Saturday, 9 September 2017

How Are You Prepared for “Inxeba: The Wound”?


One of the sustained subjects on controversy I’ve observed on South African social media this year is the announcement of and marketing for the new isiXhosa-language film The Wound Inxeba, directed by first-time director John Trengrove and adapted from the novel A Man Who is Not a Man by Thando Mgqolozana. Responses to the trailer, released in the first half of the year, are divided between enthusiasm and outrage, and the topics of discussion on it cover a few different points of interest.

Firstly, and most prominently, is the topic of the film’s setting and overt subjects. The film is set almost entirely at the rural location of the traditional Xhosa practice of initiation, known as ulwaluko, and depicts certain experiences of the young men who undergo it. Ulwaluko is a sacred rite in its Xhosa heritage and the specific details of the process are meant to be secret to everyone except those who have undergone it (which is supposed to be all AmaXhosa men who have come of age); no AmaXhosa women ever find these details out, and certainly no outsiders are supposed to know them. Secondly, the marketing has revealed that the story of the film is told from the perspective of a homosexual man, and that homosexual experience and desire is incorporated into the film’s narrative. People defending the film against attacks and criticism online have said that commentators should first see the film before presuming its content, but the trailer I saw gives the distinct impression that the emotional and psychological effects of the experience of ulwaluko, same-sex attraction in the context of it, as well as varied reactions to that attraction, will be direct subjects of the film.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

“The Lost City of Z” and Mozart in the Jungle


A classic, in any art form, is a work that stands out as an authoritative and superior example of its genre, style, production circumstances, or purpose. The quality of being classical is the reliance on and use of well-established principles of composition, traditional forms and techniques, and recognisable approaches to presentation. In a strict and conventional sense, classicism would signify the taking on of the exemplary standards and styles of Greek and Roman architecture, Renaissance paintings, Age of Enlightenment music, either ancient Greek and Roman or Elizabethan poetry (depending on your perspective on literature), or the cinema of the Hollywood studio era that lasted from the 1920s to the early 1960s. James Gray’s new film (and the first that I’ve seen from this eminent director), The Lost City of Z, both epitomises classical cinematic principles and is an instant-classic in its brilliance as a genre film made at a particular time in a particular way — though I would regard it just as highly without the matters of genre, timing, and methods taken into consideration.

Consider first the screenplay Gray wrote, adapted from the non-fiction book The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann, a staff writer at The New Yorker. He sets it up in a recognisably conventional way, with a somewhat idiosyncratic officer in the British army, in the bright days of the Empire, who is disdained by his superiors, but recognised for his unique skills and achievements and suitability for a large, risky venture of combined exploration, diplomacy, and arbitration. The most obvious and famous correlate with this set-up is David Lean’s highly regarded queer epic, Lawrence of Arabia. Gray cuts just as abruptly from his officer’s briefing to the far-off wilderness he must confront, and even includes a few cursory, mutedly ostentatious shots of the vast natural wonders at hand, then continues with the exposition of his plot just like the page-turner pulp fiction adventures that so many classic Hollywood films were based on. (Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, which spawned many film adventures, was reportedly based on the reports of Doyle’s good friend Percy Fawcett, who is the hero of Gray’s story.) Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is tasked with surveying parts of the jungle in Bolivia and Brazil, with the purpose of establishing their boundary to settle a dispute over valuable natural resources. That mission is cancelled not long after he arrives, though as he tries to continue with it, an Amazonian scout tells him of a mysterious city deep in the jungle, covered with gold, and inhabited by a multitude of people. After encountering a number of life-threatening dangers on his trip and, later, returning to England to great acclaim for his accomplishment, Fawcett finds that he is obsessed with finding the city he has heard of. His long-suffering wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), helps him unearth further evidence of it in archived conquistador texts, and Percy sets off to the Amazon again with the express purpose of finding what he calls “the Lost City of Z,” to signify the last realm of discovery in human development.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Ten Musical Recordings I Love

The eminent composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein, recording his music for “West Side Story,” in 1988.

