VICTORIA AND ABDUL
A friendship. An unlikely one. And, then, likely feelings.
An invitation to revisit the nature of Love.
The fiction of a bond, perhaps, out of the fragments or pieces of real lives.
An accomplished period piece:
Victorian England offered to the viewer’s increasing delight out of brilliant camera work, editing and acting. A feast of colors, textiles and gazes.
Once upon a time:
The timeless and stifled ritual of the royal dinners
The trappings of aristocratic life
The smooth surface of unruffled conventions.
Until a bold eye meets another bold eye
Stirs and agitates life anew beneath the mask of a foreboding of death.
An encounter that insufflates into an existence already engaged in a leave-taking a sense of possibility and wonder.
The poetics of fated meetings: what could have remained a one-second experience extends to encompass years—a curve in a straight course that calls for renegotiations and reorganizations.
In its wake: jealousies and rivalries. Meanness and cruelty. The game of the court when a new card is found, played and tragically discarded.
The players come and go, who will dictate the rules next?
Delightful dialogues in their wit and pace. In their wake, a comedy of errors.
Yet, the friendship prevails and the journey continues.
A passionate desire to engage with the other and understand him/her
Beyond differences that sometimes turn into disagreements but never causes for estrangement.
Victoria and Abdul. Unless it can be, also, Abdul and Victoria.
Amazing reversibility of Love in its economy of reciprocity and exchange. Tentative and patient.
Even when death does intrude and—apparently, momentarily—separates.
THE GLASS CASTLE
The script proceeds through a series of flashbacks to weave the lifeline of Jeannette’s journey out of poverty from the fragments and ruptures of her first 18 years. A cinematic poetics of love and resilience.
The frightening demise of the father figure who surrenders to addiction and some mental collapse, tearing apart the beautiful fabric of his love for his family—squandering his independent and bold spirit to the grip of inner demons that come to invade and occupy the space left vacant by his departing sanity.
The mother is a tragic Eurydice trying to call forth her husband away from the Dance of his unhappy Shades. She, too, is involved in a form of escape: she is engrossed in her work and cannot always see the needs of those around her (the opening sequence stages her dangerous neglect). Yet she is presented in the film as a mediator between the father’s increasing dysfunctional behavior and the children’s growing angst.
The Frontier provides an entry into the leitmotiv of courage and survival. The visual and cinematic poetry of the car driving into the wilderness to stop by an improvised camping site for the night invites the viewer to place the actual images within a larger spatial and temporal scope. The discussion about (and around) the fire and its “border between chaos and order” sounds both historic and mythical—even prophetic. Heading into the wilderness is what the movie is about. The encounter with wild (outer and inner) spaces does not leave you unchanged and undamaged. Sometimes, you have to lose yourself in order to find yourself, as the famous line goes: a deliverance of some sort, indeed. And, like in Dickey’s world, a smooth surface (water or other) conceals hidden ghosts and secrets that eventually come back—the uninvited and intrusive protagonists on the stage of your “normal” life.
MADE IN AMERICA
The true story is given a fictional flavor through the use of cartoon-like images and flashes.
Of note: the overall video-game quality of the aesthetics and the pace of the narrative and visual lines.
The opening sequence displays an epigrammatic dimension : Commercial pilot Barry Seal takes the opportunity of his co-pilot falling asleep to fly the airplane in his own way, creating thrill for him as a pilot but terror in the passengers who do not know what is happening. Barry is willing to forego rules to indulge in his own pleasure, jeopardizing the life of others (passengers this time, his own family later on) in the process.
A cautionary tale, perhaps, about how a passion (in his case, flying) becomes the means of an enslavement. A parabolic warning of sorts: what goes around comes around.
The slow descent into the moral abyss, the parallel road of secrecy and greed.
The slow trap closing in.
The stalemate between the rule of law (FBI) and the jungle law (the drug cartel).
He becomes a mediator, he does not see the strings attached to his freedom.
His gradual loss of agency.
The tragic foreboding: the story of his wife’s brother—the first casualty left on the road of corruption.
The collateral damage: the lack of freedom, the damage on his family, the loss of his life, eventually. He ends up as a disposable pawn that is discarded by both sides once he has yielded whatever was useful for those in (real) power.
The final image: his wife has resumed her waitressing job, a diamond bracelet at her wrist. The legacy of her marriage: a piece of jewelry that has become incongruous in her new (working) life.
