Friday, 17 February 2017

La La Land

The opening scene of La La Land presents a "spontaneous" outbreak of dancing in a traffic jam on a freeway in Los Angeles. I think it, like the whole film, is supposed to subvert the romance of the original Hollywood musicals, by placing song-and-dance sequences in the midst of grim contemporary reality - in this case a tailback. It succeeds in a way. That is, it does subvert the romance of the original Hollywood musicals, but only by placing a lousy, jerky, wooden, witless song-and-dance routine in the spot that would once have been occupied by a radiant, witty, delightful song-and-dance routine.

Witnessing it sent my spirits plummeting and, although that was two days ago, they haven't recovered.

I suppose the opening scene does perform one important function - it introduces the main characters. It does quite a good job too, in the sense that it doesn't try to trick anyone - it presents them as pretty charmless right from the get go.

But this brings up another problem with the film, and it is a big problem: namely that it is not much fun spending two hours or more following the story of two individuals who are not charming or witty or even very interesting.

Sure both characters have quests - the female's is to become a movie star, (cue failed audition after failed audition, accompanied by all the usual misery and tears); the male's is to reopen a Los Angeles jazz bar that has fallen on hard times - well, good for him, I'm glad he has a "passion", but why precisely should I care? Neither of these quests have any obvious implications for the lives of others - there is no family of Cratchits dependent on the success or failure of either, nothing beyond the individual ambition of each. Perhaps this wouldn't matter so much except that the director demonstrates a rare and not, I imagine, particularly bankable talent - he eradicates every vestige and trace of the charisma these two normally reasonably charismatic stars bring to the screen.

Things do look up very briefly when Gosling's character 'sells out'. For one scene, the screen comes alive with dancing and singing that is full of energy. Stupidly, I got quite excited at this moment; I thought the film might actually take off at last. As an argument reveals that Gosling has chained himself legally to this outfit for years and years, I thought, "Goodie, goodie, now we are getting somewhere. We will get a lot more of this riotous, lively band." Mysteriously though, in the very next scene all the fun guys vanish, never to be seen again. They join a long line of unexplained disappearances - the female lead's flatmates, her boyfriend, her parents and the male lead's sister (who does eventually bob up again at her own wedding, which I think must have been inserted for diversity reasons, as she marries a "person of colour" and there is absolutely no other indication of why this event is levered into the film.)

La La Land is supposedly modelled on Singing in the Rain, but I think this must only be in the sense that it wants to demonstrate its disapproval of the essential frivolity of the earlier movie. In La La Land there is no such thing as a fairy tale ending - or indeed, any kind of fairy tale. That is just Hollywood baloney, says the film about Hollywood. To make absolutely certain we get this point, the film doesn't even create sexual tension between the two main characters. Instead of feeling thrilled or frustrated watching them progress through the various stages of their relationship, all I felt was a dull longing to be allowed to go home.

Oh lord it was horrible. Should I point out that Ryan Gosling plays a piece of music over and over again that is supposed to be jazz but isn't? Or that when the female lead stands in a pale blue jumper, hands hanging down by her side and sings about her aunt who jumped in the Seine, it is one of the most intolerably mawkish moments in the history of cinema? Or that the whole scene inside the planetarium at night, (and, like so much else, no explanation was offered of how they could get in there other than "It's a musical, so magic"), was an unspeakable embarrassment?

No, I will confine myself to the absolute clincher, which is that this is a musical without a single memorable song. I defy anyone who has seen La La Land to hum a single melody from it, let alone remember a whole number. That is not a musical; that is a failure.


Thursday, 9 February 2017

Toni Erdmann

I haven't been to Bucharest since 1987 so I was interested to see Toni Erdmann purely for the chance to catch a glimpse of the city under new management. The new management, in a way, is one of the things the film turns out to be about - that is, the corporate world,  the culture of western big business and whether it is healthy or endurable. In addition, the film is about the relationship between a father and his daughter, (like the last film I saw, Baccalaureat/Graduation - is this coincidence or a new cinematic preoccupation?) and the meaning of life. So pretty straightforward really. Nothing complex at all.

Ha.

The very first scene of the film, before we go any further, is worth noting, simply because it is so daringly mundane. It is a shot of two rubbish bins and a wall with some garden equipment stored up against it and a front door, at which a delivery man arrives and proceeds to ring the bell. The door is answered, and so the story, such as it is, begins. I say such as it is because the plot of the film is not the kind that has great urgency, although the film is eventful, (and I'm not implying it is boring, far from it - it is just not focussed on a particular outcome).

