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.

Friday, 7 July 2017

What to See this Weekend: Sucking Up

“Gosford Park” (Robert Altman, 2001)

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

Those who love Downton Abbey will love Gosford Park just as well. Those — like myself — who detest Downton Abbey and all the trends that bring it great success will love Gosford Park much more. I had the advantage of seeing Robert Altman’s superb country house comedy a few years before the lumbering, sodden Julian Fellowes soap arrived on television, and the film shone too brightly in my mind for the series to obscure anything good. But I think that watchers of the series will find great delight and refreshment in the film as well, even if it doesn’t work powerfully enough to supplant all television from their lives.

I remember the sudden drop in my spirits when watching Downton Abbey, seven whole years ago, in the first ten minutes of the first episode. The earl’s cousin and nephew have tragically perished on the RMS Titanic and the family is consequently thrown into a constitutional crisis, since the next in line for the hereditary position of earl and holder of the estate — i.e., the next closest male relative — is some very distant middle-class cousin, and the eldest daughter of the family no longer has a second cousin to securely marry. The entire situation, from our vantage point of the 21st century, is absurd, and, surely, any contemporary film or television show can only approach this story from the position of recognising its absurdity. But — lo! — not only did Downton Abbey not note and lampoon this idiocy — it positively extolled the old ways, and its six seasons merrily embraced the feudal traditions of living and thinking and oppressing.

I suppose it took an American to go at it the right way. Robert Altman merely begins by acknowledging what contemporary culture often seems eager to forget: that class distinctions exist, that the divisions are often jarringly visible and viscerally unpleasant, and that the system that requires you abide by those distinctions is barbarous. Here, the discrepancies between Gosford Park and Downton Abbey are so vast as to seem astronomical. A reasonable reader may ask why I’d bother mentioning them together in the first place. The reasons are clear and serve a simple purpose: the common ground between the two should prove good enough to lure any ITV-lovers into the cinematic fold. First, both are set before World War II and in an old and sumptuous country house in England, owned by some aristocrat and crawling with well-heeled inhabitants and servants who know their places. Both pay close attention to the minutiae of the social and political order and trappings of high English living. Both were filmed from scripts written by Julian Fellowes. And, most enticing, both star Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess. Gosford Park brought the grand Dame her last Oscar nomination, and, aside from the acerbic remarks given to her by a screenwriter, it gave her a chance to bite at the others on set in her own words as well. Hence, we have one of my favourite and one of the most enduring lines from all of cinema in 2001: “Difficult colour, green.” Not much to look at, but a thunderbolt from her lips when caught by an able-bodied director.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Their Agonies and The Ecstasy

“Song to Song”

It’s unlikely that I’ll see a better film in theatres this year than Terrence Malick’s newest feature, Song to Song. It’s equally unlikely that a South African reader who looks up a review of the film will find anything like a positive reaction to it. Fans of Malick’s features have become used to this – the last two films he’s made in this most fertile and most far-reaching period of his career that were shown here both achieved Rotten Tomatoes scores of 46% – and a lack of critical support for their enthusiasms has done nothing to abate them. It is my own view that Terrence Malick is the most radical filmmaker working today, and one whose work reaches the highest strata of beauty in contemporary art.

The main contentions brought up in reviews in this country are that Malick’s film – in stark contrast to his earlier hits such as The Tree of Life, The Thin Red Line, and Badlands – contains little more than art-conscious pretension and self-indulgence, and, to the extent to which there is more to it, Malick’s ostentatiously rarefied filmmaking methods are too confusing to allow us to grasp it. Leon van Nierop, in his Silwerskerm column for the Rapport, wrote, “It borders on pretension and takes almost two hours to say very little. If you confuse this movie film with an art movie, you’ll have been deceived.” On his weekly slot on the radio station RSG, he said, “I don’t know what it was about, and I’m also not interested in figuring it out. … For almost two hours, you look only at people who flutter, are in love with pretty places, and walk around endlessly and chill.” In his Channel24 review, Ilan Preskovsky wrote that Malick is “inarguably pretentious” and has “nothing whatsoever of value to say”. On her blog, Gabi Zietsman described it as “a convoluted pretentious piece of work that will kill you with handheld camera work and zero story. … Maybe Malick was focusing too hard on everyone’s butts rather than creating believable people, and no number of ‘but it’s art!’ exclamations is going to make this film any more watchable.”

