Friday, 24 July 2015

Postcolonial Cinema: The Harder They Come

Masculinity and postcolonial are already two difficult to explain concepts, putting them together makes for an even more gnarly situation. I deliberately decided to open this series with a discussion as dense as masculinity in a Postcolonial context, though. It's one I'll probably end up returning to. What is Postcolonial in the first place? To even consider Postcolonial we must turn to another “concept” – colonialism, implicit in any discussion on class issues, and of course “imperialism”. I would prefer not to end up chasing phrases here, so a general understanding of imperialism and colonialism as “part of the same idea of a country extending its power and influence through colonisation, use of military force, or other means” works well enough. Finally, the knottier term “masculinity” must be effectively considered if one is to address the construction of the fact of maleness in The Harder They Come as measured against a backdrop of colonialism/imperialism à postcolonialism. A good starting ground is The Oxford English Dictionary’s simple but not unhelpful definition of masculinity as “possession of the qualities traditionally associated with men”.

The way masculinity shows itself across class boundaries is a fascinating idea in itself, to add race issues, regional issues and film to the narrative provides even more room for discussion. In considering the construction of masculinity in The Harder They Come the “hero” at the centre, aspiring singer turned criminal Ivanhoe, is the major (but not complete) focus of the way postcolonial masculinities are constructed. In choosing this film for the first in this series, though, the question is how concepts of colonialism and imperialism shape the masculinity of the film. The Harder They Come is a Caribbean film which is marked as one of the beacons of cinema in the region with a steadfast focus on black culture, but in examining aspects of the masculinity of its protagonist the question persists whether the construction of masculinity within the film adheres to “conventional” postcolonial ideals. Considering the effect of the West on countries which have experienced colonialism, it's obvious that the construction of how to be a man would be a latent effect of the colonisers' relationship with the formerly colonised. So, at what point (if any) our Jamaican hero represent an authentic construction of Caribbean masculinity vs Western ideals of masculinity?

An the conflict arises when one notes than in the film, Rhone and Henzell (writer and director) do not treat criminal Ivan as a villain or essentially unsavoury character. This bears particular significance in considering how the film addresses criminal Ivan when the construction of his postcolonial masculinity is not especially constructive, and of course becomes something of larger consequence when one thinks of how masculinity is portrayed in Black cinema (Caribbean and non Caribbean).

The Harder They Come premiered at Venice Film Festival in 1972. It was a big hit in Jamaica and a modest hit outside, the Jamaican patois requiring subtitles for most non Caribbean audiences. It tells the story of Ivan, a poor jobless hopeful musician who eventually becomes a criminal. A simple plot, and also a familiar one. Its place in the Caribbean cinematic oeuvre (and its easy deftness in delivering its theme) make it more than just another good guy turns bad (or bad-adjacent) film, though. Its popularity and reach does make its ruminations on “masculinity” intriguing. Masculinity, of course, is an almost entirely sociological construction which is not gendered but emanates from social practice which changes when things like race and class enter the equation. Ivan is not specifically significant as a man but as a black, poor, Caribbean man.

One of Ivan’s immediate character crises is his love for the virginal Elsa who is a ward of the village preacher. The symbolism is….not subtle. In an early scene while Ivanhoe has a confrontation with an irate Preacher two of the church women observe, “Preacher is a man of the lord, but he is a man all the same” implicitly suggesting that Preacher has noticed Elsa’s development as a sexual being and the existence of Ivan as a potential foil for him in his quest for her (i.e. Elsa’s) affection. When the two ladies observe that Preacher is “a man all the same” they have unreservedly pointed out one of the (presumed, at least) main aspects of construction of the fact of maleness within the Jamaican society – sexual awareness with a significant attention to a great sexual libido. It is not incidental, that the rejoining words to the observation that “Preacher is a man all the same” is “And the lord said, ‘Go ye forth and multiply’” essentially hitting the nail on the head of the (Jamaican) man’s masculinity being marked in his proclivity, desire and perhaps ability to multiply, i.e. procreate specifically through sexual contact. It is telling that this is one of the few conversations about sex in the film, and one of the two only ones in the first two thirds of the film. The two women here give the impression that sexual appetite is an inherent part of (Jamaican) masculinity and yet, even as we may confer that Preacher has a sexual thirst for Elsa – merely through circumstantial evidence – Ivan as the main protagonist and his relationship with Elsa do not rest on the sexual or the sexualised.

