Oscar Isaac, who plays the title role in the Coen brother’s latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, draws comparison between Llewyn, a struggling folksinger, and Buster Keaton, who built his brand of slapstick comedy on his unflinching stoicism, played with a deadpan face. Isaac says of Davis, “he keeps pushing through, which makes us laugh.”
Llewyn tries to survive winter in New York and further his career as a musician, unknowingly on the cusp of the great folk revival of the ‘60’s, headed of course by Bob Dylan. Davis faces his unending travails with a stone face, breaking the façade only with the revealing and redemptive beauty of his music.
“Hang me oh hang me, and I’ll be dead and gone,” coos Davis in the Gaslight Café, circa ’61, “I wouldn’t mind the hanging but the laying in the grave so long, poor boy,” hints of Davis’ ambivalence to success or failure, it’s his static existence wearing him down.
Arguing over a coffee with the volatile Jean (played by Carey Mulligan), Llewyn accuses Jean and her boyfriend Jim (played by Justin Timberlake) of being careerists, compromising artistically for a house in the suburbs. “There are two groups of people,” Llewyn tells Jean, “those who divide the world into two groups of people, and-” “losers,” she interjects.
While Jim seems set for success with a catchy novelty space-race tune, Please Mr. Kennedy (a reference to Larry Verne’s 1960 chart topper, Mr. Custer, which sold over a million copies), Davis is about to break. He makes a last-ditch effort for success and hitches a ride to Chicago with an insensitive jazz musician and drug fiend, Roland Turner (brilliantly played by John Goodman). But when it comes to the crux, Davis’ understated, melancholic tune doesn’t reek of bankability.
Perhaps this also why the film was disgracefully overlooked by the academy in this years Oscar nominations, providing an unwelcome antidote to the vulgarity of Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle, having received fifteen nominations between them.
Much of the film is based on the life of Dave van Ronk, revered by greats like Joni Mitchell and Dylan himself as a supremely talented musician. Van Ronk never achieved great success despite the popularity of the folk revival. Dylan even ripped van Ronk’s arrangement of the folk song House of the Rising Sun without credit, an anecdote alluded to with a tightly executed crossover of Davis’ “Fare Thee Well” with Dylan’s.
Llewyn’s name channels van Ronk’s Irish heritage (despite his Dutch name), hinting at an authentic folk music tradition deliberately obscured by Dylan in his rebranding to honour his favourite poet, Dylan Thomas, from his Jewish surname of Zimmerman. Llewyn Davis and Dave van Ronk offer the “inside” (the Coen brother’s even using the title of van Ronk’s album), rather than indulging in Dylan’s sophisticated self-creation. Their refusal to compromise lands them up exactly where they started, the Coen brother’s cleverly bookending the film to frame the stasis.
The de-saturated colour and glowing hues of the cinematography create a stunning, bleak picture of 1960’s New York. Ethan Coen cited the famous cover of Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan as an inspiration for creating, [quote] “a grey, slushy New York in the winter.”
A heated argument between Jean and Llewyn is set against the cold, picturesque grandeur of the Washington Arch. The precision is trademark Coen brothers – Washington Square Park was where van Ronk learnt to fingerpick, and the site of the so-called “Beatnik Riot,” where 500 musicians and supporters gathered to protest the city’s crackdown on public performance in ’61.
The soundtrack encapsulates the varied musical influences on new-wave folk at the time, before Dylan became the definition. Isaac is a captivating performer, a stellar front to a brilliant cast, restrained and understated; you’re drawn to the enigma. Frustrating, but you can’t help but root for him.
Definitely worth seeing at the movies, you can still catch Inside Llewyn Davis at Hoyts Cinema Paris at Fox Studios and Dendy Newtown.
On Saturday, legendary French director Alain Resnais passed away at the age of 91.
Resnais was a pioneer of French experimental filmmaking. His first feature film, Hiroshima Mon Amour, was released the same year as the leaders of the French new wave released their career defining films; Jean Luc Godard with Breathless, and Francois Truffaut with The 400 Blows. The film sparked controversy and discussion for it’s provocative love story and innovative style – though Resnais fell in and out of the wave, deliberately avoiding the constraints and expectations involved in identifying with any particular film movement.
