Monthly Archives: December 2011

Picasso At The AGNSW

Picasso’s Picasso

As best as I can tell, the current show touring Australia from Paris is based on the collection Pablo Picasso owned of his own work at the time of his death. In other words, these are the works he liked so much, with which he would not part. As such, it offers an entirely different sort of entry point to most collections of Picasso works that are extant. I’ve seen the Guggenheim collection and the Norton Simon Museum collection and over the years there have been some others that have come through town so even if I can’t claim to understand Picasso’s work, I have a good level of prior experience of seeing his work.

In one sense, it’s a Picasso exhibition that’s mostly curated by Picasso himself.

What’s Good About It

The outstanding thing about this collection is that it covers a great deal of his career, so there’s almost something from just about every period of his career. Each room is contextualised around a part of Picasso’s life, and so you get a better feel for how he developed his style and vision through his life. In that sense, this is a fine collection that allows you into the mindset of the creator, much more than other collections of Picasso, although I must admit I have not seen the big collection in Spain.

There is a wide range of works, covering small sketches and paintings through to larger canvases and sculptures. I’d seen the book of the exhibition about a month ago when I got drawn into an argument about the greatness of Picasso, but when I saw the whole exhibition it made more sense than the book.

What’s Bad About It

Some of the rooms are dark. You don’t really get a good sense of colours in some instances and in with some sketches, you’re squinting to get a sense of contrast. You get a little booklet where they explain the rooms and the period of Picasso’s life, but it still feels somewhat under-explained. I don’t know if the onus is on the curator for something like this, but it did seem sparse in parts.

What’s Interesting About It

When you see this series of works, some of his favorite objects and motifs begin to leap out at you. For instance, he really liked guitars, and other fretted instruments like mandolins and lutes. There are two sculptures that ostensibly are representations of guitars and it is actually quite interesting how he deconstructs the guitar into abstract art. You get the feeling that Picasso spent a lifetime tangling with the guitar – possibly because he was a Spaniard to the end – and he kept trying to capture something about the guitar that drew him in.

He also liked animals, for they make frequent appearances in his works. Bulls and Minotaurs are famous; as is the dove of peace he designed for the United Nations; but in this exhibit we’re introduced to goats and goat’s heads and goat’s skulls quite a bit. Clearly he liked women a lot, but it’s surprising just how much he liked abstracting the lines of animals.

As for the women, this is perhaps the only Picasso exhibition that offers insight into who these women were to Picasso. He kept paintings of these women long after they were out his life. He’d managed to abstract them as well as capture them and perhaps he didn’t need them any more. There’s clearly something predatory and unrelenting about Picasso’s pursuit of these women and on to the canvas. And no matter how much he abstracted their faces, he really liked lining up the pair of nipples and breasts properly. he wasn’t about to start abstracting “tits and arse”.

“The Greatness of Picasso” Arguments

We’ve all been there. Confronted with the mass of Picasso’s work, somebody always pipes up and says they don’t think Picasso is that great. You can even hear that person as you walk through the exhibit, and they bloody well mean it because they say in a whisper that is inevitably heard by everybody in the room. We get int these arguments any time somebody decides the abstracted lines are simply crap, and not good descriptive art. You hear the argument that if Picasso could draw and paint as well as he could, then why didn’t he go off the rails so much? And why do critics think this is so great.

My humble opinion is simply this: Picasso got bored easily. And to the extent that he got bored, he decided he was only going to paint or sculpt or draw what interested him and kept his interest. There is one particular back-to-the-classicism painting of Olga, with the background unfinished. Clearly he was interested in Olga, and painting her with sufficient fidelity, but when it came to filling in the background, he couldn’t bring himself to do it, but kept the unfinished canvas. It’s obvious – without ascribing motive, hopefully – that he simply chose not to fill in the background, and moved right along to the next thing. While the reason is unknown, my best guess is that he got bored.

All these developments he made such as cubism appear to be a desire to abstract shadow from form, form from subject, lines from outlines and image from perspective. The reason Picasso painted these funny mixed up faces was because he wanted to paint lines that he liked from the face at certain angles, but for them to all be there at once. To me, this is self-evident; but I have no hope of convincing you of this insight if you disagreed.

In as much as there is so much of Picasso’s work in this world, I imagine there is a powerful legion of critics who still question whether Picasso was a genius or not. The thing about going through the gallery looking at this exhibition is that in the very least, Picasso was an inventive artist, forever trying a new way to express something. He did not fear failure the way a perfectionist does; and to that extent he was a lot more free than most people would imagine.

I for one do not think Picasso’s works is for everybody. It’s not going to convince everybody, unlike say, the voice of Pavarotti or Shakespeare’s plays. It’s probably sacrilege to say this but I don’t think everything he did has a wide appeal. Yet, if you look at a lot his works in one spot and spend the time to carefully observe the lines and shapes he painted and sculpted, you begin to get a sense for what defines his style, as well as why that might be so.  I can’t – and won’t – claim to understand all of his work but I will venture that based on this exhibition, there’s something of Picasso that I do grok.

