Sunday, 17 March 2019

Das Lied zum Sonntag

Stella Donnelly - Tricks (on Beware of the Dogs)



You only like me when I do my tricks for you
And you wear me out like you wear that southern cross tattoo
I'd look better if I dropped the attitude
Leave it alone, leave it alone, leave it alone, leave it alone

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Leave No Trace


There is a sense in Granik's Winter's Bone, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, that Jennifer Lawrence's Ree exists in isolation of institutions that should help her. The sense of this is increased by the fact that Winter's Bone, even though the film less so than the novel, seems to exist outside the bounds of time and space - if you read the novel, it uses language that seems to come straight from ancient myths, an Appalachian version of a Greek hero struggling not with the ways that the Gods toy with the fates of mere humans, but with the impossibility of navigating parental abandonment and poverty. 

Leave No Trace is based on a novel as well, Peter Rock's My Abandonment. In its central theme and characters, it is the opposite of Winter's Bone. Where Ree was desperately attempting to navigate life after the death of her father, trying to find the resources to take care of herself, her mother and her siblings, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) and Will (Ben Foster) are a tightly knit unit of daughter and father, dependent on each other, surviving on their own in a National Park near Portland, Oregon. The film doesn't use flashbacks to explain their past, or how Will has come to this point where he is raising his daughter out in the wild, but it is clear from their interactions how much they care for each other, how much this relationship that from the outside, and once discovered by authorities, appears so fragile and filled with dangerous potential, is nourishing and functional within the bounds that it operates in. They gather food, they build contraptions, they are, apart from occasional trips into the city, self-sufficient. Will has taught Tom everything that she knows. 

The situation changes radically when due to an error that Tom makes, their camp is discovered and they become involved with a bureaucracy that doesn't allow them to live this way. It's not so much that they are homeless - it's the fact that living on public land is illegal. Leave No Trace takes a lot of care to not paint the social workers tasked with caring for them as evil, or prejudiced. Instead they show a lot of care and understanding once they rule out that Tom is in any way neglected, or abused, and they try to find a solution that suits Will's inability to live within the confines of society. Tenderly, the film hints at trauma that he sustained when he served, but it also shows how Will has managed to deal with that trauma in a way that doesn't affect Tom beyond the way that they are living. Their interactions are never aggressive, their conflicts are never violent. Once of the quiet accomplishments that the film makes is showing Tom as a girl who is confident in her actions and decisions exactly because of how Will has raised her - having to use logic and reason to make her points, but never punishing her for errors, instead trusting that she will learn from them, even when they lead into what is for him an unbearable situation. 

Regardless of the tenderness and closeness of their relationship, the break has to inevitably happen, if only because Tom is growing into her own person, with her own goals and dreams. While Will finds it impossible to adapt to a life within any sort of community, in a house, with a job, with the trappings of modern life (running water, a television he quickly hides in a closet, a roof over his head which to him is constricting, not a luxury), Tom thrives once she interacts with other people and sees that there are other ways of living. She also realises that as much as her father has prepared her for a life in the wild, and given her incredible resources for that particular life, she is still ill-equipped to handle this other life she is now exposed to. For one, it teaches her that other people are gentle and kind as well. She tries to resist when her father decides that they have to leave, and realises that there are limits to how much they can depend on each other when in his panic, he takes them into a new place that he isn't familiar with, threatening both their lives in the process. To Tom, a different life is possible, while Will is incapable of living among other people. In the end, she becomes the carer - when Will injures himself, she gathers the help they need, and relocates them in a community that is driven by an ethos of mutual support and help. Tom realises that this is a good life, but Will can't share that life with her - and in the end, their tragic separation is inevitable, as their paths diverge. 

Leave No Trace is a beautiful, gentle film, that takes a lot of time exploring the relationship between Will and Tom, to make that moment in the end all the more meaningful when Tom has grown enough to imagine a life separate from her father and when Will has grown enough to realise that his daughter cannot share his life forever.