I can’t think of a less fair assessment of Malick’s work – here or elsewhere – as pretentious; what is it they find him to be pretending and not delivering on? No moviegoer is promised a film that will meet their expectations of how a movie should be made and presented, and I find that no moviegoer in this country will witness a more sincere, devoted, intensely heartfelt, and wondrously inventive form of filmmaking in the present day than in Malick’s films. He doesn’t pretend to have loftier, nobler notions of life nor of art than he has; he doesn’t pretend his work is of more value than anyone else’s; he doesn’t pretend to be making films that follow an esoteric and inaccessibly intellectual model of elitist contemporary (or classical, for that matter) art. It’s equally unfair – and so badly mistaken as to seem willful – to accuse Malick of adding nothing of substance to a distinctive photographic style, or of making a film out of little more than picturesque images that amounts to little more than that. To say that it has “zero story” or that nothing happens is to say that very little story was observed, which means that either the reviewers weren’t paying due attention to a film it was their professional duty to watch and consider and contemplate for the purpose of a critical report on it, or that they were unprepared for the singular conceptions of and approaches to storytelling that Malick bears out in his remarkably inventive films. The group of ordinary viewers that I attended a screening of the film with – none of whom is trained in film analysis, media studies, narrative decryption, or artistic demystification – grasped the contours of the film’s story easily enough, and additionally observed the vast wealth of life and wisdom that Malick adorns and fills in those contours with.

Friday, 30 June 2017

What to See This Weekend: Battle Scars

“Transformers” (Michael Bay, 2007)

Available on M-Net Movies Action+ (DStv channel 106) on Sunday, 2 July, Thursday, 6 July, and Monday, 10 July; on ShowMax; on Google Play; on Microsoft; on Amazon Video; on iTunes; on DVD and as part of a DVD boxset.

As the fifth entry in Michael Bay’s Transformers film series holds consumers in thrall, readers of this blog are invited to revisit its earliest predecessor, simply Transformers, which recently enjoyed the 10th anniversary of its theatrical release. Many other bloggers I read delight in taking cheap swipes at the blockbuster frenzy of Bay’s vulgar excesses, but I, like many other expectant moviegoers I know, never received the memorandum to deride the traditional forms of studio formula-tested tentpoles, nor the technological innovations of computer generated imagery, nor the primal thrill of blowing shit up. If you’ve seen a Transformers film, you’ll already know whether or not you can take what it’s giving, and, if not, this blog encourages you to try it out.

Bay links an intergalactic struggle, and our complacent obliviousness to it, to a far realer conflict that rages in the Middle East while a high school teenager tries to secure the affections of a girl. He glosses his traditionalist values (of family, civil liberties, and the troops) with a dazzling attention to detail, obsession with quality, and quick-witted tone of smooth dynamism. The cast he has gathered fills out his extravaganza with shining cinematic qualities and charisma (Shia LeBeouf, Tyrese Gibson, Josh Duhamel, Megan Fox, John Turturro, Jon Voight, and Bernie Mac all carry remarkable presence) and blend their moments with the special effects with an effortless fluidity that brings the fantasy to life. Leon van Nierop, in his somewhat positive review of the new film, describes the images as “assaulting every one of your senses”; I contend that they charm and engage your senses with an alluring swagger, as does the personality of their creator, which is illuminated clearly in every moment of the film’s 143 minutes.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Mqombothi and the Masses

Personal and professional priorities have kept me from updating this blog regularly, and I hope I can be excused for posting so late on an interview I read with a prominent young South African artist on the website of the national paper I subscribe to, the Mail & Guardian. Three months ago, it published an interview The Daily Vox had had with Lidudumalingani Mqombothi, a writer, filmmaker, and photographer from the Transkei who won the 2016 Caine Prize for African Writing. (The short story for which he was awarded the prize, Memories We Lost, can be read here.)

He gives an insight that closely echoes what I’ve written here before on adapting literature for the screen:

The problem is to take all these pages and squeeze them into 90 minutes. We would tell better stories taking a page out of a book and making a film out of it.

Mqombothi doubtless understands that much of a literary work is lost in adaptation, especially when done so literally as filming an enactment of its actions and dialogue, or when it must be compressed to fit a standard of running time, or when it needs to be pared down to meet his concerns of accessibility.