I’ve been neglecting my blog lately, which I regret, though I am not burdened by so heavy a weight of guilt as this regret may normally imply, because I’ve nevertheless been exulting in the sublimities of aesthetic, moral, and intellectual achievements in the arts that are available to those who seek them out. In the time since my last post, I have seen two excellent movies — one on DVD (Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret) and one in theatres (James Gray’s The Lost City of Z) — and two truly great movies — one on DVD (Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited) and one online (Nicholas Ray’s Bitter Victory) — about which, hopefully, you’ll hear more in a short while.

In the time I would have spent writing about these wonders, however, I’ve been focusing on a few instances of musical greatness instead. My levels of enthusiasm had been stoked somewhat by the announcement of the relaunch of the local band, the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra, and I spent much time going over different recordings of the pieces they would present in their special relaunch concert (the March from Act II of Verdi’s Aïda, Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto, and Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony), which led me to revisit a few other favourites. I was further excited by last week’s commemorations of Leonard Bernstein’s 99th birthday (including my own, on Facebook) and the kick-off of the Bernstein centenary. In the hope it would encourage discussion on the opportunities of musical appreciation and wonderment to avid listeners in South Africa, as well as on various composers, works, and recordings in particular, I present to readers here a list of some of the recordings I’ve been listening to keenly, obsessively, passionately, rapturously, and defencelessly.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Band of Insiders

Reading Paul Boekkooi’s review of the local movie Finders Keepers that appeared in Friday’s Beeld, in which he bemoans the decline of South African comedy films, I was reminded of a number of complaints I invariably have about the local film industry and the work it produces; but Boekkooi provides some interesting points of discussion, indicating the vast difference in taste and ideas that he and I have regarding cinema, not only that of South Africa, but of the art form at large.

He suggests that the reason South African comedy movies are becoming less and less funny is that “all the things we could once laugh at have dried up”. Yet I find that the greatest humour arises from the breaking of rules — defying logic, surprising twists, the irony or campness of artifice, subverting (or perverting) mores and conventions have led to sublime works of comedic genius and great artistic insight from filmmaking proponents as diverse as Woody Allen, Wes Anderson, Judd Apatow, Charlie Chaplin, the Coen brothers, Paul Feig, Howard Hawks, Peyton Reed, Nicholas Stoller, Billy Wilder, or as evidenced in a multitude of humourous moments or scenes from any number of the other, less comedic directors mentioned in this blog’s posts. It isn’t possible for the things we laugh at to dry up, as long as we have a capacity for laughter. It may be true that a large number of socially and politically aware South African citizens are not, generally, in a laughing mood at this moment, but, when attention is given to an occasional diversion, any sufficiently imaginative, inventive, and energetic filmmaker could find any number of things for a South African moviegoer to laugh at.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

“Krotoa”’s Middling Middle Ground


Having finally seen Roberta Durrant’s hyped biopic Krotoa, about the Khoi woman who lived among the Dutch settlers of Jan Van Riebeeck’s Cape Colony as a mediator and translator, it’s difficult for me to believe that the film was made by a morally and artistically serious person — even less so by a woman who purports to be serious about discussing the historical treatment of women. It’d be boorish for me to use such words as “atrocious” or “abominable,” the staples for describing films one finds particularly distasteful, in the face of a story of actual historical atrocities and moral abominations, but I find that Durrant may well care less than I do about treating the subject with respect and good sense. The failures of her film are manifold, and arise from critical malfunctions on a range of levels of the film’s development.

(To read what other critics had to say about the film, click here.)

Most superficial are the many failures of execution: Durrant and her director of photography, Greg Heimann, insist on eliminating any sense of personal or critical perspective on the shots they film, offering the blandest, most clichéd establishing shots of a beach, a fort, and the waves breaking on the west coast, and focusing squarely on actors’ faces during conversation, to the exclusion of all setting, context, and visual nuance, and with no consideration for meaningful framing, compositions, lighting, movement, or depth (except, perhaps, in what Durrant must consider the evocation of a painting, in the vulgar love scene between Krotoa and the Danish doctor Pieter Van Meerhof, and in the stunningly indelicate allusion to the famous painting of Van Riebeeck’s arrival in the Cape); Durrant and her cast refuse to step out of the woefully constrained soap-opera style of acting they learned on South African television and from pedestrian South African film productions, emphasising their exasperatingly simplistic emotions with a dreadful dependence on hackneyed expressions, and suffocating any hope for spontaneity and freedom in their performances; Durrant urges her composer, Murray Anderson, to churn the most prosaic emotional reactions with a despairingly vapid and overbearing score that treads all the wrong steps at all the wrong moments; Durrant and her costumers and makeup artists devise to present all the actors as awkwardly and obviously out of place as possible in what were probably the thoroughly-researched but ill-refashioned looks of the day.

