Wednesday 21 August 2013


It is easy to like Matt Damon. It is not easy to like Elysium. At least not for me. It is however easy to exemplify what I dislike about the film. With regular intervals there are shots in slow motion of children laughing and running from the camera, while glancing back towards it. This is a sentimental trick that I have always found cheap and cheesy and the fact that Elysium is filled with these shots is a sign of the big problem I had with it. Nothing in it felt sincere or genuine, but like somebody had used a computer program to construct a science fiction film, and then left it to the software to direct it. It showed desperately little evidence of craft and artistry. At one point during a fight sequence there was an overhead shot, showing the ground from a high altitude, that was so short that it was not possible to see what it was meant to show, and neither was in sync with the general editing patterns of that sequence, when the heroes attack the villain Carlyle after they have shot down his space craft. It was just completely random and pointless, like so many other shots and ideas in the film.

Towards the end of Elysium Matt Damon's character Max, his childhood friend Frey, her daughter and three evil men are all in a space craft together flying to Elysium (a "paradise" in space) to which they all want to go, albeit for different reasons. Just as they are about to land they all start to fight, a hand grenade goes off and they violently crash (although nobody is killed). What was the purpose of this? Nobody in the space craft had anything to gain from such a fight or from a crash, so why would they start this fight? And what narrative purpose did it serve? It had no effect on the story. The most evil of the men, Krüger, had his face completely disfigured, well, destroyed, but he was soon resurrected by the healing machines that are common on Elysium. It is not a question of "plot holes" but of bad filmmaking, or laziness, an example of the sense of drift and randomness to the film. This is particularly a problem in a film like Elysium, that clearly aims to be political and serious and consequently should be made with more care. It matters less in a film like Pacific Rim, which is considerably more playful and fun and which I thought was more profound with its idea of "the drift", a wonderful version of love.

What about the ending of Elysium? The world in the film is polluted and filthy, and society has collapsed. Those with the means to do so have escaped to the man-made paradise called Elysium. The rest has to stay on the toxic earth. But in the end everybody is made a legal citizen of Elysium thanks to the heroism of Max. But how is this going to change anything? They cannot all live up there, and earth is still a filthy and unhealthy place to live on. If anything this end result will only make things worse because everybody will try to get to Elysium and it will be ruined too. So nobody is better off. Is that what the filmmakers intended or do they think that they have given the film a happy ending? Our world, here and now, have innumerable problems and conflicts and Elysium might have wanted to address them in a meaningful or nuanced way but it failed on that level too. Up in Elysium they all spoke French. Is that because Americans think the French are all elitist snobs, what with their wine-drinking, love-making and philosophing? Tell that to those who live in the banlieues. And what is one to make of the fact that the leaders in the dystopian future is a woman and a South Asian man and that the world can only be saved by a burly, all-American, white man? Is that what we call progress these days?

I would not mind these things so much if the film had been made with some wit, charm and visual panache. Alas, there was nothing of that. So no, I did not like Elysium, not at all.

This post is written as part of a focus on Elysium among a number of Swedish film bloggers. Here are links to the others. One is in English, The Velvet Café. The others are in Swedish Rörliga bilder och ord, Jojjenito, Fripps filmrevyer, Fiffis filmtajm, Movies - Noir.

Sunday 18 August 2013

Allan Dwan and Jean Grémillon

This year Allan Dwan and Jean Grémillon have been getting an unusually large amount of attention, at museums, film festivals and cinematheques. Since they are both filmmakers of considerable skills and artistry this is only right and proper, and long overdue. What is also satisfying about it is that it is further evidence of what I am always arguing, namely that film history is not set in stone but must be continuously updated, reinterpreted and expanded. Neither Dwan nor Grémillon are unknown (at least not among distinguished film historians) but they are not household names either, for no apparent reason. In the silent era Dwan was one of the most esteemed and prestigious filmmakers around, and he could be seen partying with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Grémillon was celebrated by André Bazin in the 1940s. But after the widespread attention they have received of late hopefully their films will be shown with more frequency.

Dwan made hundreds of films, from 1911 to 1961, with great energy and enthusiasm, and I have seen very few of them. Only six to be exact. Three of them, Driftwood (1947), Silver Lode (1954) and Tennessee's Partner (1955) are very good, particularly the last one. They were made quickly and inexpensively, but that did not get in the way of their quality. Powerful, emotional and with excellent precision in composition and with a use of depth and framing enough to put must other films to shame. I want to explore more of his films, not least the early silent phase when he was one of the great pioneers, to be mentioned alongside other important filmmakers from the pre-1920s, such as Thomas Ince, D.W. Griffith and Cecil B DeMille.

