RECENT INTERNATIONAL PRESS QUOTES
‘Mothers’ is a very strange film, sometimes sophisticated, poignant and often elliptical. […] One of the most interesting and original filmmakers of recent years [...] One of those authors who are not afraid to face the genres and to push the boundaries. (Diego Pierini, LoudVision)
Mothers debunks the notion that documentaries can tell the truth. (Virginia Wright Wexman, Offscreen )
Art or death. Opposing compromise, opposing image consumerism. (Fulvia Caprara, La Stampa)
Genius director […] Groundbreaking poignant films […] Dizzying dialectic […] Rave review […] Milcho wants us to think. Isn’t that what great art should do? […] Better than fiction in its outrageous irony. (Vanessa McMahon, fest21.com / filmfestivals.com)
Manchevski goes beyond the literal -- to explore a deeper realm where sexuality, motherhood and the art of storytelling reside in conflict. […] 'Mothers' is a return to form for filmmaker Milcho Manchevski (The Cleveland Plain Dealer)
'Mothers' offers a vision between truth and fiction. (Diario De Las Palmas)
‘Mothers’ is a film about moral courage. (Zitty Berlin)
Painfully beautiful. (Duma)
A provocative and innovative film from Macedonia that blurs the line between reality and fiction. An intensely engaging film, ‘Mothers’ is not only a study on how reality is perceived and recorded, but also an examination of how women survive in a contemporary post-war culture. (Clevelandfilm.org)
Stylistically provocative. (Connor McGrady , Brooklyn Rail)
Manchevski gradually reveals the corruption and the failure of the Macedonian investigative and judicial system. […] Manchevski's esthetic experiment proves successful and confirms -- especially in the two fiction episodes -- his extraordinary talent as a storyteller of images and moods, his skills in directing actors of every age and his ability to suggest hints instead of verifying theories. (Giovanella Rendi, close-up.it)
‘Mothers’ is a daring, provocative, controversial film that explores the deepest human emotions: love and fear, while searching for the truth in between the two. […] ‘Mothers’ will not give you refuge from reality, but - on the contrary - it will make you look at reality and oneself with eyes wide open. (Rochester Democrat & Chronicle)
Structurally unusual, almost experimental and a very exciting film. […] A powerful punch in the stomach to the Macedonian society. (Dubravka Lakic, Politika) Provoking deep reflection and polemic. (slovesa.net)
Superior directing. (Märkische Oberzeitung)
Compelling ‘Mothers’ mixes truth and fiction. […] The story’s true power lies in its depiction of social change. (Arab Times)
All three stories contain a hidden web of lies and betrayals, constructing a powerful final act about community and respect. (Radmila Djurica)
One sad film. […] Macedonian reality - exposed in ‘Mothers’ by Milcho Manchevski’s talented hand, mind and camera - is twisted, depressing and ugly. (Milen Radev, Svobodata.com)
[‘Mothers’ is an] operation completely extraneous to the conceptual and aesthetic codes of contemporary cinema. […] Manchevski’s epic humanism finally returns. (CineClandestino.it)
A really subtle exploration of truth and fiction in three deliberately diverse episodes, courageously pushing the boundaries between ficti on and documentary in order to exert and negotiate a powerful feeling. (The Official Jury elucidation on the Belgrade FEST award to ‘Mothers’)
Original storytelling and courageous experimenting with the film language and genres. … Subtle and truthful storytelling as well as pushing the boundaries between fiction and documentary narrative. (The Critics’ Jury elucidation on presenting the Neboja Djukelic award at Belgrade FEST to ‘Mothers’)
He composes them in a way where they collide and merge at the same time. […] While we watch, we start to doubt the documentary and trust more and more the artistic, the intuitive, the dramatic. The bonds between elements exist only in the mind of the spectator. (Rada Sharlandzhieva, Lik)
‘Mothers’ begins with fiction, indeed with the fabrication of a lie, moves on to an attempt at the fabrication of a myth and ends in the shattering imagery of the real, where no fabrication is possible. […] There is no easy reading of ‘Mothers’, only a need for us to work with the filmmaker to uncover its many meanings. (Piers Handling, Toronto International Film Festival Director)
‘Mothers’ opens up lines between documentary and fiction at the same time that it also blurs them. […] Such moments give Manchevski’s film a special place in contemporary cinema that should be viewed by audiences around the world. […] Many scenes and moments that will stay with you long after viewing the film. (Andrew Horton, Script)
Milcho Manchevski knows how to make a movie, as was demonstrated by his assured, Oscar-nominated debut film Before the Rain, which made Stephen Spielberg sit up and request a meeting. Its three intertwined love stories have been cited as precedent for the three stories of Mothers, but Mothers reminded me of a full, old-fashioned movie palace program. […] I was never less than engaged. (Thomson on Hollywood, Indiewire, review by Anne Thomson)
Oscar-nominated Macedonian director Milcho Manchevski mixes fiction with documentary in a film that hits home on an emotional rather than intellectual level. (Hollywood Reporter)
Manchevski’s deft handling of the various materials is both conceptually challenging and thoroughly satisfying. (Eye Weekly, reviewed by Chris Bilton)
Macedonian director Milcho Manchevski continues down his distinctive artistic path. (Hollywood Reporter)
Beautiful art about ugly reality (Vest Daily)
Love in the city is hard. It’s a tricky beast, people weaving in and out of love under the London skyline. A lot of films have tried to capture this and portray it on the big screen. We end up with sickly awkward but genuinely sweet movies such as Love Actually or Man Up.
