In 2012, I wrote an extended program note for the Melbourne International Film Festival, an almost-review of The Loneliest Planet, which is getting a limited release in Australian cinemas this Thursday March 21. Originally published on the MIFF website, you can also read it here:
In writer-director Julia Loktev’s second feature, pseudo-psychological drama and travelogue The Loneliest Planet, the audience is taken to Georgia, as we tag along with backpackers Alex (Gael García Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg). We follow them literally via the camera lens, framing the back of Nica’s head – her bright red hair billowing in the wind while on her way to the mountains – and moving alongside Alex as he walks across a mountainous divide. This tight camerawork builds a spatial, almost tangible, closeness with the characters in lieu of any emotional intimacy; the dialogue is minimalist, and there is no elucidation on their lives. Loktev’s script introduces us to the couple only as travellers, and as a result it is her directorial persona that comes through strongest.
A few scenes of sexual intimacy, scattered through the opening segment of the film, are cold, distancing, and almost feel intrusive. Following one such scene, the camera cuts to a nightclub, one of those amateur community hall-type spaces, where Alex and Nica dance to discordant Eastern European techno music and where, once again, the camera doesn’t quite seem welcome. It is when they reach the mountain range through which they will trek that The Loneliest Planet finally settles into itself. The hand-held camerawork, which holds the spectator close to the characters, is contrasted quite stunningly with long takes dwarfing them against the landscape. With their local guide Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze) leading them across his country, its beauty is austere, pared back, but the natural idyll still permeates the scenery in its vastness. “Does not a mountain unintentionally evoke in us a sense of wonder?” wrote John Cage. A rhetorical question, and the answer is yes. Occasionally, the camera will frame the characters in a way that induces vertigo, and the sound of its waters are at first gentle, then become severely threatening; humanity versus the earth, perhaps. Inevitably, the splendour of peregrination across this isolated terra incognita becomes sinister, and in this vein, with little known about the characters, the film challenges the spectator to engage with it.
Loktev’s emotional distance was far more suited to the narrative of her debut featureDay Night Day Night (2006), which follows a young woman’s final days as she prepares to become a suicide bomber in New York’s Times Square. The earlier film imbued with psychological astuteness in spite of a similarity in stylistic restraint, and while this sophomore work does not achieve the same it is worth viewing for what it reveals about the filmmaker and her directorial tendencies. Alex and Nica, while slightly dislocated from the Georgian locals by language, are lively and carefree in their travels, willing to learn and partake in all facets of culture, and this contributes to the film’s richness.
When their intrepid enthusiasm is displaced by the incident that looms over the plot, there is a stark change in the characters’ demeanours, as well as in the mood, and soundscape of the film. The close, inquisitive camera becomes infected with a claustrophobic intensity, and where the travellers’ footsteps were once fearless and full of enthusiasm, they become heavy, bogged down, their sound flat and morose rather than echoing freely. These smaller details make The Loneliest Planetsomething to watch, and Loktev someone to look out for in the future.
A few weeks ago I wrote a column at Kill Your Darlings about being a redhead, and the representation of redheads through the cinema. Redheads get a bit of a hard time, both in and as a result of their characterisation and treatment in films. I discovered this, too; I think, contrary to the old saying, that redheads have more fun. At least, that’s what everyone else thinks.
Soon after this I dyed my hair blonde. Not platinum; not quite, but I’ll get there. Three days after I did, I was in a butcher shop. The butcher asked me what I did; when I told him, he responded by saying with a disarming enthusiasm that I should be a supermodel. Here I was, after two years of hearing about men who have a “thing for redheads,” being told that I should be a supermodel. Firstly, I must offer that I look nothing at all like a model. Somewhat searching for further proof that people pigeonhole women by looking at their hair colour, I declared my experiment successful.
And on this note, The Atlantic has recently published a piece on Jean Harlow (“revealing” that her platinum blonde hair was a product of excessive dyeing) that is pretty heartbreaking. Most of what can be read about Jean Harlow is heartbreaking, particularly when related to her death at age 26. Of course, while the original blonde bombshell experienced what it was like to be a blonde, she played a part in spreading the mythology of the redhead around, too. And so it seems; there’s always something.
When I see a film, I usually respond to it with some adherence to the like or not divide, while maintaining an element of subtle appreciation for the opposite side. Soon afterwards, though, perhaps out of a need to substantiate my opinion and support it with near insane passion, I lean forcefully so far towards like or dislike that I plunge into the extremities. I don’t mean to and I don’t know if that makes people respect my opinion any more, but it certainly makes my opinions much more fun to hold. Puts me in good stead for arguing, too.
But I saw Gangster Squad this week, whose trailer I enjoyed very much, and it’s like now I don’t even know who I am anymore— I didn’t like it, but I am unable to convince myself that I hated it. In fact, I think it is actually quite a good film. But then wait— nah, it wasn’t very good. But it was okay.
Set in 1949, and a proud homage to hardboiled noirs of the 1940s and 50s the likes of Joseph H Lewis, Robert Wise, Billy Wilder and John Huston, Gangster Squad holds its opening in Hollywood, behind the famous sign which then read HOLLYWOODLAND, setting up the major villain as one Mickey Cohen, leader of the Los Angeles crime syndicate that’s pretty much handed LA on a plate by the majority of the police department. Sean Penn cannot quite pull of this mob boss, but he’s got the swagger down all right. I don’t know much about the origins of the story that it was “inspired” by, but director Ruben Fleischer and screenwriter Will Beall chose a good time to depict disturbance in the Los Angeles cultural climate, as 1949 was the year that the last four letters were removed from the sign and it became only HOLLYWOOD.
