Thursday, 15 February 2018

The Repugnant Capitulation in the Film and Publication Board’s Rating of “Inxeba”

I hadn’t expected to begin my response to a new local film with more consternation against our state bodies and their interference in South African cinema, but the recent opprobrium of the Film and Publication Board’s ferociously unjust censorship of Inxeba has angered me in excess of my expectations. I wasn’t very much bothered by those protesting the film’s screenings in the Eastern Cape and Western Cape, though I was disappointed to find that theatre managers were caving in to intimidation — but the actions of the national classification and censorship authority were so cowardly, so unjust, and bore such harsh implications for the artists involved in the making of Inxeba as well as other South African artists that I cannot go without declaiming their repugnance here.

The Man and Boy Foundation (MBF) and the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (CONTRALESA) made an appeal to the Film and Publication Board (FPB) to change its rating of Inxeba with an age restriction of 16 to one of X18 — effectively a classification of the film as pornography. The FPB acquiesced and Inxeba, which was playing at multiplex and independent screening venues across the country, as well as reportedly having been bought by Multichoice to show on BoxOffice, Showmax, and M-Net, is now only allowed to be distributed by licenced pornography merchants and screened at designated “adult” venues. The only explanation that has been offered by the FPB so far comes along with its sudden announcement on its Twitter account, and it’s as repulsively evasive as the method of communication was brusque:

Friday, 26 January 2018

Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” Suits Meryl Streep Too Well

Steven Spielberg’s new film The Post slots neatly into the establishment it purports to monitor, in a routine that belies the processes of journalistic inquiry it supposedly commends. It’s loved by critics, who are, after all, journalists themselves, and who appreciate too readily an assured and accomplished approval of the system. The System in the story is the American presidency, in particular the administrations of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon; the System within which the story is presented is that of the very hub of Hollywood industry. Spielberg’s style is cultivated from the mechanised forms and procedures of the studio era of movie-making; his methods are faithful to the conventions of the industry; he himself, together with the stars of the film, Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, represents the core of its establishment; the story itself points to the ostensibly great deed of the head individual of a commercial and political system of its own, who is part of nothing if not of the élite of privilege and power in American society.

Spielberg’s film centres on Katharine Graham’s (Streep) decision to publish reporting on the classified Pentagon Papers in the newspaper her family owned, The Washington Post. Hanks is the headstrong and hardy editor who organises the investigation and reporting, and pushes strongly to publish. Richard Nixon steps in as the villain; his actual recordings from the Oval Office are used on the soundtrack (an actor named Curzon Dobell provides Nixon’s silhouette), and manipulated to cast Nixon in his own archetypal role. The exaggerations and fictions of the film’s plot are obviously formulated to directly connect the story to a comment on the Trump administration and commonplaces about the press’s role in relation to it.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

“The Shape of Water” is a Hollywood Classic With Contemporary Politics

The experience of watching Guillermo del Toro’s new film The Shape of Water is like that of buying and eating an elaborately manufactured and fussily packaged epicurean dessert, the kind that upmarket department stores promote in their northern-suburbs branches over Christmas. The lavish presentation may resemble that of haute cuisine, but the formula conforms to industry staples and packs heady dosages of sugar and fat, for immediate gratification and easy consumption.

That comparison is somewhat unfair: Del Toro’s film involved many conscientious craftsmen and many hours of labour, and even the most pedestrian of Hollywood studio productions deal in narrative and concepts, human emotions and ideas — the stuff of which Woolworths doesn’t generally construct its weekly food catalogues. And del Toro knows how to mix in ideas with his sweetener; the only other of his films that I’ve seen is Pan’s Labyrinth (and about half an hour of Hellboy II: The Golden Army), which ran its narrative course through a prismatic view of fascism as well as the full gamut of psychoanalytical insights on childhood fantasies.

