Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Secret Life of Resurgent Aliens

‘The Secret Life of Pets’ tells the story of how an unwanted rabbit, radicalised by a revolutionary dialectic, attempts to lead a sewer-based uprising but, haunted by the memories of fallen comrades, is driven to increasingly psychotic behaviour; how his mission is further compromised by the bumbling intervention of two temporary refugees from the bourgeoisie; and how, after a ruinous alliance with a group aligned to different priorities, he finally succumbs to the comforts of that which he professes to hate. This is, of course, disguised by the framing story of how a handful of mismatched but ultimately cute domesticated pets have an adventure as they cross the city in search of their missing friends, but those of us trained in analysing the subtext of U-rated animations will immediately realise what it's really about.

‘Independence Day: Resurgence’ tells the story of how some studio money-men basically recycled most of the iconic bits from the original but without replicating that film’s sense of gee-whiz entertainment, because hey it worked for ‘The Force Awakens’ so fuck you, audience, just hand over your hard-earned.

Ultimately, both films would have been immeasurably improved by being edited into a single entity wherein grudge-bearing aliens get their second twatting in twenty years, but this time by a rabbit with a hair-trigger temper and a love of pyrotechnics. It still wouldn’t have been as good ‘Zootroplis’, but meh.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Coming attractions

Gastone Moschin wants a word. He’s aware that it’s been small beer on The Agitation of the Mind recently. But he has bigger fish to fry than the one-a-week musings on the latest releases. Gastone wasn’t happy about last year’s Winter of Discontent. Four reviews. Four fucking reviews? Gastone advised your humble blogger that he had about three seconds to explain otherwise I’d be wearing the J&B instead of drinking it.

The facts of the matter are banal in the way that evil is always banal. I’d started last year’s Winter of Discontent – this blog’s annual celebration of all things exploitative, venal, cynical and sexually objectified – in high spirits. I had a whole slate of movies lined up. Then the coterie of Oxbridge entitled pig-fucking bully-boys otherwise known as the Conservative Party decided they wanted to bomb Syria. Because, hey, what better way to stem the immigrant (or, as I prefer to call them, refugees) crisis than to displace entire swathes of people? Rather than mounting an effective counter-vote, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour opposition schismed, the Blairites crawling out of the woodwork. Particularly galling was Hilary Benn, son of the legendary Tony Benn (the closest I have to a political hero) in support of military intervention. I’d been riding a high following the publication of ‘More Raw Material: work inspired by Alan Sillitoe’, an anthology of new writing I’d edited with David Sillitoe, and I came crashing down. I underwent a month-long depression. The only thing I could feel was abject despair.

I’m feeling a similar thing know, as my country teeters on the verge of a referendum as to whether to leave the European Union. The pound is already in freefall. Trade agreements with Europe and the checks and measures that the EU provides in terms of health and safety, workers’ rights, maternity leave and pay for working mothers, let alone any considerations of unity, multiculturalism and shared post-war heritage could easily be swept away in a tide of insular backwards-looking nationalism. I already live in a Britain where a one-time fringe party like UKIP has somehow managed not only to infiltrate the political mainstream but actually define the dialogue; where right-wing hate groups like Britain First and the EDL could easily follow in UKIP’s footsteps.

But whereas the UK’s shameful intervention re: Syria drove me away from B-movie gratuitousness, the referendum has got me thinking about cinematic representations of social and political dystopia. I now have three reviews for Winter of Discontent in the bag and a viewing list that will probably do no favours for my mental health. Whichever way the vote goes on Thursday, I think I can guarantee a Winter of Discontent that will be contentious, cantankerous, challenging and anything else you can think of that starts with “c”.

Except Conservative. Fucking anything but Conservative.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Bernstein's Mahler

It would be all to easy to describe ‘Bernstein’s Mahler’, directed by Humphrey Burton, as a two-hour greatest hits package: one movement apiece from each of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies, taken from concerts recorded between 1972 and 1977, with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (except for the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony, which is with the London Symphony Orchestra), and nothing in the way of commentary, discourse or interview footage.

Or, to put it in disgruntled Guardian-reader terms, you don’t even get a full symphony!

And there is, I’ll admit, a case to be made for the film as disappointing in this respect. By choosing not to feature interviews with Bernstein, we lose Lenny the teacher, Lenny the passionate advocate, in all his cerebral and loquacious glory. As anyone who has ever seen one of Bernstein’s musical guides, young persons’ concerts or introductions from the podium can attest, the man had a natural and charismatic gift for explaining; for educating.

What ‘Bernstein’s Mahler’ offers instead is a complete immersion in the music. Lenny “got” Mahler more empathetically, more intuitively, and more sensuously than any other conductor. Like Bernstein, Mahler had a greater reputation as conductor than composer in his lifetime; as composer he wasn’t necessarily given his dues by his contemporaries. Furthermore, Bernstein conducted as if he were composing the music himself – an approach that sometimes resulted in mercurial interpretations (his late recordings of Sibelius with the Vienna Phil proved notably controversial) but paid dividends with Mahler.

