Thursday, 1 December 2016

The Conjuring

“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”






The keenly anticipated prequel to J.K. Rowling’s hefty private school saga begins with shrieking newspaper headlines, indicating shock and distress on the part of the wizarding world’s media intelligentsia. If there were a more fitting outset to a blockbuster opening worldwide in November 2016, I can’t think what it could be. In a society whose politics and culture coil closer together and intrude more abruptly on one another each passing day, it’s impossible for the mainstream media not to reflect itself and its hysterias more frequently, however unconsciously this is done. The effect is heightened by the fact that the script for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, unlike each of its Harry Potter predecessors, was written by Mme. Rowling herself, a prominent personality both in popular culture and, increasingly, in political discourse. One highly doubts she’d ever pass up the opportunity to weave her own hot take on current events into a major Hollywood feature.

And one would be proven right when one sees the film. Rowling is a first-time movie writer, and the film language she employs is not so much richly symbolic or ironic, as it would be in a high allegory, as it is plainly metaphoric. One sees what she means and respects her right to say it, sensing that one is hearing blunt parables and moralistic fables during a bourgeois dinner party discussion rather than watching the creations of a potent imagination, committed to celluloid and projected in a dark theatre for expectant thrill-seekers.

The studies on racial discrimination and class struggles in the wizarding world, and how it parallels our own, became tedious somewhere in the middle of the Harry Potter film series, and reached a grand summit of banality with the fascist iconography and rhetoric in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I. Not quite satisfied that the full potential of the subject was fulfilled, Rowling has elected to focus the central struggle of her new series on the same issue. In this film and the four that shall follow it, the main villain is a nasty wizard named Grindelwald (you’ll have heard of him briefly in the two Deathly Hallow films), once again bent on exalting the pureblood wizarding race over all non-magical people, and bringing the wizarding world out of hiding, if only so that it can entrench and lord over a muggle underclass. How is he different from Lord Voldemort, then, you may ask. For one thing, he’s a properly formed human being, with suitably Aryan platinum-blond hair, instead of a contoured, serpentine English Patient; for another, speculation and rumours abound that Grindelwald is the feverish former lover of Professor Albus Dumbledore. Merlin’s beard! One awaits with a new avidity Dumbledore’s familiar injunction: “Wands out!”

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

The Dream Factory

“Me Him Her”




I wrote before that to have a gay best friend is an inordinate privilege not enjoyed by nearly enough people in the world. It is not to be discounted, however, that it is also an ennobling responsibility and that crucial requirements are made of the affection, loyalty, and resourcefulness of those on whom this is bestowed. Best friends bear a significant duty to one another and it is during times of challenges – such as the flurry of crises that break out when one comes face to face with his sexual orientation – that their fellowship is tested and, if it succeeds, fortified.

Dustin Milligan plays Cory, a blithe young drifter in denim shorts and with a week-old beard whom we first meet in the stall of a public bathroom, in the directorial debut of the young Hollywood local Max Landis, cheerily named Me Him Her. Cory is the best friend of Brendan (Luke Bracey), a straight-acting Hollywood superstar who finally (months after leaving college) figures out that he’s gay, and even then it’s only because he’s kissed a boy and liked it. Brendan, duly bewildered at his discovery and thoroughly puzzled as to what to do next, both personally and professionally, enlists his homie’s help and flies him to Los Angeles for support and guidance.

No sooner has Cory landed and piped out his first squeal of excitement, however, than he earns a cautionary behest from Brendan never to let himself wander or cut loose in Los Angeles. “L.A. is like a giant jigsaw puzzle someone forgot to assemble,” Brendan informs him; “the pieces are laid out all over the floor.” To venture into the gaps, he insists, is to place yourself in the way of significant risk. What kind of risk – physical, psychological, financial, existential, sexual – Brendan neglects to say; it seems he isn’t so sure himself. All he can tell us is that “things get weird”.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Going Nowhere Slowly

“Everybody Wants Some!!”




The magnificent Oscar Wilde remarked that “the condition of perfection is idleness: the aim of perfection is youth.” I suspect it may be a little dangerous to kick off with Wilde after ending my last post the same way, but, as that great tutor and hero of mine also teaches, nothing that is not dangerous is worthy of our time. If the director Richard Linklater is adept in the trade of anything at all, it is idleness, and if the direction of his limpid though wistful gaze were to be measured, its targets can be none other than youth and verve. Don’t mistake me for judging Linklater’s films to be perfection – his fellow Texans Terrence Malick and Wes Anderson show that there is room yet for expansion in Linklater’s accomplishments – but I put it that Linklater has shown himself to be a great and valuable artist of our time. My assertion is unequivocal, and any possible equivocation would be brought on only by the presence of Linklater’s work itself: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight make up an exasperating triptych of tedious moralising and rationalising, and Boyhood lingers in my mind in a haze of fusty sentimentality; but the vigourous pleasures of School of Rock, the shocking force of affection for both his subjects and his art that breezes through the director’s masterpiece Bernie, and now the quintessence of youth examined in the midst of a most dynamic idleness – Linklater’s new film, Everybody Wants Some!! – are enough to persuade me of his inordinate value as a modern film-maker and visionary artist.