Though Pan’s Labyrinth is the film that took a stark view of particular brutalities during the Spanish Civil War and The Shape of Water is the one that centres on a fairytale romance between a dewy-eyed innocent and a colourful water creature, it’s the former which played as an ingenuous Freudian expedition through the preoccupations of childhood, while The Shape of Water has the feel of a more tempered and more adult look at things.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

“A Quiet Passion” is the Great Biopic Emily Dickinson Deserves

Emily Dickinson is my favourite poet apart from Shakespeare, and, in my estimation, also happens to be the greatest poet beside Shakespeare. The differences between the Bard and the Belle of Amherst are multitudinous and immense, but they are connected in how I see each of them by two common traits: a Herculean, colossal cognitive struggle with (and, in some ways, triumph over) the cosmos, which marks the distinct originality and greatness of their poetry; and the shockingly (yet, somehow, aptly) minute amount we know of each of their outer lives, as well as the regrettable absence of a chronicle of their monumental inner lives. The character of Shakespeare has already been featured in a small handful of films, sometimes not totally in earnest, but Terence Davies’s assuredly masterful and astoundingly emotional biopic A Quiet Passion features the first appearance of Dickinson on the screen. And, as befits the greatest poet of her continent and one of the greatest in the language, the film is an exquisite and unforgettable masterpiece that — I note bitterly as awards season is underway — has not received the recognition it certainly merits. If it had been released in theatres in South Africa last year, I may well have placed it right at the top of my list of favourite films of the year.

I have only seen one other film by Davies, his first, Distant Voices, Still Lives, from 1988. If that film and this one, his latest, are anything to go by, he is undoubtedly one of the great artists of the time, and has also been unduly neglected and forgotten in the popular media. I had at least hoped we would hear of some or other Best Actress nomination for Cynthia Nixon, who plays Emily Dickinson in the film, and in doing so gives one of the most intense and insightful biopic performances in recent years; alas, the film has been unjustly sidelined. Yet, as frustrating as this may be for those who worked on it, this suits the story of the determined artist who craved acknowledgement and vindication and never got it while she was alive.

Friday, 5 January 2018

Charlie Chaplin’s “The Circus” at 90

This article originally appeared on the Big Screen Hooligans website and is reposted here with permission.

Over two issues in 1963 and 1964, the French film monthly Cahiers du cinéma printed a dictionary of American filmmakers. Jean-Luc Godard, one of its contributors and now one of the legendary directors of the French New Wave, submitted the entry on Charlie Chaplin, writing,

He is beyond praise because he is the greatest of all. What else can one say? … Charles Spencer Chaplin, while remaining marginal to the rest of cinema, ended up by filling this margin with more things (what other word can one use: ideas, gags, intelligence, honour, beauty, movement?) than all the other directors together have put into the whole book.

Over a career spanning more than 75 years, Chaplin directed at least 82 films, starring in nearly all of them, including eleven feature-length films which stand among the greatest in the art form. It’s out of nothing other than deep affection and warm admiration that we note today is the 90th anniversary of the release of one of those features, The Circus, which premiered on 6 January, 1928, at the Strand Theatre in Times Square, New York City. It’s famous as a particularly difficult production to complete in early Hollywood history, and one of the most fraught times in Chaplin’s career. Film equipment troubles, personal legal troubles, personal financial troubles, and family grief ended up stalling production for ten months.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

The Year in Movies – 2017

This is a movie blog, but a calendar year in movies (an arbitrary divisor used for ease of comparison) can always be contrasted with, and, more often, related to the calendar year in general. In 2014, we noted a new rise in protest and resistance action around the world, spearheaded by the Black Lives Matter movement that began in America in that year. At the end of 2014, Ava DuVernay’s magnificent biopic Selma was released, which not only depicted a subject similar to the issues concerning the movement, but reflected a similar temper of outraged defiance and dignified opposition. The film was duly lauded, in both apt aesthetic and trite journalistic terms, and had a moderate showing at the Oscars. But, other than distilling and sharply appreciating the substance of the matter at hand, it did nothing to aid any of the protest movements surrounding it. Movies can’t change the world — art in the general shouldn’t try — but artists aim for its greater truths and meanings.

At the end of 2015, in my movie round-up, I noted the mounting energies of resistance and opposition both locally and globally: the student funding crisis, the South African education crisis, the international refugee crisis, the climate change crisis, fanaticist terror attacks, rising movements of fascism and overt racism, a growing distrust in an increasingly consumerist global media industry, and widening gaps of inequality. 2016 — whose political concerns were not enumerated on my blog post to end off that year — seemed to many like a tipping point in many of these issues, and the fierce observation and commentary on movie releases since then by social media users around the world has directly taken them into account. More explicitly than ever (and helpfully emphasised by the Oscar envelope mix-up), the widespread recognition of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight over narrower, more backward-facing works was political at least as much as it was aesthetic. This year, Hollywood was the epicentre of an eye-widening and heartening blowback against the systematic abuse of working women. Some of the allegations of sexual misconduct arising from Hollywood were shocking (though many were sickeningly unsurprising), but nothing about the predators’ actions was special or exceptional. These difficulties exist and thrive in every industry, and it’s almost necessary that an industry that exists to reflect and perceive the society at large is the one that exposed so ubiquitous a problem.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