But Mercedes Gowers’ Brakes is a toe-curling and intimately emotional indie film about the pain of love. Bringing together our finest British actors, Brakes is a series of vignettes about couples breaking up before flitting forward to see how they got together.
We were lucky enough to talk to Mercedes about her new release!
How are you? How dies it feel getting a big release?
I’m quite nervous actually. Hopefully, there will be a time where I might enjoy it.
Must be quite nervous as a first feature.
It’s unusual. I’m not sure how the non-linear aspects are going to go down. I haven’t even been thinking about enjoying it. Hopefully we’ll have a celebatory weekend. Steve Oram was like “It is going to be great.”
It’s like putting your child out there.
Where did you draw inspiration from?
I’ve done comedy and dark comedy. I’ve just been thinking about people breaking up for year. It is just so personal and we all go through it. It’s so intense and weird. Warped, funny, and emotional. You are with this personal for a long time. You’re in a bubble on either side and at both ends, the break up and getting together, it’s very heightened.
I definitely wanted to do it backwards and get into the real life . You can play on it and it turns into this figure of 8. The whole thing was a jigsaw puzzle. We shot it backwards too: Filming the break-ups first. but the meet-ups worked so well as the actors new what the characters had been through. It was funny to plunge into a first meet from these intense break-ups, you can trace back exactly what went wrong.
How did you come about the stories? Were there any based in truth?
I was just thinking about making them as varied as possible and who’d work with each other. There loads of different ones like Julian (Barrett) being a stalker or Paul McGann and Kate Hardie having an affair. There’s also me and Noel (Fielding) having that innocent thing at the beginning. It’s interesting to see how dark it is going to go and making them as varied as possible.
Every break up is different. I find it funny how everyone shows so much of yourself to another person. We varied it up a bit. I loved Kerry (Fox) and Roland (Gift), to have all those pauses – it’s very deep and adult with the weight of a long time relationship. Me and Noel are more explosive, young and on the edge.
There’s a big character with London, how did this come into play?
I think any city will make you fall in love faster. Whether you are falling in love or breaking up, it becomes intense. There’s so much going on in the trees, the buildings, and the rooftops. I wanted to include some places I’ve gone too. But I think it’s intense no matter where – like the country-side would become all ‘Heathcliffe’ like . I was using what I had – the romance of London.
How did you get so many great British actors involved?
I was very lucky. The comedy bunch, I’ve known for a long time. Julian,Steve, and Noel are old friends of mine and thought it was fascinating to do a film like this. Everyone I asked seemed excited to do so, especially with the improvising. It was quite a laugh! I think Kerry Fox is incredible so I was happy when she came on board. She’s an interesting and extraordinary actress.
How did they form as couples?
It was more through timings and chemistry. I enjoyed Paul MccGann and Kate Hardie’s affair. Peter White and Julia Davies had to break up twice! Julia Davis is quite good at all that comedic darkness though.
How tricky was it filming your own scene?
I was very lucky that Noel suggested he’d do mine with me, which I had been putting off. We had quite a good shorthand together and I was glad it was him! We bounced brilliantly off one another and we had that great snow. It was brilliant to do!
Brakes is out in cinemas now!
Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother!”….I am happy to report that there is no need for some mass panic. “Mother!” may start slow, but it proves to be a very enjoyable “descent” into sheer madness overall. The initial story here is Him (Javier Bardem) and Her (Jennifer Lawrence) settling into a married life in a country mansion, until one couple (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) become their pestering lodgers against the wishes of Her. Ironically, the main flaw of Aronofsky’s psychological horror film “Mother!” is that it is not his first film. If it were, it would have been a masterpiece of achievement. Instead, “Mother!” is just the “recycling” of the elements/tricks present in Aronofsky’s previous films. How does this affect this film, one may ask? Well, Aronofsky’s “recycling” of his ideas reduces the overall effect, impact and unpredictability of “Mother!” by as much as 80%. “Mother!” formula is quite simple to understand. The film is structurally and archetypically “Black Swan” (2010) + touches of some “over-the-top” home invasion and “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968). This is all to it. And, where it is not all, it also incorporates, quite evidently, Aronofsky’s artful orange-colour bursting creativity and philosophy we have all previously seen in “The Fountain” (2006) and biblical/allegorical references. The saddest thing here is that the film is quite entertaining and even brilliant in parts, and the premise would have been completely unforgettable had Aronofsky been more original in his work.