2018, directed by Debra Granik, starring Thomasin McKenzie, Ben Foster. 

Thursday, 28 February 2019

Reading List: February.

Non-Fiction: 

Myriam Gurba: Mean.

Fiction: 

Myriam Gurba: Dahlia Season.
Alex White: A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe.
Alex White: A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy.
Becky Chambers: Record of a Spaceborn Few. 
Ausma Zehanat Khan: The Unquiet Dead. 
Ausma Zehanat Khan: The Language of Secrets.
Ausma Zehanat Khan: Among the Ruins.
Ausma Zehanat Khan: A Dangerous Crossing.
Esmé Weijun Wang: The Border of Paradise.
Mary H.K. Choi: Emergency Contact.
Chloe Benjamin: The Immortalists.

Films: 

The Rider (2017, Chloé Zhao).
Transit (2018, Christian Petzold).
Pick of the Litter (2018, Don Hardy, Dana Nachman).
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018, Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman).
Widows (2018, Steve McQueen).
RBG (2018, Julie Cohen, Betsy West).
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018, Barry Jenkins).
Minding the Gap (2018, Bing Liu).
Leave No Trace (2018, Debra Granik).

Shows: 

Vikings, Season 5.
Russian Doll, Season 1.
One Day at a Time, Season 3.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Transit



Transit begins with two men in what turns out to be a French bistro, quietly discussing an escalating political situation that is threatening them. The enemy is approaching, about to turn their temporary home of Paris into another place where neither of this is welcome or safe anymore. Georg (Franz Rogowski), who will be our main character going forward, is tasked by his acquaintance to deliver two letters to a German poet who is hiding out in a hotel room. Immediately, Georg asks what he will receive in return, revealing something about himself and the times he lives in. 

On the surface, delivering the letters should be a simple task, but it turns out to be only the beginning of Georg's journey. At the hotel, he finds out that the poet has committed suicide, so he takes the remaining manuscript and the letters and leaves. The dangers hinted at in that first conversation come to pass, when he finds that the bistro he has just left before has been raided by police, leaving his companion and others in custody. So Georg's journey begins - fleeing Paris on a train with another man who is slowly dying from an infection, to Marseille, which remains for now an unoccupied city promising the hope of a port from which ships are still leaving. 

Because this whole time that Petzold has avoided obvious signifiers of a specific time period, but he also hasn't chosen to hide the fact that Transit is set in present-time Paris. There are no mobile phones, but the cars are decisively contemporary, as are the police uniforms. In spite of this, Transit is still the same story that is told in Anna Segher's novel Transit - written in 1944, set right before ships stopped leaving Marseille for safer shores. The ominous advancing forces threatening Georg are never really named - at one point, Georg explains that he was unable to finish his apprenticeship as a radio and television technician because of the "fascist", and that is as close as the film gets to specifying - but the historical background is still the same that it was in the story it was based on. The artists, writers, communists and Jewish people are fleeing. They are facing random police checks, informants, and a truly kafkaesque bureaucracy that despises refugees, and participates in a maze that deliberately makes it next to impossible to escape certain death. 
The effect that Petzold's choice to forego historical costumes and scenery has is potent. For one, the protective artificial distance disappears since we are seeing such a tale play out in a decisively contemporary environment. It is no longer a question of "this could happen to us", but a successful demonstration that it has always been like that for those without majority protection, those trapped for some reason beyond their own control in the slow mills of the bureaucracy, without any protections. All the figures that Georg stumbles across in Marseille - and they repeat themselves, as they are trapped together - are attempting to flee, and are getting caught up in the same machinery that will eventually condemn most of them to death, in spite of their efforts to escape. Death surrounds Georg almost immediately, when the first man who shares his story with him (as a port city, Marseille is a city of shared stories, Georg ponders) is struck down by what appears to be a heart attack. Another woman, a Jewish architect, is comically attempting to rescue the dogs of a friend along with her, finding it impossible to abandon the two creatures that she doesn't even love - except in the tragic end, once all other options are closed to her, the only thing left to is to invite Georg out for a quiet meal in which they share no words, and then to fall to her death. 
It is an absurd tale, a twist on film noir. Unintentionally, because he is carrying the manuscript of the dead poet, he is confused for the man, and in spite of initially attempting to correct the error, he sees in it a possible way out of the closed city. As Weigel, he may be able to obtain the passage to Mexico that eludes all these other lost souls, if only he can keep the illusion alive long enough to get a transit visa through the United States. 