The cartoonish drawing maps out the political contours of the parable: the world, for the wealthy and powerful, has become a board game where pushing one’s tokens or chips where and when they are needed is the only rule.
The pace of the movie gives the unreal (in terms of the extent and reach of the corruption) a grotesque dimension. The comedy intersects with the terrifying as the cinematic actions represent stark and dark political realities: drug and weapon trafficking, warfare and the overthrow of elected regimes. The swift succession of events stages the domino effect of corruption. The systematic hijacking of the rule of law in the face of a pervasive jungle law.
The movie invites the viewer to revisit the political epic of Central and South America where democratic forces were systematically hijacked and destroyed.
The collusion of economic powers (drug cartels) and political agendas (the Cold War).
The insertion of newsreel (showing Ronald and Nancy Reagan for example) creates an eerie effect: we are tempted to dismiss them as another fiction, another film plot designed to entertain viewers (all the more so since sometimes they are juxtaposed with shots from Reagan’s movies). The speeches underline the corrosive effect of hypocrisy as they expose the gap between the words and the actions. And the deadly game of powerful groups competing for control and extortion of the world’s resources (human and political, in particular).
Food for thought: Barry’s line “I should have asked more questions” …
WHAT HAPPENED TO MONDAY?
Set in 2073, yet the opening sequence presents us with images squarely drawn out of our contemporary landscape of disaster: environmental catastrophes, nightmarish urban landscapes, crowds of “hollow men” (to use T.S. Eliot’s image) walking a planet that has become a waste land (moral, economic, political … and human!).
The SF dimension is mired in (all too) contemporary problems: overpopulation, eugenics, new technology, the weaponization of politics and the militarizing of daily life (including security forces).
Seven babies: the seven dwarves? The fairy tale dimension is present in the fictional dimension of the science /technology displayed.
Seven sisters: the seven Pleiades of the Antiquity?
They are named after the days of the week: the Biblical Genesis of the earth?
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday
No day for the Sabbath in a world that has evacuated the divine and His legacy. Human kind has usurped the demiurgic power of God, turning life and death into a “process” completely monitored and engineered by man-made institutions.
A contrast between the world of childhood and the later world of their 30’s.
Learning the value of the family bond
The grandfather’s role as educator and mentor.
Monday is initiated into the value of sacrifice and leadership: she bears their mark in her flesh (the severing of the finger). She is the role model.
She is bold enough to start dating and imagines a future out of the family circle. She becomes willing to sacrifice the very family she was supposed to support and sustain.
Of particular interest:
The place of New Technology (in particular the Internet of things).
The ubiquitous place of recording, positioning, tracking.
Data collecting and processing. Information turning into knowledge
The physical body is only a necessary extension of the mechanical and computational reality of the characters.
The outside world is devoid of any (sensual and sensory) pleasure: grim-looking city overcrowded with grim-looking figures/faces.
Walking has become an exercise in negotiating your place on sidewalks that feel like highways.
Visually: Metropolis like cityscape, or Blade Runner dystopia (1985 and 2017 vintages).
The deployment of gunfire and high tech weapons
A choreography of graphic violence and a theatre of violence where women are the main protagonists.
The child allocation agency: a tyrannical agenda disguised as institutional reform! The destruction of the children evokes other historical times when orchestrated systems of mass-produced death and protocols to eradicate life were in place.
The predatory doctor (aptly named Nicolette Cayman) ministering to death under the guise of protecting life.
Her final lines have a terrifying ring /overtone: “Who is going to make the difficult decisions that will allow you to live on this planet?”.
Like some portentous oracle for us.
And the recurring question in human history: does the end justify the means?
The unraveling of different ideologies with a touch of British humor.
The ingredients of a great play: brilliant dialogues, swift actions, and unity of place, action and time
A feat of compression (rendered all the more effective since the movie is only 1h11 long!)
The coming and going of passions and rivalries
Rehearsing a series of existential twins: desire and sexuality, passion and love, friendship and loyalty.
A sense of continuity and rupture epitomized in the physical dynamic in space (moving about the place as an actor moves about his/her “circumstances” on a stage: retreating to the kitchen, to the bathroom, storming back, wading in the wake of uttered lines, confronting the intruder on your doorstep).
To abide by principles, pledges, vows
Or to betray them.
