From film

gazing outwardly from A Room With A View (1986)

James Ivory’s adaptation of E.M. Forster’s A Room With A View is divisively stylised with a satirical portrayal of aristocracy, and with notes of nostalgia for quaint Britishness. In 2019, it invites revision. Twice removed from its 1980’s production of Edwardian subject matter, ARWAV maintains a rather obscured position in the cultural imagination. It has, since its genesis, divided critics, as has heritage cinema generally, for its ascribed sordid, banal vision of rather enervating caricatures that depend on conservative nostalgia, and a longing for a time of sensibility and anti-progressivist values. It’s worth noting here that these views constitute that of those who are anti heritage cinema altogether, and deem ARWAV an example of such. Others suggest ARWAV is not a heritage film, but a product of transnational creative effort that sought to deconstruct class and sexual stereotypes across social boundaries. Much like recent period-erotica Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2018 The Favourite, ARWAV borders on a camp aesthetic in its embellishment and decorative priority, refined with its romantic centrality and its witticism, with its period representation as central to its irony. Of course, The Favourite is not heritage cinema, but I’d like to suggest that ARWAV isn’t either. That description, one charged with negative connotations, disservices ARWAV‘s complexly satirical portrayal of aristocrats and tourism, of romance and subjectivity.

It is one of many films that constitute 1980’s emergence of such nostalgic films, a movement we can largely attribute to Thatcher’s governance turning British creatives towards a reimagining and commodification of the past as their subject matter. With its success perhaps largely indebted to its popular cast of actors, ARWAV, if nothing else, upholds as a prototypic rom-com in its critical acclaim. However, I shall suggest it exhibits a far more sophisticated perspective altogether, one that assumes anti-heritage cinema in its portrayal of heritage filmmaking.

A Room With A View (1986) dir: James Ivory

ARWAV essentially follows a group of English tourists as they traverse rural and urban Italy, attempting to soak up its culture while remaining detached and voyeuristic. For Miss Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter), note the absurdly ‘English’ name, Italy personifies a repressed, passionate spirituality, a sensual and romantic freedom that is inhibited back in England. Britishness is far from an idyllic vacation in spatial and figurative measure. In their position as affluent tourists, the characters gaze upon Italy and project their own fantastical versions of its culture, carving out a utopian space upon which they are far more attuned to their emotional sensibilities and romantic intuition than social convention would usually allow. Of course, this creates a neat dichotomy in cinematic terms, the distinguished and opposing spaces and their distinct affectations. However, herein this separation lies a contention of which Ivory is entirely aware.

When paired with tourism, the act of gazing refines what we mean when we try to draw the parameters of what a tourist is and what they essentially do, and this complicated, problematic position. Gazing is a historically and culturally specific action that implies hierarchy and mobility. It is far more penetrative and active than seeing for this implication of power. Gazing, as active, contains a superior gazer and implies a less autonomous, more passive, subject. Take classical art for example, the masculine gazer and his feminine subject trace back to antiquity. This action can be applied to ARWAV, wherein gazing is exercised to satirical excess and generates the fluidity with which English characters orient Italy on an entirely separate plane to Italian inhabitants. Guided by selectivity, they construct a vision of Italy that either challenges or reinforces their touristic imagination, never slipping below the surface of whichever envisioned ‘Italy’ they desire.

A scene that evidences this constructed view is the stabbing in the square, wherein Lucy faints at the sight of a brawl-turned-stabbing, yet quickly returns to the side of the street, quite literally, to her position as tourist. Her safety is secured in a shaded spot, having acquired evidence of her preconception that Italians are passionately violent. This marks one of the only interactions, if one can even call witnessing an interaction, between Lucy and an Italian space. Of course, this moment is certainly obscured for how unlikely it is to witness a stabbing in the street in Florence, but nevertheless, in catching one moment of tragedy, violence is sewed into Lucy’s fabric of Italy. The rest of Lucy’s experiences, of course, are contained within the titular room from which she views, or in the haze of her memory upon returning to England.

A Room With A View (1986) dir: James Ivory

Though ARWAV demonstrates a love for highly aestheticised gentility, it undoubtedly suggests it is a privileged, inauthentic position to be a tourist. Touristic gazing renders an authentic experience impossible, and it seems that this does not matter for the aristocracy. The English tourists in ARWAV are bound to their position unless they expel their preconceptions of the terrain upon which they wander, in search of evidence for their own idealised, fabricated space: a romantic yet violent, exotic yet civilised Italy that pertains to a vision that they long to see. And this is not such an action they choose, for their preconceptions are rooted in a greater agenda within which Italy is a tool. For Eleanor Lavish (Judi Dench), Italy is the blueprint of her upcoming novel, thus her conceptions are of commercial benefit. Characters’ view of Italy is always, willingly, tethered to their preconceptions, every moment charged with a bias that is either confirmed or contradicted. All experiences are measured against a touristic vision they have imagined or hoped for. They are either disappointed or gratified with all that they see, and both assume a preexisting vision, a vision that is exercised through the act of gazing.

