December 9, 2018
The opening credits for Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma unfold atop an image which patiently, dazzlingly, explains itself. The camera is perpendicular to the ground, paving stones laid out in a hexagonal pattern. This perspective on the is revealed when water is splashed across the stones after maybe thirty seconds of titles. The arrival of the suds reveals a square of light reflected above, the outline of a building top in silhouette and, eventually, a plane flying overhead (the latter image becoming one of the film’s motifs). Throughout the film there are similar sequences where the “meaning” or angle on an image is slowly revealed; this opening image in particular prepares us for the frequent reprisal of images of set-ups, weighted with different meaning or import as they reappear.
A second “reveal” occurs for this opening image later on, when we see maid Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) repeating the action of throwing water across the paving stones from a more conventional angle: it turns out she’s cleaning up the dog shit left by the family pet in the entryway to their large home. Then there’s the father, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), returning home from work and struggling to successfully park his enormous Ford Galaxy in the small parking space, repeatedly backing out and approaching from another angle so as not to damage the wing mirrors, which initially appears as a none-too-subtle symbol of his outsize, retrograde masculinity fails to fit into the family unit. But later, once he has taken his leave from the family and absconded with his mistress, bereft mother Sofia (Marina de Tavira) delights in drunkenly dragging the car’s side along the wall in a deliberate act of destruction, which itself mirrors an earlier scene where she drives a pregnant Cleo to the hospital and intentionally gets the car sandwiched between two trucks at a red light. The third “act” of this image comes towards the film’s end where, accepting her husband will not be returning, Sofia trades the Galaxy in for a more sensibly-sized Volvo that glides into the entryway without fuss.
Elsewhere, there is the repeated use of deep focus, with background action that draws the viewer’s attention away from the (arguably more important) foreground, as when Cleo is abandoned by boyfriend Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), after revealing she’s pregnant, at a movie theatre. The pair sit in their seats in the left hand corner of the frame, dwarfed by the action on the huge cinema screen that takes up the rest of the composition. This sets us up for the tragic scene later on where Sofia and Fermin’s child is stillborn, with Sofia in the foreground and the paediatrician’s attempts to perform CPR on the baby obscured by lack of focus in the back.
There are resolves on a metatextual level as well, as Cuarón includes allusions to his previous work. I didn’t notice any Prisoner of Azkaban nods, but there’s a clip from the 1969 film Marooned with two astronauts attempting to reach one another in the vacuum of space, deliberately recalling his Oscar-winning Gravity from 2013, and during the frightening recreation of 1971’s Corpus Christi massacre Cuarón again references Michelangelo’s “Pietà” as a woman holds a dead loved one’s body, something he previously did in Children of Men’s climactic action sequence.
Despite speaking in a post-screening Q&A at the Curzon Soho a couple of weekends ago that he wrote the screenplay in two weeks without regard for structure or arcs, these are elegant and powerful uses of visual and structural meaning. Which is why I was a little disappointed in the title cards which immediately proceed the image of the water on the paving stones.
Language plays a key part in establishing Roma’s exploration of class difference and hierarchy in seventies Mexico, itself inextricably linked to race and gender. Cleo and fellow maid Adela speak to each other not in the Spanish they use for the family, but a dialect derived from the Mixetc languages, spoken by roughly half a million indigenous Mexican peoples. It’s a differentiation that comes up naturally over the course of the film. In an early scene the youngest son of the household complains that he can’t understand what Cleo and Adela are saying to each other. Yet before that scene there is the title card which states outright that different languages will be spoken in the film, and explains how the subtitling style differentiates. Spanish in standard subtitles, [Mixtec in squared brackets], and any other spoken language remains untranslated.
Without it, the “revelation” of the different languages spoken would work similarly to the visual motifs I’ve listed previously. Language becomes one of the key parts of understanding Roma’s politics, intricate as they are. As darker-skinned indigenous peoples, and working class women at that, Cleo and Adela are not understood by most around them and are at the bottom of the food chain, societally speaking. Lower than them are the animals, whose unintelligible (by humans) calls make up most of the film’s soundtrack — there is no non-diegetic music I can remember — from the family pooch and birds to the stray dogs howling throughout the neighbourhood.
The family they work for all speak Spanish, and are nominally top of the chain in their comfortable upper-middle class existence (Antonio is a doctor, Sofia a qualified biochemist, and despite the obvious expense of a live-in grandma and four kids they appear to want for nothing). Yet as much as there is a stark divide between the haves and have-nots delineated linguistically, there are those who are lighter-skinned and better off still. The family, minus Antonio, go to stay at a family friend’s hacienda for New Year’s, where the kids bemoan that the other groups there — including a Swedish family and a rich Mexican who married a blonde American woman — only speak English, and refuse to converse in Spanish.
In this same sequence, one of the other family’s maids who has been brought along on the trip gets lightly mocked by the kids when she can’t conjure up the word to describe the foot of a hill. She gropes for the term but ends up referring to the hill’s skirt, which inspires a boisterous riff on lifting it up and seeing the hill’s panties from the pre-pubescent boys, a gag nonetheless at the expense of the indigenous woman and further highlighting the divide between these rich kids and their servant. Combine this with the moments when other indigenous Mexicans appear in groups — as when Cleo takes a bus to Fermín’s rural hometown to track him down — and their cross-talk is subtitled simply as “[indigenous language],” and you might have had a “resolve” of dialogue and its meaning in Roma similar to the visual rhymes found elsewhere.
November 18, 2018
Marking time until his impending court martial, discharged former Legionnaire Galoup (Denis Lavant) laments that he is “unfit for civilian life.” He tries to keep busy in his Marseilles apartment, but is nonetheless bereft of purpose when rent from the rigorous routine life as Chief Adjutant gave him. This sense of purpose his military service provided is proven to have been an illusion, however, or at least only a temporary panacea. Lavant’s voiceover preceded this line with the assertion that the character is, perhaps, simply “unfit for life” in general. As the numerous choreographed, ritualistic exercises in Claire Denis’s Beau Travail show, his military career was in fact similarly aimless.
Set in the deserts of Djibouti, an African border country and former French colony, this loose adaptation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd is a war film, only without a war. Cinematographer Agnès Godard captures the tanned, athletic bodies of Galoup’s troop as they go through endurance tests in the baking heat, run through assault courses, enact group exercises that appear more like dance, more or less always in close-up and shorn of context. We do not see Galoup leading the exercises, beginning them, explaining them. What we know is that these rituals are largely unnecessary. Djibouti is not at war. There is no conflict the Legionnaires are preparing for, no border that requires defense. Why are they even there?