Leading man, Ivan, is a poor Jamaican man with an attraction to the Preacher’s ward Elsa, the attraction is presented as romantic but not aggressively so, or sexually so. When the Preacher finds out that Elsa has given Ivan her key for him to use as a practice space for her reggae he storms into her room and accuses her of fornicating with Ivan. Like the scene with the church women, it is another – more or less – explicit acknowledgement of sexual urge even as there is no corporeal manifestation of said urge. For, in truth, Preacher is wrong and Elsa and Ivan – from the audience’s vantage point, a deliberate effect from the director – have not engaged in any sexual encounter. Pre-criminal Ivan (to be differentiated as being constructed as a male in a different way from criminal Ivan) does not exist as having his masculinity marked by his virility. This is significant in the construction when one considers how traditionally Caribbean men, or more specifically black men, are considered as creatures of maleness. Frantz Fanon considers the way cultural stereotypes are employed where “in the case of the Jew, one thinks of money and its cognates. In that of the Negro [man], one thinks of sex”.
He continues, conjecturing perhaps but raising points worthy of consideration when Negrophobia in the case of the white father-in-lw being suspicious of his black son-in-law noting that one may “….conclude that the father revolts because in his opinion the Negro will introduce his daughter into a sexual universe for which the father does not have the key, the weapons, or the attributes.” Fanon’s greater point is that the black man is considered as less of a man and more of a body – specifically a penis, pointing to the construction of the black man by non-Blacks as being rested on his virility. It is significant, then, than in representing the image of the struggling black Jamaican man before his descent in crime Rhone and Henzell do not constrict Ivan to the concept of a man by way of his penis, but an artistic (musically), handy (fixing the bicycle) somewhat romantic (his engagements with Elsa) young man.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Real Emotional Girl – Inside Out’s Examination of Emotional Intelligence

director: Pete Docter; screenplay: Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley
starring: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling

There is a scene in the recent Inside Out which sees a trio of characters entering danger zone called ‘Abstract Thought’. “You should never go in there,” one of them cautions, “No one understands it.” For adults, it’s an amusing bit of dialogue on-the-nose dialogue; for children, the dialogue is secondary to the visually humorous way the scene unfolds. The moment becomes a key to the film, though, because abstract thought is complex and difficult to understand. That is why Inside Out (the15th feature length film from Pixar, America’s most acclaimed animated studio of the moment) ends up being marvel even before it’s gone very far. For, the characters I mention in the opening are not people but feelings. The film itself is a metaphor which depends on abstract thought.

Inside Out follows the emotions of an eleven year old girl, Riley, where those emotions are sentient beings trying to navigate the usual occurrences of childhood but put under recent pressure. In the human world Riley has moved move from her home in Michigan, to San Francisco with her parents. Moving is such an excellent choice for the film’s ‘crisis’ because it’s a universal harbinger which anyone of any age can identify with but one which a child might find especially discomfiting. Moving signals change. And emotions constantly change, and the film’s extended metaphor depends on that.

There are five emotions which anchor her, Fear, Disgust, Sadness, Anger and the irrepressibly bossy Joy who tries to keep Riley’s life full of happiness. The move becomes too much for the emotions to bear when the odd emotion out, Sadness, begins compromising Riley’s memories. When sadness touches them, key core memories move from joyful memories to ones tinged with sadness. Things hit critical mass when, in trying to prevent Sadness’ domination Joy, along with Sadness and some key memories get expelled from Riley’s conscious brain and the battle begins to return Riley’s emotions to a state of normalcy. Sounds cerebral for an animated film ostensibly for children? Certainly. That’s the film’s strength.