“Vuil Wasgoed” Doesn’t Remove Stains

Vuil Wasgoed, the new film by Morné du Toit, who also directed this year’s Nul is nie niks nie, is a particular cinematic experience that is peculiar to summarise and describe. It’s an enjoyment without joy, a stylishness without style, a sentimentality of little sentiment, an assured thought with no thinking, calibration without precision, and velocity without force. It is, in other words, the best of South African cinema. So obsessed are so many of our country’s filmmakers with the dazzle and the cultural and commercial heft of the international mainstream that most of their efforts seem like dizzy attempts for them to either match up to or ostentatiously remove themselves from the treads and territories of general Hollywood fare.

Read what others had to say about Vuil Wasgoed.

Du Toit is in the aspirational camp. The script was written by Bennie Fourie and Bouwer Bosch, who also both star in the film, and du Toit finds just the right cinematic cliché to match the bathos and banality of every gag and every signifier they give him. The script does not develop much of its threads beyond their initial conception, and the direction doesn’t find or even look for anything beneath its colourful surfaces. Production values on South African movies are on the up, and have been over the past decade, and there’s a terrific professional gloss to this film; every scene is brightly lit, each character is fastidiously dressed and made up, each setting is meticulously prepared, hard work obviously went into creating a sound design and musical soundtrack to support the images, and the various production assistants and teams have paid clear attention to much of the detail included in the film. Each scene is diligently calibrated to fill out a mood, convey a plot point, or thrash out a few self-satisfied wisecracks and pratfalls.

Monday, 18 December 2017

Critic’s-Eye View: “Vuil Wasgoed”

Following up his hit Nul is nie niks nie from earlier this year, Morné du Toit has a new film in theatrical release right now: the Afrikaans crime-caper-comedy Vuil Wasgoed. I have not had a chance to see it myself, but can report on what other reviewers and commentators have been saying about it.

Read The Back Row’s review of Vuil Wasgoed.

Herman Eloff awarded the film three stars in his review for Channel24, stating that, considering the risks of adapting a short film into a feature-length comedy, “it worked out just fine.”

The big screen version is far more polished than the original short. It’s slicker, smoother, and faster. Even the cinematography is sexier with an expensive, international feel to it. The characters have also grown and are a lot more developed and interesting to watch. … Vuil Wasgoed really is a breath of fresh air in the local cinematic offering. It’s well-made and beautifully put together. But it also has its problems.
Although a stellar cast, some characters really dropped the ball a few times. When a strategically placed joke falls flat it results in an uncomfortable silence from the audience. … The constant jabs at [the film’s two disabled characters, a blind man and deaf woman] were insensitive and completely unnecessary. Instead of using this opportunity to include disabled characters into the narrative, they were rather used as an easy target to make fun of. This kind of ableism should never by okay and should not be encouraged in any way. The crude treatment of the disabled left a dirty stain on an otherwise pristine effort.”

Saturday, 25 November 2017

What to See This Weekend: The Struggle

“Malcolm X” (Spike Lee, 1992)

Available on iTunes; on DVD.

Spike Lee’s biopic of the civil rights activist and Muslim minister Malcolm X is based in large part on his autobiography. I noted on this blog that James Baldwin had written an earlier treatment of Malcolm X’s life for film, which was developed into the screenplay for Lee’s film. Having never read the autobiography nor Baldwin’s treatment (nor the versions in between that and the final script), I couldn’t say how much of the film comes from either source. Nor could I say, now having seen the film, how much of the stuff of the film itself comes from Spike Lee and his actual thoughts, feelings, and artistic impulses, and how much comes from what Spike Lee thought ought to be one’s thoughts, feelings, and heavily wrought artistic representations of these. Malcolm X displays an undeniable cinematic artistry, but only in flashes; although the film may seem like it’s set out like a textbook, or pseudo-testimony, and made not out of a drive for artistic creation but an assertive, unambiguous, even peremptory account of Malcolm X’s life and work, Lee’s distinctive style works to keep his film falling into the deadening craters of other Oscarisable biopics (think of Gandhi, Shine, Out of Africa, A Beautiful Mind, The Imitation Game, and the rest).