I think access is very important. Adapting a book into a movie doesn’t mean everyone can access that story. It’s important to tell the story and I know stories will always find their people, but work needs to be done to make that access possible. I know people in Cape Town and Khayelitsha who have had film screenings, so I think they need to be screened in these areas to take the films to the people and make them accessible. I don’t want my films screened in a festival that my people can’t come to. The problem with film is that it is visual media, it’s different to take text and turn it into visual media.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Free as a Flightless Bird

“Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie”

As I noted a few weeks ago on this blog, South African films seem rarely to earn back their budgets in commercial theatrical releases (what happens when films reach their DVD release is, as yet, unknown to me); connected to this is the observation that – here, as in every other country – the box office returns for a film are hardly ever correlated with the critical response to them by reviewers and other pundits. Many South African critics have praised Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie (“Johnny Isn’t Dead”), the debut feature film of director Christiaan Olwagen, in the highest terms, yet its box office earnings are among the lowest of any South African features this year. Rankings on Box Office Mojo indicate that the only South African commercial release that made less money was The Tribe (which I have not yet seen), and that Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie grossed a little less than half a million rand.

As told in its script, the story of Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie is more or less a synecdoche for the story of the Afrikaans youth of the late 1980s: those who were brought up in conventional middle-class Afrikaans households and came of age during the most uncertain and unstable period of the apartheid regime, as the National Party was writhing in its final death agonies. Any reader can guess that the prevailing drive among these youths, and, therefore, the characters in the film, was largely one of resistance to the ruling party, its leader, State President PW Botha, its extreme political conservatism, its war in Angola and Namibia, its totalitarian affinities, and its infamously nationalistic and cruel policies of racial apartheid. The basis for this resistance was the broader rebellion against the constricting, socially and politically conservative Afrikaans society of the time. That this rebellion only really took hold in the late 80s, while the youth of other developed nations around the world had already brought about massive and radical upheaval in their societies in the 60s, shows just how inhibiting and controlling a regime the National Party’s was. My impression, both of the party and many of its constituents, has long been that, throughout their history, they pined for their European homelands that they had been forced to leave, and worked their hardest to bring about an idealised replica of those homelands here, at the bottom of Africa, complete with a strong and secure mother nation (headed by the state, in conjunction with the dominant Dutch Reformed church) resourced through exploitation of its colonies and their inhabitants (the South African land and its indigenous peoples); the necessary difference in this case was that the motherland and the colonies were in the same country, and had to be separated by a strong force of permanent division in every regard imaginable – spatial, economic, political, cultural, intellectual (through education), even emotional and (to the best of the state’s ability) psychological. Against this grisly backdrop, like the children of a domineering deacon-father, young Afrikaners began turning the rumbling wheels of their defiance.

To see what other critics had to say about the film, click here.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Critic’s-Eye View: “Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie”

The new Afrikaans film Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie (“Johnny Isn’t Dead”), the debut directorial feature by theatre director Christiaan Olwagen about the life and death of queer Afrikaans rock singer and popular cult figure Johannes Kerkorrel, was released on the 5th of May. In the two-and-a-half weeks since then it’s been hailed as a landmark feature in South African cinema, and has garnered much media attention for both its subject – it follows a small group of rebellious Afrikaner youths in the late 80s and their brief reunion on a single evening in 2002, and the discussion roves among such topics as the National Party, PW Botha, apartheid, communism, sexual experimentation, the Border War, the characters’ place in the new South Africa, and the rejection of the social and political strictures of Afrikaans conservatism – and the acclaim it’s garnered. I’ve collected here excerpts from the South African reviews of the film that I could find.

Click here to read The Back Rows review of the film.

Reviewing the film for the Beeld, Laetitia Pople – who awarded it five stars – writes that “you’re drawn in” from the first shots, and that “at times it feels as though you yourself are in a drug-induced hallucination.”

