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Spring Breakers

The first thing most observers will note about Spring Breakers is that it (purposefully) exhibits the hypocrisy of any cautionary tale about the corruption of youth (from Reefer Madness to Corman’s biker and acid films), that of being both disturbed and entranced by the moral turpitude on display. It was a criticism leveled at Korine as far back as his debut screenwriting gig, for Larry Clark’s Kids, a film which stands as the spiritual precursor to this one.

Korine must have learned something from the furore about that film, and Clark’s approach, because Korine goes so over the top in ogling at his bikini-clad teens’ antics that it clearly spills over into ironic territory, making the films much more explicit booty-gawking strangely less troubling than Clark’s almost covert approach, in which the camera finds itself unhealthily tilting towards its youngsters’ fleshy parts. Korine has also learnt Clark’s eye for an arresting image, and much of the film’s imagery could be extracted from context to make for impressively composed and juxtapositional photographic art.

I won’t go much further in analysing the film’s commentary on youth culture because it’s been discussed with much more authority elsewhere, but on the whole I found the film effective and enjoyable. At first I thought James Franco was holding back a bit and wasn’t as fearsome or committed as he could have been (as many have noted, you can see him smirking at his own silliness at several points), but as the film progressed his performance seems to grow in suitability because this character isn’t quite the OG he likes to think he is in any case.

I think the film is most effective in its early sequences, presenting the Bosch-like depravity of the spring break in its most debauched and disturbing glory. The absurdly depraved sardonicism of the scene in which kids smoke bongs made out of baby-dolls and a character wears a turkey on his head reminded me of Chris Morris at his most extreme, and I wished the film had continued in that vein.

As an exercise in mainstream subversion the film is moderately successful. Disregarding the subject matter and tone, I found it formally more experimental than I expected. I liked the effect of hypnotically recurring lines of dialogue, giving the film a druggy and dreamlike haze. Korine also seems to have crafted a collage of half-scenes, splashes, snippets and moments in a similar methodology to that of Terrence Malick (who would probably splutter at the comparison)*. Whereas Malick wants to craft glorious symphonies, Korine is creating cinema that pulsates and recurs like techno rhythms.

(* Interestingly I saw Spring Breakers and To The Wonder on the same day, but I think my observation withstands any criticism that it’s simply the result of proximal suggestibility.)

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To The Wonder

Is it possible to hate and love a film at the same time?

Unlike many who felt this film a massive misstep, Malick had in fact already lost me at The Tree of Life, and I would argue this film is an improvement. It’s certainly more a more disciplined distillation of Malick’s unique style than its uneven predecessor.

I remain beguiled by Malick’s mastery and originality of form, yet repelled by the ultimate aim of his technical and photographic mastery – namely to create a very narrow, unambiguously Christian cinema of transcendence.

Very few directors have the reputation and resources to adopt Malick’s techniques* – shooting aeons of film and then crafting rhythmic overtures in the editing suite, discarding numerous actors’ performances. But it’s such a shame that shades of subtlety, ambiguity and intelligence are stripped away with every subsequent feature Malick makes.

To-The-Wonder

Malick is attempting his own brand of transcendental cinema which could arguably be seen as a successor to the transcendental practitioners of 20th-century cinema as identified by the likes of Paul Schrader– Bresson, Dreyer, Ozu and Tarkosky.

But Malick fades in comparison to those greats. Malick may be a rare 21st-century artist in that, like say Tarkovsky, he is roundly educated enough in history, philosophy, theology and the wider arts to be capable of producing monumental works of film art, but so far he has been depressingly unable to do so (great though some of his early works are).

Like all great artists he’s inevitably losing the ability to take a step back and judge whether his work has crossed the line from inviting an audience into its uniquely crafted personal worldview, to that of browbeating us into accepting a specific sensibility. It happens to them all, but the galling thing about Malick is the gnawing suspicion that, had he worked in the 1980s, his glory period would have been longer and more fruitful.