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Memento Mori Theory Of Art

Depictions of Death Make For Important Art

Over the break I wanted to briefly write down some observations about the power of memento mori, but then I lost my post; then I tried to reconstruct it and lost my train of thought. Here is what remains of the wreck.

Memento Mori is of course the reminder of our mortality that is woven into themes and paintings. There’s a theory going around that the purpose of artistic endeavor itself is a kind of memento mori, and what makes art truly important is how powerful this reminder can be. This would explain the persistent popularity of such genres as Gothic Horror in literature or Goth as a style, and even heavy metal music. What struck me about this is that it is actually difficult to make something lasting without memento mori. In turn, the most popular works of any artist picked at random probably deals with death.

Shakespeare’s most famous play is ‘Hamlet’, and it has the famous “alas poor Yorrick” scene with skull in hand as well as the soliloquy about living and dying. If that is too literal, then at least it is worth considering that memento mori in literature marks most of the great books in any list. In the Iliad, there’s Achilles’ lament for Patroclus mirrored with Priam’s lament for Hector. In the Odyssey, there is the episode where Odysseus talks to the dead in Hades; The epic of Gilgamesh is about Gilgamesh’s search for immortality because deep down he fears death. It’s everywhere in classical literature. This is a tradition in narratives that flows through to modern texts.

So it seems to work for the importance stakes by just inserting death. For instance, if Madame Bovary or Anna Karenin didn’t die in those books, would they have been revered less or more? What makes every photo taken during the US Civil War so artistic but the intrinsic knowledge that all he people in it are dead, and that if they were soldiers, some of them likely died not long after the photo was taken. Doesn’t Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary series milk this for all its worth? This suggests you can have a pretty good work of art and add death and it probably adds profundity – and what else is this profundity but the sentiment that is provoked by the memento mori?

Try this for an example: Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘Little Mermaid’ has a sad ending. When Disney gets its hands on it, it has a happy ending, and a spin off TV series to boot. Which is more profound? We know it’s the original version with the death. I’m not really going anywhere special with all this except to say that it is a lot more ingrained in the arts than we might think at first glance. Is important Art then good art? The sizable audience to the Disney ‘Little Mermaid’ franchise might suggest otherwise. Critics always pick the less popular, but death-wedded original.

Modern Substitutions

I know I’ve mentioned this before that if you stick the Holocaust reference in to your film somewhere, it doubles your chances for an Oscar. This is suggested by some to be because the Academy is filled with Jewish people, but the more direct reason is that the Holocaust has placed itself as the ultimate memento mori that substitutes for all the massive death and destruction wrought in World War II. A film increases in importance simply because you have the Holocaust as part of the story; like a talisman it activates our awareness of death. Considering that Stalin’s regime killed more of its own people than the Nazis did to their own and others, and the demonisation of Communism through the twentieth century, it’s interesting to note that communism, gulags and the GRU don’t have quite the memento mori effect of Nazis, death camps and the SS. By comparison, the dull utility of comunism and communist design has far less weight in fiction and the arts in general.

Of course, it is easier to understand Nazism in  light of memento mori because in most part it was an attempt to aestheticise ethics. Thus, Hitler and Himmler adorned the SS uniforms with mystical symbols and a deaths head. It’s an instant fetishisation of death that is familiar to us. It is a familiar move because we’ve seen it before and since. But the allure of aesthetising death itself as a political act couldn’t possibly have so much meaning without the power of death in art itself.

The modern world of media and pop culture is filled with more references to death than you can poke a stick at.

Here are some examples worth pondering. My favorite Pink Floyd album is ‘Animals’; The best-selling work by Pink Floyd is ‘Dark Side of The Moon’ which in survey of ideas such as time and money, deals with death with the song ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’ (which I covered, by the way, here).

For all its celebration of sex, a lot of rock is a kind of memento mori, what with all the heroes who have died young. The list of dead rock musicians who didn’t make it to a ripe old age is a significant list of names starting with say, Buddy Holly and Richie Valens.You only have to write the names of dead rock stars and it suddenly evokes the body of work in rock. Try these names: John Lennon, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, John Bonham, Marc Bolan, Keith Moon, Syd Vicious, Kurt Cobain. When you watch the Foo Fighters live, David Grohl himself becomes a kind of living memento mori in the memory of Kurt Cobain, which explains the morbid fascination surrounding the Foo Fighters.

Yet, of all the sub-genres of rock, the most enduring branches are in fact Metal and Goth because their visual motifs remain largely unchanged. Death features prominently in the oeuvre of metal and goth. Album after album by Iron Maiden is filled with ironic images of death. Death is central thematic unity of Metal. One could argue the excesses are a kind of kitsch but if you judge the sales of Iron Maiden albums to their die-hard fans, you’d have to conclude it is doing its job.