The political persona and the vulnerable woman
Ambition and deceit/cheating and being cheated on
The love game/The disappointment
The sudden violence (see the main prop: the gun)
The grotesque elements: exaggeration, the ludicrous, the incongruous
The quick loss of everything you have struggled to accomplish and cherish.
The comic and tragic reversals of life/the reversibility of things in general, in particular human emotions: from love to hatred to love to…./From loyalty to betrayal to…
From fullness and belonging to emptiness and alienation.
The redemptive dimension of friendship.
The ultimate denouement…
An exploration of female desire in the context of the Southern imagination.
A no exit atmosphere: the plantation house and its attending park (compare with the opening paragraph of “The Fall of the House of Usher”).
The opening scene conveys a sense of threat actualized much later.
Yet, a foreboding of the grimness to come.
The Southern genre:
-The Civil War and its other (female) protagonists
-Codes of femininity and female behavior/Sexuality and the body in the Southern imagination
-The mansion and its secret: mad women and a man in the attic…
-Southern belle iconography revisited: the incongruity of the hoop skirt in a context where women have to be off their pedestals to do the work formerly done by the slaves.
-The chivalric codes: the Confederate soldiers’ protection against the (outer) enemy.
– Maintaining a routine of normalcy in the face of extreme deprivation, violence, and chaos
-The Southern lady performing a necessary operation or a deliberate amputation? Human care and compassion or revenge on the enemy?
The fall in the staircase has reopened the wound: can broken relationships be sutured back into shape?
The Gothic script and props (mirror/window, knife and gun):
1–The dialectic bully/victim (see Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” for example)
2– The theme of the double (picking/collecting/eating: the same activities can be twisted to become deadly)
Something that looks good (and was good) can be turned into a fatal weapon (with the occasional link to the fairy tale genre, see Miss Peregrine)
The soldier looked good but harbored a lot of violence (his inner demons).
3–The haunted house/the abandoned vegetable/fruit garden (see Ada’s garden in Cold Mountain)
NB. The archetypal plantation house: a reminder of Gone with the Wind
Nicole Kidman’s twin performance in both Cold Mountain and Beguiled: playing an older version of her character, like Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire
A play of echoes and whispers/shades and shadows.
4–The ‘attic’: the room upstairs (“the region upstairs” in “A Rose for Emily”)
5–The conflict between good and evil/light and darkness
Religion, its rituals and biblical imagery.
6–The materiality of death/of the corpse: some dead bodies are invisible (loss of the loved ones), one is bagged away from sight.
7–The blurring of boundaries:
-Spatial boundaries in the house: the absence of slaves has disrupted the hierarchical and proper order/organization of the domestic space.
-Legitimate forms of desire (within the bond of marriage) and desire on the lose/unleashed by lack and longing.
-A properly grown and tended garden versus lose vegetation/weeds creeping up.
-The fenced-off property versus the wilderness around (human and natural)
The mushroom as synecdoche for tamed or unleashed wilderness.
-Codes of proper behavior (women separated from men) versus the necessities of war (tending to the soldier, seeing his nakedness, touching his body)
-Troping the ritual associated with evening prayer into a ritual of courtship. Attention deflected away from the transcendent to the material level of the body (female eyes, voice, physical presence).
In the final scene, when the camera moves away from the body bag on the other side of the gate: a Southern gothic cameo suggesting the legacy of the plantation order.
Cairo and its magic. Its undertow of corruption, noise and pollution. Its beauty and ingenious survival.
A hero on the move. At first, Nour is stuck in his groove of racketing and corruption. Money has become an end in itself until his father talks to him about dignity from the midst of his own poverty.
A Somalian maid trying to survive. An innocent witness in the wrong place at the wrong time.
A rich and ambitious but lustful entrepreneur protected by the highest state security services.
One woman killed. Then another. Sacrificed on the altar of powerful men who use and discard them.
For Nour, a wake-up call that triggers his sense of loss anew—the loss of the beloved wife to a car accident. And now, the loss of a beloved one night stand to a political incident.
The night scenes mirror the mental and moral landscape.
Artful editing highlights daily details, and the pervasive fatigue and weariness.
The close-ups disclose individual portraits of love, fear, anger, cruelty or indifference.
The Suspense/thriller plot works up toward the historical event of Tahir Square, a perfect—if indirect—illustration of why people rebelled.
