. Jesse is picked for her outstanding physical presence, Mia permanently left to fall by the wayside. The difference between them is desperation. Mia wants every part she applies for, the rejection “just hurts too much” every time. Jesse seems to be there by accident, she knows she has no real talent. “But I’m pretty, and I can make money off pretty”. Her meteoric ascent is due mainly to this innocent nonchalance that is so refreshing compared to her desperate and bloodthirsty competition. Mia, in her own way, also has to lose all of her confidence, resilience and her relationship to get to a state of innocence and spontaneity that eventually brings her success.

screen-shot-2017-01-31-at-00-23-28

Tangerine plays out like the gritty b-side to La La Land. The lowest point for Seb in La La Land is arguably his getting fired on Christmas eve from an uptight upmarket cocktail bar. Whereas the character that populate Tangerine spend their Christmas eve in seedier and seedier joints, a motel full of prostitutes, a donut shop cum drug dealer headquarters. Here there are no grand dreams of fortune and fame, the characters are simply trying to play the roles laid out for them by society. This is underlined by two central characters being transwomen and prostitutes, a line of work that demands a very performative femininity of them both. One of them, Alexandra (Mya Taylor), wants to make it as a singer but seems to accept that there’s no real future for her. The other, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), spends the film trying to gain and fill the role of Chester’s (James Ransone) fiancée. The action kicks off from Sin-Dee’s rage at being cheated on with a cis woman, a role she cannot by definition fill. Not to say that she seems to want to. Often during the film she refers to herself as “a girl like me” while gesturing towards her crotch. Her status as a transwoman is accepted and embodied without any suggestion of contradiction. In this way the film offers a wide perspective of different roles offered to women. Two trans prostitutes playing up their femininity, a cis prostitute in a line of work that is by its very nature performative, a mother-in-law trying to be an authoritative matriarch and form her family into the ideal and lastly the wife of a man who frequents these trans prostitutes. The film ends in a confrontation between all of these characters where Yeva, the young wife and mother, admits that she has been turning a blind eye to her husband’s nighttime activities. The ideal life she wants to pretend she has comes at the price of pretending nothing is going wrong.

Screen Shot 2017-01-31 at 00.29.53.png

In terms of addressing sexuality Tangerine’s “I’ve never had a pimp that didn’t fuck me” is a far cry from La La Land‘s technicolor universe where our leading couple kiss, I believe, twice, once in a dream sequence. La La Land, a film which Damien Chazelle openly refers to as his love letter to Hollywood seems to take place in a parallel aseptic and asexual universe where the only real forces at play are art and love. It’s the Hollywood universe par excellence full of the influence of historic American censors, and a puritanical work ethic. The musical form replaces the need for any visual or verbal representation of sex between the characters. Every emotional and, for metaphor’s sake, physical climax is replaced by a dance. This dynamic is particularly evident in the Planetarium sequence where a journey into a physical relic of Hollywood history leads to a kiss. However this kiss is delayed by the intervention of Hollywood magic. Instead of consummating their desire physically they are thrown by Hollywood convention into a metaphorical dance and only then share a kiss which is no sooner seen than vignetted and removed from view. However there is another logic for this lack of physicality in La La Land. If the film is a love letter then who can blame Chazelle for leaving out the poverty, misery and grime. Everything we see here is LA through rose-tinted glasses. His love for the city, the dreamers, the jazz and the industry makes us love it just as much. “People love what other people are passionate about.”

What of Refn in all this? Anyone familiar with Refn’s work will not be shocked to find that he doesn’t shy away from these darker themes despite presenting a film focused on the fashion industry – the only industry arguably more superficial and false than Hollywood itself. It’s also not the first time Refn has shown us the underbelly of LA. Drive is to LA what Taxi Driver is to New York. Here however the point of view is much more feminine than that shown in Drive. The women in The Neon Demon are slap in the middle of an industry which, unlike Hollywood, is not driven by passion and hope. There are no stories to tell, just bodies to sell. Jesse arrives in LA the picture of innocence and is quickly inducted into the adult world. Bodies are product in this world, as they were for the pimp in Tangerine. In Tangerine a woman with a vagina is referred to as ‘fish’. For the fashion models bodies are judged on their age as “sour milk” or “fresh meat”. Death, sexuality and food are linked in an uneasy triangle which can be seen as four women discuss lipstick.

screen-shot-2017-01-31-at-00-22-41

“Red rum – that what it’s called. They say women are more likely to buy a lipstick if it’s based on food or sex.”