Olwagen’s use of long shots places you in the middle of the five friends’ experiences, then and now. Everything feels real and in the moment. You experience everything immediately, without a filter, and the tragedy of it wrings your heart. The archival material and a sober voiceover narration ensures a context that is true to life. The music of the Voëlvry-beweging (“Outlaw movement”) on the soundtrack heightens not only the immediacy, but also the nostalgia of the events. Was Voëlvry the stone that brought down Goliath? …

Johnny’s (Roelof Storm) character is an ethereal, lovable being who gets along with everyone, the resin that keeps the circle together, with whom everyone instantly falls in love. His presence is girded in a halcyon faintness, as though he were standing in for the real Kerkorrel. … Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie can steer you to nostalgia if you experienced that period and want to muse on it again. And in that it’s a celebration of friendship, the only counterweight to a life in a country that has been turned on its head.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Critic’s-Eye View: “Beyond the River”

In continuing my catching up of movie commentary for the last month, I’m compiling more South African reviewers’ views on a new South African release, this one Beyond the River and still showing in theatres. In it, a young unemployed man from Soweto finds a great avocation in canoeing when he teams up with an avid amateur canoeist from the northern suburbs. Together, they train to take on the famous Dusi Canoe Marathon in KwaZulu Natal, while each dealing with his personal demons. It’s true story and adapted from the book Confluence, the memoir of the canoeist Piers Cruickshanks.

In a review for the Tonight supplement to the Independent News & Media Group’s newspapers, Jamal-Dean Grootboom calls Beyond the River “a beautifully shot, heartfelt, true-life South African story that should be supported by everyone.”

The fact that director Craig Freimond, who also co-wrote the screenplay, was brave enough to not shy away from the vast racial inequalities in SA as an underlying issue is commendable. The way the film addresses these issues also never feels preachy and is done in a smart way. The two leads of the film, Lemogang Tsipa and Grant Swanby, have spectacular chemistry and Tsipa’s charisma shines throughout the film. … The cinematography of this film is also spectacular, from the close-ups of the canoeing to the sweeping, wide shots of the rivers and landscapes. This film is absolutely beautiful. It’s been a while since I’ve walked out of a film and had vivid images running around in my mind afterwards.

The screenplay is also something that all South African screenwriters should view as a template of how to deal with exposition properly. There’s never a scene where the characters explain things through tedious monologues. All the characters’ background information is given through smart dialogue and expertly placed visual cues. It really is refreshing to have screenwriters to do not treat their audience like idiots … and who give just enough information to put two and two together. The score is the film’s only weak point. The sound mixing is off on more than one occasion and the music is louder than the dialogue. The choice of music is also very questionable in parts.

Critic’s-Eye View: “Die Rebellie van Lafras Verwey”

I’m currently convulsed in a long stretch of catching up on this blog; commitments arose to which I had to give priority over viewing and writing about movies for a short while, as much as I hated to, but, fortunately, I’m now freely available to post here again. Die Rebellie van Lafras Verwey was a new South African release which, I think, is by now already gone from theatres. I saw it when it was playing, and, hopefully, will get a chance to say something more about it here later, without seeming too self-indulgent; for now, I’m sharing what others had to say in reaction to it. Just because there are many South African films that I would like to read about but missed the chance to in local papers after they finished their theatrical run, and because most of them don’t get the Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic treatment of a long-standing compilation of reviews, I think it’d still be helpful to interested readers if I collected here what I could find on each South African work I see.

In his weekly Silwerskerm (“Silver screen”) column in the Rapport, Leon van Nierop reviewed the movie on its weekend of release (in the issue from the 9th of April). After giving a brief run-down of the history of the film’s source material and a plot description, he praises the lead performance by Tobie Cronjé, who, in his view,

delivers a monumental portrayal of the cast-off person with idle aspirations. He is sometimes funny, but also tragic and nonplussed.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Africa’s Upcoming Premier Documentary Festival

Encounters Documentary Festival 2017

The Encounters Documentary Festival has been an annual film event in South Africa since 1999, taking place in both Cape Town and Johannesburg. This year, the 19th Encounters South African International Documentary Festival will run from 1 June to 11 June, with screenings at the V&A Nouveau, the Labia, and the Bertha Movie House in Cape Town, and at the Rosebank Nouveau and the Bioscope in Johannesburg. Darryl Els, the festival director, reports that over 70 local and international features and shorts will be screened, no fewer than 32 of which are South African and 19 are world premieres.

Click here to see the entire 19th Encounters South African International Documentary Festival programme, including booking and ticket price information, the entire selection of films, the festival schedule, and other features.