Resnais’ next film, Last Year at Marienbad, still confounds viewers and necessitates a second, maybe third viewing. It’s cryptic exploration of time and memory inspired David Lynch to make his highly praised (but also, rather confusing) 2001 film, Mulholland Drive. Despite the films unapologetic inaccessibility, Last Year at Marienbad won Resnais the grand jury prize at the Venice Film Festival.
Resnais began making 8mm and 16mm films in his teens, and tried his hand at acting before moving to Paris to study editing at the prestigious Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies or IDHEC. He left to join the armed forces during World War Two, and when he returned to Paris after the war, he began working on short documentary films.
One of these films, Night and Fog, a short documentary on the horrors of Auschwitz, was deservedly praised by Truffaut as “the greatest film ever made.” The film juxtaposes colour film of an eerily sunny Auschwitz in 1955, with black and white archival footage taken by the Nazi’s. The film has a visceral impact on the viewer, though Resnais’ method is subtle and restrained. We see the mountains of hair cut from the women to make wigs, the soap made from boiled flesh, the scratch marks in the concrete walls of the gas chambers. The images are devastating. Resnais begins and ends the film with a tracking shot along the rail line into Auschwitz; the now defunct line being reclaimed by flowers and weeds. If you are to see any of Resnais’ films, make it Night and Fog.
In a nation where the art of cinema reigns supreme, President Francois Hollande has said that with the death of Alain Resnais, France has lost one of it’s greatest film directors.
Cate Blanchett is the frontrunner to take home the Academy Award for best actress this year, having already won the accolade at the Golden Globes, the Screen Actor’s Guild and the BAFTAs, for her role in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine.
The film is a loose adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire, and Blanchett reprises her role of Blanche in the stage play in her modern incarnate, Jasmine.
Jasmine is a Manhattan socialite in the throes of a nervous breakdown after her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), proves to be a Wall Street villain in the financial crisis. Jasmine flees from Manhattan to San Francisco to seek refuge with her long neglected sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins).
Jasmine’s glittering Manhattan memories are juxtaposed against a grittier San Fran, where the people seem a little more disheveled, a little older, and a little more satisfied with a whole lot less.
The flashbacks are seamless, Allen simultaneously giving us a glimpse of Jasmine’s charmed life while revealing the naiveté necessary for her to sustain such an existence.
Hal’s callousness, his scamming and his infidelity are obvious to an outsider, but Jasmine protects herself by weaving a web of denial. Jasmine’s material trappings add to the buffer; when she is stripped of her possessions, she is left naked and vulnerable.
In Blue Jasmine, Allen attempts to answer the commonly asked question when the kingdoms of the Bernie Madoffs and Jordan Belforts fall, “how can they live with themselves?” The answer to which, disappointingly, Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street came up short.
Perhaps this is the most striking parallel Allen draws with Streetcar; Southern belle Blanche, her inherited wealth built on the backs of slaves, New York Socialite Jasmine, her wealth mined from holes in a deregulated financial system.
Jasmine blames the government for her woes, repeatedly lamenting how they seized all of her possessions and arrested Hal in the street. The only hint of responsibility, however mingled with macabre self-pity, is in a moment when Jasmine explains that when a person is hanged, they die because their neck snaps, not from suffocation. There’s a sense of Jasmine’s disappointment, of her resenting Hal for choosing the easy way out. Suicide is painless, the burden falls to Jasmine to piece a life back together.
While containing Allen’s signature mix of off-beat humour and biting commentary, Blue Jasmine is a tragedy. Jasmine’s fatal flaw that brings about her own demise, and that of those around her, is her innate desire for self-preservation at all costs.
Blanchett is a mesmerising force leading a cleverly cast ensemble. Perhaps Blanchett’s only perceived obstacle to taking out the honour, would be the controversy over Allen’s alleged sexual abuse of his daughter Dylan Farrow, which has been heating up with every accolade Allen has received this awards season.