Recently I put together an electric guitar from Warmoth parts for a friend. It had one knob – a volume knob  and it was important that it had a death skull on it. The meaning of it was simply to imbue the guitar with a memento mori. “all shred axes should have a memento mori,” he proclaimed. It makes some sort of intrinsic and extrinsic sense, not only because it is to play heavy metal, but because deeper down playing music makes you count down time; and thoughts of time inevitably lead to thoughts of death, vis a vis ‘Dark Side of the Moon’.

The main character in the Star Wars cycle turns out to be Anakin, who is Darth Vader, and Vader’s helmet is like a skull with a helmet. In the original three movies, Darth Vader is like the big memento mori character – who of course dies at the end of ‘Return of the Jedi’; and in the more recent prequel trilogy, the audience grapples with Anakin’s descent into being Darth Vader.  It’s part of existentialism that the prior acknowledgment of one’s one mortality enables one to take on the challenge that the remaining time in our lives present, and yet it actually has artistic roots in things that go back to pre-history.

The point of all this is to say, it is everywhere, if you simply choose to look.

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Easy Virtue

It’s Elliot, …But It’s Coward!

I didn’t want to watch this because it was directed by Stephan Elliot. But it is ‘Easy Virtue’ by Noel Coward. It’s been rewritten heavily, but it does seem to preserve the spirit of the play.

What’s Good About It

The performances are very strong in this film. Even Jessica Biel who one might suspect does not have enough chop to be in this company puts in the best thing I’ve seen from her. Kristen Scott Thomas is a standout as the angry, put upon Veronica and Colin Firth adds a tremendous centrifugal force with his wry presence, keeping it all together. Ben Barnes is not as solid  but he does a nice job.

Begrudgingly (because I never found Stephan Elliot to be terribly profound), I have to say the directing is very good, if a little loose. This is not a taut film. It’s more meandering, and has moments that build tension that go nowhere and then surprise you; but it is a good viewing. You could do worse, like watch another comic book hero movie and ponder the decline of thought.

What’s Bad About It

I don’t know if the problems of the story really translate as well to the present day as they should. It’s fun to watch but at the same time you feel like the fundamental problems of the play are culture, but the problem in the film is money. Money always has a solution in  movies while culture is the tougher battleground.

The film goes a long way to explore the cultural differences that would have been perceived in the 1930s, but then turns on the revelation that the real bugbear that is bothering Veronica Whittaker is money. it’s actually disappointing because the film works so hard at setting up the problem and you wonder how it’s going to work itself out, given the characters.

Also, the tone of Kristen Scott Thomas’s Veronica Whittaker is bitchy, but it’s the wrong kind of bitchy. That’ probably more in the directing than the performance because we know Kristen Scott Thomas is capable of greater subtlety.

What’s Interesting About It

The film actually echoes ‘Brideshead Revisited’ more than Coward’s play. It’s not as anatomical as ‘Brideshead Revisited’, and Coward was more condemnatory of the landed gentry in England but there’s something of a kindred spirit there. There are moments that also echo ‘Vile Bodies’ by Evelyn Waugh as well, what with the sports car driving woman.

It must be some kind of revisionist nostalgia that makes the 1930s England almost interesting for its remnant class snobbery falling apart as the money runs out in the Great Depression. It’s quaint to watch but you know if you encountered it in real life it would give you nothing but revulsion. Which makes you wonder why they keep going back to this well of intemperate prejudice for our dramatic fodder. Perhaps we are blind to the similarly intemperate prejudices of our own time.

Weird Casting of Jessica Biel Here

I don’t think Jessica Biel’s face looked good in this period’s hair. She’s got an odd looking face and the hair made her look stupid. Okay, there are plenty of other things to be watching in this film, but the most distracting thing was how the period hair really didn’t suit Biel. Which I guess goes to show there isn’t that much wrong with it. The tango she dances with Colin Firth is actually quite nice. It’s not meant to be a professional dancer strutting her stuff, it’s meant to be an expression of her profound sadness and that comes across very nicely in the performance of the dance. It’s good enough to sell the moment when Colin Firth’s Jim jumps in her car to escape the manse at the end. There is no rational explanation, you intuitively understand why, and it makes sense because of the tango. Pretty good cinema if you ask me.

The Motor Car

In history, motorised transport essentially liberates the distance a person can move. We come to realise that possession of horses by the gentry allows the gentry a kind of monopoly over people who do not, and so allows them to travel. This is why travel is enshrined in the upper classes’ entitlements even today. Going on vacations to places where *ordinary* people cannot go is the privelidge of the wealthy. In that context, a woman with a motor car alone smashes the immobility of that society. This alone should present more drama in the story but it doesn’t.

The story seems to elliptically spin around the fact that Larita loves John so much, she cannot leave the nightmare manse, and the drama is played out in the space of this old manor house. Perhaps it is my own personal tastes as a writer that made me keep thinking, when is this woman going to just get in her car and drive away? Of course it turns out to be the denouement, but it seemed really odd that the gleaming, modern, almost anachronistic machine kept inviting and she – as a car racer from Detroit no less – kept ignoring its invitation to just drive away. It’s just as hard to fathom as veronica’s obsessive demands that Larita ride in the fox hunt.

