Thursday 30 November 2017

Defending Cinephilia (2) - Rod Bishop finds virtues among little seen elements of the Australian cinema

Best viewing:
Australian films
Tanna (Martin Butler, Bentley Dean) and Lion (Garth Davis) held their own with the rest of the world - the latter also proving valuable for conversations with Indian taxi-drivers when cricket talk is exhausted.

I caught up with the excellent Pawno (Paul Ireland) on DVD but the most underrated local film in years, and both the best documentary and best film I saw this year, was Putuparri and The Rainmakers (Nicole Ma).

Back in 2008, the National Museum of Australia held a wonderful Indigenous exhibition. One painting, The Ngurrara Canvas II (1997) was a spectacular 80 square metres and painted by 40 native title land claimants for whom English is not their first language. The traditional lands they claimed are the size of Tasmania and lie along The Canning Stock Route, a 1,850 km cattle drive that was once the longest stock route in the world.

The canvas was used to help determine native title. Following is a photograph of The Canning Stock Route, the way non-Indigenous people see it.

And below is The Ngurrara Canvas II, the near horizontal line two-thirds of the way down the painting is the only Western feature - it’s The Canning Stock Route.

All the rest are map paintings by the painters showing features of their lands.Top of Form It’s hardly surprising after viewing the canvas, their land claims were granted in 2007.
Chinese-born Nicole Ma took 10 years to make Putuparri and The Rainmakers. The story of The Ngurrara Canvas II is perfectly interwoven with the journey of Putuparri Tom Lawford, a Kimberley Wangkajunga man who takes his grandparents back to country to find Kurtal, a waterhole on their traditional lands off The Canning Stock Route, where they are able to enact rituals and make rain. Putuparri’s story is every bit as profound (and profound is not used lightly here) as The Ngurrara Canvas II*. It’s a film that will change the way you look and believe. And I didn’t see too many of those this year.

Putuparri and the Rainmakers

*The artists decided the first Ngurrara Canvas, a mere 50 square metres, was too small for their purposes. That painting now resides in the National Gallery of Australia.

Most worrying aspect of long form TV series:
When Michelle Dockery first appears in Godless, you can’t help thinking “It’s Lady Mary!”. And every time it looks like she might bonk Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) you feel like warning him: “A bloke she bonked in the first series of Downton Abbey died of a heart attack during the event”.

Much the same happens with Kyle Chandler. How can he be a convincing killer cop in Bloodline, when he’s always going to be that nice Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights?

Damon Herriman, Top of the Lake: China Girl
Aussie Damon Herriman has the same problem. He’s a very talented actor (check out his short but brilliant performance in Top of the Lake: China Girl), but for me he’s just moonlighting and needs to go back to his day-job as Dewey Crowe in Justified.

Best TV series that drove me to drink:
No contest here, after a couple of episodes of the 18-hour The Vietnam War (Ken Burns and Lynn Novick), we brought out the scotch for the remainder.

Best music docos:
The series that made me wish I’d taken The Grateful Dead more seriously these past 52 years was Long Strange Trip (Amir Bar-Lev) and John Scheinfeld’s Chasing Trane was the doco that made me realize what a marvelous human being John Coltrane had been.

Worst duds:
Agree completely with Adrian Martin  – Get Out and The Beguiled, but I’d add two Werner Herzog catastrophes, Salt and Fire and Queen of the Desert.

Most expensive dud:
Again, no contest - Bladerunner 2049.

Worthy mentions:

Kaili Blues
The Wachowskis’ LGBT culture in Sense 8 (all series and the Christmas special); the Istanbul cats of Kedi (Ceyda Torun); James McAvoy in Split (M. Night Shyamalan) and the promising virtuosity of Kaili Blues (Gan Bi).