In Reverse Shot’s symposium on Denis, Andrew Chan quotes how “Rob White has noted that the Legionnaires’ training exercises, despite once being preparations for violence, are now a choreography ‘evacuated’ of meaning in a postcolonial world.” There choreographed moves — and the colonialist aggression they imply — are put to use only during the sequences, including one which opens the film, where the soldiers descend upon the local women in a cheesy nightclub. Outside of that setting, it is difficult to identify a purpose in their continued presence in Djibouti, nor on the insistence on continuing to follow routine and protocol.
It is this absence of a compelling reason to continue that Galoup feels free to march his soldiers to an isolated area of the country to make camp. He admits himself there is nothing there and no reason for a military presence, cooking up the lie of a road that needs maintenance; but if they have no purpose wherever they are, does it matter where they go? It is this lack of a clear, defined mission that also proves to be the troop’s downfall, as the numbing routine gives ample room for Galoup’s jealousies towards new recruit Sentain (Grégoire Colin) to fester until such a point as he sends him to die on the salt flats beyond their camp, equipped with a faulty compass.
While much is made of Beau Travail’s camera enacting a sort of “female gaze,” or arguably an appropriated homoerotic gaze (being as the film is identified principally with its women authors: Denis, Godard, and editor Nelly Quettier, while setting aside co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau), much of the cinematography is also downright claustrophobic. While the point of using selections from Britten’s Billy Budd opera over the exercises of the men is somewhat clear — as there movements are both shorn of the context of combat, and for the camera, they are closer to performance — there are also the original compositions from Charles Henri Pierrefeu and Eran Zur, which evoke a horribly queasy dread.
The use of close ups demands we focus on what is in the frame, but the tension implied by the music suggests something awful might be happening just outside of it, or awaiting us in a cut to a wider angle. It’s a visual parallel to the psychology of Galoup who, when he is at last made aware of quite how unfit for life he is, and untethered from a sense of purpose the Foreign Legion had previously given him, allows his detachment and isolation to curdle into murderous jealousy. Having spent so much of his life zoomed in on the particulars of protocol, the opening up of the his emotional frame inspired by Sentain’s arrival is too much to take.
As the camera pulls back, the loneliness of Galoup comes into focus. He sets the table while his troops frolic in the sea. He is set apart from the soldiers in their uniforms, as they march down a street at night, or hoist each other on their shoulders during the day. His horizons are widened, and it is for the worst. Wide-angle lenses are used to capture some of the film’s more dreadful images, as with the dead body of the soldier killed in the helicopter crash floating in the sea like a bloodied buoy. The death sentence he sends down to Sentain becomes a form of self-sabotage, an attempt to zoom back in from the macro to the micro, from indelible wide shot to cloistering close up. Yet back in France, Lavant is still mostly shot in such a way as to highlight his detachment from the world around him, whether climbing a tree to prune its dead branches with an empty sky behind him and an implied drop beneath, or sat gazing out the window of an nearly-empty metro car.
The iconic coda of Beau Travail offers Galoup both the closing up of his frame which he desires, and the possibility of transcending it. Godard returns to the claustrophobic close up as we see Lavant make his bed in the military style, the sheets as taught and tight as his self-contained performance. The camera then floats across details of Galoup’s body as he rests a pistol against his chest: the chain around his neck, a tattoo which reads “sert la bonne cause et meurt” above his nipple (“Serve the good cause and die”), before arriving at a protruding, pumping vein in his bicep. Its the beating of blood through this vein that allows the cut to Lavant in a wide shot. The camera is set far back, his entire body in view, as Galoup — dressed in the gladrags we saw him preparing in an earlier scene in Djibouti, and stood against the mirrored wall of the night club which reoccured in his reminiscences — dances freely and without self-consciousness, allowing himself to at least imagine a life where an expanded scope means life, not death.
November 13, 2018
“She’s not a final girl, exactly, but the Mennonite Susie Bannion that you meet at the beginning, obviously isn’t the person that you have at the end of the film. I think what I would say about it is, in most horror films, that main character is just the object of the violence of the film, of the threat of the film. We wanted Susie to be sometimes, and certainly by the end, the subject of the horror of the film. To me that distinction is a pretty great one.” - David Kajganich
The term “post-horror” will throw up 511,000,000 results when you type it into Google. The web is lousy with reviews, listicles and think pieces that use it. It’s not entirely clear what the “post” thing is about, what these genre films have transcended or are otherwise following in the wake. The obvious/glib/mostly true answer is that they don’t bother being scary, where pre-post-horror films were mostly preoccupied with terrifying their audiences. A couple of upcoming releases I saw at last month’s London Film Festival (one of which arrives in UK cinemas this week, the other of which might be a trickier prospect to sell to audiences) suggest that the missing word in the term is “theory.”
The deck was stacked against Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake from the jump. Yet the director made all the right noises about his take on the cult classic Dario Argento film: he talked about it being a beloved movie from his formative filmgoing years, he was going to do a different take which would involve the fraught political situation of the original’s seventies Berlin setting, Tilda Swinton was going to play an old man in it, and Thom Yorke was to provide the soundtrack. Plus the director was just coming off the back of his Oscar-nominated Call Me By Your Name.
Nevertheless, the film is a dud. Even accounting for my getting up at 6am to travel in for its screening at the Leicester Square Cineworld, my attention could not be held for the full two-and-a-half-hour running time. Guadagnino’s film meanders, forgetting for large portions that its main plot involves a dance school run by literal witches whose performances double as rituals, and instead focussing on the aforementioned Swinton-as-old-man’s lingering shame over failing to save his dead wife from the Nazis. The gestures towards the Baader-Meinhoff Group and such turn out to be entirely airless. The backstory of Dakota Johnson’s Susie Bannon, who abandoned her Amish family to become a dancer using her natural aptitude while her mother died of a mysterious illness, is similarly without weight. There is little visual ingenuity, narrative intrigue, or compelling themes. And, of course, it’s not particularly scary. Taylor Antrim took a lot of stick online for his clowning on Suspiria and the recent Netflix Haunting of Hill House series, but he’s mostly on point when he asks where horror movies have gone in 2018, and especially when he takes the likes of the new Halloween to task for “cynically” invoking a “vision of female empowerment.”
Most of the features slapped with the post-horror tag are those where the filmmaker, studio, or critics who get a first look and thus first chance to define the movie’s reception to a certain degree, insist are “not just horror films.” In most cases what this means is that the films make their themes or allusions explicit, ala everyone yelling at Jamie Lee Curtis that she has PTSD in the new Halloween or the internet interpreters tripping over their dicks trying to explain to you that, actually, the true horror in Hereditary is trauma and grief (alongside the literal Satan-worshipping cult at the end (woops, spoilers?)).