This second part of the film, where Georg wanders and somehow, miraculously, finds a way out among all these lost souls so desperate to leave, is narrated - another strange effect in a film that is already so ambitious. Rather than creating an artificial distance, it brings Georg closer, as the observed subject, but also as someone seen through the eyes of a stranger that doesn't exactly know everything, or much at all, about this person. We find out much later that the person who tells the story is a bartender, or perhaps the owner of the hotel, cleaning his glasses and listening to the tales of all the people attempting to travel through the port of Marseille. 

While this confusingly absurd way out opens up to Georg, he also befriends the son of the man who died sharing the same freight train with him. He uses the skills he was never allowed to perfect to repair a radio for him, in a scene that gently follows every single step that he meticulously takes. It becomes clear how much he cherishes this ability, and Driss, the child, begins to see him as a father figure, so much so that once Driss realises that Georg is plotting his own way out of Marseille, and has no intention to join him and his mother on their dangerous trek through the mountains, he feels utterly inconsolably betrayed. 

And so, because of how this whole world is set up for people like Georg and Driss, Transit also becomes a tale of betrayal. Georg cannot be a father for Driss, because he is pragmatically trying to find a way to escape, and he knows how doomed the trek across the mountains is, and how much more likely he is to succeed in this wondrous opportunity of assuming the identity of someone who was already almost out. He is betraying Marie (Paula Beer), a woman who begins as a mysterious character that keeps turning up everywhere Georg goes, sometimes approaching him as if she knows him only to shrink away from him in disappointment - because once they do meet, Georg realises that this is the poet's wife, who left Weigel, the eventual reason for his suicide. Instead of revealing the full extent of the truth - that every time one of the bureaucrats tells Marie that she has just missed her husband, they have actually dealt with Georg - he leaves her in the belief that her husband is alive, or at least doesn't tell her that he has assumed his identity. The absurdity of the confusion fits in perfectly with the absurdity of the situation, the endless lines of desperate people pleading to be able to leave, the empowers bureaucrats who hold power over life and death in their hands. It's an absurdity that threatens to strip the characters of their agency but in the end, only serves to make their decisions more brave, especially between the moment where Georg quietly stands by along with all the other auberge guests while the police drag out a screaming mother by her legs, pondering how they are all quiet in their guilt over having this horrible fate pass them by, and the moment when he decides to give up the passage to Mexico that has fallen into his lap. 

The second central scene of the film is between Georg and someone at the American consulate who decides whether Georg can leave, because he can deny him the transit visa. Believing him to be Weigel, he tries to make sure that the poet will never write about his experiences with fascism in Europe, and Georg, clearly drawing from the very experience that made him decide to become  a technician rather than a writer in the first place explains that he always hated writing about his adventures in high school, that feeling like he was just living to write about things made him feel deeply uncomfortable. Georg's tale is brilliant, and the man across from him hears what he wants to hear (The poet calling his own profession "parasitic", a turn of phrase that is one of the few examples in the film that really gives a sense of the forces that are after Georg and everyone he encounters). But then, as he is leaving and when asked about what the last thing was that he wrote, Georg manages to perfectly recite a fragment of the poet's last work, a fragment that moved him deeply when he first encountered it but that then became somehow less potent once he found himself is a perpetual hell similar to the one the poet describes (A hell of waiting, eternally, for the horrors to begin, with no way of escaping). 