The disparities in artistic value between these two groups of Linklater’s work – with his more overtly naturalist and apparently personal films on one side of the divide and his more synthetic and imaginary films (the real life roots of Bernie notwithstanding) on the other – is due, I feel, to an inconsistent approach to the artifice of cinema when confronting different types of content. When portraying a story of a seemingly more personal origin, Linklater aims for a naturalistic mode of representation, hoping to convey it with the perception that his portrayal matches up to how the events and conversations may well look and feel in reality. But his naturalism virtually reeks of the long calculation and meticulous rehearsal that went into it, leaving me with the sense of simulated and false emotions and experiences, rather than verifiable and credibly authentic ones.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Teen Queens

“G.B.F.”




Is it not a precious commodity to have a gay best friend? Those who have one may well inform you that it is; it’s not altogether commonplace nor inconsequential for one’s close associate to pass entirely truthful and helpful criticism on one’s appearance, social operations, endeavours of humour, navigations of sexual operations, linguistic agility, assertions of style, photographic aptitude, and overall personal flair, all in a swirling fusion of affectionate compliments and cutting slurs, sitting at a bitchiness quotient (BQ) of well over 120 – using standard metric measurements, of course. This is given its distinguishing twist in the fact that one either flourishes on this associate’s advice eternally safe from their resentment if one is female, or eternally safe from their competition in the sexual marketplace if one is male (as ever in the movies, “gay” refers exclusively to homosexual males). To such privileged individuals, it must seem that those without this kind of connection must either be woefully ignorant of its benefits, or just not trying damn well hard enough to acquire it. The high school comedy G.B.F., by the openly gay director Darren Stein, agrees on the value of this commodity, and hopes to show viewers that neither its price nor its potential worth are to be underestimated. As with any friendship, it must be worked for to really mean anything, and once earned the returns yielded are considerable and rewarding.

Tanner Daniels (Michael J. Willett) and Brent Van Camp (Paul Iacono) are two gay guys in their last year of high school, closeted from everyone except each other and two close friends (whose names evade me). Brent, being the more brazen of the two, plans to come out in a dazzling display of gay alacrity at the school prom, catapulting him from his current status as low-profile comic book geek to sought after bestie and prominent entourage member – a g.b.f. is touted as the new must-have in all the film’s teenage girls’ magazines, and lively competition is sure to break out among the most popular female students in order to win the allegiance of the only gay in sight.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

A Rocky Picture Show

“A Bigger Splash”




During June – the month of Pride, LGBT-and-otherwise – this blog is meant to be devoted to the discussion of queer cinema, though nearly halfway through the month I’ve not published a single post on a film featuring a queer character. This post, alas, continues this evading pattern, containing my reaction to the new genre hybrid work now playing at Cinema Nouveau, A Bigger Splash, which features four promiscuous (thought heterosexually so) and wilful Anglophone figures, on an uneasy holiday on some small Italian island halfway between the mainland and Africa. And yet I feel as though the film could count in some way as being the first queer film of the month, because its tone – emotionally restive, and simultaneously sensual – its sensibility – dissolute and Eurocentric – and its substance – sexual mischief, shifting romantic allegiances, artists and their personal lives, and a tangle of friendships and partnerships and rivalries – all call to mind what one might call the orthodoxy of contemporary queer cinema, and are fleshed out copiously with the supple, shimmering flesh of its four stars, three of them staples of the independent cinema, and the fourth freshly powdered and re-strapped after appearing on our screens in the largest BDSM romantic fantasy adaptation of all  time. Hardly the mode of straight cinema that may be endorsed by, say, Focus on the Family.

Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) is a rock star, accompanied on her island holiday by her boyfriend of six years, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), a photographer. They’re dropped in on unexpectedly by an old friend, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), who brings along a hitherto unknown-of daughter, named Penelope (Dakota Johnson). Harry is a nightmare of zealous back-slapping bonhomie, virtually vomiting words from his arrival until his departure; at one point he mentions the literal translation of the Italian term for someone with verbal diarrhoea: “one who shits sentences,” but fails to connect it to himself. This is neatly, soothingly counterbalanced by Marianne’s muteness, in the wake of a serious ailment and subsequent surgery on her voice. She points out what she wants, and waves her arms in protest for things she doesn’t want, and Paul tenderly takes care of her every need. The two of them have developed a far more nuanced system of communication, and their quick, telling glances at one another and minute, spontaneous touches and other signals reach a vulnerable intensity, rivalling and often surpassing in exuberance Harry’s incessant monologues. The director, Luca Gaudagnino, permits us to see and understand as much as Paul does of what Marianne has to say, lending Swinton’s performance a most elegant and vital grace.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

The Already-Tame Shrew

“Mrs Right Guy”




One will have noticed a new candour and delight regarding life’s amatory pursuits at the cinema this week. It is, however, unfortunate for South Africans that this carnal interest should be taken up on their screens when daytime thermometer readings in Gauteng drop to 20°C – well below what is considered acceptable in Pretoria, and certainly not the kinds of temperature at which young men and women are itching to cast off their clothing. The two films that opened on Friday, the 3rd of June, that are so keen on the tactile particulars of love seem to have only that in common, though; their differences are vast and the diversity of cinema seems just as healthy nowadays as its sexual drive.