This is a misunderstanding of what horror films, and genre fiction on the whole, has traditionally done throughout the history of popular culture, ie to reflect the fears and anxieties clutched from the zeitgeist and wrestled into the form of a noir detective plot or slasher flick. We now have as many filmmakers whose template for a horror film is Adam Simon’s documentary American Nightmare, which lays bear how the genre movies coming out of the states in the sixties and seventies reflected the upheaval of the same period, or Carol J Clover’s seminal academic text Men, Women, and Chain Saws.
Having seen the film, it’s entirely unsurprising that Suspiria screenwriter David Kajganich — who previously collaborated with the director on his worst film, A Bigger Splash, which also remade an older movie but never satisfyingly brings together its many promising elements — invoked Clover’s book, where the term “Final Girl” originated, as an inspiration on the film. Instead of ever bothering to be transgressive, horrifying, or somehow insightful when it comes to its core concepts of womanhood, witchcraft and trauma, Kajganich’s script instead includes an improbably inelegant “#BelieveWomen” speech at the bloody climax, Dakota Johnson’s faux-ingenue (who joins the school and immediately supplants one of the other students as the coven’s favourite) gasps that performing is what she imagines sex feels like (a line which only could’ve been written by a man and which is nowhere near as fun or provocative as, say, the “You’re killing people!” No, I’m killing boys” exchange from Jennifer’s Body, a nominally more mainstream and conventional movie), and is otherwise simply dull.
Suspiria is the nadir of post-theory horror. There’s a laugh line about Lacan in it, for fuck’s sake. Texts such as Clover’s pull apart the generic tropes of a genre to analyse how it might reflect cultural, societal, and (especially in terms of horror) gendered norms; they are not Syd Field-style screenwriting manuals which provide a helpful way of making a feminist horror movie. It cannot be overstated how much Suspiria is a film made by pseudo-intellectual men — although, admittedly, one of the few moments of dark humour and genuine witchy mischief in the film is when the coven entrance a pair of cops who visit the school and force them to strip so they can laugh at the size of their knobs — about women.
Peter Strickland’s In Fabric, meanwhile, is similarly guided by theory but is quite good, actually. In this case it is not Clover’s feminist critique of the slasher film which provides the inspiration, but the well-worn intellectual bromide of hauntology. It’s a term which originated with Derrida, but is now better recognised by the “post-war Britain was odd, eh?” vein of online ephemera (think Scarfolk), music (exemplified by the Ghost Box record label) and veneration of creepy seventies kids shows (The Changes, Children of the Stone). Lead initially by the dearly-departed theorist Mark Fisher, hauntology has transitioned from affect to aesthetic, one which Strickland deploys ably and not without self-awareness.
Where his previous features as director have been similarly postmodern and self-reflexive — Berberian Sound Studio centred on Toby Jones’s sound designer going mad while working on a giallo; The Duke of Burgundy was a conscious tribute to Spanish genre filmmaker Jess Franco — and with more than a hint of the hauntological to them, In Fabric is the first of Strickland’s films that could be termed post-theory horror. A sort of absurdist, blackly comic psychosexual (like Call Me By Your Name before it, Suspiria feels comparably sexless to the point of conservatism) portmanteau film that is nonetheless still genuinely frightening in places, it links two stories by dint of a cursed dress bought from a bizarro department store.
In the first half, we follow Marianne Jean-Baptiste as a recently-divorced mother getting back into the dating game and struggling to accept her teenage son’s relationship with a much older lover, played by Gwendoline Christie. She buys the dress and finds it both aids her in her quest to find a new man, whilst also attracting unwelcome attention from a vicious dog and appearing to her in ghostly visions at night. In the second, washing machine repairman Leo Bill ends up with the dress on his stag do, and it continues to haunt him (and his anxieties over his masculinity) as he loses his job and tries to keep his relationship together. The stories are connected not only by the dress, but also Julian Barratt and Steve Oram doing a wonderfully weird double-act as bank managers, and the store the dress comes from.
Strickland pays close attention to recreating the style of sixties and seventies television ads for local businesses in the interstitial scenes, which feature the denizens of the store beckoning viewers to their Christmas sales from an old cathode-ray-tube set. There are plenty more hauntological nods throughout In Fabric – the melodramatic giallo pitch of its surreal moments, the simmering synth soundtrack, the Tales of the Unexpected narrative turns wherein moments of weirdness erupt in the most domestic settings, and its chintzy practical effects with the seemingly sentient dress — but the focus on period branding, CRT television warping and the like is especially acute.
Why does In Fabric succeed when Suspiria fails? The self-seriousness is certainly part of it. Besides the moment with the knobs I mentioned earlier, and a bleakly hilarious clean-up after the film’s finale, there’s little humour in Guadagnino’s remake. There’s very little personality at all, or any successful moments of emotional connection (which is an issue when Suspiria’s B-plot, and its final shot, are banking on there being such a connection). It’s slow, it’s boring, and it feels like it’s explaining to you why it’s a feminist take on Suspiria, without ever really being a feminist take on Suspiria. Like Hereditary, It Comes At Night, or The Witch, it tries to be both a text and an analysis of a text at once, and fails in the process.
Strickland’s film, meanwhile, feels like it’s in on the joke, and expects its audience to be on the same level. Any time a poorly-matted scary hand bursts from the corner of the screen over images of a fashion catalogue, complete with jump-scare stab of synth, it’s supposed to be laughed at. It takes a hyper-serious intellectual concept, usually discussed while one strokes his chin (is it possible to stroke your chin and write a Quietus article at the same time?), and does something with. It more successfully creates a reciprocal relationship between text and theory, each feeding into the other in a mutually-enriching process, instead of expecting you to be impressed that it read the blurb of House of Psychotic women in the BFI bookshop once.
September 10, 2018
Two summers ago I reread Phonogram in its entirety and had something like an identity crisis for several weeks after, if listening to Shrag’s “On The Spines of Old Cathedrals” on repeat and thinking about a very specific period of time in your life (2010-2013, give or take a few months either side) and how it has now passed, but the music from that time remains and trigger floods of memories you didn’t ask for, and it fucks you up a bit, is what an identity crisis is.
Phonogram is a Image Comics series by writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie, later joined by colourist Matt Wilson, the Spinderella to their Salt-n-Pepa. It is about a world where music is magic, which isn’t wholly distinct from our own world. In the world of Phonogram, listening to a song which is able to conjure up such powerful memories is the most basic form of magic; it’s a literalisation (or mystification?) of associations will build with media, music often being the strongest, especially for the young and the sincere/the beautiful and the doomed. Ritualistically chasing that feeling — by, say, listening to the same Shrag track over and over — is “retromancy,” and that’s where things get tricky.