The Fox Hunt

It’s going to be a perennial sticking point for animal lovers but it’s hard to imagine the fox hunt disappearing completely in the UK. It’s a bit like the Japanese and the whaling fleet. They “just can’t give it up because they just can’t give it because they just can’t okay?” is the illogic behind it. It’s not a good one because it applies to things like honour-killings under Sharia law and clubbing seals in Canada and any number of violent, cruel cultural practices. They’re objectionable if one applies a universal eye to them but the people who do them will invariably claim a cultural practice defense, and those attacking will always demand the universal to apply by dint of it being universal. It’s a sticky point.

In this film, we see the hunt subverted by the acting of riding a motor bike alongside the horses and hounds, which I guess represents the smashing of the cultural practice defense by positing that modernity should supersede cultural practice. I get that but I wonder how many people who mount the cultural practice defense would bother to understand it; that is to say, if you said the whalers “modernity demands you cease” or said to these Islamists, modernity demands you not do honour-killings”, or even Canadian furs-seal clubbers “modernity says you shouldn’t club baby fur seals”, just how much traction that would have. Maybe we modernists are merely imagining that modernity itself is a kind of cipher to stop being barbaric. Maybe it is possible to be modern and barbaric, or worse still, be modern and savage, as the Nazis were. To that extent, the fox hunt scene does make you wonder just how far Europe and Europeans think they have come – It’s interesting that way.


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The Beaver

Rude Name, Rude Actor

Good heavens it’s hard to defend ‘our’ Mel Gibson after he blew up his marriage and slagged off the Jews and got into a messy situation with some Russian harlot. It’s really hard to take him back into our hearts after all the news and PR disasters – most of which were self-inflicted – and try and take him seriously as an actor. How can we not see the guy on the screen and not think of the chaos? How can we ever see any star without the baggage of their public life?

He’s here in this movie, with a rude name.

It comes as a shock that the poster-girl for the politically correct, Jodie Foster of all people would team up with Mel Gibson, and then defend him in public. It didn’t work. People stayed well away from watching ‘The Beaver’ but they might have missed an interesting movie as a result. I know, Mel Gibson is insufferable in some ways, even for his fans and the only person more insufferable than Mel is of course Russell Crowe. In ten years’ time it may well be Sam Worthington. You can see the trend developing.

What’s Good About It

I was thinking when the last time was that Mel just had to act. Of course it was the ill-starred ‘Edge of Darkness’ remake, but before that feels like it’s been a while. it’s actually nice to see Mel Gibson do his acting thing. There’s still the actor who did lethal Hamlet in there and he’s still got some chops without being over the top or self-referential or heaven-forbid boring. The directing is adequate if a little oblique, and the script is interesting enough. It has a few nice laughs, if you’re inclined for some black humour.

Frankly, I’m shocked Jodie Foster has such a black sense of humour, even though she brings in the film with a touching end, reminiscent of ‘American Beauty’. The Beaver character is most excellent in bringing to sharp relief, the drama inherent in the story. It would have been easy enough to make a movie about a depressed guy and how his depression is ruining his life, but this isn’t quite that film. This film is about the persona of the Beaver that comes out of crisis and ends in (SPOILER ALERT!) blood sacrifice. It’s arresting and intriguing, and that makes it good.

What’s Bad About It

The American high school bildungsroman ‘B’-story running against the ‘A’ story of the beaver seems overwrought. It’s a good story on its own, but it detracts a fair chunk of energy from the black comedy of the Beaver himself. The other thing that bothers me is that I don’t think the psychosis of Gibson’s character has any realism to it, so the realism with which the film is shot runs quite counter to the tone of the script.

What’s Interesting About It

It’s never clear what kind of craziness is afflicting Walter, as played by Mel Gibson. So we’re never really sure about the status of the beaver as a character. After all, we see Mel Gibson mouthing the lines every time it speaks, but the Beaver has an English accent, largely reminiscent of Ray Winstone, which adds an alienating effect to the character. Also, the eyes of the beaver puppet are strangely real looking, so when the Beaver get s a close up, he looks a lot more serious than a muppet. The Beaver, as voiced by Gibson, is a fantastic character.

Mel Gibson’s Self Loathing

I don’t know why Mel Gibson of all people should have so much self-loathing, but based on his characterisation of Walter as well as the Beaver, it seems quite apparent that he draws greatly on his self-loathing to energise his characters. It’s either that, or his temperament is naturally an angry depressive that wants to kick the world in the balls; but the thing is, he’s freaking Mel Fucking Gibson. He’s a star actor who made a good fortune out of playing leading men, and then went on to direct movies and won Oscars. He builds his own version of a Catholic Church. He makes his own bible epics for his own pleasure. Most people would be pleased as punch. But not Mel. He’s out there binge-drinking, drink-driving, and telling traffic cops how he hates the Jews in Hollywood. I’m trying to wrap my head around that.

