Thursday 21 February 2019

Article: Belonging on Beale Street

Forgive me for the weasel words at the start of this. I cannot remember for the life of me the many people who state that when writing about cultural commentary on media that it shouldn’t be personal. Apologises on this opening which is something that attribute to me and what I’ve seen. 
On one of the photography forums that I frequent, a woman made a post asking about what could be done to celebrate and encourage more female photographers on the site. Photography like so many creative endeavours can be considered top-heavy when it comes to gender, although of course there are many variables that should be considered. Almost straight away the inquisition came. Prods and pokes at a relatively harmless question. Nothing said held out and out aggression, but many replies held a clear defensiveness. The response that struck me more than anything was by one gentleman who stated:
“Call me biased as a middle-aged white male, who has not transgendered, and has all his limbs and hopefully faculties, but I really don’t even think about these things until people decide that the world is” unfair” in their eyes. Can we maybe just look at the quality of images.......?”
Isn’t this the sticking point? The crux of the argument? The problem? That the person of such a description can brush off the idea of celebrating a different group’s foray into creativity because they do not have to think about it? That because they are usually considered the target market, they can dictate the themes and hold the gates on what is worthy? Suffice to say, I ducked out of my forum lurking at that point. You can always see where such debates go. It was much better for me to go to the movies, another medium which suffers from similar trappings. Just go to any forum debating Captain Marvel…
Often the critique thrown at certain black films often sounds similar to the “I don’t see colour" argument. Not everyone will get something out of Films such as Get Out (2017) and Moonlight (2017), but the dismissive nature which sometimes comes from people when they observe such films, consciously or not, highlight their dismissiveness of racial identity. There have been films like Black Panther (2018) before and watching the many MCU entries help establish that point. But there’s rarely any colour represented films like Black Panther and this is where the discourse becomes fractured. In the same way, black audiences helped the likes of a problematic racial sitcom such as Love Thy Neighbour become popular, the latest glut of black-led movies have staunch support for the simple reason that in not seeing the racial aspect in such features is to erase swathes of people's viewpoints alongside it too. In the same way, a female photographer may have a different stance on how to create images thematically but can be ignored under a certain presence of “quality”. A white audience member can view movie concerns from particular viewpoints, safe in the knowledge that their next film is merely around the corner. For minority viewers, they have not been able to. Due to this, as a black audience member, I may now feel that I can be quick to dismiss viewpoints if I consider the commentator would be softer on a “white” movie for having the same faults. 
Berry Jenkins’ tales of unrequited love can and have been criticised by people and of course we can all do this, however, I would be interested in how many people who dismiss Moonlight would be doing so in contrast to its particular blend of unapologetically black queer cinema. As if there’s that many. The same would go for Medicine for Melancholy (2008) a black romance which riffs on the mumblecore movement, a group of films not particularly known for its diverse demographic. 
Jenkins’ If Beale Street Can Talk is very much more of the same when we consider his body of work. A matter of fact drama based on a novel by James Baldwin. With the inspiration of Wong Kar-Wai clearly in mind, the film ebbs and flows in a fashion which may be unfamiliar to those who expect a more typical sense of narrative structure. Characters we expect to reappear, do not, yet their actions and thoughts linger long after they leave the screen. Much like Jenkins’ previous works, this is not unexpected. For a viewer like myself, whose enjoyment of more typical modern features is at a slight point of contempt, Beale Street’s way is warmly met by me.
Bathed in the beautiful, warming glow of James Laxton’s cinematography, Jenkins captures the thoughts and emotions of his character's feelings in tightly framed, richly light close-ups. Shots so detailed they point out the needless endeavour of 3D or Secret Cinema to provide immersion. When Nicholas Britell's score soared, my tear ducts often swelled, as is Jenkins ability to deliver us in front of these simple characters leading complicated lives. The film explores the problematic themes of redlining, rape, and racism in America, yet it never preaches. It’s emotional moments never feel like they are pandering. The film’s expressions of love never feel cloying or plastic. 
The beauty in Jenkins work, for an admirer like myself, lies in his ability to show us lives that are being lived with no need for huge telegraphed scenes of sensation, yet plenty of moments to provide reflection. When we observe the intimate moments of our lead characters making love for the first time, it should be noted of how black male sexuality is captured as not only an expression of love but as a moment of vulnerability. The black male without aggression, something that could possibly be missed by viewers as it is an element which still feels alien to them. 
If Beale Street Could Talk, did not hold the same immediate emotional response as Moonlight did. The latter film lodged a lump in my throat so large, I felt it may never have left. However, Beale Street firmly establishes Jenkins as the most important black filmmaker for a viewer such as me. Being a sensitive soul, it is unsurprising that I hold a soft spot for many emotional and expressive features, but it is with Jenkins for the third time running, that I have watched a film of an artist and felt my chest would burst. The third time that a filmmaker has opened a part of myself and explored particular emotions that I myself have grappled with. It’s not to say that other filmmakers have not done this. They do. Just not like this. 
The point of this ramble, which has taken me too long to write and you perhaps too long to read, is that Jenkins’ framing of people of colour in Beale Street, like his other features, or even Charles Burnett's, highlight and frame western black cinema in a way that many other white filmmakers would quite simply be uninterested in. The quality is there. What he’s doing with it is celebrating us.