The plot of the first Phonogram miniseries, subtitled “Rue Britannia,” is about an absolute bastard called David Kohl, who may or may not be loosely based on Gillen. He is arrogant and preening and just the right side of a music snob. He is a self-aware shit. He is a bad person with a good taste in records, as he diagnoses DJ Seth Bingo in the next miniseries, “The Singles Club.” And he begins to fall apart because some retromancers are trying to resurrect the goddess Britannia, the nationalistic spirit of first sixties groups like the Small Faces and the Kinks, and then the nineties Britpop scene directly inspired by their predecessors. This isn’t good because Britannia is not due to be resurrected for another twenty years, if ever. These are the cycles that styles and fashion move naturally, but the ageing casualties of Britpop (“nostalgia parasites”) are not happy with their crows feet and sagging flesh and inability to get into Groucho’s any more, and so take matters into their own hands.
For Kohl this is a problem because his personality is still “rooted” in Britpop, something other characters repeatedly chastise him for. His experience of Britpop is not the culturally-agreed-upon narrative, the one which documentaries are now being made about, which apparently flatten the period in much the same way that 1977 punk is now the same set of cliches trotted out, but perhaps in a different order. For Kohl, Britpop was not about “a London clique shagging, taking drugs and writing songs about each other, or anonymous crowds of one hundred and twenty thousand in a field.” It was the grotty clubs he spent his youth, with “piss-floored toilets full of pissed-up mods touching up their eyeliner and each other,” and more importantly, “a DJ that played records that came out that week rather than last decade.”
That is his personal experience of Britpop, and an avowedly rose-tinted and subjective one. It’s part of the problem with rooting a significant amount of your early, developing personality in a music scene. Your memories end up not being wholly your own, susceptible to manipulation and distortion by others who were there. This is the first way that rereading Phonogram fucked me up in the summer of 2016. It is now the autumn of 2018, and the other night I got the National Express back from Sheffield, where I had visited friends via a weekend with the family. Somehow I fell into listening to the same two Los Campesinos! songs on repeat, from their most recent record, 2017’s Sick Scenes.
I listened to the whole album in full a couple of times, before honing in on these two tracks. They were “A Slow, Slow Death” and “Got Stendhal’s.” I’m listening to them on repeat now, along with “On The Spines of Old Cathedrals,” but will get to the latter in good time. “A Slow, Slow Death” is a love song in the Los Campesinos! mode, which is to say in the miserabilist self-flagellating mode (key lyric: “You / On a lilo / Are an island / Of the pacific / And then me, me, me / I am face down / In a puddle / On the high street”), which is to say in BS Johnson poetry mode. For me the song recalls the spoken-word section outro of “In Medias Res,” the opening track of their 2010 — important year, remember — album Romance is Boring, which offered: “If you were given the option of dying painlessly in peace at forty-five, but with a lover at your side, after a full and happy life, is this something that would interest you?” Instead, “A Slow, Slow Death” suggests the option of a long life with one person.
“Got Stendhal’s,” meanwhile, is directly engaged with the past. The chorus is “I assembled former ghosts at a seance / Said I missed ’em, you only have to say it once / What I truly fear, maybe selfishly / When I finally rest, someone will summon me.” The third Phonogram miniseries is called “The Immaterial Girl,” and mostly it’s about Emily Aster, who took the extreme opposite approach to personality-forming David Kohl did. She banished her depressive, self-harming teenage self Claire in favour of becoming an entirely new person; albeit one whose past self has the unfortunate habit of appearing in the mirror to have a go at her. Anyway, the fourth issue of that miniseries puts the Aster story on pause, and instead is a personal attack on me I am still reeling from.
Issue four of “The Immaterial Girl” is called “(Let’s Make This) Precious Little Life.” It is an extended parody of the first Scott Pilgrim graphic novel, has the second Long Blondes album as a key plot point, and uses Los Campesinos! and Johnny Foreigner lyrics as chapter headings. This is when I have to tip my cards entirely, and state that my identity crisis upon rereading Phonogram was upon realising that my personality was, like David Kohl’s, rooted in something unstable and adolescent and really I ought to move on. The difference is that the particular “era” or “scene” or whatever is one not nearly as well-defined as Britpop, and with not an ounce of the cultural influence, and one that involved lots of mistakes and bad decisions and being a shit, often under the influence of music and booze, but mostly on the internet, not in club nights above pubs.
In 2010 I was listening to Los Campesinos! and Johnny Foreigner, and the mostly-defunct Dananananaykroyd and Sky Larkin and Slow Club because they were friends with those bands, and Pavement and Xiu Xiu and Parenthetical Girls because Los Campesinos! liked/collaborated/quoted from/covered them, and Former Ghosts because he collaborated with Xiu Xiu and supported Parenthetical Girls at a gig in Brighton I went to with someone I met through the internet and liking all these types of bands. The period of 2010-2013 was when I last cared about music with the elan that young people love music and attach a great deal of importance and emotional investment to it, and it smarts to have lost that.
That loss is partly because I got burnt out on the amatuer music journalism I was doing at the time, finding I could muster up plenty of paragraphs about records I was passionate about, but could barely meet the minimum word count for something bang average, and most of what I reviewed was bang average; Shrag’s final album, Canines, is one of the few which were great. It’s partly because the loose community that I was part of during that time is entirely nonexistent, the semi-passive social media platform it utilised has changed in culture and usage and corporate ownership plenty since then, and enough bad blood and (mostly) justified antagonisms of the period mean that “community” is now more a diffuse handful of associates who might like an Instagram post or Facebook status of one another’s every so often. Mostly it’s because, like your man says in The Great Gatsby, you can’t repeat the past.
But also: “We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us” (or, more accurately, “The past is never dead; it’s not even past.” I reread Phonogram and then I listened to “On The Spine of Old Cathedrals” by Shrag on repeat for several days after. I listened to it in the shower. I listened to it in my room. I listened to it on the bus to and from work. I listened for the same reason I had the same two Los Campesinos! tracks on repeat on the coach home from Sheffield. It allowed me to access, or perhaps forced me to access, memories and feelings and such I hadn’t given much mind, or perhaps repressed, for a long time. And I am not that person anymore, but I am. Emily Aster asks David Kohl why he is “still tied to Britannia? Why don’t you just…disconnect? I was baptised by Britannia too and I’ve long since recentred my identity.”