Malick is attempting to make a cinema which communicates the universality of God’s love; expresses the divine aspect to all of nature and posits humans as mere indeterminate vessels in the wider scheme of things. But it’s a discourse which seems crude and simplistic in comparison to that of Tarkovsky’s, who aimed to capture the mysteriousness of our world to suggest that it must be attributable to a higher power (even though it’s equally arguable that it isn’t), or to Bresson’s idea that humanity and love can spring from the most unlikely or sources, just when all hope is lost, which may be read as a sign of divinity (or equally, may not). These directors’ approaches seem so much more nuanced than Malick’s, which far too overtly suggests that we’re all pawns cavorting naively and merrily through the hayfields of His benevolent existence, much like the insignificant actors Malick himself omnipotently discards at every whim.

(* These days at least. The most likely place to find such materially (if not thematically) indulged directors would have been the USSR in its communist pomp, which had the means and ideological will to fund such follies if it so desired, such as, ironically, the work of Tarkovsky)

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Dans La Maison

Very clever, yes, but does Ozon really know what kind of film he’s crafting here? As Ginette Vincendeau states in her Sight and Sound review, Ozon likes to blend “social satire, queer desire and self-reflexivity” but do all these ingredients work when combined in the same pot, especially when this in an adaptation of what seems like a tightly structured play? I prefer Ozon when he sticks to simple recipes – the meta-textual games of Swimming Pool or the camp satire of Potiche. But taken together it’s a taste overload –  as an audience we’re never sure if our helmsman is in serious or satirical mode, so for example when we get bursts of lounge music to accompany scenes of  bourgeois fastidiousness it seems out of place. And when characters start jumping into bed together it comes across like a scene has invaded from an earlier Ozon film like Sitcom.

There’s arguably just too much going on in this film, for starters. It never seems to draw breath as it moves between the scenes inside the Artole household and Claude (Ernst Umhauer) discussing the developing story with his teacher Germain (Fabrice Luchini).

On his own, ‘self-reflexive Ozon’ could have made an interesting and uncomfortable film which engaged the audience to examine its own desires about story outcomes. ‘Tri-partite Ozon’ touches on that here, but he’s got too many other ideas going on. He also wants to make a Theorem-style study of a pathological individual and his effect on everyone around him, but Claude is either not mysterious enough to be a mystical Theorem-type (Dumont does it properly in Hors Satan) or not rounded enough to be an individual worth psychoanalysing. Meanwhile ‘queer-desire Ozon’ wants to concentrate on the effects on Germain and his wife and how the intricacies of this three-way relationship will develop.

All-in-all there’s way too much going on, which is a shame because the promise of an excellent film is buried within these heaps of half-examined ideas and tangents.

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Neighbouring Sounds

One of my favourite films of the year so far. A rare example of what might be called the residential ensemble (see also The Yacoubian Building and House of 72 Tenants) in which the fates of a selection of disparate individuals in the same apartment complex are analysed.

What impressed me is that the film is clever and artistic without relying on the usual tropes and tendencies of recent art cinema. Kleber Mendonca Filho is a relatively straightforward director who wants to tell a story in a conventional style, but who utlises sound design and subtle resonances to draw connections and allusions that make the work more intelligent than it seems at first glance. In this sense he perhaps shares an outlook with British director Peter Strickland.

The film seems remarkably assured for a debut narrative feature (he’s directed longform documentaries before), but this makes sense when we see how he’s developed the story from an earlier short called Electrodomestica. The nonchalant comedy of the scenes adapted from Electodomestica stands in contrast to the final few scenes where an element of genre (specifically, crime film) creeps into the narrative unexpectedly. The contrasts between the different tones might well have clashed harshly in lesser hands, and Filho would have been accused of simply bolting new ideas together with unsuitable elements from his existing short. But because Filho’s been subtly hinting at darknesses to come throughout the entire film, the gambit pays off.

Filho’s vision of a Brazilian middle class barricaded in its disconnected estates, uncertain about their place in a new society and wary of the bubbling undercurrents of historical injustice that could resurface at any time, brings to mind Jia Zhangke, the other notable chronicler of BRIC emergence. But unlike Jia, Filho is refreshing unconstrained by the expected strictures of art-cinema language (fixed cameras, long unbroken takes, pregnant silences, forbidding overall durations) and free to present an accessible but thought provoking film.

 

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