Cultural excursions, 11 March to date. I also have this stupid thing called Choose Your Own Twadventure, which you can take part in here.
CINEMA: Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016) – An intensely beautiful, compassionate film in three parts about a quiet, 'soft' African-American boy being battered by the inner-city experience as he tries to deal with his tortured sexual awakening.
Barry Jenkins' movie has something of Soderbergh's captivating coming-of-age film, King of the Hill, and the same poetic eye as Killer of Sheep and Half Nelson – a camera lapped by waves or jostled by a crowd of laughing boys, fingers spreading in the sand during orgasm – but it feels revelatory and revolutionary in its subject matter, its impeccable structural control and its innate sensitivity, which strips away the distancing, self-mythologising bravado of gang culture to find something vulnerable, human and humane.
Three generations of Chirons and Kevins lead a flawless cast, and from the breathless dash for the sanctuary of a junkie's den to that steadicam shot trailing Black as he heads to the climactic encounter, Moonlight is masterfully directed: an enveloping, once-in-a-lifetime film about the constancy, malleability and complexity of human nature, the pain and ecstasy of love, and the world's vicious but not quite unrelenting assault on the weak. (4)
CINEMA: Raising Arizona (Joel Coen, 1987) – This early Coens comedy is sometimes too cartoonish for my own dubious taste, but how do you criticise something that’s clearly exactly what the makers wanted it to be – and so damn good most of the time?
Simon Pegg presented Raising Arizona as part of the BFI’s Screen Epiphanies strand, explaining that it paved the way for Shaun of the Dead, opening his eyes to the fact that even cuts and camera angles could be comic, then took his seat in the auditorium, hooting with laughter throughout. The film has some of the best lines the Coens will ever write (“Do these balloons blow up into funny shapes?” “No... unless round is funny”), a lovely performance from Holly Hunter as a straight-shooting cop who wants a baby so badly that she crosses to the other side of the law, and a genuine sweetness too often absent from Joel and Ethan’s films, particularly in its beautiful closing sequence. It also has Trey Wilson as unpainted furniture tycoon, Nathan Arizona (catchphrase: "... or my name ain't Nathan Arizona").
But at times it’s too noisy, mannered and self-satisfied to get truly lost in, yelling its own subversiveness and invention in your face, or sometimes just yelling for no good reason. It’s possible to be madcap without just being annoying, as Carole Lombard can tell you, and there’s so much here that’s original, interesting and affecting that I wish the Coen Bros had wanted to make a slightly different film, one that I’d really like (I appreciate that this is a selfish, unrealistic proposition).
As a man immune to the self-mythologising post-modern joke that is Nicolas Cage, I’ve got to admit that at times he can be just great, and here (a year after his very worst performance, in Peggy Sue Got Married) he finds a truth in caricature, like Mike Leigh or the young Johnny Depp, that’s really impressive. There are great gags all over the place, showy shots – including that one over the car, up the ladder, through a window and into Florence Arizona’s mouth that the Coens put in as a challenge to Sam Raimi, who bettered it in Evil Dead 2 – and then there’s Holly Hunter singing Down in the Willow Garden. For that I can forgive, if not forget, John Goodman’s endless shouting or those moments when even the leads are asked to push it just a mite too far.
“I tried to stand up and fly straight, but it wasn't easy with that sumbitch Reagan in the White House. I dunno. They say he's a decent man, so maybe his advisors are confused.”
"Need a beer, Glen?"
"Does the Pope wear a funny hat?"
Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (Alex Gibney, 2010) – A standard Alex Gibney doc, this time about disgraced former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, with the usual questionable pacing and shambling structure, but also a typically fascinating subject and the filmmaker’s strong journalistic insights in his favoured areas of capitalism, corruption and moral capitulation.
Spitzer was a crusading DA known as ‘the sheriff of Wall Street’ who sought to curb the spectacular, immoral excesses of AIG, Merrill Lynch et al, only to be turfed out of office for using prostitutes. Starting, peculiarly, at the end of the story, and then sort of running in loads of different directions at once, Gibney examines who Spitzer was, what he stood for and why he threw it away, while underlining the hypocrisy and dubious practices of corporate America.