I kept wondering as I watched the film, just how awful were his experiences growing up – in Australia no less – for him to be so angry? And, you know me, I’m an angry dude, so I know what anger is, and even then I can’t fathom the depth of Mel Gibson’s self-loathing. What makes the film so funny is just how much he can bring this self-loathing to his characters, Walter and the Beaver. In some ways, this is his maddest performance yet, beyond Mad Max and Thunderdome, way beyond even Hamlet.

Maybe Mel Gibson is like a medieval despot, who is constantly in fear for his life, and this is why he keeps searching for the inner shithead, and expresses it to the world. I just can’t fathom it, but when he can point it at the screen, he sure is capable of capturing folly and madness. One of these years, he’ll be able to play the best King Lear on screen, ever.

Jodie Foster As Middle Aged Mom

I’m a little freaked out that I can remember Jodie Foster from ‘Bugsy Malone’ and ‘Taxi Driver’ through ‘The Accused’ and ‘Silence of the Lambs’ through to ‘The Brave One’. Now she’s this taut-faced, rather sour-looking woman. I don’t know if it was the acting that made her role like that, but it was notably sour to watch. She was always a cold fish on the screen but I think she has now become a seasoned pickled herring of a woman. She’s harder to warm to on the screen than ever before.

It’s not that she’s playing an unsympathetic character; it’s that she herself presents with the wrong nuances for the character, and that leaves you cold. Back in the day when she was winning Oscars, she was better at showing this as an edginess, but it’s interesting that she comes across more alienating these days. It’s understandable just looking at her on screen, why her husband character Walter would be so depressed. The fury of the Beaver is totally understandable because Jodie Foster is playing the wife. Maybe this is excellent casting. you sure as heck wouldn’t hire Jodie Foster to play a mom in any conventional Disney film, for instance.

What’s really interesting, I guess, is that this is the film she wanted to direct, but then I’m always surprised by some of the films that get made when I shouldn’t be.

The Beaver Persona As Tyler Durden

I think Mel Gibson must have got the persona of the Beaver from working with Ray Winstone in ‘Edge of Darkness’ because that is exactly who he sounds like. The Beaver is a bellicose and belligerent bastard of a beaver puppet (and it must be asked, what kind of toy manufacturer makes a puppet like that?). If we are to see him as an independent character and not Walter’s projection, then he’s also a bit of a pervert who enjoys the vicarious pleasures of a threesome. It’s funny, but also creepy and that is exactly the zone where the black humour lies. The Beaver arrives at Walter’s moment of moral crisis as he is about to commit suicide and like a hostile personal trainer, goads and threatens and humiliates Walter into being the picture of some kind of success.

The closest character I can think of is in fact, Tyler Durden from ‘Fight Club’, so it is no mean feat that this film got made and  also, the meme of the violently hostile alter ego is getting another run. Is the Beaver Mr. Hyde? Would the Beaver perhaps house all of Walter’s hidden anger and negativity? – and if so, are they not possibly Mel Gibson’s own? One is left wondering at the strange bravura of the Beaver character.

Certainly, given that the film is called ‘The Beaver’, there probably should have been more development of the character instead of playing a two-way bet and pretending it was all an extension of Walter’s insanity.

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‘The Tree of Life’

Here’s Trouble

Terence Malick making  a film is one of those events in cinemas these days. After languishing in obscurity for a good many years, he emerged from a two decade hibernation with ‘Thin Red Line’, which was in many respects a much better war movie than the oft feted ‘Saving Private Ryan’ that year. I know ‘Saving Private Ryan’ will always have its die-hard fans but what made ‘Thin Red Line’ so much better was how he kept bringing the affairs of men to contrast with the landscape and nature that surrounded them.

His films are filled with odd shots and odd cutaways that build a misc en scen like a quilt work, rather than the continuity cutting and standard shots that bolster narratives we’re used to seeing. Dialgoue flows obliquely and voice overs are like fragments of inner monologues. In short, they’re nothing like your standard Hollywood fare.

What’s Good About It

This film has many, many beautiful shots of beautiful things as well as evocative shots of evocative things, poignant shots of poignant things. In short, Malick has mastered the notion of an objective correlative and perfectly matches his observational style to the mood he is trying to create or convey. Despair and grief segue into tired memories and straining guilt. Every shot has a kind of tension that leads into the next so masterfully, you cease to question the absence of context or foreshadowing or the abruptness of the change of scenes.

This is a film by a stylist at work, putting his entire sensibility about time and space and people and objects to the fore, and in most part it is a fascinating, beautiful thing to watch.

What’s Bad About It

Sometimes the film meanders into a narrative space that can only be described as oblique and fragmented. I doubt one could do a straight narrative film with Malick’s style, but even allowing for it, this film really meanders into the incomprehensible. It just doesn’t make much logical sense in parts, but you’re drawn in all the same by the power of the images.