The truth is, it’s not that easy. Investigating the rogue resurrection of Britannia, Kohl conducts an intense version of the retromancy I’m currently conducting with the same three bloody indie songs on repeat. Like Proust shoving madeleines down his throat to try and travel back in time to this childhood, Kohl dons eyeliner and black fingernails and a Yale lock necklace and plays “Common People” on a Walkman in the club he used to frequent in his Britpop days, and leaps through into the “memory kingdom” that offers direct access to his past, playing out in vivid monochrome. Afterwards, having being confronted with what a shit he was as a younger man, he has “trouble settling on something worthwhile enough to reconstruct [himself] around. Radical poptimism? Played out.” In the end of “Rue Britannia,” he succeeds in saving his reality, in part by addressing his shittiness as a younger man, and in part by finally admitting he “liked the occasional Echobelly song.”
Mostly I’ve not mentioned “The Singles Club,” even though that’s the first Phonogram miniseries I read in full. Each issue looks at the same club night, Never On A Sunday, from the perspective of a different character. The problem is that, as I said, my experience of being a Sensitive Indie Boy in three-year Overton window I’ve cracked open for the purposes of this, using Shrag and Los Campesinos!, was mediated through text posts that meaningfully excerpted a lyric to suggest I fancied somebody, having the username box-elder, submitting a monologue about an Orange Juice song recorded on Audacity for a Johnny Foreigner song I still get shit off my mates for, and awkwardly saying hello to people at gigs who I knew from webcam selfies and all-too-revealing late-night blogs hidden beneath “Read more” links which would be swiftly deleted from the dashboard in the cold light of day. Not club nights.
It was a communal experience of music, and one that fuelled many hookups and heartbreaks and drama as the playlist of Seth Bingo and Silent Girl in “The Singles Club.” No dancing, though. It did however prove to be an experience as impermanent and ephemeral as a drunken night out, blogs routinely scrubbed entirely from existence — even the Internet Archive holds no record of my many, many “remakes” — and friendships and relationships of the period all but reduced down to nothing, but for the few that made it under the wire fence separating online and IRL and became “real.”
This is a very personal and very embarrassing blog post only half-masquerading as a critical analysis of a comic. It’s an exegesis about my own bullshit. I’ve barely even mentioned the artwork, and that is very bad when writing about a comic, but this isn’t really about the comic. Like Kohl, I’m not a “saviour of reality,” but maybe it’d be nice to be the saviour of my own reality. Issue four of “The Immaterial Girl.” Not only did it reference Los Campesinos! and Johnny Foreigner, who we have established are erm, my Britpop, but also The Long Blondes (one of the first gigs I ever went to, but a band I got into pre-internet community, and so untainted by association, and so I can listen to Somebody To Drive You Home without being crushed beneath memories), and Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life. I once wrote a blog post as a 19-year-old where I bemoaned Scott Pilgrim’s ability to have multiple girls fighting over him despite being a doofus, because I had good hair then and was a doofus, and I felt very lonely and very entitled in the way a young man at university who hasn’t had sex in four months feels.
Of course, Scott Pilgrim starts at a point and develops such that the title character is forced to confront all the shitty things he’s done, hidden behind the “excuse” of being a lovable doofus, and when he accepts the consequences of his actions in the final volume he finally matures into an actual adult. It’s a conclusion not unlike that of Kohl in “Rue Britannia,” or Emily Aster at the conclusion of “The Immaterial Girl.” But “(Let’s Make This) Precious Little Life” is not about two characters at that point; not quite. It’s about Lloyd and Laura, or Mr Logos and Laura Black, and their antagonistic “relationship” which was established in “The Singles Club.” Lloyd tells Laura the second Long Blondes record has leaked, knowing how much her own personality is rooted in the lyrics of Dorian Cox and the performance of Kate Jackson. He does this because she knows, in its departure from angular indie rock to bleaker krautrock, will break her heart.
Lloyd gets a jobs in a Wetherspoons with a soul-crushing playlist. Their friends move away, and they stay in Bristol. A year later, Silent Girl asks them to DJ while she and Seth Bingo are busy for a weekend. After “a month of obsessive preparation,” they pull it off. Then they have a big metaphorical scrap, like the big metaphorical scraps Scott Pilgrim has with his new girlfriend’s League of Evil Exes, in a climactic section introduced with “Turn On The Real Drums,” the lyrics which herald the shift from drum machine to crashing crescendo on Johnny Foreigner’s “Salt, Peppa and Spinderella.” They literally tear each other apart, after which Laura curses, “fucking metaphors.” It’s only in the aftermath that they move towards something like Scott Pilgrim’s maturation, acknowledging “we’re the only two people in this town who have anything in common and we’d be better off not self-abusing by proxy and should work together to get out of the shithole that is our lives.”
In the arthouse favourite My Dinner with Andre, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory play lightly fictionalised versions of themselves discussing theatre, privilege, the sense of self, memories. In a retrospective interview years later, Shawn said of writing the film and his character in it, “I actually had a purpose as I was writing this: I wanted to destroy that guy that I played, to the extent that there was any of me there. I wanted to kill that side of myself by making the film, because that guy is totally motivated by fear.” It’s hard not to see the autobiography in Phonogram, not least of all because David Kohl begins to more directly resemble Kieron Gillen as the years go by. The very last bit of comics in the final issue of “The Immaterial Girl” makes the connection even clearer, in a back-up written by Gillen and drawn by Tom Humberstone, when a middle-aged and thinning-haired Kohl transmogrifies into the writer listening to a Spotify playlist and writing the comic’s script.
Phonogram in part feels like Gillen’s own attempt to “destroy the guy” exemplified by Kohl, following a similar path of coming to terms with the past but rooting his overall personality somewhere else. Which is unwelcome and complete speculation, but now he’s writing Star Wars and a comic about pop music gods that’s mainly about death, which is surely character development of a sort. Wallace Shawn went onto a lucrative career as a bit-part character actor in Hollywood productions including Clueless and The Princess Bride, while writing brilliant and bleak-as-fuck theatre. Years after “Rue Britannia”, in-universe and publication-wise, David Kohl is in a steady relationship with someone and has mostly gotten over himself, a marked change from the shagging-around, vaguely lecherous and still self-important figure in “The Singles Club.”
Unlike Kohl, I have not rooted my personality in a different genre/band/era, but more-or-less given up music as my personal omphalos. It’s now nominally film, which I begin an MA in next month and which this blog is supposedly focussed on. It’s also, to a certain extent, comics, which I write about regularly for Broken Frontier; and books, and art, because I read a lot and try to go to exhibitions as much as possible, and theatre because I work in one and am trying to write plays. But I barely go to gigs any more, or buy records, or stay abreast of new releases. The only people with whom music is a foundation of our relationship are my dad, and remaining friends from 2010-2013. My sixth rock gig of the year, in a few weeks, will be Los Campesinos! playing Kentish Town Forum to celebrate the tenth anniversary of their first two full-length releases.
