Ad Astra: Myth and Beauty

Ad Astra is utterly beautiful. Views of Neptune’s rings or the depths of space enchant me. It works as an adventure film, with a car chase in lunar buggies and a zero-gravity fight, but most of all it is a meditation on what it means to be a man, and how to be the best man you are. Brad Pitt is beautiful to look at, inhabiting the hero and expressing all of him, in facial movements and the way he walks.

It is a Man film, where men confront each other and do heroic things, and women are receptionists or an uncomprehended love interest, but two women are at decisive moments, the woman he loves yet cannot (at least at the start) communicate with, who leaves him, and the woman on Mars who issues the challenge he must face alone.

The film is gorgeous to look at. It starts with a tower so tall he needs a pressure suit to go outside, and has a view of Jupiter as his space ship passes by. It has Brad Pitt’s face, with thoughts and feelings flooding through it as he takes up his task, wanting to send a message to the woman he loves yet not having the words or knowing what to say.

Some of the space stuff stretched my ability to suspend disbelief. They appear to find reaching escape velocity easier than I understand it is. But on a mythic level, a solitary journey of seventy days to the farthest planet is moving, expressed by more shots of Pitt’s face, of him making his way through the ship, and of his ship receding, disappearing into the dark.

The man starts the film overshadowed by his famous father, following in his footsteps a long way behind, doing dangerous jobs in space out of a sense of duty, doing what his bosses instruct. They praise him as a good serviceman. His repeated psych evals show him to be well adjusted to this obedience. They give him a task: to send a message to his father, who may still be alive, but they draft the message which he must merely read out. For some reason or another he has to go to Mars to do that. Getting there involves adventure sequences threatening his life and that of those who rely on him, and an encounter with an old “friend” of his father.

The message has no answer (an answer would take at least eight hours). Then he speaks for himself, making a plea to his father from his heart. In giving his all to do what he decides for himself to make his goal, he becomes a mature man.

His father is also a Man, whose great task subsumes all other moral or practical imperatives, whose failure to find the result he wishes makes him wish for death. His devotion to an impossible dream makes him murderous.

All that matters is the task each has chosen freely, which each must complete though they die. Death is ever present, from the beauty and bleakness of the sun through a visor of a space suit in the opening shots to the encounter between the two men, the son sacrificed for his father’s life purpose and the father, a great explorer and also a failure, solitary for sixteen years. His failure is that he cannot accept that he cannot have what he wanted so much, cannot relinquish the task though further effort is futile.

The film shows a journey through challenge to freedom, maturity, and flowering as a real man, doing what the son must do and knowing and expressing his feelings, relating authentically to others. It works as myth.

The Clock

The Clock, by Christian Marclay, is a unique work of art, twelve thousand clips spliced together in twenty four hours of film from silent movies to 21st century blockbusters, from crowd-pleasers to art house and cult films, with stars and jobbing actors. In each clip, the time is shown, either because there is a clock somewhere on the set, or someone says what the time is, or looks at their watch. Write-ups say that it is accurate to the second, though when the hour is struck it strikes several times- wonderfully dramatically at midnight.

Would you want to watch a clock? asked someone dismissively. If it were nothing but clocks it would be beautiful- art-deco clocks and basic digital alarm clocks, elaborate silver watches with pictures inside, held with love or admiration, and grandfather clocks used as hiding places. But often the clock is merely part of the set, and spotting the clock in some clips becomes one of the many games you can play, on a comfortable couch, before a large screen at Tate Modern. It has three public showings of the whole thing this year, open overnight on Saturday 6 October, Saturday 3 November and Saturday 1 December. I went on 6 October at 8pm, and stayed until ten the following day when I wandered out for breakfast in the members’ room, looking out over the Thames.

Between six and eight there are lots of shots of alarm clocks going off and people getting up, showering, breakfasting, going to the factory or the office, or to rob a bank. It is so normal, or a cinematic view of that normal which drama or story twists or breaks. As with real life, people are still rising from sleep after nine, kindly allowed to lie in. In the evening there are far more people at home, even in bed before nine for sleep rather than sex, than in night clubs and places of entertainment, but dance halls rarely have prominent clocks.