The film begins by showing Her (the titles call her Mother, but I will refer to her as She) (Jennifer Lawrence) and her husband (Javier Bardem (“Skyfall” (2012)), and their day-to-day life in their country mansion. While the husband struggles to write his novel, She is concerned with decorating their house. Of course, it is fairer to say that “Mother!” really begins by showing the end, but it will probably be saying too much at this point. Bardem character’s most precious possession is a mysterious stone-like object which he keeps in his private room. Things start to really get out of control, when a visitor, a doctor (Ed Harris (“A History of Violence” (2005)), arrives at their doorstep. Soon, the doctor’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer (“The Age of Innocence” (1993)) follows him to our main couple’s home, and things really start to get uncomfortable and spooky at their house. Now, there are a number of elements at play here: the “external” threat/danger, the “internal” threat and the focus on the relationship between the main characters. The “external” threat is the visitors which arrive to stay at the writer’s home. They start to probe the family’s affairs, and unsettle Her in particular. The “internal” threat is the fantasy element deriving from the house itself. Putting aside any biblical and symbolic meanings, this first half of the film is relatively weak and ineffective. It may have been shot by a film student, modestly experimenting with the psychological horror genre. The camera is often positioned at, and looks from Lawrence character’s shoulder, demonstrating the impact of the home invasion as experienced by Her. There are mysterious noises, strange, hallucinatory experiences, blood appearing out of nowhere, and spooky apparitions. However, the main problem here, which Aronofsky failed to consider, is that we, the viewers, after being introduced to “spooky”/unsettling happenings every thirty seconds or so, soon become “immune” to them. By the film’s fifteenth attempt at inducing an internal “omg” cry from the audience, the viewers become desensitised to all the horror, and the film’s attempts here to draw the audience into the film are not really that successful. Most of the tricks employed are predictable and unimaginative, with Mother becoming “too much of a victim” for any real sympathies.
The second part of “Mother!” has some of the most controversial and talked-about sequences. Here, Aronofsky lets his imagination run wild. The sequences are horrific, claustrophobic, very memorable. If there was any audience Aronofsky wanted to target, I was part of it. I previously enjoyed both: Lars von Trier’s artful and horrifying “Antichrist” (2009) and Martin Koolhoven’s heart-and-gut wrenching “Brimstone” (2017). I also loved Aronofsky’s depressing “Requiem for a Dream” (2000), and just could not get enough of his creative force in “The Fountain” (2006). However, with “Mother!”, all is not that simple. Firstly, “Mother!” has such unbelievable sequences, they are downright funny – laugh-out-loud funny, despite all the horror. A satire, an allegory, symbolism…well, perhaps, and, perhaps, Banksy was also an influence. After all, with “Mother!” all is possible. The second problem is that if one has seen Aronofsky’s previous films, there isalmost nothing new here to see. In “Mother!”, the philosophical/puzzling elements seem to be taken straight out of Aronofsky’s “The Fountain”; and “Mother!”’s “home invasion” theme is just the replaying (although now on a grand-scale) of one of the final key scenes of Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream”. The similarities between these two films and “Mother!” are overwhelming, from drugs references and a merciless descent into sheer despair/madness present in both “Mother!” and “Requiem for a Dream”, to the focus on the colour orange present in both “The Fountain” and in “Mother!”.
Regarding the similarities between Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” and “Mother!”, it is safe to say that I can probably write a thick book on it. Aronofsky said that he wrote his draft script to “Mother!” in only five days, and I am surprised how he did not write his screenplay in only thirty minutes. Structurally and archetypically, “Mother!” is “Black Swan”, and, of course, “Black Swan”, in turn, “drew inspiration” from “Repulsion” (1965) and “Perfect Blue” (1997). In “Mother!”, the character of Lawrence is Nina Sayers from “Black Swan”. Both characters are true innocent victims, with the cameras in both films often closing up on their faces to show the horrors they are living through. Jennifer Lawrence even has the same mannerism and demeanour as Natalie Portman in “Black Swan”. If Nina in “Black Swan” undergoes transformation herself, in “Mother!”, it is the house which undergoes the transformation. Moreover, Javier Bardem in “Mother!” seems to play the role of Thomas Leroy from “Black Swan”. In both films, Bardem and Cassel play characters that are much older than the main innocent heroines, and both of them try to protect the younger heroines who are battling internal and external dangers. Such similarities seem endless and overwhelming, and they also include some particular scenes (for example, the scenes involving blood/wounds/toilets). Other clear “inspirations” of “Mother!” include “Rosemary’s Baby” and surreal “The Exterminating Angel” (1962). Why these similarities matter? Well, because they are one too many, and it becomes quite impossible to watch and enjoy “Mother!” without constantly having in mind the scenes and elements of other movies. I know of no other director who would employ his other films or other people’s cinematic work to such a great extent in his work, and then call it creative, original work. In fact, to some extent, Aronofsky’s (over)-use of the previous cinematic material is even more shocking and puzzling that “Mother!”s premise itself.
The cast and acting in “Mother!” are good, even though Bardem and Lawrence make an unlikely pairing. Javier Bardem is a pleasure to watch, because his character remains enigmatic throughout, and Ed Harris is always good playing a guy who is just too secretly eager to crash a family’s peaceful existence, recalling his role in “A History of Violence”.