In Lloyd’s issue of “The Singles Club,” David Kohl puts Mr Logos onto the then-nascent Los Campesinos! “They’re going to be bi…” he stops himself. “Actually, scratch that. They’re never going to be big big. But they’re going to be big to some people.”
The song that sinches Los Campesinos! for Lloyd is “You Throw Parties, We Throw Knives,” which is, ahem, not their best. The group have changed a lot since then, frontman Gareth’s lyrics and voice each improving with age, the music principally composed by guitarist and producer Tom changing naturally as the makeup of the band and instrumentation did, but also as confidence and experience have honed down the wall of sound to something more assured. “A Slow, Slow Death” is great because it’s different from a lot of what’s come before for the band, even in their slowies. It’s great also because, for a band whose lyrical concerns have often been heartbreak, betrayal and heightened emotions of the most hysterical order — and with the music often complementing that — it’s about the possibility of something else. Rooting music and personalities and emotion in something else, of love something being something that persists rather than a ticking timebomb, a relationship that refutes “We kid ourselves there’s future in the fucking / But there is no fucking future.”
I’d rather a slow, slow death than the “safety” of being “encased in concrete” offered by “Got Stendahl’s.” Listening to “On The Spines of Old Cathedrals” in the summer of 2016 wasn’t quite self-flagellation, but it wasn’t not that. Now I listen, and there are associations, but I’m coming to terms with what a shit I was, and how that time has passed, and how I’m now rooted in something else, traumatic though that process at times was. I hope I can be a better person. I hope I can one day love music properly again, but if that day doesn’t come, it’s not the end of the world.
September 2, 2018
It turned out The Squash was on a break the first time I looked for it in the Tate’s Duveen Galleries. I didn’t realise this until I got to the end of the space, the main thoroughfare through the centre of the building, which had been covered in white tiles a bit like a public swimming baths, albeit a lot less grubby than most I’ve ever been in. Still, before reaching that terminus, there was an anxious rumbling in my stomach. Anticipation and fear roiling together in the pit of my guts at the thought that The Squash could be hiding behind the next corner.
Part of the installation side of Anthea Hamilton’s piece are plinths, display cases and stands — also covered in the pure white tiles — which emerge from the ground like little eruptions from a more “normal” gallery, exhibiting sculptures by Bernard Meadows, Henrys Moore and Laurens, FE McWilliam and Arnold Machin (thanks, The Guardian), among others. Mostly I did not stop to regard them, besides the moment the tendril-like hair of Laurens’s “Autumn” caught my eye. Mostly I was waiting to spot The Squash’s protruding snout to be poking out from behind one of them.
So I felt a bit of a tit when that feeling of nervous anticipation was immediately ceased on arriving at the back of the room and finding a recreation of an actual squash, the vegetable, perched on one of the plinths, with a sign hung on it informing everyone that the performer had “GONE TO LUNCH.” Which is a pretty brilliant joke, to be fair.
The statement at the door, along with some backstory for Hamilton’s piece and some behind-the-scenes info about the performer being able to select one of half-a-dozen costumes for the day, that The Squash occupies the Galleries for much of the day, but is allowed to pick-and-choose their break times. This was one of the time they’d decided to bugger off. Which was fine; I went and sat in the galleries and tried to write about film trailers while posh people talked loudly about renovations to their posh houses, like the second (worst) book in that Rachel Cusk trilogy.
Returning downstairs a couple of hours later, and after emerging from the “Human After All” exhibition which was just winding down, the feeling returned in the pit of my stomach; this time, with some pay-off. The Squash was reclining on one of the sculpture-less plinths. Its outfit involved flared trousers, and a paisley pattern waistcoat with no sleeves, allowing a view of the performer’s toned muscles as they lethargically stretched their limbs out, as if awakening from a deep sleep, as if trying to get old bones to crack, as if warming up before exercising.
They had garter-like tassels around the elbow joint; at one point, they (idk if “they” and “it” is the more accurate descriptor for The Squash; I don’t want to identify it with a particular gender, nor dismiss the contributions of the performers by reducing them to objects?) slowly lifted an arm in the air, holding the tassel for a moment, before dropping it back into place, like a maiden dropping a handkerchief between two potential suitors to signal the beginning of a duel.
The other plinths now served not as the imagined hiding places for The Squash I took them for my first wander through, but shields for which the gallery-goers to could place themselves behind, putting a physical boundary between themselves and the performer. More or less everyone kept a safe distance from The Squash as it continued its slow, restful movements (plus one incidence where it straddled the plinth it began on in a way that recalled both a pole dancer and animal holding onto a tree trunk).
One older woman with brilliantly dyed red hair walked straight up to The Squash. Where almost everyone else in the galleries seemed to keep their distance precisely because they could not quite reconcile the artwork with an actual living, breathing, costumed person writhing in slow-motion before them, this woman appeared to have completely divorced the idea of The Squash being a person, regarding them with the close scrutiny she may have gone on to do with the Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon paintings in the rooms adjacent.
My own recitence over getting too close wasn’t dissimilar to the impulse that keeps me seated way in the back, preferably near a pillar or something, at a comedy show, or with a good few metres and handful of curious tourists between me and a street performer. I still want to see the spectacle, but not engage with it, or worse: be dragged into some sort of enforced audience participation.
I was not worried about being “engaged” by the The Squash when I first saw it, because I didn’t think it could see me. Brave enough to inch a little closer — but not as close as the red-haired woman — I then realised there were two mesh peep-holes, almost indiscernible against the pattern of the fabric, and so I did start worrying a little bit. Causing anxiety is not the vibe of The Squash, however.
The mask has its origins in a half-remembered image of an avant-garde dance performance Hamilton had seen in art school but was unable to then track down the source for. Which is interesting and relatable for those of us who have failed to locate an indelible Photoshopped image through an increasingly complex Google search, but not particularly germane to “understanding” the work, I don’t think. The Squash is nominally a confrontational work, but one that is incredibly gentle, and chill to actually witness.
The clean, but crucially not clinical, space; the torpid movements of The Squash which, now I think about it, is a bit like the conscious slowing of our natural gestures and lowering of pose we cat lovers adopt when befriending a shy moggy on the street; the openness of the hallway; the gameness of the other gallery-goers. It’s on display in the free part of Tate Britain, and occupies the main part of the building you come across from the Millbank entrance. Anybody can happen upon it, and once you’re there, you have no choice but to (as a website’s GDPR-enforced privacy warning put it to me earlier in the week) accept the work and move on, or deny all and retreat for something a bit more normal.