Filmed attentively as regards the positioning and interaction of the orchestra, the choice of movements from each symphony is more or less as one would anticipate: the opening movement of the First, the adagietto of the Fifth, the adagio of the Ninth. The ‘Resurrection’ – a monumental work clocking in at an hour and a half – is represented, ironically, by one of the shorter excerpts here: “O röschen rot”, performed in utterly sublime fashion by Janet Baker. Symphonies 8 (‘The Symphony of a Thousand’) and 9 get a far more expansive hearing, accounting for over 50 minutes of the running time between them.

It’s in the devastatingly poignant sweep of the Ninth’s adagio that Burton’s film truly comes into its own. His focus on the precision and importance of individual instruments is so detailed that ‘Bernstein’s Mahler’ can genuinely be called a documentary rather than a filmed concert. Moreover, Burton captures Bernstein’s complete emotional connection with the music. It goes beyond conducting. The best word I can find is transfiguration.

First in his passionate and emotive cycle on the CBS label with the New York Philharmonic, and later in the authoritative artistic statement with the VPO on Deutsche Grammophon, Bernstein gifted recorded music with accounts of the Mahler symphonies that remain unsurpassed. These two complete sets should be in every serious classical music lover’s collection. Burton’s film acts as both a distillation and a visualisation of them. The performances are faultless, and film as a whole captures large-scale symphonic music-making at its finest.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Room 237

There are some strange people in this world, and five in particular conspire to waste an hour and three-quarters of the viewer’s life in ‘Room 237’. Directed by Rodney Ascher, the film (I hesitate to classify it as a documentary) purports to be “an investigation” into Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s seminal horror novel ‘The Shining’.

That’s “investigation” as in letting five total nutjobs witter on at tedious length, by the way. Ascher never really introduces us to said individuals, simply flashing their names up on screen in fairly quick succession as they expound their theories in voiceover. Only one contributor is female, and therefore easy to identify as the film progresses. The others are all male and slightly too eager and emphatic in their intonation, and after only a short while it becomes increasingly difficult to tell who’s blathering on at any one point. Matters aren’t helped by an appalling sound mix which allows the background music (most of it hideous) to swamp the voiceovers on more than one occasion.

But what of the theories on offer? Two basically posit ‘The Shining’ as a metaphor for something else: the massacre of the native American Indians, and the Holocaust. Respectively, a picture of an Indian chief on a food tin, and a German typewriter, the number 42 and some images of an eagle are offered as conclusively as Rumpole playing the evidential trump card that gets his client off. (The food tins were an actual brand popular in the hotel/catering industry at the time; the typewriter was Kubrick’s own.) The numbers of the titular haunted room if reckoned as 2 x 3 x 7 equal 42. Apparently, in one exterior shot there are 42 vehicles parked outside the Overlook. Some people have way too much free time on their hands.

Enough free time – as we segue to theory number 2 – to plot out maps of the Overlook’s interior and determine that the window in Ullman’s office couldn’t possibly have been there, that corridors don’t seem to lead where they should, and that the dimensions in The Gold Room’s bathroom don’t match said room’s architecture. Indeed, this particular contributor follows her architectural obsession with the hotel’s interior to an equally notable dead end: these are merely a series of observations and not even a theory. Moreover, they are observations that betray a total lack of understanding re: how films are made. It’s the mindset of someone who watches ‘The Wicker Man’ and goes gallivanting off to Scotland only to discover that Summerisle is actually a patchwork quilt of other locations.

Elsewhere, continuity errors are explicated as part of some grand design, when anybody who’s seen ‘The Shining’ more than twice knows that the film’s full of them. I was amazed that nobody tried to claim Danny’s half-eaten then mysteriously resurrected sandwich in the scene where he tells Wendy about Tony as proof of something obscure and enigmatic.

The best – by which I mean maddest – theory is that Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landings and made ‘The Shining’ as an act of admission. A morass of detail is piled up to make the case, all of it patently nonsensical.

If ‘Room 237’ has any worth at all – it’s sloppily put together, with dozens of film clips assembled randomly, many of which have nothing to do with Kubrick, King or ‘The Shining’; it neither champions or challenges its contributors; and fails to make any particular point or arrive at a conclusion – it’s as a corollary to Jack Torrance’s splintered mental state. To watch ‘The Shining’ is to watch a man lose hold on his sanity; to watch ‘Room 237’ is to listen to five people slide deeper into their shared obsession.

At its most worrying moments, ‘Room 237’ reminds us that some of its contributors are academics and researchers, people who should be smarter than this; who ought to be contributing to a greater cultural understanding. But then again, based purely on listening to their monologues, they’re worryingly reminiscent of the most boring and socially ill-equipped person at the party – the one who hones in on you and won’t take the hint that you have no interest in their clingy behaviour and inability to close their mouth.

At its best, though, it offers up some hilarious examples of tunnel-vision. The moon conspiracy dude points to a key fob for “ROOM No 237”, discounts the lower case “o” as it’s a truncation of the word “number” and states with utter conviction that “there are only two words you can make from the remaining letters – room and moon. This is where the cover-up happened. This is the moon-room.” From the letters R, O, O, M and N, you can make at least a dozen other words, including “norm”.

Does this mean, then, that the central clue, buried by Kubrick deep in the fabric of his film, is that the answer to ‘The Shining’ is completely normal? That it is, in fact, about a haunted hotel? In much the same way that the novel it’s based on is about a haunted hotel? You know what, folks? I rather think it is.