I don’t think the script would pass muster in a modern screen-writing class, but that’s the point. Modern screenwriters are not capable of conceiving of films like this. This one, is an auteur boldly going where he wants to go, come hell or high water. There are moments in the fanciful flights, where you simply cannot keep up with the director; unfortunately they’re the moments the film fails abjectly.

What’s Interesting About It

I’m amazed Brad Pitt wanted to do this film badly enough he stuck his name on as producer. I’m amazed Sean Penn wanted to do this film too. He seems to walk around with a pained expression and the look of the most miserable person on the planet, and then he has a dream sequence where he continues to look forlorn and dejected. I wonder if he bit Malick’s head off.


The film kicks off by talking about grace, after flashing up a quote from The Book of Job. So I feel unqualified to talk about any religious aspect of this film – to be frank I doubt I understand it in any metaphysical way. In that sense I am the wrong audience for it. The weirdest moment in the film might be the dinosaur moment when some herbivore that is lying on the riverbed encounters a carnivore that steps on its head, but for some bizarre reason chooses not to kill it and eat it. It’s a touching moment, though I couldn’t say for certain if this was because it fits in with the Job quote or the notion of Grace, though it seems that God might love his dinosaurs equally as he loves mankind.

The amazing thing about the film is that it tries to reconcile the grandness of the universe with the travails and the inner turmoil of individuals. It is as if Malick is saying “get some perspective”, but at the same time how could anything be meaningless in all of this universe, any more than it could be meaningful? With all due respect to Christians and theologians, it’s a pretty damn big universe out there that God’s created; and that’s if you even buy into the notion that he did.

Transformation of Consciousness

I was wondering what this film reminded me of, and I have say it was ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. In the last section of ‘2001’, we have the sequence in the room where Dave Bowman witnesses a whole life cycle of himself, in the room. It occurred to me as I was watching the film that the whole of ‘The Tree of Life’ was something like watching the life cycle of Terence Malick, as if we were somehow made into Dave Bowman.

Of course, the film plots out – in a very sketchy way – that there is a great distance of feeling and understanding that  separates father and son. The distance is made up by the vastly different states of consciousness possessed by father and son, and then the son as a grown man. So while we are all a product of our time, our consciousness shifts during a life  time so that we come to a different understanding about ourselves and the universe. By watching this film, our consciousness about time is altered slightly. It’s a bewildering film that way.

So What Exactly Happens?

This is the weird thing about this film. You see a bunch of sequences that build some scenes and others are just off-hand images of flowers or shadows of kids. You are never certain about the time relationship of anything in the film. For all we know the whole film is one long reminiscence and fantasy by Sean Penn’s character, but we never get a full grip on the narrative standing point. We have no idea who’s story this is, or if it is anybody’s story. The facts of the story seem to be far less important than the emotional truths of the film’s characters. And that makes this a fascinating film to watch.

The film is like a puzzle where you piece things together as Malick presents them, but you’re also left with the feeling that not everything is being told, and not everything is open for discussion. Maybe the film invites us to a second viewing, simply by being so obscure. But by no means is this a bad film. Amazingly, it’s a ‘good’ film – you just have to open your mind to its unorthodox wonders.

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‘Everything Must Go’

Down And Out In Arizona

I should have done a movie double of this film with ‘Company Men’, or perhaps even ‘Changing Lanes’. You can link this film to the former with the subtext of corporate America while you could link it to the latter through a discussion of alcoholism and alcoholics anonymous. It’s getting to the point where losing a job and the destructive consequence that has on a life is becoming a sub-genre of American movies all on its own, and there’s also a trend of films about support groups that is emerging and could be bundled together.

In any case, I missed my boat. I’ll have to talk about this film on its own merits now.

What’s Good About It

Will Ferrell with restraint. It’s a sight to behold. Also, it is based on a Raymond Carver short story, so there’s something poignant waiting to happen at every moment. It does happen more often than not. Also the 1978 Yankees get a mention. That’s always good in my books.

What’s Bad About it

I’m not sure that it makes any sense at a basic level of people’s modus operandi. Usually when the wife kicks out your stuff and changes the locks, it means she goes into siege to keep the house. Not go away and stay with somebody else. I don’t think husbands send their pregnant wives across the nation on their own to set up house by themselves. I don’t believe people form strong relationships at the drop of the hat. These things in the setup strain credulity.

In some ways it is like ‘Greenberg’ starring Ben Stiller. the film is an unrelenting study of a certain kind of mid-life misery and loss of self-esteem. I don’t know if these things make for ‘good’ films, but they do make for interesting viewing, mostly in the details and marginalia.

What’s Interesting About It

The 1978 Yankees is an oblique reference to the year the story was written by Raymond Carver – I think, but can’t be sure – and forms one spiritual corner of the film. Baseball is meant to bring together the characters of Nick and Kenny. Kenny, is what high school kids refer to as “Unco”. Kenny can’t catch a ball to save his life. It is clear he has no future in baseball, just by the way he throws.

As baseball-bonding moments in movies go, it is short and lame but has ironic humour. There are worse baseball moments in cinema; this isn’t one of the best, but it’s far from the worst. Still, it points to a problem in the tone of the film.