A Room With A View (1986) dir: James Ivory
A Room With A View (1986) dir: James Ivory

The act of touristic gazing extends beyond the narrative and into cinematic reception. We too, as critic Ellen Strain names us ‘armchair travellers’, imagine what we see rather than experience it, or at least the filmmakers imagine for us. In ARWAV, Italy is not just a mise en scène as a touristic metaphor, but it is, of course, literally a mise en scène. This complicates where exactly our sympathies are directed, as they seem tethered to the English tourists and their vision of Italy, though it is clear that we are not to take their vision as reality. Yet, of course, the film is glorious to look at it, with abundant cinematography of rural and urban Italy. One then asks, does ARWAV‘s indulgently, beautiful construction merely constitute nostalgic, romantic filmmaking or does it quietly reinforce the film’s premise, including the audience in the role of touristic gazer? I think the latter is far more interesting to consider, and it does not exclude the former. We, as audience, don’t see Italy. We see Italy on film. And perhaps this vision is comparable, if not entirely similar, to the characters’ own satirised and detached gaze, their position as the indulgently naive voyeur.

If ARWAV is heritage cinema, it would be far less self-critical. If heritage cinema longs for nostalgia and commodifies itself as an agent of a simpler past, then ARWAV presents its antithesis. It presents a stock characterisation of the past. It’s a cartoon, not a fresco. It’s a mockery of Edwardian aristocracy. It plays with absurdity and with the rapid love often seen in the novels of Forster and Austen, noted influencers of the heritage movement.

ARWAV is inappropriate and ridiculous, unreal and lavish. It is not heritage cinema, rather, a union of convention and critique that doesn’t for a moment take itself too seriously.

the dizzyingly grotesque fabric of mulholland drive (2001)

Mulholland Drive(2001) dir. David Lynch. (left) Laura Harring (right) Naomi Watts
Mulholland Drive (2001) dir. David Lynch.

 

Everything contained within David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) seems ornamental and meticulously arranged, its creativity stylised with mystery at its core. Electricity whirs around every static object and every canned phrase, and its terrified audience is reminded that this is just a film, just a film, ‘just a tape’. As its narrative follows hopeful actress and amnesiac through fractured realities of Hollywood, Mulholland Drive becomes an apparition that progressively retracts further in on itself and away from its own construction of reality. And by the film’s end (also understood as its beginning), we arrive at its internal, twisted centre.

 

Though it presents a familiar devotion to insatiability and a fervency for neo-noir that characterises Lynch’s repertoire, Mulholland Drive is considered by some the apex of his career. Lynch rather consistently produces films which are distinctly hypnotic in their half-conscious, disorientating terrain, yet these qualities are especially refined in Mulholland Drive. Essentially, Mulholland Drive emphatically presents an exhibition of sacrifice that surpasses its precursors, a highly dramatised sacrifice of cinematic convention and narrative formula, made visible by its replacement with illogic, aesthetics and impulsion. Enervated and disturbed by this disorder, its audience uncovers something compellingly insidious that permeates and shapes the tangled, fatalistic lives of Betty/Diane (Naomi Watts) and Rita/Camilla (Laura Harring), though they aren’t ever certain to what exactly that something is.

 

Mulholland Drive (2001) dir. David Lynch. (left) Laura Harring (right) Naomi Watts
Mulholland Drive (2001) dir. David Lynch. (left) Naomi Watts (right) Laura Harring

 

It is both empty and overflowing, insufficient and intoxicating. Mulholland Drive illuminates an instability of perception, narratively and meta-cinematically, as its audience is pulled through a temporal and spatial kaleidoscope with unnerving rapidity. They are constantly tempted and perplexed; tempted by whatever is in that blue box, perplexed by the converging beginning and end, though both threads of speculation yield more unanswered questions.

 

it is a film,

it is grotesque,

it is abstract art

 

Theorising Mulholland Drive requires a process of abstraction. It is exhaustively unending, as affirmed by its cult following, to try and piece this film together in a way that mirrors our own conceptions of linearity and experience, and this is its ingenuity. Mulholland Drive doesn’t capture realism, rather it captures a perversion of realism and its uncharted spaces, along with its literal and continual assertion that it is a film, it is grotesque, it is abstract art.

Mulholland Drive experiments with technical and critical ideas of filmmaking, as Lynch dangles a narrative before his audience yet resists quenching their appetite for familiarity. He poses questions rather than answers, offers intrigue rather than information. Though to call this film a master of intrigue would inhibit its complexity, clamp its creative parameters. Rather, Mulholland Drive captures all that is excellent in filmmaking by honing in on its antithetical, darker ego. It robs its audience of security and linearity, it redefines how we consume film and generates a crowd of infiltrators who peer inside a private, perplexing game between Lynch and cinematic meaning.