Thousands of clips average seven seconds each, but they are much longer or shorter. A man hits Tom Cruise, ineffectually, twice before the Cruise character keeps cool- he gives his wine-glass for someone to hold- and deals out the old right hook. That was the first clip I saw, wandering in with no idea of what the exhibit was, thinking it might even be a huge digital clock resembling its advertising. I needed to read more before warming to it, as I do not much like films where a smooth hero is unstoppable, entering the guarded citadel killing dozens of useless guards whose machineguns never strike home- but the Clock has all kinds of films. I decided that such a huge, amazing art work deserved my sustained attention, possibly to watch the whole thing before it ends on 20 January. That would mean doing another all-nighter, as I put my head down for half an hour at one point and probably dropped off quite a bit; but the film energised me, and I was often grinning or open-mouthed at its beauty and creativity.

Marty McFly goes back to the future, and Terry Malloy goes back to work on the waterfront, with Johnny Friendly defeated and Leonard Bernstein swelling. There are clips from The Time Machine and Clockwise, but most of the films I don’t recognise, with shots of someone crossing a room or walking down a street. Then I see thousands of rooms, so many details of ornament, furnishing or decoration, clothes and hairstyles and faces. There are lots of phone calls, sometimes from different films spliced together, and someone from the thirties will look down at their watch then immediately after we see a Casio digital.

In the queue we met Grace, smiling, clearly keen to chat. She had flown over from the US to see her daughter, who was one of the research assistant watching thousands of films to catalogue possible clips. She told us individual frames could be dropped to keep the seconds quite accurate. At two am the queue wound down the stairs. At nine, before the main gallery opened, most of the couches had one or two people, some exhausted but others sat upright, engrossed.

There is little wildlife, though there is a scurrying rat and a few birds. Most is in English, though there is a little in French or German. I was there overnight, so saw lots of rumpled sheets as people could not sleep, and the nightmare as someone’s life broke down. What next? Was he crushed, or did he overcome? I don’t know, for life is not a drama.

Guardians of the Galaxy, vol. II

This film has huge charm and light humour. Groot is now a mascot, a sweet, toddler-sized shrub with huge luminous eyes, constant cheerfulness and a quiet child’s voice repeating “I am Groot”. Our heroes overcome overwhelming threat- vast armadas of spacecraft, a God who has made his own planet (“only the size of your Earth’s moon,” he says modestly) and a skyscraper sized Being from Another Dimension, which like all Beings from Another Dimension has lots of tentacles and teeth, and oceans of gloopy slime.

Spoilers.

A ten year old boy will love lots in this, such as the penis jokes, indeed the many repetitions of the word “penis” in that segment. Characters played by adults, presenting as adults, flirt together like giggly ten year olds- “You’re disgusting! No, that’s good.” She does not understand, being alien, and he is horrible, then pretends to be nice then is horrible again. There’s a bomb that is going to destroy a planet, with a digital countdown mechanism whose countdown is used, straightforwardly, to increase tension.

The hero flirts in a more adult manner, but I feel this is aimed at a pre-pubescent audience who would not really understand. Eventually they decide the gang of Guardians are Family.

Yet there is a moment where a cubit-long missile flies round and back and around, going through the hearts of all the pirate crew in turn. Some we see as shadows with a bright red chemtrail passing through them in turn, but some we see with surprised looks on their faces, falling over, after the missile emerges from their chest. Even though I am used to mooks dying- they come round the corner guns blazing, the heroes shoot them- I was queasy after that. How would that ten year old see it? Would he cheer on the ally of the heroes, defeating his enemies? I did not enjoy all that death, and would not want him to, either.

At the start of it the missile came out of the 3D screen, pointing at the viewer. That was not the moment when the 3D made me flinch. I resent flinching. I know it is a film. I am too sophisticated to flinch.

They neither defer gratification, nor consider the down sides of their impulsive acts. Immediately after hearing the high priestess or queen or whatever of the gold-coloured people declare eternal enmity for someone who stole their “batteries”, one steals some batteries, just because he could. Sure enough, they are pursued with implacable hatred, which gives an excuse for the first space battle. Ships dart impossibly curvy courses with impossible near misses and bright coloured death rays. It is pretty as a firework display is pretty.