The subject, to give him credit, is fairly frank about his failings, and blames no-one else for his downfall, which feels like not just a betrayal of his family, but also a dereliction of duty with the sub-prime scandal set to blow. The flipside, of course, is that Spitzer bothered to go after these companies like no-one ever had before, so in political terms we're judging him by his own high standards.
There's the usual strong, confessional interview footage, full of Gibney's precise, probing questions, as well as some solid material, though the scuzzy direction doesn't always make for the most coherent storytelling, let alone alight on the most telling juxtapositions. There's a good story here, though, told without sensationalism or triviality, and with a gallery of interesting, colourful supporting characters, including giggly, morally bankrupt pimp, Cecil Suwal, and peroxided right-wing weirdo Roger Stone, who's a fantastic character and also a massive twat. (3)
See also: I wrote about Gibney's 2013 film, The Armstrong Lie, here.
Anthem by Ayn Rand (1937) – Rand’s short dystopian novel is a short, precise critique of totalitarianism, anticipating both 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, and climaxing with the heavy-handed ‘anthem’ of the title: a two-chapter crystallisation of the philosophy that she would late name ‘objectivism’, in which the ego is king. Here the style is substance, the story written in the first person plural at irregular intervals, as Equality 7-2521 – working by candlelight, underground – attempts to understand their flaws and sins, borne of a latent individuality in the age of the masses. There are allusions to the hypocrisy and anti-intellectualism of Soviet Russia (a Russia that robbed the Rand family of everything it had), but it’s not the box-ticking revenge porn you might fear, setting its sights higher and broader than just Bolshevism, with allusions to the torchlight regressiveness of Nazi Germany, and a firm grasp of an alternative ideology, even when pitting it against her usual straw man.
Rand hadn’t fully mastered English when she first wrote the novel, so she returned to it in 1946, after the success of The Fountainhead (1943), cleaning up passages while retaining – as she was clear to stress in her foreword – the meaning of the book. Though the allegory here is cleaner than in The Fountainhead, it’s primarily because Anthem is more simplistic and mannered, lacking the colour, depth and scope of character of that daring, problematic odyssey, and with a climax that seems more like over-the-top wish-fulfilment than an inspiring call-to-arms. For all that, it’s a distinctive and memorable work that does what it’s trying to, highlighting the ideological failings of populist extremism (while extending them to anyone exhibiting basic empathy), with flashes of stark, brutal poetry as Equality 7-2521 learns to love and question and create. (3)
Next up: Just Kids by Patti Smith. I'm nearly done.
Rauschenberg (Tate Modern) – Another trip to the Tate Modern, where I stand forever suspended (or rather furiously oscillating) between the opposing schools of ‘This is extraordinary’ and ‘This is pretentious bollocks that means nothing’. I always like it if there’s a good painting somewhere, for the assurance that the other forms of expression are an artistic choice and not a necessity born of basic talentlessness. Rauschenberg’s tactile, 3D works in constant motion are really strong and alive (a bubbling pit; stainless steel machinery reassembled, water running through it forever) and some of his transfers and screen prints are a striking, even overpowering synthesis of ancient themes and modern style, multimedia news and disposable pop culture ripped free and fused to depict a time of drowned hope, desperate sorrow and impotent rage.
Often you see a burgeoning new style develop across a single series of works: his 34 modern illustrations for Dante’s Inferno begin as bitty, exploratory and hard-to-follow; by 32, the painting is tying together the disparate borrowed visuals (transferred from newspapers using lighter fluid and pressure from an empty ballpoint pen) into something cohesive, immersive and provocative. At other times, context makes us at least contemplate the dynamic he is attempting: a wooden box parodying similar holders of religious artefacts but filled with dirt could be a comment on the irrelevance of faith, but seems here to be about the miracle of nature, Picasso’s “found objects” given an earthy, pastoral grandeur. Elsewhere he utterly lost me, with ‘sculptures’ that were just a couple of cardboard boxes – one complete, one disassembled – and ballet routines (captured on video) rendered stale by crass camerawork, the performers’ dated stylistics and choreography that seems turgid, limited and graceless.
As an overview, this exhibition is sumptuously put together, and (as a newcomer to this work) seems close to definitive, but Rauschenberg didn’t move me like Malevich, Matisse or much of the Abstract Expressionism I saw at the Royal Academy last year. It did, however, include the greatest artwork description in the history of the world:
Thanks for reading.