Families, Fragments and Fetishism: Thoughts on Recent Cinema

By Dario Linares

Shoplifters (Kore-Eda Hirokazu)

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Shoplifting. In one sense it’s easy to view as a desperate even pathetic act. Yet, for the ignored and the excluded, it is a necessary function of survival. This is true for Osamu and Shota. Scavenging on the crumbs of capitalist exclusion they steal using a choreographed dance of teamwork and timing, this is an act that is both playful and ritualised, serving as the glue of a filial bond. But Shota, a movie star in a boy’s body, won’t call the wiry, dishevelled Osamu ‘father’? A subtle detail that is one of the many fissures in the clay of a ‘family’ sculpted from economic, social and psychological expediency. Bit by bit, the cracks widen. Within the confines of a makeshift home we view the intricate dynamics playing out. Mother, auntie, grandma, father, son and newly found daughter. Little jokes, touching intimacies, knowing rebukes all offer an innocent opera of love and support to the point of romanticism. Representation of the space itself is part of the theatre. Obtuse angles, give a kind of disoriented intimacy. Echoes of Ozu abound in the framing and movement; as does the shot/reverse shot direct to camera. The soundtrack, at times unashamed in its melodramatic sweep, draws us further into the emotional core of these impoverished survivors. Yet, this is no elegant poverty. The ragged canvas of desperation defines this aesthetic world. External spaces highlight the contrast between private and public, home and work. Laundrette, sex shop, retail park, even the home of wealthy relations. In these locations where shoplifting takes on allegorical forms; each character negotiating a battle between their interior ethics and exterior drivers. Underlying moralities become more explicit, the interweaving dramas ripple with philosophical dilemmas, but in a beautifully contained way, never tipping into didacticism. Secrets that this makeshift family need to protect are buried in troubled consciences, as much as literally in the foundations of the house. Such souls exist on the ragged edge of a system that doesn’t see or care about them, until it does. When secrets emerge the film turns, reality smashes the genuinely felt pretences of a precarious familial whole. The dark trauma of the narrative comes to settle on Yuri , the most recently ‘acquired’ daughter. Her childlike sense of ambivalence regarding the essence of a ‘real’ family, one sanctioned by biology, society and law, or the one she has found to protect her physically and emotionally. The former annihilates the later and the awful implications are crystallised for us in a devastatingly unsettling denouement.

 

Disobedience (Sebastián Leilo)

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“May you live a long life”. The delivery of this phrase, to the estranged daughter of a highly respected Jewish rabbi, is like a hammer blow of barely disguised contempt. Disobedience, of course, is the crime here and, in what seems to be a running theme in the films I have seen of late, the contortions of how people are defined and define themselves as part of a family, is the context. The monolithic combination of religious doctrine, patriarchal authority and archaic traditionalism provide the totems of oppression; rules, requirements and obligations on those who cannot or will not conform, are the drivers of an austere psycho-drama. How an individual defines freedom from subservience and sacrifice is an interesting theological starting point, but it becomes obvious very swiftly that the autonomy of womanhood presents, surprise surprise, the clear danger to an established order. From the outset my liberal atheist sensibility was internally judging, mocking and condemning an out-of-time moral system; the lesbian relationship enacts a rebellion that is the key narrative focus. Repressed over many years desire burns its way to surface of the film; the depiction of sex succeeds in being carnal without being salacious. The focus on the sheitel wigs however, was perhaps a more strangely effective symbol of control, when Ronit (Rachel Weisz) tries on the role of obedient daughter by wearing the wig, it seems like the most subtly defiant act. I found the film as rigid as the social structures it represents; maybe this is an unsolvable problem or even the authorial intent? It certainly was a claustrophobic ordeal with Rachel McAdams superb in evoking uncertainty and angst . Family antagonisms shifted from emotional nuance to rather cartoonish soap opera and the threads of what were supposedly frayed lives were tied up rather too neatly.

 

Red Sparrow (Francis Lawrence)

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As one gets older one’s tastes change. That is obvious. Maybe I’ve reached a point though where my patience for high concept filmmaking that overtly plays on exploitation for superficial pleasure is in ever shorter supply. Violence, sex, and their many permutations, have always been innate to cinema, as much as they are to life. Some would say the libidinous drive is in the DNA of spectatorial pleasures; at bottom maybe this is why we watch films. Vulgar is a word my grandmother used to use and whereas I don’t consider myself at her level of censorious admonishment of anything slightly off-colour, there was something in the fetishisation of sexual cruelty in Red Sparrow that was disconcerting. Not necessarily the particulars of the aesthetics, although the sexualised violence possessed a nastiness derived from a leering gaze. It was more an unashamed use of dark fantasies in a by-the-numbers cold war narrative that was troubling. I wondered what was the mindset behind the very idea of this film. Why was it made and who is it for? Yes the commercial sell of this film is obvious. Jennifer Lawerence as a Russian ballerina turned secret agent who turns her abuse at the hands of the State into a hyper-sexualised weapon escape to the (somewhat dubious) freedom of the West. Greenlight. Maybe I would have liked this 20 years ago? Which reminds me of the notion that we bring ourselves to any judgement of art; and my 24 year old self is unrecognisable from my 44 year old self. Depictions of sex and violence, especially when combined in ways that amplify the objectification, require some form on interrogation, at the very least they must evoke a sense of consequence in the film world. Any viewing pleasures here were accompanied by intellectual, even moral, reservations. I turned it off after an hour.

 

The Image Book (Jean-Luc Godard)

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It’s difficult to contest the notion that the quintessential experience of the contemporary human condition is fragmentation. Godard’s The Image Book pushes this idea to the limits of the aesthetic possibility that a 90 minute theatrical experience will allow. This essayist collage, sits in a history of films that deliberately point towards and test the limits of cinema, attempting to think beyond not only the confines of continuity storytelling, realist representation, synchronised sound but even the assumed relationship between spectator, screen and space. For the man who coined the famed adage “truth 24 frames a second” one might postulate that the the later half of Godard’s career has been an acerbic reaction to the onset of the digital, and a fuck you to an imagined audience of cultural ingrates. Indeed, The Image Book is ripe for triggering those who think he has, for a long time now, been a cinematic nihilist, going out of his way to obfuscate, alienate and confound. I never once was disengaged while watching The Image Book; in imbibing the familiar and unfamiliar I did perceive a sensory coherence. Yet, the effect is somewhat fleeting. Writing this now, days later, impressions, echoes, and yes, fragments, are what I recall. I want to google the list of cinematic, artistic, literary and musical references Godard draws upon in his Pollock-esque abstractions; I want to impart a sense of the referential so that I might acquire meaning. But the obliteration of indexicality is surely the point here. Godard is doing what we all do in surfing across image, text and sound. The link between representation and reality is obliterated by endless waves of signification. Because he is Godard his surfing is on the highest breaks of artistic audacity; and because he is Godard we get to watch the result at the BFI of course (or on MUBI). Interwoven into the visual melange are the politics; we are still a bankrupt society, eaten away by the capitalist monster within and without. Cinema itself is seemingly complicit; the more ubiquitous the digital image, the less we see the truth? Such contradiction is Godard’s métier. But perhaps the ultimate contradiction lies in the cinematic itself? Sitting in the darkened auditorium I can’t help feel that watching someone else’s surfing, someone else’s assemblage of images, no matter how effective (or possessive of an auteurist provenance), can never reflect what it means to be plugged into a infinite network of communication. The fragment is not just the image on screen, it defines the being-ness of our virtual existence.