Inside Out has herculean ambitions navigating a film where the characters are concepts (an anthropomorphic animal is one thing, but an anthropomorphic 'feeling' in theory seems difficult to execute) that works for children and adults. It’s an unusual hook, that works. The complex idea of sentient emotions is easily manifested by excellent animation and more than capable voice work. Each emotion has a different colour which the feel teaches the audience to be aware so that significant dramatic potential is rung from knowing that when a memory turns Blue (Sadness’ colour) there is something amiss in the world. It’s a deftness of using animation pragmatically and aesthetically that makes me suspect Inside Out would benefit from multiple watches.

I’ve not always fallen for Pixar’s animation offerings particularly those of Pete Docter (his much ballyhooed Up has never really clicked into place for me). However, Inside Out’s didactic message (and, really, underneath it all Pixar films can’t hide their stripes – in their underlying quest to be ‘children’s films’ they have a yearning desire to teach) is a profound and charming one one, as much pertinent to children as it is to adults. Dare I say more so to adults? Its thesis concept is so rooted in the philosophical a child might miss its more complex ideas but the idea of sharing the information with children even if they don’t quite understand is a welcome thought, and for the adults with children (or those without who realise that there’s not creepy about sitting in a cinema to see an animated film), Inside Out offers an excellent contemplation on emotional intelligence. And I suspect where it manages to come off better from me that Docter's previous Pixar work is that it is emphatically without a "villain". Instead, by navigating in a surreal environment Inside Out does not try to make things more palatable by playing heroes vs villains, but has a sincere interest in examining (most of) its characters.

The film smartly portrays emotions as inherently positive (emotional vs logical, nine times out of ten it’s the latter that’s more trumpeted). More impressive is the fact that its ultimate thesis is that despite Joy’s aggressive thrust, Sadness is not only unavoidable but essential to human existence is a profound one. Human nature has dictated, especially in local culture, that there are few things as embarrassing and offensive as sadness (in a particularly moving scene, Riley is angered and disgusted that she begins crying at school). We do not like talking about sadness, we do not like acknowledging it. Inside Out the film adopts a deftly subtle conceit by having Sadness voiced in a deliberately glum tone by Phyllis Smith. The tone is a shroud for piercing voice work and a piercing intent. For the film, like any metaphor, exists on two levels. There is the more obvious warm, family friendly film about a girl adjusting to life but there is also the cerebral and almost existentialist rumination on the way that our emotions (and memories, and subconscious) are so unpredictable and fragile. It is a heavy concept for a ‘children’s film’, but the animated films do not essentially mean for children and even if you disagree there – what a delightful thing for a child to be introduced to concepts like the value of Sadness and emotions in this way.

I do have minor reservations to voice, for example the film opts for expediency to some degree its array of emotions seems limited. Joy, sadness, anger, fear and disgust seems like a fair variety but what of worry, nervousness or confusion? Emotions you might consider essential for an eleven year old,. Even with only five emotions to traverse, too, Disgust ends up getting the short end of the stick being relegated to an ancillary player (albeit an amusing one voiced by Mindy Kaling). The particular criticism seems churlish because it’s wrapped up in the attribute of the film that it does what it does so excellently (and sincerely) it’s a shame it was not working with a larger tableau. There are other questions like what it means that Riley’s emotions are a mix of masculine and feminine “thoughts” while her parents have gendered emotions is either a confusing blob on the film’s part or a perceptive observation of how as we grow older our emotions become conditioned by society to be the right one. Am I reading much into this? Of course, but Inside Out encourages instead of stymies such over emphatic consideration

Inside Out represents a critical entry in Pixar’s quest to make us forget the qualifier when we see an animated film. It’s not “good for an animated film”. It is, simply, good by any standards. Entire films rarely come as tightly constructed, and generous in emotions as this one. Inside Out does not buckle under its great ambitions but instead unfolds humorously, sincerely, warmly and thoughtfully.