There is nothing in-yer-face about The Squash, though, besides perhaps that massive great hooter it has. It’s relaxing. It’s ASMR-as-performance-art, if a lot of ASMR wasn’t already essentially performance art, weirder and equally as accessible. It’s bodies depicted not as violent, rip-and-tearing things, as in Bacon’s works across the way, but as thoughtful, meaningful things. It’s paradoxically anxiety-reducing. Nobody say “mindfulness.”
August 5, 2018
In his two part appreciation of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), published on consecutive weeks in 1969 in the LA Free Press on the occasion of the film’s US release, Paul Schrader began to formulate his theory of “transcendental cinema.” This eventually resulted in a monograph, with Bresson making up a trifecta of filmmakers who Schrader though characterised the style, alongside Carl Theodor Dreyer and Yasujirō Ozu.
Even accounting for some youthful propensity to hyperbole — in the opening passage, he compares Bresson not to other filmmakers, but to “Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Breughel” — Schrader’s critical writings on Pickpocket have proven to be an important factor in understanding his own films as a writer and director. In breaking down the French filmmaker’s “rigid personal style” for a mass audience assumed to be ignorant of his work, Schrader hoped to “demonstrate how Bresson brings the viewer to his knees in the moment of ‘transformation’.”
In the case of Pickpocket, Schrader identifies the film’s closing scene, with the titular petty criminal Michel (Martin Lassalle) caressing love interest Jeanne (Marika Green) through the bars of the jail cell in which he has been imprisoned, as a moment of spiritual elevation. He goes on to explain that the highly formalised style of Bresson’s film, as well as his Brechtian disdain for “realism” in both the writing and acting of Pickpocket, all build to eventually allow the audience access to some higher spiritual pay-off than the “cheap thrills” of set pieces, plot beats or non-diegetic music would allow.
Over a decade after writing those words, Paul Schrader would directly homage Pickpocket’s ending with the climax of his own American Gigolo (1980), as stylised a motion picture as the critic-turned-filmmaker has made before or since. While he leans heavily also on the dictums he views Bresson as setting down with regards to realism and lack of moral judgement passed upon the characters (here Richard Gere stars as a high-class male escort whose disturbing hollowness when not servicing clients is a clear predecessor of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman), he cannot help himself from diluting the recipe with some populist techniques.
There is a (superb!) musical score throughout, composed by legendary Italian disco producer Giorgio Moroder, much of which interpolates the melody of Blondie’s “Call Me,” which plays over the opening credits. For the first hour or so, the film follows Gere’s Julian Kaye as he builds a tentative romantic relationship with married client Michelle (Lauren Hutton), a process seriously impeded by his inability to reveal anything true or authentic about himself; he is always putting on an act, and behind the mask there appears to be only a void.
Then it’s as if Schrader bottles it. The filmmaker has always had more art house interests than his pulpy, mainstream work would suggest, yet he’s also no dummy. He has noted in numerous interviews over the years that, in the American marketplace, he would simply find neither the funding nor the audience for films made in the transcendental style. The influence of Bresson, Ozu and Dreyer remains in his own films, as well as the ones he wrote for Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and others.
However, narrative-driven Western cinema remains the dominant gene, and so the back half of American Gigolo follows Julian’s desperate attempts to clear his name when a vengeful pimp (Bill Duke) frames him for murder. It’s this turn of events that leads him to be jailed, and for the climactic Pickpocket-inspired moment where Michelle, talking to him between a pane of glass on a visit to the jail, agrees to provide him an alibi, in effect ending her marriage by admitting to infidelity, yet opening up the possibility of a real romance with Julian.
While I’m not interested in judging whether Schrader was “successful” in replicating an elevation of the spirit akin to Robert Bresson in American Gigolo — much as I enjoyed Pickpocket, I did not have the same profound, rapturous response to it as he did; I was also, perhaps crucially, not raised in any sort of religious milieu, as Schrader notably was and which has informed more or less every film he’s made from Hardcore on up — I am interested in seeing the ways he implemented the style of filmmaking he identified, while diverging from it in ways that produce differing effects.
After decades of insisting he would not, or could not, ever make a film in the style, Paul Schrader recently unleashed the one-two punch of an updated edition of his Transcendental Style in Film, complete with a new introduction by the 72-year-old, as well as a film explicitly steeped in both the formal and thematic preoccupations of Bresson. First Reformed is, in many ways, easily identifiable as a Schrader film, with yet another lost (white, male, American) soul at its centre, unable to bear the moral degradation of the time he’s living in and pushed by the sorry state of things to do something drastic.
Where First Reformed breaks away from the likes of Julian Kaye, Travis Bickle and Willem Defoe’s character from Light Sleeper (1992), another film for which Schrader borrowed Pickpocket’s ending, is in its style. Apparently inspired by the success of Paweł Pawlikowski’s modern “slow cinema” classic Ida (2013), he saw that it may at last be possible to follow the tropes of the transcendental style he identified more closely. In doing so, First Reformed withholds a great number of aspects of film mainstream Western audiences take for granted, and which those familiar with Paul Schrader films have also come to expect.
Scenes unfold in long takes, the camera almost entirely stationary and trained directly at the actor’s faces. There is no traditional score, with Welsh ambient musician Lustmord intermittently providing fitful drones and portentous sounds. While it grapples with contemporary themes — Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Toller is asked to counsel an activist (Philip Ettinger) despairing over the apocalyptic fall of the environment by his heavily pregnant wife (Amanda Seyfried) — like Jacob wrestling with the angel, its goes aggressively against the grain of modern American cinema by being explicitly concerned with Christian faith without being a God’s Not Dead-patterned piece of Church propaganda.
It’s a film that is agnostic, if that’s not a loaded term in this context, about the divine rights of men and the mercy of a Lord who would allow all manner of sins to occur unimpeded, from the senseless death of Toller’s son during the Iraq War to the ongoing desolation of the climate undertaken by corporate interests, including one which donated a significant amount to the upkeep of the Reverend’s 250-year-old Dutch Reformation chapel.
The Robert Bresson film First Reformed is most closely modelled on is Diary of a Country Priest (1951), with scenes and characters explicitly inspired by Claude Laydu’s similarly embattled and afflicted pastor attempting to soothe the souls of his Ambricourt parish. Toller and his struggles also owe a debt to Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1963), where Gunnar Björnstrand’s priest struggles to conjure a Biblical exegesis capable of reassuring a parishioner (Max von Sydow) scared to death of an imminent nuclear apocalypse.
