This first feature by Lena Dunham is a frank and hilarious look at the self-promotion and solipsism of Gen-Y as it graduates and tries to find An Occupation. Tiny Furniture follows Aura (played by then fresh out of college Lena Dunham), a 22 year-old recent film graduate who breaks up with her “male feminist” college boyfriend, moves back to the Tribeca loft she shares with her artist mother Siri (played by her actual artist/photographer mother Laurie Simmons) and precocious sister (again actual sister Grace Dunham), and falls into a “post-graduate delirium” of crap jobs and crappier relationships. This may be the film’s problem – if the thought of watching the quarter-life crisis of a small group of ultra-liberal New York narcissists has you reaching for your gun, this may not be your chai latte. However, Dunham is as aware of the minutiae of Aura’s problems as you are, as evidenced by the comically honest send-up of so many hipster fads, and the title Tiny Furniture, which describes Siri’s occupation of photographing miniatures, but also works as a metaphor to suggest that this is not a film about big or serious problems. If Tiny Furniture were a hashtag, it would be #whitegirlproblems.
What Tiny Furniture so wonderfully sends up is the shallowness of online fame, and the anonymity of online eyes quick to critique; when Aura falls for Youtube sensation Jed the “Nietschian [sic] Cowboy” (played in a hilariously slimy manner by Alex Karpovsky), Aura notes that “he’s a little bit famous”, which Ashlynn (Amy Seimetz) undercuts with “in a, like, internet kind of way”. Dunham’s knowingness reveals elements of youthful paranoia. Everything is parodied, most obviously in playing a version of herself as the lead character, but also by using her own family and liberal background, and in pastiching her own short films. Dunham achieved online notoriety on Youtube through her 2007 short film The Fountain in which she strips off and brushes her teeth in a fountain at liberal arts college Oberlin in Ohio. “I saw that your dyslexic-stripper video got, like, 400 hits!” drawls the irritating “monologist” (Amy Seimetz) at a party, itself a send-up of Dunham’s 2007 short called Hooker on Campus. The motto, which Dunham may or may not be critiquing, comes from fucked-up and vulnerable arts brat Charlotte (Jemima Kirby): “You’re just so concerned with having things polished and perfect… Any exposure is good exposure”.
The film (and we) exist in a world where displays of taste and style represent yet another form of hyper-mediated capitalism. As such, the cultural landscape of this film is one where W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz is referenced as easily as Cormac McCarthy, YouTube and Nietzche. This is a world of loft spaces, exuberant tattoos, performance art (“she’s a monologist”), and prescription meds. A potential love-interest is critiqued as “a little speck of granola on a home-made yoghurt” (who’d have thought dairy products and YouTube would come to define a generation?). Dunham both references and gently ironizes this world from the maturing eye of someone getting to grips with understanding it.
Tiny Furniture, much like the mumblecore movement it bears some similarities to in its use of non-actors and real settings is representative of a certain type of film, something Mark Grief would describe in his analysis of hipster culture as “works of art where the tensions of the work revolve around the very old dyad of knowingness and naiveté, adulthood and a child-centred world – but with a radical or vertiginous alternation between the two”. In between revealing all in skimpy underwear, using her own home, friends and family, and pastiching the New York hipster art world where one can seemingly curate a trendy exhibition at the flick of a switch, Dunham alternates between the two polarities which Grief describes: knowingness and naiveté, adulthood and a child-like innocence.
In bandying about references to hipster sociology and liberal arts wankers, I may be risking the danger of making the film sound even more unpleasant than it may already seem. Actually, in Tiny Furniture, the contents of the tin are far better than the label. Though the film’s characters are narcissistic, they are also warm and often likeable, or at least likably dislikable. 90210-by-way-of-Williamsburg’s Charlotte is particularly engaging as ‘Rich Girl with Problems’, and raffish pseudo-intellectual sous-chef Keith is incisively but subtly played by David Call – watching this in the cinema, I was mentally wagging my finger at the screen frantically thinking “yes, oh my god, he is such a type of twat – AHH!!”.
