Tuesday, May 26, 2009
via Atlas Film
By Daniel Greenwood
This review wants a new sub-genre in American cinema.
OK, let’s invent a new sub-genre, or at least give this type of film a name: ‘Hollyosophy’ (it’s that or else Phillywood, Sophwood, or Philosowood, the last of which sounds like the soon-to-be-leaked sex tape of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir). What is Hollyosophy? It’s a strain of philosophical Hollywood movies, it’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004), The Science of Sleep (Michel Gondry, 2006), The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998), Synecdoche, New York. It’s a cluster of films interested in the nature of reality, linked by director Michel Gondry, Charlie Kaufman as writer, or Jim Carrey as the baffled lead. These films are often silly but thoughtful Hollywood movies which, with the help of computer generated imagery, fit into a neat, Hollyosophical package. It’s Socrates in sneakers, Nietszche in négligé (which gives new meaning to the ‘Freudian slip’). But Synecdoche, New York is a Foucault fart.
What Gondry and Kaufman nailed, Hollyosophically, in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was visually-compelling mainstream thought-house cinema with the pseudo-indie sexiness of Kate Winslet and Kirsten Dunst, along with mondo-protagonist Jim Carrey. It’s also rather heartfelt and pretty, it made many a man reach for the sugar paper and pritt-stick. There was a gorgeous tune from pre-Scientology Beck, too: ‘Everyone’s got to learn sometime,’ was the refrain.
Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theatre director convinced that he’s dying, so much so that Charlie Kaufman, director of Synecdoche, New York, allows us to inspect his hero’s poo. Subsequently, the murky shade of Caden’s poop is an aspect of Kaufman’s rather polluted mise-en-scene. Indeed, Kaufman exploits the physical unattractiveness of Caden (arguably a near-perfect rendition of himself, directorially) by filming in near constant close-up. A sense of claustrophobia comes through in admiring the new-to-Kafka Hazel (Samantha Morton), the vacant-to-starry-eyed Michelle Williams as Claire Keen, and Seymour Hoffman’s paunch.
Caden’s complaining is successful on two fronts: alienating Adele (Catherine Keener) and thus his darling daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) (all the way over to Berlin), and secondly in getting beautiful younger women interested in him, namely Claire and Hazel. Caden’s lamentable woes are less from his own loneliness (which he tirelessly, forever underlines) and more his struggles with women: romantically with Morton, artistically with Williams, and emotionally with Adele. Though most damning is Olive’s disappearance with her mother, and her ‘conversion’ to Lesbianism at the age of ten by Adele’s Nabokovian chum Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Seymour Hoffman’s Caden never learns, though. Unlike Carrey’s non-diegetic interior muttering in Eternal Sunshine, Caden never shuts up, there’s no measure to his flagrantly self-absorbed moaning. This probably is intended, but it’s just such a drag. Kaufman and Seymour Hoffman have created a really irritating character, but can you criticise them for that? It’s not a rhetorical question because I don’t know. Do you know? It might be a brilliant performance from Seymour Hoffman, and, via The Savages, he’s fine-tuned the moaner, down from somewhat likeable to entirely annoying. But even if his performance as a douche-bag is convincing, there are real problems with the latter stages of Synecdoche, New York in terms of coherence.
One thing clear enough in reading Synecdoche, New York textually is the magnitude of narrative threads running through it, if not the film’s attempt to regurgitate minor events. Caden tries to reconstruct his life, his many loves and apparent losses, in a gigantic old hangar. The sprawling mess of a ‘play’ never meets its audience in the conventional sense. It remains a work in progress for over seventeen-years. This plot line will signal, for much of its audience, the movie’s descent into nonsense. Kaufman has created what some might call a masterpiece, whereas others might question the obstinate second half that completely belies the notion of film as mild entertainment.