Good timing aside, Beall’s script and Fleischer’s direction are both, while not clumsily so, a bit forceful and obvious — particularly for the mood that they are attempting to recreate. Cohen gives orders for a man, shackled in chains, to be torn apart by two cars as they pull the chains and his body in opposite directions. Just like he orders the city of Los Angeles to be torn apart, never mind the ruin as long as he is in charge. It’s all a bit much. Also, a particularly great attribute of the noir mood of anxiety, repressed violence, and the lost civility of the returned soldier was that all these things were absolutely boiling on the surface of so many films, but hardly anyone ever directly talked about it. Gangster Squad spells it out in the first sequence, courtesy of Josh Brolin’s lacklustre, all too open and honest voice-over narration. Also by a line he speaks later, and while I’m paraphrasing, it pretty accurately goes something like, “We went to war and they taught me/us how to fight. Now I’m back I’ve forgotten how to be a civilian, and still all I know how to do is fight boo hoo man problems.”
I loved Ryan Gosling’s character, Jerry Wooster, as the hopeless comedic figure who is actually the unsuspecting (but then, totally suspecting) hero of the piece. Mostly because I love Ryan Gosling. Every character fulfilled a role that surely all film fans know by heart, and if not, then surely all fans of the more gangstery noirs and the later films to come in the 1960s. But perhaps my main gripe with the film, apart from the entertaining if not overdone finale showdown in which a hotel lobby Christmas tree is ripped apart by machine gun fire in slow motion, is Emma Stone’s character. She’s not a femme fatale. She’s not a beautiful innocent gal who gets dumped by the triumphant and dumped on Santa Monica Boulevard. She has no character development. We know right away that even though she’s Mickey Cohen’s “tomato” she will end up as Jerry’s lover, we know right away that she doesn’t really side with the dirty guys, and that she will, of course (and along with Jerry), turn out totally clean and save the day. It’s spelt out for us (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, particularly in a very visual homage such as this). But give us some female dimensions, please! Even villainous, predictable dimensions.
I am not a fan of writing straight film reviews. I am not a huge fan of this film, although it definitely had its enjoyable moments, its occasional visuals that will stick in my memory, and some nice characters (and outfits) that I didn’t mind. It’s almost as though Fleischer tried to create a deep, dark world akin to Christopher Nolan’s Gotham, but keeping Tim Burton’s campy, cartoonish city in the mix too. Not a bad idea, if it had a few tweaks here and there. But more and more recently, as my time becomes more thinly spread, I have to think about pictures in comparison to others. And when it comes to 1949, I’d rather watch Joseph H Lewis’ Gun Crazy, with John Dall and Peggy Cummins as one of my favourite onscreen couples, for the fifteenth time. Or perhaps The Big Combo with a killer theme by David Raskin. And I think I’ll do that very soon.
“‘You’re such a swan in this light,’ he whispered after a moment. There were silences as murmurous as sound. There were pauses that seemed about to shatter and were only to be snatched back to oblivion by the tightening of his arms about her and the sene that she was resting there as caught, gossamer feather, drifted in out of the dark.”
– The Beautiful and Damned
On the Warner Brothers release DVD of Mildred Pierce, there is one of those good-but-not-great star profile docos, this time called Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star. Crawford’s biographer, Bob Thomas, closes the 2002 film out with some reflections on the unfortunate private life of his subject, as he remarks that her abuse of her children has, to some extent (or rather to great extent), overshadowed her star presence. Thomas expresses hope that one day, perhaps in fifty years, all the books that detail her abuse of her children will gather so much dust that no one will care to pick them up anymore. At this point, hopes Thomas, her star presence and her influence on the silver screen will again have its immutable hold on Hollywood history. She will be known only as a pure screen beauty. He longs for this day, and he really believes it might come, because books do gather dust but, in his words, the films will always be around.
One again, as I do when this sentiment is expressed, I teared up. Having just read this article in The Atlantic, the sad reality that films will not always be around is far too pressing. It’s done the rounds, this article. I’m sure many of us cinephiles have by now read this one, and many many more, with the same harsh truth as ‘With 35mm Film Dead, Will Classic Movies Ever Look the Same Again?’ Only a few lines from the article needed here: ‘Digital formats change so rapidly that restorations can quickly become obsolete,’ and, ‘Film archivists face additional problems. Digital has turned out to be a fragile archiving format. Information can be lost if hard drives aren’t maintained properly.’ Of course these things are well known by now, but unfortunately not accepted by short-sighted, money-hungry modern studio execs.
I don’t want this to be just another one of those boring posts that laments the death of film, because we’ve all been there too many times and there’s no point. But that line on the Mildred Pierce DVD made me sad. Unless someone gives me several billion dollars nothing can be done. Although I have said before that if I marry a millionaire, I will dedicate all my money to the restoration, one by one, of all the celluloid prints I desire. I suppose I would love to one day see a 35mm print of Humoresque, for example, but I’m not sure that I ever will. I really hope that these films are always around. I hope it’s not too late already.