It is a pity that Aronofsky blatantly and all too obviously borrows his previous material to make this film, with him taking the essential “body parts” of his (and others) films, cementing them together, and producing this latest “scarecrow”. Thus, sadly, “Mother!” is not as effective as it would have been otherwise. Especially in the film’s first half, it feels like a novice film student suddenly decided to write and shoot a parody on Aronofsky’s cinematography/films. The amazing fact here is that this student/person is Aronofsky himself. Though the film’s first part suffers from very predictable moments, with Jennifer Lawrence playing the role of the innocent, victimised Nina of “Black Swan”, the second part of the film proves that “Mother!” is an enjoyable and terrifyingly memorable experience overall. The real pleasure here is to be found in the film’s “over-the-top” sequences. The film is intense and hugely uncomfortable, but it does transpire into a “must-watch” film for any psychological horror fan. 7/10
The First Surrealist Film 'The Seashell and the Clergyman' by Germaine Dulac & Antonin Artaud (1928)
La coquille et le clergyman
When the subject of early surrealist film arises, most of us think of Salvador Dalí and Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, and not without good cause: even 86 years after its release, its nightmare images of piano-dragging and eyeball-slicing still lurk in our collective cinematic consciousness. But we can't call it the very first surrealist film since, 87 years ago, French critic and filmmaker Germaine Dulac, in collaboration with no less an avant-garde luminary than Antonin Artaud, put out La Coquille et le clergyman, better know internationally as The Seashell and the Clergyman, which you can watch free above.
Un Chien Andalou met with a pleased reception, to Buñuel’s delight and Dalí's disappointment. Dulac and Artaud's project provoked a different reaction. "Advertised as 'a dream on the screen,'" writes Senses of Cinema's Maryann de Julio, "The Seashell and Clergyman’s premiere at the Studio des Ursulines on February 9, 1928 incited a small riot, and critical response to the film has ranged from the misinformed – some American prints spliced the reels in the wrong order – to the rapturous – acclaimed as the first example of a Surrealist film."
The film takes place in the consciousness of the titular clergyman, a lusty priest who thinks all manner of impure thoughts about a general's wife. In another Senses of Cinema article on Artaud's film theory, Lee Jamieson writes that, in putting this troubled consciousness on film, it "penetrates the skin of material reality and plunges the viewer into an unstable landscape where the image cannot be trusted," resulting in "a complex, multi-layered film, so semiotically unstable that images dissolve into one another both visually and 'semantically,' truly investing in film's ability to act upon the subconscious." It capitalizes, in other words, upon the now well-known principle that what is seen cannot be unseen.
But it also pushed cinema ahead in a way that Buñuel and Dali could run with the following year. De Julio's article quotes Artaud's own description of the challenge he saw the form as facing, and the one which The Seashell and the Clergyman attempts, in its way, to address: it could either become "pure or absolute cinema" or "this sort of hybrid visual art that persists in translating into images, more or less apt, psychological situations that would be perfectly at home on stage or in the pages of a book, but not on the screen." He saw neither of these as "likely the true one," and many filmmakers even today (David Lynch stands as a guiding light among those now living) continue the search for how best to tell stories on film in a manner suited to the advantages of film.
Even overshadowed by Un Chien Andalou, The Seashell and the Clergymanremains a popular silent film to re-score today, and you can watch the movie with a few different soundtracks online: from dark ambient artist Roto Visage, from musique concrète composer Delia Derbyshire (see right above), from large-scale experimental band Sons of Noel and Adrian, and many more besides.
The Coens' grimmest film offered a prescient vision of a new world dominated by faceless corruption
The Sunday Matinee takes a look at a classic or beloved film each weekend. This week, we’re calling a coin toss as the Coen brothers’ masterpiece and Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men reaches the decade mark.
This week marks 10 years since Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s sparse, devastating 2005 novel No Country for Old Men was released in theaters to rattle audiences’ nerves and immediately introduce one of film history’s most singularly frightening villains. Yet, for all of the terrors presented in the film by Anton Chigurh, or by the Coens’ signature cruel, omnipotent, and blind God presiding over the story’s events, the most skin-crawling idea put forth by No Country is one that proved prescient in the years that followed. There are no antiheroes, lone cowboys fighting for what’s right, or final battles between good and evil. There’s just a faceless, amorphous, constant violence in the world now, perpetrated by forces beyond anyone’s comprehension or control.
To be sure, No Country has a villain, but who and what it is shifts throughout the film. On its face, it’s Chigurh (Javier Bardem in an unbelievably deserving Oscar-winning performance), who wanders West Texas in the early 1980s, doling out sudden and brutal death based on the flip of a coin. Chigurh can be hired, but he truly works for fate and fate alone. Early, he menaces a kindly shopkeeper with that coin; when the soft-spoken gas station attendant asks him what he’s playing to win, Chigurh responds simply, telling him: “Everything. You stand to win everything. Call it.” He wins the coin toss, and Chigurh goes on with his day. Others throughout the film aren’t so lucky.
Fate and chaos and violence are the milieu of No Country, from the revolting early scene of Chigurh murdering a police officer with a cattle bolt for having the misfortune of pulling him over on a country road. And once Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) steals $2 million from the aftermath of a drug deal gone fatally wrong, those forces conspire to destroy everything he once knew. Soon his wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), is in hiding, Llewelyn is forced to flee from small town to small town to Mexico and back again, and Chigurh is always just a step behind, the vengeful shadow punishing him for his sins. He may be tasked with recovering the money, but it’s an abstract concern to the assassin at best. Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) follows both men all the while, with a mixture of weary, wholly Jonesian bemusement and a growing sense of horror at what the world has become and how the moral rot of it has slowly managed to find its way to even the most placid corners of the world.
