Sunday 31 December 2017

Defending Cinephilia (11) - Cinephile Jake Wilson strays off some beaten tracks to find his highlights

Terence Davies
1. In a year of groupthink ― on every side, and at every level―the antidote could be found in two portraits of extreme individualists, who were also two of the best-known recluses in American history: Terence Davies' A Quiet Passion, with Cynthia Nixon all exposed nerves as Emily Dickinson, and Warren Beatty's Rules Don't Apply, with Beatty tweaking his own progressive admirers as far-right tycoon Howard Hughes. 

Warren Beatty
From a common-sense perspective these films couldn't be further apart: A Quiet Passion proposes that an outwardly tranquil, chaste existence can be as intense and fraught as any other, while Rules Don't Apply glories in Hughes' reputation as a seducer to rival Beatty himself. Still, both are reckless acts of imaginative identification, rooted in the unfashionable notion that the only creed or code worth having is a personal one.

2. While cinema had a lot of competition this year, most of the larger spectacle that gripped us all was more depressing than pleasurable. That said, the continued potency of old-fashioned live TV was demonstrated when a typically dreary Academy Awards ceremony descended into farce―a moment of catharsis to delight viewers across the planet, with Beatty, still in the performance-art mode of Rules Don't Apply, as the instrument if not the deliberate instigator. “To hell with dreams,” the crucial line from Barry Jenkins' subsequent acceptance speech for Moonlight, might be the greatest four words ever spoken at the Oscars.

Donald Trump
Dominating everything, of course, was the tragicomic reality show Trump in the White House,     supple-mented later in the year by Harvey Weinstein's appearance in a remake of Beauty and the Beast less sugarcoated than either Disney version, the pilot of a series destined to run and run. This last development had nothing and everything to do with cinephilia, forcing attention to some unpleasant truths about how movies are made and to the question of exactly what and who might be worth defending. Where Weinstein's downfall is a blessing on all fronts, I hope we're given the chance to make up our own minds about I Love You, Daddy―the last we're likely to hear in a while from the disgraced Louis CK, a major talent whose 2016 web-series Horace and Pete, an unsparing allegory about the inevitable collapse of patriarchy, now resonates more than ever.

The Emoji Movie
3. Hollywood's own collapse is probably still decades away, but there's no doubt the magic is fading: even the most sophisticated new blockbusters, like Blade Runner 2049 or The Last Jedi, depend on spells that lessen in power each time they're cast. For now, most of the liveliness in American pop culture is on the fringes, in parodies that flaunt their cynicism and inauthenticity, drawing one way or another from the online realm which supplies our most plausible glimpses of the future. In this field, everybody's touchstones will be different: mine include Tony Leondis' dystopian The Emoji Movie, Joseph Kahn's playfully de-stabilising Taylor Swift music videos, and Tyler MacIntyre's Marquis de Sade update Tragedy Girls, a celebration of youthful evil at least as audacious as Bertrand Bonello's Nocturama.

Landscape from Lower Parel
4. At the Mumbai Film Festival in October, I spend ninety minutes being ferried across town in heavy traffic and arrive late for CCTV Landscape From Lower Parel, an “expanded cinema” presentation by the local artists' collective Camp―part of the festival's The New Medium strand, which also includes a wide-ranging retrospective of found footage films (or, as curator and Camp member Shaina Anand prefers to say, simply “footage films”). The venue for the presentation is a multiplex cinema on the upper level of a shopping complex in a converted textile mill; Anand and her colleagues take turns reading from a prepared text about the history of the area, while the screen shows live images from a remotely controlled security camera mounted on the roof.

The camera pans and zooms over the surrounding terrain, including the streets and buildings I glimpsed on the drive over: miming trajectories described in the text (like the descent of a hot air balloon), singling out tiny figures on rooftops or in office windows, following birds across the sky. It's a simple but powerful way of highlighting the omnipresence of surveillance in the modern city: when an audience member raises concerns about privacy, Anand points out that each of us would have been filmed by multiple security cameras on our way into the theatre. It's also the realisation of a seemingly impossible cinephile dream: that of simultaneously remaining safe in the theatre and existing inside a movie that comes into being as you watch.

David Lynch
5. At the risk of indulging in groupthink myself, I can only echo the testimony of other contributors to this series: Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks. For all the good writing which the long-awaited third season has already sparked, no critic can hope to illuminate more than a fraction of David Lynch's unfathomable masterpiece, whether they concentrate on the elusive big picture or on the sheer strangeness―in conventional terms, the wrongness―of Lynch's tiniest directorial choices. Almost in passing, the show annihilates all remaining distinctions between film and television, as well as those between high and low culture: quite literally, it's both an epic of avant-garde cinema and a TV soap opera, and almost everything in between.

There is not much I can helpfully add, except that the entire Peaks saga―three seasons to date, plus the 1992 big-screen prequel Fire Walk With Me―demands to be viewed as a single, open-ended work. If you're coming to it fresh, your best bet is to start with the 1990 pilot and keep going right on through, ignoring whatever you may have heard about the supposed weaknesses of the second season. Pack provisions, bring a friend, and try to stay ready for anything. Be warned, though: once you enter these woods, you may not want to get out.

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