The first of the two is a new South African romcom (the other is Luca Guadagninos A Bigger Splash, but more about it later), starring Dineo Moeketsi (from e.tv’s Scandal) as the shrew Gugu who was abandoned on her honeymoon by a ratbag husband and left to settle, by way of menial labour, his massive hotel bill. The script of Mrs Right Guy, by Pusetso Thibedi and Cati Weinek, runs us through the usual complaints of men only wanting one thing from a woman, and women wanting everything else from a man. Gugu feels that dating is being forced to choose between compromising herself and alienating all romantic prospects. It’s a sorry state, in short, and Gugu only exacerbates matters as she tears into the men who hit on her in the street, and swings at the hopefuls making eyes at her best friend, Anna (Thando Thabethe). Enter the decent and strapping Joe (Lehasa Moloi), a chicken farmer and neighbour who helps Gugu by repairing her car, and the polished and cocksure Dumile (Thapelo Mokoena), the new boss at the advertising firm where Gugu and Anna work. The discerning reader knows where this script is headed, and could also plot fairly accurately the route it’ll take to get there without any further description from me.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Quid Pro Queer

Onward and Outward


My Own Private Idaho (1991), starring Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix as two gay hustlers

Hollywood, as a centre of exuberant performance, lurid spectacle, graceful artifice, veiled subversion, and shameless show business (shameless both in its showing and in its business), has always attracted the outcast and marginalised constituents of society. Those who felt rejected, abandoned, reviled, or ignored in their local communities could head for the city of angels and join the production line in the lustrous and openhearted dream factory. I’ve yet to examine and come to any kind of conclusion as to why it is that the queer elements of society, most prominently homosexual males, find themselves so drawn to the arts professionally as well as a way of living, but it’s clear that, if there was any place for them to trek to and thrust a flag into the soil, Hollywood was it.

June is LGBT Pride Month, and in honour of sexual and gender deviants, and of their history of struggle in personal, cultural, and legislative arenas, The Back Row is presenting a series of posts on queer cinema. The British Film Institute has just revealed its own poll by critics and academics of the greatest queer movies of all time, and this is partly in response to that, as well as to the positive engagement I encountered with my last special series, on William Shakespeare. It is hoped that awareness of the subculture and its proponents and effects will grow among this blog’s readers, and that a new appreciation can be formed of the cinematic representation of a particular class of experience. An offhand survey among friends and their associates reveal that not many of our generation of South Africans are very much conscious of the currents of queer cinema nor of its spreading influence over the rest of contemporary culture, pop or otherwise. And I suspect the case isn’t largely different for the generations above ours.

(Read The Back Row’s review of Carol.)

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Single’s Therapy

DVD Notes: “Annie Hall”




For Woody Allen, the Upper East Side of Manhattan could be Mount Olympus. Or, perhaps more aptly, the cultural centres of Classical Athens or Rome, overrun with artistic exhibition and discourse as well as with decadence, while the rest of America is the provinces of the empire, sunny and decent and undistinguished. Allen makes no effort to conceal his biases, and emphasises the distinction again and again in this sudden growth spurt in his filmmaking. His earlier films – of which I have only seen the 1972 vignette farce Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) – were competent enough comedies, it seems, and, along with his stand-up acts, already established him nationally as a remarkable comedian, but with Annie Hall, his eighth film as director, he applied his wit and his satirical skills to a frame of new self-awareness. Annie Hall marks not only a surge in maturity – which is what youll generally find it being called by critics who reviewed it at the time – but also a great blossoming of modernity and grace. While Allen had literally filmed himself before, appearing in main roles in all of his previous films, he began here to film himself in another sense: to include his own experiences, enthusiasms, fantasies, complexes, sexual activities, and aspirations in his films. The change is marked from the first frame, with Allen addressing the camera and speaking to us, as if in a one-to-one stand-up performance, about his romantic past and relationship troubles.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Constricted Views

DVD Notes: “A Room With a View”




The initial problem facing any filmmaker wishing to adapt a novel for the screen is the problem of plot. Specifically, how much stays in, how much is thrown out, and how much can be added without looking unbearably arrogant? Many filmmakers have trouble with length: the Harry Potter books and novels of Dickens are far too long for direct transcription into a screenplay, and much decisive, and often painful, snipping away has to be done. What seems to work with a somewhat higher rate of success is adapting a shorter book, giving filmmakers room to expand and compound, rather than condense and simplify. Wes Anderson provides an ideal example with his Fantastic Mr Fox, taken from the tiny children’s book by Roald Dahl, as do David Fincher and Eric Roth with their grand adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

In their remarkably successful film version of E.M. Forster’s novel A Room With a View, which was released 30 years ago and has never really waned in popularity, the out director James Ivory, his long-term romantic and production partner producer Ismail Merchant, and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala take a path straight down the middle. They took a novel neither longer nor shorter than was required, and performed a kind of fundamentalist translation from page to screen. Forster begins, for example, Chapter 2 thus:

“It was pleasant to wake up in Florence, to open the eyes upon a bright bare room, with a floor of red tiles which look clean though they are not, with a painted ceiling whereon pink griffins and blue amorini sport in a forest of yellow violins and bassoons. It was pleasant, too, to fling wide the windows, pinching the fingers in unfamiliar fastenings, to lean out into sunshine with beautiful hills and trees and marble churches opposite, and, close below, the Arno, gurgling against the embankment of the road.”

In the corresponding scene in the film, Ivory supplies a shot of Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy Honeychurch (the novel and film’s heroine) lying on her back in her hotel room’s bed, having just woken up, looking about the somewhat empty room. The look on Bonham Carter’s face suggests casual concentration, as if she is both reciting the passage to herself and remembering to show it in her facial expressions for the camera. She gets up and opens the windows wide, looks out upon the sunlit city across the Arno, which is conscientiously included in the shot, upon the churches and, beyond them, the green hills.