No Country arrived near the tail end of a major turning point in American history. Released a year shy of the conclusion of George W. Bush’s time as president, a kind of grim nihilism had begun to blanket the nation, preceding the divides that exist today in an era of MAGA and fake news and so forth. It’s not as though social divisions were a new concept, but now they had a face. You were for the country or against it, loyal to white skin or traitorous to dark, obedient of God and country or unfit to accept its benefits. Once-gentle music turned angrier, with so much talk of putting boots in asses as the new American way. September 11th and a war that slowly mutated into a military occupation turned the country into a more constantly frightening place, and the infinite cable news cycle ensured that you were always fully aware of how much danger existed around every corner, how scared you could and should be, and who your enemy was.
The film preys directly on that latter fear by suggesting that the real danger is the one you’ll never see coming. After spending much of its runtime meditating on the riveting cat-and-mouse game between Llewelyn and Chigurh, the hunt suddenly ends when Llewelyn is gunned down in the doorway of an El Paso motel by anonymous drug runners for the briefcase of money. Chigurh, meanwhile, ends up in a car accident, and limps off into the night, bribing a pair of young boys for their discretion. In both cases, many audiences at the time took this as a disappointing anticlimax. One of the more riveting action films of the decade concludes in these scenes and in Jones recounting a sad dream about his father. But in the anonymity of their ends, No Country speaks to the comedown of so many triumphalist fantasies with the dawn of the modern era. There are no heroes, just people attempting to scrap for money and claim their small piece of stability and the manifest destiny once promised to all but clearly now restricted to the few. And there are no villains, just killers without names or backstories who destroy lives in the pursuit of the same. The battles are broader, and constant, struggling lives cutting down others to try and claw their way up a rapidly shrinking ladder.
After the political process gave itself over to a national acceptance of open corruption in the wake of the 2000 election — right and wrong surrendered over to party loyalty and piety to one’s winning or losing team — No Country imagines this process as a zero-sum game, the violence surrounding the film’s release an extra-textual backdrop for the carnage onscreen. Virtually every character onscreen either dies, accepts that death is drawing near, or experiences the quieter terror of having one’s identity diminished to nothing. In the film’s paranoid world, you simply wait for what’s coming to you, and there’s no dispute about whether it is or when it will. Like a wave crashing over shores, death and ruin is the only fate for us all, and more than likely it’ll be through no fault of your own. It’s just the way of circumstance. Given that the American economy collapsed less than a year later, the film almost now reads as less of a warning than a statement of fact. Your life was about to collapse, because of things you can’t understand done by people you’ll never meet, and you will be left to carry the burden.
Or, as Jones suggests in the film’s haunting final monologue, you wait to meet that other end, the one coming to us all if circumstance doesn’t beat it there. Jones muses about a dream involving his father, noting that “I’m older now than he ever was,” and speaks of how he sees the deceased older man off in the distance, carrying a fire, waiting for his son to arrive. No Country for Old Men wears the artistic auspices of the old-time Western, but in the service of something far more unforgiving. There are no duels, no last-minute rescues, no moments of respite in the saloon. The thieves and killers don’t ride into town and declare themselves anymore. They just take, until someone takes from them in turn, and the forces of avarice and retribution become an ouroboros, a death spiral from which nobody can escape once they’re pulled into its orbit. Perhaps the most despairing aspect of that monologue, and of the film at large, comes when Jones is forced to surrender even the hollow comfort of knowing that one day he’ll reach his father and that flame. He and the film both conclude with a flat statement: “And then I woke up.” The world will only grow more venomous, and he still has to live in it.
This very interesting "art film" from Russia by Dziga Vertov's "The Man with a Movie Camera" is considered one of the most innovative and influential films of the silent era. Amazingly modern, this film exploit a groundbreaking style of rapid editing and incorporates countless other cinematic effects to create a work of astounding power and energy. This is a powerful, totally visual film without title cards, actors or storyline.
Released: September 8, 1929.
Directed by Dziga Vertov
Written by Dziga Vertov
Music Michael Nyman
Watch the movie below:
Gabriel Range, black button-down shirt, shaved head, apparently 35 years old. A very personal, sensitive fella who easily strayed from the topic. This is the man who made a film that he knew would be talked about. Before the interview began, he asked the six interviewers present which publications we each represented. Range is keeping his eye on the papers…
The 213: You’ve done before what you called a ‘retrospective documentary’ with The Day Britain Stood Still. Why are you interested in that type of storytelling?
Gabriel Range: I think it’s a really unusual way of looking at the future. Or, a way of using the future to look at the present. It’s a bit of a complicated thing, because it’s told in the past tense, it describes an event set in the future, but it’s really about what’s happened in the past. I hope it works. I think that you engage with the material in a different way. When you look at a film that’s told in the vocabulary of the documentary, you have certain preconceptions which make you absorb the material in a different way. If it was told as straight narrative fiction, like an episode of 24, then you dismiss it, or just absorb it as fiction. Although this clearly is fiction, it is absolutely about the world we live in now. The intent is always for it to feel as realistic and authentic as possible.