The story turns a bit once Georg falls for Marie, who is still, while looking for her lost husband, with her lover, a paediatrician who is also trying to obtain a passage across the sea. Georg has his hands on the very visa that will save Marie, but revealing that he possesses it would mean telling her clearly that he has been pretending to be her husband, that her husband is forever lost to her. Two people ask him the same riddle - if the one who left or the one who was left suffers longer from the loss - and the whole time, Georg holds the answer as he knows of the poet's fate, and of Marie's endless search to reconnect with him. 
In the end, he decides to sacrifice his passage - because he realises that she will never let go of the fantasy of her husband being alive, because she could not survive if she realised that he killed himself because of her leaving. Georg makes sure that both Marie and the Doctor are on the ship, maybe in part to make up for his betrayal of Driss. Except because this is an absurd tale, his attempt to help fails utterly when he finds out that the ship has sunk. He cannot know if Marie ended up being on board, because like before he knew who she was, something is haunting him, just out of reach around corners - but we won't know if the thing that finds him in the end is Marie, or finally, the police.

2018, directed by Christian Petzold, starring Franz Rogowski, Paula Peer, Godehard Giese, Lilien Batman, Maryam Zaree, Barbara Auer, Matthias Brandt, Sebastian Hülk

Friday, 15 February 2019

Russian Doll


I think there are many different ways in which people can watch this show and interpret it, which speaks to Natasha Lyonne's ability to create something that reaches out so furiously and loudly. To me, this fantastic piece of storytelling, this weird tale about two people finding themselves dying over and over again, waking up again and again in the same bathroom, to act out the same things again, until their time runs out inevitably, makes the most sense seen through the idea of those breaks in human lives. Those before/after moments divide lives and turn what is usually mundane, and so far away from the structure of traditional stories, into something that may be worthy of some kind of audience for once, as traumatising or forever scarring as they may be. 
This is a lot clearer with Alan (Charlie Barnett) than with his polar opposite Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne). Charlie's day which repeats over and over again is when he attempted to propose to his long-term girlfriend, only to find out that Beatrice was having an affair with a moral black hole of a man, a man who refers to himself as the hole where a choice should be. It cuts Alan's life apart, as he tries to figure out what it means, and why it happened, inbetweenst dying again and again. Nadia's repeated reawakening seems more surprising and mundane - it starts with a birthday party in her friends' apartment, a former Jewish Yeshiva, in which she makes a number of decisions that all are far from appreciating what her best friends have organised. She gets drunk and high and takes off with a man who seems awful (who later, ironically, turns out to be the very man that Beatrice is seeing behind Alan's back). She ignores a man that she used to be serious enough with to almost meet his daughter. She falls down the stairwell often enough that she believes it haunted, so that instead of investigating that idea (maybe she wouldn't fall if she weren't afraid of falling), she chooses the fire escape instead. 
It takes a few episodes for us to fully realise that this is not some time travel story - the true horror begins when things begin to disappear from the world, the more often Alan and Nadia die. They wake up to emptier rooms, fewer fish, fewer people, less furniture, and ripening then dying fruit and flowers. The world hasn't stopped - time is still moving forward - but all the people are arrested in the re-enactment of the same events, perhaps to teach Alan and Nadia a lesson, perhaps to pose them a question. But in a way, when they both begin to approach the mystery as some kind of riddle that requires solving, when they play with the variables, and investigate possible historical or religious meanings, things go even more wrong. The more careful they navigate their surroundings, the more inevitable death becomes. With their own theories - Alan insists that they are in purgatory because they have sinned in some way - they attempt to change their actions, or to fulfil some kind of destiny, to change what is happening. 

