I Am Not Your Negro is not a film about James Baldwin: more like a séance presided over by director Raoul Peck in which he summons up from beyond the grave Baldwin’s voice ventriloquised by Samuel L. Jackson in a narration drawn entirely from Baldwin’s work. It is not one of those conventional documentaries cluttered with the thoughts of friends, relatives or experts, but a work of literary archaeology that pieces together a book which Baldwin planned but never wrote, using his notes, plus words – and only his words – from letters, essays and books written in the mid-1970s. It is, perhaps, the best documentary I have ever seen. Continue reading “I Am Not Your Negro: James Baldwin’s words remain as urgent and relevant as they were when written”
Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul has been re-released nationally as part of a retrospective at London’s BFI Southbank. Thanks to the MUBI streaming service I got a chance to watch again one of the great works of the New German Cinema that I last saw when first released in 1974. The film remains as extraordinary and – sadly – as urgent and relevant in 2017 as it was in 1974. Fear Eats the Soul is, without doubt, a masterpiece: a blistering social and psychological examination of racism that has a tenderness rarely found in Fassbinder’s work. In addition, the idea of a film which treats the sexuality of a sixty year old woman in so matter of fact and sensitive a manner unfortunately remains as startling now as it was four decades ago. Continue reading “Fear Eats the Soul: Fassbinder’s film is still relevant after 40 years”
Two films with the same title were released in 2016. Martin Scorcese’s Silence (which I have not seen) received all the attention, but there was another Silence, directed by the Irish documentary film-maker, Pat Collins. An undemonstrative film, it will not be to everyone’s taste, being slow, meditative and melancholy, and having little in the way of a story. But I loved it and, thanks to MUBI streaming, I have watched it twice. Continue reading “Pat Collins’ Silence: the sounds of wind, water, bird song, and the past conjure the spirit of place”
Having already spent 54 hours in front of our TV screen watching Edgar Reitz’s monumental trilogy Heimat (more, in fact, since we watched the first two series twice), last week his four-hour prequel, The Other Homeland: Chronicle of a Yearning), arrived on virtually unheralded on BBC4, four years after its German release. Exquisitely photographed in crystalline monochrome with natural performances by its actors, many of whom had no prior acting experience, this masterwork from Reitz is absorbing, lyrical, both epic and intimate. Continue reading “Die Andere Heimat: a yearning to travel far from home”
As is usual these days, before settling down to watch Certain Women at our local cinema, we were blasted by adverts and film trailers cut fast and laced with the thundering percussion that these days is de rigueur, as if we all suffer from ADHD. Increasingly, mainstream cinema feels like a sonic and mental assault, all sound and fury, inhabiting some black hole out where the reality of daily life and ordinary people no longer exists. The welcome thing about Kelly Reichardt’s low-key, intimate and deliberately anti-dramatic film is its quiet contemplation of ordinary days in the lives of ordinary characters. Continue reading “Certain Women: open skies and distant horizons, ordinary days in the lives of ordinary characters”
I was fortunate in being able to attend, in a 24-hour period, screenings of two of the films in contention for Oscars this weekend. Though their stories are set in very specific and different communities and cultures, both Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea are films which reveal their characters’ inner lives with a sensitivity that prompts not just empathy but the realisation – as outstanding drama will – that their travails reflect universal themes and humanity in all its complexity. Common to both films is their examination of masculinity and the trouble that men have expressing their feelings. Both are blessed with exceptional performances, convincing dialogue that leaves spaces for silence, and an imaginative use of music. Continue reading “Two fine Oscar nominated films on masculinity and the trouble men have expressing their feelings”
Last week, BBC 4 screened The Past, a film by Asghar Farhadi. He’s the Iranian director, Oscar-nominated for his most recent film The Salesman, who has pledged not to attend the ceremonies even if he gets exemption from Trump’s travel ban. Previously I had seen Farhadi’s celebrated A Separation which, like The Past, takes the story of a seemingly straightforward divorce before developing, by way of a succession of unintended consequences involving a group of equally flawed yet decent characters, into a complex and challenging exploration of what forms moral behaviour.