213: Have you ever been personally involved in any activism?
GR: I was in London during the protests against the impending invasion of Iraq. I’ve been in New York for some of the protests there.
213: Nothing serious?
GR: Well, I absolutely took place in the protests against the impending invasion of Iraq. And I have witnessed a lot of protests here in the US, but from more of the journalistic standpoint.
213: Was it difficult to get funding for the movie?
GR: No. I think it would’ve been impossible to have got funding in the US. And so…there are plenty of American filmmakers that would’ve – if I had been American, it would’ve been much harder for me to get this film off the ground. You only have to look at the response that the film was being made as a pretty strong indicator that no American studio or company could’ve – politically – made this film.
213: What feelings do you want the audience to leave with?
GR: The jury at Toronto said that they thought the film distorted reality to reveal a greater truth. If that the audience feels when they leave the theater, then I’m thrilled.
213: What truth?
GR: Well, I think what the film does is offers a series of…I see the film as a reflection of…I mean, I hope the film poses some serious questions about the way the War on Terror has been handled, the way this War on Terror is presented to the media, and the continuingly corrosive effect of the war in Iraq. I mean, I think those are all things that are really important to think about. Specifically the way the administration sought to connect 9/11 to the invasion of Iraq is something that is…an extraordinary thing.
conducted and transcribed by David Ashley
by David Ashley
On October 19, 2007, Gabriel Range posits that President George W. Bush could be assassinated outside a hotel in Chicago. Brit TV journalist Range again experiments with “historical retrospective fiction” by creating this faux-documentary which pretends to be an actual documentary released in 2008, chronicling the president’s assassination. Range deftly combines recent protest footage from Chicago, a real speech Bush gave there, and faked interviews with actors playing the FBI and Secret Service to create a convincing illusion – if you don’t follow politics as closely as he does. As a fictitious documentary, Range succeeds. Beyond that…
The idea of the film is to illustrate the way our government operates when Terror hits home, almost like injecting a blood stream with dye to track its flow throughout the body. The problem? Simply, if you’ve lived in this country for the past five years, the perspectives this film offers are absolutely nothing new. Range would not have been able to receive funding for his film in the States, and viewed from here, the film is a regurgitation. Perhaps this film is best suited for non-Americans. At times it is quite gripping, reminding us that no matter how much criticism we may doll out at our leader, an event of this magnitude involves every one of us. But – Range’s grip eventually eases, and the viewer is left wondering, “Wait – why was Range just squeezing me? Gosh. Well I certainly didn’t appreciate that.” Perhaps Death would’ve worked better as a television special, or a short film, or simply a short story, because that’s exactly how it feels – a mildly interesting idea without an ending; a concept. A concept of supreme magnitude that starts at a sprint and tires itself out to a modest meander, Death is guilty of sensationalism parading as melodrama, and worse, of pretending to be fictionally interesting while really being merely topical – and worse, being topical without direction. Range is hereby sentenced to remain at least five years away from Narrative Fiction, until he grows mature enough to manipulate it accordingly.
Death of a President
FilmFour, Borough Films
STARRING Hend Ayoub, Brian Boland, Becky Ann Baker
WRITTEN BY Gabriel Range, Simon Finch
PRODUCED BY Gabriel Range, Simon Finch, Ed Guiney, Robin Gutch
DIRECTED BY Gabriel Range
SHOT BY Graham Smith
EDITED BY Brand Thumim
MUSIC BY Richard Harvey
DISTRIBUTED BY Optimum Releasing, Newmarket Films
by Mark Fisher
Cinelists- Existenz- Cronenberg- Jude Law- Jennifer Jason Leigh
“Can what is playing you make it to level 2?” asked Nick Land in his landmark 1994 on cyber-theory, “Meltdown” (Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007, Urbanomic, 456). Ominous and playful, Land’s intuition that computer games would provide the best way to understand subjectivity and agency in digital culture was also the gambit of David Cronenberg’s 1999 eXistenZ. eXistenZ takes place in a near-future in which games are capable of generating simulated environments which can barely be distinguished from real life. Instead of computer terminals or game consoles, players use organic “gamepods”, which are connected directly to the players’ bodies via “bioports” in their spines. (Cronenberg conjectures on the DVD commentary that if people choose to have laser eye surgery, they would also be willing to have bioports installed.) The lead characters are Ted Pikul (Jude Law) and Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh). We are first of all led to believe that Pikul is a neophyte gameplayer, being reluctantly initiated into the gameworld by Geller, who at this point seems to be the designer of the game, eXistenZ, which they are playing. The two are pitched into a complex intrigue: a struggle between rival games corporations, and between gameplayers and “realists” – those who believe that the games are corroding the structure of reality itself. This corrosion is performed by the film itself, with what one of the characters memorably describes as “reality bleed-through” effects, so that the reality layers – only very weakly differentiated in any case - become difficult to distinguish. By the end it seems that both eXistenZ the game and what we had taken to be real life are both embedded inside another game, tranCendenZ, but by now we cannot be sure. The last line of dialogue is “tell me the truth, are we still in the game?”