Tuesday 12 February 2019

Article: The Pursuit of Pennies

*Spoilers are about.

The final shot of Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience (2009) floored me upon a recent rewatch. After spending just over an hour of it’s economical running time, observing the lifestyle of Christine; a high-end escort and her relationship with different clients as well as her boyfriend Chris, the film’s essence is boiled down to its purest moment in the film’s closing sequence.

The scene itself seems pretty innocuous. Christine (then real-time Porn Star Sasha Grey) is invited into the backroom of a Jewish Jewellers by the owner whom we identify as a client for the services that Christine provides. They talk briefly about the upcoming election, in which the client recommends Christine (or Chelsea if we go by her escort name) should vote for John McCain over Barack Obama. He dominates the conversation, she merely responds in rather basic platitudes. As they talk, they undress unceremoniously. For a film with a porn star as the lead, it only really displays Grey in any real sexual fashion briefly, although many conversations in the film highlight her attractiveness. Framed in mid-shot which captures two-thirds of Grey body in full but is set at a distance which halts the observation of her body as gratuitous or titillating, she walks towards her client, a heavy-set man and they embrace. He begins to sob.

Soderbergh’s movies often involve how people operate for the pursuit of money, yet what I found so striking with The Girlfriend Experience is how the film deals with the element of control the chase. Throughout the film, we’re supplied with a plethora of talk about the economy. It all comes from Men. Nearly every man within the film is telling Christine what she should do with her job. From how she should approach men, to trying to find out how she keeps her accounts. They all want a piece of her. They pull of ruses to try and pay less for her services or “get to know the real her”. Despite the boundaries which are set in place by people within the film, everyone is looking to break them. However, it’s in this small moment in which we realise that all the bluster and bravado. All the posturing. It all comes down to that base wish of getting an attractive woman to need you. An urge so powerful it can make a grown man weep.

One of Soderbergh’s more experimental affairs, The Girlfriend Experience came out to middling reviews, with much of the focus being fixed on Sasha Grey’s “coming out” to the mainstream. The choice of Grey here is a masterstroke from Soderbergh. Her flat portrayal of Christine is deceptive. It suggests a bad performance. However, in my eyes, having seen Grey in some of her pornography, as well as her rather limp performances in Entourage, her near unemotive turn here is a clear decision between actress and director for a character who is purposely not letting anyone into what she really feels. If the film had been given to another actress, there’s every chance that they could have overegged their performance, letting the audience know exactly what they’re thinking. Grey’s face, which at one point is covered by huge sunglasses as to hide her eyes, feels like a mirror, reflecting the emotions given by those around her.

The film seems to go on around Christine and to me, this seems to be the point. We jump from conversation to conversation which ranges from how the economic climate will affect her work, to gross clients trying to obtain freebies from her to guarantee good reviews. However, despite whatever’s being said, everything boils down to that final moment. She has what they want. Payment is negotiable, but there will still be paying. What’s fascinating is just how well Soderbergh has transferred some of the clear issues we are now seeing in the gig economy. Looking into my other hobby of Portrait and model photography, it’s more than a little concerning how it would only take a small amount of script tinkering to have it apply to the amateur photographer scene, and yes, I do mean some of the more dubious elements too.