The festival receives support from a whole host of sponsors, including the National Film and Video Foundation (an agency of the South African Department of Arts and Culture), the Bertha Foundation, Al Jazeera, various commercial funders, as well as other branches of government cultural agencies. The Wikipedia article on the festival also reports that many overseas festivals and distributors programme from the Encounters Documentary Festival when looking for African content in documentary categories. The festival includes a number of workshops where attendees may engage with these sponsors and other strategic partners, with opportunities to meet funders, see presentations on publicity campaigns for documentary producers, see presentations on producing a debut feature, participate in discussions on the state of documentary filmmaking in South Africa, hear panels on breaking into the South African film industry, hear individual filmmakers talk about their own experiences and issues important to them, and listen to discussions on the forms and possibilities of documentary filmmaking. There are also sessions hosted by Al Jazeera that filmmakers, industry members, and observers may take part in that involve pitching and commenting on new ideas for documentaries, and a lab for filmmakers to get a chance to work on their films in post-production with an editing mentor. The information and schedules for all these events are in the programme.

Monday, 8 May 2017

In the Shadow of Camelot


It may seem pointless to publish an entire post on a film that was released over two months ago and is now out of theatres, but Pablo Larraín’s Jackie was remarkable enough a film of 2017 for me to note it on this blog even after its run is finished. There were other films I watched and missed the chance to write about in the last few weeks, such as Fences and Hidden Figures (each of which has significant merit and appeal), but I found Jackie a particularly interesting and idiosyncratic work.

Since most readers who are interested in the film will already have seen it, and even those who haven’t are familiar to some degree with the real-life events it portrays, no plot summary or context is required of me here. Suffice it to remind you that it follows Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) in the days from her husband’s murder to his funeral (plus a few flashbacks to before the murder, and a single day following the funeral), shown in hindsight, framed in a later interview of Jackie (as I’ll call the movie character to distinguish her from the real-life Jacqueline Kennedy) by an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup). The story of the few days of arranging the funeral and Jackie’s life immediately afterwards is based in large part on the Life magazine interview by Theodore H. White, which is presumably what the fictionalised interview is meant to depict, or represent, as well as the deeper-probing interview with Arthur M. Schlesinger, which was only made public many years later. The flashbacks are taken from what we can guess about life in the Kennedy White House from the few public descriptions given of it by Mrs Kennedy, most famously in her 1962 televised tour of the White House.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

South Africa’s Upcoming European Film Festival

European Film Festival 2017

“It was the fate of Europe to be always a battleground. Differences in race, in religion, in political genius and social ideals, seemed always … to be invitations to contest by battle.” Those were Calvin Coolidge’s words, uttered in an address in 1924. It’d be trivial to point out how correct he was then in his view of history, as well as how aptly his description of Europe has played out since. We shall overlook for now the present state of Coolidge’s own fair continent, which itself appears convulsed in fiery conflicts on very much the same grounds as he set out, and which provides our cinemas with an enormous bulk of their general fare; this month, from the 5th to the 14th, the focus at the movies in four major centres in South Africa (Brooklyn in Pretoria, Rosebank in Johannesburg, the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, and Gateway in Durban) is on the specifically European tensions of our times – social, political, ethnic, religious, and, of most interest to this blog, aesthetic.

The European Film Festival has become an annual feature at the Ster Kinekor Cinemas Nouveau, coordinated by the Goethe-Institut South Africa, and organised in partnership with various European cultural and diplomatic organisations. It began in 2014 and this is its fourth iteration. There isn’t much of an opportunity to see European features in theatrical release in South Africa, so this one should be grabbed by all curious and enthusiastic local moviegoers. I attended last year, only to see a single film, but shall definitely be making concerted efforts to see far more this year. The festival director (and, I presume, sole curator) is Katarina Hedrén, who has brought over a selection of recent European works, evidently in an effort to span as wide a range of topics, moods, and nationalities as she could. I haven’t seen any of the films playing at the festival, nor even heard of some of them before checking the lineup, but it looks to me like a good sampling for us to gauge the current condition of mainstream European cinema.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Beauties and Beasts


Watching Barry Jenkins’s new feature film Moonlight is like being present at the very creation of the film – not just watching the scenes and performances being captured on camera, but witnessing the conception of it inside the director’s mind. He has filmed and presented it with such spontaneity, and with so thorough a transference of deep subjectivity, that, as François Truffaut once wrote of the films of Renoir, I had to watch it in a theatre a second time just to see if it would turn out the same way. Each shot we see is not merely the canny illustration of burning experiences being depicted and fierce emotions being expressed, but is itself the very expression of them, wrenched from the director’s mind, and arising naturally and spontaneously out of the situation of it being filmed and edited.