This film may appear to deal in tiny emotional furniture, but the reality is an acutely perceptive look at an admittedly privileged generational sub-strata trying to find its feet, and coming to terms with a changing landscape. In one of the most sharply observed aspects of the film, Aura anxiously compares herself to her mother’s artistic fame. Finding some of her mum’s journals in their comically minimalist white shelving unit, she hopes to find meaning in her mother’s journey at the same age, but instead raids the journal for material for her next YouTube video, in a seemingly symbolic comment on how one generation has adapted from the last. Aura’s desire to create films is believable, but her fluctuation between desire and boredom is frustrating. It is not just feelings of oppression from the past that Aura seems to be reacting to, but a sense of generational indeterminacy. The ‘minutiae’ of this film’s themes have something current to say about what it means to want to create art now, and how the prevalence of ‘hipster culture’ both asserts difference while being a homogenizing force.
Dark, unsettling and minimalist – and I’m not just talking about the Nordic landscape. Babycall director Director Pål Sletaune has brewed up a restrained psychological drama which abandons big horror shocks in favour of strong, chilling performances.
Anna (a phenomenal Noomi Rapace) and her eight-year old son Anders (Vetle Qvenild Werring) leave home in order to escape his abusive and murderous father. Once they move into a presumed safe housing complex, the film follows Anna’s psychological deterioration to a sudden, shocking dénouement. As bleak reality slips into an even bleaker fantasy, the audience are left questioning whether Anna’s world of disappearing lakes, abusive social workers, and a son with mysterious purple bruises on his body, are fantasies or grim truths. Using the age-old horror trick of the unreliable protagonist, Sletaune leaves question marks slowly and deliberately throughout the film.
What this film lacks in big shocks or sustained moments of horror, it makes up for in atmosphere. Anna’s breakdown is set against a bleak Nordic landscape of muted colours, life-sapping building complexes, and ghostly shopping centres. Bare neon-lit kitchens and empty car parks work as symbols of her solitude, giving us an insight into her nervous, sleep-deprived interiority. It’s in one of these shopping centres that Anna goes to buy a baby monitor and meets her only friend and a potential love interest Helge (played with a perfect mix of muted despair and gawky hope by Kristoffer Joner). Both exude a genuine waft of loneliness in a way that makes us root for the match, but also question the motives. Why does he take so many photos of her? What is she expecting from the relationship?
Noomi Rapace’s performance sustains the focus of the film. Rapace’s Anna embodies a hunched, painful physicality, with her awkward, skinny frame, wiry hair, nervously pinched mouth and big darting eyes. Her psychological (and often physical) grip on the child is frightening in itself, not least (I imagine) for those with overbearing mothers. There is clearly something about motherhood that is ripe for terrifying turns: think Henry James’ novel The Turn of The Screw, The Orphanage, absolutely any advert for Iceland with Kerry Katona or Stacey Solomon.
Part of my problem with the film was its lack of ingenuity in creating horror out of oft-used tropes: the questionably ‘mad’ mother protagonist, the creepy Nordic child, claustrophobic urban developments. Even the central premise of the film, that potentially haunted baby monitor, is a recurring trope in recent horror films, from Insidious and Paranormal Activity 2 to Spanish efforts like The Haunting and The Baby’s Room. Despite it’s obvious strengths, there was little in this film that I felt I hadn’t seen before. What felt genuinely fresh about it was its commitment to realism – no CGI horror here, thank you very much – and as such, the plot’s slow unwinding and careful entwining of moments of ethereal fantasy worked perfectly.
Sletaune has created a film which is part art-house, part horror, and this potentially awkward cross-category (pulled off so successfully by vampire horror film Let The Right One In) fails to really fully deliver on either premise. A sense of unease, some beautiful scenes of either stark despair or artsy fantasy, some powerful performances – we leave the cinema, not empty-handed exactly, but scrabbling for something more. However, what this visually superior horror brings to life, more than anything else, is the peculiarly haunting loneliness of inner-city living.
Babycall is in cinemas from Friday 30 March, released by Soda Pictures.
Debut director Nima Nourizadeh’s Project X has done the unthinkable: turn 88 minutes of every geeky teenage boy’s wet dream – a house party gone wild with the choicest consequences – into something this enjoyable. Rarely does THIS AMOUNT OF CINEMATIC FUN display such a panoply of sins; cliché, non-existent plot, lack of characterisation, ripping off of other teen films, American Apparel-style shots of naked girls with little to no reason for it, and frequently bad script-writing. But Project X is excused, because essentially, it’s a funny film about the mother of all parties, and as such all critical faculties fly out the window right with the teenage girls’ bras.