These first few minutes are designed mainly to introduce us to the man that answers the door. His name is Winifried Conradi and he turns out to be a primary school music teacher who likes slightly mistimed, misjudged practical jokes, is shocked by the celebration of birthdays on days that are more convenient than the actual birthday and is a sort of ageing, lumbering innocent, (but a very shrewd innocent). He is the kind of person, (that is, in my experience, a rather rare, unselfish and empathetic one), who is prepared to spend the night lying on the ground in the garden beside his dog during the last hours of its life. There are people I know and love like him - they are the ones who aren't shiny go-getters, they enjoy taking their time, discussing interesting topics and ideas, rather than showing off to each other; no-one dislikes them but they are probably often deep down fairly lonely, as most people are too busy elbowing their way ahead to notice them as they knock them out of the way.

It is after his dog's death that Winifried decides to visit his daughter, who is working as a management consultant in Bucharest.

The daughter, Ines, appears to be leading a life of emotional impoverishment but, in case we start to feel sorry for her, we witness moments when she throws her weight around unpleasantly and displays very little warmth toward those under her control. Her reaction to her father's arrival is - not entirely surprisingly given he gave her no warning that he was coming - not exactly overjoyed.

Ines's behaviour is erratic, making her a very difficult character to read. What are her real feelings about her life and choices? Possibly she knows perfectly well how hollow and empty the work she is engaged in is in the wider scheme of things, but she has no opportunity to choose an alternative - or possibly she recognises this intermittently, or possibly she doesn't consciously recognise it at all. When her father tries, in his clumsy way, to ask whether she is happy and to question her way of life, she throws his questions back at him. And why not? Her father may not like what he sees but his generation has passed on to the next this world in which Ines has to find her way and make her own living. No alternatives appear to be on offer. Feminism has empowered the modern woman to sell her soul along with the men and if she doesn't join in what is she to do instead? How does he suggest she support herself, if she quits her consultancy job?

Besides, much of the time she appears to be committed to the role she is playing. There is no indication that she recognises the absurdity of her behaviour when, after giving a presentation, she conducts an earnest Skype conversation with a coach about how to improve her body language in such situations. In her discussions with her colleagues - (largely conducted in the strange no-man's-land English spoken by people for whom the language is not their mother tongue) - about strategies and outsourcing, she seems engaged and committed.  Impressing - or at least appeasing - a senior corporate figure called Henneberg, an ice-cold passive aggressive whose demeanour is worryingly reminiscent of the Nazi officer movie villains of my childhood, seems to be the most pressing thing on her agenda.

On the other hand, given any opportunity during the working day - during car trips from appointment to appointment - she appears to always grab the opportunity to blank out reality through sleep, and, as the film proceeds, random cracks in her equanimity do start to appear. Whether her father's arrival is the catalyst or whether they just emerge naturally, is not explained, but it becomes clear that she is from time to time prone to something that looks like existential despair. Thus, while she farewells her father coldly, distantly, once he is gone, tears begin to roll down her face. Again, in a night club one evening, surrounded by gaiety, unnoticed she begins to cry. On several other occasions, although always only fleetingly, she is clearly on the verge of tears.

I am making the film seem very solemn but, mainly thanks to Winifried's alter ego, Toni Erdmann, the film is exceptionally comic as well, (although it did occur to me that Erdmann had certain similarities to Trump, in the sense that he is a disruptor). Surprisingly, Ines's attitude towards this antic prankster alter ego of her father's is less negative than one at first assumes. This strange clownish element is clearly a major aspect of her father's personality, (and one, although she represses it, that she, we soon learn, shares - however reluctantly). After an initial reaction of embarassment and/or shock, she actually begins to provide further opportunities for Toni's activities. She ensures that he is invited to a party that is related to her work and then co-opts him into joining her in a business meeting, after he has forced her, through a ridiculous mistake, to take him along on a trip outside Bucharest.

Her motives on this latter occasion are particularly hard to read. When her father's light-hearted flippant warmth is revealed to have dangerous consequences for others, there is a moment when a faint expression of triumph seems to cross Ines's face, as if her purpose had been precisely to teach him this lesson, to demonstrate that the world is not as benign as he would like to believe and he needs to be more careful. What happens is that, thanks to her father's naive, well-intentioned friendliness, someone loses their job; she watches wordlessly and, when he expresses his aghast remorse, she tells him, unsmilingly, that it was going to happen anyway since she will be in charge of recommending downsizing and that therefore he has done her a favour by removing from her the responsibility of robbing at least one worker of their livelihood.

This incident also highlights another uncomfortable strand of the film. Ines, (and, by association, her father) - and the frightful Mr Henneberg - are all part of a new class of masters to whom the locals must kowtow. This is evident in the desperation of Ines's assistant's desire to please, in the eager "Thank you for choosing Darius" gratitude of the representative of the catering firm Ines employs for her hilariously dotty birthday brunch, even in the willingness of Ines's lover to take her orders (and I should warn you there is a ghastly sex scene, which I at first resented until I decided it was a good way of dispalying Ines's dilemma in finding herself not just a German boss but an empowered woman negotiating sexual politics; I thought she might actually have been hoping that the man in question would be provoked to rebel and overturn the power relationship between them, taking matters into his own hands - something that, in fact, he does in a way, but sadly not in quite the way I mean.)