Take, for example, the scene playing about halfway through the middle of the film’s three chapters, in which the mother of the main character, Chiron, played by the remarkable British actor Naomie Harris, anxiously greets her son when he gets home one afternoon, and asks him for money (the implication is clear that it’s for more drugs, to feed her addiction). Jenkins has made clear in a large number of interviews and press statements that Harris’s character, Paula, as written by him and his co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney and as filmed by him, is based in large part on his own mother. Her scenes in the film play with an especial and tremulous immediacy, and this particular one stands out for a peculiar visual invention as well – Jenkins, in the moment of filming the actor’s performance, got her to play it looking straight into the lens, and shot it at the higher rate of 48 frames per second. (Almost all video you see is shot at 24 frames a second; the heightened speed is a new industrial technological advance, notably used to shoot Peter Jackson’s recent Hobbit trilogy.) The result has the effect of an unnerving and rare proximity to the figure onscreen, intensifying her essence while simultaneously rendering it more opaque. Indeed, throughout the film, Harris’s performance is perhaps the most intricate (while Janelle Monáe takes the crown for distinctiveness, Trevante Rhodes for tender sensitivity, and Mahershala Ali for grandeur).

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Money matters

I was shocked to read that Kalushi: The Story of Solomon Mahlangu, Mandla Dube’s directorial debut, cost more than R20 million to make. This was reported in an article from January by Gali Mbele in the Sunday Times. The figure is particularly dismaying because I know that no narrative South African film has ever grossed that much money at the box office; Kalushi, which is by no means a record-breaking film, couldn’t hope to gross that much, and, since many deductions have to be made for expenses and other agreed costs, as well as the distributor’s and theatres’ portions of the income, will never make back that huge budget. (So far, Kalushi has grossed about R1.2 million in theatres.)

It drew my attention to the financial matters of film-making in South Africa. How easy is it for a first-time director, such as Dube, to secure the resources he needs to make his film? Does it differ between different kinds of films? How much easier is it for experienced directors with careers and reputations behind them? Perhaps even more importantly, how does this supposed struggle for funding and whatever sources for funding as may be found affect what ends up on the screen? Mbele reports that the main institutions that film-makers can apply to for financial support are the National Film and Video Foundation, the Department of Trade and Industry, the National Lottery Commission, the Industrial Development Corporation, and the Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal film commissions. So far as I can tell, each of these entities is owned and operated by the state; to what extent is the state being allowed – by grim financial necessity – to intervene in the works of local film-makers?

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

A Band Apart

“Kalushi: The Story of Solomon Mahlangu”

To see what other critics had to say about Kalushi, click here.

Kalushi: The Story of Solomon Mahlangu is the directorial début of Mandla Dube, who has previously worked as a cinematographer on short films and documentaries. It tracks the life of Mahlangu from his time as an ordinary resident of Mamelodi, beginning just before the protests of 16 June 1976, when he was nearly 20 years old, through his exile in Mozambique and Angola, his military training in the uMkhonto weSizwe camps, his return to South Africa to carry out MK guerilla operations, and his subsequent capture and trial, ending with his death by execution in 1979.

The story of Mahlangu’s life and death is an important piece in the history of the antiapartheid struggle, and, therefore, important in the history of South Africa in general. It’d be a valuable thing for all South Africans to know it, to understand the circumstances of it and how they contributed to the events, and to appreciate the full implications of it. Every individual I’ve heard from – and I agree entirely – has remarked on how urgent it is for us to learn and spread the stories of people like Mahlangu, stories which are at risk of being erased and forgotten, and stories that enlighten us by revealing the past and its people.

But a good and important story are by no means sufficient for a good and important film. The venerability of a work’s subject does not necessarily render the work venerable. It’s regrettable that we don’t learn more about South African history at school, and in much greater detail. I aver that schoolchildren will benefit from learning about MK martyrs and just what conditions and manoeuvres led to their deaths, as well as how strongly the legacy of those deaths still impact South African life. I also aver that we should not have to rely on feature films to educate us in these vital matters; I myself only learned the life story of Mahlangu when I heard there was to be a film on it and I looked it up online, and I’m sure most viewers will only learn of it when they see the film. This is woefully unfortunate, and it seems to me to beg the question: If we had all learned about Mahlangu and others like him while growing up and were better educated on the history of the antiapartheid struggle, would Dube’s film still be so widely accepted by audiences?