Tuesday, 25 April 2017

There are great films about ageing but this isn't one

Jenny is underwhelmed by The Sense of an Ending

Julian Barnes’ very short book left me underwhelmed in 2011, wondering why it had won the Booker prize, and Ritesh Batra's film of the book has left me even more so. What happens? Nothing much, though the little that does happen seems intended to be have tremendous meaning.

Image resultTony Webster (Jim Broadbent) is a prosperous ageing man who potters about repairing and selling vintage cameras. He has been a bystander in his own life where his short temper, charmless indifference to others and lack of emotional intelligence have probably lost him his marriage. His only daughter is about to give birth and he also risks losing connection with her. Then he gets a letter which sets him on a quest – to do what exactly? Discover himself? Find out what he has resolutely ignored for so many years? Get redemption? His former girlfriend Veronica (Charlotte Rampling, whose stare could freeze a thousand ex boyfriends) and his former wife (Harriet Walter) do their best to treat him with the impatience he deserves.

The film’s attempts at a final twist are undermined by its conformity to the late film critic Roger Ebert’s Rule of Economy of Characters. This is the one where an underdeveloped character who seems extraneous to the plot turns out to be essential to it, so any experienced movie-goer will guess the drifty non-ending long before it happens.

I don’t think we do films about ageing at all well in the UK. The films pass the time pleasantly enough and are then instantly forgettable. For instance, there’s cute-and-quirky (Best Marigold Hotel), embarrassing (Venus: Peter O’Toole getting over-personal with a young woman) sentimental (Quartet: old thesps do their thing), suppressed melodrama (45 Years) or just dull (Another Year).  Where casting is concerned, there seems to be a serious lack of imagination. The same small group of actors comes round again and again:

‘Shall we cast Bill this time so that he can do his full Nighy, or maybe give Tom W another go?’
‘Nah, let’s stick to good old Jim.’

Jim Broadbent does his best with the leading part here, though somehow he seems too twinkly and whimsical to be convincing as the curmudgeonly Tony. Now that a few days have passed, I find it hard to remember how this performance was all that different from what he did as Nick in Le Weekend, John in Iris, Father Flood in Brooklyn or Tom in Another Year.

It is possible to make enthralling films about older people without patronizing or stereotyping. Alexander Payne has done it at least twice with About Schmidt and Nebraska. Both these films also feature disastrously unaware and unlikeable ageing men and have you squirming with pity, fervently hoping that you don’t recognise yourself in their dilemmas - and smiling. Clint Eastwood did it in his gripping Gran Torino. Michael Haneke brought his merciless eye to Amour. Nor does such a film have to be either grim or sentimental: Iñárritu’s Birdman (Michael Keaton plays an ageing actor who is desperate to reprise his fame as a superhero) was to me one of the funniest films of 2014. 

The film industry has grasped that there are large numbers of baby-boomers who like cinema and who might enjoy seeing their own age group on screen. But producers need to do better than The Sense of an Ending. No one in the sparsely populated Islington Vue audience seemed to be under sixty but we all filed out silently with what looked to me like pretty doleful faces.

and Joe remembers the Booker Prize gossip  

I haven’t seen the film and can’t remember much about the book. But I do remember the apparent randomness of the Man Booker Prize judging process the year it won. First the short list put the cat among the pigeons by dissing a bunch of recognised heavyweight authors, who had published that year, in favour of unknowns and novices. Of the six authors on the list, only Julian Barnes had a track record.

This seemed bold and refreshing until the chair, a retired spy, and another of the judges, an MP, expressed their preferences for “readable” books that “zipped along” – arbitrary criteria, surely, for a literary prize. Cue howls of protest from those who felt that zippy readable books were already sufficiently rewarded by profitable book sales. 

Two separate kinds of objection – the principled one that the winner should be a book of serious literary merit, and the personal one that Marty, let’s say, or Ian or Salman shouldn’t be pushed out by some writer we’d never heard of – inevitably got muddled in the press reports. When the judges finally settled on The Sense of an Ending, a relatively insubstantial book, it felt, rightly or wrongly, as though the judges had been cowed by the old boys’ club. 

