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Posts Tagged ‘historical gloomathon’

It must be that time of year again, for there seems to be a conspiracy at work to make me feel stupid and/or lacking in true gravitas. It’s becoming very nearly an annual thing, as I say, and always just as awards season is kicking off in earnest: the great and the good announce their lists of contenders and nominees for the big prizes, I duly go along to check out some of the most lauded films, and emerge, bemused, a couple of hours later, honestly not entirely sure quite what the fuss is about.

This is, admittedly, a slightly negative note upon which to start a review, but then it seems somewhat in keeping with the general tone of Alejandro G Inarritu’s The Revenant, which is one of most thorough-goingly bleak and uncompromising films I’ve seen in a long while.

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You want to hear about the story? Well, frankly, it strikes me as a rather secondary element of the film, but here we go: in 1823, a party of trappers in a remote North American wilderness find themselves under relentless attack by a war party of the local Ree Native American tribe. A handful of the men manage to escape the slaughter, due in no small part to the expertise of their guide and scout, Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man well-versed in the ways of the locals (he even has a half-native son to prove it).

However, as the group struggles back to their base, disaster strikes when Glass is attacked and savagely mauled by a grizzly bear, leaving him close to death. The leader of the group, Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), refuses to leave Glass to die alone, and eventually agrees to pay a few of the men to stay with him and do what’s necessary. Taking him up on this offer is the slightly unhinged Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy at his Tom Hardiest), who, with respect to the whole stay with Glass – wait till he dies – bury him plan, is quite prepared to skip the middle step…

But Fitzgerald has reckoned without Glass’ almost inhuman will to survive, and the guide crawls out of his grave and slowly begins to recuperate, intent on getting his revenge on Fitzgerald. But there are many miles of frozen wilderness, filled with hostile Ree, between Glass and his objective, and Fitzgerald is not a man to take lightly…

Well, it sounds like the stuff of a fairly traditional action-adventure story, with a lot of western trappings, and I suppose to some extent it is: there are lots of shootings, stabbings, and various fights during the film’s very considerable running time. But it never really feels like an actual action-adventure, and probably even less like a western. It’s just a bit too relentlessly bleak and horrible for that.

I was browsing around the blog last night, seeing what I’d written about other problematic Oscar nominees in the past, and I came across what I said about 12 Years a Slave. Many of the things I said then definitely rang a bell with what was going through my mind about The Revenant – ‘a horrific world of violence, pain, and misery’, ‘a grim and deeply uncomfortable experience from start to finish’, and ‘almost totally bereft of traditional entertainment value’.
Well, I should make it very clear that I don’t think The Revenant is a bad film; by any objective standard, this is a film made with enormous skill and thoughtfulness. There are very few moments of it which are not strikingly beautiful to look at, and – while not as tricksy as the single-take shenanigans of Birdman – Inarritu engages in some bravura camerawork at key moments in the story.

But at the same time I can’t help wondering if there is less going on here than meets the eye. On one level, this is a simple story about a man who simply refuses to die until he’s carried out his self-appointed mission, and what such a man is capable of (I wasn’t surprised to see that DiCaprio has said this is one of the toughest films he’s ever done, nor that he had five stunt doubles – I imagine the first four died mid-shoot). But on another level… well, that’s the thing, if there is another level I don’t really see what it is. It’s just buried a bit too deeply.

It doesn’t really help that much of the peripheral plot feels a bit murky, too – the fact that a lot of the dialogue, Tom Hardy’s in particular, is delivered in such a thick accent as to be utterly unintelligible, is probably responsible for some of this. But there are subplots whose connection to the main story seem either unarticulated or entirely arbitrary – a party of Ree wander through the film, searching for a kidnapped young woman. They play a key role in the resolution of the climax but I’ve no idea why things play out in the way they do, based on what I saw in the rest of the film.

Another relevant line from the 12 Years piece is ‘this sort of factually-inspired historical gloom-a-thon is almost always made with a view to pushing a particular political or moral point’, and this time around it’s the treatment of native Americans that the film has something to say about. It is, as you would expect, a very revisionist western (to the extent it’s a western at all), and while the Ree may carry out atrocities against the European characters, it’s made very clear that they are ultimately victims rather than aggressors.

As I said, this is a serious film, and a well-made and good-looking one. I’m not completely sure if the performances are actually as good as all that, but I suppose the willingness of the performers to suffer for their art, not to mention their services to the growing of luxuriant beards, demand some sort of recognition. And I know the Academy likes serious films, and historical films (especially ones about American history). But 12 Oscar nominations? Really? That’s more than The Godfather, West Side Story, or Lawrence of Arabia, and The Revenant isn’t in the same league as any of them.

I think it’s probably just a case of momentum, that this film is the work of a bunch of people whom the Academy, on some subliminal level, is aware it really likes and feels like it should be nominating on a regular basis – Inarritu, obviously, following his success last year, and also DiCaprio – who’s almost become one of those people whose lack of an Oscar colours how they are perceived. Maybe even Tom Hardy has also joined this club, he’s certainly done good enough work in plenty of high-profile films recently.