At the time, it seemed like eXistenZ was a late-arriving take on a series of themes and tropes familiar from 80s cyberpunk, and which Cronenberg had himself already explored (and did so much to shape) in Videodrome. In retrospect, however, it is possible to position eXistenZ as part of a rash of late 1990s and early 2000s films, including The Matrix and Vanilla Sky, which mark a transition from what Alan Greenspan called “irrational exuberance” of the 1990s bubble economy into the early twenty-first-century War on Terror moment. There is an abrupt mood shift towards the end of the film, with a military insurrection complete with heavy artillery and explosions. But the dominant feel is more quotidian. By contrast with the hyperconspicuous CGI of The Matrix, with which it was destined to be most compared, eXistenZ was sparing in its use of special effects. As Cronenberg’s DVD commentary makes clear, most of the CGI deployed in the film was used to produce naturalistic effects. The film’s look is subdued, resolutely non-spectacular: brown seems to be the dominant colour. Looked back on now, this brownness looks like a refusal of the gloss that will increasingly come to coat the artifacts of digital culture. With its dreary trout farms, ski lodges, and repurposed churches, the world (or, more properly, worlds) of eXistenZ have a mundane, lived-in quality. Or rather worked-in: much of the film happens in workplaces - workshops, gas stations, factories. This focus on work is what now seems most prophetic about eXistenZ. Labour is never explicitly discussed in the film: it is instead something like an ambient theme, omnipresent but unarticulated. The key to eXistenZ’s self-reflexivity is its preoccupation with the conditions of its own production (and the production of culture in general). It presents us with an uncanny compression, in which the “front end” of late capitalist culture – its cutting edge entertainment systems – fold back into the normally unseen “back end” (the quotidian factories, labs and focus groups in which such systems are produced). The clamour of capitalist semiotics – the frenzy of branding sigils and signals – is curiously muted in eXistenZ. Instead of being part of the background hum of experience, as they are in both everyday life and the typical Hollywood movie, brand names appear only rarely in eXistenZ. The that do appear– most of them the names of games companies – leap out of the screen. The generic naming of space is in fact one of the running jokes in the film – a country gas station is simply called Country Gas Station, a motel is called Motel. This is part of the flat affect, the strange tonelessness, which governs most of the film. On the DVD commentary, Cronenberg says that he made the actors wear unpatterned clothes, because patterns would consume more computer memory.
The digitization of culture which we take for granted now was only in its infancy in 1999; broadband was a few years off, as was the iPod. eXistenZ has little to tell us about the digital communications equipment that will proliferate in the decade after it was released. Communications devices do not play any major role in eXistenZ—the odd glowing phone belonging to Ted is thrown out of a car window by Allegra (Jennifer Jason Leigh)—and, with its longueurs, its lingering in dead time, the film is very far from registering the jittery, attention-dispersing effects of “always-on” mobile technology. The most resonant aspects of eXistenZ do not reside in thebody horror which was then still Cronenberg’s signature—although the scenes of the characters being connected to their organic game pod by bio-ports are typically grisly. Nor are they to be found in the perplexity expressed by characters as to whether they are inside a simulation or not—this is a theme that was already familiar from Videodrome, as well as Verhoeven’s Total Recall, both of which (in the first case indirectly, in the second more directly) took their inspiration from Phillip K. Dick’s fiction. Instead it is the idea—in some ways stranger and more disturbing than the notion that reality is fake—that subjectivity is a simulation which is what is distinctive about eXistenZ. In the first place, this emerges through confronting other automated (or rather partially automated) consciounesses: entities who seem autonomous but in fact can only respond to certain trigger phrases or actions that move the gameplay down a predetermined pathway. Some of the most memorable (and humorous) scenes show encounters with these Read Only Memory entities. At one point, we see one of the characters locked in a “game loop”, silently lolling his head, while waiting to hear the key words that will provoke him back into action. Later, a clerk is seen repeatedly clicking a pen – as a background character he is programmed not to respond until his name is called. More disturbing than the third person (or non-person) encounter with these programmed drones is the experience of having one’s own subjectivity interrupted by an automatic behaviour. At one point, Pikul suddenly finds himself saying, “It’s none of your business who sent us! We’re here and that is all that matters” He is shocked at the expostulation: “God, what happened? I didn’t mean to say that.” “It’s your character who said it,” Geller explains. “It’s kind of a schizophrenic feeling, isn’t it? You’ll get used to it. There are things that have to be said to advance the plot and establish the characters, and those things get said whether you want to say them or not. Don’t fight it.” Pikul later grimly notes that whether he fights these “game urges” or not doesn’t make any difference. The emphasis on the curtailing of free will is one reason that Cronenberg’s claim that the film was “existentialist propaganda” seems odd. Existentialism was a philosophy which claimed that human beings (what Sartre called the “for-itself”) are “condemned to be free”, and that any attempt to avoid responsibility for one’s actions amounted to bad faith. There was an absolute difference between the for-itself and what Sartre called the “in-itself” – the inert world of objects, denuded of consciousness. Yet eXistenZ, in common with much of Cronenberg’s work, troubles the distinction between the for-itself and the in-itself: machines turn out to be anything but inert, just as human subjects end up behaving like passive automata. Like Videodrome before it, the film draws out all the ambiguities of the concept of the player. On the one hand, the player is the one in control, the agent; on the other, the player is the one being played, the passive substance directed by external forces. At first, it seems that Pikul and Geller are for-itself, capable of making choices, albeit within set parameters (unlike in The Matrix, they are constrained by the rules of the world into which they are thrown). The game characters, meanwhile, are the in-itself. But when Pikul experiences “game urges”, he is both in-itself (a merely passive instrument, a slave of drive) and for-itself (a consciousness that recoils in horror from this automatism).