The bad guys are not difficult to identify, though one turns out to be a good guy who made some bad decisions, and the hero is misled and tempted by one for a while. I found the stardom of Chris Pratt more inexplicable than his presence in the otherwise hilarious Parks and Recreation.

I went with J to Hail Caesar, and when she came out she said “That was the weirdest film I’ve ever seen,” with her usual equanimity with a tincture of enthusiasm, which I took as positive. However, today she said it was dreadful, despite my praise of it. She is delighted by particular trailers, and GotG is not the most childish. Possibly The Mummy, whose trailer has a great deal of plot exposition, might suit us both, or possibly we should stop seeing films together.

Ghost in the Shell

The city is beautiful, as the camera moves through it at night. Moving hologram faces advertise, lights flash, and people lead desperate or dismal lives of poverty amid the buzz and clatter. Street people and street dogs search for sustenance amid danger including law enforcement. I never expected to count the number killed, as mooks appear to be shot, elegantly, one bullet for each chest, or in a hail of bullets, but the irresistible force of each attack, by law enforcement, criminal gang, or billionaire’s private army shocked and repelled me. And the hero falling backwards slowly off a building, her cyborg body capable of such visual brilliance, is beautiful.

The Bad Billionaire, suborning the state for his own purposes, first by corruption then by violence, is introduced early. Will he get his comeuppance in the end? That would be a spoiler: so let us consider The Night Manager, by John Le CarrĂ©. In the book, the bad billionaire escapes, his fortune intact, but in the TV serial his tentacles of corruption cannot rescue him from law enforcement. In real life, I scarcely know. Billionaires trade in drugs where society has lost the power to reach them, and billionaires buy governments by paying for campaigns, or by manipulating the news people read. Much of this activity, suborning democracy, is legal, and when there are competition authorities policing monopolies, they fail to prevent the public being gulled. So a “happy ending” where the Billionaire gets his, either by death or prosecution, might simply seem unrealistic, reinforcing our powerlessness in real life as much as a more realistic ending, where he gets away with it, would.

The great corporation saved her life. It is a technological miracle, manipulated for the Billionaire’s own ends. Her understanding of herself, of right and wrong and duty, is broken and reformed, and she finds her old love. I can believe in the world not being as it seems, but less in the Good characters finding out the Bad, and by opposing ending them. I am too jaded for this optimism among the relentless death and destruction and the grinding misery.

The Spider Tank was prefigured in dialogue. “Is the Spider Tank in position?” I wondered what it could be. I hoped for, well, a tank filled with spidery things, either living or technological, like a swarm or sea to consume the victim. That would fit the fighting in virtual reality or a sort of digital consciousness where vision confuses and distracts, and threat lies behind everything familiar or hopeful-seeming. It made a change from going into a darkened bar at night, shooting the bad guys who shoot the pole-dancers by accident but not the good guys. As in a real fire fight you would not know what is going on and the camera shows discrete bits of information continually changing as you would look around; but it makes clear that I would be lying bloody on the ground, before I had a chance to imagine what was going on.

The girl on the train

So glad I am not thirty any more!

This is a dark tale of female obsession, women distraught around losing babies or being unable to conceive, and female pretence and denial, carrying on with the daily commute a year after losing the job because of heavy drinking. Has she killed someone? She stalks those involved with a woman who has disappeared.

An unreliable narrator is hard to show on film, but each scene could have been a memory distorted by wish in the way of those habitual liars who believe their fantasy, even after it becomes risible to all others. Three psycho bitches, drinking heavily and being horrible to the mostly decent men.

Sit down, says the male victim to the flaky woman who pretended to be his wife’s friend, and has got him suspected of being her murderer. You know what’s coming next. SIT DOWN! he shouts, and she sits, and he stands over her, and he is merely being reasonable.

She finds a phone and throws it away. She has a perfect marriage. She loves her husband. The phone, which incriminates him, could not be true.

She could do with a chap-stick, said Jayne. Yes, I had noticed her lips. This ordinary commuter woman, in the nice-enough coat, her lips are the first thing I notice not quite right about her. Then ordinary normal things become nightmarish: she takes a pull on her water-bottle, but later we see her fill it with vodka. Surely after five hours she cannot remember, waking up with blood on her temple, she will turn her life around, and we see her at AA, making a really awful confession- but she drinks again.