 

Mulholland Drive (2001) dir. David Lynch
Mulholland Drive(2001) dir. David Lynch

the big lebowski (1998): the slacker and the spectator

Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski (1998)

Joel Coen’s The Big Lebowski (1998) exhibits an unusual strand of comic excellence. It’s part of the 90s emergence of film noir/ comedy, with Tony Scott’s True Romance (1993), Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994), and Coen’s own Fargo (1996) among its precursors. These films exist within a cinematic universe wherein criminality is distinguished with moments of high art cinematography and a consciousness of the spectacular, ridiculous nature of the fiction on screen. Where The Big Lebowski particularly succeeds is with its playful exaggeration, sensationalising its own hilarity with a nod to film noir and its own parodied version of its genre. Comedy definitely isn’t realism, though it often presents itself as such, with Jeff Bridge’s ‘The Dude’ as the ultimate, recognisable slacker.

“what are you talking about?”

It’s a question Jeff ‘The Dude’ Lebowski (Bridges) constantly asks Walter Sobochak (John Goodman), or whoever he is with, and one the audience asks too. With a consciously comic strategy, aligning a character’s confusion with the audience’s, Bridges’ character interacts with the audience in a way that is unusual in comedy. The Dude almost breaks the fourth wall yet doesn’t commit to such a generic convention. Rather, he speaks for us, not to us. Instead of looking out at his audience, reminding them of the often forgotten yet glaringly obvious aspect that they are watching a film, The Dude seems to acknowledge the film’s chaos in a way that obscures conventional comedy. He is more than a vehicle by which the comedy measures against his own reaction, and in turn, our own. The Big Lebowski‘s comic success acknowledges The Dude’s specific position as an outsider and spectator, visually and charismatically, as he peers inside a world of criminality.

Becoming more than the protagonist for his centrality to the plot, The Dude as a slacker is vital to the comic integrity of the film. Hilariously and famously underdressed in a robe and jelly sandals, the gag of the film is that Bridges’ character seems to deliberately embody someone who looks as though they’ve accidentally wandered onto the set of the film’s production.

Elements of accident and chance shape the film’s narrative and character arcs and add to the hilarity. With accident as its premise, the plot itself revolves around the hazardous confusion between Bridges’ character and another, far more affluent Jeff Lebowski. The Big Lebowski envisions a style of comedy that isn’t insular and self-contained, but one that flows off-screen with an unruliness that feels faultlessly improvised and hilariously unending and accidental.

This produced spontaneity is definitely not a criticism of the Coen brother’s expert story-writing, rather a seemingly impossible accomplishment within a genre of films that are so often garishly constructed and unbelievable.

The unbelievable aspect of The Big Lebowski isn’t the slacker and his spectatorship comedy, it’s the criminal world he completely juxtaposes yet finds himself inhabiting.

Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Big Lebowski (1998)
John Goodman and Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski (1998)

american dream and nightmare: suburbia in film

 

‘Little boxes on the hillside,

Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,

Little boxes on the hillside,  

Little boxes all the same.

There’s a green one and a pink one

And a blue one and a yellow one,

And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky,

And they all look just the same.’

                                                                             – Malvina Reynolds, 1962

As pro-suburban policies were launched in conjunction with a national construction program of 1945, suburbs sprouted all over America and increased the attainability of the American Dream. Surviving from frontier to front-line, this ethos saw nuclear families in pastel neighbourhoods supplanting the horrors of war with their picket fences, Tupperware parties, and flowerbeds.

William Levitt, hailed as the ‘father of suburbia’, developed a scheme with his firm Levitt & Sons that allowed them to build mass-producible and inexpensive housing for the flood of returning veterans in America. In the three separate developments of New York (1947-51), Pennsylvania (1952-58) and New Jersey (1958), the firm offered small houses that could be built in just one day. Despite the modern approach to assembly, the homes themselves strayed little from the conventions of house design upheld by Americans at the time. The structures were revolutionary in their construction, but nostalgia was manifest in their appearance. Within the settings of the ‘Colonial’ or ‘Ranch’ type, the lives of nuclear families were aided and improved by efficient, hygienic and top-of-the-range appliances. Returning from the horrors of war, the veterans were awarded with domesticity.

