Saturday, July 05, 2008

walker: the anti-wanted

alex cox is one of those film-makers with a committed following among people who have managed to discover his work against the odds: his movies don't get shown in too many multiplexes, and you're not likely to find a trailer for them on websites linked to 'people' magazine. most of us know him for the weirded-out sci-fi/property developer film 'repo man', but i just spent part of a cold and sunny saturday afternoon in the company of 'walker', his 1987 piece about the involvement of an early form of neo-con 'take over the world' impetus in mid-19th century nicaragua.

in this movie, massive-scale violence is the inevitable corollary of imperialism, and (bad) religion and (selfish) politics combine to produce a sorry mess; one whose legacy still unfolds today. william walker, as played by the mighty ed harris, is what james mcavoy's character in 'wanted' would become if he ever hired a spin doctor. and the difference between 'walker' and 'wanted' is that alex cox understands that it's possible to make an entertaining film about violent people without falling in love with them.

Friday, July 04, 2008


well, now that i've seen it, certainly not by me.

this is one of the most grotesque, patronising, blunt-edged, monotonous films i've ever seen. the question of what kind of meaning we bring to our own lives is an important one; and movies of course can be as good as any other creative media at exploring it. but 'wanted' appears to suggest that the two options available to every ordinary bloke today are simply these: act out the role of vladimir or estragon, droning away at an office on stage at a theatre of the absurd, or to kill everyone you meet. 'what the f*** have you done lately?, asks james mcavoy before the hard electric guitars start over the end credits, underlining the nihilism he's just given his soul to. well, for one thing, i know something i'm not going to waste my time doing again.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

hope and dealing with the past

A Thought for the Day that I gave on BBC Radio Ulster this morning

We talk a lot these days about dealing with the past; which in itself is a pretty deep concept. I’m convinced it’s far better to try to address the profound sorrow of our recent history than to bury it along with our dead. And yet, talking and thinking about the past can leave us trapped in it – we may find ourselves spiraling into a cycle of revenge in which our conversations are colonized by blaming each other for the pain with which we allowed ourselves to be defined. It brings to mind the image of a person tied to a waterwheel trying to stay dry, and managing to keep out of the water for a few moments at a time. But the wheel just keeps on turning, and the person never lets go.

Where does hope come from in a world where we remain fixed on sorrow? It’s easy to be superficial about hope. It’s easy to talk about the well-known figures of historic peace and justice movements who are held up as examples that we should follow. But, with all due respect to the Gandhis and Martin Luther Kings of this world – because God knows we owe them respect – sometimes I think they are not the most helpful icons of how ordinary people might live peaceably – and hopefully – in a difficult world. To start with, they were public figures, leading public lives. Most of us, naturally, are not scrutinized as they were. We have to get on with the business of finding meaning amidst ordinary work, family pressures, bad weather and mortgages.

So let me offer this story instead. A friend of mine once asked a Holocaust survivor what he feels when he hears a German accent. The man, who had nearly died in a Nazi concentration camp said, ‘It took days for the train to take me to the camp. In the early hours of each morning, the train stopped for a break. And every morning, German villagers came out of the woods, and put food through the slats of the train to feed us. So when I hear a German accent, before I allow myself to think: That person might be the son of the people who tried to kill me; I think: That person might be the son of the people who tried to feed me.’

The story should speak for itself; but if any interpretation is needed, to me this story speaks of how hope does not to have to rely on the future actions of our enemies, whoever we consider them to be, but on the fact that they had more in common with us to begin with than we may ever have realized.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

in defence (?) of m night shyamalan (part 2)

as for lady in the water, here's what i wrote on its release two years ago:

M. Night Shyamalan believes in magic, and he wants us to as well.

He also has an inflated sense of himself.

This is not unreasonable, given that his first major film ‘The Sixth Sense’ launched him at the turn of the millennium as a Hollywood wunderkind, capable of making thrillers so tight they were worthy of the adjective ‘Hitchcockian’, and even seared a new phrase ‘I see dead people’ onto the cultural lexicon. He followed ‘The Sixth Sense’ with another Bruce Willis-starrer, ‘Unbreakable’ – a film that captured the minds of many a Pentecostal youth leader eager to talk about the weight of spiritual vocation, a theme underlined by his next film ‘Signs’, in which the then uncontroversial Mel Gibson (oh how times have changed) played – of all things – a Lutheran pastor in the midst of a crisis of faith. He remained the critics’ (and the audience’s) darling until 2004, with the release of his post-9/11 analogy ‘The Village’, among whose many fans are myself and only one other person I can think of. It’s clear that he loves movies, and that he wants to conjure the same feeling we all used to share as children transfixed by the happenings on-screen – Magic.

And this is what he’s trying to do with ‘Lady in the Water’, a self-styled ‘bedtime story’ about a mermaid/angel hybrid called Story who arrives in an apartment complex in 2006, to warn its residents of how far humanity has strayed from the path of good. Or at least that’s what the opening titles suggest. This notion – that there is ancient wisdom that could save us, if only we would return to the Source – has obvious Christian resonances, that echo in all of Shyamalan’s other films, but the Story in this movie either loses the point, or fails to make it clear in the midst of a somewhat incoherent narrative.

