Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson 2017)

imagesand so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Phantom Thread (2017), Paul Thomas “No Daddy Issues Whatsoever” Anderson’s latest paean – albeit ambivalent – to men who are monstrous pricks is not the fabrics or the frocks or the fungi, nor is it the way in which the relationship between Edward Christian Reynolds and Bella Anastasia Alma deconstructs the myth of romantic love, revealing the way it works as ideological cover for the toxicity of heteronormativity under a patriarchal class system, no, the best thing about Fifty Shades Posher is the scene at the fancy-pants New Year’s party in which there is literally an elephant in the room – and no one talks about…

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Logan Lucky (Steven Soderbergh 2017)

82d829ff1bb81c97c8a5092c0db9dddeand so anyway it turn out that the best thing about the oddly lifeless Logan Lucky (2017) is not the spectacle of Soderbergh blaming its poor box-office on the marketing campaign rather than the odd lifelessness of it all, nor is it the tremendously funny I swear gag of beating the Disney juggernaut to cutting off the arm of the latest Skywalker, nor is it the actually quite amusing (though I think it is meant to be touching) scene in which Channing Tatum’s little girl tricks an auditorium full of West Virginians to sing ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ out of key, no,  the best thing about Logan Lucky is Daniel Craig’s very first scene in which, with an eye on his post-Bond future and the mortality of older actors, he auditions for every scenery-chewing role that, after their deaths, would previously have been offered to Steven Berkoff, Anthony Hopkins or Malcolm McDowell…

All the President’s meh: a post about The Post (Spielberg 2017)

post_xxlgEarly in The Post, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) finds herself in a boardroom full of men. Borrowing a trick from Jonathan Demme, Spielberg isolates and diminishes her. We have already seen her waking up in a bed covered in files and folders; we have seen her nervously rehearsing the key points she must make; we have seen her struggle with a massive document-stuffed briefcase containing all the papers for the meeting; we have seen her remain unreassured when Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) says that she will be the only person in the room who has read, let alone mastered, all the documentation, even though we believe him cos it is Tom Hanks saying it.

Kay is the owner of The Washington Post, a role she neither wants nor relishes. Her father passed the paper on to her husband, and she only inherited it when widowed. And as she lugs her briefcase into the boardroom and sits down at the table, sure enough, each of the dark-suited men surrounding her, confident in his privilege and at ease in this company, has maybe a single folder and a notepad already placed neatly by some minion before his seat. A man cracks wise about doing his homework.

When it is Kay’s turn to speak about the decision to sell stock in her paper for the first time, she loses her nerve, fumbles. When she does manage to give a precise number to the amount of journalists they will be able to employ if they sell shares at the lower price being considered, she is ignored. The men prefer to do their own arithmetic – loudly and less accurately.

This opening passage establishes the film’s attitude to the current conjuncture in US politics. Rushed into production less than a year ago, it was released in time for Oscar eligibility and with half an eye on this November’s mid-terms. Nixon clearly functions as a cipher for Trump (and less intentionally Weinstein). The decline of investigative journalism and of a (supposedly) free press in the Faux News era is appropriately bemoaned. But The Post really imagines itself as an extension of the 2017 Women’s March.[1]

While Kay gathers the strength to resist the men who run her businesses for her (in their own interest), and the gendered (and class) restraints on her behaviour, The Post introduces several other female characters.

While it is not entirely clear what Debbie Regan (Deirdre Lovejoy) does in the newsroom, Meg Greenfield (Carrie Coon) gets to be one of the journalists working on the leaked Pentagon Papers. (But when she is relaying to her hushed colleagues the Supreme Court decision that will keep them in business and out of jail, some random bloke bursts out of his office shouting the news, drowning her out.)

Ben Bradlee’s long-suffering – and/or quietly independent – wife Tony (Sarah Paulson) gets one major scene, in which she powerfully rebukes her husband. She puts his self-described bravery in perspective by explaining just how much courage Kay needs every day to navigate the man’s world into which she has been thrust.