They resemble humanity as a whole, desperately clawing for theories and explanations for the inexplicable, endlessly horrified by the idea that something as significant as what is happening to them may have no explanation. Alan tries a hundred ways to act differently to Beatrice, but never until the end really hears her when she explains to him that she grew tired of having to care for him, for his insecurities, for his inability to think of himself enough. Nadia never quite makes it to the breakfast with her exes' daughter, as vital as it appears to her mind to share her favourite childhood book with a girl that she has never met. She even, after an episode, abandons the idea of finding the stray cat that has been visiting her but is now lost, until in the end, that cat turns out to be one of the keys. In their desperate search for meaning, they seem doomed to miss what is right in front of them - that Alan has to attempt to become a full person on his own, that Beatrice has to stop to push people away because of how her childhood has scarred her. 

And all the while, there's humour, there's absurdity, there's a truly unique way in which this kafkaesque New York nightmare ("I'd like to report a gas leak every fucking day, please. Every day I'd like to report a gas leak.") becomes something that feels profoundly personal to Natasha Lyonne, who shines, like a whole career finally coming to full fruition after so much labouring. A story that is sometimes deeply sad - when Alan realises how he died the first time, by accidentally ending up in the same spot again, with no emotional progress - or with young Nadia, somehow saving herself from a mother incapable of caring for her. 

This is a masterpiece. 

2019, created by Leslye Headland, Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler, starring Natasha Lyonne, Charlie Barnett, Greta Lee, Elizabeth Ashley, Jeremy Bobb, Rebecca Henderson ,Ritesh Rajan, Dascha Polanco.

The lights are on but you're not home



April 7! Happy hunting!

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Runaways, Season Two


Recently, after giving the show a break after a misconceived season focusing on a character that I thought insufferable, I started watching Supergirl again.  The whole season was a thinly veiled analogy of what was happening at the same time in the United States – a country descending into an authoritarian nightmare, with clever politician and media personalities stoking xenophobia against the other – in the case of Supergirl, literal aliens. The other was taking jobs away from honest, non-powered humans. The other possessed unknowable strengths and traits, and was therefore a constant threat. That other included Supergirl herself – Kara Zor-El, the closest thing that we have now to an unflinchingly, good-hearted, brave hero. 
I thought the season was excellent in how directly it confronted the twisted power of xenophobia, of racism, of hatred against others, but that it made a grave error when it dedicated a whole episode to its central villain. Super-villain origin stories are a staple in any super-hero tale of course, but it was hard to stomach forty-five minutes of Ben Lockwood’s tragic backstory, which turned him from an eloquently spoken professor of history and political science into a racist demagogue who employed rhetorical capabilities to create an army of ideologically motivated thugs who terrorised and brutalised their alien neighbours. The idea that his descent into this caricature of the well-dressed and -spoken nazi (what a horrible place 2017 and 2018 have been) was somehow rightfully motivated by his losses, by his traumas, was profoundly unfortunate, especially considering that the figures he is based on have been solely inspired by their fragile masculine white egos. The fact that Ben Lockwood’s story deserved an entire episode of this show that is so good at highlighting the plights of the unprivileged and marginalised voices was frustrating and sad. On the other hand, maybe the show was merely trusting its audience that it would come to the judgement that Lockwood, in a show where so many characters have suffered unspeakable losses and yet have stood up and become heroes, was even weaker because he did not take his suffering and grew stronger from it, rather than more hateful. 

It’s something that I felt reminded of during the second season of Runaways, during some of its more inexplicable choices. Consider that in the books that the show is based on, the title describes the characters – they are Runaways, and for the majority of the story, from a very early point in that story, parent-less. More than that, they are shaped by their experience that parents, and more than that the authority they represent (which includes the authority of the state and the police, both of which they are at the run from also) are fallible, corrupt, and ultimately self-interested. This is not a hero-origin story, because none of the Runaways are willing heroes – when they act heroically, they do so reluctantly, as for the most part, their main concern is staying alive. Their starting point is the realisation that the people they thought they could trust, the people they thought were meant to take care of them, are not just fallible, but straight-up evil, and irredeemably so, regardless of how many of their evil acts were inspired by trying to buy their children a better world (or buying their children’s survival in a dying world). 