The entire film is written and shot with that kind of devotional loyalty to the novel. Even the chapter headings are reproduced at the beginnings of scenes, with title cards appearing bearing text like “The Reverend Arthur Beebe, the Reverend Cuthbert Eager, Mr Emerson, Mr George Emerson, Miss Eleanor Lavish, Miss Charlotte Bartlett and Miss Lucy Honeychurch Drive Out in Carriages to See a View; Italians Drive Them”. The reason for it, I should think, is that Jhabvala, herself a celebrated novelist, knew very well what Forster was trying to achieve throughout, and out of respect for a colleague and his labours, she worked to replicate his efforts in the film’s screenplay. The result is that A Room With a View plays like a mere enactment, simply an audiovisual illustration of Forster’s novel with no imaginative feats or original images of its own.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Sunlit Gardens

“Irrational Man” and “Flowers”


Image: blogs.indiewire.com

The European Film Festival, which is a collection of European films currently playing at Ster Kinekor’s Cinema Nouveau theatres, is a useful enough opportunity for South African moviegoers to be exposed to the contemporary cinema of Europe, and an equally useful opportunity to find that the fact that something is foreign, subtitled, subdued in tone, or literary in temperament does not denote its artistic pedigree or intellectual superiority to our usual bright and brash, American English-language stock comedies and thrillers. What matters in cinema is less how composed and refined a film can be, and more how much life and with what depth and breadth of experience and ideas a filmmaker can imbue it.

On Friday, in a programme of our own devising, a friend and I went to see Woody Allen’s new film, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone, named Irrational Man and taking on the breeziest and most enchantingly sun-lit tone, followed by Earl Grey tea and a screening of Flowers, a Spanish entry in the European Film Festival, in Basque and with English subtitles, and considerably more naturalistic and solemn. The sun lit the small Spanish town just as much as it did the small New England haven, but with far more organic, prosaic, and inert a glare.

Friday, 29 April 2016

As Schoolboys From Their Books

Gloria Castrillon on Teaching “Romeo and Juliet”




I had enjoyed Shakespeare at school, but no more nor less than, for example, The Great Gatsby. I had enjoyed some Shakespeare at university (notably Macbeth taught by Professor Martin Orkin), and had not enjoyed others (King Lear, taught tragically boringly by another professor who shall remain nameless). I only enjoyed Lear after I saw the movie Ran and re-read Lear alone. By 1989, I had decided to abandon the English Literature department (into which I had been accepted for Honours) and move to the African Literature department – a move I was never to regret. I completed my Honours and Masters in African Literature, and there developed a love for Shakespeare that was fed, ironically, by the greats of African literature, whose works spoke back to the English literature they had studied, and forward to the authors they in turn would inspire.

Then, in 1990 and 1991, I was a full-time teacher at a school in the Johannesburg CBD. I was tasked with teaching Wuthering Heights and Romeo and Juliet to matriculants from townships all over the greater Johannesburg area. I was a little mollified by the fact that Romeo and Juliet is as simple a Shakespearean text as Wuthering Heights is a difficult Gothic text. I was determined to make Shakespeare not scary for the students (they told me they were terrified). I was determined they would enjoy it. What I did not expect was how much I would enjoy teaching it to them. The innuendos, the ribaldry, the puns were perfect for a teenage audience. The love story was ideal. The fact that there was a Romeo in Grade 11 and a Juliet in Grade 12 (although they did not love one another) was a synchronicity I could not have asked for.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun

For the week of commemorating Shakespeare’s life and work on this blog, I had asked a friend of mine – a composer and music teacher at Pretoria Boys High School – to contribute a piece to the blog, knowing that he’s something of fan. Rather than write his own bit on what Shakespeare means to him, however, he directed me to Gerald Finzi’s setting of the song from Cymbeline to music.

Beautiful as it is – in my judgement, it’s the finest song in all of Shakespeare – it’s a dark elegy, sung over Imogen by her brothers, who believe her to be dead, returning to “fear no more” as the only consolation in death.

In a critical essay on the play Cymbeline, Harold Bloom has this to say about the song:

“Since the song ‘Fear no more’ is too grand for its context (Imogen merely sleeps), I have no difficulty hearing in it Shakespeare’s own stance toward dying, and regard it as the locus classicus of Shakespeare upon death. The two prime Shakespearean values are personality and love, both equivocal at best, and here, with all else, they come to dust. This poem is a dark comfort, but its extraordinary aesthetic dignity is the only consolation we should seek or find in Shakespeare.”




Thinking Makes It So

Alyssa Vratsanos on Shakespeare and Language


A painting by Alyssa’s favourite post-impressionist, Vincent van Gogh

William Shakespeare: a name so often heard fall casually from the lips of your average intellectual (and certainly pseudo-intellectual) type. Shakespeare is revered in literary circles as some kind of deity, a purveyor of all that is right with English and its literature. Abrasive ignorance, bad grammar, ill manners, American brashness, and general uncouthness are nothing a spot of Hamlet can’t cure.