The movie helps understand the predicament of the vendor who set himself on fire. It shows the racketing of even the weakest and smallest whereas the super wealthy play golf and have their cumbersome lovers killed by the very system that is supposed to uphold the law….
The final tragic irony: Nour gets beaten up while his corrupted uncle manages to walk away with the suitcase full of money…
One of the youths intervenes: “we are not like them”…The crowd lets go of Nour.
Nour, too, is not like them. Whether they (the crowd) will know it or not.
Nour has failed to bring the culprit to justice . Yet he has managed to save Salwa’s life.
The open-ended concluding sequence rehearses, perhaps, the lack of closure brought about by the Arab Spring: what is left of the spirit? Can people expect a better future? Or is it just back to business (corruption and poverty)?
Beyond the harrowing view of Egyptian life: a prophetic view of the future in our Western democracies eroded by greed and materialism… a world where money, like in the Egypt staged by Tarik Saleh, has become an idol, replacing all sense of transcendence and God.
SONG TO SONG
Breaking conventional viewing expectations
Telling about the fragmentary quality of human life and human relationships through the camera work and the editing.
No linear chronology, journeying back into the past to reveal the foundational biographical elements and events
A gallery of characters affected either by personal loss (the death of a loved one, the loss of stability) or addiction (alcohol, drugs, sex, money, status symbols).
Men and women
Men without women
Women without men.
Negotiating a different existential context (having to take up a job, making ends meet, being alone)
Redrawing the boundaries of one’s life and expectations.
A fascination for wealth and yet an awareness of its limitations/its incapacity to provide happiness.
Human relationships made and unmade in the process:
The unraveling of bonds torn apart by jealousy, deceit, suspicion, a lack of loyalty.
Playing with the curtains: playing a hide and seek game? Concealing a real identity? A desire for shelter?
Music as escape, a way out of poverty
The female body as an object of desire and, sometimes, consumption:
Admired and worshipped
Bought and abused.
The physical dimension as protagonist: the body in the spatial arrangement of the frame/the spatial circumstances given to the characters).
Film language is squeezed out of its comfortable habits: a camera plot, the use of swift cutting and editing, the play on and with ellipsis.
A suggestive opening sequence provides a thematic and visual roadmap for the whole movie.
Preys and predators
The film explores other forms of hunting, other forms of appropriation and killing.
NB. The viewer later understands that the very first images—with Emily’s voice over reciting the poem she wrote to be admitted into college—is a flashback: Natalie’s escape in the snow. We are meant to connect the fate of the two women, their loss to human (male) and natural violence. The final tribute (over the end credit sequence) makes this link clear: the movie is a tribute to and a testimony for “Native American women” who have disappeared over the years.
The thriller dimension: fairly conventional, except for the fact that the hunting theme (and the hunter) is literalized. Animal hunting gets deployed into 2 dimensions (the hunter is now involved in a human chase).
The role of education: to rise above fate and the weight of original circumstances.
Way out for the main character who tries in turn to teach his son how to conquer his surrounding through the taming of the horse: do you give way to fear or do you try to overcome it? In order, perhaps, to assert your human nature over your animal instincts.
Transmission and filial lines are broken as a result of violence (human and natural): the loss of the ancestors for Natalie’s father (“there is no one left to teach me how to make the death mask”), the loss of Natalie, the loss of Emily.
Transmission has been interrupted. Yet the movie ends on a hopeful possibility:
Chip has called his father: “He had not called me in a year. Today he did”.
The different levels of authority: tribal, state and federal
The intertwining dynamics of these forms of power, their legitimacy and validity (or lack thereof) where the Frontier has made violence the only rule at play, transgressing the political and legal infrastructure the nation is so proud of.
No checks and balances out there….
The return to basic forms of power enforcement based on physical force or who has a gun or not. Off limits in terms of the legal system/any kind of legal enforcement (the tribal sheriff that gets killed).
A world where women can be raped and killed randomly, where no punishment is enacted unless you can do so physically.
The fact that the FBI agent authorizes the last killing shows the fragility of the rule of law—a sort of contamination has taken place: she has become like “them”
As viewers, we are manipulated into agreeing with this form of extreme vigilante violence…
What to make of it?
A bold and thought-provoking sound track that creates an alternative voice, another pattern (singing/creating as a voice over the noise of the wilderness or its silence: the policing and polishing effect of the human touch in its creative and beautiful and respectful dimension versus the unleashing of raw violence and lust).