In Project X, the party is the plot, and the plot is the party. It takes every teenage party scene you’ve ever watched, doubles the drug count, multiplies the nudity, and pumps up the volume. If you’ve ever watched an episode of Skins or The OC and thought – hmmm… now that seems unlikely/ badly scripted/ disingenuous/ NOT what a teenage person would ever say or do, then you’ll feel positively refreshed by Project X. I’m sure given enough ecstasy, many would act like this.
Critiquing Project X of anything formal or structural is kind of like being that kid at a party who’s worried about the neighbours. Lighten up, dudes, have another smoke, CHILL THE FUCK OUT! Seriously, what else did you expect from a film which is sponsored by Vice magazine, directed by music video and ad man Nourizadeh (whose prior work has included music videos for Santigold, Lilly Allen and Hot Chip), and produced by The Hangover’s Todd Phillips. Accusing Project X of superficiality is like calling Terry Richardson a pervert – well duh, seriously, its not like the fashion industry gives a damn so why should you?
The film is clichéd, as it takes influence and stock characterisation from pretty much every teenage high school film out there. In my mind, it’s most reminiscent of Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont’s Cant Hardly Wait (1998), which similarly takes the party scene and expands it to make up the whole film. I don’t have a problem with this, because through rehashing (no pun intended) other teen films, it brings the genre up-to-date. It does this through found footage style film-making – think Paranormal Activity but with pills and thrills – and the hand-held camerawork is often very impressive, immersing the viewer into the escalating madness. It’s not always sustained, often forgoing the realist angle altogether, such as when the cameraman is supposedly filming the party from atop the roof, and yet we keep switching to angles of drunken teen revellers on the ground floor rubbing each others faces.
This film is not deep, not clever, and even the advertising for this film is irritatingly “down-with-the-kidz”, encouraging rappers, hipsters and Twatters to tweet, vlog, or blog their craziest party moments. The performances are passably good, with most of the cast playing up to their stereotype with aplomb; Thomas Mann (not the German Nobel Prize Laureate) is highly convincing as a gawky teen with a heart, and Oliver Cooper is wonderfully sleazy and vile as Costa, claiming in the first five minutes that he’s ‘gonna get his dick wet’.
Project X is worth a watch, if not for the acting or plot, but really to see how far a film can push the boundaries of the stock party scene. It really, genuinely, is a thing of wonder how they managed to concoct such an escalation of madness. Think midgets shoved in ovens! A gnome filled with E! Off-their-tits teens jumping off a roof and onto a bouncy castle! The last twenty minutes or so are eerily reminiscent of the London riots – out-of-control kids are hosed down and tazered by police against a backdrop of smoke and fire. Unfortunately, I imagine this parallel is highly incidental, which is a shame, as it would have made an interesting point about modern teen culture and its (supposed) lack of morality.
It’s worth pointing out that I’m firmly within the target audience that this film has so brashly thrown its net out to, and for that I apologise. I don’t know what a parent or an owner of property will feel about this movie. What’s more, I don’t care, and I imagine they won’t either. This is 88 minutes of silly fun, without ‘The Hangover’, the teen pregnancy or the ruined property.
Contributor Sophia Satchell-Baeza can be followed on Twitter @SophiaSB1.
Lovers of maps (you know who you are): attention! If you’ve ever suspected that Google Maps or the like could be the stuff of cinematographic beauty, then Patience (After Sebald) could be the film for you. For non map fetishists, beginning a documentary with screenshots of Google Maps and a rather RP voice-over may be the ultimate filmic turn off. But what this film requires – as the title suggests – is a little patience, if you’re prepared to breeze past geographical geek-offs and literary discussions on the nature of time, memory and landscape, that is. Patience is a richly rewarding exploration of the German academic and writer W. G. Sebald’s famous and utterly idiosyncratic novel ‘The Rings of Saturn’ (1995).
Patience (After Sebald) is a literary film essay from Grierson award-winning documentarian Grant Gee, known for his music documentaries on Radiohead (Meeting People is Easy) and Joy Division (Joy Division). Gee presents a mostly black-and-white exploration of Sebald’s famous book, which charts a meditative and melancholic walk along the East Anglian landscape. Titled in the original German as ‘Eine Enlische Wallfahrt’ (‘An English Pilgrimage’), the novel charts the physical and mental meanders of a mind hoping to dispel “the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work”.