Stray Thoughts:
  • I kept wondering why Joy's hair was blue through too much of this one. Any guesses?
  • And, as lovely as Inside Out I feel we're forgetting the first film to look inside the human body though animation.
  • Poehler is so great channeling Leslie Knope here but how great would it have been to make this an entire Parks and Recreation crossover? Jerry for Sadness, April for Disgust, Ron for Anger, Tom for Fear?

Saturday, 18 July 2015

(Briefly) On Blogging.

Why do film bloggers write?

I have been horrible to this blog for the last nine months, forsaking it for other responsibilities and occasional writing elsewhere. Why the delay? I'm not quite sure. When I started this blog, with shoddy writing skills, in 2009 it was to be an outlet for my writing when there wasn't any. I also had a great deal of time on my hands. Incidentally, my output was at its highest when I was going through University when you might think I'd be busier, but apparently not.

For much of 2009 the blog turned into too much of an afterthought not for a lack of interest in film (and the occasional television), but the thing about writing about film on the internet is that there are so many persons doing it, it's easy to get disillusioned and wonder if you're actually contributing something particularly significant to the conversation. How many reviews of The Age of Ultron do we really need after all? The convergence, then, with general blogging ennui and work commitment meant the blog took a seat even further backseat as I asked myself why I was blogging, and it wasn't planned but I just ended up not writing here any longer.

I still have not found the answer to the why blog question, the question of what anyone has to offer in their writing in a grander scheme is a bit of unanswerable question anyhow. But, I feel it is time that I make a concerted attempted to return to writing here not just for perfunctory reasons but because there are actual things I want to write about, and because as a space that's actually my own there are things which I can only truly write here. This blog started six years ago is still something I want to hang on to, not out of obligation but actual desire.

I still plan to work through some ideas on what changes might be made, but for the immediate future, I plan to get back to - mostly - regular programming at the beginning of the new week. The most important of which is a series I've been long gestating on looking at cinema through a Postcolonial lens ("traditionally" post-colonial films as well as Western films through a postcolonial context). 

Enough, solipsistic rambling for now

While I work towards returning to this space when the new week begins, I'm going to go check out the months and months of reading I've missed.


Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Strange Case of Kalinda Sharma (and Alicia Florrick)

My initial plan to write something on the weirdly counter-intuitive development of the Alicia/Kalinda dynamic on The Good Wife was eclipsed by the *devastating news that Archie Panjabi is leaving the show at the end of the next season.

*I’m not being hyperbolic when I say devastating but I’m also being especially subjective because I’m conscious that Kalinda Sharma, her inscrutable nature and her journey in the legal world of Chicago has not always been a uniformly loved one by fans of the show.
Writing an obituary on the character is premature with eighteen episodes left before the season’s end. With the news of Kalinda's departure next year, I’m more intrigued in examining the oft-discussed but never truly examined issue of the Kalinda/Alicia frostbite that’s plagued the show since the middle of season four, which I had intended to do since Sunday before this news blindsided me.

And, why has the Kalinda/Alicia arc been such an essential thing for fans over the seasons of the show? It's more than just the dearth of non-confrontational female friendships on the TV landscape, the way savvy Kalinda Sharma and housewife turned legal savant Alicia Florrick hit it off from their first episode together became a constant source of certainty in the sometimes turbulent world of (then) Lockhart/Gardner. Two ladies, circumspect in different ways, open up to each other and become essential to each other. Margulies and Panjabi's rapport has always been effective, so that by time the show's fortieth episode comes around (one of its best “Ham Sandwich” comes around) we get how Kalinda giving out her address is something significant. 

Of course the delightful “Ham Sandwich” is the beginning of the end because the biggest bombshell of The Good Wife lands at the end of the episode when we find out that once upon a time in a time before Kalinda, she had a one night liaison with Peter Florrick. That was March in 2011, two months later in May Alicia found out. Things have never been the same since....