When Jesse is eventually killed it’s not really certain whether it was a woman scorned or a jealous rival that brought about her downfall and it doesn’t seem to matter since both are so linked in her story. The only thing that was certain was that she was going to die. As soon as the film shows you a swimming pool in an LA mansion you can’t help but feel that someone’s ending up face down in it. Jesse is inducted into sexuality, almost raped and then killed all by women. This sits in stark contrast to the repeated suggestions of a male threat to her wellbeing. The men in the film fall into two categories: they are either generalised predators who will be easily distracted by the next female they find. These is, of course, disturbing, but not nearly as much as the second group of oddly emasculated photographers and fashion designers who are searching for something so specific that, finding Jesse, they immediately proceed to fetishise her image while posing no direct threat to her body. The gold photoshoot sequence shows this best. The experience is unnerving and sexually charged but ultimately there is nothing aggressive or predatory in something so entirely aestheticised. This aesthetic runs through the film, elevating scenes of necrophilia, murder and cannibalism into an eloquent treatise on female sexuality and corporality as product. A commodity that’s somehow unique to each individual and infinitely replaceable and perishable: “That’s LA, they worship everything and value nothing.”

“LA is a beautifully wrapped lie.” says a disenchanted character.

Agree to disagree” comes back the reply.

So what here isn’t sordid or untrue? If La La Land is the beautiful wrapping, a film made of years of stories and traditions of stories overlapping and inter-referencing each other to the point of creating a secondary city, where is the reality it’s covering? Certainly it won’t be found in a film set on the Warner Brothers lot, where they manufacture the roles everyone else feels they have to play. It’s not to be found in the high-fashion fever dream either.

In the middle of Tangerine is an odd interlude. Sin Dee has spent hours dragging Dinah by the hair round downtown LA screaming at her for sleeping with her man. As they listen to Alexandra’s show they sneak off to smoke crack together. Suddenly the two women who have been ostensibly competing to be seen as Chester’s girl for the whole film are in a moment of complicity and extreme tenderness. The music softens and we’re left with an oddly beautiful moment of two women coming together. This is echoed in the film’s final sequence. After even Alexandra and Sin Dee fall out the film seems set to end on the bleak note of nobody being able to fulfil the role they so badly want to. It is here that Sin Dee is attacked for being a transwoman. The personal drama fades away and Alexandra comes directly to her aid to restore her femininity and confidence at the expense of her own, literally giving Sin Dee her hair. the gesture is poignant and loving despite the maelstrom of awful sordid circumstances that led up to it.

Screen Shot 2017-01-31 at 00.24.45.png

“Agree to disagree.”

These tender moments are what brings the portrayal of LA out of the sordid mess or the over-glamourised. While The Neon Demon offers no redemption, painting the whole city as desperate, soulless and exploitative, La La Land and Tangerine offer up two, very different, but equally strong truths. Truths between people. Both films finish on two people who acknowledge a relationship beyond circumstance and hurt.

The characters in these films aren’t just the victims of their environment. They make choices, real decisions that would be difficult for anyone. Obviously, their surroundings, a city that gives way into arid desert and brush doesn’t help. LA is an oasis where everyone fights one another to drink, we only have to look at the traffic jams leading into LA in La La Land compared to the great ease with which Mia flees the city into small-town oblivion. The difference between the lives loves and dreams of the people in LA is the competition. Any role you could fill could be filled by anyone else. You will age and lose opportunities, your idols will get ‘samba tapas’ed’ and people cheat on each other. The cut-throat environment means that only the strongest and truest things survive, love and passion.

Maybe LA is just the same as everywhere else then, it just happens to be the prism we’ve been offered.

La-La-Land-trailer2.png

No Context at 200

capture-decran-2016-11-17-a-22-07-44
‘Paths Well Worn’ – my 200th video

I have now published 6000 seconds (or more simply, 100 minutes) of my life in my project No Context. It’s a wild ride that’s still not stopping but I’m taking another moment to gather my thoughts on this milestone.

Firstly, I’m really grateful to the people that watch these little videos, who tell me what they think of them and who notice when I’m filming and respectfully fall silent, or even the ones that belligerently refuse to quieten down and make the videos more interesting.

One of my English friends said to me that they felt like they could get to know my friends in these short snippets but somehow I didn’t seem to be there. I found it strange since the only thing they all have in common, by definition, is that I was there and there was a camera. I can’t even say that I shot all of them since there are (rare) occasions when a friend takes control of the equipment around me. So it’s true that  all my friends come through very clearly, but then again, people keep saying that you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with, so they must reflect something of me.

Something I’ve done more of is watch my own videos back. For the first four months or so I never gave these videos a backwards glance and there were honestly times when I would forget entirely what I had filmed or what the final video looked like. However, recently people have been telling me that it’s somehow more interesting, and oddly meditative, to watch them in a chunk, in order or out of order. I gave this a try. Personally, I watch them in order since I know exactly what sequence of feelings and thoughts correspond to each 30 seconds and watching them out of order feels like some kind of dizzying time warp happens between every video. What I noticed is how other people and places seem to weave in and out of the story at different rates and intervals. There are people who are inescapable, roads that I’ve somehow found a million ways to film and well, my apartment. Then there are people that aren’t there often but appear every so often like a thread in a tapestry that just comes to the forefront before settling into the background. Then there are the things that were there and then vanish, places I saw on holiday and then never again or people that pass by strongly and fade out quickly.