The Russian director Andrei Tarkvosky claimed that Robert Bresson was his favourite filmmaker because he achieved simplicity in cinema. What would Tarkovsky (or indeed Bresson) make of a movie like Synechdoche, New York. The little Tarkovsky in my head would comment on the nationality of the filmmaker and its lead, and call this a very American style of filmmaking. Aspects of self-indulgence are what Tarkovsky disliked about cinema most of all and he didn’t even have to contend with sexy blockbusters, he didn’t live to see the nineties. Tarkovsky’s public writings on film advise budding filmmakers to let the images speak for themselves, rather than trying to make a point, or the director desperately expressing an opinion. He believed you should present an event as clearly and plainly as you can, just as short story writer Anton Chekhov once told his chum Gorky not to write that ‘the waves crashed against the beach as if in anger’, or ‘the rain fell like tear drops’. The idea is that images have connotations all on their lonesome. So, Chekhov or Tarkovsky would probably cuss Kaufman out. Though not really.
But what’s the point in bringing up dead artists and comparing them to Synecdoche, New York? It’s an attempt to get some sort of cultural or philosophical (rather than Hollyosophical) perspective on the clutter amassed by Charlie Kaufman towards the end of his film. It might just be that here is the sort of film which is a bi-product of a self-obsessed age. I’m talking about this age, the one we live in right now, where many of us are in constant, artificial self-reflection. The idea that the internet, for example, has improved the quality of our social or individual lives is, IMO, false. There are many Caden Cotards among us, inspecting a different kind of poop, the kind smeared over interfaces or ‘walls’ as they’re called. And in the event of this constant, meticulous self- and physical-examination – am I good enough, am I hairy enough, am I too quiet? – is that you become a mini-pervert who makes bubbling boils of bug-bites and a cavernous wound of a splinter. LOL.
Generally, Kaufman’s Hollyosophy provides laughs with Caden’s uber-self-awareness, but these chuckles aren’t enough come the 120 minute mark. And in Synecdoche, New York’s case, it was a point ushered in with a painstaking sigh.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
via Ragged Words
Release Date: 4 May 2009
Record Label: Dead Oceans
In Three Words: Docile No Longer
Ragged Rating: 3.5/5
By Daniel Greenwood
Set your eyes upon any British mid-to-high-brow music publication nowadays and you’ll find a record reviewed under the branding of ‘Freak-Folk’. This term haunts British music journalists grappling with the ingenuity of New Weird America imports such as Joanna Newsom and Animal Collective. In actual fact, the term ‘Freak-Folk’ is as redundant (however much recycled) as the newly-fashionable Shoegaze re-branding of any old British band putting out a sophomore record with mild attention to guitar effects.
For artists like Akron/Family or Six Organs of Admittance – very different really, but both American and folk-influenced to some degree – it’s less about genre and more a fascination with the relationship between modern America and the vast wilderness it once was. On Akron/Family’s latest record, Set ‘em Wild, Set ‘em Free, the relationship between man and the earth he sprang from is very much advanced – there’s guilt there. ‘Everyone is Guilty’ is a giddy and choppy slice of single material in which the band manage to sum-up the general disorientation that clouds the issue of humans destroying their natural surroundings. And the strings that close the track are just as ambiguous, either signalling a joyous discovery of truth (we are guilty, and we have a chance to change things) or else a tired, saddened release of breath (no one cares, and thus are we doomed). ‘River’ could be an ode to a lost love or a faith flinching: “You are no longer a river to me/…Though your coursing remains.” It’s a beautiful track, too.
One thing clear about Set ‘em Wild is the band’s desire to rock-out. Though, arguably, the blistering switch midway through ‘Gravelly Mountains of the Moon’ disrupts the latter progress of the album. But then again, this is what Akron/Family want to do, they want to experiment further with styles and structure, and they succeed in doing so. But that ‘coursing’ remains, and maybe the band’s experimentation this time (discounting their magnificent self-titled work in 2004) has made freakish the many sumptuous melodies bleeding from this record.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
via Atlas Film
By Daniel Greenwood
This review eventually gets monetary.
The Coen brothers’ now infamous No Country for Old Men has perhaps the greatest opening forty-minutes in modern American cinema. It’s not unlike that of No Country’s Oscar competitor There Will be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007). Both movies begin out there on the carn-darn American frontier, the wilderness that Christopher Columbus parked his gosh-darn boat on back in the day. Each opening is slow and seductive, with Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview in There Will be Blood digging for oil, and No Country for Old Men’s Josh Brolin as Llewelyn Moss, passing across the land to discover a scene of post-drugs-gang-carnage-warfare. [P.S. notice how only recently does the Western world care about Mexicans dying if it's in the form of a virus that might bother us over here, rather than the hundreds of grizzly, drugs-related killings that make up a far more serious epidemic]. The cinematography that constructs this sequence early in No Country is the spellbinding element. Instead of a constant shot-reverse-shot between Brolin’s stunned-expression!!!1! and the mutilated face of a corpse (Goonies-esque), the Coens allow their camera to linger, and the microphones pick up the buzzin’ flies milling around the feast of rotting flesh both human and canine.