In 2013, Julianne Margulies (also producer on the show) commented that she thinks the coldness between the two is expected considering that Kalinda slept with Alicia’s husband (albeit pre the beginning of their friendhship) and it’s a legitmate concern. The Good Wife has always prided itself on evolving naturally to distressing occasions instead of being typically unrealistic and going for the easy fixes.
“I think that [the relationship] is kind of played out because of circumstance. I doubt she'll be able to trust that friendship fully. I think Kalinda's character seems to have gone in a different direction. What keeps the show interesting and sort of satisfying is to see other people come into the central character's life to open her up. She needs female friendship, but she needs to start from scratch. She can't be pouring her heart out to someone who once slept with her husband. I mean, it's just not going to happen. It doesn't seem realistic. As much as I think the relationship worked in the beginning because Kalinda is such an independent, sort of suffragette woman -- it helped Alicia to see she didn't need to be a wallflower housewife anymore -- but I think there have been too many twists and turns there. To bring it back would be going backwards instead of moving forward. And there are only so many scenes at a bar you can do. [Laughs.] I do think what it did -- which is fantastic -- is it opened up a world to Alicia where she's going to realize she needs female friendship. In a certain way, having Dallas Roberts' character on the show -- her gay brother -- gave us an inkling, sort of a moment into that. Having Stockard Channing come into her life allows us to sort of see what her life was and how she was raised and why she is the way she is.” (24 April, 2013 Huffington Post)

The way Julianna surmised that the relationship was played out always struck me as odd, for myriad reasons. Especially because, even though things had not been the same since May 2011, the show - thus far - had not made the relationship between the two impossible. Her words in 2013 seemed to be forgetting the previous year of the show. Let's take a journey back to the Kalinda/Alicia relationship after the Peter bombshell.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Scene(s) on a Sunday (sort of): Encore Awards (Memorable Scenes of 2013)

Yes, I’m still at this. (And it’s AUGUST.)

One of my favourite parts of recapping the (previous) year in film is choosing the moments or scenes in films which I remember most. Memory plays tricks on you. Even for someone as industrious as me who makes notes of everything (everything) I watch, and every scene that moves me, it’s different two five six eight months after to consider which scenes are ultimately most remembered or most effective. I opted to not include my usual short-list of 15 to go along with ultimate top 10 and glancing over my actual top 10 at quick glance there are some peculiarities. For example, only one of my top 5 films makes an appearance with a great scene. There’s also an absence of some larger than life scenes which I suppose could have, and in some realities, should have made a space here. For example, the excellent Tim wrote excellently on why the scene from Frozen was his favourite scene of the year and despite my love for Frozen (and the song) Elsa’s turning moment doesn’t appear on my list. Neither do moving moments from Short Term 12, high tension ones from Gravity or The Grandmaster or The Lone Ranger or Rush or tender ones in Philomena or The Past or Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.

But, let me stop telling you what’s not on the list and tell you what is on the list.

As usual, the list excludes openings and closing which have their own individual best-of lists, and like with all things that appear here it’s incredibly idiosyncratic for better and for worse. It’s not necessarily a scene of the best cinematically proficient scenes of 2013 cinemas, but ones which appear here for reasons of import to the film, importance to the narrative, for a specific actor, because of a specific feeling it elicits or just general greatness. You can't always explain these things, still here are ten paragraphs of me trying to do just that.

#10 Frozen / “For the First Time in Forever (Reprise)”
For a movie I like Frozen falls into one of my least favourite movie conceits – keeping the most interesting characters apart for the majority of the film. It’s a way for the audience to root for them to reunite, but it also robs us of being assured of their mutual love (which Frozen depends on). Frozen still manages to make it work, though, and the film mid-film fractured reunion of Elsa and Anna works excellently. The film is annoyingly low on reprises (I’m still smarting that it doesn’t end in a reprise of “Do You Want to Build A Snow Man”, for example.) but the “For the First in Forever” which sees the sisters singing conflicting thoughts in excellent counterpoint is a great dramatic moment culminating in the final conflict of the ace in Anna’s heart. It’s a great moment, vocally, for the actors but also visually with the effects. It adds some legitimate dramatic stakes to the film without feeling forced.