But only a true enthusiast of the Bard will know that Shakespeare was anything but a traditionalist, let alone a language prescriptivist. He was as linguistically irreverent as Doctor Seuss. The way he used and manipulated the English language is something to behold. Granted, he did a great many phenomenal things with his talents, but for me – as a linguist-in-training – it seems only fitting to commemorate the man with a tribute to his use of language.

To dear England’s finest: A eulogy.

“Bard,” a Sonnet by Tineke W. Harris




To dear England’s finest: A eulogy.
Valiant word-smith and blazer of trails
On stage and screen, a poet prodigy.
William Shakespeare: A teller of tales.

Ancient chronicler, whom all do revere,
Of lovers and princes, and of a Muse
E’er fixed in flaming fire; the Mighty Sphere
With infinite realities infuse.

But what good is the Theatre and its plays
For us these days? What could Hamlet, Henry
And those merry wives tell of modern ways?
(And in Mackers nought but barbarism be…)

The answer’s here: People are “merely players”
Who still act these parts – “little life” slayers.


Tineke W. Harris is a Medicine student at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Image: www.dailyfinance.com

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

And This Gives Life to Thee

Paul Wombo on a Life Encompassed by Shakespeare


“Romeo and Juliet” by Henri Pierre Picou

William Shakespeare is regarded as the greatest writer of all time. I gladly reassert that he is not only the greatest writer of all time but he also dethrones Houdini as the greatest magician of all time. How else can you describe the act of taking vowels, syllables, adjectives, verbs, and so on to create a living creature that roams through the minds and lives of billions through the ages other than being magic? Shakespeare’s magic has changed my life in the sense that I truly love the English language and also the electrolytic fluidity of the creative mind.

“When a father gives to his son, both laugh; when a son gives to his father then both cry.” My father moved from the Democratic Republic of Congo with two children and a new wife to South Africa in 1994. The initial plan was to move to Canada from South Africa but the beauty of South Africa’s infant democracy held a vice grip onto my father’s heart. Deep in the Joburg CBD the Wombo family began to deepen their roots into the soil that was finding fertility after decades of oppression. My father and mother both made so many sacrifices to ensure that we as children went to the best schools and we were brought up in such a way that we would contribute to and partake in the Rainbow Nation. English is held with high esteem in our otherwise French household and this is where my love for English blossomed. My first interaction with Shakespeare was in a cartoon version of Romeo and Juliet on the television when I was six. I did not know it then but it was the beginning of a relationship with Shakespeare that seeped into my whole life.

Something Wicked This Way Comes

“Macbeth”





We know that Lady Macbeth has had one child or more, or at least has breastfed. Marion Cotillard, as the Thane’s wife, utters the indicative speech in a small, cold, dimly lit church building with the even tone of one speaking in her sleep, in Justin Kurzel’s new adaptation of Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy, and moves quickly onward to the kind of vicious talk that is closer in tone to the film’s median:

“I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.”

I’ve always thought that Macbeth was her second husband, and she’d lost her first along with the child she speaks of. Kurzel seems to have taken it as meaning that the Macbeths had had a child together who, since he or she is nowhere to be found during the action, died before the play begins. This infant’s grey corpse fills the screen in the first shot of the film, and marks all that follows in the actions of Macbeth and his Lady with an entirely comprehensible sense of grief.

Such a move is no error in itself, and when adapting Shakespeare – or any literary source, for that matter – for the screen, a director is meant to take self-asserting action, to reign the source material into the pen of his vision for his work. Kurzel does this with cutting and moving parts of the text, departures from convention in his sets and performances, and his motif of slain children, strewn throughout the movie, presumably to echo the loss of the Macbeths’ child. The problem here is that with his radical revisions, Kurzel all but leaves behind Shakespeare and the life with which he infused his most terrifying tragedy, and doesn’t hasten to add much of his own.

Monday, 25 April 2016

We In It Shall Be Remember’d

On “Henry V” and a Shakespearean Mother




As I wrote on Saturday, I asked a few people to contribute pieces to this blog on their own experiences with Shakespeare, for a week of commemorating his life and work, beginning on the 400th anniversary of his death. This short work was sent to me by a friend of mine.

I would not call myself an expert on Shakespeare’s works. In fact, my knowledge is limited to the very basic grounds that we covered in high school. I was first introduced to him when I was thirteen and watched Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. To be honest, the only things that stuck out for me were a young Leonardo DiCaprio’s incredibly good looks and a weird, irrational, and totally unrealistic love story. As I got to high school, we covered the brief history of Shakespeare, “analysed” a few of his sonnets, and read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet and Othello – the only one of the lot that was mildly entertaining for a 16-year-old who found English class exhausting. An appreciation did, however, start to build when we did Shakespeare In Love as a film study. I was intrigued by Shakespeare’s “perceived” way of life and his influences. I started to become interested – I wanted to know more. I wanted to know which plays were represented and how they influenced the film.

We then, for our matric set work, studied Henry V. I went to a convent where most girls around me detested it. I loved it. It grew to become my favourite Shakespeare and the first of his that I was able to relate to. The lessons of leadership and how to deal with people were very pertinent to me at that particular point of my life. I guess that Is the beauty of Shakespeare. He was, and still is, able to strike a chord with everybody in some way – each person must relate to at least one of his works.