After the release of the film, directors Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz took the material and turned the source material into a TV show, with new characters and storylines. The Girlfriend Experience TV series is far less of an experimental slice of life endeavour that Soderbergh devised and is a more familiar and explicit affair. Gone is the semi-provisional feel, and what we’re given instead is a political espionage show with a variety of different, difficult female leads which sometimes holds more in common with the erotic thriller genre than the more ponderous take of Soderbergh. 

In any case, what I found most intriguing about The Girlfriend Experience is how both the show and the film are invested in delivering agency to female characters who are hard to catalogue into simple terms. My favourite visual on the film comes around about halfway through when Christine, positioned centre framed, sitting on the edge of a hotel bed, is getting her feet massaged by a client; David, who is so low down in the shot he is almost out of it. It’s a moment which, despite some of the things which are about to occur, subtly hints at the metaphor which takes place in the aforementioned finale. The dynamics shift throughout the film, but it is within these moments that we gain a glimpse at what’s going on. Where the agency is. Why men write bad reviews of Christine when they don’t get their way and why they are sometimes so despondent when she gives them a chance to touch her. If the economy tanks, then there’s less money to go around. Less to brag about. Less to impress with. You can’t impress Christine if you can’t pay her. Maybe that’s why they cry.

Monday 11 February 2019

Article: The Lonely Death of Dick Hallorann

Of Course Spoilers

The death of Scatman Crothers’ character Dick Hallorann in Stanley Kubrick’s seminal film adaptation of The Shining (1980) is possibly one of the most isolated deaths in mainstream horror cinema. He travels through brutal, treacherous terrain to heed the telepathic beckoned call of a terrified young boy. He never makes it. Moments after he reaches his destination, he is felled by a swinging axe to the chest. His demise is swift, violent and above all else, it’s near pointless. In other horror films, ones not made by obsessive, precise auteurs, such a death is often considered laughable. The most notable parody of The Shining lies in The Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror V (1994), in which Groundskeeper Willy is murdered by an insane Homer Simpson in a similar style to what occurs in the film. Hallorann’s death can easily be mocked. For myself, this is perhaps part of the sadness. This is a character whom we see near the start of the movie delivering a careful exposition of ‘The Shining’ to a fretful young scallywag in a poorly disguised Chekhov’s gun only to have the bullet skew wildly when it is fired. Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd), the telepathic child, who uses his ‘shine’ to summon the wilful wannabe hero is only left with mental scars as his deranged father Jack Torrance (Jack Nicolson) drives an emergency axe through the elderly man’s chest mere moments after arriving back to his place of work, in a desperate attempt to save the child and his mother from the evil which has taken over the mind and body of Jack.

Dick Hallorann’s death is a tragedy in The Shining that feels easily forgotten and ignored, due to the grander context. Hallorann himself is only in a few scenes. In the beginning, he establishes himself as a person of trust. His final moments are devastating because the film invests so much time of his travelling to his final destination. When you isolate Hallorann’s time in the film, half of his scenes are spent with him navigating his way back to the snowbound overlook hotel. He travels by plane. He drives during the final third of his journey. We’re still aware of how long it took Jack Torrance to get to The Overlook and that was without the poor weather conditions which blight Dick. A few moments after Hallorann arrives, Jack swings an axe cruelly into Dick’s chest. The struggle is brief, the wound is severe and Hallorann’s heroic gesture, in which he came to aid Danny and Wendy, is quickly snuffed Out.

It’s easy to giggle at the futile effort. The film seems to set up a greater confrontation involving Hallorann and Torrance. His earlier, expositional scenes suggest that his knowledge of ‘The Shining’: a telepathic link between people, will become key. It is said shining that Danny uses to send out an SOS call to Hallorann. This gift is powerful enough to give Danny an aspect of foresight. He witnesses excruciating scenes of terror through this clairvoyant link. Elevators filled with blood. Dead bodies of the past strewn on the floor. However, the events which cause his dad to run riot and have Danny scarper as far as his legs can carry him, also ensure that the failed heroism by Hallorann is in vain.