The real challenge I’ve faced since my last post about No Context has been a challenge to the very core of the project: the idea of recording something beautiful or interesting each day. This worked great for a time. I recorded a whole wild summer which, despite a couple of low points was exciting and different. Now that I’m back in Paris where the project started a lot of the decors are the same. Thankfully it’s not the same university so a new neighbourhood has come into play (and studying films all day has had a huge influence on my style and ideas). I worry that sometimes the things I love around me are all the same things that I’ve already put out there. That only becomes more and more probable now that I’ve developed and settled into my new routine.

Aside from that, which was a risk from the start, I’ve had to confront what happens when there was nothing I wanted to record. Bad days happen. Bad weeks happen. There are days you never want to think about ever again let alone have to go back and confront through your own images. How are you supposed to edit a bad day and still make it something you’d want to watch? More urgently how do you film the innate beauty of your life when you’re not feeling all that optimistic? I was lucky because te project started when I was on such a high note I never really considered what would happen in this case. So I’m still working on it. Working on somehow still seeing the little things, or the big things that are worth filming but knowing how not to film them through rose-tinted glasses. I’m still creating No Context and I still want it to be a faithful and true vision of my life every day.

Check out the last few chapters in these playlists:

Una (2016)

una-rooney-mara-blackbird

I saw 10 films at the London Film Festival and while I have a lot to say about many of them, that will come later in its own time. Today I want to talk about the film that has stayed in my head since the moment I saw it, Una.

Una is directed by Benedict Andrews, starring Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn, and Ruby Stokes and is adapted from the play by David Harrower. It bears the aura of being adapted from a stage play, as many such adaptations do. However I don’t feel that this is necessarily a bad thing. One of my favourite films of all time bears this same aura and it’s that which makes David Hugh Jones’ Betrayal so special. But back to Una. Benedict Andrews is a long-time theatre director just now making his first film. What strikes you straight away is that this doesn’t have the shy, mannered feel of a first film. It could just as well have come from a director with 20 blockbusters under his belt. Although this is due in large part to the three key performances that hold the film.

Rooney Mara plays a woman, Una, who has come to confront, or maybe even simply see, the man with whom she had a relationship with, be it sexual, loving or abusive 15 years earlier. Over the course of an hour and a half the two dig up the past, going over what happened between them and what went wrong. The question of right and wrong is almost totally ignored as the film focuses in on the emotions between the two. The film opens on the young Una going in search of something or someone and cuts before we see what she does. Fifteen years and some exposition later we see who she’s looking at in a sweeping long shot that starts on Rooney Mara’s defiant yet vulnerable face, zooming out to show her standing in a warehouse, dressed to impress before swinging round to Ben Mendelsohn, Ray, whose face bears the absolute lack of composure of someone who has seen their own demons brought to life. There is no cut,  no shot reverse-shot. Their meeting is a strong and shared moment that fills the immense space in time and the physical warehouse space chosen for the film.

This is Andrews’ touch of genius, to have transformed a stage play that takes place in a single room into a winding story of spaces and windows and the opaque. The young Una (Ruby Stokes) waits behind a glass pane for Ray to return. Now Ray shoves her into a break room to talk in private, compartmentalising the situation. Yet the break room is made of glass walls and so their drama has to play out in words alone so that it won’t be seen. In a demonstration of a continuous rebellious personality in Una she refuses to sit and wait, in either case. She walks the empty streets as a child and the towering warehouse structures looking for Ray, looking for the one simple answer. One of the few lines spoken by Ruby Stokes as the young Una is to ask Ray why he left and it’s this question that she still wants to ask now. As a child she could never have the answer, the question is asked to Ray through a television screen and so any real communication has been blocked off, once again, by a pane of glass. Here Ray can hear and see her but she has nothing. They get close to communicating when they are forced into hiding in dark rooms, finding once again the codes and habits of how they used to relate to each other Later in the film the two share genuine intimate insights while physically divided by a cubicle wall. We know there is something between them but we don’t see the wall, the frame stays just on their faces and they seem to talk to each other properly for the first time. As much as seeing each other rendered them speechless, not seeing seems to allow them to talk.

This is not to say that everything is resolved. The best that can be said is that a void that lasted Una’s whole life has been filled, at least to her satisfaction. What truly happened between them, truth or lie, right or wrong, remains unknown. Ray’s life and behaviour is certainly no more stable, but this isn’t his story, this is about Una, who, after years of searching, finally walks away.