Opportunity Rocks

“Rock the Kasbah”





This 2015 comedy directed by Barry Levinson – unjustly maligned by critics, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of only 8% – stars Bill Murray as Richie Lanz, a has-been rock tour manager who fancies himself a visionary agent/manager. With an understated tone and yet surprisingly controlled and well-tuned style, Levinson presents an enchanting romance, loosely adapted from a true story reproduced in the 2009 documentary Afghan Star, featuring the struggles of a driven rock ’n’ roll soul in the stark deserts of Afghanistan, condemned by the liberal consensus as imperialist and loutish as it imposes western values and culture on the marginalised citizens of war-torn Middle Eastern countries, and lambasted by conservatives as a thoughtless critique of American interventionist foreign policy. Obviously both can’t be right and, in my view, neither side is.

Levinson is neither aiming at a political critique with his film – at least, not a critique on the usual partisan issues thrashed out nearly daily in the press – but nor are politics and political ideas far from the centre of his thoughts here. The only other Levinson film I’ve seen was Rain Man, which I found nowhere near as subtle and artful and pleasurable as this one, and either of the two may have been the accident in his work, or he has simply developed since 1988. Rock the Kasbah manages to be beautifully self-aware, in a way that is neither distastefully arch nor depressingly cynical, and Levinson manages both his camera and his extraordinarily talented cast to delightful effect. Murray’s markedly creased face, and Levinson’s almost tender filming of it, yields a touchingly sympathetic portrait both of the enduring rock ’n’ roll spirit and of western lassitude.

Thorough Brush, Thorough Briar

John Greenop on The Fairies of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”


“The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania” by Joseph Noel Paton

It didn’t take me long to decide on a topic relating to Shakespeare – I find the fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream incredibly fascinating. I remember playing the Sims 2 as a child. In the game there was a place called Veronaville, and in this town, the developers had placed Sims with the modern likeness of Shakespeare’s characters.

In one house we had Titania, Oberon, Puck, and Bottom. Titania and Oberon were the parents, Puck was portrayed as a red-haired teenager and Bottom was a tanned little girl. This got me interested in these fairies, and I have always like mythology and folklore. I shall, in a few words, discuss my feelings on the main fairies in the play.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On

Laurnelle Beukes on The Tempest




The words from the mind of Shakespeare are undeniably beautiful. At least this is my own opinion. I am far from an expert on the English playwright and in comparison to my brother, when it comes to reading his works, I am merely a dabbler. However, that which I have experienced has produced a kind of mixed reaction.

On the one end as I’ve mentioned in my opening line I find the use of language and the stringing of words to be mesmerising. I’ve often caught myself reading a page or two out loud just for the pure joy of hearing the nearly foreign speech pirouette off my tongue as if reading from an arcane book hidden for centuries.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

This Story Shall the Good Man Teach His Son

A Four-Century Legacy


A painting by Theodore Chasseriau: Macbeth and Banquo meeting the witches on the heath

We live in a world of Shakespeare. Which is not to say that we’re governed by laws and housed in systems that he hatched, nor that our world is the one he’d like to have lived in or have seen come to pass. Rather, we live in a world of which our very comprehension and observation was substantially and irreversibly altered by Shakespeare’s work. Since Shakespeare, fiction can not only evoke a life and characters a person, but one’s life – entire life, that is, and not only the apparent biographical details – can be revealed and enlarged, and a person – a real human figure, and not only a character with a name and backstory and good dialogue – can be made to seem real and living in all but the flesh. And through this radical revolution of literature and of consciousness, Shakespeare’s own name has come to be an emblem of that revolution and of the art of literature itself.

I missed the opportunity on this day – the feast day of St George, the patron saint of England – two years ago to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the birth of Shakespeare – England’s preeminent luminary, along with Elizabeth I and King Arthur – in the modest county of Warwickshire in the West Midlands of England. But today is the 400th anniversary of his death, and I’ve been poring over sonnets, soliloquies, and salacious misattributions in quietly exuberant commemoration. William Shakespeare and Emily Brontë were my first loves in literature – and the works of both enjoy far more of my admiration and adoration than 11 years ago, when I first encountered them – but the Bard must ultimately triumph over the Yorkshirewoman, in eminence as well as in the height of artistic achievement, despite Brontë having one of the greatest creative minds to have composed in English.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

With a View

“Room”





The new independent drama film by Lenny Abrahamson begins like most independent drama films: we’re given glimpses of someone waking up, of their immediate environment, of them starting out the day; we’re introduced to them with the small, bland details of their everyday life, accompanied by the appealing lilt of piano and strings; there’s a child, prone to cutesiness, guilelessly leading the camera around his corner of the world; and, not insignificantly, the adult in focus is played by Brie Larson, who lugged home an Academy Award for this performance a month ago.

But something is out of joint: the child – who looks like a girl, but is really a boy named Jack (Jacob Tremblay) – seems poorly acquainted with the concepts of being outside and what one may find there; he and his mother, Joy, can’t go out to buy the candles for his birthday cake; and every moment of their day takes place inside their small, crudely furnished room, which must be bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, living room, and yard to them.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

The Emptiness of a South African Adaptation

“Happiness is a Four-Letter Word”



From what we’re shown in Thabang Moleya’s new film, I might judge that that four-letter word is “skin”. The writers seem to have surveyed their source material – the 2010 novel by Nozizwe Cynthia Jele, unread by me – for all scenes in which they could free their actresses from sleeves, shoulder straps, knee-length skirts, and backs of clothing; and their actors of tops altogether. Tongayi Chirisa – playing Thomas, the fiance of Mmabatho Montsho’s Nandi – spends little time in more than just a pair of shorts, and the other men (whose specific identities are difficult to discern from the film’s IMDb page) don’t keep much warmer. And in a scene with her lover, we witness Khanyi Mbau (playing the forlorn rich wife Zaza) stripping down to thigh-high stockings and scant bright pink underwear, while being tossed about the comfortable living room of her half-naked fellow adulterer.

