Ava DuVernay’s 13th: from slavery to the mass incarceration of African-Americans in privatised prisons

Ava DuVernay’s <em>13th</em>: from slavery to the mass incarceration of African-Americans in privatised prisons

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”

Bury my heart in La La Land

Bury my heart in La La Land

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.

Continue reading “Bury my heart in La La Land”

Leonard Cohen I’m Your Man: not a perfect offering

Leonard Cohen I’m Your Man: not a perfect offering

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”

Paterson: paean to the rich tapestry of an ordinary life

Paterson: paean to the rich tapestry of an ordinary life

Only one man – like a city.

In Jim Jarmusch’s new film Paterson, Adam Driver plays a guy called Paterson, who lives in Paterson, New Jersey, where he drives a bus. As is the way of things for most of us, each working day follows the routine of all the ones preceding. But Paterson, an unassuming man with no pretensions, carries a notebook in which, as he goes about his daily business, he writes poems that see the special in the mundane details of the quotidian. Paterson is a man at ease with the world – he takes a quiet pleasure in his work, his city and the people he encounters – and his poems reflect this, transforming commonplace details such as a matchbox into paeans to the rich tapestry of an ordinary life. Continue reading “Paterson: paean to the rich tapestry of an ordinary life”

Andrzej Wajda: director whose films charted the travails of his nation

Andrzej Wajda: director whose films charted the travails of his nation

My first encounter with Andrzej Wajda was in the sixth form in 1966 when the school film society showed Ashes and Diamonds. I knew next to nothing about Polish politics immediately after the Soviet liberation, but the film left an indelible impression – not least due to the compelling  black and white cinematography (the first time I can remember that aspect of film-making having an impact on me) – though the central performance by Zbigniew Cybulski – lean, gun-toting, feelings impenetrable behind dark glasses James Dean style – was a major factor, too. More than a decade would pass before I would be re-acquainted with the work of Andrzej Wajda whose death, aged 90, was announced this week. Continue reading “Andrzej Wajda: director whose films charted the travails of his nation”

A roomful of apricots, the heart of a dog and moths that drink the tears of sleeping birds

A roomful of apricots, the heart of a dog and moths that drink the tears of sleeping birds

As the daylight hours shorten and the leaves start to fall I think back to the beginning of this summer when our dog very nearly died. It’s a memory brought into sharp focus by a recently-watched film and the book I am reading at the moment. Laurie Anderson’s essay-film Heart of a Dog has a lot in common with Rebecca Solnit’s most recent book, The Faraway Nearby: both are digressive, looping, meandering disquisitions on storytelling and memory, and the connection between love and death. Continue reading “A roomful of apricots, the heart of a dog and moths that drink the tears of sleeping birds”

Abbas Kiarostami: his love of simple reality captured the spirit of his times

Abbas Kiarostami: his love of simple reality captured the spirit of his times

Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us opens with a panoramic shot of a car making its way along a dusty track winding through a bare landscape dotted with occasional trees. In the car a group of film-makers argue about directions to the village where they have arranged to make a film. They are looking for a turning that should be near a single tree. One of the film-makers quotes a line from a Sufi poem: ‘Near the tree is a wooded lane/Greener than the dreams of God… .’

In those few seconds of film are encapsulated several of the defining characteristics and concerns of the films of the Iranian director, whose death was announced earlier this month. Years after seeing his films, images from them still haunt my imagination. Continue reading “Abbas Kiarostami: his love of simple reality captured the spirit of his times”