The Academy is ultimately a political body with its own little quirks and fixations and I think it’s this that explains why The Revenant has done quite so well in terms of racking up the gong nominations this year. I will say again that it’s not a bad film, though neither will it suffuse you with joy and good humour: it is very heavy going. On the whole, much easier to admire than to actually like or enjoy.

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Okay, so it’s January, and that means a certain class of film occupying all the theatres. It’s part of the turning of the year, and I really shouldn’t be surprised, but the current succession of ostentatiously awards-hunting factually-based dramas is starting to get to me a bit. Sorry about that, but it’s true.

Making the latest pitch for Oscar glory, and an admittedly strong one, is 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen (the other one). McQueen (the other one)’s first film was a searing account of a man on hunger strike. His second film was a searing account of a man suffering as a martyr to sex addiction. It should probably come as no surprise, therefore, to learn that this latest offering is not a searing account of a lovely little old lady who raises fluffy bunny rabbits, but – and I hope I am not overstating the case here – an extended travelogue through a horrific world of violence, pain, and misery.

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The ever-reliable Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, an affluent professional violinist living in New York in the early 1840s. Solomon’s happy life with his wife and children is torn to shreds when he takes an engagement to perform in a series of cities further south in the United States. All initially goes well, but then he is plied with drink and awakens to find himself in irons, in a slave pen.

Yes, someone has realised there is a tidy profit to be made in kidnapping free-born black men from the north, shipping them to the slave states of the south, and then selling them at auction. And this is the fate that befalls Solomon, a fate which the film depicts in some detail.

This is Ejiofor’s film, for he appears in practically every scene and delivers the kind of performance which has Oscar-winner written all over it, but he is supported by a succession of big-name white actors who turn up to play his various persecutors and tormentors – Paul Giamatti (who, funnily enough, played another slave trader in the first film I ever reviewed online), Cumbersome Bandersnatch, Paul Dano, Michael Fassbender; all of them turn up and none of their characters is wholly sympathetic – indeed, almost all of them are complete monsters. The only decent white man with any real presence in the film is played by Brad Pitt, who – to be fair – gives a very creditable performance.

However, neither the quality of the performances, nor the measured direction of McQueen (the other one), nor John Ridley’s thoughtful script, nor Hans Zimmer’s powerful score (much of which admittedly sounds like bits of the Inception soundtrack, reused) can disguise the fact that watching 12 Years a Slave is a grim and deeply uncomfortable experience from start to finish. There are numerous beatings, stabbings, lynchings, and rapes, most of them pretty graphically depicted. The ending of the film is not entirely downbeat, but the fact remains that this film is almost totally bereft of traditional entertainment value.

In this respect it reminded me of the similarly-depressing Grave of the Fireflies, which I finally saw last year. I concluded that this sort of factually-inspired historical gloom-a-thon is almost always made with a view to pushing a particular political or moral point. In the case of 12 Years a Slave, the point that Steve McQueen (the other one) is making is that slavery was an awful thing. But does this really need saying? Does anyone sane still seriously deny this fact?

I mean, you could make a film about one of the great plagues which  devastated Europe in the middle ages, and meticulously portray the entire cast dying in bubo-encrusted agony after lives of squalid misery, and it would be a faithful depiction of an actual historical happening, but why would any audience pay to watch something like that? What would be the value to it?

I suppose McQueen would argue that so many of the injustices and social problems which beset modern western culture are a consequence of its former complicity in the slave trade that a film like this is still of immediate contemporary relevance, but I’m not sure – nor do I think that 12 Years a Slave‘s unflinching succession of horrors is the most accessible way of handling this subject.

I might even go further and suggest that there’s something slightly skewiff about the very focus of the film. It clearly aspires to be an uncompromising account of total authenticity – but the fact that the central character comes from the northern US and lives a lifestyle recognisable to a modern audience, rather than being someone captured from another culture or born into the condition, seems to me to be indicative. It’s as if the director is aware of the need to keep the story accessible to a non-black audience, even if this results in it appearing to suggest that being enslaved is somehow more noteworthy and abhorrent when it happens to someone from a western cultural background.

(Personally I was struck by the (admittedly broad) parallels between Ejiofor’s tribulations in the first act of this film and those visited upon Charlton Heston in the original Planet of the Apes: provocative though I know this suggestion is going to be, I think you could profitably interpret Planet of the Apes as a post-slavery allegory.)

But anyway. This is a well-made, serious, and not entirely unaffecting movie, but it’s still bloody depressing for the vast majority of its running time. You can obviously argue that this necessarily goes with the territory, but I’m not completely sure that I’d agree. I can’t quite shake the impression that McQueen is more interested in cursing the darkness than in lighting candles. I’ve had it with the January detox: give me something first and foremost intended to entertain, please.

