Author Archives: Basia Lewandowska Cummings

This Must Be The Place

Of his new film, This Must Be The Place, director Paolo Sorrentino declares; “I think that a story only truly comes alive when there’s a danger of failing”, and then falters,  “…I hope I haven’t failed.”

He hasn’t failed, but only just – he’s certainly flirted with it.

Cheyenne, an aged American rocker now living on royalties in Dublin shuffles aimlessly around shopping malls, springing to life only during a game of pelota with his wife in his disused swimming pool, or to play the awkward host at a dinner party for a motley crew of guests. Outside the comfort of his home, accompanied by his wheeled caddy and occasionally Mary, a young Goth, or Jeffrey, his lewd stockbroker, Cheyenne – deeply depressed or deeply bored – muffles his way through his middle age with the same miserablist tones that one imagines constituted the music of his heyday.

Then, a phone call; his father is dying. He returns to New York, and – spurred on by his father’s (surprisingly) Jewish family – he embarks upon a soft-spoken, slow, shuffling schlep of a Nazi hunt, his faithful wheeled caddy transformed into a suitcase with wheels that accompanies him in search of the prison guard who once humiliated his father during the war.

Sean Penn as Cheyenne is extremely striking. His Ed Scissorhands-esque mop of black hair, makeup and fur-lined hoodie perfectly embody the awkwardness of his displacement. He melds Johnny Depp’s camp cautiousness with hints of the physicality of his previous portrayal of slain San Francisco politician/gay rights activist Harvey Milk. He’s boyish, but old. Small, but imposing. Modelled on The Cure front man Robert Smith, Penn garbed in goth is a faded and smeared sight; the white face powder nestles into the deep lines of his face, and the cochineal red of his lipstick seeps into the spidery lines surrounding his mouth. The effect is startling, and reinforces the fact that this is an inherently visual film which comes together only during moments of pure performance.

It’s clear that Sorrentino is attempting a melancholic, softly humorous road movie; a tribute to Wim Wenders, the Coens, David Lynch; a touch of odd Americana mixed with the kitsch forces of 1980s retro all thrown in. Yet where Sorrentino has attempted to combine the utterly serious (the Holocaust) with the utterly trivial (a goose pecking at Cheyenne’s hands as he hides from a Nazi’s wife), the film falls flat. Instead of successfully tempering one with the other, the sequences take on an incoherent feel, revealing that the central premise – aged rocker as Nazi hunter – does not quite total as a narrative.

Instead, it’s in the scenes of performance that the film transcends its narrative and structural problems. The superficial and mannered tone finally sinks into its true place – as a performance to be enjoyed rather than attempted realism, however knowingly stylised. Firstly, a dazzling turn by David Byrne of the Talking Heads; onstage, all in white – an angel from the 1980s giving a perfect rendition of ‘This Must Be The Place’, a coup de cinema as Peter Bradshaw aptly describes it.

Secondly, a scene in which Cheyenne – as the only resident of a nameless, placeless chintzy motel – dances to Iggy Pop’s ‘The Passenger’. Here, Penn-as-Cheyenne dissolves into one character; his slow, baroque and mournful dancing for his own bygone rock era is moving, and one of the few moments where Cheyenne feels like a whole character rather than Penn-as-effeminate-rocker pastiche. It’s ironic, as it’s the one scene in Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello’s script that Penn was dubious about as he read. It’s a short sequence, quickly subsumed into the mannered and awkward rhythm of the film, but a rare moment that proves Sorrentino’s skill as a director.

This Must Be The Place is by no means a bad film, but Sorrentino has fallen into temptation; producing the delicious images he is so adept at, but hanging them upon a script whose parts don’t hook into place. Instead, the film feels like a series of self-conscious poses. It’s a brilliant act of cinematic pouting, but at no point is the narrative at ease, or matched with Penn’s brilliant performance of a pickled teenage rockstar stuck in skinny awkwardness.

Contributor Basia Lewandowska Cummings can be followed on Twitter @mishearance.

The Price of Kings – Yasser Arafat

2011 was the year of the documentary: from Formula 1 to an albino crocodile, or a small pile of abandoned Christmas presents in a North London flat, films experimented with the documentary format, combining contemporary footage with the powerful force of the archive, or blending the real and the constructed into a heady mix. These were films that posed unexpected challenges to the big-budgeted, steroid-spun mainstream.

The attempts to creatively reconstruct – even resurrect – people and times past, openly playing with the fluid and imaginative lens of history and memory linked Carol Morley’s startling history of contemporary isolation (Dreams Of A Life) to Clio Barnard’s brilliantly contentious fusion of truth and fiction in a Bradford estate (The Arbor). Werner Herzog’s reclamation of 3D as a means to deliver us to ancient history shared something (Cave Of Forgotten Dreams) of Asif Kapadia’s celebration of low-grade 90s TV footage (Senna) – a celebration of the new in the old, and the old in the new.

The documentary films of the past year clearly illustrate that in film, the truth benefits from this creative, malleable approach to history. For after all, as legendary Scottish documentary filmmaker John Grierson said, the documentary is ‘the creative treatment of actuality’.

In an astoundingly ambitious new series of 12 feature-length documentaries titled The Price of Kings, Spirit Level films have brought this creative counterpoint – between historical ‘truth’ and memory – into a sharp political focus. Melding archival footage with interviews with some of the most prominent (and controversial) politicians and activists alive, the series delves into the careers of the most divisive characters of recent political history, starting with late Palestinian leader and Nobel prize winner Yasser Arafat.