Lee seems determined to include as much of Malcolm X’s life as his distributors would allow in the film; many episodes are enacted in what feels like their real-time full length. The comparison between this and another, far greater recent biopic is striking: in his movie about Emily Dickinson, A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies keeps his telling elliptical, choosing a few distinctive moments — some of them even partly or mostly fictional — in Dickinson’s life in the foreground to suggest a rich and multiplicitous background. Of course, Lee couldn’t have done the same here, because of the very real cultural and political risks in leaving too much of Malcolm X’s story to interpretation, or even of refracting it too sharply through one’s own interpretation. Unfortunately, however, this ostensibly faithful account occludes a probing, questioning, curious, ambivalent, ambiguous, or polysemous attitude to the content, and so precludes a highly nuanced or inflected filming of it. And, in an oblique way, it works against Lee’s intentions: when an artist resorts to hard assertions, especially in an apparent effort to set the record straight, and especially in a form derived from and assimilating to fiction, it’s particularly difficult to trust in its veracity, even (or, perhaps, especially) when it’s demonstrated that the narrative is mostly fact-based. The facts don’t speak for themselves, and an artist is in store for deep pitfalls when he presumes that they might.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

The Exalted Power of Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte”

The Metropolitan Opera in New York City broadcasts a few of its performances each season to cinemas around the globe, for those of us interested in the annual productions of one of the largest and greatest houses in the world and for whom the local operatic slate is not nearly sufficient. Ster Kinekor screens these performances in South Africa (in its Cinema Nouveau theatres, in Pretoria, Johannesburg, Durban, and Cape Town). The 2017-2018 season started off with a dramatically dark production of Norma, starring the Canadian soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as a truly great interpreter of the Gaulish priestess and a glowing Joyce DiDonato as her apprentice. The second production on offer is a revival of Julie Taymor’s perennially popular production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (“The Magic Flute”). Mozart’s momentous opera soared for over two centuries before Taymor got her hands on it — and I daresay it’ll outlive her brilliant work — but it loses nothing to her outlandish and variegated designs and devices, and I most heartily advise every reader of this blog to go out and see one or more of the final screenings of this production (see the Ster Kinekor website for details).

Mozart’s music has had to weather more overblown yet rhapsodic rhetoric than any other composer’s in the modern era (and the classical and ancient times, for that matter), but it’s difficult to find anything like a hyperbole among its descriptors. Best known as a child prodigy (and now a virtual fertiliser for the ears and minds of today’s children, in the hope that his freakish abilities are infectious), Mozart’s technical mastery and fertile prolificity are incontrovertible, but they’re only the first part of the story of his genius. It’d be true to say of him, as a composer and teacher friend of mine has, that, in all 700 works, in the face of many self-imposed challenges, he never set a single note in the wrong place or at the wrong time; every moment is composed (you’ll forgive the cliché) as if by divine configuration. And that heavenly order is a true and personal aspect of his art: More than mere phenomena of sensation and spectacle, Mozart’s works constitute a noble and exalted philosophy sought sublimely through sound.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Making Your Way, for Free

A still from the Malian film Yeelen, available for viewing on

My apologies to readers who have come, as I hope you might have, to expect something from this blog’s weekend viewing recommendations that you wouldn’t find on just any old entertainment blog available to you. Last weekend, instead of a selection of films for you to seek out, I posted about a few sites and platforms where you can discover your own viewing paths and make your own selections of films to see and report back on. (I’ve received a few stories and recommendations from some readers on specific series they’ve found and enjoyed, but not heard anything about their feature film — or short film, for that matter — delights.)

The sites I gave were pretty obvious and very broadly mainstream, and no doubt already known in their entirety to most readers: Showmax, BoxOffice, iTunes, Google Play, and Netflix. They are also either subscription or rental/purchase services. The delightful array of South African independent productions on Showmax and foreign independent productions on Netflix aside, what about the works for those viewers who are looking for alternatives to the common feature viewing fare? And what about those viewers whose budget constraints preclude extensive viewing on sites that require you to pay for your pleasures?

I must admit that I myself am nearly as engulfed by the darkness of ignorance as any reader asking those questions. I know of pitifully few places where you can go to watch things for free — but, of course, at least one reason for that is that not many distributors are committed to releasing their films for free — and I know even less about alternative viewing that would interest some of you. All I can do here is point out to you the tiny handful of things I do know, and plead for more of you to let me know about the options that they know of so that I can inform more readers of what’s available to them. (I’ll only let you know about the legally permissible options here; viewers who disregard laws and copyrights do so at their own inconvenience.)