The starkest of images here is Brolin’s Llewelyn happening upon a theoretical Garden of Eden away from the scene of the shoot-out. A solitary tree sits atop a barren knoll, a figure slumped against its stump. Upon closer inspection – and these opening scenes really are a case of closer inspection for both protagonist and spectator – the figure has bled to death, and at his feet is Llewelyn’s very own barrel of oil. Inside the briefcase is a stash of cash which he makes off with, but hidden amidst these dollars is a tracking device. This device directs none other than Satan himself, Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh, on Llewelyn’s trail. Bardem’s performance is a debut for many of us, an introduction to this quite brilliant actor. Here he’s a resigned but quietly deranged George Clooney, kind of handsome in that death is sexy style. But death ain’t sexy. It’s explicitly violent in this country minus old men and the killings are numerous.
Tommy Lee Jones is the sheriff of the frontier (Ed Tom Bell) having to clean up after these pests, and he’s altogether more resigned than Bardem the executioner. Indeed, Bell’s significance is his retrospective role in the film, not as a storyteller, but as the sigh that comes after the fact. Perhaps the film is titled after him, and in a land where violence reigns, what can an old man do but take off his hat and sit on down. The police here are useless, they’re brutalised by Bardem. The concept of police enforcement is undermined by the idea that the only way they could ever actually enforce law is by matching the brutality of the drugs cartels and rogue killers such as Bardem. But it’s also a matter of money, and in No Country for Old Men, money does more than talk – it gets every crazy mother after you – and in the end it gets you killed.
But what is money, really. For those among us who’ve had problems getting even basic employment in the past twelve-months, it’s something we’re not privy to, but are willed by our peers to discuss at length. In one painstaking and baffling advert for vodka that’s currently doing the rounds, its soundtrack claims that ‘money makes the world go round’, against images of cinema-goers kissing the cheeks of ticket sellers. Money, like the internet, is 24-hours. You can get it out at a cash point – if you have some – at 3am in the morning, you don’t have to wait for the bank manager to open his doors the next day. In fact, with a certain credit card conglomerate’s campaign to convince the public (with tongue-mildly-in-cheek) to forget about physical money altogether, finance has become a figment of my imagination. The job you work is worked only on the grounds that you have faith in your employer’s promise to buffer your invisible account with invisible monies witnessed, nowadays, as pithy digits through a smudged and smashed cash machine screen (thanks, Hard-Fi). But, if Joel and Ethan Coen teach us anything, it’s that the banker ain’t the wanker, I am. All the problems encountered with money are there because I choose to participate in an advanced-Capitalist society. Idiot. Though of course No Country for Old Men is far more entertaining and Oscar-worthy than the rant above.
Saturday, May 02, 2009
via The Observer
Daniel Greenwood, Observer reader
Having lost the spine of our side to serious injury, it's unthinkable that Everton are sitting sixth in the table with an FA Cup final to look forward to. In recent years, our season has closed with the quiet seal of European football, a modest achievement that gives David Moyes's boys the games to develop, both on the continent and at home. Sadly, going into the Sunderland fixture, there is a blanket of cloud cast over the club. To lose Yakubu in November to an achilles injury was shocking, though Tim Cahill has filled the void and was a decent outside bet for FA player of the season. To lose Mikel Arteta was worse – where would the guile come from without the Basque? The answer: everywhere. However, with last Saturday came a telling blow, a stinking awful injury to Jagielka. But Jags has played his part this season, and, knowing Everton, I won't rule out another dynamic response from this unbreakable squad of players. We are on the up, and in Moyes we trust.
Due a big game: Jo - It's only because the lad's had a lack of games with stipulations and whatnot. I like him, but he'll prove pricey to retain next season.