Latin-American Film Festival - Barrie Pattison reviews ONE NIGHT OF LOVE (Hernán Guerschuny, Argentina, 2016)

SLAFF's Argentinian Una noche de amor/One Night of Love directed by Hernán Guerschuny starts nicely with titles (couldn't see whether they were by the same guys as did Permitidos?) filmed downwards on shaven headed Sebastián Wainraich driving a red kiddie car around stops on a play mat. They pick up on this later in the film with drone shots of his full size car in the night time traffic. 

Writer Wainraich’s going on a night out with blonde wife of twelve years Carla Peterson, having parked the kids with mum Soledad Silveyra. Then they get the call telling them that the couple they were about to join have split up. This makes their night chaotic as they take sides with the separated partners, find problems with the staff at the restaurant, where they only need a table for two after reserving four. (The waiter chases them into the street but it’s only to return Peterson’s red cell phone) They argue with a taxi driver, an unsolicited car minder and the parking attendant who Wainraich bribes to let him rough him up to impress Peterson. They go to a party and mix with irritatingly jolly well off business associates and by now we are getting real bored with our dual protagonists. They’re not witty enough to be Woody Allen characters or glamorous enough to be Romcom leads.

However the piece has a design that hasn’t been obvious to this point. Apart in the street-lit night, Wainraich has an fantasy of a being paired with the appealing young neighbour and snaps out of that. Again with Peterson he realises that the children he didn’t want and now dominate their lives he can’t imagine living without.

The leads are personable enough but their TV background hasn’t delivered them the assurance to head up one of these. A few nice touches like the kids sprawled out, cut to the similar disorder of  fruit salad on a bench, or the couple’s romantic moves frustrated by seat belts. Details are exactly chosen - the Sinatra “The Way You Look Tonight” CD that his car stereo has been mangling or the joke of the Clintons pulling into a service station and finding one of her old flames pumping gas. Bill turns round and says "That's what you would have married." Hilary replies "If I'd married him, he'd be president of the United States." 

The film’s interest is that it is delivering elements that are familiar in a way suggests more reality than we are used to seeing - and about time. I was beginning to wonder whether my curiosity about Argentinian film was misplaced.

Tuesday 28 November 2017

Defending Cinephilia 2017 (1) - Adrian Martin leads off: Five Things that Defended Cinephilia in 2017, or: What Would Sylvia Make of It?

1. When Geoff Gardner reminded me that it was time for this year’s traditional Film Alert “Things That Defended Cinephilia” column, I had just heard the sad news of Sylvia Lawson’s death. Remembering her put me in a cautious state, for if there was one thing that unfailingly set off Sylvia’s alarm bell, it was precisely the uncritical celebration of cinephilia or ‘movie love’ – a love-fest that amounted, in her eyes, to something insular, self-satisfied, too little engaged with urgent, social realities. Sylvia did not spare me, after hearing my talk at the Film and History conference of 2006 in Melbourne, her withering critique: “You’re wasting your time on this cinephilia stuff, Adrian, when there are so many more important things to explore and discuss!”

Sylvia Lawson
By the same token, Sylvia was herself a fervent cinephile! And she was ever ready to completely flip her polemic about movie-obsession – depending on whom she was talking to, and where. (Acute sensitivity to the socio-political make-up of audiences and venues – a trait she shared with her friend, John Flaus – was the topic and substance of one of her finest essays, “Pieces of a Cultural Geography”, in a 1987 issue of The Age Monthly Review.) I have often quoted her pithy, fighting words from a early 1990s Modern Times review of Dennis O’Rourke’s The Good Woman of Bangkok, this time addressed to righteous, lefty types who didn’t (in her view) care enough about film form: "It simply isn't possible to talk sensibly about a film anywhere without discussing the sounds and images it's made of”. That was Sylvia, bless her soul: telling the cinephiles they didn’t know enough about reality, and then telling the sociological politicos they didn’t know enough about cinema.