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Skewering the illusion of post-racial America

Jenny gives Jordan Peele's new film Get Out an enthusiastic 4 stars

A British doctor friend recounts the following frequent piece of dialogue when people meet him for the first time:
So where are you from?
Croydon, says Matthew
Yes but where are you from?
If he wants to tease them, he can keep this going for some time, knowing that the real question is, ‘You’ve got a brown skin, you sound middle class English but you look Asian so are you from Pakistan or India?’ The truth is that he really is ‘from’ Croydon, has never been to South Asia and the grandparents who came penniless to the UK from India via Uganda in the upheavals of the 1970s are long dead.

Image resultThis is the kind of unaware patronizing chat that the first half of Get Out explores with a uniquely sardonic eye. Chris, a successful photographer played superbly by the British actor Daniel Kaluuya, is on a meet-the-parents weekend with his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams). ‘Do they know I’m black?’ he asks anxiously. ‘Oh no’, she says, telling him that her parents are so unracist that they would have voted for Obama for a third time, had that been possible. This trying terribly hard to show how colour blind you are is squirmily funny and maintained throughout a grisly party where the affluent and somewhat time-worn guests make graciously condescending references to Tiger Woods or, more gratingly, ask coy questions about the supposed sexual prowess of black men.

It is a long time since I have seen a film which so recklessly and confidently mashes up styles and genres. It is biting social satire, it is comedy – with a great turn from Lil Rey Howery as Chris’s best friend and dog-sitter. Then it becomes horror straight out of Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives though possibly not anything like shocking enough for the experienced horror movie-goer because there is always a lurking edge of hysterical laughter even in the most violent scenes.

What is not funny is the way the film reveals the crevasse of trauma that exists in race relations in the US. The wariness about crossing the racial divide in romantic relationships, the cultural appropriation, the lurking expectation of rejection, the impossibility on both sides of forgetting the shame of slavery – it’s all there.

Could such a film be made here? Probably not: the target is far too elusive where race is concerned. London is increasingly a city where a mixed racial heritage is barely worth anyone mentioning or even noticing. But underlying attitudes to cultural differences are alive and well. We just have our own specially British versions with ‘jokes’ about Polish plumbers, Spanish waiters and German bossiness. Our resentment and fear is better hidden but it’s there all right.

What Get Out explores is peculiarly American. Jordan Peele, who has a white mother and an African American father, says that he wrote the film to point out the hypocrisy of assuming that present day American is ‘post racial’. The real theme of its clammy horror and sly humour is visible in the faux-modesty of the parents’ house with its antebellum portico and strangely zombie-like black servants who are so amazingly loyal that they cannot leave.

It is a stroke of genius to cast Bradley Whitford as Rose’s unctuous neurosurgeon father, when despite his many other acting credits, BW is surely associated most with his role in The West Wing as a self-assured, clever, fast talking member of the privileged liberal elite. We are bound to think, ‘Ah, so that’s what all those politically correct people in the fantasy-perfect White House were really thinking!’ The film seems to ask, with perfect timing, ‘What if the Obama years were just an illusion?’ Despite the laughs, the director’s answer is clear: it was a hoax and now we can see the ugliness in American society that was there all along.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Joe's shorts 2: Whose homeland?

What I’m thinking about Homeland in 200 words

Image resultWhen the Showtime series was pranked in 2015 by artists who, asked to decorate the set with Arabic graffiti, sprayed satirical slogans about its racism, the show was busted on three levels. (1) It had all been about decent white Americans hunting nasty backward Muslims, the cost of freedom being Carrie’s manic vigilance. (2) Scary images of Arab backstreets and refugee camps were regularly served up as desolation porn to be enjoyed from the comfort of our Western couches. And (3) no one on the payroll spoke a word of Arabic.

Writers of series 6 seem to have been shamed into a re-think. Carrie, now no longer associated with the CIA, is reborn as a passionate advocate for Muslims wrongly suspected of terrorism. Her new pal, the President Elect, is like Clinton in being a trouser-suited female, but unlike Clinton in being so critical of America’s anti-Muslim wars abroad and police state tactics at home that the CIA are willing to commit homeland murders to destroy her. Meanwhile, with Carrie back on her meds, it’s up to the disabled CIA veteran Peter Quinn, now a prime CIA target, to keep us guessing whether his obsessive wild-eyed behaviour is paranoia or prescience.