To appreciate eXistenZ’s contemporary resonance it is necessary to connect the manifest theme of artificial and controlled consciousness connects with the latent theme of work. For what do the scenes in which characters are locked in fugues or involuntary behaviour loops resemble if not the call-center world of twenty-first century labour in which quasi-automatism is required of workers, as if the undeclared requirement for employment were to surrender subjectivity and become nothing more than a bio-linguistic appendage tasked with repeating set phrases that make a mockery of anything resembling conversation? The difference between “interacting” with a ROM-construct and being a ROM-construct neatly maps onto the difference between telephoning a call center and working in one.
In Being and Nothingness, Sartre famously uses the example of the waiter: someone who overplays the role of waiter to the extent that they (to outside appearances at least) eliminated their own subjectivity:
Let us consider this waiter in the cafe. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too forward. He comes toward the patrons with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer. Finally there he returns, trying to imitate in his walk the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton while carrying his tray with the recklessness of a tight-rope-walker by putting it in a perpetually unstable, perpetually broken equilibrium which he perpetually re-establishes by a light movement of the arm and hand. All his behavior seems to us a game. He applies himself to chaining his movements as if they were mechanisms, the one regulating the other; his gestures and even his voice seem to be mechanisms; he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things. He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a cafe. (Being and Nothingness: An Essay On Phenomenological Ontology, Routledge, 2000, p59).
The power of Sartre’s example depends upon the tension between the would-be automatism of the waiter’s behaviour and the awareness that, behind the mechanical rituals of the waiter’s over-performance of his role is a consciousness that remains distinct from that role. In eXistenZ, however, we are confronted with the possibility that agency can genuinely be interrupted by the “inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton”. In any case, eXistenZ compels us to re-read Sartre’s description of the waiter in its terms, especially since one of the most horrific scenes of automatism features none other than a waiter. Pikul and Geller are sitting in a Chinese restaurant when Pikul feels himself overcome by a “game urge”.
Pikul: You know, I do feel the urge to kill someone here.
Pikul: I need to kill our waiter.
Geller: Oh. Well that makes sense. Um, waiter! Waiter!
[she calls over waiter]
Geller: When he comes over, do it. Don’t hesitate.
Pikul: But… everything in the game is so realistic, I-I don’t think I really could.
Geller: You won’t be able to stop yourself. You might as well enjoy it.
Pikul: Free will… is obviously not a big factor in this little world of ours.
Geller: It’s like real life. There’s just enough to make it interesting.
You won’t be able to stop yourself, you might as well enjoy it” – this phrase captures all too well the fatalism of those who have given up the hope of having any control over their lives and work. Here, eXistenZ emerges, not as “existentialist propaganda”, as Cronenberg had it, but as decisively anti-existentialist. Free will is not an irreducible fact about human existence: it is merely the unpreprogrammed sequence necessary to stitch together a narrative that is already written. There is no real choice over the most important aspects of our life and work, eXistenZ suggests. Such choice as there are exist one level up: we can choose to accept and enjoy our becoming in-itself, or uselessly reject it. This is a kind of deflation-in-advance of all of the claims about “choice” and “interactivity” that communicative capitalism will trumpet in the decade after eXistenZ was released.
Autonomist theorists have referred to a turn away from factory work towards what they call “cognitive labour”. Yet work can be affective and linguistic without being cognitive – like a waiter, the call center worker can perform attentiveness without having to think. For this noncognitive worker, indeed, thought is a privilege to which they are not entitled. Writing in The Guardian recently, Aditya Chakrabortty (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/aug/31/why-our-jobs-getting-worse) referred to a study of two of Britain’s biggest supermarkets by the sociologist Irena Grugulis. “A trained butcher revealed that most meats were now sliced and packaged before they arrived in store; bakers in smaller shops now just reheated frozen loaves. In their paper, published this summer, Grugulis and her colleagues note that ‘almost every aspect of work for every kind of employee, from shopfloor worker … to the general store manager, was set out, standardised and occasionally scripted by the experts at head office’. Or, as one senior manager put it: ‘Every little thing is monitored so there is no place to hide.’” According to the labour theorist Phil Brown “permission to think” will be “restricted to a relatively small group of knowledge workers” in countries such as the UK and US. Most work will be routinised and outsourced to places where labour is cheap. Brown calls this “digital Taylorism” – suggesting that, far from being engaged in cognitive work, digital workers will increasingly find their labour as crushingly repetitive as factory workers on a production line. eXistenZ’s muted tones anticipates this digital banality, and it is the banal quality of life in an digitally automated environment - human-sounding voices that announce arrivals and departures at a railway station, voice-recognition software which fails to recognise our voices, call center employees drilled into mechanically repeating a set script – that eXistenZcaptures so well.