The film’s mode of humour is quite blurred. You can’t figure out if it’s a slapstick comedy or a character piece. The only thing that really holds it together is the fact that we assume we know Will Ferrell’s character from all the crazy antics he’s done in other films. The most notable comparison would be the character Frank the Tank in ‘Old School’. In that sense, the casting of Ferrell was a superb choice that glosses over a lot of ills with the script.

Attachment As The Root Of Suffering

One of the implicit assumptions of the film is that attachment to objects makes you suffer. it’s a fine Buddhist idea, but it hardly seems appropriate in this film. The main problem is that Ferrell’s character Nick is a drunk, and not that he is trapped by his possessions. In fact there’s a case to be made that he needs his possession to remind him of his identity. In the brief side plot where he looks up an old school mate, he is told of something he did as a high school kid but he cannot remember. If he is drowning his sorrow and pain in alcohol, then it’s working,

If indeed the film’s argument is that possessions do make us suffer with the weight on our consciousness, then it seems rather odd that nobody else is afflicted the way Nick is by his possessions cast out on the front lawn. You get the feeling the film makers didn’t really work through the rational polemic of their script. But then you suspect that if they did, they wouldn’t have made this film, they would have made something about the Occupy Wall Street movement or something like it.

Hating On Corporate America

If there’s one thing all these films agree on, from this film through ‘Changing Lanes’ and ‘Company Men’ and ‘Old School’ (and by association ‘Fight Club’) and ‘Greenberg’ is that they all hate corporate America.  Not that it doesn’t deserve the loathing, but you have to wonder about how corporate a film studio is to finance a film like this one. It’s not that the hate isn’t justified, it’s just that it seems rather ironic coming from corporate entertainment that they work up so much loathing for corporate life.

Mind you, I’d be the first to do the same so I’m not above it. I’m just saying it is rather interesting that this hatred is widespread in cinema. Then again maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised. There’s not much to love there unless we’re talking Apple and Steve Jobs.

Sales As A Skill, Sales As A Talent

One of the shibboleths in the world that gets a bit of observation is sales and salesmanship. We are led to believe by the characters in this film that salesmanship is a skill that can be taught and applied to the sale of anything. At the same time we’re also meant to believe it is the big talent of our main character Nick; that sales is what makes him exceptional in the world. selling is a funny thing because you essentially have to court a buyer and provide them with the information that might make them want to buy while depriving them of negative information that might make them not buy.

My father was a trader so I grew up hearing all sorts of things about sales but it came down to the fact that there was no special skill that could make you sell something to somebody who didn’t want it, and there was no point in making a one-off sale like that. In his experience, the backbone of capitalism and the market was trust and trust enough that you would have repeat sales. This trust in turn fed into the flow of goods in a economy.

Judging by that yardstick, a guy selling stuff on his lawn is the least likely to need or want repeat sales so trust is going to be low to begin with. Yet because he’s the main character of the film we’re supposed to feel like he’s made great sales selling his stuff at a discount, just to get rid of them. It’s a weird slope of one-man’s-garbage-is-another-man’s-treasure. I guess it could be seen as a negative critique of consumerism, but in the end he hands over his treasures to his friends for gratis. The collection of collector’s edition ‘Playboy’ mags go  to his erotomaniac neighbour, and the signed 1978 Yankees baseball goes to Kenny. The film’s relation to worth is actually quite complicated as a result of its own choices.

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‘Conan The Barbarian’ (2011)

Back To The Hyborean Age

This may come as a surprise but I was looking forward to this new reboot and somehow managed to miss it at the cinemas. I guess deep down I am a sword-and-sorcery genre fan. Double cheese isn’t cheesy enough for this piece of roadkill bush meat shoved enough two sides of a split burger bun. And I like it that way.

I know I complain about the dumbing down of cinema and the endless parade of comic book characters, but let’s get one thing straight. Conan the Barbarian was written, not drawn. To that extent any adaptations of Conan should at least be put on the same footing as say, Sherlock Holmes or James Bond. The appeal of Conan the barbarian is pretty simple – muscle-bound sword wielding dude who famously “cuts a bloody swath through the Hyborean age” (“Crom! I cut my bloody swath” wrote one wit). Yet, the archetypal figure of Conan actually opens up all sorts of  polemics about strength, kingship, justice and vengeance. The biggest of these polemics might be what is known in the original Conan movie with Arnie as ‘The Riddle of Steel’.

What’s Good About It

Lots of blood-splattering effects and solidly athletic action sequences. Lots of homages to art found in old role playing games. There were more than 4 or 5 scenes that included shots that were lifts from ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ and ‘Role Master’ art work. In a weird twist, the cheesier the action got, the more authentic the film got.