Critic’s-Eye View: “Krotoa”

The new biopic on the Khoi historical figure Krotoa opened last week. Roberta Durrant’s film brought in mixed reviews, which is probably to be expected for any film dealing with a biter topic in South Africa’s colonial history. Before being released theatrically, it was shown at a number of international film festivals. It won Best Film at the Harlem International Film Festival in New York, and was in the official selection for the Artemis Women in Action Film Festival, the Nashville Film Festival, the International Film Festival for Environment, Health and Culture, and the World Film Awards. I’ve compiled here a number of reviews of the film for readers to get a good idea of the range of reactions to Durrant’s biopic — let me know of any that I’ve missed.

To read this blog’s review of Krotoa, click here.

Writing for Channel24, Leandra Englebrecht, who awarded the film four stars out of five, declares it “deserving of all its awards”:

“Krotoa is not an easy watch but it is a necessary watch — it explores colonialism, race, sexual violence, and identity. … The strength of this film is largely due to the brilliant Crystal-Donna Roberts as Krotoa. She gives a nuanced performance of a woman who is caught between two cultures and her own ambitions. Great care went into the Khoi representation; the cast who played the roles learned the Khoi language for authenticity. … 
Krotoa is a thought-provoking film that will stay with you long after the credits roll. This film is a must-see for all South Africans.”

Friday, 11 August 2017

What to See This Weekend: The Good Fight

Every Friday, The Back Row compiles a short selection of recommendations for readers’ weekend viewing. The links are for the convenience of those who wish to stream the films on the suggested websites (make sure it’s available in your territory before entering your payment details); readers may well prefer other sites with alternative arrangements for the streaming and downloading of films, and can’t be stopped from using those instead.

“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”



Now playing in theatres across South Africa.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the first Luc Besson film I’ve seen, and it’s nowhere near as disappointing as other commentators would have had me expect. The general consensus in critical reaction is summed up in a sentence from Herman Lategan’s review of the film (which awarded it two stars) for the Beeld: “The storyline is weak, but it’s a visual spectacle.” But South African reviewers have been considerably more generous to the film than international ones; for Channel24, Gabi Zietsman, who awarded it four stars, compares it to Besson’s cult favourite The Fifth Element, writing that “it surpasses the scope of that world into something that can only be described as magical.” She goes on to criticise its plot, dialogue, and lead actors (Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne), but affirms that it “deserves its four-star rating just because of the sheer volume and awe of the universe that Besson presents to us.” Leon van Nierop, in another four-star review, for the Rapport, writes, “One seldom sees such strange creatures, futuristic cities, weird beings, and a totally ordinary hero and heroine. … Luc Besson enjoys himself immensely, and, visually, it’s one of the most overwhelming experiences yet.”

I have had even more memorable, more wondrous, and more singularly original visual experiences in the movies myself, but Besson’s film is indeed a treat. It’s understandably often been compared to James Cameron’s Avatar, which also featured an entirely invented CGI-scape of planets, natural wonders, races other than human, and alien animal and plant species, set centuries in the future and far from earth. But, where Cameron toured across a single planet (based on a factual location in our own solar system) and the specific spiritual contours of a single society inhabiting a part of it, Besson bounds through the universe, from one solar system to another, including intriguing interactions with a parallel dimension and the material threats inherent to a movie-maker’s satire of virtual reality experiences. And, where Cameron set out a rather standard — in fact, clichéd — political fable, Besson spins something far more original and daring, which, though related, bears much greater import for the moment.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Twenty-Two Films to See by the Age of Twenty-Two

Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers,” in which young people watch the films they must watch.