Those who haven’t read or engaged with Sebald may struggle to find a way into this film, which incorporates actual footage of the director’s walk from Lowestoft to Southwold to Bungay, with various artists and writers’ interviewed responses to the work, from Andrew Motion and Tacita Dean to Robert Macfarlane and Marina Warner. However, in the name of research, I showed Patience to a Sebald virgin, and she adored the look and feel of the film even if she stumbled on various literary references or Sebaldian points of humour.
W. G. Sebald was born in Bavaria in 1944, and died in a car crash in East Anglia in 2001, aged only 57. His father joined the Reichswehr in 1929 and remained in the Wehrmacht; Holocaust war guilt and themes of memory and forgetfulness are powerful presences in the works of a man who famously stated: “I don’t think one can write from a compromised moral position”. Sebald (known as ‘Max’ to his friends, in case you get confused in the first fifteen minutes of the film like I did) studied German literature at the University of Freiburg, and eventually settled permanently in England, where he taught at the University of East Anglia.
While the film may explore the unclassifiable nature of Sebald’s works – that particularly idiosyncratic style of his which takes in elements of the travel memoir, the history book, Holocaust literature, biography, comic prose, poetry, the essay, and photography – the style of the film itself is disappointingly unexperimental. Rather than seeking to reinterpret the text or bring to the film the very disparate elements of Sebald’s style, Gee sticks to a very linear documentary form, which is rooted in the text (showing page numbers whenever the actor Jonathan Pryce reads parts of the text), and in the walk itself. With various artistic talking heads providing most of the narrative for the documentary, the overall effect is one of a straight-up-and-down BBC4 documentary, albeit one with the occasional artistic fugue or moment of startling brilliance.
However, what Gee does capture so artfully is the peculiarly melancholic atmosphere of the novel, something Sebald partly achieves through his interweaving of prose and image. Gee sticks to a grainy black and white palette, often overlaid with mid-frame video shots to recreate the look of a Sebaldian page. This works particularly well when the Sebald scholar Lise Patt explains to us her thoughts on what the continuous imagery in ‘Rings of Saturn’ represents, suggesting one image is linked to another in notably symbolic ways, and that its up to the audience to tease it out. This is where Gee’s choice of title really comes into its own. If you’ve read Sebald, you’ll more than likely have experienced the unusual rhythm of his prose. Digression follows digression in a seemingly intangible manner; thought seamlessly weaves into thought in such a delicate way that you find yourself having arrived at point C with no idea how you moved from point A and B. And the prose gallops. Everyone I know who’s read a Sebald has done so in two days. What Lise Patt, and the film itself, suggests, is an exercise in patience – watching this film, walking the walk, and reading the book, should be a meditative exercise. Mind maps of ideas tracked in the novel, literary maps of the locations explored, the concentration of mentions of death, the transition from one image to the other – the film asks us to requestion our own reading style in order to squeeze out meaning and inference from Sebald’s text.
The film suffers from too many interviews, and as such threatens to lose it’s audience’s interest towards the end. Gee is at his best when capturing on camera the physicality and nebulousness of the East Anglian landscape. Sebald is obsessed with the physicality of natural phenomena – fog, mist, cloud, vapour and spume are explored by him as elements on the borderline between being and nothingness – and similarly amorphous elements emerge from Gee’s film, especially that particularly grey misty British sky we so love to hate. Gee overlaps outdoor noises of birds, waves breaking on the shore and road sounds with the interview voices of talking heads.
Shots from the film become reinterpretations of Sebald’s literary and mental landscapes; the writer’s photographs coming to life through a 21st century lens. This is a beautiful if unimaginative documentary about one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers.
Patience (After Sebald) is in cinemas now, released by Soda Pictures. Contributor Sophia Satchell-Baeza can be followed on Twitter @SophiaSB1.
Though I am a proud supporter, defender and member of the geek club, I have never been to a convention. And this – The Twin Peaks UK Festival 2011 at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios – may be the nearest I ever get to the dizzy heights of show fandom. It turns out Peaks freaks – the nickname given to fans of David Lynch’s cult TV series – are wonderful people. Not only are they (or should I say we?) friendly and approachable, they are more than willing to dress up. And thank heavens for that, as Dad and I have done just that. My father, who in the daytime is a (mostly) serious and respected academic, has grown a thick greying mullet for the occasion, donned a garishly vile Hawaiian shirt and some psychedelic braces, and is instantly transformed into Laura Palmer’s psychotic psychiatrist Dr. Jacoby. I arrive much tamer, and have opted for white tights, red velvet, lipstick and black and white brogues, with the appropriate beauty spot, to go as serial seductress Audrey Horne. Walking round the rather Lynchean maze that makes up the journey to Riverside Studios, we start to get nervous – what if no-one’s dressed up? What if somebody recognises me?