A Latina intern (Coral Peña) helps Kay find her way to the Supreme Court hearing. And even though she works for the Attorney General, she makes it clear that – and why – she wants Kay and The Post to win. A point underlined when the intern’s boss promptly and unreasonably berates her for doing her job.

After the victory, as the male NYT editors address the crowd about their court victory, Kay quietly leads her team away. Through rows of women – young, not all white, not all middle class – who have turned their backs on the yaddering men to form a kind of honour guard. As with Kay’s conversations with her daughter, Lally (Alison Brie), and the intern, it is supposed to signal the passing on of a feminist torch from one generation to another, and to women of other classes and colours.

But in all its clunkiness, that scene on the steps captures the problem with the film. The women’s story is kept to one side (and feminism remains the self-congratulatory province of exceptional middle class white women)

For all that Kay is key, The Post is not the film about women it pretends or aspires to be. This newspaper drama with occasional thriller-like and women’s-picture elements is mostly about men doing men things. Women-centred scenes feel pasted in from another movie.[2] Occasionally, female characters pop up to ventriloquise mansplanations of the significance of it all for women.[3]

And this is, of course, entirely in tune with the film’s conservatism, so typical of liberal Hollywood. American institutions, we are once more told, are basically sound and will always, eventually, do the right thing. The same goes for patriarchy.

Also, it would be much better if rich individuals ran the media because they can surely be trusted to act in the interests of us all.[4]

Notes
[1] And as a corrective to All the President’s Men (Pakula 1976), from which women are almost entirely absent. Kay is mentioned when Attorney General John S Mitchell (John Randolph) yells at Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), ‘You tell your publisher … she’s gonna get her tit caught in a big wringer if that’s published’. A female journalist, Kay Eddy (Lindsay Crouse), is briefly included in the Watergate investigation but only because she used to date a guy who worked for CREEP, and Bernstein bullies, cajoles, manipulates and tricks an unnamed CREEP bookkeeper (Jane Alexander) into revealing information. And that’s pretty much it.

[2] Speaking of which. There is a painfully inept moment in which Ben and Tony Bradlee look with great poignancy at an old photograph of the Tom Hanks and Sarah Paulson larking around on a sofa with John and Jackie Kennedy. It was all I could do not to shout “Run, Forrest, run!” But at least since The Post is by Spielberg rather than Zemeckis we are spared the digital insertion of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman into the background of the newspaper offices.

[3] This tendency has one reward: the dreadfully written ‘inspiring’ moment near the end when Kay mansplains journalism to Ben Bradlee.

[4] Sadly, the film broaches but has no idea what to think about the impact on news media of being shareholder-owned.

Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan 2017)

410yY+U925Land so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Christopher Nolan’s latest clunkily structured storm und drang indulgence, Dunroamin’ (2017), which is all about his bungalow in Weymouth, is the emotional rollercoaster of the last few minutes, which starts you thinking that leaving Europe might actually be worth it if we get to abandon Kenneth Branagh on the beaches, but then moments later it turns out that losing Tom Hardy to the Germans is the true cost of Brexit…

Three thoughts about Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (McDonagh 2017)

Three-Billboards-poster1. All those comparisons of McDonagh to Tarantino and the Coen brothers are as lazy as they are wrong.
Yes, all three/four directors combine violence, black comedy and relishable dialogue being relished, but they all make films that are tonally very distinct. Tarantino and the Coens are, in their different ways, entirely superficial. Which is not necessarily an insult – and especially not in the first half of the Coens’ filmography. However, Three Billboards is a story of sexual violence, in which a woman who is not supposed to have a voice finds a way to speak out, and everyone tells her to shut up. That we now need to keep hold of Three Billboards‘ relevance (however unintentional) to the #MeToo conjuncture, while also needing to hear the growing criticism of the film’s treatment of race, suggests something deeper than mere surface. (As does, more trivially, its relative absence of obvious intertextual allusions.)