In the end, it seems to me that this puzzling but very entertaining film is a bit like a Giovanni Verga story, (except funny; I cannot remember Verga ever being remotely amusing). It is not made with the intention of making a point; it is simply a cinematic snapshot of a slice of messy, sad, absurd human existence in the West in the early twenty-first century. It is a portrait, rather than a lesson.  Its blend of laughter and melancholy appeals a good deal to me. The scene where Winifried manoeuvres Ines into singing a Whitney Huston song, (whose lyrics, incidentally, make a mockery of her existence), in front of a room of puzzled Romanians, who are under the impression that he is the Ambassador of Germany to Romania and she is Frau Schnuck, his secretary, is absolutely wonderful. While I wasn't one hundred per cent convinced by Ines's party, I will always treasure the line, "Oh yes, it is good for the team" and also the moment when Winifried arrives, which is alone worth the price of the ticket. I also like the running gag of the cheese grater, which I haven't even mentioned yet.

It is not giving anything away to reveal that there is in the end a touching moment of true reconciliation between father and daughter. Ines embraces him wholeheartedly, with all the warmth and affection of a small girl. The fact that she is willing to do this only when he is transformed by a highly traditional outfit may indicate a longing on her part to embrace a more traditional role for herself and to cling onto it for grim death. Or it may not. And, while Winifried throughout the film acts as a maverick spirit that has somehow survived despite the sterility of much that is modern, he finally reveals himself to be as beguiled as the rest of us by the new.  Having counselled his daughter to savour the good moments of life, to make sure she is there in them, present, he lumbers off to fetch his camera so that he can take a picture of her when a particular mood takes her, as if, after all he believes that he can hold on to what is already gone.


Sunday, 8 January 2017

Baccalaureate/Graduation

Baccalaureate

It is impossible to tell from the opening shot of Baccalaureate - a street level view of a group of low-level, poor quality apartment buildings -  whether we are in pre- or post-1989 Romania. It is a scene we return to again and again and it becomes clear as the film progresses that the physical lack of change it displays so clearly is paralleled in many less visible areas of Romanian life as well.

The action of the film begins inside a ground floor apartment in one of the buildings, where the main character, a surgeon, lives with his wife, an enigmatic semi-invalid who smokes constantly & with whom he no longer shares a bed, & his daughter, who has been offered a scholarship to Cambridge, provided she scores a very high mark in her final school exams.

It is the morning of the girl's Romanian exam. The father & daughter are preparing to leave when a stone flies through the sitting room window. The father goes out in search of the person responsible but finds no one. He then takes the daughter to school but drops her round the back rather than right outside the building , as he is in a hurry. The next scene reveals that he is in a hurry to see his lover. While he kisses her, his telephone rings. His daughter has been attacked on her way to school.

A chain of events spools out from this disaster, revealing to the audience that the corrupt old habits of favours and influence still hold sway in Romania.  The father, whose desperate passion is for his child to get out of Romania, is, in his efforts to free her, ensnared in the mesh he wants her to escape - and quite possibly drags her down with him.

As well as being a portrayal of a society still profoundly damaged by the years it was subjected to misrule, the film also raises questions about parental ambition. The lead character only has his child's best interests at heart but he never stops to think about whether she will actually be happy if she does fulfil his dream of leaving Romania and studying at Cambridge. She has friends and a boyfriend and, left to her own devices, it is fairly clear that she would prefer to go to Kolodsvar to study.

We know that the boyfriend in whom the daughter seems to be investing rather a lot, emotionally, is utterly worthless. Nevertheless, can parents live their children's lives for them or undo their own mistakes through them - the father came back to Romania, post-1989, and now regrets it and this is fuelling the intensity of his desire that his daughter escape. Surely, it is she who will have to conceive her own desperation to leave, she who will have to make what she will of the life she has been given. In the father's overbearing drive to direct his daughter's existence, could there be a parallel with the paternalistic attitude of the old regime?


The film is intriguing, with several surreal or, for want of a better word, faintly dreamlike elements. The line-up scene at the police station, comes to mind, along with the scene in which the daughter suddenly asks her father a question about his driving, and that in which he weeps in the dark beside the road - not to mention the recurring mystery of the stone thrower, (who continues to harass the father throughout the film, a persistent reminder that unexpected events have a habit of erupting into the calm of the everyday, derailing order and careful plans).

Although the characters of the mother and the lover are not entirely satisfactory, the film is wonderfully haunting and thought provoking. I like the very immediate way Mungiu shoots his films; you are always right there beside the character or just behind his shoulder. When indoors, you can somehow feel the walls of the room around you, rather than having a sense of being a distant viewer. When a character is hurrying down alleys and round the corners of buildings, you have the impression of clattering along the broken pavement too, right on their heels. I would like to have seen quite a lot more of the lover's little boy who was a most intriguing figure but, apart from that, I did not feel anything was missing. Baccalaureate is worth a look.