Our fears are instantly allayed as, walking into the foyer, we spot two couples in matching outfits: the men dressed as Special Agent Cooper in impeccable suits and slicked back hair, and the girls in mint green Twin Peaks waitress outfits. We breathe a sigh of relief, and so it begins.
To enjoy the Twin Peaks festival experience, you really do need to be a fan of the show. That’s not to say you need to have watched all of the episodes, but you’ll require a more than lukewarm interest in it to get you through fourteen hours of Lynchean obsession. You read correctly – fourteen hours of screenings, interviews with stars of the show, and burlesque performances from the David Lynch-themed cabaret group The Double R Club that make up the day’s festivities. A diner decked out like the Red Room provides the audiences with Lynch’s brand of coffee, unlimited free doughnuts and cherry pie, and a variety of American diner-inspired snacks, including Twin Peaks cupcakes with Laura Palmer’s dead face drowning in blue icing made to look like waves!
Burlesque performances by the Double R club break up the day’s events. Highlights include a superbly surreal Lady With the Log striptease (think double entendres on getting wood, and the log as a boob-jiggling prop), a Special Agent Cooper look-a-like strumming ‘Halleluyah’ on the ukulele, a fire-eating long-haired Bob look-alike, and wonderful compering from a gentleman with black and white face paint who alternates between delivering Lynch-inspired performance poetry to strobe light dancing and outré introductions.
Two stars from the show – Al Strobel who plays the One Armed Man, and Kimmy Robertson who plays kooky secretary Lucy – are interviewed by Time Out film journalist Tom Huddleston. Both actors are charming, and fill the Q&A session with hilarious in-jokes and titbits from the set. Apparently, Kimmy kissed David Lynch “French style”, and he likes to drink red wine at parties. She’s also kissed Elton John and John Belushi: “It’s a hobby”, she states.
As the day comes to a rather exhausting close, I mull over what I’ve achieved essentially sat on my ass in a cinema. I met The One Armed Man! He complemented my dad’s parenting skills! I ate loads of doughnuts and cherry pie! I tripped out on Lynch coffee while watching Japanese animated video art played along to a single from the Lynch’s debut album ‘Crazy Clown Time‘! I freaked out when I thought I saw my ex-boyfriend in the foyer of the Riverside Studios! I don’t know what David Lynch puts in his coffee but after three cups and fourteen hours of wonderful festival madness, I have absolutely lost my mind, in the best possible way. Rest assured, it’s what David would have wanted.
The Twin Peaks UK Festival 2011 took place on 26 November 2011 at Riverside Studios, London.
“I ask of film what most North Americans ask of psychedelic drugs” – Alejandro Jodorowsky
Psychedelia and film go hand in hand (or hand on LSD sugar cube), and the BFI’s Counter-Culture UK programme, screened recently as part of a regular strand called Essential Experiments, proves just that. All of the films shown here would have been screened either at the legendary psychedelic UFO club, the Spontaneous Festival of Underground Film or at the Arts Lab, and as such hold significant places in the cinematic avant-garde of the period.
The UFO club, as both setting and subject of Peter Whitehead’s short film Jeanetta Cochrane (1967) was a nightclub which opened in December 1966 in the basement of an Irish pub in London’s Tottenham Court Road. Felt to the be the ‘epitome of hipness’, this was a place where bright young things and Rolling Stones would go to see music gigs, poetry readings, erotic performances, light shows and other groovy happenings. The London Filmmaker’s Cooperative, which includes film directors shown at this event like Stephen Dwoskin and Peter Gidal, held a ‘Spontaneous Festival’, and showed films at the UFO, which eventually decamped to the Roundhouse in Camden, with the Coop finally moving to the Arts Lab. Bands like Pink Floyd and The Soft Machine would perform alongside psychedelic light shows projected onto bands and audience members, accompanied, naturally, by prolific acid use and pot smoking.