Also, Tarantino and the Coen brothers write, albeit in different ways, one-dimensional characters. They might be dazzling and memorable – again, especially in the first half of the Coens’ filmography – but they are fixed and incapable of change. McDonagh’s characters might not be fully rounded, but they do at least possess multiple conflicting aspects. They are little bundles of wrongfooting dialectical energy – which is why the coughing-blood-in-the-face scene works so well – unless they are dentists or priests. Or black. Particularly not if they are black.

2. Complaints about narrative incoherence miss the point.
Awww, diddums. Baby want a bottle? McDonagh repeatedly sets up formulaic situations then refuses the easy pay-off. You’d probably have been delighted if there had been a police cover-up, or if Dixon (Sam Rockwell) had accidentally overheard the killer in the bar, or if he had shot himself, or his mum, or his mum and then himself. (I suspect this is why people keep misdescribing his story as one of redemption. They want it to be as tediously familiar as that.)

3. This is yet another American film about lynchings that cannot bring itself to be about lynchings.
Like Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936), Mervyn Le Roy’s They Won’t Forget (1937) and Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (1967), among others. Despite all the violent crimes committed in the film, the only person to go to jail is black. On a petty charge trumped up by a racist cop. A racist cop who recently got away with torturing a black suspect in custody, and continues to get away with violent assaults. And Mildred (Frances McDormand) gets away with all manner of shit in relation to the rape-murder-incineration – but not quite lynching – of her daughter. Try doing that while being black. Hell, try quietly refusing to stand for the national anthem.

Meanwhile the three black characters are just there to signify moral dignity (Clarke Peters channeling The Wire‘s Lester Freamon as the new police chief) or to accessorise Mildred and thus deflect from, while also complicating, her racist language. (I’d like to think that when Denise (Amanda Warren) and Jerome (Darrell Britt-Gibson) inevitably hook up, it’s because they’re the only people in town who aren’t assholes. But that is not the reason.)

Welcome to dulltopia and my two favourite angels

angelus novusMy essay ‘Dulltopia’ from the ‘Global Dystopias’ issue of Boston Review is now available online – it questions the claims made by Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Zizek about how boring contemporary dystopias are, then imagines these luminaries are right about how boring contemporary dystopias are, and then turns to slow cinema and the examples of Peter B. Hutton’s At Sea (2007) and Mauro Herce’s Dead Slow Ahead (2015), the latter of which I adore.

The essay ends with an allusion to Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, every Marxist’s favourite angel thanks to Walter Benjamin, but in this context dismisses it in favour of an angel every bit as cool from Albrecht Durer’s Melencolia 1 – she is soooooooo bored and really pissed off and her dog is kinda funny looking.
Melencolia_I_(Durero)

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (Jake Kasdan 2017)

JumanjiWelcomeToTheJungleand so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017) is not the presence and performance of The Rock, who is, as pretty much always, the main attraction of a film you can’t quite believe you’re paying to see (though more on this below), nor is it the absence of Robin Williams, who just as often was really fucking irritating, even more so than Jack Black, who here is surprisingly – and thankfully – kept largely in check, nor is it the interesting spectacle of the excellent Karen Gillan, who insists on wearing a coat, playing a three-dimensional rendition of a two-dimensional avatar who nonetheless much more closely resembles an actual character than the one she gets to play in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies (even if Jake Kasdan and his chums were too lazy to choreograph ‘dance fighting’, one of her ‘strengths’, reducing it instead to ‘dancing then fighting’), nor was it waving my debit card too close to the machine just as they were changing the seat reservations for us, thus locking the system in a loop that meant they had to reboot it, which meant we would miss the start of the movie, which meant they instead waved us in without us actually having to pay, no, the best thing about Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is the opportunity to see the reproduction of dominant ideology engineered with such precision, transforming Judith Butler’s arguments about the performativity of gender into tips on how to pick up guys, and throwing two actors of colour centre stage so as to pretend the colonial imagery and ideology underpinning it all has disappeared or is somehow magically no longer racist, cos seriously guys you really do need more than a little Hart and a big Johnson…