Jean-Luc Godard said that you have ten fingers and there are ten films — ten films that define the cinema for you. For practice, at the halfway post on the way to the next decennial Sight & Sound poll of the greatest films of all time (which takes place in 2022), I really tried, but I’m not yet deft enough a commentator nor submerged enough a cinephile to be able to distil all my moviegoing experiences into ten titles. Here are twenty-two: a number chosen in the grim remembrance of my advancing age, and more than double the desired end result. I began with a list of forty-nine films and edited it down; the last few cuts were a little painful, until I remembered that nobody cares as much about this list as I do, and I can watch each of those redacted titles as many times as I’d like, whether or not I or anyone else recognises them as among the twenty-two best in history. Lists are only snapshots of tastes, and what gets left off can tell as much about our lives and loves as what we put on.

I note, when surveying the full list of movies I admire, miserable shortcomings and immense gaps in my film-watching experience. There were no documentaries from which to pick, for example, and woefully few films released before this decade. The fact that I can’t speak for a single African film that I love means I’ve not begun to see anywhere near an adequate proportion of African films; in fact, I’ve seen far too few films from any country other than the United States, and not enough from the United States, either. Of the top hundred films on the Sight & Sound poll, I’ve only seen seven, and the highest up are at the 20th (Singin’ in the Rain) and 21st (The Godfather) positions.

Friday, 21 July 2017

What to See This Weekend: Pain and Prejudices

Every Friday, The Back Row compiles a short selection of recommendations for readers’ weekend viewing. The links are for the convenience of those who wish to stream the films on the suggested websites (make sure it’s available in your territory before entering your payment details); readers may well prefer other sites with alternative arrangements for the streaming and downloading of films, and can’t be stopped from using those instead.

“Metropolitan” (Whit Stillman, 1990)




Available on iTunes.

This week, we passed the bicentennial of the death of the matchless Jane Austen, responsible for no less than six of the language’s favourite novels of all time and over thirty direct adaptations of those works for film and television, not to mention the host of other movies based on or inspired by stories and characters of her creation. I myself have seen very few of those adaptations (Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, from 2005, is the only one not featured in this blog post), but their number and popularity are enough to set them aside as a genre unto themselves. A far broader and more pliable genre is that of the loose adaptation, into which Whit Stillman’s remarkable indie comedy Metropolitan falls, as inspired by Austen’s Mansfield Park, along with better known films like Bridget Jones’s Diary (Pride and Prejudice) and its sequel (Persuasion), Clueless (Emma), and Material Girls (Sense and Sensibility).

I’ve never read Mansfield Park, but the characters themselves of Metropolitan make a pretty strong case for the novel when they debate its value, and the one championing it is revealed to be an Austen fanatic (which is hardly to put a foot wrong for Carolyn Farina’s level-headed and sensitive debutante Audrey) while the one against it — Edward Clements’s young socialist Tom, whose class-consciousness and self-consciousness are closely linked — has not only neglected to read it, but eschews the reading of novels altogether in favour of literary criticism: “That way, you get both the novelist’s ideas as well as the critic’s thinking.” It’s particularly shrewd of Stillman, who wrote and produced the movie in addition to directing it, to reference Austen in this way, and by it he shows how Austen has become an entrenched part of elitist culture, even (really, especially) when her name and work are thrown about in conversations that discuss the hubris and decline of that same American elite. (A peculiar delight of Stillman’s script is the bandying about of one character’s coined abbreviation for the class under discussion: U.H.B., which the others shorten to an acronym, “uhb,” standing for “urban haute bourgeois,” because none of the other terms like “preppy” or “Wasp” seem quite accurate.)

Friday, 14 July 2017

What to See This Weekend: Breaking Free

“I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” (Dennis Dugan, 2007)




Available on iTunes; on Amazon Video; on Microsoft; on DVD.

There is a tendency among nominal liberal and progressive moviegoers to attend the explicit art-house political saga, and evade the ribald comedies obviously aimed at much broader, less discerning sectors of the population. It’s exactly the constituency that the Weinstein Company often depends on, as well as the one that had, until recently, provided the bulk of outside support to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. The misguided refinement and unconsciousness prejudices of this interest group explain why one sees enthusiastic acclaim go to such disobligingly cautious works as The Imitation Game and Dallas Buyers Club, and little worthy recognition be afforded the sharper, more revealing, more personal, more daring — and, yes, more popular and entertaining — works of Judd Apatow and Eddie Murphy. The predominant disagreeable factor of the bulk of these recent outright liberal movies is that they reflect the views and verities of the liberal media establishment back upon itself with little of the insight or tension that leads to true art; the comforting platitudes and affirmations of these movies are generally yoked to a similarly complacent and unchallenging aesthetic. They expand the echo chamber shared by their well-meaning filmmakers and audiences, and do little to advance the political causes they’ve ostensibly taken up, or to influence the culture into which they’re released.

