Sunday, January 29, 2012

Two films; one playful, one shameful (both post-modern?)

Film Review of The Artist (2011) - Michel Hazanavicius and Shame (2011) - Steve McQueen (both seen at Cornerhouse, Manchester)


Image copyright of Brian Slater, http://www.culture24.org.uk/sector+info/art313555

It is nearly the end of January and I've been to see two films this month, which I'm counting as achievements in terms of my quest to secure a work-life balance in 2012. I think it's fair to say that the two films - The Artist and Shame - are dissimilar, perhaps to the point of chalk and cheese when considering their tone, narrative, themes, style, setting, direction, characterisation, etc, but I don't have time to write two film reviews. And there is a way in which they can be connected. It's in the kind of way that you could say that chalk and cheese are both things you might find in a pre-whiteboard classroom, in the satchel of a teacher who likes to eat Ploughman's sandwiches. The Artist and Shame are both indicative of an era - our current era, which some may still describe as post-modern, or post post-modern - both barely worth applying as an adjective because it's just like saying that there's lots of different, diverse stuff out there and that's the way it is. The stuff of culture would like to break conventions if only conventions were still there to break. But it will still keep trying and sometimes the way it approaches the quandary of post post modernity will be successful in that it will evoke something fresh in the minds of those who consume it, because we are fresh (and we are mortal).

The Artist and Shame are both trans-genre whilst making reference to particular genres within their constructs. Obviously, The Artist imitates and explores the silent movie, a kind of movie which in the 21st century we perhaps think of as a genre - even though at the time they were made, their silentness was inherent, or obsolete. Of course, the director (Michel Hazanavicius) plays with this element in relation to the cultural knowingness of the (post modern) audience. We have seen clips of silent movies from the 1920s, and bemused by their melodrama, we have tried to imagine how that was ever the norm. On a lesser ontologically pertinent level, audiences of Shame may have read or seen American Psycho and remember its initial shock impact -shocking for its nonchalant stylization of its subject matter. Steve McQueen appears to be aiming for the same kind of reaction with Shame but we know that he knows he is onto a non-starter where 'post-modern innovation' is concerned. Perhaps the actual reference to the transgressive, desperate-yuppie-hedonist filmic genre itself is where he attempts something new. Perhaps not. Does it or should it matter that we have seen this urban, dystopian American nightmare before or that there have been other films where it is also impossible to be sympathetic to any of the lead characters (in this case, Brandon, played be Michael Fassbender and Cissy, played by Carey Mulligan)? Whether it matters in terms of if this film has anything new to offer - or not, the relentlessly hostile protagonist doesn't help to make the film enjoyable or accessible. The opposite can be said of the characters in The Artist: George Valentin, Peppy Mill and Jack (the Jack Russell), who are all charming, humorous and strangely relatable (particularly the dog). Whilst it could be described as a 'feel good film,' the tone of The Artist, at times, is sombre enough to suggest that there may not be a happy ending. Perhaps it is the black and white - ness of it all. Conversely, not only is an unhappy ending predictable in Shame, the notion of unhappiness itself seems irrelevant amongst the generically grey and bleak steadiness of its impact. Some critics have interpretted the precise moment of the shame which the main character, Brandon, feels in the film - as the point when he 'allows' his boss to sleep with his mixed up little sister or when he has gay sex in an S & M club after being beaten up. I'm with the others, who perceive the incessantness of his shamefulness. The question is why does he behave so shamefully and why does he even have to label it as shameful? Why do we? And do we even care if he is shameful or not? This is perhaps the only interesting thing about the script - that McQueen makes the decision to call a film about an otherwise fairly harmless porn addict 'Shame.' It is not often that I leave a film asking what the point in it was. The pointlessness of fiction shouldn't come into it, and so it was lacking. Yes, there were mesmerising one take shots and the acting was as believable as it could have been, but the content was unsatisfactory - and if that was the point, then it didn't work.

The Artist was more easily unique. It was a highly well researched and stunningly designed rendition of a silent film. Yet it also played with its own cinematic tactics, highlighting the spectator's attention towards features of film which we currently take for granted - sound and silence as notions, as unseen elements of mediation. One day, the protagonist and prestigious silent movie actor, George Valentin, awakes to the sound of everyday noise. The musical soundtrack which the audience had been treated to throughout, stops suddenly, interfering with the story, unveiling a narrative within a narrative. We wonder whether the main character, visibly afraid of the combination of non musical noise and silence, has actually been hearing the music himself as he goes about his daily business and then we remember that we have been suspending disbelief, that Valentin is really a character played by an actor (Jean DuJardin). It is 'classic' postmodern form to interrupt the narrative with a gesture towards its authorial voice (e.g. when the protagonist in Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy gets a call from Paul Auster) and it worked deliciously here to playful and inventive effect. Whilst post-modernism is old, this set-up was new and entertaining, perhaps rendering concepts of post-modernism or post post-modernism inadequate or irrelevant. Again.

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