Given that Allen notoriously avoids awards ceremonies, hopefully Blanchett’s prospects of a win are not overshadowed. Blanchett should be allowed the time to shine, and shine she does.
In an episode of BBC sitcom Yes, Prime Minister, PM Hacker is deliberating on nominations for the Archbishop of Canterbury. In choosing between an agnostic and a radical, Sir Humphrey tells him, “the Queen is inseparable from the church of England.” And what of God? “I think he is what is called an optional extra.”
I couldn’t help but think of this punch line when watching In Bob We Trust (Lynn-Maree Milburn), a documentary portrait of Melbourne’s “larrikin priest” Father Bob Maguire, whose devotion to God can’t be faulted, it’s the institution that’s the problem. The film begins (after Fr. Bob’s hilarious five minute history of Catholicism) with his being “invited” to retire on his 75th Birthday. The fallacy of the “invitation” unravels quickly: this is a tall order from on high (up the ladder, that is). Fr. Bob’s hands are tied, caught between his call to serve his community and servitude to the institution of Roman Catholicism.
And this dilemma speaks volumes – the gap between what the Catholic Church preaches, and what it practices. We witness Fr. Bob’s unflinching devotion to the service of his community, through his outreach to the homeless, the understanding and kindness he shows to the downtrodden, particularly his work in helping victims of the “drug wars.” He truly lives his life as a self-described patron of the “unloved and unlovely.”
In a time when parishes are amalgamating, closing, spreading priests thin and reducing services, Fr. Bob fostered a thriving parish community and met his bottom line: putting butts on pews. In return, he was pressured to resign prematurely. Various factors come in to play: his pragmatic ethics (supportive of gay rights), his dangerously popular public profile (close to 100K followers on twitter compared to Cardinal George Pell’s less than 600), his strong support of Vatican II (in the face of revisionists like Pell) and his refusal to keep tight-lipped on sexual abuse within the church (feeling obliged to report disputed claims made against Pell despite Pell being Archbishop of Melbourne at the time).
That this film could have come out swinging at figures like Pell or Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart, and didn’t, is testament to the integrity of the film’s purpose. Milburn refuses to vilify the personalities involved, rather their absence from the piece (by choice) means they malign themselves into the crumbling, corrupt institution in Rome. It really is about Fr. Bob’s David and Goliath battle between the expected obsequiousness of the priesthood, and his own moral compass fostered through a lifetime of empathy and experience. The institution wants to be among Gods, Fr. Bob is happy among men.
In Bob We Trust’s director Lynne-Maree Milburn willingly lets Fr. Bob’s no holds barred rollicking larrikinism – at once biting, hilarious, witty, intelligent and playful – dominate the piece, which was thoroughly enjoyable, though too much cutting of pauses and breaths in the edit was at times distracting. Fr. Bob’s meanderings are punctuated by moments of revelation and honesty: overcome by grief for the loss of his friend in a radio interview, wandering the emptied out rectory with Frank the dog, exploring his old seminary and contemplating the fate of his class mates, and sitting alone in his new, smaller quarters are all beautiful moments in the film that speak for themselves. The comic vignettes where Death (played by John Safran) interviews Fr. Bob over a game of chess are an ingenious device that structure the narrative without invading the text with the presence of a narrator.
In Bob We Trust does justice to a captivating Australian figure to whom we should all be paying attention, whether it is for his courage to speak up, or to be inspired by his humanist example to show a little understanding, and be kinder to one another.
In Bob We Trust is now showing in most Australian capital cities. You can check out session times here: http://inbobwetrustmovie.com
Support documentary filmmakers, independent cinemas as well as Fr. Bob by seeing it now.