The television show departs radically from that approach, mainly because this far into the story, all of the parents are still alive. The starting point here isn’t the realisation that parents make terrible errors and that children have to forge their own way forward and make their own determinations about ethics and morals, but that in the background to that path, the possibility of parental love and protection continues to exist. How tempting it would be for these Runaways, who are learning to live without the privilege of their parents’ riches, to return to the fold, and to truly embrace the idea that all of this – the human sacrifice, the deal with literal devils – was all for them? It’s a proposition made even more viable because the show spends so much time on redeeming and explaining the parents, ultimately only finding one of the parents irredeemable – ironically, the one who was least involved in the crimes of the Pride, the one who was found too weak to even be part of the Pride. At the end of this season of Runaways, the only parent found so wanting that he is disposed of is Frank Dean, who isn’t even a biological parent (and the fact that the show decides to side with Karolina’s biological father here, by disposing the one who brought her up, and was more loving than her mother, is another stunning thing that happens this season – adoptive parents who put in the work ARE real parents, regardless of alien heritage). 

Not only are the parents still alive in this second season of Runaways, they often get whole episodes to tell their stories. As if the show didn’t fully trust its amazing cast of young actors to carry the brunt of the story, it goes back again and again to its more illustrious names to carry the story forward, even when it is at the cost of being true to the core values of its story. Why would Chase’s father, who is abusive, who is a monstrous patriarch oppressing his wife and terrorising his son, deserve a redemption arc? (And how odd to see this play out again, so many years after Buffy did the same thing to another one of James Marsters’ roles). Why does he deserve an arc at all? And why must we spend so much time, through decades, with Karolina’s biological father Jonah, and his horrifying creepy grooming of Karolina’s mother since childhood into the future mother of his daughter? Something about the perspective seems skewed, as if these forays into the parents’ stories were as valid as the current stories about their children, who try so hard to figure out how to be themselves, and be good, in a world they are navigating on their own for the first time. 

Wouldn’t it have been so much more interesting, and so much more in the spirit of the books, if we had spent more time with Gert trying to figure out how to receive the mental health care she requires to function while also on the run and without the privileges of rich parents? Or more time with Nico trying to grasp her power, trying to grasp how it twists and turns her? Or of Molly, coming to terms with losing another parental figure? In all these cases, the glimpses we get – of Ariela Barer, Lyrica Okano, Allegra Acosta – shining when they are given the material to work with are glorious, and yet, there never seems to be enough time to linger among all the twists and turns of the season, and the endless amounts of hours the show wastes on Alex’ exploits into the LA underworld (and the weirdly racist story about a bad black cop, which truly is a cynical choice for a villain here). What a waste of time to spend a second on Victor Stein’s mental landscape and Jonah’s attempts to connect to his daughter. How fucking weird, to have a whole story about how unchecked the privileged can commit crimes for their own benefit because they own anything that could meaningfully hold them accountable and then to really dive into how they feel about being called out by their own children. 

It’s especially frustrating considering how much good this season throws at us at the same time. There’s the beautiful twist here that Xavin (I love this weirdo who has no idea how to be on earth so much), in this version of the story, is encountering Karolina for the first time when she’s more or less happily in love with Nico, rather than figuring out her feelings for someone who won’t reciprocate for years. There’s Nico, who is already halfway to the version of Nico in Rainbow Rowell’s perfect new arc, freaked out by the powers she can’t always completely control, because sometimes they control her (and maybe she’s already halfway to the beautiful bit in that first book of Rowell’s story – “Hanging out with super heroes, she’s already cast every version of “fix this person whom I love very much” – it’s only now she realises that she can only cast each spell once, that her superpower is a lesson in finding synonyms. 
What I mean to say here is that it sometimes seems as if Runaways the show does not trust that these kids are perfectly capable of carrying the story by themselves, even though, through the effort of so many writers, their stories are fully formed and their struggles are captivating. Their parents errors are a lesson, as is their realisation that their parents deal meant that they grew up in a world so privileged that they now struggle to find a path without all those resources they were granted. These are their stories, and they have every right to them.