To be sure, there are visual flights of fancy (shot by Christopher Doyle – Wong Kar-Wai’s photographer of choice) that entranced me, and the central performance from Paul Giamatti proves that ‘Sideways’ was not a one-off. But it’s never clear just what Shyamalan is trying to convey through his disappointed characters, and the none-too subtle repetition of television reports of how awful the world news is. Indeed, after the first hour, when I realised that the story wasn’t really the sum of its parts, I found myself feeling bored for the first time in one of his films. There are myths, there are monsters, there are quirky characters aplenty – from a body builder committed to working out one side of his body only to a film critic who meets a sticky end (Shyamalan is clearly a man to bear a grudge)…but there is no overall sense of what the film is really about, or even who it’s for. Is it about one man’s pain, or the whole society’s fear of global terror? Is it about the spiritual vacuum in our world, does it champion or does it critique the gung ho vigilantism that could be a caricature of the Bush administration? Is it merely (and maximally, for these matters are not without merit) an attempt at creating a new fairy tale?

The reason the answers to these questions remain ambivalent is that I’m not sure Shyamalan has decided who his audience is. The film is so convoluted in places, and demands so much attention that it wouldn’t be out of place in a festival of surrealism. And in that context, it might be welcomed as an at least intelligent attempt at post-modern storytelling. But if this is the case, then Shyamalan is guilty of wanting to have his arthouse cake and eat it in a multiplex. A film that is marketed as a scary fairy tale for all the family needs to be a scary fairy tale for all the family, and not a complex narrative about guilt and loss if we’re not going to feel unnecessarily confounded.

Perhaps the key to understanding ‘Lady in the Water’ is the scene in which the film critic claims to know more about the story teller’s intentions than the story teller himself. It’s obvious, and even quite amusing to see Shyamalan take his revenge on the critical family who appeared to mass ranks against him on the release of his last film. However, this attempt at being self-referential leads him to appear ultimately egotistical in the worst sense – in the final analysis, ‘Lady in the Water’ becomes a film about how Important the director thinks his work is. He even plays a character who is told of his cultural and political significance by a divine being (a plot element that would seem less egregious had he not played the character himself). This makes the film at least interesting to those of us who care about peace, justice, and what in ‘Superman Returns’ - another film with Christian resonance released this summer - was referred to as ‘all that stuff’. But it left me only with a feeling of disappointment, confusion, and the desire to sit down and have a good conversation with the director about his worldview and motives, rather than watching the film again. It still has more imagination and ambition than ‘Pirates of the Carribean’ and every other summer blockbuster put together, and perhaps we should be grateful that with ‘Lady in the Water’, Shyamalan has finally broken free of his apparent need to have a major plot twist at the movie’s climax. Next time around, let’s hope he doesn’t forget the plot in the first place.

For thoughts on 'The Happening', check in with this Friday...

Monday, June 30, 2008

in defence of m night shyamalan

ok ok ok

so let's begin with the obvious point about m night shyamalan

it's popular to do him down

so much so that it's easy to forget how much 'the sixth sense' appeared as a remarkable eruption of new talent - a film that managed to get pretty much everything right. and while my mum did predict the twist about 40 minutes in, i think she's in a tiny minority. that film was an elegant piece, that defined 'thriller' as something more than just a mystery story, but one which actually engaged my emotions, and made me think about life and love. and how bruce willis can bring it to the table when he has the right material and director.

'unbreakable', the follow up, which philip french in the observer newspaper rightly described as representing the reason why shyamalan's style - more than any other contemporary director - deserves to be called 'hitchcockian', was about the inner turmoil of a superhero. it's the anti-hancock, and has more drama and reflective pathos than any of the other recent superspiderhulkxman movies you could pick.

'signs' showed signs indeed of shyamalan's possibly simplistic worldview (which seems to be a variation of 'everything happens for a reason' or something like that) , but still managed to be a terrifically entertaining 'bad things lurking outside your window' story. and - this is the key to appreciating his work - showed an increasing mastery of film grammar, camera movement, editing, and knowing how to make an audience feel something.

'the village', which has caused its fair share of arguments among friends, was almost universally denounced, although i happen to think it's a masterpiece, and i use that word very rarely. two things come to mind: this film dares to take seriously the implications of the language used around 9/11 and the 'war on terror' to propose that the consequences of political fear-mongering will ultimately include the death of your own children - and perhaps this idea is simply too horrifying to absorb; secondly, i think critics confused this film with another genre. they thought that because it was shyamalan, and because it was scary, that that made it a horror film, when actually it's one of the most moving love stories i've ever seen.

i'll get to 'lady in the water' and 'the happening' later - for now, let the record show, i think the best way to understand m night shyamalan is to think about him the way philip french used to: he is trying to make hitchcock films. whether or not he is succeeding is not the point - actually, the more interesting question, for me, is whether or not hitchcock is as profound as he is usually assumed to be.