When I visited Paris back in January, I took this picture of Jean Seberg’s grave at le cimetière du Montparnasse; one of the most beautiful, eerie, moving places in Paris. Jean Seberg was one of the original manic pixie dream girls, charming audiences in zeitgeist classics like Godard’s À Bout de Souffle, and the stunning Otto Preminger film Bonjour Tristesse. At the age of 40, she committed suicide in Paris after being harassed and defamed by the FBI with the press’ complicity. Her body was discovered after ten days, wrapped in a blanket in the back of her car after taking an overdose of barbiturates. Her husband committed suicide a year later.
When my brother and I were young’uns, our mum briefly visited Canada and the US, and brought my brother and I back cowboy and Indian paraphernalia as souvenirs. I don’t remember ever seeing a classic western as a kid, but somehow we knew the tropes; the “Indians” were baddies, and the cowboys were goodies. When we were creating our little narratives in play, (perhaps unknowingly brainwashed by the Hay’s Code) the cowboys had to win. That was the way the world worked.
I imagine this naïve innocence, built-up and reinforced by so many classic westerns, made the first of the genre revisions, like John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), all the more “uncomfortable,” as Martin Scorsese put it in his recent review of the film for the Hollywood Reporter. Perhaps it’s this feeling that can account for the Academy’s total snubbing of the film at that years Oscars. Despite this, The Searchers is now lauded as one of the best in film history.*
Ethan Edwards (played by western stalwart John Wayne), a former Confederate soldier, returns to his brother Aaron’s home in Texas after a few years of dubious wandering following the Confederate loss in the Civil War. Though Ethan stridently defends the Confederate value of white supremacy like they’d never lost. He derides Martin, a young man with Comanche heritage, brought up by Aaron and his wife Martha, as a savage.
When a local farmer has his stock stolen by the Comanche, the men of the valley are rounded up for a recovery (and to reap revenge). Ethan offers his services to the mission and tells Aaron and his son Ben to stay home with Martha and their two daughters, Lucy and Debbie. They discover the missing cattle dead, and Ethan realises the theft was a ruse to lure the men from defending their properties. They return to find Aaron, Martha and Ben slaughtered, and Lucy and Debbie kidnapped.
The men set out, waging war with the Comanche across river and desert, finding a raped and murdered Lucy, but failing to recover Debbie. The other men retreat, but Martin, who sees Debbie as his kin, and Ethan, who’s primary motivation seems to be revenge, continue on their quest to find her.
Despite his immense hatred for the Comanche, somewhere in Ethan’s hazy past he’s learnt about their spirituality and language. When the men are first looking for the girls, they find a dead Comanche ceremoniously buried under a rock. Ethan pulls his gun and shoots at both the Comanche’s eyes. “What good did that do you?” Asks the Rev. Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond). Ethan replies, in that deep, stout southern drawl;
“What you preach, none. But what that Comanche believes, ain’t got no eyes, he can’t enter the spirit land. He’ll wander forever between the winds. You get it, Reverend.”
The act satiates Ethan’s desire for revenge, as well as validating the customs and spirituality of the Comanche (there being little chance of the nomads returning to their buried dead to witness the desecration). The Comanche are also shown to have reason for their brutal acts in the film (as the whites have). When Ethan finally comes face to face with their leader, Scar, he tells him why he has exacted revenge on the whites, “two sons killed by white men. For each son, I take many… scalps.” How many Comanche have Ethan and Martin killed in their own quest for revenge?
Ethan is a flawed hero, at once selfish, unforgiving, murderous, and unwavering, patriotic and fearless. Ethan serves as a critique of the rugged, male masculine heroes that once graced the genre without interrogation. Wayne rarely played a questionable character, his parts were always heroes of unambiguous morality. When he read the script of one of his later films, The Shootist, he made the writers change the script, purportedly telling them, “I’ve made over 250 pictures and have never shot a guy in the back. Change it.”