To say the film deals with sex is too simple – these characters’ lives move beyond their bedrooms. Well, so do their sexual pursuits, but these don’t take up the whole story. To say it deals with love is to miss the mark – the love Zaza has for her husband (and her lack of it for her lover) is a matter of course; Nandi’s love triangle connecting her fiance and newly rich ex-boyfriend is not a choice between two passions or affections (in fact, I’m not sure what it’s a choice between nor why she struggles to make it at all); and the time spent on Princess’s (Renate Stuurman) rather sad tale is more about the tragic circumstances of her romance than about the romance itself. To say the film deals with friendship would just about do it – the director struggles to connect the scenes of each of the three women in their individual sagas; but in the scenes where they’re together, he manages to prop the film up and leave it standing for a minute or two.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

We Were Promised a Queer Superhero

“Deadpool”




Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) is a former mercenary, who’d intimidate and rough up individuals varying in their placement on the nastiness scale from a pimply Facebook stalker to hulks of sinew and grit that even Vladimir Putin would hesitate to face down. Faring somewhat successfully, Wade’s career is, however, cut short, not by a tough target or loss of limbs, but by the adroit escort Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), with whom he joins in amatory congress. This, too, is tragically forestalled: Wade is found to have cancer in an advanced stage, and, willing to take large risks to extend his allotted lifetime and spend it with Vanessa, elects to undergo an underground experimental regenerative mutation process to cure it. This is administered by Dr Ajax (Ed Skrein), and does the job, but also severely scars his entire body. For fear of how Vanessa would react to the sight of him, he never returns home, and leaves her to assume he has died. The film’s beginning finds him in furious pursuit of Ajax, anxious for his scars to be healed so that he may face her again.

From the opening seconds of the film – when the audience is introduced to cast members such as a “British villian” and the customary token “hot chick,” or crew members such as “ass-hats (the producers) or an insufferable tool (the director) – audiences are informed that Deadpool is not conventional Marvel Comics fare, with their quasi-religious solemnity and partly mythical air of drama and grandeur that has absorbed so many of us these recent years. It derides the formulas and expectations typical of the superhero genre (while conscientiously fulfilling those expectations, in rather a neat little trick); it boasts of its daring and freshness in breaking Hollywood’s stifling boundaries (by introducing the first film protagonist in Hollywood history who swears, draws blood, and enjoys sex); it smacks of its self-congratulation for the innovative idea of breaking the fourth wall (which, it may have failed to notice, was done just the other day in a leading establishment production: a best picture nominee, no less); and, quite egregiously, it reneges on its promise of Hollywood’s first queer superhero.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

The Bold and the Beautiful

“Knight of Cups




When I first saw Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life in cinemas in 2011 – as I was first developing my notion of cinema as an art form, and long before I’d even thought about writing about it – I felt that it was everything a movie should be, and that it had surpassed the boundaries of everything I had previously thought a movie could be. It was the first time I had realised the possibility of images conveying meanings and ideas independent from text; and of performance, setting, speech, music, light, composition, and film editing imparting an entire story and evoking far-reaching experiences free from the literary (i.e. non-cinematic) constraints of a script. I was deeply shocked and vastly moved by the experience of that film – of the discovery of a new film language and a new knowledge of what can be caught on and revealed by the camera. Two years later I came upon the even higher beauty, and even more breathtaking revelation of his film To the Wonder, and it was through my ardour for these two movies – along with a tight fistful of others – that I was moved to begin writing. This blog and the thoughts you’ll find speckled across it are the fruit of a devotion that, though gestating for a short while before it, was birthed by my encounter with Malick. Among filmmakers, he has contributed the most significantly to my idea of cinema, and has nurtured my most tender affections for it. Any problems you have with me can be taken up with him.

Knight of Cups is a continuation of the artistic promise first conveyed in the critical and commercial success The Tree of Life. It has also, rather unfortunately, been met with the same sharp disappointment and frustration shown for To the Wonder by critics and audiences alike – not excluding my own friends that I dragged with me into the theatre for both the 2013 feature and the 2016 one (although I have read a few poorly articulated Instagram reviews both defending and attacking it). The Tree of Life was so widely loved because many viewers (including me) felt an immediate and surprising affinity with the childhood it evoked, despite biographical differences (it centres on a childhood in Texas in the 1950s). As many who wrote about it expressed, Malick had delivered such a deft and strangely familiar portrait of childhood that audiences couldn’t help feeling that “the film was about me”; “I was those children in the movie.” The reason we should be even more enthusiastic about Knight of Cups is that it’s so utterly not about each of us – it’s so deeply rooted in and fundamentally defined by the individual consciousness at its centre – while declaring the possibility of what might be made of each of our own lives. Every sound and image is one both caused by and contributing to the identity of the main character, Rick (played by Christian Bale). As the literary critic Harold Bloom maintains, we view art because we can’t know enough people in our lives, nor undergo enough experiences to enjoy the full blessing of Life. We must supplement what we have with the creations of others, and if that creation is distinctive enough, it can count towards the additional living figures within our own consciousnesses.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