Into this palliative division of the cinema, the drop of something effervescent like Dennis Dugan’s 2007 bawdy entertainment I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, which this week crossed the 10th anniversary of its theatrical release, is most welcome. No doubt a number of readers groaned at the sight of Adam Sandler in a movie recommendation by this blog, and the rest were disconcerted by the raucous bulk of his frequent comedy partner Kevin James. The film is popular enough to have been seen by most of this blog’s readers already, but those who haven’t, despite what you may have heard or previously experienced by way of Sandler’s Brooklyn-bro vulgarity, are heartily encouraged to indulge its frank sentimentality and ultimate moral message of homophilia, which it couples with a warm and heartfelt tone of sincerity and political activism. It’s not in quite the same aesthetic class as the films of Judd Apatow (though, frankly, few films of this century are) but it brings a forthright approach to satirising and transforming mainstream perceptions of the homosexual community it depicts. In that it delves into the personal lives of its characters and portrays private impulses and desires that don’t conform neatly to a conventional political cause — thus illustrating how politics are necessarily driven by the chaotic, multivalent individual lives they affect — it’s superior to the abovementioned issue-oriented films of overtly liberal politics. What’s more, at the time of its release, it was deliberately aimed at precisely the moviegoing market that generally had little interest in or exposure to LGBTQ causes, and did considerable more work in reaching out to a broader, more intersected group for support and empathy.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Neither Here Nor There

“Nul is Nie Niks Nie”





What can a movie do for a person? What can making that movie do for a person? What can making a movie do for the community involved? What are the problems burdening South African society and what can movies do to solve them? These are the subjects of the new film Nul is Nie Niks Nie (“Nil Isn’t Nothing”) by Morné du Toit, who previously directed the Afrikaans comedy Hoofmeisie. His new film follows two pre-pubescent boys through their excursions in and around Waterval Boven, their home town, as each confronts and deals with the issues that face him. The plot and the director’s competent handling of it allow for a genial sentimentality, and anyone who’s been through that part of Mpumalanga knows that the natural surroundings of the town are magnificent — and will seem that way no matter how a film crew may photograph them. Would that those geological and botanical splendours make their way into more movies and — far more importantly — inspire South African artists to aesthetic equivalent heights of richness and nobility.

Nul is Nie Niks Nie was adapted by Lizé Vosloo from Jaco Jacobs’s children’s book Oor ’n motorfiets, ’n zombiefliek, en lang getalle wat deur elf gedeel kan word (“About a motorbike, a zombie movie, and long numbers that can be divided by eleven”). It involves the thirteen-year old Martin (Jaden Van Der Merwe), whom everyone calls Hoender (“Chicken”), both derisively and affectionately, because of the chickens he keeps. He sells the eggs to people in the town for pocket money, while his older sister, Cindy (Reine Swart), cavorts with her shady, older boyfriend, Bruce (Luan Jacobs), and his mother, Trisa (Antoinette Louw), formerly a lauded film actress, hides herself away from the world in their old farmhouse while mourning his father, who died two years before the film’s action begins. One day, Martin comes to meet the son of the new neighbouring family, Drikus (Pieter Louw), who has Hodgkin’s lymphoma and is kept under strict and constant supervision by his anxious parents (Marisa Drummond and Morné Visser). Drikus has an ardent fascination with and attachment to old zombie movies — he’s projecting an old print of Victor Halperin’s White Zombie, from 1932, when Martin first sees his bedroom, and film posters adorn the walls — and he intends to make his own zombie movie while he still can. He is the film’s obvious symbol of hope and catalyst of zeal, and his brisk, forthright manner clashes jarringly with Martin’s clenched unease. In a moment of unleashed anger and grief, Martin punches Drikus and breaks his camera, and, to make amends, he agrees to appear as the zombie in Drikus’s movie. Chris (Daniah de Villiers), a classmate of Martin’s, stumbles upon their production, and is recruited as the lovely damsel whom Drikus’s character, Brad, saves from zombie terrors.