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A neighbourhood of Jubilee models, Levittown, Pennsylvania, c. 1953

However, due to the standardisation of the Levittown houses, the homogeneity of the streets became a popular criticism. As Levitt sorted his residents by income, each house-type was grouped by neighbourhood, rendering swathes of streets indistinguishable. The long history of racial segregation further upturns this narrative of a suburban utopia. The development in New York was founded on the basis that it was only available to white people alone. Indeed, this stipulation was written into the house contracts by Levitt stating, ‘no dwelling shall be used or occupied except by members of the caucasian race’. Sales agents were advised to turn away black families and automatically register their applications as unsuccessful. Even after the states enforced a non-discrimination law, sales agents located the black applicants away from their white neighbours. The homogeneity of the residents is thus facilitated by this aim to constitute a community with a specific racial identity.

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The suburban landscape of Levittown, New York, c. 1952

The little boxes of American suburbia are some of film’s most frequented locations, its homogeneity frequently rendering the protagonist or narrative as extraordinary in comparison. In films that centre around a singular character, think Carrie, Donnie Darko and The Truman Show, the protagonists display their deviation within a stifling suburban setting.

In Carrie (1976) (dir: Brian de Palma), the title character faces unanticipated menstruation, peer-bullying, and abuse from her Christian fundamentalist mother. Carrie Whites’s telekinetic powers are the ultimate deviation from the claustrophobic household and school her mother and peers respectively enforce. Following Carrie’s murderous revenge and the burning down of her house, the final scene begins with an opening shot of suburbia. Birds sing and the sun casts shadows on a manicured lawn. The scorched plot where the White house once stood is set up as its inverse. This contrast serves as a reminder of suburbia’s nightmarish potentiality, one that is shown in the final scene, to still haunt the sole survivor of Carrie’s rage.

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Carrie (1976) (dir: Brian de Palma)

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Carrie (1976) (dir: Brian de Palma)

In Donnie Darko (2001) (dir: Richard Kelly), suburbia is first introduced as a landscape of mundane yet tranquil normality. In the opening scene, Darko cycles through the streets, the camera panning to the morning joggers. Darko’s father is shown blowing leaves off his lawn, and his sister plays on a trampoline. Immediately Darko is set up as the anomaly – an adolescent who frequents a psychotherapist, disturbs classes, and treats his family with hostility. Again the underside of suburbia is unleashed. The tranquility first introduced is done away with by the end of the film and instead suburbia is set as the home of supernatural powers, multiple universes and sexual deviants.

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Donnie Darko (2001) (dir: Richard Kelly)

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Donnie Darko (2001) (dir: Richard Kelly)

In The Truman Show (1998) (dir: Peter Weir), suburbia is a simulation. As a product of a corporation, the life of Truman Burbank is broadcasted live around the world as reality entertainment. Here suburbia is not intended to be residential. Instead, cameras are hidden within each wall and suburbia is presented as the ultimate facilitator of voyeurism. When Burbank realises the reality of his situation, this realisation marks his deviation from the suburbia. He becomes transgressive, determined and defiant, assets the suburban simulation attempted to suppress.

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The Truman Show (1998) (dir: Peter Weir)

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The Truman Show (1998) (dir: Peter Weir)

The placidity regularly assigned to suburbia is exploited in the genre of horror. Films like Halloween (1978) (dir: John Carpenter) set the horrific actions of Michael Myers within the sleepy streets of Haddonfield. Get Out (2017) (dir: Jordan Peele) subverts this in the setting of the Armitage country-estate. However, despite its isolation, the systematic racism and manicured appearance of the estate seem Levittownian in their presentation.

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Halloween (1978) (dir: John Carpenter)

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Get Out (2017) (dir: Jordan Peele)

American Beauty (1999) (dir: Sam Mendes) has been described by critics as a satire of middle-class notions of beauty, sexuality, materialism and personal satisfaction. In the opening monologue, Lester Burnham introduces his suburban place of residence with contempt:

‘This is my neighbourhood. This is my street. This is my life. I’m 42 years old. In less than a year, I’ll be dead … And in a way I’m dead already’.

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American Beauty (1999) (dir: Sam Mendes)

Films like Edward Scissorhands (1990) (dir: Tim Burton) and The Virgin Suicides (1999) (dir: Sofia Coppola) use suburbia to emphasise the abnormality of their central storyline. In the former, Edward’s behaviour, appearance and physicality are stark contrasts to the pastel utopia of the suburb. As the film progresses, his disruption to the homogeneity of the community ultimately results in his eviction by mob force. In the 1999 film, it is the suicide of the youngest daughter that disrupts – the setting of suburbia heightening the atypicality of her action.