#9 The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug / Meet Smaug
If not me, then who will stump resolutely – and somewhat foolhardily – for The Hobbit films? Still, perceived oversaturation and whatnot it’s hard to ignore the moments here Jackson’s adoration for Middle Earth is at its height and reveals itself in the union of all aspects of the series’ filmmaking. Like the riddles with Gollum in the first (or fourth) film the meeting with Smaug becomes the seismic the film is waiting for. There’s an almost ineffable quality to how everything about the meeting works. The film has been building to it and there's the possibility it will not work, and yet it does, on a visual and on an emotional level. (Also, it continues to baffle how Martin Freeman continues to be at his best in these films when acting against CGI creatures).

#8 Saving Mr Banks / “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”
The appearance of this scene is a great microcosm of the entire list of 10 scenes. As a whole Saving Mr Banks does not quite coalesce to the thing it wants to be, although I appreciate the endeavour and like it nonetheless. It harbours some legitimately excellent moments, though, none more than the sequence where the Sherman Brothers finally settle on a song that Pamela likes. The moment becomes, somewhat inexplicably for me, the most moving scene in the film. And, sure, part of that comes from the Mary Poppins music which might suggest the film isn’t warranting the effect it has, but it’s not just the music but it’s use – the entire film is not a well-oiled machine , but this scene is. When an innocuous moment like Don taking Pamela’s hand for a dance manage to move, it’s not just soundtrack but indicative of the entire film finding its footing at once. It mixes the dramatic with the comedic with the whimsical with the earnest. It doesn’t last forever, but the moment it last for is beautiful.

#7 The Heat / Interrupted Lunch Party
The family meals, a staple of great movie moments. The Heat is not my favourite comedy of 2013 but it does have the most hilarious individual moments and this family luncheon is the peak. Dippold’s script is on fire in the scene. Example:
Gina: “You should never arrest your family.”
Mullins: “Who the fuck are you?”
Peter Mullins: “That's Gina!”
Mullins: “Well, tell Gina I'm gonna strangle her at the table!”
Beth: “Hey, she is my best friend! You touch her, you gotta go through me first.”
Mullins: “Who the fuck are you?! I'll kill you and kill her with your fucking dead body!”
The scene could get by on line-readings only but the entire sequence is made funnier by Bullock watching on silently bemused. The lead-up to my favourite (if, unoriginal) joke of the sequence is precious as one of the Mullins asks her, in his thick accent, “Are you, or are you not, a narc? A fucking narc?! Like Johnny Depp in 21 Jump Street?” Like many jokes, it works better hen you hear it, but it’s a fine example of how in control of itself and its humour is at its strongest moments.

#6 August Osage County / After the Funeral
If August Osage County was a musical, the lunch scene after the funeral would be its “Rose’s Turn” or its “Last Midnight”. It’s the most electric moment of the play as written so that in any iteration of the play, you’d expect it to soar. Wells’ film version does not succeed completely as an adaptation of Lett’s visceral drama, but the moments he gets right are remarkable and the lunch scene works. Ensemble films are at their best when the ensemble gets to interact and from Little Charlie’s awkward entrance and th spilled casserole the scene works. It’s not just the dialogue working or, Wells’ – stay out of the way – direction inadvertently being the best thing for a scene like this, each actor is on-point, from bit-part performers like Mulroney selling the reaction to the family’s crazy, to Lewis’ awkward attempts to get her mother’s attention, to Roberts’ angry resentment. The scene goes on for a bit but it works as a slice of the family’s issues and becomes a highlight of the film. Maybe more in spite of the director than because of him but no less significant because of it.
…go below the jump for the top 5…
….bathroom surprises, melancholy musicians, and a city under siege…