My Oscar Ballot



My general disaffection with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences aside, it is always a pleasant gratification to play the game of predicting the Oscar winners. I’ve not yet come across any betting pool to take part in and make money off my predictions (or lose it), but I’m willing to take bets from any readers who think they may have a better handle on the odds or decision-making logic than I do. True, you’ve seen enough articles in newspapers and on your Facebook newfeeds laying out the probable choices – not to mention that my own post is going up at the latest possible moment – and one wouldn’t think it’d be particularly difficult for anyone to predict winners as I do now. Notwithstanding, I’m still eager to make a few last-minute calls, and, after all, it’s not my fault everyone else seems so intensely interested in the silly business. Bored entertainment journalists are entirely free to publish yet another article on how this year is “Leonardo’s year,” and on how he deserves this Oscar more than anyone else has ever deserved anything; but – as I reminded a group of unsuspecting shoppers yesterday morning while reading just such an article in yesterday’s Beeld in Pick ’n Pay – you and I, dear reader, are just as free to shout out angry expletives when a journalist does so.

This year’s batch of nominees is particularly dismaying, with not a single daring work of artistic excitement among of the seven best picture nominees I’ve seen (I have yet to see Room, and will hold out on commenting on it, hoping that it may be the one contender to get behind). In recent years, the Academy has indeed nominated a few magnificent films (The Wolf of Wall Street, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Tree of Life, Hugo, The Social Network), along with a handful of excellent ones (Selma, 12 Years a Slave, The Descendants, Midnight in Paris, Black Swan) and the idiosyncratic works (InceptionWar Horse, Lincoln, Her, Boyhood etc.); but this year offers pitiably little to stand up for. With frontrunners like The Revenant, Mad Max, and Spotlight, one resigns oneself to a season of glum, pious head-nodding at the winner’s solemn proselytising, and chest-swelling pride at the winning films’ social “victories,” which – oddly – no one seems eager to note are all pretty easy positions to take up years or decades after the true radicals, visionaries, and champions have cleared the path and tarred the road.

Friday, 26 February 2016

Burgeoning Bliss

“Vir Altyd”



Audiences may wonder what relation Ivan Botha and Donnalee Roberts’s new film, Vir Altyd (“Forever”), bears to the last one, Pad na jou Hart (“Road to Your Heart”) (both directed by Jaco Smit). The characters and settings are new (don’t expect to have escaped the Cape since the last one, though), but one senses more than a few links between the two works. They’re easy enough to track down: we’re still securely in romantic comedy/travelogue territory; the two stars are again a reluctant couple, adamant not to fall for one another despite being scantily clad together on a tropical island; and, most regrettably, the film is still beset with the impedimenta of hipsterism. The opening shots are of neatly picked, pastel-hued proteas in copper pots, yellowed maps and photographs, vintage cameras, and a shiny VW Beetle, all accompanied by the folk-rock yelps of Mumford & Sons. In short, having travelled down the road to her heart, Botha must now devise a plan to keep it with him – for always. 

The chief difference between the two films is the artistic accomplishment realised by the filmmakers. In both movies, audiences are attracted to and won over by the charming lead actors, the artificially sweetened script they recite from, the bucketfuls of sunshine and quaint natural scenery in which they find themselves immersed, and the inevitability and virtue of their romance. With the characters of Pad na jou Hart, however, we’re never given more than a handsome smile and the obvious discontent it so pitifully hides. The characters are pretty faces trying to conceal a sore spot, and once those bruises are bared and soothed, there’s nothing more to them as people. Hugo and Nina, however – the young couple at the centre of Vir Altyd – while uttering dialogue (given to them by the actors who play them) no more distinguished nor gripping than their precursors did, are bestowed by the cast’s performances with a little more life, and implications of broader experiences and deeper emotions.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

True Tales

“Joy” and “Spotlight”




In 1991 Joy Mangano sold her first commercial design, the Miracle Mop, through infomercials on the home shopping network QVC. In 1994 David O. Russell released his first commercial feature film, Spanking the Monkey. The initial experience of a work is hardly ever meant to be an allegorical reading – even Orwell intended for readers to enjoy Animal Farm first as a story about talking barnyard creatures, and only afterwards as an allegory for Stalinist Russia – but after seeing (and, one hopes, immensely enjoying) Joy, the new film by Russell based on the life of Mangano, viewers can very easily fill in for themselves the connections and parallels between the life and experiences of Mangano that Russell depicts, and the ones he himself underwent around the same time. And it works only to make the entire endeavour even more rewarding.

Joy stars Jennifer Lawrence as Joy Mangano, and though I have no idea whether she fits the bills of appearance and manner for the real-life woman, such considerations are secondary to the exhilarating dramatic and emotional intensity that she imparts in the role. It seems to be the performance that Lawrence has unintentionally been training for, for years. She arrives in the film bearing the tenacity and self-reliance of Katniss Everdeen, the emotional precariousness (such as she then could muster) of Tiffany Maxwell, the unfuckwithable-ness of Rosalyn Rosenfeld, and the slight air of a superior and detached shape-shifting mutant. She adds to this everything else she’s learned, both in her private and her public life, inside and out of fictional roles, and is guided by Russell towards the most full-bodied, challenging, and exultant work she’s ever given. But, after all, she’s playing the character which, I suspect, lies closest to her writer-director’s heart.