It’s in the intermingling, or more accurately intentional cross-contamination, of these influences that Schrader again “fails” to fully replicate the transcendental style of Dreyer, Ozu, or more pertinently, Bresson. Where much of First Reformed is quietly devastating, thanks to Ethan Hawke’s self-contained performance as a the abnegating, grieving priest in the process of losing his faith and his health and the off-handed epiphanies noted in his diary in voiceover (itself a nod to Bresson’s film), past a certain point it becomes notably driven more by the machinations of plot than character.
Once Toller takes on the radical mission of the environmentalist as his own, with the reconsecration of his church coming up and one of the chief polluters in New York state confirmed to be in attendance, classical Hitchockian tension (”The bomb is on the pastor…” rather than “The bomb is under the table…”) takes hold, and the violent inevitability of First Reformed’s climax underscores every scene which follows. In some places, that aggressive charge leaks directly into Toller’s exchanges with Cedric Kyles’s Pastor Jeffers, reverend of the neighbouring mega-church which bankrolls Toller’s smaller and more sparsely-attended institution, and Victoria Hill as his ex-wife Esther.
Again, I place “fails” in square quotes because I am not interested in judging how successful Schrader is in creating a work of transcendental cinema, as he has classified it. Nor do I think he is interested in simply following a rulebook, even if it’s one he himself wrote. Besides the ruptures noted above, First Reformed most notably breaks from its austere, ascetic style more definitively in two instances, both of which come relatively late in its running time.
The first is when Hawke’s Reverend Toller indulges Amanda Seyfried’s Mary (and you know subtlety is off the table to a certain extent when you name a pregnant character that in your movie about the Christian faith) in a ritual she and her husband would do. One would lay atop the other, fully clothed, and attempt to place as much of their body in contact with the other. Without moving, this act of physical intimacy would open them up to “explore” in a way that would be difficult to visualise.
So, in a sequence which is being compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey’s stargate finale but might be better understood with comparison to Schrader’s experiments in visual effects and visualising subjective internal experiences in 1985′s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Hawke and Seyfried begin to levitate in mid air, before the humble surroundings of his chapel-annex home dissolve first into hyper-real stock footage of lush vegetation and snow-capped mountains, then into piles of burning garbage and oil-slicked wildlife.
The second is First Reformed’s promised violent ending. Initially Toller intends to detonate a suicide vest constructed by Mary’s late husband, who committed suicide the day after she revealed the explosive to Toller and the pastor spirited it away to his home for safekeeping, at the church’s reconsecration ceremony. He abandons that plan when he sees Mary has ignored his warnings to stay away and turned up for the ceremony.
Rather than embracing martyrdom, but already committed to ending his own life, Toller instead wraps himself in barbed wire (evoking the thorns which bound Jesus upon the cross) and intends to down a lethal dose of drain cleaner from the glass he had spent much of the film drinking a mixture of scotch and Pepto-Bismol from. If that were not heightened enough, Mary then appears just at the moment he tips to the glass to his lips. He instead throws it aside, embraces Mary, and the camera becomes uprooted from its stationary three-quarters perspective to spin deliriously around the couple as they kiss passionately.
As the previous rule-breaking scene is perhaps best understood with reference to Mishima, so too is this finale most directly recalling the bloody ending of Taxi Driver, a moment which appears to entirely abandon the rules of the “reality” created in the film, its happy(ish) ending not the result of a studio mandate, but widely interpreted as being a hallucination or delusion on the part of the main character. Discussion over First Reformed’s ending has been fierce, with many putting forward the theory that Toller and Mary’s epic make out session is in fact an “Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge”-style trick played on the Reverend’s mind at the moment of death, or else a visual depiction of his eternal afterlife; although whether or not it’s a heavenly gift of hellish embrace of sin only inspires further discussion.
Despite some clear and admitted antecedents, First Reformed is first and foremost a Paul Schrader film. While a hyper-literate filmmaker with wide-ranging tastes and a freakishly good memory, Schrader is not of the Quentin Tarantino postmodern, metatextual school of filmmaking, wherein a feature can be constructed entirely of pastiches and lifts of characters, scenes, or plots from previously-seen movies, without the need for any serious personal invention of reflection. That the film borrows from Winter Light and Diary of a Country Priest is obvious, but it those suggestions are in service of a clear vision of the writer/director (as well as his cast and crew, with special mention for cinematographer Alexander Dynan).
Still, I return to the place where we started, and wonder how we might judge First Reformed when placed against Schrader’s now-decades-old analysis of Pickpocket? He certainly does cede the floor to the “cheap thrills and spectacle” which may be seen as “giving the viewer an easy way out of dramatic situation” (these are his words from his two LA Free Press articles), yet the film’s ambiguous conclusion surely precludes an “easy way out,” unless taken as being a “happy ending” where love conquers all, a reading which requires some amount of jumping through logical and emotional hoops to justify.
It’s certainly not an elliptical film, with a traditional plot structure of the sort which has been present in almost every Schrader picture from his directorial debut Blue Collar (1978) to 2016′s Nicolas Cage-starring crime romp Dog Eat Dog. Yet in its final feint away from the ending which appeared for much of the film to be “inevitable,” First Reformed does withhold the expected conclusion to its narrative. He also cannot resist but make much of the film visually arresting, beginning with the slow crawl up the road to the imposing and beautifully monochromatic titular chapel, and peaking with that bravura visual effects sequence; a far cry from what he identified as Bresson’s instance that his “images, like his acting and plot…be flat and unexpressive.”
The big, bold — some might say obvious — symbolism of First Reformed most definitely ticks off the elision of realism which Schrader suggests is another key aspect of Pickpocket, although it engages in very real and timely themes such as climate change and its denial by the self-same corporate interests which propagate it. It would be naive to say that Paul Schrader does not, at least in part, seek to “deprive the viewer of superficial pleasure, yet keeps him in tow by hinting at greater and more lasting pleasures”; equally, it would be naive to say he didn’t also maintain a populist’s desire to entertain, even if those moments are less frequent than in his other features.
I must reiterate, I do not intend to judge whether or not Schrader follows Bresson’s steps close enough to result in a successful moment of “transformation” as he describes it; identifying Pickpocket’s climax as such was highly subjective for him when he was writing in 1968, and so it remains today with regards to First Reformed. What I will say by way of conclusion is that, for a viewer (that’s me, subsumed into a rhetorical device) without religious belief, the film did manage what Paul Schrader believes Robert Bresson did: to make you “believe in something you don’t want to believe in — the supernatural and the spiritual. And not just because his characters believe in the spiritual, but because there is a spiritual.”