It’s a difficult death even despite its futility. In both Stanley Kubrick’s film and Stephen Kings novel, the attack dutifully notes Hallorann’s race. Before the attack, Jack is advised by a spiteful spirit; Delbert Grady that a “nigger cook” is on his way to complicate the matter of Jack correcting his Wife; Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and their talented son. The performance by Phillip Stone as Grady has always been memorable to me due to the venom of the exchange which takes place in the men’s bathroom with Nickleson’s Jack. It’s here where the severity of Hallorann’s demise hits home, practically for me as it’s in this moment that becomes one of the first moments of explicit racism in a movie that I’ve witnessed. People often get frustrated with film adaptations as they place a face to a character that they find hard for their imaginations to shake off. Stone’s face and aggression have always been etched into my mind from a young age. But conversation which takes place also compounds an illicit agreement between two white men, to kill the film’s only truly likable character.

In the film Room 237 (2012); a highly subjective documentary showcasing how the film is viewed by various analysts, one theory establishes that the overt references in The Shining make the film about the genocide of Native Americans and American imperialism, with one of the film’s main highlights being that of an opening sequence involving hotel manager Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson) mentioning that the Overlook Hotel is built on an ancient Indian burial ground. This becomes a challenging factor when we consider the films mysterious ending in Jack, the man who has “always been the caretaker” is seen in the last frame of the film captured in a picture which dates back to the 1920s. Hallorann, the only person of colour within the film, may not be native American, but the theory of his killing is perhaps due to the hands of a white man who may be possessed by spirits of America’s well known racist past make an impactful indictment of Torrance’s foul dismissal of the kindly African-American who treated his son to some ice cream. It’s possible to consider The Shining as a film which conspires to kill the film’s most solitary character, it’s only black character, through insidious white collusion.

Hallorann’s death conjures even more provocative elements when we consider his place within the film. His early exposition, as well as his psychic talent, could easily consider him the fabled “magical negro”. The sexless black stereotype whose role is to give the white protagonists value through his magical abilities. This is a cook whose purpose is to serve the rich white folk who come to indulge in the overlook, while his sole motivation in the film is to come to the aid of Danny, which he fails. When Hallorann receives the call from Danny, consider the mise en scene surrounding him. Framed pictures of young, naked ebony women are hung around his walls, but there’s very little about Hallorann himself to suggest that he’s a sexual person. In watching the film again, this scene is most indicative of the loneliness of Hallorann. Having explained the Shining ability to Danny, this seemingly asexual man, now surrounded by sensual imagery, has his sole purpose by this point in the film to be marked for death. To be killed by a man whose cavorting with naked bathtub spirits allows him to be possessed. Yes, we know that the woman who seduces Jack in room 237 turns out to be a rotting corpse ghoul, but still…

Hallorann is unceremoniously dispatched by Jack after hours of travel to reach his destination point. His body is not found by Danny, the boy he strived to save, but Wendy who’s bulging eyes cannot comprehend what she is seeing. Considering that what she’s seen only a few moments before have already been difficult to logically compartmentalise. It is Wendy who sees the elevator of blood in (her) reality over Danny’s vision. She finds bloodied guests laundering about the halls when it is only supposed to be her family inhabiting the hotel. But it’s the short sharp crash zoom to Hallorann’s body which has her really lose her proverbial poop.

Duvall’s Wendy has really taken a battering from detractors of the film over the years as for the most part she is nothing but a shrinking violet, yet it is through her face as well as Danny’s in which we see much of the film’s terror. Duvall has such an unconventional movie star features and it’s no surprise that Altman used her in tandem with Sissy Spacek for the evocative 1977 film 3 Women. Spacek who featured in Carrie another adaptation of Stephen King also holds the same characteristic that makes Duvall stand out. Those large eyes. They see all.

I bring this up because it’s her face, those eyes that water with fear when Wendy finally sees apparitions. She is also the only person who sees Hallorann’s lifeless corpse lying in the reception area. It is one of the last sights she sees in the hotel itself. By the time she sees it, she’s witnessed so many bizarre supernatural phenomena that she may not believe that the body is real. That’s the sadness. The last person to see Hallorann on the day of his death may be too wigged out to even believe he’s there. Struck apart by race, sex and sheer distance. Dick’s body may have been considered as much as an apparition as the ghostly guests waltzing the hallways. He dies by himself in the hotel’s reception. What a lonely way to go.