The film plays with my desire to identify with the main character. She does embarrassing things, and I feel embarrassment, hot and harsh as she shames herself. And then I know she is a liar, a fantasist, a stalker, a baby-stealer, and possibly a murderer. My sympathy drains, and I feel horror for her. Her vulnerability starts as engaging and becomes pitiable.

I may do spoilers in the comments if anyone asks, but all I want to say is that this is a portrayal of a particular kind of relationship a woman can have with a man, and we are shown his complete decency and reasonableness, his caring as she becomes more flaky, and his escape when she becomes unbearable. He finds happiness with another woman. Empathising with the woman we go down into darkness. It is intensely uncomfortable and cathartic.

I did not apply for that job because I felt disgust contemplating the form, disgust for myself and my inadequacy, and how horrible the table- dates, job title, main duties, salary- or personal statement, how you fit the Essential Requirements, how I clearly do not, how I would never get it and only show my uselessness. So I have not tried. All that experience of working, all that experience of interviews, but it is my own judgment which prevents me from going through that again. And my own judgment is too harsh.

Julieta

To the London premiere of the new Almodovar film. There is red carpet on the terrace of Somerset house, and the open air cafĂ© is packed. That Spanish woman in front of the TV camera is gorgeous, her figure shown off beautifully. There’s a problem with fangirling- I don’t know what he looks like, so send off a frantic text. “Short, stocky, white” comes back, by which time I am too late for a photograph. “Beard, sticky-up white hair?” I text. That was indeed the guy.

It was a beautiful film, and the next morning I feel very different about it than last night. Two actresses play Julieta, who is in every scene: we only learn of things where she is not there by someone telling her. I like to sympathise with a protagonist, share in her joys and sorrows, and root for her, and I found Julieta sympathetic. Comprehensive spoilers, as I write of my reaction, though knowing the story may help you appreciate the richness of it. Julieta’s husband dies, and she becomes profoundly depressed. Her teenage daughter has to look after her, but aged 18 leaves, ensuring her mother does not know her address. Some years later, the daughter writes to Julieta, whose new boyfriend drives her to the address.

-It can’t end like that! I want to know what happens next!
So I say they are reconciled, and live in the new place together happily.
-Oh, you’re just spinning.

Of course I was. That was the result I wanted, though I saw that alternatives were possible- in any case, this story is over and a new chapter would start.

In the morning, I felt totally different about it. I thought, a child should not have to care for her mother. There is that brilliant moment when we see Julieta’s face, and it is desolate- just a moment- but lifting your mother out of the bath because of depression- the daughter has to escape her mother. Finding out about the circumstances just before her death makes an excuse, or precipitates it, but that resentment would blight her.

That scene in the train. Julieta is in her twenties, and an older man starts to chat to her. She leaves, and starts to talk to a younger man- she did not like the way the other was looking at her. Then the train emergency brakes, and we see her flung forward painfully. The younger man finds that the older man has killed himself. I had not seen the sexual tension until she complained- why can she not just be friendly, I thought, until she said, and my sympathy went to her again. And- not talking to someone cannot make them kill themself- but-

I could be thinking about this film for days. I suppose I want the protagonist to be a hero- the “male fantasy” of striving heroically and winning through, which H found so dull. This is far more complex. That housekeeper. That scene in the classroom. Being a proof-reader, rather than a teacher- “I found a job which I could do from home”. Together it makes up a life, a character, luck choices and personality. I loved her, then I hated her, now she just is. If I saw it again, I might pigeonhole the incidents, give her marks out of ten for moral worth, but not knowing might be better.

Pedro Almodovar

Hail, Caesar!

Hail Caesar Baird Whitlock

“That was the weirdest film I’ve ever seen,” said J, happily. She had really enjoyed it. “I can’t imagine why you would think I would want to see it,” said H, when I tried to describe it to her. Because it’s The Coen Brothers! They’re brilliant! It’s like a literary novel- think Margaret Atwood- with a huge audience because they are so good. J, H and R had not heard of the Coen Brothers. I am a mad keen fan, and I am perplexed.

George Clooney plays Baird Whitlock playing a Roman Centurion who meets the Christ, who is depicted very tastefully, and only from behind, so we see Whitlock as Aurelius (or something- google will not disclose the character’s name) being beastly to the slaves then confronted by Jesus: and changed, changed utterly. The camera lingers on his face, changing, bewilderment, bewilderment and bewilderment flowing across his features in slow succession.