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Edward Scissorhands (1990) (dir: Tim Burton)

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The Virgin Suicides (1999) (dir: Sofia Coppola)

For Levitt, suburbia offered security. In film, that veneer is firmly pulled back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

a handpicked selection of the 2019 Academy Award nominees

 

Roma (2018) dir. Alfonso Cuarón

roma

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Yalitza Aparacio in Roma

nominated for:

Best Picture

Best Director (Alfonso Cuarón)

Best Actress (Yalitza Aparicio)

Best Supporting Actress (Marina de Tavira)

Best Original Screenplay (Alfonso Cuarón)

Best Cinematography (Alfonso Cuarón)

Best Foreign-Language Film (Mexico)

Best Sound Mixing (Skip Lievsay, Craig Henighan and Jose Antonio Garcia)

Best Sound Editing (Sergio Diaz and Skip Lievsay)

Best Production Design (Eugenio Caballero and Barbara Enriquez)

 

Cuarón’s vision of 1970s Mexico speaks to moments of the human condition with such devastation and simplicity that one is left rendered speechless by the time the credits roll. In the Roma district of Mexico, we watch Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and her occupation as a maid to a middle-class family (Marina de Tavira as matriarch) gradually and forcefully evolve into an endoscopic narrative of human interaction, loss, and displacement.

Historicized within the Corpus Christi Massacre (El Halconazo) of 1971, Roma expands an existing cultural image of a historical moment that, in turn, grants focus to the individual, placing identity and isolated moments of experience to the forefront of trauma and devastation: a perspective that rings with vitality in the faceless presentations of mass trauma serialised in the media. Its spaces are flooded with white heat and nostalgia for Mexican summer and unmediated expression, synchronising to voice Cleo’s experience and her personal orientation of trauma and devastation before we as audience become conscious of it ourselves.

Cuarón writes “When setting up Roma, I wasn’t concerned about narrative, I was concerned about memory…I was concerned about spaces, textures, and trusting that all of that together would interweave a narrative by itself…a cinematic narrative.” Collective, historical memory is redefined. Cleo becomes the vehicle by which Cuarón unravels ideas of the human condition, and we feel so deeply every second we are beside him.

metacritic score: 96

wasteland rating: 5/5

prediction:

  • winner of Best Picture

  • winner of Best Director (Alfonso Cuarón)

  • winner of Best Actress (Yalitza Aparicio)

  • winner of Best Foreign Language Film (Mexico)

  • winner of Best Cinematography (Alfonso Cuarón)

 

 

 

BlackKklansman (2018) dir. Spike Lee

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Laura Harrier and John David Washington in BlackKklansman

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(left) Adam Driver, (right) John David Washington in BlackKklansman

nominated for:

Best Picture

Best Director (Spike Lee)

Best Supporting Actor (Adam Driver)

Best Adapted Screenplay (Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee)

Best Original Score (Terence Blanchard)

Best Film Editing (Barry Alexander Brown)

 

The entertaining, partially biographical universe of BlackKklansman is formulaically comparable to the tale of a superhero. John David Washington plays protagonist/cop Ron Stallworth and the narrative revolves around his performative white identity and infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan, in which he imitates a white national socialist with the help of fellow officer Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver (nominated for Best Supporting Actor).

A lot of the BlackKklansman’s cultural gravitas does not rely on the violent crime-comedy aesthetic, of which the film presents in excess, but on the withstanding radicalism of being a black police officer in a time of police brutality. Watching in the context of movements such as Black Lives Matter, BlackKklansman expands the parameters of what we understand as the ‘historical film’, for its thematisation of race self-consciously and deliberately addresses the present with more vivacity than a comparison between two different epochs. We don’t draw a line between the history of then and now, we see moments as continued, repeated, speaking the same cultural language.

Spike Lee succeeds in transforming what feels like a graphic novel to the screen, and we are thoroughly entertained as we begin to unpack what is often presented to us as distant history in its memorialised representations, of the civil rights movement, the KKK, police brutality and systemic racism, reconsidered as contemporary realism.

metacritic score: 83

wasteland rating: 3.5/5

prediction:

  • winner of Best Adapted Screenplay

 

 

 

Cold War (2018) dir. Pawel Pawlikowski

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Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig in Cold War

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Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig in Cold War

nominated for:

Best Director (Pawel Pawlikowski )

Best Cinematography (Lukasz Zal)

Best Foreign-Language Film (Poland)

 

Pawel Pawlikowski fits a surplus of entertainment in the timeline of Cold War. Its rapidity is so sophisticated and endearing that we only notice how nuanced each frame is when it’s too late and we’re already absorbed in the next faultless moment.