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One of the things I love about Japan is that the unique nature of the country’s history has left it with an equally singular and distinctive culture. Quite simply, many of the normal rules and attitudes do not apply; they have a unique attitude to censorship, for example, with ultra-violent early Steven Seagal movies turning up on TV as a weekday matinee. In Japan, too, it is much more acceptable for a serious fim-maker to come up with a drama about giant monsters on the rampage (which probably explains why Japan does this kind of movie better than any other country in the world). Having said that, one still occasionally comes across an example of this cultural idiosyncrasy which brings one up short and may in fact provoke a jaw-droppy-open moment. I can just about imagine a film-maker from another country making a bleak drama about two children, orphaned and made outcasts by a major war, slowly starving to death – but doing it as a cartoon?! The stuff of Disney this is not.

Yes, it is Isao Takahata’s celebrated 1988 movie Grave of the Fireflies, currently enjoying a limited re-release for its 25th anniversary (showing in some places in a double-bill with My Neighbour John Turturro, not that I caught that one I’m afraid). Although a product of the famous Studio Ghibli, this film is a world away from the usual whimsical fantasy: instead it is a relentlessly bleak and even grim story, utterly up-front about its intent to mess with the viewer’s emotions.

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This is established very early on as the central character, a teenaged boy named Seita, announces the circumstances of his own death, shortly after the conclusion of the Second World War: he died of starvation while homeless and living in the main railway station of the city of Kobe. We see his spirit reunited with that of his sister Setsuko, who’s not much more than a toddler, and the rest of the film proceeds to show us the circumstances leading up to their passings.

As the story proper opens, the children are preparing to flee an American air-raid, which duly arrives: the resulting firestorm destroys their home, along with much of the rest of the city. But even more seriously, they are separated from their mother in the chaos and when they find her she has been horrifically injured in the bombing and dies shortly afterwards. With their father away in the navy, they are effectively now orphans, and are forced to rely on the hospitality of distant relatives to find food and a place to stay.

From here, by tiny increments, life gets harder and harder for the children: their reserves of food run out, they are forced to pawn their mother’s possessions to buy more, their relationship with their aunt deteriorates to the point where they decide to move into a disused air-raid shelter, and so on.

Given the way the movie opens, it’s never in doubt how things are ultimately going to play out, and the arc of the plot is relentlessly downbeat: there are lighter moments along the way, scenes of the children being able to enjoy their lives, but these are never much more than grace notes. The entirely twist- and reversal-free nature of the plot is very unusual, by the rules of conventional storytelling, and only adds to the impression that this isn’t, strictly speaking, a piece of entertainment.

I generally have a problem with movies which set out to be really brazen tear-jerkers – they usually end up being so obvious and manipulative that they have no real purchase on my emotions. That said, if you have the slightest soft spot remaining in your heart, Grave of the Fireflies will ruthlessly seek it out and pierce it. I managed to last until the final few minutes before I actually Went, but Go I ultimately did.

Having said that, there’s a thin line between being a tear-jerker, and  – well, look, I overheard two people in the next row discussing their response to the film, and in particular trying to decide which section was the most depressing (there is obviously some competition). You can admire the artistry and naturalistic beauty of the animation and storytelling here as much as you like, because this is a superbly well-made film, but the fact remains that you’re not going to come out of it whistling and with a spring in your step.

But is it more than just a tear-jerker? It’s very difficult to avoid the conclusion that there is a further subtext to Grave of the Fireflies. There are potential difficulties here – it’s easy to conclude that this is a film about the suffering of Japan at the end of the Second World War – very much in line with the official position that Japan was a victim of the conflict, rather than an aggressor (it’s also telling that the exact circumstances of the Japanese surrender are not gone into). As Philip French observed in The Guardian, ‘seeing The Bridge on the River Kwai on TV a few hours later, I was reminded there’s another side to this story.’

I think the film does just enough to avoid appearing over-simplistic in terms of its historical context: it’s clearly more about the effects of war on the innocents caught up in it, than any particular situation. Also, the least sympathetic character in the English dub is the children’s aunt, who is a fierce nationalist and constantly criticises their failure to contribute to the war effort – criticism of Japanese militarism is implicit.

On the other hand, the director himself has gone on record that he does not see this as an anti-war film – according to Takahata, the film takes a very conservative stance, depicting the various travails of the characters as a consequence of their rejection of society and the responsibilities that go with it. This element is there in the film, certainly – it’s Seita’s refusal to swallow his pride and apologise to his aunt that’s presented as the ultimate cause of the childrens’ tragedy – but it does get swamped by the enormous compassion and pathos present throughout the rest of the story.

I suppose that digging around for subtext and deeper messages in Grave of the Fireflies is almost wilfully perverse, given the basic story of the film is so simple and so strong. It’s true that the movie achieves what it sets out to do: in this respect, if no other, it’s something of a masterpiece. And yet it’s also so obviously not simply a piece of entertainment that one has to wonder about the motives of its makers.

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