“Ralph- or Rafe, I don’t know how he says it- is very ugly,” said J. He didn’t need much makeup for Voldemort. Hobie Doyle, athletic, acrobatic cowboy in cowboy movies- the ten seconds when he steals a horse is beautiful- is cast by the Studio in a drawing-room comedy, and cannot say the simplest line, despite the director’s (RaaĹ‚f’s) cajoling, fawning not covering his loathing and contempt for the star. Hobie’s line is eventually triumphant.

The dance sequences are included in the plot by the hero having to go to the sound stages where they are shot, or to introduce the character of their star. A mermaid emerges from water surrounded by swimming less synchronised than the original would have been; sailors dance in a bar, though the grumpy barman wants them out. I love these. I would not see such sequences on a big screen, not in the kind of film I go to see, not in any English language film this century.

Hail CaesarEddie Mannix dominates his wife. He asks her opinion, and she can barely give it, which would not please H, though he loves her and is giving up smoking because of that. His secretary walks a pace behind, taking terse instruction; he fools the twin gossip columnists; this is a man’s film, in which men do important things and women feature as barely synchronised swimmers. I see the feminist point, but this is a human film, where humans confront reality. Unlike in Trumbo the Communists are fools- but, well, everyone is a fool, and it works out okay for them all, except the Communists. And the gossip columnists. And the little people, who are little people doing little things, though one of them gets to marry a movie-star. She’s in Lust, and she just takes him. I came out happy. J came out happy.

Rule the Dark

Riddick-rule-the-dark - CopyThe new Riddick movie is out on 4 September. Would I want to see it?

We have discussed film and TV before, and when I mention it to H she says “I am surprised you pollute my brain-space by mentioning it”. Why would you want to watch such a thing? Well, I found Pitch Black entertaining. I like stories of people confronting and overcoming difficulties, in reality, and in this alien setting the story is told with no extraneous matter. Some character-archetypes are established, they learn about the threat, Riddick gets through but others die because of particular character flaws. The threat itself is horrible. It has Claudia Black from Farscape, not to be confused with Claudia Black the author and therapist. I have it on disc and would watch it again.

Then I saw Babylon AD on TV, and am surprised it had a cinema release. VD is again a world-weary mercenary, who keeps to his sense of honour though all around are hypocrites or monstrous exploiters or Downtrodden. He has one facial expression and one vocal expression, and he walks along trying not to be seen, because when he is seen he has to run about or kill people.

The Chronicles of Riddick comes in between, for me; it is entertaining enough. It starts with Riddick running across a hellish icy landscape of craters and crevasses and cliffs, fleeing two men in flying machines. Of course he kills both and reaches safety. There is the briefest Pitch Black respite from the Threat for him. Then he must flee Dawn on a planet, as the radiation kills those outside the caves. He defeats an adversary hunting him, whom he leaves in a cage with ferocious alien beasts. He defeats the monstrous Cult taking over the galaxy and killing all who will not convert. Judi Dench has a cameo.

Mmm. Teen movies for the middle-aged, like me: why else reprise a character from films of 2000 and 2004? I really do not know why I prefer Pitch Black to Babylon AD: the same dark-grey characters in dystopia, running about and shouting. It could be the mood I was in when watching. It could be that I have matured since I watched Pitch Black at least five years ago.

I turn to Rotten Tomatoes. Can the reviews of both differentiate them? Yes, both are B movie action films where stock characters battle recycled threats. They don’t seem to know, either: Entertainment Weekly finds “characters sketchier than guests on the Enterprise” and yet, somehow, it works: “Pitch Black is so jaunty, so limber, and so visually self-assured that art peeks through where crap has traditionally made its home”. Film.com is quoted by Rotten Tomatoes: The film works because it’s strong on fundamentals: fear of the dark, fear of helplessness, fear of the unknown, and fear of unpredictable human behavior. Archetypal, in other words. Whereas by the time I find that VD’s ward, or “package”, in Babylon AD is a genetically engineered super-human, I have ceased to care.

I have a look at the trailer: it offers everything Pitch Black gave. Which is not enough of a reason to see this film.