The raping of the woman is emblematic of the raping of the land (the rapists are the workers drilling the land…); in Arthur Miller’s words in The Crucible: “lust for land”: sexual lust and greed partake of the same impulse to appropriate the other (human or natural) for one’s pleasure and enjoyment.
Revisiting the legacy of the appropriation of Native American resources.
A powerful movie poised between documentary, fiction and (politically) committed filmmaking.
ALSO OF NOTE….
A heist in the context of West Virginia. In the grotesque approach mastered on screen by Joel and Ethan Coen in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
The slapstick element of the quasi farcical resilience of the characters who could be crushed by their fate but are not!
The dark shadow of poverty and jail sentences.
The Nascar background:
the crowd and the excitement/the communal experience
Of particular interest:
Daniel Craig’s undoing of his screen glamor in the Bond movies
The final twist…
THE PLANET OF THE APES
Warfare/Love/high tech weapons/An environmental catastrophe
The opening sequence visually creates links with current forms and deployment of guerrilla warfare, in particular in Iraq and Syria.
A highly orchestrated resistance
A Moses figure: to lead the people to the promised land but to fail to enter it.
An avalanche with a paradigmatic relationship to a type of nature set in action by humans (a shooting starts the avalanche) and gone out of control.
Today’s climate ordeal?
Man-made impact on the natural environment can no longer be held in check, as the recent hurricanes and their devastating effects have shown
Where does the SF start and the contemporary tale stop?
Warfare: its grueling physical and mental traps and toll.
No exit mood
The sense of constant danger
Grusome destruction of the human psyche and body
A landscape of disaster on the ground, on the sea and in the air
The film is constructed like a three-act tragic play
Grand sea epic and air opera and earth dance of death
Shakespeare’s words come to mind: a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury.
Life can be snuffed out like a candle.
The absurdity of human life too: men at sea, trapped in burning oil
They either die of drowning or burning
A nightmarish space of the paradoxical experiences engineered by war.
The devotion of civilians who risk their lives to save the military
The commitment of the Admiral on the pier—till the end.
The tragedy of a political chess game: hopes, expectations, deceptions and disappointments.
The world of colors and light
Of darkness and night scenes
The slaughters (hardly shown) relegated to reports, newspapers headlines, and imagined stories. The scars on a few bodies, the images of people on the move (exceeding their historical timing: leaking into our present) and their descent into the Inferno of religious and ethnic slaughter.
The collective drama and story also addressed through the individual predicament: Jeet and Aila, straddling on the border, playing with religious taboos. Yet, they make it (love) happen: it is possible to make it happen.
At the end, we realize the film director’s personal involvement in the story.
The conflicts in the house mirroring the conflicts in the real world.
The dirty political game, with its playing and its played protagonists
The honesty of certain figures (Lord Cyril, who produces the map drawn by Churchill, the master plan underlying Mountbatten’s mission):
Losing one’s sense of agency to a larger imperative.
The individual ties, the network of trust and friendship, even across national and religious lines. The moments of complicity.
Innocents caught in the midst
Cohorts of refugees and deportees.
And, also, extraordinary coincidences.
The miracle of death avoided and held at bay.
Life prevails. For now.
Pygmalion or Prometheus unbound?
The Biblical story of Genesis?
The opening sequence: who has the agency?
The “machine” looking at his (its?) creator now but will live on…
To look at your creation and know you will not outlive it
/to look at your creator and know you will outlive him
To become a creator yourself by instrumentalizing the human body in return:
a self-referential story about the way we have usurped God’s demiurgic and creative power?
AI and its current enhanced aftermath:
A world of very sophisticated machines that will not be replaced by second-rates one
David will not go away: He (it?) imitates the new robot /passes for the new robot. To destroy. Not to love.
The deceptive nature of sameness with a difference.
Clones and their risks/their aftermath.
The grotesque dimension of the new creatures:
Ugliness as a counter canonical avatar of the creative impulse?
A form of anti creation? The mirror of its malevolent creator?
A pandemic/a deadly infection.
Revisiting the American cultural imagination (literary/cinematic: Star Wars visual effects and aural cues)
Rewriting—perhaps— American History and the vision promoted by the ideology of the Manifest Destiny:
New heroes in the log cabin (dream)?
Or in the city?…
BLADE RUNNER 2049 on the way.