Needless to say, the BFI Southbank is a far cry from the light fantastic of UFO in ’66. I asked William Fowler, Curator of Artists’ Moving Image and this particular screening, if he felt the location took away from the cinematic experience: “I think they can be stand alone films, but it’s nice to have a bit of energy with the films you’re showing… It’s that fine line really, because we can’t recreate what it was like in the 1960’s, but at the same time it does feel quite sober showing it at the BFI”.
Thankfully, the films are groovy enough to make up for the after work crowd of phone-fiddlers. All the works shown at Counter-Culture UK are very much products of their time, and some in particular can be seen as stereotypically far-out examples of Sixties cinematography. John Latham’s Speak (1965), for example, is a rapid-fire animation of swirling circles and dots which flash on and off the screen in an encapsulating and hallucinatory manner. Equally, Beyond Image (1969) by the wonderfully named Sensual Laboratory uses coloured oils projected through variously coloured filters to create a gorgeous, technicolour swirling lava lamp of psychedelic joy. Other’s – like Stephen Dwoskin’s Alone (1963), which films for an uncomfortable thirteen minutes a rather beautiful girl called Zelda wanking in front of the camera, or Peter Gidal’s Room (Double Take) (1969) are far more unusual. In Room (Double Take), Gidal’s roving camera nervously trails around the room, scanning a Twiggy poster, some cult art books, and drug-taking paraphernalia before settling on the image of a 60’s beatnik smoking pot. The film is then repeated in its entirety, in order to challenge and deconstruct the formal elements of film and its structure.
For Fowler, being able to show stereotypical psychedelia with more unusual experimental cinema, was part of the remit of the night: “Because the London Filmmaker’s Co-op has really dominated the way we see the history of experimental film in this country, particularly in the post-war period, a lot of people kind of look at that work [and its] very particular ideology, focusing on the particularly formal elements of film. I particularly wanted to look at the stuff that maybe had a relationship with that, but also had a slightly different sensibility, and show that there’s a variety of different experimental cinema going on”.
He adds: “It was nice to show the Peter Gidal film, as one of the key components of the Structuralist Materialist movement in the ‘70s [along with] Mark Boyle film Beyond Image, which is an almost stereotypical psychedelic film with oils and bubbles, music and backwards stuff. I’m not sure how often or if ever those films have been shown together, so it’s nice to look at a lot of different stuff from that time and move away from the obvious things which people show”.
This point is made most apparent in the last film of the night, Solar Flares Burn for You by Arthur Johns, a ten-minute experimental landscape film with sliding psychedelic colour effects and an amazing soundtrack by Robert Wyatt. My favourite of the night was Whitehead’s hilarious Jeanetta Cochrane, a collage piece with soundbites (including music from Pink Floyd), shots of a pouty Nico, and real footage of sweaty, out-of-it teenagers swaying euphorically inside the UFO club. It’s particularly amusing for its random, sometimes paisley on-screen text, and the gruff voice-over that criticises the goings-on.
For me, the humour element was unexpected in the films shown, but is clearly an important aspect of Fowler’s other project with Vic Pratt, the monthly BFI cult film night and DVD strand The Flipside. There’s another aspect of the ‘60s counterculture, Fowler explains, which is heavily influenced by humour and leads “towards Monty Python, and references to the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah band, which again has links to psychedelia, but is also more playful”.
Humour, like psychedelia, is a very British affair, and Fowler is adamant to celebrate British cinema past and present: “I think there’s a lot of snobbery about British cinema, and it would be very interesting to try and look into that precise moment when that shift happened, and people started denigrating cinema in this country. A lot of cinema in the 60’s has a popular culture element that appeals to the masses in someway. But that doesn’t mean that it’s in any way less interesting or less rich or made of any less integrity. And there are so many films that aren’t really very well known, which is part of the reason behind the Flipside project: to try and dig that stuff up”. Cheers to that – and thank the gods someone’s doing it for us.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License
For a film based on Kate Bush’s whimsical 80′s ode to love and interpretative dance, Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights features surprisingly little music. Almost none, in fact, until the final burning throes introduce the plinkety plonk of Mumford and Sons’ own brand of generic, Alpha Course “nu-folk” (Andrea, how could you?) Joking aside, Arnold’s adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Gothic 1847 novel offers much in the way of textual reinterpretation, and the lack of music is only the beginning of the radicalism on show.
Indeed, this film is destined to be celluloid Marmite, hated by purists, and loved by those tired of the same old run-of-the-mill adaptations. Arnold dispenses with the staid clichés of period drama – the brooding score, heaving bosoms and Mr. Darcy pole-up-the-bum mutterings of so many past literary adaptations – and replaces it with a visceral, seething ramble through the wild Yorkshire moors and turbulent emotions of young, destructive love.