In real life Wayne was, as one would assume, a Republican, though wasn’t afraid to support the Democrats based on policy. He did however, lack pragmatism in his views on race. In a controversial interview in Playboy, he stated,
“I believe in white supremacy, until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people … I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from [the Native Americans] … Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”
Perhaps Wayne found no fault with Ethan, or his views, unaware that Ford’s tale had a more nuanced moral agenda. Ford on the other hand possessed a tolerance in the least more sophisticated than Wayne. In an interview with the BBC, Ford said that during the making of the film, he hired Navaho, “to put these people on their feet.” In one of his later films, Sergeant Rutledge, a black cavalryman is wrongfully accused of raping and murdering a white girl. While perhaps atoning for the unambiguous portrayals of white morality in his earlier films, Ford certainly displayed more sensitivity and awareness of racial tension in his later works.
When The Searchers was released, it clearly didn’t sit well on the palette of an audience who liked their goodies and baddies clearly defined, always of course with the white American cowboy on the side of good. History, as we know, isn’t quite as clear-cut as Hollywood would have us believe, and America, like many other countries of similar ilk (like my own, Australia), is still coming to terms with a genocidal past. The film is optimistic, but weighed down with regret for the past and confused with a still-evolving historical conscience.
The film is bookended by a memorable frame; in the beginning, Aaron steps out on to his porch to survey the valley, his black silhouette juxtaposed against the colour-saturated Texan landscape, from which Ethan, the prodigal son, will return. To close the film, Ethan is framed in the same black silhouette walking back into the desert, his quest over, unsure of the future. Perhaps Ethan would be comforted by John Wayne’s own words,
“Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes to us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.”
*American Film Institute poll in 2007 had The Searchers at 12th place, up 84 spots from the 1998 rankings, it is ranked 7th on Sight and Sound’s 2012 poll, up from 13th on the 2002 poll, and 10th in the Cahiers du Cinema 2008 poll – after not even ranking in their top ten of the year in 1956.
I was predisposed to love Submarine, having fallen madly for the slow-paced acoustic dreamscape of the soundtrack, written and performed by Alex Turner (of Arctic Monkeys).
Luckily, Ayoade’s directorial debut is delicious. Our narrator is Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), an intelligent, wistful, perplexed 15 year-old suffering through all the quintessential teenage preoccupations; school, how we fit in (and how we treat others who don’t), and most of all, sex and love (what we, our friends and our parents have of it).
Oliver wants it (sex and love), and thinks about the enigmatic Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige) while listening to French provocateur Serge Gainsbourg (maybe the breathy Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus) and reading Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
After a few encounters, brushing against each other in the school hallway, long stares across the playground, a mutual session of teasing an “overweight” student (with whom Oliver secretly shared his first kiss), the star-crossed lovers’ meeting is arranged, a session of kissing in the muddy hollow under a busy bridge, replete with documenting polaroids.
Thus begins their romance, their pyromaniac dalliances with fireworks, sparklers, lighters and blowing things up captured on hazy Super 8, a bit of light and fire in this dark, damp, isolated Welsh town. The landscape is picturesque, the beach never far away and the sounds of crashing waves and seagull squawks are always flittering in and out of our ears. The setting too provides some perfect pathetic fallacy to mimic the dark, damp isolation of adolescence.
Life impinges on their bubble, with Oliver’s parents having marital problems and Jordana’s mum suffering a brain tumour (higher on the scale of parental issues, Oliver assures himself). The once distant, mysterious Jordana pulls him closer. Shit just got real, and Oliver can’t hack it. He diverts his efforts in to his parents’ marriage and saving his mum from the open arms of mullet coiffure-d psychic and pseudo motivational speaker Graham, potentially sacrificing his own love with Jordana.
Submarine is a clever, funny, beautiful film that doesn’t deny the complexities of our formative relationships, but also doesn’t deny us our hope for love (and sex). The film is framed through Oliver’s narration and cleverly punctuated with funny title cards (and dramatic musical overtures).
Our charming protagonists aren’t teens with loose impulses and no concept of brevity. When Oliver proposes sex (verbally), he writes on Jordana’s hands some astute justifications; “Bound to be disappointing so why wait?” But they’re still teenagers, and still fine tuning their emotional intelligence and intuition. They’re confused, insensitive, maturing.
As one of Turner’s tracks says, they’re stuck on the puzzle, fumbling to figure out how all the pieces fit together. Figuring out that they will is half the battle.