There is a simultaneous amount of intensity and softness within its mastery, and this spreads into the romance narrative and its comedy. The dialogue feels stripped back, with every word bound exclusively to absolute truth and expression. We skip the trivialities with a wariness that we are missing them. Each moment feels meticulously planned yet also spontaneously, wildly authentic in equal measure.

metacritic rating: 90

wasteland rating: 4.5/5

 

 

 

The Favourite (2018) dir. Yorgos Lanthimos

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Rachel Weisz (left) and Olivia Colman (right) in The Favourite

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Emma Stone in The Favourite

nominated for:

Best Picture

Best Director (Yorgos Lanthimos)

Best Actress (Olivia Colman)

Best Supporting Actress (Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz)

Best Original Screenplay (Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara)

Best Costume Design (Sandy Powell)

Best Cinematography (Robbie Ryan)

Best Film Editing (Yorgos Mavropsaridis)

 

Guided by his (potentially too literal) playfulness with camera work, we view Yorgos Lanthimos’ construction of The Favourite, and everything it contains, with a clinical distance. Sobered of conventional character-audience empathy and intimacy, we find ourselves equipped to embrace the surrealism and demanded to reconfigure our relation as spectator with character and content. What is otherwise a narrative of sexual and power competitiveness between Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, winning the affections of the superb Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, becomes exponentially chaotic and disorderly at a pace that is both acclaimed and expected from Lanthimos’ films.

Lanthimos boasts his obscured, theatrical universe, our vision distorted by a fish-eye lens and very stylised mise en scène, and construes how we expect aristocracy and monarchy to be captured. We experience a disconnect between our expectations of a period film and Lanthimos’ reality, between convention and action and between camera and audience. We are, in watching, given the role of observer, to a comic exhibition of the eccentricity of people, or at least how Lanthimos imagines them.

metacritic score: 90

wasteland rating: 3.5/5

prediction:

  • winner of Best Original Screenplay

  • winner of Best Costume Design

 

 

 

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) dir. Barry Jenkins

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Kiki Layne and Stephan James in If Beale Street Could Talk

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Kiki Layne and Stephan James in If Beale Street Could Talk

Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk (nominee for Best Supporting Actress)
Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk (nominee for Best Supporting Actress)

nominated for:

Best Supporting Actress (Regina King)

Best Adapted Screenplay (Barry Jenkins)

Best Original Score (Nicholas Britell)

 

The fiction of essayist and novelist James Baldwin translated into cinema would never be anything short of exceptional. Whilst so much of If Beale Street Could Talk’s excellence is indebted to its actors (Best Supporting Actress nominee Regina King as one notable exemplar), what succeeds in the novel-turned-film is its inexorable power in amplification. Barry Jenkins holds a camera and a microphone to one of the loudest voices of twentieth-century literature, and Baldwin’s vision is only strengthened as it harmonises with Jenkins’ ingenuity.

metacritic score: 87

wasteland rating: 4.5/5

prediction:

  • winner of Best Supporting Actress (Regina King)

 

 

 

A Star is Born (2018) dir. Bradley Cooper

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Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born

nominated for:

Best Picture

Best Actress (Lady Gaga)

Best Actor (Bradley Cooper)

Best Supporting Actor (Sam Elliott)

Best Adapted Screenplay (Eric Roth, Will Fetters & Bradley Cooper)

Best Cinematography (Matty Libatique)

Best Original Song (“Shallow” Music and Lyric by Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando and Andrew Wyatt)

Best Sound Mixing (Tom Ozanich, Dean Zupancic, Jason Ruder and Steve Morrow)

 

Bradley Cooper’s modern addition to the remake-trilogy of A Star Is Born attempts to reimagine the same pop-culture, Hollywood infected version of what is essentially a rags-to-riches narrative, and a love story between artists Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) and Ally Campana (Lady Gaga). Although its aesthetic is often glorious with its de-chained exploration of nightlife in early scenes and of the expansive Arizona desert, A Star Is Born does somehow fall short.

It has been criticised for its undeniable tone of music elitism, a tone so all-consuming that we are supposed to identify career differences as a major cause of the issues between country rocker Jackson Maine and popstar-in-the-making Ally. It seems that popstar Ally cannot succeed without her personal life falling into disarray, and that she can only spiritually connect with her more alternative partner Jackson once her career comes to a halt. It’s unclear whether or not we are supposed to believe that Ally is fated to a downward spiral the more she conquers the mainstream music industry, but it seems implied.

Maybe there are some problematic ideas of gendered success to unpack here, directorial perspectives as well as protagonistic. But because A Star Is Born is ultimately devoted to showcasing the powerhouse of talent that is Lady Gaga, it can be pardoned, and if not pardoned then overlooked, even if only to allow more time spent celebrating the unrelenting musical and acting talent of Gaga. This film should be viewed as a celebration of Gaga, her extremely successful film debut through which she effectively manoeuvres a rather uninspired plot and carries much, if not all, the excellence of the film.

metacritic rating: 88

wasteland rating: 4/5

prediction:

  • winner of Best Original Song for “Shallow”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

girls in uniform (1931) in review: connecting sexuality to anti-authoritarianism

After its initial ban, in the 1970s Weimar film Mädchen In Uniform (1931) (dir: Leontine Sagan) was rediscovered by feminist critics who categorised it as an early ‘coming out film’. The narrative follows: a Prussian, authoritarian regime in an all-girls school for families with aristocratic or military backgrounds becomes inhabited by Manuela (Hertha Thiele), the ‘new girl’, who becomes, much like her female peers, besotted with their governess, Fräulein von Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck). Although it is comic, exciting and entirely female in its cast, some critics condemned its reliance on tropes such as experimental sexuality, unserious homosexuality, demonstrating little more than sororal affection and silliness. The queer romance of the film is most clearly identified in the unique relationship Fräulein von Bernberg begins with Manuela, as they exchange kisses and Manuela is gifted a petticoat, much to the jealousy of the other girls. Though much of the film is stylised with great affection for their relationship, their romance is obscured by their dynamic: teacher and student, a relation that is (rightfully) no longer romanticised by critics but criticised as an imbalance of power and of exploitation. Furthermore, their romance isn’t always clear, as it is often interpreted as maternal affection. There is much to be said regarding how their relationship is framed within such an ambiguous dynamic, and how a similar ambiguity is manufactured in the context of the film at large: as a commentary on anti-authoritarianism.

Using an entirely female cast of teachers and students, Mädchen unusually offers a multifaceted spectrum of femininity, showing women as varied in behaviour, attitude, age and position in relation to each other. We can compare the physical affections between girls compared to the boundaries of teachers who act coldly and militantly in their severity. The young girls celebrate rising body culture: they laugh and enjoy the sex appeal of American film stars and romantic novels, popular culture and jazz. They stand for a pro-Western attitude, representing the young Weimar generation in progressive ideas. They unite to form an embodied celebration of affection and sexual openness, contrasting the context of the strict regime of their environment, and of course, critiquing the growing national socialism outside the film.

It’s important to note that romance between women became accepted in film before it became acceptable between men. However, this is not a feminist marvel. Unlike men’s homosexuality, women’s homosexuality was (and often still is) softened, or pardoned, for being sweet, sororal and unthreatening to anything serious. This clear homophobia and erasure of women’s homosexuality is also closely connected to the eroticised image of homosexual intimacy between women, seen in centuries of art and literature, even by the supposedly most prudish epochs (see Victorian writer Christina Rossetti’s suggestively lesbian poem Goblin Market).  It seems, culturally, that deconstructing the monument of heteronormativity is less imposing, less damaging when it concerns women. This lends itself to such deeply rooted misogyny in how queer relationships between women are viewed, as erased of their validity under the guise of playful experimentation, or women viewed as sexed, affectionate creatures by nature. It seems it is men who are most instrumental to the ideas and preservations of sexuality and heteronormativity. In this forgotten place, in their liminal position, women’s sexuality is minor and discounted. Mädchen in Uniform attempts to expand this liminal space using the tool of ambiguity and complex power dynamics. It complicates female homosexuality even further than it already is using various hierarchical structures: woman and girl, teacher and student. Thus, it is often unclear how celebratory of queerness and homosexuality this film actually is, and if it isn’t, what does it celebrate instead?

Mädchen thematises and emphasises the role of affection and solidarity in the face of an authoritarian institute. Above its romantic narrative, there is a very real tension between regime and action, how the girls behave to combat their environment and how they behave in order to cope with it, as these behaviours are often one and the same. Perhaps their affection and queer behaviour are portrayed as merely reactive to, or at least highlighted by, the oppressive authoritarian ideas that govern their school, as homophobia is usually rife in authoritarian states. 

Mädchen is anti-authoritarian, but perhaps it can be better defined as a critique of authoritarian practices. It articulates a very specific political tension between the right and left poles of thinking and action. The girls, as the title states, are in uniform, sharing a unanimous, unexpressive identity. This anti-progressive image contributes to other militant images that frequent the film. The school’s headmistress, Fräulein von Nordeck zur Nidden (Emilia Unda), is figured as representative of the older generation, and thereby held in tension with progressivism. Cast as the villain for her caricaturesque portrayal of Prussian, traditional values, Nidden is shot with expressionist shadows cast across her face, contrasting the lightness and clarity in which Manuela and the girls are filmed. This deliberate light vs dark imagery represents the new cinematic movement of New Objectivity, bidding farewell to expressionism as a mode of the past and for Mädchen, a symbol of anti-progressive values.

Some critics have disagreed that Mädchen is anti-authoritarian; it’s important to note that Mädchen’s producer Carl Froelich went on to produce Nazi propaganda films. Aside from this clearly problematic association, the film itself, irrespective of its crew, does create scepticism surrounding its presentation of anti-authoritarian ideas firsthand. By the end of the film, after some plot filler including a metatheatrical performance of romance Don Carlos and an attempted suicide, little has changed by the time we arrive at the credits. The school’s regime is still in practice even after Manuela tries to commit suicide by throwing herself down a stairwell, symbolic of hierarchy and mobility in itself. Equally, throughout the film, we are given a humanisation of Bernberg, a romanticised teacher complicit in an institute of authoritarianism.