At the UK premiere a moving introduction from his wife, Suha Arafat, was followed by an impassioned plea from the Palestinian ambassador who perfectly summed up the protracted struggle that the film was to address; he said – ‘we are stuck between the historical imperative and the political impossible’. And how does a documentary film deal with this impossibility? In The Price of Kings, it is achieved through an imaginative, malleable, deeply personal treatment of history.

Through a mixture of interviews and archival footage of Arafat’s political career, the film provides an informative entry into the complicated history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the painfully long process of Palestinian state building. The format of the film, though well worn (save perhaps for the use of Errol Morris’ ‘interrotron’ method – where a combination of a camera and an autocue screen gives the impression that the interviewee is talking with the audience, face to face), transcends the comforts of the documentary form through bravely maintaining a difference in opinion voiced in its interviewees, tempered by archival footage of Arafat’s life. Whether the images confirmed or contradicted the words heard, Arafat’s history is treated with a sensitive, constructive confusion, perhaps even historical playfulness, a rarity in such a contentious history, as that of Palestine.

The Price of Kings gently presents its audience with a spectrum of opinion and belief; treating both the deeply emotional and impassioned as equally relevant and truthful as starkly historical ‘fact’. The moving testimonies of those who believed in Arafat’s pragmatic methods, and who credit him completely for putting Palestine back onto the map – in whatever husk of its former self – is supported brilliantly by the archive. A plump-lipped and wide-eyed Arafat as a young freedom fighter slowly transforms into an elder statesman, exhausted by violence, negotiation, and responsibility.

With 12 more films to go, the series is a bold counter-production to the popular history programmes that deal with conflict either sensationally, or with a dry nervousness. The next two installments delve into the careers of Shimon Peres, the current president of Israel, and Oscar Arias, Nobel Peace Prize winner and president of Costa Rica from 2006-2010.

As a meditation on the trappings of power, and the sacrifices of political responsibility, The Price of Kings series is promising to be complicated, confusing, but necessarily, enjoyably, and powerfully so.

Contributor Basia Lewandowska Cummings can be followed on Twitter @mishearance, and writes for the the blog Africa Is A Country, where a version of this article originally appeared. The Price of Kings is available now to rent or stream.

An admittance of obsession: Geoff Dyer’s Zona

In the best of films, time is forgotten; scenes melt across imagined time, jumping through days or cutting across millennia, taking with them our sense of real-time, until a cough or the rustling of popcorn, or a key in the door wrenches us back out again into minute-time, mundane-time. It is the bending of cinema-time that Geoff Dyer’s new book, Zona: A Film About A Book About A Journey To A Room interrogates, in a manner and tone that subtly shifts from ‘serious’ film writing – revealing the astonishing breadth of Dyer’s references – to playful, anecdotal conversation. It’s an accessible mixture of learned intellectualism and colloquial chatter.

Dyer’s book is a shot-by-shot rewrite of Andrei Tarkovsky’s enigmatic classic Stalker (1979). It’s an admittance of obsession; a literary and literal stalking of Stalker, scene by scene. It becomes clear that such is the power that Stalker has had on Dyer’s life that the dimensions between Tarkovsky-time and Dyer-time have been twisted: writing about Professor’s desperation to retrieve his bag, left somewhere deep in the Zone, Dyer laments the loss of his own bag (a Freitag, if you were curious) thus through anecdote cinema and life become – in the author’s Zona universe – inextricably linked. Dyer remembers that as a young boy watching movies, quicksand was the epitome of cinematic drama: perhaps, then, he suggests, “quicksand was film”. We are sucked, submerged into Dyer’s rendition of Tarkvosky-time, and it’s an excitingly obsessive place to be.

Dyer’s writing also gives time and breathing space to the paradoxes of Tarkovsky’s film. He writes about its simultaneously animate yet unmoving nature: the camera movement gives a sense that the image is breathing, while the increasingly sodden, submarine stillness of the Stalker’s journey into the Zone seems as if Tarkovsky’s images are embalmed, tanked; existing within their own time.

Most interesting in his book about a film is Dyer’s melding of the book into a kind of film itself; he fuses form and content, so that the act of reading takes on an obliquely cinematic structure. He writes that Zona was initially written in 142 sections ‘corresponding to the 142 shots of the film’. But, he realized as he watched and re-watched the film, that he “kept losing track of where one shot ended and another began. This forgetting, not noticing is an authentic and integral part of watching any film”, and so his book is an account of “watchings, rememberings, misrememberings, and forgettings…”.

This form, of jumping forwards or backwards, forgetting where you were, carried along by the narrative, aesthetic and cinematic force becomes the form of Dyer’s own writing. Paragraphs often end with an asterisk, coaxing your eyes to the bottom of the page whereupon pages of footnotes carry you forward a few strides, only to then stop, forcing you to turn back to where you were 5 minutes ago, trying to resituate yourself back into the flow of the writing, from which you’ve been wrenched by Dyer’s thoughts or research. In this sense, Dyer takes this forgetful format of cinema itself and applies it to reading, revealing a formal symmetry between the essayistic, the cinematic and the critical.

For any die-hard fans of Tarkovsky, this book might be a provocation. But for those interested in film, and bored by the dryness of ‘film theory’, Dyer’s book offers something new, rude, thoughtful; soaking the reader with anecdotes, observations and criticism until at the end you feel like you too have become a stalker, but a rubbish one, messily stealing through Dyer’s mind, intoxicated by Tarkovsky-time.

Geoff Dyer’s ‘Zona’ is out now. Contributor Basia Lewandowska Cummings can be followed on Twitter @mishearance.