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.)

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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…

Tomboy (aka The Assignment) (Walter Hill 2016)

Cil8I9LWgAAOcRQand so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Tomboy aka The Assignment (2016), Walter Hill’s tawdry and exploitative story about a hitman, Frank Kitchen, played by Michelle Rodriguez, complete with facial (and other, more southerly) merkins and a prosthetic male chest and torso every bit as convincing as Nicolas Cage’s chest in Ghost Rider (Johnson 2007) and a prosthetic penis (cos yes there is a full frontal shower scene), who is double-crossed by the gangster Honest John (naughty Anthony LaPaglia!) who hired her and sold to the wealthy-genius-but-struck-off-female-surgeon-who-dresses-mannishly-and-likes-to-experiment-on-homeless-people-who-won’t-be-missed-and-whose-brother-was-killed-by-Frank-the-hitman, Dr Rachel Jane (naughty Sigourney Weaver!), who exacts her revenge on her brother’s killer while simultaneously trying to free Frank from the trap of toxic masculinity by performing unwanted and non-consenting sex change surgery on him, and who then – like the gangsters – becomes the target of revenge for the female Frank, also played by Michelle Rodriguez (who won an acting award for this shit, though admittedly a fairly obscure German one), again with some full frontal nudity, presumably to reassure the audience that the male body prosthetics caused no lasting damage to Letty, is not Hill’s unnecessarily complex nested narrative that jumps back-and-forth in time in order to cover up what looks like a collapsed budget and disastrous shoot while minimising anything resembling interest or suspense, nor is it that he also managed to trick Tony Shalhoub into appearing as Dr Galen (how long did it take to come up with that name?) in long and badly written dialogue scenes with the now-institutionalised Dr Jane, nor is it that somehow Walter Hill manages to make this tawdry and exploitative story so very bland that you are left wishing Abel Ferrara had directed it, or a young Jonathan Demme, or even a young Walter Hill, so as to make it properly tawdry, no, the very best thing about Tomboy aka The Assignment is that, despite Hill’s ploddingly pedestrian and mostly completely inoffensive treatment of this tawdry and exploitative tale, he nonetheless – and albeit by an extraordinarily circuitous route – manages to leave you feeling as dirty as you should by making you grateful  he has always resisted the urge to direct a movie in the Alien franchise he produces, which means you are grateful for films directed by Sir Diddley Squat…