If one is to take anything away from Mädchen, other than its comedy and its basic celebration of sexually liberated women in all their variety and queerness, it is to note that homophobia is a crucial aspect of fascism. Mädchen closely predates the epoch in which male homosexuality entered the rhetoric of national socialism’s ideas of ‘man’ and masculinity, and homophobia remains one of the most weaponised aspects of patriarchal, oppressive states today. But perhaps, As Richard W. McCormick has said, these anti-democratic forces’ “defeat in this film, however momentary, is one that should cheer us all”.

a not-so-comprehensive A-Z of female directors and their highest rated films

In compiling this A-Z of female directors and their films, my measure of their credibility being only their average score from Metacritic’s algorithm, problems became manifest: taking the average reception of women’s films and summarising it as their critical consensus, as one example. Although this list is intentionally celebratory of women and their art, it is quite precarious in its function as it inevitably highlights women’s cultural deviation and separation from male directors and their work. But nevertheless, here it is.

It’s telling that most of the films listed are from the twenty-first-century, some are co-directed with men, and all are combatants in a system that explicitly, albeit ambiguously, omits women from directing. Only during the recent epoch of modern film can we see the rise of critical acclaim for women in the director’s seat. Naively, we might choose to believe this lends itself to the simple deduction that more women must be directing, that in the twenty-first-century opportunities are far more open and multiple, or even more naively, we might believe these opportunities have always been present and women before simply ‘chose not to’ take them. Here, it is worth noting that when I speak of these women, they are of course majoritively white, for there are far more complex and systemic exclusions at present for female filmmakers of colour.

More cynically (and more truthfully) the same number of women are directing as prior to the twenty-first-century but perhaps now they are (rarely and selectively) given a bigger budget, thus a higher chance at commercial success, meaning they are often paid more attention critically and commercially from the industry.  Yet even this is a rose-tinted vision of reality, for women are still routinely overlooked in creative direction, especially in the oligarchical, masculine system of filmmaking. We are still the audience to Man and his camera, Man and technology as two conflicting yet collaborative monuments of modernity, leaving no room for women and their visions except in front of the camera.

This list fails to be comprehensive, the alphabetical structure is a simplistic way to organise women’s films although it does, of course, naturally exclude fantastic directors of the same lettered surname as those listed. I think this list functions as a microcosm of the industry as it is represented at large, its algorithmic, commerical, fast-paced and bite-sized way in which the internet presents us with women’s film and its criticisms. Women’s films, and by this I mean their directors, are routinely subcategorised, subaltern and subdued. I am by no means trying to even begin surfacing the problems with modern cinema today regarding gender and binary identities that cinema seems to instrumentally reinforce (often with sincerity, as celebratory for example), but here it is, a not-so-comprehensive list of magnificent female directors and their highest rated films.

 

A. Gillian Armstrong ‘Little Women’ (1994)

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Score: 87

 

B. Kathryn Bigelow ‘The Hurt Locker’ (2009)

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Score: 94 (note: the highest rated film by a female director on Metacritic with 94)

 

C. Sofia Coppola ‘Lost in Translation’ (2003)

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Score: 89 (note: the 8th highest rated film by a female director on Metacritic)

 

D. Claire Denis ’35 Shots of Rum’ (2009)

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Score: 92 (note: the second highest rated film by a female director on Metacritic)

 

E. Nora Ephron ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ (1993)

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Score: 71 (note: the fifth highest grossing film by a female director on Metacritic)

 

F. Valerie Faris ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ (2006)

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Score: 80 (note: co-directed with a man)

 

G. Greta Gerwig ‘Lady Bird’ (2017)

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Score 94: (special note: second highest rated film, directed by a man or woman, of 2017, according to Metacritic)

 

H. Courtney Hunt ‘Frozen River’ (2008)

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Score: 82

 

J. Tamara Jenkins ‘The Savages’ (2007)

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Score: 85

 

K. Karyn Kusama ‘The Invitation’ (2016)

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Score: 74

 

L. Kátia Lund ‘City of God’ (2002)

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Score: 79 (note: co-directed with a man)

 

M. Lucrecia Martel ‘The Headless Woman’ (2009)

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Score: 81

 

N. Mira Nair ‘The Namesake’ (2007)

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Score: 82

 

P. Nina Paley ‘Sita Sings the Blues’ (2010)

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Score: 94 (joint highest rated film by a female director on Metacritic.)

 

R. Kelly Reichardt ‘Old Joy’ (2006)

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Score: 84

S. Shari Springer Berman ‘American Splendor’ (2003)

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Score: 90 (note: co-directed with a man.)

 

T. Nora Twomey ‘The Secret of Kells’ (2010)

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Score: 81 (note: co-directed with a man.)

 

V. Agnès Varda ‘Faces Places’ (2017)

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Score: 94