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BIRDMAN (2015) & FOXCATCHER (2015)

Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu / Director: Bennett Miller

For full discussion, you guys should check out the No Brow Show I do with my friend Pete. For some shorter thoughts, well...

Birdman's visual and aural oddness (the decision to shoot the whole thing as if it is a single take, and to have the most prominent element of the score be improvised percussion) is beautiful, the validation of spectacle as an art form is an unexpected point for an indie film to make, and I liked the film's fluid, theatrical use of space. I have some qualms about its didactic insistence that the mass audience only ever wants spectacle from its films, the occasionally too-theatrical dialogue (stating your dreams to camera feels weird), and the way the supporting cast becomes lost as the film focusses ever more on Riggin Thompson's (Michael Keaton) mental breakdown. Still despite these issues I'd give the film a big, big thumbs up.

Foxcatcher on the other hand is a pointless film - quite literally. In direct contrast to Birdman, this is a film devoid of cinematic artifice which refuses to explicitly draw any meaning from its subject. This is not ambiguity - this is absence. It felt long and occasionally boring. The only saving grace is Steve Carrell as John DuPont, a fascinating character who might have, in another film, provided a scathing exploration the damage caused by the social need to defer to wealth, even if that wealth was not earned by those in possession of it. Unfortunately the film decided instead to focus on a Greco-Roman wrestler who is effectively a more boring version of Adam Sandler's manchild from Punch Drunk Love. Bad choice.


Written by: Gemma Files
Read by: Gordon Mackenzie

A Book of Tongues is a western with wizards, Mayan/Aztec mythology and male gay sex and oh lord is it fun. Not light and breezy mind, but rich and satisfying. Always a read I was eager to get back into, and yet full of images and turns of phrase capable of dimming the awareness of the world about me, and lighting my focussed brain up with delight. It draws these images from religion, both Aztec and Christian and are generally of an apocalyptic or hellish variety, which is of course where religion gets most wonderfully inventive. So there are passages describing the blinding light reflected from a town turned to salt, and the rows of skulls numerous as stones in the Aztec underworld of Mictlan-Shibalba, and more besides, and it is all sort-of loomingly vivid. Only it's never too grandiose because in the midst of all this magic and miracle you have a characters who express all reactions to it with a pulpy Western turn of phrase, where every word has one more syllable than it oughta and is all the better for it, and the sentences seem to circle around communication (particularly when gay sex gets discussed) rather than dart straight to the point. I cannot quite recall the best examples, being as those phrases are something of an in-the-moment delight, but any book which uses the word 'hexatious' when it wants to say 'like a wizard' is really a damn well-written bit o'yarning.

Then in addition this excellent image-work and language-work, the book even boasts some interesting structure to boot. The beginning and ends of the book are largely communicated through the POV of Edward Morrow, a Pinkerton (a massive private detective and security agency prominent in the late 19th & early 20th centuries) undercover in the criminal gang run by ex-priest and current wizard Asher Rook and his lover Chess Pargeter (the names in this give even Pacific Rim a run for its money). But the centre of the novel is all Asher Rook and while this sudden shift in POV felt a little abrupt at first, its purpose becomes quite clear towards the end. Gemma Files knew the reader would need to understand Rook, and proves willing to break from the linear mould her opening suggested in order to supply that need. And talking of supplying needs...yeah. That skill with language and image means Files also delivers a mean bit of erotica when she wants.

All of this is complemented by a nuanced reading by Gordon Mackenzie. While I was at first a little worried by a too-quick transition from one chapter to another that left too-little time for the impact of the opening to settle, any qualms I had about Mackenzie vanished as soon as he came to voice Asher Rook. The rough growl Mackenzie gives the character is a constant reminder of his strangeness, having been caused by the imperfect hanging that awakened his magic, and perfect to express this regretful, lustful zealot. I do not think the word 'Darlin' could be more perfectly pronounced than with that voice. Yet, while that performance is most-noticeable, it is just one example of how Mackenzie carefully matches voice to character in all instances, from the refined diction of Dr. Asbury to the sullen manner in which Chess usually speaks, to the delicious, malicious humour-warmth of the words of an Aztec goddess.

This book is a tale of gods and lovers, fervent emotion and sinister machinations by humans and the divine alike. Basically, it's a whole lot of fun, and is so because it is strikingly imaginative, well-written and well-read. This is pulp that refuses to cut corners just cos of its genre, and maybe that, in the end, is why I love it so.


There is a moment in Whiplash, during what may be one of the best first dates I've yet seen on film, because of how it balances constantly on a knife-edge of awkwardness, when, after Andrew (Miles Teller) has said The Right Thing, the camera cuts to below the table and Nicole (Melissa Benoist) shifts one foot just a bit so that hers touches his. It is a movement of a centimetre, a millimetre almost, yet though it is so small it communicates a hugeness, a fundamental shift in their relationship. That precise filmmaking characterises Whiplash, both in form and subject. The work of DOP Sharone Meir and editor Tom Cross in the final moments of the power-struggle between Andrew and his mentor/nemesis Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) is incredible, each choice of where to focus and how long to let that focus last building and building on top of the last, and binding me ever more tightly in my seat with tension. Whiplash is made with a love for detail, for small actions, briefly interjecting, only to transfigure the scene as a whole. And the truly awesome part is is that it is Fletcher's demands for a similar precision that spark his conflict with Andrew.

Andrew is a promising, but antisocial, drummer at what he (with characteristically offhand & unintended arrogance) characterises as the best college for musicians in the US, He wants to be great. Fletcher is the conductor of said college's jazz band who wants to create greatness, and believes that doing so requires monstrosity. The story as a result revolves around the confluence in Andrew and Fletchers' aims, and the conflict caused by Fletcher's methods. There are other characters, like Andrew's dad (an adorable Paul Reiser), and the aforementioned Nicole, but their role in the narrative is more to reveal details about Andrew than be independent entities. Rather like Frank, this is a story about two men/boys and a particular myth about the making of art.

Frank's myth-busting is aimed at the notion that pain or disability makes for better artists, when instead it's shown to be a near-crippling problem only barely overcome. Whiplash is about the belief that greatness comes from abusive perfectionism, a particularly film-centric myth that tends to use the excesses of Stanley Kubrick as its main proof. It's understandable that the myth emerged. Art-making is hard. Just the act of writing can feel at times as if one is tearing out one's own brain stem, and that can be done sat-down in the warm, with plenty of snacks to make life as pleasant as possible. The making of films, done by repeating the same moments over and over again in whatever conditions exist onset until practice or chance gains the correct result, is even more exhausting (if perhaps more sociable). Then there's the question of precision. The making of art is about the production of meaning, and while there are a number of different approaches to this, all involve a certain amount of conscious design in what is read, seen and heard. At some point, something is going to need to be perfect else the art itself will not function.

However, while art is laborious and therefore feels unpleasant, and while the function of art depends on perfection, this is not license to conclude that unpleasantness is the means to perfection, that it is the stick rather than the carrot that gets the best results. This is what Fletcher believes, and in acting on that belief he damages Andrew, and in the end stands as an obstacle that Andrew has to overcome to achieve something they both want. The point being, that making art is hard, because getting that making as exact as greatness requires is hard. But it is stoicism, the drive to keep going and keep making, and not further brutality, that leads to the making of great art. And in the end it is the worth of that goal that Whiplash states, through theme, character and its very form, because this is a film where the attention of the camera to the achingly light, shimmering beat of stick on cymbal is as precise and perfectly judged as the musical achievement it captures.
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January 2016


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