Whether you like it or not, Arnold’s take is unarguably admirable for its bravery and radically anti-commercial stance. With spare dialogue and little music, the sounds of nature (the crunching and squelching of soggy leaves, the splat of clay-grey mud, a bird’s call or the yelp of a beaten dog) dominate the soundscape. The young actors, mostly unprofessional, offer a rather amusingly odd English drama version of mumblecore with their broad accents, grunts and mumbles, all “fucks”, “cunts” and “sods”. The film also dispenses with any attempts at period realism; costumes veer from the Regency period to rough and mud-spattered 19th century regional country clothing, and even include a dash of This Is England skinhead glamour in the bald skull and tank top work gear of Cathy’s brother. You can almost see the Fred Perry insignia through the thick Yorkshire mist.
Arnold is mostly true to the text that she uses (the second half of the novel is excised entirely), and this is much to the benefit of the film, which even so suffers from being around half an hour too long. The two young actors who play Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) and Cathy (Shannon Beer) are terrific, their elder counterparts (James Howson and Kaya Scodelario) much less so; Howson just doesn’t have the brooding gravitas you would expect from such a Byronic anti-hero, and he doesn’t engage convincingly with the rest of the cast. Apart from the Mumford and Sons end piece, my main annoyance with the film lies in its transition from young to older actors. The grown-ups bear neither physical nor emotional relation to the young ones, and as such, disrupt the credible flow of the film.
Potentially Arnold’s most radical reinterpretation of Bronte’s text is to make Heathcliff black. Much has been written about this, leading many to suggest the change is a bit gimmicky. His “blackness” is, to a certain extent, already present in the text, where he is described as both a “dark-skinned gypsy” and “Spanish castaway”. Arnold’s decision also emphasises his outsider role by positioning him within a racial, rather than a class-based, dynamic of otherness. He is repeatedly called “nigger”, is beaten and abused, accused of thieving and murder, and vilified by his adopted family. While this reinterpretation is compelling, it doesn’t feel wholly credible, as the point of Heathcliff’s outsider nature lies in the ambivalence of his background; he is a mysterious Other, with no past, no cultural roots, no ties to anything other than Cathy, and the emphasis on his race takes away from this somewhat.
The film’s great power lies in the way in which Arnold visually recreates the chaotic and tumultuous romantic and visual landscapes of the novel. Her famous hand-held camera trawls through long, dew-stained grasses and spiky yellow heads of gorse. It hangs behind Cathy’s head, catching the faint down of hair on her neck, or the bright red of her hair in the sun. It soars across moors lashed by rain and wind, catches puddles of mud being squelched through the fingers of little hands. The bright pink of a flower immediately floods the screen with colour; the grey doom-laden clouds hang suspended in a sky so wet with the oncoming storm you can almost smell it. This is the kind of cinematography you can get really excited about.
Furthermore, through Arnold’s eye, people morph into animals, animals into people. Cathy’s brother and his wife fuck like dogs on the moors, while young Heathcliff looks on. Dogs are taunted by men, hung up on fences to squirm and writhe, or kicked, like Heathcliff is repeatedly throughout the film. In one of the most beautiful scenes, young Cathy tenderly licks the wounds on Heathcliff’s back, lapping a small tongue like an animal would milk or a wound, while a fat tear drips down his face. The wound metaphor is one of many in the film. Heathcliff’s family and circumstance have created the welts and bruises which young love tries to heal, and which Heathcliff seeks to reopen as an act of revenge.
Wuthering Heights is also rich with symbolism, much of which is laden with a heavy hand. Cathy in the living room is contrasted with a bird in a cage; Heathcliff with a dead rabbit. The horse – a favourite of Arnold’s it seems, and used to similar effect in Fish Tank – is rendered symbolic of brutalised, restricted freedom. Yes, yes, alright, we get it. The subtler elements of symbolism and parallel are far more effective. Cathy’s brother’s girlfriend giving birth standing up with her legs open on the moors is as clear an image as any of the parallels between man and beast which Arnold draws from the text.
So, perhaps for the breathtaking cinematography alone, Arnold’s Wuthering Heights is a flawed but fresh must-see. Just be sure to make a bee-line for the bog as soon as the end credits come on.
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