Jean Grémillon had a shorter career; lasting between 1923 and 1958, and many of his close to 50 films were shorts and documentaries. His fiction features though are exceptional. They are intense, dramatic and raw, imbued with a romanticism and spirituality. Some of them can lazily be called French poetic realism, a much overstretched term, and at least one of them, Stormy Waters (Remorques 1941) with a script partly written by Jacques Prévert, must be regarded as one of the most impressive and wonderful French films ever made. Other personal favourites are The Love of a Woman (L'amour d'une femme 1953), his last feature film, and L'étrange Monsieur Victor (1938).

                                          An image from Stormy Waters.

I do not know these filmmakers well enough to write much more than this but below are some valuable links for those who want to read more. I will end with a quote from Bazin: "Grémillon's art is worthy of long commentaries. /.../ He expresses himself in a visual prose of an honesty and transparency so perfect that we cease to be aware of technique. At this degree of skill, art completely disappears into its subject; we are no longer at the cinema but in life itself." (The quote, from 1944, can be found in the collection of early writings by Bazin called "French Cinema of the Occupation and Resistance".)

Grémillon links:
Farran Smith Nehme at Mubi.
Dave Kehr in New York Times.
An introduction from the Film Museum in Vienna.
Michael Koresky writing for Criterion.

Dwan links:
Richard Brody at the New Yorker.
The Allan Dwan Dossier.
R. Emmet Sweeney on Dwan, part 1.
R. Emmet Sweeney on Dwan, part 2.

Kevin Brownlow lecturing on Allan Dwan:
Lezione di Cinema - Alla Ricerca di Allan Dwan / Searching for Allan Dwan from Cineteca di Bologna on Vimeo.

Tuesday 6 August 2013

The film as a thing in itself

I am frequently asked "What kinds of films do you like?" and my response is always the same. All kinds, as long as they are good. This often leads to protests from those who ask this question and an effort to disprove me, by way of mentioning different kinds of films that they think I could not possibly like. (Some have suggested spaghetti westerns, others Bollywood musicals, others action blockbusters.) But that is a game they cannot win because what I say is not just a line, it happens to be true. It also means something more important, and that is that I see every film as a unique entity or, as Kant might have said, a thing in itself. It appears that this is surprisingly rare.

There are many ways in which films are not judged on their own merits but in comparison with something else. One obvious example is adaptations. As I have written before, I have a problem with the way films that are adapted from other art forms are discussed and appreciated, as when the quality of a film based on a book is measured on how faithful the film is to its source. I have a problem with this because it says nothing about the film in itself; it only says something about the film's relationship with something else (such as a book). When I see a film based on a book, even if it is a book I love, I do not care about that book, I only care about the film. Its fidelity to its source is immaterial.

When you ask a person what they thought about a horror film they have just seen they might say "I didn't like it, it wasn't scary enough." But by this they do not mean that they only like films that are really scary, what they mean is that since this was supposed to be a horror film it was bad because it was not scary enough. To me that is going about it the wrong way. You might be disappointed because the film was not as scary as you thought it to be but that does not make it a bad film. If the film had great acting, great cinematography, a good story, fantastic music and so on, that should be enough. Whether it was scary enough is something else because it is not based on the actual film but the film's relationship to other films, and that is unfair. If you had approached it as "a film" instead of "a horror film" you might have really liked it.

In her review of Pacific Rim (2013) Deborah Ross wrote that "Pacific Rim is a giant monsters v. giant robots film and although written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, who made Pan’s Labyrinth, which was sublime, it’s still just a giant monsters v. giant robots film, and now we have dealt with that". But there is no such thing as "just a giant monsters v. giant robots film". How were the visuals? How was the acting? Did the film stay true to its own inner logic? What did the film's politics look like? Any film can be discussed, analysed and appreciated, and they should be, especially by critics and reviewers. A related situation is when somebody says "It was good for being a horror film." (You can exchange horror film with Western, comedy, musical or, well, any kind of film.) What does that mean? Was it a bad film, because horror films are always bad, even though this one was better than the rest of them? Or was it actually a really good film? But if it was good, then why not just say that, instead of adding a caveat? And compared to which horror films? Was it good on the level of Psycho (1960), Peeping Tom (1960) or Alien (1979)? Any genre has a wide spectrum of films, from the really bad to the really good.

So all films should be discussed, analysed and treated with respect, but preferably on their own terms and not in relation to something else. You can of course compare a film to others like it, or how it relates to other films by the same filmmaker or with the same actor or from the same country, but these comparisons should not be used as a way of passing judgement; but rather as a way of comparing. This is not to say that all films are good, it is just to say that any film has the potential to be good, regardless of style, genre, place of origin or source material, and the chances of you appreciating it increase if you regard it as a unique work, instead of comparing it to some matrix. That, as Kant might have said, should be a categorical imperative.