Jason Momoa’s Conan is less wry and ironic, more gravelly and glaring. It’s hard to watch Arnie’s Conan movies without a smile these days because we know who he is and what became of the man. It’s great to watch a new actor do his thing as Conan, and for Conant to come alive as a new kind of character. The best thing about a reboot of a Conan movie is that it allows the character of Conan to be divorced from Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s a little like divorcing James Bond from Sean Connery, but it has been done. It’s no insult to Connery that many Bonds have followed, and the many Bonds played by various actors has filled out the character of James Bond in so many ways. With a little luck, there will be many more Conan films with many different actors playing the muscle-bound barbarian. Indeed it is a little sad they didn’t get The Rock to play Conan at some point.

What’s Bad About It

I know it’s only a sword-and-sorcery film, but sometimes the film is too much like a hundred action sequences in search of a meaningful plot. It’s a bit like complaining there’s too much sugar in the icing, but they could have spent a bit more time developing the characters on screen. The high priestess ends up in bed with Conan way too simply with apparently very little convincing needed. I know it’s fantasy but, come on.

What’s Interesting About It

Let’s start with ‘the question of steel’, as it is presented in this film. Back in 1982, Arnie’s Conan is told by arch-nemesis and slayer of his father Thulsa Doom played by James Earl Jones that the answer to the ‘riddle of steel’ is flesh. It made for a chilling moment when somebody committed suicide by leaping off a tall structure at Thulsa’s command. The point being, swords don’t kill people, people kill people. In this film, the question of steel has a cryptic answer that it is both fire and ice. The issue is not re-visited ever again. It left me a little bemused because from memory, that’s how Derek Smalls describes his role in Spinal Tap, between the fire and ice of David and Nigel, something like luke-warm water.

Surely luke warm water (or Derek Smalls) can’t be the answer to the question of steel. Plus, I preferred the ‘riddle of steel’ to ‘question of steel’. I guess the way to understand the question of steel is that perfect swordsmanship resides in a ying-yang-like balance that is metaphorically represented in the fire and ice required to temper a blade. It’s a lot less vexing than the ‘riddle of steel’ which tells us that the essentially violent nature of man necessitates the sword. Of course, the 1982 film was written by the likes of John Milius and Oliver Stone so it’s not surprising, but all the same, the new one isn’t as scary as the old one because of it.There are any number of samurai movies that say essentially the same thing, and they’re invariably not as cool as the ones that posit that man’s capacity of violence is what necessitates the sword.

Conan’s Talent For Violence

In the old film, it is not clear that Conan is born a violent being. The part of the story where his village is ruined and his family killed segues into his life as a slave, and through it he finds he is strong and capable of great feats as a result. This iteration of Conan has it that even as a child, Conan is capable of great violence and murder; in fact it is his special talent to kill people. I’m not sure that this is as interesting as the former because in the Arnie text, we come to realise it is about the Darwinian survival of the fittest and of course we see echoes of fascism through Arnie’s Austrian accent. In this version we come to understand that Conan’s prowess isn’t because he’s born to a barbarian family, but because he’s just born that way. I’m not sure this was the right choice, because it sort of means the title is wrong; it should be Conan the Murderous Psychopath.

Anyway, such subtle distinctions don’t register in Hollywood land. Clearly, they like the story about talent.

In the previous Arnie version, Conan comes to understand that it is not strength but will that guides his destiny – his totally unbending determination to exact vengeance finds its answer at the climax as he confronts Thulsa Doom. At that point, it’s not quite about swordplay. In this version, Conan simply must solve the where and when issue of how he exacts vengeance; when he faces off against Khalar Zym, it’s basically about acrobatic swordplay against another adept. The action is good and spectacular, but somehow it means a lot less.

Villains Come Smaller These Days

Which brings me to the bad guy Khalar Zym. Khalar Zym’s quest to re-form some artefact and bring back his witch wife from the dead makes for a great motivation, but it actually betrays something very human. We all grieve, we all mourn, and we all find it hard to let go of our loved ones. This grief has turned Khalar Zym into a marauding monster, but to be honest this is not as scary as the inexplicable snake-god incarnate of Thulsa Doom. I don’t say this to say the earlier film is better – it’s not in many ways – but it has to be said Thulsa Doom as the villain is more insurmountable than Khalar Zym. For that the scriptwriters have to take a hit. For the sake of drama, Conan’s great adversary can’t be a bloke who’s mourning for his wife and working on this nutty project. It has to be an inexplicable evil that comes out of nowhere.

Now that we’ve seen ‘Lord of the Rings’ in the years since the Arnie Conan movies, Conan’s foes should be at least as scary as Sauron. Working up super villains should be the writers’ jobs.

Is There A Future For Conan On Screen?

As much as I found this iteration wanting, I do hold out hope there will be more. This was on the whole a fun film and it was good to see another actor take on the role, freeing the figure of Conan from Arnold Schwarzenegger. I don’t know if it made enough money to warrant another film, and early indications on rotten tomatoes is that critics and audiences alike panned it.

I actually see lots of scope for more adventures in Hyoborea, but clearly nobody’s asking me. 🙂

It would be a real shame if this were to be the last Conan movie; but seeing how bereft of good ideas Hollywood is these days something tells me there will be more.

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