Continue reading “The films of Asghar Farhadi: stories of unintended consequences that pose moral questions”
In 1996, the historian Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books, her publisher, were sued in the UK courts by the notorious Holocaust denier David Irving for calling him a falsifier of history in her book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. In Denial, David Hare has written a version of those events for a film directed by Mick Jackson and starring Rachel Weisz as Lipstadt and Timothy Spall as Irving.
Could any film be more well-timed? Unfortunately, despite having good moments, Denial proved to be something of a disappointment. I was left feeling that there was a really interesting documentary struggling to free itself from this dramatisation.
The Last Letter is a film made by Frederick Wiseman in 2002. It was his first non-fiction film after four decades of making celebrated documentaries examining American institutions, and is a record of a sixty-minute performance by French actress Catherine Samie which Wiseman had previously directed at the Comédie-Française in Paris. It is one of the most compelling representations on film of the experience of the Holocaust that I have ever seen.
Stripped to bare essentials, the film presents a bravura monologue taken from from Vasily Grossman’s novel Life And Fate. Featuring only the performer on a bare stage, there are no props, and there is no score. The monologue represents the last letter to her son from a Russian-Jewish doctor who has been forcibly removed by the Nazis from her home to a Ukrainian ghetto. Continue reading “The Last Letter: ‘this whole world will disappear for ever under the earth’”
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
–Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution
Ava DuVernay makes documentaries, though her most celebrated film is Selma, a dramatisation of the story of the historic 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery and their place in the struggle for black voting rights. Last night I watched her most recent film, a Netflix documentary about the American prison system that goes under the title, 13th.
The film takes its title from the 13th amendment, which outlawed slavery but left a significant loophole which continues to permit involuntary servitude when used as punishment for crime. In meticulous detail, DuVernay shows how this loophole was exploited in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery at the end of the Civil War and continues to be abused to this day.
In Selma, Stephan James portrayed John Lewis, the SNCC activist whose skull was fractured by police who attacked the marchers on the Edmund Pettus bridge on ‘Bloody Sunday’, 7 March 1965.
That’s the same John Lewis whose reputation was besmirched in a tweet by Donald Trump the other day, and it’s the same Donald Trump to whom DuVernay devotes a powerful sequence in 13th. Continue reading “Ava DuVernay’s 13th: from slavery to the mass incarceration of African-Americans in privatised prisons”
Oh please! Dig me a bunker, and bury it deep. There let me spend the next four years watching La La Land on endless repeat, safe from the horrors of the Trumpian, post-Brexit wasteland above, in a feather-bed of fantasy, blissfully out of touch with reality.
If the foregoing sounds a shade sardonic about Damien Chazelle’s garlanded new film, it’s not meant to be – simply a statement that in these dark and fearful times it feels good to be bathed in the romantic aura of a decently made film, that most of us feel that moving to La La Land, an old metaphor for a fantasy bubble somewhere over the rainbow, would not be such a bad thing. Not that La La Land is truly romantic, as I’ll suggest.
The other day I went along to our local Picturehouse, drawn by what I anticipated would be a new film portrait of the late and incomparable Leonard Cohen. What I got was a lesson on the increasing unreliability of my memory: as soon as the opening credits began rolling I realised that I had seen Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man not just once, but probably twice before, perhaps on TV.
No worries, though: the film, which combines segments of an extended interview with Cohen and performances from a tribute concert at the Sydney Opera House in January 2005, is one I was happy to sit through again. It’s always a pleasure to listen to Leonard’s wry assessments of his life and worth (one of his best is here: ‘My reputation as a ladies’ man was a joke. It caused me to laugh bitterly the 10,000 nights I spent alone’), while the cover versions are generally (though not always) interesting, even revelatory. Above all, there is the best cover of ‘Anthem’ (which gives this blog its title) by Cohen’s regular backing vocalists, Perla Batalla and Julie Christensen. Continue reading “Leonard Cohen I’m Your Man: not a perfect offering”