Sylvia was no film snob. She appreciated the difficult, experimental side of Chris Marker or Jean-Luc Godard, but she also knew how to value the entertainment punch of Woody Allen. She treasured every kind of small, marginal, against-all-odds triumph in independent, indigenous or political cinemas; but she also appreciated the no-expense-spared thrill of a good, clever, well-achieved, mainstream flick. That’s what made her a great film critic, off and on, from the early 1960s to just recently.

So I am devising this list while wondering, at every point: what would Sylvia make of it? What would she make of what I consider the sublime ‘political entertainments’ of 2017: Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama and Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit? They are two very different cases: Bonello treats the hot-button topic of terrorism in a perfectly formed genre piece, citing as his inspiration films like the original The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974); while Bigelow consolidates her knight’s-move away from genre and into a kind of realist reportage, merging detailed research with a you-are-there, immersive naturalism. Yet the two films join at the point where a strong dose of cinematic thrill serves to deliver a powerful message or (to say it better) form an unforgettable kind of gesture. The type of cultural gesture Sylvia might have appreciated  – or at least felt compelled to take issue with.

2. There’s no secret about the key cinephilic event of 2017: it was David Lynch & Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks: The Return, all 18 episodes of it, hands down. Lynch pulled off something extraordinary here: while remaining 100% true to his own, inner ‘universe’ as a poetic artist, he also managed to completely redefine and redirect the medium of serial, long-form, television fiction. But only time will tell how many are brave enough to follow his example, according to their own visions. And it’s not as if he is entirely alone, out there in TV land: out of all the fine things one could catch on the small screen in 2017, I cite only the incredible turn into drama engineered by Rachel Bloom & Aline Brosh McKenna in episode 5, season 3 of the sublime Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: a twist which took me back as a viewer, literally 40 years, to the gaping, feminist despair of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. (By the way, that special Crazy Ex episode was directed by an Aussie VCA graduate, Stuart McDonald.)

3. “Part IV: Cinephilia Revisited” in Barrett Hodsdon’s long-awaited book The Elusive Auteur: The Question of Film Authorship Throughout the Age of Cinema (McFarland) has a particularly wonderful section: “Recapturing the Sublime Moment: A Spectrum of Films”. Hodsdon’s argument is passionate (moreover, I agree with it): what cinephiles value as sublime, rapturous, ephiphanic moments in cinema are not accidental, excessive, or purely the creation of our viewer-subjectivities: they are structured, formed, layered and co-ordinated by great filmmakers. A spectrum that ranges from Morocco and The Awful Truth to Il Grido and Contempt: Hodsdon’s cinephile canon is a truly congenial one.

4. I didn’t get to many film festivals this year, but I did manage to get to launch-stage with two projects I have been dragging around for over 20 years: a bunch of ‘collected essays 1982-2016’ that will appear next year from Amsterdam University Press as Mysteries of Cinema (the title is a Ruiz homage, naturally); and my ongoing, online archive of film reviews and short essays, Film Critic: Adrian Martin ( – which you, too, can support, for $1 a month or more, so much more, at Make this Internet democracy thing work, people! My future as a freelance cinephile depends on it.

5. Apart from the titles already mentioned, here’s what I most liked seeing and hearing in 2017: Marco Bellocchio’s hallucinatory melodrama Sweet Dreams; Walter Hill’s superb The Assignment, which was buried even faster by the Court of Public Opinion than Nocturama; the Dardennes’ The Unknown Girl, a return to form after the disappointing Two Days, One Night; Matias Piñeiro’s delightful Hermia & Helena; Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s brilliantly crafted Creepy (Cristina Álvarez López and I made an audiovisual essay about it here at mubi.)

Best Australian Films: Alena Lodkina’s debut feature, Strange Colours; Bill Mousoulis’ Songs of Revolution.

Most Overrrated: Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Lamest: Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled.

Two Best Films of 2017 I Haven’t Yet Seen: Philippe Garrel’s Lover for a Day, and Joseph Kahn’s Bodied. Best Film of 2018 That Hasn’t Even Been Finished: Brian De Palma’s Domino.

© Adrian Martin, November 2017